On this date in 1884, a French expeditionary force’s summary battlefield executions marked its retreat from an ambush — and the approach of the Sino-French War.
Having established a foothood in south Vietnam (Cochinchina), France was pushing into north Vietnam (Tonkin) — a campaign that could open a potentially lucrative route straight into China.
For the same reason, China viewed Tonkin as its own security zone. The ensuing skirmishes had as we lay our scene been recently abated by the Tientsin Accord* — an accord on France’s terms, since she had lately enjoyed the run of play in the field.
One of those terms was Chinese withdrawal from Tonkin, and as one might expect the Chinese had little appetite to speedily effect such a submission. In June 1884, when a small French column commanded by a Lt. Col. Alphone Dugenne pushed into what was supposed to be France’s new satrapy, it expected to occupy undefended towns.
Instead, on June 23, having forded the rain-swollen Song Thuong River, Dugenne’s force encountered Chinese regulars manning a chain of clifftop forts.
Outnumbered and on unfamiliar ground, the French surely felt their vulnerability. “High rocks, deep canyons, dense woods and somber defiles, where a handful of resolute men could easily have stopped a whole army, were the principal features of the country,” according to a French-derived account published later that year in the U.S.** “The heat was intense, and fatigue overcame the soldiers, already tired by the thousands of ostacles of the road. The fiery atmosphere did not allow any ret, even during the night, and terrible showers of rain, accompanied with thunder and lightning, converted the rivulets into torrents which swept everything before them, soaked the poor soldiers and destroyed provisions.”
A delegation under flag of truce informed Dugenne that China’s commander was aware of the Tientsin Accord, but had received no superior orders to withdraw. This obviously put both forces in an uncomfortable position. The Chinese wanted time: was this a good faith sorting-out (the Tientsin arrangements were barely six weeks old), or a double game? When the eventual winners wrote the history of events, they called what ensued June 23-24 the Bac Le ambush.
Believing that he had an arrangement with his opposite number, Dugenne’s column moved ahead on the afternoon of the 23rd, in a defile ominously commanded by the Chinese positions. Suddenly — and accounts from the two sides each accuse the other of provoking the first shots — the French came under Chinese fire. “Every tree, every overhanging rock, concealed an invisible enemy, who, being perfectly under cover himself, safely inflicted death all around him,” our correspondent’s account runs.
Illustration of the Bac Le ambush from Le guet-apens de Bac-Le by a French officer who survived it, Jean-Francois-Alphonse Lecomte.
But the ambush did not become a massacre; the French were able to regroup, stabilize their position, and camp that night — the Chinese “so near that they could hear them talk.”
The next day, the French would find themselves hopelessly outgunned but not (yet) encircled, and by mid-morning would be effecting an orderly retreat. In the course of it, Dugenne ordered at least two sets of executions to maintain discipline: early in the morning, it was “the hanging of two Chinese spies who had just been caught … with great solemnity and a great apparat, which caused a hail of bullets to whiz from all sides, where the Chinese friends of the hanged men were concealed.”
Hours later, as his column formed up to withdraw, Dugenne harshly punished his own native Tonkinese auxiliaries, green recruits who had all but routed in the first moments of the ambush when they came under fire and whose ill discipline could not be brooked on retreat: Dugenne “gave an order before [retreating] to shoot down ten Tonquinese of the native troops.”
Dugenne reached friendly forces safely, and with him accounts of a “massacre” that would incense public opinion in Paris. China’s refusal to meet the ensuing French demands for satisfaction in this affair would by August trigger open war in Tonkin.
* Not to be confused with 1885’s Treaty of Tientsin, which actually ended the Sino-French War.
Despite the immense concourse, this gigantic hanging of miscellaneous thieves rates little better than footnote mention in the period’s press. England was gallows-mad; CapitalPunishmentUK.org makes it 56 hangings in 1784 in London alone. There would be an even larger mass execution (20 people) the next February!
The Prussian code had restricted capital punishment as early as 1743, and after 1794 only murderers were executed. Catherine‘s reforms to similar effect followed in Russia in 1767 and Joseph II‘s in Austria in 1787. Philadelphia Quakers dispensed with capital punishment after the American Revolution. In Amsterdam in the 1780s less than 1 a year were killed; barely 15 were executed annually in Prussia in the 1770s, and a little over 10 in Sweden in the 1780s. Towards 1770 about 300 people a year were condemned in the whole of France; over twice that number were condemned annually between 1781 and 1785 in London alone. [most were reprieved -ed.] Before the guillotine’s invention French punishments were crueller than English … even so, only 32 people were executed in Paris in 1774-7, against 139 in London.
On this date in 1940, the collapsing French state “shot and forgot” four subversives at Pessac. These cases are heavily covered by the French-language blog Histoire penitentiaire et Justice militaire; many links in this post point to well-illustrated articles on that site, which make recommended reading for those inclined to delve deeper.
Late June finds France in the dark weeks after Dunkirk — the very day, in fact, when Marshall Petain’s government formally surrendered to the German blitz.
Elsewhere, the remains of the Third Republic had fled west to Bourdeaux, taking along its death row prisoners. The state that condemned them did not mean to let its imminent disappearance cheat it of their blood.
Jean Amourelle, a stenographer in the French Senate whose duties included shorthanding the secret proceedings of its military commissions, was caught routing intelligence to Germany.
Set to join him for this date’s execution were two pairs of brothers: Roger and Marcel Rambaud, and Leon and Maurice Lebeau. Seventeen-year-old Maurice Lebeau had his sentence commuted to hard labor, however, and was spared from the firing detail.
The Rambauds and Lebeaus were factory workers sentenced as saboteurs for compromising the engine of a French military plane, causing it to explode mid-flight: strange behavior for Communist proletarians explained by the temporary peace between Germany and the Soviet Union that (for the moment) positioned the Comintern-directed French Communist Party as an opponent of the war.
Despite the sacrifice of the Rambauds and Lebeaus, this posture was short-lived. Just one year later — June 22, 1941, in fact — Germany’s invasion of the USSR thrust Europe’s Communist movements into common fronts with anti-fascist parties, and France’s Communists into the forefront of French Resistance martyrs.
On this date* in 1378, Jacques de Rue and Pierre du Tertre, aides to King Charles II of Navarre, were beheaded at Les Halles.
