Archive for November, 2008

1824: Henry Fauntleroy, choked on debt

7 comments November 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1824, the last Englishman to hang for forgery, met his fate at Newgate prison.

Henry Fauntleroy making his defense. From this Harvard gallery (part of the university’s Crimes Virtual Collection) of the period’s hanging press, including a Fauntleroy broadsheet (huge image, with a generic-looking merchant type as the criminal).

In a celebrated affair of the time, Fauntleroy was found to have inherited from his father a partnership in the foundering London bank Marsh, Sibbald & Co.

Desperate to keep the concern alive by maintaining a front of normalcy, Fauntleroy serviced its obligations by forging powers of attorney authorizing him to sell stock that he was supposed to merely be holding for investors.

Ever the diligent clerk, Fauntleroy made a ledger of the fraudulent transactions, plainly footnoted:

In order to keep up the credit of our house, I have forged powers of attorney for the above sums and parties, and sold out to the amount here stated, and without the knowledge of my partners. I kept up the payments of the dividends, but made no entries of such payments in our books.

The more things change

Fauntleroy, of course, didn’t have the reach of the Smartest Guys in the Room; what he did by foul means the collapse of his firm might have (more or less) accomplished by what economists regard as fair.

The firm, said the defendant, was in quite a fix.

I was only twenty-two years of age, and the whole weight of an extensive but needy Banking establishment at once devolved upon me, and I found the concern deeply involved in advances to builders and others … and the necessity of making further advances to those persons to secure the sums in which they stood indebted.

Translation: If you owe the bank £100, you’ve got a problem; if you owe the bank £100,000,000, the bank has a problem.

It took a lot less than that to run Marsh, Sibbald & Co. into the ground.

In this perplexed state the house continued until 1810, when its embarrassments were greatly increased, owing to the bankruptcies of Brickwood and others, which brought upon it a sudden demand for no less a sum than 170,000 £ … About 1814, 1815, and 1816, from the speculations with builders and brickmakers, & others, in which the house was engaged, it was called upon to provide funds to near 100,000 £, to avert the losses which would otherwise have visited it from these speculations. In 1819, the most responsible of our partners died, and we were called upon to pay over the amount of his capital, although the resources of the house were wholly inadequate to meet so large a payment. During these numerous and trying difficulties the house was nearly without resources, and the whole burthen of management falling upon me, I was driven to a state of distraction, in which I could meet with no relief from my partners, and, almost broken-hearted, I sought resources where I could, and so long as they were provided, and the credit of the house supported, no inquiries were made, either as to the manner in which they were procured, or as to the sources from whence they were derived.

In almost Dickensian fashion, our malefactor reacted more violently to allegations that the embezzlement had been effected in pursuit of a debaucherous lifestyle than he did to the criminal charge itself; if his version of bourgeois rectitude and endemic financial criminality further to the crumbling facade of his enterprise rings true, the ascetic clerk’s mortal penalty on behalf of his crummy bank will be a timely reminder of the pleasures one ought to seek before life withdraws them (or at least — just ask Robert Rubin! — of the invaluable utility of the limited liability company).

Having thus exposed all the necessities of the house, I declare that all the monies temporarily raised by me, were applied, not in one instance for my own separate purposes or expenses, but in every case they were immediately placed to the credit of the house in Berners-street, and applied to the payment of the pressing demands upon it. This fact does not rest on my assertion, as the transactions referred to are entered in the books now in the possession of the assignees, and to which I have had no access since my apprehension. These books, I understand, are now in Court, and will confirm the truth of my statement; and to whatever account all the sums may be entered, whether to that of Stock, of Exchequer Bills, or to my private account, the whole went to the general funds of the Banking-house.

Parliament abolished the death penalty for forgery in 1832. According to Hanging in the Balance: A History of the Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain, a factor in the legislation was jurors’ increasing unwillingness to convict those accused of the crime knowing that it could lead to hanging. (See much testimony to that effect from the period’s lawyers and bankers here.)

A rumor circulated after Fauntleroy’s death — having something to do with the fame of the criminal, and something to do with what was reportedly his corpse’s unnaturally undamaged condition after the execution — that he had contrived to survive the hanging by slipping a silver tube down his throat, then absconded to live abroad.

Though evidently baseless as a factual matter, the legend is paid tribute by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, with a mysterious banker named “Fauntleroy” whose backstory would have elicited a knowing wink from many a reader in his time … and ours.

