Archive for January, 2014

Feast Day of Saint Agnes

1 comment January 21st, 2014 Headsman

January 21 is the feast date and traditional martyrdom date (in the year 304) of Agnes of Rome, a 13-year-old put to death in the Diocletian persecutions who has the distinction of being among the seven women mentioned by name in the Catholic Canon of the Mass.

Agnes means “chaste” in Greek,* and this was precisely the problem.

As prosperous as she was pulchritudinous, she was pious even moreso and spurned the many suitors for her hand and bed. Eventually one or the other of them peevishly reported her as a Christian.

Upon arrest, the abstinent youth was allegedly subjected to an official program of sexual assault, including displaying her naked in public and forcing her into a brothel. It’s said that divine intervention prevented her violation in these ordeals. (The flowing locks in the Ribera portrait of her at right are part of that myth, supposed to have sprouted long enough to save her from her public shaming.)

Considering that her defining characteristic is her virginity, Agnes has quite the lurid legend — and that does not exclude her very martyrdom. Per the erotically-charged poetic account of the 4th-5th century Christian poet Prudentius,** Agnes rejoiced sensually in the executioner sent to to render her to her heavenly bridal-bed:

I rejoice that there comes a man like this,
A savage, cruel, and wild warrior,
Rather than a languid, soft,
Womanish youth fragrant with perfume,
Come to destroy my life with the death of my honor.

This lover, this one at last, I confess, pleases me.
I shall rush to his eager steps
And not demur from his hot ardor.
I shall welcome the entire length of
His blade into my bosom, drawing the sword-blow
To the depths of my breast.

Original Latin here from Prudentius’s Liber Peristephanon (Crowns of Martyrdom)†

Agnes, whose purported relics are interred in the Roman church Sant’Agnese in Agone, is the patron saint of an entire pantheon of feminine sexual incipience: chastity, virgins, young women, and betrothed couples.‡

Little surprise, then, that the legend arose in Christendom that a maid could invoke the vision of her future husband by performing certain suggestive rituals — like lying supine and naked on her bed — on the eve of St. Agnes (that is, the night of January 20).

It’s upon this occasion that Keats pins his narrative poem The Eve of St. Agnes§ (full text here or here), in which a young woman performing these rites is in her dreamlike state deflowered by the desired suitor her family forbids — and then the two slip away by night “o’er the southern moors.”

Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet,–
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.


The Eve of St. Agnes, by John Everett Millais (1863) shows Keats’s Madeleine about to disrobe before taking to bed on that occasion. The Keats poem was very popular with Millais’s pre-Raphaelite crowd.

* It’s also similar to the Latin word for lamb, agnus; consequently, the lamb is Agnes’s usual iconographic symbol.

** Prudentius, best-known for his seminal allegorical verse Psychomachia, composed a number of hymnal poems. Some are still in use today — such as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”.

† Translation has a few tweaks of my own but is primarily that of Colbert I. Nepaulsingh in “The Afrenta de Corpes and the Martyrological Tradition,” Hispanic Review, Spring, 1983.

‡ She’s also the patron saint of rape victims.

§ Tennyson later wrote a short poem of his own touching the same theme, “St. Agnes’ Eve”.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,God,History,Italy,Martyrs,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Sex,Uncertain Dates,Women

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2013: Alireza Mafiha and Mohammad Ali Sorouri, viral video stars

Add comment January 20th, 2014 Headsman

A 37-second security camera clip of a Tehran being mugged by machete-wielding assailants went viral to great outrage in Iran in December 2012, and resulted in the very speedy execution on January 20, 2013, of the culprits.

Alireza Mafiha and Mohammad Ali Sorouri were publicly hanged at a still-dark 6:30 a.m. before a crowd of about 300 people for Moharebeh (waging war against God)

There’s a photo series of the execution here.

Two other accomplices (the video captures four assailants in all) received 10 years in prison and 74 lashes.

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1891: James Eubanks

Add comment January 19th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1891, middle-aged widower James M. Eubanks was hanged in the yard of the county jail in San Jose, California. He’d killed his oldest daughter, Ada, thirteen months before.

