Posts filed under 'Children'

1941: Shura Chekalin, Hero of the Soviet Union

Add comment November 6th, 2019 Headsman

Sixteen-year-old partisan Alexander Chekalin earned his martyrs’ crown as a Hero of the Soviet Union when he was executed by the occupying Third Reich on this date in 1941.

“Shura” (English Wikipedia entry | the predictably better-appointed Russian) joined along with his father a unit of guerrillas in the vicinity of Tula just weeks into the terrible German onslaught.

The city of Tula, a transport hub 200 kilometers south of Moscow, was a key target for the German drive on the Soviet capital in those pivotal months; the Wehrmacht’s eventual inability to take it from determined defenders was crucial to thrwarting the attack on Moscow by protecting her from the southern tong of the intended pincer maneuver.*

Chekalin didn’t live long enough to see any of this come to fruition but in his moment he did what any one man could do: ambushes, mining, and other harassment of the occupation army in the Tula oblast (region) with his comrade irregulars. Our principal was found out by the Germans recuperating from illness in a town called Likhvin — see him defending his house of refuge against hopeless odds in the commemorative USSR stamp below — and then suffered the usual tortures and interrogations before he was publicly strung up on November 6. He hung there for 20 days before the Red Army took the town back and buried him with honors

In 1944, the tiny town of Likhvin was renamed in his honor: to this day, it’s still called Chekalin.

* Tula was recognized as a Hero City of the USSR for the importance of its defence.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gibbeted,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Russia,Soldiers,Torture,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1908: Joe James, in the crucible of the Springfield Race Riot

Add comment October 23rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1908, the “negro boy scarcely of legal age”* Joe James hanged at Sangamon County jail in Illinois. His alleged crimes helped spark that year’s Springfield Race Riot, one of the deadliest such rampages in U.S. history.

He was a southern youth who’d been pulled north up the Mississippi, living by the sweat of his brow. As a newcomer to the Land of (in fact the very town of) Lincoln, he’d been tossed in prison for vagrancy when he couldn’t speedily demonstrate a place of employment, but he’d proven a good-natured inmate whom his jailers trusted with errands outside the walls.

On Independence Day of 1908, which was just three days before he was due to be released, James finally abused his parole and decided to take in the celebrations in Springfield’s majority-black working-class neighboroods, where he proceeded to drink himself into oblivion at one of the town’s many saloons, or so he said. (Many other witnesses did see him boozing and banging away on the piano.) He’d be awoken at dawn the next morning passed out at Reservoir Park — awoken by white men who proceeded to beat him up.


Joe James’s mughot (right) shows the effects of the thrashing.

Reservoir Park, you see, stood but half a mile from the home of a beloved North End white resident, Clergy Ballard. (Clergy was his name, not his profession: this Clergy mined.) That same Fourth of July night, an unknown black intruder had burgled the house late at night and upon being caught out had scuffled with Clergy in a running bout/flight that crossed several neighboring yards before the patriarch caught a mortal wound from the assailant’s blade.

By morning’s light, rumors of the home invasion were afoot in the neighborhood, and the discovery of an unrecognized black kid passed out in the vicinity led everyone to draw the obvious conclusion — a conclusion that subsequently became self-confirming especially given the moral panic licensed by the fact that Ballard’s daughter had first encountered the intruder in her own bedroom. “One conclusion that finds most supporters is that James was a degenerate negro, inflamed by strong opiates with a crazed brain that sought satisfaction only in human blood.” (Decatur (Ill.) Herald, July 6, 1908)

From a century’s distance the evidence, while not impossible to square with James’s guilt, is feeble and circumstantial. James had been arrested within a day of his arrival to town, so he barely knew Springfield at all; he had no motivation to select Ballard’s house, possessed no valuables taken from it, and was armed neither when he was given his day pass from jail, nor when he was taken into custody the next morning. And as his attorney* pled to James’s eventual jury in vain, “No guilty man in his right senses would go six blocks away from where the fatal blow was struck and lie down to pleasant dreams.”

Against this stood eyewitness identifications by the surviving Ballards, who had glimpsed the unfamiliar assailant fleetingly by moonlight or streetlamp and who by the time they were making their official attestations had knowledge of James as the suspect, his every particular now a mold into which liquid recollection could pour.

