1623: Reinier van Oldenbarnevelt, family tradition

Reinier van Oldenbarnevelt was a chip off the old headsman’s block on this date in 1623, beheaded in The Hague for plotting to avenge the beheading of his father.

The old man, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt by name, had lost a power struggle to Maurice of Orange and gone to the scaffold in 1619.

Full of murderous filial piety, our man Reinier (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch) conspired with his brother Willem and others of their faction to return the favor on Maurice by having a gang of toughs ambush him in early February.

Word leaked early; the plot fizzled and Reinier was captured to face the vengeance Maurice had once once designed for his father. (Willem escaped to Belgium, but two of their accomplices were dismembered with Reinier.)

Dutch illustrator Claes Janszoon Visscher depicted the son’s execution, as he had once depicted the father’s. For an analysis of the scene, see John Decker’s Death, Torture and the Broken Body in European Art, 1300-1650.

On this day..

1825: El Pirata Cofresi

I have killed hundreds with my own hands, and I know how to die. Fire!

-Last words of Roberto Cofresi

A monument to Roberto Cofresi rises from the water in his native Cabo Rojo.

On this date in 1825, the Puerto Rican pirate Roberto Cofresi was publicly shot in San Juan with his crew.

The family of “El Pirata” — his father was an emigre who fled Trieste after killing a man in a duel — bequeathed him the upbringing and honorific (“Don”) due to a gentleman without any of the money. Dunned by multiplying creditors, he took to the sea to keep his finances afloat and for a time made a legitimate living in the late 1810s as a piscator and a ferryman. Soon, the crises in Puerto Rico’s economy and governance prodded him into more adventurous pursuits, beginning with highway robbery around his hometown of Cabo Rojo. Wanted posters testify to his landside notoriety; soon, he would combine his vocations as a buccanneer.

In his brief moment, about 1823-1825, he became one of the Caribbean’s most feared marauders, and one of the last consequential pirates to haunt those waters. His career plundering prizes and evading manhunts is recounted in surprising detail on the man’s Wikipedia page, which is in turn an extended summary of an out-of-print Spanish-language book. Given the development of maritime policing by this point it was an achievement to extend his career so long … but everyone has to retire, one way or another.

Norwich Courier, April 27, 1825

A proclamation issued justifying the execution testifies both to the example authorities wished to be understood by his fate, and their awareness that they contended with a strain of sympathy for the outlaw. This is as quoted in Southern Chronicle (Camden, South Carolina, USA), July 2, 1825:

The name of Roberto Cofresi has become famous for robberies and acts of atrocity, and neither the countryman, the merchant nor the laborer could consider himself secure from the grasp of that wretch and his gang. If you ought to pity the lot of these unhappy men, you are bound also to give thanks to the Almighty, that the island has been delivered from a herd of wild beasts, which have attempted our ruin by all the means in their power. You are also bound to live on the alert, and be prepared, in conjunction with the authorities to attack those who may hereafter be so daring as to follow their example.

His throwback profession, his acclaimed charisma, his talent for eluding pursuit, and a purported streak of Robin Hood-esque social banditry all helped to make him a legend that has long outlived the forgotten Spanish agents who hunted him. With his threat to the sea lanes long gone, he’s become a beloved staple of literature, folklore, and popular history in Puerto Rico and especially his native Cabo Rojo. Again, a lovingly curated Wikipedia page on this posthumous career awaits the curious reader.

Label for a Ron Kofresi-brand rum, which one might use to toast his memory with a piƱa colada: it’s a drink he’s alleged to have invented.

On this day..

1929: Luther Baker, moonshine bootlegger

On this date in 1929, Washington state hanged bootlegger Luther Baker for murdering Clark County Sheriff Lester Wood during a Prohibition moonshine raid.

The rare Democrat office-holder in heavily Republican Clark County — which faces Portland, Ore., across the Columbia River — Sheriff Wood favored his dry constituents with “a ruthless war on liquor violators.” (Oregonian, May 23, 1927)

On May 22, 1927, Wood and two deputies found and destroyed an illegal 125-gallon still operated by Baker and his brothers “in the roughest and wildest part of Clark County,” Dole Valley — when the Bakers, alert to the lawmen’s presence, ambushed them. Wood was the only fatality of the wilderness shootout. Well, Wood and Luther Baker.

