Posts filed under 'Cheated the Hangman'

1828: William Rice but not John Montgomery, who cheated the hangman with prussic acid

Add comment July 4th, 2018 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Just before 6:00 a.m. on July 4, 1828, prison officers arrived at the cell of disgraced ensign John Burgh Montgomery in Newgate Prison‘s condemned hold.

They were there to escort Montgomery to his hanging. The 33­-year-­old would have been one of the last in England executed for for the crime of uttering forged notes — except that his wardens instead found him lying stone dead. With the aid of prussic acid, the counterfeiter had cheated the hangman of half his day’s prey, leaving his prospective gallows partner, thief William Rice, to face the hemp alone.

Although his guards had confiscated his razor and penknife as a routine precaution against suicide, no one had expected Montgomery to take his own life. He had pleaded guilty before the court and seemed resigned to his fate. In custody he was a model prisoner, spent his last days writing to his loved ones, and “addressed himself with great anxiety to his religious offices.”

Nobody was able to figure out how the condemned man came by enough poison to kill thirty people and how he kept it hidden, given that he and his cell were regularly searched.

The Irish-­born Montgomery, Nicola Sly records in her book Goodbye, Cruel World… A Compendium of Suicide,

was said to be a very respectable, well­-educated man, who had once held a commission in the Army. However, after inheriting a considerable fortune, he frittered it away and resorted to passing phony banknotes to support his rather dissipated lifestyle. Given his pleasing looks, gentlemanly appearance and good manners, he was very successful, since nobody thought him capable of any wrongdoing. However, he was caught after becoming careless and making the mistake of committing frequent repeated offense in a small geographical area of London.

Montgomery left behind several letters, marked by expansive tragic romanticism but no hint of suicidal intent. One letter was for the prison surgeon, asking that his body be used for dissection. He said that by this he wanted to provide some positive contribution to the public to make up for his crimes. He asked that his heart be preserved in spirits and given to his girlfriend.

To the girlfriend he wrote,

My dear idolized L.,

One more last farewell, one more last adieu to a being so much attached to the unhappy Montgomery. Oh, my dearest girl. If it had been in the power of anyone to avert my dreadful doom, your kind exertions would have been attended with such success. Oh, God, so poor Montgomery is to die on the scaffold. Oh, how dreadful have been my hours of reflection, whilst in this dreary cell.

Oh, how tottering were all my hopes; the bitterness of my reflection is bitter in the extreme. This will be forwarded to you by my kind friend Mrs. D. I should wish you to possess my writing portmanteau. Oh, I wished to have disappointed the horrid multitude who will be assembled to witness my ignominious exit. Farewell forever,

P.S. Here I kiss fervently.

The jury on the inquest into Montgomery’s death recorded a verdict of felo de se, meaning that Montgomery had willfully and knowingly taken his own life whilst of sound mind. As such, his body was buried in the graveyard of St. Sepulchre­-without-Newgate at night, and without any memorial service.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions

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1697: The Paisley Witches

1 comment June 10th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1697, the Paisley, Renfrewshire Gallow Green played stage for the strangling and burning of six “witches.” They’re known as the Paisley witches, the Renfrewshire witches, or the Bargarran witches, and are sometimes acclaimed the last mass-executed witches in western Europe.

This book posits a more than incidental resemblance between Salem and Renfrewshire, given that the “possessed child” figure was not a usual ornament for Scottish witchcraft cases.

In a setup bearing a disturbing similarity to the Salem witch trials,* an 11-year-old brat named Christian Shaw, the daughter of a local laird, got a tongue-lashing from the family servant and then turned around and accused her a sorceress.

The psychological mechanisms at play make interesting speculation in such cases. Was she merely a spiteful little monster, or did she believe in accordance with the superstitions of her time that the servant’s curses had effect, and suffer real afflictions that ensued upon this belief? Can we see her in the end as a creature necessarily produced by her nation in its troubled hour, unmoored as it was by the political and religious dislocations of the Glorious Revolution, gnawed by famine, and hurtling towards an unwilling union with England? (The bizarre execution of an Edinburgh university student for blasphemy also unfolded in 1696-1697.)

We leave such speculations to the reader as we plunge into the onset of supernatural doings in these environs almost a year before the consequent executions — via a 1698 pamphlet titled “A True Narrative of the Sufferings and Relief of a Young Girle Strangely Molested, by Evil Spirits and their Instruments, in the West”

August 22 [1696], the Child went to Bed in good health; but so soon as she fell asleep, began to struggle and cry, Help, Help: And then suddenly got up, and did fly over the top of a Resting-bed, where she was lying (her Father, Mother, and others being in the Room, and to their great Astonishment and Admiration) with such violence, that probably her Brains had been dasht out, if a Woman, providentially standing by, and supported by a Door at her back, had not broke the force of the Childs motion, who being laid in another Bed, remained stiff and insensible as if she had been dead, for the space of half an Hour; but for Fourty eight Hours thereafter could not sleep, crying out of violent Pains thorow her whole Body, and no sooner began to sleep or turn drowsie but seemed greatly affrighted, crying still Help, Help.

