1690: Tom Kelsey, royal robber

Add comment June 13th, 2019 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:


An audacious young Thief who robbed the Tent of King William in Flanders and stabbed a Newgate Turnkey. Executed 13th Of June, 1690

THOMAS KELSEY was born in Leather Lane, in the parish of St Andrew, Holborn; but his mother being a Welsh woman, and she having an estate of about forty pounds per annum, left her by an uncle at Wrexham, in Denbighshire, the whole family — which consisted only of the two old people, and this their son — went down thither to live upon it.

Tom was from his infancy a stubborn, untoward brat, and this temper increased as he grew up; so that at fourteen years of age he was prevailed on by one Jones, who has since been a victualler in London, to leave his father and come up to town, in order to seek his fortune. Having neither of them any money, they were obliged to beg their way along in the best English they were masters of. Going one day to a gentleman’s house with their complaint, he took a liking to the boys, and received them both into his house: Kelsey in the quality of a horsekeeper and Jones as a falconer. It may be supposed they were both awkward enough in their callings, but Tom’s place was the least difficult, so that he kept it the longest, the gentleman being soon weary of his falconer, and glad to send him about his business again.

It was not a great while after, before Tom Kelsey was detected in some little pilfering tricks, and turned out of doors after his companion, whom he could not find when he came to London. His being out of place till he could subsist no longer, and his natural inclination to dishonesty, soon brought him forward in the course of life for which he was afterwards so infamous. He fell into company with thieves, and was as bold and as dexterous in a little time as the best of them, if not even beyond them all.

Going one day by the house of Mr Norton, a silversmith in Burleigh Street, near Exeter ‘Change, a couple of his companions came by him like strangers, and one of them snatched off his hat, and flung it into the goldsmith’s chamber window, which stood open, running away as fast as they could. Tom, who had a look innocent enough to deceive anybody, made a sad complaint to Mr Norton, who stood at his door and saw all that passed. It happened that at that time there was nobody at home but himself, of which Tom had got intelligence before. “Poor lad!” says Mr Norton, “you shall not lose your hat; go upstairs and fetch it yourself, for I cannot leave the shop.” This was just what Tom wanted; he went up and took his hat, and with it a dozen of silver spoons that lay in his way, coming down in a minute, and making a very submissive bow to Mr Norton for his civility, who let him go without suspicion. This prize was divided between him and his two associates, as is common in such-like cases.

Tom was not, however, so successful in his villainies but that he was condemned to be hanged before he was sixteen years of age. The fact was breaking open the house of one Mr Johnson, a grocer in the Strand, and stealing from thence two silver tankards, a silver cup, six silver spoons, a silver porringer, and forty pounds in money. But he got off this time on account of his youth, and the interest his father made at court; for, hearing of his son’s condemnation, the old gentleman came directly up to town, and arrived before the day appointed for his execution, procuring a full pardon by the mediation of some powerful friends.

To prevent his following the same courses again, and exposing himself afresh to the sentence of the law, the old gentleman put his son apprentice to a weaver, but before he had served half-a-year of his time he ran away from his master, and took to his old courses again. It was his pride to make all whom he conversed with as bad as himself, an instance of which appeared in what he did by one David Hughes, a cousin of his by the mother’s side. This youth, going to Kingston Assizes along with Tom a few days after he came to town, was prevailed upon by him to pick a pocket in the court; in which action being apprehended, he was immediately tried, and condemned to be hanged upon a gibbet within sight of the Bench, as a terror to others. This week was fatal enough to young Hughes; for he came to London on the Monday, on Tuesday and Wednesday spent and lost ten pounds, which was all the money he had, along with whores and sharpers, on Thursday in the evening picked a pocket, was condemned on Friday morning, and hanged on Saturday. This was the end of one of Kelsey’s hopeful pupils, who had the impudence to boast of it.

Another of the actions of this extravagant was his robbing the Earl of Feversham‘s lodgings. This nobleman was General of the Forces in the reign of King James II, and consequently had a sentinel always at his door. Tom dressed himself in a foot-soldier’s habit one evening, and went up to the fellow who was then on duty, asking him a great many questions, and offering at last to stand a drink, if he knew where to get a couple of pots of good beer. The soldier told him there was very good a little beyond Catherine Street, but he durst not leave his post so long as to fetch it. “Can’t I take your place, brother soldier?” quoth Tom. “I am sure if somebody be at the post there can be no danger.” The soldier thanked him, took the sixpence, and went his way; meanwhile Tom’s associates got into the house, and were rifling it as fast as they could. They had not quite done when the soldier came back; whereupon Tom gave him twopence more, and desired him to get a little tobacco also. While the poor fellow was gone for this the villains came out, and Tom went with them, carrying off not only above two hundred pounds worth of plate, but even the soldier’s musket. The next day the sentinel was called to account, and committed to prison. At the ensuing court martial he was ordered to run the gauntlet for losing his piece, and then was sent to Newgate, and loaded with irons, on suspicion of being privy to the robbery, where, after nine months’ confinement, he miserably perished. Kelsey, after this, broke open the house of the Lady Grace Pierpont, at Thistleworth, and stole from thence a great many valuable things. But soon after one of his companions impeached him for this fact; whereupon, being informed that the officers were in search after him, he fled to the camp of King William in Flanders. Here he got a considerable booty out of his Majesty’s tent, and from other general officers, with which he got to Amsterdam, and sold it to a Jew, whom he also robbed afterwards, and sold what he had gotten to another Jew at Rotterdam, from whence he re-embarked for England.

