1820: William Piper, drunken matricide

Add comment April 18th, 2017 Headsman

From the Boston Daily Advertiser and Repertory, April 26, 1820:


GEORGETOWN, (Del.) April 18 — This day, the awful sentence of the law was executed on William Piper, for matricide.

The following particulars were taken down by a person present at the time:

Early in the day a crowd was collected at the prison and another at the gallows. At 12 o’clock the tolling of the bell at the court-house announced the arrival of the time when the prisoner was about to bid adieu to earthly things. The anxiety of the people became very great, thousands crowding around the place where the gallows stood, and others pressing to see the criminal leave the prison.

The bell tolled ten minutes, when the sheriff entered the jail with the rope: 25 minutes past 12, the criminal appeared, and was assisted into the cart, and standing up with a horrible, frightened countenance he uttered the broken sentence, “Oh, all these people!”

The cart-horse was soon led off by the deputy sheriff, the guard forming around the cart and marching with charged bayonets; at 32 minutes past 12, the criminal was halted under the pole on which he was soon to be suspended.

The Rev. John Rogers addressed the people, and warned them against drunkenness; the crime, he said, that caused the criminal to do the act that had brought him to the gallows.

The Throne of Grace was then addressed in a very appropriate prayer by Mr. Hudson; after which the criminal spoke a few minutes to the congregation, declaring a knowledge of his sins &c.

The sheriff drew the cap over his face, and fastening [sic] the rope to the hook in the pole; at 13 minutes past one, the cart was moved off, and the criminal left hanging! A horrid consequence of drunkenness! Much might be said of the very trifling impression that was made on the minds of some rum drinkers that were present.

It might be proper to state, that the fatal deed was perpetrated in a state of intoxication, and after some quarrelling between him and his mother, and a blow on the head from her which drew blood, and after she had pushed him down over a chair, and a scuffle on the floor between Piper and his sister, who attempted to tie him, and after the sister had first seized upon the stick with which the fatal blows were given.

The only witness present at the beginning, stated that Piper when intoxicated, often threatened to kill his mother, but when sober he was as good to her as ever a child was.

Suffice to say, that he persisted to the last in solemnly declaring that he never had any malice against his mother, and that he was not sensible of having killed her.

He was 45 years of age.

On this day..

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

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1673: Thomas Cornell, on spectral evidence

4 comments May 23rd, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1673, alleged mother-slayer and arsonist Thomas Cornell was hanged in Portsmouth in the colony of Rhode Island.

The death of his elderly mother, Rebecca, and the subsequent homicide investigation have got to be one of the strangest murder stories in American colonial history.

The Cornells were a respectable and prosperous Quaker family, the ancestors of the man who founded Cornell University. (Their descendants also included Lizzie Borden of the “forty whacks” fame, but that’s another story.)

Rebecca, a 73-year-old widow, was the legal owner of the family’s hundred-acre spread by Narragansett Bay. Her oldest son, Thomas, and his wife and six children lived there with her, along with one lodger and one male servant, a Narragansett Indian named Wickopash.

Crowded as the house was, Rebecca had the master bedroom all to herself. It was well known that Rebecca and Thomas didn’t get along. For some time, both parties had been complaining bitterly about each other to anyone who would listen. Thomas resented the fact that, at 46, he was still financially dependent on his mother, who had made generous gifts from her late husband’s estate to her other children but not to him. Rebecca, for her part, said Thomas was “a Terror to her” and that she was neglected and had to fetch her own firewood.

None of her complaints were taken seriously until after her mysterious death, which is chronicled in Elaine Forman Crane’s 2002 book Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell.

Rebecca died on the evening of February 8, 1673.

That night, she refused to join the family for dinner because she didn’t like what was being served. After the meal was over, her grandson came to her room to check on her and found her charred body lying on the floor by the fireplace, burnt “to a cole.” She was recognizable only by her shoes.

Her death was originally ruled “an unhappie accident.”

It could have been spontaneous human combustion, but a more likely explanation is that embers from the fireplace or from the pipe Rebecca smoked landed on her dress.


An alleged victim of spontaneous human combustion.

No one heard her scream, no one smelled smoke, and somehow the fire didn’t spread to the rest of the house. No one seems to have suspected foul play at that time.

