1679: La Bosse, Poison Affair culprit

1 comment May 8th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1679, the French soothsayer Marie Bosse went to the stake as France dealt out death for the Affair of the Poisons.

After the disgrace and 1676 execution of that aristocrat Locusta, the Madame de Brinvilliers, Louis XIV set his pathbreaking police chief on the trail of the “divineresses” whose potions were sought and feared as the remedy to every domestic ill.

Over six-odd years some 36 souls would succumb to this investigation, 34 upon the scaffold and two tortured to death in prison. Perhaps the best-known of these was a woman named La Voisin, whom we have met in these grim pages before. Our subject today is the woman who named La Voisin to her prosecutors.

Too deep in her cups at a Christmas 1678 party — a time at which the few arrests of alchemists and folk magicians could not yet really be said to be a Poison Affair — our principal La Bosse dropped some indiscreet braggadocio as to her prowess and market share in the poisoning game.

When word got back to the torchlit cowls at the Chambre Ardente, she’d be arrested and interrogated to great profit for investigators. La Bosse blabbed all about other poisoners, including the king’s own lover, the Madame de Montespan and the aforementioned La Voisin.

This was fatal to La Bosse as well as to La Voisin but proved less so to highest muckity-mucks. Accusations reaching the king’s own bedchamber and perhaps even compassing contemplated regicide were thought dangerous to explore and helped to drop the curtain on the entire poison-hunt: “the enormity of their crimes proved their safeguard,” in the supposed words of the investigator.

Later in 1679, a Thomas Corneille-Jean Donneau de Vise comedy ridiculing poisoners and pretended magicians debuted. La Divineresse, whose title character was named “Jobin” and had an associate named “Du Clos”, was a smash hit, running for several months — which was more than could be said by that time for these characters’ real-life inspirations. (La Voisin went to the stake in February 1680.)

Recommended: an eight-part blog series on Poison at the Court of Louis XIV begins here; scroll down to advance installment by installment.

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1824: John Smith

2 comments March 14th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1824, John Smith, 25, was publicly hanged before an angry crowd at Lincoln Castle for the murder of his fiancee, 24-year-old Sarah Arrowsmith.

John and Sarah had been seeing each other for a long time. Sarah had a three-year-old son by him, and was heavily pregnant with another child. She was under the impression that the wedding banns had been published and they would marry soon, but matrimony was the furthest thing from John’s mind.

On December 4, 1823, he bought a pound of white arsenic from the chemist for nine pence, saying he was going to use it for washing sheep. Instead, Smith mixed the arsenic with some flour and gave it to Sarah. She, in turn, baked some cakes with the poisoned flour and served them to her friends for tea.

Neil R. Storey records what happened in his book A Grim Almanac of Lincolnshire:

In less than a quarter of an hour, Sarah, her sister-in-law Eliza Smith, her friend and neighbour Mrs. Dobbs, and three children—two of them her younger sisters, and one of them Smith’s illegitimate child with Sarah—all suffered intense burning in their throats and excruciating pains in their stomachs. Several medical men were sent for and, immediately on arrival, the surgeons, Mr. Tyson West and Mr. Pell, set about administering antidotes and emetics. They rapidly had to admit that Sarah Arrowsmith was in a hopeless condition and sent for magistrates to take her deposition from her death bed. Sarah told them who had given her the flour and soon two constables were sent to the cottage where Smith lived in Little Steeping; they arrested him.

Although Smith presented two character witnesses at his trial who described him as a good farmhand and a sober, even-tempered and hard-working man, the evidence against him was strong and public sentiment equally so. The London Morning Chronicle reported on Dec. 27, 1823, that as Sarah Arrowsmith lay painfully expiring so heavy was the crush of gawkers that her bedroom’s only supporting cross-joint “snapped in the middle, and had not every person except the sufferer, who was in bed, made a hasty retreat, the floor would have fallen in.”

She succumbed the next day (to the poison, not to a fall) and “a great concourse of persons was assembled from all parts of the country round” to lay her to rest — “and the only feelings displayed upon the solemn occasion, were those of indignation against the unhappy wretch who was the author of the untimely death of the poor woman and her child.”

Smith could surely tell that his goose was cooked, and even as his life hung in the balance there was “an extraordinary apathy about him.” (Storey) Prior to his death he admitted his guilt.

It is believed that the other poisoning victims survived.

