1483: William Hastings, trusting too much

Add comment June 13th, 2018 Headsman

This honourable man, a good knight and a gentle; of living somewhat dissolute; plain and open to his enemy, secret to his friend, easy to beguile, as he that of good heart and courage forestudieth no perils; a loving man, and passing well-beloved; very faithful, and trusty enough — trusting too much.

-Thomas More‘s assessment of William Hastings

The Baron Hastings arose this date as the trusted councillor of the Lord Protector. Before dinner, he’d had his head chopped off over a log in the Tower of London.


Lord Hastings sported this fancy badge of a handsomely endowed manticore.
Richard III, Act 3, Scene 4
by William Shakespeare

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
I pray you all, tell me what they deserve
That do conspire my death with devilish plots
Of damned witchcraft, and that have prevail’d
Upon my body with their hellish charms?

Lord Hastings.
The tender love I bear your grace, my lord,
Makes me most forward in this noble presence
To doom the offenders, whatsoever they be
I say, my lord, they have deserved death.

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
Then be your eyes the witness of this ill:
See how I am bewitch’d; behold mine arm
Is, like a blasted sapling, wither’d up:
And this is Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch,
Consorted with that harlot strumpet Shore,
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.

Lord Hastings.
If they have done this thing, my gracious lord —

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
If? thou protector of this damned strumpet —
Tellest thou me of ‘ifs’? Thou art a traitor:
Off with his head! Now, by Saint Paul I swear,
I will not dine until I see the same.
Lovel and Ratcliff, look that it be done:
The rest, that love me, rise and follow me.

[Exeunt all but HASTINGS, RATCLIFF, and LOVEL]

Lord Hastings.
Woe, woe for England! not a whit for me;
For I, too fond, might have prevented this.
Stanley did dream the boar did raze his helm;
But I disdain’d it, and did scorn to fly:
Three times to-day my foot-cloth horse did stumble,
And startled, when he look’d upon the Tower,
As loath to bear me to the slaughter-house.
O, now I want the priest that spake to me:
I now repent I told the pursuivant
As ’twere triumphing at mine enemies,
How they at Pomfret bloodily were butcher’d,
And I myself secure in grace and favour.
O Margaret, Margaret, now thy heavy curse
Is lighted on poor Hastings’ wretched head!

Sir Richard Ratcliff.
Dispatch, my lord; the duke would be at dinner:
Make a short shrift; he longs to see your head.

Lord Hastings.
O momentary grace of mortal men,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!
Who builds his hopes in air of your good looks,
Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
Ready, with every nod, to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep.

Lord Lovel.
Come, come, dispatch; ’tis bootless to exclaim.

Lord Hastings.
O bloody Richard! miserable England!
I prophesy the fearful’st time to thee
That ever wretched age hath look’d upon.
Come, lead me to the block; bear him my head.
They smile at me that shortly shall be dead.

A longtime Yorkist pillar during the Wars of the Roses, Hastings parlayed his many years of proximity to King Edward IV into still-extant architectural glories like Ashby Castle and Kirby Castle.

Of greater moment for the pivotal year of 1483 was Hastings’s bitter enmity with the Woodville family — the kin of widowed queen when Edward died suddenly in 1483. In his life, the king had checked the rivalry between Woodvilles and York magnates. But “the king’s death at once broke up the unity of the court, the peace of the country, and the fortunes of the house of York.”

Before Edward’s body went cold, both factions raced into the power vacuum: the heir was a 12-year-old who wasn’t event present in the capital when his father died. Power in the realm hinged on the actions of men like Hastings in April and May of 1483.

And Hastings made the most of his moment — to his own later grief. While the Woodvilles flexed during the first days of the regency, Hastings drug his feet, threatened to start a civil war, and successfully negotiated for the respective sides to minimize their armed retinues when they arrived for the coronation of young Edward V. He also wrote urgently to the new de facto captain of Team York, the late king’s brother, Richard of Gloucester.

Hastening to answer the call, Gloucester hijacked a too-lax royal convoy en route to London, acquiring custody of the heir, and rolled into town that May as the master of both the boy king’s person and the political situation. Edward V and his brother were the urchins destined to disappear into the Tower of London; Gloucester would eventually crown himself King Richard III. The Woodvilles fled from power and danger, to the sanctuary of an obliging cathedral.

Big win for Bill Hastings, right? He

was extremely elated at these changes to which the affairs of the world are so subject, and was in the habit of saying that hitherto nothing whatever had been done except the transferring of the government of the kingdom from two of the queen’s blood to two more powerful persons of the king’s; and this, too, effected without any slaughter, or indeed causing as much blood to be shed as would be produced by the cut of a finger. In the course, however, of a very few days after the utterance of these words, this extreme of joy of his supplanted with sorrow. (Croyland Chronicle)

The sorrow arrived like a thunderbolt at a particularly infamous royal council meeting on June 13, 1483, when Gloucester seemingly out of nowhere denounced Hastings as a traitor, along with three others. The others we set aside; they were politically insulated from membership in the pages of Executed Today. But not so Hastings, who was detailed for immediate beheading on Gloucester’s say-so, and never mind the trial.

