1928: William Charles Benson

Add comment November 20th, 2018 Headsman

William Charles Benson hanged at Wandsworth prison on this date in 1928, the murderer of his ice cream factory co-worker’s wife.

Benson in 1925 had moved in with his mate Sidney Harbor in Kentish Town where the quarters were so close that everybody shared the same bedroom.

The savings in rent were drawn from the heart’s account, once Sidney’s wife Charlotte — the couple had two children together — took a shine to the boarder in the other bed. Benson in 1927 lost job and side piece alike when he was fired from Wall’s and also kicked out of the house by the suspicious Sidney; Charlotte, however, continued the affair and eventually even took an apartment nearby Benson’s new place to facilitate assignations.

Early on the morning of September 6, 1928, Benson hailed a constable with the words, “I want an ambulance, I have just killed my girl.” Apparently, she had proposed putting the adultery to an end and returning to Sidney.

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2013: Joseph Paul Franklin, Larry Flynt’s would-be assassin

Add comment November 20th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 2013, hoping “for people to think of me as a person who is filled with a lot of love for people, not filled with hate for people,” Joseph Paul Franklin was executed by lethal injection in Missouri for a three-year racist killing spree.

Born James Clayton Vaughn, Jr., before he renamed himself into a portmanteau of Paul Joseph Goebbels and Benjamin Franklin, our killer suffered by his own account a childhood warped by the disinterest of his mother and the physical violence of a usually-absentee father. He took up an interest in evangelical Christianity and white nationalism, and in 1977 began crisscrossing the country committing racially motivated attacks against Jews and African Americans.

He would later say that his intent was to trigger a race war. (Franklin renounced racism in prison.)

Victims fit many descriptions to enrage a white supremacist: mixed-race couples ambushed from sniper positions, two black youths walking home, a black fast food manager, a Jewish parishioner waiting for worship outside a synagogue, even two white girls he picked up hitchhiking who said something about a black boyfriend.

He wasn’t tried for all these murders and his own accounts of his career shifted over time; he’s estimated to have taken at least 18 lives in various near-random shootings covering 11 different states. If Franklin himself knew the exact count, he took it to the grave.

“Do you know how many people you murdered?” he’s asked in this interview.

“I’d rather not mention it.”

“By my count, it’s 22 people.”

“That’s approximately it.”

Whatever the exact body count, Franklin is best known for two killings he didn’t quite manage to commit.

On May 29, 1980, he shot civil rights activist Vernon Jordan in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Jordan recovered, and President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Jordan’s bedside in hospital was the very first story covered on CNN’s debut broadcast on June 1, 1980.

Two years previous, incensed by Hustler magazine’s interracial spreads, Franklin had attempted to assassinate porn publisher Larry Flynt. Flynt was paralyzed from the waist down as a result: he’s been confined to a wheelchair ever since. Nevertheless, Flynt opposed Franklin’s execution. “I do not want to kill him, nor do I want to see him die,” Flynt wrote in the Hollywood Reporter a month before Franklin went to his death.

Franklin has been sentenced by the Missouri Supreme Court to death by legal injection on Nov. 20. I have every reason to be overjoyed with this decision, but I am not. I have had many years in this wheelchair to think about this very topic. As I see it, the sole motivating factor behind the death penalty is vengeance, not justice, and I firmly believe that a government that forbids killing among its citizens should not be in the business of killing people itself.

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1781: Margaret Tinkler, abortionist

Add comment November 20th, 2016 Headsman


British Evening Post, Nov. 27-29, 1781

On this date in 1781, midwife Margaret Tinkler hanged at Durham.

Tinkler had care of Jane Parkinson who wished to rid her belly of a pregnancy. The reader might well guess that procuring an abortion in 18th century England was a frightful procedure; in Parkinson’s case it took her life thanks to (as the court found) Tinkler’s “thrusting and inserting 2 pieces of wood into & against the private parts & womb of the said Jane giving the said Jane diverse mortal wounds punctures and bruises of which she languished from 1st to 23rd July & then died.” (Source) All that “languishing” gave the dying Parkinson time to accuse Tinkler; the midwife’s insistence that she had merely counseled her patient how to contrive an abortion rather than performing that abortion fell on deaf ears. (Tinkler maintained that story to her last confession.)

