1752: James Lowry, despotical nautical

Add comment March 25th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1752 the tyrannous Scottish sea captain James Lowrey or Lowry was hanged at London’s execution dock for beating a crew member to death.

Lowr(e)y came to public notice in 1751 after the return to English shores of his merchantman, the Molly, from a run to Jamaica: ten of his ex-crew subscribed a public advertisement accusing him of murdering their mate on board, to which Lowry replied with advertisements accusing those accusers of mutiny.

Right away the British public knew it had a page-turner on its hands.

The captain had become unreasonably enraged with Kennith Hossack for lagging in his duties as he recovered from an illness, and upon a purported accusation of theft he had the mariner tied up and personally battered him about the head using a doubled-over rope as his cudgel, on Christmas Eve no less. Hossack at last dropped dead, at which point the heartless captain slapped his man and denounced him for “shamming Abraham” (i.e., feigning injury to skip work). Lowry evidently really had it in for Hossack, for the first mate explained that “I don’t know that he ever came upon deck twice in a week without beating him: my heart has bled for him many and many a time.” In the mate’s opinion, these beatings were always for no adequate reason.*

That’s a remark from the Admiralty Trial of Captain Lowry, where his former seamen developed the picture of an intolerably Queeg-like commander liable to take bitter umbrage if his men managed an illicit extra ration of sugar or rum, a guy who carried around a beating-cane with its own name (“the Royal Oak Foremast”) just in case he felt like doling out a disciplinary bludgeon. Three days after Hossack’s death, he came to blows with the second mate; two days after that, a fed-up crew “took the command from him” and ran the ship themselves, although they did not forcibly confine him.

Once the ship put in at Lisbon for repairs on the return journey, Lowry lodged a piracy complaint against his crew, but despite the incredibly serious charges and countercharges, everybody sailed on together for home thereafter, each party perhaps silently calculating the odds that the other would dare to press the case further as against getting on about their lives. Lowry does not appear to have made himself scarce until his former comrades went public with their claims, although once they did so he incriminatingly avoided the thief-takers and the small private reward set upon his capture for a few weeks.

On March 25, 1752, the brute was carried from Newgate Prison to the Execution Dock on the Thames, in a cart surmounted by a silver oar emblematic of the Admiralty. There he was hanged, and his body afterwards put in irons and displayed in infamy down the river at Blackwall.


Lowry pictured as part of a “Scotch Triumvirate” of Caledonian evildoers, along with the Scottish officer William Cranstoun, blamed for seducing Mary Blandy to the gallows, and the more mysterious “Major James MacDonald” whose papers suggest involvement in the South Sea Bubble 32 years prior (?). I’m in good company with my confusion on this MacDonald fellow, as the British Museum can’t identify him either. Check out britishtars.com for a fascinating exposition on the iconographic detail of the Lowry images in this post; we have also featured in this narrative several additional links to that same site’s various posts about the events on the Molly.

We have revisited a few times in these pages the intense commercial bustle among publishers of crime ephemera — in England as well as Ireland. Naturally this headline-grabbing execution excited plenty of competitive hawking.

Two examples appear below; the first of them is by a pair of publishers named Harris and Scott; the second, by Parker and Corbett, who at this time had the deal to publish the Ordinary of Newgate’s accounts. Harris and Scott were first to the market here, in an environment where rapidity counted for a lot; the Ordinary wanted to be sure the public knew that his “official” (according to him) version would be soon forthcoming, so he burdened the pages of London newspapers and even his own Ordinary’s Account of ‘regular’ Tyburn criminals with adverts to that effect.


This image from the London General Advertiser of March 26, 1752, one of several papers to carry the notice. For more on the relationship between publishers and crime in this era, see Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London by Richard Ward

Read on below to enjoy both.

* In fact, one nugget from this case is that an adequate reason for corporal punishment at sea might sit at a much higher threshold than we commonly assume today. Although the Royal Navy was (in)famous for the discipline of the lash, multiple experienced sailors testified at this trial that they never knew floggings or beatings to occur on merchant vessels.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Feast Day of St. Dismas, the penitent thief

1 comment March 25th, 2018 Headsman

March 25* is the feast date (per the Roman tradition) of the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus Christ.

“The Good Thief”, by Michelangelo Cerquozzi.

The Crucifixion — Christ flanked by the “bad thief” who taunts Him and the “good thief” who capes for the Messiah — is deeply planted in the western canon. All four of the Gospels refer to two thieves although it is not until Luke — chronologically the latest, and hence the most embroidered and least reliable, of the synoptic gospels — that these nameless extras are surfaced as contrasting archetypes of the damned and the saved.

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43)

This is as much as the New Testament has to offer on these characters, but the theme of the Savior’s redemption poured out to flesh-and-blood sinners at the hour of death had a powerful resonance for Christendom and would furnish a good thief cult down the centuries; topical for this site, said thief would headline countless execution sermons to the condemned. (Example) As Mitchell Merback puts it in The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

For suffering patiently and obediently, for his literal realization of the ideal of imitatio Christi, he is rewarded with the crown of martyrdom. The spectacle of his death, his ‘immediate beatitude’, was therefore consummately edifying: a beautiful death, redeemed and redeeming, not despite but because of the abjection that accompanied it. To the philopassianic late Middle Ages he served as a powerful inspiration for penitents. One could only wish to die so thoroughly cleansed of sin as the man in the image.

