The retaliatory executions a U.S. Army lieutenant carried out on this date in 1861 helped set in motion a decade-long war with the Apaches.
Three years out of West Point and brand new to Arizona’s Fort Buchanan, George Bascom in retrospect was probably not the ideal ambassador to send out with orders to retrieve a young half-Apache boy kidnapped from a ranch by an Indian raid. (Along with all the cattle.)
Since nobody was present at the time, the identity of the raiders just wasn’t known — but someone’s suspicions affixed on the wily and dangerous* Chiricahua warrior Cochise. The Chiriachuas were just one group among the Apache peoples; they ranged from Mexico to southeastern New Mexico and southwestern Arizona, and were divided into many small local groups each with their own leader — like Cochise.
Lt. Bascom would be killed in a Civil War engagement a year after the events in this post without leaving posterity his memoirs, so his understanding of Apache society can only be guessed at. But his on-the-make bullheadedness is universal to every time and place where young men can be found. “Bascom was a fine-looking fellow, a Kentuckian, a West Pointer, and of course a gentleman,” Arizona frontiersman Charles Poston later remembered. “But he was unfortunately a fool.”
Lt. Bascom and Cochise.
The greenhorn lieutenant rode out with 54 cavalrymen to Apache Pass and lured Cochise to a confabulation. Cochise showed up with his brother, wife, and children — clearly expecting some sort of social call.
Cochise was entirely unaware of the kidnapping, and unaware that Bascom considered him the kidnapper. He offered to find out about it and retrieve the boy from whomever had him.
Bascom, whose troops had surrounded the tent during the parley, accused Cochise of lying to him. Cochise had twice the impertinent lieutnant’s years and at least that multiple of Bascom’s sense, and must have been affronted by his opposite number’s behavior — but when Bascom announced that he would be taking Cochise and his companions as prisoners pending the return of the raiders’ spoils, the Apache commander whipped a knife out of its sheath and instantly slashed his escape route through the wall of the tent. Bursting past the shocked troops (they were as inexperienced as their officer), Cochise escaped into the twilight. This “Bascom Affair” (to Anglos) is remembered more evocatively by Apaches as “Cut Through The Tent”.
But the tent-knifing was only the start of it.
Cochise’s party did not manage to follow his escape, so Bascom now held Cochise’s brother, wife, son, and two other warriors. The Apache tried to put himself in a negotiating position by seizing hostages of his own — first a Butterfield stagecoach stationmaster named Wallace, and later three white men seized from a passing wagon train.
Nor were the hostages’ the only lives at stake. Cochise’s band, including the soon-to-be-legendary Geronimo, had assembled and their campfires burned menacingly in the hills around the little stage station where Bascom’s force fortified themselves. Bascom could have defused it all with a hostage swap, but the kid had his orders and stubbornly refused to make the trade unless it included the one hostage Cochise didn’t have: that little boy from the ranch.
At length, reinforcements for the beleaguered cavalry began arriving, one such party bringing three other Apaches captured en route and entirely unrelated to Cochise. “Troops were sent out to search for us,” a much older Geronimo recalled in his memoirs. “But as we had disbanded, it was, of course, impossible for them to locate any hostile camp … while they searched we watched them from our hiding places and laughed at their failures.”
Despairing now of seeing his family again, Cochise had his hostages killed and dispersed, leaving the mutilated remains to be discovered by his antagonists with the help of circling buzzards. When they did so, they retaliated in fury — releasing only Cochise’s wife and child, but hanging the six other hostages, including Cochise’s brother. In the narration of Sgt. Daniel Robinson,
After witnessing the fiendish acts committed by the Apaches, the minds of our officers and men were filled with horror, and in retaliation, it was decided in Council, that the captive Indians should die. On the 19th we broke camp to return to our respective posts leaving a Sergeant and eight men to take charge of the station until relieved. We halted about half a mile from the station where there was a little grove of Cedar trees. The Indians were brought to the front with their hands tied behind their backs, and led up to the trees. Noosed picket ropes were placed around their necks, the ends thrown over the limbs of the trees and manned by an equal number of willing hands. A signal was given and away flew the spirits of the unfortunate Indians — not to the happy hunting grounds of Indian tradition. According to their ideas or belief in a hereafter, those who die by hanging can never reach that region of bliss. I was in an ambulance with the other Sergeant, and must confess it was a sad spectacle to look upon. An illustration of the Indians sense of Justice: “That the innocent must suffer for the guilty.” And the white man’s notion — “That the only good Indians are dead ones.” Whatever it may be, I do not think it was much worse than the present policy of penning them up on Reservations and starving them to death. (See Cochise: Firsthand Accounts of the Chiricahua Apache Chief.)
