1824: John Smith

2 comments March 14th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1824, John Smith, 25, was publicly hanged before an angry crowd at Lincoln Castle for the murder of his fiancee, 24-year-old Sarah Arrowsmith.

John and Sarah had been seeing each other for a long time. Sarah had a three-year-old son by him, and was heavily pregnant with another child. She was under the impression that the wedding banns had been published and they would marry soon, but matrimony was the furthest thing from John’s mind.

On December 4, 1823, he bought a pound of white arsenic from the chemist for nine pence, saying he was going to use it for washing sheep. Instead, Smith mixed the arsenic with some flour and gave it to Sarah. She, in turn, baked some cakes with the poisoned flour and served them to her friends for tea.

Neil R. Storey records what happened in his book A Grim Almanac of Lincolnshire:

In less than a quarter of an hour, Sarah, her sister-in-law Eliza Smith, her friend and neighbour Mrs. Dobbs, and three children—two of them her younger sisters, and one of them Smith’s illegitimate child with Sarah—all suffered intense burning in their throats and excruciating pains in their stomachs. Several medical men were sent for and, immediately on arrival, the surgeons, Mr. Tyson West and Mr. Pell, set about administering antidotes and emetics. They rapidly had to admit that Sarah Arrowsmith was in a hopeless condition and sent for magistrates to take her deposition from her death bed. Sarah told them who had given her the flour and soon two constables were sent to the cottage where Smith lived in Little Steeping; they arrested him.

Although Smith presented two character witnesses at his trial who described him as a good farmhand and a sober, even-tempered and hard-working man, the evidence against him was strong and public sentiment equally so. The London Morning Chronicle reported on Dec. 27, 1823, that as Sarah Arrowsmith lay painfully expiring so heavy was the crush of gawkers that her bedroom’s only supporting cross-joint “snapped in the middle, and had not every person except the sufferer, who was in bed, made a hasty retreat, the floor would have fallen in.”

She succumbed the next day (to the poison, not to a fall) and “a great concourse of persons was assembled from all parts of the country round” to lay her to rest — “and the only feelings displayed upon the solemn occasion, were those of indignation against the unhappy wretch who was the author of the untimely death of the poor woman and her child.”

Smith could surely tell that his goose was cooked, and even as his life hung in the balance there was “an extraordinary apathy about him.” (Storey) Prior to his death he admitted his guilt.

It is believed that the other poisoning victims survived.

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1704: John Smith, peruke-maker and highwayman for a week

5 comments December 20th, 2012 Headsman

On his date in 1704, John Smith was hanged for a career in highway robbery that lasted all of one week and markedly wanted for subtlety.

Smith was talked into stealing a mare with a buddy. (In this enterprise, Smith leaned up against the actual Tyburn gallows while lying in wait. He was almost spooked straight by its tactile morbidity, until his friend prodded him, “What matters, it, Jack? It is but hanging, if thou shouldst come to that.”)

Once Jack crossed the line, he couldn’t get enough.

The very next day he took the hot mare out for a spin and boosted three stagecoaches, and then hit three more stages the day after that. In all, in his short career, he raided nine stage-coaches, a hackney-cab, and the carriage of one Thomas Woodcock.

This last gentleman took his servant and stalked Smith to a forest hideout, where the inexperienced robber surrendered meekly, many of the proceeds of his spree being found still upon him.


Jack Smith’s impetuous turn to the road was still the more questionable given that he wasn’t a fringe-of-society type. The executioner who turned him off this date thinned the ranks of the artisans who crafted London society’s wigs … and just at the moment this industry was really taking off.

A fashion trend that jumped that channel from France — as did the sobriquet “peruke” for the most cumbersomely outlandish of the genre — wigs went wild under William and Mary and Queen Anne.

