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1774: John Reid, James Boswell’s first client

Add comment September 21st, 2015 Headsman

Though best known as the familiar and biographer of English writer Samuel Johnson,* James Boswell was educated as a lawyer.

His very first client was a fellow named John Reid, accused in 1766 of rustling 120 sheep from a Peebleshire farm. Boswell, clever lad, beat the charge,** and John Reid lived to shear again.

In 1774, Reid was accused again — and this time, all Boswell’s rhetorical genius could not save him: the Edinburgh Advertiser (Aug. 2, 1774) saluted the “masterly and pathetic manner” of Boswell’s summation, “which did him great honour both as a lawyer and as one who wished for a free and impartial trial by jury.”

It did not do John Reid the honour of an acquittal.

Even beaten in court, our libertine diarist went to extraordinary lengths to defend Reid; his personal passion for saving Reid’s life bleeds out of lengthy diary entries — 70-odd pages’ worth over the seven weeks from conviction to execution, quoted here from Boswell for the Defence. He strongly believed Reid innocent of the crime — that he had received the sheep apparently legitimately from a man named William Gardner, who was the real thief. (Gardner was transported for theft before Reid’s execution.)

Boswell worried at the Earl of Rochford, the Earl of Pembroke, the Earl of Suffolk, and the Duke of Queensberry with imprecations to intervene for a royal pardon. He found himself checked by the judge, equally determined to hang Reid: “The King was certainly disposed to transport, but the judge’s report was too strong,” Lord Pembroke wrote him afterwards. “Indeed, I never read anything more so, or so positive.”

Balked of royal mercy, Boswell even went so far as to lay plans to snatch Reid’s body immediately after hanging and have it whisked away for an attempted resuscitation. As a client, you can’t ask for more zealous representation than that. (Boswell was talked off the scheme only the day before the hanging.)

It is still true today that many death row attorneys give much more of themselves to their clients than mere legal scholarship, as they find themselves shepherding in the valley of death. Boswell met often with Reid, and Reid’s wife; he solicited family history, had Reid sit for a portrait, and bore the delicate burden of keeping Reid’s spirits up even while apprising him day by day of his ever darkening situation. When they spoke of making ready for death, Boswell found Reid much better possessed than was he himself.

The barrister’s diary entries for these days are among the longest and most anguished that Boswell ever wrote. (I have here elided from the September 20 entry a good deal of Boswell’s logistical preparations for, discussions with potential collaborators about, and grudging final resolution against, the mooted resurrection attempt.)

TUESDAY 20 SEPTEMBER. I was now more firmly impressed with a belief of John Reid’s innocence … I really believed he was condemned on insufficient evidence, and, from his solemn averments of his innocence, thought him not guilty of the crime for which he was condemned; such averments being in my opinion an overbalance not for positive, or even strong circumstantial, evidence, but for such evidence as was brought against him, which I thought could produce no more than suspicion.

When I came to the prison I found that John Reid’s wife and children were with him. The door of the iron room was now left open and they were allowed to go and come as they pleased. He was very composed. His daughter Janet was a girl about fifteen, his eldest son Benjamin about ten, his youngest son Daniel between two and three. It was a striking scene to see John on the last night of his life surrounded by his family. His wife and two eldest children behaved very quietly. It was really curious to see the young child Daniel, who knew nothing of the melancholy situation of his father, jumping upon him with great fondness, laughing and calling to him with vivacity. The contrast was remarkable between the father in chains and in gloom and the child quite free and frolicsome. John took him on his knee with affection.

WEDNESDAY 21 SEPTEMBER. John Reid’s wife called on me before breakfast and told me that Mrs. Walker said she was welcome to the best room in her house for the corpse; but that afterwards her landlord had sent to her that she must quit his house if she allowed such a thing. I said that there would be no occasion for any place. The mob would not trouble the corpse; and it might be put directly on the cart that she expected was to come for it. After breakfast Mr. Nasmith came, and was pleased to find that the scheme of recovery was given up … We walked backwards and forwards in the Grassmarket, looking at the gallows and talking of John Reid. Mr. Nasmith said he imagined he would yet confess; for his wife had said this morning that he had something to tell me which he had as yet told to no mortal.

We went to the prison about half an hour after twelve. He was now released from the iron about his leg. The Reverend Dr. Webster and Mr. Ritchie were with him. We waited in the hall along with his wife, who had white linen clothes with black ribbons in a bundle, ready to put on him before he should go out to execution. There was a deep settled grief in her countenance. She was resolved to attend him to the last; but Richard whispered me that the Magistrates had given orders that she should be detained in the prison till the execution was over. I dissuaded her from going and she agreed to take my advice; and then Richard told her the orders of the Magistrates. I said aloud I was glad to hear of it. The Reverend Dr. Macqueen, who afterwards came in, told her it would be a tempting of Providence to go; that it might affect her so as to render her incapable to take care of her fatherless children; and Mr. Ritchie said that the best thing she could do was to remain in the prison and pray for her husband. Dr. Macqueen said to me he was so much impressed with the poor man’s innocence that he had some difficulty whether he ought to attend the execution and authorize it by his presence. I said he certainly should attend, for it was legal; and, besides, supposing it ever so unjust, it was humane to attend an unhappy man in his last moments.

“But,” said Dr. Macqueen, “I will not pray for him as a guilty man.”

“You would be very much in the wrong to do so,” said I, “if you think him not guilty.” Dr. Webster and I had no conversation as he passed through the hall except inquiring at each other how we did.

John’s wife then went up to him for a little, having been told both by me and Mr. Nasmith that she could not hope for the blessing of Providence on her and her children if by her advice John went out of the world with a lie in his mouth. I followed in a little, and found him in his usual dress, standing at the window. I told him I understood he had something to mention to me. He said he would mention it. He had since his trial in 1766 stolen a few sheep (I think five), of which he never was suspected.

“John,” said I, “it gives me concern to find that even such a warning as you got then did not prevent you from stealing. I really imagine that if you had now got off you might again have been guilty, such influence has Satan over you.” He said he did not know but he might. Then I observed that his untimely death might be a mercy to him, as he had time for repentance. He seemed to admit that it might be so. He said that what he had now told me he had not mentioned even to his wife; and I might let it rest. I called up Mr. Nasmith, with whom came Mr. Ritchie. I said he might acknowledge this fact to them, which he did. I asked him, if I saw it proper to mention it as making his denial of the theft for which he was condemned more probable, I might be at liberty to do so? He said I might dispose of it as I thought proper. But he persisted in denying the theft for which he was condemned. He now began to put on his white dress, and we left him.

Some time after, his wife came down and begged that we would go up to him, that he might not be alone. Dress has a wonderful impression on the fancy. I was not much affected when I saw him this morning in his usual dress. But now he was all in white, with a high nightcap on, and he appeared much taller, and upon the whole struck me with a kind of tremor. He was praying; but stopped when we came in. I bid him not be disturbed, but go on with his devotions. He did so, and prayed with decent fervency, while his wife, Mr. Nasmith, and I stood close around him.

He prayed in particular, “Grant, Lord, through the merits of my Saviour, that this the day of my death may be the day of my birth unto life eternal.” Poor man, I felt now a kind of regard for him. He said calmly, “I think I’ll be in eternity in about an hour.” His wife said something from which he saw that she was not to attend him to his execution; and he said, “So you’re no to be wi’ me.” I satisfied him that it was right she should not go.

I said, “I suppose, John, you know that the executioner is down in the hall.” He said no. I told him that he was there and would tie his arms before he went out.

“Ay,” said his wife, “to keep him from catching at the tow [rope].”

“Yes,” said I, “that it may he easier for him.” John said he would submit to everything.

