September 1st, 2009 Headsman
On this date in 1851, Venezuelan-born adventurer Narciso Lopez was garroted in Havana for his repeated expeditions to overturn Spanish dominion in Cuba.
Narciso Lopez had fought for the Spanish against Simon Bolivar, and migrated to Cuba when Bolivar carried the day.
Initially a loyal government functionary, Lopez gradually became sweet on the anti-Spanish cause, and fled Cuba for the United States (pursued by a death sentence in absentia) when a treasonable conspiracy of his was discovered.
Like MacArthur, he meant to return — and did.
Lopez crisscrossed the United States, drumming up support for filibustering raids on Cuba meant to detach it from Spain and make it an American slave state.
In this proposed enterprise, wedded alike to both national expansionism and southern sectionalism, Lopez rubbed shoulders with the likes of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, even helping precipitate criminal charges against a former U.S. Senator who backed him.
But the five expeditions went from bad to worse, until Lopez was captured in August 1851.
Tom Chaffin’s Fatal Glory: Narciso Lopez and the First Clandestine U.S. War Against Cuba, describes the scene of his death, just days after capture.
Between the wide Gulf sky and the waters of Havana harbor, the Gothic Morro Castle’s high tabby walls gleamed in the Sunday morning light on September 1, 1851. Though it was barely seven o’clock, a noisy crowd of four thousand already had gathered in a public plaza just across the harbor from the Morro. The plaza spread below the walls of the Punta, a small citadel guarding the western side of Havana’s finger-shaped harbor. At the center of the crowd’s attention on the cloudless dawn was a ten-foot high wooden scaffold that rose from the plaza. At its top was a garrote, an iron chair with a pair of clasps on its back. The mechanics of this grim machine were simple: just below its clasps, designed to grip the condemned man’s head, was a metal collar for his throat. With a turn of the screw on the garrote’s back, the collar tightens, strangling the prisoner.
Lopez was brought out at seven o’clock. At age fifty-four, with his mustache, white hair, and dark piercing eyes, he remained a handsome man. Accompanied by a line of Spanish soldiers, he wore a long white gown and a white cap. His wrists were tied in front. Another rope, binding his elbows, was knotted from behind, its strands held by guards. With two friends who had been allowed to join him, Lopez climbed the steps of the wooden tower. At the top he knelt in prayer for a moment, then rose and faced the crowd. “Countrymen,” he said in a steady voice that observers would recall as one of remarkable composure, “I most solemnly, in this last awful moment of my life, ask your pardon for any injury I have caused you. It was not my wish to injure anyone, my object was your freedom and happiness.” When an officer interrupted, Lopez quickly concluded, “My intention was good, and my hope is in God.”
He bowed, took his seat in the iron chair, and eased his head back. The executioner, a black man, placed the iron clamps around Lopez’s throat. His feet were then tied to bolts on the sides of the chair. He exchanged a few words with his friends and kissed a small cross. Then, with a turn of a screw, Narciso Lopez’s three-year campaign to vanquish Spain’s dominion over Cuba came to an end.
Despite the bad end of his own project, Lopez managed to bequeath the eventually independent Cuba the flag (Spanish link) which it still flies today.
Also on this date
- 1942: Henryk Landsberg, Lvov Judenrat
- 1987: Moses Jantjies and Wellington Mielies, after the Langa massacre
- 1863: Peyton Farquhar, in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
- 1714: Maria Mouton and her slave Titus, lovers
- 1538: Cratwell, a hangman