1896: Ivan Kovalev, Russian meddler

Add comment February 21st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1896, Russian refugee Ivan Kovalev was hanged for a Sacramento double murder.

Kovalev and nine other Russian convicts had in 1893 fled from the most remote and dreaded of Russia’s Far East penal colonies, Sakhalin Island.

They might have met Anton Chekhov when he visited in Sakhalin in 1890 to compose the investigative articles that would become his book Sakhalin Island, one of the great pieces of journalism of his time. “Utter hell,” the great playwright mused of that brutal and befogged colony. “I feel that if I were a convict, I would escape immediately, whatever the consequences.”

Kovalev and nine mates felt exactly the same and they did it in the form of a downright suicidal flight from Sakhalin’s abyss in an open launch ventured into the Pacific in hopes of reaching Japan. They were on the brink of succumbing to their privations when they were miraculously picked up by a San Francisco-based whaler, the Charles W. Morgan.**

The convicts claimed that they were escaped political prisoners, a demographic that enjoyed western sympathy; there’s every chance that they were actually violent criminals but their tale of woe in the bowels of tsardom was persuasive and times being what they were a background check with the nearest consulate was not an option. The Sakhalin escapees were allowed to stay in California.

On December 30, 1894, about sixteen months after they drew their last moldy Sakhalin rations, Kovalev with two accomplices† bashed the brains out of the aged grocer F.H.L. Weber and his wife with an axe so that they could rob his store. Chekhov? Make that Dostoyevsky.

It took several months to zero in on the perpetrator but once the conviction was secured, indignant Sacramentans applied in record numbers for passes to attend the hanging, such “a spirit of enmity and hatred toward this son of far-away Russia” having been aroused by the horrid circumstances of the butchery that “it is evident that a spirit of satisfaction is abroad in the community at the thought that … Ivan Kovalev will expiate that crime with his life.”

* The New York Public Library hosts a digital collection of photos of the Sakhalin penal colony, here. Others can be browsed at the Sakhalin Regional Museum site.

** The Charles W. Morgan had an 80-year service history; it’s been restored and can be visited in Mystic, Connecticut.


1971 U.S. postage stamp commemorating the Charles W. Morgan‘s preservation.

† The accomplices don’t figure in the execution story: one was mortally wounded in an unrelated subsequent robbery, prior to Kovalev’s arrest; the other wound up serving time for burglary.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Russia,Theft,USA

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1879: Troy Dye and Ed Anderson, estate salesmen

Add comment May 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1879, Sacramento County public administrator Troy Dye was hanged for murder, along with the Swedish goon whom he’d hired to do the dirty work.

A 36-year-old father of three, Dye was a prosperous tavern owner in the California capital who volunteered at the Sunday school. In 1877, voters entrusted him with the necessary public office of managing intestate estates.

In retrospect one can safely say that Dye was not cut out for the public trust.

The position entailed a percentage claim on the estate so handled, which meant in practice that it was a thankless burden for long periods when only paupers died without their wills made out, punctuated by rare jackpots when the occasional wealthy fellow kicked off without heirs.

San Francisco Bulletin, Aug. 16, 1878.

All Dye did was speed that cycle up a little, by arranging to murder a fifty-five-year-old bachelor in order to lay hands on his 650-acre farm and plunder the “rich old son of a bitch.”

Dye hired a Swedish sausage-maker named Ed Anderson and a young tough named Tom Lawton at three grand apiece to handle the labor.

For six hot summer weeks, Anderson and Lawton built a boat on Dye’s property with the one mission in mind. On July 30, they put it into the Sacramento River and rowed it downstream to the Grand Island orchards of their target, Aaron Moses Tullis. Under the guise of soliciting work, Anderson approached Tullis in his groves, and when the man’s back was turned, clobbered him with a blackjack. In the ensuing melee, Lawton, leaping into the fray from hiding nearby, shot Tullis through the throat, then felled him with a shot in the back, and finished him off with an execution-style coup de grace.

