1887: Charles Smith

Add comment May 9th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1887, 63-year-old Charles Smith was judicially hanged at Oxford Castle Prison by James Berry. He’d brutally murdered his wife in front of their children that February.

The Smith family were Gypsies: Charles, his wife Lucy, their 17-year-old daughter Oceana (known as Oshey) and their 11-year-old son Prince Albert. As Nicola Sly notes in her book Oxfordshire Murders,

The lifestyle of Gypsy families in 1887 was not one to be envied. The traveling people were at the mercy of the weather all year round, whether the heat of summer or the bitter cold of winter. Forced to scratch a living any way they could, many supplemented their meager income with a little poaching or petty theft. Thus they were very rarely welcomed in any area and were always in fear of the local police who almost invariably moved them on wherever they tried to settle.

According to this account, Lucy had borne many children, but only four lived long. By the time of the murder, one of the children had died and one, a daughter named Elizabeth, had grown up and left home.

Charles’s siblings regularly got in trouble with the law, and at least one of his siblings was transported for sheep theft. He and Lucy, however, were somewhat more fortunate: Lucy possessed a valid peddler’s license. In the 1881 censuses, both had their occupations listed as “hawker.” Charles made baskets, skewers, roasting forks, meat stands and pegs which his wife sold.

Throughout their lives Charles and his family traveled around Oxfordshire, pitching a tent wherever they could find a place, and in February 1887, they were camped on public land near Headlington. They’d been there before and were friendly with some of the local residents, including a couple coincidentally also named Smith.

Charles was a violent man who regularly beat his wife and children; Oshey stated he beat his wife every day, and Prince Albert would later testify, “He has been knocking my mother about nearly all his life.”

At one point the domestic violence had gotten so bad that Lucy had gone so far as to take out a formal complaint against her husband for cruelty. She never followed up on it, though.

On the 18th of February, Kate and George Smith, who lived in a nearby cottage, visited the tent and noted Lucy was visibly bruised. They asked Charles why he’d beaten her and he wouldn’t give a reason, but said it was over something that happened thirty years before.

The visitors advised him to forgive and forget, but Charles acted surly and hostile for the rest of the day. Lucy was so frightened of him that for a long time she stayed outside the tent in the bitter cold, and only partially dressed, rather than go inside where her husband was. At bedtime she finally came in.

In the early hours of the next morning, Charles began shouting at his wife, waking the children. As Oshey and Prince Albert watched in horror, their father picked up a hammer and attacked Lucy, beating her on her head, back and legs until he was too tired to do it anymore. Then he laid down and went peacefully asleep.

Mortally wounded, Lucy crawled out of the tent to get some water from a nearby stream. She never returned, and eventually Oshey went out to check on her and found her dead.

When Charles realized what he’d done, he sank to his knees beside Lucy’s battered corpse and sobbed, crying, “My wench, my wench!”

Oshey and Prince Albert ran for help, going to the same neighbors who’d visited the night before. When Kate Smith answered the door, Oshey blurted, “My Mammy’s dead. He’s been and killed her with the hammer.”

Kate and George rushed to the scene of the crime. Charles had dragged Lucy’s body into the tent and lain it out on some straw. He told them Lucy had “fallen down” and died. George told everyone he was going to fetch a doctor, but instead he went to the police, returning with two constables. By then Charles had calmed down and said casually, “Good morning. I have got a dead ‘un this morning.”

One of the constables searched the tent and found the bloodstained hammer concealed under some straw. Charles, whose coat was also bloodstained, was placed under arrest for the willful murder of his wife. The autopsy showed she’d died of a fractured skull; Charles had hit her head with the hammer three or four times.

At the ensuing trial in April, Oshey was the star witness against her father, although Charles kept shouting that she was telling lies and was a “nasty, wicked wretch.” Prince Albert testified also, as did Kate and George Smith.

The defense argued that Charles had no intention of killing his wife and there was no motive, and so it was a case of manslaughter. However, the jury returned a verdict of murder.

After he was condemned to die, Charles turned to religion for solace, praying with the prison chaplain. Some of his relatives came to visit, although Oshey and Prince Albert stayed away. His eldest daughter Elizabeth made the strange observation that “when he was a drunkard there was not a kinder man living, that something or somebody turned him into a teetotaler, and from that time he had been a cruel wretch.”

