1903: Ora Copenhaver and William Jackson, a double hanging 1381: Simon of Sudbury and Robert Hales during Wat Tyler’s peasant rebellion

1857: Twelve blown from cannons in British Punjab

June 13th, 2011 Headsman

An account from the February 15, 1862 Harper’s Weekly of a very messy spectacle orchestrated to maintain British control of Punjab.

Another execution of a similar nature took place on the 13th of June, at Ferozepore. All the available troops and public establishments were convened to witness the scene. Some of the mutineers were to be hung, and around the gallows, erected during the night previous, the soldiers were drawn up. The mutineers were then brought into the centre, and the proceedings of the general Court-Martial was read. Upon being informed that if they would become Queen’s evidence they would be reprieved, twelve of the criminals accepted the offer and were marched to the rear. Two were taken to the gallows. They ascended the ladder with firm steps, and to the last moment betrayed no emotion of fear.

The remaining ten were now led away to the artillery guns, and while their irons were being struck off some cried, “Do not sacrifice the innocent for the guilty!” Two others rejoined, “Hold your sniveling: die men and not cowards — you defended your religion, why then do you crave your lives? Sahibs! they are not Sahibs, they are dogs!” Others then began to upbraid their commanding officer. The wretched beings were quickly fastened to the muzzles of ten guns, charged with blank cartridge.

The commanding officer directed port-fires to be lit. “Ready!” “Fire!” and the drama was played out. An eye-witness says: “The scene and stench were overpowering. I felt myself terribly convulsed, and could observe that the numerous native spectators were awe-stricken — that they not only trembled like aspen-leaves, but also changed into unnatural hues. Precaution was not taken to remove the sponge-and-load men from the muzzles of the guns; the consequence was that they were greatly bespattered with blood, and one man in particular received a stunning blow from a shivered arm!


A lengthier account, no less riveting and we suppose more accurate on account of its primary sourcing, is to be found in this memoir or the British campaign against the Sepoy rebellion.

June 13 The morning of June 13 was fixed upon for the execution. A gallows was erected on the plain to the north side of the fort, facing the native bazaars, and at a distance of some 300 yards. On this two sepoys were to be hanged, and at the same time their comrades in mutiny were to be blown away from guns.

We paraded at daylight every man off duty, and, with the band playing, marched to the place of execution, and drew up in line near the gallows and opposite the native quarter.

Shortly after our arrival the European Light Field Battery, of six guns, appeared on the scene, forming up on our left flank, and about twenty yards in front of the Light Company.

The morning was close and sultry, not a cloud in the sky, and not a breath of wind stirring; and I confess I felt sick with a suffocating sense of horror when I reflected on the terrible sight I was about to witness.

Soon the fourteen mutineers, under a strong escort of our men with fixed bayonets, were seen moving from the fort. They advanced over the plain at our rear, and drew up to the left front of, and at right angles to, the battery of artillery.

I was standing at the extreme right of the line with the Grenadier Company, and some distance from the guns; but I had provided myself with a pair of strong glasses, and therefore saw all that followed clearly and distinctly.

There was no unnecessary delay in the accomplishment of the tragedy. Two of the wretched creatures were marched off to the gallows, and placed with ropes round their necks on a raised platform under the beam.

The order was given for the guns to be loaded, and quick as thought the European artillerymen placed a quarter charge of powder in each piece. The guns were 9-pounders, the muzzles standing about 3 feet from the ground.

During these awful preparations, I watched at intervals the faces of the condemned men, but could detect no traces of fear or agitation in their demeanour. The twelve stood two deep, six in front and six in the rear, calm and undismayed, without uttering a word.

An officer came forward, and, by the Brigadier’s order, read the sentence of the court-martial, and at its conclusion the six men in front, under escort, walked towards the battery.

There was a death-like silence over the scene at this time, and, overcome with horror, my heart seemed almost to cease beating.

Arrived at the guns, the culprits were handed over to the artillerymen, who, ready prepared with strong ropes in their hands, seized their victims. Each of these, standing erect, was bound to a cannon and tightly secured, with the small of the back covering the muzzle. And then all at once the silence which reigned around was broken by the oaths and yells of those about to die. These sounds were not uttered by men afraid of death, for they showed the most stoical indifference, but were the long-suppressed utterances of dying souls, who, in the bitterness of their hearts, cursed those who had been instrumental in condemning them to this shameful end. They one and all poured out maledictions on our heads; and in their language, one most rich in expletives, they exhausted the whole vocabulary.

Meanwhile the gunners stood with lighted port-fires, waiting for the
word of command to fire the guns and launch the sepoys into eternity.

These were still yelling and raining abuse, some even looking over their shoulders and watching without emotion the port-fires, about to be applied to the touch-holes, when the word “Fire!” sounded from the officer in command, and part of the tragedy was at an end.

A thick cloud of smoke issued from the muzzles of the cannons, through which were distinctly seen by several of us the black heads of the victims, thrown many feet into the air.

While this tragic drama was enacting, the two sepoys to be hanged were turned off the platform.

The artillerymen again loaded the guns, the six remaining prisoners, cursing like their comrades, were bound to them, another discharge, and then an execution, the like of which I hope never to see again, was completed.

All this time a sickening, offensive smell pervaded the air, a stench which only those who have been present at scenes such as these can realize — the pungent odour of burnt human flesh.

The artillerymen had neglected putting up back-boards to their guns, so that, horrible to relate, at each discharge the recoil threw back pieces of burning flesh, bespattering the men and covering them with blood and calcined remains.

A large concourse of natives from the bazaars and city had assembled in front of the houses, facing the guns at a distance, as I said before, of some 300 yards, to watch the execution. At the second discharge of the cannon, and on looking before me, I noticed the ground torn up and earth thrown a slight distance into the air more than 200 paces away. Almost at the same time there was a commotion among the throng in front, some running to and fro, while others ran off in the direction of the houses. I called the attention of an officer who was standing by my side to this strange and unaccountable phenomenon, and said, half joking: “Surely the scattered limbs of the sepoys have not been carried so far?”

He agreed with me that such was impossible; but how to account for the sight we had seen was quite beyond our comprehension.

The drama came to an end about six o’clock, and as is usual, even after a funeral or a military execution, the band struck up an air, and we marched back to barracks, hoping soon to drive from our minds the recollection of the awful scenes we had witnessed.

Two or three hours after our return news arrived that one native had been killed and two wounded among the crowd which had stood in our front, spectators of the recent execution. How this happened has never been explained. At this time a “cantonment guard” was mounted, consisting of a company of European infantry, half a troop of the 10th Light Cavalry, and four guns, and two of these guns loaded with grape were kept ready during the night, the horses being harnessed, etc. Half the cavalry also was held in readiness, saddled; in fact, every precaution was taken to meet an attack.

As far as I can recollect, there were but two executions by blowing away from guns on any large scale by us during the Mutiny; one of them that at Ferozepore.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Blown from Cannon,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,India,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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