Feast Day of Saint Pigmenius

Add comment March 24th, 2019 Headsman

March 24 is the feast date of Saint Pigmenius, the patron saint of pigmen.

In the hagiography, Pigmenius was a Christian scholar who numbered among the instructors of the young royal relative destined to switch back to paganism and become reviled of Christians as the Emperor Julian the Apostate.

Fleeing the new order, Pigmenius headed to Persia and as the Roman martyrology recounts it, there

he lived four years and went blind. After four years he was addressed in a dream vision by the Lord Jesus Christ, saying: “Pigmenius, return to Rome, and there you will regain your sight.” Getting up the following morning, he had no fear, but immediately got into a ship and came to Rome. After four months, he entered the city; he began to ascend the hill on the Via Salaria with a boy, feeling his way with a cane. And behold, Julian the emperor, travelling in his golden robes, saw Pigmenius from afar; recognizing him, he ordered him to be summoned. When he had been brought, Julian said to Pigmenius: “Glory be to my gods and goddesses that I see you.” Pigmenius replied: “Glory to my Lord, Jesus Christ, the crucified Nazarene, that I do not see you.” In a rage, Julian ordered him to be thrown off a bridge into the Tiber.

So he got to dunk on the emperor, before he got dunked by the emperor.*

However, this book (French) makes the interesting argument that the fourth century Pigmenius was a reinvention of a 1st century Roman saint of similar name, to whom subsequent legends attributed a fictitious eastern sojourn.** “It is this ‘orientalization’ of Pigmenius that connected it to the time of Julian,” runs the argument. For, once Julian’s death in battle in those precincts made the East an overwhelming shadow in Roman minds, “Julian’s story melded somehow with the legends which ran over the distant lands where it had unfolded and the oriental traditions, were ‘Julianized'” — Pigmenius’s among them.

* As the editor of this martyrology remarks in a footnote, this snappy retort was actually borrowed by the hagiographer from stories of Maris, Bishop of Chalcedon, to whom is attributed a similar exchange:

Julian: Thy Galilean God will not heal thy sight.

Maris: I thank God for depriving me of the power of beholding thy face.

** Comparable, the author claims, to the Persian excursions of Saint Cyriacus.

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1673: La Chaussee, for the giblet pie

Add comment March 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1673, a footman named La Chaussee paid the forfeit for acting the agent of fugitive poisoner.

The malevolent concoctions of the Marquise de Brinvilliers have already been detailed in these pages. The sudden death of her lover and accomplice St. Croix in the summer of 1672 had exposed his incriminating effects to unwelcome scrutiny, as a consequence of which said Marquise was at this moment on the lam.

A mere valet might very much aspire to melt into the scenery when an accusing gaze is cast; indeed, La Chaussee — Jean Amelin was his real name — had been the vehicle for delivering the fatal draught* to that lady’s two brothers via a giblet pie which the servant poisoned. Although the widowed Madame d’Aubray became greatly and rightly suspicious of her sister-in-law — who by the murder of her brothers now stood to inherit a good deal of money — it seems never to have occurred to anyone that the help was in on the plot.

That is, until La Chaussee most unwisely emerged from the background at the sensitive moment of St. Croix’s death, daring to assert his rights as the former servant of that man to a bag of money whose position in the late poisoner’s apartment he could precisely describe. Having volunteered and (by his accurate description) substantiated this eyebrow-raising intimacy, La Chaussee promptly received not the 1,700 livres aspired after but a speedy arrest.

Hours before he underwent his sentence on March 24, 1673, he was put to torture to discover his accomplices, and as intended the pain loosened his previously reluctant tongue. From the public domain Madame de Brinvilliers and her times, 1630-1676:

“I am guilty. Madame de Brinvilliers gave poison to Sainte-Croix. He told me about it.”

“What did he tell you?”

“Sainte-Croix told me that she gave it in order that her brothers might be poisoned.”

“Was it a powder, or a liquid?”

“A liquid. It was administered in wine and in soup.”

“What did you put in the dish at Villequoy?”

“A clear liquid, taken from Sainte-Croix’s casket. I gave poison to both the brothers. Sainte-Croix promised me one hundred pistoles.”

“Did you report to Sainte-Croix the effect of the poison on Monsieur d’Aubray?”

“Yes, and he gave me some more poison.”

“You are exhorted to tell the truth. Who were your accomplices?”

“Sainte-Croix always told me that Madame de Brinvilliers knew nothing about the matter. But I believe that she knew everything.”

“What makes you think so?”

“Because she often used to speak about poisons.”

“Was it ever suggested that Madame d’Aubray [the widow of the eldest brother -ed.] should be poisoned?”

“Sainte-Croix was not able to get me into her household. Some days before the death of Sainte-Croix, Belleguise took from his lodgings two boxes, but I do not know what was inside. I knew Belleguise ever since I was in the service of Sainte-Croix. Madame de Brinvilliers asked me to tell her where the casket had been placed, and if I knew what was inside. I did not think it was in Sainte-Croix’s rooms, because for a long while it had been placed in the care of a woman called Guedon, who had been working with me in the Rue de Grenelle. I do not know whether Guedon was acquainted with its contents.”

