Posts filed under '19th Century'

1884: Tombstone hangs five

Add comment March 28th, 2015 Headsman

The frontier town Tombstone, Arizona saw its first legal hanging on this date in 1884 — and its second, third, fourth, and fifth besides.

On the 8th of December ult., Daniel “Big Dan” Dowd, Comer W. “Red” Sample, Daniel “York” Kelly, William “Billy” Delaney and James “Tex” Howard rode into the nearby town of Bisbee in an attempt to seize the $7,000 payroll for the Copper Queen Mine.

Sadly the bandits mistimed the arrival of the boodle. Having already committed to the raid, they improvised a plunder of the general store and the valuables of any nearby customers they could lay the sight of their sixguns upon. And then on the way out, villainous mustaches a-twirl, the gangsters shot up the town and slew four good residents of Bisbee.

The survivors telegraphed the sheriff of Tombstone, the seat of Cochise County.*

This Bisbee Massacre was just two years on from Tombstone’s signature moment, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral — and it had a similar whiff of the lawless frontier.

Arrayed against Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday at the O.K. Corral** had been the so-called “cowboys”, a network of desperadoes who found this last vanishing enclave of the lawless frontier a congenial environment for opportunistic outlawry: livestock rustling, smuggling, stagecoach robbery, and the like.

The line between legitimate businessman and criminal element was as permeable as the nearby Mexican border. As Tombstone’s posses hunted down the five Bisbee shooters over the ensuing weeks, interrogations would reveal that Bisbee saloon-keeper John Heath — an Ohio native of shady reputation who could be found during the gunfight cowering behind his own bar — was actually the moving spirit behind the raid. He would later testify in a piece of hairsplitting vainglory that of course it was he who conceived it all, as his henchmen were too stupid for such a plan … but the part where they started shooting people was none of John Heath’s idea.

Heath was smart enough to get his own trial separate from his goons, and smart enough to work a jail sentence where his cronies were set up for execution.

Folk in Tombstone were incensed at this leniency and on February 22 they reversed it by extracting Heath from his irons and lynching him to a telegraph pole at First and Toughnut.

The Alfred Henry Lewis Wolfville books (available in the public domain) dramatize a fictitious western town loosely based on Tombstone … complete with vigilance committee and a strong female character named Nell.

It was fairly clear under the circumstances that the five toughs awaiting their March 28 hanging date had no need to entertain any hope of mercy.

Nonetheless, legendary frontierswoman Nellie Cashman — later to be inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame for her exertions in that arctic gold rush was at this time resident in the silver boom town of Tombstone.

So appalled was the Irishwoman at the highly improper festive civic atmosphere prevailing in Tombstone as the executions approached that she organized a gang of her own: a team that on the eve of the hangings secretly dismantled a grandstands some ghoulish entrepreneur had erected in order to at least permit the event to go off with some modicum of solemnity.

* Cochise County, Arizona, was named for the great Apache warrior.

** Actually, the shootout was neither in nor abutting the O.K. Corral.

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1889: Mark Francis and James Turney

Add comment March 27th, 2015 Headsman

LEBANON, Tenn., March 27. — Mack Francis and James Turney, negroes, were hanged at 12.23 this afternoon for the murder of Lew Martin last summer. They showed a great deal of bravado and confessed their guilt after ascending the scaffold. Francis struggled much, but Turney died instantly, his neck being broken. The execution was private, but a large number of people stood around the gallows.

Lew Martin was a half-witted, inoffensive negro. On the evening of the murder he went to church, having $7* in his possession. This he imprudently displayed, and the two men who were to-day hanged saw it. They planned the murder while sitting behind the church, and shot their victim as he was on his way home. In his confession Francis said:

We waited outside the door of the church till the crowd came out, and when Martin was about one hundred yards down the road we followed him. When we caught up with him he was walking with some of the people from the church and we fell back and waited till he got by himself. Then we caught up with him again and walked along, one of us on each side of him. Then Jim drew his pistol and shot him twice. Lew’s head fell forward and he said ‘Jim.’ Jim then turned to me and said threateningly, ‘Shoot; why don’t you shoot.’ I then shot twice, and hit Lew in the body, and Jim shot three more times, when Lew fell. We went through his pockets and found seven dollars, and Jim took four dollars and I took three. When we killed him we thought he had more money, but when we left the church I had no idea of killing him.

