Archive for April, 2017

2017: Ledell Lee

2 comments April 20th, 2017 Headsman

Moments before his death warrant expired at midnight U.S. Central Time, after a last meal consisting only of communion, Ledell Lee was executed by the U.S. state of Arkansas.

Lee spent 24 years awaiting execution for the bludgeon murder of Debra Reese on February 9, 1993, but he was done to death in a rush that left unanswered some of the most fundamental questions in the case.

Trial is the forum designated for contesting this question, of course. At Lee’s, he was represented by an unwilling defense team that repeatedly sought its own removal from the case, citing an “intolerable conflict” with their client, a conflict that paled in comparison to that of the judge, who was having an affair with a prosecuting attorney. (Multiple separate rape cases were pending against Lee at the same time, and those same conflicting attorneys were removed from those cases.)

A quarter-century on death row suggests claims litigated to the point of exhaustion, but this is not how the death penalty game is played in America. The art of execution lies in expediting a conviction and then fighting hammer and tong to maintain that verdict as a fait accompli against any attempt on appeal to litigate issues that the jury never heard. Mostly, the clocks runs for years on useless waiting or epicycles of procedural do-overs that never reach the most salient topics. The Innocence Project reports that outright exonerees (not limited to condemned prisoners) serve an average of 14 years before winning release on their various evidentiary trump cards. (Arkansas’s most famous death row exoneree,* Damien Echols, waited 17 years.)

By the time one reaches the end of the glacial death penalty process, the very refusal of the law to probe the questions it never bothered asking will have become the fault of a prisoner’s own dilatory appeals, leading — in this instance — to victim’s kin at Lee’s clemency hearing “asking you and begging you to please let us have some closure.”

In the name of closure, end-state cases must also insist on renouncing one of the potential benefits of all that time-wasting, the perspective of passing years. DNA tests that were not available when Lee stood trial for his life — and the discredited “forensic evidence” of matching hair samples was invoked against him — could have been used to examine blood spots on Lee’s shoes.** Because the prisoner maintained his innocence in the case from the time he was arrested until the very end, one of his late appeals vainly implored Arkansas to test that DNA sample. There are many cases, death penalty and otherwise, meeting this description, and most U.S. jurisdictions compulsively resist any calls to revisit testable tissue in the light of emerging DNA science as so many affronts to the majesty of law.

So what has everyone been up to while not testing DNA all those years? The Fair Punishment Project report on Lee’s post-conviction road makes depressing reading.

Lee’s first state post-conviction attorney had substance abuse problems that left him “impaired to the point of unavailability on one or more days of the Rule 37 hearing.” The Arkansas Supreme Court noted several examples of his lawyer’s “troubling behavior,” including “being unable to locate the witness room;” “repeatedly being unable to understand questions posed by the trial court or objections raised by the prosecution;” “not being familiar with his own witnesses;” and “rambling incoherently, repeatedly interjecting ‘blah, blah, blah,’ into his statements.” Unsurprisingly, Ledell lost his state-post conviction petition. Eventually, the Arkansas Supreme Court recognized that Lee received grossly inadequate representation and withdrew its opinion, giving him new counsel.

Unfortunately, his new counsel were not much better. First, they missed the filing deadline for the appeal. Then, the Arkansas Supreme Court twice, sua sponte, ordered the attorneys to submit a new brief because their filings failed to comply with Court rules — the second time, the Court referred the attorneys to the Committee on Professional Conduct. The attorneys also appear to have refused to accept their client’s phone calls and ignored his letters.

At one point, Ledell received a glimmer of hope when the Arkansas court appointed the Arkansas Federal Defender to his case. They tried to litigate a claim that Ledell is intellectually disabled. In response, the state argued that Ledell — with all of his competent representation — had procedurally defaulted this claim by not raising it before.† But before the parties could complete litigation on the claim, the Federal Defender was removed due to a conflict.

In 2016, Ledell’s local habeas attorney moved to withdraw from the case because she was retiring. She made clear that in ten years, she had done little work on the case. “I have no file on [Ledell],” she stated, despite having argued at least one of Ledell’s appeals before the Eighth Circuit. “I have no working relationship with [Ledell]. I have not seen [him] for several years. I have no relationship with [his] present counsel and have not had any working relationship with them for some time.”

In June of 2016, one of Lee’s federal habeas lawyers, Gary Brotherton, voluntarily surrendered his legal license “to prevent possible harm to clients” because he was suffering from bipolar disorder with psychotic features and anxiety. One month later, the Missouri Supreme Court suspended him from the practice of law. So, just seven months ago, in the eleventh hour of his case, Ledell received yet another lawyer on his case.

All in all, a shambolic proceedings crowned by the indignity of Arkansas’s cramming Lee into a raft of eight proposed executions — many of them now stumbling on late appeals — slated together for the last days of April for the tawdry expedient of using up the state’s lethal injection drugs before their imminent expiry. It’s a very not normal situation, and yet, it is also all too normal.

Ledell Lee was the first person executed by Arkansas since 2005.

* As we’ve previously noted, Arkansas forced Echols to make an Alford plea as the price of his release, allowing it to claim on a technicality that it had not wrongfully imprisoned an innocent man for two decades.

** The crime scene was a bloodbath, so the supposition is that the murderer would certainly have imbrued his clothes with Reese’s blood.

† Reese’s alleged intellectual disability ought to have been raised by his unwilling defenders at the trial’s mitigation stage; it appears they barely investigated it.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arkansas,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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1374: Tile von Damm, Braunschweig mayor

Add comment April 19th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1374, mayor Tile von Damm was beheaded by rebel populares in his home city of Braunschweig (Brunswick).

One of northern Europe’s great Hanseatic merchant cities, Braunschweig enjoyed a rich history of civic unrest — the Braunschweiger Schichten. (Literally shift, but also carrying the sense of rebellion.)


The Great Rebellion in Braunschweig, by Alfred von Schüssler (mid-19th century).

One of its most outstanding installments — the one recalled as the Große Schicht — kicked off on April 17, 1374. (Most of the information about this incident is in German, as are most of the links in this post.) On that evening, a meeting of the ruling council of merchant magnates with its guild chiefs on how to deal with Braunschweig’s crippling debt turned tetchy and spilled into a popular protest. Within hours, as a chronicler would later put it, the devil was set loose in Braunschweig.

Guild protests carried to the “House of the Seven Towers” where Tile von Damm(e) resplended in the manner fitting the city’s mayor and its wealthiest patrician. That house still exists to this day, but the mayor’s thread was measured in mere hours: he was soon hauled out and beheaded on the Hagenmarkt.

Either eight or ten magnates (sources seem to be split on the figure) were slain during these April disturbances with others fleeing as guild rebels took full control of the city, not to be fully restored until 1386 — although in a show of transnational oligarch solidarity, Braunschweig was booted out of the Hanseatic League while the lower orders had the run of the place.


Allegory of the Great Rebellion (1514).

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions

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1820: William Piper, drunken matricide

Add comment April 18th, 2017 Headsman

From the Boston Daily Advertiser and Repertory, April 26, 1820:


GEORGETOWN, (Del.) April 18 — This day, the awful sentence of the law was executed on William Piper, for matricide.

The following particulars were taken down by a person present at the time:

Early in the day a crowd was collected at the prison and another at the gallows. At 12 o’clock the tolling of the bell at the court-house announced the arrival of the time when the prisoner was about to bid adieu to earthly things. The anxiety of the people became very great, thousands crowding around the place where the gallows stood, and others pressing to see the criminal leave the prison.

The bell tolled ten minutes, when the sheriff entered the jail with the rope: 25 minutes past 12, the criminal appeared, and was assisted into the cart, and standing up with a horrible, frightened countenance he uttered the broken sentence, “Oh, all these people!”

