1948: Ruth Closius-Neudeck

Add comment July 29th, 2019 Headsman

A notoriously brutal guard at the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp named Ruth Closius-Neudeck was hanged on this date in 1948.

With impeccable timing she exited a life of proletarian obscurity by applying for a gig as a camp warden in July 1944, right when the Third Reich’s prospects for surviving the war went terminal.

That left her scant few months to stack up fodder for the eventual war crimes tribunals but Neudeck had a knack for making hay in the twilight.

Almost immediately earning promotion to barracks overseer, she earned a reputation as one of the cruelest guards at the camp that once cultivated Irma Grese. (They didn’t overlap.) One prisoner would later describe seeing her “cut the throat of an inmate with the sharp edge of her shovel.”

She was subsequently detailed to the nearby Uckermark satellite camp, smaller and more lethal — as it was converted for the Third Reich’s final weeks into a killing center for inmates whose bodies had been broken at slave labor in Ravensbrück or elsewhere. She acknowledged sending 3,000 women to the gas chambers as Uckermark Aufseherin.

She was one of five camp guards charged in the Uckermark trial (also known as the Third Ravensbrück trial) in 1948, and the only one of those five executed.

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1566: Agnes Waterhouse, the first witchcraft execution in England

Add comment July 29th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1556, Agnes Waterhouse became the first known woman executed for witchcraft in England.

“Mother Waterhouse” came accused as the matriarch of a whole clan of hags in the Essex village of Hatfield Peverel. Our record for events, a pamphlet titled The Examination and confession of certaine wytches at Chensforde [Chelmsford] in the countie of Essex: before the Quenes Maiesties judges, the xxvi daye of July, anno 1566.,* gives us Mother Waterhouse accused a sorceress along with her daughter, Joan (eventually acquitted), as well as Agnes’s sister, Elizabeth Francis. By accounts they had come by their necromancies via the guidance of a “hyr grand­mother whose nam was mother Eue of Hatfyelde Peue­rell.”

Tudor England had thus far been spared the witch persecutions that were multiplying on the continent, and even here the accusations ultimately invoked the supernatural as the means for actual material injuries: to sicken and kill both livestock and people.

Both Agnes Waterhouse and Elizabeth Francis confessed to a wide array of crimes, facilitated by a feline familiar unsubtly christened “Sathan”; a neighboring child gave evidence against Agnes. Elizabeth Francis would not be executed as a result of this trial — she faced new charges that would hang her in 1579 — but she directly copped to doing murders via the cat. We excerpt below from the “Examination and confession” pamphlet but as rendered into easier-on-the-eyes modern spellings, found here:

she desired to have one Andrew Byles to her husband, which was a man of some wealth, and the cat did promise she should, but that he said she must first consent that this Andrew could abuse her, and so she did.

And after when this Andrew had thus abused her he would not marry her, wherefore she willed Satan to waste his goods, which he forthwith did, and yet not being contented with this, she willed him to touch his body, which he forthwith did wherefore he died.

Item that every time that he did anything for her, she said that he required a drop of blood, which she gave him by pricking herself, sometime in one place and then in another, and where she pricked herself there remained a red spot, which was still to be seen.

Item when this Andrew was dead, she doubting [fearing] herself with child with Satan to destroy it, and he had her take a certain herb and drink which she did, and destroyed the child forthwith.

Item when she desired another husband, he promised her another, naming this Francis whom she now hath, but said he is not so rich as the other, willing her to consent unto that Francis in fornication which she did, and thereof conceived a daughter that was born within a quarter of a year after they were married.

After they were married they lived not so quietly as she desired, being stirred (as she said) to much unquietness and moved to swearing and cursing, wherefore she willed Satan her Cat to kill the child, being about the age of half a year old and he did so, and when she yet found not the quietness that she desired, she willed it to lay a lameness in the leg of this Francis her husband, and it did in this manner. It came in a morning to this Francis’ shoe, lying in it like a toad, and when he perceived it putting on his shoe, and had touched it with his foot, he being suddenly amazed asked her of what it was, and she bade him kill it, and he was forthwith taken with a lameness whereof he cannot healed.

After “fifteen or sixteen years” she traded the little agent of chaos to her sister for some cakes, and afterwards the cat did Agnes’s will instead.

when she had received him she (to try him what he could do) willed him to kill a hog of her own which he did, and she gave him for his labor a chicken, which he first required of her and a drop of her blood. And this she gave him at all times when he did anything for her, by pricking her hand or face and putting the blood to his mouth which he sucked, and forthwith would lie down in his pot again, wherein she kept him, the spots of all the which pricks are yet to be seen in her skin.

Also she sayeth that another time being offended with one father Kersey she took her cat Satan in her lap and put him in the wood before her door, and willed him to kill three of this Father Kersey’s hogs, which he did, and returning again told her so, and she rewarded him as before with a chicken and a drop of her blood, which chicken he ate up clean as he did all the rest, and she could find remaining neither bones nor feathers.

Also she confessed that falling out with one Widow Gooday she willed Satan to drown her cow and he did so, and she rewarded him as before.

Also she falling out with another of her neighbors, she killed her three geese in the same manner.

Item, she confessed that because she could have no rest (which she required) she caused Satan to destroy the brewing at that time.

Also being denied butter of another, she caused her to lose the curds two or three days after.

Item falling out with another of her neighbors and his wife, she willed Satan to kill him with a bloody slice, whereof he died, and she rewarded him as before.

Likewise she confessed that because she lived somewhat unquietly with her husband she caused Satan to kill him, and he did so about nine years past, since which time she hath lived a widow.

Also she said that when she would will him to do anything for her, she would say her Pater noster in Latin.