While walking to the scaffold, Charles fainted on the trapdoor just before James Berry drew the bolt. The hanging went smoothly and it was judged he died quickly and painlessly.

As for the orphaned Oshey and Prince Albert, it was recorded that “through the noble hearted philanthropy, of Miss Skene, of this City, the girl Oceana has been placed in a Home in York, and boy the Prince Albert, through the same thoughtfulness, will also be brought up to acquire the means of earning an honest livelihood.”

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1555: Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, Oxford martyrs

1 comment October 16th, 2016 Headsman

The Anglican Church memorializes the feast of the Oxford Martyrs on October 16 — which also happens to be the date in 1555 that the first and second of those Reformation prelates went to the stake in that city.

The Oxford Martyrs are three in all, a proper trilogy;* the last in chronology if not in precedence was the Anglican Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who sanctified King Henry’s putting aside his first wife, and was burned at the pleasure of that scorned Catholic’s daughter in 1556. By that time he outlived by seven months the men whose execution we mark here, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a woodcut illustration of Latimer’s and Ridley’s martyrdom in John Foxe’s 1563 Book of Martyrs.

Given a different set of breaks and perhaps a Y chromosome in the royal offspring, Latimer might easily have been martyred a generation prior under a King Henry who stuck to his papist “defender of the faith” credentials. Latimer was a rising reformer in the late 1520s whose subversive preaching had already got him slapped down by Cardinal Wolsey.

Wolsey’s fall and Henry’s departure from the Roman communion arrived just in time to ramp Latimer from prospective heresiarch to the master pulpit rhetorician of a new order. (He’s particularly remembered for some metaphorical sermons about playing cards.) In 1535, Latimer became Bishop of Worcester in which capacity he did not disdain the office of exhorting Catholic martyrs themselves on the foot of the pyre. Even in Henry’s last years, when militant Protestants could be put to death as readily as recusant Catholics, Latimer courted principled danger by refusing to sign on to Henry’s “six articles” asserting Catholic doctrines like transubstantiation and clerical celibacy. Latimer resigned his bishopric and went to the Tower of London rather than endorse them.

Nicholas Ridley at this period was a reformist priest in Cranmer’s more cautious orbit, who advanced him rank by rank — and with no dungeon interim — to the Bishop of London and Westminster.** Ridley had the honor of being a primary antagonist to the radical John Hooper in the “vestments controversy”, Ridley defending the status quo of clergy bedizened with suspiciously Romish priestly attire despite the poverty of Christ.

Ridley basically won this dispute in the short term, but had scant leisure to celebrate before the sickly young king’s death set the realm up for a contested succession. Under his gilded robes Bishop Ridley spent the brief ascendancy of Lady Jane Grey thundering against the bastard rival who intended to — and very soon did — supplant her.

Tried together in your basic case of victor’s justice, Ridley and Latimer were burned with Cranmer brought out as a witness in an attempt to intimidate him. Cranmer’s vacillating recantations before his own execution do him little credit, but considering how the Ridley died it would require a hard heart not to empathize. Protestant martyrologist John Foxe made purple prose or a very black scene:

Then they brought a faggot, kindled with fire, and laid the same down at Dr. Ridley’s feet. To whom Master Latimer spake in this manner “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

And so the fire being given unto them, when Dr. Ridley saw the fire flaming up towards him. he cried with a wonderful loud voice, In manus teas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum: Domine recipe spiritum meum. And after, repeated this latter part often in English, “Lord, Lord, receive my spirit;” Master Latimer crying as vehemently on the other side, “O Father of heaven, receive my soul!” who received the flame as it were embracing of it. After that he had stroked his face with his hands, and as it were bathed them a little in the fire, he soon died (as it appeareth) with very little pain or none. And thus much concerning the end of this old and blessed servant of God, Master Latimer, for whose laborious travails, fruitful life, and constant death, the whole realm hath cause to give great thanks to Almighty God.

