On this date in 1528, Lutheran Patrick Hamilton was condemned to death for heresy and immediately* burned at the stake outside St. Salvator’s Chapel in St. Andrews, Scotland.
The “first reformer” of Scotland — and practically the only one of note during the Reformation’s earliest phase — Hamilton sprang from noble stock and was studying in Paris just when Martin Luther’s doctrines roiled Europe’s ecclesiastical scene.
He traveled widely on the continent, visiting Luther himself along with a passel of the era’s humanists and reformers, returning to Scotland late in 1527 on what looks like the missionary equivalent of a suicide mission. Given a few weeks’ latitude to pontificate publicly, he had armed the guardians of the faith with more than enough evidence of his heterodoxy.
Hamilton was alive to the public relations potential of a gaudy public death for the faith. And he was right.
An opposing prelate would soon caution against making similar examples, noticing that “the reek of Maister Patrik Hammyltoun has infected as many as it blew upon.” In his ashes glowed the ember that would ignite the Scottish Reformation. The young** martyr bequeathed it his nation’s first Protestant text, Patrike’s Places
Nor is Hamilton’s legacy in St. Andrew’s strictly theological. The spot of his passion is marked with the initials “P.H.” on the street — a modest but powerful public testament to the courageous young man’s (ultimately fruitful) sacrifice.
* Though the sentence was put into effect immediately, a paucity of fuel made a weak fire, and Hamilton’s death consumed six agonizing hours on the spit.
Six years ago today the state of Texas executed an FBI agent, a state district judge, the president of Kenya and a war hero who commanded a nuclear-powered submarine during the Civil War. More aptly put, Texas executed a seriously mental ill inmate named Monty Allen Delk who, at varying times, believed he was all of these things.
Delk was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Gene “Bubba” Allen of Anderson County in East Texas. Although the state of Texas maintained that Delk was “malingering,” i.e., pretending to be mentally ill to stave off execution, the prison system’s former chief mental health officer stated that Delk suffered from a severe mental illness, one that had become progressive in nature since it was first noticed in 1989 –- years after Delk was tried and convicted.
A close examination of the Delk case reveals yet another significant flaw in the capital punishment system:
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing severely mentally ill inmates violates the U.S. Constitution.
The court also has held that a death row inmate must be mentally competent in order to drop his appeals.
But the court has not directly addressed the issue of whether a death row inmate must be mentally competent in order to pursue his state and federal habeas appeals. In fact, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over death penalty cases in Texas, have ruled that prisoner competence during state and federal habeas proceedings is not constitutionally required.
The question is fundamental to due process. Habeas is the first, last and often only avenue of appeal for death row inmates whose sentences have been upheld on direct appeal by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. But because Delk was unable to assist his attorney through his habeas appeals, he could not answer simple questions that were key to his case -– questions such as, did he commit the crime? Did he think his trial was fair? Did he think his trial lawyers adequately represented him? Were there circumstances about the crime or about his personal history that mitigated against a death sentence?
The fact that Delk’s execution was allowed to proceed represented a three-pronged failure on the part of Texas’ death penalty system. The first failure must be attributed to the courts, which failed to order a psychiatric evaluation of Delk, despite repeated requests by Delk’s very able attorney, John Wright of Huntsville.
The second failure lies with Texas’ executive clemency system. Because of his mental illness, Delk’s sentence should have been commuted to life in prison. Yet the Board of Pardons and Paroles as well as Texas Gov. Rick Perry did nothing. (It is important to note that four days before Delk’s execution, the Georgia Parole Board, acting in a similar case, commuted death row inmate Alexander Williams sentence to life in prison after pleas from human rights activists. Williams is a chronic paranoid schizophrenic who thinks Sigourney Weaver is God and that little green frogs are in his prison cell, staring at him.)
The third failure rested with the Texas media. While Williams’ case attracted comprehensive media coverage in Georgia and beyond, newspapers in Texas largely failed to investigate Delk’s case. Government -– including the criminal justice system –- works best under the glare of public scrutiny. Absent such scrutiny, abuses occur. In this case, no one outside Texas’ fervent anti-death penalty community took much notice of Delk’s execution.
The good news is Texas’ newspapers are beginning to sit up and take notice. If I am not mistaken, every major Texas newspaper has called either for abolition of the death penalty or for a moratorium on executions. The issue of capital punishment has advanced from the margins to the mainstream. In today’s climate, one wonders whether Texas officials could get away with executing a person as severely mentally ill as Delk.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court will have to directly confront the issue of whether a death-sentenced prisoner need be mentally competent during his habeas appeals. Until that happens, we simply will have to ask ourselves a key question:
Is executing someone who is so severely mentally ill he does not know who he is not the very definition of an insane act?
On this date in 1902, two Australian officers were shot in virtual secrecy at Pretoria for atrocities they committed in service of the crown during the Second Boer War.
Harry “Breaker” Morant — he got the nickname from his aptitude with horses — was the famous one of the pair and the reason the date is so well-known to posterity as to merit its own cinematic treatment (review):
A colorful son of the Commonwealth’s hardscrabble strata, Breaker Morant led a life that has been improved into mythology, not least by his own efforts. Impoverished but educated, he migrated in 1883 from England to Australia where he carved out a larger-than-life profile as a bush poet, married the (subsequently) famous anthropologist Daisy Bates and eventually — fatefully — volunteered for service in South Africa.
The Second Boer War, Britain’s (ultimately successful) fight to corral the Dutch-descended Boer republics into the empire, started sunnily enough for the English, but as the Boers abandoned a conventional war they could not win and adopted guerrilla tactics, it descended into an exceedingly dirty conflict — notable for Britain’s pioneering use of concentration camps.
It was also notable for savagery between combatants. When Morant’s best friend in the unit was tortured and mutilated by Boer guerrillas, the poet went on a rampage, ordering a number of prisoners’ summary executions over a period of weeks. It was for this that he and his confederate were shot this day. The fact of his confinement was not communicated to the Australian government; Peter Handcock’s wife only learned of his execution weeks later, from press reports.
The defendants maintained that there was a standing order from the top to kill any Boer caught wearing British khaki, a tactic the Boers were known to employ, and that the order was frequently enforced. Though the prosecution strenuously maintained otherwise at trial, the existence of that (unwritten) directive has become accepted to posterity.
What remains murky is the matter of why — why these two, why now? And is Breaker Morant a hero or a villain? Those questions are also prisms for the many currents of Morant’s case so strikingly prescient for the century that lay ahead.*
Asymmetric warfare and the legal status of guerrillas. Human rights and war crimes. Corruption and plausible deniability. The moral culpability of subordinates for the orders of the brass. And certainly all the contradictory forces of empire and resistance entailed by an Australian adventurer shot by a Scottish detachment for killing Dutchmen in Africa at the behest of London.** It was an old-time colonial war in a world becoming, for we of the early 21st century, recognizably modern.
On this date in 1853, eight days after attempting to assassinate Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I, Hungarian nationalist János Libényi was hanged on Vienna’s Simmeringer Haide (the link is in German).
Libenyi was hardly the only one who designed on the life of one of the world’s longest-serving rulers of one of the world’s least cohesive polities. On February 18, Libenyi stabbed the emperor in the neck — a part of the anatomy fortuitously protected by a very sturdy military collar the (at this time) 23-year-old monarch wore habitually.
