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6 People Who Survived Their Own Executions

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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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6 East Coast Castles to Visit for a Fairy Tale Road Trip
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Once the stuff of fairy tales and legends, a variety of former castles have been repurposed today as museums and event spaces. Enough of them dot the East Coast that you can plan a summer road trip to visit half a dozen in a week or two, starting in or near New York City. See our turrent-rich itinerary below.

STOP 1: BANNERMAN CASTLE // BEACON, NEW YORK

59 miles from New York City

The crumbling exterior of Bannerman Castle
Garrett Ziegler, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bannerman Castle can be found on its very own island in the Hudson River. Although the castle has fallen into ruins, the crumbling shell adds visual interest to the stunning Hudson Highlands views, and can be visited via walking or boat tours from May to October. The man who built the castle, Scottish immigrant Frank Bannerman, accumulated a fortune shortly after the Civil War in his Brooklyn store known as Bannerman’s. He eventually built the Scottish-style castle as both a residence and a military weapons storehouse starting in 1901. The island remained in his family until 1967, when it was given to the Taconic Park Commission; two years later it was partially destroyed by a mysterious fire, which led to its ruined appearance.

STOP 2. GILLETTE CASTLE STATE PARK // EAST HADDAM, CONNECTICUT

116 miles from Beacon, New York

William Gillette was an actor best known for playing Sherlock Holmes, which may have something to do with where he got the idea to install a series of hidden mirrors in his castle, using them to watch guests coming and going. The unusual-looking stone structure was built starting in 1914 on a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters. Gillette designed many of the castle’s interior features (which feature a secret room), and also installed a railroad on the property so he could take his guests for rides. When he died in 1937 without designating any heirs, his will forbade the possession of his home by any "blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” The castle is now managed by the State of Connecticut as Gillette Castle State Park.

STOP 3. BELCOURT CASTLE // NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND

74 miles from East Haddam, Connecticut

The exterior of Belcourt castle
Jenna Rose Robbins, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt designed Belcourt Castle for congressman and socialite Oliver Belmont in 1891. Hunt was known for his ornate style, having designed the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, but Belmont had some unusual requests. He was less interested in a building that would entertain people and more in one that would allow him to spend time with his horses—the entire first floor was designed around a carriage room and stables. Despite its grand scale, there was only one bedroom. Construction cost $3.2 million in 1894, a figure of approximately $80 million today. But around the time it was finished, Belmont was hospitalized following a mugging. It took an entire year before he saw his completed mansion.

STOP 4. HAMMOND CASTLE MUSEUM // GLOUCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS

111 miles from Newport, Rhode Island

Part of the exterior of Hammond castle
Robert Linsdell, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Inventor John Hays Hammond Jr. built his medieval-style castle between 1926 and 1929 as both his home and a showcase for his historical artifacts. But Hammond was not only interested in recreating visions of the past; he also helped shape the future. The castle was home to the Hammond Research Corporation, from which Hammond produced over 400 patents and came up with the ideas for over 800 inventions, including remote control via radio waves—which earned him the title "the Father of Remote Control." Visitors can take a self-guided tour of many of the castle’s rooms, including the great hall, indoor courtyard, Renaissance dining room, guest bedrooms, inventions exhibit room, library, and kitchens.

STOP 5. BOLDT CASTLE // ALEXANDRIA BAY, THOUSAND ISLANDS, NEW YORK

430 miles from Gloucester, Massachusetts

It's a long drive from Gloucester and only accessible by water, but it's worth it. The German-style castle on Heart Island was built in 1900 by millionaire hotel magnate George C. Boldt, who created the extravagant structure as a summer dream home for his wife Louise. Sadly, she passed away just months before the place was completed. The heartbroken Boldt stopped construction, leaving the property empty for over 70 years. It's now in the midst of an extensive renovation, but the ballroom, library, and several bedrooms have been recreated, and the gardens feature thousands of plants.

STOP 6. FONTHILL CASTLE // DOYLESTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA

327 miles from Alexandria Bay, New York

Part of the exterior of Fonthill castle

In the mood for more castles? Head south to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where Fonthill Castle was the home of the early 20th century American archeologist, anthropologist, and antiquarian Henry Chapman Mercer. Mercer was a man of many interests, including paleontology, tile-making, and architecture, and his interest in the latter led him to design Fonthill Castle as a place to display his colorful tile and print collection. The inspired home is notable for its Medieval, Gothic, and Byzantine architectural styles, and with 44 rooms, there's plenty of well-decorated nooks and crannies to explore.

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7 Famous People Researchers Want to Exhume
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This week, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali is being exhumed from his grave in Figueres, northeastern Spain, where he has lain beneath the stage of a museum since his death in 1989. Researchers hope to collect DNA from his skeleton in order to settle a paternity suit brought by a tarot card reader named Pilar Abel, who claims that her mother had an affair with the artist while working as a maid in the seaside town where the Dalis vacationed. If the claim is substantiated, Abel may inherit a portion of the $325 million estate that Dali, who was thought to be childless, bequeathed to the Spanish state upon his death.