I once more conjured him to tell the truth. “John,” said I, “you must excuse me for still entertaining some doubt, as you know you have formerly deceived me in some particulars. I have done more for you in this world than ever was done for any man in your circumstances. I beseech you let me be of some use to you for the next world. Consider what a shocking thing it is to go out of the world with a lie in your mouth. How can you expect mercy, if you are in rebellion against the GOD of truth?” I thus pressed him; and while he stood in his dead clothes, on the very brink of the grave, with his knees knocking together, partly from the cold occasioned by his linen clothes, partly from an awful apprehension of death, he most solemnly averred that what he had told concerning the present alleged crime was the truth. Before this, I had at Mr. Ritchie’s desire read over his last speech to him, which was rather an irksome task as it was very long; and he said it was all right except some immaterial circumstance about his meeting Wilson with the six score of sheep. Vulgar minds, and indeed all minds, will be more struck with some unusual thought than with the most awful consideration which they have often heard.

I tried John thus: “We are all mortal. Our life is uncertain. I may perhaps die in a week hence. Now, John, consider how terrible it would be if I should come into the other world and find” (looking him steadfastly in the face) “that you have been imposing on me.” He was roused by this, but still persisted. “Then,” said I, “John, I shall trouble you no more upon this head. I believe you. GOD forbid that I should not believe the word of a fellow man in your awful situation, when there is no strong evidence against it, as I should hope to be believed myself in the same situation. But remember, John, it is trusting to you that I believe. It is between GOD and your own conscience if you have told the truth; and you should not allow me to believe if it is not true.” He adhered.

I asked him if he had anything more to tell. He said he had been guilty of one other act of sheep-stealing. I think he said of seven sheep; but I think he did not mention precisely when. As he shivered, his wife took off her green cloth cloak and threw it about his shoulders. It was curious to see such care taken to keep from a little cold one who was so soon to be violently put to death. He desired she might think no more of him, and let his children push their way in the world.

“The eldest boy,” said he, “is reading very well. Take care that he reads the word of GOD.” He desired her to keep a New Testament and a psalm-book which he had got in a present from Mr. Ritchie and which he was to take with him to the scaffold. He was quite sensible and judicious. He had written a kind of circular letter to all his friends on whom he could depend, begging them to be kind to his family.

Two o’clock struck.

I said, with a solemn tone, “There’s two o’clock.” In a little Richard came up. The sound of his feet on the stair struck me. He said calmly, “Will you come awa now?” This was a striking period. John said yes, and readily prepared to go down. Mr. Nasmith and I went down a little before him. A pretty, well-dressed young woman and her maid were in a small closet off the hall; and a number of prisoners formed a kind of audience, being placed as spectators in a sort of loft looking down to the hall.

There was a dead silence, all waiting to see the dying man appear. The sound of his steps coming down the stair affected me like what one fancies to be the impression of a supernatural grave noise before any solemn event.

When he stepped into the hall, it was quite the appearance of a ghost. The hangman, who was in a small room off the hall, then came forth. He took off his hat and made a low bow to the prisoner. John bowed his head towards him. They stood looking at each other with an awkward uneasy attention. I interfered, and said, “John, you are to have no resentment against this poor man. He only does his duty.” “I only do my duty,” repeated the hangman. “I have no resentment against him,” said John. “I desire to forgive all mankind.” “Well, John,” said I, “you are leaving the world with a very proper disposition: forgiving as you hope to be forgiven.” I forgot to mention that before he left the iron room Mr. Ritchie said to him, “Our merciful King was hindered from pardoning you by a representation against you; but you are going before the King of Heaven, who knows all things and whose mercy cannot be prevented by any representation.”

The hangman advanced and pinioned him, as the phrase is; that is, tied his arms with a small cord. John stood quiet and undisturbed. I said, “Richard, give him another glass of wine.” Captain Fraser, the gaoler, had sent him the night before a bottle of claret, part of which Richard had given him, warmed with sugar, early in the morning, two glasses of it in the forenoon, and now he gave him another. John drank to us.

He then paused a little, then kissed his wife with a sad adieu, then Mr. Ritchie kissed him. I then took him by the hand with both mine, saying, “John, it is not yet too late. If you have any thing to acknowledge, do it at the last to the reverend gentlemen, Dr. Macqueen and Dr. Dick, to whom you are much obliged. Farewell, and I pray GOD may be merciful to you.” He seemed faint and deep in thought. The prison door then opened and he stepped away with the hangman behind him, and the door was instantly shut His wife then cried, “O Richard, let me up,” and got to the window and looked earnestly out till he was out of sight. Mr. Nasmith and I went to a window more to the west, and saw him stalking forward in the gloomy procession.

I then desired his wife to retire and pray that he might be supported in this his hour of trial. Captain Fraser gave her four shillings. It was very agreeable to see such humanity in the gaoler, and indeed the tenderness with which the last hours of a convict were soothed pleased me much.

The mob were gone from the prison door in a moment. Mr. Nasmith and I walked through the Parliament Close, down the Back Stairs and up the Cowgate, both of us satisfied of John Reid’s innocence, and Mr. Nasmith observing the littleness of human justice, that could not reach a man for the crimes which he committed but punished him for what he did not commit.

We got to the place of execution about the time that the procession did. We would not go upon the scaffold nor be seen by John, lest it should be thought that we prevented him from confessing. It was a fine day. The sun shone bright. We stood close to the scaffold on the south side between two of the Town Guard. There were fewer people present than upon any such occasion that I ever saw. He behaved with great calmness and piety. Just as he was going to mount the ladder, he desired to see his wife and children; but was told they were taken care of. There was his sister and his daughter near to the gibbet, but they were removed. Dr. Dick asked him if what he had said was the truth. He said it was. Just as he was going off, he made an attempt to speak. Somebody on the scaffold called, “Pull up his cap.” The executioner did so. He then said, “Take warning. Mine is an unjust sentence.” Then his cap was pulled down and he went off. He catched the ladder; but soon quitted his hold. To me it sounded as if he said, “just sentence”; and the people were divided, some crying, “He says his sentence is just.” Some: “No. He says unjust.” Mr. Laing, clerk to Mr. Tait, one of the town clerks, put me out of doubt, by telling me he had asked the executioner, who said it was unjust. I was not at all shocked with this execution at the time. John died seemingly without much pain. He was effectually hanged, the rope having fixed upon his neck very firmly, and he was allowed to hang near three quarters of an hour; so that any attempt to recover him would have been in vain. I comforted myself in thinking that by giving up the scheme I had avoided much anxiety and uneasiness.

We waited till he was cut down; and then walked to the Greyfriars Churchyard, in the office of which his corpse was deposited by porters whom Mr. Nasmith and I paid, no cart having come for his body. A considerable mob gathered about the office. Mr. Nasmith went to Hutchinson’s to bespeak some dinner and write a note to The Courant that there would be a paragraph tonight giving an account of the execution; for we agreed that a recent account would make a strong impression.

I walked seriously backwards and forwards a considerable time in the churchyard waiting for John Reid’s wife coming, that I might resign the corpse to her charge. I at last wearied, and then went to the office of the prison. There I asked the executioner myself what had passed. He told me that John first spoke to him on the ladder and said he suffered wrongfully; and then called to the people that his sentence was unjust. John’s sister came here, and returned me many thanks for what I had done for her brother. She was for burying him in the Greyfriars Churchyard, since no cart had come. “No,” said I, “the will of the dead shall be fulfilled. He was anxious to be laid in his own burying-place, and it shall be done.”

I then desired Richard to see if he could get a cart to hire, and bid him bring John’s wife to Hutchinson’s. Mr. Nasmith and I eat some cold beef and cold fowl and drank some port, and then I wrote a paragraph to be inserted in the newspapers. Mr. Nasmith threw in a few words. I made two copies of it, and, both to the printer of The Courant and Mercury, subjoined my name to be kept as the authority. Richard brought John’s wife and daughter. “Well,” said I, “Mrs. Reid, I have the satisfaction to tell you that your husband behaved as well as we could wish.” “And that is a great satisfaction,” said she. We made her eat a little and take a glass, but she was, though not violently or very tenderly affected, in a kind of dull grief. The girl did not seem moved. She eat heartily.

