On this day in 1775, Thomas Jeremiah, a free black man in the then-colony of South Carolina, was hung after being convicted of attempting to a slave insurrection.
The case against him was extremely weak, but he was tried/framed under the Negro Act of 1740 (in a slave court, although he was not a slave), wherein the defendant was considered guilty until proven innocent. South Carolina’s own royal governor, William Campbell, called it a case of “judicial murder.”
Very little is known about Jeremiah. He left no diary or letters behind, and most of his trial records have been lost. We know he was married but we know nothing about his wife, whether she was a slave or a free black like himself, or whether they had any children. We don’t know how he became free or how he learned his trade. He is, in fact, so obscure that he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry.
What little we do know, however, suggests that he was a most extraordinary man: a fisherman and ship’s pilot, one of less than 500 free blacks in the city of Charles Town (now called Charleston), Jeremiah had somehow managed to claw his way up and amassed a net worth of £1,000, or about $200,000 in today’s money. He was one of the wealthiest free black men in North America, and certainly the wealthiest self-made one.
Jeremiah was basically a victim of his own success. He had risen too high; he made the local white elites uncomfortable. As Harris noted, Jeremiah “did not need to gather arms or preach revolution to undermine slavery, because his whole life was a refutation of whites’ basic justification for slavery.”
Henry Laurens, a wealthy businessman, future Continental Congressman, slaveowner, and contemporary of Jeremiah’s, stated he was “a forward fellow, puffed up by prosperity, ruined by Luxury & debauchery & grown to amazing pitch of vanity & ambition.” He needed to be smacked down and he was, most severely.
In the spring and summer of 1775, revolution was fomenting everywhere. White “Patriots” wanted an opportunity to get out from under England, but they feared their slaves would use the conflict to try and get out from under them.
Nat Turner and Charleston’s own Denmark Vesey — these immortal rebels lay years into the future, but their very prospect made slave rebellions an omnipresent fear among the white populace. It was jumpy. And when two slaves accused Jeremiah of trying to persuade them to rebel, it jumped.
Only a few months passed between Jeremiah’s arrest and his execution. By that time he was a broken man, welcoming death. After he was hung, his body was cut down and burned to ashes.
On this date in 1951, the first two foreigners — Italian merchant Antonio Riva and Japanese bookseller Ruichi Yamaguchi — were convicted and immediately executed in Beijing for a supposed plot to assassinate Mao Zedong.
“the streets they passed through [en route to execution] were thronged with people who expressed their feelings .. . with shouts of ‘Down with imperialism! Suppress counterrevolutionaries! Long live Chairman Mao!'”
(In 1936, Riva married Catherine Lum, the daughter of American wood block artist Bertha Lum and sister of Eleanor Peter Lum, who took after mom.)
When the guys those planes were being used against won the Chinese Civil War, Riva mulled an expedient departure, but reportedly declared (Spanish link) that he could do business under any regime type.
The Communist government decided he had a different sort of business in mind. Citing Chinese state media, the London Times (Aug. 18, 1951) described the plot thus:
the conspirators planned to fire mortar shells at a reviewing stand outside the Tien An gate of the forbidden city in Peking during a procession to celebrate China’s national day on October 1 last year.
Several others, both Chinese and foreigners, drew long prison sentences as part of the “conspiracy” uncovered in a one-hour trial. The most illustrious of those was the Italian bishop Tarcisio Martina.*
Though Riva and Yamaguchi were the first foreigners officially executed by the new Chinese government, they were far from the last. All the more remarkable, then, that in a country that carries out thousands of executions per annum, Antonio Riva is thought to have been the last European citizen put to death there until Akmal Shaikh in 2009.
On this date in 1878, journeyman tinsmith Max Hödel was beheaded in Berlin’s New Prison for taking a potshot at Kaiser Wilhelm I.
Nothing daunted by the prospect of trading his life for an 81-year-old* man’s, this propagandist of the deed tried to kill the conservative German emperor in May of 1878. He missed his target, but killed a bystander.
(Hodel’s cover story that he was just trying to blow his own brains out, not shoot the emperor, was belied by a number of hints he had given to others prior to the attack — e.g., telling a photographer who took his picture that the photo would soon be worth thousands.)
