1391: Amerigot Marcel, cast down

Add comment July 12th, 2019 Jean Froissart

(Thanks to medieval scribbler Jean Froissart for the guest post, an episode narrated in his famous chronicle. -ed.)

During the time of the assembling of this body of men-at-arms in France, for an expedition to extend the Christian faith, and gain renown, there were other men-at-arms wholly given up to plunder in Limousin, Auvergne, and Rouergue, who, in spite of the truce [pausing the Hundred Years’ War], were continually doing mischief to the countries which thought themselves in security.

The King of France had caused the truce to be publicly notified to the captains of the freebooters, particularly to Perrot le Béarnois, governor of Chaluçet, Amerigot Marcel, and others, who were publicly named in the act, and were assured that if the truce were in the smallest degree infringed, those guilty of it should be corporally punished, without hope of mercy. Some of the captains, fearful of a disgraceful death, or of incurring the king’s indignation, kept the peace very well; others did not, for which they paid severely, as you will hear in the continuation of this history. You have before heard it related in these chronicles, indited and arranged by me, Sir John Froissart, treasurer and canon of Chimay, how peace had been agreed upon with many of the captains of castles in Auvergne and other places, by the mediation of John, Count d’Armagnac, and the Dauphin of Auvergne, to whom they had surrendered their castles for different sums of money; and that they had undertaken to accompany the count to Lombardy, or whithersoever he might lead them.

Count d’Armagnac and the dauphin had laboured hard to gain over these captains, and the country had submitted to be heavily taxed in order to get rid of them: however, Amerigot Marcel and his garrison still continued to do much mischief, and could not be induced to join the count.

Fond of plundering, he resolved to continue it, and having a desire to gain possession of a strong fort called La Roche de Vendais, he and his companions set out thither, and when they had gained the place fortified it, and made it as strong as they could. This done, they began to overrun the neighbouring country — to make prisoners and ransom them. They laid in stores of flesh, meal, wax, wine, salt, iron, steel, and other necessaries; for nothing came amiss to them that was not too hot or too heavy. The inhabitants of the country were much astonished at this, for they thought themselves in perfect security on account of the truce; but these robbers seized whatever they pleased in their houses, or in the fields, calling themselves the Adventurers. Amerigot and his men became the terror of the whole neighbourhood. The countries of Auvergne and Limousin were in a continual state of alarm because of him, and the knights and squires, with the townsmen of Clermont Montferrant, and Riom, and the towns on the Allier, resolved to send notice of their situation to the King of France.

When it was known to those companies who had been disbanded, and were now out of pay, that Amerigot Marcel was continuing the war, many of them came to offer him their services, and he had very soon more than he wished; none of them asked for pay, but solely to be retained by him, for they well knew that those under him would gain a sufficiency from the overplus of the plunder which he gave up to his men. Sometimes he made excursions in the upper parts of the district, and sometimes in an opposite direction; nothing was talked of in Auvergne and Limousin but the robbers of La Roche de Vendais, and greatly was the country frightened by them.

The garrison of Chaluçet, under command of Perrot le Béarnois, steadily adhered to the truce, and were much angered when they learnt that Amerigot was thus harassing the country. The King of France and his council, on hearing the harm that Amerigot and his companions were doing, immediately turned their attention to the matter, and sent the Viscount de Meaux with a large body of men to oppose them. Amerigot was preparing to ravage the country between Clermont and Montferrant, when it was told him that the viscount was advancing, and this intelligence made him defer his intended excursion, for he foresaw that his fortress would be attacked.

Tolerably near to La Roche de Vendais was another fort, called St. Soupery, under the government of Amerigot, where his wife resided, and whither he had sent the greater part of his wealth; he gave orders for the servants and horses to be received into the fort until better times. La Roche de Vendais was naturally strong, and the present garrison had fortified it by every means in their power; it was separated from the high mountains that surround it, and seated on an insulated rock, one side of which the garrison had so strongly fortified that it could only be approached in front, and attacked by skirmishes. The force under command of the Viscount de Meaux advanced and laid siege to the place; it was about the middle of August, the weather was warm and pleasant, and all the knights were comfortably lodged under huts made of green boughs.

