1779: Manuel, burned for witchcraft in the USA?

Add comment June 15th, 2019 Clarence Alvord

(Thanks to the late University of Illinois history professor Clarence Walworth Alvord for the guest post, which originally appeared in an essay he wrote for the centennial of the Land of Lincoln‘s 1818 statehood. For context to this 1779 execution, the area comprising the future U.S. state of Illinois had been attached by the British crown to its own recently annexed province of Quebec, formerly French and Catholic. Illinois had then been seized during the Revolutionary War by Virginia, which at this moment (and only a few years thereafter) maintained it as Virginia’s own “Illinois County”. Notwithstanding Dr. Alvord’s rebuttal, the slave Manuel is still frequently described down to the present day as having been burned for witchcraft. -ed.)

The secret of writing true history depends upon the collection of all the contemporary evidence bearing on the case. The reason that people complain of the changing interpretations of history is that new material is found as society demands a broader and broader interpretation of the phenomena of the past. There was a time when history consisted in what we call to-day the drum and fife history; the doings of the great political leaders, events of military glory; and almost no other phenomena of changing society were noted. To-day the task of the historian, however, is far greater; and he is obliged to cast his net far afield in order to collect the material for the social development of the past …

“it must be remembered that the Creoles were very ignorant and superstitious, and that they one and all, including, apparently, even their priests, firmly believed in witchcraft and sorcery. Some of their negro slaves had been born in Africa, the others had come from the Lower Mississippi or the West Indies; they practised the strange rites of voudooism, and a few were adepts in the art of poisoning. Accordingly the French were always on the look-out lest their slaves should, by spell or poison, take their lives …

At this time the Creoles were smitten by a sudden epidemic of fear that their negro slaves were trying to bewitch and poison them. Several of the negroes were seized and tried, and in June two were condemned to death. One, named Moreau, was sentenced to be hung outside Cahokia. The other, a Kaskaskian slave named Manuel, suffered a worse fate. He was sentenced “to be chained to a post at the water-side, and there to be burnt alive and his ashes scattered.” These two sentences, and the directions for their immediate execution, reveal a dark chapter in the early history of Illinois. It seems a strange thing that, in the United States, three years after the declaration of independence, men should have been burnt and hung for witchcraft, in accordance with the laws and with the decision of the proper court. The fact that the victim, before being burned, was forced to make “honorable fine” at the door of the Catholic church, shows that the priest at least acquiesced in the decision. The blame justly resting on the Puritans of seventeenth-century New England must likewise fall on the Catholic French of eighteenth-century Illinois.

-Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West

An example of how easy it is to misinterpret a past event, provided all the material available is not collected, and how easy is that interpretation after the material has been found, has come under my observation … About forty years ago Edward G. Mason, at that time secretary of the Chicago Histori[c]al Society, found the record book kept by the county Lieutenant, John Todd,* in the year 1779, when Todd came to govern the territory that had been occupied by George Rogers Clark and his Virginians during the Revolutionary War. In this record book Mason found the copy of a warrant for the death of a negro, named Manuel, by burning at the stake, which burning was to take place after consolation to the criminal had been given by the parish priest. The copy of the warrant had been crossed out by drawing lines through it. Please bear this fact in mind, since it should have suggested a correct interpretation. Naturally this warrant aroused the imagination of Mr. Mason, and he vegan to search for an explanation and discovered that about this time there was an outbreak of voodooism among the Illinois slaves and that two slaves had been put to death. He drew the natural conclusion therefore that Manuel had been burned at the stake for the practice of witchcraft. Basing his interpretation upon Mr. Mason’s find, a well-known ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, who among other occupations has dabbled in history, wrote at some length upon this episode and drew a comparison between eighteenth century Catholic Illinois, where for the practice of witchcraft men were burned at the stake with the sancttion [sic] of the parish priest and in accordance with French Catholic law, with a similar episode in the history of Puritan Massachusetts in the seventeenth century.