Ada was fifteen years old at the time of her death, and worked as a waitress at a restaurant called Heath House in Los Gatos. Her relationship with her father was troubled and James was often abusive towards her. Once, the girl’s uncle had to intervene when he saw James chasing after Ada brandishing a stick.

James, a father of six, played the part of the beleaguered single parent with an out-of-control child: he said Ada was a habitual runaway, was “running around at night too much,” and that he he had “heard a great many reports that she was of loose character.”

There were hints of something more than typical inter-generational tension and teenage rebellion in the Eubanks family, however. Ada confided to a female relative that her father had committed “improper actions” that caused a great deal of trouble for her, and there were rumors that she had been pregnant by her own father.

Three days before Christmas in 1889, Ada was at work at Heath House and her father was loitering at the saloon next door.

He’d taken a position at the upstairs window, which afforded him a view of the Heath House kitchen, and was sullenly eyeballing his daughter.

Between nine and ten in the morning, James left his surveillance point carrying a double barreled shotgun. He came into the restaurant through the kitchen door and called for Ada.

When she came to the door, he took aim and fired, hitting her in the chest and killing her instantly. James then fired a shot at his own head, but missed.

He calmly walked back into the saloon, ordered a drink of whiskey, consumed it and went back upstairs. There he tried to cut his throat with a razor, but inflicted only a minor wound before the constable came and arrested him.

Admitting to the slaying, the “drunken, worthless wretch” said he’d been angry because Ada refused to turn over her earnings from her job.

At his trial, Eubanks’s lawyer presented a defense of diminished capacity: he admitted he’d fatally shot his daughter, but said that “from the long and excessive use of intoxicating liquors … he was, at the time of the homicide, and for a long time prior thereto, of a weak and enfeebled mind” and therefore incapable of forming the malice aforethought necessary for a first-degree murder conviction.

His attorney argued for a conviction of second-degree murder, or at least a recommendation of mercy.

The jury would have none of it, and James Eubanks didn’t seem to care. “I am a nuisance to the world,” he wrote in a memorandum confessing to the killing, “so I leave it in disgust.”

He found religion on death row, like so many others of his kind, and said he believed God had forgiven him and he would go to Heaven.

According to one newspaper report, the day before James was hanged, 2,000 men, women and children were permitted to traipse through the jailyard to have a look at the gallows. James Eubanks himself traversed it speedily; he died a speedy six minutes after the drop, having delivered himself of the trite last words, “I hope this will be a warning to others.”

Sheriff Giles E. McDougall‘s duty required him to preside over the hanging, and he was sickened by the experience. He lobbied for a change in California law — going so far as to write to every county sheriff in the state to solicit support — so that executions would fall within the confines of the state prison system and would no longer be the responsibility of individual counties. McDougall got his new law within a year.

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2000: Spencer Corey Goodman

Add comment January 18th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 2000, music producer Bill Ham — noted as the manager of ZZ Top — settled into the witness booth at Huntsville to watch Spencer Corey Goodman suffer lethal injection for the murder of Ham’s wife.

“Minutes before the execution, a witness turned to” Ham, one paper reported, “and asked how he was doing. ‘Great,’ Ham replied.”

Ham’s wife Cecile, 48, left her Houston residence on July 2, 1991, and never returned. Five weeks later, her red Cadillac led Eagle County, Colo. deputies on a 32-mile high-speed chase until it plunged over a cliff. The driver survived: he was Spencer Goodman, a repeat felon who had just been paroled.

According to the statement he gave in custody — a statement that helpfully ticks every box a state’s attorney would need for a capital conviction — he’d been very busy during his brief liberty.