The siege of La Roche de Vendais lasted nine weeks, and during it there were constant skirmishes between the two parties, in which many were wounded. The garrison had much the advantage of the besiegers, and I will tell you how; they could sally out whenever they pleased, for it would have required at least 6,coo men to have completely surrounded this castle. When the siege first took place Amerigot felt that he was acting wrong; but to turn the matter as much to his advantage as he could, and if possible to preserve La Roche de Vendais, he determined to send one of his men to England with credential letters to the king and the Duke of Lancaster. Accordingly, with the advice of his uncle, Guyot du Sel, who was with him in the fort, he instructed a well-educated varlet, and sent him off with three letters, one to the king, another to the Duke of Lancaster, and the third to the king’s council. The man performed his journey satisfactorily, and was fortunate enough to find the king, his two uncles of Lancaster and York, with the council, at the palace of Westminster, considering the affairs of Northumberland, and what force they should send thither, for the Scots no way observed the truce.

The messenger of Amerigot soon obtained a hearing, and having been well tutored, and not afraid of speaking, after delivering the letters, he explained so eloquently the reason of his coming, and the wishes of his master, that he was attentively listened to, and was at length told that the king would write to the Viscount de Meaux, and the Duke of Berry, in the manner Amerigot had desired. The Duke of Lancaster promised to do the same, and that the letter should be delivered by an English squire attached to him; that Derby the herald should cross the sea, and accompany them when they gave their letters, in order to aid their success, for he was well known to many lords in Auvergne, particularly to the Duke of Berry. Amerigot was delighted on his messenger’s return, and told him that he had done justice to his commission, for which he would reward him handsomely. The English Squire and Derby set out at once for La Roche de Vendais, and, when arrived at the place where the besiegers lay, inquired for the quarters of the Viscount de Meaux, to whom they presented their letters. The viscount, after examining the seals, read the contents of the letters several times over, and then said to the squire and the herald, “My fair sirs, the intelligence you have brought demands full consideration; I will advise upon it, and you shall soon have my answer.”

The Squire and herald then withdrew, and a council was moved, before which the viscount laid the letters he had received; the knights were much surprised how intelligence of the siege could have been carried to England for such letters to come from them, as the siege had not lasted one month. “I will tell you what I imagine,” said the viscount: “this Amerigot is a cunning fellow, and the moment he perceived we intended to besiege him, he sent a person to England to request such letters might be written as these now before you, which I shall obey or not as I please.” Upon this the messengers were introduced again, and the viscount told them to take back word that he was a subject of the King of France, and had been ordered thither by him: “In consequence, my fair sirs,” he continued, “I shall strictly obey the commands I have received, and loyally acquit myself of my duty; of course, then, I shall not move hence until I have possession of the fort and garrison, which now holds out against me and my companions.”

The squire and herald then took their leave, by no means contented with the message they had received. “We have had ill-success,” said the squire, “we must wait on the Duke of Berry.” “Yes, he is lord of the whole country,” said Derby, “and if he will order the viscount to decamp he must do so, for he dare not disobey him.” They went accordingly to the duke, who when he received the letters read them twice over, and then gave such courteous answers that both were satisfied; for he said, from his affection to his cousins, he would do all in his power to comply with their request; he therefore exerted himself to have the siege of La Roche de Vendais raised, and wrote to the viscount to this effect, engaging that if Amerigot Marcel were left in quiet possession of his fort, he should not hereafter molest the country, and that he should make reparation to the King of France for having offended him.

The viscount, on receiving this intimation, said to his companions, “Gentlemen, we shill never have peace, since the Duke of Berry supports Amerigot; the duke commands me to raise the siege the instant I have read his letter; but, by my faith, I will do no such thing.”