They multiplied for every rank, profession, and occasion, differentiated by a bewildering proliferation of colorful names. There’s the Allonge and the Grecian fly wig, the Rhinoceros and She-Dragon, the riding wig and the nightcap wig, the Jansenist, the Gregorian, the Adonis, the Corded Wolf’s-Paw, and even one called the Tyburn Scratch; wigs with long braided tails and others with practical bobbed cuts; modest affairs for scrappy apprentices on the come and ludicrous gigantic heaps of bedizened white curls for the louche nobility’s opera-box peacocking and the long plaited-tail “Ramillies” named after the battle the Duke of Marlborough won with this model on his dome. Even a proper thief needed a wig, and certainly the artifacts’ value was sufficient to endear them as a frequent object of hanging crimes.

FASHION in ev’ry thing bears sov’reign sway,
And Words and Perriwigs have both their day.
Each have their purlieus too, are modish each
In stated districts, Wigs as well as Speech.
The Tyburn Scratch, thick Club, and Temple Tye,
The Parson’s Feather-top, frizz’d broad and high!
The Coachman’s Cauliflow’r, built tiers on tiers!
Differ not more from Bags and Brigadiers,
Than great St. George’s, or St. James’s stiles,
From the broad dialect of Broad St. Giles.

The most recognizable legacy of the wig-craze is, of course, the ceremonial coiffure donned by judges and barristers in British courtrooms for centuries thereafter.

It was, indeed, right around the time of Smith’s hanging (circa 1705) that the preference of the rich and powerful for wig-wearing ensconced the accessory in the realm’s courtrooms, where they soon became utterly iconic. If John Smith could have just laid off the stickups, he might have met his judges as clients instead.

“Has not your Red hanging-individual a horsehair wig, squirrel-skins, and a plush-gown; whereby all mortals know that he is a JUDGE?” Carlyle remarked in the 1830s — by which time wigs were already passe outside the courtroom.

But as tradition sanctified their place at the bar, the judicial wig long outlived its parent trend and is only now, and only gradually and grudgingly, giving way.

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1835: John Smith and James Pratt, the last hanged for sodomy in Great Britain

11 comments November 27th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1835, John Smith and James Pratt (sometimes reported as John Pratt) were hanged outside Newgate Prison for (in the exhausting fulminations of the Old Bailey trial records) “feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature, carnally … commit and perpetrate[d] the detestable, horrid, and abominable crime (among Christians not to be named) called buggery.”


Generic gallows image from this Smith and Pratt hanging-day broadside.

These men were the last put to death anywhere in the realm under the ghastly Tudor-era Buggery Act,* and indeed among the last to die at Newgate for any crime other than murder or attempted murder.

“The grave will soon close over me,” Smith allegedly wrote to a friend before his hanging, “and my name [be] entirely forgotten.”

But that’s not altogether true.

Unbeknownst to the sufferers, they were destined for literary preservation by a young writer on the make, one Charles Dickens: Smith and Pratt make an appearance in Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, an 1836 compilation of London scenes of which “A Visit to Newgate” is perhaps the best-known.

This piece narrates a visit Dickens paid, according to William Carlton’s “The Third Man at Newgate” (The Review of English Studies, Nov., 1957), on November 5, 1835. Dickens would write in subsequent correspondence that the experience left him “intensely interested in everything I saw.”

Prisons and the threat or reality of execution would loom large in that redoubtable author’s canon. “You cannot throw the interest over a year’s imprisonment, however severe, that you can cast around the punishment of death,” the perspicacious 23-year-old told his publisher.

So too did the still-living apparitions of the condemned Smith and Pratt occupy Dickens’s reflections in “A Visit to Newgate”; they comprise a good third of the essay.

In the press-room below, were three men, the nature of whose offence rendered it necessary to separate them, even from their companions in guilt. It is a long, sombre room, with two windows sunk into the stone wall, and here the wretched men are pinioned on the morning of their execution, before moving towards the scaffold. The fate of one of these prisoners was uncertain; some mitigatory circumstances having come to light since his trial, which had been humanely represented in the proper quarter. The other two had nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown; their doom was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world. ‘The two short ones,’ the turnkey whispered, ‘were dead men.’

