1929: Homer Simpson

Add comment September 11th, 2014 Headsman

Eighty-five years ago today, the state of Georgia executed a gentleman whose most remarkable characteristic to his contemporaries was that he was the onetime Chief of Police of Cleveland, Tenn. — and most remarkable characteristic to posterity is that his name was Homer Simpson.

WORST. EPISODE. EVER.

Other Simpsons characters to face the electric chair include Snake, an unnamed Convicted Man in a hurricane, and (appropriately for this post) Police Chief Wiggum

Despite the inevitable cartoonish riffs in this here post, the Homer Simpson case was a shocking and controversial one. When Simpson was returned to his native Cleveland four days after he died in Georgia’s electric chair, a reported 10,000 souls crowded the funeral, predominantly sharing the sentiment that Simpson’s own father expressed in a subsequent book, The Life and Fate Of Homer C. Simpson: The Man Who Was Electrocuted for a Crime He Did Not Commit.

That father, Jake Simpson, had been a Tennessee legislator who had the opportunity during his single term to cast the decisive vote* cementing not only Tennessee’s ratification, but also nationwide constitutional adoption, of women’s suffrage.

Homer’s vision was not as sharp as his dad’s.

Adrift after a Republican electoral wave swept him out of the sheriff’s office, Homer accepted the invitation of a World War I buddy to hop a train to Jacksonville, Fla. for a dubious “job” just over the Georgia border.

The “job” for Homer was to pose as a wealthy land-buyer in order to lure a local banker off to a lonely property where he could be trussed up while the conspirators emptied his vaults. It was supposed to be a bloodless robbery, but the victim, Carl Arp Perry, energetically fought back when they pulled a gun on him and that army buddy Malcolm Morrow shot him three times.

The bleeding Perry was loaded back into the “buyer’s” car to raid the bank to the tune of $4,600. This was supposed to be the easy part — nobody had a plan B for a mortally wounded man bleeding out in the back. Panicking, they fled back to their safehouse in Jacksonville with Perry still in tow but wrecked one of the two getaway cars. Homer — and again, this man is a former police chief — pulled Perry out and deposited him in the brush near the accident, brushing with his two confederates past a Good Samaritan who had pulled over to find out what was wrong.

The three fled the scene. The Samaritan brought the expiring Carl Perry to a hospital and summoned the police. Perry was a goner but he held on long enough to give John Law a detailed description of that night’s events and of his assailants.

We can see already that former Rep. Jake Simpson’s book implies a far surer claim on innocence than the bare facts might permit for a disinterested observer.

The core argument Simpson pere et fils advanced by way of mitigation was that Homer had no intention of hurting anyone, did not shoot Carl Perry himself, and indeed pled with Morrow at the critical moment to stop firing at their prisoner.

This point does not lack moral weight; in its time, it helped to support a push for a new trial or executive clemency.

As a legal matter, however, Simpson’s fate was determined by the felony murder rule which made all parties to the bank robbery scheme jointly culpable for the homicide that arose out of it. This standard has made a fair few non-triggerman accomplices with even lesser participation than our man here eligible for execution in the U.S. right down to the present day.

And there’s an anti-Simpson case to make as well, beginning with the part where he comes from several states away (bringing guns along with him) and continuing to the part where however sincerely he desired Perry not be shot, he utterly failed to aid Perry once the shooting had occurred. For the state, the acme was dumping the injured man out of the wrecked automobile, presumably to die. (Simpson’s angle was that they were removing him from a dangerous spot and with other drivers stopping Perry was sure to receive aid. So actually, see, they helped him.)

Days before they were to die, Malcolm Morrow unexpectedly confessed to being the sole triggerman in a vain attempt to save his old friend. “I shot Perry and I am willing to take the blame. If Simpson dies for the crime for which I, alone, am responsible, he will be getting a tough break at the hands of the law.” And the governor even took a personal meeting with both men’s mothers hours before the execution.

But there was no relief for either prisoner.

On the day that both Morrow and Simpson were electrocuted, Simpson’s hometown paper The Banner published a last goodbye.