The would-be assassin was immediately subdued by an Irish count and a nearby butcher, both of whom received Austrian ennoblement for their trouble.
An emotive outpouring of official thanksgiving commensurate with an age of political reaction greeted Franz’s survival. His brother — yet many years and many miles from his own rendezvous with the executioner — took up donations for Vienna’s spectacular Votivkirche, a literal votive offering to God for Franz Joseph’s deliverance:
The future Elvis of the Austrian waltz scene, Johann Strauss, then a 27-year-old cranking out career-enhancing patriotic fare, said symphonically what the Votivkirche said architecturally with this “Rescue Jubilation March” (op. 126):
This short entry on the German wikipedia — in German, of course — further outlines the affair.
On this date in 1879 was hanged one of the most colorful — and, subsequently, romanticized — career criminals of 19th century England, for the murder of a onetime friend whose wife he had endeavored to seduce.
Charles Peace told a clergyman who had an interview with him in prison shortly before his execution that he hoped that, after he was gone, he would be entirely forgotten by everybody and his name never mentioned again.
Posterity, in calling over its muster-roll of famous men, has refused to fulfil this pious hope, and Charley Peace stands out as the one great personality among English criminals of the nineteenth century. In Charley Peace alone is revived that good-humoured popularity which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fell to the lot of Claude Duval, Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard.
Peace was a knave all his 47 years, and lost the best part of two decades to various stints in prison. It is chiefly for his last few years — not surprising, perhaps, in a habitue of these annals of execution — that he so colorfully endows his spot in the firmament of criminal history.
A copious string of home burglaries, audacious in both their nature and extent, disturbed South London in 1877-78, arousing the fear of the communities. Police suspected an entire gang must be at work. Irving, once again:
Perhaps [Peace] hardly realised the extent to which his fame was spreading. During the last three months of Peace’s career, Blackheath was agog at the number of successful burglaries committed in the very midst of its peaceful residents. The vigilance of the local police was aroused, the officers on night duty were only too anxious to effect the capture of the mysterious criminal.
Upon capture the master criminal revealed himself a gnarled character at once grandfatherly and fey — “a half-caste about sixty years of age, of repellent aspect,” the police described their catch. As the onion layers fell away, this strange creature of such otherworldly capacity for theft also revealed himself the vanished fugitive of a two-year-old murder — a personal affair (of much less brilliance than his burglary) whose particulars are thoroughly handled by Irving.
Although Peace was known by both name and distinctive appearance for that crime, he had coolly disregarded the price on his head and concealed himself in the infallible cloak of bourgeois respectability. “A period of true splendour,” Charles Whibley called it in his A Book of Scoundrels:
Like Fielding, like Cervantes, like Sterne, Peace reserved his veritable masterpiece for the certainty of middle-life. His last two years were nothing less than a march of triumph. If you remember his constant danger, you will realise the grandeur of the scheme. From the moment that Peace left Bannercross with Dyson’s blood upon his hands, he was a hunted man. His capture was worth five hundred pounds; his features were familiar to a hundred hungry detectives. Had he been less than a man of genius, he might have taken an unavailing refuge in flight or concealment. But, content with no safety unattended by affluence, he devised a surer plan: he became a householder. Now, a semi-detached villa is an impregnable stronghold. Respectability oozes from the dusky mortar of its bricks, and escapes in clouds of smoke from its soot-grimed chimneys. No policeman ever detects a desperate ruffian in a demure black-coated gentleman who day after day turns an iron gate upon its rusty hinge. And thus, wrapt in a cloak of suburban piety, Peace waged a pitiless and effective war upon his neighbours.
Whibley lovingly chronicles Peace’s superb technique and stupendous windfall. The thief’s overt career was in dealing musical instruments — skillful handling of the fiddle was a lifelong avocation; the simpatico that established with Sherlock Holmes earned the tribute, “My old friend Charlie Peace was a violin virtuoso” from Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective in “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” — and he was obliged to justify wealth so disproportionate to his station with an allusion to marrying into money.
Nothing like a Holmesian surmise from such retrospectively suggestive clues found him out; the police chanced to nab him on the job and commenced the familiar tedium of turning former friends against him (enlivened by Peace’s attempt to escape by hurling himself from a train). The supposed heiress who had lived with Peace as his supposed wife readily cooperated in his doom, for which services she applied on the day after his sentence for the £100 reward. Contemporaries caught up in the allure of the wondrous criminal branded her “traitress Sue”.
Charley did not so ill-use his confederates; he was obstinate in his refusal to yield up the name of his fence, and remained affectionate after his treacherous lover to the very end. Indeed, Whibley notes, in his departing reconciliation with an injurious world, Peace “surrendered himself to those exercises of piety from which he had never wavered”
The foolish have denounced him for a hypocrite, not knowing that the artist may have a life apart from his art, and that to Peace religion was an essential pursuit. So he died, having released from an unjust sentence the poor wretch who at Whalley Range had suffered for his crime,* and offering up a consolatory prayer for all mankind. In truth, there was no enemy for whom he did not intercede. He prayed for his gaolers, for his executioner, for the Ordinary, for his wife, for Mrs. Thompson, his drunken doxy, and he went to his death with the sure step of one who, having done his duty, is reconciled with the world. The mob testified its affectionate admiration by dubbing him ‘Charley,’ and remembered with effusion his last grim pleasantry. ‘What is the scaffold?’ he asked with sublime earnestness. And the answer came quick and sanctimonious: ‘A short cut to Heaven!’
* After he was condemned to die, Peace confessed to having also shot a constable in order to evade capture some years earlier. He had actually attended the trial where an innocent man, one John Habron, was sentenced to death for that crime. Habron, luckily, had been reprieved two days before his own hanging; on the strength of Peace’s confession, he was exonerated and released.
On this date in 1953, Polish Home Army General Emil August Fieldorf was hanged at Warsaw’s Mokotow Prison by the Polish Communist government as a “fascist-Hitlerite criminal.”
The officer suffered a hard fate for the geopolitical jostling of great powers in its neighborhood. He had escaped German detention to become a Brigadier General and the second-in-command of the Polish Home Army, the occupied country’s resistance movement answerable to its government in exile.
Polish-Russian animosity is an ancient and fragrant vintage, just the sort of intoxicant to lend an especial bloodthirstiness to the ample brutality of politicking under Stalin’s sway.
As the Red Army threw back the Wehrmacht, the rivalry between the government in exile, (organically descended from the less-than-liberal prewar Polish government) and Poland’s Communist soon-to-be occupiers escalated.
Diplomatically, the government in exile engaged a (losing) joust with Stalin over the postwar Polish state’s borders and political structure; on the ground, Polish and Russian forces nominally united against Hitler maneuvered against one another — and at least one researcher has characterized their enmity as an outright dirty war.
Fieldorf had been detained by the NKVD at the war’s end, but he passed under an assumed name and therefore survived an internment in the Soviet Union. Shortly after his return, a sham offer of “amnesty” to Home Army survivors induced him to reveal himself under his true identity. He was convicted in a show trial of authorizing the killing of Soviet partisans. The post-Communist Polish government posthumously pardoned him.
It would be safe to say that “forgive and forget” is not a governing principle in the current memory of Soviet-Polish relations. Fieldorf’s fate is one more bill on the indictment, and in his case, quite literally so: spurred by the general’s daughter, Poland has doggedly pursued the extradition of Fieldorf’s prosecutor, Helena Wolinska Brus, now an octogenarian pensioner in Britain.
