Archive for April, 2014

1574: Joseph Boniface de La Mole, La Reine Margot’s lover

1 comment April 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1574, nobleman Joseph Boniface de La Mole was beheaded in Paris for a supposed plot against the king.

As the year would imply, La Mole was a casualty of France’s decades-long Wars of Religion.

Two years prior, in an attempt to cement an unsteady peace, the king’s sister Marguerite de Valois had been married off to the Protestant Henri of Navarre. As Paris teemed with Huguenots in town to celebrate the nuptials, the Catholic party sprang the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

As if things weren’t awkward enough with the in-laws, Henri was now made to live at the royal court, feigning conversion to Catholicism. His relationship with Marguerite went off to a rocky start; both took other lovers.

Joseph Boniface de La Mole (English Wikipedia entry | French) was one of Marguerite’s. You’ll find this adulterous couple steaming up the screen in the 1994 film La Reine Margot, which is based on a Dumas novel of the same title.


In real life, La Mole was 27 years Marguerite’s senior.

Meanwhile, civil strife ebbed and flowed.

Desperate to escape his gilded cage, Henri in 1574 was part of a Protestant coup attempt that boldly aimed to seize the sickly King Charles IX and his mother Catherine de’ Medici at Saint-Germain.

The conspiracy failed, but its principals — including not only our Henri, but also the King’s Protestant-friendly brother the Duke of Alencon, and the Duke of Montmorency* — were too august for severe punishment. Catherine de’ Medici, whose children kept dying on her (Charles IX would do likewise in May of 1574), was desperately trying to navigate the civil war with a Valois heir in place who had enough political support to rule; going all-in with the realm’s Catholic ultras (most characteristically represented by the House of Guise, which wanted Henri beheaded for this treason) would have permanently alienated all the Huguenots.

The likes of La Mole, however, were not so safe.

He and one Annibal de Coconnas, members of the court’s Huguenot circle who “had nothing of the divinity that hedged the princes of the blood,” were seized on April 8 and interrogated for an alleged scheme to murder the sovereign — possibly at the instigation of the Guises, trying to implicate through this pair the more powerful Huguenot lords.

After the inevitable blade fell on them, Marguerite supposedly kept her former lover’s severed head in a jeweled box. But the nobleman had at least the consolation of a rich literary afterlife. Besides the Dumas novel aforementioned, the La Mole family — our man’s supposed descendants — feature prominently in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

‘Let us take a turn in the garden,’ said the Academician, delighted to see this chance of delivering a long and formal speech. ‘What! Is it really possible that you do not know what happened on the 30th of April, 1574?’ ‘Where?’ asked Julien, in surprise. ‘On the Place de Greve.’ Julien was so surprised that this name did not enlighten him. His curiosity, the prospect of a tragic interest, so attuned to his nature, gave him those sparkling eyes which a story-teller so loves to see in his audience. The Academician, delighted to find a virgin ear, related at full length to Julien how, on the 30th of April, 1574, the handsomest young man of his age, Boniface de La Mole, and Annibal de Coconasso, a Piedmontese gentleman, his friend, had been beheaded on the Place de Greve. ‘La Mole was the adored lover of Queen Marguerite of Navarre; and observe,’ the Academician added, ‘that Mademoiselle de La Mole is named Mathilde-Marguerite. La Mole was at the same time the favourite of the Duc d’Alencon and an intimate friend of the King of Navarre, afterwards Henri IV, the husband of his mistress. On Shrove Tuesday in this year, 1574, the Court happened to be at Saint-Germain, with the unfortunate King Charles IX, who was on his deathbed. La Mole wished to carry off the Princes, his friends, whom Queen Catherine de’ Medici was keeping as prisoners with the Court. He brought up two hundred horsemen under the walls of Saint-Germain, the Due d’Alencon took fright, and La Mole was sent to the scaffold.

