Posts filed under '18th Century'

1793: A Lyon mitraillade

Add comment December 14th, 2014 Headsman

The executions on December 14, 1793 illustrated above (image from here) date to Revolutionary France’s violent suppression that month of the France’s second city for its resistance to Jacobin power.

We have alluded before to this bloody interim, led by the National Convention‘s ruthless emissaries Collot d’Herbois and Joseph Fouche — two men well aware that any appearance of undue leniency in the chastisement of Lyons might send their own heads under the guillotine back in Paris.

To accomplish such an urgent task, they dispensed with the mere guillotine and rolled out a new death-dealing technology: the mitraillades, or execution by grapeshot.*

This bizarre killing method involved lining up the prisoners to be executed — scores or hundreds at once at the height of the Lyons crackdown — before the mouths of cannon loaded with anti-infantry balls. When the cannons fired, they mowed down the victims en masse. And then, gloated the executioners’ Convention ally Barere, “the corpses of the rebellious Lyonese, floating down the Rhone, would warn the citizens of Toulon of their coming fate!”

Now, grapeshot is an outstanding weapon in the right spot, but it is not at all certain to kill its targets. On the battlefield, mangled survivors were just about as good as dead bodies when it came to mauling the soldiery.

But executioners usually aim for something a bit more predictably lethal. The mitraillades could not offer anything close to dependable, near-universal slaughter … and so the horror of the artillery discharge was followed (as one sees in the drawing above) by the horror of the many stunned and injured survivors of the cannonade being finished one by one at close quarters with muskets and bayonets. Though a single coup de grace might count as a mercy, a hundred at once made for simple butchery.

The mitraillade did such brutal work that the national government soon ordered its Lyons deputation to lay off the innovation and return to the standard device for a Republican execution — the guillotine.

* Present-day Francophones will most likely associate the word mitrailleuse with the machine gun. That term dates to a a 19th century “volley gun” capable of spitting out 25 rounds from a cluster of rifle barrel activated by a single crank; for obvious reasons, this weapon inherited its name from the French word for grapeshot, mitraillade.

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1793: Antoine Barnave, constitutional monarchist

Add comment November 29th, 2014 Headsman

I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one

Barnave, Brissot, Condorcet, Mirabeau,
Petion, Clootz, Danton, Marat, La Fayette
Were French, and famous people, as we know;
And there were others, scarce forgotten yet,
Joubert, Hoche Marceau, Lannes, Desaix, Moreau,
With many of the military set,
Exceedingly remarkable at times,
But not at all adapted to my rhymes.

-Lord Byron, Don Juan

On this date, French Revolution orator Antoine Barnave — a founder of the short-lived Feuillants faction — became short-lived himself courtesy of the Paris Terror.

Just one of the side courses when the Revolution devoured its own children, Barnave (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a smart young avocat in the 1780s who distinguished himself at the Parlement of Grenoble.

Avant-garde ideas like political power redistributed to reflect “the new distribution of wealth” were just the sort of revolution that a wealthy lawyer could get behind.

Duly elected at the ripe old age of 27 to France’s watershed (and last) Estates-General of 1789, Barnave was a very early member of the Jacobin Club. You know, before it was cool.

Barnave’s genteel vision of the Revolution transferring the estates of the ancien regime into the mercantile hands of his friends in the bourgeoisie fell spectacularly to pieces in 1791.

That April, Mirabeau died. He was Barnave’s great debating rival in the Jacobin Club, but both men actually represented the same fundamental persuasion: constitutional monarchy. Needless to say, this Revolution was not built to halt at that particular milepost.

Within mere weeks, almost as if the players had been awaiting the literal death of Mirabeau’s moderation, events hurtled past Barnave’s sensibilities. The desperate royal family made its ill-chosen flight to Varennes in June, and the well-regarded Barnave was one of the Constituent Assembly delegates sent to escort Louis XVI back to a Paris now boiling with republican sentiment. Did not the sovereign’s literally attempting to desert from his patrimony entail an abandonment of his station?

In perhaps the pinnacle of Barnave’s rich career in political oratory, he delivered to the National Assembly on July 15 a thundering no to that proposition, challenging his fellow delegates to choose “between attachment to the Constitution and resentment against a man.”

I ask to-day of him among you who may have conceived every kind of prepossession and the deepest and most violent resentment against the executive power — I ask him to tell us whether his anger with that power is greater than his attachment to the law of his country.

