1735: Alice Riley, Savannah ghost

Add comment January 19th, 2017 Headsman

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

Illustration from the vignette in Historic Haunts of Savannah

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

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

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

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

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1894: John Hardy, desperate little man

1 comment January 19th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1894, West Virginia hanged before a crowd of 3,000 for a mining camp murder three months before.

Hardy was reportedly already at odds with Thomas Drews, a fellow laborer in the booming Appalachian coal industry, over their mutual pursuit of the same woman when Hardy lost big to Drews in a craps game on October 13, 1893.

While it’s true that twenty-five cents doesn’t really seem all that “big”, this sum could represent a decent slice of a day’s pay in the coal mining game, and that in an industry where downward wage pressure had generated a ferocious national strike only months before. Hardy was profoundly nonplussed to have to fork over the sweat of his brow to a love rival and, with the added incitement of whiskey, shot Drews dead. (Ten more spectators at his hanging wound up in stir themselves for drunk and disorderlies.)

Hardy’s execution has pride of place in Americana as the inspiration for the tune “John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man”. (Or simply, “John Hardy”; as a folk figure, he has occasionally been confused or conflated with John Henry)

One of the most popular folk ballads in American history, the song has foggy origins but amazing reach: it has been performed, covered, and reinterpreted by a scores of artists including the Carter Family, Lead Belly, Duke Ellington, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan with the Grateful Dead.

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1476: Israel, the last execution of the Trent blood libel trial

Add comment January 19th, 2015 Headsman

We have covered in these pages the horrific blood libel trial that sent most of the Jews of Trent to execution for the supposed ritual murder of the child Simon of Trent.

The moral panic (and torture-aided interrogation) that broke out when Trent’s Jews were suspected of having killed a Christian child led to a batch of executions in June 1475. But that was only the first act of a drama that would reach all the way to the courts of popes and emperors in the subsequent months … a conflict that would not end even when the last “murderer”, Israel, was broken on the wheel on January 19, 1476.

Trent lay at the southern fringe of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire,* literally halfway from Vienna to Rome … and Trent’s ambitious prince-bishop Johannes Hinderbach was likewise beholden to both those poles of authority.

The sitting pope, Sixtus IV, was pretty sympathetic to Jews in general and very definitely not okay with Hinderbach’s theater of torture and execution. Sixtus was certainly also feeling plenty of pushback from other Jewish communities in Europe to make sure Trent wouldn’t be a precedent for similar freakouts in the future, and from Christian elites who didn’t want muddleheaded fanatics running around.

In Trent, “the Jews” meant literally three households — a tiny handful of people. By contrast, in cosmopolitan, humanist Rome, Jews were prominent among the intelligentsia and their presence taken for granted. Sixtus had Jewish “advisors and physicians in the papal court. They were teachers of music, theater, and science. Rome was a center of Hebrew literature and publishing … Sixtus IV, like most of his predecessors, took his role as a defender of Jews from violence more or less for granted.”**

Sixtus ordered the proceedings halted “because many and important men began to murmur,” and instituted an apostolic commission to investigate.

But Hinderbach and the Trentini refused to cooperate (Italian link) with the investigation. Hinderbach, for his part, was all-in on the Simonino story: just like today, nobody on the hook for a wrongful execution is going to advance his career by acknowledging that fact.

Resentfully, Hinderbach put his unwelcome papal visitor Battista Dei Guidici up in a crappy room, and “many people, moved more by furor than reason, temerity than devotion, threatened to kill the commissioner in the streets of the city, if he did not confirm the miracles and the asserted martyrdom” of little Simon. If anyone in Trent thought otherwise, he did not dare make it known to the closely-watched investigator.

Trent still had Jews in prison at this point, but Hinderbach resolutely prevented the pope’s agent from interviewing with them. “It was to be feared,” Hinderbach said, “that if he talked to them, he or his men could give some sign to the Jews, who would be rendered more obstinate, since they were always saying, ‘A man will come to free us.'”

Book CoverThese quotes are via R. Po-Chia Hsia’s Trent 1475: Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial, which is likewise our guide for the tense diplomatic battle ensuing over the autumn of 1475.

After having bribed a servant to deliver word to the imprisoned Jewish women that they had an advocate, Dei Guidici relocated to nearby Venetian territory — “where innocent people are not killed, where Christians do not plunder Jews, as it was in Trent” — and papers started flying.

