1974: Leyla Qasim, Bride of Kurdistan

Add comment May 12th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1974, Kurdish activist Leyla Qasim was hanged by the Ba’ath regime in Baghdad.

A middle daughter among four brothers from the heavily Kurdish Khanaqin district, Qasim joined the Kurdish Student Union as a student at Baghdad University in the early 1970s.

The Iraqi government had fought a running war against Kurdish rebels throughout the 1960s, resolved only by a tenuous truce; by the spring of 1974 armed conflict began again.

Visible Kurdish activists living right in the capital became a natural target.

Qasim and four male companions were arrested in late April, accused of plotting against Iraq (various accounts have this down to a hijacking scheme or a cogitating the murder of Saddam Hussein). They were tortured, condemned in a televised trial, and executed together.

She purportedly gave her family the last words of a proper martyr: “I am going to be [the] Bride of Kurdistan and embrace it.”

She’s still regarded as a Kurdish heroine and many families confer her name on their daughters.

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1775: William Pitman, for murdering his slave

Add comment May 12th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1775,* plantation owner William Pitman was hanged for murder in King George County, Virginia.

Pitman had a reputation as a brutal man and was no stranger to the Virginia courts; he had been making appearances since the 1750s. So perhaps it was not surprising that he got strung up eventually.

Virginia Gazette, Apr. 21, 1775

What is surprising, indeed perhaps unprecedented, is that the murder victim was one of his own slaves.

The Virginia Gazette, which published the sole surviving account of the incident, says that Pitman, “in liquor” and “in the heat of passion” lost his temper, “tied his poor negro boy by his neck and heels,” and beat him with a large grapevine before stomping him to death.

Pitman can hardly have been the first, or the last, slaveowner to slaughter his own “property” but it was usually impossible to get a conviction because blacks were not allowed to testify against whites in court. In this case, however, two white people — Pitman’s own son and daughter — sealed the case by giving evidence against their father.

The Gazette, writing on April 21, said Pitman had “justly incurred the penalties of the law” and said hopefully that the story might be “a warning to others to treat their slaves with moderation, and not give way to unruly passions, that my bring them to an ignominious death, and involve their families in their unhappy fate.”

* Pitman’s hanging “yesterday” is reported in the Saturday, May 13 issue of the Virginia Gazette — a different Virginia Gazette from the one quoted in this post, as it happens: three competing papers used this same branding; the report in this post’s body on the circumstances of Pitman’s conviction comes from Dixon and Hunter’s Gazette, while the May 13 item establishing the hanging date is from Alexander Purdie’s Gazette.

Purdie’s May 13 edition further adds that when the sheriff came to fetch him on the fatal day, “Pitman made some resistance, but was soon overpowered; he behaved with decency at the place of execution, and attributed his unhappy fate to the effect of intemperate drinking.”

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1868: Robert Smith, the last publicly hanged in Scotland

1 comment May 12th, 2016 Headsman

Robert Smith hanged in Dumfries on this date in 1868 — the last man publicly executed in Scotland* before the advent of private hangings later that same month of May.

Though inclement Scottish weather kept the crowds at bay on the occasion, Robert Smith was a notorious villain for his season in the public eye, as the ensuing newspaper reports will attest.

His death mask is still kept at the Dumfries Museum and Camera Obscura.

The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, Feb. 8, 1868:

FRIGHTFUL CRIMES IN DUMFRIES-SHIRE

On Sunday, the Scotch police apprehended in Carlisle, Robert Smith, whitewasher, aged 20, for an awful crime. On Saturday evening, near Cummertrees, Dumfries-shire, he took a girl, aged 14, into a wood, where he robbed her of 7s. 6d., hung her to a tree, and when dead cut her body down. Afterwards he entered a cottage at Longford, and stabbed a woman named Jane Paterson so fearfully about the neck that death is expected.

The following are additional particulars of this shocking crime: — A murder bearing a horrible resemblance to that lately committed at Alton has just startled the county of Dumfries. It appears that on Saturday afternoon, between 3 and 4 o’clock, a young man, named Smith, who earns a living by jobbing and labouring about the country, was observed by a woman, named Patterson, to take into a wood near to Cummertrees, a village between Annan and Dumfies, a girl, about fourteen years of age.