Philadelphia Inquirer, March 28, 1889.

* The equivalent of about $175 in 2014 dollars. (via)

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1822: Hannah Halley, scalding infanticide

Add comment March 26th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1822, Hannah Halley went to the gallows at Derby for murdering her newborn child — by the gruesome expedient of pouring scalding water on it.*

“That it was her intention to destroy the infant was inferred, from her constant denial of the pregnancy,” observed the Derby Mercury (March 27, 1822), building towards indignation, “and from her having made no preparation of baby linen tho’ the child was full grown at the time of its birth.”

On being charged with the intention of murdering the infant by those who first discovered it, she made no answer; and subsequently when asked what incited her to commit such a deed, she replied “it was the devil who caused her to do it.” This is the usual apology assigned for their evil deeds by those who are too ignorant to analyze the real motives of their actions; who are not willing, from self love, to view their conduct in its true light; and who chuse to refer the corrupt habits formed by previous indulgence, to any cause however improbable and groundless, rather than to their own depraved dispositions.

One might perceive other factors in Halley’s desperation than her depravity.

The 31-year-old cotton mill laborer had conceived the child out of wedlock and lacked the means to care for it. Family and workplace constraints converge here, in what sequence one can only guess: Hannah married a man — not the baby’s father — two months before she secretly delivered.

Infanticide cases we have seen on this site frequently involve a pregnant woman far advanced in her term who raises eyebrows by denying the pregnancy all the way to the end; surely this must also be true of some infanticidal mothers who get away with the deed in the end.

In this instance, the husband too denied knowledge of his wife’s pregnancy: he was believed, and was not punished. I cannot document this hypothesis, but I often wonder if individuals who end up executed for infanticide are falling prey as much as anything to their standing among their community. For a woman of little means like Hannah Halley, does it all come down to whether her popularity among her neighbors — or specifically among the other women who shared her lodging-house and decided to report hearing a baby’s cry from her room — is sufficient to induce them tacitly to go along with the cover story? Was her husband’s convenient (and conveniently accepted) denial only produced because the matter unexpectedly went to the courts?

A woman of “feeble frame”, she died with apparent ease and was given over for dissection afterwards. She was the second and last woman hanged outside Friar Gate Gaol, and the second and last Hannah.

And the march of industry that shaped Halley’s working life was also to be found at work in her death. The Mercury once again:

The drop used on the above occasion was constructed by Mr. Bamford, of this town. It is formed principally of wrought iron, and tho’ it has a general resemblance to that previously in use, it has a much lighter appearance. The great advantages of the new drop consist in the facility with which it can be put up, the consequent diminution of expense on every execution, and the decreased annoyance to the neighbourhood. Formerly it was necessary to commence bringing out the heavy timbers of which the old drop was constructed early in the morning, and many hours were required to complete its erection, during which the loud sounds of mallets and hammers rung in the ears and suddened the hearts of the surrounding inhabitants. The new drop can be prepared for use in ten minutes (as we are informed) and taken down in the same time. In fact it is drawn from the wall of which the front of it forms a part, and is supported by iron rods let down upon the ground beneath. Ingenious however as its construction appears, it would be infinitely more consonant to our feelings to report such improved arrangements in prison discipline, and such modifications of the existing criminal code as should render the use of this dreadful instrument of death less familiar to the public mind.

* The nameless child survived four days in what one supposes must have been unbearable pain.

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1864: Kastus Kalinouski, Belarus revolutionary

Add comment March 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1864, Kastus Kalinouski was hanged in a public square in Vilnius.

A peasant revolutionary from the European frontiers of tsarism, Kalinouski is a present-day independence hero for Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. (His name is variously rendered Konstanty Kalinowski, Kastus Kalinouski, and Konstantinas Kalinauskas for those respective homelands.)

