1771: Matthias Klostermayr, the Bavarian Hiasl

1 comment September 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1771, the German outlaw Matthias Klostermayr was broken on the wheel in Dillingen.

The “Bavarian Robin Hood” (English Wikipedia entry | German) led a band of poachers (their merriness or lack thereof is unrecorded) who in the 1760s did a famous business, exploiting the jigsaw of tiny statelets in the region to keep the heat off by ducking across a border every few weeks.

Their exploits zestily raiding the hated private hunting preserves of haughty lords elevated them in the popular imagination to social bandits. They’re really said to have distributed a portion of their booty to the poor. They were slated with nine homicides during their run, of game wardens or soldiers whom they did not hesitate to handle much less generously. The gang’s long run proliferated legends multiplying their prowess, even crediting them with supernatural powers like invulnerability to bullets.

Klostermayr was the subject of folk songs even in his lifetime, and that exposure meant that he eventually became the subject of multilateral coordination among the principalities whose limited jurisdictions he so expertly exploited. A 1769 mutual-assistance arrangement permitted authorities to cross the border in hot pursuit; by the end of 1770, an outright military expedition with 300 troops had been arranged. They took Klostermayr by storm on January 14, 1771 in the town of Osterzell; the theater and the shooting club still carry Klostermayr’s name in Osterzell, a small testament to the robber’s enduring popularity two and a half centuries on from his death.

That death was bound to be a demonstrative one, revenging all the offenses Klostermayr had done to his superiors.

The agonizing public shattering of his bones on the breaking wheel, preserved for us in graphic drawings, did no disfavors to the bandit’s fame. Buttressed by his thinly-veiled appearance a few years later as the protagonist of Schiller‘s first play, The Robbers, Klostermayr’s renown persists in Germanophone Europe right down to the present day.


Detail view (click for a larger image) of the terrifying device on which Bavarian outlaw Matthias Klostermayr was stretched out to have his limbs crushed with a breaking-wheel on September 6, 1772.

Detail view (click for a larger image) of Matthias Klostermayr being broken on the wheel.

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1784: Angelo Duca, primitive rebel

Add comment April 26th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1784, Italian bandit-hero Angelo Duca was hanged at Salerno.

“Angiolillo” haunted the Basilicata region, which surmounts the arch between the “toe” and the “heel” of southern Italy’s boot.

His biography, hopelessly intertwined with folklore, holds that he abandoned farming over the oppression of the overweening Duke of Martina — just like any self-respecting social bandit.

Soon a gang of about 20 Italic outlaws had flown to his camp and naturally they “gave alms, bought grain, endowed the dowries of poor girls,” and generally forcibly redistributed some small portion of the rentier class’s gorgings to the poor whose care ought to have been a noble lord’s concern.

As the 18th century came to a close, revolutionaries with steel souls and guillotines would come to dominate the narrative of resistance. But they never completely usurped the romance of the road, especially in rural parts like Angiolillo’s. Eric Hobsbawm informs us that “in the Capitanata under Joachim Murat there were something like seventy [robber] bands, in the Basilicata of the early [eighteen] sixties thirty-nine, in Apulia some thirty.”

Primitive Rebels is the title of the volume we’re quoting here, an antecedent to Hobsbawm’s classic Bandits. In Primitive Rebels the late godfather of the social bandit concept situates these bands and their susceptibility to popular mythologizing as “an endemic peasant protest against oppression and poverty: a cry for vengeance on the rich and the oppressors, a vague dream of some curb upon them, a righting of individual wrongs.”

The eternally seductive dream of righting the injuries of an unjust world by the manly exertions of gold-hearted thieves and knights of the road unfortunately for our principal (and no small number of his fellows) arrives with its own fatal paradox. Social bandits want a better king, not a headless king, but in this they also concede the crown the powers its malice abuses. A king will get the best of a desperado sooner or later.

Upon his own capture, Duca was hauled directly to the Bourbon ruler King Ferdinand. Ferdinand did not experience a cathartic reawakening on account of his prisoner’s implied critique; instead, he simply ordered the nettlesome brigand’s immediate beheading, sans judicial procedure, after which the corpse was torn limb from limb for public exhibition.

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1713: Juraj Janosik, Slovakian social bandit

Add comment March 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date (most likely) in 1713, Slovakian “Robin Hood” figure Juraj Janosik was hung on a hook in Liptov County for his outlawry.

Janosik was a flesh-and-blood man, but much of what is known or believed about him lies squarely in the realm of folklore.

He hailed from the village of Terchova. You’ll find Terchova today just on the Slovakian side of the Polish border; in Janosik’s time, this was the Habsburg Kingdom of Hungary.


In Janosik’s native Terchova, a walking path leads to a monumental statue of the famed outlaw. (cc) image from Andre Skibinski.

Janosik is said to have fought with the anti-Habsburg Kuruc guerrillas in his youth, then joined the imperial army when that rebellion fizzled, then found his short life’s calling when detailed to guard a brigand named Tomáš Uhorcík. The two went into (Uhorcík’s) business together in about 1711, and Janosik’s natural aptitude soon made him the leader of their robber band.

From pine-forest lairs the merry bandits preyed on aristocrats and rich merchants throughout their mountainous home territories and into Moravia, Silesia, and Slovakia and are supposed to have taken chivalrous care not to injure their prey other than financially. They’re inevitably also credited with sharing the fruits of their heists with the poor.

