1913: John Williams, the Case of the Hooded Man

1 comment January 30th, 2013 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, John Williams was hanged at Lewes Gaol for murdering a police officer.


Not this John Williams.

Williams was supposed to be the mysterious prowler spotted lurking outside a Hungarian countess’ Eastbourne home on October 9, 1912. The prowler was treed on the portico of the house by a responding police officer, but shot that cop dead and made good his escape.

The ensuing “Case of the Hooded Man” — the branding is not quite Sherlock Holmes, but it suits this blog — concerned the legal contest over whether John Williams was that prowler/shooter.

Circumstantial though it was, quite a lot of evidence supported that conclusion.

The day after the murder, Williams was informed upon by a young friend, Edgar Power, who knew him by his real name of George McKay. Williams/MacKay had passed Power a note on the night the policeman died reading, “If you would save my life come here at once to 4 Tideswell Road. Ask for Seymour [the name of Williams’s girlfriend]. Bring some cash with you. Very Urgent.”

Power set up a meeting with Williams where the police could nab him. (Power would later testify at trial that his friend had bragged specifically about his “good shot” that hit the policeman.)

Not yet done, our busybody stool pigeon then called on Williams’s girlfriend and persuaded her to move the murder weapon she had hidden with her beau … enabling police to grab that piece of evidence, too.

That gun made its mark in the emerging science of forensic ballistics. Seminal ballistics expert Robert Churchill was able to conclusively link this firearm to the portico murder by means of an early application of a now-familiar technique.

Churchill fitted a new hammer and springs and then test-fired [the gun]. Those test bullets had the same rifling pattern as the bullet used to kill Inspector Walls, and Churchill had no doubt about his conclusions that it was a gun of that very same make which had fired the fatal bullet.

In order to demonstrate the technicalities of Churchill’s evidence, Sergeant William McBride, one of the very first police photographers at Scotland Yard, used close-range photography to illustrate the pattern of the grooves on the bullets. He also collaborated with Churchill in placing dentist’s wax inside the gun barrel, then withdrawing it when it had cooled and set hard. This enabled him to photograph the pattern in the wax, caused by the grooves of the inside of the gun barrel, showing the same profile that would match a lead bullet fired through that gun barrel.

A nationwide petition for Williams’s pardon would circulate after his conviction upon the production of some dubious evidence throwing suspicion upon another (phantasmal, so far as anyone could determine) party. The Home Secretary replied to those appeals in the House of Commons a week before the execution:

The house will understand that there is no part of the Home Secretary’s duty which throws greater responsibility upon him or is indeed more painful, then that which has to be exercised in connection with the prerogative of mercy. Of course, any man would be only too glad to find a scintilla of evidence or reason, or I might say to invent a reason, which would enable him to save a human life. But my duty, as I understand it, is to act in accordance with the law and the traditions of my office … the whole story [of a man’s alleged twin brother committing the crime] is an invention because [the man], having known John Williams in the past, he did not like to think of his being hanged.

Thought-of or no, hanged John Williams was.

Part of the Daily Double: Century-Old English Legal Novelties.

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1637: William Schooler and John Williams

Add comment September 28th, 2012 Robert Wilhelm

(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm, author of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime. -ed.)

On September 28, 1637, two men convicted on separate counts of murder in the Puritan colony north of Boston — in what is now Essex County — were executed on the same gallows. The first was William Schooler, convicted a year earlier of killing Mary Scholy on the path to Pascataquack; the second was John Williams convicted of killing John Hoddy near Great Pond in Wenham.


Original (c) image from Murder And Mayhem in Essex County, used with permission.

In the autumn of 1636, an Agawam Indian walking through the Winnacunnet woods, north of the town of Newbury, found the body of a young white woman, lying in a thick swamp about three miles north of the Merrimack river. From the condition of the body, he could tell that the woman had been dead for several months. She lay naked, with her clothing still in a pile not far from the body. The Indian took the news to Newbury, and led the Englishmen to the spot so they could see for themselves.

The woman’s name was Mary Sholy. She was identified more by the circumstance than by appearance, since the flesh had begun to rot. Mary had left Newbury several months earlier, traveling north to her home at the English settlement at Pascataquack. The people of Newbury were also fairly certain who had killed her; they believed she had been ravished and murdered by the man she had hired to guide her journey home, an outsider named William Schooler.

