1572: Annecke Lange, Gesche Herbst, and Annecke Rotschroeder

Add comment March 28th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1572, Annecke Lange, Gesche Herbst, and Annecke Rotschroeder were all condemned and burned at Neustadt am Rübenberge, as witches and poisoners.

Although commoners, they were the luckless casualties of misbegotten marital politics in the Holy Roman Empire, and in the words of Tara Nummedal in Anna Zieglerin and the Lion’s Blood: Alchemy and End Times in Reformation Germany, “the entire incident laid bare simultaneously the fear of poison and sorcery and the reluctance to advance witch accusations against women of elite status in the princely courts of central Europe.”

The particular princely court of interest for us is that of Eric(h) II, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, a Lutheran convert who married a House of Wettin princess called Sidonie of Saxony. It was one of those love-matches by which the bluebloods slip the bonds of arranged dynastic alliances and often, of historical irrelevancy. ‘Tis a likely antechamber to the volumes of Executed Today.

Sidonie was a decade Eric’s senior, leading one wise grandee to predict, “All sorts of things will happen inside this marriage after the kissing month ends.”

Just so. Eric reverted to Catholicism and the childless couple became bitterly estranged — not only over religion, but money, and the want of a child. (Eventually Eric would die without an heir, and pass his realm to a cousin.) So intense would the couple’s antipathy become that they began to suspect one another of seeking an abrupt annulment by the hand of the poisoner.

That hypothesis became self-confirming when Eric fell ill in 1564, and Eric (this is Nummedal again) “initiated an investigation, accusing four women in Neustadt am Rübenberge, close to Hannover, of both trying to poison him and using sorcery to disrupt his marriage, keep him away ‘from his land and people,’ and make Sidonie barren.”

Three of these four women broke under torture and admitted not only poisoning but witchcraft; they were burned in 1568. But the fourth woman, Gesche Role, had the fortitude to withstand her interrogators and was released.

It’s by way of Gesche Role that we arrive at our day’s principals — for in some fresh turn of the diplomatic jockeying between the estranged power couple, Eric renewed his accusation and re-arrested the poor woman upon fresh claims of fiendery. This time she succumbed and confessed — adding, as is the style, a series of charges against five other acquaintances: our three victims, Annecke Lange, Gesche Herbst, and Annecke Rotschroeder; plus, Annecke’s husband Hans Lange, who died under torture; and, a woman named Margarethe Ölse or Ölsin, whose fate was stayed by dint of her pregnancy. Hans Lange had actually been a barber and surgeon who had been in ducal employment, affording some material connection to the “victim’s” plate, but of course all confessions were secured in the usual violent manner.

On the 28th of March, our three victims were condemned at Neustadt and immediately sent to the stake. Several others in the widening witch inquiry shared a like fate later that same year; the overall number of Neustadt “witches” executed from the various procedures initiated by Eric is not known, but might run up towards 60.

The reader will mark that all these souls were merely humble folk destroyed as flies to wanton boys. Witch fires were usually quenched once their flames licked titled estates, and so it was in this case, as the 1572 Hexenprozesse “also implicated a cluster of noblewomen (Anna von Rheden, Katharina Dux, and Margaretha Knigge), and it was not long before Duke Erich’s estranged wife, Sidonie, herself was accused of directing the poison plot against her husband, purportedly because of his relationship with his mistress, Katharina von Weldam. This escalation of the trial as it reached into the nobility proved to be too much, apparently, even for Duke Erich II, who halted the trial before the noblewomen were sentenced,” and after a pause the Holy Roman Emperor reconvened a hearing at which all concerned were exonerated.

