Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Tag: murderess

When Swedish Anna was beheaded

The beheading of Anna Mansdotter, as depicted in the Illustrated Police News of 23 August 1890 (via the British Newspaper Archive)

‘The beheading of a woman is, fortunately, a very rare occurrence in Sweden,’ the article in the Illustrated Police News started, with an unusual degree of restraint for the publication.

It was detailing the death of Anna Månsdotter in the summer of 1890, and it was not surprising that the salacious and gossipy IPN sounded so shocked in its report. Anna had apparently kept her eyes open right until the point of her death, refusing to look away from the axe.

Anna was convicted, with her son, of killing her daughter-in-law Hanna Johansdotter – her son Per’s wife – in Yngsjö. Per was sentenced to life in prison, being sent to Karlskrona Gaol, but Anna received the sentence of death after she confessed to taking the larger role in the crime. She took on the ‘whole guilt’ of the crime, in order to ensure that her son survived.

King Oscar II, who voted -twice – for Anna to be beheaded

Her offence and confession shocked Sweden; it had been some 30 years since a woman had died on the scaffold, but in this case, it was universally believed that Anna should suffer the ultimate fate for her crime.

Even the king, Oscar, who was allowed two votes in court as to her punishment, voted for the death sentence to be applied. From the start of the trial process, it was widely believed that Anna’s case was hopeless, and that there would be no chance of mercy.

Anna’s refusal to express emotion after her sentence was passed was seen as a sign of her inhumanity rather than of fear – one of the motives given for the murder was that she may have been in a sexual relationship with Per, and killed Hanna out of sexual jealousy.

She spent her time in prison, prior to being executed, being very still; she refused to express any remorse, and similarly refused to take Holy Communion the nighght before her death. The prison chaplain attempted to speak with her; she refused to listen, or to respond to him.

On the day of her death, the executioner, Albert Gustaf Dahlman, and his assistant prepared outside the jail in Kristianstad. Unfortunately for Anna, she was the executioner’s first professional job, but there was no evidence of nerves as the large, muscly man, in his military-style uniform and white silk tie, prepared the scaffold. He looked confident, as he held his large axe in his hands.

At 8am, the magistrate read the judgement inside, before Anna, and then the prison doors were opened and she started to walk towards the scaffold, clad in a white belted dress. At 47, she still presented a striking figure, walking erect and lady-like, icy calm apart from the nervous twitching of her hands.

A depiction of Anna about to be executed, with her executioner shown on the left.

On the scaffold, the chaplain, who had accompanied her on her short walk, read the Lord’s Prayer. Anna then lay down and uttered a single moan as the executioner swung his axe, severing her head from her body in one motion. His assistant then lent down to pick the head up, displaying it to prove that justice had been served.

It was noted that Anna’s eyes remained open for several seconds after her death, and that her heart continued to pump blood; however, she was certainly dead, and the romantic retelling of her death ended with the more prosaic news that a professor from Lund claimed her body to use for the benefit of his medical students.

Anna was the last woman to be executed in Sweden; her son, Per, was released from prison in 1913, and died five years later.

Death of the Veiled Murderess

A depiction of the Veiled Murderess at her trial, taken from an account of her ‘life and confessions’ – from the Yale Law Library Flickr page

The British press in the 19th and early 20th centuries eagerly detailed accounts of women who killed. Unfortunately for them, there were relatively few British women convicted of more gruesome murders, so they had to look further afield for cases that were sufficiently gory or numerous to attract and entertain their readers. Cases from Rome and Paris were covered in depth, for example, and in 1905, the death of a particularly notorious American murderess was written about.

This was Mrs Henrietta Robinson, who had been convicted back in 1853 of poisoning two people with arsenic. Timothy Lanigan had been a neighbour of hers in Troy, New York. One night, he and his wife had hosted a dinner party at which both Mrs Robinson and a Catherine Lubin had attended. Their one guest had responded to their hospitality by killing both the male host and the other female guest.

