2017: Robert Pruett

4 comments October 12th, 2017 Headsman

Texas this evening executed Robert Pruett, a 38-year-old man who last saw the outside of prison as a 15-year-old boy … and who perhaps had no hand in either of the murders that defined his life and death.

He was sent to jail as a child under the “law of parties” for being present when his father stabbed a neighbor to death — an offense that caught him an unthinkable 99-year sentence before he was old enough to drive.

It’s claimed by way of justifying his death by lethal injection tonight that in 1999 he murdered a guard. Pruett has always denied this and has never been linked by physical evidence to the murder — a very late attempt at DNA testing yielded a frustratingly indecisive outcome — and the testimony against him consisted of prisoners whose status as wards of the state issuing the prosecution predictably compromises their evidence. Pruett never quite had conclusive proof of his innocence so his “merely” questionable guilt fits a depressingly frequent pattern: use the prosecutor’s muscle to get a conviction on the books, then ride procedural inertia all the way to the gurney.

Anti-death penalty nun Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame has a Twitter thread summarizing the case for Pruett beginning here.

Innocent or guilty, Pruett is — was — a man of unusual erudition. A blogspot blog last updated in 2007 has some fascinating reflections from a much younger man, years before he was a figure of interest for New York Times op-eds.

As I lie awake at night pondering my predicament, a feeling of futility envelopes me. The maxim that had once helped me develop an insatiable will wants to fade away. I waited too long to fight, says some voice that I hardly recognize as my own. It’s over. I should acquiesce to my fate … Yet there’s another voice from the depths of my soul rebuking the other, warning me against throwing the towel in. I’m not a quitter, it says, I can do this if I set my mind to it. That sounds more like the Robert I know. There’s still time to prove my innocence. It’s foolish to waste it with all the negative thoughts of defeat.

Just three days before Pruett’s execution, Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson wrote a captivating review of a nine-chapter autobiography of Pruett’s that demands a full read. I have not been able to locate a link to the actual autobiography itself and would be grateful for anyone who might be able to direct me; nevertheless, Robinson’s lengthy excerpts achingly humanize the late writer from his behind-the-8-ball childhood to his maturation under the executioner’s very long shadow.

It wasn’t until I got to death row that I realized my ignorant and hateful views on race were a reflection/projection of how I felt about myself, that I’d constructed a complex ideology totally rooted and parallel to the things I most disliked about me. I used to go on tangents about the criminality exhibited by the black youth of America, how it needs to be addressed and curbed, but the truth was that I was talking about myself the entire time and didn’t even realize it. It’s a truth that we project onto others the things we most hate about ourselves. Carl Jung said that our shadow selves, the part of our psyches that we store repressed emotional themes and the aspects of our personalities we dislike, is represented by what we hate/dislike in others. You are what you hate …

Somehow, I believe it took me coming here, living the life of extreme adversity that I have, in order to conquer my shadow and grow in the ways I have … I needed to have my life ripped away from me, to face a hopeless situation and experience great loss and pain in order to finally break through and spread my own wings.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Texas,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1984: Linwood Briley, terror of Richmond

Add comment October 12th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1984, the eldest of Richmond’s still-notorious spree-killing Briley brothers went to Virginia’s electric hair.

Though they came from a respected and stable family, the Briley youths turned out to be such terrifyingly bad seeds that their father, James Sr., eventually kept his own bedroom door padlocked against them.

Our man Linwood Briley was the calculating leader, and the first of the Brileys to taste blood when he senselessly shot a 57-year-old neighbor hanging laundry in her backyard in 1971. As the shooter was only 16 at the time, he did a brief turn in reform school and returned to Richmond neither rehabilitated nor deterred.

In 1979, Linwood led his younger brothers James Jr. (J.B.) and Anthony on a seven-month rampage with a friend named Duncan Meekins. (Meekins would wisely turn state’s evidence against his accomplices.)

On March 12 of that year, Linwood and Anthony knocked on a door in Henrico County, pleading car trouble. No sooner did William and Virginia Bucher admit them then the Brileys trussed up the good samaritans, ransacked their house for valuables, and tossed a farewell match into the gasoline trails they had run through the rooms.

The Buchers managed to slip their bonds and escape their pyre, but few who met the Brileys in the weeks to come would be so fortunate.

