1825: Tahvo Putkonen, Finland’s last peacetime execution

1 comment July 8th, 2018 Headsman

Finland’s last peacetime execution occurred on this date in 1825: the instrument was an axe.

Farmhand Tahvo Putkonen, deep in a blue gap celebrating both Christmas and his December 26 name day in 1822, went off his rocker at the party he was hosting because of a guest’s actual or imagined transgression against good manners.

The drunken Putkonen suddenly attacked that guest, farmer Lasse Hirvonen, until this ill-tempered host got kicked out of his own house by the rest of the celebrants. Once he’d convinced everyone that he’d calmed down, he got back in the house and mortally bashed Hirvonen over the head with a firewood log.

Putkonen spent a long-for-the-time 2.5 years appealing against the legal proceedings before they finally struck off his head. So pedants take note: although he has the distinction of being the last peacetime execution, his was not the last peacetime crime that led to execution: one Abraham Kaipainen managed to commit murder (July 31, 1823) and reach the headsman’s block (October 30, 1824) all while Tahvo Putkonen was still fighting his sentence.

The very last executions in Finnish history took place in 1944, during the Continuation War — Finland’s local installment of World War II, fought against the Soviet Union.

Capital punishment is today formally abolished in Finland.

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1835: Dean and Donovan, white abolitionists

Add comment July 8th, 2017 Headsman

The planters comprising Livingston’s extralegal public safety committee had Albe Dean and Angus L. Donovan lynched on this date in 1835, during the ongoing panic at the prospect of slave rebellion.

Dean was a New England itinerant doctor, denounced by the “steam doctors” executed in Livingston on the 6th, in a desperate attempt to preserve their own lives; Donovan was a poor man from Kentucky whose name had been served up by similarly desperate slaves under torture at Beatties Bluff. Both were white, and in both cases the evidence marshaled against them largely resolved to a failure on the part of the accused to honor the color line.

The Livingston lynch committee was good enough to publish its own Proceedings by way of self-vindication, and we draw this post from its perspective on these marginal characters.

Trial of Albe Dean.

This man was a native of Ashford, Connecticut, whence he emigrated to Mississippi two years since. His general character before the disclosure of the conspiracy was not good; he was considered a lazy, indolent man, having very few pretensions to honesty. He had previously resided in the neighbourhood of Livingston, where he pretended to make a living by constructing washing-machines, until he became acquainted with Cotton, when he abandoned his business and turned steam-doctor, and went into partnership with Cotton, Saunders, & Co., and settled in Hinds county.

He was known to associate with negroes, and would often come to the owners of runaways and intercede with their masters to save them from a whipping. It was in evidence before the committee that he was seen prowling about the plantations in the neighbourhoods of Vernon, Beatie’s Bluff, and Livingston, ostensibly for the purpose of inquiring for runaway horses, which he did with great particularity — sometimes inquiring for a black, bay, gray, or other colour that suggested itself at the time. It was evident that horse-hunting was not his business, but that he was reconnoitring [sic] the country, and seeking opportunities to converse with the negroes …

Dean was arrested at the instigation of Saunders, who said he was a great rascal, and one of the conspirators. He was brought to Livingston with Saunders, on the 2d of July. On Monday, the 6th of July, he was placed on trial before the committee; but was in presence of the committee during the trial of Saunders and Cotton, and heard the whole of the testimony which went to implicate him.

It was in evidence before the committee, that, when on his way to Livingston, he had asked a witness, among other things, if some of Mr. W.P. Perkin’s negroes were not engaged in the conspiracy; and particularly if Hudnold’s Ned (a noted villain, whom he, Dean, had often endeavoured to screen from a whipping) was not concerned. He also inquired if Mr. Wm. Johnson’s Ruel Blake’s, and some other gentlemen’s negroes were not accused. He was not aware, at the time, that the very negroes about whom his inquiries were made had not only been suspected, but some of them actually hung; and, when informed Blake’s negro had been hung, he asked if he had made any disclosures about him. He was identified as one of their white accomplices by negroes accused.

And, lastly, he was accused by Dr. Cotton, who said, “Dean was one of his accomplices, and deeply engaged in the conspiracy, as a member of the Murrell clan.” After a cool and deliberate investigation of his case, he was, by a unanimous vote of the committee, found guilty of aiding and exciting the negroes to insurrection, and sentenced to be hanged.

In pursuance of the sentence, he was executed on the 8th of July, with Donovan, and died in dogged silence, neither acknowledging his guilt nor asserting his innocence.

This man requested that his name should not be given to the public, as his father was a public man, and it might lacerate the feelings of a venerated mother, who still survived. This request the committee and the writer would have scrupulously regarded, but that the name of the unfortunate man had already been made public by the officious and gratuitous information of some of the letter-writers [letters from Madison County to newspapers that were published widely in July and August -ed.], who have already given his name to the public.