Two nights later, however, Rebecca’s younger brother, John Briggs, received a spiritual visitation from his sister as she slept. “See how I was burned with fire,” she said. He inferred that someone had intentionally burned her.

Briggs didn’t report his experience for a week, but when he did his account was taken seriously by the superstitious colonials. Rebecca’s body was exhumed and given a thorough inspection, and this time a wound was found on her upper abdomen. The authorities decided she had been stabbed by something like “the iron spyndell of a spinning whelle.” No murder weapon was ever produced, however.

Thomas quickly became the prime suspect: he was the last person to see Rebecca alive, and the whole town knew of the enmity between them. After Rebecca’s death, Thomas and his wife Sarah reportedly made some incredibly crass remarks; Sarah said her mother-in-law’s demise was “a wonderfull thing,” and Thomas said that his mother had always liked a good fire, and “God had answered her ends, for now shee had it.”

This hearsay was presented as evidence at Thomas’s trial, along with John Briggs’s dream.

Thomas was convicted and, although many of the townspeople had doubts about the verdict and death sentence, he chose not to appeal. He was hung before a crowd of over one thousand people.

Did Thomas Cornell murder his mother?

Certainly he wasn’t the only one who had the opportunity to do so; the house was full of people that night. In fact, a year after Thomas’s death, the servant Wickopash was tried as an accomplice to the murder. Nothing is known about the case against him, but he was acquitted.

In 1675, Rebecca’s son William tried to make a case against Thomas’s wife for the murder, but he failed to produce any witnesses or evidence against her.

Was this even a murder at all?

The fire, as noted above, could have been accidental; as for the “suspicious wound” the authorities found after they dug up the body, Rebecca could have stabbed herself in her struggles after her dress caught fire, or perhaps those who performed the exhumation saw only what they expected to see.

And there is yet a third possibility: prior to her death, Rebecca told her daughter she had contemplated suicide on several occasions, but her religious beliefs prohibited such action.

One final note: Thomas’s wife, Sarah, was pregnant at the time of his execution and later gave birth to a daughter.

She named the baby Innocent.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Public Executions,Rhode Island,The Supernatural,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1872: Patrick Morrissey, by a future U.S. president

7 comments September 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1872, Buffalo sheriff — and future U.S. President — Grover Cleveland personally sprang the trap to hang matricide Patrick Morrissey.

Grover Cleveland hanged convicts on two non-consecutive occasions.

Morrissey’s drunken altercation with his widowed mother, that led to a stabbing, that led him to the gallows, would obviously be lost to remembrance but for his accidental association with the man who would become president 12 years later. Of course, it was precisely the other way around at the time of the hanging — so the New York Times article (pdf) on the execution has a pleasurable aspect of discovered curiosity: for the newsman, a dull just-the-facts slog in a forgettable day’s work; for posterity, an accidental glimpse at history’s backstage.*

Cleveland had taken office as Erie County sheriff the year before, his stepping stone from a legal practice into an illustrious electoral career in the Democratic Party that would see him rise to Mayor of Buffalo and Governor of New York (and, after his death, to the $20 bill).

One of Cleveland’s duties as sheriff was to carry out death sentences; he declined to delegate the responsibility to one of his assistants — the hagiography says that his ethical rectitude compelled him to assume the weighty responsibility personally — and handled Morrissey’s dispatch with his own hands.

With his subsequent ascent in the political realm, Cleveland’s activities this day made him the rare notable executioner to earn his fame in another walk of life.

Or infamy, as the case may be. In an era of competitive sloganeering and sobriquets,** Cleveland’s Republican opponents tried to hang him — so to speak — with the nickname “The Buffalo Hangman”.

* The other death row murderer referenced in the Times story was Cleveland’s second (and last) execution on February 14, 1873.

** Like most presidential pols of the time, Cleveland had many more nicknames, both friendly and not — “Uncle Jumbo” because of his girth; “Old Veto” for his liberal use of executive power; and others. (He was also elected a bachelor and married a 22-year-old beauty while in office. Eat your heart out, Bill Clinton.) The New Yorker avers that Buffalo voters during Cleveland’s early local incarnation actually knew him by the avuncular-yet-unwholesome handle of “Big Steve”.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,USA

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