1869: Katkeena and John Anayitzaschist, Glyphs and Gallows

Add comment July 29th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1869, two men of the aboriginal Hesquiat nation of Vancouver Island off British Columbia’s Pacific coast were hanged outside their village by the white colonial authorities, on the charge of gratuitously murdering the (again, white) survivors of a shipwreck.

The English-built barque John Bright foundered in a gale just offshore from the location of the eventual gallows in February of that same year, with all aboard lost — including apparently the wife of the captain, their children, and the pretty young English nursemaid who looked after them.* Although within sight of a Hesquiat village also called Hesquiat, the violent surf put the vessel beyond aid.

The tale of a ship lost to the sea soon became in the eyes of Vancouver Island’s European capital city, Victoria, a very different tale of villainous “West Coast savages.” An unprincipled trader named James Christenson was the first to report the shipwreck in Victoria and put about his suspicions that at least some of the John Bright‘s denizens had reached shore alive. His evidence for this claim was seeing several headless bodies. A more generous interlocutor might proceed from this observation to indict the implacable violence of the rough open-ocean surf that would have carried the drowned to shore, crashing through the John Bright‘s timbers and tossing boulders hither and yon.

Instead the most diabolical inferences were immediately bandied as fact, with the city’s preeminent journalist D.W. Higgins categorically broadcasting that the ship’s personnel “were without doubt murdered by the Indians” and whipping political pressure that forced the colonial government into action. The HMS Sparrowhawk was dispatched to investigate with its conclusions so firmly determined that the refusal of the ship’s doctor to endorse a finding of homicide relative to the bodies he examined did not save native canoes from a cannonade meant to force the village to surrender some suspects. In the end the gunboat returned to Victoria with seven new passengers, two of whom wound up on the gallows: a man named John Anayitzaschist, whom some witnesses accused in contradictory accounts of shooting survivors on the beach, and a wretch named Katkeena (or Kahtkayna) who wasn’t even present in Hesquiat Village at the time of the shipwreck. The former man was a factional rival of the Hesquiat chief. The latter “was a simpleton of inferior rank and considered so worthless that not one woman of his tribe would take him as a husband,” according to the Catholic missionary Augustin Brabant, who lived for many years afterward among the Hesquiat people. He seems to have been given over to the executioner because he was disposable.

The case has receive a bit of renewed scrutiny in the 21st century: the British Columbia government issued a statement of regret in 2012, and an empathetic musician composed a string quartet (“Cradle Song for the Useless Man”) in honor of the forlorn Katkeena.

Executed Today comes by the affair via a wonderful 1997 book, Glyphs and Gallows: The Art of Clo-oose and the Wreck of John Bright. Author Peter Johnson weaves the wreck of the John Bright and the legal shambles that ensued with his exploration of native art — including the titular petroglyphs etched into coastal stone by native artists where still they sit to this day.

Drawn to the story by (accurate) reports of glyphs depicting European ships, Johnson hiked to the petroglyph site at Clo-oose where he sketched and photographed these amazing productions. The glyphs tantalize with the never-consummated possibility that they might directly allude to the John Bright affair, but more than this: in Johnson’s telling, they’re a priceless point of contact offered us by the hand of the artist to a cosmology in the moment before it is irrevocably lost to the tectonic action of European settlement.

Soon after the John Bright affair, things changed on the coast. The Colony of British Columbia joined Confederation, and the Royal Navy no longer sent its gunboats to intimidate worrisome Aboriginals. Settlement occurred, law and order prevailed, the potlatch and the totem poles were taken away. Disease forced a good many Natives to sanitoria, and Native children were sent to the residential schools run by Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries. Families were disconsolate. The soul of a race was broken, and the moss-wet forest slowly reclaimed the longhouses and the welcome figures of a once proud people. A whole culture was literally on the brink of being wiped out completely. And then, from the very edge of oblivion, the elders began to retell their stories. It was these bits of remembered tales, called up from a desperate soul’s interior like images forced onto stone, that would enable everything to begin again.

The motive for metaphor is the motive to create a story: it is the artistic drive. The impulse to use symbols is connected to our desire to create something to which we can become emotionally attached. Symbols, like relationships, involve us with deeply human attributes. Raven and Bear can speak to us directly. I can smile at the glyph of a seal, with its curious smiling head poking just above the water, and I am filled with wonder at the image of a bird carrying a small child or a bodiless head. A symbols is at once concrete, palpable, and sensual — like a rose. At the same time, it reaches beyond itself to convey an idea of beauty, of fragility, and of transience. The great thing about art is that it continually forces us to see new sets of resemblances. Those long-gone artists who created the petroglyphs at Clo-oose used two sets of symbols — their own and those of nineteenth-century Western Europeans — in order to depict a vignette that was firmly grounded in their point of view. Like the carvers of the Rosetta Stone, they wisely used sets of metaphors and imaginative icons against materialist images of nineteenth-century commercial technology. Unlike the Rosetta Stone, however, the petroglyphs of Clo-oose do not use one set of images to explicate the other; the petroglyphs of Clo-oose are stunning because they incorporate one set of images into the other. Like a series of lap dissolves in modern film, we are drawn to ponder one story while at the same time being faced with the jarring reality of another … They are rich metaphors of the interior world of Native spirituality and history, and they have been juxtaposed with metaphors of European conquest. As such, they are eloquent indeed.

It is impossible to completely crack the codes of the sailing-ship glyphs of Clo-oose because the meaning of the Native spiritual images cast upon the rocks on that lonely shore has died with those to whom it was relevant. Our interpretations are approximations born of respect for the images themselves and of a renewed feeling for the time. We are left to ponder one significant story born of cultural collision. The petroglyphs of Clo-oose have served us well. They have, like any great code, prompted us to express, and urged us to remember, what might otherwise have been ignored. They have brought some light to an obscure world.

