1998: Jeremy Vargas Sagastegui

Add comment October 13th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1998, Jeremy Vargas Sagastegui completed his suicide-by-executioner.

Babysitting on November 19, 1995, for a friend in the small town of Finley, just east of the Tri-Cities, Sagastegui raped and drowned his three-year-old charge Kievan Sarbacher, then awaited the return of Kievan’s mother to shoot her dead too, along with her friend.

As a capper, he stole Melissa Sarbacher’s truck, too — but he wasn’t trying to flee. The next morning when detectives showed up at Sagastegui’s Kennewick apartment, he had his bloody clothes, his rifle, and the stolen vehicle waiting to turn over to them. From that time until he was stretched on a gurney at the Walla Walla penitentiary, he had one steadfast refrain: he wanted the death penalty, as soon as possible.

Sagastegui acted as his own attorney, and put on no defense save to encourage his jurors to end his life. “I killed the kid, I killed the mother and I killed her friend,” he advised them. “And if their friends had come over, I would’ve killed them, too.” He pursued no appeals, and fought off attempts by his mother to make legal interventions on his behalf — her arguments were that he was severely mentally ill, and had been abused as a child — and used the legal capital punishment apparatus to do himself in. There was no final statement.

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1845: Abner Baker, feudmaker

Add comment October 3rd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1845 — sneering at the noose with the words “Behold the necklace of a whore!” — Abner Baker was publicly hanged in Manchester, Kentucky.

He was the second casualty — the first was the man whom he murdered — in the Baker-Howard feud, or the Clay County War, a bloody interfamily conflict that would blight the Kentucky mountains into the next century.

Its headwaters were a man out of his head: just how much so would be the controversy of his case, and a foundational grievance of the feud.

Said head perched itself on the shoulders of our man Abner Baker, who — prior to his unfortunate turn towards derangement — was a respectable frontier striver, with an unsuccessful stint in commerce redeemed by a medical practice. He had also to his name a wife born Susan White, a woman — or rather a 14-year-old girl — from a wealthy family who was respectable in the eyes of all save he.

As Baker slid into lunacy, he leveled at his spouse the most lurid charges of concupiscence, of having committed gleeful incest, of having orgies with slaves, and of cheating on him with another wealthy man, Daniel Bates. Bates was married to Baker’s sister.

Testimony printed in an 1845 volume to capitalize on interest in the case, Life and trial of Dr. Abner Baker, Jr: (a monomaniac) features many acquaintances establishing a delusional paranoia about his wife’s intercourse with Daniel Bates — with Baker brandishing a Bowie knife around her to the extent that their mutuals feared for her life; ranting about his wife cuckolding him in his very bed while he slept beside her; fixing on his certainty that Bates designed to murder him. They also report acquaintances, and Baker’s own father, increasingly convinced that the man had gone mad.

On September 13, 1844, Baker presented himself at Bates’s salt works and shot Bates in the back. Bates lingered on for several hours, doing much to stoke the succeeding generations of clan vigilantes by bequeathing $10,000 to seek his murderer’s life and making his son promise to take revenge.

The subsequent legal drama pitted that quest for revenge against Baker sympathizers’ conviction that the man was too starkers to swing. The first magistrates to review the matter days after Bates’s murder took the latter view and released him, allowing Baker to decamp to Cuba to recuperate.

The Bateses were not to be balked this easily, however, and prevailed on Commonwealth attorneys to indict Baker for murder. At the urging of his father, the good doctor voluntarily returned to defend himself when he learned of this. The text of the trial comprises witnesses clashing over whether the killer suffered from “monomania”, but the subtext was the flexing muscle of the White family — that of Abner Baker’s poor traduced wife.

The Whites were Clay County royalty on the strength of their salt mining wealth, and allied to the Bates family. Their peers and rivals, the Garrards, were locked in tense economic competition and even came within a whisker of murdering Daniel Bates himself in a different standoff in 1840. They took a more sympathetic view of Abner Baker’s obviously unbalanced mental state and tried to shield him from his persecutors; the Garrard patriarch was one of the magistrates who had initially ruled Baker too crazy to prosecute.* It was the Whites who, in effect, outmuscled the Garrards by forcing Baker’s prosecution and execution.

