1971: Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, Vietnam War photojournalists

1 comment June 6th, 2016 Headsman

On an unknown date thought to be approximately June of 1971, American photojournalists Sean Flynn and Dana Stone were executed by Communist captors in Southeast Asia.

Flynn is the big name of the pair,* literally: a former actor, he wasn’t in like his superstar father Errol Flynn. After trading on his prestigious name for a few silver screen credits, Sean grew bored of Hollywood and pivoted into a career in wanderlust — trying his hand as a safari guide and a singer before washing up in Vietnam where the action was in January 1966.

He made his name there as a man who would find a way to snatch an indelible image out of war’s hurricane, even at the risk of his own life.


One of Flynn’s photos: A captured Viet Cong being tortured. (1966)

On April 6, 1970, Flynn and fellow risk-seeking photojournalist Dana Stone hopped on rented motorbikes bound for the front lines in Cambodia. It was a last mission born of their characteristic bravado — all but bursting out of the frame astride their crotch rockets in the last photo that would become their epitaph. They were never seen again; having apparently been detained at a Viet Cong checkpoint, it’s thought that they ended up in the hands of Cambodian Khmer Rouge guerrillas and were held for over a year before they were slain by their jailers.


Flynn (left) and Stone mount the bikes for their lethal assignment. This is the last picture ever taken of them.

Sean’s mother, actress Lili Damita, spent years seeking definitive information about his fate, without success. Dana’s brother, John Thomas Stone, joined the army in 1971 reportedly with a similar end in mind; he was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2006. The prevailing conclusion about their fate arrives via the investigation of their colleague and friend, Australian journalist Tim Page — a man for whom memorializing the journalists who lost their lives during the Vietnam War has been a lifelong mission.

Though Flynn’s and Stone’s guts are undeniable, not everyone appreciated their methods. “Dana Stone and Sean Flynn [son of the Hollywood actor, Errol Flynn] were straight out of Easy Rider, riding around on motorcycles carrying pearl-handled pistols. Cowboys, really,” said fellow photog Don McCullin. “I think they did more harm than good to our profession.”

* He’s not to be confused with present-day actor Sean Flynn — that’s our Sean Flynn’s nephew. (Sean the nephew was named for Sean the uncle.)

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1806: Johann Philipp Palm, press martyr

Add comment August 26th, 2014 Headsman

Gentlemen, you must not mistake me. I admit that the French Emperor is a tyrant. I admit that he is a monster. I admit that he is the sworn foe of our nation, and, if you will, of the whole human race. But, gentlemen, we must be just to our great enemy. We must not forget that he once shot a bookseller.

Thomas Campbell

Nuremberg bookseller Johann Philipp Palm was shot on this date in 1806 for publishing a manifesto against the French occupation.

For centuries a proud Free Imperial City, Nuremberg had over the few months preceding Palm’s martyrdom been smushed up by the conquering Grande Armee into an amalgamated French client, the Confederation of the Rhine.

This was a huge political shakeup. Even the Empire of which Nuremberg had been a Free Imperial City was no more: the 854-year-old Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1806, a casualty of the Battle of Austerlitz. At just 25,000 residents and far removed from its mercantile preeminence of yesteryear,* Nuremberg wasn’t even one of the Confederation of the Rhine’s 16 constituent polities: it had been rolled up into Bavaria, in a partial cleanup of the tiny Kleinstaaten pocking the old German map.

Nuremberg’s prostration in this arrangement mirrored Germany’s as a whole vis-a-vis the Corsican. Napoleon was the official “protector” of the Confederation of the Rhine, and its end of the protection racket entailed shipping conscripts to the French army.

The Confederation of the Rhine ultimately included four kingdoms, five grand duchies, 13 duchies, 17 principalities, and the Free Hansa towns of Hamburg, Lübeck, and Bremen, and covered much of the territory of present-day Germany (sans Prussia). For some odd reason, Germans whose dreams of national unification were beginning to stir weren’t too enthusiastic about having it marshaled by France.

In July of 1806, Palm gave voice to the sentiment by publishing a 144-page treatise, Germany in its Deep Humiliation. (It’s available online in an 1877 printing at archive.org.) The identity of the seditious author(s) he resolutely kept secret, but it’s commonly attributed now to Count Friedrich Julius Heinrich von Soden.

Palm had the fortune or sense to be safely away in Prussia by the time irate Frenchmen raided his shop, but was caught after he boldly slipped back into the city against all sensible advice. He was transferred to a fortress at Braunau am Inn, and shot there.

His death made him an early national martyr (“involuntary hero”, in the words of a 2006 Braunau bicentennial remembrance), and his name is still preserved on a variety of streets in German cities. In Palm’s native Schorndorf, the Palm Pharmacy building sports plaques honoring the martyr. And a Palm Foundation awards, every two years, a Johann Philipp Palm Prize journalism prize. It’s announced on this date, each even-numbered year. (Update: Salijon Abdurakhmanov of Uzbekistan and Nazikha Saeed of Bahrain received the 2014 Palm awards.)

A publishing house, Palm und Enke, actually founded post-Napoleon by the uncle under whom our Johann Palm completed his apprenticeship, still exists today. (It is no longer in the control of any Palm relative, however.)

Braunau am Inn, now a charming little burg of 16,000 just over the border into Austria, is probably best recognized in the wider world these days as the birthplace of Adolf Hitler … and it turns out the little future Nazi was deeply stirred by Palm’s model of patriotic sacrifice, albeit less so his model of an independent press. We find out all about Hitler’s admiration of Palm in the very first stanzas of Mein Kampf.

Volume 1: A Reckoning

CHAPTER 1
IN THE HOUSE OF MY PARENTS

Today it seems to me providential that Fate should have chosen Braunau on the Inn as my birthplace. For this little town lies on the boundary between two German states which we of the younger generation at least have made it our life work to reunite by every means at our disposal.

German-Austria must return to the great German mother country, and not because of any economic considerations. No, and again no: even if such a union were unimportant from an economic point of view; yes, even if it were harmful, it must nevertheless take place. One blood demands one Reich. Never will the German nation possess the moral right to engage in colonial politics until, at least, it embraces its own sons within a single state. Only when the Reich borders include the very last German, but can no longer guarantee his daily bread, will the moral right to acquire foreign soil arise from the distress of our own people. Their sword will become our plow, and from the tears of war the daily bread of future generations will grow. And so this little city on the border seems to me the symbol of a great mission. And in another respect as well, it looms as an admonition to the present day. More than a hundred years ago, this insignificant place had the distinction of being immortalized in the annals at least of German history, for it was the scene of a tragic catastrophe which gripped the entire German nation. At the time of our fatherland’s deepest humiliation, Johannes Palm of Nuremberg, burgher, bookseller, uncompromising nationalist and French hater, died there for the Germany which he loved so passionately even in her misfortune. He had stubbornly refused to denounce his accomplices who were in fact his superiors. In thus he resembled Leo Schlageter. And like him, he was denounced to the French by a representative of his government An Augsburg police chief won this unenviable fame, thus furnishing an example for our modern German officials in Herr Severing‘s Reich.

In this little town on the Inn, gilded by the rays of German martyrdom, Bavarian by blood, technically Austrian, lived my parents in the late eighties of the past century; my father a dutiful civil servants my mother giving all her being to the household, and devoted above all to us children in eternal, loving care Little remains in my memory of this period, for after a few years my father had to leave the little border city he had learned to love, moving down the Inn to take a new position in Passau, that is, in Germany proper.