Their attacks were marked by violent ferocity that terrified Richmonders, even though they were often driven by pecuniary motives.

In one killing, the murder that technically earned Linwood Briley his death sentence, the gang lay in wait in an alley behind a nightclub and randomly snatched the first person who stepped out for a breath of fresh air. That turned out to be the DJ, John Gallaher, who was forced into the trunk of his own car, driven to an abandoned factory on Mayo Island, and executed.

Two weeks later, they cornered a 62-year-old nurse at the door of her apartment and battered her to death with a baseball bat before they looted the apartment. Another victim was found with scissors and a fork still sticking out of his lifeless back; one man whom the Brileys suspected of trying to steal their car had his brains dashed out with a falling cinderblock while pinned screaming to the pavement.

Their last victim was a neighbor who had drawn their attention by nervously locking up his house when he saw the Briley gang. The young men intimidated him into opening up for him, raped his wife, and shot the lot, not excluding their five-year-old son.

The Brileys weren’t done alarming Virginians even after their death sentence: on May 31, 1984 — just a few months before Linwood’s electrocution — Linwood and James led a death row breakout and were on the loose for three more weeks, hiding out with an uncle before recapture.

James Briley, Jr. followed his brother to the electric chair on April 8, 1985. As of this writing, Anthony Briley remains incarcerated, as does Duncan Meekins.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Theft,USA,Virginia

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1781: Benjamin Loveday and John Burke, “for the detestable Crime of Sodomy”

1 comment October 12th, 2015 Headsman

October 12, 1781 saw the hanging at Saint Michael’s Hill in Bristol of Benjamin Loveday and John Burke — “for the detestable Crime of Sodomy; they were both capitally convicted on the clearest Evidence, which is shocking to Human Nature to describe.”

The newspaper reporting, both slight and heartbreaking, can be perused at the website of gay history expert Rictor Norton, here. Between the lines, it suggests Loveday as the proprietor of a molly house or something very like it — an establishment catering to the underground market in same-sex desire, the like of which periodically surfaced in moral panic episodes in the 1700s and early 1800s. (See Norton’s topical Mother Claps Molly House: Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830.)

Loveday, “about 41 years of age … was formerly waiter at a principal inn in Bristol, but had lately kept a public-house in Tower Lane.” The younger Burke “had acted as a midshipman in the impress service, and he was the unlucky one. Three other men, Joseph Giles, James Lane, and William Ward, also faced potentially lethal charges of committing sodomy with Loveday at the same assizes; Giles and Lane got off with misdemeanor convictions and Ward was acquitted outright.

About Twelve o’Clock they were brought out of Newgate, and being placed in a Cart, moved in slow Procession to the fatal Tree, preceded by the Under-Sheriff on Horse-back, and other proper Offices; and attended in a Chariot by the Rev. Mr. Easterbrooke and two other Clergymen, who have frequently visited them since their Conviction, and earnestly laboured to bring them to a due Sense of their Crime, and a Confession of their Guilt. To and at the Place of Execution, their Behaviour was decent, and becoming their awful Situation; and though their Convicted was founded on clear and positive Evidence, yet with their last Breath, they both, in the most solemn Manner, protested their Innocence respecting the Crime for which they were doomed to suffer; but at the same Time acknowledged themselves to have been guilty of many heinous Offences. (Oxford Journal, Oct. 20, 1781)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Public Executions,Sex

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1883: Frederick Mann

Add comment October 12th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1883, Frederick Mann was hanged for murdering four members of his master’s family.

Frederick was an immigrant from London and worked as a live-­in farmhand and manservant to the Cooke family in Little Rideau, Ontario. He was only seventeen years old.

Frederick had been living with the Cookes for only a few months at the time of the murders. He seemed to get on fine with Mr. and Mrs. Cooke and their five children, although he sometimes mistreated their livestock. Then, on January 2, 1883, for no apparent reason, he went berserk.

That morning Frederick followed one of the Cooke family’s adult daughters, Emma, into the granary and tried to rape her. When she screamed for help, he strangled her with a rope. Emma’s cries were heard by her mother, who went running to her aid, but Frederick strangled her too.

