On this date in 1928, seventeen-year-old Floyd Hewitt was executed in Ohio’s electric chair for the horrific murder of a farmer’s wife and five-year-old son.
Floyd grew up in rural area outside Conneaut, Ohio. Although at 6’4″ he had the body of a grown man, he was mentally disabled, callously described by his defense attorneys as “a moron with a ten-year-old’s intellect.” One newspaper portrayed him thus:
He is not considered of normal intellect, his drooping mouth, dull eyes and appearances contributing to the opinion. He was not bright in his classes at school.
On the evening of February 14, 1927, he visited a local farm belonging to the Brown family. He was a frequent visitor there; he loved listening to jazz music on the radio and the Browns were the only family in the area who had a set at home. Celia Brown’s husband, Fred, was away in town and she was home alone with their son Freddie.
This news column and this article describe what happened in detail. Floyd got “stirred up inside” by the music. Feeling “an overpowering love,” he made sexual overtures towards Celia, who slapped him. He hit back, and she grabbed the fireplace poker to defend herself, but he tore it from her hands. In the ensuing fight Floyd hurled Celia down the stairs and struck her repeatedly with the poker until she was dead. Then, afraid the little boy would tell on him, Floyd chased Freddie into the basement and beat him to death with a baseball bat, too.
Then he went back upstairs, washed his hands, walked the short distance home and sat down to read the newspaper.
Fred Brown got home a little after midnight, found his wife’s body on the porch. There was blood everywhere. Fred summoned neighbors and the police. After searching the rest of the house, the neighbors found little Freddie’s body in the basement.
Floyd rapidly came under suspicion; he literally left a trail of footprints right to his front door. The next morning he was arrested, wearing the same bloodstained sweater he’d worn the night before. One of the buttons had been torn off and was left at the crime scene.
Within hours, Hewitt had made a full confession. He even went so far as to take the police on a tour of the Brown house to point out what had occurred and where. The next day, however, he retracted his statements and would maintain his innocence until his death.
The press bluntly christened him “the boy clubber.”
On the first day of his trial, as he was taken into the courtroom, Floyd remarked, “This is certainly a beautiful day, isn’t it?” One reporter described him as “like a big overgrown boy, who did not realize the seriousness of the crimes with which he is charged.”
He was indeed an overgrown boy, only sixteen years old at the time of his crime, but the prosecution demanded the death penalty.
Although indicted for two first degree murders (mother and son), he was tried only for the first degree murder of the five-year-old boy.
During the three week trial, the state relied heavily upon Hewitt’s signed confession while the defense stressed Hewitt’s mental disabilities. On April 26, the jury returned a verdict of guilty without a recommendation of mercy.
Hewitt appealed, and his execution was postponed for a time, but the appeals process wore down in less than a year and the board of clemency refused to recommend a commutation to the governor …
Hewitt’s chronological age at execution was seventeen, but his mental age remained forever fixed at ten.
Floyd Hewitt might have been the youngest person ever executed by the state of Ohio, and he was the first from Ashtabula County. A “bedraggled figure … with his long black hair hanging low over his face,” and clutching a photo of his family, he died in the electric chair at the Ohio State Penitentiary Annex at 7:43 p.m.
On this date in 1927, Robert Greene Elliott — the “state electrician” who wired the majesty of the law to condemned men and women from Rockview, Pa. to Windsor, Vt. — had the busiest day of his illustrious career.
Once just a regular prison electrician, Elliott graduated himself to the euphemism in 1926 and was soon the go-to angel of electric death throughout the northeast. He pulled the lever a reported 387 times for men and women who sat in the new killing device in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and (just one time) Vermont; when John Dos Passos wrote that “they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the switch,” well, he could have been talking about Elliott’s $150-per-head bounty.
January 6, 1927 was a full and lucrative day for Elliott.
He started the day off with a triple execution in Boston’s Charleston Prison — the first triple electrocution in Massachusetts history.* Then he took a train to New York — relaxed with family — took in a picture — and then conducted the Empire State’s triple execution in the evening. (All six of his luckless subjects in either state had been sentenced for various robbery-murders.) His $900 in wages between the two occasions would be the equivalent of a $12,000+ payday today.
Friend of the site Robert Walsh has a wonderful post detailing this character’s remarkable career; venture if you dare into the world of a prolific killer of the Prohibition and Depression eras, here.
Elliott also wrote an autobiography, Agent of Death, which is out of print and difficult to come by.
* Elliot would return there a few months later for a more famous trio: Sacco and Vanzetti, along with their accomplice Celestino Madeiros. Some other noteworthy clients of Elliott: alleged Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno Richard Hauptmann and illicitly photographed femme fataleRuth Snyder.
Sheridan, who had in the course of that campaign made his lasting fame by rallying his troops after an initially devastating Confederate surprise attack, was highly concerned at the prospect of rebel spies and infiltrators.
Our two poor fellows, Henry Regley and Charles King, were actually nothing of the sort — just bounty jumpers who donned the blue uniform to collect a cash reward for joining up, and then deserted at the first opportunity. Given the state’s primitive tools in the 1860s for monitoring individual citizens or verifying identity, many bounty jumpers simply repeated the enlistment-desertion cycle several times.
Being shot as a deserter was one of the occupational hazards — a small one, but a real one. But being shot as a spy? Well, General Sheridan was on the lookout.
These deserters on their way out of camp happened to bump into a patrol of “Confederates”: actually a Union detail Sheridan had uniformed like the enemy for sneaky reconnaissance. What ensued next was your basic comedy of mistaken identity … with a double execution at the end.
Henry Recli [sic] of Co. L and Christian A. Gross, alias Charles King of the same Company, a German by birth, left the regiment while at the present camp. A party of scouts led by Major [Young] of Gen. Sheridan’s staff, at their head, dressed in rebel uniforms met these men up the valley, a number of miles outside the picket lines. As they conversed with them, the deserters supposing them to be genuine rebels, gave them the contraband information, and stated that they had been trying to desert for some time. They assented to a proposal to exchange clothing, and then were arrested.
I am informed by Chaplain John L. Frazee, whose trying duty it was to be with the condemned during their last hours, that both persisted in their innocence to the last. When told by the Provost Marshall Lee, that they were to die at noon, they said they knew that the night before, when they were in Winchester, at which place Gross, who had always signed his name as Charles King, wrote a letter to friends in Philadelphia, signed Christian A. Gross, in which he expressed his doubts of the carrying out of the sentence. The chaplain believes this idea deceived them until the last moment, although they yielded a sort of mechanical compliance with the solemn services held with them in private, and kneeled in prayer before being taken from prison.
