1727: An Irish deserter at Gibraltar

2 comments December 9th, 2012 Headsman

This account of an incident during the 1727 Spanish siege of Gibraltar, where the British army garrisoned, comes from an unknown soldier who signed himself only

December 9th. Last night a deserter clambered up within a little of Willis’s battery and was assisted by a ladder of ropes by our men. When the officers came to examine his face, they found him to have deserted out of the Royal Irish two months ago. Asking the reason of his return, he said he chose rather to be hanged than continue in the Spanish service, so is to have his choice.

It is not positively stated that the hanging itself did take place on this date. Since we concern ourselves in these doleful pages with the circumstances under which life becomes dispensable, an assortment of other anecdotes from this same soldier’s journal helpfully illustrate the life of British soldiery at the Pillars of Hercules.

March 9th. Came a deserter who reports that while our guns were firing at them an officer pulled off his hat, huzzaed and called God to damn us all, when one of our balls with unerring justice took off the miserable man’s head and left him a wretched example of the Divine justice.

April 12th. A recruit refused to work, carry arms, eat or drink was whipped for the fifth time, after which being asked by the officer he said he was now ready to do his duty.May 7th. This morning Ensign Stubbs of Colonel Egerton’s regiment retired a little out of camp and shot himself.

June 17th. Today two corporals of the Guards boxed over a rail until both expired, nobody can tell for what reason.

October 11th. One of Pearce’s regiment went into the belfry of a very high steeple, threw himself into the street, and broke his skull to pieces.

October 16th. Will Garen, who broke his back, was hanged.

January 2 1728. Here is nothing to do nor any news, all things being dormant and in suspense, with the harmless diversions of drinking, dancing, revelling, whoring, gaming and other innocent debaucheries to pass the time — and really, to speak my own opinion I think and believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were not half so wicked and profane as this worthy city and garrison of Gibraltar.


Model of a soldier being flogged on present-day display in the remains of Gibraltar’s fortifications. The adjacent explanatory placard reads: “Under siege conditions, the mixture of tension, boredom, hunger and alcohol meant that discipline had to be strict if order was to be preserved. One of the most common forms of punishment was flogging with a nine tailed whip. A drummer in a regiment, which later became the Lancashire Fusiliers, achieved fame as the most flogged man in the British Army. In his first years here [in Gibraltar] he received 30,000 lashes, of which 4,000 were administered in a single year.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Gibraltar,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Military Crimes,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,Spain,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1739: Michael Blodorn, “selvmordsmord”

1 comment June 1st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1739, Michael Blödorn was stretched out on a scaffold at Copenhagen’s beautiful Kongens Nytorv (King’s Square), where an executioner set about smashing his limbs with heavy wagon wheels.


A 1727 illustration of Danish prisoners broken on the wheel.

Scholar Tyge Krogh’s new book titled (and about) The Lutheran Plague of suicide-murder.

As he lay suffering, Blödorn sang vigorously — a joyful hymn to lift his soul to heaven.

That, indeed, was why he was being broken on the wheel in the first place.

Blödorn was part of an alarming trend in Lutheran countries that waxed especially strong in Denmark: a homicide-to-heaven loophole apparently licensed by the Reformation theology.

Crudely put, the scam is this: you have a sure ticket to salvation if you die with no un-repented sin on your soul. But the only real way to know when you’re going to die is to kill yourself … and since that’s a mortal sin, that’s even worse than risking the everyday mischance of life.

But do like Mike and kill a random stranger to incur a death sentence, and you get to check out pure as the driven snow: assured last-minute repentance with no suicidal downside. Everybody wins!

Um.

Actually carrying out this plan required what you might call a deep commitment to your theology: in an effort to discourage the practice without backing off the death penalty for murder, penalties for apparent suicide-by-executioner cases had been ramped up into an archaic bloody theater. Blödorn, a soldier, had already been suffering weekly floggings leading up to the execution. Civilian murderers could look forward to having the flesh ripped with red-hot tongs.