I must now relate what happened to Amerigot, and to his fort. Amerigot had a quick imagination, and concluding from the continuance of the siege that the letters from the King of England and the Duke of Lancaster had failed, he thought of another expedient, which was to leave his castle, and ride night and day to the garrisons in Perigord, and other places, to seek succour from other pillagers, and entice them by fair speeches to enter Auvergne for the sake of plunder, and then to advance some morning or evening to La Roche de Vendais, and capture the knights and Squires before it, which would bring them more than 1oo,ooo francs for their ransoms, without counting smaller articles of pillage. He explained his whole plan to his uncle, Guyot du Sel, and asked his opinion. Guyot replied that he very much approved of it. “Well, uncle,” said Amerigot, “since you approve I will undertake it, only I must beg that during my absence you never sally out of the castle, nor open the barriers.” “It shall be so,” answered Guyot: “we will remain shut up here until we hear from you.”

Within three days after Amerigot left the castle attended only by a page, and without the besiegers being aware of his absence. The castle continued to be assaulted as usual, and on one occasion Guyot du Sel, forgetful of his promise to Amerigot, was induced to sally forth, when he was surprised by an ambuscade, and obliged to surrender the place. News of the loss of La Roche de Vendais was carried to Amerigot Marcel as he was raising troops to break up the siege, and on learning that it was occasioned by an imprudent sally of Guyot du Sel, he exclaimed, “Ah, the old traitor by St. Marcel, if I had him here I would slay him; he has disgraced me and all my companions; this misfortune can never be recovered.”

Amerigot Marcel was indeed sadly cast down; he knew not from whom to ask advice, nor whether to return to Auvergne or to go to Bordeaux, send for his wife, and have his fortune brought thither by little at a time. If he had followed this plan, he would have done well; but he acted otherwise, and, as the event will show, suffered for it. It is thus Fortune treats her favourites; when she has raised them to the highest pitch of her wheel, she suddenly plunges them in the dirt — witness Amerigot Marcel.

The foolish fellow was worth, as was believed in Auvergne, more than 100,000 francs in money, which he lost in one day, together with his life. I therefore say that Dame Fortune played him one of her tricks, which she has played to several before, and she will do the same to many after him. In his tribulation, Amerigot bethought himself of a cousin he had in Auvergne, a squire, by name Tournemine, to whom he resolved to apply and ask for advice. This he did, and attended only by one page entered the castle of his cousin, with whom he thought to meet with a good reception, but he was disappointed; for his cousin immediately arrested him, and shortly after he was conveyed to Paris, where his head was cut off, and his four quarters affixed over four different gates. Such was the sad end of Amerigot Marcel; I know not what became of his wife, or of his wealth. I have dwelt very long on his actions, that I might illustrate his life and death; for, in such a history as this, both good and bad actions must be spoken of, that they may serve as an excitement or warning in times to come. Had Amerigot turned his mind to virtue he would have done much good, for he was an able man-at-arms, and of great courage; but having acted in a different manner, he came to a disgraceful death.


Detail view (click for the full image) of an illustration of Amerigot Marcel’s execution from a gorgeously illustrated 1470s edition of Froissart’s chronicle.

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1758: Not Florence Hensey, Seven Years’ War spy

1 comment July 12th, 2018 Headsman

The French spy Florence Hensey was due to die at Tyburn on this date in 1758. As it happened, the only violence done there was to the spectators.

A well-traveled Irish Catholic, Hensey had a prosperous London medical practice when he made an offer to a former colleague in France to share intelligence on war preparations at the outset of the England-vs.-France Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

Upon being accepted into the ranks of salaried moles, Hensey set his industry to forming acquaintances at establishments where parliamentarians and their clerks met and gossiped, transmitting the resulting nuggets to France by way of Germany in lemon juice ink concealed within letters bearing nothing but everyday pleasantries. Eventually clerks suspicious at the volume of such superficially trivial exchanges being imposed upon the international post got nosy and found out the real story.

Hensey’s treachery was obvious, ongoing, and in the midst of wartime. He should have died for it, but on that very morning he was spared that miserable fate. The Newgate calendar professes “much surprise at the extension of royal mercy” considering numerous other precedents to the contrary.

