1779: Robert Young

Add comment November 11th, 2018 Headsman

This date in 1779 saw the execution in Worcester, Mass., of one Robert Young, a schoolteacher who favored the occasion with the following verse from his very own quill.

The man’s offense one may derive from his confessional, but apart from rapist who was this doomed poet? We refer the reader to the biography at friend and sometime guest-poster Anthony Vaver over at Early American Crime. (Vaver’s book Bound With An Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America comes recommended for those interested in the period.)

ATTEND, ye youth! if ye would fain be old,
Take solemn warning when my tale is told;
In blooming life my soul I must resign,
In my full strength, just aged twenty-nine.

But a short time ago, I little thought
That to this shameful end I should be brought;
But the foul fiend, excepting God controuls,
Dresses sin lovely when he baits for souls.

Could you the monster in true colours see,
His subject nor his servant would you be;
His gilded baits would ne’er allure your minds,
For he who serves him bitter anguish finds.

Had I as oft unto my Bible went,
As on vain pleasures I was eager bent,
These lines had never been composed by me,
Nor my vile body hung upon the tree.

Those guilty pleasures that I did pursue,
No more delight — they’re painful to my view;
That monster, Sin, that dwells within my breast,
Tortures my soul and robs me of my rest.

That fatal time I very well remember,
For it was on the third day of September,
I went to Western, thoughtless of my God,
Though worlds do tremble at his awful nod:

With pot-companions did I pass the day,
And then direct to Brookfield bent my way,
The grand-deceiver thought it was his time,
And led me to commit a horrid crime.

When it was dark I met the little fair,
(Great God forgive, and hear my humble pray’r)
And, O! dear Jane, wilt thou forgive me too,
For I most cruelly have used you.

I took advantage of the dark’ning hour,
(For beasts always by night their prey devour)
This little child, eleven years of age,
Then fell a victim to my brutal rage;

Nor could the groans of innocence prevail;
O pity, reader, though I tell the tale;
Drunk with my lust, on cursed purpose bent,
Severely us’d th’unhappy innocent.

Her sister dear was to have been my wife,
But I’ve abus’d her and must lose my life;
Was I but innocent, my heart would bleed
To hear a wretch, like me, had done the deed.

Reader, whoe’er thou art, a warning take,
Be good and just, and all your sins forsake;
May the Almighty God direct your way
To the bright regions of eternal day.

A dying man to you makes this request,
For sure he wishes that you may be blest;
And shortly, reader, thou must follow me,
And drop into a vast eternity!

The paths of lewdness, and these base profane,
Produce keen anguish, sorrow, fear and shame;
Forsake them then, I’ve trod the dreary road,
My crimes are great, I groan beneath the load.

For a long time on sin should you be bent,
You’ll find it hard, like me for to repent;
The more a dangerous wound doth mortify,
The more the surgeon his best skill must try.

These lines I write within a gloomy cell,
I soon shall leave them with a long farewell;
Again I caution all who read the same
And beg they would their wicked lives reclaim.

O THOU, Almight GOD, who gave me breath,
Save me from suffering a second death,
Through faith in thy dear SON may I be free,
And my poor soul ascend to dwell with Thee.

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1942: Ernst Schrämli, Swiss traitor

1 comment November 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the Swiss artillerist Ernst Schrämli was shot for treason.

The dogged independence of Switzerland during World War II presented an going irritant to a Third Reich that had swallowed the rest of Europe, enabling von Trapps to escape and idealistic students to cogitate potshots at the Führer. Switzerland had to maintain her place delicately, here with a pragmatic concession to the fascist powers and there with a deterring mountain fortification. The American jouranlist Walter Lippmann celebrated that doughty Alpine confederation’s pluck in a 1943 New York Herald Tribune article (via):

The Swiss nation which is entirely surrounded by the Axis armies, beyond reach of any help from the democracies, that Switzerland which cannot live without trading with the surrounding Axis countries, still is an independent democracy. The “engulfing sea of 125,000,000 hostile neighbors” has not yet engulfed the Swiss.

