1754: Captain John Lancey, Devonshire arsonist

1 comment June 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1754, Captain John Lancey hanged at Execution Dock on the Thames — the victim of his brother-in-law’s clumsy insurance scheme.

We here defer to the dolorous annals known as the Newgate Calendar, so familiar around these parts, which subtitles its entry as …


Executed at Execution Dock, 7th of June, 1754, for burning a Ship at the Instigation of a Member of Parliament

This unfortunate man fell a dupe to an artful and wicked villain, his employer, who at the time was a disgraceful Member of the House of Commons, and who, to avoid the punishment due to his crimes, fled, and left the unfortunate subject whose case is before us a victim to his baseness.

Not this John (de) Lancie.

Captain John Lancey was a native of Bideford, in Devonshire, respectably born and well educated. As he gave early proofs of an inclination for a seafaring life he was taught navigation, was attentive to his studies, and gave proofs of a goodness of disposition that promised a better fate than afterwards attended him.

Lancey was sent to sea as mate of a ship, of which Mr. Benson, a rich merchant at Biddeford, was the proprietor. Lancey, having married a relation of Benson’s, was soon advanced to the command of the vessel. This Benson was Member of Parliament for Barnstaple, in Devonshire, and what kind of character he deserved will appear in the sequel.

After Lancey had returned from a long voyage he was for a considerable time confined to his bed by a violent illness, the expense of which tended considerably to impoverish him. When he had partly recovered, Benson told him that he proposed to refit the ship in which he had formerly sailed; that Lancey should have the command of her; that he (Benson) would insure her for more than double her value, and then Lancey should destroy the vessel.

This proposal appeared shocking to Lancey, who thought it but a trial of his honesty, and declared his sentiments, saying that he would never take any part in a transaction so totally opposite to the whole tenor of his conduct.

For the present nothing more was said; but soon afterwards Benson invited Lancey and several other gentlemen to dine with him. The entertainment was liberal; and, Captain Lancey being asked to stay after the rest of the company were gone, Mr Benson took him to a summer-house in the garden, where he again proposed destroying the ship, and urged it in a manner that proved he was in earnest.

Captain Lancey hesitated a short time on this proposal and then declined to have any concern in so iniquitous a scheme, declaring that he would seek other employment rather than take any part in such a transaction. But Benson, resolving if possible not to lose his agent, prevailed on him to drink freely, and then urged every argument he could think of to prevail on him to undertake the business, promising to shelter him from punishment in case of detection.

Lancey still hesitated. But when Benson mentioned the poverty to which his family was reduced by his late illness, and offered such flattering prospects of protection, the unhappy man at length yielded, to his own destruction. A ship was now fitted out, bound for Maryland: and goods to a large amount were shipped on board, but relanded before the vessel sailed, and a lading of brickbats taken in by way of ballast. They had not been long at sea when a hole was bored in the side of the ship and a cask of combustible ingredients was set on fire, with a view to destroying her. The fire no sooner appeared than the Captain called to some convicted transports, then in the hold, to inquire if they had fired the vessel; which appears to have been only a feint to conceal the real design.

The boat being hoisted out, all the crew got safe on shore; and then Lancey repaired immediately to Benson to inform him of what had passed. Benson instantly dispatched him to a proctor, before whom he swore that the ship had accidentally taken fire, and that it was impossible to prevent the consequences which followed.

Lancey now repaired to his own house, and continued with as much apparent unconcern as if such a piece of villainy had not been perpetrated; but he was soon afterwards taken into custody by a constable, who informed him that oath had been made of the transaction before the Mayor of Exeter by one of the seamen. Lancey, however, did not express much concern, secure in his idea of protection from the supposed influence of Benson.

On the following day Lancey and one of the ship’s crew were committed to the jail of Exeter, where they remained three months; and being then removed to London were examined by Sir Thomas Salisbury, the judge of the Admiralty Court, and committed to the prison of the Marshalsea. Application was afterwards made to the Court of Admiralty to admit them to bail; and there appeared to be no objection to granting the favour, but Benson, on whom they had depended for bail, had absconded, to escape the justice due to his atrocious crime.

Being committed to Newgate, they were brought to trial at the next Sessions of Admiralty held at the Old Bailey,when Lancey was capitally convicted, and received sentence of death, but the other was acquitted.

Lancey lay in prison about four months after conviction, during which his behaviour was altogether consistent with his unhappy situation. His Christian charity was remarkable towards Benson; for, though that wicked man had been the cause and instigator of his ruin, yet he never once reflected on him, but imputed all the crime to himself, and appeared to behold it in its genuine light of deformity.