The Jewish* Brus, who narrowly escaped the Nazis to join a leftist partisan unit, is contemptuous of the charge. To some, she is shamelessly exploiting her Jewishness to escape her own culpability. To others — aided not a little by the general’s daughter’s own remarks — the charge springs from a Polish polity whose own insistence upon victimhood (of Communism) has authorized historical forgetfulness over its complicity in genocide.
Someday soon — in a year or two, or five or ten; in England or Poland or some other spot — Helena Wolinska Brus will follow the man she hanged into the clay that awaits all us wretches. So will the general’s daughter, only a few years the junior of her foe. The bitter specter of wrongs that can never be righted is sure to long outlive their passing.
* Jewish partisans form a distinct population whose membership will make all-too-predictable appearances in these pages. Communist units were generally happy to have them, while Catholic Poles fighting for the anti-Semitic ancien regime were generally not — although in some instances, all-Jewish partisan bands organized outside these two forces.
On this date in 1838, in The Count of Monte Cristo, the title character witnesses two men brought to the scaffold for public execution in Rome.
In Alexandre Dumas‘ classic, the count is really Edmond Dantes, wrongly imprisoned years before, who has escaped and enriched himself with a discovered treasure, purchasing thereafter his ennoblement. This date’s execution occurs shortly after Dantes has surfaced publicly as the count. He witnesses it with two young friends — goading one of the reluctant youths by remarking, “when you travel, it is to see everything. Think what a figure you will make when you are asked, ‘How do they execute at Rome?’ and you reply, ‘I do not know’!” — and the naked brutality with which the Count greets a scene horrifying to his more genteel companions prefigures the pitiless revenge he will soon visit on his onetime persecutors.
The scene is laid on the first day of Carnival — the concealed identities among the crowd and the tension between its celebratory state of mind and the public butchery played out before it both serving the novel’s themes.
The prisoners are: a murderer, executed by the unique (and error-prone) Roman method of mazzolatura, in which the prisoner is incapacitated with a blow from a mallet before being finished off with a knife; and, a young man wrongly condemned to the guillotine for banditry, who will be reprieved thanks to the protagonist’s intervention further to the latter’s designs of vengeance.
It was the first time Franz had ever seen a guillotine, — we say guillotine, because the Roman mandaia is formed on almost the same model as the French instrument. The knife, which is shaped like a crescent, that cuts with the convex side, falls from a less height, and that is all the difference. Two men, seated on the movable plank on which the victim is laid, were eating their breakfasts, while waiting for the criminal. Their repast consisted apparently of bread and sausages. One of them lifted the plank, took out a flask of wine, drank some, and then passed it to his companion. These two men were the executioner’s assistants. At this sight Franz felt the perspiration start forth upon his brow. The prisoners, transported the previous evening from the Carcere Nuovo to the little church of Santa Maria del Popolo, had passed the night, each accompanied by two priests, in a chapel closed by a grating, before which were two sentinels, who were relieved at intervals. A double line of carbineers, placed on each side of the door of the church, reached to the scaffold, and formed a circle around it, leaving a path about ten feet wide, and around the guillotine a space of nearly a hundred feet. All the rest of the square was paved with heads. Many women held their infants on their shoulders, and thus the children had the best view. The Monte Pincio seemed a vast amphitheatre filled with spectators; the balconies of the two churches at the corner of the Via del Babuino and the Via di Ripetta were crammed; the steps even seemed a parti-colored sea, that was impelled towards the portico; every niche in the wall held its living statue. What the count said was true — the most curious spectacle in life is that of death. And yet, instead of the silence and the solemnity demanded by the occasion, laughter and jests arose from the crowd. It was evident that the execution was, in the eyes of the people, only the commencement of the Carnival. Suddenly the tumult ceased, as if by magic, and the doors of the church opened. A brotherhood of penitents, clothed from head to foot in robes of gray sackcloth, with holes for the eyes, and holding in their hands lighted tapers, appeared first; the chief marched at the head. Behind the penitents came a man of vast stature and proportions. He was naked, with the exception of cloth drawers at the left side of which hung a large knife in a sheath, and he bore on his right shoulder a heavy iron sledge-hammer. This man was the executioner. He had, moreover, sandals bound on his feet by cords. Behind the executioner came, in the order in which they were to die, first Peppino and then Andrea. Each was accompanied by two priests. Neither had his eyes bandaged. Peppino walked with a firm step, doubtless aware of what awaited him. [i.e., a pardon] Andrea was supported by two priests. Each of them, from time to time, kissed the crucifix a confessor held out to them. At this sight alone Franz felt his legs tremble under him. He looked at Albert — he was as white as his shirt, and mechanically cast away his cigar, although he had not half smoked it. The count alone seemed unmoved — nay, more, a slight color seemed striving to rise in his pale cheeks. His nostrils dilated like those of a wild beast that scents its prey, and his lips, half opened, disclosed his white teeth, small and sharp like those of a jackal. And yet his features wore an expression of smiling tenderness, such as Franz had never before witnessed in them; his black eyes especially were full of kindness and pity. However, the two culprits advanced, and as they approached their faces became visible. Peppino was a handsome young man of four or five and twenty, bronzed by the sun; he carried his head erect, and seemed on the watch to see on which side his liberator would appear. Andrea was short and fat; his visage, marked with brutal cruelty, did not indicate age; he might be thirty. In prison he had suffered his beard to grow; his head fell on his shoulder, his legs bent beneath him, and his movements were apparently automatic and unconscious.
“I thought,” said Franz to the count, “that you told me there would be but one execution.”
“I told you true,” replied he coldly.
“And yet here are two culprits.”
“Yes; but only one of these two is about to die; the other has many years to live.”
“If the pardon is to come, there is no time to lose.”
“And see, here it is,” said the count. At the moment when Peppino reached the foot of the mandaia, a priest arrived in some haste, forced his way through the soldiers, and, advancing to the chief of the brotherhood, gave him a folded paper. The piercing eye of Peppino had noticed all. The chief took the paper, unfolded it, and, raising his hand, “Heaven be praised, and his holiness also,” said he in a loud voice; “here is a pardon for one of the prisoners!”
“A pardon!” cried the people with one voice — “a pardon!” At this cry Andrea raised his head. “Pardon for whom?” cried he.
Peppino remained breathless. “A pardon for Peppino, called Rocca Priori,” said the principal friar. And he passed the paper to the officer commanding the carbineers, who read and returned it to him.
“For Peppino!” cried Andrea, who seemed roused from the torpor in which he had been plunged. “Why for him and not for me? We ought to die together. I was promised he should die with me. You have no right to put me to death alone. I will not die alone — I will not!” And he broke from the priests struggling and raving like a wild beast, and striving desperately to break the cords that bound his hands. The executioner made a sign, and his two assistants leaped from the scaffold and seized him. “What is going on?” asked Franz of the count; for, as all the talk was in the Roman dialect, he had not perfectly understood it. “Do you not see?” returned the count, “that this human creature who is about to die is furious that his fellow-sufferer does not perish with him? and, were he able, he would rather tear him to pieces with his teeth and nails than let him enjoy the life he himself is about to be deprived of. Oh, man, man — race of crocodiles,” cried the count, extending his clinched hands towards the crowd, “how well do I recognize you there, and that at all times you are worthy of yourselves!” Meanwhile Andrea and the two executioners were struggling on the ground, and he kept exclaiming, “He ought to die! — he shall die! — I will not die alone!”
