1768: James Gibson and Benjamin Payne, impressing James Boswell

Add comment March 23rd, 2017 James Boswell

(Thanks to James Boswell for the guest post. The Dr. Johnson biographer was a ravenous gallows-haunt whom we have encountered repeatedly in these pages; even in his guise as a barrister, Boswell personally lost a client to the hangman. No fool when it came to content repurposing, Boswell in 1768 wrote the Publick Advertiser about the March 23, 1768 double hanging of John Gibson and Benjamin Payne; then, in 1783, he recycled the entirety of this bygone letter to extend his musings on the spectacle of public executions, for the occasion of Tyburn’s abolition. We reprint here the 1783 article, a comment within a comment, within the very comment that is this dreary site. -ed.)

LONDON MAGAZINE,<br />
FOR MAY, 1783.<br />
THE HYPOCHONDRIACK. No. LXVIII.<br />
Mitiores Poena nobis semper placuere. Justinian.,<br />
'We have always preferred mild punishments.'

THE question, Whether society has a right to punish individuals, especially to the extent of death, which is well denominated in Latin “ultimum supplicium — the last or utmost punishment,” has been treated with great attention and ingenuity by a number of casuists in law and in morals. And of late it has been discussed with elegant ability by the Marquis di Marco, an Italian nobleman of Mantua, whose performance well becomes that celebrated city, while it shews that in modern times the descendants of those whom we are taught from our early years to admire, are yet worthy of admiration. So that we may quote from Addison‘s beautiful letter from Italy,

And still I seem to tread on classick ground.

It is indeed a question which resolves into the powerful and irresistible plea of necessity; since we are sure society could not exist without such a right. But the exercise of it, no doubt, admits of much modification, in which the wisdom and humanity of legislators has a wide field. Another Italian nobleman has done himself great honour by his admirable work “Delle de litte e delle pene,” which Voltaire has illuminated with some additional rays; and I can with pleasure mention, to the credit of our own nation, Mr. Eden‘s Principles of Penal Law.

These cursory remarks are only meant to serve the purpose of introducing into the collection of my Hypochondriack Essays, another of my former writings, which is, I think, well suited to my present title.

April 25, 1768.

To the Printer of the Publick Advertiser

Sir,

THAT the people of England possess that quality called good-nature, will not be denied by any man whose mind is not fretted by some real ills, or clouded by some fanciful ones. But it must also be acknowledged that the people of England are, of all nations in the world, the most desirous of feeing spectacles of cruelty. Bull-baiting, cock-fighting, and even throwing at cocks, were for many and many a year the delight of the English; and it is not long since assemblies of good-natured people were deliberately held to see their fellow-creatures beat, bruise, and sometimes actually kill each other.

Though the desire of seeing spectacles of cruelty has peculiarly prevailed in England, it has more or less been the passion of mankind in all ages and countries. Hence the various satires against it by poets; hence the various attempts to account for it by philosophers. Lucretius, who was both a poet and a philosopher, refers it to self-love, as we may see from that celebrated passage,

Suave mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis.

He thinks that men love to behold scenes of distress, that they may hug themselves in security, and relish more their own safety and ease, by comparing themselves with those who are suffering. Though I, as well as every rational and virtuous man, must think that Lucretius is in general a very false and a very hurtful writer; yet I must candidly own that he is often ingenious and just in his observations. In the present case he certainly has a great deal of merit; though I would be for compounding his system with that of the Abbe du Bos, who accounts for our desire of seeing spectacles of cruelty from the universal wish that we all have to be moved; that is, to have our souls agitated; for to be sure there is nothing so irksome to a man of lively sensations, as to have his faculties thrown into a kind of torpor, so that in Shakespeare’s words,

They cream and mantle like a standing pool

This will more fully account for what I am endeavouring to explains and will make human nature appear not so grossly selfish as Lucretius paints it.