We have already seen how a similar wish obtained, individually and collectively, in the theatre of public punishments. Confessed and penitent convicts became, in the eyes of the people, the living counterparts of the historical martyrs and, consequently, the objects of a quasi-cultic veneration … Like his condemned counterparts in the Middle Ages, then, the Good Thief’s worthiness for redemption resided in part in the purity of his self-examination, confession and repentance … [and] also sprang directly from his fleshly pains. As both spectacle and image, the demolished body of the Penitent Thief constituted a sign of this soul’s lightning progress through purgation and towards redemption. Within the purview of a Christian ‘piety of pain’, his torments were both abject and redemptive, fearful and enviable, unbearable and fascinating.

For the Bad Thief, who in stubborn blindness turns away from Christ and dies in despair, unregenerate and damned, this surplus of earthly pain is something else: a foretaste of eternal torments. The same violent death transforms one Thief into a likeness of the Crucified, and hence a figure worthy of compassion, admiration and veneration; the other is marked as an everyday scapegoat, worthy of mockery and scorn. Together, then, the two figures, though marginal in the Passion narrative, become central in the medieval economy of response: they become antithetical models for a culture tuned to pain’s instrumentality in the pursuit of redemption.

In the language of the canvas, Christ gestures at that redemption by inclining his head to the right, towards the Good Thief, and didactic works will sometimes add a cherub retrieving this dying penitent’s soul whilst some infernal monster snatches the nasty one.


“Crucifixion” by Vitale da Bologna, circa 1335.

Both thieves attained their legendary names later in antiquity from the Gospel of Nicodemus, Dismas, Dysmas or Demas (the good one) and Gestas or Gesmas (the other one).** Other apocraphal texts build these two out like spinoffs in a blockbuster franchise; The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea gives us one bloodthirsty murderer and one proto-social bandit with a heavy dollop of anti-Semitism:†

The first, Gestas, used to strip and murder wayfarers, hang up women by teh feet and cut off their breasts, drink the blood of babes: he knew not God nor obeyed any law, but was violent form the beginning.

The other, Demas, was a Galilean who kept an inn; he despoiled the rich but did good to the poor, even burying them, like Tobit. He had committed robberies on the Jews, for he stole (plundered) the law itself at Jerusalem, and stripped the daughter of Caiaphas, who was a priestess of the sanctuary, and he took away even the mystic deposit of Solomon which had been deposited in the (holy) place.

And in a credulity-straining prequel, the Gospel of the Infancy stages a scene where these same two guys (as Titus and Dumachus) mug the Holy Family on the latter’s flight to Egypt only for the Good Thief in a spasm of conscience to call off the attack. Baby Jesus rewards his clemency with the depressing prophesy that they’ll all be crucified together.

Present-day namesakes of the penitent thief include the Christian rock band Dizmas, and Bill and Ted’s hometown of San Dimas, California.

* It shares a calendar date with the Feast of the Annunciation, which is the date that an angel informed the Virgin Mary of her miraculous pregnancy. (March 25 = Christmas Day minus nine months.) Medieval belief cottoned to the symmetry of the divine conception and the passion of the cross falling on the same day.

** The understood arrangement is that Dismas was crucified on Christ’s privileged right side. However, Merback notes that like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern these two halves of a whole are easily confused with one another, for “one of the surviving manuscripts containing the legend places Gestas on the right and Dysmas on the left; and several works discussed in these pages show the name ‘Gestas’ inscribed near the Thief on Christ’s right. Whether these are the outgrowths of a primitive literary tradition or the result of iconographic confusions or misappropriations is unclear.” As an example, in Conrad von Soest‘s Altarpiece from Bad Wildungen it appears that Dismas is the one bound for perdition:

† In The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea, damnation is explicitly framed as the fate of the Jews, with Christ assuring Dismas/Demas that “the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses shall be cast out into the outer darkness.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Israel,Myths,Palestine,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Theft,Uncertain Dates

Tags: , , , , ,

1775: Joseph Skidmore, carrier

Add comment March 25th, 2016 Headsman

From the London General Evening Post, Dec. 15-17, 1774

Extract of a letter from Birmingham, Dec. 15.

On Sunday morning last Ann Mansfield, the widow of a soldier, and lately a servant to Mr. Richard Wilson of this town, on her return to her father, who lives at Cradley, near Stourbridge, was found on the road, about half a mile beyond Hales-Owen, barbarously murdered. It is supposed, from the circumstances under which she was found, that she had been also ravished: her hair was dishevelled, her handkerchief and cap torn off, and her under petticoat lay by her side.

When she set out from hence, she had a small bundle, containing a new pair of stuff shoes, one pair of pattens, a black silk handkerchief, with lace to trim it, and sundry other things of small value; a new black silk hat pinned to her side, and wore a black and a white cloak, over both of which she pinned a white hat; which were all taken away.

A strong suspicion prevails against the S———- carrier (behind whom she rode through Hales-Owen the night before) who not only that night delivered a woodcock and some light parcels in S———-, but sent on Sunday morning her two cloaks to her father by two chimney-sweepers, who were both stopped, in order to undergo an examination. — The carrier is also taken up.

This “letter” was printed in several English newspapers; sometimes abridged for space needs, in time it appears to have evolved with the progress of available facts and suppositions.

Here it is in the Leeds Intelligencer for Dec. 27:

On Saturday evening last, Ann Mansfield having left the service of Mr. Richard Wilson, was returning to her father, who lives at Cradley, near Stourbridge, and for that purpose had sent part of her things by the carrier, and intended to have accompanied him herself; but calling on her sister, who lives with Mrs. Horton, in Mount-Pleasant, was detained till near dark, when the mistress very humanely begged her to stay all night, as it was impossible for her to overtake the carrier; but neither Mrs. Horton’s kindness nor her sister’s persuasions could prevail, for she unhappily persisted in her design of going home; and what is very remarkable, on leaving the house complained (to make use of her own expression) or a sinking at her heart.