“Look, look,” cried the count, seizing the young men’s hands — “look, for on my soul it is curious. Here is a man who had resigned himself to his fate, who was going to the scaffold to die — like a coward, it is true, but he was about to die without resistance. Do you know what gave him strength? — do you know what consoled him? It was, that another partook of his punishment — that another partook of his anguish — that another was to die before him. Lead two sheep to the butcher’s, two oxen to the slaughterhouse, and make one of them understand that his companion will not die; the sheep will bleat for pleasure, the ox will bellow with joy. But man — man, whom God created in his own image — man, upon whom God has laid his first, his sole commandment, to love his neighbor — man, to whom God has given a voice to express his thoughts — what is his first cry when he hears his fellow-man is saved? A blasphemy. Honor to man, this masterpiece of nature, this king of the creation!” And the count burst into a laugh; a terrible laugh, that showed he must have suffered horribly to be able thus to laugh. However, the struggle still continued, and it was dreadful to witness. The people all took part against Andrea, and twenty thousand voices cried, “Put him to death! put him to death!” Franz sprang back, but the count seized his arm, and held him before the window. “What are you doing?” said he. “Do you pity him? If you heard the cry of `Mad dog!’ you would take your gun — you would unhesitatingly shoot the poor beast, who, after all, was only guilty of having been bitten by another dog. And yet you pity a man who, without being bitten by one of his race, has yet murdered his benefactor; and who, now unable to kill any one, because his hands are bound, wishes to see his companion in captivity perish. No, no — look, look!”
The command was needless. Franz was fascinated by the horrible spectacle. The two assistants had borne Andrea to the scaffold, and there, in spite of his struggles, his bites, and his cries, had forced him to his knees. During this time the executioner* had raised his mace, and signed to them to get out of the way; the criminal strove to rise, but, ere he had time, the mace fell on his left temple. A dull and heavy sound was heard, and the man dropped like an ox on his face, and then turned over on his back. The executioner let fall his mace, drew his knife, and with one stroke opened his throat, and mounting on his stomach, stamped violently on it with his feet. At every stroke a jet of blood sprang from the wound.
This time Franz could contain himself no longer, but sank, half fainting, into a seat. Albert, with his eyes closed, was standing grasping the window-curtains. The count was erect and triumphant, like the Avenging Angel!
The Count of Monte Cristo is available free at Project Gutenberg. This day’s scene occurs in chapter 35. (An announcement in chapter 34 establishes the date.)
* The executioner plays no part in the novel, but presumably it would be the prolific Mastro Titta.
The Poison Affair was rooted in a spate of (suspected) poisonings in France during the later part of the 17th Century. In 1670, the Duchasse d’Orleans, nee Princess Henrietta Anne Stuart the daughter of deposed and executed King Charles I of England, died suddenly. Some years before, the Duchasse, a great friend, and possibly lover, of her brother-in-law King Louis XIV, had convinced the king to exile her husband’s paramour, her rival for power. Although the results of an autopsy suggested that the duchasse died from an infection resulting from a perforated ulcer, popular opinion held that she had been poisoned by her husband’s exiled lover. Five years later, Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Abray, Marquise de Brinvilliers, was executed for the murder of her father, brother and two sisters by poisoning (to gain control of their inheritances). These high-profiled murders, coupled with several other mysterious deaths at the time, heightened the aristocracy’s already considerable fear of poisoning.
In response to the aristocracy’s rising fear, Louis XIV instructed his chief of police to identify poisoners and neutralize the threat they posed. Accordingly, in 1679, a commission was established. The commission promptly began investigating, and arresting, fortune tellers, alchemists, and other purveyors of potions and powders. The police chief also re-established the Chambre Ardente (“burning court”) to try alleged witches and poisoners.
The most famous prisoner tried and convicted by the Chambre Ardente was Catherine Monvoisin. Known as La Voisin, she took up fortune telling, potion-making and midwifery when it became clear that her husband would not make a living in his chosen profession. Unlike her husband’s, her business thrived. Well-positioned women of the aristocracy flocked to her, seeking potions to secure the love of powerful men or to eliminate rivals (one such target of her craft was Louise de la Valliere, then-mistress of Louis XIV).
On this date in 1803, during an era ruled by an Empire’s rough assertion of security against instability abroad, Britain hung its liberal-minded former governor of Belize — along with six others — for treason.
This ought-to-be-memorable occasion lies half-lost in time’s shifting sands, retrieved in part only by the oddity of being the last sentence of drawing and quartering handed down in Britain. (The sentence was moderated to simple hanging and posthumous beheading.)
The day Colonel Edward Marcus Despard was executed was one of the most dramatic, and strangely forgotten, in British history. In this, as in much else, his death mirrored his life.
He was to be publicly hung, drawn and quartered for high treason, a punishment which had barely been carried out in London within living memory. Its most vivid associations were still with the Jacobite rebellions over fifty years before: the days when the British state’s greatest fear had been that a Catholic monarch might seize the throne. Those days were now long gone and, many thought, the old ceremony with them; Despard, as it turned out, would be the last person on whom the sentence would ever be passed. As specified by the Lord Chief Justice, the Colonel and his six confederates were ‘to be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck, but not until you are quite dead, then to be cut down and your bowels taken out and cast into the fire before your faces; your heads to be taken off and your bodies quartered’.
Intimations of the drama had already begun to transform the city the day before: Sunday 20 February 1803. At first light, carpenters had begun to assemble scaffold and gallows, large enough to accommodate the seven men, on the roof of Surrey County Jail in Horsemonger Lane, just south of the Thames in Southwark. The jail was a plain barracks-style building, recently constructed to replace the old prison which had been torn down in the Gordon Riots some twenty years before. The roof had been built flat for precisely this purpose, and this was the first occasion for its use. The main gates of the jail opened to admit seven plain wooden coffins.
According to contemporary witnesses, even as the preparations began, ‘vast multitudes of people immediately began to assemble’. It was noted that the throng consisted ‘chiefly of the lowest of the vulgar’, but that, unusually for a public execution, ‘a considerable number of persons of genteel appearance were observable’. The forces of law and order, too, were out in unprecedented force. Every single member of the Bow Street police patrol, the other London patrols at Queen Street, Marlborough Street and Hatton Gardens, and a ‘numerous tribe’ of petty constables from the outlying London boroughs, were placed on duty. The jail and its surrounds were emphatically staked out, surrounded by a cordon two officers deep. All ‘the public houses and other places of resort for the disaffected’ bristled with police. A detachment of mounted Horse-Guard cavalry clopped into Horsemonger Lane; all the infantry regiments in the city, at the Tower of London and Knightsbridge Barracks, were placed on the highest alert. The head keeper of the jail was issued with six sky rockets, each containing a pound of explosives, ‘to be let off as a signal to the military, in case of any disturbance’. London’s entire martial forces were instructed not to leave their posts until the danger was past.
