On this date in 1924, diplomatic maneuvering, oil patch politics, and a dead American consul put two Iranian teenagers in front of a firing squad.
Largely forgotten today, the affair which prompted their execution helped Cossack commander Reza Khan‘s ongoing consolidation of power, culminating in another year’s time with his conquest of the Persian throne itself.
By the summer of 1924, he was by title Prime Minister and his domestic opponents could read the writing on the wall: he had made a premature bid for formal executive authority in 1923 only to be rebuffed.* At the same time, he was engaged in the perilous oil game with an attempt to use American companies to break a British oil monopoly.
On July 18, 1924, American Vice Consul Maj. Robert Imbrie and his civilian countryman Melvin Seymour were attacked by a Tehran mob while photographing a well which had become a Moslem devotional site for purported miraculous healings. Imbrie was beaten to death; Seymour was lucky to survive … and it soon emerged that soldiers from the nearby barracks had not only failed to protect the Americans but actually taken part in the assault.
Iran’s emerging strongman lost no time in making the most of it.
The event gave [Reza Khan] … the excuse for declaring martial law and a censorship of the Press … Numerous arrests have been made, chiefly of political opponents of the Prime Minister. (British military attache Col. W.A.K. Fraser)
It’s like Lenin said, you look for the person who will benefit and, uh, you know, uh, you know, you’ll, uh, you know what I’m trying to say …
Assuming one discerns some measure of design in the Imbrie murder, and the convenient outburst of anti-Baha’iparanoia that sparked the fatal incident, one can go a couple of different directions at this point.
That the Prime Minister’s foes, allied with British oil interests (the British angle was so widely believed in Iran at the time that press censorship forbade the incendiary charge), were firing up the rowdies in an attempt to shake his power. This 1924 American cable makes that case:
“It had the earmarks from the beginning of an artificially inspired movement, of which the organized powers of evil were quick to take advantage in order to create disorder for the Government … Reza Khan found himself faced with a situation before which he was powerless. The fanaticism of the crowd was so incited by the continuous preaching of the Mullahs that any act on his part would have been interpreted as treason to Islam and prima facie evidence that he was a Bahai; hence his unfortunate orders to the military and the police not to intervene under any circumstances in religious demonstrations and under no circumstances to fire.”
That Pahlavi’s own agents fomented the disorder. According to Michael Zirinsky‘s review of the case, another American official speculated that Reza Khan himself hoped a foreigner would die “so that he could declare martial law and check the power of the Mullahs.”
Which, in the event, is exactly what happened.
The U.S. made a great show of demanding exemplary justice, and it had the leverage to do so: Iran (how times change!) wanted American support and American oil exploitation.
Three were condemned to death for their parts in the riot, and after the first, a young soldier named Morteza said to have incited the mob, was shot on Oct. 2, the government announced leniency for the other two.
Not good enough.
“When you are dealing with a government like Persia … if you ask them to execute a Moslem for the death of a Christian … if they do it, you accomplish more for the prestige of your country than if they paid a million.” -a young Allen Dulles, in 1926 testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives.
At American insistence, those other two were recalled to death after all: 17-year-old mullah Sayyid Husain (various alternate transliterations – e.g., Seyid Hussein), who was supposed to have raised the riot-triggering “Baha’i well-poisoner” accusation in the first place, and 14-year-old camel driver Ali Reshti.
Zirinsky once again:
With the ending of the Iran-U.S. dispute by the execution of Ali and Husain on November 2, 1924, Reza was free to leave the capital city. He had support from the foreign legations, he had secured financing for the army, he had reestablished discipline in the Cossack Brigade, and by executing Sayyid Husain — a mullah — he had demonstrated his domination over the clergy … in the course of the next months’ campaign, he completed the unification of Iran and ensured that his government would get all the [Anglo-Persian Oil Company] royalties…
While the Imbrie affair was not the only critical event of Reza’s seizure of total power in Iran, it came at a critical moment in his rise … he used the murder to his best advantage.
And they all lived happily ever after.
* The future Shah’s future rival Mohammed Mossadegh was among the Iranian Majlis members who blocked Reza Khan’s attempt to rule Iran as a republic in 1923.
** “Blood, Power, and Hypocrisy: The Murder of Robert Imbrie and American Relations with Pahlavi Iran, 1924,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 18, no. 3 (Aug. 1986). Zirinsky quotes an American diplomat who believed Reza Khan was actually intentionally trying to create a situation where a foreigner would be killed, to give him a pretext for bringing his nation to heel with foreign support.
On this date in 1463, the last regal claimants of Byzantium’s last successor state were executed in Constantinople.
They were, by this time, two years deposed from actual power. David of Trebizond (aka David Comnenos) had inherited the enclave“empire” clinging to the Black Sea coast in 1459, and proved himself “a fit agent for consummating the ruin of an empire.”
Specifically, he cleverly set about needling the overwhelming Turkish power on his borders by vainly attempting to stir up another Crusade, and refused to pay the Mohammedan tribute.
