1898: Joseph Vacher

On this date in 1898, “the French Ripper” Joseph Vacher was guillotined for a three-year homicidal spree through the French countryside.

Less renowned to posterity than the unidentified British contemporary to whom his nickname alluded, Vacher was thoroughly infamous in his day. The New York Timesreport of his beheading noted that “[t]he crimes of Joseph Vacher have surpassed in number and atrocity those of the Whitechapel murderer.”

After release as “completely cured” from a mental hospital to whose hapless mercies a failed murder-suicide — both murder and suicide failed — involving his unrequited love had left him, Vacher drifted through rural France from 1894 until his arrest in 1897 killing randomly, frequently, and savagely.

He left at least 11 victims, and possibly several dozen, often atrociously mutilating the bodies. The seeming sang-froid of his murders — one story has him coolly misdirecting a police officer in a frantic chase for the killer of a body he has left behind minutes before — and their horrific nature and extent threw his case into the eye of a public already fearful of “drifters”.

If it is likely that the murders themselves demanded their author’s execution regardless, Vacher’s claim that madness — “simulated insanity”, the Times called it — drove the killings and negated his culpability remained a challenging medical and judicial issue. As Susan A. Ashley writes in The Human Tradition in Modern France:

The … judicial proceedings centered on his mental competence. Could he be held responsible for his actions? He claimed that he acted on impulse, that he was driven to kill and maim by fits of uncontrollable rage. The court-appointed experts, however, concluded that he had carefully planned and carried out the killings, and the jury agreed.

Medical experts and legal authorities seriously disagreed over Vacher’s mental state and over the limits of his legal responsibility. They examined his past and his behavior after his arrest and drew very different conclusions about his sanity.

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2006: Saddam Hussein

One year ago today, Saddam Hussein was hanged in “the hell that is Iraq” — his riposte to the mob scene at his gallows, transmitted worldwide by way of illicit footage shot with a cell phone.

Caution: This video contains graphic footage. You knew that already.

How it was then:

Who could follow in his footsteps?

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Six Current Heads of State At Risk of Execution

A year after the event, with the agitprop in the past and the voyeur shock of watching the cell phone footage worn off, Saddam Hussein’s hanging sure looks anachronistic.

There was always a throwback feel about it — the way the hanged man seized the stage and dominated his killers seemed like something straight out of an old melodrama. And the new despot marching the old despot ceremoniously off to the hangman? Is that even done anymore?

Actually … yes. The 20th century, so well-equipped with all deeds sanguinary, turns out to be rich in executed heads of state.* And with a looming future of growing populations chasing dwindling resources, there’s no reason to suppose we’ve seen the last overthrown chief executive to stand on the scaffold.

Who might follow in that illustrious train? In honor of Saddam Hussein‘s deathday, Executed Today presents six currently ruling heads of state standing in most danger** of eventual execution.

Forecasting such a dramatic turn of the worm is a doubtful business, but a few common threads among past specimens suggest the risk factors.

1. Potential for violent seizure of state power. Former American presidents don’t stand in the dock no matter what they’ve done. It’s all but a necessary condition for a head of state execution that a true enemy faction — whether internal, as during the French Revolution, or external, as in Iraq — have the capability of seizing state authority. A framework of peacable power exchange between cooperative elites is entirely unhelpful.

2. The personal import of the executive. The more a faction’s power is bound up in the person of its ruler, the more logical it will seem to a rival to kill that ruler. When the Ceausescus were shot in 1989, Romanian television broadcast footage of the bodies to dispel any rumor of their survival. Their deaths fundamentally altered the political facts on the ground.

3. The executive’s youth. Saddam Hussein was 42 when he took control of Iraq and in his early fifties when he ran afoul of his erstwhile American patrons. That gave the glacial pressure of the first two factors decades of natural lifespan in which to operate. By contrast, Saudi Arabia is not without its own risk characteristics, but they’re not likely to catch up with 83-year-old King Abdullah.

Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan

Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:




Islamic militants and Bhutto partisans get all the ink, but the behemoth Pakistani military is the more likely threat; Musharraf has already done well to keep all these rival factions at bay. Pakistan, incidentally, has a recent precedent: Benazir Bhutto’s father was hanged there in 1979 after his ouster.

Idriss Deby, Chad

Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:




In 2006, Forbes named Chad the most corrupt country in the world, not long after Deby survived a coup attempt and a rebel movement’s outright assault on his capital. Chad’s recent entry into the oil game does not bode well for an imminent return to political placidity.

Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan

Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:




Let’s see. Two previous Moccupants of Karzai‘s office have been executed in the past 30 years. The famously execution-friendly government he deposed still has an insurgent movement brewing. The foreign power that backs him may not have its eye on the ball. And at least three different assassination attempts have taken a crack at him.

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela

Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:




Chavez has already attempted one coup, survived another, and governed Venezuela going on ten years. He seems in less immediate danger than five years ago, but Chavez’s larger-than-life personality and the vehemence of his opposition foretell a long-running drama … in the course of which the current president could at some point be a man too dangerous to leave alive.

Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia

Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:




Relatively ensconced for the moment, Jammeh has been the strongman of mainland Africa’s smallest country for most of his adult life and it’s far from obvious that he’ll ever relinquish it agreeably. He’s been implicated in political murders, the sort of thing that accumulates bitter enemies and offers fodder for future courts. His country is also entirely surrounded by a longstanding rival, Senegal (a failed Gambian putschist found harbor there in 2006).

Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq

Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:




Did he have a flashback to his 1980 condemnation by Saddam when he signed last year’s death warrant? Or a premonition? It’s much easier to imagine al-Maliki assassinated than paraded to the gallows in the current milieu. But Iraq seems destined to remain a flashpoint for many years to come, and there could come a time when the balance of power and vicissitudes of fate put the Shia Prime Minister in a bad way for serving the American occupation his power depends upon.

Worthy of Note: Pierre Nkurunziza governs a country (Burundi) with a passel of murdered former executives, the Tutsi-Hutu conflict, and the lowest per-capita GDP in Africa … King Gyanendra of Nepal would have made this list a couple years ago, but has weathered his country’s crisis and appears set to peacefully end the monarchy … Rene Preval is the president of Haiti, but he’s also (in 2001) the only man to ever leave that office peacefully at the natural expiration of its term … 42-year-old second-choice Syrian heir Bashar al-Assad has yet to establish that he can hold down his treacherous job for the long haul.

Update: Welcome, Head of State Update readers!

* Yes, this is conflating “head of state” and “head of government.” Which is technically inaccurate, but considerably less clunky.

** None of these men, naturally, are likely to be executed. Even Saddam Hussein, even at the moment of the American invasion, was much more likely to have been killed by a military strike or by assassination than by execution. These are simply a few for whom the long odds of execution are a bit shorter than their colleagues.

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1874: John Murphy

On this date in 1874, John Murphy was publicly hanged at the foot of Carson City’s Lone Mountain for murder.

The New York Times (.pdf) story, reprinted here in its entirety, suggests the tenor of the affair in the young western state:

John Murphy, who was executed at Carson, Nevada, yesterday, for the murder of J.R. McCallum, was a native of Scotland, and at one time traveled with John C. Heenan, giving sparring exhibitions. On the scaffold he made some remarks professing his belief in spiritualism, and at the same time uttering horrible blasphemy.

He had been temporarily reprieved December 18 to determine his sanity.

This appears to be the only historically identifiable execution in Carson City from the Nevada Territory’s creation in 1861 until the legislature in 1903 removed all Nevada executions to that city’s state prison — where they still take place to this day.

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1827: Levi Kelley

On this date in 1827, Levi Kelley suffered the last public hanging in Cooperstown, N.Y., for the September murder of his tenant Abraham Spafard.

The front of a pamphlet covering the Kelley trial. Courtesy of the Library of the New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, N.Y., and its collection of murder pamphlets, “Man or Monster?”

Some malignant spirit determined to reduce the man to a grim irony or object lesson seemingly attended Kelley’s every step towards the gallows. His story, according to The Story of Cooperstown, begins 10 days prior to the capital crime at another public execution.

Among the spectators at this hanging was Levi Kelley of Cooperstown, who, in order to witness the spectacle, had covered a distance of 75 miles, drawn by his favorite team of black horses, a noble span, of which he was very proud. Kelley was much depressed in spirit by the dreadful scene at the gallows, and to a friend who accompanied him on the homeward journey remarked that no one who had ever witnessed such a melancholy spectacle could ever be guilty of the crime of murder.

Undoubtedly, many killers besides Levi Kelley through the annals of time also underestimated the violence of their own temper. We do not know whether he also labored under any expectation of preferential treatment, as the nephew of Cooperstown founder Judge William Cooper — which also made him the first cousin of author James Fenimore Cooper.

But what occurred at Kelley’s hanging, to which that same team of proud black horses drew him this day, made a niche in history all his own, and made both the murderer and his executioners unwitting instruments of at least two more deaths. A local balladeer described the scene:

December on the twenty-eighth
Did Levi Kelley meet his fate;
This awful scene I now relate
Caused thousands there to fear and quake.