“Petroglyphs, monuments, art, music, dance, poetry, etc. are at the core of any culture,” Peter Johnson told us in an interview. “Where a mix of cultures occurs, then look to its art as a means of understanding the complex motives of such clashes.”

Executed Today: It’s the “Gallows” that draws our site‘s eye but can you introduce the native-carved petroglyphs of Clo-oose, including glyphs of 19th century ships akin to the ones involved in your narrative? Twenty-plus years after your book, have these treasures become any better appreciated as art and cultural heritage, or any better preserved and curated at their site?

Peter Johnson: An excerpt of the Clo-oose affair from D. W. Higgins’s The Passing of a Race (Toronto: William Briggs Publisher, 1905) is included in the back of Glyphs and Gallows. Being directly facing the Pacific, the Clo-oose site is one of many that Higgins suggests captures Native / Indigenous interactions in the 19th century. The four ships at the Clo-oose Site, Higgins suggests, are: the Sparrowhawk (long thin one that the Royal Navy used as a gunship to apprehend the so-called guilty tribesmen who “murdered the crew of the John Bright as it foundered just offshore”); the John Bright (the other long one, a barkentine freighting lumber from the coast to Valpariso, Chile); and, the smaller two ships may have been ships that sailed to the site and “discovered” the bodies. The official name of the site (anthropologically speaking) is DdSf 1 or commonly called Blowhole Site, because of a spout of water that comes shooting out of a cleft in the rocky shore at high tide. Other sites nearby are Hill Site, nearby on a sandstone ledge showing a huge beaked bird, and a copulating couple. Southeast of Clo-oose about 6 miles away, is Carmanah Lighthouse; there is a site there that contains several petroglyphs of human figures (one seemingly impregnated with a child) and other sites nearby show huge, fat, birds, and various fishes. These don’t say anything we can understand about first contact with “whites” and are likely religious figures which had a role in Native cosmology or family organization.


Peter Johnson’s sketch of the Blowhole Site, circa mid-1990s: there’s no way to conclusively identify any of the ship images with any one specific vessel, but if we are to suppose that association then in Johnson’s estimation the ship at the top would be the Sparrowhawk and the one at just left of center at the bottom the John Bright. The image is (c) Peter Johnson and used with permission.

The maps, mention and location of the sites are no longer found in recent books about the West Coast Trail, and the sites themselves have been left to erode away along the shore. Since Glyphs and Gallows, there has been no attempt, that I am aware of, to cover, reveal or understand more of their cultural and artistic messages. It’s as if the Natives don’t wish any further trace of information to be transmitted to other cultures and perhaps, they don’t know any more about the sites than we do. For example, totem poles of other indigenous peoples are left, as part of their meaning, to rot in the bush. We have a different predilection, and that is to save objects from the past. Which is more important? Who knows? Perhaps, the one that serves the intent of the original artist is most important?

As sandstone erodes fairly quickly, these important cultural sites will be gone in 100 years. I personally believe they are very important artistically and historically. Were they found in Britain, like the monoliths on the Orkneys, (at Scara Brae) or Stonehenge and other henges, they would be covered and revered. Here, the new Natives at Clo-oose don’t seem to know much more detail about such petroglyphs at Clo-oose, or do not wish to preserve them as culturally important artifacts. Perhaps, too, they are too difficult to decipher, much like Champolion’s translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, that previously to him took many hundreds of years. Native myths do not seem to be currently studied as much as they are simply appreciated … appreciation is good, but it’s only a start of understanding. Digging for meaning, beyond a purely aesthetic appreciation, is equally, if not more important.

One of the questions you set out to explore was whether these glyphs directly depict the events around the John Bright wreck and the subsequent hangings. Your answer is indeterminate on that … but how should we understand what they say more generally about the cultural upheavals concerning contact with Europeans, and about the civilization that preceded that contact?

The context of what happened during the first 50 years of European contact with West Coast natives, needs to be read about and understood by more “Whites” and Natives alike. D. W. Higgins believes whiskey traders destroyed many Native lives through the products they brought. (I don’t entirely believe this.) Higgins suggests in July 1858, the Native population in Victoria was 8,500, and goes on to say that at least 100,00 Natives perished from booze-related afflictions. I believe smallpox wiped out great numbers as Natives were moved away from Victoria up-country and spread the disease (like Covid), as they met other indigenous groups. Many were vaccinated, but Gov. Douglas at the time (1862), needed to save some vaccine for his own Europeans who settled in Victoria. They did not cruelly withhold the vaccine from the Natives, several European governors helped them as much as possible … that so-called dismissal today is a more popular misreading of the history of the time which serves a current, darker political purpose.

Once the idea that the John Bright survivors had reached shore only to be murdered by the Hesquiat got around, it’s comprehensible how a racist “tunnel vision” fit all facts into this understanding. However, I struggled with why this idea was initially formulated at all — it’s not the null hypothesis when a ship founders in a gale and nobody survives. Was it the shock value of “headless bodies” even though the Europeans on Vancouver Island should have been familiar with the devastating force of the surf? Was it a wholly cynical formulation by James Christenson to, as you put it, “elicit regular naval protection from Natives that he and other unscrupulous traders had cheated”?

Yes, it was a cynical formulation by Christenson and others to elicit naval protection from bald-faced raiding of their Native resources (lumber, fish, etc.). Shock value of the headless bodies certainly inculcated White racist reaction against Native action.

Victoria’s precarity at this moment, as a city that aspired to political leadership but was still a muddy frontier settlement, riven by class conflict, so bereft of women that they arranged bride ships — another of your books — and with a politically uncertain future between England, Canada, and the U.S. … felt eerily resonant with our treacherous current historical moment. Can we interpret the rush to judgment and the hangings here as to some extent expressions of a civic psychological insecurity? If so, did anyone involved in the prosecution later express any misgivings about it as Victoria grew and Canadian confederation became settled?