Ouch. A 1727 illustration of judicial penalties that might attend a suicide-murder: tearing with hot tongs, the breaking-wheel, and severed hands.

Still, selvmordsmord persisted (Danish link: or, here’s the same story in Norwegian).

At last in 1767, the Danes reversed course abandoned capital punishment for “melancholy and other dismal persons [who committed murder] for the exclusive purpose of losing their lives,” implementing instead sentences of humiliating hard labor: a punishment to fit the crime and also meet the larger society’s need for deterrence.

“This made Denmark a pioneer when it came to abolishing the death penalty,” said Danish academic Tyghe Kroghe, author of a new book about the suicide-murder phenomenon. “But it was not something they did proudly. The decision violated the religious understanding of the criminal system.”

Here’s Kroghe discussing his research … in Danish.

Crazy, right?

Executions of men and women who not only decline to fight their sentences, but even commit their capital crimes with the intent to engineer their own executions, are hardly confined to the foreign country that is the past.

Maybe you wouldn’t point the finger at Martin Luther any longer, but Denmark’s very last civil execution was of an arsonist so insistent about attempting murder that the authorities finally gave him the peace of the grave that he desired. We’ve seen in these pages the headsman courted by people motivated by depression and by romantic love.

And numerous more modern criminals right into the 21st century look every bit like selvmordsmord cases. For example:

  • Christopher Newton, who killed his cellmate to draw a death sentence and was executed in Ohio in 2007;
  • Daniel Colwell, who gunned down a couple randomly to “win” a death sentence in Georgia in 2003 but died before reaching execution;
  • Mamoru Takuma, the mentally disturbed author of Japan’s notorious Osaka school massacre, who committed the crime with no intent to escape and immediately demanded a death sentence (carried out in 2004).

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Murder,Soldiers

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2007: Christopher Newton

Add comment May 24th, 2011 Headsman

After Christopher Newton’s death in Lucasville, Ohio by lethal injection on this day in 2007, his attorney read a prepared last statement that apologized for the murder of a fellow inmate: “If I could take it back, I would.”

But the evidence of the “bizarre” execution says Newton was right where he wanted to be.

From the time the obese career criminal (pdf) garroted his cellmate in 2001,* he cooperated with investigators only to the extent that cooperation would grease the wheels of that so-called machinery of death. The entire thing was engineered to get Newton his last parole.

It still took him over five years to land on a gurney, but if you think that’s inefficient, get a load of the execution itself.

For going on two hours, the injection team poked and prodded at Newton’s veins in vain, trying to squeeze a lethal shunt into its gargantuan subject.

“We have told the team to take their time,” read a sign that a prison spokesperson held up in the hush-hush viewing chamber an hour into this discomfiting procedure. “His size is creating a problem.”

Minutes later, the 19-stone condemned man got a bathroom break during his own execution.

So far as anyone could see, the delay was anything but agony for Newton, who was generally observed smiling, laughing, and chatting it up with the prison personnel who were struggling to kill him. Finally, they managed to do it — an achievement which Ohio has latterly demonstrated is by no means a given.

* And allegedly drank some of Jason Brewer’s blood to boot, though this claim proceeding from a man who was intentionally pursuing a death sentence merits skepticism.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gallows Humor,Lethal Injection,Murder,Ohio,Ripped from the Headlines,USA,Volunteers

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1634: Anna Tait, “trublit in conscience”

8 comments January 6th, 2009 Louise Yeoman

(Thanks to historian and witchcraft expert Louise Yeoman for this guest post on an obscure and once-forgotten “witch” whose human tragedy all but leaps off the page. This post was originally an article prepared for the National Library’s now-defunct journal Quatro. Her work has appeared in many more high-falutin’ places than this here blog, and she is a co-creator of the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft.)

