1898: George Clark, fratricide

Add comment October 21st, 2017 Headsman

From the San Diego Union, January 25, 1898:

Napa, Cal., Jan. 24. — In the presence of the sheriff and district attorney of Napa county, and of six other witnesses, George Willard Clark has confessed that he was the murderer of his brother, W.A. Clark, at St. Helena on last Thursday.

Mrs. Levina Clark was married to William A. Clark more more [sic] than twenty years ago in Clay county, Illinois. She is 46 years old and the mother of seven children. George W. Clark, the murderer, became intimate with her thirteen or fourteen years ago. Their relations continued while the husband was in California making a home for her, and during that time a child was born of which George Clark was the father.

After coming to California to live at and near St. Helena, Napa county, Mrs. Clark professed Christianity, and attempted to break off relations with her brother-in-law, but he persisted in his attentions. At times he asked her if she would live with him in case of her husband’s death. Last month he put strychnine in his brother’s coffee on two occasions, but the brother detected the poison and had the coffee analyzed by a druggist. Then, on Thursday morning George Clark lay in wait for his brother and shot him, while he was preparing breakfast in the kitchen of his St. Helena home.

The murderer was brought to Napa. On Saturday Mrs. Clark told at the inquest the story of her relations with her brother-in-law, but George Clark continued to declare his innocence of t[h]e murder, until he was finally induced to make a full confess, the details of which do not differ materially from the facts of the crime already reported and confirmed by the statement of Mrs. Clark.


From the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, January 26, 1898:

The pretty little city of St. Helena nestling in the picturesque Napa valley just a few miles from the Sonoma county line is now shocked and dismayed over one of the most hideous crimes, bristling with the darkest sense of horror, frightful in its details.

The circumstances attending the cruel murder of William A. Clark in the gray dawn of last Thursday morning at St. Helena, as told by the murdered man’s wife at the inquest held Saturday, and on Sunday in the confession of the accused brother of the deceased, were such as to cause stout men’s hearts to quail and to paralyze the better feelings of the women of St. Helena who know Mrs. Clark, not, however, to respect her for many of them had known of her character long before the awful story of the crime.

A PRESS DEMOCRAT reporter spent several hours at St. Helena Sunday and visited the scene of the tragedy. Everything around the town seemed gloomy. A pall seemed to have enveloped the vicinity of the little homestead where the cruel bullet fulfilled its ghastly mission and robbed W.A. Clark of his life.

A glimpse was caught of Mrs. Clark’s face. To say the least of it, it was repulsive. The pictures of her which have appeared in the metropolitan dailies, if anything, flatter her. She is big, ungainly in figure, and not the least bit pretty. What surprises the people of St. Helena and everyone else who knows her, whether by sight or by description, is that any man, especially the brother of him who had taken her to be his wife, could have become infatuated with such a creature as to commit a foul murder in order to marry her, coupled with almost certain discovery of the crime, and the accompanying reward of capital punishment for the offense.

By the people of St. Helena Mrs. Clark is not pitied. How could she be after the revolting story of the double life led by her with the self confessed murderer at the inquest? No. Vina Clark is left alone in her “sorrow.”

Many people are ready to accuse the wretched woman of being a party to the crime. The trend of her dreadful story regarding her illicit relations with her dead husband’s brother, coupled with the repeated declarations of George Clark that she had many times promised to marry him if her husband should die, would seem to prove that she is morally, if not legally an accessory to the terrible crime.

On Saturday night and Sunday, after the revelations made at the inquest, the guilt of George Clark was firmly established in the minds of every resident of St. Helena. Ask everybody you met on the streets of that city as to what their opinion was of the murder and they would reply: “The most cold blooded affair ever perpetrated and beyond doubt the brother did the deed.”

The circumstances of the killing are familiar to the readers of the PRESS DEMOCRAT. Last Thursday morning W.A. Clark was shot down at his home at St. Helena. George W. Colgan was the first person to bring the news to Santa Rosa, and the PRESS DEMOCRAT was the first paper north of San Francisco to publish the report.

Soon after the crime the officers suspected George Clark of the murder. Why? Because it had been rumored in the community that it was George Clark who had on two occasions tried to poison his brother by putting strychnine in his coffee. The officers knew this.

The officers went to George Clark’s house. They found him in bed. He was apparently asleep. He was awakened and told of the murder. He expressed great surprise and consternation at the news.