The woman, as it turned out, had been observed by the ruffian, for some time afterwards he entered her house at Longford-cottages and felled her to the ground. While down he attacked her with his knife and inflicted five stabs about her neck. Her cries alarmed three young men who were passing, and who rushed in to her assistance. The ruffian had meanwhile escaped.

On the poor woman recovering, she related what she had seen near the wood. Information was given at the nearest police-station, and on the party going to the wood they saw a horrible sight. The girl with whom the villain had been seen was found to have been robbed and murdered, after another atrocious crime had been committed. The murderer had hanged her up to a tree & then cut down her body.

Pursuit was at once commenced, and Smith was apprehended on Sunday. He had gone to a farm-house, where blood was observed on his clothes, and in his pocket was found a leather shoelace tied in a noose. There is little doubt that he is the murderer.

The atrocious affair has created the utmost horror. Another account states that the poor little girl is the daughter of a shoemaker at Cummertrees, named Scott, and that she was going to Annan to purchase groceries; that she stopped for shelter at a cottae on the road, and the supposed murderer, Robert Smith, a farm labourer, aged 20, known in the neighbourhood, arranged to accompany her. The man and girl left the cottage together at noon, and the latter was never seen alive again. It was 3 in the afternoon before Smith returned to the cottage and made the murderous attack upon the woman, with the design, as it is supposed, of preventing her from giving evidence against him.

Some additional facts have come to light.

It appears that the prisoner had, after murdering the little girl, gone on to Annan, and there purchased a pistol, with the necessary ammunition, such as powder, shot, and caps. The pistol has since been found in Longford Cottage, and the woman, who can tell a short story, states that after being struc she heard a pistol fired off, though she was stunned at the time.

Robert Smith, or Colvan, the perpetrator of the shocking outrage, is a native of Eaglesfield, near Kirtlebridge, in the county of Dumfiresshire. His mother died when he was about eight years of age. He was then taken charge of by an uncle, named Michael Smith, whose name he has since borne, though Colvan is his right name.

At the age of nine he was cast on the world to fight for himself. He commenced to work about some limekilns in the neighbourhood, and subsequently as a farm servant. During last harvest he found work on Longford Farm, where also the husband of the woman he so brutally mangled was employed.

Mrs. Creighton is progressing more favourably than was at first anticipated, and hopes are now entertained of her recovery.

Nottinghamshire Guardian, Apr. 24, 1868:

THE DUMFRIESSHIRE MURDER.

At the Dumfries Spring Court of Justiciary on Tuesday, Robert Smith, alias Colwin, was charged with the murder, on the 1st of February last, of Thomasina Scott.

The deceased, a girl of tne, was the daughter of a small shopkeeper at Cummertrees. On the morning in question she left home to go to Annan, a neighbouring town, and on her way thither she called at the house of an acquaintance, Mrs. Creighton.

The prisoner, who was a farm labourer, was in the house at the time, and when the deceased departed he too left the house. Some distance from that place the two were seen together.

Two hours later the prisoner returned alone, made a desperate attempt on the life of Mrs. Creighton, and then fled.

Subsequently the deceased was missed and a search in a plantation in the locality discovered her violated and murdered body. Death had been caused by strangulation.

The prisoner pleaded guilty to having committed a criminal assault. — His counsel contended that he was at the time in the state of mind called “moral mania.” — The Jury returned a verdict of guilty; and the prisoner was sentenced to be hanged on the 12th May.

Cheshire Observer and Chester, Birkenhead, Crewe and North Wales Times, May 16, 1868:

EXECUTION AT DUMFRIES.

On Tuesday morning, at eight minutes past eight o’clock, Robert Smith, or Colvin, was hanged at Dumfries Goal [sic], for the murder and rape of Thomasina Scott, a girl, on the first of February last.

Since his conviction the culprit seemed thoroughly resigned to his fate, and recognised the fact that the atrocity of his crime placed the commutation of his sentence beyond the reach of hope.

He expressed contrition for what he had done, and had written to th emother of his victim, asking her pardon.

His demeanour was, however, firm, and even stolid; and though he listened with attention to the ministrations of the chaplain (the Rev. Mr. Cowans), their effect upon him was not very visible. On Monday night he took supper at seven, and the chaplain remained with him till eight; when asked, he declined to receive any other minister.

