Posts filed under 'Arts and Literature'

1806: Cesar Herbaux, Vidocq’s path not taken

Add comment January 6th, 2018 Headsman

French criminal turned seminal criminologist Eugene Francois Vidocq on this date in 1806 witnessed the fate he might have shared when his former underworld collaborator went under the guillotine at Paris for murder.

The son of an Arras baker, the young Vidocq (English Wikipedia entry | French) presented as an incipient Villonesque picaro. He had the first of his many theft-and-arrest events at the tender age of 13 courtesy of his father who summoned the gendarmes when he stole the family silver. Nothing daunted, Vidocq robbed the house again a few months later and ran away to join troupes of itinerant entertainers, soon transitioning into the French Revolution’s new citizen-army where the rogue by turns impressed with his competence and deserted ahead of some scandal, equally prolific in affairs of honor (he was an expert fencer) and those of the heart (same).

While in prison for his latest misadventures in 1795-1796 he fell in with another inmate — our day’s principal, César Herbaux or Herbault — and forged a pardon order for one of their fellows. Vidocq, as we shall see, would always blame the others for inducing him (their story was the reverse). In either event, for their trouble they caught a sentence that was cruel even though “galleys” by this time just meant prison hulks.

The tribunal … sentences Francois Vidocq and Cesar Herbaux to the punishment of the galleys for eight years …

[And] the said Francois Vidocq and Cesar Herbaux shall be exposed for six hours on a scaffold, which whall be for that purpose erected on the public square of this commune.

The sentence Vidocq himself published in his ghost-written memoirs, where the later, respectable man would situate it in the midst of his life’s chrysalis.

Vidocq did not serve his sentence; he escaped custody and lived the first decade of the 19th century on his society’s periphery, under a succession of aliases and with a succession of lovers, the episodes punctuated by re-arrests and re-escapes. In one close escape, Vidocq was lodging in Melun as “a travelling seller of fashionable commodities” when ill rumors induced him to flee for the capital. Resuming his memoir …

I learnt … from the landlord of the inn at which I had put up, that the commissary of police had testified some regret at not having examined my papers; but what was deferred was not ended, and that at my next visit, he meant to pay me a visit. The information surprised me, for I must consequently have been in some way an object of suspicion. To go on might lead to danger, and I therefore returned to Paris, resolving not to make any other journeys, unless I could render less unfavourable the chances which combined against me.

Having started very early, I reached the faubourg Saint Marceau in good time; and at my entrance, I heard the hawkers bawling out, “that two well-known persons are to be executed to-day at the Place de Greve.” I listened, and fancied I distinguished the name of Herbaux. Herbaux, the author of the forgery which caused all my misfortunes? I listened with more attention, but with an involuntary shudder; and this time the crier, to whom I had approached, repeated the sentence with these additions:

Here is the sentence of the criminal tribunal of the department of the Seine, which condemns to death the said Armand Saint Leger, an old sailor, born at Bayonne, and Cesar Herbaux, a freed galley-slave, born at Lille, accused and convicted of murder.

I could doubt no longer; the wretch who had heaped so much misery on my head was about to suffer on the scaffold. Shall I confess that I felt a sentiment of joy, and yet I trembled? … It will not excite wonder, when I say that I ran with haste to the palace of justice to assure myself of the truth; it was not mid-day, and I had great trouble in reaching the grating, near which I fixed myself, waiting for the fatal moment.

At last four o’clock struck, and the wicket opened. A man appeared first on the stage. It was Herbaux. His face was covered with a deadly paleness, whilst he affected a firmness which the convulsive workings of his featured belied. He pretended to talk to his companion, who was already incapacitated from hearing him. At the signal of departure, Herbaux, with a countenance into which he infused all the audacity he could force, gazed round on the crow, and his eye met mine. He started, and the blood rushed to his face. The procession passed on, and I remained as motionless as the bronze railings on which I was leaning; and I should probably have remained longer, if an inspector of the palace had not desired me to come away. Twenty minutes afterwards, a car, laden with a red basket, and escorted by the gendarme, was hurried over the Pont-au-Change, going towards the burial ground allotted for felons. Then, with an oppressed feeling at my heart, I went away, and regained my lodgings, full of sorrowful reflections.

I have since learnt, that during his detention at the Bicetre, Herbaux had expressed his regret at having been instrumental in getting me condemned, when innocent. The crime which had brought this wretch to the scaffold was a murder committed, in company with Saint Leger, on a lady of the Place Dauphine. These two villains had obtained access to their victim under pretence of giving her tidings of her son, whom they said they had seen in the army.

