On this date in 1884, a French expeditionary force’s summary battlefield executions marked its retreat from an ambush — and the approach of the Sino-French War.
Having established a foothood in south Vietnam (Cochinchina), France was pushing into north Vietnam (Tonkin) — a campaign that could open a potentially lucrative route straight into China.
For the same reason, China viewed Tonkin as its own security zone. The ensuing skirmishes had as we lay our scene been recently abated by the Tientsin Accord* — an accord on France’s terms, since she had lately enjoyed the run of play in the field.
One of those terms was Chinese withdrawal from Tonkin, and as one might expect the Chinese had little appetite to speedily effect such a submission. In June 1884, when a small French column commanded by a Lt. Col. Alphone Dugenne pushed into what was supposed to be France’s new satrapy, it expected to occupy undefended towns.
Instead, on June 23, having forded the rain-swollen Song Thuong River, Dugenne’s force encountered Chinese regulars manning a chain of clifftop forts.
Outnumbered and on unfamiliar ground, the French surely felt their vulnerability. “High rocks, deep canyons, dense woods and somber defiles, where a handful of resolute men could easily have stopped a whole army, were the principal features of the country,” according to a French-derived account published later that year in the U.S.** “The heat was intense, and fatigue overcame the soldiers, already tired by the thousands of ostacles of the road. The fiery atmosphere did not allow any ret, even during the night, and terrible showers of rain, accompanied with thunder and lightning, converted the rivulets into torrents which swept everything before them, soaked the poor soldiers and destroyed provisions.”
A delegation under flag of truce informed Dugenne that China’s commander was aware of the Tientsin Accord, but had received no superior orders to withdraw. This obviously put both forces in an uncomfortable position. The Chinese wanted time: was this a good faith sorting-out (the Tientsin arrangements were barely six weeks old), or a double game? When the eventual winners wrote the history of events, they called what ensued June 23-24 the Bac Le ambush.
Believing that he had an arrangement with his opposite number, Dugenne’s column moved ahead on the afternoon of the 23rd, in a defile ominously commanded by the Chinese positions. Suddenly — and accounts from the two sides each accuse the other of provoking the first shots — the French came under Chinese fire. “Every tree, every overhanging rock, concealed an invisible enemy, who, being perfectly under cover himself, safely inflicted death all around him,” our correspondent’s account runs.
Illustration of the Bac Le ambush from Le guet-apens de Bac-Le by a French officer who survived it, Jean-Francois-Alphonse Lecomte.
But the ambush did not become a massacre; the French were able to regroup, stabilize their position, and camp that night — the Chinese “so near that they could hear them talk.”
The next day, the French would find themselves hopelessly outgunned but not (yet) encircled, and by mid-morning would be effecting an orderly retreat. In the course of it, Dugenne ordered at least two sets of executions to maintain discipline: early in the morning, it was “the hanging of two Chinese spies who had just been caught … with great solemnity and a great apparat, which caused a hail of bullets to whiz from all sides, where the Chinese friends of the hanged men were concealed.”
Hours later, as his column formed up to withdraw, Dugenne harshly punished his own native Tonkinese auxiliaries, green recruits who had all but routed in the first moments of the ambush when they came under fire and whose ill discipline could not be brooked on retreat: Dugenne “gave an order before [retreating] to shoot down ten Tonquinese of the native troops.”
Dugenne reached friendly forces safely, and with him accounts of a “massacre” that would incense public opinion in Paris. China’s refusal to meet the ensuing French demands for satisfaction in this affair would by August trigger open war in Tonkin.
* Not to be confused with 1885’s Treaty of Tientsin, which actually ended the Sino-French War.
Despite the immense concourse, this gigantic hanging of miscellaneous thieves rates little better than footnote mention in the period’s press. England was gallows-mad; CapitalPunishmentUK.org makes it 56 hangings in 1784 in London alone. There would be an even larger mass execution (20 people) the next February!
