1748: Arthur Gray and William Rowland, Hawkhurst Gang smugglers

Add comment May 11th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1748, Arthur Gray and William Rowland — two desperadoes of the Hawkhurst Gang smuggling syndicate — were hanged at Tyburn.

We have in these pages formerly detailed the muscle of this fearsome gang, which having established a lucrative commercial enterprise evading tea duties and distributing its discount leaf did not shrink from brutalizing and murdering the king’s own agents to preserve it.*

Britain by the late 1740s was pressing hard to suppress the shocking violence of the smuggling trade. To that end, she had armed herself with legislation permitting the capital prosecution of people for carrying smuggled goods while armed — the attainble bar which was cleared for both of the prosecutions at issue in today’s post.

However, as the Newgate Ordinary described, there were much more shocking atrocities to be attributed:

There are numerous Instances might be given of the Barbarity of Smugglers, but I shall confine myself to one or two very remarkable, in which Gray was principally concerned, in Decem. 1744. The Commissioners of the Customs being informed that two noted Smugglers, Chiefs of a Gang who infested the Coast, were skulking at a House in Shoreham in Sussex, they granted a Warrant to Messieurs Quaff, Bolton, Jones, and James, four of his Majesty’s Officers of the Customs, to go in Search of them. The Officers found them according to the Information, seized them, and committed them to Goal. But the rest of the Gang, of which Gray was one, being informed of the Disaster of their Friends, convened in a Body the Monday following, and in open Day Light entered the Town with Hangers drawn, arm’d with Pistols and Blunderbusses; they fired several Shot to intimidate the Neighbourhood, and went to a House where the Officers were Drinking; dragg’d them out, tied three of them Neck and Heels (the fourth, named Quaff, making his Escape as they got out of the House) and carried them off in Triumph to Hawkhurst in Kent, treating them all the Way with the utmost Scurrility, and promising to broil them alive. However, upon a Council held among them, they let Mr. Jones go, after they had carried him about five Miles from Shoreham, telling him, they had nothing to object to him, but advised him not to be over busy in troubling them or their Brethren, left he might one Day meet the Fate reserved for his two Companions. They carried the unfortunate Mr. Bolton and James, to a Wood near Hawkhurst, stripped them naked, tyed them to two different Trees near one another, and whipped them in the most barbarous Manner, till the unhappy Men begg’d they would knock them on the Head to put them out of their Miseries; but these barbarous Wretches told them, it was time enough to think of Death when they had gone through all their Exercise that they had for them to suffer before they would permit them to go to the D – l. They then kindled a Fire between the two Trees, which almost scorch’d them to Death, and continued them in this Agony for some Hours, till the Wretches were wearied with torturing them; they then releas’d them from the Trees, and carried them quite speechless and almost dead, on Board one of their Ships, from whence they never return’d.

That’s all about Arthur Gray, a butcher by training who had advanced to a leadership role in the Hawkhurst Gang. Juridically, this entire story is nothing but the Ordinary’s gossip; the whole of Gray’s trial consists not of torturing and disappearing lawmen but an anodyne description of Gray’s having formed a convoy of about eight men, armed with blunderbusses and carbines, to carry uncustomed tea and brandy. It’s the get Capone on tax evasion school of using whatever tool is available; in fact, the very crime here for Gray is “tax offences”.

It’s the same for William Rowland, who was a person of much less consequence in the gang; the Ordinary has no scandal of interest to share with the reader, and by his telling Rowland awaiting the gallows seems preoccupied mostly with annoyance at his naivete in surrendering himself upon hearing of the warrant, thinking his involvement in the racket too trivial to have possibly come to hemp.

The Hawkhurst Gang would be broken up by 1749.

* On the lighter side of moral panics, we find philanthropist-noodge Jonas Hanway (who thought a proper Briton ought to fortify himself with robust beer instead of strained leaf-water) amusingly fretting in the 1750s that thanks to the 18th century’s tea craze

men were losing their stature, women their beauty, and the very chambermaids their bloom … Will the sons and daughters of this happy isle for ever submit to the bondage of so tyrannical a custom as drinking tea? … Were they the sons of tea-sippers who won the fields of Crécy and Agincourt or dyed the Danube’s shores with Gallic blood?

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1528: Eitelhans Langenmantel, Thomas Jefferson ancestor

1 comment May 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1528, the Augsburg Anabaptist Eitelhans Langenmantel was executed as a heretic, along with a servant and a maid. Langenmantel had used his own fortune to print several dissident tracts.

His infant grandson, Daniel Hoechstetter, would eventually emigrate to Cumberland where he did honorable business for England’s Royal Mines as part of a community of German miners.

Through this Anglicized descendant, Langenmantel is the maternal great great great great great great great grandfather of U.S. President and Founding Father Thomas Jefferson.

