1860: Samuel Brust

Add comment August 31st, 2017 Headsman

From the New York Times, September 7, 1860:

A Murderer Hung.;

HIS DYING SPEECH AND CONFESSION.

Some months since SAMUEL SIMON BRUST murdered WM. FREDERICK SCHMIDT, in St. Louis. BRUST fled to Cincinnati, but was soon after arrested there and taken back to St. Louis, where he was tried, convicted and sentenced. On Friday last he was hung in the yard of the St. Louis jail. On the scaffold, after offering a prayer, he made the following speech to the spectators:

BROTHERS AND SISTERS: This is my last minute I am here. In a very few minutes I am gone. I have completed my life.

I killed WM. FREDERICK SCHMIDT. I took the money from him. I confessed to my minister here from the very first day when I got my sentence. I was very sorry for it, because I have done such a big crime.

Now, our God he gave me punishment. He let me fall, drop down here far as to hell, and then afterwards he help me out again with His strength, with His grace. He help me up again so far I can stand up. I don’t care nothing about it. I don’t care anything about this, and I know, for I am sure and certain that God in Heaven is my Father. Jesus Christ, He gave me the grace, He gave me the law, and here I stand, knowing who I look to, and though I lose my life, I am very happy and very well satisfied with this. The only place where I found my help, that was the grace at the foot of Jesus Christ. That is the only place where any sinner, any big-crime sinner, can find help, as he suffered on the cross for all sinners in the whole world.

And I thank God for it, and I love him to the last minute for all what he has done on me. He gave me a sound body; he gave me a soul, and fetched me so far as here, but he never told me to do such a big crime as that. It was my own fault. It is nobody else have the badness to fetch a man so far as that; but if every man will look right what he is here if he have committed a big crime, and look right to Him, it is only the grace of God can fetch him so far as he find out himself his own heart. I confess myself as a big sinner, as a big crime committer. I have done it, and I am very well satisfied with this here. This here rope don’t fetch me to death. It kill my body, it take the life out of my body, but I know I got heaven for me. I know my Lord suffered for me on the cross, and I will get him for my help. I know I am a blind sinner. I found it very true, and what Jesus Christ has left in his words. That is the only place where a man can find out his sins.

It is very hard to die on this here rope, for a young man. But it is not hard for me, I know this rope will fetch me up to my home; I don’t take it for myself — this here rope, but it is the grace of God that helps me see this here.

I thank God for everything; I thank Him for the last minute I got a soul in my body. I wish every sinner to fall on the feet of Christ, and beg to Him for forgiveness; I wish everybody to go in himself and find Him out for help; that is the only help he can get. I had punishment harder than any man in this city, but I believe God told me in this kind of punishment here in this way. He knows how to get me out. I forgive everybody who have had anything to do with me, and I say to you, gentlemen, brothers and sisters, to-day the same. I wish now to speak a few words in German.

BRUST then delivered substantially the same speech as given above, in the German language, and during the entire delivery, his voice never faltered, neither did he exhibit any excitement or nervousness. When he had concluded he made another prayer, then stepped quickly upon the drop, adjusted the rope around his neck with his own hands, and put his arms behind him so that they might be tied together. The Sheriff touched the drop, and after a few struggles life was extinct.

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1900: James Nettles

Add comment May 7th, 2017 Headsman

From the St. Louis Republic, July 9, 1898

James Nettle has Partly Confessed.

Suspect in the Mann Murder Case Admits All but the Shooting.
Caused the Arrest of His Double in Order to Confuse the Several Witnesses.

James Nettle, the negro who is accused of the murder of Conductor Edward Mann of the Suburban Railway, on the night of July 4, after emphatically declaring his innocence and even going so far as to bring about the arrest of his “double,” Esbree Manley, a negro ventriloquist, as a suspect in the case, yesterday began to show signs of weakening, and at a late hour last night had confessed everything but the firing of the three shots which proved fatal to Mann.

The arrest of Manley on Nettle’s statement that he had overheard a conversation in the calaboose that a ventriloquist had a hand in the shooting, proved to be Nettle’s undoing. When confronted by Manley, Nettle was unable to carry out his well-laid plans. The striking similarity in the physique of the two negroes would have rendered it almost impossible to pick out the real culprit, but Manley met Nettle and the police with such a straight story of his whereabouts at the time of the tragedy that the former burst into tears and admitted after a little coaxing that he was in the street car fight in which Conductor Mann was slain.