Smith and Pratt, of course, were the “dead men.”

Their third companion, otherwise unconnected with them, was a soldier named Robert Swan, convicted of robbery. Swan was indeed reprieved, a few days before the execution. “Boz” sketched the aspect of these men as he observed them:

The man to whom we have alluded as entertaining some hopes of escape, was lounging, at the greatest distance he could place between himself and his companions, in the window nearest to the door. He was probably aware of our approach, and had assumed an air of courageous indifference; his face was purposely averted towards the window, and he stirred not an inch while we were present. The other two men were at the upper end of the room. One of them, who was imperfectly seen in the dim light, had his back towards us, and was stooping over the fire, with his right arm on the mantel-piece, and his head sunk upon it. The other was leaning on the sill of the farthest window. The light fell full upon him, and communicated to his pale, haggard face, and disordered hair, an appearance which, at that distance, was ghastly. His cheek rested upon his hand; and, with his face a little raised, and his eyes wildly staring before him, he seemed to be unconsciously intent on counting the chinks in the opposite wall. We passed this room again afterwards. The first man was pacing up and down the court with a firm military step – he had been a soldier in the foot-guards – and a cloth cap jauntily thrown on one side of his head. He bowed respectfully to our conductor, and the salute was returned. The other two still remained in the positions we have described, and were as motionless as statues.

If we have Dickens to thank in part for this unexpected glimpse of these poor fellows in the shadow of death, we also can hardly help but notice that — and this is in keeping with Smith’s forecast of posthumous anonymity — he does not name them, nor breathe a word about their scandalous crime. Only the man destined for the reprieve has animation; Smith and Pratt, immobile and affectless, are … but are little else besides. “Dead men,” like that turnkey said. This is not necessarily implausible, but it is also very pat for the literary construction of “A Visit to Newgate,” and we might be entitled to wonder how close to journalistic accuracy the writer has really come here, or regret the details Dickens has discarded that might have salvaged their humanity for a later readership.

Dickens’ party proceeded from these characters to a tour of the physical cells in which these doomed “statues” passed their last sleepless nights.

A few paces up the yard, and forming a continuation of the building, in which are the two rooms we have just quitted, lie the condemned cells. The entrance is by a narrow and obscure stair-case leading to a dark passage, in which a charcoal stove casts a lurid tint over the objects in its immediate vicinity, and diffuses something like warmth around. From the left-hand side of this passage, the massive door of every cell on the story opens; and from it alone can they be approached. There are three of these passages, and three of these ranges of cells, one above the other; but in size, furniture and appearance, they are all precisely alike. Prior to the recorder’s report being made, all the prisoners under sentence of death are removed from the day-room at five o’clock in the afternoon, and locked up in these cells, where they are allowed a candle until ten o’clock; and here they remain until seven next morning. When the warrant for a prisoner’s execution arrives, he is removed to the cells and confined in one of them until he leaves it for the scaffold. He is at liberty to walk in the yard; but, both in his walks and in his cell, he is constantly attended by a turnkey who never leaves him on any pretence.

We entered the first cell. It was a stone dungeon, eight feet long by six wide, with a bench at the upper end, under which were a common rug, a bible, and prayer-book. An iron candlestick was fixed into the wall at the side; and a small high window in the back admitted as much air and light as could struggle in between a double row of heavy, crossed iron bars. It contained no other furniture of any description.

(Later in the 19th century, this dank vault was improved by conjoining two adjacent chambers to comprise the condemned cell.)

A year after Sketches‘ February 1836 publication, Dickens’ serialized novel of the London underclass Oliver Twist began its run. That story’s heart-wrenching denouement of the thief Fagin awaiting execution in Newgate seems to owe a debt to Dickens’ meditation in Sketches on the dolorous condition of Smith, Pratt, or any doomed prisoner facing death in these awful cells.

