1937: The Parsley Massacre begins

Add comment October 2nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Dominican Republic soldiers commenced the dayslong “Parsley Massacre” of Haitians.

Cooperstown-worthy evil dictator Rafael Trujillo hailed on his mother’s side from Haiti’s privileged French caste and espoused a virulent form of DR’s rife anti-Haitian racism. “As if personifying the antiblack myth of Dominicans,” Robert Lawless noted, “‘Trujillo used cosmetics to disguise the phenotypical features that he inherited from his [black] Haitian grandmother.'” (Source)

Taking power in a military coup in 1930, Trujillo had spent those early years building up a cult of personality, as was the style at the time — and he put it to use conjuring a bloodbath that some shamefaced soldiers confessed they could only conduct with the numbing aid of alcohol. The hypothesized underlying reasons range from El Jefe‘s particular virulent bigotry to prerogatives of statecraft for a zone that had tended towards sympathy for Trujillo’s opponents.

The massacre followed an extensive tour of the frontier region by Trujillo that commenced in August 1937. Trujillo traveled by horse and mule through the entire northern half of the country, both the rich central Cibao region and the northern frontier areas. Touring these provinces, traditionally the most resistant to political centralization, reflected Trujillo’s concerns with shoring up control in the region at the time. The Cibao was the locus of elite rivalry with Trujillo in those years. And because the northern frontier had been a traditional area of autonomy and refuge for local caudillos, the U.S. legation in Santo Domingo assumed that the August 1937 tour was intended to “cowe [sic] opposition.” Much like earlier frontier tours and his travels in other rural areas, Trujillo shook hands and distributed food and money; attended dances and parties in his honor; and made concerted efforts to secure political loyalty in many heretofore intractable lands. Yet the conclusion of this tour was entirely unexpected. During a dance in Trujillo’s honor on Saturday, October 2, 1937, in Dajabon, Trujillo proclaimed:

For some months, I have traveled and traversed the frontier in every sense of the word. I have seen, investigated, and inquired about the needs of the population. To the Dominicans who were complaining of the depredations by Haitians living among them, thefts of cattle, provisions, fruits, etc., and were thus prevented from enjoying in peace the products of their labor, I have responded, “I will fix this.” And we have already begun to remedy the situation. Three hundred Haitians are now dead in Banica. This remedy will continue.

Drawing on the regime’s prevailing antivagrancy discourse and support for peasant production, Trujillo explained his ordering of the massacre as a response to alleged cattle rustling and crop raiding by Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. This was the first of a series of shifting rationalizations that misrepresented the massacre as stemming from local conflicts between Dominicans and Haitians in the frontier.

Some Haitians heard Trujillo’s words and decided to flee. Others had already left following news of the first killings, which occurred at the end of September. A few recalled clues that something ominous was brewing. Most were incredulous, however, and had too much at stake to abandon their homes, communities, and crops — established over decades or even generations — for what sounded, however horrible, like preposterous rumors …

A few Dominicans from the northern frontier recalled that at first Haitians were given twenty-four hours to leave, and that in some cases Haitian corpses were hung in prominent locations, such as at the entrance of towns, as a warning to others. And during the first days of the massacre, Haitians who reached the border were permitted to cross to Haiti over the bridge at the official checkpoint [at the border city of Dajabon]. But the border was closed on October 5. After that, those fleeing had to wade across the Massacre [River]* while trying to avoid areas where the military was systematically slaughtering Haitians on the river’s eastern bank.

In the towns, victims were generally led away before being assassinated. In the countryside, they were killed in plain view. Few Haitians were shot, except some of those killed while trying to escape. Instead, machetes, bayonets, and clubs were used. This suggests again that Trujillo sought to simulate a popular conflict, or at least to maintain some measure of plausible deniability of the state’s perpetration of this genocide. (From Foundations of Despotism: Peasants, the Trujillo Regime, and Modernity in Dominican History)

“Haitian” in this context meant a question of ethnicity rather than simply one of citizenship, for like many border regions the world over that of the Massacre River was (and is) locally permeable. Some Haitians lived in Haiti but crossed into the Dominican Republic routinely for school, work, life; others had border-straddling families and DR birth certificates and citizenship. But even the firmest of bureaucratic documentation meant nothing to the death squads, who bequeathed the distinctive sobriquet “Parsley Massacre” by demanding potential victims buy their lives by pronouncing the word for that garnish, perejil … as an infelicity with the trilled Spanish “r” denoted a Francophone.** (It’s also sometimes known simply as the Haitian Massacre.)

The slaughter raged on until about October 8, give or take; estimates of the number of victims run from 12,000 to north of 30,000. The affair remains a source of tension to this day.

The massacre has literary treatment in the 1998 Edwidge Danticat historical novel The Farming of Bones.

* The river’s shocking name was not obtained from this slaughter, but from a Spanish-on-French bloodbath in colonial times.

** The term “shibboleth”, originally a Hebrew word for grain, was borrowed to English thanks to a similar test imposed in the Book of Judges (12:5-6):

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

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1930: Gordon Northcott, the Wineville Chicken Coop Murderer

2 comments October 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1930, Gordon Stewart Northcott hanged in California’s San Quentin Prison for the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.

Canada-born, Northcott had moved to southern California in 1924 with his parents. They set up a chicken ranch there, and Northcott found this haunt a congenial headquarters for his real passion, the molestation and murder of young boys.

A monster right out of the QAnon fever swamp, Northcott abducted a large number of youths for abuse. Some were released, but at least three and possibly (per Northcott’s erratic and intermittently retracted confessions) upwards of 20 were imprisoned there in chicken coops and eventually murdered on the ranch, their bodies dissolving into quicklime. The victims we can certainly vouch for are Walter Collins and brothers Lewis and Nelson Winslow, plus a never-identified teenage Mexican boy whom Northcott shot and beheaded. All the while his mother was living there on the ranch too,* and not only she, but Northcott’s quietly terrified Canadian cousin Sanford Clark. Northcott molested him too, but he wasn’t just going to brain him with an axe … Sanford was family.

When Sanford’s older sister visited the boy confided the farm’s horrors to her, and Jessie Clark kept her composure well enough to take her fare-thee-wells without raising the monster’s suspicions, finally swearing out a complaint to the American consul in British Columbia. Once Northcott caught sight of immigration officers driving up the dusty road to investigate he fled his Wineville chicken coops for good, and even made it to Canada with his dear creepy mum.

Northcott’s arrest, extradition, trial, and preordained sentence shocked Californians and Northcott did his part to keep everyone’s blood up by reveling in shifty, ghastly confessions. (The father of the Winslow brothers led an abortive lynching attempt.) San Quentin’s warden would recall that Northcott favored him in their conversations with “a lurid account of mass murder, sodomy, oral copulation, and torture so vivid it made my flesh creep.” So great was the notoriety Northcott and his chicken coops brought it that Wineville flat-out changed its name to Mira Loma to dissociate itself weeks after its infamous denizen swung.

Some books about Gordon Stewart Northcott

Northcott’s execution features in a tense scene of the 2008 film Changeling; our killer is played by Jason Butler Harner, but it’s Angelina Jolie who stars as the mother of one of Northcott’s prey who was then afflicted by an imposter child claiming to be her lost son.

