In 2003, photographer Yan Yuhong spent 12 hours with this quartet of women on the eve and morning of their executions at Detention Center No. 1. Only years later did the photographs get out: a moving glimpse of ordinary people under the pall of death and the guards and prisoners around them, they made worldwide news in 2011. Apparently their distribution in 2003 was quashed on authorities’ concerns that they were a bit too moving for the big anti-drug message.
Select images follow; the entire series can be perused here or here, and in poignant timeline form here.
He Xiuling is the most immediately recognizable among them, a pudgy 25-year-old who looks inordinately mirthful in many pictures, but sobs openly just before she is led away to be shot. Follow-up reporting paints the picture of a simple country girl lured by a boyfriend into being a drug mule. She was evidently led to believe, up until the last, that her sentence would be commuted: “I’ll still only be 40 when I’m free!”
Had she been spared, she would be 35 now.
She thought the white top made her look “too fat”, and a guard kindly provided a black one.
Several pictures how He Xiuling smiling and laughing. Here, she enjoys breakfast on the morning of the 25th. She has about four hours to live.
Weeping moments before her execution.
The oldest of the women and seemingly the only one of the quartet who could be characterized as something more than a small-time mule, 49-year-old Ma Qingxui from Baokang county of Hubei province was on her fourth conviction for smuggling more than 8 lbs. of narcotics.
Dressed all in red, Ma Qingxui donates her clothes to another inmate.
Ma Qingxiu being escorted out of the detention center for the execution grounds at 7:21 a.m.
Li Juhua and Dai Donggui
The prisoners least seen in the series and those of whom the least has been reported in the west.
An ordinary (non-condemned) prisoner paints Li Juhua’s toenails on the morning of the latter’s execution.
She dictates her last will and testament to a fellow-prisoners.
On the evening of June 24th, Dai Donggui carefully folds the execution clothes a guard has purchased for her.
A last supper. Reportedly, McDonald’s food is routinely served at the facility for this occasion.
On this date in 1804, royalist counterrevolutionary Georges Cadoudal was guillotined in Paris with eleven of his chouan brothers-in-arms.
Cadoudal (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed French) was the French Revolution’s ultimate antagonist, a Breton notary (and commoner, obviously) who obstinately resisted the bloody progress of those years to the last of his strength.
His decade of royalist adventures (French) reads* like an adventure novel, a mind-bogglingly perilous series of revolts, captures, escapes, rappelling, martial exploits, diplomatic intrigue, terrorist plotting, high principles, low politics … a desperately heroic (or anti-heroic) struggle using every resource of a changing world to claw back the lost age of Bourbons.
After that dynasty’s last (up until then) king was guillotined in 1793, the intrepid Cadoudal staked his life to the 1793 Vendee rising, mounted an insurrection at Brest, and became one of the principal leaders of the anti-revolutionary Chouannerie fighting les bleus around northwest France through the 1790s.
Beaten but not bowed, Cadoudal took refuge in England when those campaigns came to grief following the royalist debacle at Quiberon, but he was never one to retire to the exile social circuit. Cadoudal remained an active schemer against the France of a rising Napoleon Bonaparte, and he was backed now by Britain’s statecraft … and her gold.
Spurning a proffered arrangement with the Corsican — who, say what one will, could recognize ability when he saw it — Cadoudal instead oversaw a dramatic 1800 assassination attempt on Napoleon that didn’t get the dictator but blew a bunch of Parisian bystanders to smithereens.
This effort having failed, our persistent intriguer slipped back into France to attempt an even bolder venture to kidnap Napoleon and elevate the Duke of Enghien — the going Bourbon candidate, who lurked on the French frontier to rush into the power vacuum.
This didn’t work either. As outlandish as the idea seems with benefit of hindsight, it was hardly a crackpot plan — as attested by the credentials of its participants.
“All Europe laughs at the conspiracy in Paris; it was, however, a well-built machine. Men, money, everything was ready. Bonaparte was to be taken alive and carried out like lightning from one post to the sea and the English fleet … I am inconsolable that it missed its mark. Those who criticize the French princes that they do not risk themselves while others fight for them, they will be the first to cry: What madness! How childish! [that d'Enghien risked himself] That is how men are made.”
