England held its last-ever public execution on this date in 1868, and made it big game indeed: Fenian Michael Barrett, whose Clerkenwell Prison bombing long remained one of the most infamous atrocities of the Irish nationalist cause.
The bill certifying the end of that distinctive institution, the public hanging, would be finalized three days hence, so the occasion’s milestone was anticipated in advance. Elites increasingly disdained the boorish carnivals that unfolded under the gallows, like Dickens who complained that “no sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes” redeemed the 1840 hanging of Courvoisier.
“The crowd was most unusually orderly,” ran the Times‘ report of Barrett’s death — a sort of dual eulogy — “but it was not a crowd in which one would like to trust.”
It is said that one sees on the road to the Derby such animals as are never seen elsewhere; so on an execution morning one see faces that are never seen save round the gallows or near a great fire. Some laughed, some fought, some preached, some gave tracts, and some sang hymns; but what may be called the general good-humoured disorder of the crowd remained the same, and there was laughter at the preacher or silence when an open robbery was going on. None could look on the scene, with all its exceptional quietness, without a thankful feeling that this was to be the last public execution in England. Towards 7 o’clock the mass of people was immense. A very wide open space was kept round the gallows by the police, but beyond this the concourse was dense, stretching up beyond St. Sepulchre’s Church, and far back almost, into Smithfield — a great surging mass of people which, in spite of the barriers, kept swaying to and from like waving corn. Now and then there was a great laughter as a girl fainted, and was passed out hand over hand above the heads of the mob, and then there came a scuffle and a fight, and then a hymn, and then a sermon, and then a comic song, and so on from hour to hour, the crowd thickening as the day brightened, and the sun shone out with such a glare as to extinguish the very feeble light which showed itself faintly through the glass roof above where the culprit lay. It was a wild, rough crowd, not so numerous nor nearly so violent as that which thronged to see Muller or the pirates die. In one way they showed their feeling by loudly hooting a magnificently-attired woman, who, accompanied by two gentlemen, swept down the avenue kept open by the police, and occupied a window afterwards right in front of the gallows. This temporary exhibition of feeling was, however, soon allayed by coppers being thrown from the window for the roughs to scramble for. It is not right, perhaps, that a murderer’s death should be surrounded by all the pious and tender accessories which accompany the departure of a good man to a better world, but most assuredly the sight of public executions to those who have to witness them is as disgusting as it must be demoralizing even to all the hordes of thieves and prostitutes it draws together. Yesterday the assembly was of its kind an orderly one, yet it was such as we feel grateful to think will under the new law never be drawn together again in England.
Michael Barrett’s ticket to this last assembly was punched by a different execution six months previous — the hanging of the Manchester Martyrs. This trio of Irish patriots were part of a mob who liberated some comrades from a police van, shooting a policeman in the process — though it was far from certain that any of these three actually fired shots.
Of importance for our purposes today was the crackdown on other Fenians occasioned by the Manchester affair. In November of 1867, a Fenian agent named Richard O’Sullivan Burke was arrested with his companion Joseph Casey in London purchasing weapons for the movement. They were clapped in Clerkenwell Prison pending trial.
The bombing that brought Michael Barrett to the gallows was a bid to liberate these men … and it did not pause for subtlety. The conspirators simply wheeled a barrel of gunpowder up to the wall of the facility when they expected the inmates to be at exercise in the adjacent yard. The explosion blasted a 60-foot gap in the wall; the inward-collapsing rubble might easily have been the death rather than the salvation of the prospective beneficiaries, except that they weren’t actually in the yard at all — nobody was there, and nobody escaped Clerkenwell.
But numerous working-class families lived in little tenements opposite the prison and were there, and in fact Clerkenwell had a reputation for political radicalism and Fenian sympathy. This monstrous new “infernal machine” tore through Clerkenwell homes, leaving 12 people dead and numerous buildings near to collapse, while windows and chimneys shivered to pieces all up and down the block.
Improvised struts shore up damaged buildings opposite the wall of Clerkenwell Prison reduced to rubble by the December 13, 1867 Fenian bombing.
Karl Marx, a strong supporter of the Irish cause, despaired this counterproductive turn towards terrorism: “The London masses, who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland, will be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government. One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of Fenian emissaries.”
English reformer Charles Bradlaugh agreed. “The worst enemy of the Irish people could not have devised a scheme better calculated to destroy all sympathy,” he wrote.
Punch magazine depicts the Clerkenwell bomber(s) as the “Fenian Guy Fawkes“.
Considering the magnitude of the crime, someone would have to pay for it. That Barrett was that someone did not sit well for many.
