I have one body
And to you I offer and return it.
Here is my flesh;
Here is my blood;
Let me be slain, reduced to nothing;
Let my bones be split apart
For those for whom I am praying, if such is your will.
This date in 1375 is the best data point we have for the beheading of Niccolo di Toldo.
The Sienese archives offer scant documentation of this political execution; a decree of June 4, 1375 orders his examination for “the discord sowed by him in the city of Siena, pernicious and deadly to the state of the present government” — and a couple of letters on Niccolo’s behalf from the governor of neighboring Perugia. Francis Thomas Luongo in The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena — we will come to Catherine presently — next points in lieu of any remaining record of Niccolo’s execution to “the necrology of the Sienese Dominican friary [which] includes an entry for one ‘Nicholaus, familiarius of the Lord Senator,’ who died and was entombed in the cloister of San Domenico on 20 June, the vigil of the feast of Corpus Christi.” It’s not certain that this is the same man but the description fits him, and the date is one week after the last known letter on his behalf from Perugia — which was an appeal for mercy.
We are as ignorant of Niccolo di Toldo’s offense as we are of the date of his death. But his position (in the household of a senator) and his Perugian affiliation suggest him an agent of papal subversion.
Siena’s centuries-long decline from the ranks of Italy’s city-state powers dates ultimately to the Black Death outbreak of 1348. The Plague devastated Siena.
The ensuing generations saw authority in the great Tuscan city furiously contested; the government turned over repeatedly in the 1360s — the Dodici (the Twelve), the Tredici, the Quindici, each an executive committee of interested parties in the coalition of the day.
From the late 1360s and through the 1370s, the Quindici held sway: reformist guild leaders* who were opposed by the the deposed (and by now proscribed) ex-Dodici, Siena’s great magnates in alliance with the papacy. (Luongo delves into Sienese politics in considerable detail in his book.) By year’s end Siena would join a city-state coalition led by Florence that fought a three-year war against the papal states with the excellent name “the War of Eight Saints”.
That coalition and that thrust of policy is likely what a “political subversive” in 1375 Siena would be subverting. And the governor of Perugia appealing to the Sienese for Toldo’s life? He was a French cardinal, kin to Pope Gregory XI.**
Little as we know of Niccolo di Toldo prior to his death, that execution is one of the most famous in all of medieval Europe.
Catherine found Niccolo angry at his impending fate, initially refusing to see any spiritual counselor: no state of mind for a soul to meet its maker. Any of the confraternities tasked at this time with succoring those about to face execution would have been charged with bringing such a person to a condition of resignation and penitence.
Catherine achieved her mission to join the doomed man to God but much, much more than that: her account of their relationship, up to the moment when she ecstatically catches his falling bloody head, is a celebration of erotic mysticism. It’s also one of the most famous episodes of the saint’s life.
Niccolo’s virgin helpmate was herself noted for her mystical “marriage to Christ”: in it, Catherine presented her heart to the phantom Savior, and he his ritually circumcised foreskin to her.
Converging religious fervor and carnality mark her interaction with Niccolo, too; at one point she implies that she has sublimated the condemned traitor’s attraction to her into piety, and (as Catherine wrote a follower),
God’s measureless and burning goodness tricked him, creating in him such an affection and love in the desire of me in God, that he did not know how to abide without God, and he said: ‘Stay with me and do not leave me. Like this I cannot but be alright, and I will die content!’ and he had his head resting on my breast. I sensed an intense joy, a fragrance of his blood, and it was not without the fragrance of my own, which I wait to shed for the sweet husband Jesus.
Catherine saw Niccolo di Toldo only twice in the days leading up to his execution. When he went to the block, she was there to meet him: in fact, she was there early and made bold to occupy the condemned’s place on the scaffold, and to stretch her own neck out over the headsman’s block that her kindred spirit would soon soak in gore. It was as if preparing his bridal bed, where she would embrace Niccolo even as the executioner struck — the two as passionately near to one in soul and body as the logistics of a heavy blade’s arc can permit.
[H]e arrived, as a meek lamb, and seeing me, he began to laugh, and he wanted me to make the sign of the cross. When he received the sign, I said, “Come on! to the nuptials, my sweet brother! for soon you will be in life without end.” He got down with great meekness, and I stretched out his neck, and leaning down, I reminded him of the blood of the Lamb. His mouth said nothing but “Jesus” and “Catherine.” And, as he was saying thus, I received his head in my hands, closing his eyes on divine goodness and saying, “I want this!” (“lo voglio”)†
She clutched to herself the lifeless head that had dropped into her lap and beheld “with the greatest envy” Niccolo’s soul ascending in the martyrdom Catherine aspired to. Afterwards, she was reluctant to wash out the clothes spattered with blood from the sacred climax of death.
The Dominican friar Caffarini, an ally of Catherine who was later to become of the principal exponents of her canonization, wrote of the tableau that Niccolo
accepted death while still at a young age, in the presence of the Virgin and with her receiving his head into her hands, with such marvelous devotion that it was like the transitus of some devout martyr and not the death of one who was condemned for a human crime. And everyone watching among whom I was only one was so moved internally and from the heart that I do not remember any previous burial accompanied with as much devotion as that one.
* Apart from the enmity of the papal party, the powerful guild leaders of the Quindici faced working-class opposition that resulted in a 1378 revolt.
** Gregory XI was the guy who moved the papacy back from Avignon to Rome.
† Translated excerpts culled from snippets and excerpts in various locations. Original Italian versions of Catherine’s poetic letters are available in public-domain Google books here; there’s also a recent English translation by Susan Noffke.