Both men were casualties of their deviousmaster’s most recent betrayals, part of a career that had honed the double game to nearly sadistic precision.
Navarre spent the latter half of the 14th century fouling up alignments in the Hundred Years’ War by constantly switching his allegiances between England and France. Come the 1370s, he was supposed to be on team France — having paid homage to the French king in 1371 — but was still conniving with the English whose expeditions might one day apply enough pressure to force France to restore him some lost domains.
The last great plot of the man contemporaries knew as Charles the Bad really fell apart in the spring of 1378 when the French detained en route to Normandy Jacques de Rue and Pierre du Tertre, two emissaries of Charles’s “criminal entourage”. They carried coded messages** confirming that Navarre was not only back to scheming with the English, but that he was trying to orchestrate the assassination of the French king by means of poison — plots that Jacques confirmed under torture.
France retaliated by attacking its disloyal partner’s Norman holdings and by year’s end the whole region had been chopped up between the French and the English, never to return to Navarrese hands. His retainers were put to death and their corpses strung up on Montfaucon.
This was the humiliating end to the political life of Charles the Bad: reduced to a client king dominated by France (to his north) and Castile (to his south). It would soon find its parallel in the horror ending of his actual life on New Year’s Day 1387:
Charles the Bad, having fallen into such a state of decay that he could not make use of his limbs, consulted his physician, who ordered him to be wrapped up from head to foot, in a linen cloth impregnated with brandy, so that he might be inclosed in it to the very neck as in a sack. It was night when this remedy was administered. One of the female attendants of the palace, charged to sew up the cloth that contained the patient, having come to the neck, the fixed point where she was to finish her seam, made a knot according to custom; but as there was still remaining an end of thread, instead of cutting it as usual with scissors, she had recourse to the candle, which immediately set fire to the whole cloth. Being terrified, she ran away, and abandoned the king, who was thus burnt alive in his own palace.
* There are some cites for May 21 out there, but the sourcing on June appears stronger to me, and references to the men’s interrogations and trial run to June. The beheading is also referred to as having taken place on a Monday, which fits June 21 (but not May 21) in 1378.
** According to CryptoSchool this is one of the oldest known documents in the history of cryptology. Devised personally by Charles of Navarre, its gambit was to “move the names of princes, castles and cities to other names not their own.” (Chronique Normande)
I have one body
And to you I offer and return it.
Here is my flesh;
Here is my blood;
Let me be slain, reduced to nothing;
Let my bones be split apart
For those for whom I am praying, if such is your will.
This date in 1375 is the best data point we have for the beheading of Niccolo di Toldo.
The Sienese archives offer scant documentation of this political execution; a decree of June 4, 1375 orders his examination for “the discord sowed by him in the city of Siena, pernicious and deadly to the state of the present government” — and a couple of letters on Niccolo’s behalf from the governor of neighboring Perugia. Francis Thomas Luongo in The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena — we will come to Catherine presently — next points in lieu of any remaining record of Niccolo’s execution to “the necrology of the Sienese Dominican friary [which] includes an entry for one ‘Nicholaus, familiarius of the Lord Senator,’ who died and was entombed in the cloister of San Domenico on 20 June, the vigil of the feast of Corpus Christi.” It’s not certain that this is the same man but the description fits him, and the date is one week after the last known letter on his behalf from Perugia — which was an appeal for mercy.
We are as ignorant of Niccolo di Toldo’s offense as we are of the date of his death. But his position (in the household of a senator) and his Perugian affiliation suggest him an agent of papal subversion.
Siena’s centuries-long decline from the ranks of Italy’s city-state powers dates ultimately to the Black Death outbreak of 1348. The Plague devastated Siena.
The ensuing generations saw authority in the great Tuscan city furiously contested; the government turned over repeatedly in the 1360s — the Dodici (the Twelve), the Tredici, the Quindici, each an executive committee of interested parties in the coalition of the day.
From the late 1360s and through the 1370s, the Quindici held sway: reformist guild leaders* who were opposed by the the deposed (and by now proscribed) ex-Dodici, Siena’s great magnates in alliance with the papacy. (Luongo delves into Sienese politics in considerable detail in his book.) By year’s end Siena would join a city-state coalition led by Florence that fought a three-year war against the papal states with the excellent name “the War of Eight Saints”.
That coalition and that thrust of policy is likely what a “political subversive” in 1375 Siena would be subverting. And the governor of Perugia appealing to the Sienese for Toldo’s life? He was a French cardinal, kin to Pope Gregory XI.**
Little as we know of Niccolo di Toldo prior to his death, that execution is one of the most famous in all of medieval Europe.
Catherine found Niccolo angry at his impending fate, initially refusing to see any spiritual counselor: no state of mind for a soul to meet its maker. Any of the confraternities tasked at this time with succoring those about to face execution would have been charged with bringing such a person to a condition of resignation and penitence.
Catherine achieved her mission to join the doomed man to God but much, much more than that: her account of their relationship, up to the moment when she ecstatically catches his falling bloody head, is a celebration of erotic mysticism. It’s also one of the most famous episodes of the saint’s life.
Niccolo’s virgin helpmate was herself noted for her mystical “marriage to Christ”: in it, Catherine presented her heart to the phantom Savior, and he his ritually circumcised foreskin to her.
Converging religious fervor and carnality mark her interaction with Niccolo, too; at one point she implies that she has sublimated the condemned traitor’s attraction to her into piety, and (as Catherine wrote a follower),
God’s measureless and burning goodness tricked him, creating in him such an affection and love in the desire of me in God, that he did not know how to abide without God, and he said: ‘Stay with me and do not leave me. Like this I cannot but be alright, and I will die content!’ and he had his head resting on my breast. I sensed an intense joy, a fragrance of his blood, and it was not without the fragrance of my own, which I wait to shed for the sweet husband Jesus.
Catherine saw Niccolo di Toldo only twice in the days leading up to his execution. When he went to the block, she was there to meet him: in fact, she was there early and made bold to occupy the condemned’s place on the scaffold, and to stretch her own neck out over the headsman’s block that her kindred spirit would soon soak in gore. It was as if preparing his bridal bed, where she would embrace Niccolo even as the executioner struck — the two as passionately near to one in soul and body as the logistics of a heavy blade’s arc can permit.
