If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.
Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.
The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.
Elizabeth Woolcock on December 30, 1873 became the first and only woman ever hanged in South Australia.
The daughter of a gold prospector, Elizabeth Oliver (as she was then) began a lifelong bout with chemical dependency when she became hooked on the opium used to treat her after she survived a rape at the tender age of seven. (This attack also left her permanently unable to bear children.)
At 19, she joined the Moonta household of alcoholic Cornish immigrant Thomas Woolcock — first as his housekeeper helping to mind the sole child to survive the tuberculotic ravages that had carried away his brother and mother, and within a few weeks as Woolcock’s wife.
Elizabeth was very young and had not known Thomas long. Her infelicitous choice opened an unhappy union that, in the trial to come, would mark her with an obvious motive for murder. “I have to put with it as long as I can but Tom has got so bad, that I cannot bear it any longer,” she wrote to her stepsister a few months before the events that would lead her to the gallows. “He is a perfect devil; and if stop [sic] here much longer I shall hang myself.”
Motivation aside, however, quite a few people not only latterly but also in Woolcock’s own time have suspected that she got a bum rap, product of shoddy medical evidence and a sort of self-confirming communal tunnel vision when Thomas wasted away over a period of weeks in 1873. Thomas Woolcock’s cousin in particular appears to have spearheaded the campaign to open a coroner’s investigation of the death aimed squarely at his widow.
Three different physicians treated Thomas from the time he fell ill at work on July 23 of that year until his death six weeks later. Drs. Bull, Dickie and Herbert each made different diagnoses and prescribed, as this examination of the case puts it, “a bizarre (to modern eyes at least) range of medication that included rhubarb, cream of tartar, mercury and lead acetate.”
Dr. Bull’s prescription of pills containing mercury seems like any obvious place to begin the inquiry since the government’s chemists concluded that mercury poisoning had killed the man, and since the erratic Bull had a chinashop-type relationship to medical competence. (Dr. Bull had done time in the insane asylum; a few months after Woolcock’s execution, he died of an opium overdose.)
Instead, and seemingly driven by the suspicions of local chin-waggers, the investigation and subsequent trial focused on Elizabeth’s acquisition of “poisons” in a dismayingly unspecific sense: she used her stepson to hustle the local druggist for morphine and opium to service her own addictions, and this was a “poison”; she obtained a dandruff medicine that (like many household products of its day) contained mercury, and this was a “poison”;* she had some strange draught called antinomial wine that she was seen to spice with sugar and this too was inferred a “poison”. It all painted Elizabeth Woolcock as a latter-day Tofana without quite telling a coherent story of how she went about killing her husband. It’s not even clear now — and was publicly questioned in 1873 — whether the initial determination of death by mercury poisoning was itself reliable, nor can be certain whether, if mercury is supposed to be the lethal agent, it alone accounts for the entire span from health to grave or if instead a small exposure from Dr. Bull’s pills or contact with the skin medicine only finished Thomas off in a context where unrelated illness had already broken his health.
The evidence as it survives for us doesn’t rule out the possibility, but it’s difficult to reconcile it with anything like the confidence that ought to sustain a death sentence. However, Elizabeth’s garbled last letter did appear to vindicate the prosecution with an admission, though it’s one that her defenders have dismissed as pro forma for a confessor who would have been pressuring her to acknowledge the crime in the context of a final spiritual redemption.
in a evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave any poison for i more and i being very self willed i told him that i knew what power the poison had as i took it my self for some months and i was so ill treated that i was quite out of my mind and in an evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave him what i ought not but thought at the time that if i gave him time to prepare to meet his god i should not do any great crime to send him out of the World but i see my mistake now i thank god he had time to make his peace with his maker.
Efforts, thus far unavailing, to secure a posthumous pardon for Elizabeth Woolcock continue to the present day.
* The family dog died shortly before Thomas got sick; it would be postulated against Elizabeth that she experimented with poisoning on the pet before moving on to the man. An alternative hypothesis that fits the facts could be that the dandruff medicine was administered to treat a skin condition of the dog, which then proceeded to lick at the ointment and poison itself.