The culprit rose about six on Tuesday morning. He stated that he had slept well — never better in his life; and, while taking breakfast, he conversed about his impending death with the utmost equanimity. The county authorities assembled in the prison about half-past seven, shortly after which the executioner, Thos. Asern, of York (Calcraft being retained to hang Barrett), was introduced to the condemned man.

He submitted to the process of pinioning, and in the procession to the scaffold he walked with firmness. On the platform he never once faltered, but stood with patience while the hangman rectified an error which he had made, and through which the noose had to be taken off and readjusted.

The drop fell at eight minutes past eight; the culprit struggled and swung a little, but in two minutes the body ceased to quiver.

The weather was raw and wet, and, in consequence, the assembled crowd was small. Some women shrieked when the unfortunate youth was led up the ladder, but otherwise all was orderly.

* By coincidence, Dumfries also hosted Scotland’s last public hanging of a woman.

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1543: Jakob Karrer, Vesalius subject

Add comment May 12th, 2015 Headsman

osing his head on May 12, 1543 made Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler’s name in the annals of art and and medicine.

The remains of the Basel felon — who attacked his wife with a knife when she discovered his bigamous marriage — were turned over after execution to Andreas Vesalius.

That brilliant Flemish doctor was in the midst of a proper Renaissance leveling up of medicine, lifting it past the centuries-long thrall of ancient Greek physician Galen.

Human dissection was essential to Vesalius’s project, as it was alike to many other medical men and to artists too. In his career, Vesalius’s cunning scalpel stripped numerous cadavers for students and urban grandees. With Karrer, Vesalius performed a public dissection, articulating Karrer’s skeleton.

Gifted to the university there, the skeleton was restored in 1985 and can be seen to this day at the Institute of Anatomy in Basel, Switzerland — one of the very earliest still-preserved articulated skeletons.

Why is it a Basel criminal who enjoys this distinction?


From Wikipedia’s library of De Humani illustrations.

Because in 1543, Vesalius was in that city* to work with printer Johannes Oporinus, even then publishing the physician’s magnum opus De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Vesalius personally transported to Oporinus the famously gorgeous and detailed woodcuts of Titian’s pupil Joannes Stephanus Calcarensis that made De Humani a smash hit in Vesalius’s own time and one of the most treasured artifacts of Renaissance scholarship.

* There’s still a street named for Vesalius in Basel.

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1625: Not Helene Gillet, beheading survivor

Add comment May 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1625, Helene Gillet went to the scaffold in Dijon to suffer beheading for infanticide.

But it was the executioner and not Helene who came down from it in pieces.

Helene was the beautiful 21-year-old daughter of a royal chatelain, the sort of well-to-do folks who would own monogrammed blankets that proved quite incriminating when found wrapped around an abandoned dead infant in the woods. Helene would claim that its origin was a family tutor who forced himself upon her, and also insist without further explanation on her innocence of the child’s fate — though the latter little entered the picture since an edict from 1556 made it capital crime to conceal pregnancy and childbirth.

Thanks to her status, she was entitled to the dignity of a beheading, rather than an ignoble dispatch by rope. But all else for Helene Gillet was shame: her father disowned her and forbade any intervention on her behalf; only Helen’s mother accompanied her to Dijon to appeal against the sentence.

It is said that in the course of her appeals to the Parlement of Dijon, the mother attracted the sympathy of the Bernadine abbey there, one of whose inmates ventured to prophesy that “whatever happens, Helene Gillet will not die by the hand of the executioner, but will die a natural and edifying death.”

Parlement begged to differ.

On Monday, May 12th, the young woman was led to the hill of Morimont (present-day Place Emile-Zola) by the executioner of Dijon, Simon Grandjean. Monsieur Bourreau was in an agitated state that day, whether from pity for his victim, or from an ague that had afflicted him, or from whatever other woes haunted his life. When you’re the executioner of Dijon you can’t just call in sick or take a mental health day.

The scaffold on which the whole tragedy was to unfold was a permanent edifice, albeit far less monumental than the likes of Montfaucon. Its routine employment was attested by the permanent wooden palisade and the small stone chapel comprising the arena — features that would factor in the ensuing scene.

Having positioned Gillet on the block, our troubled executioner raised up his ceremonial sword and brought it crashing down … on her left shoulder. The blow toppled the prisoner from the block, but she was quite alive. To cleanly strike through a living neck with a hand-swung blade — to do so under thousands of hostile eyes — was never a certain art; there are many similar misses in the annals. Often, an headsman’s clumsiness in his office would incite the crowd: the legendary English executioner Jack Ketch was nearly lynched for his ten-thumbed performance beheading Lord Monmouth; the hangman of Florence had been stoned to death by an enraged mob after a badly botched execution in 1503.