After Fauntleroy had thus spent a few empty years, coruscating continually an unnatural light, the source of it — which was merely his gold — began to grow more shallow, and finally became exhausted. He saw himself in imminent peril of losing all that had heretofore distinguished him; and, conscious of no innate worth to fall back upon, he recoiled from this calamity with the instinct of a soul shrinking from annihilation. To avoid it, — wretched man! — or rather to defer it, if but for a month, a day, or only to procure himself the life of a few breaths more amid the false glitter which was now less his own than ever, — he made himself guilty of a crime. It was just the sort of crime, growing out of its artificial state, which society (unless it should change its entire constitution for this man’s unworthy sake) neither could nor ought to pardon. More safely might it pardon murder. Fauntleroy’s guilt was discovered. He fled …

The wreck of his estate was divided among his creditors: His name, in a very brief space, was forgotten by the multitude who had passed it so diligently from mouth to mouth. Seldom, indeed, was it recalled, even by his closest former intimates. Nor could it have been otherwise. The man had laid no real touch on any mortal’s heart. Being a mere image, an optical delusion, created by the sunshine of prosperity, it was his law to vanish into the shadow of the first intervening cloud. He seemed to leave no vacancy; a phenomenon which, like many others that attended his brief career, went far to prove the illusiveness of his existence.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,Pelf,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines

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1517: Torben Oxe

3 comments November 29th, 2008 dogboy

It was November 29, 1517, when the last Roman Catholic king of Denmark, the ambitious and possibly manic-depressive monarch Christian II, enforced the execution of a man whom he trusted for years. Torben Oxe was beheaded at St. Gertrude’s Hospital Cemetery for crimes against the throne.

Oxe was a subsidiary character during the tenure of one of the more intriguing Western European monarchs, and his hasty — and largely unsubstantiated — condemnation was a critical indicator in the governance of King Christian II.

Christian II of Denmark

Christian took the throne during a time of great disquiet in Scandanavia. His father, Hans of Denmark, fought for more than 30 years to restore the union across Norway, Sweden, and Denmark while harshly opposing the Hanseatic League. His efforts bore fruit in 1483 when Norway and Denmark came together to appoint him ruler of those two lands; 14 years later, he conquered Sweden and claimed kingship.

But his dominion over Sweden was short-lived: struggles to regain independent territory in Northern Germany resulted in a resounding defeat, and Sweden gave its new king the pink slip in 1501. Hans was eventually reinstated as an absentee ruler, awarded the title of king in 1509 but not allowed into Stockholm, nor re-crowned. His takeover was exclusively economic.

It was during this time that Christian stepped into his political future.

He took control of Norway as viceroy in 1506, and his rule was less than appreciated by the wealthy. The nobles in Norway maintained a sort of Privy Council called the Rigsraadet, which Christian was unwilling to cede any more power to than he felt was necessary.* Christian was known as a brutal man among the nobles even as he tried to cultivate a connection to the common people.

It was this connection that led to the downfall of Oxe. During his time in Norway, Viceroy Christian took a mistress named Dyveke Sigbritsdatter, a Norweigan peasant of Dutch descent.

At the death of Christian’s father early in 1513, the viceroy became King of Denmark and Norway and immediately set to bringing Sweden under heel. His father had made similar efforts which were supported by Eric Trolle, who was initially appointed regent to Sweden after Sten Sture (the elder) passed away; unfortunately for Christian II, in 1511, Sten Sture (the younger) convinced the high council to rescind its earlier appointment in his favor.

Sture was no friend to Christian II.

It is widely thought that the desires of Christian were eventually played out through Gustav Trolle, Eric’s son, who rose to the post of archbishop early in Christian II’s reign. Trolle threw his lot in with the Danish ruler and gained his ear, earning the promise that Trolle might rule over Sweden in Christian’s name. Trolle did everything he could to secure his place in history, demanding more autonomy for the church and, Sture claimed, attempting a backdoor coup. In 1515, Sture had Trolle imprisoned, the Catholic church condemned the Swedish government, and the Swedes and Danes squared off in a series of battles to decide its fate.

But Christian was obsessed with the expansion of his realm. He worked persistently to expand his power and reach, forming alliances that would help him gain control of what he considered the whole of Denmark. It was around this time that Christian II hitched the horse of the Holy Roman Empire to his team by marrying Isabella (Elizabeth I), granddaughter of Maximilian I.**

Which brings the story back to Torben Oxe.

Oxe was appointed Governor of Copenhagen Castle, a modest nobleman’s post that put him in close contact with the king’s court. Despite Christian’s marriage, he kept his mistress, openly housing her and her mother immediately adjacent to his residence. In summer 1517, Dyveke Sigbritsdatter fell ill and died; her mother pointed the finger at Oxe, who sent the girl a box of cherries two days earlier: apparently, Oxe was also enamored of Dyveke. Sigbrit alleged that Dyveke rebuked Oxe’s advances, and out of spite, he had murdered her.

History is awash with uncertainties, and there are plenty of those in the death of Dyveke. To begin, it’s not even clear that Dyveke was poisoned; she died suddenly and with severe stomach pain, so poisoning was assumed, but never really proven. In addition, it’s not clear whether Oxe was, indeed, courting Dyveke, as Sigbrit insisted. Last but not least, if Dyveke was murdered, there was nothing to suggest that the killer was not a member of the Rigsraad — the Privy Council in Denmark — or just someone seeking revenge on the king for one of his many cruel acts; instead of tracing these possibilities, Christian II condemned his friend Oxe on Sigbrit’s word alone.

But the farce was not complete without an equally farcical trial or two. Oxe’s post gave him a trial by the Council of the State: a dozen noblemen met, conferred, and delivered a rebuke to the king, declaring Oxe innocent of the crime. Christian was incensed at the verdict, allegedly asserting, “If I had as many kinsmen in the Rigsraad as he has, he would never have been acquitted.”

