1572: Annecke Lange, Gesche Herbst, and Annecke Rotschroeder

Add comment March 28th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1572, Annecke Lange, Gesche Herbst, and Annecke Rotschroeder were all condemned and burned at Neustadt am Rübenberge, as witches and poisoners.

Although commoners, they were the luckless casualties of misbegotten marital politics in the Holy Roman Empire, and in the words of Tara Nummedal in Anna Zieglerin and the Lion’s Blood: Alchemy and End Times in Reformation Germany, “the entire incident laid bare simultaneously the fear of poison and sorcery and the reluctance to advance witch accusations against women of elite status in the princely courts of central Europe.”

The particular princely court of interest for us is that of Eric(h) II, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, a Lutheran convert who married a House of Wettin princess called Sidonie of Saxony. It was one of those love-matches by which the bluebloods slip the bonds of arranged dynastic alliances and often, of historical irrelevancy. ‘Tis a likely antechamber to the volumes of Executed Today.

Sidonie was a decade Eric’s senior, leading one wise grandee to predict, “All sorts of things will happen inside this marriage after the kissing month ends.”

Just so. Eric reverted to Catholicism and the childless couple became bitterly estranged — not only over religion, but money, and the want of a child. (Eventually Eric would die without an heir, and pass his realm to a cousin.) So intense would the couple’s antipathy become that they began to suspect one another of seeking an abrupt annulment by the hand of the poisoner.

That hypothesis became self-confirming when Eric fell ill in 1564, and Eric (this is Nummedal again) “initiated an investigation, accusing four women in Neustadt am Rübenberge, close to Hannover, of both trying to poison him and using sorcery to disrupt his marriage, keep him away ‘from his land and people,’ and make Sidonie barren.”

Three of these four women broke under torture and admitted not only poisoning but witchcraft; they were burned in 1568. But the fourth woman, Gesche Role, had the fortitude to withstand her interrogators and was released.

It’s by way of Gesche Role that we arrive at our day’s principals — for in some fresh turn of the diplomatic jockeying between the estranged power couple, Eric renewed his accusation and re-arrested the poor woman upon fresh claims of fiendery. This time she succumbed and confessed — adding, as is the style, a series of charges against five other acquaintances: our three victims, Annecke Lange, Gesche Herbst, and Annecke Rotschroeder; plus, Annecke’s husband Hans Lange, who died under torture; and, a woman named Margarethe Ölse or Ölsin, whose fate was stayed by dint of her pregnancy. Hans Lange had actually been a barber and surgeon who had been in ducal employment, affording some material connection to the “victim’s” plate, but of course all confessions were secured in the usual violent manner.

On the 28th of March, our three victims were condemned at Neustadt and immediately sent to the stake. Several others in the widening witch inquiry shared a like fate later that same year; the overall number of Neustadt “witches” executed from the various procedures initiated by Eric is not known, but might run up towards 60.

The reader will mark that all these souls were merely humble folk destroyed as flies to wanton boys. Witch fires were usually quenched once their flames licked titled estates, and so it was in this case, as the 1572 Hexenprozesse “also implicated a cluster of noblewomen (Anna von Rheden, Katharina Dux, and Margaretha Knigge), and it was not long before Duke Erich’s estranged wife, Sidonie, herself was accused of directing the poison plot against her husband, purportedly because of his relationship with his mistress, Katharina von Weldam. This escalation of the trial as it reached into the nobility proved to be too much, apparently, even for Duke Erich II, who halted the trial before the noblewomen were sentenced,” and after a pause the Holy Roman Emperor reconvened a hearing at which all concerned were exonerated.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Attempted Murder,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Innocent Bystanders,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1542: Margaret Davy, poysoner

Add comment March 17th, 2020 Headsman

Seventeenth century Jurist John Brydall‘s “An abridgment of the lawes of England, touching treasons, rebellious murthers, conspiracies, burning of houses, poysonings, and other capital offences (1679):

Whether killing a man by poyson be more detestable, than by any other means?