“The BAKERS wept with rage for the WHITES helping the BATES to bring Abner Baker to trial when they knew he was insane,” this history of Clay County feuding observes. “The lines had been drawn and competition for salt hardened into hostility.”

Enjoy a podcast situating this affair in the regional economy and the resulting political rivalries, from American History Tellers here, as well as a successor episode on the resulting feud, here

* Baker thanked the Garrards in his last address from the gallows (“the Garrard family, on whom I had no claims, came up like noble-souled men, and asked the county to give me justice”).

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1894: Patrick Prendergast, mayor-murderer

Add comment July 13th, 2020 Headsman

Patrick Eugene Joseph Prendergast, a madman who assassinated the mayor of Chicago, was hanged on this date in 1894.

Prendergast seems to have been a mentally unbalanced character from his early childhood; one might speculatively attribute it to a youthful head injury, or the very early death of his father, or the strains of an impecunious life that pushed his mother to migrate from Ireland to New York.

The year of our Lord 1893 finds him making his way as a newspaper distributor and fixated on the election of Carter Harrison, Sr.* to his fifth non-consecutive term as mayor. Harrison secured the win and was sworn in during the spring of that year, in time to preside paternally over the Chicago World’s Fair.

Prendergast was an ordinary Chicagoan who had extraordinary expectations from the Democratic machine. In a situation reminding of the nutter who murdered President James Garfield when he wasn’t appointed ambassador to France, Prendergrast anticipated from his political cause the boon of patronage vastly outstripping his rank. In Prendergast’s case, that meant an expected appointment as the city’s Corporation Counsel, which would have been as lucrative as it was unmerited.

When that didn’t happen, Prendergast did what any concerned citizen would do and called personally at the mayor’s house to shoot him dead.

The man’s lucidity was the only real question in the courts and — again like Garfield’s assassin — they decided he was sane enough for gallows. Notably, he was defended in a post-conviction sanity hearing (though not at trial) by 37-year-old Clarence Darrow. Not yet a legend, Darrow by this quixotic turn signals his life’s imminent pivot from established corporate lawyer — which was the job he held at the time of representing Prendergast — to populist crusader — which was the mission he embarked upon within a few weeks, resigning like a king from the railroad that employed him to represent the militant who was leading a strike against that railroad.

In his eventful life, Darrow was involved in some 50 murder cases, many of the headline variety. Prendergast was the only man ever represented by Darrow who swung.

He makes a brief and ranting appearance in the 1991 made-for-TV movie Darrow, seen below from about 8:30.

* Not to be confused with his son, Carter Harrison, Jr., who would also go on to win Chicago’s mayoralty.

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1928: Earle Nelson, the Dark Strangler

Add comment January 13th, 2020 Headsman

U.S. serial killer Earle Nelson hanged in Winnipeg, Canada on Friday the 13th of January in 1928.

A disturbed and preternaturally balding 30-year-old, Nelson grew up in San Francisco “a psychotic prodigy. He was expelled from primary school at the age of 7. His behavior included talking to invisible people, quoting Bible passages about the great beast and peeking at his cousin Rachel while she undressed.”

Monsterhood beckoned via a compounding of destabilizing influences: venereal disease, a religious obsession, and a collision with a streetcar that left him in a weeklong coma and with a permanent vulnerability to headaches and dizzy spells. By the latter 1910s he was rotating shifts of institutionalization: jail in Los Angeles (mere burglary), the Army (subsequently deserted), and commitments to the state mental ward (“He has seen faces, heard music, and at times believed people were poisoning him. Voices sometimes whisper to him to kill himself.”)

From the start of 1926 until mid-1927, he gave over to a homicidal spree that claimed 22 lives all around the U.S. and ranging — obviously — into Canada. They were all women, bar 8-month-old Robert Harpin, the infant son of a mother whom he targeted; while his second-last victim was just 14, the predominant victim profile was a matronly landlady whose lodgings he could enter at invitation as a prospective lodger — and there put her at ease with his Biblical facility while maneuvering her into some circumstance suitable for wrapping his hands around her throat. Most were also posthumously raped after strangling.

