1474: Not the Archer of Meudon

Add comment January 30th, 2011 Headsman

On an uncertain date in January 1474, a condemned archer* escaped the noose by volunteering to endure an experimental living vivisection for kidney stones.

The authority for this incident is a single medieval chronicle with just enough context to tantalize:

In January, 1474, an archer of Meudon was condemned for many robberies, and especially for robbing the church at Meudon, to be hanged at Paris. He appealed to the Parlement which confirmed the sentence. Then the physicians and surgeons of the city represented to the king that many and divers persons were grievously molested and tormented by stone, colic, and pains in the side, with which the said archer was also much troubled, and that Monseigneur du Bouchaige (a favourite courtier mentioned by Comines) was sorely afflicted by the said maladies, and that it would be very useful to see the places where these maladies are concreted, and that this could be best done by vivisecting a human being, which could be well effected on the person of the said archer, who was also about to suffer death. Which opening and incision was accordingly done on the body of the said archer, and the place of the said maladies having been sought out and examined, his bowels were replaced and he was sewn up again. And by the king’s command the wound was well dressed, so that he was perfectly healed within a fortnight, and he received a free pardon, and some money was given him as well.

-translation from William J. Bishop’s The Early History of Surgery

Pretty cool, and possibly the earliest semi-convincingly documented case of human vivisection in Europe.

Assuming it did really go down, it seems to have made little immediate impression on contemporaries, but it was gradually recovered in centuries later — and the medical achievement really improved in retrospect.

These few lines inflated into a story, a myth of French medicine: in the first place, the unspecified ailment became identified with kidney stones; a heroic and brilliant Italian-trained French physician named Germain Colot (or Collot)** was fabricated as the genius behind the procedure; even Louis XI turns up personally to observe.


Antoine Rivoulon’s 1851 lithograph valorizes the mythical 19th century version of the Archer of Meudon’s surgery as the first kidney stone operation, undertaken by legendary surgeon Germain Colot, and in the very presence of the sovereign. The archer looks pretty chill himself, given his situation.

“Why this story has disappeared from view is almost as baffling as its origin,” observe Vivian and Christine Nutton in their fascinating survey† of the archer’s historiography. “”Patriotic’ history … has not entirely fallen out of favour.”

One major reason is not to be sought in a library but in the operating theater. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, this story could be seen as having a practical value: it provided proof that this or that procedure, whether to remove a stone from the bladder or the kidney, could be followed safely and effectively. A modern operation could thus be given historical support, which might tip the balance in deciding which of a number of competing possible courses should be followed. John Douglas’s reprinting of the relevant sections in Rousset was an avowed attempt to secure backing for his new and controversial operation for the stone. But with the advent of anesthesia and aseptic surgery, the priorities of surgeons themselves changed in choosing how to operate … There was no need to scrutinize the historical record to establish the most effective way to proceed.

* We digress to notice that the francs-archers to which our offender belonged were a peasant militia established by Charles VII: archers received tax abatements in exchange for regular practice with the bow.

Charles’s best-known military innovation was elevating raving teenager Joan of Arc to battlefield command. Since God helps those best who help themselves, Charles also evidently was cagey enough to take a warning from rival England’s devastating use of the longbow during the Hundred Years’ War. Nice idea, but by this point the archers were “havens for tax exemption … units of ill-disciplined men” — much like our marauding, but fortuitously afflicted, patient.

They were used rarely and ineffectively, and soon after making their mark in the annals of surgery, replaced entirely by foreign mercenaries.

** “Germain Colot” connected a lineage to French lithotomy by way of the historically verifiable 16th century doctor Laurent Colot. As of this writing, Laurent’s Wikipedia page still asserts the existence of this phantom ancestor.

† Nutton, Vivian and Nutton, Christine, “The Archer of Meudon: A Curious Absence of Continuity in the History of Medicine,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Volume 58, Number 4, October 2003, pp. 401-427

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1829: William Burke, eponymous body-snatcher

4 comments January 28th, 2011 dogboy

Wanted: corpses. Apply to Doctor Robert Knox, MD, FRSCEd, Professor of Medical Studies, Barclay’s Medical College, Surgeon’s Square, Edinburgh. Reference William Burke, hanged Jan. 28, 1829.

Robert Knox was a noted physician in his prime, in the early 1800s.

A surgeon, anatomist, and zoologist, Knox studied anatomy in London, then headed off to Africa in the army. Field surgery was a brutal business, and the poor anatomical knowledge at the time made it even more terrifying for those involved.

In 1821, Knox moved to France to work in the shadow of his heroes, Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire; a year later, he was back in Edinburgh, making himself a career academic.