When Janosik became celebrated in later centuries his virtues both moral and martial would multiply by each astonishing retelling. In this Polish verse, for example, Janosik is less Robin Hood and more Terminator as he boldly presents himself at a royal tourney and avenges the honor of Slovakian maids raped by some of the contending knights.

“O king, an accusation I bring thee!” he proclaimed.
“Our women are dishonored, our village maidens shamed!
Twelve of our maidens ravished — on these twelve knights the guilt! —
Twelve of our village maidens! Let blood for blood be spilt!

“Twelve cottages dishonored — twelve homes lament today …
Sire, throned on gold, be gracious — give ear to me, I pray!
Blood must be shed, and bloody must be the foeman’s face;
I come, I come avenging our Slovak maids’ disgrace!”

Then all men stood astounded, and silent fell the ring.
“What word is this? How durst thou? Who art thou?” asked the king.
“A hill-born outlaw, hetman Janosik, that am I.”
Then marvelled all the courtiers, and king enthroned on high.

And the king’s visage slowly with rising wrath was lit,
And his moustache was bristling, his grizzled brows were knit.
Upon that band of Magyars, twelve gentlemen, he glowered.
Beneath the crested headgear twelve heads were earthward lowered.

“What, willest thou to fight them, all twelve, and brow to brow?”
— “With all, O king,” Janosik made answer; “all, and now!
O king, twelve fields of harvest a single gust will clear;
Thus let me, single-handed, meet these twelve warriors here.”

Then the king’s sceptre signalled; the trumpets gave one blast.
Janosik fixed his girdle, and off his mantle cast.
The king and all the courtiers, they marvelled to behold
The shirt that came from Juhasz, the trousers looped with gold.

There from his cap a bundle of discs, all golden, rayed,
And moved he ever so little, the cap a tinkling made.
A row upon his axe-haft of brazen rings he had;
At every step he swung it. His shoes in steel were clad.

His hand had gripped the hatchet, and there he took his stand.
Heralds struck up; then signalled the king, with sceptred hand;
Twelve lances, like a forest thick-timbered, took their aim,
And at Janosik’s bosom twelve lances flying came.

Hola! in golden Budzyn, hola! how went it, tell!
And in the king’s chief city what thing that day befell?
Upon that day what pastime might there the king await
In his dear daughter’s honor, by his town’s golden gate?

Now on the sand, all shattered, twelve lances fell and crashed,
And off the polished helmplates twelve glittering sabres flashed.
For see! up sprang Janosik, and raised his arm to strike,
Whistled the tune of Juhasz, and whirled around his pike.

How like a flame of lightning that hatchet circled round!
Erdoedy, count, with vizor hewn through, was on the ground;
Pallavicini, margrave, had rent his horse’s rein;
His riven skull was soiling the sand with bloody stain.

And now Prince Bathyani on his left side had dropt;
Right hand and sword were severed. Count Palffy’s brows were chopt.
And soon Prince Esterhazy upon the sand lay low,
Scrabbling the ground; and straightway his face was white as snow.

Not long did Count Festetics smile in the light of day,
But by the brothers Toskoel fell dead — and dead were they.
And then, before Janosik, the remnant lay in death.
When the twelfth corpse had fallen, he drew a mighty breath,

And leaned upon his weapon; like some rich beechtree then
He stood; there lay before him twelve haughty gentlemen;
Twelve golden suits of armor and twelve sharp sabres lay;
And dumbly gazed the people upon that mortal fray.

And no man spoke, and all men a tomblike silence kept.
To the king bowed Janosik, and low his cap he swept.
Then in their blood were carried twelve corpses from that place
And thus avenged Janosik those Slovak maids’ disgrace.

But the actual Janosik was quite vincible.

His career only really lasted a year or so; he was captured in 1712, escaped, and was soon re-taken. It seems that despite the marauders’ usual care for the safety of their victims, they managed to kill a Father Juraja Vertíka.

March 17, 1713 was the date of Juraj Janosik’s conviction and death sentence; though not explicitly recorded of Janosik, the usual practice would have been to carry out such a sentence without delay. Many of his comrades met similar fates: Uhorcík, for instance, was put to death a month after Janosik.


Janosik Hanged, by Miloš Jiránek (1906). (Via)

The bandit’s legend has survived and thrived after his death in literally hundreds (per Hobsbawm) of poems, legends, and folk ballads, like Jan Botto’s epic “The Death of Janosik”.

Oddly, Martin Votruba argues,** there is no indication that anyone in 1713 or the years following celebrated Janosik with anything like the fervor he eventually attained.

Janosik is all but invisible as a literary figure until the late 18th century, according to Votruba. Pesumably his name attached to miscellaneous anecdotes and exploits — enough to keep it in the conversation of bandits.

Around the turn to the 19th century Janosik’s person seems to have become gradually conjoined to stories and songs about other brigands, both real and fictional, just as these characters were booming in literary popularity. Juraj Janosik went from being just a guy who’d be mentioned in passing in a list of bandits, to the bandit. (Votruba guesses that the linguistic similarity our fellow’s surname had with with generic male name Jan, Janik, or Janko — variations on “John” that were commonly used for entirely legendary outlaws in folk songs — helped to form the connection)

Only in the 1830s and 1840s did the long-dead outlaw, who by then dominated lowbrow bandit-legend folklore, begin to take on the form familiar today — that of “a benevolent, rebellious, tragic, quasi-folkloric freedom-fighter” called “Janosik.” And “since this happened in a period of mounting ethnic activism in central Europe, Janosik could not become merely a romantic hero. The Slovak literary and social discourse highlighted his ethnicity, which then appeared in implicit contrast to the ethnicity of the now politically overpowering Hungarians.” The rich guys Janosik robbed — not ethnically specified in the earliest sources — now became oppressive foreign lords. Janosik’s growing corpus of attributed exploits now earned elite artistic attention.