Of all publick spectacles, that of a capital execution draws the greatest number of spectators. And I must confess that I myself am never absent from any of them. Nor can I accuse myself of being more hard-hearted than other people. On the contrary, I am persuaded that nobody feels more sincerely for the distresses of his fellow-creatures than I do, yor would do more to relieve them. When I first attended executions, I was shocked to the greatest degree. I was in a manner convulsed with pity and terror, and for several days, but especially nights after, I was in a very dismal situation. Still, however, I persisted in attending them, and by degrees my sensibility abated; so that I can now see one with great composure, and my mind is not afterwards haunted with frightful thoughts: though for a while a certain degree of gloom remains upon it. I can account for this curiosity in a philosophical manner, when I consider that death is the most aweful object before every man, who ever directs his thoughts seriously towards futurity; and that it is very natural that we should be anxious to see people in that situation which affects us so much. It is true indeed that none of us, who go to see an execution have any idea that we are to be executed, and few of us need be under any apprehension whatever of meeting with that fate. But dying publickly at Tyburn, and dying privately in one’s bed, are only different modes of the fame thing. They are both death; they are both that wonderous, that alarming scene of quitting all that we have ever seen, heard, or known, and at once passing into a state of being totally unknown, to us, and in which we cannot tell what may be our situation. Therefore it is that I feel an irresistible impulse to be present at every execution, as I there behold, the various effects of the near approach of death, according to the various tempers of the unhappy sufferers, and by studying them I learn to quiet and fortify my own mind.

I shall never forget the last execution I saw at Tyburn, when Mr. Gibson, the attorney, for forgery, and Benjamin Payne, for an highway robbery, were executed. Poor Payne was a thin young lad of twenty, in a mean dress, and a red night-cap, with nothing to discriminate him from the many miserable beings who are penitent and half dead with fear. But Mr. Gibson was indeed an extraordinary man. He came from Newgate in a coach, with some friends attending him. I met the mournful procession in Oxford-road; and I declare that if I had not been told it, I should not have known which was Mr. Gibson. He was drawn backwards, and looked as calm and easy as ever I saw a man in my life. He was dressed in a full suit of black, wore his own hair round and in a natural curl, and a hat. When he came to the place of execution he was allowed to remain a little in the coach. A signal was then given him that it was time to approach the fatal tree. He took leave of his friends, stepped out of the coach, and walked firmly to the cart. He was helped up upon it, as he was pinioned and had not the free use of his arms. When he was upon the cart, he gave his hat to the executioner, who immediately took off Mr. Gibson’s cravat, unloosed his shirt neck, and fixed the rope. Mr. Gibson never once altered his countenance. He refreshed his mouth by sucking a sweet orange. He shewed no stupid insensibility; nor did he affect to brave it out like those hardened wretches who boast that they die hard. He appeared to all the spectators a man of sense and reflexion, of a mind naturally sedate and placid. He submitted with a manly and decent resolution to what he knew to be the just punishment of the law. Mr. Moore, the Ordinary of Newgate, discharged his duty with much earnestness, and a fervour for which I and all around me esteemed and loved him. Mr. Moore seems worthy of his office, which, when justly considered, is a very important one, if administering divine comfort to multitudes of miserable beings, be important. Poor Payne seemed to rely on that mercy which I trust has not been refused him — Mr. Gibson seemed truely devout; and, in short, from first to last, his behaviour was the most perfect that I ever saw, or indeed could conceive of one in his unhappy circumstances. — I wish, Sir, I may not have detained you too long with a letter on subjects of a serious but I will not fay of a gloomy cast, because from my manner of viewing them I do say that they become matters of curious speculation, and are relieved of their dreary ideas. I am, Sir,

Your constant reader,
MORTALIS.

After an interval of fifteen years, I have little to add to this occasional essay. But I cannot but mention in justification of myself, from a charge of cruelty in having gone so much formerly to see executions, that the curiosity which impels people to be present at such affecting scenes, is certainly a proof of sensibility not of callousness. For it is observed, that the greatest proportion of the spectators is composed of women; and I do not apprehend that my readers will impute a barbarous severity to the fair sex, though it is common for lovers to represent them as metaphorically cruel. But in the one case they are cruel to others to be kind to themselves, by avoiding what is disagreeable to them. Whereas in the other case the pleasure must be from the sufferings of others independent of any such reference. That there, however, is such a pleasure I am afraid is true; and in support of my opinion, I bring no less authority than Edmund Burke, who maintains it in his Treatise on the Sublime and Beautiful. Yet let it not be supposed that this pleasure arising from agitation, prevents the finest feelings and effects of compassion; I am sure it does not.

