1739: Two French youths who murdered Choctaws

1 comment January 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1739, two French youths were executed by musketry in the French Louisiana colony for the murder of two Choctaws — a gesture of juridical diplomacy that didn’t work out as the musketeers hoped.

Our source for this unusual event is Patricia Galloway’s “The Barthelemy Murders: Bienville’s Establishment of the ‘Lex Talionis’ as a Principle of Indian Diplomacy” from the Proceedings of the Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society, Vol. 8 (1985). The “Bienville” of Galloway’s title was Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the French Colonial Governor of Louisiana. It was a post he had held intermittently since 1701, which was back when he and his brother Iberville were still exploring the region.*

Bienville was noted for his deft touch with the native inhabitants of the colony he proposed to govern; in Galloway’s words, he “seemed to have an intuitive grasp of the Indian concept of honor and to understand tribal power structures as no other governor did. In addition, he made it his business to learn and use Choctaw or the Choctaw-like Mobilian trade language in his dealings with the Indians — the only governor to do so.”

Be he ever so empathic, Bienville had a sticky wicket with this case of international violence, when each of the nations involved would have disposed of it very differently had it been a purely internal affair.

On the side of the Choctaw and indeed for all of the tribes of the southeast, the available evidence points to blood vengeance as the accepted response to homicide, but there was no governmental institution to carry it out, so the responsibility for the execution of a murderer fell upon the relatives of the victim … the European notion depended upon handing over regulatory powers to a legal institution; the Indian notion, on the other hand, assumed that familial sanctions would keep individuals in line.

It was a situation that demanded the full measure of Bienville’s diplomatic acumen. The Choctaw people were the largest of several native nations in the French colony, dominating the territory of the latter-day state of Mississippi. Years before the events in this post, Bienville had put them on his team by arming them against the British-allied Chickasaw … but in the late 1730s, Bienville was coming off a failed campaign against the Chickasaw, and with the British making diligent trading inroads with the Choctaw, it wasn’t necessarily a given that they would stick within the French sphere of influence. Indeed, there was a chief of rising stature within the Choctaw nation named Red Shoe whose calling card was pushing a bro-British turn.

Onto this delicate stage barged two Creole half-brothers, whom Galloway identifies as Philippe Alexandre (born in 1710) and a youth of whom we know only the surname Barthelemy (born in 1723): as Barthelemy was the name of the (step-, to Philippe) father who stood patriarch to the whole family, it’s the name by which the affair is known. According to the notes taken on the trial** by the colonial official Etienne Salmon as quoted by Galloway, their crime was motivated by nothing but opportunism and racial animus.

They went in a pirogue from Mobile to the Pascagoulas with a Negro slave to look for some food supplies, and there they found a Choctaw and his wife who were proposing to go to Mobile to trade some bear oil and a few deerskins, and who asked them for passage which they granted them. Contrary winds having cast them ashore on some neighboring islands, they went hunting there. The elder of the two brothers proposed to the Negro that he kill the husband and wife, saying that the savages were dogs, and that if they ran across Frenchmen in the same straits in their country they would not object to killing them. The Negro having rejected the proposition, saying that he had [no] reason at all to kill them, that they had done him no wrong, the two brothers discussed the same thing, and the elder told the younger that he would be doing a valorous deed, and that he would be regarded as a true man, if he made the attack; this child allowed himself to be so persuaded that on the following day at sunrise, while everyone was sleeping, or pretending to, the younger shot twice at the husband and his wife, and killed them.

This happened sometime during 1738. It took some months for the disappearance of these hunter-traders to become known to their communities, and for suspicion to fix on the young men involved. The French colony arrested the culprits and Bienville promised his allies “that justice would be done and would be carried out in Mobile before their appointed witnesses.” For Bienville, this meant the strict application of lex talionis through the French judicial mechanism.

The trial took place on January 10 … the two young men were condemned to die, while the Negro was dismissed as guiltless. The original sentence called for hanging, but to spare the dignity of the boys’ family it was changed to death by a firing squad. Salmon reported that the younger brother had no notion of guilt and was convinced that in the dangerous times then prevailing, he had performed a deed worthy of praise. Even Salmon believed that had the situation been different Bienville would have allowed the younger to escape death. But this was not to be, and the young men were returned to Mobile for execution, which took place before Choctaw witnesses on January 14.

The executions placated the Choctaw and, Bienville hoped, established an understanding that crimes between their nations would be properly satisfied by the offender’s nation more or less on the basis of lex talionis: an orderly and reciprocal life-for-a-life punishment.

Seven years ahead and Bienville had been retired to France when at last there came a Choctaw-on-Frenchmen murder to test the precedent. The new governor, Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, invoked the principle of this Barthelemy case: “We ask nothing of you but justice, since M. de Bienville had justice done you in 1740 [sic] for a man and woman that some Frenchmen had killed.”

