Posts filed under 'Torture'

1738: Baruch Leibov and Alexander Voznitsyn, Jew and convert

Add comment July 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1738, the Jewish proselytizer Baruch Leibov was publicly burned in St. Petersburg along with a convert, retired Russian naval officer Alexander Voznitsyn. Most of the linked pages in this post are in Russian.

The nobleman Voznitsyn met the Smolensk merchant Leibov in Moscow and the two became friends and spiritual interlocutors. In 1737, Voznitsyn’s wife denounced him for Judaizing as she began to notice that he’d stopped wearing a cross, would pray facing the wall instead of Orthodox icons, and avoided eating certain foods. It emerged too that his Christian confessor had not heard from him in a very long time, and that he had ordered peasants on his estate to destroy some icons.

Both men denied the charges at first, but Voznitsyn’s genitalia confessed his apostasy and after an application of torture, so did Voznitsyn’s mouth.

The subsequent punishment was remarkably harsh even in contemporaries’ eyes — via the curious insistence of the Empress Anna upon severity.

A rarely-used edict from the pre-Petrine 17th century was invoked against Voznitsyn for blaspheming; in the case of Leibov, it was necessary in order to fit him into the statute to construe his having “seduced” Voznitsyn into the Abrahamic faith during the two men’s religious bull sessions. Since Voznitsyn was a seasoned and educated man with a known predilection for spiritual seeking, this finding negated the entire qualifier; if Voznitsyn was “lured” or “deceived” into Judaizing then it was officially impossible for anyone to Judaize absent deception.

But in practice, it was likely the convert’s exceptional qualities that attracted such a demonstrative punishment — “so that such ungodly deeds are discontinued, and such a blasphemer as Voznitsyn and converter to Judaism as Boruch do not dare to deceive others: for the sake of such blasphemous guilt … both to be executed and burned.”

They died together before a vast concourse of gawkers near St. Petersburg’s Admiralty building.

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1835: Dean and Donovan, white abolitionists

Add comment July 8th, 2017 Headsman

The planters comprising Livingston’s extralegal public safety committee had Albe Dean and Angus L. Donovan lynched on this date in 1835, during the ongoing panic at the prospect of slave rebellion.

Dean was a New England itinerant doctor, denounced by the “steam doctors” executed in Livingston on the 6th, in a desperate attempt to preserve their own lives; Donovan was a poor man from Kentucky whose name had been served up by similarly desperate slaves under torture at Beatties Bluff. Both were white, and in both cases the evidence marshaled against them largely resolved to a failure on the part of the accused to honor the color line.

The Livingston lynch committee was good enough to publish its own Proceedings by way of self-vindication, and we draw this post from its perspective on these marginal characters.

Trial of Albe Dean.

This man was a native of Ashford, Connecticut, whence he emigrated to Mississippi two years since. His general character before the disclosure of the conspiracy was not good; he was considered a lazy, indolent man, having very few pretensions to honesty. He had previously resided in the neighbourhood of Livingston, where he pretended to make a living by constructing washing-machines, until he became acquainted with Cotton, when he abandoned his business and turned steam-doctor, and went into partnership with Cotton, Saunders, & Co., and settled in Hinds county.

He was known to associate with negroes, and would often come to the owners of runaways and intercede with their masters to save them from a whipping. It was in evidence before the committee that he was seen prowling about the plantations in the neighbourhoods of Vernon, Beatie’s Bluff, and Livingston, ostensibly for the purpose of inquiring for runaway horses, which he did with great particularity — sometimes inquiring for a black, bay, gray, or other colour that suggested itself at the time. It was evident that horse-hunting was not his business, but that he was reconnoitring [sic] the country, and seeking opportunities to converse with the negroes …

Dean was arrested at the instigation of Saunders, who said he was a great rascal, and one of the conspirators. He was brought to Livingston with Saunders, on the 2d of July. On Monday, the 6th of July, he was placed on trial before the committee; but was in presence of the committee during the trial of Saunders and Cotton, and heard the whole of the testimony which went to implicate him.

It was in evidence before the committee, that, when on his way to Livingston, he had asked a witness, among other things, if some of Mr. W.P. Perkin’s negroes were not engaged in the conspiracy; and particularly if Hudnold’s Ned (a noted villain, whom he, Dean, had often endeavoured to screen from a whipping) was not concerned. He also inquired if Mr. Wm. Johnson’s Ruel Blake’s, and some other gentlemen’s negroes were not accused. He was not aware, at the time, that the very negroes about whom his inquiries were made had not only been suspected, but some of them actually hung; and, when informed Blake’s negro had been hung, he asked if he had made any disclosures about him. He was identified as one of their white accomplices by negroes accused.

And, lastly, he was accused by Dr. Cotton, who said, “Dean was one of his accomplices, and deeply engaged in the conspiracy, as a member of the Murrell clan.” After a cool and deliberate investigation of his case, he was, by a unanimous vote of the committee, found guilty of aiding and exciting the negroes to insurrection, and sentenced to be hanged.

In pursuance of the sentence, he was executed on the 8th of July, with Donovan, and died in dogged silence, neither acknowledging his guilt nor asserting his innocence.