The officers espied under the bed the suspects’ shoes. Those shoes were wet with fresh mud. A few minutes later those shoes corresponded with the prints in the mud at the murdered man’s house. Little by little the yoke was clasped upon the brother’s shoulders, and he is now awaiting trial in Napa county jail.


From the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, October 8, 1898

San Quentin, Oct. 5. — George W. Clark, who is to be hanged at San Quentin Friday of next week, has made formal confession that he, and he alone, is responsible for the death of his brother.

Clark, it will be remembered, is the man who was enamored of his brother’s wife, and with whom he had sustained forbidden relations.

He imagined that if his brother were put out of the way the woman would marry him.

Detection quickly followed the commission of the crime, and for a time Mrs. Clark was believed to be implicated.

The confession of the condemned man is made with a view of clearing her, as he had previously intimated that she had been aware of his intention to commit murder. The confession is as follows:

San Quentin state prison, Cal., October 4, A.D. 1898. — To whom it may concern: I, George W. Clark, incarcerate, believing that I am about to die, and sincerely desiring in these, my last days on earth, that the truth with reference to the specific crime with which I stand charged, shall be known, do hereby solemnly state that I, and I alone, am guilty of the same. That no one save myself alone was in any wise implicated in the same either before or after the fact, and the same was wholly plotted, planned, arranged and executed by myself with the knowledge or consent directly or indirectly of no one save myself only. I make this my last statement, more particularly to and to exhonerate [sic] one Mrs. Lavina Clark, then wife and present widow of William A. Clark, now deceased. I positively aver that she was not implicated therein in any shape or form, and so far as my knowledge goes had no knowledge or suspicion thereof.

(Signed)
G.W. Clark.

Witness: F.L. Abrogast, B.J. O’Neil.


From the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, October 22, 1898

San Quentin, Oct. 21. — George W. Clark of St. Helena, who murdered his brother because he loved the brother’s wife, was executed this morning at the penitentiary here. Coward though nature made the man, religion was able to transform him. Even Durrant was not more cool than Clark when he stepped on the death trap. The officers of the prison, knowing the mental and moral weakness of the fratricide, were prepared for what they most dread, a “scene” at the gallows. Until recently Clark shrank with most pitiable terror from the fate that the sentence had set upon him. Within the past few days, however, Chaplain Drahm the prison [sic] converted the condemned man and filled him with fortitude and resignation. Clark’s guards thought it was merely a temporary exultation of spirit that would depart when the prisoner stood on the brink of death. They erred.

An hour before his execution Clark said to a press representative that he would die like a brave man.

I am ready. The grave has no terrors for me; death has lost its sting. The Lord has been very good to me and I bear up bravely through this aid. My hope is in God. His strength and not my own supports me today.

Beyond acknowledging my gratitude to God I have no statement to make. In the next life I shall receive my just due. I bear malice to no man, have no complaint to make, and will spend my last hour in pious exercises. The prison officials have been very kind. They could not have done more for me than they have done.

Then Clark began to pray with Chaplain Drahm. With hymns and prayer they passed the speeding minutes until at 10:25 o’clock Warden Hale interrupted the devotions. The fratricide waived the reading of the death warrant. Guards fastened straps to his wrists and ankles and the little procession formed and [ … ] to the slate-colored gallows in the next room.

Clark climbed the thirteen steps of the scaffold with firm tread. Of the fifty spectators a number were from Napa county. From the death trap Clark recognized a number of acquaintances to whom he nodded and smiled, as though he were passing them on the street.

Quickly the knot was adjusted behind his ear, the black cap was drawn over his face, Amos Lunt, the hangman, lifted his hand as a signal, three concealed men cut three ropes, one of which released the trap, and the body of the fratricide dropped and hung quite still.

Prison Surgeon Lawler, assisted by Dr. Mish of San Francisco and Dr. Jones of San Rafael, felt for the pulses and for respiratory movements. It was 10:32 o’clock when the body dropped. Ten minutes later the pulses ceased to beat and the lungs to expand. The corpse was cut down and laid in a coffin.

Mindful of the ghastly incident of last Friday, when the rope nearly pulled Miller’s head from the trunk, Warden Hale was cautious that Clark should not be cut. The rope was given only five feet of slack, and after the execution the head of the corpse swung in the very aperture left by the opened trap door. It was a nice calculation, well made. The stiff, new hemp caused a slight abrasion from which blood trickled, but the flesh was not torn.