The trouble that the French encountered here in having their claim recognized lay in their failure to understand the distinction made by the Choctaw between domestic and international law in a homicide case. The evidence is quite clear that the Choctaw were prepared to accept the notion of setting off the French deaths by an equal number of Choctaw deaths, but they expected the French, as the injured party, to carry out the killings themselves. If the French wanted the Choctaw to carry out the killings, they said, the French would have to persuade close relatives of the required victims to do it, or else there would be an unending train of vengeance set loose in the nation.

The French didn’t know who had actually murdered their three people and “the usual procedure in such cases was to substitute people who were of little use to the tribe or who for some reason already deserved death.” However, the French greedily bid for a political coup by demanding not a marginal victim but the pro-British chief Red Shoe himself. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t find any of Red Shoe’s relatives willing to turn executioner. The only thing left for the Choctaw to try was

killings committed against a group that was the enemy of both French and Choctaw. Therefore, to set off the deaths of three Frenchmen at the hands of pro-English Choctaws, the pro-French Choctaws attempted to fulfill the French demands in part by killing English traders. This was done in a raid on an English convoy which was being escorted by Red Shoe. After Red Shoe was murdered by stealth, two Englishmen were killed in an open attack, making up the required three deaths.

The French, however, completely missed the point of the Choctaw restitution and refused the two English scalps, insisting on two more Choctaw deaths … The deaths of the Englishmen did not go without notice on the pro-English side. Doubtless as a result of a symmetrical demand by the English, the [pro-English] Choctaw killed five French settlers on the Mobile River. These killings were followed by retaliatory raids by French-allied Choctaws on English trade convoys, killing two more English traders.

This is precisely the sort of blood vengeance spiral that Bienville had been trying to militate against, and it soon pulled the whole Choctaw nation into an outright civil war that killed some 800 people and brought the French into the field as well. Galloway once again:

Bienville’s intentions were good, and it is to the credit of the French that they carried out the execution of the half-brothers, against their inclinations, because this was the kind of justice that the Choctaw understood. Nor are the French to be blamed for expecting the Choctaw to make the same kind of concession to their notion of justice. The tragedy arose not because the Choctaw did not want to render justice at all, but because they had no vicarious legal mechanism to carry it out. In the end, therefore, they were forced into civil war because vengeance carried out by a Choctaw, on another Choctaw, in behalf of a third party not a Choctaw, did not leave the avenger free of punishment himself. Like other aspects of southeastern Indian culture, this one was so inconsistent with European understanding that it had to adapt or disappear, and although it did not actually disappear among the Choctaw themselves until 1823, the principle in dealings with white nations was firmly asserted in treaties from the time of the end of the Choctaw civil war. The Choctaw had dearly bought comprehension of Bienville’s principle with the weighty currency of culture change.

* Iberville and Bienville co-founded Fort Louis de la Mobile (present-day Mobile, Alabama) in 1702; this is where the executions in this post occurred. Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718.

** No original record of the trial survives; Salmon’s recollection is the best we’re going to do for primary sourcing.

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1792: John Philips, a wretch robbed of life for so trivial a robbery

Add comment January 14th, 2018 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1792, sailor John Philips was hanged in Dublin, Ireland after being convicted of robbing a man of his hat and coat.

Philips, a 50-year-old sailor with a wife and five children back home, was based in London and knew no one in Dublin. He was unable to retain counsel for lack of funds, and the government was not required to provide him with one.

The jury who convicted him recommended mercy “in consideration of the apparent severity of robbing a wretch of life for so trivial a robbery,” but the Recorder of the Dublin, Denis George, sentenced him to death.

While awaiting his execution, Philips had a petition drawn up and sent to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland, asking for a commutation on the grounds that he was drunk at the time of the robbery.

As Brian Henry says, in his book Dublin Hanged: Crime, Law Enforcement and Punishment in Late Eighteenth-Century Dublin,

The Lord Lieutenant would in all probability have respited his hanging if he had received it in time. On the back of the petition was written, “has anything been done in this?” A stark answer followed: “was executed the 14th — Received 31st Jan 1792.” Philips was hanged at the front of Newgate on Saturday 14 January 1792.

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1884: Not Crow Dog, saved by an ex parte

Add comment January 14th, 2017 Headsman

January 14 was supposed to be the hanging day in 1884 for the Sioux Crow Dog — but instead of being executed he was busy making caselaw.

A sub-chief of the Brule Lakota, Crow Dog on August 5, 1881, met — intentionally? — the tribal chief Spotted Tail on a road in the Rosebud Reservation and shot him dead with a rifle.

The killing was adjudicated the very next day within the Brule community, at a council where the killer and the survivors of his victim agreed together on the appropriate compensation, and paid up.* But the U.S. Indian agent on the scene also arrested Crow Dog a few days later, and had him tried for murder in a non-Indian court in the the frontier town of Deadwood.