Private Friederich Jaeckel’s drawing in his diary of the two deserters, again via New Jersey Butterfly Boys. Though that book’s caption places this on January 6, 1864, context suggests this must in fact be our 1865 incident; there is no indication I can find of an executed pair in the army dating to exactly one year before.
The details of the execution of this kind are terribly formal and impressive. Fully three thousand cavalrymen were drawn upon three sides of a square upon a gentle slope a little way from headquarters. Each regimental and brigade staff was with its organization and centrally stationed was Gen. Custer and his staff and body guard. When the Division was arranged, Provost Marshall Lee gave orders that the condemned should be brought forth, and thoroughly unused as I was to seeing death in that shape, the memories clustering about that slow moving group, seem as if burned in my brain.
The Provost Marshall, preceded by the band, with a small body guard, led — then the firing party, made up of twelve picked men from our own regiment. A large open wagon, drawn by four white horses, came next — in which there were two coffins, upon each of which sat a doomed man riding backwards, with feet ironed and hands tied behind. Each had a long white scarf about the head. Besides these rode the Chaplain and a proper guard dismounted closed the rear.
The fine brigade band, which had marched in silence until near the Division, when the first side of the square was reached, began playing a Dead March, and thus did this little group march slowly around inside the whole army, and at last halt at an open grave — dug in the center.
The men were now lifted from the wagon, the Coffins duly placed, and the men seated as before facing the whole Division. Marshall Lee then, from his horse, read the order and warrant … brief religious services were held, the Chaplain reading a portion of the burial service, and offering prayer for the condemned. Neither had anything to say, and the Chaplain retired a few paces. The faces of the men were then covered, and the firing party quickly drawn up in line with pieces previously carefully loaded and placed in their hands. One of the twelve had, by a merciful regulation in the Articles of War, a blank cartridge, and each comrade had the hope that he should send no fatal ball.
More rapidly than I can trace this account was the preparation done. Ten paces off stood the line — each man sternly appreciative of his fearful duty.
“Attention” Ready! Aim! Fire! The report was almost as if one carbine had responded. Two bodies fallen backwards and dead were all that remained of Recli and Gross. The surgeon in a few moments pronounced life extinct; and the scene closed by marching the whole body of troops past their Coffins, lying as they fell — this most solemn warning one can imagine to the soldier — to be faithful to himself, his oath and his Country. MANATOM
* Abraham Lincoln’s hilarious description of the 1.65-meter (5′ 5″) “Little Phil”: “A brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.”
Felix Platter is our narrator for Guillaume Dalencon’s death at the stake on this date in 1554.
This book portrays the 16th century through the remarkable Platter family.
Platter (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a 16-year-old Swiss student, and we find him on the midpoint of his family’s upward arc in the world. His father, Thomas, had as a child been put out of the house by his impoverished mother and made his way for a time as a beggar; by dint of lifelong struggle and application, he had gained a precarious foothold among the bourgeoisie of Basel. Thomas Platter nurtured still greater ambitions for his son.
Accordingly, the very genial Felix, who had never before traveled, set out in 1552 on the 400-mile journey to the city of Montpellier in southern France. Young Platter was an energetic diarist, and his impressions of the journey and of Montpellier were published in English as Beloved Son Felix. (That’s how Felix’s father addressed him in letters.) Though the book is out of print, it’s available online at archive.org.
One of its immediately striking features is the omnipresence of danger and death. Platter luckily left Basel just ahead of a plague outbreak, but he nearly lost his life in the frightening Jurthen forest. Taking shelter from the rain there in “a wretched inn” at a squalid hamlet called Mezieres, Platter and his companion found the place full of aggressive Savoyard peasants, and having no choice but to stay overnight they blockaded their door with a bed and kept a waking vigil all night with weapons at the ready. Three hours before dawn, they crept through the snoring mass of drunken thugs and slipped away, and a good thing it was too: the boys’ French guide told them as they set out that he had overheard the brutes plotting to murder the hapless travelers that morning.
The bandit “Long Peter”, who was then active in this forest, was eventually caught and executed on the breaking-wheel in Berne. Only in his old age did Platter learn that the brigand’s confession included a declaration that he had planned, but failed, to kill some students in Mezieres.
They had escaped by the skin of the teeth, but seemingly every page of the journal finds others who succumbed to the many paths to abrupt death the 16th century had to offer. (Not a few of them are corpses that Platter stole from their graves with fellow-students in order to anatomize.) This was, too, the age of spectacular public execution: the travelers’ road on October 18th, 1552, passed numerous “bodies of men hanging from the trees” and as darkness fell Platter gave himself a fright when he nearly rode into one. By the 20th they approached Lyons, where they beheld “several men hanging from gibbets and others exposed on wheels.” As they entered that city, they passed a Protestant “being led out to be burnt outside the gate; he was in his shirt with a truss of straw fastened on his back.”
Platter makes no further comment on this sight, but it must have touched him with pity — if not fear. Platter had been born in Basel about the same time that John Calvin, fleeing French persecution, arrived there; it was in Basel that Calvin first published his seminal theology Institutio Christianae religionis. To this faith, predominant in Swiss cities but illicit in France, Platter too subscribed. The French Wars of Religion loomed around the corner in the next decade, and Montpellier would become a Huguenot stronghold during that conflict. While Platter was there, an uneasy peace prevailed between growing ranks of Protestants and the official religion. The University of Montpellier attracted numerous Protestant students (the city lay in the heart of the Languedoc, a center of resistance to the papacy from longbefore the Reformation), and Platter’s own mentor, the brilliant doctor Guillaume Rondelet, had ambiguous religious affiliations.
Day to day, these students kept their heads down in matters religious and went about mostly unmolested. Taking a vocal stand on theological controversies here would be to embark upon a different path than Thomas Platter had in mind for his son, for heretics were among the many executions Platter recounts in his journal.
Guillaume Dalencon, the boy learned, was a former priest of Mountauban, “unfrocked on the 16th of October” when it was discovered that he had gone Protestant and brought back heretical books from Geneva. “Dressed in his priestly robes, he was brought on to a platform before the bishop” for his defrocking. “After protracted ceremonies in Latin he was divested of his chasuble and the rest, and given secular clothing. Hishead was then shaved, and two fingers were cut off his hand. After this he was delivered to the civil justice and once more thrown into prison.” The secular power took it from there.