As the great Justinian nobly expressed himself, I should wish that as mild punishments as are consistent with terrour were always inflicted. It is indeed astonishing how men have been found willing and able to execute some of the horrible sentences which have been put in execution upon some criminals. One shudders to think of them; and I shall not wound the minds of my readers by reciting particulars. They who wish to be shocked, or to gratify a monstrous curiosity, may read the tortures of Ravaillac or Damiens. A mode of death which strikes terrour into spectators, without excruciating the unfortunate objects of legal vengeance, seems to be the most eligible. I, therefore, think that the faces of those who are hanged should not be covered, as in Britain, but exposed, as is the custom upon the continent, that the distortions may be seen, which covered or uncovered must take place. I also think that the punishment of throwing criminals from the Tarpeian rock in ancient Rome was a very judicious one. But the best I have ever discovered is one practised in Modern Rome, which is called Macellare –to butcher.” The criminal is placed upon a scaffold, and the executioner knocks him on the head with a great iron hammer, then cuts his throat with a large knife, and lastly, hews him in pieces with an ax; in short, treats him exactly like an ox in the shambles. The spectators are struck with prodigious terrour; yet the poor wretch who is stunned into insensibility by the blow, does not actually suffer much.

But, indeed, death, simple death, when slowly and solemnly inflicted, will be fully sufficient to answer the purposes of publick punishment, as is very well demonstrated by Dr. Mandeville, in An Essay upon the Increase of Robberies, in which he has written with a very different spirit from that which prompted his very shrewd, lively, and entertaining, but dangerous Fable of the Bees.

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1812: John Griffiths, crummy friend

Add comment March 23rd, 2016 Headsman

Chester Chronicle, Feb. 14, 1812:

On the morning of Saturday the 1st inst. William Bailey, collier, of Old Park Iron Works, near Shifnal, Shropshire, was found robbed and murdered in an iron-stone work, at Red-lake, in the parish of Wellington, having his throat cut and skull fractured in several places.

Suspicion immediately attached the crime to John Griffiths, a cooper, who resided about two hundred yards off, (and that from his bad character, he having been twice convicted of felony, as well as its being known that he had recently much importuned the deceased for the loan of cash,) and he was accordingly taken into custody in the [fear?] of absconding.

Notwithstanding there had been much rain during the preceding day, and the roads dirty in consequence, yet the shoes of Bailey were perfectly clean when his body was found; and it was conjectured that he had been murdered in some building and his remains carried to where they then lay.

The search was in consequence directed to a house lately erected by Griffiths about one hundred yards off, and the attention of those who entered it was attracted by stains of blood on the wall, and a quantity of sand which appeared to have been recently laid on a part of the floor. The latter was immediately ripped up, and underneath it was found a vault about eight feet long, four feet wide, and five deep, to which there was no communication but by removing the boards of the floor.

The boards were much stained with blood, and a considerable quantity in a coagulated state, which had evidently run down between them, was found in the bottom of the vault. A shirt, marked with the initials of Bailey’s name, was found hid under some coals in the cellar, and which has been sworn to as his property. A cooper’s bloody adze, exactly corresponding with the fractures in Bailey’s skull, was found on the floor; and a large horse pistol secreted in the brick work.

No part of Griffith’s working apparel, or dirty linen, could be found; but it appeared his wife had been washing the major part of the preceding night. A woman that lives nearly opposite the end of Griffith’s new house, and about twenty yards off, swore that on the night of the murder, at about half past nine o’clock, she saw (from her window) Griffiths come out of his house, and reconnoitre the road both ways, and seeing no one in sight, drag out a bag containing some weighty matter, and haul it round the end of his house in the direction to where the body of Bailey was found.

A bag was found in Griffith’s house containing a quantity of coagulated blood at the bottom of it.

Bailey’s house at Old Park, was robbed of every thing valuable on the night of the murder, and, no doubt, by the murderer or his associates; from his person was stolen an old silver watch, maker’s name, “C. Harrison, Limerick, No. 76.” Bailey was in the 64th year of his age, and of the Methodist persuasion; Griffith is about 28, and pretended to be of the same profession; he was at the meeting the same evening immediately after the murder. They were in the habit of praying together in private.