Yes I think so, not so much insecurity as fear. Myths had been perpetrated about Native violence (Natives attacked and killed white settlers on Lummi Island and in Cowichan Bay about this same time). So certainly, the Indigenous peoples gained much “bad press” about their time. That probably led to the gunboat frontier mentality of the time and the not-so-much later movement to remove the diminishing numbers of children in Native settlements to the White residential schools. This movement is usually interpreted as Native genocide on the part of ingigenous peoples and many Europeans themselves believe this. A few felt it was the only way to save what they believed was a dying culture by giving them proficiency in English so they could survive and integrate among a juggernaut of white settlers that became Canada. I guess the anxiety here is about the meaning on the word “integration.’

The debate over that issue remains. Too bad the petroglyphs are ignored today, they (and pictographs, etc.) could shed more light on the complex cosmology of the region’s Native cultures. Protest, and not an understanding of the historical context, seems to get more coverage. Real knowledge, not bitterness on both sides, is the answer. Proper historical co-operation would help immensely here.

One of the threads in your narrative is teasing out this undercurrent of skepticism about the verdict that stretches back to the European coroner who would not support a finding of homicide and includes the missionary priest Augustin Brabant, who extensively rebutted the D.W. Higgins narrative of native guilt … but only in private. Do we have any direct native sources from the time, or any later traditions, that tell us how the John Bright affair has been remembered in that community? And why did Brabant never publish his extensive personal knowledge from decades of living with the Hesquiat?

Father Brabant had a Catholic ulterior motive. His answer was to turn the Natives away from their own cosmology to a belief in Catholicism. That kind of religious zeal and “cultural blindness” led to the divisions we are trying to solve today. I bet very few remember the John Bright Affair or even care to, as an example and a means to dismiss and/or destroy early Native humanity. It took him years to write about his own view, likely because the Catholic Church would have condemned or excommunicated him.

[Brabant told Higgins in private correspondence that Christenson was at Hesquiat Village when the John Bright wrecked, but fled without attempting to render aid for fear that he would “expose myself to be killed by the Indians.” (That’s Brabant quoting Christenson at third hand.) Brabant thought Christenson only returned, weeks later, to cover up his own cowardice by bearing “to town a tale of cruelty, and barbarism, of which there is not a particle of truth.” Since Higgins extensively published the tale of cruelty and barbarism, it’s no surprise that he didn’t buy what Brabant was selling. Brabant also witnessed another shipwreck in 1882 — he wasn’t there for the John Bright itself — and described victims washing up on the beach in pieces, arms and legs horrifically torn from their torsos by the incredible force of the surf. -ed.]

* We lack a precise complement of the ship and especially of the women-and-children contingent, who were renumbered and rearranged by conflicting reports. Rumors that one or more of the children lived on as wards of this or that tribe circulated for years afterwars.

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1863: William Lynch, suppressed mutineer

Add comment June 16th, 2020 Headsman

(Thanks to Edward Waldo Emerson, the son of transcendentalist chin-wagger Ralph Waldo Emerson, for the guest post. His account of the beloved Massachusetts cavalryman Charles Russell Lowell’s lethal suppression of a mutiny in his civil war regiment, as related to him by Lowell’s widow for his, Emerson’s, 1907 biography Life and Letters of Charles Russell Lowell. Lowell can’t speak for himself on this account because he was killed the next year at the Battle of Cedar Creek, after which he was posthumously promoted to Brigadier General.

Emerson does not directly narrate a death penalty story, but the image in the coda records the fate of one of the rebellious enlisted men. There were two others in legal jeopardy from this affair: Sylvester Riley died while awaiting his court-martial in Fort Independence in Boston Harbor; and, 16-year-old Francis Dew drew a death sentence which was commuted by President Abraham Lincoln on account of Dew’s youth. -ed.)

Mrs. Lowell, anxious that the exact facts be known, wrote for me this account of the

MUTINY IN BOSTON.

A very painful incident took place while Colonel Lowell was recruiting for the Second Cavalry, which impressed him very much.

Stopping as usual, at eight o’clock one morning, at the recruiting station, he found the small squad of new recruits who were to be transferred that day to the camp at Readville, in a state of mutiny. Hearing the noise on his arrival, he descended at once to the basement, and the Sergeant in command explained that he had ordered a man to be handcuffed, that the others had said it was unjust and should not be done, and had resisted. Colonel Lowell at once said: ‘The order must be obeyed.’ ‘No! No!’ shouted the men. He continued: ‘After it is obeyed, I will hear what you have to say, and will decide the case on its merits, but it must be obeyed first. God knows, my men, I don’t want to kill any of you; but I shall shoot the first man who resists. Sergeant, iron your man.’ As the Sergeant stepped forward with the irons, the men made a rush, and Colonel Lowell shot the leader, who fell at once. The men succumbed immediately, some bursting into tears, such was their excitement.

The whole incident was very painful to Colonel Lowell, especially because he had always regarded it as one of the privileges of an officer that he did not have to kill with his own hand.

The circumstances, however, turned out as fortunately as was possible in such a case. The man had no relatives, so far as could be discovered, and his record showed that he was a very bad man, and had previously been in the Regular Army, so that he knew very well what he was doing in resisting an order.

One of Governor Andrew‘s staff, who was present when Colonel Lowell reported his action, gave the following account, which I copy from Professor Peirce’s life of Lowell in the Harvard Memorial Biographies:

Entering his Excellency’s room, he made a military salute and said, ‘I have to report to you, sir, that in the discharge of my duty I have shot a man’; then saluted again, and immediately withdrew. ‘I need nothing more,’ said the Governor to a bystander, ‘Colonel Lowell is as humane as he is brave.’

