Posts filed under 'Spies'

1863: Lawrence Williams and Walter Peters, bold CSA spies

Add comment June 9th, 2017 Headsman

From the July 4, 1863 issue of Harper’s, as digitized by sonsofthesouth.net.

THE EXECUTION OF WILLIAMS AND PETERS.

We are indebted to Mr. James K. Magie, of the 78th Illinois Regiment, for the sketch of the execution of the two rebel spies, WILLIAMS and PETERS, who were hanged by General Rosecrans on 9th inst. The following account of the affair is from a letter written by the surgeon of the 85th Indiana:

HEADQUARTERS POST, FRANKLIN, TENNESSEE

Last evening about sundown two strangers rode into camp and called at Colonel Baird’s head-quarters, who presented unusual appearances. They had on citizens’ overcoats, Federal regulation pants and caps. The caps were covered with white flannel havelocks. They wore sidearms, and showed high intelligence. One claimed to be a colonel in the United States Army, and called himself Colonel Austin; the other called himself Major Dunlap, and both representing themselves as Inspector-Generals of the United States Army. They represented that they were now out on an expedition in this department, inspecting the outposts and defenses, and that day before yesterday they had been overhauled by the enemy and lost their coats and purses. They exhibited official papers from General Rosecrans, and also from the War Department at Washington, confirming their rank and business. These were all right to Colonel Bayard, and at first satisfied him of their honesty. They asked the Colonel to loan them $50, as they had no coats and no money to buy them. Colonel Baird loaned them the money, and took Colonel Austin’s note for it. Just at dark they started, saying they were going to Nashville, and took that way. Just so soon as their horses’ heads were turned the thought of their being spies struck Colonel Baird, he says, like a thunder-bolt, and he ordered Colonel Watkins, of the 6th Kentucky cavalry, who was standing by, to arrest them immediately. But they were going at lightning speed. Colonel Watkins had no time to call a guard, and only with his orderly he set out on the chase. He ordered the orderly to unsling his carbine, and if, when he (the Colonel) halted them they showed any suspicious motions, to fire on them without waiting for ano rder. They were overtaken about one-third of a mile from here. Colonel Watkins told them that Colonel Baird wanted to make some further inquiries of them, and asked them to return. This they politely consented to do, after some remonstrance on account of the lateness of the hour and the distance they had to travel, and Colonel Watkins led them to his tent, where he placed a strong guard over them. It was not until one of them attempted to pass the guard at the door that they even suspected they were prisoners. Colonel Watkins immediately brought them to Colonel Baird under strong guard. They at once manifested great uneasiness, and pretended great indignation at being thus treated. Colonel Baird frankly told them that he had his suspicions of their true character, and that they should, if loyal, object to no necessary caution. They were very hard to satisfy, and were in a great hurry to get off. Colonel Baird told them that they were under arrest, and he should hold them prisoners until he was fully satisfied that they were what they puported to be. He immediately telegraphed to General Rosecrans, and received the answer that he knew nothing of any such men, that there were no such men in his employ, or had his pass.

Long before this dispatch was received, however, every one who had an opportunity of hearing their conversation was well satisfied that they were spies. Smart as they were, they gave frequent and distinct evidence of duplicity. After this dispatch came to hand, which it did about 12 o’clock (midnight), a search of their persons was ordered. To this the Major consented without opposition, but the Colonel protested against it, and even put his hand to his arms. But resistance was useless, and both submitted. When the Major’s sword was drawn from the scabbard there were found etched upon it these words, “Lt. W.G. Peter, C.S.A.” At this discovery Colonel Baird remarked, “Gentlemen, you have played this damned well.” “Yes,” said Lieutenant Peter, “and it came near being a perfect success.” They then confessed the whole matter, and upon further search various papers showing their guilt were discovered upon their persons. Lieutenant Peter was found to have on a rebel cap, secreted by the white flannel havelock.

Colonel Baird immediately telegraphed the facts to General Rosecrans and asked what he should do, and in a short time received an order “to try them by a drum-head court-martial, and if found guilty hang them immediately.” The court was convened, and before daylight the case was decided, and the prisoners informed that they must prepare for immediate death by hanging.

At daylight men were detailed to make a scaffold. The prisoners were visited by the Chaplain of the 78th Illinois, who, upon their request, administered the sacrament to them. They also wrote some letters to their friends, and deposited their jewelry, silver cups, and other valuables for transmission to their friends.