Having recently reduced the impregnable fastness of Constantinople, Mehmed the Conqueror handily availed this provocation to overrun Trebizond.
David and kin made out okay by this calamitous extinction of the Byzantine candle, negotiating in the summer of 1461 an arrangement to settle in Adrianople under the sultan’s protection (and monitoring).
Two years later, David was reportedly caught plotting against the keeper of his gilded cage once more, and Mehmed had the former Emperor, his sons, a nephew and a brother-in-law beheaded, neatly extinguishing the last people with any lineal claim the late Greek imperium.
Theodore Spandounes, a Venetian of Byzantine refugee stock writing in the early 16th century,* claims this was a set-up by Mehmet, “ravenously thirsting for Christian blood,” and that the Komnenoi were given the chance to convert to Islam and atoned their poor statecraft with holy martyrdom.
Mehmed confiscated all the property of the imperial family of Trebizond and condemned the Empress [Helen Kantakouzene or Cantacuzene] to pay 15,000 ducats within three days or be executed. Her servants, who were Mehmed’s prisoners in Constantinople, worked from dawn to dusk to raise the money and paid it … [but] she had no desire to remain in this world; and, clad in sackcloth, she who had been accustomed to regal finery, refused to eat meat any more and built herself a hovel covered in straw in which she slept rough. Mehmed had decreed that no one was to bury the bodies under pain of death. They were to be left for the dogs and ravens to devour. But the sainted Empress secretly acquired a spade and with her own delicate hands as best she could dug a trench in her hut. All day long she defended the corpses against the animals and at night she took them one by one and gave them burial. Thus did God give her the grace to bury her husband and her sons; and a few days later she too died.
* And writing, it should be observed, with the polemical intent of persuading western powers to go fight the Ottomans.
Humans bear up to proximity of death with every psychological defense in the book, but even if surprisingly few die in naked terror, make no mistake this Halloween: there’s a reason the executioner is scary.
Shot Through the Heart
Habitual criminal John Deering had a date with a Salt Lake City firing squad this date in 1938.
If anyone should be nonchalant about being ripped open by bullets, it’s a guy who eschewed a prison sentence in Michigan and confessed to murder to get himself extradited to Utah to face capital murder charges — saying that he and the world would both be better off with him dead.
The 39-year-old put on a cool front, but how steady was he, really? In a weird experiment, Deering agreed to be hooked to an electrocardiogram that measured his heart rate during his last moments.
Here comes the science!
The heart of John W. Deering, holdup murderer, beat three times faster than normal just before he was put to death today by a firing squad in the state prison here. The unprecedented recording was termed valuable to heart disease specialists as it showed clearly the effect of fear.
An electro-cardiograph film, recorded with the condemned man’s permission, showed that Deering’s heart beat jumped from normal 72 to 180, although he appeared outwardly calm. It maintained that rate for the several minutes required to complete preliminaries for the execution.
When the doomed man was asked for a last statement his heart beat fluttered wildly, then calmed after he spoke until bullets ended his life. The heart beat stopped 15.6 seconds after the bullets struck, but he was not pronounced dead until two and a half minutes after the five shots rang out. (Chicago Tribune, Nov. 1, 1938)
On this date* in 1796, France enacted what was long held to be one of its most notorious miscarriages of criminal justice by cutting off the head of Joseph Lesurques.
Lesurques was taken for the one of a gang who had sensationally robbed and murdered a mail courier early in 1796, and on the basis of slight eyewitness testimony condemned to die. The only reason he was associated with the crime in the first place was because his friend had been mistakenly accused, and then released, and Lesurques accompanied him to the court to retrieve the friend’s papers where he was “recognized.”
Eyewitness testimony having juridical pull far in excess of its dependability,** this “recognition” was worth the man’s life.
The famous French Revolution executioner Sanson was still in the game at this point, and his grandson (not yet born at this time) used the family notes to pull together this quasi-firsthand account in Memoirs of the Sansons. It’s a tale familiar to any present-day wrongful conviction scenario, of bad evidence snowballing, a blinkered prosecutor intent on conviction, pettifogging appellate authorities, and grim, relentless bureaucratic momentum.
(The names the Memoirs render as “Courriol” and “Dubosc” are also given as “Couriol” and “Dubosc” in other sources.)
the instructing magistrate … instead of imitating the prudence of his Parisian colleague and trying to discover the truth, applied himself to the collection of proofs of the guilt of the prisoners …
Fifteen witnesses on behalf of the defence proved an alibi in favour of Lesurques, eighty-three others spoke highly of his well-known respectability; but their evidence went for nothing in opposition to those who, with singular pertinacity, maintained that Lesurques was one of those who had been seen lurking near the scene of the murder on the night when it was committed …
On hearing his condemnation, Lesurques, who had been firm and collected throughout the trial, lost his self-possession, and raising his hands to heaven he exclaimed:
“The crime which is imputed to me is indeed atrocious and deserves death; but if it is horrible to murder on the high road it is not less so to abuse the law and convict an innocent man. A day will come when my innocence will be recognised, and then may my blood fall upon the jurors who have so lightly convicted me, and on the judges who have influenced their decision!”