This man requested that his name should not be given to the public, as his father was a public man, and it might lacerate the feelings of a venerated mother, who still survived. This request the committee and the writer would have scrupulously regarded, but that the name of the unfortunate man had already been made public by the officious and gratuitous information of some of the letter-writers [letters from Madison County to newspapers that were published widely in July and August -ed.], who have already given his name to the public.

Trial of A.L. Donovan, of Maysville, Ken.

After the trial of Dean, this young man was brought before the committee for examination, having been arrested on the evening of the 2d July, at Beatie’s Bluff.

His deportment, some weeks previous to his arrest, was very suspicious, from his intimacy with the negroes in the neighbourhood, being suspected at the time of trading with them, &c. His behaviour was so reprehensible as to compel the gentleman with whom he boarded to tell him, if he did not change his course he must leave his house, which he did a few days after, and went to the house of a man by the name of Moss, reputed a great scoundrel, whose name is mentioned in the report of the proceedings at Beatie’s Bluff: there Donovan remained until his arrest.

Donovan’s conduct was so very extraordinary and suspicious after he commenced boarding with Moss, as to induce the citizens of the neighbourhood to watch his movements. He was repeatedly found in the negro cabins, enjoying himself in negro society. Some persons requested him to leave the place, but he refused, alleging as a reason that he had to take care of some old keel-boats (which were entirely useless), half sunk, in Big Black river.

After the plot of the conspirators was discovered, instead of using his exertions to ferret out the ringleaders, and to assist the citizens in their efforts of detection, he would be found sneaking about the negro quarters, seeking opportunities to converse with them; and was caught at the house where the discovery of the conspiracy was made, engaged in earnest conversation with the girls who divulged the plot.

After arrests were made and examinations were going on, his conduct was such as no honest man would pursue; he would introduce himself into any company of gentlemen he would see conversing; this in itself at the time, was not noticed, as every one was desirous of finding out something to direct him in his investigations; but he would then go off and engage in conversations with Moss and his sons-in-law, who he knew, from their character, were suspected of being engaged in promoting the insurrection.

Even after several negroes were taken on suspicion, he still persisted in his attempts to converse with them, and at one time actually undertook (while the citizens were examining one) to release a negro who was tied, which negro afterward implicated him.

He was requested by the gentlemen who were examining the negroes not to come about them; they were compelled to take this step, from the fact that, when he was present, the negroes would say nothing, for the experiment was frequently tried; but when they were apprized that Donovan was not present, their disclosures were full, complete, and corresponding; the experiment was tried several times with the same success.

When he found he could not be permitted to be present at the examination of the negroes, he evinced considerable uneasiness, and kept walking to and fro, in view of the negroes under examination. The cause of his anxiety and alarm was soon explained; after his removal the negroes commenced a full detail and expose of the whole conspiracy (being at the time one or two hundred yards apart, and examined one at a time).

Among other white associates implicated by them, Donovan was said to be one of their leaders, and deeply concerned with them in the conspiracy.

After being implicated by a number of negroes at Beatie’s Bluff, the citizens thought proper to arrest him and bring him to Livingston, where the committee then organized was in session.

He was put on trial before the committee on the 7th July, and, in addition to the testimony before adduced, the following evidence was brought forward, which proved his participation in the conspiracy: —

A negro man from Beatie’s Bluff stated that Donovan was one of the white men engaged in persuading him to rebel with the rest, on the 4th of July, and that he had often solicited him to join them; Donovan said nothing was easier than for them to get their freedom; that the negroes could kill all the white people; and, if they should be pushed, that he would take them to a free state.

The confession of another negro man was in evidence before the committee, who pointed Donovan out at the time of the negro’s examination, and said, “He was to be one of their captains at Beatie’s Bluff.” It was also in evidence before the committee, that another boy, just before his execution, pointed Donovan out, when in a crowd, and said he was one of the men who persuaded him to enter into the conspiracy, and had encouraged him to go on, and get as many negroes to join as possible: other negroes implicated him.

A young man of unimpeachable character testified to the committee, in the presence of Donovan, that he and Donovan were walking through the field of his employer about the 25th or 26th May, when Donovan remarked to him that he should hate to be an overseer very much. Witness asked him why? He answered, it was such cruel work to be whipping the poor negroes, as he was obliged to do. Witness told him he never whipped only when they deserved it, and that was not often. Donovan exclaimed — “My friend, you will not have use for this long,” at the same time putting his hand on witness’s whip. Witness was a little astonished, and asked him to explain himself. Donovan, by way of explanation, remarked, the reason why he would not have use for it long was, that the negroes would soon be all free in this state. Witness replied, he knew the owners were not going to set them free, and that he (Donovan) ought to know that they could not effect their liberty by force, as they had tried it two or three times, and always failed; and that he thought they were now contented to remain in slavery.

Donovan replied warmly, in answer to his remarks, “that they could obtain their liberty by force, and that they would do it, not by themselves, but with the aid of thousands of rich, smart white men, who were ready to head them, with money, arms, and ammunition for their use.” And, before leaving the plantation, requested permission of witness to converse with the negroes, and to inform them of their rights, &c.