In Stendhal’s novel, it is Julien’s sexual conquest of the pretty young Mathilde de La Mole that sets in motion Julien’s ruin and execution.

Joseph Boniface de La Mole’s lover fared far better than that of his fictional descendant. Henri would eventually make his escape after all, and through fortune and intrepidity made Marguerite the Queen of all France** when he decided at last that Paris was worth a Mass.

* The man in our story was the second Duke of Montmorency; his nephew, the fourth duke, was beheaded in 1632.

** The marriage was never comfortable, and Henri and Marguerite continued to live and love separately until they finally annulled the union in 1599.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Power,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1862: Mary Timney, the last woman publicly hanged in Scotland

Add comment April 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1862, Mary Timney was hanged at Buccleuch Street in Dumfries, Scotland.

The penniless 27-year-old occupied the stone cottage adjacent to her victim’s way out in the countryside at Carsphad — near the fringe of present-day Galloway Forest Park. Timney was Ann Hannah’s tenant, but the two were known to have a fractious relationship and often cross words. Timney had borrowed so often that Hannah grew deaf to her importunities; Hannah suspected Timney of stealing firewood, and Timney suspected Hannah of stealing her husband’s caresses.

On January 13, 1862, Hannah was discovered breathing her last on that cottage floor in a puddle of her own blood, splatters of which also decorated the little home like a slasher movie. The obvious suspect had some incriminating bloodstains on her person. Timney claimed that Hannah started the fight by kicking the younger woman, and in the ensuing fracas Timney grabbed the weapons ready to hand (a knife, a poker, and a wooden mallet: seems like more than you’d need) and mauled her neighbor to death.

“Oh, my Lord, dinna do that,” Timney cried out in court when the judge donned the black cap to impose her death sentence. “Give me anything but that, let the Lord send for me!”

Mary Timney was initially regarded by her former neighbors in Carsphad as a monster. But as her execution approached, sentiment underwent a surprising reversal. The pathos of leaving the young woman’s four children motherless, or else the simple discomfiture of publicly swinging a woman from the gallows-tree, soon led to a strong local push for mercy. “The great majority of the public of Dumfries were horrified and indignant that this butchery should be permitted in their streets,” one paper reported.

The Crown saw no grounds to extend it, and swore in an extra 200 constables to manage the crowd.

In a stateof near collapse, Mary Timney went to the gallows this date before 3,000 solemn spectators. She was still pleading. “Oh no, no, no! My four weans, my four weans.” (See this book)

The scene appalled everyone so entirely that it was never repeated: Mary Timney was the last woman publicly executed in Scottish history.

Coincidentally, Dumfries would also have the distinction — on May 12, 1868 — of hosting the last legal public hanging of a male offender, shortly before Parliament moved all UK executions behind prison walls.

There’s a recent book about Mary Timney’s case which appears easier to find stocked in Britain than stateside.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland,Women

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1876: The slave Francisco, Brazil’s last execution

Add comment April 28th, 2014 Headsman

Brazil carried out the last civil execution in its history on April 28, 1876.

The beloved and long-serving Emperor Pedro II — Brazil’s last emperor, for he was deposed in 1889 in favor of a Republic — had developed a strong aversion to the death penalty.

“I am not a supporter of capital punishment,” Pedro II mused in his diary on New Year’s Day, 1862,

but conditions in our society still make it necessary, and it exists in law. However, employing of the prerogatives of the regulating power, I commute death sentences, whenever the circumstances of the case justify so doing it.

Just two months before writing that entry, Pedro had failed to stop the execution of Jose Pereira de Sousa.

But as the years went on, Pedro would find his sought-for justification to intercede ever more frequently … and in time, universally. There were still death sentences handed down in the last decade-plus of the Brazilian Empire, but the sovereign’s pen sustained a standing moratorium.

Jose Pereira de Sousa’s 1861 hanging proved to be the last civil execution of a free man in Brazil’s history — the qualifier courtesy of Brazil’s status as the Western world’s last slave state. (Slavery wasn’t abolished in Brazil until 1888.)

