Posts filed under 'Desertion'

1779: Henry Hare, Tory spy

Add comment June 21st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1779, American Revolution patriots hanged Henry Hare as a spy at Canajoharie in upstate New York.

In the first years of the revolution, this district was plagued (from the revolutionists’ standpoint) by raids of Tory loyalists and their allied indigenous Six Nations confederation: the latter had sided with the British against the land-hungry colonists in hopes of better retaining their rights against settlers.

An irritating situation became an intolerable one when loyalists and Mohawks descended on the village of Cherry Valley November 11, 1778, and massacred not only its defenders but about 30 non-combatants.


The slaughter of Jane Wells during the Cherry Valley Massacre. Engraving by Thomas Phillibrown from an original image by Alonzo Chappel (1828-1887).

In retaliation, Gen. George Washington ordered a retaliatory foray that history remembers as the Sullivan Expedition, after its leader, Gen. John Sullivan.

“The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents,” Washington instructed his man.

The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.

I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.

But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.

But the first chastisements were issued to no Indian, but to Tory skulks.

Sullivan took command of one column, and ordered Gen. James Clinton to march another force down the Mohawk River Valley to Canajoharie. The following narration from the very specific chronicle History of Schoharie County, and border wars of New York gives us two Tory spies along with at least one patriot deserter all executed in those precincts; however, another Clinton letter dates only the Hare hanging specifically to Monday, June 21 (precise dates for the other two executions appear to be lost to history).

While Gen. Clinton was waiting at Canajoharie for his troops and supplies to assemble, and also for the construction of bateaus, two tories were there hung, and a deserter shot. The following letter from Gen. Clinton to his wife, dated July 6th, 1779, briefly narrates the death of the two former:

I have nothing further to acquaint you of, except that we apprehended a certain Lieut. Henry Hare, and a Sergeant Newbury, both of Col. Butler’s regiment, who confessed that they left the Seneca country with sixty-three Indians, and two white men, who divided themselves into three parties — one party was to attack Schoharie, another party Cherry-Valley and the Mohawk river, and the other party to skulk about Fort Schuyler and the upper part of the Mohawk river, to take prisoners or scalps. I had them tried by a general court martial for spies, who sentenced them both to be hanged, which was done accordingly at Canajoharie, to the satisfaction of all the inhabitants of that place who were friends to their country, as they were known to be very active in almost all the murders that were committed on these frontiers. They were inhabitants of Tryon county, had each a wife and several children, who came to see them and beg their lives.

The name of Hare was one of respectability in the Mohawk valley, before the revolution. Members of the Hare family were engaged for years in sundry= speculations with Maj. Jelles Fonda, who, as already observed, carried on an extensive trade with the Indians and fur traders at the western military posts; his own residence being at Caughnawaga [the region north of the Mohawk] Henry Hare resided before the war in the present town of Florida, a few miles from Fort Hunter. At the time he left the valley with the royalist party to go to Canada, his family remained, as did that of William Newbury, who lived about 3 miles from Hare, toward the present village of Glen.

If Hare had rendered himself obnoxious to the whigs of Tryon county, Newbury had doubly so, by his inhuman cruelties at the massacre of Cherry Valley, some of which, on his trial, were proven against him. Hare and Newbury visited their friends, and were secreted for several days at their own dwellings. The former had left home before daylight to return to Canada, and was to call for his comrade on his route. Maj. Newkirk, who resided but a short distance from Hare, met a tory neighbor on the afternoon of the day on which Hare left home, who either wished to be considered one of the knowing ones, or lull the suspicions resting upon himself, who communicated to him the fact that Hare had been home — and supposing him then out of danger, he added, “perhaps he is about home yet.” He also informed him that Newbury had been seen.

Hare brought home for his wife several articles of clothing, such as British calicoes, dress-shawls, Indian mocasons, &c., and on the very day he set out to return to Canada, she was so imprudent as to put them on and go visiting — the sight of which corroborated the story told Newkirk. The Major notified Capt. Snooks, who collected a few armed whigs, and in the evening secreted himself with them near the residence of Hare, if possible, to give some further account of him.

Providence seems to have favored the design, for the latter, on going to Newbury’s, had sprained an ankle. Not being willing to undertake so long a journey with a lame foot, and little suspecting that a friend had revealed his visit, he concluded to return to his dwelling. While limping along through his own orchard, Francis Putman, one of Snook’s party, then but 15 of 16 years old, stepped from behind an apple tree, presented his musket to his breast, and ordered him to stand. At a given signal, the rest of the party came up, and he was secured. They learned from the prisoner that Newbury had not yet set out for Canada, and a party under Lieut. Newkirk went the same night and arrested him. They were enabled to find his house in the woods by following a tame deer which fled to it.

