1955: Frederick Arthur Cross, “not a bit sorry for myself”

Add comment July 26th, 2019 Headsman

“I made up my mind to do away with myself and bought a tin of rat poison, but hadn’t the courage to do it. When I saw the man in the public house I got the idea that if I killed him I would be hanged. I’m not a bit sorry for myself, but I am sorry for him and I wish I’d known before this that he was married.”

Frederick Arthur Cross, depressed after his wife left him, insisting to his judge on pleading guilty to the capital murder of a stranger in a ‘suicide by executioner’ case. Cross was hanged on July 26, 1955.

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2010: John David Duty, the first pentobarbital execution in the U.S.

Add comment December 16th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 2010, John David Duty reclined on an Oklahoma gurney with an apology for his victim’s family on his lips, and became a milestone: the first U.S. inmate executed using pentobarbital in the lethal injection process.

Already sure to die in prison via sentences from his 1978 convictions for kidnapping, rape, attempted murder, and robbery, Duty spared himself some time by recruiting the state to assist in his suicide.

His means of doing so was the murder of his new 22-year-old cellmate Curtis Wise, which Duty tried to tell Wise’s mother all about in a taunting letter that was confiscated before it hit the post:

Mary Wise,

Well by the time you get this letter you will already know that your son is dead. I know now because I just killed him an hour ago. Gee you’d think I’d be feeling some remorse but I’m not. I’ve been planning since the day he moved in last Friday. Tonight I finally pulled it off. Would you like to know how I did it? Well I told him I wanted to use him as a hostage. Hell he went right for it, thinking he was gonna get some smokes out of the deal. Well I tied him up hands and feet, then I strangled him. It’s not like the movies, it took awhile. But I really did him a favor as he was too stupid to live. I mean he didn’t know me 5 days and he let me tie him up like that, Please! Besides he was young and dumb and would’ve just been in and out of prison his whole life.So I saved him all the torment. I’ve been in 24 years, wish someone would have done me the same favor back then. I guess you’re thinking I’ll be punished for this. Well not likely in this county. The DA’s here are weak bitches and don’t give a damn about deaths of inmates. We’re all just scum to them. Besides I’m doing 2 life sentences so they can’t hurt me. But you can call them and tell them about this letter, but it wouldn’t do you any good. Well I’m gonna close for now and I’ll tell police in the morning about Curtis.

Even though Mary Wise argued against it in court, this horrific gambit secured him his desired death sentence — with the help of Duty’s credible vows to kill again if he didn’t get what he wanted. Perhaps entertaining second thoughts, Duty did pursue his appeals, however, and that meant that the legal journey of his case did not reach its end until almost a decade later — a new era in American lethal injection, as it turned out.

Ever since lethal injection debuted in 1982 it had taken over as the go-to execution method around the United States. But by about 2010, it was increasingly difficult to come by the first drug in the standard lethal injection “cocktail”, sodium thiopental.

The system has been adapting ever since, including switches to a variety of alternative drug combinations that sometimes have ghastly results.

And Duty’s was the very first execution* to so adapt.

To kill him, Oklahoma sedated him first not with sodium thiopental, but with pentobarbital — the very first use of this drug, which has gone on to become one of the most frequently deployed substitutes for thiopental in death chambers around the country. Although Duty fought the chemical innovation on appeal (again contradicting his original suicidal intent) pentobarbital wasn’t exactly experimental: it had been used for animal and human euthanasia for years.

“There were no apparent issues” with the execution, a Department of Corrections spokesperson said afterwards.

* Ohio on December 8 of 2009 conducted an execution using only sodium thiopental, deviating from the three-drug protocol while still using one of its standard constituents. Pentobarbital itself has also subsequently been used in single-drug executions; consult the Death Penalty Information Center for up-to-date information on the still-shifting landscape of lethal injection protocols in the U.S.

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1794: The neighbors of Susan Sorel, the female atheist

1 comment May 28th, 2017 Lewis Goldsmith Stewarton

(Thanks to Lewis Goldsmith aka “Stewarton” for the guest post, cribbed from his The Female Revolutionary Plutarch -ed.)

Susan Sorel

The Female Atheist

Mais tout passe, et tout meurt, tel est l’arret du sort;
L’instant ou nous naissons est un pas vers la mort.