Dei Guidici appealed to — and eventually ordered — Hinderbach to release the remaining Jews in his custody, while the pope sent out directives quashing any preaching on Simon’s “martyrdom.” Italian Jews poured into Dei Guidici’s offices appealing for their fellows and attesting that they could not travel through Trent for fear of mob violence.† A verse from a Veronese rabbi dating to late 1475 curses the nearby city: “Hills of Trent, may you not have rain or dew / Seven times may you fall and not rise.”

Hinderbach, for his part, sent his own envoys to German cities that had persecuted Jews for ritual murder in the past to get his own paper trail establishing that, yes, the Hebrew liked a good drink of Christian blood. More significantly, as a prince-bishop, Hinderbach also sent his own appeals up the Holy Roman Empire’s secular chain of command, objecting to the ecclesiastical meddling.

Hinderbach’s only concession to his apostolic scold was to release the children he had in custody. In October 1475, his political machinations with the Habsburgs yielded authorization from the powerful Tirolean Archduke Sigismund to resume judicial proceedings against “the Jewish men and women you have in prison” and “render justice as it should be, and let the death sentences be carried out.”

Interrogations for six Jewish men still in custody resumed on October 25, again with the aid of the horrible strappado to confirm and elaborate upon the already-determined official story of Simon’s martyrdom.

Denial — or even confessing, but guessing the wrong detail to “admit” — was not an option, as this October 26 interrogation record indicates.

He was asked whether he saw the murdered boy.

JOAFF [one of the Jewish households’ servants]: In the ditch.

PODESTA: Think again.

JOAFF: In the antechamber of the synagogue.

PODESTA: Anywhere else?

JOAFF: No.

He was ordered stripped, tied by the rope, and hoisted up.

JOAFF: Let me down, I’ll speak the truth.

PODESTA: Speak it on the ropes.

JOAFF: I have never done anything evil.

He was hoisted up and dropped.

This continues until Joaff has been dropped enough times to agree that he saw Simon’s body on Saturday night, on a bench in the synagogue. They knew that was the truth because it confirmed what they already wanted to hear.

This would be the end of Trent’s Jewish men in January 1476.

Israel, a 23-year-old copyist, was the last to die, and his fate is particularly poignant.

He had half-escaped the pall of death by accepting baptism the previous spring, and lived freely during the following months under the name Wolfgang. Dei Guidici interviewed him, one of the few productive sessions the pope’s man was able to arrange in Trent, and learned thereby of the details of Hinderbach’s interrogations.

Once Dei Guidici withdrew to Venetian soil, Jews of that principality would begin reaching out to “Wolfgang” in their efforts to communicate with the remaining imprisoned Jews.

This skullduggery came came apart when the persecution fired back up in October, and Israel was re-arrested, and put again and repeatedly to the rope. He was a man bound to be crushed by the legal machinery arrayed against him, but it was not only that. As Israel was well-traveled, he was tortured for information about ritual murders in other German cities; his forced denunciation of 14 named Jews in Regensburg initiated a blood-libel proceeding in that city that was only aborted by intervention from the Emperor himself.

And while Israel struggled to portray himself as a faithful convert and appeal to little Simon for an exculpatory miracle that never came, he at least once threw aside the mask to give his tormenters a piece of his mind.

PODESTA: What did he think of the Christian faith?

ISRAEL: He wants to say the truth. He does not believe in anything of the Christian faith … It is a joke to say that God came down from heaven to earth, walked around and lived among men. He believes only in God and nothing more. He believes also that the Jewish faith is right and holy.

PODESTA: Does he believe that it is right, according to Jewish law, that Jews kill Christian children and drink and eat their blood as he himself had said.

ISAREL: He believes firmly that it is right that Jews kill Christian children and eat their blood. He wants to have Christian blood at Easter, even now that he is baptized he wants to die a Jew.

Four other Jews from Trent died by hanging earlier in January 1476. The last one put to death was Israel on January 19 — “thief, eater and drinker of Christian blood, poisoner, blasphemer, traitor, and an enemy of Christ and Godly majesty.”

Even his death did not finally put a stop to the affair, for the women of the Jewish community were still in prison, and still being tortured as late as March. They would eventually accept baptism as the price of their release.