On the 9th of Brumaire, year 5 (October 30, 1796), my grandfather and father proceeded to the Conciergerie, and found the convicts in the hall, through which so many had passed during the Reign of Terror. David Bernard† was in a state of utter prostration; Courriol, on the contrary, was excited. As to Lesurques, he was as calm and fearless as ever. When he saw my grandfather, whose white hair sufficiently designated him as the chief executioner, he stepped up to him, and said, holding out a sealed letter:
“Citizen, I hope for the honour of human justice that your functions do not often compel you to shed the blood of a guiltless man; I hope, therefore, that you will grant the last request of a man who is about to suffer for what he has not done. Be good enough to keep this letter, which may hereafter contribute to the restoration of the honour of my wife and poor children, whereof they have been so unjustly deprived.”
While one of his assistants was cutting the unfortunate man’s hair, my grandfather read the paper Lesurques had just given him. It was a letter addressed to Dubosc, the man in whose place he was condemned. It ran as follows:
“To Citizen Dubosc.
“Citizen Dubosc, — I do not even know you, and I am going to suffer the death which was reserved for you. Be satisfied with the sacrifice of my life. Should you ever be brought to account, remember my three children and their mother, who are disgraced for ever, and do not prolong their agony. Confess that you are the man.”
All preparations were now concluded. Lesurques, of his own choice, was dressed in spotless white, symbol of his innocence. He was the first to take his place in the cart; Courriol followed him, and Bernard, who had fainted, was deposited on the straw. Then began the most dismal and extraordinary journey that ever was made from the Conciergerie to the Place de Greve. Lesurques and Courriol stood in front. At every turn of the wheel, Courriol exclaimed in a piercing voice:
“I am guilty! Lesurques is innocent!”
And for twenty minutes, that is during the whole way to the guillotine, he perseveringly repeated his awful protest against justice. The crowd was horrified, and there were few who did not believe the murderer who confessed his crime, but who proclaimed his companion’s innocence. Courriol again repeated his words at the foot of the scaffold with extraordinary energy and vehemence, and the thump of the knife but just covered his supreme shriek:
“Lesurques is innocent!”
The judicial authorities have perseveringly refused to recognise this flagrant miscarriage of justice. And yet the innocence of Lesurques was amply demonstrated a short time after his execution: all the real murderers of the courier of Lyons designated by Courriol were captured; Dubosc himself, whose fatal resemblance to Lesurques was the cause of the latter’s death, was taken and tried … he was executed just four years after Lesurques …
The Lesurques heirs were left paupers by the state’s punitive confiscation of the “bandit’s” effects; after a quarter-century (during which the widow died in a madhouse), they were at least able to recoup their material loss, but although repeatedly challenged, the conviction itself was never reversed.
Judicial and literary skirmishing over the Lesurques matter continued for decades, gradually forming into a general consensus (whatever the courts might admit) that the man was wrongly accused.
As a result, Lesurques remained a potent symbol of capricious criminal justice overreach throughout the 19th century and into the 20th: this 1874 reader, Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence, has a full chapter on the case; a popular Victorian play titled The Lyons Mail was translated into a now-lost 1915 silent film and a 1931 talkie … albeit with a happy ending.
To a certain, inevitably well-represented, authoritarian demographic, any credence given to the self-evident proposition that wrongful convictions happen smacks of effrontery towards betters, and the Lesurques case was no exception … especially when paired with the coincident low ebb of public esteem for Power during the Dreyfus affair, which hit while The Lyons Mail was in vogue.
An advert insert in an unrelated 1903 book plumps a “Lesurques was guilty” position, riffing on the then-current Dreyfus controversy (“recent efforts in France to bring about the revision of a celebrated case”). This book is listed, but unavailable, on Amazon.com.
L’ affaire Lesurques never (so far as I can determine) reached a resolution; it simply faded away, 140 years or so after its namesake lost his head.
A late (1930) review of its particulars in the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology (“The Moving Story of the Lyons Stage,” by Max Radin of UC-Berkeley, May 1930) proceeds with ingenuousness embarrassingly unbecoming a professor of the law.
Judicial errors do not occur in the United States. [!!!] Under these circumstances, we can look with some satisfaction on times and places in which this happy condition did not prevail. If in the cycle of existences our perfection should ever become visibly tainted, it may happen that we shall hang men or electrocute them and subsequently regret the fact. Perhaps some one will then recall the moving story of the Lyons stage.
Sounds like it’s ready for a revival.
* A few sources say March 10, 1797, but the most and best clearly lean to October 30, 1796.
** “Juries have an unfortunate faith in the accuracy of eyewitnesses,” William Davis Gross observes. “The propensity for blunder is so great that it is nearly equal to all other forms of error combined.” (“The Unfortunate Faith: A Solution to the Unwarranted Reliance Upon Eyewitness Testimony,” Texas Wesleyan Law Review, spring 1999)
† Bernard is a footnote in the story, but he seems to have received a raw deal himself: he was the liveryman who procured the horses for the highwaymen, but did not participate in the crime. Sanson passingly refers to Bernard as “but slightly guilty.”