As a murderer, Tinkler was posthumously anatomized. The surgeons discovered “two long black double wire pins, as used at that time in women’s hair … in her belly, which it was supposed she had swallowed to destroy her life.”

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1829: The slaves of the Greenup revolt

Add comment November 20th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1829, the Kentucky town of Greenup strung up martyrs to the slave economy.

Our incident begins with a slaver by the name of Gordon who, with the aid of two assistants, was driving 60 blacks “including all sexes and ages” from the flesh markets of Maryland where he bought them west to the Mississippi — likely there to be “sold down the river” into barges bound for still harsher bondage deeper South. Melancholy slave coffles* like this one crisscrossed Kentucky’s highways routinely, columns of chattel lashed two by two to a long chain with a wagon train of provisions alongside. (Source) The awful migrations peaked in the summer months — timed to cotton plantations’ coming labor demands for the autumn harvest.

Despite the frequency and visibility of these transits, Kentucky remained an uneasy northern frontier of the Slave Power; in the coming Civil War it would become a literal battleground claimed by both North and South. Greenup was a river town, and just across the river lay Ohio, an abolitionist state. Kentucky’s proximity to free soil had invited bloody slave revolts in the past; here, the North-South nexus also helped to propagate the story of the Greenup incident.

An editor in nearby Portsmouth, Ohio, which was not merely free territory but a hub of the Underground Railroad, ran a story that soon volleyed around the Republic as newspaper after neighboring newspaper reprinted the remarkable bulletin copied ultimately from Portsmouth’s Western Tiller. This version of it (with line breaks added for readability) comes from the New-Hampshire Sentinel of Sept. 18, 1829. It’s verbatim from what the Western Tiller had reported almost a month before.

Affray and Murder!

A most shocking outrage was committed in Kentucky, about eight miles from this place, on the 14th inst. [14th of August, 1829] A negro driver, by the name of Gordon, who had purchased in Maryland about 60 negroes, including all sexes and ages, was taking them, assisted by an associated named Allen, and the wagoner who conveyed the baggage, to the Mississippi.

The men were handcuffed and chained together in the usual manner for driving those poor wretches, while the women and children were suffered to proceed without incumbrance.

It appears that, by means of a file, the negroes, unobserved, had succeeded in separating the irons which bound their hands, in such a way as to be able to throw them off at any moment. About eight o’clock in the morning, while proceeding on the state road leading from Greenup to Vanceburg, two of them dropped their shackles and commenced a fight, when the wagoner, Petit, rushed in with his whip to compel them to desist. At this moment every negro was found perfectly at liberty; and one of them seizing a club, gave Petit a violent blow on the head, and laid him dead at his feet; and Allen, who had come to his assistance, met a similar fate, from the contents of a pistol fired by another of the gang.

Gordon was then attacked, seized and held by one of the negroes, whilst another fired twice at him with a pistol, the ball of which each time grazed his head, but not proving effectual, he was beaten with clubs and left for dead.

They then commenced pillaging the wagon, and with an axe split open the trunk of Gordon, rifled it of the money, about $2,400, sixteen of the negroes then took to the woods.

Gordon in the mean time, not being materially injured, was enabled by the assistance of one of the [slave] women, to mount his horse and flee; pursued however, by one of the gang, on another horse, with a drawn pistol. Fortunately he escaped with his life, barely arriving at a plantation as the negro came in sight; who then turned about and retreated.

The neighborhood was immediately rallied, and a hot pursuit given — which we understand has resulted in the capture of the whole gang, and the recovery of the greater part of the money.

Seven of the negro men and women, it is said, were engaged in the murders, and will be brought to trial at the next court in Greenupsburg.