Following this he went into the barn and attacked his master Ruggles W. Cooke with an ax, chopping his head to pieces. Frederick then went into the farmhouse and attacked sons George and Willie Cooke, who were both still asleep. He killed Willie with a blow to the head but was only able to wound George on the thigh before the boy got away from him. George and his two sisters wrestled the ax away from Frederick, who then fled the farmhouse. (There are reports that George later died of his leg injury.)

He was arrested the next day, just across the Ottawa River in Quebec.

During subsequent investigation it came out that, when he had been working for a family in Montreal, he’d tried to poison them. Doctors who subsequently examined the defendant determined he had “keen intelligence … but low moral nature.” The press reported Frederick had committed the murders “in revenge for a fancied insult.”

Although his attorney prepared for an insanity defense, in the end there was no trial: Frederick pleaded guilty to all four murders on September 17 when he appeared in court. His lawyer pleaded for leniency, but the judge passed the sentence of death.

Young Frederick’s execution was gruesome, as recorded in Jeffrey Pfeifer and Ken Leyton­-Brown’s book Death By Rope: An Anthology of Canadian Executions:

The identity of the hangman was unknown but he was clearly inexperienced and the Sheriff had to show him how to properly pinion the prisoner’s legs. The hangman’s level of inexperience was made even clearer when he pulled the lever, sending Mann through the trap. The drop had been miscalculated and Mann hung less than 1/4 of an inch from the ground. To make matters worse, the noose had been placed incorrectly around the condemned man’s neck and the knot slid under his chin. The spectators were left to watch in horror for almost ten minutes as Mann slowly suffocated, his toes almost touching the ground. After death had been declared Mann was buried in the yard of the gaol, but not before his brain had been removed and sent to Montreal to be examined.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices

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1435: Agnes Bernauer

1 comment October 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1435, the Duke of Bavaria-Munich had his son’s commoner mistress drowned.

Agnes Bernauer (English Wikipedia link | German) was supposed to have been the daughter of an Augsburg barber, though hard details about her life are hard to come by owing to her social class.

By 1432, she’s demonstrably a part of the Munich court; it’s thought that the prince Albert (the future Duke Albert III) must have met her at an Augsburg tournament in 1428.

The nature of her relationship to the Bavarian heir, too, must largely be guessed at. It’s been widely hypothesized that they might have married secretly.

Such a marriage might explain the shocking end to the Agnes-Albert relationship by situating it as a threat to dynastic succession: Albert was Ernst’s only legitimate son, and the Bavarian patrimony had been subdivided and fought over among Wittelsbach kin over the preceding decades.

Whatever the reason, Ernst took the disapproving (maybe) in-law act quite a lot farther than most. While Albert was out on a hunt, Ernst had Agnes seized, condemned for witchcraft, and executed by drowning in the Danube River on Oct. 12, 1435.

Upon hearing of the death of his beloved, Albert bitterly deserted his father for Ernst’s cousin and rival Louis VII, Duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt. The prospect of capping domestic homicide with civil war loomed for several months until father and son were reconciled — and one must guess, once again, at how that conversation went. Albert endowed a perpetual mass for Agnes which is still said annually. A Bernauer chapel containing a tomb relief of Agnes, erected as an apology by Duke Ernst, remains a tourist draw in Straubing.

The star-crossed love of Agnes and Albert has proven irresistible to the arts over the centuries, with a special boom in the Romantic era.

King Ludwig I of Bavaria composed a poem in her honor; several 19th century stage tragedies (most notably that of Friedrich Hebbel) explore the story; and Carl Orff made it into an opera, Die Bernauerin.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drowned,Execution,Germany,History,Notably Survived By,Power,Sex,Summary Executions,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1901: Johannes Lotter, Boer War “rebel”

Add comment October 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1901, Commandant Johannes Lotter was shot at Middelburg.

Along with Gideon Scheepers, Lotter is one of the most famed Boer guerrillas from the Second Boer War.

Regarded by the British as one of their most nettlesome adversaries in that dirty guerrilla war, Lotter was captured in a bloody early September ambush when matters were well into an unpleasant scorched-earth endgame.

This was cause for much slapping of backs among the Union Jack set, and earned for his captor an immediate promotion.


Lotter’s captured men being jubilantly escorted into Graaff-Reinet.

Lotter almost immediately found himself in the dock for — well, all the things one does in a dirty guerrilla war.*

And one other thing: sedition.