That the hardened criminal should silence or repulse the clamour of his conscience, and in a trembling despair call out “There is no God!” cannot be surprising; his enormities bid defiance to a divinity; he cannot endure to think of what he has such dreadful reason to fear; the very idea of an omnipotent God must to him be a hell upon earth. But that modest virtue, pure morality, honour, and loyalty, should be misled, to embrace the shocking, despairing, and destructive tenets of atheism, and disbelieve and deny a remunerator of good and evil, after all the abominations witnessed in France since the revolution, loudly proclaims the dangerous progress infidelity has made in that country, as well as the dangerous effects of the sophistical notions disseminated in the works of a Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Helvetius, Raynal, and other French philosophers.

Susan Sorel had inherited from her parents property producing about nine thousand livres (375 l.) per annum, near Metz, in ci-devant Lorrain. She had from her youth evinced an inclination for literary information and for a studious life; and when at the age of twenty-five, by the death of her parents, she became mistress of her fortune, she declined all offers of marriage entirely, to avoid all interruption to the gratification of her leading passion for reading. The revolution, and the famine and the horrors that accompanied it, gave her an opportunity to gain the admiration of all her neighbours by acts of generosity, that announced a heart as tender and liberal as a mind noble and philanthropic. She not only distributed among the poor all her superfluities, but frequently refused herself the necessaries of life to relieve suffering humanity. She paid no visits, and received but little company. Though she never went to church herself, she advised her servants never to neglect mass or vespers. She frequently presented the curate of her parish with liberal donations; and when in the beginning of 1794 the republicans proscribed and pursued him with all other christian priests, she, at the risk of her own life, concealed him in her house, and paid the same attention and respect to him as if she had belonged to his flock, or been one of the faithful. Four days before her death she presented him with a purse containing one hundred louis-d’ors, and a passport which would carry him safe to Germany, for which she had paid the same sum.

On the 21st of May 1794, she invited forty-four children of her neighbours to a dinner and ball, which continued till past midnight. She seemed not only composed and tranquil, but lively and gay, partaking with pleasure in the enjoyments and amusements of innocence and youth. When they retired she gave them each a louis-d’or in money, to be spent when monarchy was restored in France, and six yards of white riband to decorate themselves with on the same occasion.

A few weeks before, she had caused a small summer-house, or rather hut of dry wood, to be constructed in her garden, which she furnished in a neat and plain manner. Half an hour after the children had left her, the gardener heard reports of pistols, and looking out observed the hut on fire on all sides; and before he could procure any water or assistance to extinguish it, the hut was consumed, and Mademoiselle Sorel reduced to ashes. She probably had this hut built only to serve her as a funeral pile.

As soon as it was day-light the servants sent for the justice of peace (in France they have ho coroners), who, after taking an inventory of her effects, put a seal on the house. He found upon the table in her study a letter addressed to himself. In it she made him a present of fifty louis-d’ors, desiring him to have her ashes collected to be thrown into the river Moselle. She informed him that it was not by accident but by design, that she had burned the hut and herself, having chosen that death as the most agreeable and the most clean in departing from a world she detested so much, that she preferred to it even an annihilation, of which she was certain. She stated that, not to surwive the day she had calmly fixed on for her exit, she had set the hut on fire before she shot herself. She asked him to have her last will read at the department, as well as the papers accompanying it, some of which she hoped would give consolation to the wretched, and explain and palliate her conduct to the good and loyal.

My Last Will and Testament

In the name of no God! I, Susan Sorel, sound in mind and body, de bequeath all my landed property and estate, all my household furniture, money, and valuables; in few words, every thing that can be called mine upon earth, (after two years wages have been paid to each of my servants), to his Majesty the king of France and Navarre, Louis XVII or his heirs and successors, to be disposed of by him or by them, as he or they judge and think proper, to some unfortunate sufferer whom the revolution has ruined for his attachment to his lawful sovereign. Until the restoration of royalty, Nicholas Nerein and Jacques Meunier, my neighbours, whom I appoint my executors, are requested to see that my lands are well cultivated and my rents paid; and to distribute the same to the full amount among all the poor of our parish, deducting only six hundred livres (25 l.) a year each for their trouble. They may either let or occupy themselves my principal dwelling, upon condition of keeping it in the best possible repair, until it with every thing else can be delivered up to the rightful owner; such a one as is nominated by the first Bourbon who is acknowledged a King of France and Navarre. Written, signed, and sealed by myself, at ten o’clock in the morning, May 21st, 1794; or, in the republican jargon, Floreal 30th, year II of the republic, one and indivisible.