To my dear friends at dear old Cleveland who have been faithful in your efforts to help me: I want to thank each one of you for your kindness in all that has been done both in your petitions and letters, and your faithful prayers. But dear ones it looks like that all is in vain and there seems to be no mercy for me.

After the good jury signed the petition for me and also wrote personal letters in my behalf, and the Chief Justice and his associate justice wrote letters and also went in person to the governor, and said I did not have a fair trial, and also said that according to the laws of the state of Georgia that I did not deserve the death penalty, after all this was done, with the good petitions and letters, and good prayers, I felt encouraged. But after all it looks like I will have to say goodbye to you dear ones.

Now dear kind friends I love you all and appreciate your kindness, but it seems that the time has come when you can do no more for me, and now my last request of you is that please do what you can to comfort and cheer my dear kind old Dad, and my precious darling mother, my sweet sisters and dear brothers, who have been so faithful and done everything that they can do.

He’s buried back home in Fort Hill Cemetery

Homer Simpson’s case has enjoyed a bit of present-day rediscovery. There’s an online book dedicated it; titled The Grave: Murder in the Deep South, it traces Carl Perry’s story and that of his family. A Simpson descendant was also recently reported to be working on a book titled Homer Simpson Must Die.

* Tennessee was the 36th and final state necessary to ratify the 19th Amendment, and the measure carried in Tennessee by one vote: every vote was by definition decisive. The decisivest, though, was that of Harry Burns, who switched his vote at the 11th hour under pressure from his mother.

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1916: Kosta Kromphold

Add comment September 1st, 2014 Headsman


According to the Portland Oregonian, Kosta Kromphold mellowed to a phonograph in his jail cell on the eve of his execution — including “If I Had a Thousand Lives to Live.”

A Russian native, the forgettable Kosta Kromphold had left his dear mum in New York City and chased his fortune to the Pacific coast, where he found it at gunpoint in the money-box of a Chinese restauranteur in Marysville.

Kosta really got himself into the egg drop soup during the subsequent chase by two bicycle (of course — this is California!) cops. Firing back at his pursuers, he shot officer John Sperbeck dead, right through the mouth.

According to April Moore’s Folsom’s 93: The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison’s Executed Men, “A Mrs. A. Meyers of New York City wrote to Governor Hiram Johnson on behalf of her housekeeper, Johanna Kromphold, the condemned man’s mother, saying that Mrs. Kromphold had already lost two of her three children. Mrs. Meyers’s message continued, ‘By taking this young boy’s life, you not only take one but two, as I am positive she will never live through this terrible ordeal.'”

This appeal didn’t work, and on September 1, 1916, Kromphold imparted a dying plea to the Folsom Prison chaplain: “Write my mother. I haven’t the heart to do it.”

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1806: Hepburn Graham, HMS St. George rapist

1 comment December 20th, 2013 Headsman

Hepburn Graham, masters’ mate aboard the HMS St. George, was tried by Admiralty court-martial in early December on a charge of sodomy forwarded by the ship’s captain, Thomas Bertie.

We excerpt from the trial record via Gay Warriors: A Documentary History from the Ancient World to the Present:

George Parr, a boy of fourteen years of age belonging to His Majesty’s ship, St. George, called in and sworn:

Capain Bertie asked:

Q. Do you know the prisoner?

A. Yes

Q. Relate to the court what the prisoner was guilty of with you on the twenty-first of November last, the day after the St. George arrived in Torbay, and also n the twenty-seventh of November last.

