1858: James Rodgers, lamented

1 comment November 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1858, youthful delinquent James Rodgers was hanged in New York City.

The 19-year-old Irish immigrant Rodgers, according to the New York Herald‘s Nov. 13 post-hanging review, was one of a gaggle of ne’er-do-wells “well known to the police of the Sixteenth precinct as loungers about the corners.”

Corner-loungers evidently share behavioral DNA with the common high school meathead, for Rodgers (drunk on rum) precipitated his trouble by carrying “his arms a-kimbo, so that one elbow hit [John] Swanston violently as he went by him.” Swanston, a respectable burgher returning from market with his wife, didn’t take kindly to this territory-marking, and exchanged words with Rodgers until the punk terminated the conversation by planting a knife between Swanston’s ribs. The unfortunate gentleman, perhaps second-guessing his decision to make such a big deal over the elbow, expired painfully in the street as witnesses rushed to the scene.

If the Herald is to be believed, a concerted clemency push (including author Caroline Kirkland, who called personally on Gov. John King) went begging owing to a general public outcry against corner-lounging Irish hoodlums and their a-kimbo elbows.

Even though Rodgers was hanged in private in the Tombs, New Yorkers strained the roofs of nearby buildings (at ten to fifty cents per head) just to get a glimpse of him being walked to the gallows with the rope picturesquely around his neck and whatever else they could peep over the walls.

Reportedly contrite (he slept on the stone floor of his cell and ate bread and water by way of self-mortification), prayerful, handsome, and at the gallows unflinching, the youthful Rodgers died game … and also harrowingly.

The Tombs was already by this point employing a gallows that jerked the condemned upward rather than dropping him through a trap: the idea was that this method would humanely kill the wretch on the first strike of the knot.

That was not the case for James Rodgers.

By the time the executioners axed through the rope restraining the counterbalance and the fall of a 250-pound lead weight yanked Rodgers into the air, the noose’s knot had slipped to the nape of the culprit’s neck where it would fail to deliver a lethal fracture. The killer twisted and fought horribly for some eight minutes as he strangled to death, even freeing his right hand from its restraint and with it tearing at his heart. “Sickening to behold,” reported the New York Times.

So, that was James Rodgers. Like many murderers of the time, and especially those who could be constructed as sympathetic people led astray by drink, the man got himself a hanging ballad, “The Lamentation of James Rodgers.”

This ditty appears to have been appropriated, meter and lyrics alike, a generation later for the ballad “Charles Guiteau” — whose subject is the nutter assassin of President James Garfield. Guiteau hanged in 1882.

It’s pretty striking, really, even if not unusual for the genre; the lyrics show a line-for-line lift.

Lamentation of James Rodgers

Come all you tender Christians,
I hope you will draw near,
And likewise pay attention
To those few lines I have here:
For the murder of Mr. Swanston
I am condemned to die,
On the twelfth day of November
Upon the gallows high.

My name is James Rodgers
The same I ne’er denied,
Which leaves my aged parents
In sorrow for to cry,
It’s little ever they thought
All in my youth and bloom,
I came into New York
For to meet my fatal doom.

Charles Guiteau

Come all you tender Christians
Wherever you may be
And likewise pay attention
To these few lines from me.
For the murder of James A. Garfield
I am condemned to die
On the thirtieth day of June
Upon the scaffold high.

My name is Charles Guiteau
My name I’ll never deny,
To leave my aged parents
To sorrow and to die.
But little did I think
While in my youthful bloom
I’d be carried to the scaffold
To meet my fatal doom.

Here’s the Garfield version … as the guilt-ridden young tough James Rodgers is not much remembered on YouTube.

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1858: Henry Jackson, in Decatur

Add comment November 3rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1858, a slave named Henry — property* of a local farmer named William Jackson — was hanged in Decatur, Georgia for attempted rape.