On July 1, 1991, I was released from the old Bexar County Jail … I was given a bus ride back to Houston, Texas by Wackenhut [a private prison company -ed.] and dropped off on the east side of town at 9:30 a.m. I was given my papers to report to Texas House at 5:30 p.m. that night. Instead of going to the halfway house I started walking west. I walked most of the night. … During the day on Tuesday, July 2, 1991, I started walking out Memorial Drive. During the mid-afternoon it started raining. I walked up into a Walgreens parking lot maybe about 4:00 p.m. and just hung around the parking lot for about 20 to 30 minutes. I saw a white female drive up in a 1991 red Cadillac. She pulled up in the firelane along the blind side of the parking lot and then went into the Walgreens store. At that time I was not really watching her, but I don’t think that she stayed inside the drug store very long. When the lady came out of the store she opened the driver’s door and started getting into the car. I decided at that point that I wanted to take her car from her. I had been walking for a long time and my feet hurt and I wanted some transportation. I ran up behind her while the driver’s door was still open. She was sitting behind the wheel, and I shoved her over with one hand and punched her just under the left ear, to knock her out. She fell over to the passenger’s side and was knocked unconscious. I got into the driver’s seat. I think that I may have hit her in the back of the neck to make sure that she was unconscious. I think that the keys to the car were in her hand because they fell to the floor. I picked them up and started the car and then looked around to see if anyone had seen what happened. It was raining, and there was nobody around the parking lot. I first pulled out of the parking lot and turned right on Memorial going west, but there was a subdivision down that way, so I turned around and went to the Dairy Ashford for a ways and then turned off towards the west. I know that I was near a high school off of Dairy Ashford. I pulled off the main road and parked on a side road off behind this little building. I then used martial arts and broke the lady’s neck. I don’t know why I did it, but I know that I was lost. I then put her in the trunk of the car. I did not have on a shirt because my shirt was wet from the rain. I was also wearing jogging pants. After I put her in the trunk, I drove down this road. I was right by this high school when I saw this guy in a truck. I then asked him how to get to I-10. . . . I followed the guy’s direction. As I was driving I went through the lady’s purse and got out her wallet. I found about $20.00 and some change in her purse and some credit cards. I saw an Exxon gas station at HWY 6 and Westheimer so I stopped and filled up with gas. I used the Exxon gas card and signed the name on the card. I then got on I-10 and headed west. . . . . . . I knew that she was dead when I put her in the trunk because I felt on her pulse.

The killer’s niece, Megan Goodman, posted a sad memorial to a man who became in his last months “like my older brother”. Though the original host site appears to be several years gone, archive.org preserves it here.

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1944: Max Sievers, freethinker

1 comment January 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1944, German freethinker Max Sievers was beheaded at Brandenburg Prison for “conspiracy to commit high treason along with favouring the enemy.”

A working-class Berliner, Sievers (English Wikipedia entry | German) became a prominent communist and atheist writer in the interwar years. He directed the Association of Freethinkers for Cremation from the early 1920s, and in 1927 became the chair of the German Freethinkers League.

This was not a demographic Adolph Hitler was courting. In the wake of the 1933 Reichstag Fire, the Nazis stamped out atheistic movements, even converting the Freethinkers’ building into a Protestant recruitment venue.

Briefly imprisoned, Sievers fled Germany upon his release later in 1933 and from exile in Belgium — and then, after Belgium was conquered, in hiding in France — he kept up a drumbeat of antifascist propaganda, notably the 1939 book Unser Kampf gegen das Dritte Reich: von der nazistischen Diktatur zur sozialistischen Demokratie.

He was finally arrested by the Gestapo on June 3, 1943, and condemned to death by Roland Freisler.

Sievers was posthumously exonerated in 1996, and is today — and on January 17th in particular — an honored martyr for German humanist, atheist, and freethinker groups.

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1942: Senitsa Vershovsky, Mayor of Kremenchuk

2 comments January 16th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1942, Senitsa Vershovsky was shot in the city of Kremenchuk in the Soviet Union, in what is now the Ukraine.

Vershovsky was the mayor of Kremenchuk and was also a major in the Red Army. His executioners were members of Einsatzgruppe A, one of Nazi Germany’s mobile killing squads: they killed Vershovsky for “carry[ing] out his duties in gross defiance of German orders … [and] sabotaging the handling of the Jewish problem by having a great number of Jews baptized in order to remove them from German control.”

