1806: Dominic Daley and James Halligan, hated foreigners

Add comment June 5th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1806, immigrants Dominic Daley and James Halligan were hanged at Northampton, Massachusetts. In the words of one widely reproduced report, “They persisted in their innocence to the last moment, although there were perhaps not a single one of the numerous spectators present, which was presumed to amount to nearly 15,000, who entertained a doubt of their guilt.”

Today, nearly everyone thinks them innocent.

The case began, as many wrongful convictions do, with a particularly outrageous crime — a young farmer, Marcus Lyon, found dead in a Massachusetts creek en route to his home in Connecticut. He’d been shot through the chest and his brains battered out of his skull. The motive: robbery.

In the absence of substantive evidence, some witnesses with vague reports of strangers on the fatal turnpike furnished tissue for an entire theory of the case, and through the misapprehended focus of tunnel vision the strangers became Irishmen, and the Irishmen became Dominic Haley and James Halligan.

In the close aftermath of American independence, New England was still overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Most of the Irish people about at this moment were also Protestants: large-scale Irish Catholic immigration into the region only began in the 1820s and it panicked the normies when it came, with preachers and politicians railing against the insidious incursions of idolatrous papists.

So in 1805, when the hunt for strangers settled on two Irish-born Catholic immigrants … well, what was left to know? Just days later, a North Wilbraham Congregationalist minister thundered from the pulpit,

We see the evil attending a continued influx of vicious and polluted foreigners in this country. Many of the outrages we suffer proceed from this source. Who break open our homes in the unsuspecting hours of sleep? Who set fire to our large cities and towns for the sake of plunder? And who rob and commit murder on our highways? We are far from exculpating all of our own native citizens; we regret, indeed, that so many of them disgrace themselves and injure society by evil deeds. But these things notwithstanding, we are doubtless justified in saying, that a great proportion of the crimes above mentioned, together with many others which might be named, are committed by foreigners. And that atrocious deed which has so recently congealed all our blood with horror, in this place, is supposed to have been perpetrated by foreigners. Look at the annual reports of the overseers of the prisons and you will find them be principally occupied by foreigners

The first planters of this country were, generally speaking, men of pure lives and good morals and they were induced to come here for the sake of religion. And, for a long time, they maintained a wholesome and orderly state of society. But since the rapid increase of our commerce with other nations, and the great ingress of foreigners, many of whom are said to come here for the sake of escaping the retribution of justice in their own country; we have ripened apace in all the arts of vice and depravity. Some, who come among us from abroad, we readily acknowledge to be worthy and good men, and we cordially welcome their approach. But the number of these is comparatively small. The best and most useful citizens are cautiously retained, while the worst are readily parted with. Hence the rapid influx upon us, of late, of the most violent and abandoned of the human race. The late and present disturbances in foreign countries have greatly increased the calamity. The prisons of Europe and the West Indies are now disgorging themselves upon our shores; and this country is thus becoming the general asylum of convicts. This is a sore evil, and will furnish an increasing number of inhabitants for our prisons and victims for the halter.

The case in court would comprise 24 witnesses not one of whom had witnessed the crime; at most they could suggest that two strangers had taken the same well-trafficked public road on the same day as the victim, who was also a stranger in these parts. Even this much was not certain among the witnesses; their renderings were vague, tentative, contradictory — but witness recollections and prejudicial readings of circumstance soon shaped themselves around the shared understanding of events, and from so much smoke they wove the hemp.

The friendless immigrants’ court-appointed attorney, Francis Blake, who had been tasked with this first capital case of his life a bare 48 hours before the trial opened, made a vehement, eloquent, and futile address to the jury against “this illiberal, this inhuman prejudice” closing around the throats of his clients.

That the prisoners have, however, been tried, convicted, and condemned, in almost every bar-room, and barber’s-shop, and in every other place of public resort in the county, is a fact which will not be contested. That the sentence of the law has not been anticipated, and that they have not already suffered the penalty of death, may be ascribed rather to defect of power, than to lenity of disposition, in many of their accusers …

There is yet another species of prejudice, against the influence of which it is my duty to warn you. I allude to the inveterate hostility against the people of that wretched country, from which the Prisoners have emigrated, for which the people of New-England are peculiarly distinguished …

Pronounce then a verdict against them! Condemn them to the gibbet! Hold out an awful warning to the wretched fugitives from that oppressed and persecuted nation! Tell them that although they are driven into the ocean, by the tempest which sweeps over their land, which lays waste their dwellings, and deluges their fields with blood; — though they float on its billows upon the broken fragments, of their liberty and independence; — yet our inhospitable coast presents no Ararat upon which they can rest in safety; that although we are not cannibals, and do not feast upon human flesh, yet with all our boasted philanthropy, which embraces every circle on the habitable globe, we have yet no mercy for a wandering and expatriated fugitive from Ireland. That the name of an Irishman is, among us, but another name, for a robber and an assassin; that every man’s hand is lifted against him; that when a crime of unexampled atrocity is perpetrated among us, we look around for an Irishman; that because he is an outlaw, with him the benevolent maxim of our law is reversed, and that the moment he is accused, he is presumed to be guilty, until his innocence appears! …

The lives of the prisoners are now consigned to your disposal. Before you proceed to the performance of this awful duty, let me borrow the language of one of their countrymen, not degraded by the ignominious reproaches against his nation, but elevated to the highest rank among the orators of the elder world by the most splendid talents, the purest patriotism, and the most unsullied integrity. Let me beseech you to “remember that there is another than a human tribunal, where the best of us, will, on one day, have occasion to look back on the little good we may have done. In that solemn trial may your verdict on this day give assurance to your bones and afford you strength and consolation in the awful presence of an adjudging God!”

