Posts filed under 'Corpses Strewn'

Corpses Strewn: The Aiken Party Massacre

Add comment November 25th, 2018 Headsman

“Six ‘gentlemen of good address,’ known as the Aiken party, rode into Salt Lake Valley from California in October 1857 and were never seen or heard from again by family members or friends.” So begins the late David Bigler’s 2007 Western Historical Quarterly article, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858.” It’s an affair with little purchase on the American recollection, buried in the omerta passed over the violent birth of Mormonism, once that faith attained its political accommodation come the late 19th century.

Early Mormonism traded stripe for stripe with neighbors who hated the movement to the extent of an extermination order and the lynching of founding prophet Joseph Smith.

Under the leadership of Smith’s successor Brigham Young, the community relocated en masse to the arid westward frontier between the Rocky Mountains and California — the Utah Territory, spanning the eventual states of both Utah and Nevada.*

But the heretical and polygamous frontier theocracy at first stood in the same fraught relationship with the expanding Republic that it had once had with Protestant neighbors in Missouri and Illinois. Mormons answered to Governor Young as both the civil and ecclesiastical power, ignoring or overruling federal authorities to the extent that enemies slated the sect with rebellion.

“He has been so much in the habit of exercising his will which is supreme here, that no one will dare oppose anything he may say or do,” an Indian Affairs agent reported to Washington of Gov. Young. “His orders are obeyed without regard to their consequences and whatever is in the interest of the Mormons is done whether it is according to the interest of the government or not.”

In 1857 the new U.S. President James Buchanan appointed a new man to replace Brigham Young as Utah’s governor — and sent an armed expedition to enforce the federal writ. Young raged against this move, charging that “their entrance is designed by our Government to be the prelude to the introduction of abominations and death … if they can send a force against this people, we have every constitutional and legal right to send them to hell, and we calculate to send them there.”

Young declared martial law, closed trails through the territory, and braced to “repel any and all such invasion.”** This standoff commenced the 1857-1858 Utah War, which never quite came to open shooting between Mormon militias and the U.S. Army. But among Mormons who could remember civil strife with Americans all too well — “fear turned in their minds” as an interviewee has said on this very site, speaking on that occasion of the most notorious hecatomb of those years, the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Although downplayed in church-supported histories, Mormon guns did ample violence to other civilians of unreliable loyalties in those months.

It is thus that we come to our six gentlemen of good address, the Aiken or Aikin Party — victims of an atrocity not so well-known as those of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but no less appalling.

Thomas Aiken, John Aiken, John “Colonel” Eichard/Achard, Andrew Jackson “Honesty” Jones, and John Chapman had set out from California to cross those closed trails aiming to meet the approaching federal forces, carrying several thousand dollars in gold and letters endorsing them to the federal commanders; they were joined en route by Horace “Buck” Bucklin. Nobody quite knows the party’s intent for this rendezvous; several were merchants who had done a brisk trade with miners during the gold rush and they might have hoped to set up a profitable gambling or whoring operation that would soak up the soldiers’ wages.† To their captors, they explained their presence by saying only that they “wanted to see the country.” Whatever they were truly, Mormons saw them for enemy agents.

What befell them is quite borderline in terms of this here site‘s executions portfolio, but utterly blood-chilling. Though effected as brute assassinations in the field, those killed were overt prisoners of the territorial government whose fates had been deliberated and decreed by their captors. Bigler’s journal article summation of the evidence is our chief source in this; he draws heavily from unsuccessful 1877-1878 legal measures against the men’s surviving murderers.

Falling in with a Mormon wagon train for safety against Indian attacks, the Aiken party instead found itself disarmed and given to the custody of the Mormon militia at Box Elder (present-day Brigham City), then brought under guard to the territorial capital of Salt Lake City. Governor Young was fully aware of these potential spies in his custody.

Horace Bucklin made a successful — for now — appeal to Gov. Young for mercy as an innocent bystander. The five Californians were escorted 25 miles onward to Lehi, where John Chapman was suffered to winter. One of his four companions allegedly took his leave of Chapman with the words, “Goodbye, John. If you come this way and see our bones bleaching on the plains, bury them.” It was a prescient fear: the deaths of all these four men, and apparently Bucklin and Chapman too, were even at this moment being orchestrated by orders from the top.