Which is a long way of saying that it still comes down to wins and losses.
Having lost, the Bourbon pretender (he’s a pretender because he lost, of course) d’Enghien was arrested and immediately shot for his trouble; Cadoudal, taken on the streets of Paris,** was around long enough to see the hated Bonaparte take sufficient warning from the conspiracies against him to vest his governance in the imperial dignity. That was proclaimed on May 18. (The famous coronation wasn’t until December.)
“We have done better than we hoped,” the doomed Cadoudal remarked caustically from his dungeon. “We intended to give France a king, and we have given her an emperor.”
He was rock-ribbed in his royalism to the very last.
He’d met Napoleon face to face years before in an abortive parley — when Cadoudal was offered, and rejected, the bribe of a lucrative Republican military commission — and now Cadoudal’s proposed victim let it be known to him that mercy was his for the asking. The indignant Breton scorned as dishonorable the very idea of supplicating Napoleon, even when the invitation was refreshed as he underwent the fatal toilette on his final day. His dozen-strong party went to their deaths this date taking heart from following the very footsteps of their martyred king.
The Execution of Georges Cadoudal, by Armand de Polignac … who portrayed several scenes of the conspirators.
A very lovely mausoleum in his native village of Kerleano preserves Cadoudal’s remains (reburied honorably there after his Bourbon Restoration finally came to pass), and his memory.
This date in 1790 saw the first federal execution under the auspices of the recently ratified U.S. Constitution, when English mariner Thomas Bird hanged in Portland, Maine. (At the time, still part of Massachusetts.)
Today, we’re pleased to interview author Jerry Genesio, whose Portland Neck: The Hanging of Thomas Bird compellingly reconstructs this once-forgotten story — a small British slave ship making landfall in a North American city only recently torched by the British, where it is found that its violent captain has been murdered at sea in unclear circumstances.
In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the one man to pay life for John Connor’s life was the one British sailor aboard the ship.
Besides a captivating account of an 18th century American capital trial, Portland Neck features biographies of all the principal characters. Portlanders will also especially enjoy a 25-page appendix on the topography of the town at the dawn of the American Republic.
This was a British subject who killed a British victim on a British ship in international waters. Was there any question of whether a U.S. court had jurisdiction?
The people who were on the vessel when it was captured — one was British, one was Norwegian, one was American, and there was a 12- or 14-year-old African boy named Cuffey.
They came under U.S. jurisdiction because in the constitutional convention (article 3, section 2), the federal courts were given jurisdiction of admiralty and maritime cases.
The Supreme judicial court in Massachusetts — Maine was part of Massachusetts then — apparently considered bringing the case before its judges, but then the constitution overruled that when it was ratified.
And then they had to wait for the federal courts to be organized, because they didn’t exist yet. They languished in jail for almost a year while the courts were being organized.
In Chapter II, you describe Thomas Bird’s ship, the Mary, operating on the Guinea coast. It’s a small ship basically working the coast and rivers, making small sales of one or two slaves to the large slavers waiting to cross the Atlantic. There must have been whole niches of the slavery industry occupied by these sorts of small-timers.
Oh, yes. The large slave ships that carried several hundred, three, four hundred in their hold — they were too large to get too close to the coast of Africa. So they would anchor perhaps a mile offshore, and they would wait for these smaller ships, like the sloop Mary — Captain Connor was in business with people in London who sent him down there just to go up the rivers to various villages where they knew there were wars going on, and when there were wars, the captives would be sold to slavers. (They also traded ivory and gold.)
When they got slaves, crews like the Mary‘s would go to the ships who had been there the longest, because they knew they would get the best price. They were known to have been there as long as a year trying to fill their cargo, and the slaves they held were liable to die while they waited. Slave ships couldn’t even allow the slaves topside because they would jump overboard if they could and try to swim for shore.
Incidentally, the Google book project has many slave captain logs online. I was able to read about the ports that Captain Connor and Thomas Bird actually visited, and it gave me such a wealth of information, and I could practically see where they were.