A devastating decade-long war against Cochise and his equally able father-in-law Mangas Coloradas ensued, and right when the army most needed its military resources for the Civil War. The conflict claimed hundreds or thousands of lives, crippled mining and ranching, and depopulated fearful white settlements around Apache country in favor of “gravestones … by the road-side like sentinels, bearing the invariable description ‘Killed by the Apaches'”.
A fort near the Texas border was later named for Bascom. The kidnapped boy was never recovered and grew up in a different Apache tribe.
Tom Jeffords (Jimmy Stewart): “Cochise didn’t start this war! A snooty little lieutenant fresh out of the east started it. He flew a flag of truce which Cochise honored, and then he hanged Cochise’s brother and five others under the flag.”
* Cochise was officially at peace with the Americans at this point and hostile to Mexicans. In “Cochise: Apache War Leader, 1858-1861,” in the Journal of Arizona History (Spring 1965), Barbara Ann Tyler argues that the reality of the situation was that his warband flexibly shifted between temporary peace and opportunistic small raids, moving north and south of the Mexican border as convenient.
On this date in 1745, Orange County, Virginia was darkened by the smoke from a stake where a slave named Eve died for poisoning her master, Peter Montague.
As accused, Eve, “not having God before her eyes nor considering the obedience to the said Peter Montague, her master, but led and seduced by the instigation of the Devil … with force of arms and her malice forethought, feloniously and traitorously did mingle and poison milk … did give it to the said Peter Montague, which he did taste, eat, drink and swallow down … and did languish until the 27th day of December. Eve falsely, traitorously and feloniously of her malice forethought with the poison … did kill, poison and murder.” (Quoted here.)
Eve asserted her innocence to no avail at her trial on January 23. The court condemned her to “be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution and there to be burnt.”
The last-ever hanging in El Paso, Texas, on this date in 1900* was distinguished by an astonishing attempted fight to the finish by the two doomed men.
Despite what Hollywood would have one believe, the dramatic bodily escape from the executioner is really never a thing. (Well, hardlyever.) And even if Geronimo Parra and Antonio Flores could not effect their escape that day, they would have been content, as Flores bellowed while brandishing his shank, if “You shall all go to hell with me!”
Parra, by far the more notable character in this drama, was long a noted desperado in the borderlands. Though known for all manner of outlawry, he was specifically hunted by the Texas Rangers for slayingf one of their number, John Fusselman, in a mountain ambush way back in 1890.
Parra was in jail in New Mexico for an unrelated robbery under an assumed name when he was recognized as the wanted murderer. Texas Ranger John R. Hughescut a deal with the Sheriff of Dona Ana County, New Mexico — a lawman you might have heard of by the name of Pat Garrett.** Garrett wanted a fugitive hiding out in Texas, and arranged to extradite Parra in return if Hughes could find the man for him.
The second man doomed to die with Parra, Antonio Flores, was an altogether more everyday criminal: his avidity for a Smeltertown woman who would not have him led him to stab her to death, crying — as if he had not already done enough to poor Ramona Vizcaya without sending her to the next world with an eye-rolling banality — “If I cannot have you then no other man shall!”
Flores’s, shall we say, passion would prove an asset for the desperate duo on their final day.
The gallows had only a single trap, so the two men were to hang consecutively. When guards came to retrieve Antonio Flores, however, both he and Parra raced out of the open cell door wielding homemade blades — steel wire twisted and sharpened into makeshift daggers.
Dalls Morning News, January 6, 1900.
With the certainty of immediate death upon them, the prisoners made a desperate melee in the little hall.
Flores planted his cruel dirk into the stomach of a deputy named Ed Bryant, while Parra scored glancing blows on two men before he was shoved back into the cell. While the rustler looked on helplessly from behind bars, the available toughs piled onto Parra and subdued him.
Parra was trussed hand and foot and dragged straight to the scaffold for instant execution. On pain of prospective death by the constables’ revolvers, Parra too submitted when his turn came, and satisfied himself with declaring his innocence on the gallows — after which the noose nearly ripped the man’s head clean away.