When his old professor came calling in 1826 with an opportunity to teach at Surgeon’s Square in Edinburgh, Knox jumped at the chance. As a partner to Barclay and curator of the school’s museum, Knox was well aware of the significant problem that faced the school: corpses were hard to come by.

And since the Royal College of Surgeons at Edinburgh certified the school as a prep course for entrance to University, coming up with bodies became a very important task.

If there’s one way to ruin your career, it’s to be caught paying a few pounds for fresh murder victims.

So it was for Knox, who gave out 7 pounds, 10 shillings for the body of an itinerant lodger who died in William Burke’s building in 1827.

This transaction led Burke to realize that such lodgers weren’t paying as much alive as dead. As a collector of bodies, Knox also had a strict no-questions-asked policy, and Burke and his partner William Hare exploited that to its fullest extent.

Almost a score of suspicious bodies later (and after the price had inflated to 10 pounds per), the pair was found out, given away as suspects by the lame and mentally disabled “Daft Jamie” Wilson, then caught when the late Marjory Campbell Docherty was found by a fellow tenant under one of Burke’s lodge’s beds.

Hare copped to a string of murders* and played stool pigeon in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Burke went to the gallows to “vehement cheering from every quarter, mingled with groans and hisses.” (London Times, Feb. 2, 1829)

“When the cheers had subsided, the wretched man was assailed with every epithet of contempt and abhorrence,” the Times continued. “Not a single indication of pity was observable among the vast crowd: on the contrary, every countenance wore the lviely aspect of a gala-day.”


William Burke’s hanging.

As a corpse himself, Burke made one final contribution to science’s insatiable desire for bodies: his cadaver went straight from the gallows to the practiced hands of one Dr Alexander Monro, who performed a complete lecture while dissecting the murderer’s corpse.

Lecture complete, the good doctor opened the doors to all comers to gaze upon the body, and tens of thousands of Scots obliged. Burke’s skeleton remains on exhibit at University of Edinburgh medical college, and, as was the style at the time, his skin was used to make a pocket book now on display at the Surgeons’ School there.


Hello there. William Burke’s skeleton, on display in Edinburgh. (cc) image from ejbaurdo

Knox, for his part, paid not with his neck but with his reputation.

Though never charged with a crime, the doctor was run out of the the lecturing business, first by subtle and not-so-subtle actions by the University, and eventually by the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832.

He was also unable to obtain any surgical post after the incident and spent his later years writing academic books and papers, none of which have lasted like the doggerel that shadowed his steps.

Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.

A few books about Burke and Hare

Anatomy of Anatomy

Robert Knox was operating under the Murder Act of 1751, which expressly forbade the burial of an executed murderer while permitting the malefactor’s dissection.

The Act had the dual effect of allowing the state to gibbet executed criminals (both hanging in chains and dissection were considered an added ignominy, beyond the punishment of the gallows), and of supplying the budding medical community with an immediate source of fresh bodies.

As courses in anatomy became more commonplace, though, the need for cadavers increased dramatically, and the business of selling bodies for science was born.

Typically, these sales manifested themselves in body-snatching — wherein “resurrectionists” illicitly exhumed a freshly buried corpse and conveyed it to some physician’s ready scalpel.

This grim trade in turn spawned a variety of security measures. The favored dead were defended by fences, watchtowers, and human lookouts. But nothing could eliminate the industry.

In particular, those with little money or no immediate relatives were unlikely to be buried in these gated graves; that left their remains ripe for the remaindering. As well, the increase in demand made so-called anatomy murder a possibility. Burke and Hare may have been notorious for the offense,** but they did not invent it.

As detailed by George Mac Gregor in The history of Burke and Hare and of the resurrectionist times: a fragment from the criminal annals of Scotland, the first known case of anatomy murder occurred in 1752, also in Edinburgh.

In that case, two nurses (Jean Waldie and Helen Torrence) on death watch bartered a decent price of two shillings to sell the body of an ill child to a local surgical college. His death was delayed, and the nurses smothered him, possibly through simple carelessness.

Shortly after the Murder Act, simple economics made pikers of Torrence and Waldie. In the 17th century, England executed hundreds of prisoners a year, each a potential dissection. As Dr D.R. Johnson writes in his Introductory Anatomy:

The dissections performed on hanged felons were public: indeed part of the punishment was the delivery from hangman to surgeons at the gallows following public execution, and later public exhibition of the open body itself. …

Agents representing surgeons would bargain with condemned prisoners not under sentence of dissection (remember this only happened for murder: hanging was in vogue for stealing a sheep or even a loaf): occasionally prisoners struck a bargain to pay expenses, to provide for a family or to buy the customary decent apparel for the hanging.