The words fell on deaf ears.

Daley and Halligan maintained their innocence from arrest to execution, but in the end they would require the offices of another foreign refugee, Father Jean-Louis de Cheverus, a French-born priest in Boston, who had fled the anti-clerical paroxysms of his own homeland. (Later, he would become the first Catholic Bishop of Boston.) It’s said that he stayed in jail with his charges, as no one in Northampton would suffer the papist priest to sleep under their own roof — and that his ministrations to them included the first Catholic mass said in that city.

Folklore cropped up around the 1830s to the effect that a local man had given a deathbed confession exonerating the hanged Irishmen … and that this murderer was the kinsman of one of the witnesses against Daley and Halligan. I cannot establish that this is any more than a just-so story, a fable, but even so it speaks to the continuing injury done by this execution to the now-growing Irish Catholic community. In time that demographic’s maturing numbers and political muscle flipped the story of Daley and Halligan from one of foreigners ripened in depravity to a sobering caution against bigotry and rush to judgment.

We have no real way, now, to access a definitive assessment of guilt or innocence; we can certainly say with confidence that the evidence was appallingly flimsy to hang a man even for the time. Both Daley and Halligan were posthumously exonerated by a writ of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1984. Dukakis discussed that action, and history’s view of the Daley-Halligan railroading, in a 2011 panel available in podcast form here.

For additional resources, check this Historic Northampton page (already linked several times within this post). Below, you can read the entirety of an 1806 publication reporting the trial, from which the defense lawyer’s remarks have been drawn.

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1797: Martin Clinch and Samuel Mackley

Add comment June 5th, 2017 Headsman

Say’s Weekly Journal, May 13, 1797:

On Sunday evening, between eight and nine o’clock, as Mr. Fryer, of Southampton Buildings, Holborn, was returning home, accompanied by a young Lady, in passing through the fields near White Conduit-house, he heard the screams of a woman in distress. He hastened to her assistance, and perceived her in the hands of three footpads, who, on seeing him approach, shot him through the head.

Some of the Bow-street patrols, who go that road, hearing the report of the pistol, made up to the place, where they found Mr. F. lying, not quite dead, but who expired in a few minutes afterwards; he appeared to have been robbed of his watch and money, and near the spot lay a stick with a sword in it.

The young Lady, who was in company with him, it is supposed, ran away on the villains first attacking him.

Three men were last night taken up on suspicion of the above murder.

General Evening Post, May 11-13, 1797:

Mr. Fryer, who was murdered on Sunday evening last, in Islington fields, was a young man of some property, and had been brought up to the law.

The young Lady, who accompanied him at the time, was his intended bride. They had been to spend the day at the house of a Mrs. P. in Paradise-row, Islington, and were returning home when the murder took place.

Mrs. P. had come a short distance from her own house with them, and after they had bid her good night, and had got about 100 yards from her, she was attacked by three villains, who robbed her of her cloak and money.

Her cries alarming Mr. F. he ran back to her assistance, which being perceived by the robbers, one of them advanced and shot him through the head, and then robbed him.

The young Lady was a distant spectator of this shocking scene.

London Evening Post, May 16-18, 1797:

Yesterday evening three men were examined at Bow-street, for the murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington Fields, but, after a long investigation, they were discharged.

London Star, May 25, 1797:

Tuesday Martyn Clynch and James Mackley were committed to Newgate by John Floud and William Brodie, Esqs. charged with the oath of Ann Fryer and others, on suspicion of being the persons guilty of the wilful murder of Sydney Fryer on Sunday the 7th inst. in the fields near the Work-house, in the black road, Islington.

London Chronicle, June 1-3, 1797:

OLD BAILEY.

Yesterday, 14 prisoners were tried at the Old Bailey, two of whom were capitally convicted, viz. Samuel Mackley and Martin Clinch, for the wilful murder of Mr. Fryer in the parish of St. Mary, Islington.

It appeared by the evidence, that the deceased and his cousin, Miss Fryer, were walking across the fields in their way from Southampton Buildings, Holborn, towards Islington: that when they arrived at the field called the Cricket field, near White Conduit House, they heard a noise as of some person in distress; this induced the deceased to go to the spot.

At this time, Miss Fryer, the principal witness on this occasion, was at some distance from him. By the time she came to the stile, which he had crossed in his way to the place, she saw Clinch fire, when the deceased fell into a small pond. Clinch then took his watch out of his fob, and a sum of money out of his pocket.

By this time Miss Frye [sic] had got on the other side of the stile, when the prisoner, Mackley, held a pistol to her head, and took her cloak from her. They then went away, and Mr. Fryer was taken to a house at a short distance from the spot, where he died at eleven o’clock the same evening.

