Female Executions: XX marks the spot

While browsing the news one day when we still lived in Minnesota,  I read about a woman called Ann Bilansky. Ann has the dubious distinction of being the first white person and first (and last) woman executed after Minnesota became a state. She was hanged in 1860 after being convicted of the poisoning death of her husband.

This news nugget made me wonder about other women who have been executed for their crimes. There aren't that many, thank goodness! But there are more than fifty that have met that fate from colonial days to the present. A small percentage compared to five figures' worth of men executed, but still, fifty is a lot.

Of these, half a dozen were considered serial killers; most in the modern era. Several were killed during the Salem Witch Trial era. A disturbing number were convicted of murder by poison, usually arsenic. I suppose it's true what they say: poison is a woman's weapon (unless you run Russia or North Korea).

Fellow writers, if you're looking for story ideas, look no further. There are some real doozies. And as they say, truth is stranger than fiction.

Some notorious female criminals are familiar to many of us.

  • The movie Monster starring Charlize Theron was based on the life of serial killer Ailene Wuornos, who was executed by lethal injection in 2002.
  • Ethel Rosenburg and her husband Julius got the chair in 1953 after being convicted of espionage (selling nuclear secrets to the Russians).
  • Mary Surratt was hung in 1865 for her role in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

And then there are the less well-known. As you can imagine, there are some fascinating stories lurking in the background. Consider:

  • Martha Beck, who got the chair at Sing Sing in 1951. She was one half of the infamous Lonely Hearts Killers duo. Trust me, folks, this is one of the rare occasions I did NOT enjoy the research process. Lawd. I think the entire series of Law & Order SVU is some iteration of their sordid tale.
  • Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh was executed in 1846 for poisoning her husband. She was hanged while sitting in her rocking chair, as she was tremendously overweight and the executioners wanted to avoid botching it.
  • Two unfortunates who did not avoid botching: Roxana Druse, whose botched hanging in 1887 resulted in a slow, agonizing death by strangulation; and Eva Dugan, who was decapitated during her hanging in 1930. Both fiascos resulted in a change in methods of execution in the respective states (Arizona and New York). 
  • Josefa "Chipita" Rodriguez was hanged in Texas in 1863. She said little during her trial for murder during the commission of a robbery. It's thought she was covering for her son.  Her last words were something to the effect of 'I'm not guilty'.  Rumors abound that moans were reported coming from her coffin. Her ghost is said to haunt the town of San Patricio, where she died.
  • Hannah Ocuish is the youngest known legally executed person in American history. She was 12 when hanged in 1786; her victim was 6. Hanna beat her friend to death for ratting on her over some stolen strawberries.
  • Lavinia Fisher was hanged in 1820, convicted of crimes perpetrated on guests at an inn she and her husband owned in Charleston, South Carolina. There are some wild rumors about their exploits. My favorite is that like one of the female villains in the James Bond lexicon, Lavinia killed by crushing her victims' heads between her legs.

    Lavinia Fisher

Presently there are fifty or so women sitting on death row somewhere. They may not all face execution. Some may escape, a la The Shawshank Redemption. Some may escape legally by having their convictions overturned. Some may avoid the chair or the needle if the capital punishment laws in their area change. Some may not outlive their sentence. One thing's for sure: that extra X chromosome is not much protection if you do the crime.

This post originally appeared as part of the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

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