Coroner’s verdict, wilful murder against John Griffith. He is now in Shrewsbury gaol to take his trial at the next assizes. He denies all knowledge of the murder, and says if he should be found guilty, he is determined not to be publicly hanged. Griffith is a native of Wellington.


Original caption: “The above is a plan of the premises: — a. — The road to Potter’s Bank. — b. — Griffith’s dwelling house. — c. — Red Lake. — d. — The house, from whence the woman saw Griffith in the act of hauling the bag out of his new house. — e. — Road to Old Park Iron Works. — f. — Griffith’s New House. — g. — Iron Stone Work. — h. — Here Bailey’s body was found. — i. To Ketley Iron Works.”

Salisbury and Winchester Journal, April 6, 1812

At Shrewsbury Assizes, on Friday se’nnight, John Griffiths was tried for the wilful murder of Mr. W. Bailey, of Ketley, near Wellington, on the evening of the 31st of January last.

The deceased and the prisoner lived near each other, and were in habits of intimacy, the latter having experienced many acts of friendship from the former, whom he at length resolved to murder, in order to get possession of some cash bills which he understood he had about him.

The prisoner was a cooper by trade, and was carrying on his business in a house he had newly built, but to which he had not wholly removed. He was seen on the evening stated dragging something from his new house round the old one, to the spot where the body of the deceased was found, the skull beat in with a hammer part of a cooper’s adze, and Griffiths’s adze was found bloody on the hammer part, which exactly fitted the wounds.

Blood was found on the floor of a room in his new house, and had run through to the cellar; the walls were sprinkled with it, and attempts had evidently been made to scrape it off, and to clean it from the floor. A train of circumstances, related by different witnesses, brought the fact so close home to the prisoner, that the Jury had no hesitation in pronouncing him Guilty.

He was hanged on Monday last, and his body given to the surgeons for dissection. He had previously made a full confession of his guilt.

Part of the Themed Set: Shropshire.

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1860: Ann Bilansky

Add comment March 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1860, Ann Bilansky was hanged in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Bilansky — her Christian name is given as Ann, Anne, or Anna in various reports — was condemned for poisoning her husband, an immigrant Polish saloonkeeper named Stanislaus, so that she could get with her bit on the side.

Just a couple of weeks before Stanislaus’s unexpected March 1860 demise, Ann had gone with a friend to a local drug store and picked up a bit of the deadly powder, allegedly to deal with vermin. (This was arsenic’s very common, legitimate use.) She suspiciously tried to get her friend to put the purchase in her name.

The community suspected Ann a murderess as soon as Stanislaus dropped dead. She showed far less evident grief about her spouse than could possibly suffice for decency, and one local snoop peeped on her being a very merry widow indeed with her suspected paramour … on the very day after the funeral. Call it one for the road: the late husband’s stomach, when autopsied, had revealed that suspicious rat poison. She was soon behind bars, and would be convicted with ease.

(In July 1859, she escaped through a window of the barely-secure jail, rendezvoused with her old lover, and fled to the countryside. It was a week before the law collared her.)

Ann Bilansky continued to maintain her innocence at trial, in jail, and all the way to the scaffold. She reveled in the attention her case garnered and plied numerous visitors with claims of innocence and minute supposed errors in her trial. “She was a complete pettifogger,” said a newspaperman, “and had imbibed an opinion, which is common among better informed people, that technicalities could defeat justice in every case.”

But the versions of events she pushed on her many callers stood so starkly at odds with the evidence and the popular sense of her guilt that she even found her way into the local idiom for a time: a St. Paul resident could drolly call b.s. on someone by remarking, “You have been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”

Still, she was a condemned woman — and from the sound of it a rather appealing one — who asserted her innocence, and this meant she did not want for supporters. Legislators were among her jailhouse social circle, and she had enough sympathetic lawmakers that both the House and Senate actually passed a private bill for commutation of her sentence. Gov. Alexander Ramsey vetoed it.

Other visitors arrived bearing more forceful means of liberation: one slipped her chloroform, to disable the guards; a female visitor got caught in the act of trying to swap clothes with the doomed woman. Ann Bilansky even copped to having a specific family that she had arranged to hide out with if she could get out.

She just never quite managed the trick.