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1806: Francisco Dos Santos

Add comment March 28th, 2018 Headsman


New-York Weekly Journal, April 20, 1741

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1741: Henry Smith, cad

Add comment March 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1741 ended at Dorchester “a young Man of great Hope, who was of a proper Stature, and of a handsome Personage, of a gentle and winning Disposition, chearful in his Temper, of a noble Nature, a kind and benevolent Mind; he had a pleasant Wit, speaking very gracefully and pertinently that made him pleasant to all Company; of an Industry in Business not to be tired; and what is remarkable, tho’ he spent his Youth among Seafaring People, yet he seldom drank any Thing else but Water of Small Beer, he abhorr’d Drunkenness in others, and could not endure any light or prophane Words, with whatever Sharpness of Wit it was cover’d; in his Engagements in Trade he was regular; in his Promises punctual; to his Servants he was kind; to his Wife very loving, and so courteous and affable to all Men, that he had many Friends, and few Enemies; he preserved a Reputation in his Neighbourhood, and was esteem’d and beloved through the Circle of his Acquaintance.”

Seems like a pretty great guy, except for the part where, concealing his marriage, he debauched and impregnated a serving-girl with the unrealizable promise of wedlock — a promise poor Jane Mew was disabused of by accidentally meeting his wife.

What occurred next is only to be inferred, for the very respectable Smith (or Smythee, as the pamphlet attached to this post has it) denied the circumstantial case against him to the last. Smith directed his lover to a lying-in place to give birth in secret but Jane Mew turned up in a field with her throat slashed en route. Perhaps Smith would have stood a better chance of convincing people that she had fallen as prey to some random highway robber or a desperate suicide had he not taken flight upon the discovery of her incriminating corpse.

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1558: Cuthbert Simson

Add comment March 28th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1558, Protestant Cuthbert Simson or Simpson was burned at Smithfield — having withstood harrowing torture in the Tower of London.

As deacon of a secret congregation during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, Simson bore the dangerous responsibility of keeping membership rolls. When he was arrested as a heretic and a traitor, he was subjected to “enhanced interrogation” in an effort to obtain the identities of the whole coterie.

He resisted.

Protestant hagiographer John Foxe recorded an alleged last letter that Simson sent to his friends from captivity (updated to present-day English from the glorious original), describing what happened after he, Simson, refused interrogators’ demand that he begin naming names.

I was set in an engine of iron, for the space of three hours as I judged. After that, they asked me if I would tell them. I answered as before. Then I was loosed, and carried to my lodging again. On the Sunday after, I was brought into the same place again before the lieutenant, being also constable, and the recorder of London, and they examined me. As before I had said I answered. Then the lieutenant sware by God, I should tell. Then did they bind my two forefingers together, and put a small arrow betwixt them, and drew it through so fast that the blood followed, and the arrow brake.


1563 woodcut of Cuthbert Simson’s torture. (Source)

Then they racked me twice. After that was I carried to my lodging again; and ten days after, the lieutenant asked me if I would not confess that which before they had asked me. I said I had said as much as I would. Then five weeks after, he sent me unto the high priest, where I was greatly assaulted; and at whose hand I received the pope’s curse, for bearing witness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And thus I commend you unto God, and to the word of His grace with all them that unfeignedly call upon the name of Jesus; desiring God, or His endless mercy, through the merits of His dear Son Jesus Christ, to bring us all to His everylasting kingdom. Amen. I praise God for His great mercy shewed upon us. Sing Hosanna unto the Highest, with me Cuthbert Simson. God forgive me my sins. I ask all the world forgiveness, and I do forgive all the world; and thus I leave this world, in hope of a joyful resurrection.

Two associates, Hugh Fox and John Davenish, suffered at Smithfield with Simson.

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1958: Jeremiah Reeves, Montgomery Bus Boycott inspiration

2 comments March 28th, 2014 Headsman

In 1954, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama hired as its pastor a 25-year-old fresh out of Boston University’s doctoral program.

In his memoir, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remembered his entry to civil rights activism in Montgomery. One of his first steps was setting up a Social and Political Action Committee for his church, prominently emphasizing voter registration.

But his next engaged a major death penalty case that haunted Montgomery throughout the 1950s.