De la Motte, the particulars of whose case we shall hereafter give, was “hanged, drawn, and quartered,” for the same kind of offence which Hensey committed; and in still more recent times, numbers have suffered death for similar treason; and yet we have to observe, without finding any especial reason for it, that Doctor Hensey was pardoned. If granted from political motives, it must have been in fear of Spain; an unworthy impulse of the ministers of a far greater and more powerful nation.

Indeed, the Spanish connection appears to be the best explanation for Hensey’s unexpected reprieve: he had a brother in the retinue of a Spanish ambassador who was able to exercise his empire’s diplomatic channels in the doctor’s service. (Spain was on the sidelines at this moment, and Britain keen to keep her there; the Spanish finally joined the war on France’s side very late in the game, in 1762.)

This gambit, however, came as quite a nasty surprise to the ample and bloodthirsty crowd that had turned up at Tyburn.

The awful procession to Tyburn, intended to impress the multitude with sentiments of reverence for the laws of their country, produced a very contrary effect; and the eager and detestable curiosity of the populace, to witness executions, became a source of considerable emolument to certain miscreants, who were in the habit of erecting scaffolds for spectators; many of these scaffolds were substantial wooden buildings, and erected at every point from whence a glimpse of the execution could be obtained; the prices for seats varied according to the turpitude or quality of the criminal: — Dr. Hensey was to have been executed for High Treason in 1758, the prices of seats for that exhibition amounted to 2s. and 2s. 6d.; but, in the midst of general expectation, the Doctor was most provokingly reprieved.

As the mob descended from their stations with unwilling steps, it occurred to them, that, as they had been deprived of the intended entertainment, the proprietors of the seats ought to return the admission-money; which they demanded in terms vociferous, and with blows offensive, and in short, exercised their happy talent for rioting with unbounded success. On this occasion a vast number of these erections were destroyed.

Hensey spent a couple more years in Newgate, then was released into obscurity; presumably he left the realm to his brother’s custody.

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2008: Two alleged prostitutes, by the Taliban

Add comment July 12th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 2008, the Taliban executed two women whom it claimed were running a prostitution ring for U.S. soldiers based in the city of Ghazni.

The Taliban invited a journalist who gives us a disarmingly placid picture of the two burka-clad women seemingly conversing even as armed men surrounding them in the nighttime gloom prepare to take their lives.

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1995: Boris Dekanidze, the last in Lithuania

Add comment July 12th, 2016 Headsman

Lithuania conducted its last execution on this date in 1995, distinguishing Vilnius crimelord Boris Dekanidze with the milestone.

Dekanidze was born in Georgia, but had no citizenship anywhere. His father Georgy cashed in on the collapse of Soviet rule with businesses that, to survive and thrive in the 1990s, would be mobbed-up practically by definition. “When you have a collapse of government and total incompetence, people appear who can organize themselves and influence the lives of others,” Georgy said in this Newsweek report. “I can’t say if this is good or bad.” Georgy ran the Hotel Vilnius, an apt metaphor for the era.

The dapper son was convicted of ordering the murder of investigative reporter Vitas Lingys, founder of the still-extant Lithuanian newspaper Respublia* — a conviction sustained on the evidence given by the admitted gunman, Igor Akhremov.

“The collapse of government and total incompetence” was a much more nettlesome foe than this or that murderer, however. The single bullet fired into Dekanidze’s head on the morning of July 12, 1995 crippled his own criminal syndicate, the “Vilnius Brigade” — but it was not long before new gangs emerged to replace it.

Lithuania abolished the death penalty in 1998.

* Despite the punishment meted out in this one case, a wave of 1990s journalist assassinations around the former Soviet Union during the 1990s went mostly unsolved.

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1936: Earl Gardner

2 comments July 12th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1936, Earl Gardner, a “pint-sized” Apache Indian from the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona, hanged for the murders of his wife, Nancy, and baby son, Edward. Gardner had, for no apparent reason, axed them both to death the previous December.

This wasn’t his first time, either; in the 1920s he’d served seven years in prison for stabbing another man to death.