On this date in 1901, unemployed (and seemingly unbalanced) steelworker Leon Czolgosz rode the lightning at New York’s Auburn Prison for inducting the late U.S. President William McKinley into the club.
It hadn’t even been eight weeks since Czolgosz met McKinley gladhanding a receiving line at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and fatally (though it took the victim a week to succumb) shot the second-term Republican president.
Matters progressed from there as one might expect.
In a one-day trial that lasted 8 hours from jury selection to sentence, Czolgosz was condemned to die in New York’s electric chair. He went to his death unapologetic, but also alone; most anarchists disavowed him for hurting the cause.**
Here’s the New York Times account of the assassin’s final moments.
As he was being seated [in the electric chair] he looked about at the assembled witnesses with quite a steady stare and said:
“I killed the President because he was an enemy of the good people — of the working people.”
His voice trembled slightly at first, but gained strength with each word, and he spoke perfect English.
“I am not sorry for my crime,” he said loudly, just as the guard pushed his head back on the rubber headrest and drew the strap across his forehead and chin. As the pressure on the straps tightened and bound the jaw slightly he mumbled: “I’m awfully sorry I could not see my father.”
It was just exactly 7:11 o’clock when he crossed the threshold [into the execution chamber], but a minute had elapsed and he just had finished the last statement when the strapping was completed, and the guards stepped back from the man. Warden Mead raised his hand, and at 7:12:30 Electrician Davis turned the switch that threw 1,700 volts of electricity into the living body.
The rush of the immense current threw the body so hard against the straps that they creaked perceptibly. The hands clinched suddenly, and the whole attitude was one of extreme tension. For forty-five seconds the full current was kept on, and then slowly the electrician threw the switch back, reducing the current volt by volt until it was cut off entirely.
They made good and sure by dissolving the body in sulfuric acid.
Thomas Edison made a video recreation of the scene — not to be confused with actual film of the execution, though some sites present it as such — shortly after. Whether its creation was influenced by Edison’s now-doomed project of discrediting Alternating Current, a business rivalry that had helped introduce the electric chair in the first place, I have been unable to determine; the Edison labs produced a number of silent films exploiting “a whole string of news events surrounding the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo … both through a monumental display of lights (including test bulbs on the reproduction of the electric chair) and by a booming output of scenics, actualities, and even a historical topical.”
More lighthearted (and more audible) is “The Ballad of Leon Czolgosz,” from Stephen Sondheim’s offbeat Broadway hit Assassins, here presented with liberal use of the Edison labs’ Pan-Am Expo footage.
… it’s not the first pop culture ephemera generated by McKinley’s martyrdom; folk ballad variations under different titles (“The White House Blues,” “McKinley,” “McKinley’s Rag,” or this version, “Zolgotz”) were in circulation in the early 20th century. Other variations and some background can be had here.
This third assassination of an American chief executive in the span of 36 years (with similar fates for James Garfield’s killer and the Lincoln conspirators) led the Secret Service, originally a Treasury Department anti-counterfeiting unit, to assume responsibility for bodily safeguarding the President in 1902.
** Anarchist titan Emma Goldman was blamed for inciting the murder and initially arrested; she was also one of the few anarchists to defend Czolgosz: “He had committed the act for no personal reasons or gain. He did it for what is his ideal: the good of the people. That is why my sympathies are with him.”
Michitoshi Kuma attracts our notice in particular not simply because he insisted throughout his trial and appeal that he was innocent of abducting and murdering two seven-year-olds in 1992 … but because the circumstantial evidence that convicted him was buttressed by a DNA testing regime that has fallen into disrepute.
One crucial piece of evidence against Kuma was the DNA samples taken from blood near the victims’ bodies. The samples were tested with DNA typing of the MCT118 locus.
The same method of testing was used in the case of the murder of a young girl in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, in 1990, known as the Ashikaga case. The test result was seen as crucial evidence in supporting the life sentence handed down to the accused, Toshikazu Sugaya.
However, the result was overturned when the DNA was tested again as part of the immediate appeal filed by Sugaya’s defense counsel after his request for a retrial was dismissed.
Sugaya, 62, was freed from prison on June 4, 17 years after police had arrested him.
“At first glance, DNA tests look scientific. That’s why it’s dangerous to have complete faith in them,” Iwata said.
“The tests were carried out in a particularly sloppy way in the early 1990s, when the Iizuka and Ashikaga cases occurred,” he said, adding that the Iizuka case likely was another example of a wrongful conviction.
“It can’t be undone now,” one of the defense lawyers lamented upon hearing of the hanging — conducted, as per usual in Japan, in secret and without prior notice to either the inmate or his attorneys.
The Ashikaga case, in which another prisoner convicted about the same time as Kuma and with the same DNA technology was exonerated and released a few months after Kuma’s hanging, embarrassingly reversed what had once been a signal judicial triumph for early DNA testing.