A. On the twenty-first of November last, Mr. Graham took me into his hammock. He got me on a stool and got hold of me, telling me I must be a good boy. He got hold of my hair, and pulled me into his hammock in his berth on the starboard side, forward on the lower gun deck. It was between eight and nine o’clock in the evening of the first watch. He told me to put down my trousers, and he put them down himself. He pulled his yard out, and put it into my backside. He kept doing backwards and forwards, and made my arse wet. I was laying on my side in his hammock when he committed the act, and immediately afterwards he said you may go to your hammock now, and told me I must not tell any one, and if I did he would get me flogged …

On the twenty-seventh of November at night, between eight and nine o’clock in the [illegible] watch, I was in his berth attending him as his servant. He told me I must be a good boy. He would make me a good boy. He got hold of me and pulled me into his hammock. I did not want to get into it and he kept hitting me on the head while I was in the hammock. I wanted to get out, and he kept hitting me and asked me to stay in and said if I did not, he would get me flogged, he would get me three dozen [lashes]. He had made me unbutton the buttons before, and he them pulled down my trousers and pulled out his yard and put it into my backside. It went into my backside. He kept moving backwards and forwards, and made my backside wet. He then told me to go to my hammock and get up in good time in the morning and I went away. On the following morning early, I was again in his berth. It was before breakfast, before the hammocks were up. He pulled a hole in my trousers behind with his fingers and told me he would get them mended. He then pulled his yard out, and put it through the hole of my trousers to my backside, but did not enter it, but kept moving backwards and forwards and made my arse wet.

Q. Did he ever make any more attempts than what you have related?

A. Yes, he has attempted it five times in all, but only entered me twice.

A second boy on the same ship gave similar testimony.

John Sky, a boy about fifteen years of age, belonging to the St. George, called in and sworn.

Captain Bertie asked:

Q. Relate to the court what the prisoner was guilty of with you on the twenty-ninth of November, last.

A. On the twenty-ninth of November last I was down between decks talking to one of the boys whose name is Taylor. Mr. Graham, the prisoner came to me and [illegible] me he wanted me in his berth. I went in and he told me he would give me a bed. He then took me round the deck and set me down on a stool [illegible] of him. He began kissing me and told me he must feel my cock. I told him to leave it alone. If he did not, I would sing out. He was at this time going to unbutton the flap of my trousers. Mr. Miller, a midshipman, came in and he asked Mr. Miller to take down a great coat that [illegible] on the gun to give him more light. He said it gave him light. Whilst Mr. Miller was taking down the coat, he took me by the arm and hoved me out of the berth. I told the boy, George Parr, if he did not complain, I would. He then said that he would complain, and I told him to mention my name. He did complain to the first lieutenant, and mentioned my name. I told Mr. Graham that I could not stand it, and would complain. About a fortnight before, Mr. Graham [illegible] me in his berth and had my trousers down and pulled out his private parts. He tried to get these into my backside, but could [illegible], but got them between my thighs. Before he had had his turn, someone came in and disturbed him. I told him I would go out of the berth, and he put me out of the berth. He never succeeded with me in what he wanted to do.

George Parr’s rape claim was vouched by the ship’s surgeon.

Mr. Hugh Hughes, surgeon of the St. George, called in and sworn:

Captain Bertie asked:

Q. On the twenty-ninth of November was the boy, George Parr, sent to you to undergo a certain examination?

A. Yes.

Request: Relate to the court the result of your examination.

A. About seven o’clock in the evening of the twenty-ninth of November I was sent for by Lieutenant Caulfield on the quarter deck, and when I appeared, he said that Captain Bertie desired that I should examine the two boys, Parr and Sky. I immediately took them down to the sick bay accompanied by my two assistants, and there examined them immediately and found the anus of George Parr inflamed and not excoriated at all. I also examined Sky, and found no appearance of inflamation in the anus, as in the former boy. In order to corroborate what I have now stated I requested both my assistants to examine them also and begged that they would give me their opinion, and it corresponded with my own.

The court asked:

Q. Did you ask the boy, Parr, what had occasioned this appearance in his anus?

A. I did. He answered that two nights before, the twenty-seventh, that Mr. Graham had connection with him and gave him an infinite deal of pain. I asked him whether the anus was very painful at the time he was examining. He said, no, not very painful just then.

Q. Was it your opinion that the apperance was occasioned by the insertion of an instrument similar to a man’s yard?

A. I could not ascertain that.

Q. Would such an insertion cause a similar appearance in your opinion?

A. I think it would.

Q. As a professional man, do you think that the crime of which the prisoner stands charged could be committed upon a boy so young as George Parr.