Mrs Robinson attracted, and continued to attract, press attention not only because of her beauty and her refusal to behave by contemporary standards for women, but also because she consistently refused to tell anyone who she really was. Even during her trial, she had refused to remove her thick veil, leading to her becoming known as ‘The Veiled Murderess’. She was said to have only agreed to remove the veil once – and then only in a private cell, so that the jury could come and look at her.

Her argument had been, perversely, that she didn’t want any publicity – and that she would prefer death to having her face shown to others, including the press:

‘She was very handsome, but neither persuasion nor coercion could prevail upon her to unveil in open court.’

Even when she had agreed to show her face to the jury, she had first made efforts to thwart them, by  dressing a dummy as her and placing it in a chair. The jury came to see this ‘Veiled Murderess’ but when one of the jury members took offence at ‘her’ silence, he lifted the veil, to be greeted with a chuckle from underneath the cell’s bed. Mrs Robinson had hidden herself there to play a joke on the jury.

Her identity had long been the subject of much speculation, with the American ‘yellow press’ (as the British provincial press sniffily referred to it as) attempting to prove that she was the wife of a member of the British peerage.

The British press, in turn, argued that this ‘suggestion was entirely groundless’. It was one thing to eagerly report on this example of American lawlessness, but quite another to find a link to a member of the British peerage! Mrs Robinson, meanwhile, simply agreed that her name was an assumed one, but steadfastly refused to reveal her real name, even to her defence counsel.

Four decades after her conviction, a woman came forward to claim that Mrs Robinson was really Charlotte Wood, a schoolfriend of hers from New York State, the daughter of a Canadian merchant named William Wood, and one of four sisters, who spoke seven languages fluently.

The rest of the Wood family had a pact to deny that Charlotte was really a murderess, she claimed, but when rumours started swirling, got one of the other sisters to pose as Charlotte to ‘prove’ she couldn’t be a killer and be both in public and in jail at the same time.

The story was let down firstly by the inclusion of the ‘groundless’ story that the Veiled Murderess was married to an English peer – and the second fact that the informant hadn’t seen Charlotte Wood for a substantial amount of time, and had been told her ‘facts’ as a story from another friend. She even admitted that she had no idea how the Woods’ deception could have been achieved.

A view of Sing Sing prison

Although one other rumour was that Mrs Robinson had previously lived in Philadelphia, she had been convicted at Troy, and sent initially to Sing Sing prison – although one paper noted that two years after her conviction, Mrs Robinson had to be sent to the Matteawan lunatic asylum. Her identity continued to be a secret there, and she  also refused to say who the two people she had killed were – their names remained unknown to the authorities.

In prison, she had been allowed certain privileges not open to other convicts, such as being able to eat in private in her cell. It was only in 1873 that this privilege was revoked, on the grounds that it was ‘detrimental to discipline’ – presumably, other prisoners understandably took offence at this lady being treated better than them.

Some 44 years after her conviction, the Dundee Evening Telegraph reported that she had turned up in Troy in 1852, a ‘woman of wondrous beauty’ with lots of money, but no husband, children or friends. Yet it is clear that what had been ‘established’ was no more than the fact that this ‘strange, beautiful woman’ was something of a hermit, and had no desire for company.

When, a few days before her death in May 1905, it became clear that Mrs Robinson wasn’t going to recover, a curious physician at the asylum tried to find out the truth about this now elderly woman, but she refused to give him any information, ‘saying it should go to the grave with her.’

However, it was clear to the asylum staff that Mrs Robinson had some curious talents, as one obituary of her made clear:

‘In her old age, Mrs Robinson exhibited remarkable ingenuity in making exquisite lace, some good gloves, a pair of shoes, and even a set of false teeth out of buttons, which she wore for a long time.’

The Veiled Murderess died, presumably with her button-teeth in place, at the age of 89, her ability to generate headlines no less than fifty years earlier, when she was convicted of a double murder.

 

Sources: Huddersfield Chronicle, 13 September 1873; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 25 December 1897;  Cambridge Independent Press, 19 May 1905, p.5; The Salisbury Times, 19 May 1905

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