1941: Pittsburgh Phil

Add comment June 12th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Brooklyn gangster Pittsburgh Phil went to the Sing Sing electric chair.

The smart-dressed Pittsburgh Phil* — “Harry Strauss” to his parents or just plain “Pep” to his friends — was the most notorious contract killer of the Springsteen-worthy crime syndicate Murder, Inc.. He racked up an alleged body count well north of 100 — possibly several multiples of that figure — popping whomever some organized crime figure needed to be rid of. (Like this guy.)

Pep eschewed any single m.o., murdering with blades and bullets and garrotes and lungs full of water, and he rarely even carried a weapon lest it incriminate him on a chance arrest. Well did he know this tradecraft, for he beat no fewer than 17 prosecutions in New York. The man also took hit assignments all around the country, for other crime lords in cities whose patrolmen did not recognize him by name and reputation.

And fittingly, it took another assassin to kill him.

Fellow Murder, Inc. killer Abe “Kid Twist” Reles — a childhood buddy with whom he’d come up in the Prohibition crime world via Meyer Lansky‘s organization — got caught in the government’s sights and realized that his only probable purchase on life involved giving evidence against his mates.

We’ve seen that his testimony did in Frank Abbandando and Harry Maione, even though Reles had “fallen out of a window” before those goons sat in the mercy seat. Reles likewise gave up Pittsburgh Phil, who in Raymond Chandler’s was “electrocuted with a sneer on his face” on this date along with his fellow Murder, Inc. plugger Buggsy Goldstein.

* Why did they call him “Pittsburgh Phil”? Who knows! He is at any rate not to be confused with groundbreaking horse bettor George “Pittsburgh Phil” Smith.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Organized Crime,USA

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1741: John Hughson, Sarah Hughson and Peggy Kerry, “so abandoned to confederate with Slaves”

1 comment June 12th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1741, “John Hughson, Sarah his wife, and Margaret Kerry, were executed according to sentence” for the slave conspiracy to burn New York.

They were the first white people executed in the affair, and when their 16-year-old indentured servant Mary Burton first described a plot to fire the city hatched by thronging slave conclaves at the Hughsons’ tavern, the by the account of the court’s officer Daniel Horsmanden, it “was most astonishing to the Grand Jury … that any white People should become so abandoned to confederate with Slaves in such an execrable and detestable Purpose.”

Whether there ever really was an execrable and detestable Purpose or whether white New Yorkers convinced of the arson plot were just chasing ghosts, nobody can say with certainty. But the Hughsons most definitely did confederate with slaves. The keeper of a dockside tavern on the Hudson, Hughson catered to the colony’s lower strata: both blacks and poor whites frequented the place, and for the criminal element among them Hughson kept up a side business as a small-time fence of stolen goods.

Back in 1738, the Hughsons had moved to that location from the South Ward — driven, one infers, by complaints of a previous neighbor that they “kept a very disorderly House, and sold Liquor to, and entertained Negroes.” Three of those Negroes were the slaves Caesar, Prince and Cuffee, who in January of 1738 had been busted for breaking into another tavern in town and carrying away the gin … an incident that by 1741 their prosecutors were characterizing as the germ of a years-long plot to orchestrate the annihilation of New York.*

The keystone to the 1741 wave of prosecutions — the break in the case, from the standpoint of the court — occurred on April 22, when Burton provided the Grand Jury a damning description of her master and mistress as the kingpins of a murderous cabal. Burton swore

That Caesar, Prince, and Mr. Philipse’s Negro Man (Cuffee) used to meet frequently at her Master’s House, and that she has heard them (the Negroes) talk frequently of burning the Fort; and that they would go down to the Fly(d) and burn the whole Town: and that her Master and Mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.

That in their common Conversation they used to say, that when all this was done, Caesar should be Governor, and Hughson her Master should be King.

That Cuffee used to say, That a great many People had too much, and others too little; That his old Master had a great deal of Money, but that, in a short Time, he should have less, and that he (Cuffee) should have more.

That at the Meetings of the Three aforesaid Negroes, Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee, at her Master’s House, they used to say, in their Conversation, That when they set Fire to the Town, they would do it in the Night, and as the white People came to extinguish it, they would kill and destroy them.

Up until that point, the court had a suspicion of an arson campaign, based on a series of fires that looked like a pattern but might have been coincidental. Burton’s deposition gave that suspicion tangible shape, and structured all the proceedings to follow. And in her telling, it all started with Hughson, Hughson, and Kerry.

It was a story that fit what the judges would know or believe about them: besides the Hughsons’ underclass and criminal connections, the Hughsons’ Irish lodger Peggy Kerry was Caesar’s lover and the mother of his infant son. “She was a person of infamous character, a notorious prostitute, and also of the worst sort, a prostitute to negroes,” Horsmanden sneers in the introduction he wrote to his compendium of proceedings.

“Here is laid the foundation of the characters of Hughson and his family, which will afford frequent occasion of enlarging upon; and from such a hopeful earnest the reader may well expect a plentiful harvest.”

Peggy Kerry, that “Newfoundland Irish beauty,” now came under relentless pressure to corroborate Mary Burton. Prostitute to Negroes or no, she was badly needed to add credibility (and leal certainty) to Burton’s charge.

Jailed and facing the prospect of execution, she nevertheless stubbornly refused every blandishment to adhere to Mary Burton’s version of events — a version that would surely doom her friends the Hughsons and her lover Caesar.

She paid the last price or her obstinance. Arthur Price, the jailhouse snitch who eventually doomed Cuffee, entered the case by telling investigators that Peggy said to him all the stuff they wanted her to say to them.