The prisoners were next day taken to Canajoharie, where they were tried by court martial, found guilty, and executed as previously shown. The execution took place near the present village of Canajoharie. The influence exerted by the friends of Hare to save him would have been successful, had he declared that he visited the valley solely to see his family. He may have thought they dared not hang him; certain it is, that when he was interrogated as to the object of his visit, he unhesitatingly said that he not only came here to see his family, but also came in the capacity of a spy. A deserter, named Titus was shot at Canajoharie about the time the spies were hung, as I have been informed by an eye witness to all three executions. — James Williamson.

Deserters were shot for the first, second, or third offence, as circumstances warranted. Newbury and Titus were buried near the place of execution, and the bones of one of them were thrown out at the time of constructing the Erie Canal [which cut through the Mohawk Valley -ed.], by workmen who were getting earth for its embankment. The body of Hare was given to his relatives for interment. Previous to burial the coffin was placed in a cellar-kitchen, before a window, in which position a snake crawled over it. This circumstance gave rise to much speculation among the superstitious, who said “It was the Devil after his spirit.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Espionage,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Military Crimes,New York,Soldiers,Spies,Terrorists,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1916: Henri Herduin and Pierre Millant, “cry against military justice”

Add comment June 11th, 2018 Headsman

Cry, after my death, against military justice!

-Henri Herduin, in his last letter to his wife

On this date in 1916, which happened to be Pentecost, two French lieutenants were shot on the Western Front for not surrendering.


“Le ravin de la mort a Verdun”, by Ferdinand Gueldry.

During the endless Battle of Verdun, which spanned most of 1916, the Germans at one point overran a French bunker called Fort Vaux. German bombardment of the Thiaumont Farm area during this attack smashed the 347th Infantry Regiment to which both Henri Herduin and Pierre Millant belonged. With the regiment commanders killed into the bargain, Herduin and Millant found themselves at the head of a remnant of 40 or so survivors spent of both energy and ammunition, forced to fall back to avoid German encirclement.

“Our division is broken, the regiment annihilated; I have just lived five terrible days, seeing death at every moment,” Herduin wrote to his wife Fernande on June 9th after he had presented himself at Anthouard barracks. He had not yet any inkling that he too would be a casualty of those terrible days. “Four days without drinking or eating, among the mud and the shells, what a miracle that I’m still here!”


Anthouard barracks during World War I. (U.S. Library of Congress)

Fate and the brass had a perverse sense of humor, for when the two lieutenants presented themselves and their fellow survivors to the reassembled remains of their regiment, about 150 men strong, they discovered that they’d survived all that mud and shelling only to die for France at the stake.

Their unit’s captain held a standing order to execute Herduin and Millant on sight for deserting their post: no need for even the pro forma proceedings of a tribunal. Indeed, the extrajudicial command might have been a fuck-you to civilian authorities who had recently attempted to curtail the army’s enthusiasm for executions. The captain, having no pleasure himself in this order, suffered Herduin to write a hasty explanation/appeal, to which the captain appended his own attestation of good character. Their missive was returned unopened, coldly marked Pas d’observation. Exécution immédiate. Had they not endured those privations to retreat but simply surrendered to the Hun, they would have been better off.

Herduin, a career soldier aged 35, gave his last service as an officer steadying the nerves of his own younger comrades in the firing squad with a demand to “hold to the end for France” — before issuing the firing command from his own lips.

Fernande made good on her husband’s own dying plea to her, and once the Great War’s guns fell silent she waged a public, and embarrassing for the army, fight to clear the men’s names. She eventually achieved a formal posthumous exoneration in 1926, as well as the honor- and pension-clinching appellations “Mort pour la France” applied to their death certificates. She even got a still-extant Rue Lieutenant Herduin christened in that man’s native city of Reims. On Armistice Day 2008, a marker to both men was unveiled on that street; yet another memorial stands to them in Fleury-devant-Douaumont, near the place they were shot.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,France,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1882: Dead Shot, Dandy Jim and Skippy, mutinous Apache scouts

Add comment March 3rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1882,* the U.S. Army hanged three White Mountain Apache scouts as mutineers.

This small tragedy in the long-running Apache Wars of the American Southwest had its seeds in the 1870s, when the Army forced onto the San Carlos reservation several bands of Apache peoples, including the Chiricahua, Yavapai, and the Western Apache nations of Tonto, White Mountain, and Cibecue.