The Prussian code had restricted capital punishment as early as 1743, and after 1794 only murderers were executed. Catherine‘s reforms to similar effect followed in Russia in 1767 and Joseph II‘s in Austria in 1787. Philadelphia Quakers dispensed with capital punishment after the American Revolution. In Amsterdam in the 1780s less than 1 a year were killed; barely 15 were executed annually in Prussia in the 1770s, and a little over 10 in Sweden in the 1780s. Towards 1770 about 300 people a year were condemned in the whole of France; over twice that number were condemned annually between 1781 and 1785 in London alone. [most were reprieved -ed.] Before the guillotine’s invention French punishments were crueller than English … even so, only 32 people were executed in Paris in 1774-7, against 139 in London.
On this date in 1714, “the Negroes Cato (Cowley’s) Fortune (Vanderspeigle’s) Cato alias Toby, Ben and Quash, were executed according to their respective Sentences.”
That’s the entirety of the text in Daniel Horsmanden‘s compenium to describe a quintuple burning of rebel slaves in New York, and as the dismissive treatment implies this was an occasion of little moment within the colony’s 1741 hunt for a great slave conspiracy.
We have by this point clearly reached the point in the story at which the trials feed on themselves.
To recall the action to this point: a series of fires in March and April had inflamed a popular conviction that servile arsonists were afoot, until “Many people had such terrible apprehensions … that several negroes (and many had been assisting at the fire at the storehouse, and many perhaps that only seemed to be so) who were met in the streets, after the alarm of their rising, were hurried away to jail.”
New Yorkers, to their partial credit, did not put these suspected blacks all to lynch law, but it is an open question whether the judicial proceedings extended to the 34 people eventually executed in the affair really uncovered any plot — or merely hammered the existing public paranoia into specious evidence.
Either way, the breakthrough in the law’s eyes was the deposition given on April 22nd by Mary Burton, a young and disgruntled servant, that her master and mistress, their boarder, and three slaves (and known thieves) “used to meet frequently at her Master’s House, and that she has heard them (the Negroes) talk frequently of burning the Fort; and that they would go down to the Fly and burn the whole Town: and that her Master and Mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.”
Burton left herself some wiggle room for the purges she might have guessed might follow by mentioning up to “Twenty or Thirty Negroes at one Time in her Master’s House” but she only identified by name here six specific people. And by this point in our story, mid-June, they are dead every one of the six: the slaves Caesar, Prince and Cuffee; her master John Hughson, his wife Sarah, and their Irish boarder Peggy Kerry.
Whether or not they were rightly accused or fairly prosecuted, one could easily imagine a world where their deaths are the end of the story.
But in our world, the dimensions and the participants of the plot so-called were already ballooning. Information wrung out by investigators who were by now convinced of the plot’s existence — from men at the stake teased with the prospect of pardon; from jailhouse snitches; and more from Mary Burton herself, who would repeatedly appear in Horsmanden’s pages to light the next passage forward — had already brought to the stakes another batch of slaves, on June 9.
This group had previously been stitched up thanks in part to a slave named Sawney or Sandy who gave evidence against them under the threat of being prosecuted with them. After five were condemned, one of their company, a slave named Jack,* dodged execution by offering the judges a copious affidavit confirming Sawney’s evidence and adding still more names to the plot.
These men’s charges would prove instrumental in the execution of June 16 — almost a sideshow as compared to the arc of the arson panic as a whole, but a melodrama that meant death for the blood offerings by which Sawney and Jack bought their lives.
Toby or Cato (Provoost’s) enters the documentary record on June 9, from the evidence that the condemned Jack gives while his four friends are burning to death.
Ben (Captain Marshall’s) and Quash (Rutger’s) appear as a unit in that same evidence of Jack’s, principal fellows in Hughson’s conspiracy in a scene that Jack coyly lays at a moment his fellow-witness Mary Burton “was above making a Bed.” In it, Ben
said, he could find a Gun, Shot and Powder, at his Master’s House: That his Master did not watch him, he could go into every Room: Ben asked Quash, What will you stand for? He said, he did not care what he stood for, or should be, but he could kill Three, Four, Five White Men before Night.
That Quash said, he could get two half Dozen of Knives in Papers, three or four Swords; and that he would set his Master’s House on fire, and when he had done that, he would come abroad to fight.
