1740: Ned Darcy, of the Kellymount Gang

Add comment November 3rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1740,* Ned “Darcy, one of the Kellymount gang, was tried at Carlow, on the Proclamation; and, being proved to be the man, in ten minutes he was taken from the dock and hanged, and his head fixed on the Court House.”

The Kellymount gang — named for a County Kilkenny town it frequented — was a band of outlaws who were the terror of Leinster in 1740, a famine year due to a brutal frost.

Numbering as many as 30 strong, this troop had the boldness even to lay siege to manors and the ferocity to put gentlemen in mortal terror; we find our same principal just weeks before his execution going the full monster:

August 30 — Yesterday morning, one Ned Darcy went to the house of one Doran, in the County of Carlow, took him out of his bed and, naked as he was, put him on horseback, and in that manner carried him through part of the Counties of Carlow and Kilkenny; and being met by several, were asked where they intended to take him, to which they replied they were going to hang him, he having been the occasion of hanging a brother and a father of Darcy’s; and we have been since informed that, having taken him into Kellymount Wood, they cut out his tongue, cut off his ears, and pulled out one of his eyes, then desired him to go to Sir John, in Capel Street, give in his examination to him of their proceedings, and tell him they would serve him in the same manner were he in their power, as also Mr. Bush.

Mr. Bush, who came from Carlow three days ago, had one hundred men armed to guard him, and Mr. Gore, the same from Waterford; so by this you may see in what fear we travel in this country.

The Kellymount Gang was mostly busted up in these months with no small number of executions, but its remnants survived to launch the career of one of Ireland’s most celebrated bandits, James Freney — for a few years later, Freney, a failed tavernkeeper mired in debt, chanced to find himself neighbor to “one John Reedy, who had formerly been one of the robbers, commonly known by the name of the Kellymount Gang, but who had been pardoned for making some discoveries.” Reedy advised Freney in a moment of financial desperation that “there was a fair at hand, and that there was a number of drovers to be there; who, he said would have a great deal of cash; and told me, that my only remedy to extricate myself from my creditors, was to make to the highway, and that he would get three or four men to assist me.”

The former publican took up the offer to good effect, and proceeded to make his name and fortune on the roads.

We hope our readers will recognize this famous criminal from the stickup he perpetrates upon the title character in Thackeray‘s 1844 serial The Luck of Barry Lyndon, and likewise in Stanley Kubrick‘s masterpiece 1975 adaptation, Barry Lyndon. (He’s called “Feeney” in the film.)

* Julian date: the quoted blurb comes from Reilly’s Dublin News-Letter of November 8th, 1740.

** Much to the disadvantage of Executed Today, Freney/Feeney was the rare outlaw who was able to retire with his earnings, emigrating abroad and eventually returning to work as a customs official in Inistioge. The account of his criminal origins we have from Freney’s own memoirs.

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1943: Amos Pampaloni, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin inspiration

Add comment September 21st, 2019 Headsman

Italian artillerist Amos Pampaloni, the real-life model for the title character of the novel and film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, miraculously survived execution on this date in 1943.

It occurred at the outset of the Cephalonia Massacre on September 21, 1943, which began a dayslong slaughter on that Greek island by German soldiers of their former Italian comrades. With some 5,000 victims, it’s one of the largest POW massacres of the Second World War.

Captain Pampaloni was among 500-odd officers deployed with the 12,000-strong Acqui Infantry Division. This formation had been part of fascist Italy’s invasion of Greece in 1940-41; after victory in that campaign, the Acqui Division occupied several Greek islands over the succeeding years, where German troops were also stationed.

The Pact of Steel uniting these powers melted abruptly in early September of 1943, when the Allies forced Italy into an armistice. For Italian forces standing in the field cheek-by-fascist epaulette, this forced a sudden and dangerous reckoning. Some units had barely even heard of the new situation before they were under German guns; in a best-case scenario, they had to decide within a few hours or days between radically different attitudes towards their up-to-now comrades-in-arms.

The Acqui on the Ionian island of Cephalonia (Kefalonia) was a case in point. In the days following the Italian armistice, the much larger German force presented its commanders an ultimatum to decide among three alternatives:

  1. Continue fighting alongside the Germans
  2. Fight against the Germans
  3. Surrender, disarm, and repatriate

While the last of these might seem the obvious course, disarming was contrary to the Italian high command’s ambiguous order neither to initiate hostilities with Germans, nor to cooperate with them. Moreover, the Cephalonia division got some reports in those confused days that the Germans weren’t always repatriating units that surrendered. The soldiery was polled on the options, and went for resistance.

Unfortunately the Italians were thoroughly outgunned in this fight, and the Allies refused to permit dispatching reinforcements from Italy that might easily be captured by the Germans. Within days the Acqui had been roughly brought to heel.

