1627: Catlyn Fiermoing, village witch

Add comment June 8th, 2019 Headsman

The sorceress Catlyn Fiermoing was burned on this date in 1627 at the village of Wommersom.

A standard witch-hunt case, Fiermoing apparently got into hot water calling on the devil in a fight with her husband 19 years before her death, which summons Old Scratch duly answered and duly sealed the bargain with the usual promissory notes and carnal violations: this at least is the gist of what her interrogation records preserve us. (Dutch speakers can read a summary in here: part 1 | part 2.) She used her supernatural powers to get a little bit of money and kill some local rivals’ cows.

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1639: The Duke of Valette, in effigy

Add comment June 8th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1639, the Duke of Valette was beheaded in Paris as a traitor. Having anticipated this cruel stroke, however, he was happily away in England at the time.

Valette (later the Duke of Epernon, like his dad) outlived his execution by 22 years.

Valette‘s father, the Duke of Epernon, was a rival of the realm’s mighty consigliere, Cardinal Richelieu, which was a dangerous thing to be. The rivalry had already impacted the duke’s second son: Valette was married to Richelieu’s niece in 1634, in a vain bid for detente. (Valette preferred his mistress.)

Valette’s military reversal at the French Siege of Fuenterrabia in 1638 set him up for the revenge of his scheming in-law. Blamed for refusing to lead an ill-conceived charge, he got the Iraq War critic treatment when that charge turned into a debacle as he had warned.

But rather than face Richelieu’s summons to answer a charge he obviously had no odds of defeating, Valette crossed the channel and chilled in the exile court of another defeated Richelieu foe, Marie de’ Medici.

The Cardinal de Richelieu not contented with his having left the Kingdom, caus’d a Process to be commenc’d against him,” outrageously fixing the verdict.

Just as Valette lost his head only ceremonially, he lost his homeland only temporarily. When Louis XIII died in 1643, Valette — by this time become the Duke of Epernon — was able to return and re-enter the ranks of respectable nobility, unimperiled by the headsman’s blade for the remainder of his days. He died in 1661.

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1658: John Hewett and Henry Slingsby, royalists

Add comment June 8th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1658, two royalist conspirators were beheaded at Tower Hill for plotting against Oliver Cromwell‘s Protectorate.

At this very late date, conflicts within the Lord Protector’s state raised the hopes of the exiled royal claimant Charles Stuart for a successful invasion. (Little did the imminent King Charles II suspect that Cromwell himself would die suddenly three months hence, collapsing the revolutionary government.) Plots and counterplots, spying and betrayal, were the order of the day; it was the bad luck of our men to set theirs in motion just a shade too early, but perhaps it was Charles Stuart’s good luck that Team Cromwell smashed it before it could ripen into a premature commitment of forces.

For the particulars, we turn to parliamentarian cavalryman and politician Edmund Ludlow, a regicide who had thirty-odd years cooling his spurs in continental exile during which to scribble his memoir of the grand experiment.

Another plot much more dangerous was about the same time carried on by the Royalists, and discovered to him by his spies. The persons concerned in it he used with more severity, because he accounted them to be of a more formidable party, and therefore referred them to be tried by those persons whom his last Assembly had nominated to be a High Court of Justice.

The prisoners were Dr. Hewet [John Hewett, onetime chaplain to King Charles I and an open royalist], Sir Henry Slingsby [a Yorkshire politician and Royalist veteran of the civil wars], and Mr. Mordaunt [eventually made a viscount by Charles II in recognition of his efforts on behalf of restoration], with some others of the meaner sort. The general charge against them was for endeavouring to levy war against the Government on the behalf of Charles Stuart.

The particular charge against Dr. Hewet was for dispersing commissions from the son of the late King, and perswading divers to raise forces by virtue of the same. That against Sir Henry Slingsby was for attempting to debauch some of the garison of Hull to the service of Charles Stuart, and delivering a commission from him to them. The prisoners of less note were charged with a design of firing the city in several places, at the time appointed for their party to be in arms.

Dr. Hewet being brought before the Court, moved that he might be tried by a jury, and demurred to the jurisdiction of the Court. But the Court over-ruled his demurrer, and told him, that unless he would plead to his charge, they would cause his refusal to be entred, and proceed against him as if the fact were confessed. This being twice said to him, he was required the third time to plead: to which he answered, that if the Judges would declare it to be according to law for him to plead, he would obey: but he was told that the gentlemen then present were his Judges, and that if he would not plead they would register his contempt the third time, and upon his refusal did so.