“The media treated the science as if it were invincible, like Atom Boy,” [one of Toshikazu Sugaya's attorneys] said sarcastically. “They just kept admiring the DNA judgment without reservations.”
On this date in 1666, a hapless French watchmaker was hanged at Tyburn for starting the Great Fire of London — his obstinate confession in the face of all other evidence making him the convenient fall guy for an accidental cataclysm.
though the Chief Justice told the King, ‘that all his discourse was so disjointed that he did not believe him guilty;’ nor was there one man who prosecuted or accused him: yet upon his own confession … the jury found him guilty, and he was executed accordingly. And though no man could imagine any reason why a man should so desperately throw away his life, which he might have saved, though he had been guilty, since he was only accused upon his own confession; yet neither the judges, nor any present at the trial, did believe him guilty, but that he was a poor distracted wretch weary of his life, and chose to part with it this way. Certain it is, that upon the strictest examination that could be afterwards made by the King’s command, and then by the diligence of Parliament, that upon the jealousy and rumour made a Committee, who were very diligent and solicitous to make that discovery, there was never any probable evidence, (that poor creature’s only excepted,) that there was any other cause of that woeful Fire, than the displeasure of God Almighty.
More Great Fire images, including a map of the destroyed area, here.
Was London lucky to have the Great Fire?
Yes, I suppose so. Lots of people have sort of argued that London missed an opportunity to make more changes, but they just didn’t have the money to do them at the time.
There were a lot of improvements made. They widened the streets. The city was rebuilt in brick instead of wood, although that rule was in place from before 1666. The regulations were restated and extra ones were added in; a lot of people think that it was because of the Great Fire that people started building in brick, but that regulation already existed from earlier in the 17th century.
You’ve got acres and acres and acres of land that have been reduced to rubble during the Great Fire, and en masse, all these new buildings are going up. But yes, it made life more healthy & more pleasant in the city. You had pavement put in for the first time. All these little things you wouldn’t think of, like the houses had to have gassers for the first time, as opposed to just spouts that would spray water on you if you walked down the street. The Great Fire gave people the opportunity to get rid of all those inconveniences.
And they were able to do other things, like the slope down to the River Thames was quite steep, and they were able because of all the rubble to ease the slope.
How did it reshape London? What might have been different about the subsequent life of the city if it had never occurred?
Within days of the fire going out, various architects like Christopher Wren were supplying architectural plans to rebuild London, perhaps around an American grid plan, or European-looking piazzas.
What they really wanted to do was get people moving back into London and rebuilding their houses as quickly as possible, so they kept the medieval street plan and instituted new regulations, like the streets had to be widened, and they could no longer build the houses hanging into the street. The size of the house you could build was proportional to the size of the street you were on, so if you lived on a main boulevard instead of a small lane
Where’s the best place in London to catch a glimpse of that world, as it looked then?
It’s kind of a hidden thing because of course we were bombed in the Second World War, but there are places, like behind St. Paul’s Cathedral, in Amen Court.
So who is Robert Hubert?
He’s a French watchmaker from Rouen, and he was seized in Essex apparently attempting to flee the country. There were various other foreign people who were seized as well, but Hubert confessed to starting the fire.
But his evidence* was very conflicting; he kept changing his mind of what he’d done. He said he’d been part of 23 conspirators and put a fireball through the window of the bakery where the fire started. The baker himself said there wasn’t a window there.
The jury really thought that Robert Hubert was mad, but he was so insistent that he’d done it.
The following year, they discovered that he hadn’t actually arrived in London until two days after the fire started.
Lucky for the baker! He didn’t end up catching any blame for burning down the city?
Hubert was a very convenient scapegoat, and Thomas Farynor** of the bakery was incredibly relieved. Right from the start, Farynor had said “I put my oven out that night, it can’t possibly be me, it must be arson.”
I’ve had a little look at the records of Pudding Lane to see whether he rebuilt his house, and he did.
One of the interesting resources on your site deals with the going fear of “Catholic incendiarism” (pdf), and the use of the Great Fire as a touchstone for the succession conflicts of the 1680′s. Would it have been conventional wisdom by that time, a generation or so after the event, that the Great Fire was a Catholic plot?
It becomes all caught up in the contemporary politics of the time, so it’s really got nothing to do with the fire. It’s people not liking James II for being a Catholic. It’s the fictional Popish Plot, completely fabricated. It’s probably not a coincidence that at the height of the Popish plot that they put up the plaque on the side of the bakery saying that the Fire came from “the malicious hearts of barbarous Papists.”†
Given the combustible material all about, why wasn’t something like the Great Fire a more regular occurrence?
There were six serious fires in the 17th century before the Great Fire happened; one of them was a great explosion of gunpowder.