He tried to plead guilty to Nancy and Edward’s murders, but the judge refused to let him in spite of Gardner’s preference that the government should “take a good rope and get it over with.” Better to “die like an Apache” than die a little every day in prison, he said. With his heart never in his own defense, it’s no surprise he was convicted; appeals filed by his attorney proceeded against Gardner’s wishes, and without success.

R. Michael Wilson records in Legal Executions After Statehood in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah: A Comprehensive Registry:

Finding a gallows was difficult as the state of Arizona was using the gas chamber exclusively for executions, so U.S. Marshal Ben J. McKinney improvised a gallows using an old rock crusher from the Coolidge Dam project. The crusher had been abandoned within a deep gorge on the Indian reservation. A rope was strung from a crossbeam and a hole cut in the floor for the trapdoor. After there were rumors of an Indian uprising McKinney deputized a force of men and armed them to prevent any interference, and they guarded the gallows for days before the execution date.

As he stood on the contraption’s trapdoor before forty-two witnesses, Gardner was asked if he had anything to say. “Well, I’ll be glad to get it over with,” was all he could come up with. It took longer to get it over with than anyone could have anticipated. A witness recalled:

Earl went to the gallows without apparent concern and died a ghastly death. I was crouched in a corner of the crusher on a pile of gravel and damn near went through the trap after him. Earl’s shoulder struck the side of the trap and broke his fall. He hung at the end of the rope gasping … until Maricopa County Sheriff Lon Jordan, a giant of a man, stepped down through the trap and put his weight on Earl’s shoulder to tighten the noose and shut off his breathing.

When the trap sprung at 5:06 a.m., the noose slipped around to the front of Gardner’s throat, causing him to fall off-center and hit the side of the opening. His head snapped backwards but his neck didn’t break and he thrashed around for over half an hour. It wasn’t until 5:39 that his heart ceased to beat.

Earl Gardner’s death was the last legal hanging in Arizona.

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2013: Zeng Chengjie, China’s Bernie Madoff

1 comment July 12th, 2014 Headsman

A year ago today, China executed self-made millionaire Zeng Chengjie for corruption.

Once the subject of glowing media profiles (Chinese link) for his entrepreneurship, Zeng was convicted of bilking 57,000-plus investors out of RMB 2.8 billion (US $460 million) which he in turn used to lock up lucrative urban development projects in Jishou.

The case stirred an uproar in China and overseas because Zeng’s daughter vigorously protested the execution on her Weibo page.

Zeng Shen said she was notified of her father’s execution only two days after it took place. The official story would be that Zeng never requested the family meeting; that story was met with incredulity. (And widespread speculation that Zeng’s organs were harvested for medical transplantation.)

“If one day, I’m sentenced to death and told that I have the right to meet my family, I guarantee that I will absolutely ask to see my family,” wrote IT venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee on one of the country’s most-followed microblogging accounts. “If the court claims that I didn’t make such request after the execution, it must be a lie.”

Moreover, Zeng Shen charged that the whole affair was a political fix-up orchestrated by the successors of Hunan province officials that Zeng pere worked with — and that as a result the executed man’s assets had been snapped up for yuan on the renminbi.

China has made a point in recent years of dialing back capital punishment for white-collar “economic” crimes; most similar cases of fraud or theft result at worst in suspended death sentences, which are de facto prison terms.

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1960: Manfred Smolka, East German border guard

12 comments July 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1960, Manfred Smolka was guillotined in Leipzig.

Smolka was among three million East Germans or more who escaped over the border to West Germany in the 16 years after the defeat of the Nazis divided the country.

In the earliest years, people sluiced over the long border just anywhere. By Smolka’s time, that perimeter was buffered by an “internal border” that made it difficult for ordinary people to approach near enough to West Germany to escape. Consequently, most emigration by the the late 1950s occurred in the divided city of Berlin — a flow that East Germany would finally stanch in 1961 with the ultimate in immigration reform, the Berlin Wall.


One of the Cold War’s iconic photographs: East Berlin border guard Conrad Schumann leaps over the barbed-wire barrier into West Berlin on Aug. 15, 1961, just days after construction of the Berlin Wall began.