Thanks to James Joyce for the guest post on “the ancient tribe of the Joyces”, originally published as “Ireland at the Bar” on September 16, 1907 during Joyce’s Italian exile for nationalist newspaper Il Piccolo della Sera of Austrian-dominated Trieste. As the reader will see, James Joyce is interested here in this case as symbolic,* but readers curious about the particulars of the murders and this still-notoriousmiscarriage of justice might want to tune into the Irish History Podcast’s three-part series on the case or follow the various links for more. -ed.
Several years ago a sensational trial was held in Ireland. In a lonely place in a western province, called Maamtrasna, a murder was committed. Four or five townsmen, all belonging to the ancient tribe of the Joyces, were arrested. The oldest of them, the seventy year old Myles Joyce, was the prime suspect. Public opinion at the time thought him innocent and today considers him a martyr. Neither the old man nor the others accused knew English. The court had to resort to the services of an interpreter. The questioning, conducted through the interpreter, was at times comic and at times tragic. On one side was the excessively ceremonious interpreter, on the other the patriarch of a miserable tribe unused to civilized customs, who seemed stupefied by all the judicial ceremony. The magistrate said:
‘Ask the accused if he saw the lady that night.’
The question was referred to him in Irish, and the old man broke out into an involved explanation, gesticulating, appealing to the others accused and to heaven. Then he quieted down, worn out by his effort, and the interpreter turned to the magistrate and said:
‘He says no, your worship.’
‘Ask him if he was in that neighbourhood at that hour.’
The old man again began to talk, to protest, to shout, almost beside himself with the anguish of being unable to understand or to make himself understood, weeping in anger and terror. And the interpreter, again, dryly:
‘He says no, your worship.’
When the questioning was over, the guilt of the poor old man was declared proved, and he was remanded to a superior court which condemned him to the noose. On the day the sentence was executed, the square in front of the prison was jammed full of kneeling people shouting prayers in Irish for the repose of Myles Joyce’s soul. The story was told that the executioner, unable to make the victim understand him, kicked at the miserable man’s head in anger to shove it into the noose. [The hanging was botched -ed.]
The figure of this dumbfounded old man, a remnant of a civilization not ours, deaf and dumb before his judge, is a symbol of the Irish nation at the bar of public opinion. Like him, she is unable to appeal to the modern conscience of England and other countries. The English journalists act as interpreters between Ireland and the English electorate, which gives them ear from time to time and ends up being vexed by the endless complaints of the Nationalist representatives who have entered her House, as she believes, to disrupt its order and extort money.
Abroad there is no talk of Ireland except when uprisings break out, like those which made the telegraph office hop these last few days. Skimming over the dispatches from London (which, though they lack pungency, have something of the laconic quality of the interpreter mentioned above), the public conceives of the Irish as highwaymen with distorted faces, roaming the night with the object of taking the hide of every Unionist. And by the real sovereign of Ireland, the Pope, such news is received like so many dogs in church. Already weakened by their long journey, the cries are nearly spent when they arrive at the bronze door. The messengers of the people who never in the past have renounced the Holy See, the only Catholic people to whom faith also means the exercise of faith, are rejected in favour of messengers of a monarch, descended from apostates, who solemnly apostasized himself on the day of his coronation, declaring in the presence of his nobles and commons that the rites of the Roman Catholic Church are ‘superstition and idolatry’.
Myles Joyce (leftmost) along with Patrick Joyce (center) and Patrick Casey (right). All three hanged together.
There are twenty million Irishmen scattered all over the world. The Emerald Isle contains only a small part of them. But, reflecting that, while England makes the Irish question the centre of all her internal politics she proceeds with a wealth of good judgment in quickly disposing of the more complex questions of colonial politics, the observer can do no less than ask himself why St. George’s Channel makes an abyss deeper than the ocean between Ireland and her proud dominator. In fact, the Irish question is not solved even today, after six centuries of armed occupation and more than a hundred years of English legislation, which has reduced the population of the unhappy island from eight to four million, quadrupled the taxes, and twisted the agrarian problem into many more knots.