He had not been long returned to his native country before he was detected in breaking open the house of a linen-draper in Cheapside, which put a final end to his liberty, though not to his villainy, for, being sent to Newgate, and having no hopes of ever getting out any more, unless to go to Tyburn, he grew desperate, and resolved to do all the mischief he could there. Mr Goodman, one of the turnkeys of that jail, being one day drinking in the common-side cellar, Kelsey privately stabbed him in the belly with a knife, of which wound he instantly died. For this murder he received sentence of death at the next session in the Old Bailey, and a gibbet being erected in Newgate Street, near the prison, he was thereon executed, on Friday, the 13th of June, 1690, being then no more than twenty years of age. As a terror to the other prisoners who were then in confinement, his body was suffered to hang on the gibbet the space of three hours.

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1483: William Hastings, trusting too much

Add comment June 13th, 2018 Headsman

This honourable man, a good knight and a gentle; of living somewhat dissolute; plain and open to his enemy, secret to his friend, easy to beguile, as he that of good heart and courage forestudieth no perils; a loving man, and passing well-beloved; very faithful, and trusty enough — trusting too much.

Thomas More‘s assessment of William Hastings

The Baron Hastings arose this date as the trusted councillor of the Lord Protector. Before dinner, he’d had his head chopped off over a log in the Tower of London.


Lord Hastings sported this fancy badge of a handsomely endowed manticore.
Richard III, Act 3, Scene 4
by William Shakespeare

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
I pray you all, tell me what they deserve
That do conspire my death with devilish plots
Of damned witchcraft, and that have prevail’d
Upon my body with their hellish charms?

Lord Hastings.
The tender love I bear your grace, my lord,
Makes me most forward in this noble presence
To doom the offenders, whatsoever they be
I say, my lord, they have deserved death.

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
Then be your eyes the witness of this ill:
See how I am bewitch’d; behold mine arm
Is, like a blasted sapling, wither’d up:
And this is Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch,
Consorted with that harlot strumpet Shore,
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.

Lord Hastings.
If they have done this thing, my gracious lord —

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
If? thou protector of this damned strumpet —
Tellest thou me of ‘ifs’? Thou art a traitor:
Off with his head! Now, by Saint Paul I swear,
I will not dine until I see the same.
Lovel and Ratcliff, look that it be done:
The rest, that love me, rise and follow me.

[Exeunt all but HASTINGS, RATCLIFF, and LOVEL]

Lord Hastings.
Woe, woe for England! not a whit for me;
For I, too fond, might have prevented this.
Stanley did dream the boar did raze his helm;
But I disdain’d it, and did scorn to fly:
Three times to-day my foot-cloth horse did stumble,
And startled, when he look’d upon the Tower,
As loath to bear me to the slaughter-house.
O, now I want the priest that spake to me:
I now repent I told the pursuivant
As ’twere triumphing at mine enemies,
How they at Pomfret bloodily were butcher’d,
And I myself secure in grace and favour.
O Margaret, Margaret, now thy heavy curse
Is lighted on poor Hastings’ wretched head!

Sir Richard Ratcliff.
Dispatch, my lord; the duke would be at dinner:
Make a short shrift; he longs to see your head.

Lord Hastings.
O momentary grace of mortal men,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!
Who builds his hopes in air of your good looks,
Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
Ready, with every nod, to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep.

Lord Lovel.
Come, come, dispatch; ’tis bootless to exclaim.

Lord Hastings.
O bloody Richard! miserable England!
I prophesy the fearful’st time to thee
That ever wretched age hath look’d upon.
Come, lead me to the block; bear him my head.
They smile at me that shortly shall be dead.

A longtime Yorkist pillar during the Wars of the Roses, Hastings parlayed his many years of proximity to King Edward IV into still-extant architectural glories like Ashby Castle and Kirby Castle.

Of greater moment for the pivotal year of 1483 was Hastings’s bitter enmity with the Woodville family — the kin of widowed queen when Edward died suddenly in 1483. In his life, the king had checked the rivalry between Woodvilles and York magnates. But “the king’s death at once broke up the unity of the court, the peace of the country, and the fortunes of the house of York.”

Before Edward’s body went cold, both factions raced into the power vacuum: the heir was a 12-year-old who wasn’t event present in the capital when his father died. Power in the realm hinged on the actions of men like Hastings in April and May of 1483.

And Hastings made the most of his moment — to his own later grief. While the Woodvilles flexed during the first days of the regency, Hastings drug his feet, threatened to start a civil war, and successfully negotiated for the respective sides to minimize their armed retinues when they arrived for the coronation of young Edward V. He also wrote urgently to the new de facto captain of Team York, the late king’s brother, Richard of Gloucester.

Hastening to answer the call, Gloucester hijacked a too-lax royal convoy en route to London, acquiring custody of the heir, and rolled into town that May as the master of both the boy king’s person and the political situation. Edward V and his brother were the urchins destined to disappear into the Tower of London; Gloucester would eventually crown himself King Richard III. The Woodvilles fled from power and danger, to the sanctuary of an obliging cathedral.