Supply was unreliable, however: riots at public hangings became common, partly because of the paltry nature of hanging events, partly from superstition. The body was often reclaimed by relatives and the unpopular anatomists stoned, defeated and out of pocket. Competition was often so fierce that a rival anatomy school carried off the body.

Dissection was unpopular and other medical uses were to be found for a recently hung body – the cure of scofula, goitre, wens, ulcers, bleeding tumours, cancers and withered limbs for example. To prevent riots and disorder the Sheriff of London took all bodies of hanged men, except those sentenced to dissection, into his own custody and handed them to the relatives for burial.

Human Trafficking

Hanoverian Britain sure did keep the gallows busy. But the pace of hangings had abated by the 19th century just as demand boomed. The math didn’t add up.

Anatomy schools (officially) dissected some 592 corpses in 1825; at the time of the Burke and Hare murders, only about 50 executions were carried out annually, and each college was guaranteed just one a year.

That meant a shortfall of close to 550 bodies. With limited supply and significant demand, surgical colleges and anatomical lecturers were willing to pay top dollar for new cadavers … and the anatomical murder business really got legs.

This was particularly true in Edinburgh, which boasted an internationally known medical college.

Burke and Hare? Just call them entrepreneurs.

And while the execution of Burke was met with applause from the community, in London, another group was already hard at work both body snatching and murdering its way into the classroom.

The London Burkers were caught in 1831 and convicted of murdering a 14-year-old whose cadaver they sold to St Bartholemew’s Hospital for 9 guineas.† The killers, Thomas Williams and John Bishop, had offed several others prior to the lad in question, making about the same price on each body.‡ In the grand, Burkean tradition of anatomical murderers, these miscreants were also dissected after their execution.§

Williams and Bishop were just two of a group of resurrectionists known collectively as the London Burkers, who claimed to have stolen upwards of 1,000 bodies from nearby cemeteries. That made the Burkers the largest known exploiters of the anatomical trade.

Over the decades after the Murder Act, though, resurrectionists were walking a dangerous line in their communities.

Reverence for the dead sparked community outrage when graves were found empty or disturbed, and it was often the anatomists themselves who felt the wrath of crowds.§§ In Glasgow in 1803, surgeons were threatened by an unruly mob and were forced to seek police protection; in 1813, an empty grave caused a similar furor. Punishments moved from fines to jail time as the surging demand made body-snatching an ever more lucrative trade.

A few books about body-snatching

By the time of the Burkers, anatomists were generally presumed to be body thieves in some capacity, a hostile sentiment graphically underscored during the Aberdeen riots of 1831. When a dog unearthed what looked like a human bone behind the Aberdeen surgical college, a mob coalesced and stormed the lecture hall.

The lecturer (“Dr Moir” — little else is known about the man) fled in terror as the hall was burned to the ground. Soldiers and police clashed with the crowd, which was thought to be over 10,000 strong. Hours later, the riot subsided, but Aberdeen was no longer a friendly place for a prospective medical talent.

And where Burke and Hare were still not quite sufficient to convince the House of Lords to take up a measure providing anatomists with alternatives for corpse acquisition, the Burkers and the Aberdeen riots apparently were.

The underground economy of resurrectionists was supplanted by the Anatomy Act of 1832, which allowed individuals to donate themselves or their unwilled kin to science for a pittance of compensation.

Anatomy murder is, of course, still the subject of horror movies. Like this one, or for the more classically inclined, this 1945 Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi vehicle adapted from a Robert Louis Stevenson story inspired by Burke and Hare:

* The murders included at least one husband/wife pair, a mother and, later, her (adult) daughter, and a grandmother and her young grandson. They are also known as the West Port Murders.

** Burke entered the English language as a verb meaning … well, pretty much exactly what Burke got up to.

We like the poetic explanation of this 19th century popular crime reader:

Dr. Murray, in the new English Dictionary, gives the following definition of the verb to ‘burke.’ ‘To murder in the same manner or for the same purpose as Burke did: to kill secretly by suffocation or strangulation, or for the purpose of selling the victim’s body for dissection,’ and the familiar lines are quoted from the Ingoldsby Legends: —

But when beat on his knees, that confounded De Guise
Just whipped out the “fogle” that caused all the breeze,
Pulled it tight round his neck until backwards it jerked him,
And the rest of the rascals jumped on him and burked him.

† 9 pounds, 9 shillings; by the time of the transactions, the guinea was no longer technically in use, but the term had stuck at the 21-shilling mark.

‡ Over the course of their 6 active months, the pair went from asking 8 guineas to asking 12 guineas; apparently 9 was the negotiated price with St Bartholemew’s.