* Dad — whom you will not be surprised to learn was slated with abusing young Gordon in his own turn — went to a mental asylum.

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1417: Catherine Saube, retroactive Anabaptist?

Add comment October 2nd, 2017 Thieleman Janszoon van Braght

(Thanks to 17th century Dutch Anabaptist Thieleman Janszoon van Braght for the guest post. It was originally an entry in his Anabaptist martyrology Martyrs Mirror, but although this doctrine did not emerge until the 1520s, van Braght was keen to deploy his hagiographies to connect his movement to a longer tradition of pre-Lutheran dissidents, and thus claims post facto for proto-anabaptism such figures as Waldensians, Albigensians, and Gerard Segarelli. -ed.)

CATHARINE OF THOU, IN LORRAINE, BURNT FOR THE FAITH, AT MONTPELLIER, IN FRANCE, A. D. 1417

On the second of October, about two o’clock in the afternoon, it occurred at Montpellier, in France, that a certain sentence of death was pronounced, and executed the same day, upon an upright and God-fearing woman of Thou, in Lorraine, named Catharine Saube, who, loving the Lord her Saviour more than her own life, steadfastly fought through death, and, pressing her way through the strait gate into the spacious mansions of heaven, left flesh and blood on the post, in the burning flames, on the place of execution, at Montpellier.

The history of Catharine Saube is, as old writers testify, faithfully extracted from the town-book of Montpellier, commonly called Talamus; which word, Chassanion thinks, has been corrupted by passing from one language into the other; and that by the Jews, who at that time resided in great numbers in France, especially at Montpellier, it was called Talmud, which among the Hebrews or Jews, signifies a very large book or roll containing many and various things. Hence it may very easily have been the case, that the French, after the manner of the Jewish Maranes, who lived among them, erroneously called the word Talmud, Talamus, meaning to designate thereby the large book containing the civil records of the burgomasters of Montpellier. From this town-book the following acts were faithfully translated, from the ancient language of Montpellier into the French tongue, by a trustworthy person of Languedoc, and in English [the phrase was “in our Dutch” as van Braght published it -ed.] read as follows, “On the 15th day of November, A. D. 1416, after mass had been read in the parish church of St. Fermin, at Montpellier, Catharine Saube, a native of Thou, Lorraine, came into that church, to present herself. About fifteen or sixteen days previously, she had asked the lords and burgomasters of that city, for permission to be shut in with the other recluses in the nunnery on the Lates road.

The aforesaid lords and burgomasters, and all manner of tradespeople, together with over 1500 townspeople, men as well as women, came to the church, in this general procession. Said burgomasters, as patrons, that is, fathers and protectors of the recluse nuns, conducted said Catharine, as a bride, to the abovementioned cloister, where they let her remain, shut up in a cell, after which they all returned home together.

See, these are the identical words of the extract or copy taken from the town-book; we let the reader judge, as to what was her reason in applying for admittance into the nunnery. Certainly, some did not presume so badly, who have maintained, that experiencing in her heart the beginnings of true godliness proceeding from an ardent faith, she was impelled by a holy desire to reveal to the other recluse nuns the true knowledge of Christ Jesus; finding herself sufficiently gifted by the Lord, to do this. This is very probable; since credible witnesses have declared that in said book Talamus it was also recorded, that some time after the death of Catharine Saube, the whole convent in which said Catharine had been confined was burnt, together with all the nuns; doubtless on account of their religion.

The same public records state, that the year following, A. D. 1417, on the second of October, about two o’clock in the afternoon, when M. Raymond Cabasse, D.D., of the order of Jacobine or Dominican monks, vicar of the inquisitor, sat in the judgment seat, under the chapter which is beside the portal of the city hall at Montpellier, in the presence of the Bishop of Maguelonne, the Lieutenant governor, the four orders, yea, of all the people, who filled the whole city hall square, he declared by definite sentence, that the aforesaid Catharine Saube, of Thou, in Lorraine, who, at her request, had been put into the cloister of the recluses, was a heretic, and that she had disseminated, taught and believed divers damnable heresies against the Catholic faith, namely, “That the Catholic (or true) church is composed only of men and women who follow and observe the life of the apostles.” Again, “That it is better to die, than to anger, or sin against God.” Again, “That she did not worship the host or wafer consecrated by the priest; because she did not believe that the body of Christ was present in it.” Again, “That it is not necessary to confess one’s self to the priest; because it is sufficient to confess one’s sins to God; and that it counts just as much to confess one’s sins to a discreet, pious layman, as to any chaplain or priest.” Again, “That there will be no purgatory after this life.”

Said town-book Talamus contained also four other articles with which Catharine was charged, or at least which she professed; from which it can be inferred that she rejected not only many papal institutions, but among these also infant baptism. The extract from the aforesaid town-book, concerning these four articles, reads literally as follows

  1. That there never has been a true pope, cardinal, bishop, or priest, after the election of the pope (or bishop) ceased to be done through miracles of faith or verity.
  2. “That wicked priests or chaplains neither can nor may consecrate the body of Christ, though they pronounce the sacramental words over it.
  3. “That the baptism which is administered by wicked priests, is of no avail to salvation.
  4. “That infants which die after baptism, before they have faith, are not saved; for they do not believe but through the faith of their godfathers, godmothers, parents, or friends.”

These are the last four articles found in the town-book of Montpellier; from which it certainly is clearly evident, how very bold, ardent, and penetrating the faith of this woman was; so that she did not stop short of attacking even the pope, the priests, and the superstitions practiced by them, and convincing them with God’s truth. For, when she says, in the first article, that “there never has been a true pope,” etc., what else did she indicate, than that there never has been a true pope, cardinal, bishop, or priest in the Roman church, seeing the election of the pope was never done through miracles of faith or verity?

Secondly, when she says, that, “Wicked priests or chaplains neither can nor may,” what else does she mean to say than that wicked priests, who are not holy themselves, need not imagine at all (which is nevertheless believed in popery), that by uttering a few words they can consecrate a piece of bread, yea, transform it into their God and Saviour? which, Catharine had declared before, could not even be done by priests of upright life; for therefore she would not, as she said, worship the wafer consecrated by the priest, because she did not believe that the body of Christ was present in it.

Thirdly, when she says, that https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+16%3A16&version=KJV”The baptism which is administered by wicked priests is,” etc., what else does this indicate than that the shameful life of the priests destroys the ministry itself, and that as little as the words which they pronounce over the host, tend to consecrate it, just as little tends the baptism practiced by them to salvation?

Fourthly, when she says, that “Infants which die after baptism,” etc., what is this but to say that infant baptism is not necessary to salvation, yea, conduces in no wise to it? because infants themselves do not believe, only their godfathers, godmothers, parents or friends, in their stead; but that to be saved, one must believe himself, and be baptized upon this belief, as the Lord says, Mark 16:16; for the faith of another cannot help any one in the world, and consequently, cannot help infants to salvation.

Now; when this pious heroine of God would in no wise depart from her faith, sentence of death was finally pronounced upon her; and having been led to the place of execution, she was burnt, at Montpellier, in the afternoon of October 2, 1417.

