1895: A day in death penalty around the U.S. (McTeague edition)

Add comment June 7th, 2018 Headsman


Headline from the Tacoma (Wash.) Daily News, June 7, 1895.

On this date in 1895, the hangman noosed for the cycle with single, double, and triple executions in three different U.S. states.

Arkansas

In Morrilltown, William Downs or Downes for criminally assaulting a woman called Pauline Bridlebaugh.

“On the scaffold Downs declared that he was guilty of part but not all he was charged with,” according to multiple newspaper reports. The eight-foot fall failed to snap his neck, and Downs strangled to death over 15 agonizing minutes.

Alabama

“Lee Harris and Abe Mitchell, colored murderers, highwaymen and thieves, were hanged here [Birmingham] today before 2000 people for the murder of Grocerymen Merriweather and Thornton. Both bodies were turned over to the undertakers, who purchased them several weeks ago for $18 from the men themselves.”


From the Oakland Tribune, June 7, 1895.
California

Three Californians hanged, sequentially, at San Quentin prison on the morning of June 7 in an affair timed to ensue the arrival of the 7:40 train from San Francisco, carrying about 100 official witnesses.

Emilio Garcia stabbed and slashed to death a San Bernardino old timer whom he believed to possess a hoard of gold.

Anthony Azoff fatally shot a Southern Pacific detective in the course of a botched robbery of that railroad firm’s offices; he was balked of a suicide attempt in the hours before his execution.

And Patrick Collins acquired more lasting infamy than any of his scaffold brethren by sensationally stabbing to death his estranged wife at the kindergarten where she worked when she refused his demand to hand over her wages.

Collins’s guilt was very apparent, so his trial gave the horrified public ample rein to sketch the brute in terms of the era’s crackpot racist typologies. In one Examiner article tellingly titled “He Was Born for the Rope,” it was postulated that “if a good many of Patrick Collins’ ancestors did not die on the scaffold then either they escaped their desert or there is nothing in heredity … Seeing him you can understand that murder is as natural to such a man when his temper is up as hot speech is to the anger of the civilized.”


Various newspaper images of Patrick Collins, from The Construction of Irish Identity in American Literature.

Be they ever so headline-conquering in their time, such crimes are like to fade speedily from the public memory. Collins, the man who slaughtered his tightfisted wife, and Collins, the savage ethnic archetype, have improbably survived his moment of notoriety, by imparting to literature the inspiration for San Francisco novelist Frank Norris‘s 1899 offering McTeague.

In McTeague, a vicious husband murders the wife he has abandoned when she refuses him money. The murderer here presents as an overpowering ancestral beast within — attributable, says Christopher Dowd, to Norris’s “study of criminal anthropology, particularly the school of thinking developed by Cesare Lombroso regarding atavism, hereditary criminality, degeneration, and criminal physiognomy. According to Donald Pizer, by the time Norris wrote McTeague, he had developed a ‘preoccupation’ with the themes of atavism and reversion, and ‘particularly with the role of heredity in causing either an obvious physical or mental devolution or a return to an earlier family condition’. Suddenly, Norris had a way to explain the behavior of his murderous protagonist — he was born a criminal, having inherited the degenerate traits and predilections of his Irish ancestors. Combined with the newspaper reports of the Collins murder, criminal anthropology gave Norris all the tools he needed to write, what Pizer calls, ‘that mythical creature of literature, a naturalistic tragedy'”. For example, Norris zooms through the disordered mind of McTeague as he struggles to control himself on one occasion.

He was disturbed, still trembling, still vibrating with the throes of the crisis, but he was the master; the animal was downed, was cowed for this time, at least.

But for all that, the brute was there. Long dormant, it was now at last alive, awake. From now on he would feel its presence continually; would feel it tugging at its chain, watching its opportunity. Ah, the pity of it! Why could he not always love her purely, cleanly? What was this perverse, vicious thing that lived within him, knitted to his flesh?

Below the fine fabric of all that was good in him ran the foul stream of hereditary evil, like a sewer. The vices and sins of his father and of his father’s father, to the third and fourth and five hundredth generation, tainted him. The evil of an entire race flowed in his veins. Why should it be? He did not desire it. Was he to blame?

McTeague does not exit upon the gallows as did his real-life inspiration; instead, having murdered and robbed his wife, the fugitive flees to the scorching desert of Death Valley where he faces a fight to the finish with a friend/rival who has pursued him. McTeague overpowers this foe, but the man’s dying act is to handcuff himself to McTeague — condemning the latter to sure death.

McTeague has long been in the public domain; it can be perused here; a Librivox audio reading of the book is available here. It’s also been adapted to at least two films in the silent era — including one of the genre’s greats — plus a more recent PBS radio drama, an opera, and miscellaneous other media.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Alabama,Arkansas,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1888: Alexander Goldenson, San Francisco obsessive

Add comment September 14th, 2017 Headsman

Alexander Goldenson, an emigre “young, hot-tempered fellow [who] affects the style of dress adopted by the hoodlum element of the rising generation,” was hanged in San Francisco on this date in 1888 for gunning down 14-year-old Mamie Kelly, with whom he had apparently become obsessed. He went to the gallows clutching a photo of his victim — hoping he was about to join her in paradise.*

The story has a timeless quality to it: a smart but disturbed adolescent careening into sexual derangement; a young girl whose first crush became her budding stalker.

It also has a distinct 19th century throwback feel: implausibly esteemed “the first of the Hebrew race who has in this country committed the crime of murder,” Goldenson was the target of a lynching attempt — a would-be revival of a San Francisco tradition from gold rush days. When they finally noosed him under color of law 22 months after the murder, the sheriff issued too many invitations and “the capacity of the jail was overtaxed, many with tickets were unable to get in, and the crowd was one of the noisiest and most turbulent that ever thronged Broadway in front of the old jail.”

Goldenson is the subject of at least two very fine profiles already existing in this vast World Wide Web with ample primary research which we can scarcely hope to improve upon.