Latin! And here perhaps we find a hint — for details on the background and specific context of this prosecution are not to be found — that the shocks of the Reformation were one root of events. As Kate Dumycz observes

Mother Eve perhaps started practising her “craft” in the second half of the fifteenth century … a time when, although the existence of witchcraft was acknowledged and people consulted cunning men and women, there was no witchcraft act on the Statute books … this family would have lived through great upheaval that affected all parts of England because of the Reformation. Christopher Marsh comments that many rituals of the Catholic Church (such as charms, sorcery, enchantments) were banned in 1559 and this ruling was a “broader campaign to destroy the credibility of traditional religion by exposing its alleged superstition”. Rosen remarks “Bitterness, resentment and pain that can no longer be discharged through familiar religious channels will almost inevitably be turned upon others; and in their delusions, such women were aided by the learned and by the religious terms in which they continued to think.”

Agnes Waterhouse leaves us a tantalising clue about contemporary attitudes towards religion and those who practised outside the State dictated religion “she was demanded what praier she saide, she aunswered the Lordes prayer, the Aue Maria, and the belefe, & then they demaunded whether in laten or in englyshe, and shee sayde in laten, and they demaunded why she saide it not in engly[sh]e but in laten”. [note: this interrogation occurred during Agnes Waterhouse’s repentant gallows speech, not during the trial -ed.] So, Agnes Waterhouse at least, practised some of the “old ways” and perhaps had not converted to Protestantism and therefore operated outside the beliefs and “norms” of her society. Rosen comments that between 1534 and the time of this trial “there had been eight major religious changes requiring oaths from teachers, ministers and public officials with four total reversals of religious practice enforced by law and death sentence”. … Agnes Waterhouse’s ability to say her prayers in Latin would have been compulsory during Mary’s reign and yet a few years later this factor was used against her as an indication that she was practising witchcraft and thus, as a witch, was unable to say her prayers correctly in English.

Whilst it has long been established by modern day historians such as Keith Thomas that “in England witchcraft was prosecuted primarily as an anti-social crime, rather than as a heresy” Agnes Waterhouse’s case shows that religion must have played a small but significant part in her neighbours’ belief that she was a witch although she was executed as a murderer rather than a heretic.

Agnes Waterhouse, Joan Waterhouse, and Elizabeth Francis were the first of nine women (plus one man) from Hatfield Peverel prosecuted as witches between 1566 and 1589.

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1598: Lucas, waterboarded Guale

Add comment July 29th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1598, the indigenous Guale youth called Lucas was hanged by the Spaniards in St. Augustine, Florida, for his supposed part in the prior year’s massacre of five Franciscan missionary friars during a 1597 Guale revolt.

This entire tragic affair, documented poorly and with partiality in Spanish sources, remains an interpretive palimpsest to the few who are familiar with it. Historian J. Michael Francis grapples with it in Murder and Martyrdom in Spanish Florida: Don Juan and the Guale Uprising of 1597; a recent talk by the latter at the U.S. Library of Congress delves into the “400-year-old murder mystery”:

The key primary source for this event is Luis Jerónimo de Oré’s text The Martyrs of Florida, from approximately 1619. (Here’s a public domain English translation) The titular “Florida” as claimed by Spain in the New World colonization scramble was a much larger territory than the present-day U.S. state, peninsula, and running Internet gag; hence, the Guale territory relevant to this post lies on what is today the Georgia coast.

Ore informs us that “an Indian youth, who was a Christian and heir to the caciquedom,” was incensed when the Franciscan resident at the settlement of Tolomato presumed to disallow him a second wife.

This cacique and two other Indians, like him, given to the same immoral practice, went into the interior among the pagans, without saying anything or without obtaining permission as they were wont to do on other occasions. After a few days they returned at night with many other pagan Indians, painted and smeared with red paste, and with feathers on their heads. This among them is a sign of cruelty and slaughter.

Thus fearsomely attired, they burst upon the hut of the prudish Fray Pedro de Corpa and butchered him, setting up his head on a spear. Having done this, the angry cacique — who is known only as Juanillo, which is sometimes the name given to this rebellion — ordered other Guale to treat their nosy proselytizers likewise. As a result, four other Franciscans — Fray Miguel de Aunon and a lay brother on St. Catherine’s Island, Fray Bias Rodriguez at the mission village of Santa Clara de Tupiqui, and Fray Francisco de Verascola on Asao — were all murdered within days. A couple of other missionaries had very close escapes.


Map of the relevant part of the Georgia coast.

Besides these, a Fray Francisco de Avila was kidnapped and held hostage for ten months. Although cruelly tortured, Avila would survive captivity and produce a narrative of his own, one that Ore includes wholesale in his volume as a standalone chapter.

In the course of the ensuing Spanish raids on the Guale, the Spanish captured seven boys or young men and interrogation zeroed in on one of them: the son of the cacique of Tupiqui, who appeared as a possible participant in murdering Fray Bias Rodriguez.

Lucas was reticent on the point but after being subjected to the water torture he allowed that “he arrived in time to see Fray Bias die,” and this confession of his presence sufficed to condemn him. He was the only person judicially executed in the course of the entire revolt.

In view of said declarations of these proceedings, the crime falls upon Lucas the Indian, son of the Cacique de Tupiqui, for having been present and participated in the killing of Fray Bias, who was sent to convert the people of Tupiqui. I must condemn him by this my decree, sentenced according to his declaration, with the penalty of death. The justice which I order shall be done him is: That when he leaves the jail where he now is, it shall be with a rope around his neck, his hands tied behind him, and with a loud voice it must be proclaimed to the public his crime; that he be taken to the gallows, already prepared for this purpose, and that there he shall be hung by the neck and strangled until dead. Because, thus is it well to punish with real justice those who dare to commit such crimes, and as an example to the other Indian natives of these provinces that they may not commit similar crimes. So do I pronounce sentence and command.