Of course, after the expression of such sentiments as above set forth, his request was denied, and at the same time he received a little good advice, and a threat from witness that, if he was seen on the plantation again, he might expect a “benefit” from his negro whip; and, using witness’s remark, Donovan cut out, and he had not seen him since until before the committee on his trial.

The committee were satisfied, from the evidence before them, that Donovan was an emissary of those deluded fanatics at the north — the ABOLITIONISTS. And, that while disseminating his incendiary doctrines among the negroes to create rebellion, he had found out that he was anticipated by a band of cut-throats and robbers, who were engaged in the same work, not wishing to liberate negroes, but to use them as instruments to assist them in plunder.

Being of a dissolute and abandoned character … and ripe for every rash enterprise, he joined the conspirators with the hope of receiving part of the spoils. If there had been any doubt on the minds of the committee as to his connexion with the conspirators, he would at least have been sentenced to be hanged for his attempts at diffusing among the negroes rebellious notions. On the 7th he was condemned to be hanged.

Accordingly, at twelve o’clock on the 8th of July he offered up his life on the gallows, as an expiation for his crimes. He said, from the gallows, that the committee did their duty in condemning him; that from the evidence they were compelled to do so.

Thus died an ABOLITIONIST, and let his blood be on the heads of those who sent him here.

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1835: The unknown lynched of the Murrell Excitement

Add comment July 7th, 2017 Headsman

We’ve done several posts in these pages devoted to Mississippi’s July 1835 slave insurrection panic and there are several more yet to come.

But today’s post is dedicated to the dead that we can’t date, and mostly can’t even name: the unknown slaves killed beyond the reach of law and documentation in forgotten lynchings or private murders around Madison County and environs. There’s no way to know how many these were; it’s guessed that they ranged into the dozens.

Well might one outrage to the well-documented extralegal lynch committee stretching necks in the county seat of Livingston — but as this was a committee of local oligarchs it had an orientation towards order, even if not law, and it brooked cross-examination and extenuating evidence, issued sub-lethal sentences and even acquittals. According to Joshua Rothman in Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson, many claimed — right or wrong — that Livingston was an island of relative calm in a panic compassing “a territorial belt along the Mississippi River stretching northward from Mississippi’s boundary with Louisiana nearly 250 miles toward Tennessee and inland roughly 75 miels toward the center of the state.”

Numerous public reports in Mississippi tried to suggest that a very different atmosphere prevailed in and around Madison County during the insurrection scare that continued on past the hangings of the gamblers in Vicksburg, and that the Livingston Committee of Safety had successfully introduced order to a situation that might otherwise have escalated into an uncontrolled orgy of violence.

Yet even in Livingston, the narrative is absorbed with the white purported masterminds; slaves’ executions appear as a part of the scenery, never exhaustively categorized. The white artisan Ruel Blake would be impeached on evidence given by a slave whose capture and hanging by a mob dignifying itself an ad hoc lynching subcommittee is entirely recounted — sans date — in a single footnote to the Livingston proceedings.

He was run by track-dogs some two hours without being taken, making his escape by taking to water. He remained in the woods until the excitement had partially subsided. By the laudable exertions of his master, he was decoyed into Livingston, where he was taken … the committee of safety had adjourned when he was taken. The citizens seemed determined he should be hanged, and consequently organized a committee, composed of some of the members of the first committee and other freeholders, who condemned him to be hanged; and, in pursuance of the sentence, he was executed in Livingston. Under the gallows he acknowledged his guilt, and said that R. Blake told him of the insurrection … Blake told him he must kill his master first, which he promised to do. Blake told him he was to be one of the captains of the negroes, &c.

And this is a wealth of information compared to some. Elsewhere we are left with passing allusions, shocking and frustratingly sparse, fragments deposited by a whirlwind.

In Warren County, the slave Israel Campbell remembered in his autobiography how he “saw the place where the slaughter took place. Two large wooden forks, with a pole laid from one to the other, served for the gallows, and they told me men hung there two days and nights.” But he never quite tells us how many or just when.

A July 8 letter from a white man in Clinton, Mississippi,* remarks that “a general excitement prevails, and every one is vigilant in the detecting and hanging of all villains, and it requires but little proof. I cannot say how many have been hung and shot among the white and blacks.”

From Mississippi Springs* on the same date: “Many white persons have been suspected of giving encouragement to it — some taken up, others pursued — those taken up have invariably been hung after a hasty examination by those who apprehended them; no more ceremony than is usually used upon hanging a dog for killing sheep is extended to them … A great number of negroes have been hung, and they are hanging them daily.”

Rothman again:

From near Natchez, about forty miles south of Claiborne, a plantation governess wrote in her diary about “insurrections, hangings, patrolling, and all sorts of frights” in the area, and one man wrote from Natchez itself that everyone in the city was “under arms all the time” and “hourly expect[ed] an insurrection, as the celebrated negro stealers Murrel and his band, are at the head of all the negroes.” All the towns upriver from Natchez, the man reported, were similarly guarded, and people in those places were “catching from 5 to 20 every day … and they hang them without judge or jury …

Future U.S. Senator and Mississippi Governor Henry Stuart Foote lived then in Clinton and his memoir heaped scorn on the ur-text of this statewide paroxysm, Virgil Stewart’s pamphlet claiming that small-time outlaw John Murrell was really a master criminal orchestrating a slave revolution. Foote remembered how in a timeless phenomenon “those who dared even to question the actual existence of the dangers which he depictured [sic] were suspected by their more excited fellow-citizens of a criminal insensibility to the supposed perils of the hour.”