Clark murdered his brother that he might be free to marry his brother’s widow. He had been unlawfully intimate with the woman during thirteen years.

Very early one morning Clark went to his brother’s hom and found the man whom he was about to murder lighting the kitchen fire. Clark crept to a window and shot his brother from the rear. The victim died instantly.

Clark was arrested on suspicion, and in the county jail at Napa broke down and confessed. He was convicted on March 23 of murder in the first degree. He was the twenty-first man hanged at San Quentin penitentiary.

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1723: Thomas Athoe the Elder, and Thomas Athoe the Younger

Add comment July 5th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1723, the 58-year-old former mayor of the Pembrokeshire town of Tenby was hanged along with his quarrelsome 23-year-old son.

This classic from the Select Trials annals finds Thomas Athoes Elder and Younger out at market-day when the young hothead picked a fight with, and got his ass kicked by, George Merchant. Merchant was Athoe the Younger’s own cousin, for his mother was Athoe the Elder’s sister; not only this, but in explaining their conduct to the chaplain endeavoring to save their souls, the Athoes would allege that Merchant had also swiped young Athoe’s girl.

The Athoes bided their time for the rest of that day, November 23 of 1722, and “advised by some Pettifogger, to bring an Action against the Deceased .. .answered, No, no, we won’t take the Law, but we’ll pay them in their own Coin.” And so when night fell, they followed Merchant and his brother Thomas (that’s the third Thomas on the pitch here, for those keeping count) to Holloway’s Water, the estuary of the river Ritec that in the 18th century swelled so high when the tide came in that the river became navigable four miles inland. The road that traversed it could only be crossed at low tide.

So it was in this muddy coastal defile, on a nigh-moonless night,* that father and son rounded on brother and brother as the latter watered their mounts.

The evidence in the case was given by Thomas Merchant, who survived the attack so narrowly that “at the Time of the Trial, tho’ it was four Months afterwards, he was in so weak a Condition that he could not stand, and therefore the Court permitted him to give his Evidence sitting.” Squeamish readers might wish to do likewise before proceeding to the rending of flesh he developed for the court.

The Prisoners coming up with great Sticks, I owe thee a Pass, and now thou shalt have it, said young Athoe to the Deceased, and knock’d him off his Horse. Thomas Merchant was serv’d in the like Manner by old Athoe, who, at the same Time cry’d out, Kill the Dogs! Kill the Dogs!

The Brothers begg’d ‘em for God’s Sake to spare their Lives; but the Prisoners had no Regard to their Cries. Old Athoe fell upon Thomas Merchant, beating him in a terrible Manner, and taking fast hold of his Privities, pulled and squeezed him to such a violent Degree, that, had he continued so doing a few Minutes longer, it had been impossible for the poor Man to have survived it. The Pain he suffered, is past Expression, and yet it fell short of what his Brother endured.

Young Athoe, when he had tired himself with beating him, seized him by the Privy Members, and his Yard being extended, he broke the Muscles of it, and tore out one of his Testicles; and calling to his Father, said, Now I have done George Merchant’s Business! This horrible Action occasioned a vast Effusion of Blood: But young Athoe’s Revenge was not yet glutted, — for catching hold of the Deceased’s Nose with his Teeth, he bit it quite off, and afterwards tied a Handkerchief so tight about his Neck, that the Flesh almost covered it.

The last Words the Deceased was heard to say were, Don’t bite my Nose off. He lived a few Hours in the most grievous Agony imaginable, and then expired.

Although the younger Athoe briefly took refuge in Ireland, father and son were remanded to London for trial, convicted with ease, and doomed to hang at St. Thomas’s Watering on Old Kent Road in Surrey.

When they came to the fatal Tree, they behaved themselves in a very decent Manner, embracing each other in the most tender and affectionate Manner; and indeed the Son’s hiding his Face, bedewed with Tears, in his Father’s Bosom, was, notwithstanding the barbarous Action they had committed, a very moving Spectacle.

* November 23 maps as a full moon … but recall that England at this time was still on the Julian calendar, so the local date corresponds instead to December 4, at nearly the opposite end of the lunar cycle.

