1851: James Jones and Levi Harwood, but not Hiram Smith

Add comment April 15th, 2016 Headsman

For the April 15, 1851 hanging of James Jones (James Burbage was his actual name) and Levi Harwood, we crib from PlanetSlade’s collection of murder ballads. While this ballad amply narrates the murder committed in a home invasion, click through to PlanetSlade to find out about the third man who wasn’t hanged — the one who actually pulled the fatal trigger, but who saved himself by testifying for the crown to send his mates to the gallows.

Of all the crimes on Earth the worst,
Foul murder is of all accursed,
Assassins are by all abhorred,
Despised by men, condemned by God.

We are condemned and death is nigh,
And in two dismal cells we lie,
James Jones and Harwood: it is true,
We’ve murder done, no pity knew.

A minister of God we’ve slain,
For sake of gold, man’s curse and bane,
Poor Mr Hollest kind and good,
We left him weltering in his blood.

To Frimley Grove, ’twas there we went,
On robbing we were fully bent,
The rector’s house we soon broke in,
And then to plunder did begin.

With faces masked, disguised to all,
And pistols loaded well with ball,
Like vile assassins on we crept,
To where the good old couple slept.

But Mrs Hollest struggled brave,
And nobly fought their lives to save,
Undaunted, boldly bore her part,
A woman with a warrior’s heart.

Her husband had one ruffian down,
And held him firmly on the ground,
The coward wretch for help did call,
‘Twas then the other fired his ball.

Thy wound was fatal, good old man,
Thy blood in streams around it ran,
We both escaped while thou didst bleed,
And now we suffer for the deed.

How could we thus such monsters prove,
To murder those whom all did love?
To want thou didst assistance lend,
And ever was the poor man’s friend.

Widows weep thy loss: they mourn,
The only friend they had is gone,
And orphans’ tears they quickly fall,
For thou a father’s been to all.

And Mrs Hollest? She was kind,
Distress in her a friend did find,
Her sole delight it seemed to be,
To dry the tears of misery.

So we confess the crimes we’ve done,
Is there no hope on Earth? There’s none,
Grim death will drag us to the tomb,
A scaffold is the murderers’ doom.

On this day..

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1874: Christopher Rafferty, the first executed for killing a Chicago cop

2 comments February 27th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1874, Christopher Rafferty was hanged for the murder of Chicago Patrolman Patrick O’Meara, who was shot to death on August 4, 1872.

A fourteen­-year veteran of the force, O’Meara was not the first officer of the Chicago Police Department to die in the line of duty — but he appears to be the first whose death brought about a legal execution.

The murder went down like this: Rafferty, a bricklayer by trade and a bit of a hard case despite his youth (he was 25), had participated in a riot the week before the shooting. Rafferty and two other men, one of them his brother, were arrested and then released on bail. Rafferty swore he was innocent and claimed a man named Donovan would support his story, but Donovan refused to provide him with an alibi. To pay him back, Rafferty tracked Donovan down and beat him with a brick. Donovan staggered to the police station, reported the crime and swore out a warrant against his assailant.

At a little after midnight, when O’Meara and his partner, James Scanlan, tracked Rafferty down at Daniel O’Brien’s Saloon at Halsted Street and 35th Place, the thug seemed to be in a good mood and even offered O’Meara a cigar. He seemed to cooperate when the two officers told him they had to arrest him, but then bolted for the door while simultaneously pulling a gun from his pocket and firing at the two policemen, hitting O’Meara in the chest.

O’Meara collapsed and bled out on the saloon floor. His last words were, “Stay, Chris, don’t shoot.” But Rafferty shot again, barely missing Scanlan’s head. After a struggle with Scanlan, he escaped into the night.

Edward Burke and Thomas O’Gorman’s book End of Watch — Chicago Police Killed in the Line of Duty, 1853­-2006 noted,

[O’Meara’s] cold­blooded murder outraged Chicagoans. It was an atrocity further deepened by the fact that the killer had escaped. Local neighborhood folks took to the streets frantic with excitement following his murder, forming small posses that headed out to the prairie grass to hunt for the killer. Local police officials soon persuaded people to permit Chicago detectives to track Officer O’Meara’s murderer down themselves.

O’Meara

They caught him just a few hours later, walking in the fields on his way to Joliet. Rafferty was tried and convicted of the murder a month later, but his conviction was overturned twice on procedural grounds. His three separate trials and convictions are responsible for the long (for those days) wait between his arrest and his execution.