Five men and a woman stood trial at the Old Bailey in April for the Clerkenwell outrage, but Barrett was the only one of them convicted, a terribly inadequate investigation/prosecution outcome given the infamy of the crime.
That conviction stood on the basis of disputed eyewitness identifications: Barrett produced witnesses who said he was in Glasgow when the bomb went off, while the crown found others who would swear he was actually in London. (The length of Barrett’s whiskers on specific dates in late November and early December forms a running subplot of the dueling testimonies.)
The reliability and even the good faith of all such winesses might well be impugned. A highly questionable stool pigeon named Patrick Mullany who ducked prosecution by turning crown’s evidence, charged that Barrett personally set off the ordnance.
To give me credit for such an undertaking is utterly absurd; being, as I am, a total stranger to acts of daring, and without any experience which would in any way fit me for engaging in such an enterprise. Is it not ridiculous to suppose that in the City of London, where … there are ten thousand armed Fenians, they would have sent to Glasgow for a party to do this work, and then select a person of no higher standing and no greater abilities than the humble individual who now stands convicted before you? To suppose such a thing is a stretch of imagination that the disordered minds of the frightened officials of this country could alone be capable of entertaining.
If it is murder to love Ireland more dearly than life, then indeed I am a murderer. If I could in any way remove the miseries or redress the grievances of that land by the sacrifice of my own life I would willingly, nay, gladly, do so. if it should please the God of Justice to turn to some account, for the benefit of my suffering country, the sacrifice of my poor, worthless life, I could, by the grace of God, ascend the scaffold with firmness, strengthened by the consoling reflection that the stain of murder did not rest upon me, and mingling my prayers for the salvation of my immortal soul with those for the regeneration of my native land.
Benjamin Disraeli’s government could not in the end realistically entertain the agitation from liberal and radical circles for sparing Barrett, because that would mean that nobody would hang for Clerkenwell. But as the next day’s edition of Reynold’s News noted, “Millions will continue to doubt that a guilty man has been hanged at all; and the future historian of the Fenian panic may declare that Michael Barrett was sacrificed to the exigencies of the police, and the vindication of the good Tory principle, that there is nothing like blood.”
Three months after Barrett made that expiation, England officially began its era of fully private hangings behind prison walls.
* James Joyce hung out with a (much-older) Joseph Casey in Paris in the early 20th century. Yes, that’s in Ulysses too: “He prowled with Colonel Richard Burk, tanist of his sept, under the walls of Clerkenwell and crouching saw a flame of vengeance hurl them upward in the fog. Shattered glass and toppling masonry. In gay Paree he hides, Egan of Paris, unsought by any save by me.”
He fought in several battles, and a 40-man mounted unit he had personally raised was in the field until the end of 1864 — well after Russia had quelled most other resistance.
Finally cornered in April 1865 and captured in a gunfight, he was executed before a crowd of thousands. Later generations, with an independent Poland to call their own, have garlanded Brzoska’s memory with various markers and statues.
Polish speakers might enjoy this presentation of the hero-priest’s life:
Our man emerged in the 1880s bedeviling the French from Kabilya where the French had already had to suppress a rebellion. Collective punishment for that rising, onerous taxes, and the empire’s confiscations to benefit colonists all fired continuing resentment.
To French eyes, El Bachir was simply a bandit. But for periods of his nearly 15 years’ activity his word was next to law where the triclor could not reach. Kabilya’s colonial officials lived in fear of his revenge.
Said conspiracy was a project several years running by a circle of Bengalis and Punjabis to murder officials of the British occupation — “necessary,” as one of the accused explained at trial in 1914, “to awaken the masses, who are wrapped in sleep and under a foreign yoke.” (London Times, June 24, 1914)
Indeed, from a worse-is-better standpoint, the current Viceroy Lord Hardinge was a real pain since he had implemented reforms to make British authority a little more responsive to the subcontinent’s inhabiants.*
One of the conspirators’ signal blows was tossing a bomb into Hardinge’s elephant-mounted howdah.
This explosive lacerated Lord Hardinge with shrapnel, but it did not slay him — neither him, nor the Raj. (The poor elephant-driver was not so lucky.) But the authors of the deed remained obscure for many months despite the state’s intense investigation, and lucrative reward.
While the British hunted, the terrorists/freedom fighters authored a second bomb attack — one that would eventually form the basis of their prosecution. Biswas was tasked with assassinating another colonial official with another bomb, but finding that sentries prevented his approaching his target, he lodged the device on a carriageway, hoping it would detonate under the wheels of some passing viceregal envoy.
Instead, the roadside bomb was struck by a messenger on a bicycle — with lethal effect.
