1852: John and Jane Williams, slaves

2 comments September 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1852, John and Jane Williams hung in Richmond for the hatchet-murder of the wife and infant child of their master.

This one was a sensation for the antebellum crime beat, the “deep brain-cuts” to the heads of Joseph Winston (who survived) and Virginia Winston and nine-month-old child (who, obviously, did not) administered in the small hours July 19th was just the sort of thing to tap white slaveholders’ fears. (Reportedly, they were cruel masters and had recently threatened to sell Jane without also selling her child.)

That the crime was authored by urban slaves assimilated to the money economy connected it directly with broader anxieties about social transformations, as explored by Midori Takagi in Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction:

[U]rban slaves who enjoyed a variety of privileges including hiring out, living apart, socializing without supervision, and cash bonuses. White Richmonders believed these privileges encouraged the slaves to be rebellious …

Although John belonged to the Winston household, he worked at the docks for John Enders during the day. Like most hired slave workers, John could move about the city before and after working hours with no supervision. He also probably received cash from his earnings and could earn extra by performing overtime work. John was not required to live in the Winstons’ house but chose to in order to be with his wife. Janes, on the other hand, was directly owned by the Winstons and most likely did not enjoy the same privileges as her husband. But she was able to move about in the city making trips to the market, did socialize with other slaves and possibly free blacks, and was well aware of the privileges and expectations of hired slaves including her husband.

White residents came to believe that these factors encouraged slaves to act violently by planting within them “the germ of rebellion.” One influential Richmonder, Joseph Mayo (who later became mayor), attributed the “glaring evils” of the slave population to “the system of board money … [and] the assumptions of equality exhibited by the blacks in riding in carriages contrary to law, and in dress and deportment.” Increasingly, white city dwellers began to wonder if they had been — in the words of one resident — “rearing wolves to our own destruction.”

These anxieties, piqued by crimes such as the Williamses’, would lead to a welter of new restrictions on the movement, behavior, and even attire of urban slaves in Richmond in the ensuing years.

But that was for the future. While Richmond had real-life master-murdering miscreants in its clutches, it gave vent to all its opprobrium.

Papers described the crimes as “hardly paralleled in history,” anticipated for Jane (who eventually copped to the crime and unsuccessfully tried to exculpate John) “the fires of her eternal doom,” and her execution “without the smallest particle of sympathy from any human being possessed of the ordinary feelings of justice.” The exhortations of her pastor, the Richmond Daily Dispatch opined, fell upon “unwilling ears. The thick-crowding thoughts of the diabolical murder of two innocent, guileless beings, committed by Janes with the coolness and deliberation of a fiend, rendered unimpressive, cold, and tedious, those ceremonies.”

It is to be hoped [the Dispatch concluded] that her merited and summary execution will operate as a warning to the fractious portion of our negro population.*

In a show of scrupulous regard for the inalienable rights endowed by the Creator, the state of Virginia compensated the convalescing Joseph Winston to the tune of $500 for expropriating and executing his property.

* (Second-hand) sources for the newspaper excerpts: The Penalty is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women’s Executions by Marlin Shipman; and, “Black Female Executions in Historical Context” by David V. Baker, Criminal Justice Review, vol. 33, no. 1 (March 2008).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Virginia,Women

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1977: Hamida Djandoubi, Madame Guillotine’s last kiss

21 comments September 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1977, the guillotine claimed its last head.

The famous and infamous blade dropped for the last time at Les Baumettes prison in Marseilles on Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian immigrant convicted of the torture-murder of the naive young girlfriend he had forced into prostitution. Oddly, he had already had another appendage — a leg — amputated as a result of a work accident; it was while recuperating that he caught the fascination of his hospital roommate’s 19-year-old daughter, Elisabeth Bousquet.

Though the death penalty was grinding to a halt in 1970’s France, Djandoubi was not the last person condemned (the link is French); the guillotine was only abolished with the election of the Francois Mitterand government in 1981.