The Dijonnaise were no more forgiving of Grandjean. Hoots and missiles began pelting the platform as the pitiable condemned, matted with blood, struggled back to the block — and Grandjean must have felt the rising gorge and sweated hands of the man who knows an occasion is about to unman him.

Grandjean’s wife, who acted his assistant in his duties, vainly strove to rescue her man’s mettle and the situation. One chop would do it: the struggling patient would still, the archer detail would restrain the angry crowd. Madame Grandjean forced Gillet back to the block, thrust the dropped sword back into the executioner’s hands with who knows what exhortation.

What else could he do? Again the high executioner raised the blade and again arced it down on the young woman’s head — and again goggled in dismay. Somehow, the blow had been half-deflected by a knot of Helene Gillet’s hair, and nicked only a small gash in the supplicant’s neck. Now hair is a decided inconvenience for this line of work and it was customary to cut it or tie it up — even the era of the guillotine gives us the infamous pre-execution toilette. Even so, the idea of a strong and vigorous man brandishing a heavy executioner’s sword being so entirely frustrated by a braid puts us in mind of an athlete short-arming a free throw or skying a penalty kick for want of conviction in the motion.

This is, admittedly, a retrospective interpretation, but if Grandjean had any inkling of what was to follow one could forgive him the choke.

Having now seen the vulnerable youth survive two clumsy swipes, the crowd’s fury poured brickbats onto the stage in a flurry sufficient to drive the friars who accompanied the condemned to flee in fear for their own lives. Grandjean followed them, all of them retreating to the momentary safety of the chapel as the attempted execution collapsed into chaos.

The steelier Madame Grandjean tried to salvage matters by completing what her husband could not — and seized the injured Gillet to haul her off the platform to the partial shelter of the stone risers by which they had ascended, like a tiger dragging prey to its lair. No longer bothering with the ceremonial niceties of the office, Madame Grandjean simply began kicking and beating Gillet as she drew out a pair of shears to finish her off in violent intimacy.

But the raging mob by this time had pushed through the guards and overrun the palisades, and fell on the melee in the midst of Madame Grandjean’s fevered slashing. The executioner’s wife was ruthlessly torn to pieces, and the cowering executioner himself soon forced from his refuge to the same fate.

Helene Gillet, who had survived a beheading, was hauled by her saviors bloody and near-senseless to a nearby surgeon, who tended her injuries and confirmed that none of them ought be fatal.

What would happen to her now?

The prerogatives of the state insist against the popular belief in pardoning an execution survivor.

We don’t have good answers for this situation even today; that a person might leave their own execution alive seems inadmissible, even though it does — still — occur.

But Helene Gillet was obviously a sympathetic case, and as a practical matter, the office of Dijon executioner had suddenly become vacant. The city’s worthies petitioned as one for her reprieve.

As it happened, King Louis XIII’s younger sister Henrietta Maria had on the very day preceding the execution been married by proxy to Louis’s ill-fated English counterpart Charles I. This gave the French sovereign good occasion for the very palatable exercise of mercy, “at the recommendation of some of our beloved and respected servants, and because we are well-disposed to be gracious through the happy marriage of the Queen of Great Britain.”

The Parlement of Dijon received the royal pardon on June 2, and formally declared Helene Gillet’s official acquittal.

The fortunate woman, having had a brush with the sublime, is said to have retired herself to a convent and lived out the best part of the 17th century there in prayer.

There’s a 19th century French pamphlet of documents related to this case available from Google books.

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1936: Buck Ruxton, red stains

10 comments May 12th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1936, Buktyar Rustomji Ratanji Hakim, also known as Buck Ruxton, was hanged in Strangeways Prison for the murder of his common-law wife, Isabella, and their maid, Mary Jane Rogerson.

A general practitioner of Persian descent, Ruxton was born in India and moved to the United Kingdom in 1930 to set up practice in Lancaster.

He met a married Englishwoman, Isabella Van Ess, and took up with her after her divorce. Although they never legally married and Ruxton actually already had a wife he’d left behind in India, they lived as man and wife and had three children, and she took his last name.