Though wet and rainy was the day,
The people thronged from every way;
With anxious thought each came to see
The unhappy fate of poor Kelley.

The day was come, the time drew near,
When the poor prisoner must appear;
The officers they did prepare,
And round him formed a hollow square,

That they with safety might convey
Him to the place of destiny;
The music made a solemn sound
While they marched slowly to the ground.

A scaffold was erected there,
And hundreds on it did repair,
That all thereon might plainly see
The unhappy fate of poor Kelley.

Before they bid this scene adieu,
An awful sight appeared in view.
See, hundreds with the scaffold* fall!
And some to rise no more at all

Till the great day when all shall rise,
To their great joy or sad surprise,
And hear their sentence “Doomed to Hell,”
Or, “With the saints in glory dwell.”

The wounded here in numbers lie,
And loud for help now some do cry
While others are too faint to speak,
And some in death’s cold arms asleep.

One man’s skull was crushed. Another spectator was carted away alive, but mortally injured.

Nineteenth century homo Americanus might count it a credit to pragmatism, even to consistency, that the spectacle of grisly public death was not the sort of thing to interrupt a hanging.

The fatal collapse of the spectators’ grandstand only delayed the execution by the space of time necessary to restore order. The disturbance may even have offered the condemned man some relief from his own fright in compassion for the woe beneath him.

“Who are killed and how many are injured?” the shaken man asked, surveying the wreckage from his gibbet as the noose was readied for his throat.

* The audience’s “scaffold” — not that of Kelley.

Part of the Themed Set: The Spectacle of Public Hanging in America.

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1739: Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson

On this date in 1739, Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson were publicly hanged in colonial New Hampshire for “feloniously concealing the death of a[n] … infant bastard child.”

The first people — male or female — executed in New Hampshire history had separately disposed in August 1739 of their respective newborns. Unluckily for them, some never-discovered third woman did the same thing around the same time much less adroitly … and her dead infant was found in a well.

The ensuing investigation uncovered (in one case by the forcible ministrations of a midwife team) the recent pregnancies of this day’s victims, and though Simpson claimed her child was miscarried, she still fell under a law making a capital crime of covering up the death of a baby.

Today, Executed Today interviews New Hampshire historian Christopher Benedetto, whose research situates Kenny and Simpson in the context of their times:

In provincial New Hampshire, as was common across colonial America, the punishment of fornication and bastardy was harsh, and the stigma that followed could cost a working class woman her livelihood. When Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson gave birth in August 1739, they both knew that the physical product of their sexual improprieties must be concealed. It was an awful decision to have to make, but in their minds “infanticide might have seemed a matter of survival.” The discarding of illegitimate children, however, seems to have been an issue in New Hampshire long before 1739. In 1714, the General Assembly passed “An Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children,” which declared

Whereas many lewd women that have been delivered of Bastard children, to avoid shame and escape punishment, do secretly bury or conceal the death of their children…Be it therefore enacted…that if any woman be delivered of any Issue of her body, male or female, which if it were born alive should by law be a Bastard; and that she endeavor privately either by drowning or secret burying thereof…so to conceal the death thereof that it may not come to light, whether it were born alive or not but be concealed. In every such case the Mother soe offending shall suffer Death…except such Mother cann make proof by one witness at least, the Child whose death was by her so intended to be concealed was born dead.

Executed Today: The first hanging in New Hampshire didn’t happen until 1739?!

Christopher Benedetto: There were plenty of capital laws and there definitely were cases where people were tried for their lives, but why it took so long … they had crossed some sort of a boundary. I’m sure the loss of so many children only a few years before [in a diphtheria epidemic] made these crimes that much more shocking.

ET: You’re working on a book on crime in New Hampshire.*

CB: The criminal history of Massachusetts has been studied for so long, but there’s really nothing like this for New Hampshire at all. And there’s so much there. There’s a whole chapter in the book on infanticide and child murder.

ET: What’s the perspective you get working deeply in a local milieu?

CB: I think having grown up here, my own family I’ve been able to trace back to the 1650’s in Massachusetts … it’s always been a big part of my life.

I like being able to go to different sites where these things actually happened. I think that’s true for any historian — you’re drawn to the specific places. The town I grew up in, Ipswich, they have plaques of people who lived there. Anne Bradstreet‘s house is still there.

I could walk on a lot of the streets or at least go to some of the places where these things took place.