The evidence in support of the above statement, as given by Miss Fryer, was clear, artless, and unembarrassed. When asked if she really believed Clinch to be the man who shot Mr. Fryer, she said she believed from her soul he was; with respect to Mackley she seemed not quite so positive; several witnesses, however, proved his being seen in the same field within a few minutes of the time the murder happened, who all had noticed him on account of his having red hair.

The prisoners being called on for their defence, they only said they were innocent, but could give no account where they were at the time the murder was committed.

The jury went out for about half an hour, and returned with a verdict — Guilty. They were both ordered for execution on Monday next.

Five were convicted of felony, and seven acquitted.

Hereford Journal, June 7, 1797:

This morning were executed at the front of Newgate, Clinch and Mackley, for the robbery and murder of Mr. Frye, in Islington Fields.

An extremely disagreeable circumstance happened. The floor of the scaffold, from some previous misarrangement gave way, and precipitated into the area of the apparatus, Messrs. Vilette and Gaffy, the latter a Catholic Priest, who attended Clinch, and the two executioners. Mr. Sheriff Staines had a very narrow escape.

Mr. Gaffy was very severely hurt, as were both the executioners; Mr. Villette escaped with a slight bruise.

The two malefactors swung off with their distorted features exposed to the view of the distressed spectators. Their bodies were removed for the purposes of dissection and exposure.

Lloyd’s Evening Post, September 11-13, 1797:

Burton Wood and William Harlington, the two persons executed a few days ago on Kennington Common, for highway-robbery and sheep-stealing, made voluntary confessions of the various depredations in which they had been concerned.

Burton Wood positively declared, that Clinch and Mackley, who were hanged for the murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington Fields, were totally innocent of that crime, it having been committed by himself and two others.

Harling made a similar confession respecting the murder of Mrs. Gray at Waltham-Abbey, for which two men, of the names of Harold and Upsham, were taken up; but who, he averred, had no connection in that shocking transaction. The robberies mentioned in their confessions were very numerous.

Whitehall Evening Post, September 12-14, 1797:

The following is a copy of a Letter sent from Burton Wood (who was hanged a short time since on Kennington Common, for a footpad robbery) to Mr. Carpenter Smith, in the Borough, from which it appears that he was the person concerned in the murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington-fields, and that Clinch and Mackley, who were hanged for that murder, died innocent; also the copy of another letter which was sent from William Harling, a person that was hanged with Wood for sheep-stealing, to a friend of his, in which it appears is a confession of the robberies that he has been guilty of.

Honoured Sir,

I confess to robbing Mr. Francis, near Dulwich; I was mounted a grey horse. To stopping the Chatham coach the other side of Shooter’s-hill: I was dressed in a blue great-coat: I was mounted on a brown crop mare; it was between four and five in the afternoon; and to the robbing and murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington-fields; the two men, Clinch and Mackley, was innocent of it; and to breaking open the house of Mr. Emery, brass-founder, in Shoe-lane, Fleet-street, and taking away Bank notes, cash, and other articles to the amount of 130 l.: and to robbing the waggon of Mr. Newport and Sons, of Crayford, in Kent, on Blackheath, last Easter Wednesday night, about ten o’clock — the man that was tried at Maidstone for it in the name of George Rhodes, was innocent of it; and I was the person that stopped and robbed the carriage on the night of Thursday the 25th of May last near Ball’s Pond turnpike; and to breaking open the house of Mr. Parkes, the brewer, in Baldwin’s Gardens, Gray’s-inn-lane, Holborn; I was the person that broke open the iron chest in Mr. Parke’s Counting-house; and to breaking open the house of Mr. Sewell, Seward-street, Goswell-street, St. Lukes, and taking away two Bank-notes, one of 5 l. and one of 10 l. and cash to the amount of 15 l. on Sunday night the 14th of last February; I as by myself; and to robbing a Mr. Robert Morris, belonging to the Custom-house, of his watch and fourteen shillings in Locks Field’s; and to the robbery that I now suffer for; and to robbing the Fishman near Sutton, when I robbed George May, of Banstead, in Surrey, of 2 l. 16 s. 6 d. for which I now suffer.

The Lord have mercy upon my sinful soul!

Honoured Sir, I hope the robberies that I have confessed I hope will be the means of many innocent men’s escaping to be brought to justice for the same, for I am the transgressor thereof. It would have been a good thing if I had suffered while Clinch and Mackley were under confinement in Newgate, for the robbery and murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington-fields; for they died innocent. I confess to being one of the party, but they was not with me; I might have been the saving of their two lives had I have suffered sooner, but now it is too late; but I hope they are happy, I hope my soul will meet them in Heaven.

These are the confessions of your long-lost and unfortunate

Humble servant,
Burton Wood
August 21, 1797


Dear Charles,

The following names are them that I have robbed, and therefore I hope that nobody else may be brought to justice when I am dead and gone concerning them, for nobody but me did them, except Alderson, that suffered last Thursday at Maidstone, rob robbing Mr. Robinson, at Sydenham.

1st. Mr. Polton, of his horse.

2nd. Mr. Spinks, the bricklayer, of his horse.