The cart-horse was soon led off by the deputy sheriff, the guard forming around the cart and marching with charged bayonets; at 32 minutes past 12, the criminal was halted under the pole on which he was soon to be suspended.

The Rev. John Rogers addressed the people, and warned them against drunkenness; the crime, he said, that caused the criminal to do the act that had brought him to the gallows.

The Throne of Grace was then addressed in a very appropriate prayer by Mr. Hudson; after which the criminal spoke a few minutes to the congregation, declaring a knowledge of his sins &c.

The sheriff drew the cap over his face, and fastening [sic] the rope to the hook in the pole; at 13 minutes past one, the cart was moved off, and the criminal left hanging! A horrid consequence of drunkenness! Much might be said of the very trifling impression that was made on the minds of some rum drinkers that were present.

It might be proper to state, that the fatal deed was perpetrated in a state of intoxication, and after some quarrelling between him and his mother, and a blow on the head from her which drew blood, and after she had pushed him down over a chair, and a scuffle on the floor between Piper and his sister, who attempted to tie him, and after the sister had first seized upon the stick with which the fatal blows were given.

The only witness present at the beginning, stated that Piper when intoxicated, often threatened to kill his mother, but when sober he was as good to her as ever a child was.

Suffice to say, that he persisted to the last in solemnly declaring that he never had any malice against his mother, and that he was not sensible of having killed her.

He was 45 years of age.

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

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1792: Three cadavers, to test the first guillotine

1 comment April 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1792, the French Revolution’s iconic execution machine made its quiet experimental debut on the grounds of a suburban Paris hospital.

For all the long and terrible shadow it would cast, the first guillotine was a ridiculous rush job — courtesy of a legislature too squeamish to deal in the particulars of the humane head-chopper it had insisted upon. A ghastly farce ensued, as detailed by Paul Friedland in his Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France,* wherein during a matter of weeks in the spring of 1792 the thing was practically willed into existence by French physician Antoine Louis by virtue of being the one guy who was willing to get into the technical journals on the matter of crunching a heavy blade through a man’s spine.**

The invention would initially be known as a louisette or louison in his honor, before that moniker was supplanted by the surname of a different physician who had become known (derisively, at first) for proposing a mechanical beheading device: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

Lawmakers’ shyness stems as Friedland sees it from their ambivalence about the entire project of public executions with their unruly rabble, pornographically agape: in this courtly sketch of the proposed machine, even the executioner — and this behavior is explicit in its original caption — coyly averts his eyes as his sword-arm releases the blade.

It was on March 20, 1792 that Assembly’s Committee on Legislation authorized deploying the as-yet uninvented device and “almost immediately, there followed an urgent, almost frenzied effort to build a decapitating machine as quickly as possible.” Executions remained suspended in the interim but Louis worked with dispatch, and an efficient carpenter named Guidon,† and the device performed its first real execution a mere five weeks after the enabling legislation, on April 25.

This date was its dry run, courtesy of a few fresh cadavers at the Bicêtre Hospital. That facility’s chief surgeon, one Cullerier, was very happy to make Dr. Louis’s arrangements.

Sir,

You will find at Bicetre all the facilities that you desire for the trial of a machine that humanity cannot see without shuddering, but which justice and the welfare of society make necessary. I will keep the corpses of those unfortunates who die between today and Monday. I will arrange the amphitheater … [and if] the ceiling does not accommodate the height of the machine, I can make use of a little isolated courtyard situated next to the amphitheater. The honor that you are bestowing on the House of Bicetre, Sir, is a very nice gift that you are giving me, but it would be even more so if you wished to accept a simple and frugal meal, such as a bachelor can offer.

Several more VIPs multiplied the honor. Rejoining Friedland’s narrative,

On April 17 the first trial of the guillotine took place. On hand to witness the event were: Sanson, the executioner of Paris, along with his son and an aide; the carpenter who built the machine and his aides; and several members of the medical establishment including Drs. Louis, Cullerier, and Pierre Jean George Cabanis, the prominent physician and friend of Mirabeau. Reportedly also in attendance that day were several members of the National Assembly and last, but certainly not least, an individual who was both a politician and a physician: Dr. Guillotin himself. By all accounts the trial was a wonderful success. As Dr. Louis enthused in his report to [politician and intellectual Pierre-Louis] Roederer, the machine decapitated three cadavers “so neatly that one was astonished by the force and celerity of its action.” Dr. Cabanis would later describe the blade’s descent as having “severed the heads faster than one could see, and the bones were cleanly cut.”

The reports ring with awe, and well they might. For an Enlightenment audience that theretofore had known beheadings only via the error-prone action of an executioner’s muscle, it must have been a wondrous spectacle, a triumph of ingenuity and philosophy for a humane new age.

* Executed Today long ago interviewed Dr. Friedland about this book.

** A rival proposal called for automating death via a sort of proto-gas chamber: the executioner to “attach the condemned by the neck, feet, and hands behind the back [to a post on the scaffold], all of which he would cover or enclose in a kind of booth, 5 feet square, equipped with panes of glass on all four sides and with a tight-fitting cap on top … charcoal, sulfur, and other materials that cause asphyxiation could be introduced into the booth by means of an inverted funnel in such a way that the condemned would suffocate and expire instantaneously.” Yet another proposal called for a strangling machine.

† “Who charged 5,500 francs for it,” report the memoirs of the Sansons, which also notes that by way of experimentation, two of the cadavers were beheaded with the familiar-to-us oblique knife, and the third less satisfactorily with a crescent-shaped alternative.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",France,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Milestones,Posthumous Executions

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1986: Alec Collett, Lebanon hostage

Add comment April 16th, 2017 Headsman

On (or very near) this date in 1986, Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal had British hostage Alec Collett hanged in revenge for the previous day’s U.S. bombing of Tripoli.

Collett, a journalist and U.N. aid worker, had been abducted in Beirut more than a year earlier.

Abu Nidal, his captor, was the brand-name terrorist of his era. Indeed, his own name was a brand: Sabri Khalil al-Banna was the name he was born into, in a wealthy Palestinian family driven to dispossession and refugee camps by the Nakba. It was the Abu Nidal organization‘s assassination attempt on Israeli diplomat Shlomo Argov that triggered Israel’s counterproductive 1982 invasion of Lebanon, perhaps (for its long-term consequences) the crowning achievement of Abu Nidal’s career.*

This very conflict brought Collett to Beirut, as an aid worker for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Stopped at a militia checkpoint on March 25, 1985 where he might have been taken because of an Israeli-stamped passport, Collett became one of about 100 foreigners seized as hostages by various factions over the long course of the Lebanese conflagration.

Only a few of these hostages died in their captors’ hands; they were in the main prisoners for leverage, and so efficaciously did they lever that it was these very souls that Ronald Reagan‘s U.S. administration proposed to retrieve by purchasing the (officially enemy) influence of Iran in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.

Confusingly shifting factional advantage has tangled Middle East politics for many a year, to be sure, and here the prospect of a negotiated release was aborted by the April 5, 1986 terrorist bombing of a Berlin discotheque frequented by U.S. soldiers — two of whom died in the blast.

This outrage proved to be the project of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who then stood in a very tense position vis-a-vis the West. Ten days after the disco attack, Reagan responded with an air raid on Libya clearly intended to assassinate Gaddafi — who fled his compound moments before it was crushed by a fleet of 2,000-pound bombs. (The bombing might or might not have slain the dictator’s infant daughter.)

This attack on Gaddafi was also an attack on that arch-terrorist Abu Nidal, whom Gaddafi had recently taken in after a former patron Saddam Hussein made a bid for respectability by expelling him from Iraq.** And it so happened that Collett’s unoffending person offered Abu Nidal the most immediate vehicle for retaliation.