There are various reports afoot of the precise number of hangings effected on this date. The Espy file offers five names, but the newspapers of the time give it as four — as in this version from the Essex Gazette of Haverhill, Mass. (Jan. 2, 1830), which is likewise an nth-generation copy of the Western Times‘s initial reportage. The doomed men, that paper remarked, “all maintained to the last, the utmost firmness and resignation to their fate”; in spite of the predictably harsh punishment, it is interesting that they were allowed that traditional privilege of the condemned to expostulate under their hanging-nooses, even here to the point of vindicating the justice of their rebellion which would really have been tantamount to inciting other slaves to follow their example too.**

They severally addressed the assembled multitude, in which they attempted to justify the deed they had committed, on the principle acknowledged by all wise men,

That it is lawful in the sight of God and a principle implanted in the breast of every man by nature, to fight for freedom, and slay the tyrant who dares to deprive them of it.

This only they had done, and having failed to accomplish the sole object for which they slew their merciless oppressors, traffickers in human flesh, it remained for them to pay the forfeit of that failure with their lives.

One of them while standing upon the cart, just ready to be launched into eternity, exclaimed, several times — “Death! — Death, any time, in preference to slavery!”

During the whole time they stood under the gallows, not a joint was seen to tremble, nor a sigh heard to escape from them.


David Walker, a free-born North Carolina black man who moved to Boston and became a prominent abolitionist, dwells at some length on the story in his magnum opus, Walker’s Appeal. Directed at his African-American fellows, the Appeal here does not pause to justify the self-evident righteousness of slaves revolting against their captors — instead, it addresses the putatively “humane” action of the enslaved woman, who in Walker’s estimation in effect props up slavery as a whole when she rescues the near-murdered slaver Gordon. Indeed, while the sketchy information that survives about this failed revolt does not offer us the particulars of what unfolded in the hours immediately following the slaves’ breakout, the proximity of potential refuge across the sectional border invites one to wonder whether that ounce of compassion was not the difference preventing the slaves from reaching the Ohio River. Walker, at any rate, has no patience for sentiment in this instance.

Here a notorious wretch, with two other confederates had SIXTY of them in a gang, driving them like brutes … [until] by the help of God [the slaves] got their chains and hand-cuffs thrown off, and caught two of the wretches and put them to death, and beat the other until they thought he was dead, and left him for dead; however, he deceived them, and rising from the ground, this servile woman helped him upon his horse, and he made his escape.

Brethren, what do you think of this? Was it the natural fine feelings of this woman, to save such a wretch alive? I know that the blacks, take them half enlightened and ignorant, are more humane and merciful than the most enlightened and refined European that can be found in all the earth … there is a solemn awe in the hearts of the blacks, as it respects murdering men: whereas the whites, (though they are great cowards) where they have the advantage, or think that there are any prospects of getting it, they murder all before them, in order to subject men to wretchedness and degradation under them. This is the natural result of pride and avarice.

But I declare, the actions of this black woman are really insupportable. For my own part, I cannot think it was any thing but servile deceit, combined with the most gross ignorance: for we must remember that humanity, kindness and the fear of the Lord, does not consist in protecting devils. Here is a set of wretches, who had SIXTY of them in a gang, driving them around the country like brutes, to dig up gold and silver for them, (which they will get enough of yet.) Should the lives of such creatures be spared? Are God and Mammon in league? … Any person who will save such wretches from destruction, is fighting against the Lord, and will receive his just recompense. The black men acted like blockheads. Why did they not make sure of the wretch? He would have made sure of them, if he could.

Walker died suddenly of tuberculosis a few months after his Appeal hit print. As he forecast elsewhere in that same document, his widow received scant indulgence on her mortgage debt once the husband was out of the picture and the white real estate mogul George Parkman soon compounded the woman’s grief by throwing her out of the house. It was one of the countless little coldnesses Parkman inflicted en route to stacking up his own fortune … and to his years-later star turn as the victim of one of Harvard University’s most sensational murder trials.

* The witness who described this earlier 1822 scene of a 40-strong slave coffle marching perversely under the stars and stripes quotes an apt stanza from popular 18th century poet William Cowper, an ardent hater of slavery:

Ah! me, what wish can prosper, or what prayer,
For merchants rich in cargoes of despair?
Who drive a loathsome traffic, gauge and span,
And buy the muscles and the bones of man!