Not content with this form of justice, the king turned to the people, assembling a jury of peasants who were more than obliging in delivering the famed line, “We do not convict him, but his deeds convict him.” So, despite the pleadings of the king’s wife, Torben Oxe lost his head — and his corpse was burned for good measure.


Christian II underskriver Torben Oxes dødsdom, or Christian II Signs Torben Oxe’s Death Warrant (1874-76), by Eilif Peterssen. The queen sits at his side, imploring him not to do it.

In the great tradition of nepotism, Sigbrit was subsequently appointed chief adviser to the king and took over the role of management of the mercantile taxation system, the Sound Tolls; she was remarkably successful in these posts and formed a middle-class council which held far more sway over Christian than its “noble” counterpart, the Rigsraadet.

As he moved away from them, Christian’s rule became more and more unstable, and his desire to have Sweden almost insatiable. After a series of battles, he managed to claim the title of King of Sweden for a brief period around 1520, crowned by his friend Gustav Trolle shortly before putting on the Stockholm Bloodbath. It was this event which earned him the title in Sweden of Christian the Tyrant.

Peder Oxe

As if these connections weren’t enough, Oxe’s nephew, Peder Oxe (born in 1520), who was Steward of the Realm under Frederick II, became one of the players in an attempt to restore Christian II’s daughter, Christina, to the Danish throne — long after Christian himself was out of the picture. The attempt was unsuccessful.†

Dyveke’s story, and her impact on King Christian II, has been cast in a variety of literary formats.

* The Rigsraadet was the Norweigan instantiation of the Scandanavian sort of House of Lords, with members the noblemen of the time. New members could be appointed by kings and queens, or by other members of the council, and, until the Reformation, Roman Catholic bishops also maintained posts.

** This marriage also extended the reach of the Habsburgs into Denmark, a move that would have further consequences several hundred years hence.

Christina also has the distinction of turning down a marriage proposal by Henry VIII. According to legend, her witty response to the ambassador sent to arrange the marriage was, “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Murder,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notably Survived By,Other Voices,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1950: James Corbitt, the hangman’s mate

15 comments November 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1950, famed British executioner Albert Pierrepoint carried out his most difficult assignment: hanging his friend.

Though not literally the Isles’ last hangman, Pierrepoint is the last one everyone thinks of, the man who defined the hangman’s job for the 20th century.

Discreet, orderly, and as quiet as he was efficient,* he was the brand-name executioner for stiff-upper-lip England of the waning empire, with over 400** hangings to his name from 1932 until he resigned over a fee dispute in 1956.

Despite his proper avoidance of the spotlight, Pierrepoint’s excellence at his craft would make him a celebrity — especially after the press fixated on his role hanging Nazi war criminals after World War II. The ready-made morality play upon the scaffold boards could hardly be resisted: the English grocer, meting out a dignified and precise measure of justice to the likes of the Beast of Belsen.

Hanging Around

Pierrepoint’s characteristic client wasn’t a war criminal, but a humdrum British murderer, only a handful of which attract especial remembrance today.

Still, in the immediate postwar years, the growing reach of the mass media and burgeoning public controversy over the death penalty would frequently put Pierrepoint in the middle of the era’s highest-profile hangings, including:

Tish and Tosh

Like as not, this day’s affair hit the sturdy hangman harder than any of those.

James Henry Corbitt was a regular at “Help the Poor Struggler”, the piquantly named Oldham pub Pierrepoint bought and managed after World War II. Known as “Tish” to Pierrepont’s “Tosh,” the two had sung a duet of “Danny Boy” on the night that Corbitt went out and murdered his girlfriend in a jealous rage.

Corbitt was not exceptional as a criminal, and he was indisputably guilty; we wouldn’t notice him if not for his acquaintance with the man who put him to death.

But Pierrepoint would remember this one well, as he later wrote in his his autobiography:

I thought if any man had a deterrent to murder poised before him, it was this troubadour whom I called Tish. He was not only aware of the rope, he had the man who handled it beside him singing a duet. The deterrent did not work.

Remarkably, the most prolific executioner in British history had come out against the death penalty, or so it seemed. (He later backed away from a strong anti-death penalty position, though without retracting his original reservations. The death penalty had been a decade off the books by this point, in any case.)

It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men and grandmothers.

I have been amazed to see the courage with which they walk into the unknown.

It did not deter them then and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder. And if death does not work to deter one person, it should not be held to deter any … capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.

It’s an open question how much Tish’s hanging this day really contributed to Pierrepoint’s retirement six years later or his apparent change of stance on his trade. But it provides the gut-wrenching dramatic pivot for the film Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman.

Interestingly, while the hangman saw in Corbitt’s fate a troubling indictment of the death penalty, the hanged man’s son to this day still says dad deserved to die.

More on Albert Pierrepoint

For a man so ubiquitously present in the mid-century experience of Great Britain, and who undertook such a dramatic volte-face, it’s no surprise that Pierrepoint has attracted plenty of attention — including this website, and a number of books.