Today, Executed Today discusses the case with the man who wrote the book on Djandoubi:* expat Canadian writer Jeremy Mercer. Be sure to check his photo series on the Djandoubi case — including discomfiting shots of Djandoubi re-enacting his crime with a police secretary playing the victim, and the killer in happier times.

ET: Thanks for joining us.

JM: Thanks for the opportunity to speak with Executed Today. I moved to Marseille in 2003 and shortly after I stumbled upon the rather arcane fact that the last man guillotined in France was executed at the local prison on September 10, 1977. I thought it was interesting angle on capital punishment and I decided to try and write a book that mixed true crime and death penalty philosophy. As a result, I’ve been immersed in the death penalty debate for the better part of five years.

Let’s start with Hamida Djandoubi himself — 31 years on, he looks like a nasty but fairly run-of-the-mill criminal. Was it strictly coincidental that he became the last man executed?

It was absolutely random fate. It was really odd – during the 1970s, the death penalty debate was raging in France and most capital cases became national news. But the Djandoubi case went completely under the radar, partly because his lawyer didn’t drum up any attention and partly because his victim was a presumed prostitute and the media prefers ‘sexier’ victims – the elderly, little children, a dentist of good standing walking her dog at night.

Even odder, if you surveyed most French people today, they would tell you that Christian Ranucci was the last man guillotined. Ranucci was a young white man who was accused of killing a little girl. He claimed his innocence, but was nonetheless executed in June 1976 (14 months before Djandoubi). Afterward, a best-selling book and major film were released that argued Ranucci was innocent so his name really sticks in the minds of the French.

Obviously, there’s plenty of tension with North African communities in France still today. Djandoubi was Tunisian, and he was convicted of murdering a white woman. How significant was racial marking in the way his case was handled, inside the courts and out?

This is really curious. In the 1960s and 1970s, the French courts were tainted by racism and one of the national papers even ran an editorial saying that it is better to be named “Marius than Mohamed” when appearing before a French judge. But, in this case, it was Djandoubi’s own lawyer who was a member of a far-right party and staunchly anti-Arab so his case was undermined even before it went to court.

It is one of those frustrating moments. You assume that a death penalty case is of such importance that top professionals are involved. Instead, Djandoubi chose the civil lawyer who negotiated his accident benefits after he had an accident at work and ended up with a very poor defence.

As I said above, his murder victim had worked as a prostitute, which diminished some of the public outrage. As well, his three rape victims were all Algerian girls aged 14 – 16. I guarantee you the case would have been much more explosive if those three girls had been white.

Your book is partly about Djandoubi himself, and partly about the history of the death penalty and especially the guillotine in France. How had the guillotine shifted in France’s identity by the time of this execution?

At first, when the guillotine was introduced, it was public sensation and executioners became celebrities with special edition postcards in their honour and fan mail and all that. As late as the 1860s, tour groups like Thomas Cook were actually organizing execution trips so English tourists could see the guillotine at work. But, bit by bit, the French became a little embarrassed by the fame of the machine. First, they removed the scaffolding that raised the guillotine above the crowds so that it would be brought down to earth and spectators’ views would be impaired; then, they stopped holding executions in the afternoon and held them at the less fan-friendly time of dawn; then, instead of guillotining people right downtown, they did it outside a prison in an obscure neighborhood at the edge of Paris; and, finally, in the 1930s they moved the guillotine inside the prison walls and it was no longer a public event. By the 1970s, the guillotine held such a low profile that many people thought it was defunct and that the French government was using the electric chair.

Interestingly enough, the fall from glory of the guillotine mirrors the general attitude toward capital punishment. By the late 1800s, many countries were already abolishing the death penalty and by the 1970s France was the last country in Western Europe to resort to capital punishment. In the end, the guillotine became the country’s dirty little secret that they kept hidden in their closet.

What are the bits of guillotine folklore you found most interesting?

The most popular stories involve the life in the head after it is severed from the body. It all began with the guillotining of Charlotte Corday, who had stabbed Jean-Paul Marat to death as he soaked in his bathtub. After she was guillotined, the executioner held her head up to the crowd and slapped her on the cheek. But, according to newspaper accounts, both cheeks reddened, as if Corday was indignant by this treatment. Suddenly, everyone began to wonder what a severed head can feel or think.