Big win for Bill Hastings, right? He

was extremely elated at these changes to which the affairs of the world are so subject, and was in the habit of saying that hitherto nothing whatever had been done except the transferring of the government of the kingdom from two of the queen’s blood to two more powerful persons of the king’s; and this, too, effected without any slaughter, or indeed causing as much blood to be shed as would be produced by the cut of a finger. In the course, however, of a very few days after the utterance of these words, this extreme of joy of his supplanted with sorrow. (Croyland Chronicle)

The sorrow arrived like a thunderbolt at a particularly infamous royal council meeting on June 13, 1483, when Gloucester seemingly out of nowhere denounced Hastings as a traitor, along with three others. The others we set aside; they were politically insulated from membership in the pages of Executed Today. But not so Hastings, who was detailed for immediate beheading on Gloucester’s say-so, and never mind the trial.

Politics on this plane was intrinsically cutthroat; nevertheless, this shock destruction of an essential ally puts Richard in a pretty unflattering light. Was he really, as Gloucester claimed, plotting against him? Perhaps Gloucester perceived Hastings too loyal to Edward V at a moment when he was resolved upon usurpation? Had it factored, as the proclamation alleged, that Hastings took up with the late king’s remarkable mistress Jane Shore,* “one of his secret counsel in this heinous treason, with whom he lay nightly, and namely the night past before his death”? Claims and counterclaims around this black June 13 grow thick on the ground, none of them rooted in any decisive evidence.

The estimable David Crowther deals with these perilous months in Episode 187 of the History of England Podcast. The guest episode 187a in that same series explores the aforementioned mistress of William Hastings, whose humiliating public penance inspired the Walk of Shame scene in Game of Thrones.

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Feast Day of St. Cetteus

Add comment June 13th, 2017 Headsman

June 13 is the feast of St. Cetteus, patron of the Adriatic port city of Pescara.

This saint’s legends smudges the line between just-so story and real historical events, illustrating the Church martyrology’s great strength as a ready-made memorial of Christians’ trials down the years. In this case the suffering was less a religious persecution per se than the shame of being trod over by conquerors who installed themselves almost without opposition in the hollowed husk of Roman greatness and did as they pleased.

The Lombard incursion beginning in 568 in some ways signals the permanent sundering of east from west in the Roman world, for the Germanic invaders — a mixture of pagans and Arian heretics, no less — in time ousted Byzantium from the latter’s Italian holdings and meanwhile underscored the Roman Empire’s near-impotence in its ancestral homelands. “From Italy the emperors were incessantly tormented by tales of misery and demands of succor, which extorted the humiliating confession of their own weakness,” writes Gibbon. “The expiring dignity of Rome was only marked by the freedom and energy of her complaints: ‘If you are incapable,’ she said, ‘of delivering us from the sword of the Lombards, save us at least from the calamity of famine.'”

For the near term, it was a violent and unstable period; Lombard rulers assassinated and warred with one another as their hegemony devolved into a patchwork of feuding duchies, helping set the scene for the fractured medieval peninsula.

The perils of internal strife manifest in our martyr’s story; despite his eventual association with Pescara, his bishopric was inland at Amiternum and it was there, the story goes, that he was ordered drowned in 597 by a tyrannous Lombard warlord who mistakenly thought him a crony of his rival.

Tossed into the drink, the bish floated downstream to Pescara where a fisherman, recognizing the corpse’s ecclesiastical raiments without knowing exactly who wore them, buried him under the whimsical name “Peregrino”.

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1962: The only hangings in independent Cyprus

Add comment June 13th, 2016 Headsman

Three Men Hanged in Cyprus
From the London Times, June 14, 1962

NICOSIA, June 13

Three Greek Cypriots found Guilty of murder were hanged before dawn at Nicosia Central Prison today, the first capital sentences to be carried out in Cyprus since independence in August, 1960. Their fate had been in the balance until 11 o’clock last night, when Mr. Glafcos Clerides, the acting President, announced that after considering all the circumstances, he had decided not to grant a suspension of the executions.

The three men were Hambis Zacharia, Michael Hiletikos, and Lazaris Demetriou. Zacharia was convicted of killing a man with an axe in a Limassol vineyard in September, 1958. The other two were jointly convicted of the murder of a man outside a Limassol cabaret last year.

Last night Mr. Rauf Denktash [the future president of Northern Cyprus -ed.], the Turkish advocate who appeared for Zacharia, had filed a petition in the High Court seeking a declaration that the execution warrant issued by the acting President was illegal and ultra vires, and a declaration that the superintendent of prisons was not legally appointed and could not carry out the executions. The petition was heard in the chamber of Mr. Justice Vassiliades and adjourned for a full court hearing, but this morning was withdrawn.

The English-language Cyprus Mail this morning commends the courage of the acting President and points out that the House of Representatives has power to amend the law if it wishes to abolish capital punishment. It adds that such action is unlikely to be publicly welcomed in view of the number of murders in the republic in recent months.

Despite the correspondent’s confidence in the endurance of the gallows, these first executions for independent Cyprus were also its last executions: no further hangings occurred before Cyprus abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes in 1983, and for all crimes in 2002.

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1873: A day in the death penalty around the U.S., courtesy of the New York Herald

Add comment June 13th, 2015 Headsman

Dispatches to the New York Herald from 1873 give us today’s post: a little portrait of public hangings in Reconstruction Dixie.

Isham Belton O’Neill, 32 at his death, hanged in Atlanta on this date in 1873; the Herald reported it in the next day’s edition.

