1824: Richard Overfield, wicked stepfather

Add comment March 22nd, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1824, only three days after his indictment, Richard Overfield was hanged in Shrewsbury, England for the murder of his three-month-old stepson, Richard Jr.

The child died on September 21 the previous year. Overfield’s wife, Anne, rushed to the doctor’s after finding her little son in apparent agony. When she kissed the baby, she noticed his lips were white-colored and blistered and tasted bitter.

Little Richard Jr. died later that day in spite of the doctor’s attempts to save him.

“Overfield, it turns out,” notes Samantha Lyon in her book A Grim Almanac of Shropshire,

worked in a carpet factory and so had access to sulphuric acid. This he stole to administer to the baby. The already terrible picture this forms is made all the more grotesque when you know how sulphuric acid kills: the acid is so corrosive that it burns the mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach when ingested. It can, and often does, cause the sufferer to experience severe thirst and to have difficulty breathing.

The motive came out during the trial: Overfield knew when he got married that Anne was pregnant with another man’s child. This was, in fact, why he married her in the first place.

The parish didn’t want to pay out welfare for yet another illegitimate baby, so they offered Overfield a lump sum of money to marry its mother. Any baby born more than a month after marriage would be considered legitimate and its purported father would have to support it.

Overfield accepted the parish’s offer, but although the baby bore his name, he told Anne he would never accept her son as his own. And since he already had the lump-sum payment, well …

“There seems to have been absolutely no step-paternal feelings on the elder Richard’s part,” notes David J. Cox’s book Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Shrewsbury and Around Shropshire:

[He] was heard to frequently express a hatred for the infant and on several occasions was reported as stating that he would not support his wife or her ‘bastard child.’

Matters came to a tragic head …

At his trial Overfield tried to blame the family cat: he’d seen it lying on top of the baby’s face, he said, and shooed it away, and little Richard started choking shortly thereafter.

Beyond that, he had little to say for himself. The jury showed its contempt for his so-called defense by convicting him after only five minutes’ deliberation.

Overfield made a full confession and expressed public repentance for his crime. He calmly accepted his fate.

Part of the Themed Set: Shropshire.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions

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1949: John George Haigh, the Acid Bath Murderer

6 comments August 10th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1949, Britain’s “Acid Bath Murderer”* was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint at Wandsworth Prison.

The name really tells you all you need to know about this enduringly infamous serial killer.

John George Haigh drained puddles of deathly sludge into the pipes at 79 Gloucester Road in London and 2 Leopold Road, Crawley, West Sussex.

He wasn’t a criminal mastermind, but he had that one good idea, and the doggedness to keep going with what worked through the latter half of the 1940s. Serving a previous sentence for fraud, Haigh impressed himself with a jailhouse experiment revealing the efficacy of sulfuric acid for completely dissolving the body of an unfortunate mouse. Perhaps he had been motivated to the test by the memory of a notorious trial in France featuring the same disposal-of-remains expedient. Perhaps he thought it up all by himself.

Shortly after obtaining his parole, Haigh put the insight to foul use by whacking his wealthy former employer over the head and stuffing him into a 40-gallon drum in his Gloucester Road basement. William McSwan’s body dissolved over two days in a sulfuric acid bath. Haigh poured the remnant ooze down a manhole and moved into McSwan’s house, telling the victim’s parents that their son had ducked out to avoid World War II conscription. Once the war ended and the questions came, Haigh made slurry of mom and dad, too.

Undoubtedly a sociopath, Haigh didn’t murder out of compulsive love of taking life. He had a cold, pecuniary motive. “I discovered there were easier ways of making a living than to work long hours in an office,” he wrote of the earlier, non-homicidal frauds and thefts that had started his criminal career. “I did not ask myself whether I was doing right or wrong. That seemed to me to be irrelevant. I merely said, ‘That is what I wish to do.’ And as the means lay within my power, that was what I decided.”

Now the means lay within his power to appropriate a fellow’s pension and estate by disappearing him into a vat of chemicals. Why should he ask himself whether that was right or wrong?

Haigh had blown through the McSwan’s fortune by 1948, and started dissolving hand to mouth. In February of that year, the killer lured a doctor and his wife to his new acid bath station in Crawley. These he shot dead, and rendered as per usual into vitriol compote. But he got sloppy the following year by targeting a wealthy widow who actually shared his same apartment block; when she was reported missing, the neighbor with the criminal record went right into the suspect filter. A search of Haigh’s workshops turned up papers tying him to all three sets of murders … as well as a nearby dump whose “yellowish white greyish matter” yielded “28 lb. of melted body fat, part of the left foot eroded by acid, three gallstones, and 18 fragments of human bone eroded by acid.” (London Times, April 2, 1949) Preserved dentures proved a match for the late Olive Durand-Deacon.

Haigh was a pragmatist, as always.

“Tell me, frankly, what are the chances of anybody being released from Broadmoor?” he chattily asked one guard, referring to the high-security psychiatric facility he intended to inhabit. But his problem would be getting into it. Haigh’s jury needed only minutes to dismiss his longshot insanity defense, and condemn the Acid Bath murderer to die.**

Haigh hanged a mere three weeks after sentence, not even six full months from his last murder.