Concerning her sentence and death, the town book of Montpellier contains the following words, as translated from the original into the Dutch (now into the English), “Having pronounced this sentence upon her, the vicar of the inquisitor, M. Ray mond, delivered her into the hands of the bailiff, who was provost or criminal judge of the city. The people entreated him much in her behalf, that he would deal mercifully with her; but he executed the sentence the same day, causing her to be brought to the place of execution, and there burnt as a heretic, according to law.”

These are the words of the aforesaid Talamus, or town book, which also contains this further addition, “That the bishop of Maguelonne, after singing a common mass, also preached a sermon before the members of the council, concerning Catharine Saube, against many who said that the sentence of death had unjustly been passed upon her; and rebuked the indignation of those who spoke against this sentence, with very vehement and severe words.”

This is briefly the extract concerning the martyrdom of this God-fearing woman, by which many ignorant, plain people were prompted in their hearts to examine the truth a little nearer, and to apprehend the light of the Gospel in the midst of these dark times, which God blessed, as shall be seen hereafter.

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2012: Moussa Agh Mohammed, by Ansar Dine in Timbuktu

Add comment October 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 2012, northern Mali’s Islamist Ansar Dine movement, then in control of the city of Timbuktu, publicly executed Moussa Agh Mohammed there for murder.

Mohammed was one of Ansar Dine’s own fighters, but stringent consistency would oblige his fellows to put him to death under the sharia law Ansar Dine itself was enforcing in Timbuktu. Some days before he got into a fight with fishermen who reproached him for trampling their nets; as the confrontation escalated towards physical violence, Mohammed unslung his Kalashnikov and gunned one of them down. The fisherman’s family was offered, but refused, compensation in exchange for sparing the killer.

According to a correspondent, Mohammed “was a Tuareg cattle farmer from a major tribe [who] joined the Ansar Dine movement one month ago [before his execution]” having previously been affiliated with the Tuareg rebel army the National Movement for the Independence of Azawad. It was the third known execution in northern Mali under sharia: the previous two were an adulterous couple stoned to death in the town of Aguelhok.

“I didn’t feel a great deal of emotion from the crowd,” our observer reported. “People just stood there and watched as if it were a show. In contrast, the members of Ansar Dine looked moved by the event. Mohammed had close relationships with a number of his peers. But they explained that no one is exempt from Sharia law, and because of that they had no choice but kill him. It was a question of God’s will.”

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1850: Henry Leander Foote, sex crazed

1 comment October 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1850, Henry Leander Foote was hanged in Connecticut.

Foote was an educated man who used his time languishing in jail — there was nearly a full year between his conviction and his execution — to bestow upon the world an autobiographical narrative of his peregrinations, which the reader can peruse in its entirety at the bottom of this post. Affected with wanderlust, he struck out from home as a teenager and began a rambling career that would take him all over America.

One of his first stops was the bustling and burgeoning metropolis that will become the hub of his narrative and, as Foote conceived it, the source of his ruin — New York city. There he was introduced to the city’s vast sexual marketplace.

At the end of two or three weeks, I found myself in the city of New York. What a place for a stranger, a young man of seventeen or eighteen years of age to visit alone, without any guardian to conduct him or advise him, and warn him against evil company! I had no acquaintances except three or four young men, whom I met on board the boat, who were also from Connecticut. They were in company, all belonging to one town, and then invited me to stop at the same public house with them. I had been informed that one of them was the son of a minister of the gospel, consequently I concluded that the company was good and safe to be with. But I found, to my astonishment, that this young man was the ring leader, the rudest and wildest of the crowd. The first night I was led to the Theater, from there to the brothel, and from there to the gambling house and drinking saloon. Here we must be fashionable and have a game of cards and a bottle or two of champane. [sic] … We played and drank till sometime past midnight, when we concluded it was time to retire.

Foote is coy here and suggests that his virginal young self repelled the subsequent invitation to a brothel. Whether or not this is so, he soon became by furtive subsequent visits whose purpose he was careful to conceal from his family an intimate of the city’s many whores.

These youthsome frolics are only foreshadowing for the excuses that Foote would be obliged to make many years later in the pall of the gallows. He spent the 1830s and 1840s bouncing around the growing republic — upstate New York, westward to Cleveland and St. Louis, south to Charleston where he married but lost his wife within a year to childbirth. (The son died, too.) After that, he enlisted in the cavalry and fought in the Seminole Wars.

Foote does not give us much of his sexual adventures on these trips, but between the lines it appears that the concupiscient fornicator and the New England prude ever travel side by side with him. He ships to Rio de Janeiro and does not fail to notice that “the dress of most of the women was not much better than none, being merely a short gown, all open in the neck and breast, and reaching only half way to the knee, fastened round the waist with a belt. They would make any civilized man blush from head to foot, but they were not at all particular as to what position they happened to be in.” Nevertheless, he affects shock when “a mixed-blood, half Spanish and half Indian publican” offers him a girl for the night. (According to Foote, he did not take the girl.)

As for the army, well, it “is a most dangerous and destructive place to the morals of young men. It is a school of intemperance, profanity, licentiousness, obscene language, filthy communications, and all kinds of vile and lewd company” thanks to the degrading example of officers who “when at home, or where they are known, always assume the character of gentlemen, and presume to walk in respectable society, unite with the ‘upper ten,’ and [associate] with virtuous females, who, if they knew their true character, would turn from them with disgust.”

By 1849 we find the peripatetic Foote back in his native hamlet of Northford, Connecticut, 37 years old and again, or still, preoccupying himself with the diversions of the Tenderloin. To the best of my knowledge he is the subject of no biography save his own, and since we find that the diverse sojourns of the previous 20 years have ultimately changed neither his conduct nor even his locale, we might be excused for speculating how many adventures were contrived by the author’s hand.

Wherever it was that he had been, he was becoming a worldly denizen of the bagnio.

A few months before the murder, I spent one week in the city of crime and pollution, viz., New York. As usual on former occasions, I spent my evenings and nights in a theater, gambling house, or brothel. Also on a former visit I had attended an exhibition of nudes, or model artists, as they are termed. But at this time the company had gone to New Orleans; a few of them, however, remained in New York, with one of which I had the misfortune to become acquainted. She was an arrogant prostitute, residing in a house of the higher class. I found her at the Bowery Theater; she enticed me, and I consented to accompany her home. As we entered her room she locked the door, laid aside her upper garments, and invited me to take a glass of wine with her. She poured out two glasses, and took a phial from the drawer of her toilet, drew the cork, and pretended to drop some of the contents in her glass of wine, but not a drop did she let fall. She said it was Cream of the Valley, it would give the wine a delightful flavor, and then made a motion to drop some into my glass. But I was too wide awake for her. I knew it was some drug that might upset my ideas, so I told her to save her cream, I did not need any cream of that sort. She looked at me, and said, “you are not so green as you pretend. I gues syou understand a game or two.” I replied, “I understand enough to know the nature of your cream.” And said I, “what was your object in giving it to me?” “O,” she replied, “I was only going to give you a drop or two, to make you feel keen.” She was very proud of her perfect symmetry of form, and proceeded to make a model artist of herself again, that she might give me a clear view of her model, and also of the extra manoeuvres which she had learned in the model artist plays.

After passing the night with his model artist’s “extra manoeuvres,” Foote pinched the potion for himself thinking to deploy it for his own benefit. He first called on a prostitute who had previously robbed him, engaged her charms for the night, and administered the drug to her, thereby having leisure to rob back the lost funds (“with interest,” Foote admits) as well as to leave behind a taunting note. He also found that she, too, possessed a dose of this potent Cream of the Valley, and duly replenished his supply.