Politics on this plane was intrinsically cutthroat; nevertheless, this shock destruction of an essential ally puts Richard in a pretty unflattering light. Was he really, as Gloucester claimed, plotting against him? Perhaps Gloucester perceived Hastings too loyal to Edward V at a moment when he was resolved upon usurpation? Had it factored, as the proclamation alleged, that Hastings took up with the late king’s remarkable mistress Jane Shore,* “one of his secret counsel in this heinous treason, with whom he lay nightly, and namely the night past before his death”? Claims and counterclaims around this black June 13 grow thick on the ground, none of them rooted in any decisive evidence.

The estimable David Crowther deals with these perilous months in Episode 187 of the History of England Podcast. The guest episode 187a in that same series explores the aforementioned mistress of William Hastings, whose humiliating public penance inspired the Walk of Shame scene in Game of Thrones.

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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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1825: El Pirata Cofresi

Add comment March 29th, 2018 Headsman

I have killed hundreds with my own hands, and I know how to die. Fire!

-Last words of Roberto Cofresi

A monument to Roberto Cofresi rises from the water in his native Cabo Rojo.

On this date in 1825, the Puerto Rican pirate Roberto Cofresi was publicly shot in San Juan with his crew.

The family of “El Pirata” — his father was an emigre who fled Trieste after killing a man in a duel — bequeathed him the upbringing and honorific (“Don”) due to a gentleman without any of the money. Dunned by multiplying creditors, he took to the sea to keep his finances afloat and for a time made a legitimate living in the late 1810s as a piscator and a ferryman. Soon, the crises in Puerto Rico’s economy and governance prodded him into more adventurous pursuits, beginning with highway robbery around his hometown of Cabo Rojo. Wanted posters testify to his landside notoriety; soon, he would combine his vocations as a buccanneer.

In his brief moment, about 1823-1825, he became one of the Caribbean’s most feared marauders, and one of the last consequential pirates to haunt those waters. His career plundering prizes and evading manhunts is recounted in surprising detail on the man’s Wikipedia page, which is in turn an extended summary of an out-of-print Spanish-language book. Given the development of maritime policing by this point it was an achievement to extend his career so long … but everyone has to retire, one way or another.


Norwich Courier, April 27, 1825

A proclamation issued justifying the execution testifies both to the example authorities wished to be understood by his fate, and their awareness that they contended with a strain of sympathy for the outlaw. This is as quoted in Southern Chronicle (Camden, South Carolina, USA), July 2, 1825:

The name of Roberto Cofresi has become famous for robberies and acts of atrocity, and neither the countryman, the merchant nor the laborer could consider himself secure from the grasp of that wretch and his gang. If you ought to pity the lot of these unhappy men, you are bound also to give thanks to the Almighty, that the island has been delivered from a herd of wild beasts, which have attempted our ruin by all the means in their power. You are also bound to live on the alert, and be prepared, in conjunction with the authorities to attack those who may hereafter be so daring as to follow their example.

His throwback profession, his acclaimed charisma, his talent for eluding pursuit, and a purported streak of Robin Hood-esque social banditry all helped to make him a legend that has long outlived the forgotten Spanish agents who hunted him. With his threat to the sea lanes long gone, he’s become a beloved staple of literature, folklore, and popular history in Puerto Rico and especially his native Cabo Rojo. Again, a lovingly curated Wikipedia page on this posthumous career awaits the curious reader.


Label for a Ron Kofresi-brand rum, which one might use to toast his memory with a piña colada: it’s a drink he’s alleged to have invented.

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1794: The Comte de Feuillide, Jane Austen in-law

Add comment February 22nd, 2018 Headsman

To Madame la Comtesse de Feuillide this novel is inscribed by her obliged humble servant The Author.

-Jane Austen’s author’s dedication in Love and Freindship

On this date in 1794, the guillotine brought tragedy to Jane Austen’s family.

The blade’s more immediate victim was Jean Gabriel Capotte, the Comte de Feuillide and the husband of Eliza de Feuillide (nee Hancock), Jane Austen’s “outlandish cousin.”

Fourteen years the novelist’s senior, Eliza was born in India to Jane’s Aunt Philadelphia who went abroad seeking a mercenary marriage and landed an unhappy one to a surgeon twice her age, Tysoe Saul Hancock. Eliza Hancock might possibly have been the illegitimate daughter of colonial administrator Warren Hastings, who stoked rumors by establishing a trust for the young woman. (Eliza also later named her only son “Hastings”.)

Either way, she didn’t grow up in the colonies but in England and France, where her vivacity conquered the heart of a prosperous French officer on the make, a barrister’s son who self-aggrandized his rank of Comte de Feuillide. As a gadabout exile “French countess” during the French Revolution, the charming Eliza de Feuillide was a hit both with London society and with her debutante cousin Jane, “whose kind partiality to me” Eliza would write in a letter “indeed requires a return of the same nature.”

Eliza exerted a magnetic influence on her kinswoman, and she’s popularly suspected to be the model for the Mansfield Park character Mary Crawford.* There’s even a book theorizing that this peripatetic polyglot was the true author of Jane Austen’s canon.


Lucy Cohu as Eliza de Feuillide makes some guillotine banter in Becoming Jane.

Back in France, where he served in the army, the hubby with an emigre wife and an aristocratic pretension made a decidedly poorer impression upon the Jacobins, as Maggie Lane observes in Jane Austen’s Family:

On 22 February 1794 the Comte de Feuillide fell victim to the guillotine. He had foolishly, if gallantly, tried to bribe one of the Secretaries of the Committee of Safety to secure the liberty of the widow of an army colleague, Jacques Marboeuf, Marquis and Marechal-de-camp. The fifty-five-year-old Marquise stood accused of laying down certain arable lands on her estate to fodder crops, with the idea of producing a famine in an effort to undermine the Republic.