He’s never looked back since.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, he’s been the subject of many film treatments, most recently in 2009.

* Translation by Oliver Elton from the Slavonic and East European Review. American Series, Vol. 2, No. 2 (November 1943)

** Martin Votruba, “Hang Him High: The Elevation of Janosik to an Ethnic Icon”, Slavic Review, Vol 65, No. 1 (Spring 2006).

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1928: Charles Birger, bootlegger

1 comment April 19th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1928, colorful gangster Charles Birger was hanged in Benton, Illinois.

A sort of social bandit for the Prohibition era, Birger was born Shachna Itzik Birger to a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to the U.S.

Birger was a young saloon-keeper on the make when the U.S. decided to make a go of its first foolish drug war, Prohibition. And in the immortal tradition of drug wars, it made the enterprising purveyor a whole lot richer, and a whole lot violent-er.

While Al Capone‘s Tommy Guns were tearing up Chicago, Birger set up shop in southern Illinois. A literal shop: from his famous speakeasy Shady Rest, he did three-way battle with the (pro-Prohibition) Ku Klux Klan and the rival Shelton Brothers Gang.

This cinematic affair of armored car shootouts, aerial bombings, and gangland assassinations comes off with verve in A Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger. The bon vivant Birger, bursting with charisma, entertains at his gin joint, aids the misfortunate, corrupts the police, and merrily mobs up Williamson County.

That story reached its conclusion when Birger was arrested for ordering the murder of Joe Adams, mayor of a nearby town who had taken the Shelton Gang’s armored “tank” car in for repairs.

Birger said he hadn’t actually done that, but he went to the gallows grinning, and humorously chatted up reporters before the big show — cementing his myth with that legend-quality indifference to death.

“I’ve played the game and lost, but I’ll lose like a man,” Birger philosophized. “I’m convicted of a crime I didn’t commit, but I’ve committed a lot of crimes. So I guess things are even. We got too strong against the law, and the law broke it all up.” (From the Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1928.)


Birger shakes hands with so-called “humanitarian hangman”
Phil Hanna.


Birger insisted on hanging in a black, not a white, hood — owing to his hatred of the Ku Klux Klan.

Birger is still a legend in southern Illinois, and a live one at that: he’s been in the news lately due to a weird custody fight over the rope used to hang him.

This macabre historical memento also happens to be the last rope ever used for any public execution in Illinois.

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1907: Emile Dubois, Valparaiso popular saint

4 comments March 26th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1907, Emile Dubois was shot in Valparaiso, Chile for murder.

The French-descended Dubois (English Wikipedia link | Spanish) was credited with a string of homicides in Valparaiso spanning 1905-1906. (Although the first murder attributed to him, and the only one he was formally convicted of, was that of an accountant in Santiago.)

The official version of our man’s career is roughly this: in September 1905, he killed a merchant named Reinaldo Tillmanns; in October, he killed another one named Gustavo Titius — robbing both.

The following April, he stabbed the French trader Isodoro Challe, although he did not rob him. In June, he attacked an American dentist in his office, although the dentist fought him off and the assailant fled.

All this was rolled up into the indictment when “Emile Dubois” was finally captured that summer. This was the name he gave, but his Colombian documents were sketchy; his real name might have been Luis Amadeo Brihier Lacroix, or heaven knows what else.

The crime spree alone would be interesting enough for this site, but it’s really the least interesting thing about this unusual man.

Dubois exerted a curious magnetism. He was handsome, certainly, but more than that: he was gracious, impossibly serene in the face of the dangerous charges against him, and his adherence to his innocence was calm and unshakable. Dubois’s intelligence was impossible to miss; he spoke ironically with inspectors, like their fellow-man instead of their prey. “He had ideas above those of a common criminal,” wrote one biographer. (Spanish link)

His long time loose on his crime spree — if indeed the attributed crimes were really all his — had served to direct popular scorn at the police who were unable to locate the criminal. At the same time, the victims in these cases were wealthy foreign “usurers” with limited purchase on public sympathy. (Especially as Valparaiso endured a natural disaster.) Meanwhile, in the courtroom itself, Judge Santa Cruz was so convinced of Dubois’s guilt that he cut a vindictive Javert-like figure hounding the accused to his death.*

Guilty or innocent, the wry and gentlemanly Dubois compared very favorably to the other characters in his drama.

Dubois played the part unerringly to the last, when he declined a blindfold and unpertubedly puffed a cigar as he faced his four-man firing detail with open eyes and the command “¡Ejecutad!”

Dubois’s last statement reasserted his innocence without vitriol or bitterness. “It was necessary that someone be held responsible for these crimes, and that someone was me,” he said. (More Spanish)

Then he died.

And after that Christ-like exit, he lived.

Dubois, who was obviously an utter obscurity prior to his arrest, went on to a surprising posthumous life as a popular folk saint. His brightly-painted grave in Valparaiso is a pilgrimage shrine forever crowded with votive offerings from followers convinced of Dubois’s powers of divine intercession (and, accordingly, his innocence).

* Dubois to the priest sent to confess him before execution: “You should be taking the judge’s confession, not mine. The judge who ordered my murder. Go inspire his repentance.” (Source)

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1925: Jovan Stanisavljevic Caruga, Slavonian hajduk

Add comment February 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1925, the Serbian outlaw Jovan “Jovo” Stanisavljevic, better known by his nickname Caruga (Charuga), was hanged before a crowd of 3,000 in Osijek.