And if the said Lucas is not mindful of receiving baptism and should not die repenting, and in the Catholic faith, I order that he be hung and after his death his body be burned to powder.

Gonzalo Menendez de Canco, Governor of Florida (Source)

Interpretations of the whole affair have always been driven by Ore’s narrative: either the surface reading of it, that Juanillo and company found monogamy irksome and preferred, in Ore’s words, “to give rein to their sensuality and unlawful pleasures”; or, a converse take for the era of decolonization, that the cultural interference of the Spanish empire triggered a native backlash for whom the friars were the ready-to-hand targets. In either version, the rebellion flourishes briefly but ultimately fails.

Francis in his book and the video above offers a very different reading: as a successful revolt authored by a different cacique, Don Domingo of Asao, who violently renegotiated the local balance of power** and thereby displaced the caciques of Tolomato as the paramount chiefs of the Guale. As a particularly gruesome coda, Domingo made successful obeisance to the Spanish and obtained the crown’s blessing for an expedition to destroy Juanillo, whom he blamed for the disturbance. After capturing the rebels’ last redoubt (beheading Juanillo in the process), Domingo ordered the surviving women to scalp their own men. Now that is paramount chiefdom.

Domingo appears to have maintained his preeminence among the Guale for the balance of his years — backed by and partnering with the Spanish, to the happiness of evangelizing clerics who were never more disturbed. A few years later, the Spanish even plopped down a new mission in his very own native soil … Santo Domingo de Asao.

* The Guale people are thought to have been subsumed into the Yamasee.

** View the Spanish arrivistes, who had a handful of small settlements rather than the dominating presence that their globe-straddling empire might suggest, as just “another powerful Mississippi chiefdom” to local eyes. (Source of this characterization)

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1629: Louis Bertran, martyr in Japan

Add comment July 29th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1629, Spanish Dominican Louis Bertran was burned at Omura, Japan for evangelizing, along with two Japanese-born converts known as Mancius of the Holy Cross and Peter of the Holy Mother of God.

Bearing the Gospel to the far-flung corners of the globe was sort of the family business: Bertran’s more famous relative and namesake, Louis Bertran(d), ministered to the New World so tirelessly that he’s been unofficially known as the Apostle of South America.

For two generations by this point, Christianity had struggled under intensifying official persecution — the shogunate deeply suspicious of the infiltration of western clerics who so often it seemed from Japan’s neighbors to bring along with them some patron king’s overweening navy.

Just a few years on from these martyrdoms, Japan closed itself to outside interference altogether. (More or less.)

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1938: Janis Berzins, Soviet military intelligence chief

Add comment July 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1938, the Soviet intelligence agent Janis Berzin(s) was shot in the basement of Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison.

A Latvian radical back to Riga’s chapter of the 1905 revolution,* Berzins became a trusted associate of Lenin in exile, and transitioned with the 1917 Revolution into a variety of political-security-military leadership positions in the new Soviet state.

For most of the 1924-1937 period, Berzins directed — indeed, practically createdSoviet military intelligence. He’s credited with personally recruiting the legendary World War II spy Richard Sorge; in 1936-1937 he was the chief Soviet military advisor in the Spanish Civil War under the nom de guerre “Grishin”. Russians fighting in Spain just referred to him as “the old man.” (Source)

Of course, no degree of seniority was sufficient safety during the frightful purging years of the Yezhovshchina. Once back in Moscow, Berzins fell instantly, almost randomly, over a spurious accusation of internal espionage.

His conviction was reversed after Stalin died.

* But not one of the Latvian revolutionaries who ended up in a shootout with London police.

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1879: Kate Webster, of the Barnes Mystery

1 comment July 29th, 2013 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site. (I’ve added some links and done a bit of minor reformatting.) The images accompanying this post are also provided by Mr. Clark. -ed.)

Kate Webster was a rather incompetent career criminal who had served several prison terms for various thefts and offences of dishonesty, both in her native Ireland and in England. These included a period of 12 months in 1877 in London’s Wandsworth prison, where she would ultimately die.

She was born Catherine Lawler in 1849 in Killane, Co. Wexford in what is now the Irish Republic and started her criminal career at an early age. She claimed to have a married a sea captain called Webster by whom, according to her, she had had four children. Whether this is true is doubtful, however.

She moved to Liverpool (stealing money for the ferry fare) and continued stealing once she arrived there. This was to earn her a four-year prison sentence at the age of 18. On release, she went to London and took work as a cleaner — often “cleaning out” her employer’s possessions before moving on.

In 1873, she settled at Rose Gardens in London’s Hammersmith area. Her next door neighbours were Henry and Ann Porter whom she got on well with and were to feature later in her story. She moved to Notting Hill to a new job as a cook/housekeeper to Captain Woolbest and whilst in his employ, met a man named Strong with whom she went to live and became pregnant by. She duly gave birth to a son on the 19th of April 1874 and was promptly abandoned by Mr. Strong. Without any means of support (there was no Social Security then), Kate resorted to her usual dishonest practices and served several prison sentences as a result.

On release from Wandsworth in 1877, she again sought domestic work — firstly with the Mitchell family in Teddington, of whom she was to say that they didn’t have anything worth stealing. She was constantly on the move at this time and used several aliases including Webster and Lawler.

Sarah Crease, another domestic servant, became friends with Kate somewhere around this period, and it was Sarah who found herself looking after Kate’s son during his mother’s spells in prison.