These frightening spasms continued for days, contorting her body and robbing her of speech; helpless doctors bled her to no effect.

Some dayes thereafter was an alteration in her Fitts, so far, that she got speaking, during the time of them; and while she was in the fits, fell a crying, that Katharine Campbel and Agnes Naismith were cutting her side, and other parts of her Body; Which parts were in that time violently Tormented. And when the fit was over she still averred, that she had seen the same Persons doing the same things which she complained of while under the fit (it being remarkable that in the intervals she was still as well and sensible as ever) and would not believe but that others present saw them as well as she!

Katharine Campbell was servant who had chewed her out. Agnes Naismith was an old lady with a witchy reputation. In time they would headline the execution that occasions this post.

We must here pause to remark that the decision of the adults around Christian Shaw to steer this crisis in the girl’s life towards a judicial witch hunt was by no means predetermined. While capital statutes against bewitchment remained on the books, they were fading in practice; according to the invaluable Survey of Scottish Witchcraft database, there had been only a single witchcraft prosecution in Scotland since 1683, and that one did not result in execution. The sudden eruption of a dormant and vanishing cosmology, with sufficient force to devour seven humans, shocks the eye.

Credit must go to Shaw for a rare commitment to the performance, as her symptoms continued intermittently for months, and accumulated a growing roster of accused supernatural tormentors. She was taken to Glasgow for treatment, and taken again; she went on regimens of prayer and fasting; at one point she began pulling debris out of mouth like a prestidigitator, in such number and variety that her doctor remarked that “Were it not for the hairs, hay, straw, and other things wholly contrary to human nature, I should not despair to reduce all the other symptoms to their proper classes in the catalogue of human diseases.”

Although modernity will doubt that they bewitched the child, the accused women, Agnes and Katharine, knew exactly what was up when they were brought to confront their accuser. They addressed their common peril with opposite strategems. Agnes, “did (tho not desired) pray for her, viz. that the Lord God of Heaven and Earth might send the Damsel her health,” which prayer cured Christian Shaw of continuing to accuse Agnes of muddling her (“upon the contrary, as she apprehended, defending her from the fury of the rest” of the witches) — whereas the saltier Katharine “could by no means be prevailed with to pray for the Damsel, but upon the contrary when desired by some, cursed them and all the Family of Bargarran, and in particular the Damsel and all that belonged to her, withal adding this grievous Imprecation; The Devil let her never grow better, nor any concern’d in her, be in a better condition than she was in, for what they had done to her.” I like this Katharine, but Laird Bargarran had the sheriff throw her forthwith into the dungeon; the reader may recall from our foreshadowing that Agnes’s more diplomatic approach did not ultimately serve her any better.

By January, five months after Christian’s first fits, the doctors and ministers had been defeated and the Privy Council appointed a tribunal to investigate the matter and shoo away the hags bothering Christian Shaw. The annals of their actions makes for repellent reading, even by the standards of judges. Readers with strong eyeglass prescriptions can enjoy the full pdf here, but most will probably prefer this lucid summary by Undine, a onetime Executed Today guest blogger. We also have a Victorian compilation of records related to the affair here.

The hunt swept up a 14-year-old boy and his 11-year-old brother, a 17-year-old girl who was made to furnish accusations that incriminated still more people besides. One can see in our credulous 1698 account the enspelled little shit begin to revel in her theatrics and the power she held over her neighbors.

February 12. Margaret Laing and her Daughter Martha Semple, being delated by the three Confessants, and accused by the Girl to have been active instruments in her Trouble, came of their own accord to Bargarran’s House, and before they came up Stairs the Girl said, she was now bound up, and could not accuse Margaret Laing to her face: And accordingly the Girl’s Mother having desired somer of those who were sitting by her to feel some parts of her Body, and they having done it, found her Body so stiff and inflexible, that there was no moving of it, and immediately again found some parts of her Body contracted and drawn hard togethe [sic], as if by Cords; after this Margaret Lang and her Daughter, having gone to the Chamber of the Girle, did in presence of the Ministers and others, desire the Damsel to come to her; for she would do her no Harm, and laying her Arms about her, spake very fairly to her, and question’d her if ever she had seen her other Daughter among her Tormentors, to which the Girle did positively reply, she had frequently seen her Daughter; but declined thorow fear to accuse herself, saying faintly No, after which Margaret and her Daughter returning into the Hall, and the Minister enquiring at her why she said No, seeing she had accus’d her before, she answered, take me contrar, upon which she was seiz’d with a grievous Fit; yet after her recovery being urg’d again by those present to tell her Mind freely, whether or not Margaret Lang was one of her Tormentors the Child thereupon Essaying to say Yes, and having half-pronounced the Word, was cast into unexpressible Anguishes; and again in the interval of the Fit, she Essay’d to express the same thing, and saying only the word Tint (that is soft) was on a sudden struck with another fit, and when the fit was over, and the Child returned to the Chamber, Margaret Lang who was sitting near the Hall door, spoke these words after her. The Lord bless thee, and ding (that is beat, or drive) the Devil out of thee. A little after which words, Margaret going down stairs, the Damsel came to the Hall and said, her Bonds were now loos’d, and that now she could accuse Margaret Lang to her Face, and declar’d the occasion of her being so Restrain’d and Bound up while Margaret was present, was her letting fall a parcel of Hair at the Hall door as she came in; being a Charm made by her for that end, which also had been the occasion of her uttering the word Tint in the former fit: And accordingly a parcel of Hair had been found at the Hall-door, after Margaret Lang had gone straight from the Hall to the Chamber, which immediately was cast into the Fire and burnt. And its remarkable, that it could be attested that there was no Hair, or any other thing else in that place before Margaret Lang came in, and the Girle being enquired, what way she knew Margaret Lang had laid the forementioned Charm upon her, replyed, something speaking distinctly to her as it were above her Head, had suggested that to her.