De Feuillide was double-crossed by the Secretary and arrested at his lodging in the rue Grenelle et St Honore, where incriminating documents and sums of money parcelled up for the bribery were seized. The Marquise, the Comte and the Marquise’s man of business who had acted as a go-between in the attempt, all were sentenced to death.

After a few years as a merry widow, Eliza wed her cousin Henry Austen — Jane’s brother and Eliza’s “perpetual sunshine”. Eliza Austen died in 1813, with Jane Austen at her bedside.

* In Jane Austen and the French Revolution, Warren Roberts argues that the Comte de Feuillide has his own literary doppelganger in the unfinished Austen novel Catherine, in the form of Edward Stanley.

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1806: Cesar Herbaux, Vidocq’s path not taken

Add comment January 6th, 2018 Headsman

French criminal turned seminal criminologist Eugene Francois Vidocq on this date in 1806 witnessed the fate he might have shared when his former underworld collaborator went under the guillotine at Paris for murder.

The son of an Arras baker, the young Vidocq (English Wikipedia entry | French) presented as an incipient Villonesque picaro. He had the first of his many theft-and-arrest events at the tender age of 13 courtesy of his father who summoned the gendarmes when he stole the family silver. Nothing daunted, Vidocq robbed the house again a few months later and ran away to join troupes of itinerant entertainers, soon transitioning into the French Revolution’s new citizen-army where the rogue by turns impressed with his competence and deserted ahead of some scandal, equally prolific in affairs of honor (he was an expert fencer) and those of the heart (same).

While in prison for his latest misadventures in 1795-1796 he fell in with another inmate — our day’s principal, César Herbaux or Herbault — and forged a pardon order for one of their fellows. Vidocq, as we shall see, would always blame the others for inducing him (their story was the reverse). In either event, for their trouble they caught a sentence that was cruel even though “galleys” by this time just meant prison hulks.

The tribunal … sentences Francois Vidocq and Cesar Herbaux to the punishment of the galleys for eight years …

[And] the said Francois Vidocq and Cesar Herbaux shall be exposed for six hours on a scaffold, which whall be for that purpose erected on the public square of this commune.

The sentence Vidocq himself published in his ghost-written memoirs, where the later, respectable man would situate it in the midst of his life’s chrysalis.

Vidocq did not serve his sentence; he escaped custody and lived the first decade of the 19th century on his society’s periphery, under a succession of aliases and with a succession of lovers, the episodes punctuated by re-arrests and re-escapes. In one close escape, Vidocq was lodging in Melun as “a travelling seller of fashionable commodities” when ill rumors induced him to flee for the capital. Resuming his memoir …

I learnt … from the landlord of the inn at which I had put up, that the commissary of police had testified some regret at not having examined my papers; but what was deferred was not ended, and that at my next visit, he meant to pay me a visit. The information surprised me, for I must consequently have been in some way an object of suspicion. To go on might lead to danger, and I therefore returned to Paris, resolving not to make any other journeys, unless I could render less unfavourable the chances which combined against me.

Having started very early, I reached the faubourg Saint Marceau in good time; and at my entrance, I heard the hawkers bawling out, “that two well-known persons are to be executed to-day at the Place de Greve.” I listened, and fancied I distinguished the name of Herbaux. Herbaux, the author of the forgery which caused all my misfortunes? I listened with more attention, but with an involuntary shudder; and this time the crier, to whom I had approached, repeated the sentence with these additions:

Here is the sentence of the criminal tribunal of the department of the Seine, which condemns to death the said Armand Saint Leger, an old sailor, born at Bayonne, and Cesar Herbaux, a freed galley-slave, born at Lille, accused and convicted of murder.

I could doubt no longer; the wretch who had heaped so much misery on my head was about to suffer on the scaffold. Shall I confess that I felt a sentiment of joy, and yet I trembled? … It will not excite wonder, when I say that I ran with haste to the palace of justice to assure myself of the truth; it was not mid-day, and I had great trouble in reaching the grating, near which I fixed myself, waiting for the fatal moment.

At last four o’clock struck, and the wicket opened. A man appeared first on the stage. It was Herbaux. His face was covered with a deadly paleness, whilst he affected a firmness which the convulsive workings of his featured belied. He pretended to talk to his companion, who was already incapacitated from hearing him. At the signal of departure, Herbaux, with a countenance into which he infused all the audacity he could force, gazed round on the crow, and his eye met mine. He started, and the blood rushed to his face. The procession passed on, and I remained as motionless as the bronze railings on which I was leaning; and I should probably have remained longer, if an inspector of the palace had not desired me to come away. Twenty minutes afterwards, a car, laden with a red basket, and escorted by the gendarme, was hurried over the Pont-au-Change, going towards the burial ground allotted for felons. Then, with an oppressed feeling at my heart, I went away, and regained my lodgings, full of sorrowful reflections.

I have since learnt, that during his detention at the Bicetre, Herbaux had expressed his regret at having been instrumental in getting me condemned, when innocent. The crime which had brought this wretch to the scaffold was a murder committed, in company with Saint Leger, on a lady of the Place Dauphine. These two villains had obtained access to their victim under pretence of giving her tidings of her son, whom they said they had seen in the army.