It’s not completely certain that April 16 was the date of Collett’s murder, though there is no real reason to doubt his executioners’ claim on this point. The matter was confused at the time because three other dead westerners discovered on April 17 were initially reported to include Collett among their number — a claim subsequently debunked. On April 23, Collett’s captors released a grainy video of their masked prisoner being hanged;† however, the identification of the noosed man was still questioned for many years. Collett’s remains — confirmed by DNA testing — were only discovered in 2009.

The anniversary of Collet’s initial abduction, March 25, is kept annually by the United Nations as International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members.

* Israel withdrew from the bloody morass three years later, having displaced the Palestinian Liberation Organization for a much more effective new resistance movement in Hezbollah. Decades later, Osama bin Laden would cite Lebanon as the event that “gave birth to a strong resolve to punish the oppressors,” including the sight of “demolished towers in Lebanon” to inspire a bit of tower-toppling of his own.

** Abu Nidal had only recently on Gaddafi’s behalf hijacked an EgyptAir flight, killing dozens.

† I have thus far not been able to locate this video online.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Hanged,History,Hostages,Lebanon,Libya,No Formal Charge,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1505: One Bolognese thief hanged, and another saved by Saint Nicholas

Add comment April 15th, 2017 Cherubino Ghirardacci

(Thanks to Augustinian friar Cherubino Ghirardacci for today’s guest post, from his History of Bologna. The Saint Nicholas in question for this picturesque vignette is not Santa Claus (though that figure’s real-life inspiration also had an averted execution to his hagiography) but the medieval mystic Saint Nicholas of Tolentino … a popular Italian saint who appears to have obtained an informal niche profile as the intercessor who would help a fellow survive a hanging: he had already been credited with saving a man wrongfully accused of murder who hung four days on the gallows in 14th century Aquila. -ed.)

It has happened in these days, that is to say on April 15, Tuesday, that two thieves have been hanged; one sixty years old and one about eighteen, and the execution took place on the usual spot, that is in the cattle market; and the minister of justice ordered that they should be left hanging upon the gallows until the usual hour, when the members of the Company of the Dead came to remove them for burial, and having taken down from the gibbet the old man and having placed him on the bier, they then deposed the youth, called Pietro Antonio of Bologna. He had been adopted by one who dwelt in the Borgo of San Pietro, and was already a novice of San Jacomo; this one was found alive and of so much vivacity it seemed as though he had been reposing on his bed asleep: but however with the neck injured, because the halter had entered into it, and had almost sawn through the throat.

The bystanders, marvelling much at this unusual sight, quickly had him carried to the Hospital to care for him; and there came a messenger from the Senate to see, and to hear everything that had happened; and Pietro Antonio said that he had been helped by the glorious saint Nicholas of Tolentino, to whom he had vowed, that if he escaped this opprobrious death, he would vest himself in his habit, and that he being on the gallows, the glorious St. Nicholas supported him by holding the soles of his feet in his hands. This was considered a marvellous miracle in the city, and every one ran to visit him and hear him discourse.

On Sunday, April 27, the Brothers of San Jacomo came in procession to the Hospital to fetch the above-mentioned Pietro Antonio and to conduct him to San Jacomo, and they pass together with the “Compagnia della Morte” behind San Petronio and before this church, and they go before the palace of the family Antiani, and below the “Madonna del Popolo”; and the condemned man is dressed in white with a black mantle, and with no cap on his head, and with the same halter round his neck with which he was hanged. When he reaches this spot, he falls on his knees and adores the Queen of Heaven, and wishing to rise, the simple women around tear off some of his clothes in devotional excitement; but being covered with another cape, he arrives at the church of San Jacopo, and there in the presence of all the city, the halter is taken from his neck and laid by him on the altar; and by the reverend prior of that said convent, Master Giovanni de Ripis, he was solemnly dressed in the Carmelite habit and called Brother Nicholas, in honour and reverence of St. Nicholas of Tolentino; and the ceremonies of vesting him being over, the friars meanwhile chanting the Te Deum Laudamus, he was presented by the said Prior to the very holy image of the glorious St. Nicholas, which is behind the choir in the chapel of St. Thomas Apostle and St. Nicholas, now called of the Madonna of Heaven, because when he made his vow he had in his mind this venerated image. Then he placed there his votive offering, his true portrait painted on canvas, and also the same halter with which he was hanged, the which things one may still see today in this said church.

He lived four years very devoutly, tending the sick; but then, tempted by the devil, he threw away his habit, and giving himself once more to thieving he was taken and hanged with the golden halter to the long balcony of the Podestà, and died for his sins.

The record of this miracle appears, with all the expenses, in an authentic book of 148 pages, in the Sacristy of these said monks, where are mentioned the sums spent on the procession, and miracle, and of the votive panel picture, which was made by master Ercolese, painter, and cost in all lire 3 and soldi 11.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Italy,Myths,Not Executed,Other Voices,Public Executions,The Supernatural,Theft

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2015: Siti Zainab

Add comment April 14th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 2015, in the Islamic holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia beheaded Indonesian domestic worker Siti Zainab after a very long wait.

Zainab, a maid, was condemned to death in 1999 for stabbing to death her cruel* employer. Her execution went on pause for more than 15 years until all of the victim’s children could reach adulthood and exercise their right to enforce or mitigate the death sentence; still, for all that lead time, Saudi Arabia irked Jakarta by failing to notify consular offices of her impending beheading.

In addition to the usual controversies Saudi Arabia’s aggressive headsmen engender when dispatching the kingdom’s widely abused migrant workers, Zainab’s case raised hackles over the condemned woman’s alleged “suspected mental illness.”

* Cruel according to Zainab and her defenders. Indonesian NGO Migrant Care argued that the murder was outright self-defense.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Indonesia,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Saudi Arabia,Women

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1979: Major Bijan Yahyahi, prison torturer

1 comment April 13th, 2017 Headsman

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Courts went up in the very first days after the victory of the Iranian Revolution. These courts still exist nearing 40 years on but were oriented initially like many revolutionary tribunals towards clearing out hated servants of the old regime.

And like many revolutionary tribunals they developed a reputation for delivering justice more swift than measured — with one-sitting procedures where defendants faced hectoring judges and surprise charges without benefit of that “Western absurdity,” a defense counsel. For the Ayatollah Khomeini, revolutionary courts weren’t a probative exercise but a vehicle for delivering popular justice. “If the revolutionary courts did not prosecute them, the people would have gone on a rampage and killed them all,” he said of the courts’ targets.

This sentiment was echoed almost word for word by a spectator in this case, who (according to an April 13, 1979 New York Times profile) shouted at the judges during an adjournment that “if the court forgives him, the people won’t and will get him!” The major’s courtroom was packed with 200-plus spectators, many of whom could show the scars that the Shah’s torturers had left them.

Though he must have known he had no real hope at acquittal, Yahyahi fought his corner — for there was still the hope of a prison sentence, which his co-accused received, instead of death. Accused of abusing prisoners at Qasr Prison, Yahyahi protested that he had been forced to do it, that “the system was there, I didn’t create anything … I’m a nobody.”

“You wouldn’t understand it unless you put yourself in my shoes,” he explained unavailingly. “I asked for a transfer. I tried hard to get out. You must take that into consideration.”

A parade of witnesses described the torments of the Shah’s prison; Major Yahyahi’s rank at the facility was enough to condemn him for command responsibility, even absent witnesses who could link him personally this or that thrashing.

“It is not the individual who is on trial,” the mullah-judge presiding explained, repeatedly. “It is the regime.” The toppled regime, after all, had been convicted already.