Cato (Cowley’s) and Fortune (Vanderspiegle’s) enter the paper trail on May 25, when they are named by Sandy. Both were arrested as a result, but we do not hear more about them for a fortnight, until Jack corroborates Sandy’s charges.
The cascade of accusations proved neatly self-affirming. Another slave named Will and bearing the winsome nickname “Ticklepitcher” was accused by Cuffee and Quack at the stake when they believed that it might save their lives. (It didn’t.) That was after Sandy had already given his evidence, but Jack, no fool, rolled Ticklepitcher too right into his (Jack’s) 40-point affidavit.**
This led Tickle himself to give evidence for the crown by naming 20 other participants in Hughson’s plot, among them Cato and Fortune. And yet another black nam, named Bastian or Tom Peal, followed a similar path: first named by Mary Burton in one of her secondary examinations in May — and then confirmed in guilt by Sandy and Jack — upon his own conviction also went over to the inquisitors, “as was intimated by Somebody about the Jail he would.” Bastian named every member of the June 16 execution party save Fortune.
These, then, were the accusers presented in the June 13 trial that doomed our quintet: Mary Burton, and all the progeny of her first deposition two months before: Sandy, Jack, Ticklepitcher, Bastian, and yet two more slaves who had made themselves the same lifesaving bridge from accused to accuser.
Through their mutually corroborating — and mutually interested — evidence, the court was able to show to its satisfaction that
these stupid Wretches seduced by the Instigation of the Devil, and Hughson his Agent,† to undertake so senseless, as well as wicked an Enterprize; which must inevitably end in their own Destruction … are equally as guilty as if they themselves had devised it, by consenting to it, taking Oaths to proceed in it, and in the mean Time to keep it secret.
The jury, perhaps mindful that “[t]he Number of the Conspirators is very great … and we have still daily new Discoveries of many more” withdrew for but “a little Time” before closing this particular chapter with the preordained result. There would be yet another trial the very day after these five burned.
* Most slaves in the narrative are identified by a first name plus the possessive surname of their owner. The Jack in question belonged to a man named Comfort, so Horsmanden refers to him as Jack (Comfort’s) — in distinction from, for instance, Jack (Sleydall’s).
** No lie, Jack’s information runs to almost three full pages with 40 numbered bullets.
† Hughson’s narrative importance to the theory of a burgeoning servile rebellion will thrill the student of race in American history: “It cannot be imagined that these silly unthinking Creatures (Hughson’s black Guard) could of themselves have, and carried on so deep, so direful and destructive a Scheme, as that we have seen with our Eyes, and have heard fully proved they had prepared for us, without the Advice and Assistance of such abandoned Wretches as Hughson was.” Those are the prosecutor’s words; in sentencing, the court termed our five “inferior Agents.”
On this date in 1945, seven former members of Croatia’s World War II Ustasha regime were hanged in Zagreb by Tito‘s postwar Yugoslav government — the morning after they had all been death-sentenced at a one-day military trial.*
The “minister of culture with a machine gun” in the branding of his leftist literary contemporary Miroslav Krleza, Budak spent the interwar years writing hit novels valorizing the Croatian peasantry (The 1,000-page Ognjište — Hearth — is the magnum opus) and also voluminous copy for far-right periodicals. Thanks to the latter activity, Budak endured an arrest, an attempted assassination, several years’ self-imposed exile to Italy, and (after his return) the murder of his wife.
Small wonder that when Germany broke off from the post-imperial Kingdom of Yugoslavia an “independent” Croatian puppet state, Budak signed up as its chief propagandist. Initially Minister of Education in 1941, he subsequently became its ambassador to Germany, and in 1943 its Foreign Minister.
He’s most notorious for the alleged aphorism “One third of the Serbs we will kill, one third expel, and the last third convert to Catholicism” — and though adherents widely dispute his authorship of any such phrase, Budak’s racial cosmology elevating Croatians (“an intersection of Slav and Gothic blood”) over their South Slav brethren was part of the intellectual scaffolding for his state’s wartime campaign of ethnic cleansing against Serbs. (It goes without saying that Jews and Roma were even more screwed.)