That is the remarkable thing about Switzerland. The real news is not that her factories make munitions for Germany but that the Swiss have an army which stands guard against invasion, that their frontiers are defended, that their free institutions continue to exist and that there has been no Swiss Quisling, and no Swiss Laval. The Swiss remained true to themselves even in the darkest days of 1940 and 1941, when it seemed that nothing but the valor of the British and the blind faith of free men elsewhere stood between Hitler and the creation of a totalitarian new order in Europe. Surely, if ever the honor of a people was put to the test, the honor of the Swiss was tested and proved then and there … no ordinary worldly material calculation can account for the behavior of the Swiss.

Compared to neighboring countries, Switzerland’s domestic fascist movement was pretty minor, but that ferocious independence could not brook fifth columnists be they ever so minor. Schrämli, a somewhat disordered soldier, delivered a few grenades and some inaccurate sketches of some Swiss bunkers to a German agent. Though ineffectual, it was treason.

He’s the subject of a notable 1976 documentary The Shooting of the Traitor Ernst S., which finds that the man’s motivation was psychological weakness rather than ideological commitment and confers the epitaph De Chliner hanget ehnder als der Grösser (“The small hang instead of the great”). German speakers can take in the entire film:

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1807: Ephraim Blackburn, low roller

Add comment November 11th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1807, a throw of the dice noosed Ephraim Blackburn.

The son of a Pennsylvanian who served in George Washington’s army, Blackburn sought his own martial adventure by joining the expedition of Louisiana-Mexico border trader Philip Nolan in 1801.

Nolan had spent the 1790s living and trading along the frontier of Mexico and (Spanish, until 1800) Louisiana. Nolan worked in a legal twilight, earning the connivance of some Mexican officials and the hostility of others; perhaps no Anglo was better-acquainted with Texas.

By 1800 he was barred from the territory but assembled a coterie of 30-plus armed men and ventured into Texas once agan on an apparent filibustering operation seeking to carve out control of some piece of Texas. Our man Ephraim Blackburn was among these daring souls, whose wooden palisade somewhere near the Brazos River was quickly overwhelmed by a Mexican attack.

Nolan died in the battle, leading the remainder of his men to surrender. From there they would embark on a strange years-long legal road, their numbers continually winnowed by escapes. Ordinarily when one is prosecuted as a foreign invader, one is not permitted to have the liberty of the city or to go into business, but that is exactly what occurred with the Nolan men.

One of their number, Peter Ellis Bean, is known to have survived his incarceration; he escaped and fought for Father Miguel Hidalgo‘s Mexican revolutionaries against Spain, returned to the United States in 1818, then re-settled in post-independence Mexico. Bean conferred on posterity a memoir recalling that during their imprisonment,*

Some of my companions got leave of the general to go to other towns to live, but I thought I would find out some way of making something. I gave myself out as a hatter. There was a gentleman who trusted me for whatever was necessary to carry on that business. I employed two Spanish hatters to work with me, for, in fact, I was no hatter at all. In about six months I had so raised my name, that no one would purchase hats except of the American. By this means I got a number of journeymen to work with me. I was clear of debt, and making from fifty to sixty dollars per week.

All this entrepreneurialism was unfolding while capital case meandered with no great urgency among Spanish courts. One judge recommended the prisoners’ outright release in 1804; by the time the message had been shipped across the Atlantic and back, it was 1807, and the judge had died. The crown’s reversal horrifyingly required the death of one in every five of the invaders — although since deaths and escapes had now reduced their ranks to just nine, the local authorities mercifully rounded the figure down to one.

On the 9th of November, the nine remaining prisoners were gathered in a Chihuahua barracks and made aware of their situation. They agreed among themselves to cast dice in order of seniority — low roll hangs.**

Blackburn was the oldest, and the first to roll. He threw a 3 and 1. Bean narrates, beginning with the frighteningly mysterious arrival of confessional priests the night before the survival lottery:

all our conversation that night was in view of our being put to death. I told them that we should trust to fate, and not fret ourselves about what we could not remedy. One of them said the bravest would be cast down to see his open grave before him. “But,” said I, “if you find no way to escape that grave, is it not better to march up to it like a man, than to be dragged to it like one dead? It is enough for them to drag me to it when life is gone. The most cowardly, where under sentence of death, have marched up with great bravery. And, as for myself, if I must die, I mean not to disgrace my country.” The reason I talked so was that I did not believe they would put us to death.