Although, in fact Herbaux’s execution could not have any direct influence over my situation, yet it alarmed me, and I was horror-struck at feeling that I had ever been in contact with such brigands, destined to the executioner’s arm: my remembrance revealed me to myself, and I blushed, as it were, in my own face. I sought to lose the recollection, and to lay down an impassable line of demarcation between the past and the present; for I saw but too plainly, that the future was dependent on the past; and I was the more wretched, as a police, who have not always due powers of discernment, would not permit me to forget myself. I saw myself again on the point of being snared like a deer.

Forever abroad on a false passport, watching over his shoulder for the next inquisitive policeman, the next chance encounter with a bygone criminal acquaintance, Vidocq was in his early thirties now and aching to go straight lest he follow Herbaux’s path to the guillotine. At last in 1809 he was able to find the perfect port of entry for a man of his underworld expertise: policing.

Beginning first as a snitch and informer, Vidocq uncovered a genius for the still-nascent field of professional law enforcement and made himself the field’s towering presence. His last arrest was in 1809; by 1812, he had created La Surete, France’s civil investigative organ. This still-extant entity became the model for Great Britain’s Scotland Yard (1829), with Vidocq consulting for his Anglo imitators.

His subalterns were heavily lawbreakers like himself, men and also women recruited from the streets and prisons for whom the cant of outlaws was native tongue and who took readily to Vidocq’s training in disguise and subterfuge: Vidocq trafficked in information, seeking crime in its native habitat where the easy-to-spot predecessors to the beat cop could not penetrate. The payoffs in robbers ambushed red-handed and turncoats delightedly unmasking themselves made the man a sensation.

Yet alongside his swashbuckling flair, Vidocq’s prescient interest in then-novel police techniques ranging from forensic science to controlling crime scenes to logging permanent records about criminals have established him as either a or the father of criminology.

A few books about Vidocq

All along, the master himself continued to adventure in the field too, and began compounding a sizable income from deploying his investigative talents for a private clientele. His mother who had once been accustomed to shelter him as a fugitive had a requiem mass at Notre Dame on her death in 1824.

In 1833, retired from Surete, Vidocq founded perhaps the first private detective agency. But as had been the case while he was in public service he had a zest for skirting the edges of the legally or ethically permissible, which was eventually the ruin of his business and his fortune. For all his legendary charisma, his heirs at the Surete in the late 19th century all but wrote out of their institutional history the thief who literally wrote the book on their field.

Posterity was bound to reclaim him if for no other reason than that the dashing detective had always been catnip for the literary set. Victor Hugo is thought to have drawn on Vidocq for both the chief antagonists in Les Miserables, the reformed criminal Jean Valjean and his relentless pursuer Inspector Javert; Balzac liberally cribbed from the biography of his good friend Vidocq to create his Human Comedy character Vautrin, a onetime forger become chief of the Surete. American writers invoked Vidocq by name in, e.g., Moby Dick and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Edgar Allan Poe‘s interest in turn gestures at the man’s place in the foundational cosmology of the detective story genre. And for all that the real man’s life, however one discounts for literary flourish, was somehow more colorfully impossible than all the Sherlock Holmeses that have followed him — why, by every probability the scoundrel ought to have wound up sharing the stage with a Cesar Herbaux. Accordingly, depictions of this deeply dramatic figure in theater and cinema stretch from the man’s own time all the way to ours, as with this 2011 Gerard Depardieu offering:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Notably Survived By,Public Executions,Theft

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1853: Nathaniel Mobbs

Add comment November 21st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1853, Nathaniel Mobbs hanged for killing his wife.

Mobbs’s loutish drunken abuse was of Catherine Mobbs was audible to many neighbors at his Whitechapel tenement. On the night before he finally murdered her, he was so far gone that Catherine slept at a neighbor’s to stay clear of him. Nathaniel found her the next morning, and physically dragged her back home; that afternoon, an unusually violent row and the prisoner’s screams of “murder!” brought at least two guests scrambling up the stairs to their door, which Mobbs blockaded with a chest — until the “murder!” cries eerily stopped.

Then, the scuffing sound of furniture being moved.

And Catherine staggered out the door and down the steps, her dress and hair gorging on the horrid effluence of her slashed throat. She didn’t say a word before she dropped dead.

This nasty affair is covered by PlanetSlade.com’s murder ballads series, including a broadsheet (pdf) with testimony by the Mobbs’ neighbors, and the usual hanging ballad.

A U.S. band called South County YouTubed a haunting version of the ballad, although I believe they’ve taken some liberty with the lyrics.

This wasn’t Mr. Mobbs’s only brush with the literary. Charles Dickens, who could not but delight in the juxtaposition of pickpockets risking their own necks plying their craft on gallows-gawkers, fastened on just such an incident at the Mobbs execution. (Even if pickpocketing was no longer a capital crime by 1853.)