[In Clinton] after the first organization of the vigilance committee, which sat afterward every day, the excitement, as was natural, increased perceptibly every hour. Suspected persons, both white and black, were apprehended everywhere; some of whom were brought before the committee for examination, while others, whose guilt seemed to be fully established, were hung without ceremony along the roadsides or in front of their own dwellings by those who had apprehended them …

Madison county was still the main focus of excitement, and every day we heard in the peaceful village where I dwelt of some new case of supposed guilt which had been there developed, and some new application of punishment not known to the law of the land, but which was supposed to be justified by the terrible necessity then dominating over all things beside.

Circumstances being what they are, we cannot but assume that such episodes each stand in for added multiples of lives taken by fire or noose or musketry, on plantation fastnesses or remote byways or hamlets too small for their own scrivener … nameless lives whose loss never spilled a drop of ink.

* Published in the Ohio State Journal, July 24, 1835.

* Published in the Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser, July 30, 1835.

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1835: Joshua Cotton and William Saunders, steam doctors

Add comment July 4th, 2017 Headsman

In the Mississippi slave insurrection panic of 1835, slavers’ fears attached themselves right from the start to the prospect of white leadership affiliating with the prospective black rising.

Israel Campbell, a slave who would eventually reach freedom in the North and publish a fascinating autobiography on the eve of the Civil War, was present in the vicinity. He knew nothing of any rebellion until

two white men came to my house one night after I had gone to bed, and ordered me to get up immediately. I could not think, for my life, what was the matter. Before I got my clothes on, they became impatient, and called for me to open the door. As I done this, one of them seized me by the collar, having a bowie-knife in one hand. Uttering a horrible oath, he asked —

“What do you know about Doctor Cotton’s scrape?”

“Nothing at all, sir,” I replied.

“Don’t you tell me a lie. Do you know Dr. Cotton? When did you see him last?”

I replied, that I would not tell them a lie; that I did know Mr. Cotton, but that I had not seen him for some time. They went on asking a number of questions, wanting to know if I knew Harris’ old Dave, the negro preacher, and when I heard him preach last, and where at? I answered them satisfactorily these queries. They then wanted to know if I staid at the meeting until the people had all dispersed? If they talked any thing about getting free and killing the white people?

I replied to them about knowing the different parties; but about the rising of the slaves I had heard nothing.

After convincing themselves that I was ignorant, they left, warning me, however, not to be caught outside our own plantation, nor talk with any strange negroes or white men. They told me that Dr. Cotton and some other mean white men and a great many of the negroes were laying plans to rise and kill off the white people and free the negroes. After giving me some brandy, and again warning me, that if I did not heed their advice, I would be shot, they left my house.

They, with other parties, went around among all the slave quarters. Many they scared so badly, that they told lies of every description, and suffered for it. When they thought they had succeeded in quelling the insurrection, they commenced punishing those they had caught. Some they hung, others they burned, and some of those they thought not so guilty they pulled cats back-wards on their bare backs. Two of the party hung themselves in the prison.

The man these rude guests hunted with that menacing Bowie knife was Joshua Cotton, an itinerant homeopath expounding the fad launched by Samuel Thomson‘s hit publication New Guide to Health. Thomson had by means of some natural palliatives healed his family of several ailments that confounded legitimate medical practitioners; his emphasis on having patients sweat out toxins by immersion in steam led his followers to be derided as “steam doctors.”

Cotton wasn’t the only steam doctor beating the bushes in Madison County: an intimate named William Saunders was also about. Their wandering practice, interacting with free men and slaves alike, profiled as precisely the types who would be orchestrating a coordinated rebellion — and they had been implicated under the lash by the Beatties Bluff slaves, where the insurrection panic had begun days earlier.

Though not yet aware that they would be caught up in the panic, the steam doctors were making their own moves in these days. Saunders attended a June 30 meeting of Livingston whites to organize suppression of the supposed rebellion and advised them that the other steam doctor, Cotton, “was in the habit of trading with negroes; would buy any thing they would steal and bring to him.” This put the vigilantes onto Cotton; Saunders left town in peace and made, so he said, for Texas — which would have been a wise choice, as events would show.

On the road to Vicksburg and a river crossing to the safety of Louisiana, Saunders repeated the story to another traveler who just so happened to have a more suspicious frame of mind than the Livingstonians. This Good Samaritan promptly brought Saunders in as a suspected conspirator himself. Both steam doctors were under lock and key as the Beatties Bluff allegations of their complicity reached Livingston.