  • Our longtime friends at Murder by Gaslight profile “The School-girl Murder” here
  • Shades of the Departed found an intriguing artifact of the crime in an online auction and followed the threads to produce this great three-parter: Part I | Part II | Part III

* He converted to Catholicism hours before his execution, perhaps with this very object in mind. It didn’t work as far as the mortal remains went, anyway: pissed about the conversion, his Russian Jewish mother refused to release his body to the priest for a Catholic burial; and, pissed about the conversion, the Jewish cemetery wouldn’t take him either. He had to settle for the Odd Fellow’s Cemetery.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Jews,Murder,Sex,USA

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1888: Leong Sing

Add comment December 28th, 2016 Headsman

From the San Francisco Bulletin, Dec. 28 1888:

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

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1873: John Devine, “The Chicken”

Add comment May 14th, 2016 Headsman

Purple prose for a broken neck from the San Francisco Bulletin of May 14, 1873. Transcribed below is only the first third of the article — the remainder being dedicated to accounts of various other previous San Francisco executions.

This day has been marked by an event of signal import in the history of this city, wherein the slow hand of justice, after a lapse of many years, has overtaken one of the class of reckless criminals who have reveled in rapine and bloodshed, bringing reproach on the fair fame of San Francisco, and red-handed murder has expiated its guilt by the righteous penalty of ignominious death upon the scaffold.

Whatever may be the abhorrence of capital punishment commonly experienced by a portion of the people, while contemplating the events of the past few years, the tardy and uncertain sway of justice, a sense of satisfaction and increased security will be inspired in the whole community by the announcement of John Devine, “The Chicken,” has met the fate which the law prescribes for the destroyer of human life, and there is one murderer less in San Francisco.

From the infamous character of this man, and the terror which his deeds of violence excited through a long course of comparatively unpunishable crime, ere consigning him to oblivion, the public will be interested in a brief sketch of the

Career of the Murderer.

The man who has now paid the penalty of his last dark crime, leaves a record which has no parallel among the many depraved wretches who have figured in the brief but terrible criminal history of San Francisco, and perhaps the half has not been told.

The police officials considered him the most dangerous and unscrupulous criminal that infested the city, and hint at mysterious deeds of blood, never unravelled by the minions of justice, with which he is believed to have been connected. In truth, he was a fellow by the hand of nature marked, quoted and signed to do a deed of shame — apt, liable to be employed in danger with neither pity, love nor fear.

Devine was a native of Waterford, Ireland, where he was born in the year 1840, and was accordingly 33 years old at the time of his death.

He was of medium size, sharp features, dark-blue eyes, a low forehead, and generally repulsive expression of countenance.

He arrived in San Francisco in the year 1863, as a seaman on the clipper ship Young America.

On the voyage hither he distinguished himself as a quarrelsome fellow, and was frequently confined in irons to restore the discipline of the ship.

After squandering the wages he received in a short spell of carousing on shore, he was driven to the sea again and made a voyage to China, returning in the spring of 1865. He then obtained employment as a runner for sailor boarding-houses, in which capacity he perpetrated innumerable deeds of ruffianism in the “shanghaing” of sailors and citizens on outward bound ships. Shortly after engaging in this vocation he received the title of

“The Chicken.”

Which was endearingly conferred by one of his fellows, as significant of his prowess in a prize-fight.

Devine had four notable encounters of this order, in the city and vicinity, and displayed remarkable endurance and determination, though not always successful.

His career from the time of setting himself on shore was one continuous round of crime, and he is well suspected of having a knowledge of the manner in which many a corpse found floating in the bay, with fractured skull and rifled pockets, yielded up i[t]s life. His record on the police register shows

Seventy-Nine Arrests!

Up to May 16, 1871, when his final arrest for the crime of murder was made.

The charges against him embraced all manner of crimes, principally robberies and assaults with deadly weapons, it being his custom to assault his victims with slung-shot and brass-knuckles. His recorded crimes, however, are not supposed to embrace any near approach to the ull measure of enormities that were charged upon his guilty soul.

He was capable of the most savage treachery, and on one occasion attempted the murder of a prize-fighter named Tommy Chandler, by springing upon him from behind a door with a heavy iron bar. Being foiled in this, he subsequently shot Chandler, but not inflicting fatal injury, he got off with a short term of imprisonment on conviction of assault to murder.

A Characteristic Exploit.

On the 8th of June, 1867, about 6 o’clock in the morning, Devine assailed an aged German lady, named Mary Martin, as she was walking along Merchant street, near Battery, tore the pocket from her dress, and robbed her of a purse containing a check for [obscure] and $25 in coin.

For this robbery he was arrested, and released on bail, for notwithstanding the character he bore, he was usually enabled to find friends to go upon his bond in a certain part of the city.

When the case came up for trial officers went in search of Mrs. Martin, who had resided at a house on Powell street, as the important witness for the prosecution of Devine. The lady had disappeared.

What became of her was never known; but it was possible that Devine might have told. Passing over a list of comparative minor offences, such as knocking down and robbing people, the next noticeable affair in which this remarkable criminal figured was the

Attempted Murder of Miss McDonald.

On the night of the 9th, October, 1867, Miss Martha McDonald was standing in front of her place of residence, at the Mission, when she was suddenly seized by two men who were masked.

She was gagged by a handkerchief being forced into her mouth, and prevented from giving any alarm. In this condition the men dragged her a distance of two blocks and a half, to the bridge which crosses Mission Creek at Sixteenth street.

One of the two then started, according to the directions of his companion to “get the carriage.”

Being left in the custody of one only, Miss McDonald made a desperate effort to release herself. The fellow attempted to chloroform her; but the drug being spilled from the bottle, he then endeavored to secure her with a strap.

At this juncture the other man returned, and she heard the exclamation, “kill her, kill her!” A moment after she was pushed off the bridge, and fell into the muddy waters of the creek, while the two men who had abducted her ran away.

Slowly and surely she was sinking into the muddy bottom, with no assistance at hand, until the water was about her neck. Fortunately an alarm of fire started some person past the locality, and her cries of distress being heard, she was discovered and rescued.

Devine was arrested as one of the participants in this crime, and Miss McDonald positively identified him by his voice. Devine extricated himself from the affair by proving an alibi, it appearing that he was serving a term in the County Jail at the time of the attempted murder.