The two killers fled two miles down the river, where they ditched the boat. Their employer, signaling furtively by whistling, picked them up in a buggy and rode them back to Sacramento for celebratory oysters.

They wouldn’t be celebrating for long.

News of the murder puzzled the community as it got out. Tullis was wealthy all right, but his assailants had stolen nothing; he wasn’t known to have any enemies; and nobody had seen the riverborne assassins slip onto the property.

But within a few days, discovery of the abandoned boat led to the lumberyard that stamped its planks, and that led to the fellows who purchased it. Tom Lawton wisely used this tiny interval to leave California; Ed Anderson and Troy Dye stuck around and made national wire copy with their confessions before August was out.

Having spilled all the beans, Dye had only the feeblest of gambits remaining to avoid the noose.

At trial, Dye argued that the whole plan was the idea of the other two men, and he, Dye, was was just too damn weak-minded to say them nay.

At sentencing, Dye whined that the district attorney had induced him to confess by dint of a promise to let him walk.**

And during his appeals and clemency process he inconsistently shammed insanity, fooling nobody.

“A more pitiable object than Troy Dye, the assassin, never marched to the scaffold,” one observer noted of the pallid, stocking-footed figure whom the ticketed observers saw on execution day. (Quoted in this pdf retrospective on “one of the most shocking and melancholy episodes in the history of Sacramento.”)

Against Dye’s wheedling and quailing, Anderson cut a picture of manfulness. Even on the eve of the execution, while Dye was just this side of collapse, Anderson noticed the sheriff toting the hanging ropes and insisted on inspecting them, then shocked the lawman with a cool off-color joke.

But this was calm and not mere bravado. Time that Dye wasted in his simulated spasms was spent by Anderson with his spiritual counselor; his gracious last statement from the gallows confessed his guilt and begged forgiveness. “Troy Dye Dies, Anderson Ascends” ran the headline afterwards.

* A county clerk reached by the Sacramento Record-Union recalled a conversation that clouded suspiciously in retrospect: “he said that unless something turned up, that he would not make enough out of it to pay his expenses … I said to him: ‘You cannot tell when some one will die and leave a good estate.’ … he said he did not know of any one who was likely to die that was worth any amount except Mr. Tullis, down the river. He said he was an old man and drank a great deal, and was likely to die at any time, and that he was rich. If he should drop off and he got the estate, it would help him out.” (Reprinted by the San Francisco Bulletin, Aug. 15, 1878)

** That was indeed the case, as it seems that Dye’s confession revealed himself much more deeply involved than the prosecutor had previously assumed. This is why it’s much better to just shut up already.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pelf,Politicians,USA

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1851: Two men hanged and one lynched in Sacramento

1 comment August 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1851, three men were publicly hanged from a scaffold at Fourth and O Street in Sacramento, California: John Thompson* and James Gibson legally, and William Robinson under color of lynch law.

According to Ken Gonzales-Day’s Lynching in the West: 1850-1935, all three had been condemned to death under the brand-new state‘s brand-new Criminal Practices Act, making theft a capital offense.

They had assaulted and robbed a guy on the streets of Sacramento a few weeks previous, and the local vigilance committee had already made plain its impatience with the matter: upon the granting of a legal motion to stay the trial three days in order to allow the defense to actually prepare, an orderly posse had firmly forced the court back into session to proceed with the speediest of trials. Any outcome other than death could scarcely have come to pass.

Nonetheless, California governor John McDougall made bold to stay one of the hangings, that of William Robinson.**

The San Francisco-based Alta California — which had previously (August 1, 1851) editorialized in strong support of the forced trial: “If our courts would in all cases act, the people would have no occasion for assuming the responsibility of ferretting out criminals, and awarding them their proper punishment” — narrated (September 1, 1851) a, er, popular veto of that gubernatorial mercy.