The concentration proved potent, unexpectedly so since the tribes in question were not all on friendly terms with one another.

Noch-ay-del-klinne (many other transliterations are possible), an influential White Mountain medicine man of 36 summers or so — and a man who had been to Washington DC with a peace delegation and laid his own eyes on the encroaching industrial civilization — began cultivating something very like a ghost dance for the San Carlos Indians.

Though the ghost dance is most closely associated with the Lakota Sioux, several years and several hundred kilometers’ distance from the Apache of Arizona, the movement actually originated among the much nearer Nevada Paiute. Incarnations of ghost dancing throughout the American West gave a millenial expression to indigenes’ shared trauma of defeat, displacement, and death.

Noch-ay-del-klinne’s rituals were called Na’Ilde’, meaning raising from the dead,** and his prophesy that lost comrades would rise from their graves and the white man would vanish from Apache lands when the corn was ripe, spoke to that trauma for the denizens of the San Carlos reservation — and alarmed the U.S. Army troops stationed at nearby Fort Apache. Especially troubling was the “fraternizing that went on between tribes and elements of tribes which had always held for each other the most deadly aversion,” in the words of the later memoir of Thomas Cruse, who commanded the army’s company of native Apache scouts. He had granted leave for some of his scouts to attend these dances and didn’t like what he saw when they returned.

After the medicine dances began around the post I noticed a change. Generally they [the scouts] are very ready to communicate anything they know or may have seen, but after these dances they became very uncommunicative and would not tell anything that was going on among the other Indians or among themselves … when they came back they were not only exhausted and unfit for duty, but they showed surliness and insubordination. They grumbled constantly and made vague remarks about the country being theirs, not ours. Dozens of small incidents showed that something, or someone, was giving them new thoughts.

Cruse gave a grim — and as events soon proved, sound — assessment of his men’s unreliability: “he entirely distrusted his scouts in event of the rising of the White Mountains and believed all or nearly all would go with the enemy.” But the affirmative reply to Cruse’s plea to discharge the unit was delayed due to telegraph problems by the time that unit set out with Col. Eugene Asa Carr on an August 1881 mission to arrest Noch-ay-del-klinne.†

This incursion, which will set in motion dozens of untimely deaths, was entirely aggressive, justified by no act of overt hostility by the Apache. Although Cruse was writing many years after the fact, his complaints about his subalterns’ “surliness” and “new thoughts” have the ring of the boss’s know-your-placeism, as directed in this same period at social insubordination elsewhere in the American experiment — at organized labor, for example; or at Black men and women.

The army found the medicine man and took him into custody on August 30. That evening, as the troop bivouaced down for the night, Apaches began gathering ominously beyond their fringes. They were visibly armed, and unhappy about the unprovoked seizure of Noch-ay-del-klinne; according to an oral history relayed by Tom Friday, the orphaned son of one of the men destined for the gallows in this post, “All Cibecue Indian people know that the soldiers were coming. They were ready for them. They were ready to fight. They sent word to all Indians, ‘Come, clean your guns; get ready.’ … The Indians were very angry: they had done no wrong and could not understand why the soldiers would come.”‡

Whether upon an arranged signal or merely the alert of the sort of random confrontation this situation invited, those Apaches started firing at the army camp — and as Cruse had anticipated, his scouts in the breach adhered to their people, not the flag.

The Battle of Cibecue Creek could easily have wiped out the expedition, for as one of their number named William Carter later wrote, there were at the outset of “more than 100 Indians besides the scouts in camp, and less than forty dismounted men engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict.”

In averting catastrophe, Carr was one of four U.S. soldiers to earn the Medal of Honor for gallantry in the battle, repulsing the hostiles from the camp and scrambling his surprised men to hold off any further attacks until night dispelled the combatants. He also had Noch-ay-del-klinne summarily shot during the fight. Carter again:

Before leaving the field Colonel Carr sent Lieutenant Carter to examine the body of the Medicine Man and determine if life was extinct. Strange to say, notwithstanding his wounds [he’d been shot in the head -ed.], he was still alive. The recovery of this Indian, if left in the hands of his friends, would have given him a commanding influence over these superstitious people, which would have resulted in endless war. Colonel Carr then repeated the order for his death, specifying that no more shots should be fired. Guide Burns was directed to carry out the order with the understanding that a knife was to be used. Burns, fearing failure, took an ax and crushed the forehead of the deluded fanatic, and from this time forward every person murdered by these Apaches was treated in a similar manner.