It subsequently transpired, however, that he held the privileged position at the County Jail of “outside trusty,” and was permitted to travel to all parts of the city at will in the performance of errands for prisoners in more restricted limits. And more than this, he was abroad at the very time the abduction of Miss McDonald was made.

The Loss of a Hand.

In the month of May, 1868, Devine was indulging in one of his periodical carousing spells, and often bringing terror to several of the resorts on his beat at the city front, he entered a boarding house kept by William Maitland, on Battery street.

Here he flourished a huge knife with the recklessness of a savage, and caused a precipitate retreat of all who happened to be in the place.

The proprietor had been asleep in the second story of the house, and hearing the uproar, came came down for a reconnaissance. Devine immediately started for him when he made his appearance, but Maitland was not of so yielding a disposition as to be driven from his own castle, and closing with Devine, he succeeded in disarming him.

The latter then made an attempt to recover the knife, when Maitland with a powerful stroke cut him across the wrist. The blade, by wonderful chance, entered the wrist joint, and the completely severed hand fell to the floor.

Devine was appalled for once in his life, and hurriedly departed; but presently he returned and demanded his lost hand, which Maitland kicked out upon the sidewalk to him. Devine took the severed member and hastened to a drug store, where he implored a clerk to try and sew it on again. But the injury was irreparable.

Devine as a Merchant.

After a season of retirement in the County Hospital, Devine emerged as far repaired as medical science would permit, and being a cripple, his condition excited the pity of boarding-house masters and others at the city front with whom he had been associated.

A contribution was made among them, amounting to $800, to enable Devine to establish himself in business by keeping a cigar stand.

He took the money, but instead of following the advice of his benefactors he squandered the whole sum in a few weeks of dissipation, and again returned to the pursuit of crime with all his previous energy.

He was associated with a woman named Mary Dolan, as bad as himself, and who was punished by terms of imprisonment in the County Jail and Penitentiary.

From the time of losing his hand up to his final arrest, he perpetrated numerous larcenies, some of considerable amounts, and was always busily engaged in thieving when not confined in jail.

A complete history of this man and his offenses would be one of the most appalling in the annals of crime. Such was John Devine, and rarely has the slow grip of justice overtaken a criminal more richly deserving of the severest penalty known to the law.

Murder of August Kamp.

The crime which John Devine has now expiated with his life, was one of the most cruel and wanton ever recorded in a civilized community, and could only have been accomplished by one utterly depraved.

It was in perfect keeping with the whole life and character of Devine, who had become callous to every impulse that elevates a man above the merest savage.

August Kamp was an unsuspecting young German, without relatives in the country. On the 10th of May, 1871, he arrived in the city from Antioch, where he had been employed, bringing with him his savings, to the amount of about $120.

He started immediately in search of employment, and while making his inquiries along the city front, he was met by Devine, who offered to procure him a situation on a fishing vessel.

Elated with this promise, young Kamp was persuaded to loan $20 to Devine, on the understanding that it would be repaid him the following day. The money was not returned as agreed, and Kamp finally suspecting the true character of his debtor, importuned him earnestly for his pay. Devine put him off repeatedly, at one time pretending that he had nothing but greenbacks on hand, and again making some other excuse.

On the 15th of May, Kamp having again demanded his pay, Devine told him that if he wanted the money very bad, he must go with him to his mother’s ranch, beyond Bay View. Accordingly the two started for the imaginary ranch, walking as far as Long Bridge, when they boarded one of the Bay View cars. On reaching the terminus of the railroad, the two got off the car and walked along the road. After passing the Five-Mile House, Devine pointed off to one side, saying that his mother’s ranch was in that direction, and by striking off across the fields instead of following the road they might save a distance of one mile out of two. Young Kamp assented and the two started across a lonely stretch of land, through vales and over hills, until a point was reached which the murderer thought sufficiently secluded for carrying out his design.

Kamp stooped down to crawl between the rails of a fence, Devine walking behind him, when the latter suddenly drew a pistol and fired the fatal shot, the ball entering Kamp’s skull behind the right ear.

Devine then ran away, supposing he had effectually dispatched his victim, and was seen hastening back alone to the railroad terminus.

Kamp was shortly after discovered by a Spaniard, who was herding sheep in the locality, and being still able to walk, he was assisted to a saloon on the road, and from thence brought in to the city and given in charge of the authorities.

From the representations which the mortally wounded youth could make, and other circumstances, the police were immediately confident that Devine was his murderer, and measures were at once instituted for his arrest.

He was traced to various places in the city, where he had boasted of obtaining money by an easy method, admitted to several that he had shot a man and endeavored to dispose of a revolver.

He was finally captured on board a steamer at Meiggs’ wharf, which was just about crossing over to Marin county, and the revolver, with two chambers discharged, was still in his possession.

At the City Prison he was placed in the midst of fifteen or twenty persons, and Kamp, who was yet rational, readily singled him out as the murderer. He walked up and placed his hand on Devine, saying, “You are the man that shot me.” Kamp was taken to the County Hospital, and every effort made to save his life, but without avail.

Just before his death, which occurred on the 5th of May, an effort was made to take his ante-mortem deposition, but unfortunately the Coroner arrived too late, and the important evidence of the murdered man was not secured in the case.

The chain of circumstances presented in the several trials, however, made out a case against the accused as strong circumstantial evidence could be drawn, and a doubt of his guilt was hardily admissible.

The First Trial

Was brought in the Twelth District Court, before Judge McKinstry, on the 20th of February, 187, and occupied eight days, resulting in a verdict according to the indictment of “murder in the first degree.” The Court sentenced Devine to be executed on the 25th of April, 1872.

Judge Tyler, counsel for the condemned, appealed to the Supreme Court for a new trial on mere technical grounds, his principal point having reference to a minor discrepancy of evidence of one witness as taken before the Coroner at the trial. Although the several points did not affect the merits of the case in the least, the appeal was successful, and to the efforts of most indefatigable counsel the wretched man was indebted to an extension of his lease of life a full year.

The case was brought to a second trial in March last, in the same court. In the meantime an important witness had died, and the prisoner and his counsel were exceedingly hopeful of founding complications on this circumstance equal to another successful appeal to the Supreme Court.