She had with her a small bundle, containing a new pair of stuff shoes, one pair of pattens, a black silk handkerchief, with lace to trim it, and sundry other things of small value; a new black silk hat pinned to her side, and one black and one white cloak, both of which she wore, and a white hat pinned over them.

Some time yesterday morning she was found murdered near the spot where the Darbys are now hanging. — She is supposed from the situation she was found in to be ravished, and that the villains who perpetrated the horrid fact stuffed something in her mouth to prevent her alarming the neighbours with her cries, as no wounds of consequence enough to cause her death appeared outwardly, but the skin is forced off her hands and fingers, as supposed by struggling.

When found, she had her hair dishevelled, her handkerchief and cap torn off, and every thing of value taken away. — She had only four-pence in her pocket, which she intended to give the carrier. She was carried to Hales-Owen church.

Two fellows are taken up on suspicion of committing the horrid crime, one of whom had a white cloak in his pocket, supposed to belong to the unfortunate young woman, and they are sent this morning for examination. It appears that the carrier before-mentioned waited for this poor young creature and took her behind him, and was met by many people; which getting wind the carrier was taken up, and it is feared is too justly suspected, as he greatly prevaricates.

However much embroidery affects this story, we have a sense of the event — and of the dangers of an unlit nighttime road.

That this attack was (quite deservedly) recognized as the most egregious crime handled at Shrewsbury’s Lent 1775 assizes can be seen in the disposition of the sentences. This from Say’s Weekly Journal of April 1, 1775:

At Shrewbury assizes the following persons received sentence of death, viz. John Parry, and William Roberts, capitally convicted last assize, for plundering a wreck; Joseph Skidmore, for the murder of Ann Chandler, in a lane near Hales-Owen; Edward Stol, for horse stealing; Jane Aston, for stealing household goods; Samuel Thomas and Philip Jones, for horse-stealing; and Jemima Asplin, for breaking out of gaol, after having received sentence of transportation at last county sessions. — A respite during his Majesty’s pleasure was received for Roberts on Thursday; Aston, Thomas, Jones, and Asplin were reprieved; and Parry, Stol, and Skidmore, left for execution, the latter of whom suffered on Saturday last.

Just why the victim has become “Ann Chandler” instead of “Ann Mansfield” nor which a historian ought to prefer I cannot determine. But after Skidmore’s March 25 hanging, and the April 1 execution of Parry, all the others condemned at the 1775 assizes were reprieved their death sentences.

Part of the Themed Set: Shropshire.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Rape

Tags: , , , ,

1830: George Cudmore, posthumous book-binding

1 comment March 25th, 2015 Headsman

George Cudmore was on March 25, 1830 executed at Devon County Gaol, the present-day site of Exeter Prison.

Wanting to run off with his mistress, Cudmore slipped his wife a lethal dose of the 19th century’s prolific domestic assassin, arsenic. But suspecting the foul play, the surgeon opened Grace Cudmore’s belly and found the incriminating powder. At trial, Cudmore was convicted of the murder while the mistress, Sarah Dunn, was acquitted — somewhat to her own surprise.

The man’s strange last request was for Dunn to witness his hanging — grandly justified as a means to scare straight his ex-lover’s amoral libido. (Dunn already had four children out of wedlock at this point.) Exeter’s Western Times (March 27, 1830) reported that the ghastly sight of her Cudmore’s strangling on the rope “sunk [Dunn] down, and violent hysterics deprived her for awhile, of any further consciousness.”

More strange by far than the man’s late turn to righteousness was the disposal of his remains.

Condemned to the post-mortem terror of dissection, part of Cudmore’s skin was flayed, tanned, and eventually used to cover a book — an 1852 edition of The Poetical Works of John Milton.


Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?

Paradise Lost

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Sex

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1851: Sarah Chesham, poisoner

Add comment March 25th, 2014 Headsman

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

On this date in 1851, 41-year-old Sarah Chesham was hanged before a crowd of six to seven thousand people in Chelmsford, England. She’d been convicted of a single count of attempted murder, but the evidence indicates, and the public certainly believed, that she was responsible for several deaths and had perhaps even taught her deadly craft to other women.

Sarah lived in the village of Clavering in Essex. In January 1845, two of her six children died suddenly, one after the other, and were buried in a single coffin. Their deaths were written off as cholera, a common and deadly disease in those times. Yet, according to later accounts, just about everyone in Clavering knew the boys had been murdered.

In fact, Sarah’s reputation as a poisoner had been well known long before her sons’ untimely deaths.

In spite of the rumors, no action was taken until later that year — when Sarah was arrested on the charge of poisoning a friend’s illegitimate baby, a boy named Solomon Taylor. Solomon had been born healthy and thrived for the first few months of his life, but in late June 1845 he became sick, rapidly wasted away and died. His mother accused Sarah of murder.

Suspicious, the authorities exhumed the bodies of ten-year-old Joseph and eight-year-old James Chesham.

The boys’ corpses turned out to be saturated with arsenic.

James C. Whorton, in his book The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play, describes what happened next:

An inquest quickly led to Chesham being indicted for murder, and she was brought to trial in the spring of 1847. The evidence against her seemed conclusive: her sons had arsenic in their bodies, police had found “an assortment of poisons” in her house, and during the trial there were clear attempts to coerce witnesses not to testify against her. Sarah Chesham was nevertheless acquitted of all charges.