Carr’s bloodied expedition proceeded that night upon a forced march for the safety of Fort Apache, reaching it the following afternoon — although “many of the Indians had preceded the command, and all night they were haranguing in the vicinity. They covered the roads and trails, and killed a number of citizens.” The fort came under a brief siege in the ensuing days, and hostilities in the resulting regional uprising dragged on for two years, concluding with the outcome customary for the Apache Wars.

Four of the absconded scouts were arrested in the months ahead and tried at court-martial. (Other captured Apache who were not enlisted in the army were not prosecuted for the firefight.) A Private Mucheco was sentenced to hard labor at Alcatraz. The other three, sergeants jauntily known to the whites as Dead Shot, Dandy Jim, and Skippy,

On the appointed day, per a detailed report in the New York Herald (March 4, 1882),

Wagons of all descriptions loaded with men anxious to see the execution of the Indian scouts, Dead Shot, Dandy Jim and Skippy, came pouring into this place from Wilcox, Thomas, Safford and all points from very early this morning. The time not being known at which the event would take place, there was a state of suspense until the moment arrived for the execution. The gallows was erected in front of the guard house and was fourteen feet high, with a platform six feet four inches from the ground and a distance of seven feet four inches from the floor to the gallows pole. The whole measured twelve feet in length by eight feet wide. The rope used was three-quarters of an inch thick and the drop was four feet six inches.

Dandy Jim, from this forum thread.

[On the scaffold] Dead Shot said he had nothing to say. What was being done was correct. He would probably meet his people. He had suffered much in this world and now he was through and would see his people. Since he first saw white men he had been well treated. He had plenty to eat and plenty of clothes, but this day paid for all he got from the white men. He also said Dandy Jim was a nephew and Eskiticha, or “Skippy,” a cousin of his. He had seen a good many of his people die and did not know where they went, but he was going to follow. He thought there was no use in dressing an Indian up as he was and then hanging him. When he came into San Carlos, if he had done anything wrong, he would not have given himself up, yet he gave up his rifle and the twenty rounds of ammunition that were furnished him at Camp Apache.

Dandy Jim said he had to be hanged, as such were the orders. He could not talk much. It was no use to beg for his life, as people would only laugh at him for his trouble. Eskiticha said: — “The sun is going down, and God is looking after me.” He did not think they were doing right, as he had never done anything to warrant being hanged.

The chaplain, Rev. A.D. Mitchell, then repeated a short prayer, which was interpreted by Merijilda, when all retired from the scaffold, except the hangman, a military prisoner. The black caps were then placed over the heads of the men, and at one o’clock the drop fell. Death was instantaneous in the case of Dead Shot and Eskiticha; Dandy Jim quivered once or twice. After being allowed to hang about twenty minutes they were cut down and pronounced dead by the doctors.

* The same date as an unrelated Mississippi double hanging, previously covered in these pages.

** According to John R. Welch, Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Mark Altaha in “Retracing the Battle of Cibecue: Western Apache, Documentary, and Archaeological Interpretations,” Kiva, Winter 2005. Noch-ay-del-klinne had some exposure to Christian doctrine, which seems present in his own movement’s interest in resurrection.

† Also in the scouting party for this mission was famed frontiersman and eventual Executed Today client Tom Horn.

‡ Thomas Friday’s full account of this affair — which is a second-hand version, since Friday himself was a small child at this time — comes courtesy of William B. Kessel in “The Battle of Cibecue and Its Aftermath: A White Mountain Apache’s Account,” Ethnohistory, Spring 1974.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arizona,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1747: Serjeant Smith, deserter

Add comment December 11th, 2017 Headsman

By this time in 1747, England’s season of crowd-pleasing spectacular punishments for the Jacobite rising of 1745 had all but run its course; indeed, the very previous day, one of the last of the rebels had been disappointingly disposed of via exile instead of scaffold.

But, reports London in the Jacobite Times,

there was an exulting crowd the next day [December 11, 1747], lining the road from the barracks and military prison, in the Savoy, to the parade, St. James’s Park, and from the latter place to Hyde Park, where savages had come ‘in their thousands,’ and assembled round a gibbet in the centre of the Park.

From the Savoy was brought a stalwart sergeant, in gyves, marching, without music, and eagerly gazed at as he passed on his way to the Parade. He was a good soldier, something of a scholar, knew several languages, and was utterly averse from serving any other sovereign than King James or his friend King Louis.