After another tedious trial the inevitable verdict of “guilty” fell upon the ear of the doomed man for the second time, and he was again sentenced to be executed on Friday the 9th of May.

Hope was still buoyant in his breast, relying upon the determined goal of his counsel, until the 7th, when the announcement was made that the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the lower court, and his fate was sealed beyond the further probability of human interference.

By the earnest intercession of the spiritual adviser of the condemned prisoner, the Governor was persuaded to grant a brief reprieve of five days, in the hope that the guilty wretch, with the certainty of speedy death before him, might finally yield to the ministrations of his anxious spiritual adviser, Rev. Father Spreckles, and meet his end in a penitential spirit.

During his long term of imprisonment Devine manifested a bearing of bravado, never believing that merited retribution would finally overtake him, and on several occasions he laughed to scorn kindly persons who ought to impress him with a realization of his terrible position, and turn him to preparation for another life. By a

Remarkable Coincidence

His execution occurred two years to a day from the commission of the murderous act that consigned him to death at the hands of justice, and in his case it may be said, “God’s mills grind slow but sure.”

After receiving his brief reprieve from the Governor, Devine realized that no earthly interference could avail him further, and he relinquished all hope of life.

At his own solicitation all visitors were ecluded from his cell with the exception of his spiritual advisers, and he gave himself earnestly to preparations for the awful change that awaited him, in the few hours that still remained.

At times he wept bitterly when exhorted to a contemplation of his guilty life and true repentance, and the consolations of religious faith seemed to reconcile him to his fate, and enable him to await his end with fortitude.

On Monday he received the Sacrament of Communion from Rev. Father Spreckles, and Archbishop Alemany conferred upon him confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church.

On the succeeding days Devine assumed an air of cheerfulness. On Tuesday he asked permission of the Sheriff to be shaved, which was granted, the precaution first being taken to bind him securely to guard against any suicidal designs. His ostensible wife, Mary Dolan, was in jail at the time of the execution, having been committed a few weeks since for her common offence of habitual drunkenness.

Parting With His Son.

Devine also had a son, a child of six years of age, whom he had not seen for several years, and he expressed an earnest desire to see him before his death.

The Sheriff and his deputies were anxious to gratify this last request, and visited the various charitable institutions in the city yesterday, endeavoring to find the child.

Devine last heard of him at the Protestant Orphan Asylum, where he had caused him to be placed immediately after his arrest for murder, the mother, Mary Dolan, being unfit to care or provide for him in consequence of her continual drunkenness and frequent detentions in jail.

The lad had been removed from the Orphan Asylum, but the Sheriff happily discovered him in charge of the Ladies’ Relief Society, comfortably provided for.

When the child arrived at the cell of his wretched father last evening, Devine was much affected, and exhibited instincts of humanity he had never known before. He embraced his offspring tenderly, wept over him, and implored him to shun the evil ways that had brought his father to ignominious death, and when the lad was finally removed, he clung to him with convulsive throbs, as if parting with the only object that had ever awakened the emotion of affection in his breast.

Last Hours of the Doomed Man.

Devine retired at about 10 o’clock last night after devotion with his spiritual adviser. He slept soundly through the night until 5 o’clock this morning, when he was awakened by the Jailor.

In reply to the inquiries of the officer, he said that he had enjoyed refreshing slumber, as one could who had a clear conscience. He dressed himself with care, and gave much attention to combing his hair neatly and arranging his toilet, having been provided with a new suit of black and a pair of slippers.

At 8 o’clock he ate a hearty breakfast, and shortly after his spiritual adviser, Rev. Father Spreckles, Archbishop Alameney [sic] and two Sisters of Mercy arrived. The doomed man devoted the remaining few hours of his life to fervent supplications for mercy.

As the hour for the execution approached, the wickets in all the cells were closed, the “trustees” allowed the limits of the Jail were locked up, and the condemned murderer Russell was taken to a remote part of the jail and locked in the room formerly occupied by Mrs. Fair.

At 11 o’clock the reporters of the press were admitted and allowed to inspect the preparations for the execution.

The Scaffold

Was laid across the railings of the upper corridor at the north end, the trap in the centre permitting the body to drop to the lower corridor within about three feet of the floor, the rope allowing a fall of six feet.

The gallows beam was extended above under the skylights, the ends resting in the ventillating apertures on either side.

On the west side of the scaffold an iron rod run up, to which was attached a cord, secured to a ring in one of the cell doors, the slipping of which drew the bolt by a weight and allowed the trap to fall. The gallows was the same used in previous executions, the last murderer who had stood thereon being the Chinaman, Chung Wong, who was executed in 1865.

At twenty minutes to 12 the Sisters of Mercy took their leave of Devine, and shortly after, attended by the Sheriff and the priests, Devine was conducted from the No. 1 cell near the entrance of the lower corridor, which he had occupied since his fate became sealed, to No. 41 cell in the second corridor, which was located nearly opposite the steps leading upon the scaffold. He looked pale and haggard, but a smile rested upon his countenance as he passed the group of reporters at the foot of the stairway.

He ascended the stairway with a light elastic step, and seemed to look car[e]lessly at the gallows as he tripped along the gallery.

At half past 12 o’clock an immense crowd had gathered in the street in front of the jail, and on all sides of the building where a position might be obtained to observe even the grim walls within which the dread scene of violent death was being enacted.

The Sheriff then admitted all those who had received permission to be present, to the number of about two hundred. The spectators included several Sheriffs from adjoining counties, members of the Board of Supervisors, physicians, city officials, and upwards of thirty reporters of the press, among the latter being representatives of some of the Eastern papers, and artists for the New York illustrated journals.

The reporters were assigned a position directly in front of the scaffold, in the west gallery of the upper corridor, and the physicians took their places within the line on the floor of the lower corridor.

The prisoner remained in his cell engaged in his final devotions, while the tramping of many feet and the subdued murmur of voices without, reminded him of the relentless hand of Justice, eager to close his career.

The corridors, above and below, were greatly crowded, while the side openings, below the sky lights, in either, were completely occupied, their appearance suggestive of the private boxes of a public exhibition.

The Execution.

At a quarter to 1 o’clock, the Sheriff directed his deputies to their positions upon the scaffold, and immediately after he entered the cell of the doomed man for a parting interview of brief duration.

