1643: Philippe Giroux, former president of the Dijon Parlement

Add comment May 8th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1643, a remarkable trial-of-the-century political case climaxed when a former judge was beheaded for murdering his noble cousin and the cousin’s valet.

Book CoverPhilippe Giroux’s amazing and disconcerting case is the subject of a page-turning microhistory by James Farr, A Tale of Two Murders: Passion and Power in Seventeenth-Century France, which is the source of essentially every detail about the case in this post. “There is substantial evidence surviving from this case,” Farr writes … “and not all of it points the same way.”

Philippe Giroux had, in the suspicious eyes of his peers in Dijon society, ample motive that would connect him to the September 6, 1638 disappearance of Pierre Baillet and Philibert Neugot: common rumor had him so infatuated with Baillet’s wife, Marie Fyot, as to aspire to marry her.

But Giroux was no ordinary lustful bourgeois: he was the paramount judge at the Parlement of Dijon, a powerful client of an even more powerful patron, the Prince of Conde. Giroux’s kin and allies peopled the Burgundy courts.

Perhaps it is no surprise in the Three Musketeers-era France addicted to dueling that a person of this prominence would attract a nemesis, but rare indeed that a vendetta could pull such a powerful figure so low as the scaffold. This bilious triumph was savored in the end by Giroux’s hated rival Pierre Saumaise de Chasans.

A fellow judge whose enmity with our date’s principal reached back at least to 1627, Saumaise, in Farr’s words, presented his contemporaries

a personality of unrelentingly pious self-righteousness blending seamlessly into base self-interest. A quarrelsome man constantly at odds with his fellow judges, Saumaise was involved in twenty-two quarrels with other judges in Parlement, was reprimanded eleven times as the culprit, and was censored seven times. During the seventeenth century the Parlement as a whole was drifting toward lenience in criminal sentences, but Saumaise swam against this current. For example, in 1633 Saumaise was assigned as a rapporteur to ten cases appealed to Parlement from lower courts across Burgundy. In only one of those cases did Saumaise seek to lessen the punishment imposed by the lower court …

Another gruesome example of Saumaise’s severity. In 1633, for conviction of a murder, the grapegrower Bazille Borde was broken on the wheel (more often murderers were hanged or beheaded). As Saumaise watched, the executioner shattered Borde’s arm and leg bones with a metal rod, and then pitched him onto a raised wheel, face up, to die slowly and in agony. His accomplice merely had his head chopped off, after which Saumaise and the presiding judge split the epices of sixty-six ecus (more than the victims combined would have earned in years).

Most disturbing of all of the examples of Saumaise’s stern, unmerciful jurisprudence is the series of cases for witchcraft that Saumaise prosecuted in March 1633. In other parts of France and Europe a witch hunt swept widely during the early seventeenth century, but with the exception of a few flare-ups, Burgundy was largely spared. Saumaise oversaw one of those flare-ups. For a bloody week in the middle of March, Saumaise signed his name as a rapporteur to seven sentences which capped the trials of twenty-five accused witches. Lower courts had ordered banishment, but under appeal at Parlement (required by law for all capital offenses tried in lower courts) Saumaise and the presiding judge demonstrated their belief that firmer punishment was needed. Saumaise saw to it that several of the victims were tortured, and three were eventually burned at the stake. Saumaise and the president assigned to these cases, by the way, pocketed for their efforts 400 ecus (that is, 1,200£, or more than a journeyman artisan — or any of the victims — might earn in fifteen years). In all, in 1633 alone Saumaise shared with his presidents about 700 ecus in addition to his regular wages. Fellow judges, including Philippe Giroux, were deeply troubled by the severity of Saumaise as a judge. By Giroux’s count, Saumaise submitted fifty-six people accused of crimes to be tortured, broken on the wheel, or beheaded, prompting Giroux to conclude in disgust that Saumaise was “a crow who is most content among dead bodies.”

From the late 1620s and throughout the 1630s these two sniped at each other in the august chambers of the king’s justice and with the less discriminating public squibs facilitated by the era of movable type. On the whole, Saumaise did not get the better of his confrontations with Giroux, even once being forced to perform the amende honorable before their legal peers with a galling public affirmation of his enemy’s honor that must of tasted like ash in Saumaise’s mouth.

That was early in 1639, mere weeks after Giroux allegedly slaughtered Pierre Baillet. It would be prove to be the apex before the wheel of fortune very abruptly threw him down.

Giroux attempted to press his advantage over Saumaise by pursuing a rape charge against him, but the case speedily fell apart with the whiff of suborned perjury about it. Meanwhile, two judges not in Giroux’s network had been detailed to investigate the Baillet murder, and a constellation of evidence was emerging from the Giroux servants and associates who had been interrogated. However much of this was circumstantial and hearsay, it was certainly more than the president of Parlement ought to have said against him per the Caesar’s-wife standard.

In July 1640 Giroux was arrested and although his confinement was comfortably befitting his station it would continue for the remainder of his life — Giroux powerless while the evidence compounded to do aught but issue learned public factums savaging the case against him as a concoction of Saumaise’s vendetta. Indeed, as a purely juridical matter, this prosecution did suffer from some debilitating flaws which help to explain the protracted three-year gap from arrest to judgment and execution. Most notably, it lacked bodies, which were legally required to prosecute a murder case in the absence of a confession or an eyewitness, neither of which proved forthcoming. Had Giroux, as a servant had alleged, efficiently pitched the victims undetected into his latrine where quicklime had dissolved their remains into the ordure? If so, it might never be possible to conclude a judgment; certainly the magistrate Giroux remained wisely steadfast in his denials and could be relied upon to perceive where his prosecutors’ claims were most vulnerable. In Giroux’s telling the prosecution and the hand of his personal enemy had veered into an outright stitch-up, with every witness favorable to himself excluded and the prejudicial evidence of his rivals’ kin granted outsized credence. Are we seriously to believe this senior judge butchered his own cousin in his own home, that the victims or “victims” had not instead (as other rumors suggested) upped sticks and left the country or fallen prey to some wilderness brigands?