On the 6th of January Guillaume Dalencon, unfrocked eleven weeks before, and since then held in prison, was condemned to death. In the afternoon a man carried him on his shoulders out of the town towards the monastery, to the place of execution. A pyre had already been built there. Beind the condemned man two other prisoners walked, one a cloth shearer, in his shirt, with a bale of straw fastened to his back; the other of good appearance, and well dressed. Both of them had recanted and denied the true faith. [i.e., both had recanted Protestantism under the threat of execution. -ed.] Dalencon, however, sang psalms all the way. At he pyre, he sat down on a log and himself took off his clothes as far as his shirt, and arranged them beside him tidily, as though he would be putting them on again. He exhorted the other two, who were about to apostasize, so touchingly that the sweat stood out in great drops, as big as peas, on the forehead of the man in the shirt. When the monks, formed in a curve around him, and mounted on horseback, told him that it was time to make an end, he leapt joyously on to the pyre and sat down at the foot of the stake that rose in the center of it. This stake was pierced by a hole, through which ran a cord with a running noose. The executioner put the cord round Dalencon’s neck, tied his hands across his breast, and placed near him the religious books he had brought from Geneva. Then he set fire to the pyre. The martyr remained seated, calm and resigned, with his eyes raised towards heaven. When the fire reached the books the executioner pulled on the cord and strangled him; his head dropped to his breast and he made no further movement. Little by little the body was reduced to cinders. His two companions stood at the foot of the fire, where they were made to watch his sufferings, and could feel the heat of the flame.
After the execution they were both taken to the Hotel de Ville. Near there, in front of the church of Notre-Dame, a platform had been set up, with a statue of the Virgin on it, before which they would have to recant. The crowd had to wait for them for a long time. At last only one of the two men was brought out. The cloth shearer had refused to abjure and demanded that he should be executed without mercy for having failed his beliefs. He was therefore taken back to prison. The other man, who seemed to be a man of substance, was placed on his knees before the statue of the Virgin, with a lighted candle in his hand. A clerk read out various charges, to which he had to reply. In this way he saved his life, but he was sent to the galleys and there put in chains.
On the following Tuesday, the 9th of January, it was the turn of the cloth shearer again. He was strangled and burnt as the priest had been. He showed great courage, and no less repentance for having come so near to denying his faith. It had rained on that day, and the fire would not burn. The victim, who was not completely strangled, endured great suffering. At last the monks of the neighbouring monastery brought some straw, and the executioner took it and sent for oil of terebinth from my master’s pharmacy to ignite the fire. Afterwards I reproached the assistants who had given it to him, but they advised me to hold my tongue, for the same fate could befall me also, as a heretic.
During these affairs an extraordinary phenomenon occurred. On the 6th of January, immediately after the execution of the first man, it began to thunder violently. I heard it plainly and so did many others with me; but the priests deried us and said that it was the smoke from the burning of heretics that produced that effect.
On this day in 1836, Abraham Prescott was hanged in Hopkinton, New Hampshire.
His crime was sensational at the time; the trial record can be viewed here. The slaying was horrifying in and of itself, and there was the added element of betrayal: Prescott had turned on the people who had treated him like kin.
A gentleman farmer, Chauncey Cochran, had taken Abraham Prescott in during his mid-teens and given him a place to stay on his farm in Pembroke, New Hampshire. In return, Prescott worked for Cochran on the farm.
This relationship continued amicably for three years, and Abraham grew very close to Chauncey and his wife, Sally. They trusted him and treated him like a son.
Our story begins on January 6, 1833, three years to the day before Prescott swung. During the early morning hours, Prescott took an ax and struck Chauncey and Sally in the head as they slept. Either he didn’t mean to kill them or he didn’t know how to aim, because he delivered glancing blows that merely caused considerable bruising and bleeding.
Abraham told them he’d been sleepwalking, and he hadn’t even realized he’d attacked his master and mistress until he saw Chauncey rising up from the bed, covered in blood. He wasn’t the first person on these pages to use the sleepwalking defense, but Abraham’s wild story actually worked — that time, anyway.
Perhaps the Cochrans were blinded by their affection for their employee. Perhaps they simply had no common sense. In any case, they accepted Prescott’s explanation and didn’t summon the police or even dismiss him. After he axed them both in bed. Most bosses would probably consider that a one-strike offense.
A report of this “unhappy and and almost unheard-of occurrence of somnambulism” was actually published in the New Hampshire Patriot several days later. Even after subsequent events cast the incident in a very sinister light, Chauncey still referred to it as “the accident.”
Several months passed and Prescott behaved normally, diligently working on the farm and causing no trouble. Then, on June 23, Sally asked him to go with her on a berry-picking expedition.
They set off together, and several hours later he came home alone and visibly agitated.
When asked what was wrong, Abraham said he’d been bothered by a toothache and lay down against a tree to rest. He evidently fell asleep, and when he woke up Sally was lying prone. Abraham had been sleepwalking again, and had clubbed her with a three-foot wooden stake, and he thought he’d killed her.
This time Chauncey didn’t give Prescott the benefit of doubt. The eighteen-year-old found himself jailed and charged with capital murder.
Abraham Prescott’s lawyer went for the insanity defense, focusing on his culpability rather than his actions. Prescott was not terribly bright and may have actually been developmentally disabled. Various witnesses testified that there was mental illness in his family. Abraham’s mother said he’d had hydrocephalus as an infant and had sleepwalked frequently during his childhood. Several doctors testified about somnambulism and insanity, and how the defendant could be a good example of both, although they were all speaking theoretically as none of them had examined him.
(Fun fact: one of the expert witnesses was George Parkman, who was himself the victim of a homicide sixteen years later and is featured elsewhere on these pages.)
The prosecution had a much easier time of it: they had a very good case that Prescott had murdered his mistress deliberately. His attempt to conceal her body suggested he knew the wrongfulness of his actions. He was under the impression that he stood to inherit everything if the Cochrans died (since they said he was “like family”).
Vis-à-vis the sleepwalking, Abraham’s own statements contradicted each other. When questioned right after his arrest, he had provided a much more straightforward account of what happened, one that didn’t involve somnambulism: Abraham said that while he and Sally were picking berries, he had done or said something “improper” to her and she threatened to tell her husband. He killed her because he was afraid he would be sent to prison if Chauncey found out about it.
(Prescott subsequently retracted that statement and went back to the sleepwalking story.)
Even after conviction, however, questions remained. Several reprieves were issued while the state tried to figure out whether or not he was crazy and, if so, how crazy. He copped a retrial because the first jury that convicted him had been improperly exposed to the popular belief in Prescott’s guilt by virtue of being barracked at a local pub. The sentencing judge at his last trial remarked on the court’s meticulous solicitation of “the most experienced witnesses, in our own and neighboring States, to throw upon the secret operations and sudden derangements of the mind, and all the evidence which the highest records of the history of man could furnish.”
