6 People Who Survived Their Own Executions


The belief that a person who survives execution cannot legally be executed again is, for the most part, a myth. That is why the pronouncement of many death sentences ends with the words "until dead." That means whatever it takes, however long it takes, you're riding this train to your final destination.

But it wasn't always that way. In the past, people who survived judicial executions often did escape with their lives. It was often seen as an act of God and a declaration of innocence. Sometimes it was just considered shoddy work. Below are some examples of people who survived their own executions—even if only for a while.

1. The Man Franks

A murderer, recorded as "The Man Franks" in an 1872 copy of an Australian paper, survived his execution thanks to his executioners' great incompetence. He also had the unfortunate distinction of being the first person to be executed in the briefly established Kingdom of Fiji (within two years, debt would drive Fiji to become a colony of Britain).

The executioners didn't know what they were doing, and the execution took place hours after it was scheduled because the sheriff didn't find the established time convenient. The rope they'd set out got wet in the rain, and had to be held over a fire to dry. Then:

Before slipping the noose over the wretched man's head, the hangman had to sit down and place one of his feet in and pull with all his might to make the knot run; then after placing it over Franks' head he had the utmost difficulty in making it fit anything like tight, but not nearly so tight as it should have been.

Franks dropped, but after three minutes of silence started moving and talking, asking to be put out of his misery. Since his hands were improperly tied, he managed to reach up and pull the rope from his throat, forgiving those around him for the "black job" they'd made of his execution. Finally an official cut Franks down. He landed with a thud, as no one had thought to ease him to the ground.

After watching such a spectacle, no one wanted to go through it again, and Franks was spared death. The officials and citizens preferred his banishment, and the power of the new Fijian monarchy was made a laughingstock to the world.

2. Anne Greene

In 1650, when Anne Greene was 22, she was a servant in the household of Sir Thomas Read. She became pregnant by his grandson, though she claimed she did not know she was with child. At 18 weeks, while churning malt, Anne felt sick. In the privy she miscarried, and in her terror, hid the baby in some ashes and dirt.

There existed a statute at the time that any single woman who concealed a pregnancy or stillbirth could be accused of infanticide. Though midwives asserted the fetus was too young to have ever lived, Greene was hanged in the courtyard of Oxford castle. Her last words were to condemn the "lewdness of the family wherein she lately lived." She had requested her friends pull at her body to hasten her demise, and they did. The body was cut down and delivered to a medical school for dissection. However, when the coffin was opened, the surgeons detected a faint rise and fall of Anne's chest. They forgot their original intention and began to try and revive her—through bleeding, having cordial forced down her throat, and hot plasters, which she also survived.

The public saw this as the decision of a just God, and Greene was pardoned. Taking her coffin as a souvenir, she settled in another town, married, and had children. Her father thought to charge admission to meet her, and the money settled all her medical and legal debts.

3. Half-Hangit Maggie

Maggie Dickson got pregnant while her husband was away at sea, which was a very unfortunate situation for a woman in 1724. She tried to conceal the pregnancy (which, remember, was illegal) but no one in her boardinghouse was buying it. Depending on who you ask, the premature baby was or was not stillborn. But it didn't really matter, since Dickson had concealed it. She was executed by hanging. Her family was able to claim the body and keep it from the dissection table. As they drove Maggie in her coffin toward the cemetery, they stopped when they heard someone tapping on the inside of the coffin. Maggie's survival was taken as an act of God. She became a celebrity, nicknamed Half-Hangit Maggie. She lived another 40 years, and today a tavern stands in her honor near the site of her hanging.

4. Inetta de Balsham

Inetta de Balsham was sentenced to death for harboring thieves in 1264. The records claim that she was hanged at 9 a.m. on Monday, August 16, and left on the gallows until the following Thursday morning. When she was cut down, it is claimed she was still alive. Her windpipe was described as "deformed and ossified," and so was never sufficiently compressed by the noose. Her survival brought her to the attention of King Henry III, who granted her a royal pardon.