On the trail of Anna

If you look in Christina Larner’s Sourcebook of Scottish Witchcraft, you won’t find Anna Tait. That’s because she was one of many accused witches whose names were unknown to the compilers of the sourcebook. The details of Anna and almost a hundred others were recorded in a National Library of Scotland Advocates manuscript, which was overlooked many years ago when the huge edition of Scotland’s Privy Council records was in preparation. In the closing years of the last century, the editors of the Privy Council volumes carefully combed the holdings of the National Archives of Scotland for their material. What they didn’t realise was that a single volume of the Register of Commissions for the years 1630-42 had escaped them. In it were hundreds of records of Privy Council commissions to try criminal trials.

In it was Anna Tait.

I first came across Anna and Adv. Ms. 31.3.10 when my friend and fellow researcher Dr Michael Wasser of McGill University, Montreal showed it to me in the Library’s North Reading Room. Michael was (and still is) a historian of crimes of violence in 16th-17th century Scotland, and he was instantly aware of the significance of the manuscript. Almost the first thing he pointed out to me in it was a remarkable story of family tragedy. Out of hundreds of records, this one tale of domestic misery, horror and a woman’s life stood out. It stood out to the clerk who wrote the volume too. A commission is normally a bare record of who is accused of what crime and who is to try them. But the commission to try Anna contained harrowing detail. Almost straight away I agreed to transcribe her commission and to edit it for Scottish History Society. Why was it so remarkable?

Anna Tait ‘alias ‘Hononni’, was in the Scots of the original ‘thrie several times deprehendit putting violent hands to herself at her awne hous,’ in Haddington in 1634. In other words, she was caught trying to kill herself.

In 17th century terms suicide was one of the most heinous acts one could commit. It was like witchcraft, considered to be a particularly odious crime against God’s law and it was punishable by forfeiture of the entire goods of the victim and by a dishonourable burial in unconsecrated ground. What drove Anna to such terrible lengths?

The rest of the commission made the reasons clear. When Anna was apprehended for attempted suicide, she told a terrible tale of adultery, poisoning, domestic murder, unwanted pregnancy, botched home-abortion and death. Here is this part of the commission slightly adapted and with the spelling modernised.

She was for that cause, upon the 18th of December, taken and committed to ward within the tolbooth of the said burgh where being demanded and examined why she put hands to herself, she answered that the intolerable trouble of her mind, which she conceived for the murder of her first husband called John Coltart, nolt driver [cattle drover], and for the murder of her daughter, moved her thereto.

Confessing plainly that about 28 years ago, she being married to the said John, ane aged man, before the marriage she had sundry times committed fornication with William Johnston, her present husband, and that within the time of the marriage she had likewise committed adultery with him. To be quit of her first husband, she consulted with the Devil for his destruction, and that the Devil having directed her to make a drink of foxtrie leaves [foxglove leaves], she did the same, and gave it to her husband to drink who within three hours departed this life.

Concerning her daughter, she confessed that the daughter being with child, and she [Anna] having a purpose to murder the infant in the mother’s belly, at last she consulted with the Devil. He gave her direction to buy wine and to mix it with salt and give it to her daughter to drink, which she having drunken, she shortly thereafter departed this life.

So far, so sadly comprehensible, except for the inclusion of a character whose presence might seem unnecessary to modern readers — The Devil. The Commission finally proceeds ‘upon the 8th of December instant; she had carnal copulation with the Devil in her own bed, and that upon the 11th of December the Devil came to her bedside, gripped her by the hair of her head and did nip her cheek’. Suddenly a classic case of domestic murder and family tragedy is turned to that strangest of all 17th century phenomena to the modern mind: a witchcraft accusation. This was not just a case of three in a marriage, but three plus the Prince of Darkness. However, this wasn’t a strange notion to 17th century people. Where two, three or even just one person were engaged in works of wickedness, it went almost without saying that Satan was somehow present too. Anna was tried not as an adulteress or a murderer but as a witch – the commission was the licence to the magistrates of Haddington to try her, but where was her trial?