While it was the Ballard outrage that set Springfield on edge, a second black-on-white crime a few weeks later really set match to tinder: another North End white woman, Mabel Hallam, alleged that she’d been raped in her home by an unknown black intruder. Out of a lineup she picked George Richardson, a respected middle-class streetcar conductor, grandson to Abe Lincoln’s barber. Even while admitting that “colored men [all] looked alike,” she fingered Richardson with the insightful words, “I believe that you are the man, and you will have to prove that you are not.”

Rape across the color line even moreso than murder was a frequent incitement to mob violence, and with Richardson jailed alongside the presumed rape-aspirant Joe James, a crowd of 3,000 or more gathered in downtown Springfield on August 14 with lynch law on its mind. The sheriff thwarted its aim by spiriting both of his endangered prisoners out of town, and announced as much to the multitude, hoping it would disperse.

Instead, balked of its strange fruit, the mob rampaged through the black districts of Springfield and for that night and deep into the following day — when a 5,000-strong state militia quelled the disturbance with some difficulty — put black homes to the torch. At least nine black Springfielders died, but accounts of people forced back into their own burning homes or buried secretly by night to avoid any further incitement hint at uncounted casualties besides. Seven whites were also slain.

Horrific photos show burned-out homes and businesses, and rioters posing smugly at the scenes where they’d lynched two men — one an octogenarian who literally used to be Abe Lincoln’s friend — for no better cause than showing defiance to the mob.


Photos from the Chicago Tribune, Aug. 17, 1908.

This particular atrocity stood out even at the nadir of American race relations for its location: the hometown and burial place of former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. Indeed, some caught on the lips of the crowd that awful night slogans explicitly drawing the connection — “Curse the day that Lincoln freed the niggers!” and “Lincoln freed you, now we’ll show you where you belong!” The Springfield events catalyzed the formation early in 1909 of the NAACP. Today, several markers in Springfield commemorate the riot of August 14-15, 1908 — but it still remains a delicate subject in the town that it violently reshaped.

A few books about the 1908 Springfield Race Riot

As for the accused men whose supposed crimes lurked behind this explosion, they proceeded to vastly different fates. Mabel Hallam’s rape charge fell apart and she recanted when it was discovered that she had a sexually transmitted disease, while George Richardson did not. Instead she charged “Ralph Burton”, the son of one of the men lynched during the riots — but this charge also failed to stick on account of there being no such son. George Richardson lived out the balance of his 76 years in Springfield and died peacefully in hospital.

Joe James, however, had no such benediction from his own unreliable accusers. Springfield still smoldered, its bloodlust alongside its ruined buildings; letters delivered to the courthouse threatened a renewed bloodbath should he be acquitted, and black families packed go-bags in the event they should make a sudden departure.

The requisite conviction ensued. James testified on his own behalf, sticking to his claim to have passed out drunk, innocent of the Ballard situation. He would have little to say to anyone beyond that time, referring the many press inquiries to his existing statements.

* There was dispute about James’s age throughout the proceedings; his mother — not an unbiased source, of course — fixed his birthday at November 28, 1890, which would have made him just 17; James estimated it at “19 or 20”. Even the largest of these figures would have made him too young to execute by the statutes of the day. The state, by contrast, officially estimated James at 23 years old.

** A man named Octavius Royall, a “former prosecutor and successful middle-class black attorney representing the local bank” who out of an uncommon measure of courage and decency “decided to represent the most dangerous of all clients.” (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1750: Maria Pauer, the last witch executed in Austria

Add comment October 6th, 2019 Headsman

Maria Pauer on October 6, 1750 achieved the milestone of being the last person executed for witchcraft in the territory of present-day Austria — a “judicial murder” for which the Archbishop of Salzburg begged “forgiveness for this atrocity” in 2009.

It’s a late year for a witchcraft execution; we’ve seen in these pages that the ancient superstition was still in its dying throes.

Pauer (English wiki entry | a longer German one) was a household maid of about 15 years in the Bavarian town of Muehldorf, where she must have carriead a fey reputation — because when the locals started believing a building afflicted by some sort of poltergeist, they proceed to associate the haunt with a recent visit paid by the maid.