Soon the next morning the priests returned, and David Fero asked them if we were to be put to death. They said they did not know — perhaps some might be. I then began to conclude it would be me, and all my companions thought the same thing. I, however, said nothing; for, as I had before talked of valor in such cases, it became necessary for me to support that character. The priests said we must confess all our sins to them, and we should be forgiven. As for myself, I had been taught that God knew all my crimes and it was not worth while to relate them to the parsons. But some of my companions began to confess, and had their sins forgiven. When they asked me, I told them I must have four or five days to recollect all my sins — that they were so many, it was doubtful whether I could ever remember them all. The parsons advised me to begin, and God would enlighten me, and help me to remember them. I told them I could not that day, but perhaps by the next day I could remember some things. They then left us. All that day the talk among us was as to who it would be. I told them, I supposed, as I was the worst, it would be me; and, as my friend Tony Waters had been put in with us to share our fate, I thought, as he had broken open my letter, that if the thing went according to justice, and they hung the worst man, it must be him, for he was, without doubt, the greatest villain and ought to have been dead some years ago. Waters sighed, but said nothing. The next day the parsons came again, and brought with them a colonel, who read to us the king’s order — which was, that every fifth man was to be hung, for firing on the king’s troops. But, as some were dead, there were but nine of us, and, out of the nine, but one had to die. This was to be decided by throwing dice on the head of a drum. Whoever threw lowest, was to be executed. It was then agreed that the oldest must throw first. I was the youngest, and had to throw last. The first was blindfolded, and two dice put in a glass tumbler. He was led to the drum which was put in the room, and there cast the dice on the head of the drum. And so we went up, one by one, to cast the awful throw of life or death. All of my companions, except one, threw high: he threw four. As I was the last, all his hopes were that I should throw lower than he. As for my part, I was indifferent about it, for I had resigned myself to fortune. I took the glass in my hand, and gained the prize of life, for I threw five.

After two days to prepare himself, Blackburn hanged on Chihuahua’s Plaza de los Urangas. The remaining prisoners were scattered to different prisons for many years to come; among the survivors, only Bean is known to have set eyes on his native soil again.

* On the expedition that would staple his name to mainland America’s highest peak, Zebulon Pike was briefly captured by the Mexicans and taken to Chihuahua, where he met some of the Nolan gang prisoners.

** Both the random selection and its circumstances — punishing Anglo adventurers — strongly foreshadow Mexico’s later Black Bean Lottery.

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1674: Guru Tegh Bahadur

Add comment November 11th, 2014 Headsman

The early religion of Sikhism was led by a succession of 10 Gurus.*

The Mughals executed the ninth of those Gurus on this date in 1674.

Guru Tegh Bahadur (the name means “Hero of the Sword” and was earned in youthful battles against those same Mughals) was acclaimed above 20-odd other aspirants after the previous Guru died saying only that the next guy was in the village of Bakala.

Guru from 1664, he’s noted for founding the holy city of Anandpur Sahib in Punjab. And it was his lot to lead a minority faith during the reign of the Aurangzeb, an emperor notorious to posterity for religious dogmatism.

He’s known best as a persecutor of Hindus: knocking over temples to throw up mosques, forcing conversions, and implementing sharia. But Aurangzeb knew how to get after all kinds.

Considering the going sectarian tension between Hindu and Muslim in the environs, there’s a good deal of touchy historical debate over just how to characterize Aurangzeb’s policies. This site is entirely unqualified to contribute to that conversation but suffice to say it was not an ideal moment to adhere to an alternate faith.

The circumstances of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s capture, and his subsequent execution in Delhi, are similarly obscured by hagiography. Aurangzeb, who spent his reign at virtually continual war, must surely have seen in the Guru’s capital city — which also welcomed Hindu refugees fleeing the Mughals’ abrogation of their rites — a nest of rebellion. Putting its leader to death when he too refused conversion would have been right in character; no less understandable is the Guru’s remembrance as a martyr to religious liberty, and not only the liberty of Sikhs but Hindus, Buddhists, and any other comers.