On this date in 1714, “the Negroes Cato (Cowley’s) Fortune (Vanderspeigle’s) Cato alias Toby, Ben and Quash, were executed according to their respective Sentences.”
That’s the entirety of the text in Daniel Horsmanden‘s compenium to describe a quintuple burning of rebel slaves in New York, and as the dismissive treatment implies this was an occasion of little moment within the colony’s 1741 hunt for a great slave conspiracy.
We have by this point clearly reached the point in the story at which the trials feed on themselves.
To recall the action to this point: a series of fires in March and April had inflamed a popular conviction that servile arsonists were afoot, until “Many people had such terrible apprehensions … that several negroes (and many had been assisting at the fire at the storehouse, and many perhaps that only seemed to be so) who were met in the streets, after the alarm of their rising, were hurried away to jail.”
New Yorkers, to their partial credit, did not put these suspected blacks all to lynch law, but it is an open question whether the judicial proceedings extended to the 34 people eventually executed in the affair really uncovered any plot — or merely hammered the existing public paranoia into specious evidence.
Either way, the breakthrough in the law’s eyes was the deposition given on April 22nd by Mary Burton, a young and disgruntled servant, that her master and mistress, their boarder, and three slaves (and known thieves) “used to meet frequently at her Master’s House, and that she has heard them (the Negroes) talk frequently of burning the Fort; and that they would go down to the Fly and burn the whole Town: and that her Master and Mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.”
Burton left herself some wiggle room for the purges she might have guessed might follow by mentioning up to “Twenty or Thirty Negroes at one Time in her Master’s House” but she only identified by name here six specific people. And by this point in our story, mid-June, they are dead every one of the six: the slaves Caesar, Prince and Cuffee; her master John Hughson, his wife Sarah, and their Irish boarder Peggy Kerry.
Whether or not they were rightly accused or fairly prosecuted, one could easily imagine a world where their deaths are the end of the story.
But in our world, the dimensions and the participants of the plot so-called were already ballooning. Information wrung out by investigators who were by now convinced of the plot’s existence — from men at the stake teased with the prospect of pardon; from jailhouse snitches; and more from Mary Burton herself, who would repeatedly appear in Horsmanden’s pages to light the next passage forward — had already brought to the stakes another batch of slaves, on June 9.
This group had previously been stitched up thanks in part to a slave named Sawney or Sandy who gave evidence against them under the threat of being prosecuted with them. After five were condemned, one of their company, a slave named Jack,* dodged execution by offering the judges a copious affidavit confirming Sawney’s evidence and adding still more names to the plot.
These men’s charges would prove instrumental in the execution of June 16 — almost a sideshow as compared to the arc of the arson panic as a whole, but a melodrama that meant death for the blood offerings by which Sawney and Jack bought their lives.
Toby or Cato (Provoost’s) enters the documentary record on June 9, from the evidence that the condemned Jack gives while his four friends are burning to death.
Ben (Captain Marshall’s) and Quash (Rutger’s) appear as a unit in that same evidence of Jack’s, principal fellows in Hughson’s conspiracy in a scene that Jack coyly lays at a moment his fellow-witness Mary Burton “was above making a Bed.” In it, Ben
said, he could find a Gun, Shot and Powder, at his Master’s House: That his Master did not watch him, he could go into every Room: Ben asked Quash, What will you stand for? He said, he did not care what he stood for, or should be, but he could kill Three, Four, Five White Men before Night.
That Quash said, he could get two half Dozen of Knives in Papers, three or four Swords; and that he would set his Master’s House on fire, and when he had done that, he would come abroad to fight.
Cato (Cowley’s) and Fortune (Vanderspiegle’s) enter the paper trail on May 25, when they are named by Sandy. Both were arrested as a result, but we do not hear more about them for a fortnight, until Jack corroborates Sandy’s charges.
The cascade of accusations proved neatly self-affirming. Another slave named Will and bearing the winsome nickname “Ticklepitcher” was accused by Cuffee and Quack at the stake when they believed that it might save their lives. (It didn’t.) That was after Sandy had already given his evidence, but Jack, no fool, rolled Ticklepitcher too right into his (Jack’s) 40-point affidavit.**
This led Tickle himself to give evidence for the crown by naming 20 other participants in Hughson’s plot, among them Cato and Fortune. And yet another black nam, named Bastian or Tom Peal, followed a similar path: first named by Mary Burton in one of her secondary examinations in May — and then confirmed in guilt by Sandy and Jack — upon his own conviction also went over to the inquisitors, “as was intimated by Somebody about the Jail he would.” Bastian named every member of the June 16 execution party save Fortune.
These, then, were the accusers presented in the June 13 trial that doomed our quintet: Mary Burton, and all the progeny of her first deposition two months before: Sandy, Jack, Ticklepitcher, Bastian, and yet two more slaves who had made themselves the same lifesaving bridge from accused to accuser.
Through their mutually corroborating — and mutually interested — evidence, the court was able to show to its satisfaction that
these stupid Wretches seduced by the Instigation of the Devil, and Hughson his Agent,† to undertake so senseless, as well as wicked an Enterprize; which must inevitably end in their own Destruction … are equally as guilty as if they themselves had devised it, by consenting to it, taking Oaths to proceed in it, and in the mean Time to keep it secret.
The jury, perhaps mindful that “[t]he Number of the Conspirators is very great … and we have still daily new Discoveries of many more” withdrew for but “a little Time” before closing this particular chapter with the preordained result. There would be yet another trial the very day after these five burned.