The gallows was constructed by a wild cherry-tree not far from the depot, and in a very public place. Two ropes hung dangling from the beam, reaching within eight feet of the ground. A little after nine o’clock A.M. the whole garrison was marshaled around the place of execution in solemn sadness. Two poplar coffins were lying a few feet away. Twenty minutes past nine the guards conducted the prisoners to the scaffold — they walked firm and steady, as if unmindful of the fearful precipice which they were approaching. The guards did them the honor to march with arms reversed.

Arrived at the place of execution they stepped upon the platform of the cart and took their respective places. The Provost Marshal, Captain Alexander, then tied a linen handkerchief over the face of each and adjusted the ropes. They then asked the privilege of bidding last farewell, which being granted, they tenderly embraced each other. This over, the cart moved from under them, and they hung in the air.

What a fearful penalty! They swung off at 9:30 — in two minutes the Lieutenant ceased to struggle. The Colonel caught hold of the rope with both hands and raised himself up at 3 minutes, and ceased to struggle at 5 minutes. At 6 minutes Dr. Forester, Surgeon 6th Kentucky Cavalry, and Dr. Moss, 78th Illinois Infantry, and myself, who had been detailed to examine the bodies, approached them, and found the pulse of both full and strong. At 7 minutes the Colonel shrugged his shoulders. The pulse of each continued to beat 17 minutes, and at 20 minutes all signs of life had ceased. The bodies were cut down at 30 minutes and encoffined in full dress. The Colonel was buried with a gold locket and chain on his neck. The locket contained the portrait and a braid of hair of his intended wife — her portrait was also in his vest pocket — these were buried with him. Both men were buried in the same grave — companions in life, misfortune, and crime, companions in infamy, and now companions in the grave.

I should have stated in another place that the prisoners did not want their punishment delayed; but, well knowing the consequences of their acts, even before their trial, asked to have the sentence, be it by hanging or shooting, quickly decided and executed. But they deprecated the idea of death by hanging, and asked for a communication of the sentence to shooting.

The elder and leader of these unfortunate men was Lawrence Williams, of Georgetown, D.C. He was as fine-looking a man as I have ever seen, about six feet high, and perhaps 30 years old. He was [a] son of Captain Williams, who was killed at the battle of Monterey. He was one of the most intellectual and accomplished men I have ever known. I have never known any one who excelled him as a talker. He was a member of the regular army, with the rank of captain of cavalry, when the rebellion broke out, and at that time was aid-de-camp and private secretary to General Winfield Scott. From this confidence and respect shown him by so distinguished a man may be judged his education and accomplishments. He was a first cousin of General Lee, commanding the Confederate army on the Rappahannock. Soon after the war began he was frank enough to inform General Scott that all his sympathies were with the South, as his friends and interests were there, and that he could not fight against them. As he was privy to all of General Scott’s plans for the campaign, it was not thought proper to turn him loose, hence he was sent to Governor’s Island, where he remained three months. After the first Bull Run battle he was allowed to go South, where he joined the Confederate army, and his subsequent history I have not been able to learn much about. He was a while on General Bragg‘s staff as Chief of Artillery, but at the time of his death was his Inspector-General. When he joined the Confederate army he altered his name, and now signs it thus: “Lawrence W. Orton, Col. City P.A.C.S.A.” — (Provisional Army Confederate States of America). Sometimes he writes his name “Orton,” and sometimes “Anton,” according to the object which he had in view. This we learn from the papers found on him. These facts in relation to the personal history of Colonel Orton I have gathered from the Colonel himself and from Colonel Watkins, who knows him well, they having belonged to the same regiment of the regular army — 2d U.S. Cavalry. Colonel Watkins, however, did not recognize Colonel Orton until after he had made himself known, and now mourns his apostasy and tragic fate.

The other victim of this delusive and reckless daring was Walter G. Peter, a lieutenant in the rebel army, and Colonel Orton’s adjutant. He was a tall, handsome young man, of about twenty-five years, that gave many signs of education and refinement.

Of his history I have been able to gather nothing. He played but a second part. Colonel Orton was the leader, and did all the talking and managing. Such is a succinct account of one of the most daring enterprises that men ever engaged in. Such were the characters and the men who played the awful tragedy.

History will hardly furnish its parallel in the character and standing of the parties, tne boldness and daring of the enterprise, and the swiftness with which discovery and punishment were visited upon them. They came into our camp and went all through it, minutely inspecting our position, works, and forces, with a portion of their traitorous insignia upon them; and the boldness of their conduct made their flimsy subterfuges almost successful.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Soldiers,Spies,Summary Executions,Tennessee,USA,Wartime Executions

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1945: Majda Vrhovnik, Slovenian resistance

Add comment May 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1945, Slovene resistance member Majda Vrhovnik was executed by the Gestapo in Klagenfurt, days before the end of World War II.