Our dissolute principal was much given to exploiting his moment of notoriety for moral grandstanding, and we again should treat his account with caution.* Another author who visited Foote and published his observations in a pamphlet titled Death Cell Scenes, Or, Notes, Sketches and Momorandums of the Last Sixteen Days and Last Night of Henry Leander Foote is by no means hostile to his subject but often notices his unbecoming worldly preoccupations when he ought to be attending his imminent death with due gravity: he “showed a singular disposition to make money even at the hazard of his soul” by cranking out paintings to sell to the gawkers come to gape at him through the prison-bars and on one occasion arrives only to be brushed off as Foote is “in the height of glory and ambition, vending pamphlets and pictures to persons surrounding his cell with as much gusto as though he had to live twenty years or more!”

He was a doomed man with a keen sense of his audience; Foote even took the trouble to pre-order his own inscribed marble tombstone. (The stone can still be seen at Northford Old Cemetery in New Haven.)

He had a gift for rationalizing and segmenting his hypocrisies, surely honed by his years alternating Puritan piety with opportunistic harlotry. At the end when it could no longer be denied, he surfaced the contradiction by way of attenuating his own guilt.

“By this and other means, the hags who keep brothels contrive to get many of their recruits,” Foote wrote of the drugs like Cream of the Valley — subtly conflating his own loss of self-control with white slavery. “And if an inexperienced young man allows himself to visit their houses once, perhaps for mere curiosity, when he is not aware of any danger, they will bewitch him in some way that will induce him to come again; and so he will continue to go until his ruin is completed. Beware, young man, and shun all such places! Once in, you insensibly lose self-command. It is not easy to resist such temptations when once poisoned. These female Satans use the very arts of old Satan himself, and some that he does not use. Once in their power, you are not your own keeper.”

Not your own keeper — even as he admits and bewails his own crime, Foote wants to convey to posterity the notion of a Jekyll-and-Hyde: that there is a Foote distinct from the murderer.

Back at Northford, “my thoughts were continually revolving upon the obscene views which I had witnessed in New York, particularly upon the model artist female … I seemed to have a bewitching anxiety to see the same again, or to see something of the same kind, and this base desire I could not overcome. A curiosity to see and examine some female in the same state of nudity was constantly haunting my mind.”

Although he’s taken the care to secret the prostitutes’ powerful draught in his trunk, it is not quite he who addresses himself to the “bewitching anxiety”: he gets drunk, and then “Satan himself was certainly busy with me, driving me on to ruin with all his power … [using] me as an instrument for the destruction of innocent life.” At length, “Satan” suggests him his young cousin Emily as the object to satisfy his base desire. Foote intercepted her on the way to school and, he said, lured her into the woods to snack on some tomatoes which he had dosed with the sleeping potion after which, you know, stuff happened. For a guy who carried out a premeditated plan to incapacitate and molest his underage kin, he sure expected to be given a lot of latitude.**

But with shame! shame! do I write it, I now proceeded to examine her person, which inflamed my baser passion to an unmanageable degree; and after my eyes were satisfied, I violated and robbed her of her virgin purity. She gave no signs of feeling except to draw one deep sigh. My brutish passion was now satisfied. I meditated upon what I had done, the criminal nature of the awfully wicked deed, the meanness of the act itself, and the base stratagem which I had employed to gratify my shameful curiosity. In the first place I had no intention of doing any thing more than to satisfy my eyes; but this created a passion so strong as to overrule all better feelings, honor, and decency. I stood over the wreck of beauty, innocence, and purity, and sincerely wished I had never seen the city of New York, or any of its bewitching female satans … my head was wild, and my heart felt as if it had turned into a great stone. I would have given half of the town had I possessed it, if I could have undone what I had done that morning. But that was impossible.

And having come this far, Foote realized if he should allow her to revive and be on her way, her story would send him to prison. “As if I almost heard an audible voice,” “something” suggested to him that he murder her. Foote floridly describes himself alternately resisting and impelled to the idea until “I acceeded [sic] to the horrible proposal, and Satan used me as an insensible instrument for his nefarious, bloody, and soul-destroying purpose.” Then Satan used him to slash Emily’s neck through the windpipe.

It’s a bit difficult to disentangle the actual or purported sequence of steps to the next murder; Foote writes of it as if he was hurled into despair by his crime and only paused from his intention of suicide to murder his mother when he reflected that the incestuous rape-murder imputed him might destroy her after he was gone. We get a somewhat different picture from the period’s newspaper accounts which suggest that he was no suspect at all when Emily first turned up missing and coolly played it as if shocked, before getting drunk and bashing mom’s head with a hammer. If you liked his story about how Satan made him rape Emily, you’ll love this.

I drank several times during the forepart of the afternoon, and about three o’clock I went to get another drunk, but the jug was missing — my mother had hid it, and it was not to be found by me. This enraged me … if she had let the liquor alone, it is possible, and not improbable, that I would have drank so much as to render me incapable of making any attempt upon her life; and thereby she might have escaped entirely. But she was often very unwise in provoking me, especially when I had liquor in my head. It was a wrong way to deal with me, to take liquor from me to prevent my drinking, for I was generally sure to go and get a larger quantity and drink so much the more. But she has many times done it, and thereby caused me to behave much worse than I should otherwise have done. Late years my mother has been very petulant towards me; whether I had been drinking or not, it seemed to be about the same. This I attributed to trouble, and the influence of opium, which induced her to pack the faults of others upon me, charge me with things of which I was entirely innocent, and find fault with me when I was not in the least to blame; and to complain of things which I knew were right.

Foote insists that he tells us all this not “for the purpose of defending or screening myself from any blame” from the matricide he committed for mom’s own benefit. Just wanted to contribute to the historical record. And then he has the chutzpah to accuse a neighbor who came running to the battered woman’s shrieks of being a big old pussy for backing away and yelling for help when threatened with the bloody hammer. This is a man who required a more forceful minister, a good psychiatrist, or a better P.R. team. Even to the last, the killer’s self-awareness only amounted to his own narcissism.

“The last act of Foote in his cell,” writes the hanged man’s companion in Death Cell Scenes, “was to make use of a quantity of mus on his hair, six cents worth of which he had ordered the night previous, besides ‘two pleasant Spanish cigars.'”

* As pertains the potion specifically, Foote cites (and perhaps may be suspected of borrowing from) the story of temperance moralizer John Bartholomew Gough, who disappeared in New York for a week in 1845 and was discovered in a whorehouse, floating in an opiate daze.

** There was a witness who heard a scream, presumably by Emily. Foote’s account essentially renders the attack “non-violent” (he says, as if to complete his travesty of Eden, that at one point she shrieked when she caught sight of a snake). It really is entirely possible that he simply perpetrated an uncomplicated wilderness rape and subsequently concocted every other convenient detail. (“No intention of doing any thing more than to satisfy my eyes” indeed.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Connecticut,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Rape,Sex,USA

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1829: George Swearingen, Maryland sheriff

Add comment October 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1829, George Swearingen, late the sheriff of Washington County, Md., was hanged for murder.