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1868: Thomas Griffin, gold commissioner

Add comment June 1st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1868, disgraced Australian gold commissioner Thomas Griffin was hanged for murdering two police escorts in the course of a robbery.

He was an Irish-born constable who parlayed decorated service in the Crimean War into emigration to Australia.

There he lodged himself in the policing ranks and by dint of energy and charm worked his way up by late 1863 to the administrative post of gold commissioner in the emerging gold rush boom town of Clermont, Queensland.

“During his four years’ residence at Clermont, Griffin became widely known in the district,” according to The Early History of Rockhampton by a working journalist who knew Griffin, J.T.S. Bird.

In addition to being physically a fine manly-looking fellow, he had a very suave and attractive manner, and readily gained the favour and friendship of those whom he desired to stand well with.* To those under him he was as a rule distant and overbearing, and was by no means well liked … Ostentation and vanity, with a fondness for display, were leading traits of his character, and were noticeable to all who knew him.

One index of his no means well-likedness was the community petition that deposed him from his post in September 1867. It seems that Griffin had formed a reputation as “despotic, arbitrary and partial,” made himself a fixture of gambling dens, and had been investigated for embezzling mining revenues that he was supposed to hold in trust.

Demoted to a lower position in the same bureau in nearby Rockhampton, Griffin immediately vindicated his critics by arranging to accompany the next “gold escort” transporting valuables between Clermont and Rockhampton, along with troopers Patrick Cahill and John Power. En route, Griffin gunned the two men down by surprise on the Mackenzie River, making off with about £4000 in notes (not gold). He then unconvincingly presented himself back in Rockhampton as having separated naturally from the party, surprised as anyone that the other two hadn’t returned. Although he participated in the initial search, he was arrested within days.

Bird has a lengthy narrative of the investigation and trial; one notable aspect was early forensic experimentation with shooting sheeps’ skulls in an attempt to model the damage done by the gunshots received by the unfortunate guards — further to demonstrating that they were murdered execution-style at close range rather than shot from a distance as a wilderness brigand might do.

Suffice to say that no matter the spattering of ruminant brains, Griffin’s foul reputation made his pretense of innocence completely untenable, even though he continued it all the way to the gallows.

After a prayer at the foot of the scaffold, Griffin stood up and Mr. Smith said:

I shall meet you at the judgment seat of God; you have but a few minutes to live, and in the sight of God who is to judge between us all, I ask you will you not acknowledge your guilt?

Griffin drew himself up and said in a resolute voice, “No!”

He went up the first of the scaffold steps two or three at a time, finishing the remainder with a firm step. Stepping on the drop, he came promptly to “attention.” Griffin told the executioner [John Hutton] he had nothing to give him, but if he saw Mr. Brown he would give him something. The hangman then asked if Griffin had anything to confess.

Griffin replied in a firm voice: “No, I have nothing to confess!”

The white cap was placed in position, and Griffin, as though impatient at any delay, said: “Go on, I am ready!” The bolt was drawn, and death followed instantly.

Griffin had frequently told Dr. Salmond and others that he would die with calm firmness, and he was as good as his word.

His was the first of nine executions recorded at Rockhampton Gaol. A week after the hanging, Griffin’s grave was robbed and his head stolen.

* One early indicator of the man’s character was his seduction of a wealthy widow on the very ship he took to Australia. After quickly dissipating her fortune, he parted ways with her by publishing a fake death notice in the newspaper.

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1865: George Baker and George Beal, Salem murderers

Add comment May 17th, 2020 Headsman

A 1938 Oregon Magazine retrospective on the May 17, 1865 Salem, Ore. hanging of George Baker and George Beal(e) comes from a compilation of research on the wonderful site Oregon Pioneers.

These were very much pioneer days. The Pacific Northwest Oregon Territory started drawing large scale white settlement from the 1830s, with the onset of the Oregon Trail, the means by which both the offenders and the victim in this case arrived at this distant land.

The state of Oregon (only a subset of the Oregon Territory, which also comprised the present-day states of Washington and Idaho) attained statehood in 1859 with the census population weighing in at 52,000 the following year. Its first judicial executions only occurred in 1850 — so this punishment was very much a novelty, as the piece below indicates. (I’ve added some line breaks for readability.) There’s a great deal more at the Oregon Pioneers site.

SEVENTY-THREE Years is a long time, yet there are people now living who witnessed the execution of Beal and Baker on May l7th, 1865. The writer was a boy of 10 years at that time. Well do I remember the trial and execution of the men, for the murder of Daniel Delaney for his money.

Daniel Delaney was a wealthy stock raiser living about two miles southwest of Turner. He was a southerner and brought slaves with him to Oregon. He was a good citizen and a clean man, and his stock roamed over the hills and the valleys around Turner Station.

At that time he settled here there were no fences and the stock roamed over the whole country. There were no banks in this part of the state and whoever had money must hide it about his premises.

Delaney was supposed to have a lot of money. Beal was keeping a saloon in Salem in a building now occupied by the Marion Hotel. He lived across the street in a house south of the old Rector Hotel with his wife and mother. Beal had a partner in the crime, George Baker, who drove cattle for the early day butchers of Salem. He was a weak minded man, and lived on the block south of Beal’s saloon with his wife and three or four children.

On the night of the murder, Beal met Baker at a point on Mill Creek, formerly agreed upon. Beal was walking and Baker was riding a black mare hereafter mentioned in this article. At this point they obtained some charcoal which they used on their faces to disguise themselves, as Beal was well acquainted with Delaney, and often would stay all night with him while off on hunting trips when in that part of the country. He also crossed the plains in the same train with Delaney in 1843.