In such a gap might a litigant preserve his life. Still and all, O.J. Simpson was acquitted but also permanently stripped of his public stature and respectability. How much more these pains would have weighed on a dignitary of the king’s courts, in a society where family, honor, and reputation were the true coin of the realm. However stoutly he defended himself from his cell, Giroux found events running away from him, and even the favor of the Prince of Conde coldly withdrawn — as discovered when his father presented himself in the prince’s court to petition for his son and was advised that he’d be seeing the inside of the Bastille should he not speedily fly. His son contemplated the same strategem, but his jailbreak plot was detected before it could be implemented.

When a sack apparently containing the remains of the victims was finally uncovered — the identification dramatically cinched by a playing card that a tailor had sewn into one of the men’s collars to stiffen it — the fallen president of Parlement knew his doom was sealed although even to his confessors he staked his immortal soul upon his innocence. The courts so long uncertain about the fate of their former colleague now had a clincher. They imposed financial penalties that, while irrelevant to his own final hours, devastated and permanently diminished Giroux’s house thereafter, plus the sentence of beheading, a merciful abatement considering the more brutal executions at the law’s disposal for cases of murder.

After hearing the sentence of death [early afternoon of May 8], Giroux was led into the holding cell of the courthouse and prepared for execution. He was stripped of the symbols of his presidential office — ritually divested of his bonnet carre and his scarlet robe, which in any case he had not been permitted to wear since his incarceration. Such a ritual officially cast the felon into the dishonorable netherworld of social disgrace. Execution everywhere in early modern Europe “imported infamy” upon the condemned, and this was made visible by the physical treatment of the criminal’s body. The body in those days was not thought of as simply the integral possession of the individual human being but rather as a socially defined entity that signified status and standing in a highly stratified system. This system, as Giroux knew as well as anyone, was held together and given meaning by that pervasive notion of honor that so preoccupied men like him. The loss of honor could ruin a family, most directly by ending descendents’ [sic] prospects of marrying. It was undoubtedly because of this fear of dishonor that upon being led into the holding cell, Giroux turned to Comeau and said with tears in his eyes, “I beg you to assure my Lord the Prince [of Conde] that I remain his servant, and I beg him that this poor innocent who is my son and who has the honor to carry [Conde’s] name must not suffer from the disgrace of his father. Perhaps he will be more fortunate that I.” …

Spared both the humiliation and the pain of being broken on the wheel, Giroux gasped, “God be praised! These men have much charity and mercy, because according to the crimes of which I have been accused, I ought to be more rudely treated.” Opting for beheading was one indication that the judges were trying not to dishonor Giroux. Another was that they withheld a customary phrase in the sentence of death. Usually death sentences called for actions that would obliterate the memory of the convicted felon and destroy in posterity the honor of his or her family. The body might be burned and its ashes scattered to the wind, or dismembered and buried in an unmarked grave, or documents from the trial declaring the innocence of the accused, such as factums, might be destroyed. The judges ordered none of these steps.

Now Saumaise had the satisfaction of seeing the amende honorable ritual reversed to his advantage, as a bound Giroux begged public forgiveness on his knees during his shameful procession to death. “Ah, my father! My son! My kin! My friends! What will you not suffer from this affront that will burst upon you all!” Farr has him exclaiming. He had a quarter-mile yet to walk to the Place du Morimont (present-day Place Emile-Zola).*

The streets were lined with a hundred armed men who held in check a crowd “so numerous” and packed so densely, according to Larme, “that one could suffocate among them.” Giroux apparently regained his composure, for he now strode between the two priests “with constancy and firmness,” as Larme reports. The former president had the presence of mind to bid adieu to several people whom he recognized along the way. He even smiled, showing no evidence that he was suffering inside. It was in this state that he entered the chapel beneath the scaffold where, still clutching the crucifix, he bade a final goodbye to his son and asked him always to remember his father with respect and love. He then prostrated himself before the altar, saying, “Receive, O Lord, my death in expiation for my sins.” He rose, turned to the priests, and asked them to promise to take his body to the family estate at Marigny for burial. He emerged from the chapel and climbed the steps of the scaffold. He faced the crowd, and bowed deeply three times. Then, his back to the executioner, he dropped to his knees. He heard his sentence of death read to him yet again, this time by an assistant to the royal prosecutor general named Deschamps, and then recited a series of litanies. After that, Deschamps drew close and said that he had orders to ask Giroux one last time whether he had killed Monsieur Baillet, whether Marie Fyot was involved in the conspiracy, and who his accomplices were. Giroux, steadfast in his innocence to the end, replied, “I have told you everything I know.”

Giroux was confessed a final time by Father Chaudot, received absolution, and awaited the approach of the hooded headsman. The executioner removed Giroux’s flowing wig to blindfold his eyes. Giroux clutched the crucifix and drew it close to his heart just before the executioner’s sword flashed toward Giroux’s exposed neck. The first blow did not sever the former president’s head, not did the second. The crowd gaped in horror and then erupted in sympathy for Giroux while he was being hacked to death. Larme too looked on horrified, and reported that many in the crowd tried to storm the scaffold and wanted to tear the executioner limb from limb, shouting “Death to the headsman!” And they would have done so, Larme assures us, if the soldiers posted all around the gallows had not kept them at bay. It ultimately took the headsman five blows of the broadsword to cut off Philippe Giroux’s head.