He told his story between sobs, for he broke down completely under the strain. He declared that Mann had ordered him off the car and had returned his fare, in order to hasten his departure, when the fight started. He did not recall how they began fighting, but he said the conductor and motorman tackled him and forced him off the platform, threatening to do him violence.

Even after he had left the car, he said, the conductor followed him several steps. At this point the shooting was done, but all efforts to make the negro Nettle relate these further details have proven futile. In order to avoid the cross-fire of questions from Chief Desmond, the negro complained of being ill and had to be given medicine by the Dispensary physicians. Afterward he said he would not talk further on the murder until to-day.

The negro Manley was released last night after he had established an alibi.


From the St. Louis Republic, Dec. 16, 1898

Testimony Finished.

James Nettles’ Fate Will Be Decided To-Day.

To-day the fate of James Nettles, colored, charged with murder in the first degree, probably will be decided in Judge Tally’s court, after 10 hours’ argument by the attorneys for the State and the prosecution. At 11 a.m. yesterday the State rested and the defense was through at 6 p.m., having tried to establish an alibi.

Thomas L. Brown, the motorman of the car on which Conductor Samuel W. Mann was mortally wounded on the night of July 4 last, was the first witness for the State. He told how the negro boarded the St. Louis and Suburban car at Jefferson avenue, quarreled over car fare, and at Garrison avenue shot the conductor as he retreated from the car. He identified Nettles. Others testified that they were sure Nettles was the assassin.

For the defense, Michael White, a negro, with whom Nettles lived at No. 1321 Linden street, was the main witness. His testimony was that he and the defendant were together all day on July 4, and that Nettles was not at any time near the scene of the murder. He testified that they went to Kirkwood in the morning, returning to their home about 7 p.m., where there was an entertainment, at which both Nettles and White were present until 11:30 p.m. In corroboration of this testimony many witnesses were introduced.

In rebuttal, the State introduced Frederick Brunesman of No. 2641 East Prairie avenue, the motorman of the car which immediately preceded Conductor Mann’s car on the night of the killing. Brunesman identified Nettles as the negro who tried to board his car that night at Jefferson avenue, but was so drunk he fell off. Detective John Gallagher and Policeman Thomas Mahon told of an interview they had with Nettles on the day following his arrest. On that occasion, they testified, Nettles said he assaulted Conductor Mann because Mann rebuked him for misconduct.


From the St. Louis Republic, Dec. 17, 1898

Nettles Found Guilty

Jury Decides That the Negro Murderer Must Hang.

Had James Nettles, a negro, been informed that his dinner was ready, he could not have displayed less concern than when told the jury had found him guilty of murder in the first degree and that he must be hanged. Death seems to have no terrors for him and he smiled at his fate in the same indifferent manner with which he greeted the onslaught of the State’s witnesses. Never through the long trial has he ever manifested even a moderate interest in the proceedings. If he is guilty of the foul murder of Conductor Mann before his wife and children on July 4, he did not show it yesterday.

The cases on both sides were rested on Thursday evening and for four hours yesterday the attorneys for the State and the defense fought an oratorical battle before the jury. Finally, a few minutes before 2 o’clock, the case was given to the jury.

Then, for three hours the jurors debated the case, finally coming to a decision at 5 o’clock. Several of the jurors, it was learned, stood for a life sentence, but were converted to capital punishment on the ground that executive clemency might intervene to cut short the term.

The State had many witnesses who were on the car and identified Nettles as the assassin; while, on the other hand, the defense had nearly a score of negroes to establish an alibi. The State’s attorneys held that it was an alibi for the occasion and made efforts to break it down. One of the defense’s witnesses, who said he was with Nettles at a dance on the night of July 4, testified that there was a roaring fire in the parlor. Other similar statements served to weaken the alibi.

When the verdict had been rendered, Attorneys Van Patten and Morroll, for the defense, declared they would ask for a new trial, and in case it were refused, would appeal.