Judgments on the literary merit of Budak’s output appear to be driven heavily by the critic’s sympathy level with Budak’s politics. Post-independence Croatia has a robust far right that has often shown keen to rehabilitate the Ustasha, so it’s no surprise that Budak has been rediscovered as a writer and his name stapled to numerous streets in Croatia** and even to one in the Bosnian city Mostar — strictly in honor of his artistry and not the war business, mind you.
* Indeed, several — Mandic included — were only yielded up from British captivity in mid-May. (Link goes to a Croatian pdf)
William Feilding catches our eye especially as a thief ahead of his time, for he with his wife “came to all the Prosecutors and pretended that there was a Lady Dead who had left them Legacys, and Wheedled them to go to look after it, and the whilest Robbed their Houses; which was lookt upon as a very wicked Invention.” As all those Nigerian princes in your spam folder know, it was an invention with a rich future ahead.
On this date in 1699 the robber prince Nikol List was broken on the wheel in the town of Celle — along with seven other members of his gang.
A former soldier and beer-house keeper, Saxony’s bandit career owned the usual long roster of outrages upon person and property but really fixed his name in the heavens (and his soul in the other place) by robbing St. Michael’s Church of Lüneburg of its treasured Golden Plate and sacrilegiously melting it down.
In the end his career was not long — just a few years in the late 1690s, nothing to compare with the likes of his near-contemporary Lips Tullian — for the outrage at St. Michael’s attracted the fury of the Duke of Brunswick who dedicated himself to the prompt destruction of these outlaws.
List is no. 6 in this illustration conflating the executions of various gang members who suffered at different times and places. The full numbered key to this forest of corpses can be found, along various other illustrations, here.
While List was alive and “working” his former house in Beutha was razed and a pillory set on the place instead, to disgrace the naughty native son. Worn “Nikol List Stones” can still be seen there. Two commemorate citizens whom List shot dead evading arrest on St. John’s Eve in 1696:
Christoph Kneuffler, farmer and sheriff of Hartenstein, shot on St. John’s Eve 1696 by Nikol List. This honest man was 50 years and 27 weeks old, and leaves a troubled widow and four children, namely three sons and one daughter.
Gottfried Eckhardt, citizen and butcher of Hartenstein, shot on St. John’s Eve 1696 by Nikol List. This man was 34 years and 34 weeks old, and has a poor afflicted widow and three small uneducated children, two sons and a daughter.
On this date in 1612, Spanish colonial authorities smashed an alleged plot among Mexico City’s black slaves with a grisly mass execution.*
In Mexico as elsewhere in the Americas, African labor had been imported en masse in the 16th and 17th centuries; David Davidson estimated** that Mexico City had a black population ranging from 20,000 to 50,000. And as elsewhere in the Americas, they frequently resisted: Mexico City slave risings dating back to the 1540s had badly shaken the city, and led the viceroy Luis de Velasco to worry in 1553 that “this land is so full of Negroes and mestizos who exceed the Spaniards in great quantity, and all desire to purchase their liberty with the lives of their masters.”
The most illustrious name of this era was Gaspar Yanga, who was kidnapped into bondage from the Gold Coast, and escaped bondage by leading a large band of fugitive slaves into the highlands of Veracruz and founded an outlaw colony that still bears his name today.
Yanga’s palenque — known in his time as San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo — had to fend off military action by the Spanish authorities from 1609 until a truce in 1618.
Still, a truce was possible: a refuge like San Lorenzo offered slaves the unwelcome-to-their-masters prospect of escape from the scourge economy, but the real threat to New Spain was that purchasing liberty with lives bit.
As we have seen in the American South, the situation on the ground begat paranoia that makes it nigh impossible for later interlocutors to disentangle fact from fantasy: was there really a phenomenal slave rebellion nipped in the bud? Or just informers and torturers refracting the terrors of those outnumbered Spaniards?