[Price asked] What, Peggy; were you a going to set the Town on fire? And she made Answer, She was not; but said, by God, since I knew of it, they made me swear: Upon which the Deponent asked her, Was John and his Wife in it? (meaning John Hughson and his Wife) And she answered Yes, by God, they were both sworn as well as the rest. Then the Deponent asked her, if she was not afraid that the Negroes would discover her? And she said, No; for Prince, Cuff and Caesar, and Forck’s [Vaarck’s] Negro [Caesar] were all true-hearted Fellows.

And by the way, she added,

for your Life and Soul of you, you Son of a Bitch, don’t speak a Word of what I have told you.

Whether or not Peggy Kerry really did say all this incriminating stuff to her fellow dungeon denizen, Price’s report laid her in the magistrates’ trap. Now she was already the second witness, via Price — and without the benefit of leniency that she could have procured by talking herself. The pending conspiracy charge dangled over her head.

Finally, on May 7, she made a too-little, too-late grab at mercy by describing plotters meeting not at the Hughsons’, but at the house of a nearby cobbler, John Romme. Heartbreakingly, she put the father of her son into the scene: she had abandoned any hope of saving him.

This half-confession, as the magistrates saw it, only redounded against her for upon interrogation Elizabeth Romme denied everything (John Romme had left, or fled, town). Romme’s place was a dead end in the investigation but Kerry’s saying it confirmed that she was privy to something about the plot — something she might still be withholding. “From what had hitherto come to Light concerning this Mystery of Iniquity, it was scarce to be doubted, but Peggy had it in her Power to unfold a great deal more,” Horsmanden remarks in his entry for May 14. “Though what Peggy had already disclosed seemed to merit something; yet it was not altogether satisfactory; and ’twas thought proper she should be arraigned upon the Indictment for the Conspiracy, upon the Supposition that this Step might probably be a Means of bringing her to a Resolution of making a full Discovery of what she knew.”

For the next weeks, the court routed around the intransigence of its would-be star witness, and increasingly made her prospective evidence irrelevant. There was Arthur Price’s deposition, to begin with; to this crown’s evidence was added witnesses we have already met in the trials of the other other men: Sandy, Sarah, Fortune. There were the desperate “confessions” extorted from Quack and Cuffee at the stake.

John Hughson, who was being fitted for the halter, could see what was up. With his wife and now his daughter as well both in jail, Hughson asked on June 1 to see Daniel Horsmanden, “to open his Heart to them, and they should know more.” What deal was he hoping to cut? Could he extricate himself? Would he trade his own life to save his family?

We don’t know, because Horsmanden made it clear in their interview that not John Hughson nor Sarah Hughson nor Peggy Kerry had an ounce of leverage remaining.

[I] reproached him with his wicked Life and Practices, debauching and corrupting of Negroes, and encouraging them to steal and pilfer from their Masters and others; and for shewing his Children so wicked an Example, training them up in the High-Way to Hell: He further observed to him, that his Wife, and Peggy, then stood convicted of a Felony for receiving stolen Goods of Negroes; and that now nothing remained but to pass Sentence of Death upon them, and to appoint a Day for their Execution for that Fact; but that it was now determined, that he, his Wife and Daughter, and Peggy, should also be tried for being confederated in this most horrible Conspiracy; that the Evidence would appear so strong and clear against them in this Particular, that there was little doubt of their being all convicted upon that Head also; that it would appear undeniably that he was a Principal, and head Agent in this detestable Scheme of Villany; the chief Abettor, together with the rest of his Family, of this execrable and monstrous Contrivance for shedding the Blood of his Neighbours, and laying the whole City in Ashes, upon the Expectation of enriching himself by such an inhuman and execrable Undertaking: He therefore admonished him, if he would entertain the least Hopes of recommending himself to the Mercy of God Almighty, before whose Tribunal he must soon appear, that he would ingenuously tell the Truth, and lay open the whole Scene of this dark Tragedy, which had been brooding at his House; and discover the several Parties he knew to have been engaged in it; in doing which he would make some Attonement for his past Villanies, by preventing that Slaughter, Bloodshed and Devastation which he and his Confederates had intended.

Disabused of any hope, Hughson “put on a soft smiling Air of Innocence” and “declared, he knew Nothing at all of any Conspiracy; and called God to witness his Protestations, that he was as innocent with respect to that Charge as the Child unborn, and also his Wife, Daughter, and Peggy for aught he knew.” He would go to trial with those three on June 4.

That proceeding was a walkover, as Horsmanden had predicted. Mary Burton was the star witness against her former master and mistress, with Arthur Price’s account of Peggy Kerry’s confessions thrown in for good measure.

Following these came a litany of the Hughsons’ current and former white neighbors who damned the Hughson house as a regular haunt of the city’s black population — that “a Cabal of Negroes” was frequently entertained, that Peggy had been seen serving them and both the Hughson mother and daughter danced shamelessly with them, that “whole Companies of Negroes [were] playing at Dice there.”

The real evidence here still rested only upon Mary Burton’s allegation as supported by Arthur Price. But from the trial preceding the court had already fixed that story through the flesh of other men. That others who had hanged and burned already were known to congregate at the Hughsons’ did the necessary work to finish John Hughson, “whose Crimes have made him blacker than a Negro; the Scandal of his Complexion, and the Disgrace of human Nature!”

