Posts filed under 'Artists'

1916: Not Constance Markievicz, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”

Add comment May 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1916, the British field court meting out death sentences to Irish Easter Rising rebels announced eighteen commutations — most notably including Countess Constance Markievicz.

Markievicz has long been one of the most remarkable and compelling personalities of the Irish independence struggle. As her biographer noted, many other women of that cause are best-known “mainly because of their connection with more famous men.” Markievicz, notably, “stood alone, self-driven and self-confident. She was more than a muse or an enabler or a facilitator, the preferred roles for women to play.”

She was the privileged daughter of a baronet turned polar explorer who came to her distinctive name by marrying a Polish nobleman.** In her girlhood, she’d been presented at court to Queen Victoria.

She trained as a painter and her material circumstances put within her reach that charmed state of comfortable avant-garde consciousness. The Countess gave that up, for Ireland. The abhorrence of the daughter of the Provost of Trinity College Dublin is perhaps her most definitive epitaph: “the one woman amongst them [Irish republicans] of high birth and therefore the most depraved … she took to politics and left our class.”

By the late 1900s and into the 1910s she was a mainstay of hydra-headed radicalism: nationalist, suffragist, socialist. (She was a close friend and comrade of James Connolly.) In those years she could have spent in a pleasant Left Bank garret, she walked picket lines, burned flags, faced arrest, and sold jewelry to fund the soup kitchen she worked in.†

Markievicz co-founded the Fianna Eireann youth organization as a response to Baden-Powell‘s imperial scouting project. It would become an essential feeder for the republican organs (like the Irish Volunteers); Fianna itself was also well-represented among the Easter Rising fighters, and contributed that conflagration’s youngest martyr.

Bust of Constance Markievicz on St. Stephen’s Green, where she served in the Easter Rising.

But for her sex Markievicz would probably have been among the martyrs herself for her role on the St. Stephen’s Green barricade, and perhaps she wished it were so; she greeted the news of her May 6 commutation with the retort, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” She’s been slated with having personally shot a constable during the Rising, although her defenders consider this a baseless smear.

While again in prison — she’d been amnestied from the Easter Rising stuff, but was arrested anew for anti-war activism — Markievicz successfully stood for election to Parliament, and in fact has the distinction of being the first woman elected a British M.P. … although she complied with Sinn Fein policy and refused to take the seat. She was also a member of the First Dail (parliament) of the revolutionary Irish Republic and was the first Irish female cabinet minister (Ministry of Labour).

Constance Markievicz died in 1927 at the age of 59, penniless in a public ward having disbursed the entirety of her wealth. A quarter-million of her fellow peoples of the Irish Free State thronged the streets of Dublin for her funeral.

* The other commutations (with their associated non-capital sentences) as published by the London Times of May 8, 1916:

Penal servitude for life. — Henry O’Hanrahan.

Ten years’ penal servitude. — Count George Plunkett, John Plunkett (his son).

Five years’ penal servitude. — Philip B. Cosgrave.

Three years’ penal servitude. — R. Kelly, W. Wilson, J. Clarke, J. Marks, J. Brennan, P. Wilson, W. Mechan, F. Brooks, R. Coleman, T. Peppard, J. Norton, J. Byrne, T. O’Kelly.

** It turned out that although Casimir Markievicz went by “Count Markievicz” there wasn’t actually any such title. But “Count” and “Countess” stuck nevertheless.

† She does perhaps forfeit some wokeness points for complaining of her post-Easter Rising imprisonment at Aylesbury that she was lodged with “the dregs of the population … no one to speak to except prostitutes who have been convicted for murder or violence. The atmosphere is the conversation of the brothel.”

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1916: Edward Daly, Michael O’Hanrahan, Willie Pearse, and Joseph Plunkett

Add comment May 4th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1916, four Easter Rising rebels were shot in Kilmainham Gaol’s Stonebreakers Yard — an almost novelistic selection of thematic successors to the three men who had been executed there the day before.