San Antonio Express, January 6, 1900.
Spare a thought for these long-lost frontiersmen when next visiting the gorge where Ranger Fusselman caught that fatal bullet from Parra’s gang of cattle rustlers: Fusselman Canyon.
* Some sites give January 6 for the execution date. The primary sources here unambiguously show this is incorrect.
** Famous for shooting Billy the Kid. Pat Garrett served only a single term as sheriff of Lincoln County; his reputation for excessive violence and shady associations helped to give his career in New Mexico and Texas a somewhat vagabond quality.
In contemporary America, it would be next to unthinkable to schedule an execution for New Year’s Day — and asking the associated team of wardens, guards, executioners, witnesses, lawyers, and journalists to ditch New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and do a ball drop to a lethal chemical injection would be a complete nonstarter.
But the First of January, especially prior to the age of widespread telecommunication, was not always so sentimentally held. The Espy File of historical American executions records none whatsoever for Christmas Day, but several have occurred on New Year’s. We’ve previously profiled some of them in these grim annals, like Sylvester Henry Bell and Archilla Smith.
January 1 of 1926, “just 15 minutes after the arrival of the New Year” in the words of the Associated Press report, was the occasion in Huntsville, Texas for electrocuting African-American Melton Carr for raping a white woman in Walker County.
I have found hardly any information pertaining to this case online, but the detail that Carr was reprieved from an earlier execution date “on a petition from officials and citizens of Walker county” — implicitly, white citizens — might be a suggestive indicator for a crime so incendiary under other circumstances. We have seen that detail before in the case of Tom Joyner’s ancestors, who had broad clemency support because the racial politics of the time made an open judicial exploration of their actual innocence impossible.
Executions — Two Indians,* Ketaukah and Kewahiskin [elsewhere given as Kewaubis -ed.] were hanged at Detroit on the 27th ult. the former for the murder of Dr. W.S. Madison, the latter for the murder of Charles Ulrick.
The criminals (says the account) often acknowledged the justice of their sentence,** and in their way they had prepared themselves to meet its execution.
For several weeks past they appeared very anxious to obtain presents of tobacco, pipes, &c. none of which they used, but carefully laid them aside as an offering to the Great Spirit on the day of their death.
They had contrived a sort of drum, by drawing a piece of leather over the vessel that contained their drink, and often engaged in their solemn death dance. On the night previous to their execution, they continued their death dance to a very late hour, and commenced it again early in the morning.
They had been presented, among other things, with some red paint — with this they painted on the wall of their cell numerous figures of men, quadrupeds, reptiles, &c. — on their blankets were also painted many figures — among the rest, an Indian, hanging by the neck, was observed.
From the jail they were taken to the Protestant Church, where an appropriate discourse was delivered to the assemblage by Mr. J.S. Hudson (one of the gentlemen belonging to the Mission family).
They appeared throughout the whole of the solemn preparatory steps to be perfectly collected — they walked firmly to the gallows, and previously to ascending to the drop, shook hands with the Rev. Mr. Juvier, Mr. Hudson, the Sheriff and Marshal, and several other gentlemen who stood near them.
They ascended the steps of the drop in a manner peculiarly firm — after which, they asked, through the interpreter, the pardon of the surrounding spectators, for the crime they had committed.
They then shook hands and gazed for a few minutes on the assemblage and on the heavens, when their caps were drawn over their faces, and they were launched into eternity.
* Ketaukah was of the Ojibwe (Chippewa) people, while Kewahiskin was a Menominee. (Source) The two men were not associates of each other prior to their shared condemnation, and their crimes were completely unrelated.
** Be that as it may, Ketaukah tested the jurisdiction of the Territorial Court (Michigan had not yet been admitted to statehood). He argued (like Tommy Jemmy in New York) that Anglo juries had no jurisdiction over his crime, which had been committed against a white doctor on Winnebago land. He also demanded the inclusion of Indians on the jury; complications of a potential language barrier within the jury pool, and the matter of whether an interpreter’s presence at jury deliberations would vitiate the verdict, defeated that motion. (For the jurisdictional question, see American Indians and State Law: Sovereignty, Race, and Citizenship, 1790-1880. For the jury composition, see the footnote on page 123 of this masters thesis.)