Trial of A.L. Donovan, of Maysville, Ken.

After the trial of Dean, this young man was brought before the committee for examination, having been arrested on the evening of the 2d July, at Beatie’s Bluff.

His deportment, some weeks previous to his arrest, was very suspicious, from his intimacy with the negroes in the neighbourhood, being suspected at the time of trading with them, &c. His behaviour was so reprehensible as to compel the gentleman with whom he boarded to tell him, if he did not change his course he must leave his house, which he did a few days after, and went to the house of a man by the name of Moss, reputed a great scoundrel, whose name is mentioned in the report of the proceedings at Beatie’s Bluff: there Donovan remained until his arrest.

Donovan’s conduct was so very extraordinary and suspicious after he commenced boarding with Moss, as to induce the citizens of the neighbourhood to watch his movements. He was repeatedly found in the negro cabins, enjoying himself in negro society. Some persons requested him to leave the place, but he refused, alleging as a reason that he had to take care of some old keel-boats (which were entirely useless), half sunk, in Big Black river.

After the plot of the conspirators was discovered, instead of using his exertions to ferret out the ringleaders, and to assist the citizens in their efforts of detection, he would be found sneaking about the negro quarters, seeking opportunities to converse with them; and was caught at the house where the discovery of the conspiracy was made, engaged in earnest conversation with the girls who divulged the plot.

After arrests were made and examinations were going on, his conduct was such as no honest man would pursue; he would introduce himself into any company of gentlemen he would see conversing; this in itself at the time, was not noticed, as every one was desirous of finding out something to direct him in his investigations; but he would then go off and engage in conversations with Moss and his sons-in-law, who he knew, from their character, were suspected of being engaged in promoting the insurrection.

Even after several negroes were taken on suspicion, he still persisted in his attempts to converse with them, and at one time actually undertook (while the citizens were examining one) to release a negro who was tied, which negro afterward implicated him.

He was requested by the gentlemen who were examining the negroes not to come about them; they were compelled to take this step, from the fact that, when he was present, the negroes would say nothing, for the experiment was frequently tried; but when they were apprized that Donovan was not present, their disclosures were full, complete, and corresponding; the experiment was tried several times with the same success.

When he found he could not be permitted to be present at the examination of the negroes, he evinced considerable uneasiness, and kept walking to and fro, in view of the negroes under examination. The cause of his anxiety and alarm was soon explained; after his removal the negroes commenced a full detail and expose of the whole conspiracy (being at the time one or two hundred yards apart, and examined one at a time).

Among other white associates implicated by them, Donovan was said to be one of their leaders, and deeply concerned with them in the conspiracy.

After being implicated by a number of negroes at Beatie’s Bluff, the citizens thought proper to arrest him and bring him to Livingston, where the committee then organized was in session.

He was put on trial before the committee on the 7th July, and, in addition to the testimony before adduced, the following evidence was brought forward, which proved his participation in the conspiracy: —

A negro man from Beatie’s Bluff stated that Donovan was one of the white men engaged in persuading him to rebel with the rest, on the 4th of July, and that he had often solicited him to join them; Donovan said nothing was easier than for them to get their freedom; that the negroes could kill all the white people; and, if they should be pushed, that he would take them to a free state.

The confession of another negro man was in evidence before the committee, who pointed Donovan out at the time of the negro’s examination, and said, “He was to be one of their captains at Beatie’s Bluff.” It was also in evidence before the committee, that another boy, just before his execution, pointed Donovan out, when in a crowd, and said he was one of the men who persuaded him to enter into the conspiracy, and had encouraged him to go on, and get as many negroes to join as possible: other negroes implicated him.

A young man of unimpeachable character testified to the committee, in the presence of Donovan, that he and Donovan were walking through the field of his employer about the 25th or 26th May, when Donovan remarked to him that he should hate to be an overseer very much. Witness asked him why? He answered, it was such cruel work to be whipping the poor negroes, as he was obliged to do. Witness told him he never whipped only when they deserved it, and that was not often. Donovan exclaimed — “My friend, you will not have use for this long,” at the same time putting his hand on witness’s whip. Witness was a little astonished, and asked him to explain himself. Donovan, by way of explanation, remarked, the reason why he would not have use for it long was, that the negroes would soon be all free in this state. Witness replied, he knew the owners were not going to set them free, and that he (Donovan) ought to know that they could not effect their liberty by force, as they had tried it two or three times, and always failed; and that he thought they were now contented to remain in slavery.