Records of such witchcraft trials held in local, rather than central, courts rarely survive. Whilst I was working on the commissions, I happened by chance to be helping someone with a totally different enquiry. Dr John McGavin was researching records of early modern Scottish drama. We discussed his research on poet and minister James Melville and Melville’s account of a dramatic performance in St Andrews. Hearing that John was soon going to be searching through the Haddington Burgh records in the National Register of Archives, I asked him if he would keep an eye out for Anna and any other witches he might happen to spot. To my delight, I soon had an e-mail from John telling me that her trial records were in the Haddington burgh court book.

Researching witchcraft cases can be an intense mixture of horror and delight for a historian. On the one hand to find unexpected light on a unique case is a matter for rejoicing. On the other hand, the details I found in the court book were even grimmer than those of her commission.

Anna had tried several times to hang herself using her own head-dress (her curch). When she was taken into custody, her suicidal behaviours became even more extreme. She attempted suicide again, both by trying to cut her own throat and then ‘when your hands were bound and your feet maid fast in the stocks, no other meanes being left to accomplish your devilishe designes, ye knocked your heid to the wall and stocks, wherby thinking to dispatch your self.’ The court book went into more detail, it claimed that Anna had sex with the Devil in the form of a black man and in the form of the wind and had made a covenant with him. Shape-shifting was a not uncommon piece of Scottish popular belief about Auld Nick, but on top of it were overlaid the sinister assumptions of European theories about demonic pact. One didn’t just meet the Devil according to the demonologists, one had sex with him, took his mark and swore one’s soul away to him. Anna was explicitly accused of all three actions.

The trial also gave more personal information about Anna to add to that from the commission. Taking both sources together we can say a little about her. She had married her first husband John Colthard, the cattle drover, 28 years ago at a place called ‘Furd Kirk’ in England in 1606. Cattle drovers went far afield in the course of their work and Anna had obviously travelled too. Interestingly enough she was accused of having made an appointment to meet the Devil at ‘Ellerslie’. The only places of this name are to be found over in the West of Scotland and not near her home in Lothian. Given 17th century spelling this may also have been the little Lanarkshire village of Elderslie, famed as the birthplace of William Wallace. Whichever it was, Anna’s world clearly stretched well beyond the confines of Haddington.

Age of marriage could be quite late in 17th century Scotland, so Anna was probably about or just under 50 years of age. Her second husband William Johnston was a miller who had lived at Winram, nearby Anna and her first husband. The proximity had assisted their illicit affair. Millers and cattle drovers could be prosperous members of an early modern community, so it is likely that Anna too had some standing in her community to keep up. She was probably very far from the stereotypical portrait of an accused witch as a poor begging woman going door to door looking for alms.

At sometime in her life Anna had acquired the alias ‘Hononni’, a Scottish variant of the English ‘Hey nonny no!’ a popular nonsense refrain in songs. It was an ironically jolly nickname for someone whose life was characterised by murder, tragedy and despair. We find the name of her beloved daughter too –- Elizabeth Johnston who died from the botched abortion. The records of this are chilling

The said Elizabeth, being as ye confessed with child (to whom, few but yourself knows and neither will ye reveal the truth of it), and apparently being loath to let it be known to whom the child belonged, she and ye sought all means to kill, to murther the child in her belly, that it might not come to light who was the father thereof, or how it was gotten, whether in adultery or incest, or what other unlawful way.

To that effect ye consulted with diverse of your confederates fra whom, ye got sundry feall [evil] counsel and by their advice, administered feall drinks to your daughter. But these not doing your turn and all other means failing you, ye went to your old maister the devil … who gave you advise to buy ane mutchkin of white wine, and mix a pint thereof with salt and minister the same unto your daughter, and it would do your turn. The which cruel and devilish counsel ye willingly obeyed and fetched the wine, mixt with the same with salt and gave it to your daughter to drink. By which she presently swelled and shortly thereafter both she and the child died.