A University of Ljubljana medical student and Communist destined to be honored as a national hero of Yugoslavia, Vrhovnik (English Wikipedia entry | Slovenian) joined the underground resistance when the Nazis occupied Yugoslvia in 1941. She’d spend the bulk of the war years producing and distributing illicit anti-occupation propaganda but by war’s end she had been detailed to nearby Klagenfurt — a heavily Slovene city just over the border in Austria.

She was finally caught there and arrested on February 28, 1945, and shot in prison even as Klagenfurt awaited Allied occupation which would arrive on May 8.

Her credentials as a patriotic martyr — there’s a Majda Vrhovnik school named for her — would surface her name in 1988 in connection with an affair that helped begin the breakup of Yugoslavia into ethnic statelets, when an opposition journalist published a censored article under the pseudonym “Majda Vrhovnik”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Austria,Doctors,Execution,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Shot,Slovenia,Spies,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women,Yugoslavia

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1678: Edward Colman, Popish Plot victim

Add comment December 3rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1678, Catholic courtier Edward Col(e)man was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn — the second victim of Titus Oates’s “Popish Plot” concotion.

Colman was a Catholic convert whose zeal for the old faith led him into a variety of treacherous intrigues with the French court — although Colman’s eager and fruitless offices more annoyed than profited his allies.

His behavior was sufficiently indiscreet that fabulist Titus Oates had Colman queued up by name* as a Catholic plotter in the first round of 1678 Catholic terrorism allegations that would roil the realm for the next three years.

That indiscretion was very real, however, and extended to a careless presumption of his own safety. He seems to have been tipped to his danger by the judge who first took Oates’s evidence, a friend named Sir Edmund Godfrey, but he failed to use this advance intelligence to destroy his own correspondence. Godfrey in his own turn went on to a starring role in the Popish Plot debacle when he turned up murdered in October of 1678, a crime whose immediate attribution to the Catholic conspiracy that Oates had unfolded for him sent England clear round the bend.**

Colman’s case had already begun and half-fizzled by that point but with the apparent assassination of the judge a cry for his own blood now shook Parliament — “Colman’s letters!” alluding to that correspondence he surely wished he had burned: its volumes unfolded intelligence leaks, offers to exert French influence in the government even so far as dissolving Parliament, and applications for King Louis’s gold.

There are some incriminating examples in the trial transcript that, Lord Chief Justice William Scroggs charged, show “That your Design was to bring in Popery into England, and to promote the interest of the French King in this place, for which you hoped to have a Pension.” While Oates was a legendary perjurer and his fables destined to take the lives of 20-odd innocent souls in the months to come, the fact was that Colman really was caught out. His scheming ought not have merited such spectacular punishment under less extraordinary circumstances, but the things Colman really did do made it easy for Oates to position him as a paymaster in the fictitious regicidal conspiracy. “Mr. Colman, your own papers are enough to condemn you,” Scroggs said when his prisoner asserted innocence.

Nor could he protect himself with position. (Men even higher than Colman would succumb to the panic in time.) As detestably elevated as Colman looked to the average commoner, he was not himself a lord and was already (pre-Oates) regarded by King Charles II and many members of the court as a loose cannon. Everything pointed to sacrificing him … and they did. But as events would prove, the popular rage was not quenched on Colman’s bones alone.

The always-recommended BBC In Our Time podcast covers the Popish Plot in its May 12, 2016 episode.

* By name — not by face: Oates would be embarrassed at Colman’s eventual trial by the prisoner pointing out that Oates, who now claimed to have been personally paid out by Colman for various seditious errands, had utterly failed to recognize his “conspirator” when Oates appeared before the Privy Council to lay his charges in September.

** Godfrey’s murder has never been satisfactorily explained. There’s a good chance that it was a wholly unrelated affair with amazing bad timing; the revenge of the truculent Earl of Pembroke, whom Godfrey had prosecuted for murder a few months previous, is one leading possibility.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Spies,Terrorists,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1986: Adolf Tolkachev, the Billion-Dollar Spy

Add comment September 24th, 2016 Headsman

The U.S.S.R. executed alleged* U.S. mole Adolf Tolkachev on this date in 1986.

Tolkachev (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) had grown up during the Stalin years — background he would cite by way of explaining his subsequent actions against the Soviet state and its “impassable, hypocritical demagoguery.” (His wife had been orphaned by the purges of the 1930s.)

