On this date in the year 96, the Roman Emperor Domitian was assassinated … his very last act in the purple having been to condemn to death an astrologer who predicted Domitian’s murder.
Son and second successor of the Flavian dynasty’s founder, Vespasian, Domitian left his mark on Italian postcard stands by decorating the Roman Forum with the Arch of Titus to salute his older brother and immediate predecessor.
In his day he was known as a tyrant, especially compared to the dynasty which followed him; indeed, Domitian’s murder was the exact birth date for imperial Rome’s golden age in the judgment of Gibbon, who opined that “if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”
Domitian, shall we say, set a low bar for the Antonines to step over by keeping the capital in a state of perpetual terror with wanton purges, not even excepting the sacred Vestal Virgins.
As is usually the case with ancient scrolls, our lurid accounts rarely furnish convenient dates to later death-bloggers. Our excuse for this occasion will be the condemnation Domitian issued to a nameless astrologer immediately preceding his own fate; alternatively, we could cite the subsequent execution of Domitian’s assassins which was successfully demanded by the soldiery, who admired him.
If this seems a cheat for an almanac site, consider that given a better documentary environment, the man’s entire reign would supply the execution-blogger a near limitless stock.
“It would be impossible to discover the total number of those who were executed by Domitian,” wrote Cassius Dio, conveniently excusing a gap in his research.* “Indeed, he condemned himself so severely for this course that, in order to prevent any remembrance of those who were put to death from surviving, he prohibited the entering of their names in the records.”
Pretexts for these executions under Domitian were as varied and capricious as the killings were numerous.
Many men and women alike among the wealthy were punished for adultery; some of these women had been debauched by Domitian himself. Many persons were also fined or put to death on other charges. Thus, a woman was tried and put to death because she had undressed in front of an image of Domitian, and a man for having associated with astrologers. Among the many who perished at this time was Mettius Pompusianus, whom Vespasian had failed to harm after learning from some report that he would one day be sovereign, but on the contrary had shown him honour, declaring: “He will surely remember me and will surely honour me in return.” But Domitian first exiled him to Corsica and now put him to death, one of the complaints against him being that he had a map of the world painted on the walls of his bed-chamber, and another complaint being that he had excerpted and was wont to read the speeches of kings and other leaders that are recorded in Livy. Also Maternus, a sophist, was put out of the way because in a practice speech he had something against tyrants. The emperor himself used to visit those who were expecting to accuse or to give evidence of guilt and he would help to frame and compose all that required to be said. Often, too, he would talk to the prisoners alone, while holding their chains in his hands; for he would not entrust to others the knowledge of what was going to be said, and as for the accused, he feared them even in their bonds.
As a consequence of his cruelty the emperor was suspicious of all mankind, and from now on ceased to repose hopes of safety in either the freedmen or yet the prefects, whom he usually caused to be brought to trail during their very term of office. He had first banished and now slew Epaphroditus, Nero’s freedman, accusing him of having failed to defend Nero; for he wished by the vengeance that he took on Nero’s behalf to terrify his own freedmen long in advance, so that they should venture no similar deed.
The historian Suetonius concurred that the emperor was taking Tiberius’s old turn into a paranoid old coot.
He put to death a pupil of the pantomimic actor Paris, who was still a beardless boy and ill at the time, because in his skill and his appearance he seemed not unlike his master; also Hermogenes of Tarsus because of some allusions in his History, besides crucifying even the slaves who had written it out. A householder who said that a Thracian gladiator was a match for the murmillo, but not for the giver of the games, he caused to be dragged from his seat and thrown into the arena to dogs, with this placard: “A favourer of the Thracians who spoke impiously.”
He put to death many senators, among them several ex-consuls, including Civica Cerealis, at the very time when he was proconsul in Asia, Salvidienus Orfitus, Acilius Glabrio while he was in exile — these on the ground of plotting revolution, the rest on any charge, however trivial. He slew Aelius Lamia for joking remarks, which were reflections on him, it is true, but made long before and harmless. For when Domitian had taken away Lamia’s wife, the latter replied to someone who praised his voice: “I practise continence”; and when Titus urged him to marry again, he replied: “Are you too looking for a wife?” He put to death Salvius Cocceianus, because he had kept the birthday of the emperor Otho, his paternal uncle; Mettius Pompusianus, because it was commonly reported that he had an imperial nativity and carried about a map of the world on parchment and speeches of the kings and generals from Titus Livius, besides giving two of his slaves the names of Mago and Hannibal; Sallustius Lucullus, governor of Britain, for allowing some lances of a new pattern to be named “Lucullean,” after his own name; Junius Rusticus, because he had published eulogies of Paetus Thrasea and Helvidius Priscus and called them the most upright of men; and on the occasion of this charge he banished all the philosophers from the city and from Italy. He also executed the younger Helvidius, alleging that in a farce composed for the stage he had under the characters of Paris and Oenone censured Domitian’s divorce from his wife; Flavius Sabinus too, one of his cousins, because on the day of the consular elections the crier had inadvertently announced him to the people as emperor elect, instead of consul.
