1875: A day in the death penalty on opposite sides of Pennsylvania

Add comment January 20th, 2018 Headsman

Pennsylvania, that state once described as Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west with Alabama in between, had dueling hangings in its two metropolises on this date in 1875.

Philadelphia: Frederick Heidenblut

German immigrant Fritz Heidenblut, who weighed in at a reported 52 kg, strangled to death on a too-short drop. Boarding with the Kuhnle family, Heidenblut had unexpectedly attacked them on Dec. 31, 1873, with the base objective of stealing cash and valuables.

The mother (barely) survived the ordeal, and would later describe how she

was suddenly awakened by a heavy weight pressing upon my breast; and, looking up, I found Fritz kneeling on me, and his hands grasping my throat. He did not speak, and I was unable to do so. In the struggle I scratched his face, and he bit off a piece of my ear and the end of one of my fingers. He then left me for dead, as I suppose, and went to the bureau-drawer, from which he took $55.

When Mrs. Kuhnle came to, she was able to crawl downstairs where she found her husband murdered in the family bakehouse. Heidenblut was arrested that evening, blowing through the $55 at a nearby tavern.

After execution, Heidenblut’s body was turned over to physicians for galvanic experimentation.

Pittsburgh: Samuel Beightley, Jr.

While Heidenblut’s spirit faltered visibly as his hanging-day approached, Pittsburgh’s Samuel Beightley maintained his obnoxious joviality — even pranking his counsel with a fool’s errand to find his “hidden treasure” on the eve of execution.

Beightley, a few days after being discharged from his seasonal farmhand gig by Murrayville farmer Joseph Kerr in autumn 1873, had returned and slaughtered Mr. Kerr, again with the motive of robbery. Like his Philadelphian brother in homicide, Beightley earned low marks for concealment, leaving his own bloodied coat at the murder scene as he retired home where he popped into bed and pretended to be asleep when the posse came.

“To see Beightley was to hate him,” observed the Chicago Daily Tribune, whose Jan. 21, 1875 issue is our source for both crimes in this post.

He was of that peculiarly brutal cast of countenance which shows murder in the very cut of the jaws, and the bull-neck was but the mere accompaniment to an evidently-merciless disposition. He was about 22 years old, and rather short, but stoutly built. His conduct since his condemnation showed the nature of the man. He evidenced no sorrow or remorse for the killing of the old man, who to him had proved a good and true friend. Beightly was fond of rowing, and led a lazy, vagabond life, scarcely ever working. He lived mostly by petty thefts.

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1858: Henry Fife and Charlotte Jones, exonerating Monroe Stewart

2 comments February 12th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1858, Charlotte Jones and Henry Fife hanged side by side in Pittsburgh for murdering Jones’s elderly aunt and uncle the year before. But their dying confessions insistently exonerating their death-sentenced co-accused led the governor to pardon Monroe Stewart ahead of the latter’s scheduled hanging later that February.

Fife, Jones, and Stewart had been tried and convicted together in the so-called “McKeesport Murder” or “Wilson Tragedy”. The reader will infer that it entailed the murder of a man named Wilson in the city of McKeesport.

George Wilson, an elderly farmer, was Charlotte’s uncle: resident in a McKeepsort log cabin with his sister Elizabeth McMasters. He had a tightfisted reputation and a consequent stash of gold and silver coins and paper bills, amounting altogether to several hundred dollars.*

“Maddened by a thirst for gold and stimulated by drink I gave them the fatal blow that robbed them of life and sent their souls, without warning, to the bar of God,” Fife lamented in his scaffold confession. George Wilson had been stabbed to death; Elizabeth McMasters bludgeoned with a poker until her brains spattered the room.

Their 27-year-old niece, our Charlotte Jones, was the one who reported the murder but it would soon become painfully apparent that she had lacked the poise for this high-stakes bluff. She had already the reputation of a woman of low morals, and her suspicious eagerness to leave the vicinity brought her in for close questioning. It was not long before Jones served up a confession.

In her initial iterations of this statement, Jones implicated not only her lover, 22-year-old Irish shoemaker Henry Fife, but Fife’s friend Monroe Stewart. It seems that this was a bit of panicked vindictiveness on the part of Mrs. Jones, for Stewart had often counseled his friend to kick Jones to the curb.

This denunciation was enough to see all three condemned in an 11-day trial in July of 1857. Post-conviction, Fife would join Jones in admitting guilt, but both exculpated Stewart of any part in the crime. And in the subsequent odyssey of appeals and clemency petitions, it was really only Stewart’s fate that remained at issue.

When Pennsylvania’s high court squelched the trio’s last legal avenue, reported the Baltimore sun (Nov. 26, 1857), Stewart, “who had always displayed the most astonishing self-possession and calmness, appeared overwhelmed by the news, and betrayed a degree of emotion that he never before manifested.”