At Guildhall, on the 22nd, Charles Clark was charged before Alderman Humphery with Stealing a Watch the previous morning in the Old Bailey. Robert Pollard, the prosecutor, said: I was present yesterday morning at the Execution of the man Mobbs. I was in front of the scaffold, when I felt something at my pocket, and then missed my watch.

Alderman Humphery — I suppose you were there to see the man hung? Were there many persons there?

Witness: Yes, sir, a great man.

Alderman Humphery: Did you miss your watch before the execution or afterwards?

Witness: The condemned man was just coming on the scaffold, and before he was hung I saw the prisoner moving from my side. I followed him; but perceiving me behind him, he ran up St. Clement’s Inn-yards, in Old Bailey, and threw himself on some matting. The watch produced by the officer is mine. It is engraved with my own name.

Prisoner: I did not throw myself down, I fell down.

Alderman Humphery: There is one thing very clear. The awful sight of a man being hung has no fear for you. William Gardiner saw the prisoner, on reaching the top of Clement’s Inn yard, throw himself on some sacks and drop something down the iron grating. The witness went below and found the watch produced.

Prisoner: I never took the watch.

Alderman Humphery: You came out to witness the execution of a fellow creature, but it does not appear to have done you any good, for your intention in being there was to pick pockets evidently. It is quite clear that you committed a highway robbery, and that too under the gallows, an offence that was punished at one time with dath. It is too serious a case for me to deal with summarily, and I shall therefore commit you for trial.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions

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1915: Mrs. Chippy, safe return doubtful

2 comments October 29th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1915, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, his ship fatally trapped in Antarctic pack ice, had the ship’s beloved cat shot.

The 1915 voyage of Shackleton’s aptly named barquentine Endurance* wrote for the expiring “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” one of its most stouthearted chapters.

Struggling through a gale towards Vahsel Bay, the Endurance became icebound within sight of her destination to the peril of Shackleton and 27 other intrepid souls.

That is, 27 human souls.

“We are twenty-eight men with forty-nine dogs, including Sue’s and Sallie’s five grown-up pups,” Shackleton recorded in his diary for October 29, 1915. By then, the Endurance had been pinned in the ice for the best part of a year, vainly awaiting a favorable wind that would scatter the floes — an exercise in the monotonous perseverance that polar expeditions demanded. Two days before that entry, however, the situation worsened from dire to catastrophic when the weight of the ice began cracking the captive ship’s hull, pouring the frigid Weddell Sea into her hold.

“The pressure caused by the congestion in this area of the pack is producing a scene of absolute chaos,” Shackleton wrote. “The ice moves majestically, ireesistibly. Human effort is not futile, but man fights against the giant forces of Nature in a spirit of humility. One has a sense of dependence on the higher Power.” With the ship now impaled upon the floes, human effort and higher Power alike would need to bend every sinew toward mere survival.

By the terms of its objective — to cross Antarctica overland to the Ross Sea — Shackleton’s expedition was a failure. As a feat of human spirit, it was his greatest triumph, its fame nowise hindered by expedition photographer Frank Hurley who captured the drama in photographs and film.


When a stretch of open sea came within a few hundred yards of the Endurance, Shackleton had his crew try to carve a channel to it with pickaxes.


Dogs and men under the hulk of the Endurance in the eerie polar night.


Crushed by the ice, the Endurance crumples into the sea.

After drifting some weeks more on the floes, Shackleton kept his desperate party together to reach open seas where they navigated the ship’s launches to Elephant Island, a frostbitten desolation where they wintered in a makeshift shelter and hunted seals and penguins.

Meanwhile, Shackleton took a few crew members in a small boat hundreds of miles onward to inhabited stations South Georgia Island where they were finally able to muster a rescue mission. Twenty-five men of the 28 survived the harrowing two-year expedition.


Map of the Shackleton expedition’s progress. The light blue line represents the party’s intended course across the continent; instead, the sea voyage (in red) became trapped in the ice and drifted (in yellow) across the Weddell Sea before taking to the launches to escape (in green) to Elephant Island. (cc) image by Finetooth, Like tears in rain.

Those who were not men did not fare as well.

In addition to the Endurance‘s many sled dogs, 40-year-old Scots carpenter Harry “Chippy” McNish (variously spelled MacNish or McNeish) had taken on board a charismatic little tabby for the ship’s cat. “Mrs. Chippy” — the name stuck even after the crew realized that “she” was really a male — quickly became beloved of the crew, and especially of Chippy McNish.

But Mrs. Chippy was not an asset for the survival epic that the Endurance crew was destined to author.

Under the duress of the ice floes, Shackleton on October 29, 1915 did what had to be done and ordered the least utile animals put to death to preserve resources for the others.

