A Most Unfortunate Execution

The volume Celebrated trials of all countries, and remarkable cases of criminal jurisprudence (1835) is a collection of 88 accounts of murders and curious proceedings.
Several of these anecdotes are quite interesting, but a double hanging which took place in 1807 is particularly astonishing for the collateral effects it entailed.

On November 6, 1802, John Cole Steele, owner of a lavander water deposit, was travelling from Bedfont, on the outskirts of London, to his home on Strand. It was deep in the night, and the merchant was walking alone, as he couldn’t find a coach.
The moon had just come up when Steele was surrounded by three men who were hiding in the bushes. They were John Holloway and Owen Haggerty — two small-time crooks always in trouble with the law; with them was their accomplice Benjamin Hanfield, whom they had recruited some hours earlier at an inn.
Hanfield himself would prove to be the weak link. Four years later, under the promise of a full pardon for unrelated offences, he would vividly recount in court the scene he had witnessed that night:

We presently saw a man coming towards us, and, on approaching him, we ordered him to stop, which he immediately did. Holloway went round him, and told him to deliver. He said we should have his money,
and hoped we would not ill-use him. [Steele] put his hand in his pocket, and gave Haggerty his money. I demanded his pocket-book. He replied that he had none. Holloway insisted that he had a book, and if he
did not deliver it, he would knock him down. I then laid hold of his legs. Holloway stood at his head, and swore if he cried out he would knock out his brains. [Steele] again said, he hoped we would not ill-use him. Haggerty proceeded to search him, when [Steele] made some resistance, and struggled so much that we got across the road. He cried out severely, and as a carriage was coming up, Holloway said, “Take care, I’ll silence the b—–r,” and immediately struck him several violent blows on the head and body. [Steele] heaved a heavy groan, and stretched himself out lifeless. I felt alarmed, and said, “John, you have killed the man”. Holloway replied, that it was a lie, for he was only stunned. I said I would stay no longer, and immediately set off towards London, leaving Holloway and Haggerty with the body. I came to Hounslow, and stopped at the end of the town nearly an hour. Holloway and Haggerty then came up, and said they had done the trick, and, as a token, put the deceased’s hat into my hand. […] I told Holloway it was a cruel piece of business, and that I was sorry I had any hand in it. We all turned down a lane, and returned to London. As we came along, I asked Holloway if he had got the pocketbook. He replied it was no matter, for as I had refused to share the danger, I should not share the booty. We came to the Black Horse in Dyot-street, had half a pint of gin, and parted.

A robbery gone wrong, like many others. Holloway and Haggerty would have gotten away with it: investigations did not lead to anything for four years, until Hanfield revealed what he knew.
The two were arrested on the account of Hanfield’s testimony, and although they claimed to be innocent they were both sentenced to death: Holloway and Haggerty would hang on a Monday, February 22, 1807.
During all Sunday night, the convicts kept on shouting out they had nothing to do with the murder, their cries tearing the “awful stillness of midnight“.

On the fatal morning, the two were brought at the Newgate gallows. Another person was to be hanged with them,  Elizabeth Godfrey, guilty of stabbing her neighbor Richard Prince.
Three simultaneous executions: that was a rare spectacle, not to be missed. For this reason around 40.000 perople gathered to witness the event, covering every inch of space outside Newgate and before the Old Bailey.

Haggertywas the first to walk up, silent and resigned. The hangman, William Brunskill, covered his head with a white hood. Then came Holloway’s turn, but the man lost his cold blood, and started yelling “I am innocent, innocent, by God!“, as his face was covered with a similar cloth. Lastly a shaking Elizabeth Godfrey was brought beside the other two.
When he finished with his prayers, the priest gestured for the executioner to carry on.
Around 8.15 the trapdoors opened under the convicts’ feet. Haggerty and Holloway died on the instant, while the woman convulsively wrestled for some time before expiring. “Dying hard“, it was called at the time.

But the three hanged persons were not the only victims on that cold, deadly morning: suddenly the crowd started to move out of control like an immense tide.