Mr. Mordaunt admonished by his example, pleaded not guilty; and after a full hearing of the witnesses on both sides, the Court acquitted him by one voice. Then Sir Henry Slingsby was called to the bar, and the witnesses on each side being heard, he was pronounced guilty, tho in the opinion of many men he had very hard measure. For it appeared that he was a prisoner at the time when he was charged to have practised against the Government; that he was a declared enemy, and therefore by the laws of war free to make any such attempt; besides it was alledged that the persons, whom he was accused to have endeavoured to corrupt, had trapan’d him by their promises to serve the king in delivering Hull, if he would give them a commission to act for him, which commission was an old one that had long lain by him. But all this being not thought sufficient to excuse him, he was adjudged to die.

The rest of the prisoners were also condemned, and sentence of death being pronounced, Sir Henry Slingsby and Dr. Hewet had the favour of being [June 8] 1658 beheaded; and the others, being men of a lesser figure, were hanged.

Cromwel’s daughter and favourite Mrs. Cleypole [Elizabeth Claypole, who was reputed to intercede frequently with her father on behalf of royalists], laboured earnestly with her father to save the life of Dr. Hewet, but without success: which denial so afflicted her, that it was reported to have been one cause of her death, which happened soon after with the concurrence Aug. 6. of an ulcer in her womb.

We have also an account of the dying behavior of both Slingsby and — much more detailed — Hewitt, each of whom slated the injustice of their sentence as having greatly exaggerated their “treasonable” designs.

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1743: John Breads, Rye killer

Add comment June 8th, 2016 Golde Singer

On this day in 1743, John Breads met his fate on the gallows in the small Sussex town of Rye, on the south coast of England. The spectacle of his hanging was compounded by the subsequent use of the gibbet, a cage in which Breads’s body was left exposed to the elements in Gibbets Marsh for more than 20 years.

On the face of it, this was just another hanging in the dustbin of history, but author Paul Kleber Monod uses it as the focal point of a book, The Murder of Mr. Grebell: Madness and Civility in an English Town (review | another), in which he wraps Rye, the murder and the execution into the social structures of England (especially small-town England) of the 18th century.

Although the murder itself is a small part of Monod’s book, he nonetheless outlines two aspects of the Breads story which make it worth a look by readers of Executed Today:

  1. the issue of fairness in the handling of the trial and execution; and
  2. the killer’s attempt to assert “mental distraction”

The facts of the murder itself seem fairly straightforward, although a little quirky, since the whole affair was apparently a case of mistaken identity: James Lamb, the then-mayor of Rye, was invited to dinner on March 16, 1743, to celebrate the appointment of his son John to the customs service. Lamb was feeling ill that day and asked his brother-in- law, Allen Grebell, to attend the dinner in his place. As Grebell was returning home after the event, he was attacked and stabbed in the churchyard by John Breads; although Grebell was able to make it back to his home, he died that night from his wounds.

When Breads was arrested for the murder, he claimed he had intended to kill Lamb, not Grebell. Monod points out that, since Lamb was related (albeit by marriage) to the victim, normal procedure would have been to move any hearing or trial to another jurisdiction, or at least allow an independent jurist to preside over the case. Breads’s assertion that Lamb was the intended victim should have given the Mayor even more reason not to be involved.

Instead, he insisted on keeping the trial in Rye and compounded the irregularity by acting as both prosecutor for the grand jury and as judge for the trial, thus ignoring judicial standards relating to conflict of interest. Additionally, one description of the trial claims that Lamb testified during the trial itself; if this is true, Monod says, such testimony was a breach of common law, which dictated that judges could not testify in cases over which they were presiding.

Monod introduces a commentary by Rye resident and lawyer Henry Dodson, who questioned whether Breads had received a fair trial in light of Lamb’s actions:

How fair a Tryal, the Prisoner had, I leave the Reader, to determine after he is informed, the above Mr. Lamb, was Mayor, Coroner, Party Prosecuting, Judge, Witness and Sheriff, in Presenting, Trying and Executing the said John Breads.

I suppose, he was Mayor, Coroner, and Sheriff, as essentiall, to the office of Mayoralty; Party and prosecutor, as Brother in Law to the Unfortunate good Gentleman, that was Killed; and Judge, and Witness out of Zeal, in getting the Prisoner proved Sane …

Dodson seemed to feel that Lambs involvement in the case was just a little too personal, and the fact that Breads was gibbeted after his execution might lend some credence to that idea. Gibbeting, Monod points out, was not usually a punishment imposed by a judge, but rather by royal order, and it was generally reserved for the most serious of killers.