From the St. Louis Republic, April 5, 1900

Respite for Nettles

Governor Grants the Condemned Man Another Thirty Days

Governor Stephens last night granted a thirty day’s respite to James Nettles, the negro who has been condemned to be hanged for the murder of Conductor Samuel W. Mann on a St. Louis and Suburban car, near Leffingwell avenue, on the night of July 4, 1898. He was to have been hanged a month ago, but a reprieve of thirty days was granted in order to give the Governor time to examine into the merits of the appeals for clemency.

The death watch was placed on Nettles yesterday morning at 6 o’clock and has not yet been removed, as Sheriff Pohlmann has not received official notification of the respite. He expects a letter from the Governor to-day.

Nettles was not in the least perturbed yesterday. When the Reverend Mr. Hurzburger of the German Evangelical Church called at the jail last night with Sheriff Pohlmann and notified the condemned man that the Governor had granted a respite of thirty days, the negro, without any apparent emotion, thanked him for what he had done in the matter and reiterated his assertion of innocence.


From the St. Louis Republic, April 26, 1900

A QUESTION OF WHISKERS — Another attempt is being made to get Governor Stephens to commute the death sentence of James Nettles, the negro who was convicted of the murder of Conductor Sam W. Mann on the night of July 4, 1898. Governor Stephens has granted two stays of execution to allow himself time to investigate the application and petitions. At the trial some of the witnesses testified that Mann’s assailant wore side whiskers. Attorney Maurer had several barbers examine Nettles’s face, and he says that they will make affidavit that he could not raise side whiskers.


From the St. Louis Republic, May 6, 1900

To Be Hanged To-Morrow

Death Watch Placed on the Negro James nettles.

Chief Deputy Sheriff Pohlman yesterday for the third time placed the death watch on James Nettles, the negro who is under sentence of death for the murder of Conductor Samuel W. Mann. Nettles will be hanged at 6 o’clock to-morrow morning unless Governor Stephens stays the execution. Twice Nettles has been within the shadow of the gallows, with the death watch set, when each time the Governor granted reprieves that he might look further into the applications for clemency.

Nettles has all but lost hope. When Deputy Sheriffs Parcel and Hoefer escorted him from his cell on the second tier to cell No. 46 on the round floor, he said he guessed this was the last time. The cell to which he was transferred is the one occupied by all St Louis murderers during the last hours before their execution. Nettles was restless Friday night, alternately reading the Scriptures, praying and singing. When the deputies came in he seemed somewhat relieved. He walked between them up and down the exercise yard until 7 o’clock, when he went into his new cell, where he ate a hearty breakfast. At dinner and supper it was the same way; he seemed to take a last pleasure in ordering what he wanted to eat. He still protests his innocence.

He was convicted of the murder of Conductor Sam W. Mann on the night of July 4, 1898. Nettles got on Mann’s car at Jefferson and Franklin avenues. He refused to pay his fare and Mann ordered him from the car. A scuffle followed and Nettles fired a shot which struck Mann in the abdomen, causing his death a few hours afterwards. Mrs. Mann and two little daughters of the conductor were on the car at the time and witnessed the killing.


From the St. Louis Republic, May 8, 1900

James Nettles, the negro convicted of the murder of Conductor Samuel W. Mann of the Suburban Street railway, was hanged yesterday morning. The drop fell at 6:07 o’clock, and nineteen minutes afterwards the doctors pronounced him dead. Nettles met his death bravely and declared his innocence with almost his last breath.

The execution was conducted with precision and dispatch, but without unnecessary haste. About 250 spectators were present, but they were more orderly than those present at previous hangings.

Nettles was restless throughout the night preceding his execution, and did not sleep any. A number of friends called to bid him good-by early in the night. The Reverend Mr. Sachs, Nettles’s spiritual adviser, the Deputy Sheriffs on the “death watch,” and a few newspaper men remained with him throughout the night. At 3 o’clock in the morning the Century Quartet called at the jail and sang several favorite hymns.

Early in the morning Nettles retired to his cell with the Reverend Mr. Sachs, where they read the Scriptures and prayed until the arrival of Sheriff Pohlman.

At 6 o’clock Sheriff Pohlman read the death warrant to Nettles. The prisoner’s arms were then bound and he was led to the scaffold. Nettles did not falter, although he was a trifle nervous. After his legs and arms had been securely bound Sheriff Pohlman asked him if he had anything to say before he died. In a clear, resonant voice he said,

I am about to die for another man’s crime. The Lord knows I am innocent, and I go to meet him with a clear conscience. I love you and I hope to meet you above. I am innocent!