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68 or 69: Locusta, infamous poisoner

1 comment January 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Come close and see her and hearken. This is she.
Stop the ways fast against the stench that nips
Your nostril as it nears her. Lo, the lips
That between prayer and prayer find time to be
Poisonous, the hands holding a cup and key,
Key of deep hell, cup whence blood reeks and drips;
The loose lewd limbs, the reeling hingeless hips,
The scurf that is not skin but leprosy.
This haggard harlot grey of face and green
With the old hand’s cunning mixes her new priest
The cup she mixed her Nero, stirred and spiced.
She lisps of Mary and Jesus Nazarene
With a tongue tuned, and head that bends to the east,
Praying. There are who say she is bride of Christ.

-“Locusta”, by Algernon Charles Swinburne

On an unknown date late in the year 68 or in the very first days of the year 69 the infamous Locusta was put to death.

Like most ancients, Locusta survives for us through a bare handful of lines — but the notoriety of her deadly potions has made her name a metonym for poisoners down the centuries and inspired outlandishly lurid Game of Thrones-esque legends like the one about being executed via giraffe-rape.

According to Suetonius and Tacitus, Locusta was fished out of the dungeons in the year 55 for use by the young Nero, the stepson of the emperor Claudius, to murder Claudius’s natural brother Britannicus and assure Nero uncontested power. (There’s some speculation that she might have offed Claudius, too.)

[Nero] meditated a secret device and directed poison to be prepared through the agency of Julius Pollio, tribune of one of the praetorian cohorts, who had in his custody a woman under sentence for poisoning, Locusta by name, with a vast reputation for crime. That every one about the person of Britannicus should care nothing for right or honour, had long ago been provided for. He actually received his first dose of poison from his tutors and passed it off his bowels, as it was rather weak or so qualified as not at once to prove deadly. But Nero, impatient at such slow progress in crime, threatened the tribune and ordered the poisoner to execution for prolonging his anxiety while they were thinking of the popular talk and planning their own defence. Then they promised that death should be as sudden as if it were the hurried work of the dagger, and a rapid poison of previously tested ingredients was prepared close to the emperor’s chamber.


Locusta and Nero test their new and improved poison on a slave before administering it to Britannicus, by Joseph Noël Sylvestre c. 1875

It was customary for the imperial princes to sit during their meals with other nobles of the same age, in the sight of their kinsfolk, at a table of their own, furnished somewhat frugally. There Britannicus was dining, and as what he ate and drank was always tested by the taste of a select attendant, the following device was contrived, that the usage might not be dropped or the crime betrayed by the death of both prince and attendant. A cup as yet harmless, but extremely hot and already tasted, was handed to Britannicus; then, on his refusing it because of its warmth, poison was poured in with some cold water, and this so penetrated his entire frame that he lost alike voice and breath. There was a stir among the company; some, taken by surprise, ran hither and thither, while those whose discernment was keener, remained motionless, with their eyes fixed on Nero, who, as he still reclined in seeming unconsciousness, said that this was a common occurrence, from a periodical epilepsy, with which Britannicus had been afflicted from his earliest infancy, and that his sight and senses would gradually return. As for Agrippina [Nero’s mother, later murdered by the monster -ed.], her terror and confusion, though her countenance struggled to hide it, so visibly appeared, that she was clearly just as ignorant as was Octavia, Britannicus’s own sister [and Nero’s wife … also later murdered by Nero -ed.]. She saw, in fact, that she was robbed of her only remaining refuge, and that here was a precedent for parricide. Even Octavia, notwithstanding her youthful inexperience, had learnt to hide her grief, her affection, and indeed every emotion.

And so after a brief pause the company resumed its mirth. One and the same night witnessed Britannicus’s death and funeral, preparations having been already made for his obsequies, which were on a humble scale. He was however buried in the Campus Martius, amid storms so violent, that in the popular belief they portended the wrath of heaven …

-Tacitus

The family horror of the Julio-Claudians was the career breakthrough for Locusta, whom Nero rewarded “for her eminent services with a full pardon and large estates in the country, and actually sent her pupils.” (Suetonius)

One presumes (although the ancient historians are not so kind as to share her accounts with posterity) that her baneful academy proceeded to do a roaring business for the balance of Nero’s 14-year reign, for she resurfaces in the narrative at the very end of it — as the desperate Nero’s supplier for a suicide draught when he was fleeing the Senate’s proscription.