Meanwhile, Hinderbach and Dei Guidici carried their scrap to the curia. Hinderbach’s dogged advocacy of his burgeoning cult of Simon — and the odd ad hominem against his foe here and there — won some allies against Dei Guidici’s protests against “the peril which would be incumbent on the Christian religion, on account of the dealings in Trent, and the lies that would reach the ignorant.”

In the end, the Church decided it on political grounds. It could not encourage more Trents; neither could it invite the scandal of disavowing the one that had already taken place. It upheld Hinderbach’s conduct while also reiterating standing prohibitions against blood-libel trials or oppressing the Jews.

Hinderbach very naturally took this as vindication and spent the balance of his life propagating the Simonino cult. Artwork throughout northern Italy, some of it still visible in situ today in its original public monuments and chapel frescoes, attested to his success.


The Martyrdom of Simonino, by Gandolfino d’Asti.


The Martyrdom of Saint Simonio, from the Trento school of Nicklaus Weckmann. (Via)

Indeed, the city of Trent itself‡ still has a street-viewable bas-relief depiction of Simonino’s ritual murder, with the Latin inscription:

In the dungeons of these buildings, where once a synagogue stood, and now a shrine, the blessed martyr Simon of Trent, in his 29th month of life, was killed with excruciating pain by the Jews in the deep of the night of April 10, 1475 A.D.

The Simon of Trent cult — never the face of Christianity that the institutional church really wanted to feature — was only officially suppressed in the 20th century with the Second Vatican Council.

* Trent’s position on the frontier of the Italian and German worlds is also the reason the next century’s major anti-Reformation Council of Trent was held there.

** Sixtus wasn’t all good news for Jews. More from political necessity than affirmative desire, he also authorized the Spanish Inquisition and appointed Torquemada.

† During this time, Dei Guidici also managed to extract a Trent resident named Anzelino Austoch. Under Dei Guidici’s torture, Austoch accused the man named der Schweizer, “the Swiss” — the very man who had suggested that the Jewish homes be searched for Simon’s body — of committing the murder. Dei Guidici clearly believed that either the Schweizer, or Austoch, or both, had actually killed Simon and intentionally framed the city’s Jews.

‡ Trent does not, of course, still avow the legitimacy of these proceedings; the city has elsewhere put up plaques apologizing for it.

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1891: James Eubanks

Add comment January 19th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1891, middle-aged widower James M. Eubanks was hanged in the yard of the county jail in San Jose, California. He’d killed his oldest daughter, Ada, thirteen months before.

Ada was fifteen years old at the time of her death, and worked as a waitress at a restaurant called Heath House in Los Gatos. Her relationship with her father was troubled and James was often abusive towards her. Once, the girl’s uncle had to intervene when he saw James chasing after Ada brandishing a stick.

James, a father of six, played the part of the beleaguered single parent with an out-of-control child: he said Ada was a habitual runaway, was “running around at night too much,” and that he he had “heard a great many reports that she was of loose character.”

There were hints of something more than typical inter-generational tension and teenage rebellion in the Eubanks family, however. Ada confided to a female relative that her father had committed “improper actions” that caused a great deal of trouble for her, and there were rumors that she had been pregnant by her own father.

Three days before Christmas in 1889, Ada was at work at Heath House and her father was loitering at the saloon next door.

He’d taken a position at the upstairs window, which afforded him a view of the Heath House kitchen, and was sullenly eyeballing his daughter.

Between nine and ten in the morning, James left his surveillance point carrying a double barreled shotgun. He came into the restaurant through the kitchen door and called for Ada.

When she came to the door, he took aim and fired, hitting her in the chest and killing her instantly. James then fired a shot at his own head, but missed.

He calmly walked back into the saloon, ordered a drink of whiskey, consumed it and went back upstairs. There he tried to cut his throat with a razor, but inflicted only a minor wound before the constable came and arrested him.

Admitting to the slaying, the “drunken, worthless wretch” said he’d been angry because Ada refused to turn over her earnings from her job.

At his trial, Eubanks’s lawyer presented a defense of diminished capacity: he admitted he’d fatally shot his daughter, but said that “from the long and excessive use of intoxicating liquors … he was, at the time of the homicide, and for a long time prior thereto, of a weak and enfeebled mind” and therefore incapable of forming the malice aforethought necessary for a first-degree murder conviction.

His attorney argued for a conviction of second-degree murder, or at least a recommendation of mercy.