Inspired, he said, by the dissidence of writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974) and bomb engineer Andrei Sakharov (prevented from leaving the Soviet Union to collect his 1975 Nobel Peace Prize), Tolkachev in the late 1970s boldly made contact** with U.S. intelligence officers at the Moscow petrol station where they fueled their cars. He immediately became one of the Americans’ most valuable assets — literally so; the 2015 book about him is titled The Billion Dollar Spy.

Tolkachev’s day job for a top-secret aviation laboratory gave him access to priceless documents on the development of the Soviet aircraft, radar, and weapons guidance and using a James Bond-esque miniature Pentax supplied him by Langley, Tolkachev snapped photos of those secrets for delivery to the Americans. It’s claimed — this is the reason for the billion-dollar stuff — that Tolkachev’s tips drove research and development in American military technology in vastly more effective directions.

The spy himself was paid for his risks in rubles and in a U.S. escrow fund pending his eventual defection.

But his last payment turned out to be a bullet, courtesy of betrayal by CIA turncoat Edward Lee Howard and/or that bane of spies Aldrich Ames.

* The date is supplied courtesy of a September 25, 1986 Politburo document referring to Tolkachev’s execution “yesterday”.

Note however that the prevailing Tolkachev story as presented in this post is disputed by CIA historian Benjamin Fischer, who has argued that “Adolf Tolkachev” was a KGB prank on its opposite number in the Cold War’s Spy vs. Spy game.

** Tolkachev really had to insist upon himself to his American handlers: the first four times he approached US embassy personnel with overtures he was rebuffed or ignored as a probable Soviet plant.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,Spies,USSR

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1870: Charles Harth, Prussian spy

Add comment August 27th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1870, a spy of the Franco-Prussian War was shot in Paris.

Barely a month old at this point, the Franco-Prussian War was a fast-unfolding fiasco for the Franco side. For three weeks, French reverses as the Prussians pressed through the frontier had been the talk of the capital.

The action at this moment was the huge Prussian siege of Metz, for whose relief the French emperor Napoleon III — Marx’s original “first as tragedy, then as farce” guy — was even then mobilizing a relief force. Napoleon was ridiculously out in the field, personally “leading” the army; on September 1, his column would be intercepted by the Germans and the resulting Battle of Sedan ended with the emperor’s own capture and the demise of his Second French Empire.


“Discussing the War in a Paris Cafe”: Illustrated London News, September 17, 1870. Within a few months the burghers will have fled these uproarious cafes with the rise of the Paris Commune.

For the moment, however, that empire is still alive in its final hours; Charles Harth must number among the last executions it ever carried out. The London Standard reported the story under an August 27 dateline (we excerpt here from the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel‘s reprint of September 16):

Prussian blood has been drawn for the first time since the declaration of war within the enceinte of Paris.

Charles Harth, found guilty of having visited France for the purpose of spying out its weakness, died the death this morning. His trial took place on Monday, as you will remember, and after a very brief procedure, the court martial that tried the man condemned him without a single dissenting voice. The Prussians (who, by the way, are accused in the Paris Press to-day of having hanged a woman at Gorse) will protest, no doubt, against the manner in which their countryman was treated, but military law is short and sharp in its decrees, and his judges were satisfied of Harth’s culpability. If he was guilty, as we are bound to believe, there is no room for protest. He deserved his fate.

After his condemnation, in the first instance, he had the privilege of appeal, which was availed of, on his behalf, by his council, but the Court of Revision, which considered the case on Thursday, found no reason to reverse the judgment. M. Weber, the advocate assigned by the prisoner, appears to have stuck generously by him, and even to have forwarded a petition for mercy to the Empress Regent. However much it must have cost the Empress to refuse it, as Regent no other course was open to her. Mercy could not be extended to the enemy’s spy, while the enemy himself was on French soil, and French blood was bieng shed in torrents on the battle-field.

Accordingly the order was given that the sentence should be carried out. At 5 o’clock this morning Harth was awakened in his cell in the military prison in the Rue du Cherche Midi by a messenger, who announced to him that his hour had come. He received the news calmly, like a man who had given up all hope, and was expecting it; more than that, like a man who was prepared to meet the worst, with the courage of dogged resignation.

M. Roth de Lille, the Protestant pastor of the gaol, was shown into the cell of the doomed man, and remained with him until the cellular van that was to convey him to the scene of his execution drew up with a rumble and a clatter of horses hoofs at the prison gate. Harth entered it boldly, and the vehicle drove off through the quiet streets with their early freshness upon them escorted by twelve mounted gendarmes, armed cap a pie, and making music to the ride of death with their clunking accoutrements.