** Perhaps matters would have been handled differently a couple of years later, after Nat Turner‘s rebellion scared the pantaloons off slaveowners.

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1936: Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, Falange founder

1 comment November 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1936, the Spanish Republicans shot Don José Antonio Primo de Rivera y Sáenz de Heredia, 1st Duke of Primo de Rivera, 3rd Marquis of Estella, Grandee of Spain.

The son of Spain’s 1920s dictator, Primo de Rivera founded in 1933 the Falange, Spain’s native fascist movement.

At the October 29 founding convention that year at Madrid’s Theatre of Comedy, Primo de Rivera scathingly pilloried the wan democratic rituals that coming years’ conflict would sweep aside. “The most ruinous system of wasted energy,” he jeered at liberal democracy, where men with leadership waste their talents in hollow electoral hustling and parliamentary rigmarole while the nonsensical ephemeral whims of a formless plurality pass for the vision he attributed to the time before Rousseau ruined everything. “What alone mattered to the liberal state was that a certain number of gentlemen be sitting at the polling station, that the voting start at eight o’clock and end at four, that the ballot boxes not get smashed — when being smashed is the noblest aspiration of all ballot boxes.” (The full speech is available in Spanish here.)

Primo de Rivera espoused for Falangismo the same impulses — of unity, of destiny, of national rebirth, of the triumphant collective — that animated Europe’s similar extreme right stirrings in those years. Only 35 years before, Spain had lost her empire, near enough in memory to inform an acute ache of loss.

In a poetic sweep we will raise this fervent devotion to Spain; we will make sacrifices, we will renounce the easy life and we will triumph, a triumph that — you know this well — we shall not obtain in the upcoming elections. In these elections vote the lesser evil. But your Spain will not be born out of them, nor does our frame for action reside there. That is a murky atmosphere, spent, like a tavern’s after a night of dissipation. Our station is not there. I am a candidate, yes, but I take part in these elections without faith or respect. And I say this now, when so doing may cost me every vote. I couldn’t care less. We are not going to squabble with the establishment over the unsavory left-overs of a soiled banquet. Our station is outside though we may provisionally pass by the other one. Our place is out in the clear air, beneath a moonlit sky, cradling a rifle, and the stars overhead. Let the others party on. We stand outside vigilant; earnest and self-confident we divine the sunrise in the joy of our hearts.

Unlike the Naziism in Germany or Fascism in Italy, Falangism never grew into a force capable of conquering state power itself. Just thirty-three months after Primo de Rivera’s founding address, the Spanish Civil War erupted. The Falangists’ alliance with Francisco Franco — after the war, they would be combined with the Carlists into the only legal political association* in Francoist Spain — spelled great gains for their membership rolls but it was still the General who called the shots.**

Primo de Rivera’s share in this alliance was a voluptuous cult of personality as Spain’s preeminent right-wing martyr, fine posthumous work if you can get it mitigated only by the necessity of undergoing the martyrdom. The fascist prophet was already in prison at the time Franco struck the first blow of the war: he’d been arrested in Madrid on weapons charges. From his cell he carried on a brazen correspondence with Nationalists conniving to subvert the hated Spanish Republic, and when his activities were discovered and prosecuted that autumn in light of Franco’s July revolt they could scarcely have been better framed to incur the utmost measure of judicial wrath.

In consequence of his martyrdom, November 20 remains down to the present a hallowed day for the far right in Spain.


“Cara al Sol” (“Facing the Sun”) is the Falangist anthem; the lyrics are generally credited to Primo de Rivera.

* The Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista, or “Spanish Traditionalist Phalanx of the Assemblies of National-Syndicalist Offensive” (FET y de las JONS) — or less exhaustingly, the Movimiento Nacional (National Movement).

** Primo de Rivera and Franco didn’t like each other much personally, either.

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1903: Peter Mortensen, divinely accused

2 comments November 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Peter Mortensen was shot over a lumber bill.