* Find here a grim French-language tour through the notable public punishments administered at this location down the years.

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1916: Eamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Con Colbert, and Sean Heuston

Add comment May 8th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1916 — following a Sunday respite — executions in the aftermath of the Irish Republican Easter Rising against British power resumed with four more shootings at Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol.

Eamonn Ceannt was an Irish Republican Brotherhood leader and was the fifth of the seven men who signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic to be executed. (The remaining two, James Connolly and Sean Mac Diarmada, were shot on May 12th.) On the night before his execution, he wrote a ferocious although arguably counterproductive summons to future Irish revolutionaries

never to treat with the enemy, never to surrender at his mercy but to fight to a finish. I see nothing gained but grave disaster caused by the surrender which has marked the end of the Irish Insurrection of 1916 — so far at least as Dublin is concerned. The enemy has not cherished one generous thought for those who, with little hope, with poor equipment, and weak in numbers, withstood his forces for one glorious week. Ireland has shown she is a nation. This generation can claim to have raised sons as brave as any that went before. And in the years to come, Ireland will honour those who risked all for her honour at Easter in 1916 …

I wish to record the magnificent gallantry and fearless, calm determination of the men who fought with me. All, all, were simply splendid. Even I knew no fear, nor panic ,nor shrank fron no risk [sic], even as I shrink not now from the death which faces me at daybreak. I hope to see God’s face even for a moment in the morning. His will be done.

His firing squad failed to kill him cleanly, necessitating a gory coup de grace.

Michael Mallin was the co-founder with the pacifistic Francis Sheey-Skeffington of the Socialist Party of Ireland, and the second-in-command for the aforementioned James Connolly of the socialist union militia Irish Citizen Army. In the latter capacity Mallin led the detachment which seized St. Stephen’s Green during the Easter Rising.

A devout Catholic as well as a revolutionary militant, Mallin’s last letter to his family urged two of his children to take up holy orders. They indeed did so, and his youngest son, Father Joseph Mallin SJ, died only days ago as of this writing at the age of 104.

Con Colbert was another deeply religious rebel; an Irish Republic Brotherhood officer, he commanded rebels at several locations including the Jameson’s whiskey distillery at Marrowbone Lane.

The youngest of the group — who were, like all the Easter Rising rebels, shot sequentially rather than en masse — was 25-year-old Sean Heuston, also known as Jack or J.J. James Connolly had dispatched him to hold the Mendicity Institution for a few hours to delay the British advance; Heuston’s garrison of 26 ended up defending it for two days against several hundred enemy troops until, food and ammunition exhausted, they surrendered at British discretion.

His confessor cast the young patriot in a positively beatific light at the end:

A soldier directed Seán and myself to a corner of the yard, a short distance from the outer wall of the prison. Here there was a box (seemingly a soap box) and Sean was told to sit down upon it. He was perfectly calm, and said with me for the last time: ‘My Jesus, mercy.’ I scarcely had moved away a few yards when a volley went off, and this noble soldier of Irish Freedom fell dead. I rushed over to anoint him; his whole face seemed transformed and lit up with a grandeur and brightness that I had never before noticed

Never did I realise that men could fight so bravely, and die so beautifully, and so fearlessly as did the Heroes of Easter Week. On the morning of Sean Heuston’s death I would have given the world to have been in his place, he died in such a noble and sacred cause, and went forth to meet his Divine Saviour with such grand Christian sentiments of trust, confidence and love

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1805: Not Bartlett Ambler, possible buggerer

Add comment May 8th, 2017 Headsman

From “Buggery and the British Navy”, in History of Homosexuality in Europe and America

Unlike modern military law, which tends to distinguish in some way between homosexual acts between consenting adults and what is often the equivalent of rape of a shipmate, the navy during this period made no such distinctions. A boy who had been seduced or forced to commit buggery, therefore, was under great pressure to turn in his partner or attacker, for if they were caught and it appeared he had consented, the “victim” might well be as severely punished as the aggressor. Needless to say, there were serious problems in determining whether or not the boys called to testify were telling the truth, or simply using the buggery charge as a means of destroying a shipmate or officer they particularly disliked.

The courts were often acutely conscious of that possibility and there was even some objection to allowing young boys to testify in buggery trials. In 1772, the defense protested the testimony of John Ellis, a twelve year old boy who had accused one John Palmer of buggery. Despite the protest, however, it was decided that he could legally testify and Palmer was convicted of attempted buggery.

The problem of boys testifying against men in buggery cases are clearly revealed in the Bartlett Ambler case. Ambler was accused by four boys of sodomitic practices. Each testified that Ambler threatened to have them flogged if they told what had occurred. One of the boys, John Davy, said, “…and I had scarce buttoned up my breeches when he said be sure don’t tell no person of it. I’ll be very good to you, but if you tell any person of it I’ll get you flogged.” Ambler based his defense on the alleged wickedness of his accusers. Joseph Dorman, the ship’s corporal, was called upon to discuss the character of three of the witnesses.

Q. Do you know if the boys who have been examined in support of the charge against me are notorious liars?

A. Two of them Hopkins and Willcott have been several times punished for lying.

Court. What is the character of the boy Davy?

A. He bears a very bad character by the whole ship’s company.

Ambler also called upon Midshipman Robert Baker who told the court:

Davy is a very wicked boy indeed as ever lived everyone in the ship will say that if it was in his power he would hang his own father — I hear Hooper’s mother say that her son had denied to her all that had been said against the prisoner.