It was presumed, when he was first apprehended, that he might have been admitted an evidence against Benson, if he would have impeached him; but this he steadily refused to do.

His devotional exercises were exemplary: he attended prayers in the most regular manner, and gave every proof of his contrition. He was accompanied to the place of execution by two clergymen; and, having confessed his guilt in a speech to the surrounding multitude, he underwent the sentence of the law on the 7th of June, 1754, at Execution Dock, in the 27th year of his age.

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1895: A day in death penalty around the U.S. (McTeague edition)

Add comment June 7th, 2018 Headsman


Headline from the Tacoma (Wash.) Daily News, June 7, 1895.

On this date in 1895, the hangman noosed for the cycle with single, double, and triple executions in three different U.S. states.

Arkansas

In Morrilltown, William Downs or Downes for criminally assaulting a woman called Pauline Bridlebaugh.

“On the scaffold Downs declared that he was guilty of part but not all he was charged with,” according to multiple newspaper reports. The eight-foot fall failed to snap his neck, and Downs strangled to death over 15 agonizing minutes.

Alabama

“Lee Harris and Abe Mitchell, colored murderers, highwaymen and thieves, were hanged here [Birmingham] today before 2000 people for the murder of Grocerymen Merriweather and Thornton. Both bodies were turned over to the undertakers, who purchased them several weeks ago for $18 from the men themselves.”


From the Oakland Tribune, June 7, 1895.
California

Three Californians hanged, sequentially, at San Quentin prison on the morning of June 7 in an affair timed to ensue the arrival of the 7:40 train from San Francisco, carrying about 100 official witnesses.

Emilio Garcia stabbed and slashed to death a San Bernardino old timer whom he believed to possess a hoard of gold.

Anthony Azoff fatally shot a Southern Pacific detective in the course of a botched robbery of that railroad firm’s offices; he was balked of a suicide attempt in the hours before his execution.

And Patrick Collins acquired more lasting infamy than any of his scaffold brethren by sensationally stabbing to death his estranged wife at the kindergarten where she worked when she refused his demand to hand over her wages.

Collins’s guilt was very apparent, so his trial gave the horrified public ample rein to sketch the brute in terms of the era’s crackpot racist typologies. In one Examiner article tellingly titled “He Was Born for the Rope,” it was postulated that “if a good many of Patrick Collins’ ancestors did not die on the scaffold then either they escaped their desert or there is nothing in heredity … Seeing him you can understand that murder is as natural to such a man when his temper is up as hot speech is to the anger of the civilized.”


Various newspaper images of Patrick Collins, from The Construction of Irish Identity in American Literature.

Be they ever so headline-conquering in their time, such crimes are like to fade speedily from the public memory. Collins, the man who slaughtered his tightfisted wife, and Collins, the savage ethnic archetype, have improbably survived his moment of notoriety, by imparting to literature the inspiration for San Francisco novelist Frank Norris‘s 1899 offering McTeague.

In McTeague, a vicious husband murders the wife he has abandoned when she refuses him money. The murderer here presents as an overpowering ancestral beast within — attributable, says Christopher Dowd, to Norris’s “study of criminal anthropology, particularly the school of thinking developed by Cesare Lombroso regarding atavism, hereditary criminality, degeneration, and criminal physiognomy. According to Donald Pizer, by the time Norris wrote McTeague, he had developed a ‘preoccupation’ with the themes of atavism and reversion, and ‘particularly with the role of heredity in causing either an obvious physical or mental devolution or a return to an earlier family condition’. Suddenly, Norris had a way to explain the behavior of his murderous protagonist — he was born a criminal, having inherited the degenerate traits and predilections of his Irish ancestors. Combined with the newspaper reports of the Collins murder, criminal anthropology gave Norris all the tools he needed to write, what Pizer calls, ‘that mythical creature of literature, a naturalistic tragedy'”. For example, Norris zooms through the disordered mind of McTeague as he struggles to control himself on one occasion.

He was disturbed, still trembling, still vibrating with the throes of the crisis, but he was the master; the animal was downed, was cowed for this time, at least.

But for all that, the brute was there. Long dormant, it was now at last alive, awake. From now on he would feel its presence continually; would feel it tugging at its chain, watching its opportunity. Ah, the pity of it! Why could he not always love her purely, cleanly? What was this perverse, vicious thing that lived within him, knitted to his flesh?