The murder.

On the 13th of January 1879, Kate entered the service of Mrs Julia Martha Thomas at No. 2 Vine Cottages, Park Road, Richmond. To begin with, the two women got on well and Kate recorded that she felt she could be happy working for Mrs. Thomas, who was comfortably off, although a rather eccentric woman in her mid 50’s.

Soon, however, the poor quality of Kate’s work and her frequent visits to local pubs began to irritate Mrs. Thomas and after various reprimands, she gave Kate notice with Kate’s dismissal to take effect on Friday, the 28th of February. This period of notice was a fatal mistake on the part of Mrs. Thomas and she became increasingly frightened of her employee during its period, so much so that she asked friends from her church and relatives to stay in the house with her.

Friday the 28th arrived and as Kate had not managed to find a new job or any accommodation, she pleaded with Mrs. Thomas to be allowed to remain in her house over the weekend. Sadly, Mrs. Thomas agreed to this — a decision that was to cost both women their lives.

On the Sunday morning (the 2nd of March 1879), Mrs. Thomas went off to church as usual. Kate was allowed Sunday afternoons off work but had to be back in time for Mrs. Thomas to go to the evening service. This Sunday afternoon Kate went to visit her son, who was as usual in the care of Sarah Crease, and then went to a pub on the way back to Vine Cottages. Thus she got back late which inconvenienced Mrs. Thomas, who again reprimanded her before rushing off so as not be late for the service. Fellow members of the congregation noticed that she seemed agitated, whether this was because she suspected Kate’s dishonesty and feared her home was being robbed, is quite possible.

Whatever the reason, Mrs. Thomas left church before the end of the service and went home, sadly without asking anyone to accompany her. Precisely what happened next is unclear. In her confession prior to her execution, Kate described the events as follows:

We had an argument which ripened into a quarrel, and in the height of my anger and rage I threw her from the top of the stairs to the ground floor. She had a heavy fall. I felt that she was seriously injured and I became agitated at what had happened, lost all control of myself and to prevent her screaming or getting me into trouble, I caught her by the throat and in the struggle choked her.

At her trial, the prosecution painted a rather different picture. Mrs. Thomas’ next door neighbour, Mrs. Ives, heard the noise of the fall followed by silence and at the time thought no more of it. Little was she to suspect what was to happen next.

Kate, of course, had the problem of what to do with the body but instead of just leaving it and escaping, she decided to dismember it and then dispose of the parts in the river.

She set about this grim task with a will, firstly cutting off the dead woman’s head with a razor and meat saw and then hacking off her limbs. She par-boiled the limbs and torso in a copper on the stove and burned Mrs. Thomas’ organs and intestines.

Even Kate was revolted by all this and the enormous amount of blood everywhere. But she stuck to the job and systematically burnt or boiled all of the body parts and then packed the remains into a wooden box, except for the head and one foot for which she could not find room. It has been said that Kate even tried to sell the fatty remains from boiling the body as dripping.

Mrs. Ives was later to report a strange smell from next door (which was caused by the burning).

Kate disposed of the spare foot on a manure heap but was left with the problem of the head, which she decided to place into a black bag.

She continued to clean up the cottage on the Monday and Tuesday and then “borrowing” one of Mrs. Thomas’ silk dresses went to visit the Porter family on the Tuesday afternoon, taking the black bag containing the head with her.

She told the Porters that she had benefited under the will of an aunt who had left her a house in Richmond which she wanted to dispose of, together with its contents, as she had decided to return to Ireland. She asked Henry Porter if he knew a property broker (estate agent) who might be able to assist her.

Later in the evening Kate excused herself and went off, ostensibly to visit another friend, returning later without the black bag which was never found. Both Henry Porter and his son Robert had carried the bag for Kate at various stages of their walk to the railway station and two pubs along the way and both noticed how heavy it was.

This still left Kate with the rest of the human remains in the box to dispose of and she sought the services of young Robert Porter to help her in this, taking the lad back home with her for the purpose. She and Robert carried the box between them to Richmond Bridge, where Kate said she was meeting someone who was taking the box and told Robert to go on without her. Robert was to hear a splash of something heavy hitting the water below a few moments before Kate caught up with him again.

The box was discovered the next morning by a coal man who must have had a horrible shock when he opened it. He reported his discovery to Inspector Harber at Barnes police station and the police had the various body parts examined by a local doctor who declared that they were from a human female and noticed that the skin showed signs of having been boiled. Without the head, however, it was not possible to identify the body.

Kate meanwhile was calling herself Mrs. Thomas and wearing the dead woman’s clothes and jewellery. She kept up pressure on Henry Porter to help her dispose of the property and he introduced her to a Mr. John Church, who was a publican and general dealer, who she persuaded to buy the contents of the house. Kate and Church seemed to rapidly become friends and went drinking together several times. The real Mrs. Thomas had not been reported missing at this stage and the papers referred to the human remains in the box as “the Barnes Mystery,” a fact known to Kate as she could read, as could the Porter family. Robert told his father about the box he had helped Kate carry which was like the one described in the papers.

Kate agreed a price for the furniture and some of Mrs. Thomas’ clothes with John Church and he arranged for their removal. Unsurprisingly, this was to arouse the suspicion of Mrs. Ives next door who questioned Kate as to what was going on. Mrs. Church was later to find a purse and diary belonging to Mrs. Thomas in one of the dresses. There was also a letter from a Mr. Menhennick to whom Henry Porter and John Church paid a visit.