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1741: Caesar and Prince, leaders of a plot to burn New York?

Add comment May 11th, 2016 Headsman

The first executions for New York’s 1741 fires took place on this date in 1741, several weeks before any others. They were two slaves of regal name: Caesar, the property of a baker named John Vaarck, and Prince, who was owned by the merchant John Auboyneau.

The first thing to know about these two men is that they were arrested in the first days of March … more than two weeks before fire consumed Fort George and initiated Gotham’s burning season. Though Prince was out on bail (as were the tavern owners John and Peggy Hughson, also arrested at the same time), Caesar and his white lover Peggy Kerry had been under lock and key throughout the supposed arson spree, awaiting trial for burglary.

Days prior to their arrest, they had contrived to unlock a window and steal coins plus £60 of linen merchandise from the shop of Rebecca Hogg. These men were indeed thieves, and they had a reputation in a town still intimately small (12,000 or so). Back in 1738, Caesar and Prince — along with Cuffee, who in 1741 would again be esteemed their third triumvir — had been carted shirtless through a Manhattan winter’s day, “attended by a Number of Spectators of all Degrees Ages and Sizes, and were continually complimented with Snow Balls and Dirt, and at every Corner had five Lashes with a Cowskin well laid on each of their naked black Backs.” (New York Gazette) The reason was that, in a celebratory mood, the three had broken into a pub and stolen its gin, thereafter toasting themselves the Geneva Club in celebration. They used the liquor as part of a mock initiation ceremony, travestying for their own fraternity the outlandish rites of New York’s white Freemasons. This in turn had led to them christening themselves as Black Masons.

As Jill Lepore notes in New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, the existence of this mock secret society would be conflated for the prosecutors of the 1741 burnings with a three-year plot to destroy New York.

This alliance of minor crooks was so obvious a target that the bailed-out Prince was re-arrested two days after Fort George burned, at the order of New York’s mayor. Round up the usual suspects!

They are also, collectively, the Patient Zero for that city’s epidemic of incendiary accusations. We can even date the first onset: April 22, 1741. That’s the day the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton provided to Daniel Horsmanden‘s grand jury the crucial testimony that would cast their society as not merely deviant, but menacing. After making a great show of refusing to give evidence, Burton sang when threatened with the prospect of joining Caesar, Prince, Peggy Kerry, and the Hughsons in city hall’s cellar jail. Mary was no fool: far better the star witness in court than the undercard attraction at the gallows.

And when she started talking, she had a shocking story to tell them — one that would firmly fix upon the accused the city’s rampant rumors and speculations about a black plot.

Accordingly, she being sworn, came before the grand jury; but as they were proceeding to her examination, and before they asked her any questions, she told them she would acquaint them with what she knew relating to the goods stolen from Mr. Hogg’s, but would say nothing about the fires.

This expression thus, as it were providentially, slipping from the evidence, much alarmed the grand jury; for, as they naturally concluded, it did by construction amount to an affirmative, that she could give an account of the occasion of the several fires; and therefore, as it highly became those gentlemen in the discharge of their trust, they determined to use their utmost diligence to sift out the discovery, but still she remained inflexible, till at length, having recourse to religious topics, representing to her the heinousness of the crime which she would be guilty of, if she was privy to, and could discover so wicked a design, as the firing houses about our ears; whereby not only people’s estates would be destroyed, but many persons might lose their lives in the flames: this she would have to answer for at the day of judgment, as much as any person immediately concerned, because she might have prevented this destruction, and would not; so that a most damnable sin would lie at her door; and what need she fear from her divulging it; she was sure of the protection of the magistrates? or the grand jury expressed themselves in words to the same purpose; which arguments at last prevailed, and she gave the following evidence, which however, notwithstanding what had been said, came from her, as if still under some terrible apprehensions or restraints.

Deposition, No. 1. — Mary Burton, being sworn, deposeth,

1. “That Prince and Caesar brought the things of which they had robbed Mr. Hogg, to her master, John Hughson’s house, and that they were handed in through the window, Hughson, his wife, and Peggy receiving them, about two or three o’clock on a Sunday morning.

2. “That Caesar, Prince, and Mr. Philipse’s* negro man (Cuffee) used to meet frequently at her master’s house, and that she had heard them (the negroes) talk frequently of burning the fort; and that they would go down to the fly and burn the whole town; and that her master and mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.

3. “That in their common conversation they used to say, that when all this was done, Caesar should be governor, and Hughson, her master, should be king.

4. “That Cuffee used to say, that a great many people had too much, and others too little; that his old master had a great deal of money, but that, in a short time, he should have less, and that he (Cuffee) should have more.

5. “That at the same time when the things of which Mr. Hogg was robbed, were brought to her master’s house, they brought some indigo and bees wax, which was likewise received by her master and mistress.