Luther, aged around 59, was arrested for this along with his brother Ellis and Ellis’s 21-year-old son Ted. Young Ted’s life sentence would be overturned on appeal, but Ellis spent 30 years locked up at Walla Walla and for 28 of those years he had to bear the memory of his older brother’s walk to the gallows* — for, according to the Seattle Daily Times same-day report of the morning hanging, Ellis “was awake in his cell” just “a few yards from the gallows” during the execution and seemed “more shaken than the man who climbed the thirteen steps.”**

* And the fact that Ted, despite his exoneration, succumbed to tuberculosis a few months after Luther Baker hanged. I haven’t been able to establish whether the condition related to his stint in prison.

** Luther and Ellis were allowed a half-hour together during Luther’s last night on earth.

On this day..

1683: Yaoya Oshichi, fire horse

On this date in 1683,* Yaoya Oshichi gave her life for her red-hot love … and the want of a little white lie.

The greengrocer’s daughter Oshichi (English Wikipedia page | Japanese) legendarily fell in love with a priest of the nearby temple while taking refuge there during one of Edo’s many fires (Japanese link), and in a truly adolescent outburst proceeded to start another fire in the hopes of meeting him again. (Alternate version: it was Oshichi’s gesture that actually started the linked conflagration.)

As a 16-year-old, Oshichi was just barely eligible to suffer the full weight of the law for a capital crime.

In an age of scanty documentation, however, the pitying magistrate (Japanese link) hearing her case is supposed to have asked her in a hinting sort of way, “you’re 15, right?”

Either not catching his drift or else honest to a fault, Oshichi replied that, no, she was 16, thank you very much, and reiterated the point when it was followed-up … thus dooming herself to the stake.

Yaoya Oshichi’s execution.

A few years after this outstandingly tragic demise, poet Ihara Saikaku popularized the tale in his Five Women Who Loved. She’s been waxing immortal ever since in every manner of artistic interpretation, and remains a popular figure for joruri and bunraku and kabuki.

(When next in Tokyo, pay your own respects at her tomb.)

Meanwhile, Yaoya Oshichi’s apparent birth in the zodiacal “fire horse” year of 1666 — fire horses are supposed to be an especially passionate, impulsive bunch — followed by her unfortunate fiery end helps make such cycles superstitiously inauspicious for prospective parents, especially prospective parents of girls.

The year of a fire horse only rolls around once every six decades; in the last one, in 1966, Japanese “fertility dropped by over 25%;” even “the fertility rate of Japanese Americans in California and Hawaii also dropped by 3.3% and 1.8%, respectively, in the same year.”** The abortion rate in Japan for that one year spiked nearly 50% above expected without any other apparent cause.† It’s something to watch for when the next batch of little fire horses are due, in 2026.

* “The 29th day of the 3rd month” is widely cited as “March 29”, but it actually appears to refer to the 29th day of the 3rd month of the third year of the “Heaven’s Blessing” era. That third month spanned the Gregorian dates of March 28 through April 26, 1683.

** Jungmin Lee and Myungho Paik, “Sex Preferences and Fertility in South Korea during the Year of the Horse,” Demography, Vol. 43, No. 2 (May, 2006).

† Kanae Kaku, “Increased induced abortion rate in 1966, an aspect of Japanese folk superstition,” Annals of Human Biology, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1975).

On this day..

1875: Richard Coates, gunner and rapist

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.


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.


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.


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.

On this day..

1944: Roger Bushell and others for the Great Escape

On this date in 1944, the dashing Royal Air Force adventurer and prisoner of war Roger Bushell was shot for his key role orchestrating World War II’s most famous prison break — the Great Escape.

Richard Attenborough plays the Bushell-based character “Roger Bartlett” in The Great Escape, the film based on the story.

South African-born, Cambridge-educated, a pitch-perfect speaker of German and French, Bushell turned in his barristers’ briefs for fighter wings when World War II got underway.

But he was not meant to add Knight of the Air to his c.v., for his Spitfire was downed in its first engagement in May 1940. Bushell wound up in German custody, where he proved to possess a preternatural aptitude for escape.

He slipped German custody in June 1941 and made it within steps of Switzerland before a border guard nabbed him.

Nothing daunted, Bushell escaped again in October 1941 and successfully laid low in Czechoslovakia for months … long enough to finally get swept up in the reprisal roundups following the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

By now he’d wound up in Stalag Luft III, a POW camp adjacent the Silesian town of Sagan (today, Zagan, Poland). Here Bushell would author his breakout masterpiece.