Menhennick knew the real Mrs. Thomas and it became clear from the discussion that it could well be her body in the box. The three men, together with Menhennick’s solicitor, went to the Richmond police station and reported their suspicions. The next day a search was made of No. 2 Vine Cottages and an axe, razor and some charred bones were recovered, together with the missing handle from the box found in the river. Thus on the 23rd of March, a full description of Kate Webster was circulated by the police in connection with the murder of Mrs. Thomas and the theft of her effects.

Kate had decided to flee to Ireland taking her son with her — which was to be the first place the police looked for her. She was arrested on the 28th of March and kept in custody awaiting collection by two detectives from Scotland Yard. She was brought back to England and taken to Richmond police station where she made a statement on March 30th and was formally charged with the murder.

The statement accused John Church of being responsible for Mrs. Thomas’ death and he was subsequently arrested and charged with the murder too. Fortunately, he had a strong alibi and had also assisted the police in discovering the crimes. At the committal hearing, the charges against him were dropped while Kate was remanded in custody. She was transferred to Newgate prison to save the journey by horse drawn prison van across London each day for her trial.

Trial.

Kate Webster’s trial opened on the 2nd of July 1879 before Mr. Justice Denman at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) next door to Newgate. In view of the seriousness of the crime, the Crown was led by the Solicitor General, Sir Hardinge Giffard, and Kate was defended by Mr. Warner Sleigh.

A hat maker named Mary Durden gave evidence for the prosecution telling the court that on the 25th of February, Kate had told her she was going to Birmingham to take control of the property, jewellery, etc. that had been left her by a recently deceased aunt. This, the prosecution claimed, was clear evidence of premeditation, as the conversation had occurred 6 days before the murder.

One of the problems of the prosecution case, however, was proving that the human remains the police had found were actually those of Mrs. Thomas. It was a weakness that her defence sought to capitalise on, especially as without the head there was no means of positively identifying them at that time. Medical evidence was given to show that all the body parts had belonged to the same person and that they were from a woman in her fifties.

The defence tried to suggest that Mrs. Thomas could have died of natural causes, in view of her agitated state, when she was last seen alive leaving church on the Sunday afternoon. Both Henry Porter and John Church gave evidence against Kate describing the events of which they had been involved, and her defence again tried to point the finger of suspicion at them. In his summing up, the judge, however, pointed to the actions and previously known good characters of both of them. Two of Kate’s friends, Sarah Crease and Lucy Loder, gave evidence of her good nature.

Late on the afternoon of Tuesday, the 8th of July, the jury retired to consider their verdict, returning just over an hour later to pronounce her guilty. Before she was sentenced, Kate yet again made a complete denial of the charge but cleared Church and Porter of any involvement in the crime. As was normal, she was asked if she had anything to say before she was sentenced and claimed to be pregnant. She was examined by a panel of matrons drawn from some of the women present in the court and this claim was dismissed as just another of her lies. She went back to Newgate and was transferred the next day to Wandsworth to await execution. It has been suggested that Wandsworth did not have a condemned cell at this time although it would seem unlikely. In any event, Kate was guarded round the clock by teams of female prison officers.

Kate was to make two further “confessions” in Wandsworth, the first implicating Strong, who was the father of her child. These allegations were also found to be baseless.

Kate was informed by her solicitor that no reprieve was to be granted to her, despite a small amount of public agitation for commutation. So on the eve of her hanging, Kate made another confession to the solicitor in the presence of the Catholic priest attending her, Father McEnrey, which seemed somewhat nearer the truth. She stated that she was resigned to her fate and that she would almost rather be executed than return to a life of misery and deception.

Execution.

The actual execution of the sentence of death had changed a great deal over the 11 years between the ending of public hangings and Kate’s death, even though the words of the sentence had not.

No longer was it a public spectacle with the prisoner being given a short drop and allowed to die in agony. William Marwood had made great improvements to the process and had introduced the “long drop” method, designed to break the person’s neck and cause instant unconsciousness.

The execution was, as usual, to take place three clear Sundays after sentence and was set for the morning of Tuesday, the 29th of July at Wandsworth prison. Wandsworth was originally the Surrey House of Correction and had been built in 1851. It took over the responsibility for housing Surrey’s condemned prisoners on the closure of Horsemonger Lane Gaol in 1878.

Kate was to be only the second person and the sole woman to be hanged there.

At 8.45 a.m., the prison bell started to toll and a few minutes before 9.00 a.m. the Under Sheriff, the prison governor, Captain Colville, the prison doctor, two male warders and Marwood formed up outside her cell.

Inside, Kate was being ministered to by Father McEnrey and attended by two female wardresses. She would have typically been offered a stiff tot of brandy before the execution commenced. The governor entered her cell and told her that it was time and she was led out between the two male warders, accompanied by Father McEnrey, across the yard to the purpose built execution shed which was nicknamed the “Cold Meat Shed.” (See photo)

Having the gallows in a separate building spared the other prisoners from the sound of the trap falling, and made it easier too for the staff to deal with the execution and removal of the body afterwards. As Kate entered the shed, she would have been able to see the large white painted gallows with the rope dangling in front of her with its simple noose laying on the trapdoors. The idea of coiling up the rope to bring the noose to chest level came later, as did the brass eyelet in the noose. Marwood stopped her on the chalk mark on the double trapdoors and placed a leather body belt round her waist to which he secured her wrists, while one of the warders strapped her ankles with a leather strap. She was not pinioned in her cell, as became the normal practice later.

She was supported on the trap by the two warders standing on planks, (one is just visible in the bottom left hand corner of the photo) set across it. This had been the normal practice for some years in case the prisoner fainted or struggled at the last moment. Marwood placed the white hood over her head and adjusted the noose, leaving the free rope running down her back. Her last words were, “Lord, have mercy upon me.”