Those noticeably large hands were among the first descriptors that witnesses had given of the suspect from the scenes of his earliest killings in San Francisco, and this together with a swarthy mien gave newsmen the nickname “Gorilla Killer” or “Dark Strangler”. They’d have frequent cause to use it as the terrifying killings migrated north from the California Bay to Portland, Ore.; Vancouver, Wash.; Seattle … and then east, leaving outraged corpses in Council Bluffs, Iowa; Kansas City, Mo.; Philadelphia; Buffalo, N.Y.; Detroit; Chicago.

Public alarm naturally followed each new report of his signature killings. After several homicides in Portland, the police there cautioned landlords from showing rooms unaccompanied with the grim words, “I do not wish to unduly alarm the people of Portland. But there is no denying the situation is grave.”

The Dark Strangler’s situation finally became grave when he took his act international. In Winnipeg he killed a teenage girl selling flowers and a housewife in quick succession, and this time the police A.P.B. was quick enough to catch up with him — gruesomely discovering the mutilated cadaver of the flower girl in his boarding house room. Public tips zeroed in on him a few miles before he reached the North Dakota border, and fingerprints courtesy of the San Francisco Police Department confirmed the identity.

Easily convicted in an atmosphere of great public outrage, Nelson mounted a credible but hopeless appeal for clemency on grounds of insanity.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 Shadow of a Doubt apparently began as a pitch for a Nelson-inspired screen treatment.

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1726: Franz Laubler, Hermann Joachim Hahn’s murderer

Add comment July 18th, 2018 Headsman

Franz Laubler was broken on the wheel in Dresden on this date for assassinating Protestant deacon Hermann Joachim Hahn.

Hahn was a well-connected pastor who had been plying his trade in the Lutheran Kreuzkirche for nigh 20 years. That trade consisted heavily in the evangelization of Catholics in a confessionally split city;* indeed, his murderer, a Catholic-reared butcher and mercenary, had himself once upon a time been converted by Deacon Hahn.

Said Franz Laubler had in time returned his soul to the Roman fold but the unsettled mind suggested by his sectarian vacillation is supported by Laubler’s strange conviction that a communion wafer taken in 1720 had lodged permanently in his gullet. “Schlaget mir den Kopt ab, und ihr werdet noch die Hostie in meinem Halse finden!” he exclaimed: “Cut off my head, and you’ll still find the Host in my throat!”


Not to be confused with the Ghost to the Post.

On May 21 of that same year of our Lord 1726, the Host-throatened Laubler presented himself at the divine’s residence under the guise of seeking spiritual counsel, but instead sent Hahn straight to his maker with a hidden blade.** He’d thrown down Dresden’s Lucifer, he explained to the gendarmes who took him into custody — and made his heavy heart light.

The murder triggered a massive Protestant pogrom against Catholics which required several days to quell.

There’s a public domain volume from 1826 about these events available free here, as well as a 2009 book Die Hostie im Hals. (The Host in the Throat | here’s a review) Both titles are in German. Hahn’s Wikipedia page itemizes a number of other German pamphlets about his murder dating to the 1720s.

Hahn’s tomb can be found in the Trinitatiskirche Cemetery, where it was transferred in the mid-19th century from the old Johanniskirchof.

* Dresden, and Saxony in general, were predominantly Protestant. However, Catholics enjoyed a broad grant of tolerance thanks in part to the Elector of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, who converted to Catholicism in 1697 in order to become King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

** Okay, it wasn’t straight to his maker: Laubler started by trying to strangle Hahn with a rope, and resorted to the knife as his victim resisted him.

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1715: Jeremiah Meacham, “mightily distressed”

Add comment April 12th, 2018 Headsman

Jeremiah Meacham was hanged in Rhode Island on this date in 1715 for a double murder committed during a disturbing psychotic break.