Although, in fact Herbaux’s execution could not have any direct influence over my situation, yet it alarmed me, and I was horror-struck at feeling that I had ever been in contact with such brigands, destined to the executioner’s arm: my remembrance revealed me to myself, and I blushed, as it were, in my own face. I sought to lose the recollection, and to lay down an impassable line of demarcation between the past and the present; for I saw but too plainly, that the future was dependent on the past; and I was the more wretched, as a police, who have not always due powers of discernment, would not permit me to forget myself. I saw myself again on the point of being snared like a deer.

Forever abroad on a false passport, watching over his shoulder for the next inquisitive policeman, the next chance encounter with a bygone criminal acquaintance, Vidocq was in his early thirties now and aching to go straight lest he follow Herbaux’s path to the guillotine. At last in 1809 he was able to find the perfect port of entry for a man of his underworld expertise: policing.

Beginning first as a snitch and informer, Vidocq uncovered a genius for the still-nascent field of professional law enforcement and made himself the field’s towering presence. His last arrest was in 1809; by 1812, he had created La Surete, France’s civil investigative organ. This still-extant entity became the model for Great Britain’s Scotland Yard (1829), with Vidocq consulting for his Anglo imitators.

His subalterns were heavily lawbreakers like himself, men and also women recruited from the streets and prisons for whom the cant of outlaws was native tongue and who took readily to Vidocq’s training in disguise and subterfuge: Vidocq trafficked in information, seeking crime in its native habitat where the easy-to-spot predecessors to the beat cop could not penetrate. The payoffs in robbers ambushed red-handed and turncoats delightedly unmasking themselves made the man a sensation.

Yet alongside his swashbuckling flair, Vidocq’s prescient interest in then-novel police techniques ranging from forensic science to controlling crime scenes to logging permanent records about criminals have established him as either a or the father of criminology.

A few books about Vidocq

All along, the master himself continued to adventure in the field too, and began compounding a sizable income from deploying his investigative talents for a private clientele. His mother who had once been accustomed to shelter him as a fugitive had a requiem mass at Notre Dame on her death in 1824.

In 1833, retired from Surete, Vidocq founded perhaps the first private detective agency. But as had been the case while he was in public service he had a zest for skirting the edges of the legally or ethically permissible, which was eventually the ruin of his business and his fortune. For all his legendary charisma, his heirs at the Surete in the late 19th century all but wrote out of their institutional history the thief who literally wrote the book on their field.

Posterity was bound to reclaim him if for no other reason than that the dashing detective had always been catnip for the literary set. Victor Hugo is thought to have drawn on Vidocq for both the chief antagonists in Les Miserables, the reformed criminal Jean Valjean and his relentless pursuer Inspector Javert; Balzac liberally cribbed from the biography of his good friend Vidocq to create his Human Comedy character Vautrin, a onetime forger become chief of the Surete. American writers invoked Vidocq by name in, e.g., Moby Dick and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Edgar Allan Poe‘s interest in turn gestures at the man’s place in the foundational cosmology of the detective story genre. And for all that the real man’s life, however one discounts for literary flourish, was somehow more colorfully impossible than all the Sherlock Holmeses that have followed him — why, by every probability the scoundrel ought to have wound up sharing the stage with a Cesar Herbaux. Accordingly, depictions of this deeply dramatic figure in theater and cinema stretch from the man’s own time all the way to ours, as with this 2011 Gerard Depardieu offering:

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1939: Robert Nixon, Richard Wright inspiration

Add comment June 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Illinois electrocuted Robert Nixon for bashing Florence Johnson to death with a brick as he burgled her Chicago home.*


The Chicago Tribune‘s Family Circus-esque May 28, 1938 illustration of the crime scene.

Nixon’s fingerprints would also link him to three previous rape-murders in California; separately, he admitted raping and killing Illinois nursing student Anna Kuchta in 1937, although he would also argue that Chicago police tortured the confessions from his lips.

Crudely nicknamed the “Brick Moron”, Nixon was vilified in shockingly racist terms by a hostile press.

This Chicago Tribune article is one of the worst exemplars and is only the start of a much longer piece in the same vein but even straight-news bulletins routinely went with a casual “savage colored rapist” label. His possible developmental disability (“moron” …) was generally cast not as any sort of mitigating consideration but as the indicator of a superpredator: “It has been demonstrated here that nothing can be done with Robert Nixon,” the sheriff of the Louisiana town where he grew up wrote to Chicago. “Only death can cure him.”

Richard Wright allegedly mined the commentary on Nixon to inform his classic novel Native Son, which hit print the next year … and sees its lead character Bigger Thomas die in the Illinois electric chair.

* It was supposed to be a triple execution but late reprieves spared Steve Cygan and Charles Price, both murderers in unrelated cases.

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1706: Mary Channing, at the Maumbury Rings

Add comment March 21st, 2017 Thomas Hardy

(Thanks to novelist and archaeology enthusiast Thomas Hardy for the guest post, which originally appeared in the October 9, 1908 issue of the London Times. The Tess of the d’Urbervilles author, a man we have met quite often in our pages, was a Dorset native who nursed a lifelong fascination with the noose, particularly when it was affixed to women. Mary Channing’s fate in particular haunted Hardy, and resurfaced a number of times in his work; his 1925 poem “The Mock Wife” is also based on Channing’s tragedy. -ed.)