Such a Monster will this Hughson appear before you, that for sake of the Plunder he expected by setting in Flames the King’s House, and this whole City, and by the Effusion of the Blood of his Neighbours’ — He — Murderous and Remorseless He! — counselled and encouraged the Committing of all these most astonishing Deeds of Darkness, Cruelty, and Inhumanity. — Infamous Hughson! —

Gentlemen,

This is that Hughson! whose Name, and most detestable Conspiracies will no doubt be had in everlasting Remembrance, to his eternal Reproach; and stand recorded to latest Posterity, — This is the Man! — his, that Grand Incendiary! — That Arch Rebel against God, his King, and his Country! — That Devil Incarnate! and chief Agent of the old Abaddon of the infernal Pit, and Regions of Darkness.

These are the rhetorical fulminations of the prosecuting attorney, William Smith, who surely deserves a plaque in that profession’s hall of fame for bridging the distance from some NIMBYing neighbors to the logic and the rhetoric of a witch trial. Hell … just the fact that Hughson had the effrontery to show up and defend himself only went to show what a monster he was.

Was not this Hughson sunk below the Dignity of human Nature — Was he not abandoned to all Sense of Shame and Remorse! — To all Sense of Feeling the dreadful Calamities He has brought on this City, and his fellow Creatures; He would from a Consciousness of his own Guilt. — His monstrous Guilt! — be so confounded, as not able to look up, or stand without the greatest Confusion of Face, before this Court and Audience; but would openly confess his, and the Rest of his wretched Confederates Guilt, and humbly ask Pardon of God, the King, and his injured Country.

And so they died. Of course they died.

Sarah Hughson, the 17-year-old daughter, was spared her sentence. Over the next weeks her orphaned life would be a litany of execution dates imposed and then delayed, trading time for cooperation that Sarah was very reluctant to provide. In whatever combination her age, her sex, and her skin — for as a white person, her evidence had privilege over the allegations of “pagan Negroes” in trials yet to come — would eventually procure her pardon.

But on June 12, her parents and their misfortunate friend Peggy Kerry all went to the gallows. (Not to the pyre, the fate of the black slaves convicted for the conspiracy.) Horsmanden spares for these major trophies a longer narration of their Passion, though this turns out to consist in large measure of Horsmanden complaining one last time how Peggy Kerry didn’t spare any of her last moments to finally give him what he wanted.

The under-sheriff had often advised John Hughson, to make a cofession about the conspiracy, but he always denied he knew any thing of the matter; said he had deserved death for receiving stolen goods. The wife was ever sullen; said little or nothing, but denied all.

The sheriffs observed John Hughson, when he was brought out of jail to be carried to execution, to have a red spot on each cheek, about the bigness of a shilling, which at that time thought very remarkable, for he was always pale of visage: these spots continued all along to the gallows. Amongst other discourse it seems he had said, he did not doubt but some remarkable sign would happen to him, to show his innocence; concerning which more will be observed upon hereafter.** He stood up in the cart all the way, looking round about him as if expecting to be rescued, as was by many conjectured from the air he appeared in: one hand was lifted up as high as his pinion would admit of, and a finger pointing, as if intending to beckon.

At the gallows his wife stood like a lifeless trunk, with the rope about her neck, tied up to the tree; she said not a word, and had scarce any visible motion.

Peggy seemed much less resigned than the other two, or rather unwilling to encounter death; she was going to say something, but the old woman who hung next to her, gave her a shove with her hand, as was said by some, so Peggy was silent.

But they all died, having protested their innocence to the last, touching the conspiracy.

This old woman, as it has been generally reported, was bred a Papist; and Peggy was much suspected of the same persuasion, though perhaps it may seem to be of little significance what religion such vile wretches professed.

From the scanty room in the jail for the reception of so many prisoners, this miserable wretch, upon her conviction with the Hughsons for the conspiracy, was put in the same cell with them; which perhaps was an unfortunate incident; for though she had to the time of their trial screened them from the charge of the conspiracy; yet there was reason to expect, that upon the last pinch, when she found there was no hopes of saving her own life if she persisted, the truth as to this particular would have come out; and indeed it was upon this expectation, that she was brought upon trial for the conspiracy; for her several examinations before set forth, and what Arthur Price had sworn to have dropt from her in accidental talk in jail, had put it beyond doubt, that she was privy to many of the Hughsons’ secrets concerning this detestable confederacy; but when she was admitted to the Hughsons, under the circumstances of conviction and condemnation for the conspiracy, they most probably prevailed with her to persevere in her obstinacy, to the end to cover their own guilt, since they were determined to confess nothing themselves; and they might drive her to desperation by subtle insinuations, that the judges she saw after they had picked all they could but of her, whatever expectations she might have raised from her confessions, or hopes she flattered herself with of saving her life upon the merit of them; yet after all, she was brought to trial and condemned for the conspiracy, as well as they; and why should she expect pardon any more than they: and by such like artifices it is probable they might stop her mouth, and prevent her making further discovery; and not only so, but then of course prevail with her to recant, as to what she had confessed already.

John Hughson endured the posthumous indignity of being gibbeted in chains, on an island† alongside the already-rotting corpse of his former boon companion Caesar — who had hanged fully a month before.