This afternoon Sallie’s three youngest pups, Sue’s Sirius, and Mrs. Chippy, the carpenter’s cat, have to be shot. We could not undertake the maintenance of weaklings under the new conditions. Macklin, Crean, and the carpenter [McNish] seemed to feel the loss of their friends rather badly.

McNish’s hard feelings against the skipper for the death of his puss speaks better of his heart than his head; the irascible carpenter would later be threatened by Shackleton with wilderness execution himself for a brief ice floe mutiny, from which McNish correctly retreated. Surely posterity can overlook the slip of discipline under this state of incredible privation and fear … but Shackleton didn’t. After the pains of the ice and sea were past and the expedition safe home, the chief withheld from his able but disgruntled carpenter an endorsement for the Polar Medal that decorated most of his mates. (Other crew, united in their regard for Shackleton, felt that McNish’s Polar Medal slight was on the mean side.)

The poor doomed cat that succumbed on this date in 1915 to the might of the Antarctic and the hard pragmatism of Ernest Shackleton has been tugging heartstrings ever since. McNish’s grave in New Zealand was decorated in 2004 with a bronze statue of Mrs. Chippy; the cat has also made appearances on postage stamps, in opera, headlining books, and in art.

A few books about the Shackleton expedition

n.b. the legendary help-wanted ad referenced by the title of this post — “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” — is most likely an actual legend. Numberless Shackleton enthusiasts have plumbed many a musty archive in pursuit of the original copy, without success.

* The ship was christened after Shackleton’s Game Of Thrones-like house motto, “By Endurance we Conquer.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Animals,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",England,History,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Polar,Shot

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1654: Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Younger, sculptor

Add comment September 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1654, Flemish sculptor Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Younger was strangled and burned in Ghent for sodomy (sodomy in a church, no less).

As an artist, the man’s legacy is forever overshadowed by his father’s Brussels tourist essential Manneken Pis; Hieronymus (or Jerome) the Younger learned his craft from dad as a studio apprentice. (We here dismiss Hieronymus the Elder from our narrative; Hieronymus the Younger is meant by all subsequent references in this post.)

This was not to be the end of the story when it came to Hieronymus and naked young boys, but in 1621 he upped stakes for Italy and proceeded to spend the next two decades honing his craft in Mediterranean climes. Or at least, this is the necessary assumption, as very little direct evidence traces his movements in that period.

Returning to the Low Counties in the early 1640s, Duquesnoy earned a number of baroque commissions as “architecte, statuaire et sculpteur de la Cour.” (For a taste of his work: The Infant Hercules | Ganymede.)

The last of his projects was this tomb for Bishop Antonius Triest in Ghent; “he set himself up with his assistants in one of the cathedral‘s chapels, to lay out and prepare the sections of this tomb, which could have been for the master the finest jewel in a new sculptural crown, had he not come to a sad end,” according to Edmond de Busscher.


This monumental tomb would also prove the death of its sculptor. (cc) image by www.pmrmaeyaert.com — Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0.

He was arrested when 8- and 11-year-old boys accused him of molestation in the church during his work on the bishop’s shrine. Duquesnoy vigorously denied the charges and tried to call in favors from his patrons to squelch the case, but Ghent’s council decided otherwise and had him executed in the city’s Koornmarkt (Grain Market).

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1795: Sayat-Nova

1 comment September 22nd, 2017 Headsman

The Armenian poet Sayat-Nova (“King of Songs”) was martyred on this date in 1795 by the invading Qajar army.

Poet, singer, and legendary wielder of the kamancheh in the court of the Georgian king,* Sayat-Nova was also an ordained priest in the Armenian Church.

This last point would figure crucially upon the invasion of the Qajar Shah seized the Caucasus in a 1795 bloodbath:** trapped in a monastery, Sayat-Nova faced the ritual Islamic offer of conversion or death. He chose immortality.

His legendary name and likeness adorn many public places in Armenia (not to mention an Armenian cognac), as well as places touched by the Armenian diaspora like a Boston dance company.

YouTube searches on the man’s name yield a rich trove of songs and movies about the man, but the best commemoration for these pages is surely his own music.

* Until he got ejected for scandalously falling in love with the king’s sister and became a wandering bard. Poets!

** The Shah was assassinated two years later, and the Qajars lost their grip on the Caucasus as a result.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Armenia,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Famous,God,History,Iran,Martyrs,Myths,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1594: Thomas Merry and Rachel Merry, lamentable tragedie

Add comment September 6th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1594, Thomas Merry (Merrey, Merrye) and his sister Rachel were executed at Smithfield — Thomas for the robbery-motivated bludgeon murder of their neighbor Master Beech, and (too-)loyal* Rachel as an accessory to it.