§ The Burkers are the subject of the song “The Resurrectionist” by the Pet Shop Boys. (Lyrics)

§§ Edinburgh also had trouble as far back as 1742, when several surgeons’ homes were attacked by locals; a local beadle suspected of the crimes also had his home, dubbed resurrectionist hall, burned during the mob incident.

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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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2000: Fu Xinrong, involuntary organ donor

4 comments May 30th, 2009 Headsman

One Fu Xinrong was shot in the back of the head this day in China’s Jiangxi province. The previous fall, he had raped his girlfriend, murdered their newborn son, and turned himself in to police.

His death, just one no-account criminal among China’s thousands of practically anonymous execution victims, attracted no particular notice.

But quite against all odds, Fu Xinrong posthumously became the subject of a scandal: the hook for a story in the Chinese press piquantly titled, “Where Did My Brother’s Body Go?”

For the answer — that Fu Xinrong’s corpse had been driven to a Nanchang hospital and its kidneys transplanted to unidentified recipients — unveiled the shadowy post-execution operations even more unseemly than China’s industrial-scale death penalty.

According to a Washington Post report of July 31, 2001,

After Fu was shot in the back of the head, four attendants got out of the van and picked up his corpse … A government prosecutor attempted to stop them, but they explained that they were from Nanchang and that they had a deal with the court …

“We found the hospital’s director and confronted him with the evidence,” one reporter said. “In the beginning, he refused to say anything about it, but when he saw what we had, he had to admit it on the condition that we did not release the hospital’s name in our report.”

Further investigation indicated that a senior court official, whose surname is Yang, had sold the body to the hospital, the report said.

Fu’s father committed suicide. The family sued the court in 2001; I have not been able to establish whether or how that suit was resolved. However, according to a 2003 U.S. Congress report (pdf) the editor who green-lighted the story’s publication was sacked.*

Fu’s case, in any event, is far from unusual.

On the contrary, his kidneys entered a veritable souk** of transplanted organs that’s been openly pitched at westerners willing to part with five figures and their decency in exchange for a life-giving replacement part from a shot-to-order prisoner.

* This would have been around the same time that a similar fate befell journalists indiscreet enough to explore the unflattering-to-the-People’s-Republic social environment of an executed gangster.

** Finally officially acknowledged in 2005.

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1997: First use of lethal injection in China

1 comment March 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1997, Kunming City Intermediate People’s Court debuted a brand-new execution technology for the world’s capital of capital punishment.

With a 1996 Criminal Procedural Law reform making lethal injection an option for processing the enormous ranks of China’s condemned, experimentation got underway this date on two convicts whose identities and crimes I have not seen indicated. These were not only the first lethal injections in China, but the first anywhere outside the U.S.

According to the New York Times, China began its foray without the usual accoutrement of medicalization: rather than the familiar strap-down gurney, Kunming officials simply brought the doomed prisoners to the same execution ground used for shootings and had them roll up their sleeves for the needle.

Whatever its initial inelegance, China has enjoyed many thousands of test cases since to refine the practice — as many as 15,000 per year at this time, Amnesty International has charged.*

In the 12 years since, and aided by the offices of its guinea pigs, lethal injection has gained significantly in both technical sophistication and official acceptance; it is now thought that most Chinese executions use this method, rather than the old gunshot-to-the-back-of-the-head.

To What End?

More humane? Maybe.

Easier on an executioner than discharging a bullet at point-blank range? You’d have to think so.

Cheaper? Well, maybe — if the cost of the mobile killing van is spread over enough, er, “subjects”.

But lethal injection enjoys one significant benefit of distastefully obvious utility to the state:** it facilitates tissue transplant from a recently executed prisoner.

Though Chinese officials have always stonewalled on the subject, lucrative organ harvesting from executed prisoners has long been endemic in the country.

* China’s death penalty system has been famously opaque, so this figure is far in excess of the known thousand-plus judicial executions every year (1,718 in 2008) and would include several times that number in other judicial executions not publicly reported, plus extrajudicial killings that presumably wouldn’t involve lethal injection. Even with only the official executions specifically known to the wider world, China easily accounts for the majority of the world’s executions year after year.

** The older (and still-used) method of shooting a prisoner in the head also preserves organs, of course.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Known But To God,Lethal Injection,Milestones

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1615: Kate McNiven, the Witch of Monzie

9 comments November 1st, 2008 Royelen

(It’s Samhain — the ancient, pagan wellspring of Halloween. Thanks to Royelen for this timely remembrance of a completely undated witch-burning from Scottish folklore.)

A gurgling fountain at the property border announces a gentle place. The fountain has a small pond filled with friendly goldfish which swim your way. They are hoping for morsel of food but it feels like an appropriate welcome to a local herb shop.