MAUMBURY RING

By Thomas Hardy.

The present month sees the last shovelful filled in, the last sod replaced, of the excavations in the well-known amphitheatre at Dorchester, which have been undertaken at the instance of the Dorset Field and Antiquarian Club* and others, for the purpose of ascertaining the history and date of the ruins. The experts have scraped their spades and gone home to meditate on the results of their exploration, pending the resumption of the work next spring. Mr. St. George Gray, of Taunton, has superintended the labour, assisted by Mr. Charles Prideaux, an enthusiastic antiquary of the town, who, with disinterested devotion to discovery, has preferred to spend his annual holiday from his professional duties at the bottom of chalk trenches groping for fibulae or arrow-heads in a drizzling rain, to idling it away on any other spot in Europe.


The amphitheater today. (cc) image by Carron Brown.

As usual, revelations have been made of an unexpected kind. There was a moment when the blood of us onlookers ran cold, and we shivered a shiver that was not occasioned by our wet feet and dripping clothes. For centuries the town, the county, and England generally, novelists, poets, historians, guidebook writers, and what not, had been freely indulging their imaginations in picturing scenes that, they assumed, must have been enacted within those oval slopes; the feats, the contests, animal exhibitions, even gladiatorial combats, before throngs of people

Who loved the games men played with death,
Where death must win

— briefly, the Colosseum programme on a smaller scale. But up were thrown from one corner prehistoric implements, chipped flints, horns, and other remains, and a voice announced that the earthworks were of the paleolithic or neolithic age, and not Roman at all!

This, however, was but a temporary and, it is believed, unnecessary alarm. At other points in the structure, as has been already stated in The Times, the level floor of an arena, trodden smooth, and coated with traces of gravel, was discovered with Roman relics and coins on its surface: and at the entrance and in front of the podium, a row of post-holes, apparently for barriers, as square as when they were dug, together with other significant marks, which made it fairly probable that, whatever the place had been before Julius Caesar’s landing, it had been used as an amphitheatre at some time during the Roman occupation. The obvious explanation, to those who are not specialists, seems to be that here, as elsewhere, the colonists, to save labour, shaped and adapted to their own use some earthworks already on the spot. This was antecedently likely from the fact that the amphitheatre stands on an elevated site — or, in the enigmatic words of Hutchins, is “artfully set on the top of a plain,” — and that every similar spot in the neighbourhood has a tumulus or tumuli upon it; or had till some were carted away within living memory.

But this is a matter on which the professional investigators will have their conclusive say when funds are forthcoming to enable them to dig further. For some reason they have hitherto left undisturbed the ground about the southern end of the arena, underneath which the cavea or vault for animals is traditionally said to be situated, although it is doubtful if any such vault, supposing it ever to have existed, would have been suffered to remain there, stones being valuable in a chalk district. And if it had been built of chalk blocks the frost and rains of centuries would have pulvrized them by this time.

While the antiquaries are musing on the puzzling problems that arise from the confusion of dates in the remains, the mere observer who possesses a smattering of local history and remembers local traditions that have been recounted by people now dead and gone, must walk round the familiar arena, and consider. And he is not, like the archaists, compelled to restrict his thoughts to the early centuries of our era. The sun has gone down behind the avenue on the Roman Via and modern road that adjoins, and the October moon is rising on the south-east behind the parapet, the two terminations of which by the north entrance jut against the sky like knuckles. The place is now in its normal state of repose and silence, save for the occasional bray of a motorist passing along outside in sublime ignorance of amphitheatrical lore, or the clang of shunting at the nearest railroad station. The breeze is not strong enough to stir even the grass-bents with which the slopes are covered, and over which the loiterer’s footsteps are quite noiseless.

Like all such taciturn presences, Maumbury is less taciturn by night than by day, which simply means that the episodes and incidents associated therewith come back more readily in the mind in nocturnal hours. First, it recalls to us that, if probably Roman, it is a good deal more. Its history under the rule of the Romans would not extend to a longer period than 200 or 300 years, while it has had a history of 1,600 years since they abandoned this island, through which ages it may have been regarded as a handy place for early English council-gatherings, may have been the scene of many an exciting episode in the life of the Western kingdom. But for century after century it keeps itself closely curtained, except at some moments to be mentioned.

The civil wars of Charles I unscreen it a little, and we vaguely learn that it was used by the artillery when the struggle was in this district, and that certain irregularities in its summit were caused then. The next incident that flashes a light over its contours is Sir Christopher Wren‘s visit a quarter of a century later. Nobody knows what the inhabitants thought to be the origin of its elliptic banks — differing from others in the vicinity by having no trench around them — until the day came when, according to legend, Wren passed up the adjoining highway on his journey to Portland to select stone for St. Paul’s Cathedral, and was struck with the sight of the mounts. Possibly he asked some rustic at plough there for information. That all tradition of their use as an amphitheatre had been lost is to be inferred from the popular name, and one can quite undrstand how readily, as he entered and stood on the summit, a man whose studies had lain so largely in the direction of Roman architecture should have ascribed a Roman origin to the erection. That the offhand guess of a passing architect should have turned out to be true — and it does not at present seem possible to prove the whole construction to be prehistoric — is a remarkable tribute to his insight.