Just weeks after Hodel’s miss, another unsuccessful attempt to kill the emperor was undertaken by Karl Nobiling. Though Nobiling died of self-inflicted injuries, Hodel had to make do with decapitation.
Germans having taken a front-row seat to the Paris Commune just a few years before, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had no intention of allowing radical organizing of any variety to pick up any steam.
Coincidentally, our day’s protagonist shares an execution date with the next generation’s (better) anarchist assassin, Sante Geronimo Caserio — guillotined 16 Aug. 1894 for killing the French president.
* And he was right: nature didn’t take its course with Kaiser Wilhelm for nine more years; he missed outliving his own son and heir by a mere three months.
** Engels — writing polemically, of course — reckons over 11,000 political prisoners arrested from 1879 to 1880 alone.
On this day in 2004, a sixteen-year-old Iranian schoolgirl, Atefah Salaaleh, was publicly hanged from a truck-mounted crane for adultery and “crimes against chastity.”
In a classic example of a miscarriage of justice, the same person, Haji Rezai, served as prosecutor, witness, judge and hangman against this young girl. In violation of Iranian law, Atefah did not have legal representation at her trial.
Iran, when it signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, had promised not to execute minors, but according to Amnesty International, Atefah has been at least the tenth person under 18 to be executed in Iran since 1990. Her family says they gave her 1988 birth certificate to the court, but Judge Rezai just looked at her and decided she was at least 22. Because it’s so easy to determine a person’s exact age just based on their appearance.
Atefah appears to be a good example of a problem child: her mother was killed in a car accident when she was very young and her father was a drug addict, so she was given to the inadequate care of her elderly grandparents. Although she was described as “lively and intelligent,” she often roamed the streets and became a delinquent.
In the years prior to the arrest that lead to Atefah’s death, she had already been arrested multiple times by Iran’s Morals Police for crimes including being in a car alone with a boy (her cousin) and having sex with unmarried men. According to friends quoted in Iran Focus, she may have been sexually abused by a close relative, and she also alleged abuse by the Morals Police.
For the arrest that lead to her death, Atefah was not charged with committing any specific offenses; rather, she was arrested after an unsigned petition named her as a “bad influence” on the community and a “source of immorality.”
Under torture she admitted she had had sex with a 51-year-old married taxi driver, whom she claimed had repeatedly raped her. In court, she defiantly removed her hijab, threw her shoes at judge Rezai, and said the taxi driver should be punished rather than herself. (Reportedly, he was given about 100 lashes and then released.) Atefah’s death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court of Iran and she was hung three months after her trial.
Atefah’s life and death have been the subject of a BBC documentary which you can see in six parts on YouTube. Keep a hanky handy.
“Our readers,” intoned the London Times on Nov. 5 of 1860, “will not have overlooked the behavior and fate of Private Moyse, of the Buffs, whose resolution, indeed, was not proof against the allurements of the grog-cart, but who actually faced death in cold blood rather than demean himself by prostration before ‘any Chinaman alive.'”
It was on this date that said Private Moyse, John to call him by his Christian name, died in captivity — allegedly because he refused to kowtow to a Chinese mandarin. “The Sikhs obeyed” this Asiatic command, goes the account. “But Moyse, the English soldier, declaring that he would not prostrate himself before any Chinaman alive, was immediately knocked upon the head and his body thrown on a dunghill.”
Kowtowing — Chinese insistence upon; British rejection of — was a touchy symbolic issue between the rising European hegemon and the ancient Chinese empire. It’s said (likely with more color than accuracy) that the British envoy Earl Macartney‘s 1790s trade mission to the east failed for want of a kowtow.
Last night, among his fellow roughs,
He jested, quaffed and swore,
A drunken private of the Buffs,
Who never looked before.
Today, beneath the foeman’s frown
He stands in Elgin‘s place,
Ambassador from Britain’s Crown
And type of all her race.
Poor, reckless, rude, low-born, untaught,
Bewildered and alone.
A heart, with English instinct fraught,
He yet can call his own.
Aye, tear his body limb from limb,
Bring cord, or axe, or flame;
He only knows that not through him
Shall England come to shame.
Far Kentish hop fields round him seem’d
Like dreams, to come and go;
Bright leagues of cherry blossom gleam’d,
One sheet of living snow;
The smoke above his father’s door
In grey soft eddyings hung.