The grave opening may seem like a fittingly surreal turn of events, but advances in DNA research and other scientific techniques have recently led to a rise in exhumations. In the past few years (not to mention months), serial killer H. H. Holmes, poet Pablo Neruda, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, among many others, have all been dug up either to prove that the right man went to his grave—or to verify how he got there. Still, there are a number of other bodies that scientists, historians, and other types of researchers want to exhume to answer questions about their lives and deaths. Read on for a sampling of such cases.

1. LEONARDO DA VINCI

An international team of art historians and scientists is interested in exhuming Leonardo da Vinci's body to perform a facial reconstruction on his skull, learn about his diet, and search for clues to his cause of death, which has never been conclusively established. They face several obstacles, however—not the least of which is that da Vinci's grave in France's Loire Valley is only his presumed resting place. The real deal was destroyed during the French Revolution, although a team of 19th century amateur archaeologists claimed to have recovered the famed polymath's remains and reinterred them in a nearby chapel. For now, experts at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California are working on a technique to extract DNA from some of da Vinci's paintings (he was known to smear pigment with his fingers as well as brushes), which they hope to compare with living relatives and the remains in the supposed grave.

2. MERIWETHER LEWIS

A portrait of Meriwether Lewis
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As one half of Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis is one of America's most famous explorers, but his death belongs to a darker category—famous historical mysteries. Researchers aren't sure exactly what happened on the night of October 10, 1809, when Lewis stopped at a log cabin in Tennessee on his way to Washington, D.C. to settle some financial issues. By the next morning, Lewis was dead, a victim either of suicide (he was known to be suffering from depression, alcoholism, and possibly syphilis) or murder (the cabin was in an area rife with bandits; a corrupt army general may have been after his life). Beginning in the 1990s, descendants and scholars applied to the Department of the Interior for permission to exhume Lewis—his grave is located on National Park Service Land—but were eventually denied. Whatever secrets Lewis kept, he took them to his grave.

3. SHAKESPEARE

A black and white portrait of Shakespeare
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Shakespeare made his thoughts on exhumation very clear—he placed a curse on his tombstone that reads: "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones." Of course, that hasn't stopped researchers wanting to try. After Richard III's exhumation, one South African academic called for a similar analysis on the Bard's bones, with hopes of finding new information on his diet, lifestyle, and alleged predilection for pot. And there may be another reason to open the grave: A 2016 study using ground-penetrating radar found that the skeleton inside appeared to be missing a skull.

4. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

A black and white photograph of John Wilkes Booth
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The events surrounding Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865 are some of the best-known in U.S. history, but the circumstances of his assassin's death are a little more murky. Though most historical accounts say that John Wilkes Booth was cornered and shot in a burning Virginia barn 12 days after Lincoln's murder, several researchers and some members of his family believe Booth lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name before dying in Oklahoma in 1903. (The corpse of the man who died in 1903—thought by most people to be a generally unremarkable drifter named David E. George—was then embalmed and displayed at fairgrounds.) Booth's corpse has already been exhumed from its grave at Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery and verified twice, but some would like another try. In 1994, two researchers and 22 members of Booth's family filed a petition to exhume the body once again, but a judge denied the request, finding little compelling evidence for the David E. George theory. Another plan, to compare DNA from Edwin Booth to samples of John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has also come to naught.

5. NAPOLEON

A portrait of Napoleon
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Napoleon has already been exhumed once: in 1840, when his body was moved from his burial-in-exile on St. Helena to his resting place in Paris's Les Invalides. But some researchers allege that that tomb in Paris is a sham—it's not home to the former emperor, but to his butler. The thinking goes that the British hid the real Napoleon's body in Westminster Abbey to cover up neglect or poisoning, offering a servant's corpse for internment at Les Invalides. France's Ministry of Defense was not amused by the theory, however, and rejected a 2002 application to exhume the body for testing.

6. HENRY VIII

A portrait of Henry VIII
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In his younger years, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII was known to be an attractive, accomplished king, but around age 40 he began to spiral into a midlife decline. Research by an American bioarchaeologist and anthropologist pair in 2010 suggested that the king's difficulties—including his wives' many miscarriages—may have been caused by an antigen in his blood as well as a related genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome, which is known to rear its head around age 40. Reports in the British press claimed the researchers wanted to exhume the king's remains for testing, although his burial at George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle means they will need to get the Queen’s permission for any excavation. For now, it's just a theory.

7. GALILEO

A portrait of Galileo
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The famed astronomer has had an uneasy afterlife. Although supporters hoped to give him an elaborate burial at the Basilica of Santa Croce, he spent about 100 years in a closet-sized room there beneath the bell tower. (He was moved to a more elaborate tomb in the basilica once the memory of his heresy conviction had faded.) More recently, British and Italian scientists have said they want to exhume his body for DNA tests that could contribute to an understanding of the problems he suffered with his eyesight—problems that may have led him to make some famous errors, like saying Saturn wasn't round. The Vatican will have to sign off on any exhumation, however, so it may be a while.

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