No original record of this case survives, but we have its date from a registry record of one of the numerous now-lost ballads about the case, The pitifull lamentation of Rachell Merrye, whoe suffred in Smithfield with her brother Thoms Merrye the vj of September 1594.

The one remaining artifact available for specifics, be they ever so embroidered, is a play from 1601; the date alone underscores the hold of the by-then-seven-year-old crime on public imagination.** And small wonder it was the talk of London, considering the cracking action seen in Robert Yarington’s Two lamentable tragedies:† The one, of the murther of Maister Beech a chaundler in Thames-streete, and his boye, done by Thomas Merry. The other of a young childe murthered in a wood by two ruffins, with the consent of his unckle — like this scene where brother and sister figure out how to carve up the victim. (Slightly tidied for readability.)

Enter Merry and Rachel with a bag.

Merry
What hast thou sped? have you bought the bag?

Rachel
I brother, here it is, what is’t to do?

Merry
To beate hence Beeches body in the night.

Rachel
You cannot beare so great a waight your selfe,
And ’tis no trusting of another man.

Merry
Yes well enough, as I will order it,
Ile cut him peece-meale, first his head and legs
Will be one burthen, then the mangled rest,
Will be another, which I will transport,
Beyond the water in a Ferry boate,
And throw it into Paris-garden ditch.
Fetch me the chopping-knife, and in the meane
Ile move the Fagots that do cover him.

Rachel
Oh can you finde in hart to cut and carve,
His stone colde flesh, and rob the greedy grave,
Of his disseuered blood besprinckled lims?

Merry
I mary can I fetch the chopping knife.

Rachel
This deed is worse, then when you tooke his life.

Merry
But worse, or better, now it must be so,
Better do thus, then feele a greater woe.

Rachel
Here is the knife, I cannot stay to see,
This barbarous deed of inhumanitie.

Exit Rachel

Merry begins to cut the body, and bindes the armes behinde his backe with Beeches garters, leaves out the body, covers the head and legs againe.

If we credit the play — and it’s the only source in town — poor Master Beech ended up hacked into many pieces that were secreted in various places around London as a ploy to avoid detection.

Amazingly, this gruesome and obscure drama has been staged in the 21st century, using not only the Sheakespeare-era script but the rehearsal and performance methods common at the time. There’s a site all about it, including a Tedx Talk by director Emma Whipday and her collaborator Freyja Cox Jensen. (Readers interested in the play production challenges might enjoy this pdf paper by Whipday and Jensen.)

We would be remiss on a site such as this not to spare a peep for the actual execution scene. We pick it up with Thomas Merry already standing upon the ladder with the hemp about his throat, exhorting his sister to firmness.

Merry
God strengthen me with patience to endure,
This chastisement, which I confesse too small
A punishment for this my hainous sinne:
Oh be couragious sister, fight it well,
We shall be crown’d with immortallitie.

Rachel
I will not faint, but combat manfully,
Christ is of power to helpe and strengthen me.

Officer.
I pray make hast, the hower is almost past.

Merry
I am prepar’d, oh God receive my soule,
Forgive my sinnes, for they are numberlesse,
Receive me God, for now I come to thee.

Turne of the Lather: Rachel shrinketh.

Officer
Nay shrinke not woman, have a cheerefull hart.

Rachel
I, so I do, and yet this sinfull flesh,
Will be rebellious gainst my willing spirit.
Come let me clime these steps that lead to heaven,
Although they seeme the staires of infamie!
Let me be merror to ensuing times,
And teach all sisters how they do conceale,
The wicked deeds, of brethren, or of friends,
I not repent me of my love to him,
But that thereby I have provoked God,
To heavie wrath and indignation,
Which turne away great God, for Christes sake.
Ah Harry Williams, thou wert chiefest cause,
That I do drinke of this most bitter cup,
For hadst thou opened Beeches death at first,
The boy had liv’d, and thou hadst sav’d my life:
But thou art bronded with a marke of shame,
And I forgive thee from my very soule,
Let him and me, learne all that heare of this,
To utter brothers or their maisters misse,
Conceale no murther, least it do beget,
More bloody deeds of like deformitie.
Thus God forgive my sinnes, receive my soule,
And though my dinner be of bitter death,
I hope my soule shall sup with Iesus Christ,
And see his presence everlastingly.

Dyeth.

Officer
The Lord of heaven have mercy on her soule,
And teach all other by this spectacle,
To shunne such dangers as she ran into,
By her misguided taciturnitie:
Cut downe their bodies, give hers funerall,
But let his body be conveyed hence,
To Mile-end greene, and there be hang’d in chaines.

Exeunt omnes.