He met his death calmly and without a struggle, sleeping “as peacefully as a child” in the hours before his predawn hanging. His father was permitted to visit him shortly before the execution, and two priests accompanied him to the scaffold. His was the last public hanging in Lake County.

Just before he was hanged, Rafferty (or someone using his byline) penned the following ballad, which looks a shameless rip-off of one already floating about for the years-ago execution of James Rodgers*:

Come all you tender Christians, I hope you will draw near,
And likewise pay attention to a few lines I have here.
For the murder of O’Meara, I am condemned to die,
On the 28th** of February, all on the gallows high.

My name is Chris Rafferty, that name I never denied,
I left my aged parents in sorrow for to cry.
Oh little did they think in my youth and bloom
That I would come to Chicago to meet with my sad doom

My parents reared me tenderly as plainly you may see
Constantly good advice they always gave to me.
They told me: quit night­walking and shun bad company
Or State’s Prison or the gallows my doom would surely be.

Scanlan and O’Meara, they came in a saloon.
They said to me, “Chris Rafferty, we want you right soon.”
It was then I pulled that fatal pop and shot him through the heart
Which leaves a loving wife and husband for to part.

On the day of my trial it would pierce your heart to see
My companions and associates they were all standing by.
I bid them take a warning by my sad fate,
And to leave out their night­walking before it was too late.

O’Meara left behind a wife and five children. As for Rafferty’s family, the Chicago Tribune claimed they were left “in destitute circumstances: that the father is aged, the mother blind, the sister insane, the brother has fled, that the family were supported by the labor of the two sons, and, deprived of this, are now in distress.”

Killer and victim both rest in Calvary Cemetery.

* It must have been a hit, since the same ballad also got re-used for President James Garfield’s assassin.

** Despite what the verse says the execution was on the 27th, not the 28th.

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1891: Ed Leeper and James Powell

Add comment September 29th, 2015 Headsman

The Ballad of Leeper and Powell

Come all my friends and near relations;
Come and listen unto me.
I will sing about two men,
About two men that’s to be hung.

‘Twas on the eighteenth night of December,
In eighteen hundred ninety-five,*
‘Twas the night they did the murder
For which they had to give their lives.

One says, “Father and dear mother,
Won’t you both remember me,
When I’m dead and gone forever,
And my face no more you’ll see?”

“We were held long in this prison —
No one came to go our bail** —
God will aid and assist us
Now to break the Gatesville jail.”

And when started from that prison
And the guards surrounded them —
“I must die and I’m not guilty,”†
‘Twas the answer Jim made then.

Ed was tall and fair complected;
Jim was low and very neat.
They were pale and very silent,
And their lips did seem to meet.

One says, “Lord, oh, do have mercy
On those who swore my life away.”
They tied their wrists and their ankles,
Placed black caps upon their heads.

The trapdoor fell and left them hanging,
Between the earth and the sky.
It was for a dreadful murder
These two men were made to die.

They’s cut down, placed in their coffins,
Delivered over to their friends,
Who were there for that purpose,
To receive them at their end.

Come all young men, now take warning;
Live, oh, live a sober life.


(Via)

* The crime(s) for which Leeper and Powell hanged actually occurred on the evening of December 17, in 1889. Two armed outlaws waylaid some farmers returning to the country after they sold their cotton in Gatesville; a J.T. Mathis was mortally wounded in the resulting firefights, lingering until December 18 before he finally succumbed. (Another man named W.H.H. Harvey was wounded, but survived.)

** Actually, Ed Leeper’s mother was a prosperous Tennessee matron who spent liberally on her son’s defense; the men’s appeals, even challenging the legality of the entire Texas penal code, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — quite unusual for the time. But it is correct that they did not have bail: the enormity of the crime, and the fear of inviting a lynch mob, saw them behind bars and under heavy guard from the time of their arrest hours after the robbery.

This is not to say that Mrs. Leeper’s efforts were wholly without effect:

Newspaper article describing the death of a prosecuting attorney who was injured returning by train from Austin 'on the Leeper and Powell business'.
From the Dallas Morning News, September 30, 1891.

† Since the attack took place under cover of darkness, nobody could positively identify the assailants. Leeper and Powell, well-known local ruffians, were suspected at once and the suspicion appeared circumstantially supported.

Both men did continue to assert their innocence on the scaffold: “I die innocent and I die game for the crime of some one else,” in Powell’s words. (Dallas Morning News, September 30, 1891)

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1875: Richard Coates, gunner and rapist

Add comment March 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1875, artilleryman Richard Coates (or “Coote”) was hanged for murder.

