1864: Two Dodds, as two spies, in two states, and twice botched

2 comments January 8th, 2009 Headsman

On January 8, 1864, young David Owen Dodd was hanged in Little Rock for spying on federal troops … and cavalryman Ephraim Dodd (no known relation) suffered the same fate for the same crime in Knoxville.

Just one of those strange coincidences.

Ephraim Dodd

Ephraim Shelby Dodd is the subject of an outstanding HistoryNet profile whose contents this blog can not so much improve upon as summarize.

A member of Terry’s Texas Rangers (“men who ride like Arabs and fight like devils”) Dodd was captured in December 1863 and convicted by his diary — a particularly harsh reading of his diary in which a reference to having passed himself off as a Yankee was interpreted as evidence of espionage. (The diary is available online and as part of a book on Terry’s Rangers.)

Knoxville worthies rallied to save him and Ephraim Dodd insisted upon his innocence, but not so vociferously that he displayed any terror of his fate.

Do not grieve for me, my dear parents, for I am leaving a world full of crime and sin for one of perfect bliss.

The hanging itself wasn’t bliss, exactly, despite a well-planned soundtrack.

From the “Death March” the music gradually slid into “Mary’s Dream,” and then we were carried back by the magic of the plaintive notes to juvenile days; to visions of “Sandy far at Sea,” and to the sad cadence of that fading refrain,

“When, soft and low, a voice she heard
Saying, Mary, weep no more for me.”

The solemn march, the wailing notes of the fife, and perhaps above all the calm, unmoved, manly bearing of the prisoner — so we thought — produced a mournful impression upon the spectators.

Points earned on artistic merit, however, were deducted for technique.

At a signal the bolt was now withdrawn, the culprit fell, but the cotton rope broke by the sudden tension, and the man lay stretched and stunned upon the frozen ground below. A mummer of horror, mingled with expressions of pity, ran through the assembled crowd. Recovering for an instant from the shock — for his neck was not broken — he said — perhaps incoherently: “Release me quick, if you please.” For some ten minutes the unfortunate man lay thus upon his back, without moving a muscle. Meantime the officers and men, whose painful duty it was to see to the execution of the law, adjusted this time two parts of the same rope instead of one, and the half-conscious man was borne up the fatal steps a second time, being partly supported upon the drop until the double noose had been adjusted. Not a word or sign of suffering all this time escaped his lips. In another moment the drop fell, and prisoner’s form now hung by the neck — the knot behind the head. Death finally ensued by strangulation. In ten minutes, Dr. Cogswell, the officiating surgeon, pronounced life extinct, and the body was taken down and buried.

David Owen Dodd

A few hours later and 500 miles down the way, the entirely unrelated hanging of David Owen Dodd proceeded in Little Rock, Ark.

David Dodd’s final resting place at Mount Holly cemetery. Image courtesy of Richard Theilig.

Only 17 at his hanging and not physically robust enough to get his brains blown out at Gettysburg, Dodd was sent by his father on a business trip across Union lines — everything legit, and carrying a pass — but got busted with morse code notations of Union troop strength in the city.

Unlike Ephraim, who was basically a normal soldier thrust into incriminating-looking circumstances by the chance of war, young David Dodd was rightly accused.

He didn’t bother protesting his innocence, but he also kept mum about his contacts. (Suggestively, a teenage girl and her father were whisked out of town and kept under guard in Vermont for the rest of the war.) That proud silence has won him quite a reputation in Arkansas as the Boy Hero of the Confederacy.

But similarities between the condemned men extended beyond their names. David’s parting filial reassurance could pass for a paraphrase of Ephraim’s.

[D]o not weep for me for I will be better off in heaven. I will soon be out of this world of sorrow and trouble.

And the hanging itself, conducted in a tense atmosphere, was likewise a botched job. In this case, the slight young man didn’t fall hard enough to break his neck, but did fall far enough to get his tiptoes on the ground, initiating an agonizingly protracted strangulation which the soldiers on detail expedited by (accounts differ) pulling on David Dodd’s legs and/or pulling up on the rope.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arkansas,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Children,Confederates,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Separatists,Soldiers,Spies,Tennessee,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1697: Thomas Aikenhead

2 comments January 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1697, Scottish medical student Thomas Aikenhead was hanged on the road from Edinburgh to Leith for blasphemy, an already-archaic punishment inflicted for what reads like headstrong youthful atheism of a decidedly garden variety.

Aikenhead partook of the times’ emerging (albeit forbidden) store of humanist and skeptical literature, and chatted most unguardedly with University of Edinburgh “friends” who tattled to authorities to the extent that, not content with testifying against him, one published a pamphlet demanding the offender “atone with blood, the affronts of heaven’s offended throne.”

Said authorities scarcely elevated the dignity of the temporal throne in their own eagerness to swing a sledgehammer against a fly, trying the young hothead for his life under a Restoration law which by its own letter should not have lodged him in mortal peril until his third offense.

Thou Aikenhead, the indictment thundered in the second person:

shakeing off all fear of God and regaird to his majesties lawes, have now for more than a twelvemoneth by past…[vented] your wicked blasphemies against God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, and against the holy Scriptures, and all revealled religione…you said and affirmed, that divinity or the doctrine of theologie was a rapsidie of faigned and ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the morall doctrine of philosophers, and pairtly of poeticall fictions and extravagant chimeras

He called the Old Testament “Ezra’s fables”, Jesus the “Imposter Christ” (preferring Mahomet), and anticipated the extirpation of Christianity.

It was a bare two weeks from conviction to execution. Accounts of Aikenhead’s last days seem inconsistent; the prisoner recanted, possibly sincerely, but the Church — explicitly handed the power to at least reprieve him by its intervention — demanded hurried and “vigorous execution.”

Macaulay disgustedly pictured the scene:

The preachers who were the boy’s murderers crowded round him at the gallows, and, while he was struggling in the last agony, insulted Heaven with prayers more blasphemous than any thing that [Aikenhead] had ever uttered.

The singular punishment meted out this day — the last hanging for blasphemy throughout what was soon to become the United Kingdom — cast a long shadow into the coming century’s remarkable Scottish renaissance and lingers even today as a suggestion to some just how near the menace of theocracy might yet remain.

And Britain’s blasphemy laws? They’re only now facing repeal.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Hanged,Heresy,History,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Scotland

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

Next Posts


August 2022
« Nov    



Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!