Tegh Bahadur’s nine-year-old son Gobind Singh succeeded as the tenth and last Guru. It was he who laid down the “Five Ks” — five articles that a faithful Sikh should wear at all times. Thanks to the parlous state of security vis-a-vis the Mughals, one of those items is the Kirpan, a dagger or small sword that continues to vex airline security agents down to the present day.

* Ten human Gurus: the tenth passed succession to the perpetual “Guru Panth” (the entire community of Sikhs) and “Guru Granth Sahib” (a sacred text).

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1806: Fra Diavolo, royalist guerrilla

Add comment November 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1806, the Neapolitan partisan Michele Pezza was hanged as a bandit.

Better known by his infernal nickname “Fra Diavolo” — “Brother Devil” — Pezza (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was forced into the army of the Kingdom of Naples as punishment for manslaughter in 1797, just in time to experience its thrashing at the hands of the French Republicans rolling down the peninsula.

By 1799, Naples was no longer a kingdom at all, but a French-modeled and -backed republic, one of several in Italy.

Populist, Catholic resistance to these impositions commenced almost immediately. Fra Diavolo was destined to become the enduring legend of this sanfedismo movement.

Pezza’s band, which eventually numbered as much as 4,000, stalked the roads around Rome and Naples, terrorizing French soldiers and Republicans. They had a reputation for cruelty.

Francis Maceroni, a writer and an aide (and eventual biographer) for Napoleonic marshal Murat, charges that Fra Diavolo was merely “a well known assassin and highwayman [who] could not but be infamous, in any service. Brief, he was put upon his trial, — found guilty of as many horrid felonies as would fill a dozen volumes like that of ‘Rookwood,’ and hanged upon a gibbet of extraordinary height, at the Ponte della Maddalena at Naples.” The author is disgusted that the name Fra Diavolo “has not only been immortalized by his atrocious crimes, but by the appliances of fine music and operatic representation” for the outlaw “was a most unmitigated mass of evil, without one redeeming point.”

Actually, his effectiveness with irregulars was a very significant redeeming point in a dirty-war environment.

After Naples’ Parthenopean Republic was deposed by France’s foes, Pezza was retired with an aristocratic title, a substantial pension, and a trophy bride: just the Bourbons’ way to say thanks.

But he was recalled to the field when the French re-invaded Naples in 1806, briefly installing Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte as the new Neapolitan king, and again set to raiding with a mass of guerrillas. This time the French hunted him to ground, defeating his irregulars in an October 1806 engagement and capturing Fra Diavolo himself days later.

Pezza hanged as a brigand in Naples, but the city’s exiled royalty funded a funeral mass for their lost commander in the cathedral of Palermo.

Maceroni wasn’t kidding about the “fine music and operative representation,” by the way. Daniel Auber composed a hit 1830 debut, Fra Diavolo.

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1328: Na Prous Boneta, Beguine heresiarch

3 comments November 11th, 2012 Headsman

“Her heart began to marvel that so great a light as the great light that they revealed could be changed so quickly to so great a smoke …”

-Female Beguine quoted by ‘So Great a Light, So Great a Smoke’: The Beguin Heretics of Languedoc

On this date in 1328, the Inquisition relaxed the heretic Na Prous Boneta (or Bonnet) to the secular authorities at Carcassonne for execution.

Na Prous Boneta was part of the great religious movements towards poverty and spiritual rebirth then shaking Europe — the same impulse that drove men like Segarelli and Dolcino to the stake.

In southern France, the first name in this movement so suspect to Catholic orthodoxy was Peter Olivi, a charismatic prophet of egalitarian poverty from the Franciscan order. The Franciscans were the institutional expression of that same renewal movement, but their incorporation into the church had co-opted their once-radical energy. They were divided internally between the ascetic “Spiritual Franciscans” (or Fraticelli) and their brethren grown comfortable with worldly emoluments.*

After Olivi’s (natural) death in Narbonne, France, in 1298, he became an object of popular veneration for the Fraticelli’s lay admirers, among whom the communities of lay Beguin(e) women were especially prominent.**

As we have seen, the Church would soon resolve upon a fearful suppression of the Fraticelli and the Beguines, who came to be closely identified with one another. Scores went to the flames; the Inquisitor Bernard Gui complained that fugitive Beguines (and their Beghard brethren) had the gall to keep up their own calendar of martyrology. (Executed Today fully endorses this practice.)

