1663: William Dillon, anatomized and diarized

Add comment February 25th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1663, a very pious William Dillon lost his life for a murder during a brawl on London’s Long Acre. Whether he gained, as he anticipated, his eternal soul, surpasseth the understanding of this site. But he achieved, at least, a small measure of literary immortality.

Good People, I stand here a Spectacle to God, Angels and Men, sad and deplorable (I believe) to you, but in my inward Reflections on my Regenerate Estate, in my dear and blessed Saviour Jesus, full of Spiritual Hopes and Comfort.

I declare my self to you all a true and constant Christian, an Apostolical Romane Catholick, and on that account, I am particularly obliged to protest that my hopes are totally and solely placed in the Al-sufficient [sic] Merits of my glorious Redeemer, from whose Merits, the Merits of Man receive their total supernatural condignity and worth. To help the compleating of the Sufferings of his own Body, in his mystical, I am come here to participate of his beloved Crosse, sanctified and dignified by his own most pretious blood.

I give thanks to those deserving and charitable Persons, who desired and endeavoured my longer Life, for my better Repentance and amendment. But although they have failed in their Merciful Intercessions for me, there is an Advocate with the Father, even Jesus Christ the Just, whose Power is infinite, to save to the uttermost.

As I infold my self in the Arms of his rich and embracing Mercy, so I would be joyned with you all in his Divine, as I am in my own derived charity.

I wish you all good, as I should have done that very person, if known to me, for whose Death I am condemned. God Omniscient knoweth my Innocency in that particular, being in my Conscience so clear and free from that guilt, that to my knowledge I never touched the Man. May they have the benefit of the blood of Christ, who have occasioned the losse of mine; and God forgive me in His, as I do them for my own.

After his execution, Dillon was anatomized: it is thanks to this posthumous punishment that we meet him, or at any rate his cold kidneys and ureters and heart and lungs, two days after death through the pen of London diarist Samuel Pepys — a man we’ve run into several times before. Here in its chatty entirety is Pepys’s entry for February 27, 1663:

Up and to my office, whither several persons came to me about office business. About 11 o’clock, Commissioner Pett and I walked to Chyrurgeon’s Hall (we being all invited thither, and promised to dine there); where we were led into the Theatre; and by and by comes the reader, Dr. Tearne, with the Master and Company, in a very handsome manner: and all being settled, he begun his lecture, this being the second upon the kidneys, ureters, &c., which was very fine; and his discourse being ended, we walked into the Hall, and there being great store of company, we had a fine dinner and good learned company, many Doctors of Phisique, and we used with extraordinary great respect.

Among other observables we drank the King’s health out of a gilt cup given by King Henry VIII. to this Company, with bells hanging at it, which every man is to ring by shaking after he hath drunk up the whole cup. There is also a very excellent piece of the King, done by Holbein, stands up in the Hall, with the officers of the Company kneeling to him to receive their Charter.

After dinner Dr. Scarborough took some of his friends, and I went along with them, to see the body alone, which we did, which was a lusty fellow, a seaman, that was hanged for a robbery. I did touch the dead body with my bare hand: it felt cold, but methought it was a very unpleasant sight.

It seems one Dillon, of a great family, was, after much endeavours to have saved him, hanged with a silken halter this Sessions (of his own preparing), not for honour only, but it seems, it being soft and sleek, it do slip close and kills, that is, strangles presently: whereas, a stiff one do not come so close together, and so the party may live the longer before killed. But all the Doctors at table conclude, that there is no pain at all in hanging, for that it do stop the circulation of the blood; and so stops all sense and motion in an instant.

Thence we went into a private room, where I perceive they prepare the bodies, and there were the kidneys, ureters [&c.], upon which he read to-day, and Dr. Scarborough upon my desire and the company’s did show very clearly the manner of the disease of the stone and the cutting and all other questions that I could think of … how the water [comes] into the bladder through the three skins or coats just as poor Dr. Jolly has heretofore told me.

