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.

On this day..

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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1794: Jacques Hebert and his followers

4 comments March 24th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1794, firebrand revolutionary pamphleteer Jacques Hebert and his eponymous party of Convention radicals mounted the scaffold during the Paris Terror.

As a 32-year-old, Hebert started putting out his foul-mouthed blog radical newspaper Le Pere Duchesne in the Revolution’s early months.

In this increasingly vituperative rag, Hebert — incongruously writing in the voice of “Old Man Duchesne” — savaged first the royal couple, and then (after that pair lost their well-coiffed heads) whatever the retrograde element of the unfolding Revolution happened to be on any given day: the constitutional monarchist Lafayette; the bourgeois liberal Girondists. His paper valorized the Parisian working-class sans-culottes, and lustily demanded heads for the satisfaction of their various grievances.

Here, he literally channels Marat:

All of these thoughts trouble my brain, and the memory of Marat follows me without end. Last night I saw him in a dream: his wound was still bleeding, dammit. Upon seeing it I cried. Friend of the people, I shouted, is it you? Yes, good Père Duchesne, it’s Marat who comes from the dead to talk with you, because — dammit — the love of freedom pursues me even beyond the grave. Content to have lost my life for my republic, there only remains to me the regret of not having seen it delivered, before my death, from all the scoundrels who tear away at its breast. Père Duchesne, you must do what I couldn’t do. You closely followed me in the revolution; like me you consecrated you life to the defense of the rights of the people. You speak the language of the Sans Culottes, and your foul mouth, which makes little mistresses faint, sounds beautiful to free men, for free men shouldn’t be sought among the beautiful souls. Your joy and your anger have done more than all the dreams of statesmen. They know this well, the worthless fucks, and that’s why they’ve persecuted you like they did me. Courage, old man; don’t back off when you suffer the same trials as me, don’t be afraid: is there a more beautiful death than mine? But since you’re useful to your fellow citizens, try to avoid the daggers of statesmen. Live a while longer in order to denounce them and to complete, if you can, the task I’d undertaken.

Yes, Père Duchesne, you have to go after them hammer and tong, and not take it easy on anyone. When three months ago I proposed planting three hundred nooses on the terrace of the Tuileries in order to hang there the perfidious representatives of the people, some took me for a madman, and others as someone thirsty for blood. But nevertheless, if I’d been believed how much bloodshed would have been avoided! More than a million fewer men would have perished! So when I made that proposition I wasn’t speaking as a bloody monster, on the contrary I spoke as a friend of humanity. The moderates have buried more victims than those that fell before the steel of our enemies. Nothing is more harmful in a revolution than half measures. We have finally arrived at the era when we must pare things right down to the bone. … No more quarter for the defeated party, because, dammit, if the statesmen had the upper hand for one moment there wouldn’t exist a single patriot in six months.*

Late in his run, Hebert was on to venting dissatisfaction with the party of Danton, who had followed the monarchists and the liberals off the starboard of acceptable revolutionary opinion. Sensible centrist Maximilien Robespierre would indeed strike that faction down — just two weeks after he’d purged the radical Hebertist gaggle itself.**

Eleven days after Le Pere Duchesne last hit the streets, its author’s head hit the basket.

His printed editorials (like the one above) often assert a modish conviction in his own coming martyrdom, but as proof against a fatal political reversal, Hebert had trusted overmuch to his power base in the Paris commune. When he was carted out this morning, the mob whom his own paper once played to reveled in old Pere Duchesne’s fall just as readily as it had reveled in his enemies’.

some men carrying long sticks, at the end of which were suspended braziers of burning charcoal, symbolical of the “Charcoal-burners” of the “Pere Duchesne,” thrust them into the face of Hebert, insulting him with the same bitter railleries with which he tormented so many other victims (Alphonse de Lamartine)

Hebert was executed at the Place de la Revolution in a batch of 20 fellow-radicals, among whom we also find the eloquent “orator of mankind,” anticlerical† wordsmith Anacharsis Cloots. (Victor Hugo on his revolutionary leader in Les Miserables: “he had too much of Saint-Just about him, and not enough of Anacharsis Cloots.”)

The original La Pere Duchesne was dead, but just as the hot-selling mag had attracted ripoffs in its original run, the name lived on as a symbol of popular revolutionary menace — to be reclaimed by later generations in print and song.


La chanson du pere duchesne (live at RMZ)

* I know, right? Hebert was such a wild man, he thought ill of slavers.

Everywhere and at all times men of commerce have had neither heart nor soul: their cash-box is their God; they only know how to thieve and deceive; they would shave an egg, they would kidnap their own fathers; they traffic in all things, even human flesh; theirs are the ships which sail to the African coasts to capture negroes whom they then treat as worthless cattle.

** These rival factions linked as fellow-victims of Robespierre’s Terror are neatly symbolized by the spouses of their respective antipathetic scribblers: Jacques Hebert’s wife Marie, and Lucile Duplessis, wife of the Dantonist journalist Camille Desmoulins. Marie and Lucile were guillotined together that April, having forged a friendship while awaiting the chop.

† “The personal enemy of Jesus Christ,” Cloots called himself. He also remarked, “What is man’s chief enemy? Each man is his own.” A lot of enemies, this one had.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Mass Executions,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,The Worm Turns,Treason

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1945: Max Schlichting, for realism

4 comments March 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1945, a Hamburg coal worker was executed for an excessively realistic take on the war effort.

Although — or because — Germany’s administrative infrastructure was falling apart under the Allied onslaught late in World War II, its judiciary had no compunction about doling out death sentences.

While the overall number of cases dealt with by most special courts was much lower than in previous years, due to the gradual collapse of the court system, in these last months of the war some judges passed proportionally more death sentences than ever before. Legal officials continued to justify their brutal sentencing by claiming that this would prevent another ‘stab in the back’.

In other words: Clap louder!

Poor Max Schlichting, a coal worker with an unfortunate communist past, was sentenced to death for Wehrkraftzersetzung — “subversion” or “undermining the war effort,” the same thing they got Remarque’s sister on.

Specifically: he remarked to a soldier, in the aftermath of the American landing at Normandy, that Germany was going to lose the war. An undercover Gestapo spy overheard him.

Although hard evidence of Germany’s situation (German link) would have been difficult for a Hamburger to overlook, Schlichting received no clemency and was executed — six weeks before Hamburg surrendered to the Allies.

His sentence and (banal) last letter are recounted here, in German.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,Hanged,History,Treason,Wartime Executions

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