3rd. And broke open the house of Mr. Mason.

4. Mr. John Hudson, the shopkeeper; Mr. Pinner, butcher, of nine sheep and two beasts; to taking the eleven sheep off Mitcham Common; Mr. Mills, of Mordon, of eleven fat weathers; breaking open the house of Mr. Marriot, of Mitcham; Newton and Leache’s callico-grounds twice; Mr. John Waggoner’s callico-grounds once; Mr. Groves, of his ten hogs; Mr. Blink, last Easter Monday; the Epsom Fisherman, Easter Tuesday; the two Gentlemen that had been to Ewill with their children to a boarding-school, near the turnpike, in a single-horse chaise: and Mr. Robinson, at Sydenham; a Gentleman in a single-horse chaise, on Mordon Common, going to Ewill.

I am sorry that Robert Harrold and Frederick Upham was taken up for the murder of Mrs. Gray, at Waltham Abbey, for they were innocent: I was one that was concerned in it, and these sheep that I now suffer for; therefore I wish to let you know, that they may not give themselves any more trouble to take any body else into custody, for it was only me and Alderson, for that robbery at Mr. Robinson’s at Sydenham, which robbery I was concerned with.

Give my remembrance to Mason, and ask him if he has hanged that great black dog of his, that laid upon the basket of clothes; if not, it is high time he had, for he was a very neglectful servant, for he lay as still as a mouse while I and my Pall drank a bottle of peppermint over his head. But now they have got what they longed for, and it is to be hoped they will sleep in peace when I am dead.

William Harling.

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1891: Christian Fuerst and Charles Sheppard

Add comment June 5th, 2016 Headsman

OMAHA, Neb., June 5. — Charles Sheppard and Christian Fuerst, who murdered Carl Pulsifer Dec. 10, 1889, and then robbed the body of $20, were hanged at Frement [sic] at 10:30 this morning. Sheppard nearly fainted on the gallows, but Fuerst acted entirely unconcerned. When the men were asked if they had anything to say Fuerst replied, “nothin,” but Sheppard said, “We are the men who did the deed and therefore no one else can be accused of it.” Both of the men’s necks were broken.

Dallas Morning News, June 6, 1891

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1688: Constantine Gerachi, the Siamese Falcon

1 comment June 5th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1688, the astonishing Constantine Gerachi — the Greek cabin-boy turned virtual prince of Siam — plummeted to earth.

The son of a Cephalonian innkeeper, Gerachi ran away to sea in 1660 and soon caught on with the English East India Company ships who plied the Mediterranean and all the Seven Seas. Though little-educated, Gerachi proved himself frightfully clever and picked up his crewmates’ English. In time he also mastered French, Portuguese, Malay, and of course Siamese.

The word gerachi is Greek for falcon, and no name was ever more aptly conferred. From the humblest beginnings, Constantine Phaulkon soared higher than all.

By the late 1670s, Constantine had segued from hauling East Indies cargo to trading it, and this brought him to the attention of the Siamese king Narai. For Siam, the growing influence of European traders, diplomats, and arms was the prevailing issue of the late 17th century; Narai engaged fully with those interlopers and most especially with the French, who provided architects, mathematicians,* missionaries, and military engineers to the Siamese kingdom and received lucrative commercial concessions in return.

The king appreciated our polyglot adventurer’s many talents and attracted him to the Siamese court, where the pro-French Constantine quickly rose to become Narai’s indispensable chief counselor — basically the equivalent of the Siamese Prime Minister, the power in the kingdom.

But Gerachi’s close association with Narai, and with a French relationship that Siamese grandees increasingly feared might convert insensibly into domination, finally felled the Falcon.

In 1688, the ailing king tried to arrange for the succession of his daughter. Instead, he triggered a revolt by his foster brother Phetracha, backed by a “broad coalition of anti-foreigners, including Buddhist monks, the nobility and low-ranking officers.”**

This Chief of the Royal Elephant Corps seized power, murdering a number of royal relatives (and possibly hastening along the dying Narai himself). Monsieur Constantine of such discreditable familiarity to the French naturally went in his own turn, unsuccessfully trying to rally the realm’s French garrisons to defense of the mutual benefits of the ancien regime.

Nor was this merely a palace coup: Petracha’s takeover became the Siamese Revolution of 1688, “one of the most famous events of our times, whether it is considered from the point of view of politics or religion” in the judgment of a European contemporary. Thais who had resented the growing prominence of the farang now expelled most Europeans, or worse: though not a Japan-like closure (Siam maintained active intercourse with its neighbors), the country would remain essentially dark to Europeans until the 19th century.

Historical Fiction Series by Axel Aylwen

* The relationship gave to European mathematics the “Siamese method”.

** Thanet Aphornsuvan, “The West and Siam’s quest for modernity: Siamese responses to nineteenth century American missionaries”, East Asia Research, vol. 17, no. 3. (Nov. 2009)

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1919: Eugen Levine, Bavarian Soviet leader

1 comment June 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1919, Bavarian communist Eugen Levine (or Levien) was shot by the Freikorps for his role in the Munich Soviet.

Levine (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a St. Petersburg Jewish bourgeois whose early idealism led him to a Socialist Revolutionary (SR) terror cell. He did time in Siberia after Russia’s 1905 revolution was smashed.

