On this date in 1801, a Jacobin chemist was wrongly executed for Royalists’ plot against Napoleon.
Our scene is France, the year following Napoleon’s coup of 18th Brumaire (November 9, 1799 on the stodgy old Gregorian calendar). Marx’s “first time as tragedy”* saw the Corsican achieve monarch-esque power, and the months ensuing saw a plethora of plots against him.
The ranks of aggrieved potential assassins included both Jacobins, incensed at the military dictatorship, and Bourbons, incensed that it wasn’t their dictatorship — in both cases exacerbated by Napoleon’s decisive battlefield triumphs which consolidated his hold on power.
On Christmas Eve 1800, the man on horseback was a man in a carriage, careening through Paris to catch a performance of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation.
When, all of a sudden, a gigantic explosion on the Rue Saint-Nicaise attempted to un-create the First Consul. It failed, exploding after Napoleon had passed and before Josephine’s family followed, “merely” killing and maiming fifty-some miscellaneous Parisian bystanders instead.
shocked with the wild atrocity of such a reckless plot, became, while they execrated the perpetrators, attached in proportion to the object of their cruelty. A disappointed conspiracy always adds strength to the government against which it is directed; and Buonaparte did not fail to push this advantage to the uttermost.
This “Infernal Machine” had actually been built by disgruntled monarchists at the instigation of intriguer Georges Cadoudal, as was swiftly discerned by Napoleon’s Minister of Police, the ruthless ex-revolutionary Joseph Fouche.
Realpolitik exigencies — Napoleon was trying (unsuccessfully) to reach political terms with the royalist faction — instead drove a rush to pin the detonation on the Jacobins.
Who, it should be said, made themselves the primary suspects by virtue of the fact that they’d also been trying to blow up Napoleon. Chevalier had been arrested a couple of months before when a bomb of his, evidently an experiment for a similar Jacobin plot, loudly blew up near Salpetriere.
Four other Jacobins followed Chevalier to death later in January (and two royalists actually involved in the bomb got the same treatment). Some 130 other prominent Jacobins (French link) were expelled on Napoleon’s say-so — no legislative consultation — to the empire’s far-flung colonies, pretty much putting the remains of the long-supine revolutionary left permanently out of the picture as a political force.
On this date in 1964, South Vietnam executed a 17-year-old Communist for a plot to assassinate American Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
The young electrical worker and Viet Cong urban guerrilla Nguyen Van Troi was nabbed in the spring of 1963 trying to off both McNamara, famous for the megatonnage he would bestow on Southeast Asia, and U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.
(Later, when the South Vietnamese client president whose guests these men ostensibly were was being shot in an armored personnel carrier with the Americans’ blessing, Ngo Dinh Diem might have had cause to wish this youth’s inhospitable gesture had not been undone by his men. Lodge was a particularly vocal advocate in the Kennedy administration for overthrowing Diem.)
For the months leading up to his public shooting, he became an international cause celebre; North Vietnam would later milk his martyrdom with a postage stamp, an award, and numerous public streets.
The international reach of his case was underscored when a Venezuelan revolutionary cell kidnapped an American officer shortly before Troi’s execution, and threatened to shoot him in retaliation. (They didn’t.)
Against this, South Vietnam counterposed the unedifying spectacle of a 17-year-old patriot put to death, energetically declaiming at the stake while cameras rolled,
It is the Americans who have committed aggression on our country, it is they who have been killing our people with planes and bombs…. I have never acted against the will of my people. It is against the Americans that I have taken action.
Naturally, he became a worldwide leftist martyr. There’s an Estadio Nguyen Van Troi in Cuba; American actor Troy Garity, son of Jane Fonda from her “Hanoi Jane” days, is also named for Nguyen Van Troi.
Robert McNamara, meanwhile, had many, many years yet to live, and many, many more Vietnamese deaths to burden his conscience.
Troi’s widow wrote a 1965 book about him, out of print but still available on the used book market.
Just what his beef with national unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi might have been is also subject to the exigencies of the story at hand. Let it be oppression or something, good enough for one of those classic outlaw-with-a-heart-of-gold retorts against condemnation for his thieving career.
It is you who are the robber who stole the whole country!
He gets to be the title character of the 2009 film Goemon:
Thanks to the inevitable marketing tie-ins, the world also has a Goemon action figure.
Personally, and especially because I would lose all these nifty accessories, I much prefer the adorable Goemon Cosbaby series.
* As a result of this famous exit, a Goeomon-buro (Goemon bath) in Japanese refers to a large iron kettle-shaped bathtub.