Below the fine fabric of all that was good in him ran the foul stream of hereditary evil, like a sewer. The vices and sins of his father and of his father’s father, to the third and fourth and five hundredth generation, tainted him. The evil of an entire race flowed in his veins. Why should it be? He did not desire it. Was he to blame?

McTeague does not exit upon the gallows as did his real-life inspiration; instead, having murdered and robbed his wife, the fugitive flees to the scorching desert of Death Valley where he faces a fight to the finish with a friend/rival who has pursued him. McTeague overpowers this foe, but the man’s dying act is to handcuff himself to McTeague — condemning the latter to sure death.

McTeague has long been in the public domain; it can be perused here; a Librivox audio reading of the book is available here. It’s also been adapted to at least two films in the silent era — including one of the genre’s greats — plus a more recent PBS radio drama, an opera, and miscellaneous other media.

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1935: May Hitchens Carey and Howard Carey, mother and son

Add comment June 7th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1935 in Georgetown, Delaware, a mother and son were hanged for the murder of Robert Hitchens, May Carey’s brother and Howard’s uncle.

The execution of May, 52, attracted some attention as it was the first time in living memory that a woman had faced capital punishment in Delaware. The last time a woman was executed there had been in the 1860s.

On November 7, 1927, May enlisted the help of her two oldest sons, Howard, then 20, and James, 16, to murder their uncle Robert. May had taken out a $2,000 insurance policy on his life and promised to buy her boys a car if they helped her. After Robert got home from work, the three of them jumped him, beat him with a club and sledgehammer, and then finished him off with a gunshot to the head. They poured alcohol over his body and down his throat and rummaged through his belongings in an attempt to make the murder look like a robbery.

The police fell for the robbery gambit and thought Robert had been slain by bootleggers. For a long time it appeared the trio had gotten away with it.

But murder will out. The homicide went unsolved until December 1934, when May’s youngest son, Lawrence, was arrested on an unrelated charge of burglary. He told the police everything he knew about his uncle’s murder, which was enough to put his mother and brothers behind bars.

Lawrence testified against his family at the ensuing trial. (Not that his cooperation in the murder case helped with his own legal difficulties; he got seven years for the burglary.) May tried to shoulder all the blame — “I drove my children to do it. It was all my fault. They killed him but they would not have done it, if I hadn’t made them do it.”

May, James and Howard were all convicted but the jury recommended mercy for the two young men. In the end, James was sentenced to life in prison but Howard, who had sired a family of three children, got a death sentence, as did his mother.

During the time period between the trial and the time the sentence was carried out, both Howard and May turned to religion for solace and read their Bibles “cover to cover.” Their last meal was cake and ice cream.

Authorities erected the gallows behind a high fence to conceal it from prying eyes. They even stretched a piece of canvas overhead to prevent aerial photography. A single rope was used for both hangings, and May was first in line. She wore a new black dress with white ribbon around the throat. Her son was dressed in a formal suit and tie. Mary died at 5:30 a.m. and Howard followed her at 6:08.

As for James, he outlived his mother and brother by only nine years, dying in prison of natural causes at the age of 34.

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1945: Mile Budak, Ustasha ideologue

Add comment June 7th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1945, seven former members of Croatia’s World War II Ustasha regime were hanged in Zagreb by Tito‘s postwar Yugoslav government — the morning after they had all been death-sentenced at a one-day military trial.*

Despite the presence of wartime Prime Minister Nikola Mandic (English Wikipedia entry | Croatian) in the batch, the marquee name was writer Mile Budak
(English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Croatian and German).

The “minister of culture with a machine gun” in the branding of his leftist literary contemporary Miroslav Krleza, Budak spent the interwar years writing hit novels valorizing the Croatian peasantry (The 1,000-page OgnjišteHearth — is the magnum opus) and also voluminous copy for far-right periodicals. Thanks to the latter activity, Budak endured an arrest, an attempted assassination, several years’ self-imposed exile to Italy, and (after his return) the murder of his wife.

Small wonder that when Germany broke off from the post-imperial Kingdom of Yugoslavia an “independent” Croatian puppet state, Budak signed up as its chief propagandist. Initially Minister of Education in 1941, he subsequently became its ambassador to Germany, and in 1943 its Foreign Minister.