Saunders elaborated his charges against Cotton, plainly hoping to trade his opposite number’s life for his own: that Cotton was forever going about pretending to lose his horses in the countryside “as a pretext for hunting them, that he might have opportunities to converse with the negroes, and, by that means, to seduce them from their allegiance to their owners, by instilling rebellious notions among them; and to form plans, and to make converts to his propositions, which he could not do by being a steam-doctor.” Since a slave brought from Beatties Bluff also identified Cotton on sight as the man keen on seducing him to rebellion, Cotton could perceive that his fate was surely sealed, and while the vigilantes deliberated on July 4 he sent them a desperate offer to confess in exchange for leniency. The committee refused the offer … but confession was still the only card Cotton had to play, and he submitted the confession on spec. In it, he leaned for his narrative on Virgil Stewart’s recently published claims about a slave plot led by the bandit John Murrell.

I am one of the Murrell clan, a member of what we called the grand council … Our object in undertaking to excite the negroes to rebellion, was not for the purpose of liberating them, but for plunder. I was trying to carry into effect the plan of Murrell as laid down in Stewart’s pamphlet … from the exposure of our plans in said pamphlet, we expected the citizens would be on their guard at the time mentioned, being the 25th of December next; and we determined to take them by surprise, and try it on the night of the 4th of July, and it would have been tried to-night (and perhaps may yet), but for the detection of our plans.

Cotton also repaid tit for tat by naming Saunders as one of the plotters, confirming some slaves’ accusations and leaving the backstabbing chum to twist on his own useless protestations of innocence.

The upshot of Cotton’s statement was an offer to buy his own life by continuing to reveal more information about the conspiracy going forward — essentially, to become a standing informant against anyone whom the slavers might next suspect. “But the committee, deeming it of infinitely more importance to check the impending storm, by immediately destroying two of the ringleaders, and thereby creating dismay and panic among them, ordered their execution” — which was effected immediately, both steam doctors being marched directly from their hearing to the jail where, “fastening a rope to the grating of a window, in the upper story of the jail, and leaning a couple of rails against the wall, assisted the culprits upon the rails; then, adjusting the other end of the rope around their necks, removed the rails. They were left hanging until the next morning.”

The final extent of the executions/lynchings meted out during the course the insurrection panic is uncertain. Israel Campbell, however, would remember that Cotton and Saunders were certainly not the end of it when it came to rootless itinerants in the vicinity — and not only the steam doctor set. “[T]he party who were making arrests endeavored to get hold of every steam doctor and colored preacher they could,” he wrote in his autobiography.

[O]nce in their grasp, there was very little mercy shown them. The heads of the preachers they cut off and put on poles, and placed them along the road, where they remained until they were bleached. I saw several of their skulls in an apothecary store at Mount Vernon the latter part of that fall. Dr. Cotton was a noble-looking man and a friend to the slave, and he died a martyr to the cause he had so much at heart, — the emancipation of the slave.

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1835: A white man at Vicksburg and two black men at Livingston, and five slaves at Beatties Bluff

Add comment July 2nd, 2017 Headsman

The first casualties of the Murrell Excitement, a purported slave rising in Madison County, Mississippi, were strung up by vigilance committees on this date in 1835.

Having been alerted to rebellious talk by slaves on a Beatties Bluff plantation, a vigilance committee organized itself and interrogated every slave there.

Events were moving fast, and those in the middle of them had all they could do to keep up with developments — as can be seen by this staccato letter from Canton, Mississippi in the center of Madison County. It was reprinted widely in the U.S. in late July; we’re quoting here from the July 25, 1835 Baltimore Gazette And Daily Advertiser.

Canton, Mississippi
July 3, 1835.

I have to inform you the disagreeable news that the negroes are about to rise upon the whites. It come out about two weeks ago; the whole country is in alarm — There have been meetings throughout the state, to adopt measures to find out the ringleaders and to appoint patrols. We are out patroling every night. — Last night I was in company to ride about the country to the plantations to see if every negro was at his home. There was a white man taken up at Vicksburg concerned with the negroes; they called a court together, and brought him in guilty and HUNG him right off. There have been three more white men taken up, but they have not had their trials yet.

In Livingston a town twelve miles from here, they gave a negro six hundred lashes, before he would discover any thing; then he informed them that the blacks were to rise on the Fourth of July. The jail here is full and they are bringing more and more in every day. We have a meeting here to day to form a volunteer company, to be ready at a minute’s notices and we are prepared with guns and ammunition.

Whilst I am writing this, there is a large meeting here to adopt resolutions to protect the citizens; also to send on to the Secretary of War to send a company of soldiers to protect the citizens of the County. — They hanged two negroes yesterday at Livingston, and they have about fifteen more that they are going to hang. We had four brought in here this morning to examine, and expect they will hang one of them.

The Court has just adjourned. They tried three blacks and flogged them all. To one of them they gave two hundred lashes! There were three white men at the head of the insurrection, that have run away. They have one in jail. They took him out yesterday, and gave him Lynch’s law, and that is thirty-nine lashes in this country. They expect to hang him.


Meanwhile, at Beatties Bluff, interrogators on July 1-2 harrowed the slaves with scourges. A letter from one of their number described the transaction with the first man to crack, a blacksmith named Joe. We do not know for a fact whether there was any slave plot, but if one reads it from the perspective of Joe’s likely innocence it presents as an archetypical feeling-out dialogue between torturer and prey, each party half-guessing at the other’s direction so as to steer a story to its acceptable destination.