Those who would thus sacrifice the Constitution to their resentment against one man seem to me far too liable to sacrifice liberty in their enthusiasm for another; and since they love a republic, now is the time to say to them: How can you wish for a republic in a nation where you hope that the action, easily pardoned after all, of an individual who has much to plead in his justification, that the action of an individual, who though certain qualities of his are now condemned, long possessed the people’s affection — when, I say, you hoped that the deed he has done might change our Government, how was it that you were not afraid that this same variableness of the people, if once they were moved by enthusiasm for a great man, by gratitude for great deeds — because the French nation, you know it, can love much better than it can hate — would overthrow your absurd republic in one day? (Source)

Barnave, to his grief, was entirely clear on what he desired in July of 1791: “all change is fatal now; all prolongation of the Revolution is disastrous now; the real question to my thinking is this, and the national interest is bound up with it; are we going to end the Revolution, or are we going to begin it again?”

His speech carried the motion on July 15th: Louis remained king. Still, the Revolution did not exit into past tense on Barnave’s say-so, and certainly not on so insubstantial a basis as “a resolve to be peaceful, a common resolve, a drawing together.”

He had the applause of the Assembly, which printed his speech for national distribution. But tempestuous debates broke out in Jacobin clubs and other radical circles, and amid intemperate accusations of treasonable conduct by the all-change-is-fatal-now crowd there were oaths sworn never to recognize the kingship of Louis XVI.

On July 17, a huge crowd led by Georges Danton filled the Champs de Mars to petition Louis’s removal. And in response to the Jacobin Club’s announced intention to support this demonstration — which turned into a galvanizing massacre when the Marquis de Lafayette had his national guardsmen fire on the protesters — Barnave with his friends and political allies Adrien Duport and Alexandre Lameth dramatically abandoned the Jacobins and split off the rival Feuillants.

In their day, this so-called “triumvirate” had been the Jacbins’ left wing. By now, they were the the revolution’s conservatives: the monarchists against the republicans, and the guys who liked the Revolution’s existing changes just fine.

“If the Revolution takes one more step, it cannot do so without danger,” Barnave intoned in that July 15 address of his. (Source) “If it is in the direction of liberty, the first act to follow could be the destruction of royalty; if it is in the direction of equality, the first act to follow could be the violation of property … is there still to be destroyed an aristocracy other than that of property?”**

Not everyone found those one-more-steps quite so terrible to contemplate as did the the silver-tongued Grenoble barrister.


Political cartoon of the Janus-faced Barnave — the man of the people in 1789, turned the man of the royal court in 1791.

If we have the luxury from posterity to smile at the notion of the Revolution’s peacably halting itself in 1791, the Feuillants had cause in their moment to think they could pull the trick.

Their move at first dramatically weakened the Jacobins, as the ranks of moderates flocked to Barnave’s prestige and eloquence. The Paris Jacobin Club lost three-quarters of its membership almost overnight, and most of its Assembly deputies. Public sentiment, at least so well as its contemporaries could discern, veered towards Barnave as well, and he was able to finalize the long-awaited Constitution of September 1791 preserving a number of important executive powers for the king’s own person.

The period of governance under that constitution opened with an address by the king that Barnave had written for him; its first few months are the “Feuillant Ministry”. Barnave was the beleaguered royal family’s chief advisor in this period.

But the Feuillant Ministry was crumbling almost from its inception. Its supporting club was founded on abhorrence for the popular politics whose force was still being uncovered in the Revolution; Barnave wanted nothing so much as the end of such societies altogether. So while the monarchists had secretaries exchanging delegated backslaps at private confabs, the reduced Jacobins — now the most passionate rump, helpfully purged of their milquetoast liberals — redoubled themselves under the sway of men like Marat and Robespierre. Barnave’s apparent alignment with the now-constitutional monarch gave legs to the “royalist” charge that was more and more laid at his feet, and Jacobin Clubs soon began receiving as prodigals former members who had found their dalliances with the Feuillants unsatisfactory.

Barnave and his faction came under relentless siege by pamphleteers, journalists, and radical democrats. One wonders if, in the end, Barnave took some cold comfort in having seen an implacable antagonist like Brissot precede him to the guillotine when his own Girondin faction, formerly the fire-eaters, tipped over the Revolution’s starboard bulwarks.

Meanwhile, the impolitic demand emanating from Marie Antoinette’s brother, the Holy Roman Emperor that the French royal family be safeguarded put France on its way to war with Austria, an outcome entirely contrary to not taking one more revolutionary step.

The hounded Barnave retired to Grenoble in January 1792 by which time the constitution he had so diligently promulgated had already virtually ceased to function, and he himself lost influence with both the king and the Assembly. In the months to follow the war tocsin undid his fellow-constitutionalists remaining in Paris. Consigned to the sidelines, their faction was arrested as royalists after the August 10, 1792 overthrow of the Bourbons.