We have of this occasion a first-person account from a 16-year-old white neighbor of the Jackson farm, Catherine Hewes, and the impressions she recorded of it that evening are reprinted by John C. Edwards in “Slave Justice in Four Middle Georgia Counties” in the Summer 1973 Georgia Historical Quarterly. A few additional paragraph breaks have been added for readability, and [sic] notations where necessary either by myself or by Edwards; however, there are many other minor language irregularities not worth individually noting, and simply presented as-is.

The Execution of Henry Jackson a slave of William Jackson at Decatur Ga. at an early hour this morning I dressed myself and prepared to accompany my brother and Sister to Decatur, a beautiful village an [sic] the County site of DeKalb county Ga. As we lived four miles south of Decatur we crossed the Georgia R Road in sight of the village, where we stopped a few moments to enquire where the gallows had been located and were infomed that it was situated one mile north of the Court-house on the Shallow ford road.

By ten Oclock a great many people throned the streets, and clustered around the old weather beaten jail. Our little company had beome quite a respectable crowd before we reached the Public Square where we drove slowly through the immense mass of living beings. All along the way form the Court-house to the gallows Carriages, Wagons and carts were seen bearing on their living freight to the scene of the execution. The high and low the rich and the poor the free and the bond alike pressing forward to the gallows their desires of seeing the law enforced and crime meet its own reward.

After a slow tedious drive we arrived at the appointd place where the rough benches had been erected in an old field whos [sic surroundings were on the amphitheater order. For several hours I had been pleasantly situated and with good company which caused thime [sic] to pass by almost imperceptibly but when I was confronted by a “gallows,” the simple construction of which was two upright posts and a cross beam from the top of the posts I viewed it with horror.

My reflections gushed forth when my eye took in the surroundings. On one side of the gallows were the colored people and on the other side the white people who had gathered on the little hillock. It was quite gratifying to the feelings to see the willingness of slave owners to teach their Slaves an important lesson by sending them here to day. The gallows, yes here on this gallows ill-fated Henry, will have to give up his life for crime and go to his long home with God in eternity.

In the midst of my reflections I saw a vast crowd of people coming from Town toward the gallows[.] It was announced that “They are a coming.” and I looked and saw on [sic] Ox-cart coming on which rode the unfortunate Henry dressed in a suit of white sitting by the coffn which was to incase his lifeless form. They drove the Ox-cart near the gallows, then the drive unhitched the Sturdy oxen and proceeded to direct the cart by hand.

The Sheriff plased [sic] his guard and when the cart stopped under the gallows by the platform a negro man ascended the stand and sang Hymns. Many joined in singing aloud the praises of God, while I stood gazing on in amazement. At the conclusion of the Hymn he offered a very appropriate prayer which seemed to affect a great many. When he raised up from prayer he began exhorting the people from Acts 6-23 — “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” [sic — she means Romans 6:23] When he had ended his discourse, the Rev. Jns. W. Yarbough got up and made a short, but very appropriate exhortation.

They closed the religious services, but the convict desired to speak to the people. His discourse was very affecting, so much so that some of the black women shouted praises to their immortal King. The mother of Henry screamed aloud and shouted with vehemence while her son stood on the platform speaking to the auditory. At the conclusion of his remarks the Officers began to fix for his execution. The Sheriff, Capt John Jones, a capital man, was very much affected during the Scene. They first tied his feet together, then his hands, and then adjusted his clothing. The Sherff then permitted him to look over the vast multitude which surrounded him for a few moments and then tied a white handkerchief over his face which excluded it from view.

The hangmans Knot was adjusted around his neck then the rope was passed over the cross-bar of the gallows[.]

All things read at 12 N the Sheriff descended the steps to the ground and with help drew the Cart on which the Convict stood from under him — leaving the dangling form of the poor victim suspended in the air by a rope. When the form dropped from the Cart, a loud groan went up from the people and then they people [sic] began to disperse.