Also of possible interest: Hangmen of England: History of Execution from Jack Ketch to Albert Pierrepoint (we’ve met Jack Ketch here before). More dry factual data about Pierrepoint, the father and uncle who preceded him in the post, and other recent practitioners in Britain’s colorful line of executioners is here.

* The English practice was for Pierrepoint to pinion the prisoner’s arms in the condemned cell, escort him a few steps into a hanging chamber, hood him, and execute the sentence without further ceremony. The whole process took mere seconds — a record fast seven seconds from cell door to trap door in the case of James Inglis — which Pierrepoint seems to have had a gift for dignifying in his (usual) silence with a sort of calming paternal assurance.

Pierrepoint hanged six American soldiers under the auspices of U.S. military forces deployed to England during the Second World War, and confessed to considerable discomfort with that entity’s protracted pre-hanging procedures that had him standing on the scaffold with the condemned man for several minutes.

* And perhaps well over 600 hangings; the figures are disputed.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Notable Participants

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1871: Eight Cuban medical students

4 comments November 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1871, eight first-year medical students, aged 16 to 19, were shot in Havana Place de la Punta by Spanish colonial authorities in one of the most notorious episodes of that island’s independence struggle.

Cuba was three years into the Ten Years’ War, the first of three major 19th century insurrections that would eventually throw off Spanish rule, but popular support for independence was far from universal.

This book is the English translation of the classic Cuban text written by their schoolmate.

A vocal pro-Spanish element opposed the rebels to the extent of mobilizing right-wing volunteer goon squads to rough up demonstrators and menace the government into dealing with them only at bayonet-point … proto-brownshirts, albeit from a more well-heeled class position.

Mostly middle- or upper-class peninsulares, they were able by sheer force of numbers to cow [liberally inclined Captain-General Domingo] Dulce into acceptance of their views … Their journal, La Voz de Cuba, accused Dulce of working for the rebels …

The volunteers were a foretaste of those twentieth century lower middle-class mobs of young men who often protest violently against the end of empire. Shouting Viva Espana! in the Villanueva Theatre, foreshadowing the pieds noirs of Algeria, they bridge the gap between Carlism and Fascism. (Cuba, Or, The Pursuit of Freedom by Hugh Thomas)

The Volunteers would make themselves felt this day.

The editor of that Volunteer paper La Voz de Cuba was assassinated in 1870. The fatal accusation against the students was that they had desecrated the grave of that editor.

In Cuba in 1871, vandalism with the wrong politics was good enough to get you shot … four days after the supposed crime. In that environment, it’s practically beside the point that one of the eight wasn’t even in town at the time and the “desecration” was so exaggerated (the link is a Spanish backgrounder) as to be essentially fabricated.

The procedural rigging dignified with the word “trial” wasn’t going to get hung up on that detail, but it was also on the verge of an acquittal or a light sentence when a Caribbean Brooks Brothers riot steamrolled it (Spanish again) into sentencing eight to death and most of the others to significant prison terms.

Defense attorney Frederico Capdevila alone distinguished himself (more Spanish) at this circus with an indignant and energetic defense, despite being attacked at one point by the Volunteer mob. At its appalling conclusion, he drew his sword and theatrically broke it over his knee — a gesture of contempt for the military tribunal that cost him his military career and made his reputation to posterity.

Radical writer Jose Marti, 18 years old at the time of this execution, summoned the image frequently and helped raise 27 Noviembre de 1871 into an enduring emblem of the worst of colonialism.

Che Guevara would say of the martyrs, “El único delito era el de ser cubano” — “Their only crime was to be Cuban.”

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1849: Sheikh Bouzian, defending Zaatcha

2 comments November 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1849, the French imposed a salutary example on Islamic resistance in Algeria.

Two decades into the colonization of Algeria, the blessings of French rule were not apparent to all. (Back in the homeland, the French populace had doubts of its own.)

Bouzian — or Bou Zian, Bou-Zian, or Abu Ziyan — led an uprising rooted half in resentment over confiscatory palm date taxes and half in a prophetic insurrectionary Islam that sure reads as foreshadowing from this distance.

Retiring to the defensible oasis village of Zaatcha, the rebels impressively repelled French zouaves sent to suppress them earlier in the year, sending them off to lick their wounds and regroup for several months in the nearby town of Biskra.

At last, a massive French force descended on redoubt.


Assaut de Zaatcha, 26 novembre 1849 by Jean-Adolphe Beauce

On the morning of this date, it commenced its assault, reducing the village to a ruin house by house against its desperate defenders. The savage immediacy of the fight is by this translation of a participant’s account, printed in this Google books freebie (which explores the siege in its tactical mechanics):

Bouzian holds out the longest. The 2nd battalion of Zouaves is on his track; two bags of powder placed against the house which shelters these energetic defenders produce no effect; only at the third does a mass of wall come down. Our soldiers of the different columns of assault rush in. They are received with musket-shots.

The efforts of our fine fellows triumph at last over that heroic resistance. Bouzian, his son by his side, fights desperately, but succumbs at last. He is put to death with his son, as rough a warrior as his father…

Every one of the close to 1,000 Arabs defending Zaatcha died — several dozen, at least, besides Bouzian summarily executed upon capture — and they took two hundred or so of the assailing force to the grave with them.