His savage cruelty was not only excessive, but also cunning and sudden. He invited one of his stewards to his bed-chamber the day before crucifying him, made him sit beside him on his couch, and dismissed him in a secure and gay frame of mind, even deigning to send him a share of his dinner. When he was on the point of condemning the ex-consul Arrecinius Clemens, one of his intimates and tools, he treated him with as great favour as before, if not greater, and finally, as he was taking a drive with him, catching sight of his accuser he said: “Pray, shall we hear this base slave to?morrow?”
Domitian also seems to have been extremely superstitious, even by Roman standards. Suetonius gets a little carried away here, enough so that it is impossible at 2,000 years’ distance to guess precisely where the embroidery was sewn to the facts; after all, Domitian’s subjects and observers were all superstitious too. It certainly makes a jolly good story.
It is said that when Domitian was but a boy astrologers had forecast the very moment of his eventual violent death: the fifth hour of September the 18th in this very year. Domitian became extremely jumpy as Atropos’s shears drew nearer and dark omens began to accumulate around him:
For eight successive months so many strokes of lightning occurred and were reported, that at last he cried: “Well, let him now strike whom he will.” The temple of Jupiter of the Capitol was struck and that of the Flavian family, as well as the Palace and the emperor’s own bedroom. The inscription too on the base of a triumphal statue of his was torn off in a violent tempest and fell upon a neighbouring tomb. The tree which had been overthrown when Vespasian was still a private citizen but had sprung up anew, then on a sudden fell down again. Fortune of Praeneste had throughout his whole reign, when he commended the new year to her protection, given him a favourable omen and always in the same words. Now at last she returned a most direful one, not without the mention of bloodshed. (Suetonius again)
He tried to defeat the gods by having put to death an astrologer named Ascletarion, having first demanded Ascletarion’s prediction of his own manner of death: “that he would shortly be rent by dogs,” the oracle replied. To prove him wrong, Domitian had him killed some other way and immolated — but his satisfaction drained away when “it chanced that the pyre was overset by a sudden storm and that the dogs mangled the corpse.” Death closed around the prince, to his growing fear, and now he watched for the very hour.
At about midnight he was so terrified that he leaped from his bed. The next morning he conducted the trial of a soothsayer sent from Germany, who when consulted about the lightning strokes had foretold a change of rulers, and condemned him to death. While he was vigorously scratching a festered wart on his forehead, and had drawn blood, he said: “May this be all.” Then he asked the time, and by pre-arrangement [of those conspiring against Domitian] the sixth hour was announced to him, instead of the fifth, which he feared. Filled with joy at this, and believing all danger now past, he was hastening to the bath, when his chamberlain Parthenius changed his purpose by announcing that someone had called about a matter of great moment and would not be put off.
Retiring his bedroom to prepare for an exultant bath, Domitian was there attacked and stabbed to death by a steward named Stephanus, joined by several others — “Clodianus, a subaltern, Maximus, a freedman of Parthenius, Satur, decurion of the chamberlains, and a gladiator from the imperial school.”
Domitian’s memory was immediately damned by the overjoyed Senate, which proclaimed as his successor an elderly placeholder named Nerva (who immediately canceled treason trials against this same Senate). Nerva’s line of adoptive succession (Nerva himself adopted the redoubtable Trajan) would rule that “happy and prosperous” Rome of Gibbon’s celebration for the best part of a century.
* Cassius Dio wrote more than a century after Domitian. Suetonius and Tacitus are truer primary sources as both wrote their histories in the early second century, and both had themselves experienced life in Domitian’s Rome. Unfortunately the books of the latter’s Histories that cover the reign of Domitian have not survived to posterity — so from Tacitus we have only fleeting glimpses of the young Domitian aiding his father’s rise to power.
When our party took over political power, the exploiting classes and reactionary forces went into action. The only rusty and antiquated tool that they use against us is preaching in the name of faith and religion against the progressive movement of our homeland.
On this date in 1979, Afghanistan’s Communist ruler Nur Muhammad Taraki was deposed and summarily executed (or just murdered, if you like: he was held down and suffocated with pillows) by his defense minister.
The writer whom the Soviets had once hailed as “Afghanistan’s Maxim Gorky” had been one of the most prominent Communist leaders in Afghanistan for a generation by the time he led a coup against Mohammad Daoud Khan in 1978. It was Taraki who inaugurated the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, and so came to number among the USSR’s accidental gravediggers.
Like any proper Red he dreamt a far grander legacy: his program for Afghanistan featured wide-ranging land reform, education, and women’s rights. But he would quickly discover that the resistance to these aggressive changes wielded tools far less antiquated than expected.*
The rebellion that broke out against Taraki in 1978 — joining rural magnates, religious traditionalists, ideological anti-Communists, and people pissed off about the new government’s egregious human rights abuses — is basically the same war that’s still raging there today.