The jury’s foreman for Joseph’s case explained, “We have no doubt of the child having been poisoned, but we do not see any proof who administered it.” After all, no one had actually seen Sarah giving arsenic to her sons.

After her trials for the murders of James and Joseph Chesham, Sarah was tried for Solomon Taylor’s murder. Again she was acquitted; there was no evidence of poison in the infant’s body. Whorton records,

The verdict struck most observers as outrageous, but even if it was correct, something very disturbing was going on. The woman’s neighbors had believed her to be spreading poison for years, yet had uttered not a word to authorities. “What is to be said,” a newspaper asked, “of a district where cold-blooded murder meets with all the popular favor which is shown to smuggling in Sussex?”

One can’t help but think of the many incidents in modern times when “everyone knew” about the child abuse going on in some local household, but nobody bothered to report it until after a tragedy occurred.

Chesham was released from custody, went home and resumed her life. Then, in 1849, her husband died. He had much the same symptoms his dead sons had, but suffered a great deal longer: it took months for him to die.

During his illness, the solicitous Sarah was constantly by his side. She gave him milk thickened with rice or flour and wouldn’t let anyone else feed him anything.

After Richard Chesham’s death, authorities seized a sack of rice from Sarah’s kitchen. It was contaminated with sixteen grains of arsenic. (Two or three grains can kill a healthy adult.) Richard had arsenic in his body as well, but only in traces.

Although her latest alleged victim had died, Sarah was charged only with attempted murder: Richard suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis and it was unclear whether it was the arsenic or the lung disease that caused him to die. (It’s theorized that Sarah, having learned something from her earlier trials, had poisoned her husband slowly in small doses rather than in one dose all at once, as she allegedly did with her children.)

The punishment was the same either way: death. Sarah would be the last woman in Britain to be hanged for attempted murder.

Sarah Chesham may have wanted to rid herself of an inconvenient husband, perhaps reasoning that he would die of consumption anyway so she might as well speed him along. In some other fatal poisonings in Essex during that time period, however, it appears the motive was the deceased’s burial club money.

Club Dead

Many of England’s poor and working-class subscribed to burial clubs for themselves and their families. These were a form of life insurance and meant to provide money for the funeral if a member died, thus sparing the person from a pauper’s grave or worse, the anatomist’s dissecting table.

Some people, however, subscribed for different reasons, as Whorton noted:

Yet there were, inevitably, some subscribers who were not at all averse to a child or spouse receiving a pauper’s send-off, and if sufficient economies were adopted in their disposal, there would be enough money left over to make murder worthwhile … If done right, profits were not inconsiderable. First of all, club dues were affordable for virtually anyone … Second, benefits were relatively generous. Manchester clubs, for example, paid out £3 as a rule, but some paid £4 or even £5; a basic funeral for a child could be financed for only £1 or £2.

Provided they came up with the money for subscription fees, there was nothing stopping people from joining multiple burial clubs at the same time and getting a big fat payout upon their relative’s untimely death. Wharton mentions one child from Manchester who belonged to nineteen burial clubs at once.

Poisoner Mary May, who was convicted of killing her half-brother and hanged in 1849, had subscribed to multiple burial clubs without her victim’s knowledge. After she poisoned him she got £10 in all. Some people got double or triple that sum. And this at a time when an unskilled laborer could expect to earn only about £27 annually.

Cases like Sarah Chesham’s and Mary May’s set off a moral panic about poisonings in the 1840s and 1850s. As the London Medical Gazette noted, twopence could buy enough arsenic to kill one hundred people.

The press had everyone convinced that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were poisoning others for profit. Newspapers devoted a great deal of space to poisoning trials and speculated that these cases were only a few of a “multitude” of murders that went unpunished — and that this multitude was growing. Jill Ainsley wrote about this at length and says,

According to the press, the bodies subjected to forensic examination represented the tip of the iceberg of poisoned corpses. Poison narratives routinely assumed that poisoners were caught only once their lethal practice was well established. Once a particular individual was suspected in one death, their pool of alleged victims automatically expanded to include anyone else they had contact with who subsequently died. The implications of references to large families “all of whom were dead” were clear to regular readers of crime reports.

Women in particular were liable to suspicion.

In fact, the papers alleged that in Essex there was a “secret society” of female poisoners who conspired together to murder people with arsenic, and that the general public was aware of the situation and accepted it. There is no actual evidence that such a conspiracy existed, never mind that it was condoned by the locals.

It is true that the number of prosecutions in poisoning cases rose during this time period, but that was probably because of the application of the Marsh test, invented in 1836 by chemist James Marsh.

The Marsh test was the first reliable test for arsenic in the human body and it was extremely sensitive. Before that, just about the only way to figure out if something was poisoned was to give some of the suspect substance to a dog and see if it died.

Arsenic during the nineteenth century was cheap, plentiful and used in a myriad of things, from wallpaper coloring to makeup to sheep dip. In small amounts it made a good rat poison, and that’s usually what it was used for.

Since it came in the form of a grainy white powder that could easily be mistaken for flour, salt or sugar, a lot of people got poisoned — not all of them intentionally, either.

There were not a few suicides and many, many accidents. Ainsley, who studied the Essex poisonings at length, believes it’s entirely on the cards that the arsenic that killed James and Joseph Chesham got into their systems accidentally.

It was partly due to the notoriety of Sarah Chesham’s crimes that the British parliament passed the Sale of Arsenic Regulation Bill in 1851. The law required arsenic sellers to record the name of each buyer and to sell it only to people they knew personally. It also required arsenic to by dyed some other color so people would no longer mistake it for food.