6. “That at the meetings of the three aforesaid negroes, Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee, at her master’s house, they used to say, in their conversations, that when they set fire to the town, they would do it in the night, and as the white people came to extinguish it, they would kill and destroy them.

7. “That she has known at times, seven or eight guns in her master’s house, and some swords, and that she has seen twenty or thirty negroes at one time in her master’s house; and that at such large meetings, the three aforesaid negroes, Cuffee, Prince, and Caesar, were generally present, and most active, and that they used to say, that the other negroes durst not refuse to do what they commanded them, and they were sure that they had a number sufficient to stand by them.

8. “That Hughson (her master) and her mistress used to threaten, that if she, the deponent, ever made mention of the goods stolen from Mr. Hogg, they would poison her; and the negroes swore, if ever she published, or discovered the design of burning the town, they would burn her whenever they met her.

9. “That she never saw any white person in company when they talked of burning the town, but her master, her mistress, and Peggy.”

This evidence of a conspiracy, not only to burn the city, but also destroy and murder the people, was most astonishing to the grand jury, and that any white people should become so abandoned as to confederate with slaves in such an execrable and detestable purpose, could not but be very amazing to everyone that heard it; what could scarce be credited; but that the several fires had been occasioned by some combination of villains, was, at the time of them, naturally to be collected from the manner and circumstances attending them.

By the summer, Mary Burton’s credibility was shot. But for months before her fall from public confidence, the town fence’s 16-year-old servant sent many slaves and some whites too scrambling to protect themselves, unfolding a warren of defensive silences, opportunistic denials, and pay-it-forward name-naming that would flesh out the “twenty or thirty negroes” and more.

Caesar and Prince were just the low-hanging fruit. Languishing in jail and already charged with a theft that could be constructed as a capital crime, their now-certain doom became the leverage used against their white co-accused. Before they died, they would see Caesar’s lover Peggy Kerry, the mother of his son,** “admit” the plot — desperate gambit that would not in the end save her, either.

The court did not bother to keep them around for the arson trials that would come, but it was clear at Caesar and Prince’s sentencing (May 8, 1741) that it wasn’t the stolen linens that were on Judge Philipse’s mind.

I have great reason to believe, that the crimes you now stand convicted of, are not the least of those you have been concerned in; for by your general characters you have been very wicked fellows, hardened sinners, and ripe, as well as ready, for the most enormous and daring enterprises especially you, Caesar: and as the time you have yet to live is to be but very short, I earnestly advise and exhort both of you to employ it in the most diligent and best manner you can, by confessing your sins, repenting sincerely of them, and praying God of his infinite goodness to have mercy on your souls: and as God knows the secrets of your hearts, and cannot be cheated or imposed upon, so you must shortly give an account to him, and answer for all your actions; and depend upon it, if you do not truly repent before you die, there is a hell to punish the wicked eternally.

And as it is not in your powers to make full restitution for the many injuries you have done the public; so I advise both of you to do all that in you is, to prevent further mischief’s, by discovering such persons as have been concerned with you, in designing or endeavouring to burn this city, and to destroy its inhabitants. This I am fully persuaded is in your power to do if you will; if so, and you do not make such discovery, be assured God Almighty will punish you for it, though we do not:† therefore I advise you to consider this well, and I hope both of you will tell the truth.

The condemned slaves did not gratify their persecutors with any such discoveries.

MONDAY, MAY 11

Caesar and Prince were executed this day at the gallows, according to sentence. They died very stubbornly, without confessing any thing about the conspiracy; and denied they knew any thing of it to the last. The body of Caesar was accordingly hung in chains.

These two negroes bore the characters of very wicked idle fellows; had before been detected in some robberies, for which they had been publicly chastised at the whipping-post, and were persons of most obstinate and untractable tempers; so that there was no expectation of drawing any thing from them which would make for the discovery of the conspiracy, though there seemed good reason to conclude, as well from their characters as what had been charged upon them by information from others, that they were two principal ringleaders in it amongst the blacks. It was thought proper to execute them for the robbery, and not wait for the bringing them to a trial for the conspiracy, though the proof against them was strong and clear concerning their guilt as to that also; and it was imagined, that as stealing and plundering was a principal part of the he1lish scheme in agitation, amongst the inferior sort of these infernal confederates, this earnest of example and punishment might break the knot, and induce some of them to unfold this mystery of iniquity, in hopes thereby to recommend themselves to mercy, and it is probable, that with some it had this effect.

* Frederick Philipse, also one of the judges in this case. As already noted, the city was intimately small.

** An infant at the time events unfold here, the child presumably died as it disappears from the record about the time Peggy Kerry was arrested.

† Many other slaves burned for the purported conspiracy instead of “merely” hanging; this surely would have been the fate of Caesar and Prince had they been formally convicted of leading a plot to fire the city. But it’s still not quite the case that they weren’t punished for the fires: slaves being valuable property, it’s rather doubtful that they would have been executed for the linen thefts absent the subsequent security panic.