To kill a man by poyson, sayes Coke, is the most detestable of all, because it is most horrible and fearful to the nature of man, and of all others can be least prevented, either by Manhood, or providence: This offence was so odious, that by Act of Parliament it was made High Treason, and it inflicted a more grievous and lingring death, than the common Law prescribed, viz. That the Offendor shall be boyled to death in hot water: upon which Statute Margaret Davy [or Davie, or Davey -ed.] a young woman was attainted of High Treason for poysoning her Mistress, and some others, was boyled to death in Smithfield the Seventeenth of March in the same year: But this Act was afterwards repealed by 1. E. 6. c. 12. and 1. Mar. c. 1.

This appears to be the last documented execution by boiling alive in English history. (The far better-known boiling of Richard Roose for attempting to poison John Fisher occurred 11 years earlier, during the run-up to Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.)

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1921: George Bailey, the first Englishman hanged by female jurors

Add comment March 2nd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1921, George Bailey was hanged at Oxford Gaol for murder.

The milkman was grooming a young woman named Lillian Marks as a potential mistress which all came horribly to public light when Marks reported to police Bailey’s attempt to rape her. The ensuing investigation revealed that the creeper had gone so far as to poison to death his 22-year-old wife to disencumber himself in anticipation of trading up to his prospective paramour. When arrested at a train station he had more doses of prussic acid as well as a suicide letter/confession.

This open-and-shut homicide tried at Aylesbury in January 1921 was distinguished as the first capital trial with women in the jury pool. Maud Stevenson, Annie White and Matilda Tack were the subject of intense — often cringe — attention by Fleet Street for their novelty: only on July 28, 1920 did the UK swear in its first female juror. In Bailey’s case, there was at least one instance of a barrister attempting to bowdlerize some sordid detail on account of the tender sentiments of the lady-jurors, only to be reprimanded by the judge. When free to speak after the case, the women made a point of insisting that nothing about the ordeal of the jurybox taxed the capacities of women, even in a death case.

This march into the courtrooms was part of a broad social advance by women in the train of the Great War, highlighted by suffrage (1918) and opening professional jobs regardless of gender and marital status (1919).

Other advances in the courtroom would follow, albeit glacially. According to friend of the site (and guest blogger) Robert Walsh,

Not until 1950 did a woman appear as lead counsel. That was Rose Heilbron whose client George Kelly was executed in 1950 only to be exonerated decades later. It wasn’t until 1962 that the first female judge appeared, Elizabeth Lane joining the County Court. It took until 1972 for a female judge to preside at the Old Bailey in London, Rose Heilbron again blazing the trail. Bailey and his case are scarcely remembered today, but are legal landmarks nonetheless.

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1860: James Stephens

Add comment February 3rd, 2020 Headsman

James Stephens hanged in New York on this date in 1860, for poisoning his wife.

We’ve referenced passingly a number of 19th century hangings on then-trendy “upward-jerking” gallows — whose action is not to drop the offender down through a trap, but to drop a heavy weight which levers the offender up.

Thanks to the Feb. 4, 1860 edition of the New York Herald, we have a very detailed description of this macabre device.

Perhaps the reporter’s skepticism as to this machine’s humane efficacy is informed here by a bit of hindsight, for when it engaged to end the life of our Mr. Stephens,

Up went the culprit high into the air, not with a sudden violent jerk as usual, but slowly, as if by the strength of a man’s arms, instead of a powerful weight of some 300 pounds. It became evident immediately that something was wrong, and soon a rumor went round that the rope had been unwound instead of cut by the hangman. It appeared that the executioner, who was inexperienced, got frightened, and thus the barbarous manner of hanging the culprit was explained.