Held for over a year under close confinement and closer questioning, she eventually capitulated to the accusations, maybe even believed them herself. The Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Andreas Jakob von Dietrichstein, refused the now-16-year-old mercy for her infernal traffic and permitted her beheading and subsequent burning in his beautiful city.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Austria,Burned,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Holy Roman Empire,Milestones,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women

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1791: Joseph Wood and Thomas Underwood, children

Add comment July 6th, 2019 Headsman

A sad selection from the Newgate Calendar:

JOSEPH WOOD AND THOMAS UNDERWOOD

Two Fourteen-year-old Boys, executed at Newgate, 6th of July, 1791, for robbing another Boy

Court to William Beadle. What age are you?

Fifteen.

Are you acquainted with the nature of an oath; supposing you do not speak what is true now, in the testimony you are going to give against the prisoners at the bar, what will become of you?

I shall go to hell, my Lord.

On the 17th of May, did you see the prisoners at the bar, or either of them?

Yes, I saw them both; I was on the other side of London-bridge; I never was in London before, I was asking for a lodging, and they brought me over to Saltpetre-bank, it was past six in the evening; then they knocked me down, took my money out of my pocket, and took my clothes which I had in a bundle; I lost five-pence: the clothes consisted of a jacket, a waistcoat, a shirt, and a pair of trowsers; I am very sure of the prisoners, I never saw them before, I never was in London before; my clothes were found on Joseph Wood , he was in a shop selling them in Rosemary-lane; a gentleman went and caught him, I was in the shop, and saw them there myself.

Old Bailey records

All the parties in this case were mere children, the malefactors being but fourteen years of age each, and the prosecutor no more than twelve!

Though of this tender age, yet were the two prisoners convicted as old and daring depredators. So often had they already been arraigned at that bar where they were condemned that the judge declared, notwithstanding their appearance (they were short, dirty, ill-visaged boys), it was necessary, for the public safety, to cut them off, in order that other boys might learn that, inured to wickedness, their tender age would not save them from an ignominious fate.

The crime for which they suffered was committed with every circumstance of barbarity. They forcibly took away a bundle, containing a jacket, shirt and waistcoat, from a little boy, then fell upon him, and would probably have murdered him had they not been secured. They had long belonged to a most desperate gang of pickpockets and footpads; but they were so hardened and obstinate that they would not impeach their companions, though the hopes of mercy were held out to them if they would make a confession, so that the villains might have been apprehended.

They were executed at Newgate, the 6th of July, 1791, apparently insensible of their dreadful situation.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Public Executions,Theft

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1896: The Rufus Buck Gang, heaven-dream’t

Add comment July 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1896, the Rufus Buck Gang was hanged at Fort Smith, Arkansas for a two-week spree of violence against white Oklahoma settlers.

More about this novelization is available on this companion website.

After doing a 90-day turn in Judge Isaac Parker‘s jail for selling liquor, the half-Creek, half-Black teenager Rufus Buck emerged violently politicized — “enraged by what he considered the theft of Indian lands. He decided it was his duty to rid the land of those who, in his eyes, did not belong”

If his theory of resistance was naive, the grievance was real enough. Earlier that century the Creeks of the American Southeast had been made to quaff humiliation by the emerging United States, and expelled with many other indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands to present-day Oklahoma; in Buck’s own lifetime, this remnant Indian Territory was itself being positioned for takeover by white settlement.

Buck gathered four other youngsters to his banner and from July 28, 1895 — when they slew a U.S. marshal — until their capture on August 10 they gave vent to rage and despair in a spree of robberies, murders, and rapes consciously directed at white settlers. This hopeless paroxysm of violence, almost precisely contemporary with suppression of the Ghost Dance movement and the official closing of the American frontier, marks the passage of an era; even the famous Judge Parker was in his dotage and would pass away a few months after the Buck gang’s own execution.

After the young men went to the gallows for rape on July 1, 1896, a poem was discovered in Buck’s cell, scribbled on the back of a photograph of his mother.