Caruga was born to peasant stock within the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia within the Hungarian Kingdom within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and at just the right age for service at arms when World War I came along to wreck that agglomeration.

Caruga soon deserted the front lines on a false pass — but his unauthorized leave became permanent when he came across a Hungarian soldier paying court to the innkeeper’s daughter whom Caruga, too, desired. Caruga shot him dead.

He did a short turn in prison but escaped in 1919 and shortly thereafter established himself the captain of a posse of brigands styled the “Mountain Birds”. From roosts in the Papul and Krndija mountains they preyed on the nearby Slavonian plains — ducking away freely when needed to Dalmatia or Bosnia in what was now the independent (and quite unsettled) Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. (This polity would become Yugoslavia four years after Caruga’s execution.)

Caruga et al obtained a reputation as a Robin Hood-esque character who revenged himself on the rich. He was a late throwback to the classical hajduk character, a complex thief-with-the-heart-of-gold archetype who straddled the line between freebooting highwayman and rebel partisan during the era of Ottoman ascendancy in the Balkans. (The term’s roots trace to a caste of independent Hungarian footsoldiers in the 1600s.)

While the Turks were out of the picture at this point, the romance of the road and the social resentments rife in the fractious young kingdom were still sufficient to support a legendary bandit. Sentiment and fair fortune only turned against him after a botched raid on the estate of one Count Eltz of Vukovar, which resulted in an armed standoff with the local gendarmerie and the death of an innocent forester caught in the crossfire. Caruga was taken with some of his gang not long after.

Caruga is the subject of the so-called “last Yugoslavian film” before that country split apart. The movie Caruga stars the Croatian actor Ivo Gregurevic in what could arguably read as an allegory for the banditry of the outgoing communist years.

Most information about this date’s subject is in Serbo-Croatian; see for instance this .doc file.

* A number of present-day sports clubs in the former Yugoslavia use the name “Hajduk”, not unlike the way “Spartak” (Spartacus) brands Bulgarian and former-USSR teams. For instance, HNK Hajduk Split in Croatia, and FK Hajduk Kula in Serbia.

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1934: Harry Pierpont, Dillinger mentor

7 comments October 17th, 2012 Headsman

At 12:09 a.m. this date in 1934, Harry Pierpont — a partner of notorious gangster John Dillinger — was electrocuted at the Columbus, Ohio penitentiary.

This Indiana-born criminal helped Dillinger transition from local malcontent to FBI’s Most Wanted* in prison in Michigan City, Indiana. Pierpont was a professional armed robber and the leader of a gang that knocked over several Indiana banks in the mid-1920s before his capture.

That was right about the time that fellow Hoosier Dillinger was catching an absurdly harsh 10-to-20-year sentence for robbing a local grocer in Mooresville — a sentence Dillinger helped bring on himself when he took his father’s advice to plead guilty and take responsibility and blah blah blah.

The court threw the book at him.

“I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here,” 21-year-old Dillinger is supposed to have said. He’d prove infamously true to his word … with the help of Harry Pierpont.

The two crossed paths in the penitentiary system in 1925. Pierpont was only eight months older, but was a much more seasoned criminal and mentored the young Dillinger in the arts of bank robbery. Both also cribbed from two former associates of the German robber Hermann Lamm, who broke new ground in the larceny game with his disciplined, systematic approach to the job: casing the bank, organizing the crime, plotting and practicing the getaway route.

Dillinger finally made parole after nine long years in the stir on May 22, 1933. The years-long show of rehabilitation that won him his liberty immediately proved to have been a facade: in a pre-arranged plan, Dillinger committed several bank robberies that summer to raise funds to orchestrate a prison break for Pierpont et al.

Pierpont and seven others, who would form the first Dillinger gang (Pierpont reportedly encouraged the branding fronting his charismatic former apprentice), and their escape conveniently occurred just after Dillinger himself had been arrested. His once-and-future associates returned the favor by liberating Dillinger from the Lima, Ohio jail — gunning down Sheriff Jess Sarber in the process.

That was Oct. 12, 1933. (Here’s a Dillinger gang timeline.)

Dillinger would be dead within the year and Pierpont not much outlive him. But in those months pillaging banks (wildly unpopular at this moment, the very pits of the Great Depression) from the open-road freedom of zooming Terraplanes that could outrace police cars, wielding spectacular Tommy guns that could outgun police, the Dillinger gang staked its social bandit bona fides.**

They robbed several more banks with the discipline and precision that would make them famous; notably, Dillinger and company rarely drank and never when planning heists, evaluating targets with all the businesslike sobriety of corporate raiders.

They weren’t caught in the act, but while trying to lay low in Arizona.

Dillinger and had one more escape in his bag, and that a spectacular one: brandishing a fake wooden “gun”,† Dillinger busted out of the allegedly “escape-proof” Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Ind. and joined up with another gangster.

Dillinger had four months and change yet to go, a cavalcade of Midwestern robberies, an alleged appearance-altering plastic surgery, and a running battle with the young HerbertJ. Edgar Hoover and his star agent Melvin Purvis. Dillinger was finally shot dead in Chicago that summer of 1934. His robbery spree had lasted only 15 months, but it made him a worldwide celebrity.

Three others arrested with Dillinger in Arizona, however, were not with Dillinger when he escaped Crown Point.