In truth there is no problem more snarled than this one. The Irish themselves understand little about it, the English even less. For other people it is a black plague. But on the other hand the Irish know that it is the cause of all their sufferings, and therefore they often adopt violent methods of solution. For example, twenty-eight years ago, seeing themselves reduced to misery by the brutalities of the large landholders, they refused to pay their land rents and obtained from Gladstone remedies and reforms. Today, seeing pastures full of well fed cattle while an eighth of the population lacks means of subsistence, they drive the cattle from the farms. In irritation, the Liberal government arranges to refurbish the coercive tactics of the Conservatives, and for several weeks the London press dedicates innumerable articles to the agrarian crisis, which, it says, is very serious. It publishes alarming news of agrarian revolts, which is then reproduced by journalists abroad.
I do not propose to make an exegesis of the Irish agrarian question nor to relate what goes on behind the scene in the two faced politics of the government. But I think it useful to make a modest correction of facts. Anyone who has read the telegrams launched from London is sure that Ireland is undergoing a period of unusual crime. An erroneous judgment, very erroneous. There is less crime in Ireland than in any other country in Europe. In Ireland there is no organized underworld. When one of those events which the Parisian journalists, with atrocious irony, call ‘red idylls’ occurs, the whole country is shaken by it. It is true that in recent months there were two violent deaths in Ireland, but at the hands of British troops in Belfast, where the soldiers fired without warning on an unarmed crowd and killed a man and woman. There were attacks on cattle; but not even these were in Ireland, where the crowd was content to open the stalls and chase the cattle through several miles of streets, but at Great Wyrley in England, where for six years bestial, maddened criminals have ravaged the cattle to such an extent that the English companies will no longer insure them. Five years ago an innocent man, now at liberty, was condemned to forced labour to appease public indignation. But even while he was in prison the crimes continued. And last week two horses were found dead with the usual slashes in their lower abdomen and their bowels scattered in the grass.
* Even, Christine O’Neill-Bernhard argues in “Symbol of the Irish Nation, or of a Foulfamed Potheen District: James Joyce on Myles Joyce” (James Joyce Quarterly, Spring-Summer 1995) to the point of indulging “highly tendentious” polemical misrepresentations, such as inflating the middle-aged Myles Joyce into a 70-year-old patriarch. In James Joyce’s defense, his expatriate apartments on the Adriatic did not comprise a strong fact-checking position with regard to Irish criminal annals, and he might have been working entirely from memory.
An event horribly underscoring the heartlessness of the brass against frail flesh in their ghastly war of machines, this shooting succeeded a surprise German attack on November 27 whose short-lived push into the French line momentarily drove part of the 298th Regiment to fall back out of their forward trench, before the French rallied and retook their own position to restore the status quo ante. The whole back-and-forth consumed spanned mere minutes — just another snapshot of the trench war stalemate that would become so grindingly familiar to all belligerents in the years ahead.
French commanders in the earliest months of the war had shown a notable lack of empathy for any vexation of plans arising from the fog of war; indeed, exemplary executions became policy for enforcing military discipline to an unrealistic expectation. So, as punishment for their units’ “unauthorized* retreat,” six were selected for execution as an example to their fellows.
Some heartbreaking (or blood-boiling) last letters of the doomed survive.
Corporal Henri Floch (to his wife)
My darling Lucie,
By the time you receive this letter I shall be dead by firing squad. This is why: on 27th November, around 5pm, after 2 hours of heavy shelling in a trench on the front line, just as we were finishing our supper, Germans got into the trench. They captured me and two others. In the confusion I was able to escape from the Germans. I followed my comrades and then I was accused of dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy.
Twenty-four of us went before the War Council last night. Six were condemned to death and one of them was me. I am no more guilty than the others, but they want to make an example of us. My wallet will be sent home to you along with its contents.