But to me, history is about people. It’s about passions. To me, these people are so much like us today. Human nature has not changed a lot over the years.

ET: Does that lead to any conclusions on the death penalty in general?

CB: It’s one of the few things that’s as controversial now as it was two, three hundred years ago. I don’t think capital punishment prevents crime. I do think there are certain instances where the crime is so heinous, so bad — I don’t know, I’m sort of in the middle on it. I think we should reserve the right to do it, but does it improve our society at all?

ET: What advice would you have for a young person about being a historian? What’s the historical method for you?

CB: I would say, just be curious. You’ve got to be relentless. You’ve got to go after what you’re passionate about — nobody wants to do research about something they’re just not interested in.

To me, I love writing, but I think one of the most thrilling parts can be when you’re sort of on the hunt. I kind of see being a historian — and not just professionally; anyone who’s researching a family history — you’re almost like a quilter. You’re taking all these little pieces of fabric and just trying to create a whole picture. That might be my favorite part, taking all those pieces of information and just putting them together.

It’s not that nobody had ever written about that execution [of Kenny and Simpson] before, but maybe nobody had taken all that information and just kind of put it together in that way. You’re not always going to have something 100% new to say, but you might present it in a way that casts a new light or makes somebody think about it differently.

* Tentatively titled Gruesome Stories from the Granite State with an anticipated release in 2009 through regional press Commonwealth Editions.

Part of the Themed Set: The Spectacle of Public Hanging in America.

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1862: 38 Sioux

On this date in 1862, 38 rebellious Sioux were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Fully 303 had been condemned to die in drumhead trials after the five-week Dakota War, one of the numerous native conflicts sparked by the march of European settlers across North America.

Abraham Lincoln — in a political risk — commuted all but 39 sentences* adjudged “to have participated in massacres, as distinguished from participation in battles,” essentially defining a special category for what today might be considered “war crimes.”

Lincoln had more pressing business on his hands, to be sure, but seems to have been affected by the plight of the natives that drove them to wage hopeless war on encroaching settlers:

“[Bishop Henry Whipple] came here the other day and talked with me about the rascality of this Indian business until I felt it down to my boots. If we get through this war, and I live, this Indian system shall be reformed!”

Fateful “if” — but politicians say many things, after all, and it was long before Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater that the tribes had been forced out of Minnesota, scattered to wasteland reservations and subsequent clashes with the American army.

On this day, all that doleful future was prefigured in the 38 who hanged together in what is now Mankato’s Reconciliation Park, an event that after a century’s time has become a moment for commemoration.

Two academics’ pages on the Dakota War and its aftermath are here and here.

*One of those was subsequently spared over uncertainty of the evidence against him.

Part of the Themed Set: The Spectacle of Public Hanging in America.

On this day..

Themed Set: The Spectacle of Public Hanging in America

Inherited from England, the ceremony and theater of public hangings in the youthful United States and its antecedent colonies present an almost impossibly dramatic variety for characters, costumes and stagecraft. The ritual has — at least in the U.S.A. — slipped out of time into history, myth, even kitsch.

How representative of public hangings are any of the phenomenon’s instantly recognizable tropes remains another matter.

The next four dates offer a handful that alongside their inherent interest suggest — if only by illustration — the diverse circumstances that have gathered men and women under the gallows in the New World.

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1989: Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu

On this date in 1989, 71-year-old dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were condemned by a secret military tribunal and immediately shot in Targoviste as Communism in Romania suddenly, stunningly collapsed.

The last of the Revolutions of 1989 that toppled Communism through much of Eastern Europe in a matter of weeks left the indelible image of the man who had dominated Romanian politics since the mid-60’s bewildered as a party-summoned mass rally at Bucharest’s Revolution Square turned against him.

It was to be Ceausescu’s last public address. Within a day, the country had slipped from his control; before week’s end, he would face a firing squad with “The Internationale” on his lips at the conclusion of a drumhead trial.

In a confused political situation — the police who intercepted Ceausescu and his wife held them for several hours, attempting to divine which way the winds were blowing before handing them over to the mutinous army — Romanian state television would soon broadcast footage of the trial and the first couple’s corpses (though not the execution itself).

Caution: This video contains graphic footage

Immediately afterwards, Romania abolished the death penalty. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu remain the last people executed in that country.

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1684: Baillie of Jerviswood

On this date in 1684, the Scottish patriot Baillie of Jerviswood was convicted of treason and immediately executed, for his part in the Rye House Plot against the Stuart King Charles II.