Sidney Harring, who would expand this review to book length with Crow Dog’s Murder: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and United States Law in the Nineteenth Century, argued in a 1988/1989 paper** that the needless white court’s trial was staged from the outset as a test case by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, angling for new legal tools to break the doctrine of tribal sovereignty which dated back to Worcester v. Georgia (1832). Although that anti-sovereignty cause would suffer a tactical setback in this case, it would very soon carry the day.

Condemned to death early in 1882, Crow Dog had various appeals, respites, and delaying actions that stretched the case out for nearly two years until the U.S. Supreme Court at last stepped in ahead of a scheduled January 14, 1884 execution to adjudicate the question of whether a murder within a tribe, on that tribe’s own reservation, was within the proper jurisdiction of non-Indian courts like the one that tried Crow Dog. Its Ex parte Crow Dog resoundingly answered in the negative, a milestone in the legal framework around Indian sovereignty in the U.S. To execute Crow Dog under the white court’s verdict, the justices ruled, would require Anglo law to be

extended over aliens and strangers; over the members of a community, separated by race, by tradition, by the instincts of a free though savage life, from the authority and power which seeks to impose upon them the restraints of an external and unknown code, and to subject them to the responsibilities of civil conduct, according to rules and penalties of which they could have no previous warning; which judges them by a standard made by others, and not for them, which takes no account of the conditions which should except them from its exactions, and makes no allowance for their inability to understand it. It tries them not by their peers, nor by the customs of their people, nor the law of their land, but by superiors of a different race, according to the law of a social state of which they have an imperfect conception and which is opposed to the traditions of their history, to the habits of their lives, to the strongest prejudices of their savage nature; one which measures the red man’s revenge by the maxims of the white man’s morality.

The legal doctrine at work here holds that although conquered, native tribes still possess internal sovereignty. And with Ex parte Crow Dog it became clear and settled American jurisprudence that one attribute of that remaining sovereignty was plenary — that is, absolute — power over purely internal affairs.

At least, for a year.

White America was discomfited by the abrogation of its morality-maxims over the revengeful red man, and the situation invited moral panic around any malfeasance in Indian country. The Washington D.C. Evening Star would complain months later (June 5, 1884) that Ex parte Crow Dog “has had the effect of creating the idea among the Indians that there is no law to punish an Indian for a crime committed on a reservation.” And the Supreme Court itself had slyly noted that it was obliged to make such rulings absent “a clear expression of the intention of Congress” to take a bite out of Indian sovereignty — an intent “that we have not been able to find.”

So in 1885, the U.S. Congress decided to express that intent and voted the Major Crimes Act placing Indians under federal, not tribal, jurisdiction for seven major types of crimes — including, of course, murder. “We all feel that an Indian, when he commits a crime, should be recognized as a criminal,” Michigan Congressman Byron Cutcheon urged on the legislation’s behalf. “It is an infamy upon our civilization, a disgrace to this nation, that there should be anywhere within its boundaries a body of people who can, with absolute impunity, commit the crime of murder, there being no tribunal before which they can be brought for punishment.”

This briefest interim between Ex parte Crow Dog and the Major Crimes Act was in a sense the high water mark for tribal sovereignty. Following the Major Crimes bill, white politicians began almost systematically reaching onto the reservations to legislate, picking away at tribal sovereignty until another much more infamous case, Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, disastrously declared that plenary power now resided in Congress.

Crow Dog went on to become a major figure in the ghost dance movement. Present-day American Indian Movement activist Leonard Crow Dog is a descendant; he’s written a book connecting back to his famous ancestor called Crow Dog: Four Generations of Sioux Medicine Men. Meanwhile, South Dakota’s Sinte Gleska University is named for Spotted Tail.

* The price was $600, eight horses, and a blanket.

** Sidney Harring in “Crow Dog’s Case: A Chapter in the Legal History of Tribal Sovereignty,” American Indian Law Review, Vol. 14, No. 2 (1988/1989) — also the source of the preceding footnote.

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1528: Leonhard Schiemer, Anabaptist pacifist

Add comment January 14th, 2016 Headsman

Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin.

1 Peter 4:1, a verse very dear to this date’s principal*

Anabaptist Leonhard Schiemer was beheaded on this date in 1528 at Rattenberg.

Schiemer abandoned a Franciscan monastery, preferring to set his table with honest labor as a tailor, and to succor his soul with that that new heresy minting martyrs in northern Europe.

In 1527, Schiemer was both a vigorous missionary and an eloquent proponent of the pacificism for which the sect would eventually become known. In Schiemer’s time, before the catastrophe of Münster’s Anabaptist theocracy, this was quite naturally a hot dispute among the persecuted adherents trying to determine how to make their way in a world where they were considered heretical even by the other heretics: turn the other cheek, or come like Christ with a sword?

Schiemer’s answer was for the true Christian to give himself to the ordeal of Christ’s cross.

