1706: Mary Channing, at the Maumbury Rings

Add comment March 21st, 2017 Thomas Hardy

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

MAUMBURY RING

By Thomas Hardy.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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1791: Alessandro Cagliostro condemned

1 comment March 21st, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1791, the Inquisition in Rome condemned magician Alessandro Cagliostro to death — a sentence immediately commuted to imprisonment for the remainder of his life, which turned out to be only four more years.

Cagliostro’s rich career as European courts’ thaumaturge of choice might have been decreed by the stars right down to his pitch-perfectly sinister moniker. Is this the shadowy diabolist whom the title character of in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is meant to evoke?

In fact, his birth name was Giuseppe Balsamo.

Naughty by nature from the time of his youthful expulsion from the Order of St. John, Balsamo — the hobgoblin familiar haunting the adult prophet’s cimmerian shadows — hailed originally from a penniless Sicilian family. (Though Cagliostro claimed for himself a suitably exotic childhood in Arabia and Egypt)

What he wanted in native wealth he more than made up for in enterprise — both for self-education in sorcery, alchemy, and other forbidden arts, and for leveraging his expertise in lustrous capers.

Hopping from court to court, Cagliostro carved out a career moving forgeries of spiritual or temporal potency alongside his legitimate profession as a doctor and chemist and his growing public profile as an influential spiritualist. He broke through as a young man in the train of a cardinal in Rome, using this in to market on the side fake artifacts alleged to have been pilfered from the Vatican’s mysterious Egyptian troves, as well as to seduce a local girl named Serafina whom he married at age 18. Serafina would be his lifelong companion on his adventures.

Cagliostro turned up over the ensuing two decades in Russia, Poland, Germany, and England, where he was inducted into the Freemasons in 1776. He’s been credited with creating masonry’s Egyptian Rite, and with energetically propagating it in the 1780s;* indeed, it was his adherence to Freemasonry — and his sacrilegious boldness opening a masonic lodge in Rome under the nose of the pontiff — that led to his 1789 arrest.

His seances and magic potions made him a great favorite of the Versailles court for a number of years, until a glancing association with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace so damaging to the reputation of Marie Antoinette forced Cagliostro’s expulsion from France.

Considering his Mephistophelian** reputation, now very well known in Europe, Cagliostro’s return thereafter to the belly of papal power seems most unwise. Perhaps (as this biographer supposes) it was the influence of Serafina, homesick after so many years separated from her native haunts. Cagliostro’s next ports of call were the Vatican’s Castel Sant’Angelo and (after an escape attempt) the lonely Fortress of San Leo — and even his end was so shrouded in mystery and conjecture that the subsequent conqueror Napoleon commissioned an official investigation to convince everyone that he’d really shuffled off the mortal coil.

Giuseppe Balsamo, attainted and convicted of many crimes, and of having incurred the censures and penalties pronounced against heretics, dogmatics, heresiarchs, and propagators of magic and superstition, has been found guilty and condemned to the said censures and penalties as decreed by the Apostolic laws of Clement XII and Benedict XIV, against all persons who in any manner whatever favour or form societies and conventicles of Freemasonry, as well as by the edict of the Council of State against all persons convicted of this crime in Rome or in any other place in the dominions of the Pope.

Notwithstanding, by special grace and favour, the sentence of death by which this crime is expiated is hereby commuted into perpetual imprisonment in a fortress, where the culprit is to be strictly guarded without any hope of pardon whatever. Furthermore, after he shall have abjured his offences as a heretic in the place of his imprisonment he shall receive absolution, and certain salutary penances will then be prescribed for him to which he is hereby ordered to submit.

Likewise, the manuscript book which has for its title Egyptian Masonry is solemnly condemned as containing rites, propositions, doctrines, and a system which being superstitious, impious, heretical, and altogether blasphemous, open a road to sedition and the destruction of the Christian religion. This book, therefore, shall be burnt by the executioner, together with all the other documents relating to this sect.

By a new Apostolic law we shall confirm and renew not only the laws of the preceding pontiffs which prohibit the societies and conventicles of Freemasonry, making particular mention of the Egyptian sect and of another vulgarly known as the Illumines, and we shall decree that the most grievous corporal punishments reserved for heretics shall be inflicted on all who shall associate, hold communion with, or protect these societies. (Source)

Thereafter widely denounced and renounced as a rank charlatan, Cagliostro at the very least rates as of the more outstanding adventurers of his time — a distinction that bequeathed him an impressive artistic afterlife from Alexandre Dumas to Christopher Walken.