To Moscow’s credit, the morass-detector went to high alert when Taraki first began soliciting Kremlin aid. Soviet Foreign Minister Alexei Kosygin gave a sharp and apt refusal when Taraki first invited his Russian allies to come visit that graveyard of empires:
It would be a fatal mistake to commit ground troops. … If our troops went in, the situation in your country would not improve. On the contrary, it would get worse. Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a significant part of your own people. And the people would never forgive such things.
You know how they say you should usually obey your first instinct?
Taraki in the end wheedled very little by way of Russian props for his regime. It was only with his downfall that events took a different turn — for the aide who overthrew and then killed Taraki, Hafizullah Amin, was not half so trusted in the USSR as his predecessor. Before the year was out, Moscow had worriedly (and somewhat impulsively) begun committing its divisions into that self-destructive struggle Kosygin had warned about, vainly trying to manage the deteriorating situation. (Russia also overthrew and executed Amin into the bargain.)
* It also didn’t help Taraki that his own Communist movement was sharply divided. Members of the rival faction were widely purged or driven to exile in 1978-79; a notable exemplar of the exiled group was Mohammad Najibullah, who became president in the late 1980s and ended up being lynched when the Taliban took over in 1996.
Zum Kampf! Zum Kampf! from Max Bruch‘s 1877 oratorio about Teutoburg Forest victor Arminius. Also be sure to check out the Handel opera.
September 11 in the year 9 AD marked the bloody conclusion of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest — the engagement that permanently scared the Romans off Germany.
One of history’s true turning-point battles, Teutoberg Forest abruptly stanched decades of expansion that had seen Roman arms ascendant from Britain to the Levant. Indeed, the Roman commander who had the dishonor of falling on his sword at this legendary defeat, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was an experienced imperial patrician as well-traveled as the Roman standards who has been seen in these very pages collaborating with the Judean King Herod to execute Herod’s former heir.
But it was in the shadows and bogs of Germany’s primeval forests that Varus made his legacy to the world, which was to have his name famously bemoaned by facepalming Emperor Augustus once news of the disaster made its way back to the Eternal City.
Prior to this cataclysm, the empire had been working a years-long plan to annex fringe chunks of the vast Magna Germania beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers with its customary view towards eventually bossing the whole place. “Upper Germania” and “Lower Germania” to the west of Magna Germania already answered to Rome, testament to recent campaigns launched from neighboring Gaul;* the vast frontier beyond peopled by fractious warring barbarian tribes, with whom Rome cut strategic divide-and-conquer alliances, appeared to promise a future march of Roman glories all the way to the Baltic Sea.
This imperial hubris was shattered at a blow by the Cheruscan chief Arminius, who thereby made his name immortal to Germany.**
He had the element of surprise on his side, because his family had been such loyal Roman allies that Arminius had been trained up in the Roman army as a youth, and even held Roman citizenship. Whatever it was he experienced seems to have nurtured an implacable desire him to keep it away form his homeland. When the time came his familiarity with Roman military orders would be a high card in his hand, too.
Back in Germania, Arminius maintained his overt affiliation with Rome but started sending out feelers to assemble a confederation against the legions. He played this double game so adroitly that Varus still trusted his “ally” implicitly when Arminius reported a Germanic uprising that wanted Roman chastisement. Blind to his danger, Varus duly (and with casual discipline that would read very culpably in retrospect) marched his 17th, 18th, and 19th legions out through the unfamiliar glooms of the Teutoburg Forest.
It was a right massacre.
Their column broken up by rough terrain and pounding autumn rains, the Romans were ripe pickings for German sorties beginning on September 9. Harried by the Germans over two days’ panicked marching, the Romans were pressed into a dead end where palisades trapped the desperate legions at the edge of a slough and put them to slaughter. A bare handful escaped to tell the tale, and no future legion would bear the numerals of those annihilated on this day.
Varusschlacht, by Otto Albert Koch (1909).
The scale of the defeat, by rude tribesmen the empire always counted on being able to bully, beggared the Roman imagination.
“An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field, through the negligence of its general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune was surrounded,” Paterculus lamented. “Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans.”
To judge by Roman reports — and what gives this event a purchase on the annals of Executed Today — the battlefield rout transitioned directly to the ceremonial butchery of captives. (As well as the posthumous beheading of the suicide Varus.) While some suffered torture and execution, others were offered as ritual sacrifices to the Germanic gods who had so magnificently delivered the day.
Several years later, a Roman force out to re-capture the lost standards of the Teutoburg legions reached the site of the empire’s humiliation. Tacitus describes the scene as a horror.
In the center of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.
Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles.
And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe.
Despite the devastation, Teutoburg Forest was no extinction-level event for the Roman Empire. The Rhine and Danube frontiers remained an ongoing source of action for the many centuries to come, but despite raids and incursions here or there Rome never more seriously aspired to Magna Germania.
A few books about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
* The future emperor Tiberius campaigned heavily in Germania, the last of which was post-Varus operations from 10 to 12 AD sufficient to permit the Romans to declare an honorably victorious conclusion to the project. (Tiberius celebrated a Triumph afterwards.)
** Arminius — whose name has been held equivalent with “Hermann” — has been the subject of many literary celebratins in a nationalist vein, great business especially in the 19th century.