After having started the program of the church on its way, I joined the local branch of the NAACP and began to take an active interest in implementing its program in the community itself. Besides raising money through my church, I made several speeches for the NAACP in Montgomery and elsewhere. Less than a year after I joined the branch I was elected to the executive committee. By attending most of the monthly meetings I was brought face to face with some of the racial problems that plagued the community, especially those involving the courts.

Before my arrival in Montgomery, and for several years after, most of the NAACP’s energies and funds were devoted to the defense of Jeremiah Reeves. Reeves, a drummer in a Negro band, had been arrested at the age of sixteen, accused of raping a white woman. One of the authorities had led him to the death chamber, threatening that if he did not confess at once he would burn there later. His confession, extracted under this duress, was later retracted, and for the remaining seven years that his case, and his life, dragged on, he continued to deny not only the charge of rape but the accusation of having had sexual relations at all with his white accuser.

The NAACP hired the lawyers and raised the money for Reeve’s defense. In the local court he was found guilty and condemned to death. The conviction was upheld in a series of appeals through the Alabama courts. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court on two occasions. The first time, the Court reversed the decision and turned it back to thes tate supreme court for rehearing. The second time, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case but later dismissed it, thus leaving the Alabama court free to electrocute. After the failure of a final appeal to the governor to commute the sentence, the police officials kept their promise. On March 28, 1958, Reeves was electrocuted.

The Reeves case was typical of the unequal justice of Southern courts. In the years that he sat in jail, several white men in Alabama had also been charged with rape; but their accusers were Negro girls. They were seldom arrested; if arrested, they were soon released by the grand jury; none was ever brought to trial. For good reason the Negroes of the South had learned to fear and mistrust the white man’s justice.

Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story

Reeves’s plight struck much closer to home for Claudette Colvin.

A Montgomery native, she was a classmate of Reeves at Montgomery’s segregated Booker T. Washington High School.

On March 2, 1955, Colvin boarded a city bus in front of King’s church on her way back from school, and plopped herself down in the middle of it. As the bus meandered on its route, it began to fill up. Montgomery’s segregated-bus rules at the time reserved a few rows up front for whites, and opened the middle rows for blacks … but only until the white rows overflowed, at which point black riders in the midsection were expected to give up their seats.

Colvin refused to do it.

She furiously argued with the police summoned by the bus driver, invoking her constitutional rights.

When they arrested her, she didn’t do nonviolent resistance: she fought back.

“I was really struggling,” she said in Ellen Levin’s Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories.

“Other kids got home and told Mama what happened,” Colvin remembered. “She already knew how hurt I was about Jeremiah Reeves. She knew this wasn’t a one-day thing. This was a rebellious time that started with Jeremiah … I just couldn’t get over Jeremiah being framed.”

Colvin’s spur-of-the-moment act of civil disobedience predated the more famous refusal of Rosa Parks by nine months. (Colvin’s parents knew Rosa Parks, and Parks was an advisor to the NAACP Youth Council, which Colvin was involved in.)

Montgomery civil rights leaders were already looking for a test case to mount a challenge against Montgomery buses’ racial ridership rules. Colvin was considered for the part, but ultimately Montgomery’s leaders took a pass on the case: she was an angry teenager, very dark-skinned, and from a working-class family; moreover, she soon became pregnant by an older, married man whom Colvin refused to name. Nevertheless, her name, and her act, became well-known in Montgomery and nationwide. The first pamphlets about Parks’s arrest reference Colvin as the well-known precedent.

Rosa Parks, a dignified and nonviolent matron, was eventually judged the palatable public figurehead to rally behind. Days after Parks’s December 1, 1955 arrest,* the Montgomery Improvement Association — with King at its head — mounted its famous bus boycott. Parks is the name everyone knows … but Colvin was the first.

And Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in the federal suit that forced desegregation in Montgomery.

Claudette Colvin’s refusenik notoriety made it so difficult for her to work in Montgomery that she moved to New York in 1958 — the same year her schoolmate was finally electrocuted for that supposed rape.

