1843: Sarah Dazley

Add comment August 5th, 2020 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today, and footnotes which are also my own commentary. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)

Sarah was born in 1819 as Sarah Reynolds in the village of Potton in Bedfordshire, the daughter of the village barber, Phillip Reynolds. Phillip died when Sarah was seven years old and her mother then embarked on a series of relationships with other men. Hardly an ideal childhood.

Sarah grew up to be a tall, attractive girl with long auburn hair and large brown eyes. However she too was promiscuous and by the age of nineteen had met and married a local man called Simeon Mead. They lived in Potton for two years before moving to the village of Tadlow just over the county border in Cambridgeshire in 1840. It is thought that the move was made to end one of Sarah’s dalliances. Here she gave birth to a son in February 1840, who was christened Jonah. The little boy was the apple of his father’s eye, but died at the age of seven months, completely devastating Simeon. In October Simeon too died suddenly, to the shock of the local community. Sarah did the grieving mother and widow bit for a few weeks, before replacing Simeon with another man, twenty-three-year-old William Dazley. This caused a lot of negative gossip and considerable suspicion in the village. In February 1841, Sarah and William married and moved to the village of Wrestlingworth three miles away and six miles north east of Biggleswade in Bedfordshire. Sarah invited Ann Mead, Simeon’s teenage daughter, to live with them. It seems that all was not well in the marriage from early on and William took to drinking heavily in the village pub. This inevitably led to friction with Sarah which boiled over into a major row culminating in William hitting her. Sarah always had other men in her life through both her marriages and confided to one of her male friends, William Waldock, about the incident, telling him she would kill any man who hit her. Sarah also told neighbours a heavily embroidered tale of William’s drinking and violence towards her.

William became ill with vomiting and stomach pains a few days later and was attended by the local doctor, Dr. Sandell, who prescribed pills which initially seemed to work, with William being looked after by Ann Mead and showing signs of a steady recovery. Whilst William was still bedridden, Ann — not entirely realising what she was seeing at the time — observed Sarah making up pills in the kitchen.

Sarah told a friend of hers in the village, Mrs. Carver, that she was concerned about William’s health and that she was going to get a further prescription from Dr. Sandell. Mrs. Carver was surprised to see Sarah throw out some pills from the pillbox and replace them with others. When she remarked on it, Sarah told her that she wasn’t satisfied with the medication that Dr. Sandell had provided and instead was using a remedy from the village healer. In fact the replacement pills were those that Sarah had made herself. She gave these to William who immediately noticed that they were different and refused to take them. Ann who had been nursing him and had still not made any connection with the pills she had seen Sarah making, persuaded William to swallow a pill by taking one too. Inevitably they both quickly became ill with the familiar symptoms of vomiting and stomach pains. William vomited in the yard and one of the family pigs later lapped up the mess and died in the night. Apparently Sarah was able to persuade William to continue taking the pills, assuring him that they were what the doctor had prescribed. He began to decline rapidly and died on the 30th of October, his death being certified as natural by the doctor. He was buried in Wrestlingworth churchyard. Post mortems were not normal at this time, even when a previously healthy young man died quite suddenly.

As usual Sarah did not grieve for long before taking up a new relationship. She soon started seeing William Waldock openly and they became engaged at her insistence in February 1843. William was talked out of marriage by his friends who pointed to Sarah’s promiscuous behaviour and the mysterious deaths of her previous two husbands and her son. William wisely broke off the engagement and decided not to continue to see Sarah.

Suspicion and gossip was now running high in the village and it was decided to inform the Bedfordshire coroner, Mr. Eagles, of the deaths. He ordered the exhumation of William’s body and an inquest was held on Monday the 20th of March 1843 at the Chequers Inn in Wrestlingworth High Street. It was found that William’s viscera contained traces of arsenic and an arrest warrant was issued against Sarah. Sarah it seems had anticipated this result and had left the village and gone to London. She had taken a room in Upper Wharf Street where she was discovered by Superintendent Blunden of Biggleswade police. Sarah told Blunden that she was completely innocent and that she neither knew anything about poisons nor had she ever obtained any. Blunden arrested her and decided to take her back to Bedford. What would be a short journey now required an overnight stop in those days and they stayed in the Swan Inn, Biggleswade. Sarah was made to sleep in a room with three female members of the staff. She did not sleep well and asked the women about capital trials and execution by hanging. This was later reported to Blunden and struck him as odd.*

The bodies of Simeon Mead and Jonah had also now been exhumed and Jonah’s was found to contain arsenic, although Simeon’s was too decomposed to yield positive results.

