1935: Thomasina Sarao, miscalculated

5 comments March 29th, 2010 Headsman

Shortly after midnight this date* in 1935, the career of 71-year-old Canadian executioner Arthur Ellis came to an end with the botched hanging of Thomasina Sarao.

All a simple matter of physics.

When the old-school “drop ’em from a cart” method of strangulation hanging gave way to the “new drop”, the hangman’s art eventually came to encompass the scientific application of the humane level of force to the doomed person’s vertebrae.

Something in the neighborhood of 1,000 ft/lbs was about right. Too little, and the poor wretch strangles to death. Too much, and you rip the head right off.

Thomasina Sarao got too much, and it ripped her head right off.

They’d worked everything out to a handy table, see, where if you weighed this much, they knew to drop you this far, derived from the formula

1020/weight in pounds (less 14 lbs for the head) = drop in feet

Except in the widow Mrs. Sarao’s case — the Italian immigrant had offed her husband to collect the insurance** — Arthur Ellis was given the wrong weight for his client. He coiled a noose for a woman 32 pounds lighter than the person who actually mounted the scaffold, and he therefore made it more than a foot too long.

That whole “ripping off a woman’s head” thing really harshed everyone’s vibe. So, although hangings had long been moved behind prison walls, the Canadian government stopped the ongoing practice of allowing members of the general public to obtain tickets to witness them.

“Arthur Ellis” — it was actually a trade name he’d made up, and so dignified that one of his successors used the same alias — died three years after his grisly retirement party. He’s saluted by the Arthur Ellis Awards, the Crime Writers of Canada’s annual awards: a little trophy of a guy getting hanged.

[Ellis Trophy][Ellis Trophy]
Winners of the Arthur Ellis Award, like Robert J. Sawyer, get this trinket to commemorate. At least the little wooden fetish has his head attached to his shoulders. (Images (c) Robert J. Sawyer, and used with permission.)

* March 28 is sometimes reported, but the period press reports (like this wire story) seem to agree on the 29th, as does this index of Canadian executions.

** Two male co-conspirators, Leone Gagliardi and Angelo Donofrio, were also hanged for the same crime, a few minutes before Sarao on a different scaffold.

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2004: Dhananjoy Chatterjee, the last hanged in India … for now

10 comments August 14th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 2004, Dhananjoy Chatterjee hanged at Calcutta’s Alipore Central Jail for the 1990 rape-murder of 14-year-old Hetal Parekh.

Chatterjee’s hanging also brought into the limelight the garrulous, publicity-hounding 84-year-old executioner Nata Mallick, who conducted the hanging with his son and grandson and told anyone with a microphone stories of the hangman’s glory days.

Those days are long past on the subcontinent.

Among death penalty countries, India is the anti-Singapore: despite its billion-plus population, death sentences are vanishingly rare. Chatterjee is not only the most recent person hanged in India as of this writing, but the only one hanged there since 1995.

One actual hanging in fourteen years for a billion-person country? The only lower execution rate would be actual abolition.

Chatterjee may be relieved of his milestone distinctions in the not-too-distant future, however. (Where “not-too-distant” by the standards of the Indian death penalty might still mean years away.)

Mohammad Afzal, condemned for the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, has become a political lightning rod; India’s conservative Hindu party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made political hay pushing for Afzal’s execution.

Update: A different Pakistani terrorist, Ajmal Kasab, became the next hanged after Chatterjee in 2012. Afzal Guru got his in February 2013.

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1795: Unspecified Robespierrists

2 comments January 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1795, a Balzac story La Comedie humaine reaches its climax as the tumbrils of the Thermidorian Reaction wind their way to the scaffold.

In “An Episode Under the Terror”, a mysterious man appears to a priest in hiding and prevails upon him to say a secret mass for the recently executed Louis XVI.

It transpires in an exchange between the two that the stranger’s own conscience is somehow troubled.

“Remember, my son, [said the abbe] that it is not enough to have taken no active part in the great crime; that fact does not absolve you. The men who might have defended the King and left their swords in their scabbards, will have a very heavy account to render to the King of Heaven — Ah! yes,” he added, with an eloquent shake of the head, “heavy indeed! — for by doing nothing they became accomplices in the awful wickedness—-”

“But do you think that an indirect participation will be punished?” the stranger asked with a bewildered look. “There is the private soldier commanded to fall into line — is he actually responsible?”

We have no more answer in the text than we have in life.

