1860: Ann Bilansky

Add comment March 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1860, Ann Bilansky was hanged in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Bilansky — her Christian name is given as Ann, Anne, or Anna in various reports — was condemned for poisoning her husband, an immigrant Polish saloonkeeper named Stanislaus, so that she could get with her bit on the side.

Just a couple of weeks before Stanislaus’s unexpected March 1860 demise, Ann had gone with a friend to a local drug store and picked up a bit of the deadly powder, allegedly to deal with vermin. (This was arsenic’s very common, legitimate use.) She suspiciously tried to get her friend to put the purchase in her name.

The community suspected Ann a murderess as soon as Stanislaus dropped dead. She showed far less evident grief about her spouse than could possibly suffice for decency, and one local snoop peeped on her being a very merry widow indeed with her suspected paramour … on the very day after the funeral. Call it one for the road: the late husband’s stomach, when autopsied, had revealed that suspicious rat poison. She was soon behind bars, and would be convicted with ease.

(In July 1859, she escaped through a window of the barely-secure jail, rendezvoused with her old lover, and fled to the countryside. It was a week before the law collared her.)

Ann Bilansky continued to maintain her innocence at trial, in jail, and all the way to the scaffold. She reveled in the attention her case garnered and plied numerous visitors with claims of innocence and minute supposed errors in her trial. “She was a complete pettifogger,” said a newspaperman, “and had imbibed an opinion, which is common among better informed people, that technicalities could defeat justice in every case.”

But the versions of events she pushed on her many callers stood so starkly at odds with the evidence and the popular sense of her guilt that she even found her way into the local idiom for a time: a St. Paul resident could drolly call b.s. on someone by remarking, “You have been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”

Still, she was a condemned woman — and from the sound of it a rather appealing one — who asserted her innocence, and this meant she did not want for supporters. Legislators were among her jailhouse social circle, and she had enough sympathetic lawmakers that both the House and Senate actually passed a private bill for commutation of her sentence. Gov. Alexander Ramsey vetoed it.

Other visitors arrived bearing more forceful means of liberation: one slipped her chloroform, to disable the guards; a female visitor got caught in the act of trying to swap clothes with the doomed woman. Ann Bilansky even copped to having a specific family that she had arranged to hide out with if she could get out.

She just never quite managed the trick.

Ann Bilansky’s death was accounted a good one by the metrics of gallows-conduct: she did not faint or quail at the sight of the rope, or beg unbecomingly for mercy. But her last words plainly indicate that although she may have reconciled herself to death, she was not in the end at peace with the events that had brought about her end. (Many observers thought she entertained hope for the dramatic arrival of a last-second pardon.)

I die without having had any mercy shown me, or justice. I die for the good of my soul, and not for murder. May you all profit by my death. Your courts of justice are not courts of justice — but I will yet get justice in Heaven. I am a guilty woman I know, but not of this murder, which was committed by another. I forgive everybody who did me wrong. I die a sacrifice to the law. I hope you all may be judged better than I have been, and by a more righteous judge. I die prepared to meet my God.

Bilansky was the first woman executed in the state of Minnesota. (Minnesota had just become a state in 1858.) She remains to this date the last, and since Minnesota has no death penalty at present, she figures to keep the distinction for the foreseeable future.

Source: April 3, 1860 New York Herald

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1854: Uhazy, amid Minnesotan depravity

Add comment December 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1854, a Dakota Indian named Uhazy was publicly hanged in a scene of “Total Depravity” at St. Paul, Minnesota — the first execution in the Minnesota Territory.

Uhazy (many other transliterations are possible) was convicted of the 1852 murder of a German woman near Shakopee. He then enjoyed the hospitality of St. Paul’s jail for two solid years while his appeals played out.

Even when juridical remedies proved unavailing, there was at least some public sentiment for his reprieve.

A large number of ladies (including the wife of the previous governor) applied to territorial Gov. William Gorman for clemency. Gorman refused it.

Besides, if he granted such a petition, Gorman replied, “others of his savage tribe might be tempted to hope for a like release, and commit a like offence; and the danger of such results would be far greater from Indians than from civilized man.”

“Civilized man’s” tense relationship with the “savage tribe” would in a few years spark a brief war and (in Mankato, Minn.) the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Civilization had a different challenge on this occasion: the ribald street scenes that often accompanied public hangings.

St. Paul’s own Daily Minnesota Pioneer (Dec. 30, 1854) were far too genteel to report from the scene, a fact which of itself suggests the intelligentsia’s growing moral disgust for witnessing people witnessing executions.

As we had no inclination to witness the tragedy, we are unable to give the lovers of the dreadful a detail of the poor fellow’s suffering; but understand he met his fate with all that stoicism for which his race is noted.

