1799: Sarah Clark, a melancholy instance of human depravity

Add comment October 30th, 2018 Headsman

The ensuing poem, titled “Melancholy Instance of Human Depravity” and published in an 1805 collection, laments a serving-girl’s murder by arsenic of the master and mistress of her house. It was a crime of unrequited love: the intended victim of the poisoned bread was not this couple but their daughter, whom Sarah Clark fancied a rival for the affections of a young man in her former household. Sarah Clark hanged for the murders on October 30, 1799, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, but Miss Isabella Oliver was never punished for her verse.

UPON the bank of a slow-winding flood
The good Alphonso’s modest mansion stood;
A man he was throughout the country known,
Of sterling sense, to social converse prone:
He walk’d the plains with such majestic grace,
When time had drawn its furrows on his face,
‘Twas easy to infer his youthful charms,
When first the fair Maria bless’d his arms:
Maria—Oh! what mix’d emotions rise,
Grief, pity, indignation; and surprise,
At thought of thee! —

Thy sweetness might have mov’d the harshest mind;
Thy kindness taught th’ ungentlest to be kind;
And yet a fiend enshrin’d in female mould
Could thy heart-rending agonies behold;
When by her cruel wiles thy wedded heart
Was basely sever’d from its dearest part.
The lov’d Alphonso’s breathless corpse she view’d,
And yet her harden’d heart was unsubdu’d.
Perhaps, she saw thee sink beside his bed,
Or lean in speechless sorrow o’er the dead;
Or heard thee faintly cry — The knot’s unti’d
Come, gentle death, thou cans’tnomore divide:
But spare our children, our lov’d offspring spare;
They still are young, and life is worth their care.
To me the charm that sweeten’d life is gone;
Weep not, my friends, I cannot die too soon.
Fast through her reins the subtle poison spread,
And join’d with grief, to bow her aged head.
Her children strive her drooping head to stay;
The monster works to rend those props away;
But triumphs not: a greater power sustains
And bears them through excruciating pains.
Oft did Maria, in serener days,
With tender transport on her offspring gaze;
Maternal love was pictur’d in her face,
The happy parent of a blooming race;
Now the fond mother feels at every pore;
Worse than her own, the pangs her children bore.
Yet still herself, sweet, affable, and mild,
The patient sufferer on her murd’rer smil’d;
Who by her bed officiously attends,
Concern and kind solicitude pretends,
Yet still pursues her own infernal ends.

Hence aid medicinal is render’d vain,
By frequent potions of the deadly bane;
While cruel torture rack Maria’s frame,
And by degrees puts out the vital flame.
Now pause, my muse, and seriously enquire,
What could this hellish cruelty inspire!
Why strike at those who no offence had given?
It seems like stabbing at the face of heaven!
In her dark mind what ugly passions breed!
Like gnawing worms, they on her vitals feed.
Without an object, what could malice do?
Alvina’s near, she’s often in her view;
In her polluted soul foul envy’s rais’d;
Because perhaps she hears Alvina prais’d;
A groundless jealousy her breast inflames;
‘Gainst thee, Alvina, she the mischief aims.
The wicked miscreant working in the dark,
Spreads ruin round, but cannot hit the mark:
A power divine restrains the falling blow
Thus far thou may’st, but shalt no farther go.
What deadly venom rankled in that breast!
What worse than poison must the soul infest,
Which still its fatal purpose could pursue,
Tho’ general destruction might ensue!
Oh! sin, prolific source of human woe!
To thee mankind their various sorrows owe;
Thro’ thee our world a gloomy aspect wears,
Ajd is too justly stil’d a vale of tears.
Man was first form’d upon a social plan;
And tie unnumber’d fasten man to man:
None are, howe’er debas’d, in form or mind,
Cut off from all communion with their kind.
Witness the wretched subject of these lines.
Alas! how many suffer’d by her crimes!
Who more detach’d, of less import, than she?
Yet mark her influence on society.
But there are crimes of a less shocking kind,
That find an easy pass from mind to mind:
As fire spreads from one building to another,
The vicious man contaminates his brother;
Why wonder, then, that Adam could deface
His maker’s image in an unborn race?
When his own hand the sacred stamp had torn,
Could he transmit it whole to sons unborn?
In him the foul contagion first began;
From sire to son the deadly venom ran;
Thus poisoning all the mighty mass of man.

The sad effect is dreadful to endure;
But human wisdom could not find a cure:
Thus, Scripture, reason, and experience, tend
To prove, the power that made alone can mend.
Oh! Christ, thou sum and source of every good,
Thou that for sinners shed’st thy precious blood,
In thee our various wants are all suppli’d;
Thy death our ransom, and thy life our guide.
In thee thy followers second life attain;
And man reflects his maker’s face again.
Is sin progressive, spreading every hour?
Has heaven-born virtue no diffusive power?
Our blessed Saviour is a living head;
The streams that issue from him can’t be dead,
But scatter life and fragrance, as they spread.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,USA,Women

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1952: Wallace Ford, horrible in-law

Add comment October 30th, 2017 Headsman

Wallace P. Ford, Jr., a former Buffalo steelworker, was electrocuted by New York on this date in 1952.

His crime, “a senseless, meaningless affair, without motive or purpose,”* in the words of his own court-appointed attorney, was the sad culmination of family woes.

The man had been left by his wife, Frances, who returned to her mother’s house with the couple’s infant daughter in tow. Not long after, in June of 1951, Ford accosted Frances’s kid sister, Nancy, age 15, when the latter was picking up some groceries.

Nancy told him to get lost or something — Ford would later say that it was the girl’s insisting that their family would keep his little son that made him snap — and the extranged brother-in-law bashed her with a rock. Here the horror really begins. Blood racing, Ford must have careened from panic to despair to resolution as he contemplated the crumpled but still-living girl, his already-poor judgment scrambled by stress. The assailant packed Nancy Bridges’s stunned and bloodied form into his vehicle and sped out of Buffalo looking for some way to dispose of his mistake. In that moment, for a disordered mind, that meant to finish her off.

Ford said he thought about drowning the girl in Lake Erie, or pitching her off an elevated railroad. Every possible means would carry its own special horror, to be sure, but Ford settled on a truly vile expedient: he dumped her in a deserted stretch of rural Townline Road and pitilessly drove over her limp form … then popped into reverse and backed over her, too, crushing her chest and driving rib splinters into her liver and lungs.

Nancy Ford’s mangled body was discovered in the adjacent woods by a teenage hunter the next afternoon. Wallace Ford must have been the first name on the lips of the family when investigators asked if they had any enemies, and he didn’t bother to evade responsibility when the police came for him. But he would have served himself better and the Fords too had he reached his epiphany of resignation a little earlier in this process.

* New York Times, Aug. 26, 1952.

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1857: James Copeland, repentant gangster

Add comment October 30th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1857, “the great southern land pirate” James Copeland went to the gallows in the now-abandoned Mississippi town of Augusta.

Copeland‘s criminal career is the subject of a wonderfully old-timey reader by the Perry County sheriff who noosed him. (As it says right there on the title plate. Sheriff J.R.S. Pitts does not shrink from injecting his own story into the narrative, and to get to the action the reader must first wade through tedious digressions into the hangman’s biography, his civic-minded rationales for a prurient interest in outlaws — “such a life and history cannot fail, even at this late date … of materially interesting and benefiting the public at large” — and some whinging about the libel suits that dogged his attempts to materially benefit the public at large.)

After an “introduction”, a “preface”, and an “explanatory”, our volume comes at last to an illustrated 100-page autobiographical narrative which Pitts says that Copeland dictated to him while cooling his heels in jail.

Hardened and violent in life, Copeland under the eaves of death seems to made that familiar return to God and repentfully confessed his path into depravity beginning with youthful delinquencies the condign punishment of which was consistently deflected by his mother, “who always upheld me in my rascality.”