The black slave Francisco was the very last condemned man whose execution the Emperor Pedro II failed to block. Francisco was one of a trio of slaves who had two years prior bludgeoned to death their former masters, João Evangelista de Lima and his wife. One of Francisco’s confederates was killed on the run; the second died in prison. (Source, in Portuguese like most of the little to be found about Francisco.)

Its distinguishing characteristic from the standpoint of posterity is simply that it was the last; and, that its milestone characteristic underscores Brazil’s painful slaving history.

These circumstances have recommended Francisco’s last passion to annual re-enactments (more Portuguese) on the anniversary of his execution, in the city of Pilar, Alagoas where it all took place.

After Francisco, Pedro’s already-dogged obstruction of the death penalty became absolute, persisting over the last 13 years of his reign. By the time he yielded the executive power to the Republic of Brazil, his persistence had put capital punishment permanently beyond the pale for Brazil’s subsequent authorities.

Even Brazil’s 20th century dictatorships, while implicated in extrajudicial killings, never made bold to break the taboo on a formal judicial execution.

Theoretically, the death penalty is still to this day available in Brazil though only for a major wartime crime. (It would be carried out by firing squad.) In reality, as Emperor Pedro observed with satisfaction after his involuntary retirement from politics, it’s as dead as a letter can be.

This reminds of what I have done for the abolition of the death penalty by law, rather than in practice, since I achieved that some 30 years ago through always commuting the penalty.

-Pedro II, June 15, 1890 (Source for both Pedro’s diary pull-quotes)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Brazil,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves

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1883: Henry De Bosnys, bane of Elizabeths

Add comment April 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1883, Henry De Bosnys was hanged in Elizabethtown, New York, for murdering his wife.

De Bosnys was an immigrant near to 50 years old who turned up in 1881 in a little town on Lake Champlain as a farm hand. As we will see, this humble station contrasted sharply with the life De Bosnys claimed he had formerly led.

With him was “a colored woman who passed as his wife,” Eliza — but not for long. Soon after, De Bosnys took her away on his boat claiming that he had found work for her elsewhere on the lake. De Bosnys returned, but Eliza never did.

Whatever suspicions this might have aroused about the French farmhand did not suffice to deter another Eliza, the local widow Elizabeth Wells, from marrying De Bosnys only a few weeks later.

Their short union was characterized by terrible quarrels when the wife declined to place her small farm in the husband’s name. On August 1, 1882, she became the second Essex County woman to go for a ride with De Bosnys and fail to return.

At 122 meters deep, Lake Champlain is an oblivion where a corpse might vanish without trace. This is less true of a pile of leaves along a country lane — which is where Mrs. De Bosnys turned up, shot twice in the head with 22 calibre bullets and her neck gashed all the way to her spine.

When arrested, De Bosnys had a .22 pistol with two shots discharged, and a bloody knife. His story was that the couple had run into a Scotsman they knew, got drunk together on whisky, and that he, Henry, had fallen right asleep and knew nothing of what became of the wife. “His story,” the New York Times observes almost unnecessarily (Aug. 6, 1882), “is regarded as very improbable, and he is thought to be an escaped criminal who is concealing his identity.”

De Bosnys initially said he had come to the New World at age 17. By the time he went to the gallows — still insisting on his innocence — he had improved his biography considerably. The Times, possibly short of column-inches that day (Apr. 28, 1883), freely narrated the murderer’s compounded embellishments.