According to the confession her adversaries would later extract, a mystical vision on Good Friday 1321 in her home town of Montpellier would transport Na Prous Boneta into Beguine leadership — fully aware of the dangers to life and limb.

“Put your heart and mind into the work of the Holy Spirit,” she preached. And “keep your body prepared for martyrdom if it should be necessary.”

And boy, did she have to be prepared.

Prous was all-in on her heretical denunciation of a church that had committed itself to bloody suppression of her sect. She denied the efficacy of the sacraments, said that salvation followed from good deeds even for “Jews and Saracens” and as for the guy in charge just down the way at Avignon …

this present pope, John XXII, is like Caiaphas, who crucified Christ. Moreover, the poor beguins who were burned, and also the burned lepers, were like the innocents beheaded by Herod’s command. Again, just as Herod procured the death of innocent children, thus this Herod, the devil, procured the death of those burned beguins and lepers. Again, she claims that Christ told her the sin of this pope is as great as the sin of Cain.

Though all these confessions were given in 1325, Na Prous Boneta appears to have been kept in prison for three years in an effort to persuade her to change her tune. That Caiaphas-like pope himself took an interest in the case, even ordering (perhaps suggestive of the woman’s following) that her eventual execution take place not in her own city but in Carcassonne.

That execution took place on this date when the visionary, having refused every blandishment to save her soul, caused the inquisitors to declare that

knowing from experience that those who are evil simply get worse by the day when they think they will go unpunished, we, compelled by our office which we are obliged by holy obedience to fulfill diligently, since we neither should nor indeed wish to tolerate any longer such abominations and such dangerous opposition to the entire church and the catholic faith, having obtained counsel concerning the above matters from many religious and secular persons learned in both laws, having God before our eyes and the holy gospels of Jesus Christ placed before us so that our judgment should proceed from God and appear right before God and our eyes should see what is just, on this day, in this place and time assigned by us to hear definitive sentence, sitting as a tribunal, invoking the name of Christ, we pronounce, judge and declare you, Na Prous, to be an impenitent heretic and heresiarch and pertinacious in your obduracy. Since the church can do nothing more with such people, we release you to the secular authorities.

* This conflict is the subject of The Name of the Rose; Olivi’s heir as the Spirituals’ leader, Ubertino of Casale, is a character in that novel.

** One need not stretch too far to see a bit of comeuppance in the emergence of a feminine anti-papal voice at this period; the original movement into all-women beguinages is thought to have been facilitated by the surplus population of unmarried or widowed women created by Europe’s recent enthusiasm for sending young men to die on Crusade.

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1761: John Perrott, bankrupt debtor

3 comments November 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1761, John Perrott was hanged at Smithfield for fraudulent bankruptcy.

Perrott was one of the bare handful of British subjects executed during the last century that bankruptcy legislation officially came with hemp teeth; he’s sometimes noted as the last bankrupt put to death, although in reality, he was simply the most famous of the last few.


John Perrott hanged at Smithfield (detail view; click for full image). From here.

He got famous in the usual way.

A once-reputable merchant who blew his fortune in the late 1750s? That backstory does not get you into the Newgate Calendar.

Fortune blown by siphoning creditors’ money to shady mistress, then refusing to divulge the particulars? Now you’re talking. It’s a wonderful vignette in the annals of moralism to find Perrott on the eve of his execution keeping mum on the subject because he had already received his last Sacrament — the inference being that in speaking, he would only sully his soul with a lie.

It was an aggravating position for his creditors, who had reason to believe that there remained recoverable cash, in the hands of his “Mrs. Ferne” or elsewhere.

Creditors always get stuck in a bind when debt goes bad.