Approximately 30,000 Jews lived in Kremenchuk, constituting 40% of the city’s population and they had good cause to remove themselves as far as possible from German control. The Einsatzgruppen, as they did in countless other cities throughout the Soviet Union, rounded up the Jewish population, forced them to dig their own graves, and machine-gunned them by the thousands.

Vershovsky’s attempts to help the Jews under his charge, futile though his efforts may have been, nevertheless deserve a footnote in history. For, as historian Raul Hilberg noted, in all the situation reports filed by the Einsatzgruppen during their 22 months of operation,

This incident appears to be the only one of its kind. The counterpressure was evidently too great. Whoever attempted to aid the Jews acted alone and exposed himself as well as his family to the possibility of a death sentence from a German Kommando. There was no encouragement for a man with an awakened conscience.

In a time of great adversity, Senitsa Vershovsky showed himself to be a courageous and fundamentally decent human being, and he paid for it with his life. The least we can do is remember him.

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1973: Lim Seng, under Philippines martial law

4 comments January 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1973,* under the then-new martial law regime of Philippines strongman Ferdinand Marcos, a 52-year-old Chinese businessman was shot at Fort Bonifacio.**

Lim Seng was a struggling restauranteur in the 1960s when he dove into the heroin business.

He wasn’t struggling much longer.

He quickly became the Walter White of Manila heroin production, exploiting ties to criminal syndicates in the Golden Triangle to churn out (by the early 1970s) 1.2 tons of smack. Ninety percent of it was exported to the United States. (.pdf source on Lim Seng’s criminal career)

The other 10% helped feed a burgeoning heroin addiction among Manila students, leading to a seminal 1972 anti-drug law under which Lim Seng was arrested days after martial law came down that September. He faced a military, rather than a civilian trial.

Naturally quite wealthy from his enterprise, he evidently believed up until the last moments that he could buy his way out of execution. Little did he understand that he had been ticketed to demonstrate the incipient dictatorship’s iron fist: thousands of civilian spectators crowded the ropeline of the rifle range to glimpse the garishly publicized ceremony, while others took in the radio broadcast or news footage.


(via)

Lim Seng was the first person executed by the Marcos regime for drug trafficking.

* Lim Seng was tried in December 1972, and some sources report this as his execution date. Contemporary newspaper accounts unambiguously confirm that the execution took place on January 15, 1973.

** Fort Andres Bonifacio, formerly a base of the U.S. occupation called Fort McKinley, was christened for an executed Filipino patriot.

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1730: Neither James Prouse nor James Mitchel, much to their surprise

Add comment January 14th, 2014 Benjamin Franklin

January 14, 1730, was the date appointed for the public hanging in Philadelphia of James Prouse and James Mitchel for burglary.

Prouse, for his part, admitted the crime but insisted that James Mitchel had nothing to do with it — and Mitchel insisted the same. This ultimately generated considerable support for clemency which the authorities did not seem inclined to act upon.

Naturally the young newspaperman Benjamin Franklin — just turning 24 in January 1730 — was keen to publish this affecting story in his Philadelphia Gazette. Through the magic of public domain, he’s generously allowed us to republish his account from the January 20, 1730 Gazette as our guest post today.

Hyperlinks are, as one may surmise, Executed Today‘s own annotations.


We think our Readers will not be displeased to have the following remarkable Transaction related to them in this particular Manner.