As an unseasonably hot summer emerged in the weeks ahead, Horsmanden would later report how “Hughson’s Body drip’d and distill’d very much, as it needs must, from the great Fermentation and Abundance of Matter within him,” bloating to “Gigantick” proportions until at last “Hughson’s Corps unable to contain its Load, burst and discharged Pails full of Blood and Corruption” to the disgust of some nearby fishermen “to whom the Stench of it was very offensive.” The progress of this revolting fermentation was one reason guessed by “amused” New Yorkers for a queer phenomenon, that as they dangled in their manacles,

Hughson was turned Negro, and Vaarck’s Caesar a White; and when they came to put up York in Chains by Hughson (who was hung upon the Gibbet three Weeks before [and not yet exploded from his fermentation -ed.]) so much of him as was visible, viz. Face, Neck, Hands and Feet, were of a deep shining Black, rather blacker than the Negro placed by him, who was one of the darkest Hue of his Kind; and the Hair of Hughson’s Beard and Neck (his Head could not be seen, for he had a Cap on) was curling like the Wool of a Negro’s Beard and Head; and the Features of his Face were of the Symmetry of a Negro Beauty; the Nose broad and flat, the Nostrils open and extended, the Mouth wide, Lips full and thick, his Body, (which when living, was tall by the View upwards of six Feet, but very meagre) swell’d to a Gigantick Size; and as to Caesar (who, tho’ executed for a Robbery, was also one of the Head Negro Conspirators, had been hung up in Chains a Month before Hughson, and was also of the darkest Complexion) his Face was at the same Time somewhat bleach’d or turned whitish; insomuch that it occasion’d a Remark, That Hughson and he had changed Colours.

* In New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, Jill Lepore — who believes that the “plot” was fictitious — unpacks a confusing part of the 1737-1738 backstory that might help us straddle the space between reality and fantasy in this strange case.

Lepore suggests that the city’s controversial Freemasons club, which was then prominent enough for active parody in the city’s press, led John Hughson to form a mock secret society at his cronies’ saturnalias whose joke “initiations” had downtrodden friends and even casual acquaintances boozily (but jestingly) vow to torch the city. During the (actual or perceived) arson wave of 1741, New York’s court would read a far more sinister intent to this sort of talk, and there are consequent references in the trial records to a “three-year conspiracy.”

** Much later in his narrative, Horsmanden gets around to an indeterminate speculation that the red spots on John Hughson’s cheeks might have been the product of his attempting to cheat the executioner with an insufficient poison. Evidently this was a rumor abroad in New York, though Horsmanden doubted the truth of it.

† The gibbet stood “near the powder-house,” which places it on a small island — long since gobbled up by the metropolis — within the marshes of Collect Pond. That’s around the present-day park named for Thomas Paine, which is just south of what’s now Collect Pond Park and at the time stood outside of the city’s main settlement.

Once an essential source of fresh water for Manhattanites, Collect Pond soon became overtaxed by the growing population and polluted by its use as a common sewer, devolving into a foetid slough. This public health hazard was destined for a grand future in New York’s crime annals, for once it was filled in the streets above it became New York’s legendary underworld nest, the Five Points. They were also the original site of The Tombs prison, which had structural problems from its outset due to land subsiding into the buried quagmire.


The Powder House, marked on a 1766 map of New York. (See large original version here.)

Part of Corpses Strewn: New York’s Slave Conspiracy of 1741.

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1535: Elisabeth Wandscherer, wife of Jan van Leiden

Add comment June 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1535, in the doomed Anabaptist commune of Münster, the dictator Jan van Leiden personally beheaded one of his 16 wives.

If it seems unfathomable from the standpoint of the 21st century to picture the famously pacific Anabaptists as millenarian theocratic polygamists, that’s in no small measure due to Leiden himself.

His kingdom of Münster lasted only a year, but its wreckage at the end led the successive strains of this Reformation movement towards very different forms of radicalism than Leiden’s sword-arm exercised.

The background preceding Anabaptist Münster was municipal conflict among Catholics, Lutherans, and Anabaptists. Small wonder that when the Anabaptists — the wild-eyed radicals among these groups — got control of the place,* the Catholic Prince-Bishop put Münster under siege.

That cordon of enemy troops strangling the city shaped much that followed.

Münster’s leading Anabaptist theologian, Bernhard Rothmann, defended polygamy thus:

God has restored the true practice of holy matrimony amongst us. Marriage is the union of man and wife — “one” has now been removed — for the honor of God and to fulfill his will, so that children might be brought up in the fear of God …

Freedom in marriage for the man consists in the possibility for him to have more than one wife … This was true of the biblical fathers until the time of the Apostles, nor has polygamy been forbidden by God. (Source)

In the first place, it killed the Anabaptists’ original leader Jan Matthys when Matthys trusted his theology so far as to believe an Easter Sunday (1534) sortie against the Prince-Bishop’s men would enjoy divine favor. Instead, Matthys’s head wound up on a pike.

This decapitation — literal and figurative — dropped leadership onto the head of our man Jan, which got very big indeed over the subsequent 14 months. Or at least, so say Jan’s foes and eventual killers; as observed by the Communist intellectual Karl Kautsky, who mounted a late 19th century defense of the Anabaptists, we know these Münster rebels almost exclusively through the dark glass of their mortal enemies’ lurid propaganda.

The Anabaptist city council (which Jan soon dissolved) had already expelled all citizens who refused adult re-baptism, the movement’s signature (and namesake) tenet. Citizens, however, meant men: the wives didn’t get run off with their husbands and evidently were often left behind to tend households and property that the men expected to resume soon enough.

As a result, the gender imbalance in besieged Münster reportedly ran to 3:1, and Jan goggled at his good fortune like a 25-year-old would do. (He was actually only 25 years old, a former barkeep. He was also already on a bigamous second marriage.)