Donovan replied warmly, in answer to his remarks, “that they could obtain their liberty by force, and that they would do it, not by themselves, but with the aid of thousands of rich, smart white men, who were ready to head them, with money, arms, and ammunition for their use.” And, before leaving the plantation, requested permission of witness to converse with the negroes, and to inform them of their rights, &c.

Of course, after the expression of such sentiments as above set forth, his request was denied, and at the same time he received a little good advice, and a threat from witness that, if he was seen on the plantation again, he might expect a “benefit” from his negro whip; and, using witness’s remark, Donovan cut out, and he had not seen him since until before the committee on his trial.

The committee were satisfied, from the evidence before them, that Donovan was an emissary of those deluded fanatics at the north — the ABOLITIONISTS. And, that while disseminating his incendiary doctrines among the negroes to create rebellion, he had found out that he was anticipated by a band of cut-throats and robbers, who were engaged in the same work, not wishing to liberate negroes, but to use them as instruments to assist them in plunder.

Being of a dissolute and abandoned character … and ripe for every rash enterprise, he joined the conspirators with the hope of receiving part of the spoils. If there had been any doubt on the minds of the committee as to his connexion with the conspirators, he would at least have been sentenced to be hanged for his attempts at diffusing among the negroes rebellious notions. On the 7th he was condemned to be hanged.

Accordingly, at twelve o’clock on the 8th of July he offered up his life on the gallows, as an expiation for his crimes. He said, from the gallows, that the committee did their duty in condemning him; that from the evidence they were compelled to do so.

Thus died an ABOLITIONIST, and let his blood be on the heads of those who sent him here.

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1617: Eleonora Galigai, Marie de’ Medici favorite

1 comment July 8th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1617, Italian noblewoman Eleonora Galigai was beheaded in Paris for witchcraft.

Continuing the French crown’s glorious tradition of importing dubious Italians in the train of a Medici, Eleonora (also known as Leonora or Dianora) shipped over from Tuscany with her mistress Marie de’ Medici when the latter was dynastically married off to Henri IV. Like many in its time it was a marriage of convenience: Henri brought the kingdom — and Marie the money.


Detail view (click for the full panoramic panel) of Peter Paul Rubens‘s Coronation of Marie de’ Medici in [the Basilica of] St. Denis, part of a cycle of Marie de’ Medici paintings Rubens produced on the queen’s commission beginning in 1622.

The coronation depicted above occurred on May 13, 1610 after ten quarrelsome years of marriage, and it was noteworthy timing (some thought suspicious timing) because her husband was assassinated the very next day, leaving Marie to rule France in the stead of her eight-year-old firsborn Louis XIII.

To the boundless irritation of France’s native optimates, the import queen now bestowed an incommensurate favor on her own people, and were the French nobility to draw up their bill of particulars for us the very first name might be Eleonora Galigai’s husband.

This character, Concino Concini by name, was the quick-witted son of a Florentine notary who had hustled his way into that same nuptial entourage. Marrying Eleonora, who was one of Marie’s favorites, put him squarely in the limelight among the regal expats; indeed it was he who had the honor of informing Marie of her late husband’s murder with the cold words “L’hanno ammazzato”: they killed him.

Now (runs an English traveler’s epistle), Marie’s “Countenance came to shine so strongly upon him, that he became her only Confident and Favourite, insomuch that she made him Marquis of Ancre, one of the twelve Mareschals of France, Governor of Normandy; and conferr’d divers other Honours and Offices of Trust upon him.” He lived with his wife in splendor at the Louvre, both of them in the constant orbit of the queen whom they dominated.

Haughty, insolent, low-born, foreign, and possibly complicit in regicide, D’Ancre was widely loathed in France; certainly he had few greater enemies than the growing young king, who would already have been disposed to chafe under his mother’s regency. In Louis’s eyes, this adventurer-marquis was both emblem of his mother’s misrule and (as Marshal of France) a substantive roadblock to his own power.

At last in 1617 — not yet 15 years of age — Louis seized his own realm* by having D’Ancre ambushed crossing in front of the Louvre and murdered by palace guards. Afterwards, a crowd long hostile to the noxious favorite brutally vented its rage on his naked corpse, gleefully shouting at Eleonora those words Concino had made so notorious: l’hanno ammazzato! They were really baying for her blood, too.


17th century French engraving.

And they got it.

With France in hand and public opinion at his back — “I cannot represent to the king one thousandth part of joy of all these people who are exalting him to heaven for having delivered the earth from this miserable burden,” one toady reported; “I can’t tell you in what execration this public pest was held” — Louis’s party began purging the remaining dregs of his mother’s regency.** They soon shut up Eleonora in the Bastille, and had her charged as a sorceress.

* This coup was naturally big news in England as well; there’s evidence of a now-lost play about it within weeks of D’Ancre’s murder.