Nor have his grander poses entirely wanted for supporters in posterity, particularly among adherents to the still-extant Masonic rite he initiated. (Aleister Crowley also suggested that he might have been Cagliostro in a previous incarnation.)

W.R.H. Trowbridge’s 1910 biograhy Cagliostro: The Splendour and Misery of a Master of Magic is in the public domain and available free online.

* Cagliostro might also have written a classic occult volume, The Most Holy Trinosophia.

** “Mephistophelian” might be the literally applicable word. When the mysterious Cagliostro’s possible identity as the exiled Sicilian swindler Balsano was first exposed, eventual Faust author Johann von Goethe happened to be in Palermo — and he took it upon himself to investigate personally by calling on Balsano’s family. (“You know my brother?” “All Europe knows him.”)

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1963: Frederick Charles Wood, “Let me burn”

9 comments March 21st, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1963, hardened killer Frederick Charles Wood, 51, became the next-to-last prisoner to be executed at Sing Sing Prison in New York.

Although he came from a respectable, law-abiding family, Wood had a terrible temper and was very experienced at homicide. The man’s murderous career makes him the perfect poster child for the death penalty.

He committed his first murder while he was in his mid-teens, poisoning a girlfriend. He was out in only a few years, however, and fell back into crime: in 1933, he committed another horrific slaying. This time his victim, also female, was a stranger. Wood reportedly beat her with an iron bar and crushed her skull, and stabbed her over 140 times.

He served seven years and was paroled in 1940. In 1942, he killed again — for the third time. Wood attacked a man, hit him with a beer bottle, stomped on his head and slashed his throat. The victim, he said, was bothering his girlfriend.

This time he served almost twenty years before he was paroled again in 1960.

Mere weeks after his release from custody, in New York City, Wood beat and slashed a 62-year-old acquaintance to death, supposedly because his victim had made a pass at him. He then slaughtered the man’s 78-year-old sleeping roommate.

(When he was arrested the next day, Wood gave his occupation as “wine sampler.”)

Newspapers condemned the state parole board for letting him go so many times. Wood himself seemed to realize how stupid and pointless it all was, and refused any attempts to put off his much-deserved death sentence. He wrote that he wanted to “ride the lighting without further delay,” and added, “I do not welcome any intrusion into this stinking case of mine.”

Although Wood claimed he had schizophrenia and requested electroconvulsive therapy, three psychiatrists found him sane. A member of the Lunacy Commission asked him, “Is there any way we can help you?” Wood replied, “Let me burn.”

This article provides a detailed account of his crimes and execution, comparing him with Timothy McVeigh.

As he stood in the death chamber waiting to be strapped into the electric chair, he grinned at the witnesses and said, “Gents, this is an educational project. You are about to witness the damaging effect electricity has on Wood. Enjoy yourselves.”

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1857: Gaspard Matraccia, parrot-lover

Add comment March 21st, 2013 Headsman

From the London Times, March 26, 1857.

AN EXECUTION AT MARSEILLES. — Matraccia, the Italian who, as reported in the Messenger, was some short time back condemned to death by the Court of Assizes of Aix for a series of extraordinary murders at Marseilles, was executed in the latter city on Saturday morning.

At 4 o’clock he was awakened by the chaplain and director of the prison, and told that the petition for a commutation of punishment which he had sent to the Emperor was rejected, and that he was about to be executed. He received the announcement with the greatest calmness, and getting up, seated himself on the side of the bed, and took some coffee and smoked several cigars.

At 6 o’clock he attended mass, and during the service he appeared very devout. The mass was followed by a sermon, which seemed to make a great impression on him. The service was attended by all the prisoners.

When it was concluded, Matraccia was taken back to his cell, and supplied with breakfast. Shortly before 7 o’clock the clerk of the Court of Assizes read to him the text of his condemnation, the chaplain translating it into Italian. He listened to the reading and translation with great resignation, and when they were concluded embraced the clerk and all the persons present, most of whom were so affected that they shed tears.

Shortly after the executioners of Aix and Nismes, accompanied by an assistant, arrived, and proceeded to pinion the condemned. He was then freed from the irons on his legs and he asked if he could not be allowed to walk to the scaffold, but was told that he must be conveyed in a cellular van.

He then begged, as a special favour, that he might be accompanied by one of his friends, a countryman, who had been with him all the morning, and that his parrot, which was in a cage in his cell, might be taken with him to the scaffold. Both these requests were granted, and he was placed in a van, the chaplain being in attendance on him.