In the end — and posterity unfortunately lacks the original trial record — there were seven condemned to death and although their names in the surviving accounts “are not very distinctly stated” they appear to comprise our two original accused, Katharine Campbell and Agnes Naismith, the aforementioned Margaret Lang, the 14-year-old child James Lindsay and an apparent kinsman named John Lindsay, and also John Reid and Margaret Fulton. (Some accounts more mawkishly make it little James Lindsay with his 11-year-old brother Thomas, but that’s not indicated by the primary sources which repeatedly note that Thomas is “under the age of pupilarity.”)

John Reid managed to hang himself in prison and cheat the executioner. Katharine Campbell did him one better by fighting her persecutors all the way to the stake, and deservedly showering everyone in earshot with curses. The legend has it that Campbell’s malediction lurks behind any civic setback endured by Paisley down the years, such as the 1810 Paisley canal disaster. A horseshoe placed over the embittered sorceress’s grave to keep ill fortune at bay was lost in the 1960s; in 2008, a brass horseshoe plaque was installed in its place at the intersection of Maxwellton and St. George Streets — the memorial admitting the injustice done to all the Renfrewshire witches.


(cc) image by Paisley Scotland.

As for the witches’ accuser, Christian Shaw mirrored in her own life’s story the epochal shift that transformed witches from a legally recognized threat to a ridiculous superstition — as she grew up to become essentially the founder of Paisley’s distinctive (and still to this day important) thread industry by creating the “Bargarran Thread” .

* Coincidentally, the first execution of the Salem trials also occurred on June 10.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Scotland,The Supernatural,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1785: Horea and Closca, Transylvanian rebels

Add comment February 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1785, two of the three leaders of Transylvania’s great peasant uprising were broken on the wheel in the city of Alba Iulia — the third having cheated the executioner by hanging himself in his cell.


Left to right: Vasile Ursu Nicola, known as Horea; Ion Oarga (Closca); and, the suicide, Marcu Giurgiu (Crisan).

The Revolt of Horea, Closca and Crisan (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Romanian) featured the usual grievances of feudal serfs, who in this case were Orthodox Christians governed by a Hungarian Catholic nobility. The heavier exactions of the region’s magnates in this period had led to several peasant delegations petitioning for relief from the Habsburg crown, among whose rosters appear this day’s eventual executees, Horea and Closca.

Those grievances were transmuted into rebellion, paradoxically as it might seem, by the 1780 death of Maria Theresa and the consequent ascent to sole rulership of Emperor Joseph II. Remembered as one of history’s great progressive “enlightened despots,” Joseph would surely have thought himself a friend to the peasantry with measures like rolling back serfdom and a broadened mandate for education.*

But the careless injuries his modernizing edicts visited on a precarious dominion of his polyglot empire would help beat ploughshares into swords in the regions of present-day Romania.

Imperial demands for fresh (rationalized, as the empire saw it) cash taxation had excited the countryside’s nobility and peasantry alike, since little specie flowed through their traditional agrarian arrangements, and an attempted census had met widespread resistance as a likely harbinger of the revenue man; but, these rebels from the soil still mostly hated their traditional local overlords and in due course would direct their blades and torches accordingly. Demands they presented to a besieged city on November 11 of 1784 underscore their perspective:

  1. The nobility should be abolished; each noblemen, if he could get a job in the imperial administration, should live on that income.
  2. The noble landlords should leave once for all their nobiliary estates.
  3. The noblemen should pay taxes like any common taxpayer.
  4. The noblemen’s estates should be divided among the common people

Source

The most immediate spark to set all this tinder ablaze would be the apparent prospect of widespread military recruitment — a desideratum for the peasantry, as it offered the prospect of social mobility and an escape from the magnate’s lash — which was then apparently withdrawn or blocked, a cruel trick to put the servile class in mind of its many abuses. In early November, beginning in Zarand, thousands of peasants Romanian, Saxon, and Hungarian alike rose in arms and began putting manors and churches to the sack.