* At one point in the play described in this text, Rachel Merry muses on the enormity of the crime and the likelihood of its detection — “such cruell deedes can never long be hid / Although we practice nere so cunningly.” Neveretheless, she stands by her kin: “Lo he is my brother, I will cover it, / And rather dye than have it spoken rife, / Lo where she goes, betrai’d her brothers life.

** There’s yet another known play about the case from 1599, also lost.

† This play strangely cuts back and forth between the action in the titular two tragedies, which are the Merry crime and a fictitious murder set in Padua — the whole thing scaffolded by a chorus of narrator-allegories comprising Homicide, Avarice, and Truth. The Italian story also ends in a pair of executions.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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1917: James Smith, Early One Morning

Add comment September 5th, 2017 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, a Bolton private (formerly lance corporal) named James Smith fell to his countrymen’s guns on Belgian soil during World War I.

A career soldier since 1909, Smith had served honorably in India and Egypt before the war. He had the hardiness and luck to survive Gallipoli and the Somme — but their horrors broke him mentally.

According to this biography, “Jimmy almost lost his life on the Somme on 11 October 1916 when a German artillery shell exploded, burying him alive and causing a shrapnel wound ‘the size of a fist’ on his right shoulder.” When he returned from two months’ convalescence leave his mates could see that shellshock had destroyed the old Jimmy Smith.

Erratic behavior that cost him his good conduct badges culminated in a break on July 30, 1917, the eve of the frightful Battle of Passchendaele, when Smith deserted his post and disappeared from the front — to be found later, wandering in a nearby town. In World War I, such an offense invited the brass to make an example of you.

Smith’s own comrades from the 17th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment were drafted into the firing squad. Pitying their victim, the executioners pulled their shots and missed the target, only succeeding in wounding the brutalized private. When the firing squad commander faltered at his duty to deliver the coup de grace, the task monstrously fell on a close friend of Smith’s, Private Richard Blundell, to press the revolver to Smith’s temple and blow out his brains. For its service to the war effort, the firing detail got 10 days’ R&R … and a lifetime of shame.

In the weeks before his own death, in February 1989, Blundell was often heard by his son, William, to murmur deliriously: ‘What a way to get leave, what a way to get leave.’

According to historian Graham Maddocks, in his book Liverpool Pals, William Blundell asked his father in a more lucid moment what he meant.

Still desperately upset seven decades after the incident, the dying Richard told his son what had happened. It was clear, that as he faced his own death, Richard had never forgiven himself.

Jimmy Smith was the subject of a 1998 play, Early One Morning.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1653: Sakura Sogoro, righteous peasant

Add comment September 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Perhaps on this date in 1653 — it is, at any rate, the date saluted by a festival that honors him — the peasant Sakura Sogoro was crucified for protesting the oppressive taxation of his local lord.

Sogoro — familiarly known as Sogo-sama — was a village head man who dared to take his complaints about his daimyo‘s heavy hand right to the shogun himself. As punishment for this effrontery, the daimyo had the peasant executed (which punishment the sacrificial Sogoro anticipated in making his appeal) along with his wife and sons (which was an outrage).

As classically described, Sogoro from the cross damns the cruelty of the punishment and promises to revenge himself as a ghost, destroying the daimyo‘s house within three years. A century or so after his death, a shrine was erected to his memory which attracted pilgrims throughout the realm and made Sakura Sogoro “the patron saint of protest” (Anne Walthall, whom we shall hear more from later.) The tale has earned popular staging in Japanese culture from the kabuki stage to television.


The great 19th century kabuki actor Ichikawa Kodanji as the avenging specter of “Asakura Togo”, the Kabuki character based on Sakura Sogoro. Image from this gorgeous collection.

As one might infer from the sketchy account here, the story’s historicity is shaky despite its popularity down the centuries in Japan. According to one an academic paper by Walthall,*

The archetype of the peasant martyr, a man who deliberately sacrificed himself on behalf of his community.”

More has been written about Sakura Sogoro than about any other peasant hero, but the evidence of his existence is extremely circumstantial. Written accounts of him remain fragmentary until the 1770s …

The first mention of the Sogoro legend appears in Sakura fudoki (a record of provincial lore on Sakura), compiled by a Sakura domain bureaucrat, Isobe Shogen. He recounts how an old man had told him that Sogoro’s vengeful spirit caused the downfall of a seventeenth-century lord. This emphasis on revenge after death is common to many Japanese folktales. Its constant recurrence as a theme in Japanese history reflects a widely held belief in the power of strong emotions to wreak havoc after a person has died. At this point Sogoro was hardly a martyr for the peasants — they remembered not his own deeds, if any, but what had happened to the lord.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the story gains more detail. After the death of the just lord, Hotta Masamori, his retainers take control of domanial administration, treat the peasants unjustly, and increase the land tax. To save the people, Sogoro makes a direct appeal to the shogun … becom[ing] an exemplar of righteous action, a man who placed community welfare above individual self-interest …

In narratives from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the plot becomes still more elaborate. Sogoro is described as a man of scholarship, deeply religious, respectful of his superiors, mindful of his subordinates, esteemed by his neighbors. “He was intelligent, tactful, and did not look like he was peasant born. Everyone said he must be the descendant of a warrior” … As the savior of his village, he represented the peasants’ aspirations; as an angry spirit, he reflected their resentment of those in authority.