Barnave’s papers were inventoried for hints of treasonable correspondence with the fallen king and queen, but as the curtain had not yet raised on the Terror — and Barnave had not been deported to the prisons of the capital in time for the September Massacres — he had an uncommonly lengthy period of political imprisonment. Barnave exercised this time composing his De la Révolution et de la Constitution (later published as Introduction à la révolution française), an economic history arguing that the rise of industry and manufacturing had transferred the leading role from France’s aristocrats to her bourgeoisie.

With the onset of the Terror, he was shipped to Paris to face treason charges owing to correspondence with Marie Antoinette, where his famous oratory took its last public turn for an audience that had stopped up its ears.

Finally, citizens, I recall this to you; I might have left France in all safety. Perhaps those who still love me will have reason to lament that I did not do what was so easy for me; but, whatever happens, I shall not have to reproach myself with having challenged the judges of my country, with having cast doubts on their integrity, their justice. I shall be sacrificed perhaps, but I had rather owe my ruin to human error than have pronounced my own condemnation. I shall carry to the scaffold the same calmness which you have seen me show in the debate, and to the last moment I shall pray for the welfare of my country. (Source)

He was beheaded with four other people at the Place de la Revolution on the morning of the very next day.

French speakers might enjoy this public domain book by Jules Gabriel Janin. This post has also quoted several times from Eliza Dorothy Bradby’s 1915 English biography of the man.

* It later emerged that Mirabeau was being paid by the royalist party.

** One of the steps towards equality so troubling to Barnave had been a push among Jacobin radicals to resolve upon the emancipation of black slaves in the colonies. Fretting the loss of, e.g., the lucrative sugar revenues of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Barnave staunchly opposed this; he was one of the leading lights of the pro-slavery Massiac Club. (French link)

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1730: Patrona Halil, Ottoman rebel

Add comment November 25th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1730, Patrona Halil, the virtual ruler of the Ottoman capital at the head of a popular rabble, was lured to Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace on the pretext of receiving an imperial honorific — and there seized by the sultan’s guards and put to summary death.

An Albanian shopkeep and Janissary, Halil (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish) had been at the fore of an extraordinarily successful rebellion that bears his name in Turkish histories.

Very recently the mortal terror of Europe, the Ottoman Empire was into its midlife crisis by the early 18th century — a long transition, as it would transpire, into its terminal “sick man of Europe” stage.

Incensed at the splendor of the grandees during the so-called “Tulip Period” — elites’ 1720s fad for that flower, which accompanied years of decadent, and perhaps impious, openness towards Europe — struggling* Istanbul artisan guilds revolted in 1730 over taxes imposed to pay for war with Persia.

Not for the last time, the impositions of the taxman only served to catalyze wider grievances that had already been mounting. Janissaries cast a gimlet eye on the sultan’s dalliances with European military innovations — which those feudal infantrymen rightly perceived as an existential threat. Everyday Turks and the ulama alike resented the cultural inroads of the West. In the paroxysm of 1730, these factions combined with the petite bourgeois guilds to shake the Porte far more deeply than some riot ought.

There had been many rebellions in Istanbul before, but this was the first to show a syndrome that was thereafter often repeated: an effort to Westernize military and administrative organization propounded by a section of the official elite, accompanied by some aping of Western manners, and used by another interest group to mobilize the masses against Westernization.*


Jean-Baptiste van Mour, a Flemish painter residing in Istanbul at the time. He’s notable for numerous paintings of the Tulip Era Ottoman Empire, including that of the sword-brandishing Patrona Halil further up this post.

The rebellion forced the execution of the grand vizier, and the abdication of Sultan Ahmed III in favor of his nephew Mahmud. Rioters sacked the estates of the wealthy and put a definitive end to the Tulip Period by trashing the delicate gardens emblematic of their sybaritic lords.

For nearly two months, the impertinent Halil was virtually the master of the capital. He rode with the new sultan to the ceremony investing him with Osman’s sword; he dictated appointments for his rude associates, like a Greek butcher named Yanaki who was to become Hospodar of Moldavia. At Halil’s whim, Mahmud was forced to order mansions put to the torch and (of course) that hated war tax rescinded.

Halil probably ought to have been better on his guard against the maneuver the sultan executed this date — and was always likely to attempt in some form. Then again, what he had already achieved, however briefly, was outlandish, and pointed to weaknesses in the Ottoman state far more durable than Halil himself. By slaying the insurgent chief, Mahmud got himself some breathing space: popular dissatisfaction, however, was too widely rooted to be destroyed at a single stroke, and would resume again with intermittent disturbances and purges well into 1731, with a successor revolt in 1740.†

And over a still longer arc, the parties of the Halil revolt would guard their prerogatives so jealously and effectively over the generations to come as to fatally compromise the capacity of the sultanate to compel the modernization that the Empire required. Patrona Halil’s revenge was two centuries in coming … but it was worth the wait.