Having already declared himself king and basically the divine intercessor, and gotten the city to go along with it, Jan van Leiden promulgated polygamy on July 23 — directing men to seek out second and third brides as their first and second ones got pregnant. Barefoot and pregnant, ladies! Maybe it would have been a great plan for explosive population growth, if only that Catholic army under the walls had consented to just hunker down for a generation or two.(Introduction of polygamy triggered an immediate internal revolt led by a blacksmith named Möllenbeck, which Jan’s team crushed.)

There’s always been the assumption, though, that this move so alien to any other strand of the Reformation throughout Europe was more personal than political. Jan took sixteen wives. One was Matthys’s former wife, soon elevated to Queen; most of the rest were in their teenage years.

Many — who can say just how many? — were probably content to indulge his reputedly (reputed by his enemies!) voracious libido because

  1. the besieged city soon began starving; and,
  2. the guy didn’t take to dissension

In its last months, Münster’s people, faint with hunger, were fed dozens of public executions, of the morally corrupt or the politically unreliable. Considering that the withering city sheltered a mere 9,000 souls at the outset,** it was a positively Stalinesque pace, surely exacerbated by the fast-deteriorating strategic situation.

Elisabeth Wandscherer, one of those 16 wives, is supposed to have been beheaded in the market on June 12, 1535, by the very hand of her husband for her “disobedience.” By the account of a hostile Catholic chronicler, said disobedience consisted in remonstrating with Jan van Leiden over the luxury of his own household vis-a-vis the suffering city, and seeking leave to desert Münster.

Whatever added measure of loyalty, vigilance, or zeal might have been anticipated from such a scene was by this point far too little to preserve the city. Before the month was out, the Prince-Bishop had overrun Münster and held Jan van Leiden in chains — now bound in his own turn for the executioner.

Even to this day, Münster’s town hall has a slipper said to have once belonged to Elisabeth Wandscherer.

* By means of an entirely legal municipal election.

** Population figure per this biography of Jan van Leiden.

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1863: John P. Wood, of the Army of the Potomac

1 comment June 12th, 2013 Headsman

This dispatch to the New York Herald was published on June 16, 1863.

Mr. W. Young’s Letter.
Near Beallton Station, Va., June 14, 1863.

THE DESERTER J.P. WOOD.

John P. Wood, of Company F, Nineteenth Indiana, who had deserted once or twice before, again deserted on the 28th of May, and was subsequently arrsted at Aquia Creek, tried by court martial, and sentenced to be shot on Friday last.

Wood was about nineteen years old, quite intelligent, and when arrested was dressed in rebel uniform and represented himself as belonging to the Nineteenth Tennessee.

He alleged that he deserted because he had come to the conclusion that the war was not right, and he could not therefore go into action. He admitted that when he volunteered his views were somewhat different, and that he enlisted because he did not wish to see the Union dissolved.

He regarded his sentence as just, and expressed the belief that his execution for desertion would be of more service to the army than he could render it in any other manner.

THE EXECUTION, AND THE EFFECT UPON THE ARMY.

As this is the first instance of an execution for desertion in the Army of the Potomac, it created considerable sensation.

The sentence was executed upon the prisoner on Friday, near Berea church. About two P.M., near Berea church, the corps was halted. The First brigade was ordered out, with the balance of the division to which the prisoner belonged, the First brigade in advance.

Two ambulances, in the first of which was seated the prisoner, and the other containing his coffin, at the head of the division, advanced about half a mile, when the division was drawn up, occupying three sides of an oblong parallelogram. On the fourth side were placed the coffin, the criminal and the guard. The men were selected to do the firing, and received their muskets from the guard properly loaded.

HIS LAST MOMENTS.

A clergyman —- was with the prisoner, who displayed no emotion. General Wadsworth then went to the men who were to perform the duty of execution, and spoke to them in regard to the disagreeable nature of the duty to be performed — the shooting of a comrade — and urged them, as a matter of humanity, to take good aim.

The General then returned to the right, Colonel Morrow to the left. The guard was then withdrawn, and the Provost Marshall, Lieutenant Rogers, took the prisoner to the coffin, upon which he was seated, his eyes blindfolded, his hands tied behind him, his knees tied together and his breast bared.

All having retired, except the executions and the Provost Marshal, the order to take aim was given. Before the order to fire was given two pieces were discharged, but without effect.

At the order to fire, the remainder of the men — ten in number — fired. The prisoner fell backward, and the Provost Marshal went up to him. He struggled for an instant, and then all was over.

An additional detail from the Pioneer corps were called up and began to dig the grave, and the division marched off in perfect order, much impressed by the solemn scene which they had witnessed.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions

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1857: Return Ward, dismemberer

3 comments June 12th, 2012 Headsman

Headline: Shocking Murder of a Female - The Body Burned: Arrest of her husband!

On this date in 1857, a “hulking lout” with the unusual handle of Return Jonathan Meigs Ward was hanged in Toledo for Sylvania, Ohio’s most shocking murder.

Ward makes his notorious entry in the annals of Ohio crime by killing his wife after which, in the words of a wire story, he “sits up nights, with his door locked, cuts her into small pieces, and burns up her remains in the stove. This process occupied several days, in which time he drew largely on the shops around for shavings, and the unsavory scent went forth from the chimney, and filled the nostrils of those who happened to be in that vicinity.”

That’s from the April 2, 1857 Lowell (Mass.) Daily Citizen and News, and indicates that this itinerant character had become a national story. Ward, indeed, appears to have perpetrated a couple of theretofore unsolved homicides in his past, and the experience of dislimbing a previous murder victim to box him in a crate is just the sort of thing to give a man the sang-froid to dice up and incinerate his late spouse.