The most modern version of the legend omits all reference to revenge by angry spirits. Now the story depicts the courage of Sogoro and his supporters among the peasants and his heartrending renunciation of his family when he resolves to sacrifice himself for the community. He still puts his appeal directly in the hands of the shogun, even though modern historians have long argued that a meeting with the shogun was impossible for a peasant. In contrast to the “good king,” (the shogun Ietsuna) the villain, Hotta Masanobu, executes not merely Sogoro, but his four children. Even the cruelty of this command has become further elaborated. To evade the bakufu prohibition on the execution of women, officials pretend that Sogoro’s three daughters are actually sons and cut off their heads. In short, today people know only a lachrymose tale of tyranny and heroism.

English speakers can grab a couple renderings of this story in the public domain:

* Walthall, “Narratives of Peasant Uprisings in Japan,” The Journal of Asian Studies, May 1983.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Children,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Japan,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Myths,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Uncertain Dates,Women

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388: Magnus Maximus, minimized

Add comment August 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 388, Magnus Maximus, partially successful usurper of the western Roman Empire, was put to death by Emperor Theodosius.

The late centuries of Rome witness many a rebellious general but the smart money in a civil war rarely fancied the guy whose power base was distant Britannia. With his bombastic name and balls to back it, Magnus bigly bucked those odds, defeating and murdering the western Augustus Gratian in Gaul in 383. From there he bossed Africa, Britain, and his native Spain for several years.

The departure from Britain of this local chancer made good would prove to correspond approximately with the empire’s crumbling foothold on on the island, with the sandal-shorn Roman feet in ancient times last walking upon England’s mountains green in 410. As the last, most scintillating representative of Roman Britain, Magnus Maximus has survived into legend — extolled for example by Geoffrey of Monmouth as the title hero of “The Dream of Macsen Wledig”. In it, “Macsen”/Maximus weds a Welsh princess and sires a native dynasty, granting Brittany to the Britons in gratitude for their aid as he conquers Rome.

But forget living in legend. The real Magnus Maximus, like every aspirant to the dangerous purple, mostly just worried about living out the next campaign season.

He had a spell of tense peace with his eastern opposite number, during which time Maximus — a staunch Nicene Christian — had the distinction in 385 of decreeing the trial on trumped-up sorcery charges of the dissident bishop Priscillian. It’s widely, if loosely, accounted the very first intra-Christian heresy execution. (Saint Ambrose of Milan and St. Martin of Tours both intervened strongly to oppose this precedent which has spawned so very many imitations.)

Meanwhile Maximus and Theodosius maneuvered toward inevitable civil war and it is obvious from his presence on this here blog that Maximus on this occasion did not rise to his nomens. As Zosimus describes,

Theodosius, having passed through Pannonia [routing Maximus in the process -ed.] and the defiles of the Appennines, attacked unawares the forces of Maximus before they were prepared for him. A part of his army, having pursued them with the utmost speed, forced their way through the gates of Aquileia, the guards being too few to resist them. Maximus was torn from his imperial throne while in the act of distributing money to his soldiers, and being stripped of his imperial robes, was brought to Theodosius, who, having in reproach enumerated some of his crimes against the commonwealth, delivered him to the common executioner to receive due punishment.

Such was the end of Maximus and of his usurpation.*

The poet Pacatus thereafter paid the conquering Theodosius homage for this victory in one of antiquity’s great panegyrics. (Enjoy it in the original Latin here.) Sure he lost the war, but how many figures are both magnus and maximus in fields as disparate as Celtic mythology and classical rhetoric?

Audiophiles might enjoy history podcasters’ take on Magnus Maximus: he’s been covered by both the British History Podcast (episode 31) and the History of Rome Podcast (episodes 156 and 157).

* After the post-Maximus arrangements Theodosius made in the west also went pear-shaped, necessitating yet another conquest and execution, Theodosius established himself as the emperor of both the eastern and western halves of the Roman world in 392. He was last man ever destined to enjoy that distinction.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,Myths,Power,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Treason,Wales,Wartime Executions

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1810: Santiago de Liniers

Add comment August 26th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1810, a French officer in Spanish service became an Argentine martyr.