On this date in 1894, on the very day that anarchist terrorist par excellenceEmile Henry was guillotined in Paris, six more anarchists were executed by firing squad outside Barcelona’s Montjuich Fortress.
Mariano Cerezuela, Bernat Siveval, Jaime Sogas, Jose Codina, Villarubbia, and Manuel Archs were condemned just weeks prior by a military court for complicity in the attempted assassination earlier that year of Spanish Marshal Arsenio Martinez Campos. Some had originally been rounded up in the general anti-anarchist crackdown after the bombing of the Liceu theater … although another man would be put to death for authoring that crime later in 1894.
Only one of their number, Sogas, died penitent.
In the report of the London Times (May 22, 1894),
[t]he condemned men were conveyed from the chapel, where they had spent the night, to the place of execution by an underground passage, the first two to appear being Sogas and Cerezuela. The former, who confessed last night, joined in the prayers offered by the priest, and he and Cerezuela walked quietly to their doom. The other prisoners, however, shouted all kinds of revolutionary cries. The convicts were placed in line, and at the first shot they all fell to the ground. It was found, however, that in the case of Sogas and Codina the bullets had not taken effect, and a second shot was necessary.
May 10, 1744 — The negro man “Jan,” of Johonnes Van Houten, was tried “for poysoning and attempting to do the same to several blacks at the township of Bergen; to wit, the negro man of Arent Toers, named Lowis, and has some time past poysoned two wenches of Garret Ross, of the same precinct, and attempted several more.” Convicted and sentenced to be hanged May 11, between 10 and 12, at Bergen; “at the suitablest place, where Peter Marselis and Michel Vreeland shall think proper.”
Was it the slave trade that capitalized the Van Houten cracker empire?
The slave was the property of a Miss Elizabeth McQuerns, a schoolteacher who hired him out — in which capacity he raped the wife of his subcontracted master.
This case is treated in an April 1990 piece for The South Carolina Historical Magazine by Lowry Ware, titled “The Burning of Jerry: The Last Slave Execution by Fire in South Carolina?” But in addition to being the last execution by fire in South Carolina, it might well be the last in the United States. (The quotes below are all via Ware.)
“Judicial,” for slaves, was of course something less than a robust vindication of the defendant’s rights — and burning sentences imposed in colonial and antebellum America were almost universally used against black slaves. One pictures a context not unlike that of extrajudicial burnings to follow in the decades yet to come.
According to a copy of the trial transcript McQuerns later filed for compensation (the original trial record is lost, Ware says),
the Court acquainted [Jerry] that they were to proceed immediately upon trial and would hear his answer to the charge against him and whatever witnesses he had to produce in his behalf as well as against him.
The witness produced to support the charge against the prisoner was heard and examined and there being no witness in behalf of the prisoner, the court after mature consideration of the case found the prisoner guilty … [and was condemned to] be sent to the Gaol of the said District and there remain until the first day of May next and then be brought back to an old field above West Donald still house, and there burnt to death between the hours of twelve and two o’clock.
But previous to awarding and ordering said sentence to be executed appraised and valued said Negro slave man named Jerry at four hundred dollars and direct the sum of ____ to be paid to Elizabeth McQuerns the owner of said Negro and the remainder of the sum of ____ dollars to ____ agreeably to the Act of Assembly made and provided.
Such a dramatically anachronistic sentence surely made its impression.
As remembered, decades later, by a minister named Samuel Leard who witnessed the execution as a teenager,
thousands of men, women and children, both white and colored, assembled together in an old field not far from the residence of Mr. Donald to witness the execution of a beastly criminal by burning alive at the stake. The crime cannot with propriety be named — the name and the memory of the criminal ought to be consigned to eternal oblivion. But there sat the prisoner, the waiting impatient crowd, the immense pile of pitch pine logs and kindling wood scattered around, the sheriff and his posse, the temporary platform for the preacher … for it was determined that the fiendish criminal should hear his own funeral sermon pronounced … As the poor doomed man ascended the pile, he began to pray audibly and this was kept up continuously during the process of chaining him to the stake, and until the mounting flames deprived him of a wretched life. This was the last execution by fire ever seen in South Carolina.
-Abbeville Press & Banner, July 2, 1879
In 1833, the Palmetto State humanely legislated that “that “on the conviction of a slave, or a free person of color, for a capital offence, the punishment shall be by hanging, and not otherwise.”
* The scanty documentation remaining of this case leaves the date less than completely ironclad, but the one issued in sentence attested in this piece will have to do.