In token wherof, you have confessed that the devil gave you as much money in true and real turners [small copper coins] as would buy the said mutchkin of wine and salt. And this deed only of all the devilish and abominable actions has most troubled you, and been the greatest cause of your desire to murder yourself.

In trying to cover up her daughter’s unwanted pregnancy, Anna ended up killing her child. Blaming herself for Elizabeth’s death, Anna no longer wanted to live. She tried repeatedly to kill herself. When it was put to her that the Devil had advised her do all this and that she had become a witch, it seems she barely bothered to defend herself. After all, even though she might have wanted to avoid the shameful death of being strangled and burned at the stake, at least it would have the virtue of ending her life. When the court asked whether she wanted anyone to speak in her defence, she answered ‘none but God in heaven’.

To modern eyes, Anna’s situation seems clear-cut. She had done some terrible things and for very understandable human reasons she wanted to die. Even in 21st century Scotland we would insist that, at the very least, Anna should go to jail for murdering her first husband and that she should be prevented from killing herself. Yet in 21st century Scotland, Anna would have been able to obtain a divorce from her first husband and her daughter would have been able to obtain an abortion (whatever you think of that). So the whole catalogue of tragedy might not have happened at all, or then again, perhaps it might. Was Anna a victim of a society which stacked the cards against women through its interpretation of the Bible or was she the sort of callous person who might have murdered a spouse despite all the advantages of a modern legal system? After all, the murders of spouses still occur. These are questions the historian can only raise and cannot answer.

Even in today’s society, however, a female criminal who had committed crimes of violence comparable to Anna’s would be unusual. To a 17th century society she was such a paragon of horror that the Devil had to be invoked to explain her conduct. In a society which stressed a woman’s subordination to her husband and saw her only rightful adult roles being those of a wife or a mother, Anna was a monster. To her community, she was not only an attempted self-murderer but also an adulteress and the unnatural murderer of her husband, daughter and unborn grandchild. By confessing to witchcraft, she had just about collected the set of the most appalling crimes a 17th century woman could commit. To be regarded with such horror in contemporary society, a woman would probably need to be accused of a string of serious offences against children or young people.

However Anna’s case also raises the question of her mental state and how issues of mental disturbance and suicidal urges were dealt with in her society. Such a suicidal defendant in a modern case might be found unfit to plead, but how did Anna’s contemporaries see her mental distress? Anna was ‘trublit in conscience’ and this points to the beliefs which probably helped to seal her fate. Despair as to whether one was part of the Calvinist ‘Elect’ or whether one was going to hell was a perfectly respectable state in Early Modern Scotland –- even to the extent of repeated suicidal impulses. This can be seen from the diaries, books, letters and sermons of radical Presbyterians and Covenanters. It was a very common phase of the Calvinist conversion experience of the 17th century. Demonic or even suicidal temptations were an almost a normal complication of the road to heaven. To despair over committing terrible sins worthy of hell-fire was not seen as being mentally unstable but as being eminently sane. Any reasonable Bible-believing person might think that way.

So Anna’s despair may have made her seem more culpable, rather than less culpable, to her interrogators whose beliefs would be that in her agony she had done utterly the wrong thing and turned in absolutely the wrong direction. She had, in their minds, turned to the Devil and not to God. Instead of despair proving to be a half-way stage for Anna on the road to conversion and eternal glory, Anna, it seemed by her confession, had failed to choose eternal life and had instead perversely chosen the ultimate dead-end: Hell. This was an offence made all the more horrible, as heaven in its Calvinist form, was no doubt being held out to her every Sabbath in their local church. Perhaps the reason it was necessary to punish the despairing so emphatically was pour encourager les autres; to make sure that when people experienced despair, they would in the Church’s eyes make the right choice: that they would resist the temptation and intensify their piety until the threat was overcome.