Mi dreAM —
i, dremP’T i, wAs, in, HeAven,
Among, THe Angels, FAir:
i, d, neAr, seen, none, so HAndsome,
THAT TWine, in goLden, HAir:
TheY, Looked, so, neAT,
And; sAng, so, sweeT
And, Play, d, THe, THe, golden, harp
i, was, ABouT, To, Pick, An Angel ouT,
And, TAke, Her, To, mY HeaRT:
BuT, THe, momenT, i, BegAn
To PLea,
i, THougHT, oF, You, mY, Love,
THere, Was, none, I, d seen
so, BeAuTiFul,
On, eArTH, or, HeAven, ABove.
gooD! By, My Dear, Wife..anD MoTHer
All. so. My SisTers.
Rufus, Buck
Youse Truley

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arkansas,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Oklahoma,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,U.S. Federal,USA

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1566: Bartholome Tecia, Geneva sodomite

2 comments June 10th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1566, student Bartholome Tecia was drowned in Geneva as a sodomite.

Trial documents make him a youth from the valleys of northwest Italy’s Piedmont, where pockets maintained loyalty to the Evangelical Church of Vaud — Vaud being an adjacent Swiss canton that had been annexed by Calvinist Geneva. He was in the big city to study under Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in theological preeminence.

He’s been rediscovered by a more queer-friendly posterity. An eponymous play by Jean-Claude Humbert received a Geneva municipal literary prize in 2005, and the present-day Geneva visitor will see a commemorative marker for Tecia unveiled in 2013.


Plaque in Geneva honoring Bartholome Tecia, which reads “BARTHOLOME TECIA. Piedmontese student aged 15, denounced, tortured and sentenced on June 10, 1566 to be drowned in this place, for crime of homosexuality. Today, sexual orientation and gender identity must be universally recognized as basic human rights. Around the world, people continue to be discriminated against, persecuted and sentenced simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” (cc) image by MHM55.

There’s been a bit of pushback against this memorialization in view of the coercion alleged against him by two younger students. Executed Today would be the last to disclaim adolescents’ capacity for sexual predation, but it’s also the case that all three boys as participants in same-sex rendezvous would have feared themselves under the pall of the executioner: Geneva had drowned a similar trio for sodomy in 1554. While it’s obviously impossible at our remove to have anything better than a guess at the motivations and perspectives of the people involved, it does bear consideration that the accusers were powerfully incentivized to put the entire onus on someone other than themselves. For what it’s worth, Tecia militantly refused to confess, even when put to torture.

It happens that one of Tecia’s accusers was Theodore Agrippa d’Aubigne, the son of a participant in the Huguenot Amboise conspiracy to depose King Francis II. Agrippa d’Aubigne would go on to a scintillating military career during the French Wars of Religion, eventually settling in as Governor of Maillezais when his guy Henri IV won that war. That would have been a nice capstone to his career, except that France’s anti-Reformation turn following Henri’s assassination obliged him to flee a French death sentence for exile … to Geneva. He left an impressive literary legacy containing, to the best of my knowledge, no comment on l’affaire Tecia.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drowned,Execution,History,Homosexuals,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Switzerland,Torture

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1831: Atanasio, shot for some buttons

Add comment April 26th, 2019 Headsman

This episode from Mexican Alta California comes from the short-lived administration of Manuel Victoria, who proved himself such a martinet in his few months as governor of that territory that a rebellion that December forced Victoria’s resignation.

Our source is Hubert Howe Bancroft, a historian of the American West, in this volume of his chronicle of California:

The administration of justice was a subject which early claimed the new ruler’s attention. It had been much neglected by the easy-going Echeandia, and crime had gone unpunished. Criminal proceedings had been often instituted, as we have seen in the local presidial annals of the last six years, but penalties had been rarely inflicted with fitting severity. Victoria had strict ideas of discipline, and no doubt of his ability to enforce the laws. He is said to have boasted soon after his arrival at Monterey that before long he would make it safe for any man to leave his handkerchief or his watch lying in the plaza until he might choose to come for it. How he carried out his ideas in this direction will be apparent from a few causas celebres of the year.

The case of Atanasio was pending when Victoria came. Atanasio was an Indian boy less than eighteen years of age, a servant in sub-comisario Jimeno’s office, who had in 1830 stolen from the warehouse property to the extent of something over $200. The prosecution was conducted by Fernandez del Campo, Padres, and Ibarra as fiscales; and the last-named demanded, in consideration of the youth and ignorance of the culprit, as well as on account of the carelessness with which the goods had been exposed, a sentence of only two years in the public works. The asesor, Rafael Gomez, after having sent the case back to the fiscal for the correction of certain irregularities, rendered an opinion April 18th, in favor of the death penalty; and by order of the comandante general Atanasio was shot at 11 a.m. on the 26th. Gomez was an able lawyer, and I suppose was technically correct in his advice, though the penalty seems a severe one. Naturally the Californians were shocked; and though an example of severity was doubtless needed, Victoria was not fortunate in his selection. The circumstance that led to the culprit’s detection seems to have been his using some military buttons for gambling with his comrades; and the popular version of the whole affair has been that an Indian boy was shot by Victoria for stealing a few buttons.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Mexico,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Theft

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1950: Rosli Dhobi, Sarawak patriot

Add comment March 2nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1950, Rosli Dhobi or Dhoby was hanged by the British for assassinating the governor of Sarawak.