Major Yahyahi’s trial (together with four others) consumed the court’s business on April the 12th. By that night Yahyahi was condemned to death; he was executed by firing squad the very next day, only one of ten people put to death around Iran on April 13, 1979.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Iran,Shot,Torture

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1635: Sawney Cunningham, an abandoned Villain

Add comment April 12th, 2017 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:

SAWNEY CUNNINGHAM

An abandoned Villain who inveigled and murdered his Wife’s Lover, murdered his Uncle, terrorised the Country-side, and was executed at Leith, 12th of April, 1635

This person had no reason to say he was come of mean parents, or that good education or tuition was denied him, whereby he might have avoided the several pernicious actions and villainies he committed, as will presently be shown in the sequel. His family lived in tolerable good repute at Glasgow in Scotland, where he was born; but, in spite of all the learning his parents had given him, or good examples they had set before him to regulate his passions and direct his conduct right, he abandoned himself, from his earliest acquaintance with the world, to little shuffling and pilfering tricks; which growing habitual to him as he advanced in age, he increased in his wicked practices, till at last he became a monster of profaneness and wicked living.

However, these (which one would take to be) great disadvantages hindered him not from making a very honourable match in wedlock. As his parents could not be blamed with any misconduct, but still kept up an honest and genteel character in the neighbourhood where they lived; and as it would have been infamous to have reproached them for those miscarriages in the son which they had strove all they could to root out of his mind, and could not help, so an old gentleman, who had preserved for a long time an inviolable friendship for the family, entered into an alliance with Mr Cunningham the elder, which at last terminated in giving his daughter to Sawney, and an estate in portion with her of above one hundred and forty pounds per annum, thinking that marriage might be a means to reclaim our adventurer from his ill course of life, and at last settle his mind, to the mutual satisfaction of both families, for which he thought his daughter’s portion would be a good purchase, and well laid out.

But how are mankind deceived, and, in short, all our foresight and consultation.

Sawney no sooner found himself in possession of an estate able to support his extravagances but he immediately gave a more violent loose to his passions than he had hitherto done.

He made taverns and alehouses the frequent places of his resort; and, not content idly to waste the day in debauches and drunkenness, the night too must come in to make up the reckoning.

These destructive steps could not be attended but with hurtful consequences, and he was too soon an eye-witness of some of them; for not having always wherewithal to indulge his usual expenses and method of living, he was forced to have recourse to indirect measures, which ended in pawning everything he had, not only of his wife’s but of his own. Melancholy things were unavoidably to follow, if some redress or care was not taken to put a restraint on this destructive course.

Sawney laughed at his follies, and could not bring himself to believe he should ever want while he had either hands or heart to support him. He was determined to enter upon business as soon as possible —- I mean such business as generally brings so many unhappy men to the gallows. His wife, who was vastly beautiful and handsome, saw this, but with a prudence that became her sex stifled her uneasiness so long, till, no longer able to bear the torment upon her mind, she first began with kind entreaties, since all they had in the world was gone, to fall into some honest way of livelihood to support themselves, for it was much and more commendable to do so than for him to give his countrymen every day so many instances of his riotous and profuse living.

Had Sawney been so good to himself as to have given ear to this remonstrance, without doubt things had succeeded well, and we should never have read the miserable end he suffered. But all admonition was lost on a man abandoned to wickedness, and determined to support his usual extravagances at any rate.

The poor young gentlewoman, instead of being answered civilly for her love and affection to him, met with nothing but harsh and terrifying words, attended with a thousand oaths and imprecations. The parents on both sides, observing this, were in extreme grief and concern, and determined, after a serious consultation, to dissolve the couple; but the young and handsome wife would never consent to part from her husband, though so base to her.

Before we enter upon the first remarkable transaction of Sawney’s life, we think ourselves under an obligation to lay before our readers some account of this young bride’s rare qualifications. In the first place, as I have taken notice above, she was extremely beautiful, not only in a perfect symmetry of features, but likewise to these were joined an exquisite person. She was tall, finely shaped, full-breasted, and had all the other exterior ornaments of her sex. For her temper and the qualifications of her interior part or soul, she was sincere in her love to the last, ever patient under the greatest difficulties, and ready at all times to extricate her husband out of the misfortunes he involved himself in, by lawful and justifiable methods; she had a nice conduct, and an extraordinary restraint upon every passion that might betray her into unforeseen miscarriages.


In Glasgow, where a university was, and consequently young gentlemen of fortune and address, it was impossible for Mrs Cunningham to hide the charms of her face and person so as not to be taken notice of. Several immediately offered their respects, and money was not wanting to promote their suits; but all were below the prudent sentiments of her mind. She could not endure to think of dishonouring the bed of her husband by a base compliance with the richest man in the kingdom, and always she put off her suitor with a frown and a seemingly disdainful air.

But this only served to animate her lovers the more, who now seemed to attack her with a resolution not to quit the siege till she had either capitulated or surrendered herself. Amongst the rest was a certain lawyer, who was so frequent in his importunities that she was quite tired out. However, she was so discreet all the while as to conceal from her husband Sawney the importunities of her several lovers; but their solicitations increasing, and being determined to be delivered of them as soon as possible, she one night, as she lay in bed with her husband, began to discourse to him in words to the following effect:

You are sensible, my dear, of the inviolable love I have, from the first day of my marriage to you, preserved for you, which shall still, let whatever will happen, be as chastely maintained; for the infernal regions shall sooner open and receive me alive than I will dare to break the laws of your bed, or bring dishonour to my person, by a shameless prostitution of my person in the embraces of any man alive. As a proof of what I tell you, you need only be acquainted that for these several months I have been strongly importuned by Mr Hamilton the lawyer to consent to his embraces, but still I have warded off from his addresses, yet cannot be free from him; which makes me now discourse thus, in order to hear your opinion in the matter, and see which will be the safest and best expedient to be delivered of his company.

Here she ended, and Sawney, being thoroughly convinced of his wife’s loyalty and fidelity, first answered her with a desire she should forget all his irregularities, confessing their present poverty had been the immediate consequences of his too liberal and profuse livings but that for the future she should see a good alteration in his conduct, and he would make one of the best of husbands.

“As for Mr Hamilton,” said he,

it is my advice that you do not give him an absolute refusal, but pretending a kind of love at a distance, make him think that a considerable sum of money will finish his expectations, and gain him what he so much longs for. You have youth and beauty on your side, and you may, consequently, command him as you please: for I am not so much a stranger to Mr Hamilton’s temper and inclination but that I know love will influence him to perform generous things. My dear, I have no occasion to acquaint you with our poverty at this time, which, to my extreme grief, has been the consequence of my irregular and profane living; but our wants and necessities may be amply made up by dextrously managing this adventure, the prosecution of which I leave to your own prudence and conduct; and for my part, I shall take effectual care to extricate you and myself out of any consequences that may happen upon it.

Mrs Cunningham, after this conference with her husband, had a thousand thoughts in her head how to manage this scheme so as to make the most advantage of it. She saw that the want of money in her family must oblige her to it, though never so much against the bent of her inclination to the contrary, and therefore, determining to put it in execution as soon as possible, she composed herself to rest for that night.

The next day Sawney got purposely out of the way, but not without a longing expectation of receiving extraordinary matters from his wife’s conduct. Hamilton appeared as usual; and, protesting his love for her was the sincerest in the world, said that it was impossible for him to enjoy a moment’s rest without tasting those joys she could so easily afford him.

Mrs Cunningham at first reproved him for such a bare declaration of his desires, and said that so long as her husband lived she could not, without the most manifest breach of conjugal fidelity, and an eternal infamy to herself, give way to comply with his demands.

“Your person, Mr Hamilton,” said she, “is none of the worst, neither is your sense to be despised; but, alas! heaven has decreed it that I am already another man’s wife, and therefore deprived from gratifying you as I would were the case otherwise. And I have apprehensions of my husband, who is a choleric person, and presently urged into a passion upon the most trifling affairs, which either he doth not like, or squares not with his happiness or interest.”