John Reynell Morell emits an non-partisan Orientalist tribute to everybody in this public-domain book about Algeria published shortly after the bloody affair.

What impartial pen shall chronicle the panting despair of those dauntless Saharians, fighting to the death for wives and home, and waving palms and liberty! what pen do justice to the gallatry of European discipline, establishing order amidst blazing temples and blood-stained gardens! The sweet South will continue to sigh its perfumes over that oasis; but its gardens are a wilderness, its homes a desolation, for the spirit of freedom has left it.

Those perfumed sighs, though, would not in the long run prove such an ephemeral matter for the Republic.

the outcome was intended [by the French] as a permanent lesson for the unruly inhabitants of the south. To the latter, the struggle that eventually centered upon the small oasis represented an Armageddon in miniature … [but] the determined resistance of Abu Ziyan and his forces created a heroic epic that remained in the popular collective memory long afterward. (Source)

General background on the Siege of Zaatcha is here (in English) and here (in French).

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1780: David Dawson and Ralph Morden, Quaker “traitors”

3 comments November 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1780, two unconnected Quakers were hanged for two unconnected treason convictions in two different cities in Pennsylvania.

The public executions of Ralph Morden in Easton, Pa., and David Dawson in Philadelphia (in a double hanging along with counterfeiter Richard Chamberlain) had the unusual distinction of being treason convictions against the state of Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War, rather than against any sort of federal entity.

According to the Espy File of American executions, there were only 15 people put to death for treason* during the Revolutionary War. It’s a remarkably low figure under the circumstances — separatist colonial conflict that often pitted revolutionary neighbor against loyalist neighbor.

Morden, a Quaker who kept his head down during the war, agreed to guide one Robert Land, a Tory who needed to slip past Continental sentries, and of course didn’t make it. His case is summarized here, here and here.**

Less is readily available about Dawson, but a fellow-prisoner (and fellow-Quaker) left an account remembering that he and the counterfeiter Chamberlain

were taken out amidst a crowd of spectators — they walked after a cart in which were two coffins and a ladder, etc., each had a rope about his neck and their arms tied behin [sic] them … they were both hanged in the commons of this city abt. 1 o’clock.

This prisoner, Samuel Rowland Fisher, kept a two-year journal (pdf) of his imprisonment in Philadelphia for Tory sympathies, and as one might imagine paints an unflattering picture of the revolutionary “State as they call it.” In his view, Dawson’s hanging was a

greater act of Cruelty in the present Rulers than anything they have heretofore done, for they never gave him even a shadow of a tryal in their own fashion & they have executed him merely as what they call a proscribed person because he came into the City while the Brittish Army lay here, the circumstances of which was, that he was coming from his abode with his Waggon, that being in danger of his life from some of Washington’s Men he fled into the City & left & lost his Wagon, Horses, provisions &c — He never acted in any manner under Brittish, nor had he taken the Test to the present Usurpers, he did not go with the Brittish Army to New York, but had secreted himself in various places till he was betrayed by Jamed Reed last Spring & taken prisoner

Quaker Notes

Quakers who stuck by the sect’s pacifist teachings had a tough go of the American Revolution, often lumped in as Tories by patriots and subject to spasms of popular abuse, official writs confiscating their property, and other indignities from those who considered them “the unfriendly Quakers … notoriously disaffected to the cause of American Liberty.”† That same prejudice occasionally exposed Quakers to the severest punishments for perceived crimes.

Thus Morden, who presumably helped the British agent as a personal gesture of assistance, an everyday “crime” for which hanging was an extreme stricture: one hundred Continental dollars from Chamberlain’s press to the reader who can demonstrate that this was one of the 15 most treasonable acts committed behind American lines. But confronted with the request in a time of war, what was the neutral, pacifist choice?

“A man was hanged this morning,” one British officer’s diary recorded, “for piloting some people through the back woods, to the Indians. He was very old and left a wife and 9 children. His death was chiefly owing to his being a noted friend of Government.” (Cited by John Coleman in “The Treason of Ralph Morden and Robert Land,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Oct. 1955)

Dawson, meanwhile, had worked for the British during the city’s recent occupation by General William Howe and was one of many so-called Loyalists “attainted of High Treason” and stripped of property by the state. Still, the British had been gone more than two years by the time he hanged.

Egged by Benedict

What might have upgraded Dawson’s sentence to a capital one was having the bad sense to be apprehended around the same time news arrived that Benedict Arnold had betrayed the Revolutionary cause two months before this date.

Arnold had recently been stationed in Philadelphia, and there controversially married into a Tory family. The betrayal he wrought thereafter was keenly felt in the cradle of liberty, and Arnold’s

effigy was paraded through the streets and hanged, his wife was ordered to leave the city within fourteen days, and his estate was confiscated. Still more rigorous proceedings were instituted against the tories and Quakers, one of whom [Dawson -ed.] was convicted of high treason and hanged. (Source.)