Prescott spent in all two years awaiting execution, a very long time in those days. In the end, however, the law decided that Prescott knew what he was doing that day in the strawberry patch, and he had to die.
We will never know for sure why he killed Sally Cochran. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that Abraham Prescott was a very troubled young man.
A large crowd braved a snowstorm to watch him die.
Never averse to breaking a few eggs, Gandhi led her country (sometimes autocratically) for four terms from 1966 to 1984, sandwiched around a stint under a legal cloud for political corruption.
She backed East Pakistan’s breakaway from India’s neighbor and rival, but also negotiated a Kashmir settlement with her Pakistani opposite number; oversaw the Green Revolution; pushed ahead with a nuclear weapons program; maneuvered between American and Soviet foreign policy.
The omelet that cost her life was the June 1984 Operation Blue Star, when she had the Indian military storm a Sikh shrine that armed militants had turned into a virtual fortress, even using tanks and artillery in the shrine’s residential area.
Although the operation “worked,” hundreds — maybe a thousand or more — lost their lives and the shrine itself suffered heavy damage.
Sikhs were incensed — including, apparently, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, two Sikh bodyguards of the Prime Minister who probably ought to have been reassigned. Maybe that’s just hindsight speaking, after they took the opportunity afforded by an escort assignment on Halloween 1984 to suddenly gun down their charge.
Beant Singh was shot down on the spot by other guards, but Satwant Singh was arrested.
He and Beant Singh’s uncle and alleged inciter Kehar Singh would later stand trial for their lives — but not before the assassination triggered an apparently government-blessed four-day anti-Sikh pogrom. The disturbing orchestration and four-figure body count of this infamous affair remain sensitive subjects on the subcontinent to this day, especially insofar as nobody has ever been punished for it.
The accused assassins were not so lucky — although they were more than content to accept martyrdom for avenging Operation Blue Star.
I have no hatred for any Hindu, Muslim, Christian, neither hatred for any religion. After my Shaheedi, let no Sikh throw any rock at any Hindu. I am not in favor of any retaliation or bloodshed over my Shaheedi. If we do create bloodshed, then there is no difference between us and Rajiv Gandhi. I am proud of the task that I did! I do ardas in front of Waheguru! If I am blessed with a human life, then give me a death of the brave when I am hanged. Forget one life, if I could I would give up a thousand lives to kill dushts like Indira Gandhi, and laugh as I become Shaheed by hanging.
The killers were then and are still held in high regard by many Sikhs. (Satwant’s fiancee even married his picture.)
Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi followed her as head of state — and followed her fate when he was assassinated by Tamil terrorists in 1991. The Nehru-Gandhi family remains a powerful force in Indian politics.
“Granting a posthumous pardon is an extraordinary remedy. But the tragic conviction of Mr. Arridy and his subsequent execution on Jan. 6, 1939, merit such relief based on the great likelihood that Mr. Arridy was, in fact, innocent of the crime for which he was executed, and his severe mental disability at the time of his trial and execution. Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history. It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name.”
-Gov. Bill Ritter
On this date in 1939, Joe Arridy “walked to his death with the faith of a child” (Los Angeles times, Jan. 7, 1939) up “Woodpecker Hill” — where the victims of Canon City, Colorado’s gas chamber (since retired) were buried.
Shortly before execution, Joe Arridy gives away the toy train he received from warden Roy Best to a fellow prisoner.
A young Syrian-American with the mental age of a six-year-old riding the rails during the Depression, Arridy was picked up for a teenage girl’s rape-murder in a literal lynch-mob environment: he was nearly pulled from his cell for summary punishment.
Instead, the good citizens let justice run its course to the same conclusion.
The damnable thing — well, the other damnable thing — is that we have about as much reason to believe Joe Arridy committed the crime as we do you or I.
He was linked to the murder by nothing but an evolving series of unreliable confessions fed by the sheriff to his suggestible prisoner (and, later, a single “matched” hair with a suspicious chain of custody; matching hair without DNA is still an unreliable forensic technique today). The real murderer was even in custody, and was executed for the same crime while Joe Arridy’s appeals ran their futile course.
“Believe me when I say that if he is gassed, it will take a long time for the state of Colorado to live down the disgrace,” Arridy’s appellate lawyer pleaded to a deaf court.
This post is an edited version of Perske’s affidavit to the governor’s office in support of the pardon.
On March 28, 1992, Sociologist Richard Voorhees sent me a poem from an out-of-print book that described a warden weeping as he watched a man in a death row cell playing with a toy train before being walked to a gas chamber (“The Clinic” (.doc) by Margeurite Young in Moderate Fables, 1944).
“The man you kill tonight is six years old,
He has no idea why he dies,”
Yet he must die in the room the state has walled
Transparent to its glassy eyes.
I sent a copy of the poem to Watt Espy, Director of the Capital Punishment Archives, in Headland, AL. Espy researched and responded with information that tied the poem to the life and trials of Joe Arridy who at age 23 was executed on January 6, 1939.
During the next two years after receiving the poem, I traveled up and down the Eastern Slope of the Rocky Mountains from Cheyenne to Pueblo, and to Grand Junction on the Western Slope. News stories were discovered from the reading of old microfilm rolls in The Pueblo Chieftain, The Denver Post, The Rocky Mountain News (Denver), The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction) and Wyoming Tribune (Cheyenne). Archivists and historians were interviewed at The Regional History Division of Western Colorado (Grand Junction), Wyoming State Archives (Cheyenne), District Archives of the Pueblo Public Library, Local History Center of the Cañon City Public Library, and the Colorado State Archives (Denver).
Joe Arridy’s Earliest Years
Joe Arridy was born to non-English speaking Syrian immigrants in Pueblo, Colorado on April 29, 1915. He attended the first grade in Bessemer Elementary School. At the beginning of his second year, the principal called on the Arridy family and told them that their son could not learn and asked them to keep him at home. The parents reported that for the next four years, Joe stayed around the house. He was a passive but happy child. According to his parents he was the happiest when he was alone playing all by himself. His favorite pastime was making mud pies.
Intelligence Testing and Institutionalization
At age 10, Joe was committed to the Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives, in Grand Junction. He was administered the Binet-Simon Test. The results showed that he was unable to repeat four digits (4-3-7-9). When shown the color red, he said it was black and that green was blue. He usually spoke in incompete two or three word sentences. As the questions became harder to answer, he remained silent. The examiner listed him as “an imbecile with an IQ of 46.” Later his institutional records showed no critical incident reports. For the most part he was a shy and quiet loner.
Nine months later, Joe’s father missed his son. He asked for his son to be returned home. The request was granted. Upon his return, he tended to take lonely walks all over town. These walks continued for three years.