History has not preserved for us the command in the governor’s own hand. But as Bigler puts it on circumstantial evidence, “an authority at Great Salt Lake made a considered decision to allow two of the men to remain at large over the winter and kill the other four. Such an authority could only have been Brigham Young.”

Recommended background: episode 116 of the Year Of Polygamy podcast. The Aiken Party is briefly touched on from about 38:20 but the entire episode is worth a go.

* All this land and more the Mormon settlers once aspired to incorporate as a mighty sovereignty destined to become a state called Deseret. That name lives on today in a Salt Lake City newspaper.

** Young’s proclamation gives a sense of his own power within Utah and the umbrage it would inspire of the federal government. (It’s quoted here by a legislator who grouses, “Caesar, when he crossed the Rubicon, made no higher assumption than Brigham Young when he declared war.”)

Therefore, I, Brigham Young, Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Territory of Utah, in the name of the people of the United States in the Territory of Utah, forbid —

First. All armed forces of every description from coming into this Territory, under any pretense whatever.

Second. That all the forces in said Territory hold themselves in readiness to march at a moment’s notice to repel any and all such invasion.

Third. Martial law is hereby declared to exist in this Territory from and after the publication of this proclamation; and no person shall be allowed to pass or repass into, or through, or from, this Territory, without a permit from the proper officer.

† The Aiken party did not have wagons full of merchandise, so any intended commercial operation they would have needed to realize on the spot.

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Corpses Strewn: The Murrell Excitement

Add comment July 2nd, 2017 Headsman

In 1835, Madison County in the U.S. Deep South state of Mississippi thrilled to the frightening rumor that its huge slave population was on the brink of insurrection.

As with many squelched servile revolts we have seen in these ghastly pages we have no conclusive evidence on the reality of the alleged plot … but we can certainly read the panic of the masters. They were, or became, acutely conscious of their vulnerability; Madison County’s* vast and wealthy plantations had one of the highest concentrations of slaves in the Union. An 1834 travelogue, not thinking of the prospects for a jacquerie, remarked on the “immense bodies of rich land” that were

all being converted into cotton fields, and negro quarters — leaving so sparse a white population, as to preclude the possibility of building up any thing like an interesting state of society. Many of the owners of those large plantations reside in the older settled parts of the State, and not a few of them in other States — leaving on a plantation containing perhaps, several sections of land, no white person except the overseer.**

This was the setup for numerous actual or almost slave rebellions, from the Caribbean to Nat Turner‘s rising in Virginia just four years before.

Spooked Mississippians took a page from the playbook of their Old Dominion brethren — exhausting patrols,* sleepless nights, vigilante justice. “I have not slept two hours in the twenty-four for six days and nights,” one planter wrote on July 9, “and have been on horseback more than four-fifths of the time” … and was scribbling in a rush for “I have to hurry to Clinton this morning.”†

The rumor seems to have been first put abroad by a Georgian adventurer named Virgil Stewart, who infiltrated himself into the company of bandit and slave-stealer John Murrell and got the latter arrested some months previous. Stewart circulated a pamphlet grandiosely titled “A history of the detection, conviction, life and designs of John A. Murel, the great western land pirate. Together with his system of villainy, and plan of exciting a Negro rebellion.” (Read it here.) This document is a principal source for the bloodbath that follows, along with “The History of Virgil A. Stewart, and His Adventure in Capturing and Exposing the Great ‘Western Land Pirate’ and His Gang, in Connection with the Evidence; also of the Trials, Confessions, and Execution of a Number of Murrell’s Associates in the State of Mississippi during the Summer of 1835, and the Execution of Five Professional Gamblers by the Citizens of Vicksburg, on the 6th of July, 1835” (here) and “Proceedings of the Citizens of Madison County, Mississippi, at Livingston, in July, 1835, in Relation to the Trial and Punishment of Several Individuals Implicated in a Contemplated Insurrection in This State” (here)

Stewart purported to have obtained a confession from Murrell’s own lips to the effect that “The grand object that we have in contemplation, is to excite a rebellion among the negroes, throughout the slave-holding States. Our plan is to manage so as to have it commence every where at the same hour.” The outlaw certainly had a trenchant critique of the Slave Power.