Part of the set Corpses Strewn: New York’s Slave Conspiracy of 1741.

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1915: Basanta Kumar Biswas, bomber

Add comment May 11th, 2015 Headsman

Today is the centennial of Basanta Kumar Biswas‘s execution for the Delhi-Lahore conspiracy.

Said conspiracy was a project several years running by a circle of Bengalis and Punjabis to murder officials of the British occupation — “necessary,” as one of the accused explained at trial in 1914, “to awaken the masses, who are wrapped in sleep and under a foreign yoke.” (London Times, June 24, 1914)

Indeed, from a worse-is-better standpoint, the current Viceroy Lord Hardinge was a real pain since he had implemented reforms to make British authority a little more responsive to the subcontinent’s inhabiants.*

One of the conspirators’ signal blows was tossing a bomb into Hardinge’s elephant-mounted howdah.

This explosive lacerated Lord Hardinge with shrapnel, but it did not slay him — neither him, nor the Raj. (The poor elephant-driver was not so lucky.) But the authors of the deed remained obscure for many months despite the state’s intense investigation, and lucrative reward.

While the British hunted, the terrorists/freedom fighters authored a second bomb attack — one that would eventually form the basis of their prosecution. Biswas was tasked with assassinating another colonial official with another bomb, but finding that sentries prevented his approaching his target, he lodged the device on a carriageway, hoping it would detonate under the wheels of some passing viceregal envoy.

Instead, the roadside bomb was struck by a messenger on a bicycle — with lethal effect.

Three other men were condemned to death at the same trial: Amir Charid, Abadh Behari, and Balmokand. Biswas himself received only a prison sentence, but it was upgraded to hanging on appeal.

Several plaques in India — and one in Tokyo, placed by an expatriate — commemorate the young man as a national martyr.

* The measure of Hardinge’s success was London’s ability during World War I to deplo most of its occupation troops plus over a million Indian soldiers to other theaters without losing control of India — despite the best efforts of the Central Powers to foment a wartime mutiny on the subcontinent.

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1928: Clarence “Buck” Kelly, testicle donor

4 comments May 11th, 2014 Headsman

The worst thing that happened to Clarence “Buck” Kelly on this date in 1928 was being hung for murder.

But the only thing anyone could talk about afterwards was how he was un-hung … for science.

Kelly and a friend, Lawrence Weeks (later joined by a third friend, 17-year-old Mike Papadaches), drunk on Prohibition moonshine, robbed a Vallejo Street hardware store of a handgun and set off on a San Francisco armed robbery spree. It lasted just a couple of days in October 1926, but the “terror bandits” left a half-dozen dead.

More of the gory but unremarkable (as murder sprees go) particulars can be found in David Kulczyk’s alliterative California Fruits, Flakes, and Nuts: True Tales of California Crazies, Crackpots and Creeps.

We’re more excited by what happened after he died.


The chief surgeon of San Quentin prison, Dr. Leo Stanley, would write that the “swaggering” Buck Kelly came unmanned at the scaffold: “vanity cannot climb San Quentin’s thirteen steps and survive.” The prisoner took his leave of this world shrieking “Good-by, mother!” from under the hood.

Dr. Stanley was of course present to certify Kelly’s death, but also as the local emissary of the medical gaze so long directed at the fresh clientele of the gallows — that “absolute eye that cadaverizes life,” as Foucault put it.

Once Dr. Stanley’s stethoscope fell silent 13 minutes after the trap fell, the cadaver of Clarence “Buck” Kelly was cut down by the prison’s inmate “scavenger crew” and laid out for autopsy.

It is here that the “terror bandit” gives way to the “gland scandal”.

When the late Kelly’s family received the body for burial, post-autopsy, they discovered that the corpse had been relieved of “certain organs essential to a rejuvenation operation.” These “glands,” in the prevailing euphemism of the newsmen, had been removed by Stanley and installed into a charity patient at a nearby hospital.

Review, which notes the New York Times boasting that “America was first in gland grafting.”

He did this because ball transplant therapy was the little blue pill of the 1920s, and made some colorful medical charlatans some colorful mountains of cash.

Indeed, fresh testes were promoted not only for virility, as one might suppose, but as an all-purpose spring of rejuvenation good for a diverse array of afflictions large and small. According to Thomas Schlich, gland therapy had been credited with addressing

chronic skin problems, impaired vision, neurasthenia, epilepsy, dementia praecox, senile dementia, alcoholism, enlarged prostate, malignant tumors, rheumatism, loose teeth, various kinds of paralysis, “moral perversion of old age,” and arteriosclerosis.

(Testicular transplant was also tried out as a treatment for homosexuality.)