* Back when being the executioner of Nuremberg was a plum assignment.

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1999: Chen Chin-hsing, Taiwan’s most notorious criminal

10 comments October 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1999, Taiwan put to death a man who, as the Reuters story about his case led it, “shook public confidence in law and government with the kidnap-murder of a TV celebrity’s daughter and a string of subsequent gun battles, killings, rapes and a hostage drama.”

Dramatic enough for you?

This operatic crime spree was the work of three men, Chen Chin-hsing, Lin Chun-sheng, and Kao Tien-min.

They punched their ticket to popular infamy when they snatched 16-year-old schoolgirl Pai Hsiao-yen in New Taipei City on April 14, 1997.

Her family received terrifying photos of the girl stripped naked and bound, a severed pinkie finger, and a demand for $5 million U.S. And they were in a position to get it, because Pai’s mother was celebrity singer and TV personality Pai Ping-ping. (Alternatively: Bai Bing-bing.)

However, despite multiple attempts to drop the ransom, the kidnappers kept not showing up, and the captive, who’d been brutalized and raped during her captivity, was eventually murdered and dumped in a drainage ditch.

Pai Hsiao-yen’s murder not only captivated media but crystallized public backlash against politicians and police who showed as ineffective in the midst of a massive crime wave. It helped cave in the government of Taiwan’s first democratically elected president.

The criminals themselves magnified the case by drawing out the initial public horror into a seven-month drama as they eluded police manhunts. At one point, they forced a plastic surgeon at gunpoint to alter their appearances, then murdered him after he was finished.

Chen Chin-hsing was finally captured (after the other two had judiciously committed suicide when about to be apprehended) after a televised standoff wherein Chen gave self-valorizing media interviews while holding a South African ambassador’s family hostage.

All this made Chen a dead man, and few in the Republic of China much pitied the serial rapist and spree killer’s fate of taking a magazine of automatic rifle ammunition in the chest. (Several others in this dreadful affair also got non-capital sentences for various forms of aiding and abetting.)

It also made Pai Ping-ping into a tough-on-crime social activist. Taiwan’s death penalty has been in the news recently with the government’s admission that it executed an innocent man in an unrelated case. Pai vehemently opposes the resulting abolition efforts that other case has helped along; in 2010, she helped to break a 52-month death penalty moratorium and force a resumption in executions when she threatened to commit suicide if Taiwan went through with abolition. That would be operatic indeed.

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1938: Yakov Peters, Siege of Sidney Street survivor

1 comment April 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1938, a Soviet purge claimed (among others*) Yakov (Jacob) Peters, former Cheka executioner and once the subject of a headline-grabbing trial in England.

Peters was a trusted (and ruthless) operator in the Soviet internal police from the start of the Revolution: he helped interrogate Lenin‘s would-be assassin Fanya Kaplan in 1918.

And he was the guy Trotsky had on speed-dial when Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was arrested by the Left SRs during their abortive 1918 uprising against their erstwhile revolutionary allies, the Bolsheviks.**

Dzerzhinsky was disarmed and locked in a room. his assistant, M.I. Latsis, was captured in the Cheka Lubianka headquarters. “No point in taking him anywhere, put this scum against the wall!” shouted a sailor, but one of the leaders, Alexandrovich, intervened, saying, “There is no need to kill, comrades; arrest him, but do not kill.” Dzerzhinsky’s assistant Yakov Peters was urgently summoned by Trotsky, who ordered him to crush the uprising by attacking the Left Eser headquarters. Alexandrovich was caught at a railway station, and Latsis, whom he had saved from execution, personally shot him. Mass executions in Cheka prisons followed. (Source)

Like a lot of old Bolsheviks, Peters’s early service to the cause didn’t age too well. He ran afoul of some bureaucratic intrigue or point of party discipline or other and caught a bullet in 1938. (Khrushchev rehabilitated him.)

For anyone in England watching the fate of this distant apparatchik, the proximity to bloodbaths would have had a familiar hue.

Peters was one of a gang of Latvian revolutionaries who came to cinematic public attention in London when, in the course of being rounded up for a December 1910 murder, they engaged the police in a stupendous East End firefight on January 2, 1911 — the Siege of Sidney Street. (It’s also known as the Battle of Stepney.)

Armed like soldiery, the Latvians easily outgunned the bobbies who had them hemmed into a cul-de-sac, and they fired on John Law with ruthless effect. This necessitated a call to the Scots Guard — whose deployment was okayed by Home Secretary Winston Churchill, the latter captured on film that day awkwardly milling about the scene of the urban combat.


(Translated directly to the city’s cinemas as soon as that same evening, Churchill’s image came in for public catcalls owing to his support for a relatively open immigration policy for eastern Europeans.)

This incident was a landmark in crime, policing, media — recognizably modern in its trappings of nefarious immigrant terrorists, politicized state funerals for policemen, and of course, the live-on-the-scenes camera work.

Since Britain was a ready hand with the noose at this time, one might think an execution would have been just the denouement.

However, responsibility for the policememen slain in the affray had been officially assigned to a different gang member, George Gardstein — who was killed when the besieged house burned down — and there was little usable evidence against those who were finally put on trial for the gang’s various crimes. Most of the witnesses were dead, fled, or completely unreliable, so the surviving Latvians all walked.

(Since the identity of one of the first guys to start shooting when the police rang always remained murky, there are some theories — such as in this out-of-print book — that Peters himself had been one of the gunmen on-site, and/or that he could be identified with the absconded and never-captured gang leader “Peter the Painter”.)

Whatever the exact measure of blood on Yakov Peters’s hands from Sidney Street, there would be a lot more where it came from.

While Peters went off to his different fate in revolutionary Russia, the dramatic scene he left behind has naturally attracted continuing retrospective attention in England. The testimony of witnesses, who also recollect the shootout’s anti-immigrant fallout, is preserved in this BBC Witness radio program:

[audio:http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/worldservice/witness/witness_20110127-0950a.mp3]

And, on this BBC Four television special:

* e.g., Russian Civil War officer Nikolay Gikalo and Romanian Jewish revolutionary Leon Lichtblau.

** And in favor of resuming Russia’s ruinous involvement in World War I!

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1918: Robert Prager lynched during war hysteria

1 comment April 5th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1918, German coalminer Robert Prager was lynched near Collinsville, Ill., for making disloyal utterances against the United States as his adoptive country entered World War I.

Basically the most visible and famed victim of patriotic anti-German bellicosity, Prager ironically is rather difficult to reconstruct as an unambiguous anti-war activist. After his mob execution, a baker would even come forward to say that he had been thrown in the clink when Prager accused him … of badmouthing a patriotic display. Prager himself had tried to enlist in the Navy and been rejected for medical reasons.

“Prager was, in fact, as loyal to the United States as any native-born citizen, and his innocence was attested to by many who knew him,” according to Donald Hickey in the summer 1969 Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. “Two of the men with whom he boarded attested to Prager’s loyalty. One said that although Prager was a radical socialist, he had said he was ‘all for the United States’ when this country entered the war.”

But he was a socialist, and a German, and seems like the sort whom others might have found personally unpleasant. It is in the midst of a tiresome local dispute with a union leader (the union also rejected him) that Prager came to the unwelcome attention of the rabble: the union leadership accused him of being a spy, which led Prager to post handbills around town denouncing this lot for their scurrilous accusation. This obviously did him more harm than good and as the public conviction that Prager was disloyal took hold, it overran the halfhearted efforts of the town’s putative authorities to keep a semblance of order.