** The eminence grise himself, Cardinal Richelieu, first attained the summit of the state as a loyal aide to Marie and Concino. Briefly banished from Paris in the wake of Louis’s coup, Richelieu bided his time and won his way back into the confidence of the young king with whom he was to become so closely identified.

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1949: Antoun Saadeh

1 comment July 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1949, Lebanese writer and political leader Antoun Saadeh was shot following a failed coup by his Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Born to a globetrotting journalist, the young polyglot Saadeh was living abroad in Brazil when his native Lebanon fell from the collapsing Ottoman Empire into French hands.

He returned in 1930 to Lebanon an irredentist on the make and churned out a prodigious literary output: fiction, newspaper stories, political pamphlets.

It was his vision for a “Greater Syria” that would define the man’s legacy, and cause his death. In 1932 he secretly founded the Syrian Social Nationalist Party to advocate for a vast Syrian state encompassing what now comprise Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. At its most ambitious this prospective state dreamt itself inscribed upon the whole Fertile Crescent from the Tauras Mountains to the Persian Gulf.

The SSNP still exists in Syria and Lebanon to this day, but it was a big cheese in the French Mandate by the late 1930s — when the imminent end of colonialism put the future shape of the entire region into question. Saadeh, harried by French authorities who had clapped him in prison a couple of times, emigrated to Argentina and carried on the struggle through exile publications.

In 1947, Saadeh returned to a rapturous reception in now-independent Lebanon:

But his pan-Syria idea was distinctly at odds with what had happened on the ground. Whatever the colonial roots of the borders that had been set down, they defined not only zones on a map but elites with an interest in their maintenance. Lebanon’s founding “National Pact” arrangement among Christians and Muslims also committed all involved to Lebanon as an independent state not to merge with Syria.

So despite (or rather because of) Saadeh’s popularity, the SSNP faced renewed crackdowns in 1948. Revolutionaries, reformers, and pan-Arabist types were surging throughout the region thanks to the distressingly shabby performance of Arab armies in their 1948 war to strangle Israel in its crib. (Lebanon fielded only a tiny force in this fight which also won no laurels; instead, Israel began its long tradition of occupying southern Lebanon.) Saadeh was certainly alarmed by the birth of a Zionist state so inimical to his own programme; “Our struggle with the enemy is not a struggle for borders but for existence,” he declared in 1948.

On July 4, 1949, the SSNP put its muscle to the test by attempting to seize state power in Lebanon — and disastrously failed. Saadeh had traveled to Damascus hoping to gain the support of the Syrian military dictator Husni al-Za’im;* instead, al-Za’im simply handed Saadeh right back to Lebanese authorities who had him tried in secret and swiftly executed.

* A gentleman who would himself be overthrown and executed just a few weeks hence.

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1814: Two War of 1812 deserters

Add comment July 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date two centuries ago, there was — or at least, there was supposed to be — a military execution for desertion from U.S. forces during its War of 1812 against Britain/Canada.

I depend here on only a single source, this public-domain tome about the history of New York City.

There’s a noticeable discrepancy here in that the execution order (the first document) references, and names, two people sentenced to die — but the ensuing garrison orders consistently refer to “the prisoner” in the singular. I have not been able to clarify this discrepancy, and it’s worth noting that the Espy file of historic U.S. executions — which is incomplete, but nevertheless pretty complete — does not note an execution on or around this date. It’s possible that either or both of the men were pardoned; there had been an amnesty proclaimed in June for (successful) deserters who were still on the lam, and although that wouldn’t have directly covered these cases, it might have signaled a corresponding leniency liable to extend within the courts-martial system.

Headquarters 3d Military District,

N. Y., July 7th, 1814.

Capt. Moses Swett or officer commanding troops on Governor’s Island.

Sir :–The general court martial which convened on Governor’s Island on the 23d ult., of which Col. D. Brearly,* of the 15th Inft. is president, having sentenced John Reid and Roger Wilson, privates in the corps of artillery, to be shot to death — By power in me vested you are hereby directed to have the sentence carried into execution on the day and at the hour prescribed in the general order of the 3d inst., for which this shall be your warrant. I am, sir, your obedient servant,

Morgan Lewis, Major-General Commanding 3d M. D.

They didn’t stand on ceremony in the Third Military District, which comprised southern New York and northern New Jersey. (Hence the artillery batteries in Battery Park.)

Off the tip of Manhattan, at Governors Island, this warrant was put into execution the very next day.

Garrison Orders.

Fort Columbus, July 7th, 1814.

The troops on Governor’s Island will parade tomorrow morning at 11:30 o’clock on the Grand Parade, for the purpose of witnessing the execution of the prisoner [singular — sic?] sentenced by a general order of the 3d inst. to be shot to death.