The Amphitheatre was a huge circular enclosure, with a notch at opposite extremities of its diameter north and south. From its sloping internal form it might have been called the spittoon of Jötuns … Melancholy, impressive, lonely, yet accessible from every part of the town, the historic circle was the frequent spot for appointments of a furtive kind. Intrigues were arranged there; tentative meetings were there experimented after divisions and feuds … its associations had about them something sinister … apart from the sanguinary nature of the games originally played therein, such incidents attached to its past as these: that for scores of years the town-gallows had stood at one corner; that in 1705 a woman who had murdered her husband was half-strangled and then burnt there in the presence of ten thousand spectators. Tradition reports that at a certain stage of the burning her heart burst and leapt ouf of her body, to the terror of them all, and that not one of those ten thousand people ever cared particularly for hot roast after that.

-Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

The curtain drops for another 40 years, and then Maumbury was the scene of as sinister an event as any associated with it, because it was a definite event. It is one which darkens its concave to this day. This was the death suffered there on March 21, 1705-6,** of a girl who had not yet reached her nineteenth year. Here, at any rate, we touch real flesh and blood, and no longer uncertain visions of possible Romans at their games or barbarians at their sacrifices. The story is a ghastly one, but nevertheless very distinctly a chapter of Maumbury’s experiences. This girl was the wife of a grocer in the town, a handsome young woman “of good natural parts,” and educated “to a proficiency suitable enough to one of her sex, to which likewise was added dancing.” She was tried and condemned for poisoning her husband, a Mr. Thomas Channing, to whom she had been married against her wish by the compulsion of her parents. The present writer has examined more than once a report of her trial, and can find no distinct evidence that the thoughtless, pleasure-loving creature committed the crime, while it contains much to suggest that she did not. Nor is any motive discoverable for such an act. She was allowed to have her former lover or lovers about her by her indulgent and weak-minded husband, who permitted her to go her own ways, give parties, and supplied her with plenty of money. However, at the assizes at the end of July, she was found guilty, after a trial in which the testimony chiefly went to show her careless character before and after marriage. During the three sultry days of its continuance, she, who was soon to become a mother, stood at the bar — then, as may be known, an actual bar of iron — “by reason of which (runs the account) and her much talking, being quite spent, she moved the Court for the liberty of a glass of water.” She conducted her own defence with the greatest ability, and was complimented thereupon by Judge Price, who tried her, but did not extend his compliment to a merciful summing-up. Maybe that he, like Pontius Pilate, was influenced by the desire of the townsfolk to wreak vengeance on somebody, right or wrong. When sentence was about to be passed, she pleaded her condition; and execution was postponed. Whilst awaiting the birth of her child in the old damp gaol by the river at the bottom of the town, near the White Hart inn, which stands there still, she was placed in the common room for women prisoners and no bed provided for her, no special payment and no bed provided for her, no special payment having been made to her goaler, Mr. Knapton, for a separate cell. Someone obtained for her the old tilt of a wagon to screen her from surrounding eyes, and under this she was delivered of a son, in December. After her lying-in she was attacked with an intermittent fever of a violent and lasting kind, which preyed upon her until she was nearly wasted away. In this state, at the next assizes, on the 8th of March following, the unhappy woman, who now said that she longed for death, but still persisted in her innocence, was again brought to the bar, and her execution fixed for the 21st.

On that day two men were hanged before her turn came, and then, “the under-sheriff having taken some refreshment,” he proceeded to his biggest and last job with this girl not yet 19, now reduced to a skeleton by the long fever, and already more dead than alive. She was conveyed from the gaol in a cart “by her father’s and husband’s houses,” so that the course of the procession must have been up the High-East-street as far as the Bow, thence down South-street and up the straight old Roman road to the Ring beside it. “When fixed to the stake she justified her innocence to the very last, and left the world with a courage seldom found in her sex. She being first strangled, the fire was kindled about five in the afternoon, and in the sight of many thousands she was consumed to ashes.” There is nothing to show that she was dead before the burning began, and from the use of the word “strangled” and not “hanged,” it would seem that she was merely rendered insensible before the fire was lit. An ancestor of the present writer, who witnessed the scene, has handed down the information that “her heart leapt out” during the burning, and other curious details that cannot be printed here. Was man ever “slaughtered by his fellow man” during the Roman or barbarian use of this place of games or of sacrifice in circumstances of greater atrocity?

A melodramatic, though less gruesome, exhibition within the arena was that which occurred at the time of the “No Popery” riots, and was witnessed by this writer when a small child. Highly realistic effigies of the Pope and Cardinal Wiseman were borne in procession from Fordington Hill round the town, followed by a long train of mock priests, monks, and nuns, and preceded by a young man discharging Roman candles, till the same wicked old place was reached, in the centre of which there stood a huge rick of furze, with a gallows above. The figures were slung up, and the fire blazed till they were blown to pieces by fireworks contained within them.

Like its more famous prototype, the Colosseum, this spot of sombre records has also been the scene of Christian worship, but only on one occasion, so far as the writer of these columns is aware, that being the Thanksgiving service for Peace a few years ago. The surplices of the clergy and choristers, as seen against the green grass, the shining brass musical instruments, the enormous chorus of singing voices, formed not the least impressive of the congregated masses that Maumbury Ring has drawn into its midst during its existence of a probable eighteen hundred years in its present shape, and of some possible thousands of years in an earlier form.