Others were not so retiring. The scene they reported does not flatter; the mob was so large and unruly that when the sheriff set about erecting a scaffold that morning in a downtown square, he was obliged by Gov. Gorman to relocate it to St. Anthony Hill for public safety. (See this book.) Uhazy didn’t hang until 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

“Liquor was openly passed through the crowd, and the last moments of the poor Indian were disturbed by bacchanalian yells and cries,” one paper editorialized. “Remarks too heartless and depraved, in regard to the deceased, to come from men, were freely bandied. A half-drunken father could be seen holding in his arms a child eager to see well; giddy and senseless girls chatted with their attendants, and old women were seen vying with drunken ruffians for a place near the gallows.”

Capital punishment in general and the public spectacle of execution specifically long troubled the Minnesotan conscience. The Espy file credits Minnesota with just 28 executions in addition to that aforementioned Mankato mass-hanging; in 1889, the state moved all its exections behind prison walls and away from drunken ruffians. It hasn’t executed anybody at any venue since 1906.

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Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews

25 comments April 2nd, 2010 Jeffrey Fisher

Images of the Crucifixion









(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

On Good Friday every year,* Christians around the world commemorate the death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, rabbi, prophet, Son of God, Son of Man, messiah, and all-around trouble-maker.

The truth is that very little is known of Jesus’ life and teachings from verifiable accounts, but this has not stopped generation after generation of Christians from telling his story, beginning with Jesus’ semi-official biographers, the evangelists of the New Testament. Almost everything we know about the life and teachings of the physical human being Jesus are in those writings, which do not portray him always in compatible ways, and which are almost entirely unconfirmed by any external source. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions (with disdain if not disgust) Jesus’ cult following, as does the Jewish historian and philosopher Josephus, but neither gives us anything to work with as historians (or, for that matter, as theologians). For the record, Suetonius and Pliny also talk about Christians, but these piecemeal sources tell us much more about Roman perceptions of Christians than about Christ and his teachings, or even necessarily Christian beliefs and practices.

What, then, can we reasonably say about Jesus?

It is almost impossible to find universal agreement around anything more than a few basics, including most importantly Jesus’ crucifixion. The Gospels narrate it; Paul the Apostle (who never met Jesus in the flesh, as it were) hangs his theology on it, together with the equally important resurrection; and no contemporary sources (Christian or otherwise) dispute it.

But it’s when we ask why Jesus was crucified that things start to get interesting.

What did he do? The two men he is traditionally said to have been crucified with are commonly understood to be “robbers,” but that they were common criminals is highly unlikely. Crucifixion is a horrible death designed to make a very public statement about the crucified, the sort of thing you use on gladiator-slave rebels like Spartacus, not on pickpockets and roustabouts. The Greek term used for these two men (lestai) is consistent with the description of the released Barabbas as one who had participated in rebellious activities, whose “criminality” was related to his revolutionary business. Moreover, the name “Barabbas” means literally “son of the father,” a purely symbolic and surely entirely fictional name, and that the people choose to have him released indicates their affinity for him as a thorn in the side of the Romans. He is thus contrasted with Jesus, the other son of the father, the peaceful (apocalyptic) revolutionary.

So Jesus would have been crucified as a political criminal, a rebel. This would make sense of accounts of his having been identified by the Romans as “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Anyone claiming to be king (and “son of God” was a Jewish way of talking about the king of Israel recorded clearly in Psalm 2), would, if taken seriously, be understood as challenging Roman authority.

Insofar as Jesus seems to have been deliberately poking the Romans’ local running dogs, the Sadducees and the Temple priests, his seizure and termination were surely inevitable. If his teaching is as opposed to violence and unconcerned with “politics” as it seems to have been, it’s hard to believe the Romans would have noticed him without some prodding, this coming not from the “crowd,” but from the leadership (who in Mark and Matthew incite the crowd). Indeed, the priests and scribes look for ways to arrest him when the crowds are not around, because they fear a riot.

If we take the Gospel of Mark at all seriously, Jesus was preaching a new kingdom of God, an apocalyptic redemption of the people of the earth by God’s direct intervention (and with Jesus as the sacrificial pesach lamb). If we take the Gospel of Luke seriously, Jesus spoke in a classic prophetic mode, calling people — Jew and Gentile both — to care for the oppressed of the earth, the poor and the hungry and the helpless. Both Jesuses called for people to be better to each other, to love each other, and indeed to love each other when love was, according to common sense, the foolish thing.

Why would this get you executed?

Well, in itself, it wouldn’t. But the Gospel of Mark tells us of Jesus speaking with a man who realizes that all the animal sacrifices in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans (in that crazy world). When love counts more than sacrifice, we are undermining the Temple. When we go into the Temple, start knocking things over, and say it’s become about robbing the poor and not about loving God and one’s neighbor, we are undermining the Temple. And to undermine the Temple’s authority is also to undermine Rome’s authority, and Rome’s cash flow.