The mission is to find a remedy for leg pain. For a few moments the pain can wait while the lemon thyme gets rubbed by fingers gathering up the smell for a delightful inhalation. And then there is the basil, the chocolate mint, the rosemary — and so it goes with rows and rows of little pots of tiny green plants, each fragrant in a unique way. Each creating its own sensation.

When sated with nasal stimulation, it’s time to enter the house. It causes no surprise when cheery sounding chimes ring as the door opens. Inside the walls are lined with shelves. Each shelf is filled with glass jars. Each jar has a different dried leaf. There are many jars. An herb shop employee is happy to help.

“Pain, long-standing muscle pain? In your leg. Uh-huh. It’s possibly a nutritional deficiency, you want to take calcium, two pills twice-a-day. You’ll know in two weeks if this is the cause.”

This knowledge, long forgotten and now denied by Western medicine, may have been the kind of knowledge that got Kate McNiven killed.

Scottish lore has it that Kate McNiven’s community of Monzie in Scotland first sought her out for her wisdom, maybe for her herb cures and curse-ending charms. Then, in the era of witch burnings, her community pulled her from her service and burned her to death. After killing her, Kate McNiven’s community made her a local legend.

Today we might assess Kate McNiven as a real witch based on the power of the curse she left behind — a curse which the generations passed down and which now comes to us across the Internet; a curse which leaves us the tale of a talisman known as the Inchbrakie Moonstone.

Though there are no official records, the curse is said to begin in 1615* when Kate was accused of witchcraft. Having been found guilty, word spread of her immediate execution by fire. A landowner of a nearby estate, having come upon the fire preparations, asked the gathered crowd to stop their execution plan. While he had no success, he did win favor from the named witch.

As the fires around her grew, Kate McNiven began her curse. The landowner of execution site was cursed, then the area known as Monzie was cursed, and finally she honored the unsuccessful estate owner who attempted to stop her execution. She threw from the fires a charm — a blue stone that had been around her neck — and told him that if he kept it close, he would always be blessed with sons and they would always be blessed with lands.

The legend goes that the cursing was successful. The landlord on whose land she died was not able to pass the property on. Monzie withered.

Of course, the land owner who pleaded her case kept the stone near as directed. As the legend goes it always was put on the fingers of the daughter-in-laws and heirs were always produced. Centuries of fecundity were enjoyed until one descendant made the mistake of allowing the stone to be moved outside of the estate. That was the end of the good run and proof of Kate’s powers as a witch.

Is the legend of the Witch of Monzie a romantic retelling of a woman’s death or is it a community reassuring itself that the executed woman was guilty of her crimes? Maybe both. Maybe more.

Swiss psychotherapy pioneer Carl Jung’s theory of the shadow tells us that Kate McNiven’s peers attributed to her what they could not accept in themselves. They found her untrustworthy and capable of doing strange things. For some reason, she of all people was chosen as the one to be the scapegoat. It may have been for no other reason than she didn’t point the finger at someone else. The people of Monzie did not fight for her release, and they likely felt relieved that the pressure was off of them. Their untrustworthiness and strange behaviors were not under scrutiny. For the moment, they were safe.

It’s easy to imagine Kate McNiven as Tessie in Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery”:,

The children had stones already. And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.

“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

* Not only the year but the century of Kate McNiven’s — or M’Niven, McNieven or Nicniven — execution is disputed. Sources report both 1615 (in the midst of King James’ witch-sniffing reign), and 1715 (which would make her one of the last witchcraft executions in Scotland).

But there is no original documentation — a University of Dundee archivist has confirmed this for Executed Today — and McNiven is not listed in Scotland’s witch executions database. She was promulgated in a 19th-century text, The Holocaust, or, the Witch of Monzie and could be entirely fictional. (Update: The myth dissected in comments.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,18th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Fictional,Guest Writers,History,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scotland,The Supernatural,The Worm Turns,Uncertain Dates,Witchcraft,Women

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1989: Horace Franklin Dunkins, Jr., “just hope that he was not conscious”

29 comments July 14th, 2008 Headsman

Minutes after midnight this date in 1989, Alabama’s executioners electrocuted a developmentally disabled murderer. Nine minutes later, after rewiring the chair, they finally managed to kill him.

Alabama’s fifth execution of the “modern” era initially made the headlines as the nation’s first execution of a mentally impaired prisoner after the Supreme Court’s controversial Penry v. Lynaugh decision (since overturned) green-lighted the death penalty for developmentally disabled defendants.