La Chaussee was again asked if Sainte-Croix had given poison to Madame Villarceau d’Aubray.

“No,” he replied. “But if he could have introduced anyone into her household he would have done so.”

The lackey was then taken to the prison chapel to rest for an hour before being carried to the place of execution. Upon being asked if he had anything further to add, he made some rambling observations about a certain Lapierre who had been living with Belleguise, and who was sent away. The sense is difficult to arrive at, and after his torture he may have been slightly delirious and light-headed.

He was then taken in a cart to the Place de Greve, and his limbs broken with an iron bar, a singularly atrocious punishment which was not abolished until the age of the great revolution. Like all cruelties of this nature, it never prevented a single crime. Indeed the brigands and thieves, for whom it was chiefly intended, were in the habit of hardening their flesh against its agonies, and in their moments of recreation used to carry out mock but painful tortures of the wheel, which enabled them to suffer on the public scaffold with fortitude and resignation.

The Marquise de Brinvilliers was eventually captured, and faced torture and execution in 1676.

* The dark arts of chemistry required for this affair were said to have been learned by St. Croix when he was imprisoned in the Bastille and there chanced to meet the Italian poisoner Exili.

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1825: Louis August Papavoine, An Execution in Paris

Add comment March 25th, 2017 Robert Macnish

(Thanks to Dr. Robert Macnish, a young Scottish surgeon, writer, and polymath whose wide-roaming intellect earned him the nickname of “the Modern Pythagorean.” While resident in Paris, Macnish witnessed the public beheading of a French murderer on March 24, 1825 … an experience he rendered into the essay below. The crime which occasioned this spectacle was notorious in his brief day; Victor Hugo refers to Papavoine by name as “the horrible madman who killed the children with a knife to the head!” in The Last Day of a Condemned Man. -ed.)

AN EXECUTION IN PARIS.

In the month of March 1825, Louis Auguste Papavoine lost his head. He was guillotined at the Place de Greve for the murder of two children in the Bois de Vincennes. The man was mad, beyond all doubt, and in Great Britain would have been sentenced to perpetual confinement as a lunatic; but the French criminal court refused to admit the plea of insanity, and he was given over to the executioner: the Cour de Cassation having rejected his appeal from the decision of that which tried him.

To my shame be it spoken, I wished to see an execution by the guillotine. There was a sort of sanguinary spell attached to this instrument, which irresistibly impelled me to witness one of its horrid triumphs. When I thought of it, the overwhelming tragedy of the Revolution was brought before my eyes — that Revolution which plunged Europe in seas of blood, and stamped an indelible impression upon the whole fabric of modern society. There was something appalling in the very name of this terrific engine. M. Guillotine, its inventor, was also one of its victims — he perished by his own contrivance. [this popular legend is untrue -ed.] Let no man hereafter invent an instrument of punishment. Perillus contrived the brazen bull, and was among the first to perish by it. Earl Morton, who brought the “Maiden” to Scotland, underwent a like fate; and Deacon Brodie was hanged upon his own drop.

The day on which Papavoine suffered was beautifully fair; and, profiting by this circumstance, the idle population of the French capital flocked in myriads to witness his exit. It was calculated that there were not fewer than eighty thousand spectators. The Place de Greve was literally paved with human beings. A person might have walked upon their heads without difficulty; and so closely were they wedged together, that had any object larger than an apple been thrown among them, it could not have found its way to the ground. Men, women, and children, were clumped into one dense aggregate of living matter; and as the huge multitude moved itself to and fro, it was as the incipient stirring of an earthquake, or as the lazy floundering of the sea, when its waves, exhausted by a recent storm, tumble their huge sides about, like the indolent leviathan which floats upon their surface. There was no spot of the Place unoccupied save immediately around the scaffold, where a portion was squared off, and kept clear by a strong body of mounted gendarmerie, who kept back with their horses the living wall, which was every moment threatening to break asunder by the pressure behind, and intrude its animated materials into the proscribed area. Nor was the Place de Greve the only spot so crowded. The quays along the Seine were equally peopled, and even the opposite banks of that broad stream were filled with multitudes. Notre Dame shone with spectators, who had mounted its beetling towers to catch a dim prospect of the sacrifice; and every window and height, which afforded the most distant view, were similarly occupied.