His whole hope centered on the Supreme Court. He believed firmly that there would be a reversal of the judgment of the court below in his case, and when he found the hope which had buoyed him up suddenly destroyed, his self-possession deserted him, and he gave himself up to a degree of anguish that surprised while it pained his fellow-prisoners. He still proclaims his innocence, and maintains that, though a thousand courts held otherwise, he is guiltless of the blood of the Wilson family.

Fortunately for him, Stewart did not hang with Fife and Jones but was slated to die a fortnight later.

By execution day, Jones was in a state of near-collapse — “utterly broken down and bewildered,” according to the Pittsburgh Gazette‘s report (as reprinted in the Harrisburg Patriot and Union, Feb. 17, 1858). “She cried bitterly, and every now and then uttered incoherent sentences — now stating that she desired to die, and again declaring that she was afraid of death and wished to live.” The lengthy execution prelude on the scaffold, as she multiplied over and over the terrors of her imminent death while Fife tried to console her through interminable prayers, statements, and other ceremonial niceties, must have been agony.

Jones’s statement (read by a spiritual counselor) and Fife’s (which he delivered himself) both owned the murder while insisting that Monroe Stewart had no part in it. Outgoing Gov. James Pollock* had had no time for this ploy in issuing Stewart’s death warrant, and even in the hours after the hanging newsmen speculated that this exculpation carried little credibility. But a new man, William Packer, had taken office between the death warrant and the executions, and Packer thought better than his predecessor of Stewart’s protestations. He pardoned Monroe Stewart days before his February 26 execution.

* In the hours after the crime, Fife buried sacks of $20 gold coins and silver half-dollars and dollars along the bank of the Youghiogheny River. He only had one chance to recover the money later and couldn’t find the hole; neither could the authorities when he later described the hiding place from his condemned cell.

Finally, in 1880, two boys accidentally ran across the cache … only to have a passing stranger with “a heavy red beard and red hair” immediately relieve them of the treasure and hurry off into the mists of history.

** Pollock later directed the Philadelphia mint and helped spearhead the first introduction of the “In God We Trust” motto on U.S. currency.

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

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1866: Martha Grinder, the Pittsburgh Borgia

Add comment January 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1866, serial killer Martha Grinder was hanged in Pittsburgh for a poisoning spree.

The “Pittsburgh poisoner” or — we think rather more colorfully — the “Pittsburgh Borgia” — was supposed to suffer from the 19th century’s favorite mental illness, the now-passe “monomania”, which means overwhelming fixation on some single thing or idea.

The idea? Murder.

The national press was captivated by this woman, “the Lucretia Borgia of that day — a woman who, under the guise of helping her sick neighbors, without apparent motive, poisoned them.”

While killers may be nothing new, and even female killers not exactly unheard-of, it was that absence of any object — love, greed, vengeance, anything — save killing itself that moved the papers: one monomania, feeding on another.

According to The Penalty Is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women’s Executions, the Pittsburgh press saluted her as “wretched torturer,” “a demon embodied,” “fiendish”; her arrest caused the Philadelphia Inquirer (Aug. 30, 1865: fresh from the gallows expiation of a national catastrophe) to bemoan “a saturnalia of crime … passing over the land.”

One particular neighbor, Mary Caruthers, was poisoned over a period of weeks by her neighbor and apparent caretaker — just the gender role betrayal to really freak out the 19th century. (The court played along: at one point, it admonished the many women attending for their un-feminine interest in this public trial. No indication that it admonished the Pittsburgh Post for its daily trial dispatches.)

This one murder conviction is why Grinder swung, but by that time she had been conclusively hanged in the public mind as a veritable Locusta.

Martha Grinder did eventually confess (pdf) to Caruthers’s murder and to another, but denied any others; papers postulated a total death toll of at least several more who died under Grinder’s nursing “care.” This strikes one as the sort of circumstantial evidence that could be marshaled against anyone in a caregiving position, especially in an environment of dubious forensic technique, and might prove amenable to liberal adoption by newspapermen free from the burden of proof but fettered to the “Borgia” appellation.

On the other hand, and even though the confession came only on the very eve of hanging, our condemned might be thought incentivized by the executive pardon system to own enough guilt to demonstrate contrition without admitting so much as to undercut any possible sympathy. What has one got to lose, right? If that was her game, she didn’t win it.

“Quite prostrated” by her imminent doom, Grinder was reported to have ground away her final days in an opiate haze, but she composed herself sufficiently for an unexpectedly calm performance on the scaffold.


Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 1866.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pennsylvania,Serial Killers,USA,Women

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