Ann Bilansky’s death was accounted a good one by the metrics of gallows-conduct: she did not faint or quail at the sight of the rope, or beg unbecomingly for mercy. But her last words plainly indicate that although she may have reconciled herself to death, she was not in the end at peace with the events that had brought about her end. (Many observers thought she entertained hope for the dramatic arrival of a last-second pardon.)

I die without having had any mercy shown me, or justice. I die for the good of my soul, and not for murder. May you all profit by my death. Your courts of justice are not courts of justice — but I will yet get justice in Heaven. I am a guilty woman I know, but not of this murder, which was committed by another. I forgive everybody who did me wrong. I die a sacrifice to the law. I hope you all may be judged better than I have been, and by a more righteous judge. I die prepared to meet my God.

Bilansky was the first woman executed in the state of Minnesota. (Minnesota had just become a state in 1858.) She remains to this date the last, and since Minnesota has no death penalty at present, she figures to keep the distinction for the foreseeable future.

Source: April 3, 1860 New York Herald

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1860: William Fee, the only person hanged in Wayne County

3 comments March 23rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1860, William Fee became the only person ever executed in Wayne County, New York.

Fee’s alleged victim is not distinguished by a name, at least not one known to Fee’s prosecutors. The anonymous woman turned up dead September 26, 1859 on Wayne County’s old Montezuma Turnpike. She had been strangled, the coroner said — and ravished.

Though she was a stranger, the victim had been seen in the area inquiring about employment. Fee and another man named Muldoon had been observed following her the day previous, and that “following” was cast in a sinister light by their now-unknown whereabouts. Both men were laborers working on an enlargement of the Erie Canal around Lyons, N.Y.

Fee was eventually arrested in New York City; Muldoon, in Scranton, Pa. We’ll return to Muldoon later.

Fee and his ill-favored “Hibernian countenance” stood trial from January 30 to February 3, 1860. “Seats were at a premium in the court room and in the gallery behind the curtains there was a crowd of ladies, listening breathlessly to the testimony,” ran a retrospective from 1913. “During the noon hour, seats were bargained for and sold at 10 cents to 50 cents apiece.”

And though he maintained a superficial calm when the jury returned a guilty verdict against him — “Damn tough, but I’m not going to lie awake thinking about it” — William Fee broke down sobbing when the judge finally sentenced him.

The kid came from a working-class family and had a scrappy reputation. It wasn’t clear as he approached execution that he was handling it with the gravity expected for the occasion by right-thinking gentlemen. Then there was the worry for his eternal salvation: born of mixed Protestant/Catholic parents, he was essentially irreligious and indifferent to a parade of ministers who called upon his cell. (Fee accepted the ministrations of a couple of Catholic priests in his very last hours.)

While clerics kneaded the hard clay of Fee’s soul, municipal officials took a chisel to logistics. Since this was the first (and last) hanging in these parts, the equipment had to be obtained on loan: they borrowed the upward-jerking gallows recently used to execute Ira Stout in upstate New York.*

The gallows was erected in one of the small halls of the jail … four upright posts twelve feet high and five feet apart. Across the top was an oak timber projecting two feet or more beyond the frame. At the front end, above where the prisoner was to stand was a grooved wheel or pully; and another was inserted in the timber over the centre of the frame. The main rope ran over these rollers, one end falling in front, to which the halter was attached, the other dropping to the centre of the gallows frame, where heavy weights were attached. These weights, in all 254 pounds, were suspended by a small cord passing through the main timber above and over it to a pin. The weights had a fall of perhaps eight feet. When the cord was severed by a blow of the axe, the weights fell and jerked the main rope running over the grooved wheels. In order that there should be no failure, Sheriff Snedaker had the gallows put up in the court house and fully tested before removing it to the jail. (New York Herald, April 3, 1860)

Fee came to this device still asserting his innocence, but also asserting that Muldoon wasn’t involved. Don’t worry if those seem a bit at odds; the execution party was confused enough to require clarification, too. Cut him some slack: those 254 pounds of weights weren’t going to cut him any.

The hanging went off without difficulty and, whether influenced by Fee’s parting attempt at exoneration or otherwise, Muldoon was never ultimately brought to trial. The evidence against him being unsatisfactory, he was released some months later.