In the execution sermon below by Newport Rev. Nathaniel Clap, he attributes what we would today take as clear mental health problems to the man’s disinterest in attending church — for, “while, he was generally esteemed exemplarily exact in his Dealings, and punctual to his Promises, about his Worldy affairs … he seldom or never seemed altogether free from some terrible reflections upon his Conscience, for his Apostasy from God. And it hath been thought that his Convictions about some Concerns of his Soul, mixed with some vexations about his Affairs in the World, brought him into a grievous hurry, which by degrees boil’d up into a sort of a raging fury: And keeping out of the way of suitable directions for his Soul, his troubles of mind grew so intolerable, that he told some, that he was weary of his life.”

Things grew so uncomfortable with him, that he loved not Home; he thought that all his Neighbours looked strangely upon him; he pretended that he feared some body designed mischief against him, and that he should be slain. Every day seemed unto him as if it would be the last day of his life: And he asked of others, if they knew of no contrivance against him.

The Day before he committed his Murders, he appeared mightily distressed, walking about in a very great agony, a great part of that day, chusing to be at the Neighborbours. But on the said day of his Murders (22 d., 1 m.) he got and sat upon his House, with a Penknife in his hand, for several hours, if discoursing sometimes with those that came near him, seeming afraid some or other would hurt him; Others feared more that he would hurt himself; none seemed much to fear that he intended any hurt to any body else. And he declar’d, that he would hurt neither Man, Woman nor Child, if they would let him alone.

After he came down from his House top into his Chamber, he kept there most part of the Afternoon of that day, until after Sun set; and then his Wife, and her Sister, upon his invitation, going up to him, urging of him to go down with them, or striving with him to keep him from hurting of himself; it seems that then he struck his Wife in her throat with his Pen-knife: and then struck her and her Sister down with an Ax (that he had carried up, and he had also Charged his Gun; but made no use of that, in his Murders) how many blows he gave them is not known: But the dreadful marks of several remained on their miserably mangled Bodies.

When he had murdered them, he stood watchfully upon his Guard, with his Ax in hand, threatning all that offered to come up Stairs; knock’d one man down with his bloody Ax. Others endeavouring to apprehend him, by breaking up the Chamber Floor under him, & the Roof over him; he laboured to defend himself, as if against the worst Enemies. And when they carried some Fire, flaming to light their way before them, he snatch’d away the Fire, and laid it among some combustible matter, and got ready more, and quickly kindled a great Fire in the midst of the Chamber, as if he chose rather to Burn himself alive, and the dead Bodies with him than to be taken …

At some time or other, in these hurries it seems, he had cut his own throat; but fearing that death would not come soon enough that way, and finding that he could not bear burning to death; it was thought, he was willing to try, if he could dash himself to pieces, by throwing himself out at the Window; by which he also hurt his head, if no other part of his Body; but his Wounds were near healed, before he came to Dye.

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1917: James Smith, Early One Morning

Add comment September 5th, 2017 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, a Bolton private (formerly lance corporal) named James Smith fell to his countrymen’s guns on Belgian soil during World War I.

A career soldier since 1909, Smith had served honorably in India and Egypt before the war. He had the hardiness and luck to survive Gallipoli and the Somme — but their horrors broke him mentally.

According to this biography, “Jimmy almost lost his life on the Somme on 11 October 1916 when a German artillery shell exploded, burying him alive and causing a shrapnel wound ‘the size of a fist’ on his right shoulder.” When he returned from two months’ convalescence leave his mates could see that shellshock had destroyed the old Jimmy Smith.

Erratic behavior that cost him his good conduct badges culminated in a break on July 30, 1917, the eve of the frightful Battle of Passchendaele, when Smith deserted his post and disappeared from the front — to be found later, wandering in a nearby town. In World War I, such an offense invited the brass to make an example of you.

Smith’s own comrades from the 17th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment were drafted into the firing squad. Pitying their victim, the executioners pulled their shots and missed the target, only succeeding in wounding the brutalized private. When the firing squad commander faltered at his duty to deliver the coup de grace, the task monstrously fell on a close friend of Smith’s, Private Richard Blundell, to press the revolver to Smith’s temple and blow out his brains. For its service to the war effort, the firing detail got 10 days’ R&R … and a lifetime of shame.

In the weeks before his own death, in February 1989, Blundell was often heard by his son, William, to murmur deliriously: ‘What a way to get leave, what a way to get leave.’