These various polities had been joint constituents of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, gobbled up by Russia at the end of the 18th century.

Dissatisfaction with membership in this adoptive empire progressed differently among different demographics of the old Commonwealth, but it really blossomed in the wreckage of the 1850s Crimean War. Chastened after being drubbed by an industrial power, Russia finally emancipated her serfs — but the emancipation proved to bear as much confiscation as liberation, to the chagrin of the emancipatees.

In Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania, peasant anger at the raw deal dovetailed nicely with stirring national sentiment. Kalinouski, a young barrister, launched the flagship (clandestine) publication for that audience, Muzyckaja Prauda (Peasant’s Truth). It was one of the first periodicals published in Belarusian, and it was not calculated to reconcile his countrymen to Moscow.

Six years have passed since the peasants’ freedom began to be talked about. They have talked, discussed, and written a great deal, but they have done nothing. And this manifesto which the tsar, together with the Senate and the landlords, has written for us, is so stupid that the devil only knows what it resembles-there is no truth in it, there is no benefit whatsoever in it for us.

-From the first issue of Peasant’s Truth

Kalinouski’s literary adventures mirrored a prominent role among the leadership of the January Uprising to throw off the Romanov yoke.

But it proved to be the case that, although scrapping with Great Britain might be one thing, the Russian army was more than a match for her internal foes. It crushed the January Uprising.

In prison awaiting execution, Kalinouski bequeathed one last literary vindication, his Letters from Beneath the Gallows.

Friends, my brothers!

From under the Russian gallows I am writing to you for the last time. It is sad to leave my native land and you, my dear people. My breast sighs and my heart is sore, but it is not a sad lot to perish for your truth. Hear my last words in sincerity, my people, for it is as if they were written from this world only for your good … as day and night do not reign together, so also true learning does not go together with Russian slavery. As long as this lies over us, we shall have nothing. There will be no truth, no riches, no learning. They will only drive us like cattle not to our well-being, but to our perdition.

… go and fight with the whole people for your human and national rights, for your faith, for your native land. For I say to you from beneath the gallows, my people, you will only then live happily, when no Russian remains over you! (Source)


A plaque in Vilnius marks the spot of Kastus Kalinouski’s execution on 22 March 1864 (10 March by the Julian calendar).

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1899: Cordelia Poirier and Samuel Parslow

Add comment March 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1899, Cordelia Poirier was hanged in Ste. Scholastique, Quebec with her lover Samuel Parslow.*

Cordelia Viau by her maiden name, the femme fatale in this transaction found that in her marriage to one Isidore Poirier she was much the sturdier spirit.

“She was a masterful woman,” this old public-domain text on insurance crimes muses, “and Poirier seems to have been a man of very common mould. He was not great or strong enough to make his wife admire or respect him, yet was too obstinate to yield to her domination.”

Cordelia soon turned this gap in magnetism to good effect on Mr. Parslow, a local carpenter, to the considerable scandal of their village, Saint-Canut.

An intolerable domestic situation drove Isidore Poirier to the bottle, and Cordelia Poirier to the insurance underwriters — from whom she obtained two separate $1,000 policies on the life of her spouse. Much to the discredit of her agents (and, one must suspect, to the commission wage model), the wife’s blunt inquiries as to whether a death by assassination woud void the policies were met with simple affirmations rather than a summons to the constable.

Sure enough, Isidore Poirier suffered just such a death on November 21, 1897: after vespers (Cordelia was an organist at the church), she and Parslow barged in on the intoxicated Isidore at his home and Parslow slashed him to death with a butcher knife. The body was discovered the next day, and it wasn’t hard to put means to motive and clap the adulterers in gaol.