The leading exponent of such procedures was a Russian Jewish emigre, Serge Voronoff, who plied his trade in Paris. Having worked with eunuchs in Egypt around the turn of the century, Voronoff got to thinking big things about the little head.

Voronoff’s ball-transplant fad was so successful that demand from rich old dudes for fresh packages far outstripped what France’s guillotines could ever hope to provide. (This is a longstanding theme in the history of condemned prisoners’ medical exploitation.)

So Voronoff emigrated again, to the animal kingdom.


Image from Voronoff colleauge Louis Dartigues’s book Technique chirurgicale des greffes testiculaires … methode de Voronoff.

Voronoff became the guy who would help you sack up with monkey power,* writing: “I dare assert that the monkey is superior to man by the sturdiness of its body, the quality of its organs, and the absence of those defects, hereditary and acquired, with which the main part of mankind is afflicted.” All one had to do to get a piece of that simian sturdiness was graft on a little piece of their sex organs.** “Monkey glands” were even an early entrant (pdf) in performance enhancing medicine for the burgeoning sports world.

Voronoff had plenty of detractors, but before monkey glands were decisively discredited in the 1930s he also had plenty of imitators.

Our Dr. Leo Stanley was not as outre as some of the graft grifters afoot, but he too went in for the medicinal power of the testis.†

Immediately upon discovering Kelly’s anatomization, which was never properly authorized by either the family or the prisoner (Stanley said he had Kelly’s verbal okay), the terror bandit’s former defense attorney Milton U’Ren‡ made the situation into the aforementioned scandal. U’Ren demanded Stanley’s resignation and eventually filed a civil suit.


Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1928.

It would emerge in the course of the “scandal” that Dr. Stanley had since 1918 cut out the balls of about 30 hanged cutpurses to hang them in other men’s coin purses — “engrafting human testicles from recently executed prisoners to senile recipients.”

Being a doctor right at one of the nation’s more active death chambers gave him a steady supply of donors, although Stanley too had expanded to experimenting with testicular tissue from goats, boars, rams, and stags. If you were an animal whom European nobility was interested in placing on a heraldic crest, you were an animal whom Dr. Stanley was keen on emasculating.

His work in this sensitive area was not exactly a secret; Stanley himself published and spoke on the topic, and it had even hit the papers in a laudatory vein.

It was only the cavalier approach to consent in this instance that made it the “gland scandal”, and Stanley was able to weather the embarrassment job intact. He remained at San Quentin until 1951 and continued experimenting with testicular transplant; the procedure’s promise of restoring youthful virility to aging men appealed as strongly then as it does in our day, and he had no shortage of volunteers eager to freshen up their junk. Stanley, for his part, was ceasing to see his operations as “experimental” — just therapeutic. For years Stanley’s scalpel probed scrota, free and incarcerated alike, for the font of youth.

According to Ethan Blue’s “The Strange Career of Leo Stanley: Remaking Manhood and Medicine at San Quentin State Penitentiary, 1913-1951,”§ over 10,000 testicular implant operations took place at San Quentin by 1940.

* Voronoff’s transplantation of chimpanzee testicles into humans has even been proposed as a possible early vector of HIV transmission.

** This period’s interest in transplantation and interspecies medicine is reflected in interwar literature. In Bulgakov’s 1925 novel Heart of a Dog, the titular pet undergoes this procedure in the opposite direction — receiving human testicles. The 1923 Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” revolves around an elderly character who has been treated with a rejuvenating “serum” extracted from langurs, which reduces him to the bestial behaviors of its donor.

And then there’s The Gland Stealers

† Stanley also shared his era’s fascination with eugenics; as with the testicle thing, this was (pseudo-)science with a social reform agenda. Stanley urged prisoners whenever he got the chance to undergo (voluntary) sterilization — urged successfully, on some 600 occasions.

‡ U’Ren wasn’t just another pretty face (or suggestive name): he was a former district attorney notable for prosecuting Fatty Arbuckle for murder.

§ Pacific Historical Review, vol. 78, no. 2 (2009).

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1858: William and Daniel Cormack, for murdering John Ellis

Add comment May 11th, 2013 Headsman

“Land agents” — the rent-squeezing fist of distant landlords — were not popular people in Ireland. These bill collectors literally ran people out of house and home: one late 19th century land agent in Ireland recalled in his memoirs having received over a hundred threatening letters and, in November 1884, having his house in Kerry dynamited.

So the 1857 murder of Tipperary land agent John Ellis drew little surprise (his life had been attempted at least twice before, when he evicted people to prospective starvation during the Great Famine), and drew scarcely any mourning.

“He had been earning this for many a year, if any man however bad could be said to earn such an end, by turning people out in the road,” an observer noted. That observer was the Archbishop … talk about a tough crowd.

