January 28, 1820 was the scheduled hanging-date for Stephen Boorn in Vermont, who was spared by the stroke of luck in one of the Republic’s seminal wrongful conviction cases. For all its vintage, it has a disturbingly current feel.
Stephen Boorn and his brother Jesse were farmers in Manchester living with their possibly feebleminded brother-in-law Russell Colvin when Colvin suddenly vanished in May 1812. Vanishing unexplained for weeks on end was actually an established behavior for this peculiar gentleman, so it was only gradually that suspicion of foul play accumulated. There was some bad blood known to exist between Colvin and his brothers-in-law; they had even been seen in a violent quarrel just before Russell Colvin disappeared (pdf). There were whispers, but never any real evidence.
And so weeks stretched into months, and then to years. Many years. Was it possible two neighbors of the good people of Manchester, Vt., had gotten away with murder plain as day and gone about bringing in their crops just like nothing happened?
The break arrived in 1819 courtesy of the brothers’ aged uncle Amos Boorn. Amos reported that Russell Colvin had appeared to him in a dream and accused his former in-laws of murder. Now a dream couldn’t be read in evidence, but it proved sufficient to re-open a cold case and endow the investigation with official “tunnel vision” so familiar to the staging of a wrongful conviction.
The other classic trappings of that scene followed anon: shoddy evidence, a jailhouse snitch, and even a false confession.
Once under the pall of suspicion, random events around the Boorns began to seem sinister. The dream-Russell’s accusation led to a cellar-hole being excavated, which turned up some random junk (a penknife, a button); was it Colvin’s random junk? A barn on the Boorn farm burned down; had it been torched to conceal evidence? A boy found bones at a stump on the property; were they human remains? (They turned out to be animal remains.)
Stephen Boorn had moved to Denmark, New York, but Jesse Boorn was taken into custody for interrogation. There he was parked in a jail cell with a forger named Silas Merrill.
Lo and behold, Jesse Boorn immediately spewed to his bunkmate the awful secret of the murder. Yup, after keeping it quiet for seven years he detailed it all to Silas Merrill one “night, when he and Jesse had waked from their sleep, and without any previous persuasion or advice on the subject” and also just happened to tie in all that random sinister stuff from the investigation like the barn and the bonestump. Naturally, Merrill was released for relaying to his jailers this valuable and in no way impeachable information.
Now cornered, Jesse confessed to the murder. The causes of false confessions are complex, but the advent of DNA exonerations has underscored the alarming frequency of this phenomenon. A strictly rationalist explanation might postulate that Jesse thought he could avoid hanging by taking responsibility for a crime he was now certain to be convicted of, and framing it in the least culpable possible light; the murkier fathoms of human psychology might suggest a desire to please his captors or a conscience conforming itself to the conviction of his neighbors. Whatever the case, the confession got Stephen extradited from New York, and under interrogation Stephen too confessed. Stop confessing to things, people! (In fact, best say nothing at all.)
Despite retracting the confession, the brothers were convicted with ease in a trial held at the town’s church, the better to accommodate huge crowds that would have overflowed the courtroom. They were both slated to hang on January 28.*
While Jesse Boorn won a commutation his brother appeared doomed.
As an almost literal last gasp, Stephen took out newspaper advertisements searching for Russell Colvin. And they worked. At least, this is the version of the story as it is commonly recounted, dating I believe to this 1932 volume on wrongful convictions. The primary sources referenced there actually appear to me to indicate that the Boorn-saver, a New Jersey gentleman named Taber Chadwick, responded with a letter to the editor to a simple news report of the case, which report naively credited the dream-driven conviction as “divine providence”.
From the New York Evening Post, Nov. 26, 1819.
Luckily, Mr. Chadwick realized that he knew a Russell Colvin from Manchester whose mental state was thoroughly addled.
New York Evening Post, Dec. 10, 1819.
A fortnight after this letter hit the press, Colvin was back in Manchester … and this time, it was not in a dream.
Colvin confirmed that his brothers-in-law hadn’t hurt him at all and both Boorns — who, we remind you, had each previously confessed to killing a man who was now here in the flesh and blood to exonerate them — both these Boorns walked free.