I told Mrs. Reid that I insisted that John should be buried at home; and as I found that as yet no carter would undertake to go but at an extravagant price, the corpse might lie till tomorrow night, and then perhaps a reasonable carter might be had.

Mr. Nasmith went to The Courant with the paragraph, and I to The Mercury. I sat till it was printed. It was liberal in Robertson, who was himself one of the jury, to admit it; and he corrected the press.

It was now about eight in the evening, and gloom came upon me. I went home and found my wife no comforter, as she thought I had carried my zeal for John too far, might hurt my own character and interest by it, and as she thought him guilty.† I was so affrighted that I started every now and then and durst hardly rise from my chair at the fireside. I sent for Grange, but he was not at home. I however got Dr. Webster, who came and supped, and he and I drank a bottle of claret. But still I was quite dismal.

Boswell spent several days more in tying up affairs, and in a sense reconciling both his own self to the reality of what has occurred, and regaining an equilibrium with friends and colleagues who doubted Reid’s innocence (and/or played some part in Reid’s conviction).

Boswell was around the midpoint of his manhood at 33 years of age, with two more decades ahead to make a glorious mark. But on September 21, 1774, John Reid’s story was done.

“After this defeat, though he would labor at the law for many years more, Boswell made a critical emotional swerve,” writes Gordon Turnbull — away from law and towards the literary exertions that define him for posterity. “Part of Boswell died with Reid: it was defeat in this cause which, in Frank Brady’s words, ‘crystallized his distaste for the Scottish bar’ and ‘destroyed his momentum as a lawyer.'”

* Among other things, Dr. Johnson bequeathed us the aphorism that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concenrates his mind wonderfully.” When Johnson said it, it concerned a real person whose hanging was really imminent … and it was a 100% bullshit cover story for a faked enhancement of mental faculties said man had not, in fact, evinced.

** Boswell’s friend and fellow Scottish Enlightenment big wheel Andrew Crosbie helped in the 1766 Reid case … but not the 1774 one.

† With a defter feel for the diplomatic considerations Boswell had ignored in his exertions, the barrister’s wife reminded him a few days afterwards “that John Reid was now gone, but that his jury, fifteen men upon oath, were alive. By my speaking strongly of the injustice of the sentence, I did John no good and in some measure attacked them.” She quoted him a passage from John Home’s tragedy Douglas:

The living claim some duty; vainly thou
Bestow’st thy care upon the silent dead.

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1718: Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich condemned and fatally knouted

1 comment June 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1718,* Peter the Great’s hand-picked court condemned his son and onetime heir apparent Tsarevich Alexei to death for plotting treason.

Probably no single figure more strikingly underscored Peter’s violent rupture of the old Russia than Alexei: “timid, secretive and lacking in self-confidence,” he was Peter’s opposite in nearly every particular — his nemesis, literally from birth.

The product of Peter’s unsatisfactory first dynastic marriage to a conservative boyar princess, Alexei got abandoned along with his mother Eudoxia Lopukhina when Peter went on his years-long jag through western Europe.

Peter eventually forced the tsaritsa into a convent so he could take up with the ambitious emigre beauty Anna Mons, but the firstborn son was not so easily discarded.

Often malignantly ignored in his youth, Alexei spent his teen years being browbeaten by Peter who rightly despaired of ever making the boy into a king who could carry Peter’s legacy.

Where the father was preternaturally energetic, the son was feeble and reticent; Peter’s irritated letters to Alexei frequently complain of his laziness. (“I am incapable of exertion,” Alexei whinged.) Where the father had a curious mind for the Age of Enlightenment, the son was a dreamer who preferred the mysteries of the Orthodox religion. The boy showed little interest in politics or statecraft, but his position as the firstborn son meant that politics and statecraft were interested in him. Alexei just wanted to go to church and fool around with his Finnish mistress; he feigned or induced illness to avoid the instructional tasks his father appointed him, and once even tried to shoot himself in the hand to duck work.

The father called on all of his legendary severity fruitlessly trying to twist this malformed sapling into a sovereign when the boy’s every characteristic seemed to reproach Peter’s mission of a new and reborn Russia.

“How often have I scolded you for this, and not merely scolded but beaten you,” Peter wrote the boy when the latest assignment was not accomplished to his satisfaction. “Nothing has succeeded, nothing is any use, all is to no purpose, all is words spoken to the wind, and you want to do nothing but sit at home and enjoy yourself.” Start with scolding, proceed to beating — Peter’s philosophy of management as well as child-rearing.

Ever more fearful of his hated father, Alexei in 1716 gave Peter one final and greatest embarrassment by spurning his father’s last ultimatum to join the Russian army on campaign. Instead, the tsarevich fled to the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Charles put him up in Naples for a year until Peter’s courtier Count Tolstoy** finally persuaded Alexei to return.

Alexei hoped he had arranged to get out of the royal-succession game and live as a private citizen, but where princes of the blood are concerned this option is more easily conceived than arranged. Peter well knew that the Orthodox clergy and many aristocrats awaited his death as their opportunity to roll back his reforms; the pious Alexei was inevitably a focus of these hopes and the boy embraced rather than shunned the association. Moreover, the twerp had made Peter look the fool before all of Europe with his running-away act.

Instead, the prince — whose return to Russia under the circumstances really was quite naive — found himself faced with a cruel inquisition.

Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Ge’s 1871 painting “Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof” (via Wikimedia Commons)

Gibbon wrote of Marcus Aurelius that in permitting his notorious son Commodus to become his heir, “he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, [and] chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.”

Peter the Great easily possessed the iron resolution that the ancient Stoic lacked.

The tsar had learned seamanship in his youth by working in European dockyards; had learned soldiery by enrolling himself in the ranks and working his way up from drummer-boy. In his childhood he had seen the palace guard run amok in the Kremlin slaughtering his own family, bided his time until he could topple the power of his half-sister and take Russia in hand, and then wrought on those mutinous soldiers a terrible revenge.

And he had set for his reign a self-consciously world-historic mission, to force an unwilling nation into the European family. This enterprise of relentless, exhausting hubris the tsar applied everywhere from the cut of his noblemen’s facial hair to the whole-cloth creation of the Westward-facing capital city St. Petersburg.

Just so did Peter address himself to his truculent son.

“I will deprive you of the succession, as one may cut off a useless member,” he threatened in a come-to-Jesus letter of 1715, when Alexei was already 25 years old.

Do not fancy that, because I have no other child but you, I only write this to terrify you. I will certainly put it in execution if it please God; for whereas I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people, why should I spare you who do not render yourself worthy of either? I would rather choose to transmit them to a worthy stranger than to my own unworthy son.

Peter, to borrow a phrase redolent in Russian historiography, mourned not the cracked eggs that made his omelette.

And sometime after Alexei’s flight to Naples, Peter had clearly come to the understanding that for the good of his nation that unworthy son must indeed be spattered.

This episode places Peter in a monstrous light, just as would Marcus Aurelius appear to us had he contrived to murder the future tyrant Commodus when the latter was a mere callow youth. We do not have the luxury of seeing the path not taken, but it ought be said in the towering tsar’s defense that his disdain for the crown prince’s ability is difficult not to share. Alexei’s character stacks flaw upon flaw; no doubt Peter’s upbringing, by turns distant and brutal, was stamped upon it. Let the father bear that failure, but it does not relieve the sovereign’s choice: was he to confide his country and his legacy to the hands of this goblin? Was it even tolerable to leave this firstborn cooling his heels in a monastery, waiting for Peter’s death to cast off cowl and abdication and be acclaimed king by Old Russia?

Peter’s own youth, when he was part of an unresolved dynastic rivalry awkwardly sharing power, had been mired in plots and counterplots. Now, he could scarcely help but suspect that Alexei was also a piece of some conspiracy intending to undo Peter — whether in life or in death.