In Paris, as in London, it is customary to let out those windows where a good view can be obtained; and on any occasion of particular interest — as the present happened to be — considerable sums are asked, and given. Sometimes half a Napoleon is demanded for a single place; and the sum varies from that to half a franc, according to the eligibility of the situation. Many of the windows are so near to the guillotine, that a very favourable prospect of the painful spectacle can be obtained; and these, of course, are crowded with persons who can afford to pay well for the gratification of their curiosity — if there be, indeed, any gratification in witnessing the instantaneous and sanguinary death of a fellow creature. Yet the view, even from the best windows, is not equal to that from within the open area. But into this space, it is no easy matter to get a footing; the few who are admitted being military men, and such of their friends as they choose to bring along with them. Indeed, at this time, there were few or no officers of any rank within the opening. It was mostly occupied by the gendarmes, who were there upon duty; and by a few dozens of common soldiers, whom curiosity or idleness had brought together. This, however, was the spot to which my wishes led me; and under the guidance of a young French officer of hussars, I was led into the area, and placed in front of the guillotine, not ten feet from its dreadful presence. But dreadful as it is from association, and from its destructive rapidity, this machine is by no means so appalling to look at as the gallows. The same feeling of horror does not attach to it; nor is the mind filled with the same blank dismay, or the same overpowering disgust, which are universally felt on beholding the gibbet, with its looped rope, its horrid beam, and its deceitful platform, which, slipping from beneath the feet of its victim, leaves him dangling and gasping in the winds of heaven. Somehow the same strong idea of disgrace is not connected with the axe as with the gibbet; but this may be from the thought that the noble and the good have shed their blood in torrents beneath its edge, thus giving it a sort of factitious interest, and deadening even with the most criminal the ignominy of its punishment. Nor is it coupled with such inveterate disgust, and such decided outrage to the feelings of humanity. Prolonged physical suffering is at all times revolting; and to see a human being struggling with a violent death — writhing in agony, and perishing like a dog — is the most detestable sight in existence. The guillotine distracts the fancy with no such sickening imagery. Whatever agony is sustained, is the more noble and enduring agony of the spirit, previous to the fatal hour. There is no struggle here with the grim tyrant — no painful encounter between life and death — no tortures like those which wrung Laocoön and his miserable offspring. From perfect life, the individual is transported to as perfect annihilation. He does not enter eternity by slow, unwilling steps: the spirit does not quit its fleshly mansion painfully and tardily, but leaves it with a sudden bound, and plunges at once into a new existence, there to be saved or lost, as its fate chances to be decreed in the Book of Life.

At the period of my admission, it was two o’clock — one hour exactly from the time of execution; and I had, therefore, abundant leisure to contemplate the engine of death, and to witness the behaviour of the vast multitude around it. Things were as quiet as could well be expected in so great an assemblage. There was plenty of talking, but much less disturbance than would have occurred in England upon any similar occasion. In truth, the only quarter which manifested tumult, was in the immediate neighbourhood of the area, which threatened every moment to be broken in, not so much by the fault of those directly in front of it, as by the immense pressure of those in the back-ground. Every now and then its square proportions were destroyed by a portion of the crowd which bulged inwards in a solid mass; and almost at the same moment, this violation of the straight line was repaired by the gendarmes, who kept riding along the square, and pressing back the intruding body into its proper place. The recklessness and fierce temper of the French soldiery were manifest, and formed a strong contrast to the good-humoured forbearance of our own troops. No ceremony was used towards intruders. Whoever came, or was forced into the square by his rearward companions, was thrust back with wanton violence. Where the pressure of the horses was resisted, the gendarmes made use of the flat sides of their sabres, and belaboured the crowd without mercy. The whole scene presented a strange picture of the fearful and the ludicrous. While it was distressing to witness the terrified crowd recoiling before the soldiers, it was amusing to witness the dexterity with which the latter treated the refractory — sometimes pushing them back with their steeds, sometimes beating them with their swords, and sometimes dexterously pitching off their hats into the assemblage. When any unfortunate fellow lost his chapeau in this manner, or received a salutary blow from the weapon of a gendarme, a loud shout of laughter was set up among the spectators. In fact, the whole, except thosewithin reach of punishment, were in excellent humour, and seemed to have come together more to enjoy a farce than witness the horrors of a public execution. Things continued in this state till the hour of three, which, pealing from the clock of the Hotel de Ville, announced the approach of the criminal. Scarcely had the fatal sounds swung upon the air, than the whole host was hushed into silence. They knew that the destined time was at hand, and that Papavoine was on his way to the scaffold; — and every man held his breath with deep interest, and felt, in spite of himself, a solemn awe fall over his spirit. But this dreadful silence did not continue long — for far off, in the direction of the bridge over which the criminal must pass, there was seen a heaving among the assemblage, which moved as if borne on the bosom of a vast wave; and murmurs like the half-suppressed voice of a remote volcano, were heard to proceed from this moving multitude. It was now evident that the procession approached; and every eye was turned towards that direction, and every ear wrought to its keenest pitch to catch the strange sounds which denoted its coming. Each moment the noise became louder, and the motion of the crowd more general. At last the trampling of horses was heard, and a troop of gendarmes, forcing a path through the recoiling people, were seen to approach. Behind them came a cart drawn by two horses; and in this cart sat Papavoine and an old Catholic priest. To the rear of this a second body of gendarmes brought up the procession. The criminal was a small, thin man, of about five feet six. He was dressed in a shabby blue surtout, and brown trowsers, and wore a fur cap upon his head. His arms were pinioned behind him, not by the elbows as with us, but by the wrists. He had no neckcloth on, nor shirt; and the collar of his surtout was drawn some way over his shoulders, so as to leave the neck quite bare and ready for the axe. Though pale and death-like, and seemingly impressed with the marks of sorrow and bad health, he exhibited no signs of terror or dismay. His demeanour was quiet and composed; and to the exhortations of his spiritual adviser he appeared to pay deep attention.