The death penalty for bankruptcy has a long and illustrious history, back to the Roman Twelve Tables with its Shylock-like right for the aggrieved lenders to cut the debtor apart into parts proportional to their lost investments, de debitore in partes secando.*

Still, that stern corporal stricture has tended to run up against the simple fact that creditors are financially interested parties whose benefit is almost always better served by keeping their debtor among the living where he might be capable of repairing some part of his bond. Slavery, therefore, was often preferred by the ancients and retains a symbiotic relationship to debt to this day: to force the service of a debt, make a man your slave; likewise, to force someone into slavery, make him your debtor. Human traffickers love this tactic.

At any rate, English bankruptcy law as it evolved was a strange hybrid of public (criminal prosecutions) and private (creditors initiated and paid for the prosecutions). Bluffing a charge at the Old Bailey was just one potential strategem in the contentious relationship between borrower and lender, and not the most effective one, as this Duke law journal article (pdf) by Emily Kadens notes:

“[I]f this Bill Pass,” [critics of a 1706 bankruptcy measure] warned, “it will never be executed.” The latter prognostication turned out to be virtually correct. Creditors prosecuted infrequently because of the severity of the punishment and the cost and difficulty involved. Even when creditors did bring lawsuits, juries may have been reluctant to convict not only because of the penalty but also because they understood the potential for fraud in the bankruptcy system itself … A man was made a bankrupt by the ex parte declaration of a person claiming to be a creditor … The alleged bankrupt had no right to object … In the meantime, his alleged creditors had taken possession of his assets, leaving him nothing with which he could fight his case, unless he committed a felony by concealing his assets or had friends or family support him.

That fraud aspect was essential to making it, as Perrott did, so far as the gallows; plain-vanilla bankruptcy was not in itself a capital offense, but a debtor hiding his assets in the process changed matters. The law distinguished the accidental bankruptcy (e.g., the ship with your imports sunk) from the larcenous: “To the misfortunes … of debtors, the law has given a compassionate remedy,” Blackstone notes. “But denied it to their faults.” Which is not to say that many, many debtors did not indulge these “faults.”

It was nearly two full years from the time Perrott sat his lenders down in a tavern in — naturally — Cheapside to give them the bad news that he was a little bit short, until the time he met the hangman. In that span, auditors picking through the wreck of his estate gradually became aware that the numbers didn’t add up, and his bum business practices (selling 20% below cost to obtain ready cash) still left up to 17,000 missing pounds unexplained.

By the by, the emergence into the investigation of a paramour, who then turned out to be hiding Perrott-issued banknotes, transformed an ordinary bankruptcy into one of those felonious asset-concealment situations. (And, into fine tabloid fodder for the broadsheets.) When Perrott wouldn’t come clean with the whereabouts of his purloined boodle, his creditors had him up on hanging charges. And when Perrott still wouldn’t come clean — Sacrament and all — he stiffed his lenders at the last by leaving them no way to recover their swag.

Hopefully, Mrs. Ferne was worth the trouble.

* More discussion of the Roman jurisprudence here.

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1909: Will James, “the Froggie”, lynched in Cairo

11 comments November 11th, 2009 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, Will James was lynched as a murderer in Cairo, Illinois.

“The Frog” or “The Froggie” was a black man implicated in the murder of a white girl, captured in nearby Belknap and

taken to the most prominent square in the city and strung up. The rope broke and the man was riddled with bullets. The body was then dragged by the rope for a mile to the scene of the crime and burned in the presence of at least 10,000 rejoicing persons. Many women were in the crowd, and some helped to hang the negro and to drag the body.

Part of the mob then sought other negroes. Another part, at 11:15 o’clock, after battering down a steel cell in the county jail, took out Henry Salzner, a white man charged with the murder of his wife last August, and lynched him.* (New York Times, Nov. 12, 1912)


Other pictures related to the Will James lynching are at the Without Sanctuary site here (images 41 through 47).

The grey lady’s dim view of this jubilant scene prompted a letter to the editor in defense — the author’s disclaimer notwithstanding — of the lynching, which paints a grim and striking portrait of the town where it occurred.

CAIRO’S NEGROES.

Former Resident Says They Are Spoiled by Coddling and Are a Menace.