* Most slaves in the narrative are identified by a first name plus the possessive surname of their owner. The Jack in question belonged to a man named Comfort, so Horsmanden refers to him as Jack (Comfort’s) — in distinction from, for instance, Jack (Sleydall’s).
** No lie, Jack’s information runs to almost three full pages with 40 numbered bullets.
† Hughson’s narrative importance to the theory of a burgeoning servile rebellion will thrill the student of race in American history: “It cannot be imagined that these silly unthinking Creatures (Hughson’s black Guard) could of themselves have, and carried on so deep, so direful and destructive a Scheme, as that we have seen with our Eyes, and have heard fully proved they had prepared for us, without the Advice and Assistance of such abandoned Wretches as Hughson was.” Those are the prosecutor’s words; in sentencing, the court termed our five “inferior Agents.”
They were the first white people executed in the affair, and when their 16-year-old indentured servant Mary Burton first described a plot to fire the city hatched by thronging slave conclaves at the Hughsons’ tavern, the by the account of the court’s officer Daniel Horsmanden, it “was most astonishing to the Grand Jury … that any white People should become so abandoned to confederate with Slaves in such an execrable and detestable Purpose.”
Whether there ever really was an execrable and detestable Purpose or whether white New Yorkers convinced of the arson plot were just chasing ghosts, nobody can say with certainty. But the Hughsons most definitely did confederate with slaves. The keeper of a dockside tavern on the Hudson, Hughson catered to the colony’s lower strata: both blacks and poor whites frequented the place, and for the criminal element among them Hughson kept up a side business as a small-time fence of stolen goods.
Back in 1738, the Hughsons had moved to that location from the South Ward — driven, one infers, by complaints of a previous neighbor that they “kept a very disorderly House, and sold Liquor to, and entertained Negroes.” Three of those Negroes were the slaves Caesar, Prince and Cuffee, who in January of 1738 had been busted for breaking into another tavern in town and carrying away the gin … an incident that by 1741 their prosecutors were characterizing as the germ of a years-long plot to orchestrate the annihilation of New York.*
The keystone to the 1741 wave of prosecutions — the break in the case, from the standpoint of the court — occurred on April 22, when Burton provided the Grand Jury a damning description of her master and mistress as the kingpins of a murderous cabal. Burton swore
That Caesar, Prince, and Mr. Philipse’s Negro Man (Cuffee) used to meet frequently at her Master’s House, and that she has heard them (the Negroes) talk frequently of burning the Fort; and that they would go down to the Fly(d) and burn the whole Town: and that her Master and Mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.
That in their common Conversation they used to say, that when all this was done, Caesar should be Governor, and Hughson her Master should be King.
That Cuffee used to say, That a great many People had too much, and others too little; That his old Master had a great deal of Money, but that, in a short Time, he should have less, and that he (Cuffee) should have more.
That at the Meetings of the Three aforesaid Negroes, Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee, at her Master’s House, they used to say, in their Conversation, That when they set Fire to the Town, they would do it in the Night, and as the white People came to extinguish it, they would kill and destroy them.
Up until that point, the court had a suspicion of an arson campaign, based on a series of fires that looked like a pattern but might have been coincidental. Burton’s deposition gave that suspicion tangible shape, and structured all the proceedings to follow. And in her telling, it all started with Hughson, Hughson, and Kerry.
It was a story that fit what the judges would know or believe about them: besides the Hughsons’ underclass and criminal connections, the Hughsons’ Irish lodger Peggy Kerry was Caesar’s lover and the mother of his infant son. “She was a person of infamous character, a notorious prostitute, and also of the worst sort, a prostitute to negroes,” Horsmanden sneers in the introduction he wrote to his compendium of proceedings.
“Here is laid the foundation of the characters of Hughson and his family, which will afford frequent occasion of enlarging upon; and from such a hopeful earnest the reader may well expect a plentiful harvest.”
Peggy Kerry, that “Newfoundland Irish beauty,” now came under relentless pressure to corroborate Mary Burton. Prostitute to Negroes or no, she was badly needed to add credibility (and leal certainty) to Burton’s charge.
Jailed and facing the prospect of execution, she nevertheless stubbornly refused every blandishment to adhere to Mary Burton’s version of events — a version that would surely doom her friends the Hughsons and her lover Caesar.
She paid the last price or her obstinance. Arthur Price, the jailhouse snitch who eventually doomed Cuffee, entered the case by telling investigators that Peggy said to him all the stuff they wanted her to say to them.
[Price asked] What, Peggy; were you a going to set the Town on fire? And she made Answer, She was not; but said, by God, since I knew of it, they made me swear: Upon which the Deponent asked her, Was John and his Wife in it? (meaning John Hughson and his Wife) And she answered Yes, by God, they were both sworn as well as the rest. Then the Deponent asked her, if she was not afraid that the Negroes would discover her? And she said, No; for Prince, Cuff and Caesar, and Forck’s [Vaarck’s] Negro [Caesar] were all true-hearted Fellows.
And by the way, she added,
for your Life and Soul of you, you Son of a Bitch, don’t speak a Word of what I have told you.
Whether or not Peggy Kerry really did say all this incriminating stuff to her fellow dungeon denizen, Price’s report laid her in the magistrates’ trap. Now she was already the second witness, via Price — and without the benefit of leniency that she could have procured by talking herself. The pending conspiracy charge dangled over her head.