After the untwisting of the rope and the shrugging of the shoulder had ceased the Dr. E N Calhoun (I believ [sic]) approached and took hold of the hand and after a few moments announced that life was extinct. We came back to town and staid [sic] a few hours, and while at the Old Washington Hotel Kept by Mr. Banks George, I saw the Sheriff Mr Jones bring the corps [sic] back and carry the coffin up a flight of rickety steps to the door of the second story of the jail and deposit it therein. Doubtlessly the Doctors will take advantage of this subject for anatomical investigation, and be found with sleeves rolled up chatting over the mortal remains of this deluded victim. We left town with Mrs Parker, masters Bob and Miss Betsy, and got home before night.

Cottage House DeKalb Ga.
Catherine M. Hewey
November 3, 1858

* Henry was William Jackson’s only slave, and the latter was not compensated by the state for Henry’s execution: it was a substantial loss to the master.

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1858: Qualchan

1 comment September 24th, 2010 Headsman

“Qualchan came to see me at 9 o’clock, and at 9:15 he was hung.”

George Wright

It was this morning in 1858 that the gaily dressed Yakama Indian guerrilla Qualchan turned himself in to his Anglo hunter, and was promptly put to death.

Wright was prosecuting the Yakima War in the Pacific Northwest — another characteristic Indian conflict featuring a formerly remote tribe suddenly cursed with valuable land by the discovery of gold.

Qualchan (sometimes “Qualchen”, “Qual-Chen”, or “Qualchien”) was among the Yakima chieftains resisting “encouragement” to give up that part of their territory most desirable to white settlers, and eventually, Qualchan killed encroaching white miners and made himself an outlaw.

For more than two years, the army hunted Qualchan in vain as he harried white settlers around Washington — or, as Wright put it,

Qual-Chen … has been actively engaged in all the murders, robberies, and attacks upon the white people since 1855, both east and west of the Cascade Mountains … committing assaults on our people whenever the opportunity offered.

Late in the game, the American military had been reduced to a Bushian with-us-or-against-us posture:

Kamiakin and Qualchan, cannot longer be permitted to remain at large or in the country, they must be surrendered or driven away, and no accommodation should be made with any who will harbor them; let all know that asylum given to either of these troublesome Indians, will be considered in future as evidence of a hostile intention on the part of the tribe.

The expedient that induced this potent commando to throw his own life away was the capture of Qualchan’s father, Owhi, rather dishonorably effected on an invitation to parley, then parlayed into a threat to execute the hostage lest the wanted Yakima produce himself.

“I thought then the worst that could happen would be a few months’ imprisonment,” remembered Qualchan’s wife (who was also present). “You may imagine my terror and consternation when I saw that they were making preparations to hang my husband. I first thought it was a huge joke, but when I saw the deliberateness of their preparations, the fullness of their treachery and cowardice became apparent.”

And since the U.S. was maintaining that draconian view of Qualchan’s collaborators, Wright followed up his triumph with summary hangings over the next several days of several more Palouse. By the month’s end, he was prepared to declare the Indians “entirely subdued.”

Wright’s rough peace caused the nearby creek in eastern Washington to be christened “Hangman’s Creek”, though there’s been a tendency to steer away from that frightful name in recent times. But what better way to honor an indigenous foe of colonial land conquest than by naming a golf course for him?

The unfolding fate of the Yakimas is further explored in the public-domain book Ka-mi-akin, the last hero of the Yakimas, whose title character was Qualchan’s uncle.

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1858: James Seale, on the heath with Thomas Hardy

1 comment August 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1858, an “unusual incident” occurred in the life of then 18-year-old architect’s apprentice Thomas Hardy, as related by Hardy’s second wife, Florence.

He probably could have used a Thomas Hardy’s Ale.