But Master Ridley, by reason of the evil making of the fire unto him, because the wooden faggots were laid about the gorse, and over-high built, the fire burned first beneath, being kept down by the wood; which when he felt, he desired them for Christ’s sake to let the fire come unto him. Which when his brother-in-law heard, but not well understood, intending to rid him out of his pain, (for the which cause he gave attendance,) as one in such sorrow not well advised what he did, heaped faggots upon him, so that he clean covered him, which made the fire more vehement beneath, that it burned clean all his nether parts, before it once touched the upper; and that made him leap up and down under the faggots, and often desire them to let the fire come unto him, saying, “I cannot burn.” Which indeed appeared well; for, after his legs were consumed by reason of his struggling through the pain, (whereof he had no release, but only his contentation in God,) he showed that side toward us clean, shirt and all untouched with flame. Yet in all this torment he forgot not to call unto God still, having in his mouth, “Lord, have mercy upon me,” intermingling his cry, “Let the fire come unto me, I cannot burn.” In which pangs he laboured till one of the standers-by with his bill pulled off the faggots above, and where he saw the fire flame up, he wrested himself unto that side. And when the flame touched the gunpowder, he was seen to stir no more, but burned on the other side, falling down at Master Latimer’s feet; which, some said, happened by reason that the chain loosed; others said, that he fell over the chain by reason of the poise of his body, and the weakness of the nether limbs.

* There’s a just-so story backed by little to no concrete evidence that the three Oxford Martyrs are metaphorically represented as the three blind mice (pursued by a female antagonist!) in the nursery rhyme.

** Barstool trivia: Ridley is the only person who has ever held this title.

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1761: Isaac Darkin, dying game

Add comment March 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On March 23, 1761, British highwayman Isaac Darkin — “Dumas” by a dashing alias — hanged at Oxford for robbery.

It might be Darkin’s misfortune to have been born just too late for the mythmaking golden age of highwaymen; a generation or two earlier he might have forged a reputation alongside a Dick Turpin. He was one of the last road agents whose career and genteel pretensions might have suited him for the firmament.

The suave outlaw, noted for his natty attire and correct address, first passed under the shadow of the noose in 1758 around age 18, when a death sentence earned for his first legal brush was respited in favor of conscription into the Seven Years’ War.

Darkin took the deal, but not the troop transport to Antigua: instead he devised a route to early retirement from the infantry by bribing the captain of a merchantman anchored nearby in the Thames to stow him away.

And then, quoth this history of highwaymen, our man “rioted all through the West of England, robbing wealthy travellers and gaily spending his takings on what he loved best: fine clothes and fine ladies. He was so attentive to business that he speedily made a name for himself, the name of a daring votary of the high toby.”

Arrested in Salisbury in 1760 for the famous robbery of a Lord Percival, Darkin beat that charge — but not before becoming a favorite of the city’s ladies who were reported to crowd his cell with callers and coo over him at fashionable tea-times. When “Dumas” escaped the noose on a technicality, some Salisbury women dedicated their enchanting Duval a come-hither ode.

Joy to thee, lovely Thief! that thou
Hast ‘scaped the fatal string,
Let Gallows groan with ugly Rogues,
Dumas mut never swing.

Does thou seek Money? — To thy Wants
Our Purses we’ll resign;
Could we our Hearts to guineas coin
Those guineas all were thine.

To Bath in safety let my lord
His loaded Pockets carry;
Thou ne’er again shall tempt the Road,
Sweet youth! if you wilt marry.

No more shall niggard travellers
Avoid thee — We’ll ensure them:
To us thou shalt consign thy Balls
And Pistol; we’ll secure ’em.

Yet think not, when the Chains are off,
Which now thy Legs bedeck,
To fly: in Fetters softer far
We’ll chain thee by the Neck.

Alas for its swooning authors, the handsome bandit had no interest in the bonds of matrimony, and just as well — for he would have left his mate a hempen widow.

A mere six weeks after this merry escape, he was snapped up again in Oxford, having returned inevitably to his career and calling.

This time there was no hope of escape and no technicality to hang his hat on.

There was nothing for it but to die “game” — that is, fearless of death — an underworld virtue Darkin carried almost to a fault. He spent his last days “with reading the Beggars’s Opera” and “said it was always his Determination, whenever he should have the ill Fortune to be taken, ‘to suffer without discovering the least Dread of Death; never to betray his Connections, but to die like a Hero.'”*

So indeed he did, as attested by a letter from Oxford published in the London Evening Post (March 21-24 1761) — hurling himself off the gallows without the hand of the executioner.