But Monod puts the trial into a larger social context, suggesting that

the trial of John Breads bears a message about how the law operated in the 18th century [and] stands as an example of how authority might assert itself aggressively and unrestrainedly. The last word belonged to the judge … a kind of paternalism based on the social (and hence moral) inequality between defendant and judge. It was the opinion of the magistrate that counted.

[This] system reflected a social and political structure in which authority had been concentrated in a few hands, usually by inheritance … Breads had little chance of escaping the most extreme form of retribution.

The second point of interest in the Breads trial was that it stood at the cusp of a new understanding of insanity in the commission of crimes.

This is a mere replica of the Breads gibbet on display at the Rye Museum, but the town council still has possession of the original, skull and all. It’s reported to be a highly sought gawk, but it can only be seen by special arrangement.

Although Breads originally claimed his plan was to kill the mayor, he changed his tune at the trial, where he was reported as having said that “if he had committed the Fact, he knew nothing of it, for it was done when he was in Distraction … In short, he affected Madness …” (Kentish Post, June 1-4, 1743)

Or, in today’s parlance that would fitfully develop, “Not guilty by reason of insanity.”

Insanity had been a legitimate defense for years, but the definition of insanity was very much in flux at this time. Doctors suggested that madness was due to a mental defect rather than possession by an evil spirit and lawyers were pushing the idea that homicide required “malice aforethought,” while many average citizens still believed that those who were mad were in the grip of the devil.

Monod proposes yet another possibility by putting the question into a sociological context: “Insanity does not operate randomly,” he writes. “It cannot separate a sufferer from the social context in which he or she exists.”

For Breads, whose upbringing had been closely tied to his church, that context included unsuccessful attempts in the late 1600s by religious purists to wrest control of Rye’s government and economy from the wealthy secular class, and the antagonistic feelings that remained from the abject failure of that effort and the perceived religious persecution that followed it. Breads was no doubt influenced by that antagonism, Monod suggests, and those feelings “may have alienated him from the way the town was governed … [He] wanted to vent his rage on the oligarchs.” As a result, “Even in his madness, Breads was trapped by his own history and that of his native town.”

Whatever the source of Breads’ “distraction,” it did him no good. But it did become one piece of a serious conversation about the issue — a conversation which has continued for centuries.

On this day..

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1953: Istvan Sandor, underground Catholic

1 comment June 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1953, Istvan Sandor was hanged in Communist Hungary

Sandor was a printer noted as a mentor to younger Catholics — including the orphanage that shared his print-shop’s building.

When his Salesian order was suppressed in 1950, Sandor had to continue this work underground, practically inviting martyrdom. At one point his superiors in the order urged him to flee Hungary; Sandor stubbornly stuck around under an alias.

This shadow existence was bound to be a fleeting one. The Hungarian secret police kept close tabs on him, and when it found that he was in contact with a guard close to the party leadership, it made a national security case out of the affair — arresting nine of its own spooks, five priests, and several civilians.

In a secret military trial, Sandor and three others were condemned to death by hanging for plotting against the state. One of those sentences was modified to life imprisonment, but the other three hanged on June 8th. Their families only got definitive word of their fate in 1955.

Sandor was officially rehabilitated by the post-Communist government in 1994. In 2013, Pope Francis beatified him.

“We celebrate in him the hero who was true to his calling as a Salesian brother, even at the cost of his life,” Cardinal Peter Erdo said at a mass on that occasion. “We respect in him the exceptional labourer who taught youth the love of work. We stand deeply moved before the victim of a show trial who was tortured, sentenced to death and executed based on false testimony.”

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1989: Stefan Svitek, the last in Czechoslovakia

Add comment June 8th, 2014 Headsman

The last execution in the history of the former state of Czechoslovakia occurred on this date in 1989.

Staggering home extremely drunk late one autumn night, Štefan Svitek (English Wikipedia entry | Czech) found the door locked and the pregnant Roma wife he regularly battered disinclined to open it.

So Svitek opened it himself by grabbing an obliging ax and splintering it to pieces.

Then he turned the ax on poor Marie and the family’s two daughters.*

Even the most aggressive executioners — and Czechoslovakia was not that — don’t hang every homicide. Svitek might have doomed himself in the final analysis with his disturbing sexual proclivities, especially since they surfaced during his rampage. He reportedly carved up the bodies, sliced off his late wife’s breasts and even cut the still-stirring embryo of his next child out of her womb, and pleasured himself over all the fresh gore. He would later describe it as the most intense sexual experience of his life.