Must he then watch it rise no more,
Doomed by himself so young?
Yes, honour calls! With strength like steel
He puts the vision by.
Let dusky Indians whine and kneel;
An English lad must die.
And thus, with eyes that would not shrink,
With knee to man unbent,
Unfaltering on its dreadful brink
To his red grave he went.
Vain, mightiest fleets of iron framed;
Vain, those all-shattering guns;
Unless proud England keep, untamed
The strong heart of her sons.
So, let his name through England ring –
A man of mean estate,
Who died, as firm as Sparta’s King
Because his soul was great.
Moyse’s defiance and death make an appearance in this Flashman novel.
Aye, Moyse liked to get into the drink and had a discipline problem, but no matter. This fact was easily appropriated further to his bluff and earnest character in national martyrdom.
Getting a bit carried away with itself, the Times editorialized on Nov. 16,
We have no such visions of human perfectibility as to believe that all the young men of this country will be “respectable youth” looking for “honourable service.” … The English are a people endowed with superabundant energy, and energy must sometimes take an irregular and even a criminal form. The best use that can be made of a young man who will settle down to nothing is to get him to enlist as a soldier. He is kept under strict discipline at the same time that his love of activity and adventure is gratified. He becomes a first-rate fighting man, and fulfils splendidly the only duty which society can ever hope to obtain from him. There is no reason to wonder, with Colonel McMurdo, that acts of heroism have been performed by such men, for they have performed them in all ages and all countries. The “obstinate intemperate hero” is of all time, whether in the shape of Alexander or Lord Clive, or Private Moyse of the Buffs. There are two kinds of valour, belonging to two different classes of men, and a citizen-force may very usefully be employed side by side with the wildest lads who ever rioted in Tipperary or gambled in a London pothouse.
Basically forgotten now, this story can be fleetingly encountered among Anglophiles as an arcane indicator that the national character of Britain, or the West, or what have you, is not now what it once was, given all the kowtowing to mandarins going on in these debased times.
(Although this post amusingly juxtaposes the “commonsense prudence and practicality” of Wellington taking an expedient knee so that a military strategem would not be lost on account of bullheaded pride. Maybe it helped that Wellington was kneeling to a European.)
Dutch-born and of Scottish descent, Stedman was a soldier who volunteered to serve in the West Indies and found himself in Suriname fighting those “revolted negroes” — Maroons fled from slavery who had established independent communities and episodically (most of the 1770s were one such episode) fought the white colonies.
Maroon settlements in Suriname still pesist to this day.
Though that was Stedman’s business on the Caribbean coast of South America, the culprits whose deaths he witnessed today were not among the “revolted”, but more prosaic criminal fare. Prosaic, that is, until Neptune’s insouciantly comedic discourse in the midst of the most appalling torture.
Stedman sets the scene for us with the more everyday depravities prevailing in the colonial capital, Paramaribo
If, as I have just mentioned, cruelties were become less common in the rivers by the rebels, barbarities still continued in a shocking degree in the metropolis; where my ears were deafened with the clang of the whip, and the shrieks of the negroes. Among the most eminent of these tyrants was a Miss Sp—n,who lived next door to Mr. de Graav, and who I saw with horror from my window give orders that a young black woman should be flogged principally across the breasts, at which she seemed to enjoy peculiar satisfaction. To dissipate the impression this scene had left on my mind, I got into a whiskey, and rode out; when the first thing I saw was a negro girl fall naked from a garret window on a heap of broken bottles: this was indeed an accident, but she was so mangled, though not dead, that she exhibited a spectacle nearly as wretched as the other.—Cursing my unlucky fate, I turned the horses, and drove to the beach, as the only place to avoid every scene of cruelty and misery; but here I had the mortification to see two Philadelphia sailors (while they were fighting on the forecastle of their vessel) both fall over the ship’s bow into the stream, where they sunk, and were no more seen. On board another American brig, I discovered a little tar defending himself from the cross-trees with a hatchet, against a serjeant and four armed men, for a considerable time; till they threatening to shoot him out of the rigging, he at last surrendered, and being brought ashore, was dragged to Fort Zelandia, in company with two others, by a file of musketeers, where, for having been drunk on duty, they received a fire-cant each, at the captain’s request; that is, they were bastinadoed or beaten on the shoulders by two corporals with bamboo canes, till their backs were black, and swelled like a cushion. However arbitrary this mode of correction, the captain endeavoured to explain the necessity of it; the private American sailors being of a turbulent spirit indeed when drunk, although when sober they may be fairly classed among the best seamen in the world.