The pressure of the crowd was such, that before the malefactors appeared, numbers of persons were crying out in vain to escape from it: the attempt only tended to increase the confusion. Several females of low stature, who had been so imprudent as to venture amongst the mob, were in a dismal situation: their cries were dreadful. Some who could be no longer supported by the men were suffered to fall, and were trampled to death. This was also the case with several men and boys. In all parts there were continued cries “Murder! Murder!” particularly from the female part of the spectators and children, some of whom were seen expiring without the possibility of obtaining the least assistance, every one being employed in endeavouring to preserve his own life. The most affecting scene was witnessed at Green-Arbour Lane,
nearly opposite the debtors’ door. The lamentable catastrophe which took place near this spot, was attributed to the circumstance of two pie-men attending there to dispose of their pies, and one of them having his basket overthrown, some of the mob not being aware of what had happened, and at the
same time severely pressed, fell over the basket and the man at the moment he was picking it up, together with its contents. Those who once fell were never more enabled to rise, such was the pressure of the crowd. At this fatal place, a man of the name of Herrington was thrown down, who had in his hand his younger son, a fine boy about twelve years of age. The youth was soon trampled to death; the father recovered, though much bruised, and was amongst the wounded in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.

The following passage is especially dreadful:

A woman, who was so imprudent as to bring with her a child at the breast, was one of the number killed: whilst in the act of falling, she forced the child into the arms of the man nearest to her, requesting him, for God’s sake, to save its life; the man, finding it required all his exertion to preserve himself, threw the infant from him, but it was fortunately caught at a distance by anotner man, who finding it difficult to ensure its safety or his own, disposed of it in a similar way. The child was again caught by a person, who contrived to struggle with it to a cart, under which he deposited it until the danger was over, and the mob had dispersed.

Others managed to have a narrow escape, as reported by the 1807 Annual Register:

A young man […] fell down […], but kept his head uncovered, and forced his way over the dead bodies, which lay in a pile as high as the people, until he was enabled to creep over the heads of the crowd to a lamp-iron, from whence he got into the first floor window of Mr. Hazel, tallow-chandler, in the Old Bailey; he was much bruised, and must have suffered the fate of his companion, if he had not been possessed of great strength.

The maddened crowd left a scene of apocalyptic devastation.

After the bodies were cut down, and the gallows was removed to the Old Bailey yard, the marshals and constables cleared the streets where the catastrophe had occurred, when nearly one hundred persons, dead or in a state of insensibility, were found in the street. […] A mother was seen to carry away the body of her dead son; […] a sailor boy was killed opposite Newgate, by suffocation; in a small bag which he carried was a quantity of bread and cheese, and it is supposed he came some distance to witness the execution. […] Until four o’clock in the afternoon, most of the surrounding houses contained some person in a wounded state, who were afterwards taken away by their friends on shutters or in hackney coaches. At Bartholomew’s Hospital, after the bodies of the dead were stripped and washed, they were ranged round a ward, with sheets over them, and their clothes put as pillows under their heads; their faces were uncovered, and there was a rail along the centre of the room; the persons who were admitted to see the shocking spectacle, and identified many, went up on one side and returned on the other. Until two o’clock, the entrances to the hospital were beset with mothers weeping for their sons! wives for their husbands! and sisters for their brothers! and various individuals for their relatives and friends!

There is however one last dramatic twist in this story: in all probability, Hollow and Haggerty were really innocent after all.
Hanfield, the key witness, might have lied to have his charges condoned.

Solicitor James Harmer (the same Harmer who incidentally inspired Charles Dickens for Great Expectations), even though convinced of their culpability in the beginning, kept on investigating after the convicts death and eventually changed his mind; he even published a pamphlet on his own expenses to denounce the mistake made by the Jury. Among other things, he discovered that Hanfield had tried the same trick before, when charged with desertion in 1805: he had attempted to confess to a robbery in order to avoid military punishment.
The Court itself was aware that the real criminals had not been punished, for in 1820, 13 years after the disastrous hanging, a John Ward was accused of the murder of Steele, then acquitted for lack of evidence (see Linda Stratmann in Middlesex Murders).

In one single day, Justice had caused the death of dozens of innocent people — including the convicts.
Really one of the most unfortunate executions London had ever seen.