We then called for a rope, and tied his hands, and told him that we were in possession of some of their conversation, and that he should tell the whole of it; after some time he agreed that, if we would not punish him, he would tell all that he could recollect. He said he knew what we wanted, and would tell the whole, but that he himself had nothing to do with the business. He said that Sam had told him that the negroes were going to rise and kill all the whites on the 4th, and that they had a number of white men at their head: some of them he knew by name others he only knew when he saw them. He mentioned the following white men as actively engaged in the business: Ruel Blake, Drs. Cotton and Saunders, and many more, but could not call their names; and that he had seen several others. He aso gave the names of several slaves as ringleaders in the business, who were understood to be captains under those white men.

Joe appears to have managed this frightful situation with aplomb and “was set at liberty”; however, on his evidence, other slaves were brought in: an aged preacher named Weaver (“no offers of lenity could shake his courage, and he remained steadfast under the torture of the lash, when even his executioner was nigh to fainting with his task”); a man named Russell (“all was mystery with him” until, prompted, he made a statement “in all particulars, precisely like the one made by Joe”); a handsome youth called Jim who offered more white man’s names and claimed that the slaves intended “to slay all the whites, except some of the most beautiful women, whom they intended to keep as wives”; and “a boy” — presumably a child — called Bachus who confirmed same.

“After getting through with these examinations, Jim, Bachus, Weaver, Russell, and Sam, were all put to death by hanging.”

A tense albeit perhaps dramatized narration of the violent interrogations and summary executions can be found in chapter 29 of The Life and Adventures of J. A. Murrell, the Great Western Land Pirate, which is also the source of the illustration above, and of the parenthetical quote about the preacher Weaver.

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1906: Four Egyptians for the Denshawai Incident

Add comment June 28th, 2017 Headsman

If her [England’s] empire means ruling the world as Denshawai has been ruled in 1906 — and that, I am afraid, is what the Empire does mean to the main body of our aristocratic-military caste and to our Jingo plutocrats — then there can be no more sacred and urgent political duty on earth than the disruption, defeat, and suppression of the Empire, and, incidentally, the humanization of its supporters.

-George Bernard Shaw

On this date in 1906, four Egyptian villagers were hanged by the British after a UK soldier died in riot begun by a pigeon hunt.

The Denshawai Incident — which is still to this day commemorated by its own museum — as an isolated event was one of those little local indignities that comprise a foreign military occupation. By the intersection of highhandedness on the one side and accumulated anger on the other it would become what George Bernard Shaw dubbed “the Denshawai Horror.”

On June 13, a mere 15 days before the executions in this post, a gaggle of bored Tommies* set out hunting pigeons in the Nile Delta. This was for the locals an irksome pastime inasmuch as the villagers raised these tame birds in brick towers for agrarian use — as Shaw noted:

Try to imagine the feelings of an English village if a party of Chinese officers suddenly appeared and began shooting the ducks, the geese, the hens and the turkeys, and carried them off, asserting that they were wild birds, as everybody in China knew, and that the pretended indignation of the farmers was a cloak for the hatred of the Chinese, and perhaps for a plot to overthrow the religion of Confucius and establish the Church of England in its place!

On this occasion, protesting villagers dared a little more resistance than was usual and before long a gun had discharged in the struggle, injuring several and felling a local woman (she survived, though onlookers took her wound for a mortal one in the moment). As if by metaphor, somewhere in the mayhem, somebody’s wheat caught fire.

Having clumsily escalated the disturbance that their presence had provoked, the Brits at length had to flee a small riot: one of their number died in the flight, the cause never clearly ascertained but attributed by a doctor to “heat apoplexy caused or aggravated by concussion of the brain.”** Several others were collared by the villagers, who abused them but did not kill them.

As Shaw notes, in a domestic English context it might have been the gendarmes who were punished for mismanaging the situation to the detriment of the public peace.

But the English occupation of Egypt disdained the hearts-and-minds approach, preferring bile and spleen. Fifty-two(!) villagers came up on charges of murder(!!) for the heatstroked officer, and the punishments meted out by a British-controlled court† seemingly aimed to maximize rancor with the understanding that cruelty was the only language the native could comprehend.

The husband of the woman shot by the hunting party, Shaw fulminated in an incandescent essay against imperialism,

in consideration of the injury to his wife, was only sentenced to penalty servitude for life … No such sentimentality was shewn to Hassan Mahfouz. An Egyptian pigeon farmer who objects to British sport; threatens British officers and gentlemen when they shoot his pigeons; and actually hits those officers with a substantial stick, is clearly a ruffian to be made an example of.

Penal servitude was not enough for a man of 60 who looked 70, and might not have lived to suffer five years of it. So Hassan was hanged; but as a special mark of consideration for his family, he was hanged in full view of his own house, with his wives and children and grandchildren enjoying the spectacle from the roof. And lest this privilege should excite jealousy in other households, three other Denshavians were hanged with him … ages of the four hanged men respectively, 60, 50, 22 and 20.