Having fallen into a legal scrape for pig-thieving, Copeland left behind charming rascality for Godfather territory when he made contact with an outlaw named Gale Wages and concocted a plan to vacate the charges by destroying the documentation … by torching the courthouse in which they rested.

“Such a sight I never had before beheld,” Copeland remembered of the blaze. “The flames seemed to ascend as high, if not higher than the tops of the tallest pine trees; they made everything perfectly light for over two hundred yards around.” After that bonfire, Copeland gave himself over to the guidance of a man who turned out to be halfway between Jabba the Hutt and a Masonic lodge chief.

Wages, Copeland found, had “a great many persons concerned with him, in different parts of the country, some of them men of wealth and in good standing in the community in which they lived.”

They had an organized Band that would stand up to each other at all hazard; they had a Wigwam in the city of Mobile, where they held occasional meetings … they had many confederates there whom the public little suspected …

I was there introduced by Wages, (who was their president,) as a candidate for membership, I should have been rejected, had Wages not interceded for me. I was finally passed and admitted to membership. Wages then administered to me the oath, which every member had to take. I was then instructed and given the signs and pass-words of the Clan.

Maybe the gang was right to doubt him, for Copeland broke this oath by divulging to his hangman-biographer numerous names of members as well as the Encyclopedia Brown-esque cipher this gang used to send coded messages.

Over the course of the next decade and more, Copeland’s narration has the gang and he romping through Dixie in misadventures that range from the charmingly picaresque — finagling a guest role at a Methodist pulpit by posing as wandering preachers upon which they netted several hundred dollars from the inevitable passed hat — to the much less charming:

A legend of $30,000 in gold that the squad claimed to have buried in Catahoula Swamp still circulates in Mississippi — spur to thus-far frustrated treasure hunters down to the present day.

We can’t know to what degree the voice that we read is Copeland’s own or that of Pitts interposing but the narrator we have affects at times a stagey horror at his sins.

With the gang determined to be rid of an Irish boatman on the Mississippi, Copeland draws the short straw to bludgen him to death in his sleep: “Oh, God! when I look back, it makes me shudder. Even now it chills the blood in my veins.” Copeland bashed his brains in with a hatched and as day broke they slipped the weighted corpse into the river.

Copeland had moved up the ranks enough to share the marquee in the “Wages-Copeland gang” by the time things got real dark. In early 1844, a summit of the gang’s leadership determined spies were afoot and four of the suspected “butted their heads against a slung-shot hung to a man’s arm, and they went floating from Mobile wharf down the channel of the river.” Others they left “in a situation where he told no more tales” and “fed … the contents of two double-barrel shot-guns, about forty-eight buck-shot, and put him in a swamp near Eslaya’s old mill” and “put a rope around his neck, and we very soon squeezed the breath out of him.”

The end of the line could really have been any one of these incidents or the numerous others this post elides — enough blood feuds and hand-to-hand murders and the odds are sure to turn against you in the long run.

In 1849, now a wanted man, Copeland started drinking at a grocery near Mobile

and became intoxicated, and in that situation I imagined every man I saw was trying to arrest me. I fell in with a man by the name of Smith, an Irishman, and a difficulty occurred between us; I concluded that he intended to arrest me. I drew my double-barrel shot gun upon him and intended to kill him. He was too quick for me; he threw up my gun, drew his dirk and stabbed me just above the collar bone.

Having made himself both conspicuous and immobile, Copeland was tracked down by a posse and now he was really in the soup: “one indictment against me in Alabama for larceny, and another against me in Mississippi for murder.” Copeland pleaded guilty in Alabama and served a jail sentence there, hoping that the passage of years would buy him some opening to escape the hanging sentence that would surely await in neighboring Mississippi. But the Magnolia State was on its game and had a timely extradition request ready to receive James Copeland the moment his term in the Alabama pen expired.

The day arose clear and beautiful on which the sentence of the law and of outraged humanity was to be executed on the man who had so often violated their most sacred behests. The sky was blue and serene; the atmosphere genial; all nature was calm and peaceful; man alone was agitated by the various strong emotions which the execution of the fatal sentence of retributive justice on a fellow-man could not but create.

The place of execution was distant from the city of Augusta one-quarter of a mile. The gallows was erected on a beautiful elevation that was surrounded by the verdure of shrubby oak and the tall, long-leaf pine. The ground was everywhere occupied by thousands of spectators, gathered from Perry and the surrounding counties, to witness the solemn scene. It was indeed one that they will long remember.

About the hour of noon, the prisoner, after being neatly clad, was led from the jail by the officers of the law, placed in the ranks of the guard formed for the occasion, and the procession moved slowly toward the fatal spot.

Soon the doomed man appeared on the gallows. The death warrant was then read to him, and he was informed that he had but a short time to live.

He proceeded to address the awe-struck and silent multitude. He especially urged the young men present to take warning from his career and fate, and to avoid bad company. His misfortune he attributed principally to having been mislead while young.

When he had concluded, a number of questions were asked by the immediate spectators, in relation to crimes which had transpired within their knowledge; but he would give no direct answer — shrewdly eluding the inquiries.

The Sheriff then asked him, in hearing of many lookers on, if the details of his confession, previously made to that officer, were true. He replied that they were.

His hands were then tied and the cap pulled over his face, and he was told that he had but a few moments to live. He exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy on me!” and he was praying when the drop fell, and a brief struggle ended his blood-stained career.

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1863: William Griffith, for the Marais des Cygnes massacre

1 comment October 30th, 2015 Headsman

One of the signal outrages of Bleeding Kansas was avenged with a hanging on this date in 1863.

“Bleeding Kansas” was the guerrilla war over slavery in the late 1850s that presaged the conflagration about to consume the Republic; here on the frontier, pro- and anti-slavery partisans traded atrocities in their respective campaigns to secure Kansas’s imminent entry to the Union as either a slave or a free state. The stakes, had America continued her antebellum course, were vital Congressional votes on which the continuance of the peculiar institution might one day hang.

The naked brutality of the conflict shocked its contemporaries; as one particularly notorious example, the sons of abolitionist crusader John Brown executed pro-slavery captives with broadswords.

The Marais des Cygnes massacre was one of the last major horrors of that conflict: a party of 30 or so pro-slavery men led by Charles Hamilton seized 11 Free-Staters. They were mostly people who knew Hamilton personally, and seem to have gone along without resistance not anticipating what he had in store for them.

But Hamilton had told his men that on this campaign, “we are coming up there to kill snakes, and will treat all we find there as snakes.” (Source)

Much to their chagrin, these “snakes” were driven into a narrow ravine and lined up before Hamilton’s men’s guns. The volleys they delivered before fleeing back over the porous border into equally restive Missouri “only” killed five of their hostages: the other six survived by playing dead.


(Via)

Five years later, one of those survivors, William Hairgrove, supplied the identification that damned William Griffith — whose claim that he only helped capture the Marais des Cygnes victims, and didn’t help shoot them was an especially lame offering at the height of the Civil War.

According to Legal Executions in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma Including the Indian Territory: A Comprehensive History, Griffith paid the forfeit for his role in the massacre “in a wood west of [Mound City, Mo.] on the opposite bank of Little Sugar Creek” before a crowd of thousands. There,

[a] little after noon Griffith was conveyed to the wood where he stepped onto the wooden platform a few inches above the ground. His wrists, knees and ankles were bound and the noose was adjusted. The black cap was pulled over his face at 1:07 p.m., and in but a moment William Hairgrove, one of the survivors of the massacre, cut the restraining rope with a hatchet; the four hundred pound weight dropped, jerking Griffith upward. The body rebounded and hung motionless while the attending physicians monitored his vital signs, and in twenty-five minutes they pronounced him dead.