It was extraordinary that under these circumstances the unfortunate wretch, suspended between heaven and earth, did not exhibit indications of violent suffering. The moment the rope tightened around his neck, and he was elevated about half way up, a slight twitching of the fingers and kicking of the legs were perceptible. Then a few moments intervened without the slightest indication of suffering, except the hard breathing, which was fearful to listen to. After hanging two minutes in this way, another convulsive throe took place; the vessels in the neck seemed to be swelled almost to bursting, the fingers and wrists assumed a bluish hue, and the feet twitched once or twice spasmodically. Three minutes came, and with it a very feeble tremor showed itself in the whole body; but it lasted only a few seconds, when all further motion ceased, and life seemed to be completely extinct. The surgeons, Drs. Woodward, Simmons and Covell, viewed the body after a suspension of five minutes, and gave it as their opinion that animation was certainly gone; but the body was not lowered until fourteen minutes had expired. The surgeons then again examined the body, found no pulse, and the flesh icy cold. Considering the circumstances, the culprit died a remarkably easy death, which was owing, doubtless, to the feeble condition of his constitution. Had he been in good strength at the time of his execution there is no question but that he would have struggled in the most frightful agony for half an hour.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,USA

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1889: Louisa Collins, the last woman hanged in New South Wales

Add comment January 8th, 2020 Headsman

The last woman hanged in New South Wales, Australia was the “Botany Murderess” Louisa Collins, on this date in 1889.

A transport convict’s daughter from near Merriwa, Collins was accused in the courts and the common run of opinion of murdering both her husbands with arsenic — first Charles Andrews, 13 years her senior and father to nine of her 10 children* — and then Michael Collins, the lover with whom she scandalously fell into bed while husband’s body was still warm, and indeed before: desperate to relieve the financial pressure of their large family, Charles and Louisa had taken in boarders, of whom Michael Collins was one — at least until Charles threw him out for getting too familiar with the lady of the house.

The fact that this adulterous couple immediately shacked up (and, as our principal’s surname will have signaled, shortly thereafter wed) after a stomach ailment felled the husband set tongues a-wag and eyebrows a-cock. The subsequent death of Michael and Louisa’s only child together,** and then of Michael himself, could not but appear confirmation of the very worst.

Although accused, she was only convicted once over the course of four trials.

Where murder is concerned, any one will do for the law no matter the conviction ratio. But the chain obviously smacks of an unseemly jury-shopping, facilitated by the first three panels’ failure to reach any verdict rather than acquit outright and cinched by the Crown’s convincing the court to admit at her last trial previously-barred testimony.

The hard evidence remained stubbornly circumstantial as usual with arsenic cases: her paramour and an insurance policy on her husband supplied a motive that was positive but far from dispositive, and the alleged means was nothing more than a commercial pest controller called Rough On Rats whose presence in the house would have incriminated half of Australia.† (Arsenic was also used in the sheepskin tanning industry where both of Louisa’s late men sweated their daily bread.) Neighbors fleshed out these bare bones with eye-of-the-beholder judgments against Louisa’s comportment, such as the insufficient-mourning canard that’s still a staple of wrongful convictions.

Moreover, Louisa Collins’s case became enmeshed in the era’s web of gender politics: the campaign soliciting clemency on grounds of femininity overlapped but also contradicted the simultaneous campaign for women’s suffrage, goring oxes left and right.

That gore still spatters latter-day observers of this still-fascinating affair, who in recent years have enjoyed two different volumes illuminating the respective silhouette-halves that Louisa Collins presents posterity: a woman railroaded (Last Woman Hanged, by Caroline Overington (author interview)); and, cold-blooded murderess (Black Widow: The true story of Australia’s first female serial killer, by Carol Baxter (author interview)). There’s also a recent historical novel, The Killing Of Louisa, by Janet Lee (author interiew).