The scene of events lies in the present-day state of Malaysia, which gained independence in 1957. As a glance at the atlas will show, Malaysia oddly comprises two principal chunks of territory lying hundreds of kilometers apart across the southern reaches of the South China Sea: the end of the Malay Peninsula, reaching south from Thailand and the Eurasian landmass — and the northern third of the island of Borneo, which Malaysia shares with Indonesia and Brunei.

Dhobi’s passion is a story of the Borneo side — from what is today the largest of Malaysia’s 13 constituent states, Sarawak.

The British presence at Sarawak dated to the mid-19th century when the Kingdom of Sarawak began as a series of personal concessions extracted from the Sultan of Brunei by an ex-Raj officer turned adventurer named James Brooke. Casting about for a vocation in the mother country back in the 1830s after resigning his commission, Brooke had plunked his £30,000 inheritance down on a schooner, sailed it to southeast Asia, and made such a timely and effective intervention against pirates plaguing Borneo that the Sultan put him in charge of parts of Sarawak.*

The man proved to have a deft hand for diplomacy and governance and steadily grew his fiefdom, eventually establishing his own dynastic monarchy, the White Rajahs.

In 1946, the third and last of Brooke’s dynasty, Vyner Brooke,** ceded his family’s interest in Sarawak to the British Colonial Office — changing it from a crown protectorate to a crown colony and setting Sarawak on the path to transit the era of decolonization tied to the British colony of Malaysia instead of, say, independent statehood. No surprise, this backroom arrangement among Anglo suits played to many in Sarawak as a wanton abnegation of self-determination, spurring a widespread anti-cession movement.

Thus aggrieved, our man Rosli Dhobi (English Wikipedia page | Malaysian) became deeply involved with an anti-cession group called the Sibu Malay Youth Movement.

Out of this body, 13 particularly radical members eventually formed a secret terrorist cell called Rukun 13 (“13 Pillars”). Balked of their plan to murder the British governor Charles Arden-Clarke by the latter’s timely transfer to Ghana, they instead greeted his successor Duncan Stewart just days after arrival — with Dhobi fatally daggering the new guy when he appeared at a photo op at the town of Sibu. Dhobi was only 17 years old at the time.

In time the British successfully suppressed the anti-cession movement, but Dhobi’s execution was so politically sensitive when it occurred that he was buried in an unmarked grave within the walls of Kuching Central Prison. The judgment of posterity in Sarawak has been quite a bit more generous: on March 2, 1996, the forty-sixth anniversary of his hanging, he was reburied in the Sarawak Heroes’ Mausoleum in Sibu. A school in that town is also named for him.

* Another noteworthy example of an intrepid private individual redrawing the colonial map for his mother country occurred decades later with Germany’s presence in Tanzania.

** Vyner Brooke’s nephew and his heir apparent as the prospective next White Rajah, Anthony Brooke, bitterly opposed the cession, so much so that British intelligence initially considered him a possible suspect in Duncan’s murder. Anthony Brooke formally ceded all his own potential claims to the rule of Sarawak in 1951.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Malaysia,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Separatists,Terrorists

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1823: Giles East

Add comment January 20th, 2019 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1823, Giles East was hanged for the rape of a girl, Sarah Potter, who was under ten years of age.

In spite of the difference in ages, the sixteen-year-old East cohabitated with Sarah’s forty-five-year-old mother, who was also called Sarah, and was named in some accounts as her husband.

The elder Sarah stood beside her husband in the dock as an accessory after the fact; she had allegedly tried to cover up the crime. However, writes Martin Baggoley of this case in his book Surrey Executions: A Complete List of those Hanged in the County during the Nineteenth Century:

Part way into the trial the judge, Baron Graham, apparently unable to believe that any mother would act in such a manner directed that she be discharged. The judge had been especially moved when the victim described her mother crying when she learnt of the crime.