Finally, on May 7, she made a too-little, too-late grab at mercy by describing plotters meeting not at the Hughsons’, but at the house of a nearby cobbler, John Romme. Heartbreakingly, she put the father of her son into the scene: she had abandoned any hope of saving him.
This half-confession, as the magistrates saw it, only redounded against her for upon interrogation Elizabeth Romme denied everything (John Romme had left, or fled, town). Romme’s place was a dead end in the investigation but Kerry’s saying it confirmed that she was privy to something about the plot — something she might still be withholding. “From what had hitherto come to Light concerning this Mystery of Iniquity, it was scarce to be doubted, but Peggy had it in her Power to unfold a great deal more,” Horsmanden remarks in his entry for May 14. “Though what Peggy had already disclosed seemed to merit something; yet it was not altogether satisfactory; and ’twas thought proper she should be arraigned upon the Indictment for the Conspiracy, upon the Supposition that this Step might probably be a Means of bringing her to a Resolution of making a full Discovery of what she knew.”
For the next weeks, the court routed around the intransigence of its would-be star witness, and increasingly made her prospective evidence irrelevant. There was Arthur Price’s deposition, to begin with; to this crown’s evidence was added witnesses we have already met in the trials of the other other men: Sandy, Sarah, Fortune. There were the desperate “confessions” extorted from Quack and Cuffee at the stake.
John Hughson, who was being fitted for the halter, could see what was up. With his wife and now his daughter as well both in jail, Hughson asked on June 1 to see Daniel Horsmanden, “to open his Heart to them, and they should know more.” What deal was he hoping to cut? Could he extricate himself? Would he trade his own life to save his family?
We don’t know, because Horsmanden made it clear in their interview that not John Hughson nor Sarah Hughson nor Peggy Kerry had an ounce of leverage remaining.
[I] reproached him with his wicked Life and Practices, debauching and corrupting of Negroes, and encouraging them to steal and pilfer from their Masters and others; and for shewing his Children so wicked an Example, training them up in the High-Way to Hell: He further observed to him, that his Wife, and Peggy, then stood convicted of a Felony for receiving stolen Goods of Negroes; and that now nothing remained but to pass Sentence of Death upon them, and to appoint a Day for their Execution for that Fact; but that it was now determined, that he, his Wife and Daughter, and Peggy, should also be tried for being confederated in this most horrible Conspiracy; that the Evidence would appear so strong and clear against them in this Particular, that there was little doubt of their being all convicted upon that Head also; that it would appear undeniably that he was a Principal, and head Agent in this detestable Scheme of Villany; the chief Abettor, together with the rest of his Family, of this execrable and monstrous Contrivance for shedding the Blood of his Neighbours, and laying the whole City in Ashes, upon the Expectation of enriching himself by such an inhuman and execrable Undertaking: He therefore admonished him, if he would entertain the least Hopes of recommending himself to the Mercy of God Almighty, before whose Tribunal he must soon appear, that he would ingenuously tell the Truth, and lay open the whole Scene of this dark Tragedy, which had been brooding at his House; and discover the several Parties he knew to have been engaged in it; in doing which he would make some Attonement for his past Villanies, by preventing that Slaughter, Bloodshed and Devastation which he and his Confederates had intended.
Disabused of any hope, Hughson “put on a soft smiling Air of Innocence” and “declared, he knew Nothing at all of any Conspiracy; and called God to witness his Protestations, that he was as innocent with respect to that Charge as the Child unborn, and also his Wife, Daughter, and Peggy for aught he knew.” He would go to trial with those three on June 4.
That proceeding was a walkover, as Horsmanden had predicted. Mary Burton was the star witness against her former master and mistress, with Arthur Price’s account of Peggy Kerry’s confessions thrown in for good measure.
Following these came a litany of the Hughsons’ current and former white neighbors who damned the Hughson house as a regular haunt of the city’s black population — that “a Cabal of Negroes” was frequently entertained, that Peggy had been seen serving them and both the Hughson mother and daughter danced shamelessly with them, that “whole Companies of Negroes [were] playing at Dice there.”
The real evidence here still rested only upon Mary Burton’s allegation as supported by Arthur Price. But from the trial preceding the court had already fixed that story through the flesh of other men. That others who had hanged and burned already were known to congregate at the Hughsons’ did the necessary work to finish John Hughson, “whose Crimes have made him blacker than a Negro; the Scandal of his Complexion, and the Disgrace of human Nature!”
Such a Monster will this Hughson appear before you, that for sake of the Plunder he expected by setting in Flames the King’s House, and this whole City, and by the Effusion of the Blood of his Neighbours’ — He — Murderous and Remorseless He! — counselled and encouraged the Committing of all these most astonishing Deeds of Darkness, Cruelty, and Inhumanity. — Infamous Hughson! —
This is that Hughson! whose Name, and most detestable Conspiracies will no doubt be had in everlasting Remembrance, to his eternal Reproach; and stand recorded to latest Posterity, — This is the Man! — his, that Grand Incendiary! — That Arch Rebel against God, his King, and his Country! — That Devil Incarnate! and chief Agent of the old Abaddon of the infernal Pit, and Regions of Darkness.
These are the rhetorical fulminations of the prosecuting attorney, William Smith, who surely deserves a plaque in that profession’s hall of fame for bridging the distance from some NIMBYing neighbors to the logic and the rhetoric of a witch trial. Hell … just the fact that Hughson had the effrontery to show up and defend himself only went to show what a monster he was.