He’d been detailed as a schoolteacher for the Purfleet garrison. One day deep into his cups, he raped a 6-year-old* girl. And then killed her by bashing her head into a privy.

The “Purfleet Murder” got all kinds of copy on the Victorian crime wire, for the crime was very simple and simply horrendous. After he had done with his victim, Coates tucked her broken body under his greatcoat like a shoplifter and smuggled her down to the river to dispose of.

Adding humiliation to the greater sins of the day, he was unable there to get the body up over the palings, so he abandoned it inside the fence. Presumably no veteran hand at homicide, Coates appeared palpably agitated to basically everyone else who saw him that day, and his clothes turned up bloodstained. He was an easy suspect to collar.


To the tune of Civil War hymn “Just Before the Battle, Mother” by George F. Root.

Richard Coates, that cruel murderer,
Now is cold within his grave,
None could show him any pity,
None stretch for a hand to save;
His horrid crime was so unmanly,
I’m sure we no excuse could give,
He did disgrace our gallant soldiers,
And he was not fit to live.


CHORUS

Richard Coates, the Purfleet murderer,
On Easter Monday met his doom;
He killed the soldier’s little daughter,
Now he’s dead and in his tomb.

For the murder of poor Alice Bougham
He justly was condemned to die,
For a murder so outrageous,
The country for his death did cry;
You never heard or ever read of
Such treatment to a little child,
Altho’ so innocent and so loving,
Cruelly murdered and defiled.

A full confession of the murder
To the champlain he has made,
He has told the truth to those around him,
For which his poor old mother prayed;
He took his victim to the closet,
Frightful was his conduct there,
He took her life in a cruel manner,
Before his death he did declare.

He tried to throw his victim’s body
Over the pailings in the sea,
The fence was high, he could not do it,
It was ordained it should not be;
Could he have thrown her in the water,
And the tide have carried her away,
The murder of the soldier’s daughter
Would not have been found out to-day.

He might have done well in the army,
In the barracks he was born,
Alas! he has disgraced his father,
Who the uniform has worn;
Heaven help his poor old mother,
She has been a true good soldier’s wife,
She would sooner have seen him shot in action,
Than in such a way to lose his life.

Then let us all now take a warning
By his sad and fearful end,
Don’t give way to unholy passion,
Nor against the laws offend;
Try to be honest and be sober,
I’m sure you’ll find it is the best,
In the world let’s do our duty,
As we hope in heaven to rest.


[audio:Driven_From_Home.mp3]

This one is set to “Driven From Home” by William Shakespeare Hays.

Upon Easter Monday within Chelmsford gaol,
A murderer, when dying, his crime doth bewail,
Upon the dark scaffold he drew his last breath,
The penalty of murder he paid with his death;
Richard Coates was his name, by Sata beguiled,
He outraged so cruel a dear little child,
And all through the country it has been the cry,
His sentence was just, he deserved to die.


CHORUS

Gone from this life, gone from this world,
By the hands of the hangman to Eternity hurled,
May heaven forgive him, is all we can say,
As we hope for forgiveness on our dying day.

There never was known such a cowardly crime,
That we are relating at this present time;
It is dreadful to think there could be a man,
Who in his senses this murder could plan.
He pleaded “not guilty” almost to the last,
Till he saw all the chance of forgiveness was past;
His poor moter begg’d him the truth to unfold,
And confess to his crime for the sake of his soul.

He took the poor child to the coset, he said,
Innocent and smiling to her death she was led.
He murdered her there at the bottom of the field,
And beneath his great coat her dead body conceal’d,
He went to the edge of the wide rolling sea,
To throw the child in but it was not to be,
Tho’ time after time the villain did try,
He could not reach over the pailings so high.

When he found that his crime he could not conceal,
He left the child’s body ‘neath the grass in the field,
Where the dear little angel soon after was found,
By those who so long had been searching around.
They seized him and ask’d him the crime to explain,
He cried “I’m not guilty” again and again;
They could not believe him in spite of denial,
They sent him to saol to wait for his trial.

As he walked from the cell through the sweet morning air,
At the end of the prison the gallows was there;
‘Twas the last time he’d gaze on that beatiful sky,
As he walked to the spot where he knew he must die.
The hangman was ready, deep sounded the bell,
‘Twas scarcely a moment before the drop fell!
The murderer, Coates, from the world was torn,
His body was there, but his dear life was gone.