At age 14, the walks came to an end when a probation officer caught a gang of boys performing sexual acts on him. The officer wrote an angry letter to the court, labeling Joe as “one of the worst mental defective cases that I have ever seen.” The court ordered his immediate return to the institution in Grand Junction.
During the next seven years at the institution, his records show that he was incapable of working on the farm crews or sitting in classrooms. Therefore, he was given a “day activity,” working side by side with a kindly kitchen worker, “Mrs. Bowers.” The worker reported that Joe was only capable of “Tasks of not too long duration, can wash dishes, do mopping of floors, can do small chores and errands. He depends on others for leadership and suggestions.”
Railroad Boxcar Riding
At age 22, he and a few other inmates watched men riding on top of railroad boxcars that passed the institution. So together they wandered off the institution grounds and also jumped on boxcars. They took the 24-hour ride through the mountains to Pueblo. Later they took the trip back. Joe was last seen in Grand Junction on the evening of August 13, 1936. He was believed to have jumped onto a boxcar either that night or on the next morning.
After that, Arridy disappeared from sight until he walked up to the kitchen car of a railroad work gang on August 20, in the East Railroad Yards of Cheyenne, Wyoming, dirty and hungry.
Rape and Murder in Pueblo
On Saturday evening, August 15, 1936, slightly before or after midnight, Dorothy Drain, 15, and Barbara Drain, 12, were bludgeoned about their heads while sleeping together in the same bed, at 1536 Stone Avenue in Pueblo. Dorothy was raped and beaten to death. Barbara was near death, but survived. Later, she identified Frank Aguilar as the attacker at his trial. She was not present at Joe Arridy’s trial. She did not even identify Joe Arridy as a co-attacker.
Sheriff Gets a Confession from Arridy Even Though the Real Killer is Already in Custody
On August 26, 1936, Joe Arridy was arrested by two railroad detectives and turned over to Sheriff George Carroll. Carroll, like all law officers in all of the towns up and down Colorado’s Eastern Slope, was actively picking up suspects and interrogating them regarding the attacks on the Drain girls in Pueblo.
After an hour and a half of questioning, Carroll called a reporter and told him that he had just received a complete confession for the Pueblo crime from Arridy. He recited to at least one reporter a long series of wordy, complete sentences that Arridy purportedly uttered. According to Carroll, Arridy was the lone killer and he committed the crime with a club.
At first, when Pueblo Police Chief J. Arthur Grady received news of the confession, he was shocked. The real killer, Frank Aguilar, a former WPA worker who had been supervised by the Drain girls’ father, had already been arrested for the crime.
Aguilar had been arrested during the funeral of Dorothy Drain. The Pueblo police had even recovered the weapon used in the crime. It was the head of a hatchet with nicks that matched the wounds on the girls. The Pueblo police kept all this evidence in silence because Aguilar vehemently denied committing the crime.
Following that, Sheriff Carroll changed his story. After conducting another interrogation, he then reported to the press that a hatchet—not a club—was used in the crime. He also claimed that Arridy did not do the crime alone. According to Carroll, Arridy said he did it “with Frank.”
Sheriff Carroll was a famous but loquacious individual who was known to talk long and loud about being in the posse that finally caught up with and finished off the notorious Barker gang.
Now with his regular announcements to the press he remained at his long-worded best. Carroll had been so totally verbal in his interrogations of Arridy, nothing was written down on paper. Nor was any confession signed. Consequently the confessions and changes in them were dictated daily to reporters.
Later, in the trial of Arridy, Sheriff Carroll became the star of the case. He spoke in his heroic, over-wordy style. According to the press, he did not speak from a single note. He simply testified from memory.
Frank Aguilar is Quickly Convicted
Aguilar’s trial came quickly, starting on December 15, exactly four months after the crime. It ended seven days later. His executed came quickly, too: on August 15, 1937, just two days short of the anniversary of Dorothy Drain’s murder.
Aguilar Identified as Lone Murderer in an Identical Crime in the Same Neighborhood
After the death sentence, Aguilar was brought face to face with Mrs. R. O. McMurtree, 58, who identified Aguilar as the lone attacker in a similar crime that happened two weeks earlier and just three blocks away from the Drain crime. She and her aunt, Sally Crumply, 72, were sleeping in the same bed when Aguilar attacked. He beat them on the heads as he had done in the Drain home. Like Dorothy Drain, Sally Crumply was bludgeoned to death.
Sheriff Carroll Assumes Leadership in all Aspects of the Arridy Investigation
After announcing Arridy’s first confessions to reporters and Chief Grady, two Pueblo detectives sped through the night to Cheyenne. The next morning, they joined in an added interrogation with Carroll leading it. Then they drove back to Pueblo.
Later that day, Carroll drove Arridy to Pueblo. He was present at the Pueblo Police Station when Arridy and Augilar may have been brought together. He took leadership when Arridy was taken to the Drain home and the crime was reenacted. He was present at the prison in Cañon City when Aguilar gave a signed confession that marginally included Arridy’s initials in a lower left column. That confession was printed in its entirety in the Pueblo Chieftain but was withdrawn and was never heard in a court.
Sheriff Carroll Became Chief Presenter of Evidence Against Arridy
During the prosecutor’s evidentiary presentations, Sheriff Carroll took the stand five different times. The transcript shows how Carroll was allowed to launch forth as a riveting story teller. He testified that Arridy was in complete control of his thoughts, and speaking in clear sentences that described the colors on the walls in the bedroom and the colors of nightgowns that the girls wore, and even the colors of the dresses the girls would be wearing when they went to the Sunday church services.
The Joe Arridy that Carroll described was a far cry from the Arridy who often spoke in unfinished sentences and did not know who Franklin Delano Roosevelt was. Nor did he know what a hatchet was or that his own father was present in the courtroom.
The Defense Loses in a Sanity Hearing, and Eschews an Evidentiary Defense
The defense argued at a pre-trial sanity hearing that Arridy was “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity”. The question before the court: “Does Joe Arridy have the capacity to tell good from evil and right from wrong?” If not, he should be found to be insane and not guilty. Three psychiatrists testified that Arridy did not know right from wrong, but they hedged by saying that he was not insane. According to them, one needed to be normal first before ever being insane, and they claimed that Arridy had never been normal.
The jury deadlocked at six to six, but an hour later, voted that Arridy would have to go on trial for murder.
As strange as it may seem today, the defense attorney had conducted no investigation in the case. At the beginning of the trial he announced that he would not present an evidentiary defense and would only cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution.
He then requested that the judge set aside the earlier sanity trial verdict and that he be given permission to argue a sanity case one more time. He furthermore requested permission to make his opening argument only after the prosecution had completed with its evidentiary case. The judge agreed to all of these conditions.