* According to Robert W. Olson’s “The Esnaf and the Patrona Halil Rebellion of 1730: A Realignment in Ottoman Politics?”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, September 1974, the major beefs of the esnaf (guilds) were a spiral of inflation brought by the devaluing Ottoman currency, the influx of immigrants to the capital, and taxes.

** Serif Mardin, “Center-Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?”, Daedalus, Winter 1973.

† See Olson, “Jews, Janissaries, Esnaf and the Revolt of 1740 in Istanbul: Social Upheaval and Political Realignment in the Ottoman Empire”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, May 1977.

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1721: Christiana Bell

Add comment November 21st, 2014 Meaghan

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

The story of Christiana Bell’s execution in Gloucester County in modern-day New Jersey on or shortly before November 21, 1721, begins in 1703. That was the first time she was accused of infanticide: they had found a dead baby and Christiana, a domestic servant who was probably only in her teens at the time, came under suspicion because she had been pregnant out of wedlock and was suddenly not pregnant but with no infant to show for it.

Her trial in 1703 was presided over by Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, 3rd Earl of Clarendon, governor of the New York and New Jersey colonies. She was convicted and sentenced to death. However, Lord Cornbury took pity on her — perhaps because of her youth, or maybe there were doubts about her guilt — and first commuted the death sentence, then issued a full pardon. Christiana returned home, having spent fourteen months behind bars but not stretched her neck.

She didn’t learn the lesson Lord Cornbury might have wanted her to learn from her fortuitous escape.

In 1720, she was rearrested for the exact same crime: she’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock again, delivered a live baby and did away with it.

Christiana very nearly got lucky again: her death sentence was suspended and she got a chance to plead her case before New Jersey Supreme Court on May 2, 1721. Today, appeals in capital cases are automatic; in Christiana’s time, this was an unusual and perhaps unprecedented legal maneuver.

Unfortunately, it backfired on her: the prosecution was ready with witnesses who testified about Christiana Bell’s notorious past and her prior conviction and death sentence. This time there would be no reprieve.

The exact date of her execution is not known for certain, but on November 21, 1721, the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders approved funds to reimburse the sheriff for expenses he’d incurred in hanging her.

See Legal Executions in New Jersey: A Comprehensive Registry, 1691-1963.

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1795: David McCraw, “blasted all our conjugal happiness”

Add comment November 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1795, Donald McCraw was hanged in Perth, Scotland. A weaver by trade, McGraw joined the great human migrations the Industrial Revolution was stirring by migrating from the Highlands to Perth’s booming textile industry.

There, he laments in a bracingly emotional confession published as a broadside on the day before his execution,

[I] might have lived very comfortable, if it had not been for that curse to all peace and happiness, an overbearing temper in myself, and a fractious discontented temper in my unfortunate wife, [which] blasted all our conjugal happiness, so that instead of bearing with one another, as we are commanded in scripture 1 Pet. 3:7-11, our time was unhappily spent in mutual railings, upbraidings, threatenings, and even blows. In this most disagreeable life we lived for several years, but wickedness did not stop here, which may teach those who have the pattern of dreadful example before them, how dangerous a thing it is to live a wicked life, and how any vice persevered in grows in us like a second nature, and rare if it be ever left off.

I had long made a practice of beating my unhappy wife, custom made me almost think it no crime till it ended in the horrid crime of murder! And that at a time, which made it a double crime, when she had only one month between her and childbed.

Oh how unhappy have I been, to embrue my hands in the blood of my helpless wife, and my innocent unborn offspring. I no sooner committed the horrid crime, and saw her lying lifeless, than I was seized with such a trembling horror, that had I been lord of a thousand worlds, I would freely have given them all to have had the horrid deed recalled; but alas! it was done past recalling.

McCraw at first fled his crime but after running just a few miles he

began to reflect that I could not fly from the presence of an all-seeing God, nor run from the guilty conscience that now overwhelmed my heart; for should I fly to the uttermost corner of the earth, I would still be in his presence, and my guilt would accompany me. I therefore thought it would be better to give myself up to justice, and suffer what I justly deserv’d, than live with the pangs of a guilty conscience which are worse than death.

After hanging, McCraw was delivered to the city’s doctors for dissection.

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1793: Madame Roland, éminence grise

Add comment November 8th, 2014 Amelia Fedo

(Thanks to Amelia Fedo, a graduate student in French literature, for the guest post.)

On this date in 1793, Manon Roland (née Phlipon)* was guillotined as part of the Girondist purges in the Paris Terror.

As Olympe de Gouges — who preceded her to the guillotine by only a few days — observed, being a woman may have prevented her from holding political power under her own name, but it didn’t stop her from losing her own head.