Having moved to Germany to study, Levine became involved in World War I’s antiwar struggle, which in turn positioned him to be a key player in the communist movement in postwar Germany.

With the end of the Great War, Germany’s destiny was settled with bare knuckles. The now-communist Russian government, whose safety was imperiled from every direction, looked hopefully to a revolutionary proletariat in the more advanced neighboring economy of Germany to consolidate its own position as well as to meet the Marxist mandate for transnational revolution.

The Bolshevik Karl Radek urged an audience of Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s KPD that “without the socialist revolution in Germany the Russian workers’ revolution, dependent on itself, would not have sufficient strength to build a new house on the ruins left behind by capitalism.” (Source)

Others saw these revolutionaries in a less flattering light.

Nonetheless, Munich mounted a revolt breaking away an independent Bavarian state that would eventually usher in a Bavarian Soviet Republic. This state Eugen Levine seized control of on April 12, 1919, with a communist putsch against the expressionist playwright who had served as its first head of state.* Levine would be the second, and last, in that office.

In the end, the KPD in Munich — and not only there, but throughout Germany — simply lacked the organizational strength or the mass mobilization to sustain the attempted revolution(s) against its inevitable foes. By May of 1919, its threadbare forces had been overwhelmed by right-wing soldiers and paramilitaries.** Defenders of the city and actual or perceived revolutionaries were shot out of hand by the hundreds.


This obviously staged photo purports to depict a Freikorps execution of a (theatrically unfazed) Bolshevik in Munich in 1919. (Source)

Levine’s treatment was, if equally certain, at least marginally more ceremonial.

Captured in hiding a few days after the incursion, Levine was saved for a show trial† at the start of June.

He met it in impressively good cheer, despite a good idea what was coming.

We Communists are all dead men on leave. Of this I am fully aware. I do not know if you will extend my leave or whether I shall have to join [the late] Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. In any case I await your verdict with composure and inner serenity. For I know that, whatever your verdict, events cannot be stopped … Pronounce your verdict if you deem it proper. I have only striven to foil your attempt to stain my political activity, the name of the Soviet Republic with which I feel myself so closely bound up, and the good name of the workers of Munich. They — and I together with them — we have all of us tried to the best of our knowledge and conscience to do our duty towards the International, the Communist World Revolution.

Left and center parties raised a pan-Germanic outcry to stay the executioner’s hand, but Levine was shot two days after condemnation.‡

Munich transmuted, with this conquest, from an outpost of the revolutionary vanguard into a veritable far-right hothouse: just weeks after Levine’s execution, Adolf Hitler would make his fateful acquaintance with the NSDAP in Munich. Within a few years he and his germinated their own Bavarian revolution. Munich and its beer hall (which the Freikorps had used for summary executions in May 1919) were long hallowed of the Third Reich.§

* The deposed president, Ernst Toller, “hanged himself” in 1939. Auden paid him tribute in moving verse.

Dear Ernst, lie shadowless at last among
The other war-horses who existed till they’d done
Something that was an example to the young.

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends; but existing is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.

** The aide-de-camp of the Freikorps Epp that marched into Munich that first week of May was the future SA chief Ernst Röhm. Also participating in this sortie: early Nazi leaders (and eventual Hitler rivals) Gregor and Otto Strasser, and future Wannsee Conference participant Wilhelm Stuckart.

† The young lawyer Max Hirschberg drew first dibs on defending the doomed Levine before his drumhead court, but faint-heartedly passed the assignment off. Hirschberg would remember the moment with shame: “I was too insecure and too cowardly to confront the scornful sneer of the reactionaries,” he wrote.

Maybe Hirschberg’s harsh self-judgment steeled his soul, for soon the “orgy of brutality, bloodthirstiness, and injustice aroused in me a decisive transformation.” He began to aggressively seek out hated revolutionaries to represent in the teeth of the political winds. Hirschberg had a notable mano-a-mano courtroom confrontation with Adolf Hitler in 1930; he had to flee Nazi Germany in 1934, but built a career in New York where he blazed trails with his work on wrongful convictions. There’s a summation of his career in this pdf; or, see the 2005 biography Justice Imperiled.

‡ Primary newspaper coverage (e.g., London Times, June 9, 1919) confirms the date; the “July 5” widely cited in online articles is mistaken.

§ The Nazis erected a memorial to the Freikorps who crushed the Bavarian Soviet; its remains can still be seen today.

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1573: Meister Frantz Schmidt’s first execution

6 comments June 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1573, 19-year-old Frantz Schmidt — heretofore only an apprentice to his father’s craft — conducted his first solo hanging. As the body of the thief hung there, his father or perhaps another established Scharfrichter stepped forward and ritually slapped the teenage hangman three times, announcing his successful passage into the ranks of Germany’s master executioners.

“Leinhardt Russ of Zeyern, a thief. Executed with the rope at the city of Steinach. Was my first execution.” Those words begin Meister Frantz’s remarkable diary* of 361 hangings, beheadings, breakings-on-the-wheel, drownings, and burnings — as well as many other sub-capital punishments, primarily as the executioner of Nuremberg from 1578 to 1617.