It emerged at trial that Svitek’s youth in an alcoholic home had warped his animal urges so severely that he turned his lust upon animals, taking special gratification in castrating them.

This last operation Svitek also perpetrated on his own self as he fled in panic from his domestic charnel house. He also attempted to commit suicide by hanging.**

Svitek broke that rope. On the 8th of June in 1989, he did the same (metaphorically) to Czechoslovakia’s.

Svitek’s hanging June 8, 1989, was not only the last ever in the soon-to-be-defunct Czechoslovakia, but the last associated with either of Czechoslovakia’s successor states, neither of which have the death penalty on the books. (Svitek was hanged in Bratislava, the Slovakian capital; the last execution in the Czech half was that of Vladimir Lulek earlier in 1989.)

Update: Documentary, in Slovak (via the Twitter machine).

* One was Svitek’s own child, the other was his wife’s by her previous marriage. They were four and six years old.

** Another possible kink?

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1866: Anton Probst, “I only wanted the money”

3 comments June 8th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1866, mass murderer Anton Probst (sometimes called “Antoine”) was hanged in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He made national headlines in its time, but today he is forgotten except among serious students of violent crime.

Probst was a native of Germany, the son of a carpenter. He later claimed he had a normal childhood and “never did anything wrong” until after he had left his home country.

He moved to the United States in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, and became a professional “bounty jumper”: he would join up with a Union Army regiment, collect the $300 enlistment bonus, desert as soon as he could, then enlist with another regiment and start the cycle over again. He made a tidy living for himself this way until 1865, when he accidentally shot his thumb off and was discharged from the military for good.

Probst squandered his enlistment bounties on liquor and and rapidly fell into post-discharge penury. This was why, in the fall of 1865, he hired himself out as a farmhand to Christopher Deering, an Irish immigrant who lived in a rural part of Philadelphia with his wife and five children.

Deering offered Probst a salary of $15 a month plus room and board. Probst quit after only a few weeks, though, not being accustomed to honest labor.

He soon fell ill and, without a source of income, wound up in the workhouse. In dire straits, he returned to the Deering farm on February 2, 1866 and begged for his job back. And, although Probst’s behavior from before had given Christopher’s wife the creeps, the farmer took pity on him and re-hired old Thumbless.

Things went well for the next two months. But unbeknownst to his employer, Probst had thought of another way to get money.

Christopher’s nearest neighbor, Abraham Everett, lived a quarter of a mile away. Everett subscribed to several local weekly newspapers and, every weekend, Christopher would send his son to borrow the previous week’s editions.

One Saturday, the boy never showed up.

Nor did he arrive on Sunday.

Or for the next several days after.

By Wednesday, Everett was getting worried and decided to go to the Deering place and see if they were all right. He found the farm deserted and the horses inside the barn, nearly dead of thirst and starvation. After giving food and water to the distressed animals, he went and looked through the window into the Deering family’s house and saw it had been ransacked.

Seriously alarmed now, Everett forced the window open and climbed inside, and found every room in the house in a state of disarray. In the bedrooms, the beds had been torn and flipped upside down, dresser drawers had been rifled through and clothes were scattered everywhere. There was not a soul to be seen.

At this point, Abraham Everett went off to get help, summoning another neighbor and then the police. Inside the barn they found something Everett had missed while he was helping the horses: Christopher Deering’s body, partially covered in hay, alongside the body of a cousin visiting from New Jersey.

“His head,” crime historian Harold Schechter reports in his book Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of, “was crushed to pieces, almost to powdered bone, and his throat was cut … from ear to ear.” Christopher’s cousin had similar injuries. A search of the barn turned up the bodies of Christopher’s wife, Julia, and four of the couple’s five children, stacked in the corncrib.

All of them had their throats cut and their skulls bashed in.

The only survivor in the family was the oldest child, ten-year-old William Deering, who had been staying with his grandparents at the time of the murders. And so the family line did not die out: according to this Philadelphia Inquirer article, William has 60 descendants.

The murder weapons were lying around bloodstained and in plain sight on the property: a hammer, a small hatchet and a full-sized ax. Hours later, the police found the last body hidden in a haystack a few hundred yards from the barn: seventeen-year-old Cornelius Carey, one of the Deerings’ farmhands.

The other farmhand was missing and, under the circumstances, had to be viewed as the prime suspect in this massacre. Nobody knew much about him, but the neighbors recalled that missing right thumb, spoke poor English with an accent, and was called something like “Anthony.”