O’Neill grew up on a farm outside Atlanta but was taken to the city by service in the Confederate army.

Postwar, he started a short-lived painting business with a fellow veteran, John Little: short-lived, because within a few months the courts were sorting out the partnership’s dissolution. Little, evidently, felt hard done by their rulings and “met O’Neill on the street several times after the snit, and even visited him at his shop, always urging him to let him have a sash, which he claimed to be his own property.”

On September 5th, 1871, they bumped into each other again by accident and after a few pleasantriles, Little started in on the sash again. “You got it be swearing a damned lie,” he insisted.

The testimony is that O’Neill then struck him in the face, and [Little] seized O’Neill first by the collar and then by his hands, which he endeavored to hold firmly; but O’Neill, by turning and exerting himself, wrenched his right hand from Little’s grasp, put it behind him and drew from under his coat a large Bowie Knife and quickly stabbed Little in the abdomen, the knife penetrating six inches deep, making a surface cut of two inches long, the sides of which were jagged, as if the sharp, two-edged knife, after having been plunged in, had been twisted round and drawn out.

Enough about the sash, okay?

O’Neill was a respectable fellow in the community (apart from the unpleasantness), and he stuck to a shaky “self-defense” story long enough that he might have started to believe it himself. So even though Little gurgled his last that night with five feet of bowel hanging out of the jagged fissure O’Neill had carved, the killer felt inordinately confident of an executive reprieve.

O’Neill even eschewed the opportunity to escape during a general jailbreak in February 1872, obediently remaining in his spot even with the cell door popped wide open in front of him. Several fellow prisoners successfully absconded on this occasion and avoided recapture.

O’Neill only received word of the governor’s final rejection of his petition at 1 in the morning on the date of his hanging, when “he was awakened out of a sound sleep to receive it.”

Up to that moment he had been confident in the belief that his life would be spared by the Governor, and had refused to listen to the advice of his counsel and spiritual advisers to prepare for death. When he was told that the last hope was gone he felt very bad and was convinced. For the first time he seemed to realize the awful situation, broke down and gave way to piercing cries and lamentations — “Oh! is it all over with me? My God! it is terrible. Does the Governor refuse even a respite? O merciful God, is there no other chance!” and he ended with long heartrending, choking sobs.

We turn now to the Herald‘s June 17 report of a public execution from Lebanon, Virginia.

A steady, sharp stroke of a hatchet, a rope is cut, the crash of a falling drop follows, another rope is stretched to its utmost tension, there is a rebound and the body of Archie Johnson, a negro, is swinging in the air, a solemn warning to an immense multitude of spectators that “he that sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed.”

Archie Johnson, “a copper-colored negro, about twenty-eight years of age” with a countenance “regular and well cut for a negro” was the former slave of a local Russell County gentleman.

Upon liberation, the correspondent charges, he “began a career of dissipation and vice,” driving away a wife with his wantonness before he “totally abandoned himself to all that was degraded, vicious and criminal.” At last, he murdered a man named Hunt.

This story is particularly intriguing for the writer’s detailed — often editorializing — reportage of the hanging details.

Not only all Russell county were on the grounds, but from Washington, Scott and other surrounding counties many thousands came to behold the death struggles of a condemned felon. The number of females in the vast throng was somewhat astonishing, and their complexions were as varied as the costumes they wore. Some were as black as a traditional ace of spaces, others as fair as the whitest lily, while the intermediate embraced every imaginable shade between the two. A large number of these came on horseback, their long, dark riding skirts forming a happy contrast with the innumerable bright and gaudy colors worn by the pedestrians. As to horses, all the available racks, trees and fences in town were thickly lined with them, and then it seemed that the surrounding woods were densely picketed with them. The prevailing costumes of the men were blue and gray jeans. The valleys, the knobs, the peaks and plains, the huts and houses, seemed to have poured themselves out to-day, all actuated by the same common, morbid curiosity, and it can safely be said that scarcely a score of them were solemnly impressed by the terrible scene they witnessed. The number present was estimated at six thousand people.

Turning from sociology to engineering, our observer sketches the construction of the lethal apparatus:

THE SCAFFOLD

was a very ordinary, rude affair, consisting of the usual two main uprights, a narrow platform in the rear, in front of which was the drop, supported by a rope. This ran through the crossbeam near the centre, and was secured to a peg driven in one of the uprights, about four feet from the ground. It allowed of a fall of six feet, and was in all respects as thorough and effective as a majority of the clumsy, murderous machines* generally used in such instances in the South. The structure was situated in the old field to the north of the town and about half a mile distant from the jail.

As for Johnson himself, he signed off on a written confession blaming for his downfall those usual suspects: liquor, cards, loose women. Then he puffed a nonchalant cigar as he rode on his coffin to the gallows, “neatly and tastefully attired in a suit of entire black cloth, black cap, with gloves and gaiters”; he sat on a chair beside his noose for two different sermons (Methodist and Baptist), then a hymn which Johnson “joined with great spirit and religious zeal,” asked one last cigar which he puffed happily for ten minutes in which “his coolness just at this time excited the wonder of many and the admiration of more,” and finally at 2:24 p.m. — 48 minutes after he arrived at the gallows — submitted to his fate.


There was a third U.S. hanging on June 13, 1873: Joseph Duncan, in a public execution at Paris, Ky., for murder. All I have been able to learn in particular of Duncan’s hanging was that his first rope broke, necessitating the ol’ do-over.