He’s most notorious for the alleged aphorism “One third of the Serbs we will kill, one third expel, and the last third convert to Catholicism” — and though adherents widely dispute his authorship of any such phrase, Budak’s racial cosmology elevating Croatians (“an intersection of Slav and Gothic blood”) over their South Slav brethren was part of the intellectual scaffolding for his state’s wartime campaign of ethnic cleansing against Serbs. (It goes without saying that Jews and Roma were even more screwed.)

Judgments on the literary merit of Budak’s output appear to be driven heavily by the critic’s sympathy level with Budak’s politics. Post-independence Croatia has a robust far right that has often shown keen to rehabilitate the Ustasha, so it’s no surprise that Budak has been rediscovered as a writer and his name stapled to numerous streets in Croatia** and even to one in the Bosnian city Mostar — strictly in honor of his artistry and not the war business, mind you.

* Indeed, several — Mandic included — were only yielded up from British captivity in mid-May. (Link goes to a Croatian pdf)

** There’s one, for instance, in present-day nationalist enclave Knin — formerly the capital of the Serbian Krajina during the internecine 1990s wars. Knin’s capture and, er, ethnic reordering is the occasion celebrated on Croatia’s Victory Day holiday (August 5). It was for this operation that Croatian general Ante Gotovina was prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; Gotovina’s eventual shock acquittal and release to a great nationalist orgy in Zagreb led Serbia to quit cooperation with the ICTY’s “selective justice”.

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1753: Dr. Archibald Cameron, the last Jacobite executed for treason

1 comment June 7th, 2015 Headsman

Dr. Archibald Cameron of Lochiel on June 7, 1753 became the last Jacobite executed for high treason.

The son of the Cameron clan chief who had had to take refuge in France for his role in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, Archibald was in 1745 sent as an emissary by his older brother Donald to talk the Stuart claimant out of trying a do-over.

But it was Bonnie Prince Charlie who won the charisma check in this encounter, and ere ’45 was out Archibald was fighting under the Pretender’s colors. (Donald, too.)

Sadly for Donald and Archibald, they were as prescient as they were unpersuasive, for by the next spring the Jacobites had been decisively put down in a battle that cost the Clan Cameron alone hundreds of casualties. Both sons followed their father’s path to exile.

Archibald Cameron did, however, venture a couple of furtive visits back to his native soil, and on one of these missions he was betrayed and captured by the British. There were indeed a variety of refugee Jacobite intriguers in this period who were bold enough to canvass the heather for yet another possible rising, a circumstance which Lord Amulree credits for the severity of the Crown against our principal when it caught him.

Dispatched to London to be made an example of, Cameron was condemned to be drawn on a hurdle and cut down still alive for a traitor’s dismembering. He was, in fact, permitted to hang long enough to die, and his corpse was not quartered. After all, there’s making an example, and then there’s making a martyr.

“I the more cheerfully resign my life as it is taken away for doing my duty to God, my king, and my country,” Cameron wrote on the eve of his execution. “Nor is there anything in this world I could so much wish to have it prolonged for, as to have another opportunity to employ the remainder of it in the same glorious cause.”

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1820: Louis Pierre Louvel, anti-Bourbon assassin

4 comments June 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1820, Louis Pierre Louvel was guillotined at Paris’s Place de Greve for murdering the heir to the French throne.

Louvel (French link) was a Bonapartist saddler, so embittered by the return of the ancien regime that he vowed on the day of the Restoration to exterminate all the Bourbons.

While his attempt to greet the returning Louis XVIII in April 1814 with a dagger came to naught, Louvel’s patience paid off six years later.

On February 13, 1820, he surprised the Duke of Berry outside the opera and plunged a knife into his chest.

The Duke, who expired the next morning, was not the heir to the throne: he was the younger of two sons of the Comte d’Artois, who was the brother of the still-reigning Louis XVIII. These Bourbons, however, seemed congenitally unable to reproduce: Louis XVIII would die childless, leaving the aforesaid Comte d’Artois to inherit as Charles X; the oldest of Artois’s children also had a childless marriage.

So the potential future of the dynasty looked a murky thing in 1820. The Duke of Berry had an infant daughter, and the guy looked like maybe the only male in the royal family’s younger generation who might be capable of fathering a son. Louvel’s blow potentially set the stage for an eventual succession crisis.*

The killer was promptly arrested and made no bones about his action, avowing that he acted without aid or accomplice. He had, he said, no particular personal beef with the Duke: it’s just that he considered the guy’s entire family traitors whose presence dishonored the nation. (Here’s a complete French account of his trial.)