(Signed)
SUSAN SOREL.

My Last Creed.

The world has never been created, but produced by incomprehensible, mechanical causes and occurrences, and has by degrees become nearly as it is. It will remain with little variation in the same state’ to all eternity.

A God is the invention of fear, and the idol of folly and ignorance. I too in my youth worshipped a God, adored his Son, prayed to a virgin-mother, and knelt before human saints. I too confessed, fasted, subjected myself to mortifications, and wore relics. I too attended church, followed processions, prostrated myself before the host, sung hymns, and made vows. My sincere piety, my ardent devotion, was first shaken by seeing the prosperity of crime, the sufferings of innocence, and the misfortunes of virtue.

When I saw the best and most virtuous king that ever ruled France, in return for his pure and patriotic wishes to make his subjects free and happy, rewarded by ingratitude, insults, and pains — I said, No, there is no God!

When his loyal life-guards were murdered in doing their duty, and their known assassins remained unpunished — I said, No, there is no God!

When this good king was carried to Paris, and there detained a prisoner by those very subjects to whom he had offered liberty, and outrage was added to confinement — I said, No, there is no God!

When with his nobly resigned queen and family, he was arrested and ill-treated in a journey he had undertaken to restore order to his kingdom, and tranquillity and happiness to his subjects — I said, No, no, there is no God!.

When first treacherously assaulted in his own palace, and afterwards barbarously dragged from the throne he was so worthy to occupy, to a prison his virtues purified and sanctified — No! no! no! said I, there can be no God!

When, in the course of a few months, his innocent blood was shed by the hands of criminals on a scaffold erected for criminals — It is impossible, said I, it is impossible there can be any God!

When I saw honour and loyalty bleeding and flying, and robbers, rebels, and regicides victorious — No! no! said I, there is no God!

When I saw altars erected to Marat, and heard that his sanguinary accomplices pronounced his apotheosis, without being crushed by the thunder of heaven — No! no! no! said I, there is no God!

When I read that a prostitute was worshipped upon an altar consecrated to a God who did not revenge this sacrilegious outrage — No! no! said I, there is no God!

When Marie Antoinette, whose courage, sufferings, and resignation, were so great and so edifying, and whose faults and errors were so few and so exaggerated, ascended the same scaffold where her royal consort Louis XVI had bled — No! no! no! said I, there is no God!

When the model of fennale virtue and purity, of religious sanctity, of parental and sisterly heroism, the royal Princess Madame Elizabeth, was condemned by regicide murderers to die like the parricide or assassin — No! no! no! said I, there never has been, there never can be a God!

It is time, said I, to depart from a world where every thing vile, corrupt, and guilty, is fortunate, and where every thing elevated, good, generous, and honourable, is wretched. If there is another world, what have I to apprehend? My life is pure; the blood of no being have I shed; the property of no person have I plundered; the rights of no individual have I invaded, and the reputation of no person have I injured. I may therefore, said I, reduce myself to ashes, to annihilation, with as much indifference as I strip myself of my garment when I undress to go to bed. Should a God, a supernatural being, whom I am unable to comprehend or to believe in ; should he really exist, and have created such vile creatures as man and woman, I — humble I, am no shame, no disgrace to his work, to his performance! Though not confiding in him myself, I have not only not prevented any body from doing so, but have encouraged and enjoined many to trust in his justice and his bounty. It is also true, I observed that those I thus advised had neither energy of character, for strength of mind, to see in themselves every thing inferior, equal, and above them. For their repose they required some terrific superior — a Robespierre in the heavens to bow to, to tremble before.

To my young neighbours, whose innocent enjoyments made my last hours so happy, and my journey into the shades of oblivion so easy.

