1858: Alexander Anderson and Henry Richards

Add comment April 9th, 2019 Headsman

The story behind this stunning photograph of Alexander Anderson and Henry Richards on their Lancaster, Pa., gallows on April 9, 1858 we’re going to outsource to our friend (and occasional guest-blogger) Robert Wilhelm at Murder by Gaslight.

The only official witnesses were the twenty-four jurymen who convicted them, the sheriff, two deputies, two clergymen and state senator Cobb — a proponent of the death penalty who attended all Pennsylvania hangings.

Outside the prison walls, the public found other ways to witness the execution. People in surrounding houses could see inside the prison yard from their roofs. One entrepreneur erected a scaffolding on a hill outside the prison and charged a dollar a seat. Those without a view stood outside the prison walls waiting to cheer when the execution was confirmed.

Why were these men so hated? Read the whole thing at Murder by Gaslight.

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1818: Five from the Lancaster Assizes, “most dangerous to society”

Add comment April 18th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1818, four hanged at Lancaster Castle for uttering forged notes, along with a fifth hanged for burglary and horse theft — all casualties of the latest Lancaster Assizes. For the account, we excerpt Jackson’s Oxford Journal of May 9, 1818; the footnotes are from that source as well.

LANCASTER ASSIZES, April 13.

Address of Chief Baron Richards, on passing sentence of Death upon the prisoners capitally convicted of forgery, and of uttering forged Bank of England notes.

Wm. Oxenham*, convicted of uttering a forged Bill of Exchange, was first placed at the bar.

Chief Baron — “William Oxenham, you have been convicted of uttering a forged Bill of Exchange, well knowing at the time you uttered it that it was forged. The crime of which you have been convicted, on the most satisfactory evidence, by a most intelligent Jury, is a crime the most dangerous to society, and which loudly calls for the highest punishment the law can inflict; for no man, in a commercial country like this, can, by any care, effectually protect himself from such attempts. If there should be any disposition at the foot of the Throne to extend its mercy towards you, I shall rejoice: but of this I can offer no assurance; and if there should be any mitigation of your sentence, it will only be on condition of your being forever removed from this country.” — His Lordship then passed upon him the last sentence of the law in the usual terms.

The following prisoners were then placed at the bar: — Wm. Steward†, Thomas Curry†, Margaret M’Dowd†, R. Wardlaw†, R. Moss, Hannah Mayor, and J. Vaughan, convicted of uttering forged Bank of England notes; and G. Heskett†, convicted of burglary and horse-stealing.

The Chief Baron, addressing by name the first seven prisoners, thus proceeded, —

You have been severally convicted of uttering forged Bank of England notes, knowing them to be forged: the law has affixed to this crime the punishment of death, and it is an offence which, on account of its injurious consequences to society at large, requires the infliction of the highest punishment.

It is a practice which must be repressed; and if this cannot be effected by other means, it must be done by visiting it with the utmost severity of the law; for the negotiation of forged notes is the strongest and most extensive mode of plundering the public which can be resorted to, and it is one against which no care or prudence can be an effectual protection. I had, the last Assizes, the very melancholy duty, in this place, of passing the sentence I am now about to pass upon you, upon a number of persons convicted of this offence, and which sentence was carried into effect with respect to most of them: but I do not perceive that this sad example has been attended with any advantage, or that it has produced any diminution in the number of offenders of this description; you have not taken warning from it; for I observe that your offences are all subsequent to the last Assizes. It is, therefore, necessary that examples should still continue to be made; and it is my duty to tell you that some of you, nay, that most of you, beyond all question, must suffer the full sentence of the law.


* This prisoner was so unwell, that he was obliged to be supported into Court, and placed in a chair, until sentence was passed upon him.

† The prisoners thus marked were left for execution, and suffered the sentence of the law on Saturday se’nnight [i.e., Saturday, 18 April 1818], at Lancaster.

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1628: Edmund Arrowsmith, Catholic priest

Add comment August 28th, 2016 Headsman

Lancashire priest Edmund Arrowsmith was martyred on this date in 1628.

Actually named Bryan by his parents, Arrowsmith took the name of an uncle while matriculating at the English seminary in Douai.

He deployed for the old religion his “fervour, zeal and ready wit” in Lancaster from 1612 to 1622, withstood an arrest, then entered the Jesuit order and resumed his underground ministry — until, as the story has it, a man whom Fr. Arrowsmith had chastised for his adulteries petulantly shopped him.