The troops will form three sides of a square, the artillery will form the right and left flank, the Infantry the rear; the execution parties, consisting of a sergeant and twelve privates, will parade at 11:30 o’clock and placed under the command of Lieut. Forbes, Provost Marshal; the guards of the advanced posts will have their sentries at their respective posts, and will repair to the parade at 11:30, those under charge of the Provost Marshal will join the execution party, for the purpose of escorting the prisoner to the place of execution.

The execution parties, in divisions preceded by the music with the Provost Marshal at their head, will march in front of the prisoner, the music playing the dead march; the guards formed in divisions will march in rear of the prisoner.


According to our source, the dirge “Roslyn Castle” was the go-to tune for a military execution at the time. It was a popular Scottish air alluding to a gorgeously ruined Midlothian fortress.

The procession will enter the square from the rear, face ten paces from the coffin placed in the center, upon which the prisoner kneels by a signal from the Provost Marshal. The music ceases, the warrant and sentence of death is read, the signal to fire is then given to the execution parties. By order of

M. Swett, Commander.

* Nephew of one of the founding fathers.

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1771: Henry Stroud and Robert Campbell, for revenge

Add comment July 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1771, Henry Stroud and Robert Campbell were hanged at Bethnal Green Road — a pointed message to the Spitalfield working class.

Their hanging was tit for tat in an exchange of deadly violence between the state and laboring Londoners.

Two years before, an anti-union law making it a capital crime to cut silk out of looms had actually been put to use with the hanging of two as part of the suppression of a Spitalfields weavers riot.

This execution provoked in the following months a horrifying mob vengeance against the independent weaver who had testified — falsely, it was suspected — against those hanged men. When said informer, name of Daniel Clark, was recognized walking in the area one day, an angry crowd formed and “stript him, tied his hands behind him, took him to a pond, threw him in, and then threw stones and brickbats at him for some time; then took him out, tied a cord round his neck, and threw him in the pond again, and then threw stones and brickbats at him till they beat out his brains.”*

Snitches get … brickbats.

Justice David Wilmot** determined to hunt out some of this lynch mob he could make an example of, not disdaining to resort to arm-twisting and witness-buying.† Wilmot’s advertisement for leads drew anonymous threats, which the justice scornfully published in newspapers to up the ante.

The writers of these letters … [are] pursuing with insatiable & heart felt revenge, their designs against you should any one person suffer from your busy concern. & know farther that having such connections at all your haunts, and free access at most time to your person, ’til not the whole third regiment of guards that can protect you from the well concerted plan for your destruction.

The result was a chaotic five-day trial, at which witnesses openly flinched at the prospect of popular vengeance waiting outside the Old Bailey doors.

Henry Stroud, nevertheless, was identified by several witnesses as having taken a prominent part in visiting popular justice upon Clark, in the form of two or three hurled bricks that knocked the victim down — while Robert Campbell was reputed to have thrust the bloodied Clark’s head into the pool.

They were pointedly put to death behind a heavily armed cordon near the very spot of the homicide. Stroud, at least, went to his death still vigorously protesting his innocence.‡

“Thus did the alternating pageants of ritual murder come to an end,” writes Peter Linebaugh of this exclamatory execution in The London Hanged. “A hundred bayonets from the War Office protecting the hangman and the magistrates. The scapegoating of the class antagonism concluded with this powerful, official display of power in the streets, where usually the trill of [weaving] shuttles would fill the air.”

* Quoted in Norma Landau’s “Gauging crime in late Eighteenth Century London,” Social History, 35:4.

** Not to be confused with Justice Wilmot, then the sitting Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. Justice David Wilmot’s credentials from this affair and otherwise established him as a hated enemy of the London working class, and consequently his home was torched during the proletarian Gordon Riots.

† viz., testimony of one witness among the several in the Old Bailey transcript who openly discuss payola: “another gentleman offered me fourscore pounds; a gentleman that brought me the summons; he said, you know one Bob Campbell; I said, I did not by name; he said, he would give me fourscore pounds; I was frightened, he said, I see you are a stranger; if you will but swear to the man I will give you fourscore pounds.”

‡ After the days-long prosecution, Stroud’s entire defense case ran two sentences: “I am as innocent of the affair as ever was a child in the world. I neither handled brick, stone, tile, nor anything, so help me God.”

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1938: Anthony Chebatoris, in death penalty-free Michigan

5 comments July 8th, 2011 Andrew Gustafson

This post was contributed by Andrew Gustafson, a writer and cartographer based in Brooklyn, NY. Andrew’s work can be found on his website, and he regularly blogs about New York City history and culture for Urban Oyster Tours.

On this date in 1938, Anthony Chebatoris was hanged at the federal prison in Milan, Michigan, becoming the only person executed in Michigan since it gained statehood in 1837.