[H]e arrived, as a meek lamb, and seeing me, he began to laugh, and he wanted me to make the sign of the cross. When he received the sign, I said, “Come on! to the nuptials, my sweet brother! for soon you will be in life without end.” He got down with great meekness, and I stretched out his neck, and leaning down, I reminded him of the blood of the Lamb. His mouth said nothing but “Jesus” and “Catherine.” And, as he was saying thus, I received his head in my hands, closing his eyes on divine goodness and saying, “I want this!” (“lo voglio”)†
She clutched to herself the lifeless head that had dropped into her lap and beheld “with the greatest envy” Niccolo’s soul ascending in the martyrdom Catherine aspired to. Afterwards, she was reluctant to wash out the clothes spattered with blood from the sacred climax of death.
The Dominican friar Caffarini, an ally of Catherine who was later to become of the principal exponents of her canonization, wrote of the tableau that Niccolo
accepted death while still at a young age, in the presence of the Virgin and with her receiving his head into her hands, with such marvelous devotion that it was like the transitus of some devout martyr and not the death of one who was condemned for a human crime. And everyone watching among whom I was only one was so moved internally and from the heart that I do not remember any previous burial accompanied with as much devotion as that one.
* Apart from the enmity of the papal party, the powerful guild leaders of the Quindici faced working-class opposition that resulted in a 1378 revolt.
** Gregory XI was the guy who moved the papacy back from Avignon to Rome.
† Translated excerpts culled from snippets and excerpts in various locations. Original Italian versions of Catherine’s poetic letters are available in public-domain Google books here; there’s also a recent English translation by Susan Noffke.
By the time of the Bloody Code, what had once been an outlying village was being absorbed into the city, and as we come to our scene in the mid-18th century was a place of rising respectability decreasingly at home with the sordid task appointed to it — and with the disorderly revel thereby invited. Neighbors were pushing to send away the gallows.
William Hogarth, Industry and Idleness, Plate 11; The Idle Prentice Executed at Tyburn (1747). The execution itself is barely visible, swallowed up in a disordered throng.
In little more than a generation’s time, public executions would indeed be removed from Tyburn altogether. But the tree itself did not quite make it to the end of Tyburn’s famous run.
That evil structure’s last client emerged around midnight on the night of April 16. Returning home late from a night of boozing and/or whoring, one Richard Ireland rounded onto Drury Lane where — he told the court — Catharine Knowland
bid me stop, and asked me where I was going; I said, what is that to you; she took hold on the skirt of my coat, and catch’d hold of my watch and pull’d it from my pocket; I made a struggle with her; then up came a man and said, You scoundrel dog, what business have you with my wife, and down he knock’d me; I was sensible and got up directly and pursued her.
The watch was worth 40 shillings, which meant it was worth a thief’s life.
Knowland unsuccessfully tried to plead her belly, a common enough ploy, but it seems her situation excited some sympathy beyond the ordinary for on this day of her death, “When she came to Tyburn, all the Cross-Beams were pulled down; so she was tied up on the Top of one of the upright Posts, and hung with her Back to it.” (London Public Advertiser, Tuesday, June 19, 1759.)
By that summer, beams and posts alike had been demolished — replaced by a smaller, portable structure, to begin public hangings’ a century-long shrinkage from the raucous mobs under the Tyburn Tree until the spectacle at last vanished behind prison walls altogether.
On this date in 1714, “the Negroes Cato (Cowley’s) Fortune (Vanderspeigle’s) Cato alias Toby, Ben and Quash, were executed according to their respective Sentences.”
That’s the entirety of the text in Daniel Horsmanden‘s compenium to describe a quintuple burning of rebel slaves in New York, and as the dismissive treatment implies this was an occasion of little moment within the colony’s 1741 hunt for a great slave conspiracy.
We have by this point clearly reached the point in the story at which the trials feed on themselves.
To recall the action to this point: a series of fires in March and April had inflamed a popular conviction that servile arsonists were afoot, until “Many people had such terrible apprehensions … that several negroes (and many had been assisting at the fire at the storehouse, and many perhaps that only seemed to be so) who were met in the streets, after the alarm of their rising, were hurried away to jail.”
New Yorkers, to their partial credit, did not put these suspected blacks all to lynch law, but it is an open question whether the judicial proceedings extended to the 34 people eventually executed in the affair really uncovered any plot — or merely hammered the existing public paranoia into specious evidence.
Either way, the breakthrough in the law’s eyes was the deposition given on April 22nd by Mary Burton, a young and disgruntled servant, that her master and mistress, their boarder, and three slaves (and known thieves) “used to meet frequently at her Master’s House, and that she has heard them (the Negroes) talk frequently of burning the Fort; and that they would go down to the Fly and burn the whole Town: and that her Master and Mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.”
Burton left herself some wiggle room for the purges she might have guessed might follow by mentioning up to “Twenty or Thirty Negroes at one Time in her Master’s House” but she only identified by name here six specific people. And by this point in our story, mid-June, they are dead every one of the six: the slaves Caesar, Prince and Cuffee; her master John Hughson, his wife Sarah, and their Irish boarder Peggy Kerry.
Whether or not they were rightly accused or fairly prosecuted, one could easily imagine a world where their deaths are the end of the story.
But in our world, the dimensions and the participants of the plot so-called were already ballooning. Information wrung out by investigators who were by now convinced of the plot’s existence — from men at the stake teased with the prospect of pardon; from jailhouse snitches; and more from Mary Burton herself, who would repeatedly appear in Horsmanden’s pages to light the next passage forward — had already brought to the stakes another batch of slaves, on June 9.
This group had previously been stitched up thanks in part to a slave named Sawney or Sandy who gave evidence against them under the threat of being prosecuted with them. After five were condemned, one of their company, a slave named Jack,* dodged execution by offering the judges a copious affidavit confirming Sawney’s evidence and adding still more names to the plot.
These men’s charges would prove instrumental in the execution of June 16 — almost a sideshow as compared to the arc of the arson panic as a whole, but a melodrama that meant death for the blood offerings by which Sawney and Jack bought their lives.
Toby or Cato (Provoost’s) enters the documentary record on June 9, from the evidence that the condemned Jack gives while his four friends are burning to death.