The jury would have none of it, and James Eubanks didn’t seem to care. “I am a nuisance to the world,” he wrote in a memorandum confessing to the killing, “so I leave it in disgust.”

He found religion on death row, like so many others of his kind, and said he believed God had forgiven him and he would go to Heaven.

According to one newspaper report, the day before James was hanged, 2,000 men, women and children were permitted to traipse through the jailyard to have a look at the gallows. James Eubanks himself traversed it speedily; he died a speedy six minutes after the drop, having delivered himself of the trite last words, “I hope this will be a warning to others.”

Sheriff Giles E. McDougall‘s duty required him to preside over the hanging, and he was sickened by the experience. He lobbied for a change in California law — going so far as to write to every county sheriff in the state to solicit support — so that executions would fall within the confines of the state prison system and would no longer be the responsibility of individual counties. McDougall got his new law within a year.

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1894: Albert F. Bomberger, for the Kreider family murders

Add comment January 19th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1894, Albert F. Bomberger was hanged in the four-year-old state of North Dakota for the gruesome mass murder he’d committed the year before. His execution within sight of the Kreider home where he’d slaughtered six people (and raped a seventh) went off smoothly, but it almost didn’t: when the trap was sprung, his feet were only six inches above the ground.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1871, Bomberger left home as a teenager and worked his way west. At some undetermined point, he was hired to work on the Kreider on a farm southeast of Cando, North Dakota, a job that came with his own room within the farmers’ home. Bomberger was apparently a relative of some sort, and hailed from the same part of Pennsylvania the Kreiders were originally from.

The Kreider family was a large one. Besides Daniel S. Kreider* and his wife Barbara, there were eight children: sons Aaron, 12, David, 7, and Henry, 3, and daughters Annie, 15, Bernice, 13, Murby, 11, Mary, 9, and Eva, 5.**

Bomberger became infatuated with the eldest daughter Annie and would not be put off by her rebuffs. After midnight on July 6, 1893, he sneaked into her bedroom, which was next to his own; Annie kicked him out and threatened to tell her parents if he didn’t quit bothering her. Bomberger slunk back to his bed, furious and humiliated, and plotted revenge.

On the morning of July 7, Bomberger found Daniel Kreider asleep in bed and shot him with a double-barreled shotgun.

Then he went down to the kitchen where Mrs. Kreider was fixing breakfast and shot her to death as well.

And last, he penned up Annie, Aaron, Eve and Henry in his bedroom.

With those kids locked up, Bomberger tracked down Murby, Mary and David, and blasted them with a single load of buckshot each.

13-year-old Bernice attempted escape by jumping out a second-floor window and running for help. Bomberger caught her, and she cried and begged to be allowed to see her family again. He obligingly took her inside, showed her each of the dead bodies (Mary turned out to be still alive, so Bomberger slit her throat), then then shot Bernice dead at close range while she cowered in the corner with her hands over her face.

While Bomberger was thus occupied, Aaron, Eva and Henry escaped his room and hid elsewhere in the farm. The murderer wasn’t interested in them anyway; he turned his attentions to Annie. He raped her in her bedroom, took her to the barn, raped her again and then forced her to make his breakfast, give him $50, and pack his lunch.

Bomberger then tied Annie up, put her in the barn’s loft, saddled up and rode straight for the nearby Canadian border on one of the children’s horses.

He did make it to Manitoba, but that didn’t stop Cando’s sheriff from hopping the 49th parallel himself to arrest the murderer. Bomberger had little to say for himself. He seemed indifferent to his fate and, when asked to explain why he’d committed such a horrific crime, blamed booze.

He even pleaded guilty: the entire court procedure lasted fifteen minutes.

Almost 120 years later, amateur historian R. Michael Wilson would say that, of all the criminals he’d written about in his extensive studies of crime in the western United States, Albert Bomberger stood out as one of the most horrible.

The dead Kreiders were buried together in one grave at a Mennonite cemetery in their home state of Pennsylvania. Some 15,000 people attended their funeral. The murder farm was sold at auction; the house where the murders took place burned down in 1917.

As for the surviving children, they stayed in Pennsylvania after the murders. Annie married, had at least two children and lived a long life: she died in 1960, age 82.


Um …

* The brother of future Pennsylvania Congressman Aaron Kreider (R).

** Various sources give them different ages; these are the best estimations I could make. It’s also worth noting that Murby’s name is occasionally given as “Merby” or “Melby” and Bernice may be called “Beatrice”. I’m going with the names as they were listed in the cemetery records, but those could well be wrong.