Sweet children! die soon, or misery is your lot; die soon, or you will deplore existence as a curse. Die soon, or the assassin’s dagger will stab you, the poisoned tooth of the calumniator wound you; or, what is worse, and more insupportable, the arrow of wretchedness will pierce your tender bosom without killing you, suspend you for years between existence and annihilation, and leave you just enough of life to feel all its horrors. Die soon, or you will, like myself, witness that what disgraces human nature prospers, what degrades it succeeds. Die soon, or you will see modesty trampled upon by impertinent or rude audacity; folly and impertinence tyrannize over wisdom and prudence; and unpunished ferocity intimidate equally the brave and the coward, the good and the bad, the virtuous and the wicked. Die soon, or you will die a thousand times before you expire. To die is nothing; you must all die sooner or later: it is only the agony of death that is terrible, insufferable.

To my good neighbours, Nicholas Nerein and Jacques Meuitier.

My will and the charge entrusted to you, my friends, prove how sincerely I esteem you, and my confidence in you. Shew yourselves worthy of it by discharging your duty faithfully. You know since the death of my nephews I have no relations left: I therefore do not infringe on the ties of consanguinity in presenting my offering to loyalty. As the last proof of my friendship for you both when, tired of living, I bequeath you my example of dying. Embrace your wives and children on the part of your and their departed friend,

SUSAN SOREL.


The department of the Moselle, instead of approving of the will of Susan Sorel, considered her as an enemy of the republic, who by suicide had prevented the effect of national justice, and therefore confiscated her property for the benefit of the nation. Nicholas Nerein and Jacques Meunier they caused to be arrested as suspected, and delivered up to the revolutionary tribunal, which condemned them both to death as accomplices of Susan Sorel. They were executed on the 28th of May, 1794.

On the back of the paper containing what she called Her Last Creed, were written the following lines:

On a vue souvent des athees
Vertueux malgre leurs erreurs:
Leurs opinion infectees
N’avoient point infectes leurs moeurs.
Spinosa fut doux, juste, aimable:
Le Dieu que son esprit coupable
Avoit follement combattu,
Prenant pitie de sa foiblesse,
Lui laissa l’humain sagesse,
Et les ombres de la vertu.

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1945: Charles Ford Silliman, suicide pact?

Add comment November 9th, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1945, stripped down to his socks and underwear, 35-year-old truck driver and double murderer Charles Silliman was gassed in Colorado’s death chamber. He died for the murder of his wife, Esther Corrine Silliman, and their four-year-old daughter.

Charles and Esther had been married for nine years and didn’t have any relationship problems that anybody knew about. After dinner on January 22, 1944, he poured her nightly glass of brandy. He also gave a small amount to little Patricia Mae. Both mother and child became violently ill and quickly expired.

Charles said he had no idea what had caused their deaths, and suggested food poisoning as a possible answer. When the cops arrived on the scene, they found the grieving husband and father studying his wife and daughter’s life insurance policies.

The police were suspicious, especially after Charles began weeping and pulled out a handkerchief marked with lipstick. He said the lipstick was his wife’s, but … she never wore makeup.

Chemical analysis showed the brandy had been laced with strychnine, and a bottle of the poison turned up hidden in the tire kit in Silliman’s car. The police theorized he had committed the murders to collect on the insurance and be with “a woman whom he met in a beer tavern in Denver and later … while his wife was absent, he rather frequently visited.”

Charged with murder, Silliman admitted to the poisonings and said he and his wife, plagued by poor health and debt, had jointly decided to commit suicide and take both their children with them — but that he chickened out and was unable to go through with it. (Son Charles Jr. was not harmed, as he was living with his grandparents at the time of the murders.)

Silliman was tried for his wife’s murder only, and he told the jury about the unfinished suicide pact. The prosecution pointed out that, even if his story was true, the deaths of Esther and Patricia still constituted first-degree murder.

His insanity plea didn’t go anywhere either. “We are convinced from the record,” ruled the appellate court, “as the jury must have been from the evidence, that defendant’s insanity was an afterthought and conceived by him as a means of escaping the penalty which, under the evidence, he merited.”

Silliman did, however, gain an extra two hours of life: executions at the Colorado prison normally took place at 8:00 p.m., but at that time there was a Chamber of Commerce banquet going on and 550 guests were chowing down on turkey. The warden delayed the execution until 10:00 p.m., after dinner was over and everyone had left the prison.