Arrived at the scaffold, which was erected in the Place St. Michel, and which was surrounded by an immense crowd, consisting of at least 30,000 persons, the vehicle stopped, and the cage containing the parrot was, to the surprise of the spectators, first placed on the scaffold; the criminal, his friend, and the chaplain then alighted from the van, Matraccia cast a glance at the guillotine, and embraced several persons who were present.

Then, supported by his friend and the chaplain, he ascended the steps of the scaffold, and in doing so it was observed that he slightly trembled.

When he reached the platform he kissed with great fervour the crucifix which the chaplain presented; then he embraced the chaplain and his friend, and then, turning to the parrot, he said in Italian, “Your master is about to die, and he embraces you for the last time.”

Afterwards he advanced towards the front of the scaffold, and cried to the people, “I demand pardon of the inhabitants of Marseilles for the scandal I have occasioned. Pray for me, for in a few minutes I shall pray for you.”

He was then seized by the executioners, and in a few seconds all was over.


(cc) image from Danny Chapman.

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1644: Mary Latham and James Britton, adulterous lovers

3 comments March 21st, 2012 Headsman

One James Britton, a man ill affected both to our church discipline and civil government, and one Mary Latham, a proper young woman about 18 years of age, whose father was a godly man and had brought her up well, were condemned to die for adultery, upon a law formerly made and published in print.

It was thus occasioned and discovered. This woman, being rejected by a young man whom she had an affection unto, vowed she would marry the next that came to her, and accordingly, against her friends’ minds, she matched with an ancient man who had neither honesty nor ability, and one whom she had no affection unto.

Whereupon, soon after she was married, divers young men solicited her chastity, and drawing her into bad company, and giving her wine and other gifts, easily prevailed with her, and among others this Britton. But God smiting him with a deadly palsy and fearful horror of conscience withal, he could not keep secret, but discovered this, and other the like with other women, and was forced to acknowledge the justice of God in that having often called others fools, etc., for confessing against themselves, he was now forced to do the like. The woman dwelt now in Plymouth patent, and one of the magistrates there, hearing she was detected, etc., sent her to us.

Upon her examination, she confessed he did attempt the fact but did not commit it, and witness was produced that testified (which they both confessed) that in the evening of a day of humiliation through the country for England, etc., a company met at Britton’s and there continued drinking sack, etc., till late in the night, and then Britton and the woman were seen upon the ground together, a little from the house. It was reported also that she did frequently abuse her husband, setting a knife to his breast and threatening to kill him, calling him old rogue and cuckold, and said she would make him wear horns as big as a bull. And yet some of the magistrates thought the evidence not sufficient against her, because there were not two direct witnesses; but the jury cast her, and then she confessed the fact, and accused twelve others, whereof two were married men. Five of these were apprehended and committed, (the rest were gone,) but denying it, and there being no other witness against them than the testimony of a condemned person, there could be no proceeding against them.

The woman proved very penitent, and had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin, and at length attained to hope of pardon by the blood of Christ, and was willing to die in satisfaction to justice. The man also was very much cast down for his sins, but was loth to die, and petitioned the general court for his life, but they would not grant it, though some of the magistrates spake much for it; and questioned the letter whether adultery was death by God’s law now.* This Britton had been a professor in England, but coming hither he opposed our church government, etc., and grew dissolute, losing both power and profession of godliness.

March 21 [1643/44*]. They were both executed, they both died very penitently, especially the woman, who had some comfortable hope of pardon of her sin, and gave good exhortation to all young maids to be obedient to their parents, and to take heed of evil company, etc.

-John Winthrop‘s journals, specifically this volume

While Puritan courts were certainly known to execute for sexual transgressions, Mary and James appear to be the only documented case in the history of [what is now] the United States of an outright execution for adultery.**

The crime and the setting inevitably call to mind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and indeed he would likely have known about this case from Winthrop’s journals.

There are, however, even more compelling parallel cases — which, if they do not end on the scaffold, are at least as dramatic from the standpoint of posterity.

The case of the woman branded for adultery first appeared in the records of York, in what is now Maine. Dated 15 October 1651, the entry reads:

We do present George Rogers for, & Mary Batchellor the wife of Mr. Steven Batcheller minister for adultery. It is ordered by ye Court yt George Rogers for his adultery with mis Batcheller shall forthwith have fourty stripes save one upon the bare skine given him: It is ordered yt mis Batcheller for her adultery shall receive 40 stroakes save one at ye First Towne meeting held at Kittery, 6 weekes after her delivery & be branded with the letter A.”