Three other men were condemned to death at the same trial: Amir Charid, Abadh Behari, and Balmokand. Biswas himself received only a prison sentence, but it was upgraded to hanging on appeal.
Several plaques in India — and one in Tokyo, placed by an expatriate — commemorate the young man as a national martyr.
* The measure of Hardinge’s success was London’s ability during World War I to deplo most of its occupation troops plus over a million Indian soldiers to other theaters without losing control of India — despite the best efforts of the Central Powers to foment a wartime mutiny on the subcontinent.
A peasant revolutionary from the European frontiers of tsarism, Kalinouski is a present-day independence hero for Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. (His name is variously rendered Konstanty Kalinowski, Kastus Kalinouski, and Konstantinas Kalinauskas for those respective homelands.)
Dissatisfaction with membership in this adoptive empire progressed differently among different demographics of the old Commonwealth, but it really blossomed in the wreckage of the 1850s Crimean War. Chastened after being drubbed by an industrial power, Russia finally emancipated her serfs — but the emancipation proved to bear as much confiscation as liberation, to the chagrin of the emancipatees.
In Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania, peasant anger at the raw deal dovetailed nicely with stirring national sentiment. Kalinouski, a young barrister, launched the flagship (clandestine) publication for that audience, Muzyckaja Prauda (Peasant’s Truth). It was one of the first periodicals published in Belarusian, and it was not calculated to reconcile his countrymen to Moscow.
Six years have passed since the peasants’ freedom began to be talked about. They have talked, discussed, and written a great deal, but they have done nothing. And this manifesto which the tsar, together with the Senate and the landlords, has written for us, is so stupid that the devil only knows what it resembles-there is no truth in it, there is no benefit whatsoever in it for us.
-From the first issue of Peasant’s Truth
Kalinouski’s literary adventures mirrored a prominent role among the leadership of the January Uprising to throw off the Romanov yoke.
But it proved to be the case that, although scrapping with Great Britain might be one thing, the Russian army was more than a match for her internal foes. It crushed the January Uprising.
In prison awaiting execution, Kalinouski bequeathed one last literary vindication, his Letters from Beneath the Gallows.
Friends, my brothers!
From under the Russian gallows I am writing to you for the last time. It is sad to leave my native land and you, my dear people. My breast sighs and my heart is sore, but it is not a sad lot to perish for your truth. Hear my last words in sincerity, my people, for it is as if they were written from this world only for your good … as day and night do not reign together, so also true learning does not go together with Russian slavery. As long as this lies over us, we shall have nothing. There will be no truth, no riches, no learning. They will only drive us like cattle not to our well-being, but to our perdition.
… go and fight with the whole people for your human and national rights, for your faith, for your native land. For I say to you from beneath the gallows, my people, you will only then live happily, when no Russian remains over you! (Source)
A plaque in Vilnius marks the spot of Kastus Kalinouski’s execution on 22 March 1864 (10 March by the Julian calendar).
After the treacherous capture and execution of Jan Hus, the Hussite movement split between radical and moderate factions. The firebrand Zelivsky became the chief voice of the lower-class, radical Hussites and led the dramatic Defenestration of Prague wherein a Hussite mob pitched several Catholic city ministers out the window of the Prague town hall — triggering a revolution and 15 years of war.
Over the ensuing year, Zelivsky came to dominate politics in Prague. But he had to struggle for his power against both the external threat of Hapsburg armies, and the internal rivalry of moderate Hussites — and these factions did not scruple to deploy the executioner for mastery of Prague.
Zelivsky in the summer of 1421 mounted a coup against moderate Hussites who were negotiating with the Catholic nobility, and even executed some of those movement apostates. But power was wrested away from him in the ensuing months and he was arrested by surprise at a town meeting and secretly put to death.
On this date in 1545, the leaders of the violent Anabaptist Batenburgers were burned at the stake in Utrecht.
We know Anabaptists best as peaceniks, but the Batenburgers were the dead-end trail to a wholly different reputation. Named for a former Dutch mayor named Jan Van Batenburg, these Zwaardgeesten (“sword-minded”) Anabaptists answered the annihilation of their brethren’s Münster commune by doubling down on revolutionary struggle.
Batenburgers rejected the blandishments of David Joris to lay down the impolitic swords. Their numbers and their philosophies are hard to know with certainty owing to their secrecy, but they’re thought to have maintained the radical Munsterite teachings on polygamy and property.