Journalist/novelist Michael O’Hanrahan was the close friend and aide-de-camp of one of those May 3 executees, Tom MacDonagh — the two of them directing the rebel occupation of the Jacob’s Biscuit Factory during the week of April 24.

Edward Daly was the brother-in-law of Fenian ultra Tom Clarke, another man who had been shot on May 3.

Daly, at least, was a battalion commander during the Easter Rising and a part of the rising’s leadership; sculptor Willie Pearse was a mere run-of-the-mill rebel of the type that the British were not executing … save for that surname which he shared with his brother Patrick, the third Republican ringleader shot on May 3. Having seemingly absorbed an extra ration of fury intended for his brother, Willie Pearse’s execution was keenly felt as an injustice from the first.

But perhaps none of the Easter Rising executions tugged the heartstrings quite like that of Joseph Plunkett, a poet and Esperantist who was also one of the signatories of the seditious Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Plunkett had been one of the conspiracy’s secret emissaries to Germany, arranging shipments of arms that the British ultimately intercepted.

At midnight, due to be shot in a few hours with the day’s first light, Plunkett was married by a prison chaplain to his sweetheart, artist and Sinn Fein activist Grace Gifford. This tragic union made Grace Gifford and her sister Muriel double widows, for Muriel’s husband was Tom MacDonagh — the aforementioned already-executed associate of Michael O’Hanrahan.

There are roads, railway stations, football clubs, and the like named for all four of these men at various places in Ireland.

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1916: Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse, and Thomas Clarke

Add comment May 3rd, 2018 Headsman

Thomas MacDonagh, Padraig (Patrick) Pearse, and Thomas Clarke — three of the principal Irish Republican leaders of the Easter Rising against British domination that had been crushed just days before — were shot in Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol on this date in 1916.


Illustration from the New York Times, May 7, 1916.
“To a Poet Captain”
by Thomas MacDonagh

His songs were a little phrase
Of eternal song,
Drowned in the harping of lays
More loud and long.

His deeds were a single word,
Called out alone
In a night when no echo stirred to laughter,
To laughter or moan.

But his songs new souls shall thrill,
The loud harps dumb,
And his deeds the echoes fill
When the dawn is come.

MacDonagh and Pearse were contemporaries of one another: poets, progressive educators, Gaelic revivalists; men who girded for battle “with a revolver in one hand and a copy of Sophocles in the other.” Each dreamer commanded a unit of Irish Volunteers during the week of April 24-30, MacDonagh occupying Jacobs Factory and Pearse the iconic General Post Office, in which post it was Pearse’s sorrow to issue the surrender order by the end of the quixotic week.

Clarke, cut from another cloth, was a Fenian revolutionist of an older vintage, who had disappeared into British prison after trying to bomb London Bridge in the 1880s, then emigrated for a time to the United States. Drawn to a reviving nationalist movement, Clarke had the honor of affixing his name first upon the Rising’s Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Pearse and MacDonagh signed it too: a fatal endorsement for they three and for each of the other four men to lend it their signatures.

“My comrades and I believe we have struck the first successful blow for freedom,” Clarke said via a statement given out by his impressive wife Kathleen. “And so sure as we are going out this morning so sure will freedom come as a direct result of our action … In this belief, we die happy.”


This traditional Irish song was updated with patriotic verse by Patrick Pearse.

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1974: Khosrow Golsorkhi and Keramat Daneshian, Iranian revolutionaries

Add comment February 18th, 2018 Headsman

Death is our most modest gift to the people. Each death is a small window closing on nihilism. And each death is a panel of mystery closing on lies, corruption, poverty, and hunger. Thus, a window will open that lets in the light of life. Let us sacrifice our life for this light — this light.

[Signed,]
People’s Fadaee, Keramat Daneshian
February 8, 1974

Khosrow Gol(e)sorkhi* and Keramat Daneshian, poets and revolutionaries, were shot on this date in 1974 by the Shah of Iran.