A. Yes, I do.

Q From your knowledge of instruments could you imagine that the crime could be committed with a passive obedience on the part of that boy?

A. I do think he must have been placed in a particular position and he must have been a passive instrument.

One of the surgeon’s assistants testified to like effect. At this point, the Graham gave a scanty defense, merely describing his service since 1793 without addressing the charges against him.

The court was cleared and agreed that the charge had been proved against the said Hepburn Graham, and did adjudge him to suffer death by being hanged by the neck onboard such ship of His Majesty and at such time as the commissioners for executing the Office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, etc. or any three of them for the time being should direct.

The court was again opened, the prisoner brought, [illegible] audience admitted, and sentence passed accordingly.

Greentham
Deputy Judge Advocate of the Fleet

Just a few weeks before he’d been wetting the arse of boys on the St. George. Now, only King George III stood between Graham and the noose.

Admiralty, 16 Dec 1806.

Mr. Grenville has the honour to lay before your Majesty the minutes and sentence of a court martial held on Mr Hepburn Graham, master’s mate on board the St George for an unnatural crime.

Mr. Grenville humbly submits to your Majesty that the sentence of the court martial may be put into immediate execution.

This petition was transmitted simultaneously with a like appeal from a seaman condemned for a Caribbean mutiny. Mr. Grenville endorsed a pardon in that case; King George endorsed both recommendations.

The King’s reply, Windsor Castle, 17 Dec.

The King upon consideration of what is stated in Mr Grenville’s letter in regard to the case of Naiad Sware, consents to remit the sentence of death pronounced by the court martial. Under the circumstances which attend the crime of which Mr Hepburn Graham has been found guilty, his Majesty is under the painful necessity of directing that the sentence of death may be carried into immediate execution.

Accordingly, that same day the Admiralty issued a warrant to hang Hepburn Graham on the upcoming Saturday, December 20.

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2005: Hastings Arthur Wise, workplace shooter

Add comment November 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2005, Hastings Arthur Wise was executed in South Carolina for a shooting rampage at his workplace.

Or rather — and this was the problem — his former workplace.

Canned from his machine-operator job of four years at the Aiken County R.E. Phelon engine manufacturing plant that July, Wise warned that he’d be back.

On September 15, 1997, he turned up packing a 9 mm pistol and exacted his revenge — just another of America’s endless cavalcade of mass shootings.

He shot a guard to get into the plant. The guard survived, but four others were not so fortunate as Wise stalked through his former employer’s halls screaming and firing. Police later recovered four empty eight-round magazines.

The human resources director who had fired him was the first Wise killed.

Two men in the tool and die area who had jobs that Wise had once sought unsuccessfully were the next.

A young woman in a job Wise had sought promotion to was wounded with shots to the back and leg, then finished off execution-style.

Wise took to firing almost indiscriminately and wounded a few others, but the body count still might have been higher. Some others Wise saw and could have murdered, but did not — some possibly saved by happenstance, others whom Wise said in court that he declined to shoot because he used to get along with them as coworkers. The whole rampage was calculated to such an extent that Wise took a 9,000-mile road trip to California and Texas to tick a few items off his bucket list first.

Wise always intended to check out at the end of his spree; the SWAT team found him on the floor suffering from a swallow of insecticide that turned out to be non-fatal. The judicial process was the slow train, but the destination remained the same.

“I don’t have much to say except that I did not wish to take advantage of the court as far as asking mercy,” Wise said to the court at his sentencing. “It’s a fair trial. I committed the crimes.”

As good as his word, Wise voluntarily dropped his appeals and went quickly from his 2001 conviction to execution, declining to make any final statement.

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1729: Jephthah Big, ineffective extortionist

Add comment September 19th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1729, Jephthah Big was hanged at Tyburn — “so ill at the place of execution, that he could not attend the devotions proper for men in his calamitous situation,” according to the Newgate calendar.

This member of the all-name team got his from an Israelite warrior-judge noted for the human sacrifice of his daughter. The sin of Jephthah Big was much the smaller.