He forced the son to name his confidantes, then put those confidantes to torture and followed their accusations. In March of 1718, several men were broken on the wheel in Red Square; Alexei’s mother, long ago exiled to a convent, was menaced through her lover who was publicly impaled. Others got off with whippings, brandings, beatings, exile.

Not long after, that Finnish mistress of Alexei returned to the rodina herself. During his mission to Italy, Count Tolstoy had compromised her, and now she willingly supplied Peter the evidence of his son’s treason: that he spoke often of the succession, and how he would abandon St. Petersburg, let the navy rot, and restore the rights of the church; that he thrilled to every rumor of Peter’s illness and even to a mutiny. (Alexei would later acknowledge to his father’s face that had the mutineers acclaimed him tsar, he would have answered the summons.)

Peter empowered a very reluctant secular court to examine Alexei as a traitor without deference to his royal person. In a word, this meant torture — and on June 19, the frail Alexei was lashed 25 times with the knout, a terrible whip reinforced with metal rings that flayed a man’s back into carrion-meat and could even break the spine. Alexei managed to endure it, so on June 24 his suppurating wounds were reopened with another 15 strokes of the cruel scourge.

Under this inhuman torment, Alexei admitted wishing his father’s death — not much of an admission since he had already said as much to dad in the weeks before. But this gave his magistrates enough to condemn the tsarevich to death later that same night, for compassing the death of the king. The reality was that Alexei, vapid and indolent, had only one design on the death of his father: to await it with hope.

What we do not quite know is whether or how this sentence was actually effected. Peter wavered and did not sign the sentence — but as contemporaries saw it, God signed it.

On the morning of June 26, Peter and a number of other court dignitaries went to Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress’s logs do not specify whether this was yet another round of torture for Alexei; stories would later circulate that Peter or a subaltern murdered the boy here by crudely beating him to death or privately beheading him, sparing the realm the spectacle of the broken crown prince mounting the scaffold.

But the official story, that an already-faltering Alexei begged Peter’s forgiveness as he succumbed to the shock notice of his condemnation, could easily be true: 40 strokes of the knout were enough to take the life of a much firmer constitution than Alexei’s.

By any measure, Peter authored the death of his son under the pall of execution, if not its literal fact — and for all the instances of royal-on-royal violence supplied by the annals, this filicide is nearly unique: Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia, tortured his disappointing son to death.

Peter the Great died in 1725 at age 52 — according to legend, catching his death by forging into the freezing Finnish Gulf to rescue some drowning soldiers. (“I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people …”) Peter’s wives had borne him eight legitimate sons over the years, but Alexander, Pavel, Peter, another Pavel, another Peter, yet another Pavel, and yet another Peter had all died in early childhood. This was to be (after the brief reign later in the 1720s of Alexei’s sickly son Peter II) the end of the direct male line of Romanovs.

Instead, Peter was succeeded by his remarkable wife Catherine, by origin a Latvian peasant — and the 18th century would be dominated by female monarchs, culminating with Catherine the Great.

* It was June 24 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the modern Gregorian calendar, Alexei Petrovich was condemned on July 5, and died on July 7.

** Ancestor of the novelist Leo Tolstoy, a man who did not like executions.

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1815: Six militiamen, Andrew Jackson’s electoral dirty laundry

Add comment February 21st, 2015 Headsman

If present-day electoral politics strike you as disreputable, take comfort in the knowledge that the Republic has survived its share of low-down, brass-knuckle campaigns in the past. The presidential election of 1828 might have been the very dirtiest.

This race pitted incumbent John Quincy Adams, the silver-spoon New Englander and son of Federalist founding father John Adams, against Andrew Jackson, the uncouth self-made westerner of Scotch peasant stock. Jackson was [in]famous for his duels, and his willingness to push the envelope on acceptable use of the military forces he commanded. Some foes saw him as an American Napoleon; some supporters, likewise.

One of the juiciest gobs of slung mud in that 1828 campaign involved Jackson’s actions as a Major General during the War of 1812, and specifically right around the Battle of New Orleans.

Karl Rove would have approved of this tactical attack on the strength of a candidate, for it was to this service that Jackson owed his national repute. De Tocqueville, who considered Jackson “a man of violent temper and very moderate talents,” said that he “was raised to the Presidency, and has been maintained there, solely by the recollection of a victory which he gained, twenty years ago, under the walls of New Orleans.”*

At any rate, back in 1815, when army regulars were engaged on the east coast (or in the quixotic attempt to invade Canada), battle in the south and west pitted shaky American militia against British-allied Indian tribes in dirty, bloody ethnic cleansing.

Immediately prior to New Orleans, Jackson, west Tennessee’s biggest landowner and therefore its militia commander, took his forces south to Alabama, combined them with other militia, and routed the Creek, ending the Creek War subplot to the War of 1812. ‘Twas this conquest gave Jackson his “Old Hickory” nickname for controlling the Muscogee Creeks of Hickory Ground.

Cool beans for A.J., but not everyone on his team was equally excited.

After the Creek surrendered at the newly-raised Fort Jackson — vanity, vanity, all is vanity! — a number of soldiers stationed there with the 1st Regiment West Tennessee Militia started agitating to pack up and leave, even with the British navy still lurking. Come September, some even went so far as to demonstratively tramp out of Fort Jackson, vowing to return to hearth and home.

These were not enlisted soldiers of a standing army, so they did not necessarily conceive themselves bound to fight the British in Louisiana or the Creeks in Alabama: rights and obligations and loyalties were still being sorted out in the young Republic. These deserters had, however, been mustered that June for an announced six-month term, and September was only three months later. Moreover, these weren’t the only rumblings of desertion in Jackson’s ambit, and since he was potentially facing the prospect of defending the whole Gulf Coast against the world’s preeminent military power using nothing but a motley collection of farmers, Indian allies, pirates, and what-have-you, Old Hickory was not inclined to countenance anything that could erode his forces’ tenuous unity. Like George Washington before him, Jackson shot some malcontents today to pre-empt trouble tomorrow.

On November 21, 1814, Jackson ordered the six deserters/mutineers to court-martial. The next day, he departed to New Orleans where he would cover himself with glory.

After winning that battle, Jackson adjudicated a message from the Alabama court-martial, announcing six men condemned who had not been recommended for leniency.

As is well-known, the War of 1812 had officially been settled by treaty for weeks at this point, but it took approximately f.o.r.e.v.e.r for word to get around in these pre-telegraph days. Jackson didn’t know the war was over: he did know that British ships were still lurking around in the Gulf. (They also didn’t know the war was over.)

So Jackson behaved just as if he had a going conflict on his hands and sent back confirmation of the sentences. His six mutineers were shot kneeling on their coffins before 1,500 troops in Mobile, Ala. on February 21, 1815. Only after that did everybody (British included) find out that there wasn’t anything left to fight for.

But when Andrew Jackson eventually ran for U.S. President in 1828, the poor militiamen were exhumed (only metaphorically!) to traduce the general, whose reputation already ran to the bloodthirsty. This was a country where a great many of the men casting ballots would be, actually or potentially, subject to militia duty: the prospect of a frontier Queeg actually executing militia was calculated to impair Jackson’s famous appeal to the common man and raise the specter of the president as a potential strongman.

Propaganda pamphlets circulated this execution story widely that year, the swiftboating of the 19th century.

Their inevitable inclusion of six coffin-shaped blocks to symbolize the dead men this date eventually gave to anti-Jackson broadsides the name “Coffin Handbills” — a term that eventually extended to the entire genre of political libels. This linguistic relic is surely due for a bicentennial resurrection.

Sordid campaigning over Jackson’s questionable military freelancing was somewhat ironic in 1828, since Jackson also had that reputation from his extra-legal Florida incursions, after the War of 1812. Those adventures rankled many within the Monroe administration, but were stoutly defended by Monroe’s Secretary of State — none other than John Quincy Adams. (Adams’s own signature graces the 1819 treaty with Spain which ceded Florida; it was largely secured by Jackson’s depredations.)