The Ecole Militaire, that huge pile of barracks that will be familiar to those who visited the Exposition of 1867, from its position facing the Champs de Mars, was fixed on as the place of execution. The Polygon of Vincennes is the spot usually designed, but the Ecole Militaire was nearer, and this is no time for the formalities of precedent. Whatever is done to paralyze the invader had better be done quickly.

The courtyard of the barracks was occupied by all the troops quartered there in marching order. The battalion of the Grenadiers of the Guard, that serves as depot, was there in line with fixed bayonets, and detachments of Lancers with their gay pennons, and brown, brawny Cuirassiers, and the guides — the daintiest of all the French cavalry — in their heavily-embroidered jackets, were there too. A pretty sight for a military man, these flashing arms and helmets and polished cuirasses in the cheerful morning sunshine.

How did it strike Charles Harth, for he had been a military man by his own admission, a Lieutenant in the Prussian infantry. When the prisoner stepped from the van and threw a rapid look over the assembled troops, he gave a few nervous twitches of his head.

The clock over the centre of the building chimed the quarter to six. Six precisely was the hour fixed for the shooting. The prisoner had yet fifteen minutes to live.

He was led into an angle of the court yard, where the troop horses are usually shod, and which forms a quiet corner to itself. Here he was placed close to the wall, and in front of a squad of twelve men of the Forty-second Regiment of the line, namely, two sergeants, four corporals, and half-a-dozen privates. The firing party stood in two ranks, the two sergeants being stationed in the rear.

As the prisoner was approached by the turnkeys of the military prison whose duty it was to tie his hands behind his back, he shrunk back and said, ‘No! I wish to die like a soldier.’ But on representations being made to him that there was no exception to the rule, he yielded. His eyes were then bandaged, when he expressed a wish to be allowed to give the word ‘fire.’ Adjt. Codont, who had acted as registrat to the court-marshal [sic], came forward and read the sentence amid an impressive silence.

At a pause at one of the paragraphs in the document, the prisoner, fancying the reading had been finished, cried” ‘Tirez, coquns, et ne me manquez pas.’ ‘Fire, you rascals, and mind you don’t miss!’ But the squad did not stir; it was waiting another signal.

As the last syllable died away on the Adjutant’s lips the officer commanding the firing party drew his sword, the soldiers raised their Chassepots to their shoulder and took aim, the sword was lowered, and a dozen shots went off like one, with a sudden startling detonation. Before the report of the discharge had smitten the straining ears of those who looked on, the prisoner fell forward with an inclination to his right side. Over his left breast, in the region of his heart, his shirt was torn into a jagged hole, where the bullets had entered.

As he lay motionless on the ground one of the sergeants in the rear of the firing party advanced through the little cloud of smoke and discharged his piece into the dead man’s brain. Dead man, I say, for Harth must have died before he reached the ground in his fall.

The troops were marched past the body, which was then lifted, limp and warm, and put, dressed as it was, into a coffin, and trotted off to the Cemetery of Mont Parnasse, where it was dropped into a grave which had been opened to receive it, and hastily hidden from view.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,France,Germany,History,Prussia,Shot,Spies,Wartime Executions

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1948: Meir Tobiansky, by summary judgment

Add comment June 30th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1948, an alleged spy was extrajudicially executed by the Israeli Defense Forces.

This execution occurred during a short truce punctuating Israel’s War of Independence, but prior to the ceasefire the nascent IDF had become suspicious at Jordan’s gift for accurately targeting critical infrastructure in Jerusalem.

Suspicions came to settle on Meir Tobianski a Lithuania-born former British officer who had become a captain in the Jewish militia Haganah: as an employee of the Jerusalem Electric Corporation, he would have made a great informant for enemy artillerymen.

On June 30, 1948, Tobianski was kidnapped and driven to a depopulated Arab village (present-day Harel, Israel), where four intelligence officers demanded to know if Tobianski had given any information to his British colleagues at the utility (he had), and then declared him condemned as a spy. (Efficiently, they had already prepared the firing squad ahead of time.)

The chief of these four, Isser Be’eri, was later charged with manslaughter for the affair, receiving a symbolic one-day sentence. His subordinates, who were never charged, had long careers in Israeli intelligence; one of them, Binyamin Gibli would go on to help cook up a subsequent espionage debacle, the Lavon Affair.

