1785: Three at Shrewsbury, in depraved times

Add comment March 26th, 2016 Headsman

The assize model we’ve been featuring this week surely underscores during the Bloody Code days the law as a wholesale instrument.

For a site like this which prefers to zero in on a story for the day, the phenomenon is most discomfiting. But even if executions in the Anglo world have for the past century or two mostly unfolded as individual tragic stories arcing from beginning through middle and end, they have still merely sat atop a legal machine that grinds up lives by thousands.

The specter of the noose perhaps highlights the trend in a way that “mere” terms of years does not quite dramatize for us. Even so, now as then, no small number of convicts prefer the hemp to the life-destroying “mercy” of a lengthy prison sentence or penal transportation overseas.

All of this is mere commentary for today’s hanging trio, who are criminals of no consequence with misdeeds but scantily attested; their trials, like most in that period, would have spanned only minutes or at most a couple of hours, and been determined by gentlemen already looking ahead to the next case. “The hungry judges soon the sentence sign, and wretches hang that jurymen may dine”: Alexander Pope had set that line down in The Rape of the Lock more than 70 years before.

“The capital convictions of the late Lent assizes, exhibit a most melancholy picture of the depravity of the times,” lamented the Leeds Intelligencer taking stock on April 5, 1785 of that season’s legal bulletins. “The following short list will prove it; — at Shrewsbury 11, York 7, Derby 6, Lincoln 9 (executed), Gloucester 11, Nottingham 4, (executed) Stafford 3, (executed) and Dorchester 5. There were 112 tried at Gloucester.”

Shrewsbury split its sentences, five for the scaffold and six for reprieve; the last three of the doomed lost their lives on this date in 1785 for various property crimes. These few words on the Salopean assizes were printed in several newspapers, and are quoted here from The British Chronicle, or, Pugh’s Hereford Journal, March 31, 1785:

At the assizes for Shropshire, which ended at Shrewsbury on Wednesday night last, John Green, for the wilful murder of his wife Elizabeth Green, by shooting her through the head, in a cellar in his own house, at Bromfield near Ludlows, and Ann Hancock, for the wilful murder of her male bastard child, at her lodgings in the Castle-foregate, in Shrewsbury, being fully convicted, received sentence of death, and were on Friday [March 18, 1785] executed at the Old Heath, pursuant thereto, and their bodies were delivered to the surgeons to be anatomized. At the place of execution Ann Hancock comfessed the fact for which she suffered, but Green did not.

Here the Shropshire narrative breaks, consigning the remaining death sentences to the newspaper’s dregs.

Image: 'For the Remainder of these Pests, see the last Page.'

… where we find:

The nine following persons were also capitally convicted, and received sentence of death, viz. William Williams, for burglariously stealing 130l. and upwards, the property of Mr. Edw. Jeffreys; Edward Edwards, for burglariously stealing a considerable sum of money, the property of Robert Pemberton, Esq; Sarah Davies, for housebreaking; William Griffiths, for stealing a black mare; Mary Davies, Rich. Pyfield, Mary Boulton, alias Bolton, William Evans, and William Hotchkins, for burglaries. The six latter were reprieved; and William Williams, Edward Edwards, and Sarah Davies, left for execution.

The hangings took place on March 26.

Part of the Themed Set: Shropshire.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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1858: William Williams, guano-freighter cook

Add comment March 12th, 2016 Headsman

From the Daily Alta California, April 20, 1858:

Thomas P. Lewis, master of the ship Adelaide, loading guano at Elide Island, off the coast of Lower California, was killed there on the 12th ult. by Wm. Williams, colored cook off that vessel. Three other vessels happened to be there at the time, and the officers united to hold a court, taking six sailors as part of the jury, and tried Williams, convicted him of murder, and then hanged him on the island.

Elide Island is a “naked rock, one mile in circumference” off the coast of Mexico’s Baja California which for a few years in the mid-19th century was heavily exploited for its guano supplies. 28,000 tons of bird crap later, the supply was tapped out.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Mexico,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Uncertain Dates

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1958: Vivian Teed, a first and a last

2 comments May 6th, 2013 Headsman

The last person hanged in Wales was Vivian Teed on this date in 1958; he was also the first hanged (in Wales or anywhere) under the new Homicide Act of 1957.

Teed went to rob a Fforestfach post office and was surprised to find 73-year-old postmaster William Williams not only present but in a mood to resist him. The thief had brought along a hammer in case he needed to force a door or something, so he grabbed it and hammered Mr. Williams … over and over and over. Twenty-seven times. Then he rifled the station as planned while the mortally wounded old man moaned and twisted, unable to come to his feet because the floor was so slick with his own blood.

“The defence is not that this man did not kill the unfortunate postmaster,” his attorney told the jury. “That tragic fact is true. The defence is that when the accused did it he was suffering from abnormality of the mind which impaired substantially his mental responsibility for what he did when he killed the postmaster.”

After many decades when hanging was the mandatory sentence for the crime of murder (even though in practice not every murder resulted in an execution), public consternation at certain sensitive cases like those of Ruth Ellis and Derek Bentley had driven a legal reform whose intended upshot was confining the death sentence to the proverbial worst of the worst.

The Homicide Act created a new subcategory “capital murder” — especially heinous murders, such as killing a policeman or committing murder in the course of a theft. Vivian Teed went to the gallows under the latter statute.

But the Homicide Act also removed certain types of homicide from the murder category altogether — notably for Teed’s purposes, a new defense of “diminished responsibility” was explicitly authorized and defined. This defense would have saved the mentally impaired Bentley. Now Teed tried to claim that an “abnormality of the mind which impaired his mental responsibility” was what really hammered William Williams’s skull.

Only one holdout member of the jury bought this, but after a number of hours and a couple of separate attempts by the panel to declare itself deadlocked, she or he finally came around and voted to convict. Teed hanged at Swansea Prison seven weeks later.

On this day..

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

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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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Minnesota,Murder,Sex,USA

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