Irony or no, the attacks had to be dealt with.

Jackson’s partisans responded with equal vigor. For instance, newspapers (the excerpt below comes from the May 1, 1828 Maryland Gazette) carried a lengthy vindication penned by a Jackson partisan and fellow-Tennessean then sitting his first term in Congress … but destined in time to follow Jackson to the White House.**

I had supposed it scarcely possible that any candid, intelligent man, could for a moment doubt the correctness of General Jackson’s conduct, in relation to this subject … No man has ever been more misrepresented and slandered by his political adversaries than Gen. Jackson, and upon no subject more than that in relation to the execution of the ‘six militia men.’ …

The corps to which the ‘six militiamen’ belonged, was stationed at Fort Jackson. Between the 10th and 20th of September 1814, before the period even of three months, much less six months, had expired, an alarming mutiny, such as was seldom ever witnessed in any army, took place in the camp, of which these ‘six militia men’ were the ringleaders. Harris who seems to have been the principal, several days before the mutiny broke out, carried about a subscription paper thro’ the camp, obtaining the signatures of all who would agree to go home. In defiance of their officers commanding the post, they on the 19th of September 1814, violently and tumultuously assembled together, to the number of near two hundred, broke open the public stores, took out provisions, demolished the bake house, shot down breves, and in the face of authority, left the camp on the next morning ‘at the end of revielle beat;’ yelling and firing scattering guns as they departed, proclaiming to all who would, to follow them.

Th proceedings of the court martial were forwarded to General Jackson then at New Orleans, for his approval. The six ringleaders were not recommended to mercy by the court martial. No palliating circumstances existed in their case, known to him. He knew they had been tried by a court martial composed of their fellow citizens and neighbours at home. The news of peace had not then arrived. The enemy’s forces were still in our waters and on our border. When an attack might be made was unknown, and the militia under General Winchester‘s command at Mobile, were ‘threatening to mutiny.’ … General Jackson saw that the salvation of the country was still in jeopardy, if subordination was not preserved in the army. He approved the sentence, and these six unfortunate, tho’ guilty men, were executed. This approval of the sentence of the court martial was made at New Orleans on the 22d of January, 1815. The first intimation which the General had of the news of peace even by rumour, was received on the 18th or 19th of February, 1815 … Col. G.C. Russell, who commanded on the day the sentence of the court martial was carried into execution, states in a letter of the 29th of July, 1827, that ‘we had no knowledge of a treaty of peace having been signed at Ghent, till more than a month after the approval of the sentence, and fifteen or twenty days after its execution.’ The official news of peace did not reach General Jackson until the 18th of March, 1815, and on the 19th of the same month, the British commander received the official intelligence from his government. It was not until after this period that the British forces left their position on that border of the union.

The effect which the execution of these men produced in the army was most salutary. Not a whisper was afterwards heard of the mutiny which had threatened General Winchester’s command. Subordination was restored, and all the troops in the service were willing, and did without a murmur perform their duty. Mutiny and desertion were no longer heard of in that part of the military service.

it is impossible to conceive how censure can attach to General Jackson. At the time he approved the sentence of the six ringleaders, he pardoned all those who had been recommended to mercy by the court martial that tried them. At the time of the execution all acquiesced in its justice. Every officer in the army responded to the importance of the example, for the good of the service. At that time the whole country was satisfied. Not a whisper of censure was heard against the commanding General, or any member of the court martial in reference to it.

-James K. Polk

Polk, indeed, advised his friend Jackson closely during the latter’s 1828 campaign, and specifically counseled an active campaign to rebut the “six militiamen” attacks.

Polk’s energetic response and others like it must have worked well enough: Jackson crushed John Quincy Adams as handily as he had once done the Creeks, and wound up with his hatchet face on the American $20 bill.

* The De Tocqueville quote in the text is the part germane to this post, but it disdainfully goes on to pronounce New Orleans “a victory which was, however, a very ordinary achievement and which could only be remembered in a country where battles are rare. Now the people who are thus carried away by the illusions of glory are unquestionably the most cold and calculating, the most unmilitary, if I may so speak, and the most prosaic of all the nations of the earth.” Sniff.

** And to follow Jackson’s policy of dubious southerly land-grabs.

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1809: Seven Valladolid ruffians, by Napoleon

Add comment January 13th, 2015 Headsman

Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

-Machiavelli, The Prince

This date in 1809, Napoleon gave that dread of punishment to the Spanish with the execution of seven insurgents at Valladolid, where he had come to collect grudging oaths of loyalty from that conquered nation’s grandees to his brother and puppet king Joseph.

We get this entry from Adolphe ThiersHistory of the consulate and the empire of France under Napoleon. We’ve added some paragraph breaks for readability.

Napoleon very distinctly discerned in the alleged devotion of the Spanish people for the house of Bourbon the demagogue passions that stirred them, and which took that strange way to manifest themselves; for it was the most violent democracy under the appearance of the purest royalism.

This people, extreme in all things, had in fact begun again the work of assassination in revenge for the disasters of the Spanish armies. Since the murders of the unfortunate marquis de Parales in Madrid, and of Don Juan Benito at Talavera, they had massacred in Ciudad Real Don Juan Duro, canon of Toledo, and a friend of the prince of the Peace; and at Malagon, the ex-minister of finance, Don Soler. Wherever there were no French armies, honest men trembled for their property and their lives.

Napoleon, resolving to make a severe example of the assassins, ordered the arrest in Valladolid of a dozen of ruffians known to have been concerned in all the massacres, particularly in that of the unfortunate governor of Segovia, Don Miguel Cevallos; and he had them executed, notwithstanding the apparent entreaties of the principal inhabitants of Valladolid.

“You must make yourself feared first, and loved afterwards,” was his frequent remark in his letters to his brother. “They have been soliciting me here for the pardon of some bandits who have committed murder and robbery, but they have been delighted not to obtain it, and subsequently everything has returned to its proper course.”

Our historian encloses as a footnote the text of a Napoleonic correspondence, documenting not only this date’s particular entry into the annals of execution but the Corsican’s methods generally.

The historian Thiers, it transpired, would soon be called upon to implement the sanguinary lessons of his study.

To the king of Spain

Valladolid, January 12, 1809 — noon.

The operation effected by Belliard is excellent. You must have a score of rascals hanged. To-morrow I hang seven here, notorious for having committed all sorts of atrocities, and whose presence was an affliction for the honest folks who secretly denounced them, and who are recovering courage since they are quit of them. You must do the same in Madrid. If a hundred incendiaries and brigands are not got rid of there, nothing is done. Of these hundred have a dozen or fifteen shot or hanged, and send the rest to France to the galleys. I have had quiet in France only in consequence of arresting 200 incendiaries, September murderers, and brigands, whom I sent off to the colonies. Since that time the tone of the capital changed as if at a whistle.

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1875: Henry Wainwright, Whitechapel murderer

Add comment December 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1875, Whitechapel’s most notorious murderer ere Jack the Ripper arrived on the scene paid for his double life on the gallows of Newgate.

Henry Wainwright, brushmaker and philanderer, came to his mortal ruin by way of a financial one.

The expansive Wainwright could not confine his adventures to actresses at the theater adjacent his Whitechapel Road shop* but in 1872 installed a mistress, one Harriet Lane, in a flat of her own with a liberal £5-a-week stipend. “Mrs. King”, as she styled herself with a better ear for the forgettable name than Wainwright would evidence (we’ll come to that part), bore her lover two children.

But by the next year, Wainwright’s prodigalities and a worldwide economic crisis had sunk him in debt. As his creditors circled, Wainwright pinched farthings where he could, putting predictable strain on his lover’s allowance — and with it, her affection, her sobriety, and her discretion.