Today, the site of the massacre is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Quaker abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier also memorialized the blood that was shed there in a poem titled “Le Marais du Cygne”:

A blush as of roses
Where rose never grew!
Great drops on the bunch-grass,
But not of the dew!
A taint in the sweet air
For wild bees to shun!
A stain that shall never
Bleach out in the sun!

Back, steed of the prairies!
Sweet song-bird, fly back!
Wheel hither, bald vulture!
Gray wolf, call thy pack!
The foul human vultures
Have feasted and fled;
The wolves of the Border
Have crept from the dead.

From the hearths of their cabins,
The fields of their corn,
Unwarned and unweaponed,
The victims were torn,—
By the whirlwind of murder
Swooped up and swept on
To the low, reedy fen-lands,
The Marsh of the Swan.

With a vain plea for mercy
No stout knee was crooked;
In the mouths of the rifles
Right manly they looked.
How paled the May sunshine,
O Marais du Cygne!
On death for the strong life,
On red grass for green!

In the homes of their rearing,
Yet warm with their lives,
Ye wait the dead only,
Poor children and wives!
Put out the red forge-fire,
The smith shall not come;
Unyoke the brown oxen,
The ploughman lies dumb.

Wind slow from the Swan’s Marsh,
O dreary death-train,
With pressed lips as bloodless
As lips of the slain!
Kiss down the young eyelids,
Smooth down the gray hairs;
Let tears quench the curses
That burn through your prayers.

Strong man of the prairies,
Mourn bitter and wild!
Wail, desolate woman!
Weep, fatherless child!
But the grain of God springs up
From ashes beneath,
And the crown of his harvest
Is life out of death.

Not in vain on the dial
The shade moves along,
To point the great contrasts
Of right and of wrong:
Free homes and free altars,
Free prairie and flood,—
The reeds of the Swan’s Marsh,
Whose bloom is of blood!

On the lintels of Kansas
That blood shall not dry;
Henceforth the Bad Angel
Shall harmless go by;
Henceforth to the sunset,
Unchecked on her way,
Shall Liberty follow
The march of the day.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Missouri,Murder,Public Executions,Soldiers,Terrorists,USA,Wartime Executions

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1651: Terence Albert O’Brien, Bishop of Emly

Add comment October 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1651, three days after the Irish city Limerick surrendered to a withering five-month Parliamentarian siege, the victors hanged Bishop Terence Albert O’Brien on Gallows Green.

Limerick was the southern stronghold of the Catholic and anti-Parliamentarian Confederate Ireland.

It was this polity, which allied itself to English Royalists, that Cromwell assailed in his bloody conquest of Ireland.

Though Cromwell lives forever as an oath in Irish memory, the man himself left Ireland in 1650 to smash an awkward Royalist alliance with Scottish Presbyterians.

That left the Irish campaign in the hands of Cromwell’s capable fellow-general (and by this time, son-in-law) Henry Ireton, and it was Ireton who laid Limerick under a siege at an estimated cost of 5,000 civilians succumbed to starvation and plague.

The Catholic Bishop of Emly, Terence Albert O’Brien, had been trapped in the mixed English-Irish city and encouraged continued resistance to the siege. Ireton advanced him to the very front of the queue for punishment, and had him put to death directly after the city’s capture.

A “Last Speech and Prayer” of the martyr was published in London within a few days, together with a “humble petition” of then-imprisoned (and later executed) pro-Stuart highwayman James Hind.

Good people,

This is a very uncomfortable place, for me to deliver my self unto you; but I beseech you pardon my failings, and the rather, by reason of the sad occasion that hath brought me hither: Indeed, I have been long in my race, and how I have looked unto Jesus the Authour and finisher of my faith, is best known to him; I am now come to the end of my race, which I find to be a death of shame, but the shame must be despised, or there is no coming to the right hand of God; Jesus despised the shame for me upon the Crosse, and God forbid but I should despise the shame for him upon the Gallowes; I am going apace, as you see, towards the Red Sea, and my feet are upon the very brinks of it, an Argument I hope that God is brining me to the Land of promise, for that was the way by which of old he led his people.

But before they came to the Sea, he instituted a passe over for them, a Lamb it was, but it was to be eaten with very sowr herbs, as in the 12. of Exodus. I shall obey and labour to digest the sowr herbs, as well as the Lamb, and I shall remember, that it is the Lord’s passe-over, I shall not think of the herbs, nor be angry with the hands that gathered them, but look up only to him who instituted the one, and governeth the other: For men can have no more power over me, than that which is given them from above; and although I am denyed mercy here on earth, yet I doubt not but to receive it in heaven. I am not in love with this passage through the Red Sea, for I have the weakness and infirmity of flesh and blood in me, and I have prayed as my Saviour taught me, and exampled me; ut transiret calix ista, That this cup might passe away from me; but since it is not, that my will may, his will be done; and I shall most willingly drink of it as deep as he pleases, and enter into this Sea, I and I passe through it, in the way that he shall be pleased to leade me. And yet (good people) it would be remembrad [sic], That when the Servants of God, old Israel, were in this boystrous Sea, and Aaron with them, the Egyptians which persecuted them, and did in a manner drive them into that Sea, were drowned in the same waters while they were in pursuit of them: I know my God whom I serve, is as able to deliver me from this Sea of blood, as he was to deliver the 3 Children from the furnace. Dan. 3. And I most humbly thank my Saviour for it. My resolution is now, as theirs was then; their Resolution was, they would not change their principles, nor worship the Image which the King had set up; nor shall I the imaginations which the people are setting up; neither will I forsake the Temple and Truth of God, to follow the bleating of Jeroboams Calves in Dan and in Bethel.

And I pray God blesse all this people, and open their eyes, that they may see the right way, for if it fall out that the blind lead the blind, doubtless they will fall both into the ditch: For my self I am (and I acknowledge it in all humility), a most grievous sinner, and therefore I cannot doubt but that God hath mercy in store for me a poor penitent, as well as for other sinners; I have upon this sad occasion ransack’d every corner of my heart, & yet I thank God, I have not found any of my sins that are there, any sins now deserving death by any known Law. And I thank God, though the wait [weight] of the sentence lie very hard upon me, yet I am as quiet within, (I thank Christ for it) as I ever was in my life; I shall hasten to go out of this miserable life, for I am not willing to be tedious; and I beseech you, as many as are within hearing, observe me, I was born and baptized in the bosome of the Church of Rome (the ancient and true Church) and in that Profession I have ever since lived, and in the same I now die. As touching my engagement in arms, I did it in two respects. First, for the preservation of my principles and Tenents. And secondly, for the establishing of the King, and the rest of the Royal issue in their just Rights and Priviledges. I will not inlarge my self any further, I have done, I forgive all the world, all and every of these bitter Enemies, or others whatsoever they have been, which have any wayes prosecuted me in this kind; I humbly desire to be forgiven first of God, and then of every man, whether I have offended him or no; if he do but conceive that I have: Lord do thou forgive me, and I beg forgiveness of him, and so I heartily desire you to joyn with me in prayer.

From Hugh Fennin’s “The Last Speech and Prayer of Blessed Terence Albert O’Brien, Bishopp of Emly, 1651,” in Collectanea Hibernica, No. 38 (1996).

Any Limerick Catholics who didn’t share the prelate’s forgiving attitude might have taken some spiteful comfort that the strain of commanding the siege caused Ireton to fall ill with fever. He died on November 26 — barely outliving the bishop whom he had hanged.* After the Stuarts regained the English throne, Ireton was exhumed and posthumously executed alongside the body of Oliver Cromwell.