Stock of a provincial family with ties to the Communist Tudeh party, Golsorkhi — much the more famous of the two — became a noted writer of radical prose and poetry in the 1960s and 1970s.

Their defiance — Golsorkhi’s especially — of a military court trying them on a trumped-up charge of attempting to kidnap Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi‘s son made them Che Guevara-like figures for young Iranian leftists of the time.**

Badly misreading the direction of the wind, the Shah televised their prosecution as a show trial — and the poets used the platform to completely upstage not only their judges but the rotting monarchy they were there to uphold. Farsi speakers can enjoy Golsorkhi on video —

— while this version has English subtitles:

“Equality”
by Khosrow Golsorkhi
(translated by Sherry Laici)

The teacher was shouting at the board.
He flushed angrily
and his hands were covered with chalk dust.
The students in the last row of seats were eating fruits and making noises;
on the other side of the class a student was flipping through a magazine.
None of the students were paying attention
because the teacher was shouting and pointing to the algebraic equations.

The teacher wrote on the blackboard, which reminded us of darkness and cruelty,
1=1
one is equal to one.

One of the students rose
(always one must rise)
and said softly,
“The equation is a blunder.”

The teacher was shocked
and the student asked,
“If one human being was one unit
Does one equal one, still?”
It was a difficult question and the students were silent.
The teacher shouted,
“Yes, it is equal!”

The student laughed,
“If one human being was one unit,
the one who had power and money would be greater than the poor one
who had nothing but a kind heart.
If one human being was one unit,
the one who was white would be greater than the one who was black.
If one human being was one unit,
equality would be ruined.
If one were equal to one
how would it be possible for the rich to get richer?
Or who would build China’s wall?
If one were equal to one,
who would die of poverty?
or who would die of lashing?
If one were equal to one,
who would imprison the liberals?”

The teacher cried:
“Please write in your notebooks
one is not equal to one.”

Abdy Javadzadeh notes in Iranian Irony: Marxists Becoming Muslim that Golsorkhi’s lyrical self-vindication — one could hardly call it a “defense” addressed to the parameters of a court that he openly scorned — “spoke volumes on how Marxism developed within the Iranian opposition,” marrying the language of revolution with that of Islam.

“Life is nothing but a struggle for your belief.”

I will begin my talk with a quotation from Hussein, the great martyr of the people of the Middle East. I, a Marxist-Leninist, have found, for the first time, social justice in the school of Islam and then reached socialism. In this court, I am not bargaining for my life or even my life span. I am but a drop in the great struggle of the Iranian people … I am not bargaining for my life, because I am the child of a fighting people.

The real Islam in Iran has always played its part in liberation movements … When Marx says, in a class society, wealth is accumulated on one side and poverty, hunger, and misery on the other, whilst the producer of wealth is the poor, and Ali says, a castle will not be built unless thousands become poor, we cannot deny that there are great similarities. This is the juncture of history in which we can claim Ali to be the world’s first socialist … and we too approve of such Islam, the Islam of Hussein.

Golsorkhi also scored points by dunking on the military brass sitting in judgment — shooting back at the chief judge when admonished to stay on topic, “Don’t you give me any orders. Go and order your corporals and squadron leaders.”

The more you attack me the more I pride myself, for the further I am from you the closer I am to the people. The more your hatred for my beliefs, the stronger the kindness and support of the people. Even if you bury me — and you certainly will — people will make flags and songs from my corpse.

For his part, Daneshian kept to a more straightforward secular-revolutionary tone.

Millions of people in the armed forces, without having an active role in society or production, are busy in a useless game … such force has no other purpose than the suppression of people’s voice of liberation. The shootings of farmers, peasants, and people’s fighters are their principle duty … Liberated people, social movements on their way to liberation, reverberates the news of shedding poverty, corruption and injustice in the world.