Hanging, however, is the least sensational form of public execution: it lacks those elements of blood and torture for which the military and bureaucratic imagination lusts. So, as they had room for only one man on the gallows, and had to leave him hanging half an hour to make sure work and give his family plenty of time to watch him swinging (“slowly turning round and round on himself,” as the local papers described it), thus having two hours to kill as well as four men, they kept the entertainment going by flogging eight men with fifty lashes each: eleven more than the utmost permitted by the law of Moses in times which our Army of Occupation no doubt considers barbarous. But they Moses conceived his law as being what he called the law of God, and not simply an instrument for the gratification of his own cruelty and terror.

It is unspeakably reassuring to learn from the British official reports laid before parliament that “due dignity was observed in carrying out the executions,” that “all possible humanity was shewn in carrying them out,” and that “the arrangements were admirable, and reflect great credit on all concerned.” As this last testimonial apparently does not refer to the victims, they are evidently officially considered not to have been concerned in the proceedings at all. Finally, Lord Cromer certifies that the Englishman in charge of the proceedings is “a singularly humane man, and is very popular amongst the natives of Egypt by reason of the great sympathy he has always shewn for them.” It will be seen that Parliamentary Papers, Nos. 3 and 4., Egypt, 1906, are not lacking in unconscious humor. The official walrus pledges himself in every case for the kindliness of the official carpenter.


Edinburgh Evening News, June 29, 1906

Shaw’s determination to humanize the “natives” by analogy to English country squires unsurprisingly stands in stark contrast to the dominant thrust of domestic reportage — which consistently describes the affair as an unprovoked attack or (still better) an outrage. Shaw, however, was far from alone in his sentiment: many British elites were discomfited by the harsh and arbitrary treatment meted out in the imperial hinterlands. Another writer, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, bemoaned the “abominable case” and took up an editorial pen in the Egyptians’ defense — albeit more in hope than expectation, for as he confided to his diary, “English feeling on these matters has become absolutely callous, and I believe if Cromer ordered a dozen of the villagers to be crucified or impaled, no serious objection would be made to it here.” And he was right to despair.

Still, gentlemen of a liberal conscience have the luxury down the decades of forgetting the individual atrocities of empire.‡

Few in the West recognized the allusion when, following 2005 bombings in London by Islamic terrorists, Ayman al-Zawahiri “announced that Britain was one of Islam’s worst enemies; it had been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Muslims across the ages, from Palestine to Afghanistan, Delhi to Denshawai.” (Source)

But it had by that time been long since that the chickens of Denshawai had come home to roost. In his autobiography, Egyptian nationalist president Anwar Sadat mused on the formative influence worked upon his childhood by the sacrifice of one of the Denshawai martyrs.

[T]he ballad which affected me most deeply was probably that of Zahran, the hero of Denshway. I recall my mother reciting it to me as I lay stretched out on top of our huge rustic oven, half-asleep while my younger brothers (and our rabbits) had all fallen asleep. It appealed to me afresh every time I listened to it. Denshway was only three miles away and the ballad dealt with a real incident … Zahran was the hero of the battle against the British and the first to be hanged. The ballad dwells on Zahran’s courage and doggedness in the battle, how he walked with his head held high to the scaffold, feeling proud that he had stood up to the aggressors and killed one of them.

I listened to that ballad night after night, half-awake, half-asleep, which perhaps made the story sink into my subconscious. My imagination roamed free. I often saw Zahran and lived his heroism in dream and reverie — I wished I were Zahran.

His wish would come as near to fruition as wishes do. Sadat had the honor of announcing to the world the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 that would expel the British occupation … and thirty years later, of also giving his life for Egypt.

* Not Dickens nor Kubrick could not have bested the names of shooting party participants Captain Bull (the eventual fatality) or Brevet-Major Pine-Coffin.

** That is, running away from a bombardment of stones. It appears to be permanently obscure (and subject to partisan slanting) precisely how these factors weighed together at the moment of Bull’s death. The diagnosis is quoted in the London Times, June 25, 1906.

† The tribunal featured mixed Egyptian and British personnel, notably including Boutros Ghali, future Egyptian Prime Minister and grandfather of the eventual United Nations head Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

‡ At least, of their own empire. According to Aliens — Uneingeburgerte: German and Austrian Writers in Exile, the Third Reich produced a German-language play about the Denshawai incident by adapting Shaw’s account.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Egypt,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Torture

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1943: Maria Kislyak, honeytrapper

Add comment June 18th, 2017 Headsman

Soviet resistance operatives Maria Kislyak, Fedor Roudenko and Vasily Bougrimenko hanged on this date in 1943 by Nazi occupation.

Kislyak, an 18-year-old from Kharkov, Ukraine who is esteemed a Hero of the Soviet Union,* is the best-known of them and made herself the poisoned honey in a trap for German officers.

As ferocious Eastern Front fighting raged near her city, Kislyak feigned affection for a German lieutenant and thereby lured him to a woodland rendezvous where her friend Roudenko ambushed him and bludgeoned him to death.

Kislyak endured German torture without admitting anything and was even released since the man’s comrades couldn’t be sure that the local flirt had anything to do with the murder. But when she and her friends pulled the trick a second time, the Germans forced the assassins to reveal themselves by threatening to shoot random hostages en masse.