We find the most vicious and wicked disposed ones, on large farms: and poison their minds by telling them how they are mistreated, and that they are entitled to their freedom as much as their masters, and that all the wealth of the country is the proceeds of the black people’s labor; we remind them of the pomp and splendor of their masters, and then refer them to their own degraded situation, and tell them that it is power and tyranny which rivets their chains of bondage, and not because they are an inferior race of people. We tell them that all Europe has abandoned slavery, and that the West Indies are all free; and that they got their freedom by rebelling a few times and slaughtering the whites, and convince them, that if they will follow the example of the West India negroes, that they will obtain their liberty, and become as much respected as if they were white, and that they can marry white women when they are all put on a level. In addition to this, get them to believe, that the most of people are in favor of their being free, and that the free States, in the United States, would not interfere with the negroes, if they were to butcher every white man in the slave-holding States.

With Stewart’s report as background, a white woman at a Beatties Bluff plantation reported overhearing her slaves murmuring in hushed tones about a rebellion. In a twinkle a vigilance committee was formed up to pursue this lead, and it appears to have grafted some themes from Stewart/Murrell — a coordinated holiday rising (Murrell had said Christmas, but here the focus fell on Independence Day), the leadership of white scofflaws (hence the “Murrell Excitement”) — and it recorded an erudite defense of its confessedly rough and extralegal behavior.

When, too, it is recollected, that all we hold most dear in this world was involved in the common danger, and calling for every manly energy in its defence, the odds will be found very great between the cold reasoning of statesmen and lawyers, and the vituperations of fanatics at a distance. But imminent and pressing as was the danger, the organization of a committee, chosen by the unanimous consent of their fellow-citizens, assembled on the occasion, and invested by them (however unclothed with the forms of law) with the fearful power of life and death, was the result.

… why was not the civil authority appealed to? … The civil authority was inadequate to this end in Madison county; for there is no jail in that county sufficient to contain more than six or eight prisoners, and even those very insecurely; and, whenever prisoners would have been despatched to any other county, a guard would have been required, which would have left many families defenceless; and it was unknown at what moment this protection might be required; besides, immediate example, and its consequent terror, without hope from the law’s delay or evasion, seemed, as in truth it was, indispensable to safety.

Already had many of the slaves marked out the victims of their lust or revenge; and no time to convince them of the fatal attempts of their rash enterprise was to be lost. If they had been permitted to commence it, though a failure must have eventually taken place, horrid would their momentary triumph have been. That the plot was headed by a daring band of villanous [sic] white men, there now remains no doubt, and the desperate evil required a prompt and efficient remedy, to the extent of the one resorted to by the citizens of Madison county, and carried into effect by the committee.

For several scattered days ahead, we’ll follow this desperate committee’s prompt and efficient remedies.

As a postscript, Murrell made master criminal Cooperstown to the extent that treasure hunters still pursue his supposed deposits. Mark Twain dwells on “Murel’s Gang” as a “colossal combination of robbers, horse-thieves, negro-stealers, and counterfeiters” in Life on the Mississippi, rating him much the more impressive outlaw than the likes of Jesse James: “James’s modest genius dreamed of no loftier flight than the planning of raids upon cars, coaches, and country banks; Murel projected negro insurrections and the capture of New Orleans.” Humphrey Bogart played Murrell (or a fictional version of Murrell who lived long enough to figure in Civil War adventures) in the 1940 film Virginia City.

* There are 19 Madison Counties in the United States; Madison County, Mississippi is not the one with the bridges.

** As quoted by Edwin A. Miles, “The Mississippi Slave Insurrection Scare of 1835,” The Journal of Negro History, Jan. 1957.