The first legal hanging in Alberta, Canada, took place on this date in 1879. Generations later, it’s still remembered as one of the province’s worst, and strangest, crimes.
The hanged man was a native Cree known as Swift Runner (Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin) — a tall and muscular character with “as ugly and evil-looking a face as I have ever seen,” in the words of an Anglo Fort Saskatchewan officer. Whatever his comeliness, Swift Runner was on good terms with the frontier authorities, who trusted him as a guide for the North West Mounted Police. That is, until the Cree’s violent whiskey benders unbalanced him so much that the police sent him back to his tribe … and then his tribe kicked him out, too.
He took to the wilderness to shift as he could with his family in the winter of 1878-79: a wife, mother, brother, and six children.
But only Swift Runner himself would return from that camp.
When police were alerted to the suspicious absence of Swift Runner’s party, the former guide himself escorted investigators to the scene.
One child had died of natural causes, and was buried there.
The eight other humans had been reduced to bones, strewn around the camp like the set of a slasher film.*
They had all been gobbled up by a wendigo.
The wendigo (various alternate spellings, such as windigo and witiko, are also available) is a frightful supernatural half-beast of Algonquin mythology, so ravenous it is said to devour its own lips — and human flesh too. For some quick nightmare fuel,* try an image search.
The revolting wendigo was mythically associated with cannibalism, so closely that humans who resort to anthropophagy could also be called wendigos. According to Swift Runner, the ferocious spirit entered into him and bid him slaughter and eat all his relations.
Swift Runner is the poster child for the “Wendigo Psychosis”, a mental disorder particular to the Northern Algonquin peoples. In the psychosis, diagnosed by the early 1900s but hotly disputed in psychological literature, people are said to have experienced themselves possessed by the wendigo and wracked by violent dreams and a compulsion to cannibalism. It’s importantly distinguished from famine cannibalism: though it was the wilderness during winter, Swift Runner had access to other food when he turned wendigo. The author of a 1916 report on the phenomenon said he had “known a few instances of this deplorable turn of mind, and not one instance could plead hunger, much less famine as an excuse of it.”**
The disorder, whatever it was, was nevertheless surely bound to the precariousness of life in the bush; wendigo cases vanish in the 20th century as grows afflicted populations’ contact with the encroaching sedentary civilization.
For Canadian authorities in 1879, however, there was no X-File case or philosophical puzzle: there was a man who had shot, bludgeoned, and/or throttled his whole family and snapped open long bones to suckle on their marrow.
But if the verdict and sentence were clear, the logistics were less so: hangings were virgin territory for the Fort Saskatchewan bugler put in charge of orchestrating the event. Swift Runner, by this time repentant, had to wait in the cold on the frigid morning of his hanging while the old pensioner hired to hang him retrieved the straps he’d forgotten, to pinion his man, and fixed the gallows trap. “I could kill myself with a tomahawk, and save the hangman further trouble,” Swift Runner joked
* In the Stephen King novel Pet Sematary (but not in its cinematic adaptation) the master adversary behind the reanimation of murderous household pets is a wendigo. For a classical horror-lit interpretation, Algernon Blackwood’s 1910 The Wendigo is freely available in the public domain.
** Cited by Robert A. Brightman in “On Windigo Psychosis,” Current Anthropology, February 1983.
The matter that brought Tsimequor to public attention arose out of a tribal custom designed to help members of the community better deal with grief following the death of a child. The custom dictated that when a child died, it was the practice for all other persons in the tribe who bore the same name to immediately change their names. In this way, relatives of the deceased child would be less likely to be reminded of their loss.
Tsimequor’s son Moses died in 1888 and, as per custom, all the Snuneymuxw who were named “Moses” changed their names to something else.
But there was one little boy in the community whose name was Moïse — “Moses” in French — and Tsimequor demanded that he change his name as well. The four-year-old’s parents refused, and days later somebody killed their son.
Had it been solely in the hands of the Snuneymuxw, the crime might have been forgiven. But to the Canadian legal authorities killing a four-year-old because of his name was unambiguously capital murder, and so Tsimequor was arrested and brought to trial. He maintained his innocence, but was convicted on November 7, 1888 and sentenced to death.