Chebatoris and an accomplice, Jack Gracy, rolled into Midland, Michigan on September 29, 1937, with the intention to rob the Chemical State Bank. They never did get their hands on the cash, and only one of them would leave the town alive, though with a proverbial noose dangling from his neck. The two men, armed with a pistol and a sawed-off shotgun, entered the bank and approached the bank manager, Clarence Macomber, with guns drawn. In the ensuing scuffle, Chebatoris shot Macomber and another bank employee, Paul Bywater. Upon hearing the shots, Frank Hardy, a dentist whose office was next to the bank, grabbed the loaded deer rifle he kept handy and went to the window to see what the commotion was about. As Chebatoris and Gacy abandoned the botched robbery empty-handed, Hardy began firing at the fleeing robbers, hitting Chebatoris in the arm and causing him to crash the getaway car he was driving. As the wounded men looked for another escape route, Chebatoris spotted a uniformed truck driver named Henry Porter, whom he mistook for a police officer, and shot him. The men then tried to hijack a truck to make their escape, but as Gacy attempted to climb into the cab, the sharpshooter Hardy shot him in the head from 150 yards away, killing him instantly.* Chebatoris took off on foot and was apprehended a short distance away, exhausted and bleeding.

Chebatoris would survive his injuries, as would the bank employees Macomber and Bywater. But the innocent bystander Henry Porter put our convict on the road to the gallows: after two weeks in the hospital, Porter would succumb to his injuries, and murder would be added to the charges against the surviving bank robber. Michigan had outlawed the death penalty for murder in 1846, becoming the first U.S. state to do so. But Chebatoris found himself subject to a legal system that had been changed by New Deal politics and the public’s panic over escalating violence and criminality. Federal prosecutors took on the case, under the authority of the National Bank Robbery Act of 1934, which was passed in response to the rash of bank holdups across the country. The law gave the federal government the authority to prosecute anyone involved in the robbery of a bank that was a member of the Federal Reserve System or the newly created Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Unluckily for Chebatoris, Chemical State Bank was a member of both.

With a mountain of evidence against him, Chebatoris was easily convicted, and on November 30, 1937, he was sentenced to death by federal judge Arthur Tuttle. The case set off a political controversy in Michigan, one that would pit an anti-death-penalty governor against federal judges and prosecutors who wanted the sentence passed down and carried out in the state. Under the federal statute, federal death sentences could only be carried out in states that had their own death penalty. While Michigan had long abolished capital punishment for murder and other crimes, it still kept an obscure law on the books allowing execution for treason (which has never been exercised, as it is unclear how one would commit treason against the state of Michigan). This loophole allowed the federal capital prosecution and execution to proceed within the confines of the staunchly abolitionist state.

In response to the decision, Michigan Governor Frank Murphy said, “There hasn’t been a hanging in Michigan for 108 years. If this one is carried out in Michigan, it will be like turning back the clock on civilization.” Illinois, which had its own electric chair, offered to finish off Chebatoris, but Judge Tuttle ordered that the execution should proceed in Michigan, noting, “The just verdict having been returned, the law was mandatory in the three respects, namely that the penalty should be death, that it should be hanging, and that it should be within the state of Michigan. These last two requirements resulted from the fact that Michigan has one statute providing for the death penalty by hanging. If the sentence had been different in any one of these respects, it would have been unlawful. I have neither the power nor the inclination to change the sentence.”

Chebatoris was transferred from the Saginaw County Jail, where he had been held throughout his trial, to the federal prison in Milan. At 5 a.m. on July 8, 1938, he was brought to the gallows, and before 23 witnesses, including an inebriated hangman named Phil Hanna, he was hanged. In the middle of the night before the execution, Hanna had arrived at the prison demanding that his three drunken friends be admitted to the hanging. After an argument with the warden and a call to the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Hanna was allowed to proceed with execution, and the warden acceded to his demands (though at the time of the execution, the warden barred the three friends from the proceedings, knowing that the room was too dark, and Hanna too drunk, for him to notice their absence).**

Chebatoris’ execution was both a unique event and a bellwether for things to come in the federal death penalty system. Since 1927, he is the only person to be executed for a murder committed in a state that does not have its own death penalty statute. After World War II, executions, both federal and state, went into a steep decline across the United States, culminating in the 1972 Supreme Court decision Furman v. Georgia, which struck down every capital punishment statute in the land. Four years later, the death penalty was revived in Gregg v. Georgia, and it took barely six months for states to resume executions. The federal government was slower, however, and the first post-Furman federal death penalty statute did not appear until 1988. Since that date, however, we have seen the steady expansion of the federal death penalty, building on the precedents set by the National Bank Robbery Act. Rather than targeting bank robberies, the federal government has used the death penalty to take aim at other perceived scourges, employing it is a weapon in the various domestic “wars” on crime, drugs, and terrorism.