Sergeant Smith had deserted, had been caught, and was now to suffer, not a soldier’s death by shooting, but the ignominious one of a felon. On the Parade, he was received by his own regiment, in the centre of which he was placed, and so guarded went slowly on to Hyde Park, to a dead roll of the drums.

He was dressed in a scarlet coat, all else white. In token of his Jacobite allegiance, he wore, and was allowed to wear, a rosette of tartan ribbons on his bosom, and similar bunches of ribbons on each knee. The sergeant went on with a smile. His self-possession made the hangman nervous, and Smith bade his executioner pluck up a spirit and do his duty. And so he died; what remains of him may perhaps still lie in the Park, for the Jacobite sergeant was buried beneath the gibbet.

The quality of the newspaper reporting at this time is illustrated by the fact that, in some of the journals, Jacobite Smith is said to have been shot.

In December 1747, a new paper was started, called the ‘Jacobite’s Journal.’ It was eminently anti-Jacobite, and was adorned with a head-piece representing a shouting Highlander and his wife on a donkey, to whose tail is tied the shield and arms of France; and from whose mouth hangs a label ‘Daily Post;’ the animal is led by a monk with one finger significantly laid to the side of his nose. The journal joked savagely at the idea of the above-named Sergeant Smith, being compelled to listen to his own funeral sermon in the Savoy Chapel, and hoped there was no flattery in it. As to the gay rosettes of tartan ribbons which he wore, the journal was disgusted with such a display on the part of a traitor.

Smith seems to have been a restless soul whose desertion to rebel colors in ’45 had followed a career of flexible loyalty in German service. The Newgate Calendar says of Smith that he “was a man of extraordinary abilities, and as vicious in his principles,” who had by his wandering life acquired several languages and thereby earned a lucrative appointment as an interpreter for officers and the rank of paymaster-serjeant. “A man thus caressed must be truly a villain who could be base enough to desert his duty; but Smith was of a roving turn, and could not keep long in a place, the excuse he gave for his crimes.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Military Crimes,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason

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1917: Herbet Morris, British West Indies Regiment deserter

Add comment September 20th, 2017 Headsman

At dawn on this date in 1917, 17-year-old Jamaican soldier Herbert Morris was shot in a courtyard behind the town hall in the Flemish town of Poperinge.

He’d volunteered the year before, 8,000 kilometers away from the terrible trenches, to cross the Atlantic and stake his life for the 6th Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment but in the end it was the guns of his own countrymen who would fell him.

Like numerous front-line troops, Morris became disordered by shellshock, and despite a generally commendable service record, routed during a bombardment to be discovered days later wandering at Boulogne. With that (non-capital) precedent already to his name, Morris’s second desertion on August 20 met a very much harsher response.

When on active service deserting His Majesty’s Services, in that he, in the Field on the 20th of August 1917, when warned for duty, in the neighbourhood of the front line absented himself from his detachment until apprehended by the Military Police at Boulogne on the 21st of August 1917.

-Morris’s death sentence, endorsed by Douglas Haig, 15 September 1917

“I am troubled with my head and cannot stand the sound of guns,” Morris explained to his very brief court-martial, unavailingly. “I reported to the Dr. [sic] and he gave me no medicine or anything. It was on the Sunday that I saw the doctor. He gave me no satisfaction.” Two character witnesses from his unit comprised the entirety of his defense.

During the week between Morris’s hearing and his Field Marshal Haig-confirmed sentence, a violent mutiny by British Empire troops in Etaples, France shook the high command. Nobody can say if it was determinative for Morris’s fate, but it cannot have weighed in favor of leniency.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Desertion,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,History,Jamaica,Military Crimes,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1917: James Smith, Early One Morning

Add comment September 5th, 2017 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, a Bolton private (formerly lance corporal) named James Smith fell to his countrymen’s guns on Belgian soil during World War I.

A career soldier since 1909, Smith had served honorably in India and Egypt before the war. He had the hardiness and luck to survive Gallipoli and the Somme — but their horrors broke him mentally.

According to this biography, “Jimmy almost lost his life on the Somme on 11 October 1916 when a German artillery shell exploded, burying him alive and causing a shrapnel wound ‘the size of a fist’ on his right shoulder.” When he returned from two months’ convalescence leave his mates could see that shellshock had destroyed the old Jimmy Smith.

Erratic behavior that cost him his good conduct badges culminated in a break on July 30, 1917, the eve of the frightful Battle of Passchendaele, when Smith deserted his post and disappeared from the front — to be found later, wandering in a nearby town. In World War I, such an offense invited the brass to make an example of you.