The court had to weigh the testimony of the four boys who accused Ambler of buggery against the evidence of Ambler’s witnesses, who denigrated the character of the boys and testified to his good reputation. The judges sentenced Ambler to be hanged, but as a sign of their unease, sent the following letter to the Admiralty Secretary, along with the minutes of the trial:

By desire of the members of a Court Martial assembled by me this day to try Mr. Bartlett Ambler, I have to request you will call their lordship’s consideration to the hardship the Court have labored under in being obliged to condemn a man to death, upon the evidence of four boys, the eldest not more than thirteen years of age, and therefore recommend him to mercy.

The recommendation was endorsed by His Majesty on May 8, 1805, and Ambler was pardoned.

It is clear that boys could be intimidated into testifying against innocent men. In one disturbing case, a boy was caught under the blanket of Edward Martin. Evidently, the boy did not have a bed or blanket of his own, and Martin took him in as an act of kindness. The captain of the ship had the boy flogged and threatened him with another whipping if he refused to testify. Under the threat of further punishment, the boy confessed that Martin had buggered him. The trial record reads:

Prosecutor. Did you inform me that the Prisoner had committed that unnatural crime on you twice?

James. Yes, but I was afraid that the Captain would flog me.

In this case, the prisoner was acquitted, but the case does suggest the many possible abuses in buggery trials: that the testimony of boys was suspect, that fear of punishment or promise of reward might be used to intimidate them into giving false evidence against a shipmate, that the boy could be motivated by dislike or a desire for vengeance.

Trial transcripts of the testimony offered against Bartlett Ambler — and summoned by Ambler in his defense, who averred the “wicked” and “very bad” character of the childish witnesses — are available in Gay Warriors: A Documentary History from the Ancient World to the Present.

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1945: Pvt. George Edward Smith, on VE Day

1 comment May 8th, 2016 Robert Walsh

(Thanks to Robert Walsh for the guest post. Mr. Walsh’s home page has a trove of articles about historical executions, including another American serviceman hanged at Shepton Mallet. -ed.)

VE (Victory in Europe) marked the official end of hostilities in the European theatre of operations and quite possibly the largest and most joyous celebration in human history.

Unless, of course, you happened to be former US Army Air Forces Private George Edward Smith.

While most of the rest of the world basked in the joy of victory and the relief of the European war being over, Private Smith had a rather more pressing engagement to think about. The rest of the population might be about to enter a brave new world, but Smith was about to depart rather suddenly from the old one.

It was his execution day.

Smith, previously serving at RAF Attlebridge in Norfolk with the US Air Force’s 784th Bombardment Squadron, wouldn’t be celebrating the end of the European war. He’d be watching the clock tick relentlessly down to 1 a.m. when he’d be escorted from the Condemned Cell at Her Majesty’s Prison, Shepton Mallet, Somerset (loaned to the US military for the duration of the war). He’d be sat near the gallows pondering a past that was about to cost him his life while hoping for a reprieve that wouldn’t arrive and a future that was already lost.

While most of the world celebrated, George Edward Smith was going to die.

Smith’s guilt wasn’t in any doubt. Near RAF Attlebridge lay the sleepy Norfolk town of Honingham and the stately home named Honingham Hall (demolished in the 1960s).

Honingham Hall and the adjoining land were home to distinguished diplomat Sir Eric Teichmann, a long-serving figure vastly experienced in the Far East and serving as advisor to the British Embassy at Chungking. He’d noticed, as so many country gentlemen do, that he had a problem with poachers. December 3, 1944 would be the last time he had a problem with anything. It was in the small hours of the morning that he met George Edward Smith.

Smith and his accomplice Private Wijpacha had ‘borrowed’ a pair of M1 carbines from the base armoury and decided to do a spot of illicit hunting. Teichmann, familiar with the fact that poachers aren’t usually violent offenders and will usually run if challenged, heard gunshots from nearby woodland and went out to investigate. He went out unarmed, challenged Smith and Wijpacha — and Smith promptly shot him once through the head with his M1. Both men fled hurriedly back to their base, hoping that their absence wouldn’t be noticed.

Of course, a senior British diplomat lying murdered in the woodland was noticed.

Before long both men were arrested and questioned, during which Smith confessed, a confession he later retracted claiming that it was made under duress. That, not surprisingly, cut no ice whatsoever with either the American military or the British authorities. Smith and Wijpacha were court-martialled at RAF Attlebridge and Wijpacha (who hadn’t fired a shot) received a lengthy prison sentence. Smith, the triggerman, drew the death penalty.

Under the Visiting Forces Act, 1942 the Americans were free to try, imprison and condemn their own criminals independent of the British system of justice, not that it would have made any difference to Smith’s case. Murder was then a capital crime in Britain regardless of the criminal’s nationality. If Smith hadn’t been condemned by an American court-martial then a British trial would have seen the judge don the legendary ‘Black Cap’ and pass what British reporters once called ‘the dread sentence’ especially given the status of the victim.

Smith was promptly shipped to the prison at Shepton Mallet in the county of Somerset to await a mandatory review of his case and, if clemency was refused, execution.

View of Shepton Mallet (left) and its execution shed (right)

Shepton Mallet had been a civilian prison for centuries before being turned over to the British military, who then lent it to the Americans as part of the Visiting Forces Act. Until its final closure a few years ago Shepton Mallet remained the oldest prison in the UK still operational, a dubious distinction now belonging to Dartmoor. There were, however, a few difficulties with the arrangement.

The Americans carried out 18 executions at Shepton Mallet during their tenure between mid-1942 and September, 1945. Two (Alex Miranda and Benjamin Pyegate) were by firing squad, upsetting local people, who knew very well what it meant to live next to a military prison and hear a single rifle volley at 8 a.m. The American military also preferred hanging common criminals to allowing them to be shot like soldiers.