A mob on April 4 captured Prager at his home, paraded him, made him kiss the flag — momentarily rescued and hustled off to jail by police and a mayor who tried to talk the mob out of its design — then shanghaied from his “protective” custody cell and taken to the outskirts of Collinsville for hanging on a tree.

Eleven men stood trial for the affair over three weeks. Once the matter was finally rested with the jury, they were instantly acquitted.

There was wild applauding and cheers from ‘most everyone present. Relatives, friends and acquaintances rushed toward the bar to shake hands with the defendants. …

There was a peculiar coincidence at the trial Saturday. The Jackie Band was in Edwardsville for a patriotic demonstration.

When a shower of rain came up the musicians were sent to the court house where it had been arranged to give a program. At 2:40 o’clock judge Bernreuter ordered a recess after the completion of arguments and before reading the instructions.

Then word was sent that the band might play until court re-convened. The first number of all concerts is the Star Spangled Banner and it was played Saturday.

The strains from the Jackie Band caused tears to flow down the cheeks of Riegel. He was still crying when he returned to the court room.

As the jury came in with its verdict the band was at the head of a procession of draft boys and in passing the court house played “Over There.”

While Prager’s murder stands as the most emblematic event of anti-German intimidation during America’s months in the Great War, it was far from the only one: many others nearly as ugly stopped just this side of homicide. Papers were rife with reports of German immigrants being made to kiss the flag; clapped in jail for suspect utterances; of being menaced by mobs.

Outrageously, Germany made propagandistic use of these events, which the virtuous Entente powers would certainly never do.


Washington Post, April 11, 1918.

A number of federal lawmakers, as well as former presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, condemned the lynching, mostly in the familiar coded terms with which lynchings were opposed in those days: one would rather let justice take its course. Mob rule is itself disloyal. Etc. (See Hickey)

But the right-thinking potentates of the war party were also finding themselves relieved that a polity which had re-seated the current president on the slogan “he kept us out of war” would so pliably turn towards bellicosity. This charade so mechanically familiar in our time was still an arcane and uncertain art in America’s imperial adolescence.

“The recent lynching of a German in Illinois and violent outbreaks of the same character in other parts of the country,” intoned the Washington Post, “have awakened the Department of Justice to the need of a law which will enable government officers to prosecute pro-Germans rather than leave them to be dealt with by mob law.”

Oh. Danke very much.

An unsigned editorialist in the paper’s April 12 edition opined so nauseatingly brutal and specious that in another age it would have earned its author an immediate contract with Fox News:

Stamping Out Treason

The question whether or not the laxity of the laws against treasonable utterances has been responsible for the people’s acts in taking the law into their own hands has been much debated of late.

While sedition may have been encouraged to some extent because of the comparatively mild risks involved, it is quite probable that the pro-German intrigues would have been carried on if the risk had been greater. This suggests the thought that other reasons must be looked for to account for the general revulsion of public sentiment against the treason spreaders and the prompt punishment meted out to them in so many instances.

A plausible explanation is found in the fact that the open and ingenuous American mind had been fed up on German lies to the point where it broke out in fierce revolt. At the beginning of the war, and even after the entrance of America into it, there remained debatable points in many minds. Though of a minor nature and scarcely affecting the larger issue, these points were emphasized by enemy agencies which had been at work from the beginning. But as the truth has been laid bare the indignation of the people has grown stronger. The fact that the rounding-up process has been most vigorously conducted in the middle West tells its own story in this respect. It was that section which was slowest to wake up. There the enemy propaganda apparently worked with most success. So it is there that the people have arisen unitedly in their righteous wrath against the treason talkers.

The comparative absence of outbreaks of this character in the East is explainable on the same theory. In the East the public mind toward the war was much earlier divested of errors. Consequently the enemy agents were more wary in their utterances, not because of any greater stringency of the law, but because of their appreciation of the temper of the people.

In spite of excesses such as lynchings, it is a healthful and wholesome awakening in the interior part of the country. Enemy propaganda must be stopped, even if a few lynchings may occur. The people know what they want. They are not seeking to subvert law and order.

Other powerful institutions were not quite so sanguine as the Post: the lynching was discussed hours after it occurred in the U.S. cabinet, no doubt mindful that it was also being denounced in the German Reichstag. And indeed all concerned marshaled these animal spirits of the populace towards killing men by the thousands under the auspices of the state rather than singly by drunken small-town mobs.

Fears of German reprisals against American prisoners never seem to have materialized; neither is there any other documented lynching in the short course of America’s World War I involvement that was conducted on unambiguously “patriotic” grounds.

* Any number of other papers joined the Post in this campaign, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune. A few weeks later, they got their wish — the Sedition Act, under which the Socialist Eugene Debs was arrested for speaking against the war.

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1873: William Foster

1 comment March 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1873, William Foster — who spent two years warding off execution — finally succumbed to New York’s hangman.

Foster’s case was a long-term headline-grabber: he drunkenly accosted a couple of perfect strangers on the Broadway Line (think horses, not trains), then smashed the man of the party, Avery Putnam, with a conductor’s device going by the sinister name of “car-hook”. His case turned, both juridically and in the public eye, on the question of whether Foster had formed an “intent” sufficient to justify a first-degree murder conviction; the killer’s own jury later joined appeals for his reprieve, having felt buffaloed by public opinion in the immediate aftermath of the crime.

This case also clearly had a significant class component — a respectable gentleman randomly slain by a workingman — and the newspapers’ coverage frequently touches on obvious bourgeois anxiety, or uncertainty as to just how badly those of Foster’s socioeconomic position would take the hanging.

These and other themes of the media coverage will look very familiar a century and a half later. The only things missing are the tweets.

The Editorial Board

New York Times, May 28, 1871

Abolish the Car-Hook.

… the fatal weapon which slew Mr. Putnam … a weapon which we know to be deadly is so familiar to the hands, and possibly the heads of a large portion of the population, that they think nothing of using it at all. Of course the statement on which we found these conclusions may be incorrect. But it seems probable enough, and is confirmed by the numerous cases of assault with car-hooks reported since the Putnam murder. Before the light of that great tragedy brought into unusual prominence the fatal tool, it is fair to presume that it was not less active in its work of evil than at present.

It is not pleasant, then, to reflect that every time we travel on a horse-car whose conductor or driver hapens to be a trifle drunk, or unusually passionate and vindictive, we run a certain risk, slight it may be, still an appreciable risk, of being brained with an instrument to which the assailant’s hand instinctively turns. And since temptation is the firmest ally of crime, we might very properly begin our street-car reform by abolishing the car-hook altogether … Even if the replacing appliance be less convenient for the purposes, and less satisfactory in its workings, it is better that the driver should have a little more trouble and delay than that he should have constantly at hand a means and a provocative to murder. We do not doubt, however, that the present model of car-hook may readily be improved on, and at the expense of a little ingenuity, made not only harmless, but more complete.

The Murderer

New York Times, June 4, 1871

FOSTER’S APPEAL.

The Condemned Prisoner Reviews His Case.

He Never Intended to Kill Mr. Putnam — The Verdict of Death the Result of Public Resentment — He Thinks He Has Been Unjustly Treated.