Wednesday the 14th Instant, being the Day appointed for the Execution of James Prouse and James Mitchel for Burglary, suitable Preparations were accordingly made. The tender Youth of one of them (who was but about 19) and the supposed Innocence of the other as to the Fact for which they were condemned, had induced the Judges (upon the Application of some compassionate People) to recommend them to His Honour‘s known Clemency: But several Malefactors having been already pardoned, and every Body being sensible, that, considering the great Increase of Vagrants and idle Persons, by the late large Importation of such from several Parts of Europe, it was become necessary for the common Good to make some Examples, there was but little Reason to hope that either, and less that both of them might escape the Punishment justly due to Crimes of that enormous Nature. About 11 o’Clock the Bell began to Toll, and a numerous Croud of People was gathered near the Prison, to see these unhappy young Men brought forth to suffer. While their Irons were taken off, and their Arms were binding, Prouse cry’d immoderately; but Mitchel (who had himself all along behaved with unusual Fortitude) endeavoured in a friendly tender Manner to comfort him: Do not cry, Jemmy; (says he) In an Hour or two it will be over with us, and we shall both be easy. They were then placed in a Cart, together with a Coffin for each of them, and led thro’ the Town to the Place of Execution: Prouse appear’d extreamly dejected, but Mitchel seemed to support himself with a becoming manly Constancy: When they arriv’d at the fatal Tree, they were told that it was expected they should make some Confession of their Crimes, and say something by Way of Exhortation to the People. Prouse was at length with some Difficulty prevailed on to speak; he said, his Confession had been taken in Writing the Evening before; he acknowledged the Fact for which he was to die, but said, That Greyer who had sworn against him was the Person that persuaded him to it; and declared that he had never wronged any Man beside Mr. Sheed, and his Master. Mitchel being desired to speak, reply’d with a sober compos’d Countenance, What would you have me to say? I am innocent of the Fact. He was then told, that it did not appear well in him to persist in asserting his Innocence; that he had had a fair Trial, and was found guilty by twelve honest and good Men. He only answer’d, I am innocent; and it will appear so before God; and sat down. Then they were both bid to stand up, and the Ropes were order’d to be thrown over the Beam; when the Sheriff took a Paper out of his Pocket and began to read. The poor Wretches, whose Souls were at that Time fill’d with the immediate Terrors of approaching Death, having nothing else before their Eyes, and being without the least Apprehension or Hope of a Reprieve, took but little Notice of what was read; or it seems imagined it to be some previous Matter of Form, as a Warrant for their Execution or the like, ’till they heard the Words PITY and MERCY [And whereas the said James Prouse and James Mitchel have been recommended to me as proper Objects of Pity and Mercy.] Immediately Mitchel fell into the most violent Agony; and having only said, God bless the Governor, he swooned away in the Cart. Suitable Means were used to recover him; and when he came a little to himself, he added; I have been a great Sinner; I have been guilty of almost every Crime; Sabbath-breaking in particular, which led me into ill Company; but Theft I never was guilty of. God bless the Governor; and God Almighty’s Name be praised; and then swooned again. Prouse likewise seemed to be overwhelmed with Joy, but did not swoon. All the Way back to the Prison, Mitchel lean’d on his Coffin, being unable to support himself, and shed Tears in abundance. He who went out to die with a large Share of Resolution and Fortitude, returned in the most dispirited Manner imaginable; being utterly over-power’d by the Force of that sudden Turn of excessive Joy, for which he had been no Way prepared. The Concern that appeared in every Face while these Criminals were leading to Execution, and the Joy that diffused it self thro’ the whole Multitude, so visible in their Countenances upon the mention of a Reprieve, seems to be a pleasing Instance, and no small Argument of the general laudable Humanity even of our common People, who were unanimous in their loud Acclamations of God bless the Governor for his Mercy.

The following are Copies of the Papers delivered out by Prouse and Mitchel the Evening before, with little or no Alteration from their own Words.

I James Prouse was born in the Town of Brentford in Middlesex County in Old England, of honest Parents, who gave me but little Education. My Father was a Corporal in the late Lord Oxford’s Regiment of Horse, (then named the said Lord’s Blues) and I was for some Time in the Care of an Uncle who lived at Eling near Brentford aforesaid, and who would have given me good Learning; but I being young would not take his good Counsel, and in the 12th Year of my Age came into Philadelphia, where I was recommended to one of the best of Masters, who never let me want for any Thing: But I minding the evil Insinuations of wicked People, more than the good Dictates of my Master, and having not the Fear of God before my Eyes, am deservedly brought to this wretched and shameful End. I acknowledge I justly merit Death for the Fact which condemns me; but I never had the least Design or Thought of the like, until often press’d, and at length seduced to it by John Greyer, who was the only Person that ruined me. He often solicited me to be guilty of other Crimes of the like Nature, but I never was guilty of any such, neither with him or any one else; neither did I ever wrong any Man before, save my too indulgent Master; from whom I now and then pilfer’d a Yard or the like of Cloth, in order to make Money to spend with the said Greyer. As for James Mitchel who dies for the same Fact with me, as I hope to receive Mercy at the great Tribunal, he the said James Mitchel is intirely innocent, (*) and knew nothing of the Fact until apprehended and taken. I am about Nineteen Years of Age and die a Protestant.