Tobianski has been officially rehabilitated by Israel. Despite the irregularity of the proceeding against him, he’s sometimes described as the first of only two executions in Israeli history, alongside the much more procedurally defensible hanging of Adolf Eichmann.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Israel,Jews,Occupation and Colonialism,Posthumous Exonerations,Shot,Spies,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1884: Field executions during the Bac Le ambush

Add comment June 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1884, a French expeditionary force’s summary battlefield executions marked its retreat from an ambush — and the approach of the Sino-French War.

Having established a foothood in south Vietnam (Cochinchina), France was pushing into north Vietnam (Tonkin) — a campaign that could open a potentially lucrative route straight into China.

For the same reason, China viewed Tonkin as its own security zone. The ensuing skirmishes had as we lay our scene been recently abated by the Tientsin Accord* — an accord on France’s terms, since she had lately enjoyed the run of play in the field.

One of those terms was Chinese withdrawal from Tonkin, and as one might expect the Chinese had little appetite to speedily effect such a submission. In June 1884, when a small French column commanded by a Lt. Col. Alphone Dugenne pushed into what was supposed to be France’s new satrapy, it expected to occupy undefended towns.

Instead, on June 23, having forded the rain-swollen Song Thuong River, Dugenne’s force encountered Chinese regulars manning a chain of clifftop forts.

Outnumbered and on unfamiliar ground, the French surely felt their vulnerability. “High rocks, deep canyons, dense woods and somber defiles, where a handful of resolute men could easily have stopped a whole army, were the principal features of the country,” according to a French-derived account published later that year in the U.S.** “The heat was intense, and fatigue overcame the soldiers, already tired by the thousands of ostacles of the road. The fiery atmosphere did not allow any rest, even during the night, and terrible showers of rain, accompanied with thunder and lightning, converted the rivulets into torrents which swept everything before them, soaked the poor soldiers and destroyed provisions.”

A delegation under flag of truce informed Dugenne that China’s commander was aware of the Tientsin Accord, but had received no superior orders to withdraw. This obviously put both forces in an uncomfortable position. The Chinese wanted time: was this a good faith sorting-out (the Tientsin arrangements were barely six weeks old), or a double game? When the eventual winners wrote the history of events, they called what ensued June 23-24 the Bac Le ambush.

Believing that he had an arrangement with his opposite number, Dugenne’s column moved ahead on the afternoon of the 23rd, in a defile ominously commanded by the Chinese positions. Suddenly — and accounts from the two sides each accuse the other of provoking the first shots — the French came under Chinese fire. “Every tree, every overhanging rock, concealed an invisible enemy, who, being perfectly under cover himself, safely inflicted death all around him,” our correspondent’s account runs.


Illustration of the Bac Le ambush from Le guet-apens de Bac-Le by a French officer who survived it, Jean-Francois-Alphonse Lecomte.

But the ambush did not become a massacre; the French were able to regroup, stabilize their position, and camp that night — the Chinese “so near that they could hear them talk.”

The next day, the French would find themselves hopelessly outgunned but not (yet) encircled, and by mid-morning would be effecting an orderly retreat. In the course of it, Dugenne ordered at least two sets of executions to maintain discipline: early in the morning, it was “the hanging of two Chinese spies who had just been caught … with great solemnity and a great apparat, which caused a hail of bullets to whiz from all sides, where the Chinese friends of the hanged men were concealed.”

Hours later, as his column formed up to withdraw, Dugenne harshly punished his own native Tonkinese auxiliaries, green recruits who had all but routed in the first moments of the ambush when they came under fire and whose ill discipline could not be brooked on retreat: Dugenne “gave an order before [retreating] to shoot down ten Tonquinese of the native troops.”

Dugenne reached friendly forces safely, and with him accounts of a “massacre” that would incense public opinion in Paris. China’s refusal to meet the ensuing French demands for satisfaction in this affair would by August trigger open war in Tonkin.

* Not to be confused with 1885’s Treaty of Tientsin, which actually ended the Sino-French War.

** San Francisco Evening Bulletin, Sep. 11, 1884

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,Summary Executions,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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1940: Three saboteurs and a spy, “Fusilles et oublies”

Add comment June 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, the collapsing French state “shot and forgot” four subversives at Pessac. These cases are heavily covered by the French-language blog Histoire penitentiaire et Justice militaire; many links in this post point to well-illustrated articles on that site, which make recommended reading for those inclined to delve deeper.

Late June finds France in the dark weeks after Dunkirk — the very day, in fact, when Marshall Petain’s government formally surrendered to the German blitz.