The impending execution had dominated the news all week. The Times had led its news pages with testy dismissals of the rumours which were spreading around the city: that Despard and his confederates were being cruelly chained together, that they were being tortured for their confessions, that a last-minute reprieve was in the air. It was beginning to dawn on the authorities that the graphic medieval ritual they had scheduled might be counterproductive, inflammatory and unpredictably dangerous. The Police Magistrate of Southwark had expressed grave concerns, pointing out that the question which had been on the common people’s lips during the week was ‘When are these poor men to be murdered?’. It had been hard, apparently, even to find labourers prepared to erect the scaffold. When the warrant for the execution was issued on the morning of 20 February, it became clear that these anxieties had led to a change in the sentence. Exercising their statutory discretion, the magistrates announced: ‘we have thought fit to remit part of the sentence, viz. the taking out and burning their bowels before their faces, and dividing the body severally into four parts’. Despard would now be drawn –- to the place of execution on a carriage without wheels –- hung until dead, and then beheaded. The Observer commented with relief that ‘the cutting out of the heart of the malefactor, quartering &c is very humanely and properly to be dispensed with’.
On the day of the execution, 21 February 1803, the pace quickened long before dawn. ‘A vast number of police officers’ were soon massively outnumbered by the spectators streaming through the bitter cold and darkness. Southwark was a hard area to police at the best of times, a hinterland to the city of London proper dominated by the unedifying activities which were prohibited across the Thames. A warren of timber shacks among the marshy waste ground and garbage landfills, it had long been a teeming red light district; in recent times it had become dominated by malodorous and insanitary industries — distilleries, tanneries and vinegar mills — which were forced south of the river by City of London edicts. It also had a long history of insurrection. In 1381, Wat Tyler had led the Peasant’s Revolt through the same streets; in 1450, Jack Cade had set up camp here with his Kentish rebel army. Despard’s sentence of high treason had more powerful resonances with this period than it did with the freshly-minted nineteenth century. Most of the crowd had never seen a treason execution; now, jostling to witness one, they were passing shops selling roller-skates, umbrellas, toothbrushes, matches, alarm clocks, condoms, Twining’s Tea and Pears’ Soap. Part of the appeal of the spectacle must have been this lurid collision of the old and the new; part, also, the uncertainty on all sides as to whether the crowd had really assembled only to stand and watch. It was widely rumoured that the execution would not take place as scheduled — or, if it did, that the main event would turn out to be an entirely unscheduled one. The people of London had rioted countless times over much less — and, given the nature of Despard’s alleged crime, there were an unknown number among the crowd who might attempt to turn a riot into a full-scale revolution.
The character of execution crowds seems, as with most crowds, to have been largely in the eye of the beholder. For many, they were simply the scum of society: crude, vulgar, leering, gawping, sadistic. For others, though, they were the salt of the earth, good men and true come to witness and legitimise the exercise of state power. Despite the rough spectacle that they presented, they were often visibly civic-minded: rescuing stranded children, or crying ‘shame’ if one of their number insulted a woman. The beholder’s view of such crowds tended to reflect their attitude to public execution itself, as the most graphic and visceral demonstration of the ultimate power of the state. There were many who were already campaigning for its abolition on the grounds, as one put it, that ‘the real effect of these scenes is to torture the compassionate and harden the obdurate’. There were many more, though, who thronged to such occasions in high spirits. Their hilarity and ribaldry –- the proverbial ‘gallows humour’ – may have been heartless mockery, but it may also have been a response to the unspoken but unmissable tension between the pomp and solemnity of the occasion and ghastly reality of the act.
This tension reached its high water mark with Despard’s execution. There had been a long observed trend in Britain towards public disrespect at hangings: the victim cheered, the executioner and officials booed and mocked. But the crime of high treason placed an unprecedented focus on the legitimacy of the act a focus sharpened still further by the fact that the majority of the onlookers believed Despard to be innocent of it. He had been accused and convicted of a shocking, cold-blooded plot to overthrow the state, an accusation which he had consistently and calmly denied. Now, at the moment of the state’s cold-blooded retribution, he had a final chance to speak the case for his defence. Part of the unique appeal of executions was always that the victims, in the moments before their death, might say anything; it was often the only time that the unspeakable could be spoken in public. But if Despard chose to speak the unspeakable, it would be more than a howl of rage, a fruity obscenity or a cheeky quip. The danger he posed might yet be far from over.
The bell of St.George’s Church began tolling at five, and continued for about an hour. By the time it finished, every conceivable vantage point was packed solid. It was estimated that there were twenty thousand people jammed into the carriageway of Horsemonger Lane and spilling onto every nearby roof and patch of open ground ‘that afforded the least prospect’. It was evident, too, that this was no ordinary gallows crowd, just as it was no ordinary hanging. The packed observers were almost completely silent: ‘no tumult, no disorder appeared among the multitude … all was stillness and expectation of the approaching event’. For the massed guards and officers, this must have been considerably more unnerving than the unruly mob which they had feared. It might be an expression of uncertainty, of a crowd unsure of the tone of the event, and too diffident to break the silence. But it could equally, and perhaps more plausibly, be read as a mute but chilling sign of pre-arranged intent.
Inside Surrey County Jail, as the prison bell struck seven, Despard was invited into the chapel for a service of last rites. He politely refused the invitation, and remained in his cell. At seven thirty, his arms were bound with ropes and he was led out into the walled and enclosed prison yard. He was still a colonel, and still entitled to wear the uniform of his rank, but he appeared instead in his favourite dark greatcoat and boots, bare-headed, without wig or powder. His solicitor was waiting for him outside his cell and, manoeuvering around his ropes, he shook hands with him ‘very cordially’.
Awaiting Despard in the prison yard was a very strange sight indeed. Two horses were harnessed to a small cart which contained two trusses of clean straw, and whose floor rested directly on the ground. Behind the cart stood the Sheriff of Surrey; behind him a fully-robed priest, and behind the priest the head keeper of the jail, Mr.Ives, solemnly holding a white wand. Behind Ives stood a line of high constables, and behind them a line of duty policemen. Bringing up the rear was the executioner, holding up a drawn sword.
The quartering and dismembering had been waived, but there had never been an execution for high treason without the victim first being drawn through the streets to the scaffold. It was integral to the ceremony, but today it was out of the question. The ritual was intended to allow the people to vent their feelings towards the traitor, to abuse him and spit on him; today, though, no-one was minded to test how the ominously silent crowd outside would react if Despard was paraded among them. Apart from anything else, the packed streets made it logistically impossible. It had hastily been decided to switch the ritual to the privacy of the prison yard.
Outside the yard, the traditional gallows humour may have been conspicuously absent, but Despard himself was unable to keep a straight face at the display of furtive pomp that confronted him. ‘Ha! ha!’, he laughed, ‘what nonsensical mummery is this?’ The solemn procession was not programmed to respond. Despard was ushered into the cart, seated backwards on the straw bales and, as the dawn spread grey over the prison walls, bumped around the cobbled yard until it was deemed that the drawing had been completed. There was to be no thwarting of justice, but neither would the ancient ritual of drawing a traitor survive that morning’s embarrassment and ridicule. Despard, though powerless against it, had nevertheless passed a sentence of death on the sentence itself.
As day broke, officials could be seen making the gallows ready on the prison roof. The seven wooden coffins were brought up; the drop was erected; bags of sawdust were arranged to catch the blood when the heads were severed. Still the crowd watched in oppressive silence. At eight thirty, the prisoners began to file up to the scaffold.