Three others condemned with them were not so eager as our principals to embrace revolutionary martyrdom, and bent the knee to the Shah in exchange for their lives.

* The name “Golsorkhi” means “rose bush”. According to Iranian cleric Mohammad-Ali Abtahi — popularly known as the “blogging mullah” — the censors at the time proceeded to suppress a forthcoming children’s book with the entirely coincidental title We Wake the Rose Bush as potentially Golsorkhi-sympathetic. “In a country where a colonel is running the cultural section, how can you answer such reasoning?”

** The Che analogy was drawn by Hooman Majd in The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, noting that “his bravery … only served to make him a hero and a symbol of the Shah’s merciless dictatorship.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Iran,Martyrs,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot

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1654: Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Younger, sculptor

Add comment September 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1654, Flemish sculptor Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Younger was strangled and burned in Ghent for sodomy (sodomy in a church, no less).

As an artist, the man’s legacy is forever overshadowed by his father’s Brussels tourist essential Manneken Pis; Hieronymus (or Jerome) the Younger learned his craft from dad as a studio apprentice. (We here dismiss Hieronymus the Elder from our narrative; Hieronymus the Younger is meant by all subsequent references in this post.)

This was not to be the end of the story when it came to Hieronymus and naked young boys, but in 1621 he upped stakes for Italy and proceeded to spend the next two decades honing his craft in Mediterranean climes. Or at least, this is the necessary assumption, as very little direct evidence traces his movements in that period.

Returning to the Low Counties in the early 1640s, Duquesnoy earned a number of baroque commissions as “architecte, statuaire et sculpteur de la Cour.” (For a taste of his work: The Infant Hercules | Ganymede.)

The last of his projects was this tomb for Bishop Antonius Triest in Ghent; “he set himself up with his assistants in one of the cathedral‘s chapels, to lay out and prepare the sections of this tomb, which could have been for the master the finest jewel in a new sculptural crown, had he not come to a sad end,” according to Edmond de Busscher.


This monumental tomb would also prove the death of its sculptor. (cc) image by www.pmrmaeyaert.com — Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0.

He was arrested when 8- and 11-year-old boys accused him of molestation in the church during his work on the bishop’s shrine. Duquesnoy vigorously denied the charges and tried to call in favors from his patrons to squelch the case, but Ghent’s council decided otherwise and had him executed in the city’s Koornmarkt (Grain Market).

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1795: Sayat-Nova

1 comment September 22nd, 2017 Headsman

The Armenian poet Sayat-Nova (“King of Songs”) was martyred on this date in 1795 by the invading Qajar army.

Poet, singer, and legendary wielder of the kamancheh in the court of the Georgian king,* Sayat-Nova was also an ordained priest in the Armenian Church.

This last point would figure crucially upon the invasion of the Qajar Shah seized the Caucasus in a 1795 bloodbath:** trapped in a monastery, Sayat-Nova faced the ritual Islamic offer of conversion or death. He chose immortality.

His legendary name and likeness adorn many public places in Armenia (not to mention an Armenian cognac), as well as places touched by the Armenian diaspora like a Boston dance company.

YouTube searches on the man’s name yield a rich trove of songs and movies about the man, but the best commemoration for these pages is surely his own music.

* Until he got ejected for scandalously falling in love with the king’s sister and became a wandering bard. Poets!

** The Shah was assassinated two years later, and the Qajars lost their grip on the Caucasus as a result.

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1789: Francois Bordier, Harlequin

Add comment August 21st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in the pregnant year of 1789, the former boulevard actor Francois Bordier hanged for a bit of revolutionary overexuberance.

He’d gained his fame in the 1780s for his portrayals of both Harlequin (on stage) and a besotted gambler (in Parisian society); “police records bulge with accounts of his gambling debts and spats with actresses.”

The summer of 1789, after the Bastille was stormed in Paris, was in the countryside la Grande Peur, the Great Fear: bread shortages and political upheaval put many a manor to the sack.