[The Holy Spirit] teaches no one, however, unless he despaired of all human comforting and wisdom first. He does not comfort or strengthen anyone unless he feels a horror and turns away from all comforting and power of man. This is why the Lord says, “Do not be called masters.” But this master, Christ, does not accept anyone as His pupil or disciple, unless he renounces and hates everything that he has, and follows Him and carries his cross daily. In doing this, one has to trust in the Lord’s comforting and keep still, as the Scriptures say in many passages, particularly in the Psalms, the Prophets, most of all in Isaiah and the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

The strength of all Christians consists in keeping still, by not forsaking the words of the Lord so quickly, by not losing courage so soon, but by being patient, waiting for the comfort of the Holy Spirit, in the midst of the greatest desolation and misery. This is true weakness of which the Scriptures speak, in particular Paul when he says, “For when I am weak I am strong.”

He also says, “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” That is what Christ means when He says, “A little while and you will see me no more, again a little while and you will see me.” And when the apostles asked Him what He meant by this, He answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn in to joy … Indeed the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.

The Threefold Grace

It is often suspected that Schiemer’s execution on January 14 might have inspired the Rattenberg grandee Pilgram Marpeck to convert — for he was dismissed from a post as a mining magistrate on January 28, and thereafter became an influential, itinerant Anabaptist “wandering citizen of heaven” crisscrossing southern Germany.

* According to an essay on Schiemer in The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists: Restoring New Testament Christianity.

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1876: Michael DeHay, in fire and maddened frenzy

Add comment January 14th, 2015 Michael DeHay

(Thanks to Michael DeHay for the autobiographical guest post, originally published — too late for DeHay to see the byline — in the Prescott, Arizona Miner‘s January 21, 1876 edition. Prescott’s Sharlot Hall Museum unearthed this fascinating frontier confessional and posted it on its library archives site. The Prescott Daily Courier also published an abridged version, complete with an old photo of 1870s Cerbat (it’s a ghost town today). -ed.)

I, Michael DeHay, being fully aware of my approaching fate, and though recognizing the justice of my sentence, feel impelled to give to the world this, my dying statement, hoping that my fate may prove a warning to others similarly situated as I have been, and praying that the circumstances which have hurried me on to a disgraceful end may be avoided by others so situated.

I was born in Mongoup, Sullivan Co., N.Y., April 10, 1830, and am now 45 years of age. At 18 years of age, I went to Greenwood, McHenry Co., Ill., where my father and family had previously settled. In 1850 I went to California — crossing the plains. For three years I was mining and prospecting in different places there, and then returned to Illinois; afterwards going to Minnesota and thence to Wisconsin, where in 1856 I became acquainted with and married Esther Hemstock, near La Crosse.

In 1857 I returned to California with my family, where I remained for four years, working at mining and at my trade as a carpenter. These dates may not be correct, as I have only my memory to rely on, but they are as near as I can now remember.

In 1861 I removed to Nevada with my family; lived at Aurora in Esmerelda County, about seven years or until 1868, and then removed to White Pine, and the next Spring to Pioche, and thence to Parabnega Valley in Lincoln County, where my family resided, until in August 1875, at which time I was at work in Groom District (60 miles distant from my family), as there was no work nearer my home where I had a ranch.

I was working to get money ahead with which to remove my family to some place where I could educate my children, whom I deeply love. I was one of a Committee to get a school started, and had hired a teacher and made arrangements to remove my family to Hiko (NV). At this time, when I was filled with bright hopes for the future for my children, I was almost crazed to learn that my wife had left my home, taking with her my children, team and wagon and most of my household goods, and had started towards Arizona with a Mr. Suttonfield, an entire stranger to me, and who I learned had camped for a few weeks on my ranch. The man who gave me this information was a Constable, who at the same time served a summons on me in favor of Mr. Wilson, a store keeper, for $51, most of which my wife had obtained in supplies just before leaving for Arizona.

I immediately returned to my desolate home, and the next day started in pursuit. My first and great object in following was to get possession of my dear children. I passed them at Chloride, six miles from Mineral Park, where they had camped. Had I then followed the dictates of my almost crazed brain, I should have then and there stopped and shot both the man and woman who had, as I felt, brought ruin on both myself and children, but my better judgment prevailed and I went on to Mineral Park and laid my case before Mr. Davis, to whom I had been recommended to go for advice. Under his advice, I got out a process and had them brought into Mineral Park, but nothing came of it.

I then got a house for my family to live in, and went to work and got provisions for us to live on. I did all I could to make them comfortable, and tried by every means to induce my wife to live with me as before and was willing to forgive the past. To all my appeals she turned a deaf ear, continually declaring that she never would resume her marital relations with me.