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1880: Prevost, predatory Parisian policeman

1 comment January 19th, 2012 Headsman

From a Paris Dispatch report via the New York Times. (Additional paragraph breaks have been added for readability.)

It is just 10 years ago, day for day, that the notorious Troppman, the murderer of the Kink family, was executed on the Place de la Roquette. This morning another convict of the same stamp underwent the penalty of death on the same spot.

Prevost, the policeman who murdered the woman Blondin and the jewelry-dealer, Lenoble, and afterward cut their bodies up and threw the pieces into the sewers, was guillotined there at daybreak.


Thwack: Prevost clobbers Lenoble.

It having become known last night that his appeal for mercy had been rejected by the President of the Republic, a large crowd began to assemble as early as 9 o’clock round the place of execution. To prevent a recurrence of the scenes of disorder which took place there when the young criminals Lebiez and Barre, the assassins of the woman Gilles, were put to death, a strong force of infantry and cavalry guarded the square and kept the people at a distance.

The crowd, in spite of the bitter cold and piercing north-east wind, grew more numerous toward midnight, and by the hour of execution all the thoroughfares leading to the spot were crammed with people.

The executioner arrived at 4 o’clock, and, aided by his assistants, erected the guillotine about 20 paces from the central door of the prison. The guillotine once in order, the headsman and his assistants entered the prison to arrange what is called the toilet of the culprit previous to his death.

The Abbe Crozes, the Chaplain of the jail, was the first to enter the prisoner’s cell. Prevost started up, gazed wildly at the reverend gentleman, and then buried his head in his hands, trembling and groaning.

“Alas!” said the Chaplain, “there is no hope now but in the mercy of God.”

Prevost had lured the jewel-trader Lenoble on the pretext of arranging a transaction, then for no reason save crass acquisition of his wares bludgeoned him to death with the iron rod-and-ball device used to link railroad cars.

It was a premeditated and gruesomely executed crime.

Using butchers’ knives he had pre-obtained for the purpose, Prevost spent the next several hours skinning Lenoble, dismembering Lenoble, and ultimately dicing Lenoble up into cutlets so that he could heap Lenoble in a basket and dispose of Lenoble’s bits in less-suspicious fragments in a variety of sewer grates and refuse heaps.

Such as was recovered was heaped together at the morgue, “a mass of quivering flesh, stripped of skin … bones covered with their tendons, sternum, ribs with fragments of the chest, bones of the shoulder blades and arms … the liver, heart and guts, and the fragments of skin torn off one by one from each severed part.”*

After his capture for this shocking crime, he admitted that he’d also been the author of the unsolved murder several years before of his lover, Adele Blondin — likewise for pecuniary gain, and likewise disposed of in pieces after Pevost’s ghoulish close work with corpse and saw.

The condemned man then left his bed, but he was too much overcome to dress himself. That task was done by the executioner and his assistants. He was then left alone with the Abbe Crozes to prepare his soul. He embraced the Chaplain several times and wept bitterly.

“Take courage, take courage,” said the reverend gentleman.

“Yes, yes,” replied Prevost, “I will take courage and try to meet my fate. I ask pardon of the Police administration, to which I belonged seven years.”

“If this … pawnbroker has been murdered by some one of a higher class in society,” Dostoyevsky had mused in Crime and Punishment in 1866, “how are we to explain this demoralisation of the civilised part of our society?”

Prevost’s demoralization afflicted his cognition as well as his conscience, because he had actually made previous chit-chat with fellow-officers to the effect that were he to commit the perfect crime he would surely go and butcher the body for no-fuss disposal.

The condemned man, after kissing the crucifix three or four times, marched out to the guillotine wit a firm step, and in an instant he was on the fatal bascule.

The spring was touched, a dull thud was heard, and the next second his head fell into the basket.

After the execution the body and head of the murderer were taken to the School of Medicine, and, having been sown together, electrical experiments were made on them, and in the opinion of all the doctors present death must have been instantaneous.

* This quote, and the other interspersed crime details, and the nice bashing illustration, are all via this French crime pamphlet.

Part of the Daily Triple: 1880 and Death.

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1866: Martha Grinder, the Pittsburgh Borgia

Add comment January 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1866, serial killer Martha Grinder was hanged in Pittsburgh for a poisoning spree.