Arrowsmith suffered the horrible public butchery of drawing and quartering, as well as posthumous burning. From the remans, someone retrieved as a relic a charred hand and sent it to Arrowsmith’s relations, who (per a 19th century relative) “keep it in a silver case, and honour it very much, and every Sunday all the crippled or diseased Catholic poor come to kiss it, and the priest touches them with it. It has performed many authentic cures, — some in our time, — so strong is faith.” It has since been transmitted to the Church of St. Oswald and St. Edmund Arrowsmith in Ashton. Look for the stained glass of Edmund and his Holy Hand in this beautiful Flickr album of the church.

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1815: George Lyon, career thief and possible poltergeist

Add comment April 22nd, 2015 Headsman

Two hundred years ago today, Lancaster Castle hosted a quintuple hanging, starring career thief George Lyon.

At age 54, Lyon could be considered a throwback: he openly styled himself “The King of Robbers”, inspiring a sarcastic hack “to congratulate the inhabitants of Wigan and the neighbourhood, and indeed the country at large, on the conviction of George Lyon.” (This notice ran in a number of publications at the time.) He was basically a well-known crook and authorities were thrilled to get one of his fellows to turn Crown’s Evidence on him and make a charge stick.

He had eleven indictments including a stickup of the Liverpool mail, and on this basis has been described as the last highwayman executed at Lancaster — but in the main his methods less romantic and more straightforward. The crime that hanged them — for Lyon died along with two confederates, plus two other unconnected men — was taking advantage of the access a house-painting hire afforded them to just loot the joint.

Lyon did make sure to class it up for his hang-day, however, in a natty black suit and jockey boots to be on point for some 5,000 Lancastrians who reportedly crowded the banks of the castle moat to gawp.

Lyon’s wife arranged to take the body — saving the old footpad from a posthumous anatomization — and buried it in Upholland in the grave of their daughter, Nanny Lyon. (The stone can still be seen to this date: it does not mention George.) It’s been alleged that his spirit has been spooking the place in the 200 years since, including at the venerable White Lion Pub, adjacent to Nanny and George’s final resting place.


Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser, April 29, 1815

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1764: John Nelson, Liverpool robber

Add comment April 7th, 2015 Headsman

From the Gazetteer and London Daily Advertiser, Feb. 15, 1764:

Extract of a letter from a gentleman at Liverpool, dated Feb. 2.

On Monday night was apprehended John Nelson (who has been frequently advertised in public papers) and for some time past has been a principal leader of a gang of highway robbers, and house-breakers. A Bailiff at Prescott has lately seen Nelson in a private lodging house in that town, and promised a handsome gratuity to the woman of the house, if she would give him the earliest intelligence when Nelson came again.

Accordingly on Monday evening, they acquainted him that Nelson was then in the house in bed; the Bailiff, upon this, engaged a Constable and three other men to accompany him to the house, and entering into it with as little noise as possible, they instantly went up stairs, and rushed into the room where Nelson lay; being thus surprised, and overpowered by numbers, he was at length obliged to submit, though not till after he had made a great resistance, and had struggled hard to get possession of his clothes, which lay at some distance from the bed; but the Bailiff stunned him by two blows on his head, and several upon his arm, with a large stick.

As soon as Nelson was secured, he offered the Bailiff a Johannes, and two other pieces of gold, and promised to send him fifty more in the morning, if he would leave him to drink a cup of ale with the other four men, but the Bailiff honestly rejected the profferred bribe. Upon examining his pockets, there were found two loaded pistols, which primed themselves, a powder-horn containing about two ounces of gunpowder, a tinder-horn, fifteen balls, a piece of crape, a case of launcets, a belt of a particular form to carry pistols in, and two silver meat spoons, without any mark.

He confessed, upon his examination before the Magistrates of this town, to all the robberies lately committed in this place, except one; to several highway robberies; and also impeached seven accomplices, two of whom are since taken and confined in the town gaol, two are gone to sea, and a pursuit is out in quest of the other three. Nelson formerly went to sea, and served an apprentice to a gentleman of this town; he is remarkably strong and robust, and of a daring and intrepid spirit. On the Sunday morning following, Nelson, with two of his confederates, attempted to make their escape, having got off their irons, and made a considerable progress under ground, but was prevented by the timely assistance of the guard, and properly secured; and on Tuesday they were conducted under a strong guard to Lancaster castle together with a woman, convicted of assisting the prisoners with saws and files, to make their escape. We hear Nelson has made several useful discoveries, by which means the gang of house-breakers and street robbers are expected to be brought to justice.