Pfeifer and Leyton-Brown record:
Surprisingly, there was considerable sympathy for Tsimequor expressed in the local newspaper, which pointed out that the crime had been committed “through superstition” and noting that Tsimequor had had no legal counsel to defend him at the trial. According to one newspaper report, “a sentence designed to educate Aboriginal people would be more appropriate.” There was however no doubt which tradition would be followed in this case.
Tsimequor was hanged in the Nanaimo Gaol five weeks after his trial.
Privy Council minutes determining that ‘law should be allowed to take its course’ with the hanging of the indigenous man Tsimequor in 1888
On this date in 1917, 24-year-old black farmhand Lation (or Ligon) Scott died a horrible death in Dyersburg, Tennessee.
For the two years prior to his extrajudicial “execution” by a lynch mob, Scott had worked as a farmhand for a white family, doing the farm chores while the husband worked at his job in Dyersburg.
He got on well with the family and was fond of the two children. He seemed like an ordinary enough man and a good worker, according to the NAACP journal The Crisis:
Accounts as to his intelligence vary widely. One report asserts that he was almost half-witted. Others attribute to him the intelligence of the average country Negro… He had the reputation of being a splendid hand at doing general housework, or “spring-cleaning,” and…had done this sort of work for a prominent woman of Dyersburg. She states that she was alone in the house with him for two days.
No trouble resulted.
In addition to farming and the doing of odd jobs, he was a preacher. On November 22, 1917, however, he allegedly raped the farmer’s wife while her husband was at work. He threatened to kill her if she reported what he had done. He then fled, leaving his victim bound and gagged inside the farmhouse.
The woman was able to free herself and identify her attacker, and the community took swift action, searching extensively for Scott and offering a $200 reward for his apprehension. Scott was able to elude capture for ten days, though, making his way fifty miles to Madison County. There, a railroad worker recognized him and he was arrested.
The sheriff’s deputy for Dyer County, along with some other men (including, presciently, an undertaker), picked up the accused man and started off back to Dyersburg by car in the wee hours of the morning. They didn’t bother taking an indirect route for the purpose of their journey.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people gathered along the road and waited for their quarry.
And when he appeared, they forced the car off the road and made the officers turn over their prisoner.
These people were not typical of the average lynch mob: rather than stringing him up on the spot, they drew up a list of twelve “jurors” and, at noon, after church let out, drove Scott to the county courthouse for a “trial.”
Scott was ordered to stand up and asked, “Are you guilty or not guilty?”
Scott admitted he was guilty, and the “jury” voted for conviction.
Although one “prominent citizen” asked the people not to be barbaric, because it was Sunday and because “the reputation of the county was at stake,” both the rape victim and her husband wanted Scott to be burned alive rather than merely hanged.
The Crisis‘s description of what happened is not for the faint-hearted.
The Negro was seated on the ground and a buggy-axle driven into the ground between his legs. His feet were chained together, with logging chains, and he was tied with wire. A fire was built. Pokers and flat-irons were procured and heated in the fire… Reports of the torturing, which have been generally accepted and have not been contradicted, are that the Negro’s clothes and skin were ripped from his body simultaneously with a knife. His self-appointed executioners burned his eye-balls with red-hot irons. When he opened his mouth to cry for mercy a red-hot poker was rammed down his gullet. In the same subtle way he was robbed of his sexual organs. Red-hot irons were placed on his feet, back and body, until a hideous stench of burning flesh filled the Sabbath air of Dyersburg, Tenn.
Thousands of people witnessed this scene. They had to be pushed back from the stake to which the Negro was chained. Roof-tops, second-story windows, and porch-tops were filled with spectators. Children were lifted to shoulders, that they might behold the agony of the victim.
It took three and a half hours for the man to die.
This spectacle of horror took place in broad daylight, and no one in the mob wore masks.
Nevertheless, no one was ever prosecuted.
According to The Crisis,
Public opinion in Dyersburg and Dyer County seems to be divided into two groups. One group considers that the Negro got what he deserved. The other group feels that he should have had a “decent lynching.”
A “decent lynching” was defined as “a quick, quiet hanging, with no display or torturing.”
One local citizen remarked that he thought the people who tortured and killed Lation Scott were no better than the rapist himself. Another simply commented, “It was the biggest thing since the Ringling Brothers’ Circus came to town.”
Lation Scott’s was the last lynching in Dyer County history.