Anyway, the neighbors being unsatisfied with Ward’s accounts of his wife’s absence, they started poking around his place and turned up the bone fragments he hadn’t been able to completely burn away. Though the evidence against him was circumstantial, it was pretty overwhelming — and a jury took less than a half-hour in a standing-room-only courtroom to convict.

Ward went with the old “accidentally killed her during a domestic fight and cut her all to pieces in my panic” story. You know, the classic. In a post-conviction quasi-confession to the Toledo Blade, he took that tack while giving a stomach-churning description of how he annihilated the corpse (here reprinted by the Newark Advocate, April 15, 1857). Warning: Skip this if detailed descriptions of human dismemberment aren’t your thing.

I tore the clothes open, from the throat down. I then took a small pocket knife and opened the body, took out the bowels first, and then put them on the stove, upon the wood; they being filled with air would make a noise in exploding, so I took my knife and pricked holes through them to prevent the noise; then took out the liver and heart, and put them in the stove; found it very difficult to burn them; had to take the poker and frequently stir them before they could be destroyed; found the lungs very much decayed. I then took out the blood remaining in the cavity of the body, by placing a copper kettle close to the same and scooping it out with my hands. I then dipped portions of her clothing in the same, and burnt it together, fearing if I put the blood in the stove alone, that it might be discovered. I then made an incision through the flesh, along down each side, broke off the ribs and took out the breast bone, and throwing it into a large boiler, unjointed the arms at the shoulders, doubled them up and placed them in the boiler; then severed the remaining portions of the body, by placing a stick of wood under the back and breaking the back bone over the same, cutting away the flesh and ligament with a knife. Then tried to sever the head from the body; it proving ineffectual, I put the whole upper portion of the body into the boiler. Then took a large carving knife and severed the lower portion of the body, unjointed the legs at the knee, and again at the hip joint; cut the thighs open and took out the bones and burnt them up; they burned very rapidly.

On Thursday night, I commenced burning the body, by placing the upper and back portions of the same, together with the head, in the stove. On Friday morning, finding it had not been consumed, I built a large fire by placing wood around and under it, and in a short time it was wholly consumed, except some small portions of the larger bones and of the skull. The remaining portions of the body were kept in the boiler and in tubs, under the bed, covered up with a corded petticoat, and were there at the time the first search was made on Saturday, by Constable Curtis. — Hearing on Saturday evening that the citizens were not satisfied with the search made by Mr. Curtis, I proceeded on Sunday morning to destroy the remainder of the body by burning the same in the stove, cutting the fleshy parts of the thighs in small strips, the more readily to dispose of them. On Monday morning I took up the ashes in a small bag, sifting out the larger pieces of bone with my hands, placing the same in my overcoat pockets, which I scattered in various places in the fields, at different time. Also took the major portion of the trunk nails, together with the hinges, and scattered them in different places. I then burned her trunk and every vestige of her clothing, disposing of small portions at a time, to prevent their creating too much smoke.

Though the hanging itself occurred behind prison walls — and just as well, since the jittery Ward was unmanned and incoherent — Toledo was reportedly thronged with curiosity-seekers on the day of the execution.

That curiosity hasn’t disappeared in the intervening years.

Just in time for the 150th death-iversary of Return Ward in 2007, Gaye Gindy recaptured the case for these latter days in her Murder in Sylvania, Ohio: As Told in 1857.

Part of the Themed Set: Ohio.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mature Content,Murder,Ohio,USA

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1903: Ora Copenhaver and William Jackson, a double hanging

1 comment June 12th, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1903, there was a double hanging at the state prison in Michigan City, Indiana: William Jackson, a black man, and Ora E. Copenhaver, who was white.

According to the Indianapolis Star‘s history of capital punishment in Indiana, they were the seventh and eighth persons to be executed since Indiana adopted the death penalty in 1897. Ora (sometimes called “Orie” in press reports) was twenty-six years old at the time of his death; Jackson was forty-five. Copenhaver had murdered his wife (unnamed in the press reports) in Indianapolis on September 7 the previous year:

Shortly before their dinner hour on the day of the tragedy Copenhaver called his wife to the door and without a warning or giving her any inkling of his intent, drew a revolver from his pocket and fired four shots at her, three of which took effect […] Copenhaver, after shooting his wife, calmly walked to a neighboring store and telephoned to the police station, informing the desk sergeant that a murder had been committed. He then awaited the coming of the police and surrendered himself. Jealousy was ascribed as the motive for the deed.

Justice was swift and without mercy: Copenhaver was convicted by a jury of his peers on October 15, a mere 38 days after the shooting. He was formally sentenced on October 28, and the sentence was carried out seven and a half months after that. The Fort Wayne News called the murder “dastardly” and praised the death sentence. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, citing an unnamed “authentic source,” claimed that in the weeks before his death Copenhaver feigned insanity in an effort to evade his punishment. Yet he was calm and ready when the moment came.

Little information can be found about Jackson, described as “an Evansville Negro.”

On some unspecified date in 1902, he killed his coworker, a night watchman named Allan Blankenship, at a mill in Melrose, Indiana. He also robbed his victim of the princely sum of $3.90. Contemporary reports state Jackson seemed “wholly indifferent” about his sentence and spent most of the last day of his life reading the Bible. He had no last words.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Indiana,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1956: Juan Jose Valle, Peronist putschist

Add comment June 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1956, the Argentine military junta crushed a Peronist revolt with the summary execution of its leader, Juan Jose Valle.