On this date in September 10, 1893, the same day that they admitted to their roles in a murder conspiracy, Mehaley (or Mahaley) Jackson and Louisa Carter were lynched in the town of Quincy in eastern Mississippi, 137 miles east of Memphis.
The two black women’s slayings were only part part of a grisly tragedy that resulted in the deaths of six people, perhaps more.
In late August or early September 1893, a white gentleman named Thomas Woodruff fell ill along with his entire family. Two of his five children died. Two weeks later, what was left of the Woodruff family were all still languishing in the hospital, and there was little hope that any of them would recover. Neighbors who nursed the sick family also became ill.
A search of the Woodruff property turned up three packages of Rough-on-Rats, an arsenic-based poison, in the well.
Suspicion fell on Ben Woodruff, a local black man. The previous fall, Ben had “entered Woodruff’s house violently, and so excited his wife, who was in a delicate condition from childbirth, that she died in a few hours.” Ben had faced criminal charges in connection with the incident, and Woodruff was one of the witnesses against him, which, it was thought, provided motive to for Ben to kill him. (The news report below prefers a stolen wagon as the source of the friction.)
New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 10, 1893.
On September 9, during the inquest following Ben Jackson’s arrest, a group of unmasked men dragged him away from the police who had custody of him and hanged him. The murder inquiry continued without the suspect and, a day later, his widow, Mehaley Jackson, and mother-in-law, Louisa Carter, testified before the jury. They admitted they had known of Ben’s plan to poison the Woodruffs’ well. The two women were not arrested, but it would have been better for them if they had been: when they left the courthouse, an armed mob was waiting for them and hanged them as well.
Vigilante justice wasn’t finished yet: Mehaley and Louisa had said a neighborhood man named Rufus Broyles had given Ben Jackson the money to buy the poison. Broyles fled the area after Ben’s death and went into hiding in a nearby town.
On September 14, he was caught there, and strung up like the others.
Circuit court judge Newman Cayce made a “forcible and peremptory” order to the grand jury to identify and indict the lynchers. Predictably, there’s no record of any charges being brought against anyone.
September 7 was the date of Porteous’s own scheduled hanging, for triggering a mob scene at a previous execution we have already visited: Porteous, commanding the guard detail at that hanging, reacted insaley when
some unlucky boys threw a stone or two at the hangman, which is very common, on which the brutal Porteous (who it seems had ordered his party to load their guns with ball) let drive first himself amongst the inocent mob and commanded his men to folow his example which quickly cleansed the street but left three men, a boy and a woman dead upon the spot, besides several others wounded, some of whom are dead since. After this first fire he took it in his head when half up the Bow to order annother voly & kill’d a taylor in a window three storys high, a young gentleman & a son of Mr Matheson the minister’s and several more were dangerously wounded and all this from no more provocation than what I told you before, the throwing of a stone or two that hurt no body.
Nowadays Porteous might cite officer safety and be back on the job in a week’s time. Edinburghers in 1736 gave their law enforcement a bit less latitude, and the city magistrates were obliged to box Porteous up in the Tolbooth lest a baying mob “would have torn him, Council and Guard all in pices.”
Five months remained to Mr. Porteous, a span in which he must have died a thousand deaths as he watched fortune toss his prospects to and fro from within his dungeon. The temper of the city would admit no other result than his conviction and death sentence but officers of the law have strings to pull with the state their muskets uphold. With King George II out of hand,* Queen Caroline granted Porteous a reprieve (not yet an outright clemency) from an intended September 8 date with his own hangman. That intervention was soon overruled by a higher sovereign, for as the Newgate Calendar puts it, “when the populace were informed, such a scheme of revenge was meditated as is perhaps unprecedented.” This was no sudden spasm of public rage; five calculating days had elapsed from the arrival to Edinburgh of the queen’s mercy when
On the 7th of September, 1736, between nine and ten in the evening, a large body of men entered the city of Edinburgh, and seized the arms belonging to the guard; they then patrolled the streets, crying out, ‘All those who dare avenge innocent blood, let them come here.’ They then shut the gates and placed guards at each.
Illustration of the Porteous mob, from Sir Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian — which dramatizes the lynching.
The main body of the mob, all disguised, marched in the mean time to the prison; when finding some difficulty in breaking open the doors with hammers, they immediately set fire to it; taking great care that the flames should not spread beyond their proper bounds. The outer door was hardly consumed before they rushed in, and, ordering the keeper to open the door of the captain’s apartment, cried out, ‘Where is the villain, Porteous?’ He replied, ‘Here I am, what do you want with me?’ To which they answered, that they meant to hang him in the Grass Market, the place where he had shed so much innocent blood.
His expostulations were all in vain, they seized him by the legs and arms, and dragged him instantly to the place of execution.
On their arrival, they broke open a shop to find a rope suitable to their purpose, which they immediately fixed round his neck, then throwing the other end over a dyer’s pole, hoisted him up; when he, endeavouring to save himself, fixed his hands between the halter and his neck, which being observed by some of the mob, one of them struck him with an axe, which obliging him to quit his hold, they soon put an end to his life.