* Not to be confused with the “Brides in the Bath” murderer. Best just to stick to showers.

** Legal oddity: the Daily Mirror described Haigh as a “murderer” during his trial — that is, before his lawful conviction. Haigh was able to land the editor of this paper in the clink himself for this accurate, prejudicial epithet.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pelf,Serial Killers

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1846: John Rodda, nobody chokes baby on acid

1 comment August 8th, 2013 Headsman

John Rodda was hanged on this date in 1846 behind York Castle on “a charge so unusual and so repugnant to the ordinary feelings of human nature.”

Rodda murdered his 18-month-old daughter Mary by pouring sulphuric acid down her throat.

The motive: as a member of a burial society — a sort of community insurance pool for defraying funeral costs — Rodda stood to pocket two pounds, 10 shillings for the death of his little girl. (Was that a lot of money in those days? Not really.)

The most complete account of this event The Criminal Chronology of York Castle, and it underscores what a rum job Rodda did of cashing in on Mary.

On April 18th of that year, while the baby was on the mend from some routine affliction of infancy, John Rodda bought a penny’s worth of vitriol from a druggist.

The next day, Mary’s condition took an abrupt turn for the worse after being left a few minutes in her father’s care, and the acid was found in her stomach. Hmmmmm.

A few days previously to his execution, he made a full confession of his guilt, and stated that avarice was his only motive for sacrificing his innocent and unoffending child, whom it was his duty as a parent to have succoured and protected; but whom he coolly, deliberately, and cruelly murdered for the sake of filthy lucre. But the day of execution at last arrived, and the greatly erring young man’s earthly hopes and fears were soon to terminate. At an early hour on Saturday morning, August 8th, the workmen commenced erecting the drop in front of St. George’s Field, and the solemn preparations for the awful ceremony were speedily completed. At the usual hour the wretched man, with blanched cheek and dejected look — his arms pinioned — appeared on the scaffold, attended by the regular officials; after spending a few minutes in prayer, the executioner proceeded to perform the duties of his office, by drawing the cap over his eyes and adjusting the rope, when the fatal bolt was withdrawn — the drop fell — a convulsive struggle ensued — and the unhappy mortal ceased to exist.

There was a large concourse of spectators assembled in St. George’s Field, and the intervening road, to witness the appalling spectacle, amongst whom were a great number of the lower orders of the Irish, who had congregated to witness the last moments of their fellow-countryman.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions

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1934: Georges-Alexandre Sarrejani, vitriolic

Add comment April 10th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1934, Georges-Alexandre Sarrejani (alias Sarret) became the last person guillotined at Aix-en-Provence

This charmer — most of the links today are in French — ticked one off the bucket list by seducing a pair of sisters, Catherine and Philomene Schmidt.

These he used as partners in a simple insurance scam way back in 1920: get them to marry a couple of men at death’s door, produce bogus medical exams declaring them to be in robust health, and pocket the proceeds when they kick the bucket. Sarrejani got the lion’s share because he threatened to denounce the Bavarian sisters as World War I spies. Insurers had their suspicions but couldn’t prove anything.

In 1925, a defrocked priest and said priest’s mistress threatened to turn in the scam artists.

Sarrejani, again with the full complicity of his women, horrifyingly disposed of the threat.

After shooting both dead, he ducked off to Marseilles to pick up a bathtub and 100 liters of vitriol (aka sulfuric acid). With this, Sarrejani and his mistresses marinated their victims until they had dissolved into a foul brackish puddle, which was nonchalantly poured out into the garden.

It’s this stomach-turning crime that Sarrejani is most famous for, and got the “trio infernale” immortalized on the silver screen in a gruesome 1974 film.

However, this murder was unknown for six years and might have gone permanently undetected had not the infernales attempted an even more primitive insurance scam in 1931. How many victims, one wonders, have been successfully acid-bathed by murderers restrained enough to get away with it.

At any rate, in 1931 Catherine Schmidt insured herself and faked her own death, substituting a tuberculotic corpse. She had the carelessness to show herself in Marseilles where someone recognized her as a “dead” woman … and in the ensuing interrogation, she turned the denunciation game right around on Serrejani. I’ll show you a Bavarian spy, mister.

The result was France’s most headline-grabbing trial since the bluebeard Henri Landru, pictures of which can be gawked at this French forum thread. Sarrejani had some legal training, enabling him to drag out the melodrama even further to the great delight of the nation’s editors.

When all was said and done, Sarrejani was set to lose his head; the Schmidts got just 10 years in prison. Call it the dividend on that insurance-fraud money he’d muscled out of them.

The whole ghastly affair had one last horror when Sarrejani met the blade this morning just outside the prison walls: the blade stuck halfway down, leaving embarrassed executioners to do 10 minutes of live troubleshooting while their patient below (justifiably) fulminated against their incompetence.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions

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