Ruxton had a reputation as a good doctor and a compassionate one who waived his fees for indigent. He wasn’t nearly as good a husband as he was a physician, however: he was extremely jealous of his charming, sociable wife and continually accused her of infidelity with little actual evidence of it.

The neighbors overheard violent arguments, and Isabella would occasionally take the children and leave, seeking refuge at her sister’s home. At one point she reported her husband to the police for domestic violence, but they paid little attention to her complaints.

On September 15, 1935, Ruxton flew into one of his rages, stabbed his wife five times in the chest, beat her and strangled her with his bare hands. He battered the maid to death as well, since she had been unlucky enough to witness it. A clever little rhyme memorialized the story, one of its various versions is printed below:

Red stains on the carpet, red stains on the knife
For Dr. Buck Ruxton had murdered his wife
The maid servant saw it and threatened to tell
So Dr. Buck Ruxton, he’s killed her as well

Ruxton dismembered both bodies in the bathtub and dumped the parts in a stream near the Scottish border, over a hundred miles from Lancaster. There were thirty pieces in all, leading the press to call the case the “Jigsaw Murders.”

In an effort to hinder identification, Ruxton removed the victims’ teeth and skinned their faces. This turned out to be too clever by half: once the bodies were found in late September, the precision of the cuts told authorities that the killer was someone with anatomical knowledge and surgical skill, which narrowed the suspect pool considerably.

This filter, combined with the realization that one of the newspapers Ruxton used to wrap up some dismembered bit was a special edition copy sold only in Lancaster and Morecambe, led the cops to Ruxton and not many others. It wasn’t long before the pieces — sorry — fell into place.

Meanwhile, exciting new forensic techniques, helped firm up identification of the corpses: authorities superimposed a photograph of Isabella over one of the skulls and found a dramatically jury-friendly visible match.

Isabella Ruxton, in life and death.

Forensic entomology (in this case, the gross but useful technique of checking the age of the maggots infesting the corpses) helped pinpoint the date of death.

Ruxton was arrested on October 13, nearly a month after the double murder.

The Ruxtons’ charlady told the police that on the day Isabella and the maid disappeared, Ruxton came to her house early and told her not to come in to work. The next day, when she arrived at the Ruxtons’ house, she found it in a state of disarray with the carpets removed and a pile of burnt material in the backyard. A neighbor couple also had helpful recollections: Ruxton had persuaded them to come and help out at his house, saying he’d cut his hand while opening a can of peaches and he needed to clean up quickly because decorators were coming over. They scrubbed his walls and he gave them some bloodstained carpets and clothing.

Given all this evidence, there was little Ruxton’s defense attorney could say for him.

The defense tried to challenge the identification of the bodies, but the superimposed skull picture was quite convincing. Ruxton admitted his guilt prior to his execution and signed a short confession. He was hanged in spite of a petition with 10,000 signatures asking for mercy.

The Ruxton case, a smashing tabloid hit in its day, has been the subject of its own book, T.F. Potter’s The Deadly Dr. Ruxton: How They Caught a Lancashire Double Killer. It’s also featured in many general true crime books, including Colin Wilson and Damon Wilson’s Crimes of Passion: The Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Colin Evans’s The Casebook of Forensic Detection: How Science Solved 100 of the World’s Most Baffling Crimes, and Harold Schechter’s A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers.

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1730: James Dalton, Hogarth allusion

1 comment May 12th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1730, career criminal James Dalton was executed at Tyburn.

Detail view (click for full image) of James Dalton’s wig box depicted in the boudoir of prostitute Moll Hackabout in Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress.

Crime ran in the family for young master Dalton; his father hanged upon the information of notorious (and himself eventual gallows-bird) Jonathan Wild. According to the Ordinary of Newgate’s report, our day’s principal “went between his Father’s Legs in the Cart, to his fatal Exit at Tyburn.”*

Who knows but what naughty urchins (or parents) in the throng were deterred by that affecting spectacle. For the Daltons, it was more like Take Your Child to Work Day.

While the elder Dalton’s skills ran towards card-sharping, young master James went in for the more conventional varieties of larceny — both those practiced by stealth, and those practiced by force.

These pursuits saw him twice transported to America, for which we have to thank the English judiciary on account of Dalton’s resultant biography at Early American Crime.

(In)famous for his many dalliances, Dalton’s exploits could move copy in their day — and their author transgress the lines between the underworld and “legitimate” celebrity.