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I wrote about capital punsihment gone wrong in the past, in this article about Jack Ketch; on the same topic you can also find this post on ‘Bloody Murders’ pamphlets from Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (both articles in Italian only, sorry!).

An elephant on the gallows

The billboards for Sparks World Famous Shows, which appeared in small Southern American towns a couple of days before the circus’ arrival, seem quite anomalous to anyone who has a familiarity with this kind of poster design from the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
Where one could expect to see emphatic titles and hyperbolic advertising claims, Sparks circus — in a much too unpretentious way — was defined as a “moral, entertaining and instructive” spectacle; instead of boasting unprecedented marvels, the only claim was that the show “never broke a promise” and publicized its “25 years of honest dealing with the public“.

The reason why owner Charlie Sparks limited himself to stress his show’s transparency and decency, was that he didn’t have much else to count on, in order to lure the crowd.
Despite Sparks’ excellent reputation (he was among the most respected impresarios in the business), his was ultimately a second-category circus. It consisted of a dozen cars, against the 42 cars of his main rival in the South, John Robinson’s Circus. Sparks had five elephants, Robinson had twelve. And both of them could never hope to compete with Barnum & Bailey’s number one circus, with its impressive 84-car railroad caravan.
Therefore Sparks World Famous Shows kept clear of big cities and made a living by serving those smaller towns, ignored by more famous circuses, where the residents would find his attractions worth paying for.

Although Sparks circus was “not spectacularly but slowly and surely” growing, in those years it didn’t offer much yet: some trained seals, some clowns, riders and gymnasts, the not-so-memorable “Man Who Walks on His Head“, and some living statues like the ones standing today on public squares, waiting for a coin.
The only real resource for Charlie Sparks, his pride and joy widely displayed on the banners, was Mary.

Advertides as being “3 inches taller than Jumbo” (Barnum’s famous elephant), Mary was a 5-ton indian pachyderm capable of playing different melodies by blowing horns, and of throwing a baseball as a pitcher in one of her most beloved routines. Mary represented the main source of income for Charlie Sparks, who loved her not just for economical but also for sentimental reasons: she was the only real superior element of his circus, and his excuse for dreaming of entering the history of entertainment.
And in a sense it is because of Mary if Sparks is still remembered today, even if not for the reason he might have suspected or wanted.

On September 11, 1916, Sparks pitched his Big Top in St. Paul, a mining town in Clinch River Valley, Virginia. On that very day Walter “Red” Eldridge, a janitor in a local hotel, decided that he had enough of sweeping floors, and joined the circus.
Altough Red was a former hobo, and clearly knew nothing about elephants, he was entrusted with leading the pachyderms during the parade Sparks ran through the city streets every afternoon before the show.
The next day the circus moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, where Mary paraded quietly along the main street, until the elephants were brought over to a ditch to be watered. And here the accounts begin to vary: what we know for sure is that Red hit Mary with a stick, infuriating the beast.
The rogue elephant grabbed the inexperienced handler with its trunk, and threw him in the air. When the body fell back on the ground, Mary began to trample him and eventually crushed his head under her foot. “And blood and brains and stuff just squirted all over the street“, as one witness put it.

Charlie Sparks immediately found himself in the middle of the worst nightmare.
Aside from his employee’s death on a public street — not really a “moral” and “instructive” spectacle — the real problem was that the whole tour was now in jeopardy: what town would allow an out-of-control elephant near its limits?
The crowd demanded the animal to be suppressed and Sparks unwillingly understood that if he wanted to save what was left of his enterprise, Mary had to be sacrified and, with her, his personal dreams of grandeur.
But killing an elephant is no easy task.

The first, obvious attempt was to fire five 32-20 rounds at Mary. There’s a good reason however if elephants are called pachyderms: the thick skin barrier did not let the bullets go deep in the flesh and, despite the pain, Mary didn’t fall down. (When in 1994 Tyke, a 3.6-ton elephant, killed his handler running amok on the streets of Honolulu, it took 86 shots to stop him. Tyke became a symbol for the fights against animal cruelty in circuses, also because of the heartbreaking footage of his demise.)
Someone then suggested to try and eliminate Mary by electrocution, a method used more than a decade before in the killing of Topsy in Coney Island. But there was no nearby way of producing the electricity needed to carry out the execution.
Therefore it was decided that Mary would be hung.