His last words were, “I do not fear. I am going to a better world.”

(An aside: elsewhere in the United States on that same November 9, 1945, Jesse Craiton and Noah Collins were electrocuted in Georgia for robbery-homicide, and Cliff Norman died for rape in Oklahoma’s electric chair.)

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1760: John Bruleman, weary of life

Add comment October 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1760,* silversmith and murderer John Bruleman (sometimes given as Bruelman or Bruellman) was hanged by his own wish. “Weary of life,” he “had committed the crime to escape from the toils and troubles of the world.”

The Boston Evening-Post of Nov. 3, 1760 records of the tragedy (line breaks have been added for readability):

PHILADELPHIA, Octob. 16.

John Bruleman, who was executed here the 8th inst. for the murder of Mr. Scull, had been an officer in the Royal American regiment; but being detected in counterfeiting, or uttering counterfeit money, was discharged: He then returned hither, and growing insupportable to himself, and yet being unwilling to put an end to his own life, he determined upon the commission of some crime, for which he might get hang’d by the law.

Having formed this design, he loaded his gun with a brace of balls, and ask’d his landlord to go a shooting with him, intending to murder him before his return, but his landlord not choosing to go escaped the danger.

He then went out alone, and on the way met a man, whom he was about to kill, but recollecting that there was no witnesses to prove him guilty, he let the man pass.

He then went to a public house, where he drank some liquor, and hearing people at play at billiards, in a room above stairs; he went up and sat with them, and was talkative, facetious, and good-humour’d; after some time, he called to the landlord, and desired him to hand up the gun. Mr Scull, who was at play, having struck his antagonist’s ball into one of the pockets, Bruleman said to him, — “Sir you are a good marks-man, — and now I’ll show you a fine stroke.”

He immediately levell’d his piece, and took aim at Mr. Scull (who imagined him in jest) and shot both balls thro’ his body. — He then went up to Mr. Scull (who did not expire nor lose his senses, till a considerable time after) and said to him, — “Sir, I had no malice nor ill-will against you, I never saw you before, but I was determined to kill somebody, that might be hanged, and you happen to be the man, and as you are a very likely young man, I am sorry for your misfortune.”

Advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal, Oct. 2, 1760

Mr. Scull had time to send for his friends, and to make his will. He forgave his murderer, and if it could be done, desired he might be pardoned.

Bruleman did not think it worth his while to prepare for another world, notwithstanding sundry clergymen were continually soliciting him thereto; and would ot forgive his enemies, saying he left them to the mercy of the Almighty.

* Oct. 22 is a widely-cited date; however, it is unambiguously incorrect per the contemporary newspaper reports. It probably traces to the date (mis)reported in the Espy file of historical American executions.

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1824: Antonio Brochetti, galley-dodger

Add comment May 22nd, 2014 Headsman

From Henry-Clement Sanson‘s memoirs:

On May 22 the scaffold was again erected for the execution of an Italian, a native of Rome, named Antonio Brochetti. He was imprisoned at Bicetre at the time of the murder, he having been previously sentenced to hard labour for life. He killed one of the turnkeys, with no other object than putting an end to his own life. Life in a prison or in the hulks seemed to him a much more severe punishment than death. His wish was fulfilled; he was condemned to death, and executed on the Place de Greve five days after, at four o’clock in the afternoon.

He went to the scaffold with eagerness. “I would rather die a thousand times than go to the hulks!” he exclaimed several times. Since Brochetti’s execution the severity displayed in French penitentiaries has increased; and his example has been followed by many.

“Galley slavery” in the antique Ben-Hur sense had been a mainstay of European navies since France got the bright idea to address a shortage of oarsmen by making press gangs out of magistrates. This idea was widely copied, and intensified.

At their peak in 1690, French galleys had 15,000 under oars — captured Turks, defeated Huguenots, slaves seized from Africa and North America, and, of course, criminals or anyone who could be construed as such.

Yet even by this time the galley was virtually obsolete as a military asset; Paul Bamford argues that they were maintained for pageantry and (internal) state-building for the French crown. Thus, as the 18th century unfolded, “galley” slaves were increasingly used for hard labor on the docks and in the arsenals — still-brutal punishment in a similar spirit, but no longer literally pulling an oar. By 1748, they were at last formally subsumed into a network of port prisons.