As a former resident of Cairo, Ill., where I was the editor of a daily newspaper for three years, I crave a word, not in defense of the double lynching which occurred there a few days ago, but in explanation of it. Cairo, at the extreme southern point of Illinois, at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, is peculiarly located. Across one river is Missouri; across the other is Kentucky, and Tennessee is only fifty miles away. Cairo thus becomes a buffer between the North and the South. It is probably the only town in the North which has a true race problem to deal with. … Out of a population of 13,000 in 1900, 5,000 of the inhabitants of Cairo were negroes. Of the 100,000 negroes in the State of Illinois 5 per cent are massed in this one little town. Aside from this, the floating colored population is unusually large, and Cairo, at some time or other, harbors most of the “bad niggers” from St. Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans. It is these whom citizens fear the most, and for whom the police are constantly alert. Murders by negroes either of white men or negroes are alarmingly frequent, but the murderer usually escapes either to Kentucky or Missouri, and is never heard of again. Thus crime after crime is recorded against the name of Cairo, with no recompense in the name of the law. On the other hand, there is hardly a time when there are not forty or fifty Cairo negroes in the Southern Illinois Penitentiary, all convicted of theft or burglary.

The white people of Cairo have always dealt indulgently with the negro. For years it has been the policy to keep two negroes on the small police force, and there have been negro Justices of the Peace. A negro physician once came near being elected a member of the Board of Education. While they pay but little taxes, the negroes are provided with three public schools. The Sumner was the first colored High School ever established in the United States. Yet this negro population, coddled as it is, is a constant menace to the town. No white woman dare venture outside of the house at night alone for fear of assault. Many outrages of which the world has never heard have been attempted. This is why, as Mayor Parsons says, the effect of the recent lynching will be “salutary.”

Altogether it is not surprising that a lynching took place in Cairo. The only wonder is that one did not take place long ago.

W.L. CLANAHAN
New York, Nov. 14, 1909

That electric arch and celebratory mob are now long gone from Cairo: in the century since Will James was butchered, Cairo, Ill., has withered — striken in part by its own poisonous legacy of racism. (Also by flooding from the adjacent rivers, the routing of transportation corridors elsewhere, and the general deindustrialization of the heartland.)

During the civil rights struggle as played out in Cairo in the 1960’s and 1970’s (more in this pdf), the town’s white business owners made a name for themselves by refusing to integrate their workforces in response to black boycotts … preferring to go out of business and/or leave town.

Cairo today is a near ghost town at one-quarter of its previous population, and generally appalling quality-of-life indicators.

* Salzner’s lynching occurred after midnight, according to the same article; hence, his absence from this article’s marquee.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Illinois,Lynching,Murder,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,USA

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1887: Parsons, Spies, Fischer and Engel, the Haymarket Martyrs

10 comments November 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1887, the Chicago political machine hanged four at Cook County Jail to defend civilization from the eight-hour day.

The Haymarket martyrs, as they would be remembered ere the hysterical atmosphere of their sentencing had passed, were four from a group of eight anarchist agitators rounded up when a never-identified person threw a bomb at Chicago police breaking up a peaceful rally. The bomb killed one cop; the indiscriminate police shooting that followed killed several more in friendly fire, plus an uncertain number of civilians.

The incident occurred just days after nationwide strikes began on May 1, 1886, in support of the eight-hour day. Nowhere were the tensions greater than Chicago, an epicenter of militant organizing. When tens of thousands poured into the streets on May 1, the Chicago Mail darkly said of high-profile radicals Albert Parsons and August Spies,

Mark them for today. Hold them responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble does occur.

Sure enough …

Most of the eight hadn’t even been present at the time the bomb was thrown, but the state put anarchism itself on trial under the capacious umbrella of “conspiracy,” in a proceeding so absurdly rigged that a relative of a slain cop was on the jury. Quoth the prosecutor,

Law is upon trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousand who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury; convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and save our institutions, our society.

That was the argument for hanging them. And right-thinking burghers applauded it.

Seven of the eight were condemned to die; two had their sentences commuted, but the other five refused to ask for clemency on the grounds that, innocent, they would “demand either liberty or death.” One of those five, Louis Lingg, painfully cheated the hangman by setting off a blasting cap in his mouth the night before his execution. (Lingg might have made, though seemingly not thrown, the mysterious bomb.)