Source

Now, here a scene took place which baffles description. No sooner had the wretch entered the area appropriated for his fate, than a shout of deafening execration arose from the hitherto silent multitude. No preparatory murmurs of hatred and revenge preceded this ebullition of feeling. It sprung up simultaneously, and as if those from whom it proceeded were animated with one soul, and felt one pervading vengeance thrilling through their hearts. “Wretch!” “Villain!” “Miscreant!” “Assassin!” arose in a wild swell from the crowd; and above the deeper voices of the men were heard the shrill imprecations of females, denouncing, with even more bitter wrath, the murderer. Had it been for almost any other crime, the women would have felt towards him more kindly than his own sex; but that for which he was to suffer was one of all others the most heinous to a maternal heart — and the natural fountains of woman’s tears were no longer free to flow in their wonted channel.

But Papavoine did not seem to hear the imprecations which were poured like vials of wrath upon his head — nor did he even appear sensible of the presence of those who so bitterly reviled him in his last moments. The cart stopped at the foot of the scaffold, and descending firmly, he conversed for one moment with the old priest, previous to mounting the fatal steps. I was at this time only a few yards from him, and marked him most distinctly. His look was perfectly calm and composed, and, had he died in a better cause, it would have been impossible not to admire his steady heroism. He said a single word in the ear of the priest who kissed him on the cheek, and left him, apparently much affected. Papavoine now ascended the guillotine rapidly and firmly, and committed himself to the hands of the executioner and his assistant satellite. At this part of the scene the loud execrations of the people had melted into breathless awe. Not a whisper was heard, nor even a movement among the vast and silent assemblage. The whole spectacle was dreadful — the very stillness of the crowd had something appalling in it; and the systematic dispatch with which the executioners proceeded among such universal silence, was sickening to the last degree. While gazing upon the victim, my respiration was almost totally suspended — my heart beat violently, and a feeling of intense anxiety and suffocation pervaded my frame.

The process was incredibly short. In a few seconds Papavoine was bound to a board which stood upright, and reached to the middle of his breast. The board moved on a pivot, and as soon as the malefactor was buckled to it, it was depressed, and shoved with its burden towards the groove of the guillotine, at the top of which hung the axe, ready to descend, on the pulling out of a small peg which kept it in its situation. A moveable piece of wood being now drawn down upon the root of the neck, to prevent all attempt at motion, and everything being ready, the executioner pulled a cord, and with the impetuosity of lightning, down came the axe upon its victim. Papavoine was annihilated in a moment. I saw his head slip from the body and tumble into a basket ready to receive it, while the blood spouted forth in little cataracts from the severed trunk, and dyed the scaffold with a purple tide. From the time when he appeared upon the guillotine till the head was severed, only twenty-five seconds elapsed — such is the appalling, yet humane rapidity of a French execution.

I looked attentively to observe if there was any motion in the trunk — any convulsive start at the instant of decapitation, but there was none. It lay from the first perfectly motionless, nor exhibited the slightest shudder — the least quivering — or the faintest indication that, the moment before, it was part of a sentient being, instinct with all the energies of life. This I did not expect. I conceived that a strong muscular spasm would have convulsed it at the fatal instant: and such, I am told, was the case with Brochetti, an Italian, executed some time before, and whose trunk sprung violently from its situation, and shook with universal tremor.

The momentary silence which pervaded the crowd previous to the axe’s descent was now broken, and an instantaneous movement ensued among its before tranquil numbers. The windows were deserted by their occupants; the doors poured their population into the streets; and the house-tops and black Gothic towers of Notre Dame were rid of the crowds which sat perched like eagles upon their lofty summits. But long ere this assembly had melted away, the guillotine had disappeared from the Place de Greve. Two minutes were allowed to elapse, that the head and body of the criminal might part with their blood.

They were then thrown into a long basket, and sent in the cart — which brought them alive — to the Ecole de Medecine for dissection. And the scaffold, after being cleansed of the gore, by having several buckets of water dashed over it, was taken to pieces, and deposited in the Hotel de Ville, till its sanguinary services were again required. The execution, together with the process of cleansing and dismantling the guillotine, did not occupy above seven minutes.

Next morning, the same curiosity which led me to witness this revolting sight took me to the Ecole de Medecine, to witness the remains of Papavoine. There were a number of scientific men present — among others, the celebrated Doctor Gall, who was employed in investigating the developements of the head, and pointing them out to several of his pupils. [A topic of great interest to Macnish, who also wrote a book about phrenology. -ed.] There was no portion whatever of the neck remaining attached to the trunk. It, as well as the head, had been severed from the body. The axe had struck at its very root, and even grazed the collar bone where it is fixed to the sternum. This is not in general the case, the neck being in most instances pretty accurately cut through the middle — one half of it adhering to the head, the other to the trunk.

I am not sure that I had done right in making such a scene as the above the subject of an article. There is something in the minute details of an execution, at which the mind shudders; and it is probable the reader may think that my impressions of the spectacle just related, should have been confined to my own bosom instead of being made public.