“Interest!” replied Hamilton. “Why, if that be the case, neither your husband nor you shall have any reason to complain; for, let me tell you once and for all, I do not require a gratification from anyone without making a suitable return. Your circumstances, madam, are not unknown to me; and I am sorry to think that, after having brought Mr Cunningham so plentiful a fortune, I should have a just occasion to say that you are poor. But mistake me not, I scorn to make a handle of your circumstances; neither do I believe Mrs Cunningham would ever consent to my desires on such servile terms.”

Upon this madam answered him with a great deal of prudence and art: she told him that he pleaded handsomely for himself, and if she was not a married woman there should be nothing to obstruct their desires.

Mr Hamilton, finding this, made her a long harangue, in which he endeavoured to show how weak her objection was, with respect to her husband, concluding that what they did might be so artfully contrived that neither Mr Cunningham nor the world should know anything of it. In fine, the lawyer pleaded as if it were for life for her consent, which madam observing, and not caring to prolong the time too far, but dispatch a great deal of business in a little time, she artfully told him that since her stars had so directed the actions of her life that she had no power of herself to contradict them, she resigned herself to him, and said that it was to no purpose to stifle her inclinations for him any longer; for, to be plain with him, she had loved him from their first acquaintance together, before all the men she had ever seen, and that she hoped there was no transgression in an affair which her destiny overruled; and if the world proved censorious, she did not care, and left her cause to be determined by the stars, who, together with Mr Hamilton’s fine person, had influenced her to it.

To be short, an assignation was made, and a porch of one of the churches in Glasgow designed to be the place where these two lovers were to meet. Nothing in the world gave the lawyer so much satisfaction as the thought of having obtained the consent of his fair mistress, who had declared her love to him, and resigned herself up to his arms.

Hamilton promised to make her a present of a purse of a hundred pounds sterling before anything was done, and she on her side assured him she would please him to the utmost, and acquainted him that he might expect all the kindness she was able to afford him. Here they parted, and the lawyer thought the time contained a thousand days till the hour appointed was come, and he in the arms of his mistress.

It arrives, and both appear in the porch; they caress and toy, but no further than the laws of modesty permitted. Hamilton wants to know where Mr Cunningham, her husband, is, and is acquainted that he has gone a short journey into the country, which, however, will take him up eight days; whereas madam has posted him, or he has done it himself, in a private place in his chamber at home. Hamilton seems extraordinarily pleased at his success, and the repose he should find in humouring his appetites now his antagonist was out of the way, as he thought.

In a little time both these lovers come to Sawney’s house, and having entered his bed-chamber, where he was concealed, and a good fire burning, Mr Hamilton pulls out two purses of gold and gives them to her; and then, going to undress himself, Sawney springs out from his secret place, and with one stroke lays Mr Hamilton flat on the floor with a club he had in his hand; for, not contented with his wife’s having received the two purses of gold, he must have the lawyer’s clothes too; and therefore, to make sure of them, he redoubles his blows, till the poor gentleman gave up the ghost at Mrs Cunningham’s feet.

This was a sacrifice to love with a witness.

The lawyer had contributed handsomely before for a night’s lodging, and must he give his life into the bargain? I know not how mankind may think on it; but the affair was carried to a desperate length.

Now Mrs Cunningham, not dreaming her husband would have carried matters to such an issue, seemed frightened to the last extreme at what had been done; but Sawney endeavoured to give her ease by telling her that he would work himself out of the scrape immediately, and, so saying, hoisted the body on his shoulders and went out at a back door which led directly to Hamilton’s house, which easily opening, as a profound sleep in the family and the darkness of the night favoured him, he carried the lawyer to the vault, and placed him upright upon the seat, to the end that the first who found him there might conclude he had died in that place and posture.

Now it seems Mr Hamilton, the day before, had acquainted a particular friend who lived in his house with his success, and how he was to have a meeting with Mrs Cunningham that night. This friend had had the gripes upon him for three or four days, which made him have a very violent looseness, and being obliged to untruss a point about midnight, rises in his night-gown and steps down to the vault, where, opening the door, he spies Mr Hamilton sitting, as he supposed; and taking it that he was come there on the very same errand as himself, stays without a while to let him have a quiet play.

But finding he made no motion to stir, after having waited a considerable time, to his own uneasiness, he opens the door again, and taking him by the sleeve of his coat was surprised to find him fall down. He stoops to take him up, but finds him dead; at which, being in a thousand perplexities, and fearing to be thought the murderer, he brings to mind his acquainting him with the assignation between him and Mrs Cunningham; upon which he concludes his friend had found no fair play there, knowing the husband to be none of the easiest of men.

What should this lodger do in this case? Why, he takes up the body, throws it upon his shoulders, and carries it to Sawney’s house door, where he sets it down. Madam, a little after midnight, having occasion to discharge, gets out of bed and, opening the door, lets the body of her late lover tumble into the house, which putting her into a fright, she runs upstairs into the chamber and tells Sawney how that the lawyer has come back.

“Aye, aye,” says he (just waking out of his sleep), “I’ll warrant he shall come back no more, I’ll secure him presently”; and so saying, gets immediately out of bed, puts on his clothes, and hoists the dead lawyer once more on his shoulders, with a design to carry him to the river and throw him in; but seeing some persons at some distance coming towards him, he steps up to the side of the street till they were got by, fearing his design might be discovered, and consequences were dangerous.

But what should these persons be but half-a-dozen thieves, who were returning from a plunder they had made of two large flitches of bacon out of a cheese-monger’s shop, and as they came along were talking of a vintner hard by, who sold a bottle of extraordinary wine.

Sawney was somewhat relieved from his fears (for fears he could not miss from having) at hearing this conversation. He had not been in his post long before he had the satisfaction of seeing this company put their bacon, which was in a sack, into an empty cellar, and knock the master of the tavern up to let them in.

The coast being now clear, Sawney conveys the dead lawyer into the cellar, and taking out the purloined goods, put his uneasy cargo in the room, and then marches home. Meanwhile the thieves were carousing, little dreaming what a change they should presently find in their sack. Little or no money was found amongst them, and the flitches were to answer the full reckoning, so that they continued drinking till they thought the bacon was become an equivalent for the wine they had drank. One of them, who pretended to be spokesman, addressing the landlord, told him that he must excuse him and his comrades for bringing no money in their pockets to defray what they had expended, especially at such an unseasonable time of night, when he had been called out of his bed to let them in; “but, landlord, in saying this, we have no design of doing you any wrong, or drinking your wine for nothing. For if we cannot answer the shot with the ready cole, we will make it up by an exchange of goods. Now we have got two flitches of bacon in a cellar hard by, which will more than answer our expenses, and if you care to have them, they are at your service; otherwise we must be obliged to leave word with you where we live, or you lie under a necessity of trusting us till the morning, when, on sending anybody along with us, you may depend on receiving the money.”

“Gentlemen,” says the vintner, “you are all mere strangers to me, for to my eyes and knowledge I cannot say I ever saw one of you before; but we will avoid making any uneasiness about my reckoning. I do not care to purchase a commodity I never saw, or, as the saying is, to buy a pig in a poke. If the flitches of bacon you say you have are good, I’ll take them off your hands, and quit scores with you so they but answer my demands.”

Immediately one of them, who had drunk more plentiful than the rest, said he would go and fetch them, and accordingly coming into the cellar, strove to hoist the sack up. “Zounds,” says he, “why, I think the bacon’s multiplied, or I am damnably deceived. What a pox of a load is here to gall a man’s shoulders! Tom might well complain they were heavy, and, by gad! heavy and large ones they are, and the vintner will have a rare bargain of them; much good go along with them!”