Ben (Captain Marshall’s) and Quash (Rutger’s) appear as a unit in that same evidence of Jack’s, principal fellows in Hughson’s conspiracy in a scene that Jack coyly lays at a moment his fellow-witness Mary Burton “was above making a Bed.” In it, Ben
said, he could find a Gun, Shot and Powder, at his Master’s House: That his Master did not watch him, he could go into every Room: Ben asked Quash, What will you stand for? He said, he did not care what he stood for, or should be, but he could kill Three, Four, Five White Men before Night.
That Quash said, he could get two half Dozen of Knives in Papers, three or four Swords; and that he would set his Master’s House on fire, and when he had done that, he would come abroad to fight.
Cato (Cowley’s) and Fortune (Vanderspiegle’s) enter the paper trail on May 25, when they are named by Sandy. Both were arrested as a result, but we do not hear more about them for a fortnight, until Jack corroborates Sandy’s charges.
The cascade of accusations proved neatly self-affirming. Another slave named Will and bearing the winsome nickname “Ticklepitcher” was accused by Cuffee and Quack at the stake when they believed that it might save their lives. (It didn’t.) That was after Sandy had already given his evidence, but Jack, no fool, rolled Ticklepitcher too right into his (Jack’s) 40-point affidavit.**
This led Tickle himself to give evidence for the crown by naming 20 other participants in Hughson’s plot, among them Cato and Fortune. And yet another black nam, named Bastian or Tom Peal, followed a similar path: first named by Mary Burton in one of her secondary examinations in May — and then confirmed in guilt by Sandy and Jack — upon his own conviction also went over to the inquisitors, “as was intimated by Somebody about the Jail he would.” Bastian named every member of the June 16 execution party save Fortune.
These, then, were the accusers presented in the June 13 trial that doomed our quintet: Mary Burton, and all the progeny of her first deposition two months before: Sandy, Jack, Ticklepitcher, Bastian, and yet two more slaves who had made themselves the same lifesaving bridge from accused to accuser.
Through their mutually corroborating — and mutually interested — evidence, the court was able to show to its satisfaction that
these stupid Wretches seduced by the Instigation of the Devil, and Hughson his Agent,† to undertake so senseless, as well as wicked an Enterprize; which must inevitably end in their own Destruction … are equally as guilty as if they themselves had devised it, by consenting to it, taking Oaths to proceed in it, and in the mean Time to keep it secret.
The jury, perhaps mindful that “[t]he Number of the Conspirators is very great … and we have still daily new Discoveries of many more” withdrew for but “a little Time” before closing this particular chapter with the preordained result. There would be yet another trial the very day after these five burned.
* Most slaves in the narrative are identified by a first name plus the possessive surname of their owner. The Jack in question belonged to a man named Comfort, so Horsmanden refers to him as Jack (Comfort’s) — in distinction from, for instance, Jack (Sleydall’s).
** No lie, Jack’s information runs to almost three full pages with 40 numbered bullets.
† Hughson’s narrative importance to the theory of a burgeoning servile rebellion will thrill the student of race in American history: “It cannot be imagined that these silly unthinking Creatures (Hughson’s black Guard) could of themselves have, and carried on so deep, so direful and destructive a Scheme, as that we have seen with our Eyes, and have heard fully proved they had prepared for us, without the Advice and Assistance of such abandoned Wretches as Hughson was.” Those are the prosecutor’s words; in sentencing, the court termed our five “inferior Agents.”
“I just wanted to give him a warning to change policy,” Lô said. He added, “I wanted to prove … he was not immune to public condemnation.”
His widow, Fatou Sarr, believed him; nearly 45 years after his death, she gave her first interview to the press and said, “He was not able to kill a fly.”
But if he was in fact only acting, Lô’s performance was very convincing: he pointed his pistol at the prime minister and pulled the trigger twice. Fortunately for Senghor, the gun jammed.
The crowd quickly tackled and overpowered Lô and he was hauled away by the police.
Several other people were also accused of being part of the plot. Moustapha Drame was sentenced to life in prison, Doudou Ndiaye to ten years and Momar Mbaye to five years; two other defendants were acquitted of all charges.
Although the country’s religious leaders pleaded for Senghor to pardon his would-be assassin, the prime minister refused. Later on he claimed he had agonized over the decision for days and had nightmares about it, but he concluded, “This is not to judge according to the view of God. Only God can judge in the absolute. However, capital punishment still has a deterrent effect in Senegalese society.”
Lô met his death by firing squad. He said a prayer before his death and claimed he was dying “a martyr.”
Senghor outlived his attacker by 44 years, dying in 2001 at the age of 95.
* The holiday is locally known in Senegal as Tabaski.
They were the first white people executed in the affair, and when their 16-year-old indentured servant Mary Burton first described a plot to fire the city hatched by thronging slave conclaves at the Hughsons’ tavern, the by the account of the court’s officer Daniel Horsmanden, it “was most astonishing to the Grand Jury … that any white People should become so abandoned to confederate with Slaves in such an execrable and detestable Purpose.”
Whether there ever really was an execrable and detestable Purpose or whether white New Yorkers convinced of the arson plot were just chasing ghosts, nobody can say with certainty. But the Hughsons most definitely did confederate with slaves. The keeper of a dockside tavern on the Hudson, Hughson catered to the colony’s lower strata: both blacks and poor whites frequented the place, and for the criminal element among them Hughson kept up a side business as a small-time fence of stolen goods.
Back in 1738, the Hughsons had moved to that location from the South Ward — driven, one infers, by complaints of a previous neighbor that they “kept a very disorderly House, and sold Liquor to, and entertained Negroes.” Three of those Negroes were the slaves Caesar, Prince and Cuffee, who in January of 1738 had been busted for breaking into another tavern in town and carrying away the gin … an incident that by 1741 their prosecutors were characterizing as the germ of a years-long plot to orchestrate the annihilation of New York.*
The keystone to the 1741 wave of prosecutions — the break in the case, from the standpoint of the court — occurred on April 22, when Burton provided the Grand Jury a damning description of her master and mistress as the kingpins of a murderous cabal. Burton swore
That Caesar, Prince, and Mr. Philipse’s Negro Man (Cuffee) used to meet frequently at her Master’s House, and that she has heard them (the Negroes) talk frequently of burning the Fort; and that they would go down to the Fly(d) and burn the whole Town: and that her Master and Mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.