So large was the quantity of material thrown up in the course of the excavations at Maumbury Ring, Dorchester, especially from the prehistoric pit which was unexpectedly struck, that the work of filling in, which has been in progress eight days, is likely to last nearly a week longer. The pit, situated at the base of the bank on the north-west side, between the bank and the arena, was found at the conclusion of the excavations to be 30ft. deep, and Mr. St. George Gray thinks it is the deepest archaeological excavation on record in Britain. Of irregular shape, and apparently excavated in the solid chalk subsoil, it diminished in size from a diameter of about 6ft. at the mouth to about 18in. by 15in. at the bottom. One of the three red-deer antler picks recovered from the deposit in the pit was found resting on the solid chalk floor of the bottom, and worked flint was found within a few feet of the bottom. The picks exactly resemble those which Mr. St. George Gray found in the great fosse at Avebury last May. Roman deposits and specimens were found in the upper part of the pit down to the level of the chalk floor of the arena, but not below it.

* Hardy was himself a member of this club for amateur enthusiasts. In his novelist’s guise, Hardy glossed this very real group as the fictional Wessex Field and Antiquarian Clubs, whose meeting scaffolds the collection of short stories in his A Group of Noble Dames.

** England was keeping its official start to the new year on “Lady Day” in late March, so the year of this execution would be 1706 as we reckon it retrospectively (using January 1 as New Year’s), but 1705 to the hangman. See the footnote in this post for more (and more Hardy commentary) on the date.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Murder,Women

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Themed Set: The Ordinary of Newgate

1 comment March 3rd, 2017 Headsman

The Ordinary of Newgate’s Accounts occupy an extra-ordinary place in the development of English crime literature, and although Executed Today has often enough crossed paths with these bulletins we have not yet burdened them with their own categorical spotlight.

The Ordinary was the chaplain at London’s Newgate Prison, a post held by a succession of different men into the 19th century. Broadly, the Ordinary’s job description was to care for the souls of prisoners, and he naturally took special interest in the salvation of the many souls destined for the Tyburn Tree.

But by the early 18th century, the Ordinary’s real racket — from a cash flow standpoint — was publishing. The Rev. Paul Lorrain, Ordinary from 1700 and a great innovator of the Accounts, notoriously left an estate of £5,000 at his death in 1719 … on an annual salary of £35.*

Beginning in the 1670s, an Ordinary named Samuel Smith began publishing short, broadside-scale accounts of the condemned prisoners in his charge. These accounts had and always retained a didactic purpose for their audience that can read quite heavy-handed and repetitive; while not every malefactor succumbed to Ordinary’s pitch, so many did so and with such formulaic consistency that wags like Defoe would laugh that Lorrain was forever “mak[ing] a Sheep-stealer a saint.” Nevertheless, their influence was considerable, and they’d form one of the core sources for the Newgate Calendar.

And as it turned out, the Ordinary’s Accounts also tapped what proved to be a bottomless public appetite for crime stories.

The Ordinaries, Lorrain especially, soon found they could leverage their unique dungeon access to notorious criminals into fantastic sales. Ordinary’s Accounts grew by the 1710s to lengthy pamphlets, containing the Ordinary’s own sermons, summaries of the offenses, and reports of the behavior of the condemned at the gallows; and, the public profile thereby obtained positioned the Ordinary like so many scrabbling bloggers to market books deriving from his ephemera. As copy moved, these ministers of salvation did not shrink from selling their column-inches for advertising, padding some Ordinary’s Accounts installments out to 50 pages long.

This greater bulk was also a reply, as was a race towards the earliest publication hour possible, to the competition of rival catchpennies aggressively cranked out by commercial pamphleteers in the burgeoning industry of print, and bidding to capitalize upon the same spectacle in the same fashion.

Whatever his flaws and foibles and no matter the contradiction with his ministerial role, the Ordinary stands as the tallest figure in this formative bustle but even as this dungeon minister shaped the burgeoning city’s cacophony he in time became eclipsed by it. In its earliest form the Ordinary speaks the penitential tones of a receding era, striving for reconciliation, forgiveness, fellow-feeling among the prisoners and the community that had condemned them, part of a cosmology where sheep-stealers and saints really could clasp hands. Ordinary’s Accounts ceased in 1772, not long before Tyburn itself closed down, and by then London was the ascendant global capital of a bourgeois order with a markedly different conception of crime and criminal.

For the next few days, we’ll visit a few of these Ordinary’s ccounts; though we have often excerpted them in these pages with a natural focus to the bits about the actual crime or execution, here we’ll enjoy them in their entirety — sermonizing, advertisements, and all.

* Lincoln Faller, “In Contrast to Defoe: The Rev. Paul Lorrain, Historian of Crime”, Huntington Library Quarterly, Nov. 1976

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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Themed Sets

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1830: Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson, Iceland’s last executions

Add comment January 12th, 2017 Headsman

Iceland last used the death penalty on January 12, 1830 with the beheading of farm servants Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson.

Only threadbare details survive to posterity about their crime: one night in 1828, Agnes roused a neighboring farm to give the alarm that Natan Ketilsson’s farmhouse, where she worked, was afire. Neighbors were able to quench the blaze quickly enough to realize that Ketilsson himself had not died because he was trapped in the flame — but because he had been stabbed to death, along with another man known as a criminal, Petur Jonsson.

Agnes, 33, and teenager Fridrik were arrested for murder and eventually beheaded on a desolate hill on the frozen northern coast where a mossed-over stone still silently marks the spot.*


(cc) photo taken by Jennifer Boyer on the walking path to be found at the site of crime.