Jesus, like the Essenes he may or may not have associated with, was a purist.

The Temple was full of collaborators and exploiters, the kind seen before in the history of Israel (and berated by prophets like Isaiah and Amos), the kind hated also by the Dead Sea community of apocalyptic purists awaiting a final showdown between God and evil (i.e., the Roman Empire and their local potentates, the Temple authorities).

Jesus, like other Jewish prophets before him, thought that Judaism was about something. That it was somehow about justice and not just about following rules or waiting around for things to get better: that it was about our making the world a better place, and not just making our own lives better.

Start talking that way and get people on your side, and you’re fairly likely to get killed, even twenty centuries later.

* Though the actual date (even the year) of the execution marked by the movable feast of Good Friday is fundamentally unknowable, there are some present-day astronomer types who’d like to sell you April 3, 33 A.D.

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1906: William Williams, the last hanged in Minnesota

4 comments February 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1906, Minnesota hanged a Cornish immigrant for the murder of his homosexual lover … and hanged him so clumsily that it never hanged again.

William Williams shot Johnny Keller dead after Keller’s mother intervened in the teenagers’ relationship. A series of mooning-slash-menacing letters failed to win back affections. “I want you to believe that I love you now as much as I ever did,” Williams wrote. “Keep your promise to me this time, old boy, as it is your last chance,” he wrote, later.

When the man with the redundant name went to die in the dead of night at a St. Paul prison, it seems that there’d been a slight miscalculation. When dropped through the trap, Williams’s “feet touched the ground by reason of the fact that his neck stretched four and one-half inches and the rope nearly eight inches.”

Consequently, three deputies on the scaffold hoisted the rope up to get him airborne, where he strangled to death over the span of a ghastly quarter-hour.

Slowly the minutes dragged.

The surgeon, watch in hand, held his fingers on Williams’ pulse as he scanned the dial of his watch.

Five minutes passed.

There was a slight rustle, low murmurs among the spectators and then silence.

Another five minutes dragged by.

Would this man never die?

Fainter and fainter grew the pulsations of the doomed heart as it labored to maintain its function.

The dead man’s suspended body moved with a gentle swaying.

The deputies wiped their perspiring brows with their handkerchiefs.

Members of the crowd shifted from one foot to another.

There were few murmurs, which died at once.

Eleven, twelve, thirteen minutes.

The heart was beating now with spasmodic movement, fainter and fainter.

Fourteen minutes—only a surgeon’s fingers could detect the flow of blood now.

Fourteen and a half minutes.

‘He is dead,’ said Surgeon Moore.

The end has come.

And the end had come.

Two things happened in consequence of this sensational press narrative.

First: the news entities who promulgated these descriptions were themselves prosecuted under a law sponsored by anti-death penalty Republican legislator John Day Smith to make executions as secretive as possible. The St. Paul Pioneer Press, St. Paul Dispatch and St. Paul Daily News each caught fines of 25 bones or clams or whatever you call them.

Second: those illicit descriptions out in the public eye triggered efforts (eventually successful in 1911) to abolish the death penalty full stop in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

There’s a great roundup of the Williams case here, and a pdf from the Minnesota Historical Society about the background and consequences of the John Day Smith law, themselves quite topical for this blog.

Smith’s law was adopted as a half-measure when death penalty abolition couldn’t pass in 1889, as a bit of moral hygiene against the unseemly spectacle of public execution. The measure pioneered the familiar 20th century routine of conducting executions after midnight behind prison walls. Newspapermen derisively called it the “midnight assassination” law — but it was taken up by many other states over the succeeding years as public executions went extinct.

As for Smith himself … there’s a rumor of a ghost story, and (given a tragic love story, a sensational crime, a capital punishment milestone, and a queer identity) the palpable fact of a play.

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Feast Day of St. Stephen

5 comments December 26th, 2009 Headsman

The day after Christmas — or the second day of the twelve days of Christmas, in a more traditional coinage — is the feast of St. Stephen.*

St. Stephen is well-known as the “protomartyr”, the first Christian to die for his faith. (Jesus doesn’t count.) There’s a St. Stephen’s Gate in Jerusalem so named for its supposed proximity to the site of the protomartyrdom.

We get the Stephen story from the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, as given in this from the Tyndale-derived King James Version (Acts 6:8 – 8:3)

And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.

Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God. And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council, and set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law: For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us. And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.

Then said the high priest, Are these things so? … [elided; Stephen preaches on at great length before he comes to the point]

Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest? Hath not my hand made all these things?

Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.

When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.

But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.

And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.

The persecuting “Saul” at the end of this text is, of course, Saul of Tarsus, the future St. Paul.

Here’s a set of Catholic devotionals for the day, and here’s a more secular vibe on the day’s various quirky Anglo traditions.