As Wainwright succumbed to bankruptcy, Harriet Lane’s demands for money and occasional drunken forays into his very place of business had Wainwright scrambling for some way to fob the mistress off on some other man. His efforts thereto were frustrated, so he contrived the next best thing: prevailing on his brother Thomas** to write his mistress mash notes under the ungainly pseudonym of “Edward Frieake”, Wainwright spun a plausible scenario for her elopement.

Unfortunately for Mrs. King, the honeymoon would be a chloride of lime pit under the floorboards of Wainwright’s warehouse.

On September 11, 1874, the lady sallied out of her apartment, and was never heard from again.

Laborers working near Wainwright’s warehouse that night would report hearing three gunshots, but being unable to pinpoint their source they let the matter drop — just as did police with Harriett Lane’s disappearance. With the help of a chaser letter or two from his brother, Wainwright represented that she had run off to Paris with her correspondent. Why, she might never be heard from again!

According to Jonathan Goodman, the 1844 Thomas Hood poem “The Bridge of Sighs” was a Wainwright favorite, one he often recited to entertain his family(s):

One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly
Young, and so fair!

Wainwright himself qualified for verse not long after poor Harriet Cole’s remains tumbled into plain view on that London street, like the “Awful Murder and Mutilation of a Female At the East-end of London”, whose composition mirrors its expository title:

Her head was severed from her body,
Her arms as well — how sad to tell

The above fragment (I have not located the entire original) is from this informative post about murder ballads

Another year on, Wainwright had good cause to believe he’d gotten away with the whole thing.† But his finances having finally collapsed, the warehouse that doubled has Harriet Lane’s tomb had been foreclosed upon in July of 1875, and it would soon be sold to new and potentially nosy owners. Wainwright had a body to move. And when the hole was opened up on September 10, 1875, it uncovered not a few scraps of a satisfyingly dissolved corpse — but the body entire, preserved rather than eroded by its chemical bath.

And the corpse stank disgustingly.

Showing the extraordinary judgment that had got him into this mess in the first place, Wainwright bought a spade and a cleaver to dismember the foul limbs he had once made love to, and then engaged a colleague to help him schlep the resulting packages out to the street. Arthur Stokes would later attribute his decision to peek to a divine command that struck him from the firmament, but nothing more remarkable than below-average curiosity will be required of a man encumbered by a heavy, fetid parcel to wonder what they might contain. A more impressive explanation will be required to justify Henry Wainwright’s decision to leave Stokes alone with the horrors while Wainwright jogged off to hail a cab.

Thinking fast for a man come face to face with a severed head, Stokes rewrapped the horrendous bundle and casually helped his homicidal friend pack it all onto the cab. When Wainwright drove off, Stokes trailed him, looking for constables to summon. And when he found them, and they approached the cab asking to inspect his cargo, all Henry Wainwright’s nauseating hypocrisy spilled out on the street in a lurid pile. He lamely tried to bribe the constables two hundred quid to ignore the putrid sackful of human remains.

A distinct scar and the dress Harriet Lane had worn on the day of her “elopement” identified the body to everyone’s satisfaction, and the circumstances of the body’s discovery did not admit much hope for Wainwright’s defense team.‡

So notorious was Wainwright’s crime that a vast concourse of gawkers mobbed the exterior of Newgate on the morning of his hanging, just like in the bad old days — even though, all executions by this late date being private affairs, these masses had no opportunity to glimpse anything save the black flag hoisted over Newgate to signal that the sentence of the law had been carried into effect.


* Wainwright’s old shop apparently still stands, in relatively good condition. There are some 21st century photos of it and some interesting discussion of the case on

** Exactly when Thomas Wainwright became aware of what his brother had been up to with this “Edward Frieake” stuff is not certain. He did help his brother open Harriet Lane’s lime grave prior to its catastrophic attempted move.

Tried for his life alongside his brother, Thomas was acquitted of capital murder but caught a seven-year prison sentence as an accessory after the fact.

† The illegitimate children were in the care of a dressmaker, Ellen Wilmore, who still had them by the time of Wainwright’s trial. (Wilmore was called to testify.) It is not known what became of them thereafter.

‡ We are indebted to Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in London’s East End for this outstanding detail: librettist W.S. Gilbert appears as a part of Wainwright’s defense. Gilbert, a barrister by training who had just made his big breakthrough by writing the 1875 musical theater hit Trial by Jury, was in the process of launching the collaborative career that puts Gilbert and Sullivan productions on community playhouse stages down to the present day.

Late in 1875, W.S. Gilbert received a jury summons highly inconvenient to his burgeoning artistic career. Consequently, he managed to finagle for himself a nominal assignment on the Wainwright defense team as a means of re-establishing “practicing attorney” bona fides that would exempt him from any jury boxes.

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1817: Maggie Houghtaling

Add comment October 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1817, Maggie Houghtaling (alias Peggy Densmore) was hanged in Hudson, N.Y. for infanticide.

Houghtaling lived with the mother of 15-month-old Lewis Spencer. One awful day in August — just eight weeks before the consequent execution — the mother popped out of the house a few moments and left Lewis gnawing on a piece of bread under her roommate’s care.

When the mother returned, she found the child “apparently in convulsions, its tongue protruded from the mouth, and covered with erosions — the inside of the mouth corrugated, and all the shocking symptons which may be supposed to follow from a potion so horrid.” The potion referred to in this account of the New York Evening Post (September 23, 1817): vitriol, also known as sulfuric acid. It’ll do a number on you.

The self-evident inference was that his babysitter had poisoned the kid — an inference the mother made immediately and that Maggie Houghtaling vainly sought to repel all the way to the rope.*

Hudson’s Northern Whig reported a heavily-attended (five to ten to even fifteen thousand souls, by various estimates) but orderly scene and “the ceremonies of the day … conducted with great propriety.” Houghtaling herself was composed and even indifferent** riding a horse-drawn cart with a halter around her neck to a scaffold erected on the pastures north of State Street.†

Houghtaling made one last assertion of her innocence under the gallows, despite the overwhelming confidence her contemporaries had in her guilt. “Such declarations,” sniffed the Otsego Herald (Oct. 30, 1817) “after a fair and impartial trial, and from her incredibility of character, were not entitled to consideration, and made but little impression in her favor.”

Then she swung.

Many, many years later, as the Empire State prepared to execute Roxalana Druse — the very last woman put to death by hanging in New York — one of the numerous pamphlets published in the hope of sparing Ms. Druse curiously resuscitated the Houghtaling hanging.

Mrs. Druse’s case and Maggie Houghtaling: An innocent woman hanged claims that the secret of the crime was revealed to its writer by “a tall, handsome lady of middle age and most refined manner” who had “befriended Peggy, when that unfortunate young woman was being tried and she was the last one who prayed in her cell with her before she was led out for execution.” Since Roxalana Druse was hanged seventy years after our Ms. Houghtaling, this refined Samaritan must have discovered the font of middle age.

There is no evidence I have been able to locate of the manipulative story purportedly related surfacing in any official fashion to exonerate Maggie Houghtaling (or “Peggy Houghtaling”, here). But doubts aside — and we must allow that the incendiary domestic murder of a child has been known to railroad a body now and again — this qualifies at the very least as intriguing folklore: the young woman publicly executed over her protestations of innocence still maintained a purchase on the public conscience seven decades after her death.

In agony she [Houghtaling] begged for her life to be at least spared till she had an opportunity to prove her innocence. But, no, there was no mercy for her as the case was a most revoltingly brutal one, and the wretched woman was strung up like a dog six weeks [sic] after the murder, protesting with her last breath:

God forgive you all for hanging me; but I am innocent, and my only prayer is that some day it may be proved and the black spot taken off my name and memory.