May his fate be a warning to both old and young,
May it be an example to everyone,
From the straight path of duty never to stray,
Or we shall regret it on our dying day.
The murderer now is gone from this world,
By his own folly to destruction is hurled,
Then pray let us all to this warning attend,
And may heaven preserve us from his fearful den.


According to Flat Earth: History of an Infamous Idea, Coates’s condemnation was immediately followed — in the same courtroom, before the same judge — by the tragicomc libel trial of nutbar flat-earther John Hampden for his ongoing campaign to savage the reputation of Alfred Russel Wallace.**

The bombastic Hampden — who denounced “that Satanic device of a round and revolving globe, which sets Scripture, reason, and facts at defiance” and actually wrote Wallace’s wife wishing that her hubbie would have “every bone in his head smashed to a pulp” — would have been right at home with the Coates ballad that vengefully prayed,

While the spotless soul of little Alice,
Is taken to a better land
May perdition light upon the monster,
Who has disgraced the name of man.

* Reports of age differ, but Alice Boughen was definitely a prepubescent youngster well under the age of 10.

** Wallace is the guy whose collegial letters to Darwin mooting Wallace’s own ideas about natural selection led the previously reticent Darwin to rush into publication with On the Origin of Species.

Part of the Daily Double: Victorian Soldiery.

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1878: The Brassell boys

Add comment March 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1878, Joe and Teek* Brassell were hanged in Cookeville, Tennessee.

These brothers (their eldest sibling Jim Brassell wisely bowed out of the scheme) and two other buddies got into the whiskey moonshine from the Brassells’ own home still, and decided to knock over a nearby lodging where two guests thought to be heavy with cash were staying.

So the quartet blacked up faces and turned clothes inside out by way of disguise and around midnight tromped up to the Allison Stand Inn wielding pistols.

“Don’t worry!” Russell Allison called to his guests, recognizing his onetime schoolmates. “It’s the Brassell boys!”

Great disguise.

Nothing daunted by their identities outed, the moonshine party invaded the log residence. A bedroom melee ensued, and in the course of it Teek Russell shot Russell Allison fatally in the gut; another shot only narrowly missed Mrs. Isbell, the wife of the tax collector W.J. Isbell whom the party was trying to target in the first place.** Isbell wasn’t there at all, and the whole band fled the house not a penny richer, but about to be wanted men.

The next day as Allison lay expiring from his painful wound, the Allison family rounded up its own posse and descended on the Brassell residence. Again, Teek gut-shot an Allison — Russell’s brother Joe — and killed him, too. But the rest of the posse detained the desperados and they were soon hailed to Cookeville Jail. The murder became extremely notorious in the area and the Brassells boys were easily condemned, albeit after nearly two years’ worth of legal continuances.†

We’ve liberally included these youths in our arsenic themed set. Of course, these young men worked their mayhem with firearms and not philters, but in a sense their case underscores the ubiquity of that poison for 19th century crime. Desperate to escape, even the brutally direct Brassell boys turned like dissatisfied housewives and furtive insurance adjusters to inheritance powder: in their case, they managed to have some smuggled to them in jail, which they planned to insinuate into some apples they would share with their guards while being moved between Nashville and Cookville.

As it transpired, the guards caught wind of this scheme and foiled it, along with several other jailbreak attempts. But that was the great thing about that innocuous dust: everywhere someone would profit from some other fellow dropping unexpectedly dead, the first thought was invariably arsenic!

Frustrated of this and all other exits from their grim condition, the Brassell boys at last had to face the hemp. It would be the only judicial hanging in the history of Putnam County, Tennessee, and it would not want for ceremony. The execution itself occurred on a Wednesday; on the Sabbath preceding, the local Sunday school’s curriculum included (pdf) a visit to the condemned cells, where prisoners and children sang “Let us cross over the river”.

On hanging-day itself, the boys were up early for press interviews in the jailhouse. Shortly after 11 a.m., they piled into a wagon, grabbed seats on their own coffins, and were taken under guard to the double gallows specially built for them on Billy Goat Hill. Their sister Amanda trailed the wagon, but after a farewell hug she complied with Joe and Teek’s request to leave without seeing them hang.

Amanda had plenty of time to comply. The hanging wasn’t until 1:30!