Ed. note: here are a few from Genesio’s bibliography, all free at Google books:
You’ve compiled this book despite a paucity of primary trial data, and there are some spots where you’re clearly reading between the lines. How difficult was the historiography on Portland Neck?
There’s not a complete trial record. Even the examination before the court — the scribe tried, apparently, to write down all of their answers, but he did not write down the questions.
My concern is more around the scribe. Was the scribe hearing these answers properly? Was the scribe hard of hearing? One of them was replaced in the process. Was the scribe able to keep up? He was writing with a quill pen, after all.
And then, on top of all of that, they did not indicate on the court record who was the scribe, who did the questioning, and who wrote the answers down. And the prisoner never signed it!
And you felt that at some level, they targeted the Englishman out of this multinational crew.
These people on the jury, the foreman on the grand jury, many of them were Portland residents whose homes had been burned by the British just 14 years earlier. The war had just ended seven years earlier.
Every one of the court officials on the prosecutors’ side were all officers in the Revolutionary War. [Notably, the U.S. marshal who actually carried out Bird's hanging, Henry Dearborn. He took part in the decisive Battle of Yorktown and would go on to become Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of War, as well as the namesake of the city of Dearborn, Michigan. -ed.]
All of these things influence what was going on. And the fact that they acquitted the Norwegian kid and executed the Englishman makes me feel, certainly, that there was a strong influence there that was hostile to Thomas Bird. But what actually happened and how people felt, we’re just too far away — but I suspect that played a role.
Thomas Bird claimed in his dying statement, knowing that he was to be hung in a couple of hours, that he did not kill John Connor. The lawyers desperately tried to get then-President Washington to give him a commutation, and Washington refused to do it.
Information wants to be free, y’all. The newspaper editor tried to sell a broadside with the condemned man’s final narrative, but public pressure eventually forced him to put it in the July 26, 1790 Cumberland Gazette.
How did you come by this story?
When I was working at Portland Public Library and I ran into a couple of lines referring to a Thomas Bird in books by William Willis and William Goold.
In Goold’s book, Portland in the Past, he actually interviewed a fellow named Charles Motley who was in his 90s, and this interview took place in the 1880s. Motley was the youngest child of the jailer who held Thomas Bird, and Charles Motley, and he describes being five years old and being allowed into the cell where Thomas Bird would carve them little toy boats. With a knife! Then when Thomas Bird was executed, there was a note about the jailer’s wife, Emma Motley, taking all seven children away, to the other side of the land from Portland, so that they wouldn’t know what was going on. They were probably playing with Thomas’s boats as he was being hanged. So it was obvious that the Motley family held this Thomas Bird in high regard, and I got to thinking, I want to know more about this guy.
He (Motley) was five years old at the time, and, with his older brother Edward, at the request of Bird, was often admitted by his father to the cell and spent much time there. The prisoner made them toy ships and boats … At the time of the execution, Mrs. Motley, the mother of the boys, took them over back of the Neck to be out of sight of the gallows, as the whole family had become interested in the fate of Bird.
For a couple of years, I couldn’t find much of anything. Finally, I took the time to go down to the federal archives in Waltham, Mass., I found a little manila folder that was like a bar of gold. It had 12 little sheets written in quill, and it’s as much of a record of the trial as exists.
The other question in my mind is, why has nobody written about this before? I think maybe it’s because it’s something of an embarrassment, which reinforces my belief that maybe this hanging should not have taken place.
Thomas Bird, if they really suspected he was a participant, should have been punished, but probably shouldn’t have been hung. Unfortunately in those days, captains were like gods on their little wooden worlds. Even though, based on the testimony, [the victim] John Connor was a brutal drunk who beat his men mercilessly. Connor murdered his first mate on that voyage.
It’s sad because Bird probably saw America as some sort of refuge — he probably didn’t expect that he might be hanged for this crime. He’d been at sea since age eight, and all through the [American] Revolution he had been on both American and British ships. The British navy kept impressing him and making him serve on British warships, and he kept deserting and signing up for American ships instead.
One other interesting aspect of this story is that when Thomas Bird was looking for a ship to sign on with and signed on with the Mary, he might just have signed up on the HMS Bounty, because the Bounty was tied up at Wapping before its voyage to Tahiti. Had he signed on with the Bounty, he wouldn’t have fallen into American hands, but he might not have fared any better.