The same three psychiatrists (joined by a fourth) gave the same testimony once again.
But Sheriff Carroll voiced his views unchallenged. After touting his 30 years of experience and claiming that he interrogated Arridy for “six or seven hours,” the prosecutor asked him, “Based on your experience [is] Joe Arridy capable of distinquishing right and wrong?” Carroll responded, “I think there is no doubt, whatever, but what he is”.
A verdict of “guilty” was rendered on April 17, 1937, and Arridy was sentenced to death.
On August 13, 1937, Frank Aguilar was executed, and on the same day, Sheriff Carroll and two railroad detectives received a $1000 reward for making the arrest of Joe Arridy in Cheyenne.
For a year and a half, a pro bono “Citizen Lawyer” Gail Ireland fought valiantly to save the life of Joe Arridy. During that period, Ireland managed to win at least six stays.
On January 6, 1939 at 6:15 p.m., the Colorado Supreme Court voted 4-3 to deny the last petition. Governor Teller Ammons called the warden at 6:30 p.m. and ordered that the execution be carried out.
The chaplain administered the Roman Catholic Church’s “Last Rites for a Child.” It called for the Chaplain to recite each phrase of “The Lord’s Prayer,” one at a time with Arridy repeating it, all the way to the “Amen.”
Joe Arridy’s rusty motorcycle plate served as his grave marker for 71 years, until it was replaced with a headstone reading Here Lies an Innocent Man
This volume by Perske addresses the criminal justice system’s (mis)handling of the developmentally disabled. He’s written a number of other books, fiction and nonfiction, humanizing this.
Robert Perske also graciously agreed to address a few additional questions that we had for him.
ET: How did you come to this case?
RP: It’s almost a magical thing to me. Back in 1991, I got a poem from a valued colleague of mine who is a professor, a sociologist. He was digging through some old books in Greenwich Village, and he found a poem about a warden weeping before the pellets were dropped and all of that, and how the warden cried, and how he complained about how this man playing with a toy train would die.
And I got ahold of it and went down to my buddy Watt Espy [of the Espy file -ed.], and he found it. He really dug for me, what a guy, and he found it and I headed for Pueblo and dug and dug and dug from 1991 to 1995.
What motivated me was that after coming out of World War II, I went to school and became a chaplain at an institution for mentally disabled people in Kansas. I worked my ass off to be a good pastor to them, and so when I found this much, I really started digging.
Did they lead him into the confession?
Oh, yes. He was arrested in the railyard by Sheriff George Carroll. And Carroll was a swashbuckler. He was a hero, and he was a mouthy sonofagun, and he pretty well set up the case.
As soon as he got the so-called confession, he [Carroll] didn’t call the police chief first — he called the press. He said he had the guy who did it.
But they already had the guy in Pueblo, Frank Aguilar.
Was there outright misconduct by the investigators here? Did they realize, or should they have, that they might be railroading someone?
Here’s the deal. People with so-called mental retardation were seen as nobodies in those days. They didn’t have community services, so they all went like Joe, to the institution.
Carroll knew he had somebody like that in Joe. There was a lynch mob starting to form in Pueblo, because this head of the WPA was a good solid citizen, and when his daughters were hit, and one killed and raped, there was a lot of hiding of people.
I’ve known a lot of Joes. And he’s lovable, and he’s trusting, and he’s naive, and he’s concrete-thinking, so half of the things he says, he doesn’t really understand. But on the other hand, very dependable, and very lovable. Nobody in Pueblo saw that, but [Warden Roy] Best picked it up, and then the inmates in prison picked it up too.
In their hearts of hearts, yeah, they knew. But they figured he wasn’t worth anything. He was retarded, mentally defective was the word they used. They knew they had the real killer, but they go back and get Joe to amend the confession and now he was there “with Frank”.
If you’ve got a serious mental limitation and you’re facing a capital charge in the criminal justice system today, what’s going to happen to you?
In the year 2002, Atkins v. Virginia, they banned the death penalty in those cases. And they played around with the IQ number, but in some states they’re going farther than that because you have all kinds of other disabilities. I’d say by and large, except for Texas, people are looking at these people — not more kindly, but not looking at them as people who should be executed.
If we would have had that for Joe, he would not have been executed.
Can you give us a lay definition of developmental disability?
The most prominent one I’ve seen when I worked in the institution, and yet today when I work the streets and agencies and group homes and that sort of thing, is the inability to abstract from concrete things. For example, I’ve had guys say to me, I’d say, “why did you waive the right?” and they say, “you’ve got to waive it the right, you can’t waive it the wrong.”
Barry Fairchild, down in Arkansas — Barry thought that the reading of the rights was some kind of opening prayer.
These people survive on the basis of having abstract thinkers as their friends and protectors, so consequently guys like Richard LaPointe had cops as their friends, because they leaned on authority figures. And of course the police department are committed to secure the safety of the neighborhood, but then if there’s a terrible murder and somebody starts to blame them, they’re going to cooperate with that.
I’ve got one where, on a tape recorder, they’re saying, “if you tell us, we’ll all go home”. So that’s concrete thinking that my guys usually have.
Richard Lapointe is still in prison, not on death row. He has hydrocephalus, it’s called Dandy-Walker syndrome, so he’s a guy with all kinds of disabilities. He’s not athletic at all and gets dizzy when he stands up or stops suddenly, and yet they got him to confess to a highly athletic murder of a woman with multiple violent stab wounds and moving the body.
D’Elbee was lying in bed between life and death; his wife might have escaped, but would not leave him: they were both taken. As Turreau’s soldiers entered their chamber the wounded royalist exclaimed, “Yes, here I am! Here is d’Elbee, your greatest enemy! If I had been strong enough to fight or stand upon my feet, you would not have taken me in my bed!” They kept him for five days, treating him with execrable barbarity, and then carried him in an arm-chair to the place appointed for fusilading the prisoners, and there shot him. His wife was fusiladed the next day, and her brother and brother-in-law perished in the same manner.
Mort du General d’Elbee, by Julien Le Blant, depicts the general shot with three other royalist officers. Not pictured: Hundreds of other Vendean prisoners massacred in the aftermath of the Battle of Savenay.
(Thanks to historian and witchcraft expert Louise Yeoman for this guest post on an obscure and once-forgotten “witch” whose human tragedy all but leaps off the page. This post was originally an article prepared for the National Library’s now-defunct journal Quatro. Her work has appeared in many more high-falutin’ places than this here blog, and she is a co-creator of the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft.)