Fortunately there has come into my hands a full record of the court’s proceedings by which Manuel was condemned; and I find that the judges in the case, although they were obliged to listen to the superstitious accusations of negro slaves, were careful to determine the fact that Manuel and another negro had been guilty of murder by poisoning their master and mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Nicolle, and that it was for this act the two negroes were condemned to death. I then looked up the law of the land. Naturally it might be supposed as Roosevelt did that this was French law, but there was another possibility, namely that Virginia law in criminal cases would be used by a Virginian magistrate, such as John Todd. I found that the Virginia law in the case of murder of a master by a slave was death by burning at the stake so that in the case of Manuel you see that the condemnation was strictly in accordance with Virginia law and not with French law. Another document of even greater interest in the case also came to my hands. It certainly was a surprise. This was another warrant for the death of Manuel, issued at a later hour in the day, but by this later warrant the death penalty was changed from burning at the stake to hanging by the neck. To summarize then: Manuel was not condemned for witchcraft but for murder; he was not condemned to be burned at the stake in accordance with French law, but in accordance with Virginia law; and finally he was not burned at the stake at all, but was hung by the neck. This is an excellent example of the danger of drawing inferences in regard to historic events upon too narrow information. There was one fact which both Mr. Mason and Mr. Roosevelt ignored in their interpretation of the warrant. The copy of the warrant was found in a carefully kept record book, and was crossed out by lines being drawn through it. That fact should have made them suspicious of their own interpretation. Records such as this condemnation to death would not be lightly erased by the keeper of a record book. An historical Sherlock Holmes would not have been misled.

* Todd’s brother Levi was grandfather to eventual U.S. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. -ed.

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1832: Elizabeth Jeffery, Carluke poisoner

Add comment May 21st, 2019 Headsman

This broadside comes from the National Library of Scotland’s vast collection of print ephemera, “The Word on the Street”.


Account of the Execution of Elizabeth Nicklson, or Shafto, or Jeffrey, when was Executed in front of the Jail, this morning, for a Double Murder, 1st, with administering, on the 4th October last, to Ann Newal or Carl, residing in Carluke, a quantity of arsenic, which she mixed with meal and water and whisky, in consequence of which she died; 2d, with having administered to Hugh Munro, then labourer or miner at’ carluke, a quantity of arsenic, which she mixed with porridge; and Hugh Munro died in consequence of having partaken of the same.

It will be recollected that the unhappy woman who has this day justly forfeited her life to the offended laws of God, and of man, was tried at our last Assizes. The indictment against the prisoner ran thus —

You the said Elizabeth Nicklson or Shafto or Jeffrey, lately residing at Carluke, are charged with administering on the 4th of October, last, to Ann Newal or Carl residing in Carluke, a quantity. of arsenic, which you mixed up with meal and water and whisky, and which you pretended was a medicine for her benefit and the said Ann Newal or Carl having drank there of, became violently ill, and died next day in consequence of having swallowed the said mixture.

You are also charged with having on the 28th of October last, administered to to Hugh Munro, then labourer or miner at Carluke, and lodging with you, a quantity of arsenic which you had mixed up with porridge and the said Hugh Munro having partaken of the porridge became ill and, continued so the two following days. You are likewise accused of having on the 30th, October last, administered to the said Hugh Monro a quantity of arsenic which you had mixed up with rhubarb and the said Hugh Munro died in consequence of having partaken of the same.