When they were satisfied he was dead they immediately dispersed to their several habitations, unmolested themselves, and without molesting anyone else.
Such was the fate of Captain John Porteous, a man possessed of qualifications which, had they been properly applied, might have rendered him an honourable and useful servant of his country. His undaunted spirit and invincible courage would have done honour to the greatest hero of antiquity. But being advanced to power, he became intoxicated with pride, and instead of being the admiration of his fellow citizens, he was detested and hated by all who knew him. The fate of this unhappy man, it is hoped, will he a caution to those who are in power not to abuse it; but, by a humane as well as diligent discharge of their duty, to render themselves worthy members of society.
Porteous did get a solemn memorial stone in Greyfriars Kirkyard once passions cooled … 237 years later.
Rudely replacing the hodgepodge of old services consecrated by tradition, not to mention the Latin tongue in which they were conducted, with the novel vernacular composition of Anne Boleyn‘s house vicar was not wildly popular in the pews — nowhere less so than in Britain’s western extrusion of Devon and Cornwall, which were as cantankerous as they were Catholic.
Peasants at church that Sunday in those provinces were gobsmacked by the alien English service they heard, and disturbances began almost immediately.
“We wyll have the masse in Latten, as was before,” congregants in the Devon village of Sampford Courtenay petitioned their priest on Whitmonday.
We wyll have … images set up again in every church, and all other ancient olde Ceremonyes used heretofore, by our mother the holy Church.
We wyll not receyve the newe servyce because it is but lyke a Christmas game, but we wyll have oure old service of Mattens, masse, Evensong and procession in Latten as it was before.
When authorities showed up to enforce the Christmas games, there was a riot that saw someone run through with a pitchfork on the steps of the church. The Prayer Book Rebellion was on.
That summer of 1549, Common Prayer resisters in Devon and Cornwall linked up in a rude army, one with no chance at all against the larger and better-armed crown force under Lord Russell — which was reinforced as if to prove the rebels’ fears of foreign doctrinal innovations by Italian arquebusiers and German landsnecht mercenaries.*
A fierce combat ensued, raging hottest near the windmill. Their first attack repulsed, the rebels renewed their efforts again and again, but —
notwithstanding they were of very stout stomachs and very valiantly did stand to their tackles, yet in the end they were overthrown and the most part of them slain. (Hooker)
Lord Russell’s trained men and his horsemen, at last of real service in the open field, again proved conquerors, though not without loss, for “to the strength, force, and resolution of these commons (the archers especially)” witness was borne by some that felt them. At last the insurgents were forced back on Clyst St. Mary, leaving behind many comrades either dead, dying, or prisoners.
As the insurgents retired from the hill leaving the Royal troops victorious, orders were issued for the assembly to unite in prayer and praise for the God-given victory, and the rough moor became the setting for a strange scene.
Clustering in their companies, their weapons still red with the blood of their opponents, was the mixed multitude: gentlemen with their servants and tenants levied in the surrounding country, recently devout adherents of the faith they were now called upon to exterminate: dark-browed mercenaries, still nominally papists, who later sought absolution for fighting on the behalf of heretics; heavy-jowled “almayns,” countrymen of Luther, whose protestantism varied much from the newly founded English forms; all these surrounded by the dead and dying of the recent fight.
The rebels fell back to Clyst Heath, and on the 5th, Russell’s force again advanced upon them, overcoming only with difficulty a stubborn resistance at the village of Clyst St. Mary. Though victorious in each instance, Russell’s men had had two hard days’ fighting and were sore conscious that they were invaders in hostile country. They had faced potshots from the cover of hedge rows, forays from the rear at their baggage train, and that dawn attack at the windmill. And the two days’ fighting had put some 900 prisoners in their hands.
As twilight fell on August 5, Lord Russell began thinking along the lines of Henry V at Agincourt — that these prisoners were at best an encumbrance for a troop already managing a difficult slog, and at worst a menace who might start butchering their guards should one of these rebel raids scramble his army.
And so Russell issued the expedient, conscience-curdling order.
Ere darkness fell the cries for mercy and the screams of those being murdered rang through the fields and lanes, as each soldier butchered his victim — nor age nor youth was regarded, and the shambles thus created made a terrible blot upon the scutcheon of the Royal forces.
The next day saw the Battle of Clyst Heath, at which the Cornish — having heard of the previous night’s outrage — fought furiously to the last man in a hopeless, savage affray that all but broke the rebellion. By August 16, Russell destroyed their cause for good … back where it all started, at the Battle of Sampford Courtenay. Reprisal raids continued well after the truculent country had been pacified, and some rebel leaders were only hunted down for execution months later.
* England had scads of continental soldiers of fortune knocking about at this moment because it had been hiring to whale on Scotland.
Just last year — 2015 — the FBI was reported to be investigating the Moore’s Ford lynching anew. SixtySeventy years on, it’s still just possible that a perpetrator or two remains alive who might be brought to book … provided the curtain of silence Walton County drew around itself so long ago can finally be lifted.