Delaney lived alone except for a colored boy, 12 years of age, and his dog. They called the old man out of the house and shot him and also the dog. The colored boy hid in the wood pile near the house. Delaney, who was wounded, recognized Beal and said to him, “Spare my life, Beal, and you can have all the money I have got.” Beal drew a revolver from his pocket and said to him, “Dead men do not talk,” and fired a shot that finished Delaney, who was wounded.

The colored boy remained in hiding until daylight next morning, then taking the dog, which was badly wounded, carried him over to one of Delaney’s sons about a mile away, giving the alarm.

Beal and Baker were soon arrested for the crime on suspicion. One of the suspicious circumstances was that the black mare which Baker was riding on the night of the murder had lost one shoe. Another was the finding of a hat band which had been lost off Beal’s hat.

The trial was very interesting and so many people wanted to hear the trial that there was not room in the old wooden court house which occupied the same ground as the present one, so the trial was held in the Holman block, used by the legislature before the state capitol was built.

The prisoners were defended by Caton & Curl with David Logan, prominent attorney in Oregon at that time. Rufus Mallory was prosecuting attorney. The colored boy proved to be a very good witness for the state; also the hat band which fitted Beal’s hat was found in his bed room after his arrest; also the black mare had one shoe missing.

The prisoners were found guilty after a long and tedious trial and were sentenced to be executed on the 17th day of May, 1865. For this purpose the county of Marion erected a wooden scaffold on the block on South Church street, bounded by Church, Mill, Winter and Leslie streets.

The prisoners were confined in a small brick jail on the northwest corner of the court house block, until the day of the execution, when they were taken from the jail by the then Sheriff of Marion County, Samuel Hedrick, and placed in a hotel bus and taken to the place of execution, where they paid the penalty of their crime.

The death march was impressive. At that time Marion county had a militia company known as the Marion Rifles. They were dressed in gaudy uniforms as on dress parade and formed around the bus in a hollow square with fixed bayonets. Marching east on Court to Church street, thence south on Church street to the place of execution. The procession was followed by a vast crowd of people.

The military unit then formed about the scaffold until after the execution. People came to witness this execution from all parts of the state, even some Indians from Grand Ronde and the Siletz reservations. In fact, it was considered a public holiday. My old school teacher, Pearson, a law and order man, dismissed school so his pupils could witness the execution of these men as an object lesson.

The high grounds about the mill race formed a natural amphitheater for the occasion. Beal walked up the steps to the platform on the scaffold with a firm step. He then produced a small bible and read from it a short chapter, and then said in a firm voice, “Now take this book and read it and follow its teachings and you will never come to what I have.” He then tossed the book to the people in the crowd.

Baker was very weak and had to be assisted up the steps.

Soon the rope was placed about the necks of the prisoners and it was soon over. Public sentiment was strong against these men, especially Beal, who was considered the master mind in this sad affair; even so much so that objections were made to them being buried in our local cemetery. But Daniel Waldo, a good old pioneer, granted space for them on his farm on what is known as the Waldo Hills. He said every man, good or bad, should be entitled to six feet of earth.

The public sentiment against the murderers was so far reaching it even extended to the attorneys for the defense, in the loss of practice. However, it sent Rufus Mallory, who prosecuted the case, to the lower house of congress from Oregon.

And it must have had some good effect in a moral way, for it was twenty years before another man was executed for murder in Marion County.

I wrote this story as I remember it as a boy of ten years of age. I had a chum like most boys, and we were interested very much in the trial and excitement. Sometimes we could not get a seat. One time we secured good seats but the sheriff, Samuel Hedrick, made us give them up to older people. We did not like it very much, but had to do it with a smile. But twenty-three years later the ten-year old boy had taken over his office.

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1865: Robert Cobb Kennedy, Confederate terrorist

Add comment March 25th, 2020 Headsman

Robert Cobb Kennedy, the last Confederate executed by the Union during the U.S. Civil War, was hanged on this date in 1865 as an arsonist.


Harper’s magazine illustration of an arsonist.

Kennedy, a West Point washout from a Louisiana plantation, was part of an ensemble of Confederate agents who attempted to torch New York City on November 25, 1864 — a mission designed to revenge Sherman’s march.

On that Friday evening, the night after Thanksgiving, the eight conspirators fired 13 Gotham hotels as well as theaters, public buildings, and the ludicrous museum of showman P.T. Barnum.* Nineteen fires were started overall, the plotters hoping that their simultaneous flaring would overwhelm the city’s capacity to respond and turn into a general conflagration. Through a combination of good luck, bad arson, and timely informants the various blazes were caught before they could do any real damage.

That couldn’t quite be said of the arsonists, who were all — even Kennedy — able to slip away safely to Canada before they could be caught. Kennedy risked a return trip through Detroit hoping to reach Confederate soil. He didn’t make it.

“Mr. Kennedy is a man of apparently 30 years of age, with an exceedingly unprepossessing countenance,” by the description of the New York Times (Feb. 28, 1865) as he stood trial before a military tribunal.

His head is well shaped, but his brow is lowering, his eyes deep sunken and his look unsteady. Evidently a keen-witted, desperate man, he combines the cunning and the enthusiasm of a fanatic, with the lack of moral principle characteristic of many Southern Hotspurs, whose former college experiences, and most recent hotel-burning plots are somewhat familiar to our readers. Kennedy is well connected at the South, is a relative, a nephew we believe, of Howell Cobb, and was educated at the expense of the United States, at West Point, where he remained two years, leaving at that partial period of study in consequence of mental or physical inability. While there he made the acquaintance of Ex. Brig. Gen. E.W. Stoughton, who courteously proffered his services as counsel for his ancient friend in his present needy hour. During Kennedy’s confinement here, while awaiting trial, he made sundry foolish admissions, wrote several letters which have told against him, and in general did, either intentionally or indiscreetly, many things, which seem to have rendered his conviction almost a matter of entire certainty.