The others — Parsons and Spies, along with Adolph Fischer and George Engel — hanged together, with their epitaphs upon their lips — literally so for Parsons, whose parting remark is at the base of the Haymarket Martyrs Monument*

“The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”

“Throttle” was right, as the Chicago Tribune reported the next day, taking up when the trap was sprung:

Then begins a scene of horror that freezes the blood. The loosely-adjusted nooses remain behind the left ear and do not slip to the back of the neck. Not a single neck is broken, and the horrors of a death by strangulation begin.

Six years later, Illinois Gov. John Altgeld granted the free pardon the hanged men had demanded to the three surviving Haymarket anarchists. There is no institutional mechanism to determine erroneous executions in American jurisprudence — a fact that occasionally leads to smugly circular avowals that nobody recently executed has ever been “proven” innocent — and death penalty researchers Michael Radelet and Hugo Bedau believed as of this 1998 paper (pdf) that Altgeld’s executive statement flatly asserting the injustice of the Haymarket convictions was the most recent official acknowledgment of a wrongful execution in U.S. history. If true, its uniqueness would be understandable: the gesture cost Altgeld his political career.

Long gone as all these principals are, the legacy of Haymarket remains very much with us, and not just as a magnet for digital archives like this, this and this (don’t miss the brass gallows pin).

May 1, now rich with the symbolism of the Haymarket Passion, was soon selected by the international labor movement as the date to resume the eight-hour-day push — thus becoming the global workers’ holiday it remains to this day.

* Opposing interpretations of the Haymarket affair — which can be the “Haymarket riot” or the “Haymarket massacre,” depending on where you line up — were marked by opposing memorials. The police memorial was itself eventually bombed by the Weather Underground, and subsequently squirreled away from easy public view. Paradoxically, the Haymarket Martyrs Monument has been federally dignified as a National Historic Landmark.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Freethinkers,Hanged,History,Illinois,Infamous,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Terrorists,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1831: Nat Turner

12 comments November 11th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1831, the slave Nat — remembered to history as Nat Turner after the surname of his original owner — was hanged, flayed and dismembered for leading the most notorious slave rebellion in antebellum America.

A deeply religious man known to other slaves as “The Prophet”, Nat followed what he took to be divine directive to launch a bloody uprising on the night of August 21-22 in Southampton County, Virginia. Using (at first) axes, knives and clubs to avoid attracting attention to gunfire, Nat’s band slaughtered whites from house to house, freeing slaves as they went. At least 55 whites were killed, and a like number of slaves by white militias that mobilized to put down the revolt … and then hundreds more slaves as far away as North Carolina suspected of some tangential involvement or simmering disloyalty.

The uprising was suppressed within two days, but it rooted so deeply in the conscience of the South that it persists to this day.

“I have not slept without anxiety in three months. Our nights are sometimes spent listening to noises.”
-Slaveowner after the rebellion

Nat Turner embodied slaveowners’ terror of the subject population living about them, outnumbering them, resentfully supporting Southern gentility at the end of a whip — the conundrum Jefferson had described barely a decade before as “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Arguably, the revolt hardened southern whites against moderating slavery; some legislatures tightened restrictions against teaching slaves to read, thinking that literate slaves like Nat were more liable to uprisings.

Conversely, he was a powerful martyr of resistance in the slave quarters, a symbol of scores of other lesser-known uprisings and of the countless more that lurked in dreams and fantasies, awaiting some spark of outrage, some sudden opportunity, some wild carelessness of death.

He was a figure of literature even before his death — The Confessions of Nat Turner, dictated to a white interrogator, left Nat’s own riveting testimony from the shadow of the gallows; the Virginia-born white novelist William Styron used the same title for a controversial 1967 historical novel which earned a Pulitzer but drew a critical rebuttal from many black writers. (Nat Turner also stalks the memory of Styron’s semi-autobiographical narrator in Sophie’s Choice.) More recently, Nat has received graphic novel treatment.

Historians of every stripe, meanwhile, have struggled over the meaning of the man’s deeds and — especially — his paradoxical legacy as symbol.

Update: The occasion received a tribute in Alabama about the time this post went up.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Cycle of Violence,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Famous,Flayed,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,Infamous,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Murder,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Slaves,USA,Virginia

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