Fires were sort of a common hazard. The thing about the Great Fire was that there was sort of a whole load of circumstances. There was a drought, so it was dry; there were storm winds coming in from the east, so it blew the fire on faster than it would have; it started at 1 o’clock in the morning, so people were in bed. I think the problem is that it’s all these circumstances combining together. Maybe if it happened at 3 o’clock on Monday when it was raining, it wouldn’t have gone beyond the block.
Logistically, how did the society and the state handle the mass homelessness and unemployment that followed? Where did all these people live right after the fire, and how smoothly were they reintegrated?
People were camping out in the fields outside of London; others were moving into areas that were unburnt but having to pay hugely inflated rents. Some people had to move into other towns. There was evidence that people were still living in shantytown tented accommodations up to eight years after the fire, because there’s another rebuilding regulation in the 1670s that addresses that.
In the first year after the fire, only 150 houses are rebuilt; the rebuilding happens over 10 years, though some houses took up to 30 years. Some people were in very desperate circumstances, so formerly very wealthy people who had lived off their rents might now be working as servants. People coped, a lot of times in reduced circumstances from what they were used to.
There was a particular man you can read about in Samuel Pepys’ diary, and he threw himself into a pond in an attempt to commit suicide because he was so indebted.‡
As curator of an exhibit, what do you hope visitors take away from London’s Burning?
One thing that I really wanted people to understand as they go around the exhibition is the effect on people. You learn about it at school, but you don’t really focus on how people cope and how they rebuild.
There’s also a lot of urban myths about the Great Fire, like the ‘fact’ that the fire is supposed to have ended the Great Plague, which is not the case (pdf); those are things we wanted to dispel.
* There’s some original documentation from the examination of Hubert and others after the Fire here.
** Also spelled Thomas Farriner — or Faryner, or Farryner.
Christopher Wren’s monument to the Great Fire of London.
† An inscription on the base of the Great Fire monument itself (only chiseled out in 1830), once read:
This pillar was set up in perpetual remembrance of the most dreadful burning of this protestant city, begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the popish faction, in the beginning of September, in the year of our Lord, 1666, in order to the carrying on their horrid plot for extirpating the protestant religion, and old English liberty, and introducing popery and slavery. (Source)
Where London’s column, pointing at the skies,
Like a tall bully, lifts the head and lies.
Poets and elites might think what they like, but Lord Clarendon recorded a popular anti-foreigner freakout as England reached
a universal conclusion, that this Fire came not by chance … the wicked authors … were concluded to be all the Dutch and all the French in the town, though they had inhabited the same places above twenty years. All of that kind, or, if they were strangers, of what nation soever, were laid hold of; and after all the ill usage that can consist in words, and some blows and kicks, they were thrown into prison. And shortly after, the same conclusion comprehended all the Roman Catholics, who were in the same predicament of guilt and danger … In the mean time, even they [the King's Privy Councilors], or any other person, thought it not safe to declare ‘that they believed that the Fire came by accident, or that it was not a plot of the Dutch and the French and Papists, to burn the City;’ which was so generally believed, and in the best company, that he who said the contrary was suspected for a conspirator, or at best a favourer of them. (Source)
the story is that it seems on Thursday last he went sober and quiet out of doors in the morning to Islington, and behind one of the inns, the White Lion, did fling himself into a pond, was spied by a poor woman and got out by some people binding up hay in a barn there, and set on his head and got to life, and known by a woman coming that way; and so his wife and friends sent for. He confessed his doing the thing, being led by the Devil; and do declare his reason to be, his trouble that he found in having forgot to serve God as he ought, since he come to this new employment: and I believe that, and the sense of his great loss by the fire, did bring him to it, and so everybody concludes.
Although the man survived the drowning, he caught his death from the attempt and died in bed; Pepys intervened to see that the desperate suicide’s remaining estate would not be confiscated from his widow for his “self-murder.”
On this date in 1941, the German occupiers of Minsk conducted an infamous public hanging of partisans — perhaps the first such salutary public execution of resistance members of the war.
Jewish* 17-year-old Maria (Masha) Bruskina was the central figure of the grim tableau, and wore the placard announcing “We are partisans and have shot at German soldiers.” Evidently, she also attracted the most attention** from the onlookers to whom the scene was addressed.
Before noon, I saw the armed German and Lithuanian soldiers appear on the street. From over the bridge they escorted three people with their arms tied behind their backs. In the middle there was a girl with a sign-board on her chest. They were led up to the yeast factory gate. I noticed how calmly these people walked. The girl did not look around … The first one led to the gallows was the girl.
She was hanged with bewhiskered World War I vet Kiril Trus and the 16-year-old Volodia Shcherbatsevich. The men were members of a partisan cell organizing anti-fascist resistance; Masha Bruskina was a nurse who had been caught aiding the partisans by providing civilian clothes and papers for wounded Red Army soldiers under her care to smuggle them back to the resistance.
The scene of their deaths was captured in a series of powerful photographs taken by one of the Lithuanian Wehrmacht collaborators.
* Phototextualities: Intersections of Photography and Narrative claims that Bruskina lightened her hair and changed her name to prevent her Jewishness affecting her resistance work; even though she was a Minsk native, her initial identification didn’t happen until 1968. The men who suffered with her were named almost immediately after the war.