Days after Reeves died in Alabama’s electric chair, an Easter rally assembled on the lawn of that state’s capitol building to protest the execution — and gird for the struggles still to come.

We assemble here this afternoon on the steps of this beautiful capitol building in an act of public repentance for our community for committing a tragic and unsavory injustice. A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence. It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves’s penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence.

But not only are we here to repent for the sin committed against Jeremiah Reeves, but we are also here to repent for the constant miscarriage of justice that we confront every day in our courts. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is only the precipitating factor for our protest, not the causal factor. The causal factor lies deep down in the dark and dreary past of our oppression. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is but one incident, yes a tragic incident, in the long and desolate night of our court injustice.

Let us go away devoid of biterness, and with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. I hope that in recognizing the necessity for struggle and suffering, we will make of it a virtue. If only to save ourselves from bitterness, we need vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transfigure ourselves and American society … Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.

-Martin Luther King, ““Statement Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage Protesting the Electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves” (pdf transcription)

* Parks would say that she had been thinking on the occasion of her refusal of that summer’s murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi.

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1913: Floyd and Claude Allen, for the Carroll County courthouse massacre

1 comment March 28th, 2013 Headsman

Today is the centennial of the electrocution of Floyd Allen, the wealthy patriarch of a Virginia clan, and his son Claude — for an astounding shootout right in the Carroll County (Va.) courthouse.

Before the unpleasantness, Allen was for Carroll County gentleman farmer, prosperous shopkeep, moonshine-distiller, and political operator. He was also a guy with a violent reputation.

That’s him on the right, but maybe you want to picture an Old Dominion Don Corleone instead.

“The worst man of the clan,” said a local judge who suspected that Allen had dodged other brushes with the law by intimidating witnesses. “Overbearing, vindictive, high tempered, brutal, with no respect for law and little or no regard for human life.”

Mix a guy like that with an innocent rustic harvest-produce ritual and bloodshed is bound to follow.

Matters began for the 50-something Allen with teenage hormones at a local cornshucking. Custom dictated that finding a lucky red ear of corn would entitle the corn-shucker who drew it to a kiss from any girl of his choice. A youth named Wesley Edwards, nephew to Floyd Allen, drew a red ear.

The girl he kissed happened to have a boyfriend. So here we go.

The next day, the jealous beau got his by jumping Wesley Edwards, which drew Wesley’s brother into the brawl, which led to assault and weapons charges against the Edwards boys. They were arrested over the border in North Carolina, but en route to returning them to the Hillsville, Va., lockup, Floyd Allen stopped the cart and liberated his kin. Allen would say later that he didn’t intend this to go full-outlaw; rather, his lordly sense of prerogatives was offended to see the boys tied up instead of treated with dignity, and a political foe of a sheriff rushing to get them in manacles when Allen full intended to post bail for them.

And that led to the March 1912 trial of Floyd Allen for interfering with an officer of the law. Allen was convicted on this count and sentenced to one year in prison.

“Gentlemen,” replied our put-upon paterfamilias to this sentence. “I ain’t a-goin’.”*

Literally, this is what Floyd Allen got up and said in court in direct response to the judge’s delivery of sentence moments before.

And with this, the Carroll County courthouse turned into a shooting gallery.

There’s a great deal of after-the-fact argument and finger-pointing about who started this mess. It must have been mayhem: the sheriff plunked Allen, who collapsed on his attorney; Allen fired back with the revolver that he was naturally carrying to his own criminal sentencing.

Fears and rumors had circulated that exactly this sort of thing might go down if the surly Floyd Allen drew jail time, so quite a lot of attendees in the crowded courtroom were jittery and packing heat. Now they all started crouching and firing. At least fifty spent rounds were later retrieved from the hall of justice.

When the smoke cleared, the Allen clan had absconded as a gang with the now-fugitive Floyd. Five other people left the room for their coffins: the judge, the prosecutor, the sheriff, the jury foreman, and a 19-year-old girl who had testified against Allen.