“A Visit to Newgate” concludes:

Conceive the situation of a man, spending his last night on earth in this cell. Buoyed up with some vague and undefined hope of reprieve, he knew not why – indulging in some wild and visionary idea of escaping, he knew not how – hour after hour of the three preceding days allowed him for preparation, has fled with a speed which no man living would deem possible, for none but this dying man can know. He has wearied his friends with entreaties, exhausted the attendants with importunities, neglected in his feverish restlessness the timely warnings of his spiritual Fagin in Newgate – Cruikshank consoler; and, now that the illusion is at last dispelled, now that eternity is before him and guilt behind, now that his fears of death amount almost to madness, and an overwhelming sense of his helpless, hopeless state rushes upon him, he is lost and stupefied, and has neither thoughts to turn to, nor power to call upon, the Almighty Being, from whom alone he can seek mercy and forgiveness, and before whom his repentance can alone avail.

Hours have glided by, and still he sits upon the same stone bench with folded arms, heedless alike of the fast decreasing time before him, and the urgent entreaties of the good man at his side. The feeble light is wasting gradually, and the deathlike stillness of the street without, broken only by the rumbling of some passing vehicle which echoes mournfully through the empty yards, warns him that the night is waning fast away. The deep bell of St. Paul’s strikes – one! He heard it; it has roused him. Seven hours left! He paces the narrow limits of his cell with rapid strides, cold drops of terror starting on his forehead, and every muscle of his frame quivering with agony. Seven hours! He suffers himself to be led to his seat, mechanically takes the bible which is placed in his hand, and tries to read and listen. No: his thoughts will wander. The book is torn and soiled by use – and like the book he read his lessons in, at school, just forty years ago! He has never bestowed a thought upon it, perhaps, since he left it as a child: and yet the place, the time, the room – nay, the very boys he played with, crowd as vividly before him as if they were scenes of yesterday; and some forgotten phrase, some childish word, rings in his ears like the echo of one uttered but a minute since. The voice of the clergyman recalls him to himself. He is reading from the sacred book its solemn promises of pardon for repentance, and its awful denunciation of obdurate men. He falls upon his knees and clasps his hands to pray. Hush! what sound was that? He starts upon his feet. It cannot be two yet. Hark! Two quarters have struck; – the third – the fourth. It is! Six hours left. Tell him not of repentance! Six hours’ repentance for eight times six years of guilt and sin! He buries his face in his hands, and throws himself on the bench.

Worn with watching and excitement, he sleeps, and the same unsettled state of mind pursues him in his dreams. An insupportable load is taken from his breast; he is walking with his wife in a pleasant field, with the bright sky above them, and a fresh and boundless prospect on every side – how different from the stone walls of Newgate! She is looking – not as she did when he saw her for the last time in that dreadful place, but as she used when he loved her – long, long ago, before misery and ill-treatment had altered her looks, and vice had changed his nature, and she is leaning upon his arm, and looking up into his face with tenderness and affection – and he does NOT strike her now, nor rudely shake her from him. And oh! how glad he is to tell her all he had forgotten in that last hurried interview, and to fall on his knees before her and fervently beseech her pardon for all the unkindness and cruelty that wasted her form and broke her heart! The scene suddenly changes. He is on his trial again: there are the judge and jury, and prosecutors, and witnesses, just as they were before. How full the court is – what a sea of heads – with a gallows, too, and a scaffold – and how all those people stare at HIM! Verdict, ‘Guilty.’ No matter; he will escape.

The night is dark and cold, the gates have been left open, and in an instant he is in the street, flying from the scene of his imprisonment like the wind. The streets are cleared, the open fields are gained and the broad, wide country lies before him. Onward he dashes in the midst of darkness, over hedge and ditch, through mud and pool, bounding from spot to spot with a speed and lightness, astonishing even to himself. At length he pauses; he must be safe from pursuit now; he will stretch himself on that bank and sleep till sunrise.