TO THE PUBLIC: Sufficient time has elapsed since my conviction for the murder of Mr. Putnam to allow me to make that appeal to the cool judgment of the public which my counsel could not make in a court-room, oppressed by the usual legal formalities. I have not much to say, but in my awful position what little appeal I make is invested with a terrible importance, to me at least. After a short and impartial trial, before the case was submitted to the jury, Judge Cardozo* charged almost directly in my favor — at least, in modification of the verdict. He directed the jury that a fit of passion did not imply the requisite degree of malice justifying a verdict of murder in the first degree. He almost as much as told them that in my case there was no evidence proving that I intended to kill Mr. Putnam — that death was a result I never contemplated, and that however furious the resentment of the public might be, it would not be in accordance with their oath to convict me of a malicious purpose to kill Mr. Putnam.

The jury was evidently inclined to regard this direction of Judge Cardozo, but they were afraid to abide by it thoroughly. Public opinion was too strong; and because, I believe, it did not stop to consider my case coolly, it compelled that jury to bring me in guilty of downright murder in the first degree. But even then they went as far as they dared in recommending me to mercy. They recommended me to mercy because they felt that there was something wrong with the rest of their verdict, and they wanted to make the best balance they could without taking any responsibility themselves. Now I make this appeal from my condemned cell, because the public are beginning to believe with Judge Cardozo. Judge Cardozo said the truth. He said I never meant to kill Mr. Putnam. He knew from the very evidence that there was nothing further from my intention — and it is the intention which makes the crime.

What are the facts of the case? I had been drinking heavily — God knows I can’t excuse that. I was stupid drunk, mad drunk, and I got into a drunken difficulty with a strange man. That was Mr. Putnam. He said something which aggravated my drunken madness. Without any thought, without any calculation, on the impulse of blind fury, I struck him with the first thing that came to hand. That blow was never intended to kill Mr. Putnam. It was struck with hardly any intention at all. It was the work of a madman, not of a deliberate murderer. It was struck with no recognized weapon — just the first thing that came to hand. If it had fallen on the top of his head it would probably never have killed him. But it did kill him, and for the blow which I struck, without having any definite intention, resulting in his death, I am condemned to death in revenge. No one will pretend to say that I deliberately set about to effect Mr. Putnam’s death. I made no attempt to escape. I identified myself. I claimed to have struck him, having no idea, no earthly notion that my drunken blow would result in bringing about my conviction of murder.

Public resentment and exasperation brought about the verdict. There are men in the Tombs who have killed others soberly, in cold blood, and there has been no hue and cry after them. A man who had a quarrel with another and then went home and procured a knife with which he came back and stabbed him to death, deliberately and in cold blood, was sent to Sing Sing for four years the other day. There are others in this prison convicted of murder with weapons known to be deadly — so that their intentions in using them could not be doubted a moment — and they are safe. … I was tried out of my turn … while the public was resolved to have my blood as soon as possible. Out of these I alone am selected to undergo capital punishment, because mine was a sensational case.

No one can doubt the truth of this, and it is because this is the truth known to God and sworn to by me in the shadow of death, that I make my appeal to the public. I am doomed to die because a wicked drunken freak resulted in the death of a man, whom I no more intended to harm seriously than I would my own child … Is the recommendation to mercy to mean nothing? Does anybody refuse to see in it the protest of the jury against the pressure which forced them to bring me to the gallows? The public, which was furious, compelled the jury to act as it did, and I make my appeal, therefore, to the public.

I implore the public to consider my case, now that I am sentenced, and any evasion of law in my favor is impossible, coolly and dispassionately. I appeal to the public to be just and fear not. And what I have to say in my behalf I say with the solemnity of my situation. I make my appeal as a condemned murderer, sentenced to a speedy and ignominious death, helpless and powerless, but confident that the same feeling which on an impulse secured my conviction, will, when cool and deliberate, do even me proper justice.

WILLIAM FOSTER.

The Widow

New York Times, Nov. 22, 1872

THE PUTNAM MURDER.

The Widow Sues the Railroad Company for Damage.

The murder of Avery D. Putnam, for which William Foster now stands condemned, has been revived in the Courts in a new form. it appears that Mrs. Putnam, the widow, some time since, instituted a suit against the Broadway and Seventh-avenue Railroad Company, to recover damages to the extent of $5,000, (the limit of the law.) for the loss of her husband, which loss she charges to have been the result of the culpable negligence of the Company and its servants.

[she won -ed.]

The Minister

New York Herald-Tribune, March 6, 1873

(One letter among more than an entire page’s worth of clemency petitions the Tribune reprinted, with a note of scorn.)

LETTER FROM THE REV. DR. TYNG.

This young man has been familiarly known to me from his childhood. He grew up in the Sunday school and congregation of my church … of which his family have made a part since his birth. He was always a quiet, orderly, and good boy — he grew up an industrious and well behaved young man — he has never been a bad man or a drunkard.

The whole circumstances of this sad event which has placed him in his present position, he has personally related, very minutely, to me … I have visited him regularly as his pastor. He has presented himself to me as a gentle, quiet, penitent young man, and I have had much encouragement in visiting him.

Foster does not in the least excuse himself from the just infliction and endurance of his sentence, if it be the will of God that he must meet it …

I really think the young man entitled to a commutation of a sentence for willful murder in the first degree … He acted in blind haste, with no malicious intent, and he has groaned in anguish over the remembrance of his crime. His honored parents and excellent family, his young wife and little children, his own industrious life, his really quiet and habitual deportment, his expressions of anger, hostility, or self-defense, unite to present his case to me as one peculiarly appropriate for Executive mercy. … I do not know what efforts others may make in his behalf; but, as the pastor of his family — and of all his early life, and as now his gratefully accepted pastor in the hour of his sorrow — I feel compelled to implore for him the mercy which you alone can exercise.

Stephen Tyng

[Tyng, an Episcopal, was a celebrity preacher in the Big Apple, and built an early “megachurch”. He is the namesake of, but unrelated to, the man who founded the U.S. National Park System — Stephen Tyng Mather. -ed.]

The Humorist

New York Herald-Tribune, March 10, 1873

Sir: I have read the Foster petitions in Thursday’s Tribune. The lawyers’ opinions do not disturb me, because I know that those same gentlemen could make as able an argument in favor of Judas Iscariot, which is a great deal for me to say, for I never can think of Judas Iscariot without losing my temper. To my mind Judas Iscariot was nothing but a low, mean, premature Congressman.** The attitude of the jury does not unsettle a body, I must admit; and it seems plain that they would have modified their verdict to murder in the second degree if the Judge’s charge had permitted it. But when I come to the petitions of Foster’s friends and find out Foster’s true character, the generous tears will flow — I cannot help it. How easy it is to get a wrong impression of a man. I perceive that from childhood up this one has been a sweet, docile thing, full of pretty ways and gentle impulses, the charm of the fireside, the admiration of society, the idol of the Sunday school. I recognize in him the divinest nature that has ever glorified any mere human being. I perceive that the sentiment with which he regarded temperance was a thing that amounted to frantic adoration. I freely confess that it was the most natural thing in the world for such an organism as this to get drunk and insult a stranger, and then beat his brains out with a car-hook because he did not seem to admire it. Such is Foster. And to think that we came so near losing him! How do we know but that he is the Second Advent? And yet, after all, if the jury had not been hampered in their choice of a verdict I think I could consent to lose him.

The humorist who invented trial by jury played a colossal practical joke upon the world, but since we have the system we ought to try to respect it. A thing which is not thoroughly easy to do, when we reflect that by command of the law a criminal juror must be an intellectual vacuum, attaching to a melting heart and perfectly macaronian bowels of compassion.