His education was thorough and extensive, and he could write and speak English, French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and Portuguese, and could less perfectly speak and understand several other languages. While yet a mere lad he sailed with a north polar expedition under Leclaire, and was gone nearly two years, from February, 1848, to October, 1850. [I am unsure if this corresponds to any actual known polar expedition. -ed.] In 1854, with his father and brother, he volunteered for the Crimean war, and served in the French army in the Crimea for a couple of years. A few years of peace followed, in which De Bosnys completed his education, but on the breaking out of the war with Austria, in 1859, he joined MacMahon‘s army, in which he saw a few months’ service, sailing in the Autumn to China with the French contingent. Returning to France he joined the French expedition to Mexico in 1861, and after a few months joined the Mexican side, becoming a Captain of guerrillas under Lopez. In this service he was severely wounded in an engagement. He came North, and, being cured of his wound, enlisted in the Fourth Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1863. He was wounded at the battle of Gettysburg and discharged from the army. Returning to France he was married, but after two months’ matrimonial experience sailed on another arctic expedition. After an absence of two years he returned to this country, where he led a roving life until the outbreak of the Franco German war. He entered the French Army, rising by successive promotions until he became a Colonel under Gen. Boubaki. He served all through the war with varying fortunes, at its close escaping to Marseilles, whence he shipped for America.

One would think a man with that history would have a vision wider than squeezing 15 acres out of a widow, or at least the perspicacity to clean up his murder weapons — but then again, he really did speak all those languages. Maybe this was the date Elizabethtown hanged the Most Interesting Man in the World. If so, history records that the man’s savoir faire extended so far as cannily inspecting the apparatus of his own execution a few hours before hanging on it, and offering the hangman a few engineering tips (De Bosnys thought the rope needed more soaping).

Henry De Bosnys’s skull is preserved at Elizabethtown’s Adirondack History Center Museum — and, it is said, his spirit haunts that place too.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Pelf,USA

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1784: Angelo Duca, primitive rebel

Add comment April 26th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1784, Italian bandit-hero Angelo Duca was hanged at Salerno.

“Angiolillo” haunted the Basilicata region, which surmounts the arch between the “toe” and the “heel” of southern Italy’s boot.

His biography, hopelessly intertwined with folklore, holds that he abandoned farming over the oppression of the overweening Duke of Martina — just like any self-respecting social bandit.

Soon a gang of about 20 Italic outlaws had flown to his camp and naturally they “gave alms, bought grain, endowed the dowries of poor girls,” and generally forcibly redistributed some small portion of the rentier class’s gorgings to the poor whose care ought to have been a noble lord’s concern.

As the 18th century came to a close, revolutionaries with steel souls and guillotines would come to dominate the narrative of resistance. But they never completely usurped the romance of the road, especially in rural parts like Angiolillo’s. Eric Hobsbawm informs us that “in the Capitanata under Joachim Murat there were something like seventy [robber] bands, in the Basilicata of the early [eighteen] sixties thirty-nine, in Apulia some thirty.”

Primitive Rebels is the title of the volume we’re quoting here, an antecedent to Hobsbawm’s classic Bandits. In Primitive Rebels the late godfather of the social bandit concept situates these bands and their susceptibility to popular mythologizing as “an endemic peasant protest against oppression and poverty: a cry for vengeance on the rich and the oppressors, a vague dream of some curb upon them, a righting of individual wrongs.”

The eternally seductive dream of righting the injuries of an unjust world by the manly exertions of gold-hearted thieves and knights of the road unfortunately for our principal (and no small number of his fellows) arrives with its own fatal paradox. Social bandits want a better king, not a headless king, but in this they also concede the crown the powers its malice abuses. A king will get the best of a desperado sooner or later.

Upon his own capture, Duca was hauled directly to the Bourbon ruler King Ferdinand. Ferdinand did not experience a cathartic reawakening on account of his prisoner’s implied critique; instead, he simply ordered the nettlesome brigand’s immediate beheading, sans judicial procedure, after which the corpse was torn limb from limb for public exhibition.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Outlaws,Summary Executions,Theft

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1683: Yaoya Oshichi, fire horse

2 comments April 25th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1683,* Yaoya Oshichi gave her life for her red-hot love … and the want of a little white lie.