* Ireton’s death indirectly spared the royalist commander of Limerick’s defeated garrison from an execution his conqueror had intended for him: Ireton’s successor instead sent him to the Tower of London, and he was eventually released to Spanish custody.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Wartime Executions

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1480: Cicco Simonetta

Add comment October 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1480, Francesco Simonetta — known as Cicco to his contemporaries — was beheaded at the Castello of Pavia.

Simonetta (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was your basic 15th century polyglot Italian humanist, whose aptitude saw him into the service of the condottiero Francesco Sforza.

Simonetta’s honors and appointments multiplied as Sforza’s reach expanded; when Sforza died, and then Sforza’s heir was assassinated, a 7-year-old became Duke of Milan.

The late 1470s saw a bitter power struggle during the child duke’s minority for effective control of the state: on the one hand, the boy’s uncle Ludovico; on the other, the boy’s mother Bona of Savoy. Simonetta was the able minister of state for Bona, and his faction briefly prevailed and saw Ludovico into exile.

Simonetta had put several years of hustle into balancing the political factions that kept Bona — and via Bona, himself — in control. Alas for their cause, Bona was eventually induced via her lover, a natural rival of Simonetta’s, to just go and invite Ludovico to return to Milan

Simonetta looked grave, as he well might, when he heard the news. “Most illustrious duchess,” he said to Bona the next day, “do you know what will happen? My head will be cut off, and before long you will lose this state.”

And so it was.

Bad news for Francesco Simonetta, sure, but Ludovico would one day use his position to commission Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

Simonetta’s legacy beyond peninsular politics is somewhat less august. His treatise on code-breaking, Regule ad extrahendum litteras ziferatas sine exemplo (Rules for Decrypting Coded Documents), is a tipsheet for busting elementary substitution ciphers: determine the language, look for common words, exploit the letter patterns caused by standardized word endings (like -ing and -ed in English), isolate the vowels.

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1885: George Miller, Inkster axster

1 comment October 30th, 2012 Headsman

This date in 1885 saw the hanging in Grand Forks, North Dakota* of 19-year-old farmhand George Miller for butchering his employer’s wife and child in order to loot the farmhouse while the patriarch was away.

For this terrible American Gothic crime, we turn to the American Press.

Miller was the first person hanged in North Dakota and the local Grand Forks Herald marked the date with a voluptuous recounting (occupying an entire page, plus two more columns on the next page) of the late scandal all the way to the felon’s scaffold accusation. Here it is, in its entirety …


In the middle of last January when all the earth was wrapped in a mantle of purity, an esteemed minister of the gospel, the father of a bright family of children and a devoted husband with a loving wife, resided on his prosperous farm in the township of Inkster, this county, surrounded with the 320 broad and fertile acres, horses and cattle and improved farming implements he called his own. His earthly possessions he had acquired by industry, thrift and economy, with the wifely assistance and the aid of the little boys and girl that had blessed their union. This gentleman was Rev. C. Y. Snell at one time minister of the Baptist church in Grand Forks, but who had, like nearly all settlers in Dakota taken advantage of his rights and acquired a farm, which had brought a handsome return. His summer’s work done, his grain garnered, he had sent three of his children to Grand Forks to acquire a good education in her public schools, and remaining at the farm, was his wife Abbie and little son Herbie, aged eleven, and the hired man George Miller, a young man of quiet demeanor, aged about 19 years, who had helped to garner the summer’s fruits and whom both Mr. and Mrs. Snell had implicitly trusted.

Thus situated on the 16th of January, Rev. Snell bade his wife and son good-be, little dreaming that the

SHADOW OF THE DEMON

was in his door and before another fortnight his loved ones would be prone, stark and mangled in the icy embrace of blood and horrid death. He went on his errand of good will to Mayville where he was engaged in missionary labor for his Lord and Master. On the 31st of January, two weeks after his absence, he received a telegram informing him of the doleful event — the murder of his wife and boy, and he hastened with bowed form and bleeding heart to the spot where the light of his joy had been ruthlessly extinguished.

OH RUEFUL SCENE!

The demon had done his worst! Have not the details of that heartless butchery been told again and again? Why not draw the veil upon the foul deed? The ghastly corpses of the innocent and unsuspecting sleepers — mother and son, hurled into eternity in a moment while taking the repose of the righteous — as found there by the neighbors a week after the tragedy — divulged the heartlessness of the assassin whoever he might be, and the thorough depravity of the soul that could impel the ruthless ax to deeds of death.

THE VILLAINOUS SHREWDNESS

with which the murderer had avoided suspicion was manifest in the fact that so long a time had elapsed before the discovery of the crime, and will be further apparent as the story progresses. He had been a companion of Henry Rutherford and to avoid immediate discovery, Miller the confessed criminal, had told the nearest neighbors that he intended to give Mrs. Snell a drive on Sunday and that he would haul wood the following week. Thus no suspicion was aroused until late in the week. Friday, Rutherford a simple, untutored laborer who lived alone at Bennett’s place about 60 rods from the Snell residence, thought it strange that there was no stir or animation about the place, and after finding the stock nearly famished, and watering it, alarmed the neighbors and the dreadful truth was discovered. The neighbors H.P. Reiton, Simeon, Miller, C.G. Gordon, Mr. Vietch, Henry Blakely and others found the dead bodies undisturbed and the rifled trunk with its empty money box and the robbed children’s bank just as the murderer had left them. Thus it was plain

THE MOTIVE WAS MONEY —

the sordid lust for gold that causes men to imperil their souls and makes of earth a probationary sheol for evil minds. Mr. Snell had sold considerable grain and when he left he took $300 with him, leaving some money, together with some keep-sakes and the children’s savings in the cash-box in the trunk. After he had gone, Miller sold more wheat and received from agent Holden $205, which he may have turned over to Mrs. Snell or not. But that the robbery of Mr. Snell in some way, was in his mind for a week before the crime was committed is shown by the testimony of Mr. Holden to the fact that Miller asked him a week before, whether he could deliver a load of wheat unknown to Mr. Snell and it further shows that the idea of robbery did not originated with Rutherford at a dance on the 20th of January, only four days before the murder as Miller claimed in his statement before the judge. It shows that the robbery was in contemplation by him without an accomplice and, being ignorant of the fact that Mr. Snell had taken $300 with him to Mayville, he doubtless committed the crime for more money that he received —

FLEEING FROM JUSTICE

After committing the crime, he hastily placed the ax beneath the bed, threw up the bedclothes over the faces of the dead, robbed the trunk of its keep-sakes, harnessed the best pair of horses in the stable, took Snell’s driving gloves and drove forty miles over the cold bleak prairie with the thermometer at 30 degrees below zero, arrived in Grand Forks at break of day Sunday morning in front of the Northwestern Hotel and ordered the team put away and his breakfast prepared. In the sled-box was an overcoat of the boy he had murdered which had probably been left there when the unsuspecting youth last accompanied him in the delivery of the wheat the proceeds of which he contemplated stealing. There was also left there the overalls which Miller had worn and upon which bright specks of blood had been discovered and whose dumb voices cry out testimony against the last black lie of the series which the obdurate murderer coined in the cell against poor simple Rutherford. With the team was Snell’s faithful dog, which followed the fleeing assassin. Upon his arrival here, he commenced a series of ingenious but

BASE COINAGES TO EVADE PURSUIT.

