Three hundred years ago today, five Jacobites were hanged in London for raising a riot on behalf of the exiled Pretender.
The 1714 childless death of Queen Anne had put the succession question on the political map in England. The Catholic Stuarts who had been run out of the realm a generation before were still hanging around in exile, claiming the throne — now in the person of “the Old Pretender”, James Francis Edward, the son of King James II who meant to become King James III.
But the Whig party instead saw to the succession of Anne’s Protestant cousin, George I, the Elector of Hanover who would therefore become the fount of the Hanoverian dynasty — a change at in the executive that was matched by a parliamentary revolution that set the Whigs up to boss Britain for the best part of the 18th century.
Not everyone was pleased.
As conspiracies and rebellions unfolded among lords, for the London commoners the parties picturesquely (but no less violently) divided at the tavern doors. In the streets, the mobs were Tory: the importation of some German noble in preference to numerous English claimants more closely related to Anne than he had obvious grievance potential.
Whigs in their turn set up politicized tavern clubs — “Mug Houses” — as vehicles to counterpoise a pro-Hanoverian presence, and these houses became an obnoxious presence to Jacobites wont to attract violent attack. Mug House Whigs and Jacobite/Tory mobs bloodied the flagstones with street brawls in 1715-1716, not neglecting to sing taunting partisan doggerel at one another good enough to swell the cockles of any modern-day football hooligan.
Since the Tories could not fight,
And their master took his flight
They labour to keep up their faction
With a bough and a stick
And a stone and a brick
They equip their roaring crew for action.
Thus in battle-array
At the close of the day
After wisely debating their plot,
Upon windows and stalls
They courageously fall
And boast a great victory they’ve got.
But, alas! silly boys!
For all the mighty noise
Of their “High Church and Ormond for ever!”
A brave Whig, with one hand,
At George’s command,
Can make their mightiest hero to quiver.
In July of 1716, a noisy Whig party at a Mug House in Salisbury Court had been attacked by a Jacobite mob. Though the siege had been repelled on the first occasion, July 20, rioters reorganized and returned for another go and there battered in the doors and ran amok on the lower floor, while their Whig belligerents remained trapped above. Gleefully the rioters sacked their enemies’ refuge, toasting the Pretender’s health with the Whig ale before a none-too-timely arrival of gendarmes finally dispersed them.
“Many notorious Papists were seen to abet and assist in this villainous Rabble, as were other, who call themselves Churchmen,” complained the Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer (July 28, 1716). “‘Tis hoped the Magistrates will take such Methods which may prevent the like Insults for the future.”
The Magistrates did so.
Finally resolved to tamp down on the riots they had so long winked at, the crown threw the book at the rioters and got five condemned to hang on charges of burglary and assault.
1. George Purchase, condemn’d for being concern’d in the Riot in Salisbury-Court, Fleetstreet, on Tuesday the 24th of July last. He said, he was 23 Years of age, born at Puddle-Dock, London: That he serv’d an Apprentiship of 7 Years with a Shoemaker in Salisbury-Court: That when his Time was expir’d he became a Journeyman to his said Master, and never did an ill thing before this Fact for which he is condemn’d, and which he rashly committed, not considering then (as I endeavour’d now to make him sensible of) the Unlawfulness and dismal Consequences of such a Rebellious Sedition as that was, which so much tended not only to the Ruin of private Persons, but to the great Disturbance of, and Dishonour to, the whole Government. I representing both to him and his Fellow-Criminals and Sufferers, what perfect Nonsense (not to say worse) it was for them to cry-out, High-Church and Ormond; and what an unheard of Impudence and Disloyalty, what an enormous Wickedness and Impiety they all discover’d to be in their Nature, by their uttering these and the like Rebellious and Malicious Expressions; Do Hannoverian, King George, Down with the Mugg-house, &c. by which they excited and stirr’d up both themselves and others, to kill and plunder, to set the Nation in a Flame, and, in a word, to do all the Mischief they could, and to which (no doubt) they were greatly encourag’d underhand by such as neither fear GOD, nor honour the KING; nor indeed have any true Love for, or Regard to the Lives of those poor silly Tools they made use of in that Riot.
