1858: William and Daniel Cormack, for murdering John Ellis

Add comment May 11th, 2013 Headsman

“Land agents” — the rent-squeezing fist of distant landlords — were not popular people in Ireland. These bill collectors literally ran people out of house and home: one late 19th century land agent in Ireland recalled in his memoirs having received over a hundred threatening letters and, in November 1884, having his house in Kerry dynamited.

So the 1857 murder of Tipperary land agent John Ellis drew little surprise (his life had been attempted at least twice before, when he evicted people to prospective starvation during the Great Famine), and drew scarcely any mourning.

“He had been earning this for many a year, if any man however bad could be said to earn such an end, by turning people out in the road,” an observer noted. That observer was the Archbishop … talk about a tough crowd.

Since £90 had been left undisturbed in the murdered man’s pockets, authorities were pretty sure it was no passing robber that got the best of John Ellis but someone who targeted the hated land agent. However, the only witness — and the word applies only in the loosest sense — was the teenage cart-driver who had been ferrying Ellis home near midnight when his passenger had been shot by ambush from the bushes. Young Thomas Burke hadn’t seen anything useful.

Still, within only days, police had zeroed in on their suspects — with classic tunnel vision.

In fine, the working official hypothesis was that Ellis had been shot over a personal grudge, and not because of his distasteful profession. William and Daniel Cormack had a sister who had just given birth out of wedlock in the poorhouse; they had another sister who was known to be carrying on with John Ellis, who was a notorious cad during his downtime between evictions. The idea was that the brothers shot Ellis to preserve their one sister from the other sister’s fate.

With no actual evidence to buttress this just-so story, John Law got to twisting arms. An 11-year-old girl was parked in solitary confinement for two months to try to get her to incriminate the Cormacks.

The child, to her glory, stubbornly refused to do so. But Thomas Burke, the cart-driver, could not equal her steel. After initially deposing that he had seen nothing — it was very dark, after all — he managed to “remember” that he actually had seen the Cormacks on the scene after all. Another man also “verified” this testimony.

On the strength of these eminently impeachable eyewitnesses the Cormacks were doomed to die. Burke would later admit that he lied, and 2,000-plus people signed a petition pleading for a pardon.

None was forthcoming.

Mounting a public scaffold at Nenagh for a crowd welling with pity, Daniel Cormack made a dying declaration that everyone believed: “Lord have mercy on me, for you know, Jesus, that I neither had hand, act, nor part in that for which I am about to die. Good people, pray for me.”

This rank injustice only rankled more* as years passed.

Fifty-two years later the hanged boys were exhumed from their graves in Nenagh Gaol and given a long honorary procession to their native town of Loughmore, where they were laid to rest in a prominent white mausoleum that can still be visited today.

The plaque at that structure records the closest thing to the verdict of history upon the case:

By the Irish Race in memory of the brothers DANIEL and WILLIAM CORMACK who for the murder of a land agent named ELLIS were hanged at NENAGH after solemn protestation by each on the scaffold of absolute and entire innocence of that crime, the 11th day of May 1858. The tragedy of the brothers occurred through false testimony procured through GOLD and terror, the action in their trial of JUDGE KEOGH, a man who considered personally, politically, religiously and officially was one of the monsters of mankind, and the verdict of a prejudiced, partisan packed perjured jury. Clear proof of the innocence of the brothers afforded by ARCHBISHOP LEAHY to the VICEROY of the day but he nevertheless gratified the appetite of a bigoted, exterminating and ascendancy caste by a judicial murder of the kind which lives bitterly and perpetually in a nation’s remembrance.

The excellent Irish History Podcast site is all over this story, with a detailed post and a heart-wrenching podcast episode.

* A later ballad (just one of several) ramps up the nationalist-confrontation factor for the age of Fenianism … and fabricates the detail of an exculpatory thunderstorm.

In the year of fifty eight, my boys, that was the troublesome time
When cruel landlords and their agents were rulers of our isle.
It was then that Ellis was shot down by an unknown hand.
When the news spread round Killara that Trent’s agent he was shot,
The police were then informed and assembled on the spot.
They searched every field and garden, every lane and every shed,
Until they came to McCormack’s house where two boys were in bed.

They accused these boys of murder from information they had got
From the coachman who was driving at the time that Ellis was shot.
They said that they were innocent, but ’twas all of no avail.
They were handcuffed and made prisoners and conveyed to County Gaol.
At the Spring Assizes these two young men stood their trial in Nenagh town.
By a packed jury of Orangemen, they were guilty found.
The judge addressed the prisoners. He asked what they had to say
Before he signed their execution for eleventh day of May.

“In Mill Killara we were reared, between Thurles and Templemore,
Well known by all inhabitants around the parish of Loughmore.
We’re as innocent of shooting Ellis as the child in the cradle do lie,
And can’t see the reason, for another man’s crime, we are condemned to die.”
The execution it took place, by their holy priest reconciled, their maker for to face.
Such thunder, rain and lightning has ne’er been witnessed since
As the Lord sent down on that day, as a token of their innocence,
That their sould may rest in heaven above as their remains rest in Loughmore.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Ireland,Murder,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1923: Susan Newell, the last woman hanged in Scotland

3 comments October 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1923, Susan Newell achieved footnote status by hanging for the murder of her 13-year-old paperboy … the last Scottish woman to die on the gallows, and the only one in the 20th century.