The problems were simple. The locals didn’t like firing squads made no secret of it. Not surprisingly, there were complaints. The US military felt being shot was too good for most of its condemned and the British didn’t like the methods and equipment used by American hangmen, who had acquired a nasty and thoroughly-deserved reputation for using badly-designed scaffolds, the wrong type of rope and the antiquated standard drop instead of a drop length scientifically calculated by the prisoner’s weight.

The British also regarded American hanging equipment as outdated, while American military hangmen John Woods and Joseph Malta were entirely unfamiliar with the British kit. And British hangmen had evolved hanging to almost an art, needing mere seconds to complete the procedure.

Another problem was that the gallows at Shepton Mallet hadn’t been used since March, 1926. By 1942 it was considered unfit for service and needed replacing. A compromise had to be reached, and was.

The Americans could continue executions at Shepton Mallet, but the vast majority (16 out of 18) were performed by British hangmen using a British gallows in an extension built onto the end of one of the cellblocks. The Americans were permitted their usual practice of having the condemned stand strapped, noosed and hooded on the gallows while their death warrant and charge sheet were read out and then being asked for any last words. This caused executioner Albert Pierrepoint, master of the speedy hanging, to complain at what seemed to him a cruel, unnecessary delay in ending the prisoner’s misery.

Pierrepoint also complained about overcrowding in the gallows room during executions. At a British hanging there would be the prisoner, the hangman, his assistant, the prison Governor, the Chief Warder, the doctor, the Chaplain and two or four prison officers. At an American military hanging there were usually twenty or so people clustered around the trapdoors and lever. He felt a hanging should be both quick and perfect and that a crowded gallows room invited disaster.

Hangman Thomas Pierrepoint.

By VE Day the arrangement was well-established. Thomas Pierrepoint, uncle of Albert and brother of Henry (both of whom were also hangmen) performed 13 of the 16 hangings at Shepton Mallet while Albert performed the remaining three when he wasn’t busy elsewhere.

Their assistants were Steve Wade, Herbert Morris and Alexander Riley. Tom Pierrepoint had performed the last hanging at Shepton Mallet in 1926 (that of murderer John Lincoln) assisted by Lionel Mann. While the two firing squads were performed at 8 a.m., the hangings would be carried out at 1 a.m. which was discreet enough not to arouse neighbors’ ire.

Smith’s case was reviewed. Not surprisingly, his appeal was denied as were other requests including (most generously, under the circumstances) one from Lady Teichmann, widow of his victim. His date was set for 1 a.m. on what turned out to be the very day Europe’s guns fell silent. Tom Pierrepoint would do the job assisted by Herbert Morris. Smith was transferred to the Condemned Cell a few days prior to the execution date where he was granted free access to the military Chaplain.

When the time came, while the rest of the population celebrated the arrival of a new world and Smith contemplated his departure from the old one, it went as smoothly as could be expected. Smith was taken from his cell wearing standard military uniform, from which any badges or flashes marking him as a soldier were deliberately removed. Paperwork was completed signifying his dishonourable discharge from the US military as a common criminal and the US military were determined that he should die like one.

Given the delays caused by the reading of the charge sheet and death warrant and Smith being asked for his last words (he apparently had none) it took 22 minutes between Smith being taken from his cell and being certified dead by the prison doctor. Compare this with a standard British execution (minus the bureaucracy and speechifying) where 22 seconds would have been considered twice as long as was needed to do the job. Smith’s punishment, however, wasn’t done yet. Executed American servicemen were initially buried at Brookwood cemetery, but then moved to the notorious ‘Plot E’ of the Oisne-Aisne Military Cemetery in France. Plot E is deliberately hidden from the rest of that cemetery. Its residents have no names on their graves, only numbers. They have no headstones or crosses, only flat stone markers. No American flag hangs in their plot. It doesn’t appear on the plan of the cemetery even today and the markers are placed facing away from the graves of other Americans. Visits to Plot E are still discouraged and it wasn’t until a Freedom of Information request in 2009 that the names of those buried there were released.


A view of the “Dishonored Dead” in Plot E, Oise-Aisne American Cemetery. (cc) image by Stranger20824.

Whatever they may have done, and some committed truly dreadful crimes, it seems distasteful to virtually deny their existence and shame them even after death. It also denied their families and friends the chance to visit and grieve, despite the fact that they themselves had committed no crime.

That said, it’s no different to the routine imposed on condemned British criminals. In fact, the British death sentence expressly demanded that inmates be buried in unmarked graves within the prison walls inflicting the same suffering on their friends and relatives. The British hanged were officially designated ‘Property of the Crown,’ many of whom were not properly reburied until after abolition. At many British prisons they still remain in unmarked graves according to the following sentence:

Prisoner at the Bar, it is the sentence of this Court that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be afterwards cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.

Remove the prisoner …

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1885: Mose Caton, beastly husband

Add comment May 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1885, a vast concourse crowded into Morganfield, Ky. for the satisfaction of seeing the hated Mose Caton hang.

Caton was a Union County, Ky., farmer and cooper who married a widow to secure some land. And he seems like a catch! “Mose Caton seemed to be of the opinion that he had absolute power over the lives of his family,” this contemporaneous chronicler recorded. “The ethics of most people at the present day would prompt them to interfere if his treatment of his family should be practiced toward ordinary domestic animals.”

The poor widow Hester took to her new hubby’s thrashings like the Stanford prison experiment inmates and soon became a beaten, broken soul. Out in the boondocks, Caton had a free hand.