The outcome in the kangaroo court for anyone involved in the previous year’s near-miss bomb attack on Hitler was foreordained. Just the day before, the movement’s ineffectual but conscientious political statesman Carl Goerdeler had hanged for it.
But a funny thing happened to the lawyer and reserve officer Schlabrendorff on the way to the gallows.
As he awaited this date his tongue-lashing and inevitable condemnation at the hands of the vituperative Nazi judge Roland Freisler, a bombing raid led by Jewish future Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Rosenthal struck the People’s Court — killing not the prisoner, but the judge, who was reportedly found still clutching his prey’s file.
“It is God’s verdict” was the succinct epitaph issued by a worker at the hospital where they raced his body, and nobody cared to dispute the subversive remark.
Hysterically badgering defenseless prisoners in farcical show trials, ostentatiously obeisant to the Reich, and personally responsible for thousands of executions, Freisler was a hard guy to admire. His role model for courtroom demeanor was supposed to be the ruthless purge trials of the Soviets.*
(Freisler also attended the Wannsee Conference, where Reinhard Heydrich organized the Final Solution. What a guy.)
In the confusion of the bomb blast, Schlabrendorff was hustled off to detention un-sentenced, and spent the last months of the war being shifted from one concentration camp to the next. The Third Reich — and admittedly, it had a few other things on its mind in those days — neglected to kill him, trial or no.
Schlabrendorff went on to become a West German constitutional court judge, though in this career he could hardly be as memorable as his onetime persecutor.
That Schlabrendorff miraculously escaped the war with his life thanks to a timely explosion was a particular irony: Hitler had once unwittingly been preserved from a Schlabrendorff assassination attempt by a bomb that failed to detonate.
In a March 1943 attempt on Hitler’s life, Schlabrendorff himself had passed one of Hitler’s entourage a package supposedly containing two bottles of cognac for delivery to another officer. In fact, the package was meant to blow up Hitler’s plane.
When [Hitler] was boarding the plane I started the mechanism of the delayed-action bomb … timed to explode within half an hour. At a sign from Tresckow, I handed the parcel to Colonel Brandt,** the member of Hitler’s escort who had promised to take it. It was a great nervous strain to remain quiet at this juncture.
After more than two hours of waiting, we got the shattering news that Hitler had landed safely …
We were stunned and could not imagine the cause of the failure … even worse would be the discovery of the bomb, which would unfailingly lead to our detection and the death of a wide circle of close collaborators.
After considerable reflection Tresckow resolved to ring up Colonel Brandt at Hitler’s headquarters and ask whether the parcel for General Stieff had already been delivered. Brandt replied that it was still in his keeping. This gave us hope that the bomb had not been discovered. Its delivery had to be prevented by all means. So Tresckow asked him to keep the parcel. He added there had been some mistake. I would call on him the following day to exchange the parcel, as I had anyway to go on official business to headquarters in East Prussia.
On some military pretext, I flew to Headquarters with the regualr messenger plane. I called on Colonel Brandt and exchanged a parcel containing two bottles of brandy for the one containing the bomb.
I can still recall my horror when the man, unaware of what he held, smilingly handed me the bomb and gave it a jerk that made me fear a belated explosion. Feigning a composure I did not feel, I took the bomb, immediately got into a car, and drove to the neighboring railway junction of Korschen. From there a sleeper train left for Berlin in the evening.
At Korschen, I got into a reserved compartment, locked the door, and … dismantled the bomb … The mechanism had worked; the small bottle had broken; the corrosive fluid had consumed the wire; the striker had hit forward; but — the detonator had not fired.
* Not the only ostpolitik admiration the Nazis showed for their battlefield foes’ ruthlessness; Hitler, similarly, applauded (sometimes envied) Stalin’s 1930′s purge of the officer corps.
** This Heinz Brandt, too, has another unwitting part left to play in the story of the German resistance: it was he who, on July 20, 1944, moved Col. Stauffenberg’s deadly parcel behind an oaken table support, preserving Hitler from the bomb’s worst effects. Brandt died in that explosion.
The monarchist pol Goerdeler enjoys pride of place as one of the first German elites to opposite Hitler, though that opposition was not quite so early as the very beginning. Goerdeler was a creature of the pre-Nazi establishment, and shared many of perspectives that prepared that world to accommodate national socialism: Goerdeler bitterly opposed the Versailles Treaty, wanted to take a bite out of Polish territory, and had the customary strictly-within-legal-bounds anti-Semitism of his class. Even lying under sentence of death late in 1944, having denounced the Holocaust to his Gestapo interrogators, his “Thoughts of a Condemned Man” reflected,
We should not attempt to minimize what has been happening, but we should also emphasize the great guilt of the Jews, who had invaded our public life in ways that lacked all customary restraint.