Swearingen murdered his wife after he became infatuated with a woman of ill repute. To savor this tawdry tale, we’re going to reprise our periodic endorsements of our friend (and occasional guest-blogger) Robert Wilhelm at Murder by Gaslight.

Here are a few morsels from the fall of George Swearingen to whet the appetite:

Mary was away from her marital duties for at least six months and George had to find other ways to meet his needs. In his words, “I occasionally visited those houses of libertinism and chambering, which, Solomon declares to be ‘the way to hell leading down to the chambers of death.’

Hmm.

One night he caught her in an amorous embrace with another young man, a Mr. G—. As a result, the two men fought a duel. Orlando Haverley was killed, and Rachel went to live with the victor.

And then there’s this Huck Finn interlude.

George and Rachel both fled Maryland; first travelling together, then separating, planning to meet in New Orleans. Rachel, travelling by steamboat, probably passed George who, travelling under the name Martin, was floating down the Mississippi in a flatboat.

And competing interpretations of troubling forensic evidence.

Swearingen’s defense attorney, John L. M’Mahon explained that Mary had suffered from “leuco phlegmatic temperament” which made her liable to spontaneous uterine hemorrhaging. Her doctor had advised her to refrain from sex — explaining why George strayed in the first place. The condition also explained why she appeared to have been raped before death. For good measure, he speculated that Charity Johnson had attacked the body with a broomstick to implicate Swearingen as a rapist.

Read the whole thing here.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Maryland,Murder,Public Executions,Sex,USA

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1901: James Edward Brady lynched for criminal assault

Add comment October 2nd, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1901, James Edward Brady was hauled out of his jail cell and hanged from a telephone pole on the corner of Main and Lawrence Streets at Haymarket Square in Helena, Montana. He had been arrested three days before in relation to his attack on Hazel Pugsley, a five-year-old girl.

On September 30, Brady, who had arrived in Helena from the city of Boulder, Montana only the day before, waylaid little Hazel while she was on her way to kindergarten. He convinced her to get on a streetcar with him and they didn’t get off until they were three miles outside town.

Hazel’s mother reported her missing after she didn’t arrive home from school, and a search was launched. Later that day, the police found her walking home alone. She was “a nervous wreck, and when the accused man was taken in front of her she began crying hysterically, at the mere sight of him.”

Brady was charged with “criminal assault,” a euphemism for rape.

He had once been a highly respected and influential man in the Yellowstone River area and was credited with bringing the first thoroughbred cattle into Montana, but he developed a drinking problem and somewhere along the line he fell from grace.

Brady had been in and out of trouble in Jefferson County before he moved to Helena, and in Boulder he had become overly familiar with several children. After the Hazel Pugsley incident, it came out that he’d lured at least four little girls to his cabin in Boulder and then molested them.

He was not criminally charged in that instance, but was warned to leave town or else. So he came to Helena.

Although Montana had a long tradition of lynchings and emotions were running high in the aftermath of Hazel’s attack, the sheriff wasn’t worried: Brady was housed in a secure stone jail with five locked doors between him and the outside. On the night of the lynching, the sheriff was asleep with his family as usual.

At 1:30 a.m. on October 2, a mob of thirty masked men pounded on the doors of the jail and demanded the prisoner. When they couldn’t get the jailer to answer the door, they stationed men around the building to keep watch while they started working on the door with a sledgehammer and a crowbar.

The mob easily broke open the outer wooden door, but the next door was barred. Jailer George Mahrt was awakened by the noise and mistakenly opened the barred inner door just as the lynch mob had broken through the outer door. Once inside the building, the men forced Mahrt to hand over his keys, unlocked the last three doors, and barged in on James Brady.

“What is it, gentlemen?” he asked.*

In spite of the early hour, a crowd of about 200 spectators gathered to watch as the vigilantes hustled the helpless Brady out of jail and force-marched him, already noosed, six blocks to Haymarket Square.

The spectators knew what it was.

The lynchers summoned a saloon-keeper who had witnessed Hazel’s abduction, to confirm for the assembling multitude that it was indeed Brady who took her. One of the masked lynchers then forced his way through the crowed and slugged Brady twice in the face; this may have been Peter Pugsley, Hazel’s father. (The same man would later go after Brady again, but the mob held him back.)

“Now, then,” the mob’s leader addressed his prey. “Brady, your time on earth is short. Have you any confession to make?”

Brady had little to say: only to reiterate his innocence, and ask that his last paycheck be sent to the Boulder School for the Blind where his niece was a student.

When asked if he wanted to say a prayer, Brady said he didn’t know how to pray and asked that someone pray for him instead. One of the mob said, “May the Lord help you, Brady; that is all I can say for you.”

Then his time was up.

Several people already positioned on top of the nearby telephone pole jerked Brady up from the ground violently, probably breaking his neck, and as Brady hung twitching and dying, the members of the lynch mob pulled off their masks and melted into the watching crowd.

In addition to the 200-some people who witnessed the lynching, another thousand or so viewed the body by moonlight before it was cut down.


Jackson (Mich.) Citizen Patriot, Oct. 2, 1901.

A coroner’s inquest was held later that day. Several people testified that they’d witnessed Brady’s death, but they all swore they were not part of the lynch mob and developed amnesia when asked if they recognized anyone who was.

The coroner’s jury ruled Brady’s death a homicide.

On October 3, Peter Pugsley — the father — was arrested and charged with murder. Investigators hoped he would provide them with other names, but Pugsley said he hadn’t been present at the lynching and produced an alibi, which friends backed up. He was released the next day on bail, his bond secured by several prominent members of the community.

Ultimately, a grand jury heard testimony from thirty-eight witnesses during an eighteen-day investigation. It then declined to indict Pugsley or any other suspect. Later, some of the jurors said it was impossible to name anybody connected with the crime because so many witnesses refused to answer questions, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

However, someone did pay for what happened to Brady.

As amateur historian Tom Donovan writes of this case in volume two of book Hanging Around the Big Sky: The Unofficial Guide to Lynching, Strangling and Legal Hangings of Montana, “The Brady incident was the only case where an official was severely disciplined for losing a prisoner to a lynch mob. The Lewis and Clark County grand jury found that Jailer George Mahrt was incompetent and he was apparently fired.”

Not only had Mahrt, an experienced jailer, opened the inside door to the armed mob, he had also failed to notify the sheriff what happened until Brady had already been marched out of the jail. All he would have had to do to arouse the sheriff was press an electric panic button, which would have sounded an alarm at the sheriff’s residence.

In the aftermath of Brady’s death, officials in Butte, Montana announced he was also a suspect in the 1898 abduction and murder of nine-year-old Ethel Gill. She was missing for several days before her body was found in an outhouse.

Gill had been raped, beaten and strangled. Brady lived and worked in the same neighborhood where Ethel’s body was found. He quit his job and left Butte immediately after the murder, but wasn’t considered a suspect until after he was killed. Ethel Gill’s murder was never solved and Brady’s connection to the crime remains a matter of speculation.

* San Jose Evening News, Oct. 2, 1901.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Common Criminals,Crime,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lynching,Montana,Other Voices,Public Executions,Rape,Sex,Summary Executions,USA

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1629: Jeronimus Cornelisz and other Batavia mutineers

2 comments October 2nd, 2012 dogboy

It was 2 Oct 1629, Dutchman Jeronimus Cornelisz was noosed along with 15 other men by the Dutch East Indies Company for a reign of terror that included mutiny and murder off the coast of Australia.* Six others would eventually hang in the infamous affair, two marooned on the Australian mainland, and many more punished for the gruesome atrocities committed on the Southern Ocean.