Upon this my Observation and Admonition (endeavouring to convince them, that they could have no good Intent in doing what they did, but quite contrary) this George Purchase acknowledg’d it to be a heinous Crime, himself greatly Guilty, and his Sentence just; praying GOD to forgive him this and all other his Sins, and have Mercy upon his Soul.
2. Thomas Beane, condemn’d for the same Fact. He said, he was 22 years of age; born in Salisbury-Court, where his Father formerly kept the Ship Tavern: That he was 5 Years at Sea, as Servant to the Purser of a Man of War , whom he serv’d the last of those 5 Years in the capacity of his Steward: That he was a Servant to some Gentlemen unhappily engag’d in the late Rebellion at Preston, since they were in Newgate, and not before. As to this Fact he was condemn’d for, he confest his guilt of it, acknowledging in particular that he carried part of the Mug-house Sign about the Street, and at last threw it into a Cart; but withal endeavour’d to palliate it, saying, That he inconsiderately join’d in that Riot, the dismal Consequences whereof he did not then apprehend, but now (to his great Sorrow) knew the Mischief he had thereby involv’d himself in.
3. William Price, condemn’d also for the same Riot. He said, he was 21 years of age, born in the Parish of St. Andrew Holbourn: That he was bound Apprentice to a Sword-Cutler , and had now serv’d 4 years of his Time, and never committed any Crime before this Riot hapned. He confess’d, That, hearing there was a great Concourse of People in Salisbury-Court, he presently ran thither, but said withal, That it was with no ill Intent, but out of meer Curiosity; however, when he was come he join’d with others there, and assisted them in demolishing Mr. Read’s Mug-house, destroying his Goods, and crying, high Church and Ormond, &c. Upon which Confession of his, I shewing him the heinousness and mischievous Consequences of that wicked Fact, he began to be sensible, and said, he heartily repented of it, praying GOD to forgive him this, and all other his Sins. He also was much concern’d to hear that his poor Mother had been misrepresented by some Persons, who had reported, that she us’d no Endeavours to save his Life; for he was fully satisfied she did that to her utmost.
4. Richard Price, condemn’d likewise for that Fact. He said, he was 20 Years of age, born at Llangdavery in Caermarthenshire in Wales, where having serv’d his Time with a Taylor , he came up to London, and here wrought Journey-work , and never engag’d in any ill thing before this hapned; adding, That accidentally passing by that Place where the Tumult was, he unhappily fell in among ‘em, not considering the Unlawfulness and ill Consequence of such a Fact. He was very ignorant, and could not so much as read, which was a great disadvantage to him under these his melancholy Circumstances. I endeavour’d to make him sensible of his great Offence, and to beg Pardon for it, and all other his Sins; which he accordingly did with Tears.
5. John Love, condemn’d for being concern’d with the ‘forementioned Rioters. He said, he was about 16 years of age, born in White-Fryers, London: That he had learnt to make Buttons , but his chief Employment was, the helping of Bargemen and Lightermen to unlade their Boats . He further said, That he never was (nor ever deserv’d to be) brought before Justice till this Riot happen’d, in which he unfortunately involv’d himself, without considering what he then did, or what might follow thereupon. I found him a very ignorant Person, who could not read at all, and hardly knew any thing of Religion; and he was, for some Days past, so very sick and weak, that I was forced to attend him in the Condemn’d Hold; so all I could do there was, to pray for him.
At the Place of their Execution, whither they were this Day carried in two Carts from Newgate, I gave them my last Attendance, exhorting them still more and more to repent of this and all other their Sins. I pray’d and sung some Penitential Psalms with them, and made them rehearse the Apostles Creed. They desir’d, that all young Men and others would take Warning by them, and learn Wisdom from their Folly. They also desir’d the Standers-by to pray for their departing Souls: They begg’d Pardon of GOD and of the KING, and of all they had offended; and declar’d, That they dy’d in Charity with all Men; wishing that none would be so unhappy as to follow them in this, or any other Evil Course, that might bring them to an Untimely End. After this I pray’d with ‘em again, That God would grant ‘em the Pardon of their Sins, and the Salvation of their Souls; that they might have a happy Passage out of this miserable Life, and be admitted into a State of Everlasting Bliss and Glory. Then I withdrew from them, and left ‘em to their private Devotions, for which they had some Time allotted them: When that was expir’d, the Cart drew away, and they were launch’d into Eternity, they all the while praying to GOD to have Mercy on them, and receive their Souls.