Faced with the reality of burning large numbers of accused witches amongst whom they found the suicidal and the mentally disturbed, later generations of Scottish Privy Councillors increasingly doubted the wisdom of this approach. In 1662 in the midst of a nation-wide witch-panic the council issued commissions under strict orders that to proceed with executing a convicted witch, it must be found that ‘At the tyme of their confessions they were of right judgement, nowayes distracted or under any earnest desyre to die’. Almost 30 years after Anna’s death, Scotland’s elite were becoming sensitive to the issue of attempted suicide by witch-confession and the mental state of the accused. It came much too late to affect Anna and because of her murder confession wouldn’t have saved her anyway, but it shows a little how things moved on even in that relatively short time frame. For Anna there could only be one ending — execution. Because she had confessed she was not burnt alive [burning alive tended to be reserved for those who died ‘impenitent’ ie. they refused to confess]. Her sentence was as follows:

It was given for doom [sentence] by the mouth of William Sinclair dempster [pronouncer of sentence] that the said Anna Tait should be taken, her hands bound behind her back and conveyed by William Allot, lockman [executioner] of Haddington to the ordinary place of execution, and there wirried [strangled] to the death at ane post and thereafter her body to be burnt in ashes, desuper act.

Note on sources

The commission for Anna’s trial is edited from Adv.Ms.31.3.10, f.102v. Her trial records may be found in National Archives of Scotland, Haddington Burgh Court Register B30/10/13, fos.24r-26v. A calendar of the witchcraft commissions in Adv. Ms 31.3.10 (including transcriptions of Anna Tait’s commission and her trial records) has been prepared by the author for Julian Goodare (ed.), Miscellany XIII, Scottish History Society, forthcoming.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Other Voices,Scotland,Witchcraft,Women

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1892: Jens Nielsen, the last in Denmark

2 comments November 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1892, serial arsonist Jens Nielsen was beheaded with an axe in the courtyard of Horsens prison — the last civil execution ever conducted in Denmark.

According to this Danish biography, Nielsen had incurred a long prison sentence for burning several farms in July 1883.

(He’d just returned from a fruitless stint in the New World, torching a warehouse in England on the return voyage.)

Apprehended immediately and sentenced to a long prison term, Jens confronted an age-old dilemma which was evidently noticeably acute among melancholy Danes: effecting state-assisted suicide on the scaffold.

These cases must have once been fairly frequent because Denmark, by an ordinance of December 18, 1767, deliberately abandoned the death penalty in cases where “melancholy and other dismal persons [committed murder] for the exclusive purpose of losing their lives.” The background for the provision was, in the words of Orste, “the thinking that was then current among the unenlightened that by murdering another person and thereby being sentenced to death, one might still attain salvation, whereas if one were to take one’s own life, one would be plunged into eternal damnation.”

The ordinance was ineffective in one case, at least, that of Jens Nielsen, who was born in 1862 and spent a most unhappy and unfortunate childhood. In 1884 he was sentenced to 16 years of hard labor for theft and arson. The following year he tried to kill a prison guard. He was tried, sentenced to death and received a commutation to life. He was then placed in solitary confinement. A year later he tried again to kill a guard, “realizing that he could not stand solitary confinement, did not have the nerve to commit suicide and wanted to force his execution.” He was again tried, sentenced to death and the sentence commuted. In 1892, having remained in solitary confinement all that time, he tried again to kill a guard. This time he got his wish, was sentenced to death and executed. (Source.)

He even managed to crack wise, “Thank you!” to the mayor who wished him God’s help on the way to the scaffold — envoy of the powers both temporal and ethereal that would finally loose his shackles.

Denmark’s death penalty law lingered into the 1930’s, but even the occasional death sentences were no longer carried out. Apart from a brief revival after World War II to punish war crimes committed the Nazi occupation, nobody has been put to death in Denmark in — as of today — 116 years.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Gallows Humor,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Pardons and Clemencies

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