A period of unconsciousness succeeds. He wakes, cold and wretched. The dull, gray light of morning is stealing into the cell, and falls upon the form of the attendant turnkey. Confused by his dreams, he starts from his uneasy bed in momentary uncertainty. It is but momentary. Every object in the narrow cell is too frightfully real to admit of doubt or mistake. He is the condemned felon again, guilty and despairing; and in two hours more will be dead.

Lotta books about Dickens

A magistrate with the Dickensian name of Hesney Wedg(e)wood appealed vigorously for clemency for Smith and Pratt — pointing out that the only reason these two had been doomed among the rather many enthusiasts** for this victimless offense was that they were penurious enough to have to pursue their desires in a lodging-house rented by a friend where they were easily spied-upon.

(The testimony lodged against them in court came from the nosy landlord who got suspicious, and with his wife peeped through the keyhole on “Pratt laying on his back with his trowsers below his knees, and with his body curled up—his knees were up—Smith was upon him—Pratt’s knees were nearly up to Smith’s shoulders—Smith’s clothes were below his knees … and a great deal of fondness and kissing.” The landlord burst in on the sodomites and put a stop to the fondness right away.)

“There is a shocking inequality in this law in its operation upon the rich and the poor,” wrote Wedgwood.

It is the only crime where there is no injury done to any individual and in consequence it requires a very small expense to commit it in so private a manner and to take such precautions as shall render conviction impossible. It is also the only capital crime that is committed by rich men but owing to the circumstances I have mentioned they are never convicted. The detection of these degraded creatures was owing entirely to their poverty, they were unable to pay for privacy, and the room was so poor that what was going on inside was easily visible from without. (Quoted here)

* The first executed under the Buggery Act shared his scaffold with Thomas Cromwell almost 300 years before. Although there were no further executions for sodomy after Smith and Pratt in 1835, that penalty remained theoretically available for the “crime” until 1861.

** See this book-length pdf.

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1890: Otto Leuth

1 comment August 29th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1890 at the Columbus Penitentiary in Ohio, a sullen German-American teenager named Otto Leuth (sometimes spelled “Lueth”) paid with his life for the brutal murder of his seven-year-old neighbor, Maggie Thompson.

John Stark Bellamy II, writing of the murder in his book The Corpse in the Cellar: And Further Tales of Cleveland Woe, noted how familiar the case sounds to modern ears:

[T]he sickening murder of an innocent child; yet another child accused for the dreadful deed; a sensational trial, replete with dubiously “expert” testimony, suspicious “confessions,” allegations of police “third-degree” methods, and charges of biased press; not to mention “latchkey” children, systematic child abuse, saccharine sympathy for the guilty, and charges of ethnic favoritism.

Yet it happened over a century ago.

Otto, sixteen at the time he killed little Maggie Thompson, had had a hard life, as Bellamy explains in his book. His mother, Lena, testified at his trial that she

went into veritably demonic fits of rage, during which she was in the habit of physically abusing her children, especially Otto. From an early age, she blandly admitted, she had pulled his hair, kicked him, beaten him, walked on him, and often hit him with any object that came to hand. Once, when Otto was eight, she had beaten him with a chair leg and, when [Otto’s father] Henry tried to intervene, stabbed Henry twice with a convenient butcher knife. Just a few months before Maggie Thompson’s murder, Lena had repeatedly slammed Otto’s head into a wooden door.

It speaks volumes of the difference between that century and this one that nobody who heard Lena’s testimony seemed to think this was in any way excessive, never mind cruel; on the contrary, one person praised her methods as being “good German discipline.”

On May 9, 1889, sixteen-year-old Otto was alone at his family’s home at 47 Merchant Avenue in Tremont, a suburb of Cleveland. He was used to being alone: his mother had been committed to a mental hospital some months before, his father was wrapped up in his cabinet-making business, and his older brother had moved out of the house.


Otto (top) and his victim.

That morning, down the street at 24 Merchant Avenue, Maggie Thompson set off for school. Her mother, Clara, dropped her off at the front gate; it was the last time she would see her daughter alive.