In the past twenty years, the federal death penalty has been transformed from a seldom-used punishment for pirates and crimes committed in the territories to an expansive weapon that can be imposed in a wide range of jurisdictions, leading the Criminal Defense Network to conclude that “virtually every homicide occurring within federal jurisdiction is now death-eligible.”† The greatest expansion of the federal death penalty came with the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which greatly expanded federal jurisdiction and authorized the death penalty for nearly 60 different crimes. And the reach of the federal death penalty has continued to expand, even into states like Michigan that have rejected capital punishment.

There are currently 58 people sitting on the federal death row, nine of whom committed their crimes in states that either do not have a constitutionally valid state death penalty statute or have active moratoriums on the death penalty.‡ Interestingly, all of those nine were sentenced to death during the tenures of Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez, and their decisions to pursue capital prosecutions marked a departure from the actions of their predecessors. Early in his term, John Ashcroft revised the U.S. Attorneys Manual and removed language about the Department of Justice’s policy towards seeking the death penalty in states that did not have their own capital punishment statutes. Previously the manual stated that in these states, “penalty-driven decisions to file federal charges are inappropriate.” That language was removed, and presumably this opened the door for the increase in prosecutions, convictions, and death sentences handed out in federal districts located within abolitionist states. Since Chebatoris’ execution, no one who falls into this category has been executed, and current Attorney General Eric Holder has signaled a return to the earlier practices, meaning the federal government will be less inclined to pursue these kinds of cases. Nevertheless, it is likely that at least one of these nine will eventually be executed.

When that happens, Anthony Chebatoris will no longer be a solitary historical footnote.

* Hardy was a hero, but he is not nearly as celebrated as another bank robbery foiler, Northfield, Minnesota’s Joseph Lee Hayward, who is remembered annually at the town’s “Defeat of Jesse James Days.” Perhaps Midland could build its own tourist attraction around Hardy?

** For a detailed account of the case of Anthony Chebatoris, read Aaron Veselenak’s article in the May/June 1998 issue of Michigan History Magazine, “The Execution of Anthony Chebatoris.”

† From Burr, Dick, David Bruck and Kevin McNally (2009). “An Overview of the Federal Death Penalty Process.” Capital Defense Network.

‡ These death row inmates are: Carlos Caro (WV), Donald Fell (VT), Marvin Gabrion (MI), Dustin Honken and Angela Johnson (IA), Ronald Mikos (IL), Alfonso Rodriguez (ND), Gary Sampson (MA), and Kenneth Lighty (MD). For a description of their cases, visit the Death Penalty Information Center. All are held in the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, IN, with the exception of Gary Sampson, who is being held in New Hampshire. For more information on these cases, visit the Death Penalty Information Center.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Michigan,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Pelf,Theft,U.S. Federal,USA

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1839: William John Marchant

1 comment July 8th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1839, a spooked 18-year-old servant was hanged at Newgate Prison for murdering fellow-servant Elizabeth Paynton.

A good Chelsea lad with no rap sheet, Marchant slashed Paynton’s throat with a razor when they were left alone, fled, but was so pursued by guilt that he gave himself up and pleaded guilty. Awaiting death, he lamely told his distraught parents

the upper house-maid and the cook went out, leaving [Marchant] with the deceased in the house by themselves. The cook, as she was leaving the house, dared him to get possession of a riband or pair of garters which the deceased had displayed before the servants in the kitchen in jest, and threatened to inflict some ludicrous punishment upon him if he did not … [Marchant] improperly endeavoured to obtain possession of the garters, but she resisted him, and at length slapped his face, called him some ill names, and said she would get him out of his situation for his rudeness. He then ran to fetch a razor to cut the garters and get them into his own possession, and he then had not the least intention of killing her or perpetrating any other offense … but when he did return with the razor in his hand he was seized, as he says, with a sudden and unaccountable impulse, which he could not define, and in a paroxysm of insanity in a moment, and without premeditation, he cut her throat.

(In a later telling, he dropped the garter cover story and copped to a more distinctly identifiable attempted rape, with the murder precipitated by its object’s threat to have him sacked.)

As the London Times remarked on the hanging,

It is difficult, perhaps, to hold him out as an example to other erring youth; for, as he neither appears to have been a drunkard, nor given up to licentious courses, his crime is of so extraordinary a character, that it is hardly possible any other, by following the same course, should terminate his career by the same shameful death … there [may] be no occasion to read a lesson to those who in ordinary cases might be seduced to commit a similar offence.