William Fee’s afterlife — apart from this blog post — is allegedly spent haunting his old Lyons Jail (today, the Wayne County Museum).

* From reports, Wayne County didn’t return the gallows: it was eventually scrapped (someone made a chair out of part of it), and the Lyons Republican nicked the hanging-weight to use as a doorstop.

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1931: Bhagat Singh

2 comments March 23rd, 2012 Headsman

I am full of ambition and hope and of full charm of life. But I can renounce all at the time of need, and that is the real sacrifice. These things can never be hinderance in the way of man, provided he be a man. You will have the practical proof in the near future.

-Bhagat Singh

On this date in 1931,* India revolutionary Bhagat Singh was hanged by the British in Lahore, together with Shivaram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar. The hanging was surreptitiously done, on the evening before it was officially scheduled, with the men’s cremated ashes scattered into the nearby Satluj River.


Statue of the three March 23 martyrs near Amritsar, Punjab, close to the Pakistani border. (cc) image from Alicia Nijdam.

Though only 23 years of age when he hanged, Singh’s renown as a nationalist freedom-fighter was already considerable. It has not lessened in the intervening decades.

The teenage Singh had participated in Gandhi‘s nonviolent Non-Cooperation Movement, but violent British suppression of independence demonstrations soon had Singh looking for a more energetic response.

Till that time I was only a romantic revolutionary, just a follower of our leaders. Then came the time to shoulder the whole responsibility. … I began to study in a serious manner. My previous beliefs and convictions underwent a radical change. The romance of militancy dominated our predecessors; now serious ideas ousted this way of thinking. No more mysticism! No more blind faith! Now realism was our mode of thinking.

-Singh, from “Why I am an atheist”

Singh issued his definitive reply to British violence in 1929 by exploding a couple of bombs in the subcontinent’s legislative building.**

“It takes a loud noise to make the deaf hear,” read their leaflet, vindicating the (non-lethal) ordnance.

Singh’s arrest, along with a fellow bomb-tosser, was an intended consequence, but the official pursuit of the case against him also led back to Singh’s fellow-revolutionaries and bomb-manufacturers. Some of these were induced to inculpate Singh, Rajguru, and Thapar to the theretofore-unsolved murder of Lahore policeman John Saunders in December 28.

Saunders had been mistakenly assassinated: Singh et al took him for John Scott, a police superintendent who ordered a baton charge against protesters and personally helped beat to death one of the independence movement’s revered fathers.

While the law wrapped its coils about him, Singh led a successful hunger strike for better prison conditions, and kept churning out writing.

His example of sacrificial revolutionary ardor — not to mention his leftist politics — kept him a popular martyr figure for years after his death, all the way down to the present day.


Climactic execution scene from the 2002 Hindi flm The Legend of Bhagat Singh — one of many different cinematic adaptations of his story.

The Shaheedi Mela (Martyrdom Fair) is observed across Punjab each March 23 in honor of these men.

* Not on Valentine’s Day, as a 2011 Twitter hoax claimed.

** Shades of Auguste Vaillant.

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1526: Antonio Osorio de Acuña

Add comment March 23rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1526, Spanish bishop Antonio Osorio de Acuña was beheaded in Simancas for supporting the revolt of the comuneros.

Acuna was in his sixties when the popular revolt rose in Castile.

Given his age and station, he might have been expected to exercise the bishopric of Zamora in the interests of the powers that be. Instead, he threw in with the rebels, even fearlessly leading men into battle.

If that sounds (rightly or wrongly) principled to you, you might be surprised that Acuna has generally been tarred as an opportunist.

Was it “opportunistic” to seize the vacant bishopric of Toledo when that city was under attack by royalists? Or was it a courageous and needful stroke to take the ecclesiastical power in hand and direct the church’s material resources to the cause?

It’s really all in how you look at it. Surely throwing dissenting priests into the dungeon was a little harsh, but then, it was wartime.

Acuna was caught fleeing for France after the revolt broke down, but his execution took four-plus years to arrange through the sluggardly church courts.

Still, he was executed — a fact which underscores the stakes he was playing for, and insured that he would never get the benefit of historiographic doubt.

This Spanish-language page summarizes Acuna’s pre-comuneros career of graft and careerism. This Castilian nationalist page likes him quite a lot better.

