1818: Samuel Godfrey, American picaro

Add comment February 13th, 2017 Headsman

“The day was remarkably calm, serene and placid, for the season — as was also, the mind, the countenance, and the conduct of the prisoner” on February the 13th of 1818 when “more than ten thousand persons” witnessed the execution of Samuel Godfrey on Woodstock (Vt.) Green.

That’s per A Sketch of the Life of Samuel E. Godfrey, which is reproduced in full in this post; some version of the publication was sold on Woodstock Green on the day of the hanging, presumably without the final appendix actually reporting the execution’s result.*

Alternating between mariner and hatter, with frequent brushes against authority and a keen feel (up to and including the transaction that cost him his own life) for the injustices visited upon him by the powerful, Samuel Godfrey emerges episodically as an American picaro on the Canadian frontier — which he is made to cross thanks to the hated British practice of seizing and impressing American seamen.

Although the man’s personal history is impossible to audit, the historical events in which he situates his autobiography were quite real: the dramatic naval battle of the HMS Cleopatra and the Ville de Milan is narrated here; there were American-British skirmishes at Odelltown, Quebec during the War of 1812; and certainly his audience would have been familiar with the flood that devastated Woodstock in 1811.

* Despite the extensive prepared “valedictory address” printed in the document in this post, Godfrey’s scaffold statement was actually quite cursory thanks to a planning snafu. According to the Amherst, N.H. Farmers’ Cabinet (Feb. 21, 1818), he said only: “I have no remarks to make, only that I declare before God and man, that I am innocent of the crime for which I am about to suffer. I had an address prepared for the occasion, but it is not here; if it was, I should be glad to have it read.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,USA,Vermont

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1922: Benny Swim, “dead as a door-nail” (or not)

Add comment October 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Benny Swim suffered a double hanging for a double murder.

Benny Swim(m) grew up on a squalid backwoods farm in the New Brunswick “badlands” where violence and moonshine were as ubiquitous as poverty: “the poorest human beings I have ever met in a civilized country,” in the words of an English observer who chanced to meet the story’s principals on a hunting trip before they made the crime headlines.

According to a somewhat lurid 1981 Toronto Star profile, Benny was “a moody, difficult boy who didn’t get along at home” and left school at age 12 after attacking a crowd of bullying schoolmates with a knife.

His cruel life’s best comfort was an incestuous passion for his cousin Olive Swim(m).

Olive did not leave her cousin’s lust unrequited — Olive’s father said the two lived as de facto man and wife for a year and a half — but neither was she faithful to the jealous Benny. Our visiting hunting party discovered that firsthand when one of its number took Olive out for a drive and parked with her. Before they could get to steaming up the windshield, a gunshot ripped through it, fortuitously harming neither. “Benny, Benny, don’t shoot again!” Olive cried as she leapt out of the adulterous conveyance.

In February-March of 1922, 17-year-old Olive became so infatuated with a former soldier that she ran off and married him, moving away and refusing to receive her former paramour. Benny met in his customary way the turn of his fortunes: he got himself a revolver and went to see the newlyweds making no attempt to disguise his intentions.

Harvey Trenholm he surprised chopping woods in the snow and shot him dead in the face. A screaming Olive he met at the door of her new home as she attempted to flee, and shot her in the chest, and then, as she staggered away from her assailant, in the back. “It’s awful what a woman can bring a man to do,” the killer would later remark.

The only person on the scene whom he couldn’t manage to kill was himself. His suicide shot failed to penetrate his skull and lodged under the skin. The sheriff found him, following the trail of bloody snow from the crime scene, recuperating at a neighboring farm. “Sheriff, this is awful,” Swim said to him. “I suppose I will hang for it.”

And how.

With the regular hangmen unavailable, they hired a guy named Doyle from Montreal to conduct the execution at the Carleton County Jail in Woodstock.

Doyle, who claimed to have several hangings on his resume, conducted Benny to the scaffold and, at 5:06 a.m., dropped him as the the prisoner was in the midst of reciting the Lord’s Prayer. One eight-foot fall later, and it was another zipless kill for the cocksure Doyle. “Splendid job ain’t it?” Doyle boasted. “The man is as dead as a door-nail.”

What Doyle lacked in professional decorum, he also lacked in professional competence.

Though Swim was unconscious, the fall had not broken his neck — and the hangmen then proceeded to blithely cut the “dead” man down without leaving him to dangle long enough to ensure death. When the body was laid out back in its cell as prison staff set about attending to the posthumous necessaries, the doctor designated to certify death discovered a pulse. And breathing. And soon enough, coughing and choking sounds. The pulse was growing stronger — the doctor believed he could bring Benny back around.

A hushed argument then followed in the little cell over the essence of the judicial sentence “hanged by the neck until dead.”* The sheriff, possibly considering the enormously embarrassing fallout no less than the letter of the law, carried the day. Two ministers, who had been singing hymns with Benny Swim minutes beforehand, helped the assistant hangman, a fellow named Gill, carry the still-insensible man back to the gallows and propped him up for a second noosing. (Doyle, whose indecorous remarks had been overheard by the general public peeping at the hanging over the jailyard walls,** was spirited away within the jail for fear that he might stand to join the ranks of lynched executioners. He remained in protective custody for much of the day, and was at last secretly escorted back to a train station and sent home to Montreal.)

Public fury at the affair, and the scandalous word-of-mouth reports of hangman Doyle’s behavior, conspired to make the late double murderer into an object of pity. Benny’s funeral, noted The Press (Oct. 17, 1922), was “very largely attended. There were 150 teams in the procession. The large number of people attending … testified to the disgust of the community against hanging, a relic of the dark ages.”

* “It is clear that if, upon judgment to be hanged by the neck until he is dead, the criminal be not thoroughly killed, but revives, the sheriff must hang him again. For the former hanging was no execution of the sentence.” –Blackstone

** Woodstock’s jail was hardly constructed with steady gallows-traffic in mind. “The yard is small, bordering on the street and there is nothing to obstruct the view of the public from what takes place therein,” ran one report at the time. “The Swim hanging would have been hardly more public if the scaffold had been erected on the street.”

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

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