He told Powery, the clerk at the Northwestern Hotel, that he had come to meet his brother at the train and he might go to Winnipeg for a week. He also exhibited some gold pieces which he wanted changed, but the clerk had no change. The design of this story was too evidently to direct pursuit towards Winnipeg, if the team were soon identified as Snell’s. He soon walked off seemingly unconscious of any obligation to pay for his breakfast and next called at the Chicago clothing house, rousing Mr. Ephraim out of his late Sabbath repose. He told Mr. Ephraim a different tale. He was thrown of[f] his guard by the sharp questioning of Ephraim, while selling him the buffalo overcoat, black valise, pocket book, and other out-fit that later led to the capture and identification. He explained the possesion of his roll of bills, amounting to several hundred dollars by saying that he had sold a team of horses receiving $275 for it and intended to go to Turtle Mountain, thus evading the true objective point. He also got rid here of the tell-tale keep-sakes, the gold dollars which Mr. Snell had treasured for years, and the nickles, dimes and quarters which the little Snells had perhaps been years in gathering. Being shown the way to the barbershop of Mr. Kruger by Mr. Ephraim, after he had bought his disguise, he further changed his apperance by getting his hair cut close and his face shaved. Here he left the only clue to the direction in which he was intending to go, by inquiring whether a train left for Crookston, and up to the discovery of this fact by a HERALD representative, the officers seemed to be impressed with the fact that he had really gone to Winnipeg to which point as well as others they telegraphed as soon as it was learned that the team was left in this city. It must be remembered that it was not until the following Saturday that the tragedy was made known and in that time the murderer might have left the country, if he had not been paralyzed by his own wickedness and depravity. Learning at the barbershop that no train left for Crookston on Sunday, he walked to the station on the railroad track and bought a ticket for Fargo, displaying the new red pocket book to the agent. After spending a few days at Fargo among variety women, and having had his picture taken by a photographer, he went to Brainerd, Minn., where he stopped at the house of Malcolm McLaren for a few days more.


I’d be very surprised if our suspect was from Brainerd.

While at Brainerd, he associated with women of loose character and spent considerable money lavishing presents upon them. It seems that he met a female there whom he had formerly known in Iowa. At first he talked to Mr. McLaren about going into business. He wanted to do chores, when he learned that his money was nearly all gone. The St. Paul papers on Sunday morning following the discovery contain accounts of the murder with description of the hired man of Snells, but imperfect, as his disguise was not known, but when the statement of the Northwestern clerk about the gold pieces was published, Mr. Ephraim at once reported the Sunday morning transaction and it was thus that

HIS SIN FOUND HIM OUT.

His new outfit together with the way he had disguised himself were immediately telegraphed to the associated press by the HERALD and with it a statement of the reward offered. When the papers arrived at Brainerd, Miller had quietly decamped, realizing that he was too near the scene of the tragedy. But McLaren, an old detective immediately concluded that the fellow who had staid [sic] at his house was the person sought, and securing a deputization from the sheriff, he drew money for an indefinite trip, learned that Miller had boarded the train with a ticket for Anoka, and followed him up. On the same train went Hartley and another, bent on the same errand and watching McLaren. At Anoka, McLaren happened to strike the bus for the very hotel at which Miller was stopping and he now felt certain of

ARRESTING HIS MAN.

Miller was in his room and armed. McLaren knew the character of the brute better than the inexperienced who put any faith in his pretences during his last days. He concluded to wait till Miller came down, and while McLaren was at breakfast, he heard the murderer’s foot-falls on the stairs and entering the washroom. McLaren immediately left the table and coming up behind Miller with his pistol cocked arrested him, but as he did so, Miller laid his hand on the revolver in his hip-pocket, but the gun of the sheriff had the desired effect and he was disarmed. His attempt to get away from McLaren on various pertexts [sic] and his denial of all knowledge at the start are remembered. It was not until they were in the cars and coming back to Brainerd, that he

CONFESSED HE DID IT ALONE.

The way he happened to weaken was this, McLaren said to him, “Now you may as well tell all about it. I can tell you of a place in the forests where you will never be found, if you get away at the next station.” Miller then told his first story about how he was crazed with drink after being chid by Mrs. Snell, and killed her and the boy, and after getting over his stupor, and seeing what he had done, he stole the money and tried to get away. He reiterated this oft-told tale to Sheriff Jenks and others at Brainerd and again to reporters of Fargo papers, who managed to get up a considerable maudlin sentimentality for him. For prudential reasons, there having been a great deal of feeling that he should be given short shrift and a stout rope, he was kept at Fargo for several days, and finally brought here very quietly and lodged in jail. When it was known that he was in jail and likely to be tried speedily and executed according to law, popular excitement over the enormity of the crime subsided. The Rev. J.T. Davis and Rev. Snell, at an early day obtained an interview with Miller, and he reiterated the intoxication story as before in their presence, calling upon God to strike him dead if his story was not true. He also as positively stated to the gentelemen that he alone did the crime and no one was concerned with him in it.

It was not until after the Grand Jury had found a bill that this mild, child-like and bland assassin,

CHANGED BASE.

He then asserted that Henry Rutherford was with him, concocted the idea of robbery and urged it against his wishes, until he was finally persuaded to connive and assist, although Rutherford he said, actually did the horrible deed, while he did the running away to South America. In the face of his former statements this story only seemed to aggravate his villainy. However, able counsel, Judge C.B. Pratt, was assigned him and every thing that legal subtlety and experience could avail, was rallied to save his neck from the law’s penalty. The people, however, were fortunate in having so learned and able a coadjutor as District Attorney W.A. Selby and so just and firm a judge as Hon. W.B. McConnell; for, notwithstanding the able, artful and persistent defense made by Judge Pratt, justice was vindicated. Upon the defendant’s own plea of “guilty,” ascertained, verified and corroborated by all the witnesses, who fully and completely exonerated Rutherford from the suspicions cast upon him, and satisfied the conscience of the court, sentence of death was passed upon him and his appeal to the higher court sent back with an approval of the action of the District Court. His statement to the Judge, when informed of this action, suggesting some new matters not before mentioned, is still fresh in the recollection of everybody.

The last few days of his life seemed to have passed by him in a happy, careless, indifferent and easy frame of mind. He talked freely about his own execution, expressed no great sorrow or penitence for, at least the part he played in the atrocious crime, but pretended that he was glad the end was so near. His spiritual advisor, Rev. F. Doran conversed and prayed with him and did all in his power to turn his thoughts towards that awful Judge who hath decreed that “whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”

HIS LAST NIGHT

on earth was uneventful. About eight o’clock he was left alone for a time in his cell and was seen from Bruce avenue to perform various antics, rising suddenly from his chair and jesticulating wildly with his arms as if again swinging the baleful ax which brained his helpless victims. He was restless and this has been observed that when left to himself and his thoughts, he was not the calm, self-possessed person he appeared to be when in the presence of visitors. During the evening, Rev. Snell had an interview with him for about an hour and a half. The prisoner claimed to others that he had succeeded in persuading Mr. Snell of the correctness of his last story. He was set up with by Deputy Sheriff Ackerman and others until after midnight. At one o’clock he retired and at 7:30 this morning he arose apparently refreshed. He ate a hearty breakfast consisting of beefsteak, potato, cake, etc. His cell has a window pane out and the wind being in the south, Miller was cold and was brought down into the office where he smoked a cigar, one of a number left him some days ago by some women who called upon him and were recognized by the prisoner as old acquaintances. The district attorney was present and inquired further about portions of Miller’s statement made to Rev. Doran. Presently Sheriff Pierce of Nelson county and friends came in, also County Commissioner Steele, Henry Rutherford and Mr. Vietch. Rutherford was told that Miller still insisted upon his story and was asked what he thought of it. He said, “then Miller lies. That is all.” Soon after an interview was had between

MILLER AND RUTHERFORD

in the presence of District Attorney. Miller said to Rutherford: “You know you had a hand in this thing as I have said.” Rutherford, without any trepidation replied: “It is a lie and you know it. I don’t like to be lied about.” Subsequently the statement in the nature of a history of his career and the crime was read in the presence of Rutherford who said nothing. When asked about it, he said it was “no such thing. It was all a dang’d lie!” When asked about the part in which Miller alludes to the false mustache, Rutherford said he had such a mustache but did not think Miller had ever seen it. He said he kept it in his trunk and described it to the district attorney corresponding with the description given by Miller. This circumstance and one in respect to changing wagon boxes, also a statement now made that the Snell stock was not famished, although the witnesses testified that it was, were industriously emplyoed [sic] last night and this morning to weaken the district attorney and cause him to apply for the respite of Miller. Mr. Snell himself after his interview with Miller last night seemed to have been influenced by his story and urged and begged the district attorney to intercede for Miller. Mr. Selby said he could do nothing unless Mr. Snell or some one on his behalf, would swear that Rutherford was an accomplice, when he would take such action as was proper in the cause of justice. Up to noon, Snell had done nothing of the kind. There was also pressure brought to bear from various sources to effect the same purpose, but none were willing to assume any responsibility.