Van Batenburg himself was caught and executed in 1538, and with that the Batenburgers — who had been living secretly in regular Catholic and Protestant communities — took to the wilderness under the leadership of a Leiden weaver named Cornelis Appelman. For the next ten years or so (even outlasting Appelman’s own death) this band of a couple of hundred desperate men made their way as marauders. We’d probably just call them terrorists today.
Appelman was even more extreme than his predecessor, verging right into crazy cult leader territory with his dystopian insistence on being called “The Judge” and readiness to mete out the severest penalties for any breach of obedience — to say nothing of the arsons, the church-sackings, and the summary executions dealt out to unbelievers. He was finally caught and put to death with his aide Willem Zeylmaker. Batenburger remnants, however, persisted for several more years with at least one splinter continuing until around 1580.
On this date in 1801, four Jacobins were executed in Paris after Napoleon’s secret police entrapped them into a plot against the First Consul.
After seizing power on the 18th Brumaire (November 9, 1799) the new man on horseback needed to consolidate power against the opposition of both royalist and Jacobin opposition. It would prove to be the case that the latter were the declining force and the royalists were the ones in it for the long haul.
But it had not been many years since the Jacobins were the power in Paris, and Napoleon was a proactive type; his 18th Brumaire coup had been effected on the pretext of a phony Jacobin conspiracy. So instead of just waiting around for the attentats aimed at his person, Napoleon set his police chief — Joseph Fouche, the onetime “Executioner of Lyons” — to spin them up himself by the offices of agents provocateur.
Here, a police plant named Harel goaded several radicals into kind of supporting (or at least not resisting) his plot to dagger the Corsican at the opera in October 1800. “It was agreed to exaggerate the danger to which it was appropriate to the First Consul to have been exposed,” wrote the French diplomat Bourienne in his memoirs. Harel himself had to distribute the weapons.
Though the daggers conspirators would probably have been happy to see Napoleon dead, they were so little inspired to achieve that death by their own hands that most of them quailed to appear at the scene where the trap would be sprung. They ended up being arrested in their homes.
Four of the seven Jacobins were guillotined on January 30, 1801 (all these links are to French Wikipedia pages):
The Death of Caius Gracchus, by Jacobin artist Francois Topino-Lebrun (1798). The painting’s contemporary allusion was to Gracchus Babeuf, recently executed (after an unsuccessful suicide attempt in the courtroom) for the Conspiracy of Equals.
The artists implicated were both associates of Jacques-Louis David (and the opera being staged was one inspired by David’s The Oath of the Horatii). David had already by this time proved himself a willing lackey of the new regime, but the resulting brush with police scrutiny (David had to testify at the trial) surely underscored to the opportunistic painter that his own revolutionary past could be dropped on his head like Damocles’ sword at any moment Napoleon should choose.
On this date in 1936, the Spanish Republicans shot Don José Antonio Primo de Rivera y Sáenz de Heredia, 1st Duke of Primo de Rivera, 3rd Marquis of Estella, Grandee of Spain.
The son of Spain’s 1920s dictator, Primo de Rivera founded in 1933 the Falange, Spain’s native fascist movement.
At the October 29 founding convention that year at Madrid’s Theatre of Comedy, Primo de Rivera scathingly pilloried the wan democratic rituals that coming years’ conflict would sweep aside. “The most ruinous system of wasted energy,” he jeered at liberal democracy, where men with leadership waste their talents in hollow electoral hustling and parliamentary rigmarole while the nonsensical ephemeral whims of a formless plurality pass for the vision he attributed to the time before Rousseau ruined everything. “What alone mattered to the liberal state was that a certain number of gentlemen be sitting at the polling station, that the voting start at eight o’clock and end at four, that the ballot boxes not get smashed — when being smashed is the noblest aspiration of all ballot boxes.” (The full speech is available in Spanish here.)
Primo de Rivera espoused for Falangismo the same impulses — of unity, of destiny, of national rebirth, of the triumphant collective — that animated Europe’s similar extreme right stirrings in those years. Only 35 years before, Spain had lost her empire
In a poetic sweep we will raise this fervent devotion to Spain; we will make sacrifices, we will renounce the easy life and we will triumph, a triumph that — you know this well — we shall not obtain in the upcoming elections. In these elections vote the lesser evil. But your Spain will not be born out of them, nor does our frame for action reside there. That is a murky atmosphere, spent, like a tavern’s after a night of dissipation. Our station is not there. I am a candidate, yes, but I take part in these elections without faith or respect. And I say this now, when so doing may cost me every vote. I couldn’t care less. We are not going to squabble with the establishment over the unsavory left-overs of a soiled banquet. Our station is outside though we may provisionally pass by the other one. Our place is out in the clear air, beneath a moonlit sky, cradling a rifle, and the stars overhead. Let the others party on. We stand outside vigilant; earnest and self-confident we divine the sunrise in the joy of our hearts.