That some day did not come for seveal years, and then the real murderess was found. She had been a rival of poor Peggy’s in the affections of the same man, and was “cut out” as she called it, by Peggy. In her disappointment and rage she resolved on revenge, but buried it in her heart, and appeared very friendly and indifferent on the surface. At last she got her opportunity, and she cold-bloodedly murdered Peggy’s child. [sic] Her devilish plot had been laid with the most consummat skill, in such a way that suspicion was thrown upon the mother, who accordingly was arrested. The public mind was aroused to the highest point of excitement, most especially by the testimony of this very witness, given on the stand amidst a flow of crocodile tears, and apparently with great reluctance. Her revenge was thus complete; but as he always does, the devil sowed in her bosom the little black seed of remorse, and it sprouted and grew, and spread, until she was the most unhappy wretch in existence. At night the ghosts of her two victims came to her in her sleep, and she would wake up screaming with terror and in daytime her imagination brought them before her, at times so vividly that she would fall in fits.

After enduring a lifetime’s pangs of remorse, the “real murderess” (never named) at last expires

in convulsions on the bed, screaming, clasping her hands, tearing at her throat, and crying out:

“I am lost! I’m lost, forever! There is no forgiveness! none! none!”

In the midst of one of these awful paroxysms the guilty wretch suddenly expired, and her soul stood in the presence of her Maker, to answer for the hideous crime she had committed on earth.

* Maggie Houghtaling was prosecuted by District Attorney Moses I. Cantine with the assistance of his brother-in-law, who just happened to be the state Attorney General: future U.S. President Martin Van Buren. (Evening Post, Sept. 23, 1817)

** By the conventions of the execution bulletin, condemned prisoners are remarked “indifferent” when their composure exceeds the reporter’s own.

† I have no idea whether it actually relates to this date’s events but one would be remiss not to mention that the next lane north of State Street in Hudson is something called Rope Alley.

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610: Phocas, “will you rule better?”

Add comment October 5th, 2014 Headsman

It was on this date in 610 that the Byzantine Emperor Phocas was overthrown and put to summary execution — by the very hand, legend says, of his successor Heraclius.*

Perhaps Byzantium’s most anathematized emperor — one Byzantine historian elided his whole 8-year reign because “speaking of suffering is itself suffering” — Phocas’s own rise to the purple owed itself to extrajudicial executions.

That gentleman was a mere army officer of no regal proximity during the previous emperor’s campaigns to ward off the incursions of the Slavs and Avars into the Balkans. While this campaign on the whole enjoyed its successes, Phocas enters the historical scene about 600 as the leader of a delegation sent from the legions to Constantinople to object when the cash-poor imperial court refused to pony up ransom money for comrade soldiers taken prisoner. Phocas was abused at court, and the Avars executed their hostages.

By 602 the policy of having the soldiery take it in the braccae (soldiers’ own allotments had also been pinched by the same budget strictures) blew back when the foul-tempered army was ordered to winter on the far side of the remote Danube. The government collapsed in the face of a military mutiny; Phocas was crowned emperor; and he executed the former emperor Maurice, plus Maurice’s six sons. Much as we are accustomed to think of the old Roman emperors ever on the edge of violent overthrow, this event was for its contemporaries a great novelty and a dangerous precedent. There had not been a regime change by coup d’etat in Constantinople since that city’s namesake set it up as his capital nearly three centuries before.

This fact is a small part of Phocas’s vile reputation for later historians. But — and we will come to this — that reputation is also heavily colored by the perspective of the regime that would eventually overthrow Phocas himself. For Phocas’s subjects, while he had subjects, he was very far form universally hated. He found particular favor with the church, delivering the gorgeous pagan Pantheon to the pontiffs for use as a church. When touring Rome, you might learn that the very last imperial monument in the Forum is the Column of Phocas.**

Erected in gratitude by the Exarch of Ravenna.

Phocas’s reign, however, was defined by war with the Persians. And it was in the time of Phocas that King Khosrau, who actually owed his throne to previous Roman support, started breaking through the weakened Byzantine frontiers and tearing off huge pieces of territory.

By the last years of Phocas the Persians had taken Upper Mesopotamia and Armenia, and begun pressing into Anatolia where resistance collapsed with frightful ease. A Persian raid reached as far as Chalcedon in 608. There’s just something about having an enemy army in the suburbs of your capital that tends to overwhelm the value of any goodwill you got from cozying up to the pope.

In that same year (and this was surely a factor in the Persians’ shocking penetration into Anatolia) the Exarch of Africa began a revolt against the former centurion wearing the purple. From his position he was able to cut off grain shipments to the capital from the empire’s breadbasket, Egypt, which put Phocas in a truly desperate position. This exarch’s name was Heraclius but it was the man’s son, also named Heraclius, who would do the usurping.

Approaching the capital in 610, the Heraclii were able to quickly gather allies. Even the Excubitors, Constantinople’s Praetorian Guards under the leadership here of Phocas’s own son-in-law, saw where the winds were blowing and deserted immediately.

The rebels took Constantinople without a fight, and two patricians seized Phocas and presented him to the new sovereign.

“Is this how you have ruled, wretch?”

To which Phocas sneered,

“And will you rule better?”

Heraclius wasn’t in in the mood to be upstaged by his doomed predecessor, and got the latter’s execution, together with his own immediate coronation, enacted straighaway.

his right arm was removed from the shoulder, as well as his head, his hand was impaled on a sword, and thus it was paraded along the Mese, starting from the Forum. His head was put on a pole, and thus it too was paraded around. The rest of the body was dragged along on the belly, and was brought in the direction of the Chalce of the Hippodrome … And about the ninth hour of the same Monday, heraclius was crowned emperor in the most holy Great Church by Sergius patriarch of Constantinople. And on the following day, Tuesday … the head of Leontius the syrian [the former finance minister] was brought in and burnt in the Hippodrome, along with the image of Phocas which during his lifetime, foolish men wearing white robes had conducted into the Hippodrome with lighted candles. (Chronicon Paschale, as quoted here)

As if in retort to Phocas’s dying taunt, Heraclius held power for 30 distinguished years — “the brightness of the meridian sun,” in the estimation of Gibbon, for “the honor of Rome and Heraclius was gloriously retrieved by the exploits and trophies of six adventurous campaigns” that rescued Byzantium from the brink of destruction, drove back the Persians, enlarged the empire, and even returned the True Cross to Jerusalem. Heraclius himself commanded the army in the field, a practice long out of fashion for emperors. “Since the days of Scipio and Hannibal, no bolder enterprise has been attempted than that which Heraclius achieved for the deliverance of the empire.”

Phocas’s reputation did not profit from the comparison, and for Heraclius the last guy made a convenient foil to whom every evil of the realm could be attributed. We know Phocas almost exclusively through the accounts of later historians dating to this period, which is undoubtedly a factor in the black name our principal enjoys all the way to the present. The excellent History of Byzantium podcast attempts a balanced portrait of this era in an episode aptly named “In Fairness to Phocas”. The subsequent episode, “Heraclius to the Rescue”, deals with Phocas’s unpleasant exit from the scene.

* The new emperor personally executing his rival had a Roman precedent.

** Other Phocas achievement: he re-introduced the beard onto the imperial fashion scene. His predecessors had almost universally gone for the clean-cut look.

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1814: Not William Beanes, anthem enabler

Add comment September 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date two centuries ago, a man on a mission of mercy found his accidental entry into history.

The mercy in question was required for a Maryland fellow named William Beanes. During the War of 1812, the British had seized this 65-year-old doctor on their march back from torching the White House, on grounds of his role jailing British soldiers who were doing some freelance plundering around his beloved Upper Marlboro.

They were making worrying (possibly empty) threats about hanging the man for infringing the laws of war as they held Dr. Beanes in the Chesapeake Bay aboard the H.M.S. Tonnant.* Beanes’s friends recruited a respected lawyer (and amateur poet) to get the venerable gentleman out of the soup.