One such facility was Rouen’s Hotel de l’Intendance, assailed on August 3 by a mob led by Bordier, along with another fellow named Jourdain. Jourdain would perish at the gallows with Bordier but then as now the actor was all anyone wanted to talk about. The horror or heroism of Bordier moved purple pamphlets by the kiloquire, and even put Bordier on the other side of the playbill as a character in the next season’s pantomimes.*

At the news of the imprisonment of their harlequin, rumours were heard in Paris that thirty thousand Parisians, with Saint-Huruge at their head, would march to the rescue; but the authorities at Rouen, nothing daunted by the threat, put the two ringleaders on their trial. Both were condemned to death, and in spite of the intercession of Bailly and Lafayette on behalf of Bordier, both were hanged at Rouen on August 21.

-Source

His preserved head can still be gawked at the musée Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Médecine.

* See Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution by Executed Today interviewee Paul Friedland. Bordier, Friedland observes elsewhere, “personified the mixing of theatrical and political forms, the profane and the sacred, that so suddenly upset the established order in 1789. And post-mortem characterizations of Bordier reflected that peculiar combination of amusement and horror that politico-theatrical hybrids seemed to inspire.”

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1794: Rosalie Filleul, painter

1 comment June 24th, 2017 Headsman

Pastel painter Rosalie Filleul (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed French) was guillotined on this date in 1794, during the Paris Terror.

The prodigy daughter of a Paris, young Rosalie Boquet — as she was born — exhibited several times in the 1770s when she was barely out of her teens.

Famous for her beauty as well as her brushstrokes, she married into a comfortable sinecure held by the Superintendant of the Chateau de la Muette. As this fine post by history writer Melanie Clegg describes, Filleul cultivated an Enlightenment artist’s friendships with both revolution (Benjamin Franklin, whose portrait she painted) and ancien regime (Marie Antoinette, who commissioned more canvasses — like this one, of children of the Comte d’Artois).


The baby of this eldest trio of kids of the future King Charles X has been sighted on this here blog for his 1820 exit at an assassin’s hands.

Moved like many whom the Revolution would come to devour by hope in its possibilities, she declined to flee France. She came within a month of surviving the crucible but her relationship with the beheaded king and queen played fatally against her in the end.

We catch a glimpse of this woman and her vanished possibilities through the memoirs of her fellow-artist contemporary Madame Lebrun:

drew from nature and from casts, often working by lamplight with Mlle. Boquet, with whom I was closely acquainted. I went to her house in the evenings; she lived in the Rue Saint Denis, where her father had a bric-à-brac shop. It was a long way off, since we lodged in the Rue de Cléry, opposite the Lubert mansion. My mother, therefore, insisted on my being escorted whenever I went. We likewise frequently repaired, Mlle. Boquet and I, to Briard’s, a painter, who lent us his etchings and his classical busts. Briard was but a moderate painter, although he did some ceilings of rather unusual conception. On the other hand, he could draw admirably, which was the reason why several young people went to him for lessons. His rooms were in the Louvre, and each of us brought her little dinner, carried in a basket by a nurse, in order that we might make a long day of it.

Mlle. Boquet was fifteen years old and I fourteen. We were rival beauties. I had changed completely and had become good looking. Her artistic abilities were considerable; as for mine, I made such speedy progress that I soon was talked about

On Sundays and saints’ days, after hearing high mass, my mother and my stepfather took me to the Palais Royal for a walk. The gardens were then far more spacious and beautiful than they are now, strangled and straightened by the houses enclosing them. There was a very broad and long avenue on the left arched by gigantic trees, which formed a vault impenetrable to the rays of the sun. There good society assembled in its best clothes. The opera house was hard by the palace. In summer the performance ended at half-past eight, and all elegant people left even before it was over, in order to ramble in the garden. It was the fashion for the women to wear huge nosegays, which, added to the perfumed powder sprinkled in everybody’s hair, really made the air one breathed quite fragrant. Later, yet still before the Revolution, I have known these assemblies to last until two in the morning. There was music by moonlight, out in the open; artists and amateurs sang songs; there was playing on the harp and the guitar; the celebrated Saint Georges often executed pieces on his violin. Crowds flocked to the spot.