Since £90 had been left undisturbed in the murdered man’s pockets, authorities were pretty sure it was no passing robber that got the best of John Ellis but someone who targeted the hated land agent. However, the only witness — and the word applies only in the loosest sense — was the teenage cart-driver who had been ferrying Ellis home near midnight when his passenger had been shot by ambush from the bushes. Young Thomas Burke hadn’t seen anything useful.

Still, within only days, police had zeroed in on their suspects — with classic tunnel vision.

In fine, the working official hypothesis was that Ellis had been shot over a personal grudge, and not because of his distasteful profession. William and Daniel Cormack had a sister who had just given birth out of wedlock in the poorhouse; they had another sister who was known to be carrying on with John Ellis, who was a notorious cad during his downtime between evictions. The idea was that the brothers shot Ellis to preserve their one sister from the other sister’s fate.

With no actual evidence to buttress this just-so story, John Law got to twisting arms. An 11-year-old girl was parked in solitary confinement for two months to try to get her to incriminate the Cormacks.

The child, to her glory, stubbornly refused to do so. But Thomas Burke, the cart-driver, could not equal her steel. After initially deposing that he had seen nothing — it was very dark, after all — he managed to “remember” that he actually had seen the Cormacks on the scene after all. Another man also “verified” this testimony.

On the strength of these eminently impeachable eyewitnesses the Cormacks were doomed to die. Burke would later admit that he lied, and 2,000-plus people signed a petition pleading for a pardon.

None was forthcoming.

Mounting a public scaffold at Nenagh for a crowd welling with pity, Daniel Cormack made a dying declaration that everyone believed: “Lord have mercy on me, for you know, Jesus, that I neither had hand, act, nor part in that for which I am about to die. Good people, pray for me.”

This rank injustice only rankled more* as years passed.

Fifty-two years later the hanged boys were exhumed from their graves in Nenagh Gaol and given a long honorary procession to their native town of Loughmore, where they were laid to rest in a prominent white mausoleum that can still be visited today.

The plaque at that structure records the closest thing to the verdict of history upon the case:

By the Irish Race in memory of the brothers DANIEL and WILLIAM CORMACK who for the murder of a land agent named ELLIS were hanged at NENAGH after solemn protestation by each on the scaffold of absolute and entire innocence of that crime, the 11th day of May 1858. The tragedy of the brothers occurred through false testimony procured through GOLD and terror, the action in their trial of JUDGE KEOGH, a man who considered personally, politically, religiously and officially was one of the monsters of mankind, and the verdict of a prejudiced, partisan packed perjured jury. Clear proof of the innocence of the brothers afforded by ARCHBISHOP LEAHY to the VICEROY of the day but he nevertheless gratified the appetite of a bigoted, exterminating and ascendancy caste by a judicial murder of the kind which lives bitterly and perpetually in a nation’s remembrance.

The excellent Irish History Podcast site is all over this story, with a detailed post and a heart-wrenching podcast episode.

* A later ballad (just one of several) ramps up the nationalist-confrontation factor for the age of Fenianism … and fabricates the detail of an exculpatory thunderstorm.

In the year of fifty eight, my boys, that was the troublesome time
When cruel landlords and their agents were rulers of our isle.
It was then that Ellis was shot down by an unknown hand.
When the news spread round Killara that Trent’s agent he was shot,
The police were then informed and assembled on the spot.
They searched every field and garden, every lane and every shed,
Until they came to McCormack’s house where two boys were in bed.

They accused these boys of murder from information they had got
From the coachman who was driving at the time that Ellis was shot.
They said that they were innocent, but ’twas all of no avail.
They were handcuffed and made prisoners and conveyed to County Gaol.
At the Spring Assizes these two young men stood their trial in Nenagh town.
By a packed jury of Orangemen, they were guilty found.
The judge addressed the prisoners. He asked what they had to say
Before he signed their execution for eleventh day of May.

“In Mill Killara we were reared, between Thurles and Templemore,
Well known by all inhabitants around the parish of Loughmore.
We’re as innocent of shooting Ellis as the child in the cradle do lie,
And can’t see the reason, for another man’s crime, we are condemned to die.”
The execution it took place, by their holy priest reconciled, their maker for to face.
Such thunder, rain and lightning has ne’er been witnessed since
As the Lord sent down on that day, as a token of their innocence,
That their sould may rest in heaven above as their remains rest in Loughmore.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Ireland,Murder,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1958: Khosrow Roozbeh

Add comment May 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1958, Iranian communist Khosro(w) Roozbeh was shot in Qezel Qal’eh prison.

“A popular teacher at the Military Academy, Rouzbeh was the author of a number of pamphlets on chess, artillery warfare, and, together with Ovanessian, the country’s first political lexicon,” blurbs Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran.

He was also not only a communist, but a radical within the context of Iran’s communist Tudeh Party.