Horace Franklin Dunkins, Jr. and an accomplice had raped a mother of four, tied her to a tree, and stabbed her to death, an unquestionably horrific crime. A black man with a white victim deep in Dixie … well, his IQ in the high sixties wasn’t going to help him do anything but waive his right to remain silent. The jury at his trial didn’t hear about his borderline mental retardation — Penry would require that juries get that information in the future — and at least one juror later said that little tidbit would have made the difference in Dunkins’s case.

At any rate, the buzz in this morning’s papers wasn’t about the circumstances of Dunkins’s entry into the criminal justice system, but his clumsy exit from it into the great hereafter.

According to the account of a Dr. John Vanlandingham:*

I saw Dunkins in the electric chair and I heard the generator start…. After a short period of time the other doctor … and I were called into the execution chamber. I could see that Dunkins was breathing…. I checked his peripheral pulse, in his wrist, and it was normal. I listened to his heart and his heartbeat was strong with little irregularity…. I told an official that Dunkins was not dead. Dr. – and I returned to the witness room…. I again heard the generator begin.

“I believe we’ve got the jacks on wrong,” the prison guard captain called out. It was flatly not enough current to kill, although it apparently did the killer the favor of knocking him out.

From 12:08 to 12:17, Dunkins sat motionless and seemingly unconscious while the execution team went all MacGyver on Yellow Mama. Once they’d fit Tab A into Slot B into Lethal Electrode C, they were finally able to try again. The doctors pronounced death 19 minutes after the switch had first been thrown.

”I regret very very much what happened,” the Alabama Prison Commissioner, Morris Thigpen, said at a news conference after the execution. ”It was human error. I just hope that he was not conscious and did not suffer.” (The New York Times)

* Dr. Vanlandingham was participating in the execution despite an injunction by the American Medical Association, which considers it a violation of the Hippocratic Oath. Physicians’ involvement (or not) in executions is a thorny ethical issue of its own; Vanlandingham, however, is not the only doctor to break the taboo.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Electrocuted,Execution,Milestones,Murder,USA

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2007: Zheng Xiaoyu, former Director of the State Food and Drug Administration

10 comments July 10th, 2008 Headsman

One year ago today, China made to clean up its image — with public health advocates, if not with human rights advocates — by executing* its former Food and Drugs minister for economic crimes.

Zheng Xiaoyu, China’s drug regulation capo from 1994 to 2005 and only (“only”?) the fourth minister-level official to be put to death in China since the immediate aftermath of Mao Zedong’s reign, was sentenced for extracting bribes from pharmaceutical companies he nominally regulated in exchange for approving their worthless and/or unsafe products.

One bogus antibiotic he rubber-stamped killed ten in China before it was pulled from the market, but it was dangerous Chinese products exported abroad — including lethal pet food ingredients to the United States and a cough syrup that killed dozens in Panama — that lit a fire under the export-driven colossus. The court that rejected his appeal explicitly referenced Zheng’s danger to China’s international reputation — simultaneously shifting focus from structural weaknesses by individualizing them to Zheng’s personal failings.

Zheng Xiaoyu hears his death sentence.

On this same day it announced Zheng’s death, China anxiously unveiled plans to safeguard the food supply for its upcoming turn under the Olympic klieg lights. That acid test is now upon it: opening ceremonies are mere weeks away as of this writing.

It may have been a politically-driven execution and an unusually heavy sentence, but Zheng’s passing was exulted in China. Someone even tried to put his name on a rat poison — rejected for that most distinguished reason of modern capitalism, Zheng’s own intellectual property in his name.

For an interesting dive into the social and legal currents surrounding this case, check out this .pdf edition of Criminal Bar Quarterly.

* The method of execution was not announced, and to my knowledge has not been conclusively documented. Gunshot was the longtime standby for Chinese executions, but China has shifted heavily towards lethal injection in recent years; it’s generally assumed that Zheng suffered the latter fate.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Infamous,Lethal Injection,Notable Jurisprudence,Pelf,Politicians,Ripped from the Headlines,Scandal

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1999: Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis, the end of the road for Old Sparky

52 comments July 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1999, America’s obesity epidemic met Florida’s death penalty politics in the ugly electrocution of Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis.

The reader will discern that Tiny earned his nickname ironically. Reportedly 159 kg (350 pounds) at his death, he’d put his ample heft to work bludgeoning a pregnant mother of two beyond recognition with a revolver handle back in 1982 … and then shooting to death the now-motherless two.

As his appeals meandered through the courts, Davis got fatter — and got high blood pressure, arthritis, hypertension and a wheelchair. Meanwhile, the death penalty was meandering its own way across the weird political chessboard of the Sunshine State.

For the American death penalty nowadays, it’s Texas and then everyone else … but time was that Florida was the capital of capital punishment.