THE LAST HOUR

was spent in the parlor of Sheriff Jenks with Revs. Currie and Doran who administered all the Christian consolation the solemnity of the occasion could afford. They talked to him, prayed for him and he himself made a fervid prayer. His nerve maintained his head erect to the end, which did not seem to fear.

ASCEND THE SCAFFOLD.

At 1:30 accompanied by Sheriff Jenks, he ascended the scaffold. The Sheriff suggested that if he had anything to say he should speak. Miller stood with the rope almost danging in his face, his hands clasped, and his body slightly bent. About two feet in front of him stood Henry Rutherford who, during Miller’s 15 minute talk, kept his gaze firmly fixed on Miller’s face. Rutherford looked like a person suffering great mental strain and slightly changed color at times while Miller was speaking, but his eyes never flinched. Rev. Mr. Snell occupied a position to the left of Rutherford, almost touching him and when Miller alluded to Rutherford’s alleged connection with the murder, Mr. Snell gazed almost fiercely into Rutherford’s face, Rutherford meanwhile keeping his eyes fixed on the doomed man. C.B. Pratt, Miller’s counsel, during the recital of the murderer’s statement, watched Rutherford closely.

Miller spoke with apparent effort and several times during the recital of his story had occasion to put his handkerchief to his eyes.

HIS LAST WORDS.

Gentlemen: — I am accused of the crime of murder which I did not commit. I have not committed murder. I was in company with the party and gave my consent, but gentlemen, I never committed the murder myself.

On the 30th day of January I was in Inkster with Mr. Rutherford. He and I sold 100 bushels of Mr. Snell’s wheat and we divided the money. That night we got home between eight and nine o’clock and Rutherford asked me how much wheat Mr. Snell had and I told him over 200 bushels besides a few loads which I had drawn. He wanted to know how much money was in the house and I told him as near as I could. He wanted to know how we could get it and I told him we could chloroform the folks and get it and he said he would do it. The 22nd, 23rd and 24th we were hauling grain to town and we talked again about getting the money. That night I went down to his house to supper and Mr. Blakely came in and that stopped our talk there. I went to Mr. Snells and that night I had a long conversation with Mrs. Snell and when it got about bed time I went to my room with my lantern and sat down on the bed and pulled off my rubbers when I heard a knock at the back door and went and opened it and Rutherford sad, George are you ready to do that? I said no, I hae had a long talk with Mrs. Snell and she is so good and kind to me that I cannot do it. He says you said you would do it and now you got to do it. He said dead folks tell no tales. He said he would do it and handed me a mustache to put on so folks would not know him and took the axe and went in and I went to the barn and harnessed one horse and was just putting one collar on the other when he came out and said, hurry up George I have done it. I tied the horse and I went in and found them dead. He says hurry up let us get away before anyone happens to catch us moving around so he hurried and got the team hitched up and I went to the house and got the money and gave him an even $100 and took $115 mysel and got what clothes I wanted. I wanted to change my clothes and put on a white shirt, but he said hurry up for I could get what clothes I wanted at Grand Forks. He brought the team up and tied them and I got what things I wanted and he helped me fasten up the storm door. He wanted me to go direct to South America and go right through. Said for me to write him when I got there and he would write me the circumstances here. At this ponit Miller was overcome with emotion and stopped a while.

Now gentlemen, every word hat I have told you is true and now as dear as that family was to me, I never could have consented to murder them as I was used there as their son. I was always treated well; they thought the world of me and I did of them but by the hands of another man’s deed I am to be hung and I am going to my grave and I am thankful that I can trust in God and feel that my sins have been pardoned.

And now I feel that the other party shall receive the same punishment that I have. It is not because I am down on him and it is not for malice but it is just what should be done. As dear and as good as that family was to me I could not go in and murder them. But thank heaven I am willing to die. This world would be no pleasure to me after this and I do not want to go to penitentiary. I am better satisfied to go to my grave. I am fully satisfied and feel that what has been done is just, as that family always used me like a son, always good, always dear in every shape, never refused me money, never refused me anything.

Now, gentlemen, I want you all to remember that this is the truth and nothing else. I won’t meet you any more in this world face to face but I hope we can all meet in the world to come.

When Miller had finished Henry Rutherford turned to District Attorney Selby and asked that he might make a statement of denial.

ADJUSTING THE ROPE.

Sheriff Jenks, who occupied a position on the scaffold just behind Miller, then approached and commenced binding the wretche’s [sic] hands and limbs with straps, and while placing the cap, which was of brown worsted, Miler again commenced to speak, and even while the sheriff was placing the noose around his neck Miller asked his executioner to say “good bye” for him to his friends.

THE DROP.

Barely a second’s time had elapsed from the moment the noose was adjusted before the trap was sprung, so adroitly and neatly did Sheriff Jenks do his work. Miller’s body shot down at 1:45 o’clock with a sickening thud, his neck being broken by the fall. A few moments after the drop the body quivered and the legs were slightly drawn up several times. Life was pronounced extinct 15 minutes after the fall by Coroner Roundwell and at 2:10 the body was cut down and carried into an adjoining cell, where the straps were removed. Shortly afterwards undertaker Caswell took charge of his remains which were interred this afternoon in the cemetery among the unknown sleepers. Thus ends this chapter of the bloodiest and most heartless murder in the annals of Dakota and the murder’s just doom, should be a warning to all evil-doers that there is no mercy for the slayers of the innocent.

MILLER’S STATEMENT.

Following is a statement prepared by Miller and given to Rev. Doran several days since. He swore to it this forenoon before Judge Cochrane, in presence of several gentlemen.

TERRITORY OF DAK.
GRAND FORKS, Oct. 30, 1885.

The last statement and confession of Geo Miller, before his execution in Grand Forks, Oct. 30, 1886.

TERRITORY OF DAK.,
COUNTY OF GRAND FORKS.

I, George Miller, was born in Toledo, Ohio February 17, 1866. My father and mother are both dead; about 12 years ago my mother died and my father 2 years later; have one brother, four years older than myself named Frank, two sisters both younger than I, two and four years; father was Bohemian; mother French; came from Iowa to Casselton last June, 1884, remained there 2 days; from Casselton to Larimore, arriving about the 13th of July, 1884, left there on the 11th, arriving at Mr. Snell’s that evening; at the expiration of four months hired to him for $30.00 a month; never refused to pay me; liked the family; first got acquainted with Henry Rutherford in Mr. Snell’s harvest field. He and I thrashed wheat together in August, 1884; often I met him at Mr. Bennet’s place in the evenings and was with him all through thrashing. Had hauled wheat once or twice before the dance by Brothrs [sic?] Bogs and also by Rutherford; went from Rutherford’s house; I furnished the cutter and he the horse; went together; he and I began to drink together; on the 1st of January took four or five drinks together that day in three different saloons and each took a pint of liquor home with us. The next day Rutherford went to Inkster; came back to “Vietches” where Mrs. Vietch was doctoring him, when Mrs. Snell and Essa Vickery saw him and told me that he was drunk; drank almost every time we went to Inkster; on the 20th of January, 1885, we sold five sacks of Mr. Snell’s wheat; I had 35 sacks of Mr. Snell’s wheat; Rutherford had 20 sacks of his own, we called it 10 bushels; spent most of it for liquor and cigars; changed sacks between the livery stable and saloon; he gave me half the money.