After the 1953 CIA-backed coup restored the Shah of Iran, his government persecuted Tudeh activists as a fifth column.

Thousands were arrested, and brutally tortured into betraying their comrades. While most weren’t put to death, Roozbeh was both a true militant — he opposed moderates’ attempt to make common cause with the liberal Mossadegh government that the Shah had deposed — and the organizer of a network of military infiltrators. The British embassy called him the “Red Pimpernel” for his uncanny talent for slipping traps and getting about in disguise. But that act never has a long shelf-life.

Roozbeh was finally winged in a 1957 shootout and taken into custody, where he was tortured into his own confessions (e.g., that he had assassinated Tudeh members who were too willing about their police collaboration). After spending his last night on this planet putting NaNoWriMo to shame by cranking out a 70-page political manifesto, he’s supposed to have met his executioners defiant to the last, refusing a blindfold and crying “Long Live the Tudeh Party of Iran! Long Live Communism! Fire!”

But the volley that silenced Roozbeh’s cry can be seen in retrospect to mark the definitive elimination of communism from Iran’s political stage, the piece de resistance for SAVAK’s campaign of suppression.

After Roozbeh, Tudeh slipped into irrelevancy (Spanish link) … leaving little but the outsized myth of its most renowned martyr.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Iran,Martyrs,Murder,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Terrorists,Torture

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1744: Jan, of Johonnes Van Houten

Add comment May 11th, 2011 Headsman

From the Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, only one small instance of the “terrible example” in store for the Garden State’s “large body of slaves to be kept in subjection.”

May 10, 1744 — The negro man “Jan,” of Johonnes Van Houten, was tried “for poysoning and attempting to do the same to several blacks at the township of Bergen; to wit, the negro man of Arent Toers, named Lowis, and has some time past poysoned two wenches of Garret Ross, of the same precinct, and attempted several more.” Convicted and sentenced to be hanged May 11, between 10 and 12, at Bergen; “at the suitablest place, where Peter Marselis and Michel Vreeland shall think proper.”


Was it the slave trade that capitalized the Van Houten cracker empire?

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Jersey,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA

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1939: Evgeny Miller, White Russian

2 comments May 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938, former tsarist Gen. Evgeny Miller was executed in Moscow, having been brazenly kidnapped by the Soviet NKVD from exile in France.

Miller opposed the 1917 Russian Revolutions (both of them) and ended up on the wrong side of the ensuing civil war as Aleksandr Kolchak‘s man in Archangel.

There, Miller (he was half-German) was the beneficiary of the Entente powers’ anti-Soviet incursion of British, French, American and Canadian troops.

These powers soon found that their respective peoples, wearied by the late world war, had little appetite for spilling more blood in the service of enthroning a Romanov, and cut bait in 1920.

Miller wisely did likewise, and watched the great workers’ and peasants’ republic take shape from the safety of Paris — where, in the 1930s, he chaired the anti-communist Russian All-Military Union (ROVS).

Soviet intelligence had infiltrated this body, however, and hatched a bold plot* to shanghai Miller and smuggle him out of the country in order to cause ROVS leadership to pass to the Soviets’ own agent, Nikolai Skoblin. Although they got Miller, they didn’t quite pull off the putsch, since the wary general had left behind a note outlining his suspicions of Skoblin in the event foul play should befall him.

Imprisoned at Lubyanka, Miller was personally interrogated by NKVD boss Nikolai Yezhov, but according to Vladislav Goldin and John Long,

little or nothing of what Miller had to report about the recent activities of the ROVS was unknown to the NKVD … the leaders of the NKVD found themselves saddled with a prominent prisoner of no significant value to Soviet intelligence and from whose capture, at the same time, nothing useful could be derived by way of publicity or propaganda.

The fall of Ezhov sealed the doom of General Miller, whose abduction had from the outset been his inspiration. In these circumstances, given his continuing uselessness to the NKVD, Miller’s elimination became an inevitable element in Commissar Beria‘s liquidation of the so-called Ezhovshchina, an operation which lasted from late 1938 through at least 1940. Although part of this undertaking involved the release of up to 200,000 of Ezhov’s prisoners, no such option was available in the case of General Miller for whose disappearance the Soviet government had consistently denied any responsibility. Accordingly, on 11 May 1939, after more than nineteen months of agonizing solitary confinement, Commissar Beria, with no viable alternative, ordered the trial and execution of the long-suffering General Miller in a process, ironically, that was fully implemented in less than twenty-four hours.

[it was] an ill-conceived, poorly executed and totally unnecessary adventure that, in the end, failed to benefit any of its apparent perpetrators.**

Skoblin, for his part, fled, disappearing to a still-unknown fate. His wife, Nadezhda Plevitskaya, copped a 20-year sentence for helping arrange the kidnapping, and died in prison.