* One of three women so honored for their service during World War II, all of whom have been featured in these grim annals; the others are Klava Nazarova and Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mature Content,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Torture,Ukraine,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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1996: Yevgeny Rodionov, Chechen War martyr and folk saint

Add comment May 23rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1996 — his 19th birthday — Russian hostage Yevgeny Rodionov was beheaded by his captors outside a village in Chechnya.

The young conscript was seized by guerrillas/terrorists/rebels along with three other comrades* during the horrible Chechen War.

Whatever ransom was demanded, the young man’s family could not pay it and in the end the the kidnappers sawed off his head. Searching for his remains at great personal peril his mother met a Chechen who claimed to be Yevgeny’s executioner, and was told by him that “your son had a choice to stay alive. He could have converted to Islam, but he did not agree to take his cross off.”

If it was meant as a taunt it backfired, for the story was later picked up by Russian media and, championed by his mother, the Rodionov has become elevated into a contemporary folk saint — icons and all.

From the standpoint of the Orthodox hierarchy, Rodionov’s cult is thoroughly unofficial, but when it comes to popular devotion people often vote with their feet. Rodionov’s martyrdom expresses themes of great importance to some Russians: the growing cultural currency of Orthodoxy after the fall of the irreligious Soviet Union; a muscular resistance to Islamic terrorism;** an intercessor for common people ground up in the tectonic shifts that have reshaped Russia.

Thy martyr, Yevgeny, O Lord, in his sufferings has received an incorruptible crown from thee, our God, for having thy strength he has brought down his torturers, has defeated the powerless insolence of demons. Through his prayers save our souls.

* The other three — Andrey Trusov, Igor Yakovlev and Alexander Zheleznov — were all likewise murdered by their kidnappers.

** Although the war that he died in ended for Moscow in humiliating futility, Rodionov only became widely visible in the early 2000s amid an upswing of Russian patriotism following the outrages of the Moscow apartment bombings. (And, a more successful re-run of Chechen hostilities.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Hostages,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions

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Feast Day of St. Victor and St. Corona

Add comment May 14th, 2017 Headsman

May 14 is the feast date of St. Victor, a Christian Roman soldier and his co-religionist and possible spouse Corona. Both the city and the century (and therefore the reality) of their passion are uncertain.

For the believer, what these martyrs lack in firm historicity they make up for in practical effect.

Corona chanced to become associated by medieval times with money — possibly the coincidence of her name, meaning crown,* with the sigils on coins — and thus she got wrapped up into a variety of pecuniary prayers and incantations. Strictly unofficial stuff from Rome’s standpoint, you understand: treasure-hunting, lotteries, wagering, and other fond fantasies of unearned windfalls.

The solemn devout might laugh, but “dear god, give me some stuff” comprises an underrated share of popular theology. J. Dillinger cites this charmer in Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America: A History, dating to 1794 Austria:

Virgin and martyr Corona, I, a poor sinner, ask you to remember your great mercy and honour and your control over the treasures of the world and whoever asks you in the name of Jesus Christ your dear bridegroom, in his name you have power to give worldly goods to me, a poor and needy person, so I beg you with all of my humble heart, oh virgin and martyr Corona relief [sic] me from my needs and my poverty by giving me 50000 florins of good gold for the salvation of my soul through the redemption of my need body.

This enchantment needs to be added to the web’s supply of money-drawing rituals.

Because engaging such supernatural entities was a frightful venture for the petitioner, be he ever so humble, the prayer amusingly contains an equally elaborate chant for dismissing Saint Moneybags after she has paid up.

Now go away in the peace of God, which shall be between you and me, go back to the place where you came from, the eternal peace of God shall be and shall stay forever between you and me, and you will come again, when I wish to see you. Now go away and be blessed, through God and his holy five wounds, and go away in the peace of God, and the blessing be between you and me and the mine. Amen.

* Her legend can be found attributed to St. Stephanie: like “Corona”, the name Stephanie means “crown”.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Martyrs,Pelf,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Torture,Uncertain Dates,Women

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1945: Majda Vrhovnik, Slovenian resistance

Add comment May 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1945, Slovene resistance member Majda Vrhovnik was executed by the Gestapo in Klagenfurt, days before the end of World War II.

A University of Ljubljana medical student and Communist destined to be honored as a national hero of Yugoslavia, Vrhovnik (English Wikipedia entry | Slovenian) joined the underground resistance when the Nazis occupied Yugoslvia in 1941. She’d spend the bulk of the war years producing and distributing illicit anti-occupation propaganda but by war’s end she had been detailed to nearby Klagenfurt — a heavily Slovene city just over the border in Austria.

She was finally caught there and arrested on February 28, 1945, and shot in prison even as Klagenfurt awaited Allied occupation which would arrive on May 8.

Her credentials as a patriotic martyr — there’s a Majda Vrhovnik school named for her — would surface her name in 1988 in connection with an affair that helped begin the breakup of Yugoslavia into ethnic statelets, when an opposition journalist published a censored article under the pseudonym “Majda Vrhovnik”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Austria,Doctors,Execution,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Shot,Slovenia,Spies,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women,Yugoslavia

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