The Brassells passed their last two hours or so of life on the scaffold. As they sat under their hanging-nooses, a crowd of thousands — some estimates put it as high as 20,000; old folks in the early 20th century would still say that it was the largest crowd Cookeville had ever seen — imbibed a series of preachers and religious songs, the warnings of the condemned duo themselves, and a scene where their intended target Mr. Isbell climbed up on the platform himself and pressed the two for a confession. Joe admitted his guilt. Teek refused until the very end to do so.‡ To cap off the drama, the sheriff, hatchet in hand to chop the fatal rope, counted down the last five minutes.

It seems this whole event, from the murder to the hanging, still survives in Cookeville folklore. There’s a lengthy ballad about the Brassell boys’ crime and execution, available here (pdf). Also see this fantastically detailed web page about the crime, including a blurry restored photograph of the hanging, and this pdf roundup.

A fragment of the Brassell boys’ joint headstone can still be seen at a family plot adjacent to Upperman High School in the small town of Baxter, just outside Cookeville.

* Teek had “George Andrew” on his birth certificate.

** William Jefferson Isbell was a tax collector carrying his proceeds; he had fallen ill that day and had to stop elsewhere. The Isbells and Allisons were related through marriage.

† “Justice, when most severe to him who has offended, is always most merciful to him who would offend,” the Supreme Court most severely ruled — admonishing the young men not to entertain any hope of reprieve. (Quoted in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 28, 1878)

‡ Teek’s obstinacy on claiming innocence when the evidence against him seemed so overwhelming led to some later speculation that he might have semi-willingly taken the rap for a different Brassell — maybe Jim, the one who supposedly bowed out of the raid, or maybe even Amanda.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1812: William Booth, forger

1 comment August 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1812, William Booth was hanged at Stafford for counterfeiting.

Booth might have murdered his brother John, who was found beaten to death in a Warwickshire stable in 1808. He defeated that charge for want of evidence.

But he would not be two times lucky before the bar.

As a “farmer” living on 200 acres, he enjoyed the privacy to build his own mint, complete with forged royal stamps for churning out banknotes — more than enough cause to hang a man should he be caught, which Booth was. He was a difficult fellow to arrest, the Bury and Norwich Post reported (Aug. 19, 1812), because his farmhouse turned out to be “a little fort, full of trap-doors, and barred and bolted like a bastile.”

Booth’s engineering acumen might have come in handy for his executioners. As a broadside notes, the gallows Booth

ascended with a firm and steady step, but turned his back upon the populace almost immediately; after some time spent in prayer, the rope was adjusted, and a signal being given by the malefactor, (throwing his handkerchief from him that he was ready to submit to his fate,) the drop sunk, when, shocking to relate, by the cord slipping from the fatal tree, the unfortunate man fell from the top of the gallows upon the platform, a distance of eight or ten feet, where he remained motionless and insensible for some minutes.

The stunned prisoner was gradually revived, and redoubled his pieties. The fall must have rendered the noose unusable, because for some reason a delay ensued sufficient to stretch out the proceedings to two full hours, all of which Booth spent in the shadow of the gallows. Even when they finally had him trussed up and ready to hang again, they needed a do-over: Booth once more dropped his handkerchief, but the drop embarrassingly failed to dislodge. Booth, who had twice prepared himself to walk to the brink of death only to twice survive, asked for his handkerchief back once the apparatus had been fixed so that he could re-drop it.

Having faced two capital trials, and two executions, Booth couldn’t even get buried right on the first time. Apparently a re-drawing of the county line required his remains to be exhumed and re-interred, giving rise to a ballad, “Twice Tried, Twice Hung, Twice Buried”.

(Although this version proposes twice hanged and once drowned: suffice to say, Booth lived an interesting death.)

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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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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1833: Frankie Silver, Morganton legend

8 comments July 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1833, a young woman named Frankie Silver was hanged in Morganton, North Carolina for murdering her husband Charles.

The cover of Perry Deane Young’s book (available at Amazon.com) shows actress Amanda Ladd in the title role of Young’s play Frankie. Young can be contacted at www.perrydeaneyoung.com or by e-mail at pyoung3@bellsouth.net

Silver is a staple of North Carolina folklore, supposed to have assassinated her spouse in a jealous rage and checked out singing her confession from the gallows.

But the reality, as best one can discern from the distance of time, is quite a bit murkier; indeed, quite a bit more dark and dramatic.

Executed Today is honored to mark the occasion by interviewing author Perry Deane Young.

Young’s acclaimed The Untold Story of Frankie Silver: Was She Unjustly Hanged? debunks many of the fables surrounding this old time true crime.