On the 24th of March 1843, Sarah was committed to Bedford Gaol to await her trial and used her time to concoct defences to the charges. She decided to accuse William Dazley of poisoning Simeon and Jonah on the grounds that he wanted them out of her life so he could have her to himself. When she realised what he had done she decided to take revenge by poisoning William. Unsurprisingly these inventions were not believed and were rather ridiculous when it was William’s murder she was to be tried for. In another version William had poisoned himself by accident.

She came to trial at the Bedfordshire Summer Assizes on Saturday the 22nd of July before Baron Alderson, charged with William’s murder, as this was the stronger of the two cases against her. The charge of murdering Jonah was not proceeded with but held in reserve should the first case fail.

Evidence was given against her by two local chemists who identified her as having purchased arsenic from them shortly before William’s death. Mrs. Carver and Ann Mead told the court about the incidents with the pills that they had witnessed.

William Waldock testified that Sarah had said she would kill any man that ever hit her after the violent row that she and William had. Forensic evidence was presented to show that William had indeed died from arsenic poisoning, it being noted that his internal organs were well preserved. The Marsh test, a definitive test for arsenic trioxide, had been only available for a few years at the time of Sarah’s trial. Arsenic trioxide is a white odourless powder that can easily pass undetected by the victim when mixed into food and drink.

Since 1836 all defendants had been legally entitled to counsel and Sarah’s defence was put forward by a Mr. O’Malley, based upon Sarah’s inventions. He claimed that Sarah had poisoned William by accident. Against all the other evidence this looked decidedly weak and contradicted the stories Sarah had told the police. It took the jury just thirty minutes to convict her. Before passing sentence Baron Alderson commented that it was bad enough to kill her husband but it showed total heartlessness to kill her infant child as well. He recommended her to ask for the mercy of her Redeemer. He then donned the black cap and sentenced her to hang. It is interesting to note that Baron Alderson had, at least in his own mind, found her guilty of the murder of Jonah, even though she had not been tried for it.

During her time in prison, Sarah learnt to read and write and began reading the Bible. She avoided contact with other prisoners whilst on remand, preferring her own company and accepting the ministrations of the chaplain. In the condemned cell she continued to maintain her innocence and as far as one can tell never made a confession to either the matrons looking after her or to the chaplain.

There was no recommendation to mercy and the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, saw no reason to offer a reprieve. The provision of the Murder Act of 1752, requiring execution to take place within two working days, had been abolished in 1836 and a period of not less than fourteen days substituted. Sarah’s execution was therefore set for Saturday the 5th of August 1843. A crowd variously estimated at 7,000 – 12,000 assembled in St. Loyes Street outside Bedford Gaol to watch the hanging. It was reported that among this throng was William Waldock.

The New Drop gallows was erected on the flat roof over the main gate of the prison in the early hours of the Saturday morning and the area around the gatehouse was protected by a troop of javelin men. William Calcraft had arrived from London the previous day to perform the execution.

Sarah was taken from the condemned cell to the prison chapel at around ten o’clock for the sacrament. The under sheriff of the county demanded her body from the governor and she was taken to the press room for her arms to be pinioned. She was now led up to the gatehouse roof and mounted the gallows platform, accompanied by the prison governor and the chaplain. She was asked if she wished to make any last statement which she declined, merely asking that Calcraft be quick in his work and repeating “Lord have mercy on my soul”. He pinioned her legs, before drawing down the white hood over her head and adjusting the simple halter style noose around her neck. He then descended the scaffold and withdrew the bolt supporting the trap doors. Sarah dropped some eighteen inches and her body became still after writhing for just a few seconds, as the rope applied pressure to the arteries and veins of her neck, causing a carotid reflex. Sarah was left on the rope for the customary hour before being taken down and the body taken back into the prison for burial in an unmarked grave, as was now required by law.