“In the height of all our Robberies” [Dalton] and his companions “used to go to the Playhouse, dressed like Gentlemen,” and that once, while watching The Beggar’s Opera, “Captain Macheath’s Fetters happening to be loose,” one of them “call’d out, Captain, Captain, your Bazzel is undone.” The real thieves, having shown up the actors with their superior knowledge of both irons and cant, then retired in style to an alehouse, “in four Chairs, with six Lights before each Chair.”**

Just another hanged thief.

Except, also not — because while his career in malefaction would undoubtedly have added up to a death sentence, his condemnation was secured upon the word of a perjurer upon a very doubtful charge.

A character named John Waller, an “affidavit man” whose profession was supplying bogus testimony to hang whomever could be hanged where a reward was available, insisted that Dalton had robbed him upon the roads. Dalton vigorously denied (and even rebutted with evidence) this charge even while admitting his general life of crime, but it was upon this dubious offense against Waller that he stretched his neck. Dalton died at Tyburn with three others, though a fifth member of their party, one Hugh Norton or Haughton, managed to cheat the executioner by hanging himself in his cell.†

It was the rough justice of the 18th century, a time frequently admitting opportunity to repay tit for tat.

In this case, the professional perjurer who hanged Dalton was two years later convicted himself after making a bogus accusation of highway robbery. Waller was condemned by the court to stand in the pillory at the Seven Dials — a dangerous punishment cousin to the era’s death penalty, inasmuch as the mob violence thereby invited not infrequently proved fatal.


John Waller bombarded with refuse in the pillory.

Waller had quite a reputation, but the fury of the crowd was nothing next to that of James Dalton’s brother, Edward — who, with a confederate, brazenly climbed onto the platform, wrenched the “assize man” out of his pillory, and savagely beat him to death.

* Cited in this impressive compendium of Dalton-related primary sources.

** Andrea McKenzie, “The Real Macheath: Social Satire, Appropriation, and Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography,” Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 4 (December 2006), with the quotes supplied by a 1730 publication called “The Life and Actions of James Dalton (the Noted Street-Robber)”

† Norton/Haughton was posthumously hanged in chains the next day.

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1641: Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford

1 comment May 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1641, the doomed English monarch Charles I regretfully sacrificed one of his ablest ministers to the headsman.

Thomas Wentworth and loyal doggie, painted c. 1639 by Anthony van Dyck.

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford had cut his teeth in Parliament in the 1620s as an advocate of the rights of the Commons as against those of the king, but the notion that he’d be hoisted by his own petard would be little comfort to a King soon destined to find himself in similar straits.

After Parliament forced through the 1628 Petition of Right (and Wentworth’s pro-monarchist personal rival George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham had been conveniently assassinated) Wentworth went over to the king’s camp with the sententious declaration

The authority of a king is the keystone which closeth up the arch of order and government.

The authority of that king, which Wentworth now worked vigorously to uphold during the crown’s Parliament-free Personal Rule of the 1630s, also elevated Wentworth to higher honors.

He would have occasion to exercise his own “personal rule” as dictatorial viceroy in Ireland, and when push came to shove between King and Commons, advocated the most tyrannical measures to compel the compliance of obstinate Englishmen.

By 1640, Wentworth had become in the eyes of his enemies the very embodiment of the monarch’s every sin, and when Charles was obliged by his deteriorating situation to summon Parliament once more, its first order of business was the impeachment of this obnoxious retainer. When Wentworth skillfully repelled the charges and won acquittal on April 10, his parliamentarian opponents simply passed a bill of attainder condemning him to death anyway.

The only thing that stood in the way of the chop was the signature of that ruler whom Wentworth had served so loyally. As Charles dithered — for he had personally guaranteed Wentworth his safety upon his most recent summons to London — popular hatred for the Earl threatened to escalate the crisis into something much more dangerous for the throne.

In one last gesture of fealty, Wentworth dashed off a note to his sovereign, magnanimously releasing him from any obligation save political calculation.