Considering the distribution of bodies, that’s less a shootout than a massacre. (pdf)

A massive manhunt brought the Allens in within weeks. This time, jurors nervous of retaliation handed Floyd Allen the death penalty, and a like sentence to his son Claude.** The eventual clemency appeals for the latter would focus on his honorable adherence to the family, complaining that Claude was condemned for doing “no more than any boy would do for an old gray haired Father without a moments [sic] time to consider.” The appeals for the former blamed the sheriff for starting the shootout and the entire affair from the nephews’ arrest on down on political rivalries among Carroll County’s elites. Between these and clemency opponents decrying the “maudlin sentimentality” that proposed to spare these murderers, the standard of Virginia manhood was thoroughly litigated on editorial pages throughout the Commonwealth — indeed, throughout the country, for the astonishing case drained newsprint ink from coast to coast.

And why not? From corn-shucking to the twisted family honor to the electric chair, every pore oozed Americana. Even a young woman who was described as “a mountain girl” descended from her haunts to appeal for the life of her betrothed, Claude.


From the Trenton (N.J.) Evening Times, September 13, 1912.
“They were men of the mountains; they were out of the beaten parts of civilization; they were untaught in the ways of the world outside. Their habits and training had led them to adhere to a code of almost primal instincts in many ways; to them the right to do as they pleased regardless of what custom or other people demanded was ingrown. And yet they had never been criminal at heart.” -From a profile of the family in the March 28, 1913 Miami Herald

Gov. William Hodges Mann‘s verdict on all this inclined against the maudlin.

Though the Allens managed a few short delays as their appeals percolated, Mann was steadfast in his refusal to mitigate the crime. The two went to Virginia’s electric chair eleven minutes apart on this date.

All that from a red ear of corn. Incidentally, somewhere in this whole timeline, Floyd’s nephews were themselves sentenced for the original brawl with the boyfriend (long before the shootout, and the resulting serious prison sentences they got for that). Their punishment was 30 and 60 days working the sheriff’s orchard. That, plus the destruction of their family.

A book and a DVD under the title Carroll County Courthouse Tragedy can be had from the Carroll County Historical Society. There’s also an out-of-print 1962 volume, The Courthouse Tragedy, Hillsville, Va.

* Allen had successfully refused to serve a one-hour jail sentence for a 1903 scrape. One measly hour.

** Several other Allens got long prison sentences eventually truncated by executive pardons in the 1920s. Most of their estate was seized and the family generally scattered across the country, far from Carroll County. (Floyd Allen’s brother Jack got into a barroom argument in North Carolina in 1918 about the notorious Hillsville events, and Jack wound up shot dead himself in the dispute.)

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1815: Anthony Lingard, the last gibbeted in Derbyshire

2 comments March 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date* in 1815, Anthony Lingard was hanged for murder and robbery at Derby.

Lingard strangled the widow who operated the Wardlow Miers tollbooth in order to rob her poor possessions and lavish those ill-gotten proceeds upon the girl he had impregnated — “with a view to induce her to father the child upon some other person.” That’s the world without contraception for you.

Lingard’s girl thought this bribe fishy and gave him back the widow’s incriminatingly distinctive shoes after hearing reports that footwear had been taken from the murder scene. Then, she testified against him at the Derby Assizes (Lingard had also confessed the crime). Tried on Saturday the 25th, convicted “after a few minutes,” and strung up in front of the county gaol at noontime Tuesday, Lingard “met his fate with a firmness which would deserve the praise of fortitude if it was not the result of insensibility. He appeared but little agitated or dejected by his dreadful situation.”

Rather than the increasingly standard post-execution coda of anatomization, Lingard’s body was given over to a use of more ancient vintage: gibbeting.

Hung up in chains on the aptly named Gibbot Field in Wardlow near the spot of the murder, Lingard’s bleaching bones provided a grisly object lesson to passersby of the consequences of crime. Or, maybe not: though the novelty at first made a crowd-pleasing spectacle, it soon faded into the scenery.