When Big’s brother got hired as a London gentleman’s coachman, Jephthah decided to make a quick hundred guineas of his own off the guy by sending him “such a letter as would make the gentleman tremble.”

The difficulty in this scenario is always in actually taking possession of the boodle without exposing oneself to capture.

Jephthah’s big plan was to ask for the money to be delivered to the Black Boy ale-house in Goodman’s Fields, but while his confederate Peter Salter was holding down a bench there day after day waiting for the windfall, Salter chanced to read a newspaper advert taken out by the target himself offering a reward for busting the shakedown. When a porter turned up asking for their extortionist alias, Salter sagely opted not to answer to it and instead left the tavern … but the porter had his own suspicions, and when he saw Salter by chance again a few days later, he had him arrested.

Salter got out of the scrape by turning crown’s evidence against Jephthah Big, who was hanged as the instigator of the whole mess.

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1864: George Nelson, Indiana Jones rapist

2 comments September 12th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1864, Private George Nelson of Company F of the 13th United States Colored Troops was hanged for rape in Nashville, Tennessee.

He committed his crime on November 13, 1863. Nelson and two other men were on Nashville Pike outside of the town of Dickson when they encountered an unmarried white woman named, no lie, Indiana Jones.

They asked her where she lived and she said her house was about a mile away. The men claimed they’d been fighting with some rebels near her house and said she must go with them.

Miss Jones refused, and Nelson threatened to shoot her if she did not comply. She went with him for about 250 yards, begging him to release her. Private Nelson put a bayonet to her side and told her to come into the woods with him or he would run her through. Miss Jones started crying then, and he threatened to strangle her with a rope if she did not shut up. They went into the woods together while the other two men held the horse.

As Miss Jones later testified, “I again begged of him to let me go, when he cocked his gun and said if I did not be still he would blow my brains out. He then took hold of me, threw me down, and committed a rape on my person.”

When he was done he robbed her of $1.50, but the other soldiers made him give the money back. Then they let her go.

George Nelson’s accomplices were tried separately, and on cross-examination the victim was asked, “Did you use your utmost endeavors to prevent him from executing his desires, or did you simply cry out, thus yielding a tacit consent?”

As if she could have done anything else with a gun trained on her!

The three defendants were all court-martialed. President Lincoln approved the death sentence for Nelson in August 1864 and he hanged the following month. His partners-in-crime got twelve and ten years in prison respectively.

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1290: Zavis of Falkenstein

2 comments August 24th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1290, the vaunting nobleman Zavis of Falkenstein was beheaded below the walls of Hluboka Castle.

For from this eminence ye shall discern
Better the acts and visages of all,
Than in the nether vale among them mix’d.
He, who sits high above the rest, and seems
To have neglected that he should have done,
And to the others’ song moves not his lip,
The Emperor Rodolph call, who might have heal’d
The wounds whereof fair Italy hath died,
So that by others she revives but slowly,
He, who with kindly visage comforts him,
Sway’d in that country, where the water springs,
That Moldaw’s river to the Elbe, and Elbe
Rolls to the ocean: Ottocar his name:
Who in his swaddling clothes was of more worth
Than Winceslaus his son, a bearded man,
Pamper’d with rank luxuriousness and ease.

-Dante’s ungenerous assessment of Wenceslaus in the Purgatorio

The Bohemian Premyslid dynasty was at the height of its power in the 13th century. King Ottokar II, ruling a vast swath of central Europe, twice mounted unsuccessful bids for election to the imperial throne.

The second man to defeat him, Rudolph,* Ottokar refused to recognize, and open warfare ensued between the men — a war that Rudolph won when Ottokar was killed in battle in 1278.

The late sovereign left to his six-year-old son Wenceslaus II a reduced patronage, a betrothal to Rudolph’s daughter, and a strong domestic noble faction like to oppose the crown internally.

Zavis of Falkenstein was among the foremost of the many complications afflicting the young Wenceslaus. His Vitkovci family had been among the late Ottokar’s most potent domestic opponents,** and Claudius-like slithered right into the royal bed with Ottokar gone. Zavis paid court to the widow of his great foe, the Queen Regent Kunhunta, and married her in 1285. He was the first man in the kingdom for several years.