Sire, out of much sadness, I am come to a resolution of that which I take to be the best becoming me; and that is, to look upon the prosperity of your sacred person and the commonwealth as infinitely to be preferred before any man’s private interest. And therefore, in few words, as I have placed myself wholly upon the honour and justice of my peers, I do most humbly beseech you, for the preventing of such mischiefs as may happen by your refusal to pass this bill, by this means to remove this unfortunate thing forth of the way towards that blessed agreement, which God, I trust, shall for ever establish betwixt you and your subjects. Sire, my consent herein shall acquit you more to God than all the world can do beside. To a willing man there is no injury done; and as, by God’s grace, I forgive all the world with a calmness and meekness of infinite contentment to my disloding soul, so, Sire, I can give the life of this world with all cheerfulness imaginable, in the just acknowledgment of your exceeding favours; and only beg that, in your goodness, you would vouchsafe to cast your gracious regard upon my poor son and his three sisters, less or more, and no otherwise, than their unfortunate father shall appear more or less guilty of this death. (Quoted here)

This letter’s place in the annals of sacrificial loyalty is compromised only slightly by its author’s dismay upon finding out that his feckless majesty had quickly taken up the offer:* Wentworth rolled his eyes heavenward and exclaimed

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.**

But the miscalculation was done.

Two days after Charles signed off, Wentworth was beheaded on Tower Hill to the rapture of an audience supposed to have numbered 200,000 strong.


Strafford Led to Execution, by Paul Delaroche, with Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Stafford, receiving the blessing of his ally, the imprisoned Archbishop William Laud.


1642 pamphlet illustration of the beheading, from here.

As things went from bad to worse for Charles in the years ahead, he would have many occasions to regret the sacrifice of so loyal and energetic a minister … and to lament, upon hearing his own death sentence, that he was suffering divine judgment for this date’s act of expedient faithlessness.

A few books about Thomas Wentworth

* In acceding to the sentence, Charles proposed giving Strafford the best part of a week to prepare himself. Parliament ignored that request and set the execution for the very next day.

** That’s Psalm 146:3.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Nobility,Political Expedience,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1993: Leonel Herrera, perilously close to simple murder?

6 comments May 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1993, Leonel Herrera was executed by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas, for shooting two policemen. Herrera’s last statement averred,

Herrera’s sister Norma self-published this book about the case — keeping a promise to her executed brother.

I am innocent, innocent, innocent. Make no mistake about this; I owe society nothing. Continue the struggle for human rights, helping those who are innocent, especially Mr. Graham. I am an innocent man, and something very wrong is taking place tonight. May God bless you all. I am ready.

Well, Herrera wasn’t the first to go to his death maintaining his innocence. The circumstances (and circumstantial evidence) of the crime rate on the forgettable side.

But Leonel Torres Herrera was a bit different from his cousins in hopeless protestation: while he died this evening, his name lived on … in a landmark Supreme Court decision

Herrera v. Collins

Years after Herrera was convicted and death-sentenced, multiple affidavits were produced to the effect that his late brother, Raul, was the real killer.

This evidence was naturally pursued with gusto by the condemned man.

Unfortunately, a claim like Herrera’s of “actual innocence” faces a very high bar when raised in appellate courts, once a prisoner has already been convicted and their presumption of innocence become a presumption of guilt.

That this arbitrary rule of the game has a defensible rationale — could any criminal justice system operate if prisoners could continually relitigate their cases while memories fade and evidence ages into obsolescence? — does not make it the less Kafkaesque for individual prisoners, some of whom are in fact innocent.

Herrera presented this problem in unusually stark terms. Lacking any procedural violation upon which to hang his hat as an appeals issue, his claim pitted substance against form in the Supreme Court. (Oral arguments at Oyez.org)

You already know how it ended.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s opinion patiently explained a jurisprudential truism loftily uncolored by any experience in life liable to introduce a sense of kinship with a Hispanic man charged with a Texas cop-killing who uncovers too late the evidence that could save him.

“[A]ctual innocence” is not itself a constitutional claim.*

Instead, the Court recommended — tongue no doubt planted firmly in cheek — that Herrera apply for executive clemency, a dead letter procedure in Texas used exclusively in a good cop/bad cop routine opposite the black robes.

“Judicial restraint forbids relieving you,” says the court. “Go ask the governor.”

“The courts have thoroughly reviewed the case,” intones the governor. “May God have mercy on your soul.”

Herrera himself may or may not have been innocent. At the end of the day, he went down because the game was rigged against him: his exculpatory evidence was not available at trial, when it might have introduced “reasonable doubt” — as Rehnquist’s opinion put it, “in state criminal proceedings the trial is the paramount event for determining the guilt or innocence of the defendant.” Once that evidence became available deep in the appeals process, it was procedurally barred, and far from such a slam-dunk exoneration that any institutional actor would stick his, her or its neck out to lift Leonel Torres Herrera from the gurney.