A few years later, a 16-year-old girl poisoned off a rival in the very shadow of the gibbet, winding up executed for her trouble. A younger fellow named William Lingard eventually drew a death sentence for highway robbery committed near his own older brother’s clanking remains — a sentence commuted to convict transportation.

If what was left of Anthony Lingard failed to overawe his criminal counterparts, it did at least leave an impression on poet William Newton, who penned this sad meditation on the local landmark, found in full here. (It must have helped his perspective that Newton was into his sixties when the young pup hanged.)

“The supposed Soliloquy of a Father, under the Gibbet of his Son; upon one of the Peak Mountains”
TIME — Midnight. SCENE — A Storm.

 Art thou, my Son, suspended here on high? —
Ah! what a sight to meet a Father’s eye!
To see what most I prized, what most I loved.
What most I cherish’d, — and once most approved,
Hung in mid air to feast the nauseous worm.
And waving horrid in the midnight storm!

 Let me be calm; — down, down, my swelling soul;
Ye winds, be still, — ye thunders, cease to roll!
No! ye fierce winds, in all your fury rage;
Ye thunders, roll; ye elements, engage;
O’er me be all your mutual terrors spread.
And tear the thin hairs from my frenzied head:
Bring all your wrathful stores from either pole.
And strike your arrows through my burning soul :
I feel not, — fear not, — care not, — shrink not, — when
I know, — believe, — and feel, — ye are not men!
Storms but fulfil the high decrees of God,
But man usurps his sceptre and his rod.
Tears from his hand the ensigns of his power.
To be the petty tyrant of an hour.

 My Son! My Son! how dreadful was thy crime!
Thy name stands branded to remotest time;
Gives all thy kindred to the eye of scorn,
Both those who are, and those that may be born;
Scatters through ages on thy hapless race
In every stage of life, and death, — disgrace:
In youth’s gay prime, in manhood’s perfect bloom.
Ah! more, — it ends not, dies not, on the tomb!
O woman! woman! choicest blessing given.
If pure; — the highest gift of highest heaven!
If lax, corrupt, deceitful, — worse than hell!
Worse than the worst of demons dare to tell!
It was thy lot, ill-fated Son! to find
Thy doom pour’d on thee by the faithless kind;
Fraudful, and false, their treacherous snares they spread.
And whelm’d destruction on thy thoughtless head.

 To die, to perish from the face of earth.
Oblivion closing on thy name and birth.
Hid under ground from each invidious eye,
From every curious, every rancorous spy,
Was what thy crime deserved: — not more;
The rest seems cruelty. — When heretofore
Our barbarous sires the aweful Gibbet rear’d.
The Gibbet only, not the laws were fear’d:
The untutored ruffian, of an untaught clime,
Fear’d more the punishment than dreaded crime.
We boast refinement, say our laws are mild.
Dealt equally to all, the man, the child: —
But ye, who, argue thus, come here and see,
Feel with a Father’s feelings; — feel with me!
See that poor shrivell’d form the tempest brave.
See the red lightning strike, the waters lave.
The thunders volleying on that fenceless breast! —
Who can see this, and wish him not at rest?

At rest, — vague word! — the immaterial mind
Perhaps even now is floating on the wind: —
Ah! no, — not mind, — not spirit, — but the shell;
The mind ere this has drank of Mercy’s well:
‘Tis not for that I feel, for that I sigh.
But sweltering, putrid, rank mortality.
O! blind to truth, to all experience blind.
Who think such spectacles improve mankind:
Bid untamed youth on such sights feast his eyes,
Harden you may, but never humanise.
Ye who have life, or death, at your command.
If crime demand it, let the offender die.
But let no more the Gibbet brave the sky:
No more let vengeance on the dead be hurl’d.
But hide the victim from a gazing world.

Anthony Lingard was the last person ever gibbeted in Derbyshire. England abolished gibbeting and hanging in chains full stop in the 1830s.