This was accomplished easily enough. Approaching the British warship under a flag of truce, the lawyer and a buddy who was the government’s designated prisoner exchange agent managed to convince Gen. Robert Ross to parole his “war criminal” by producing a packet of testimonials from previous British POWs affirming the honorable treatment Dr. Beanes had accorded them. Problem solved.

There was one minor hitch.

Because the British were preparing to attack Baltimore, and the visiting envoys had perforce become privy to some of the forthcoming operational details whose exposure might complicate matters, the hosts detained the whole party at sea pending the encounter’s conclusion.

There the Americans looked on, helplessly entranced, as the Battle of Baltimore unfolded. On September 12, there was a land battle (the munificent Gen. Ross was slain by an American sharpshooter as he directed troops in this affair). Then at dawn on September 13, the British fleet commenced a withering bombardment of Baltimore’s principal harbor bulwark, Fort McHenry. Safely out of range of the fort’s guns, British cannons rained ordnance on the fort throughout the day, 1,500 bombs in all. At one point a missile ripped a white star from the fort’s gigantic American flag.

The firing continued into the night. The American bystanders, who could do nothing but watch, now could catch nothing but the fleeting illumination of exploding shells. Could the fort possibly survive the assault? As morning approached, the fleet’s firing came to a virtual stop. The Americans could only surmise that this abatement might indicate Fort McHenry’s capture by the British. The suspense over the course of the long, dark night must have been near unbearable.

Dawn’s early light on September 14, 1814 brought for the Yankees a wonderous sight: the tattered American banner somehow still fluttered over the fort, where they had watched it all the day before.

On September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key beholds the American flag still flying over Baltimore, just as it had at the previous twilight’s last gleaming. (1912 painting by Edward Moran.)

Overjoyed now, Beanes’s deliverer Francis Scott Key put his poetic gifts to patriotic use and dashed off a poem celebrating Baltimore’s fortitude. Originally known as “The Defence of Fort McHenry”, you know it today as “The Star-Spangled Banner” — the American national anthem. We owe it all to Williams Beanes’s capture and prospective hanging.

* A French-built ship captured in Egypt by Horatio Nelson. (Cool painting.) She would go on to fight in the naval prelude to the Battle of New Orleans.

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1526: 2,000 Hungarian prisoners after the Battle of Mohacs

Add comment August 31st, 2014 Headsman

The Sultan, seated on a golden throne, receives the homage of the viziers and the beys, massacre of 2,000 prisoners, the rain falls in torrents.

-Sultain Suleiman the Magnificent (writing of himself in the third person), diary, 31 August 1526

On this date in 1526, two days after the pivotal Battle of Mohács, the Ottomans executed all their Hungarian captives from that battle.

After the 1490 death of Hungary’s greatest king Matthias Corvinus, the Hungarian kingdom began to crumble. Ottoman incursions ate away at that realm’s Balkan possessions.

Squeezed between two stronger empires, Hungary’s King Lajos II put a ring on the non-Turkish one by marrying a Habsburg princess. Fair enough.

Less successful statecraft was his decision not to cut a deal for peace with the Turks and instead force a decisive confrontation … especially since that battle was a tactical debacle. Eschewing a coy retreat towards nearby friendly forces, the belligerent Hungarian nobles hurled their heavy cavalry straight at the numerically superior Turks, basically duplicating the gameplan that the West’s last Crusaders had used when they got their lances handed to them by the Ottomans a century before at Nicopolis.

And those who did not learn from history were here doomed to repeat it. “The Hungarian nation will have twenty thousand martyrs on the day of the battle, and it would be well to have them canonized by the Pope,” a priest is reported to have said when he heard about the decision. By sundown, the Hungarians were routing in disarray, the wounded Lajos himself falling into the Danube in the disorder and drowning in his heavy armor.

Well, we’re boned. The Battle of Mohacs, by Hungarian painter Mor Than (1856).

“May Allah be merciful to him, and punish those who misled his inexperience,” said Suleiman of his 20-year-old opposite number. “It was not my wish that he should thus be cut off, while he had scarcely tasted the sweets of life and royalty.”

Not so tender were Suleiman’s pities for those 2,000 anonymous prisoners of war … and, for that matter, for anyone in the surrounding countryside unfortunate enough to find him- or herself in the path of the now-unchecked Ottoman force.

The cavalry, knowing no mercy, dispersed into the provinces of the wicked one like a stream overflowing its banks and, with the fiery meteors of its sparkling sabers, burned every home to the ground, sparing not a single one…. The contemptible ones were slain, their goods and families destroyed…. Not a stone of the churches and monasteries remained.

Within the fortnight the Turks were sacking defenseless Buda(pest); they would take it for good in 1541 and hold it for 145 years, pressing the Ottoman frontier deep into Europe. It wouldn’t be a Hungarian polity that recaptured it, but the Habsburg empire into which the Magyar wreckage was subsumed — retaking Buda in 1686 in the counterattack after the failed Ottoman Siege of Vienna.

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1530: Francesco Ferruccio, victim of Maramaldo

Add comment August 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1530, Francesco Ferruccio (or just Ferrucci) and his executioner Fabrizio Maramaldo clinched their immortality at the Battle of Gavinana.

The battle was the tragic final scene of the War of the League of Cognac, in which an alliance of Italian city-states tried to expel the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V from the peninsula. Charles had already in effect decided matters by forcing the French out of the fight, which also brought about the capitulation of the Vatican.

Left alone in the fray, doughty Florence — ever so briefly at this moment restored as a Republic, having given the Medici the boot — continued to hold out against impossible odds. A vast imperial army swollen by landsknechts whose mercenary arms were now unnecessary elsewhere in Italy besieged Florence on October 24, 1529.

The Siege of Florence, by Tuscan Renaissance Man Giorgio Vasari.

The intrepid Florentine commander Francesco Ferruccio (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) strove to take his hopeless fight to the enemy. After a plan to coerce papal support by striking Rome was vetoed, Ferruccio mounted a march through the Apennines to threaten the Imperials’ rear.

He was intercepted at Gavinana, a battle decided by the arrival of landsknecht reinforcements under the command of the notoriously cruel condottiere Fabrizio Maramaldo.

Maramaldo would elevate himself for posterity out of the ranks of his merely brutal brethren by finding Ferruccio, badly wounded, his prisoner, and putting him to immediate death by his own hand — an execution that resulted in Florentine capitulation one week later, and the installation of Alessandro de’ Medici as Duke of the now ex-Republic.*

While admittedly borderline as an “execution” suitable for this here site, Ferruccio’s defiance in the face of his killer and his last denunciation of Maramaldo — “Coward, you kill a dead man!” — became the stuff of legend in a later Italy. (It also helped Ferruccio’s case for the nationalist pantheon that he died fighting against the Germans, not against the next city-state over.)

The romantic novelist Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi** made Ferruccio the subject of his magnum opus L’Assedio di Firenze, and before you knew it the name was on the lips of every risorgimento Tom, Dick and Francesco. Garibaldi invoked him in speech; Goffredo Mameli wrote him into the national anthem.

Every man has the heart
and hand of Ferruccio …

Under the Italian state those men helped to make, Ferruccio was appropriated as the name of a battleship; fascist Italy especially found Ferruccio congenial to the national-pride project and valorized the martyr relentlessly.

1930 Fascist Italy stamp depicting — for the 400th anniversary of the occasion — Fabrizio Maramaldo murdering his prisoner Francesco Ferruccio. Other Februccio stamps from the same period can be found on the man’s Italian Wikipedia page.

For Maramaldo, a less flattering but possibly more durable legacy: Italian gained the noun maramaldo, the adjective maramaldesco, and the verb maramaldeggiare to signify bullying or cruel domineering.

* Alessandro had a reputation for despotism, and was assassinated a few years later by his cousin Lorenzino de’ Medici in a tyrannicide that was Brutus-like in both its motivation and effect. That later affair is the subject of the 19th century play Lorenzaccio.

** Guerrazzi also did his bit for the legend of Beatrice Cenci.

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