Nero ended up doing the deed with a blade, not the poison. His dour and forgettable successor, Galba, enjoyed only the briefest ascendancy before he too was done to death on January 15 of the year 69 — but he made sure to use that interval to destroy Nero’s most hated henchmen, Locusta included. (Sans giraffe.)

In the case, however, of Helius, Narcissus, Patrobius, Lucusta, the sorceress, and others of the scum that had come to the surface in Nero’s day, he ordered them to be led in chains throughout the whole city and then to be executed. (Cassius Dio)

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1873: Elizabeth Woolcock, the only woman hanged in South Australia

Add comment December 30th, 2016 Headsman

Elizabeth Woolcock on December 30, 1873 became the first and only woman ever hanged in South Australia.

The daughter of a gold prospector, Elizabeth Oliver (as she was then) began a lifelong bout with chemical dependency when she became hooked on the opium used to treat her after she survived a rape at the tender age of seven. (This attack also left her permanently unable to bear children.)

At 19, she joined the Moonta household of alcoholic Cornish immigrant Thomas Woolcock — first as his housekeeper helping to mind the sole child to survive the tuberculotic ravages that had carried away his brother and mother, and within a few weeks as Woolcock’s wife.

Elizabeth was very young and had not known Thomas long. Her infelicitous choice opened an unhappy union that, in the trial to come, would mark her with an obvious motive for murder. “I have to put with it as long as I can but Tom has got so bad, that I cannot bear it any longer,” she wrote to her stepsister a few months before the events that would lead her to the gallows. “He is a perfect devil; and if stop [sic] here much longer I shall hang myself.”

Motivation aside, however, quite a few people not only latterly but also in Woolcock’s own time have suspected that she got a bum rap, product of shoddy medical evidence and a sort of self-confirming communal tunnel vision when Thomas wasted away over a period of weeks in 1873. Thomas Woolcock’s cousin in particular appears to have spearheaded the campaign to open a coroner’s investigation of the death aimed squarely at his widow.

Three different physicians treated Thomas from the time he fell ill at work on July 23 of that year until his death six weeks later. Drs. Bull, Dickie and Herbert each made different diagnoses and prescribed, as this examination of the case puts it, “a bizarre (to modern eyes at least) range of medication that included rhubarb, cream of tartar, mercury and lead acetate.”

Dr. Bull’s prescription of pills containing mercury seems like any obvious place to begin the inquiry since the government’s chemists concluded that mercury poisoning had killed the man, and since the erratic Bull had a chinashop-type relationship to medical competence. (Dr. Bull had done time in the insane asylum; a few months after Woolcock’s execution, he died of an opium overdose.)

Instead, and seemingly driven by the suspicions of local chin-waggers, the investigation and subsequent trial focused on Elizabeth’s acquisition of “poisons” in a dismayingly unspecific sense: she used her stepson to hustle the local druggist for morphine and opium to service her own addictions, and this was a “poison”; she obtained a dandruff medicine that (like many household products of its day) contained mercury, and this was a “poison”;* she had some strange draught called antinomial wine that she was seen to spice with sugar and this too was inferred a “poison”. It all painted Elizabeth Woolcock as a latter-day Tofana without quite telling a coherent story of how she went about killing her husband. It’s not even clear now — and was publicly questioned in 1873 — whether the initial determination of death by mercury poisoning was itself reliable, nor can be certain whether, if mercury is supposed to be the lethal agent, it alone accounts for the entire span from health to grave or if instead a small exposure from Dr. Bull’s pills or contact with the skin medicine only finished Thomas off in a context where unrelated illness had already broken his health.

The evidence as it survives for us doesn’t rule out the possibility, but it’s difficult to reconcile it with anything like the confidence that ought to sustain a death sentence. However, Elizabeth’s garbled last letter did appear to vindicate the prosecution with an admission, though it’s one that her defenders have dismissed as pro forma for a confessor who would have been pressuring her to acknowledge the crime in the context of a final spiritual redemption.

in a evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave any poison for i more and i being very self willed i told him that i knew what power the poison had as i took it my self for some months and i was so ill treated that i was quite out of my mind and in an evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave him what i ought not but thought at the time that if i gave him time to prepare to meet his god i should not do any great crime to send him out of the World but i see my mistake now i thank god he had time to make his peace with his maker.

Efforts, thus far unavailing, to secure a posthumous pardon for Elizabeth Woolcock continue to the present day.