† Quote from the National Intelligencer, July 29, 1835

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Corpses Strewn: New York’s slave conspiracy of 1741

1 comment May 11th, 2016 Headsman

Beginning on this May 11th, and scattered depressingly over the coming weeks, we revisit New York City’s great terrorist panic … of 1741.

This was scarcely the first security scare of New York — indeed, the city had been rocked by a major slave revolt back in 1712, a revolt that included arson.

By 1741, New York “boasted” the second-largest slave population of Britain’s North American colonies, behind only Charleston: enough souls to outnumber the city’s propertied elite should they manage to act in concert. As the cruel winter of 1741 abated, a series of fires in the city raised suspicion … and then fear … and soon, certainty … that just such a slave conspiracy was underway.

On March 18, Fort George caught fire, burning to the ground with the mansion of the autocratic royal governor before a semi-timely rainstorm aborted a potential Great Fire of London scenario.

Nobody could be sure what happened, but the cold-dried tinders of a wooden city were easy prey to accidental sparks. Though devastating, the calamity was not necessarily suspicious.

The event took on a different hue when another fire broke out near the ruins of the fort the very next week, March 25. Another occurred on April 1, and yet another on April 4.


1762 illustration of New Yorkers fighting a blaze by passing water buckets to a pumping wagon.

There were 10 fires in all, plus alarming near-misses like fizzled coals left under a heap of straw, and although each was contained without devastating the city it must have seemed that the flames licked Manhattan from the very mouth of hell, convening an ever more rattled bucket brigade again and again until — as the city’s Common Council recorded in convening on April 11 — “every one that reflected on the Circumstances attending them, the Frequency of them, and the Causes yet undiscovered, must necessarily conclude, that they were occasioned and set on Foot by some villainous Confederacy of latent Enemies amongst us.”


New-York Weekly Journal, April 20, 1741

A frightened populace confronting a shadowy menace in a world at war made an environment ripe for a witch hunt. That was not quite true in the literal sense:* a half-century’s distance from the Salem trials put 1741 New Yorkers in a different philosophical universe.

But for at least 30 of New York’s slaves, and for four white people known to keep intimacy with them, the effect was much the same. Harrowed between the masters’ self-confirming fears and their fellows’ desperate accusations under duress, the plot or the “plot” staked them to flaming pyres, high gallows, and public infamy.

We will pause for the particulars of various individuals’ situations as we meet them. As to the general outline, the provincial supreme court that condemned these 30-plus souls (and inflicted various sub-lethal punishments on others) had via testimony delivered to a grand jury beginning on April 22 evolved a working theory that the black slaves who frequented a tavern kept by a white couple named John and Peggy Hughson had formed a sinister society bent on outright revolution. The allegations of the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton, drawn from her with fear and favor, were key to the entire affair; in her words, three slaves named Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee were the architects of the plan along with Mr. Hughson and they aimed to “burn the whole town … [and] when all this was done, Caesar should be governor, and Hughson, her master, should be king.” More than that: these dark serviles should when they ruled New York have the city’s white women for their own. There is something of the Witches’ Sabbath about these specifications after all.

Whether there ever was a slave conspiracy — and if so, whether it ever compassed more than a handful of people, or rose past the level of loose words or isolated and opportunistic deeds — has never really been known. Cities have now and very much had then a susceptibility to fire, and their inhabitants a susceptibility to finding spurious patterns in noisy data.

As soon as July of that same year 1741 it was charged publicly (albeit anonymously) that those tongues of Hell had been the “merciless Flames of an Imaginary Plot,” and New Yorkers admonished that “making Bonfires of the Negros … [is] perhaps thereby loading yourselves with greater Guilt than theirs.” On the other hand — and one is reminded here of the Rorschach quality these distant and ill-documented episodes carry — the idea of an actual wide-ranging slave plot has also been valorized as working class resistance to the cruel Atlantic economy. To think, the ghost of Spartacus abroad in Manhattan! If it were, then they died like Spartacuses, too.

A few books about the slave conspiracy

* Witches were actually passingly entertained as the possible malefactors here, as the day for this superstition was not yet entirely past.