This sharp show of resolve evidently did do the trick, as Mug House disturbances came to an abrupt end thereafter.
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.
His online “Sourcebook” compiles a vast trove of primary records capturing the prevailing views of early modern England’s sexual dissidents. Many of these records are legal proceedings, though most of those do not end at the gallows. Whatever their various fates, the misfortune to come under the court’s scrutiny preserves for us a snapshot of their circumstances.
Hunt and Collins were caught in a liaison at a house on Pepper-Alley, which once gave access to one of London’s innumerable little stairways into the Thames from which watermen would ferry passengers across and along the river.
To the frustration of the Ordinary they persistently denied it. Indeed, Hunt, a 37-year-old barge builder and “one of the most unaccountable Men that was ever under the like Misfortune” insisted quite violently that he had been stitched up by perjuring witnesses. As an Anabaptist, the threats to his soul that the C-of-E prelate delivered did not much bother him.
“He was one of the most morose, il-natur’d, surly Creatures that could breathe, and was never at Peace one hour, but continually railing against his Prosecutors,” we find. And even when an Anabaptist pastor was brought in to persuade him, “he answered, ‘Say no more to me about it; I’ll forgive no Body, for I’ll die harden’d.’ — This was a most shocking Speech for a Man who had but a few Hours to live; but he continued to the last Moment in the same Manner.”
A bit more polite about it was Thomas Collins, who had returned to England after spending a career as a soldier in the army of Emperor Charles VI. Still, Collins would not own any actual rendezvous with Hunt, saying only that the two had met by accident on Pepper-Alley and gone to the “Necessary House” (an outdoor toilet) where they “had not been there much above a Minute before two Men came and said they were Sodomites, and pull’d him off the Seat, and turned his Pockets inside out” but finding no money stomped off, complaining “here is no Feathers to pluck.”
The Ordinary was highly dissatisfied with their behavior.
Where two Men who were convicted of such an attrocious [sic] Crime, upon the fullest Evidence that was ever given in any Court of Justice, should prevaricate so much, and behave in so indecent a Manner as they (especially Hunt) have done ever since their Condemnation; the World must be left to judge, whether they were Innocent or Guilty.
Held in Southwark Gaol, they were executed at Kennington Common alongside three other men and a woman (crimes: housebreaking, returning from transportation, murder, murder) where both “continued quite obstinate” with Hunt even refusing to kneel for prayers. While Hunt had friends or money enough to have a coach ready to carry his corpse away from the surgeons who haunted hang-days in search of prey for their anatomy theaters, one final posthumous indignity still awaited Mr. Collins — described by the Ipswich Journal in its September 3 edition:
LONDON, August 27.
The Body of Thomas Collins, executed on Kennington-Common for Sodomy, that was carried off by the Surgeons, being, on Examination, found to be infected with the Venereal Disease, was carried back to the Gallows and there left naked.
Read the full account at Rictor Norton’s site here, or peruse the rest of the Sourcebook including his Grub Street resources on all manner of commoner life and literature (LGBT-related and not) for the 18th century British.
On this date in 1972, Argentina’s junta authored the extrajudicial execution of 16 political prisoners after a jailbreak attempt.
Remembered as the Trelew Massacre (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), it’s been back in the news for an Argentine court’s 2012 conviction of executioners Emilio Del Real, Luis Sosa and Carlos Marandino for crimes against humanity.
One week to the day before those 16 crimes, more than 100 captured guerrillas from both leftist and Peronist movements attempted a mass breakout from Rawson Prison. The plan was to rendezvous with some well-timed getaway drivers who would whisk everyone to the airport where a flight waited to carry them to Salvador Allende’s Chile, which was then still a year away from its own military coup.
Between drivers failing to turn up and others arriving late to the airstrip the operation was a logistical catastrophe. Six people actually managed to escape abroad;* nineteen others, having made it to the airport but missing the flight, salvaged what they could be summoning a press conference and surrendering without resistance. They hoped to protect themselves by putting their case into the public eye.
Navy Lt. Commander Luis Emilio Sosa took the would-be fugitives to a naval base near the port of Trelew — not back to Rawson.