The prisoner pleaded Not Guilty, and the trial proceeded. Never before was there so connected and convincing a chain of circumstancial evidence developed in a Court of Justice. The following is a sort of summing up of the facts of the case, as they were sworn to on the trial. It appeared the no suspicion had been excited against the prisoner amongst the villagers of Carluke, on the death of the old woman, Carl, who resided next door to the prisoner — but that when her lodger Munro died in excruciating agony about four weeks after, and was buried by request of the prisoner, (as indeed Carl was also) in a great hurry, reports not favourable to her began to be openly made, and to such a length did the matter go, that both bodies were raised from their graves, and certain portions of the stomachs extracted for medical examination. It afterwards appeared from the evidence of the two surgeonss at Carluke as well as from that of two highly experienced chemists in Edinburgh, to whom portions of the matter found in the stomach s has been transmitted, that minute quantities of arsenic, but quite sufficient to cause death, had been discovered in each of the stomachs. It was also proven that the prisoner had purchased arsenic at two different times, by the hands of another person, for the ostensible purpose, as was alleged, of killing rats, by which she said her house was infested, although none of the witnesses on that spot had ever seen a rat about the premises. These purchases, be it observed, were made immediately preceding the death of Carl and Munro. Add to this it was proven that the prisoner mixed up the dose for the sick woman Carl herself and also made the porridge by which her lodger Munro was poisoned. With regard to this poor highlander, it appeared that he came home on a Saturday, in as good health and high glee as ever he was in his life, looking forward, no doubt to a happy meeting he was soon expecting to have with his friends in Skye, and that having partaken of some porridge made by the prisoner, he was soon after seized with dreadful thirst and pain, in this state the continued for two days when she again tendered him mixture of rhubarb as she alleged; soon after which she expired in great agony. The prisoner owed Munro five pounds, which she could not pay, and this seemed to be the only cause she had for committing so diabolical a crime. About the period of the murder, Jeffrey used many ineffectual tricks to makevthe friends of the deceased believe that she had accounted on the money to the deceased, but it came clearly out that she had not paid a farthing of it. With regard to the murder of the old woman, Carl, the Depute-Advocate’s theory was, that the prisoner had tried her hand on her to discover how much poison it would take to kill the young man, Munro, but the villagers say the houses were very scarce at Carluke, and that the prisoner wished to make room for a more productive lodger. There were many other facts came out in detail, all tending to criminate the prisoner, who after a trial of 18 hours, was found Guilty, and sentenced to be executed this day, but recommended to mercy by the Jury — for what reason, or on what grounds, was not mentioned. On this recommendation the prisoner had great hopes until Thursday, when an answer to an application to Lord John Russell, from a few Quakers and other eccentric individuals in this City, was refused; These characters say it was a mighty piece of unheard-of cruelty to execute BURKE!

But we have no patience with them — their maukish ravings are an outrage on nature and common sense, how humane, and kind, and charitable they are to the cold blooded murderer — while not a sigh is given to the innocent butchered victims!

When the prisoner understood there was no hope, (Which had been so unproperly raised) she betook herself to her devotions, and has continued almost since, engaged in prayer. The crowd, this morning, around the, scaffold was large. After some time spent in earnest prayer with the clergymen who assisted her; she gave the signal, when the drop fell, and in a minute she ceased to exist. The crowd then left the ground in good order.

Muir, Printer, Glasgow.

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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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1909: Martha Rendell

Add comment October 6th, 2018 Headsman

For the last time ever, Western Australia executed a woman on this date in 1909. Her name was Martha Rendell, and she had allegedly murdered up to three of her partner’s five* children.

Although they never got the legal document, we might as well call Rendell and Thomas Nicholls Morris man and wife: the two moved in after Morris’s previous marriage failed, presented themselves as one another’s spouses, and had the four kids call Rendell “mom”. They lived together in a downscale district in east Perth, steps away from an open drain fed by industrial runoff.

And if what they charged her with is true — for Rendell would always deny it and her denials have had found traction with some from her time to ours — then nasty stepmothers of fairy tales might have sued Martha Rendell for defamation of character. Indeed, her step-motherliness clearly weighed against her in the public mind.