On the trail of Anna
If you look in Christina Larner’s Sourcebook of Scottish Witchcraft, you won’t find Anna Tait. That’s because she was one of many accused witches whose names were unknown to the compilers of the sourcebook. The details of Anna and almost a hundred others were recorded in a National Library of Scotland Advocates manuscript, which was overlooked many years ago when the huge edition of Scotland’s Privy Council records was in preparation. In the closing years of the last century, the editors of the Privy Council volumes carefully combed the holdings of the National Archives of Scotland for their material. What they didn’t realise was that a single volume of the Register of Commissions for the years 1630-42 had escaped them. In it were hundreds of records of Privy Council commissions to try criminal trials.
In it was Anna Tait.
I first came across Anna and Adv. Ms. 31.3.10 when my friend and fellow researcher Dr Michael Wasser of McGill University, Montreal showed it to me in the Library’s North Reading Room. Michael was (and still is) a historian of crimes of violence in 16th-17th century Scotland, and he was instantly aware of the significance of the manuscript. Almost the first thing he pointed out to me in it was a remarkable story of family tragedy. Out of hundreds of records, this one tale of domestic misery, horror and a woman’s life stood out. It stood out to the clerk who wrote the volume too. A commission is normally a bare record of who is accused of what crime and who is to try them. But the commission to try Anna contained harrowing detail. Almost straight away I agreed to transcribe her commission and to edit it for Scottish History Society. Why was it so remarkable?
Anna Tait ‘alias ‘Hononni’, was in the Scots of the original ‘thrie several times deprehendit putting violent hands to herself at her awne hous,’ in Haddington in 1634. In other words, she was caught trying to kill herself.
In 17th century terms suicide was one of the most heinous acts one could commit. It was like witchcraft, considered to be a particularly odious crime against God’s law and it was punishable by forfeiture of the entire goods of the victim and by a dishonourable burial in unconsecrated ground. What drove Anna to such terrible lengths?
The rest of the commission made the reasons clear. When Anna was apprehended for attempted suicide, she told a terrible tale of adultery, poisoning, domestic murder, unwanted pregnancy, botched home-abortion and death. Here is this part of the commission slightly adapted and with the spelling modernised.
She was for that cause, upon the 18th of December, taken and committed to ward within the tolbooth of the said burgh where being demanded and examined why she put hands to herself, she answered that the intolerable trouble of her mind, which she conceived for the murder of her first husband called John Coltart, nolt driver [cattle drover], and for the murder of her daughter, moved her thereto.
Confessing plainly that about 28 years ago, she being married to the said John, ane aged man, before the marriage she had sundry times committed fornication with William Johnston, her present husband, and that within the time of the marriage she had likewise committed adultery with him. To be quit of her first husband, she consulted with the Devil for his destruction, and that the Devil having directed her to make a drink of foxtrie leaves [foxglove leaves], she did the same, and gave it to her husband to drink who within three hours departed this life.
Concerning her daughter, she confessed that the daughter being with child, and she [Anna] having a purpose to murder the infant in the mother’s belly, at last she consulted with the Devil. He gave her direction to buy wine and to mix it with salt and give it to her daughter to drink, which she having drunken, she shortly thereafter departed this life.
So far, so sadly comprehensible, except for the inclusion of a character whose presence might seem unnecessary to modern readers — The Devil. The Commission finally proceeds ‘upon the 8th of December instant; she had carnal copulation with the Devil in her own bed, and that upon the 11th of December the Devil came to her bedside, gripped her by the hair of her head and did nip her cheek’. Suddenly a classic case of domestic murder and family tragedy is turned to that strangest of all 17th century phenomena to the modern mind: a witchcraft accusation. This was not just a case of three in a marriage, but three plus the Prince of Darkness. However, this wasn’t a strange notion to 17th century people. Where two, three or even just one person were engaged in works of wickedness, it went almost without saying that Satan was somehow present too. Anna was tried not as an adulteress or a murderer but as a witch – the commission was the licence to the magistrates of Haddington to try her, but where was her trial?
Records of such witchcraft trials held in local, rather than central, courts rarely survive. Whilst I was working on the commissions, I happened by chance to be helping someone with a totally different enquiry. Dr John McGavin was researching records of early modern Scottish drama. We discussed his research on poet and minister James Melville and Melville’s account of a dramatic performance in St Andrews. Hearing that John was soon going to be searching through the Haddington Burgh records in the National Register of Archives, I asked him if he would keep an eye out for Anna and any other witches he might happen to spot. To my delight, I soon had an e-mail from John telling me that her trial records were in the Haddington burgh court book.
Researching witchcraft cases can be an intense mixture of horror and delight for a historian. On the one hand to find unexpected light on a unique case is a matter for rejoicing. On the other hand, the details I found in the court book were even grimmer than those of her commission.
Anna had tried several times to hang herself using her own head-dress (her curch). When she was taken into custody, her suicidal behaviours became even more extreme. She attempted suicide again, both by trying to cut her own throat and then ‘when your hands were bound and your feet maid fast in the stocks, no other meanes being left to accomplish your devilishe designes, ye knocked your heid to the wall and stocks, wherby thinking to dispatch your self.’ The court book went into more detail, it claimed that Anna had sex with the Devil in the form of a black man and in the form of the wind and had made a covenant with him. Shape-shifting was a not uncommon piece of Scottish popular belief about Auld Nick, but on top of it were overlaid the sinister assumptions of European theories about demonic pact. One didn’t just meet the Devil according to the demonologists, one had sex with him, took his mark and swore one’s soul away to him. Anna was explicitly accused of all three actions.
The trial also gave more personal information about Anna to add to that from the commission. Taking both sources together we can say a little about her. She had married her first husband John Colthard, the cattle drover, 28 years ago at a place called ‘Furd Kirk’ in England in 1606. Cattle drovers went far afield in the course of their work and Anna had obviously travelled too. Interestingly enough she was accused of having made an appointment to meet the Devil at ‘Ellerslie’. The only places of this name are to be found over in the West of Scotland and not near her home in Lothian. Given 17th century spelling this may also have been the little Lanarkshire village of Elderslie, famed as the birthplace of William Wallace. Whichever it was, Anna’s world clearly stretched well beyond the confines of Haddington.
Age of marriage could be quite late in 17th century Scotland, so Anna was probably about or just under 50 years of age. Her second husband William Johnston was a miller who had lived at Winram, nearby Anna and her first husband. The proximity had assisted their illicit affair. Millers and cattle drovers could be prosperous members of an early modern community, so it is likely that Anna too had some standing in her community to keep up. She was probably very far from the stereotypical portrait of an accused witch as a poor begging woman going door to door looking for alms.