Beside that entry, written in the same hand, is the notation, “Execution Done.” It appears that Charles Edward Banks, in his History of York, Maine (1935), recognized the connection between Hawthorne’s novel and this case, for he refers to Mary Batchellor’s branding in a section titled “The Scarlet Letter.”

… the similarities between Hester Prynne and Mary Batchellor are so outstanding that is is tempting to argue for a direct source. For example, Mary Batchellor’s adultery is the only known case involving a child that can be linked to Hester’s plight. By postponing execution of the sentence until six weeks after Mrs. Batchellor’s delivery, the officials of York obviously considered the health of the unborn child. Hawthorne suggests a similar delay in the novel, for when Hester and Pearl appear in the opening scaffold scene, Pearl is “some three months old”.

It’s rather interesting to notice that in Latham and Britton’s case, even the judges who ultimately sentenced the lovers to die were overtly reluctant about doing so: the subtext of Winthrop’s narrative suggests to this reader that, had the pair not confessed, everyone would have been more than happy to use the “two witnesses” loophole to avoid noosing a concupiscent teenager stuck in a barren marriage. Whatever our caricature of them, Puritan elites too had some sense of proportionality about these things.

Even in Hawthorne, where the protagonist is punished only with public shaming, one of the crowd complains,

“This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly, there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their won wives and daughters go astray.”

And they have, ever since.

Thanks to Laura James of the (alas) dormant true-crime blog CLEWS for bringing this case to our attention.

* 1643/44: England was observing the legal new year on March 25 at this point.

** See the Espy file.

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1873: William Foster

1 comment March 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1873, William Foster — who spent two years warding off execution — finally succumbed to New York’s hangman.

Foster’s case was a long-term headline-grabber: he drunkenly accosted a couple of perfect strangers on the Broadway Line (think horses, not trains), then smashed the man of the party, Avery Putnam, with a conductor’s device going by the sinister name of “car-hook”. His case turned, both juridically and in the public eye, on the question of whether Foster had formed an “intent” sufficient to justify a first-degree murder conviction; the killer’s own jury later joined appeals for his reprieve, having felt buffaloed by public opinion in the immediate aftermath of the crime.

This case also clearly had a significant class component — a respectable gentleman randomly slain by a workingman — and the newspapers’ coverage frequently touches on obvious bourgeois anxiety, or uncertainty as to just how badly those of Foster’s socioeconomic position would take the hanging.

These and other themes of the media coverage will look very familiar a century and a half later. The only things missing are the tweets.

The Editorial Board

New York Times, May 28, 1871

Abolish the Car-Hook.

… the fatal weapon which slew Mr. Putnam … a weapon which we know to be deadly is so familiar to the hands, and possibly the heads of a large portion of the population, that they think nothing of using it at all. Of course the statement on which we found these conclusions may be incorrect. But it seems probable enough, and is confirmed by the numerous cases of assault with car-hooks reported since the Putnam murder. Before the light of that great tragedy brought into unusual prominence the fatal tool, it is fair to presume that it was not less active in its work of evil than at present.

It is not pleasant, then, to reflect that every time we travel on a horse-car whose conductor or driver hapens to be a trifle drunk, or unusually passionate and vindictive, we run a certain risk, slight it may be, still an appreciable risk, of being brained with an instrument to which the assailant’s hand instinctively turns. And since temptation is the firmest ally of crime, we might very properly begin our street-car reform by abolishing the car-hook altogether … Even if the replacing appliance be less convenient for the purposes, and less satisfactory in its workings, it is better that the driver should have a little more trouble and delay than that he should have constantly at hand a means and a provocative to murder. We do not doubt, however, that the present model of car-hook may readily be improved on, and at the expense of a little ingenuity, made not only harmless, but more complete.

The Murderer

New York Times, June 4, 1871

FOSTER’S APPEAL.

The Condemned Prisoner Reviews His Case.

He Never Intended to Kill Mr. Putnam — The Verdict of Death the Result of Public Resentment — He Thinks He Has Been Unjustly Treated.

TO THE PUBLIC: Sufficient time has elapsed since my conviction for the murder of Mr. Putnam to allow me to make that appeal to the cool judgment of the public which my counsel could not make in a court-room, oppressed by the usual legal formalities. I have not much to say, but in my awful position what little appeal I make is invested with a terrible importance, to me at least. After a short and impartial trial, before the case was submitted to the jury, Judge Cardozo* charged almost directly in my favor — at least, in modification of the verdict. He directed the jury that a fit of passion did not imply the requisite degree of malice justifying a verdict of murder in the first degree. He almost as much as told them that in my case there was no evidence proving that I intended to kill Mr. Putnam — that death was a result I never contemplated, and that however furious the resentment of the public might be, it would not be in accordance with their oath to convict me of a malicious purpose to kill Mr. Putnam.