In 1907, four of the children took ill with diphtheria. After a relapse, seven-year-old Annie died; the death certificate would put it down to “epilepsy and cardiac weakness” (both diphtheria symptoms). Her little sister Olive, still weakened by her bout with diphtheria, contracted typhoid and bled and vomited to death in August of that same year. The doctors who treated these girls didn’t suspect anything untoward but the following year when yet a third of the children (Arthur, 14) also died of apparent typhoid. Doctors on this occasion conducted an autopsy, curious to find evidence of poisoning — an autopsy that Rendell attended and ordered halted partway through, an action that would play very culpably at her eventual trial.**

Said trial was not to be triggered until the following spring, when another son, George, fled the house to the protection of his natural mother, and told a nightmare tale of the mean stepmother painting the children’s throats with hydrochloric acid and serving them suspicious bitter tea that sent them to their sickbeds.

“In hindsight George’s story seems highly implausible, the feverish imagining of a vengeful mother and stepson newly reunited,” argues a Rendell defender who situates the Morris household’s catastrophe amid a wider social panic over the corruption of Perth’s feminine mores, embracing everything from prostitution to baby farming.

The horrific caustic action of hydrochloric acid was not the sort of stealthy killer chosen by poisoners nor did it fit with the gradual wasting noted by the children’s doctor. And how could the woman have forced a youth of fifteen to submit to such cruelty? If Rendell had used diluted solutions of the acid (and it came to light after the trial that this was a home remedy used as a mild antiseptic and sometimes applied to the throat to treat diphtheria) then how had this uneducated woman calibrated the children’s dosages to create symptoms to fool Perth’s most respected doctors?

The strength of feeling bordering on mass hysteria that lay at the heart of public frenzy about this woman was exhibited in the shrill crowds of Perth women demanding her hanging and worse. Some women even invaded the Morris cottage when it was opened up to auction the contents and souvenired every household item, even the auctioneer’s hat so that only ten pounds were raised for the couple’s legal defence.

Little concrete evidence was ever produced against her — was it thanks to that aborted autopsy? — but neighbors grown prejudiced against the scarlet villainess would color remembrances of her conduct in testimony that also told on themselves as peeping toms: this time a failure to nurture and that time a glow of outright pleasure at a crying child.

Much subtext surfaced in text. The arresting officer noted her “delighted in seeing her victims writhe in agony, and from it derived sexual satisfaction.” One appalling newspaper editorial reviled her as “a type that is seldom encountered in English speaking races … she represents a reversion to the primitive stage of humanity when destructive proclivities are uppermost. Like aboriginals, the Martha Rendells of this world must kill.” It was scarcely a novel formula for anathematizing the female criminal.

It was only Arthur for whom she was formally condemned but after the five-day trial she was popularly understood as responsible for all three of her dead stepchildren. But not all the public, for a vigorous albeit unsuccessful clemency campaign specifically citing doubts about the case’s evidence grew around her during her few short weeks awaiting the gallows. Those doubts have never since been categorically dispelled.

Legend holds that Martha Rendell still haunts Fremantle Prison where she hanged, in the form of a ghostly apparition of her face peering out from a stained-glass window.

* There were five children still in the house. Thomas Morris also had four older children, making nine total.

** Martha Rendell had also fallen ill during the course of treating her children. This of course was read by prosecutors as a feint to deflect suspicion.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,The Supernatural,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1836: Two English poisoners

Add comment April 9th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1836, two different Englishwomen hanged in Gloucester and Liverpool for seeing off their respective husbands with arsenic.

They’re the subjects of an excellent pair of posts by Naomi Clifford, author of such topical-to-Executed Today fare as Women and the Gallows, 1797-1837 and The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime that Changed English Legal History, which concerns the long overdue abolition of juridical trial by combat in Great Britain … after an accused murderer used this artifact to escape prosecution in 1817.

Here’s Clifford on our poisoners, bound for separate gallows on April 9, 1836:

Clifford makes a triptych here with a third post about yet another poisoner who shared the same fate five days later.

On this day..

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

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