One summer morning at Bockhampton, just before he sat down to breakfast, he remembered that a man was to be hanged at eight o’clock at Dorchester. He took up the big brass telescope that had been handed on in the family, and hastened to a hill on the heath a quarter of a mile from the house, whence he looked towards the town. The sun behind his back shone straight on the white stone facade of the gaol, the gallows upon it, and the form of the murderer in white fustian, the executioner and officials in dark clothing and the crowd below being invisible at this distance of nearly three miles. At the moment of his placing the glass to his eye the white figure dropped downwards, and the faint note of the town clock struck eight.

The whole thing had been so sudden that the glass nearly fell from Hardy’s hands. He seemed alone on the heath with the hanged man, and crept homeward wishing he had not been so curious. It was the second and last execution he witnessed, the first having been that of a woman two or three years earlier, when he stood close to the gallows.


The man in question was James Seale (or Searle), and this was not only to be the last hanging Hardy witnessed — it was the last in Dorset full stop.

The London Times‘ Aug. 11 blurb of the hanging noticed that

the wretched culprit was tried … for the wilful murder of a young woman named Sarah Ann Griffy, at Stoke Abbotts, on the 30th of April last, and also for having set fire to the house in which his victim resided. The prisoner is a very young man, not having reached his 20th year, and had been working as a labourer for some time past in the vicinity … On the day of the murder … when all the parties, who were farm labourers, were at work, excepting the deceased, the prisoner entered the house, and, after maltreating her, inflicted a most fearful gash in her throat, nearly five inches long, with a clasped cheese knife, and other injuries on the hands, arms, and breast, and then set fire to the house.


As implied by Hardy’s ability to remember the hanging at breakfast, find the telescope, and get to his observation point before the trap dropped at 8 a.m., the youth was an early riser. Michael Millgate’s biography of Thomas Hardy notes that

[b]y eight o’clock in the morning, the time when Seale’s execution took place, Hardy would have been up reading for two or three hours before setting off for Dorchester and Hicks’s office: when only candles were available for indoor illumination it was necessary to keep a countryman’s hours and take advantage of all the available daylight. He had now added the study of Greek to his continuing study of Latin: the signature in his first copy of the Iliad is dated 1858, and he seems to have worked persistently through it until some time in 1860, marking the passages that he had read — and that Jude Fawley, much later, would be described as reading in Jude the Obscure.

Part of the Themed Set: Thomas Hardy.

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1858: Felice Orsini, Italian revolutionary

4 comments March 13th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1858, Italian revolutionary Felice Orsini calmly lost his head for the nation.

Something of a celebrity revolutionary, Orsini joined the independence movement of Giuseppe Mazzini and embarked on a generation’s worth of conspiracy, covert operations and prison spells and prison breaks which he himself voluptuously recounted in hot-selling autobiographical tomes.

Orsini became convinced that French ruler Louis Napoleon* was the chief obstacle to Italian unification, and accordingly chucked a bomb at the dictator’s carriage on January 14, 1858.

Ever theatrical, the condemned Orsini addressed a letter to Louis Napoleon while awaiting execution. In it, he urged the emperor to take up the Italian cause.

Whether mindful of the prospect of another Orsini waiting for his carriage, remembering his own youthful plotting with the Italian carbonari, or simply for reasons of French statecraft, Napoleon did just that. His alliance with the Piedmont state in northwest Italy (for which France received Savoy and the French Riviera in exchange) helped it absorb most of what now constitutes the Italian state.

Within three years of Orsini’s death, only a reduced papal enclave around Rome and the Austrian holdings around Venice separated the peninsula from unification.

In life, Orsini had been a prominent advocate of the Italian cause and played to packed houses in England. In death, he was felt further afield than that.

Tacking to a moderate stance on slavery abolition ahead of his presidential campaign, Abraham Lincoln condemned the late radical abolitionist John Brown as another Orsini — “an enthusiast [who] broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution.”

Among Lincoln’s officers in the coming Civil War would be Charles DeRudio, the anglicized name of Orsini co-conspirator Carlo di Rudio.

Di Rudio had drawn a death sentence himself for the Orsini plot but was spared (pdf) by the clemency of his intended victim. He would go on to fight in the Battle of the Little Bighorn where he once again managed to cheat death.