Spoiler (That You Saw Coming) Alert

The stranger returns on the anniversary of the king’s martyrdom, but he remains enigmatic, until the abbe is caught up in a crowd watching the procession to the guillotine.

“What is the matter?” [the abbe] asked Madame Ragon.

“Nothing,” she said; “it is only the tumbril cart and the executioner going to the Place Louis XV. Ah! we used to see it often enough last year; but to-day, four days after the anniversary of the twenty-first of January, one does not feel sorry to see the ghastly procession.”

“Why not?” asked the abbe. “That is not said like a Christian.”

“Eh! but it is the execution of Robespierre‘s accomplices. They defended themselves as long as they could, but now it is their turn to go where they sent so many innocent people.”

The crowd poured by like a flood. The abbe, yielding to an impulse of curiosity, looked up above the heads, and there in the tumbril stood the man who had heard mass in the garret three days ago.

“Who is it?” he asked; “who is the man with—-”

“That is the headsman,” answered M. Ragon.

Meaning (though unnamed as such by Balzac), the phenomenally prolific Sanson.

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1950: James Corbitt, the hangman’s mate

18 comments November 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1950, famed British executioner Albert Pierrepoint carried out his most difficult assignment: hanging his friend.

Though not literally the Isles’ last hangman, Pierrepoint is the last one everyone thinks of, the man who defined the hangman’s job for the 20th century.

Discreet, orderly, and as quiet as he was efficient,* he was the brand-name executioner for stiff-upper-lip England of the waning empire, with over 400** hangings to his name from 1932 until he resigned over a fee dispute in 1956.

Despite his proper avoidance of the spotlight, Pierrepoint’s excellence at his craft would make him a celebrity — especially after the press fixated on his role hanging Nazi war criminals after World War II. The ready-made morality play upon the scaffold boards could hardly be resisted: the English grocer, meting out a dignified and precise measure of justice to the likes of the Beast of Belsen.

Hanging Around

Pierrepoint’s characteristic client wasn’t a war criminal, but a humdrum British murderer, only a handful of which attract especial remembrance today.

Still, in the immediate postwar years, the growing reach of the mass media and burgeoning public controversy over the death penalty would frequently put Pierrepoint in the middle of the era’s highest-profile hangings, including:

Tish and Tosh

Like as not, this day’s affair hit the sturdy hangman harder than any of those.

James Henry Corbitt was a regular at “Help the Poor Struggler”, the piquantly named Oldham pub Pierrepoint bought and managed after World War II. Known as “Tish” to Pierrepont’s “Tosh,” the two had sung a duet of “Danny Boy” on the night that Corbitt went out and murdered his girlfriend in a jealous rage.

Corbitt was not exceptional as a criminal, and he was indisputably guilty; we wouldn’t notice him if not for his acquaintance with the man who put him to death.

But Pierrepoint would remember this one well, as he later wrote in his his autobiography:

I thought if any man had a deterrent to murder poised before him, it was this troubadour whom I called Tish. He was not only aware of the rope, he had the man who handled it beside him singing a duet. The deterrent did not work.

Remarkably, the most prolific executioner in British history had come out against the death penalty, or so it seemed. (He later backed away from a strong anti-death penalty position, though without retracting his original reservations. The death penalty had been a decade off the books by this point, in any case.)

It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men and grandmothers.

I have been amazed to see the courage with which they walk into the unknown.

It did not deter them then and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder. And if death does not work to deter one person, it should not be held to deter any … capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.

It’s an open question how much Tish’s hanging this day really contributed to Pierrepoint’s retirement six years later or his apparent change of stance on his trade. But it provides the gut-wrenching dramatic pivot for the film Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman.

Interestingly, while the hangman saw in Corbitt’s fate a troubling indictment of the death penalty, the hanged man’s son to this day still says dad deserved to die.

More on Albert Pierrepoint

For a man so ubiquitously present in the mid-century experience of Great Britain, and who undertook such a dramatic volte-face, it’s no surprise that Pierrepoint has attracted plenty of attention — including this website, and a number of books.

Also of possible interest: Hangmen of England: History of Execution from Jack Ketch to Albert Pierrepoint (we’ve met Jack Ketch here before). More dry factual data about Pierrepoint, the father and uncle who preceded him in the post, and other recent practitioners in Britain’s colorful line of executioners is here.