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1741: Henry Smith, cad

Add comment March 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1741 ended at Dorchester “a young Man of great Hope, who was of a proper Stature, and of a handsome Personage, of a gentle and winning Disposition, chearful in his Temper, of a noble Nature, a kind and benevolent Mind; he had a pleasant Wit, speaking very gracefully and pertinently that made him pleasant to all Company; of an Industry in Business not to be tired; and what is remarkable, tho’ he spent his Youth among Seafaring People, yet he seldom drank any Thing else but Water of Small Beer, he abhorr’d Drunkenness in others, and could not endure any light or prophane Words, with whatever Sharpness of Wit it was cover’d; in his Engagements in Trade he was regular; in his Promises punctual; to his Servants he was kind; to his Wife very loving, and so courteous and affable to all Men, that he had many Friends, and few Enemies; he preserved a Reputation in his Neighbourhood, and was esteem’d and beloved through the Circle of his Acquaintance.”

Seems like a pretty great guy, except for the part where, concealing his marriage, he debauched and impregnated a serving-girl with the unrealizable promise of wedlock — a promise poor Jane Mew was disabused of by accidentally meeting his wife.

What occurred next is only to be inferred, for the very respectable Smith (or Smythee, as the pamphlet attached to this post has it) denied the circumstantial case against him to the last. Smith directed his lover to a lying-in place to give birth in secret but Jane Mew turned up in a field with her throat slashed en route. Perhaps Smith would have stood a better chance of convincing people that she had fallen as prey to some random highway robber or a desperate suicide had he not taken flight upon the discovery of her incriminating corpse.

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1755: Henri Mongeot, Lescombat assassin

Add comment January 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1755, Henri Mongeot was broken on the wheel for assassinating the husband of his adulterous lover, Marie.

Louis Alexandre Lescombat was a Paris architect; the betrayal of his flighty wife Marie Catherine Taperet was all the talk of Paris after her lover Mongeot slew the husband whilst out on a walk in December of 1754 — then summoned the watch to present a bogus self-defense claim.

This tactic has been known to work when the killer enjoys sufficient impunity; perhaps a respectable bourgeois like Lescombat could have done it to Mongeot — but when the horny 23-year-old busts up the family home with one blade and then the other, it’s La Mort de Lescombat, a tragedy.

For the widow, one good betrayal would deserve another: Mongeot faithfully avoided implicating her in the murder but when he discovered on the very eve of his death that she was already making time with a new fellow, he summoned the judge and revenged himself by exposing her incitement to the crime. His evidence would doom her to follow him many months later, after the sentence was suspended long enough for the widow Lescombat to deliver a son.

Joining Mongeot on the scaffold this date was a 15-year-old heir to the family executioner business apparently conducting just his second such sentence — Charles-Henri Sanson, the famed bourreau destined in time to cut off the head of the king and queen. Mongeot makes a passing appearance in the 19th century Memoirs of the Sansons; in it, Charles-Henri’s grandson remarks from the family notes that “Mdme. Lescombat … was confronted with him [i.e., her doomed lover] at the foot of the scaffold. She was remarkably handsome, and she tried the effect of her charms on her judges, but without avail.”

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326: Crispus and Fausta, incestuous lovers?

Add comment July 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around late July of 321,* the Roman emperor Constantine the Great had his son and also his wife mysteriously put to death.

It’s mysterious because besides execution, Constantine had a damnatio memoriae passed over his former family to bury any record of their sins in Time’s obscurity. These edicts didn’t always work … but in this case, if there were any who dared to record what happened, that illicit account did not survive its journey from antiquity.

But it was surely a shocking scandal in its time.

Crispus was Constantine’s first-born son and very much in the father’s favor. He was the child of a wife or concubine named Minervina. In 307, Constantine put this woman aside to make a more politically expedient marriage to Fausta, the daughter of Diocletian‘s retired-now-unretired co-emperor Maximian who with his son Maxentius held sway in Italy at that moment of the Roman Tetrarchy‘s ongoing collapse.**

Although Crispus didn’t offer his dad much in this situation by way of family alliances, Constantine kept him in his favor — by all appearances grooming him as an heir. Call it paying it forward: as a young man, Constantine himself had been in a similar position when his father Constantius dumped Constantine’s peasant mother in favor of an imperial marriage. That moment might have strangled a world-historic career before it even began, but Constantius instead chose to keep Constantine on the paternal cursus honorum.