In truth it was a collaborative effort of astonishing scale. Captured soldiers characteristically fled custody, as Bushell himself had before, in ones or twos, or in small groups.

In this camp, Bushell conceived and rigorously managed an industrial-scale operation aiming to bust out more than 200 inmates. “Only” 76 ultimately got out, more than enough for the utter consternation of the Third Reich.

Bushell was going to go big to go home; in fact, his alpha-male code-name among the escape plan’s initiates was “Big X”. Big X mobilized some 600 prisoners to work on three simultaneous escape tunnels, nicknamed “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”. Sunk 9 meters underground to stymie German anti-digging seismographs, the tunnels entailed a complex, months-long logistical operation for disposing of dirt, buttressing walls, pumping air. Nor did the escape plans end at the camp wire: teams prepared clothing, papers, maps, money. Every escaping prisoner had a plan and a cover story.

We had a mapping section which turned out 400 maps of the area. Forged passes, they worked day and night turning out some brilliant passes which passed stringent Gestapo checks later on. They were mostly artists, led by an artist called Tim Whelan who was later shot. The clothing department made very good clothes and suits. Compasses, food, you name it, intelligence of course. And train times, we knew all the train times.

Jimmy James

One of the tunnels was found, and one was abandoned, but “Harry” was completed. 102 meters long, it stretched just beyond Stalag Luft III’s outer perimeter, and agonizingly shy of the nearby tree line. On the night of March 24-25 1944, 76 men (Bushell included) slipped out of “Harry” at intervals minutes apart, and into the freezing dark, scurrying into the woods with silent prayers that the nearby guard tower would not throw a spotlight in their direction. The 77th escapee was finally spotted emerging by camp sentries and captured, shutting down the whole operation.

Despite their prepared plans, the runners were very deep within German territory, and in the dead of a moonless night. Successfully completing their escapes would require crossing land on foot in the snow, navigating multiple Reich train platforms without catching the eye of now-hyper-vigilant inspectors, crossing hundreds of kilometers of territory, and passing off accents and forged papers with credible aplomb.

Not many could really manage this: the honor — the duty, as Bushell and many others thought — was in the attempt.

In all, 73 of the 76 escapees in this caper were recaptured within days. (Click here for the stories of the three who actually got away.)

A furious Adolf Hitler personally ordered everyone concerned executed when news broke of the escape, a flagrant violation of the laws of war. His advisors, concerned at triggering possible reprisals, managed to talk the boss down to the nice round number of 50 executions, a … 31.5% less extensive flagrant violation of the laws of war? Germans too suffered the regime’s fury; Hitler was talked off executing the camp commandant, but that guy lost his job. Some workmen from whom the escapees had stolen electrical cable for work on the tunnel were shot for having failed to report the theft.

And the 50 whom the Reich’s leadership had decided to kill* were shot out of hand at various times and places from March 29 to April 12.**

Their somewhat reduced ranks did not much lessen the ferocity of the Allies’ postwar manhunt for the parties involved in conducting it; the “Stalag Luft III murders” were announced in Parliament as soon as May 1944 and became the subject of a dedicated trial in 1947. The convictions in that case led to a mass hanging for war crimes in Hameln, Germany on February 27, 1948.

For his part, Bushell takes his final rest in Posnan, Poland. Although the men shot on this and succeeding nights for the Great Escape are interred at various spots, a monument near the old camp site at Sagan/Zagan permanently honors “the 50”.

* The specific 50 were chosen by Artur Nebe, who would later be executed by the Nazis himself. The selections were heavy on happenstance; while eastern Europeans and the escape leadership were predictably included, many others were in or out by the feeblest of reasons. For example, the Germans are thought to have passed on shooting escapees named “Nelson” and “Churchill” for no better cause than their conceivable relationship to the famous Britons of those names.

** Meanwhile, Germany menacingly warned POWs that further escape attempts would likely cost a man his life. (Image from this page.)

On this day..

1946: Laszlo Baky and Laszlo Endre, Hungarian Holocaust authors

On this date in 1946, fascist Hungarian politicians Laszlo Baky and Laszlo Endre were executed by hanging in Budapest for their role in the decimation of Hungarian Jewry.

These two charmers were major figures in Hungary’s horrible final months of World War II.

Post-Stalingrad, the Hungarians had realized they were yoked to the losing side and started looking for an exit strategy; instead, early in 1944, they got a German occupation.