Was not this Hughson sunk below the Dignity of human Nature — Was he not abandoned to all Sense of Shame and Remorse! — To all Sense of Feeling the dreadful Calamities He has brought on this City, and his fellow Creatures; He would from a Consciousness of his own Guilt. — His monstrous Guilt! — be so confounded, as not able to look up, or stand without the greatest Confusion of Face, before this Court and Audience; but would openly confess his, and the Rest of his wretched Confederates Guilt, and humbly ask Pardon of God, the King, and his injured Country.
And so they died. Of course they died.
Sarah Hughson, the 17-year-old daughter, was spared her sentence. Over the next weeks her orphaned life would be a litany of execution dates imposed and then delayed, trading time for cooperation that Sarah was very reluctant to provide. In whatever combination her age, her sex, and her skin — for as a white person, her evidence had privilege over the allegations of “pagan Negroes” in trials yet to come — would eventually procure her pardon.
But on June 12, her parents and their misfortunate friend Peggy Kerry all went to the gallows. (Not to the pyre, the fate of the black slaves convicted for the conspiracy.) Horsmanden spares for these major trophies a longer narration of their Passion, though this turns out to consist in large measure of Horsmanden complaining one last time how Peggy Kerry didn’t spare any of her last moments to finally give him what he wanted.
The under-sheriff had often advised John Hughson, to make a cofession about the conspiracy, but he always denied he knew any thing of the matter; said he had deserved death for receiving stolen goods. The wife was ever sullen; said little or nothing, but denied all.
The sheriffs observed John Hughson, when he was brought out of jail to be carried to execution, to have a red spot on each cheek, about the bigness of a shilling, which at that time thought very remarkable, for he was always pale of visage: these spots continued all along to the gallows. Amongst other discourse it seems he had said, he did not doubt but some remarkable sign would happen to him, to show his innocence; concerning which more will be observed upon hereafter.** He stood up in the cart all the way, looking round about him as if expecting to be rescued, as was by many conjectured from the air he appeared in: one hand was lifted up as high as his pinion would admit of, and a finger pointing, as if intending to beckon.
At the gallows his wife stood like a lifeless trunk, with the rope about her neck, tied up to the tree; she said not a word, and had scarce any visible motion.
Peggy seemed much less resigned than the other two, or rather unwilling to encounter death; she was going to say something, but the old woman who hung next to her, gave her a shove with her hand, as was said by some, so Peggy was silent.
But they all died, having protested their innocence to the last, touching the conspiracy.
This old woman, as it has been generally reported, was bred a Papist; and Peggy was much suspected of the same persuasion, though perhaps it may seem to be of little significance what religion such vile wretches professed.
From the scanty room in the jail for the reception of so many prisoners, this miserable wretch, upon her conviction with the Hughsons for the conspiracy, was put in the same cell with them; which perhaps was an unfortunate incident; for though she had to the time of their trial screened them from the charge of the conspiracy; yet there was reason to expect, that upon the last pinch, when she found there was no hopes of saving her own life if she persisted, the truth as to this particular would have come out; and indeed it was upon this expectation, that she was brought upon trial for the conspiracy; for her several examinations before set forth, and what Arthur Price had sworn to have dropt from her in accidental talk in jail, had put it beyond doubt, that she was privy to many of the Hughsons’ secrets concerning this detestable confederacy; but when she was admitted to the Hughsons, under the circumstances of conviction and condemnation for the conspiracy, they most probably prevailed with her to persevere in her obstinacy, to the end to cover their own guilt, since they were determined to confess nothing themselves; and they might drive her to desperation by subtle insinuations, that the judges she saw after they had picked all they could but of her, whatever expectations she might have raised from her confessions, or hopes she flattered herself with of saving her life upon the merit of them; yet after all, she was brought to trial and condemned for the conspiracy, as well as they; and why should she expect pardon any more than they: and by such like artifices it is probable they might stop her mouth, and prevent her making further discovery; and not only so, but then of course prevail with her to recant, as to what she had confessed already.
John Hughson endured the posthumous indignity of being gibbeted in chains, on an island† alongside the already-rotting corpse of his former boon companion Caesar — who had hanged fully a month before.
As an unseasonably hot summer emerged in the weeks ahead, Horsmanden would later report how “Hughson’s Body drip’d and distill’d very much, as it needs must, from the great Fermentation and Abundance of Matter within him,” bloating to “Gigantick” proportions until at last “Hughson’s Corps unable to contain its Load, burst and discharged Pails full of Blood and Corruption” to the disgust of some nearby fishermen “to whom the Stench of it was very offensive.” The progress of this revolting fermentation was one reason guessed by “amused” New Yorkers for a queer phenomenon, that as they dangled in their manacles,
Hughson was turned Negro, and Vaarck’s Caesar a White; and when they came to put up York in Chains by Hughson (who was hung upon the Gibbet three Weeks before [and not yet exploded from his fermentation -ed.]) so much of him as was visible, viz. Face, Neck, Hands and Feet, were of a deep shining Black, rather blacker than the Negro placed by him, who was one of the darkest Hue of his Kind; and the Hair of Hughson’s Beard and Neck (his Head could not be seen, for he had a Cap on) was curling like the Wool of a Negro’s Beard and Head; and the Features of his Face were of the Symmetry of a Negro Beauty; the Nose broad and flat, the Nostrils open and extended, the Mouth wide, Lips full and thick, his Body, (which when living, was tall by the View upwards of six Feet, but very meagre) swell’d to a Gigantick Size; and as to Caesar (who, tho’ executed for a Robbery, was also one of the Head Negro Conspirators, had been hung up in Chains a Month before Hughson, and was also of the darkest Complexion) his Face was at the same Time somewhat bleach’d or turned whitish; insomuch that it occasion’d a Remark, That Hughson and he had changed Colours.