There was an expectation that East would be reprieved because of his youth and it was widely reported that the foreman of the Grand Jury, Grey Bennet MP, who had found the bill against East, had made a strong appeal to the Government on his behalf. However, he issued a statement strongly denying this and added he thought it inconceivable that any member of the Grand Jury would make such an appeal. Furthermore, he suggested that although a strong opponent of capital punishment, he had never known a case of greater atrocity.

East was hanged at Horsemonger Lane Gaol.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Other Voices,Public Executions,Rape

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1739: Two French youths who murdered Choctaws

1 comment January 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1739, two French youths were executed by musketry in the French Louisiana colony for the murder of two Choctaws — a gesture of juridical diplomacy that didn’t work out as the musketeers hoped.

Our source for this unusual event is Patricia Galloway’s “The Barthelemy Murders: Bienville’s Establishment of the ‘Lex Talionis’ as a Principle of Indian Diplomacy” from the Proceedings of the Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society, Vol. 8 (1985). The “Bienville” of Galloway’s title was Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the French Colonial Governor of Louisiana. It was a post he had held intermittently since 1701, which was back when he and his brother Iberville were still exploring the region.*

Bienville was noted for his deft touch with the native inhabitants of the colony he proposed to govern; in Galloway’s words, he “seemed to have an intuitive grasp of the Indian concept of honor and to understand tribal power structures as no other governor did. In addition, he made it his business to learn and use Choctaw or the Choctaw-like Mobilian trade language in his dealings with the Indians — the only governor to do so.”

Be he ever so empathic, Bienville had a sticky wicket with this case of international violence, when each of the nations involved would have disposed of it very differently had it been a purely internal affair.

On the side of the Choctaw and indeed for all of the tribes of the southeast, the available evidence points to blood vengeance as the accepted response to homicide, but there was no governmental institution to carry it out, so the responsibility for the execution of a murderer fell upon the relatives of the victim … the European notion depended upon handing over regulatory powers to a legal institution; the Indian notion, on the other hand, assumed that familial sanctions would keep individuals in line.

It was a situation that demanded the full measure of Bienville’s diplomatic acumen. The Choctaw people were the largest of several native nations in the French colony, dominating the territory of the latter-day state of Mississippi. Years before the events in this post, Bienville had put them on his team by arming them against the British-allied Chickasaw … but in the late 1730s, Bienville was coming off a failed campaign against the Chickasaw, and with the British making diligent trading inroads with the Choctaw, it wasn’t necessarily a given that they would stick within the French sphere of influence. Indeed, there was a chief of rising stature within the Choctaw nation named Red Shoe whose calling card was pushing a bro-British turn.

Onto this delicate stage barged two Creole half-brothers, whom Galloway identifies as Philippe Alexandre (born in 1710) and a youth of whom we know only the surname Barthelemy (born in 1723): as Barthelemy was the name of the (step-, to Philippe) father who stood patriarch to the whole family, it’s the name by which the affair is known. According to the notes taken on the trial** by the colonial official Etienne Salmon as quoted by Galloway, their crime was motivated by nothing but opportunism and racial animus.

They went in a pirogue from Mobile to the Pascagoulas with a Negro slave to look for some food supplies, and there they found a Choctaw and his wife who were proposing to go to Mobile to trade some bear oil and a few deerskins, and who asked them for passage which they granted them. Contrary winds having cast them ashore on some neighboring islands, they went hunting there. The elder of the two brothers proposed to the Negro that he kill the husband and wife, saying that the savages were dogs, and that if they ran across Frenchmen in the same straits in their country they would not object to killing them. The Negro having rejected the proposition, saying that he had [no] reason at all to kill them, that they had done him no wrong, the two brothers discussed the same thing, and the elder told the younger that he would be doing a valorous deed, and that he would be regarded as a true man, if he made the attack; this child allowed himself to be so persuaded that on the following day at sunrise, while everyone was sleeping, or pretending to, the younger shot twice at the husband and his wife, and killed them.