Instead, they were destined for Ohio to answer for that sheriff they’d murdered freeing Dillinger the year before. Harry Pierpont and a fellow gang member, Charles Makley, caught capital sentences.

It’s more than likely that they were anticipating another rescue from their famous confederate, but Dillinger’s end in Chicago sealed Pierpont’s and Makley’s fate, too.

On September 22, with death dates looming, those two attempted to replicate Dillinger’s “fake gun” escape gambit with bars of soap carved like pistols and painted with bootblack. (Woody Allen paid it homage.) It was a desperate try, and it ended in a fusillade from an un-bluffed squad of prison guards as Pierpont and Makley tried to spring the gate to their prison block.

Makley, perhaps the luckier of the two, died of his injuries. The hobbled Pierpont lived long enough to make it to the electric chair.

A few books about John Dillinger

* Dillinger was the first person designated as the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Most Wanted.

** Anecdote: the Dillinger gang wouldn’t steal from bank customers, telling them “we only want the bank’s money.”

† Or maybe a real gun subsequently replaced with a fake gun, maybe with the connivance of bribed guards or the like … there’s a good deal of unresolved speculation about this escape.

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1875: Tiburcio Vasquez, California bandido

11 comments March 19th, 2012 Headsman

A spirit of hatred and revenge took possession of me. I had numerous fights in defense of what I believed to be my rights and those of my countrymen. I believed we were unjustly deprived of the social rights that belonged to us.

Tiburcio Vasquez

On this date in 1879, legendary Californio outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez was hanged in San Jose.

Born to a respectable family (his grandfather was the first mayor of San Jose) when the land was under Mexican control, Vasquez was among the many chagrined to find themselves demoted to second-class citizenry by the norteamericano conquest of the Mexican-American War.

That occurred when Vasquez was in his early teens, and soon thereafter the young man was plying California’s ill-policed byways with the whole litany of depredations characteristic of the frontier outlaw: livestock rustling, highway robbing, shopkeep stickups.*

One of the latter furnished the proximate cause of his death and probably the most infamous single incident among his exploits: an armed robbery in Tres Pinos** that resulted in three shooting deaths and a serious manhunt.

For Vasquez, the end of the rope (last word: “Pronto”) was just the last act of a legendary career, of poetry and horsemanship and countless enchanted inamoratas. He was renowned in his own time, and has graduated since into a mythical, and potently symbolic, figure of the other peoples of the Golden West.

For this anniversary of Tiburcio Vasquez’s execution, we’re pleased to welcome John Boessenecker, author of the recent biography Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez . (Find another topical interview with this same author here.)

Book CoverHow did you separate fact from folklore researching this outlaw? How much do we really know about him?

Generally speaking the whole genre of outlaws and lawmen is sort of known for bad research and myths and crazy stories. It tends to attract — here I’m denigrating myself– people who are a little off. Like myself. The movie buffs tend to get reality mixed up with what they’ve seen in the movies.

The whole genre has attracted poor research and sensational writers since the days of the dime novels. Though there are real historical groups: the Wild West History Association is probably the best example — True West magazine and Wild West magazine do a god job of publishing authentic history.

With Vasquez in particular, he became a folk hero in his own lifetime to disadvantaged Hispanics.

He was personally very well-liked; as a general rule, he didn’t rob Hispanics (although he did from time to time); he paid for safe harbor and food; he was a terrific dancer; he wrote poetry to is female admirers. He was a bigger-than-life personality, sort of the life of the party.

Among the larger Hispanic community as he became more notorious in the 1870s, he became a folk hero in his own lifetime. A lot of the myths are exaggerations of things he really did.

When the colonized cannot earn a living within the system, or when they are degraded, they strike out. The most physical way is to rebel. This can be done in an organized way, as was done by Juan Cortina in Texas, or it can express itself in bandit activity. An analysis of the life of Tiburcio Vasquez clearly demonstrates that, while in the strict sense of the word he was a criminal, at the same time his underlying motivation was self-defense. Some Anglo-American folklorists have attempted to portray Tiburcio Vasquez as a comical and oversexed Mexican bandit … dismiss[ing] the legitimate grievance of Chicanos during the nineteenth century. While it is true that Tiburcio Vasquez was an outlaw, many Mexicans still consider him a hero.

Rodolfo Acuña, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos

His outlaw career seems like it’s bound up in this Anglo-Hispanic cultural collision. To what extent does that influence how he’s “read” by others?

His life is sort of a microcosm of what was going on. The first portion of my book deals with the rise and fall of the native settlers of California.

With the loss of California in the Mexican-American War and then the discovery of gold, they became second-class citizens in their own land. So Vasquez becomes a folk hero — he robbed stagecoaches, thumbed his nose at the sheriff, and got away.

But he was also a bandit.

In the 1960s, the so-called Chicano historians (pdf) latched on to Vasquez, and they actually believed he was a Robin Hood figure or a “social bandit”. This is a total crock.

You find these same outlaw myths in all cultures. Vasquez is no different, though he’s better documented than most. People would sing corridos about him.

There were some quotes by him that says that he was driven to it, the Anglos drove me to it — but that’s no different from Jesse James or Billy the Kid saying they were driven to it, even if it’s true. Most of these guys I’m talking about are or were history professors; they should have known better.

What led you to this story?

When I was a kid in the early 60s I watched all the westerns. Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen were my favorite. But then I wanted to know, was there a Wild West here in California? So when I got into high school I went and read everything I could get my hands on about early California history.

Vasquez and Black Bart were pretty much the most famous early California outlaws. So I started researching Vasquez in high school, and collected information for about 40 years, but it took me another four years to write it.