JAMES PROUSE.

(*) N. B. He declared the same Thing at the Bar just before he received Sentence.

The Speech or Declaration of James Mitchel written with his own Hand.

I James Mitchel, was born, at Antrim in the Kingdom of Ireland, of good and honest Parents, and brought up with them until the Age of 13 Years, and had a suitable Education given me, such as being taught to read and write English, with some Latin; and might have been further instructed, but at my earnest Request was bound Apprentice to a Book-binder, and served 4 Years to that Trade; after which I left the Kingdom and went for England in order to be further improved in my Business; but there had the Misfortune to be press’d on board the Berwick Man of War, commanded by the Honorable George Gordon, and having been at several Parts abroad, returned to England in Octob. 1728. where I was by Sickness reduced to a very sad Condition, through which I came over to this Country a Servant; here I was it seems unfortunately led into bad Company, and one Evening by James Prouse was raised out of my Bed to go and drink with him and one Greyer, the which Greyer after parting gave to the said James Prouse Six-pence, which was all the Money I saw that Night and till next Morning, and then James Prouse took out of his Pocket a 15 Shilling Bill, and desired me to get it changed for him, in order to spend some of it; but coming unto Town I was apprehended for the robbing of Mr. George Sheed, and now am to die for the same. I die a Protestant.

JAMES MITCHEL.

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1869: William German, surprising Klan lynch victim

3 comments January 13th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1869, a man named William German was lynched by the newly formed Ku Klux Klan.

German, a white man, had been hanged for killing a black man, Bill Cullum.

Yes, you read that right.

Bill Cullum was a former slave; William German, a former soldier in the Confederate Army. German was living on a farm he’d rented from a white plantation owner, Alvin Cullum, who had been Bill’s owner.

German was ordered to clear off the land so the ex-slave could live there instead. Furious, German put on KKK robes and, with another man, tracked down Bill Cullum and shot him several times. The dying man was able to crawl to a nearby house and name his attacker before he expired.

The local KKK chapter was outraged. William German had committed his act wearing their garb, but without their authorization and against their rules.

What happened next was recounted in the Memphis Daily Appeal (now called The Commercial Appeal):

The Union and American of Saturday says: “By a private letter from a trustworthy gentleman residing at Cookville in Putnam County, we give some further information in regard to the recent execution near Livingston, in Overton County, by a body of supposed Ku-Klux, of the young man Wm. German, an account of which we published Thursday morning. “He says that a few days before the execution, German shot and badly wounded, and supposed he had killed, a Negro man living in his neighborhood. The shooting took place in a public road, and the Negro managed to crawl to the house of his employer, where he told who had shot him. The Negro had the character of being a quiet, peaceable man, and as there had been no previous trouble between him and German, it was supposed the crime was perpetrated in pure wantonness.

It is thought that the persons by whom German was killed were members of a secret organization, to which he belonged — but whether Ku-Klux or not, nobody in the neighborhood appears to know. The body of men concerned in the execution numbered about 200, and none of them were identified by citizens who witnessed their appearance and departure. Accounts reported Bill German was found hanged in a nearby barn; a sign posted there declared: Hung for shooting a Negro, Bill Cullum, and violating the laws of Ku Klux.”

These days, this story has been used by the KKK as evidence that they are a peaceable organization and not at all racist, honest, pinky-swear.