The Executions in Sacramento City

The Sacramento papers of Saturday are filled with accounts of the exciting scenes that have transpired in that city within a few days past.

We condense from the Sacramento Union, a decription [sic] of the occurrences of Friday last.

THE SCENES OF YESTERDAY. — By daylight yesterdat morning, teams, horsemen and pedestrians, were seen pouring into the city from every direction, and at an early hour the city was crowded with miners and strangers from the country, who had come in to witness the execution of the three culprits, Thompson, Gibson and Robinson.

Soon after nine o’clock, a rumor ran through the city, that a respite of Robinson’s sentence had been received from the Governor, and that the day of his execution was to be postponed until the 19th day of September. …

As the hour for the execution drew nigh, the crowd around the Station House became immense, and there was evidently a fixed determination in the minds of the populace that the prisoner, Robinson, should suffer the same penalty as the other two culprits, and that, too, in spite of the Governor’s proclamation …

The Sheriff, after reading the reprieve, ordered the two prisoners, Gibson and Thompson, to be taken to the place of execution, and likewise commanded the “Guards” to convey the prisoner, Robinson, to the Prison brig. The former two were then placed in a wagon, with their arms securely pinioned, and driven rapidly off, in company with the officers, to the scaffold.

The “Guards” then brought out Robinson, and attempted to convey him to the prison brig, but were compelled, on the corner of 2d street, to deliver their prisoner to the people, who placed him in a cart, and thus, surrounded by the “Guards,” were escorted to a grove near the place where the scaffold was erected.

A committee was appointed who were to take charge of the execution of Robinson after the legal authorities had performed their duty.

While these proceedings were going on at the grove, the final peparations for the execution of the unfortunate men, Gibson and Thompson, were progressing. …

The prisoners bore themselves with the greatest fortitude throughout the whole of this tragical scene, and not the slightest agitation was perceptible. At the moment the cord was cut, a cry was heard — “Now for Robinson.” The shout went up from the dense throng, “Hang the scoundrel!” — “Bring him here!” — “Let him hang too!”

The scene which followed was the most terrific we ever witnessed. The thronging crowds rushed for the station house in the greatest excitement, and on all sides was heard the thrilling cry, “Hang the rascal!” In the mean time the Sheriff, having performed his duty efficiently and faithfully, retired from the scene, as did also the officers with whom he was connected.

The muffled drum of the Guards announced that the culprit Robinson was approaching. The crowd gave way, the Committee with their prisoner slowly and solemnly ascended the scaffold, and the Guards formed a hollow square around it below.

Robinson appeared perfectly cool and collected, and on being requested to address the crowd, came forward, and in a clear voice made another confession. He evidently appeared desirous of creating a sensation, and accordingly commenced by alleging the grossest and most unfounded charges against men who stand high in this community … we do not feel ourselves justified on such evidence as this, in proclaiming to the world that officers who have heretofore been deemed perfectly upright and honourable, are no better than felons.

After the events of Friday, a portion of the excited populace assembled during the evening, and hung John McDougal in effigy. This proceeding, perhaps, was more the result of a hasty and excited spirit on the part of the few, than the calm reflection of the public mind, although the Union apologizes for the act by observing that persons engaged in it did not desire to cast obloquy on the office, but to exhibit their contempt for its incumbent.

* Thompson’s real name was evidently McDermott. The Espy file of historical American executions calls him “Thornton,” though it’s not clear whether this was yet another alias or simply an erroneous entry in the database.

** According to a different article in the same September 1, 1851 Alta California, the governor’s grounds for clemency were “the conviction of about thirty men … that Robinson was quite guiltless of the offence with which he stood charged. That false testimony had been trumped up to convict him, that he was not a hardened man, had fought the battles of his country, and finally, (as stated in a letter from a clergyman) he was quite a promising youth, of pious education, and possessing a ‘good understanding of the Christian doctrines.'”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Public Executions,Theft,USA

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