During this time I was informed that she, from time to time, met Suttonfield at his house. This continued pressure upon my mind affected me both by day and night. I was troubled with horrid dreams, and at times was nearly crazed. The night the act was committed, I was completely weighed down with trouble and sorrow, and being suddenly awaked from my troubled sleep saw, or thought I saw, my wife standing over me with a butcher-knife in her hand. She had been sleeping in one room in our only bed with some of the children, and I in an adjoining room on the floor.

When I was thus suddenly awakened, I jumped up, clutching my revolver which was under my head and rushed after her into her room. She jumped into the bed and curled down, and I, in my frenzy, fired at her and drew her out on to the floor. When I saw the blood, and saw what I had done, I was horror-struck and rushed out of the house, determined to take my own life, and with this intent, placed my pistol to my breast and fired twice. I then ran down town and for hours have but a faint recollection of what occurred, except that I went up and down a ladder into a hay-loft. At the time I committed the deed, my brain seemed to be on fire and that my head was the center of fire and maddened frenzy.

During all the time after my arrival at Mineral Park, I had never thought or meditated on the murder of my wife, or to revenge myself on her for her act of desertion, but I had at times meditated on revenge upon Suttonfield, as I felt that he was the cause of all my misery. I had never had any serious difficulty with my wife more than a few hasty words such as are likely to occur between other husbands and wives.

I make this statement with a full knowledge that my end is drawing nigh, and that another day will launch me into eternity, where I shall meet my Maker face to face. I forgive all who have wronged me, as I hope myself to be forgiven by a kind and merciful God.

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1730: Neither James Prouse nor James Mitchel, much to their surprise

Add comment January 14th, 2014 Benjamin Franklin

January 14, 1730, was the date appointed for the public hanging in Philadelphia of James Prouse and James Mitchel for burglary.

Prouse, for his part, admitted the crime but insisted that James Mitchel had nothing to do with it — and Mitchel insisted the same. This ultimately generated considerable support for clemency which the authorities did not seem inclined to act upon.

Naturally the young newspaperman Benjamin Franklin — just turning 24 in January 1730 — was keen to publish this affecting story in his Philadelphia Gazette. Through the magic of public domain, he’s generously allowed us to republish his account from the January 20, 1730 Gazette as our guest post today.

Hyperlinks are, as one may surmise, Executed Today‘s own annotations.


We think our Readers will not be displeased to have the following remarkable Transaction related to them in this particular Manner.

Wednesday the 14th Instant, being the Day appointed for the Execution of James Prouse and James Mitchel for Burglary, suitable Preparations were accordingly made. The tender Youth of one of them (who was but about 19) and the supposed Innocence of the other as to the Fact for which they were condemned, had induced the Judges (upon the Application of some compassionate People) to recommend them to His Honour‘s known Clemency: But several Malefactors having been already pardoned, and every Body being sensible, that, considering the great Increase of Vagrants and idle Persons, by the late large Importation of such from several Parts of Europe, it was become necessary for the common Good to make some Examples, there was but little Reason to hope that either, and less that both of them might escape the Punishment justly due to Crimes of that enormous Nature. About 11 o’Clock the Bell began to Toll, and a numerous Croud of People was gathered near the Prison, to see these unhappy young Men brought forth to suffer. While their Irons were taken off, and their Arms were binding, Prouse cry’d immoderately; but Mitchel (who had himself all along behaved with unusual Fortitude) endeavoured in a friendly tender Manner to comfort him: Do not cry, Jemmy; (says he) In an Hour or two it will be over with us, and we shall both be easy. They were then placed in a Cart, together with a Coffin for each of them, and led thro’ the Town to the Place of Execution: Prouse appear’d extreamly dejected, but Mitchel seemed to support himself with a becoming manly Constancy: When they arriv’d at the fatal Tree, they were told that it was expected they should make some Confession of their Crimes, and say something by Way of Exhortation to the People. Prouse was at length with some Difficulty prevailed on to speak; he said, his Confession had been taken in Writing the Evening before; he acknowledged the Fact for which he was to die, but said, That Greyer who had sworn against him was the Person that persuaded him to it; and declared that he had never wronged any Man beside Mr. Sheed, and his Master. Mitchel being desired to speak, reply’d with a sober compos’d Countenance, What would you have me to say? I am innocent of the Fact. He was then told, that it did not appear well in him to persist in asserting his Innocence; that he had had a fair Trial, and was found guilty by twelve honest and good Men. He only answer’d, I am innocent; and it will appear so before God; and sat down. Then they were both bid to stand up, and the Ropes were order’d to be thrown over the Beam; when the Sheriff took a Paper out of his Pocket and began to read. The poor Wretches, whose Souls were at that Time fill’d with the immediate Terrors of approaching Death, having nothing else before their Eyes, and being without the least Apprehension or Hope of a Reprieve, took but little Notice of what was read; or it seems imagined it to be some previous Matter of Form, as a Warrant for their Execution or the like, ’till they heard the Words PITY and MERCY [And whereas the said James Prouse and James Mitchel have been recommended to me as proper Objects of Pity and Mercy.] Immediately Mitchel fell into the most violent Agony; and having only said, God bless the Governor, he swooned away in the Cart. Suitable Means were used to recover him; and when he came a little to himself, he added; I have been a great Sinner; I have been guilty of almost every Crime; Sabbath-breaking in particular, which led me into ill Company; but Theft I never was guilty of. God bless the Governor; and God Almighty’s Name be praised; and then swooned again. Prouse likewise seemed to be overwhelmed with Joy, but did not swoon. All the Way back to the Prison, Mitchel lean’d on his Coffin, being unable to support himself, and shed Tears in abundance. He who went out to die with a large Share of Resolution and Fortitude, returned in the most dispirited Manner imaginable; being utterly over-power’d by the Force of that sudden Turn of excessive Joy, for which he had been no Way prepared. The Concern that appeared in every Face while these Criminals were leading to Execution, and the Joy that diffused it self thro’ the whole Multitude, so visible in their Countenances upon the mention of a Reprieve, seems to be a pleasing Instance, and no small Argument of the general laudable Humanity even of our common People, who were unanimous in their loud Acclamations of God bless the Governor for his Mercy.