We never entered this avenue, Mlle. Boquet and I, without attracting lively attention. We both were then between sixteen and seventeen years old, Mlle. Boquet being a great beauty. At nineteen she was taken with the smallpox, which called forth such general interest that numbers from all classes of society made anxious inquiries, and a string of carriages was constantly drawn up outside her door.

She had a remarkable talent for painting, but she gave up the pursuit almost immediately after her marriage with M. Filleul, when the Queen made her Gatekeeper of the Castle of La Muette. [Marie Antoinette designated the position to Madame Filleul after her husband’s death. -ed.] Would that I could speak of the dear creature without calling her dreadful end to mind. Alas! how well I remember Mme. Filleul saying to me, on the eve of my departure from France, when I was to escape from the horrors I foresaw: “You are wrong to go. I intend to stay, because I believe in the happiness the Revolution is to bring us.” And that Revolution took her to the scaffold! Before she quitted La Muette the Terror had begun. Mme. Chalgrin, a daughter of Joseph Vernet, and Mme. Filleul’s bosom friend, came to the castle to celebrate her daughter’s wedding – quietly, as a matter of course. However, the next day the Jacobins none the less proceeded to arrest Mme. Filleul and Mme. Chalgrin, who, they said, had wasted the candles of the nation. A few days later they were both guillotined.

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1634: John Bartendale survives hanging and burial

1 comment March 27th, 2017 Sabine Baring-Gould

(Thanks to Sabine Baring-Gould for (another) guest post. This report in Baring-Gould’s Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events glosses a rhyming Latin squib of Richard Brathwait‘s Drunken Barnaby’s Four Journeys to the North of England, several versions of which survive.)

JOHN BARTENDALE,
The Piper.

In the reign of King Charles I a strolling musician, a poor piper, named John Bartendale, was brought, in 1634, before the Assizes, and was convicted of felony.

He received sentence, and on March 27th was hung on the gallows, outside Micklegate Bar, York. There were no houses there at that time — it was open country. After he had remained swinging for three-quarters of an hour, and was to all appearance dead, he was cut down, and buried near the place of execution. The officers of justice had accomplished their work carelessly in both particulars, as it afterwards transpired, for he had been neither properly hung nor properly buried.

Earth has a peculiarly invigorating and restorative effect, as has been recently discovered; and patients suffering from debility are by some medical men now-a-days placed in earth baths with the most salutary effects. In the case of gangrened wounds a little earth has been found efficacious in promoting healthy action of the skin. John Bartendale was now to experience the advantages of an earth-bath.

That same day, in the afternoon, a gentleman, one of the Vavasours of Hazlewood, was riding by, when he observed the earth moving in a certain place. He ordered his servant to alight; he himself descended from his horse; and together they threw off the mould, and discovered the unfortunate piper alive. He opened his eyes, sat up, and asked where he was, and how he came there. Mr. Vavasour and his servant helped him out of his grave, and seated him on the side. The man was sent for water and other restoratives, and before long the news had spread about down Micklegate that the poor piper was come to life again. A swarm of wondering and sympathising people poured out to congratulate John the Piper on his resurrection, and to offer their assistance. A conveyance was obtained, and as soon as Bartendale was in a sufficient condition to be moved he was placed in it covered with Mr. Vavasour’s cloak, — for he had been stripped by the executioner before he was laid in the earth — and was removed again to York Castle.

It was rather hard that the poor fellow, after he had obtained his release, should have been returned to his prison; but there was no help for it. The resurrection of the piper was no secret; otherwise Mr. Vavasour would doubtless have removed him privately to a place of security till he was recovered, and then have sent him into another part of the country.

