1905: Thomas Tattersall, taking the hangman with him

Add comment August 15th, 2020 Headsman

Thomas Tattersall was hanged at Armley Prison in Leeds on this date in 1905.

An alcoholic plasterer, Tattersall had a going reputation for home violence already when he got into his cups and fatally slashed his wife’s throat on July 3.

A terrible tragedy for the families involved, this crime at a century’s distance scarcely stands out from the common run of homicides. What attracts our notice is a third fatality, after the murdered victim and the executed killer: the clumsy hangman.

That man, John Billington, came by nooses as a family trade, albeit not of very great vintage: his father, a colorful* Lancashireman called James Billington, had transitioned his amateur personal interest in hanging into a calling as one of the realm’s official executioners after the great William Marwood died in 1883.

This elder Billington passed away in 1901 with 146 hangings under his belt. All three of his sons followed his footsteps into what proved a truly star-crossed vocation.

Eldest son Thomas Billington died of pneumonia at the age of 29, mere days after his father’s passing; he had been only an occasional assistant hangman — never the lead guy.

Second son William Billington was the real maven and succeeded his father as the lead executioner in the realm. He conducted most of the hangings in England between 1902 and his 1905 jailing for failing to pay alimony to his wife.

And that turned out to be the end of a career that appeared to haunt William later in life, because while he was incarcerated his youngest brother John Billington, commissioned to execute our man Thomas Tattersall, plunged through the trap while setting up the gear ahead of time. He was able to perform the execution, but the cracked ribs that he suffered from the fall caused an attack of pleurisy that claimed the hangman’s life that October.

* Apart from treading the scaffolds, James Billington was also a pugilist and wrestler, and other descendants in the Billington family have pursued those trades. Notable exemplars include World Wrestling Federation great Tom Billington, aka the Dynamite Kid and present-day WWE grappler Davey Boy Smith Jr.

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1622: Not quite Squanto (Tisquantum), Pilgrim befriender

Add comment May 31st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1622, or very close to it, the Patuxet Native American Tisquantum (better known as Squanto) was about to be yielded by Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford to Wampanoag chief Massasoit for immediate execution … when the unannounced appearance of a strange ship fortuitously saved him.

Squanto is most famous as the Indian godsend who saved the Mayflower Pilgrims at the Plymouth Bay colony from starvation by teaching those pious wayfarers how to live off the land in the New World.

In that capacity, he made possible (and participated in) the “First Thanksgiving” harvest gorger in 1621 that figures as the antecedent of the modern American holiday. Our day’s principal has therefore been portrayed on the stage by generations of schoolchildren from Cape Cod Bay to California.

But this was only the tail end of one of the most remarkable lives in history.


Photo of Tisquantum bust by N. Ayad of Cupids Cove Chatter. Photo was taken courtesy of the Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, MA, United States.

As a youth, Squanto was kidnapped from his native soil by English explorer George Weymouth, who sold him into slavery in Europe. Squanto wound up in London in some sort of forced-labor capacity, before hitching a ride back to the Americas with Captain John Smith — the Pocahontas guy.

It was thanks to this improbable abduction and return trip that Squanto was available to materialize out of the woods, speaking the Queen’s English on this alien continent, in the nick of time to save the Plymouth immigrants from disaster.**

This is the author of Squanto And The Miracle Of Thanksgiving.

However, because Squanto was a real person and not a Disney character, he began exploiting his privileged intermediary position for his own advantage.

According to Plymouth Gov. William Bradford’s chronicle Of Plymouth Plantation,

Squanto sought his own ends and played his own game, by putting the Indians in fear and drawing gifts from them to enrich himself, making them believe he could stir up war against whom he would, and make peace for whom he would. Yea, he made them believe they kept the plague buried in the ground, and could send it amongst whom they would, which did much terrify the Indians and made them depend more on him, and seek more to him, than to Massasoit. Which procured him envy and had like to have cost him his life; for after the discovery of his practices, Massasoit sought it both privately and openly, which caused him to stick close to the English, and never durst go from them till he died.

Seeking Squanto’s life both privately and openly, Massasoit sent messengers to the Plymouth colony requesting the Machiavellian diplomat’s return in accordance with the colony’s treaty arrangements with the Wampanoag.

Bradford ducked and dilated, not wanting to give up this valuable asset, but the precarious colony also needed the amity of its Indian neighbors.

Massasoit remained insistent, according to the account of Edward Winslow,

entreating [Bradford] to give way to the death of Tisquantum who had so much abused him … [Massasoit] sent his own knife and [two messengers] therewith to cut off his head and hands and bring them to him

Bradford was on the point of yielding to this demand when a strange boat appeared unannounced — and the guv hit the “pause” button on everything.

he would first know what boat that was ere he would deliver him into their custody (not knowing whether there was a combination of French and Indians). Mad with rage and impatient at delay the messengers departed in great heat.

The delay turned out to be permanent … which for Squanto was only a few more months before he caught ill† and died later in 1622.

The ship that quite unknowingly bought Squanto this extra purchase on life had nothing at all to do with the drama unfolding between Bradford and Massasoit: it was the Sparrow, the advance party of the coming Wessagusset (or Weymouth) colony which would plant itself adjacent to the Plymouth settlers and completely crash and burn.

And the Pilgrims and the Indians lived happily ever after.

* This site asserts May 31 was the date that the Sparrow came ashore at Plymouth. Most sites are slightly less specific, noting only that the ship arrived in very late May.

** Among Squanto’s good deeds for the fledgling colony was tracking down a boy who got lost in the wilderness. The boy was John Billington, the eponymous son of the first man hanged in the Plymouth Colony.

† Some suspect that Squanto’s “illness” wasn’t so accidental, and the frustrated Wampanoag chief simply dispensed with the diplomatic rigmarole and poisoned him off.

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1630: John Billington, signer of the Mayflower Compact

7 comments September 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1630, Massachusetts’ Plymouth Colony held its first hanging — of a guy who’d come over on the Mayflower.

In this unfinished epic poem of the American experience by Stephen Vincent Benet, Billington is mourned at the foot of his gallows as “a man who came with the first and should have thriven.”

John Billington‘s John Hancock is on the Mayflower Compact, but he and his progeny had an ill reputation from the start.

Billington’s son almost torched the Mayflower while the pilgrims were still living in it; the old man himself achieved the distinction of “the first offence since our arrival … for his contempt of the captain’s lawful command with opprobrious speeches, for which he is adjudged to have his neck and heels tied together; but upon humbling himself and craving pardon, and it being the first offence, he is forgiven.”

(It wasn’t all bad. Another Billington kid gave the family name to an inland pond. (pdf))

Billington was condemned for shooting a neighbor.

This year John Billington the elder, one that came over with the first, was arraigned, and both by grand and petty jury found guilty of wilful murder, by plain and notorious evidence. And was for the same accordingly executed. This, as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them. They used all due means about his trial and took the advice of Mr. Winthrop and other the ablest gentlemen in Bay of the Massachusetts, that were then newly come over, who concurred with them that he ought to die, and the land to be purged from blood. He and some of his had been often punished for miscarriages before, being one of the profanest families amongst them ; they came from London, and I know not by what friends shuffled into their company. His fact was that he waylaid a young man, one John Newcomen, about a former quarrel and shot him with a gun, whereof he died.
-Plymouth Gov. William Bradford (Source)

Billington is supposed to be a distant ancestor to American President James Garfield.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,USA

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