The victims of the lynching were the Dorseys (George and Mae) and the Malcoms (Roger and Dorothy), black sharecroppers employed by a farmer named J. Loy Harrison. Roger Malcom had been clapped in jail in Monroe, Ga., for stabbing a white man; on the day of the lynching, Harrison drove Dorothy Malcom and the Dorseys to Monroe, where he posted bail for Roger.
Just why Harrison did this appears to be one of the many mysteries of Moore’s Ford Bridge. Harrison was a Klansman, so one possible inference is that he was complicit in the events that were about to transpire; however, as Wexler notes, this bailing-out “favor” would not have been at all unusual for a Walton County plantation owner to do for his help.
[L]ike many large landowners in Georgia in 1946, he was perpetually in need of more help than [his sharecropping] tenants could provide. There were few prospects in the immediate community; as in much of the rural South, the area surrounding Loy Harrison’s farm had shrunk massively in population … Without a sufficient supply of “free” workers to fill his needs, Loy Harrison often did … pay off a prisoner’s fine, or post his bond, and let him work off the debt on his farm.
Loy Harrison was far from unusual in that respect. Large landowners all over the rural South, faced with both war-induced and urban migration, used the local jail as a labor pool. And often the local sheriffs and city police made sure the pool was stocked. They’d lock black people up on a Saturday night on minor– or trumped-up — charges, such as gambling, possession of liquor, or public drunkenness. When a landowner came to the jail on Monday morning to pay a prisoner’s fine, the police claimed part of it for making the arrest, the jailer claimed part of it for “turning the key,” and the landlord took hom a cheap, reliable worker who was bound to him until his debt was paid. … The practice of landowners buying prisoners — particularly black prisoners — out of jail was so common in Walton and Oconee counties that it had its own slogan. “If you keep yourself out of the grave,” landlords told their black tenants, “I’ll keep you off the chain gang.”
Returning from Monroe with his four sharecroppers in tow, Harrison was stopped near the bridge by a gang of armed white men — men that Harrison would later tell investigators he did not recognize, although it was 5:30 p.m. on a summer’s evening and nobody was wearing a disguise.
“A big man who was dressed mighty proud in a double-breasted brown suit was giving the orders,” reported Harrison, who is the best we’re going to do for an eyewitness. “He pointed to Roger and said, ‘We want that nigger.’ Then he pointed to George Dorsey, my nigger, and said, ‘We want you too, Charlie.’ I said, ‘His name ain’t Charlie, he’s George.’ Someone said ‘Keep your damned big mouth shut. This ain’t your party.'”
The “party” entailed forcing all four black men and women — whatever their names were — out of Harrison’s car, lining them up in front of an ad hoc firing squad, and on the count of three, gunning them all down. That night, all four corpses would be found riddled with bullets (the coroner estimated some 60 gunshots had been fired in all) and strewn near the bridge. Dorothy Malcom was five months pregnant.
There are now annual re-enactments of this notorious lynching; here’s another from 2007. When the tradition began in 2005, whites were unwilling to participate and so the first instance was staged with an all-black cast — the lynchers donning white masks.
By the 1940s, Judge Lynch’s gavel did not fall nearly so often as it once had; these mob executions which had once gone abroad with such numbing frequency now took place only sporadically, about once, twice, or thrice per year* in all of the United States.
So the mass murder of four people in a single go at such a late date shook the country. NBC news headlined the event with unconcealed disgust:
140 million Americans were disgraced late yesterday, humiliated in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world by one of the most vicious lynchings to stain our national record. A gang of armed and degenerate, poor whites, waylaid a Negro man and another man and their wives on a country road 40 miles from Atlanta. The brief and sadistic orgy ended in the bodies being riddled by 60 bullets.
Library of Congress image of Roger and Dorothy Malcom’s funeral.
Whether or not the lynchers anticipated this wave of national attention, they were ready to handle it. FBI officials dispatched by President Harry S Truman were systematically stonewalled; a suspect list as long as your arm (55 names!) went nowhere because, in the words of a Georgia patrolman, “the best people in town won’t talk.” And that really does mean the best people; one lead the FBI pursued into the usual cul-de-sac was that the white supremacist ex-governor Eugene Talmadge actually sanctioned the lynchings as an electoral ploy during a hard-fought 1946 campaign to regain his office.
The best folks’ silence — and the dire warning issued by their fusillades into the Dorseys and the Malcoms — stopped the mouths of everyone else, too. A federal $12,500 reward went begging.
Robeson Tells Truman: Do Something About Lynchings Or Negroes Will
Paul Robeson, Negro baritone, spearhead of the American Crusade to End Lynching, said yesterday after a White House visit that he had told the President that if the Government did not do something to curb lynching, “the Negroes would.”
To this statement, Robeson said, the President took sharp exception. The President, he said, remarked that it sounded like a threat. Robeson told newspaper men he assured the President it was not a threat, merely a statement of fact about the temper of the Negro people …
When he was asked whether he was a Communist, Robeson described himself as “violently anti-Fascist.” He said he had opposed Fascism in other countries and saw no reason why he should not oppose Fascism in the United States.