Gen. Pedro Eugenio Aramburu had overthrown the populist Juan Peron government in 1955, and now ruled Argentina as President.

General Valle was shouldered out for his affiliations with the former regime: throughout the months following the coup, the Peron party was systematically proscribed and its leaders barred from politics.

In exile, Peron urged radical action by these disenfranchised followers, and Valle attempted to mount a revolt in June 1956.*

This operation was well-scouted by the government, and crushed instantly — with a couple dozen of its adherents summarily shot. (Spanish link)

Well, the Peronist party slogan was, “Our Lives for Peron.”

Valle avoided the initial slaughter, but he was captured in an apartment in Buenos Aires on this date and shot at the city’s National Penitentiary in the evening.

“Shot for trying to overthrow the government” doesn’t quite sound off the scale of typical coup outcomes, but in Buenos Aires in 1956, these executions were shockingly disproportionate relative to the handling of many recent unsuccessful coups. Actually, the Aramburu government had just that February repealed the death penalty as a statutory option for plotting a coup.

But it wasn’t using statutes to handle the Valle coup: it declared martial law, and handled subversives at its own discretion. (It rescinded martial law and ceased any further executions on June 13.)

The authorities’ brutal response was something of a turning point in Argentine political relations and culture. Throughout the Peronist decade even the harshest critics of the regime could not accuse it of executions of this sort, even though coups had been attempted against it. Bloodshed on this scale for political reasons was unprecedented in the political and military history of Argentina.

-Politics and Education in Argentina

Aramburu himself would catch a bit of the blowback for authoring this “turning point”: in 1970, the former president was kidnapped (Spanish-language site) by the pro-Peron Montoneros guerrillas and himself summarily executed shortly thereafter — allegedly in specific retaliation for having shot Gen. Juan Jose Valle.

And the literary fallout was hardly more complimentary. Argentine writer Felix Luna penned La Fusilacion (The Firing Squad) the next year;** set during Argentina’s 19th century civil wars, it’s plainly informed by that country’s more contemporaneous problems.

* Valle’s top co-conspirator was another general, Raul Tanco. In a strange coda, Tanco managed to escape execution by claiming asylum in the Haitian embassy. Pro-government gunmen kidnapped him from that refuge and turned him over to the army, but in a gesture of diplomatic courtesy, Aramburu returned Tanco to the embassy unharmed, with apologies to the Haitians for the breach of decorum.

** It’s also a 1962 movie.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Argentina,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason

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1987: Jimmy Glass, electrocution appellant

June 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1987, Jimmy L. Glass died in Louisiana’s electric chair — having come one vote short of having the device declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The 20-year-old Glass escaped from a parish jail with fellow inmate Jimmy Wingo on Christmas Eve, 1982, robbing and murdering an elderly couple in the process. Each blamed the other; both got the chair.*

But should they have?

Glass would lend his name to a landmark 1985 Supreme Court decision contesting Louisiana’s method of execution.

By a 5-4 decision, the high court held that electrocution, still at that point the country’s prevailing method of execution despite its medieval reputation for grisly botches, remained a constitutional method of inflicting death.

Liberal Justice William Brennan‘s vigorous dissent from that judgment is not for the squeamish. (For readability, I’ve added emphasis and removed the many citations in the original.)

[E]vidence suggests that death by electrical current is extremely violent and inflicts pain and indignities far beyond the “mere extinguishment of life.” Witnesses routinely report that, when the switch is thrown, the condemned prisoner “cringes,” “leaps,” and ” ‘fights the straps with amazing strength.’ ” “The hands turn red, then white, and the cords of the neck stand out like steel bands.” The prisoner’s limbs, fingers, toes, and face are severely contorted. The force of the electrical current is so powerful that the prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and “rest on [his] cheeks.” The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool.

“The body turns bright red as its temperature rises,” and the prisoner’s “flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking.” Sometimes the prisoner catches on fire, particularly “if [he] perspires excessively.” Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound ” like bacon frying,” and “the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh” permeates the chamber. This “smell of frying human flesh in the immediate neighbourhood of the chair is sometimes bad enough to nauseate even the Press representatives who are present.” In the meantime, the prisoner almost literally boils: “the temperature in the brain itself approaches the boiling point of water,” and when the postelectrocution autopsy is performed “the liver is so hot that doctors have said that it cannot be touched by the human hand.” The body frequently is badly burned and disfigured.

The violence of killing prisoners through electrical current is frequently explained away by the assumption that death in these circumstances is instantaneous and painless. This assumption, however, in fact “is open to serious question” and is “a matter of sharp conflict of expert opinion.” Throughout the 20th century a number of distinguished electrical scientists and medical doctors have argued that the available evidence strongly suggests that electrocution causes unspeakable pain and suffering. Because ” ‘[t]he current flows along a restricted path into the body, and destroys all the tissue confronted in this path . . . [i]n the meantime the vital organs may be preserved; and pain, too great for us to imagine, is induced. . . . For the sufferer, time stands still; and this excruciating torture seems to last for an eternity.‘ ” L.G.V. Rota, a renowned French electrical scientist, concluded after extensive research that

“[i]n every case of electrocution, . . . death inevitably supervenes but it may be very long, and above all, excruciatingly painful . . . . [T]he space of time before death supervenes varies according to the subject. Some have a greater physiological resistance than others. I do not believe that anyone killed by electrocution dies instantly, no matter how weak the subject may be. In certain cases death will not have come about even though the point of contact of the electrode with the body shows distinct burns. Thus, in particular cases, the condemned person may be alive and even conscious for several minutes without it being possible for a doctor to say whether the victim is dead or not. . . . This method of execution is a form of torture.”