And, so saying, he lugs the corpse on his shoulders to the tavern. On coming to open the mouth of the sack, lord! what a surprise were all in to see a man’s head peep out. Mr Dash presently knew the lineaments of the deceased’s face, and cried out: “You eternal dogs! did you think to impose a dead corpse on me for two flitches of bacon? Why, you rascals, this is the body of Mr Hamilton the lawyer, and you have murdered him, have you, you miscreants! But your merits shall soon be soundly rewarded, I’ll warrant you.”

At this all the six were in the saddest plight that could be imagined; nothing but horror and dismay sat on their looks, and they really appeared as the guilty persons. But the vintner, observing them bustling to get away, made such a thundering noise of murderers, murderers, murderers, that immediately all the family were out of their beds, and the watch at the house door to know the reason of such an alarm. The thieves were instantly conveyed to a place of durance for that night, and in the morning were sent to the main prison, when after a little time they took their trials, were found guilty (though innocent) of Mr Hamilton’s death, and executed accordingly.


Sawney came off very wonderfully from this matter, though neither his wife’s admonitions nor his own frequent asseverations to her to leave off his irregular course of life were of any force to make him abandon it. The bent of doing ill, and living extravagantly, was too deeply rooted within him ever to suppose now that any amendment would come; nay, he began to show himself a monster in iniquity, and committed every wickedness that could exaggerate the character of a most profane wretch. For it is impossible to enumerate, much more to describe, the quantity and qualities of his villainies, they being a series of such horrid and incredible actions, that the very inserting them here would only make the reader think an imposition were put upon him in transmitting accounts so shocking and glaring.

The money he had obtained of Mr Hamilton was a dear purchase; it was soon played away with and consumed, which made him throw himself on other shifts to support his pockets; to which end he visited the highway, and put those to death who offered to oppose him.

His character was too well known in the west of Scotland to want any further information about him, which obliged him to retract towards Edinburgh, where, meeting with a gang of his profession who knew him to be most accomplished in their way, he was constituted generalissmo of their body, and each man had his particular lodging in the city.

But Sawney, who ever chose to act the principal part in all encounters, industriously took lodgings at a house noted for entertaining strangers, where he was not long in insinuating himself into their acquaintance, by making them believe that he was a stranger as well as they, and was come to Edinburgh on no other account than purely to see the city, and make his observations upon its public buildings and other curiosities; and that his ambition has been always to procure honest and genteel acquaintance.

Sawney, indeed, had a most artful method to conceal the real sentiments of his mind and hide his actions, which in a little time so gained upon the belief of these strangers, that they could not help taking him for one of the sincerest men breathing. For it was his custom sometimes to take them along with him two or three miles out of the city to partake of some handsome dinner or supper, when he was sure never to let them be at a far thing expense, but generously discharge the reckoning himself.

The design of all this was to make his advantage of them, and force them to pay an extravagant interest for the money he had been out of pocket in treating them. For constantly were persons planted in one place or other of the road by his immediate direction, who fell upon them as they returned to the city, and robbed them of what they had. But the cream of all was, that to avoid suspicion they always made Sawney their first prize, and rifled him, who was sure in the morning to obtain his own loss back again, and a considerable share of the other booty into the bargain.

Some time after this our adventurer, with two of his companions, meeting on the road with three citizens of Edinburgh, affronted them in a very audacious manner, and threw such language at them as plainly discovered that either death or bloodshed was near at hand. He had the impudence to tell the person who seemed the genteellest and best dressed of the three that the horse he rode on was his, and had been lately stolen from him, and that he must return it to him, or else the sword he wore should do him right. Sawney’s companions began with the others after the same manners and would needs force them to believe that the horses they rode upon were theirs. The citizens, astonished at this gross piece of impudence, endeavoured to convince them the horses they rode on were their own, and they had paid for them, and wondered how they durst pretend to dispute an affair which was so essentially wrong; but these words were far from having any effect on Cunningham, and the citizens, in the conclusion, were forced to dismount and give them their horses, and money into the bargain, being somewhat satisfied they had suffered no worse consequences, for Sawney, by this time, was drenched in all manner of villainy, and bloodshed was now accounted a trifle, so little value did he set on the lives of any persons.

Sawney having run a merry course of roguery and villainy in and about Edinburgh for some time, where he made a considerable advantage to himself, so that fortune seemed to have requited him for all the poverty and want he had before endured, determined now to go home to his wife, and spend the remainder of his days agreeably with her, on the acquisitions and plunder he had made on his countrymen.

Accordingly he came to Glasgow, where, among a few acquaintances he conversed with, for he did not care to make himself too public, he gave signs of amendment, which struck those who knew him with such astonishment that at first they could hardly be brought to believe it.

One night, being in bed with his wife, they had a close discourse together on all their foregoing life, and the good woman expressed an extraordinary emotion of joy at the seeming alteration and change in her husband; she could not imagine what reason to impute it to, for she had been so much terrified from time to time with his barbarities that she had no room to think his conversion was real; neither, on reflecting on the many robberies and murders he had committed, could she persuade herself that he could so soon abandon his licentious and wicked courses; for she supposed, if his altered conduct (as she thought) was real, it was miraculous, and an original piece of goodness hardly to be met with.

The sequel will prove that this woman had better notions of her husband than the rest of his acquaintance and those who knew him, and that she built all her fears on a solid and good foundation. The proverb says: “What is bred in the bone wiIl never be out of the flesh”; and this will be remarkably verified in Cunningham, as we shall endeavour to show in its proper place.

For all the signs he gave of an altered conduct, and all the plausible hints to rectify his former mistaken steps, were no other than only to amuse the world into a good opinion of him, that so he might make his advantage, through this pretended conversion, with the greater freedom and impunity. And he was not out in his aim; for it seems, whenever he committed anything sinister, or to the disadvantage of any of his countrymen, and he was pitched on as the transgressor, the town would say: “It could not be, for Mr Cunningham was too much reclaimed from his former courses ever to give in to them again.”


I shall insert a very notable adventure Sawney had with a conjurer, or fortune-teller, to which end I shall trace it up from the fountain-head, and give my readers the first cause that induced him to it. When Sawney was an infant, he was put out to nurse to a poor countrywoman in a little village a mile or two out of Glasgow. The woman, as the boy grew up, could not help increasing in her love for him, and he being an exceeding snotty child, would often say to her neighbours: “Oh, I shall see this lad a rich man one day!” This saying coming to the ears of his parents, they would frequently make themselves merry with it, and thought no more of it than as a pure result of the nurse’s fondling.

Sawney, having enriched himself with the spoils about Edinburgh, actually thought his old nurse’s words were verified, and sent for her to give her a gratification for her prediction. She came, but Sawney had changed his clothes, so that the poor woman did not know him at first. He told her that he was an acquaintance of Mr Cunningham’s, who, on her coming, had ordered him to carry her to Mr Peterson the astrologer’s, where she would be sure to see and speak to him; for he was gone there to get some information about an affair that nearly concerned him.

The nurse and her pretended conductor went to the fortune-teller’s, where, desiring admittance, Peterson thought they were persons who wanted his assistance, and bade them sit down when Sawney, taking a freedom with the reverend old gentleman, as he was known to use with all mankind, began to give a harangue about astrology, and the laudable practice of it.

“I and this old woman,” said he,

are two of the most accomplished astrologers or fortune-tellers in Scotland; but I would not, reverend sir, by so saying, seem to depreciate from your knowledge and understanding in so venerable a science. I came to communicate a small affair to you, to the end that, not relying on my judgment and this woman’s, I might partake of yours.

You are to know, sir, that from six years of age I have led a very untoward life, and been guilty of many egregious sins, too numerous to tell you at present, and what your ears would not care to hear; for my employment has been to lie with other men’s wives, make a share of other people’s money, bilk my lodging, and ruin the vintners; for a whore and a bottle I have sold the twelve signs in the zodiac, and all the houses in a horoscope; neither sextile, quartile, nor trine ever had power over me to keep my hands out of my neighbours’ pockets; and if I had not a profound respect for the persons of my venerable order and profession, I should call Mercury the ascendant in the fourth house at this minute, to lug half-a-score pieces of yours.