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1877: John D. Lee, for the Mountain Meadows Massacre

1 comment March 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1877, Mormon leader John D. Lee was shot at the site of (and for the crime of instigating) the Mountain Meadows Massacre 20 years before.

As the only person ever prosecuted for this dreadful affair, which saw 120 California-bound settlers slaughtered by a Mormon militia, Lee “was allowed … to carry to his grave Mormondom’s guilt for this horrible and barbaric act.” (Jan Shipps)

On this anniversary of Lee’s death, Executed Today interviews author Judith Freeman, whose historical novel Red Water tells Lee’s story through the eyes of three of his 19 wives.

You grew up Mormon — what brought you to this story? I gather that it wasn’t exactly daily discourse in your youth.

I found a copy of Juanita Brooks‘ book The Mountain Meadows Massacre in a used bookstore in Port Townsend, Washington, read it and was captivated by this story.

Growing up in northern Utah, I’d only heard vague, shadowy references to the massacre. It was the dirty little secret buried in the Mormon past — except for those people in Southern Utah who lived with that story as part of every generation’s experience and shame. I felt I had to write a novel about it, in part to try and understand this question: How do you get basically good people, like those Mormon settlers, to commit such evil?

You paint a picture of John Lee through the eyes of three of his wives. What kind of man was he — and how representative of the Mormon hierarchy would that be?

I think Lee was first and foremost a brilliant pioneer and survivalist and also a big blowhard, the kind of guy who would talk your head off — affable and a bit boring when it came to promoting his own virtues and experiences. He was self-aggrandizing, he’d do anything to make a buck, he had problems with the truth. He was a suck-up to Brigham Young who became his substitute father and then betrayed him.

He wasn’t entirely trustworthy because he put his own interests before all else. He could also be incredibly generous and kind, helpful to others. He wanted people to like him though they often didn’t, and he had an ingratiating quality. He was an orphan, with an orphan’s life-long neediness. In many ways I think he was good to his wives and cared deeply about his family — all sixty something kids and 19 wives. He was an amazingly talented man, skilled at many trades and businesses.

Was he representative of the Mormon Hierarchy? I don’t know. In some ways yes but I sense he was more sycophantic than some, and had a more amusing character than others, but what they all had in common was an absolute deference to church authority. I think I might have enjoyed meeting John D. Lee, he might have been more lively and fun than Brigham Young who strikes me as a misogynist and a brittle, cold man.

What about the women — three very different characters. What’s the sense you got of life for these women as pioneers, living in a polygamous family? How did they relate to one another, and how did the massacre and the execution of John Lee change their situation?

The women were also amazingly inventive as pioneers, strong, tough, formidable women though how can you generalize about 19 different personalities? Some liked each other and some couldn’t stand each other and the good thing was that Lee was a small industry and many of his wives had their own farms so they weren’t required to live on top of each other. He understood the “kitchen thing” when it comes to women, and said he wanted every one of his wives to have her own stove. The Lee family/families were devastated by his execution. His families were left penniless and destroyed, treated very cruelly, the women dispersed and shunned, the children shamed, and this shame was carried for generations.

To what extent is polygamy in the back story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre? What, for that matter, was the massacre really “about” in your judgment?

Polygamy had a small role to play in the massacre. The practice of polygamy, outlawed by the United States, was a part of what disturbed Washington and caused the federal government to send troops to Utah, which scared the Mormon populace into committing violent acts. One must remember that they had been the victims of violence and massacre, and fear turned in their minds.

What the massacre was really about, in my judgment, was the struggle for power in Utah. Would Brigham Young and the Mormon hierarchy control the territory and be masters of their own destiny, or would the federal government impose control of the “fiefdom”? The massacre came out of the idea the Indians could be made to carry out an attack and then the government would be forced to realize that if the Mormons were not allowed to control the territory and “their” natives, terrible things could happen. But the whole thing got out of control and took on a terrible life of its own.

A large party of Mormons, painted and tricked out as Indians, overtook the train of emigrant wagons some three hundred miles south of Salt Lake City, and made an attack. But the emigrants threw up earthworks, made fortresses of their wagons and defended themselves gallantly and successfully for five days! Your Missouri or Arkansas gentleman is not much afraid of the sort of scurvy apologies for “Indians” which the southern part of Utah affords. He would stand up and fight five hundred of them.