He was hanged at Fort Lafayette, having admitted to setting the fire at Barnum’s museum (“simply a reckless joke … There was no fiendishness about it. The Museum was set on fire by merest accident, after I had been drinking, and just for the fun of a scare”). His was the only life claimed by the Confederate incendiaries.

* This facility was born under a bad star: although it survived the ministrations of Kennedy and friends, it burned to the ground the following July. Barnum put up a successor museum which also burned down, in 1868 — leading the man to pivot into the circus industry where he fixed his name in the firmament.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,New York,Terrorists,USA,Wartime Executions

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1860: James Stephens

Add comment February 3rd, 2020 Headsman

James Stephens hanged in New York on this date in 1860, for poisoning his wife.

We’ve referenced passingly a number of 19th century hangings on then-trendy “upward-jerking” gallows — whose action is not to drop the offender down through a trap, but to drop a heavy weight which levers the offender up.

Thanks to the Feb. 4, 1860 edition of the New York Herald, we have a very detailed description of this macabre device.

Perhaps the reporter’s skepticism as to this machine’s humane efficacy is informed here by a bit of hindsight, for when it engaged to end the life of our Mr. Stephens,

Up went the culprit high into the air, not with a sudden violent jerk as usual, but slowly, as if by the strength of a man’s arms, instead of a powerful weight of some 300 pounds. It became evident immediately that something was wrong, and soon a rumor went round that the rope had been unwound instead of cut by the hangman. It appeared that the executioner, who was inexperienced, got frightened, and thus the barbarous manner of hanging the culprit was explained.

It was extraordinary that under these circumstances the unfortunate wretch, suspended between heaven and earth, did not exhibit indications of violent suffering. The moment the rope tightened around his neck, and he was elevated about half way up, a slight twitching of the fingers and kicking of the legs were perceptible. Then a few moments intervened without the slightest indication of suffering, except the hard breathing, which was fearful to listen to. After hanging two minutes in this way, another convulsive throe took place; the vessels in the neck seemed to be swelled almost to bursting, the fingers and wrists assumed a bluish hue, and the feet twitched once or twice spasmodically. Three minutes came, and with it a very feeble tremor showed itself in the whole body; but it lasted only a few seconds, when all further motion ceased, and life seemed to be completely extinct. The surgeons, Drs. Woodward, Simmons and Covell, viewed the body after a suspension of five minutes, and gave it as their opinion that animation was certainly gone; but the body was not lowered until fourteen minutes had expired. The surgeons then again examined the body, found no pulse, and the flesh icy cold. Considering the circumstances, the culprit died a remarkably easy death, which was owing, doubtless, to the feeble condition of his constitution. Had he been in good strength at the time of his execution there is no question but that he would have struggled in the most frightful agony for half an hour.

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

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1866: The Nashville murderers of William Hefferman

Add comment January 26th, 2020 Headsman

Blood accumulates upon us. Verily, it does seem that the reins of justice have been loosely thrown to the devil, and that we are all driving at breakneck speed in the same direction.

-Nashville Banner (via)

On this date in 1866, four youths employed as teamsters in the Army corrals of Union-occupied Nashville were hanged for a brutal highway robbery/murder.

The victim was William Hefferman, a wealthy railway contractor. His assailants were George Crabb/Craft, James Lysaught, Thomas Perry/Ferry, and James Knight; Knight at 20 was the only one out of his teens. On the night of November 22, 1865, they held up Hefferman’s carriage. The situation turned deadly when Hefferman’s son-in-law, attempting to protect the old man from the blows of the assailants when he refused to give them any money, fired a shot that wounded Crabb — which led to a return shot that mortally wounded Hefferman. He succumbed to the wound a few days later.

This was the immediate, unsettled aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, occasion for a robust crime wave that held Middle Tennessee in terror. “Nashville is infested by bands of robbers and murderers,” complained the Ohio newspaper The Spirit of Democracy (Dec. 6, 1865). Hefferman’s murder would be one of the signal crimes of that interim and draw nationwide outrage — all of which helped the killers’ associates to shop them very speedily. The army’s drumhead court-martial was gaveled in within a week and the hoodlums were lucky to get that far. “Great excitement exists in the city,” a dispatch to the Daily Ohio Statesman (Nov. 28, 1865) reported. “The streets are thronged with men vowing vengeance and threatening lynch law. Tonight meetings are being held in each ward to form a citizen patrol. A spark may incite the crowd to mob law.”

As it was a military trial, the appeal went up the chain of command to U.S. President Andrew Johnson,* who denied it. However, such a proceeding would not have been licit under the imminent (April 1866) U.S. Supreme Court holding in Ex Parte Milligan — which held that military courts cannot try civilians wherever civilian courts are open.

It is their youth, their boyishness, that leaps off the page in the accounts of their last hours — such as this from the Cleveland Daily Leader of January 29:

The four Heffernan [sic] murderers were hung to-day, at thirteen minutes past twelve o’clock. Their real names are James Knight, Thomas Perry, George Crab and James Lysaught. Two had been in the rebel army.

Yesterday several orthodox ministers called, conversed and prayed with the prisoners, who exhibited some emotion. Afterward, Father Begrath, of the Catholic Church, was with them. They all professed the Roman Catholic faith. Knight and Perry were baptised. The other two had been baptised in infancy. The prisoners had previously shown great hardihood, singing such pieces as “Bold Jack Dunaho” and “Bingen on the Rhine.” The past two days had tamed them down, but they were still stolid, frivolous and careless, joking about their doom.