Discipline and Punish

Since we are students of the morbid here, let us also pause to notice the strikingly throwback nature of the punishment — not merely the fact that the Dawson-Chamberlain hanging was public, but that they were so theatrically marched to it, with ropes drawn about necks like the false Martin Guerre.

Not only did the treason conviction belong to a pre-American jurisprudence — against the state, yes, but also of a broader British conception of treason that the still-to-come U.S. Constitution would sharply curtail — but the resulting sentence is sharply at odds with Pennsylvania’s historical image as a a haven of penal reform.

Before the decade was out, the Keystone State would establish itself as an international epicenter of the movement away from harsh and (to us) primitive-sounding judicial sanctions, reconceptualizing punishment into the ordered prison system still familiar today. Pennsylvania abolished the death penalty for all crimes but murder by the turn of the century (it had made liberal use of the rope to punish crimes like burglary before that), and even murder hangings were not frequent.

Quakers, and Quaker philosophy, were instrumental in the shift.

If the thought that led to that sea change came from a deeper place, it may yet have been informed by the episodic recent history of the revolution: according to Gail Stuart Rowe’s Embattled Bench, there were around 700 indictments and attainders for treason or misprision of treason in Pennsylvania throughout the American Revolution, and these resulted in only four hangings.

All four of the hanged were Quakers.

* The Espy file is an outstanding resource, with the intent to document every execution that took place in what is now the United States since its colonial antecedents. However, it is not necessarily reliable that it actually does this, so the precise figure of 15 should not be depended upon too greatly.

** Land himself managed to escape from the ambush, leaving only Morden to face the music. The interest in his fate seems to come from genealogists; according to this site, Charles Lindbergh numbered among his descendants — bringing us to another century’s death penalty.

† That was George Washington, cited in George Washington and Slavery. However, according to this listing of famous Quakers, other notable patriots like revolutionary Gen. Nathanael Greene, flag-stitcher Betsy Ross and polemicist Thomas Paine were Quakers, too.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions

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1922: Robert Erskine Childers, for carrying the gun of Michael Collins

3 comments November 24th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Robert Erskine Childers was shot by the Irish Free State for carrying a gun its founding colossus had gifted him.

Many Irishmen were executed on either side in this terrible time, but Childers cuts a unique figure among them.

To begin with, he wasn’t all that Irish — “that damned Englishman,” fellow Republican turned Civil War enemy Arthur Griffith called him. The London-born son of a British scholar and an Irish mother, Childers was a lifelong Protestant, itself an anomaly since Irish nationalism mapped (and still maps) strongly to Catholicism.

You’d think he’d be a loyal man of the empire. Early on, that’s just what he was.

In his twenties, Childers volunteered for the Boer War, and he would later say the rank savagery and underlying injustice of England’s war “changed the whole current of my life and made me a Liberal and a Nationalist.” (Source.)

Laying down the sword, Childers took up the pen and wrote several books of military history. (Long since into the public domain, at least two can be read free online: War and the Arme Blanche, German Influence on British Cavalry.) He also wrote a novel, The Riddle of the Sands, that has a (debatable) claim as the first spy novel. Riddle has never gone out of print since it was published in 1903, though it is also available free online.

Both in fiction and nonfiction, Childers’ warnings against the German challenge to British hegemony were prophetic, but he was himself becoming a man divided. 1914 saw him running German guns to Irish nationalists aboard his yacht Asgard … and then signing up for the royal navy when World War I erupted.

The British crackdown on the Easter Rising during the war completed his radicalization; he moved to Dublin and turned his eloquence against the British.

Here, Childers was swept into the tragedy of the Irish War of Independence, and the civil war that followed it; though both were in the delegation that produced the contentious Anglo-Irish Treaty, Childers broke with Michael Collins over it and backed the IRA nationalists who fought the Irish Free State.

After Collins’s assassination, emergency laws promulgated the death sentence for anyone caught armed without authorization. Childers was a writer, not a partisan, but he was arrested in early November with a small sidearm — a gift Michael Collins had given him, back when they were on the same side. It was a time of bloody justice, and they threw the book at him.

Childers knew as well as Collins had that the internecine conflict would have to end. He checked out with awe-inspiring forgiveness; summoning his 16-year-old son to prison the night before his execution, Childers extracted a promise that the boy would find everyone who signed his death warrant … and shake their hands. (Young Erskine Hamilton Childers eventually became President of Ireland.)

Childers himself likewise shook the hands of his own firing squad, one by one. His last words (reported in a number of slightly different variations) were lightheartedly addressed to them:

Take a step or two forwards, lads. It will be easier that way.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,History,Intellectuals,Ireland,Martyrs,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1927: Father Miguel Pro, “Viva Cristo Rey!”

4 comments November 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1927, the anti-clerical Mexican government made the emblematic martyr of the Cristero War.

This video is in Spanish, but the storyline is pretty easy to follow — young man finds faith, lives faith, dies faith.

Miguel Pro‘s dying cry, “Viva Cristo Rey!” — “Long live Christ the King!” — was a refrain of Cristeros, anti-government guerrillas who in the late 1920’s fought the revolutionary Mexican government’s attempts to forcibly restrict the power of the Catholic Church.