How thick on the ground were slaves and slavers in New England at this time?
There were a lot of slave captains, a lot of owners. Their home ports were in Boston or in Portland. Normally, when they came back to their home port, the product they were carrying was rum and molasses. Slaves would be delivered in the South or in the West Indies, separate legs in the triangle trade.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a family genealogy.
After that, maybe something about Captain John Lovewell. He was a bounty hunter who went hunting for Indian scalps. In 1725 he was living in Massachusetts, and he got the court to authorize 10 pounds per scalp, and he recruited a small army and took off looking for Indians and found the Pequawket here in Fryeburg, Maine. They were not warriors, they were farmers.
Lovewell and a Scaticook named Paugus ended up killing each other at a battle at a pond now called Lovewell’s Pond.
Lovewell is the namesake of the town of Lovell. A couple of people have written Lovewell’s story, but I wanted to write it from the perspective of the Indians. And not only the Indians, but the true perspective — because John Lovewell was a bounty hunter, not a hero. He was willing to kill farmers who hadn’t killed anyone for their scalps.
If there’s one thing King James VI of Scotland (eventually to also become James I of England) worried a lot about, it was witches.
The Al Qaeda of the 16th century imagination, those shadowy yet omnipresent necromancers were especially feared around this time for their powers of supernatural mayhem, and you can take your pick on the phenomenon’s psychosocial explanation. (It washardlylimitedto Scotland.)
THE fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaues of the Deuill, the Witches or enchaunters, hath moved me (beloued reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine, not in any wise (as I protest) to serue for a shew of my learning & ingine, but onely (mooued of conscience) to preasse / thereby, so farre as I can, to resolue the doubting harts of many; both that such assaultes of Sathan are most certainly practized, & that the instrumentes thereof, merits most severly to be punished: against the damnable opinions … not ashamed in publike print to deny, that ther can be such a thing as Witch-craft.
In 1589, Jamie sailed to Denmark to wed a Danish princess. When ferocious storms nearly wrecked the royal convoy on its return trip, there was only one possible explanation: witchcraft. And security theater for 16th century Scotland wasn’t taking your shoes off when ferrying across the nearby loch — it was publicly burning human beings to death for consorting with the devil.
It was what you’d expect. Seventy people accused, the doomed tortured into confessions like Jack Bauer would do, and a respectable harvest of souls, most famously (because interrogated by the king himself) Agnes Sampson. “Most of the winter of 1591,” writes one chronicler, “was spent in the discovery and examination of witches and sorcerers.”
Our day’s principal, whose name has various different renderings (such as Eufame Mackalzeane), was the last to suffer for some months.
Euphan McCalzeane was a lady possessed of a considerable estate in her own right. She was the daughter of Thomas McCalzeane, lord Cliftenhall, one of the senators of the college of justice, whose death in the year 1581 spared him the disgrace and misery of seeing his daughter fall by the hands of the executioner. She was married to a gentleman of her own name, by whom she had three children. She was accused of treasonably conspiring of the king; of raising storms to hinder his return from Denmark; and of various other articles of witchcraft. She was heard by counsel in her defense; was found guilty by the jury, which consisted of landed gentlemen of note; and her punishment was still severer than that commonly inflicted on the weyward sisters; she was burned alive, and her estate confiscated. Her children, however, after being thus barbarously robbed of their mother, were restored by act of parliament against the forfeiture. The act does not say that the sentence was unjust, but that the king was touched in honour and conscience to restore the children. But to move the wheels of his majesty’s conscience, the children had to grease them, by a payment of five thousand merks to the donator of escheat, and by relinquishing the estate of Cliftonhall, which the king gave to sir James Sandilands, of Slamanno.
As a striking picture of the state of justice, humanity, and science, in those times, it may be remarked, that this sir James Sandilands, a favourite of the king’s, ex interiore principis familiaritate, who got this estate, which the daughter of one lord of session forfeited, on account of being a witch, did that very year murder another lord of session in the suburbs of Edinburgh, in the public street, without undergoing either trial or punishment. (Source
Hatano Hideharu, chief of the minor Hatano clan, got himself on the outs with powerful daimyoOda Nobunaga. Nobunaga’s samurai general Akechi Mitsuhide forced Hideharu’s capitulation, convincing him to lay down his arms by offering his own mother as a hostage.*
And here’s where the bodies start piling up.