In the early hours of the morning on August 22, all nineteen were awoken, lined up, and machine-gunned by a detachment commanded by Sosa and Lt. Roberto Bravo. Twelve died on the scene; the others were dumped in the infirmary where four more succumbed. It would be put about, as usual, that the murdered prisoners had been shot trying to escape but that story didn’t convince many people. From exile, Juan Peron decried it as “murder”; protests and guerrilla attacks occurred on the anniversary of the slaughter for the next several years.
* These escapees went on to various interesting — and often violent — fates in revolutionary Latin America. One of them, Enrique Gorriaran Merlo, would eventually help to assassinate exiled Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.
This morning, Iraq hanged 36 men in Nasiriyah prison for a 2014 sectarian massacre perpetrated by the emerging Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL).
After months’ gestation in the Syrian civil war, the Sunni ISIS in June 2014 burst out of its enclaves and in the course of a few jeep-racing weeks gobbled upper Mesopotamia. It publicly declared its border-straddling conquests the Caliphate on June 29, 2014.
Iraq’s army mostly melted away ahead of the onrushing threat that summer, abandoning weapons and fleeing while ISIS overran Mosul on June 10, then advanced another 200 km to snatch Saddam Hussein‘s birthplace of Tikrit the very next day.
On June 12, ISIS fighters proceeded out of Tikrit to the adjacent air academy Camp Speicher.* There they abducted only the Shia cadets, including about 400 from southern Iraq’s Shia Dhiqar province, and mass-executed an estimated 1,600 — atrocities they took pains to document in a nauseating propaganda video showing dazed and pleading youths trucked to a forlorn ditch where they are laid flat and fusilladed by the dozen, while others are shot from a gore-soaked pier into the Tigris. (The video is available here.)
“The executions of 36 convicted over the Speicher crime were carried out this morning in Nasiriyah prison. The governor of Dhiqar, Yahya al-Nasseri, and the justice minister, Haidar al-Zamili, were present to oversee the executions,” according to an Iraqi spokesman a few hours ago.
August 16 is a day of reverence in France for the execution on that date in 1944 — just days ahead of the allied liberation of Paris — of 35 young Francs Tireurs partisans.
In a dastardly operation, a French collaborator known as “Jacques” — actually Guy Glebe d’Eu, who was himself executed after the war — who had insinuated himself into resistance networks lured the youths, all aged about 18 to 22, to a purported weapons-smuggling operation. They were unarmed when they arrived, but the Gestapo was not.
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.
On this date in 1653, seven ringleaders of Switzerland’s greatest peasant revolt were executed in Basel.
Six were decapitated (like the foreground) and one hanged (find the triangular gallows in the background).
Not widely known now outside of Switzerland, the peasant war of 1653 shook the Swiss city-states so profoundly that it was described in its own time as a revolution.
Like most peasant rebellions, it was triggered by the economy; a recovery of peacable harvests after the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 had staggered Swiss peasants who had grown accustomed to selling their produce abroad at a premium. When they were pressed even harder by taxes and currency devaluations inflicted by the city-states with their own budget problems, they found their breaking-point.
In February 1653, peasants of the Entlebuch Valley gathered in an illegal assembly and decided to stop tax payments to Lucern until they got some concessions.
To the chagrin of urban grandees, Entlebuch’s refusal soon began garnering sympathetic imitations among its neighbors and peasant resistance spread across the whole north, spanning the put-upon rural dominions of four cities: Lucern, Bern, Basel, and Solothurn.
Tense negotiations continued into April, but Lucern’s concessions were undone by its refusal to offer a blanket amnesty that would also cover the rebellion’s leaders. That May, with the cities still powerless to control affairs, the disaffected peasants throughout the region united in theLeague of Huttwil — named for the little town where they met. In this cross-confessional compact, Catholic and Protestant peasants made common purpose and declared themselves a sovereignty apart from the cantons. Then, the army they had raised from their number marched on both Lucern and Bern simultaneously, the threatened sieges respectively led by Christian Schybi and Niklaus Leuenberger. Bern was so unprepared for this turn of events that it had to capitulate to the peasantry’s demands, which arrangement led Lucern also to conclude a truce.
In so doing the cities had to capitulate to the peasantry’s economic demands. Had this state of affairs somehow stood, it would have forced a rewrite in the relationship between city and country throughout the Swiss confederation.