There’s never been a biography about Vasquez. There were three paperback books published about him, one after he was captured and two right after he was hanged — they’re not dime novels, but they’re sort of semi-fictional. There have been many magazines, many book chapters since, but everything published about him has just been a rehash of those three books. (n.b. — here’s a pdf of one of those original 1870s books -ed.)

It must have been a compelling story for you to stick with it for 40 years.

It’s just sort of a great story from early California. Vasquez was very colorful.

He fell under the influence of a guy named Anastacio Garcia when he was about 16 years old, and his parents seem to have separated. He had a large family; all of them were extremely honest. One of his brothers was a very prominent rancher; another brother served a term as a justice of the peace in Los Angeles County.

Vasquez, possibly because his father wasn’t around, fell under the influence of Garcia and got involved in the Roach-Belcher feud. Garcia was a hired gun, and the two of them were involved in a brawl in a Fandango house in 1854 and one of them killed a local constable. Tiburcio Vasquez fled Monterrey and never appeared openly after that.

But he basically did not change.

He was engaged to Garcia’s sister when he was 17 and she apparently broke it off. That seemed to have embittered him because he never had another serious relationship again with another woman. He was a real rounder, he got shot over women, took off with the wives of other gang members.

That was very foolish — that’s what got him the noose, when a cuckolded gang member testified against him at trial. He never made any effort to change; he was what you call a career criminal.

He was a very cultured person, and even if you compare him to more modern-day criminals like Clyde Barrow or Pretty Boy Floyd or John Dillinger, none of them had that kind of culture. He really was sort of the prototype of that sort of charismatic bandit who at the same time is both charming and deadly.

Probably the thing to me that was the most fascinating was the information I dug up about his family: his parents, his sisters who were very loyal to him; his brothers who all tried to get him to go straight. I was very pleased to meet the descendants of some of his brothers, so it was fascinating to reconstruct his family life to try to explain his personality.

So what was the nature of that bandit career?

Well, he wasn’t a remorseless killer, though he was involved in nine murders — he always said it was someone else.

The one that he was hanged for, his gang killed three people in a robbery. He claimed someone else pulled the trigger. Some witnesses said it was Vasquez himself, but under the law then and now, if you band together to commit a felony and someone dies, everyone involved is culpable for murder.

He’d been doing a lot of robberies before then, but he’d do them in remote areas. He tried not to kill anyone; he’d tie people up — but he was also involved in a lot of gunfights. Basically he’d shoot to escape. In doing the research I found that he had fired into a brothel in Santa Cruz and wounded three people; another time he fired into a stagecoach station.

One of the great Vasquez stories is, he gets out of San Quentin and he goes to San Juan Bautista which is one of the most picturesque villages in California then and now — it was one of his favorite hangouts. One of his gang members, Salazar, had tried to go straight. Vasquez shows up at San Juan and finds out that Salazar has married this gorgeous 15-year-old named “Pepita” and he and another gang member lust after her and get her to run off with the gang. So Salazar comes gunning for him; they have a gunfight right there in front of the mission, and Salazar shoots Vasquez through the chest and damn near kills him. His gang gets him out of it … the girl gets pregnant, evidently with Tiburcio’s child and she dies of a botched abortion. It’s sort of the Vasquez story in a microcosm, it looks pretty romantic on the surface and you look a little deeper and it becomes pretty grisly.

He gave a lot of interviews after he was captured and they give color to the story. There’s the natural human inclination to paint yourself in the best light.

None of which helped him avoid execution.

His hanging was actually the most publicized hanging in the history of the Pacific coast; newspapers came from Canada, New York all over the country to witness the hanging.

He was hanged in front of a big crowd, a thousand people or more present. People climbed trees and telegraph poles became the jailhouse was packed. The sheriff had 300 or 400 invitations issued and then many many more were clustered around.


Executed Today would be remiss not to add that our day’s gallows-bird was the namesake of the Vasquez Rocks, a small Natural Area Park north of Los Angeles where the outlaw used to hide out.


The Vasquez Rocks. (cc) image from KateMonkey.

This striking triangular rock formation, thrust out of the earth by tectonic action, has been used extensively in film productions of every genre since at least the 1930s, including with almost compulsive frequency in the Star Trek franchise — e.g., Captain Kirk fighting the Gorn:

* There’s a good deal of material about Tiburcio’s career linked here.

** The Tres Pinos robbed by Vasquez’s gang is now known as Paicines; it would lose its original name to the distinct settlement that grew up around the Tres Pinos train station 4.7 miles away.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Interviews,Mexico,Murder,Myths,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

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1724: Jack Sheppard, celebrity escape artist

9 comments November 16th, 2011 Headsman

“Yes sir, I am The Sheppard, and all the gaolers in the town are my flocks, and I cannot stir into the country but they are at my heels baaing after me.”

Jack Sheppard

On this date in 1724, the hangman finally got Jack Sheppard.

Sheppard was a thief, a romantic hero, a highwayman of the urban proletariat, a Houdini whom no prison could hold.

It had become possible in his time to ride criminal notoriety into celebrity: Jack Sheppard, a mere 22 at his death, proved as adept with that quicksilver element during his personal annus mirabilis of 1724 as he was with a lockpick.

Sheppard’s world had him fitted to wield a hammer better than thieves’ tools — but at about age 20, a young man awash in the illicit liberty of London’s underbelly, he ditched the square carpenter to whom he was apprenticed to live free by his wits.