Nobunaga overruled Mitsuhide’s promise of safe conduct and had Hatano Hideharu put to death.
Outraged, the Hatano clan retaliated by crucifying Akechi Mitsuhide’s mother.
Since Mitsuhide suffered the consequences for the bad behavior of his boss, this tit-for-tat left a bit of tension between the two. (The Hatano were done as a factor in Japanese politics, so having served to poison this relationship, our story takes its leave of them here.)
Just past midnight this date in 1959, Charles Starkweather was electrocuted in Lincoln, Nebraska, for a mass-murdering road trip with his jailbait date that claimed ten lives.*
A loner and loser, Starkweather’s spree in January 1958 caught the national imagination and has never quite let it go since — the prototypical despair of miscarried white masculinity, a primal scream from the underbelly of the American dream.
Bowlegged, myopic, slightly speech-impaired, Starkweather was an outcast at school and fought back with his fists, then dropped out entirely and into a yawning dead-end economic life collecting garbage from the wealthier quarters of Lincoln. “The more I looked at people the more I hated them because I knowed they wasn’t any place for me with the kind of people I knowed,” he said in his confession. Starkweather palliated his isolation by aping James Dean, dreaming of a big robbery score, and losing his heart to 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate, in whose adolescent eyes the beaten boy felt his stature grow.
He — or maybe they together — killed her parents when they tried to interfere in the relationship, and then eight days of murderous desperation ensued that riveted Lincoln and the nation: they lived a few days with the corpses, shooing neighbors away with a story about the flu, then fled like animals, killing ruthlessly for a couple of cars and a place to spend the night and heading for Wyoming — all to no end that would make a lick of sense, not even the cockeyed hope that there was somewhere to go to outrun the gore. Killing and running had just become what they did to keep from having to stop.
I had hated and been hated. I had my little world to keep alive as long as possible and my gun. That was my answer. (Source)
Four months after he murdered the Fugate family and not yet 20 years of age, Charles heard his own death sentence from jurors in the city he’d briefly but unforgettably terrorized. (There’s a pdf timeline of the case from the Lincoln Evening Journalhere.)
He lived cruelly, and it went cruelly with him to the last; offered a chance to donate his eyes, Starkweather retorted that “nobody ever did anything for me when I was alive. Why should I help anybody when I’m dead?” According to the Los Angeles Times, the doctor who was supposed to pronounce the prisoner dead himself suffered a fatal heart attack minutes before the electrocution.
Fugate’s tender age and sex spared her a death sentence, even though Starkweather said that she ought to be “sitting in my lap” when he went to the chair. She was paroled in 1976 and has mostly stayed out of view since. Laura James at CLEWS recently posted an update on her whereabouts.
More detailed annotations of this notorious duo’s life and times can be found here and here; the Lincoln Journal Star recently published an online 50-year retrospective on the case with high production values.
But if Starkweather’s James Dean fixation denoted the pull of celebrity glamor culture, his death left an enduring legacy for a world that had nothing for him in life, a haunting name recognition few school shooters or bell tower snipers have been able to hold since. He captivated the boyhood Steven King:
I do think that the very first time I saw a picture of [Starkweather], I knew I was looking at the future. His eyes were a double zero. There was just nothing there. He was like an outrider of what America might become.
The title track of Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska is written as a first-person narrative by Starkweather, to the tune of a desolate acoustic accompaniment that imbues the killer’s brutality with an aching loneliness.
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world
Martin Sheen wonderfully rendered a (heavily fictionalized) Starkweather character opposite Sissy Spacek on the silver screen in Badlands (1973):
Rather less artistically consequential, the 1963 low-budget film The Sadist, also based on the Starkweather case, is in the public domain and available free on Google video:
* Starkweather killed a gas station attendant in a separate incident weeks before, so his body count is 11, with ten of them on his infamous spree.