Two things that all parties can agree on: first, that her quadruple prosecution makes for a troubling legal spectacle — “a collusion between the prosecution and the state and the judiciary to keep her going to trial until the desired result,” as Baxter put it; and second, that Collins’s eventual hanging at Darlinghurst was a ghastly botch. The next day’s Sydney Morning Herald reported how

The executioner signalled to his assistant to pull the lever, but the handle refused to move. It could be seen that pressure was applied, and also that the pin which held the handle in its place was fast in its slot. The assistant endeavoured to remove the pin, but failed, and in a few seconds a mallet was used. Four or five blows were applied Mrs Collins meanwhile standing perfectly upright and motionless-before the pin gave way.

The delay caused could not have been short of one minute, when the lever moved and the body fell through in a slightly curved position. After one swing to the side and in a moment it was suspended perpendicularly, with the face towards the yard. There was a slight spurt of blood, followed by a thin stream which ran down the dress and spotted the floor beneath. Nearer examination showed that the strain of the drop had so far opened the neck as to completely sever the windpipe, and that the body was hanging by the vertebra. Slowly the body turned round on the rope until the front part faced the doorway, and there it remained stationary until lowered by the executioner on to a wicker bier. Death was instantaneous. After hanging for 20 minutes the corpse was conveyed to the inquest room, and again given over to the female warders.


Poor service: hangman Robert Rice Howard, aka “Nosey Bob” after a distinctive disfigurement of that appendage courtesy of a horse’s backheel.

* Seven of these nine children by Charles Andrews survived infancy. At the time of the alleged murders, five of these children still shared the house with their parents.

** The possible murder of the infant Collins child wasn’t on Louisa’s charge sheet but remains an understandable suspicion.

† As a brand name for arsenic, Rough On Rats became a ready resource for numerous aspiring suicides and homicides.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1615: Anne Turner

2 comments November 15th, 2019 Headsman

For Sommersett must love Essex faire wife
by wich his deerest servant lost his life.
losse upon losse, all things grow cleane contrary
and thus our sinfull times themselves doe vary.

From a 17th century libel

On this date in 1615, Anne Turner hanged at Tyburn for a shocking society murder remembered as the Overbury Affair.

Turner was quite a character herself, but her journey to the pages of Executed Today begins in the bedsheets of the nobility. In fact, events revolve around a marriage alliance between two families of notable beheadings, in the persons of Frances Howard — the grandsondaughter of Queen Elizabeth’s enemy Thomas Howard (beheaded 1572) — and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex — son of Queen Elizabeth’s lover also named Robert Devereux (beheaded 1601).

‘Twas often that noble pairings were cynical, loveless expediencies but this union exceeded most in its deficiencies.

They married so young — 13 to 14 years old as they tied the knot — that they were initially kept apart to prevent them sleeping together but this failure to consummate developed into firm policy. Devereux was impotent with her — even though, per Francis Bacon’s investigation, “before and after the marriage, he hath found an ability of body to know any other woman, and hath oftentimes felt motions and provocations of the Flesh, rending to carnal copullation” — and Howard seemingly systematically refused him. (Devereux was elsewhere heard to note that his virility failed because his wife “reviled him, and miscalled him, terming him a cow, and coward, and beast.”)

By that time — we’re into 1613 here — the missus was also intentionally trying to force an annulment of the marriage, so that she could pursue love and power with the king’s young favorite, Robert Carr. Both spouses agreed that their union had never been consummated, a fact “verified” by a panel of matrons who inspected the wife’s bits to confirm the presence of the hymen. Frances was veiled during this humiliating spectacle to preserve her modesty and/or identity, as widely believed rumor held that she’d swapped in a ringer to pass the exam.

This maide inspected;
But fraud interjected
A Maid of more perfection:
The midwives did her handle,
While the Kn[igh]t held the candle
O there was a clear inspection!

While Frances was orchestrating all this, her lover’s close friend Sir Thomas Overbury was energetically counseling that youth against the match, going so far as to write one of the classics of Jacobean poetry, “A Wife”, expounding on the preferred virtues of such a partner in an apparent attempt to underscore to his chum Frances Howard’s conspicuous want of them, e.g.