Having perhaps not thought this venture through, Samuel Parslow and Cordelia Poirier promptly began informing on one another in hopes of avoiding the rope. Their confessions would only cinch one another’s fates. By the time of trial, Parslow had to feebly accuse Mrs. Poirier of hypnotizing him.**

Her cynical domestic crime and vampish reputation earned her an extreme level of disapprobation: her behavior obviously inverted and betrayed the model of domestic virtue whose penumbra of sentimentality has often been counted on to save female murderers from the gallows. Cordelia Poirier was actively hated.

“The crowd inside the jail jeered [Cordelia Poirier],” it was reported — “but even then her nerve did not desert her, and at the suggestion of the executioner she turned and faced the Jeerers, and stood erect and prayed to the last.”

* Thanks to the wonders of database searches, research for this post also revealed a completely different legal drama off the same era related to a competely different Parslow. This story is from the Feb. 4, 1898 Minneapolis Journal.

** All reports do paint Cordelia Poirier as the stronger will in her adulterous relationship, as well as her marital one, and the instigator of the murder.

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1884: Two abusive husbands

Add comment March 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1884, a Louisiana man named Noah Jackson was hanged at Lake Providence for beating in the brains of his 15-year-old wife during a fit of jealousy. (She’d been only 13 years old when they married.)

Meanwhile, in Corsicana, Tx., Harrison Williams hanged for murdering his sister-in-law Ada Sallard.

“The particulars in the murder case,” reported the Dallas Weekly Herald on June 28, 1883, “are as follows:”

Munroe Sallard and Harrison Williams, two colored men living on adjoining farms about five miles from town, married sisters. Williams has been abusing his wife ever since their marriage; on Monday morning Williams beat his wife in a brutal manner, and on being remonstrated with by her sister, Mrs. Sallard, told her that if she said a word he would kill her. Mrs. Sallard started for town on horseback to have him arrested, and when near the fairgrounds on her way home was way-laid by Williams, who took her from her horse, tied a handkerchief around her throat and then mashed her head to a shapeless mass with his boot heel. He then secreted her body in the woods, and went to her house and occupied the same bed with her husband, leaving yesterday morning [meaning June 26]. Since then he has not been seen. Her body was discovered in the woods yesterday evening, and last night an armed posse of negroes went in search of the murderer. If caught he will certainly dangle.

He sure did.

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1852: “Brown”, lynched in California

Add comment March 4th, 2015 Headsman

In extending [Cesare] Beccaria‘s views on capital punishment to the history of lynching in the West, one begins to see that the “violent passions” of the mob were regularly invoked to justify their actions, but as Beccaria predicted, these passions were often little more than a ruse to justify the cold-blooded — and often premeditated — lynching of an accused criminal. Taken as a whole, the case list demonstrates that by and large, lynching had as much to do with vengeance as with the pursuit of justice.

The frequent invocation of San Francisco’s vigilance committees in many of the case records is clearly intended to link extrajudicial execution to “tradition,” an essential element found in the Tuskegee definition of lynching.* On a formal level, well over 50 percent of lynching cases that give a time, record that the lynching took place between midnight and 2 a.m. when the accused was usually encouraged to confess his or her crimes before being strung up. Sometimes they were allowed to make a statement, to smoke a cigarette, or confess to a priest, and after it was over, the bodies would usually be left to hang through the night. This public display of the body can be found in every case, with the shortest times usually lasting around thirty minutes, and the longest, until the bodies decayed.

In one instance, in the small village of Newtown, an African American man known only as “Brown” was apprehended for stealing money. The evidence was completely circumstantial but he was found guilty and sentenced to be hung by the mob on March 4, 1852. Unfortunately for Brown, the rope was a little too long, and once he was hanged to the tree, the branch slowly gave way — until his legs dangled to the ground. Struggilng in agony, the poor man was cut down in order to be properly hanged. Once he was fully revived, he was tied to a higher branch and the whole process was repeated. When he was finally cut down, a physician was asked to examine the body, at which point he annunced that if Brown’s body was left above ground for five minutes that he would regain consciousness. As a result, “he was therefore hastily dumped into a grave that had been dug and was half full of water, and quickly covered from sight.” Whether completely true or not, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could argue that this killing really served the greatest good.