First was John Macnamara, a stout, florid Irishman, who looked down at the packed streets and exclaimed loudly and devoutly: ‘Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me!’. Next came Arthur Graham, at fifty-three the oldest of the traitors, who looked shaken, ‘pale and ghastly’. Next, James Wratton, a thin, pinched-looking shoemaker, who ‘ascended the gallows with much firmness’. The carpenter Thomas Broughton followed, then the two tall, amiable-looking soldiers, John Wood, then John Francis. Finally, the Colonel took the steps up to the drop. He was impassive; ‘his countenance underwent not the slightest change’ as the rope was fastened around his neck and the cap placed on his head. He assisted the executioner in adjusting the noose, taking care to tie the knot under his left ear to facilitate a speedy death. John Macnamara is reported to have muttered to Despard: ‘I am afraid, Colonel, we have got ourselves into a bad situation’. Despard replied: ‘There are many better, and some worse’.
Two priests arrived on the platform: a Roman Catholic who read the last rites to Macnamara and the Anglican prison chaplain, Rev. William Winckworth, who did the same to the other five associates. Despard himself declined any religious absolution. It had emerged during his imprisonment that ‘although he thought the institution of religion politic, he had no faith in its efficacy’. When pressed by Winckworth, he had admitted that, as far as he was concerned, ‘the opinions of churchmen, dissenters, Quakers, Methodists, Catholics, savages or even atheists were equally indifferent’.
By this time nearly a hundred officers, dignitaries and guards had joined the condemned on the roof. When all was ready, Despard turned to the Sheriff of Southwark, who was presiding over the event, and asked permission to address a few words to the people. The Sheriff told him that he had no objection, ‘provided nothing inflammatory or improper was intended’; but if Despard were to speak a single word of that kind, the platform would be immediately dropped. Given Despard’s situation, this was a difficult tightrope to walk, but he was ready for the challenge. What followed was, even in the remarkable annals of gallows speeches, perhaps the most notorious and best-remembered.
Despard stood up straight and, in clear tones, addressed the crowd: ‘Fellow Citizens’. It was a carefully judged phrase, with clear republican associations yet in itself some way short of an incitement to revolution. Despard may have used it to gauge the crowd’s mood, or the Sheriff’s tolerance, but its reception is impossible to judge today. The accounts of Despard’s speech perfectly illustrate the paradox that the more witnesses are present at an event, the harder it is to establish exactly what happened. Robert Southey, the future Poet Laureate, was among the packed crowd; he records that ‘the mob applauded him while he spoke’. Others maintained that his speech was received ‘in the most perfect silence’. Still others squared the circle by reporting that the speech ‘was applauded by certain persons who appeared to have placed themselves near for the purpose’, presumably attempting to incite the crowd to a frenzy, but that the crowd refused to join in. Doubtless others still would have suspected — and with some justification — that the vocal front row were government agents provocateurs, trying to encourage Despard’s fellow-traitors in the crowd to reveal themselves in the presence of the massed guard.
‘I come here, as you see’, Despard continued, ‘after having served my country faithfully, honourably and usefully served it, for thirty years and upwards, to suffer death upon a scaffold for a crime of which I protest I am not guilty. I solemnly declare that I am no more guilty of it than any of you who may now be hearing me’. Again, a judicious combination of plain speaking and hidden meaning: Despard’s not guilty plea was a matter of public record, and he was perfectly entitled to repeat it. Yet, as everyone knew, much more depended on the statement than the Colonel’s own innocence or guilt. If the government was prepared to use the ultimate penalty to silence him, and unjustly, then they were themselves condemned. For Robert Southey, this was Despard’s sly masterstroke. ‘This calm declaration of a dying man’ he wrote later, ‘was so well calculated to do mischief’. It was, for Southey at least, the perfect instrument of malice and revenge, far more plausible than a rabble-rousing denunciation. But the majority of the crowd would have taken it as a simple statement of record. So much of what was known of Despard’s views had been disputed, attributed, denied or fabricated, that simply hearing him in his own words would have conveyed a forceful impression of truth.
But now Despard set his sights more broadly, and edged towards the unspeakable. ‘Though His Majesty’s ministers know as well as I do that I am not guilty, yet they avail themselves of a legal pretext to destroy a man, because he has been a friend to truth, to liberty and to justice, because he has been a friend to the poor and the oppressed.’ Here was an obvious cue for applause; the next day’s Times reported ‘a considerable huzzah’ from the front rows at this crescendo. But it was still the crowd’s forbearance rather than its clamour which struck most observers. The Sheriff, too, kept silent, and Despard went on. ‘But, Citizens, I hope and trust, notwithstanding my fate, and the fate of those who no doubt will soon follow me, that the principles of freedom, of humanity, and of justice, will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny and delusion, and every principle inimical to the interests of the human race.’
This, now, was enough for the Sheriff; he moved over to Despard and told him that any more in this vein and the platform would drop. Despard nodded his understanding and fell silent. Then he raised his head and spoke once more. ‘I have little more to add’, he concluded, ‘except to wish you all health, happiness and freedom, which I have endeavoured, so far as was in my power, to procure for you, and for mankind in general.’
It was a gentlemanly sign-off, courteous both to the crowd and to the officials clustered around him, but it smuggled in another subtle barb. It was the references to tyranny and falsehood which had prompted the Sheriff to put an end to his speech, casting aspersions as they did not just on the government of the day but on the monarchy and the entire political establishment. Yet ‘mankind in general’, added to his previous and precise use of the term ‘the human race’, made a larger point. Who or what, precisely, was he referring to? Many in the crowd would have assumed he was referring to them, the disenfranchised masses, and implying that his cause was theirs: liberty and justice for all, not merely for the few. Those of Irish background or sympathies, of whom there were undoubtedly many, might have construed it more pointedly in terms of their own struggle for self-government. In fact, if Despard had anyone particular in mind, it was most likely to have been those for whom he first took it upon himself to seek justice: a small and scattered tribe of creoles, Irish convicts and freed black slaves in a remote part of the world which most of the crowd had never heard of.
Some among the crowd, though, would certainly have caught this drift. Pamphlets and memoirs telling the rollicking tale of Despard’s life had been circulating widely in recent weeks. Many would have known, for example, that his wife, Catherine, was a black woman with whom he had returned from his years of military service in the Caribbean and the Spanish Main. Despard’s conviction for high treason had been secured, contentiously, on allegations of a plot against the British Crown; but his final exhortation expanded the frame to a panorama beyond Britain’s shores. It may have been the struggle for British liberties which had finally claimed him, but he had been forged in a wider world of which most in the crowd were yet unaware. The British might celebrate that they never would be slaves, but what right had they to celebrate if their liberty was founded on the slavery of another portion of mankind? Few among the crowd could have conceived that, within twenty years, sovereignty over two hundred million people — a quarter of the world’s population — would be claimed in their name. Yet this was a future which Despard had already seen: his life had unfolded there, and its front line was perhaps still the closest he had to a home.
John Francis, next to Despard, looked straight ahead. ‘What an amazing crowd’, he observed. Despard looked up, and spoke his final words: ‘Tis very cold; I think we shall have some rain’.