While investigators were spinning their wheels, activists catalyzed by the Moore’s Ford horror were leaping into action. Singer-activist Paul Robeson launched the American Crusade to End Lynching in response to this event, and led a delegation to the White House. In a combative meeting with President Truman, he demanded stronger federal action.
Truman, like many politicians had before, voiced sympathy but demurred as to tangible remedies: the time was forever not right to push such politically treacherous legislation.†
Robeson replied firmly that if the government would not act to protect black lives, “the Negroes would.” Truman affected great umbrage at this threat to law and order and had no time for Robeson’s describing lynch law as a human rights abuse of the sort that the U.S. had only just finished prosecuting at Nuremberg.
The feds weren’t interested in putting the screws to lynching. But they were definitely interested in putting the screws to Paul Robeson.
The Communist Robeson, whose impossibly gorgeous voice we have previously featured in hymns to leftist martyrs John Brown and Joe Hill, was even then being investigated as a subversive by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. In time, Robeson’s passport would be revoked in part because he made bold while abroad to denounce racial injustice in the United States.
This audio is abridged; a more complete transcript can be read here.
No degree of dignity and self-possession in these inquisitions could avail Robeson, who not only did not regain his passport but was gradually levered out of America’s mainstream cultural life as punishment for his politics. He even remained estranged from the rising civil rights movement because his unwillingness to disavow his radical affiliations left him politically radioactive in those red-baiting days.
By the 1960s, the lynchings were a dead letter to those who were supposed to investigate them — just as the lynchers intended. Nobody had ever come close to being indicted. Robeson’s Crusade had gone by the wayside.
But they were not forgotten.
A young man named Bobby Howard, who was a five-year-old child in Walton County at the time the Dorseys and the Malcoms were gunned down, grew up to take an impolitic (not to mention dangerous) interest in the crime; he even pitched an investigation personally to Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before the latter’s assassination.
* In fact, there have never been so many as four recognized lynchings in any single calendar year in the United States since 1946.
** Talmadge’s 1946 gubernatorial campaign was demagoguing a 1944 Supreme Court decision that gave black voters access to racially desegregated primary elections. Talmadge would eventually win a Bush-v.-Gore-esque poll in which he lost the primary vote but won the county electors that at the time decided the race. (Talmadge carried Walton County by 78 votes.) Having done all that, he then dropped dead in December before he could take office and bequeathed his state — which had never thought to legislate the succession for this particular scenario — a constitutional crisis.
Royal Irish Constabulary officer Gerald Smyth was executed by an Irish Republican Army hit team on this date in 1920.
A true child of empire, born in Punjab and veteran of the First World War where he had lost the use of one arm, Smyth had been assigned to Ireland during the bloody Irish War of Independence. One year’s time out from this post, almost to the day, Great Britain threw in the towel by agreeing to a truce that led to Irish self-government (and Irish Civil War).
The “execution” — assassination — that we mark this date was consequence of an event called the Listowel Mutiny, which occurred in June 1920.
The account for this event is quite incendiary, and it bears mentioning that it hails from a Republican newspaper, Sinn Fein’s Irish Bulletin. In it, former policeman Jeremiah Mee explains the circumstances of his own departure from the constabulary: Smyth had arrived at the Listowel barracks to deliver his demoralized constables an ukase directing an aggressive shoot-on-sight policy, to take the fight to suspected militants.
Sinn Fein has had all the sport up to the present and we are going to have the sport now … I am promised as many troops from England as I require, thousands are coming daily. I am getting 7,000 police from England [Smyth is referring here to the influx of Black and Tans -ed.] …
Police and military will patrol the country at least five nights a week. They are not to confine themselves to the main roads but take across the country, lie in ambush, and when civilians are seen approaching shout “Hands up.” Should the order not be immediately obeyed, shoot, and shoot with effect. If persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets and are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped and you are bound to get the right persons sometimes. The more you shoot the better I will like you; and I assure you that no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man and I will guarantee that your names will not be given at the inquest.
The constables gaped at this directive until Mee retored, “By your accent I take it you are an Englishman and in your ignorance forget that you are addressing Irishmen.” Then he removed his cap, belt, and bayonet: “These too are English. Take them as a present from me and to hell with you — you are a murderer!”
This Listowel Mutiny reached its narrative closure a month later when that IRA team burst into Cork smoking room where Lieutenant-Colonel Smyth was relaxing and startled him with the revengeful taunt, “Colonel, were not your orders to shoot on sight? Well you are in sight now, so prepare.”
Smyth’s murder in turn further escalated tensions in war-torn Ireland, helping contribute to an outbreak of sectarian pogroms days later that saw thousands of Catholics driven out of the city and/or work in Belfast.
Named by the Joe McCarthy-led Senate committee that in 1953 set out to catalogue (pdf) “a series of war crimes against American and United Nations personnel which constituted one of the most heinous and barbaric epochs of recorded history,” the Chaplain-Medic affair stars a chaplain and (wait for it) a medic.