On emerging, Sheriff Adams mounted the scaffold and stated to the spectators that it was the wish of Devine that all should preserve silence and ask him no questions.

At two minutes before 1 o’clock the Sheriff opened the door of the cell and Devine emerged, carrying a crucifix in his hand and followed by Father Spreckles. He ascended the steps to the scaffold with closed eyes, manifesting symptoms of weakness, and though bearing up with great power of nerve, the expression of his countenance and the twitching muscles of his throat indicated the welling up of inexpressible agony of soul.

While standing upon the scaffold his eyes remained closed, while Father Spreckles, taking the crucifix, continued whispering the consolations of the Church in his ear.

The death-warrant was hurriedly read by Deputy Lamott, but Devine gave no heed thereto, attending closely to the ministrations of Father Spreckles and frequently kissing the crucifix with much fervor as it was placed to his lips.

At the conclusion of the reading of the warrant, ailor McKenzie bound the doomed man with straps. One was passed round his breast and pinioned the arms at the elbows, another at the waist pinioned the wrists, and two other straps were secured about the knees and the ankles. The rope was then placed about his neck, the large knot of the noose fixed under the left ear.

Last Scene of All.

The murderer now stood upon the verge of the unknown. He opened his eyes for the first time upon the scaffold ere quitting the warm precincts of the cheerful day, and cast one longing, lingering look behind.

The bright sunshine shimmered through the skylights into the gloomy corridor, and wrought the shadow of the gallows-beam before him.

Loud laughter and the murmur of the thoughtless crowd without disturbed the awful stillness that reigned within.

Nerving himself for the last moment, Devine exclaimed with a loud voice, “Oh, my sweet Jesus, unto thy hands I commend my spirit. Amen.” He kissed the crucifix again, and the black cap was drawn over his head.

The spectators awaited with bated breath.

A moment more and a dull grating sound lie the swinging of a gate, broke the solemn stillness, and the soul of the murderer had passed out.

As the trap swung, Devine dropped about six feet, a sharp snap indicating that his neck was broken. A few convulsive throes succeeded for a moment with drawing up of the knees, and death resulted speedily with little pain. The physicians made the usual observations, and pronounced life entirely extinct in less than 15 minutes. The execution was most successfully carried out in every detail.

The spectators commenced leaving the jail immediately after the fall of the drop, excepting the few whose presence was required to sign as witnesses of the due execution of the sentence. The large crowd without lingered until the afternoon was well advanced, in morbid curiosity, discussing the death and career of the departed murderer.

On this day..

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

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1948: Sam Shockley and Miran Thompson, for the Battle of Alcatraz

1 comment December 3rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1948, Sam Shockley and Miran Edgar Thompson were gassed at San Quentin Prison for the failed prison break that led to the Battle of Alcatraz.

One of the bloodiest events to mar the history of that storied penal island, the “battle” began as an attempt by prisoners to break out of C and D Blocks and seize an an imminent afternoon prison ferry.

And like many prison breaks, preparations at once diligent, desperate, and ingenious were foiled by mischance … leaving only a hopeless, deadly shootout.

The revolt, which is narrated blow by blow here, began on May 2, 1946 in C Block, when two prisoners overpowered a guard. One of them, Bernard Coy — destined to die in the following days’ siege — had spent his last weeks on this earth fasting for this very moment: now, he disrobed and, with the help of a contraband bar-spreading gadget, squeezed his emaciated frame through some bars to gain access to a gallery connecting to D Block. The prisoners had the patrol patterns of the guards in the vicinity down to a “T”; the man walking this gallery was in his turn surprised and disarmed by Bernard Coy, who proceeded to lower the guard’s keys and a number of weapons to his accomplices.

Now armed, Coy was able to force his way into D Block where he released more prisoners from locked cells, including accomplices — and the eventual subjects of this day’s post — Shockley and Thompson.

So far, things couldn’t have gone much better. Only one obstacle remained: a locked door to access the yard that would take them to the Alcatraz launch and a rendezvous with their unsuspecting ride to freedom. And this, of course, is where it all went wrong.

Despite capturing a number of guards during the course of their progress, the aspiring escapees realized that they didn’t have the key for the cell house door. The escape siren went up while they were still stuck.

Having taken the trouble to come this far, the inmates did not abandon the enterprise but devolved it into futile violence, firing out of their locked-up redoubt for no better reason than that they had the guns. Patrol boats began to arrive; word soon got around the city — the gunfire was audible to Golden Gate Bridge motorists — and ordinary San Franciscans congregated near the shore to watch while “thousands of rounds of ammunition and tracer bullets split the night sky as thousands watched from hilltops and piers on both sides of the bay.” (From the San Francisco Chronicle‘s coverage; after an initial fusillade, prison officials waited until dark fell on the evening of May 2 to resume the attack.)


Press get as close as they can to the riots.

For Thompson, at least, this was familiar territory: he’d wound up in Alcatraz because, while being transported to jail on a federal kidnapping charge, he had slain an Amarillo, Texas officer making an unsuccessful bid for freedom.

Marines recently hardened in the Pacific theater helped orchestrate the plan of attack: after re-taking the cell blocks — which were found, contrary to worst fears — in relative calm, the trapped escapees were driven by grenades into a corridor where troopers could fire at them. By the morning of May 4, the lifeless bodies of Coy and two others were stretched out in that hall.


From left: Clarence Carnes, Sam Shockley, and Miran Thompson.

Shockley, Thompson, and a 19-year-old Choctaw named Clarence Carnes survived to face capital charges for the two guards killed in the fray. Carnes, already serving a life sentence for murder, enjoyed the mercy of an additional life sentence in this case, owing to his youth, and to testimony that he had disobeyed the orders of his confederates to execute captured guards.* Shockley and Thompson were not so fortunate.

This affair is dramatized in the 1987 TV movie Six Against the Rock.

* Carnes’s burial on Choctaw land after he died in Massachusetts of AIDS in 1988 was financed by crime lord Whitey Bulger, who served time in Alcatraz from 1959 and grew close to Carnes.

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1851: Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie lynched in San Francisco

2 comments August 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1851 — mere hours after a similar exercise of summary justice took place in Sacramento — the San Francisco Vigilance Committee strung up two accused crooks.