* The English practice was for Pierrepoint to pinion the prisoner’s arms in the condemned cell, escort him a few steps into a hanging chamber, hood him, and execute the sentence without further ceremony. The whole process took mere seconds — a record fast seven seconds from cell door to trap door in the case of James Inglis — which Pierrepoint seems to have had a gift for dignifying in his (usual) silence with a sort of calming paternal assurance.

Pierrepoint hanged six American soldiers under the auspices of U.S. military forces deployed to England during the Second World War, and confessed to considerable discomfort with that entity’s protracted pre-hanging procedures that had him standing on the scaffold with the condemned man for several minutes.

* And perhaps well over 600 hangings; the figures are disputed.

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1685: James Scott, Duke of Monmouth

16 comments July 15th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1685, the haughty Duke of Monmouth mounted the scaffold at London’s Tower Hill to suffer beheading for treason, and tipped the headsman with the words, “Here are six guineas for you and do not hack me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard you struck him four or five times; If you strike me twice, I cannot promise you not to stir.”*

Upon this tart public reminder of his recent and infamous failure of craft, the eponymous executioner Jack Ketch quite came apart.

Monmouth, certainly, would have appreciated the advance that would bring the guillotine. Beheading by a free-swinging axe was a ghoulishly inexact procedure: bad aim, insufficient force, an untimely flinch, or the tough neck muscles of a grizzled campaigner regularly complicated the process, often to the fury of spectators. Jack Ketch is sometimes reported a sadist, and sometimes a professional hangman so rarely summoned to give a nobleman the chop that he simply lacked proficiency. Either way, he’d been on the job for a generation by this time: his reputation for infelicity with the blade preceded him.

Historical fiction from the perspective of the Duke of Monmouth.

Monmouth, an illegitimate son of King Charles II, had cause to dread Ketch’s offices for the rebellious culmination of a long power struggle with his uncle, the future King James II.

The personal contest between these men for the throne of England was the echo of the decades-old struggles straining the English polity — the Reformation and the reach of royal authority.

As it became known that the king’s brother James had gone from Catholic sympathizer to Catholic convert, Protestants began maneuvering to keep him from inheriting the crown. For three years, Parliament pushed the Exclusion Bill, which would have excluded James from succession.**

Favor among the bill’s supporters settled on the Protestant playboy Monmouth — politically convenient rumors that he was actually a legitimate child began circulating. “Weak, bad, and beautiful,” this unfriendly-to-Monmouth free book has him; whatever he was, his allies in the House of Commons were handily outmaneuvered. The Exclusion measures failed, and in 1685, James II began his reign as England’s last Roman Catholic monarch.

Monmouth’s hopes had been raised, however, and he proceeded to invade England at Dorset with a somewhat ragtag army that was routed by the Protestant royal troops who remained loyal to James at the Battle of Sedgemoor — not quite the last battle fought on English soil, but the last consequential one (the last fought with pitchforks makes a livelier distinction). Monmouth was caught trying to get away in a shepherd’s disguise. Other fugitives of his cause were hunted mercilessly.

The defeated duke was reputedly not above begging the sovereign for his life; obviously, that didn’t work out. But his cause was a popular one, nearing reverence among some commoners. Jack Ketch may have had a case of the butterflies even before the duke undressed him … and as it turns out, Ketch almost left the scaffold worse than his victim.

Here is the scene in Macaulay’s words:

The hangman addressed himself to his office. But he had been disconcerted by what the Duke had said. The first blow inflicted only a slight wound. The Duke struggled, rose from the block, and looked reproachfully at the executioner. The head sank down once more. The stroke was repeated again and again; but still the neck was not severed, and the body continued to move. Yells of rage and horror rose from the crowd. Ketch flung down the axe with a curse. ‘I cannot do it,’ he said; ‘my heart fails me.’ ‘Take up the axe, man,’ cried the sheriff. ‘Fling him over the rails,’ roared the mob. At length the axe was taken up. Two more blows extinguished the last remains of life; but a knife was used to separate the head from the shoulders. The crowd was wrought up to such an ecstasy of rage that the executioner was in danger of being torn in pieces, and was conveyed away under a strong guard.

In the meantime many handkerchiefs were dipped in the Duke’s blood; for, by a large part of the multitude he was regarded as a martyr who had died for the Protestant religion.

Just the sort of soil for posthumous tall tales — that his execution was bogus and he was in hiding to return again, or had been packed off to France to become the Man in the Iron Mask. One possibly better-founded legend is that his head was set back upon its stump to sit him for what must have been a pungent portrait.

Protestant opponents of James were much thicker on the ground than the Duke’s own person, of course. They soon succeeded where Monmouth had failed.