The moment around which all the activity of the last two days had centred could be put off no longer. At seven minutes to nine the signal was given to drop the platforms, beginning with Despard’s. In the first unambiguous expression of their feelings since they had assembled, the crowd all removed their hats. The rope was jerked, the platform gave way; Despard uttered no sound and betrayed no struggle. He clenched his hands in spasm twice, and then hung perfectly still as he was, in the words of one eye-witness chronicle, ‘launched into eternity’.
Yet, as everyone was well aware, there was more to come. Despard hung in the massive silence. In the days before measured ropes and weighted drops, death by hanging was an uncertain business. It was thirty-seven minutes before the executioner finally cut him down, and wrestled his corpse over the block. Despard’s dark coat flapped back to reveal a blue undercoat with gilt buttons, a cream waistcoat trimmed with gold lace, and a strip of scarlet flannel turned over the waist of his grey breeches.
The executioner stepped back to make way for the surgeon with the dissecting knife. This was the part of the ritual which had barely been seen within living memory and, as soon became clear, had never previously been attempted by anyone present. The surgeon aimed at a joint in the neck vertebrae but missed it, and was soon reduced to nervous hacking. The executioner barged him out of the way and began twisting Despard’s neck this way and that, a spectacle which ‘filled everyone present with horror’. (Again, other sources –- whether from restricted view or self-censorship -– recorded that the head was ‘severed in an instant’.) When Despard’s head was eventually separated, the executioner picked it up by the hair, carried to to the edge of the parapet in his right hand and held it before the crowd. As he did so, he spoke the words which had for centuries marked the climax of the ceremony, but which were now ringing out for the first time over the modern world: ‘This is the head of a traitor: Edward Marcus Despard’.
Robert Southey records that the crowd broke their silence at this point to hiss the executioner. Others claim that they maintained it to the end, when the freezing rain began to bucket down.
In addition to this guest post, Mike was generous enough to talk more with Executed Today about Col. Despard. Read on for the interview …
Executed Today: What an amazing story — why in the world is he so obscure?
Mike Jay: Basically, because history is written by the victors. Although his execution was a huge story at the time, it was almost entirely airbrushed out of British history in the years that followed. The story that the British told to themselves throughout the 19th century was one of triumphal progress from Trafalgar and Waterloo to empire and global ascendancy.
Despard’s story, by contrast, speaks of an alternative history that ‘failed’ — Britain never had the revolutions that shook almost every other modern state between 1776 and 1848 — but that nevertheless revealed Britain to have been deeply divided, and a significant stand of British opinion consistently opposed to its emerging colonial/imperial role. We also hear little, for example, of the naval mutinies in 1798, during which the British fleet threatened to sail across the Channel and join the French enemy. Nor do we hear much of the mass public campaigns against the war with France and Pitt’s heavy-handed suppression of dissent, which formed the background to Despard’s treason.
Much of this lost history was recovered by the historians of the new left, E.P. Thompson et. al., in the 1960s. But Despard is also an uncomfortable fit with their project to (crudely put) draw a line of continuity between these forms of working class resistance and the later history of Chartism/socialism/Marxism. Despard’s committment to liberty was, I think, better characterised as patriotic and strongly conservative: a conviction (widely shared in the 1790s) that Britain stood for precisely the liberties that the Pitt administration was intent on dismantling. So, in a way, he fits with no-one’s story — hence his obscurity I think.
ET: The particulars of what he might really have been “guilty” of, by the standards of his prosecutors, seem a little obscure. Did you form a judgment about what he was and was not involved in?
MJ: Throughout the 19th century he was universally regarded as guilty, and mad to boot (how else could he have come to believe that Britain was ready for a revolution?). But subsequent research has turned up lots of relevant material, though much of it consists of espionage reports that are highly unreliable and contested. In outline, it seems that some sort of plot or barracks mutiny was under way, but Despard’s relation to it is unclear. He may have got involved to stop it — then again, if he did, it may have been in order to organise it into a bigger and more effective plot.
But the indications are that the government actually believed he was only on the fringes of the ‘Despard Plot’ — they knew of others who were more deeply involved, but to charge them would have blown their embedded agents. They also wished to avoid alarming the public with any suspicions that the plot might be large or well-organised, or have an international (French/Irish) component. Despard was a ‘name of consequence’ who had exposed himself by meeting known conspirators in the Oakley Arms, and they decided to push his moment of indiscretion for all its was worth.
It should be remembered that he was found guilty at a point when the government had extended the definition of treason, and had done so precisely because its meaning was contested. By the same token, under the new definitions of Pitt’s clampdown, it’s hard to imagine that Despard could have kept the company he did without belonging to organisations that had recently been classed as seditious, or having signed ‘illegal’ oaths. In short, he wasn’t entirely innocent, but questions of his ‘guilt’ beg larger questions about the state’s authority and legitimacy at that time.
ET: Do you have an idea of how he came to espouse the opinions that got him into trouble? And how radical were they, really, for his time? Do we mainly think of them as radical because they were successfully repressed?
MJ: He was really a casualty of British politics’ sharp reactionary turn following the French Revolution. He returned from the Caribbean in 1790 convinced that colonial oppression and discrimination offended against the British sense of fair play, but his politics was really codified by reading Tom Paine’s Rights of Man in 1792 (he referred to it as his ‘Bible’). But by 1794 Paine was exiled, his book prosecuted for sedition and his followers labelled as terrorists. Despard, who had lived in the colonies by a strict code of honour (like his friend Nelson) was naive about this shift, and stuck to his principles without entirely understanding how much trouble they would get him into.
Many of his causes were adopted by the subsequent generation, and were eventually legitimised by, for example, the Reform Act of 1832. But this generation was keen to distance themselves from the revolutionary language of the 1790s, and to paint themselves as representatives of a more consensual and moderate element of society. So in this sense the triumph of Despard’s (really mostly Paine’s) causes — freedom of the press, abolition of slavery, the right to public meetings and trade unions, religious tolerance, tax based on means, state provision for the poor, and of course the right to vote — were won at the expense of their original proponents’ reputations.
ET: I was intrigued by your characterization of Despard as seeing a vista of the future that most of his countrymen were not yet ready to understand. But there were many people on that “front line” of colonial power, and Despard’s was a revolutionary age. So why was the path he took so much the exception rather than the rule?
MJ: Because of the way his superintendency of the Bay of Honduras (later Belize) turned out. The Home Office showed no interest in his principled defence of the inhabitants of colour and their rights. They simply replaced him with someone more compliant, and when he protested they sidelined him and didn’t give him another commission. My analogy from the book:
His was an awkward and unusual position. Had he been living in feudal Japan at the time, he might have been recognised as a familiar archetype: the ronin, a samurai without a master, a loose cannon, dangerous to his former superiors and a valuable asset to any plotter. In Britain, he was an anomaly: a man out of time, a patriot without a nation.
ET: The excerpt on mikejay.net says we have next to nothing about the subsequent fate of his wife and son. Nothing more has been discovered or developed?
MJ: That’s all I’ve managed to glean (and hard work some of that was too!). Catherine and James were written out of the family history by the next generation — there are memoirs written by two of Edward’s nieces that refer to her as ‘his black housekeeper’ and ‘the poor woman who called herself his wife’.(!!) James was serving as an ensign in the French army at the time of his father’s death, and I think it’s likely that both ended up either in France or Ireland, where I’ve been unable to follow them.
ET: And we don’t have anything about Catherine during her marriage, her sense of the world?