So it went with Crispus — for a while.

In 317, Constantine, now emperor in the western part of the empire,† made Crispus into his Caesar; the boy ruled in Gaul and Germania for several years, thrashing barbarian tribes as he ought. Dad, meanwhile, was maneuvering towards victory over his eastern opposite number Licinius, with Crispus contributing an important naval victory in 324.

The young man (in his twenties at this time; his precise year of birth is uncertain) seemed on his way to a scintillating future.


Bronze coin from the mint of Rome depicting Crispus.

Things went pear-shaped suddenly in 326 when his father had him executed without any kind of warning that survives in the scant records available to us — and not only Crispus, but also Constantine’s own wife, that Fausta whose marriage might have threatened the boy’s status.

We don’t know why but the rumor as trafficked by the much later Byzantine historian Zosimus suggests a possible Parisina and Ugo scenario: “He put to death his son Crispus, styled Caesar, on suspicion of debauching his mother-in-law Fausta, without any regard to the ties of nature … [and] causing a bath to be heated to an extraordinary degree, he shut up Fausta in it, and a short time after took her out dead.”

It is down to conjecture what one ought to make of this nth-hand scandal-mongering; for impugning someone’s character one can hardly do better than an incest accusation. The story does appear to fit the few available facts, however, and Fausta was much closer in age to Crispus than to Constantine. It might also be noteworthy that three of Fausta’s sons went on to become Emperor and one daughter Empress but none of them ever rehabilitated mom.

Damned memory be damned, Crispus was rediscovered during the Renaissance and favored with several dramatic renditions embellishing the young man as a tragic hero, often with speculation that he was wrongly condemned to Constantine’s everlasting shame.‡ The events surrounding Crispus’s death being almost entirely obscured, writers could really go nuts with it; for example, Sir Walter Scott‘s Count Robert of Paris (set in Constantinople during the Crusades) features the story of an entirely fictitious penance built into subsequent Byzantine execution rituals by a remorseful Constantine:

But the death-blow had no sooner struck the innocent youth, than his father obtained proof of the rashness with which he had acted. He had at this period been engaged in constructing the subterranean parts of the Blacquernal palace, which his remorse appointed to contain a record of his paternal grief and contrition. At the upper part of the staircase, called the Pit of Acheron, he caused to be constructed a large chamber, still called the Hall of Judgment, for the purpose of execution. A passage through an archway in the upper wall leads from the hall to the place of misery, where the axe, or other engine, is disposed for the execution of state prisoners of consequence. Over this archway was placed a species of marble altar, surmounted by an image of the unfortunate Crispus — the materials were gold, and it bore the memorable inscription, TO MY SON, WHOM I RASHLY CONDEMNED, AND TOO HASTILY EXECUTED. When constructing this passage, Constantine made a vow, that he himself and his posterity, being reigning Emperors, would stand beside the statue of Crispus, at the time when any individual of their family should be led to execution, and before they suffered him to pass from the Hall of Judgment to the Chamber of Death, that they should themselves be personally convinced of the truth of the charge under which he suffered.

* Approximate times around the spring and summer of 326 have been proposed by various authors based on the very vague allusions of ancient sources. This author argues that numismatic evidence permits a more precise triangulation. Constantine in 326 journeyed from his new capital in the east to Rome: an imperial mint traveled with him, striking coins as it went — and some of those coins show Crispus. His presence on coins from various stops of this journey indicates that Crispus must have been alive as the procession reached Rome on July 21, 326, but the Caesar vanishes from them, and from history, immediately thereafter.

** The History of Rome Podcast narrates this period, with Constantine’s rise into political relevance in episode 130.

† The Tetrarchy was still tetrarching along pending Constantine’s victory over all: the system featured separate senior emperors East and West each dignified Augustus, and each Augustus had a junior fellow-emperor and heir titled Caesar. Constantine was Augustus of the West, and Crispus was a Caesar.

‡ Fausta tends to get somewhat shorter shrift than her putative lover. Crispus’s presence in the literary culture would appear to make him the namesake of the Boston American Revolution martyr Crispus Attucks. African-descended men in North America often carried Roman names, though “Crispus” was by no means a common one.

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1834: Catherine Snow, the last hanged in Newfoundland

1 comment July 21st, 2016 Headsman

The last woman executed on Newfoundland hanged on this date in 1834.