5. Romell Broom

To survive a modern execution is truly a miracle. Deaths by lethal injection are designed to dispatch the convicted quickly, painlessly, and without error. Romell Broom proved that isn't what always happens.

In 2009, Romell, convicted of kidnapping, rape, and murder, became the first person to survive an execution by lethal injection. The executioners tried for two hours to find a suitable vein for an IV line, hitting bone and muscle in the process, but never piercing a vein that didn't immediately collapse. Finally, he was sent back to his cell and granted a week's reprieve. During that reprieve, Romell's lawyers declared he had suffered cruel and unusual punishment during his unsuccessful execution. They began a larger movement to change the lethal injection laws in the United States, and declared that to kill Romell would be to destroy key evidence in the suit. He is still alive, and waiting on appeal.

6. Ewan Macdonald

In 1752, Ewan Macdonald got into an argument with Robert Parker. When Parker tried to leave, Macdonald followed him and stabbed him in the throat. Macdonald was found guilty of murder and hanged on the town moor in Newcastle, England. His body went where most of the bodies of executed criminals went at that time: To the dissection theater of a local medical school. These corpses were very valuable to the surgeons, as they were the only legal way to study anatomy. Perhaps that explains why, upon entering the theater and finding a dazed Macdonald sitting up on the operating table, the dissecting surgeon grabbed a mallet, struck Macdonald's head, and finished the hangman's job. It is said that divine retribution was delivered years later, when the same surgeon died from a kick in the head by his own horse.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theatre. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora last spring. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They’ve recently secured a protective easement for the site, which prevents future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker.

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted television show about her life, which is based on a biography by Bundles and is allegedly courting distribution by Netflix.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

Hulton Archive//Getty Images
Newly Discovered 350-Year-Old Graffiti Shows Sir Isaac Newton's Obsession With Motion Started Early
Hulton Archive//Getty Images
Hulton Archive//Getty Images

Long before he gained fame as a mathematician and scientist, Sir Isaac Newton was a young artist who lacked a proper canvas. Now, a 350-year-old sketch on a wall, discovered at Newton’s childhood home in England, is shedding new light on the budding genius and his early fascination with motion, according to Live Science.

While surveying Woolsthorpe Manor, the Lincolnshire home where Newton was born and conducted many of his most famous experiments, conservators discovered a tiny etching of a windmill next to a fireplace in the downstairs hall. It’s believed that Newton made the drawing as a boy, and may have been inspired by the building of a nearby mill.

A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
National Trust

Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in 1642, and he returned for two years after a bubonic plague outbreak forced Cambridge University, where he was studying mechanical philosophy, to close temporarily in 1665. It was in this rural setting that Newton conducted his prism experiments with white light, worked on his theory of “fluxions,” or calculus, and famously watched an apple fall from a tree, a singular moment that’s said to have led to his theory of gravity.

Paper was a scarce commodity in 17th century England, so Newton often sketched and scrawled notes on the manor’s walls and ceilings. While removing old wallpaper in the 1920s and '30s, tenants discovered several sketches that may have been made by the scientist. But the windmill sketch remained undetected for centuries, until conservators used a light imaging technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to survey the manor’s walls.

Conservators using light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor,  the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
A conservator uses light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor, the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
National Trust

RTI uses various light conditions to highlight shapes and colors that aren’t immediately visible to the naked eye. “It’s amazing to be using light, which Newton understood better than anyone before him, to discover more about his time at Woolsthorpe,” conservator Chris Pickup said in a press release.

The windmill sketch suggests that young Newton “was fascinated by mechanical objects and the forces that made them work,” added Jim Grevatte, a program manager at Woolsthorpe Manor. “Paper was expensive, and the walls of the house would have been repainted regularly, so using them as a sketchpad as he explored the world around him would have made sense," he said.

The newly discovered graffiti might be one of many hidden sketches drawn by Newton, so conservators plan to use thermal imaging to detect miniscule variations in the thickness of wall plaster and paint. This technique could reveal even more mini-drawings.

[h/t Live Science]


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