Outnumbered and suffering under accurate mortar fire, Pampaloni decided to surrender. The captain protested that it was against the rules of war when his men were systematically robbed of their wallets and watches, only to be told by the German commanding officer that those rules applied to prisoners, not to traitors.

The officer then shot the captain through the back of the neck, and the rest of his men, including the wounded, were mown down with machine gun fire. Miraculously still alive, Pampaloni remained conscious as a German soldier removed his own watch from his apparently lifeless body.

Captain Pampaloni was not, in fact, the only soldier from his company to survive. “The mule handlers were spared, because every mule responds best to his own master,” he said. “Ten minutes after the massacre the German soldiers left, singing.”

Captain Pampaloni went on to fight for a year with the Greek resistance on the mainland. Having witnessed the brutality of the conflict on Cephalonia, he was still shocked by the sight of partisans slitting the throats of German prisoners with their daggers — ammunition was too precious to be wasted on executions.

Cefalonia – crimine di guerra 1 from Va.Le. Cinematografica 78 on Vimeo.

Cefalonia – crimine di guerra 2 from Va.Le. Cinematografica 78 on Vimeo.

Numerous summary executions disgraced the German victory. (There’s a monument to the victims in Verona.) Our man Amos Pampaloni faced his on the first day of the general massacre; according to a 2001 profile in the Guardian,

Outnumbered and suffering under accurate mortar fire, Pampaloni decided to surrender. The captain protested that it was against the rules of war when his men were systematically robbed of their wallets and watches, only to be told by the German commanding officer that those rules applied to prisoners, not to traitors.*

The officer then shot the captain through the back of the neck, and the rest of his men, including the wounded, were mown down with machine gun fire. Miraculously still alive, Pampaloni remained conscious as a German soldier removed his own watch from his apparently lifeless body.

Captain Pampaloni was not, in fact, the only soldier from his company to survive. “The mule handlers were spared, because every mule responds best to his own master,” he said. “Ten minutes after the massacre the German soldiers left, singing.”

Captain Pampaloni went on to fight for a year with the Greek resistance on the mainland. Having witnessed the brutality of the conflict on Cephalonia, he was still shocked by the sight of partisans slitting the throats of German prisoners with their daggers — ammunition was too precious to be wasted on executions.

In the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Pampaloni’s fictional imitator survives thanks to a noble comrade who hurls his body in front of the fusillade.

Pampaloni didn’t appreciate Mandolin all that much, owing to its hostile depiction of the Communist partisan movement that he joined after surviving his execution. For those seeking alternative literatures, there’s also a 1960s novelization of the Greek resistance on Cephalonia by Marcello Venturi; written in Italian (as Bandiera bianca a Cefalonia), it’s long out of print in English as The White Flag.

* Prior to the Italian armistice, the Italian forces on the island were working on an arrangement to obey German command structures; hence, the brutal treatment of Italian prisoners who could be conceived as not merely prisoners of war, but traitors or rebels unprotected by any law of war. A German directive had explicitly demanded as much: “because of the perfidious and treacherous behaviour on Kefalonia, no prisoners are to be taken.”

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1662: Claude Le Petit, dirty poet

Add comment September 1st, 2019 Headsman

Poet Claude Le Petit was burned in Paris on this date in 1662 for “verse and prose full of impieties and blasphemies, against the honor of God, the Virgin and the State”.

Although in his youth he had fled abroad to escape the custody of the Jesuits, Le Petit was back in Paris studying law when he took up the pen to lampoon the scandals of the great and the good. He’s most famous for Le Bordel des Muses, a collection of 73 little sonnets, songs, and other tidbits plus five great lampoons about several of the European capitals his expatriate feet had trod: Paris Ridicule, Madrid Ridicule, London RidiculeVienna Ridicule, and Venice Ridicule. Alas, of this magnum opus only the first two of these Ridicules, plus eight of the little poems, survive to us.

He’s known for scabrous verse but Le Petit had a subversive outlook that made him far more dangerous in the eyes of France’s gathering absolutism than some mere pornographer, as in two surviving pieces that he wrote against the 1661 execution of Jacques Chausson, for sodomy.*

If we burned all those
Who do like them
In a very short time alas
Several lords of France
Great prelates of importance
Would suffer death.
Do you know the storm that rises
Against all good people?
If Chausson loses his case,
The arse (“le cu“) will not serve any more.
If Chausson loses his case,
The cunt (“le con”) will prevail.
I am this poor boy
Named Chausson
If I was roasted
At the flower of my age
It’s for the sake of a page
Of the Prince of Conde. [a bisexual lord -ed.]
If the bastard D’Assouci. [a raunchy poet who was possibly the lover of Cyrano de Bergerac -ed.]
Had been taken
He would have been roasted
In the flames
Like these infamous two
Chausson and Fabri.