At the following Assizes, Bartendale was brought up again. It was a nice point of law whether the man could be sentenced to execution again after the Sheriff had signed his affidavit that the man had been hung till he was dead. Mr. Vavasour was naturally reluctant to supply the one link in the chain of evidence which established the identity of the prisoner with the piper who had been hung and buried for felony; he made earnest intercession that the poor fellow might be reprieved, popular sympathy was on his side, the judge was disposed to mercy, and Bartendale was accorded a full and free pardon; the judge remarking that the case was one in which the Almighty seemed to have interfered in mercy to frustrate the ends of human justice, and that therefore he was not disposed to reverse the decree of Providence according to the piper a prolongation of his days on earth.

Drunken Barnaby in his “Book of Travels” alludes to Bartendale, when he stops at York:

Here a piper apprehended,
Was found guilty and suspended;
Being led to t’fatal gallows,
Boys did cry, “Where is thy bellows?
Ever must thou cease thy tuning,”
Answered he, “For all your cunning,
You may fail in your prediction.”
Which did happen without fiction;
For cut down, and quick interred,
Earth rejected what was buried;
Half alive or dead he rises,
Got a pardon next Assizes,
And in York continued blowing —
Yet a sense of goodness showing.

After his wonderful deliverance the poor fellow turned hostler, and lived very honestly afterwards.

When asked to describe his sensations on being hung, he said that when he was turned off, flashes of fire seemed to dart before his eyes, and were succeeded by darkness and a state of insensibility.

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1788: Thomas Barrett, the first hanged in Australia

Add comment February 27th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1788, Thomas Barrett became the first person legally executed in Great Britain’s Australian colonies when he hanged at Sydney Cove for stealing from government stores. It was barely a month after the First Fleet had arrived from England to found the penal colony.

More than just a milestone, Barrett packed an amazing criminal career into the few years he surfaces for us in the documentary record.

Our man was condemned to death in 1782 for stealing a silver watch, the first of three death sentences he would hear. That sentence was reprieved in favor of convict transportation, a system which had ground to a halt with the American Revolution and still awaited the creation of the Australian pipeline.

In 1783, a convict hulk that had been rejected by the now-independent North American colonies, the Swift, mutinied. Barrett would meet survivors of that mutiny who were stashed away with him on the Censor, one of the earliest of the Thames’ frightful stationary convict hulks where reprieved felons awaited their deportation.

In 1784, Barrett and one of the Swift mutineers, Charles Kellan, rebelled once again on their next convict transport ship, the Mercury — earning Barrett his second death sentence, and his second reprieve. Three more years on the fetid hulks ensued while legislators* and cartographers stroked their beards over Britain’s next move in the convict transportation game.

And this is when Australia the prison was invented. That First Fleet Barrett arrived on was a flotilla of eleven ships carrying 700 or so prisoners was it, the literal first European colony Down Under.

Besides being a man of spirit and enterprise, as his mutiny showed, Barrett was a skilled craftsman who enlivened the tiresome trip around the world by fashioning little metallic mementos. The journal of the ship’s surgeon John White narrates with more admiration than censure an escapade off the coast of Brazil that revealed Barret’s talent for counterfeiting.

This morning a boat came alongside, in which were three Portugueze and six slaves; from whom we purchased some oranges, plantains, and bread. In trafficking with these people, we discovered, that one Thomas Barret, a convict, had, with great ingenuity and address, passed some quarter dollars which he, assisted by two others, had coined out of old buckles, buttons belonging to the marines, and pewter spoons, during their passage from Teneriffe. The impression, milling, character, in a word, the whole was so inimitably executed, that had their metal been a little better, the fraud, I am convinced, would have passed undetected. A strict and careful search was made for the apparatus wherewith this was done, but in vain; not the smallest trace or vestige of any thing of the kind was to be found among them. How they managed this business without discovery, or how they could effect it at all, is a matter of inexpressible surprise to me; as they never were suffered to come near a fire; and a centinel was constantly placed over their hatchway, which, one would imagine, rendered it impossible for either fire or fused metal to be conveyed into their apartments. Besides, hardly ten minutes ever elapsed, without an officer of some degree or other going down among them. The adroitness, therefore, with which they must have managed, in order to complete a business that required so complicated a process, gave me a high opinion of their ingenuity, cunning, caution, and address; and I could not help wishing that these qualities had been employed to more laudable purposes.