This curiosity became even more intense a few weeks later when the chief executioner, Charles Henri Sanson, guillotined two political rivals one after the other. He told friends that when he looked in the basket where he kept the heads, one politician’s head was biting the other politician’s head!

So, all this got the scientists really excited and the experiments began. One doctor, Dassy de Ligières, was allowed to take a head back to his laboratory where he connected it to a living dog and pumped blood back into it. He kept hoping the head would speak, but alas, no.

The definitive experiment was conducted in 1905 when Dr. Beaurieux was given permission to wait beside the guillotine and examine the head the moment it was cut. Dr. Beaurieux interviewed the condemned man in prison and came up with a pre-arranged set of signals. The day of the execution, the doctor had incredible luck –the head did a little twist when falling and landed on the stump, slowing the loss of blood. Dr. Beaurieux then called the man’s name three times. At 5 seconds, the man was able to look at the doctor and his recognize him; at 15 seconds, the man was able to look at the doctor but his eyes were unfocussed; and at 25 seconds, the man could barely glance at the doctor. So, to the best of our knowledge, a guillotined head maintains some level of consciousness for more than 20 seconds.

You’re working with Robert Badinter — tell us about him, and his upcoming tour in the U.S.

Robert Badinter is simply the greatest man I’ve ever had the honor of working with. He became a dedicated abolitionist after one of his clients was unjustly guillotined in 1972 and dedicated the next decade of his life to fighting the death penalty. In the end, he saved six lives and ultimately wrote the legislation that abolished the death penalty in 1981 when François Mitterrand named him Minister of Justice.

I interviewed Badinter for my own book in 2005 and he asked me if I could look into translating one of his books into English. When I had time in 2007, I set about the task and now Abolition has been released by Northeastern University Press.

Badinter’s Abolition, in French and in Mercer’s translation

To mark the book’s release, Badinter will be holding three conferences in America on the death penalty and strategies to abolish it:

Why, in your judgment, did France abolish the death penalty? And even before abolition, why did its use abate so dramatically in the postwar era?

For many people, it was a tremendous humiliation for France, the birthplace of human rights and the Enlightenment, to be the last country in Western Europe to use the death penalty. The abolition movement began when Portugal abolished the death penalty for common crimes in 1867 and by the late 1970s, nobody was using it in Europe. Even in Spain, one of the first things they did after the death of Franco was abolish the death penalty.

So, the use of the guillotine simply had to abate because the world was becoming aware that the death penalty is a flawed punishment: the risk of executing innocents, the cost of capital trials, the predominance of poor and minorities on death row, the lack of deterrence value. But, as long as there was a right-wing government in power in France, they couldn’t abolish the death penalty because they wanted to appear tough on crime and polls showed a majority of the French people wanted to keep the guillotine.

Once Mitterrand and the Socialists were elected in May 1981, it was clear the death penalty would be abolished, and sure enough, five months later it was gone

Where do you think the death penalty is going in America? And can one really think of worldwide abolition as a legitimate possibility?

I am absolutely convinced we will see almost worldwide abolition by 2050. There will always be a few rogue states, but the death penalty is such an obviously flawed form of punishment it will inevitably be eliminated.

In terms of America, Badinter and I have discussed it at length. He believes the country is ready for abolition and that all is needed is one trigger case: a middle class white guy with a reasonable claim to innocence who is about to executed. This would really instigate a debate on the penalty and as soon as you bring in all stats — the 130 plus people who have been exonerated while on death row, the work of the Innocence Project, the race bias, the cost of capital trials, the overworked public defenders etc etc — I think it would be a slam dunk.

Personally, I think people are selling the abolition the wrong way. Every time I meet a die-hard death penalty supporter who wants a serial killer or a child rapist killed, I ask him or her “Why are you so merciful?” Because, I honestly believe life in prison is a far worse punishment than being executed.

* Here’s a review of Mercer’s book.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Interviews,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities

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