(For writerly firsthand accounts of the guillotine in action in the 19th century, compare to Tolstoy or Turgenev. -ed.)

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1823: John Newton, wife-beater

Add comment March 24th, 2017 Headsman

From the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, March 31, 1823.

SHOCKING MURDER — At Shrewsbury Assizes, on Saturday, John Newton, a Farmer, living at Severn-Hall, near Bridgenorth, was tried for the Wilful Murder of his wife, Sarah Newton, by violently beating and striking her, by throwing her down on a sledge, and by kicking her, (she being five months gone with child), in consequence of which she languished three hours and then expired.

The provocation on her part was — having misapplied the trifling sum of three shillings.

Her children stood by at the time (the eldest not more than eight years of age) and exclaimed — “O dear! do not dad!”

The evidence clearly proved the initial act of the prisoner.

Mr. Justice Best, in passing sentence, spoke to the following effect: —

John Newton, you have been convicted, upon the clearest and most satisfactory evidence, of the dreadful crime of murder — a crime upon which Heaven has imposed a sentence. It was recorded in Holy Writ, that, “Whosoever shed a man’s blood, by man his blood should be shed.” You have deprived of life one whom it was your duty to protect and cherish: and for what cause? Why, because your wife had misapplied the trifling sum of three shillings.

Your humane and kind-hearted creditor had endeavoured to prevent you exercising your brutal chastisement upon your wife, and he told you he would rather lose this trifling sum than you should punish your wife. You promised him that you would not beat her. Notwithstanding this promise, notwithstanding she was in a state that not even a monster would have laid violent hands upon her, the dreadful threat you had uttered four hours before was put into execution.

You beat her to the ground; you kicked her on a part of her body which might almost in all cases have caused death, but especially in the state she was in. You acted as a most inhuman father, destroying that life which owed its origin to you; and you killed your wife at a time when it might be thought that the most savage, the most ferocious of mankind would be disarmed.

When she was lying in an alarming state from the bruises she had received at your hands, you refused to send for medical advice, and when she was lying on the floor you abused her in addition to your cruel conduct.

After thirty years’ experience in Courts of Justice, I confess I have never witnessed such savage conduct as yours. I hope to God you will obtain that mercy you were not disposed to show here. May you apply to him with a contrite and repentant heart, who is the distributor of all mercy, during the very short time you have to live; for no mercy can you obtain on this side the grave. You will have the assistance of a clergyman, who is better qualified than I am to teach you true repentance: and may God of his infinite mercy, so dispose your heart that it may be better fitted for another world.

There now remains for me only the painful duty of passing the sentence of the law — which is, that you be taken hence to the place whence you came, and thence to the place of execution, on Monday next, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and your body shall then be given to the surgeons for dissection, and may God have mercy on your soul!

The prisoner, who is a robust-looking man of forty, showed little emotion during the trial, or when the verdict was given: but while the Judge was addressing him he seemed bewildered — looking wildly about him — moved, as if involuntarily, up and down as sick and once or twice attempted to turn away. He once put his handkerchief to his face, but did not want to shed tears.

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1823: John Newton, violent spouse

Add comment March 24th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1823, 40-year-old farmer John Newton was hanged for the murder of Sarah, his wife, who was heavily pregnant with their fifth child.

What happened is this: George Edwards, a local man, stopped by the Newton house and asked John for repayment of three shillings owed him for a lamp he’d sold the couple. In response, John flew into a rage, saying he had already given Sarah the money to settle the debt. This wasn’t the first time she’d done this, he told Edwards, and she had to be taught a lesson. He called Sarah into the room and threatened to thrash her.

Edwards was aghast and begged John not to hurt his wife, saying he’d rather forget about the three shillings altogether than have John do something so stupid. The three of them sat down and shared several jugs of weak beer — Edwards refusing to depart until John promised he would not hurt Sarah. As he left, he warned John that if he abused his wife, he, Edwards, would never speak to him again.

In the early hours of the next morning, John showed up at Edwards’s house and asked him for directions to the doctor’s, saying Sarah was suffering from pregnancy-related complications and “a bad job has happened.” When the doctor came, however, he found this wasn’t the case at all. Sarah had, in fact, been brutally beaten. Although she was given medical attention, she died at around midnight.

In Nicola Sly’s book Shropshire Murders, she notes,

The medical witnesses all agreed that Sarah Newton had died as a result of blood loss and, since the newspapers of the time seemed strangely reluctant to detail her injuries, it can probably be assumed that she had a miscarriage, caused by the beating and kicking she had been given by her husband.

Newton’s defense was three-pronged: first, he pointed out that Sarah had previously hemorrhaged after giving birth. Second, he claimed she had attacked him and he had hit her only in self-defense and only a few times with an open hand. Third, he presented various witnesses to suggest he had been insane at the time.

None of these arguments impressed: the jury deliberated all of two or three minutes before finding him guilty of willful murder. John said, incredulously, “I have lost my life for three shillings.”

John Newton wasn’t the only person to face trial in connection with his wife Sarah’s death, however. After John’s execution, the coroner who handled Sarah’s death inquest was brought up on charges of malpractice.