The British charged Lotter as a rebellious subject of the British Cape Colony — rather than a resident of one of the independent neighboring Boer states — who owed allegiance to the British crown; upon this premise things like “killing troopers in war” became “murdering troopers”.

Lotter’s trial hung on his papers.** The defendant “pleaded that he was a Free State burgher, and, as such, entitled to the usage of civilised warfare and a legal combatant’s privileges.”

But he was in a bit of a pickle when it came to proving that the “Commandant Lotter” the British discovered on voting rolls for the Cape Colony city of Colesburg was a different guy. Innocent Blood: Executions During the Anglo-Boer War (its title telegraphs its Boer sympathies) summarizes:

his Free State citizen document was in a small case, which was lost or destroyed theday of surrender. Witnesses for the defence gave evidence that they had seen these papers. British intelligence stated that it could find no proof of his Free State citizenship in Bloemfontein. Lotter responded by asking how he could prove his citizenship when all his witnesses were still on commando and that he had been granted no time to call upon them.

Hey, the guy had six whole weeks from capture to execution to sort it all out.

A “Chair Monument” — there’s a picture of it on this page — commemorates Lotter and his fellow commando Pieter Wolfaardt at the place outside Middelburg where they were shot together on Oct. 12, 1901.

A number of additional prisoners from Lotter’s command taken with him in that same ambush were also eventually executed.

* Specifically: murdering two native spies; killing three British soldiers; blowing up railway lines; and sjamboking loyalist civilians.

** When the British later captured Scheepers, who was unquestionably not a Cape rebel, they simply charged his similar conduct as war crimes to the same capital effect.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,Murder,Shot,Soldiers,South Africa,Treason,War Crimes,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1943: Willi Graf, anti-Nazi medic

1 comment October 12th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1943, anti-Nazi student activist Willi Graf was beheaded at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison.

Graf was a conscientious Catholic whose disaffinity for Naziism manifested in an early refusal to join the Hitler Youth: he did a short stint in prison in 1938 for having continued associating with a banned Catholic youth league.

This subversive fellow might have been destined for the chop regardless in the black years to come, but for a thoroughgoing radicalization, he was drafted into the army as a medic and got a front-row seat on the Holocaust and the horrors of the eastern front.

During a 1942 study leave back in Munich, Graf met White Rose resistance figures Hans and Sophie Scholl and began participating in that circle’s distribution of illicit anti-Nazi leaflets.

He was arrested within months and condemned on April 19, 1943 to die as a traitor — though actual execution of the sentence waited several months on the Gestapo’s vain exertions to extract from their prey actionable information on other collaborators.

A number of schools around Germany are named in Graf’s honor.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Soldiers,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1888: Pauline McCoy

1 comment October 12th, 2009 Headsman

The Daily Picayune, October 13, 1888 (page 3).

ALABAMA.

MONTGOMERY.

Execution of Pauline McCoy, the First Woman Hanged in Alabama Since the War — She Murdered a Little Girl for Her Clothes.

MONTGOMERY, Oct. 12 — [Special.] — Pauline McCoy, colored, who was hanged at Union Springs at 1 o’clock for the murder of Annie Jordan, white, last February, was the third woman hanged in Alabama since its incorporation as a state and the first since the war.

On the scaffold the woman broke down completely and had to be supported on the trap by two deputy sheriffs. She had not eaten anything for a day or two and was kept up by the use of stimulants. She admitted having killed the girl in her last speech, but denied that her motive was robbery.

The crime for which the woman was hanged had not its equal in the whole criminal history of Alabama. Her victim had strayed away from her home in this city, being demented, and meeting Pauline down the railroad asked her to accompany her.

That was the last seen of Annie, the 14-year-old child, until her dead body was discovered in a plum thicket near the roadside several days after. Pauline was seen in Union Springs a few days later wearing the shoes, hat and jacket belonging to her victim. She was arrested and said under oath that her father, Jake McCoy, killed the girl and brought the clothes home. At the preliminary trial Jake was discharged and Pauline committed. On her third trial in August she was found guilty and sentenced to be hung, which sentence was faithfully carried out to-day.