* The family dog died shortly before Thomas got sick; it would be postulated against Elizabeth that she experimented with poisoning on the pet before moving on to the man. An alternative hypothesis that fits the facts could be that the dandruff medicine was administered to treat a skin condition of the dog, which then proceeded to lick at the ointment and poison itself.

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1893: Two women lynched in Quincy, Mississippi

Add comment September 10th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in September 10, 1893, the same day that they admitted to their roles in a murder conspiracy, Mehaley (or Mahaley) Jackson and Louisa Carter were lynched in the town of Quincy in eastern Mississippi, 137 miles east of Memphis.

The two black women’s slayings were only part part of a grisly tragedy that resulted in the deaths of six people, perhaps more.

What little that is now known about the case is reported in cultural historian Kerry Segrave’s Lynching of Women in the United States: Recorded Cases, 1851­1946.

In late August or early September 1893, a white gentleman named Thomas Woodruff fell ill along with his entire family. Two of his five children died. Two weeks later, what was left of the Woodruff family were all still languishing in the hospital, and there was little hope that any of them would recover. Neighbors who nursed the sick family also became ill.

A search of the Woodruff property turned up three packages of Rough-­on-Rats, an arsenic-­based poison, in the well.

Suspicion fell on Ben Woodruff, a local black man. The previous fall, Ben had “entered Woodruff’s house violently, and so excited his wife, who was in a delicate condition from childbirth, that she died in a few hours.” Ben had faced criminal charges in connection with the incident, and Woodruff was one of the witnesses against him, which, it was thought, provided motive to for Ben to kill him. (The news report below prefers a stolen wagon as the source of the friction.)


New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 10, 1893.

On September 9, during the inquest following Ben Jackson’s arrest, a group of unmasked men dragged him away from the police who had custody of him and hanged him. The murder inquiry continued without the suspect and, a day later, his widow, Mehaley Jackson, and mother-­in­-law, Louisa Carter, testified before the jury. They admitted they had known of Ben’s plan to poison the Woodruffs’ well. The two women were not arrested, but it would have been better for them if they had been: when they left the courthouse, an armed mob was waiting for them and hanged them as well.

Vigilante justice wasn’t finished yet: Mehaley and Louisa had said a neighborhood man named Rufus Broyles had given Ben Jackson the money to buy the poison. Broyles fled the area after Ben’s death and went into hiding in a nearby town.

On September 14, he was caught there, and strung up like the others.

Circuit court judge Newman Cayce made a “forcible and peremptory” order to the grand jury to identify and indict the lynchers. Predictably, there’s no record of any charges being brought against anyone.

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1854: John Hendrickson, junk science victim

Add comment May 5th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1854, an Albany, N.Y. man named John Hendrickson hanged for the murder by aconite poisoning of his wife, Maria. “He has suffered the highest penalty of the law,” New York’s Weekly Herald pronounced the next day — “but whether justly or not, will likely never be known on earth.”

Whatever the prisoner’s denials,* a web of suspicious circumstances clasped the hemp around his throat. Hendrickson, whose family had some money and connections, fought the conviction tooth and nail; his then-unusual three appeals, plus clemency petition to the governor, stretched the time from conviction to execution out to nearly a year. “The evidence adduced … was so entirely circumstantial, and the testimony of the scientific men so liable to doubt and contradiction, that it was generally feared the murderer would escape,” a Boston Post correspondent reported.** But not to worry: “the atmosphere of guilt seemed to surround him in the whole county; not a man could be found that, at heart, believed him innocent.” We’re scarcely prepared at this distance to assert an affirmative case for the man’s innocence, but in some ways it reads like an antebellum Cameron Willingham case, all the way down to the dubious forensic evidence.

Like Willingham, Hendrickson was a less than stellar husband. He was noted for abusing his wife, philandering, and doing both together when he “communicated to her a loathsome veneral disease.”

The supposed murder motivation was his wife’s recent inheritance of the estate of her father, who died just a few months before the murder. Little could really be proven save by inference from the man’s bad character; in classic tunnel-vision fashion, the record suggests nearly every data point became fixed according to this theory. For example, Hendrickson’s trial prosecutors read into evidence — in the part of their presentation they called the “Moral Evidence” — that Hendrickson remarked at his wife’s autopsy that “they won’t find arsenic.” You and I might think he’s saying that the examination will dispel the gathering suspicions of poisoning, and saying it by reference to the chemical that was the metonym for poisoning in the nineteenth century. For the state, his uttering these words was

as if he knew (as he undoubtedly did) the precise poison which she had swallowed — as if he knew that that common poison, which is found in most cases of the kind, had not been given by the murderer in this case, and hence they won’t find arsenic. Ah! gentlemen, it was nature speaking out, as she often unconsciously or unguardedly will, disclosing the otherwise well concealed and apparently undiscoverable crime.

