Archive for October 21st, 2011

1803: Thomas Russell, the man from God knows where

2 comments October 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1803, Irish revolutionary Thomas Russell was hanged at Ireland’s Downpatrick Gaol.

Russell was such a republican original gangster that as a young junior officer in the British army in the late 1780s, he refused to eat sugar because it was the product of the empire’s slave plantations. (Hardly a bygone issue.) And while his own family was Anglican, Russell was also a staunch supporter of the then-radical (to Anglicans) position of Catholic equality.

For Russell, this personal stuff was all most intently political. And his politics in no way ended with the dumbwaiter.

After leaving the army, he fell in with Irish separatists and in 1795 co-founded the United Irishmen movement, along with a lot of other guys who would wind up in these executioners’ annals. He joined Henry Joy McCracken, Wolfe Tone, and Samuel Neilson in a convocation of Celtic martyrs atop Belfast’s Cave Hill to pledge one another “never to desist in our effort until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence.”

Subversion was Russell’s game for the remaining years of his life; his Letter to the People of Ireland unveils a Tom Paine-like vision of a revolutionary world — a world that the ancien regime would remain violently vigilant against in the wake of the recent French example. Like many of the most dazzling egalitarian dreams of that insurrectionary moment at the end of the 18th century, it’s still never been realized.

Great pains have been taken to prevent the mass of mankind from interfering in political pursuits; force, and argument, and wit, and ridicule, and invective, have been used by the governing party, and with such success, that any of the lower, or even middle rank of society who engage in politics, have been, and are, considered not only as ridiculous but in some degree culpable … Those insolent enslavers of the human race, who wish to fetter the minds as well as the body, exclaim to the poor, ‘mind your looms, and your spades and ploughs; have you not the means of subsistence; can you not earn your bread … leave the government to wiser heads and to people who understand it, and interfere no more!’

-Russell, Letter to the People of Ireland

Russell actually spent most of his final decade imprisoned without trial while tragic Irish insurrections came and went. England finally released him to Hamburg in 1802, and as might be expected, Russell was so itchy by then to get back in the scrap that he immediately broke his parole to return to Ireland for the next available rising.

And as also might be expected, he showed more haste than discrimination in his project. Hey, he did vow “never to desist.”

He joined up with Robert Emmet‘s rebellion — another doomed patriot; Russell was his designated organizer of the north — but found little success canvassing for potential rebels and took the field on July 23, 1803 in a gesture of little more than hopeless romanticism. His band fell apart and fled without a shot fired.


Memorial plaque in Downpatrick commemorating Russell’s execution. (cc) image from Ardfern.

The British did what the British always did and hunted down the Irish rebel, while the Irish did what the Irish always did and stuffed his remains in a ballad.* It’s called “The Man from God Knows Where” — and God knows, two centuries later, where that man has gone.

Whiles I said “Please God” to his dying hope
And “Amen” to his dying prayer,
That the Wrong would cease and the Right prevail.
For the man that they hanged at Downpatrick Jail
Was the Man from God-knows-where!

Peter Linebaugh, author of the indispensable scaffold social history The London Hanged, surveyed Russell’s life and times on the occasion of his 200th death-day here

* Russell tried his own hand at verse, and some Jacobin lines in his hand helped to hang him, e.g.

Proud Bishops next we will translate
Among priest-crafted martyrs;
The guillotine on Peers shall wait,
And Knights we’ll hang in garters;
These Despots long have trod us down,
And Judges are their engines;
These wretched minions of a crown
Demand a people’s vengeance.

Part of the Themed Set: Illegitimate Power.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Ireland,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Treason

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