It conducted the first “modern” involuntary execution in 1979. It had carried out three executions before anyone else had more than one. And when the the drip-drip-drip pace of one or two execution nationwide per year in the early 1980’s finally burst into a torrent, Florida led the way with eight of the 21 executions in 1984.

Not until late in 1986 did Texas overtake Florida in the body count sweepstakes.

All that time, Florida was happily using its vintage electric chair, Old Sparky (one of several electric chairs with that moniker), built in 1923 of 100% oak wood and prison labor. And the more the chair’s quasi-medieval ickiness drove other states to lethal injection, the more Floridians cherished electrocution.

Law-and-order Tampa mayor Bob Martinez won the governorship in 1986 on the promise that “Florida’s electric bill will go up.” There was a high-profile botch in 1990, and another in 1997 — flames shooting from the inmates’ heads. What was the state’s Attorney General going to do about it? “People who wish to commit murder, they’d better not do it in the state of Florida because we may have a problem with the electric chair.” Under pressure to move to lethal injection — the chair’s unsightly malfunctions were spawning legal and public relations nightmares that were gumming up the gears — the legislature voted nearly unanimously to keep Old Sparky.

And then along came a giant.

After three-quarters of a century and 266 jobs, Old Sparky was “falling apart” … and that was going to be a problem for a man of Davis’ carriage.

The killer’s lawyers argued that Davis was so fat he couldn’t conduct electricity efficiently and would be slowly cooked to death. According to Slate, Florida authorities were nervous that he’d break the chair during his electrocution and send a disconnected live cable scything into someone else in the room.

It was time for the unthinkable: Florida retired Old Sparky and built a new chair … and supersized it. (Image, from the Florida Department of Corrections)

And it worked, in that it killed Tiny. But what a mess — especially when an ensuing Florida Supreme Court opinion once again upheld the constitutionality of electrocution, and a dissenting judge attached the photos on this page to his opinions. Naturally, they became a grisly Internet sensation.

Old Sparky’s custom-built successor would only manage this single execution before Florida finally got on the lethal injection bandgurney.

Or at least, it’s only managed one so far. Old electric chairs don’t die, they just fade away … and in Florida, Tiny Davis’s chair remains available for condemned prisoners who choose it. Since this date in 1999, none have.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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1882: Charles Guiteau, James Garfield’s colorful assassin

12 comments June 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1882, America’s weirdest assassin recited fourteen verses of the Gospel of Matthew and (sans requested orchestral accompaniment) a poem of his own composition entitled “I am Going to the Lordy,” and was hanged in the District of Columbia jail for shooting forgettable Gilded Age president James Garfield.

Mad as a march hare, Charles Julius Guiteau had irritated the obscure reaches of the Republic near four decades, trying his hand at free love, law, newspapering* and evangelism. A contemporary account of his religious flimflammery survives:

Charles J. Guiteau (if such really is his name), has fraud and imbecility plainly stamped upon his (face). (After) the impudent scoundrel talked only 15 minutes, he suddenly (thanked) the audience for their attention and (bid) them goodnight. Before the astounded 50 had recovered from their amazement…(he had taken their money and) fled from the building and escaped.

Having failed at each characteristic American monkeyshine more comprehensively than the last, he naturally gravitated to politics; while today Guiteau might tilt with his psychoses on some vituperative blog, in 1880 he published and delivered as a speech a widely-ignored crackpot encomium** for his eventual victim. Guiteau reckoned the GOP carried the 1880 elections on the strength of such rhetorical thunderbolts as “some people say he [Garfield] got badly soiled in that Credit Mobilier transaction but I guess he is clean-handed.”

Stunned that his contributions did not earn him a diplomatic posting to France, Guiteau stepped out of obscurity and into this blog’s pages by shooting the ungrateful (and unguarded) executive in the back at a Washington, D.C. train station (since demolished, and today occupied by the National Gallery of Art).

“To General Sherman: I have just shot the President. I shot him several times as I wished him to go as easily as possible. His death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, theologian, and politician. I am a stalwart of the Stalwarts. I was with Gen. Grant, and the rest of our men in New York during the canvass. I am going to the Jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the Jail at once. Very respectfully, Charles Guiteau.” (Click for the full image.) From the Georgetown Charles Guiteau collection.

Thoughtfully, he had already hired a cab to take him to jail, where he expected to be liberated by General William Sherman.

Malpractice

The bugger of Garfield’s assassination is that Guiteau was no better at killing presidents than he was at electing them. Despite his exultation “Arthur is President now!”, he actually inflicted what could have been a non-fatal flesh wound that through ten-thumbed medical intervention became an agonizing eighty-day Calvary for the miserable Garfield.