Baillie was a lesser player in the Protestant scheme — whose nature and extent, or even existence, are matters of historical debate — supposedly to do away with the Catholic-leaning ruler and his outright catechumen brother and heir James. Baillie was implicated under torture, and while disowning any part of a conspiracy declined — “with striking truthfulness” — to deny a design on Scottish rebellion.

His summary hanging would enter the pantheon of English depravities in the north country, but he achieved another sort of immortality as well.

During an earlier stint in prison, a proscribed fellow patriot’s 12-year-old daughter had smuggled him messages — becoming acquainted with Baillie’s own son, whom she would eventually wed. The girl gained fame in adulthood as Lady Grizel (or Grisel, or Griselle) Baillie.

“Werena my Heart’s licht I wad dee”
-Lady Baillie

THERE ance was a may, and she lo’ed na men;
She biggit her bonnie bow’r doun in yon glen;
But now she cries, Dool and a well-a-day!
Come doun the green gait and come here away!

When bonnie young Johnnie cam owre the sea,
He said he saw naething sae lovely as me;
He hecht me baith rings and mony braw things—
And werena my heart’s licht, I wad dee.

The legendary tableau of intrigue between Baillie and his future daughter-in-law was itself fruit for literature, given time enough to ripen into legend. Kinswoman Joanna Baillie, one of the great litterateurs of the early 19th century, made use of the episode to open a lengthy ballad to Lady Grizel in Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters:

Within a prison’s hateful cell,
Where, from the lofty window fell,
Thro’ grated bars, the sloping beam,
Defin’d, but faint, on couch of stone,
There sat a pris’ner sad and lone,
Like the dim tenant of a dismal dream.
Deep in the shade, by low-arch’d door,
With iron nails thick studded o’er,
Whose threshold black is cross’d by those
Who here their earthly being close,
Or issue to the light again
A scaffold with their blood to stain,–
Moved something softly. Wistful ears
Are quick of sense, and from his book
The pris’ner rais’d his eyes with eager look,–
“Is it a real form that thro’ the gloom appears?”

It was indeed of flesh and blood,
The form that quickly by him stood;
Of stature low, of figure light,
In motion like some happy sprite;
Yet meaning eyes and varying cheek,
Now red, now pale, seem’d to bespeak
Of riper years the cares and feeling
Which with a gentle heart were dealing.
“Such sense in eyes so simply mild!
“Is it a woman or a child?
“Who art thou, damsel sweet? are not mine eyes beguiled?”

“No; from the Redbraes’ tower I come;
“My father is Sir Patrick Hume;
“And he has sent me for thy good,
“His dearly honour’d Jerviswood.
“Long have I round these walls been straying,
“As if with other children playing;
“Long near the gate have kept my watch
“The sentry’s changing-time to catch.
“With stealthy steps I gain’d the shade
“By the close-winding staircase made,
“And when the surly turnkey enter’d,
“But little dreaming in his mind
“Who follow’d him so close behind,
“Into this darken’d cell, with beating heart, I ventured.”

Then from the simple vest that braced
Her gentle breast, a letter traced
With well-known characters, she took,
And with an eager, joyful look,
Her eyes up to his visage cast,
His changing countenance to scan,
As o’er the lines his keen glance past.
She saw a faint glow tinge the sicky wan;
She saw his eyes thro’ tear-drops raise
To heaven their look of silent praise,
And hope’s fresh touch undoing lines of care
Which stress of evil times had deeply graven there.
Meanwhile, the joy of sympathy to trace
Upon her innocent and lovely face
Had to the sternest, darkest sceptic given
Some love of human kind, some faith in righteous Heaven.

What blessings on her youthful head
Were by the grateful patriot shed,
(For such he was, good and devoted,
And had at risk of life promoted
His country’s freedom and her faith,
Nor reck’ning made of worldly skathe)
How warm, confiding, and sincere,
He gave to her attentive ear
The answer which her cautious sire
Did to his secret note require;–
How after this with ‘quiries kind,
He ask’d for all she left behind
In Redbraes’ tower, her native dwelling,
And set her artless tongue a-telling,
Which urchin dear had tallest grown,
And which the greatest learning shown,
Of lesson, sermon, psalm, and note,
And Sabbath questions learnt by rote,
And merry tricks and gambols play’d
By ev’ning fire, and forfeits paid,–
I will not here rehears, nor will I say,
How, on that bless’d and long-remember’d day,
The pris’ner’s son, deserving such a sire,
First saw the tiny maid, and did admire,
That one so young and wise and good and fair
Should be an earthly thing that breath’d this nether air.

On this day..