Then the black cap was pulled down over his head, the noose adjusted and Chief Deputy Sheriff Pohlman sprung the lever. Nettles’s body, after the drop, hung perfectly still. Nineteen minutes later the physicians pronounced him dead and his body was cut down and taken into the morgue. An examination revealed that his neck was broken.

Nettles shot and killed Conductor Mann on his car in Franklin avenue near Leffingwell avenue on the night of July 4, 1898. The negro got on the car and refused to pay his fare. While Mann was ejecting him he pulled a revolver and fired. Mrs. Mann and two little children were on the car and witnessed the murder.

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

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1864: James Utz, St. Louis spy

1 comment December 26th, 2015 Headsman

Confederate agent James Morgan Utz had a blue Christmas indeed in 1864, awaiting his December 26 execution for espionage.

The Missourian had been captured traveling with a small band out of St. Louis disguised in Union uniforms and carrying supplies and ciphered messages for the invading Confederate army of General (and former governor) Sterling Price.

The federals handled Utz as a spy and a military court sentenced him to hang — a sentence that had already been carried out by the time President Lincoln’s grant of executed clemency arrived.

Tuesday morning last I was horrified at the announcement by a friend that Jas. Utz, Paul’s companion and leader in their attempt to go South, had been executed, being hung on Monday, the day after Christmas, in the jail yard.

It plunged me in a stupor or excitement from which my mind was not free for the entire day. The sentence barely issued and the punishment instantly carried out! The hurry, the suddenness was most revolting. No time given for taking leave of family, friends! No time for appealing for mercy or for a reprieve. No time allowed for composing himself for death!

-Diary of a family member of Paul Fusz, one of Utz’s secret party. (Fusz, only 17 when captured, was pardoned after serving six months at hard labor.)

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1864: Barney Gibbons, chance recognition

Add comment August 13th, 2014 Headsman

One hundred fifty years ago today, Barney Gibbons was executed by musketry by the Civil War Union army in St. Louis, Missouri.

Gibbons was among the many soldiers in that chaotic war who in the time before identity cards and omnipresent databases deserted the respective armies at their convenience. Whatever the fulminations of the right-thinking against such behavior, only a slight risk of capture and exemplary punishment attended such an act.

Gibbons’ own slip into the statistically improbable might be the slightest imaginable risk of them all.

The New York native was enlisted in the Seventh Infantry Regiment when it was sent at the outset of hostilities to the New Mexico theater of the war; there he slipped away from the march one day and re-enlisted in the Confederate army, serving against his former comrades in several battles — notably Glorieta Pass.

Then Gibbons deserted the Confederate army as well, turned up as a teamster in New Orleans, and eventually made his way to St. Louis.

And that was that, or at least it often would have been. By 1864, who could bother to search out an obscure private fallen off the march three years before?

One summer’s day in 1864, however, a former 7th Infantry sergeant named Richard Day chanced to pass Barney Gibbons on the street and somehow recognized him. “He has a cut upon his lip, and a peculiar manner of walking,” Day would later insist at the court-martial. “Capt. Jones of our company was always at him because he never could walk like a soldier, he would throw his head forward and his arms to the rear. He always walked with his hands open and fingers apart even when he had gloves on.”

Now, despite the certitude of our verbiage so far, the fact of the matter is that “Gibbons” denied all this all the way to the stake — and there were no better forensics on offer than Day’s personal recollection. That was pretty much state of the art, even if we now know that eyewitnesses are highly error-prone.

We pick up Gibbons’s horrifying last moments (following Catholic baptism) via the New York Times correspondent, as reprinted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer on August 23, 1864:

Although there is not at the post of St. Louis an officer who ever witnessed an execution, the preliminaries were conducted in a skillful, orderly and decent manner. — All the troops of the post were in attendance, and a hollow square having been formed with one side open toward the embankment of the for, the condemned man was placed beside a post, with a seat attached, his common pine coffin lying on the ground beside him. After making a brief statement, in which he denied having deserted, but said that he straggled and was overtaken by the rebels, he pronounced his sentence most unjust …

He was seated, and his arms tied behind the post, a white cap was drawn over his face, and six musketeers drawn up within fifteen feet of his breast. The command was given:

“Make ready.”