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Corpses Strewn: Collmore and his gang

Add comment February 18th, 2016 Headsman

For this month’s brief but quite graphic Corpses Strewn series (pair, really) concerning Irish outlaws who were hanged and cut apart in 1719, we are indebted to the curated collection of gallows broadsheets in James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland.

Gallows Speeches delivers what it promises to the tune of 61 broadsheets and one pamphlet transcribed from surviving originals; we’ll certainly have occasion to revisit some choicest morsels in future posts.

But Kelly really makes the book with a 58-page introductory analysis of this genre’s evolution through the 18th century, and the difficult job we have in posterity to situate such artifacts confidently in their own world: how accurate were they? how much did the genre’s formula and the demands of commercial publishers swallow up the convict’s “true” voice? how wide a readership did these broadsheets enjoy, and how did the general populace engage with them?

We don’t have answers in these specific instances or hardly any others, either. If nothing else, their discomfiting content — a performance of spectacular public butchery, preceded by the criminals’ own self-conscious performance of contrition — give us a window into the period of the death penalty as exemplary deterrence.

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Corpses Strewn: All in the Family

Add comment August 6th, 2014 Headsman

Thieving in Bloody Code England was quite often a family affair. For a few scattered posts this August we will revisit an extended clan of vagabond Northumberland robbers (and sometimes worse than robbers) who in the 1780s and 1790s broke with one another the bread they plundered from their neighbors. Terrifying in their moment, the family — and the family business — was extirpated in successive executions.

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Corpses Strewn: The Streltsy

1 comment October 10th, 2013 Headsman

Peter the Great’s ruthless destruction of the Streltsy played out as bloody public theater in October of 1698.

A strelets (or strelitz in a more Germanic transliteration) was a professional guardsman stationed in the Russian capital. Ivan the Terrible had formed the corps initially in the 16th century to give himself a standing musketeer* force when he otherwise had to depend on dicey peasant recruits.

By the 18th century, they were just one more sclerotic Russian bureaucracy.

Their nominal duty to garrison Moscow against invaders was nearly superfluous. Top-level Streltsy had ample time to exploit their tax-favored treatment to become merchants … from which some made enough money to hire out other underemployed Streltsy to fill their occasional duty shifts. Once elite recruits, they now handed down their cushy appointments father to son. Further down the lists, rank-and-file Streltsy politicized as pro-peasant, anti-foreigner, and supportive of the Old Believer movement.

So an institution of 22,000 armed men in the capital with grievances and free time: any government would find this dangerous.


The fall of the Streltsy is connected intimately with the rise of Peter the Great, and some backstory on the latter will be necessary to make sense of the former.

Peter’s father was Alexis I, who ruled Russia from 1645 to 1676. (He’s notable for backing the church reforms that opened the schism between mainline Orthodoxy and the unreconstructed Old Believers.)

Alexis had two wives and sixteen legitimate children, but at his death he left a shaky succession. The crown passed initially to the sickly teenager Fyodor III, but Fyodor died in 1682 without an heir of his own.

Who would rule next? The families of Tsar Alexis’s two wives, the Miloslavskys and the Naryshkins, contended for power.

Ivan, the only remaining son of Alexis’s Miloslavsky first wife, was mentally infirm. Peter, the son of Alexis’s (still-surviving) Naryshkin second wife, wasn’t even 10 years old yet.

A boyar duma selected Peter, the younger son of the younger wife.

On this, the Miloslavsky family incited the Streltsy to revolt with rumors that the upstart Naryshkins had poisoned off Fyodor and shoved aside the legitimate heir, nicely marrying these grievances to long-overdue Streltsy back pay the cash-poor government had been withholding. The result was a savage May 1682 mutiny of guardsmen who ran amok through the undefended Kremlin. Scenes of unspeakable horror played out before young Peter’s own eyes: shaggy praetorians ransacking the palace in search of noblemen whom Peter had grown up around, and who were now wildly accused of regicide, treason, and tight-fistedness. These men would be put to savage and summary death by the armed mob: hurled onto spearpoints, tortured to death in the dungeons, or just cut apart on the streets. To abate the rampaging death squad after several harrowing days, Peter’s mother was forced to give up her own brother Ivan — especially hated of the Streltsy — to torture and murder.