That conflict had been brewing for years, an outgrowth of Mexico’s own complex history of colonization and development — measures to restrict the church’s size, wealth, and social reach had been mooted and sometimes implemented well back to the middle of the 19th century.

Early in the 20th, the confrontation was merely a twist on its classic form: liberal state-builders and the Catholic hierarchy were (or increasingly saw themselves as) diametrically opposed in their vision for Mexico.

That conflict came to a head under president Plutarco Elias Calles, an irreligious northerner with a project of national capital development for whom the church’s intransigence from its agrarian strongholds was most unwelcome … and who seemed to delight in provoking Rome with sport like mandatory physicals for priests, not neglecting to publicize the incidence of venereal disease thereby revealed.

Liberals had already brought about drastically reduced clerical privileges in the Mexican Constitution of 1917; its somewhat draconian measures were neither fully enforced nor fully resisted, but initiated a period where the two hostile institutions rudely grappled for their respective spheres of influence on the ground.

Calles was the rudest grappler of all, and his 1926 Calles Law pushed for anti-clericalism stricter than the letter of the constitution … and sparked armed resistance.

It was an exceptionally dirty war with routine summary executions on both sides and thousands of Catholic refugees — a dangerous environment for any priest with legal sanctions against basically every practice of the vocation. (Photos of Cristeros, some in heroic resistance and others in grisly martyrdom, can be eyeballed here.)

Pro, a Jesuit who like many was forced underground, was under state surveillance and got picked up in the aftermath of an assassination attempt against a prominent politician. He was chosen to make an example of — without an actual trial, possibly because there’s no actual reason to think he was involved in the bombing.

Looking at these pictures of Pro’s last moments, it’s hard to believe that they were taken and circulated at government direction to cow the Cristero movement. Fail.


Led out to execution in a police courtyard. The place of his death today is (bizarrely) Calle Loteria Nacional.


Calmly at prayer before his death, under the eye of the firing squad commander.


Pro himself refused a blindfold. But why state authorities carrying out the execution with an eye towards public relations would allow him to die in this pose is anyone’s guess.


He blessed and forgave the firing squad, of course.


Just beginning to topple at the moment the bullets struck him.


Like many firing squad executions, this one failed to kill its victim with the ceremonial volley. Pro was finished off with a coup de grace.

Calles was simultaneously — the key measures were also enacted in 1926 — involved in a confrontation with the United States over oil rights, a situation that came to the brink of war, with Washington saber-rattling about “Soviet Mexico”. It’s tempting to wonder whether the two situations weren’t related, especially since the new American ambassador* who had arrived only the month before Pro’s execution would ultimately negotiate both situations’ resolutions.

While the natural resource politics went their separate way, the Mexican Revolution’s anti-clerical strain didn’t so much disappear by negotiation as fade away over decades, with regular new outbreaks.

One thinks of Mexico today as such so staunch a Catholic country that it’s hard to imagine that some of these provisions were only officially repealed in 1998.

As for Pro, he’s welcome in Mexico by now — celebrated by Pope John Paul II who ultimately beatified him, and the inspirational source of this hymn whose refrain is his famous last cry.

There’s a faithful site in his honor here, and apparently a shrine to him in Houston, Texas run by a group pushing for his canonization.

* The American ambassador in question, Dwight Morrow, invited Charles Lindbergh on a goodwill tour to Mexico, where the aviator would meet the diplomat’s daughter not long after Miguel Pro’s martyrdom. Little could Lindbergh and Anne Morrow suspect that their love match would set them on the path to their own famous encounter with capital punishment.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,History,Martyrs,Mature Content,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1538: John Lambert, “none but Christ”

3 comments November 22nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date 470 years ago, John Lambert was burned to death at London’s Smithfield market for heresy.

One possible way to read the early progress of the English Reformation is as an initial flowering of Protestantism followed — after the execution of Anne Boleyn — by a reactionary crackdown by the monarch.

In this telling, John Lambert (born John Nicolson or Nicholson) marks the turning point, the man in whose blood Henry VIII etched his warning against doctrinal liberality.

John Lambert cooked his goose by picking a theological dispute with a pastor in London. He didn’t buy into transubstantiation, the Catholic doctrine (still extant today) that the bread blessed on the altar became the literal body of Christ.

Though the Anglican church would ditch this belief soon thereafter, it came down hard on Lambert in a show trial attended by Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, and all the Tudor big wheels whose heads were at that point attached to their shoulders.

The king himself — who here reminds one of the the stout defense of the sacraments that in his early Catholic period had earned him the papal honorific “defender of the faith” — debated theology with the accused, though mostly he left it to his august councilors.


John Lambert disputing before Henry VIII. Early 19th c. illustration.

But the crowned head made his doctrine as plain to the audience as the consequences of crossing it.