* Presumably the Yankee’s judgment of the gallows here is informed by New York’s having “progressed” to upward-jerking hangings.

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1628: John Lambe murdered

3 comments June 13th, 2014 Headsman

Here Dr Lambe, the conjurer lyes,
Against his will untimely dies
The Divell did show himselfe a Glutton
In taking this Lambe before he was mutton
The Divell in Hell will rost him there
Whome the Prentises basted here.
In Hell they wondred when he came
To see among the Goats a Lambe.

Libel (one of many) on John Lambe’s murder

Friday the 13th of June in 1628 bore foul luck for John Lambe, an aged astrologer, magician, and folk healer so hated of Londoners that a mob fell on him as he returned from theater this evening and butchered him in the street.

While we hope to justify Lambe’s presence in these pages under our going interest in lynchings, his curious homicide transgresses the boundaries of Executed Today as surely as did Lambe transgress those of Stuart London.

North of 80 at the time of his death — although still vigorous enough at that age to defend himself with a sword — Lambe came to misfortunate public notoriety in the 1620s. These were crisis years when the crown sowed the dragon’s teeth that would in later years devour Charles I. Lambe’s slaughter was a little taste of worse to come.

Sources from the period view Lambe as both a shameless fraud and a vile wizard, with no consistency between the propositions save for their vitriol. Lambe seems like he got the worst of both perceptions at once: he faced a 1619 complaint to the Royal College of Physicians that he was a “mountebank and impostor.” [sic] Three years after that, he was in the dock for witchcraft

What Lambe did do was beat two charges in as many years that could easily have hanged him: the aforementioned witchcraft case in 1622, and a rape charge in 1624. Evidence in either case was underwhelming, but the charges themselves were incendiary; Lambe’s knack for slithering out of the hangman’s grasp must have suggested for the man on the street a channel to sinister higher powers.

Commoners bestirred themselves about this time against the realm’s own higher powers — the politically ham-fisted new king Charles and his grapples with Parliament to secure sufficient tax revenue for his inept war with France and Spain.

In all this mess, the Duke of Buckingham — royal favorite and possible lover of Charles’s father — was the number two man in the kingdom, and the number one object of hate.

In the mid-1620s, Lambe became conjoined in the public eye with Buckingham — as Buckingham’s demon-summoning henchman, say. Was it the Duke’s pull that spared his familiar the noose? Was it Lambe’s necromancy that captured the king in the thrall of his detested aide?

Did it even matter?

From the distance of centuries the particulars of the supposed affiliation between the two seems difficult to establish,* but it sufficed for Lambe’s death (and Buckingham’s too) that they were analogues for one another, that their respective villainies could be multiplied one atop the other.

Despite all that tinder lying around, we don’t know the exact spark for Lambe’s murder on June 13, 1628. A few months before, Buckingham had fled a humiliating military defeat in France; Parliament and King were at loggerheads that June, forcing the reluctant Charles to accede to a Petition of Right on June 7 that remains to this day a bedrock document of Britons’ liberties.

On the 13th, Lambe was recognized by “the boyes of the towne, and other unruly people” attending a play at the Fortune Playhouse.

As he left it, some began to follow him. Maybe it was just one insult too tartly answered that multiplied these hooligans, or maybe there was a ready rabble that immediately took to his heels. The frightened Lambe picked his way to the city walls menaced all the way by his lynch mob, hired a few soldiers as an ad hoc bodyguard, and by the dark of night tried desperately to find some sort of shelter from the crowd growing in both number and hostility. Under the mob’s threat, a tavern put him out, and a barrister likewise; his guards fled their posts; and someone at last laid his hands on John Lambe. By the time the frenzy had passed, Lambe’s “skull was broken, one of his eyes hung out of his head, and all parties of his body bruised and wounded so much, that no part was left to receive a wound.” Many contemporaries must have understood it as the just punishment that courts could not manage to exact.


Woodcut of the assault on Lambe outside the Windmill Tavern, from the title page of A Briefe Description of the Notorious Life of Iohn Lambe (1628)

The libels now rejoiced openly in Lambe’s summary justice — nobody was ever prosecuted for his murder — and anticipated another one to follow it.

“Who rules the Kingdome? The King. Who rules the King? The Duke. Who rules the Duke? The Devill,” one menacing placard announced. “And that the libellers there professe, Lett the Duke look to it; for they intend shortly to use him worse then they did his Doctor, and if thinges be not shortly reformed, they will work a reformation themselves.”

Their thirst for “reformation” was not long delayed.

Ten weeks after Lambe’s murder, a disaffected army officer named John Felton at last enacted the swelling popular sentiment and assassinated Buckingham.

“The Shepheards struck, The sheepe are fledd,” one unsympathetic doggerel taunted, recalling the dead wizard whose supernatural exertions could no longer protect his wicked patron. “For want of Lambe the Wolfe is dead.”

The History of Witchcraft podcast has an excellent episode on Dr. Lambe here.

* So says Alastair Bellany, whose “The Murder of John Lambe: Crowd Violence, Court Scandal and Popular Politics in Early Seventeenth-Century England” in Past and Present, vol. 200, no. 1 is a principal source for this post. (It’s here, but behind academic paywalls.)

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1887: Ellen Thomson and John Harrison, lovers

1 comment June 13th, 2013 Headsman

Ellen Thomson, the only woman ever executed in Queensland, was hanged this date in 1887, along with her lover John Harrison — both condemned for murdering Ellen’s husband William.