(This is why you don’t talk to police.)

The district attorney introduced evidence courtesy of chemists named Salisbury and Swinburne, to the effect that it was no mean arsenic that carried away Maria Hendrickson but the more exotic potion of aconite — derived from a toxic herb seeded (per Ovid) by Cerberus himself.

One can peruse the evidence presented in the case here, but the most remarkable part of this trial record is the appendix — wherein numerous medical men, including a former teacher of Dr. Salisbury, skewer the forensic processes used to decide that Maria Hendrickson died by poison and even offer to reproduce them in person under the eyes of Gov. Horatio Seymour to prove their unreliability. Their findings harshly undercut the only concrete evidence that any murder took place at all.

“I am pained and oppressed with the conviction that the medical witnesses for the prosecution have, in a main point of this case, abused the confidence with which criminal courts so often compliment the man of science,” one writes — words that could still today be applied to many disciplines of junk science that have disappeared bodies into oubliettes on the strength of lie detectors, bite mark analysis, matching hair samples, and suchlike hocus-pocus.

We turn from the contemplation of this subject with feelings of sorrow, not that any of ours have been crushed under the wheels of mutilated justice, set in motion by ignorance and false science, but we feel now, as we have always felt, that a great personal wrong has been committed under the authority of law, for which there can be no atonement, as the dead cannot be brought to life, nor the blasted feelings of the living restored.

It would be well, too, for judges and jurors, who are very often hasty and inconsiderate in letting their feelings and prejudices get the better of their judgment, to remember that life, human life, is neither a toy nor a rattle, but the gift of God; when once extinguished, no matter how, it is gone forever, and the dead never rise again.

-Dr. Charles A. Lee, reviewing the Hendrickson case

* Hendrickson’s final message to his parents via his spiritual advisor, on the eve of his hanging:

To-morrow I am to die, and standing as I do on the brink of eternity, I wish to say to you, in the presence of that God before whom I am so soon to appear, that I am entirely innocent of the crime of murdering my wife. I did not give her poison. I do not know that any one gave her poison. She did not come to her death by violence of any kind, so far as I know. I believe she died a natural death. She did not vomit on the night of her death. [This remark touches the disputed forensic evidence; vomiting would be a symptom of poisoning, and state chemists’ assertion that Maria had done so was among the conclusions challenged by outside scientists. -ed.] I never knew that there was such an article as aconite in the world, until after I was in jail. Nor did I know it by any other name. I do not know that I have anything further to add, except to say some farewell words to my parents. But you will remember what I have said to you, and inform them of it. I wish you to make it public.

** Transcribed here via the Portland (Me.) Advertiser of Apr. 18, 1854.

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1867: Modiste Villebrun, but not Sophie Boisclair

Add comment May 3rd, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1867, Modiste Villebrun was hanged in Sorel, Quebec, in what would be the last execution before Canada became its own country. His partner in crime, Sophie Boisclair, might very well have been executed alongside him had she not been pregnant.

Villebrun, a lumberjack from St. Zephirin, was having an affair with Boisclair and they wanted to get married. They had two slight problems to deal with, in the form of their respective spouses. In those times, divorce was unthinkable. Murder, apparently, was not.

Jeffrey E. Pfeifer details their crimes in his book Death By Rope: An Anthology of Canadian Executions:

The first victim was Villebrun’s wife, and their plan seemed to work well. No one suspected foul play when the previously healthy woman died, or at least no one could prove anything. Braced by their success, the lovers soon turned their attention to Boisclair’s husband, Francois-Xavier Jutras. Boisclair suggested to her husband that they should allow Villebrun to move in with them since the death of his wife had left him all alone. Jutras agreed to his wife’s request and almost immediately Boisclair began to lace his food with her “special” ingredient. It was not long before the strychnine took effect and Jutras was dead.

Unfortunately for the two lovers, a suspicious doctor demanded an autopsy, which revealed the dead man’s body was saturated with poison. Villebrun and Boisclair soon found themselves arrested.