Born in Paris to a bourgeois engraver, she married up through her alliance with quasi-aristocrat Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière. Twenty years her senior, he was chosen by her for his class status and intellect rather than for the love he inspired.

Ambitious from the start, Madame Roland took advantage of her husband’s (and later, her Girondin not-quite-lover François Buzot‘s) engagement in civic life to catapult herself into the role of behind-the-scenes stateswoman. She had been prepared for this role since childhood, when she had voraciously read Rousseau and Plutarch. Unlike Olympe de Gouges, she internalized the idea that women did not belong in politics — yet still she yearned to have an influence on the Republic.

And she did indeed succeed in wielding political power, with enough competence that Robespierre wanted her guillotined at least as much as her husband: everyone knew that she was the real force to be reckoned with.

Her political career was inextricably tied to her husband’s. Unable to hold political office herself, she lived vicariously through him. At first he was a bureaucrat, and she his secretary and personal assistant; but then he became involved in Parisian politics and was eventually appointed Minister of the Interior.

It was his wife who encouraged him to accept the position; for a year now she had been hosting salons frequented by a wide range of political movers and shakers, and she was itching to get in the game.

Monsieur Roland did not have a brilliant career as minister. His wife was the one with the vision and energy (the historian Lucy Moore claims that every good idea he had was hers); although devoted to Republican ideals he remained something of a milquetoast, and was attacked both by the snobby old guard (the lack of buckles on his shoes caused a scandal) and by the extreme left.

Although Madame Roland identified with Robespierre and was a good deal more radical than the Girondins (especially in her feelings about the monarchy), she and her husband were still officially associated with them. As such, they were swept up in Robespierre’s purges.

There were a few pre-Terror false alarms: a warrant was issued for Monsieur Roland’s arrest after the September Massacres, which Danton put the kibosh on; and in 1792, Madame Roland was dragged into court on trumped-up charges of corresponding with émigrés, but was able to use her oratorical skills to get herself acquitted.

When the Terror began, Monsieur Roland opted to keep his head down in the hopes of keeping it on, and resigned from his post as minister.

It was too late. In May 1793 Madame Roland was arrested again — unaccompanied by her husband, who had managed to escape into hiding.

She was subjected to a show trial like so many before and after her; although she had prepared a defense, she was not allowed to read it. Given that she was accused of “conspiring against the unity and the indivisibility of the Republic and attempting to introduce civil war,” neither her verdict nor her sentence are much of a surprise.

She was preoccupied with her husband (whom she declared would be driven to suicide by her execution), with Buzot (who was in grave danger of suffering her same fate), and with her own legacy. She seized the opportunity to be a martyr like the men she so admired — men who had been able to act in the open, rather than behind the scenes — and took advantage of the free time she had in prison to write her memoirs.

Most sources give similar accounts of her behavior before and during the execution. Content to die for her principles — or, perhaps, simply resolved to make a show of contentment — she maintained great calm and resignation in her final hours. The only favor she asked of anyone was that her childhood friend Sophie Grandchamp wait for her on the Pont-Neuf so that they could see each other when the tumbrel passed.

Influencing people up to the very end, Roland’s last political act was an attempt to impart some of her courage to the man who would share her tumbrel, a forger of assignats named Lamarche.

Lacking the sort of great social narrative that would give meaning to his death (such as a personal feud with Robespierre), Lamarche did not share Roland’s sanguine attitude; he thus found himself the recipient of a performance designed to alter his mood, consisting mostly of jokes, distractions, and modeled behavior. The events surrounding her execution have passed into legend, but various sources agree that she quipped to Lamarche after his hair was cut, “It suits you wonderfully. You have the head of a Roman.”

She also urged the executioner to leave her own hair long enough to serve as a suitable handle — for him to show her head to the crowd, of course.

As much as she detested Danton, it appears she had a few things in common with him after all.

Counterintuitively, it was considered a privilege to be guillotined first; it was merciful, the reasoning went, to kill someone before they could see others die. Roland chose to pass up this “privilege”; most attribute this to her desire to spare Lamarche the sight of her death, but Lucy Moore points out in Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France that she may have rejected the logic of such a “mercy” altogether and wished to live — like Madame du Barry — even a few moments longer.

After mounting the scaffold, she addressed a statue of Marianne, left over from a festival held in the Place de la Révolution; she is traditionally said to have exclaimed, “O liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!”, although a less reputable source (i.e., the apocryphal Sanson memoirs) assigns her the more prosaic last words, “Oh! Liberty, how they’ve tricked you!”

As she had predicted, her husband committed suicide two days later, falling on his sword as soon as he learned of her fate.