The coroner, a man named Whitcombe, had dismissed half the jury before the case was over because he considered the investigation to be “trifling.” He tried to persuade the rest of the jury members that Sarah had died “by visitation of God” before settling for an open verdict. He had Sarah’s body dissected before the inquest jury could examine it, and his own inspection of the body was judged to be perfunctory. Whitcombe had also failed to call George Edwards to the stand during the inquest, even though he was an important witness; Whitcombe also had an improper private interview with the defendant.

Whitcombe’s jury judged him culpable of “gross violation of his duty,” but in view of the fact that he had retired from his post in the meantime, he was not punished.


From the Caledonian Mercury, April 7, 1823

EXECUTION OF JOHN NEWTON, FOR THE MURDER OF HIS WIFE.

After this unfortunate man had been conveyed from the place of trial to the jail, on Saturday evening, he continued for many hours in a state of great agitation and mental distress.

On Sunday he attended divine service in the chapel of the prison, where he conducted himself with propriety. On the more near approach of the hour of dissolution his feelings again became more agitated.

At about a quarter after 12, on Monday, he was brought towards the scaffold, exclaiming, as he passed along, “I have lost my life for three shillings.” Having ascended the lodge of the jail, where he passed a few minutes in prayer with the chaplain, and some fellow prisoners, he was conducted to the scaffold; when, looking towards the immense multitude assembled, he exclaimed in a very loud tone, several times, “John Bolton!” “John Bolton, of The Hem!”

A voice appeared to answer from the crowd; and the prisoner then exclaimed, “John Edwards, are you come from Severn Hall?”

While on the scaffold, he said to the crowd, “This is a sad death to die, my lads, for a young man lie me; God bless you all.”

“I would give all the world it had not happened.”

He exclaimed two or three times, “Don’t hang me.” “I hope, gentlemen, you’ll not hang me yet.”

Occasionally he ejaculated, “Lord have mercy on me!”

Previous to being turned off, he put off his shoes (which he wore slipperways) from his feet; and when the drop fell he died instantly, and apparently without a struggle.

The unhappy man occupied a farm of about 170 acres, had been married about ten years, and has left four children. He told a gentleman who visited him, he had been a very bad husband at all times; that when he committed the fatal act, he struck and kicked his wife several times; and that, but for the interposition of Providence, he should, under the influence of his ungoverned feelings, at the same time have sacrificed the life of the child who interposed its cries in behalf of its mother: this addition to his crimes was happily prevented by the poor child outrunning and escaping from him. The unhappy criminal was a large and very muscular man. -Salopean Journal

Part of the Themed Set: Shropshire.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions

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1950: Johann Trnka, the last executed in Austria

2 comments March 24th, 2015 Headsman

Austria’s last execution took place on this date in 1950. Johann Trnka, murderer of a 51-year-old widow and her maid — the late Hermine Kolle’s apartment became popularly notorious as the Grauen Haus (“horror house”) after Trnka had finished with it* — holds the distinction.

Austria abolished the death penalty for ordinary civilian crimes on June 30 of that same year, and for all crimes in 1968. It’s gone, but naturally not forgotten; German speakers might enjoy this short pdf survey of the annals of Austrian executioners.

* Or maybe not. See comments.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Austria,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder

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1873: Mary Ann Cotton, serial poisoner

2 comments March 24th, 2014 Headsman

Mary Ann Cotton
She’s dead and she’s rotten
She lies in her bed
With her eyes wide open
Sing, sing!
Oh what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where, where?
Up in the air
Selling black pudding a penny a pair.

-Children’s nursery rhyme

On this date in 1873, prolific poisoner Mary Ann Cotton — whom some have tabbed Britain’s first serial killer for an arsenic murder spree claiming 21 or so souls — hanged at Durham County Gaol.

Her exact death toll remains somewhat conjectural since her method of choice — arsenic poisoning — so closely mirrored gastroenteritis. Vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration were hallmark symptoms of both afflictions, and as Mary Ann’s many children succumbed in such conditions over the years, they were easily chalked up to just another childhood mortality among the vast ranks of working poor.

At age 20, she wed a coal miner (her father had been one too, but fell to his death in a mine shaft years before). In the twelve-plus years of their marriage, she bore William Mowbray at least four children. Three died in childhood of — so the death certificates read — gastric ailments. William himself died of one too in January 1865, and Mary banked 35 quid in life insurance on the occasion.

Mary’s own testimony would eventually indicate at least four other children by Mowbray from when they lived in Plymouth. These were the circumstances for a repeat killer to thrive: when a mother can be eight or nine bodies into her career, every one of them close family members, and nobody has bothered to notice. She was said to be a consummate actress in her grief.

With Mowbray and her ample brood — of whatever size — off her hands, Mary Ann now made a career of disposable short-term marriages to men who could support her for a while, and then would mysteriously drop dead of a gastric problem with life insurance policies naming Mary Ann.

An engineer named George Ward, married in 1865 and died in 1866.