The pro-Lambert account from which this extract is drawn is available free on Google books:

At length [Lambert] was worn out with fatigue, having been kept five hours standing …

Night coming on, the King being desirous to break up this pretended disputation, said to Lambert, “What sayest thou now, after all this pains taken with thee, and all the reasons and instructions of these learned men? Art thou not yet satisfied? Wilt thou live or die? What sayest thou? Thou has yet free choice.” Lambert answered, “I yield and submit myself wholly unto the will of your Majesty.” Then said the King, “Commit thyself into the hands of God, and not unto mine.” Lambert replied, “I commend my soul unto the hands of God, but my body I wholly yield and submit unto your clemency.” Then said the King, “If you do commit yourself unto my judgment, you must die, for I will not be a Patron unto heretics.” And then turning to Lord Cromwell he said, “Cromwell, read the sentence of condemnation against him:” which was accordingly done.

A few months later, Henry induced Parliament to pass the Act of the Six Articles, essentially establishing Catholic doctrine — sans Pope, obviously — as the basis for the Church of England and criminalizing dissent.

What to make of this trial and the policy it represented is open to dispute. In a simple telling, Henry realizes his Reformation is running away from him, or becomes wise to discomfiting reforms that Cranmer or Cromwell are pushing. Too, the ebb and flow of Henry’s “Reformation” has sometimes been seen as a product of the shifting balance between reformers and conservatives advising the crown; Protestant martyrologist John Foxe favored this approach since it enabled him to celebrate a John Lambert without indicting the monarch by blaming advisors.

Lambert’s death is also sometimes interpreted in light of the international situation, as the Catholic powers of France and the Holy Roman Empire had made peace, potentially (along with Scotland) encircling England with Popish foes who might conceivably be less belligerent with a move towards traditional doctrine.*

But maybe that’s all a good deal more explanation than is needed for the old defender of the faith. G.W. Bernard’s consideration of The King’s Reformation argues that Lambert isn’t so pivotal after all:

[H]istorians who see … the trial of Lambert as some sort of turning point are greatly mistaken. There was absolutely nothing new in Henry’s policy in November 1538. Ever since radical — Zwinglian — notions on the mass had come to influence some within England, Henry had reacted firmly and boldly. This was not something that only came late in the 1530s, when he supposedly woke up to what Cromwell and Cranmer had been doing in his name but without his knowledge. It was there from the start. As early as March 1535 a proclamation fiercely denounced strangers who had presumptuously rebaptised themselves and who denied that the blessed and most holy sacrament of the altar was really the body of Christ. If there was a novelty in autumn 1538, it was the perception that such heresies were spreading through the realm and that heretics with a high profile, such as Lambert, needed to be dealt with publicly so that others might learn from their unhappy example. … Henry surely blasted against sacramentarians for the straightforward reason that he sincerely believed them to be wicked.

As for Lambert himself, he met an especially cruel version of the none-too-pleasant sentence of burning alive, allegedly being lifted by pikestaffs from the flame when his legs were burned off to prolong his suffering. He is said to have continued to call out the inspirational last words, “None but Christ! None but Christ!”

* It was against this alliance that Cromwell would arrange the king’s ill-fated marriage to German princess Anne of Cleves, a debacle that helped Cromwell lose his own head.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Notable Participants,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1942: Partisans by the Sonderbataillon Dirlewanger

6 comments November 21st, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date in November 1942, this photograph of an SS unit executing anti-Nazi partisans in Belarus was taken.

Behind this striking but all too typical image of brutal field executions on the eastern front lies the sordid story of one of the strangest military formations in the Nazi service.

The Dirlewanger brigade was formed under a man whose fortuitous early enrollment in the NSDAP had enabled him to pull strings to get himself out of Dachau, where he had been sent after his second molestation conviction, and where unfolding events could have easily seen him on the other end of the firing squad.

Instead, Oskar Dirlewanger formed a unit of criminals and reprobates: poachers at first, and eventually, as it grew into the SS-Sonderbatallion Dirlewanger, men culled from the camps or soldiers condemned by the army, some literally trading the likelihood of execution themselves for service under one of the most disreputable commanders in the field.

Oh, and, just incidentally — it stuck them into a lawless environment where they could probably practice and refine their pathologies unchecked. Some “rehabilitation.”

As of this relatively early date, the convict floodgates weren’t yet entirely open, and the existing German volunteers were supplemented by a goodly portion of Soviet citizens recruited in the occupied territories. From 1942 to 1944, they hung around Belarus hunting guerrillas and doing to them — well, you know. (The original notion of using poachers was to exploit their ranger-like woodsman talents for anti-partisan warfare.)

Oh, and civilians. Tens of thousands of civilians. That almost goes without saying.

Sadly for Dr. Dirlewanger, events further south were undoing all his bloody work, for it was also in the November 1942 that the Red Army decisively turned the tide of the war with its counterattack at Stalingrad — in fact, it was this very date in 1942 that it completed its encirclement, stranding a quarter-million freezing Wehrmacht regulars on the banks of the Volga, only a handful ever to see Germany again.

The Dirlewanger brigade would have its own turn being minced by the Soviet war machine, though not before it had a notorious hand in drowning the Warsaw Uprising in blood.

Dirlewanger himself was tortured to death by Polish guards a few weeks after the war ended.

Part of the Themed Set: The “Ex” Stands For “Extrajudicial”.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guerrillas,History,Known But To God,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USSR,Wartime Executions

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