Ellen arrived at Port Douglas in the late 1870s, already a widowed mother.

She became a housekeeper for William Thomson, a man almost twice her age.

Unsurprisingly, they ended up in matrimony.

Unsurprisingly, that May-December match ended in grief.

Ellen’s relationship with the younger marine John Harrison brought the conflict to a head; the husband was murdered in October of 1886. On the eve of the hanging, Harrison attempted to protect his paramour by claiming sole responsibility for the crime … but it was too little, too late. Both were hanged at Boggo Road Gaol.

Port Douglas’s Court House Museum still maintains an exhibit on this milestone case.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Sex,Women

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1930: Lee Akers, after the Ohio Penitentiary Fire

4 comments June 13th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1930, Lee Akers was electrocuted in Ohio for murdering a Cleveland man at a gas station stickup.

Akers had been held at the death house at the Ohio Penitentiary bound in the end for a May 2, 1930 execution.

The “lucky” break that bought him six extra weeks of life was just the deadliest prison fire in history. (n.b. — Recently surpassed in Honduras)

Already a century old and packed to triple its 1,500-soul capacity, the penitentiary had a fire break out* shortly after supper on April 21 in Section “I”. This fire

licked along dry timber into Section “H”, from Section “H” to Section “G”, and thence upward to where 300 prisoners, trapped like caged animals, tore futily [sic] at steel bars that became their pyre.

It was a twilight of indescribable horror.

Some 320 perished from burns, suffocation, and smoke inhalation. Most of the casualties were those who never got out of their locked prison cells, and couldn’t move a meter as death enveloped them.


20th century literary great Chester Himes also happened to be serving a sentence for armed robbery at this prison:** indeed, it was during that sentence that he began to write at all, setting him on a path towards his life’s work.


1991 cinematic adaptation of Himes’s A Rage in Harlem.

Himes’s novel from his time in the Ohio penitentiary was only published well after his death, in 1998 … the same year the disused Ohio Penitentiary was finally torn down.

One of Himes’s first published works was a short story in Esquire in 1934, written while Himes was still incaracerated. Titled “To What Red Hell” (an allusion to Oscar Wilde’s meditation on prison and death row, The Ballad of Reading Gaol: “For none can tell to what red Hell / His sightless soul may stray.”), this story follows the experience of the Ohio prison inferno through the fictional inmate “Blackie”, who beholds tormented prisoners like “condemned souls jumping flame pots in the ante room of Hell” … but also notices the ironic safety of death row, where the literal condemned souls remained un-burned.

From where he stood he could see the death house, a low, red brick building at the end of the cell block. Just above it was a wall parapet. A guard stood on the cat-walk with a sub-machine gun cradled in his arm. Two searchlights shone in opposite directions down the sides of the gray, stone wall. The green door of the death house looked black in the vague light.

The end of the parade! The last mile! What a joke! The death house was on the other side of the yard tonight, he was thinking. It was quiet over here in the shadows with the scared ghosts of the executed men.

In fact, someone had managed to spring the death house doors, momentarily “liberating” the doomed men. As militia arrived on the scene, they attempted to forestall any general uprising or wholesale prison break by setting up machine gun emplacements on prison towers, with orders to shoot to kill.

When the death row prisoners were collared — they hadn’t actually gone anywhere or tried anything** — they were offered transportation to the city jail for their own safety against these potentially itchy trigger fingers. While three of them took the refuge, the others (Akers included) refused, on the sensible grounds that they could hardly be much worse off being shot dead than being electrocuted.


The inmates — reported to have labored heroically alongside guards, firefighters, civilian nurses, virtually without incident — were understandably incensed at the disaster, charging that guards had allowed most of the victims to die out of needless reticence over releasing anybody as the fire began to spread — and that the refusal to turn the keys went straight to the top. William Wade, “a big Negro prisoner” who had sledgehammered a cell open to save 25 men, was quoted in the next day’s New York Times saying simply, “They could have saved these men. They let human beings burn to death.”

Warden Preston Thomas, who comes off in the story as an unmitigated shit,† was the focus of the prisoners’ ire … and when he showed himself, the focus of their raucous jeers (Thomas tried to dump the blame on lower-level guards, who in turn claimed that they’d been directed by their superiors not to open cells). The Ohio governor’s refusal to dismiss Warden Thomas soon triggered a riot in the prison and the arrival of the National Guard for several tense days of teargas-punctuated negotiations.

This mutiny was only just being settled when Akers’s original May 2 execution date came up. The charred prison clearly had some other priorities at that moment than orchestrating an execution, so Akers and another man, John Richardson, both got a gubernatorial reprieve until things were peaceful enough for orderly killing.

The inferno, meanwhile, opened space for some humanitarian reforms: since overcrowding (which had been fretted in internal reports in the years preceding the fire, and had also contributed to several other prison disturbances) was widely understood to be part of the disaster, a parole board was formed in 1931 that released 2,300 prisoners. “Mandatory minimum” sentences that stuffed minor offenders into these dungeons were widely rolled back.


According to the Justice Policy Institute (pdf), the total United States prison population in 1930 was a mere 180,889.

Although we may have made some provisions to avoid spectacular catastrophes like the Ohio Penitentiary fire in our present-day overcrowded prisons, the routine catastrophe of imprisonment itself — “the moral scandal of American life” — has grown more than twelvefold since 1930.