ET: Just by way of orientation, what’s the baseline legend of Frankie Silver that Appalachian children learn? And how exactly did this particular hanging come to be so richly preserved in ballads and folklore and the like?

PDY: The legend is that this true story was the basis for the black blues song, Frankie and Johnny.

Frankie killed her man out of revenge cause he done her wrong. The legend is that she was the first — or only white — woman ever hanged in North Carolina, that she sang a confession from the scaffold. This was the story I heard as a child; only later would I learn that none of this was based on facts.

Most historians now think the song, Frankie and Johnny, was based on a murder in St. Louis, although several folklore collections published in the 20th century say it was based on Frankie and Charlie Silver.

What is it that drew you to this case in the first place?

Most people’s mothers tell them stories about Winnie the Pooh and, oh my, Tigger the tiger. My mother told me about a woman who cut her husband’s head off with an axe and burned his body in the fireplace.

As a writer, I’ve always been grateful for that.

Your book makes the case that she was wrongly executed, and not only that — but that “the true story, the facts … are even more interesting than the story as it has been passed down by so many ballad singers, folklore specialists, storytellers and newspaper columnists”. What’s the most important misconception people have about Frankie Silver? What surprises you most about the story?

There are many misconceptions, starting with the murder itself. There is ample evidence from the time to prove that her husband was loading his gun to kill Frankie and she picked up the axe to defend herself.

She did not sneak up on him as he lay sleeping; she killed in self defense.

She was not the first or only woman ever hanged in North Carolina, she was one of at least 15.

She did not read or sing a confession from the scaffold.

A young school teacher plagiarized a Kentucky ballad, “Beacham’s Lament,” had it printed and handed out at the hanging. It is this ballad, in which Frankie laments her guilt, that has come down as factual. However, when I was a college student, I came across 17 different letters and petitions to the governor asking for a pardon for Frankie. In these documents, it is clearly spelled out that Charlie Silver was a drunk, abusive husband and Frankie killed him in self-defense.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course … but it doesn’t seem to require hindsight to think that her lawyer would have been expected to introduce evidence of domestic violence even if that wasn’t the main thrust of his defense. Would it also have seemed that way to the reasonable barrister in the 1830s, or was there good reason for him to avoid it? Can we say that she was hanged for poor lawyering?

The late Sen. Sam Ervin was, like me, a great believer in Frankie’s innocence. A letter he wrote me explaining why is reproduced in the new edition of my book. He explained to me that at the time she was tried, the accused was deemed an incompetent witness and could not take the stand in her own defense. The law was changed in North Carolina in 1859 so that, as now, you can choose to defend yourself but you still cannot be compelled to testify against yourself.

Frankie’s lawyer, perhaps at the insistence of Frankie’s father, pleaded innocence. In other words, he could not introduce evidence of extenuating circumstances such as spousal abuse if he was saying she didn’t do it in the first place. In the book, I note that a man named Reuben Southard beat his wife to death that same year in the same county and got off with court costs. In one of the petitions, Frankie’s neighbors assert that it has often happened that a man murdered his wife with no legal consequences. In an article for his local newspaper, Ervin blamed Frankie’s lawyer for the outcome of the trial, not realizing that her lawyer was his own great great uncle.

Over the longer arc, it’s surprising to me that the claim by a woman who killed her husband that he was an abusive spouse — especially if that claim attracted a lot of support at the time — would go underground in the historical recollection of the case. In its essentials, this is one of the stock templates we have for thinking about a domestic crime. What happened in Morganton, and with the families’ descendants, over the years to shape the popular memory of the event? And does it suggest any larger lessons to you about the way we construct our histories?

The explanation is quite simple. All that survived over the years was this ridiculous “ballad,” in which Frankie confessed her guilt. She had nothing to do with that ballad.

Fayetteville Observer, July 30, 1833

But, in fact, she did write out a confession.

The confession itself has never been found but we know from other sources that it explained that she killed in self defense. The documents that detailed Charlie’s abuse and other details about the case remained hidden in the governors’ papers in the North Carolina Archives until I discovered them in 1963 when I was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 2001, Frankie was finally allowed to have her say in a play which I wrote with William Gregg and which was produced by the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre in August 2001.

In the play, a minister who is working to save Frankie from the gallows, overhears a young man singing the silly ballad. He is asked if a hundred years from now people will still be singing that ballad, not knowing what really happened. He answers: “People would rather believe a simple lie than a difficult truth.”