Elsewhere, the remains of the Third Republic had fled west to Bourdeaux, taking along its death row prisoners. The state that condemned them did not mean to let its imminent disappearance cheat it of their blood.

Jean Amourelle, a stenographer in the French Senate whose duties included shorthanding the secret proceedings of its military commissions, was caught routing intelligence to Germany.

Set to join him for this date’s execution were two pairs of brothers: Roger and Marcel Rambaud, and Leon and Maurice Lebeau. Seventeen-year-old Maurice Lebeau had his sentence commuted to hard labor, however, and was spared from the firing detail.

The Rambauds and Lebeaus were factory workers sentenced as saboteurs for compromising the engine of a French military plane, causing it to explode mid-flight: strange behavior for Communist proletarians explained by the temporary peace between Germany and the Soviet Union that (for the moment) positioned the Comintern-directed French Communist Party as an opponent of the war.

Despite the sacrifice of the Rambauds and Lebeaus, this posture was short-lived. Just one year later — June 22, 1941, in fact — Germany’s invasion of the USSR thrust Europe’s Communist movements into common fronts with anti-fascist parties, and France’s Communists into the forefront of French Resistance martyrs.

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1378: Pierre du Tertre and Jacques de Rue, Charles the Bad men

Add comment June 21st, 2016 Headsman

On this date* in 1378, Jacques de Rue and Pierre du Tertre, aides to King Charles II of Navarre, were beheaded at Les Halles.

Both men were casualties of their devious master’s most recent betrayals, part of a career that had honed the double game to nearly sadistic precision.

Navarre spent the latter half of the 14th century fouling up alignments in the Hundred Years’ War by constantly switching his allegiances between England and France. Come the 1370s, he was supposed to be on team France — having paid homage to the French king in 1371 — but was still conniving with the English whose expeditions might one day apply enough pressure to force France to restore him some lost domains.

The last great plot of the man contemporaries knew as Charles the Bad really fell apart in the spring of 1378 when the French detained en route to Normandy Jacques de Rue and Pierre du Tertre, two emissaries of Charles’s “criminal entourage”. They carried coded messages** confirming that Navarre was not only back to scheming with the English, but that he was trying to orchestrate the assassination of the French king by means of poison — plots that Jacques confirmed under torture.

France retaliated by attacking its disloyal partner’s Norman holdings and by year’s end the whole region had been chopped up between the French and the English, never to return to Navarrese hands. His retainers were put to death and their corpses strung up on Montfaucon.

This was the humiliating end to the political life of Charles the Bad: reduced to a client king dominated by France (to his north) and Castile (to his south). It would soon find its parallel in the horror ending of his actual life on New Year’s Day 1387:

Charles the Bad, having fallen into such a state of decay that he could not make use of his limbs, consulted his physician, who ordered him to be wrapped up from head to foot, in a linen cloth impregnated with brandy, so that he might be inclosed in it to the very neck as in a sack. It was night when this remedy was administered. One of the female attendants of the palace, charged to sew up the cloth that contained the patient, having come to the neck, the fixed point where she was to finish her seam, made a knot according to custom; but as there was still remaining an end of thread, instead of cutting it as usual with scissors, she had recourse to the candle, which immediately set fire to the whole cloth. Being terrified, she ran away, and abandoned the king, who was thus burnt alive in his own palace.

* There are some cites for May 21 out there, but the sourcing on June appears stronger to me, and references to the men’s interrogations and trial run to June. The beheading is also referred to as having taken place on a Monday, which fits June 21 (but not May 21) in 1378.

** According to CryptoSchool this is one of the oldest known documents in the history of cryptology. Devised personally by Charles of Navarre, its gambit was to “move the names of princes, castles and cities to other names not their own.” (Chronique Normande)

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,History,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Politicians,Public Executions,Spies,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1691: Mark Baggot, Jacobite spy

Add comment May 20th, 2016 Headsman

On May 20, 1691, Captain Mark Baggot was hanged as a spy in Dublin.

Baggot had maintained loyalty to King James II when that sovereign was deposed in the 1688 Glorious Revolution that elevated William of Orange to the English throne.

Though deeply unpopular in England, the Catholic James — still to this day England’s last Catholic monarch — had sympathetic subjects to flee to in Ireland. Apart from the religious sympatico, the Irish were still smarting from ravages dating back to Cromwell and before, authored in the main by factions who were direct ancestors of the Whigs, King James’s staunchest domestic foes.

In 1689, James landed in Ireland backed by the French and kicked off the Williamite-Jacobite War between the rival kings. This war was so nasty it even survived the flight of King James himself in 1690:* William refused to guarantee amnesty for a wide swath of the Jacobite leadership, who consequently saw no odds in laying down their weapons.