“Aim.”

“Fire” and two bullets entered the abdomen. And now succeeded a few seconds in which transpired a scene which shook the stoutest heart, and made every human creature present shudder. From beneath the ghastly cap came a wail of agony which pierced every ear, and as the utterance “Oh! oh! too low,” escaped from the lips of the quivering form writhing in the throes of a horrible death, every one seemed paralyzed with horror. With a quick motion the officer of the squad waved the six muskets aside and four others took their place. “Make ready.” “Aim” — but mercifully before the third command was given, the four pieces were discharged, three leaden messengers of death entering the sternum, and a mighty convulsive shudder ended the being of the poor deserter. What an eternity of woe in those intervening few seconds! What a crowding of events from infancy, hallowed by a mother’s love and prayers to the dreadful details of the present scene! Yet, all passed before the mind’s eye of the dying man, and the wonderful palimpsest of his brain touched by the consciousness of instant death, gave him to see in a second all that had been for years forgotten, ere he entered upon the unknown.

The error in firing arose from the fact, discovered too late for remedy, that the sights of the muskets were set for long range.

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1875: Henry Brown, Skinker assassin

Add comment October 22nd, 2013 Headsman

Cincinnati Daily Gazette, May 27, 1875.

ST. LOUIS, May 26. — Philip Pfarr, a German, living on what is known as the Skinker road, several miles from this city, was murdered about half-past 9 o’clock last night, by a negro, name unknown, and his wife, who was about to become a mother, ravished. It appears that a negro man, about twenty-five years old, called at Pfarr’s house, about 5 o’clock last evening, and asked for work.

Mrs. Pfarr told him they wanted no help.

He called again about 7 o’clock, after Mr. Pfarr had returned from his labor in the field, and was again told no help was wanted.

About half-past 9 at night Pfarr and his family were aroused by a noise in the yard, and by the barking of their dog.

Pfarr went out to see what was the matter, and was met by the negro who visited the house in the evening, and struck a violent blow on the head, apparently with some blunt instrument, and his skull fractured.

Mrs. Pfarr, who followed her husband to the door, was then savagely seized by the negro, forced to give up what money was in the house, and afterward brutally ravished.

After the negro had fled, Mrs. Pfarr dragged her insensible husband to the house and aroused her neighbors, and everything possible was done for him, but he remained unconscious until noon to-day, when he died.

Intense excitement prevails in the neighborhood, and twenty mounted policemen have been scouring the woods and fields all day, but at last accounts had found no trace of the fiendish murderer.


Cincinnati Daily Gazette, May 29, 1875.

ST. LOUIS, May 28. — Mrs. Pfarr, whose husband was murdered last Tuesday night at her home, a few miles from this city, was brought to town, to-day, by the police authorities, and promptly and fully identified the negro, Henry Brown, who was arrested last evening, as the man who killed her husband and violated her own person.

Aside from this identification, Capt. Fox, of the mounted police force, has worked the case up to such a point that there is no doubt whatever but that the man under arrest is the one who committed the atrocious deed.


Cincinnati Enquirer, Oct. 23, 1875.

ST. LOUIS, MO., October 22. — About 2,500 specators were present at the execution of Henry Brown, who was hanged to-day in the jail-yard of this country, for the murder of Philip Pfarr, and the rape and robbery of Mrs. Pfarr.

All the forenoon the doomed man was melancholy and uncommunicative. At 11 a.m. his two sisters called on him and bade him farewell.

At 1 p.m. he was led to the scaffold, which he mounted with a ready, fearless step, It was evident that he had been liberally plied with whisky.

He made a rambling speech, twenty minutes long, and was so tedious in its delivery that he had to be reminded that his time was up. His harangue was incoherent and disconnected, such as any drunken man would make. He persistently denied the rape of Mrs. Pfarr, and asserted that he only struck Pfarr in self-defense.

His death was almost instantaneous, the neck having been broken. Eight minutes after the drop fell he was pronounced dead. His body was lowered into a rude coffin and carted off to the bone-yard.