In haste I say my last farewell to you, with tears in my eyes and a heavy heart. I humbly beg your forgiveness for all the grief that I will cause you and the difficulties that you will have to face because of me.
My dear Lucie, again, please forgive me. I’m going to Confession now and I hope to see you again in a better place. I die innocent of the crime of desertion of which I stand accused. If, instead of escaping from the Germans, I had remained a prisoner, my life would have been spared. It must be fate.
My last thoughts are for you, right to the end.
Jean Quinault (to his wife)
I am writing to you my latest news. It’s over for me. I do not have the courage. We had a story in the company. We went to the court martial. We are 6 condemned to death. I am in the six and I am no more guilty than the comrades, but our life is sacrificed for others. Last farewell, dear little woman. It’s over for me. Last letter from me, deceased for a reason of which I do not know well the reason. The officers are all wrong and we are condemned to pay for them. I should never have thought of finishing my days at Vingre, and especially of being shot for so little and not guilty. It never happened, a case like this. I am buried in Vingré
Jean Blanchard (to his wife)
3 December 1914, 11.30 pm
My dear Beloved, it is in great distress that I begin to write to you and if God and the Blessed Virgin do not come to my aid it is for the last time …
I will try in a few words to tell you my situation but I do not know if I can, I do not feel the courage. On November 27, at night, as we occupied a trench facing the enemy, the Germans surprised us, and panicked us, in our trench, we retreated into a trench behind, and we returned to resume our places almost immediately, with this result: a dozen prisoners in the company of which one was in my squad, for this fault our squad (twenty-four men) spent today before the council of war and alas! We are six to pay for all, I can not explain it further to you, my dear friend, I suffer too much; friend Darlet will be able to explain to you better, I have a calm conscience, and submit entirely to the will of God who wants it so; It is this which gives me strength to be able to write to you these words, my dear beloved, who have made me so happy the time that I spent with you and of which I had so much hope to find. December 1 morning we were deposed on what had happened, and when I saw the charge that was brought against us and which no one could suspect, I cried a part of the day and have not had the strength to write to you …
Oh! Blessed be my parents! My poor parents, my poor mother, my poor father, what will become of them when they learn what I have become? O my beloved, my dear Michelle, take good care of my poor parents so long as they are of this world, be their consolation and support in their grief, I leave them to your good care, tell them I have not deserved this hard punishment and we will all find each other in the other world, assist them in their last moments and God will reward you for it, beg my forgiveness of your good parents for the punishment that they will experience by me, tell them well that I loved them very much and that they do not forget me in their prayers, that I was happy to have become their son and to be able to support and care for them their old days but since God has judged otherwise, that His will be done and not mine. Goodbye up there, my dear wife.
* The “cowards” contended that a falling-back had been ordered by a lieutenant who no doubt was as war-befogged as everyone else. Since this order could have set up Lt. Paulaud himself to be the guy shot for example, he naturally denied issuing it; when the six were exonerated after the war, Paulaud was indicted for perjury, but acquitted.
On this date in 1678, Catholic courtier Edward Col(e)man was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn — the second victim of Titus Oates’s “Popish Plot” concotion.
Colman was a Catholic convert whose zeal for the old faith led him into a variety of treacherous intrigues with the French court — although Colman’s eager and fruitless offices more annoyed than profited his allies.
His behavior was sufficiently indiscreet that fabulist Titus Oates had Colman queued up by name* as a Catholic plotter in the first round of 1678 Catholic terrorism allegations that would roil the realm for the next three years.
That indiscretion was very real, however, and extended to a careless presumption of his own safety. He seems to have been tipped to his danger by the judge who first took Oates’s evidence, a friend named Sir Edmund Godfrey, but he failed to use this advance intelligence to destroy his own correspondence. Godfrey in his own turn went on to a starring role in the Popish Plot debacle when he turned up murdered in October of 1678, a crime whose immediate attribution to the Catholic conspiracy that Oates had unfolded for him sent England clear round the bend.**
Colman’s case had already begun and half-fizzled by that point but with the apparent assassination of the judge a cry for his own blood now shook Parliament — “Colman’s letters!” alluding to that correspondence he surely wished he had burned: its volumes unfolded intelligence leaks, offers to exert French influence in the government even so far as dissolving Parliament, and applications for King Louis’s gold.