Where goodnesse failes, ’twixt ill and ill that stands:
Whence ’tis, that women though they weaker be,
And their desire more strong, yet on their hands
The chastity of men doth often lye:
Lust would more common be then any one,
Could it, as other sins, be done alone.

Long story short, the mistress won the struggle over the valuable Robert Carr and her powerful family arranged to sideline Overbury by means of a royal appointment to Russia. When Overbury refused the post, the outraged King James had him locked up in the Tower of London for his impertinence; Overbury soon died there, and Frances Howard and Robert Carr tied the match before 1613 was out.

Carr should have listened to that poem.

It was no more than months ere that gentleman was being eclipsed in King James’s favor by George Villiers, and his eroding status licensed the interest of court enemies in the surprise death of Carr’s friend.

Suspicions of foul play soon appeared vindicated, and we come at last at this point to our gallows-fruit Anne Turner, a wealthy woman in the train of Frances Howard, for the evidence developed by Bacon indicated that Turner acted as Howard’s agent in arranging for Overbury’s guards to poison him off.

The affair was the ruin of her patron, who was convicted along with her prized new husband.* Both of these blueblooded types were spared, but no such mercy obtained for the four commoners who had been the Lady’s instruments.

Turner, who did a brisk business in saffron supplying the royal court its fashionable yellow accoutrements, arranged for “tarts and jellies” procured from a sinister chemist to be delivered to the men at the Tower for ministration to the imprisoned poet. Really it was just as Overbury had tried to warn Carr:

A passive understanding to conceive,
And judgement to discerne, I wish to finde:
Beyond that, all as hazardous I leave;
Learning and pregnant wit in woman-kinde,
What it findes malleable, makes fraile,
And doth not adde more ballast, but more saile.

She, the chemist, and both Overbury’s jailer and the governor of the Tower of London would all four suffer execution on distinct occasions for doing the Lady Howard’s bidding in this matter. Turner’s hanging at Tyburn had a classic dash of showmanship: both the victim and the executioner were pointedly dressed in the yellow saffron ruffles whose lucrative traffic had empowered Anne Turner with the werewithal to corrupt the king’s dungeon. The design fell speedily out of fashion.

Our intrepid assassin, however, had the consolation of a vigorous literary afterlife as her character became a fixture of the 17th century theater. (So did Overbury’s.)

The Overbury Affair’s rich text touching power, gender, commerce, revenge, social climbing, print culture, and murderous intrigue has continued to fascinate new audiences ever since then, intermittently refreshed by many new volumes both fiction and non-.

* Frances Howard confessed the plot — accurately, as it is generally understood. Robert Carr never did, and he’s often been read as a plausible naif, blind to his pretty new wife’s vengeful treatment of his former bosom friend.

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Entry Filed under: Assassins,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Sex

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1810: Metta Fock, embroiderer

Add comment November 7th, 2019 Headsman

Metta Fock was beheaded in Sweden on this date in 1810.

Fock (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish), daughter to the just-hanging-on lesser nobility, got her surname from an impecunious dullard of a sergeant with whom she shared a small farm in Västergötland. At least, she did until Johan Fock and two of her four children suddenly got violently ill and died within days of one another in 1802.

Well might one imagine the rumors that swirled around the widow Fock in these days; she was already suspected of having a lover, so the inference of a libidinous deployment of arsenic was nigh irresistible. She said her family had been stricken by a measles outbreak.

Her contemporaries were as uncertain of the conclusion as is posterity; she was thrown in Carlsten Fortress but spared a death verdict absent a confession — an unusual legal artifact at the time that might have permitted her to live out decades in a dungeon with sufficient obstinacy.

Although she finally buckled and made that confession — under who knows what extremes of misery and resignation; she vainly attempted to retract it later — the most evocative judgment has always been the manifesto of innocence that she embroidered onto 27 strips of linen in 1805, complaining of her unfair treatment. (More conventional writing instruments were being withheld from her.) It’s given Metta Fock a permanent purchase on later sympathies.