BROWN’S CRIME

Was of a peculiarly atrocious character, involving, as it did, murder, rape and robbery. The scene of this triple deed was a small farm in this county, three miles from the city limits, on which lived a well-known German farmer named Philip Pfarr and his wife. The place is somewhat secluded, no one living nearer than one-quarter of a mile.

According to Mrs. Pfarr’s statement, a negro man, who was subsequently identified as Henry Brown, came to the house on the afternoon of May 26th and asked for work. Mr. Pfarr informed him that he had no work to give him.

The negro continued to loiter around the gate, and Mrs. Pfarr was so suspicious of danger that she would not permit her husband to return to the field to work that afternoon.

About nine o’clock that night Mr. and Mrs. Pfarr were awakened by the loud barking of their dogs. Pfarr went outside to ascertain the cause, and Mrs. Pfarr got up and stood in the doorway.

She heard her husband ask, “What do you want?” and immediately thereafter she heard a heavy blow struck, and saw her husband stagger and fall.

Before she had time to get out of the doorway the assassin, who was none other than Brown, rushed upon her, and throwing her violently upon the floor ravished her before she recovered from the stunning shock of the fall.

To complete his brutality, he struck her a severe blow on the head and demanded what money she had in the house. She delivered her purse, which contained only seventy-fie cents. Taking this he disappeared in the darkness.

The unfortunate woman was at that time in the last stages of pregnancy, and her injuries were so serious that she could scarcely walk. But she managed to go to her husband, whom she found lying at the gate breathing heavily. He was still able to move, and with her assistance reached the door.

She laid him down upon the floor, placing a pillow under his head and covering him with a quilt.

He immediately became insensible, and did not speak again. His skull had been crushed in with a heavy piece of wagon timber, which was found at the gate.

After thus caring for her husband Mrs. Pfarr alarmed the neighbors, who gathered in crowds. When she told her pitiful story the excitement became intense.

Old man Pfarr died at midnight.

By daylight next morning numerous parties had been organized, and the country for miles around was scoured.

More than twenty negroes were arrested and carried into the presence of Mrs. Pfarr, but she failed to identify any of them as the criminal who assaulted her. The excited populace came near lynching two or three suspected individuals, in spite of the declaration of the outraged woman that the right man had not yet been caught.

THE FATAL BELT.

The detection of Brown was brought about by one little circumstance.

In retreating from the room, the ravisher dropped a leather belt from his waist. A police officer took this belt and showed it to a number of people, among whom was a colored woman living near by, who instantly recognized it as the property of her son, Henry Brown.

The entire police and detective force were put on the watch for Brown, who had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.

The next day his arrest was effected and Mrs. Pfarr was brought to the jail for the purpose of

IDENTIFYING THE ACCUSED.

She had previously failed to identify at least twenty-five colored men, promptly exculpating each as they were produced, but as soon as Brown was brought into her presence she exclaimed, in broken English, that he was the man who had killed her husband, and ravished and robbed her.

In reply to her reproaches, the prisoner hung his head and confusedly said that he did not know what the woman was talking about.

Brown at first bitterly denied all connection with the crime, and alleged that he was not in the neighborhood on the fatal night. The next day, however,

HE CONFESSED

That he was walking past Pfarr’s place on the night in question when Praff came out and set his dog on him, at the same time throwing a heavy stick at him.

He caught the stick in his hands and threw it back, striking Pfarr and knocking him down. He persistently denied the assault upon Mrs. Pfarr.

He was tried September 15th, the jury, on the testimony of Mrs. Pfarr, promptly finding him guilty of murder in the first degree.

His attorneys were untiring in their efforts to save his neck. The Supreme Court refused a writ of supersedeas and the Governor declined to interfere. There was nothing left for the doomed African but the halter and the cap.

AN INTERVIEW WITH BROWN.

Your correspondent called upon the doomed man Wednesday afternoon.

At first he refused to talk, answering questions in profane and vituperative monosyllables.

After a brief time, however, he became more communicative. He bitterly denied the assault on Mrs. Pfarr and alleged that the blow he struck Pfarr was in self-defense.

He made a special request that his body should not be given to the dissectors, and asked his attorney to make a speech for him on the scaffold. His attorney promised him that both requests should be complied with.

Brown’s personal appearance was extremely brutal.