At least neither the juridical near miss nor Brennan’s graphic description of his impending manner of death dented Jimmy’s sense of humor. Asked for his last words, the “swaggering” inmate, already strapped in the chair, replied

Yeah, I think I’d rather be fishing.

Luckily for Carlisle United, he’s not the same guy as journeyman goaltender Jimmy Glass, who in 1999 improbably struck home one of the greatest goals in English football history.

* Wingo was put to death four days after Glass.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Gallows Humor,Louisiana,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Theft,USA

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1937: Mikhail Tukhachevsky and seven other Soviet commanders purged

7 comments June 12th, 2008 Headsman

Early this date in 1937,* Soviet Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky was executed by a gunshot to the head for allegedly plotting a coup d’etat against Stalin.

One of the most infamous trials** of the Soviet Union’s Great Purge, which would strip the Red Army of much of its officer corps on the eve of its existential test against the Wehrmacht, the Case of the Trotskyist Anti-Soviet Military Organization has always offered fodder for debating the whys and wherefores.

The bare facts are that nine extremely high-ranking members of the military brass were suddenly arrested and within a few weeks (except the one who committed suicide first) shot on the staggering charge of counterrevolutionary conspiracy. Foremost among the victims was Marshal of the Soviet Union Mikhail Tukhachevsky, notable in the annals of military history for pioneering (along with several other Soviet officers, notably Triandafillov) the military doctrine of “deep battle” or “deep operations”.

Deep Battle

Reflecting on the grinding, indecisive struggles of attrition that characterized World War I and the Russian Civil War (both conflicts Tukhachevsky served in), he sought a theory of offensive warfare for modern armies fighting in large and complex engagements — the operational art. In an early (1923) formulation, Tukhachevsky noted

the impossibility in the presence of modern wide fronts to destroy an enemy army by a single blow compels us to achieve this by a series of successive operations … A series of annihilating operations, introduced successively and combined by continuous pursuit, can replace the annihilating engagement, which in former armies was a better type of combat. (Cited here.)

Deep operations would require sophisticated application of technology to strike an opposing army’s entire support structure behind its lines in coordinated operations, rather than the unproductive World War I tactic of throwing waves of cannon fodder across No Man’s Land in the hope of achieving a breakthrough by sheer mass alone. It ripened into official Red Army doctrine in the 1930’s, decreeing

[s]imultaneous assault on enemy defenses by aviation and artillery to the depths of the defense, penetration of the tactical zone of the defense by attacking units with widespread use of tank forces and violent development of tactical success into operational success with the aim of the complete encirclement and destruction of the enemy. The main role is performed by the infantry, and the mutual support of all types of forces are organized in its interests. (Cited here.)

What Happened?

The mystery has always been exactly why Stalin should shoot Tukhachevsky, even if any question beginning “why should Stalin shoot …” nearly answers itself.

Explanations particular to Tukhachevsky range from rivalries within the army (early blocs of officers appointed by Trotsky and Stalin formed professional rivalries; Trotsky had given Tukhachevsky his first Soviet command) to purely personal enmity between the two men. Many have speculated that a genuine “plot” of some sort — whether a coup or assassination, or more mundane political scheming — was indeed afoot against the Soviet dictator. Tukhachevsky’s (officially sanctioned) links with a German military then developing its own similar operational concepts have told against him in some readings.

Author Robert Conquest put about the theory that Heinrich Himmler’s intelligence operatives had contrived to pass the Soviets forged documents pointing to Tukhachevsky’s German collaboration, the better to weaken the Bolshevik defenses. Conversely — and in his diary, Goebbels attributed this riff on the Dolchstosslegende to Hitler himself — a contrarian take has long defended at least this particular purge as a judicious one by Uncle Joe, insuring that wartime Russia would not be hamstrung by “defeatist” elements or other players who might develop both the means and motive for ending the war on German terms.

Inquiries along these lines, of course, expand beyond the particular case into the larger questions of why Stalin purged the army as a whole, and what ultimate effect that purge had on the Soviets’ military readiness in 1941.

Legacy

With Tukhachevsky’s fall, accompanied by other military reformers, the “deep operations” school acquired sufficient taint to abjure the company of the judicious officer. Nevertheless, Tukhachevsky’s influence would play its part in the Great War: his onetime associate Georgy Zhukov, who may have only accidentally avoided being purged himself, deployed Tukhachevskian mobile tactics to crush Japan’s Siberian aspirations at the Battle of Khalkhin-Gol in 1939; duly elevated for this victory to the precarious post of Marshal of the Soviet Union, Zhukov was a crucial commander in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Tukhachevsky, along with all those shot this day, was rehabilitated during the Khrushchev era.

Sorry about shooting you in the head. Here’s a commemorative stamp.

* The condemned received their death sentence at 23:35 on June 11, the sentence to be carried out “immediately” — it seems likely but not completely certain that it had become the 12th by the time the executions actually took place, and different sources report different different dates of death. According to the contemporaneous New York Times report, Soviet authorities announced that the executions had taken place on the 12th. (As an interesting side note, the Times that day also blurbed exiled Stalin rival Leon Trotsky reading in the tea leaves of Tukhachevsky’s death “the beginning of the end for the Stalinist dictatorship.”)

** Not, however, a show trial — Tukhachevsky et al were tried in secret.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Mass Executions,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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