He quickly stepped to the side and pulled the lever, Kate plummeting down some 8 feet into the brick-lined pit below. Marwood used significantly longer drops than later were found to be necessary. Kate’s body was left to hang for the usual hour before being taken down and prepared for burial. The whole process would have taken around two minutes in those days and was considered vastly more humane than Calcraft’s executions.

The black flag was hoisted on the flag pole above the main gate, where a small crowd of people had gathered for her execution. They would have seen and heard nothing and yet these rather pointless gatherings continued outside prisons during executions until abolition.

As the criminal was female no newspaper reporters were been allowed to attend the execution but the Illustrated Police News did one of their famous drawings of the scene as they imagined it, with Marwood putting the hood over a pinioned Kate’s head.*

The Sheriff’s Cravings show that William Marwood received £11 for hanging Kate, presumably £10 plus £1 expenses.

Later in the day, her body was buried in an unmarked grave in one of the exercise yards at Wandsworth.** She is listed in the handwritten prison records as Catherine Webster, interred 29/07/1879. Although she was the second person to be executed at Wandsworth, she was buried in grave no. 3 as the graves were numbered 1, 3, 5, etc. on one side of the path, while on the other side they were numbered 2, 4, 6, etc. and it was decided to use those on one side first.

In all, 134 men and Kate were to be hanged at Wandsworth up till the 8th of September, 1961, when Henryk Niemasz became the last to suffer for the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Buxton.

Comment.

If the events of that Sunday evening were exactly as Kate described them, it is strange that Mrs. Ives did not hear the quarrel or any other noises from next door. Again why were there bloodstains at the top of the stairs if Mrs. Thomas’ injuries had occurred at the bottom?

It is generally held that Kate lay in wait for Mrs. Thomas and hit her on the head with an axe causing her to fall down the stairs, where she then strangled her to prevent any further noise. This would, of course, make the crime one of premeditated murder and is much more in line with the forensic evidence.

Whether Kate decided to kill Mrs. Thomas in revenge for her earlier telling off or whether it was because she saw a great opportunity to steal from Vine Cottage, or both, is unclear. It is not unknown for previously non-violent criminals to turn to violent murder. John Martin Scripps became, to date, the last British man to be hanged for murder when he was executed in Singapore in April 1996. He too had convictions for dishonesty.

But what turned Kate to such appalling violence? Did she just snap or had she spent two hours or so thinking about it? We will never know the answer to these questions because there was no psychiatric assessment carried out on murderers back then.

Postscript.

It was reported in October 2010 that Julia Martha Thomas’s skull has finally been discovered in the grounds of Sir David Attenborough‘s property in Park Road, Richmond by workmen excavating for an extension. He had purchased a former pub called “The Hole in the Wall” which was adjacent to his property and has had demolished the rear of the pub. It is highly likely that Kate Webster frequented “The Hole in the Wall”.

The coroners report stated that the skull had fractures consistent with falling down stairs and also had depleted collagen which suggested it had been boiled.

* Interesting sidelight on the popular circulation of crime news here, using a comparison of this case and that of another noteworthy 1879 hanging, Charles Peace. -ed.

** After the 90th Wandsworth execution, the authorities started to re-use some graves of previously hanged male prisoners. Nobody else was ever buried in Kate’s grave, however.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Women

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1969: Joseph Blösche, Der SS-Mann

4 comments July 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1969, Joseph Blösche was executed in Leipzig, German Democratic Republic, for his part in the Holocaust.


Blösche (far right) chills out at the Warsaw Ghetto with, among others, Jurgen Stroop (fourth from right, in profile).

Blösche (English Wikipedia entry | German) was an SS Rottenführer and a Nazi Party member whose particular contribution to deporting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka was fitting in some opportunistic rape, typically followed with summary murder. The ghetto’s wards called him “Frankenstein”.

Blösche was eventually captured by the Red Army, which you’d think might augur ill for his survival prospects. However, with the aid of a horrible accident he suffered in a postwar labor camp that helpfully disfigured his face, Blösche managed to fade quietly into East German society, wed, and raise a family.

He would need that facial anonymity, because the un-disfigured version is there full-frontal gazing over his submachine gun in one of the war’s most iconic and chilling images — snapped for the benefit of the Stroop report documenting the ghetto’s liquidation.


An SS trooper, eventually identified as Joseph Blösche, looms over a frightened Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto. (The child might be one of Artur Dab Siemiatek, Levi Zelinwarger, Israel Rondel, or Tsvi Nussbaum)

This photo was published in the U.S. in Life magazine on November 28, 1960. The terrible image haunted Holocaust survivor Peter Fischl into writing his poem “The Little Polish Boy”.

Blösche’s luck ran out when his name came up in a West German war crimes trial in 1961; East Germany’s follow-up eventually zeroed in on the man, and he was convicted in April 1969 for directly killing up to 2,000 people, and participating in deportations that killed 300,000 more. He was executed in Leipzig with a single shot to the neck.

Joseph Blösche is the subject of the German documentary Der SS-Mann (there’s also a book of the same title).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,History,Shot,Soldiers,War Crimes

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1947: Three Jewish terrorists and two British hostages

1 comment July 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1947, three members of an Irgun commando team who had engineered a massive prison break of Zionist terrorists were hanged for the affair.

The Acre Prison Break was a meticulously coordinated operation by the Zionist underground in British Mandate Palestine that, a Conservative MP later charged, “reduced British prestige to a nadir.”