The slaves in this case were said by a Portuguese merchant who overheard them to be readying themselves to exploit Spanish inattention during Holy Week celebrations, and to bloody those days by falling upon their masters and taking possession of the colony. In the inevitable rounds of arrests and torture that ensue, the alleged plot as recorded by the annalist Chimalpahin (Spanish link) sounds suspiciously like a psychosexual projection, for it
involved castrating any surviving Spanish males, making sexual slaves of white women, and gradually “blackening” the latter’s descendants.**
Certainly the punishment blackened Mexico City; our correspondent uses this same word to describe the condition of the gibbeted corpses when they were finally let down from their gallows on the feast of the Holy Cross. Even then, the flesh of the would-be slave kings could not rest: most were beheaded posthumously and mounted on pikes while six others were quartered for display on all the roads entering the capital. This in itself was a small moderation for the public good. Chimalpahin reports that doctors advised the state that “if all the dead were to be quartered and hung up in the main streets to rot, their stench will blow a sickness across the city.”
* Thirty-five is the execution count supplied by Chimalpahin; some sources give 33.
** “Negro Slave Control and Resistance in Colonial Mexico, 1519-1650,” The Hispanic American Historial Review, Aug. 1966.
† Maria Elena Martinez, “The Black Blood of New Spain: Limpieza de Sangre, Racial Violence, and Gendered Power in Early Colonial Mexico,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jul. 2004.
On this date in 1895, three black women and two black men were lynched in Greenville, Alabama for the murder of Watts Murphy, white.
Watts was a “young man of great prominence” who was said to be the nephew of Alabama’s former governor, Thomas H. Watts. He was killed on April 17, aged about thirty. When he failed to arrive home, his family began looking for him. Finally, one of the family servants confessed to what he knew: Watts had been working in the field with six black people, three men and three women, and one of the men hit him on the head with a tree limb. The others beat him unconscious and carried his body to a secluded area, where the women gathered loose brush, piled it on top of Watts’s body, and set the heap ablaze.
Newspapers reported grisly details about the crime, saying that the murderers kept piling wood on the fire until there was nothing left but the victim’s teeth, his heart and his liver, which “for some unknown reason failed to burn.”
Just why the murder happened has been lost to history, and various contradictory rumors floated around. According to one story, one of the men planned to kill him in revenge for “an imaginary wrong of a trivial nature.” In another account, it was an impulsive act of violence, the result of an argument.
Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Ill.), April 22, 1895
Zeb Caley or Calley, Martha Greene, Alice Greene, Mary Deane, and John Rattler were arrested on April 20 near Butler Springs, Alabama, and charged with murder. (The third man who was implicated, left unnamed in press reports, got away.) A group of men was charged with transporting the five prisoners sixteen miles to the security of jail in Greenville. They set off at 11:00 p.m. At 3:00 a.m., while the party was en route, a mob of approximately 100 men brandishing Winchester rifles surprised the party on the road, surrounded them and took the prisoners away.
The members of the mob tied each person’s hands, lead them one by one to the side of the road, and hanged them from trees. Later that day the bodies were seen by people passing by on their way to church.
On April 29, the sixth suspect in the crimes, who has never been identified, was found hanging from a tree in the same general area as the other ones. He had been dead for about a day.
On this date in 1868,* eleven samurai committed seppuku before the French consul in Japan spared their nine comrades.
The affair was stunning punishment for what’s known as the Sakai Incident — an offense eight days prior that occurred during Japan’s Boshin War, a last rearguard battle of loyalists to the (now officially ended) Tokugawa Shogunate against the rising imperial party of the Meiji Restoration.
What’s noteworthy for our purposes in this period is that the Meiji espoused an anti-foreigner policy — one that was not the less intently felt by the Meiji base for being entirely insincere on the part of elites.
It was in this tense context that a boat full of French sailors from the corvette Dupleix called on March 8 at Sakai — a port city whose shogunate forces had routed. It had been recently occupied by imperial troops.
Japan had only been opened to the west 15 years before, and access was still quite restricted; there might have been a misunderstanding between the French sailors and Sakai’s Tosa clan occupiers over whether this city was open at all. There was definitely a misunderstanding once the tourists ran into samurai on shore, and before you know it high words and suspicious glares turned into a street skirmish that left eleven Frenchmen dead.