But the narrator is just getting warmed up, and after a good night’s sleep …
Early the next morning, while musing on all the different dangers and chastisements to which the lower class of people are exposed, I heard a crowd pass under my window. Curiosity made me start up, dress in a hurry, and follow them: when I discovered three negroes in chains, surrounded by a guard, going to be executed in the savannah. Their undaunted look, however averse I may be to the sight of cruelties, so attracted my attention, as to determine me to see the result, which was thus:— The sentence being read in Low Dutch (which they did not understand) one was condemned to be flogged below the gallows, and his accomplice to have his head struck off with an axe, for having shot a slave who had come to steal plantains on the estate of his mistress. The truth however was, that this had been done by that lady’s absolute command; but the murder being discovered, she, in the hopes of saving her character, besides the expence of paying the penalties, gave up her valuable slave, and permitted the unhappy man to be thus sacrificed. He laid his head upon the block with great indifference, stretching out his neck; when, with one blow of the axe, it was severed from his body.
The third negro, whose name was Neptune, was no slave, but his own master, and a carpenter by trade; he was young and handsome, but having killed the overseer of the estate Altona, in the Para Creek, in consequence of some dispute, he justly forfeited his life. The particulars, however, are worth relating: This man having stolen a sheep, to entertain a favourite young woman, the overseer, who burnt with jealousy, had determined to see him hanged; to prevent which, the negro shot him dead among the sugar canes; for these offences of course he was sentenced to be broken alive upon the rack, without the benefit of the coup de grace or mercy-stroke. Informed of the dreadful sentence, he composedly laid himself down on his back on a strong cross, on which, with arms and legs expanded, he was fastened by ropes: the executioner, also a black man, having now with a hatchet chopped off his left hand, next took up a heavy iron bar, with which, by repeated blows, he broke his bones to shivers, till the marrow, blood, and splinters flew about the field; but the prisoner never uttered a groan nor a sigh. The ropes being next unlashed, I imagined him dead, and felt happy; till the magistrates stirring to depart, he writhed himself from the cross, when he fell on the grass, and damned them all, as a set of barbarous rascals; at the same time removing his right hand by the help of his” teeth, he rested his head on part of the timber, and asked the by-standers for a pipe of tobacco, which was infamously answered by kicking and spitting on him; till I, with some American seamen, thought proper to prevent it. He then begged that his head might be chopped off; but to no purpose. At last, seeing no end to his misery, he declared, “that though he had deserved death, he had “not expected to die so many deaths: however, (said he) you christians have missed your aim at last, and I now care not, were I to remain thus one month longer.” After which he sung two extempore songs (with a clear voice) the subjects of which were, to bid adieu to his living friends, and to acquaint his deceased relations that in a very little time he should be with them, to enjoy their company for ever in a better place. This done, he calmly entered into conversation with some gentlemen concerning his trial; relating every particular with uncommon tranquillity—”But,” said he abruptly, “by the sun it must be eight o’clock; and by any longer discourse I should be sorry to be the cause of your losing your breakfast.” Then, casting his eyes on a Jew, whose name was De Vries, “A-propos, sir,” said he, “won’t you please to pay me the ten shillings you owe me ?” — “For what to do ?” — “To buy meat and drink, to be sure—don’t you perceive I am to be kept alive?” Which speech, on seeing the Jew stare like a fool, this mangled wretch accompanied with a loud and hearty laugh. Next, observing the soldier that stood sentinel over him biting occasionally on a piece of dry bread, he asked him ” how it came to pass, that he, a white man, should have no meat to eat along with it ?” — ” Because I am not so rich,” answered the soldier. — “Then I will make you a present, sir,” said the negro; “first, pick my hand that was chopped off clean to the bones, next begin to devour my body, till you are glutted; when you will have both bread and meat, as best becomes you;” which piece of humour was followed by a second laugh; and thus he continued, until I left him, which was about three hours after the dreadful execution.