Disheveled and too frightened to speak, she ate in the corner, sat on a box separate from the rest of the family, slept on a filthy feather bed and absorbed any humiliation Mose cared to inflict on her … up to and including actually having Mose move his mistress right into the house, and having the mistress physically whip the wife. When Mose built a new house he gave the abused Hester the loft, into which household fire-boxes (rather than fireplaces) emptied their smoke. The woman lived in hell itself.

But she didn’t live there very long.

She died on Sunday, February 22.

As neighbors helped the next day to dress the body for burial, they saw written in the bruised flesh the terrible treatment Hester had endured … including a dreadful abrasion about the neck that looked for all the world like the mark of a cord about her neck.

Though the corpse was buried, reports of its condition soon led to its disinterment — bruised, oozing blood, visibly murdered.

“Mose Caton’s face was the most notable feature of the man. It might well be styled Mongolian in its principal characteristics. The rather scant chin whisker and mustache was the first requisite to this effect. Then the prominent cheek-bones; eyebrows, highest at the outside ends; and a deep sinister wrinkle, starting at the sides of the nostrils, and dropping down past the mustache, heightened the effect. His eyes, more yellow than grey, were not capable of shame, and yet they were not firm and steadfast. He could keep his eyes upon your face, but he could not look steadily into your eyes. His eyes would wander to your forehead, chin, cheeks, back to your eyes, and then away again all over your face.

“His forehead was high, but rather narrow, and retreated from the eyebrows back. The hair was black and slightly tinged with grey. He parted his hair on both sides, and a lock fell down the center of his forehead, not unlike the one commonly seen in the pictures of old Father Time. The ends of the rather long hair was tucked under like Secretary Lamar wears his hair. His clothing was of ordinary woolen goods. He wore a white shirt, and a celluloid turn down collar that was too small for him. He supplemented its length with a red ribbon, which ran through the front button-hole of his shirt collar and tied the ends of his celluloid collar together with the loose ends of the ribbon.” (Source)

“Have him at all hazards,” someone said, voicing the shocked sentiment of all present.

A posse of 25 somewhat fearful men — for Caton had a forbiddingly malevolent public reputation quite apart from the treatment of his spouse — was formed to arrest the tyrannical husband, along with the mistress and the boys. The Catons battened down the hatches and started firing. Their daughter Annie absorbed a breast- and bowel-ful of buckshot in the crossfire, a mortal injury. Only when the posse threatened to burn the house down did the besieged clan give up.

Even then, their trip to the lockup “was interrupted many times by bands of men on foot, emerging from the cypress forests in the icy wilderness, and demanding that the prisoners should be hung then and there.”

Authorities managed to keep the lynching sentiment at bay, but only just. Outraged locals were understood to stand ready to take matters into their own hands at any hint of excess delicacy or dawdling on the part of the judiciary. There were even rumors that an artillery piece had been procured to make certain matters should the need arise to assault the jail, and that the courthouse audience itself had several ropes in hand should it be called upon to issue its summary verdict.

When the jury announced that this would not be necessary, the onlookers bayed in bloodthirsty satisfaction at the sentence. Caton had scarcely a month yet to live, and this was not enough time to dissipate the hatred he had earned of his neighbors: there was an intent to hang Caton privately, but thousands of people pouring into Morganfield, Ky., made it clearly understood that they would riot and pull down the barrier if they were balked of their sight.

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

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2013: Vahid Zare pardoned while hanging

4 comments May 8th, 2014 Headsman

Last year on this date, an astonishing scene unfolded at a public hanging in Mashhad, near the Iran-Afghanistan border.

Vahid Zare, a robber who murdered a young military conscript pursuing him, was the man due for execution.

Moments after he was dropped and began strangling, the family of his victim pardoned him — their right under Iranian law. Zare was immediately rescued mid-hanging, and his executioner helped him off the gallows for transportation to a local hospital.

The graphic pictures that follow tell an astonishing story.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Iran,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Mature Content,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines

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1979: Twenty-one by revolutionary courts of the Iranian Revolution

Add comment May 8th, 2013 Headsman

At 5 a.m. today, 21 people were shot in Tehran by sentence of the previous day’s revolutionary court — the largest mass-execution since the Iranian Revolution three months prior. “Revolutionary courts consolidate the gains of the revolution,” exulted an official newspaper.

While the bulk of this morning’s condemned were lower-ranking Savak personnel or former policemen, several distinct VIPs were also shot along with them.

Gholam Riza Kianpour

The names of all 21 people executed this date can be perused by date-searching the Iran Human Rights Memorial database.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Iran,Mass Executions,Murder,Politicians,Shot,Soldiers

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1788: Archibald Taylor, but not Joseph Taylor

1 comment May 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1788, two highwaymen were hanged at Boston Neck: Archibald Taylor, and Joseph Taylor.*

According to a letter later published purporting to be from that Joseph Taylor, however, he and a sympathetic doctor actually engineered one of the most amazing scaffold escapes on record. It all got started when Joseph Taylor found his fellow-condemned Archibald in high spirits one day on death row.

I never, even after my condemnation, realized that I was suddenly to die in so awful a manner, until a gentleman, who I afterwards found was a doctor, came and talked privately with the late unhappy sufferer, and my fellow convict, Archibald Taylor, who, when the gentleman was gone, came to me with money in his hand, and so smiling a countenance, that I thought he had received it in charity. But he soon undeceived me, telling me with an air of gaiety, that it was the price of his body.

This doctor dropped was doing the workaday ghoulishness of procuring imminent corpses for medical cadavers.

Such practices were still highly taboo, viscerally shocking in this case to Joseph Taylor:

This was the first time since my condemnation that I thought what it was to die. The shock was terrible, and Taylor increased it, saying that the doctor had desired him to bargain with me for my body also. The thoughts of my bones not being permitted to remain in the grave in peace, and my body, which my poor mother had so oten caressed and dandled on her knee, and wich had been so pampered by my friends in my better days, being slashed and mangled by the doctors, was too much for me. I had been deaf to the pious exhortations of the priests; but now my conscience was awakened, and hell seemed indeed to yawn for me.