The latter months of 1690 and the early months of 1691 had the now-outnumbered Jacobites girding the defenses of the cities they held against the coming Williamite attacks that were sure to come. Intelligence was critical under such conditions, and here our man Mark Baggot enters the stage.

Baggot was dispatched from the Jacobite stronghold of Limerick to Williamite-held Dublin to scout the enemy, but there had the embarrassment of being captured trying to escape notice in women’s clothes.** (You may be certain that the Williamite press included this emasculating detail on every available occasion.)

A court-martial condemned Baggot to hang the very next day, March 25.†

But the secret agent bought himself two months’ respite by cooperating with his captors — making the whole mission a clear intelligence win for the Williamites, especially since they still got to hang their spy in the end.

The resulting document has copy nearly as long as its unwieldy title …

The Discovery Made by Captain Mark Baggot, the Person Lately Taken in Womans Clothes, Coming from Limerick to Dublin, where He was Apprehended, and Tried as a Spy, by a Court-Martial ... at which He Received Sentence of Death: But Upon this Confession, Execution was Respited.

That the Irish army consists of forty thousand men of all sorts; that Tyrconnel was reducing them to thirty thousand; but Sarsfield

That Tyrconnel and Sir Richard Nagle are pensioners of France.

That there is no good understanding between Tyrconnel and Sarsfield, having great jealousies of one another.

That King James has correspondence with, and intelligence from some persons in considerable places of trust here in England every ten days.

That the French fleet is hourly expected with thirty pieces of cannon, ammunition, provisions and arms; a French general, some marine men, but none of the army; they resolve to maintain their greatest force against the confederates in Flanders next campaign.

That the Irish army intends to move towards the frontiers, their greatest design being against Cork more than ny other place; what is left of the suburbs they intend to burn; they expect a great many deserters at their approach to the town. The commanders of the parties for this service are Colonel Dorrington and Colonel Clifford.

A spy, taken at Limerick, was hang’d here [Dublin], and confess’d that Major Corket was in particular favour, and held correspondence with the English, who was carried prisoner to Limerick, and suppos’d to have suffer’d death.

That the contributions paid to the new Irish are one peck of wheat or meal, 12 pound of butter every fortnight out of each plow lands.

That there is express order that no guns be removed from Limerick; that the English deserters are only paid and encouraged, but no pay given to the Irish.

That they are still fortifying Limerick.

That Ballyclough and Castletown, with some other places, were to be made garrisons by the Irish; that Sir Michael Creagh’s regiment of foot, under command of Colonel Lacy, are at Ballyclough, which places they are fortifying; that Strabane’s regiment of horse are at Charleveel and Buttifant, &c.

Baggot’s less than flattering report of the Jacobite forces’ condition proved bang-on: that July, the Williamites dealt a fatal blow to the Jacobite cause at the Battle of Aughrim — thanks to forcing a defile that the dug-in Jacobites ought to have held but for want of ammunition.‡ Shortly thereafter, Limerick capitulated to Williamite siege — its last Jacobite garrison escaping into exile, never to stir in Ireland again.

* He’s remembered in Ireland as “James the Shit” (Seamus a Chaca) because he ditched his supporters mid-war.

** Not the only Jacobite with a cross-dressing escapade to his name.

London Gazette, March 26-30, 1691, which calls the spy Baggot “a Person very well known.”

The Baggot(t)s (Bagods, Baggetts) were an English family that could trace lineage back to the age of William the Conqueror, with a very longstanding branch in Ireland. (Dublin still has streets that bear that name.) The 17th century Irish Baggots took it on the chin for their loyalty to the Stuarts, several dying in that service or being dispossessed. The family’s Baggotstown Castle in County Limerick was seized and razed by the Williamites months after the events in this post.

The date of Baggot’s execution is reported in the Gazette for May 25-28, 1691.

‡ “All the day, though he was sincking in his center and on his left, [the Williamites] yett durst not once, for his relief, attempt to traverse the cawsway, till despayr at the end compelled him to trye that experiment at all hazards … they confidently ventured to goe through, notwithstanding the fire from the castle on their right, which fire was insignificant; for it slew but a few in the passage. The reason of it was given, because the men had French pieces, the bore of which was small, and had English ball, which was too large. Here is a new miscarriage thro’ heedlessness. Why was not this foreseen and the dammage prevented?” (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Ireland,Occupation and Colonialism,Soldiers,Spies,Wartime Executions

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