Why were these men killed? The trial record attributes it to Fridrik’s “hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal,” which are answers that ask their own questions. If the stones remember, they aren’t telling and in the scantiness of documentation the job has fallen to literature instead, for there is something to be said for an mysterious double murder in the ashes of a half-burned farm and the novelty of a woman being the very last human to have her head chopped off in Iceland. (On execution day, Fridrik went first.)

Agnes was Natan’s lover, but the farmer had a reputation for womanizing and, so all suspect, eyes for Fridrik’s young girlfriend;** the inference of a jealous domestic psychodrama cast on the fringe of the Arctic Sea, of chilly twilit tables gathering furtive eyes above with wandering hands below, seems hard to resist. One of Natan’s other paramours was the poet Skald-Rosa, who addressed an anguished quatrain to Agnes in the weeks after the murder, helping to fix the latter’s place in national lore as the wicked moving spirit behind the whole disaster.

Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
Nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming he who gave my life meaning,
And thrown your life to the Devil to deal.

And then there was the strange coda, while verdicts were sent to Denmark for confirmation,† of the condemned simply living and working among the community waiting to execute them. Nineteenth century rural Iceland was a little short on jail cells and surplus provisions.

After studying on an exchange program in Iceland, Australian Hannah Kent found this speculative environment a rich source for her well-received first novel, Burial Rites. (There’s a lengthy and interesting podcast interview with her by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here.)

Kent’s drama has made headway in Hollywood, with Jennifer Lawrence said to be keen on playing the tragic lead; if it someday does hit the silver screen, however, it won’t even be the first on its subject matter — witness the 1995 film Agnes.


As of this writing, the full movie can also be searched on YouTube…

The criminals Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were today moved out of custody to the place of execution, and following them to the execution site were the priests Reverend Tomasson and Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, an assistant priest. The criminals had wished that the latter two help them prepare for their deaths. After the priest Johann Tomasson completed a speech of admonition to the convict Fridrik Sigurdsson, Fridrik’s head was taken off with one blow of the axe. The farmer Gudmundur Ketilsson,‡ who had been ordered to be executioner, committed the work that he had been asked to do with dexterity and fearlessness. The criminal Agnes Magnusdottir, who, while this was taking place, had been kept at a remote station where she could not see the site of execution, was then fetched. After the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson had appropriately prepared her for death, the same executioner cut off her head, and with the same craftsmanship as before. The lifeless heads were then set upon two stakes at the site of execution, and their bodies put in two coffins of untreated boards, and buried before the men were dismissed. While the deed took place, and there until it was finished, everything was appropriately quiet and well-ordered, and it was concluded by a short address by Reverend Magnus Arnason to those that were there.

Actum ut supra.

B. Blondal, R. Olsen, A. Arnason
(From the Magistrate’s Book of Hunavatn District, 1830 — as quoted in the epilogue of Kent’s Burial Rites)

* The milestone murderers, or at least their heads, rest in Tjörn.

** This young woman, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, was condemned to death with the other two but got to keep her head in the end.

† Iceland did not become independent of Denmark until 1944.

‡ The victim’s brother was the executioner.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Iceland,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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1944: Kaj Munk, Danish pastor-poet

Add comment January 4th, 2017 Headsman

Danish “pastor-poet” Kaj Munk was kidnapped and extrajudicially executed by the German occupation on this date in 1944.

Named for the adoptive family who raised him on the Baltic island of Lolland, Munk (English Wikipedia entry | Danish) was one of his country’s most popular playwrights of the 1930s.

He felt then the era’s pull to the Führerprinzip, and expressed admiration for the fascist rulers emerging in Germany and Italy — and disdain for parliamentarian prattle. Mussolini, he wrote, “was the new man, the future of Europe.”

At the same time, Munk’s deep religiosity led him to condemn Nazi anti-Semitism, and fascist Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia, and then later Germany’s seizure of Czechoslovakia — an expansion that would presage Germany’s easy conquest of Denmark in 1940. By now well past disillusionment with Hitler, the outspoken Munk did not shrink from denouncing the occupation, and the “cowardice” of Copenhagen in acceding to it just hours after German tanks rolled across the border. (See Resisters, Rescuers, and Refugees: Historical and Ethical Issues.)

He could scarcely have been ignorant of the danger this posture invited.

To this period dates Munk’s postwar fame, as well as his celebrated play Niels Ebbesen — which is all about a medieval Danish squire who assassinated a German tyrant. You can imagine how that went over in Berlin.

And as a working pastor, Munk had another platform, too.

“The pulpit has become for us a place of responsibility,” he wrote in 1941. “We tremble in our black garments when we ascend its stairs, because here, in God’s house, the Word is free … the Holy Ghost … forces us not to stay silent but to speak.”

And Munk was willing to do it, to exploit his position to oppose the cooperative stance his superiors were trying to promulgate; to preach against the occupation from the Copenhagen Cathedral in December of 1943; and to have subversive sermons illegally printed and promulgated — the last just days before his death.

Seized by the Gestapo on January 4, 1944, he was shot immediately after at Silkeborg. (The site is dignified by a a pious and understated memorial.) His abandoned corpse was discovered the next morning; consequently, January 5 is often the occasion for events marking the anniversary of Munk’s martyrdom.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Borderline "Executions",Denmark,Execution,Famous,Germany,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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