Wire report in the Salt Lake Telegram, Dec. 3, 1917.
The Third was subsequently transferred to Union-occupied Jacksonville, Florida for duty garrisoning a conquered town of the Confederacy whose white citizens chafed doubly at their presence. But the unit had weathered both the boredom of the garrison and the hostility of white Floridians, and was set to muster out and return home on Halloween of 1865.
All U.S. Colored Troop regiments were officered by white men, putting an inevitable racial tinge on the inherent potential tension between enlistees and their commanders — the triggering event in our story. Heading the Third was a fellow named John L. Brower, Lieutenant Colonel by rank courtesy of his political connections but of nearly no actual military experience.
Ohio National Guard Judge Advocate General Kevin Bennett, in his 1992 article about the mutiny,* calls Brower a “martinet”; elevated to command of the Third on September 12 for what should have been a mostly ceremonial interim, Brower delighted in enforcing stringent wartime discipline months after Appomattox. While no man welcomes the taste of the lash when he’s one foot out the door back to civilian life, excess discipline meted out by cruel white overseers was particularly bad form for Colored Troop regiments.
From the standpoint of black Americans, the war had been all about destroying slavery; they had practically had to force this objective, and their own presence,** into the conflict. Being strung up by the thumbs for petty theft — Brower’s decreed punishment for one of his charges on October 29 — was far too evocative of the hated Slave Power.
“Inexperienced officers often assumed that because these men had been slaves before enlistment, they would bear to be treated as such afterwards,” one white Colored Troop commander later remembered. “Experience proved to the contrary. Any punishment resembling that meted out by the overseers caused irreparable damage.”†
The inclination of black troops to reject servile treatment and the anxiety that this provoked among their officers and the larger white community must surely be read in view of the perplexing new conditions following the Civil War.
Even among whites who supported it in principle, slavery abolition meant an unsettling and uncertain rearrangement of civilization — or at least, it potentially meant that. Would the economy continue to function without slavery? Would the daily conventions and assumptions that had sustained whites north and south have to be entirely renegotiated?
“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship,” Frederick Douglass had proclaimed. Now that the war had finished, what else did those musket-toting sable fellows think they had earned the right to?
Press reports over the course of 1865 show a continuing theme of “Negro mutinies”: it is for wiser studies than this post to determine whether the trend such stories represent is disturbances among the black soldiery, or an exaggerated preoccupation among their white countrymen. In either event, Jacksonville was very far from unique even if the punishments were exemplary.
From the June 16, 1865 Cleveland Plain Dealer, concerning black soldiers on a steamer bound for Texas calling at Fort Monroe who, chagrined at the assignment, refused to permit the steamer’s resuming its journey.
From the June 19, 1865 Philadelphia Inquirer, concerning a company refusing to embark for Texas. “Certain evil disposed persons put it into the heads of these credulous colored soldiers that they were to be sent to Texas as servants for the white troops,” runs the report. “Doubtless some secret enemies of the Government instilled similar subtle falsehoods into the simple minds of the blacks who were disarmed at Fortress Monroe a few days ago.”
From the September 30, 1865 Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), concerning a mutiny reported near Hilton, N.C.
From the Oct. 1, 1865 Daily Constitutionalist (Augusta, Ga.), reporting a disturbance begun when a black regiment demonstrated against a court-martial for one of their comrades accused (and acquitted) of stealing a hat.
In the midst of all of this — right about the time of the incident in this post, in fact — bulletins reached American shores of the Morant Bay Rebellion, a bloody rebellion of black laborers in British-controlled Jamaica. Slavery had been abolished on that Caribbean island more than 30 years prior: what did that uprising augur for the races in these United States?
Subtext becomes text: the Norwich (Conn.) Aurora, December 23, 1865. “The African released from restraint, and the passion of the savage provoked, will realize the scenes formerly witnessed in Hayti.” (The full article (pdf))
For our case, the name of the man punished like a slave is lost, but we do know what he did: steal some molasses from the kitchen. That’s how six of his comrades ultimately wound up looking down the barrels of their executioners.
A Lt. Greybill caught the greedy nosher and decreed a rough summary punishment, which the arriving Brower arrived helped to enforce on the resisting prisoner. “Tying up by the thumbs” was a brutal and humiliating treatment that lifted the man by those digits (often dislocated in the process) until only his toes remained on the ground, barely supporting his weight, and left him there for hours. In the film 12 Years a Slave, we see a man subjected to this sort of tiptoeing, but with a rope about the neck instead of about the thumbs.