Unlike the Naziism in Germany or Fascism in Italy, Falangism never grew into a force capable of conquering state power itself. Just thirty-three months after Primo de Rivera’s founding address, the Spanish Civil War erupted. The Falangists’ alliance with Francisco Franco — after the war, they would be combined with the Carlists into the only legal political association* in Francoist Spain — spelled great gains for their membership rolls but it was still the General who called the shots.**
Primo de Rivera’s share in this alliance was a voluptuous cult of personality as Spain’s preeminent right-wing martyr, fine posthumous work if you can get it mitigated only by the necessity of undergoing the martyrdom. The fascist prophet was already in prison at the time Franco struck the first blow of the war: he’d been arrested in Madrid on weapons charges. From his cell he carried on a brazen correspondence with Nationalists conniving to subvert the hated Spanish Republic, and when his activities were discovered and prosecuted that autumn in light of Franco’s July revolt they could scarcely have been better framed to incur the utmost measure of judicial wrath.
In consequence of his martyrdom, November 20 remains down to the present a hallowed day for the far right in Spain.
“Cara al Sol” (“Facing the Sun”) is the Falangist anthem; the lyrics are generally credited to Primo de Rivera.
* The Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista, or “Spanish Traditionalist Phalanx of the Assemblies of National-Syndicalist Offensive” (FET y de las JONS) — or less exhaustingly, the Movimiento Nacional (National Movement).
** Primo de Rivera and Franco didn’t like each other much personally, either.
On this date in 1964, the last two members of a noble and doomed rebel movement against Papa Doc Duvalier were shot in a repellent carnival outside the Haitian capital’s national cemetery.
Thirteen young Haitian expatriates had alit from sea, Granma-like, early that August of 1964, weeks after Duvalier was “elected” President-for-Life with an entirely plausible 99.9% of the vote.*
Taking to heart Machiavelli‘s maxim that it is better for a sovereign to be feared than loved, Papa Doc buttressed his rule with a vicious paramilitary force. Some 30,000 Haitians are thought to have been murdered during his 14-year reign, and many thousands of others fled into exile.
The Cuban example — a few plucky armed men in the mountain somehow toppling the ancien regime — must have inspired the U.S. exiles of the so-called Jeune Haiti. Certainly they did not want for the guerrilla’s raw courage and hardiness. In some alternate history their tramping through southern Haiti’s hills under the barrage of Hurricane Cleo is the stuff schoolchildren recite.
But in our world the rising Jeune Haiti hoped to spark did not materialize. Port-au-Prince brandished horrific reprisals against the rebels’ non-combatant family members in the city of Jeremie, and the men themselves were simply picked off in ones and twos in the bush. The last Jeune Haiti members still at liberty were killed in late October, leaving only the two whom the government had managed to capture. Papa Doc had evil plans for Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin.**
On November 12, a Thursday, government offices shuttered for the grotesque holiday, and schools were ordered to bring their pupils to this special lesson of the dictatorship. “No force will stop the invincible march of the Duvalierist revolution,” read a leaflet distributed at the execution. “It carries the strength of a torrent.” (Source)
Under the eyes of this curious throng and the whirr of cameras, Numa and Drouin were lashed to pine poles by the Tonton Macoutes. Un-blindfolded, they received the whispered last rites of a Catholic priest, and then were shot dead by a firing detail.
When the men’s bodies slide down the poles, Numa’s arms end up slightly above his shoulders and Drouin’s below his. Their heads return to an upright position above their kneeling bodies, until a soldier in camouflage walks over and delivers the final coup de grace, after which their heads slump forward and their bodies slide further toward the bottom of the pole. Blood spills out of Numa’s mouth. Drouin’s glasses fall to the ground, pieces of blood and brain matter clouding the cracked lenses.
The next day, Le Matin, the country’s national newspaper, described the stunned-looking crowd as “feverish, communicating in a mutual patriotic exaltation to curse adventurism and brigandage.”
“The government pamphlets circulating in Port-au-Prince last week left little to the imagination,” reported the November 27, 1964, edition of the American newsweekly Time. “‘Dr. Francois Duvalier will fulfill his sacrosanct mission. He has crushed and will always crush the attempts of the opposition. Think well, renegades. Here is the fate awaiting you and your kind.'”
* Actually a bit of a setback for Duvalier after winning every single vote (finaly tally of 1,320,748 to 0) in his 1961 “re-election”.
** Drouin, who was wounded in a battle and captured for that reason, openly lamented at his execution his failure to commit suicide.