1845: Abner Baker, feudmaker

Add comment October 3rd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1845 — sneering at the noose with the words “Behold the necklace of a whore!” — Abner Baker was publicly hanged in Manchester, Kentucky.

He was the second casualty — the first was the man whom he murdered — in the Baker-Howard feud, or the Clay County War, a bloody interfamily conflict that would blight the Kentucky mountains into the next century.

Its headwaters were a man out of his head: just how much so would be the controversy of his case, and a foundational grievance of the feud.

Said head perched itself on the shoulders of our man Abner Baker, who — prior to his unfortunate turn towards derangement — was a respectable frontier striver, with an unsuccessful stint in commerce redeemed by a medical practice. He had also to his name a wife born Susan White, a woman — or rather a 14-year-old girl — from a wealthy family who was respectable in the eyes of all save he.

As Baker slid into lunacy, he leveled at his spouse the most lurid charges of concupiscence, of having committed gleeful incest, of having orgies with slaves, and of cheating on him with another wealthy man, Daniel Bates. Bates was married to Baker’s sister.

Testimony printed in an 1845 volume to capitalize on interest in the case, Life and trial of Dr. Abner Baker, Jr: (a monomaniac) features many acquaintances establishing a delusional paranoia about his wife’s intercourse with Daniel Bates — with Baker brandishing a Bowie knife around her to the extent that their mutuals feared for her life; ranting about his wife cuckolding him in his very bed while he slept beside her; fixing on his certainty that Bates designed to murder him. They also report acquaintances, and Baker’s own father, increasingly convinced that the man had gone mad.

On September 13, 1844, Baker presented himself at Bates’s salt works and shot Bates in the back. Bates lingered on for several hours, doing much to stoke the succeeding generations of clan vigilantes by bequeathing $10,000 to seek his murderer’s life and making his son promise to take revenge.

The subsequent legal drama pitted that quest for revenge against Baker sympathizers’ conviction that the man was too starkers to swing. The first magistrates to review the matter days after Bates’s murder took the latter view and released him, allowing Baker to decamp to Cuba to recuperate.

The Bateses were not to be balked this easily, however, and prevailed on Commonwealth attorneys to indict Baker for murder. At the urging of his father, the good doctor voluntarily returned to defend himself when he learned of this. The text of the trial comprises witnesses clashing over whether the killer suffered from “monomania”, but the subtext was the flexing muscle of the White family — that of Abner Baker’s poor traduced wife.

The Whites were Clay County royalty on the strength of their salt mining wealth, and allied to the Bates family. Their peers and rivals, the Garrards, were locked in tense economic competition and even came within a whisker of murdering Daniel Bates himself in a different standoff in 1840. They took a more sympathetic view of Abner Baker’s obviously unbalanced mental state and tried to shield him from his persecutors; the Garrard patriarch was one of the magistrates who had initially ruled Baker too crazy to prosecute.* It was the Whites who, in effect, outmuscled the Garrards by forcing Baker’s prosecution and execution.

“The BAKERS wept with rage for the WHITES helping the BATES to bring Abner Baker to trial when they knew he was insane,” this history of Clay County feuding observes. “The lines had been drawn and competition for salt hardened into hostility.”

Enjoy a podcast situating this affair in the regional economy and the resulting political rivalries, from American History Tellers here, as well as a successor episode on the resulting feud, here

* Baker thanked the Garrards in his last address from the gallows (“the Garrard family, on whom I had no claims, came up like noble-souled men, and asked the county to give me justice”).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Doctors,Execution,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Sex,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1876: Marshall Crain, Bloody Williamson killer

Add comment January 21st, 2017 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“I must make a statement in regard to this matter. I feel it my duty to God and to man to do so. I am guilty of killing the two men. My soul is stained with blood and my punishment is just. I hope all will forgive me. I pray God to guide and prosper this country. I am the murderer of William Spence. And George W. Sisney. That is all I have to say.”

Marshall Crain, convicted of murder, hanging, Illinois.
Executed January 21, 1876

Crain, a twenty-year-old hired assassin, murdered Sisney and Spence in 1876. The double murder, labeled by the press the “Williamson County Vendetta,” was part of a long- standing feud between the Bulliner and Henderson families of Carbondale, Illinois. Before Crain’s execution, he was remanded to a jail in Marion County in order to avoid a lynching at the hands of an angry mob.

The Chicago Tribune noted: “He was born, raised, educated, married, committed his crimes and was executed within a radius of 10 miles.”