Justice Harry Blackmun’s dissent retorted,

Just as an execution without adequate safeguards is unacceptable, so too is an execution when the condemned prisoner can prove that he is innocent. The execution of a person who can show that he is innocent comes perilously close to simple murder.

Whether “simple murder” happened in Huntsville this night in 1993, perhaps no one can really say with certainty.

But as DNA evidence and other forensic advances in the intervening years have increasingly eroded confidence in the reliability of the justice system that metes out death, Herrera v. Collins stands as a key precedent in a case now before the Supreme Court — in which states (joined by the Obama administration) are asking the justices to agree that convicted prisoners have no right to cheap, simple, and frequently dispositive DNA testing that may not have been available when they were tried.

Given the composition of the court (including three holdovers from the Herrera majority), that decision figures to have Leonel Herrera rolling over in his grave.

* Rehnquist conceded a theoretical possibility that extraordinarily persuasive evidence could generate relief on due process grounds. Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas went much further, claiming that prisoners had no right to anything but their trial and their (procedural) appeals.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Innocent Bystanders,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1916: James Connolly, socialist revolutionary

9 comments May 12th, 2008 Sem

On this date in 1916, James Connolly was tied to a chair and executed by firing squad along with Sean Mac Diarmada.

James Connolly: Irish revolutionary.

Connolly was born to Irish immigrant parents in Scotland. His first experience in his ancestral home of Ireland was during his stint in the British Army where, stationed in and around Cork, he had the opportunity to witness firsthand both the poor treatment of the native Irish by the British forces as well as the grave disparities between the landowning and peasant classes. When he returned home to Scotland, he fell in with the socialist crowd and quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the movement’s leaders. He actively participated in socialist organizations in several countries and joined the ranks of the Industrial Workers of the World.

A variety of circumstances brought him back to Ireland, where he led Irish socialists in seeking rights for the working class, joining the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1912. He went on to head the union two years later when the General Secretary, “Big” Jim Larkin, left for a speaking tour. In this capacity, he found a crowd for his increasingly open talks of revolution. Frustrated by what he saw as the unwillingness of the bourgeois Irish Volunteers, Connolly spoke persistently about sacrificing his own life in the name of economic freedom for Ireland, starting The Workers’ Republic journal, then printing his treatise The Re-Conquest of Ireland in 1915. Connolly headed just one revolutionary faction in Ireland at the time. Not wishing to have their festivities spoiled by Connolly, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, another revolutionary paramilitary group, decided to invite him to their Easter party.

The General Post Office in Dublin after the uprising.

The Easter Rising, which had little support from the Irish public at the time, began on April 24, 1916. Connolly led the Dublin Brigrade, which held the Dublin General Post Office, and so was in essence a sort of Commander-in-Chief during the uprising. Six days later, the Easter Rising came to a close with a surrender to British troops; its leaders, who had issued a proclamation of Irish freedom, were quickly sentenced to death by firing squad in the courtyard of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.

Injured during the fighting, Connolly had only been given a few more days to live by the doctors that attended him at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. Unable to stand on his own due to his injuries, he was tied to a chair in order to face the firing squad.

The rapidity and brutality of the executions shocked the Irish public and the conditions of Connolly’s death were most shocking of all. After the executions, the corpses of the 15 put to death (killed between May 3 and May 12) were placed into an unmarked mass grave. The Irish people, previously largely indifferent to the republican rantings of the revolutionaries, angrily regarded British action against the leaders of the Easter Rising, granting legitimacy to the rebellion.

The death of Connolly and the other leaders of the six-day siege presaged the final revolution that led to a free Irish state. Two of Connolly’s cohorts in the Easter campaign were Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins; within a half dozen years, the two* expanded revolutionary tactics through Sinn Fein that forced the British to the bargaining table, meetings that would give rise to the bitterly partitioned Ireland of today. Connolly is still regarded as one of the greatest Britons, though he spent his life fighting the British, and the Irish have celebrated his memory through several songs.

* While de Valera and Collins were regarded as the primary players in Irish statehood, the Easter Rising included dozens of revolutionaries who would spend their lives fighting for Irish independence.

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