It was reported by the local newspapers that the crowd had behaved well and remained silent until Sarah was actually hanged. Once she was suspended they carried on eating, drinking, smoking, laughing and making ribald and lewd remarks. Copies of broadsides claiming to contain Sarah’s confession and her last dying speech were being sold among the crowd, which amazingly people bought even though she had made neither. You can see a broadside about her hanging below. Note the stylised woodcut picture that was modified to show a man or a woman as appropriate.

The 1840s were a time of great hardship nationally and yet Sarah, whilst hardly wealthy, did not seem to suffer from this and it was never alleged that she was unable to feed her child or that she was destitute. Extreme poverty in rural areas did appear to be the motive in some murders at this time, especially of infants. Sarah’s motive seems to be a much more evil one, the elimination of anyone who got in the way of her next relationship.

Sarah’s was the first execution at Bedford since 1833 and she was the only woman to be publicly hanged there. In fact Bedfordshire executions were rare events and there were to be only two more in public, Joseph Castle on the 31st of March 1860 for the murder of his wife and William Worsley on the 31st of March 1868 for the murder of William Bradbury.

Notes on the period.

Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, at the age of eighteen and her reign saw a great deal of change in the penal system. For the first thirty one years of it executions were a very public event enjoyed by the masses. People would come from far and wide to witness the spectacle, in some cases special trains were even laid on! Broadsides were sold at many executions giving the purported confessions of the prisoner and there was considerable press interest, particularly where the criminal was female.

Thirty women and two teenage girls were to be executed in England and Scotland in the thirty one year period from May 1838 to the abolition of public hanging in May 1868. Of these twenty-one had been convicted of poisoning (two thirds of the total). Sarah Chesham was actually executed for the attempted murder of her husband but was thought to be guilty of several fatal poisonings as well. Attempted murder ceased to be a capital crime in 1861 under the provisions of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act of that year. Mary Ann Milner would have made the total thirty three had she not hanged herself in Lincoln Castle the day before her scheduled execution on the 30th of July 1847. There were no female executions in Wales during this time but a further ten women were hanged in Ireland during the period, all for murder.

Sarah Chesham‘s case prompted a House of Commons committee to be set up to investigate poisoning. This found that between 1840 and 1850, ninety seven women and eighty two men had been tried for it. A total of twenty-two women were hanged in the decade 1843-1852 of whom seventeen had been convicted of murder by poisoning, representing 77% of the total. There were no female executions in the years 1840-1842 in England. This rash of poisonings led to a Bill being introduced whereby only adult males could purchase arsenic. Poisoning was considered a particularly evil crime as it is totally premeditated and thus it was extremely rare for a poisoner to be reprieved whereas it was not unusual for females to be reprieved for other types of murder, such as infanticide. One of the few poisoners to be reprieved was Charlotte Harris in 1849 who had murdered her husband but who was pregnant at the time of her trial.

* I’m baffled as to why anyone would find it odd — much less incriminating — for a person freshly in custody on a potential capital charge to lose sleep fretting about the horrors of execution. -ed.

** Alderson took part in his share of capital trials, as did any judge of consequence in his day, but was notable as a jurist on the more progressive and less bloody-minded end of the spectrum. An oft-quoted comment of his cautioning against stretching facts to fit your theory would have prevented many a wrongful punishment imposed by tunnel-visioned investigators: “The mind is apt to take pleasure in adapting circumstances to one another, and even in straining them a little if need be, to force them to form parts of one consecutive whole … and in considering such matters to overreach and mislead itself, to suppose some little link that is wanting, to take for granted some fact consistent with previous theories, and necessary to render them complete.”

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1560: Giambatista Cardano, “crowning misfortune”

Add comment April 13th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1560, the son of Renaissance polymath Gerolamo Cardano was beheaded for murdering his — the son’s — wife.

While Cardano pere was one of the great intellectuals of his era, and has been covered in these grim annals via his interest in a genius composer executed for sodomy, the fils earns notice merely for his famous relations.

The latter, Giambatista Cardano by name, committed nothing but a shabby domestic murder, dosing his wife Brandonia di Seroni — “a worthless, shameless woman” in Gerolamo’s estimation — with arsenic when he had tired of her infidelities.