And for just that reason, the affected cities as well as nearby Zurich were raising armies to undo the nascent revolution. Within days, troops from Zurich had dealt the peasant force a crushing defeat at the Battle of Wohlenschwil, then united with a Bernese column to conclusively shatter the rebellion. Before June was out, all of Entlebuch Valley stood pacified and the rebellion’s leaders lay in dungeons. To the peasantry’s economic burdens was added a bitter levy to fund the war that had smashed them.
Several dozen peasants were executed in the ensuing weeks, most aggressively by the canton of Bern — whence derives today’s illustration.
Notwithstandng such vengeance, The Swiss were wise enough to wield the carrot along with the stick. Even as the cities re-established their political control of the countryside, they took care in the coming years to use a lighter touch in governing the peasantry for fear of stoking new disturbances; arguably, the memory and the threat of the peasant war might have checked the potential development of absolutism in Switzerland.
How’s your German? Two academic books on the Swiss Peasant War
On this date in 1741, six slaves named Othello, Quack, Venture, Frank, Fortune, and Galloway were hanged, and a seventh, “Harry the Negro Doctor”, burned — all casualties of the ongoing investigation into the purported slave plot to torch colonial New York.
A truly horrific day in the city’s history. However, as we have noted in our entry about the last prior mass execution of this affair, these July bloodbaths surprisingly turn out to be all about the court extricating itself from a potentially limitless investigation into the servile classes.
With the return of the Chief Justice James De Lancey from New England on the first day of the month — taking control of the court from the implacable inquisition of his junior partner Daniel Horsmanden — the whole judicial momentum turns away from compounding arrests upon accusations and towards disposing of cases already in hand and tying up loose ends.
But there were a lot of loose ends … and some of them could only be tied up with hemp.
For some of the nearly 100 slaves in the city dungeon when De Lancey returned, the evidence was so scanty that they were outright released. Most of the rest were disposed of through an almost shameless wink-nod arrangement: the slaves pleaded guilty to the terrorist plot (vindicating the court’s diligence, and also the blood it had already shed), and in exchange were not executed but approved for convict transportation (sparing life and limb for the slaves, and financial injury for the owners).* Almost every weekday the court would open nominally in a proceeding against six or ten or twelve black men and women only to hear all plead guilty and promptly adjourn upon the court’s recommendation of mercy. Under “inbox zero” De Lancey, these people were not pressed to name more names, and when they did so those potential new arrestees were often left unmolested. (We shall arrive shortly at a notable exception.)
On July 15, 1741, De Lancey actually held court. True, there were 14 more Negroes, “most of which had been made Use of as Witnesses,” who were on this occasion recommended for pardon and sale abroad. But our doomed seven plus an eighth man, Tom, were the last ones in the jail who were refusing to plead guilty. (Tom was convicted with the rest, but his sentence was abated.)
It reads like a principled stand but if so, their integrity was unequalled by their trial strategy. They simply “said nothing material in their Defence, but denied all alledged against them.”
Unfortunately with everyone singing from De Lancey’s hymnal as the price of their own necks, there were a good many witnesses prepared to alledge. For this trial, six black slaves described the accused hanging around arch-plotter John Hughson, “talking about the Conspiracy to set the Town on Fire, and to kill the white People.” Besides the slave evidence, two white people also denounced the prisoners: Mary Burton, the Hughsons’ former servant whose ever-growing became the ubiquitous crown witness in all cases; and, William Kane, an Irish soldier who had been named as the plot’s inside man at the fort by the slave Will when the latter burned at the stake.
Kane was just the second white person in all this time to join Mary Burton on the prosecution’s witness list — and he was obtained with chilling ease.
The very night that Will burned, July 4, Kane was taken up. Examined the next day he denied knowing anything about the plot or even where Hughsons’ tavern was located.
But, Horsmanden recorded in his journal of the proceedings, “while Kane was under Examination, the Under-Sheriff came and informed the Judges, that Mary Burton had declared, that she had often seen him at Hughson’s, amongst Hughson, his Wife, &c. and the Negroes, when they were talking of the Conspiracy, and that he was one of the Confederates.”
A dramatic moment ensued, gut-wrenching even in Horsmanden’s few sentences.
Chief Justice De Lancey, “who was a Stranger to the Transactions concerning the Detection of the Conspiracy” and could therefore still be shocked by the casual way this teenager rolled into her conspiracy stories whomever some frightened prisoner had recently implicated, “thought proper to admonish the Witness in an awful and solemn Manner, concerning the Nature of an Oath, and the Consequences of taking a false one, more especially as it affected a Man’s Life.”