Wenceslaus, still a teenager, was becoming frantic at the prospect of Zavis usurping him altogether. When Kunhunta died and Zavis left town to marry again, the monarch turned the tables on his “protector”. When Zavis returned to Prague, he found himself clapped in prison. Wenceslaus then packed Zavis up for a Bohemian tour, where the hostage was brandished at belligerent Vitkovci fortresses to force their submission. Hluboka Castle, commanded by Zavis’s brother, refused to knuckle under, so the threat — and Zavis — were executed.

When your South Bohemia holiday stops over for a visit to this still-extant castle consider a stay at Hluboka nad Vltavou‘s four-star Hotel Zavis z Falkenstejna. Zavis himself is interred much further south at the borderlands’ Vyssi Brod monastery, which also boasts a jeweled crucifix donated for the salvation of the ambitious magnate’s soul.

* Rudolph I (Formerly Count Rudolph IV) was the first Habsburg king.

** Ottokar founded the city of Ceske Budejovice to project his power into the Vitkovci’s South Bohemia stomping-grounds. The city is still going strong; from its name derives the disputed Budweiser beer brand.

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1726: William “Vulcan” Gates, Black Act casualty

Add comment March 14th, 2013 Headsman

March 14, 1726, was the hanging date of five men* at the gallows of Tyburn.

We’ll come to the other four of them presently, but our featured case among the group is one Bill Gates — not the Microsoft billionaire, obviously; this fellow was, rather, a victim of the plutocracy.

William Gates was a blacksmith by trade, presumably the source of his outstanding nickname or alias “Vulcan”.

But he also liked to hunt, and that’s how he ended up having his neck pinched.

It was only logical in the early 18th century for hunters like Vulcan to take quarry from the common lands. But these longtime traditional rights were under long-term attack; just a few years before, the “Black Act” dramatically escalated penalties and enforcement mechanisms for “poaching”.

Among other things, the Black Act permitted a suspect to be accused by reading out charges “on two Market Days, and in two Market Towns in the County, where the Offence is committed.” If the named party failed to turn himself in within 40 days, he stood convicted — no trial necessary.

This was Vulcan’s situation exactly. He’d been accused of “being one of the Men that entered Enfield Chace, killed two Deer,” and took some potshots at the gamekeepers. Having not given himself up, the entirety of the short proceeding once Gates was taken was to establish his identity. (A potentially tricky affair in those days, but not in this instance.)

Frequent death-blog litterateur Charles Dickens glossed this story for the literary magazine he founded, All the Year Round, quoting in Vol. 18 the account of the Ordinary of Newgate when Gates and the four who were doomed to die with him “took it into their foolish heads that they would not be hanged.” (I’ve added line breaks to the Dickensian version, for readability.)

The day on which they were executed, when I [the Ordinary] came to Newgate to give them their last exhortations and prayers, they would not allow any person to come near them, having got an iron crow into the prison, with which they had forced out stones of a prodigious bigness, and had made the breach two feet deep in the wall.

They had built up the stones at the back of the door of the condemned hold, so that nobody could get at them. The keepers spoke to them through the door, but they were inflexible, and would by no entreaties yield. I spoke to them also, representing to them how that such foolish and impracticable projects interrupted their repentance, and the special care they should have taken in improving those few moments to the best advantage; but they seemed inexorable.

I said that I hoped they had no quarrel with me. They answered, ‘No, sir, God bless you; for you have been very careful of us.’ Bailey said, that they would not surrender till they either killed or were killed.

It was twelve at night before they began this enterprise; and, to conceal their purpose from the keepers, while part of them were working, the rest sung psalms, that the noise might not be heard.

Sir Jeremiah Morden, one of the present sheriffs of London and Middlesex, came with proper attendance, and, desiring them to open the door, they refused it; upon which they [not the prisoners, but the sheriff and his men] were obliged to go up to the room over the hold, where there is a little place that opens, which is made in case of such disturbances.