Newell was nabbed by nosy neighbors who noticed her dumping John Johnson’s body a few blocks away from prison* where she would ultimately expiate the crime.

Newell pointed the finger at her husband (she never admitted guilt), but John Newell produced a fistful of alibi witnesses to the effect that he was staying with relatives after a couple of nasty domestic fights.

Susan — so the jury believed — had worked off the stress solo by throttling the newsboy when he’d had the temerity to ask her to pay him. Paid content: the hidden killer.

Well, sometimes, you can only take so much.

Despite the guilty verdict, the jury entertained her insanity defense and plumped for mercy when it convicted her. But the crown was having none of it, in part because the murderess wouldn’t admit her crime in her clemency petitions, and perhaps also because “the application of the law in Scotland had to be seen to be in line with that in England where Edith Thompson had been hanged for what most of us would regard as a much less serious crime only 10 months earlier.”

Thompson’s same executioner, John Ellis, unhappily handled the Newell job just 20 days after her conviction. The condemned woman managed to wriggle her hands out of their bonds while her legs were being pinioned, and she ripped the hood off her face with the words “don’t put that thing over me!”

Wanting to get the distasteful procedure over with, Ellis obligingly dropped her barefaced.

* She was also the only woman ever executed at Glasgow’s Duke Street Prison.

Part of the Themed Set: Women Who Kill.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Scotland,Women

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1923: Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters

26 comments January 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1923, adulterous lovers Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters were simultaneously hanged at two different prisons in England for the murder of Thompson’s husband.

From left to right, Freddy Bywaters, Edith Thompson, and the victim, Percy Thompson. (Source.)

As a bored middle-class housewife, Edith had struck up an affair with their handsome, adventurous 18-year-old boarder.

The affair met a horrifying and sensational conclusion when Bywaters confronted the cuckold in October 1922 and slew him in the ensuing altercation.

Bywaters was unquestionably and confessedly guilty, but the case became a national cause celebre — and an enduring historical artifact — because of the widow’s place in it.

Mrs. Thompson had fled the crime scene to police distraught and implicated her paramour. The police didn’t view her as a witness, but as an accomplice. In dozens of love letters that soon surfaced, she had fantasized about escaping Percy Thompson and claimed to have attempted to poison him. Coroners could not establish that she had in fact done so, and no evidence but her letters linked her to the crime; those letters were not given to the jury as a whole but censored for her frank treatment of menstruation, abortion, and lovers’ rendezvous. Thompson’s defenders see them as some mixture of escapism and confused romanticism much less sinister than the crown charged — though the letters are indeed suggestive of more than sensuality.

Both were condemned.

Bywaters gallantly defended his lover’s innocence throughout the ordeal and more than a million people petitioned the government for her reprieve.

Edith Thompson’s fate bore an unmistakable stamp of gendered social prejudice from the start. “Mrs Thompson was hanged for immorality,” her lawyer would say later. That sense has only become more pronounced in the intervening 85 years.

Academics have taken on the matter:

Women in the 1920s had won certain freedoms, and writings on sex and marriage now presented married women as legitimate sexual beings, but there was still significant hostility towards the expression of explicit female sexuality, let alone a woman’s adultery, especially with a younger man. In the years immediately after the First World War there was particular concern to differentiate normal from deviant sexual behaviour, acceptable from unacceptable, and the War’s aftermath saw deep concern as to the disruptions of gender boundaries.

And here, in a piece contrasting the Thompson-Bywaters case with a recent hanging in Singapore:

[T]he stark contrast between the cases of the men, on the one hand, and the woman on the other, raises issues about the gendered aesthetics of sentimentality and abjection in media representations of contested death-penalty cases.

From a less exalted plane, Rene Weis, author of a book about Thompson, is convinced of Thompson’s innocence:

Edith Thompson paid a terrible price for daring to be ruled by her passions, and for behaving out of her social class. If confirmation were needed that it was her perceived immorality that brought her to perdition, it is provided by the foreman of her jury. “It was my duty to read them [the letters] to the members of the jury … ‘Nauseous’ is hardly strong enough to describe their contents … Mrs. Thompson’s letters were her own condemnation.”

The sexuality at the heart of the affair was to set its mark upon this day’s grim doings as well. When hanged, Thompson bled copiously from her vagina, feeding speculation that she had been pregnant or that her uterus had inverted.

Her hangman — who also executed Hawley Harvey Crippen — emerged from the secretive procedure raving, and retired shortly thereafter. Some friends thought a lingering disturbance over his part in the Thompson case eventually led him to commit suicide. (John Ellis reportedly hated hanging women.)

Besides Weis’ book, this renowned case has also generated a fictionalized treatment and a 2001 film, as well as inspiring the recent novel The Adulteress.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Sex,Women,Wrongful Executions

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