Jacques de Liniers — or Santiago de Liniers, in the Hispanized form* — was a cavalryman turned naval officer descended of a storied noble house,** and he made his bones serving Bourbon princes on either side of the Pyrenees.

Bumping out of the French service in his early twenties, Liniers (English Wikipedia link |French | Spanish) entered his life’s destined course when he took the Spanish colors to fight the Moors in Algiers in 1774.

Progressing thence to the navy, Liniers enjoyed a variegated career at sea in the last quarter of the 18th century, participating among other engagements in the Bourbon-backed American Revolution, and in the Barbary Wars.

By the 1790s he had washed up in the Spanish possessions in the cone of South America, then organized as the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. Here he would achieve both glory and death, coming to the fore of the colony when a surprise 1806 British attack seized lightly-defended Buenos Aires during the Napoleonic Wars. Vowing to make an offering of this interloper Home Riggs Popham‘s Union Jacks to the Dominican convent where he took refuge, Liniers escaped from the occupied city to nearby Montevideo (present-day Uruguay) where he marshaled a local militia that successfully stormed Buenos Aires.

As a result, that convent still holds the captured British flags to this day … and the white-haired Liniers (he was 53 years old at this point) stands front and center in triumph in a famous painting accepting the rosbif surrender:


La Reconquista de Buenos Aires, by Charles Fouqueray (1909).

With the official leadership having fled the place, a “cabildo abierto” — an “open council” assembly of all the city’s heads of household† — anointed the re-conqueror Liniers the new viceroy.

We catch in this easy conversion of military success to populist support a foreshadowing of the caudillo political character that would so color the coming centuries of post-independence politics, writes Lyman L. Johnson in Workshop of Revolution: Plebeian Buenos Aires and the Atlantic World, 1776-1810 — “the first appearance of personalist politics in Buenos Aires … While his closest allies worked the crowd in the Plaza Mayor to demand the substitution of the viceroy, Liniers was conveniently absent in the suburbs, an absence that forced the crowd to march en masse to return him in triumph to the city.” Thereafter, “[l]eaders elevated by contested and irregular means, Liniers the prime case, would now legitimze their claims to power on the massed authority of the transformed porteno plebe.”

Buenos Aires wasn’t the only thing transforming. Across the ocean, Napoleon’s invasion had the Spanish crown on the run. King Charles IV of Spain had recognized Liniers as “Count of Buenos Aires” before Charles’s forced abdication in 1808; however, the Junta of Seville that tenuously asserted itself the Spanish rump state dispatched a different guy as viceroy and Liniers accepted that fellow’s appointment and resigned his post. It’s a surprising decision in retrospect, one that reminds of Liniers’s Old World, ancien regime roots: this very moment in time, with the Spanish crown reduced to a bauble and the Peninsular crises leaving the empire’s overseas possessions to their own devices, saw the advent of breakaway movements throughout South America. Many of Spain’s former colonies there date independence to the 1810s or 1820s as a result.

Argentina marks its independence from July 9, 1816, but that event was product of a separatist war that began with the 1810 May Revolution. This affair deposed the post-Liniers viceroy upon news of French gains in Iberia that had collapsed even the Junta of Seville. If nobody’s left in charge — why not us? (The May Revolution continued to govern in the name of the occulted Spanish king, which is why it doesn’t get the independence day laurels.)

At this, Liniers came out of retirement like an aging pugilist for one fight too many, and mounted an ill-fated royalist counterrevolution. Instead of re-creating the glories of his campaign against the British, Liniers saw his soldiers desert him to an anticlimactic capture.

He was shot together with Juan Antonio Gutierrez de la Concha and three officers of their late unreliable militia at a small town between Cordoba and Buenos Aires called Cabeza de Tigre (“Head of the Tiger”; today it’s known as Los Surgentes‡).

Despite his dying in an attempt to stand athwart Argentinian independence, his heroism against the British has secured him posthumous honor in a country he never wanted to exist. There’s a Liniers neighborhood in Buenos Aires, and a town of Santiago de Liniers; his former estate in Cordoba is preserved today as a museum and UNESCO heritage site.

* The name in either form is “James”; he got it because his birthday, July 25 of 1753, was the feast of St. James.

** The letters of U.S. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson — present in Paris as an envoy from 1784 to 1789 — preserve an invitation from another Liniers (Santiago’s older brother, the comte de Liniers?) “to a game of chess with pear and melon.”

† As distinct from the regular (“closed”) municipal council, comprising just a few handpicked grandees.

‡ Los Surgentes is unfortunately also known for an infamous 1976 massacre of disappeared leftists.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Argentina,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Spain,Wartime Executions

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