Wonderful it is indeed, that human nature should be able to endure so much torture, which assuredly could only be supported by a mixture of rage, contempt, pride, and the glory of braving his tormentors, from whom he was so soon to escape. [ here a footnote is marked in the original text, whose content is: “At Demerary, so late as October, 1789, thirty-two wretches were executed in three days, sixteen of whom suffered in the manner just described, with no less fortitude, and without uttering one single complaint.” -ed. ]
Though I never recal to my remembrance, without the most painful sensation, this horrid scene, which must revolt the feelings of all who have one spark of humanity, I cannot forbear exhibiting to the public the dreadful spectacle in the annexed drawing.
Detail view of William Blake‘s illustration of Neptune’s breaking on the rack. (Click for full image.)
If the reader, however, should be offended with this shocking exhibition, and my dwelling so long on this unpleasant subject, let it be some relief to his reflection, to consider this punishment not inflicted as a wanton and unprovoked act of cruelty, but as the extreme severity of the Surinam laws, on a desperate wretch, suffering as an example to others for complicated crimes; while at the same time it cannot but give me, and I hope many others, some consolation to reflect that the above barbarous mode of punishment was hitherto never put in practice in the British colonies.
I must now relate an incident, which, as it had a momentary effect on my imagination, might have had a lasting one on some who had not investigated the real cause of it, and which it gave me no small satisfaction to discover. About three in the afternoon, walking towards the place of execution, with my thoughts full of the affecting scene, and the image of the sufferer fresh in my mind, the first object I saw was his head at some distance, placed on a stake, nodding to me backwards and forwards, as if he had really been alive. I instantly stopped short, and seeing no person in the savannah, nor a breath of wind sufficient to move a leaf or a feather, I acknowledge that I was rivetted to the ground, where I stood without having the resolution of advancing one step for some time; till reflecting that I must be weak indeed not to approach this dead skull, and find out the wonderful phenomenon, if possible, I boldly walked up, and instantly discovered the natural cause, by the return of a vulture to the gallows, who perched upon it, as if he meant to dispute with me for this feast of carrion ; which bird, having already picked out one of the eyes, had fled at my first approach, and striking the skull with his talons, as he took his sudden flight, occasioned the motion already described. I shall now only add, that this poor wretch, after living near six hours, had been knocked on the head by the commiserating sentinel, the marks of whose musket were perfectly visible by a large open fracture in the skull.
Stedman’s work details a number of other atrocities against Suriname’s African (primarily slave) population, many of them powerfully illustrated by William Blake with near pornographic effect. These sorts of things were of ancient vintage in the realm.
The Narrative itself became both an important anti-slavery text, and an invaluable historical reference. (Where I have clipped the text, Stedman is about to segue into a discourse on the local vulture population, just the sort of detail that present-day researchers might have a hard time sourcing for 18th century Suriname.)
But even though contemporary abolitionists made use of the Narrative, Stedman’s 18th century publisher actually played down the author’s tone on the subject. A version much more overtly critical of slavery and the savage corporal punishments that upheld it has recently been published from the original manuscripts. (An abridged version of that original is also available.)
* Stedman’s narrative mingles chronological journal-style entries with general observations about his environs. The text is slightly ambiguous as to the date, but the chapter in question begins by situating the action on Aug. 12, digresses into a description of the regional landscape, then returns to the narrative where this blog entry picks it up. It’s not completely explicit that the metropolitan atrocities he witnesses also occur on the 12th, but the text invites that inference — with the execution taking place the next morning after.
The next date explicitly named is Aug. 24, the birthday of the Prince of Orange, so if Neptune did not die on Aug. 13, it was within only a very few days after.
The commander blamed the defeat on a lack of pay for his Swiss mercenaries;
The paymaster — Beaune — blamed the lack of funds for the mercs on the Queen Mother, Louise of Savoy‘s calling in a debt
The ensuing investigation revealed this story to be true, but Beaune was obliged to retire from the court because of the Queen Mother’s fury at him.
And that might have been that, but for the further French misadventures in Italy.
In 1525, Francis himself contrived to be captured at the Battle of Pavia, elevating Louise of Savoy to regent in his absence. By the time the spendthrift king had been ransomed back, his treasury was nigh empty and Louise knew just the person to blame.