In London, England, William Schooler had been a vintner with intemperate habits. Schooler was, by his own admission, a common adulterer. After wounding a man in a duel he fled to Holland to escape the law; then, leaving his wife behind, he traveled to New England. In 1636 he was living in a shack by the Merrimack River within the limits of Newbury but outside the boundaries of sanctioned Christian behavior.

Mary Sholy, a servant girl, was looking for someone to guide her to Pascataquack, to return to her master. Pascataquack — now Portsmouth, New Hampshire — was a small settlement, about twenty-three miles north of Newbury. It is not known why Mary Sholy had come to Newbury; it is unlikely that her master would have sent her there without providing a guide back. The journey from Newbury to Pascataquack would have been too perilous for a young woman to take alone, first crossing the Merrimack River in a canoe, then following the route to Pascataquack, which was described as little more than a path through the woods. In 1636, even the well-traveled path between Ipswich and Newbury was too narrow for a horse cart. In addition to the possibility of losing her way and becoming hopelessly lost in the woods between the two settlements, there was a very real danger of being attacked by wild animals or hostile Indians.

Seeing an opportunity to make a little money, William Schooler sought out Mary and offered to guide her home for fifteen shillings. He did not tell her that he himself had never made the trip to Pascataquack before. Two days after their departure, William Schooler was back in Newbury alone. When asked why he had returned so soon Schooler replied that he had guided Mary to within two or three miles of Pascataquack, where she stopped, saying she would go no further. Schooler left her there and returned to Newbury.

The people of Newbury remained suspicious and Schooler was questioned by the magistrates in Ipswich. When he returned from the trip he had blood on his hat and a scratch on his nose the “breadth of a small nail.” He explained that the blood was from a pigeon he had killed and the scratch on his nose was from walking into some brambles. He was released, as there was no evidence then that a crime had been committed.

The following year the Pequod tribe took up arms against the English colonists and Schooler was drafted to serve in the militia. He deemed this service to be an oppression and publicly spoke out against it. His outspoken opposition was considered “mutinous and disorderly,” and the governor issued a warrant against him. When he was arrested, Schooler assumed it was about Mary Sholy and began to vehemently defend himself against the charge of her murder. Schooler;s behavior made the magistrates suspicious and, since they now knew Mary Sholy had been murdered, they decided to reopen the case.

Newbury residents who knew him came forward to volunteer information on Schooler’s character. In a Puritan court the character of the accused was as important as the physical evidence against him.

Schooler denied that he murdered Mary Sholy but the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to hang. The court and the clergy tried desperately to persuade Schooler to confess but he would not. Schooler was contrite, saying he had told many lies to excuse himself, but vehemently denied that he had killed or ravished Mary Sholy. Some ministers argued that the evidence against him was not sufficient to take away his life, but Governor Winthrop denied Scholler a reprieve, saying: “but the court held him worthy of death, in undertaking the charge of a shiftless maid, and leaving her (when he might have done otherwise) in such a place, as he knew she must needs parish, if not preserved by means unknown.”


John Williams was a ship carpenter who had recently come to America from England. In 1637, he was in prison in Boston for theft. Williams and another prisoner, John Hoddy, escaped from the jail and traveled north. They had gone beyond Salem and were on the road to Ipswich, on the east end of the Wenham Great Pond when they had a falling out. The two men had a fight that ended with the death of John Hoddy.

There are two versions of what happened next. In one story John Hoddy’s dog held Williams at bay until the noise drew the attention of enough residents of Wenham to apprehend Williams and take him to jail in Ipswich. The more likely story says that Williams took everything belonging to Hoddy, including his clothes, and buried his body under a pile of stones. Williams proceeded to Ipswich where he was apprehended, after having been recognized as a criminal. Though his clothes were bloody when arrested, he would confess to nothing until a week later, when the body of John Hoddy was found. Cows at a farm near Great Pond smelled the blood and made such a “roaring” that they got the attention of the cow keeper, who on investigation found Hoddy’s naked body under a heap of stones.

Around the same time the justice of the peace in Ipswich learned that both Williams and Hoddy were escaped prisoners. Williams was indicted for the murder of John Hoddy and tried by the Court of Assistants in Boston. Though he confessed to the murder, the court insisted on enforcing Williams’s right to due process, and tried the case before a jury. Williams was, of course, found guilty and sentenced to death.

The double hanging, on September 28, 1637, took place on Boston Common, where all executions in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were held.

Get Murder and Mayhem in Essex County here.

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1910: George Reynolds and John Williams

Add comment February 8th, 2010 Headsman

At 6:30 this morning a century ago, two black men were hanged in Kansas City, Mo., for raping a white violinist less than seven weeks before.