Illustration from Le Monde Diplomatique (1868)
This Sakai Incident (English Wikipedia entry | French) incensed western powers, and not only the French: the British, Dutch, Prussians, Italians, and Americans all pulled down their embassy colors in solidarity pending adequate satisfaction for the French. Japan at this moment was not at all in a position to take a stand against foreign gunships over this dust-up, and it met the conditions — which consisted of some personal groveling by a state minister, the payment of a 150,000-piastres indemnity, and the execution of the officers and soldiers involed. The punishment would be self-administered by seppuku at a Sakai shrine. This set the scene for a powerful climax, in which the soldiers one by one tore out their own guts in a ceremony that must have played as defiance no less than submission.
Quoting the Moniteur, the London Morning Post of May 19, 1868 (news was slow in those days) describes the operatic punishment.
On the 15th [a Japanese] high functionary brought a written reply from his Government conceding all the satisfaction required. On the following day Captain du Petit-Thouars, commander of the Dupleix, landed at Sakai to witness the execution of two officers, a subaltern, and 17 Japanese soldiers, condemned to death as the principal authors of the aggression. The two chiefs were the first put to death, after which nine others perished successively. Captain du Petit-Thouars then seeing that the Japanese Government was decided on carrying out its engagements to the end, and ceding to a feeling of humanity, stayed the execution, declaring that he considered the reparation sufficient, and that he proposed to ask the Minister of France to intercede for a commutation of punishment in favour of the other condemned.
The last nine beneficiaries of the captain’s clemency were sent into internal exile instead.
In every civilized society, in every society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established, there have been always two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time; of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or, if you will, the loose system. … The vices of levity are always ruinous to the common people, and a single week’s thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman for ever, and to drive him, through despair, upon committing the most enormous crimes. … The disorder and extravagance of several years, on the contrary, will not always ruin a man of fashion; and people of that rank are very apt to consider the power of indulging in some degree of excess, as one of the advantages of their fortune; and the liberty of doing so without censure or reproach, as one of the privileges which belong to their station.
On this date in 1734, Judith Defour (or Dufour; she was also known as Judith Leeford) was hanged at Tyburn, and afterwards anatomized.
Defour’s four companions in death were (male) robbers, highwayen and housebreakers, feared but commonplace scourges of London’s propertied. Defour was a different type of terror to panic the moral sense of a metropolis that daily outgrew its denizens’ comprehensions: she throttled her two-year-old daughter “and sold the Coat and Stay for a Shilling, and the Petticoat and Stockings for a Groat. We parted the Money, and join’d for a Quartern of Gin.”
Maternal care has gone by the wayside in this detail view (click for the full image) of William Hogarth‘s 1751 print “Gin Lane”, a shocking figure who might allude to Judith Defour. This is not Hogarth’s only comment on the gin craze; in his “The Idle Prentice Executed at Tyburn” there appears to be commerce in Madame Geneva taking place in the cart to the right hand side of the frame.
Gin — short for Geneva, a corruption of the Dutch word jenever which denoted not a city in Switzerland but the potent elixir’s juniper flavoring — boomed in popularity as production advances sank its price in the early 1700s. “Cheap, widely available, and several times stronger than the traditional alcoholic beverages of the English working classes, gin was the first modern drug,” writes Jessica Warner in Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason.* And per-capita consumption of it increased nearly eightfold over the first half of the 18th century.
The specter of rampant alcoholism within the financial means of the working-class terrified the respectable.
“There is that predominant bewitching of naughtiness in these fiery liquors, as strongly and impetuously carries men on to their certain destruction … To recover him from this condition, he must be, as it were, forced into his liberty and rescued in some measure from his own depraved desires: he must be dealt with like a madman and be bound down to keep him from destroying himself,” wrote the Anglican clergyman and scientist Stephen Hales around the same time as Defour suffered. His earnest leap from moral shock to questionable social science inference — and even a proto-eugenics appeal — could have sprung word by word from the pen of a present-day drug warrior.