Lepore suggests that the city’s controversial Freemasons club, which was then prominent enough for active parody in the city’s press, led John Hughson to form a mock secret society at his cronies’ saturnalias whose joke “initiations” had downtrodden friends and even casual acquaintances boozily (but jestingly) vow to torch the city. During the (actual or perceived) arson wave of 1741, New York’s court would read a far more sinister intent to this sort of talk, and there are consequent references in the trial records to a “three-year conspiracy.”
** Much later in his narrative, Horsmanden gets around to an indeterminate speculation that the red spots on John Hughson’s cheeks might have been the product of his attempting to cheat the executioner with an insufficient poison. Evidently this was a rumor abroad in New York, though Horsmanden doubted the truth of it.
† The gibbet stood “near the powder-house,” which places it on a small island — long since gobbled up by the metropolis — within the marshes of Collect Pond. That’s around the present-day park named for Thomas Paine, which is just south of what’s now Collect Pond Park and at the time stood outside of the city’s main settlement.
Once an essential source of fresh water for Manhattanites, Collect Pond soon became overtaxed by the growing population and polluted by its use as a common sewer, devolving into a foetid slough. This public health hazard was destined for a grand future in New York’s crime annals, for once it was filled in the streets above it became New York’s legendary underworld nest, the Five Points. They were also the original site of The Tombs prison, which had structural problems from its outset due to land subsiding into the buried quagmire.
The Powder House, marked on a 1766 map of New York. (See large original version here.)
On this date in 1741, four black men were burned in New York City.
This is the third execution date in that year’s great suppression of a purported slave conspiracy, and it is here that its wantonly inquisitorial character clearly comes to the fore. Accusations under the gallows (or in this case, the pyres) topple like domino-tiles into fresh arrests and new accusations, until from a couple of luckless thieves there are 30-plus souls in the grave.
Eleven days prior, when two slaves named Cuffee and Quack had burned at the stake for this sensational plot, a sham offer of clemency had been extended them with the very fagots beneath their feet. Under this extortion the men had owned the plot, a confession the court privileged as the truth of dying men (for they were burnt anyway, despite their compliance), they duly named as co-conspirators several of those we find in the next tranch of slaves tried before the colony’s highest court.
(We must do Cuffee and Quack the justice of noting that by the time they burned, all those who were to be tried next were already in jail with them, arrested upon the information of another fellow-slave informing to save his own skin. Perhaps the men at the stake supposed their fellows already burnt flesh, and their own accusations strictly ornamental.)
By this point in events, the court was convinced past arguing that a white barkeep named Hughson (whose own Executed Today entry is fast approaching) had played host to large meetings of New York’s Negros, where they drank together and leered at the white servant and toasted one another’s plans to destroy the city. When slaves were wrung for information about the “plot” it was largely to name those who had participated in these supposed meetings. But since a master conspiracy against white New York was now presumed — its alleged leaders had been the first to die — little was required to damn a man but to place him at one of these slaves’ sabbaths. Trials could now become quite perfunctory on any one person’s actual role or misdeeds: just tie him to the satanic cabal.
Even the crown’s own opening statement to the court on June 8 basically promised to mail it in.
It will, I doubt not, appear to you, upon hearing our Witnesses for the King on this Trial, that these six Negroes are some of the Conspirators who combined with those principal Incendiaries, Hughson and his Family, to set on fire the King’s House, and this whole Town, and to kill and murder the Inhabitants.
But as I have already, upon the Trial of the Negro Quack, for burning the King’s House, and of another Negro called Cuffee, for burning Mr. Philipse’s Storehouse, and likewise on the last Trial of Hughson, his Wife and Daughter, and Kerry, endeavoured to set forth their Heinousness of so horrible and detestable a Conspiracy; and the Dangers this City and Province may still be exposed to, until Examples are made of all such as have been concerned in this most wicked Plot; I think I have no Need upon this Trial, to say any Thing further on either of these Heads; not doubting but when you have heard the Crimes which these Criminals stand charged with, proved against them, you will find them Guilty.
The six in question were appended to the horrible and detestable Conspiracy as bullet points in depositions full of denunciations: namely, by the white servant Mary Burton, who was the Abigail Williams character of this particular witch hunt; by Cuffee’s and Quack’s tricked confession at the stake; and by three other slaves — Sandy, Sarah,* and Fortune — who had all been arrested themselves and gave their evidence under the pall of their own probable execution for any failure in cooperation.**
The court would surely reply here that such a society can rarely be penetrated but by dirty hands and compromised witnesses.** Seen in such a light, the roles imputed to these six would have been terrifying.