From the London Chronicle, Apr. 7-10, 1764:

At the assizes at Lancaster, the three following received sentence of death, viz. John Nelson, for entering the house of Mr. Richardson, of Liverpool, and stealing silver plate, &c. Thomas Naden, for pulling down and destroying Heaton-Mill, the property of Mr. George Bramall; and Francis Windle, for breaking into the house of Mr. Scarisbrick, of Widness, and stealing a sum of money. The judge, before he left the town, reprieved Windle, and ordered Nelson and Naden to be executed on Saturday the 7th instant.

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1772: Mary Hilton

Add comment April 6th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1772, Mary Hilton was burned at the stake in Lancaster for “petty treason”: poisoning with arsenic her husband, John, a blacksmith.

She was drawn on a sledge to the execution site, hanged to death as a mercy, and her body burnt to ashes.

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1766: William Whittle

1 comment April 5th, 2015 Headsman

William Whittle, a Catholic, was executed at Lancaster on this date in 1766 for murdering his Protestant wife and their children in a religious frenzy.

For whatever reason, several years into his union, Whittle took deeply to heart a priestly warning that he was liable to damnation for marrying a heretic. He accordingly ended the marriage by “cleaving his Wife’s Head with an Axe, and ripping her Belly open, and afterwards cutting off the Heads of the two Children, one of whom he also ripped open and took out its Heart.” (St. James’s Chronicle, April 5, 1766)

(The children, Whittle said, had been imperiled in soul by their mother’s taking them to an Episcopal church; in murdering them their loving father had sent them to purgatory en route to heaven, saving them from eternal hellfire.)

Whittle was condemned to be hung in chains for the shocking crime, a demonstration that Catholics understood as aimed pointedly at them. At least of their number replied with like menace in an anonymous letter to the Rev. Mr. Oliver of Preston, the magistrate who committed Whittle to prison.

Sir, I make bold to acquaint you, that your house and every clergyman’s that is in the town, or any black son of a bitch like you, for you are nothing but hereticks and damned fouls. If William Whittle, that worthy man, hangs up ten days, you may fully expect to be blown to damnation. I have nothing more material, but I desire that you will make interest for him to be cut down, or else you may fully expect it at ten days end. My name is S.M. and W.G.

(Letter as quoted in the Leeds Intelligencer, April 22, 1766 — also the source of the newspaper screenshot above)

Mainstream suspicion of Catholics at this time — which was within living memory of the last great Jacobite restoration attempt — was quite deeply ingrained; as one can see from the riposte above, the sentiment was mutual. After all, these were matters of eternal salvation even if Whittle himself “appeared to be a stupid, bigotted, ignorant fellow.”

The shocking family butchery evoked a minor wave of fretting over insidious Catholic-Protestant intermarriages. I think the present-day reader will not have much difficulty recognizing contemporary analogues to this thrust of resulting commentary:

I am likewise persuaded that there are many lay-papists in the kingdom who abhor this fact of Whittle as much as any protestant can do. But if their religion does not give countenance to such doctrines as this alledged by this miserable man, why do they not by some public act disavow their approbation of them? why do they leave suspicions upon themselves and their religion by their silence, when such occasions call upon them so pressingly to explain themselves, and particularly when they are complaining of the severity of the penal laws[?]

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Themed Set: Lancaster’s Golgotha

Add comment April 5th, 2015 Headsman

Lancaster’s harsh assizes earned it the nickname “Hanging Town”, and in its time what is today the verdant grounds of Williamson Park hosted innumerable executions as a result — including those of the Pendle witches in 1612, 15 Catholic martyrs, and various Jacobite rebels.

This was, if you will, Lancaster’s Tyburn: the moor on the city fringes where doomed prisoners were carted to their deaths astride their own coffins, complete with a last-drink stop at the local pub.

(Like Tyburn, the previously outlying locale has also become absorbed into the growing city.)