There are some incriminating examples in the trial transcript that, Lord Chief Justice William Scroggs charged, show “That your Design was to bring in Popery into England, and to promote the interest of the French King in this place, for which you hoped to have a Pension.” While Oates was a legendary perjurer and his fables destined to take the lives of 20-odd innocent souls in the months to come, the fact was that Colman really was caught out. His scheming ought not have merited such spectacular punishment under less extraordinary circumstances, but the things Colman really did do made it easy for Oates to position him as a paymaster in the fictitious regicidal conspiracy. “Mr. Colman, your own papers are enough to condemn you,” Scroggs said when his prisoner asserted innocence.
Nor could he protect himself with position. (Men even higher than Colman would succumb to the panic in time.) As detestably elevated as Colman looked to the average commoner, he was not himself a lord and was already (pre-Oates) regarded by King Charles II and many members of the court as a loose cannon. Everything pointed to sacrificing him … and they did. But as events would prove, the popular rage was not quenched on Colman’s bones alone.
* By name — not by face: Oates would be embarrassed at Colman’s eventual trial by the prisoner pointing out that Oates, who now claimed to have been personally paid out by Colman for various seditious errands, had utterly failed to recognize his “conspirator” when Oates appeared before the Privy Council to lay his charges in September.
** Godfrey’s murder has never been satisfactorily explained. There’s a good chance that it was a wholly unrelated affair with amazing bad timing; the revenge of the truculent Earl of Pembroke, whom Godfrey had prosecuted for murder a few months previous, is one leading possibility.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“The time will come when my innocence will be proven, and then Bob Dodge will haunt you for his murder.”
— Robert S. Dodge, convicted of murder, hanging, California.
Executed November 8, 1866
Borrowing a double-barrel shotgun, ostensibly to hunt quail, Dodge could not account for his whereabouts when a man who was quarreling with his brother was shot. Dodge went through two trials and during the second was found guilty of first-degree murder. In prison, he attempted suicide by taking opium.
To Elder’s hanging-day sketch (and since blog column-inches are free) we add the report of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, Nov. 10, 1866 — itself channeling the Nevada Transcript. (Meaning Nevada City, Calif., not the state of Nevada.)
[Dodge] was twice tried and convicted of the murder of Mark P. Hammock, and after both trials the case was taken to the Supreme Court, whence the case was once sent back.
The verdict after the second conviction was sustained and the District Court ordered to fix a day for the execution.
The testimony against Dodge was entirely circumstantial.
Sheriff Gentry read the death-warrant, after which Dodge stepped to the rail in front and addressed those in the yard in a speech of ten minutes. He said he had once more the privilege of addressing them in this dark and gloomy world. He alluded to his home, his mother and friends, speaking of them in affectionate terms, and picturing the grief they would feel on hearing that their youngest son had died upon the gallows.
He spoke of the anxiety manifested to witness his death, and warned those present that the time would come when they would repent having seen it, and that when they discovered, as they surely would, that he was innocent, remorse would forever follow them.
He declared that he suffered on account of false testimony offered against him. He alluded to the future, saying that in “eternity Bob Dodge would be seen coming in glory.”
At the conclusion of the speech he turned to Sheriff Gentry and requested him to finish the work quickly. When asked if he had anything further to say by the Sheriff, he replied only “I am innocent.”
He then bid those on the platform good-bye, shaking hands with them, and then stepped upon the trap. His limbs were lashed with cords and the black cap placed over his head.
He then said, in a loud voice, “Boys, I want you all to hear, I am innocent.”
A prayer was read by Mr. Anderson, and at 18 minutes past 1 o’clock the trap fell, and the soul of Dodge was sent to a higher court for judgment.