Peter Linebaug’s The London Hanged finds in Jack Sheppard’s career and his runaway popularity an important marker of the capital city’s “refusal of subordination: — contra Foucaultian discipline, which “makes the rulers of government and society seem all-powerful.”

An important meaning of liberation … [consisted of] the growing propensity, skill and success of London working people in escaping from the newly created institutions that were designed to discipline people by closing them in. This tendency I have dubbed ‘excarceration’ because I wish to draw attention to the activity of freedom in contrast to its ideological or theoretical expressions…

This lithe youth is most famous for his literal talent for freedom: four times in 1724 he escaped from custody in ever more dramatic fashion.

He busted out through the ceiling of St. Giles Roundhouse. He rappelled with a bedsheet rope down the 20-foot wall of Clerkenwell Prison with his lover.

This sort of thing won the enterprising rogue growing folk hero status. The vaunted Sheppard “made such a noise in the town, that it was thought the common people would have gone mad about him, there being not a porter to be had for love nor money, nor getting into an ale-house, for butchers, shoemakers and barbers, all engaged in controversies and wagers about Sheppard.”*

It also drew the unwanted attention of 1720s London’s Jabba the Hutt: “thief-taker” Jonathan Wild, who managed a vast thieving cartel enforced by Wild’s willingness to turn in non-participants in his ingenious cover role as the city’ preeminent lawman. That’s some protection racket.

Sheppard, to the fame of his memory, scorned obeisance to the crime lord as much as to any guild carpenter and worked for no man but himself. A vengeful Wild shopped him to the authorities.

This time, Sheppard was actually condemned to death for burglary but broke prison again, using yet another classic ruse: the “disguised in smuggled women’s clothes.”

Back on the lam, he posted a cocky letter to his executioner “Jack Ketch” giving his regrets at not having joined two fellow-sufferers on the scheduled hanging date. (September 4.)

I thank you for the favour you intended me this day: I am a Gentleman, and allow you to be the same, and I hope can forgive injuries; fond Nature pointed, I follow’d, Oh, propitious minute! and to show that I am in charity, I am now drinking your health, and a Bon Repo to poor Joseph and Anthony. I am gone a few days for the air, but design speedily to embark, and this night I am going upon a mansion for a supply; its a stout fortification, but what difficulties can’t I encounter, when, dear Jack, you find that bars and chains are but trifling obstacles in the way of your Friend and Servant

JOHN SHEPPARD

London’s finest were determined to put an end to this character’s preposterous run of prison breaks, so when they caught him the fourth time Sheppard found himself loaded with manacles and chained to the floor of a special strongroom in Newgate Prison. Get out of that, Jack.

Somehow, Jack got out of it.

On the night of Oct. 14, Sheppard authored the sublimest breakout in Newgate’s voluminous annals. Picking the locks of his fetters with a small nail, our acrobat scurried up a chimney, picked, prised, or otherwise passed a succession of locked doors in the dead of night, paused to rest on the condemned pew of the gaol chapel, forced a grille, reached the roof, and threw another homemade rope over the wall to scamper down to safety.

And then “he promptly went forth and robbed a pawnbroker’s shop in Drury Lane of a sword, a suit of apparel, snuff boxes, rings, &c., and suddenly made a startling appearance among his friends, rigged out as a gentleman from top to toe.”

There’s no doubt but that Jack had showmanship, but at a certain point he could have done with just the tiniest measure of discretion. But then, this was a man writing his own legend. Sure, he could have put his head down and tried to disappear into some nameless Puritan settlement in the New World. (His distraught mother kept telling him to get out of the country.) He traded those dull and toilsome years for the fame of generations: his candle burned at both ends.

When next Sheppard was detained, it was towards his apotheosis. It was the only time he would be arrested and fail to escape.

A throng of thousands mobbed London’s route to execution this date, almost universally supporting the ace escapologist. And Sheppard very nearly had for them the piece de resistance in his career of magical disappearances: it was only at the last moment before boarding the fatal tumbril that Sheppard’s executioners found the penknife their prey had secreted on his person, evidently intending to cut his cords and spring from the cart into the safety of the surging crowd. What an exploit that would have been.


Detail view (click for full image) of George Cruikshank‘s illustration of Sheppard’s death for William Ainsworth‘s Victorian novel about the legendary criminal. More of these illustrations here.

This indomitable soul has enjoyed a long afterlife as a subversive hero.

A celebrity in his own time, his execution-eve portrait was taken by the Hanover court painter himself, James Thornhill. Sheppard is a very likely candidate as an inspiration for the criminal Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera completed just a few years after his death; likewise, his abandoned apprenticeship makes him the most apparent model for Hogarth‘s “idle prentice” plates.

A century later, prolific historical novelist William Ainsworth** claimed the convict-martyr for an 1839 retelling. This popular potboiler — read it free online here — came in for a spate of 19th century social panic when it was learned that a notorious servant-on-master murder had been carried out by a young man who had recently read it. A two-decade ban on public plays based on the Jack Sheppard novel ensued.

For as much as Jack Sheppard is romanticized in his remarkable individual characteristics, his story has always had a class undertow that raises the hackles of the powerful — and is celebrated by the people who menace that power. Linebaugh, again:

Jack Sheppard, housebreaker and gaol-breaker, was once the single most well-known name from eighteenth-century England. His fame spread across oceans and the centuries. When the bandit Ned Kelly was alive, the Australian press was full of comparisons between him and Sheppard. At the same time on the other side of the globe in Missouri, Frank and Jesse James wrote letters to the Kansas City Star signed ‘Jack Sheppard’. In England his name cut deep into the landscape of popular consciousness. Henry Mayhew noted that Cambridgeshire gypsies accepted Sheppard stories as the archetype of ‘blackguard tales’. Among English sailors anyone with the surname of ‘Sheppard’ was automatically called ‘Jack’. Within the Manchester proletariat of the 1840s his name was more widely known than that of the Queen herself. One of these lads said, ‘I was employed in a warehouse at 6s. 6d. a week, and was allowed 6d. of it for myself, and with that I went regularly to the play. I saw Jack Sheppard four times in one week.’