The evidence against Peter Mortensen was circumstantial: a moonlight witness, some unexplained cash, and a perceived insufficiency of vigor in insisting upon his innocence when suspicion fell upon him.

Though this much sounds pretty speculative, Mortensen’s very direct pecuniary interest in Hay’s death was harder to wave away. Mortensen, a Salt Lake contractor, owed money to George Ernest Romney’s* Pacific Lumber company. On the evening of December 16, 1901, he summoned Romney’s employee James R. Hay — who was also Mortensen’s friend, neighbor, and fellow-teacher at a Mormon Sunday school — to pay up.

Hay never made it home.

The next day, Mortensen had a receipt for the payment in Hay’s hand, and Hay had a cashless grave and a bullet hole in his head. Rarely have means, motive, and opportunity converged so exactly.

Public sentiment against Mortensen was so overwhelming** that selecting an impartial-ish jury proceeded at a weeks-long crawl as Mortensen’s attorney met prospect after prospect by bluntly asking whether they had formed an opinion as to his man’s guilt. Prospect after prospect confirmed that they had done. By the end, the court had been reduced to issuing “open venires” bypassing the regular jury summons process and authorizing anyone handy to be inducted into the jury pool. Deputies scoured Salt Lake City like press gangs, hunting for possible jurymen.

In all, the court dismissed some 600 prospective jurors for bias (which was quite a lot for the time), and ran through $4,500 in that process alone (likewise).

Those finally seated had to weigh, along with the more conventional indicia of guilt, the inflammatory witness testimony of James Hay’s father … who said he didn’t just have a pretty strong suspicion about the defendant, but that he actually knew Mortensen did it. “God revealed it to me,” the elder Hay said with “tears streaming down his cheeks” according to a report in the Idaho Daily Statesman of June 6, 1902.

He appeared to me by the Holy Ghost and put the words of His Spirit into my mouth. I had to utter them, for I knew they were true. I cannot and will not deny it here, neither will I deny it when I meet my God on the last day.

This is not the only manifestation I received. On Tuesday noon I saw the trail of blood leading from the railroad tracks to where my son-in-law was buried. I saw it in a vision just as plainly as when I afterwards visited the spot.

Again, this is judicial testimony in an American courtroom in the 20th century.

The fact that it appeared — and that the trial court refused a defense demand to instruct the jury not to consider supernatural visions in the light of real evidence — formed the central argument of Mortensen’s appeal. In the end, Utah’s Supreme Court refused to vacate the sentence. Still, the weird appearance of “divine revelation evidence” in a Utah courtroom led the Mormon patriarch Joseph F. Smith to issue a finding distancing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from any embarrassing mummery:

[N]o member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should, for one moment, regard such testimony as admissible in a court of law, and to make the case perfectly clear it may be further stated that such evidence would not be permissible even in a Church court, where rules of evidence, though not so technical, are founded largely upon the same principles that govern the rules of evidence in a court of law. Any attempt, therefore, to make it appear that such evidence is in keeping with the tenets of the “Mormon” faith is wholly unjustified

About six weeks before Mortensen’s execution, a prison break took place at the penitentiary. It’s been given out latterly that the arrogant Mortensen was so unpopular even with his fellow-prisoners that they intentionally left him stuck in his cell. 1903 press accounts appear to indicate otherwise — that he was not the only convict left stuck in his cell, and that Mortensen’s particular rum luck wasn’t a social lack but a digital one: somebody dropped the necessary set of keys. Either way, there was no way out, and neither when Utah’s governor interviewed Mortensen personally to see about his mercy application. Never mind his popularity with prisoners; Mortensen’s continued insistence on innocence while pleading for his life was the real diplomatic failure.

Mortensen selected shooting rather than hanging as his method of death, and went to it “firm as a rock.” He left only a last statement repeating his vociferous and widely disbelieved denial of Hay’s murder.