Jack was a “captain” in the cell and resolved “his Knife was so sharp, that if it came a-cross a white Man’s Head, it would cut it off” (according to Sandy); he with Cook “used to be at the Meetings at Hughson’s, when they were talking of firing the Town and murdering the People” (Mary Burton)
Cuffee and Caesar “fired Van Zant’s Storehouse” (according to the dying confessions of both Quack and the previous Cuffee) with Caesar declaring for good measure that “he would kill the white Men, and drink their Blood to their good Healths: This about a Fortnight or Three Weeks before the Fort burnt.” (Sandy)
Robin “had a Knife there, and sharpened it; and consented to help kill the white Men, and take their Wives.” (Sandy)
Jamaica “(being a Fidler) said, he would dance over [white New Yorkers] while they were roasting in the Flames; and said, he had been Slave long enough.” (Mary Burton)
There is at times a suspicious confluence of language — and a repeated fixation on black men seizing white women — that suggest the interrogator’s influence. Nevertheless, depositions overlapping on a number of key points have persuaded not only the slaves’ jurors but some of their latter-day interlocutors that they truly were party to a most audacious design. Every one of them was condemned to death. Jamaica, the fiddler, received the liberality of a three-day wait; the other five were all to burn the very next afternoon — June 9, 1741.
Their actual execution is a one-sentence afterthought in a record already by the morrow speeding along to the next proceedings: “This Day also, The Negroes Cook, Robin (Chamber’s) Caesar (Peck’s) Cuffee (Gomez’s) were executed according to Sentence.” The reader will notice that where five were doomed, only four have died. The fifth, Jack — that fell captain whetting his sharp blade for white throats — was busy that morning saving his own neck by supplying evidence for the crown, straight from the center of the plot. So Jack instead remained in the courtroom, detailing for his prosecutors (soon to be his pardoners) a fresh roster of prey, even as his comrades were wrenched from the courthouse’s basement jail and set alight in downtown Manhattan.
* Our very partial compiler Daniel Horsmanden admits that this witness “was one of the oddest Animals amongst the black Confederates, and gave the most Trouble in her Examinations; a Creature of an outragious Spirit: When she was first interrogated upon this Examination about the Conspiracy, she absolutely denied she knew any Thing of the Matter … her Conduct was such upon the Whole, that what she said, if not confirmed by others, or concurring Circumstances, could not deserve entire Credit.”
** In fact, the court did make this argument (“if Pagan Negroes could not be received as Witnesses against each other … [then] the greatest Villanies would often pass with Impunity”), for it was also defending itself as early as July of 1741 against contemporary whites who doubted that any actual terrorist conspiracy existed among the slaves. The anonymous New England critic whose letter surviving to us compares New York in 1741 to Salem in 1692 noticed “that such Confessions unless some certain Overt Act appears to confirm the same are not worth a Straw; for many times they are obtained by foul means, by force or torment, by Surprise, by flattery, by Distraction, by Discontent with their circumstances, through envy that they may bring others into the same condemnation, or in hopes of a longer time to live, or to die an easier death.” This was a soul ahead of its time.
Nineteen days before, two slaves named Caesar and Prince had hanged, nominally for theft but believed by the populace (and the court) primary instigators of a staggering plot to put New York to the torch, murder the city’s whites, and reign as kings on the ashes of their masters’ city.
Cuffee was, alongside those already-executed Caesar and Prince, part of a trio of slaves known to hang about together at the house of barkeep and fence John Hughson. Already notorious about town for a gin-robbing incident that had seen all three publicly whipped in 1738, and had again burgled a linen store that February. (That’s the crime for which Caesar and Prince were executed.)
The evidentiary chain linking these commonplace prowlers to a spate of fires whose intent must be the annihilation of the city leaves quite a bit to be desired, but the burning spring of 1741 helped solder them together in part thanks to a white New Yorker spying Cuffee in what he thought was a suspicious position during a fire and raising the alarm. Cuffee fled, back to the home of Frederick Philipse — his owner, and also the judge who would eventually condemn him — where a crowd of incited freemen chased him down and hauled him to gaol, “borne upon the People’s Shoulders.” His skulking seemed to confirm a widening suspicion, spiced by the mother country’s going war against dusky Spaniards, that the city’s Negroes must surely lurk behind a fortnight’s infernos. From this point on it appears as if New Yorkers — or at least the city’s elites — determined by consensus that they “must necessarily conclude, that [the fires] were occasioned and set on Foot by some villainous Confederacy of latent Enemies amongst us.”
Now, this appearance of consensus is an impression nearly three centuries distant, and is heavily shaped by the circumstance that there’s one predominant voice surviving the ravages of years to document for us the official proceedings: Daniel Horsmanden, who both judged and investigated the case and is thus heavily invested in its outcome. His A Journal of the Proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy Formed by Some White People, in Conjunction With Negro and Other Slaves, for Burning the City of New-York in America and Murdering the Inhabitants is Horsmanden’s record of how the plot or “plot” was uncovered; it was assembled in 1742 and presents trial and deposition records curated by Horsmanden with a view to persuading “such as have a Disposition to be convinc’d, and have in Reality doubted, whether any particular Convicts had Justice done them or not” — for by this time such doubts were dogging Horsmanden’s court, having hounded 30-odd people to death on evidence that was already viewed as highly impeachable.
There had been some wanton, wrong-headed Persons amongst us, who took the Liberty to arraign the Justice of the Proceedings, and set up their private Opinions in Superiority to the Court and Grand Jury; tho’ God knows (and all Men of Sense know) they could not be Judges of such Matters; but nevertheless, they declared with no small Assurance (notwithstanding what we saw with our Eyes, and heard with our Ears, and every one might have judg’d of by his Intellects, that had any) That there was no Plot at all!
Whether the entire slave conspiracy to burn New York was a phantom, or whether it did indeed reflect in whatever distorted way a some real mode of resistance, is a factual question that is permanently unanswerable.* But the cases certainly took on a witch hunt quality, and they bore many hallmarks of wrongful conviction that are familiar even today.