There was really only one way this case was going to end.

The assault was of such a nature that intense feeling was aroused. Threats of lynching frequently were heard …

Prisoners in the County Jail raised bedlam when the verdict became known. They had previously threatened to lynch the negroes in the exercise room of the jail.

That’s from the Los Angeles Times blog’s roundup of its A.P. coverage from the Show-Me state a century ago — which further reveals George Reynolds and John Williams enjoyed a five-minute jury deliberation, and this vituperative sentence from the judge:

“They don’t even deserve to be classed with the murderer who must pay the penalty for his crime with his life,” continued Judge Latshaw.* “It would be an insult to these men, who had at least a spark of manhood in their hardened souls, to have such brutes as these put in their class. I don’t care to desecrate the day by ordering these two brutes hanged on the legal hanging day.”

(The regular hanging day — Friday — was safely un-desecrated; Reynolds and Williams hanged on a Tuesday.)

Reynolds fainted at the gallows. “Cowardly Brute,” the LA Times headlined it, also mentioning that he’d been starving himself for a week in a desperate bid to cheat the hangman. He maintained his innocence at the last.

* Judge Latshaw presided over a number of high-profile Missouri trials … often acquittals.

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1852: John and Jane Williams, slaves

2 comments September 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1852, John and Jane Williams hung in Richmond for the hatchet-murder of the wife and infant child of their master.

This one was a sensation for the antebellum crime beat, the “deep brain-cuts” to the heads of Joseph Winston (who survived) and Virginia Winston and nine-month-old child (who, obviously, did not) administered in the small hours July 19th was just the sort of thing to tap white slaveholders’ fears. (Reportedly, they were cruel masters and had recently threatened to sell Jane without also selling her child.)

That the crime was authored by urban slaves assimilated to the money economy connected it directly with broader anxieties about social transformations, as explored by Midori Takagi in Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction:

[U]rban slaves who enjoyed a variety of privileges including hiring out, living apart, socializing without supervision, and cash bonuses. White Richmonders believed these privileges encouraged the slaves to be rebellious …

Although John belonged to the Winston household, he worked at the docks for John Enders during the day. Like most hired slave workers, John could move about the city before and after working hours with no supervision. He also probably received cash from his earnings and could earn extra by performing overtime work. John was not required to live in the Winstons’ house but chose to in order to be with his wife. Janes, on the other hand, was directly owned by the Winstons and most likely did not enjoy the same privileges as her husband. But she was able to move about in the city making trips to the market, did socialize with other slaves and possibly free blacks, and was well aware of the privileges and expectations of hired slaves including her husband.

White residents came to believe that these factors encouraged slaves to act violently by planting within them “the germ of rebellion.” One influential Richmonder, Joseph Mayo (who later became mayor), attributed the “glaring evils” of the slave population to “the system of board money … [and] the assumptions of equality exhibited by the blacks in riding in carriages contrary to law, and in dress and deportment.” Increasingly, white city dwellers began to wonder if they had been — in the words of one resident — “rearing wolves to our own destruction.”

These anxieties, piqued by crimes such as the Williamses’, would lead to a welter of new restrictions on the movement, behavior, and even attire of urban slaves in Richmond in the ensuing years.

But that was for the future. While Richmond had real-life master-murdering miscreants in its clutches, it gave vent to all its opprobrium.

Papers described the crimes as “hardly paralleled in history,” anticipated for Jane (who eventually copped to the crime and unsuccessfully tried to exculpate John) “the fires of her eternal doom,” and her execution “without the smallest particle of sympathy from any human being possessed of the ordinary feelings of justice.” The exhortations of her pastor, the Richmond Daily Dispatch opined, fell upon “unwilling ears. The thick-crowding thoughts of the diabolical murder of two innocent, guileless beings, committed by Janes with the coolness and deliberation of a fiend, rendered unimpressive, cold, and tedious, those ceremonies.”

It is to be hoped [the Dispatch concluded] that her merited and summary execution will operate as a warning to the fractious portion of our negro population.*

In a show of scrupulous regard for the inalienable rights endowed by the Creator, the state of Virginia compensated the convalescing Joseph Winston to the tune of $500 for expropriating and executing his property.

* (Second-hand) sources for the newspaper excerpts: The Penalty is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women’s Executions by Marlin Shipman; and, “Black Female Executions in Historical Context” by David V. Baker, Criminal Justice Review, vol. 33, no. 1 (March 2008).

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Virginia,Women

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