An audit of Semblancay’s accounts intended to turn up some loose ducats embarrassingly showed that the noble was actually a creditor of the king, but
on 13 January 1527, after Semblancay had returned to Paris on business, he was arrested and thrown in the Bastille … the king and his council … had been looking for ways of raising within five days 370,000 livres needed for the payment of troops. Semblancay was known to be a very rich man and the prospect of confiscating his property must have been tempting. (Source)
Semblancay was tried by a handpicked favorite of the court, with the predictable result on a somewhat nebulous embezzlement/corruption thing; a jailhouse snitch once in the great lord’s employ gave evidence against him. The doomed man, perhaps untroubled to be relieved of the infirmities of his advanced age, was supposed to have been downright chill walking through Paris to his death, and he was met with respect by a citizenry that could hardly help sympathizing with this wizened but serene victim of the royal wrath.
Lorsque Maillart, juge d’Enfer, menoit
À Monfaulcon Samblançay l’ame rendre,
À votre advis, lequel des deux tenoit
Meilleur maintien ? Pour le vous faire entendre,
Maillard sembloit homme qui mort va prendre
Et Samblançay fut si ferme vieillart
Que l’on cuydoit, pour vray, qu’il menast pendre
À Montfaulcon le lieutenant Maillart.
When Maillart, judge of Hell,
To Montfaucon led Samblançay to give up his soul,
Which of the two, in your mind,
Had the better demeanour? To enlighten you,
Maillart seemed the man whome death would take
And so sturdy an old man was Samblançay,
That one truly believed that it was he who led
Lieutenant Maillart to be hanged at Montaucon.
This case is less well-remembered today than it ought to be; to contemporaries, the hanging of France’s treasurer for corruption was an awfully noteworthy event.† (Opinions at the time seemed to be split on the justice of the matter, even though Semblancay was posthumously rehabilitated; later generations have more strongly gravitated to the understanding that he was railroaded.)
And it launched an ensuing, decade-long project of Francis’s, to squeeze wealthy financiers through the commission de la Tour Carree and thereby get in the good graces of the early modern bond markets unsettled by France’s 1520s fiscal faceplant.
We noticed in a great Press from twenty to twenty-five huge Gallows-birds round a great Table [bourreau, punning bureau] covered with green Cloth, staring at each other, with their Hands as long as Crane’s Legs and their Nails two Feet long at least, — for they are forbidden ever to pare them, so that they become as crooked as Bills or Boat-hooks — and just at that time was brought in a great Bunch of Grapes which they gather in that Country, from the Vine called Extraordinaire, the Grapes from which often hang on Poles. As soon as the Bunch was laid there, they put it under the Press, and there was not a Berry from which they did not squeeze Oil of Gold, insomuch that the poor Bunch was carried off so drained and stripped, that there was not a Drop of Juice or Liquor left.
Most of those Tour Carree prosecutions didn’t result in executions — “merely” confiscations of lands and titles which could be re-sold, and sentences which could be commuted for a fine. R.J. Knecht, in The Rise and Fall of Renaissance France, 1483-1610, puts the king’s profit on such confiscations into the millions of livres.
But to make those shakedowns seem a small price to pay, the threat of Semblancay’s example must have lurked in the background for targeted nobles.
(Semblancay himself had been reckless enough not to accept an initial mostly-exoneration in the inquiry that preceded his arrest and trial, since part of it required him to “repay” supposed debts to Louise of Savoy. His appeal against that part of the judgment might have set him up to be the cautionary example for everyone else.)
The Beaune name would scintillate to posterity through such illustrious descendants as Renaud de Beaune (French link), a notable archbishop; and, more salaciously, Escadron Volant all-star Charlotte de Beaune Semblançay, who seduced powerful nobles at Catherine de’ Medici’s behest.
A lengthy French history of our day’s early modern moneybags can be perused here; when visiting Tours, you can revisit the days when he was in the chips by crashing at one of the many buildings he put, the Hotel de Beaune-Semblancay.
** There’s another (translated to English) meditation Marot wrote on Semblancay here, in the first-person voice of the hanged man. Marot was a friend of the eventually-executed French linguist and translator Etienne Dolet, and his own unorthodox opinions would eventually require him to flee the realm for his life.