Thence with great satisfaction to me back to the Company, where I heard good discourse, and so to the afternoon Lecture upon the heart and lungs, &c., and that being done we broke up, took leave, and back to the office, we two, Sir W. Batten, who dined here also, being gone before.

Here late, and to Sir W. Batten’s to speak upon some business, where I found Sir J. Minnes pretty well fuddled I thought: he took me aside to tell me how being at my Lord Chancellor‘s to-day, my Lord told him that there was a Great Seal passing for Sir W. Pen, through the impossibility of the Comptroller’s duty to be performed by one man; to be as it were joynt-comptroller with him, at which he is stark mad; and swears he will give up his place, and do rail at Sir W. Pen the cruellest; he I made shift to encourage as much as I could, but it pleased me heartily to hear him rail against him, so that I do see thoroughly that they are not like to be great friends, for he cries out against him for his house and yard and God knows what. For my part, I do hope, when all is done, that my following my business will keep me secure against all their envys. But to see how the old man do strut, and swear that he understands all his duty as easily as crack a nut, and easier, he told my Lord Chancellor, for his teeth are gone; and that he understands it as well as any man in England; and that he will never leave to record that he should be said to be unable to do his duty alone; though, God knows, he cannot do it more than a child. All this I am glad to see fall out between them and myself safe, and yet I hope the King’s service well done for all this, for I would not that should be hindered by any of our private differences.

So to my office, and then home to supper and to bed.

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1753: George Robertson, prick

Add comment May 28th, 2018 Headsman

We are indebted to the redoubtable medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris for the substance of this post, which she brought to our attention on her blog, The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. Fans of the macabre, and particularly of the recurring medicinal theme here at Executed Today, are sure to enjoy her book The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine — or her “Under the Knife” video series.

We (and Dr. Fitzharris) enter these sensitive parts via a bit of junk preserved at the Royal College of Surgeons: the severed penis which long ago inhabited, along with the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the trousers of a highway robber named George Robertson.

Neither bacterium nor reader will be surprised to discover that when Robertson and a couple of other hard men knocked down James Holland in Mansfield Street to dispossess him of his hat and his wig, the pestilential thief resided at “a bawdy-house” (per the evidence of his perfunctory trial).

We don’t know the ins and outs of what this specimen got up to when Robertson had his liberty — only that its condition was so obvious that it interested the doctors. With nary a care for patient privacy, the Ordinary of Newgate emitted to the public that Robertson felt “so ill with the foul Disease, as not to be able to walk, and wished himself dead, because he had no Money or Friend to put him in the Hospital.”*

Agony though it might have been to our dissolute footpad, such cocks excited the physicians.

Dr. Fitzharris directs our attention to A Treatise on the Venereal Disease, by Robertson’s contemporary, the surgeon John Hunter. Hunter might well have fondled this very todger in his own day; as we learn from this turgid treatise, he and his colleagues found in the engorged members of the hung a penetrating scientific tool. The eightfold execution in the spring of 1753 that Hunter references below might be a previous Tyburn hanging date, of February 12, 1753. (That hanging included Robertson’s accomplice John Briant or Bryant: no word on the condition of John Briant’s John Thomas.)

Till about the year 1753 it was generally supposed, that the matter from the urethra in a gonorrhoea arose from an ulcer or ulcers in that passage; but from observation it was then proved that this was not the cafe. It may not be improper to give here a short history of the discovery of matter being formed by inflammation without ulceration.