Like that more famous later escapee, Manfred Smolka (German link, as are most that follow) was a border guard; indeed, he was an officer. That gave him the ability, in 1958, to be far enough within the “internal border” to defect into West Germany

The very next year, he arranged to meet his abandoned wife and daughter on the Bavaria-Thuringia frontier to smuggle them over, too. Alas, it was a trap (pdf) laid by the feared East German secret police, the Stasi.


Happier times: Manfred Smolka with his wife and child.

According to press reports, Smolka was actually on West German soil when the Stasi men captured him.* (The Stasi were often up for a bit of kidnapping.)

West Germans were outraged by Smolka’s capture and subsequent death sentence for “military espionage,” but the case was deemed an apt one for the education of East Germany’s border security agents.

Only with post-Cold War German reunification could his family examine his file. “I am innocent, I can prove it a hundred times,” they read in the last letter the onetime defector wrote to his family — a letter which had never been delivered. “You need not be ashamed of me.” In 1993, a reunified, post-Cold War Germany officially agreed and posthumously rehabilitated Manfred Smolka.

There’s a few minutes of documentary video about him, in German, here.

* By a July 5, 1960 account in the London Times, Smolka was shot at and wounded as he crossed into East Germany but still managed to “crawl” back to West Germany — where his pursuers did not fear to follow him.

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1833: Frankie Silver, Morganton legend

8 comments July 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1833, a young woman named Frankie Silver was hanged in Morganton, North Carolina for murdering her husband Charles.

The cover of Perry Deane Young’s book (available at Amazon.com) shows actress Amanda Ladd in the title role of Young’s play Frankie. Young can be contacted at www.perrydeaneyoung.com or by e-mail at pyoung3@bellsouth.net

Silver is a staple of North Carolina folklore, supposed to have assassinated her spouse in a jealous rage and checked out singing her confession from the gallows.

But the reality, as best one can discern from the distance of time, is quite a bit murkier; indeed, quite a bit more dark and dramatic.

Executed Today is honored to mark the occasion by interviewing author Perry Deane Young.

Young’s acclaimed The Untold Story of Frankie Silver: Was She Unjustly Hanged? debunks many of the fables surrounding this old time true crime.

ET: Just by way of orientation, what’s the baseline legend of Frankie Silver that Appalachian children learn? And how exactly did this particular hanging come to be so richly preserved in ballads and folklore and the like?

PDY: The legend is that this true story was the basis for the black blues song, Frankie and Johnny.

Frankie killed her man out of revenge cause he done her wrong. The legend is that she was the first — or only white — woman ever hanged in North Carolina, that she sang a confession from the scaffold. This was the story I heard as a child; only later would I learn that none of this was based on facts.

Most historians now think the song, Frankie and Johnny, was based on a murder in St. Louis, although several folklore collections published in the 20th century say it was based on Frankie and Charlie Silver.

What is it that drew you to this case in the first place?

Most people’s mothers tell them stories about Winnie the Pooh and, oh my, Tigger the tiger. My mother told me about a woman who cut her husband’s head off with an axe and burned his body in the fireplace.

As a writer, I’ve always been grateful for that.

Your book makes the case that she was wrongly executed, and not only that — but that “the true story, the facts … are even more interesting than the story as it has been passed down by so many ballad singers, folklore specialists, storytellers and newspaper columnists”. What’s the most important misconception people have about Frankie Silver? What surprises you most about the story?

There are many misconceptions, starting with the murder itself. There is ample evidence from the time to prove that her husband was loading his gun to kill Frankie and she picked up the axe to defend herself.

She did not sneak up on him as he lay sleeping; she killed in self defense.

She was not the first or only woman ever hanged in North Carolina, she was one of at least 15.

She did not read or sing a confession from the scaffold.