We do note that in this era of combative pamphleteering, the geezer who made himself a tycoon by administering the taxes wasn’t universally supported by the literary set. Roger de Collerye (cited here) hooted Jacques de Beaune into the hereafter with the verses,
Tremblez, tremblez, larrons gros & petiz!
Retirez vous, gens trop fins et subtilz!
Absentez vous bientost & prenez terre,
Gens de finances et tresoriers gentilz
Qui d’attrapper estes tant ententifz.
Sur vous surviegne tempeste & tonerre!
Craignez la court qui vous donna la guerre
Bien asprement, quant je l’ay pance,
Souvieigne vous de la mort Sant Blancey!
† It happened yet again in September 1535, to Jean Poncher. Historically, proximity to the French crown’s revenues was also proximity to the gallows.
On this date in 1916, 19-year-old Durham Private William Nelson was shot for desertion by the British military.
The Pity of It
by Thomas Hardy
I walked in loamy Wessex lanes, afar
From rail-track and from highway, and I heard
In field and farmstead many an ancient word
Of local lineage like “Thu bist,” “Er war,”
“Ich woll,” “Er sholl,” and by-talk similar,
Nigh as they speak who in this month’s moon gird
At England’s very loins, thereunto spurred
By gangs whose glory threats and slaughters are.
Then seemed a Heart crying: “Whosoever they be
At root and bottom of this, who flung this flame
Between folk kin tongued even as are we,
“Sinister, ugly, lurid, be their fame;
May their familiars grow to shun their name,
And their brood perish everlastingly.”
According to the archive capture of the lamentably defunct Shot at Dawn site — which campaigned (successfully) for clearing the names of World War I soldiers who had been executed for military failings like desertion or cowardice — Nelson gave a pitiable account of his situation. It was less the horror of trench warfare and mustard gas than desperation on his own home front that undid Nelson’s “nerves”.
“I have had a lot of trouble at home, and my nerves are badly upset. My father is a prisoner in Germany and is losing his eyesight there through bad treatment. My mother died while I was still in England, leaving my sister aged 13 and my brother aged 10. I am the only one left. I had to leave them in charge of a neighbour. I had no intention of deserting. I did not realise what I was doing when I left the camp. When I did so I went and gave myself up. When I went to the store my object was to get a night’s sleep and then go and surrender in the morning. I thought it was too late to do so that night. I did not know when the battalion was coming out of the trenches.”
by Thomas Hardy
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
–Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
That 13-year-old sister whom Nelson worried over long suffered her brother’s senseless death. In 2004, that woman’s daughter (Billy Nelson’s niece), Nora High, told the Guardian:
Every Armistice Day, my mother shed buckets of tears. We’ve got Billy’s Bible, I got that when mother died. She used to lay that out on a piece of blue satin cloth, and she would cry. She always said: ‘I won’t cry any more because that only upsets Billy. He doesn’t want me to cry. Everything’s fine for him now.’
In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”*
by Thomas Hardy
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.
One summer morning at Bockhampton, just before he sat down to breakfast, he remembered that a man was to be hanged at eight o’clock at Dorchester. He took up the big brass telescope that had been handed on in the family, and hastened to a hill on the heath a quarter of a mile from the house, whence he looked towards the town. The sun behind his back shone straight on the white stone facade of the gaol, the gallows upon it, and the form of the murderer in white fustian, the executioner and officials in dark clothing and the crowd below being invisible at this distance of nearly three miles. At the moment of his placing the glass to his eye the white figure dropped downwards, and the faint note of the town clock struck eight.
The whole thing had been so sudden that the glass nearly fell from Hardy’s hands. He seemed alone on the heath with the hanged man, and crept homeward wishing he had not been so curious. It was the second and last execution he witnessed, the first having been that of a woman two or three years earlier, when he stood close to the gallows.
The man in question was James Seale (or Searle), and this was not only to be the last hanging Hardy witnessed — it was the last in Dorset full stop.