The greengrocer’s daughter Oshichi (English Wikipedia page | Japanese) legendarily fell in love with a priest of the nearby temple while taking refuge there during one of Edo’s many fires (Japanese link), and in a truly adolescent outburst proceeded to start another fire in the hopes of meeting him again. (Alternate version: it was Oshichi’s gesture that actually started the linked conflagration.)

As a 16-year-old, Oshichi was just barely eligible to suffer the full weight of the law for a capital crime.

In an age of scanty documentation, however, the pitying magistrate (Japanese link) hearing her case is supposed to have asked her in a hinting sort of way, “you’re 15, right?”

Either not catching his drift or else honest to a fault, Oshichi replied that, no, she was 16, thank you very much, and reiterated the point when it was followed-up … thus dooming herself to the stake.


Yaoya Oshichi’s execution.

A few years after this outstandingly tragic demise, poet Ihara Saikaku popularized the tale in his Five Women Who Loved. She’s been waxing immortal ever since in every manner of artistic interpretation, and remains a popular figure for joruri and bunraku and kabuki.

(When next in Tokyo, pay your own respects at her tomb.)

Meanwhile, Yaoya Oshichi’s apparent birth in the zodiacal “fire horse” year of 1666 — fire horses are supposed to be an especially passionate, impulsive bunch — followed by her unfortunate fiery end helps make such cycles superstitiously inauspicious for prospective parents, especially prospective parents of girls.

The year of a fire horse only rolls around once every six decades; in the last one, in 1966, Japanese “fertility dropped by over 25%;” even “the fertility rate of Japanese Americans in California and Hawaii also dropped by 3.3% and 1.8%, respectively, in the same year.”** The abortion rate in Japan for that one year spiked nearly 50% above expected without any other apparent cause.† It’s something to watch for when the next batch of little fire horses are due, in 2026.

* “The 29th day of the 3rd month” is widely cited as “March 29″, but it actually appears to refer to the 29th day of the 3rd month of the third year of the “Heaven’s Blessing” era. That third month spanned the Gregorian dates of March 28 through April 26, 1683.

** Jungmin Lee and Myungho Paik, “Sex Preferences and Fertility in South Korea during the Year of the Horse,” Demography, Vol. 43, No. 2 (May, 2006).

† Kanae Kaku, “Increased induced abortion rate in 1966, an aspect of Japanese folk superstition,” Annals of Human Biology, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1975).

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arson,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Japan,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Sex,Women

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1922: Colin Campbell Ross, for the Gun Alley Murder

2 comments April 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Colin Campbell Ross was hanged for the rape-murder of a little girl, still on the scaffold vainly protesting his innocence.

I am now face to face with my Maker, and I swear by Almighty God that I am an innocent man. I never saw the child. I never committed the crime, and I don’t know who did. I never confessed to anyone. I ask God to forgive those who have sworn my life away, and I pray God to have mercy on my poor darling mother, and my family.

Ninety-odd years later, folks finally believe him.

Ross had a couple of brushes with the law already to his rap sheet when 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke went missing in the vicinity of Ross’s Melbourne dive bar on December 30, 1921.

In a classic instance of police tunnel vision, the proximity of a violent felon to the murdered girl — for Alma’s body was found the next morning in nearby Gun Alley, which bestowed a popular moniker upon the case — soon formed the theory of the crime, the predetermined conclusion into which incoming evidence was read.

(It certainly catalyzed the investigation that the case became a media sensation. Rupert Murdoch’s father through the Melbourne Herald shamelessly hounded the Crown for each day’s delay, and jacked up the reward purse.)

Witnesses established that Ross had been tending bar all that afternoon; to account for that, it was necessary to posit that Ross had plied his prey with wine for several hours until he could finish her off after his shift.