I have had no experience in making laws or amending them, but still I cannot understand why, when it takes twelve men to inflict the death penalty upon a person, it should take any less than twelve more to undo their work. If I were a legislature, and had just been elected, and had not had time to sell out, I would put the pardoning and commuting power into the hands of twelve able men instead of dumping so huge a burden upon the shoulders of one poor petition-persecuted individual.

Mark Twain

The Future Attorney General

New York Times, March 20, 1873

THE FOSTER CASE.

Letter to Gov. Dix by Edwards Pierrepont.

Judge Edwards Pierrepont has addressed a letter to Gov. Dix on the case of Foster. He says:

The decision of the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the court below, whereby William Foster was condemned to be hanged for the murder of Avery D. Putnam. But that decision would have been precisely the same if Mr. Putnam had appeared in court, and proved that he was still alive … The rigid rules of law do not allow an appellate court to look beyond the record, even though the court might behold the living man, for whose murder the accused was condemned to die.

It is for this very reason, and to meet cases like the one before you, that the high Executive is clothed with extraordinary powers, adequate to correct all such mistakes, and to consider all facts and circumstances outside of the legal record, in furtherance of the highest justice, and beyond the functions of a court of law …

If William Foster is put to death for the premeditated murder of Mr. Putnam, very few of the reflecting community will not believe that he was executed for a greater crime than he in fact committed, and, to avoid the repetition of such an act of injustice, the aggrieved sentiment of the public may demand the abolition of the death penalty entirely.

Foster was convicted a few days after Mr. Putnam died, while the public mind was fevered and alarmed, and the verdict was not in accordance with the real convictions of the jury, nor in harmony with any reasonable deductions from the evidence …

the hanging of Foster would savor more of vengeance than of justice … and the reaction likely to take place in the public mind might cause a repeal of those laws which are now a wholesome restraint upon evil men.

The Aftermath

New York Herald, Nov. 1, 1873

TO THE EDITOR OF THE HERALD:

Justice can no longer be said to be blindfolded in New York. The verdict in the case of Stokes [murderer of bankster James Fisk -ed.] is a mockery and a farce. Jack Reynolds said, “Hanging for murder is played out in New York;” but his assertion would have been much truer if he ahd added, “for the rich.” If Stokes was not guilty of murder in the first degree then the hanging of Foster was nothing but downright murder. Stokes had not the slightest excuse, while Foster had a great many … The jury must have been influenced by some outside influence or there must have been some flaw in the presentment of the case by the prosecution. This verdict should cause our citizens to blush. It shall be recorded in the history fo our city as an everlasting disgrace and humiliation. Our citizens, it is true, are looking on patiently at this way of administering law; but the time will yet come when they will take the administration (if driven so far) of it into their own hands and adopt the rule of the pioneers of the West for murders – viz., “Lynch law.”

AN ADMIRER OF THE HERALD.

* Father of eventual Supreme Court justice Benjamin Cardozo.

** Congress-bashing is a timeless sport, but the body was in particularly low esteem at this moment because of the Credit Mobilier scandal.

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1891: Ramon Lopez, a Spaniard, aged 38 years

Add comment January 26th, 2011 Headsman

“Escaped the Rope”

Los Angeles Time, Oct. 21, 1890

SANTA BARBARA, Oct. 20 — [By the Associated Press.] Mary Dezirello, aged 22 years, was shot and instantly killed this morning at 10 o’clock by Ramon Lopez, a Spaniard, aged 38 years. Lopez has been bothering the girl with his attentions for some time past, and had made threats of violence against her, declaring that if she did not marry him she should not marry anyone.

This morning he called at her father’s residence and called her out to the gate. He wanted to make up with her. She refused to have anything to do with him, when he pulled a big Colt’s revolver and shot her through the body. She died almost instantly. Lopez then shot twice at himself, without effect, and then walked away.

Shortly afterwards an officer came up and went toward Lopez’s house, which is in the same block. Lopez fired three shots at the officer without effect and was then arrested and locked up. Threats of lynching were so strongly made that this afternoon the murderer was taken to Ventura for safe keeping.


“Bound to Hang Him”

Los Angeles Times, Oct. 22, 1890

SANTA BARBARA, Oct. 21 — [By the Associated Press.] A vigilance committee was formed here yesterday to avenge the death of Mary Dezirello, the young girl who was murdered early yesterday morning by Ramon Lopez, because she refused to accept the latter’s attentions. The prisoner was taken to Ventura during the afternoon, but the committee did not believe this and last night over one hundred men visited the County Jail and demanded that Lopez be delivered to them.

The keys were given to the leader and the jail and courthouse searched, but the murdered [sic] was not found. The feeling against Lopez is at fever heat, and it is reported that members of the Vigilance Committee have sworn to hang him. The officers in Ventura feared that the crowd would go there to take the prisoner, and this morning Lopez and Edwardo Espinosa, another Santa Barbara murderer, were placed on a train at Ventura and taken to Los Angeles for safe-keeping.

It is reported here tonight that the mother of the murdered girl is dying on account of the tragedy, and that her father is nearly crazed.


“Last Day on Earth”

Los Angeles Times, Jan. 26, 1891

SANTA BARBARA (Cal.) Jan. 25 — [Special.] This was the last day for Ramon Lopez on this terrestrial sphere. Tomorrow, at some time between the hours of 10 and 3, he will be hanged in the jail-yard here for the murder of pretty Mary Dezirello in October last. Everything is in readiness and the rope has been thoroughly tested. He has spent much of the day in company with a priest.

Sheriff Broughton opened the gates to the jail-yard yesterday and today, and hundreds availed themselves of the opportunity to see a scaffold ready for the hangman. There is considerable suppressed excitement over the event. Lopez eats heartily and is cool and quiet. Several peace officers from adjoining counties are already in the city for the purpose of witnessing the execution.

“Only One Hitch; An Artistic Execution at the Channel City”

Los Angeles Times, Jan. 27, 1891

SANTA BARBARA, Jan. 26 — [Special.] Another life has been snuffed out in obedience to the mandates of the law. Ramon E. Lopez was executed on the gallows here today by the Sheriff of this county in a most expeditious and faultless manner. People who have witnessed a large number of executions say that they never saw anything of the kind so perfectly accomplished.

The sentence of Lopez said that he should be hanged by the neck until dead some time between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. of today. Sheriff Broughton had not given out what would be the exact time of the hanging. By 10 o’clock, however, a large number of curious people, including a few women, were on the grounds, some of whom, of course, held permits which were to admit the bearers of the jail yard. About this time it was rumored around that the execution would be at 11 o’clock.

THE FAVORED FEW.

At 10:30 o’clock the gate to the jail inclosure was opened, and the ticket-holders were allowed to pass in one at a time, but before they were permitted to pass under the canvas where the scaffold was erected, each one was required to sign his name in a large blank book, which was kept near the entrance. About one hundred and fifty names were registered in this manner in this manner, which constituted probably three-fourths of those who witnessed the execution. At 10:57 o’clock Sheriff Broughton ascended the platform, and, addressing the crowd below, said: “Gentlemen, I think that a proper respect for the prisoner requires that you should all remove your hats and cease smoking when he comes upon the platform. Please do so from that time until the execution is over.”

THE PRISONER’S APPEARANCE.