A young school teacher plagiarized a Kentucky ballad, “Beacham’s Lament,” had it printed and handed out at the hanging. It is this ballad, in which Frankie laments her guilt, that has come down as factual. However, when I was a college student, I came across 17 different letters and petitions to the governor asking for a pardon for Frankie. In these documents, it is clearly spelled out that Charlie Silver was a drunk, abusive husband and Frankie killed him in self-defense.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course … but it doesn’t seem to require hindsight to think that her lawyer would have been expected to introduce evidence of domestic violence even if that wasn’t the main thrust of his defense. Would it also have seemed that way to the reasonable barrister in the 1830s, or was there good reason for him to avoid it? Can we say that she was hanged for poor lawyering?

The late Sen. Sam Ervin was, like me, a great believer in Frankie’s innocence. A letter he wrote me explaining why is reproduced in the new edition of my book. He explained to me that at the time she was tried, the accused was deemed an incompetent witness and could not take the stand in her own defense. The law was changed in North Carolina in 1859 so that, as now, you can choose to defend yourself but you still cannot be compelled to testify against yourself.

Frankie’s lawyer, perhaps at the insistence of Frankie’s father, pleaded innocence. In other words, he could not introduce evidence of extenuating circumstances such as spousal abuse if he was saying she didn’t do it in the first place. In the book, I note that a man named Reuben Southard beat his wife to death that same year in the same county and got off with court costs. In one of the petitions, Frankie’s neighbors assert that it has often happened that a man murdered his wife with no legal consequences. In an article for his local newspaper, Ervin blamed Frankie’s lawyer for the outcome of the trial, not realizing that her lawyer was his own great great uncle.

Over the longer arc, it’s surprising to me that the claim by a woman who killed her husband that he was an abusive spouse — especially if that claim attracted a lot of support at the time — would go underground in the historical recollection of the case. In its essentials, this is one of the stock templates we have for thinking about a domestic crime. What happened in Morganton, and with the families’ descendants, over the years to shape the popular memory of the event? And does it suggest any larger lessons to you about the way we construct our histories?

The explanation is quite simple. All that survived over the years was this ridiculous “ballad,” in which Frankie confessed her guilt. She had nothing to do with that ballad.

Fayetteville Observer, July 30, 1833

But, in fact, she did write out a confession.

The confession itself has never been found but we know from other sources that it explained that she killed in self defense. The documents that detailed Charlie’s abuse and other details about the case remained hidden in the governors’ papers in the North Carolina Archives until I discovered them in 1963 when I was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 2001, Frankie was finally allowed to have her say in a play which I wrote with William Gregg and which was produced by the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre in August 2001.

In the play, a minister who is working to save Frankie from the gallows, overhears a young man singing the silly ballad. He is asked if a hundred years from now people will still be singing that ballad, not knowing what really happened. He answers: “People would rather believe a simple lie than a difficult truth.”

Compounding the historical image of Frankie has been the fact that her family was ashamed of having a convicted murderer in their midst. It was Charlie’s family that became the keeper of the legend and all its misconceptions. The Silvers kept alive the fake ballad “confession” and did everything they could to preserve the image of Charlie as a faithful husband who was killed by a spiteful wife.

Do you find that here in 2012, there are still people whose oxen are gored if your research contradicts their own version of the story — especially if you present Charlie as a violent husband?

You betcha! The Silvers to this day are rather vehement in defense of their Charlie.

It was a historic moment when I was invited to speak in the old church house near the murder scene for the Silver family reunion. In the basement of the church, they have created an extraordinary archive on the murder story and the family in general.

By this time, they have accepted that Charlie may not have been the innocent victim they’ve been told about. Many in the family are serious about their historical researches and want to know the facts. However, a contemporary Charlie Silver also said, “I just wish people would stop talking about it.”

You’re working on a program for Discovery channel’s “Deadly Women”. Does it hold any new revelations about this intriguing historical case?

The chief revelation came to me after being questioned by a very bright young woman named Colette Sandstedt for the program. She had done her homework exceedingly well. By the time we had gone over all the historical evidence I had collected over the past 50 years, I was ready for her last question: “What is the most shocking aspect of this case to you?”