Because Louvel had his head cut off by the guillotine, he was not around to experience the miraculous September delivery by Louvel’s widow of a posthumous son and heir. In time, this son would become the Legitimist pretender to the French throne.

As a matter of fact, the prideful Count of Chambord could have become king after the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune wiped away the Second Empire. But to the grief of practical-minded monarchists, he publicly refused to accept the offered throne that he’d been waiting all his life for unless the nation also gave up the beloved tricolore flag associated with the regicidal Revolution. France said no thanks, and hasn’t had a monarch since.

* One more immediate consequence of Louvel’s strike: the liberal monarchist prime minister Elie Decazes came under opportunistic attack by ultra-royalists for giving aid and comfort to the terrorists with his moderate policies. Decazes was forced to resign and briefly went into exile in England due to the Ultras’ fulminations.

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1921: William Mitchell, Black and Tan

1 comment June 7th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1921, Great Britain hanged one of its own paramilitaries in Ireland. William Mitchell was, in fact, the only member of the reviled Black and Tans executed during the Irish War of Independence.*

This long-obscure case has been brought back to light by author D.J. Kelly, whose just-published Running With Crows: The Life and Death of a Black and Tan is a fact-based novel about William Mitchell’s execution.

Was Mitchell hanged for political expediency? Did he even commit the murder for which he stood condemned?

Kelly was kind enough to talk with Executed Today about exhuming a dead soul.

ET: What led you to take an interest in this hanging?

DJK: A third cousin of mine, who shares my interest in family history research, asked me to help her verify her late father’s claim that they were related to a Black and Tan who had been hanged for murder.

I knew that the ‘Tans’ were temporary policemen recruited in England from ex-combatants of The Great War and sent to Ireland to bolster the ranks of the beleaguered Royal Irish Constabulary during the Irish War of Independence. It took me no time at all to discovered that only one Black and Tan — indeed only one member of the entire British Crown Forces — had been executed during that conflict, and that indeed he shared a surname with my cousin.

However, I could find only the briefest of mentions of him in any accounts of that bitter struggle for Ireland’s freedom. It took me and my cousin two years to track down the elusive official case papers, to establish exactly who Mitchell was, and to tell his hitherto untold story. To date however, we still have not established a firm link with my cousin’s family.

The Black and Tans are of course still notorious in Ireland and elsewhere. In this book you’re complicating their story quite a bit, making at least this one Tan a sympathetic character. What sort of audience reception has Running with Crows had? Do you find there’s a lot of resistance to the story you have to tell? For that matter, did you have any misgivings to overcome in writing it?

You are right about their notoriety. The ‘Tans’ were bored, drunk and indisciplined during the short period of their service in Ireland. They were also poorly managed and allowed to run amok, robbing and assaulting the Irish population. There is no evidence however to support the popular myth that they included a greater number of criminals than has any police force before or since. They were disillusioned and battle-hardened men who were unable to find employment back in the ‘land fit for heroes’.

Book CoverIronically, one lone reviewer of my book has accused me of not making Mitchell sympathetic enough. It was not my intention though to create sympathy for this flawed and tragic man or to turn him into a folk hero. However, whilst I do not think he was the most honourable of men, I am not persuaded he deserved to hang.

I was indeed wary of uncovering this controversial case, especially as folks in Ireland, my own relatives included, are still sensitive and emotional about the events of the 1920s. The accepted view is that the old IRA were the heroes and the ‘Tans’ were the baddies. Few people realise however that at least a quarter of the Black and Tans were Irishmen, as indeed was Mitchell. However, I am delighted to have received highly positive reviews, from ‘both sides of the divide’, that is from an IRA re-enactment group as well as from supporters and historians of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Moreover, a theatrical production company, based in the town where the murder took place, and where people still remember and sympathise with the murdered magistrate’s family, has adapted my book to a stage play, which will debut there on 15 June at the Dunlavin Arts Festival. They have also kindly invited me to hold an author talk at the festival on the 16th June.

William Mitchell was hanged for killing a magistrate named Robert Dixon. Who was Robert Dixon and why was he a target during the war?

Robert Gilbert Dixon was an Anglo-Irish gentleman; a gentleman farmer who acted as an auctioneer at the local livestock auctions and who served as a district magistrate on the local circuit. He and his wife were descended from noble and philanthropic English forebears, and indeed Robert Dixon was respected in his community for his generosity shown both to his neighbours and to the police.