Once arrested, despite continuing to assert his innocence to all and sundry, Ross proved to suffer from that universal tendency accused men have to senselessly unburden themselves to a random cellmate. The Crown could scarce shirk its public duty by omitting the incriminating evidence merely because it was related by a convicted perjurer. Ross, his accuser claimed, “said he was simply burning to tell someone.”

Still more damningly, a blanket from Ross’s home proved to have some strands of auburn hair glancingly similar to Alma Tirtschke’s — or possibly Ross’s girlfriend.

A Crown analyst from ventured to compare these under a microscope, and would later put it to the court that they looked like Alma’s. This would be the first time hair forensics were deployed in an Australian courtroom.

Was it not possible, asked Ross’s counsel — who genuinely believed his client’s innocence and fought the corner until the very last — that it might be almost literally anyone else’s auburn hair?

“Yes; quite possible, but not probable,” was the reply from the witness. “Because of the general similarity of hair.” Oh.

Even decades later this gotcha was being celebrated as a triumph of forensic science, for the blanket’s locks “corresponded exactly” with those of the victim.

But they didn’t correspond.

“The day is coming when my innocence will be proved,” Ross wrote in a farewell letter to his family.

That day took 85 years in coming.

In the 1990s, author Kevin Morgan stumbled somewhat miraculously upon preserved hair samples from the case and began an odyssey that would see him to officially exonerating Colin Campbell Ross.

Tests Morgan was able to arrange with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and then with police both agreed that under modern microscopic examination the hairs in question did not bear even a surface resemblance. With the support of the Victorian Attorney General and the Australian Supreme Court, Ross was granted a posthumous pardon on May 27, 2008 — the first person ever so distinguished in Victoria’s history.

Tirtschke’s own family, too, supported this result: they had long harbored their own doubts about the verdict. “She didn’t say who was the right man but she said the wrong man was hung,”* one descendant said of her grandmother’s recollections.

* Though a lesser horror compared to being railroaded in the first place, Ross’s hanging was also badly botched. An experimental four-strand rope failed to sever his spinal cord, leaving his dangling body to convulse as Ross wheezed his last breaths through a torn windpipe.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Posthumous Executions,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Wrongful Executions

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1801: Angre Kethi, Polygar prey

Add comment April 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1801, a luckless British messenger was hanged to a Tamarind tree during the Polygar Wars.

The Polygars — an English corruption of the Tamil word Palaiyakkarar — were feudal administrators in South India whose authorities the ascending East India Company struggled to bring to heel.

A brief first rebellion in 1799 gave way to a second more substantial one from 1800 to 1805; these are the Polygar Wars.

As one might imagine the fight was quite nasty, and not wanting for executions. Notably, the British had hanged a Polygar chief named Kattabomman in 1799 after the first Polygar War.

But one of Kattabomman’s old allies, name of Ethalappa Naicker Zamin, was among a coalition of Polygars who rose against the British in the subsequent war.

It was to this man that the British dispatched the messenger Angre Kethi — a man whom Naicker decided to make an example of.

The spot of the hanging, known as “Thookupuliamara Thottam”, was long known locally, but it recently made wider news when an archaeologist discovered a stone inscription at the messenger’s memorial attesting the name and date of the hanging.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,England,Execution,Hanged,History,India,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ripped from the Headlines,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1831: Charles Gibbs, the pirate

Add comment April 22nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1831, pirate Charles Gibbs hanged on Ellis Island.

This Rhode Island native followed his father’s trade in buccaneering and made an adventurously brutal life on the waves during the early 19th century’s brief piracy recrudescence.

Neither Gibbs himself nor subsequent writers fascinated by him shrank from embellishing his career, according to Dead Men Tell No Tales: The Life and Legends of the Pirate Charles Gibbs. Awaiting the gallows, Gibbs floated the story that he had first gone to sea under the Stars and Stripes during the War of 1812; that this turned out to be a fabrication has not prevented its repetition down the years.