Still, it is the burden of a father to love his firstborn no matter how undistinguished and homicidal. Cardano poured his sorrow into a long funerary verse, not neglecting therein to defend the prerogatives of a jealous husband’s “avenging right hand”; we obtain it from the old man’s autobiography.

A Lament on the Death of My Son

Who has snatched thee away from me —
O, my son, my sweetest son?
Who had the power to bring to my age
Sorrows more than I can count?
Wrath in whose soul or what stern fate
Willed to reap thy youth’s fair flower?
Not Calliope, not Apollo,
Served thee in thine hour of need!
Cithara, now, and all song be still;
Measures of threnodies shall renew
Mourning and sighs for my dear son.
— Strains of his singing haunt me still —
Laurels, alas, in the healing art,
Knowledge of things, and a facile gift
Of Latin tongue—what profit these
Labors long if they swiftly die?
Service rendered Spanish prince,
Duty done to the noblest of men
Help thee naught if with these for thy judge
Death with his scythe doth seek thy blood.

What, ah me, shall I do? My soul
Swoons to remember thee, gentle son;
Silent, I brood on thy destiny grim;
Tears that I dare not give to words,
Shall I not shed for my stricken son?
Lasting encomium had I reserved,
Fitting reward to thine ashes paid;
Silence — O shame — must my tongue now guard,
Death unjust nor its cause announce.
Grave are the ills thou hast borne, mild son.
Prince and Senate and ancient law
Ordered thy doom whilst thou in rash haste,
Brought an adultress the wage of her crime.
Safely adultery now in our homes
Mocks and insults when punishment swift
Stays the avenging right hand of the youth.

Son — the reflection true of the good
Strong in my father — worthy to live
Long through the years — Alas, my beloved!
Fates have forbidden and swept all that good
Far past the stars, and removed from gray earth
Every bright and illustrious thing.
Hail thee, child, for thy spirit high!
Clear is thy blood from ignoble stain;
Honor of forefather’s hast thou sought.
Far stands the king, and hope of safety,
Phoebus denies the lands his beams,
Light from Diana passes and dies,
Stars in the calm sky glance no more
Lest they look down on a palace foul,
Stained with the reeking blood of the slain.

Where lies my way? What land now claims
Body and limbs disfigured by death?
Son, is there naught but this to return?
Thee have I followed on sea and on land!
Fix me — if mercy is anywhere found —
Pierce me with weapons, O ye mad Gods!
Take with thy first blow my dreary life.
Pity me thou, oh great father of Gods,
Thrust with thy spear my hated head
Deep into Tartara; else am I bound
Hardly to burst this life’s bitter chains.
This, O my son, was not pledged to thy sire,
Love so unholy to trust with thine all —
Love that has ruined thee, son of my heart!

Wife of a memory blessed and true,
Happy thy death, nor spared for this grief!
I, through this crime, have myself brought disgrace,
O son to our name, for by envy compelled,
Homeland and Lares paternal I left.
Death had I sought for my innocent soul,
But surviving and living I vanquished my fate.

Ages to come will know, son, thy name,
Orient lands will hear of thy fame;
Dead to us thou art indeed —
Life hast thou won through all the earth!

It would be fair to say that this last vow of the grieving father was not kept. Indeed, the misery of losing his son to the executioner cast an enervating pall over the elder Cardano’s remaining years. “My supreme, my crowning misfortune,” he bewailed. “Because of this, it was neither becoming for me to be retained in my office [a professor of medicine at Pavia], nor could I justly be dismissed. I could neither continue to live in my native city with any peace, nor in security move elsewhere. I walked abroad an object of scorn; I conversed with my fellows abjectly, as one despised, and, as one of unwelcome presence, avoided my friends.”

A couple of years on and the unwelcomeness had become overwhelming; he relocated to a professorship in Bologna — nowise happy but at least clear of the omnipresent, suffocating shame associated with his name. The man’s woes were in no way alleviated by his surviving son Aldo, a thief and all-around lowlife whom Cardano ended up disinheriting. (Lone daughter Chiara was A-OK by pops apart from being unable to bear him grandchildren: “from my daughter alone have I suffered no vexations beyond the getting together of her dowry.”)

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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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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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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.

On this day..

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.

On this day..

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.

On this day..

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.)

On this day..

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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