There’s a recent historical novel by Ann Rosman, Mercurium, which also casts Fock as a railroaded innocent.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Sex,Sweden,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1767: Elsjen Roelofs

Add comment September 9th, 2019 Headsman

Elsjen Roelofs was broken on the wheel at Assen on this date in 1767 — an unusual fate for a woman, inflicted for poisoning her husband. The sources about her, and the links in this post, are almost exclusively in Dutch.

A farmer’s daughter who made a property-driven arranged marriage to another farmer, Roelofs was seemingly (so a neighbor described) driven to her desperate act when the said Jan Alberts purposed to move away, which would have separated her from her own family.

This poignant story is speculatively novelized by Janne IJmker in Achtendertig Nachten (Thirty-Eight Nights, which was the distance of time between the pregnant Roelofs delivering her daughter in prison on August 2, and the execution of the sentence). (Here’s a review.)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Murder,Netherlands,Public Executions,Women

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1822: Thomas Thomasen Bisp, skull exhibit

Add comment July 22nd, 2019 Headsman

Thomas Thomasen Bisp, an adulterer who fatally poisoned his wife after he got the hots for his maid, became on this date in 1822 the last person executed in the North Jutland city of Hjørring.

Times being what they were, the torture-spectacle parts of the sentence — like having his offending hand struck off — were remitted; all things equal, we assume that Bisp would have best preferred to keep the one extremity he was still required to sacrifice.

This minor milestone is memorable to visitors of the Vendsyssel Historial Museum, where reposes the killer’s grisly beheaded skull courtesy of its 1900 accidental discovery in the course of some road work.

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1831: Gesche Margarethe Gottfried, the Angel of Bremen

1 comment April 21st, 2019 Headsman

The Domshof town square still holds a spuckstein (“spit stone”) where passersby can revile Gesche Margarethe Gottfried, a serial poisoner beheaded in Bremen on this date in 1831.


Ptooey! (cc) image by Jürgen Howaldt.

Gottfried wielded the 19th century’s weapon of choice for subtle domestic homicide, arsenic, mixed into spreadable fat, a concoction known as Mäusebutter after its intended legitimate use. This delectable served for 15 murders over as many years in the 1810s and 1820s.

The “Angel of Bremen” — so earned for her kindly habit of nursing her victims through the death throes she prepared them — began as is customary with her spendthrift first husband, followed soon by the three children she had by him, her own mother, father, and brother, and her second husband.

After a six-year break apparently because her access to Mäusebutter had run out, Gottfried was able to resume her career in 1823 by offing her second husband followed by a series of less intimate acquaintances: a neighbor, a landlady, a maid, a creditor. All of her murders seemingly had some pecuniary motive, including those early ones of her own kin (think inheritance). But in many instances the apparent profit was very minor, and her motivations remain uncertain to this day. The phrenologists who examined her head after execution certainly had some ideas: “the brain exhibits an enormously large organ of Destructiveness, with a very deficient Benevolence. This combination appears to have rendered its possessor almost a hyena or tiger in her dispositions.” (Source)

At last one of her proposed victims, one Johann Rumpff who was the husband of the “landlady” Wilhelmine Rumpff already poisoned by Gottfried, became suspicious enough of her to have meals she served to him examined by a doctor, which led speedily to her arrest and to all the rest.

Gottfried was the last person (male or female) publicly executed in Bremen. She survives well enough in the cultural memory to earn periodic tribute on stage, screen, and literature …

… and for the discerning Bremener desiring to see upon whom their sputum falls at Domshof, the Angel’s death mask can still be gawked at the Focke Museum.


(cc) image by Jürgen Howaldt.

German speakers might enjoy the Life of Poison-Murderer Gesche Margarethe Gottfried composed by her attorney Friedrich Voget: part 1, part 2. or see archive.org.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Murder,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Serial Killers,Women

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