Doctors jabbed unwashed hands into the the wound, failing to dig out the bullet they were looking for but successfully turning the three-inch wound into a crater, puncturing Garfield’s liver, and passing him Streptococcus. Alexander Graham Bell invented a metal detector to find the missile, but the damn thing gave a bad reading … because Garfield was lying on a bed with metal springs. His doctors, feuding with one another and with the press, instituted a regimen of rectal feeding — “Nutritive enemas — consisting of beef bouillon, egg yolks, milk, whiskey, and several drops of opium … Garfield’s flatulence became intolerable,” according to one biographer — that “basically starved him to death.”† He lost 100 pounds before succumbing; the autopsy concluded that Garfield probably would have lived if not for the medical attention, which didn’t stop the doctors from submitting a sizable invoice to the feds for services rendered.

(In a moment of lucidity, Guiteau defended himself with the observation “The doctors killed Garfield; I just shot him.”)

Not Ha-Ha Funny

Horribly hilarious, this American Absurdistan. “Except for the dead-serious details of his assassinating President Garfield and being in all likelihood clinically insane, Charles Guiteau might be the funniest man in American History,” Sarah Vowell put it.

Guiteau’s circus trial — with the defendant constantly interrupting to harangue participants, object to his own attorneys or converse with the spectators, plus the macabre appearance of the late Garfield’s actual vertebrae (now at Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Health and Medicine) as an exhibit — was for all that a landmark test of evolving law around criminal insanity.

Just as Garfield probably would have survived his injury had he been treated by the next generation’s medical norms, Guiteau probably would have survived his brush with the law if treated by the next generation’s legal norms.

Against an almost-too-strict-to-achieve earlier bar for legal insanity, a more accommodating jurisprudential norm called the M’Naghten Rules or M’Naghten Test was even then being adopted from English courts: essentially, did the “criminal” realize his act was wrong? Still the basis for legal insanity claims in much of the U.S. today, the first trial of a presidential assassin would be the M’Naghten standard’s trial by fire.

While the judge gave ample leeway for the defense to use M’Naghten, the legal standards it implied were still not widely understood and the medical testimony about Guiteau’s mental condition was (embarrassingly, for the profession) wildly contradictory. Ultimately, the judge cued the jury that “the law requires a very slight degree of intelligence indeed” on Guiteau’s part to impute him with sufficient criminal culpability to hang. There were cheers in the courthouse when the jury took an hour to decide that Guiteau had that very slight degree of intelligence indeed.

In the final analysis, as Charles Rosenberg observes in The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and the Law in the Gilded Age, the jurors’ prompt conviction of the widely hated, barking-mad defendant underscored the real-life constraints of dry legal theory as applied by an outraged community to a notorious offender:

[T]he Guiteau case demonstrated anew that the circumstances of a particular case had ordinarily as much to do with its disposition as the precise injunctions of rules of law … Many observers agreed after the trial that if an individual of Guiteau’s marked eccentricity had killed an ordinary man … he would almost certainly not have been convicted; very likely he would not even have been brought to trial. Similarly, while Garfield lay on his sickbed, it was commonly assumed that his assailant would be institutionalized if the President should survive. But if not, then not.

Reckoning the gesture could cost him the 1884 Republican nomination, Chester A. Arthur declined to spare his “benefactor” (“Arthur has sealed his own doom and the doom of this nation,” was Guiteau’s reaction, picturing fire and brimstone) and left Guiteau to his strange and lonely fate. The latter was talked out of an early plan to go to the gallows in the Christlike garb of only his undergarments, but did insist upon delivering his incoherent parting ramble in a high-pitched childlike tone (“the idea is that of a child babbling to his mama and his papa”).

Wrapping up this surreal historical episode in a neat little bow, Charles Guiteau got his own bluegrass tune:‡

For more adventures through Guiteau’s looking glass, there’s a fine page at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

* One of Guiteau’s failed newspaper ventures was to exploit the telegraph to reprint original content from other outlets. That one looks a lot less harebrained in retrospect: it’s a primitive model of the wire service, and latterly of RSS-based distributors like Google News.

** Scans of Guiteau’s apologia for Garfield — via Georgetown’s Charles Guiteau collection — are here: cover, pages 1-2, page 3.

† You really want to know more about the South Park-esque practice of rectal feeding? Garfield’s quack physician published this pamphlet in 1882.

‡ The “Charles Guiteau” ditty is actually a rather shameless knock-off of a murder ballad for James Rodgers, an Irish immigrant hanged in New York in 1858.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Infamous,Milestones,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Political Expedience,USA,Washington DC,Wrongful Executions

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