The following are Copies of the Papers delivered out by Prouse and Mitchel the Evening before, with little or no Alteration from their own Words.

I James Prouse was born in the Town of Brentford in Middlesex County in Old England, of honest Parents, who gave me but little Education. My Father was a Corporal in the late Lord Oxford’s Regiment of Horse, (then named the said Lord’s Blues) and I was for some Time in the Care of an Uncle who lived at Eling near Brentford aforesaid, and who would have given me good Learning; but I being young would not take his good Counsel, and in the 12th Year of my Age came into Philadelphia, where I was recommended to one of the best of Masters, who never let me want for any Thing: But I minding the evil Insinuations of wicked People, more than the good Dictates of my Master, and having not the Fear of God before my Eyes, am deservedly brought to this wretched and shameful End. I acknowledge I justly merit Death for the Fact which condemns me; but I never had the least Design or Thought of the like, until often press’d, and at length seduced to it by John Greyer, who was the only Person that ruined me. He often solicited me to be guilty of other Crimes of the like Nature, but I never was guilty of any such, neither with him or any one else; neither did I ever wrong any Man before, save my too indulgent Master; from whom I now and then pilfer’d a Yard or the like of Cloth, in order to make Money to spend with the said Greyer. As for James Mitchel who dies for the same Fact with me, as I hope to receive Mercy at the great Tribunal, he the said James Mitchel is intirely innocent, (*) and knew nothing of the Fact until apprehended and taken. I am about Nineteen Years of Age and die a Protestant.

JAMES PROUSE.

(*) N. B. He declared the same Thing at the Bar just before he received Sentence.

The Speech or Declaration of James Mitchel written with his own Hand.

I James Mitchel, was born, at Antrim in the Kingdom of Ireland, of good and honest Parents, and brought up with them until the Age of 13 Years, and had a suitable Education given me, such as being taught to read and write English, with some Latin; and might have been further instructed, but at my earnest Request was bound Apprentice to a Book-binder, and served 4 Years to that Trade; after which I left the Kingdom and went for England in order to be further improved in my Business; but there had the Misfortune to be press’d on board the Berwick Man of War, commanded by the Honorable George Gordon, and having been at several Parts abroad, returned to England in Octob. 1728. where I was by Sickness reduced to a very sad Condition, through which I came over to this Country a Servant; here I was it seems unfortunately led into bad Company, and one Evening by James Prouse was raised out of my Bed to go and drink with him and one Greyer, the which Greyer after parting gave to the said James Prouse Six-pence, which was all the Money I saw that Night and till next Morning, and then James Prouse took out of his Pocket a 15 Shilling Bill, and desired me to get it changed for him, in order to spend some of it; but coming unto Town I was apprehended for the robbing of Mr. George Sheed, and now am to die for the same. I die a Protestant.

JAMES MITCHEL.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,Theft,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1864: Five Virginia City road agents

Add comment January 14th, 2013 Headsman

The frontier town of Virginia City, Montana, saw a quintuple hanging on this date in 1864, authored by the local vigilance committee.


(cc) image from Rich Luhr of the hanged men’s gravestones at Virginia City’s Boot Hill. (It’s one of several American West cemeteries known as “Boot Hill”)

A miners’ boom town since prospectors struck gold nearby the previous year, Virginia City was even, briefly, the capital of the Montana Territory.

For order, it depended upon a Vigilance Committee of local grandees … and that committee had just days before carried out the hanging of Henry Plummer, the sheriff of the nearby mining town of Bannack and a reputed outlaw gang boss.

Plummer’s supposed “road agents” did the wilderness-trail robbery act familiar of the western milieu, but on a nearly industrial scale: it was suspected that “horses, men and coaches” traveling around Bannack and Virginia City were systematically “marked in some understood manner, to designate them as fit objects for plunder.”