They were tried separately and both were convicted in short order and sentenced to death. When asked, at sentencing, whether she had anything to say, Boisclair announced she was expecting a baby. She got a temporary reprieve until delivery, and got the opportunity to watch Villebrun’s execution from the window in her cell.

Ten thousand people attended his hanging.

Seven months later, Boisclair gave birth to his child, and her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

“Boisclair ended up serving 20 years in the penitentiary,” records Pfeifer, “before being released, a broken woman.”

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1824: Richard Overfield, wicked stepfather

Add comment March 22nd, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1824, only three days after his indictment, Richard Overfield was hanged in Shrewsbury, England for the murder of his three-month-old stepson, Richard Jr.

The child died on September 21 the previous year. Overfield’s wife, Anne, rushed to the doctor’s after finding her little son in apparent agony. When she kissed the baby, she noticed his lips were white-colored and blistered and tasted bitter.

Little Richard Jr. died later that day in spite of the doctor’s attempts to save him.

“Overfield, it turns out,” notes Samantha Lyon in her book A Grim Almanac of Shropshire,

worked in a carpet factory and so had access to sulphuric acid. This he stole to administer to the baby. The already terrible picture this forms is made all the more grotesque when you know how sulphuric acid kills: the acid is so corrosive that it burns the mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach when ingested. It can, and often does, cause the sufferer to experience severe thirst and to have difficulty breathing.

The motive came out during the trial: Overfield knew when he got married that Anne was pregnant with another man’s child. This was, in fact, why he married her in the first place.

The parish didn’t want to pay out welfare for yet another illegitimate baby, so they offered Overfield a lump sum of money to marry its mother. Any baby born more than a month after marriage would be considered legitimate and its purported father would have to support it.

Overfield accepted the parish’s offer, but although the baby bore his name, he told Anne he would never accept her son as his own. And since he already had the lump-sum payment, well …

“There seems to have been absolutely no step-paternal feelings on the elder Richard’s part,” notes David J. Cox’s book Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Shrewsbury and Around Shropshire:

[He] was heard to frequently express a hatred for the infant and on several occasions was reported as stating that he would not support his wife or her ‘bastard child.’

Matters came to a tragic head …

At his trial Overfield tried to blame the family cat: he’d seen it lying on top of the baby’s face, he said, and shooed it away, and little Richard started choking shortly thereafter.

Beyond that, he had little to say for himself. The jury showed its contempt for his so-called defense by convicting him after only five minutes’ deliberation.

Overfield made a full confession and expressed public repentance for his crime. He calmly accepted his fate.

Part of the Themed Set: Shropshire.

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1938: Anna Marie Hahn, serial poisoner

1 comment December 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1938, serial poisoner Anna Marie Hahn was electrocuted in Ohio.

The Bavarian-born immigrant had arrived to Cincinnati espoused to a young telegraph operator. Hahn herself tried her hand at a bakery but soon tired of the tedium of honest work and set herself up better in the lucrative business of elder abuse.

Using an ancient ploy still effective to this day, the “plump and pretty” young woman flitted about the German emigre circles of Cincinnati advertising herself as a live-in caretaker for senior citizens. Once retained, she was in a position to price-gouge for her “services”, pilfer from the estate, and even to so insiniuate herself into her clients’ good graces as to enter their wills. Her first victim, Ernest Kohler, actually left her a boarding house: pretty good work compared to rolling out dough before the sun came up.

Using a variety of poisons,** Hahn killed off five known victims during the Great Depression, making off with tens of thousands of dollars in the process that she largely squandered on gambling.*

The first woman to die in Ohio’s electric chair, Hahn was reportedly stoic until her last hours. Then, overcome by desperation, she slid into a state of collapse and even at the last moments of life bawled “incoherent” pleas to a warden who of course had no authority to help her. Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed (both blog and book) — quotes her frightful last words thus:

Good-bye all of you and God bless you … Mr. Woodard [the warden], don’t do this to me. Think of my boy. Can’t you think of my baby? Isn’t there anybody who will help me? Is nobody going to help me?

* One clever fellow, George Heiss, escaped her clutches when he grew suspicious of a mug of beer she presented him; when Hahn refused to sample it herself, he sacked her — but he did not report her.

** Her husband tipped police off by reporting that she had a bottle in the house literally labeled “poison”. (It was croton oil.)