The only gallows that could bear such a weight was to be found in the railyards in Erwin, where there was a derrick capable of lifting railcars to place them on the tracks.
Charlie Sparks, knowing he was about to lose an animal worth $20.000, was determined to make the most out of the desperate situation. In the brief time that took for Mary to be moved from Kingsport to Erwin, he had already turned his elephant’s execution into a public event.

On September 13, on a rainy and foggy afternoon, more than 2.500 people gathered at the railyards. Children stood in the front line to witness the extraordinary endeavour.
Mary was brought to the makeshift gallows, and her foot was chained to the tracks while men struggled to pass a chain around her neck. They then tied the chain to the derric, started the winch, and the hanging began.
In theory, the weight of her body would have had to quickly break her neck. But Mary’s agony was to be far from swift and painless; in the heat of the moment, someone forgot to untie the animal’s foot, which was still bound to the rails.

When they began to lift her up — a witness recalled — I heard the bones and ligaments cracking in her foot“; the men hastily released the foot, but right then the chain around Mary’s neck broke with a metallic crack.

The elephant fell on the ground and sat there upright, unable to move because in falling she had broken her hip.

The crowd, unaware that Mary at this point was wounded and paralyzed, panicked upon seeing the “murderous” elephant free from any restraint. As everyone ran for cover, one of the roustabouts climbed on the animal’s back and applaied a heavier chain to her neck.
The derrick once more began to lift the elephant, and this time the chain held the weight.
After she was dead, Mary was left to hang for half an hour. Her huge body was then buried in a large grave which had been excavated further up the tracks.

Mary’s execution, and the photograph of her hanging, were widely reported in the press. But to search for an article where this strange story was recounted with special emotion or participation would be useless. Back then, Mary’s incident was little more than quintessential, small-town oddity piece of news.
After all, people were used to much worse. In Erwin, in those very years, a black man was burned alive on a pile of crosstiles.

Today the residents of this serene Tennessee town are understandably tired of being associated with a bizarre and sad page of the city history — a century-old one, at that.
And yet still today some passing foreigner asks the proverbial, unpleasand question.
Didn’t they hang an elephant here?

A well-researched book on Mary’s story is The Day They Hung the Elephant by Charles E. Price. On Youtube you can find a short documentary entitled Hanging Over Erwin: The Execution of Big Mary.

Il boia maldestro

Londra, durante i circa trent’anni della Restaurazione (1660-1688), era una città in preda alla violenza, immersa in un clima di paranoia e terrore. Oltre ai “classici” crimini come furti, rapine, omicidi e via dicendo, si rischiava anche di venire denunciati come cattolici, o peggio ancora nemici della corona: i processi, religiosi e politici, colpivano chi non era devotamente aderente all’ortodossia anglicana, così come chi aveva avversato il ritorno di Re Carlo II. E la pena capitale era inflitta con inquietante leggerezza, soprattutto durante le famigerate “assise sanguinose” nel 1685, presiedute dal temibile giudice Jeffreys che mandò al patibolo quasi 300 uomini senza battere ciglio.

Dal 1666 al 1678, il più celebre fra i boia era certamente Jack Ketch. Forse di origini irlandesi, la sua data di nascita non si conosce, né si sa quale mestiere svolgesse prima di diventare carnefice della corona. Molto spesso gli aguzzini avevano una carriera di macellaio alle spalle, e in effetti Ketch mostrava una certa dimestichezza nello squartare i cadaveri dei condannati.


All’epoca, infatti, la pena più severa fra tutte era riservata agli accusati di alto tradimento, e veniva denominata hanged, drawn and quartered: il condannato veniva legato a un’asse e trascinato da un cavallo fino alla pubblica piazza; qui, veniva completamente denudato e legato ad una scala in legno. (Per legge, le donne accusate del medesimo crimine andavano a questo punto arse vive – perché denudarle pubblicamente avrebbe offeso il comune pudore…).
Il collo veniva assicurato ad uno dei pioli della scala con una corda stretta a nodo corto, in modo da soffocare il suppliziato ma senza ucciderlo. Gli venivano tagliati pene e testicoli, e gettati in un braciere; ancora vivo, il condannato veniva poi sbudellato, e le sue viscere erano estratte dal boia che le bruciava di fronte ai suoi occhi. Infine si procedeva a decapitare il condannato, e a squartarne il corpo in quattro parti.