The next act in the Vigilance Committee’s confrontation with these highwaymen and bywaymen was to bust up the Plummer network by seizing and hanging five supposed road agents on this date.

The evidentiary basis for these conclusions was varied, and in most cases less than what you’d call ironclad; the club-footed cobbler George Lane was thought to be marking stages for outlaws to hit, but the crippled rancher Frank Parish? Or Jack Gallagher, who wasn’t even on the list of wanted road agents the vigilantes were working from?

(The Vigilance Committee’s Parish Pfouts would record in his diary “that every man executed by the Vigilance Committee at that time was proved to be a murderer or highway robber.” The unsavory whiff of lynch law notwithstanding, those vigilantes have not wanted for latter-day defenders.)

This text summarizes all the accused men’s backgrounds, including the colorful Boone Helm.

Upon the Vigilance men’s summary and predetermined judgment, the quintet was marched down the street to a then-unfinished log structure and strung up on an inside beam.

That log store can still be seen in Virginia City, where it’s kitschily advertised as the Hangman’s Building.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Mass Executions,Montana,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Theft,USA

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1887: Thomas Cluverius, Richmond murderer

Add comment January 14th, 2012 Headsman


Dallas Morning News, January 14, 1887.

On this date in 1887, a long-running (for the time) legal drama in Richmond ended with the hanging of Thomas Cluverius for murder.

On Friday the 13th — March 13, 1885 — Cluverius killed his cousin and lover Lillian Madison, who was eight months pregnant with his child, an act “as dark as any that can be found in all the calendar of crimes.” (Columbus Daily Enquirer, Jan. 15, 1887)

From the illicit affair to the shocking crime of passion and calculation to the damning lost watch key found at the site of the murder: everything conspired to spill newsprint, not only in Virginia but nationwide.

Nevertheless, by the time he hanged, the young lawyer was supported by at least a chunk of public opinion prepared to credit his dogged insistence on innocence.* He maintained it all the way to the scaffold. The drama of a potential gubernatorial reprieve, backed by hundreds of Old Dominion worthies, went to literally the very last hour of the condemned man.

The facts of this case now 125 years in the grave enjoy meticulous and evocative coverage at The Shockoe Examiner, a Richmond blog that we come to via Murder by Gaslight’s Cluverius post.

We’re very pleased on this occasion to interview a writer who has given “Tommie” and “Lillie” a more literary treatment. John Milliken Thompson‘s first novel The Reservoir (review), just published in the summer of 2011, illuminates the timeless conflicts between lust and propriety, in the very specific locale of post-Reconstruction Richmond.

ET: For you as a writer, how did you come by this story, and why did you decide to make it your first novel?

JMT: I came across a brief mention of the case in a book on Richmond history and made a mental note of it.

Sometime later I began looking into the case and, after finding all kinds of material on the trial and on Richmond in the 1880s, I became more and more intrigued. A failed attempt to turn the story into a nonfiction account led me to write it as a novel.

Book CoverWhat was the most challenging thing about approaching the story?

Creating believable, interesting characters within a compelling plot is THE challenge of writing any piece of fiction. This one was no different, though it helped to have a historical framework and tons of good material to turn to.

That said, one of the toughest things about telling this story was getting the voice right. My goal was to create a narrative that could get close in to Tommie’s head, without revealing too much (to the reader or himself), and then pull farther back.

I found it interesting that you said you “felt so connected to these long-dead people that [you] owed it to them to get it right,” because I have that sense myself sometimes. In the end, what are you hoping that 21st century readers take away from the story? What did you take away from it?

In the end, I think what I most want is for readers to feel moved by the plight of these young people, who made some crucial mistakes and paid dearly for them. We all make mistakes in our youth; sometimes we learn our lessons before we get in deeper, sometimes not.

The inference is that Tommie killed Lillian because she was pregnant. How damaging would Lillian’s giving birth really have been to Tommie socially, professionally, or otherwise? Do we need to look for more complex motivations?

That’s a good question, and Tommie even considers what his life would be like if he had “done the right thing” by Lillie and married her. Even if he had been able to live down the scandal of marrying a pregnant girl, which in those days and in their circle would’ve been significant, it would still not have been the life this ambitious young man had envisioned for himself.

And what about the world he lived in — 1880s Virginia, and the place of the crime, Richmond. What’s this place like a generation after the Civil War? And why did this crime in this place become national news?

Well, Richmond, the former Confederate capital, was making a comeback after being ravaged by the war. This event caught the interest of the general public because of the high standing of the families involved and because the lawyers trying the case were distinguished men and famous orators.

Despite maintaining innocence to the last, it seems pretty difficult to imagine that Thomas Cluverius was actually innocent. Still, at the time there were plenty of people who apparently thought he might be. Why on earth did he attract that level of support? If not for the watch-key, might he have avoided conviction altogether?