How many does it reduce to suffer the hardships of the extremest poverty, not only by wasting their substance by the continual drain to satisfy a false, vitiated appetite, but also by so enfeebling and disabling them that they have neither will nor power to labor for an honest livelihood; which is a principal reason of the great increase of the poor in this nation, as also of the much greater number of robberies that are committed of late years than were in former ages …
It is evident that in proportion as the contagion spreads farther and farther among mankind, so must the breed of human species be proportionably more and more depraved, and will accordingly degenerate more and more from the more manly and robust constitution of preceding generations. (Source)
Gin projected existential threats more imminent than the potential mongrelization of the species.
From the standpoint of Great Britain’s national output, gin’s production devoured a growing share of the grain harvest, with the perverse result that distillers keen to reassure lawmakers that their product posed no threat to the bread supply made pains to insist that they brewed their potion using only the lowest-quality crap not fit for consumption. On a more microeconomic level, gin was slated with sapping its adherent’s aptitude for the strictures of gainful employment while siphoning his revenues from more reputable tradesmen of whom, addled by alcoholic thirst, the drukard no longer cared to purchase even the barest essentials.** And the gin-houses, “some thousands of such, more than was ever known before” that popped up all over London came to be viewed as scofflaw cesspools — where the iniquitous planned their next larcenies or disposed of the proceeds from the last.
Cause and effect make a jumble, but as the Gin Craze unfolded every form of disorder, criminality, and social breakdown seemed but a link or two distant from the influence of Geneva.
We don’t know when this dark moon first threw a shadow over Judith Defour — only that she would transform her into a beast.
The daughter of poor and honest French-descended Spitalfields weavers, she was about 30 years old when she hanged. To reconstruct a timetable of her life from the scanty biographical details available us, she went to work by the time she was 10 or 12 years old as the silk winder for another weaver; she worked 11 years for that weaver, a woman, and then four more for a male weaver at which point the Newgate Ordinary says that “she fell into bad Company, and had a Bastard-Child, which died; and then she had another, the unfortunate Child lately murder’d by her.” Reading between the lines, she we might infer that her out-of-wedlock pregnancy was the cause of her dismissal. She had no education, and was not among the weaving industry’s skilled artisans. Hers was a perilous situation.
Did she fall into life’s waiting snares because of gin, or the other way around? The record gives us no indication — only that as she approaches Tyburn’s pall three or four years after her dismissal she is far along in dissipation and her employment prospects appear fleeting and piecemeal. Maybe she was already begging, thieving, or whoring, ills commonly imputed to Gin Lane. Judith’s mother would tell the court that “she never was in her right Mind, but was always roving,” although she was trying to save her daughter’s life when she said this.
In any event, Judith was shuttling her young daughter in and out of a workhouse at this point. On January 29, barely five weeks before her execution, Judith picked up little Mary from the workhouse as was her wont (forging a release order from the church), and brought her along as she went out boozing with a friend named Sukey† — “one of the most vilest of Creatures in or about the Town.”
The girl had been new-clothed at the workhouse, and as day wore on to evening and the gin ran dry, Sukey convinced Judity “to sell the Child’s Clothes, and carry it into the Fields and leave it there.” Maybe the kid would be taken in by some passing stranger, or returned to the workhouse; maybe Judith could retrieve her from the field later that night. Nasty, brutish, and short was this life and the only thing that mattered at that moment was the next drink. But in the attempt to silence the whimpering toddler they “ty’d a linen Rag very hard about the Child’s Neck, to prevent its crying out, which strangled her.” Then they walked away and sold those clothes for drink.
[S]he said, she was very sorry for what was done, that she never was at Peace since it happened, that she scarce desired to live; and therefore she made a voluntary Confession she had been always of a very surly Disposition, and untractable Creature, a Despiser of Religion, negligent in her Duty to God and Man, and would take no good Advice of her Friends, nor of any good or sober People. She drank and swore much, and was averse to Virtue and Sobriety, delighting in the vilest Companies, and ready to Practice the worst of Actions. She acknowledged the Justice of her Sentence, and died in Peace with all Mankind.
** “Those that keep large numbers of cows near the town will tell you, that they have not had near the demand for their milk, and have been forced to sell off some part of their stock; which they attribute to mothers and nurses giving their children gin.” -Reformer Thomas Wilson, quoted in Patrick Dillon’s Gin: The Much-Lamented Death of Madame Geneva.