“Letters from Transylvania continue to talk of excesses committed by rebels there,” one bulletin reported.

Not content to kill the feudal lords, they set fire to the habitations of their vassals if these refuse to embrace the party of the insurgents. At Kerespaya they broke into the coffers of the royal treasury and took away all the money. The evangelical pastor of that place, after having seen the throats of his wife and children cut, was taken to the church and decapitated at the foot of the altar. Some Franciscans met the same fate, those who had taken refuge in the bell towers were strangled and thrown into the streets. But they respect the officials of the emperor, as long as they are not nobles … Major Schultz asked one of them the motives for their cruel conduct, he answered: “Do not believe, Sir, that we have joined this party without reason; we were forced into it by the most pressing necessity. Here are authentic copies of several royal orders given out for our benefit that have not been carried out. All our remonstrances in this matter have been useless, and we have been sent away without receiving justice. It is thus only to break the yoke of the most insufferable slavery that we have resolved to vindicate ourselves. We know well that our conduct will be disapproved of, but we pride ourselves at the same time that it will serve to force examination of the conduct of those who have so cruelly deceived us. At any event, we prefer death to a miserable life, and will die content so that our example might guarantee the rights of humanity to our descendants and give the state contented subjects.”

Nuove di diverse corti e paesi, Dec. 27, 1784 (quoted by Franco Venturi)

The tragic aspirations of this rebellion — which lasted only two months, but had managed to assume a proto-national character** — were amply fulfilled once it was crushed and its three principal leaders betrayed to the government. The two who faced the horrors of the breaking-wheel, and Crisan as well, had their corpses quartered and their limbs distributed to the major thoroughfares by way of intimidation. Dozens of others of less eternal fame were also put to death during this period, to add to the innumerable killings in the course of suppressing the rebels.†


Above: detail view (click for the full image) of an 18th century print illustrating the execution. Below: another take on the scene.

But there was, too, that examination they desired forced upon the emperor, who promulgated a decree abolishing serfdom in 1785, eliminated noble control over marriages, and expanded the peasantry’s grazing rights. These reforms were at best only partially successful (the true end of serfdom still lay decades in the future) but they betokened on parchment just as the rebels had done in fire and blood the crisis striking at the ancien regime — for, alongside condemnations of the peasantry, there were during those revolutionary years also vindications of them, written in the language of the Enlightenment:

The Walachian uprising is an important lesson for sovereigns. It confirms the observation that the human spirit is mature for a general ferment, that it yearns for laws that respect equality, justice, and the order corresponding to its nature. How could it have been that under the most beneficent and mild government in the world, that of Joseph II, such an event could occur? It is because the principles of liberty, justice, and equality are woven into our hearts; they are a part of our natural destiny.

Wilhelm Ludwig Wekhrlin

* Joseph also abolished the death penalty in 1787. (He died in 1790, and the abolition with him.)

** And even more so in hindsight; see, for instance, this 1937 tributary obelisk.

† “I will leave you to judge the excesses they committed. Among others twenty-seven peasants were arrested, whose heads were cut off by nobles in one day without any kind of procedure.” One reported decree — we hope never effected in reality — threatened to impale a random citizen of any town that gave sanctuary to the “villainous low people.” (Both nuggets from Venturi, op. cit.)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Austria,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Habsburg Realm,History,Not Executed,Power,Revolutionaries,Roman Empire,Treason

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1835: Captain Pedro Gilbert and the Spanish Pirates

1 comment June 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1835, four Spanish pirates — it was supposed to be more — were put to death at Boston.

Their captain, the Catalan Pedro Gilbert, was chief among them in death as he was in life. Three years previous, he had commanded the buccaneer schooner with the deceptively cuddly name Panda out of Havana. It’s for Gilbert that “Gilbert’s Bar” is named, a historic sandbar off Stuart, Florida where the man reputedly liked to lure ships aground.*

Gilbert and his crew of forty or so souls — Spaniards, Portuguese, South Americans, half-castes, and at least one west African — waylaid the Salem, Mass. brig Mexican.

After hours ransacking the ship, relieving it of $20,000 in silver, the raiders locked the crew of their prize below decks and put the Mexican to the torch. After the Panda departed, those imprisoned unfortunates managed to break out of the death trap in time to control the blaze and return to port.

The incident thereby reported, the Panda would in due time be cornered off the African coast and sunk by a British ship. A dozen of the salty brigands fished out of the sea were eventually extradited to the U.S. for an eventful fourteen-day trial.


One of the crew of the Mexican, called upon to identify a member of the pirate crew who tried to drown him in a burning ship, strikes the accused corsair.

A defense lawyer laboring mightily in a half-lost cause managed to procure not-guilty verdicts for five of the crew on grounds of superior orders. The cabin boy (15 at the time of the raid) and the aforementioned west African were among these men spared.

The four who hanged today — Pedro Gilbert, Juan Montenegro, Manuel Castillo, and Angel Garcia — were meant to have been seven. Two of the seven received stays of execution; we’ll return to them in a moment.