Maggie attended the morning classes and, when school was dismissed for lunch at 11:15 a.m., started on the four-block walk home. En route, she vanished without a trace, as if “the sidewalk might have opened and swallowed the girl.”

Naturally there was a frantic search, lead by her devastated parents and the Cleveland Police Department, who tore the city apart looking for her.

But, although there were numerous false sightings and a few wild stories about Maggie’s disappearance, in spite of everyone’s efforts they couldn’t find her.

Otto participated in the search, along with most of the neighborhood. Nearly every day he would approach Clara Thompson and solicitously ask if she’d heard any news of her child.

In early June, Clarissa Shevel, the woman who lived with her husband in the back of the Lueths’ two-family house, asked Otto to do something about the terrible stench that pervaded the entire building. Otto suggested the odor was caused by a dead animal. He bought some chloride of lime and put it in the ventilation hole, then burned some sulfur, but it didn’t help.

Around that time he was witnessed carrying some badly stained bedding to the smokehouse at the back of the property.

On June 9, Otto’s mother Lena, who had by now been discharged from the mental hospital, became fed up with the smell and sent her husband Henry down to the cellar to investigate. He came back up a few minutes later, deeply shaken, and ran out to find a policeman.

In the Lueths’ cellar was the nude corpse of Maggie Thompson.

She was wrapped in one of Lena’s dresses and her own clothes lay underneath her. She had been beaten to death and her body was so badly decomposed that her parents had to identify her by scars on her hips.

The police promptly arrested everyone who lived at the house: Henry and Lena Lueth, Clarissa Shevel and her husband, and Otto, who was picked up on his way home from the ice cream parlor. All five suspects were separated and subjected to a serious “sweating,” but Otto was the prime suspect. He had a reputation as a bully, and he’d been at home alone for much of the previous month.

Bellamy records:

The climax came at 3:30 a.m., when an agonized female shriek resounded from the floor below the sweating room. “Who is that?” cried Otto to Detective Francis Douglass. “Your mother, I believe,” replied Douglass. “She had nothing to do with it!” blurted out Otto. “Who did?” queried Douglass. Otto: “I did it! I did it!” Douglass: “Did what, Otto?” “I killed her! I killed her! Please give me your revolver so I can kill myself!”

Resisting the temptation, the police instead took his verbal confession, wrote it down, had him sign it and escorted him to a cell.

Otto said he had been standing outside his parents’ home at about 11:30 a.m. on May 9 when he encountered Maggie. She asked him if he could donate any buttons to the “button-string” she was making, and he said he had four and would give them to her if she came inside.

Maggie obediently followed him in, and he led her upstairs to his bedroom, where he attempted to rape her. When she screamed, he hit her with a nearby hammer.

Otto said he thought he’d probably killed her with the first blow, but he kept striking her until her head was a pulp and the bed was covered in blood. After an unsuccessful attempt to have sex with her body, he fled the scene. He did go back to the house that night, but spent the next several days at his brother’s home.

Six days later, just before his mother was supposed to come home, Otto returned home to clean up. He carried Maggie’s corpse to the family cellar and left it lying there; he didn’t even bother to bury it or cover it up.

Given Otto’s confession, the circumstantial evidence and the revulsion his crime invoked in the city of Cleveland, his lawyer didn’t have much to work with. Not even trying for an acquittal, his defense instead claimed Otto was mentally impaired and/or insane.

Otto had a strange depression in his skull and his attorney suggested he was brain-damaged — which might very well have been true, given the abuse he had suffered at Lena’s hands. Several members of his family, including his mother and brother, had epilepsy, and his attorney suggested he might have had a seizure and committed his crime without even knowing what he was doing.

Such a scenario was possible. The problem was, though, that none of the medical experts who testified for the defense could diagnose Otto with epilepsy.

The claims of subnormal intelligence were contradicted by the testimony of Otto’s former teachers. Although his pathetic attempts to conceal Maggie’s body might indicate otherwise, his intellect seems to have been about average. Before he quit school at age 13, he had been an unexceptional student with some talent as a violinist.