I answered: “The most shocking aspect of the case is the way this poor woman has been misrepresented for almost 200 years.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Interviews,Murder,North Carolina,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Public Executions,USA,Women,Wrongful Executions

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2006: Rocky Barton, suicidal

Add comment July 12th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 2006, Ohio murderer Rocky Barton died by lethal injection for murdering his wife.

Say this for Barton: the experience of failed marriages had not jaded him on the institution. When his fourth wife, Kimbirli Jo, proposed to leave him, he was distraught enough to shoot her dead in a fit of passion, and then turn the gun on himself, too. “I couldn’t stand the thought of living without her,” he explained.

And say this, too: he wasn’t one for any special pleading.

“”It was an act of anger. Evidently it was not too thought out or I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he told a reporter just days before his execution. “I strongly believe in the death penalty. And for the ruthless, cold-blooded act that I committed, if I was sitting over there [in the jury box], I’d hold out for the death penalty.”

Voluntarily dropping his appeals, he spent less than three years on the “greased lightning” track to the Ohio gurney, only some 42 months overall from murder to execution. Kimbirli’s daughter, and Rocky’s stepdaughter, got a special release from a county jail where she was serving a drug sentence to witness the execution.

His suicide attempt, though unsuccessful, required “four surgeries to insert pins, wires and screws to hold his eyes in their sockets and the cadaver’s jaw to replace his shattered one,” and hundreds of thousands in public expenses to post special guard details for said reconstructive surgeries.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Ohio,USA,Volunteers

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1916: Cesare Battisti and Fabio Filzi

5 comments July 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1916, the Austro-Hungarian empire executed Cesare Battisti and Fabio Filzi for treasonous Italian nationalism.

It was the multiethnic Habsburg state that was itself dying of its constituents’ national aspirations; in little more than two years, the state entity that carried out this day’s sentences would no longer exist at all.

Pre-World War I, Battisti (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was actually a Socialist representative in the Austrian parliament.

When the unpleasantness broke out, though, he made a break for the peninsula where he agitated* (successfully) for Italian entry into the fray against Austria-Hungary. Irredentists had long coveted Habsburg properties with a heavy Italian population, like the Adriatic port of Trieste and Battisti’s own native Trento; the war offered an opportunity to swipe those territories, notwithstanding Italy’s putative prewar alliance with the Austrians.

Although already 40 years of age when Italy entered the war, the intrepid Battisti enlisted to fight. He was captured along with an otherwise obscure subaltern, Fabio Filzi, on the Alpine slope of Monte Corno (now known as Monte Corno Battisti) repelling the Austrian Strafexpedition.**

Austria did not stand on ceremony with these men; their capture took place on July 10, their trial on July 12, and their executions at the Castello del Buon Consiglio — an ironic Calvary, for a parliamentarian — later that same day. (To complete the scene, the strangulation-hanging was botched when Battisti’s first rope broke.)

The Austrian writer Karl Kraus would observe that “they thought they were hanging Italy, but it was really Austria on the gallows.”

Whichever one it was, they took a lot of pictures.


Battisti and Filzi as prisoners.


Battisti leaving the courtroom en route to his execution.


Battisti approaches the scaffold.


Battisti waiting at the scaffold as the sentence is read.


The Austrian army offers a prayer and salute to the shrouded body of Cesare Battisti.

* As a socialist who broke against the internationalist position and in favor of violent nationalism, Battisti was an ally of Benito Mussolini. It was Battisti, actually, who pioneered the socialist-nationalist-newspaperman act upon which Mussolini would later raise is own star, to such an extent that Battisti’s paper, Il Popolo — the apparent inspiration behind Mussolini’s own subsequent paper, Il Popolo d’Italia — gave the still-obscure future Duce some of his earliest gigs.

A martyr’s death during World War I fortuitously spares Battisti’s legacy the unpleasant association with his friend’s postwar turn towards fascism, so there are many streets and plazas named for Battisti, as well as a memorial in Trento. He’s also honored by name in the 1918 patriotic tune La Leggenda del Piave (lyrics).

** “Punitive expedition”.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Mature Content,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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