That in their common Conversation they used to say, that when all this was done, Caesar should be Governor, and Hughson her Master should be King.
That Cuffee used to say, That a great many People had too much, and others too little; That his old Master had a great deal of Money, but that, in a short Time, he should have less, and that he (Cuffee) should have more.
That at the Meetings of the Three aforesaid Negroes, Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee, at her Master’s House, they used to say, in their Conversation, That when they set Fire to the Town, they would do it in the Night, and as the white People came to extinguish it, they would kill and destroy them.
Up until that point, the court had a suspicion of an arson campaign, based on a series of fires that looked like a pattern but might have been coincidental. Burton’s deposition gave that suspicion tangible shape, and structured all the proceedings to follow. And in her telling, it all started with Hughson, Hughson, and Kerry.
It was a story that fit what the judges would know or believe about them: besides the Hughsons’ underclass and criminal connections, the Hughsons’ Irish lodger Peggy Kerry was Caesar’s lover and the mother of his infant son. “She was a person of infamous character, a notorious prostitute, and also of the worst sort, a prostitute to negroes,” Horsmanden sneers in the introduction he wrote to his compendium of proceedings.
“Here is laid the foundation of the characters of Hughson and his family, which will afford frequent occasion of enlarging upon; and from such a hopeful earnest the reader may well expect a plentiful harvest.”
Peggy Kerry, that “Newfoundland Irish beauty,” now came under relentless pressure to corroborate Mary Burton. Prostitute to Negroes or no, she was badly needed to add credibility (and leal certainty) to Burton’s charge.
Jailed and facing the prospect of execution, she nevertheless stubbornly refused every blandishment to adhere to Mary Burton’s version of events — a version that would surely doom her friends the Hughsons and her lover Caesar.
She paid the last price or her obstinance. Arthur Price, the jailhouse snitch who eventually doomed Cuffee, entered the case by telling investigators that Peggy said to him all the stuff they wanted her to say to them.
[Price asked] What, Peggy; were you a going to set the Town on fire? And she made Answer, She was not; but said, by God, since I knew of it, they made me swear: Upon which the Deponent asked her, Was John and his Wife in it? (meaning John Hughson and his Wife) And she answered Yes, by God, they were both sworn as well as the rest. Then the Deponent asked her, if she was not afraid that the Negroes would discover her? And she said, No; for Prince, Cuff and Caesar, and Forck’s [Vaarck’s] Negro [Caesar] were all true-hearted Fellows.
And by the way, she added,
for your Life and Soul of you, you Son of a Bitch, don’t speak a Word of what I have told you.
Whether or not Peggy Kerry really did say all this incriminating stuff to her fellow dungeon denizen, Price’s report laid her in the magistrates’ trap. Now she was already the second witness, via Price — and without the benefit of leniency that she could have procured by talking herself. The pending conspiracy charge dangled over her head.
Finally, on May 7, she made a too-little, too-late grab at mercy by describing plotters meeting not at the Hughsons’, but at the house of a nearby cobbler, John Romme. Heartbreakingly, she put the father of her son into the scene: she had abandoned any hope of saving him.
This half-confession, as the magistrates saw it, only redounded against her for upon interrogation Elizabeth Romme denied everything (John Romme had left, or fled, town). Romme’s place was a dead end in the investigation but Kerry’s saying it confirmed that she was privy to something about the plot — something she might still be withholding. “From what had hitherto come to Light concerning this Mystery of Iniquity, it was scarce to be doubted, but Peggy had it in her Power to unfold a great deal more,” Horsmanden remarks in his entry for May 14. “Though what Peggy had already disclosed seemed to merit something; yet it was not altogether satisfactory; and ’twas thought proper she should be arraigned upon the Indictment for the Conspiracy, upon the Supposition that this Step might probably be a Means of bringing her to a Resolution of making a full Discovery of what she knew.”
For the next weeks, the court routed around the intransigence of its would-be star witness, and increasingly made her prospective evidence irrelevant. There was Arthur Price’s deposition, to begin with; to this crown’s evidence was added witnesses we have already met in the trials of the other other men: Sandy, Sarah, Fortune. There were the desperate “confessions” extorted from Quack and Cuffee at the stake.
John Hughson, who was being fitted for the halter, could see what was up. With his wife and now his daughter as well both in jail, Hughson asked on June 1 to see Daniel Horsmanden, “to open his Heart to them, and they should know more.” What deal was he hoping to cut? Could he extricate himself? Would he trade his own life to save his family?
We don’t know, because Horsmanden made it clear in their interview that not John Hughson nor Sarah Hughson nor Peggy Kerry had an ounce of leverage remaining.
[I] reproached him with his wicked Life and Practices, debauching and corrupting of Negroes, and encouraging them to steal and pilfer from their Masters and others; and for shewing his Children so wicked an Example, training them up in the High-Way to Hell: He further observed to him, that his Wife, and Peggy, then stood convicted of a Felony for receiving stolen Goods of Negroes; and that now nothing remained but to pass Sentence of Death upon them, and to appoint a Day for their Execution for that Fact; but that it was now determined, that he, his Wife and Daughter, and Peggy, should also be tried for being confederated in this most horrible Conspiracy; that the Evidence would appear so strong and clear against them in this Particular, that there was little doubt of their being all convicted upon that Head also; that it would appear undeniably that he was a Principal, and head Agent in this detestable Scheme of Villany; the chief Abettor, together with the rest of his Family, of this execrable and monstrous Contrivance for shedding the Blood of his Neighbours, and laying the whole City in Ashes, upon the Expectation of enriching himself by such an inhuman and execrable Undertaking: He therefore admonished him, if he would entertain the least Hopes of recommending himself to the Mercy of God Almighty, before whose Tribunal he must soon appear, that he would ingenuously tell the Truth, and lay open the whole Scene of this dark Tragedy, which had been brooding at his House; and discover the several Parties he knew to have been engaged in it; in doing which he would make some Attonement for his past Villanies, by preventing that Slaughter, Bloodshed and Devastation which he and his Confederates had intended.