To the world I want to say and swear by the heavens above, by the earth beneath, and by all I hold near and dear to me on this earth, that I am not guilty of that cowardly murder of my dearest friend. I ask therefore no man’s pardon for aught that I may have done in life. I am confident that my life is an example to most people. I lay no claim — please strike out the last two words — I do not say that I am better or more worthy of respect of the world than the average man, but I have done my duty to my father and mother, my brothers and sister, and to other near relatives. I have done my absolute duty toward my wife and my five little babies. May God keep and care for those sweet darlings.


Salt Lake Telegram, Nov. 20, 1903.

* Yes, those Romneys. George Ernest Romney‘s significantly younger first cousin George Wilcken Romney became Governor of Michigan, and was in turn the father of the 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The mutual grandfather of George E. and George W. designed the St. George Tabernacle.

** Even Mortensen’s wife thought him guilty, for he had gone out that fatal evening of the 16th with Hay, and returned an hour later “deathly pale.” However, while God’s hearsay to Mr. Hay was available in open court, Mrs. Mortensen’s evidence was not: Utah law prohibited wives testifying against their husbands.

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2010: Mohsen bin Faisal Al Barik Al-Dossary, Saudi cop-killer

Add comment November 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 2010, a Saudi Arabian man named Mohsen al-Dossary or al-Dussari was beheaded in Riyadh for having shot dead a police officer in nearby Kharj who tried to stop him driving the wrong way on a street.

That’s some costly road rage.

Islamic sharia law provides the victim’s family the right to pardon an offender and stop an execution; implicit in that right is the need for the offended family to make a legally supportable determination to withhold pardon in order for an execution to proceed. In an interesting twist on that jurisprudence, the Saudi Press Agency reported that al-Dossary had to wait several years in prison while the policeman’s sons grew to majority and could legally consent to having the murderer put to death.

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869 or 870: St. Edmund the Martyr

2 comments November 20th, 2011 Headsman

This is the feast date and martyrdom date of middle ages English king Edmund the Martyr.

Stained glass of Edmund the Martyr from Our Lady and the English Martyrs church in Cambridge. (cc) image from Laurence OP

This acute ruler of the East Angles, the last native East Anglian king, was stomped in battle by the marauding norsemen under Ivar the Boneless and his less interestingly-named brother Ubbe Ragnarsson.

These two were sore about their father Ragnar Lodbrok, who had shipwrecked in England — maybe East Anglia, maybe elsewhere — and allegedly been thrown into a snakepit.

According to the hagiographic account, these Danish heathens attempted to force Edmund to renounce Christianity. Edmund demurred.

Then those wicked men bound Edmund, and shamefully insulted him, and beat him with clubs, and afterwards they led the faithful king to an earth-fast tree, and tied him thereto with hard bonds, and afterwards scourged him a long while with whips, and ever he called, between the blows, with true faith, on Jesus Christ; and then the heathen because of his faith were madly angry, because he called upon Christ to help him. They shot at him with javelins as if for their amusement until he was all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine’s bristles, even as Sebastian was.

The martyr-king’s body was ultimately interred at the aptly-namd Bury St. Edmunds. This locale thereafter became a major, and lucrative, pilgrimage spot in Britain.

Edmund himself became the patron saint of England until he was supplanted just before the Norman invasion by omnibus patron saint George. As George had nothing to do with England, there’s been some latter-day push to revert the honor to the native king.

So far, no dice.

Update: Jamie that killjoy at the British History Podcast puts it in 869 and rebuts the notion that there was any execution at all, here.

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1903: Tom Horn

3 comments November 20th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Tom Horn hanged in Cheyenne — a frontier legend lost in the post-frontier world.

Tom Horn passed the months between trial and execution braiding rope. Legend obviously holds that he made the noose that hanged him.

Horn‘s forty-three colorful years traced the waning days of the Wild West: he was a cavalry scout who helped capture Apache warrior Geronimo, a Pinkerton agent, a hired gun in the murderous Wyoming cattle wars. (He made a side trip to Florida during the Spanish-American War to organize Teddy Roosevelt’s supply train before the Battle of San Juan Hill.)