By my exceeding deep knowledge in astrology I can perfectly acquaint all manner of persons, except myself, with every occurrence of their lives; and were it not to frighten yourself, I would conclude, from the appearance and conjunction of Saturn and Vulcan, that your worship would be hanged for your profession. But, sir, though destiny hangs this unfortunate death over your head, it is at some distance from it, and may be some years before it strikes you.

Is it not surprising that a man shall be able to read the fates of mankind, and not have any preknowledge of his own? And is it not extremely afflicting to think that one who has done so much good in his generation, and assisted so many thousands to the recovery of things that would have been inevitably lost, without his advice, should come at last to meet with an ignominious halter, as a fit recompense for his services? Good heavens! where is the equity of all this? Certainly, sir, if we are to measure the justice of things by the laws of reason, we must naturally conclude that laudable and good actions deserve a laudable and good recompense; but can hanging be said to be this good recompense? No: but the stars will have it so, and how can mankind say to the contrary?

Sawney Cunningham with the astrologer

Cunningham paused here a while, and the astrologer and old nurse wondered who in the devil’s name they had got in company with.

Mr Peterson could not help staring, and well he might, at the physiognomy of our adventurer, And, in spite of himself, began to be in a panic at his words, which so terribly frightened him.

The nurse was in expectation of seeing Sawney come in every minute, little dreaming the person she was so near was the man she wanted.

Cunningham’s harangue was a medley of inconsistencies and downright banter. It is true the man had received tolerable education in his youth, and consequently might obtain a jingle in several sciences, as is evinced from the foregoing.

“Well, venerable sir,” says he,

do not be terrified at my words, for what cannot be avoided must be submitted to. To put you out of your pain, I’ll tell you a story.

A gentleman had a son who was his darling and consequently trained up in all the virtuous ways that either money could purchase or good examples teach. The youth, it seems, took to a kind and laudable course of life, and gave promising signs of making a fine man; nor indeed were their expectations deceived, for he led a very exemplary life of prudence, excellent conduct and good manners, which pleased the parents so much, that they thought everything they could do for him too little.

But the mother, out of an inexpressible fondness for him, must needs go to an astrologer, and inquire how the remaining part of his life must succeed.

Accordingly the horoscope is drawn, but a dismal appearance results from it; it acquaints the mother that her son shall remain virtuous for two and thirty years, and then be hanged.

“Monstrous and incredible,” says she, “but I’ll take care to secure him in the right way; or all my care will be to no purpose.”

Well, the family are all soon acquainted with this threatening warning. The person determined to be the sacrifice is already nine and twenty years old, and surely they suppose they can easily get the other three years, when all shall go well with their kinsman.

But what avails all the precaution of mankind? This same son obtains a commission of a ship, goes to sea, and, acting quite contrary to his orders, turns pirate, and in an encounter happens to kill a man, for which, on his return to his native country, he is tried, condemned and hanged.

What think you of this, venerable brother? Is not he a sad instance of an overruling influence of the stars? But, not to prolong too much time on a discourse of this nature, let us come to the purpose. You are now, as I cannot do it myself, to tell me my fortune, and this old woman is to confront you if you tell me a lie. There is no excuse to be made in the matter; for, by heavens, on your refusal, I’ll ease this room of your damnable trumpery,* and send you packing to the devil after them!

These words were enough to frighten any man out of his senses; nor could Peterson well discover the intention or drift of his talkative and uneasy visitant.

“What would you be at?” says the astrologer. “Why, do not you see what a terror you have put that good woman into, who trembles like an aspen leaf? I am not used, friend, to have persons come into my house and tell me to my face that I am to be hanged, and then to confirm it, as you pretend, tell me an old woman’s cock-and-bull story of a young man who went to sea, and was hanged for robbing, for which he certainly deserved the punishment he met with. As for telling your fortune, I’ll be so plain with you, that you’ll swing in a halter, as sure as your name is “Sawney Cunningham.”

“Sawney Cunningham!” quoth the mawk, who straight way throwing her arms about his neck, began to kiss him very eagerly, and then, looking earnestly in his face, cried aloud: “O laird! and art thou Sawney Cunningham? Why, I thought thou wouldst come to be a great man, thou wast such a Scotty lad!”

“Do you see now,” says Sawney, “what a damnable lie you have told me, in impudently acquainting me that I shall be hanged, when my good prophetess here tells me, I am a great man; for great men can never be hanged.”

“I do not care for what she says, nor you neither, for hanged you’ll be, and that in a month’s time, or else there never was a dog hanged in Scotland.”

“Pray, brother, how came you to know this, without consulting my horoscope?”

“Know it! Why, your very condition tells me you have deserved hanging these dozen years, but the laws have been too favourable to you, else Mr Hamilton’s death had been revenged before this time of day. Now, to convince you of my superior knowledge in astrology, I mean in telling how far their influence extends over any man’s actions, I will point to you the very action and persons that will bring you to the gallows. This very day month you shall go, in spite of all your foresight and endeavour to the contrary, to pay a visit to Mr William Bean, your uncle by the mother’s side, who is a man of an unblamable character and conversation. Him shall you kill, and assuredly be hanged.”

Was there ever such a prophetic or divining tongue, especially in these modern days, heard of? For the sequel will presently discover how every circumstance of this prediction fell out accordingly.

Sawney, having observed the air of gravity wherewith Mr Peterson delivered his words, could not help falling into a serious reflection about them, and thinking the place he was in not convenient enough to indulge the thought he found rising within him, abruptly left the fortune-teller, and giving his old nurse five shillings returned home.

But what does he determine on now? After having seriously weighed on the several particulars of Peterson’s words, he could not for his heart but think that the old man, in order to be even with him for telling him of being hanged, had only served him in his own coin; so that, after a few hours, every syllable was vanished out of his mind, and he resolved to keep up to his usual course of life.


King James I, sitting on the throne of Scotland at this time, and keeping his Court at Edinburgh, the greatest part of the Scottish nobility resided there, when our adventurer used frequently to go to make the best hand he could of what spoil he found there.

The Earl of Inchiquin, having a considerable post under the King, and several valuable matters being under his care, had a sentinel assigned, who constantly kept guard at this lord’s lodgings’ door. Guards were not much in fashion at this time, and about two or three hundred in the same livery were kept only on the establishment.

Cunningham having a desire of breaking into this minister’s lodgings, and having no way so likely to succeed as by putting on a soldier’s livery, went in that dress to the Sentinel, and after some little talk together they dropped accidentally into some military duty and exercise; which Cunningham so well displayed that the sentinel, seeming to like his brother’s notions, and smile extraordinarily, it made Cunningham stay a considerable time, till in the end he asked the sentinel to partake of two mugs of ale, and put sixpence into his hand to fetch them from an ale-house at some distance from his post, giving some reason for it that it was the best drink in the city, and none else could please his palate half so well as that. Hereupon the sentinel acquainted him that he could not but know the consequences that attended leaving his post, and that he had rather enjoy his company without the ale, than run any risk by fetching it. “Oh!” says our adventurer, “I am not a stranger to the penalties we incur on such an action, but there can no harm come of it if I stand in your place while you are gone.” And with that the sentinel gives Cunningham his musket, and goes to the place directed for the drink; but, on returning, he must needs fetch a pennyworth of tobacco from the same place, during which some of our adventurer’s companions had broken into the lord’s apartments, and rifled the same of three hundred pounds’ value. Cunningham was, however, so generous as to leave the sentinel his musket. The poor soldier returns in expectation of drinking with his friend, and enjoying his company some time longer; but alas! the bird has flown, and he is taken up to answer for his forthcoming, and committed to the Tolbooth Prison, where he was kept nine months in very heavy irons, and had only bread and water all the while allowed him to subsist on. At length he is tried, condemned and hanged. Thus did several innocent persons suffer death for that which ought to have been the portion of our adventurer.

