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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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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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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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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1852: Hélène Jégado, serial arsenic murderer

Add comment February 26th, 2019 Headsman

Prolific French poisoner Hélène Jégado was guillotined on this date in 1852.

An orphaned peasant, Jegado (English Wikipedia entry | French) made her way as a domestic servant which was a very fine situation for exploring her true passion of insinuating arsenic into folks’ meals.

This Jegado did with astonishing frequency in her 18 years as Brittany’s Locusta: though condemned for just three successful murders, her body count is thought to run well into the twenties or thirties. Although she was a habitual petty thief as well, she was a true serial killer for whom only a handful of her many murders redounded to some palpable benefit for her. She killed from a compulsion.

For example, as the servant of a village cure, she brazenly poisoned off seven people in 1833,* including the priest himself and her own sister Anne Jegado. But the village had been ravaged by cholera in recent months and Helene Jegado by all accounts made for a convincingly bereaved tragic actress. Amazingly, nobody got suspicious, enabling her to poison off her own aunt and two other people when she returned to her own town to bury that dearly departed sister. For the next several years she kept moving and moving, new lodgings in new towns throughout Brittany but over and over again in a position to season the soup. Surprising and sudden deaths repeatedly occurred in her proximity but the pattern never caught anyone’s eye.

Her fire for the inheritance powder mostly burned out by about 1841 when she had a suspected 23 victims to her name. “I am going into retreat,” she’s said to have strangely declared to an employer who caught her stealing in 1841. “God has forgiven me my sins!” Then the suspicious deaths stopped.

At this point, Helene Jegado was pushing 40. Maybe she thought to cleanse her soul and make a fresh and un-homicidal start, or simply to retire her murder spree while she was so very far ahead. Maybe the sensational Marie Lafarge arsenic case of 1840 scared her straight and made her aware of dangerous forensics advances. There was also some idea that she had somehow procured a large stockpile of arsenic at the outset of her career, but discarded it in a panic the first time that she felt herself in danger of being accused.

Whatever the reason for her lull, she seems to have managed the cold turkey program admirably for a good long time … but surely somewhere inside her lurked the hunger to again give rein to her compulsion.

The last days of 1849 find her at Rennes, where she resumed just as suddenly as she had stopped: the ailing son of a couple who employed her as their only servant was suddenly finished off through his porridge, and then the couple themselves sickened by another meal (they survived). Now the bit was again in her teeth and she ran with it through a series of employers: in the course of just weeks she made fresh attacks in the Ozanne household, upon the family’s little son (he died); in the hotel owned by Monsieur Roussell, upon the proprietor’s mother (she survived) and a rival servant (she died).

By the autumn of 1850 she again had her fresh — and her final — employment, with the law professor and sometime politician Theophile Bidard.

Yet it was not the sharp observations or relentless deductions of her scholar-master that exposed Helene Jegado: it was a want of sangfroid downright shocking in one who had already filled so many tombs. When another servant of the Bidards died unexpectedly, Rennes medical men who suspected poisoning called on Bidard. Jegado answered the door, and upon hearing them announce their mission to the man of the house she unnecessarily blurted out an assertion of innocence. Nobody had even mentioned her.

Once she invited everyone’s suspicion the rest followed inevitably. Bodies she had given Rennes households to bury during the preceding year showed clear evidence of arsenic poisoning when exhumed, and the pattern of deaths associated with her — even though they lay beyond prosecution — seemingly confirmed the worst. Helene denied all but went to the guillotine on the Champ-de-Mars at Rennes on February 26, 1852.

* These seven and most of the others attributed to Helene Jegado’s potions are merely irresistible inference; she was detected long past any opportunity to establish direct proof of her hand behind any of the pre-1849 deaths.

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1868: Heli Freymond, the last beheaded by sword in Switzerland

Add comment January 10th, 2019 Headsman

Heli Freymond lost his head on this date in 1868 to an executioner’s sword — the last time that ever happened in Swiss history. (His is also the last death sentence enforced in the canton of Vaud.)

Freymond and his cousin and lover Louise Freymond conspired to murder the man’s pregnant* wife with arsenic.

They might have gotten away with this but avarice for the portion of the wife’s inheritance that had redounded to the wife’s sister led them to make a bid at murdering that sister’s beau. This man survived it, and accurately discerned the hand behind his brush with death; his lawsuit led to the literal and metaphorical exhumation of the late wife’s corpse, too.

Louise Freymond caught a 20-year prison sentence for this, but Freymond was doomed to lose his head. Switzerland had introduced the guillotine as an alternative beheading method some years before, but the old-school two-handed richtschwert blade still remained available for the hands-on touch you only get with hired goons. Twenty thousand souls turned out in Moudon for the occasion.

Heli Freymond was in fact the last person executed at all in Switzerland, for an era: he was still the last when the 1874 constitution abolished capital punishment full stop. However, a crime wave brought the death penalty back in 1879. The last Swiss execution for ordinary crimes occurred in 1940; according to CapitalPunishmentUK’s index of Swiss executions, there were 17 Swiss men (no women) shot during World War II for treason.

* Technically, an initial unsuccessful attempt to poison the pregnant mother Elise Olivier caused a miscarriage; subsequently, another poisoning brought off Elise, too.

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1888: Not Sarah J. Robinson

Add comment November 16th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1888, Massachusetts almost hanged Sarah J. Robinson.

The reader will easily infer from press appellations such as the “Massachusetts Borgia” or “Sommerville Borgia” that Mrs. Robinson was a prolific poisoner.

The true toll of Robinson’s career remains uncertain to this day but they monstrously included her own son and daughter — the victims that brought her within the shadow of the gallows.

An Irish immigrant, she had discovered the capacity of arsenic for relieving the financial burdens that, then as now, weighed upon the poor. In 1881, her landlord suspiciously died in her care, abating a debt of rent; a few years later, her husband did likewise, leaving her an insurance windfall, and then her sister too.

Still the maintenance of five children — four of her own, plus a nephew — harried her. To keep the wolves at bay she moved frequently, sold off furniture. And last, she enrolled two children in a working-class insurance fraternal and collected so speedily to attract the wrong attention. Her many murders afforded multiple bites at the legal apple, so when a jury hung on a charge of murdering her kids, they just turned around and got her for a nephew instead.

Mrs. Robinson was escorted to the court room … A large rocking chair was provided for her comfort in the rear of the court room outside the prisoner’s iron cage. She languidly sank into it, and as soon as seated requested a drink of water, which was brought her by Sheriff Tidd. Her hands trembled like leaves as she eagerly held the tumbler to her lips. (Boston Journal, June 29, 1888)

Notwithstanding her many victims, the prospect of noosing this trembling-hand, rocking-chair mother discomfited the public. The governor commuted her sentence to solitary imprisonment four days before her scheduled November 16, 1888 hanging.

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1773: Eva Faschaunerin, the last tortured in Austria

Add comment November 9th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1773, Eva Faschaunerin was beheaded for the arsenic murder of her husband Jakob Kary, mere weeks after their 1770 marriage.

Faschaunerin (English Wikipedia entry | German), who was interrogated on the rack, is distinguished as the last victim in the Austrian empire of official judicial torture: the practice was abolished in 1776 by Maria Theresa.

She’s still well-known in her locale, the Alpine Lieser-Maltatal region and even further afield than that; the town of Gmünd has an Eva Faschaunerin museum in its former jail.

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1799: Sarah Clark, a melancholy instance of human depravity

1 comment October 30th, 2018 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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