Would the girl fluster under this magisterial caution? Would De Lancey himself dare to press it so far as to discredit the one witness his court had depended upon for prosecuting the conspiracy thus far?
No. “She answered, she was acquainted with the Nature of an Oath very well, and that she would not take a false one upon any Account.” De Lancey dropped the point, and Mary Burton was sworn in, saying
That she had seen the said Kane at Hughson’s very often, talking with Hughson, his Wife and Daughter, Peggy Salingburgh alias Kerry, Caesar, Vaarck’s; Galloway, Rutgers’s; Prince, Auboyneau’s, and Cuffee, Philipse’s, Negroes; and the Discourse amongst them was, That they would burn the Town; the Fort first, the Governor and all his Family in it, and kill all the white People; and that she heard the said William Kane say, that he would help them all that lay in his Power.
Kane, “his Countenance changed, and being near fainting,” called for a glass of water. Kane was no fool, and when the court explicitly confirmed to him “the Danger he was in, and told [him] he must not flatter himself with the least Hopes of Mercy, but by making a candid and ingenuous Confession” he duly swallowed the draught prepared for him — albeit “after some Pause” and “tho’ at the same Time he seemed very loth to do it.” There was no way out — not for the court, not for Mary, and not for Kane — but for the soldier to corroborate her story. He numbly did so, although one would rather know how he spoke about this episode of his life under the seal of the confessional.
There is a deadening similarity to these stories, of course; it is not merely retrospective interpretation that surfaces the perverse incentives newly-arrested slaves faced — it is remarked a few times via the comments of slaves themselves in Horsmanden’s own record. “Moore’s Cato advised him and Pedro, to bring in many Negroes, telling Pedro, that he would be certainly burnt or hanged if he did not confess,” in one description … “but that if he brought in a good many, it would save his Life; for he had found it so himself; and must say, he was to set his Master’s House on fire, which would make the Judges believe him.” Why this day’s crop refused to take their out we don’t really know. Maybe they were stubborn — or had a care for their soul — or more than death feared being sold out of the place that had become their home, and onto some backbreaking sugar plantation in the West Indies.
But two of our group merit notice for more unusual profiles.
“Doctor Harry” was an unauthorized medical practitioner on account of his race and station, and so had been driven out of New York City years before. He made his home thereafter on Long Island, forbidden from venturing into New York on pain of flogging. The physician’s addition to the plot segued into the frightening prospect of a poison angle to the race war.
“A smooth soft spoken Fellow, and like other Knaves, affected the Air of Sincerity and Innocence” in Horsmanden’s words, Harry was already on the judges’ radar when a slave named Adam accused him. (Soon joined by the reluctant William Kane.) That he was on their radar as someone who was not allowed in the city does not seem to have counted a great deal. “He stifly denied all, and declared, that he never was at Hughson’s, nor had he been in Town since he was ordered out by the Magistrates.”
Othello had also been out of town during events — not by banishment, but because he was Chief Justice De Lancey’s own slave, and had accompanied his master’s New England mission during the spring when New York went arson-crazy.
Aptly for his name, Othello reads in Horsmanden’s narrative as a tragic figure who unlike Doctor Harry was ready to say what he had to say to save his own life but hanged because he couldn’t reconcile himself in time to the urgency of his situation.
Horsmanden, who also would have been Othello’s personal acquaintance, clearly respected the slave; in the judge’s estimation, Othello “had more Sense than the common Rank of Negroes” and was one of “the Head Negroes in Town.” Maybe Othello counted too highly the weight of his association with the judges, or maybe since he was out of town he simply did not have the right feel for the witch-hunt dimensions the arson investigation had taken. Reading bulletins from his city, De Lancey had questioned Othello about the plot and Othello had denied any knowledge of it. Did the slave suppose that a Head Negro in Town could be above suspicion?
De Lancey disabused him of any such hope in late June when the Chief Justice received word that Othello had been denounced in the investigation, and promptly shipped his slave back to New York in chains.