We draw on to his last scene now, which shall be dispatched with all the brevity we are masters of.

Sawney having thus escaped so many dangers, and run through so many villainies with impunity, must needs go to his Uncle Bean’s house, who was a very good Christian, and a reputable man, as we have before observed, to pay him a visit, with no other design than to boast to him of his late successes, and how fortune had repaired the injuries his former misconduct and remissness had done him.

He went, and his uncle, with his moral frankness, bade him sit down, and call for anything his house could afford him. “Nephew,” says he, “I have desired a long time to see an alteration in your conduct, that I might say I had a nephew worthy of my acquaintance, and one to whom I might leave my estate, as deserving of it; but I am acquainted from all hands that you go on worse and worse, and rather than produce an amendment, abandon yourself to the worst of crimes.” The good old man followed this with a long exhortation, after which he issued a flood of tears, which pity and compassion had forced from his eyes; nor could Sawney forbear shedding a tear or two at hearing.

But it was all pretence, and an imitation of the crocodile; for he was determined to take this reverend old gentleman out of the world to get possession of his estate, which, for want of male issue, was unavoidably to devolve upon him after his death.

With this view, after he had made an end of his exhortation, he steps up and, without once speaking, thrusts a dagger to his heart, and so ends his life. Thus fell a venerable old uncle for pronouncing a little seasonable advice to a monster of a nephew who, finding the servant maid come into the room at the noise of her master’s falling on the floor, cut her throat from ear to ear, and then to avoid a discovery being made, set fire to the house, after he had rifled it of all valuable things in it.

But the divine vengeance was resolved not to let this barbarous act go unpunished; for the neighbourhood, observing a more than ordinary smoke issuing out of the house, concluded it was on fire, and accordingly unanimously joined to extinguish it, which they effectually did, and then going into the house, found Mr Bean and his maid inhumanly murdered. Our adventurer was got out of the way, and no one could be found to fix these cruelties upon; but it was not long before justice overtook Cunningham, who being impeached by a gang of thieves that had been apprehended, and were privy to several of his villainies, was taken up and committed a close prisoner to the Tolbooth, where so many witnesses appeared against him that he was condemned and hanged for his tricks at Leith, in company with the same robbers that had sworn against him.

When he went to the place of execution he betrayed no signs of fear, nor seemed any way daunted at his approaching fate. As he lived, so he died, valiantly and obstinately to the last, unwilling to have it said that he, whose hand had been the instrument of so many murders, proved pusillanimous at the last.

* An apposite contribution from the annals of old-tyme English slang, “trumpery” denotes Old Ware, old Stuff, as old Hats, Boots, Shoes,’ etc. (B. E.); goods of no value, rubbish (Grose): also trash and trumpery, and (proverbial), For want of good company, welcome trumpery. Whence (modern) generic for showy trashiness, and as adj., meretricious, worthless (1574).

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Outlaws,Pelf,Public Executions,Scotland

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1730: A Natchez woman tortured to death at New Orleans

Add comment April 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1730, French-allied Tunica Indians put a captured Natchez woman to grisly public death under the walls of New Orleans.

This is the English translation of Marc-Antoine Caillot’s Relation du voyage de la Louisianne ou Nouvelle France fait par le Sr. Caillot en l’année 1730, a key firsthand source for the incident in this post.

Months earlier the Natchez had risen in rebellion against the colonists in Louisiana — a bloody settling of accounts the that answered a French push to colonize more land with an attack meant to drive them out of Louisiana altogether. The initial, surprise attacks slew 237 French subjects, many in stomach-turning fashion. Friend of the site Dr. Beachcombing details a particularly atrocious murder in his post on the affair at Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog.

So the French were in a state of rage and fright on April 10 — the day after Easter — when an allied tribe, the Tunica, showed up at the Big Easy with six Natchez captives in tow, three women and three children. Chief among them was a woman readily recognized by the French as the wife of a once-friendly Natchez chief now “known for being an enemy of the French.” Indeed, escapees from Natchez captivity slated her with having given the go-ahead for the torture-murder of three of their countrymen.

And this hated foe the Tunica proceeded to offer to the French, as a gesture of goodwill.

As Sophie White explains in her “Massacre, Mardi Gras, and Torture in Early New Orleans” (The William and Mary Quarterly, July 2013),* Louisiana territory governor Etienne Perier in slyly declining the prisoner intentionally condemned her to a speedy and spectacular death. Rather than taking her into official custody for disposal by the French judiciary or diplomatic organs, Perier put her up for a night in the French jail while her captors prepared a performance for the morrow calculated to slake the bloodlust of French and native alike.

White’s narrative is worth excerpting at length here; all the parentheticals come from White’s original text.

Officially, Governor Perier could claim that he had maintained French notions of justice by rejecting the Tunica offer of the prisoner of war (even though at a later date he would openly write of another four male and two female Natchez having “been burnt here”). Yet he allotted a space for the Tunica to torture her and arranged for her to be kept in jail overnight while the Tunica danced the black “calumet of death” in preparation for her execution. In the morning, after gathering firewood, erecting a frame, and painting their faces and bodies, the Tunica “began to run as if possessed by the devil and, while yelling (it is their custom), they ran to the jail where she was in chains”; she was engaged in a final assertion of sartorial self-preservation, “fixing a ribbon to her braided hair,” hair that she knew would soon be scalped.

Like Perier, the colonial populace also became involved in exacting revenge on this member of the Natchez nation. Not only were “all the Sauvages who were in New Orleans” present at the torture ritual but colonists also attended the performance as spectators, as they might in France attend a public execution. They watched as the Tunica tied her to a frame and as a Natchez man who had abandoned his kin and been adopted by the Tunica stepped forward to burn her, starting with “the hair [poil, or body hair] of her … then one breast, then the buttocks, then the left breast” (the ellipses represent a deliberate authorial omission on the part of Caillot). Commentators described the methodical burning of torture victims as a form of slow-cooking (“a petit feu”). For Caillot, the ritual burning of the victim’s genitals, breasts, and buttocks was marked by the carefully observed but gruesome sight of “the abundance of grease mixed with blood that ran onto the ground.” His description evoked the cooking of meat basted in fat, with the frame simulating a spit on which the victim was roasted; if this frame/spit did not physically turn its meat, the torturers made sure that she was evenly roasted on all sides by their methodical movement across her body. This food preparation imagery was followed by other cooking analogies. As they were about to kill her (in contrast to the procedure in France, where spectators waited for the execution to be complete before grabbing souvenir pieces of the criminal’s body), “the French women who had suffered at her hands at the Natchez [settlement] each took a sharpened cane and larded her,” just as French culinary techniques called for piercing meat with a sharp stick prior to the insertion of thin strips of lard.

The Natchez woman was not impressed, but “during that long and cruel torture never shed a tear. On the contrary, she seemed to deride the unskilfulness of her tormenters, insulting them, and threatening that her death would soon be avenged by her tribe.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of a generic depiction of the torture frame, from Jean-Francois-Benjamin Dumont de Montigny’s memoir. Sophie White notes that this figure is identifiably female based on her genitalia and the long scalped hair mounted on the adjacent pole.

Over the next several years, the French not only turned back the attack but largely shattered and Natchez peoples, dispersing their remnants to fragmented communities throughout the U.S. South. Today only a few thousand Natchez souls remain, and their interesting language has died out entirely.

* Though it’s a bit tangential to the subject of this post, readers interested in this milieu might cotton to White’s Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Flayed,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Louisiana,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Torture,USA,Wartime Executions,Women

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