Getting back to Sarah: after her execution, her family was permitted to claim her body for burial in the local churchyard. But before the internment could take place, the body was stolen, probably for dissection, by a person or persons unknown. It was never recovered.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , ,

1586: Saint Margaret Clitherow, pressed Catholic

2 comments March 25th, 2013 Courtney Thomas

(Thanks to historian Courtney Thomas for the guest post. -ed.)

On March 25, 1586 Margaret Clitherow, the wife of a York-based butcher, was subjected to one of the more obscure forms of capital punishment in early modern England: she was pressed to death, the mandated form of punishment for those who refused to enter a plea to a legal charge.*

Margaret was a victim of increasingly stringent attitudes toward recusants in the second half of Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603): Margaret was pressed to death just a year before the execution of Mary Queen of Scots for her role in a Catholic plot to overthrow the Elizabethan regime and two years before the 1588 Spanish Armada.

The two officials who were tasked with carrying out the sentence allegedly employed several beggars to perform the job instead and Margaret was taken to the toll-both on the bridge that straddles the river Ouse where she was stripped and had a handkerchief tied over her eyes as a blindfold. She was then placed upon a rock roughly the size of a baseball or an adult’s fist and a large panel of wood (roughly the size of a door) was put on top of her and slowly loaded with 700-800 pounds of rocks and stones.

In theory the smaller rock beneath her would break her back when the heavy rocks were piled on.

Witnesses report that she expired within about fifteen minutes. Other victims of this punishment were not typically so lucky. For example, Giles Corey, executed in Salem in 1692, had weights slowly piled on him for a period of several days (being asked daily before more weight was added if he wished to enter a plea to the charge that he was a warlock) before he expired.

Margaret was born Margaret Middleton in 1552/3, the daughter of a wax-chandler named Thomas and his wife Jane, the daughter of Richard Turner, an innkeeper. One of four children, she was born during the reign of Mary I (who has gone down in history with the unfortunate (but not entirely undeserved) appellation “Bloody” attached to her).

A bit of background on the process of the various reformations in England is necessary to understand why Margaret’s Catholic beliefs were treated so harshly.

Having broken with the Roman Catholic Church and founded the Anglican Church in the 1530s through a legislative reformation designed to assist him in securing the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could wed Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII saw many of his religious policies undone by his heirs.

He was succeeded on the throne in 1547 by his son (with his third wife, Jane Seymour), Edward VI, who made England into a more recognizably Protestant state than Henry appears to have intended (while Henry was interested in reforming stances, he appears to have identified most strongly with Catholic principles and geared his reformation toward abolishing the authority of the Pope in English ecclesiastical affairs, rather than changing beliefs and practices).

Edward was, however, a short-lived king, having died in 1553 after but six years on the throne. He was succeeded by his half-sister Mary (daughter of Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon) who was a devout Catholic and spent much of her reign steering England back into the port of Catholicism — a task which involved martyring approximately three hundred of her subjects for their Protestant sympathies.

Mary, in turn, was succeeded by Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was of a Protestant mindset and reinstituted the Anglican Church. Though initially reluctant to persecute people for their beliefs (she expressed herself as having no desire to “make windows into men’s souls”), political circumstances involving a plethora of plots on the part of Catholics (both real and perceived) against the Queen resulted in a hardening of attitudes.

While fines and penalties were in place for non-attendance at Church of England services, the regime also began to enforce strict penalties against those found guilty of sheltering priests and Jesuits. And it was to these laws that Margaret fell victim.


On July 1, 1571, when she was about eighteen years old, Margaret wed John Clitherow, a local York butcher and a widower with two sons. The number of children borne by Margaret to her husband is unknown; in addition to her stepsons William (1563-1636) and Thomas (d. 1604), she bore Henry (b. 1572) and Anne (1574-1622) and there is mention of other pregnancies but the details do not survive.

In 1574, when she was twenty one, Margaret experienced a spiritual awakening and converted to Catholicism.

While her husband did not join her in converting, members of his family also held Catholic sympathies and he was not unsupportive of her conversion, with the exception of one recorded incident when he railed against Catholics while drunk at a banquet.

Margaret soon became highly involved in northern England’s underground Catholic community. She regularly held masses in her home in the Shambles (where she assisted her husband with his business) and her son, Henry, traveled to Rheims (a Jesuit centre) to train for the priesthood. Inside her home, Margaret created a series of architectural features to facilitate the concealing of priests, including a priest hole and a hole which was cut between the attics of her house and the adjoining house which could be used by a priest to escape in the event that the house was searched.

Inevitably Margaret’s involvement with the local Catholic community drew official censure, and from 1576 onwards, John Clitherow incurred regular fines for her refusal to attend Church of England services with him. She was also imprisoned several times for her refusal to conform, serving three separate terms in York Castle as a recusant (August 1577 – February 1578; October 1580 – April 1581; March 1583 – winter 1584).

Once released, despite her efforts at concealment, on March 10, 1586 Margaret was arrested for harbouring priests (which, in 1585 had been made a capital offense). In a search of her house, a frightened child had revealed the location of a secret room containing Catholic paraphernalia and designed to shelter a priest.

After her arrest, Margaret was jailed and on March 14 she appeared at the assizes. Although she was repeatedly asked to plead, she refused a trial by jury and thereby incurred the penalty of peine forte et dure: being crushed or pressed to death. Margaret maintained that her refusal to plead was a measure to prevent her children and servants having to testify against her and also served to protect the souls of the jury which would find her guilty. It is very likely that she also wanted to protect other local recusants who had assisted her and desired to prevent the revealing of their identity, which a trial would have uncovered. However, many contemporaries simply thought her mad and wondered at her seeming indifference to her husband and children — and Margaret’s willingness to abandon them for martyrdom.