This shutter they opened, but the prisoners continuing obstinate, they [the sheriff's assistants] fired fifteen pistols with small shot among them, not to kill, but to wound and disable them. They retired to the remotest part of the room where the shot could not reach them, yet Barton and Gates, the deer-stealer, were slightly wounded in the arm.

At last Sir Jeremiah Morden spoke seriously to them through the little hole above, desiring them to surrender. Barton asked, ‘Who are you?’ Sir Jeremiah answered, ‘I am one of the principal sheriffs.’

‘Show me your chain,’ says Barton. Sir Jeremiah was so good as to show him his gold chain through the little hole, upon which they consulted, and agreed to surrender.

After this they removed the stones for the back [of the] door, and, the keepers entering, Barton snapped a steel tobacco–box in the face of one of them, which made a little noise like the snapping of a pocket-pistol, and then gave him the box” [saying 'D-me, you was afraid.' -Dickens omits this taunting clincher (ed.)]

After this the unctuous Ordinary tried to dog the intended escapees out of any parting sacrament on the grounds that their souls were not adequately prepared, to which the mutineers justly replied that they “been busied otherwise; they said it was only out of a desire of self Preservation … upon which account they desired to be excused.”

The Ordinary is vague on whether he excused them so far as to grant a last absolution. They were never to be excused from the rope.

While we’ve mentioned the singular case of Vulcan Gates, the other four were a more prosaic bunch of convicted burglars. Three of the four denied their guilt to the last. And while it’s nigh-impossible to judge credibility from the few second-hand words of an interlocutor religiously convinced of their culpability, it’s quite an affecting testimony to the scant circumstances needed to doom a fellow under the Bloody Code.

More than likely we’re a little skeptical of Benjamin Jones, who said that he chanced to stumble upon some silver plate in the darkness when stumbling out drunk from his tavern to pick up a whore. Was it just a bit of mutual aid among thieves that Jones accused a different prisoner, one Frazier, who was sick on his deathbed? The Ordinary said that he “ask’d Frazier, if this account was true? who said that it was, and that he had written the full Narrative thereof to Persons of the highest Quality.”

Hmm.

Francis Baily was doomed by the detailed testimony of a fellow-inmate in his same boarding house. He did admit to being a professional robber whose real crimes were quite enough to stretch his neck, but that his particular condemnation was thanks to the perjury of “one of the most infamous, wicked Women in the World who had sworn away his life, as she had the Life of some others, besides several there whom she had got transported and whipp’d &c. Baily pointed the finger at the absconded landlord of the house, the aptly named Matthew Wildman, who was his frequent burglarious partner.

Maybe.

The saddest of the self-proclaimed innocents was William Swift. He was accused along with another man, Lawrence Simpson, of having been part of a gang of highway robbers who committed a couple of muggings one evening. Although it was dark, one woman claimed to have been able to recognize Swift’s face by the light of “a Lamp about 6 Yards off,” and this was enough to seal his fate. Simpson hadn’t been glimpsed so clearly, so he was acquitted.

As for the last fellow at Tyburn that March 14, John Barton didn’t claim any species of innocence at all. Instead, he announced at the scaffold, “I am the Man, who in Company with two or three others, whom he named, particularly one Capel [Bob Cable], who committed the Robbery for which Swift dies.” (Barton had been set to testify at the Swift-Simpson trial, but was disallowed on account of his own pending burglary charges.)

* Seven were originally condemned to die this date; two petty thieves received the crown’s mercy.

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1926: Petrus Stephanus Hauptfleisch, mother-murderer

Add comment December 23rd, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

At 7:00 a.m. on this date in 1926, alcoholic and all-around loser Petrus Hauptfleisch was hanged in South Africa for the murder of his elderly mother nearly two years earlier. The case is detailed in Rob Marsh’s book Famous South African Crimes, available to read for free here.

Hauptfleisch had lived with his mother well into adulthood. When World War I started, he joined the army and served in Europe for four years.

After his return to South Africa in 1919, he demonstrated signs of having grown up a bit: he got a job as a butcher, married and had a young child. He and his wife fought constantly, however. He had a violent temper and drank heavily, to the extent that eventually none of the local businesses would sell him liquor anymore.