* aka Napoleon III. He was the grandson of Josephine’s guillotined first husband.

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1858: Chief Leschi

3 comments February 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1858, Chief Leschi of the Nisqually tribe was controversially hanged at Fort Steilacoom (present-day Lakewood) in the Washington Territory.

Yankee officer Isaac Stevens only spent four years in the Washington Territory as Franklin Pierce’s appointed governor, but he left his stamp on the state.

And no project defined the tenure of this authoritarian executive like putting the screws to the native peoples. Growing white settlement in the Pacific Northwest was creating conflict with the Indians who already inhabited it. In time, that conflict would claim Leschi.

Late in 1854, Stevens summoned the chiefs of several tribes in the newly-minted Washington Territory for an offer they couldn’t refuse: pack up and move to reservations of a few square miles’ undesirable territory, ceding 2.5 million acres to white settlers.

Chief Leschi — and it was Stevens’ men who had designated him a “chief”, the operation upon an alien culture of a bureaucracy that required official spokesmen — allegedly refused to sign the Treaty of Medicine Creek, although the evidence is unclear. Whatever the truth of that matter, sufficient signatures were cajoled for the government to ratify an agreement for massive dispossession, and Leschi became a prominent voice in the growing Indian dissatisfaction once the extent of the hustle became clear.

An attempt to arrest Leschi, who increasingly feared white assassination, touched off the Puget Sound War in 1855, and with an analogous conflict brewing on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, all Washington was soon a conflict zone.

That story’s end is predictable enough, but Leschi’s fate was protested by both native and white contemporaries. Leschi was condemned for “murdering” a militiaman during hostilities, a charge whose logic flowed from the rights asserted by American authorities but whose fundamental injustice (even leaving aside the very doubtful factual evidence) seems manifest, as it did to the defendant.

I have supposed that the killing of armed men in wartime was not murder; if it was, the soldiers who killed Indians are guilty of murder too.

George W. Bush would’ve called him an illegal combatant. That was hardly common sentiment.

So much good will did Leschi enjoy among whites — with whom he had years of amicable relations prior to Gov. Stevens’ arrival — that a scheduled January 22 hanging was deviously put off by the sheriff charged with the task: he arranged to have himself arrested on a liquor charge while in possession of the death warrant shortly before Leschi was to have been hung, and the two-hour window allotted for the execution of the sentence elapsed before matters could be put right.

They carried the sentence out four weeks later — “I felt then I was hanging an innocent man,” executioner Charles Grainger would say, “and I believe it yet” — but that hardly put an end to Chief Leschi’s story. The Nisqually have pushed hard for Leschi’s official exoneration, and won a Washington Senate resolution to that effect and an “acquittal” (of no legal force) from a panel of state jurists. But even though it attached to a convicted murderer, Leschi’s was never a black name in the state; it adorns a Seattle neighborhood and a number of schools and other public places. (“Stevens” is similarly prominent.)

There’s an excellent summary of the Leschi case from Oregon Historical Quarterly, a Washington State Historical Society website, and a 1905 public domain book published to make the case for Leschi.

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1858: Marion Ira Stout, for loving his sister

3 comments October 22nd, 2008 Headsman

It’s the sesquicentennial of a then-sensational, now-forgotten hanging in Rochester, N.Y.

At dawn on December 20, 1857, the city had awoken to the discovery of a mangled corpse by the Genesee River’s High Falls … and more than enough evidence to have the corpse’s killers in hand by tea time.

Marion Ira Stout — he just went by Ira — had made a dog’s breakfast of the job, according to History of Rochester and Monroe County New York from the Earliest Historic Times to the Beginning of 1907.