This occupation lifted the virulent anti-semites Baky and Endre into national power, because along with keeping Hungary in the Axis coalition, the Nazis also forcibly overcame its junior partner’s former reticence about Jewish genocide.

Adolf Eichmann arrived into Nazified Hungary and used our day’s two principals (along with another executed collaborator, Andor Jaross, they’re known as the “deportation trio”) as his instruments. Within months, hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were being shipped to the gas chambers. This period is one of the waypoints of pernicious Nazi race theory, when the collapsing German regime spent military resources urgently needed at the front to organize the mass slaughter of Jews.*

And they had to work fast, because by that next winter the Red Army was seizing Budapest. These enthusiastic fascist operators did not fare well by the postwar government.

Most photos from Kuruc.info (the garishly branded ones) and the Yad Vashem database (the not garishly branded).

Laszlo Endre under arrest.

Both men, just prior to their execution.

* To do justice to the breadth of the human capacity, this is also the time and place where we find Raoul Wallenberg minting lifesaving Swedish passports by the thousands.

On this day..

1946: Phillip and William Heincy, father and son

(Thanks to author Dick Haws for graciously allowing us to reprint this chapter from Iowa and the Death Penalty: A Troubled Relationship, 1834-1965. Check out the book for more on the other 44 men (no women) hanged in the Hawkeye State. -ed.)

Phillip and William Heincy established several firsts when they were hanged on the same scaffold at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. They were the first — and only — father and son team to be executed by the State of Iowa. And Phillip, at 72, was the oldest. But it was the two men’s ignorance, their dim-wittedness, that also must have set some kind of record. Together, they had lived well over 100 years on the planet yet they had remained sublimely ignorant of the world around them. Phillip, or “Dad” to William, testified that he had gone to school off and on through the second grade, that he couldn’t write, couldn’t read, had never placed a long-distance telephone call, didn’t know the significance of Easter nor the number of months in a year, nor the number of days in a week, nor anything special about the Fourth of July, except that “I have to work every Fourth of July.” For his part, William, or “Bill” to “Dad,” testified he was born on Christmas Day 1900 but never knew the significance of that day nor Easter nor the Fourth of July. He said he had attended school for “parts of four years.” Their defense attorney, K. B. Welty, summed up his clients’ plight. “These men came into this world with very limited capacities, never attending Sunday School or church except for a few times, and school was limited, and society in which they traveled was limited and opportunities were limited because their intelligence did not permit them to get into proper society.”?

But that isolation didn’t prevent them from becoming ruthless criminals, and, in the end, murderers. Dad didn’t enter prison until he was 51, which suggests, as their Catholic priest on death row observed, that son Bill “apparently is the dominant personality and the father seems to follow his lead.” The two were Missourians and, in 1924, were arrested for the first time for stealing a Ford touring car and escaping from jail. Dad got seven years in a Missouri prison, Bill, four years. After their release, they headed north in to Iowa, and in 1931, near Iowa Falls, they held up a couple at gunpoint, kidnapped them and stole their car. About two weeks later, they shot it out with Mason City police and were apprehended. They were convicted under the false names they gave — P. H. Smith for Dad, W. H. Baker for Bill — and sentenced to a maximum of 25 years at the Iowa State Penitentiary. Dad was paroled after nine years, Bill got out after about 10 years.