The other man in the condemned party, Manuel Boyga, cheated his executioner, kind of, by exploiting a guard’s momentary inattentiveness to slash open his own carotid artery with a sharp bit of tin. He bled out too quickly for his executioners to “help” him, but because this efficient (near-?)suicide occurred immediately before the hanging, Boyga’s unconscious form was still borne in a chair to the scaffold and hung along with his four quick mates, just to make sure. Boyga might well have been dead already; if not, the hanging only hastened his demise by moments.

As to the other two: the ship’s carpenter Francisco Ruiz, it was thought, might have been crazy. But the Spanish-speaking physicians who eventually examined him would pronounce his ravings a simulation; he was accordingly hanged in a follow-up execution on September 12, 1835.

The last man was Bernardo de Soto, the first mate and the owner of the Panda.

De Soto’s pretty black-eyed wife back home caught wind of her man’s fate and made the Atlantic crossing to comfort her husband in prison … and to prostrate herself before the U.S. president Andrew Jackson who had the final say for clemency in this federal case. Duly smitten by this pleasing romantic flourish, Jackson did better than merely sparing de Soto’s life: he gave the condemned pirate a free pardon on July 6, 1835.

* Gilbert’s Bar today has the last remaining “House of Refuge”, once one of several standing 19th century encampments built to shelter any wayfarer who shipwrecked in the vicinity.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Piracy,Pirates,Posthumous Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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1794: Jacques Roux, the Red Priest, cheats the guillotine

Add comment February 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1794, French Revolution firebrand Jacques Roux committed suicide to avoid execution during the Terror.

Roux was a Catholic vicar on the eve of the Revolution, and “of the many priests who had left the church to join the Revolution none was more articulate and socially aware.”

He became a leading exponent of the radical enragés, a faction that really took the Revolution’s purported egalite to heart.

In early 1793, Roux was an official representative to the execution of Louis XVI — one can read his minimalistic report here; knowing that Roux was a priest, Louis tried to press him for some spiritual aid, and was rebuffed. “I am only here,” Roux answered icily, “to lead you to the scaffold.”

The man’s invective against the merchant classes packed considerably more heat.

Roux’s Manifesto of the Enrages minced no words:

Freedom is nothing but a vain phantom when one class of men can starve another with impunity. Equality is nothing but a vain phantom when the rich, through monopoly, exercise the right of life or death over their like. The republic is nothing but a vain phantom when the counter-revolution can operate every day through the price of commodities, which three quarters of all citizens cannot afford without shedding tears.

For the last four years the rich alone have profited from the advantages of the Revolution. The merchant aristocracy, more terrible than that of the noble and sacerdotal aristocracy, has made a cruel game of invading individual fortunes and the treasury of the republic; we still don’t know what will be the term of their exactions, for the price of merchandise rises in a frightful manner, from morning to evening.

Unfavorably contrasting the new haves with the ancien regime is the sort of thing that gets you into trouble in a bourgeois revolution.

Burdened by multiple wars, and then by poor harvests, France’s economy was a mess. Later that same year, Paris’s urban poor, the sans-culottes, invaded the Convention to force anti-hoarding and price control measures. Roux didn’t create that situation: he just had the nerve to risk his neck talking about it.

But by then, that prim ascetic Robespierre had already begun hounding Roux. He would hound him to his death.

Kropotkin‘s anarchist history, The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793, valorizes the courageous former priest. In Kropotkin’s narration, we find Roux ordered transferred out of ordinary police court to the Revolutionary Tribunal on some spurious charge of financial impropriety.*

Knowing what that meant, Roux stabbed himself in court thrice with a knife. The president of the court hastened to his assistance and displayed much friendliness towards him, even giving him the kiss of civic brotherhood, before he was removed to the Bicetre prison. In the prison infirmary Roux “tried to exhaust his strength,” as it was reported to the procurator of the Revolutionary Tribunal, Fouquier-Tinville, by opening his wounds; and finally he succeeded in stabbing himself once more, this time mortally, through the lung.

In terms of present-day iconographic potential, the French Revolution probably did not produce a more outstanding radical leftist; Roux’s direct critique of economic power clearly marks him as a forerunner of subsequent generations’ communist and anarchist movements … as well as even more contemporary voices.


(cc) image from Elentari86.

And undoubtedly, Roux’s project remained (and remains) unfinished. Surveying the scene after the Terror, Roux’s onetime ally Jean-Francois Varlet remarked, “In my country there has only been a change of dress.”

There’s more of Roux’s writing on Marxists.org.

* A much more serious graft charge would likewise be deployed to topple Danton.

Longtime readers may recall that this post was briefly (and mistakenly) up on this date in 2011. Oops.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Cheated the Hangman,Famous,France,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Not Executed,Power,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries

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1872: Du Wenxiu, Panthay rebellion leader

Add comment December 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1872, China’s Panthay Rebellion came to an end with the surrender, suicide, and execution — in that order — of Du Wenxiu.