The jury was evidently inclined to regard this direction of Judge Cardozo, but they were afraid to abide by it thoroughly. Public opinion was too strong; and because, I believe, it did not stop to consider my case coolly, it compelled that jury to bring me in guilty of downright murder in the first degree. But even then they went as far as they dared in recommending me to mercy. They recommended me to mercy because they felt that there was something wrong with the rest of their verdict, and they wanted to make the best balance they could without taking any responsibility themselves. Now I make this appeal from my condemned cell, because the public are beginning to believe with Judge Cardozo. Judge Cardozo said the truth. He said I never meant to kill Mr. Putnam. He knew from the very evidence that there was nothing further from my intention — and it is the intention which makes the crime.

What are the facts of the case? I had been drinking heavily — God knows I can’t excuse that. I was stupid drunk, mad drunk, and I got into a drunken difficulty with a strange man. That was Mr. Putnam. He said something which aggravated my drunken madness. Without any thought, without any calculation, on the impulse of blind fury, I struck him with the first thing that came to hand. That blow was never intended to kill Mr. Putnam. It was struck with hardly any intention at all. It was the work of a madman, not of a deliberate murderer. It was struck with no recognized weapon — just the first thing that came to hand. If it had fallen on the top of his head it would probably never have killed him. But it did kill him, and for the blow which I struck, without having any definite intention, resulting in his death, I am condemned to death in revenge. No one will pretend to say that I deliberately set about to effect Mr. Putnam’s death. I made no attempt to escape. I identified myself. I claimed to have struck him, having no idea, no earthly notion that my drunken blow would result in bringing about my conviction of murder.

Public resentment and exasperation brought about the verdict. There are men in the Tombs who have killed others soberly, in cold blood, and there has been no hue and cry after them. A man who had a quarrel with another and then went home and procured a knife with which he came back and stabbed him to death, deliberately and in cold blood, was sent to Sing Sing for four years the other day. There are others in this prison convicted of murder with weapons known to be deadly — so that their intentions in using them could not be doubted a moment — and they are safe. … I was tried out of my turn … while the public was resolved to have my blood as soon as possible. Out of these I alone am selected to undergo capital punishment, because mine was a sensational case.

No one can doubt the truth of this, and it is because this is the truth known to God and sworn to by me in the shadow of death, that I make my appeal to the public. I am doomed to die because a wicked drunken freak resulted in the death of a man, whom I no more intended to harm seriously than I would my own child … Is the recommendation to mercy to mean nothing? Does anybody refuse to see in it the protest of the jury against the pressure which forced them to bring me to the gallows? The public, which was furious, compelled the jury to act as it did, and I make my appeal, therefore, to the public.

I implore the public to consider my case, now that I am sentenced, and any evasion of law in my favor is impossible, coolly and dispassionately. I appeal to the public to be just and fear not. And what I have to say in my behalf I say with the solemnity of my situation. I make my appeal as a condemned murderer, sentenced to a speedy and ignominious death, helpless and powerless, but confident that the same feeling which on an impulse secured my conviction, will, when cool and deliberate, do even me proper justice.

WILLIAM FOSTER.

The Widow

New York Times, Nov. 22, 1872

THE PUTNAM MURDER.

The Widow Sues the Railroad Company for Damage.

The murder of Avery D. Putnam, for which William Foster now stands condemned, has been revived in the Courts in a new form. it appears that Mrs. Putnam, the widow, some time since, instituted a suit against the Broadway and Seventh-avenue Railroad Company, to recover damages to the extent of $5,000, (the limit of the law.) for the loss of her husband, which loss she charges to have been the result of the culpable negligence of the Company and its servants.

[she won -ed.]

The Minister

New York Herald-Tribune, March 6, 1873

(One letter among more than an entire page’s worth of clemency petitions the Tribune reprinted, with a note of scorn.)

LETTER FROM THE REV. DR. TYNG.

This young man has been familiarly known to me from his childhood. He grew up in the Sunday school and congregation of my church … of which his family have made a part since his birth. He was always a quiet, orderly, and good boy — he grew up an industrious and well behaved young man — he has never been a bad man or a drunkard.

The whole circumstances of this sad event which has placed him in his present position, he has personally related, very minutely, to me … I have visited him regularly as his pastor. He has presented himself to me as a gentle, quiet, penitent young man, and I have had much encouragement in visiting him.