This was the throes of the California Gold Rush — and San Francisco was its epicenter.

San Francisco entered the gold rush an unassuming port of perhaps a thousand souls … but she exited it as one of the American West’s leading cities.

It made an unruly adolescence for the boom town as penniless treasure-hunters poured in from every quarter of the globe. “Turbulent, gold-hungry men,” wrote Herbert Asbury in his The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld “transformed the once peaceful hamlet of San Francisco into a bawdy, bustling bedlam of mud-holes and shanties.” Suddenly, San Francisco had a huge crime problem — not to mention the conflagrations* that repeatedly devastated the fast-growing tangle of tinderworks shacks.


San Francisco in 1850

In an effort to sustain some measure of order, a number of the city’s respectable citizens banded together to create a famous or infamous Vigilance Committee.

Sworn in their published constitution of June 9, 1851 “to do and perform every lawful act for the maintenance of law and order,” the Committee declared itself “determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption o the Police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice.”

Two days later, they proved their chops by hanging on no authority but their own emigre from Australia named John Jenkins for stealing a safe. A month later, James Stuart, also late of Sydney, was lynched at the Vigilance Committee’s hands, too.

Detail view (click for full image) of Whittaker and McKenzie’s lynching.

Though not the first Vigilance Committee hangings, Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie might be the best-known.

Like their predecessors, Whittaker and McKenzie had arrived from Australia** — which had aptly bequeathed to gold rush San Francisco a criminal colony of its own in the form of a network known as the Sydney Ducks. Scrambling to save his own neck, Stuart had informed on a number of these confederates.

Whittaker and McKenzie were arrested based on Stuart’s information, as the Vigilance Committee tried to smash up the Ducks. Though extrajudicial, the Committee’s investigations were at least as meticulous as one might expect from the law at this moment in time, and the minutes of its witness interviews can be read here.

In the end, the two were basically convicted not so much for any individual crime as for their lengthy careers of robbery, often violent — for “divers offences, whereby the safety of Lives and property have been endangered” (as read the executive report on Whittaker) that rendered each “a hardened offender, and dangerous to this community … it would be unsafe to hand him over to the Authorities or mete out to him a less Penalty than Death” (as read the report on McKenzie).

Such an arrangement of juridical powers, exercised in lieu of “unsafe” Authorities, can scarcely persist long-term. Here, the governor of California, John McDougall determined to intervene in order that the fracturing of the Australians’ vertebrae would also vindicate the majesty of the law.

McDougal arrived to San Francisco and secured a writ to seize the suspects from the Vigilance Committee’s hands, tucking them away in the county jail.

Although in principle this orderly and lawful prosecution of malefactors was exactly what the Committee wanted to see happen, Gov. McDougal’s intervention when they were on the brink of consummating their own process left everyone with a frustrating sensation of justice interruptus.

And so that next Sunday — August 24, 1851 — when prisoners were removed from their cells to a chapel for the salvation of their souls and the jail’s guard detail was reduced by the proportion of gendarmes attending services of their own, a party of 36 Vigilance Committee men barged into the jail, overpowered all concerned, and seized their prey.

“Never before was San Francisco so excited,” editorialized the Steamer Alta California (Sept. 1, 1851).

Through every street, in all directions, the hurrying crowd of humanity rushed with the utmost precipitation — no one knew whither, no one knew for what. The bell of the Vigilance Committee had sounded its alarum note — and instantly the streets were living, swaying masses of human beings — uncertainty and conflicting fears and hopes ruled the hour … with a sweep like the rushing of a torrent of lava they bend their course towards the Rooms of the Vigilance Committee. Almost instantly California street, Battery street, and all their approaches, are filled with one dense mass of human beings. From lip to lip the news flies that the two criminals, Mackenzie and Whittaker, have been taken by force from the jail, by an armed posse of the Vigilance Committee. On the eager and excited multitude press toward the Rooms. On, on, on — the crowd becomes denser and broader. Wonder is stamped on every face — a solemn, almost awful silence pervades the thousands who are anxiously gazing up at the building, when quickly the doors are opened — a moment of preparation — and the numberless multitude holds its breath as the two malefactors are seen suspended by the neck — a struggle or two, a spasmodic heaving of the chest — and each spectator feels a thrill of terror coursing his veins as he involuntarily utters — dead, dead, dead!

Yes, they were dead! The two men — Whittaker and Mackenzie — who were taken from the hands of the Vigilance Committee a few nights since, by virtue of a write of habeas corpus, had been torn from the ail by force, in the middle of the day, and at the risk of life, hurried to the Committee rooms, and executed without scarcely a moment’s preparation. It is a most terrible tragedy! Well, indeed, might one exclaim, “I have supped full with horrors!”

Such are the terrible effects of misrule — these are the fruits of maladministered laws — these the results of official corruption, neglect and malfeasance. Well may the patriotic and the good turn in sadness and grief from the contemplation of such horrors. The timid may shrink from beholding them — the quiet desire an end to them; but neither fear, regret, nor desire will accomplish our security. It must go abroad over the land that this community possesses the power and the will to protect itself against every species of wrong, and that it is resolved to do it at all hazards.

Whilst we regret that the Vigilance Committee have by this act, been brought into direct collision with the constituted authorities, we cannot but approve their course in executing the two criminals. This condition of affairs was not sought by the committee; it was rather forced upon them by the action of the authorities. True, the authorities acted rightly in rescuing the men; but the course they took has proved to be unnecessary and injudicious. No one doubts the guilt of the men executed, and no one believes but that they deserved the punishment they received. The Vigilance Committee felt this, and believing that the public welfare would be promoted by the act, they had resolved to execute Whittaker and Mackenzie. But the officers of the law, with unusual adroitness, prevented the decision from being carried into effect. The Vigilance Committee have now redeemed their honor, and carried out their original determination, by recapturing the prisoners and executing them. The line of division between the legitimate civil power and the Vigilance Committee is therefore plain, broad and unmistakable.