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1765: Patrick Ogilvie, but not Katharine Nairn

Add comment November 13th, 2015 Headsman

“So great a concourse of people has perhaps not been seen”* at Edinburgh’s Grassmarket as assembled on this date in 1765 for the execution of Lieutenant Patrick Ogilvie.

It was, naturally, scandal that brought them out of the woodwork. Lt. Ogilvie’s older brother Thomas in January of that same 1765 had married a young woman named Katharine Nairn. She had barely half of Thomas’s 40 years.

Katharine soon took a shine to the more age-appropriate sibling, just back from his dashing adventures in the East Indies. Within weeks of the marriage, the two people closest to Thomas were making a fool of him in his very own home. Their eventual indictment charged Katharine and Patrick with “yielding to your inordinate desires … in the months of January, February, March, April, May, and June … at different times, and in one or other of the rooms of the house of Eastmiln, and in the out-houses adjacent thereto,” not to mention (we’re guessing during the warmer spring weather) “in the fields.”

Thomas himself seems to have been wise to the cuckoldry rather early on, but either from weakness or inclination made only token attempts to abate it. Great was the astonishment of the neighbors that Patrick wasn’t banned from the house or Katharine disallowed his company.

At length, Thomas died of poison. The suspicions were only natural.

In fact, maybe they were a little bit too natural.

It has been suspected that the true author of Thomas’s destruction and the lovers’ too was not their own unnatural passion but the greed of yet another party in the nest of family vipers living under the eldest brother’s roof: Anne Clark.

The lover of the youngest Ogilvie brother, Alexander, Anne was known as a woman of easy virtue, but she had regardless her sexual continence a potentially compelling motive to be rid of Thomas, or rid of Patrick, or both: as both Thomas and Patrick were childless, the family scandal figured to pour all the family’s estates into the puckish hands of her own man. Patrick and Katharine tried vainly to impugn her at trial as a malicious witness

So when Anne supplied a story that the lovers had openly quarreled with Thomas and even vowed in her presence to murder him — and when Anne plied the court with lurid accounts of creeping up the stairs to listen in on Patrick and Katharine romping in his alcove bed — do we hear the voice of a master villain? That reputed prostitute gave bodice-popping evidence at very great length against her incestuous would-be family —

Mrs. Ogilvie was frequently in a room by herself with the Lieutenant … upon Sunday the nineteenth day of May last, all the family went to church, excepting the two pannels and the deponent [Clarke] … the two pannels left the deponent in the low room, and went up stairs together to the east room above stairs … [and Clarke] in order to discover what was passing, went up the stair, and as the bed in the Lieutenant’s room was an alcove ed, the back of which came to the side of the stair, and there was nothing betwixt the bed and the stair, but a piece of plaster and the timber of the bed, so that a person standing in the stair could hear distinctly what passed in the bed, she stood and listened; and from the motions that she heard, is positive that they were in bed together, and abusing their bodies together, by which she means, they were lying carnally together.

You can read the whole of Anne Clark’s testimony among 130-odd pages of details from the proceedings here.

Ogilvie would hold to his innocence through multiple royal reprieves and all the way to the gallows. When the rope slipped on the first hanging attempt, he was not so daunted by the proximity of the eternal that he feared to repeat the claim: “I adhere to my former confession [profession of innocence], and die an innocent man.”

He also died alone.

His former paramour and possible confederate Katharine had delayed her hanging by pleading her belly — truthfully so, for it seemed that her many springtime frolics had in fact quickened her womb.

She delivered early in 1766 and was bound for execution a few weeks later. But Katharine’s wit supplied what crown sentiment would not and she slipped out of prison in the wardrobe of an old family servant one evening.** She had such a considerable head start before her absence was noted the next day that she reached London, hired a boat to the Netherlands, was blown back to Old Blighty by a gale, and hired another boat for Calais before anyone could catch up to her. She alit on French soil, and vanished into the safety of historical obscurity.

“Such were the different fates of two people, who, as far as we can judge of the affair, appear to have been involved in the same crime,” remarks the Newgate Calendar in an expansive vein. “The one dies, avowing his perfect innocence; the other escapes the immediate stroke of justice, which was suspended over her by the most slender thread.

“Mysterious are the ways of Providence, and, in the language of Scripture, ‘past finding out;’ but it is for mortals humbly to submit to all its dispensations.”

* London Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Nov. 19, 1765.

** Hanoverian gaols had a major security hole where cross-dressing escapees were concerned.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Escapes,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Not Executed,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex

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