MJ: She’s entirely invisible in the archive — no picture, no place or date of birth or death. (Of course, this is true of most people who lived in the 18th century.) I’ve filled in the context of black people in Britian at the time as far as I could, and there are some suggestively parallel case histories (e.g. Olaudah Equiano) but beyond that one would have to resort to fiction. I’d love to know more.
ET: Your title makes an explicitly modern connection — “Britain’s first war on terror”. What does the Despard case have to tell us now? Is there a modern-day Despard?
MJ: There are many similarities — Coldbath Fields, where Despard was held without charge or trial for three years in a legal black hole, was very much the Guantanamo Bay of its day, and provoked a similar public outcry. There have been lots of recent examples of courageous/naive whistleblowers, and victims of illegal surveillance and detention under disputed ‘terrorist’ charges, but with Despard, in my view at least, one
must grapple with the paradox, rare in the history of treason, of an honourable traitor: a man who acted honestly and selflessly, believed himself innocent, refused to tailor his story for different sides and went to his grave betraying not a soul.
Generally, I think his case tells us that today’s War on Terror is not as unprecedented as many would have us believe. It’s also noteworthy that the episode is still so contested: historians have not (and clearly never will) resolve the question of whether Despard’s case represented a serious terrorist or revolutionary threat. I suspect that, when the dust settles, our current episode will offer equally little consensus or closure.
One thing about the first years of Soviet history that always puzzled me is how the Bolsheviks managed to create a wide and reliable network of foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence so fast. Below is a history of life and death of a typical spy from the early Soviet years.
Georgy Nikolayevich Kosenko was born on 12 May 1901 in Stavropol. He was a smart schoolboy. Foreign languages, especially French, were among his favorite subjects. He graduated from school when the Russian Civil War began and his parents became active Bolsheviks.
Stavropol was a region of fierce struggle between the Whites and the Reds. On the one hand, the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army had good support in Southern Russia, but on the other hand, the factory workers who concentrated in the cities tended to support the Bolsheviks.
Georgy’s father participated in the revolt in Stavropol and in 1918 he was executed by the Whites. Georgy’s sister was a Bolshevik since 1914 and actively worked for the revolutionary underground. Soon after the death of their father she too was caught and hanged. I don’t know what was her crime, but most probably it was sabotage.
So, choosing sides in the civil war was not difficult for young Georgy. In 1920 he became a secret agent of Cheka in Stavropol; in 1921 he joined the RCP(b) (Russian Communist Party, bolsheviks) and became a private in the OGPU military detachment. From 1924 he was a full-fledged officer of OGPU (the new name of Cheka) and continued his work in Stavropol and other cities: Novorossiysk, Vladikavkaz, Rostov, Sverdlovsk and Moscow.
A Lethal Career
In 1933 the Foreign department of OGPU noticed the young officer with good command of French and offered him a post in Soviet foreign intelligence. On 30 April 1933 he was appointed the deputy of the chief agent of OGPU in Kharbin in Manchuria, then occupied by the Japanese. According to the usual practice of the OGPU, he received false documents and became Georgy Nikolayevich Kislov. He became the secretary of the Soviet embassy in Kharbin. In June 1935 he was promoted to the chief agent and, automatically, to the vice-consul of the USSR.
Anti-communist forces were still active in Siberia in the 1930s and the main task of Soviet agents in Kharbin was identifying organized groups of Whites. There was a large colony of Russian emigrants in Manchuria and many of them eagerly helped the anti-Soviet fighters. By the end of 1935 Kosenko-Kislov and his colleagues had identified about 180 members of this movement. The gathered information helped to intercept three armed groups on the border of the USSR. Another important target of Soviet counter-intelligence was Japanese spies. Kosenko identified about 300 of them. He also helped to prevent an operation of Japanese saboteurs who planned to destroy a railroad tunnel.
In the end of 1935 Kosenko fell ill and was evacuated to Moscow. Having spent some months in a hospital he got better and in May was sent to Paris.
The French Connection
France played a crucial role in international politics and the main goal of Soviet intelligence was to learn more about the position of the French government toward Germany and USSR. The network led by Kosenko received information from government sources, from the president’s office and from the French army and intelligence. They also gathered important information on new models of tanks, aeroplanes and handguns.
Another target of Soviet intelligence was the so called Russian All-Military Union (ROVS, Rossiyskiy Obshche-Voinskiy Soyuz). This organization united the soldiers and officers of the Russian army who were forced to leave Russia in 1920 but who still hoped to return. The organization was then headed by General Yevgeny Miller. NKVD thought that if they could make Miller disappear, the leadership would go to General Skoblin, who was an agent of Soviet intelligence. Miller was kidnapped to the USSR in an operation assisted by Alexander Orlov — remember that name — the head of Soviet intelligence in Spain and by Georgy Kosenko.
Kosenko was awarded the order of the Red Banner — but the most important operation of his life was still to come.
Another anti-Soviet organization also located in Paris was the international secretariat of the Fourth International, founded by Leo Trotsky. The secretariat was managed by Leo Sedov, Trotsky’s son. An agent of Soviet intelligence, Mark Zborovsky, became Sedov’s personal secretary and transferred to NKVD the letters of Trotsky and Sedov. In August 1936 Sedov left Paris and left all his papers to Zborovsky. Zborovsky got access to the list of Trotsky’s correspondents in many countries and immediately sent it to NKVD. He also informed Soviet intelligence that Trotsky sent a large part of his personal archive to the Institute of Historical Research in Paris. Stalin ordered the archive captured. A special NKVD group headed by Yakov Serebryansky was sent to Paris and Kosenko organized the operation. On 6-7 November 1936 Kosenko received the archive — about 80 kilograms of documents, articles and letters — and sent it to Moscow with the diplomatic mail.
In February 1937 Kosenko received a report from Mark Zborovsky that Sedov had asked Zborovsky to organize Stalin’s assassination. When Kosenko sent this information to Moscow, Stalin was infuriated and ordered Trotsky and his top aides killed. Among other operations to this end, Moscow sent Trotsky’s eventual murderer Ramon Mercader from Spain to France. Kosenko had to help him to enter the circle of Trotsky’s close friends.
Although this intrigue turned out to be a success, it would claim Kosenko’s life before Trotsky’s.
In July 1938, Kosenko’s Spanish opposite number and sometime collaborator Alexander Orlov fled to the USA, guaranteeing his own safety (and that of the mother he left in the USSR) by threatening to reveal Soviet intelligence secrets if pursued. Orlov sent a letter to Trotsky warning him that a Soviet agent named Mark had penetrated his son’s circle, and that the NKVD was preparing the assassination of Trotsky at the hands of either Mark or an unknown Spaniard. (Trotsky thought the tip was a provocation, and fatefully ignored it.)
Stalin went mad. He ordered the new head of NKVD Lavrentiy Beria to punish all spies involved in the debacle. Kosenko was one of them. In November 1938 Kosenko received an order to return to Moscow and on 27 December he was put to the same jail where General Miller was still imprisoned. Kosenko was accused of participation in a counter-revolutionary organization and on 20 February he was sentenced to death. That same night of 20-21 February 1939 he was shot and his body was buried in an tomb without any name or date.
So, this story does not answer the question I asked in the beginning, but rather dismisses it by proving that the Soviet intelligence network was wide but far from reliable and that eventually these spies either eagerly got rid of each other or simply fled as far as they could.