Smith’s own comrades from the 17th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment were drafted into the firing squad. Pitying their victim, the executioners pulled their shots and missed the target, only succeeding in wounding the brutalized private. When the firing squad commander faltered at his duty to deliver the coup de grace, the task monstrously fell on a close friend of Smith’s, Private Richard Blundell, to press the revolver to Smith’s temple and blow out his brains. For its service to the war effort, the firing detail got 10 days’ R&R … and a lifetime of shame.

In the weeks before his own death, in February 1989, Blundell was often heard by his son, William, to murmur deliriously: ‘What a way to get leave, what a way to get leave.’

According to historian Graham Maddocks, in his book Liverpool Pals, William Blundell asked his father in a more lucid moment what he meant.

Still desperately upset seven decades after the incident, the dying Richard told his son what had happened. It was clear, that as he faced his own death, Richard had never forgiven himself.

Jimmy Smith was the subject of a 1998 play, Early One Morning.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1863: Not Nathaniel Pruitt, reprieved deserter

Add comment June 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date 150 years ago, according to Larry Daniel’s Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee, a middle-aged man was all set to be shot for deserting the Army of Tennessee, and the much-resented command of Gen. Braxton Bragg.

In a well-documented incident, a soldier received a reprieve as a result of a dramatic incident. Forty-seven-year-old Nathaniel Pruitt of the Nineteenth Tennessee was found guilty of desertion and on June 10, 1863, was taken to a field beside his regimental camp, his coffin placed beside an open grave. A minister cut a lock of hair to give to Pruitt’s wife. The firing squad was positioned and ordered to take aim, but just then an officer came galloping up with a special order to suspend the sentence. The prisoner began crying. “I was truly glad [of the reprieve], but must say some of the boys were disappointed,” a Mississippi diarist noted. Incredibly, the very next day, Pruitt again deserted and was never heard from again.

One takes the author’s point here about Pruitt’s risk-seeking second flight, but even so it might not really be all that “incredible” that one would desert the company of armed men who had recently shown open disappointment about being prevented from shooting one dead.

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1521: Xicotencatl Axayacatl, Cortes fighter

Add comment May 21st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1521, the Tlaxcallan warrior Xicotencatl Axayacatl (or Xicotencatl the Younger) was hanged by Hernan Cortes on the eve of his conquest of Tenochtitlan.

In an alternate history of Spain’s New World encounter it is Xicotencatl who has the glory of putting Cortes and his adventure to execution: the Tlaxcallans mounted a ferocious resistance when the conquistadors penetrated their territory, with Xicotencatl’s huge armies placing the Spanish in mortal peril despite the latter’s advantages of firearms and cavalry. Spanish soldier and diarist Bernal Diaz del Castillo would record of one engagement in September 1519

a battle of as fearful and dubious an issue as well could be. In an instant we were surrounded on all sides by such vast numbers of Indians, that the plain, here six miles in breadth, seemed as if it contained but one vast body of the enemy, in the midst of which stood our small army of 400 men, the greater part wounded and knocked up with fatigue. We were also aware that the enemy had marched out to battle with the determination to spare none of us, excepting those who were to be sacrificed to their idols.

When, therefore, the attack commenced, a real shower of arrows and stones was poured upon us; the whole ground was immediately covered with heaps of lances, whose points were provided with two edges, so very sharp that they pierced through every species of cuirass, and were particularly dangerous to the lower part of the body, which was in no way protected. They fell upon us like the very furies themselves, with the most horrible yells; we employed, however, our heavy guns, muskets, and crossbows, with so much effect, and received those who pressed eagerly upon us with such well-directed blows and thrusts, that considerable destruction was made among their ranks, nor did they allow us to approach so near to them as in the previous battle: our cavalry, in particular, showed great skill and bravery, so that they, next to the Almighty, were the principal means of saving us.

Indeed our line was already half broken; all the commands of Cortes and our other officers to restore order and form again were fruitless, the Indians continually rushing upon us in such vast crowds that we could only make place with sword in hand to save our line from being broken. …

Cortes (and the Almighty) made it out of that scrap but their small force was severely taxed by repeated engagements, including a destructive nighttime raid launched by Xicotencatl. The Spanish never conquered the Tlaxcallans — turning instead to diplomacy to attract them as allies against their rivals, the Aztecs.