*This is only one of many names she has been called; Siân Reynolds explains in Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland that “Manon” is a childhood name, and her adult name remains mysterious; it was either “Marie,” “Jeanne,” or “Marie-Jeanne.”

A few books about Madame Roland

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1792: Three of the H.M.S. Bounty mutineers

1 comment October 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1792, three men were hanged from the yardarms of the H.M.S. Brunswick in Portsmouth Harbor.

Their crime was participating in that famous or infamous act of seaborne resistance, the Mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty.

There are so many excellent resources already for enthusiasts of this adventure that a generalist site such as this one can scarcely hope to contribute. Much of the commentary through the years has gravitated towards asserting (by implication at least) the ought between the allegedly oversensitive first mate Fletcher Christian and his allegedly tyrannous captain William Bligh.

Their confrontation is too well mythologized to require commentary here. We only wish to note that this workplace confrontation occurred in furtherance of a mission whose purpose was the application of the lash to other laborers than the Bounty‘s Able Seamen.

Lord Byron fictionalized Bligh’s and other mariners’ accounts to render “The Island”, a poem surprisingly sympathetic (given Byron’s radical proclivities) to the officers mutinied upon. In it, he renders the Eden-like plenty of Otaheiti

The gentle island, and the genial soil,
The friendly hearts, the feasts without a toil,
The courteous manners but from nature caught,
The wealth unhoarded, and the love unbought;
Could these have charms for rudest sea-boys, driven
Before the mast by every wind of heaven?

The Bread-tree, which, without the ploughshare, yields
The unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields,
And bakes its unadulterated loaves
Without a furnace in unpurchased groves,
And flings off famine from its fertile breast,
A priceless market for the gathering guest …

Those fertile-breasted breadtrees were the object of Bligh’s voyage: they were to be acquired, potted, and sailed onward to the Caribbean where they’d be transplanted in hopes of providing a cornucopia … of profits to sugar plantations whose slaves’ hands an “unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields” would free for an added margin in the export economy.*

The Bounty bartered for and potted up over 1,000 specimens during a protracted five-week layover Tahiti, a literal Bounty that the crew would prove to prefer to the floating despotism under Capt. Bligh.

Those mutineers turned the breadfruit-ship ’round and settled themselves back on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island,* burning the Bounty in hopes of simply disappearing from imperial Britain’s circuits of maritime accumulation.

Cast adrift in the Pacific, Bligh somehow guided the 7-meter open launch 6,700 kilometers to Timor, losing only one of his 18 loyal passengers along the way — a feat of seamanship Bligh himself told all about in a first-person account. From the East Indies, Bligh caught a ride back to England and reported the insurrection to the Admiralty in March 1790, more than two years after his ill-starred voyage had set sail from Spithead.

So in 1791, a 24-gun ship called Pandora set out carrying a box of evils for the mutineers. The latter had, in this time, found the comforts of the South Pacific at least somewhat less congenial now that they proposed to make themselves permanent residents and moreover anticipated native deference to their race despite having opted themselves out of the authority that underwrote said privilege. Fletcher Christian himself is thought to be among the mutineers who died in conflicts with the natives.†

Still, the Pandora found 14 of the Bounty‘s former crew to round up and return for British judgment. (The Pitcairn settlement escaped notice altogether; it was only chanced upon by an American ship in 1808 by which time nobody had any interest in persecuting the last remaining mutineer.)

The three featured today were, perhaps surprisingly, the only ones to pass through all the filters from detention to execution, filters that one might have thought would winnow only fleetingly in the case of such an impudent rebellion.

  • To begin with, the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef on its return voyage. Only at the last moment did a boatswain unlock the cell where the prisoners were being held — and only 10 of the 14 managed to escape being swallowed up by the seas.

  • The ensuing court-martial acquitted outright four of those remaining ten — men whom Bligh himself described as innocent loyalists who had been forced to remain with the mutineers.

The Admiralty court-martial had a job to fix the six other sailors in their right spots along the spectrum from “enthusiastic mutineer” to “passive participant” to “had to go along with events outside of their control.” It took a good deal of testimony from Bligh’s loyalists about who was armed, who gave a sharp word, and so forth, during the critical moments of Fletcher Christian’s coup. (Legal proceedings in the Bounty case are collected in their entirety here, part of a rich trove of primary sources related to the incident.)