In the winter 1749, a child was brought into the room used for dissection, in Covent Garden, on opening of whose thorax a large quantity of pus was found loose in the cavity, with the surface of the lungs and the pleura furred over with a more solid substance similar to coagulable lymph. On removing this from those surfaces they were found intire. This appearance being new to Dr. Hunter, he sent to Mr. Samuel Sharp, desiring his attendance, and to him it also appeared new. Mr. Sharp afterwards in the year 1750, published his Critical Enquiry, in which he introduced this fact, “That matter may be formed without a breach of substance;” not mentioning whence he had derived this notion. It was ever after taught by Dr. Hunter in his lectures ; we however find writers adopting it without quoting either Mr. Sharp or Dr. Hunter. So much being known, I was anxious to examine whether the matter in a gonorrhoea was formed in the same way. In the spring of 1753 there was an execution of eight men, two of whom I knew had at that time very severe gonorrhoeas. Their bodies being procured for this particular purpose, we were very accurate in our examination, but found no ulceration, the two urethras appeared merely a little blood-shot, especially near the glans. This being another new fact ascertained, it could not escape Mr. Gataker, ever attentive to his emolument, who was then attending Dr. Hunter’s lectures, and also practising dissection under me. He published, soon after in 1754, a treatise on this disease, and explained fully, that the matter in a gonorrhoea did not arise from an ulcer, without mentioning how he acquired this knowledge; and it has ever since been adopted in publications on this subject. Since the period mentioned above, I have constantly paid particular attention to this circumstance, and have opened the urethra of many who at the time of their death had a gonorrhoea, yet have never found a fore in any ; but always observed that the urethra near the glans was more blood-shot than usual, and that the lacunae were often filled with matter.

* As usual, the Ordinary plied the condemned while they languished in Newgate. However, he broke with his usual practice and did not make the trip to Tyburn for this triple execution, “because as they all three died Roman Catholicks, I did not choose to attend, to give them the Opportunity of turning their Backs upon me, as a Protestant Minister, which I knew they must do if I did.”

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324 B.C.E.: Glaucias, negligent physician

1 comment September 30th, 2017 Headsman

On an unknown date in the autumn of 324 BCE, the sudden death at Ecbatana of Alexander the Great‘s closest companion led the grief-stricken conqueror to execute a physician for negligence.

Hephaestion was the Macedonian prince’s intimate friend and presumed lover from childhood, described by their mutual tutor Aristotle as “one soul abiding in two bodies.”* They even looked alike.

If Alexander was Achilles then Hephaestion was his inseparable Patroclus — a parallel that seems to have been on the minds of the Macedonians themselves while, as king and general, their host tore through the near and not-so-near East. As a loyal and energetic commander, Hephaestion was entrusted over and over again by Alexander with critical military positions; as confidante, Hephaestion gave Alexander counsel on the dangerous political decisions demanded by his civilization-straddling empire.

By the end, Hephaestion was not only Alexander’s clear number two but his brother-in-law — both men having taken brides from the conquered Persian royal family in the summer of 324, perhaps with a romantic eye toward the future dynastic union of their own descendants.

Such was never to be for Alexander, and not for Hephaestion either. Like Patroclus, he predeceased his companion but the spear of Hector in this case seems merely to have been a disease like typhus and the young warrior’s indiscipline at following a doctor’s strictures. Perhaps there lurked behind a draught more purposeful and sinister than overgorging on wine — who can tell at this distance? — but Hephaestion shockingly went from the acme of health to his sickbed to sudden death in a matter of days. A distraught Alexander wanted honors and grief but he also wanted someone to blame.

As to the physician’s execution, we are unsure of the fact as well as the date, but it seems like the sort of larger-than-life gesture of sorrow that an Alexander ought to make. We’re thinly sourced 2400 years into the past; Plutarch, writing some 400 years later, has one version of a story that had clearly become common coinage in the ancient world:

[I]t chanced that Hephaestion had a fever; and since, young man and soldier that he was, he could not submit to a strict regimen, as soon as Glaucus, his physician, had gone off to the theatre, he sat down to breakfast, ate a boiled fowl, drank a huge cooler of wine, fell sick, and in a little while died. Alexander’s grief at this loss knew no bounds. He immediately ordered that the manes and tails of all horses and mules should be shorn in token of mourning, and took away the battlements of the cities round about; he also crucified the wretched physician, and put a stop to the sound of flutes and every kind of music in the camp for a long time, until an oracular response from Ammon came bidding him honour Hephaestion as a hero and sacrifice to him.


Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus, by Gavin Hamilton (c. 1760)

The Greek historian Arrian makes a similar (albeit more circumspect) claim to that of his Roman near-contemporary.

In Ecbatana Alexander offered sacrifice according to his custom, for his good fortune; and he celebrated a gymnastic and musical contest. He also held drinking parties with his Companions.

At this time Hephaestion fell sick; and they say that the stadium was full of people on the seventh day of his fever, for on that day there was a gymnastic contest for boys. When Alexander was informed that Hephaestion was in a critical state, he went to him without delay, but found him no longer alive.

Different authors have given different accounts of Alexander’s grief on this occasion; but they all agree in this, that his grief was great. As to what was done in honour of Hephaestion, they make diverse statements, just as each writer was actuated by good-will or envy towards him, or even towards Alexander himself. Of the authors who have made these reckless statements, some seem to me to have thought that whatever Alexander said or did to show his excessive grief for the man who was the dearest to him in the world, redounds to his honour; whereas others seem to have thought that it rather tended to his disgrace, as being conduct unbecoming to any king and especially to Alexander. Some say that he threw himself on his companion’s body and lay there for the greater part of that day, bewailing him and refusing to depart from him, until he was forcibly carried away by his Companions. Others that he lay upon the body the whole day and night. Others again say that he hanged the physician Glaucias, for having indiscreetly given the medicine; while others affirm that he, being a spectator of the games, neglected Hephaestion, who was filled with wine.

Whatever we make of the Glaucias subplot, it’s a certainty that mighty Alexander then proceeded upon a protracted performance of conspicuous languishing that was aborted only by his own death about eight months later: two men who had stood hand in hand upon the summit of the world, stricken dead in such rapid and inexplicable succession that their bereavements ran upon one another.** As Arrian notes, the Macedon Achilles determined in honor of his Patroclus “to celebrate a gymnastic and musical contest, much more magnificent than any of the preceding, both in the multitude of competitors and in the amount of money expended upon it” — and that many of its reputed 3,000 participants “a short time after also competed in the games held at Alexander’s own funeral.”

* Yet another one of Macedonia’s greatest generation under Aristotle’s tutelage was destined in time to execute Alexander’s mother.

** It’s merely speculative, but one could readily imagine that Alexander’s own downward health spiral had a little something to do with despondency at the loss of his friend.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Iran,Macedonia,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Persia,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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2000: Gary Lee Roll, pained

Add comment August 30th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 2000, Missouri put Gary Lee Roll out of his suffering.

A war veteran with no criminal record prior to the triple homicide that landed him in these pages, Gary Lee Roll came from — and, according to his remorseful last statement, failed — a stable and secure family.

He could trace his own tragedy back in 1973 when a botched operation by a U.S. Army oral surgeon left him with a life-altering pain in his jaw that would never go away. It eventually pulled him into a spiral of self-medication..

“It hurts to talk about it,” Roll said of the continual debilitating pain that afflicted most of his adulthood. “It affected my life so much. It changed me.”

One night in August 1992 Roll, his pain abated but his mind clouded by pot, LSD, and alcohol, persuaded two buddies to join him on a spur-of-moment robbery of a drug dealer. Our man barged into the place posing as a cop, and then reflected that he was liable to be identified by his victims. Before the trio fled richer by $215 and 12 ounces of pot, they’d left Sherry Scheper bludgeoned to death, her son Curtis, 22, knifed to death, and her other son Randy, 17, shot to death. (Randy was the one in the drug trade.)

As ill-planned as this sounds, and was, the killers were not detected for weeks afterwards, when one of Roll’s accomplices grew nervous about his situation and secretly taped our man admitting to the murder. Those tapes found their way into the hands of police.