The Panthay Rebellion (also known as the Du Wenxiu Rebellion) was one of several cataclysmic revolts to shake foundering imperial China in the 19th century.

This one was centered in the city of Dali (also known as Talifoo) in the southeastern Yunnan Province, near the Burmese border.* The rebels in question were the Hui people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who had been pushed around for years by Qing officials and by the ethnic Han.

The backstory of Han-on-Hui ethnic cleansing in the 1840s makes for harrowing reading, lowlighted by the 1845 massacre of 8,000 Hui in Baoshan.

An even more ambitious operation in May 1856 went down in Kunming, where a massacre — Qing officials publicly posted a directive to “kill [the Hui] one and all”** — claimed several thousand more and razed the city’s mosques. This outburst spawned an attempt at wholesale ethnic cleansing throughout the province … but that attempt blew back on its perpetrators by triggering a rebellion that would require a generation to tame.

The unexpected tenacity of Hui resistance was multiplied by the disadvantages for the Chinese state of operating in a distant and mountainous territory, and its preoccupation with the much larger simultaneous Taiping Rebellion. Though these considerations were not sufficient to dissuade local officials from picking the fight in the first place, they would help them come to regret it.

Hui resistance quickly coalesced into an organized rebellion, and that rebellion overran Dali by the end of the year, establishing itself as the seat of an independent kingdom called Pingnan Guo. Meanwhile, the onset of the Second Opium War left China incapable of contemplating a reconquest.

Du Wenxiu, the half-Han Islamic convert rebel leader acclaimed Sultan Sulaiman of Dali, was therefore left with some operating room to establish a Hui state. He led a pluralistic nation (for the Hui themselves were and are a pluralistic identity) in the western half of Yunnan, stretching from the Tibetan frontier almost to Kunming. (They came close but never quite managed to take this city).

Alas, in due time and with sufficient stability elsewhere in China the Pingnan state came under withering attack from the late 1860s. It sought help from the British as a potential foil against Chinese power, but the aid was not forthcoming and probably would have been too little and much too late. The Pingnan / Panthay / Hui state

ended much as it had begun — in a bloody massacre of the Hui populace. On 26 December 1872, imperial troops surrounded Dali, the Pingnan capital. Du Wenxiu, in a move that he hoped would spare the lives of the city’s residents, made the decision to hand himself over to the Qing general. Swallowing a fatal dose of opium as his palanquin carried him to the Qing encampment, Du was already dead by the time that he was delivered to the Qing commander. Not to be robbed of the gratification of killing him themselves, Qing officials hastily dragged Du before the Qing troops to be decapitated.† According to Emile Rocher, a French adviser to the provincial officials in Yunnan at the time, Du’s head was encased in honey and sent to the emperor.

Du’s sacrifice, however, was in vain. Three days later, imperial troops began a massacre that, according to the government’s own conservative estimates, took ten thousand lives by the time it was concluded — four thousand of the victims were women, children, and the elderly. Hundreds drowned trying to escape from Dali by swimming across Erhai Lake. Others attempted to flee through the narrow passes at either end of the valley. All were chased down and slain by the Qing troops. The imperial soldiers were ordered to cut an ear from each of the dead. These grisly trophies filled twenty-four massive baskets and, together with Du’s severed head, were sent to Beijing, where they served as a silent and unequivocal corroboration of the Pingnan regime’s bloody demise.**

Du Wenxiu was within living memory when the Qing themselves fell; shortly after that happened, an honorary tomb was constructed for the martyred rebel outside Dali.

* “Panthay” is a Burmese word for Chinese Muslims.

** David Atwill, “Blinkered Visions: Islamic Identity, Hui Ethnicity, and the Panthay Rebellion in Southwest China, 1856-1873,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Nov. 2003. This article and/or Atwill’s book (review) on the same subject appear to be the ultimate source of nearly every accessible English resource on the Panthay Rebellion.

† According to the London Times (Aug. 27, 1873) the aides and litter-bearers who accompanied the dying Du to the Qin camp were also beheaded for their troubles. It ballparks the ensuing butchery at 40,000 to 50,000 souls.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,China,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Posthumous Executions,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1896: Four in New Mexico, in three different towns

1 comment September 24th, 2011 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1896, the not-yet-a-state of New Mexico executed four convicted murderers in three separate towns.

Actually, six men had been scheduled to swing, but two got reprieved. New Mexico wasn’t trying to win some kind efficiency contest … it just worked out that way.

The unlucky four were Dionicio Sandoval in Albuquerque, Antonio Gonzales in Roswell, and Perfecto Padilla and Rosario Ring in Tierra Amarilla. Their stories are told in R. Michael Wilson’s Legal Executions in the Western Territories, 1847-1911. All four were convicted of quite ordinary murders.

Sandoval, a sheep herder, shot another sheep herder who accused him of stealing animals from his flock. The sheep didn’t even belong to either one of them: both men were tending herds owned by the Bernalillo County commissioner.