* According to this biography of the African-American divine Thomas Lemuel Haynes, Haynes was the Boorns’ confessor while they awaited execution, and one of the only people to believe the brothers’ protestations of innocence. Haynes was eventually moved to spend his own money on the famous advertisement hoping that “any person who can give information of the said Colvin may save the life of an innocent man.” If there’s one Vermonter who comes out of this astonishing story smelling like a rose, it’s Reverend Haynes.
Two members of the Fenian organisation -– Kelly and Deasy –- were trapped in Manchester, and lay awaiting trial in an English prison. The Fenians in that city resolved to rescue them. [Manchester was a hotbed of Irish radicalism -ed.] This they did by stopping the prison van upon the road between Manchester and Salford, breaking open the van, shooting a policeman in the act, and carrying off their comrades under the very eyes of the English authorities.
Marker on the spot of the ambush that started all the trouble. (cc) image from Tom Jeffs.
Out of a number of men arrested for complicity in the deed, three were hanged. These three were ALLEN, LARKIN and O’BRIEN –- the three Manchester Martyrs whose memory we honour today.
There were actually five in all selected to stand trial for their lives for what the British dubbed the “Manchester Outrage”; although all five were condemned to swing, one received clemency and a second was pardoned outright since the evidence against him was soon proven to have been entirely perjured.
Indeed, all five of the men asserted their innocence in the shooting even when they acknowledged joining the crowd attempting to free their brethren.
But they, and especially their partisans, were still more energetic asserting the Fenian cause from the platform afforded by the legal antechambers to the scaffold. “God save Ireland!” they cried at several dramatic points in the trial — and these words titled a beloved patriotic tune in the martyrs’ honor.
The British, basically, freaked at the effrontery of an Irish mob hijacking a police wagon, making Fenian as dirty a word among the Anglo respectable as terrorist is today, and stampeded the case to judgment without dithering overmuch about fine points like meticulous investigation. While respectable liberals could (and did) make the clemency case on grounds of actual innocence, the right-thinking were scandalized by Irish marches in overt support of Fenianism.
So it was a bloodthirsty rabble, baying and not a little drunk, that gathered outside the walls of Manchester’s New Bailey Prison to see Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien hang** for their abominableness. This lot also happened to witness the last public hanging in Manchester; England shifted to private executions the next year.
But these by no means represented everyone in Manchester.
The very week of the Fenian ambush, a philosopher had dropped in to Manchester to visit a local industrialist. These were, granted, not Englishmen but Germans. Still, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were keenly interested in the Fenian cause.
These martyrs have stood the test of time, in part because Engels’ prediction (more or less) came to pass. But we think it’s their countryman Connolly whose epitaph rings truest — the summons three men in Manchester issued posterity to stand against monstrous edifices as “unyielding foes even to the dungeon and the scaffold.”
We honour them because of their heroic souls. Let us remember that by every test by which parties in Ireland to-day measure political wisdom, or personal prudence, the act of these men ought to be condemned. They were in a hostile city, surrounded by a hostile population; they were playing into the hands of the Government by bringing all the Fenians out in broad daylight to be spotted and remembered; they were discouraging the Irish people by giving them another failure to record; they had no hopes of foreign help even if their brothers in Ireland took the field spurred by their action; at the most their action would only be an Irish riot in an English city; and finally, they were imperilling the whole organisation for the sake of two men. These were all the sound sensible arguments of the prudent, practical politicians and theoretical revolutionists. But “how beggarly appear words before a defiant deed!”
** Hanged badly. Notoriously erratic hangman William Calcraft only killed Allen on the drop; descended the gallows to help Larkin along; and was denied access by O’Brien’s confessor, who said he held that strangling man’s hand full 45 minutes until he finally succumbed.
Though not literally the Isles’ last hangman, Pierrepoint is the last one everyone thinks of, the man who defined the hangman’s job for the 20th century.
Discreet, orderly, and as quiet as he was efficient,* he was the brand-name executioner for stiff-upper-lip England of the waning empire, with over 400** hangings to his name from 1932 until he resigned over a fee dispute in 1956.
Despite his proper avoidance of the spotlight, Pierrepoint’s excellence at his craft would make him a celebrity — especially after the press fixated on his role hanging Nazi war criminals after World War II. The ready-made morality play upon the scaffold boards could hardly be resisted: the English grocer, meting out a dignified and precise measure of justice to the likes of the Beast of Belsen.