A widower named James Robinson had the good fortune to throw Mary Ann out of the house in 1869 for stealing. But that was only after five children in the household mysteriously died (three by Robinson’s previous marriage, one of Mary Ann’s and Robinson’s, and the last surviving child of Mary Ann and William Mowbray). Mary Ann also dipped out of that household for a bit to care for her ailing mother, who also then died within days. Robinson would say after his former wife’s arrest that he had been suspicious of all the dead kids and her eagerness to insure him, but nothing so strong it would lead him to, say, call the police.

In 1870, she found a Northumberland miner name of Frederick Cotton, who gave her the name by which history knows her. Only after Cotton dropped dead — and her lover Joseph Nattrass dropped dead — and a stepson and her own son by Cotton both dropped dead — did the black widow finally come to official attention. That happened when the mother, desperate to fob off her inconvenient last child, incautiously implied to a village overseer in Walbottle, Northumberland where she had moved to wed Frederick Cotton that young Charles Edward Cotton was likely to die soon.*

When he did so, that official had the death certificate held up to examine the boy’s body. Though arsenic’s symptoms were difficult to distinguish from less sinister medical conditions, the mid-19th century had seen the advent of an effective scientific test for toxin: the Marsh test. The end of the arsenic era would be the ensuing decades’ march towards ever more powerful forensic tests that could put the lie to the “gastroenteritis” diagnosis.

The Marsh test easily did so when applied to Charles Edward Cotton. All it had taken these twenty years was for someone at last to suspect something. Her trial of the “West Auckland poisoner” over a few days in early March — delayed because she was pregnant with one last child when arrested — saw intense public interest, and an easy conviction.

She only dropped her pretense of innocence, partially, on the morning of the hanging itself, under the persistent questioning of her Wesleyan minister “when, after some hesitancy, she said, ‘I believe that I poisoned the boy.’ She was also minutely questioned about the other cases of poisoning, and when it was urged that they could not have been accidental, she made no reply, but turned aside, leaving it to be inferred that she had been the cause of the other deaths.” (Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, March 25, 1873)

A fuller account of Mary Ann Cotton’s biography with a handy graphic of her suspected victims can be found in this article by the author of a recent book about the poisoner.

* She was remarking on the difficulty that care of Cotton’s son posed for her intended next marriage/victim. “T’won’t matter, I won’t be troubled long,” she said … which looks foolishly self-incriminating in print, but she had probably said such knowing-wink nothings to others before without trouble, seeing as even the wholesale deaths of several men’s entire progenies had not formerly sufficed to attract an inquiry.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Serial Killers,Women

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1936: George W. Barrett, the first to hang for killing an FBI man

15 comments March 24th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1936, Kentucky native George W. Barrett was hanged in Lockport, Indiana.

A rather nasty but ordinary enough career criminal specializing in car theft, Barrett also dabbled in murder. According to Keven McQueen’s book Offbeat Kentuckians: Legends to Lunatics, in 1930 he shot to death his elderly mother and his sister (who lingered for an extended time before dying of pneumonia, the consequence of her wounds), but pleaded “self-defense.”

Two juries were unable to reach a verdict.

Minor detail: Barrett’s cousin, Frank Baker, was the prosecutor in that case, and observers noted he appeared rather less than zealous about convicting his relative; the judge even remarked that Baker sounded more like Barrett’s defense attorney.

After his 1931 murder trial, a decidedly ungrateful Barrett allegedly murdered Frank Baker.

At his 1933 trial in that case he got a hung jury again, in spite of the fact that the only relative of his involved in the trial was the victim.

FBI agent Nelson Klein: shot dead in Ohio, but his killer hanged in Indiana.

Third time’s the charm: Barrett finally got his just deserts on December 7, 1935, when he was convicted of murdering FBI Agent Nelson B. Klein. The jurors stayed out for two days, but supposedly they decided on his guilt long before then and only wanted a few more free meals.

Barrett had killed Agent Klein in a shootout on August 14, 1935; before dying, Klein shot back, hitting Barrett in the legs and crippling him. The other agent involved in the gunfight, Donald McGovern, was unscathed and arrested Barrett.

There was an interesting dispute as to which state had jurisdiction over the crime; the agents had been standing in College Corner, Ohio, but the killer fired his shots from a position 22 feet over the Indiana state line. In the end, Indiana got the honors.

A recent federal law had mandated the death sentence for anyone convicted of killing an FBI agent. Barrett was the first to die under the new law; another man who’d murdered two agents in 1934 got a life sentence in Alcatraz.

The leg wounds Barrett suffered in his last shootout never healed. He attended his trial in a wheelchair and ultimately had to be carried to the gallows.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Indiana,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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2010: Modise Mokwadi Fly, Botswana pol

1 comment March 24th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 2010, reggae artist, politician, activist and convicted child killer Modise Mokwadi Fly was hanged in Botswana’s capital city of Gaborone.

He was the second person to be executed under the administration of President Ian Khama; the first was also a child killer.

Fly, a South African national, had been general secretary of the Botswana Congress Party Youth League. On November 27, 2006, he killed his two-year-old son, Tawana Mosinyi, with an ax while the toddler slept. Fly maintained until his death that Tawana’s death was accidental and he’d actually been trying to throw his ax at the police who were firing shots at his house from outside. The prosecution believed Fly deliberately killed his son to spite the child’s mother, whom he’d recently quarreled with.

