1791: Joseph Wood and Thomas Underwood, children

Add comment July 6th, 2019 Headsman

A sad selection from the Newgate Calendar:

JOSEPH WOOD AND THOMAS UNDERWOOD

Two Fourteen-year-old Boys, executed at Newgate, 6th of July, 1791, for robbing another Boy

Court to William Beadle. What age are you?

Fifteen.

Are you acquainted with the nature of an oath; supposing you do not speak what is true now, in the testimony you are going to give against the prisoners at the bar, what will become of you?

I shall go to hell, my Lord.

On the 17th of May, did you see the prisoners at the bar, or either of them?

Yes, I saw them both; I was on the other side of London-bridge; I never was in London before, I was asking for a lodging, and they brought me over to Saltpetre-bank, it was past six in the evening; then they knocked me down, took my money out of my pocket, and took my clothes which I had in a bundle; I lost five-pence: the clothes consisted of a jacket, a waistcoat, a shirt, and a pair of trowsers; I am very sure of the prisoners, I never saw them before, I never was in London before; my clothes were found on Joseph Wood , he was in a shop selling them in Rosemary-lane; a gentleman went and caught him, I was in the shop, and saw them there myself.

Old Bailey records

All the parties in this case were mere children, the malefactors being but fourteen years of age each, and the prosecutor no more than twelve!

Though of this tender age, yet were the two prisoners convicted as old and daring depredators. So often had they already been arraigned at that bar where they were condemned that the judge declared, notwithstanding their appearance (they were short, dirty, ill-visaged boys), it was necessary, for the public safety, to cut them off, in order that other boys might learn that, inured to wickedness, their tender age would not save them from an ignominious fate.

The crime for which they suffered was committed with every circumstance of barbarity. They forcibly took away a bundle, containing a jacket, shirt and waistcoat, from a little boy, then fell upon him, and would probably have murdered him had they not been secured. They had long belonged to a most desperate gang of pickpockets and footpads; but they were so hardened and obstinate that they would not impeach their companions, though the hopes of mercy were held out to them if they would make a confession, so that the villains might have been apprehended.

They were executed at Newgate, the 6th of July, 1791, apparently insensible of their dreadful situation.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Public Executions,Theft

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1806: Jesse Wood, filicide

Add comment December 5th, 2014 Headsman

On July 9, 1806, Jesse Wood was returning from a hard day’s work on the farm with his sons Joseph and Hezekiah. All of them being somewhat in their cups, they fell to arguing and the father went to his home and retrieved a musket — “loaded with a heavy charge of slug shot” according to the Sherburne, N.Y. Olive Branch of July 30.

Wood pere‘s wife soon heard the report of the gun. Running out of the house, she found Jesse and Hezekaih, upright, and Joseph Wood and the discharged musket, at rest.

“His conduct at the place of execution, was deliberate and calm,” ran a report from Poughkeepsie that ran in many New York papers that December. “He died solemnly denying his built.”

The concourse of spectators was great, and they seemed deeply impressed with the solemnity of the scene, and greatly shocked at the hardened iniquiry of the criminal, in persisting to declare his innocence, when he was convicted on the clearest testimony. There is something inexpressibly awful in the idea that a rational creature has rushed into the presence of his God, with deliberate falsehood on his lips!

In a fine instance of history’s running game of “telephone”, this story was written up in the late 19th century featuring Joseph and the father as co-murderers of the brother … and as such parables demand, Joseph in the end makes good his father’s shocking scaffold denial by confessing on his own deathbed many years later.

1806 sources are absolutely unambiguous that Joseph was the murder victim. I have not found any indication that Hezekiah ever copped to the crime that hung his father.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Public Executions,USA

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1891: Four to save the electric chair

3 comments July 7th, 2011 Headsman

After its famously inauspicious debut the previous summer, this date in 1891 marked the second, third, fourth and fifth uses of New York’s pioneering electric chair.

Having grotesquely botched its maiden execution of William Kemmler, there was a considerable sentiment to retire the electric chair immediately.

The second round of “electrocutions” — 19th century papers still put this then-neologism in quotes — were closely watched as an acidelectric test of the chair’s staying-power. If these men burned to death, slowly and horribly, as Kemmler had, that might have been it. And had New York reverted to hanging or moved on to lethal injection,* the chair’s subsequent adoption by other states and its journey into the iconic popular culture would likely have been aborted.

But, they fixed up the chair, tested it on some more large animals, and moved the electrode combination from head+spine to head+leg … and voila!

There was nothing about the executions of the horrible nature that shocked the country when Kemmler was made the first victim of the law. If the testimony of a score of witnesses is to be believed, the executions demonstrated the use of electricity for public executions to be practical whether or not it is humane. While the Kemmler butchery, with all its terrible details cannot be forgotten, against that one awful failure the advocates of the law now point with unconcealed pride to four “successes.”

New York Times, July 8, 1891

“Unconcealed” pride would be an interesting choice for these advocates, since these prophets of brave new death technology had themselves feared a calamitous failure of their apparatus as much as anybody — well, as much as anybody except the condemned.

Consequently,

every witness of the execution was made to pledge himself in writing never to reveal any detail of it unless requested to do so by the authorities. No newspaper representative was admitted. As THE TIMES has repeatedly stated, it was the intention of the advocates of the law to keep the public from knowing anything about these executions … Therefore, Gov. Hill** and his henchman, Warden Brown, made up their minds that these experiments with the law should not go before the public as anything else than successes, and they packed the jury accordingly with picked men.

The Times dilates considerably in this vein; ever the helpful courtier, it is concerned principally that the state’s orchestrated public relations campaign would have had more credibility had the successful executions been witnessed by third parties who have newspapers to sell. You know?

But … if only the state’s handpicked friendly witnesses were allowed to see what went down, do we actually know that it wasn’t another dog’s breakfast? The July 8, 1891 London Times — for the executions had a global audience — cobbled together a less reassuring wire report.

There are, however, many conflicting statements current as to what actually occurred, and it is extremely difficult to discriminate as to which are true and which are false … Dr. Daniels, one of the witnesses of the executions this morning, said, in an interview this afternoon, that he might tell a great deal about the affair if he were not bound to silence. He added that the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case, there having been two shocks given to each of the condemned men. The truth, Dr. Daniels said, would make a thrilling story.

Wait, what!?

If Dr. Daniels actually said anything like that, someone got this electric chair proponent rewrite (pdf) pretty quickly.

I was misquoted. I simply said that if I were at liberty to give a detailed account of the scenes in the death chamber the public would no doubt be interested in knowing that the executions had been a pronounced success.

You could totally see how the guy would say “pronounced success”, and this British rag would hear, “the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case.” Separated by a common language and all that.

For the record, the chair salvaged itself upon these unfortunates:

  • James Slocum (a former minor league baseball player†), for murdering his wife
  • Levy Smiler, for murdering his mistress
  • Joseph Wood, for murdering a fellow-laborer
  • Shibuya Jugiro, a Japanese seaman, for murdering one of his comrades

History has all but forgotten them … save that their deaths were officially ruled a great technological triumph, sufficient to rescue “the chair” from abortive 19th century penal cul-de-sac and set it on its way to becoming a pop culture icon.

* The modern-seeming method of lethal injection was actually one of the options vetted to replace the rope in the 1880s.

** Hill at this time was flirting with a presidential run, which ultimately didn’t happen: he won a Senate seat instead.

Thanks to @LisaWinston for the tip to Slocum’s sports career.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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