Foster does not in the least excuse himself from the just infliction and endurance of his sentence, if it be the will of God that he must meet it …

I really think the young man entitled to a commutation of a sentence for willful murder in the first degree … He acted in blind haste, with no malicious intent, and he has groaned in anguish over the remembrance of his crime. His honored parents and excellent family, his young wife and little children, his own industrious life, his really quiet and habitual deportment, his expressions of anger, hostility, or self-defense, unite to present his case to me as one peculiarly appropriate for Executive mercy. … I do not know what efforts others may make in his behalf; but, as the pastor of his family — and of all his early life, and as now his gratefully accepted pastor in the hour of his sorrow — I feel compelled to implore for him the mercy which you alone can exercise.

Stephen Tyng

[Tyng, an Episcopal, was a celebrity preacher in the Big Apple, and built an early “megachurch”. He is the namesake of, but unrelated to, the man who founded the U.S. National Park System — Stephen Tyng Mather. -ed.]

The Humorist

New York Herald-Tribune, March 10, 1873

Sir: I have read the Foster petitions in Thursday’s Tribune. The lawyers’ opinions do not disturb me, because I know that those same gentlemen could make as able an argument in favor of Judas Iscariot, which is a great deal for me to say, for I never can think of Judas Iscariot without losing my temper. To my mind Judas Iscariot was nothing but a low, mean, premature Congressman.** The attitude of the jury does not unsettle a body, I must admit; and it seems plain that they would have modified their verdict to murder in the second degree if the Judge’s charge had permitted it. But when I come to the petitions of Foster’s friends and find out Foster’s true character, the generous tears will flow — I cannot help it. How easy it is to get a wrong impression of a man. I perceive that from childhood up this one has been a sweet, docile thing, full of pretty ways and gentle impulses, the charm of the fireside, the admiration of society, the idol of the Sunday school. I recognize in him the divinest nature that has ever glorified any mere human being. I perceive that the sentiment with which he regarded temperance was a thing that amounted to frantic adoration. I freely confess that it was the most natural thing in the world for such an organism as this to get drunk and insult a stranger, and then beat his brains out with a car-hook because he did not seem to admire it. Such is Foster. And to think that we came so near losing him! How do we know but that he is the Second Advent? And yet, after all, if the jury had not been hampered in their choice of a verdict I think I could consent to lose him.

The humorist who invented trial by jury played a colossal practical joke upon the world, but since we have the system we ought to try to respect it. A thing which is not thoroughly easy to do, when we reflect that by command of the law a criminal juror must be an intellectual vacuum, attaching to a melting heart and perfectly macaronian bowels of compassion.

I have had no experience in making laws or amending them, but still I cannot understand why, when it takes twelve men to inflict the death penalty upon a person, it should take any less than twelve more to undo their work. If I were a legislature, and had just been elected, and had not had time to sell out, I would put the pardoning and commuting power into the hands of twelve able men instead of dumping so huge a burden upon the shoulders of one poor petition-persecuted individual.

Mark Twain

The Future Attorney General

New York Times, March 20, 1873

THE FOSTER CASE.

Letter to Gov. Dix by Edwards Pierrepont.

Judge Edwards Pierrepont has addressed a letter to Gov. Dix on the case of Foster. He says:

The decision of the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the court below, whereby William Foster was condemned to be hanged for the murder of Avery D. Putnam. But that decision would have been precisely the same if Mr. Putnam had appeared in court, and proved that he was still alive … The rigid rules of law do not allow an appellate court to look beyond the record, even though the court might behold the living man, for whose murder the accused was condemned to die.

It is for this very reason, and to meet cases like the one before you, that the high Executive is clothed with extraordinary powers, adequate to correct all such mistakes, and to consider all facts and circumstances outside of the legal record, in furtherance of the highest justice, and beyond the functions of a court of law …

If William Foster is put to death for the premeditated murder of Mr. Putnam, very few of the reflecting community will not believe that he was executed for a greater crime than he in fact committed, and, to avoid the repetition of such an act of injustice, the aggrieved sentiment of the public may demand the abolition of the death penalty entirely.

Foster was convicted a few days after Mr. Putnam died, while the public mind was fevered and alarmed, and the verdict was not in accordance with the real convictions of the jury, nor in harmony with any reasonable deductions from the evidence …

the hanging of Foster would savor more of vengeance than of justice … and the reaction likely to take place in the public mind might cause a repeal of those laws which are now a wholesome restraint upon evil men.