A team of guerrillas attacked the prison from the outside, coordinating with imprisoned Irgun and Stern Gang operatives who had explosives smuggled into their cells to help detonate their way through the walls. Hundreds of prisoners — most of them Arabs availing the opportunity — escaped.

According to the London Times (May 6, 1947), 16 escaping prisoners were slain in the affray, with eight British guards and police wounded.

More crucially for our purposes, five of the guerrillas who assailed the prison were captured. Three — Haviv Avshalom, Yaakov Weiss, and Meir Nakar — were taken armed, and sentenced to death by the British.

To browse the contemporaneous western press coverage is to visit a Holy Land very familiar to the present-day reader, filled with “terrorists” and “extremists” and “fanatics” and “murderers” abetted by “those who incite them from a safe distance and supply the funds and the weapons which they put to such deadly use.”* Except that this discourse was directed at Jews, not Arabs.

One good way to earn such an imprecation would be to kidnap two British soldiers and hold them hostage against the execution of the sentence. That’s exactly what the Irgun did.

The British searched for their men, but disdained to stoop the majesty of the law at the pleasure of some seditious blackmailer. So, early this morning at that same Acre Prison they had lately helped to liberate, Avshalom, Weiss, and Nakar went to the gallows.


Left to right: Avshalom, Weiss, and Nakar.

Palestine awaited with anxiety the expected discovery of two kidnaped British sergeants whom the Irgunists have vowed to kill in retaliation. The Mosaic law of vengeance applies and any show of clemency would be regarded by the extremists as evidence of cowardly submission.

New York Times, July 30, 1947

The Irgun had already applied that Mosaic law of vengeance.

On the evening of that same July 29, it hanged its two hostages, intelligence corps sergeants Clifford Martin and Marvin Paice. The bodies were moved and strung up in a Eucalyptus grove near Netanya, to be discovered the next day, booby-trapped with a land mine. A scornful note announced their condemnation for “criminal anti-Hebrew activities.”


The bodies of Sgts. Clifford Martin and Marvin Paice, as discovered on July 31, 1947, hanging from Eucalyptus trees.

Moderate, mainline Zionists were horrified.

Of all the crimes that took place till this day on this land, this is the most grievous and disgusting one and will stain the purity of our peoples struggle for freedom. May this act of hanging remain as a sign of Cain on the doers of this disgraceful deed! The heavens and the earth are my witnesses that most of our population took desperate measures to free the hostages and prevent this shame.

-Netanya Mayor Oved Ben Ami

Said disgraceful deed-doers were far from apologetic.

And you could say they had a point, since although the threat did not prevent the death sentences at hand from being carried into execution, its example proved to be a lively deterrent: Avshalom, Weiss, and Nakar were the last Zionists executed by the British. Then-Irgun leader, and later Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin made no bones about the trade.

The Brits were a little less sanguine about “the sergeants affair”.

A Times editorial for Friday, Aug. 1 fulminated against “the violent deeds of the Palestine terrorists [that] will not readily be effaced,” comparing them to “the bestialities practised by the Nazis themselves.”**

Over the ensuing long weekend’s summer bank holiday, racist riots against Jews shook Britain. Jewish businesses, cemeteries, and synagogues were smashed up and vandalized all over the island, to the horror this time of milquetoast liberals like the Manchester Guardian, with again-familiar lines like: “to answer terrorism in Palestine with terrorism in England is sheer Hitlerism. We must be desperately careful to see that we do not let ourselves be infected with the poison of the disease we had thought to eradicate.”

Fine points for debate in Britain, which within months was bugging out of the Levant as open war engulfed Palestine — the violent birth pangs of modern Israel and its embrace of its own subject populace with its own frustrated national ambitions pursued by its own violent extremists.

* London Times editorial, May 21, 1947.

** Irgun propaganda’s riposte: “We recognize no one-sided laws of war. If the British are determined that their way out of the country should be lined by an avenue of gallows and of weeping fathers, mothers, wives, and sweethearts, we shall see to it that in this there is no racial discrimination.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Israel,Jews,Martyrs,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Terrorists

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1600: The Pappenheimer Family

12 comments July 29th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1600, Bavarians thronged to a half-mile-long procession in Munich for the horrific execution of the Pappenheimer family.

They were marginal, itinerant types: the father, Paulus Pappenheimer, cleaned privies (“Pappenheimer” would remain as Nuremberg slang for a garbageman into the 20th century, according to Robert Butts); the mother, Anna, was the daughter of a gravedigger. They wandered, begged, did odd jobs. They were Lutherans in a Catholic duchy.

So they were vulnerable to their extreme turn of bad luck. Fresh to the throne of Bavaria, young Catholic zealot Duke Maximilian I wanted a crackdown on the infernal arts, and when others accused the Pappenheimers of witchcraft, they found they had become the stars of a show trial.

Tortured into a spectacular litany of confessions, Anne Llewellyn Barstow, records,

they were stripped so that their flesh could be torn off by red-hot pincers. Then Anna’s breasts were cut off. The bloody breasts were forced into her mouth and then into the mouths of her two grown sons … a hideous parody of her role as mother and nurse …

Church bells pealed to celebrate this triumph of Christianity over Satan; the crowd sang hymns; vendors hawked pamphlets describing the sins of the victims.

Meanwhile, Anna’s chest cavity bled. As the carts lurched along, the injured prisoners were in agony. Nonetheless, they were forced at one point to get down from the carts and kneel before a cross, to confess their sins. Then they were offered wine to drink, a strangely humane act in the midst of this barbaric ritual.*

One can hope that between the wine and loss of blood, the Pappenheimers were losing consciousness. They had not been granted the “privilege” of being strangled before being burned, but in keeping with the extreme brutality of these proceedings, they would be forced to endure the very flames.