Duly impressed, White found that more laudable purpose by commissioning Barrett to create a medallion celebrating the arrival of their vessel to Australian soil. This Charlotte Medal from Barrett’s hand is one of the most celebrated artifacts of Australian colonization; it depicts the Charlotte at anchor in Botany Bay with a narration on the reverse of its long journey from home:

Sailed the Charlotte of London from Spit head the 13 of May 1787. Bound for Botany Bay in th Island of new holland arriv,d at Teneriff th4 of June in Lat 28 13 N Long 16 23 W depart,d it 10 D’, arriv,d at rio janeiro 6 of Aug in Lat 22,54 S Long 42,38 W, depart,d it the 5 of Sep’ arriv,d at the Cape of good hope the 14 Oct’ in Lat 34 29 S Long 18 29 E depart,d it th13 of Nov’ and made the South Cape of New Holland the 8 of Jan 4 1788 in Lat 43,32 S Long 146,56 E arrivd at Botany Bay the 20 of Jun’ the Charlotte in Co in Lat 34.00 South Long 151.00 East distance from great Britan Miles 13106

But Barrett’s legitimate artistic career was as brief as it was scintillating.

The colony had a tight supply situation and its isolation and heavy convict population seemed to Governor Arthur Phillip to demand the strictest discipline, like that of a ship upon the sea: any significant failure of order could imperil the entire project. He assembled the little colony in early February to impress upon all that stealing rations would be harshly punished.

White, again, in his entry of February 27, 1788:

Thomas Barrett, Henry Lovel, and Joseph Hall, were brought before the criminal court, and tried for feloniously and fraudulently taking away from the public store beef and pease, the property of the crown. They were convicted on the clearest evidence; and sentence of death being passed on them, they were, about six o’clock the same evening, taken to the fatal tree; where Barrett was launched into eternity, after having confessed to the Rev. Mr. Johnson who attended him, that he was guilty of the crime, and had long merited the ignominious death which he was about to suffer, and to which he said he had been brought by bad company and evil company. Lovel and Hall were respited until six o’clock the next evening. When that awful hour arrived, they were led to the place of execution, and just as they were on the point of ascending the ladder, the judge advocate arrived with the governor’s pardon, on condition of their being banished to some uninhabited place.

As the infant colony had scarcely prioritized establishing an executioner right off the boat, one of Barrett’s fellows was pressed into the disreputable role. Another narrative underscores the tension this incident must have created among the convicts, half-starved and under the lash on the empire’s most distant moon. “The unhappy wretches were conducted wt. a party of Marines walking before them … with a large party of Marines drawn up opposite the Gallows … in case an insurrection should take place … & all the Convicts were summoned to see the deserved end of their Companions.” Hall and Lovel’s pardons should probably be read in this light; Phillip had a job to enforce obedience without triggering rebellion and once he had established the firmest precedent wisely reflected that the quality of mercy blesseth him that gives and him that takes. Two other thieves (of wine, in their case) named Daniel Gordon and John Williams were likewise condemned on the 29th of February only to be spared for banishment instead.


A small marker at Sydney’s Circular Quay commemorates Barrett’s execution. (cc) image by mazzle278.

Barrett is an important character in the BBC drama Banished.

* The Home Secretary who orchestrated the pivot to Australia was the Viscount Sydney: hence, the Australian city of Sydney.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Artists,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Theft

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