After Chausson was indeed executed, Le Petit wrote:

Friends, we burned the unfortunate Chausson,
That rascal so famous, with a curly head;
His death immortalized his virtue:
Never will we expire in a more noble way.
He sang cheerfully the lugubrious song
And bore without blanching the starched shirt,
And the hot fagots at the fiery stake,
He looked at death without fear or shudder.
In vain his confessor exhorted him in the flame,
The crucifix in hand, to think of his soul;
Then lying under the stake, when the fire had conquered him,
The infamous one towards the sky turned his foul rump,
And, to die finally as he had lived,
He showed his naughty ass to everyone.

Writing behind the mask of anonymity, Le Petit was obscene, yes, but more important was that he deployed obscenity to mock the powerful extending even to the sovereign and the organs of society that upheld his authority. In his tour of Paris Ridicule — lingering stanza by stanza over various landmarks and institutions — we’re drawn to his commentary on the site of his own future passion, the Place de Greve where public executions were staged:

Unhappy plot of land
At the dedicated public gibbet,
Where we massacred
A hundred times more men than at war.

It’s said that Le Petit was exposed when a gust of wind incidentally whipped a leaf from his latest profane commentary out an open window and into the hands of a passing normie who reported the smut and thereby cascaded an avalanche upon the young writer. (Le Petit was only 23 at his death.)

“I believe this punishment will contain the unbridled license of impious and the rashness of printers,” one official noted** — underscoring the overt intention of the execution to intimidate other practitioners on the growing print culture scene. Le Petit’s fame and that of his outlaw pasquinades only grew as a result of his punishment — but this outcome was by no means detrimental to the intended policy, since each impression also came with the murmured recollection of its creator’s fate.


Claude Le Petit verse on the ceiling of a porch at rue de Nevers near Pont Neuf. (cc) image by vpagnouf.

* The original French verse is from Chausson’s French Wikipedia page.

** Cited in this Francophone academic paper on the affair.

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1661: Jin Shengtan, literary scholar

Add comment August 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1661, scholar Jin Shengtan — the “father of vernacular Chinese literature” — was

Jin Shengtan (English Wikipedia entry | Chinese) had the misfortune of reaching his intellectual maturity amid the collapse of the Ming Dynasty and the ensuing chaotic transition to the Qing.

In those years he contributed a perspicacious literary commentary that resides to this day in the canon of Chinese letters; his criticism is credited with raising the stature of Chinese vernacular literature, for instance via his meticulous analysis of Water Margin — now rated as one of the four classic Chinese novels.

In 1661, Jin took part in a protest against official corruption whose violent suppression is remembered to Chinese history as the “Lamenting at the Temple of Confucius”. Jin’s particular lament — probably apocryphal but too good not to repeat — has been remembered as a jest from the edge of the grave: “Being beheaded is the most painful thing, but for some reason it’s going to happen to me. Fancy that!”

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1540: Hans Kohlhase, horse wild

Add comment March 22nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1540, the legendary outlaw Hans Kohlhase — a crime victim turned revengeful crime lord — executed* in Berlin. It’s a classic case of stubborn cusses escalating a minor property dispute.

En route to the Leipzig fair in 1532, Kohlhase (English Wikipedia entry | German) was stopped by a Saxon nobleman who confiscated some of his horses. In dueling publications years later, Kohlhase would charge that Guenther von Zaschwitz accused him of stealing the horses; von Zaschwitz countered that Kohlhase looked suspicious and got uppity with his retainers when questioned.

Proceeding to Leipzig in a huff, Kohlhase obtained the commendations necessary to confirm his identity and then demanded his property back from von Zaschwitz. The lord agreed … if Kohlhase would pay for the horses’ days of upkeep in his stables. Just a little crap sandwich from the neighborhood bully. Kohlhase didn’t feel like having a bite of it.

Fast forward a couple of years. Suits in the courts bogging down, Kohlhase at his wit’s end resorted to an older form of redress, one consecrated by centuries of tradition but now forbidden by a landmark 1495 legal reform: he declared a feud. Kohlhase really vented his spleen in this one, not bothering as a plausibly wronged party to play for hearts and minds but rather pronouncing his vendetta against the whole Electorate of Saxony.

Thus “justified,” he turned out-and-out bandit, gathering a crew of desperados to his banner and robbing with opportunistic promiscuity while staying a step ahead of a bounty issued against him by Elector Johann Frederick I. To repeat: this is all over a question of who foots the bill for a feedbag. Even Martin Luther tried to talk this vengeful fury off his grudge.

What is just, you will do justly, says Moses; wrong is not justified by other injustice … What you rightly do, you do well; if you can not obtain justice, there is no other advice than that you suffer injustice … Therefore, if you desire my council (as you write), I advise, accept peace.