That’s the fickle nature of the public — once the scapegoat has been cast out, there is a lingering sense of doubt and guilt that causes many of us to look into our own hearts … let he who is without sin.

I think the watch-key did play a big role, but it wasn’t necessarily the sine qua non. I think the sheer volume of testimony offered by the prosecution overwhelmed any reserve the all-male jury might have felt. The burden of proof, in fact if not by law, lay with the defense, and the proof (of innocence) simply wasn’t there.

What are you working on next?

I’m finishing up a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who suffers a number of poignant losses in turn-of-the-century North Carolina. By the way, until “turn-of-the-century” means turn of the 21st (maybe in two decades?) I’m using that phrase to mean turn of the 20th.

Thanks for inviting me on your blog.

* Or empathize with the young lawyer’s lost-potential pathos.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Murder,Other Voices,Sex,USA,Virginia

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2010: Six Sudanese southerners from Soba Aradi

Add comment January 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 2010, six men from war-torn southern Sudan were hanged in Khartoum’s Kober prison for a deadly 2005 riot.

The protracted north-south Sudanese civil war had only just abated with a tenuous peace treaty earlier in 2005, when Sudanese security surrounded the refugee camp-cum-suburb of Soba Aradi outside Khartoum in May 2005 in a sudden bid to forcibly resettle its predominantly southern population.

The resulting riots burned down a police station and claimed around 13 policemen’s lives, along with many civilians.

Nasty.

“We were forced to protest when a police officer shot a seven year old boy three times in the head”, said Mr. Mile Michael, a South Sudanese living in the area since 1986.

Following the death of the young boy, the slum dwellers burnt down the police office in the area killing some of the officers with machetes and knives in a revenge attack. “We all participated in the burning of the police office because they deceived us that they would support us in resisting the soldiers but they were the first to kill our children, so we were willing to sacrifice ourselves for our children.”

While dozens were rounded up, Amnesty International charged that little save forced confessions and unfair trials distinguished the specific few marked out for hanging.

Sudan’s north-south sectional conflict is the backdrop to this month’s election, which might set the south on a path to political independence from the north.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Sudan,Wrongful Executions

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1772: Susanna Margaretha Brandt, Faust inspiration

2 comments January 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1772, Susanna Margaretha Brandt was beheaded with a sword in Frankfurt am Main for murdering her infant child.

The orphaned maid (German Wikipedia entry), not yet 26, had the previous August given birth to the child of a passing goldsmith who had drugged and seduced/raped her.

Brandt got rid of the child, and when caught hysterically attributed the murder to infernal influence.

Faustian Bargain

Affecting as Brandt’s small tragedy might be, she is remembered today not in her own right but because of her proximity to a 22-year-old lawyer living a few hundred yards from her cell: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Several of Goethe’s family and friends were directly involved in Brandt’s case, and her death through seduction and infanticide are widely taken (pdf) to have inspired the character Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust: the character and the infanticide plotline are additions the German author made to an age-old legend.

Goethe began Faust in this same year of 1772, and continued reworking it throughout his life.

And it was a historically timely juncture to incorporate the baby-killing angle into the old Satanic pact story: infanticide was the subject of philosophical and juridical debate, with the use of capital punishment in infanticide cases sharp declining in forward-thinking German states.

Infanticide likewise became a trendy literary topic; Faust is only the best-known example.

“Seduction, and during the second half of the century infanticide, are possibly the most popular themes in eighteenth-century German literature by men,” according to Susanne Kord.*

Lessing’s Sara Sampson and Emilia Galotti, Schiller’s Luise Millerin (Kabale und Liebe), Goethe’s Marie Beaumarchais (Clavigo) and countless other bourgeois heroines die as a direct result of a man’s — often a nobleman’s — sexual desire. Goethe’s Gretchen (Faust), Heinrich Leopold Wagner’s Evchen Humprecht (Die Kindermorderin), Lenz’ Marie (Zerbin) and many others are put to death for committing infanticide.

Like the woman-as-child, the woman-as-childkiller, fictional or not, teaches sexual morals; mounting the scaffold, the woman admits her guilt, speaks her warning, and, incidentally, absolves society of all blame.

That might be a little too pat. But despite rendering a sympathetic character in Margaret, Goethe’s own biography suggests the problematic nature of this widespread fascination with illicit sexuality.

The writer 11 years later found himself in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in position to help decide whether another infanticide should live or die.

Goethe voted for Johanna Catharina Höhn’s execution.

* “Women as Children, Women as Childkillers: Poetic Images of Infanticide in Eighteenth-Century Germany,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, Spring 1993. More in this vein on Goethe in “Infanticide as Fiction: Goethe’s Urfaust and Schiller’s ‘Kindsmörderin’ as Models” by Helga Stipa Madland, The German Quarterly, Winter 1989.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Murder,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Rape,Sex,Women

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