Fortunately, he would not prove hard to find. “It might be supposed,” Harold Schechter says,

that a man who had methodically slaughtered eight people, including three prepubescent children and a fourteen-month-old infant, would lose no time in putting as much distance between himself and the crime scene as possible. For all his low cunning, however, Anton Probst was incapable of prudent calculation. Indeed, from all available evidence, he thought of nothing beyond the gratification of his immediate physical needs.

Hours after the murders, Probst was no further away than a house of ill repute on Front Street in Philadelphia, where he spent the night with a $3 prostitute. For the next few days he hung around his favorite bars drinking, making occasional excursions to pawn items he’d stolen from the Deering farm. He was in no hurry to leave.

Only the day after Probst’s grisly crimes were discovered, a police officer named James Dorsey spotted him strolling around near Market Street. Something about his bearing, and the way his hat was pulled low over his eyes, made the lawman suspicious. He walked up to him and noticed the stranger’s right thumb was missing.

Dorsey pulled Probst’s hat off to have a look at his face and said, “Good evening.” Probst mumbled a reply and Dorsey, noting the accent, said, “You’re a Dutchman?”

“No,” Probst answered. “Me a Frenchman.”

“You are, are you? Take a walk with me.” Dorsey grabbed the murderer’s arm and hauled him off to the nearest station house. There the police searched him and determined he was wearing Christopher Deering’s clothes, and carrying the farmer’s snuffbox and pistol. Probst had left Elizabeth Dolan’s carpetbag at a tavern earlier that day; it contained a number of small items, including cheap children’s toys, all of which were from the Deering farm.

The police had to transfer Probst from the Philadelphia City Jail to Moyamensing State Prison for his own safety, after a would-be lynch mob stormed the jail. Probst claimed he had only killed Cornelius Carey and tried to blame the other murders on an imaginary accomplice; at his trial (which began on April 25, less than three weeks after the murders) his lawyers argued that the case against him was strictly circumstantial and not proved beyond a reasonable doubt. But the trial’s outcome was clear from the beginning. The jury deliberated for only twenty minutes before convicting.

Death row agreed with Probst; he seemed at ease and actually gained twelve pounds in the five weeks between his trial and execution. On the morning of May 7, exactly one month after the murders, he finally confessed that his accomplice didn’t exist and he’d acted alone. He was “quiet, undemonstrative, cool and unembarrassed” as he told his story, “without the least trace of shame or remorse.”

You can read it all here in his very own words, or below, in mine. At first his intention had just been to rob the family of everything they had, then flee. But he found himself unable to accomplish this because there were always too many people around.

About a week before the murders, it occurred to Probst that perhaps murder might be necessary to facilitate the robbery. At first he thought he could just kill Christopher Deering, but as he mulled the matter over he decided the rest of the household would have to die as well.

First to go was Cornelius Carey as they were working together in the field. Then Probst went into the barn and lured the others in one by one, killing them as they each came inside: eight-year-old John Deering, then the mother, Julia, then the rest of the children: six-year-old Thomas, then four-year-old Annie, and finally the baby, Emma. Probst estimated that it all took about half an hour.

Christopher Deering was off picking up that visiting cousin from the ferry, and they didn’t arrive back at the farm until the afternoon. Probst was waiting for them. While the guest Elizabeth Dolan went into the house, Probst told Christopher one of the animals was sick and he had to go inside the barn. There he killed him like the others, then called Miss Dolan to the stable. She was the last one to die.

If we are to believe the killer’s account, the victims all died quickly and quietly, and did not suffer. None of them, he said, so much as cried out after the first blow.

Once finished, Probst tore the house upside down looking for things to steal, washed, shaved, changed out of his bloody clothes and put on some of Christopher’s, and had himself a snack of bread and butter. At sunset he headed off to town.

Schechter records:

When asked by Chief Franklin why on earth he had perpetrated such an atrocity, Probst gave a little shrug. “I only wanted the money,” he said. “I killed the boy Cornelius first so that he could not tell on me. I killed the two oldest children so they would not afterwards identify me. I killed the two youngest as I did not wish to leave them in the house alone without someone to care for them. I had no ill feeling to anyone in the family. They always treated me well.”

Probst submitted meekly to his execution, which went off without a hitch. The public understandably rejoiced at his death and the New York Times, in its report of how Probst “shuffled off his mortal and disreputable coil,” called him “the greatest criminal of the nineteenth century.”

Probst was permitted to write to his family in Germany. He told them of “the terrible fate which has befallen me,” admitted to the eight slayings, and blamed his bad behavior on his experiences in the Union Army, where he “heard nothing but cursing and swearing, and soon became a sharer in every wickedness.”

Whatever, Anton.