His Behaviour was extremely undaunted; for when he came out of the Gaol to the Ladder, he ascended it with the greatest Resolution; and the Cord being tied up by his own Desire over the Gallows before he came, he instantly went up four Steps higher than that on which he stepped off to hang himself, put the Cord round his own Neck and placed it, then descending the four Steps down, pulled out a white Handkerchief, tied it round his Eyes and Face, and went off without saying one Word.

His Body was ordered to be brought back into the Castle, to be conveyed to the Museum for Desection [sic]; but he declaring that he valued not Death, but only the Thoughts of being anatomized, a large Gang of Bargemen arose, took him a Way in Triumph, carried him to the next Parish Church; and while some rung the Bells for Joy, others opened his Belly, filled it full of unslick’d Lime, and then buried the Body.

* From Andrea McKenzie’s “Martyrs in Low Life? Dying Game in Augustan England” in the Journal of British Studies, April 2003. For more on the subject, also see the same author’s book-length treatment, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775.

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1209: The Oxford clerks

Add comment December 6th, 2010 Headsman

On an uncertain date speculatively identified with December 6, in either 1208 or (more usually attributed) 1209, the near-riotous townspeople of Oxford hanged two or three student “clerks” at that settlement’s famous university.

About this time, a certain clerk engaged in the liberal arts at Oxford killed a certain woman by accident and when he found that she was dead he decided to flee.

But when the mayor of the city and many others who had gathered found the dead woman they began to search for the killer in his house which he had rented together with three of his fellow clerks.

Not finding the man accused of the deed they seized his three fellow clerks who said they were wholly ignorant of the murder and threw them into prison; then a few days later they were, by order of the King of the English, in contempt of the rights of the church, taken outside the city and hanged.

When the deed had been done, both masters and pupils, to the number of three thousand clerks, left Oxford so that not one remained out of the whole university; they left Oxford empty, some engaging in liberal studies at Cambridge and some at Reading.

The Flowers of History, as translated for the Beeb

This ugly affair rooted in the ancient conflict between university and town caused much of the ancient academy‘s student population to flee town — some proceeding to found Oxford’s rival institution Cambridge. (This pdf short story on the Cambridge site dramatizes events.)


(cc) image from James Gibson.

The conflict between the town and university at Oxford over this bloodletting persisted until 1214 when a Papal legate settled the dispute in favor of the university.

The authors of the hanging were required to carry the bodies to an honorable resting place, and the town was required to host a dinner for poor students once every year — on St. Nicholas‘s day, Dec. 6, which on that basis has become associated with the otherwise never-specified date of the unfortunate clerks’ demise.

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1222: An apostate deacon

1 comment April 17th, 2010 Headsman

Thirteenth century England was a dicey place for theological heterodoxy.

On this date in 1222, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton held at Oxford a provincial council that ordered for immediate execution

an apostate deacon, who for the love of a Jewess had circumcised himself. When he had been degraded he was burnt by the servants of the lord Fawkes.

The story of this nameless and foreskinless deacon — and the link includes several congruent descriptions from primary sources — is sometimes conflated with that of Robert of Reading, another Christian divine who converted in the late 13th century.

Robert’s fate — or Haggai’s, to use the new name he took — seems to be officially unknown, and might have unfolded overseas: Edward I expelled Jews from England in 1290. Nevertheless, the mixed Robert-anonymous deacon story was commemorated with a plaque at Osney Abbey.

Whomever this date’s deacon really was, he wasn’t the only one for whom this council ordained a dreadful end for having the wrong idea about the Almighty.

And there was brought thither into the council an unbelieving youth along with two women, whom the archdeacon of the district accused of the most criminal unbelief, namely that the youth would not enter a church nor be present at the blessed sacraments, nor obey the injunctions of the Catholic Father, but had suffered himself to be crucified, and still bearing in his body the marks of the wounds had been pleased to have himself called Jesus by the aforesaid women. And one of the women, an old woman, was accused of having long been given to incantations and having by her magic arts brought the aforesaid youth to this height of madness. So both being convicted of this gross crime, were condemned to be imprisoned between two walls until they died. But the other woman, who was the youth’s sister, was let go free, for she had revealed the impious deed.

Our source thinks this means life imprisonment rather than being bricked up behind the amontillado. Whatever. It’s not every day we get to use the “immured” tag.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Immured,Jews,Known But To God,Martyrs,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Starved,Women

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