What a night of horror was the next night! — When the doctor came in the morning to bargain for my body, I was in a cold sweat; my knees smote together, and my tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of my mouth.

According to the letter, the doctor “perceived the agony of my soul” and in the conversation as it unfolded agreed to try to help Joseph Taylor survive the hanging — advising him, in order to “not dislocate the Vertebrae of the Neck,” to “Work the Knot behind your Neck and Press your Throat upon the Halter which will prevent the Necks breaking and likewise the Compression of the Jugular and preserve the circulations in some degree.” (This is actually sound advice in case you ever find yourself about to be hanged in the 18th century.)

And the doctor — remember, he was only there in the first place to get his hands on some raw materials that he could autopsy the day after the hanging — even agreed to receive the “body” in secret from Taylor’s confederates and try to restore it to life.

This bit is essential to the narrative, but the skeptical reader can’t help but doubt. What an enormous and unprofitable risk for the unnamed physician to take on behalf of a slab of meat!

I want to propose (and this is too delicious to be anything better than baseless speculation) a false-flag operation on behalf of the medical profession, which just days before the Taylors’ hanging had suffered an astounding public relations debacle. Obnoxious Manhattan medical students had wantonly displayed severed limbs from one of their subjects to schoolboys, whose frightened reports of it ultimately set off the “Doctors Mob”.

Ordinary people hated and feared anatomization, and resented “resurrection men” who stole corpses (sometimes made corpses) for the industry. The mob smashed up the hospital, thrashed the med students, and made off with the human remains.

This is the idiom for Joseph Taylor’s revulsion at being propositioned with the body trade. Although it nevertheless turned out to be his path to salvation, it is evident in his remarks that even then, something in Taylor himself rebels at the coldly utilitarian use to which he himself must put his flesh and bones, and his consequent “reliance on the doctor”, as inimical to the interests of his soul.

The state of my mind after my conversation with the doctor, until the day of execution, it is impossible for me to describe. This glimpse of hope, this mere chance of escaping the jaws of death, and of avoiding the eyes of an offended Judge, at whose bar I was no ways prepared to appear, semed to render my mind but more distracted. I sometimes indulged myself with the thoughts of being recovered t life; and as I had fortunately concealed my real name, that I might return, like the Prodigal, to my parents, and live a life devoted to God and their comfort. But I oftener feared the means might fail to bring me to life: and then I wished that this scheme had never been mentioned, as the hopes of life seemed to prevent my conversion; and then, to be surprised into another world, totally unprepared, how terrible!

According to the writer, the arrival of execution day wonderfully concentrated the mind on its big plan and put those pesky qualms of conscience to rest.

Walking out to the gallows with a case of stagefright — he was worried that his demeanor as he thought about worldly subterfuge rather than spiritual salvation would give away the game — Taylor nonetheless

preserved my presence of mind; and when the halter was fastened, remembered the doctor’s directions, and while the prayer was making I kept gently turning my head so as to bring the knot on the back of my neck … When the trap fell I had all my senses about me; and though I have no remembrance of hearing any sounds among the people, yet I believe I did not lose my sense until some minutes after. My first feelings after the shock of falling was a violent strangling and oppression for want of breath: this soon gave way to a pain in my eyes, which seemed to be burned by two balls of fire which appeared before them, which seemed to dart on and off like lightning; settling ever and anon upon my shoulders as if they weighed ten hundred tons; and after one terrible flash, in which the two balls seemed to join in one, I sunk away without pain, like one falling to sleep. [compare to this account from a survived hanging. -ed.]

As promised, his buddies got hold of the body and spirited it away to the doctor. After the application of a conveniently unreported treatment, Joseph Taylor quickened back to life two hours and forty-three minutes after he had been “turned off” with the knot at the back of his neck. The reawakening — “I cannot describe the intolerable agony of that moment. Ten thousand stranglings are trifling to it!” — was no more pleasant than the passing had been.


Now … is this account true? In the completely unverifiable and also completely sensational version that circulated (quite widely) in periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic, Taylor completed his escape by sailing for the Old World, disappearing thence into obscurity.

However, according to another, killjoy newspaper (Western Star, Feb. 2, 1790) some early-American Mythbusters team got wind of this popular fable and went to dig up Joe Taylor’s alleged grave — finding the highwayman securely taking his dirt nap after all.

That may be so, but the reader will kindly observe that two-plus centuries on, nobody’s posting anything about Archibald Taylor.

* No relation between the two Taylors, to judge by the indifferent way Joseph writes about Archibald.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Not Executed,Public Executions,Theft,USA

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1951: Willie McGee

4 comments May 8th, 2011 Headsman

As of today, it is sixty years since the Laurel, Mississippi execution of Willie McGee for rape — a lightning rod for controversy over race, crime, and justice in one of the Cold War’s principal antagonists.

McGee died silent in the state’s portable electric chair, rigged up in the very courtroom of his trial, right in front of the box from whence his all-white jury had retired two and a half minutes before convicting him. Fifty or so observers were there with him — plus those of the hundreds of local residents milling around outside intrepid enough to scale a tree for an illicit view through the courthouse windows.*

(Given the setting, some sources call this a “public execution,” which is not technically correct. This courtroom tableau was actually a standard deployment for the mobile electric chair.)

But McGee’s own silence hardly muted global outrage: for years, appeals for McGee’s life had deluged Mississippi and the White House from Europe, the Soviet Union, and what was quaintly known as “Red China.”