After his death, Probst’s body was handed over to the physicians at Jefferson Medical College, who subjected it to a series of bizarre experiments with electricity. When they finished with their fun they performed an autopsy. Probst’s brain turned out to be unusually small, almost a full pound lighter than average. What, if anything, this has to do with his apparent psychopathy is anyone’s guess. His head and arm were later displayed in the Jefferson Medical College museum.

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1693: Elizabeth Emerson

Add comment June 8th, 2012 Robert Wilhelm

(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and author of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime. -ed.)

The Emersons of Haverhill, Massachusetts, were the kind of family that just could not stay out of trouble. Death was a common feature in the Emerson household; only nine of their fifteen children survived infancy. Michael Emerson’s first child, Hannah, would marry Thomas Duston and, become famous for escaping Indian captivity by murdering and scalping ten of her captors.

The sixth child was a daughter named Elizabeth, born in 1664. Twelve years later, Michael was brought to court “for cruel and excessive beating of his daughter with a flail swingle and for kicking her, and was fined and bound to good behavior.” Corporal punishment was not considered wrong in and of itself, but Michael’s beating of Elizabeth was criminally excessive. There is no way to know why Elizabeth was being punished, but the impression is, that she was a rambunctious, strong-willed child living in a violent household.

Another of Elizabeth’s sisters, Mary Emerson, was married in 1683 to Hugh Mathews of Newbury. Though there is no record of premature offspring, Hugh and Mary were both brought to court and found guilty of fornication before marriage. They were sentenced to be “fined or severely whipped.”

Perhaps with her sister as an example, Elizabeth also engaged in premarital sex. In 1686, Elizabeth Emerson gave birth to an illegitimate daughter she named Dorothy. It is not clear whether Elizabeth was ever punished for this, but court records indicate that Michael Emerson accused a neighbor, Timothy Swan, of being the father. Timothy’s father, Robert Swan, vehemently denied that Timothy was the father because he “… had charged him not to go into that wicked house and his son had obeyed and furthermore his son could not abide the jade.” He further threatened to “carry the case to Boston” if Timothy was formally accused. Michael did not pursue the charges and little Dorothy remained fatherless.

Five years later, with Elizabeth and her daughter still living at her parents’ house, Elizabeth became pregnant again. She somehow managed to keep this a secret from her parents, but the neighbors were suspicious. Sometime during the night of May 7, 1691, Elizabeth, who slept at the foot of the bed where her mother and father slept, gave birth to twins without waking her parents. The twins were either stillborn or murdered by their mother. She hid the bodies in a trunk for three days then sewed them into a sack and buried them in the backyard.

The following Sunday, while her parents were at church, the neighbors who had suspected Elizabeth’s pregnancy, came to the house with a warrant from the magistrates of Haverhill. While the women examined Elizabeth, the men went to the backyard and found the bodies buried in a shallow grave. Elizabeth was arrested for murdering her bastard infants.

Elizabeth maintained that she had kept the pregnancy and birth a secret out of fear. Her mother had been suspicious, but whenever asked about it, Elizabeth denied she was pregnant. Michael claimed he had no idea that Elizabeth was pregnant but this time put the blame on Samuel Ladd, age 42, a married man, nine years older than Elizabeth. Elizabeth also named Samuel Ladd as the father, saying that the “begetting” had taken place at an inn house. She also stated that Ladd was the only man with whom she had ever slept, implying that Dorothy was Ladd’s daughter as well.

Although Samuel Ladd had been previously found guilty of a misdemeanor and fined for an earlier episode involving sexual advances on a younger woman, Ladd was never questioned in Elizabeth Emerson’s case. Elizabeth was already the mother of a bastard child, and Samuel Ladd was the son of an early settler — her story was not believed.

Elizabeth Emerson was sentenced to hang and remanded to the custody of the Boston prison on May 13, 1691. An accompanying letter explained the facts and said that she had been examined for “whore-dom.” By English law, concealment of the death of a bastard child had been punishable by execution. Though this law had been repealed in England, it was still on the books in Massachusetts. It did not matter whether Elizabeth Emerson had murdered her babies or merely concealed their death — she would be hanged.

The hanging was scheduled for 1693. Elizabeth was imprisoned during the height of the Salem witch trials, and though he played an active role in the trials, Reverend Cotton Mather found time to take an interest in her case. Mather worked on her soul and before her execution Elizabeth confessed that “when they were born, I was not unsensible, that at least one of them was alive; but such a Wretch was I, as to use a Murderous Carriage towards them, in the place where I lay, on purpose to dispatch them out of the World.” But Mather believed she had more to confess and held little hope for her salvation.