In 1944, they were back together and ready to attack again. On the evening of Dec. 14, 1944, Bill and Dad boarded a train out of Quincy, Ill., bound for Spirit Lake in northern Iowa. During an earlier spring Dad had worked for a short time on a farm near Spirit Lake while Bill had helped out at a nearby resort on West Lake Okoboji, run by Robert and Esther Raebel, a prominent, deeply religious, childless couple who were known for the hours they spent with the children of the Spirit Lake Methodist Church. The Heincys would later claim they had headed to northern Iowa to retrieve a car they had stored there and to make some money hiring out to pick corn. Dickinson County Attorney W. B. Bedell never believed them; he maintained their only reason for coming to Spirit Lake was to steal and murder. Bedell cross-examined Dad, getting him to admit that he didn’t know where the car was, that he and his son carried no luggage with them, no extra clothes, no work gloves, but that they did bring along a gun and a billy club. “You didn’t expect to pick corn with a billy and a gun, did you?” Bedell asked. After arriving in Spirit Lake, Bill said in his confession, they loitered around the railroad depot for a few hours, undecided about what to do next. They went to a tavern and had a beer, then ate a sack of donuts. Then, almost by chance and with apparently little forethought, the two said in their confessions they decided to walk the four and one half miles to the Raebel resort, planning to rob the couple of the large amounts of money they believed they had on hand. Bill and Dad said they watched through a resort window as the Raebels ate supper, washed the dishes, and moved into the living room, where Esther addressed Christmas cards at a card table. When Robert got up to go down the basement to check the furnace, the Heincys struck, breaking into the resort. Bill, who was carrying both the .22-caliber revolver and the billy club, shot Robert just as he was coming back up the stairs. He staggered into the living room and fell on the floor, almost at his wife’s feet. The bullet entered his neck below the right ear and severed his aorta, causing him to bleed to death. From Esther, the Heincys demanded money and the car. She gave them all the money she had — about $28 — and the car keys. Before fleeing, Bill slugged the woman several times over the head with the billy club, knocking her unconscious to the floor. In their confessions, the Heincys said they believed they had killed both the Raebels, but, within about two hours, Mrs. Raebel had recovered enough to call the Okoboji telephone operator, who spread the alarm. Mrs. Raebel was also able to identify her assailants.

“Have you ever seen the men before?” she was asked at the coroner’s inquest.

“Oh, yes, absolutely,” she responded. “I just know it is those men, see, that worked at our place.”

“Both men worked at your place?”

“No, no, just the one. The old man stayed with Jens.”

“Jens Anderson?”

“Yes. He worked on the farm there. That is right.”

“Would you know the man’s name?”

“Well, his name, Heinke, something like that.”?

“Was it Heincy?”

“Yes, that is right. Yes,” she repeated and identified photographs of the two.

The Raebels’ car was found the next day abandoned in downtown Storm Lake. Nineteen days later, the Heincys were arrested without incident in Quincy, Ill. They were returned to Iowa, quickly confessed, pleaded guilty and awaited sentencing from Judge Fred M. Hudson. The Heincys hoped to escape the death penalty by arguing that they intended only to rob the Raebels, not kill them, that Robert’s death was unintentional. But Judge Hudson was unpersuaded. “If robbery was all they intended,” he asked rhetorically at their sentencing hearing, “why did they not stop there? The facts of these cases warrant the finding that these defendants completed their robbery and then in order to make good their escape and avoid detection and identification, purposely inflicted what they thought were fatal injuries upon both the victims of their robbery, and killed one victim and thought they had killed the other. In so doing they thought they had eliminated the only two persons who knew them and who could identify them as the robbers.” The judge said he also tried to determine whether one of the Heincys was more guilty than the other. “The younger man apparently did the shooting and most if not all of the beating,” Judge Hudson said. “However, the older man planned the robbery with him, entered upon the perpetration of it armed and knowing the younger man was armed and in what manner, demanded and received the money of at least part of it, handed the billy to the young man to use. How can it be said under our law that both are not equally guilty and responsible?” Bill and Dad were sentenced to be hanged on March 29, 1946.

The effort to spare the lives of the Heincys focused on Gov. Robert Blue, not the Iowa Supreme Court, because the Heincys’ attorney, K. B. Welty, did not believe his clients had been treated unfairly in the court process. “They (Dickinson County authorities) did a grand job,” he told the governor. The appeal to Gov. Blue didn’t come to a head until March 4, 1946 — only 25 days before the scheduled executions — and it raised arguments about the mental acuity of the Heincys. “Actually,” Welty told the governor, “these men are poor, wretched, depraved souls and, although you may feel there is no value of them to society, I say to your honor, we should not hang them. As you well know, we have institutions all over this country where we keep our mentally defective and crippled people.” Welty suggested that if the Heincy defense had had the money to hire psychiatrists, “possibly and probably a different result could have been obtained.” Welty also blamed society for allowing the Heincys freedom in the first place. “Perhaps they should have been kept in the penitentiary long ago and I presume that society has laxed in not seeing to it.” But the governor bored in on the question of the Heincys’ insanity, asking Welty whether the Dickinson County judge had heard any testimony about it. “No, your honor,” Welty responded. “You didn’t call any local doctors that would have any knowledge of psychiatry?” the governor asked. “No, sir,” Welty responded. “Did you raise that question with the court?” the governor continued. “No, sir,” Welty answered. “Do you feel they know the difference between right and wrong?” the governor asked. “Yes, sir, at times, but I think there are times in their lives that they were so crazed that they lost control of themselves,” Welty responded. “Any feeling on your part that they are insane, or are they uneducated persons who lack self-control?” the governor asked. “In respect to the elder Heincy, I have sensed that he is rather unbalanced,” Welty responded. “I think the younger fellow is not that bad.” The governor didn’t delay in announcing his decision. “Their whole history has disclosed that they were at war with society,” Gov. Blue said. “I can find in statements made to me no reason for granting executive clemency.”