The pain-wracked Roll entered guilty pleas and though not technically a volunteer for his own execution also showed little zeal to oppose it. “If I thought there was something I could say, I would say anything. But I don’t think there is,” he reportedly mused. His accomplices both received life sentences.

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1835: Joshua Cotton and William Saunders, steam doctors

1 comment July 4th, 2017 Headsman

In the Mississippi slave insurrection panic of 1835, slavers’ fears attached themselves right from the start to the prospect of white leadership affiliating with the prospective black rising.

Israel Campbell, a slave who would eventually reach freedom in the North and publish a fascinating autobiography on the eve of the Civil War, was present in the vicinity. He knew nothing of any rebellion until

two white men came to my house one night after I had gone to bed, and ordered me to get up immediately. I could not think, for my life, what was the matter. Before I got my clothes on, they became impatient, and called for me to open the door. As I done this, one of them seized me by the collar, having a bowie-knife in one hand. Uttering a horrible oath, he asked —

“What do you know about Doctor Cotton’s scrape?”

“Nothing at all, sir,” I replied.

“Don’t you tell me a lie. Do you know Dr. Cotton? When did you see him last?”

I replied, that I would not tell them a lie; that I did know Mr. Cotton, but that I had not seen him for some time. They went on asking a number of questions, wanting to know if I knew Harris’ old Dave, the negro preacher, and when I heard him preach last, and where at? I answered them satisfactorily these queries. They then wanted to know if I staid at the meeting until the people had all dispersed? If they talked any thing about getting free and killing the white people?

I replied to them about knowing the different parties; but about the rising of the slaves I had heard nothing.

After convincing themselves that I was ignorant, they left, warning me, however, not to be caught outside our own plantation, nor talk with any strange negroes or white men. They told me that Dr. Cotton and some other mean white men and a great many of the negroes were laying plans to rise and kill off the white people and free the negroes. After giving me some brandy, and again warning me, that if I did not heed their advice, I would be shot, they left my house.

They, with other parties, went around among all the slave quarters. Many they scared so badly, that they told lies of every description, and suffered for it. When they thought they had succeeded in quelling the insurrection, they commenced punishing those they had caught. Some they hung, others they burned, and some of those they thought not so guilty they pulled cats back-wards on their bare backs. Two of the party hung themselves in the prison.

The man these rude guests hunted with that menacing Bowie knife was Joshua Cotton, an itinerant homeopath expounding the fad launched by Samuel Thomson‘s hit publication New Guide to Health. Thomson had by means of some natural palliatives healed his family of several ailments that confounded legitimate medical practitioners; his emphasis on having patients sweat out toxins by immersion in steam led his followers to be derided as “steam doctors.”

Cotton wasn’t the only steam doctor beating the bushes in Madison County: an intimate named William Saunders was also about. Their wandering practice, interacting with free men and slaves alike, profiled as precisely the types who would be orchestrating a coordinated rebellion — and they had been implicated under the lash by the Beatties Bluff slaves, where the insurrection panic had begun days earlier.

Though not yet aware that they would be caught up in the panic, the steam doctors were making their own moves in these days. Saunders attended a June 30 meeting of Livingston whites to organize suppression of the supposed rebellion and advised them that the other steam doctor, Cotton, “was in the habit of trading with negroes; would buy any thing they would steal and bring to him.” This put the vigilantes onto Cotton; Saunders left town in peace and made, so he said, for Texas — which would have been a wise choice, as events would show.

On the road to Vicksburg and a river crossing to the safety of Louisiana, Saunders repeated the story to another traveler who just so happened to have a more suspicious frame of mind than the Livingstonians. This Good Samaritan promptly brought Saunders in as a suspected conspirator himself. Both steam doctors were under lock and key as the Beatties Bluff allegations of their complicity reached Livingston.