His forehead was low and narrow, his nose flat and his lips thick and projecting. His color was of that black and shiny hue so peculiar to the pale African. His look was diabolic. Nature seems to have stamped him as an assassin and cut-throat. His muscular development was something wonderful, and his strength must have been prodigious. Despite his protestations of justification and innocence, the community feels that his fate was just and well deserved.

(Line breaks have been added to all the above stories for readability relative to their solid-wall-of-text 19th century originals.)

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1278: Pierre de La Brosse, “out of spite and envy”

Add comment June 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1278, humiliatingly dressed like a buffoon, Pierre de La Brosse was strung up at Montfaucon without benefit of trial.

De La Brosse (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a court figure of the petty nobility.

He cut his teeth — and a holy beard — as a surgeon and barber in the court of Saint Louis. When Louis died on crusade in 1270, Philip the Bold succeeded to the throne. Philip was tight with Pierre, so this seemed like great news for the chamberlain — and indeed, de La Brosse advanced rapidly with the new king’s patronage in wealth and influence.

The power of this Touraine arriviste did not fail to attract the enmity of the realm’s hereditary lords. As their grandchildren would do in Enguerrand de Marigny‘s time, they nursed their resentments and awaited only their chance.

King Philip’s marriage in 1274 to Marie of Brabant* gave them that chance.

His influence eclipsed by the new bride, de La Brosse developed a dangerous rivalry with the royal consort. When Philip’s firstborn son by his previous marriage and the heir to the French throne died suspiciously in 1276, Pierre de La Brosse allegedly made bold to suggest that the new queen herself might have poisoned the youth off.**

Philip “investigated” this by sending emissaries to consult a clairvoyant who, knowing she was speaking to representatives of the royal family, gave a judiciously positive appraisal of the queen, leaving de La Brosse on very tenuous footing indeed. The barons cut that footing out from under their foe a few months later when they produced documents, likely forged, implicating de La Brosse in a treasonable arrangement with the Spanish crown. De La Brosse was imprisoned for six months and condemned without a regular judicial proceeding: he has the unenviable distinction of being the first victim of an extraordinary royal commission in France. That commission destroyed the evidence (or “evidence”) in the case, but to judge from the positive appraisal de La Brosse enjoyed from chroniclers the popular sentiment for his innocence was widespread.

Pierre de La Brosse is among the several French royal counselors who are sometimes apocryphally said to have built the Montfaucon gallows only to hang upon them. The last word on him (and the more interesting trivia) belongs to Dante, who stationed the man in Purgatory as one who was unjustly slain but without opportunity to cleanse his soul with a last repentance.

I saw the soul
cleft from its body out of spite and envy —
not, so it said, because it had been guilty —
I mean Pier de la Brosse,
and may the Lady of Brabant
while she’s still in this world, watch
her ways—or end among a sadder flock

* Not to be confused with the Bavarian princess of that name who was put to death for adultery.

** Another way to interpret this: poisoning suspicions that were afoot generally came to be ascribed specifically to de La Brosse.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1888: Hugh Mottram Brooks, for the Trunk Murder

2 comments August 10th, 2011 Headsman

Entomb your mate in a trunk and the Show-Me State will hoist your neck on a rope: Hugh Mottram Brooks found that out on this date in 1888.

This story had made worldwide headlines within hours of the time an employee at St. Louis’s Southern Hotel had opened the door to a guest bedroom emitting a horrible stench and discovered a corpse stuffed in a trunk.


Headline of the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, April 15, 1885. The story occupied the entire front page.

The remains, in life, had belonged to Charles Arthur Preller, an English traveling salesman who had been hanging about the hotel with his impecunious countryman, Brooks.

Those two had been understood on the premises to have been involved, in the Oscar Wilde sense. But the spark for homicide was mere avarice.

The dramatic note left pinned to the late Preller — “so perish all traitors to the great cause” — was almost immediately deemed a red herring, and suspicion descended on Preller’s recent companion, who had absconded with our dead salesman’s money.

A global manhunt pursued the fugitive, who was found to have fled to San Francisco and thence overseas; he was soon arrested in Auckland and extradited back to face a sensational trial — which, by the by, entailed disinterring the corpse to search it for evidence that it had been catheterized. (It hadn’t, and this rubbished the defendant’s alibi that he’d accidentally killed the guy while consensually chloroforming him in the course of a bit of home medicine.)