A German patriot, then, committed to a “a purified Germany with a government of decent people”; a humanist Liberal from a bygone age, who had no weapons to fight a terror state.
As Mayor of Leipzig, he openly opposed the Third Reich’s excesses and pushed to moderate its policy.* In 1937 he copped a principled resignation and started cultivating contacts abroad, warning of Hitler’s aggression — also managing to impress his foreign interlocutors with his incapacity to affect events himself. His many memoranda urging Hitler to moderate this or that outrage went for naught.
The resistance circle around Goerdeler, which drew in his fellow-sufferer Popitz,** would be marked throughout the war years by that incapacity — a monument to high-minded failure, eternally short of the last ounce of will or that one key resource.
Goerdeler’s name adorned the ministry of many a fanciful post-Hitler government, but he himself, according to his friend and fellow-conspirator Gerhard Ritter, “preferred to begin with a debate rather than a power stroke”.
To be sure, the man looked in vain for some decisive form of aid: within the Reich, the sympathetic Wehrmacht brass couldn’t quite see their way to something as radical as breaking their loyalty oaths; without, he got no terms short of unconditional surrender from the Allies.
But even come the summer of 1944 when all was well past lost, Goerdeler entertained delusions of persuading Hitler to give up power voluntarily, and opposed Stauffenberg‘s assassination gambit.
Indecision would be no defense when he was hailed before bloodthirsty judge Roland Freisler for treason.
Goerdeler and Popitz, both viewed as influential with Germany’s Western enemies, were kept alive for months after the judicial purges commenced: Himmler‘s hope for a back channel deal. Our man had many hours in this Gethsemane for that essential contemplation of the 20th century.
In sleepless nights I have asked myself whether a God exists who shares in the personal fate of men. It is becoming hard to believe it. For this God must for years now have allowed rivers of blood and suffering, mountains of horror and despair for mankind … He must have let millions of decent men die and suffer without moving a finger.
We do not know what account Goerdeler gave of himself to the afterlife; even the account he left of himself for our terrestrial posterity is disputable.
“I ask the world to accept our martyrdom as penance for the German people,” he wrote in prison. Is it enough to accept for Goerdeler himself? His actions, intrepid by the standards of most countrymen, were fatally unequal to the heroism demanded of his circumstance. By any measure, his is a very human tragedy.
Carl Goerdeler’s brother Fritz shared the same fate a few weeks later. Other family members were imprisoned at Dachau; Carl’s son, Reinhard Goerdeler, became an accountant after the war and is the “G” in the big four firm KPMG.
* Including Berlin’s heretically expansionary economic policy. Goerdeler hated Keynes; his prescription for the capitalist crisis of the 1930s was falling wages, low deficits, a mighty Reichsmark, and free trade. (The April 1938 Foreign Affairs published a Goerdeler essay entitled “Do Government Price Controls Work?” Answer: no.)
It would be too much to say that Berlin’s profligacy outraged him as much as the fact that it was being squandered on dishonorable war, but said profligacy was definitely on the bill of attainder.
** Father Delp, the other man hanged this date, was involved in the resistance but even Freisler’s court decided he wasn’t in on the July 20 plot.
On this date in 1878, journeyman tinsmith Max Hödel was beheaded in Berlin’s New Prison for taking a potshot at Kaiser Wilhelm I.
Nothing daunted by the prospect of trading his life for an 81-year-old* man’s, this propagandist of the deed tried to kill the conservative German emperor in May of 1878. He missed his target, but killed a bystander.
(Hodel’s cover story that he was just trying to blow his own brains out, not shoot the emperor, was belied by a number of hints he had given to others prior to the attack — e.g., telling a photographer who took his picture that the photo would soon be worth thousands.)
Just weeks after Hodel’s miss, another unsuccessful attempt to kill the emperor was undertaken by Karl Nobiling. Though Nobiling died of self-inflicted injuries, Hodel had to make do with decapitation.
Germans having taken a front-row seat to the Paris Commune just a few years before, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had no intention of allowing radical organizing of any variety to pick up any steam.
Coincidentally, our day’s protagonist shares an execution date with the next generation’s (better) anarchist assassin, Sante Geronimo Caserio — guillotined 16 Aug. 1894 for killing the French president.