But Welty battled on. Only days before the scheduled execution, he asked for a sanity hearing. Arguing that Dad Heincy had “the mentality of an 8-year-old boy,” Welty said, “we certainly would not hang an 8-year-old boy in this state. I can’t believe that the great State of Iowa, on the eve of its one hundredth birthday, will bloody its hands by taking lives in this manner. The time will come when this state will follow other intelligent states and do away with executions.” Welty was partially successful. The Iowa Board of Control ordered an immediate sanity examination of the Heincys. Two psychiatrists and a psychologist questioned the two men for more than two hours on the Wednesday before they were scheduled to be hanged. Their conclusion? Neither of the Heincys was insane nor feebleminded.

The hangings went off as scheduled. Dad and Bill, on the night before their executions, got baths, shaves and haircuts, and the prison-made suits, hats, shoes and ties. The traps were sprung by Dickinson County Sheriff Joe McQuirk at 6:01 a.m. Bill dropped a split second before Dad. Dad was pronounced dead after 11 minutes, Bill after 12.

Sources include Governor’s Correspondence on Criminal Matters, Phillip Heincy file, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines; Governor’s Correspondence on Criminal Matters, William Heincy file, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines; the Spirit Lake Beacon; the Des Moines Tribune; the Des Moines Register.

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1796: Francois de Charette, Vendee rebel

On this date in 1796, Republican France subdued the troublesome Vendee with the execution of its last great rebel.

Royalist officer Charette (English Wikipedia link | French) had assumed leadership of the anti-Republican revolt that broke out in the Vendee in 1796 — albeit with some turf rivalry with other anti-Republican figures in the area.

After a capable stretch of guerrilla campaigning, Charette had no sooner laid down his arms than the desperately counterrevolutionary English pushed for an ill-considered resumption of hostilities.

This time, the rebels took it in the culottes.

Charette, having upheld the monarchist cause long past his fellows — and much past any hope of success — became the figure the Republic had to eliminate to pacify the region. As English historian Archibald Alison has it, Charette paid a grim price for refusing to just be bought off.

Anxious to get quit of so formidable an enemy on any terms, the Directory offered [Charette] a safe retreat into England with his family and such of his followers as he might select, and a million of francs for his own maintenance. Charette replied, “I am ready to die with arms in my hands; but not to fly, and abandon my companions in misfortune. All the vessels of the Republic would not be sufficient to transport my brave soldiers into England. Far from fearing your menaces, I will myself come to seek you in your own camp.” …

This indomitable chief, however, could not long withstand the immense bodies which were now directed against him. His band was gradually reduced from seven hundred to fifty, and at last, ten followers. With this handful of heroes he long kept at bay the Republican forces; but at length, pursued on every side, and tracked out like a wild beast by bloodhounds, he was seized after a furious combat, and brought, bleeding and mutilated, but unsubdued, to the Republican headquarters. … Maltreated by the brutal soldiery, dragged along, yet dripping with blood from his wounds, before the populace of the town, weakened by loss of blood, he had need of all his strength of mind to sustain his courage; but, even in this extremity, his firmness never deserted him.

He was shot in Nantes after a perfunctory trial, refusing a blindfold and giving the orders to his own firing squad.

The execution of Charette. Mid-19th century illustration.

Execution of General Charette, in Nantes, March 1796, by Julien Le Blant.

Napoleon, who had done well to duck a possibly career-killing assignment to the Vendee the year before and was in consequence at this very moment the Revolution’s emergent man on horseback,* paid tribute from his suitable distance to Charette’s brilliance.

Charette was a great character; the true hero of that interesting period of our Revolution, which, if it presents great misfortunes, has at least not injured our glory. He left on me the impression of real grandeur of mind; the traces of no common energy and audacity, the sparks of genius, are apparent in his actions.

* Having made his name by efficiently putting down a royalist putsch in Paris a few months before, Napoleon had wed Josephine just three weeks before Charette’s execution.

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