[W]hen they got near the edge of the bank, Ira struck his victim a sudden blow with an iron mallet, smashing the skull and producing death instantly. Stout then threw the body over the precipice, supposing that it would fall into the river and be swept into the lake before sunrise, but instead of that it landed on a projecting ledge thirty feet below the upper level. Perceiving that there had been some failure in the matter, Ira started to go down a narrow path that led sideways along the cliff, but in the darkness he missed his footing and fell headlong, breaking his left arm in the descent and landing beside the corpse. Summoning all his remaining strength he was just able to push the body over the bank, when he sank in a dead faint. On recovering from which in a few minutes, he called to his sister, who was still above, to come and help him. When she started to do so, the bushes to which she clung gave way; she stumbled, broke her left wrist, and fell beside her prostrate brother. But it would not do to remain there, wretched as was their plight. So, after searching in vain for Ira’s spectacles, which they had to leave behind them, but taking with them the fatal mallet, they scrambled slowly and painfully up the bank and made their way laboriously to their home on Monroe Street.

In lieu of a last statement, Stout referred his audience to this writing, which was published posthumously. Courtesy of the New York State Historical Association Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.

Sure enough, the glasses were waiting near the victim for the cops to find come daylight.

How did Ira, his sister, and the late Charles Littles — the sister’s husband — find themselves in this macabre dance?

That’s the murky bit, though it’s fair to say there was some negative energy in the family.

Littles was a violent, jealous, philandering drunk. His wife Sarah seems like the classic abused spouse. Ira was an ex-con who seemingly had his life back together. Oh, and Ira and Sarah were sleeping together — professedly true in the literal sense (they were observed to sleep in bed together in their underthings), and possibly true in the Biblical sense.

Now, where in this tangled knot of incestuous desire, domestic violence, protectiveness, jealousy and intrigue lies the motive is less than self-evident, but Ira and Sarah most definitely schemed to lure Charles to his demise. (Charles was found with a club which he’d brought to clobber a lover of Sarah that he’d been told would make a rendezvous.)

Still, the condemned charmer garnered sympathy for having saved his sister from an abusive marriage; Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass rallied to his defense, and a female admirer smuggled him poison to cheat the hangman … which said admirer managed to end up ingesting herself, and barely survived.

Death got all ten-thumbed around Ira Stout, it seems. His hanging was no different.

The New York Times‘ archive has free access to the report of Stout’s execution, interestingly detailing the upward-jerking “sudden suspension” hanging apparatus in use for the job:

The gallows is the same which has always been in use in the jail — the rope, a hempen cord, alone being new. A weight of 186 pounds rests upon a swing door set in the garret floor of the jail. From this weight, the rope runs over two pulleys above, and the end of it drops through two doors, and nearly to the main floor of the jail. The weight falls about eight feet, jerking the slack end that distance. The halter attached to the main rope is a long distance below the main enginery of death, and the latter is not seen by the spectators or prisoner. The Sheriff stood at the foot of the stairs, some forty feet from the prisoner, and by a small cord pulled the latch which let the fatal weight fall.

But since this is Ira Stout, you know it didn’t come off without a hitch.

The death of the ill-fated man was not as sudden as could be desired. His struggles for eight or ten minutes were severe, and caused the spectators to turn away in disgust.

His neck was probably not dislocated, and he died by a slow process of strangulation. Doctors Hall, Avery, James and Miller stood near, and in eight minutes after the drop fell they said his pulse was as full as in life.

Sort of puts a grim twist on Stout’s own (fairly self-pitying) letters to the papers, in one of which he remarked, “I do not wish to show a cowardly tenacity for life, but I consider it my right and duty to live as long as I can.”

According to a feature story in the newsletter of Mount Hope Cemetery where Ira Stout takes his eternal rest, he might have tried to hang on quite a bit longer.

A rumor was current last night at a late hour that Stout was not dead, and that efforts were being made to resuscitate him by the use of galvanic batteries and other means sometimes employed for the restoration of persons supposed to be dead. How much truth there is in the rumors thus made we cannot say, as we have not taken pains to inquire at the house of Mrs. Stout.

No surprise, that didn’t work either.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Sex,USA

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