So far was the victorious Xicotencatl from embracing this decision that he repeatedly ignored Tlaxcallan chiefs’ orders to stop fighting. His refusal to accommodate has inevitably been read retrospectively in view of indigenous anti-colonialism, but in the moment it was probably had a more prosaic cause: had he been suffered to complete Cortes’s destruction, he would have figured to gain a whip hand in domestic Tlaxcallan politics.

Still, the Indians were taking fearsome casualties from the Spanish and this combined with the prospect of turning Cortes’s invaders against their own enemies carried the decision. For many generations this timely alliance privileged the Tlaxcala nation, whose peoples ranked higher than other natives long into the Spanish sovereignty.

But it seems to have been intolerable for Xicotencatl Axayacatl.


The Last Days of Tenochtitlan — Conquest of Mexico by Cortez, by William de Leftwich Dodge (1899).

Cortes and his Tlaxcallan and other allies launched the final march that would conquer Tenochtitlan on May 22, 1521, but the day before setting out it was discovered that Xicotencatl had abandoned the camp. Diaz, again:

After considerable inquiries, it was found that he had secretly returned to Tlascalla on the previous night to take forcible possession of the caziquedom and territory of Chichimeclatecl. It appears, according to the accounts of the Tlascallans, that he wished to avail himself of this favorable opportunity of raising himself to supreme power in his own country, which the absence of Chichimeclatecl offered to him, who, in his opinion, was the only person that stood in his way since the death [by smallpox -ed.] of Maxixcatzin, as he did not fear any opposition from his old blind father. This Xicotencatl, the Tlascallans further added, had never felt any real inclination to join us in the war against Mexico, but had frequently assured them it would terminate in the destruction of us all.

When Chichimeclatecl received information of this, he instantly returned to Tezcuco in order to apprize Cortes of it. Our general, on hearing this, despatched five distinguished personages of Tezcuco, and two Tlascallans, who were his particular friends, after Xicotencatl, to request his immediate return to his troops, in Cortes’ name. They were to remind him that his father Lorenzo de Vargas would certainly have marched out against Mexico in person, if blindness and old age had not prevented him; that the whole population of Tlascalla continued loyal to his majesty, and that the revolt he wished to excite would throw dishonour on his own country. These representations Cortes desired should be accompanied by large promises, to induce him to return to obedience. Xicotencatl, however, haughtily replied, that he was determined to abide by his resolve, and our dominion in this country would not have continued thus long if his father and Maxixcatzin had followed his advice.

Upon this our general ordered an alguacil to repair in all haste with four of our horse and five distinguished men of Tezcuco to Xicotencatl’s abode, to take him prisoner, and hang him without any further ceremony. “All kindness,” added Cortes, “is thrown away upon this cazique. His whole time is spent in devising plots and creating mischief. I cannot suffer this to continue any longer; the matter has now come to a crisis.”

As soon as [conquistador Pedro de] Alvarado received information of these commands, he urgently begged of Cortes to pardon Xicotencatl. Our general replied that he would consider about it, though he secretly gave the alguacil peremptory orders to put him to death, which was accordingly done. Xicotencatl was hung in a town subject to Tezcuco, and thus an end was put to all his plottings. Many Tlascallans assured us that the elder Xicotencatl himself had cautioned Cortes against his son, and had advised him to put him to death.

This, at least, is the story. We lack Xicotencatl’s own voice here, and we must guess at the forces at work via the few and partisan narratives of the conquistadors. Anthropologist Ross Hassig speculates here that the “desertion” accusation — given that other similar “desertions” occur with unpunished regularity among both Spanish and natives — might have been merely pretextual on the part of Cortes, to eliminate a man he still considered a dangerous foe.

Either way, with the passage of years Xicotencatl has become a Mesoamerican symbol of indigenous valor and imperial resistance. His martial statue graces Plaza Xicohtencatl in the present-day city of Tlaxcala.

* Diaz’s narrative dates the Spanish departure from Tezcuco to May 13, instead of May 22 but he is extremely slipshod with chronology. Diaz is also a key primary source for the most lurid accounts of Aztec human sacrifice, and his reliability in that quarter has been challenged, too.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,Hanged,History,Mexico,Military Crimes,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Power,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1916: Eric Poole, the first British officer shot at dawn during World War I

Add comment December 10th, 2016 Headsman

A century ago today in the Great War, Second Lieutenant Eric Poole laid down his life at the city hall of a Belgian border town.

As it was put by the sadly defunct Shot At Dawn site (still preserved at the Wayback Machine), “The cemetery register of Poperinghe New Military Cemetery states that Lt. Eric Skeffington Poole died of wounds on 10 December 1916. Tactfully, it omits to record also that his death was caused by a British Army firing squad.”