* The mysterious fire was eventually found to have been started by some (non-death row) prisoners in an abortive breakout bid: two of them later hanged themselves in remorse. However, and rather amazingly, there were no reported escape attempts during the nighttime chaos.

** Himes wasn’t the Ohio penitentiary’s only noteworthy litterateur. The facility’s prison yard was named in honor of the pseudonym that a previous scribbling inmate had concocted there in order to get published while doing his time: O. Henry.

† e.g., a committee formed by the legislature to investigate the fire took testimony from convicts that Warden Thomas was a tyrannous martinet even apart from the disaster, even as Thomas was publicly threatening the angry inmates who were demanding his ouster: “If these prisoners don’t quiet down pretty quick, I’ll use forceful methods against them if it takes a soldier to every man.”

Part of the Themed Set: Ohio.

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

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1857: Twelve blown from cannons in British Punjab

8 comments June 13th, 2011 Headsman

An account from the February 15, 1862 Harper’s Weekly of a very messy spectacle orchestrated to maintain British control of Punjab.

Another execution of a similar nature took place on the 13th of June, at Ferozepore. All the available troops and public establishments were convened to witness the scene. Some of the mutineers were to be hung, and around the gallows, erected during the night previous, the soldiers were drawn up. The mutineers were then brought into the centre, and the proceedings of the general Court-Martial was read. Upon being informed that if they would become Queen’s evidence they would be reprieved, twelve of the criminals accepted the offer and were marched to the rear. Two were taken to the gallows. They ascended the ladder with firm steps, and to the last moment betrayed no emotion of fear.

The remaining ten were now led away to the artillery guns, and while their irons were being struck off some cried, “Do not sacrifice the innocent for the guilty!” Two others rejoined, “Hold your sniveling: die men and not cowards — you defended your religion, why then do you crave your lives? Sahibs! they are not Sahibs, they are dogs!” Others then began to upbraid their commanding officer. The wretched beings were quickly fastened to the muzzles of ten guns, charged with blank cartridge.

The commanding officer directed port-fires to be lit. “Ready!” “Fire!” and the drama was played out. An eye-witness says: “The scene and stench were overpowering. I felt myself terribly convulsed, and could observe that the numerous native spectators were awe-stricken — that they not only trembled like aspen-leaves, but also changed into unnatural hues. Precaution was not taken to remove the sponge-and-load men from the muzzles of the guns; the consequence was that they were greatly bespattered with blood, and one man in particular received a stunning blow from a shivered arm!


A lengthier account, no less riveting and we suppose more accurate on account of its primary sourcing, is to be found in this memoir or the British campaign against the Sepoy rebellion.

June 13 The morning of June 13 was fixed upon for the execution. A gallows was erected on the plain to the north side of the fort, facing the native bazaars, and at a distance of some 300 yards. On this two sepoys were to be hanged, and at the same time their comrades in mutiny were to be blown away from guns.

We paraded at daylight every man off duty, and, with the band playing, marched to the place of execution, and drew up in line near the gallows and opposite the native quarter.

Shortly after our arrival the European Light Field Battery, of six guns, appeared on the scene, forming up on our left flank, and about twenty yards in front of the Light Company.

The morning was close and sultry, not a cloud in the sky, and not a breath of wind stirring; and I confess I felt sick with a suffocating sense of horror when I reflected on the terrible sight I was about to witness.

Soon the fourteen mutineers, under a strong escort of our men with fixed bayonets, were seen moving from the fort. They advanced over the plain at our rear, and drew up to the left front of, and at right angles to, the battery of artillery.

I was standing at the extreme right of the line with the Grenadier Company, and some distance from the guns; but I had provided myself with a pair of strong glasses, and therefore saw all that followed clearly and distinctly.

There was no unnecessary delay in the accomplishment of the tragedy. Two of the wretched creatures were marched off to the gallows, and placed with ropes round their necks on a raised platform under the beam.

The order was given for the guns to be loaded, and quick as thought the European artillerymen placed a quarter charge of powder in each piece. The guns were 9-pounders, the muzzles standing about 3 feet from the ground.

During these awful preparations, I watched at intervals the faces of the condemned men, but could detect no traces of fear or agitation in their demeanour. The twelve stood two deep, six in front and six in the rear, calm and undismayed, without uttering a word.

An officer came forward, and, by the Brigadier’s order, read the sentence of the court-martial, and at its conclusion the six men in front, under escort, walked towards the battery.

There was a death-like silence over the scene at this time, and, overcome with horror, my heart seemed almost to cease beating.

Arrived at the guns, the culprits were handed over to the artillerymen, who, ready prepared with strong ropes in their hands, seized their victims. Each of these, standing erect, was bound to a cannon and tightly secured, with the small of the back covering the muzzle. And then all at once the silence which reigned around was broken by the oaths and yells of those about to die. These sounds were not uttered by men afraid of death, for they showed the most stoical indifference, but were the long-suppressed utterances of dying souls, who, in the bitterness of their hearts, cursed those who had been instrumental in condemning them to this shameful end. They one and all poured out maledictions on our heads; and in their language, one most rich in expletives, they exhausted the whole vocabulary.

Meanwhile the gunners stood with lighted port-fires, waiting for the
word of command to fire the guns and launch the sepoys into eternity.