Historical novel about Catherine Snow.

Born Catherine Mandeville, Catherine was seven children into an audibly-to-the-neighbors combative marriage with John Snow when Snow disappeared in 1833, leaving behind only a splatter of blood on his Salmon Cove fishing stage.

Though the corpse was never found, the inference seemed clear enough — and the suspects were obvious: Catherine Snow, her cousin and lover Tobias Manderville, and a household servant named Arthur Spring. But whether the crown ever converted reasonable suspicion into proof sufficient to justly hang Catherine Snow was controversial then and remains so today.

Now, if all three did go in together on a murder plot, it was one which signally neglected adequate planning for the police investigation that was sure to follow.

Manderville and Spring were arrested on suspicion of murder, and they were not long in jail befoe Spring summoned the sheriff to announce that “we killed him; Manderville and myself, and Mrs. Snow” — shooting him dead and sinking him into the Atlantic with a grapnel. So, no code of silence here. Soon, Manderville and Spring were each accusing the other of being the guy who pulled the trigger when they went out to murder John Snow together. However the matter of the trigger finger might weigh in their afterlives, it was juridically irrelevant to their fate in Newfoundland.

Catherine Snow was supposed to have initiated this conspiracy and certainly her violent marriage would have given her ample motivation to do so — perhaps a far stronger motivation than the men had. The inference strengthened by Snow’s changing her story to police, and then by her fleeing her home when she heard about Spring’s jailhouse revelation.

But she could never really be shown to have been present at the murder nor proven to have clearly conspired in it, and to the discomfiture of all she insisted on maintaining her innocence all along. “There is no direct or positive evidence of her guilt,” attorney general James Simms admitted to the jury. (Source) “But I have a chain of circumstantial evidence to show her guilt.” The jury convicted her.

Manderville and Spring hanged in the provincial capital of St. John’s mere days after the trial in January of 1834.

Snow had a substantial reprieve: she was pregnant.

For six months Newfoundland was abuzz with the case while Catherine Snow came to term, bore her putative victim a posthumous son named Richard, and nursed him in his infancy. Was she really guilty? And guilty or no, could they bear to leave her months to bring new life into the world only to orphan it?

Catherine Snow did not offer the sizable crowd of onlookers any peace of mind when she mounted the scaffold on Duckworth Street on July 21, 1834. “I was a wretched woman, but I am as innocent of any participation in the crime of murder as an unborn child.”

CNN reporter Mary Snow is a descendant of Catherine Snow.

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1882: Sandy Mathews, in Memphis

Add comment June 2nd, 2016 Headsman

From the June 3, 1882 Chicago Tribune:

Six Thousand People Present at the Execution of Sandy Mathews.

MEMPHIS, Tenn., June 2 — Sandy Mathews, colored, who murdered Essick Polk, colored, twele miles north of this city last October, was hanged in the county-jail yard this afternoon at 1 o’clock. The execution was witnessed by fully 6,000 people, a majority of whom were colored. The condemned man made a speech from the gallows, in which he confessed the killing, and implored his hearers to repent of their sins and go with him to Heaven. His neck was broken by the fall.

THE GALLOWS

had been erected in the southern portion of the jail-yard and was built high enough to give a full view to the ccrowd that jammed the streets running parallel with the jail. Matthews [sic] slept well last night, and partook of a hearty breakfast this morning. He bade farewell to his wife about 11 o’clock, and began making preparations for the hanging. A few weeks ago he embraced Catholicism, and was attended in his cell by the Rev. Father Lucius, of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. He called for his dinner at noon, and ate heartily, and afterwards smoked a cigar. At half-past 12 o’clock he was brought from his cell and conveyed to the scaffold, where he addressed the crowd for twenty minutes in

A DISCONNECTED SPEECH,

confessing to having killed Polk, and at the same time imploring his hearers to repent of their sins ere too late, and be forgiven, as he had done. He then knelt and repeated the Lord’s Prayer, after which the Rev. Father Lucius said the prayers for the dying. The condemned man was handcuffed, and his arms, and legs, and ankles strapped. The black cap was adjusted, and, as he uttered the words

“FAREWELL FRIENDS, FAREWELL WORLD,”

the drop was sprung, and his body shot down. His neck was broken by the fall, and ther was but very slight convulsions of the body. During the speech many of the colored people responded to his implorations by shouting, “Bless the Lord, Amen.” Sandy Mathews killed Essick Polk for having enticed his wife from him. He struck him three blows with an ax. Several hours afterwards he took the dead remains and buried them in a field near his house. The hole not being large enough, he chopped the dead body in pieces, and thus buried them. The crime was kept concealed for five months, but revealed by a stepdaughter of Mathews, who was the only witness to the killing, and upon whose testimony he was convicted. Gov. Hawkins was appealed to, but declined to interfere with the sentence of the lower court, which was afterwards confirmed by the Supreme Court.