The speaker then went down the steps and entered the jail, but reappeared almost immediately afterward, accompanied by the prisoner, two deputies and a Catholic priest. The condemned man was dressed in black, wore a plain black tie and carried aloft a large Roman cross. While crossing the yard to the scaffold the priest read aloud in Spanish an invocation from a small book. Lopez walked with a firm, deliberate tread across the grounds and up the steps. A general murmur went through the crowd of “How cool he is!” “What nerve!”

CONFESSED TO THE PRIEST.

The priest then stepped to the edge of the platform, and, looking down upon the heads below, said in broken English: “This man has confessed to me that he is guilty of the crime for which he is about to be hanged; he says that he deserves the punishment, and wishes me to ask all whom he may have offended, to forgive him; he is ready.”

Lopez’s arms and legs were then tied securely by the deputies. In about one minute the black cap was placed over his head, followed immediately by the fatal rope, and at 11:05 Sheriff Broughton pressed the pedal to the platform with his right foot, the trap door was free, and the condemned

SHOT LIKE AN ARROW

through the aperture beneath him, a distance of six and a half feet, and there he remained suspended for fifteen minutes, during which time not one tremor or convulsion of any kind was discernable. His neck had been dislocated by the fall, and he moved not a muscle.

The body vibrated very slightly but did not turn round, and remained exactly was when it dropped. This was considered very remarkable by the crowd. The knot, which had been placed under the left ear, by some means slipped around almost under the center of the chin.

THE BODY CUT DOWN.

At the end of the time mentioned the corpse was lowered into a coffin and was taken away by a local undertaker. Two physicians took turns testing the heart’s action and one of them reported to the Sheriff that “the prisoner is dead” at the end of the fifteenth minute.

The condemned man uttered not a word during the ordeal of the final preparations. Immediately after he ascended the platform the town clock struck eleven times. Lopez soon after turned his face to the south and upward, and seemed for a moment to

GAZE FULL UPON THE SUN,

which shone in uninterrupted rays upon him. This was his only voluntary act while on the platform, except kissing the cross, which the priest placed to his lips. The rest of the time he stood perfectly still with his eyes closed, and was apparently the most composed man on the platform.


“The Crime and Criminal”

Los Angeles Times, Jan. 27, 1891

SANTA BARBARA, Jan. 26 — [Special.] For days and days almost the sole topic of conversation here among all classes has been the forthcoming execution of Ramon E. Lopez. This was partly the result of the extraordinary nature of his crime, for which he has suffered death, and partly from the fact that it is the first legal execution ever held in the county. During these days of discussion the condemned man has occupied a small cell upstairs in the county jail, under the eyes of the “death watch,” pacing up and down in his small room or lying stretched out on his cot, conversing with the attendants or an occasional visitor, or playing on his favorite instrument — the guitar.

RESIGNED TO HIS FATE.

He was a small, compactly built Spaniard with a typical Castilian face and a very large head which required a 7 1/2 hat. When seen by your correspondent a few days ago he was perfectly calm and collected, and seemed everyway resigned to his impending fate. He was asked if he had any statement for the public, but answered in the negative and added: “The poor girl I loved so well, is gone to her long home; I shall soon go too. I am ready; there is nothing more to be said.”

I learn that Lopez was a man of considerable intellectual attainments, being especially well versed in the history of his own and contemporary nations. He was a natural mechanic of unusual skill. He had worked at the blacksmith’s trade, but of late years was principally engaged in repairing complicated machinery, including watches and clocks. He was born and raised in this city and was 38 years of age. He has relatives in Los Angeles, Ventura and San Jose.

LOPEZ’S CRIME.

The murder he committed was among the most atrocious and inexcusable known to the annals of crime. About 8 o’clock in the morning of October 20, last, he called at the home of his victim in one of the principal residence streets of this city, summoned her to his side, and without even the pretext of a personal quarrel, shot her down on the spot. She was his sweetheart, and they had been engaged to be married. Her parents were opposed to the match and she felt compelled to break off the engagement, and for this she lost her life! Her name was Mary Dezirello, and she was young, beautiful, and accomplished.

WANTED TO LYNCH HIM.

The reading public will probably remember the frantic attempts of a mob which came near lynching the murderer, and of his being spirited away by the officers to Ventura, and later to Los Angeles, in order to save his neck. He remained in the Los Angeles County Jail for a month and was then returned to this city. He was tried in December last and promptly convicted of murder in the first degree, the jury occupying only twenty minutes in finding a verdict.

ANOTHER VICTIM.

But this was not his only crime. He killed Henry Heldt in Los Angeles in 1883, in a row at a dance, and got three years at San Quentin for manslaughter, but was pardoned out a few years since by Gov. Stoneman. Lopez has not been guilty of any of the smaller vices so common to murderers. On the contrary, he has generally led a quiet, peaceable and industrious life, but has always been known to possess an ungovernable temper.

THE SOLACE OF RELIGION.

During the last few days of his life he was under the almost constant tutorage of his father confessor. His prison life has otherwise been quiet and uneventful. A few Christian ladies did, occasionally, visit him and pray and sing in his presence. He was always attentive and respectful to them, and generally asked them to return again. There has been a notable lack of that sickly sentimentality in his case so often displayed by the morbid and curious. It may be worth while to state that after the murder, and before he left the spot, Lopez fired two shots over his own head as if to take his own life; but he seems to have exercised considerable caution in doing so, since neither of the shots took effect.

A STRANGE ADVERTISEMENT.

A few days before the killing this extraordinary notice appeared over Lopez’s signature in one of the local papers:

All those desiring to marry a certain girl might be on the lookout, as their steps, manners and customs will be made known through the press next week in a historical point of view.

This was no doubt meant for a threat against any gentleman who might sue for the girl’s hand in marriage.

THE INSTRUMENT OF DEATH.

The scaffold, which was erected in a corner of the jail yard, has been ready since Friday last, and has been viewed by hundreds of people who were admitted to the premises by the Sheriff. The framework and platform of this scaffold was made in San Bernardino several years ago and its first service was in the case of the murderer McDowell, about the year 1883. Since that time it has done yeoman’s service in “removing” Silvas and Martinez in Los Angeles. It was also got in readiness to add dramatic effect to the taking off of one [Fritz] Anschlag, but that accomplished butcher chose his own method of quitting the earth, and cheated this useful instrument. It was shipped here from Los Angeles several days ago, and althrough it looks a little scarred and weather-beaten, seems sufficient for much substantial service in behalf of good society yet.

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1866: Martha Grinder, the Pittsburgh Borgia

Add comment January 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1866, serial killer Martha Grinder was hanged in Pittsburgh for a poisoning spree.

The “Pittsburgh poisoner” or — we think rather more colorfully — the “Pittsburgh Borgia” — was supposed to suffer from the 19th century’s favorite mental illness, the now-passe “monomania”, which means overwhelming fixation on some single thing or idea.

The idea? Murder.

The national press was captivated by this woman, “the Lucretia Borgia of that day — a woman who, under the guise of helping her sick neighbors, without apparent motive, poisoned them.”

While killers may be nothing new, and even female killers not exactly unheard-of, it was that absence of any object — love, greed, vengeance, anything — save killing itself that moved the papers: one monomania, feeding on another.

According to The Penalty Is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women’s Executions, the Pittsburgh press saluted her as “wretched torturer,” “a demon embodied,” “fiendish”; her arrest caused the Philadelphia Inquirer (Aug. 30, 1865: fresh from the gallows expiation of a national catastrophe) to bemoan “a saturnalia of crime … passing over the land.”