His first corsair crew was the Maria, a privateer out of Colombia outfitted for the independence war against Spain. Gibbs — back when he was known by his birth name, James Jeffers — joined a mutiny that overthrew the irritating shackles of a letter of marque in favor of the pleasures of independent predation.

It was a fine time for such entrepreneurship; the recent upheaval of Europe’s Napoleonic Wars and the New World breakaway provinces had preoccupied the Spanish navy.

For the next several years, the raiders — “principally Spaniards and Americans” — preyed on commercial shipping in the Caribbean, cruelly murdering the entire crews of their captured prizes, whose booty they would then sell in Havana.

The voyages of the Maria and her successor ships with this band would suffice for a full pirate’s rollick, though they were only the first chapter of Gibbs’s career. For instance, by the time Gibbs had risen to leadership of the crew,

a Dutch ship from Curacao was captured, with a cargo of West India goods, and a quantity of silver plate. The passengers and crew, to the number of 30, were all destroyed, with the exception of a young female about 17, who fell upon her knees and implored Gibbs to save her life. The appeal was successful, and he promised to save her, though he knew it would lead to dangerous consequences among his crew. She was carried to Cape Antonio [Cuba], and kept there about two months; but the dissatisfaction increased until it broke out at last into open mutiny, and one of the pirates was shot by Gibbs for daring to lay hold of her with a view of beating out her brains. Gibbs was compelled in the end ot submit her fate to a council of war, at which it was decided that the preservation of their own lives made her sacrifice indispensable. He therefore acquiesced in the decision, and gave orders to have her destroyed by poison.

That’s from the “Confession of Gibbs the Pirate” elicited from the condemned raiders in the days before his execution, and widely reprinted in American papers. (My quotes are from the version that appeared on April 9, 1831, in the Baltimore Patriot.) In it, the title character struggles to recall the many ships he has hijacked over the years. “Brig Jane, of Liverpool” — “Brig (name forgotten) of New York” — “Two French Brigs, in the Gulf of Mexico” — “Bark Dido, of Bremen” — “Ship Earl of Moria, of London”. Over and over his entries end with the words vessel and crew destroyed.

There were some fortunate exceptions, but the pirates “knew that the principle inculcated by the old maxim that ‘dead men tell no tales’ was the only safe one for them.” Overall, his confessions involve him in “the robbery of more than forty vessels, and in the destruction of more than twenty, with their entire crews.” He might have gone to the gallows with literally hundreds of murders to his conscience.

What can be said for certain is that the USS Enterprise trashed Gibbs’s pirate fleet in 1821 and sent our man fleeing on foot into the Cuban mountains.

This incident aside, Americans’ naval presence was still not yet substantial enough to consistently trouble pirates. American ports, too, were quite ready to accept the coinage spent by pirates; the Spanish embassy would complain to Washington of the easy egress which Gibbs too availed. He even took a passenger ship from Boston to Liverpool where he dissipated a fortune in the vain pursuit of a respectable woman.

The late 1820s find him back in his familiar habit of seagoing carnage as a privateer for Argentina in its war against Brazil. The whole Atlantic was his home, and its many conflicts each offered the prospect of regular employment (or sudden, violent death).

When Argentina and Brazil made peace, Gibbs made for Algiers then under French blockade. He was, alas, unable himself to slip the blockade and thus frustrated of his design to seize Gallic prizes for the Barbary pirates.

Instead, he settled for joining the crew of a brig called the Vineyard — and promptly executing a mutiny. It was for this revolt, and the murder of the captain and first officer which it entailed, that Gibbs eventually swung: the mutineers scuttled the ship and struggled ashore in Long Island, where he and his fellow mutineer Thomas J. Wansley were seized and sentenced to death at a trial in New York City. While the Vineyard was the specific matter at hand in that case, and more than sufficient on its own to condemn them, the long and bloody career that preceded it became the talk of the nation. As the foregoing excerpts will indicate, they enjoyed at least a last consolation of celebrity, for they occupied the weeks approaching execution entertaining a slew of curious visitors.