Elizabeth Emerson was hanged in Boston on June 8, 1693, along with a black indentured servant named Grace. Before the execution Cotton Mather preached a sermon during which he read the following declaration written by Elizabeth:

I am a Miserable Sinner; and I have Justly Provoked the Holy God to leave me unto that Folly of my own Heart, for which I am now Condemned to Dy … I believe, the chief thing that hath, brought me, into my present Condition, is my Disobedience to my Parents: I despised all their Godly Counsils and Reproofs; and I was always an Haughty and Stubborn Spirit. So that now I am become a dreadful Instance of the Curs of God belonging to Disobedient Children.

Get Murder and Mayhem in Essex County here.

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1675: The murderers of John Sassamon, precipitating King Philip’s War

2 comments June 8th, 2011 dogboy

On this date in 1675, Puritan colonists’ hanging of three Wampanoag Indians helped trigger a brutal bout of ethnic cleansing, King Philip’s War.

The condemned men’s victim, Wassausmon — known by his Christian, Anglicized name of John Sassamon — was a converted Massachuseuk, briefly a Harvard attendee (1653)*, and eventually a translator for several tribes when dealing with the early settlers. Sassamon fought on the colonists’ side during the Pequot War, which has graced these pages before, and was generally seen as very sympathetic to the colonial cause, at one point becoming a schoolmaster at the inception of the towns of Natick and Ponkapoag.

After his work as a translator, Sassamon returned to the Puritan fold to become a minister in the Plymouth Colony.

Because of his high position in both the white and native worlds, though, he drew some resentment from both sides. It was Sassamon’s sense of loyalty to both sides of the growing tension between the natives and colonists that led to his demise.

King Philip (natively known as Metacomet) became head (Sachem) of the Wampanoag Confederacy in 1662 after his brother’s death.

Though initially trade-friendly with the burgeoning colonies to the north and east, the Wampanoag were also feeling the squeeze from the Iroqouis Confederation gaining power to the west. In 1671, the colonies presented the Wampanoag with an ultimatum: give up their arms and submit to English law, or be forced out.

The colonists had tried this tactic before with the Pequot (hence the Pequot War), Narragansett, and other native tribes with great success. As expected, Philip blinked, and the English moved in.

But the Sachem was predictably unhappy with the relationship. Three years later, he had assembled a band of warriors and was ready to, er, renegotiate.

Sassamon got wind of Philip’s planned attack on Plymouth Colony and warned its governor Josiah Winslow. Two months later, Sassamon was fished out from under the ice of Assawompset Pond.

With one witness claiming that a trio of King Philip’s men had knocked off the translator and dumped the corpse, the Puritans became convinced that Philip was already getting involved in their affairs.

In June 1675, four months after Sassamon’s body was found, a mixed jury of Indians and colonists convicted three Pokanoket Indians of murdering Sassamon, and on June 8, they were hanged.**

The executions helped bring tensions to the breaking point, and Philip decided it was his time.

On June 18, he launched an attack on homesteads in Swansea, and the war was on. The colonists struck back, laying siege to Mount Hope with the thought of gutting the insurgency by capturing its leader. That move failed, and King Philip escaped to recruit more tribes to his cause. Eventually, the forces included five major native tribes fighting colonists and two other major tribes.

Things got ugly fast: the conflict would become one of North America’s bloodiest colonial wars, and touch everyone who lived in the region. In September, the New England Confederation officially declared war on the Native Americans of the area.

After suffering months of casualties, the colonists finally gained a foothold in the conflict in December. By spring, King Philip’s War was in full swing, with atrocities happening on both sides. But the native forces were being worn down, and the colonists began clawing back. Despite rampant destruction of towns across the colonies (including complete abandonment of a dozen or more), the colonists had fortresses to retreat to and boats to resupply them; the natives needed to trade with the colonists to get their arms. The situation was unsustainable, and when Canadian supply lines fell through, King Philip’s adventure was over.

Persistent enemies of many of the raiding tribes, the Plymouth-allied Mohegans took the offensive and broke up Philip’s warrior bands, scattering them across the Northeast. By the following summer, the Narragansett were defeated and dispersed, and the colonists were granting amnesty to natives who surrendered and could document non-participation. (Others were not so lucky.) In July, King Philip himself was isolated and on the run, taking refuge in Mount Hope. It was there that John Alderman, a Native American, shot him on August 12, 1676.


1857 Harpers magazine engraving of the attack on King Philip’s last redoubt.

Philip’s body was mutilated: he was quartered and beheaded, and his head was displayed in Plymouth Colony Fort for years to come.