Ma non era finita qui: i resti del giustiziato dovevano essere esposti in vari punti strategici di Londra, come ad esempio lungo il London Bridge o a Temple Bar, affinché servissero da monito. Ecco che Ketch procedeva quindi, nelle segrete della prigione di Newgate, chiamate appropriatamente Jack Ketch’s Kitchen, a bollire i “quarti” dei condannati. Nel 1661 un visitatore di nome Ellwood descrisse quanto vide, come in una scena di un moderno film horror: “teste venivano portate per essere bollite, dentro a sporchi cesti di vimini, e i boia compiaciuti e beffardi le canzonavano”. Le teste venivano gettate nelle pentole e bollite nella canfora per prevenire la putrefazione, prima di essere esposte nei luoghi di maggior passaggio.


Ketch dovette occuparsi di diversi condannati a questo tipo di supplizio, perché quando Carlo II cominciò la restaurazione vennero mandati a morte tutti i regicidi (responsabili di aver firmato la condanna di Carlo I) che erano ancora in vita. Ma la maggior parte dei suoi servigi riguardavano le “semplici” impiccagioni, nelle quali eccelleva.

Purtroppo per lui, un punto debole Ketch ce l’aveva. Per quanto fosse a suo agio con cappi e coltelli, non sapeva proprio maneggiare l’ascia. A sua discolpa, c’è da dire che le decapitazioni erano relativamente rare e riservate ai nobili; fino a pochi anni prima, si faceva addirittura arrivare un boia dal Continente, esperto nell’utilizzo dell’ascia. Fatto sta che Ketch (a causa di tagli nel budget giudiziario?) si prese carico anche di quest’arte in cui non aveva alcuna esperienza, e che avrebbe macchiato per sempre il suo buon nome.

Il primo grosso scandalo che riguardò il boia fu l’esecuzione di Lord Russell nel 1683. Secondo la legge, il nobiluomo andava decapitato con un solo fendente, e una volta sul patibolo Lord Russell pagò, com’era d’uso a quel tempo, una bella somma a Ketch affinché svolgesse il suo lavoro in maniera decisa e pulita.
Mai soldi furono spesi peggio.

Secondo alcuni, il boia esagerava spesso con l’alcol – abitudine che, come si sa, non aiuta la mira. Fatto sta che Ketch sollevò la mannaia, ma il colpo che si abbattè sul condannato ferì il collo senza staccare la testa; la seconda stoccata ancora una volta non bastò. Lord Russell era ancora vivo, fra spruzzi di sangue e urla disumane. Un altro paio di colpi, e finalmente la lama fece rotolare via la testa di Lord Russell. Quell’infinita agonia fu talmente straziante da impressionare perfino le folle abituate al sangue, che seguivano avidamente e con regolarità le esecuzioni. Ketch fu costretto a pubblicare un opuscolo intitolato Apologie, in cui si scusava per la barbarie dello spettacolo, adducendo come attenuante il fatto che Lord Russell aveva sbagliato a “posizionarsi nel modo corretto” sui ceppi.

Due anni dopo, venne il turno di James Scott, primo Duca di Monmouth, anch’egli condannato alla decapitazione. Il Duca rifiutò il cappuccio o qualsiasi altro trattamento di favore, e una volta sul patibolo allungò la solita, profumata mancia a Ketch. Le sue ultime parole furono: “Non servitemi come avete fatto con Lord Russell. Ho sentito che l’avete colpito tre o quattro volte…”


Questa volta, se possibile, andò ancora peggio. Il primo fendente colpì addirittura la spalla del povero Duca; il secondo e il terzo non fecero che aprire nuove ferite non fatali. Fra i fischi della folla, Ketch depose l’ascia, deciso a lasciar perdere: lo fecero risalire sul patibolo a completare il lavoro. Ci vollero dai cinque agli otto colpi prima che il condannato finisse di soffrire. La gente era talmente inferocita che, se non ci fossero state le guardie a proteggerlo mentre si allontanava, Ketch sarebbe stato linciato sul posto.