The oral history of Sheppard has maintained his memory within human contexts where books were scarce and working-class resources for an independent historiography were non-existent. Moreover, that memory was kept in contexts of social struggle in which a continuity, if not a development, with earlier moral and political conflicts was suggested.

* cited in Andrea McKenzie, “The Real Macheath: Social Satire, Appropriation, and Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography,” Huntington Library Quarterly, December 2006

** Ainsworth is also known for a novel about Sheppard’s near-contemporary, highwayman Dick Turpin.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Escapes,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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1880: Ned Kelly

2 comments November 11th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1880, legendary bushranger Ned Kelly hanged at Melbourne Gaol.

The Dick Turpin of Australian outlawry — in the sense that he’s the first name on the marquee — Kelly was the son of an Irishman shipped to Van Damien’s Land on the British convict transportation plan.

Setting down in Greta, Victoria the Kelly family cultivated a keen reputation for criminality (e.g., see this 1880 newspaper article; also, here).

When Ned was all of 11, pa died doing a six-month prison stint at hard labor for stealing a neighbor’s cow, and it wasn’t much longer before young master Edward was making the acquaintance of the law himself: arrested for assault in 1869 at age 14; arrested once again the following year as an accomplice to the bushranger with the pornstar name, Harry Powers; imprisoned later in 1870 for three years for receiving stolen goods … and then he got into the family horse-rustling racket upon his release. Crime and gaol were just part of Ned’s world.

So was police antagonism.

The man’s famous last years started with what reads as a trumped-up run-in with a cop who turned up at a station complaining that the Kellys had shot him. (The Kelly story is that he got fresh with Ned’s sister and got whacked by a shovel.) Whatever the facts of the matter, it sent Ned and his brother Dan into the bush as fugitives.

At Stringybark Creek, the “Kelly gang” got the drop on the police posse sent to arrest them, and three officers died in the firefight. Now there was real trouble.

An 1878 “Felons Apprehension Act” immediately proscribed the men, making it “lawful for any of Her Majesty’s subjects whether a constable or not and without being accountable for the using of any deadly weapon in aid of such apprehension whether its use be preceded by a demand of surrender or not to apprehend or take such outlaw alive or dead.”

The ensuing two-year saga was a captivating cycle of dramatic robberies, escalating government bounties, state hostage-taking in the form of imprisoned family and friends, and Kelly’s own Joycean self-vindication.

he would be a king to a policeman who for a lazy loafing cowardly bilit left the ash corner deserted the shamrock, the emblem of true wit and beauty to serve under a flag and nation that has destroyed massacreed and murdered their fore-fathers by the greatest of torture as rolling them down hill in spiked barrels pulling their toe and finger nails and on the wheel. and every torture imaginable more was transported to Van Diemand’s Land to pine their young lives away in starvation and misery among tyrants worse than the promised hell itself all of true blood bone and beauty, that was not murdered on their own soil, or had fled to America or other countries to bloom again another day, were doomed to Port Mcquarie Toweringabbie norfolk island and Emu plains and in those places of tyrany and condemnation many a blooming Irishman rather than subdue to the Saxon yoke Were flogged to death and bravely died in servile chains but true to the shamrock and a credit to Paddys land.*

The hunt culminated in a cinematic shootout at the Glenrowan Inn, Kelly an accomplices entering the fray clad in bulky but effective homemade body armor they’d literally hammered out of ploughshares. (It’s thanks to the armor’s protection of his head and trunk that Ned Kelly survived the Glenrowan siege so he could be hanged instead.) Now on display at the State Library of Victoria, it’s the most queer and recognizable artifact of an era that was already then slipping into the past.

Ned Kelly in his armor (left), and the logo of the Victoria Bushrangers cricket club patterned after it (right).

I do not pretend that I have led a blameless life or that one fault justifies another; but the public, judging a case like mine, should remember that the darkest life may have a bright side, and after the worst has been said against a man, he may, if he is heard, tell a story in his own rough way that will lead them to soften the harshness of their thoughts against him and find as many excuses for him as he would plead for himself.

-Ned Kelly, during his trial

This cut no ice with the men who judged him guilty of murder, but the brawler, cop-killer, bank-robber Kelly seems to have found a way to tell that story to posterity and its thoughts have softened very much indeed.

Everything from his hardscrabble upbringing to his romantic man-against-the-world criminal career to his iconic robot-suit armor to his existentially heroic last words “such is life” equips his image for posthumous appropriation. He seems one-half charming anachronism, one-half hirsute postmodern avatar, especially when you go sculpt a mailbox out of him.

131 years dead today, Ned Kelly remains very much alive in memory. To this day, descendants and supporters lay flowers at the Melbourne Gaol where he hanged, and the recent decision to release his remains for reburial (as Kelly himself requested) made national headlines.

As to Kelly in the wider culture … well, you can’t escape him.

* All this Celtic stuff because the cop whose allegation started the trouble was named Fitzpatrick.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Infamous,Ireland,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines

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