Disabused of any hope, Hughson “put on a soft smiling Air of Innocence” and “declared, he knew Nothing at all of any Conspiracy; and called God to witness his Protestations, that he was as innocent with respect to that Charge as the Child unborn, and also his Wife, Daughter, and Peggy for aught he knew.” He would go to trial with those three on June 4.
That proceeding was a walkover, as Horsmanden had predicted. Mary Burton was the star witness against her former master and mistress, with Arthur Price’s account of Peggy Kerry’s confessions thrown in for good measure.
Following these came a litany of the Hughsons’ current and former white neighbors who damned the Hughson house as a regular haunt of the city’s black population — that “a Cabal of Negroes” was frequently entertained, that Peggy had been seen serving them and both the Hughson mother and daughter danced shamelessly with them, that “whole Companies of Negroes [were] playing at Dice there.”
The real evidence here still rested only upon Mary Burton’s allegation as supported by Arthur Price. But from the trial preceding the court had already fixed that story through the flesh of other men. That others who had hanged and burned already were known to congregate at the Hughsons’ did the necessary work to finish John Hughson, “whose Crimes have made him blacker than a Negro; the Scandal of his Complexion, and the Disgrace of human Nature!”
Such a Monster will this Hughson appear before you, that for sake of the Plunder he expected by setting in Flames the King’s House, and this whole City, and by the Effusion of the Blood of his Neighbours’ — He — Murderous and Remorseless He! — counselled and encouraged the Committing of all these most astonishing Deeds of Darkness, Cruelty, and Inhumanity. — Infamous Hughson! —
This is that Hughson! whose Name, and most detestable Conspiracies will no doubt be had in everlasting Remembrance, to his eternal Reproach; and stand recorded to latest Posterity, — This is the Man! — his, that Grand Incendiary! — That Arch Rebel against God, his King, and his Country! — That Devil Incarnate! and chief Agent of the old Abaddon of the infernal Pit, and Regions of Darkness.
These are the rhetorical fulminations of the prosecuting attorney, William Smith, who surely deserves a plaque in that profession’s hall of fame for bridging the distance from some NIMBYing neighbors to the logic and the rhetoric of a witch trial. Hell … just the fact that Hughson had the effrontery to show up and defend himself only went to show what a monster he was.
Was not this Hughson sunk below the Dignity of human Nature — Was he not abandoned to all Sense of Shame and Remorse! — To all Sense of Feeling the dreadful Calamities He has brought on this City, and his fellow Creatures; He would from a Consciousness of his own Guilt. — His monstrous Guilt! — be so confounded, as not able to look up, or stand without the greatest Confusion of Face, before this Court and Audience; but would openly confess his, and the Rest of his wretched Confederates Guilt, and humbly ask Pardon of God, the King, and his injured Country.
And so they died. Of course they died.
Sarah Hughson, the 17-year-old daughter, was spared her sentence. Over the next weeks her orphaned life would be a litany of execution dates imposed and then delayed, trading time for cooperation that Sarah was very reluctant to provide. In whatever combination her age, her sex, and her skin — for as a white person, her evidence had privilege over the allegations of “pagan Negroes” in trials yet to come — would eventually procure her pardon.
But on June 12, her parents and their misfortunate friend Peggy Kerry all went to the gallows. (Not to the pyre, the fate of the black slaves convicted for the conspiracy.) Horsmanden spares for these major trophies a longer narration of their Passion, though this turns out to consist in large measure of Horsmanden complaining one last time how Peggy Kerry didn’t spare any of her last moments to finally give him what he wanted.
The under-sheriff had often advised John Hughson, to make a cofession about the conspiracy, but he always denied he knew any thing of the matter; said he had deserved death for receiving stolen goods. The wife was ever sullen; said little or nothing, but denied all.
The sheriffs observed John Hughson, when he was brought out of jail to be carried to execution, to have a red spot on each cheek, about the bigness of a shilling, which at that time thought very remarkable, for he was always pale of visage: these spots continued all along to the gallows. Amongst other discourse it seems he had said, he did not doubt but some remarkable sign would happen to him, to show his innocence; concerning which more will be observed upon hereafter.** He stood up in the cart all the way, looking round about him as if expecting to be rescued, as was by many conjectured from the air he appeared in: one hand was lifted up as high as his pinion would admit of, and a finger pointing, as if intending to beckon.
At the gallows his wife stood like a lifeless trunk, with the rope about her neck, tied up to the tree; she said not a word, and had scarce any visible motion.
Peggy seemed much less resigned than the other two, or rather unwilling to encounter death; she was going to say something, but the old woman who hung next to her, gave her a shove with her hand, as was said by some, so Peggy was silent.
But they all died, having protested their innocence to the last, touching the conspiracy.
This old woman, as it has been generally reported, was bred a Papist; and Peggy was much suspected of the same persuasion, though perhaps it may seem to be of little significance what religion such vile wretches professed.
From the scanty room in the jail for the reception of so many prisoners, this miserable wretch, upon her conviction with the Hughsons for the conspiracy, was put in the same cell with them; which perhaps was an unfortunate incident; for though she had to the time of their trial screened them from the charge of the conspiracy; yet there was reason to expect, that upon the last pinch, when she found there was no hopes of saving her own life if she persisted, the truth as to this particular would have come out; and indeed it was upon this expectation, that she was brought upon trial for the conspiracy; for her several examinations before set forth, and what Arthur Price had sworn to have dropt from her in accidental talk in jail, had put it beyond doubt, that she was privy to many of the Hughsons’ secrets concerning this detestable confederacy; but when she was admitted to the Hughsons, under the circumstances of conviction and condemnation for the conspiracy, they most probably prevailed with her to persevere in her obstinacy, to the end to cover their own guilt, since they were determined to confess nothing themselves; and they might drive her to desperation by subtle insinuations, that the judges she saw after they had picked all they could but of her, whatever expectations she might have raised from her confessions, or hopes she flattered herself with of saving her life upon the merit of them; yet after all, she was brought to trial and condemned for the conspiracy, as well as they; and why should she expect pardon any more than they: and by such like artifices it is probable they might stop her mouth, and prevent her making further discovery; and not only so, but then of course prevail with her to recant, as to what she had confessed already.
John Hughson endured the posthumous indignity of being gibbeted in chains, on an island† alongside the already-rotting corpse of his former boon companion Caesar — who had hanged fully a month before.