Alexei Korzukhin’s 1882 depiction of the Streltsy dragging Ivan Naryshkin to his death as a young Peter the Great consoles his mother.

The Streltsy had threatened to slaughter every last boyar in the Kremlin had she not done so.

Their depredations forced the appointment of the infirm Miloslavsky candidate Ivan as Peter’s co-tsar, both sovereigns under the regency of Ivan’s strong-willed elder sister Sophia.

They carried that day and, by virtue of Sophia’s rule, the remainder of the 1680s. But as Peter aged into manhood, the two parties were bound for confrontation once again, and Peter finally took Russia in hand and forced Sophia into a convent in 1689.

So that’s the scene: Peter’s in charge. He has a living rival locked up in a nunnery. And the Streltsy have a definite preference between them.


For obvious reasons, Peter returned the low opinion of the Streltsy.

Due care for his throne dovetailed conveniently with payback for uncle Ivan’s murder, and Peter took every opportunity to reduce the privileged position of this dangerous body in favor of his new Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky regiments. After the Azov campaigns in the mid-1690s, Peter returned in triumph with his prized western-trained armies, leaving Streltsy to garrison his Black Sea outpost.

Disaffected Streltsy started thinking that Sophia would look real good back on the throne.

In June 1698, incensed by an order to march hundreds of miles to the Polish-Lithuanian frontier — and having been secretly in contact with Sophia — four Streltsy regiments mutinied and made for the capital. Peter was away in Vienna, but his general Alexei Shein intercepted the rebels 30 miles from the city and routed them. “Not one got away,” in the words of the communique to Peter. Shein himself executed well over 100 of the captured Streltsy right in the field. Another nineteen hundred were left to wait the pleasure of their returning sovereign and enemy.

Peter was not a man for half-measures; his city, St. Petersburg, remains today a monument to his vision but was thrown up on a fetid quagmire over the bones of countless laborers. Progressive despots don’t always encounter a backward army whose claims to semi-feudal privileges throw the country into commotion, but when they do, they purge wholesale.

“How sharp was the pain, how great the indignation to which the Czar’s Majesty was mightily moved, when he knew of the rebellion of the Strelitz, betrayed openly a mind panting for vengeance,” wrote the Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb — present in Moscow for the occasion, and a man whom the xenophobic Streltsy might well have lynched given the opportunity.

[Peter] began to have suspicions of everybody’s loyalty, and began to cogitate about a fresh investigation. The rebels that were kept in custody, in various places in the environs, were all brought in by four regiments of the guards, to a fresh investigation and fresh tortures … No day, holy or profane, were the inquisitors idle; every day was deemed fit and lawful for torturing. As many as there were accused there were knouts, and every inquisitor was a butcher.


The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy by Vasily Surikov (1881). In fact, there were several different Streltsy executions in October 1698, which Surikov has pictorially conflated.

The journal of the astonished Korb is our guide for the Streltsy executions. “The whole month of October was spent in butchering the backs of the culprits with knout and with flames: no day were those that were left alive exempt from scourging or scorching, or else they were broken upon the wheel, or driven to the gibbet, or slain with the axe,” he notes.

For the occasion, we’re introducing a new post series concept. These executions did not occur on consecutive days, but on several different days over the course of October 1698 — each occasion with a macabre new twist on the proceedings to make the lesson really stick. Intermingled with our regular fare, we’ll cover each distinct execution anniversary as the days come, looping back to this parent series post on each occasion.

In all, 1,182 Streltsy prisoners were put to death. Most of the rest were exiled to Siberia. By 1705 the Streltsy force had been completely abolished.

One last footnote: Peter interrogated his half-sister Sophia personally over her role in the potential coup, and he threatened to handle her like Queen Elizabeth handled Mary, Queen of Scots. (Kinship was no safeguard from brutality where Peter was concerned.) In the end he decided to spare her — but forced her into a cloister under heavy guard, never allowed to receive visitors until her death six years later.

* Strelets derives from the Russian verb to shoot; when formed around 1550, they were armed with arquebuses.

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