This happened sometime during 1738. It took some months for the disappearance of these hunter-traders to become known to their communities, and for suspicion to fix on the young men involved. The French colony arrested the culprits and Bienville promised his allies “that justice would be done and would be carried out in Mobile before their appointed witnesses.” For Bienville, this meant the strict application of lex talionis through the French judicial mechanism.

The trial took place on January 10 … the two young men were condemned to die, while the Negro was dismissed as guiltless. The original sentence called for hanging, but to spare the dignity of the boys’ family it was changed to death by a firing squad. Salmon reported that the younger brother had no notion of guilt and was convinced that in the dangerous times then prevailing, he had performed a deed worthy of praise. Even Salmon believed that had the situation been different Bienville would have allowed the younger to escape death. But this was not to be, and the young men were returned to Mobile for execution, which took place before Choctaw witnesses on January 14.

The executions placated the Choctaw and, Bienville hoped, established an understanding that crimes between their nations would be properly satisfied by the offender’s nation more or less on the basis of lex talionis: an orderly and reciprocal life-for-a-life punishment.

Seven years ahead and Bienville had been retired to France when at last there came a Choctaw-on-Frenchmen murder to test the precedent. The new governor, Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, invoked the principle of this Barthelemy case: “We ask nothing of you but justice, since M. de Bienville had justice done you in 1740 [sic] for a man and woman that some Frenchmen had killed.”

The trouble that the French encountered here in having their claim recognized lay in their failure to understand the distinction made by the Choctaw between domestic and international law in a homicide case. The evidence is quite clear that the Choctaw were prepared to accept the notion of setting off the French deaths by an equal number of Choctaw deaths, but they expected the French, as the injured party, to carry out the killings themselves. If the French wanted the Choctaw to carry out the killings, they said, the French would have to persuade close relatives of the required victims to do it, or else there would be an unending train of vengeance set loose in the nation.

The French didn’t know who had actually murdered their three people and “the usual procedure in such cases was to substitute people who were of little use to the tribe or who for some reason already deserved death.” However, the French greedily bid for a political coup by demanding not a marginal victim but the pro-British chief Red Shoe himself. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t find any of Red Shoe’s relatives willing to turn executioner. The only thing left for the Choctaw to try was

killings committed against a group that was the enemy of both French and Choctaw. Therefore, to set off the deaths of three Frenchmen at the hands of pro-English Choctaws, the pro-French Choctaws attempted to fulfill the French demands in part by killing English traders. This was done in a raid on an English convoy which was being escorted by Red Shoe. After Red Shoe was murdered by stealth, two Englishmen were killed in an open attack, making up the required three deaths.

The French, however, completely missed the point of the Choctaw restitution and refused the two English scalps, insisting on two more Choctaw deaths … The deaths of the Englishmen did not go without notice on the pro-English side. Doubtless as a result of a symmetrical demand by the English, the [pro-English] Choctaw killed five French settlers on the Mobile River. These killings were followed by retaliatory raids by French-allied Choctaws on English trade convoys, killing two more English traders.

This is precisely the sort of blood vengeance spiral that Bienville had been trying to militate against, and it soon pulled the whole Choctaw nation into an outright civil war that killed some 800 people and brought the French into the field as well. Galloway once again:

Bienville’s intentions were good, and it is to the credit of the French that they carried out the execution of the half-brothers, against their inclinations, because this was the kind of justice that the Choctaw understood. Nor are the French to be blamed for expecting the Choctaw to make the same kind of concession to their notion of justice. The tragedy arose not because the Choctaw did not want to render justice at all, but because they had no vicarious legal mechanism to carry it out. In the end, therefore, they were forced into civil war because vengeance carried out by a Choctaw, on another Choctaw, in behalf of a third party not a Choctaw, did not leave the avenger free of punishment himself. Like other aspects of southeastern Indian culture, this one was so inconsistent with European understanding that it had to adapt or disappear, and although it did not actually disappear among the Choctaw themselves until 1823, the principle in dealings with white nations was firmly asserted in treaties from the time of the end of the Choctaw civil war. The Choctaw had dearly bought comprehension of Bienville’s principle with the weighty currency of culture change.

* Iberville and Bienville co-founded Fort Louis de la Mobile (present-day Mobile, Alabama) in 1702; this is where the executions in this post occurred. Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718.

** No original record of the trial survives; Salmon’s recollection is the best we’re going to do for primary sourcing.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Alabama,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Known But To God,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Shot,USA

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