An aside: executions ran in the German family. William German’s brother, Columbus C. “Lum” German, had also served in the Confederate Army and also met his death at the end of a rope, in 1866.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Common Criminals,Crime,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lynching,Murder,No Formal Charge,Other Voices,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Tennessee,USA

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1864: Samuel Wright, by contrast

Add comment January 12th, 2014 Headsman

Samuel Wright and George Townley both murdered romantic partners late in 1863. Both were tried, convicted, and condemned to hang in very short order and both the subjects of intense pressure for a crown commutation of sentence.

Only one of those men hanged. It was 150 years ago today.

George Townley

Townley lived near Manchester and was courting a young woman named Bessie Goodwin from Derbyshire. Described as a man from a respectable upper middle class family with “refined manners,” and an intelligent linguist* to boot, Townley was nevertheless a rung or two below Miss Goodwin on the wealth and status ladder.

He was, accordingly, frustrated of his designs when the young lady accepted a clergyman’s proposal and broke off her previous engagement to Townley. Despite being disinvited by ex-fiancee, Townley took a train to her village and pressed his company on her. The two went for a walk that evening, and Townley stabbed her in the throat — a fact which he confessed on the scene to the first person who responded to the commotion and found Miss Goodwin staggering towards her home with a fatal gash in her neck.

In the great tradition of weird stalkers everywhere, Townley then helped the Good Samaritan carry the dying woman home, and kissed her tenderly, all the while bemoaning to arriving gawkers his guilt. “She has deceived me, and the woman who deceives me must die,” he responded chillingly to the inquiries of his would-be father-in-law. “I told her I would kill her. She knew my temper.”

This is all a very bad hand to deal a defense barrister.

Having little to work with, his superstar attorney — remember, the family had money — went with an insanity defense, aided by the lunacy diagnosis of prominent psychiatrist Forbes Winslow.** There was some history of insanity in his family, and everyone seemed agreed on the point that Townley didn’t set out with the intent to commit murder, but impulsively — madly? — took that course as he realized during his interview that he would surely not be putting a ring on that.

The legal standard of the time gave no purchase to this sort of thing. Townley’s judge instructed the jury to find insanity only if he “was under delusions … [and] supposed a state of things to exist which did not exist, and whose diseased mind was in such a condition that he acted upon an imaginary existence of things as if those things were real.” This is the M’Naghten rule, a historically pivotal and also highly restrictive insanity definition dating to 1843.

On December 12, 1863 Townley was sentenced to death for the murder, with the hanging scheduled for the approaching New Year’s Day. According to the London Times report the next week (Dec. 18), the sentence “has not made the slightest alteration in his demeanour. He partakes of his meals heartily, sleeps well, and repeatedly asserts that he was perfectly justified in taking away his victim’s life, and that he feels no remorse for the deed.”

Nevertheless, Townley’s well-off family and friends had enough pull to pry open a previously little-known legal escape hatch.

Upon the judge’s own request, the crown empaneled a committee to adjudicate Townley’s sanity for his mercy petition. But a sloppily written law actually allowed any two doctors plus any two magistrates to issue a formal certification of madness which would compel the prisoner’s removal to the asylum. Townley’s own solicitor simply assembled himself a quartet so minded and presented their finding to the Home Secretary, forcing his hand — to a great deal of public outrage once the obscure mechanism became known.

“Good friends and abundant means may give a convicted criminal unexpected advantages over an ordinary offender,” the Times complained in an editorial. (Jan. 27, 1864) Plus ça change.

Samuel Wright

Samuel Wright was not a man of means or linguistic gifts, but a bricklayer who lived in a Waterloo Road public house in Surrey, on London’s southern outskirts.

On December 13, 1863, he slashed the throat of his live-in lover Maria Green after they’d both been on a drinking bout. On December 16, mere three days later, Wright voluntarily pleaded guilty and received a death sentence.

A hue and cry for Wright’s sentence to be abated soon arose among London’s working classes, especially in the wake of Townley’s commutation. Wright had a good reputation, while Green was known for her violent temper. Wright intimated that she had menaced him with a knife during a quarrel.