According to historian Graham Maddocks, in his book Liverpool Pals, William Blundell asked his father in a more lucid moment what he meant.

Still desperately upset seven decades after the incident, the dying Richard told his son what had happened. It was clear, that as he faced his own death, Richard had never forgiven himself.

Jimmy Smith was the subject of a 1998 play, Early One Morning.

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2013: Elmer Carroll, boogie man

Add comment May 29th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 2013, serial child molester turned murderer Elmer Carroll was executed by lethal injection in Florida.

Paroled to a halfway house in 1990 from his child molestation sentence, Carroll within months attacked a fifth-grader who lived in a nearby house — in Carroll’s description to another halfway house resident, the girl was “sweet, cute, and liked to watch him make boats.”

One night while Christine McGowen’s mother was working and her stepfather sleeping in the next room, Carroll crept into their Apopka home, stopped the little girl’s mouth with his hand as he raped her, then strangled her to death. Robert Rank found the girl the next morning when he went to wake her for school … and also found missing the truck that Carroll had stolen to escape. One could hardly commit a crime more suited to the studied melodrama of a state’s attorney:

By your vote, tell Elmer Carroll you do not deserve to live. There is nothing good about you. There is nothing but evil in you and you must die.

A small child sometimes will cry out in the night frightened by a shadow or a piece of wallpaper that looks like a monster and its parents will come in and say it’s okay, you don’t have to be afraid. There’s no monsters under the bed. There is no boogie man. There is no creature which stalks the night searching out children. It doesn’t exist. Well, ladies and gentlemen, those parents lie because, ladies and gentlemen, that is the boogie man right there. That is the creature that stalked the night and murdered a ten year old girl and he must die.

The other things in Carroll besides evil were organic brain damage and a gamut of mental illness symptoms that Carroll’s appellate team would unsuccessfully argue had not been sufficiently explored at his trial. Estranged from most of his family for many years before the murder, Carroll had no visits from relatives before his execution.

Part of the Themed Set: The 2010s.

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1836: Isaac Young/Heller, axman

Add comment April 29th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1836, a troubled (ex-)family man named Isaac Young — latterly going by Isaac Heller — was publicly hanged in Liberty, Indiana for axing his entire family to death in a fit of madness.

Young hailed from Pennsylvania, and the reason he had changed his name and moved to Indiana was that he had done a similar thing in his native haunts.

As a teenager in the 1820s, Isaac Young had been seized strangely by the spiritual tremors abroad during America’s Second Great Awakening. A baptized zealot who fancied himself blessed with the power of prophesy, Young was also captive to an inescapable — and seemingly defeatist — impression of being forever pursued and haunted by the devil. Young’s religious thunderings tended to produce more interest in the utterer’s state of mind than in the listener’s state of soul, and the youth was known to succumb to “gusts of passion.”

Eventually, those gusts blew a hurricane.

Young lived with his brother, who had a wife and a 10-year-old orphan girl — and, little did they know, the devil watching over them all. One night in 1830, Young awoke with a start at a sound he perceived upon the stair, convinced that some entity had entered the room he shared with the little girl; his religious eccentricities jumbling him right into lunacy.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Young bellowed at the dragon from Revelations come to visit him in his nightshirt in Dauphin County. He tried to grapple with the phantom but missed it, and of a sudden he turned his frenzy on the girl, battering her furiously. Young would later say that he was “forcibly impelled” to the attack by an overwhelming “duty” to “destroy” the child; his brother and his sister-in-law attempted to intervene but Young seized a club and with a berserker rage chased them from the house — then returned to his cowering little roommate, and sawed off her head with his knife.

He was acquitted of this murder by reason of his manifest insanity, but this was not a time and place with resources to aid the mentally ill. All anyone could think to do was to keep him chained in the poor house until after a few months he appeared to return to reason — at which point he was finally released and blew town, now rechristened with his mother’s maiden name.

In the hamlet of Liberty, the new man Heller escaped the devil … for a few years. He opened a grocery store and married a woman named Elizabeth McCollam with whom he had a happy brood of three children.