Other enlisted men gathered around this pitiful scene, complaining about what they saw. A Private Jacob Plowden, who will eventually number among our day’s six executees, cried out that “it was a damn shame for a man to be tied up like that, white soldiers were not tied up that way nor other colored soldiers, only in our regiment.”
Plowden announced that “there was not going to be any more of it, that he would die on the spot but he would be damned if he wasn’t the man to cut him down.” Another private, Jonathan Miller, joined the incitement — “Let’s take him down, we are not going to have any more of tying men up by the thumbs.” A number of the black soldiers, 25 to 35 or so, began advancing on Brower and the hanging molasses-thief. Brower drew his sidearm and fired into them, wounding a man and sending the soldiers scurrying — some dispersing, but other dashing off to tents to arm themselves.
Several non-lethal fights now occurred in various spots around the camp between soldiers and officers, and eventually between the disaffected soldiers and arriving brethren from Company K, who had been summoned to calm the situation.
Lt. Col. Brower exchanged shots with several of the men who armed themselves, and in a bit of symmetry with the distasteful punishment that had started the whole mess, he had his thumb shot off in the process. One of the privates who had been heard complaining of the thumb-hanging, now playing peacemaker, grabbed the injured officer and escorted him to a safe building, warning some men who tried to pursue them to “stop their damn foolishness.”
Elsewhere, a Lt. Fenno sabered a protestor, and got bashed over the head with a fence-post in response. Neither injury was life-threatening to its recipient. Some shots were exchanged elsewhere in camp and/or fired demonstratively into the air, again to no fatal effect. And a Private James Thomas cut down the post where the source of all the disturbance, the fellow who just wanted an extra ration of molasses, was hanging.
This was the whole of the commotion, which Company K reinforcements soon quelled.
In a speedy series of court-martials lasting from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, thirteen men were convicted of mutiny in this affair, and a fourteenth of conduct prejudicial to good order (his offense: not during the mutiny but after all was over, saying of Brower, “the God-damned son of a bitch, he shot my cousin. Where is he? Let me see him.”) A fifteenth man was acquitted. All 15 accused mounted their own defense, without counsel or aid — generally endeavoring to show that they had either not armed themselves or (and this was the decisive factor for the six whose conviction carried a death sentence) not fired their weapon.
The trial itself posed interesting procedural dilemmas, which Bennett explores at length in his article: first, because it was a mutiny case, the white officers of the Third who comprised the jurors were also, awkwardly, the brother-officers of the witnesses who testified against the mutineers.
And second, although the Civil War was over, Florida still technically remained in a state of rebellion, and this enabled the unit to convene a general court-martial, issue death sentences, and even carry them out without allowing any appeal to Washington. General John Foster gave the final approval to the sentences and transmitted case files to Washington after the fact; that was all the six condemned had by way of legal or executive review.
On December 10, he received a telegraph ordering him to suspend one of the death sentences in response to an inquiry raised by U.S. Senator Edgar Cowan: Cowan had been contacted by one of his constituents, who represented that Private David Craig, whom the constituent had raised from childhood, had written him complaining of his wrongful conviction. According to Sen. Cowan, the allegation was that Craig had been directed to collect arms from the mutineers as the disturbance came to an end, but was thereafter arrested in the confusion for being armed with the weapons he collected. But December 10 was nine days too late, and the late Private Craig’s case file disturbingly seems to have been lost from the National Archives.
The other five shot by musketry this date were:
Lt. Col. Brower only testified at one of the courts-martial, and was sent home almost immediately afterwards. He’d lost his thumb for his adventure as an officer and a gentleman, but between the original provocative punishment that he helped enforce, and then inflaming a tense situation by shooting at his soldiers, the brass was probably just as pleased to see him go as were his subordinates.
The non-executed mutineers who received prison terms (up to 15 years) had their sentences commuted following a review in 1866. The rest of the regiment mustered out as scheduled at the end of October, two days after the Jacksonville Mutiny.
* B. Kevin Bennett, “The Jacksonville Mutiny”, Civil War History, Volume 38, Number 1, March 1992. Bennett’s article is the source of all of the quotes in this post not otherwise cited.