This morning, Perry’s brother brought him clothing. The parting scene between them was heart-rending, Perry giving way to tears and sobs. Colonel Innis provided the others with clothing. Lysaught said, at first, that he didn’t want any pants, as those he had on were good as gold to hang in. Crab was asked to tell who shot Hefferman. He replied, “That is not a fair question; I’ll never tell that in this world.”

Father Begrath came about ten o’clock to attend them in their last moments. Lysaught said he felt as gay as a lay. He said he had been badly treated, else he would be with his parents now. Father Begrath read a touching letter from Lysaught’s parents to the Bishop, asking him to have James’ grave marked that some day they might take the body away. He was earnestly exhorted to repentance, but he remained almost stolid. Some one in the room having a looking-glass, he jumped up, exclaiming, “By golly, I must look at my face once more.” Then turning to Crab, he remarked, “Look at yours — it is your last chance.”

Crab replied, “It aint any use.” Lysaught asked, laughingly, “afraid you’ll break the glass?” when all four seemed much tickled. Crab having eased Lysaught’s handkerchief, the latter playfully snatched it away, saying, “let me smell it everlasting.” Then, turning to Crab, said, “you’re enough to make a monkey grin.”

Perry was asked if he feared to die. He replied “I don’t dread it a bit. It’s best to take it easy, it’s got to come.”

Crab indicted the following letter to Byron Heston, Oswego, New York:

George Crab, the boy who used to run on the packet with you, in 1861, is about to be hung. He requests to be remembered, kindly, to yourself and family.

Perry took his brother aside at parting, and advised him never to indulge in sinful, lazy ways, never to swear, and to let alone whisky, cards and bad houses, “for the like of this has brought me to the gallows. I want you to take my body home and let mother see me. I am sorry she did not see me before I was hung. Tell her to meet me in a better world, as I am prepared to die. God bless you! Good-bye!”

When the priest left them for a few moments they began to chat and joke about the ropes that would hang them, the feeling of contrition being evanescent.

An immense crowd, numbering fifteen thousand persons, were on the ground. At twenty minutes past eleven, the prisoners were brought to the gallows, which they mounted with a firm step, and stood gazing around for nineteen minutes, while the charges and specifications and sentence were read. Perry composedly leaned against one of the uprights, and surveyed the crowd. Crabb took hold of the noose before him, and viewed it with a comic look, testing its strength with his thumb, and rubbing his head against the rope.

Knight buttoned his coat, chewing his cud of tobacco violently and showing nervousness. As his arms were bound he quivered a moment. During the prayer he knelt, bowing his head and holding his handkerchief to his nose, which was bleeding. His last words were: “I have no hard feelings against any one. I am going to a better world.” Lysaught took a farewell chew of tobacco, saying “Pretty rough, ain’t it?” He asked forgiveness of all whom he had injured, adding, “I am glad we had time for repentance; I am glad we were removed from the jail to the Penitentiary. If I had stayed at the jail I would have starved to death.” Crab also asked forgiveness for his misdeeds, and thanked Mr. Johnson, keeper of the Penitentiary, for his kindness. Just before the drop fell, he shrugged his shoulders and exclaimed, “It’s kind o’ cold.” A chum called on him on the platform, and was affectionately kissed by Knight and Crab; as he went down the steps, the former called out, “Take warning by this.”

Just before the drop fell, Perry held out his hat and said, “Jim Johnson give my brother that.”

At thirteen minutes after 12 o’clock the rope was cut, and the four bodies fell with a heavy thump. Lysaught’s neck was broken. The knot slipped with Knight and Crab, who died with many struggles and convulsive writhings. Perry died by strangulation, but did not move much.

After hanging twenty minutes the bodies were cut down and placed in common pauper coffins.

An early attempt was made to erect whisky, candy and apple stands among the crowd of spectators, but the military promptly interfered.

The bearing of the condemned showed that they had agreed to brave it out. Their highest estimation of conduct on such occasions seems to have been to die game. They certainly met death with as little show of fear as it possible to imagine in youths not out of their teens.

* By coincidence, Johnson had been the military governor of Tennessee during the war.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Tennessee,U.S. Military,USA

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1861: Antonino Aberastain

Add comment January 12th, 2020 Headsman

Argentinian politician Antonino Aberastain was executed on this date in 1861, after the Battle of Rinconada del Pocito.

A polymath barrister from Buenos Aires, Aberastain was cursed to live his days amid the long and terrible civil wars — which pitted liberal centralizers (the Unitarian party) against conservative federalists. Aberastain belonged to the former faction.

After an interesting career that saw him by turns lawyer, judge, newsman, and national minister — and for most of the 1840s, exile abroad in Chile when a Federalist warlod chased him out — Aberastain in 1860 led a putsch that deposed and killed the Federalist governor of San Juan in November 1860.

The Federalist counterattack was settled in battle at a place called La Rinconada* on January 11, 1861, and the reader may well infer the outcome from the presence of the Unitarian commander on this site. The victorious Federal commander had him summarily executed the next day.

With the eventual settlement of hostilities, Aberastain settled in as a heroic Sanjuanino; this monument to him decorates a square that’s named for him in San Juan city.


(cc) image from EagLau.

* By coincidence, it had also been the site of a different Unitarian-Federalist battle in 1825.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Argentina,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Judges,Lawyers,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1863: Angel Vicente Peñaloza, “Chacho”

Add comment November 12th, 2019 Headsman

Angel Vicente Peñaloza — “Chacho” to friends and to history — was stabbed and shot to death on this date in 1863.

This caudillo was a casualty of Argentina’s long, long conflict between unitarians looking to centralize the state and federalists looking to hold power devolved to their own provinces. Chacho (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) stood in the latter camp.

A career officer from a prosperous ranching family, Peñaloza had become the caudillo of his native La Rioja province by the 1850s — meaning he was also its key military leader when unitarian-federalist hostilities turned kinetic from 1858.