Saunders elaborated his charges against Cotton, plainly hoping to trade his opposite number’s life for his own: that Cotton was forever going about pretending to lose his horses in the countryside “as a pretext for hunting them, that he might have opportunities to converse with the negroes, and, by that means, to seduce them from their allegiance to their owners, by instilling rebellious notions among them; and to form plans, and to make converts to his propositions, which he could not do by being a steam-doctor.” Since a slave brought from Beatties Bluff also identified Cotton on sight as the man keen on seducing him to rebellion, Cotton could perceive that his fate was surely sealed, and while the vigilantes deliberated on July 4 he sent them a desperate offer to confess in exchange for leniency. The committee refused the offer … but confession was still the only card Cotton had to play, and he submitted the confession on spec. In it, he leaned for his narrative on Virgil Stewart’s recently published claims about a slave plot led by the bandit John Murrell.

I am one of the Murrell clan, a member of what we called the grand council … Our object in undertaking to excite the negroes to rebellion, was not for the purpose of liberating them, but for plunder. I was trying to carry into effect the plan of Murrell as laid down in Stewart’s pamphlet … from the exposure of our plans in said pamphlet, we expected the citizens would be on their guard at the time mentioned, being the 25th of December next; and we determined to take them by surprise, and try it on the night of the 4th of July, and it would have been tried to-night (and perhaps may yet), but for the detection of our plans.

Cotton also repaid tit for tat by naming Saunders as one of the plotters, confirming some slaves’ accusations and leaving the backstabbing chum to twist on his own useless protestations of innocence.

The upshot of Cotton’s statement was an offer to buy his own life by continuing to reveal more information about the conspiracy going forward — essentially, to become a standing informant against anyone whom the slavers might next suspect. “But the committee, deeming it of infinitely more importance to check the impending storm, by immediately destroying two of the ringleaders, and thereby creating dismay and panic among them, ordered their execution” — which was effected immediately, both steam doctors being marched directly from their hearing to the jail where, “fastening a rope to the grating of a window, in the upper story of the jail, and leaning a couple of rails against the wall, assisted the culprits upon the rails; then, adjusting the other end of the rope around their necks, removed the rails. They were left hanging until the next morning.”

The final extent of the executions/lynchings meted out during the course the insurrection panic is uncertain. Israel Campbell, however, would remember that Cotton and Saunders were certainly not the end of it when it came to rootless itinerants in the vicinity — and not only the steam doctor set. “[T]he party who were making arrests endeavored to get hold of every steam doctor and colored preacher they could,” he wrote in his autobiography.

[O]nce in their grasp, there was very little mercy shown them. The heads of the preachers they cut off and put on poles, and placed them along the road, where they remained until they were bleached. I saw several of their skulls in an apothecary store at Mount Vernon the latter part of that fall. Dr. Cotton was a noble-looking man and a friend to the slave, and he died a martyr to the cause he had so much at heart, — the emancipation of the slave.

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2012: An unknown organ donor, executed at a hospital

Add comment December 6th, 2016 Headsman

Four years ago today, Chinese lawyer Han Bing revealed a shocking execution further to China’s shadowy trade in harvested organs, with a post on the microblogging service Weibo.

The Epoch Times translates this post — which was widely shared, but deleted within days — thus:

This morning witnessed a horrifying practice of execution. The Supreme Court this week contacted the Provincial High Court to re-examine a determined death penalty case. However, the Intermediate People’s Court had the prisoner promptly executed without notifying the relatives for a last farewell visit. The reason for the prompt execution was that the death penalty prisoner had ‘willingly’ signed an organ donation release. To ensure the quality of the organs, the execution was carried out at the hospital. These judges and doctors without conscience turn a hospital into a place of execution and a market for organ trading!