Otto’s lawyer also said his client had not, in fact, attempted to sexually assault Maggie Thompson either before or after death, and Otto had invented that part of his confession because the police were pressing him to cough up an explanation for his motiveless crime. But given the fact that Maggie’s body was found naked, this claim didn’t carry much weight either.

It was no surprise that, when the trial concluded on December 27, 1889, the jury came back with a verdict of guilty without a recommendation of mercy. Perhaps the only surprising thing was that they actually bothered to deliberate for a whole four and a half hours.

Otto rapidly exhausted his appeals and was hanged eight months after his trial, alongside another killer, one John “Brocky” Smith of Cincinnati. Two other men had also been scheduled to die that night, but one got reprieved and the other’s execution was postponed.

Otto left behind a statement where he admitted he’d killed Maggie Thompson, but denied his previous claims that he’d tried to rape her. He died calmly and without a fuss, standing on the trap and saying simply “All right, let her go.”

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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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Massachusetts,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Summary Executions,USA

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1705: John “Half-Hanged” Smith Half-Hanged

5 comments December 24th, 2008 Headsman

Because we executioners are not bereft of sentiment, it is with glad season’s tidings that we remember the veritable rebirth on Christmas Eve of housebreaker John Smith, who was cut down from the Tyburn tree this day in 1705 and revived.

“Though the crimes committed by this man were not marked with particular atrocity, nor his life sufficiently remarkable for a place in these volumes, yet the circumstances attending his fate at the place of execution are perhaps more singular than any we may have to record,” begins the Newgate Calendar, and one can all but see our Marlow setting light to his tobacco as he makes ready to unspool a particularly satisfying yarn.

After John Smith dangled 15 minutes this day at Tyburn, the crowd at his hanging began calling for a reprieve. One gets the impression our narrator may be eliding in a sentence quite an unruly affair; that “the malefactor was cut down” we may well guess, but after a mere 15 minutes? Did the crowd overpower the sentries, or were the officers of the law simply in a Christmas spirit?

There is, too, allusion to his friends’ working to obtain clemency and failing. Family and supporters of the accused intervened at Tyburn in all sorts of meddlesome ways, when they could — pulling the condemned prisoner’s legs to shorten his suffering, or holding his legs up to give him a chance at survival; fighting with anatomists for possession of the corpse, and obviously agitating for mercy at the slightest opportunity. Was it these friends who instigated the crowd’s appeal?

Whether or not Smith’s luck was as dumb as William Duell‘s, they did cut him down, and did revive him “in consequence of bleeding and other proper applications.”

So, what’s it like to be hanged?

When he had perfectly recovered his senses he was asked what were his feelings at the time of execution; to which he repeatedly replied, in substance, as follows. When he was turned off, he for some time was sensible of very great pain, occasioned by the weight of his body, and felt his spirits in a strange commotion, violently pressing upwards. That having forced their way to his head, he as it were saw a great blaze, or glaring light, which seemed to go out at his eyes with a flash, and then he lost all sense of pain. That after he was cut down, and began to come to himself, the blood and spirits, forcing themselves into their former channels, put him, by a sort of pricking or shooting, to such intolerable pain that he could have wished those hanged who had cut him down.

All this violent commotion of the spirit was enough to score a pardon, but not quite equal to the task of reforming the man now known as “Half-Hanged Smith”.

Our narrator relates that he went twice more to the Old Bailey in some danger of his neck, escaping once on a technicality and then again upon the uncommonly timely death of the prosecutor.

Nothing more is henceforth heard of the man, and it is unknown whether he decided to stop tempting fate, or whether officers of the law were in no further mood to tempt the hand of a Providence evidently determined to protect him, or whether some still more mysterious purpose thereafter summoned him away from the worldly cares of the justices.


And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”

Update: Courtesy of Anthony Vaver’s captivating Early American Crime, it looks like Smith was eventually sentenced to penal transportation to the Virginia colony.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,Not Executed,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft,Tyburn

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