And what is to result? We see nothing disheartening or dispiriting in the prospect. On the contrary, we think we perceive that settled determination on the part of the body politic to have justice done, which is to be the great lever of our salvation. When crime is convinced, as it must now be, that nothing is capable of preserving it from speedy and avenging punishment — when the abandoned feel, as they will now feel, that there is no safety for them here — when all bad men shall understand, as they may now understand, that their unworthy acts will surely be visited with condign reward — then will the country rise above its tribulations and its sorrows.

But this is a dreadful storm! If we did not know the ship, the crew and the passengers, we might despair of our reaching port. As it is, we speak confidently. We feel that there is gloom around us, but there is nothing to alarm the honest and patriotic. The guilty may, and ought to, flee before the gale of popular indignation; but it is through such trials that our voyage is ultimately to become a prosperous and fortunate one. Through the watches of the night of darkness which now surrounds us, there is a gentle voice whispering “Be firm, be calm, be just, and the welcome daylight will soon come!”

The Vigilance Committee disbanded itself a few weeks later. Its last act in 1851† was to prevent the lynching of a sea captain by sailors angered at his brutality, an expression of class solidarity in the definition and punishment of crime as timeless as America herself. (Source)

* These fires were widely feared to be the product of arson motivated by the opportunity to loot. This is likely a reversal of cause and effect. One inclines here to reckon with Tolstoy that cities have a natural tendency to kindling fire, and those fires are liable to blaze out of control in inverse proportion to the city’s administrative faculties.

The late San Francisco police officer and amateur historian Kevin Mullen puts together an argument here that merchants opportunistically torching excess stock to sustain gold rush price gouging was also a contributing factor.

** Both men were born in England; many of the Sydney Ducks hailed originally from the British Isles.

† Like Batman, the Vigilance Committee later emerged from retirement to fight crime again, in 1856.

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1856: Casey and Cora, by the San Francisco Vigilance Committee

1 comment May 22nd, 2012 John Putnam

Gold attracts all kinds of people but has a particular allure to crooks and corrupt politicians. When gold was found in California they flowed in from all over the world. Soon the gamblers and thugs had the run of San Francisco. Politicians and judges were bought and paid for. Crime went unpunished. (Usually.)

At the same time San Francisco was growing fast, and was filled with the flimsiest, most flammable wooden buildings imaginable. By 1850 huge fires began to rake the city and while they leveled block after block criminals would loot the homes and businesses of the good citizens who were out trying to fight the flames.

The first vigilance committee formed in 1851 after the fifth fire simply because the city government would do nothing to protect the people. The committee, made up of most of the leading citizens and with the backing of almost every honest person, hung a few men and chased a lot more out of town. Within months things improved dramatically and the committee disbanded.

But it’s hard to keep crooks that are in cahoots with corrupt politicians under control for long and by 1855 things were in terrible shape once more. Gold production was down, voting fraud was rampant, banks and business failed, a city supervisor slipped out of town just before his imminent arrest for a major real estate scam involving city money and a pier we now know as Fisherman’s Wharf.

James King of William, a once well-known banker who had lost everything in the collapse of 1855 was now running a small newspaper, The Evening Bulletin, devoted to exposing the corruption in the city. King was fearless in his reporting and ruthless but impartial in his editorials.

Yet things were still a mess in 1856 when the gambler, Charles Cora, took his doxy, a high powered and wealthy Madame called Belle, to the theater. By her presence she offended the young and ambitious US Marshal Richardson and a heated dispute arose between the two men. Then, days later, after that dispute was resumed in a local saloon, Cora shot Richardson in the chest in cold blood at point blank range.

King denounced the city officials who were holding Cora for trial, saying that the man could not be found guilty of even such a blatant crime in a city as corrupt as San Francisco. And as King predicted, amid charges of bribery, the jury in the trial of Charles Cora could not reach a verdict and Cora had escaped his punishment for murder. King then went after James P. Casey, a city supervisor, and exposed him as having once been a prisoner in New York’s infamous Sing Sing prison.

Casey was incensed and on May 14th stormed into the offices of the Bulletin and protested loudly. King ordered him out. Casey went but waited just up the street. An hour later, when King left for the day, Casey walked up to him in the middle of Montgomery Street and shot him down with a Navy Colt.

The news spread fast. Tens of thousands of people soon gathered.

Casey, joined by his powerful friends, went straight to the jail where Cora was still held for his own protection. Soon the crowd arrived. The local militia was called in to guard the place and there was no trouble that night. The next morning members of the old Committee of Vigilance met and by the time King died on May 20th a new committee had been formed and already had 3,500 members.

By now most of the militia sided with the vigilantes, so when the committee marched in mass to the jail and surrounded it, the jailers soon were soon persuaded to turn Casey over. A short time later the committee returned for Cora. The prisoners were taken to the committee’s headquarters, known as Fort Gunnybags, on Sacramento Street and held there under guard.

Both men were appointed lawyers and put on trial by the vigilantes. Each was convicted with a unanimous verdict.

On May 22nd they were hanged from short platforms extending from second floor windows of Fort Gunnybags before an enormous crowd of San Franciscans who filled the streets, buildings and roof tops all around. The Committee of Vigilance continued to operate until they were convinced that all corrupt politicians and crooks had been purged from city. This resulted in a wholesale change of the political power in San Francisco.

John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, an exciting tale of the early California gold rush. His rich history of that incredible era at can be found at mygoldrushtales.com.

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1852: Jose Forni, the first legal hanging in California

1 comment December 10th, 2011 Headsman

Detail view (click for the full image) of the hanging of Jose Forni (Forner)

“My friends! You have come to see an innocent man die. I die for having killed an assassin. He attempted to rob me; I resisted; he stabbed me and fled. Maddened and smarting from my wounds, I pursued, overtook, and killed him. I am a native of Valencia, Spain. I have but few friends in San Francisco.

I have resided in Cuba, where I have many friends. I was tried by a judge and jury who were utter strangers to me. I could produce no witnesses in my favor. What led to my killing my assailant is known only to God and myself. What I have said is true. After I have spoken these few words I shall never speak more. No doubt those who tried me acted justly according to the testimony. They could not have known the truth. The Americans are good people; they have ever treated me well and kindly; I thank them for it. I have nothing but love and kindly feelings for all. Farewell, people of San Francisco! World, farewell.”