Until one day the gusts returned to swirl his soul again.

“The first symptom of insanity noticed in this county was about three years ago [i.e., 1833], by a young man who was going home with him on a Sabbath evening,” the Connersville (Ind.) Watchman reported in a profile that was widely reprinted around the Republic.*

The young man noticed something very extraordinary in his manner, and was much affected. At length he asked him what was the matter. He replied in effect that a superhuman influence or inspiration was upon him. Soon after he became very much excited on religious subjects … Witnesses stated that for several days at a time, during the last two or three years, he would act like a wild man or a raving maniac. During that time he was twice taken into the care of the overseers of the poor and kept some time as an insane person.

Heller’s neglect of his work soon exhausted his family’s modest reserves and left wife and children surviving on the charity of neighbors, spiraling Heller even deeper into depression, and in his “great horror of the poor house” he owned “that he would rather die than be separated from his family.” One hears in these words a man with the walls closing in about him … or else, a man hammering out the rationale for the madness he has already determined to undertake. There was calculation in Heller’s fatal outburst; a neighbor visited on the morning of his hecatomb and found the family in good spirits and Heller cogent. The disturbed patriarch waited until the guest was well away before he

took his axe from under the bed, went to the fire, turned round [and] commenced rubbing the fingers of one hand over the edge. His wife asked him what he was going to do — he replied he was going to chop some wood. About this time the woman told the children to get some apples out from under the bed. the two little ones immediately crawled under the bed, and the little sister-in-law stood near the bed looking at Heller. She saw him raise the axe and strike his wife one full blow about the chin and neck. Seeing this she sprang to the door, threw it open and fled for the nearest neighbor’s between a quarter and a half a mile off, crying murder as she ran. After she had fled some two hundred yards, she saw Heller come round the end of the house and look after her. Heller states that after he had despatched his wife he went out of the house and looked after the little girl — that he then went back into the house — his little boy came towards him, when he split him down and chopped his head off. He then dragged his little daughter Sarah out from under the bed — placed his foot upon her breast — she raised her hands for protection, and at the first blow he cut off the fingers of one hand and nearly took off her head. He then went and rolled the mother off of the infant on which she had partly fallen, and cut its head off.

His spiritual torments and probable schizophrenia here are the framework — a cynic might say, the excuse — for a much more commonplace scourge: the murderer said “in justification of the act ‘that they were likely to become a county charge, and that he would rather see them in their present situation.'” (Connecticut Courant, Mar. 21, 1836) In the confession he willingly supplied later, he admitted having attempted to set his homicidal plan in motion several times prior, once even brandishing a butcher’s blade over his wife like the Psycho shower scene before she soothed him. Elizabeth Heller must have been a woman of remarkable calm under pressure; unfortunately for her, resources for abused spouses were about as plentiful as those for the mentally ill.

“Nearly all … who know any thing about the case, regard it as incomprehensibly mysterious,” the newspaper reports concluded. “Many who know the most about it, say they hardly know how or what to think of it. It is doubted whether the annals of crime can produce a parallel case, and it is devoutly hoped they never may!”

But the annals of crime hold many mansions, as readers of this here site surely know.

Heller’s final, “successful” outburst was actually just one of a number of grisly mass-murders by family fathers who through the closely intimate exertion of a bloody blade drenched their domestic idylls with the gore of their loved ones — enough even to form a discernible pattern. Struggling to come to grips with this “homicidal insanity” or “monomanie-homicide”, the early American psychologist Isaac Ray lamented the “painful frequency” of cases “where the individual, without provocation or any other rational motive, apparently in the full possession of his reason, and oftentimes in spite of his most strenuous efforts to the contrary, imbrues his hands in the blood of others, — oftener than otherwise, of the partner of his bosom, of the children of his affections.” Incomprehensible perhaps, but scarcely unparalleled: what could make sense of this “horrid phenomenon”?

Pious family men turning Middle America domiciles into charnel houses was the going postal of settler-era America, and maybe Ray even had the Young/Heller-style addled religiosity in mind when he noted that absent some rational accounting the mind would default “to that time-honored solution of all the mysteries of human delinquency, the instigation of the devil.”