* The Tuskegee lynching definition: “there must be legal evidence that a person has been killed, and that he met his death illegally at the hands of a group acting under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition,” where “a group” connotes three or more persons.

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1882: Bob Jones and Billy Miller, murderers on the open road

Add comment March 3rd, 2015 Headsman

Bob Jones and Billy Miller were hanged together on this date in 1882 for the murder of three sons of Judge J.P. Walker.

The Walker boys had been traveling together for an Arkansas plantation to which their prosperous Alabama father was relocating the family. They “encamped three miles west of Aberdeen [Mississippi], and on Sunday evening some persons passing by found them lying on mattresses, covered with quilts, each with his head split open as though with an axe.”

Miller, a black man, was picked up “under suspicious circumstances” and at the point of lynching he was forced to confess the crime. When he later attempted to disavow it, Judge Walker visited him in his cell, and (per the New Orleans Times-Picayune of Dec. 8, 1881) made the following chilling-but-practical appeal:

I am the father of these murdered boys. I can assure you that you will certainly be hung, if you don’t meet a worse death. It will do you no good to die with a lie on your lips about this matter. I came to get the truth, and you can gain nothing by telling me a lie, for your doom is sealed. Tell me all about the murder of my sons.

According to to the newsmen, Miller then proceeded to tell all. There’s just something persuasive about the grief of a father with a lynch mob at his back.

Per Miller’s confession, he happened by the camp of the Walkers, whose party was actually a foursome. The other white man with them, also just a chance fellow-traveler, pulled Miller aside as he rested by the campfire and indicated that the Walkers, schlepping a wagon full of effects from the Alabama plantation to the Arkansas one, were worth the trouble to put out of the way: “There’s big money in this.” They then axed the trio as they slept.

Miller said that the white man took all the money they could find, giving Miller only a bogus promise to meet him to divide it, and then absconded. The two would next lay eyes on each other in late December, when Jones was apprehended. It had been a job to get him; descriptions of him were shaky and Miller himself didn’t know anything about his accomplice — so random tramps, strangers, and solo sojourners were grabbed and interrogated willy-nilly for some weeks until Jones’s own brothers finally supplied the tip that he had met the Walkers and come back with a gold watch.

Once located, Jones too confessed — in his case, we are assured, “without a semblance of violence and by kind argument.” Surely there was some semblance of violence, since both men were reportedly “in great fear of lynching” even by that time, a month after the murders.


Columbus (Ga.) Daily Ennquirer, Dec. 29, 1881.

Four thousand people were reported to have turned up in Aberdeen to witness these accidental confederates hang for their opportunistic crime. Jones fainted away as he was being arranged on the scaffold; Miller bore it better and swung off with a sad dirge on his lips.

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1848: Harriet Parker, crime of passion

Add comment February 22nd, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1848, Harriet Parker was publicly hanged in front of the Debtors’ Door at Newgate for the murder of her lover’s two young children.

The sad story is described in Nicola Sly’s In Hot Blood: A Casebook of Historic British Crimes of Passion.

Harriet was a widow. Her partner, Robert Henry Blake, was legally married to another woman, but they were separated and he lived with Harriet and two of his children by his wife: Amina, age seven, and Robert Jr., age five.

Despite residing at Cupid’s Court in London, their relationship was far from blissful. Robert was an inveterate womanizer who openly flaunted his affairs. It all came to a head on New Years’ Eve, 1847, when Robert told Harriet he was going to the theater without her. He’d made plans with a friend, Stephen Hewlett, and she wasn’t invited.

Harriet was furious and suspected, rightly, that Robert was actually going to be with another woman. She followed him as he left their home and tagged along behind him wherever he went, telling him he’d better get used to it because she would be with him all night.

Robert did meet up with his friend Stephen and complained of Harriet’s jealousy. “If I was to kiss that post,” he said, “she would be jealous of it.” Eventually he was able to give Harriet the slip, though, and went immediately to a prostitute’s house, where he stayed the night.