They may not have gotten ROVS, but at least they made celluloid. Skoblin’s shadowy activities in France in this period are the inspiration for the 2004 French film Triple Agent.

* Georgy Kosenko, who we’ve previously met in these pages, helped orchestrate the kidnapping. (Times being dangerous as they were, the wheel of Red Terror turned against Kosenko so quickly that Miller actually outlived him.)

** Goldin, Vladislav I. and Long, John W. “Resistance and Retribution: The Life and Fate of General E.K. Miller”, Revolutionary Russia, 12:2 (1999), pp. 19-40.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1891: The Namoa pirates

5 comments May 11th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1891, Chinese authorities beheaded 15 at Kowloon, including the leaders of the then-notorious Namoa pirates.

They were nicknamed for the steamer they had infamously commandeered six months before. The tale is related by an English maritime official’s orientalist (and now public-domain) memoir, The Mystic Flowery Land:

The most daring and disastrously successful piracy of late years … was the “Namoa” piracy in 1890. The startling news of this outrage created a general feeling of unsafety and consternation among the foreign communities in China, mingled with grief and just resentment for the cold-blooded murder of Captain Pocock and Mr. Petersen, both most popular and respected men, the latter being a member of the Customs Service.

On Sunday, the 3rd of December, 1890, the Douglas, Lapraik, and Co‘s coasting steamer, “Namoa,” commanded by my late most esteemed friend Capt. Pocock,* left Hongkong at noon, bound on her usual trip up the coast to Swatow, Amoy, and Foochow with several European and a large number of Chinese passengers, most of the latter being Fuhkien people returning to their native homes after many years absence in the United States and California, each with his little hoard of hard-earned dollars, gained by a small lifetime of frugal toil and self-denial in a distant land. These poor men were nearing their well-remembered haunts of earlier days, to once more spend among the relations and friends of their youth the fast-approaching New Year.

Several Chinese passengers [during the voyage] came up out of the main between-decks and walked about for some minutes in a seemingly aimless manner; then others emerged from the hatch, until there were between forty and fifty on deck — some forward near the hatchway leading down to the junior officers’ mess, others near the bridge ladder and entrance to engine-room and stokehole, and the rest at the main hatchway, saloon entrances and after skylight.

Suddenly, at a given signal, off came their loose outer garments, and these harmless-looking passengers were armed men; each with a cutlass and two revolvers in hand, and at their appointed stations.

The ship was now entirely in the hands of the pirates, whose leader placed one of the gang at the helm, with directions to steer a certain course.

The attack had been planned and carried out with consummate tact and forethought, for the pirates were old hands — desperate scoundrels … two or three ventured below … among their terror-stricken countrymen, and ransacked their luggage, robbing them of their treasured packets of dollars, saved during long and lonesome years of comparative exile and drudgery. Every cent was taken from these poor fellows, who wept in vain, and heart-rending scenes ensued. But the wretches took all.

Then [the European passengers] were all driven into the captain’s little berth, which was barely large enough to hold them all, where they were nearly suffocated.

At this point, the pirates steam off to rendezvous with their confederates, transfer their persons and their booty to the getaway ships, and — after debating whether to burn the Namoa — instead abandon the ship unsunk and the hostages unkilled.

These put the ship to rights and got it back to Hong Kong.

Public indignation was great, and considerable pressure was brought to bear on the Chinese Government to bring the pirates to justice. Skilled foreign and Chinese detectives were sent out on their track, doggedly determined to run these criminals to earth and make them pay the full penalty of their dastardly deeds.

… most, if not all, of these notorious crime-hardened criminals were eventually brought to justice, suffering decapitation outside Kowloon city, the majority of them being executed on Monday, April 17th, 1891, and the remaining nineteen on Thursday, 11th May, of the same year.**

The pirates were such big news that posed photos were taken of their public executions. (Both images are detail views; click for the full picture.)

For some time great precautions were taken by the captains and officers of coasting steamers to search the luggage of all native passengers, and thus guard against a similar catastrophe.

* Captain Thomas Guy Pocock was killed by the pirates, and has a private memorial in Hong Kong Cemetery (aka Happy Valley Cemetery). He left a one-year-old son who died in World War I.

** According to a tome on legal administration in Hong Kong, the pirates were beheaded in batches mixed in with other criminals.

A wholesale execution took place at Kowloon City on the 17th April, 1891, when nineteen pirates were decapitated, thirteen of them for participating in the Namoa and other piracies, and six others for various offences in Chinese territory … on the 11th May fifteen more prisoners were beheaded at Kowloon by the Chinese authorities, amongst the number being six Namoa pirates, including the three leaders of the gang, one of the men being the captain of the junks on board which the pirates put their plunder … One of the leaders decapitated, named Lai A Tsat, was a man whose boldness and cunning in carrying out piracies had long made him a terror both at sea and on shore.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Mass Executions,Mature Content,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions

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