Pierrepoint’s characteristic client wasn’t a war criminal, but a humdrum British murderer, only a handful of which attract especial remembrance today.
Still, in the immediate postwar years, the growing reach of the mass media and burgeoning public controversy over the death penalty would frequently put Pierrepoint in the middle of the era’s highest-profile hangings, including:
Like as not, this day’s affair hit the sturdy hangman harder than any of those.
James Henry Corbitt was a regular at “Help the Poor Struggler”, the piquantly named Oldham pub Pierrepoint bought and managed after World War II. Known as “Tish” to Pierrepont’s “Tosh,” the two had sung a duet of “Danny Boy” on the night that Corbitt went out and murdered his girlfriend in a jealous rage.
Corbitt was not exceptional as a criminal, and he was indisputably guilty; we wouldn’t notice him if not for his acquaintance with the man who put him to death.
But Pierrepoint would remember this one well, as he later wrote in his his autobiography:
I thought if any man had a deterrent to murder poised before him, it was this troubadour whom I called Tish. He was not only aware of the rope, he had the man who handled it beside him singing a duet. The deterrent did not work.
Remarkably, the most prolific executioner in British history had come out against the death penalty, or so it seemed. (He later backed away from a strong anti-death penalty position, though without retracting his original reservations. The death penalty had been a decade off the books by this point, in any case.)
It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men and grandmothers.
I have been amazed to see the courage with which they walk into the unknown.
It did not deter them then and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder. And if death does not work to deter one person, it should not be held to deter any … capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.
It’s an open question how much Tish’s hanging this day really contributed to Pierrepoint’s retirement six years later or his apparent change of stance on his trade. But it provides the gut-wrenching dramatic pivot for the film Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman. (Enjoy the Chinese subtitles. The sequence where Pierrepoint hangs Corbitt begins right about the 70:00 mark.)
Interestingly, while the hangman saw in Corbitt’s fate a troubling indictment of the death penalty, the hanged man’s son to this day still says dad deserved to die.
More on Albert Pierrepoint
For a man so ubiquitously present in the mid-century experience of Great Britain, and who undertook such a dramatic volte-face, it’s no surprise that Pierrepoint has attracted plenty of attention — including this website, and a number of books.
* The English practice was for Pierrepoint to pinion the prisoner’s arms in the condemned cell, escort him a few steps into a hanging chamber, hood him, and execute the sentence without further ceremony. The whole process took mere seconds — a record fast seven seconds from cell door to trap door in the case of James Inglis — which Pierrepoint seems to have had a gift for dignifying in his (usual) silence with a sort of calming paternal assurance.
Pierrepoint hanged six American soldiers under the auspices of U.S. military forces deployed to England during the Second World War, and confessed to considerable discomfort with that entity’s protracted pre-hanging procedures that had him standing on the scaffold with the condemned man for several minutes.
* And perhaps well over 600 hangings; the figures are disputed.
The two twentysomethings had dropped by Evans’s former coworker’s place in the aptly-named port Workington to borrow money. Since the call was at 3 a.m. and the petitioners were armed, it might appear that they had in mind an offer that John Alan West couldn’t refuse. The reader is invited to fill in the rest: a quarrel, a murder, a stolen watch, a medallion dropped at the crime scene with one of the perps’ own names on it …
Three months later, they were on trial for their lives; a month after that, hanged by the neck until dead. If there is tragedy in these hapless thugs, it may be that either could possibly have saved the other by claiming sole responsibility for the murder; since each blamed the other, the jury ended up finding them equally culpable.
While the last hangings in Canada featured two unconnected men hanged together, the last in England had partners in crime hanged separately. Allen died at Liverpool’s Walton Prison; Evans was dropped at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison.*
And unlike the Canadian case, Evans and Allen didn’t die knowing they were likely the last.
Although hangings had slowed to a crawl in Britain — there were just two in 1963, and none in 1964 before this day — death sentences continued to be handed down. But the trend was toward abolition: the British Parliament suspended the death penalty for ordinary crimes late in 1965, and made the suspension permanent in 1969. The handful of exceptional crimes for which the gallows remained nominally available — treason, piracy, espionage — were never enforced as such before those statutes too were removed from the hangman’s jurisdiction by 1998.