Further torments awaited Paulus. A heavy iron wheel was dropped on his arms until the bones snapped … [then] Paulus was impaled on a stick driven up through his anus …

The four Pappenheimers were then tied to the stakes, the brushwood pyres were set aflame, and they were burned to death. Their eleven-year-old son was forced to watch the dying agonies of his parents and brothers. We know that Anna was still alive when the flames leapt up around her, for Hansel cried out, “My mother is squirming!” The boy was executed months later.

Ouch.


The Pappenheimers’ appalling end, famous in its own time, hit modern bestseller lists with Michael Kunze‘s work of popular history, Highroad to the Stake: A Tale of Witchcraft (Review).

Dr. Kunze was good enough to share his thoughts on the Pappenheimers’ milieu with Executed Today.

You present the Pappenheimers as a sort of “show trial” case; what makes a witchcraft show trial a compelling need for a German duke at the end of the 16th century? Why do you think witch persecution arises so especially in this period especially?

Towards the end of the 16th century the Middle Ages had been overcome. People no longer believed in a God taking care of every little thing in their lives. The world was no longer regarded a safe home, guarded by the Father in heaven. Religion had been replaced by reason. The kings, princes and dukes took over direct responsibility for their countries and citizens. They started to build modern states, rationally organized und fully controlled.

The main problem was that full control was difficult to achieve. The streets were in very bad condition, the countryside far stretched, the woods were dark, the villages far away. All kinds of crimes were committed, and when the police arrived the robbers, thieves and murderers had long disappeared. In time without photographs or identity papers it was difficult to trace them. The slow flow of information was also a problem.

That’s why the authorities tried to abhor criminals by show trials and spectacular executions. A witch trial was ideal, because people believed that all mischief and evil was induced by the devil. All criminals were more or less suspected of a deal with the devil.

What’s the biggest challenge we have in our time to re-imagining the world that witch prosecutors and “witches” lived in, or the biggest difference in mindset?

People in the 16th century were absolutely convinced that the devil was a real force trying to use humans to work against God’s intentions. They believed in a huge battle between good and evil, and those who changed sides and helped the devil were regarded as traitors committing High Treason.

At the same time the modern idea that everything that happens has an explainable cause made the authorities suspect the devil’s work behind every thunderstorm, not to mention deadly accidents. People were not more stupid than we are. It was the mixture of medieval superstitions and modern rationalization that led to the witch trials.

How did contemporaries of the Pappenheimers and Duke Maximilian think about this event?

It was indeed a monstrous case and quite an event at the time. The contemporaries did not doubt that 1) the Pappenheimer family had been instruments of the devil, and 2) that the brutal punishment had saved their souls. Duke Maximilian certainly regarded the execution as a means to stabilize safety in his country.

In researching the interrogations and trials in these cases, where did you get the sense that we still revert to “witch trial logic” in some modern cases? If so, when does it arise?

It’s obvious that we still interpret laws based on our beliefs and point of views. The judges involved in the witch trials thought they “knew” for certain that the devil can talk to people and make deals with them. They also believed that torture brings the truth to light. Isn’t today’s deal bargaining also a form of torture? After all the authorities tell the defendant that he will be severely punished if he does not confess. That’s what I call a forced confession. Yet it is done around the world.

Obviously, this execution is utterly horrific in its particulars. How typical would this sexualized theater — slicing off Anna Pappenheimer’s breasts, impaling Paulus Pappenheimer — have been for a witchcraft case at that time and place? How would this have been understood by witnesses, as opposed to “merely” burning or breaking on the wheel?

The point was to abhor by cruelty. People should see what horrors the criminals had to endure and tell it to everyone for years to come.

* Or, perchance, the wine was offered to revive them and protract their tortures.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Impaled,Interviews,Mature Content,Other Voices,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1747: Alexander Blackwell, who left them smiling

4 comments July 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1747,* the Swedes beheaded Scottish-born adventurer Alexander Blackwell for meddling with their line of succession.

Blackwell, “a man of mercurial and adventurous temperament,” had his printing business busted in England for having failed to precede it with the required apprenticeship, and was thrown in jail as a debtor.

To extricate the family from poverty, Blackwell’s wife Elizabeth thereupon launched an amazing career as an herbal limner, drawing, engraving, and hand-coloring editions with hundreds of plants that became a standard reference in the field in the late 1730’s, and whose revenues managed to liberate her spouse. (Elizabeth is still remembered on a plaque at the Chelsea Old Church, in her old neighborhood.)

That mercurial ex-deadbeat might have done better to stick close by his now highly esteemed wife (or possibly his brother, a bloviating classicist), but the wanderlust sent Alex abroad to wash ashore in Stockholm as physician to King Frederick I, where he was soon convicted (on evidence uncertain, apart from the torture-extracted confession) of having intrigued to alter the royal line of succession further to enmeshing Sweden in an alliance with Britain.

He protested his innocence on the scaffold. More memorably, perhaps, he laid his head the wrong way upon the chopping block, requiring the executioner to correct him — whereupon Blackwell cracked wise that he, after all, lacked experience at the art of being beheaded.

Mental Floss mined this outstanding exemplar of gallows humor in a cartoon about memorable exits. (Via History News Network.)

* Some sources, like this Google Books biography, offer August 9 as Blackwell’s execution date. The 11-day discrepancy is due to the still-pending adoption of the Gregorian calendar: July 29 was the date on the Julian calendar still in use in the realms both of Blackwell’s birth and death; in 1752 and 1753, respectively, Britain and Sweden would adopt the Gregorian system.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,History,Intellectuals,Notably Survived By,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Sweden,Torture,Treason

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