Hugh Cahun had been in Scotland since probably 1565, in the service of a unit commanded by his older brother William. It was one of three Scottish cavalry commands in Sweden at this time; French and German troops too joined the polyglot coalition.*
In the summer of 1573, Cahun caught wind of recruitment among these foreign auxiliaries for a plot to depose the Swedish King John III in favor of his imprisoned predecessor Erik XIV. Cahun reported the plot, but he didn’t know enough about it to make it stick to someone else — so perversely, he himself became the one suspected of seditious design.
King John appears by his vacillation not to have been all that convinced of the turn justice had taken in this case, twice reprieving Cahun and ultimately sparing him the horrors of the breaking-wheel for a simple beheading — sort of the early modern equivalent of the calculating modern governor who, faced with compelling evidence of innocence, consents to send a condemned man to a dungeon for the rest of his life instead of letting the law take its course. (There’s an account of the back-and-forth run-up to Cahun’s execution in this public domain book, provided you’re packing your Swedish proficiency.)
He would have cause to regret his severity soon enough: in the months to come, it would emerge that the plot was actually being spearheaded by a French loyalist of Erik named Charles de Mornay, who would himself be executed the following September.
On this date in 1914, the French army shot Lt. Jean-Julien Chapelant as a coward.
Most resources about Lt. Chapelant are in French, as are almost all the links in this post — but within France this case has been contested since the interwar years when his father fought in vain ferocity to reinstate the honor of his son.
Four days before his execution, Chapelant, commanding a machine gun section near a village in the Somme, was captured with four other gunners when the Germans overran their position. Though he’d been shot in the leg, Chapelant managed to escape his captors and return to French lines. (Three of the other gunners escaped, too.)
While the categorical rehabilitation of Great War soldiers “shot at dawn” as cowards or deserters has been a going concern in recent years, Chapelant also has a compelling individual argument that he ought not have been construed such even by the standards of his time.
The luckless lieutenant was shot for “capitulating in open country”. This was at best an extremely prejudicial interpretation of the facts, seemingly one that commanding officers themselves still adjusting to the unexpected prowess of German arms had already settled upon before any proper investigation, out of their pique at losing the position. The verdict was so certain that Chapelant’s commanding officer gave him his revolver back urging him to “burn out his own brains” and save everyone the trouble.
Chapelant refused, insisting that he had done his proper duty, and military justice was edified by the spectacle of a crippled man who could not stand propped up in his stretcher against an apple tree for the tender ministry of his firing squad.
“I die innocent. You will all know it later,” he told his executioners — then added, futile wish, “do not tell my parents.”
Although we have been treated in these pages to the heartbreaking scene of an officer comforting a man about to be shot with the remark that “yours also is a way of dying for France,” the idea has until very recently been confined to the precincts of personal sentiment and certainly not to the institutions responsible for the dying.
On November 11, 2012 — the centennary of Lt. Chapelant’s execution* — he was ceremonially rehabilitated and his death officially ascribed to that same cause that laid so many of his comrades low: “mort pour la France.”
On this date in 1989, Sierra Leone politician Francis Minah was hanged at Freetown’s Pademba Road Prison as a traitor.
A veteran minister of state under the country’s dictatorial first president Siaka Stevens — a reign recalled in Sierra Leone historiography as the “17-year plague of locusts” that looted the country and set the country upon the path to its horrific civil war.
Nearing 80 years old in 1985, Stevens stepped down and handed power off to another officer as self-dealing and authoritarian as he, Joseph Saidu Momoh.
In early 1987, Momoh dramatically announced the discovery and defeat of an alleged coup attempt against him* and arrested his own Vice President Minah as its instigator. In a farcical trial — Minah denied his guilt to the last — Minah was convicted and death-sentenced with 15 other alleged participants. Most had their sentences commuted to prison terms, but Minah and five others all hanged on October 7, 1989.
On this date in 1822, French Lt. Col. Augustin Joseph Caron was shot at Strasbourg as a rebel.