The “Pittsburgh poisoner” or — we think rather more colorfully — the “Pittsburgh Borgia” — was supposed to suffer from the 19th century’s favorite mental illness, the now-passe “monomania”, which means overwhelming fixation on some single thing or idea.

The idea? Murder.

The national press was captivated by this woman, “the Lucretia Borgia of that day — a woman who, under the guise of helping her sick neighbors, without apparent motive, poisoned them.”

While killers may be nothing new, and even female killers not exactly unheard-of, it was that absence of any object — love, greed, vengeance, anything — save killing itself that moved the papers: one monomania, feeding on another.

According to The Penalty Is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women’s Executions, the Pittsburgh press saluted her as “wretched torturer,” “a demon embodied,” “fiendish”; her arrest caused the Philadelphia Inquirer (Aug. 30, 1865: fresh from the gallows expiation of a national catastrophe) to bemoan “a saturnalia of crime … passing over the land.”

One particular neighbor, Mary Caruthers, was poisoned over a period of weeks by her neighbor and apparent caretaker — just the gender role betrayal to really freak out the 19th century. (The court played along: at one point, it admonished the many women attending for their un-feminine interest in this public trial. No indication that it admonished the Pittsburgh Post for its daily trial dispatches.)

This one murder conviction is why Grinder swung, but by that time she had been conclusively hanged in the public mind as a veritable Locusta.

Martha Grinder did eventually confess (pdf) to Caruthers’s murder and to another, but denied any others; papers postulated a total death toll of at least several more who died under Grinder’s nursing “care.” This strikes one as the sort of circumstantial evidence that could be marshaled against anyone in a caregiving position, especially in an environment of dubious forensic technique, and might prove amenable to liberal adoption by newspapermen free from the burden of proof but fettered to the “Borgia” appellation.

On the other hand, and even though the confession came only on the very eve of hanging, our condemned might be thought incentivized by the executive pardon system to own enough guilt to demonstrate contrition without admitting so much as to undercut any possible sympathy. What has one got to lose, right? If that was her game, she didn’t win it.

“Quite prostrated” by her imminent doom, Grinder was reported to have ground away her final days in an opiate haze, but she composed herself sufficiently for an unexpectedly calm performance on the scaffold.


Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 1866.

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1661: Thomas Venner and the Fifth Monarchy Men

5 comments January 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1661, the restored English monarchy made an end to the interregnum’s religious crazies.

A few other images of Thomas Venner are available here.

“It is difficult in these days to follow with patience, or even with complete seriousness, all the ramifications of Fifth Monarchy speculation,” writes historian Louise Fargo Brown, whose gratis tome The Political Activities of the Baptists and Fifth Monarchy Men in England proceeds to do just that.

This blog wants for both patience and seriousness, so we’ll sum up that Venner et al were the holy rollers of the day, the true whack-jobs in the millenarian hustle of Cromwellian England.

Venner himself was born in New England, and there’s a zippy bio of him in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. The North American colonies and Parliamentarian Britain helped to incubate political/religious heterodoxy for one another, and Venner was not the only budding religious zealot in the distant marches to emigrate to London after Charles I lost his head.

There the cooper became an outspoken apostle of the Fifth Monarchists, a part of Cromwell’s coalition made for disappointment with the mundane machinations of statecraft. Relieved in time of any a share in General Ironsides’ burden of helming the state in choppy waters, the men of the Fifth Monarchy were at liberty, to retire with their slide rules and philosopher’s stones to calculate the (imminent) date of the apocalypse foretold by Daniel and pursue the maxim not yet born that, starting with a mistake, a remorseless logician can end up in Bedlam.

All well and good to mock from posterity, and from a country where Left Behind is a bestseller no less. To be fair to the Monarchy Men, one could as well say that the egalitarian political language of these “arrant Radicals and levellers” just happened to be scriptural.* They would hardly be the last to foretell a golden age made ready by the slaying of a king, not by a long shot.

At any rate, our Bostonian tradesman became such an outspoken prophet of the return of “King Jesus” that Cromwell was obliged to clap him in irons.

Venner didn’t take the hint well, nor other more salutary warnings, and Venner instigated a riot of his few dozen followers at the start of January 1661 that took London unawares and did some damage before it was put down.