* Slightly different versions of this address from the Duke to the executioner are recorded. Macaulay omits the “if you strike me twice” clause but adds “My servant will give you some more gold if you do the work well”; a more polite (barely) construction suggests “Do not serve me as you did my Lord Russell.”

** The factions in this dispute — the “Petitioners” (supporting the bill) and the “Abhorrers” (supporting the king) — evolved into the Whig and Tory political parties.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

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1796: Mastro Titta’s first execution of many

11 comments March 22nd, 2008 dogboy

A Catholic man with the name Giovanni Battiste (“John the Baptist”) Bugatti could hardly have had a more ironic role in church history than the man who, on this date in 1796, dispatched his first victim as official executioner of the Papal State. Nicholas Gentilucci was hanged for killing a clergyman and his coachman, then robbing two friars while on the lam; Gentilucci’s corpse was subsequently quartered.

Little is known about Gentilucci, but much is known of his then-17-year-old executioner, for Bugatti, who would become known simply as Mastro Titta, turned out to be the most individually prolific taker of life in turn-of-the-19th century Rome.

Bugatti was born in Rome in 1779 and, even while putting criminals of the state to death, lived and worked on the west side of the Tiber River as an umbrella painter. Executions were a side job, and these ghastly deeds were recognized as such by the church, which compensated him a paltry three cents of a Roman lira for each body.

“Minister of Justice”

Mastro Titta brandishes an executed woman’s head.

The original Mastro Titta — the titular corruption of the “Minister of Justice” — took responsibility for each of his “patients” (as he called them, and as they were notoriously referred to by others), dutifully noting each of the 516 in his memoir. He stood for 69 years as the primary administrator of the death penalty in papal Rome, killing variously by beheading, hanging, and use of the mallet. Some were charged with murder, others with conspiracy, others with more petty crimes, but all were found guilty by the court of judges chosen by the Church’s bishops and cardinals.

The Minister’s performances were not without an (increasingly practiced) flair, heavy on the religious symbolism. Bugatti’s residence on the west side of the river meant that, when he was to carry out a punishment, he had first to cross the river.

Initially, the executions were carried out in the Piazza del Popolo, but that location was retired in the 1820’s; it’s not clear how consistent the location was after this, but at least one later execution occurred near San Giovanni decollato, home to the group of monks dedicated to comforting the condemned even when the final blow didn’t occur at its doorstep. Regardless of the locale, a spectacle soon arose surrounding that crossing and the parade which followed, as documented by Italian dialect poet G.G. Belli in 1835 (presumably for the execution of Giovanni Orioli di Lugo on July 11 of that year):

The Dilettante at the Bridge

They approach: Attention: the ceremony is brief.
Behold the condemned, neck bare and stretched.
He is the first man of the opera, the Patient,
The Ace of Spades, lord of the fesitval.

And behold the professor that will soon be
The surgeon acting for the people
For three pence, the community,
He will cure the ills of their pained head!

But not the man on the left: the other, to the right.
He in the second place is the Assistant.
The proceedings wait for Mastro Titta.

Do you want the usual from me, who takes the head?
I who never miss it: I am consistent;
And I know him as well as I know the Pope.

The translation is largely mine, with help on some difficult sections from a well-written and complete description of Mastro Titta’s life and work here and here.

Just a Job

A pinch of snuff before I snuff you?

Bugatti was known for playing the role of executioner in a manner which left no doubt as to his feelings towards the act: it was his job, his service to the Church itself, undisturbed by any personal animus towards the condemned — particularly early in his career.

He often offered snuff to his victims and spoke briefly and quietly with them prior to the execution, likely ploys to ease the victim into his role in the spectacle. Dickens viewed one of Mastro Titta’s beheadings on 8 March 1845*, and, in his Pictures From Italy, he remarked on the callousness of the event.

In keeping with this attitude, most of the entries in Mastro Titta’s memoir are fewer than 20 words. They reflect a man who seeks to distance himself from the crowd’s bloodlust. A selection:

  • Tommaso Tintori, guilty of homicide, 28 February 1810″ (The first using the “new edifice for beheading from the French government” — that is, the guillotine)
  • “Pecorari Angel, of Poli, aged 29. Peasant guilty of premeditated homicide of one woman, condemned to «death as an example» in Poland on 21 January 1847.” (There were a number of prisoners sentenced in other Catholic parts of Europe sent to Rome for Titta’s ministrations.)
  • “Sabbatino Proietti, aged 25, «decapitated» in Rieti for petty theft and highway robbery and murder on 20 August 1853, died converted, executed through administration of justice at the public square at the Bridge.”
  • “Angelo Lisi di Alatri, found guilty of premeditated highway robbery and murder in Frosinone, «dead» on 30 April 1862.”

