1948: Tessie Hutchinson, Lottery winner

Add comment June 27th, 2015 Headsman

June 27 — of 1948, implicitly — was the setting for Shirley Jackson‘s classic short story “The Lottery”.


Before we dive into the grim stuff, here’s a hilariously campy pulp cover (mis)interpretation.

Less an “execution” than a human sacrifice — the village old feller’s folksy “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” evokes a primal flash of blood trickling off the maize-god’s altar — the titular event is an annual tradition for a tiny American town. Though unnamed, the town and some of its denizens were patterned on North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson was living as the wife of a professor at Bennington College.

The setting was entirely contemporary to the story’s publication, right down to the day: it hit print in the June 26, 1948 edition of The New Yorker magazine. And what took Jackson two hours to write has continued to disturb and perplex generations of readers.

In “The Lottery” (available online here (pdf)), friendly townsfolk gather “in the square, between the post office and the bank” to enact a curious civic ritual dating to a time and purpose they no longer even remember.

We see each household’s father draw a slip of paper from a battered old box and although we do not understand the reason we grasp from the dark atmosphere afoot in the crowd that something ominous is unfolding.

After the last slip is drawn,

there was a long pause, a breathless pause, until Mr. Summers. holding his slip of paper in the air, said, “All right, fellows.” For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saving. “Who is it?,” “Who’s got it?,” “Is it the Dunbars?,” “Is it the Watsons?” Then the voices began to say, “It’s Hutchinson. It’s Bill,” “Bill Hutchinson’s got it.”

“Go tell your father,” Mrs. Dunbar said to her older son.

People began to look around to see the Hutchinsons. Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand. Suddenly. Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers. “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!”

“Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called, and Mrs. Graves said, “All of us took the same chance.”

“Shut up, Tessie,” Bill Hutchinson said.

Tessie has good cause to fear. A second drawing now ensues among the five members of the Hutchinson family — Tessie and Bill, plus their three children.

And as soon as Tessie reveals the slip of paper with the black spot, her friends and even her family (“someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles”) immediately turn on her and stone her to death.

“I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives,” Jackson explained.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Chosen by Lot,Fictional,Gruesome Methods,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Stoned,Summary Executions,USA,Vermont,Women

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1615: Kate McNiven, the Witch of Monzie

9 comments November 1st, 2008 Royelen

(It’s Samhain — the ancient, pagan wellspring of Halloween. Thanks to Royelen for this timely remembrance of a completely undated witch-burning from Scottish folklore.)

A gurgling fountain at the property border announces a gentle place. The fountain has a small pond filled with friendly goldfish which swim your way. They are hoping for morsel of food but it feels like an appropriate welcome to a local herb shop.

The mission is to find a remedy for leg pain. For a few moments the pain can wait while the lemon thyme gets rubbed by fingers gathering up the smell for a delightful inhalation. And then there is the basil, the chocolate mint, the rosemary — and so it goes with rows and rows of little pots of tiny green plants, each fragrant in a unique way. Each creating its own sensation.

When sated with nasal stimulation, it’s time to enter the house. It causes no surprise when cheery sounding chimes ring as the door opens. Inside the walls are lined with shelves. Each shelf is filled with glass jars. Each jar has a different dried leaf. There are many jars. An herb shop employee is happy to help.

“Pain, long-standing muscle pain? In your leg. Uh-huh. It’s possibly a nutritional deficiency, you want to take calcium, two pills twice-a-day. You’ll know in two weeks if this is the cause.”

This knowledge, long forgotten and now denied by Western medicine, may have been the kind of knowledge that got Kate McNiven killed.

Scottish lore has it that Kate McNiven’s community of Monzie in Scotland first sought her out for her wisdom, maybe for her herb cures and curse-ending charms. Then, in the era of witch burnings, her community pulled her from her service and burned her to death. After killing her, Kate McNiven’s community made her a local legend.

Today we might assess Kate McNiven as a real witch based on the power of the curse she left behind — a curse which the generations passed down and which now comes to us across the Internet; a curse which leaves us the tale of a talisman known as the Inchbrakie Moonstone.

Though there are no official records, the curse is said to begin in 1615* when Kate was accused of witchcraft. Having been found guilty, word spread of her immediate execution by fire. A landowner of a nearby estate, having come upon the fire preparations, asked the gathered crowd to stop their execution plan. While he had no success, he did win favor from the named witch.

As the fires around her grew, Kate McNiven began her curse. The landowner of execution site was cursed, then the area known as Monzie was cursed, and finally she honored the unsuccessful estate owner who attempted to stop her execution. She threw from the fires a charm — a blue stone that had been around her neck — and told him that if he kept it close, he would always be blessed with sons and they would always be blessed with lands.

The legend goes that the cursing was successful. The landlord on whose land she died was not able to pass the property on. Monzie withered.

Of course, the land owner who pleaded her case kept the stone near as directed. As the legend goes it always was put on the fingers of the daughter-in-laws and heirs were always produced. Centuries of fecundity were enjoyed until one descendant made the mistake of allowing the stone to be moved outside of the estate. That was the end of the good run and proof of Kate’s powers as a witch.

Is the legend of the Witch of Monzie a romantic retelling of a woman’s death or is it a community reassuring itself that the executed woman was guilty of her crimes? Maybe both. Maybe more.

Swiss psychotherapy pioneer Carl Jung’s theory of the shadow tells us that Kate McNiven’s peers attributed to her what they could not accept in themselves. They found her untrustworthy and capable of doing strange things. For some reason, she of all people was chosen as the one to be the scapegoat. It may have been for no other reason than she didn’t point the finger at someone else. The people of Monzie did not fight for her release, and they likely felt relieved that the pressure was off of them. Their untrustworthiness and strange behaviors were not under scrutiny. For the moment, they were safe.

It’s easy to imagine Kate McNiven as Tessie in Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery”:,

The children had stones already. And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.

“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

* Not only the year but the century of Kate McNiven’s — or M’Niven, McNieven or Nicniven — execution is disputed. Sources report both 1615 (in the midst of King James’ witch-sniffing reign), and 1715 (which would make her one of the last witchcraft executions in Scotland).

But there is no original documentation — a University of Dundee archivist has confirmed this for Executed Today — and McNiven is not listed in Scotland’s witch executions database. She was promulgated in a 19th-century text, The Holocaust, or, the Witch of Monzie and could be entirely fictional. (Update: The myth dissected in comments.)

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,18th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Fictional,Guest Writers,History,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scotland,The Supernatural,The Worm Turns,Uncertain Dates,Witchcraft,Women

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