The wonderful 19th century crime site Murder by Gaslight covers this case and Brooks’s futile defense in meticulous detail. Aptly enough, the Trunk Murderer didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Brooks hanged along with another murderer, Henry Landgraff. The British government did make diplomatic representations on its citizen’s behalf, but they were ignored — prosecutors retorting that London had recently given short shrift to American citizen Patrick O’Donnell.

Part of the Themed Set: Branded.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Missouri,Murder,Pelf,USA

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1865: Not George S.E. Vaughn

11 comments April 14th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Abraham Lincoln had a date for Ford’s Theater — and with John Wilkes Booth’s single-shot Derringer pistol.

Abraham Lincoln was famous for his clemencies.

But Honest Abe had one last order of business to attend to before his carriage called him away to destiny: the pardon of a convicted Confederate spy due to be shot in St. Louis two days hence. Lincoln’s handwritten clemency for George Vaughn was the last official act of his presidency.

Lincoln in Story (“The Life of the Martyr-President told in Authenticated Anecdotes,” a light 1901 volume for popular consumption) relates:

Before the war Vaughn, with his wife and children, lived in Canton, Mo. He was a friend of Martin E. Green, a brother of United States Senator James S. Green, both strong pro-slavery men. At the opening of the war Martin E. Green recruited a regiment and received a colonel’s commission from the Confederate Government. George Vaughn enlisted under Green’s command and fought through the war.

After a period of fighting, Green and Vaughn crossed into Mississippi from Tennessee, camping at Tupelo, Miss. Not having heard from his family, Green was anxious to hear from his old home, so he delegated Vaughn to go on the mission of delivering letters to his wife.

Vaughn had almost completed his trip, having reached La Grange, six miles south of Canton, when he was captured by a squad of Federal troops.

They searched his person, and, finding letters and papers concealed about him, he was tried as a spy and sentenced to be shot. John B. Henderson, Senator from Missouri, finally succeeded in getting an order from the President for a retrial, but the verdict remained as hitherto. Again Henderson appealed to Lincoln, who granted a third trial, with the same result.

Henderson was not disconcerted, and again went to Lincoln. It was on the afternoon of April 14, 1865 — a melancholy date — that the Senator called at the White House. He called the attention of Lincoln to the fact that the war was practically closed, and said: “Mr. Lincoln, this pardon should be granted in the interest of peace and conciliation.”

This story gravitates naturally to the clemency of “the Great Heart” (as, for instance, D.W. Griffith called Lincoln). Far be it from us to say otherwise, but this is also self-evidently a story of the unusual prerogatives of the well-connected: not just any accused spy could get two trial do-overs and then a pardon free and clear ordered straight from the White House.

Mr. Lincoln replied: “Senator, I agree with you. Go to Stanton and tell him this man must be released.”

Henderson went to the office of the Secretary of War. Stanton* became violently angry, and swore that he would permit no such procedure.

Vaughn had but two days to live, and Henderson hastened to make one more stand. After supper he went to the White House. The President was in his office, dressed to go to Ford’s Theatre, when the Senator entered and told of the meeting he had had with Stanton.

Lincoln turned to his desk and wrote a few lines on an official sheet of paper. As he handed it to Senator Henderson he remarked: “I think that will have precedence over Stanton.”

It was an order for an unconditional release and pardon — the last official paper ever signed by Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was dead within hours. Vaughn passed away in 1899 in Maryville, Mo.

* Stanton is supposed to have delivered the remark as Lincoln’s deathbed, “now he belongs to the ages” … an alleged epitaph whose actual content is subject, like all biography, to textual uncertainty and ideological redefinition.


Update: The excellent tale of a different soldier pardoned on this same date has recently been debunked by the National Archives in an academic scandal: in January 2011, researcher Thomas Lowry confessed to altering the pardon order for one Patrick Murphy from the true (and much less dramatic) date of April 14, 1864 to April 14, 1865.

Vaughn was actually pardoned just before Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater; Murphy (totally unconnected to Vaughn) was pardoned 365 days prior.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Milestones,Missouri,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Pardons and Clemencies,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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