Diarist Samuel Pepys records of the riots that

[a] thing that never was heard of, that so few men should dare and do so much mischief. Their word was, “The King Jesus, and the heads upon the gates.” Few of them would receive any quarter, but such as were taken by force and kept alive; expecting Jesus to come here and reign in the world presently, and will not believe yet but their work will be carried on though they do die.

Thomas Venner and his compatriot Roger Hodgkins died that traitor’s death this day, along with William Oxman and Giles Pritchard, the latter two having their sentences commuted to simple hanging and posthumous beheading. The remaining survivors of his band climbed the scaffold two days later.

* e.g., “Then shall the Oppressor cease and no more complaining be heard in the streets. Taxes should be no more. And Trade and industry should abound. … The poor should have bread, and the Army no more in Arrears. Prison doors should be open and Debtors satisfied without Arrests … then peace and safety, plenty and prosperity, should overflow the land.” (Cited by Brown)

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Treason

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1870: Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, mass murderer

8 comments January 19th, 2009 Headsman

Outside Paris’s La Roquette prison this morning in 1870, mass murderer Jean-Baptiste Troppmann was guillotined for the sensational butchery of a family of eight.

Katherine Taylor’s In the Theater of Criminal Justice conceptualizes Troppmann‘s crime and trial as a test case for the evolving public performance of justice.

The Alsatian-born Troppmann, or Traupmann (French Wikipedia page | German) was apprehended trying to catch a ship for America shortly after a murdered woman and her five murdered children were discovered on the Plaine de Pantin on the outskirts of Paris.

The horrific state of the bodies (caution: link displays grisly post-mortem photos) produced a public sensation with the curious phenomenon of mass citizen pilgrimmages to the “field of cadavers” such that the Parisian police chief would later remember that “[i]t was necessary to close the entrance gate of the train station on the crowd that could no longer go in or out, that screamed from every direction in explosions of terror and rage: ‘Yet another victim of Pantin!'”

Troppmann had last been seen accompanying family father Jean Kinck on a business trip from which the latter was destined never to return … and it soon came to light that Jean Kinck had been the first of Troppmann’s victims, followed by the eldest son, interspersed with letters written to Kinck’s unwitting widow requesting bank transfers in the name of his deceased business partner.

As a judicial matter, this case was open and shut; Troppmann was convicted three months after his arrest, and went under the blade three weeks after that.

But the immense public fascination he generated would be a milestone in the development of the French tabloid press, which did brisk business* stoking the lucrative hysteria.

Small wonder such a staggering throng assembled for the dawn beheading — assembled even from the previous evening, to catch a glimpse of the grim apparatus being assembled for the next day’s play.

Among the multitude were various intellectual worthies, including the liberal Russian author Ivan Turgenev. His subsequent “Kazn’ Tropmana” (“The Execution of Troppmann” — the link is in Russian; I haven’t found a full English version), which includes meeting the remorseless prisoner and witnessing his pre-execution “toilette,” reflects the writer’s discomfiture with Madame Guillotine. Too appalled to watch the beheading, he turns away and narrates its sound.

a light knocking of wood on wood — that was the sound made by the top part of the yoke with the slit for the passage of the knife as it fell round the murderer’s head and kept it immobile … Then something suddenly descended with a hollow growl and stopped with an abrupt thud … Just as though a huge animal had retched … I felt dizzy. Everything swam before my eyes. … None of us, absolutely none looked like a person who realized that he had been present at the implementation of an act of social justice; each one tried mentally to turn aside and, as it were, throw off any responsibility for this murder

“I will not forget that horrible night,” Turgenev later wrote to a friend (pdf link), “in the course of which ‘I have supp’d full of horrors’ and acquired a definite loathing for capital punishment in general, and in particular for the way it is carried out in France.”

Most others present are presumed to have experienced the opposite sensation, as made plain in this more democratic English-language account freely available from Google books. Nevertheless, Troppmann enjoyed a literary afterlife with a poetic name-check in Maurice Rollinat’s Les Nevroses (French link; “Soliloque de Troppmann” is about 75% of the way down the page); and as noted in Richard Burton’s Blood in the City, death-obsessed Georges Bataille used the infamous surname for both a pen name and the name of a main character in two separate works more than half a century later. (Update: Victor Hugo got in on the act, too. See the comments.)

Although Troppmann’s name appears on some lists of serial killers, his eight homicides do not fit the term’s usual definition of a compulsive pattern of murders spread over time. Troppmann’s blood offerings were meant for no other idol but Mammon.