As for that song …

Good King Wencesla(u)s, a tenth-century Bohemian ruler, is himself a saint — the patron saint of the Czechs, as a matter of fact.

Wenceslas was murdered in a palace coup, supposedly leading his servant Podevin to avenge that death, for which said Podevin was in turn executed. The lyrics of the song “Good King Wenceslas” celebrate the king and his loyal page undertaking together the charitable works they were famous for.

“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

* At least, it’s the Feast of St. Stephen in the Latin rite. The occasion is observed on Dec. 27 in the Orthodox tradition.

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305: Feast Day of St. Philemon the Actor

1 comment March 8th, 2009 Headsman

This is the feast day for St. Philemon the actor, supposed to have been hurled into the sea at Alexandria, Egypt, during the persecutions under Diocletian.

The fate of this otherwise obscure saint — he’s not to be confused with the first-century prelate to whom St. Paul addressed the shortest of his canonical epistles — is, of course, a byproduct of Christianity’s centuries-in-coming overthrow of the pagan world in which it incubated.

And in fact, Philemon the Actor’s martyrdom would have occurred towards the very end of the reign which saw the very last major anti-Christian persecutions. Already by this time, the young man whose sword arm would bear Christianity to its political triumph was a major political figure in the Empire.

The very next year, Constantine received the imperial purple, and over the ensuing years overcame his partners and rivals in that station to win unchallenged hegemony over the Roman World.

Laurels for Philemon and many others of his ilk would soon be policy for the empire that had put him to death, as celebration (perhaps exaggeration) of such travails cemented the newfound legitimacy of the formerly illicit religion elevated by Constantine.

Part of the Themed Set: The Church confronts its competition.

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1957: Jacques Fesch: playboy, cop killer, saint?

1 comment October 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1957, the dissolute son of a wealthy banker went to see Jesus on the guillotine at Paris’ La Santé Prison.

Annoyed that his estranged father wasn’t keen to finance his dream of moving to the South Pacific for a life on permanent vacation, Jacques Fesch robbed a moneychanger on the Rue Vivenne to raise the revenue — and then shot dead a police officer who gave him chase, orphaning a four-year-old girl.

Outrage at the murder of a policeman was redoubled as the callow hedonism — adultery, an abandoned illegitimate kid, and nary a hard day’s work in his life — of its privileged perp became widely known. Then, too, there’s the novelty of a financial sector scion requiring a firearm for larceny.

Fesch’s Catholic lawyer, Paul Baudet, undertook the Dostoyevskyan mission of saving client’s life and soul alike. The disinterested kid called him “Pope Paul” or “Torquemada,” but gradually — and then all of a sudden — something got through there.

Little by little I was led to change my ideas. I was no longer certain that God did not exist. I began to be open to Him, though I did not yet have faith. I tried to believe with my reason, without praying, or praying ever so little! And then, at the end of my first year in prison, a powerful wave of emotion swept over me, causing deep and brutal suffering. Within the space of a few hours, I came into possession of faith, with absolute certainty. I believed, and could no longer understand how I had ever not believed. Grace had come to me. A great joy flooded my soul and above all a deep peace. In a few instants everything had become clear. it was a very strong, sensible joy that I felt. I tend now to try, perhaps excessively, to recapture it; actually, the essential thing is not emotion, but faith. (Source)

Almost overnight he gave himself to monklike asceticism, but the legal situation was not as promising as the spiritual. French President Rene Coty declined to spare him under pressure from police, and on grounds that leniency to a cop-killer would blow back on officers then trying to quell rebellion in Algeria.

Tell your client that he has all my esteem and that I wanted very much to reprieve him. But if I did that, I would put the lives of other police officers in danger. (Source)

Fesch didn’t want to die, but he accepted his penalty with resignation.

Now, my life is finished. ‘Like a little spring flower which the divine Gardener plucks for His pleasure,’* so my head will fall — glorious ignominy — with heaven for its prize! (Source)

His prison writings have filtered out widely since his beheading, and fed a burgeoning personal cult; he is often compared with the penitent “good thief” crucified with Christ. The valence of that conversion for the death penalty as a contentious political or theological issue, however, is not necessarily abolitionist. Fesch himself mused that imminent execution might have been the very thing that moved his soul.

Do you know, sometimes I think, in good faith and with horror, that the only way I can be saved [in God] is perhaps not to be saved [from the guillotine] in the human sense of the word? (Source)

Controversially, the layabout who slew a policeman has been latterly proposed for canonization within the Catholic Church — although Fesch’s defenders here observe that saints from Paul on down have often had unsavory backstories.

The young man is much better known in Romanic lands than among Anglophones — here’s an Italian homily for him:

* Quoting St. Therese of Lisieux, an apt inspiration.

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