One particular neighbor, Mary Caruthers, was poisoned over a period of weeks by her neighbor and apparent caretaker — just the gender role betrayal to really freak out the 19th century. (The court played along: at one point, it admonished the many women attending for their un-feminine interest in this public trial. No indication that it admonished the Pittsburgh Post for its daily trial dispatches.)

This one murder conviction is why Grinder swung, but by that time she had been conclusively hanged in the public mind as a veritable Locusta.

Martha Grinder did eventually confess (pdf) to Caruthers’s murder and to another, but denied any others; papers postulated a total death toll of at least several more who died under Grinder’s nursing “care.” This strikes one as the sort of circumstantial evidence that could be marshaled against anyone in a caregiving position, especially in an environment of dubious forensic technique, and might prove amenable to liberal adoption by newspapermen free from the burden of proof but fettered to the “Borgia” appellation.

On the other hand, and even though the confession came only on the very eve of hanging, our condemned might be thought incentivized by the executive pardon system to own enough guilt to demonstrate contrition without admitting so much as to undercut any possible sympathy. What has one got to lose, right? If that was her game, she didn’t win it.

“Quite prostrated” by her imminent doom, Grinder was reported to have ground away her final days in an opiate haze, but she composed herself sufficiently for an unexpectedly calm performance on the scaffold.


Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 1866.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pennsylvania,Serial Killers,USA,Women

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1906: William Williams, the last hanged in Minnesota

4 comments February 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1906, Minnesota hanged a Cornish immigrant for the murder of his homosexual lover … and hanged him so clumsily that it never hanged again.

William Williams shot Johnny Keller dead after Keller’s mother intervened in the teenagers’ relationship. A series of mooning-slash-menacing letters failed to win back affections. “I want you to believe that I love you now as much as I ever did,” Williams wrote. “Keep your promise to me this time, old boy, as it is your last chance,” he wrote, later.

When the man with the redundant name went to die in the dead of night at a St. Paul prison, it seems that there’d been a slight miscalculation. When dropped through the trap, Williams’s “feet touched the ground by reason of the fact that his neck stretched four and one-half inches and the rope nearly eight inches.”

Consequently, three deputies on the scaffold hoisted the rope up to get him airborne, where he strangled to death over the span of a ghastly quarter-hour.

Slowly the minutes dragged.

The surgeon, watch in hand, held his fingers on Williams’ pulse as he scanned the dial of his watch.

Five minutes passed.

There was a slight rustle, low murmurs among the spectators and then silence.

Another five minutes dragged by.

Would this man never die?

Fainter and fainter grew the pulsations of the doomed heart as it labored to maintain its function.

The dead man’s suspended body moved with a gentle swaying.

The deputies wiped their perspiring brows with their handkerchiefs.

Members of the crowd shifted from one foot to another.

There were few murmurs, which died at once.

Eleven, twelve, thirteen minutes.

The heart was beating now with spasmodic movement, fainter and fainter.

Fourteen minutes—only a surgeon’s fingers could detect the flow of blood now.

Fourteen and a half minutes.

‘He is dead,’ said Surgeon Moore.

The end has come.

And the end had come.

Two things happened in consequence of this sensational press narrative.

First: the news entities who promulgated these descriptions were themselves prosecuted under a law sponsored by anti-death penalty Republican legislator John Day Smith to make executions as secretive as possible. The St. Paul Pioneer Press, St. Paul Dispatch and St. Paul Daily News each caught fines of 25 bones or clams or whatever you call them.

Second: those illicit descriptions out in the public eye triggered efforts (eventually successful in 1911) to abolish the death penalty full stop in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

There’s a great roundup of the Williams case here, and a pdf from the Minnesota Historical Society about the background and consequences of the John Day Smith law, themselves quite topical for this blog.

Smith’s law was adopted as a half-measure when death penalty abolition couldn’t pass in 1889, as a bit of moral hygiene against the unseemly spectacle of public execution. The measure pioneered the familiar 20th century routine of conducting executions after midnight behind prison walls. Newspapermen derisively called it the “midnight assassination” law — but it was taken up by many other states over the succeeding years as public executions went extinct.

As for Smith himself … there’s a rumor of a ghost story, and (given a tragic love story, a sensational crime, a capital punishment milestone, and a queer identity) the palpable fact of a play.

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1870: Margaret Waters, baby farmer

6 comments October 11th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1870, Margaret Waters became the first woman in England to hang for baby-farming.

Waters was condemned for murdering an infant she had taken in as a contractual temporary adoption; there is the matter in the dry language of the law.

But Waters’ import — and in fact, since press outrage that her ward’s death had initially been ruled only manslaughter by the coroner, the extremity of her legal straits as well — derived from her milestone symbolism in a burgeoning Victorian-era moral panic.


Margaret Waters’ case dominates the cover of the Oct. 15, 1870 Illustrated Police News, with a central illustration of Margaret Waters hanged … surrounded, appropriately, by men.

“Baby farming” hit the papers in the 1860’s with sensational exposes of a gray market business whose model was:

  1. Relieve unwilling mother of her newborn infant for a fee
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

It’s the “???” that’s up for grabs.

To the newspapermen, and the day’s elite crusaders for reform, and especially to the nascent medical industry whose British Medical Journal was instrumental in fomenting public alarm,* it signified nothing short of infanticide, a sort of post-partum abortion.

Thus, the Times of London’s sermonizing post-hanging editorial (Oct. 12, 1870):

A most just sentence has thus been executed, and the law has conspicuously fulfilled its appointed office of being a terror to evil-doers. A more terrible case, with respect both to the heinousness of the offence and to the unexpected vengeance which has overtaken it, has never occurred … The wretched woman and her sister were proved to have systematically published advertisements offering to “adopt” children for a remuneration which no one in his senses could believe to be adequate. In other words, they offered to the parents of illegitimate children a means of getting rid of charges at once burdensome and shameful to them … For the sake of a paltry and precarious gain MARGARET WATERS and her sister had the heart to make away with the helpless little creatures … nothing can palliate the hideous spectacle thus brought to light. A murder in hot blood, the deliberate gratification of revenge, or even a premeditated act of violence in the pursuit of some selfish object, fall short in some respects to the heinousness of this offence. The deepest instincts of a woman’s heart must have been deadened, and the most ordinary feelings of human nature extinguished, before such slow murder could be perpetrated upon piteous little innocents.

… MARGARET WATERS confesses to receiving children for purposes of profit, whom she, at least, knew she could not support. She confesses to receiving them for 5 l. or 10 l., and finding other people who would receive them for a fortnight’s expenses paid in advance, and would then let her hear no more of them. She confesses to taking them into the streets, placing them in the hands of children, and then running away and leaving them to their fate. She confessed to all this, and yet she professed to see in it nothing but “falsehood and deceit.” It was not murder, and nothing seems to have astonished her so much as the sudden vengeance which overtook her … while admitting the most damning facts, she extenuates their criminality. It is well that the stern sentence of the law has pronounced a terrible condemnation of these heartless excuses. “Baby Farming” as practiced by MARGARET WATERS was ruthless and systematic murder, and her doom will indelibly stamp this brand upon her infamous trade.