Was this not a case like George Townley’s, only more so?

The contrast in the fates between the two murderers did not flatter. The crimes were analogous even to the mode of slaying.† If anything, the rich man’s suggested a more egregious context: Townley’s victim appeared more sympathetic, and Townley had gone out of his way to track her down in order to kill. Why was Townley’s heat of passion “insanity” but Wright’s was motive and deliberation?

The Home Secretary offered his sympathy but not his mercy. After all, Wright himself agreed that he intentionally killed Green. “To commute the sentence on the grounds on which it has been pressed would, in fact, be to lay down a rule of law as to the distinction between murder and manslaughter contrary to that which is well established,” wrote a Home Office spokesman on Jan. 7 in response to three separate petitions submitted on Wright’s behalf. Maybe they thought the same thing about Townley … but that decision was out of their hands.

In one of the period’s characteristic hanging broadsides, the balladeer has Wright lament,

Friends, for me have persevered,
To save me from the gallows high;
Alas! for me there is no mercy,
Every boon they did deny,
While others who was tried for murder,
And doomed to die upon a tree,
Through friends and money has been pardon’d
who deserved to die as well as me.

But, oh! my friends, you must acknowledge
what I say has oft been said before.
Some laws are made to suit two classes,
One for the rich, one for the poor;
So it is with me and Townley,
A reprieve they quickly granted he,
He was rich, and I was poor, —
And I must face the fatal tree.

The mood of the populace for the hanging at Horsemonger Lane Gaol this date in 1864‡ was decidedly ugly. On the night of the 11th, when it became clear that the many last-ditch bids for commutation — directed not only at the Home Secretary but even to Queen Victoria and even to the Prince of Wales appealing for a boon on the occasion of his first son‘s January 8 birth§ — a handbill circulated in the prison’s neighborhood entreating its denizens to protest the execution by shuttering all windows. “Let Calcraft and Co. do their work this time with none but the eye of Heaven to look upon their crime.”

Indeed this summons was widely obeyed.

A small crowd only turned out for the occasion, and shouted their disgust for the proceedings: “Shame!” and “Judicial murder!” and “Where’s Townley?” Even many months later, at the controversial August 10 hanging of Richard Thomas Parker, the crowd chanted Townley’s name, now the emblem of the unequal justice of the law.

One diarist’s entry for the day recalled that “[t]he blinds were down in all the neighbouring streets and the military were called out in case of an attempted rescue. When the unfortunate man appeared on the scaffold, loud cries of ‘Take him, take him down’ were heard in every direction, to which the unhappy man responded by repeated bows to the multitude, he still continued bowing and was actually bowing when the drop fell.”

Postscript

The language of the law that permitted Townley his backdoor commutation was revised by Parliament within weeks.

As to Townley himself, another panel appointed by the Home Office found him fully cogent, which meant that officially, he had become insane after his death sentence and the insanity abated thereafter. While this finding theoretically reinstated the death penalty, actually hanging him after these circumstances was thought to be inhumane, and he was reprieved. One supposes there must have been some thought for the potential disturbance Townley’s hanging would have occasioned.

On February 12, 1865 — a year and change after escaping the noose that claimed Samuel Wright — George Townley hurled himself headlong off a high staircase onto a stone floor in Pentonville Prison, where he had been transferred as an ordinary inmate. He died on the spot.

* Of course, he could never hope to match the linguistic’s fields most famous English murderer.

** You might recognize this distinctive name from our Winslow’s son, L. Forbes Winslow, a figure in the Jack the Ripper investigation.

† An additional unflatterering comparison point to Derbyshire contemporaries: a proletarian named Richard Thorley had been hanged in Derby in 1862 for a very similar crime: he slashed his girlfriend’s throat when she tried to break up with him.

‡ Among the very last public hangings at Horsemonger Lane Gaol. All UK hangings were conducted behind prison walls by 1868.

§ This infant, Prince Albert Victor, is the royal eventually identified with Jack the Ripper by a particularly inventive hypothesis.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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