Yet, despite her imminent death, Margaret allegedly did not forget her family in her final days and reportedly sent her hat to her husband and her hose and shoes to her daughter, Anne. Some people, including her father-in-law, engaged in scurrilous mongering and postulated that Margaret’s willingness to die stemmed from guilt over an illicit encounter with her confessor, whose child she now carried. Such views, however, did not attain much popularity.

After her sentencing, she was visited by several local Protestant preachers and kin, who endeavoured in vain to persuade her to plead guilty and throw herself on the mercy of the assize justices. She also appears to have been pregnant at the time as many people urged her to publicly admit her condition and thereby obtain a stay of execution.

Margaret steadfastly refused to consider any of these things; she had embraced martyrdom. After her death, local family and friends (one of whom, John Mush, later authored a biography that remains the primary source for her life) found her corpse (buried anonymously as a criminal) and reinterred her in an unknown location in accordance with Catholic rites.

After his wife’s death, John Clitherow married for a third time and remained a convinced Protestant until his own death. The couple’s children, however, embraced their mother’s Catholic faith. Anne Clitherow was briefly imprisoned in 1593 for her refusal to attend Church of England services and eventually became a nun at the convent of St. Ursula’s in Louvain in 1598. Henry (the son who had traveled to Rheims) studied first to be a Capuchin (he joined that order in 1592) and then to become a Dominican. He died, possibly insane, without having firmly settled on an order. Margaret’s stepson, William, became a priest in 1608, and her other stepson, Thomas, a draper, was imprisoned for his recusancy. He died in Hull prison in 1604.

Margaret’s work for the English Catholic community and her martyrdom resulted in her canonization in the twentieth century. She was beatified in 1929 and canonized in October of 1970 — one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. After her execution, somebody apparently chopped off her hand to preserve as a relic at the Bar Convent in York. Margaret’s feast day in the current Roman Catholic calendar, together with that of the other thirty-nine English martyrs, is May 4 — although in England it is celebrated on August 30.

A few books about Margaret Clitherow

* Editor’s note: the trial could not begin without a guilty/not-guilty plea, so pressing was a means of forcing a mum defendant to the bar. Brute force often succeeded in extracting the necessary plea; however, because death by pressing preceded trial or conviction, a defendant hardy enough to undergo that fate could use it as a means to skip to the “execution” without suffering the other pains of criminal conviction. In Margaret’s case, she avoided the potential implication of other furtive Catholics at trial; in Giles Corey’s case, he avoided forfeiting his property upon the inevitable witchcraft conviction, and passed his estate to his heirs instead.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Crushed,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,Other Voices,Peine forte et dure,Religious Figures,Torture,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1915: 22 Singapore mutineers

2 comments March 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1915, “the sentences of the court-martial on a batch of 45 mutineers of the 5th Light Infantry were promulgated in public” — as the Straits Times reported — “and, in the case of 22 who were condemned to death, the sentences were executed on the spot.”

A crowd of fifteen thousand watched the spirited Indian sepoys shot dead for revolting the previous month.

This demoralized 800-strong garrison of Punjabi Muslims — who had, it need hardly be added, a noble history of insurrection to think upon — was already deployed far from home to look after the imperial interests of the London gentry while British lads mustered for bayonet charges in No Man’s Lands.

The last straw for these sepoys was a rumor that they were to be shipped to the European theater and made to turn their weapons against the Turkish sultan, their Muslim coreligionist.*

On February 15, 1915, helpfully covered by the celebratory fireworks of the Chinese New Year, about half the garrison left its barracks, attacked its British officers, and started killing any European they came across. (Many British familes took refuge in jail cells.)

Around 40 died in a few days before a mixed British-French-Russian-Japanese force arrived to crush the revolt. It was just one among a number of insurrectionary outbreaks during the war to rattle Britain’s possessions in Asia and elsewhere.

Punishments meted out this day were not the end of it at all; the court of inquiry sat until May, sentencing several dozen to death and many others to prison terms or penal transportation.

And if the mutiny never really threatened British control of Singapore, the ethnic and religious fissures it exposed in the imperial order have obvious resonances (pdf) for our present day.

And not only in the event, but in the aftermath. Prof. C.M. Turnbull noted (pdf)

In order to distinguish mutineers from peaceable citizens, all Indian residents were required to register and obtain passes. This aroused considerable anger, which was exacerbated by the cavalier attitude of some registration officers, who acted as if all Indians were to blame.

* The Ottomans had also issued a call to jihad with the onset of war, hoping to drive just this sort of wedge among Britain’s colonies.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,History,India,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Singapore,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , ,

1887: William Jackson Marion, who’d be pardoned 100 years later

4 comments March 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1887, William Jackson Marion was executed in Nebraska for the murder of his best friend, John Cameron.

Jackson had always upheld his innocence and his ignorance of Cameron’s fate; he was the picture of “utmost coolness” on the scaffold, declaring only “that I am a sinner, the same as other men. I have made no confession and have none to make. Go to the court dockets and see where men have been tried and acquitted and compare my case with them.”

And then, as given by the Gage County Democrat, the first, last, and only man hanged in Beatrice “stood erect upon the trap-door while his hands and feet were bound, the black cap drawn over his face, and the noose adjusted,” the trap sprung, and after a thousand-plus people had taken the opportunity to view this infamous corpse, it was buried in the potter’s field.