In the end, all six whom Bligh did not vouch for got the same sentence — death — but the court endorsed several for royal mercy. The three who eventually hanged on October 29, 1792 were:

  • Able Seaman Thomas Burkitt or Burkett. Multiple witnesses made him an armed and active member of the mutiny from its very first stroke, assisting Fletcher Christian’s nighttime seizure of the sleeping captain.
  • Able Seaman John Millward. He too was placed among the armed mutineers by witnesses; in fact, prior to the mutiny, he had attempted with two other crewmates to abscond from the Bounty and spent three weeks hiding out in Tahiti before recaptured.
  • Able Seaman Thomas Ellison. Just 16 or 17 years old at the time of the mutiny, Ellison was made to hand over his watch at the helm to a mutineer. His efforts at court to portray himself as loyal to Bligh and only unwillingly swept up in events were contradicted by one of the men set adrift with the ex-captain, but have been favorably received by many later interlocutors. The Charles Nordhoff-James Hall novelization Mutiny on the Bounty presents Ellison as an innocent.

Three others condemned with this trio at the same court-martial who might have shared their execution date were spared that fate.

  • Able Seaman William Muspratt copped a stay and eventually a commutation of sentence based on having been prevented from calling his desired witnesses. He returned to active duty at sea.
  • James Morrison, notable for having built a schooner on Tahiti with which he attempted unsuccessfully to sail for the East Indies, was recommended for mercy by the court which condemned him. While incarcerated, Morrison wrote a journal giving his account of the mutiny; he too returned to active service as a gunner.
  • Midshipman Peter Heywood, the only officer charged was, like Morrison, pardoned at the court’s recommendation. He put in many years of respectable service at sea, eventually retiring with the rank of post-captain. Anticipating his being tongue-tied when the pardon was announced to him, he had a note ready-written to hand the angel of his deliverance: “when the sentence of the law was passed upon me, I received it, I trust, as became a man; and if it had been carried into execution, I should have met my fate, I hope, in a manner becoming a Christian … I receive with gratitude my Sovereign’s mercy; for which my future life shall be faithfully devoted to his service.” (London Times, Oct. 30, 1792)

* This breadfruit scheme was the brainchild of Joseph Banks, an empire-minded botanist who was also a leading advocate of diverting the convict labor formerly exported to America to Australia instead.

After all the mutiny business had been sorted out, Bligh commanded a second, do-over voyage to dump breadtrees on Jamaica. Slaves’ distaste for the delicacy caused the voyage’s immediate objectives to fail; however, the imported fruit would eventually become a Jamaican culinary staple.

** Descendants of the Bounty mutineers and native women still inhabit Pitcairn to this day. It’s the smallest self-governing national jurisdiction in the world.

† The last mutineer on Pitcairn gave vague and contradictory accounts of Christian’s death. It was long rumored that he might actually have escaped Pitcairn and secretly returned to England: if so, he was never exposed.

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1781: Twelve Aymara rebels

Add comment October 26th, 2014 Headsman

[M]ore than 14,000 will have perished in this unhappy city, the great majority through starvation; others were shot, and still others were beheaded by the rebels in the fields that many attempted to cross even though they knew that the rebels would not show them any mercy if they looked Spanish in any way. And I, in the middle of all this misfortune and despite having as many bullets pass over me as passed over Carlos Federico of Prussia, I am still alive up to this date and after having satisfactorily carried out all the enterprises entrusted to me by my friend Commander Segurola, and having shown myself on all occasion to be very competent, and with a selfless love of service towards both Majesties, risking my life and everything I own to defend this hapless city. And everybody has celebrated, but especially said Commander, my activity and boldness at night as well as during the day, as I could always be found in the most dangerous areas of this wretched city, supervising and reprimanding those officers who were slack in their duties. Whatever happens from now on, God was served.

There is no Indian who is not a rebel; all die willingly for their Inca King, without coming to terms with God or his sacred law. On October 26th twelve rebels were beheaded and none of them were convinced to accept Jesus; and the same has happened with another 600 that have died in executions during both sieges.

The head of the infamous Tupac Catari still hangs from one of the gallows of this square, and on the 20th of last month they began to form the cases against twenty-four of the principal rebel officers who served under his perverse and iniquitous command. Equal diligence is being practiced against five women who are being held in the command post of this square. Among them is Catari’s sister and one of his women with the same inclinations as that iniquitous Indian, who must have come from the depths of hell.

More troops are needed from both Viceroyalties or from Spain, some 8,0000 to 10,000 men to make Our Sovereign’s name respected throughout the entire Sierra and to finally, once and for all, cut off some heads and be finished with all these cursed relics.

-Dec. 3, 1781 letter from Juan Bautisa Zavala “summarizing the calamities” of La Paz under Aymara siege over the foregoing months (As quoted in this anthology)

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1796: Thirty Jacobins for the Affaire du camp de Grenelle

Add comment October 9th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1796, 30 Jacobins were shot by a military commission in under the French Directory for attempting to subert the army.

This final, failed enterprise of Gracchus Babeuf‘s “Conspiracy of Equals” took place months after Babeuf himself had been arrested on the eve of his envisioned revolution.