At sometime in her life Anna had acquired the alias ‘Hononni’, a Scottish variant of the English ‘Hey nonny no!’ a popular nonsense refrain in songs. It was an ironically jolly nickname for someone whose life was characterised by murder, tragedy and despair. We find the name of her beloved daughter too –- Elizabeth Johnston who died from the botched abortion. The records of this are chilling
The said Elizabeth, being as ye confessed with child (to whom, few but yourself knows and neither will ye reveal the truth of it), and apparently being loath to let it be known to whom the child belonged, she and ye sought all means to kill, to murther the child in her belly, that it might not come to light who was the father thereof, or how it was gotten, whether in adultery or incest, or what other unlawful way.
To that effect ye consulted with diverse of your confederates fra whom, ye got sundry feall [evil] counsel and by their advice, administered feall drinks to your daughter. But these not doing your turn and all other means failing you, ye went to your old maister the devil … who gave you advise to buy ane mutchkin of white wine, and mix a pint thereof with salt and minister the same unto your daughter, and it would do your turn. The which cruel and devilish counsel ye willingly obeyed and fetched the wine, mixt with the same with salt and gave it to your daughter to drink. By which she presently swelled and shortly thereafter both she and the child died.
In token wherof, you have confessed that the devil gave you as much money in true and real turners [small copper coins] as would buy the said mutchkin of wine and salt. And this deed only of all the devilish and abominable actions has most troubled you, and been the greatest cause of your desire to murder yourself.
In trying to cover up her daughter’s unwanted pregnancy, Anna ended up killing her child. Blaming herself for Elizabeth’s death, Anna no longer wanted to live. She tried repeatedly to kill herself. When it was put to her that the Devil had advised her do all this and that she had become a witch, it seems she barely bothered to defend herself. After all, even though she might have wanted to avoid the shameful death of being strangled and burned at the stake, at least it would have the virtue of ending her life. When the court asked whether she wanted anyone to speak in her defence, she answered ‘none but God in heaven’.
To modern eyes, Anna’s situation seems clear-cut. She had done some terrible things and for very understandable human reasons she wanted to die. Even in 21st century Scotland we would insist that, at the very least, Anna should go to jail for murdering her first husband and that she should be prevented from killing herself. Yet in 21st century Scotland, Anna would have been able to obtain a divorce from her first husband and her daughter would have been able to obtain an abortion (whatever you think of that). So the whole catalogue of tragedy might not have happened at all, or then again, perhaps it might. Was Anna a victim of a society which stacked the cards against women through its interpretation of the Bible or was she the sort of callous person who might have murdered a spouse despite all the advantages of a modern legal system? After all, the murders of spouses still occur. These are questions the historian can only raise and cannot answer.
Even in today’s society, however, a female criminal who had committed crimes of violence comparable to Anna’s would be unusual. To a 17th century society she was such a paragon of horror that the Devil had to be invoked to explain her conduct. In a society which stressed a woman’s subordination to her husband and saw her only rightful adult roles being those of a wife or a mother, Anna was a monster. To her community, she was not only an attempted self-murderer but also an adulteress and the unnatural murderer of her husband, daughter and unborn grandchild. By confessing to witchcraft, she had just about collected the set of the most appalling crimes a 17th century woman could commit. To be regarded with such horror in contemporary society, a woman would probably need to be accused of a string of serious offences against children or young people.
However Anna’s case also raises the question of her mental state and how issues of mental disturbance and suicidal urges were dealt with in her society. Such a suicidal defendant in a modern case might be found unfit to plead, but how did Anna’s contemporaries see her mental distress? Anna was ‘trublit in conscience’ and this points to the beliefs which probably helped to seal her fate. Despair as to whether one was part of the Calvinist ‘Elect’ or whether one was going to hell was a perfectly respectable state in Early Modern Scotland –- even to the extent of repeated suicidal impulses. This can be seen from the diaries, books, letters and sermons of radical Presbyterians and Covenanters. It was a very common phase of the Calvinist conversion experience of the 17th century. Demonic or even suicidal temptations were an almost a normal complication of the road to heaven. To despair over committing terrible sins worthy of hell-fire was not seen as being mentally unstable but as being eminently sane. Any reasonable Bible-believing person might think that way.
So Anna’s despair may have made her seem more culpable, rather than less culpable, to her interrogators whose beliefs would be that in her agony she had done utterly the wrong thing and turned in absolutely the wrong direction. She had, in their minds, turned to the Devil and not to God. Instead of despair proving to be a half-way stage for Anna on the road to conversion and eternal glory, Anna, it seemed by her confession, had failed to choose eternal life and had instead perversely chosen the ultimate dead-end: Hell. This was an offence made all the more horrible, as heaven in its Calvinist form, was no doubt being held out to her every Sabbath in their local church. Perhaps the reason it was necessary to punish the despairing so emphatically was pour encourager les autres; to make sure that when people experienced despair, they would in the Church’s eyes make the right choice: that they would resist the temptation and intensify their piety until the threat was overcome.
Faced with the reality of burning large numbers of accused witches amongst whom they found the suicidal and the mentally disturbed, later generations of Scottish Privy Councillors increasingly doubted the wisdom of this approach. In 1662 in the midst of a nation-wide witch-panic the council issued commissions under strict orders that to proceed with executing a convicted witch, it must be found that ‘At the tyme of their confessions they were of right judgement, nowayes distracted or under any earnest desyre to die’. Almost 30 years after Anna’s death, Scotland’s elite were becoming sensitive to the issue of attempted suicide by witch-confession and the mental state of the accused. It came much too late to affect Anna and because of her murder confession wouldn’t have saved her anyway, but it shows a little how things moved on even in that relatively short time frame. For Anna there could only be one ending — execution. Because she had confessed she was not burnt alive [burning alive tended to be reserved for those who died ‘impenitent’ ie. they refused to confess]. Her sentence was as follows:
It was given for doom [sentence] by the mouth of William Sinclair dempster [pronouncer of sentence] that the said Anna Tait should be taken, her hands bound behind her back and conveyed by William Allot, lockman [executioner] of Haddington to the ordinary place of execution, and there wirried [strangled] to the death at ane post and thereafter her body to be burnt in ashes, desuper act.
Note on sources
The commission for Anna’s trial is edited from Adv.Ms.31.3.10, f.102v. Her trial records may be found in National Archives of Scotland, Haddington Burgh Court Register B30/10/13, fos.24r-26v. A calendar of the witchcraft commissions in Adv. Ms 31.3.10 (including transcriptions of Anna Tait’s commission and her trial records) has been prepared by the author for Julian Goodare (ed.), Miscellany XIII, Scottish History Society, forthcoming.