An Anomalous Man

Bugatti was born just seven years prior to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany becoming the first of the Italian states to abolish the death penalty. There, Leopold II barred torture and punishment of death, a decision heavily influenced by Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments and a desire to distance his nation from Rome.

In the neighboring Papal State, however, the practice continued, the embodiment of the church’s power over its people in matters earthly and spiritual. Executions of the time performed for various reasons, but with a handful of exceptions, they were almost exclusively performed on persons in the lower class. Many relied on the use of torture or testimony from confessionals. Papal executions were carried out until the 1870s and only declared unnecessary (though not banned by the Church) by Pope John Paul II in the 1990s.

A complete discussion of the role of executions in the Catholic Church is too much for this space,** but a man like Bugatti serves usefully to exemplify the absurdity endowed in these killings by the Catholic Church. Where the half-dozen popes who served over Bugatti thought such executions to be necessary for the control of the masses, they had no such ideas about nobles who committed crimes.

The execution itself consisted of a parade with masked priests, banners, scriptural readings, and sermonizing, culminating in the death of the condemned. John L Allen of the National Catholic Reporter described the treatment of these executions in that day as “a liturgy”, and descriptions from writers such as Lord Byron show a scene which could only be described as a mix of Catholic Mass and town festival.

Such ritualized killing came to contrast starkly with the Italian celebration of an anti-death penalty position, and the two stood at odds for over a century. In 1909, the topic was hot enough that a plaque glorifying two Italians executed by Bugatti in 1825 was erected; a dozen years later, its contents were concealed out of deference to Rome until after the Second Vatican Council. The commemorated, Angiolo Targhini and Leonida Montanari (here’s their Italian Wikipedia page), were convicted essentially of riling the people, and they were summarily beheaded; their story was the inspiration for Luigi Magni’s 1969 classic Nell’anno del Signore:

“So ends the long list of Bugatti.”

Mastro Titta was given an official residence, and at the end of his term, he was handsomely rewarded with a pension for his service — 30 scudi per year. His final executions were carried out on 17 August 1864, wearing his traditional red cloak (now on display at the Criminology Museum of Rome): Antonio Olietti of Rome and Domenico Antonio Demartini were beheaded for homicide.

The Minister of Justice was 85, four and some years from the end of his life, and the final line in his memoir reads, “So ends the long list of Bugatti. May that of his successor be shorter.”

Indeed it was.

The final executions in Rome occurred on 24 November 1868 at the hands of Antonio Balducci, Bugatti’s long-time apprentice; the event was marked by Pope Pius IX famously intoning in response to calls for a stay, “I can’t, and I don’t want to.” The last execution in the Papal State was of Agatino Bellomo on 9 July 1870, in Palestrina, shortly before the nascent unified Italy absorbed Rome.

Mastro Titta is still known in Italy,† but, adrift amid a particularly violent period of revolution, his legacy as papal executioner is largely lost to the rest of the world.

* The day’s guillotinee was Giovanni Vagnarelli, 26, from Augustine; he killed Bavarian Anna Cotten and robbed her, and her wife’s statement at confessional was used to convict Vagnarelli. Such confessional convictions were not uncommon, as Bugatti’s own memoir confirms.

** There’s surprisingly little reading out there about this topic, though it would seem ripe for a book or two. Here’s what I can find:

  • “Fear and Loathing in Bologna and Rome: The Papal Police in Perspective”, Steven Hughes, Journal of Social History, 1987.
  • “Capital Punishment: The Curious History of its Privileged Place in Christendom”, James J. Megivern, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 2003.
  • For a discussion of current discourse in Catholic teachings, this is rather interesting: “To Kill or Not to Kill: The Catholic Church and the Problem of the Death Penalty”, lecture by E. Christian Brugger, Asst. Prof. of Ethics, Dept. of Religious Studies, Loyola University, 2001.

† A half dozen kilometers from the bridge that Mastro Titta crossed on his way to carry out Papal justice now stands the Mastro Titta Pub. It is reportedly “tastefully done” and serves mostly Belgian beers.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Italy,Known But To God,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,Other Voices,Papal States,Public Executions

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