The Aftermath

New York Herald, Nov. 1, 1873

TO THE EDITOR OF THE HERALD:

Justice can no longer be said to be blindfolded in New York. The verdict in the case of Stokes [murderer of bankster James Fisk -ed.] is a mockery and a farce. Jack Reynolds said, “Hanging for murder is played out in New York;” but his assertion would have been much truer if he ahd added, “for the rich.” If Stokes was not guilty of murder in the first degree then the hanging of Foster was nothing but downright murder. Stokes had not the slightest excuse, while Foster had a great many … The jury must have been influenced by some outside influence or there must have been some flaw in the presentment of the case by the prosecution. This verdict should cause our citizens to blush. It shall be recorded in the history fo our city as an everlasting disgrace and humiliation. Our citizens, it is true, are looking on patiently at this way of administering law; but the time will yet come when they will take the administration (if driven so far) of it into their own hands and adopt the rule of the pioneers of the West for murders – viz., “Lynch law.”

AN ADMIRER OF THE HERALD.

* Father of eventual Supreme Court justice Benjamin Cardozo.

** Congress-bashing is a timeless sport, but the body was in particularly low esteem at this moment because of the Credit Mobilier scandal.

On this day..

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1804: Louis-Antoine-Henri de Bourbon-Condé, duc d’Enghien

3 comments March 21st, 2009 Headsman

It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder on this date in 1804.

Napoleon shocked, just shocked, his admirers and more especially his foes by having a royal relative ventilated at Vincennes for the trifling offense of plotting against his life.

The particular allegations against him may have been formulated with greater haste than precision, but the duc d’Enghien actually had been taking English coin to overthrow Republican France for the past decade, and nonchalantly avowed as much at his drumhead tribunal.


The Duke awaiting execution in the predawn gloom in the moat of the Chateau de Vincennes. The pathos of the accompanying dog is mandatory for this scene, as in this Harold Piffard illustration. This spot is now marked with a monument.

After surviving one too many assassination attempts, Napoleon was in the market for someone to make an example of, and the Bourbon scion, hanging about the French frontiers conniving with the English, certainly qualified.

The dispatch of his military commission, which rammed through a conviction the night of the 20th and arranged the fusillade immediately thereafter, raised self-righteous hackles among rival monarchs who had little enough compunction of their own about politically expeditious regicide.

Conventional disdain for the shooting (as with this (pdf) from the Fourth Estate), reached far and wide, and appears in Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a subject for (spurious) gossip in the Russian salons.

The group about Mortemart immediately began discussing the murder of the Duc d’Enghien. The vicomte said that the Duc d’Enghien had perished by his own magnanimity, and that there were particular reasons for Bonaparte’s hatred of him.

The vicomte told his tale very neatly. It was an anecdote, then current, to the effect that the Duc d’Enghien had gone secretly to Paris to visit Mademoiselle George; that at her house he came upon Bonaparte, who also enjoyed the famous actress’ favors, and that in his presence Napoleon happened to fall into one of the fainting fits to which he was subject, and was thus at the duc’s mercy. The latter spared him, and this magnanimity Bonaparte subsequently repaid by death.

Pierre Bezukhov, the novel’s spirit-questing Russian noble then in the thrall of the Little Corporal, has the rashness to defend d’Enghien’s execution.

“The execution of the Duc d’Enghien,” declared Monsieur Pierre, “was a political necessity, and it seems to me that Napoleon showed greatness of soul by not fearing to take on himself the whole responsibility of that deed.”

Though that defense went over like a lead balloon with the partygoers (and with Tolstoy), others have ventured to stand in the breach for the Corsican, who assuredly attracts far more opprobrium as a commoner shooting a royal traitor than he would have had their bloodlines been reversed. Bonaparte enthusiasts, like those of the Napoleon podcast, are particularly susceptible to such impolitic sentiment.

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But Louis-Antoine-Henri normally gets better sympathy than that, as he did with the like of Chateaubriand, who resigned his Napoleonic commission in outrage.

And his death — far more notable than anything he did in life — is supposed to have occasioned the quip, “C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute”: “it is worse than a crime, it is a blunder.” (Or, “it is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”) Often attributed to Talleyrand, it was more likely uttered by his machiavellian mirror image, Joseph Fouche.

(See here for more on the phrase’s lineage. Talleyrand was so strongly in support of d’Enghien’s death that he is sometimes accused of steamrolling Napoleon on the subject. The wily minister destroyed some evidence and effected a timely volte-face when Bonaparte fell.)

The First Consul — he would crown himself Emperor later in 1804 — never had use for any such soft-pedaling, and unapologetically avowed the Duke’s execution literally to the end of his life.