Nuremberg executioner Frantz Schmidt at work in 1584.

Executioners occupied a strange outcast social niche, with charge not only of death sentences but of other dishonorable public tasks. Either as cause or consequence of this, the profession carried its own stigma for underworld less-than-respectable behavior; it was not unheard-of for a shady executioner to wind up climbing the scaffold as patient rather than hangman.

But in his 45-year career, the sober Meister Frantz operated with ahead-of-his-time dignity and sobriety, so much so that Schmidt was granted citizenship in Nuremberg and eventually had his civic honor officially restored. He freed himself and his heirs from the social pollution inherent to his life’s work.

Joel Harrington of Vanderbilt has authored a new book titled The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, a fascinating account not only of Frantz Schmidt’s life but the world he inhabited. Dr. Harrington was good enough to chat with Executed Today.**


Book CoverET: Your book is built around a sort of life’s mission by Frantz Schmidt to return himself and his family to respectable-ness. Certainly he accomplished this marvelously in the end, but I’m curious how firm do you feel is the inference that this was his specific intent from the start?

JH: I have no doubts that as a child, Frantz Schmidt was repeatedly told the tale of his family’s fall from grace, especially since he can still remember so many details even as an old man. We also know from his own words in his appeal to the emperor to restore that lost honor that his grandfather, father, and his own children all felt the sting of this stigma. Finally, the late-in-life struggles to assert that regain honor — against the challenges of his bitter successor — further underscore the centrality of this mission in Frantz Schmidt’s life.

Executioners often had a family trade at this point, but the Schmidts — specifically the father, Heinrich Schmidt — had a bizarre path into this business via the German nobility’s old prerogatives. Could you explicate the “ancient custom” that allowed Albrecht Alcibiades to force Frantz’s father Heinrich, who was not an executioner, to become one? And for that matter, the social customs that then led Heinrich’s neighbors in Hof to treat him as a dishonored untouchable after he was forced to carry out these three executions — rather than viewing him, as we might today, as himself a victim who ought to be helped to get back to his real life?

Most European laws in the early sixteenth century were customary and highly localized. Legal codification throughout jurisdictions was just getting underway. This meant that two villages only a few miles apart might have very different traditions regarding something like execution. In the larger cities, such as Nuremberg, and well organized territorial states, such as the prince-bishopric of Bamberg, standing executioners on salary were the norm. But in many of the hundreds of tiny German states during this period, execution by the victim’s oldest male relative or by another local male was still practiced.

In the case of Hof, the margrave intentionally invoked an ancient and outdated tradition because he was in a hurry to get the job done. The stigma around the job of executioner in general was, by contrast, nearly universal. There seems to have been a little less hostility in southern German states but nobody would have openly socialized with an executioner or his family. As I describe in the book, the severity of this stigma — like all social prejudices — would depend on the individual or occasion in question. So, while some people clearly had sympathy for Meister Frantz, there were still stark boundaries of propriety as to how they might express that sympathy.

Executioners had charge of a variety of disreputable tasks and spheres of civil live: refuse, prostitutes, lepers, torture, and so forth. I’m struck by the importance of Schmidt’s Nuremberg assistant, “the Lion”, in allowing the faithful executioner to (somewhat) separate some of the most visibly dishonorable tasks from Schmdit’s direct purview. Just as a realistic matter, could Frantz Schmidt have reached respectability had he himself had to handle everything personally?

You’re right, the Lion played a key role in this respect. The broader evolution of the job was also significant, from a kind of catch-all for various unpleasant tasks to a civic professional focused on interrogation and punishment. You can also see this in the clothing that executioners start to wear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, usually either colorful bourgeois outfits or military garb.

Frantz Schmidt’s later entries have a great deal of detail, and you use that to tease out the executioner’s psychology, and the way he thinks about crime, sin, choice, and misfortune in his mature adulthood. It’s quite intriguing. Why, however, did Schmidt begin his journal in the first place? Is there something his shorter, earlier entries tell us about the younger man and the evolution of his views of the “poor sinners” he handled?

After a long time — and especially after I found the oldest version of the journal — I figured out that he started the journal upon his 1578 appointment in Nuremberg. This means that he reconstructed the executions of the previous five years from memory (and without dates).

Why then? The timing strongly suggested to me that he was already thinking about using the journal as a supporting document in his eventual appeal to have his honor restored.

As for changes over time, the most obvious ones are that his passages become much longer, more detailed, and more concerned with motivations and explanations than the earlier, bare-bones accounts. The main evolution in his thinking about poor sinners shows both harsher judgments of those who squandered countless chances to reform and greater pity for those who simply make a bad decision in the heat of the moment.

You have a fascinating chapter devoted to Schmidt’s sidelight as a healer, and to the important ways this practice intersected with executioners’ expertise in [harming] the body. I was amazed that Frantz Schmidt himself also took part in the era’s dissection trend. If one were a regular Nuremberger at this time, would one have any compunctions about a medical consultation with the executioner, a man one might otherwise shun? If a non-executioner physician were available too, would there be any intrinsic preference for the physician as a more respectable figure?