Jose Forni’s last words (translated from Spanish)

Having so declaimed, Jose Forni (or Forner) dropped through a trap on San Francisco’s Russian Hill and into the history books as the first hanging under color of law in the state of California.

Forni was pretty small potatoes for such a milestone, a Spanish immigrant caught stabbing to death a Mexican in broad daylight a mere three months before.

Despite Forni’s mysterious last statement, everyone was in fact pretty sure they knew what led to the killing.

Forni was found with a sash containing $350. This sash, a Mexican style not popular with Spaniards, had been observed in the possession of the victim Jose Rodriguez earlier that evening, by a gambling-hall dealer who saw Forni follow Rodriguez out the door. (Source)

Forni stuck to the story that it was his, and that Rodriguez had tried to jump him and take it when Forni set the sash down to relieve himself. And that then, after he’d been stabbed in the leg, he chased down the assailant.

Yeah, right.

“It was a proud day for the law,” wrote (doc) historian Hubert Howe Bancroft. “It was a happy sight, I say, this hanging of the moneyless, friendless Spanish stranger.”

If this doesn’t seem like the sort of thing hippy-dippy San Francisco would ordinarily strut about, bear in mind that the previous year, a standing Committee of Vigilance had formed itself and meted out extrajudicial lynchings without waiting on “the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption of the police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice.” Similar committees operated elsewhere in the state.

So the fact that Forni was suffered to wait on the quibbles of the law was a sort of progress. And it does sound, from the report in the next week’s (December 16) Alta California, as if the populace were jolly pleased to see it.

A continuous line of human beings was pressing up the hill all the morning, until a crowd numbering three thousand at least had gathered together [n.b. – nearly a tenth of San Francisco’s population at this time -ed.] … the assemblage was indeed a singular one — there being at least one-fourth of the number composed of youths, women and children. Women elbowed their way as near as possible to have a full view of the gallows, whilst others were on horseback and in carriages, riding around with as much gaiety as if on a pleasure drive.

But what was most shocking was to see respectable looking parents taking their little sons and daughters into such a heterogenous crowd, to witness such a terrible spectacle. Despite the slight rain, they stood it out with heroical fortitude and patience worthy of a better occasion. Before the prisoner had arrived, the small boys amused themselves with playing marbles, the bigger ones with dog fights, whilst others whiled away the time recounting their experience in such matters.

Reflecting on the homicide that had occasioned all this festivity, the Alta prayed that “our criminal records never be stained again with the history of such a dark and bloody transaction.”

Yeah, right.

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1898: Theodore Durrant, the Demon of the Belfry

1 comment January 7th, 2009 Headsman

The annals of crime will attest that malefaction, like any other history, repeats itself — as tragedy and then as farce and then simply with numbingly grisly monotony.

Which brings us to San Francisco, for another forgotten crime of the century — a theater of the time actually produced a play called Criminal of the Century — that sent the Nancy Graces of the Gilded Age aswoon.

Theodore Durrant‘s basic profile — normal-seeming medical student and Sunday school superintendent with a secret pervy side — might not seem so remarkable with a century’s worth of serial killer profiles in the books, but ponder what programming hours Court TV would fill with mutilated, violated female parishioners found stuffed in the cupboard and belfry at any of the nation’s Emanuel Baptist Churches.

That Durrant was the last person seen with either of them anchored what the Associated Press would call (only a week after the bodies were discovered) a “chain of circumstantial evidence that has been welded link by link … so strong that it seems hardly possible that it can be rent asunder.”

Why,

information poured in … proving that the prisoner was a degenerate of the most depraved class. For obvious reasons, names cannot be given of young ladies to whom he made the most disgusting propositions, and the wonder of it is that he was not killed, or at least exposed before. But in most instances the nature of his insults were such that the young ladies offended feared to inform their relatives, lest they would take the law in their own hands. One young lady told her mother that some time previous to these murders, Durrant had inveigled her into this same library and excusing himself for a moment, returned stark naked and she ran screaming from the church.

The particulars were nationwide news copy from the outset in 1895 to hanging in 1898, and the city had a difficulty scraping together a jury qualified to give the man a fair trial (deliberation time: five minutes).

Durrant, for his part, protested his innocence to the gallows. Few believed him, but he did pick up a married groupie the press nicknamed “Sweet Pea Girl” for the flowers she kept bringing him.*

The more things change …

Even the legal route to hanging was (by 19th century standards) characteristically-for-California tortuous. The “fight for delay,” reported the Los Angeles Times (Jan. 8, 1898), was “vigorously maintained for almost twenty months, not even ceasing with the execution of the death sentence.”

Durrant came within two days of execution twice in 1897; the full narrative of legal maneuvers will be amply suggested by the Times‘ account of those made in the last week alone.

On December 31, an appeal for a writ of supersedeas was made to the State Supreme Court, but was refused. The Federal courts were then vainly appealed to for a writ of habeas corpus. On January 3 a petition was presented to Gov. Budd, praying for executive interference in the case. The petition stated that Durrant was a vital witness in the slander suit brought by his mother against [trial juror Horace] Smyth.**

On January 5 Durrant’s attorneys made another application to the United States court for a writ of habeas corpus. This was denied; also permission to appeal to the United States Supreme Court. On January 6, Attorney Boardman arrived in Washington, and endeavored to persuade Justice Brewer of the Supreme Court to grant permission to an appeal. Justice Brewer declined, and Boardman announced that he would appear before the entire court on Friday and demand to be heard.

In San Francisco on January 6, Attorneys Dickinson and Deuprey asked the United States Circuit Court for leave to file a bill of exceptions. … On the same afternoon, Gov. Budd formally announced that he would not interfere.

Durrant’s beloved sister would change her name to Maud Allan and emerge as a popular dancer in Europe in the early years of the 20th century. Renowned for her sensual portrayal of Salome, Maud strikes an immediate reminder of another character from these grim pages … and like Mata Hari, Durrant’s sister was accused (non-fatally, in Maud’s case) of consorting with German operatives during World War I.

* A paroled murderess also had Durrant’s back.

** According to the story, Smyth publicly called Durrant a “moral monster” and suggested that the condemned had had relations with his mother and sister.

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