At the end of the five days the Mormons tried military strategy. They retired to the upper end of the “Meadows,” resumed civilized apparel, washed off their paint, and then, heavily armed, drove down in wagons to the beleaguered emigrants, bearing a flag of truce! When the emigrants saw white men coming they threw down their guns and welcomed them with cheer after cheer! And, all unconscious of the poetry of it, no doubt, they lifted a little child aloft, dressed in white, in answer to the flag of truce!

The leaders of the timely white “deliverers” were President Haight and Bishop John D. Lee, of the Mormon Church. Mr. Cradlebaugh, who served a term as a Federal Judge in Utah and afterward was sent to Congress from Nevada, tells in a speech delivered in Congress how these leaders next proceeded:

They professed to be on good terms with the Indians, and represented them as being very mad. They also proposed to intercede and settle the matter with the Indians. After several hours parley they, having (apparently) visited the Indians, gave the ultimatum of the savages; which was, that the emigrants should march out of their camp, leaving everything behind them, even their guns. It was promised by the Mormon bishops that they would bring a force and guard the emigrants back to the settlements. The terms were agreed to, the emigrants being desirous of saving the lives of their families. The Mormons retired, and subsequently appeared with thirty or forty armed men. The emigrants were marched out, the women and children in front and the men behind, the Mormon guard being in the rear. When they had marched in this way about a mile, at a given signal the slaughter commenced. The men were almost all shot down at the first fire from the guard. Two only escaped, who fled to the desert, and were followed one hundred and fifty miles before they were overtaken and slaughtered. The women and children ran on, two or three hundred yards further, when they were overtaken and with the aid of the Indians they were slaughtered. Seventeen individuals only, of all the emigrant party, were spared, and they were little children, the eldest of them being only seven years old. Thus, on the 10th day of September, 1857, was consummated one of the most cruel, cowardly and bloody murders known in our history.

-Mark Twain, Roughing It

John Lee: murderer, scapegoat, or both? How did he come to be prosecuted at all, and how to be the only one prosecuted?

John D. Lee was both murderer and scapegoat. He was bold and careless enough to hang around the area after the massacre, and to prosper from his various businesses and appear almost indifferent to what had happened — perhaps he thought he had the protection of the church authorities who continued to insist the Indians had committed this atrocity. A lot of others who’d participated in the massacre left the area, driven out by fear and shame. But Lee hung on.

John D. Lee, seated beside his coffin just before his execution.

How he was thrown to the wolves by the church authorities is a long story, as is the story of his two trials. He was the easiest person to scapegoat. He took the bullet for his church, and I think the authorities felt that they could put the affair behind them once he was dead, and they did for a very long time, until brave little Juanita Brooks wrote her book in the 1950s and was the first to tell the truth: the Mormons did it.

Does the Mormon church have some unfinished reckoning here? If so — why, after all these years?

Who cares what I think? But in my opinion, of course they do. They need to stop saying it was a “local” affair, carried out by some “local” renegade fanatics in southern Utah. The whole situation that led to the massacre was put into motion by people high up in the church, but I doubt very much they’ll ever go there and admit that. Too many lawyers, too much money, too impossible to admit culpability of prophets, seers, revelators.

Finally, I just want to say that after writing Red Water and thinking about this massacre for the five years it took to research and write the book, this is what I came to believe about how you get good people to do bad things.

You need to get three things going: First, you have to make people afraid and use that fear to manipulate them (think of 9/11). Second, you need get people to obey some greater force or consciousness other than their own — the Mormons had a principle of Perfect Obedience where you were required to subject yourself to the authority of the priesthood and church elders, but this idea could as well be inculcated in the concept of patriotism, or military duty. The point is, you subdue your own conscience in favor of deferment to an outside force. Third, you make people think their system is better than the other guy’s, that you’re doing God’s will, that your sense of right is greater than theirs. If you can make people think they are doing God’s will, you can get them to do anything. Get these three things going, and you can get good people to commit great evil.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,God,History,Infamous,Interviews,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Politicians,Power,Religious Figures,Scandal,Shot,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,USA,Utah

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