* The date March 8 is widely attributed on other sites, but the primary documentation for March 28 is unambiguous. I want to suspect a seminal typo somewhere that’s been copied a thousand other times over.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Sex,Theft

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1872: Yoarashi Okinu, geisha

Add comment March 28th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1872, geisha Yoarashi (“Night Storm”) Okinu was beheaded at Tokyo’s Kozukappara execution grounds after killing her lover to run away with a kabuki actor.


Via

A notorious dokufu, so-called “poison-women” that captivated that country in the late 19th century, Night Storm (English Wikipedia entry | Japanese) was of humble origins but became a sought-after geisha in Edo.

Her celebrity affairs are treated here (reliability: unknown), but the reason she’s in this here blog is poisoning off the second-last of them with arsenic in order to get free to run off with kabuki actor Arashi Rikaku.

Rikaku himself was up to his eyeballs in this same plot, and was arrested — our source says, during a kabuki performance! — and initially condemned to death. Since Okinu was pregnant, however, her execution was put off pending childbirth; eventually, Rikaku’s sentence was moderated from capital punishment altogether.

Okinu’s head was cut off, and displayed in public for several days. Her lover served three years in prison, then rebuilt his kabuki career as Ichikawa Gonjuro.

* The date was the “20th day of the 2nd month of the fifth year of Meiji”, using Japan’s system of dating years from the start of the current emperor’s reign. Helpful in nailing down the date: Tokyo’s first daily newspaper published its first issue on the very next day.

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1845: John Tawell, the man in the Kwaker garb

2 comments March 28th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1845, John Tawell was publicly hanged in Aylesbury (while broadsheets were hawked beneath the scaffold to the crowd of thousands) for the murder of his mistress — making history as the first criminal apprehended with the use of the telegraph.

Tawell had had an interesting 60-plus years on the planet. He did well as a young banker on the make to avoid the halter for the capital crime of forging banknotes.*

In those sanguinary days of our penal code, this crime, if brought home, would have led to his certain condemntion and ignominious execution as a felon. The particulars of the affair were, however, suppressed as far as possible, on account of the insuperable disinclination of the bankers to be in any way instrumental in taking away human life.**

Clapped in irons and sent to Australia, he waxed wealthy — “by his fortunate, and, it is to be presumed, honest trading,” our wry biography remarks. (As a pharmacist. That’s what we in the biz call “foreshadowing.”)

Tawell returned to England in 1831, got Sarah Hart as a bit on the side (she’d initially been hired to nurse Tawell’s dying wife), and then married a respectable Quaker woman. To conceal the affair — or perhaps because the payola Tawell was obliged to send for the maintenance of his mistress and the kids he begat with her was chewing into his straitened finances — Tawell poisoned Hart on New Year’s Day 1845.

Unfortunately for him, he was noticed leaving the scene of the crime by a neighbor, who found the victim before she had even expired.

Tawell had hopped a slow train for London ahead of apprehension, but it transpired that the station had installed the newfangled telecommunications device, the telegraph, which was requisitioned to dispatch to Paddington station a famous missive.

A murder had just been committed at Salt Hill and the suspected murderer was seen to take a first class ticket to London by the train that left Slough at 7.42pm. He is in the garb of a Kwaker with a brown great coat on which reaches his feet. He is in the last compartment of the second first-class carriage.

(The telegraph didn’t have a “Q”, so they had to improvise a phonetic spelling. k l8r.)


Dot dot. Dash dash.

(This landmark police event is not to be confused with the first use of wireless telegraphy to apprehend a criminal — the next century’s very similar philandering-apothecary-on-the-lam case of Dr. Crippen.)

Caught, convicted,† condemned. (And confessed, secretly, to the prison chaplain.) The usual. Botched strangulation hanging. Hardly unusual. Love triangle murder? Downright trite.