He arrived in the last days of the governor’s official amnesty window for slave confessions, having heard God knows what of proceedings from his distance. His accuser Adam gave him sound advice in the city hall’s then-teeming basement prison: “to confess … [as] a Means of getting him[self] off.” But Othello at first refused to do so, even when warned that he had little time remaining to take advantage of the amnesty.
Othello being asked, Why he so positively denied on Saturday, that he knew any Thing about the Plot; though he was warned of the Proclamation, and that the Time therein limited for the Confederates to come in and make voluntary Confession and Discovery, would expire as Tomorrow; and notwithstanding he was told, that there was full and clear Evidence against him, Why he did not take the Recorder’s Advice, and confess then what he had done now? He answered with a Smile,
Why, Sir, I was but just then come to Town.
The reluctance is easy to understand. Othello was the Man Friday to a colonial oligarch: it was worth a risk to defend that position against the loss in stature and comfort that would surely result from being sold abroad. Besides that, he needed time to get his bearings: who was accusing him of what? What cards did he hold?
Othello soon understood that advancing a strong claim of innocence would be a nonstarter, so on the eve of the amnesty’s expiration he tried to claim it by offering a “confession.” It’s the first of several that would be extracted from him; each is a noticeably minimalist contrivance to fit his circumstances of the moment — too cute by half, a cruel observer might say. In late June, Othello simply named a bunch of names that others had already named with few additional details. The judges could see very well that this was no better than a token submission.
Come July 12th, having been issued a summary death sentence upon the guilty plea he had committed to, Othello expanded that confession. Now he detailed a longer intimacy with John Hughson — but one in which Othello, although aware of the plot, repeatedly refused to swear hiimself to it. The plot as the court understood it required its adherents to promise to kill their own masters. By insisting he had never sworn, Othello wanted to avoid going on record with any intent to slay James De Lancey. He was a week from execution at this moment, and still he dreamed that maybe De Lancey would one day take him back.
But the privilege Othello clung to might have already begun to cut against him. As an appearance-of-propriety issue vis-a-vis his white neighbors, was De Lancey, the highest judge in the colony and the wealthiest man in the colony, going to spare his own property from the full rigor of the law when his court had so readily destroyed other men’s slaves? The judges considered where Othello stood with his late and cloying “confessions”, and on July 16 recommended against extending him a pardon.
Still Othello tried one last time — on the very morning of his execution. On that occasion, Horsmanden took down one last, expanded confession … and even at this desperate hour, Othello was trying to thread the needle where his master’s life was concerned.
That Adam persuaded him, since he came in Jail, to say, that he had agreed to kill his Master and Mistress; and that by saying so, he would get clear: But this was all false, he never engaged to do any such Thing, nor was it ever proposed to him by Hughson, or any one else; only Hughson told him, he must rise with the Mob, and kill the People in general, as the rest were to do.
No doubt poor Othello had invested many of his last hours going over this decisive confession, trying to calibrate it precisely. Unfortunately, it showed.
For Horsmanden and his fellow judges, what Othello had provided was “neither voluntary nor free, but came from them very unwillingly, and after much Persuasion” and Othello as with his fellow-prisoner Quack only “acknowledged their Guilt in general, by their Plea, and by their Confessions, in a few Particulars, thinking thereby, as it may well be inferred, to come off as cheap as they could.” Horsmanden does not seem far from the mark in this observation, much as posterity might doubt his certainty that “both had it in their Power to make very considerable Discoveries.” At any rate,
The Judges could by no Means think them proper Objects of Mercy; and had they recommended them to the Governor as such, and his Honour had pardoned them, such Lenity towards them, might have been deemed Cruelty to the People.
As ghastly as this was for Othello and his mates, this date essentially finished the court’s business with the Negro Plot.
Does that mean we have reached the end of our series? Alas, the court’s bloodthirst had not quite been slaked. … for in the course of winding down, Horsmanden et al had opened one last line of inquiry, in hot pursuit now for a true arch-villain to lurk behind the passe conspiracies of slaves, an enemy dread enough to equal the advertised danger to New York City.
“The Old proverb has herein also been verifyed,” a satisfied Horsmanden would eventually report of this last phase that was even then opening up “that there is Scarce a plot but a priest is at the Bottom of it.”
* This was also the explicit preference of acting governor George Clarke, who on June 20 wrote to London that he “desired the Judges to single out only a few of the most notorious for execution, and that I would pardon the rest … whereby their masters will transport them out of hand.”