By this late date, however, usage had established the word galérien for convict galley-slaves so firmly that it persisted even now with the new redefinition.** (Italian still to this day has la galera for prison: the acme of seagoing Italian city-states coincided with that of the galley.)


Galleys’ greatest day: the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

* Lionel Casson (in “Galley Slaves” from the Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 97 (1966)) dates this to a January 22, 1443 edict of Charles VII conferring on merchant Jacques Coeur the right to impress vagabonds into his fleet.

** Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean (Les Miserables) was a galley-slave; he would have been by Antonio Brochetti’s time just a few years out of the galleys himself.

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1668: A Dutch suicide, posthumously gibbeted

2 comments June 26th, 2013 Headsman

A man … who was in the habit of asking his wife for money to buy brandy, would on her refusal say that he would go hang himself. When on 23 June 1668 he again asked for two pennies to buy brandy, his wife said she had no money, whereupon he replied, “I will hang myself or may the devil take me.” His wife replied, “Do whatever you like, you always say that,” and went back to her cleaning. Shortly thereafter, she found that her husband had hanged himself in their home. She then called for the neighbors, who have all made declarations and given evidence. On a charge by the bailiff, his corpse has been taken to the Volewijk on 26 June 1668 and hanged on a gibbet.

This excerpt, via Machiel Bosman’s chapter “The Judicial Treatment of Suicide in Amsterdam” in From Sin to Insanity: Suicide in Early Modern Europe, represents the last documented case of the Dutch posthumously punishing a suicide.

Well … a certain class of suicide.

It seems that Dutch law from about the 16th century, and certainly in the 17th century, began drawing a categorical distinction between suicides driven by madness or despair, and those ob conscientiam criminis — criminals who took their life to cheat the law.

Posthumous execution was inflicted upon the latter all the way up until the French Revolution reached the Low Countries in 1795. Bosman, for example, notes the case of a thief gibbeted in Amsterdam in 1792 after he hanged himself in jail. For non-criminal suicides, “punishment” was more typically a silent night-time burial, perhaps in unconsecrated ground: a meaningful deterrent for at least some of the living, but very distinct from judicial infamy. The widower of a 1532 suicide had even successfully appealed Amsterdam’s attempt to levy a punitive fine on the estate.

Hans Bontemantel, one of Amsterdam’s sheriffs, was incensed by the archaic sentence executed in 1668: “I am not responsible for this,” he noted in the margin of his summary. “And it is against the law.”

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1913: Edward Hopwood, clumsy suicide

1 comment January 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1913, Edward Hopwood was hanged for the murder of his girlfriend, Florence Silles.

Silles was an actress and music hall songstress who had broken off her relationship with the 45-year-old manager when she found out that, contrary to his representations, Hopwood was (a) still married; and (b) not wealthy.

Hopwood contrived to track his ex down in a hotel bar, and after an evening’s drinking and talking, the two got into a cab together. There, Hopwood shot her point-blank through the head.

It sounds — and was — pretty open-and-shut, but Hopwood’s bootless defense took the case through a brief detour of an odd cul-de-sac of English jurisprudence. Hopwood claimed that he’d been trying to commit suicide, and that Silles caught her bullet accidentally as she attempted to stop him killing himself.

While it’s clear that nobody else in the court believed this, it’s also the case that suicide is a felony by law. And up until 1957, it was legal doctrine that anyone who, in the course of commission of this felony, managed to kill another person, could be held liable for homicide. (Source)

Accordingly, as the London Times reported on Dec. 10, 1912, that with respect to the attempted-suicide claim, “even if the prisoner’s story were true, the prosecution submitted that in law his crime would be at least manslaughter, and in all probability murder.” Hopwood attempted to appeal his conviction on the basis of botched suicide, and an appellate ruling wrote this very doctrine into precedent.

Part of the Daily Double: Century-Old English Legal Novelties.

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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).

On this day..

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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1872: Du Wenxiu, Panthay rebellion leader

Add comment December 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1872, China’s Panthay Rebellion came to an end with the surrender, suicide, and execution — in that order — of Du Wenxiu.

