Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The First Execution by Electrocution

     I am distracted by articles completely unrelated to my research subject when I am poking through old newspapers, like the headline in the August 14, 1890 Barrie Examiner which caught my eye "Execution by Electricity". It would appear as though the first execution by these means was not a success, the editor declines to describe the details of what went wrong but simply states they are sickening and harrowing. Even the inventor of the process, who had gone through a competitive bidding war against George Westinghouse to obtain the contract, Thomas Edison agreed that the work was 'sadly' blundered. One can only imagine how awful it was.
     The editor of the Medical Record of New York and eyewitness to the execution, Dr. Shrady is quoted as saying if this system was generally adopted with the same problems, the public would soon demand an end to capital punishment. Westinghouse was later widely quoted as saying "It could have been done better with an ax."
      The unfortunate, who was dispatched in such a disgusting fashion, was William Kemmler from Buffalo, New York. He was convicted of murdering his girlfriend Mrs. Tillie Ziegler. They were both married to others but had abandoned these relationships and were living together. Kemmler had a jealous disposition and beat Tillie to death in a drunken rage.
      The Aberdeen Evening Express had no qualms about giving greater details on the execution. Kemmler had to be strapped in, a long and fiddly process but he managed to remain calm. The first blast of current failed to kill him and, as he was appearing to recover consciousness, the 'dynamo' had to be restarted. On the second try, the prisoner began to drool, convulse and moan and the electricity remained on for 73 seconds or four and a half minutes (depending on which account you read) of awful, while a vapour emerged from the top of the head and the room filled with a stench of burning flesh.
     The botched execution of Eduard Delacroix scene in The Green Mile film is very close to how this execution ran. Newspapers widely predicted that this form of execution would be swiftly abandoned. They were wrong.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ravens and Ash

It has been a while since I translated a story from the Gesta Romanorum or The Deeds of the Romans.
Here is story #110 About Ash and Ravens:

     "The philosopher reads in a book about animals that if one wishes to make it so that a raven, after it has built a nest in a tree, is never able to hatch chicks from its eggs, one should place ashes of glass (?) among the trees and, while those ashes are there, the raven will not produce chicks."

One would think shards of broken glass might I don't know that ashes of burnt glass would unsettle a nesting bird.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ned Myers and the Sinking of the Scourge

     Ned Myers was born in Quebec in c.1793, the son of a British soldier. He had no recollections of his mother and little memory of his father. When the father was sent to serve in Halifax, Ned and his sister went along. There they were abandoned. Myers did not know what became of his father except that he was re-assigned to another location and left without taking his children with him. It was assumed he had died in a battle somewhere, leaving the two children alone and without any family to care for them. They had been left with a clergyman, who continued to care for them after it seemed the father was not going to return. At the age of eleven, Myers got the urge to go to sea and ran away, without telling anyone, to join an American merchant vessel.
     James Fenimore Cooper met Myers in 1806 when Cooper had just graduated from Yale and went to sea on the same ship. It was in the middle of the Napoleonic wars, about a year after the famous Battle of Trafalgar. Ned described how ship was searched by the British looking for deserters from their navy and, when war broke out between the U.S. and Britain, Ned fought on the side of the U.S.. He joined Chauncey's fleet on Lake Ontario and gives a fascinating perspective of life on the other side. He took part in the attack on York in April 1813 and witnessed the explosion that took the life of  General Pike and the subsequent looting of the town.
      In May that same year, Ned took part in the successful attack on Fort George and in August was still in the Niagara area when Sir James Yeo showed up with the British fleet. Myers was on the ill fated U.S.S. Scourge which went down in a storm on August 8 along with the U.S.S. Hamilton. He was picked up by the crew of the Julia but there were few other survivors from his ship. In a case of 'out of the frying pan and into the fire', the Julia and the Growler were captured by the British. As the British were boarding the vessel, the enlisted men found two barrels of whiskey and were sampling the contents. The sailors from the Julia joined in the orgy of drinking that ended only when the British officers stepped below and kicked the barrels over. Myers was taken on board the Royal George and sent to York. From there, he was interrogated and sent to Halifax, from where he managed to escape and return to the U.S. His story shows how uncertain the loyalties of the ordinary citizens were at the time and why General Brock didn't and couldn't trust the local militias.
        After the war, Myers remained a sailor and looked up his old friend Fenimore Cooper, who decided to publish Ned's memoirs in 1843. Going by memory, Ned probably errs in many of the facts but one rarely gets the opportunity to see the life of the unlettered, poor sailors in these conflicts and it is a valuable account nevertheless for anyone interested in the War of 1812 history.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Postage Stamp Commemorating Captain Worsley's Deeds on Lake Huron

     I visited the Nancy Island Museum this summer. It is the 200th anniversary of the burning of the HMS Nancy in the Nottawasaga River. I did not go for any of the historical re-enactments because the truth is stretched far too much in those re-enactments to make me happy. It is rather like trying to get me to say the Lord of the Rings trilogy on film is a great adaptation of the novels. I think my head might explode.
    It seemed to me that the museum displays could use a little updating and fact checking but most annoying of all is this stamp that is only available at Nancy Island, depicting Miller Worsley, the Commander of the Nancy.
There are other things I find objectionable about the image but worst of all and least excusable is the grey hair. Worsley was 23 years old when he took command of the Nancy. He died at the rather young age of 43. It is doubtful that he ever looked this old. The vigorous young man who rowed across Lake Huron with supplies and who lead a daring attack on two American warships in those same rowboats is not this guy. He looks like he is some crazy old guy scaring teenagers off his front lawn. Grrrrr, indeed.
      At 23, Worsley was an 11 year veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. He was a veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar at the age of 14. He was credited with having genial manners and self discipline and I have never pictured him as this snarling old fart.