Little is known of his background, but Caron (English Wikipedia entry | French) enlisted in his army during the revolutionary year of 1791 and advanced into command positions under Napoleon. From his later conduct it’s apparent that these years shaped a political passion that would be starkly at odds with the post-Napoleon Bourbon restoration.
As we have noted elsewhere on this site France’s Liberal (often Bonapartist) opposition during these years was urged by the persecution of the monarchist party into conspiracy as the common coin of its politics.
Out of this mire grew both charbonnerie (France’s analogue to the carbonariterrorists who proliferated in Italy) and an overvigilant secret police whose campaigns of entrapment and threat exaggeration did nothing so well as to further obscure the line between mundane opposition and treason.
The strange interplay between these midnight foes would shape the fate of Col. Caron.
Caron’s path to execution begins with the thwarted rising of the Belfort garrison for New Year’s 1822 — a real plot that the government spies were able to squelch. This resulted in a number of executions, by dint of which it has detailed in these very pages.
Caron enters this story in its second chapter: a pensioned former officer of known Bonapartist sympathies, Caron was (with another man named Roger) baited by police spies into mounting an attempted raid on Colmar prison where the arrested Belfort conspirators were being held. Officers chosen to play the part were detailed to meet him as “conspirators” and march with him to Colmar, allowing Caron to make compromising “Vive l’Empereur” exhortations along the way, before finally arresting him.
the means employed to net such a minor, and such a vulnerable, agitator gave the critics of the regime and the defenders of other conspirators the opportunity to assimilate all the operations of the political police to this contemptible one. The government was placed on the defensive from the first. It proved difficult to demonstrate the Caron and Roger had initiated the seditious proposals … Two entire squadrons of chasseurs had conducted their brilliant operation to net only the two original suspects. And then there was the abrasive question of who, under what circumstances, shouted out “Vive l’Empereur!” — that is, tempted innocent passersby-into political crime. The original story … described the squadrons as riding through the countryside crying “Vive l’Empereur,” and innocently wondered whether these purveyors of seditious slogans would be arrested along with Caron, their alleged “leader.”
One Liberal deputy sneeringly pictured future French veterans boasting of their service, “I was in those squadrons that rode through the countryside of the Haut-Rhin shouting ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ in order to test the disposition of the inhabitants.” Indeed, what if the dispositions had been otherwise? It had been only a few years since the emperor really had returned from exile and raised a brief civil war; the idea that the military had risked triggering “the insurrection of a town and the massacre of its inhabitants” for no better reason than to compromise an utter nobody blossomed into a gigantic scandal. Caron became France’s metonym for a patsy;* demands to grant Caron leniency and turn the investigation against his persecutors multiplied discomfitingly.
But this was only one of several high-profile trials against anti-Bourbon plotters unfolding in 1822, and the Liberal denunciations against them practically staked the government’s credibility upon their outcome. So the government saw to the outcome it required — by invoking Caron’s military rank to have him transferred out of the civilian justice system and tried by a military tribunal that would be sure to convict him. Just to complete the shambles, the execution was then hurriedly conducted before Caron’s appeal could be brought before the Court of Cassation.
The Journal of the Lower Rhine gives the following details concerning the execution of Colonel Caron: —
Colonel Caron, who was unanimously condemned to death for the crime of embauchage [“hiring” -ed], by the first permanent council of war of this division, the judgment of which was likewise unanimously confirmed by the council of revision, was executed at two o’clock in the afternoon, in the presence of a small detachment of the garrison, and a numerous concourse of people who were attracted by curiosity. The Abbe Schittig zealously administered to him the consolations of religion, which he received with humility, and he died with the courage of a Christian and an old soldier. Caron was alone in a carriage, amidst the retinue which conducted him to the place of execution. At the entrance of the horn-work, called Finkmatt, where the execution took place, he alighted from the carriage without the assistance of the driver. On arriving in front of the 12 men who were to be his executioners, he refused to have his eyes bandaged. With his hat on, he himself gave the signal. Immediately the muskets were fired, and Caron was no more.