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1815: William Sawyer, guns and roses

Add comment May 15th, 2016 Headsman

William Sawyer hanged on this date in 1815* at London’s Newgate Gaol for a murder he committed while in Portugal.

Dispatched to Iberia during the 1814 mopping-up stages of the Peninsular War, Sawyer preferred to make time with a young Englishwoman named Harriet Gaskett who was supposed to be there as the mistress of Sawyer’s friend and fellow-officer. (Both of the men in question had wives back in Blighty.)

When this third wheel discovered their liaison,** Sawyer and Gaskett fell into that death-seeking tragic mooning that lovers do and after dinner one night in April they wandered off to the garden. Other guests soon heard three pistol shots crack the evening air. The reports proved to correlate with a dead Harriet, and a severely (but not mortally) wounded William.

After he was cleaned up — and after he once more failed to kill himself by slashing his own throat — his friends solicited a forthright confession.

Having laid violent hands upon myself, in consequence of the death of Harriet, I think it but justice to mankind and the world, being of sound mind, solemnly to attest that her death was occasioned by her having taken part of a phial of laudanum and my discharging a pistol at her head, provided for the occasion. I took the residue of the laudanum myself, and discharged two pistols at my head. They failing in their effect, I then retired to the house and endeavoured to put an end to my life, leaving myself the unfortunate object you now behold me.

William Sawyer

Besides doing the tragic lover thing, Sawyer was obviously intent on doing the officer-and-a-gentleman thing. His friends did very well believe the convenient-sounding version of events that he presented, such was his rectitude and lovesickness.

But under any construction of motive and circumstance, this narrative of “discharging a pistol at her head” amounted to confession to a hanging crime and Sawyer was convicted with ease.

Sympathetic to a fault, the Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough who personally tried the case reserved judgment as to the penalty pending a review by a panel of the king’s judges of several technical legal points. These were all defeated as entirely as was Sawyer’s wife’s attempt to see him in prison.

Despite his avoiding such an awkward interview Sawyer went to the gallows “very dejected,” in the words of the Newgate Calendar.

During the ceremony a profound silence prevailed throughout the populace. He died under evident symptoms of paroxysm, and a quantity of blood gushed from his mouth, from the cut in his throat. At nine o’clock the body was taken to Bartholomew’s Hospital in a cart, attended by the under-sheriff and officers. He was dressed in a suit of black, and [it] was not ironed.

* The Newgate Calendar, whose command of detail is often unreliable, mistakenly gives May 22 as the execution date — a week later than the true event.

** Intent on layering on the melodrama, Sawyer’s story was that the friend had actually given the two lovebirds leave to go live together. Great! Except Gaskell was convinced the permission was insincere and that he meant on killing himself once they did so and “although she had promised not to live with me, she had not promised not to die with me.” Anything for love.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Portugal,Public Executions,Sex,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1867: Modiste Villebrun, but not Sophie Boisclair

Add comment May 3rd, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1867, Modiste Villebrun was hanged in Sorel, Quebec, in what would be the last execution before Canada became its own country. His partner in crime, Sophie Boisclair, might very well have been executed alongside him had she not been pregnant.

Villebrun, a lumberjack from St. Zephirin, was having an affair with Boisclair and they wanted to get married. They had two slight problems to deal with, in the form of their respective spouses. In those times, divorce was unthinkable. Murder, apparently, was not.

Jeffrey E. Pfeifer details their crimes in his book Death By Rope: An Anthology of Canadian Executions:

The first victim was Villebrun’s wife, and their plan seemed to work well. No one suspected foul play when the previously healthy woman died, or at least no one could prove anything. Braced by their success, the lovers soon turned their attention to Boisclair’s husband, Francois-Xavier Jutras. Boisclair suggested to her husband that they should allow Villebrun to move in with them since the death of his wife had left him all alone. Jutras agreed to his wife’s request and almost immediately Boisclair began to lace his food with her “special” ingredient. It was not long before the strychnine took effect and Jutras was dead.