In this instance, the North Korean 3rd Division came upon some 20 to 30 injured Americans of the 19th Infantry in the hills outside the village of Tuman. They had been left during a withdrawal in difficult terrain by their comrades who could no longer carry them, in hopes that another American detachment would pass through who could escort them back to friendly lines.
With them were two uninjured and unarmed non-combatants who had voluntarily remained behind to succor the stricken men: Catholic chaplain Herman G. Felhoelter, and medic Linton J. Buttrey.
As the North Korean patrol approached, Buttrey was able to flee. (He would later testify to McCarthy’s committee.) Felhoelter, remaining, knelt to issue extreme unction to his comrades and was executed mid-prayer … followed by all the wounded men in his care.
Buttrey earned the Silver Star for remaining to treat the wounded men. Felhoelter was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross; his name appears on Arlington National Cemetery’s Chaplain’s Hill monument to slain military clergy.
Joseph Smith, the strange founder of America’s most successful home-grown religion, was lynched on this date in 1844 at the jail in Carthage, Illinois.
Mormonism today boasts some 15 million adherents but it all started in the 1820s when Smith, then an energetic young mystic in the revival hotbed of western New York, claimed to have been guided by an angel to plates engraved in a made-up language that only he could translate and only that one time because the plates disappeared back to angelic custody after Smith’s perusal. It will not be news to this site’s LDS readers that few outside the faith place this origin story on the near side of the laugh test, but then, it is the nature of religions to appear ridiculous to outsiders: Christ crucified is unto the Greeks foolishness.
Smith’s heretical story of America as the ancient zone of a literal “New Jerusalem” founded by Israelites with a theretofore unknown gift for transoceanic navigation was certainly a stumbling-block for Protestant American neighbors, who harried from state to state — a practically Biblical sojourn through the desert — the fast-growing community. It came to pass* that the young man’s implausible scripture struck a resonant chord for the young nation.
“It was a really powerful religion,” says John Dolan in an episode of the War Nerd podcast.** “It said, our people have always been here, America is the promised land, you’re at home here. And that meant so much to 19th century Americans.”
The strange new sect’s capacity for punching above its weight in the missionary game also unleashed violently hostile reactions, marrying to its settler theology a compelling lived experience of persecution. The march of the movement across the continent has an astonishing, can’t-make-this-up character — “full of stir and adventure” in Mark Twain’s words, so again a perfect fit for America.
A few books about Joseph Smith
Smith took his fledgling faith from its New York birthplace to Kirtland, Ohio — where he was fortunate to survive a tarring and feathering in 1832 — and then onward to Missouri where a dirty vigilante war led the governor to issue a notorious “extermination order”: “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.” Scrabbling for a homeland and pursued by a Missouri treason charge (!) Smith ducked over the western border to Illinois and set up a Mormon town called Nauvoo.
The faith was barely a decade old and still struggling to find an equilibrium. While Smith fought the last battle by creating a gigantic militia to protect his flock from the sorts of military attacks it had faced in Missouri — which state still sought Smith’s head in the 1840s — he attained his martyrdom as the fallout of prosaic internal politics. Seeking to suppress schismatic Mormons, Smith in June 1844 ordered the destruction of their critical newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor.†
By now having worn out his welcome with yet another state, the unpopular Smith became the subject of an Illinois arrest warrant as a result of this lawless attack on his rivals. Expecting better treatment than Missouri would have offered him and angling to keep Mormons in an amicable relationship with neighbors, Smith this time chose to turn himself in to face trial for inciting a riot, along with his brother Hyrum Smith and two other Mormon leaders, Willard Richards and John Taylor.‡
But in this case, the law did not take its course.
On the afternoon of June 27, 1844, a mob of 200 armed men stormed the jail in Carthage where the Mormons were held, meeting only token resistance. (Indeed, many of the force assigned to guard the Mormons joined the attackers instead.) They gunned down Hyrum Smith on the spot and drove Joseph Smith — firing back all the while — to a window where a fusillade knocked him out of the second story. His body was shot up and mutilated; one of the numerous accounts of those moments even has it that the corpse was propped up for a summary firing squad “execution.”
Whatever else one could say of Joseph Smith, he forged a community that survived its founder’s death, and is thriving still nearly two centuries on. With Smith’s passing, leadership of the Mormons fell to Brigham Young, who brought the Mormons out of Illinois for their destiny in Utah.
* Smith — or the angel Moroni, if you like — amusingly abuses the portentous clause “it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon, repeating it in about one-fifth of the tome’s verses.
** Also recommended: Dolan’s article on Joseph Smith as an outstanding product of an era of “text-finding” — his book offering pious Americans their greatest desideratum, a national link to God’s Biblical chosen people much like James MacPherson‘s forged Ossian epic thrilled the patriotic fancies of Scots discomfitingly swallowed up into Great Britain.
† The Expositor published only one single issue: the June 7, 1844 edition that caused its immediate suppression and eventually Smith’s death.
‡ Both Richards and Taylor survived the mob attack on Carthage Jail. Taylor in 1880 succeeded Brigham Young as president of the church.