Yes, it’s quite a paradox. You would think that most people would be squeamish or embarrassed about consulting an executioner on medical matters, but by his own estimate Frantz Schmidt saw 15,000 patients over the course of 45 years — fifty times the number of individuals he executed. So he must have been doing something right.

This journal was (re-)discovered at an interesting point, at the beginning of the 19th century when public executions are ending but romantic German nationalism is beginning. How has “Frantz Schmidt” the present-day cultural figure been used and misused by we moderns? What’s the most important misapprehension that reading his diary ought to dispel for us?

This is really the focus of my epilogue, which discusses how “medieval” executioners have been used for the purposes of “enlightened” penal reform, nineteenth-century gothic fantasies, and in modern tourism to elicit disgust, amusement, or even the glorification of pain and suffering. My chief goal in writing the book was to get closer to understanding one such man in his own terms and in the context of his own society. To the degree that the book succeeds, parts of his world will look bizarre and alien, while other aspects (especially how people treat each other) will be strikingly familiar.

* Print-on-demand editions of Schmidt’s original diary are on the market. Although these derive from what I believe to be public domain translations, I have not been able to locate a free English copy online; German speakers can read it here.

** Also recommended: this podcast interview with Dr. Harrington.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Interviews,Notable Participants,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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1963: Nora Parham, the only woman hanged in Belize

6 comments June 5th, 2011 Headsman

Belize, B. Honduras, June 5. — Nora Parham, aged 36, the East Indian mother of eight sons, was hanged today for the murder of the man with whom she had been living.

So ran a minute, page-10 wire story in the London Times* from the British Central American possession soon to become self-governing as the country of Belize.

The unfortunate subject of the story was the first, and remains to date the only, woman put to death in Belize.

But she’s very much more than a bit of trivia.

A domestic violence victim hanged for murdering her batterer — who just happened to be a cop — Parham remains a lively source of controversy down to the present day.

Nora’s position as the victim in an abusive marriage, combined with serious doubt about whether she truly killed her husband at all, have given her enduring appeal. There’s a going campaign to issue her a posthumous pardon. In fact, there was a going campaign before she died to issue her a humous pardon, opposed by a governing party paper on the grounds that “sympathy” ought not “change court rulings.”

And it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Nora Parham and the years of beatings she’s reported to have endured in her relationship with Ketchell Trapp. One doubts even the harshest magistrate would condemn a person in her situation to hang today.

“By refusing to treat the pair as wife and husband, not just cop slayer and cop,” argues this volume on gender politics in colonized Belize, “the government deepened its own highly political silence about domestic and community gender oppression and violence and added a threatening element to its re-call to ‘domestic womanhood.'”

That cop/husband was doused with gasoline and set afire, but admitted as he expired from these ghastly injuries that he had been beating Parham before the fatal fire.

Even so, it sounds like a calculated way to kill a person.

But many believe, as Parham testified at her trial** that it wasn’t homicide at all … that Trapp was incidentally splattered with gasoline during his donnybrook with his wife, then carelessly set himself ablaze lighting a cigarette while off in the outhouse. (While naked, no less. What a way to go.)

“While he came back in the bedroom, I had a gasoline iron [in] my hand with a pan of gasoline.

“He came in the bedroom with a stick in his hand and hit me on my head. When he was going to hit me another hit, I threw the gasoline on him and he grabbed away the pan from me, and I went through the backdoor and he stone me with the said pan.

“After he stoned [me], I ran around the house and he never see where I got to. I went in the house through the front door, then I took the gasoline iron from where I left it and put it in the box.

“While I was inside I heard a noise and I run to see what it was. When I went I saw Ketchell Trapp come out of the latrine under fire. I then run up to help him but I see I could not, then I continued running towards the Hospital back street, running towards the station.

-Nora Parham, at trial

That trial excerpt is drawn from a strongly pro-Nora account with more details about the case here.

Belize still hands down death sentences, but has not carried one out on anybody, man or woman, since 1985.

* June 6, 1963

** All-male jury, which was true of all juries in Belize until 1970.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belize,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1723: Margaret Fleck, with a fresh dempster

1 comment June 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1723, Margaret Fleck was hanged in Glasgow for murdering her infant child.

According to “The Last Speech and Confession of Margaret fleck who was Executed at the Howgate-Head of Glasgow on the 5th of June for the Murdering of her Own Child”* (it does what it says on the tin):

I am brought this day, and that justly, to suffer for the murder of my own child, and I doubt not but that it will be expected, and I think it most proper and my indispensable duty, that as I have sinned so heinously against God, so I should glorify him by repenting my unnatural, atrocious and bloody fact — the murder of mine own child … For which crime, and all my other sins I desire heartily to mourn, and to fly to the fountain that is opened to the House of David and the Inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and uncleanness; and I desire to take shame and confusion of face to my self for my sins and iniquities, especially for the bad entertainment I gave to the gospel of Christ.

At the time, death sentences in Scotland had to be pronounced not only by the judges but by the dempster, a juridical office responsible for the actual execution.

Major League Baseball pitcher Ryan Dempster: would he hang Margaret Fleck?