After the war, Mary Rowlandson, who was taken captive by Philip’s men, wrote a memoir about her experience. Philip’s escapades were also later made into a play.

* Harvard, founded in 1636, started its “Indian Harvard” in 1655 which saw a total of five students: Caleb Cheeshahteamuck (Aquinnah Wampanoag) took a degree in 1665 and died of tuberculosis a year later; classmate Joel Iacoombs (Aquinnah Wampanoag) disappeared in a shipwreck off Nantucket before walking; John Wampus (Aquinnah Wampanoag) bailed after a year and went to sea; and Benjamin Larnell and an otherwise unnamed “Eleazer” caught smallpox and died the year they enrolled.

** One account reports that only two of the Indians died on the first drop; the third was spared by his rope breaking, and after confessing the guilt of all three, he was re-executed.

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1405: Richard le Scrope and Thomas de Mowbray, without color of law

Add comment June 8th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1405, Henry IV had two rebellious peers beheaded on his authority at York.


The lower panels of this stained glass in St. Andrew’s Church, Bishopthorpe, depict the trial of Archbishop Scrope. Image (c) Roger Walton and used with permission.

Richard le Scrope, Archbishop of York, and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Norfolk, had both become estranged from Henry Bolingbroke, the noble who had wrested control of the English crown as Henry IV.

Since Henry’s legitimacy was dubious, he faced even more than a monarch’s usual ration of plots and rebellions — most famously that of young Sir Henry Percy, remembered as “Hotspur” in Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 1.

That particular enemy met his end in 1403, but old man Percy was soon back to fomenting from his expansive holdings in the north.

Mowbray, a disaffected teenager, and Scrope, a seasoned prelate who should have known better, were drawn into the next intrigue — by “the odor of French promises or rewards,” their enemies charged. A noble loyal to Henry intercepted their modest force and (so the story goes*) by representing to accept Scrope’s offer to parley induced the rebels to disband, whereupon the ringleaders were arrested.

Henry demanded their immediate condemnation; Chief Justice William Gascoigne insisted upon their right to be judged by other peers of the realm (and upon the inviolability of the archbishop**). The hot-blooded† Henry was inclined not to bother, and simply had their heads lopped off on his own authority.

Shakespeare treats this episode in Henry IV, part 2:

HASTINGS [another rebellious lord, who shared the same fate]

Our Army is dispers’d:
Like youthfull Steeres, unyoak’d, they tooke their course
East, West, North, South: or like a Schoole, broke up,
Each hurryes towards his home, and sporting place

WESTMORLAND

Good tidings (my Lord Hastings) for the which,
I doe arrest thee (Traytor) of high Treason:
And you Lord Arch-bishop, and you Lord Mowbray,
Of Capitall Treason, I attach you both

MOWBRAY

Is this proceeding just, and honorable?

WESTMORLAND

Is your Assembly so?

BISHOP SCROPE

Will you thus breake your faith?

JOHN

I pawn’d thee none:
I promis’d you redresse of these same Grievances
Whereof you did complaine; which, by mine Honor,
I will performe, with a most Christian care.
But for you (Rebels) looke to taste the due
Meet for Rebellion, and such Acts as yours.
Most shallowly did you these Armes commence,
Fondly brought here, and foolishly sent hence.
Strike up our Drummes, pursue the scatter’d stray,
Heaven, and not wee, have safely fought to day.
Some guard these Traitors to the Block of Death,
Treasons true Bed, and yeelder up of breath.

(See this scene played here.)

Scrope’s execution in particular played very badly as an arrogation of secular power over the ecclesiastical authorities. The pope was persuaded not to excommunicate Henry — that step would be reserved a later King Henry — but many contemporaries viewed the monarch’s subsequent (and ultimately fatal) bouts with disfiguring “leprosy” as a judgment from above St. Peter’s throne.

This Google books freebie has much more on the cast of characters at the center of this day’s action.

* This popular version has its opponents; the rebels may have simply surrendered when they recognized their hopeless military disadvantage.

** Interestingly, the very uncle of the noble who effected the arrest of Scrope and Mowbray had been implicated a traitor a generation before by the Merciless Parliament. Unlike many, Alexander Neville was spared a death sentence for his perceived proximity to Richard II … because he was, as Scrope would become, the Archbishop of York.

† Henry was making noises about destroying York altogether as punishment for its disloyalty as he rode there following the “Battle” of Shipton Moor. Residents of that northern city met him in poses of desperate submission — dressed in sackcloth, ropes about their necks, offering up their weapons.

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