Cornelisz was not such an assuming character when he boarded the vessel Batavia in 1628.

This definitive history of the Batavia mutiny is by one of the web’s best history bloggers, Mike Dash. He reprinted an interview largely about this book here.

Rather, he was a marginally failed merchant, someone who could buy his way on board as an under-merchant** and sail to the southern seas for the prospect of a new life. It has been speculated (here, for instance) that his move to Indonesia was motivated by a desire to put oceanic distances between himself — an apothecary who couldn’t make it in Haarlem — and prosecutors pursuing Anabaptists and other heretics. It didn’t help, either, that his infant child had recently died of the disgracing condition of syphilis. All that is enough to send a man to Indonesia, apparently.

Though Cornelisz was not a successful businessman, he was an energetic protagonist from his own station in life and could, eventually, win over any suggestible person with his intelligence and wit. It didn’t take long to do just that to the ship’s skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz — who already held a grudge against the Batavia‘s upper-merchant (and fleet commander), Francisco Pelsaert.

In due time their thoughts turned to the ship’s valuable cargo — silver and trade goods headed for the Mughal Empire. As night follows day, the next thoughts turned to mutiny.

Cornelisz pulled in people from each of the major groups onboard† to help with his mutiny without attracting the attention of the Pelsaert. All the plot needed was a kickstart to turn enough people against the commander.

In the part where the villain reveals his plot, Cornelisz’s goes like this: A group of hooded mutineers assaults the mostly widely lusted-after woman among the socialite passengers, Lucretia (Creesje) Jans; once the assault is reported, the commander must respond; but if the assailants are well-hidden, he must make an example arbitrarily, which pushes his men towards mutiny.

And, like a movie villain’s evil plot, Cornelisz’s didn’t come off.

The captain punished nobody for the assault, as Creesje could not identify the assailants. The shipboard mutiny withered on the vine. But lucky for Cornelisz, the captain had no inkling that the ship’s under-merchant was involved — though he was pretty sure the skipper and boatswain had something to do with it.

In the midst of those days of planned insurrection, the Batavia hit a slightly larger speed bump. On June 4, the vessel ran aground on Morning Reef.

There were few casualties from the initial crash, and the remainder escaped in groups, crammed onto small coral islands in the remote but plausibly survivable Houtman Abrolhos chain off the west coast of Australia.

The ship’s complement was eventually transferred to Beacon Island and Traitors Island — with limited water (but plenty of silver!), it was clear to Pelsaert there would be few people left if they didn’t get some help. Off went the captain with 47 crew and passengers in a longboat, leaving more than 250 behind to fend for themselves on the isles.

Two months later, Pelsaert found himself in the colonial city Batavia (today, the Indonesian capital Jakarta) appealing to the local authorities at the Dutch East Indies Company for a ship to rescue his stranded crew and passengers. He was quickly given the Sardam — another vessel in his fleet — with a skeleton crew to pick up the passengers (oh, and all that silver).

But he wasn’t going to need all those passenger quarters.

Cornelisz, as under-merchant, had technical rank in the emergency, and he had taken over the situation at the islands when the commander left. The refugee pharmacist reveled in the power, certainly amplified by the dozen chests of treasure the Batavia carried.

So here’s your motivation: a fortune in booty and the South Seas as your playground. This is the stuff of rum wishes and buccaneer dreams.

And Lord of the Flies nightmares.

Sensing the the time was ripe to lighten the group’s victual needs, Cornelisz‡ sent 15 men to search a larger island visible to the west for water. This journey, Cornelisz was convinced, would be fruitless, so any possible power rivals he could find went off. As well, Cornelisz shipped a larger group to Long Island to get more space.

And then began the killing.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a 1647 engraving of the carnage on Beacon Island. Cornelisz had a good 110 homicides on his soul’s account by the time it was all said and done.

Some 20 mutineers formed a tight inner circle with fantasies of having their way on the island until the rescue boat could be commandeered for piracy. The purpose of the killings was simply to knock the number of residents down closer to 40 or 45 so that the mutineers would be overwhelmingly dominant when the rescue boat came. That’s a tough task when starting with almost 200 people.

At first, killings proceeded under faux-juridical cover: theft and slander were enough to endanger everyone in these cramped quarters, so Cornelisz would have his men claim illegal activities were afoot and kill one or more of the people he considered either threats or non-entities among the group.

A few loyal footsoldiers did most of the killing, along with some pressed into service with the threat of violence; pretty soon the numbers on the island had dwindled noticeably.

With vague ideas of riches and a growing bloodlust, killing essentially became sport. Families were done to death wholesale, by whatever means were available — drowning, slitting throats, bludgeoning. Those liable to fight back might be jumped by a group at the beach, sometimes getting all of the above.

And before you go thinking murder was the only thing the mutineers had on their minds, they retained at least a few women (including Creesje) as private consorts.


Now is the time to mention that Cornelisz was personally acquainted with notorious (and then-imprisoned) degenerate artist Johannes van der Beeck. This is van der Beeck’s Faun and Nymphs.

But remember those doomed guys searching for water two islands over?

Turns out they found it, along with ample food, and they were now occupying the largest island in the chain.

They, along with 30 or so who escaped Cornelisz’s clutches over the course of two months, were the Resistance, and they were full of incriminating knowledge about what had been going down over on psycho isle.

One of the original group, Wiebbe Hayes, had taken charge of the island’s affairs, and he had done quite well. Those living on what is now known as West Wallabi Island were far better off than their Beacon counterparts.

Back on Beacon, Cornelisz was forced to ration water — even to his favorites — and had thoughts that the High Islanders might scupper his search party takeover plot. So late in July, he sent an amphibious landing team to attack High Island. Cornelisz’s men were met with a line of opposition at the beach, armed with pikes made of driftwood with nails. The mutineers retreated.

Weeks later, Assault II began; like most sequels, it fell on its face. Assault III, Cornelisz decided, should include cunning, cunning like an ostensible negotiation to trade the clothing Cornelisz had hoarded for water and food.

Hayes was even a little more cunning that that, and when Cornelisz and his four top lieutenants came ashore and began sweet-talking, he and his men seized four of them. (The fifth, Wouter Loos, escaped.)

Knowing that having mutineers on his island would be trouble, Hayes convened his council, which swiftly decided to dispatch any prisoner not named Jeronimus: that one was tossed in a pit and given birds to pluck for Hayes’ army.

Two weeks went by before the mutineers (now led by Loos) got up the courage to attack again, but by the time they took to the channels and began a long-range gun assault, the Sardam was in the archipelago. Hayes got to Pelsaert first and informed him of the planned mutiny. Pelsaert trained all his weapons on the mutineers’ boat until they decided to disarm.

The trials were done in the Dutch way, including some amount of torture. Pelsaert finally decided he had enough evidence against the mutineers, and his small tribunal passed 16 death sentences. (One was commuted to exile.) That included a half dozen who had one or more hands lopped off before their passage to the gallows.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the mutineers’ execution.