Un anno dopo, nel 1686, Ketch fu incarcerato per resistenza ad un ufficiale; il suo assistente, Paskah Rose, prese il suo posto ma venne arrestato dopo appena quattro mesi, per rapina. Una volta uscito di prigione, Ketch riprese la sua carica, e ricominciò proprio dall’impiccagione del suo assistente a Tyburn. Verso la fine dello stesso anno, Jack Ketch morì.


A quanto si dice, Ketch fu un personaggio davvero spiacevole, costantemente ubriaco, ossessivamente avido di denaro, sempre pronto a lamentarsi del proprio compenso e a rivendere i vestiti dei condannati più nobili. Eppure, a causa delle sue ultime, maldestre performance, la figura di Ketch si guadagnò inaspettatamente un posto di rilievo nell’immaginario popolare: protagonista di ballate, poemi, pamphlet, citato da scrittori del calibro di Dickens, divenne il classico spauracchio per minacciare i bambini indisciplinati. E, grazie al tipico black humor inglese, entrò a far parte dei teatri di burattini della tradizione di Punch & Judy: in questi spettacoli, spesso il “boia pasticcione” viene ingannato e finisce immancabilmente per impiccarsi da solo.

Bloody Murders

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Quando state entrando ad un concerto, o a uno spettacolo teatrale, vi viene consegnato il programma della serata. Una cosa simile accadeva, in Inghilterra, anche per un tipo particolare di spettacolo pubblico: le esecuzioni capitali.

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Nel XVIII e XIX Secolo, infatti, alcune stamperie e case editrici inglesi si erano specializzate in un particolare prodotto letterario. Venivano generalmente chiamati Last Dying Speeches (“ultime parole in punto di morte”) o Bloody Murders (“sanguinosi omicidi”), ed erano dei fogli stampati su un verso solo, di circa 50×36 cm di grandezza. Venivano venduti per strada, per un penny o anche meno, nei giorni precedenti un’esecuzione annunciata; quando arrivava il gran giorno, veniva preparata spesso un’edizione speciale per le folle che si assiepavano attorno al patibolo.

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Sull’unica facciata stampata si potevano trovare tutti i dettagli più scabrosi del crimine commesso, magari un resoconto del processo, e anche delle accattivanti illustrazioni (un ritratto del condannato, o del suo misfatto, ecc.). Usualmente il testo si concludeva con un piccolo brano in versi, spacciato per “le ultime parole” del condannato, che ammoniva i lettori a non seguire questo funesto esempio se volevano evitare una fine simile.

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La vita di questi foglietti non si esauriva nemmeno con la morte del condannato, perché nei giorni successivi all’esecuzione ne veniva stampata spesso anche una versione aggiornata con le ultime parole pronunciate dal condannato – vere, stavolta -, il racconto del suo dying behaviour (“comportamento durante la morte”) o altre succulente novità del genere.

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I Bloody Murders erano un ottimo business, appannaggio di poche stamperie di Londra e delle maggiori città inglesi: costavano poco, erano semplici e veloci da preparare, e alcune incisioni (ad esempio la figura di un impiccato in controluce) potevano essere riutilizzate di volta in volta. Il successo però dipendeva dalla tempestività con cui questi volantini venivano fatti circolare.

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Questi foglietti erano pensati per un target preciso, le classi medie e basse, e facevano leva sulla curiosità morbosa e sui toni iperbolici per attirare i loro lettori. Era un tipo di letteratura che anche le famiglie più povere potevano permettersi; e possiamo immaginarle, raccolte attorno al tavolo dopo cena, mentre chi tra loro sapeva leggere raccontava ad alta voce, per il brivido e il diletto di tutti, quelle violente e torbide vicende.

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La Harvard Law School Library è riuscita a collezionare più di 500 di questi rarissimi manifesti, li ha digitalizzati e messi online. Consultabili gratuitamente, possono essere ricercati secondo diversi parametri (per crimine, anno, città, parole chiave, ecc.) sul sito del Crime Broadsides Project.