We wish it could be thought this unhappy woman was a solitary instance of such wilful blindness. It is to be feared she has expiated the sins of others who have actually perpetrated similar crimes, and it is certain there are many who are direct accomplices in her guilt. When she says that “the parents of illegitimate children who seek to get rid of them are more culpable than persons like herself, and that if there were no such parents there would be no ‘Baby Farmers,'” she does but exaggerate a just charge. When MARGARET WATERS abandoned children in the streets to the casual care of passers-by, she did but repeat what had been done by those who had first abandoned them to her in the dark of the night at obscure railway stations. It cannot be too strongly asserted that this execution reflects more or less the brand of murder upon all who contributed to the offence — upon the parents who only sought to get rid of their children, and upon those who allowed their journals to be the instruments of what they might have known to be an infamous traffic. It must be acknowledged that the justice of the law is but brought justice, and spares many who deserve punishment. That is inevitable. But one of the great uses of the law is to depict in true colours the real meaning of common offences. Selfish and licentious men and women will know for the future what is the natural issue of the offences against morality and society which they lightly commit. It is murder, and nothing less, that is the ultimate meaning of these social evils, and this is the contamination incurred by those who facilitate such offences.

Sounds pretty bad.

But then … all those other “selfish and licentious men and women”: had Waters somehow been the bad apple to spoil an entire bushel? (Reformers of the time write often of illicit behavior as a contagion whose example inspires a wider moral deadening.) Or was there something else going on?

Even the Times agrees that our culprit “never entertained the intention of becoming a ‘Baby Farmer’ and a Murderess. She drifted into it under the pressure of want and temptation. … It is, according to her statement, only six years since she was a married woman in good circumstances.”

According to Waters’ own account, summarized third-hand in the Times a few days prior to the hanging, (Oct. 7, 1870) her fall from respectable wedlock to public enemy number one began with the 1864 death of her husband, leaving the woman

with 300 l. in her possession. Intending to turn her capital to account, she took a house in Addington-square, Camberwell, and put into it a number of sewing-machines. Her plan was to make collars and other such articles, and sell them to the city houses. She knew little or nothing of the business, however, and, partly owing to that circumstance and partly to the miserable prices which were paid for such goods, she was at the end of the year a loser of 250 l. She then resolved to save herself by letting lodgings, and that step led her imperceptibly into her career of baby farming. … she was steadily going down-hill, and she found herself obliged to leave Addington-square and go to Bournemouth-terrace, Peckham, where she commenced baby farming as a system. She advertised for children, and she had answers from persons in all stations … She drifted along in this course, getting from bad to worse. But she protested that she had no idea of injuring the children, though she did some things she was very sorry for, owing to the difficulties of her position … She took the Clerkenwell News, and there she used to find a whole string of advertisements — three of them were put in for a shilling — from women who wanted children to nurse. She advertised herself for children to adopt, and she generally got 10 l. with one. When she got the child and the money she went to one of the other advertisers in the Clerkenwell News and arranged to put the baby out to nurse. Upon paying two weeks in advance she was hardly ever asked even for her address, and when she went away of course she never heard anything more of the child. She gained the difference between the 10 l. given her for adopting the child and the fortnight’s payment for nursing it. This was, after all, a very precarious resource, and she fell into great distress … The time came soon when she was unable to pay the money-lender his instalments, and he threatened to strip her of everything under her bill of sale … When she went to Brixton five children died, some from diarrhoea and wasting, and others from convulsions. She was very poor, and determined to save the price of burial by leaving them about. She wrapped the bodies in brown paper and took them out at night, and left them where they were found by people afterwards. She maintains that she did what she could for these children, and attended to them to the best of her power. There were also four other children whom she got rid of in a way for which she is now very sorry. She took them, one at a time, into the streets, and when she saw little boys and girls at play she called one of them and said, “Oh, I am so tired! Here, hold my baby, and here is sixpence for you to go into the sweetstuff-shop and get something nice.” While the boy or girl went into the shop she made off. The babies, she believes, were generally taken to the workhouse.

The slide into the vast but shadow world of poverty, in short … a timeless story.

While intentional infanticide undoubtedly formed some part of the baby farming picture, its nature and extent is also nothing to presume. In an era of staggering child mortality, dead infants were a norm, sometimes the norm. In the context of desperate penury, it was all the more likely. Middle-class authorities who raided Waters’ “farm” saw (and testified to) a slum purposely structured to kill off children. They may simply have beheld indigence.

Waters herself always rejected any notion that she had intentionally killed any of her charges.

Summing up the doomed woman’s testimonial, the doctor who took it underscored the point with an entirely plausible counter-narrative.

Dr. Edmunds, in concluding the recital of the remarkable and instructive statement Margaret Waters made to him a few hours before, said that when children, even under the best conditions, were taken from the breast and brought up by hand, the chances were all against them. What, then, was the chance of infants taken out in the open air the moment they were born and brought up with only such appliances as Mrs. Waters, at her wits’ end for money, flying from money-lenders and dodging landlords, had at her disposal? From what he could judge she had no intention of murdering any of the children, but they died off, as they might have been expected to die off, from diarrhoea, thrush, and convulsions, and when they died she callously got rid of their bodies as best she could when she became poor.

If Waters’ story holds water, her fees so inadequate to the long-term maintenance of children represent much the same calculated gamble involved in insurance: foul play or no, she had no reason to expect to maintain children long-term.** Cold … but hardly incomprehensible.

(It should also be observed babies to adopt actually were in demand.)

Interestingly, one of the key antecedents of the baby farming scandals in the 1860s and 70s was the codification of prim sexual mores for which the Victorian era is a byword.

Earlier in the 19th century, financial responsibility for illegitimate children had shifted from the (putative) father to the mother, and government Poor Relief to single mothers had been slashed — a bit of abstinence-only social engineering meant to stigmatize single motherhood to the greater good of the softer sex: “We trust that as soon as it has become … burdensome and disgraceful, it will soon become … rare.”

Surprisingly, welfare reform did not stop Victorians having sex. Given a milieu where birth control and abortion are illicit and single motherhood severely stigmatized, the policy implied a swath of single mothers powerfully incentivized to have burdensome and death-prone children taken off their hands … and an industry of entrepreneurs ready to meet the demand.

Waters was the first of eight women in England, Scotland and Wales hanged as baby farmers from 1870 to 1909. Her execution would help lead to the 1872 adoption of the Infant Life Protection Act, which introduced a regimen of license and registration in the heretofore libertarian economy of freelance child-brokering.

Books about Baby Farming and its Context

* In “Wolves in Women’s Clothing: Baby-Farming and the British Medical Journal, 1860-1872” (Journal of Family History, vol. 26, no. 3, July 2001), Ruth Ellen Homrighaus argues that

[b]y using their ‘expertise’ to stake a claim on infanticide and to relegate female reformers to the ranks of amateurs, writers for the BMJ made one of many moves to professionalize medicine … [and] establish a monopoly over health care by improving and standardizing medical education and restricting competition from untrained ‘charlatans.’

Infanticide writ large being a complex social problem, it found in baby farming a specific target amenable to outraged public mobilization, with a “subtext … [that] denied that working-class women were fit to manage childbirth and infant care.”

Margaret Waters had the ill luck to be discovered just as this campaign was in need of a potent emblematic villain. Despite the pestering of the moralistic set, police interest in hounding the persons who attended England’s considerable produce of disposable children rapidly waned in the 1870’s.

** Reviewing the still-lively baby farming scene in early 20th century America, Lawrence Friedman notes that

baby farms made a profit from a “grisly calculus”: most babies, in the days before reliable bottle-feeding, simply died when separated from their mothers. Add to this filthy conditions and poor care, and it is no surprise that most babies in baby farms did not survive. Allegedly, up to 80 percent of all babies admitted to one Baltimore baby farm died within weeks.

Part of the Themed Set: Women Who Kill.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Women

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