Compounding the historical image of Frankie has been the fact that her family was ashamed of having a convicted murderer in their midst. It was Charlie’s family that became the keeper of the legend and all its misconceptions. The Silvers kept alive the fake ballad “confession” and did everything they could to preserve the image of Charlie as a faithful husband who was killed by a spiteful wife.

Do you find that here in 2012, there are still people whose oxen are gored if your research contradicts their own version of the story — especially if you present Charlie as a violent husband?

You betcha! The Silvers to this day are rather vehement in defense of their Charlie.

It was a historic moment when I was invited to speak in the old church house near the murder scene for the Silver family reunion. In the basement of the church, they have created an extraordinary archive on the murder story and the family in general.

By this time, they have accepted that Charlie may not have been the innocent victim they’ve been told about. Many in the family are serious about their historical researches and want to know the facts. However, a contemporary Charlie Silver also said, “I just wish people would stop talking about it.”

You’re working on a program for Discovery channel’s “Deadly Women”. Does it hold any new revelations about this intriguing historical case?

The chief revelation came to me after being questioned by a very bright young woman named Colette Sandstedt for the program. She had done her homework exceedingly well. By the time we had gone over all the historical evidence I had collected over the past 50 years, I was ready for her last question: “What is the most shocking aspect of this case to you?”

I answered: “The most shocking aspect of the case is the way this poor woman has been misrepresented for almost 200 years.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Interviews,Murder,North Carolina,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Public Executions,USA,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1719: Mary Hamilton, lady in waiting

1 comment March 14th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1719, Mary (Marie) Hamilton, lady-in-waiting upon the tsaritsa Catherine I, was beheaded in St. Petersburg for infanticide.

A frightened Mary Hamilton contemplates her imminent execution in this 1904 painting by Pavel Svedomsky.

Lady Hamilton — her Scottish family had emigrated generations earlier — did not like to wait on her libido.

She could tell you if Peter the Great deserved his nickname, and dish on any number of other courtiers, nobles, and hangers-on.

This pleasing sport, of course, assumes with it the risks imposed by an equally impatient biology. Hamilton’s gallantries two or three times quickened her womb.

Her decision to dispose of these unwanted descendants in the expedient way — once by abortion, and again by infanticide — was done on the sly (voluminous court gowns helped) but surely also with no expectation of such a severe sanction in the unlikely event of detection.

But according to Eve Levin,* Russia’s longtime slap-on-the-wrist policy for infanticide was changing, and beginning “to distinguish between a woman who killed her child to hide illicit sexual conduct, and a woman who killed her child because she was too poor to care for it. In the first instance, the killing of the child reflected selfish behavior and was considered to be murder.”

Mary Hamilton was obviously not too poor to raise children.

In 1717, an unrelated investigation of another of Hamilton’s lovers led him to accuse the libertine lady-in-waiting of practicing post-natal birth control, which Mary admitted to,** certainly expecting her mistress the queen and her paramour the king to look forward, not back.

Peter, the towering and intense “learned druzhina” with his eye fixed on the West and a modernity that Russia lagged behind, was a liberal man in many respects. But he remained eminently capable of ruthlessness in service of an idea. This affair played out, after all, in his brand-new capital St. Petersburg, built on the bones of thousands peasants who threw up the city over swampland at Peter’s command. In 1718, he’d had his own son knouted to death.

Apparently infanticide was one of those ideas.

After all, executing women for infanticide was happening where the Hamiltons had come from. And it would still be good enough for late 18th century Enlightenment philosophers.

On the day of the execution, the prisoner appeared on the scaffold in a white silk gown trimmed with black ribbons. Peter climbed the structure to stand beside her and spoke quietly into her ear. The condemned woman and most of the spectators assumed that this would be her last-minute reprieve. Instead, the Tsar gave her a kiss and said sadly, “I cannot violate the laws to save your life. Support your punishment with courage, and, in the hope that God may forgive you your sins, address your prayers to him with a heart full of faith and contrition.” Miss Hamilton knelt and prayed, the Tsar turned away and the headsman struck.

Then, the bystanding tsar picked up the severed head that had once shared his pillow and discoursed to the multitude on its anatomical features — another idea imported from the West. That strange tsar afterward had the disembodied dome preserved in a jar until Catherine the Great ran across it and (after remarking that the woman’s youthful beauty had been preserved this half-century) had it decently buried.