Dying in exile on St. Helena years later, it is said, Napoleon read a calumny upon the d’Enghien shooting in the English press and promptly hauled out his already-completed will to insert in his own hand his lasting justification for the affair.

I caused the Duc d’Enghien to be arrested and tried, because that step was essential to the safety, interest, and honour of the French people, when the Count d’Artois* was maintaining, by his own confession, sixty assassins at Paris. Under similar circumstances, I should act in the same way.

* The Comte d’Artois was, at the time of Napoleon’s writing, the heir presumptive to the restored Bourbon monarchy — and he did indeed succeed in 1824 as Charles X. In 1804, the future king was in exile in Britain funding hits on Bonaparte and kindred counterrevolutionary stuff. For adherents of the much-disputed theory that Napoleon was poisoned in his island captivity, d’Artois figures as a possible instigator of the murder.

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1556: Thomas Cranmer, architect of Anglicanism

7 comments March 21st, 2008 Headsman

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(Part of John Merbecke‘s plainsong rendition of the Book of Common Prayer, as performed by the Virginia Theological Seminary motet choir. Via.)

Good Friday falls early this year, and gives pause to recollect the burning this date of Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury, author of this gentle prayer for Holy Week:

Almighty and everliving God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be make partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God,for ever and ever. Amen.

Thomas Cranmer was an obscure middle-aged priest when happenstance acquainted him with the circle then endeavoring to engineer Anne Boleyn‘s elevation from Henry VIII‘s enamored to Queen of England.

Cranmer enthusiastically supported Henry’s position that his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon should be annulled, and the perspicacity of the doctrinal case he developed to that effect saw him admitted into the inner circle of royal theologians.

The papal case foundered because Catherine’s kinsman Charles V happened, in the course of politics on the Italian peninsula, to be holding the pope a virtual hostage in Rome. On such accidents of history do faiths arise — and the faithful burn.

The Break With Rome

The 16th century, yeasty with religious disputation widely circulated by the printing press, is thick with folk who are one sect’s martyrs and the other sect’s villains.

Cranmer is just such a character.

One could charge him — and Catholic partisans have, many times — with blowing with the wind, granting theological license to the whims of his sovereign. Henry pressed through Cranmer’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, just in time for Cranmer to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine and validate the secret vows he had taken with Anne, earning both bishop and king excommunication.

That Cranmer rose with Anne but was ready to hold against her when she fell from favor, that he authorized the king’s famous pattern of discarding his past wives, that he signed off on the crown’s seizure of monasteries — that, in the end, he navigated Henry’s bloody reign with his position intact and even enhanced puts the whiff of opportunism about him. As Cranmer expert Ashley Null says (the link is a .pdf):

Like his first royal master, Cranmer did not make himself easy to love. In an era noted for the fervent courage of many martyrs for faith, Cranmer’s very survival under a king as unprincipled, or at least unpredictable, as Henry VIII has made him suspect. His late vacillation under Mary has only seemed to confirm the image of a man ruled more by the grip of fear than the assurance of the faith.

Whatever kernel of truth one might discern in such a charge, the fact remains that the church Cranmer built has by the test of centuries proven itself far more spiritually significant than mere opportunism could have admitted.

The Archbishop truly came into his own after Henry’s death.

For six years during the regency of Henry’s sickly, doomed son Edward VI, Cranmer hammered together the Anglican liturgy, wrote prolifically and beautifully, and assembled the Book of Common Prayer, a text which still guides Anglican services to this day.

His words still retain their power, and in some cases, their recognizability:

One can read Cranmer, especially in this mature stage, through many prisms — the competing threads of Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism in his developing thought; the attempt to steer his institutional church towards his vision of the Reformation; and certainly as an inconstant individual — for his recantation when the Catholic Mary Tudor took the throne shows us a man as prone as any to folly and weakness.*

It is not the headsman’s purpose, and certainly not on this day, to render judgment on Cranmer’s soul; still less to unpack his theology. If we find him a man of flaws to compensate his genius, we must do him the justice of remembering also his firmness at the last hour, dramatically abjuring the recantation that had been forced upon him and thrusting the offending right hand that had signed it first into the flames.

* Cranmer had endorsed Mary’s rival Lady Jane Grey in the contentious succession that followed Edward VI; for this, he was convicted of treason in a trial managed by his old friend and fellow-survivor Thomas Howard. (Source) The Queen spared him execution on this charge in order to have him up on heresy instead, and it was this that Cranmer attempted to avoid by submission to the pope.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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