Oh, yes. The Reds.

Willie McGee’s case popped out of backwoods obscurity when he got from the pinko Civil Rights Congress a leftist young attorney — future U.S. Congresswoman Bella Abzug.

Once it got out there, it became the Free Mumia case of the nascent civil rights movement and the nascent Cold War. Its appeal to communist countries and cadres only raised the hackles of American establishment types. This was a Negro raping a white housewife literally and metaphorically.


Author Jessica Mitford (The American Way of Death) campaigning to save Willie McGee’s life. William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, and Josephine Baker also publicly supported McGee.

Whether there actually was a literal rape is the enduring mystery — the enduring Rorschach blot — of the McGee case. The accused himself remained silent on the matter for years; eventually, he claimed that the two were having a consensual but forbidden interracial affair and that he had been brutalized into a confession.

McGee’s defenders believed that the “victim” herself initiated the affair, and

threatened to cry rape if he refused her flirtatious advances … McGee reluctantly went [along] with Hawkins, fearing the tragic consequences of turning her away. “People who don’t know the South don’t know what would have happened to Willie if he told her no,” [Willie’s wife] Rosalee told a friend. “Down South you tell a woman like that no, and she’ll cry rape anyway. So what else could Willie do?”

At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance

(In this version, the manipulative Hawkins executed the threat when her husband — who later witnessed McGee’s electrocution — found out. McGee’s cited reason for changing his story was the very plausible fear of lynching.)

A Laurel African-American who was then a child remembers being taken by his family to view the body, and impress upon him the lesson of its electrical burns: “Don’t mess with white girls.”

McGee’s persecutors considered all that miscegenation stuff so much subversive rubbish, a “revolting insinuation,” in the words of the Mississippi Supreme Court.**

And if at its apex the controversy generated more heat than light, its historical fade to embers has not sufficed to resolve the factual questions.

McGee has benefited from a recent rediscovery — one that indicates such memories of the McGee case as persevere in Laurel still divide starkly along racial lines.

Explore this case and its many resonances (without the Perry Mason big reveal) in Alex Heard’s 2010 The Eyes of Willie McGee (review); and, in a spellbinding NPR series on “My Grandfather’s Execution” by Bridgette McGee-Robinson, which is exactly what it sounds like. (Direct links to several Radio Diaries mp3 episodes can be found from the RSS feed here.)

Both were facilitated by a recording of execution-night radio news coverage fortuitously preserved by a young Hattiesburg reporter.

Book Cover

* New York Times, May 8, 1951.

** McGee did at least win two retrials in Mississippi; federal courts gave him short shrift, with anti-civil rights judge Sidney Mize — later memorable for fighting the legal rearguard against integrating Ole Miss — lecturing Abzug in a last-ditch appeal that McGee’s “guilt is plain” and that “courts ought to rise up and defend themselves.” (Source)

Taken as an obvious given: “actually guilty” or not, a defendant executed for rape in the American South is certainly a black man with a white accuser.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Mississippi,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Sex,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1794: Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry

7 comments May 8th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1794, French scientist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier was guillotined in Paris for “adding water to the people’s tobacco.”

Portrait of Monsieur de Lavoisier and his Wife, chemist Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, by Jacques-Louis David (1788) Marie assisted Lavoisier in the laboratory; she also studied art under David the better to illustrate the resulting publications.

Tobacco-watering was the least of Lavoisier’s pastimes.

The man’s resume* of 50 busy years in chemical and biological experimentation included

  • Proving the law of conservation of mass
  • Naming oxygen and hydrogen
  • Demonstrating oxygen’s role in combustion and respiration
  • Writing the first chemistry textbook, with the first list of elements

Unfortunately, Lavoisier funded these eggheaded avocations with an investment in the Ferme générale, the hated tax-farming syndicate to which the crown outsourced its revenue-squeezing operations.

This is just the sort of operation one would expect to find in the crosshairs of the French Revolution’s Terror: hence, watering the people’s tobacco.

(Allegedly, Jean-Paul Marat also had it in for Lavoisier personally, on account of the latter’s having blown off Marat’s pre-Revolution scientific efforts.)

The company was shut down in 1790.

But at the height of the Terror, Lavoisier and 27 fellow tax-farmers of the Ferme were rounded up and quickly condemned.

Lavoisier’s appeal for a stay of execution to complete some experiments met a brusque refusal from the people’s tribunal: “The Republic has no need for scientists.”

Mathematician Joseph Louis Lagrange, whom Lavoisier had helped escape the Revolution’s proscription, left the chemist his epigrammatic epitaph:

It took only an instant to cut off that head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it.

* And yet,

[i]n spite of his great services it is impossible to overlook the sins of Lavoisier in appropriating to himself discoveries made by chemists who were his contemporaries or predecessors. Oxygen was first discovered by Hales in 1727, and had already been prepared from mercuric oxide by Priestley in 1774, by Bayen in the same year, and still earlier by Scheele in 1771. It was at a dinner at Lavoisier’s house that Priestley confidentially communicated his discovery to Lavoisier, in 1774; in 1778 Lavoisier then claimed for himself the discovery of the composition of water, whilst, as is now known, Blagden, a friend of Cavendish, when visiting Paris in 1781, told Lavoisier that Cavendish had discovered the composition of water in a very simple manner by burning inflammable air (hydrogen), as water alone was formed during this combustion.

Lavoisier and Laplace immediately repeated the experiment and then communicated the discovery to the French Academy in 1783.

These facts certainly do not obscure the fame of the great scientist when we remember his eminent services, but in the interests of historic accuracy and justice it is impossible to pass them over in silence.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Nobility,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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