Unfortunately for the two lovers, a suspicious doctor demanded an autopsy, which revealed the dead man’s body was saturated with poison. Villebrun and Boisclair soon found themselves arrested.

They were tried separately and both were convicted in short order and sentenced to death. When asked, at sentencing, whether she had anything to say, Boisclair announced she was expecting a baby. She got a temporary reprieve until delivery, and got the opportunity to watch Villebrun’s execution from the window in her cell.

Ten thousand people attended his hanging.

Seven months later, Boisclair gave birth to his child, and her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

“Boisclair ended up serving 20 years in the penitentiary,” records Pfeifer, “before being released, a broken woman.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Quebec

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1836: Maria del Rosario Villa and Gervasio Alipas lynched in Alta California

Add comment April 7th, 2016 Headsman

California on April 7, 1836 saw the first known installment of what would become a rich tradition of history of vigilance committee lynchings in the state — over an affair of the heart.

This was Alta California under Mexican rulership, a decade before the Yankees gobbled it up in the Mexican-American War.

Maria del Rosario Villa had abandoned her husband Domingo Felix (or Feliz) back in 1834 to take up with a vaquero named Gervasio Alipas (or Alipaz). The honor-stricken husband spent two years fruitlessly trying to reconcile until in 1836 at his behest the alcalde successfully pressured Maria into returning to her husband.

But on the couple’s return trip to their ranch, the lover Alipas intercepted them and did the husband Felix to death. Narciso Botello’s* annals describe that Alipas “took hold of his [Felix’s] horse and threw himself on Felix, grabbed him by his neckerchief, and pulled him off, dragging him along downhill and twisting the neckerchief, strangling him” — then pitched the choking victim into a gully where he finished him off with a machete. “Later it was proven by the tracks that the wife had been present.” (Source) She helped him dump the body near San Gabriel Mission, too.

Outraged both by the dastardly murder and by the wanton violation of matrimony that precipitated it, a gang of 55 organized themselves as a Junta of the Defenders of the Public Safety, led by Victor Prudon, a recent arrival to the area from the Hijar-Padres colony.** As no militia could be mustered inclined to oppose its will, on April 7 the junta forced open the jail where Alipas was interred, stood him up behind a church, and shot him to death. Villa — being held in an apartment at a private residence — was likewise forced out and marched to a nearby stable where she got the same treatment.

The vigilantes deposited the bodies back at the jail with the communique,

Junta of the Defendres of the Public Safety —

To the First constitutional Alcalde:

The dead bodies of Gervacio Alispaz and Maria del Rosario Villa are at your disposal. We also forward you the jail keys that you may deliver them to whomsoever is on guard. In case you are inned of men to serve as guards we are at your disposal.

God and Liberty. Angeles, April 7, 1836.

Victor Prudon, President
Manuel Arzaga, Secretary

And that was the end of the Defenders of the Public Safety, who disbanded a few days later, never to reconstitute. Indeed, while vigilance committees became regular features on the Californian landscape in later years, this is the sole such incident ever known to have occurred there under Spanish or Mexican rule.

* A Mexican who would serve two terms in the state assembly of California after it became a U.S. state in 1850.

** Mexico at this point was still in its first generation of independence; its hold on sparsely-populated California was not strong — and the missions set down there to convert natives to Christianity and project a Spanish presence had Russian competition.

The Hijar-Padres colony (Padres was the name of the colony’s organizer, Hijar its financier) was a nucleus of 200-odd souls dispatched to settle in California by one of the liberal intra-Santa Anna governments. The leaders soon became embroiled in a complex political rivalry with California’s governor and the colony itself failed to take root, its emissaries settling and taking work wherever they could. Many set down roots in California’s “Southlands” where Los Angeles, then just a small town but still the regional capital, would one day splay out its sunlit superhighways. While colonists were involved in the vigilance committee proceedings, no member of the love triangle was a colonist. (See C. Alan Hutchinson, “An Official List of the Members of the Híjar-Padrés Colony for Mexican California, 1834,” Pacific Historical Review, Aug. 1973.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lynching,Mexico,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Sex,Shot,Summary Executions,USA

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