During the conflict though, both magistrates and police were viewed by the Nationalists as instruments of the occupying power (the British) and as such were prime targets for assassination by the IRA. Dixon’s murder was not a political killing however. He was shot dead, and his war hero son seriously wounded, during the course of a robbery at his home.

This post-war era saw the erosion of the class system and marked the beginning of the end for ‘the old order’. Socialism was gaining popularity and the working classes were shrugging off the idea that they should ‘know their place’. The awful loss of life, mainly through mis-management of the war, meant that many had lost respect for, and indeed were resentful of, the privileged classes. A truce was now imminent in Ireland and so the ‘Tans’, who were being paid per day what the regular Irish constables earned in a week, saw their lucrative employment coming to an end, and meanwhile, in Dunlavin, the Dixon family were conspicuously wealthy …

Coming at last to the main character here, who was William Mitchell? Why was he serving in the Black and Tans, and why did he end up at the end of a noose?

Contrary to what some commentators on the conflict have written, Mitchell was not English but Irish. He was a Dublin-born former professional soldier, who had served King and Empire, both in India and in the trenches of the Western Front. He was the son of Joseph Mitchell, a London-born soldier; a respectable man who had fought in the Boer War and who had married a Dublin Protestant girl.

Another myth, that of the privileged position of those in the ‘Protestant ascendancy’ in Ireland, is dispelled by William Mitchell’s impoverished upbringing in Dublin’s Monto district, which was not only Ireland’s, but indeed Europe’s, biggest slum and red-light district. William Mitchell was a man who did not respect authority — some might say, with good reason. When two masked intruders forced their way into the Dixon household and killed the magistrate during a bungled robbery, and when one of the ‘Tans’ shot himself dead at the local barracks the following day, it was believed the dead ‘Tan’ was the shooter, and so Mitchell was then arrested as his accomplice.

This hanging occurred just as London was determining to wind things down in Ireland; later that June, Prime Minister Lloyd George proposed peace talks. As a political sop, how important domestically within Ireland was William Mitchell’s execution in June 1921? Did it even register? Had he been spared, would that have affected at all the progress towards a truce?

Ah, you have put your finger on the nub of the issue.

As ill-disciplined and unruly as the temporary constables were, there was another arm of the Black and Tans which was far more undisciplined. The Auxiliaries were demobilised officers who had been engaged ostensibly to act as an officer cadre for the temporary constables but who had instead formed themselves into hit squads and set about abducting, torturing and killing suspects without due process of law. It was the Auxiliaries who were identified with some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, including the destruction of whole villages and towns and even of the murder of the mayor of Cork.

Several Auxiliaries had been tried for murder but acquitted, usually because crucial prosecution witnesses had ‘disappeared’. One indicted auxiliary, who was a decorated war hero, but most likely also a psychopath, and was head of the self-designated ‘murder squad’ based in Dublin Castle, was facing his second murder trial. By April 1921, the world’s press were united in condemning the British administration in Ireland for letting loose this uncontrolled ‘pseudo gendarmerie’ upon the Irish population. The number of Republicans who would be executed would run to two dozen, yet thus far, no member of the British Crown Forces had been convicted for any atrocity.

The Americans and the heads of the Commonwealth nations were demanding fair play. The British public were revolted by the way the conflict was being managed and now no less a personage than King George V stepped into the arena and demanded that Lloyd George‘s government show even handedness in the way it dealt with both rebel and law enforcer. Another acquittal was fully expected in the trial of the twice-tried Auxiliary, who had carried out his grisly and murderous duty on behalf of his government, but then along came the hapless Constable Mitchell, a ‘difficult’ Irishman who had allegedly killed, not an Irish rebel, but a magistrate; an Englishman and a representative of the establishment.

The outcome in the April trial of the Auxiliary, whose defence costs (equating in today’s values to £17,600) were met from the personal funds of Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland, was an acquittal, as expected.

Mitchell’s swift trial a couple of days later, by court martial (so no right of appeal) attracted little publicity. He went stoically to the scaffold, leaving behind him a 23-year-old widow and a seven-week-old baby daughter.

Political events moved fairly swiftly thereafter, so it is hard to judge whether his execution had much effect on the progress of Ireland’s achieving independence. The focus of public attention was taken up next with the internal struggles leading up to the Civil War. It seems Mitchell’s execution had little effect in the grand scheme of things.

So, did Mitchell kill the magistrate? Was he even present at the crime scene or was he a sacrificial lamb, slaughtered to offset criticism of Lloyd George’s administration in Ireland? I have presented all there is to know of this man’s life and death, as found in his military and police records, trial transcripts etcetera, and whether or not he killed the magistrate for whose murder he was hanged, or whether this was an awful miscarriage of justice, I leave for the reader to judge.