After his conviction on October 17, 2008, Fly apologized to Tawana’s family for his death. He sentenced to hang five days later, then he waited a year and a half for his date with death. Witnesses reported he seemed oddly cheerful and gregarious in court, smiling and chatting amiably with his friends and relatives who attended the trial.

In February 2010, the month before his execution, Fly made an attempt to escape from prison. He was the first prisoner to succeed in escaping from Botswana’s death row — but he was only free for fifteen minutes. After his capture, it was alleged, he was brutally beaten by the guards and then placed in solitary confinement so no one could see his injuries.

If the prison did in fact do this, it didn’t work: the news of the alleged mistreatment became public on March 23. Whether the timing had anything to do with his secretive execution the next day is unclear. Predictably, Botswana’s Department of Prisons and Rehabilitation denied that the prisoner had been abused or placed in isolation.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Activists,Artists,Botswana,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Politicians,Ripped from the Headlines

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1882: William Heilwagner, onion weeder

Add comment March 24th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1882, German immigrant William Heilwagner hanged for murdering his daughter-in-law outside Davenport, Iowa.

“A chain of circumstantial evidence wrapped itself around the old man,” writes Laura James. He “made no real effort to explain or defend himself.”

There was little doubt William resented his son’s wife Annie — “the low livedest thing around” he said on the day of her death. This sportive lass yearned for recreation not to be found on Midwestern onion farms, and the neighbors heard the triangular family dust-ups that resulted. There was not a whit of direct evidence against the defendant, but since Otto was out playing pinochle that night, it really only left one suspect.

After the inevitable conviction, a greenhorn aspiring journalist from Davenport, one Charles Edward Russell, took an interest in the queer case. William Heilwagner’s behavior unsettled him; Russell pressed him for a jailhouse interview.

As described in Russell’s 1914 memoir, These Shifting Scenes (available free here), the taciturn Bavarian gave Russell nothing but aggravation.

“Where were you on the night when your daughter-in-law was killed?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you. Where were you?”

“Oh, I was in the house”

“Well, did you see her get killed?”

“Who? Me? No, I didn’t see her get killed.”

“Did you hear her cry out?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you. Did you hear her cry out?”

“No, I didn’t hear nothing.”

“Did she go to bed as usual that night?”

“Who? Annie? Oh, yes, I guess. She go to bed all right.”

“Did you hear her get up in the night? Did you hear anybody come to the house? Did you hear any talking or fighting?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you.”

“No, I didn’t hear nothing.”

“Well, you knew that she went to bed that night and she wasn’t there the next morning and she never came back. Didn’t you think that was strange?”

“Didn’t I think what was strange?”

“That she had gone away in the night and never come back. Didn’t you think that was strange?”

“Who? Me? No, I didn’t think nothing about it. I just go weed my onions.”

It’s enough to drive a body to distraction. Between the prisoner’s feeble story and apparent disinterest in his fate, Russell figured the old weirdo did it — discounting Heilwagner’s scaffold declaration of innocence.

“Gentlemen, I am innocent of this crime.” Not one of us that heard believed him. What guilty man is ever punished? What murderer, however hardened, or however certain his crime, fails to protest on the gallows in the like terms and with the same hardihood? All the experienced reporters there told me they had heard such assertions often on the like occasion and were moved not a whit.

Ten years later, Heilwagner’s son Otto leapt to his death from a bridge in Quincy, Illinois.

Otto left behind a suicide note confessing to the murder of his wife: he had secretly rowed back to the house in the dead of night, enticed Annie out of the house, and murdered her for infidelity. Heilwagners, father and son, kept their peace about the secret while William hanged.

“Who? Me?” the old man had said, in answer to my questions. He knew it all, he knew who killed Annie, and he went calmly to his death to save his guilty son. Dull old man, chill and repulsive, he had in him so much of the hero and so much of love. “For greater love hath no man than this.”

It was a rugged introduction for a novice to the business of crime detecting and legalized life-taking. If I had been expert at my trade I might have saved that man. Post facto illumination — how foolish it is! I can see now the indications and signs and hints that meant nothing to me then. But even though I knew at the time nothing of the full horror of that day the experience sickened me of hangings. I have never since acquiesced in any capital punishment. It is as illogical as it is profitless. I have had in my time more than my share of these spectacles and I take it as a fact worthy of serious reflection that I have seen the state put to death eleven persons and five of these I know to have been absolutely innocent, while of the guilt of a sixth and the mental responsibility of a seventh there were the gravest doubts. Murder upon murder, and if I should be asked what good or advantage society reaped from the death of any or all of these, I should be unable to say, nor has there yet appeared in my range of experience any person more expert than I to make that answer.

Among the innocent Russell reckoned were the Haymarket martyrs, whose hanging he covered a few years later for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

His keen sense of injustice — and a somewhat better-developed nose for a story — led Russell on to a career as the “prince of muckrakers,” credited with some of the signature coups of turn-of-the-century journalism, and a place on the masthead as a co-founder of the NAACP.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Iowa,Murder,Notable Participants,USA,Wrongful Executions

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