It was then 15 years since young “Jack” Marion and John Cameron had hauled out from Grasshopper Falls, Kansas, looking for work on a railroad.

Somewhere in the wilderness, John Cameron disappeared, and Marion returned to his mother-in-law’s saying his buddy had left. Marion’s whereabouts fade; he’s supposed to have drifted in Indian country: was it flight? It sure looked that way a year later, when a body turned up with clothes that matched Cameron’s … and bullet wounds in the head.

Only a decade after those railroad recruits had rolled out their mule-packs was Marion finally apprehended and tried, and even then, it would take four years (and two trials, and several appeals) to resolve this circumstantial and very cold case.

The matter was indeterminate; the newspapers in town sniped at each other over the proper course — “there is a strong under current of public sentiment that is opposed to hanging, and particularly upon circumstantial evidence, collected ten years after the trial [sic], and connected by the testimony of his mother-in-law who showed … personal malice” complained the Gage County Democrat. Up to the very last, the governor postponed hanging by two weeks in response to a citizens’ petition. As is so often the case, though, the will to grant outright executive clemency went begging.


In 1891, under the headline The Dead Is Alive!, the Beatrice Daily Express delivered a thunderbolt to its readers.

There has always lingered, and always will linger, in the minds of a number of people … a doubt of Jack Marion’s guilt of the murder of John Cameron, and for which crime he was executed in this city four years ago.

The Express has today received almost indisputable information which establishes the startling fact of Jack Marion’s innocence. In other words John Cameron is still alive and was seen at LaCrosse, Kansas, one week ago Saturday, and a statement was obtained of him regarding his whereabouts from the time he and Jack Marion separated … and upon which day the law says Jack Marion killed his boon companion and friend.

The “victim” hadn’t been killed at all — he’s just up and blown town, just like Jack Marion said.


Although John Cameron turned up alive four years after the hanging, it would take another ninety-five for John Law to set things right.

That was when the executed man’s grandson, Elbert Marion, officially petitioned for Jack Marion’s posthumous pardon.*

Considering the century’s wait, the Board acted with relative dispatch on the hand-written petition. The evidence, Elbert pointed out, “has been accepted as fact by many many people including the Nebraska State Historical Society” and the living Cameron’s identity considered well-established by his contemporaries.** Elbert’s documentary history was considerable; in the minutes of the meeting, it’s handled by unanimous vote with no more than a few minutes’ conversation — one board member (the Attorney General, no less) observing of a proposal to kick the can down the road to a later evidentiary hearing, “we have sufficient information now on which to act responsibly.”

Now that’s bureaucracy for you.

In 1986, the Nebraska Pardons Board unanimously voted to issue a posthumous pardon to William Jackson Marion, hanged on March 25, 1887, for the murder of John Cameron. Secretary of State Allen Beermann, a member of the Board, noted that this was only the second request for a posthumous pardon the board has heard during his 16-year tenure. Marion’s grandson, Elbert Marion, requested the pardon, arguing that the coroner had misidentified a skeleton as Cameron, and maintaining that Cameron was seen alive by two of Marion’s relatives four years after Marion’s execution. The Board justified the unconditional pardon by stating “that the public good would be served by granting such application and that a posthumous pardon should be bestowed by the government through its duly authorized officers, as an act of grace.” (Source, a pdf)

Nebraska’s In the Matter of a Posthumous Pardon to William Jackson Marion, under the signature of Gov. Bob Kerrey, took formal effect on the 100th anniversary of its title character’s death — March 25, 1987.

* Elbert Marion’s hypothesis — and it is only that — was that Cameron, fleeing a potential paternity suit, swapped outfits with an Indian who might also have been on the run from his own trouble. Elbert reckons that the trick might have worked a little too well, and Cameron’s pursuers ambushed the Indian by mistake.

** One of Elbert Marion’s letters to the Pardons Board contains an offhanded reference to Kansas’s 1907 abolition of the death penalty; Elbert Marion believed (or had heard) that his grandfather’s execution had helped influence the legislature’s decision, but I have not been able to further substantiate this notion.

With special thanks to Sonya Fauver at the Nebraska Pardons Board and Allen Beermann, Nebraska’s Secretary of State at the time (and one of the signatories on the posthumous pardon) for archival assistance on this story.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1843: 17 who drew the black beans

2 comments March 25th, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1843 was a good one to just stick with the guacamole.

Though the Republic of Texas (it would join the United States in 1846) had won its independence from Mexico a few years before, hostilities between the two continued.

Skirmishes in the frontierlands at length triggered a Texan reprisal-slash-plundering expedition.

The officially independent Somervell Expedition of volunteer Texan militiamen captured a couple of Mexican towns, then disbanded to go home. Those members of it optimistic about their chances for more raiding set off for Ciudad Mier* — the Mier Expedition.

Their optimism was misplaced.

The Mier Expedition was a flop, and the irate Mexican President Santa Anna ordered the entire band shot to make an example. Anglo diplomatic wrangling got him to go down to shooting one tenth of the band.

Well, you’ve gotta pick that tenth somehow.

The Black Bean Lottery

So on this day, 176 potentially condemned men were made to draw a bean from a pot containing 159 white ones and 17 fatal black ones.

For the lucky 159, there was no rush quite like winning your life from a legume, as this survivors’ account describes:

I knew then that I was safe, and the revulsion of feeling was so great and rapid that I can compare it to nothing except the sudden lifting of an immense weight from off one’s shoulders. I felt as light as a feather.

The 17 for whom the cosmos had ordained frijoles negros took a quick leave of their companions, and were shot in two batches. (Here is a thorough discussion of the entire affair.)