What happened to Mitchell’s family afterwards? And all these years later, what do the descendants think about their ancestor’s execution, and about the work you did with it?

I felt I could not let Mitchell’s story end with his execution. Since this is a novel closely based on a true and tragic story, I felt the reader would want to know what happened next. I know I certainly did, so I continued my research, and my narrative, to recount what had happened to many of the players in the story, and this may be found in the book’s epilogue.

Mitchell’s baby daughter lived into her nineties, always believing her father had died a hero in the course of his police service. Her respectable and courageous widowed mother did not want her little girl to grow up with any sort of stigma. Other family members knew of Mitchell’s fate however. When I tracked down his living descendants, I was cautious of the sensitivities surrounding my exposing Mitchell’s history. However, the family were keen for the full story to come out, and moreover they provided me with photographs of Mitchell, for which I am most grateful, as they enabled me to put a face to a man who hitherto had been simply a statistic.

This is not the end of the Mitchell story, however. His mortal remains (which are amongst the few still buried within the precincts of Dublin’s Mountjoy Gaol) will one day be exhumed when planned re-development of the gaol is commenced. When that day comes, my cousin and I will press for his re-interment in a local cemetery. Mitchell may not warrant the hero’s funeral accorded the Republicans who have all be disinterred from Mountjoy, but I believe he deserves at least a Christian burial.

* Still also known as the “Black and Tan War”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Ireland,Murder,Other Voices,Political Expedience,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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2011: Yao Jiaxin, road rager

3 comments June 7th, 2012 Headsman

On this date last year, a young pianist turned public enemy number one was executed in China for a notorious roadside murder.

Yao Jiaxin, a 21-year-old student at Xi’an Conservatory, hit a waitress on her bike while driving in October 2010.

Seeing her taking down his car’s license plate and fearful that she would revenge herself with financial demands for her minor injuries, an infuriated Yao stabbed her to death there at the scene.

“Yao stabbed the victim’s chest, stomach and back several times until she died,” in the words of one court. “The motive was extremely despicable, the measures extremely cruel and the consequences extremely serious.”

Appropriately, the execution took place on the very day that Chinese students were facing grueling university entrance exams, like the ones Yao himself had passed a few years before.

This event sparked massive national outrage, and Yao — the ivory-tickling son of a well-off couple who worked for the defense industry but didn’t have the pull of true elites — proved to be perfectly cast for the role of public pariah in a country undergoing the cataclysmic social displacements of internal migration, urban proletarianization, social stratification, and uneven capitalistic growth. He reportedly told police in his confession that he feared that his victim, a “peasant woman[,] would be hard to deal with.”

So-called “netizens” thrilled to the scandalous murder and bombarded online communications spaces with demands for Yao’s condign execution — an offering to the hollow bromides of legal egalitarianism that people in China as everywhere else see flouted every day. Yao’s family even fed that in a backhanded way by offering the victim’s family a larger compensation than that demanded by law if they would back off their demand for execution. Those “peasants” spurned the bribe.

Despite the familiar spectacle of public bloodlust over an infamous crime, Yao’s case also had an unsettling effect for at least some. He was, after all, a promising young man undone by a moment of madness and moral frailty: his downfall was distinctly tragic, in the classical sense, and not such a stretch to read as symbolic of China’s challenges and transformations.

Palpably grief-stricken and contrite about it — his parents took him to the police station to turn himself in, and cameras tracked the frail-looking youth through his few months of legal calvary all the way to a pitiably sobbing spectacle in his final court appearance as he pleaded in vain for his life — Yao could inspire pity as well as loathing.

The nature of Yao’s crime makes him an unlikely poster-boy for ending capital punishment per se. Yet there was also something discomfiting about authorities’ theatrical and foreordained compliance with a bloodlust that they had arguably stoked.

And in a China which has moved towards dialing down executions in recent years, even Yao’s individual culpability met some overt challenge: academics and legal professionals prepared to frame it as a crime of passion or something akin to “temporary insanity,” meriting a lesser punishment.

“A lot of people felt shocked,” a Chinese death penalty opponent told a western reporter. “They felt shocked by the process. Some people thought the netizens pushed the court into giving Yao the death penalty.”