If there has been any subsequent public explication of the details about this event — the identity of the prisoner, the particulars of the transplant — I have not been able to locate it.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Known But To God,Lethal Injection,Ripped from the Headlines

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1867: Gottlieb Williams, eyeballed

Add comment June 4th, 2016 Headsman

From the very first volume of the Transactions of the American Ophthalmological Society, spanning 1864 to 1871. The society, and the journal, are still going strong.

The ellipses omit three other hangings investigated by Dr. Dyer.

FRACTURE OF THE CRYSTALLINE LENS IN PERSONS EXECUTED BY HANGING.
By E. Dyer, M.D., of Philadelphia, Pa.

Three years ago I presented to the Society the result of the examination of the eyes of a man who was hanged, also some experiments on the effects of hanging on the crystalline lens of the dog. In the case of the man the anterior capsule and the lens of the right eye were fractured. The direction of the fracture was horizontal and a line below the centre, extending as far back as the middle of the lens. In the left eye the anterior capsule only as involved. In one dog the same conditions were found, in another only one lens was fractured, and in a third no lesion was detected.

Since then I have experimented on rabbits. Two were hanged and four were strangulated. The trachea in two of the latter were laid bare and tied, but no fracture was detected in any case. Drs. S.W. Mitchell and W.W. Keen, who assisted me at the experiments on the dogs, were present.

The following are the notes of several executions at which I have been present since my report of the case already mentioned. I have been able to examine the eyes of the criminals both before and after death.

Gottlieb Williams, aet. 34, was executed in Philadelphia, June 4, 1867. Drop four and one-half feet; the knot slipped so as to be under the occiput; suspended thirty minutes; convulsive movements lasted five minutes; neck not dislocated.

Examination at 11.54 A.M., five minutes after the body was cut down. Appearance of eyes natural; no protrustion; no injection of conjunctival vessels, corneae clear.

Right eye, pupil well dilated; media clear. Small point seen on the anterior capsule of the lens in the median line, just above the margin of the pupil. At 12, M., spot more distinct; at 12.26 P.M., spot still present, somewhat elongated. Optic nerve normal; retinal vessels small.

Left eye, pupil smaller than the right; cornea clear; lens in normal condition; optic nerve normal; arteries small. I was not allowed to remove the eyes.

Drs. H. Yale Smith, physician to the prison, W.W. Keen and J. Ewing Mears assisted me in the examination.

This unpleasant series of investigations has been pursued ith the hope of throwing some light on the vexed question of the mechanism of the accommodation, but as yet without any satisfactory result.

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

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1752: Helen Torrence and Jean Waldie

1 comment March 18th, 2016 Headsman

Helen Torrance and Jean Waldie were executed this day, for stealing a child, eight or nine years of age, and selling its body to the surgeons for dissection. Alive on Tuesday, when carried off, and dead on Friday, with an incision in the belly, but sewn up again.

Tolbooth’s log for March 18, 1751/2*

This date in 1752 marks a milestone in the mutation of the Enlightenment’s piercing medical gaze into the beginnings of a macabre and sordid niche industry that kept doctors well-supplied with cadavers into which to gaze.

The March 18 hanging in Edinburgh of Helen Torrence and Jean Waldie appears to be the first known execution for an anatomy murder.

In the bad old days when dissection subjects were so hard to come by that medical students were known to snatch fresh bodies from the grave like Dr. Frankenstein, the Scots Magazine reported that the two women “frequently promised two or three surgeon-apprentices to procure them a subject” in exchange for a small fee. That fee really was quite small: two shillings, and a few extra pence they haggled for, not at all a favorable rate to sell one’s soul and maybe little more than enough to cover their costs.

Torrence and Waldie were supposed to obtain the subject while sitting on a ceremonial death watch with a dead child, but having no such deceased moppet to hand and really needing a couple of shillings, the ladies went the far more perilous route of snatching a real live eight-year-old while his parents were away. They plied little John Dallas with ale and suffocated his breath away, and Torrence even schlepped the cadaver to the apprentice surgeons in her own apron for an added tip.