It was a typically dicey death by musketry, with lots of people requiring multiple volleys. One of the 17, one James Shepherd, even survived the execution altogether by playing dead. (He fled during the night, but was later recaptured and [successfully] re-shot.)

The most hated man (by the Mexicans), Ewen Cameron, pulled white, but Santa Anna thought better of letting him draw air and had him separately executed a month later. The rest of the lottery’s “winners” languished in prisons and work camps for more than a year of continued Texas-Mexico hostility, until they were amnestied and released in September 1844 — many destined to renew hostilities in the imminent Mexican-American War.

That survivor quoted above, William “Bigfoot” Wallace, was one of those re-enlistees. His colorful career with the Texas Rangers earned him a minor star in the firmament of Americana; he appears in Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove prequel Dead Man’s Walk … only in that version, he gets cinematically black-beaned at the big moment, as in this clip from the miniseries of the same title.

* The town is latterly famous as a key transit point for arms smuggling to Fidel Castro to supply the Cuban Revolution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Terrorists,Texas

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1997: Pedro Medina, en flambe

4 comments March 25th, 2009 Sarah Owocki

The electric chair has gotten a bad rap in recent years, and nowhere is this more evident than in the 1997 Florida execution of Cuban refugee Pedro Medina.

The improper application of an electricity-conducting sponge caused a “crown of foot-high flames” to shoot from Medina’s head, in a botched execution that caused Florida to reexamine its use of the electric chair and accelerated the trend towards lethal injection as the preferred method of execution — modern, sanitary and humane. But electrocution was once preferred for just those very reasons — well, that, and politics.

The thought of designing an apparatus to stimulate death by electrocution first came to dentist Dr. Albert Southwick in 1881, who watched an drunk man touch the terminal of an electricity generator in Buffalo, New York. Impressed at how quickly and painlessly the man died, he mentioned the incident to his friend, a state senator, who promptly brought the matter to the attention of the governor. The state legislature was then asked to consider how modern day electricity might emerge as an alternative to the often grisly process of hanging, in which incompetent executioners often inadvertently subjected prisoners to slow deaths by strangulation or decapitation.

Several years later, an inventor by the name of Harold Brown, an employee of the famous Thomas Edison, designed the first electric chair, deliberately adopting the Alternating Current (AC) form of electricity because Edison did not want his Direct Current (DC) form associated with the gruesome business of death — a sordid chapter in the history of public relations. The first execution was carried out in New York State in 1890, but the novel method was far from foolproof: it took two attempts, and the inmate was reported to have gone down in the same sort of smoke, flames, and smell of Medina’s over a hundred years later.

Still, the method caught on, and over the course of the 20th century, the electric chair became an indelible symbol of the death penalty in the nation’s consciousness.

“The chair” didn’t begin to decline until the mid-1980s, when newspaper accounts about botched executions, together with the emerging technology of lethal injection, again prompted some states to reexamine their death penalty statues.

It was around this time that Pedro Medina first came to the US from Cuba, part of the Mariel boat lift of 1980, in which Fidel Castro “permitted” some 125,000 Cuban prisoners and mentally ill to depart from the Mariel harbor for the fertile shores of America. (Medina himself had been released from a psychiatric hospital in Cuba and diagnosed with illnesses including paranoid schizophrenia and major depressive disorder with psychosis.) The boatlift polarized public sentiment in the United States.

These factors combined to lend Medina, a black man, a low status indeed in the eyes of prosecutors and jurors when, two years after his arrival on American shores, he was convicted of murdering his neighbor, Dorothy James.

Medina was executed in Albert Southwick’s brainchild 15 years later, despite pleas from James’ daughter, Lindi James, who said that she did not believe Medina had killed her mother and that her mother would not have wanted him executed regardless, and from Pope John Paul II, who also made a public call for mercy on Medina’s behalf. Medina’s lawyers also filed a petition claiming he was insane and thus incompetent to be executed, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled that, while he had mental problems, he could still be executed.

Early in the morning on March 25, 1997, Medina went out in flames.

A crown of foot-high flames shot from the headpiece during the execution, filling the execution chamber with a stench of thick smoke and gagging the two dozen official witnesses. An official then threw a switch to manually cut off the power and prematurely end the two-minute cycle of 2,000 volts. Medina’s chest continued to heave until the flames stopped and death came. (From the Death Penalty Information Center’s botched executions page.)

The source of the malfunction was not immediately apparent; prison officials claimed the fire had been caused by a corroded copper screen in the electric chair’s headpiece, but later investigation revealed that it was due to improper application of an electricity-conducting sponge to Medina’s head. Attorney General Bob Butterworth hailed the deterrent value of malfunctions: “People who wish to commit murder, they better not do it in the state of Florida, because we may have a problem with our electric chair.”

Others, including the warden conducting the execution, were not as sanguine.

The debacle of Medina’s execution caused a media sensation and led to a case by another Florida death row inmate, Thomas Provenzano, claiming that lethal injection constituted cruel and unusual punishment prohibited under the Eighth Amendment.

Provenzano lost his case, but with the release of bloody photographs of the 1999 execution of Allen Lee Davis, more states began moving against the use of the electric chair. Of the six states that today retain it (Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and, yes, Florida), none currently use it as their only method of execution.

Rather, lethal injection has become the norm.

But for how long? There may be no AC/DC marketing gambit in the new, modern business of death, and no crown of flames. But maybe all we’ve really done by moving to the needle is render invisible ongoing Medina-like botches.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Previous Posts


Calendar

March 2019
M T W T F S S
« Feb    
 123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!