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Pelf,Ripped from the Headlines

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1811: George Watson, the last horse thief hanged in Scotland

Add comment June 7th, 2011 Headsman

Earlier this year, a gentleman named John Nelson made the news for a 150-mile horse ride in Scotland — tracing the route his great-great-great-grandfather had taken in 1811 on a legendarily Javert-like pursuit of a horse thief.

“I didn’t expect to see you, Knockburnie” a surprised George Watson is supposed to have said to that relentless ancestor, naming place where farmer John Kerr had given the itinerant tinker shelter.

“I didn’t expect you would steal my horse,” Kerr replied.

He’d had a full week in the saddle to think of the right action-hero one-liner for this moment, ever since spontaneously setting out in pursuit of the absconded equine on the morning of the theft.

On this date in 1811 at Ayr, said George Watson paid with his neck for abusing the hospitality of such an implacable victim. He was the last man executed for horse theft in Scotland.

The stolen mare came home with its rightful owner, and an appropriate new name: Tinker.

(The date of the hanging is provided here, and in this broadside catalogue of Scottish executions.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Notable Sleuthing,Ripped from the Headlines,Scotland,Theft

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1821: Tudor Vladimirescu, Romanian revolutionary

2 comments June 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1821, Romanian national hero Tudor Vladimirescu (sometimes “Theodore Vladimiresco” in 19th century Anglo sources) was executed-slash-murdered in revolt against the Ottoman Empire by his Greek counterparts.

In the run-up to the Greek War of Independence, the Greek patriotic network Filiki Eteria tried to line up support in the Danubian Principalities.

As it happened, Tudor Vladimirescu (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was the guy enlisted to head up the Wallachian rebellion.

The low-born Vladimirescu had risen to the boyard nobility through his own merit. He had also won the Russian Order of St. Vladimir for his service in that country’s army, which made him an attractive partner for Greek conspirators hoping to attract Russian aid.

Vladimirescu’s pandurs even made the first move, ahead of the Greeks, seeking to occupy a power vacuum with the death of the Wallachian prince.

And this fact, ultimately, brackets the Wallachian Uprising into its unfortunate fate. While Greek revolutionaries went on to romantic glory, Tudor Vladimirescu struggled to gain Russian support, stressed internal reforms as against breakaway aspirations to keep the Ottomans cool, and tried to stay on at least cordial terms with Greek revolutionary leader Alexander Ypsilanti.

It’s perhaps because he accomplished none of these things and therefore became no other man’s instrument that Vladimirescu can be appreciated by posterity as a true exponent of the nationalist cause.* Illustrative of the difficulty: one of Romania’s chief nationalist beefs at this point was with Phanariot Greeks who soaked the Balkans under the Ottoman aegis; Vladimirescu’s initial manifesto to Constantinople called for restoration of Wallachian privileges and protection from Phanariot abuses. And that Greek leader Ypsilanti? He was a Phanariot himself. Peasants who rallied to the Wallachian banner weren’t looking to go to the wall for the Greeks.

Sources of a Hellenic bent are liable to perceive “perfidy and crimes” in Vladimirescu’s twisting and turning and maneuvering … which happens to be what Ypsilanti decided, too. This, too, was probably in the best interests of Tudor’s long-term reputation.

Vladimirescu was arrested by Greek agents, subjected to a drumhead tribunal for cooperation with the Ottomans, and immediately put to death. (And then chopped up and tossed in a privy; clearly, the Greeks were giving up on the diplomatic approach to Wallachia.) The Turks bloodily pacified the Principalities, and the locus of the war shifted to the Peloponnese.

There are today many streets named after Tudor Vladimirescu in Romania. There was also a pro-Soviet Tudor Vladimirescu Division that fought the fascist Ion Antonescu government during World War II, and the man’s face used to adorn the 25-leu note.

If only by happenstance, this “perfidious” and perhaps mainly self-interested captain has morphed into a Rorschach-blot nationalist image amenable, as Lucian Boia observes, to almost any reading.

The hero of 1821 passed all ideological examinations con brio, being invoked successively by liberals, Legionaries, “internationalist” communism, and nationalist communism. A major historiographical offensive was launched in the time of Ceausescu around his relations with the Greek Etaireia movement. After Andrei Otetea had striven to demonstrate the close links between the two (Tudor Vladimirescu and the Etairist Movement in the Romanian Lands, 1945), the historians of the nationalist phase did all they could to absolve the Romanian revolutionary of any obligation towards the Etairists.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Famous,Greece,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Power,Revolutionaries,Romania,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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