The dearth of instructional opportunity (and the fact that “the crowd was not great”) did not obstruct London’s enterprising gallows-foot entrepreneurs from cranking out multiple broadsides,* complete with cookie-cutter didactic poem. This sort of thing was standard fare for the day’s forgettable petty villains, not merely its crimes of the decade.

All ye who pity my sad fate,
With sorrow most sincere,
Unto the truth which I will state,
I pray you lend an ear.
Condemned in scorn and shame to die
My doom is most severe,
‘Tis but a few short days since I
Just reached my eighteenth year.

My face is all beset with woe,
My cheeks are worn with care,
My eyes are parch’d and sunk with Grief,
That once so sparkling were.
Strange horrors chill my every vein,
A voice most wild and true,
Whispers to this distracted brain,
Thy hand Elizabeth slew.

At this my very heart doth bleed
With grief, remorse, and guilt
To think upopn the ruthless deed,
The blood which I have spilt;
For never since that hour have I
One moment’s comfort knew,
And poor Elizabeth’s murdered corpse
Is ever to my view.

Behold my days are like a flower,
That blooms at break of day,
Cut down and withered in an hour,
And vanished away.
Lament, lament, to see me die
All ye who do me view,
A poor, heartbroken, wretched lad,
Must bid this world adieu.

Vain, are my lamentations, vain
These unavailing sighs,
Girm [sic] death is hastening apace,
I must prepare to die.
Heaven grant none may hereafter be
Like luckless me undone,
But always strive with humble mind,
The tempters snare to shun.

* From Harvard University’s collection.

Update: The Times Archive Blog flags another interesting bit of this story: the newspaper’s hectoring the doomed footman’s chaplain for excessive “enthusiasm.”

Part of the Themed Set: The Ballad.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Rape,Sex

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1999: Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis, the end of the road for Old Sparky

48 comments July 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1999, America’s obesity epidemic met Florida’s death penalty politics in the ugly electrocution of Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis.

The reader will discern that Tiny earned his nickname ironically. Reportedly 159 kg (350 pounds) at his death, he’d put his ample heft to work bludgeoning a pregnant mother of two beyond recognition with a revolver handle back in 1982 … and then shooting to death the now-motherless two.

As his appeals meandered through the courts, Davis got fatter — and got high blood pressure, arthritis, hypertension and a wheelchair. Meanwhile, the death penalty was meandering its own way across the weird political chessboard of the Sunshine State.

For the American death penalty nowadays, it’s Texas and then everyone else … but time was that Florida was the capital of capital punishment.

It conducted the first “modern” involuntary execution in 1979. It had carried out three executions before anyone else had more than one. And when the the drip-drip-drip pace of one or two execution nationwide per year in the early 1980’s finally burst into a torrent, Florida led the way with eight of the 21 executions in 1984.

Not until late in 1986 did Texas overtake Florida in the body count sweepstakes.

All that time, Florida was happily using its vintage electric chair, Old Sparky (one of several electric chairs with that moniker), built in 1923 of 100% oak wood and prison labor. And the more the chair’s quasi-medieval ickiness drove other states to lethal injection, the more Floridians cherished electrocution.

Law-and-order Tampa mayor Bob Martinez won the governorship in 1986 on the promise that “Florida’s electric bill will go up.” There was a high-profile botch in 1990, and another in 1997 — flames shooting from the inmates’ heads. What was the state’s Attorney General going to do about it? “People who wish to commit murder, they’d better not do it in the state of Florida because we may have a problem with the electric chair.” Under pressure to move to lethal injection — the chair’s unsightly malfunctions were spawning legal and public relations nightmares that were gumming up the gears — the legislature voted nearly unanimously to keep Old Sparky.

And then along came a giant.

After three-quarters of a century and 266 jobs, Old Sparky was “falling apart” … and that was going to be a problem for a man of Davis’ carriage.

The killer’s lawyers argued that Davis was so fat he couldn’t conduct electricity efficiently and would be slowly cooked to death. According to Slate, Florida authorities were nervous that he’d break the chair during his electrocution and send a disconnected live cable scything into someone else in the room.

It was time for the unthinkable: Florida retired Old Sparky and built a new chair … and supersized it. (Image, from the Florida Department of Corrections)

And it worked, in that it killed Tiny. But what a mess — especially when an ensuing Florida Supreme Court opinion once again upheld the constitutionality of electrocution, and a dissenting judge attached the photos on this page to his opinions. Naturally, they became a grisly Internet sensation.

Old Sparky’s custom-built successor would only manage this single execution before Florida finally got on the lethal injection bandgurney.

Or at least, it’s only managed one so far. Old electric chairs don’t die, they just fade away … and in Florida, Tiny Davis’s chair remains available for condemned prisoners who choose it. Since this date in 1999, none have.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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