For some reason, Gibbs’s skull wound up in New York’s John M. Mossman Lock Museum. (“Lock” isn’t part of the benefactor’s name. The museum exhibits locks, but also has a skull labeled “James D. Jefferson, known as Gibbs the Pirate”.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Piracy,Pirates,USA

1975: Sisowath Sirik Matak, Cambodian prince

1 comment April 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1975, Sisowath Sirik Matak was executed with his aides by the Khmer Rouge.

As a young royal in French-administered Cambodia, Sirik Matak had had a shot to be selected as king in 1941. Instead, that dignity went to Norodom Sihanouk — and with it, Sihanouk would later charge, Sirik Matak’s lifelong resentment.

Sihanouk the “god-king” dominated the ensuing decades of Cambodian politics, and he kept Sirik Matak well away from domestic influence throughout the 1960s by shunting him off to a series of overseas diplomatic appointments. But the arch-conservative Sirik Matak’s longtime ally Lon Nol became Prime Minister in 1969 and took Sirik Matak on as his chief aide.

Sihanouk’s complex political career had by this time seen him abdicate the kingship as well as the Prime Ministership. Now he was head of state under the title “Prince” but by the end of the Sixties his power was faltering: an alliance with China yielded little as that country navigated the turbulent Cultural Revolution, while the Vietnam War next door fed into a Cambodian Civil War, too. (Sihanouk permitted the North Vietnamese to use bases in Cambodia.)

On March 18, 1970, Lon Nol deposed Prince Sihanouk in a bloodless coup — but it was Sirik Matak who orchestrated the move. There’s even an account that says Sirik Matak forced a wavering Lon Nol at gunpoint to go through with it.

The United States strongly supported the regime change, which was not exactly a portent of its success. Prince Sihanouk might be gone, but he did not take Cambodia’s civil conflict with him; arguably, his ouster intensified it, for Sihanouk was far more popular with the peasantry than the new, Washington-backed leaders. The existing secret bombing campaign the U.S. was directing at North Vietnamese refuges in Cambodia vastly intensified, becoming a campaign against the Khmer Rouge that outlasted the Vietnam War itself. Tens of thousands of people died under those bombs, and millions more were made refugees — and the insurgency only multiplied.

The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’etat in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide … the very domino effect that the Vietnam War was supposed to prevent …

[T]he bombs drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of revolutionary success. Pol Pot himself described the Khmer Rouge during that period as “fewer than five thousand poorly armed guerrillas … scattered across the Cambodian landscape, uncertain about their strategy, tactics, loyalty, and leaders.”

Years after the war ended, journalist Bruce Palling asked Chhit Do, a former Khmer Rouge officer, if his forces had used the bombing as anti-American propaganda. Chhit replied:

Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched…. The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them…. Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.

-Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen*

Within a few years, the capital fell to the growing insurgency. The U.S. offered asylum to the leaders of Cambodia’s collapsing government; many accepted it, but many others refused. Preferring near-certain execution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge (his name was already published on the movement’s list of “seven traitors”) Sisowath Sirik Matak reproached his U.S. patrons in a letter to the American ambassador declining evacuation.

Dear Excellency and friend,

I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion.

As for you and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection and we can do nothing about it. You leave us and it is my wish that you and your country will find happiness under the sky.

But mark it well that, if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we are all born and must die one day. I have only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.

Please accept, E

Just days into the Khmer Rouge’s occupation of Phnom Penh, the Communists forced the French embassy to hand over Sirik Matak and a number of aides who had taken temporary refuge there. They were summarily executed (apparently by shooting) at the old Cercle Sportif swimming pool — a site that has since become the location of the new U.S. embassy.

* Taylor Owen has mapped the known U.S. bombing sorties into Cambodia; he discusses that project, and the ways the bombing impacted the Khmer Rouge, here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cambodia,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Royalty,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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