Indefatigable crime blogger Laura James has some unanswered — unanswerable — questions about the case. The Daily Picayune had supplied a scanty few additional details from Pauline’s supposed jailhouse confession a few weeks before (September 5, 1888):

Pauline McCoy, the young negro woman who was recently convicted in the circuit court of Bullock county of the murder of Miss Annie Jordan, a demented young white woman who wandered from her home in Montgomery county last spring, has made a full confession of the crime to the jail physician at Union Springs. The murder was committed near [indistinguishable]. Pauline says she and Annie Jordan had a quarrel, and that she choked the young woman to death and concealed the dead body in the bushes. The murderess is sentenced to death on the scaffold on the 18th [sic?] of October.

According to the Espy file (pdf) of American historical executions, Alabama had last executed a woman in 1864 — she was a slave — and would not do so again until Silena Gilmore rode the lightning for murder on January 24, 1930. Over 250 men were put to death during the 41-year span between the two milestone murderesses.

(Only three additional women have been executed in the Yellowhammer State since Gilmore.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Alabama,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,USA,Women

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1915: Nurse Edith Cavell, “patriotism is not enough”

2 comments October 12th, 2008 Headsman

Early this morning in 1915, the German military occupying Belgium shot aid worker Edith Cavell at Brussels for aiding the British war effort.

The matronly nurse had been condemned only the day before by a German military court for helping Allied soldiers escape from behind German lines — charges Cavell readily admitted. The British chaplain who attended her the night before her death reported her saying (not actually her last words, but recalled as her parting sentiment, as it were):

But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward any one.

So naturally, she immediately became the Entente’s bloody banner of the barbarous Hun, helping dramatically ramp up recruitment for the other team’s set of moral cretins.

The thing is, the Germans actually had a point. Cavell ran a nursing school in Brussels, and courageously stuck around when the Germans smashed through Belgium as World War I opened. She’s sometimes remembered as getting in hot water for treating the wounded regardless of nationality, but she did a lot more than that: she got involved with an underground railroad funneling Allied soldiers back to enemy countries.

It was one of those impossible trials of conscience that wartime brings: Cavell, whose hospital was subsumed by the Red Cross during the war, should technically have remained neutral; her actions did bring material aid to Germany’s foes.

However, Belgian, French and English troops caught behind lines by the Germans’ lightning advance were in danger themselves of summary execution, as were civilians who harbored them. Neutrally treating them and handing them over as POWs might have been tantamount to killing many of them, especially in the first few months of the war. Though Edith Cavell said that “I am happy to die for my country,” her actions look more humanitarian than nationalistic — the best choice to be made when no good ones are available. Patriotism of a higher order, if you like.

Probably Cavell’s was a case tailor-made for executive clemency, but Germany was keen to send one of those proverbial messages: civilians in occupied countries had best stay out of the war. Despite the frantic lobbying of England’s ambassadors (and, ominously for Germany, those of the United States), the sentence was carried out on both Cavell and a fellow-traveler in her network, Belgian Philippe Baucq.

Clumsy propagandists, the Kaiser’s boys badly misjudged the message so sent.

In the face of intense international outcry, Germany soon found itself defending its actions (.pdf), and then commuting the sentences (.pdf again) of Cavell’s other collaborators.

None of this abated Cavell’s stupendous propaganda value to Germany’s enemies. And — holy wow, the graying 49-year-old gets made over into quite the heartbreaker in most of these.

The nurse’s repute — and she was said to have struck a Joan of Arc-like chord in those parts — caused a renaissance for the name “Edith” among French and Belgian newborns, most notably singer Edith Piaf (born in December 1915). While Cavell’s sacrifice did nothing to stem her name’s declining Anglo (or at least American) popularity, there is a Mount Edith Cavell named for her in Canada, and a plethora of monuments and public spaces dedicated to her throughout the Allied powers’ lands. (Here are just a handful.) And she still packs enough symbolic punch for the current British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to deploy her in the propagandist’s subtler modern arts.

There’s plenty more about her online, but world headquarters (with information about the Cavell Festival) is edithcavell.org.uk. There’s also a stupendous collection of text and images (several already used in this post) at the sometimes slow-loading but endlessly fascinating site The Great War in a Different Light.

Dutch speakers might enjoy this podcast:

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On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Germany,History,Language,Martyrs,Military Crimes,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Shot,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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