The London Times‘ Aug. 11 blurb of the hanging noticed that
the wretched culprit was tried … for the wilful murder of a young woman named Sarah Ann Griffy, at Stoke Abbotts, on the 30th of April last, and also for having set fire to the house in which his victim resided. The prisoner is a very young man, not having reached his 20th year, and had been working as a labourer for some time past in the vicinity … On the day of the murder … when all the parties, who were farm labourers, were at work, excepting the deceased, the prisoner entered the house, and, after maltreating her, inflicted a most fearful gash in her throat, nearly five inches long, with a clasped cheese knife, and other injuries on the hands, arms, and breast, and then set fire to the house.
As implied by Hardy’s ability to remember the hanging at breakfast, find the telescope, and get to his observation point before the trap dropped at 8 a.m., the youth was an early riser. Michael Millgate’s biography of Thomas Hardy notes that
[b]y eight o’clock in the morning, the time when Seale’s execution took place, Hardy would have been up reading for two or three hours before setting off for Dorchester and Hicks’s office: when only candles were available for indoor illumination it was necessary to keep a countryman’s hours and take advantage of all the available daylight. He had now added the study of Greek to his continuing study of Latin: the signature in his first copy of the Iliad is dated 1858, and he seems to have worked persistently through it until some time in 1860, marking the passages that he had read — and that Jude Fawley, much later, would be described as reading in Jude the Obscure.
On a drizzly morning this date in 1856, Elizabeth Martha Brown (or Browne) was hanged for murder as a young and fascinated Thomas Hardy looked on.
Brown was born Clark(e), but she took the name of a husband 20 years younger than she, which is how she got into this mess.
Said John Brown was rumored to have made the match for money, though his older wife sure seems to have held her own in the looks department. (More on that in a bit.)
In due time, John afflicted their already-tempestuous wedded life with an affair — courtesy of one Mary Davis, a young woman stuck in her own unhappy May-December marriage.
According to the confession Elizabeth provided two days before her own death, she had a fantastic row with her drunken husband when he came home at 2 a.m. one night and Elizabeth accused him of being
“to Mary Davis’s?”
He then kicked out the bottom of the chair on which I had been sitting, and we continued quarrelling until 3 o’clock, when he struck me a severe blow on the side of the head, which confused me so much I was obliged to sit down.
He then said (supper being on the table at the time) “Eat it yourself and be damned,” and reached down from the mantelpiece a heavy hand whip, with a plaited head and struck me across the shoulders with it 3 times, and every time I screamed out I said “if you strike me again, I will cry murder” He replied “if you do I will knock your brains through the window,” and said hoped he should find me dead in the morning, and then kicked me on the left side, which caused me much pain.
He immediately stooped down to unbuckle his boots, and being much enraged, and in an ungovernable passion at being so abused and struck, I seized a hatchet that was lying close to where I sat, and which I had been making use of to break coal for keeping up the fire to keep his supper warm, and struck him several violent blows on the head – I could not say how many – and he fell at the first blow on his side, with his face to the fireplace and he never spoke or moved afterwards.
Unfortunately, this confession broke a protracted* attempt to stick to an implausible “the horse kicked him dead” story whose maintenance seriously complicated any bid to secure clemency for the woman.
She received, instead, a different kind of life: literary immortality that hardly any in Dorchester that gray morning could have aspired to.
Thomas Hardy, not yet the canonical novelist famous enough for his own Monty Python sketch but a 16-year-old architectural apprentice, was among the three or four thousand who braved the inclement weather to witness Brown’s hanging** — the mandatory sentence then for a circumstance the courts would handle differently today.
Even seven decades later, Hardy could recall the vividly sensual effect of this macabre scene.
I saw — they had put a cloth over the face — how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary.
I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back.
In both her tragic life and her hempen death, Brown is thought to have informed Hardy’s title character in the 1891 novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, slyly subtitled “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.”
“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.
* Everything is relative, of course. In Brown’s instance, less than five weeks separated murder from execution, so she had scarcely had time to be obstinate about withholding the confession.
** Brown was said to have died with great firmness, and the report from the scaffold brings us the classically Victorian detail that executioner William Calcraft, having departed the platform to spring the trap after pinioning his prisoner, was obliged to make a return trip when he realized he’d forgotten to tie down her dress against any immodest billowing.
An ironic precaution, given that we remember this hanging precisely because of Hardy’s captivation with the more refined eroticism of the “wet hanging gown contest” tableau.