Kohlhase accepted only the peace of the grave.

The German romanticist Heinrich von Kleist immortalized (and renamed) this uncompromising litigant in the novella Michael Kohlhaas; the same story has been re-adapted for cinema several times more.

* No surviving document specifies whether the execution was by breaking wheel or beheading.

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1595: Robert Southwell

Add comment February 21st, 2019 Headsman

February 2O, 1594-5, [Father Robert] Southwell, a Jesuit, that long time had lain prisoner in the Tower of London, was arraigned at the King’s-bench bar. He was condemned, and on the next morning drawn from Newgate to Tyburn, and there hanged, bowelled and quartered.

-Chronicle of John Stow

Youngest child in a gentry household of Catholic-leaning Norfolk, Robert Southwell was for holy orders and martyr’s laurels from the jump; in 1576 at the tender age of 15, he made for Douai and its English seminary, noted for training missionary priests who would return secretly to Elizabethan England to court torture and death for the Word. Within a decade he was a prefect at the English College in Rome and a fully armed and operational member of the Society of Jesus.

In 1586, Southwell sailed for his homeland with fellow Jesuit Henry Garnet, who would one day go to the gallows for Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot.

For Southwell, the pen was mightier than such detonations.

“St. Peter’s Complaint” (Excerpt)
by Robert Southwell

Ah! life, sweet drop, drown’d in a sea of sours,
A flying good, posting to doubtful end;
Still losing months and years to gain new hours,
Fain times to have and spare, yet forced to spend;
Thy growth, decrease; a moment all thou hast.
That gone ere known; the rest, to come, or past.

Ah! life, the maze of countless straying ways,
Open to erring steps and strew’d with baits.
To bind weak senses into endless strays,
Aloof from Virtue’s rough, unbeaten straits
A flower, a play, a blast, a shade, a dream,
A living death, a never-turning stream.

Quietly nestled in as the house confessor to Catholic noblewoman Anne Howard, Southwell scratched out page after page to fortify the hearts of the beleaguered Old Faith — standard stuff like martyrology testimony concerning his brother priests, overt manifestos like An humble supplication to Her Maiestie, and literary bestsellers admired by Protestant countrymen like Mary Magdalene’s Funeral Tears and his verse collection St. Peter’s Complaint, and Other Poems.*

This last appeared posthumously. After three years’ imprisonment — “I am decayed in memory with long and close imprisonment, and I have been tortured ten times,” the imminent martyr said of his handling by notorious Catholic-hunter Richard Topcliffe; “I had rather have endured ten executions” — Southwell was brought to the bar on February 20, 1595, to answer as a traitor and put to the traitor’s death the very next day.

Though less widely familiar now, his literary output was well-known and highly regarded long after he died, and perhaps influenced many other writers including Shakespeare. The Catholic Church elevated Southwell to sainthood in 1970.

* A couple of Southwell’s epistles are preserved in the 1741 volume Memoirs of Missionary Priests.

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1293: Capocchio, Inferno-bound

Add comment August 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1293, the heretic and alchemist Capocchio was burned at the stake in Siena.

Little is known about about this man’s life, but thanks to his contemporary Dante we know a great deal about his afterlife. Capocchio appears among the “Falsifiers” or “Imposters” haunting the eighth circle of hell in Cantos XXIX and XXX of the Inferno.

We meet Capocchio butting into a conversation Dante is having with a different (also executed) shade — Capocchio crying out to support their mutual disdain for the “flighty” Sienese.

“But should you want to know who seconds you
Against the Sienese, direct your eyes to me
So that my face can give you a clear answer:
 
“See, I am the shade of Capocchio
Who falsified base metals through alchemy
And, if I read you rightly, you recall
 
“How fine an ape of nature I have been.”

This remark implies that Dante might have known Capocchio in life. Dante had a vivid destiny in mind for his maybe-acquaintance a few passages later, when

two shadows I saw, stripped and pallid,
Biting and running in the selfsame way
A hog behaves when let out of the sty.
 
One came straight at Capocchio and sank
His tusks into his scruff and, dragging him,
Scraped his stomach against the stony floor.
 
And the one left behind, the Aretine,
Shivering said, “That ghoul is Gianni Schicchi,
And he goes rabid, like that, mauling others.”

The attacker was another notorious imposter, with an artistic legacy of his own in the form of Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi … or both together on canvas via William-Adolphe Bouguereau.


Dante e Virgilio by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1850) has the two named characters contemplating from the background as Gianni Schicchi takes a bite out of Capocchio.

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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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Alabama,Arkansas,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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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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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Mass Executions,Myths,Occupation and Colonialism,Outlaws,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,Puerto Rico,Shot,Spain

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