On this date in 1825, a woman named Peggy Facto was hung on Plattsburgh, N.Y.‘s Broad Street Arsenal Lot.
Facto — or “Facteau,” which variant recalls the French influence here on the shores of Lake Champlain — started her way to the gallows the previous autumn when some neighborhood dogs unearthed the remains of a human infant. It had been partially burned in a fireplace, and when found it still had fast about its throat the cord used to choke it to death. (Plus, of course, the dogs had done their own damage.)
This hideous discovery led back to our day’s principal character, the local mother of two [living] children whose husband had abandoned her due to her affair with a guy named Francis LaBare. Both Peggy and Francis were indicted for “being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil” to murder their inconvenient bastard immediately after birth.
They faced separate trials for the crime, just hours apart on January 19, 1825, on very similar evidence. Witnesses established the discovery of the body, and an acquaintance named Mary Chandreau testified that she had seen Peggy Facto in an obvious late stage of pregnancy that August. This woman also visited Peggy Facto in jail before trial, and testified that Peggy admitted to having taken a string from one of her gowns to furnish the strangulation-cord.
While this evidence was sufficient to condemn Peggy Facto upon mere minutes of juror deliberation, the same case against Francis LaBare resulted in an acquittal. The mother, who did not testify at her own trial, did take the stand at LaBare’s trial, claiming (according to the notes of the judge), that immediately after she delivered the child, Facto
asked [LaBare] to go find her mother & he refused. She then asked him to go find Mrs. Chandreau & he refused, and next asked him if he meant to let her die there & he said the damned old bitch, I can do better than she can. She then requested him to help her & he did & then the child was born & he took it out and went off & was gone an hour, and when he returned … he came towards her with a knife & threatened her life if she said anything about it.
It’s difficult to account, on the face of it, for the wildly differential outcomes of these trials; the all-male juries might have something to do with it.
At any rate, while LaBare walked, judge Reuben Walworth* pronounced Facto’s fate with enough fury for two … and a distinct disbelief in Facto’s attempt to blame LaBare:
there are very strong reasons for the belief that your own wicked hands have perpetrated the horrid deed. And if there was any other guilty participator in the murder, that your own wickedness and depravity instigated and persuaded him to participate in your crime. To the crime of murder, you have added the crime of perjury, and that in the face of Heaven, and even on the very threshhold of eternity. I am also constrained to say, it is much to be feared, that you will meet more than one murdered child, as an accusing spirit at the bar of Heaven.
Wretched and deluded woman! In vain was the foul and unnatural murder committed under the protecting shade of night, in your lone and sequestered dwelling, where no human eye was near to witness your guilt.
Facto’s only “appeal” after her half-day trial was the clemency consideration of Gov. DeWitt Clinton, a petition that ended up garnering a great deal of popular support, on three stated grounds:
- doubts with many as to the guilt of the convict
- as to this being a case that requires a public example
- As to the policy of executing any person for the crime of murder when the public opinion is much divided on this subject
Even Judge Walworth ultimately supported this appeal, despite his confidence “that the woman was perfectly abandoned and depraved and that she had destroyed this child and probably the one the year previous, not for the purpose of hiding her shame which was open and apparent to everybody that saw her but for the purpose of ridding herself of the trouble of taking care of them and providing for their support.”
The governor disagreed, arguing that the sort of enlightened people who signed on to death penalty appeals were out of touch with the rank terror necessary to keep the criminal orders cowed.**
So on March 18, 1825, an enormous crowd (fretfully many of them women) summoned from all the nearby towns slogged through spring-muddied roads to be duly cowed by the execution of the infanticide. The condemned, visibly terrified, barely made it through her death-ritual without fainting away, but she managed to re-assert her innocence from the gallows. (Some of the firsthand newspapering is here.)
After execution, Peggy Facto’s remains were turned over to the Medical Society for dissection. “A great many went to see her body, although it had been agreed that it should not be seen,” one woman later recollected in her memoirs. “Many young men went. So much talk was made of this that they said that no other body should ever be given to the doctors.”
Judge Walworth would later become, for two decades, New York’s highest-ranking judicial officer; Walworth, N.Y. and Walworth County, Wisc. are named for him. But the American Walworths were bound for a tragic end … including a scandalous murder.
** “Their excellent character elevates them above those feelings which govern the conduct of the depraved … if terror loses its influence with them then indeed the life of no man will be secure.” For more on the evolution of the idea of “exemplary deterrence” as the death penalty’s raison d’etre, see Paul Friedland.
On this day..
- 1871: Generals Lecomte and Thomas, at the birth of the Paris Commune - 2020
- 1696: Charnock, King, and Keyes, frustrated of regicide - 2019
- 1915: Wenseslao Moguel, "El Fusilado", survives the firing squad - 2018
- 1563: Jean de Poltrot, assassin of the Duke of Guise - 2017
- 1752: Helen Torrence and Jean Waldie - 2016
- 2015: Nine more in Pakistan - 2015
- 1905: An unknown spy in the Russo-Japanese War - 2014
- 2010: Paul Warner Powell, jurisprudentially confused - 2012
- 1647: Mary Martin, infanticide - 2011
- 1314: Jacques de Molay, last Templar Grand Master - 2010
- 1789: Catherine Murphy, Britain's last burning at the stake - 2009
- 1741: Jenny Diver, a Bobby Darin lyric? - 2008