The prisoners’ hair-splitting defense, a masterpiece of legal black comedy, was that they could only be shown guilty of kidnapping a living child and then selling a dead child — and neither of these acts constituted a capital crime. Considering the deep-rooted public loathing of resurrectionists’ grave-raiding, the court readily made free to infer from the juxtaposition of these circumstances the hated women’s culpability for John Dallas’s demise.

* 1752 was the last year that England maintained the old Julian calendar, and with it, the recognition of New Year’s Day on Lady Day (March 25) rather than January 1, so the documents of the time make this execution March 18, 1751. The change to the Gregorian calendar took place that summer.

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1543: Jakob Karrer, Vesalius subject

1 comment May 12th, 2015 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

Why is it a Basel criminal who enjoys this distinction?


From Wikipedia’s library of De Humani illustrations.

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

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

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Feast Day of St. Vitus

Add comment June 15th, 2014 Headsman

June 15 is the feast date of the early Christian saint and martyr Vitus.

The 6th century roster Martyrologium Hieronymianum gives us “In Sicilia, Viti, Modesti et Crescentiae”. From this nub grew a legend of the young child of a Roman Senator who turned to Christianity and would not apostatize, fleeing finally to Lucania with his tutor Modestus and his nanny Crescentia and eventually exorcising a demon possessing the son of the Christian-hunting, Empire-quartering Roman sovereign Diocletian. They were all — boy, tutor, and nanny — tortured to death for their troubles; that occurred either by means of or (manifesting God’s customary disdain for the pagan persecutors) after surviving execution in a boiling pot, which has become Vitus’s most typical iconographical emblem. (For example, as seen on the coat of arms of the Austrian town Sankt Veit im Pongau.)


The Martyrdom of St. Vitus, anonymous c. 1450 painting

This story doesn’t have much historical merit, but shrines and chapels to Vitus date as far back as the 5th century so Vitus, whomever he was, had real importance to early Christians.

His cult became especially prominent in medieval central Europe. Prague’s imposing Gothic cathedral bears his name, because Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia* allegedly retrieved for it the saint’s arm in a reliquary.**

While many places are dedicated to St. Vitus in Germany, Hungary, and Croatia, the man has red-letter treatment in Serbia — owing to this also being the date in 1389 that the Serbs’ Tsar Lazar was martyred by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo. As a result, the feast date Vidovdan is a major celebration in Serbia (and to some extent Bulgaria and Macedonia), where it is observed on June 28th — the Gregorian date presently corresponding to the Julian calendar’s June 15th.

The same Vitus who cheers Balkan nationalists trod a completely different path into medical textbooks.

For centuries, Europeans were known to break out in curious ecstatic mass dancing, even sometimes dancing themselves to death. Generally believed today to be psychosocial afflictions, these dancing manias became widely associated with St. Vitus (his patronage includes both dancers and epileptics), whose intercession would be sought to calm the capering souls.

Dancing manias stopped happening in the 17th century or so, but the link between Vitus and involuntary rollick gave the name St. Vitus’s Dance to the condition Syndenham’s chorea — which is characterized by uncontrolled dance-like movement.

* The very Good King Wenceslaus who looked down on the feast of Stephen.

** Speculatively, Sanct Vid might have been selected for Christian veneration in this area to facilitate replacement of the similarly-named Slavic god Svantovid. An active (albeit declining) pagan community persisted in Prague as late as the 12th century.

As with most Slavic deities, Svantovid’s exact characteristics and the extent of his veneration are very poorly documented; however, in 1168, the Wendish fortress of Arkona was conquered by the Danes and the forced Christianization of its inhabitants is commemorated in Laurits Tuxen‘s late 19th century image of Archbishop Absalon casting down Arkona’s idol of Svantovid. (It’s also commemorated by the name of the neo-pagan Russian metal band Arkona.)

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