* And he was right: nature didn’t take its course with Kaiser Wilhelm for nine more years; he missed outliving his own son and heir by a mere three months.
** Engels — writing polemically, of course — reckons over 11,000 political prisoners arrested from 1879 to 1880 alone.
Many an hour can be spent enjoying the Old Bailey Online site for the forgotten criminals of a bygone age.
May 4, 1677 takes us to Restoration England for a routine hanging of seven at Tyburn, who all but come to life with just the few words of the Ordinary’s account.
One of the other Four [Margaret Spicer] was Condemned for murthering her Bastard-Childe, which she most unnaturally kill’d and hid in her bed for some days, till the same was discovered by one that came to visit her. As she denied her murthering of it at the Bar, so she persisted in that negative to Master Ordinary and other Ministers since she received Sentence, alleadging that it was Stillborn; or at least, contracted its death as soon as ever it saluted the light, by an accidental fall; However, the Law, to prevent such presences which in all Cases of that kind might be made, obliging the woman immediately after to Cry out, and she failing therein, and as ’tis shrewdly apparent by Circumstance, was the principal Author of its destruction, she was condemned to die, and this day executed at Tyburn according to Sentence.
If you didn’t report your pregnancy, the infanticide presumption went against you. We’ve seen this elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Dine siblings of Enfield got it in the neck for mutilating a girl who had spurned one of them, quite the spiteful little affair down in the servant-quarters.
Three others, as the Crime they suffered for was the first they were known to have committed; so was it so strange and heinous, as searce ever to have been done by any body but themselves: So that we may say, They died Presidents of Punishment, for a Crime unpresidented. These were the two Brothers and Sister of Enfield, who so barbarously mangled Jane King, to whom Robert, one of the Brothers, pretended Love; but after a long acquaintance, being Fellow-Servants together, she refused to have him: whereupon his treacherous Love turned to Hatred and Malice, instigated (as ’tis supposed) chiefly thereunto by this unhappy Sister, with whom and his Brother he lays a Plot to disfigure her; maliciously and enviously designing, that because she would not accept of him, they would render her so deformed, that she her self should not be acceptable to any other person. In pursuance whereof, on the 20 February last about 8 of the clock in the evening, Robert and Jane being only up, and their aged Master in bed, somealls Robert by his name at the back-door, whimmediatley opens; and then comes in the Sister and Brother, the later of whom seizes upon Jane and holds her, while the former barbarous Furcy cuts her Eye so lamentably that she has utterly lost the use of it; mangles her Nose in a dismal manner, insomuch that two bones were taken out of it; her Tongue she flit, and almost cut off both her Lips; and also gave her a wound and two slabs in the Neck, and several slashes on the Arm, Etc. And having dispatch’d this unheard of Cruelty, left her for dead, and went home; who being gone, Robert cries cut Murther and Thieves; and Neighbours coming in, presends to be knock’s down, Etc. but in pleas’d God Jane, after three or four days, recovered herand then declared who had abused her, andully proved the same at the Sessions; whereupon they were all Condemned according to the Statute in that Case made and provided.
Yet did they all persist in the denial of the Fact, after their Condemnation, even to the day of their Death: nor would all Perswasions or Admonitions of several Ministers that came to visit them, get any acknowledgement that they had any hand in it. Though on the Sunday they carried themselves very attentively in the Chappel, and a great part of the Sermon was to perswade the necessity of Confession in order to their Souls health, yet they could not be prevailed upon; only on the Munday Margaret seemed a little unusually troubled, and delared, That she had something lay upon her Conscience, and desired she might speak with a Minister in private; whereupon a Minister was sent for, who took her aside, and hoping then she would have made an ingenuous Discovery, press’d her with all imaginable Arguments, but to no purpose: For she told him, she knew nothing of it; whereupon he as’d her, What it was she said troubled her, and lay upon her Conscience, for which she defired to speak with a Minister by her self: To which,all the answer that he could get was, That she had, when she said so, something in her head, but now she had forgot it.
[Note: lacking access to an original, I've erred on the side of caution in tidying up this text from the obviously squirrelly copy at the Old Bailey Online. Hopefully it's still readable despite dicey scanning and 17th century language.]
This is an interesting case, seemingly prosecuted under the Coventry Act* against deliberate maiming — contra the claim elsewhere in these pages that this legislation did not claim a juridical victim until 1722.
* “It was the first President of Punishment on that most necessary Statute against cutting off Noses, disfiguring and maiming his Majesties Subjects … it was a premeditated act of Malice to render her deform’d and unfit for any bodies.”