Three weeks later, when the Sardam returned to Batavia, five more of the rescued mutineers were executed, and a sixth — the boatswain involved in the assault on Creesje — was put to death while Pelsaert was out.

Once word got out, Cornelisz’s heinous crimes were known around the world and Southern sailors heard the tales for hundreds of years to come.

Pelsaert, meanwhile, was partly blamed for the incident and saw the Company seize his assets: he was dead within a year. As for Hayes, he was promoted, but his further adventures are unknown.

The remains of the shipwreck that commenced this hecatomb are still visible at Houtman Abrolhos, from cannons off the original Batavia to the fort built by Wiebbe Hayes and his men — everyday monuments to a hellish ordeal.

* Technically the first European settlers in Australia.

** Dutch merchant vessels were headed by an upper-merchant, who had control over decisions on the ship and represented the overriding interest of the Dutch United East India Company. In addition, an under-merchant was taken aboard as his second-in-command Company man. The skipper was considered head of the crew and placed in charge of navigational concerns, but his role was subordinate to the upper-merchant.

† Like all Dutch merchant vessels, the Batavia featured four major classes of people on board:

  • a standard crew to run the vessel;
  • a complement of soldiers who were generally kept below-decks but could be recruited to maintain order and would disembark at the destination;
  • a group which tended to shipboard needs (surgeon, cook, and so on);
  • and merchants and passengers, who had social standing over the rest.

‡ Technically, Cornelisz was part of a three-member council in charge of the shipwrecked. The initial council was selected from among the socially significant survivors, but Cornelisz used his rank to quickly dissolve that group and appoint two of his own future mutineers as his cohorts. Needless to say, the judiciary wasn’t independent after that.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,At Sea,Australia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Infamous,Mass Executions,Murder,Mutiny,Netherlands,Other Voices,Piracy,Power,Rape,Theft,Torture

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1876: Marie Louise Houghton escapes capital murder prosecution

1 comment October 2nd, 2011 Undine

Thanks to Undine of the blog The World of Edgar Allan Poe for breaking her posting hiatus with this guest entry. -ed.

When reflecting upon the life and times of Edgar Allan Poe, Edward Wagenknecht once wrote that “One might also say of Poe that he lived in a Gothic novel. Hardly anybody behaves normally in this history.” Of all the names one finds in Poe’s biographies, no one better illustrates these words than Marie Louise Barney Shew Houghton. While there were many players in Poe’s life story who undoubtedly deserved to be put in the dock, (the Reverend Rufus Wilmot Griswold being merely the most famous example,) Mrs. Houghton was the only one of the lot who faced the prospect of being tried, and very possibly convicted and executed, of first-degree murder.

This was the date in the year of the nation’s centennial that Houghton slipped the noose.

Mrs. Houghton is known to history as having been the nurse of Poe’s wife Virginia during her final illness, as well as an all-around Poe family benefactor. This saintly reputation, unfortunately, comes largely from her own boasts on the matter, made many years after the poet’s death. In 1875, she began a correspondence with Poe’s early biographer John H. Ingram. Her avowed intent was to insure that she—as opposed to other ladies who were vying for the title—would be remembered as Poe’s dear friend and guardian angel. Unfortunately, at the time she contacted Ingram, she was clearly in appalling shape, mentally and emotionally. The numerous extant letters she wrote him—which date from January to June of 1875–are always rambling, usually incoherent, and occasionally quite insane. She related to Ingram many colorful stories about Poe that are completely uncorroborated, patently absurd, and often at complete variance with the known facts. Ingram privately acknowledged that Mrs. Houghton was mentally unstable, and he suspected as well that she was enhancing, or even completely inventing, many Poe anecdotes, in order to keep their correspondence alive. He wound up dismissing her with the euphemism, “imaginative.” In spite of all this, Ingram—who was desperately in need of original source material about the ever-elusive Poe—wound up relaying far too much of her dubious information in his 1880 biography, and, even more unforgivably, Poe’s modern-day historians repeat unquestioningly this same apocrypha to this day.

One wonders what Ingram’s reaction would have been if he had known anything about his pen-pal’s personal life. Marie Houghton was a predecessor to today’s “New Age” devotees. Her first marriage, to the “water-cure” practitioner Joel Shew, gave her an avenue into what were the more extreme circles of Transcendentalist faddism, which embraced alternative medicine, “free love,” “freethinking,” communal living, and disdain for established institutions. Ironically, she represented everything Poe most despised in contemporary society.

In the mid-1840s, Marie Louise separated from her husband and entered into an affair with another member of their circle, Dr. Ronald Houghton, although she continued to live with Dr. Shew. In 1849, she gave birth to a son, Henry, who was probably acknowledged as Houghton’s, although at least one historian has theorized that the father was a third man who was living with (and financially aiding) the Shews. The next year, the Shews divorced and she married Houghton. Although they had several more children, the marriage proved unhappy, and they too separated. She continued to work as a nurse, while indulging in a number of extremely complicated and very dodgy financial and property transactions on the side.

However, it was this son Henry who proved to be the catalyst that brought Mrs. Houghton serious trouble. After a varied and exciting career out west where he was charged with adultery, mule thievery, swindling, and “open and notorious lewdness,” Henry Houghton returned to the family home in New York, bringing with him his mistress, a Mary E. Stanley, who had evidently been Henry’s partner in crime as well. With them was a toddler who was understood to have been their child, even though Mary was at the time married to another man.

In 1876, the now-pregnant Mrs. Stanley was living with the Houghton family, although by this point Henry appears to have tired of her. Her common-law mother-in-law, Mrs. Houghton, acted as her sole medical attendant. Unfortunately, Mrs. Stanley died soon after giving birth. The Houghtons failed to summon a doctor until she was obviously at death’s door. Very curiously, she was quickly buried without a death certificate having been issued, apparently at the instigation of Marie Houghton. After her burial, the undertaker prevailed upon the physician who had been at her deathbed, a Dr. Bleecker, to provide him with some sort of certificate. Bleecker was reluctant to do so, as he had never actually treated the deceased, but finally issued one with the noncommittal statement that the cause of death appeared to be “congestive chills.”

“To Mary Louise”
by Edgar Allan Poe

Of all who hail thy presence as the morning–
Of all to whom thine absence is the night–
The blotting utterly from out high heaven
The sacred sun–of all who, weeping, bless thee
Hourly for hope–for life–ah, above all,
For the resurrection of deep buried faith
In truth, in virtue, in humanity–
Of all who, on despair’s unhallowed bed
Lying down to die, have suddenly arisen
At thy soft-murmured words, “Let there be light!”
At thy soft-murmured words that were fulfilled
In thy seraphic glancing of thine eyes–
Of all who owe thee most, whose gratitude
Nearest resembles worship,–oh, remember
The truest, the most fervently devoted,
And think that these weak lines are written by him–
By him who, as he pens them, thrills to think
His spirit is communing with an angel’s.