Something else of Mary Hamilton outlasted her pickled cranium, however.

In one of those unaccountable twists of history, Hamilton maybe became conflated with the “four Marys”, Ladies-in-Waiting of Mary, Queen of Scots — and the story seemingly became translated backwards into this altogether different time and place. This is a much-disputed hypothesis† but for purposes of a blog post is well worth the noticing, while resigning to wiser heads the literary forensics at stake.

There was no “Mary Hamilton” among the Queen of Scots’s attendants, but in at least some of the many different versions of this ballad that survive, a person of this name is held to have become the lover of the king (“the highest Stuart,” in this case) and been put to death for killing her illegitimate child.‡ It is, at the very least, rather difficult to miss the parallel.

O little did my mother ken,
The day she cradled me,
The lands I was to travel in,
Or the dog’s death I wad d’ee!

Variants of this ballad remain popular to this day.

* “Infanticide in Pre-Petrine Russia,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Neue Folge, Bd. 34, H. 2 (1986).

** She had also pilfered some effects from the Queen.

† Dissenting opinions on identifying the “Mary Hamilton” of the ballad with our Mary Hamilton can be read here and here.

Presumed basis for the conflation: an actual 1563 infanticide scandal featuring the illicit offspring of Mary’s apothecary and “a Frenchwoman that served in the Queen’s bedchamber.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Russia,Women

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1612: John Selman, Christmas cutpurse

Add comment January 7th, 2012 Headsman

400th death-day congratulations go to John Selman, a brass-balled nimblefingers who was hanged on this date in 1612 for stealing … at Whitehall … on Christmas … in the presence of the king. And, Selman himself added in his scaffold confessional, “in the time of divine Service, and the celebration of the Sacred Communion.” That’s like hitting for Stuart England’s malefaction cycle.

This common thief had tried to blend among the ermine-clad set at church with a black-velvet cloak getup, but drawn enough suspicion to be nabbed with a 40-shilling purse he’d brazenly boosted from a nobleman‘s retainer.

Francis Bacon, one of Selman’s judges, affected a suitably hyperbolic indignation at the effrontery of it all: “The first and greatest sinne that ever was committed was done in Heaven. The second was done in Paadise, being Heaven upon Earth, and truly I cannot chuse but place this in the third ranke.” Tens of thousands of human beings in the judge’s immediate ambit — England, Europe — had been slaughtering one another to the glory of God for the past century when Bacon said that. He’d surely give Nancy Grace a run for her money.

Then as now crime moved copy, and if the realm’s lord magistrates were ready to measure this guy up against Beelzebub, one can readily imagine the woodblock tweets he sent a-flying among the hoi polloi. Selman’s audacious escapade relieved his last days’ dread with the gift of celebrity. Writers scrambled to churn out Selman-tinged copy, like these inevitable ballads.

With hands and eyes to heaven,
all did in reverence stand:
While I in mischife used mine eye,
and my accursed hand,
Now was my mischiefe ripe.
my villanyes full growne,
And now the God in secret knew it.
did make it open knowne.

Hopefully God got a cut of the action from these writers. Talk about a Christmas gift for a scribe.

No less a personage than Ben Jonson hastily wrote Selman into his Twelfth Night masque Love Restored as “the Christmas Cutpurse”: this debuted the same night the real Selman made his last peace with God and man awaiting the next day’s hanging on the road to Charing Cross. (After all this Christmas reverence, they piously held off on the hanging until the full twelve days of Christmas had elapsed.)

Selman’s 15 minutes apparently took years to run, because Jonson went back to the same inspiration for 1614’s Bartholomew Fair — perhaps basing the character of Ezekiel Edgworth on Selman.

At playes and at sermons and at the Sessions,
‘Tis daily their practice such booty to make;
Yea under the gallows, at executions,
They stick not the stare-abouts’ purses to take;
Nay, one without grace, at a better place,
At Court, and in Christmas, before the Kings face.
Alack then for pitty! must I bear the curse,
That only belongs to the cunning Cut-purse?
Youth, youth you hadst better been starv’d by thy nurse,
Than live to be hang’d for cutting as purse.

“A Caveat for Cutpurses” from Bartholomew Fair

Jonson sure got that right: under Selman’s own gallows-tree this day, “one of his quality (a picke-pocket I meane) even at his execution, grew master of a true mans purse, who being presently taken, was imprisoned, and is like the next sessions to wander the long voiage after his grand Captaine Mounsier Iohn Selman.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Scandal,Theft

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