Harriet, meanwhile, angrily searched for her errant lover for hours, saying darkly that Robert would regret his actions for the rest of his life.

“I will do something that he shall repent and will die in Newgate,” she told Stephen Hewlett. She added, “I have something very black in mind … You will hear of me before you see me.”

He didn’t take her seriously. He should have.

A few hours after midnight on New Years’ Day, witnesses saw Harriet walking the city streets with little Amina, still asking people if they’d seen Robert. The next time anyone saw her was at 4:00 a.m. She was alone, and knocked frantically at her neighbor’s door. The neighbor opened the bedroom window and looked out, and asked what on earth was wrong.

“Oh, Mrs. Moore, I have done it,” Harriet said. She added that Blake had “met a little strumpet” and left her last night, and hadn’t come home. “A pretty spectacle is there for him when he does come home,” she added. “I shall go and deliver myself up to a policeman.”

Her neighbor asked why and she replied, “I have murdered the two children.”

That got Mrs. Moore’s attention and she sent her husband to find a police officer. Harriet herself went looking and found one, and asked to be arrested, but she didn’t disclose the reason until they were on the way to the station house. Finally she unburdened her secret:

I have murdered the children to revenge their father. They were innocent — through my vindictiveness I have done the deed.

A look in at the Blake/Parker house showed Harriet was telling the truth: Amina and Robert Jr. were lying in bed, quite dead. They had been smothered and their bodies were still warm. Harriet’s clothes were stiff with dried blood, but it wasn’t the children’s; it was her own blood, from a beating Blake had given her a few days before.

Harriet had to be persuaded not to plead guilty to her crimes from the outset. At her trial, which was presided over by two judges, her defense was that of provocation. Her attorney argued that Robert’s horrible treatment of her had driven her out of her mind and she was not a “responsible agent” at the time of the murders.

The jury was out for only ten minutes before returning with a verdict of guilty of willful murder. The automatic sentence was death, but the jurors included a strong recommendation of mercy because of the provocation Harriet had received. (Even after the murders Robert had boasted of all the women he’d seduced during the time he lived with Harriet.)

Judge Baron didn’t agree with the jury, pointing out that “the children gave her no provocation at all.”

Nevertheless, he promised to pass the recommendation on to the Home Secretary. When the two judges passed their sentence on the convicted woman, they emphasized that she had no right to take her feelings about Blake out on two “unoffending children” who were “in a sweet, innocent sleep.”

Harriet cried out, before being lead from court, “God forgive you, Robert. You have brought me to this.”

The Home Secretary did receive the jury’s recommendation of mercy, but didn’t act on it. The widespread perception was that if Harriet had murdered her louse of a partner rather than his children, she would gotten off with a lesser verdict of manslaughter. But the deaths of two small children, killed for the actions of their father, could not be countenanced.

Harriet spent her last days dictating letters to people. In one of several letters sent to Blake, she wrote, “Awful as my fate is, I would rather die than live again the wretched life I have done for the last twelve months.” She sent him a Bible and a pair of cuffs she’d knitted, and advised him to return to his wife and forsake drinking, bad company and other women.

The crowd of persons assembled to witness the awful scene was immense, and far exceeded in number those present at any execution of late — their conduct, also, we regret to add, was worse than usual, the yells and hootings which prevailed for some time previous to the culprit making her appearance being perfectly dreadful.

-London Times, February 22, 1848

Mrs. Moore visited her in her cell and found her surprisingly at ease. “I have received more kindness in Newgate than ever since I left my mother’s home,” Harriet told her former neighbor.

Harriet was hanged by one of Britain’s most famous executioners, William Calcraft — although it was never the tidiness of his executions that he was famous for. Calcraft didn’t handle Harriet all that well, either: according to one account, Harriet’s “muscular contortions and violent motion of the hands and arms … were truly dreadful” as she choked to death. Her frame was so slight that the fall didn’t break her neck.

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

Add comment February 21st, 2015 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-James K. Polk

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

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

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

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

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,History,Language,Mass Executions,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Shot,Soldiers,Tennessee,USA,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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