Gonzales had a buddy named Eugenio Aragon who asked him to help kill someone who was threatening to prosecute Aragon for the theft of some lumber. Always eager to help out a buddy, Gonzales assisted in the homicide, only to find himself arrested and then deserted by his so-called friend. (Aragon slit his own throat in jail, leaving Gonzales to face the noose alone.)

Padilla supposedly killed a miner with his own pick for two burros, a hat and a $30 watch. The evidence at his trial was very shaky and many people believe he was an innocent man, perhaps deliberately railroaded for mysterious reasons.

Ring had come to New Mexico from the Colorado territory, which had gotten too hot for him; he was a suspect there in the murder of his wife and baby, and if he did that crime the near brush with the law did not teach him caution in his new environs: one night during a drunken spree he broke a beer bottle over another man’s head, then shot him in the back. The victim died in his mother’s arms. Ring had a friend who was with him that night and started the fight, and they were tried together for the murder, but the friend was acquitted.

Padilla and Ring were not actually hung together side by side as is sometimes done; instead, Padilla went first while Ring waited his turn beside the scaffold. After they cut Padilla’s body down, Ring stepped up.

That’s all, folks.

In 1897, New Mexico would repeat their “four executions in one day” trick by hanging four men, two of them brothers, for a single murder.


(cc) image from Chris Bevan.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,New Mexico,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1730: James Dalton, Hogarth allusion

1 comment May 12th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1730, career criminal James Dalton was executed at Tyburn.

Detail view (click for full image) of James Dalton’s wig box depicted in the boudoir of prostitute Moll Hackabout in Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress.

Crime ran in the family for young master Dalton; his father hanged upon the information of notorious (and himself eventual gallows-bird) Jonathan Wild. According to the Ordinary of Newgate’s report, our day’s principal “went between his Father’s Legs in the Cart, to his fatal Exit at Tyburn.”*

Who knows but what naughty urchins (or parents) in the throng were deterred by that affecting spectacle. For the Daltons, it was more like Take Your Child to Work Day.

While the elder Dalton’s skills ran towards card-sharping, young master James went in for the more conventional varieties of larceny — both those practiced by stealth, and those practiced by force.

These pursuits saw him twice transported to America, for which we have to thank the English judiciary on account of Dalton’s resultant biography at Early American Crime.

(In)famous for his many dalliances, Dalton’s exploits could move copy in their day — and their author transgress the lines between the underworld and “legitimate” celebrity.

“In the height of all our Robberies” [Dalton] and his companions “used to go to the Playhouse, dressed like Gentlemen,” and that once, while watching The Beggar’s Opera, “Captain Macheath’s Fetters happening to be loose,” one of them “call’d out, Captain, Captain, your Bazzel is undone.” The real thieves, having shown up the actors with their superior knowledge of both irons and cant, then retired in style to an alehouse, “in four Chairs, with six Lights before each Chair.”**

Just another hanged thief.

Except, also not — because while his career in malefaction would undoubtedly have added up to a death sentence, his condemnation was secured upon the word of a perjurer upon a very doubtful charge.

A character named John Waller, an “affidavit man” whose profession was supplying bogus testimony to hang whomever could be hanged where a reward was available, insisted that Dalton had robbed him upon the roads. Dalton vigorously denied (and even rebutted with evidence) this charge even while admitting his general life of crime, but it was upon this dubious offense against Waller that he stretched his neck. Dalton died at Tyburn with three others, though a fifth member of their party, one Hugh Norton or Haughton, managed to cheat the executioner by hanging himself in his cell.†

It was the rough justice of the 18th century, a time frequently admitting opportunity to repay tit for tat.

In this case, the professional perjurer who hanged Dalton was two years later convicted himself after making a bogus accusation of highway robbery. Waller was condemned by the court to stand in the pillory at the Seven Dials — a dangerous punishment cousin to the era’s death penalty, inasmuch as the mob violence thereby invited not infrequently proved fatal.


John Waller bombarded with refuse in the pillory.

Waller had quite a reputation, but the fury of the crowd was nothing next to that of James Dalton’s brother, Edward — who, with a confederate, brazenly climbed onto the platform, wrenched the “assize man” out of his pillory, and savagely beat him to death.

* Cited in this impressive compendium of Dalton-related primary sources.

** Andrea McKenzie, “The Real Macheath: Social Satire, Appropriation, and Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography,” Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 4 (December 2006), with the quotes supplied by a 1730 publication called “The Life and Actions of James Dalton (the Noted Street-Robber)”

† Norton/Haughton was posthumously hanged in chains the next day.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Pelf,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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1799: Heshen forced to commit suicide

2 comments February 22nd, 2011 Headsman

It was on this date that notoriously corrupt Chinese minister of state Heshen or Ho-Shen was forced to commit suicide in lieu of execution.

The able child of a Manchu military officer, Heshen came of age in the long reign of the emperor Qianlong.

That Heshen rose above his modest station with this monarch’s favor was the source of no small resentment. Rumors circulated that the attractive young former bodyguard reminded the emperor of a lost, beloved concubine — with all that implies.