As an unseasonably hot summer emerged in the weeks ahead, Horsmanden would later report how “Hughson’s Body drip’d and distill’d very much, as it needs must, from the great Fermentation and Abundance of Matter within him,” bloating to “Gigantick” proportions until at last “Hughson’s Corps unable to contain its Load, burst and discharged Pails full of Blood and Corruption” to the disgust of some nearby fishermen “to whom the Stench of it was very offensive.” The progress of this revolting fermentation was one reason guessed by “amused” New Yorkers for a queer phenomenon, that as they dangled in their manacles,
Hughson was turned Negro, and Vaarck’s Caesar a White; and when they came to put up York in Chains by Hughson (who was hung upon the Gibbet three Weeks before [and not yet exploded from his fermentation -ed.]) so much of him as was visible, viz. Face, Neck, Hands and Feet, were of a deep shining Black, rather blacker than the Negro placed by him, who was one of the darkest Hue of his Kind; and the Hair of Hughson’s Beard and Neck (his Head could not be seen, for he had a Cap on) was curling like the Wool of a Negro’s Beard and Head; and the Features of his Face were of the Symmetry of a Negro Beauty; the Nose broad and flat, the Nostrils open and extended, the Mouth wide, Lips full and thick, his Body, (which when living, was tall by the View upwards of six Feet, but very meagre) swell’d to a Gigantick Size; and as to Caesar (who, tho’ executed for a Robbery, was also one of the Head Negro Conspirators, had been hung up in Chains a Month before Hughson, and was also of the darkest Complexion) his Face was at the same Time somewhat bleach’d or turned whitish; insomuch that it occasion’d a Remark, That Hughson and he had changed Colours.
Lepore suggests that the city’s controversial Freemasons club, which was then prominent enough for active parody in the city’s press, led John Hughson to form a mock secret society at his cronies’ saturnalias whose joke “initiations” had downtrodden friends and even casual acquaintances boozily (but jestingly) vow to torch the city. During the (actual or perceived) arson wave of 1741, New York’s court would read a far more sinister intent to this sort of talk, and there are consequent references in the trial records to a “three-year conspiracy.”
** Much later in his narrative, Horsmanden gets around to an indeterminate speculation that the red spots on John Hughson’s cheeks might have been the product of his attempting to cheat the executioner with an insufficient poison. Evidently this was a rumor abroad in New York, though Horsmanden doubted the truth of it.
† The gibbet stood “near the powder-house,” which places it on a small island — long since gobbled up by the metropolis — within the marshes of Collect Pond. That’s around the present-day park named for Thomas Paine, which is just south of what’s now Collect Pond Park and at the time stood outside of the city’s main settlement.
Once an essential source of fresh water for Manhattanites, Collect Pond soon became overtaxed by the growing population and polluted by its use as a common sewer, devolving into a foetid slough. This public health hazard was destined for a grand future in New York’s crime annals, for once it was filled in the streets above it became New York’s legendary underworld nest, the Five Points. They were also the original site of The Tombs prison, which had structural problems from its outset due to land subsiding into the buried quagmire.
The Powder House, marked on a 1766 map of New York. (See large original version here.)
Corrupt and degrading political associations such as pervade the larger American cities have their natural result in the career of the wretch who expiated his crimes upon the gallows in this city to-day.
He bore the name — Heaven save the mark! — of George Washington Fletcher. Born of a good, respectable family, with a brother an exhorter in the Methodist Church, he has been the black sheep of the flock.
Obstinately repelling all good influences, he has deliberately followed a life of crime from boyhood up, and nothing so well shows the depths to which local politics in this city have sunk as the fact that this man was able defiantly to pursue the life he did merely because he had political friends whose dirty work he did.
Secured immunity from punishment by the small fry ward politicians to whom his aid was valuable, this man was nurtured in the belief that for him the law could have no terrors that “influence” could not remove. The leader of a gang whose services as repeaters at the polls in the interest of a corrupt ring of so-called republicans, Fletcher found that he could defy the law and its officers.
His history is a catalogue of offences against the law, but its sudden ending in the midst of his career, in the very prime of life, proves that justice does not always sleep in Philadelphia, even when a politician is the transgressor.
Fletcher was born in a portion of the city called Southwark in 1845. He was only eleven years of age when his innate cruely of disposition showed itself in cutting off pigs’ tails at a pork packer’s yards. He was committed to the House of Refuge for this offence, was soon released and was a couple of years later engaged in a row with a colored boy named Robert Clayton, now living in Atherton street, near Fletcher’s old home, and gave him a serious stab in the side with a knife.
About this time the rebellion broke out, and Fletcher followed the First Pennsylvania Reserves to the Army of the Potomac, deserted and afterward became what was known as a “bounty jumper.”
At the close of the war he shiped in the navy, and was drawn to fill the Swatara‘s quota, one of the vessels which accompanied Admiral Farragut‘s fleet to Europe. On their homeward cruise he deserted from the Swatara at Antwerp. He swam ashore. He then made his way to Liverpool, from which place he worked his passage to Philadelphia on a merchant ship.
Fletcher and James Hanley had both been runners with the Marion Hose, of the old volunteer fire department, and on the formation of the paid department both secured positions. The two had been companions in boyhood, but had grown up very different in character, Fletcher having become a young “rough” and political “striker,” and Hanley a quiet, inoffensive, sober and industrious young man.
Fletcher and his chosen companions planned a series of robberies, but obtained amateur “kids” to perform the dangerous work, while they obtained the “swag” and divided the profits among themselves.
Fletcher’s later career as a fireman was marked with acts of violence, one of which was the shooting of a companion named Stark, which occurred some time previous to the murder of Hanley. This case was settled, like many others in which he was involved, and never reached the courts.
OUT OF EMPLOYMENT.
Fletcher and his early companion Hanley appeared to continue on friendly terms until the spring of 1874, when Fletcherwas arrested, charged with having committed an outrage on a girl about fourteen years of age, named Mary Elizabeth McHugh.
On the 27th of April, 1874, the Grand Jury found a true bill against him on this charge, and he was tried three days after and acquitted, but the accusation cost him his position in the Fire Department. After losing his situation Fletcher was for a long time out of work. He complained greatly of his troubles and placed the entire blame on Hanley. He frequently made threats that he would kill him, and his desire for revenge increased as his repeated efforts to have himself reinstated in the Fire Department were unsuccessful.