His skirmishes with the unitarian president Bartolome Mitre saw Chacho hopelessly outgunned, but an attempt between the rivals to conclude a peace treaty turned sour over a prisoner exchange — whose quota Mitre allegedly met with corpses rather than living fighters. Chacho rose again, for the last time, in March 1863, writing angrily to Mitre that his

governors are become the executioners of the provinces … they banish and kill respectable citizens without trial solely because they belong to the federal party.

That is why, Mr. President, that the people, tired of a despotic and arbitrary domination, have proposed justice, and all men who have nothing to lose would rather sacrifice their existence on the battlefield, defending their liberties and their laws and their most precious interests trampled by vile perjurers.

It was just the invitation Mitre needed to crush him: Peñaloza’s several thousand followers were simply outlawed, giving soldiers and militia carte blanche to murder them at discretion. Captured at the village of Olta, he was summarily killed later that same day by the commander in the field and they didn’t stop there: Chacho’s head was nailed up in the town square, and his widow made to sweep the streets of San Juan, manacled in disgrace.

His doomed rebellion has seen him to a heroic posthumous reputation, buttressed by the verse homage of poet Olegario Victor Andrade. There’s also a rampant equestrian monument to the martir del pueblo near Olta.


(cc) image by masterrp.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Argentina,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Put to the Sword,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1866: The Richard Burgess gang, for the Maungatapu Murders

Add comment October 5th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1866, Nelson, New Zealand was marred for the first time by a gallows — which revenged in triplicate one of the most notorious crimes in New Zealand’s European settlement era.

The gang of toughs led by London-born transport convict Richard Burgess formed itself at the fringes of the early 1860s *gold rush in the South Island’s Central Orago wilderness. The gold strike was nicely timed to attract veterans of the California (USA) gold rush and the Victoria (Australia) gold rush, both of which were ten-plus years old and into their petering-out stages; in those places and many others where gold stirred men’s feet sticking up lucky prospectors was just a lucrative tertiary sector supported by all those the pickaxes, like boom town saloons and cathouses.

And Burgess was an old pro at rendering his peculiar “service”. He’d made his own way for some time robbing miners in Victoria, before he followed his market to Otago and attracted to his train fellow-desperadoes Thomas Kelly (aka Thomas Noon), Joseph Sullivan, and (an old associate from Aussie days) Philip Levy.

Along a stretch known as the Maungatapu track — at a spot now remembered as Murderers’ Rock — the quartet set up an ambush for a group of businessmen whom they learned were moving their money to a bank in Nelson. On June 12, a luckless passing laborer named James Battle passed their way and wound up strangled to death for his mischance. The next day, four businessmen appeared as expected and were all shot and strangled to death, yielding a total haul north of £300.

To their grief, the previously impecunious men were quite indiscreet about throwing their earnings around back in Nelson, and when a friend reported the victims’ party missing the Burgess group became suspect almost immediately. All were in custody within a week of the crime, even before the bodies were located — which only occurred on the 29th when Joseph Sullivan, seeing where the wind was blowing, made a full confession in exchange for clemency.* His statement was the death warrant for his former confederates.

In the account of the next day’s Nelson Examiner, Burgess died boldly and Levy, after favoring the audience in Nelson Gaol with an extended vindication of his innocence, did likewise. But Kelly was entirely unmanned by mounting the scaffold where

ensued a scene of the most painful nature, one which almost baffles description, but which, nevertheless, it is hardly possible to regard otherwise than as a consistent and appropriate finale to this most extraordinary tragedy … [Kelly] for some time resolutely refused to obey the directions of the officials, literally screaming and ejaculating in the most piteous tones, “Don’t do it yet, let me speak. I am forced, I am not hanged, but murdered.” And then, with an almost idiotic expression on his features, “God bless me, where am I? I ought to be allowed to speak.” … During this time the various ministers were engaged in whispering consolation to their respective charges, and the scene of confusion which Kelly’s violent conduct produced may be more easily imagined than described. The ropes were then placed round their necks and the white caps drawn over their faces, but during the whole time Kelly never ceased talking, or rather whining out, in a half broken voice, saying, “I did not write that name on the gun, Burgess did it. I hope I may go to God, and every one here.” …

Our readers may picture to themselves the distressing nature of this scene, which visibly affected every spectator present, and which seemed to increase in intensity every moment it was prolonged. Kelly’s shrill and discordant voice was still heard continually shrieking forth, in the most heartrending accents … Once Kelly attempted to move himself aside from the drop, but was immediately replaced by the officials in attendance.

Kelly kept on babbling as a minister began reading the Anglican Burial Service, and he was still at it when the trap was dropped. Perhaps due to his agitation on the scaffold, Kelly died hard the hard, requiring the help of the executioner’s rough grab on his legs to enhance the pressure of the noose. “The dead silence which followed on the consummation of the tragedy seemed almost a welcome relief,” the Examiner remarked.

After hanging, science and pseudoscience had their way with the bodies: doctors dissected the necks, it being “a matter of dispute amongst medical authorities whether death in such cases is caused by strangulation or by dislocation of the spinal column … it was satisfactorily proved that death has resulted in each case from strangulation, the spinal column being found to be perfect in each instance; thus setting this much vexed question at rest.” Meanwhile, the heads were removed altogether so that phrenologists could cast them.

Those casts are still in the possession of the Nelson Provincial Museum. An obelisk in memory of the five men they slew stands at Nelson’s Wakapuaka Cemetery.


(cc) image.

* Sullivan served seven years in prison, then was pardoned on condition that he remove himself permanently from both New Zealand and Australia, although he later violated that condition. His ultimate fate is uncertain but he’s known to have outlived the rest of his party by many decades.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Zealand,Outlaws,Pelf,Theft

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