(Williamson County, Illinois has an impressively vast catalogue of highlight-reel violence to its history; there’s more about the Great Vendetta and other skeletons in Williamson’s closet in Bloody Williamson: A Chapter in American Lawlessness.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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1455: Kunz von Kauffungen, Altenburg Prince-Robber

Add comment July 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1455, the German knight Kunz von Kauffungen was beheaded at the Freiberg marketplace for the trifling offense of kidnapping a couple of Saxon princes.

Kunz von Kauffungen (English Wikipedia link | German) fought on the side of Frederick II, Elector of Saxony in the colorfully christened Saxon Fratricidal War. That’s no ornamental prose: it was literally a war between siblings, namely the aforesaid Frederick and his little brother William III, Landgrave of Thuringia.*

While captaining a unit for Frederick, Kunz had his lands ravaged by William’s guys; eventually he even got outright captured and had to spring for a crippling 4,000-florin ransom.

The warring brothers settled things in 1451, but Kunz found to his fury that his postwar meaningful ahems around the Elector of Saxony did not meet with any compensation reciprocating the fortune ruined in the Elector’s service. (During the war Kunz had been given some captured property of one of William’s supporters, but the terms of the peace reverted everything to its original owner.)

Kunz skulked, and sued, and eventually Frederick flat-out banished him. But his grievance was never met, and in that day German nobles felt themselves entitled to force redress via feuds and private wars entirely alien to our post-Westphalian states.

Kunz’s personal contribution to the annals of noble vendetta was the Altenburg Prinzenraub — the Altenburg Prince-Robbery, which consisted of, well, robbing Frederick of his two sons Ernest** and Albert.

On the night of July 7-8, 1455, Kunz and his retainers snatched the two boys, aged 14 and 11 respectively, from Altenburg. The kidnapping went pear-shaped almost immediately: starting for Bohemia on the 8th, Kunz was captured by some concerned citizen or other, liberating Albert. Various legends make it monks, villagers, or a heroic collier.

His buddies took Ernest to an abandoned medieval mine shaft, today known as the “Prince Cave”. After holing up three days — and catching the news of Kunz’s ignominiously easy capture — this party arranged to turn Ernest back over in exchange for an amnesty, and scuttled away.

Kunz, of course, was not so lucky. A black paving-stone in Freiburg is said to mark the spot where his severed head came to rest on the 14th of July, 1455.

* Data point for the nature vs. nurture debate: the father of Frederick and William was known as Frederick the Belligerent or Frederick the Warlike.

** This is the “Ernest” referenced by the the Ernestine line — a lineage ancestor to present-day royal families of Belgium and Great Britain.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Kidnapping,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Soldiers

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1896: Bill Gay, prospector

2 comments June 8th, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1896 saw the Helena, Mont., hanging of frontiersman Bill Gay.


A ticket to Bill Gay’s hanging in December 1895 — which was, obviously, postponed.

As a prospector a generation earlier, Bill Gay had actually struck gold in the Black Hills, not far from Deadwood, S.D. The settlement that grew up around his claim, Gayville, was briefly in contention to be a key entrepot in the covered-wagon trade stripping Sioux land of precious metals.

Alas, Gayville burned down and became a ghost town, just like its founder became a ghost.

Maybe it was Bill Gay’s candle burning at both ends that caused the conflagration. The temporarily wealthy Gay (sporting furniture imported from the east coast!) had the pull to marry a dance-hall hottie … just, not so much pull that he had total impunity to ice a younger rival for his wife’s affections. After serving a turn in the clink for that murder — an abbreviated turn; the guy was rich, after all — Gay was back to square one as a prospecting plainsman, and moved on to Montana.

In Castle, Mont., where he settled (another mining camp later turned ghost town; see Ghost Towns of Montana), Gay fell into a mighty feud with local newspaperman John Benson.

When Benson’s establishment “mysteriously” burned down, a posse was detailed to bring in Gay, along with Gay’s brother-in-law. They killed a couple of deputies in the process of (successfully) blowing town; the in-law, Harry Gross, was never caught, but Gay was apprehended in California and returned to face the music.

Despite the Herculean efforts of his daughter, Maud — the wire report of the hanging (this one printed in the next day’s Omaha Morning World-Herald) complained that “never in the history of Montana have more efforts been made to save a criminal a neck” — he hanged this morning, still protesting that old Harry Gross had been the dead-eyed triggerman.

There’s a nice exposition of Bill Gay’s life from Wild West magazine reprinted at HistoryNet.com.

Bill Gay has no known connection to New York City piano lounge Bill’s Gay Nineties, which is an obvious oversight on someone’s part.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Montana,Murder,Pelf,USA

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