“Song of the Equals”
Babouvist popular song from 1796

For too long a wretched code
Enslaved men to men:
May the reign of the brigands fall!
Let us finally know what our condition is
Awaken to our voice
And leave the darkest night behind,
People! Take hold of your rights,
The sun shines for all.

You created us to be equal,
Nature, oh beneficent mother!
Why, in property and labors,
This murderous inequality? Awaken!

People, smash the ancient charm
Of a too lethargic slumber:
With the most terrible of awakenings
Spread alarm to grinning crime.
Lend an ear to our voice
And leave the darkest night behind.
People, take hold of your rights,
The sun shines for all.

In the uncertain aftermath of Robespierre’s fall, the interregnum of the Directory saw both royalists and republicans jockey for a restoration of their former prerogatives (and jockey against one another, of course). Babeuf’s conspiracy might have been the boldest stroke of all had it come off; instead, a projected rising for May 11, 1796 was scotched by Babeuf’s pre-emptive arrest.

But to strike the head was not to slay the movement. The economy was a mess and the political authority a rudderless, unpopular clique. The coup attempt didn’t happen but Jacobin agitation continued to mount — met in its turn by royalist agitation, the two parties dangerously hellbent for one another’s blood. The imprisoned Babeuf (he wouldn’t be guillotined until the following year) made one such focus of agitation — and eventually, of more conspiring.

Babeuf’s allies conceived a plan of swaying the regiment of dragoons then encamped on the plain of Grenelle outside of Paris. (Today, part of the 15th arrondissement.)

On the night of September 9-10, several hundred armed Jacobins assembled and descended on the camp of Grenelle — intending not to fight, but to fraternize, hoping that sympathetic soldiery could be swung to liberate Babeuf and mount a rising against the Directory. This strange and desperate episode was in the end the acme of babouvisme, and was crushed out of hand by officers of the regiment.

Most of the would-be fraternizers scattered but 132 were arrested. At snap military trials — legally questionable since most of the instigators were civilians — 33 death sentences were meted out. Three were delivered in absentia; the 30 others were all enforced by musketry on this date.

The most notable casualties among those 30 were (these are French Wikipedia links all):


More about Babeuf, “the first modern communist”, by the speaker in this lecture here.

* All three had in their day voted the death of King Louis XVI.

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1760: John Bruleman, weary of life

Add comment October 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1760,* silversmith and murderer John Bruleman (sometimes given as Bruelman or Bruellman) was hanged by his own wish. “Weary of life,” he “had committed the crime to escape from the toils and troubles of the world.”

The Boston Evening-Post of Nov. 3, 1760 records of the tragedy (line breaks have been added for readability):

PHILADELPHIA, Octob. 16.

John Bruleman, who was executed here the 8th inst. for the murder of Mr. Scull, had been an officer in the Royal American regiment; but being detected in counterfeiting, or uttering counterfeit money, was discharged: He then returned hither, and growing insupportable to himself, and yet being unwilling to put an end to his own life, he determined upon the commission of some crime, for which he might get hang’d by the law.

Having formed this design, he loaded his gun with a brace of balls, and ask’d his landlord to go a shooting with him, intending to murder him before his return, but his landlord not choosing to go escaped the danger.

He then went out alone, and on the way met a man, whom he was about to kill, but recollecting that there was no witnesses to prove him guilty, he let the man pass.

He then went to a public house, where he drank some liquor, and hearing people at play at billiards, in a room above stairs; he went up and sat with them, and was talkative, facetious, and good-humour’d; after some time, he called to the landlord, and desired him to hand up the gun. Mr Scull, who was at play, having struck his antagonist’s ball into one of the pockets, Bruleman said to him, — “Sir you are a good marks-man, — and now I’ll show you a fine stroke.”

He immediately levell’d his piece, and took aim at Mr. Scull (who imagined him in jest) and shot both balls thro’ his body. — He then went up to Mr. Scull (who did not expire nor lose his senses, till a considerable time after) and said to him, — “Sir, I had no malice nor ill-will against you, I never saw you before, but I was determined to kill somebody, that might be hanged, and you happen to be the man, and as you are a very likely young man, I am sorry for your misfortune.”

Advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal, Oct. 2, 1760

Mr. Scull had time to send for his friends, and to make his will. He forgave his murderer, and if it could be done, desired he might be pardoned.

Bruleman did not think it worth his while to prepare for another world, notwithstanding sundry clergymen were continually soliciting him thereto; and would ot forgive his enemies, saying he left them to the mercy of the Almighty.

* Oct. 22 is a widely-cited date; however, it is unambiguously incorrect per the contemporary newspaper reports. It probably traces to the date (mis)reported in the Espy file of historical American executions.

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