Finally his wife left him and he moved back in with Mom, but he was abusive to her as well and over Christmas 1924 she had him arrested after he threatened to kill her.

But once he sobered up and was released from custody, Mom let him move back in. Perhaps she felt she had to, since Petrus was haupt-fleisch und blut. Whatever her reason, the sins of the son were soon visited upon the mother.

Hauptfleisch claimed his mother accidentally set the kitchen on fire on January 13, 1925 and burned to death. The autopsy, however, didn’t support his story: all indications were that Mrs. Hauptfleisch had been suffocated or strangled to death and then burned afterward. There was no sign of soot or ashes in her bronchial tube or lungs, strong evidence that she hadn’t been breathing when the fire started, and there were other indications of asphyxiation. The postmortem lividity indicated she’d been lying flat on her back at the time of death, not face-down as Hauptfleisch said he’d found her.

Authorities believed Hauptfleisch was driven to homicide partly because of greed (he was the sole heir to his mother’s £600 estate) and partly out of personal rancor over that whole arrest thing.

After he was convicted and the sentence of death was passed upon him, Hauptfleisch issued a statement acknowledging that he had not been a good son, but protesting his innocence of this “most dastardly” crime. He would maintain his innocence until he died.

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1907: Evstolia Ragozinnikova

Add comment October 31st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1907* an audacious would-be suicide bomber was executed by tsarist Russia.

Thousands of Russians immersed themselves in the late 1900s in revolutionary struggle after the Romanovs bloodily stopped the 1905 revolution. So many of them were executed that the gallows became known as “Stolypin’s Necktie”, after the sitting Prime Minister.

Twenty-one-year-old conservatory pianist and singer Evstolia Ragozinnikova got involved in a plot to assassinate the said Stolypin. (It was only one among several such plots, one of which finally succeeded in 1911.)

But “Tolia” feigned madness and then escaped the psychiatric hospital where she’d been confined. She rejoined her Socialist-Revolutionary conspirators, some of whom tried to get her to flee to Milan to further her musical studies.

Instead of concert houses, Ragozinnikova raised the curtain on her magnum opus on October 28* with a bid to land a Guy Fawkes-like blow against the autocracy.

Communist-turned-anticommunist Whittaker Chambers would, much later, remember in his correspondence with William F. Buckley the power that deeds like Ragozinnikova’s had to inspire, notwithstanding Lenin’s eventually-orthodox disavowal of terrorism. For Chambers, it was not material immiseration but spiritual disinheritance, existential despair — the sort that made artists into suicide bombers — that was the true midwife of Communism.

I may presume in supposing that the name of Ragozinikova is unknown to you. But the facts are these. In 1907, the Russian government instituted a policy of systematically beating its political prisoners. One night, a fashionably dressed young woman called at the Central Prison in Petersburg and asked to speak with the commandant, Maximovsky. This was Ragozinikova, who had come to protest the government’s policy. Inside the bodice of her dress were sewed thirteen pounds of dynamite and a detonator. When Maximovsky appeared, she shot him with her revolver and killed him. The dynamite was for another purpose. After the murder of Maximovsky, Ragozinikova asked the police to interrogate her at the headquarters of the Okhrana. She meant to blow it up together with herself; she had not known any other way to penetrate it. But she was searched and the dynamite discovered. She was sentenced to be hanged.

Awaiting execution., she wrote her family: ‘Death itself is nothing, … Frightful only is the thought of dying without having achieved what I could have done How good it is to love people. How much strength one gains from such love.’

Chambers aside, she’s not so well attested on the English-lanuage Internet; there’s a bit about her in Russian here and here, as well as some references to both Ragozinnikova and her peers in an academic pdf, “Women in the World of Gender Stereotypes: The Case of the Russian Female Terrorists at the Beginning of the 20th Century” by Nadezda Petrusenko in International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, April 2011.

* Gregorian dates. By the local Julian calendar in Russia, she committed her murder on October 15, and was hanged on October 18.

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