Mary Stanley’s death would have passed unremarked had it not been for a collection of letters she had written to a friend, which was soon brought to the attention of the authorities. In brief, these letters stated that Mrs. Houghton wished to perform an abortion on her. (It was alleged that Houghton supplemented her income as a professional—and, on occasion, fatally incompetent—abortionist.) When Mrs. Stanley refused, she attempted to give her patient certain “medicines” which Mrs. Stanley believed were intended to permanently rid the Houghtons of her as well. Faced with this uncooperative attitude, Mrs. Houghton “became cruel to her, and starved both herself and her child.” The question of why she remained in the household appeared to be answered by murky and never-clarified issues regarding the estate of Mrs. Houghton’s late estranged husband. It was said that she stubbornly stayed put in an effort to defend the interests of Mrs. Houghton’s other son, Frank, who was involved with a legal dispute with his mother over a certain piece of property. There was a good deal of nightmarishly complex litigation surrounding Dr. Houghton’s estate, and evidently Mrs. Stanley played some crucial role regarding the dispute over the distribution of Roland Houghton’s properties. According to these letters, Mrs. Stanley was attempting to act as some sort of a roadblock in schemes Henry and his mother were attempting in relation to the matter.

After the local coroner and District Attorney had read their fill of these missives, their first act was to have Mrs. Houghton arrested.

An inquest was soon held, and these letters, as well as testimonies of friends of the dead woman, were presented to the jury. A lurid picture was painted of Mrs. Houghton’s long career of poisoning (including two alleged attempts against her husband,) abortions both successful and fatal (Mrs. Stanley wrote of seeing “terrible things” in the Houghton’s cellar that related to this practice—other testimony agreed that she literally knew where the bodies were buried,) financial fraud, and all-purpose cruelty. Mrs. Stanley wrote that “I do not think there is another woman as bad as her living,” and if half of what was related about her at the inquest was true, this was a genteel understatement. Mrs. Stanley also declared that the Houghtons wanted her dead, not only for the fact that she “knew too much” about their depraved dealings, but because she was threatening to “swear her child” on Henry Houghton—i.e., hit him with a paternity suit. (The inquest also included testimony that Mrs. Houghton expressed great joy that Mary Stanley’s death freed her son from taking responsibility for his mistress and their child.)

When Mrs. Houghton took the stand in her defense, it was said that she gave her testimony “fairly and with much plausibility.” She simply denied everything the dead woman had written. Mrs. Stanley, she said, was a designing criminal who had robbed her son “not only of his money, but of his good name.” She had allowed the pregnant woman to live in her house out of pure Christian charity. Mrs. Stanley’s death, on September 12th 1876, was of a “congestive chill” that came on so suddenly there was no time to send for a doctor. She admitted that she had practiced medicine from 1851 until the previous year, when she was threatened with imprisonment if she did not cease her unaccredited ministrations. She also conceded that Mrs. Stanley had threatened to “crush” the Houghton family, and that “something disagreeable” had occurred several months before that had inspired Mrs. Stanley to write these accusatory letters. However, it was also revealed that at the time of Mrs. Houghton’s arrest, certain family papers were seized by the authorities which corroborated much of what the deceased had alleged.

When Dr. Bleecker testified, he could say only that an autopsy on the dead woman “could not determine the cause of death satisfactorily.”

After all this, it is quite startling to read that the jury ruled that Mary Stanley died of natural causes, “from hemorrhage and exhaustion while in labor.” The only way of explaining this conclusion (which seemed to have no evidence to back it up) is to note that from the newspaper reports, the jury was clearly on Mrs. Houghton’s side from the beginning. In fact, the jury attempted to halt the inquest very early on, claiming they had heard enough evidence to reach a verdict. The coroner and DA overruled them, insisting that they hear additional witnesses. Also, one of the jurors questioned a doctor who testified, asking if it wasn’t true that pregnant women were often prone to paranoid fancies, where they imagined dangers that did not exist. When the doctor admitted that such things were possible, this obviously sealed the deal for this panel. The reason for this obvious bias in favor of the defendant is, most unfortunately, unknown.

The case was left open for further investigation, but as far as can be ascertained by a search of contemporary newspapers, the matter was closed as far as the authorities were concerned. Marie Houghton left the court a free woman, if not exactly one without a stain on her character. She died less than a year later, at the age of fifty-five, on September 3, 1877.

One of the strangest things about this case is the fact that it has attracted so little attention, from that time to this. The only detailed contemporary accounts I have been able to uncover are a handful of articles from one newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle, and two columns in the New York Herald which simply repeated some of the information published in the Eagle. Even though the story contained enough scandal to keep a platoon of yellow journalists in clover for years, it was otherwise ignored. Despite the fact that the central character was a figure well-known to anyone who has the slightest interest in Poe’s life, this odd little episode appears to be unknown to his biographers. It is a great pity deeper investigation in the matter appears impossible at this late date, as from what was reported, Marie Houghton was either the most viciously slandered woman of her era, or a monster Poe himself could not have created in his darkest fits of imagination.

Sources:
Brooklyn Eagle, Sept. 21, Sept. 23, Sept. 25, Sept. 30, Oct. 3 1876
New York Herald, Sept. 22 and 23, 1876
Building Poe Biography, ed. John Carl Miller

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Common Criminals,Crime,Guest Writers,History,Murder,New York,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Other Voices,Scandal,USA,Women

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1828: Jose Padilla executed

1 comment October 2nd, 2010 Headsman

No, no, not that one. Or that one.

This date saw the 1828 execution by firing squad of Bolivarian independence hero Jose Prudencio Padilla, founder of the Colombian navy.

Padilla’s father was a shipwright, and Padilla took to the sea from his youth in the service of what was then the Spanish colonial domain of New Granada. At the age of 19, he fought Lord Nelson in the Battle of Trafalgar.

This service to the Spanish crown did not loyalty make, and in 1815 Padilla fell in with revolutionary Simon Bolivar.

The mariner’s triumph in the Battle of Lake Maracaibo, completed the Venezuelan War of Independence. (Venezuela and Colombia, along with Ecuador and Panama, were all part of Gran Colombia at this time.)

Like everyone else, however, Padilla made history but not in circumstances of his own choosing.

Independent Gran Colombia was immediately riven with internal political conflict, resolving (to oversimplify) to Bolivar as the increasingly autocratic president, as against his more liberal vice president Santander — a conflict also bound up in sectional and racial divisions that would soon break apart Bolivar’s state.

In 1828, those factions were at daggers drawn over the future shape of Gran Colombia.

Padilla, a multiracial pardo, “had taken the Liberator’s professions of racial equality to an ideological point of no return: neither birth nor skin color should carry any privilege or social status. Instinctively, Bolivar sympathized … but he knew only too well that to acquiesce to the demands of such movements would further alarm a fearful white Creole society.” (Lester Langley, Simón Bolívar: Venezuelan rebel, American revolutionary)

That put Padilla into Santander’s camp — and, like Santander, he would be inculpated for complicity in the plot against Bolivar’s life that struck (unsuccessfully) on September 25, 1828.

Neither Padilla nor Santander was linked to the conspiracy by any direct evidence. But that was only enough to save one of them. As Langley notes,

Under the retributive justice of General Urdaneta, fourteen people of varying degrees of guilt were condemned and executed. One, the pardo Padillo, bore no responsibility for the assault on the Liberator’s life but received a death sentence. Santander, who may have approved but against whom there was no compelling evidence of culpability, was sentenced to death as well, but he escaped execution when Bolivar pardoned him. In yet another instance during his career, Bolivar had drawn a color line. He spared the white Creole but not the pardo.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Colombia,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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