In a review of the period’s “familicide” cases, Daniel Cohen (“Homicidal Compulsion and the Conditions of Freedom: The Social and Psychological Origins of Familicide in America’s Early Republic,” Journal of Social History, Summer, 1995) speculates that the revolutionary grant of personal autonomy exacted a dangerous emotional toll upon men who felt themselves failures or simply could not pay “the high psychic costs of economic freedom, particularly for men prone to anxiety and depression.” Isaac was surely prone.

The efforts of those men to submit to supernatural authority were less single-minded pursuits of spiritual perfection than desperate attempts to evade seemingly irresolvable personal conflicts, most importantly between moral demands (or social obligations) and destructive urges or desires. It was ultimately less important for them to avoid sin than to resolve dilemmas or evade choice. When the breathless individual freedom of the early republic collided with the relentless responsibilities of paternal stewardship, the result was an implosion of self-destructive violence … the beginning not the end of a disturbing national tradition …

Many social barriers had fallen in post-Revolutionary America, but several unhappy men could still not control the rain, or the currency, or their own darker impulses. Where others may have perceived boundless opportunities, they experienced gnawing fears and terrifying compulsions. Situations of free choice did not inspire them with a “heady feeling of command” or a “sense of marvelous potential,” to use Robert Wiebe’s expansive phrases, but drove them instead to desperation. Physical unsettlement, economic insecurities, and religious speculations all combined to baffle and torment them. Unable to cope with the perplexities of life in a free society, they constructed internal imperatives to evade and annul that very freedom. By their actions, each tacitly endorsed John Cowan’s conclusion in prison: “Liberty would be more horrible to me than death.” Thus did a handful of troubled Americans confront freedoms profound enough to transform sober Christians into deluded visionaries, loving husbands into axe-wielding assassins, and tidy republican households into slaughterhouses.

Where Pennsylvania acquitted, Indiana convicted — but within even a few years the cooling of passions stirred by the slaughter led many to regret the judgment. According to this volume, even the judge later acknowledged that he ought to have set aside the verdict owing to Heller’s state of mind.

* We’re channeling this via the Gloucester (Mass.) Telegraph of May 4, 1836.

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1824: Johann Christian Woyzeck, non compos mentis?

1 comment August 27th, 2015 Headsman

Johann Christian Woyzeck was publicly beheaded on this date in 1824 for fatally daggering his lover in a jealous wrath.

He was a rudderless orphan to whom the Napoleonic Wars gifted the stopgap profession of soldiering, but once the fighting stopped, Woyzeck wandered back to his native Leipzig and gave rein to his many vices.

Suicidal, drinking heavily, and unable to hold down steady work, Woyzeck frequently abused his special lady friend, the widow Johanna Christiane Woost. He would later say that he was often urged by voices in his mind to slay her — and on the night of June 21, 1821, after she canceled a rendezvous, he did so at last.

A pathetic exit from life turned out to be an entrance into judicial and literary history.

There was no question but that Woyzeck’s hand had taken Woost’s life, but proceedings against the killer dragged on for three years as courts vacillated on his mental competence. Woyzeck had been wildly depressed and owned to hallucinations and unbalanced moods that his contemporaries could readily recognize as falling near the pall of madness.

Nevertheless, Woyzeck had initially been slated for execution in November 1822 based on the evaluation of celebrated Leipzig physician Johann Christian August Clarus, but another doctor — academics will recognize the irksome intervention of reviewer no. 2 here — horned in with a missive questioning the conclusion.

That stay invited an 11th-hour stay and five more examinations worth of billable hours for Dr. Clarus, who studied up his man again and came to the same conclusion: that Woyzeck, though disturbed, was cogent enough to bear responsibility for his actions. It was in the end by this verdict that the executioner’s sword-arm swung.

The lost soul’s end on a Leipzig scaffold on this date would eventually inspire the writer Georg Buchner to pen the play Woyzeck. Though left unfinished when Buchner died young, the play has been frequently staged down to the present day, and even adapted for the silver screen by Werner Herzog:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Germany,History,Murder,Public Executions,Sex

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