A copse of houses nearby the hill of executions thereby acquired the interesting moniker “Golgotha”, after the place of Christ‘s crucifixion. And who knows but that those feet in ancient times


Golgotha village in the 1960s or so. (cc) image from Graham Hibbert. Off the frame to the right of this image is the southern boundary fence of Williamson Park.

For the next few days, Executed Today will climb Golgotha to the gallows with a few of its lesser clientele.

* Starting in 1800, executions were moved to the nearby Lancaster Castle. One can tour the tower and its “Drop Room” where it all went down.

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1936: Buck Ruxton, red stains

10 comments May 12th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1936, Buktyar Rustomji Ratanji Hakim, also known as Buck Ruxton, was hanged in Strangeways Prison for the murder of his common-law wife, Isabella, and their maid, Mary Jane Rogerson.

A general practitioner of Persian descent, Ruxton was born in India and moved to the United Kingdom in 1930 to set up practice in Lancaster.

He met a married Englishwoman, Isabella Van Ess, and took up with her after her divorce. Although they never legally married and Ruxton actually already had a wife he’d left behind in India, they lived as man and wife and had three children, and she took his last name.

Ruxton had a reputation as a good doctor and a compassionate one who waived his fees for indigent. He wasn’t nearly as good a husband as he was a physician, however: he was extremely jealous of his charming, sociable wife and continually accused her of infidelity with little actual evidence of it.

The neighbors overheard violent arguments, and Isabella would occasionally take the children and leave, seeking refuge at her sister’s home. At one point she reported her husband to the police for domestic violence, but they paid little attention to her complaints.

On September 15, 1935, Ruxton flew into one of his rages, stabbed his wife five times in the chest, beat her and strangled her with his bare hands. He battered the maid to death as well, since she had been unlucky enough to witness it. A clever little rhyme memorialized the story, one of its various versions is printed below:

Red stains on the carpet, red stains on the knife
For Dr. Buck Ruxton had murdered his wife
The maid servant saw it and threatened to tell
So Dr. Buck Ruxton, he’s killed her as well

Ruxton dismembered both bodies in the bathtub and dumped the parts in a stream near the Scottish border, over a hundred miles from Lancaster. There were thirty pieces in all, leading the press to call the case the “Jigsaw Murders.”

In an effort to hinder identification, Ruxton removed the victims’ teeth and skinned their faces. This turned out to be too clever by half: once the bodies were found in late September, the precision of the cuts told authorities that the killer was someone with anatomical knowledge and surgical skill, which narrowed the suspect pool considerably.

This filter, combined with the realization that one of the newspapers Ruxton used to wrap up some dismembered bit was a special edition copy sold only in Lancaster and Morecambe, led the cops to Ruxton and not many others. It wasn’t long before the pieces — sorry — fell into place.

Meanwhile, exciting new forensic techniques, helped firm up identification of the corpses: authorities superimposed a photograph of Isabella over one of the skulls and found a dramatically jury-friendly visible match.

Isabella Ruxton, in life and death.

Forensic entomology (in this case, the gross but useful technique of checking the age of the maggots infesting the corpses) helped pinpoint the date of death.

Ruxton was arrested on October 13, nearly a month after the double murder.

The Ruxtons’ charlady told the police that on the day Isabella and the maid disappeared, Ruxton came to her house early and told her not to come in to work. The next day, when she arrived at the Ruxtons’ house, she found it in a state of disarray with the carpets removed and a pile of burnt material in the backyard. A neighbor couple also had helpful recollections: Ruxton had persuaded them to come and help out at his house, saying he’d cut his hand while opening a can of peaches and he needed to clean up quickly because decorators were coming over. They scrubbed his walls and he gave them some bloodstained carpets and clothing.

Given all this evidence, there was little Ruxton’s defense attorney could say for him.

The defense tried to challenge the identification of the bodies, but the superimposed skull picture was quite convincing. Ruxton admitted his guilt prior to his execution and signed a short confession. He was hanged in spite of a petition with 10,000 signatures asking for mercy.

The Ruxton case, a smashing tabloid hit in its day, has been the subject of its own book, T.F. Potter’s The Deadly Dr. Ruxton: How They Caught a Lancashire Double Killer. It’s also featured in many general true crime books, including Colin Wilson and Damon Wilson’s Crimes of Passion: The Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Colin Evans’s The Casebook of Forensic Detection: How Science Solved 100 of the World’s Most Baffling Crimes, and Harold Schechter’s A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Doctors,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities

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