** Despite the eye-catching place of the girl, she was officially unidentified for decades even after the name Masha Bruskina surfaced. In “A Historical Injustice: The Case of Masha Bruskina,” (Holocaust Genocide Studies 1997, 11:3) Nechama Tec and Daniel Weiss argued that Soviet authorities, and later Belarusian ones, found her Jewishness problematic and resisted identifying her because of it — while an ethnically Russian female partisan like Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya could be more conveniently accepted as a heroine. Maybe, but bureaucratic inertia and simple precedence (since Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was known immediately while Masha Bruskina was not) are also plausible contributing factors.
This day is called the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home,
Will stand o’ tiptoe when the day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors
And say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
…And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
In the world of Henry V, the Battle of Agincourt is a source of bursting pride for the English, a wellspring of superiority over the French and proof of the soul of those from the Isle. In spite of the inspiring speeches, the battle has passed into history as one of the enduring examples of a well-positioned army besting a much larger force.
Were it not for the story of the triumphant underdog, Agincourt would have fallen into international obscurity with much of the Hundred Years’ War, a simmering conflict for the French throne that spanned from 1337 to 1453. The notoriety of the Hundred Years’ War comes not from its intensity but from its longevity and breadth: an international conflict that swept up hundreds of wealthy European houses, it featured the first significant post-Roman standing armies, organized cavalry, and formative nationalism in both France and England.
The interminable war centered around the English crown’s claim to succession of the French throne — a claim events had overtaken by the end of the conflict in 1453 — and had already been going off and on for nearly eighty years as we lay our scene in 1415, with King Henry V of England initiating what would be known as the Lancastrian War.
Henry’s English and Welsh forces battered the French port of Harfleur starting in August 1415, which was the first holding to fall to the invading army. Almost immediately after taking control in late September of that year, the English king made a curious decision to march across Northern France from Harfleur to Calais, approximately 100 miles away.
As he tromped northeast, French troops shadowed his movements, and Henry made several attempts to shake them. After passing through Frévent, Henry turned his men north. He crossed the last major tributary of the Canche River south of Maisoncelle, hopeful that the exhausting trip was nearly through. His scouts, however, had hairy news for their king: the French force had cut the corner and was amassing north of their position. The way was blocked.
Archer? I Hardly Knew Her!
Agincourt (now spelled Azincourt) lay across a ploughed field from Tramecourt, making for a narrow defile not suited to maximizing the French force’s advantage in numbers and heavy cavalry.
Nevertheless, that advantage was considerable, or at least has conventionally been thought so, and it was in the face of desperately dwindling supplies that Henry was forced to initiate battle. The opposing French forces, ostensibly commanded by Constable Charles d’Albret, Comte de Dreux, and Marshal Boucicaut, Jean Le Maingre, allegedly outnumbered the British by at least 2 to 1 (estimates range as high as 6 to 1*).
The English drew up longbowmen in a wedge along the woods adjacent the field (map), and it was these positions that provided the decisive turn.
When the Gallic banners advanced, the English archers moved into firing range and dug in palings they had hastily manufactured from the local forest; this made a direct assault problematic while the woods prevented a flanking maneuver. French cavalry attempted to dislodge them with a concerted assault, but the defensive postures held, and the cavalry was turned away. All the while, the hail of arrows mowed down the flower of French chivalry, whose lines crumbled in panic and disorder.
Before, however, the general attack commenced, numbers of the French were slain and severely wounded by the English bowmen. At length the English gained on them so much, and were so close, that excepting the front line, and such as had shortened their lances, the enemy could not raise their hands against them. The division under sir Clugnet de Brabant, of eight hundred men-at-arms, who were intended to break through the English archers, were reduced to seven score, who vainly attempted it. True it is, that sir William de Saveuses, who had been also ordered on this service, quitted his troop, thinking they would follow him, to attack the English, but he was shot dead from off his horse. The others had their horses so severely handled by the archers, that, smarting from pain, they galloped on the van division and threw it into the utmost confusion, breaking the line in many places. The horses were become unmanageable, so that horses and riders were tumbling on the ground, and the whole army was thrown into disorder, and forced back on some lands that had been just sown with corn. Others, from fear of death, fled; and this caused so universal a panic in the army that great part followed the example.
A confused chain of command in the French camp (the English, of course, were personally commanded by their sovereign) facilitated the rout.
Despite their military status, d’Albret and Boucicaut were outranked by several of the nobles heading the lines behind them, said nobles being prone to glory-seeking freelance charges as chivalrous as they were tactically unavailing. The Constable led the front line, followed by the Duke of Bar and the Duke of d’Alençon.
After the disastrous first charge, what remained of the second line moved in to join the fray. The French peasantry was massacred during the fight, and Constable d’Albret and the Duke of d’Alençon, along with the Duke of Orleans and Duke of Barant, along with several other nobles, fell during the assault, further disorganizing the French. (The highest-ranking English casualty was the Duke of York.)