These were still yelling and raining abuse, some even looking over their shoulders and watching without emotion the port-fires, about to be applied to the touch-holes, when the word “Fire!” sounded from the officer in command, and part of the tragedy was at an end.

A thick cloud of smoke issued from the muzzles of the cannons, through which were distinctly seen by several of us the black heads of the victims, thrown many feet into the air.

While this tragic drama was enacting, the two sepoys to be hanged were turned off the platform.

The artillerymen again loaded the guns, the six remaining prisoners, cursing like their comrades, were bound to them, another discharge, and then an execution, the like of which I hope never to see again, was completed.

All this time a sickening, offensive smell pervaded the air, a stench which only those who have been present at scenes such as these can realize — the pungent odour of burnt human flesh.

The artillerymen had neglected putting up back-boards to their guns, so that, horrible to relate, at each discharge the recoil threw back pieces of burning flesh, bespattering the men and covering them with blood and calcined remains.

A large concourse of natives from the bazaars and city had assembled in front of the houses, facing the guns at a distance, as I said before, of some 300 yards, to watch the execution. At the second discharge of the cannon, and on looking before me, I noticed the ground torn up and earth thrown a slight distance into the air more than 200 paces away. Almost at the same time there was a commotion among the throng in front, some running to and fro, while others ran off in the direction of the houses. I called the attention of an officer who was standing by my side to this strange and unaccountable phenomenon, and said, half joking: “Surely the scattered limbs of the sepoys have not been carried so far?”

He agreed with me that such was impossible; but how to account for the sight we had seen was quite beyond our comprehension.

The drama came to an end about six o’clock, and as is usual, even after a funeral or a military execution, the band struck up an air, and we marched back to barracks, hoping soon to drive from our minds the recollection of the awful scenes we had witnessed.

Two or three hours after our return news arrived that one native had been killed and two wounded among the crowd which had stood in our front, spectators of the recent execution. How this happened has never been explained. At this time a “cantonment guard” was mounted, consisting of a company of European infantry, half a troop of the 10th Light Cavalry, and four guns, and two of these guns loaded with grape were kept ready during the night, the horses being harnessed, etc. Half the cavalry also was held in readiness, saddled; in fact, every precaution was taken to meet an attack.

As far as I can recollect, there were but two executions by blowing away from guns on any large scale by us during the Mutiny; one of them that at Ferozepore.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Blown from Cannon,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,India,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1683: James Smith and John Wharry, Covenanter bystanders

3 comments June 13th, 2010 Headsman

Inscription on a marker on the road from Kirkintilloch to Kilsyth* in Scotland:

In this field lies the corpse of John Wharry and James Smith, who suffered in Glasgow, 13 June 1683, for their adherence to the Word of God, and Scotland’s Covenanted Work of Reformation: ‘And they overcame them by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death'” (Rev. xii. 11)

Halt, courteous passenger, and look on
Our bodies dead, & lying under this stone.
Altho’ we did commit no deed,** nor fact
That was against the Bridegroom’s contract,
Yet we to Glasgow were as prisoners brought,
And against us false witness they sought.
Their sentence cruel and unjust they past,
And then our corps on scaffold they did cast.
There we our lives and right hands also lost.
From Glasgow we were brought unto this place
In chains of iron hung up for certain space.
Then taken down interred here we ly–
From ‘neath this stone our blood to heaven doth cry.
Had foreign foes, Turks, or Mahometans,
Had Scythians, Tartars, Arabian Caravans,
Had cruel Spaniards, the Pope’s blood seed,
Commenced the same, less strange had been the deed;
But Protestants, profest our Covenants to,
Our countrymen, this bloody deed could do.
Yet notwithstanding of their hellish rage
The noble Wharry stepping on the stage
With courage bold and with a heart not faint,
Exclaims, This blood now seals our covenant–
Ending, They who would follow Christ should take
Their cross upon their back, the world forsake.


Image (c) Maria ‘Mia’ Gaellman | http://www.mariaphoto.co.uk/

The epitaph above is from this Victorian text, which further observes:

The probability is, that what is called on the new stone “the old tombstone” is not much older than this [the 19th] century, and that it is the successor of an older one on which may have been inscribed the following epitaph:

Halt, passenger, read here upon this stone
A tragedy, our bodies done upon.
At Glasgow Cross we lost both our right hands,
To fright beholders, th’ enemy so commands;
Then put to death, and that most cruelly.
Yet where we’re slain, even there we must not lie,
From Glasgow town we’re brought unto this place,
On Gallow tree hung up for certain space.
Yet thence ta’en down, interred here we lie
Beneath this stone; our blood to heaven doth cry.
Had foreign foes, Turks or Mahometans,
Had Scythian Tartars, Arabian caravans,
Had cruel Spaniards, the Pope’s bloody seed,
Commenc’d the same, had been less strange their deed.
But Protestants, once Covenanters too,
Our countrymen, this cruel deed could do:
Yet, notwithstanding this, their hellish rage,
The noble Wharrie leapt upon the stage.
With courage bold, he said, and heart not faint,
‘This blood shall now seal up our covenant,’
Ending, ‘they who would follow Christ, should take
‘Their cross upon their back, the world forsake.'”

* Kilsyth lays claim to be the birthplace of curling.

** Smith and Wharrie, apparently uninvolved civilians, were seized as the nearest available guys to punish after a Covenanter guerrilla attack near Inchbelly Bridge.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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