* According to Thomas Cragin’s Murder in Parisian Streets: Manufacturing Crime and Justice in the Popular Press, 1830-1900, the circulation of everyman broadsheet Le Petit Journal surged by 50% overnight after the discovery of Troppmann’s victims — “But just as cases such as this one could boost sales, their absence temporarily reduced circulation … [and] its publishers tried to ensure a steady supply [of murder stories].”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Mature Content,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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532: Hypatius and Pompeius, for Byzantine sports riots

4 comments January 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 532, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I had two nephews of a former emperor executed for participating, however unwillingly, in the Nika riots.

Early in Justinian‘s reign, chariot-racing factions comprised mobs unruly enough to put any modern football hooligan into traction. Riots were a periodic feature of the sport.

The historian Procopius, who is our guide to this day’s events, describes a type the modern reader will recognize:

The Empress Theodora‘s cool head famously saved the day — and the empire — when her husband was ready to bolt. “May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress. If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty … as for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud.”

They care neither for things divine nor human in comparison with conquering in these struggles; and it matters not whether a sacrilege is committed by anyone at all against God, or whether the laws and the constitution are violated by friend or by foe; nay even when they are perhaps ill supplied with the necessities of life, and when their fatherland is in the most pressing need and suffering unjustly, they pay no heed if only it is likely to go well with their “faction” …

When the clubs were pitted against each other, the civic disturbance rated a mere annoyance. But early in 532, they came into an unexpected alliance — around, it should be said in this venue, hangings meted out to their respective partisans — and outright revolt erupted at a race on January 13. Instead of chanting their respective factional slogans, a common cry of Nika! — “Victory!” — heralded a week of mayhem that nearly ended the great Byzantine prince’s era when it had hardly begun.

This day’s victims were nephews of a former Byzantine emperor, and their lot in the affair was an unlucky one. The suspicious Justinian cast them out of the palace quite against their will, for they feared exactly what in fact came to pass: the mob proclaimed Hypatius emperor and thrust him involuntarily — he had to be physically pried from the desperate resistance of his wife — into treason.

It was an old vintage in the Roman tradition, as Edward Gibbon reflected in reviewing the perverse structural logic of civil war during an earlier era of the western empire:

[I]f we examine with candour the conduct of these usurpers, it will appear that they were much oftener driven into rebellion by their fears than urged to it by their ambition … If the dangerous favour of the army had imprudently declared them deserving of the purple, they were marked for sure destruction; and even prudence would counsel them to secure a short enjoyment of the empire, and rather to try the fortune of war than to expect the hand of an executioner.

For a few hours, the throne stood in danger. Justinian mulled flight; his remarkable wife held him steady — and on January 18, their generals trapped the rioters in the Hippodrome and slaughtered some 30,000 of them.

Back to Procopius:

[T]he populace, who were standing in a mass and not in order, at the sight of armoured soldiers who had a great reputation for bravery and experience in war, and seeing that they struck out with their swords unsparingly, beat a hasty retreat … the partisans of Hypatius were assailed with might and main and destroyed.

Hypatius and his brother were taken alive but disposed of on this day, by which time their deaths were but a drop in a bloodbath.

[T]he emperor commanded the two prisoners to be kept in severe confinement. Then, while Pompeius was weeping and uttering pitiable words (for the man was wholly inexperienced in such misfortunes), Hypatius reproached him at length and said that those who were about to die unjustly should not lament. For in the beginning they had been forced by the people against their will, and afterwards they had come to the hippodrome with no thought of harming the emperor. And the soldiers killed both of them on the following day and threw their bodies into the sea. The emperor confiscated all their property for the public treasury, and also that of all the other members of the senate who had sided with them. Later, however, he restored to the children of Hypatius and Pompeius and to all others the titles which they had formerly held, and as much of their property as he had not happened to bestow upon his friends. This was the end of the insurrection in Byzantium.

Bad luck for Hypatius and Pompeius proved a blessing for posterity (and Turkey’s contemporary tourist trade): riot-devastated space near the Hippodrome was appropriated by Justinian to build the magnificent Hagia Sophia basilica.

This gripping affair is narrated in greater depth in an installment of Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast series:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

… and in gripping detail by the History of Byzantium podcast.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Early Middle Ages,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Rioting,Summary Executions,Treason,Turkey

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