He had hunted many rustlers to their deaths, though he may have swung for a killing he didn’t do; the verdict against him in the murder of 14-year-old Willie Nickell is still hotly disputed to this day. It turned on a dubious liquor-induced “confession” as recorded by the lawmen who wanted to arrest him.

Horn’s death, to the hymn of “Life’s Railway to Heaven”, is a milestone in the passing of the frontier West; too, it was a milestone in a weird experimental cul-de-sac for modern America’s fascination with technological innovation on the scaffold. A contraption called the “Julian gallows,” named for the man who designed it, used the prisoner’s weight on the trap to open a water valve that filled a barrel that knocked over a post supporting the trap, causing the prisoner to eventually drop without any hangman’s hand on a lever.

A steady,* solitary man, Horn took it all in with equanimity. Maybe it was written: not for this rugged plains gunslinger to lurk on as a relic into the age of flight, cubism, trench warfare. Already in his lifetime the frontier had disappeared into kitsch.

Tom Horn lives on in Wyoming lore, and the tale has no greater curator than Wyoming’s Chip Carlson. Carlson manages www.tom-horn.com and is the author of Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon; he was good enough to chat with Executed Today about our day’s subject.

First things first — did Tom Horn actually do the crime for which he hanged?

Tom Horn was convicted because of social pressure (the fact that he represented the cattle barons) and the political ambitions of the prosecutor and presiding judge.

So what was different in Wyoming after Horn’s execution?

The cattle barons and other big business entities (e.g., mining barons, railroad barons, etc.) had much less influence on public affairs.

He seems like an almost self-consciously inscrutable character. What drove him?

He was a faithful and reliable employee, but seemed to thrive on adrenaline.

Was he just, at the end, a man who couldn’t change as his world changed around him?

Yes, he was out of date and out of the times.

Did people of his own time also see him as a part of the frontier West that was no more?

Yes.

How did you become so interested in Tom Horn? As the go-to expert on his life, what do you find draws others to him, and what sorts of lessons do people draw from his story?

He is the number one Name in Wyoming history, because of the controversies about whether he killed 14-year-old Willie Nickell (tom-horn.com page) and how his trial was conducted. (tom-horn.com page)

I had read every book published about him up till the time I started researching him, and when contrasting the various testimonies in the inquest with the trial, puzzled, how the hell could they have ever convicted him? All this is laid out in my book, Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon.

Two films about Tom Horn — Mr. Horn, starring David Carradine, and Tom Horn, starring Steve McQueen — were released within months of each other in 1979-80.

* His reported last words were coolly directed at one of his executioners who showed anxiety — “Ain’t losing your nerve, are you, Joe?”

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284: Aper, by Diocletian

6 comments November 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date* in 284, one of Rome’s greatest emperors claimed the purple by summarily executing his rival before the approving army in Anatolia.

The Emperor Diocletian christened his reign with a bit of scaffold theatricality, but he might have been the real perp.

For half a century, the Roman Empire had waded through crisis. In its political manifestation, a parade of forgettable emperors had marched through the throne room, each to be assassinated, overthrown, or otherwise disposed of by some equally forgettable aspirant en route to a similarly unenviable end.

At length, out of this unpropitious bunch, rose one Diocles, a low-born Dalmatian of classical education whose martial gifts saw him rise through the legions. His opportunity came when the emperor Carus, barely a year on from succeeding his assassinated predecessor, died on campaign against Persia allegedly struck by lightning (quite possibly a euphemism for something more dagger-like), leaving his son Numerian in charge.

As the army meandered back to the friendly confines, Numerian secluded himself in his litter. And after a while, the litter started to stink.

Sometime on the journey, he’d been secretly killed — but by whom?

The principals this day are our leading suspects. (And it’s a little mystifying in either case just what was gained by leaving the body hidden so long.) We turn to Gibbon to narrate what must have been a riveting — not to mention definitive — proceeding adjudicating between them a few kilometers past Nicomedia (moder Izmit, Turkey) towards Chalcedon (now the Kadikoy district of Istanbul).