The dance was on Tuesday, the 20th of January; got to the dance about 8 or 9 o’clock, left about 3:30 a.m.; Rutherford asked me how much wheat I had hauled off; told him over 2000 bushels; he asked how much money there was about the house; I told him 6, 7, 8 or 9 hundred dollars; he said can’t we get it; I did not think we could, the trunk was too near the bed; he said we could kill the folks and get it; I did not want to do that, I said wait until we go to town and get some chloroform; Rutherford did not want to do this for fear we would be caught; nothing more was said about it for two days; coming from town I rode with him; he asked me what I thought about what we had talked about; told him it was not right to kill them for a little money;


And for what? A little bit of money.

he said we must work some plan to get it; I told him nothing must be done at this time. Nothing more was said until the Saturday it was done; we went to town together and on returning, when about to separate to go to our homes he asked me to come over that afternoon and help him sack up wheat, I told him I would; he said we would talk over this other thing, referring to the money of Snell’s.

In the afternoon I went over and we worked at the wheat and made all the arrangements to kill the folks; I was to leave with the team either for Larimore or Grand Forks and then take the first train for South America, we were both to go in and do the killing, I stayed at Rutherfords for supper, Harry Blakely came to call on Rutherford, we stayed and talked until eight or nine o’clock, then I started hom and Rutherford and Blakely started to go to Abner Veitches. I went to Mr. Snell’s and did the chores, Mrs. Snell was pleasant and talked pleasant, the last thing I did was to bed the horses and nail up the granary, that was about ten o’clock at night, I then went to the house and whittled my shavings and left them by the stove, pulled my rubbers off my felts and went into my room and set down on the front side of my bed, and was just going to pull of[f] my felts when Rutherford knocked at the kitchen door, I went to let him in, he says are you ready to do that, I told him no I was not, he said it had to be done, you gave your consent at the granary, “dead folks tell no tales.” I said if you want to do it you can, I won’t, he says all right, get me the ax, I went out and got it and when I gave it to him he pulled a false mustache out of his pocket and told me to put it on him, it was black and fastened in the nose with two wires, he had on woolen mittens. I think I got my coat, cap and mittens from the dining room and went to the barn while he did it and had one horse harnessed when he came out and said hurry up I have killed both of them, let us [get out of] the place before anyone sees us moving around, he led out one horse and took the other and hitched on to the sleigh, drove to the front door to hitch both horses, we both went in the house, I went into the bed room and got the money and took it into the dining room and divided it. He had $100, two $20, one $10 and one $50 bill, I had one hundred and fifteen dollars, he put his in his pocket and I put mine in my coat pocket, then I went into the bed room and changed coat and vest, then I got my overcoat and scarf and a large pair of mittens, fine boots and overshoes and handed them to him to carry to the sleigh for me. I took two or three blankets off my bed and took them with me. I got the key and locked up the door, he held up the storm door while I put the blocks against it, we got into the sled and rode up to his corner, he told me to go to South America, I told him I would, when he got to the corner we stopped and bid each other good-bye by shaking hands, he said as soon as I got there I was to write to him and he would let me know how things were, I told him I would.

GEO. MILLER.

Signed in the presence of

JAMES A. JENKS.
GEO. B. WINSHIP

TERRITORY OF DAK.,
COUNTY OF GRAND FORKS.

I, George Miller being first duly sworn on his oath says that I have heard read the foregoing statement by me subscribed and know the contents thereof and the whole thereof and that the statements therein made are true of my own knowledge.

GEO. MILLER.

Subscribed and sworn to before me this 30th day of October, 1885.

J. M. Cochrane,
Judge of Probate.

* At the time, not North Dakota but the Dakota Territory; North and South Dakota would attain statehood four years later.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,North Dakota,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft,USA

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1632: Henri II de Montmorency

1 comment October 30th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1632, French noble Henri II de Montmorency was beheaded at Toulouse for rebellion against Louis XIII.

The lordly Montmorency (English Wikipedia page | French), sister to a famous knockout whom Henri IV wooed, was a Grand Admiral for his achievements knocking heads during the 1620s’ Huguenot rebellions. (It was Montmorency who, in the naval battle to capture Re Island, commanded the English ships controversially supplied by the Duke of Buckingham.)

His undoing? He hated Cardinal Richelieu‘s guts.

The red eminence had just attained his rank as Louis XIII’s consigliere, and set about using it to centralize the state in the king’s hands.

Toward that end, Richelieu pressed Montmorency to give up his “grand admiral” title, fearing that “grand” military generals running around the realm were liable to become a locus of sedition sooner or later. Similarly, Richelieu reduced Montmorency’s power as governor of Languedoc.* He wanted, altogether, fewer stumbling-blocks of leftover feudal authority laying about his absolute monarchy.

A seething Montmorency finally jumped — or was he pushed? — into outright rebellion in the party (French) of scheming royal brother Gaston, duc d’Orleans. The rebel force barely materialized, and was easily beaten at Castelnauday.

Orleans fled the country, not half so committed to his revolt as Montmorency — who assailed the king’s lines practically alone. The latter, captured wounded on the battlefield, was attested to have given a ferocious account of himself in a hopeless cause: “seeing a single man charge through seven ranks and still fight at the seventh, he judged that that man could be only M. de Motmorency.”

Jolly good show, and all the more reason for Richelieu to take his head, to make an example of the man to other powerful men who demanded clemency for the rebellion as if it were Montmorency’s birthright. Richelieu would argue in his memoirs that this pitiless act to pacify the realm at the risk of his own popularity was the height of patriotism.


Plaque at the spot of Montmorency’s execution in Toulouse. Image (c) [Cova] and used with permission.

The Montmorency title eventually became that of the Dukes of Enghien, in which guise it’s associated with an altogether more famous execution.

* Among Montmorency’s other titles, less obnoxious to Richelieu, was viceroy of New France — that mysterious land across the Atlantic. There’s a Montmorency Falls in Quebec, named for him by Champlain.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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2008: Greg Wright, still fighting for exoneration

Add comment October 30th, 2010 Headsman

Two years on from his execution in Texas this date in 2008, the website FreeGregWright.com still bears its namesake’s now-hopeless case for exoneration.


Wright’s wife Connie (the woman on the right) and their friend Bente Hjortshøj released this photo of Greg Wright 15 minutes after execution “to show the world the cruel and unusual punishment and its horrible consequences.”

Wright and another homeless man, John Adams, were taken in by a generous 52-year-old widow named Donna Vick. Vick paid for her charity with her life … but who was the killer?

Adams fingered Wright, but Wright always insisted that Adams killed her. Late-arriving DNA evidence appeared to back Wright. So did too-late-to-matter confessions by Adams. (Adams, for his part, was also convicted for capital murder; each man was separately tried on the theory that he was the murderer and the other the bystander.)

The disputed facts of this case are a muddier affair that don’t readily admit a slam-dunk exoneration. An episode of the Dallas DNA television series looked at Wright’s case and disappointed Wright’s supporters with its unfavorable view of the subject’s case.

Wright, nevertheless, maintained his innocence from the execution gurney.

John Adams lied. He went to the police and told them a story. He made deals and sold stuff to keep from going to prison. I left the house, and I left him there. My only act or involvement was not telling on him. John Adams is the one that killed Donna Vick. I took a polygraph and passed. John Adams never volunteered to take one. … I was in the bathroom when [Adams] attacked [Vick]. I am deaf in one ear and I thought the T.V. was up too loud. I ran in to the bedroom. By the time I came in, when I tried to help her, with first aid, it was too late. The veins were cut on her throat. He stabbed her in her heart, and that’s what killed her. I told John Adams, “turn yourself in or hit the high road.” I owed him a favor because he pulled someone off my back. I was in a fight downtown. Two or three days later he turned on me. I have done everything to prove my innocence. Before you is an innocent man.