A Canadian-born engineer, Poole had enlisted in the very first weeks of the war and been commissioned an officer by May 1915.

In July of 1916, a falling artillery shell struck so close that its concussion knocked Poole down, spattering him with earth. He was hospitalized for shellshock but returned to duty in September — still complaining of rheumatism and feeling “damned bad.”

One night in October as his unit moved up to a forward trench, Poole disappeared from it — nobody knows how or when, but he wasn’t there when it mustered at its new position at midnight. He was detained two days later, wandering well west of the trenches, a leather jacket hiding his private’s tunic … “in a very dazed condition,” an officer who interviewed him would later remember. “From conversation which I had with him I came to the conclusion he was not responsible for his actions. He was very confused indeed.”

Evidence collected in Poole’s desertion trial pointed to a man taxed beyond his capacities by command responsibility and the strain of two years at war. His division commander recommended against the court martial, for Poole was “not really accountable for his actions. He is of nervous temperament, useless in action, and dangerous as an example to the men” — but still “could [be] usefully employed at home in instructional duties or in any minor administrative work, not involving severe strain of the nerves.” Another captain in his battalion described him as “somewhat eccentric, and markedly lacking in decision” and liable under pressure to “become so mentally confused that he would not be responsible for his actions.”

By the book the man’s irresolute midnight ramble was a clear instance of abdicating duty, but Poole’s weakness was apparent enough to trouble the court that tried him for desertion — not only to solicit this and other testimony from his comrades about the lieutenant’s state of mind but even to remark from its own observation that his “mental powers [were] less than average. He appears dull under cross examination, and his perception is slow.” Perhaps this was fellow-feeling by other officers that would not have been extended to a mere grunt; if so, what was a mitigating consideration for the court made Poole’s execution a in the eyes of Field Marshal Haig: “Such a case is more serious in the case of an officer than a man, and it is also highly important that all ranks should realise the law is the same for an officer as a private.” Two years in, and somehow not one officer had suffered such a punishment; Shot At Dawn speculated that military courts’ recent shocking verdict excusing Captain John Bowen-Colthurst on grounds of insanity for an atrocity in Ireland had also raised pressure on the armed forces to show that British officers stood not above the law.*

The British army executed 306 of its own soldiers during World War I. Among them, Poole was the first of only three officers.

* The War Office’s decision not to publicize his fate (and the euphemistic reference in the cemetery register) would seem sharply at odds with any intended demonstrative effect.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,History,Milestones,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1914: Lt. Jean-Julien Chapelant, mort pour la France

2 comments October 11th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1914, the French army shot Lt. Jean-Julien Chapelant as a coward.

Most resources about Lt. Chapelant are in French, as are almost all the links in this post — but within France this case has been contested since the interwar years when his father fought in vain ferocity to reinstate the honor of his son.

Four days before his execution, Chapelant, commanding a machine gun section near a village in the Somme, was captured with four other gunners when the Germans overran their position. Though he’d been shot in the leg, Chapelant managed to escape his captors and return to French lines. (Three of the other gunners escaped, too.)

While the categorical rehabilitation of Great War soldiers “shot at dawn” as cowards or deserters has been a going concern in recent years, Chapelant also has a compelling individual argument that he ought not have been construed such even by the standards of his time.

The luckless lieutenant was shot for “capitulating in open country”. This was at best an extremely prejudicial interpretation of the facts, seemingly one that commanding officers themselves still adjusting to the unexpected prowess of German arms had already settled upon before any proper investigation, out of their pique at losing the position. The verdict was so certain that Chapelant’s commanding officer gave him his revolver back urging him to “burn out his own brains” and save everyone the trouble.

Chapelant refused, insisting that he had done his proper duty, and military justice was edified by the spectacle of a crippled man who could not stand propped up in his stretcher against an apple tree for the tender ministry of his firing squad.

“I die innocent. You will all know it later,” he told his executioners — then added, futile wish, “do not tell my parents.”

Although we have been treated in these pages to the heartbreaking scene of an officer comforting a man about to be shot with the remark that “yours also is a way of dying for France,” the idea has until very recently been confined to the precincts of personal sentiment and certainly not to the institutions responsible for the dying.

On November 11, 2012the centennary of Lt. Chapelant’s execution* — he was ceremonially rehabilitated and his death officially ascribed to that same cause that laid so many of his comrades low: “mort pour la France.”

* Adding round numbers is hard, apparently.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,France,History,Military Crimes,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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