But still: Tawell’s strange and variegated life left a strange and variegated legacy. (pdf)

In Australia, the memory of Tawell lingered for many years after his death because considerable legal argument took place about the validity of the Crown’s hndling of his property there. The Governor, Sir William Denison, affixed the Great Seal of the colony to the grant documents on his own initiative, which creted a serious difference between him and his chief minister. Known as the “Great Seal case”, it dragged on for some 16 years before it was resolved. It provided a dramatic epilogue to Tawell’s activities.

John Tawell had pharmacy qualifications of a sort, and he was no better or worse than many of the doctors around Sydney at the time who had received no regular professional instruction. When Tawell ventured into competition with the medical establishment in the colony it was a huge gamble because until 1820 many government doctors saw private patients and had clerks to do their dispensing, usually from hospital stores. He showed that independent pharmacy could thrive away from the medical shadow, but the commercial nature of his success also showed that the founding of independent pharmacy in Australia occurred as a retailing activity rather than as a needed profession.

* As a teen, Tawell was friends with a Quaker linen-draper who was himself ultimately executed for forgery, Joseph Hunton.

** This claim for bankers’ gentility is advanced in the context of the story of a banker who in fact went on to commit murder. Aside from that obvious paradox, it will come as no surprise to any denizen of the post-bailout neoliberal era that bankers proved more than ready to involve themselves in human misery, sufficiently remunerative. If Tawell’s sweetheart plea bargain reveals anything about the financier class, it’s that bankers aren’t keen on precedents for taking away bankers’ lives.

† John Tawell’s trial lawyer, the eminent jurist and politician Sir Fitzroy Kelly, disputed the coroner’s poisoning conclusion by arguing that Sarah Hart might have just eaten too many apple seeds. (Prussic acid, aka hydrogen cyanide, does occur naturally in many fruits.)

This attempted Chewbacca defense earned the barrister the nickname “Apple-pip Kelly”. However, since the cutting-edge technology of the day was only telegraph and not Twitter, the case does not appear to have launched any of Apple-pip Kelly’s progeny into lucratively pointless careers as famous-for-being-famous socialites.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Public Executions,Sex

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1997: First use of lethal injection in China

1 comment March 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1997, Kunming City Intermediate People’s Court debuted a brand-new execution technology for the world’s capital of capital punishment.

With a 1996 Criminal Procedural Law reform making lethal injection an option for processing the enormous ranks of China’s condemned, experimentation got underway this date on two convicts whose identities and crimes I have not seen indicated. These were not only the first lethal injections in China, but the first anywhere outside the U.S.

According to the New York Times, China began its foray without the usual accoutrement of medicalization: rather than the familiar strap-down gurney, Kunming officials simply brought the doomed prisoners to the same execution ground used for shootings and had them roll up their sleeves for the needle.

Whatever its initial inelegance, China has enjoyed many thousands of test cases since to refine the practice — as many as 15,000 per year at this time, Amnesty International has charged.*

In the 12 years since, and aided by the offices of its guinea pigs, lethal injection has gained significantly in both technical sophistication and official acceptance; it is now thought that most Chinese executions use this method, rather than the old gunshot-to-the-back-of-the-head.

To What End?

More humane? Maybe.

Easier on an executioner than discharging a bullet at point-blank range? You’d have to think so.

Cheaper? Well, maybe — if the cost of the mobile killing van is spread over enough, er, “subjects”.

But lethal injection enjoys one significant benefit of distastefully obvious utility to the state:** it facilitates tissue transplant from a recently executed prisoner.

Though Chinese officials have always stonewalled on the subject, lucrative organ harvesting from executed prisoners has long been endemic in the country.

* China’s death penalty system has been famously opaque, so this figure is far in excess of the known thousand-plus judicial executions every year (1,718 in 2008) and would include several times that number in other judicial executions not publicly reported, plus extrajudicial killings that presumably wouldn’t involve lethal injection. Even with only the official executions specifically known to the wider world, China easily accounts for the majority of the world’s executions year after year.

** The older (and still-used) method of shooting a prisoner in the head also preserves organs, of course.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Known But To God,Lethal Injection,Milestones

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