The victim’s son — for whom little ice was cut by Wright’s admitted failure to summon medical help for the victim, or to turn in the alleged killer Adams — complained that the statement was “the same thing we’ve got since day one, each of them blaming it on the other one.”

Former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney witnessed the execution, taking a break from her Green Party presidential bid.

One of the crime scene investigators in this case, Eric George Rosenstrom, is now himself wanted for murder.

On this day..

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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1796: Lesurques, wrongly, and Couriol, rightly, for robbing the Lyons Mail

1 comment October 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1796, France enacted what was long held to be one of its most notorious miscarriages of criminal justice by cutting off the head of Joseph Lesurques.

Lesurques was taken for the one of a gang who had sensationally robbed and murdered a mail courier early in 1796, and on the basis of slight eyewitness testimony condemned to die. The only reason he was associated with the crime in the first place was because his friend had been mistakenly accused, and then released, and Lesurques accompanied him to the court to retrieve the friend’s papers where he was “recognized.”

Eyewitness testimony having juridical pull far in excess of its dependability,** this “recognition” was worth the man’s life.

The famous French Revolution executioner Sanson was still in the game at this point, and his grandson (not yet born at this time) used the family notes to pull together this quasi-firsthand account in Memoirs of the Sansons. It’s a tale familiar to any present-day wrongful conviction scenario, of bad evidence snowballing, a blinkered prosecutor intent on conviction, pettifogging appellate authorities, and grim, relentless bureaucratic momentum.

(The names the Memoirs render as “Courriol” and “Dubosc” are also given as “Couriol” and “Dubosc” in other sources.)

the instructing magistrate … instead of imitating the prudence of his Parisian colleague and trying to discover the truth, applied himself to the collection of proofs of the guilt of the prisoners …

Fifteen witnesses on behalf of the defence proved an alibi in favour of Lesurques, eighty-three others spoke highly of his well-known respectability; but their evidence went for nothing in opposition to those who, with singular pertinacity, maintained that Lesurques was one of those who had been seen lurking near the scene of the murder on the night when it was committed …

On hearing his condemnation, Lesurques, who had been firm and collected throughout the trial, lost his self-possession, and raising his hands to heaven he exclaimed:

“The crime which is imputed to me is indeed atrocious and deserves death; but if it is horrible to murder on the high road it is not less so to abuse the law and convict an innocent man. A day will come when my innocence will be recognised, and then may my blood fall upon the jurors who have so lightly convicted me, and on the judges who have influenced their decision!”

On the 9th of Brumaire, year 5 (October 30, 1796), my grandfather and father proceeded to the Conciergerie, and found the convicts in the hall, through which so many had passed during the Reign of Terror. David Bernard† was in a state of utter prostration; Courriol, on the contrary, was excited. As to Lesurques, he was as calm and fearless as ever. When he saw my grandfather, whose white hair sufficiently designated him as the chief executioner, he stepped up to him, and said, holding out a sealed letter:

“Citizen, I hope for the honour of human justice that your functions do not often compel you to shed the blood of a guiltless man; I hope, therefore, that you will grant the last request of a man who is about to suffer for what he has not done. Be good enough to keep this letter, which may hereafter contribute to the restoration of the honour of my wife and poor children, whereof they have been so unjustly deprived.”

While one of his assistants was cutting the unfortunate man’s hair, my grandfather read the paper Lesurques had just given him. It was a letter addressed to Dubosc, the man in whose place he was condemned. It ran as follows:

“To Citizen Dubosc.

“Citizen Dubosc, — I do not even know you, and I am going to suffer the death which was reserved for you. Be satisfied with the sacrifice of my life. Should you ever be brought to account, remember my three children and their mother, who are disgraced for ever, and do not prolong their agony. Confess that you are the man.”

All preparations were now concluded. Lesurques, of his own choice, was dressed in spotless white, symbol of his innocence. He was the first to take his place in the cart; Courriol followed him, and Bernard, who had fainted, was deposited on the straw. Then began the most dismal and extraordinary journey that ever was made from the Conciergerie to the Place de Greve. Lesurques and Courriol stood in front. At every turn of the wheel, Courriol exclaimed in a piercing voice:

“I am guilty! Lesurques is innocent!”

And for twenty minutes, that is during the whole way to the guillotine, he perseveringly repeated his awful protest against justice. The crowd was horrified, and there were few who did not believe the murderer who confessed his crime, but who proclaimed his companion’s innocence. Courriol again repeated his words at the foot of the scaffold with extraordinary energy and vehemence, and the thump of the knife but just covered his supreme shriek:

“Lesurques is innocent!”

The judicial authorities have perseveringly refused to recognise this flagrant miscarriage of justice. And yet the innocence of Lesurques was amply demonstrated a short time after his execution: all the real murderers of the courier of Lyons designated by Courriol were captured; Dubosc himself, whose fatal resemblance to Lesurques was the cause of the latter’s death, was taken and tried … he was executed just four years after Lesurques …

The Lesurques heirs were left paupers by the state’s punitive confiscation of the “bandit’s” effects; after a quarter-century (during which the widow died in a madhouse), they were at least able to recoup their material loss, but although repeatedly challenged, the conviction itself was never reversed.

Judicial and literary skirmishing over the Lesurques matter continued for decades, gradually forming into a general consensus (whatever the courts might admit) that the man was wrongly accused.

As a result, Lesurques remained a potent symbol of capricious criminal justice overreach throughout the 19th century and into the 20th: this 1874 reader, Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence, has a full chapter on the case; a popular Victorian play titled The Lyons Mail was translated into a now-lost 1915 silent film and a 1931 talkie … albeit with a happy ending.

To a certain, inevitably well-represented, authoritarian demographic, any credence given to the self-evident proposition that wrongful convictions happen smacks of effrontery towards betters, and the Lesurques case was no exception … especially when paired with the coincident low ebb of public esteem for Power during the Dreyfus affair, which hit while The Lyons Mail was in vogue.


An advert insert in an unrelated 1903 book plumps a “Lesurques was guilty” position, riffing on the then-current Dreyfus controversy (“recent efforts in France to bring about the revision of a celebrated case”). This book is listed, but unavailable, on Amazon.com.

L’ affaire Lesurques never (so far as I can determine) reached a resolution; it simply faded away, 140 years or so after its namesake lost his head.

A late (1930) review of its particulars in the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology (“The Moving Story of the Lyons Stage,” by Max Radin of UC-Berkeley, May 1930) proceeds with ingenuousness embarrassingly unbecoming a professor of the law.

Judicial errors do not occur in the United States. [!!!] Under these circumstances, we can look with some satisfaction on times and places in which this happy condition did not prevail. If in the cycle of existences our perfection should ever become visibly tainted, it may happen that we shall hang men or electrocute them and subsequently regret the fact. Perhaps some one will then recall the moving story of the Lyons stage.

Sounds like it’s ready for a revival.

* A few sources say March 10, 1797, but the most and best clearly lean to October 30, 1796.

** “Juries have an unfortunate faith in the accuracy of eyewitnesses,” William Davis Gross observes. “The propensity for blunder is so great that it is nearly equal to all other forms of error combined.” (“The Unfortunate Faith: A Solution to the Unwarranted Reliance Upon Eyewitness Testimony,” Texas Wesleyan Law Review, spring 1999)

† Bernard is a footnote in the story, but he seems to have received a raw deal himself: he was the liveryman who procured the horses for the highwaymen, but did not participate in the crime. Sanson passingly refers to Bernard as “but slightly guilty.”

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