In this case, dempster Thomas Cochran refused to join the sentence, evidently partaking in a popular discomfort with Fleck’s hanging. Nothing daunted,

their Lordships having desired the Sheriff Depute to provide another Dempster instantly, or else to do it himself, he craved their lordships might delay the same till the next day, against which time he should have one provided. Which being condescended to by their Lordships, they continued pronouncing of sentence against the said Margaret Fleck till to-morrow at nyne o’clock; with certification that if the Sheriff Depute did not provide a Dempster against that time, they would oblige him to do it himself …

The Sheriff Depute wriggled off the hook when a guy named Robert Yeats stepped up and did the Dempstering.

* As cited by Anne-Marie Kilday in “‘Monsters of the Vilest Kind’: Infanticidal Women and Attitudes to their Criminality in Eighteenth-Century Scotland,” Family & Community History, Nov. 2008.

Kilday observes that “pamphlet material relating to deviant behaviour … became popular sooner [in Scotland than in England], with publications beginning in earnest in and around 1702, nearly three quarters of a century ahead of publishers south of the Tweed. In addition, it was unquestionably infanticide (and latterly child killing in general), more than any other crime, which became the focus for the pamphlet literature produced.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland,Women

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1935: Pat Griffin and Elmer Brewer

Add comment June 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1935, the first double hanging* in the state of Iowa took place at Fort Madison.

Waterloo, Iowa, police heading out to query Elmer Brewer “in connection with alleged misconduct of Brewer with juvenile girls” alarmed Brewer and his friend Patrick Griffin, who assumed they were coming to arrest them for a robbery.

The two killed Deputy Sheriff William Fay Dilworth in a shootout.

Long forgotten, Griffin’s rodeo avocation, his friendship with the classmate who was to be his Catholic confessor, his offer to give all his earnings to the victim’s family were his sentence commuted to hard labor.

Just a lost file from the police blotter, moldering in a musty corner of a local archives. Although the glacial progress of the legal proceedings will look more familiar to modern eyes.

Thus closes a case which has been more or less in the courts since December 16, 1932. Attorney James Fay of Emmetsburg and Attorney John McCartney of Waterloo made valiant efforts to save the lives of the two men, but to no avail. Following their conviction of the murder in the district court in Waterloo on January 5, 1933, they were sentenced to be hanged on January 26, 1934. In May, 1933, an appeal was filed with the state supreme court, thus automatically staying the execution. The supreme court denied the appeal. On June 24, 1934, Attorneys Fay and McCartney petitioned the supreme court for a rehearing. This was denied January 10, 1935. A plea for commutation of the sentences to life imprisonment was denied by Governor Clyde Herring on February 1 and the chief executive set April 5, 1935, as the execution date. Continuing farther with their efforts the attorneys sought a writ of habeas corpus from District Judge John Craig of Fort Madison, but their request was denied. The refusal opened another loophole for the attorneys to ask a review of Judge Craig’s action. Again refused, the lawyers announced that they would go to the United States supreme court where they would ask the court for a writ of habeas corpus. In order to allow time for this step Governor Herring granted the convicted slayers a 60-day stay of execution but at the same time he announced that it was the last reprieve that could be expected from him. Illness of defense attorneys, it was said, prevented them from prosecuting their appeal to the supreme court. Monday Mr. Fay appealed to Federal District Court Judge Charles A. Dewey for a stay order and a writ of habeas corpus, but Judge Dewey refused to interfere. In Des Moines Tuesday a last minute effort to save the men was made in an appeal to Governor Herring, but the appeal for a commutation of sentence was denied.

A family member has compiled old clippings about this case — from which, both the excerpt above and the illustration — here.

* According to Iowans Against the Death Penalty. There had been a previous double execution when Iowa was a territory, and a triple execution in 1918.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Iowa,Murder,USA

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1568: The Counts of Egmont and Hoorn, insufficiently Inquisitorial

3 comments June 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1568, two Flemish nobles were beheaded at Brussels’ Grand Place for treason to the Spanish crown that then ruled the Low Countries.

Lamoral, Count of Egmont and Philip de Montmorency, Count of Hoorn had a beef with the introduction of the Inquisition into the Netherlands by Egmont’s cousin, King Philip II, and got to hanging around with dubious characters like William of Orange.

Unluckily for this day’s duo, William didn’t teach them to read the writing on the wall.

After the Counts went easy on an outbreak of Protestant Iconoclasm, the Catholic king sent the hammer in the person of the Duke of Alba (or Alva).

Let this long-expired generation counsel posterity to find itself elsewhere when one’s door is darkened by a man known as “the Iron Duke”. William had the wit to get out of town. Egmont and Hoorn hung around, depending on their (professedly) clean consciences.

Oops.

Count Egmont Before His Death, by Louis Gallait

The beheadings were widely protested both locally and abroad, and festered as a grievance against the empire — a grievance that, as the nascent conflict evolved into a revolution that would detach the Netherlands from Spain, elevated these distinctly non-revolutionary wealthy nobles into freethinking martyrs of independence.

Two centuries later, Goethe put the story on the stage with his play Egmont (original German | English translation), a production for which Beethoven subsequently composed gorgeous orchestral companion pieces.

Here’s the lovely, lovely Ludwig Van’s beloved (including by Goethe himself) Overture to Egmont, Op. 84:

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Netherlands,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Soldiers,Spain,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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