With thousands of French dead, the third line, headed by the Count of Merle and Count of Falconberg, fell away before they entered the battle. While England’s longbows dominated the field, France’s bowmen never even participated in the battle, squeezed to the back by too many bluebloods demanding the right to charge.
Only 100-200 English are thought to have died this day; the death toll for the French was in the thousands, with hundreds more taken prisoner.
It is a portion of this lot summarily executed during the battle who offer this blog an excuse to survey the battlefield.
After a successful raid on the English supply van — the signal French achievement in the battle, and one that briefly threatened to knock out the monarch himself and turn the tide — Henry got worried that his oversized contingent of French prisoners was liable to get loose and wreak havoc in his rear. He issued the expedient but decidedly unseemly order to put his captives to death.†
Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 of this documentary, which among other things unpacks the longbow’s actual role in the victory, given that English arrows could not penetrate French knights’ plate armor.
The Battle of Agincourt has inspired innumerable interpreters, from Shakespeare to Star Trek.
Shakespeare’s classic Henry V is frequently staged, and has hit the silver screen multiply — here’s Laurence Olivier’s version of the stirring St. Crispin’s Day speech followed by the start of battle from the 1944 production addressed to the martial fervor of World War II.
The year after Agincourt, Henry V claimed all of Normandy, and in subsequent years forced the French to sign the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, which established the line of succession for Henry’s heirs to unify the crowns of the adversaries. Henry’s grand plan was foiled by his untimely death just two months after the death of King Charles VI of France, which left Henry VI — then less than a year old — as the heir to both English and French thrones.
The Dauphin Charles of France, officially disinherited by Troyes but still widely supported in France, swooped in to claim power in France, but internal dissent made his rule difficult; 30 years later (and after the intervention of Joan of Arc), Charles finally expelled the English from Aquitaine, and brought all France together not under the House of Lancaster but under the House of Valois.
* Accounts are sketchy in this regard. Some modern analysis puts the values at 4:3 for the French. However, contemporaneous accounts suggest a much heavier French advantage. Of course, people are notoriously bad at crowdestimation.
The fictional Bardolph had been the ruddy-nosed friend of Henry’s in the Henry IV plays (Part 1, Part 2), where the hard-drinking, rabble-rousing young prince is a disappointment to the father who fears his heir will never merit the throne.
By Henry V, the boy has become the ruler, and launched an audacious incursion into France during the Hundred Years’ War.
Hal’s willingness to own the rough decisions of statecraft — in this case having his friend put to death further to his win-French-hearts-and-minds policy — is part of his coming of age as Henry V.
Whether that means Hal’s maturation into regal dignity or the corruption of his humanity by power is up to the reader.
How now Fluellen, cam’st thou from the Bridge?
I, so please your Maiestie: The Duke of Exeter
ha’s very gallantly maintain’d the Pridge; the French is
gone off, looke you, and there is gallant and most praue
passages: marry, th’ athuersarie was haue possession of
the Pridge, but he is enforced to retyre, and the Duke of
Exeter is Master of the Pridge: I can tell your Maiestie,
the Duke is a praue man
What men haue you lost, Fluellen?
The perdition of th’ athuersarie hath beene very
great, reasonnable great: marry for my part, I thinke the
Duke hath lost neuer a man, but one that is like to be executed
for robbing a Church, one Bardolph, if your Maiestie
know the man: his face is all bubukles and whelkes,
and knobs, and flames a fire, and his lippes blowes at his
nose, and it is like a coale of fire, sometimes plew, and
sometimes red, but his nose is executed, and his fire’s
Wee would haue all such offendors so cut off:
and we giue expresse charge, that in our Marches through
the Countrey, there be nothing compell’d from the Villages;
nothing taken, but pay’d for: none of the French
vpbrayded or abused in disdainefull Language; for when
Leuitie and Crueltie play for a Kingdome, the gentler
Gamester is the soonest winner.
This is Laurence Olivier’s 1944 version of the scene, with the commoner Bardolph well off-camera:
… and Kenneth Branagh’s more pathos-laden 1989 interpretation, with the king wavering a moment as he locks eyes with his doomed subject, and flashing back to bygone scenes of conviviality before delivering his troop the stern lesson of his friend’s strangling:
Although Bardolph himself and his prior relationship with his sovereign are fiction, the action of the scene actually proceeds from reality. Shakespeare has (as is his wont) cribbed Holinshed, who relates that Henry’s army was under strict orders not to pillage the countryside, and observed that discipline to a man –
except one, which was, that a souldiour tooke a pix out of a church, for which he was apprehended, and the king not once remooved [i.e., he halted] till the box was restored, and the offendor strangled. The people of the countries thereabout, hearing of such zeale in him, to the maintenance of justice, ministered to his armie victuals, and other necessaries, although by open proclamation so to doo they were prohibited.*
* As quoted in the very apt 1992 “Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth and the Law of War” by Theodor Meron, American Journal of International Law, vol. 86, no. 1.