A general assembly of the army was appointed to be held at Chalcedon, whither Aper was transported in chains, as a prisoner and a criminal. A vacant tribunal was erected in the midst of the camp, and the generals and tribunes formed a great military council. They soon announced to the multitude that their choice had fallen on Diocletian, commander of the domestics or body-guards, as the person the most capable of revenging and succeeding their beloved emperor. The future fortunes of the candidate depended on the chance or conduct of the present hour. Conscious that the station which he had filled exposed him to some suspicions, Diocletian ascended the tribunal, and raising his eyes towards the Sun, made a solemn profession of his own innocence, in the presence of that all-seeing Deity. Then, assuming the tone of a sovereign and a judge, he commanded that Aper should be brought in chains to the foot of the tribunal. “This man,” said he, “is the murderer of Numerian;” and without giving him time to enter on a dangerous justification, drew his sword, and buried it in the breast of the unfortunate praefect.** A charge supported by such decisive proof was admitted without contradiction, and the legions, with repeated acclamations, acknowledged the justice and authority of the emperor Diocletian.

Though there isn’t any direct evidence of it, posterity is entitled to suspect on grounds of means, motive and opportunity, that the eventual beneficiary of Numerian’s demise — the emperor henceforth known as Diocletian — was its true author.

Whether obtained by fair means or foul, Diocletian put the laurels of state to good use, stabilizing government by introducing the “Tetrarchy” — the rule of the empire’s eastern and western halves by two emperors (“Augusti”) each aided by a “Caesar” who was also the heir apparent.

Diocletian’s two decades in power before his anomalous voluntary retirement constitute a watershed in the late history of Rome, and not only because the cycle of imperial assassinations and civil war took a welcome generation-long hiatus.

Although he’s also remembered for initiating the last major persecution of Christians, his administration set the stage for the rise of Constantine the Great, the Galilean’s first imperial champion. Constantine’s father was one of the original tetrarchs, the Caesar of the west.

And in the longer term, Diocletian’s division of the empire between east and west would sow the seed of the later separation of Byzantium and Rome, and the corresponding division in the Christian world. No surprise, then, that the first ruler profiled in Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast is this date’s executioner:

[audio:http://www.12byzantinerulers.com/audio/02-Diocletian.mp3]

More audiophilia about Diocletian and the tetrarchs in this lecture from Isabelle Pafford’s UC-Berkeley course on Roman history. (The first 6:45 or so consists of class business and carryover from previous lectures.)

[audio:http://webcast.berkeley.edu/media/s2008/hist106b/hist106b_20080425.mp3]

* As with much in the ancient world, sourcing is tenuous, and there is some scholarly debate over whether the events in this post should be ascribed to November 20, or to November 17, or to September 17, or to some other date. Since this blog, notwithstanding its title, embraces the occasional execution whose date is uncertain, I am prepared to wave aside textual uncertainty in the interest of a ripping good story.

** According to the Historia Augusta, Diocletian had a superstitious reason to carry out this bloodthirsty act personally.

This story my grandfather related to me, having heard it from Diocletian himself. “When Diocletian,” he said, “while still serving in a minor post, was stopping at a certain tavern in the land of the Tungri in Gaul, and was making up his daily reckoning with a woman, who was a Druidess, she said to him, ‘Diocletian, you are far too greedy and far too stingy,’ to which Diocletian replied, it is said, not in earnest, but only in jest, ‘I shall be generous enough when I become emperor.’ At this the Druidess said, so he related, ‘Do not jest, Diocletian, for you will become emperor when you have slain a Boar (Latin: Aper).’ ” … It is now well known and a common story that when he had killed Aper, the prefect of the guard, he declared, it is said, “At last I have killed my fated Boar.” My grandfather also used to say that Diocletian himself declared that he had no other reason for killing him with his own hand than to fulfill the Druidess’ prophecy and to ensure his own rule. For he would not have wished to become known for such cruelty, especially in the first few days of his power, if Fate had not impelled him to this brutal act of murder.

Part of the Themed Set: The “Ex” Stands For “Extrajudicial”.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Assassins,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Murder,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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