The Panthay Rebellion (also known as the Du Wenxiu Rebellion) was one of several cataclysmic revolts to shake foundering imperial China in the 19th century.

This one was centered in the city of Dali (also known as Talifoo) in the southeastern Yunnan Province, near the Burmese border.* The rebels in question were the Hui people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who had been pushed around for years by Qing officials and by the ethnic Han.

The backstory of Han-on-Hui ethnic cleansing in the 1840s makes for harrowing reading, lowlighted by the 1845 massacre of 8,000 Hui in Baoshan.

An even more ambitious operation in May 1856 went down in Kunming, where a massacre — Qing officials publicly posted a directive to “kill [the Hui] one and all”** — claimed several thousand more and razed the city’s mosques. This outburst spawned an attempt at wholesale ethnic cleansing throughout the province … but that attempt blew back on its perpetrators by triggering a rebellion that would require a generation to tame.

The unexpected tenacity of Hui resistance was multiplied by the disadvantages for the Chinese state of operating in a distant and mountainous territory, and its preoccupation with the much larger simultaneous Taiping Rebellion. Though these considerations were not sufficient to dissuade local officials from picking the fight in the first place, they would help them come to regret it.

Hui resistance quickly coalesced into an organized rebellion, and that rebellion overran Dali by the end of the year, establishing itself as the seat of an independent kingdom called Pingnan Guo. Meanwhile, the onset of the Second Opium War left China incapable of contemplating a reconquest.

Du Wenxiu, the half-Han Islamic convert rebel leader acclaimed Sultan Sulaiman of Dali, was therefore left with some operating room to establish a Hui state. He led a pluralistic nation (for the Hui themselves were and are a pluralistic identity) in the western half of Yunnan, stretching from the Tibetan frontier almost to Kunming. (They came close but never quite managed to take this city).

Alas, in due time and with sufficient stability elsewhere in China the Pingnan state came under withering attack from the late 1860s. It sought help from the British as a potential foil against Chinese power, but the aid was not forthcoming and probably would have been too little and much too late. The Pingnan / Panthay / Hui state

ended much as it had begun — in a bloody massacre of the Hui populace. On 26 December 1872, imperial troops surrounded Dali, the Pingnan capital. Du Wenxiu, in a move that he hoped would spare the lives of the city’s residents, made the decision to hand himself over to the Qing general. Swallowing a fatal dose of opium as his palanquin carried him to the Qing encampment, Du was already dead by the time that he was delivered to the Qing commander. Not to be robbed of the gratification of killing him themselves, Qing officials hastily dragged Du before the Qing troops to be decapitated.† According to Emile Rocher, a French adviser to the provincial officials in Yunnan at the time, Du’s head was encased in honey and sent to the emperor.

Du’s sacrifice, however, was in vain. Three days later, imperial troops began a massacre that, according to the government’s own conservative estimates, took ten thousand lives by the time it was concluded — four thousand of the victims were women, children, and the elderly. Hundreds drowned trying to escape from Dali by swimming across Erhai Lake. Others attempted to flee through the narrow passes at either end of the valley. All were chased down and slain by the Qing troops. The imperial soldiers were ordered to cut an ear from each of the dead. These grisly trophies filled twenty-four massive baskets and, together with Du’s severed head, were sent to Beijing, where they served as a silent and unequivocal corroboration of the Pingnan regime’s bloody demise.**

Du Wenxiu was within living memory when the Qing themselves fell; shortly after that happened, an honorary tomb was constructed for the martyred rebel outside Dali.

* “Panthay” is a Burmese word for Chinese Muslims.

** David Atwill, “Blinkered Visions: Islamic Identity, Hui Ethnicity, and the Panthay Rebellion in Southwest China, 1856-1873,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Nov. 2003. This article and/or Atwill’s book (review) on the same subject appear to be the ultimate source of nearly every accessible English resource on the Panthay Rebellion.

† According to the London Times (Aug. 27, 1873) the aides and litter-bearers who accompanied the dying Du to the Qin camp were also beheaded for their troubles. It ballparks the ensuing butchery at 40,000 to 50,000 souls.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,China,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Posthumous Executions,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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