On election day, November 2, 1875, the day before Hanley was murdered, Fletcher attempted to vote illegally at a poll in the First war. Frank Wilcox, residing in Redwood street, interposed objections, whereupon the fireman rough levelled his pistol and fired directly at him, but the motion of a friendly hand caused the barrel to point downward, and the ball lodged in Wilcox’s foot. That same day, with pistol in hand, Fletcher was scouring the vicinity of the “Neck” with the intention of killing one Antonio Hale.
HIS LAST CRIME.
Shortly before eight o’clock on the evening of the 3d Fletcher visited the engine house to which Hanley was attached.
At the door he met one of the members named Pinker, of whom he inquired, “is Jimmy Hanley up stairs?”
Pinker replied that he was.
“Then,” returned Fletcher, “tell him to come down; I want to see him.”
Pinker replied, “No, I won’t, George, because if he comes down here there will be trouble between you and him.”
Fletcher replied quickly, “Oh, no there won’t; I saw him up town to-day and we made up.”
“All right, then,” said Pinker, “I will call him,” and he then called up stairs.
Hanley was reading a book, but laid it down and came down stairs immediately. The words, “How are you to-night?” passed between him and Fletcher, and they went toward the the outside together in a friendly way.
Hanley leaned against the jamb of the door, and as a drizzling rain was falling Pinker asked him if he had not better put a coat on. Hanley said yes, and asked Pinker to get him one.
The latter took a coat from the truck and advanced with it to Hanley, telling him where to place it again when he was done with it.
Hanley had just raised his arms to pull the coat on when Fletcher drew a small pistol and fired. The ball entered Hanley’s left breast, cut through the lung and passed into the heart, and, reeling back into the engine house, the wounded man exclaimed that Fletcher had shot him, and fell. Pinker and some of the other firemen lifted him and carried him up stairs to a lounge, on which he expired in about five minutes.
Fletcher was at once arrested. His trial took place a few weeks later, and, a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree having been agreed upon by the jury and a new trial refused, Fletcher on the 12th of February was sentenced “to be hanged by the neck until dead.” The Governor nixed fixed just one year ago for the execution, but through the legal delays and arguments in the Supreme Court the execution was postponed.
Since Fletcher’s conviction the most strenuous efforts have been made to secure his pardon, mainly by politicians, in whose behalf he has often rendered important services at the polls.
James H. Heverin, the prisoner’s counsel, has also labored most faithfully in behalf of his client, not ceasing his endeavors to procure a pardon or a reprieve until within twenty-four hours of his death.
HIS LAST HOURS ON EARTH.
Recently the conduct of the condemned man has undergone a change under the ministrations of the Rev. Camp, the Methodist preacher, who has been in faithful attendance upon him.
Fletcher leaves a wife and three children, aged respectively five, three and about two years, all of whom have been frequent visitors to him and have had a softening effect upon him.
He has gradually come to be repentant for his crimes and to take comfort in the consolations of religion. Yesterday he was visited for the last time by his family, his counsel Mr. Heverin, Rev. Dr. Westwood, George H. Stuart and others. His last farewells are said to have been very touching.
Fletcher went to sleep about ten o’clock last night and slept soundly for five hours. His spiritual advisers were with him until he retired, and he prayed fervently with them.
When he awoke this morning, at half-past three o’clock, he lit a cigar and sat on a stool in a thoughtful mood. He talked to Keeper Everly of his death, and said he was prepared to die.
“In three or four hours,” said he, “I shall be in heaven.”
Early this morning he was visited by Rev. Messrs. Camp and Pearce, and sang with them in a clear, loud voice, the “Crucified One,” one of Moody and Sankey‘s hymns, commencing, “It is the promise of God full salvation to give,” which seemed, of all sacred pieces, his favorite one.
His voice rang out clear in the corridor, and the prisoners near him must have distinctly heard it, for his door was partly open. His brother-in-law paid his farewell this morning.
The Sheriff and his party arrived at the prison at eighteen minutes before ten o’clock, and upon being told that his counsel were among the visitors Fletcher sent for them.
An affecting interview was the result, all of the party, including ex-Sheriff Leeds, coming out of the cell with their eyes full of tears.
The scaffold was erected in the convict’s corridor. At ten minutes past ten Fletcher was brought from his cell, and the dismal procession walked to the gallows.
As Fletcher stepped on the fatal trap and faced the spectators below he bore a subdued expression, but displayed no sign of trepidation. A neat black suit* gave him a somewhat clerical appearance, which was heightened by his attitude, his hands being peacefully clasped together, while his head slightly inclined as Mr. Camp prayed fervently that as God had permitted His Son to die for sinners and that whomsoever believeth in Him shall have everlasting life, so might His servant, George Fletcher, have his sins pardoned and be admitted to everlasting life.
Then the doomed man, still betraying no sign of wavering, shook hands with the clergymen, the Sheriff and others, and straightened himself up, while the noose was adjusted, his hands manacled behind his back, and the white cap drawn over his face.
He was then left alone on the scaffold, and all but one of the supports under the trap door on which he stood removed.
Rev. Mr. Camp then lifted his voice in a final prayer, saying, “Now, Lord, we commend the soul of George Fletcher to thine everlasting care. Lord Jesus, receive his spirit, in the name of the Father, Son and —-” He had progressed thus far when he was interrupted by the springing of the trap by the Sheriff, who, by pulling the rope, had pulled away the last upright, and Fletcher’s body fell with a jerk.
STRANGLED TO DEATH.
The trap was sprung at eighteen minutes past ten.
The neck was not broken, and the poor man died slowly by strangulation.
At twenty-five minutes past ten, seven minutes after the fall, the pulse was beating 140 to the minute. It lessened rapidly, but it was not until thirty-five minutes past ten, or seventeen minutes after the fall, that the pulse and the heart ceased their action.
The body was then cut down and taken to the deadhouse, where the physicians formally declared death to have resulted from strangulation.
* The suit was provided courtesy of one of Fletcher’s old political bosses, Jesse Tettermary — a little investment in the future loyalty of his other muscle, perhaps. (Per The North American, June 11, 1877)