“Elegant in looks, sprucely handsome in a dandified way that suggested a lack of virtue,” a Korean diplomat described Heshen.

Whatever there might have been to the homosexuality angle, Heshen exploited the imperial protection to gorge himself on the state’s revenues; he’s reported to have filled the bureaucracy with clients who saw to it that Heshen got a yuan out of every tael that passed through state business in the last quarter of the 18th century. He even dynastically married his own son to one of Qianlong’s daughters.

It was the peak of the Qing dynasty’s glory, and the dawn of its imperial stagnation. Heshen — resplendent, omnipotent, and sunk in vice* — remains to this day its persona par excellence.

As long as the emperor lived, Heshen had a virtual free hand.

But as soon as the emperor died — on February 7, 1799, at the age of 87 — the successor** Jiaqing destroyed him.

Citing Heshen’s inability to suppress the nettlesome White Lotus and Miao rebellions, Jiaqing arrested and tortured the former retainer into copping to all manner of offenses both mortal and venial.

My thoughts dwell ever on the Confucian precept: ‘For three years after a parent’s death none of his former surroundings should be changed.’ …

But as regards Ho Shen, his crimes are too grave to admit of possible pardon … Ho Shen is a deep-dyed traitor, lost to all moral sense, who has betrayed his Sovereign and jeopardised the State. As self-constituted dictator he has usurped supreme authority.

Seeing the man’s abrupt change of fortunes, Heshen’s people in the bureaucracy fell over each other to denounce him.

He was condemned to the horrific expiation of “slow slicing”; however, given “the undesirability of executing the chief Minister of State like a common felon in the public square,” Jiaqing “allowed him the privilege of committing suicide, as a mark of high favour and out of regard to the dignity of the nation.”

A principal accomplice was made to witness Heshen ceremonially hanging himself; then the accomplice was reprieved of his own death sentence and sent into exile.

The new sovereign found his nation’s dignity sufficiently upheld by the doomed man’s melancholy inventory of loot destined (of course) for the re-appropriation of the Qing … and sufficiently outraged that, upon discovering weeks after the some artifact Heshen had failed to enumerate,

Had these facts come to Our knowledge before the 18th day of the 1st Moon [i.e., February 22], we should assuredly have decreed Ho Shen’s decapitation, even if We had spared him the lingering death and dismemberment.

However, he has already been permitted to commit suicide, and thus luckily escaped the extreme penalty of public execution. We do not, therefore, insist on his corpse being hacked to pieces.

Jiaqing had better to worry about his own now-declining state, which was about to be hacked to pieces by encroaching European powers.

Having made an example of Heshen and a handful of his most visible allies, he was still saddled with the endemic structural corruption Heshen had fostered in the institutions of Qing governance.

“Historians have tended to see Jiaqing’s failure of nerve in purging the bureaucracy of all tainted officials as something of an original sin whose commission predetermined the dynasty’s steady decline,” writes William T. Rowe of this turning point. “But given the need for at least some continuity in routine administration, it is not at all clear that he could have acted otherwise.”

(Hey, at least he did make the few examples. Not everyone even does that much.)

And so Jiaqing struggled in vain to maintain China’s fading prestige; his reign would witness economic erosion and a burgeoning opium trade that eventually led it to war with the British and humiliating western domination.

Since a sclerotic bureaucracy at once crushing in its expanse, helpless in its effect, and riven with self-dealers, is a timeless theme (especially in China), Heshen persists as a lively emblem of corruption.

Heshen’s luxurious mansion — which was also among Jiaqing’s indictments — still stands; today, it’s a museum.

* It bears remembering that it is principally by the testimony of Heshen’s enemies that we know him.

** Technically, Jiaqing had been ruling since Qianlong symbolically “abdicated” in 1796; in reality, Qianlong continued to run the realm until his death.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Infamous,Lingchi,Not Executed,Pelf,Politicians,Power,Theft

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1962: Mack Merrill Rivenburgh cheats the executioner

Add comment September 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1962, just hours before he was to face a firing squad for the murder of a fellow inmate, Mack Merrill Rivenburgh cheated the executioner with a fatal drug overdose.

It was the final escape for a prisoner who had had a lot of them: five previous stays had scotched scheduled executions, sometimes with just hours to spare, back when such stays were anything but routine. The state’s Pardons Board was a long time mulling the case.

Rivenburgh’s own suicide note complained that he was “tired of waiting, tired of the excessive delays,” which is an interesting reason to take one’s own life just before the executioner was going to do it anyway. (Rivenburgh also asserted his innocence.)

Actually, Utah had built wooden execution chairs for two men set for death a September 14 death by musketry, but didn’t manage to seat either inmate.

The other, Jesse Garcia — condemned for helping Rivenburgh slay LeRoy Varner — was granted a commutation on the evening of September 13.

As it turned out, Utah would not put another criminal to death until Gary Gilmore in 1977.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Shot,USA,Utah

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