Our first two hangings, Caesar and Prince, were doomed by the decision of John Hughson’s teenage serving-girl to turn state’s evidence and denounce them. As Cuffee and Quack would be the first people formally tried for the arson wave, her evidence was buttressed in this case by another common prosecutor’s cheat: the prison snitch.
A (white) petty thief named Arthur Price, who was being held in New York’s dungeon along with the growing ranks of suspected terrorists, helpfully began informing on the people around him. It’s likely he was a longstanding underclass crony of the purported plotters.
At any rate, the civic-minded Price, “having been found by experience to be very adroit at pumping out the Secrets of the Conspirators … was ordered to put Cuffee (Mr. PHILIPSE’s Negro) into the same Cell with him, and to give them a Tankard of Punch now and then, in order to chear up their Spirits, and make them more sociable.” What do you know but the next morning, Price was ready to report that his inebriated cellmate had admitted the conspiracy to him, and had implicated Quack as the man who actually fired the fort.
Quack was promptly arrested. Arthur Price would give evidence against both at their trial, but having made himself an obvious stool pigeon his use as an informant was at an end since nobody would go near him any longer.
More key information against Cuffee and Quack came from two other slaves, whose “Negro evidence” — a distinct class of (significantly derogated) proof in New York courts — would also have been controversial. The crown’s attorney prosecuting the case felt obliged to go out of his way to justify to the jury the unsworn testimony of “Pagan Negroes” on the grounds that without such, “the greatest Villanies would often pass with Impunity.” But pagan or no, both Sandy (a minor) and Fortune were also men who were suspect in the plot. Perhaps as black slaves their king’s evidence could not be as strong as that of the white servant Mary Burton — but it might still be strong enough to save their lives. Sandy spent a week in the dungeon amid his alleged confederates, after which he was hauled before the grand jury and leaned upon until he cracked.
They told him, if he would speak the Truth, the Governor would pardon him, though he had been concerned in them; and this was the Time for him to save his Life by making a free and ingenuous Confession; or in Words to this Purpose. He answered, That the Time before after that the Negroes told all they knew, then the white People hanged them. The Grand Jury assured him, that it was false; for that the Negroes which confessed the Truth and made a Discovery, were certainly pardoned, and shipped off: [which was the Truth] And upon this Assurance he began to open, and gave the following Evidence.
Quack, Sandy said, had solicited Sandy to help him burn down Fort George — and Cuffee “said, D–m him, that hang him or burn him, he would set fire to the Town.” Fortune was among the numerous other names he named — whose “Design was to kill all the Gentlemen, and take their Wives, and that Quack and Cuffee were particular Persons that talked so.”
Strangely, before they suffered at the stake Cuffee and Quack were suffered to conduct a hopeless defense of their own — “indulged with the same Kind of Trial as is due to Freemen, though they might have been proceeded against in a more summary and less favourable Way,” in the crown’s summing-up. This was more than they were entitled to as slaves, and they used the court’s liberality to summon ten witnesses in an attempt to establish good character and alibi; notably, Quack’s owner John Roosevelt avowed that “Quack was employed most Part of that Morning the Fort was fired, from the Time they got up, in cutting away the Ice out of the Yard; that he was hardly ever out of their Sight all that Morning, but a small Time while they were at Breakfast; and that they could not think he could that Morning have been [from] their House so far as the Fort.” But even from a white property owner, these words were far too little against a consensus that had been shaped seemingly from the belly of the conspiracy — from Mary Burton’s evidence and Arthur Price’s evidence and Sandy’s and Fortune’s evidence: that Quack’s were the hands that set the most damaging fire in the arson campaign, and that Cuffee’s, along with Caesar’s and Prince’s, were the hands that directed him.
Their condemnation was a mere formality, albeit one whose rhetorical opportunities the court did not mean to neglect.
You both now stand convicted of one of the most horrid and detestable pieces of villainy, that ever satan instilled into the heart of human creatures to put in practice; ye, and the rest of your colour, though you are called slaves in this country; yet you are all far, very far, from the condition of other slaves in other countries; nay, your lot is superior to that of thousands of white people. You are furnished with all the necessaries of life, meat, drink, and clothing, without care, in a much better manner than you could provide for yourselves, were you at liberty; as the miserable condition of many free people here of your complexion might abundantly convince you. What then could prompt you to undertake so vile, so wicked, so monstrous, so execrable and hellish a scheme, as to murder and destroy your own masters and benefactors? nay, to destroy root and branch, all the white people of this place, and to lay the whole town in ashes.
I know not which is the more astonishing, the extreme folly, or wickedness, of so base and shocking a conspiracy; for as to any view of liberty or government you could propose to yourselves, upon the success of burning the city, robbing, butchering, and destroying the inhabitants; what could it be expected to end in, in the account of any rational and considerate person among you, but your own destruction? And as the wickedness of it, you might well have reflected, you that have sense, that there is a God above, who has always a clear view of all your actions, who sees into the utmost recesses of the heart, and knoweth all your thoughts; shall he not, do ye think, for all this bring you into judgment, at that final and great day of account, the day of judgment, when the most secret treachery will be disclosed, and laid open to the view, and everyone will be rewarded according to their deeds, and their use of that degree of reason which God Almighty has entrusted them with.
Ye that were for destroying us without mercy, ye abject wretches, the outcasts of the nations of the earth, are treated here with tenderness and humanity; and, I wish I could not say, with too great indulgence also; for you have grown wanton with excess of liberty, and your idleness has proved your ruin, having given you the opportunities of forming this villainous and detestable conspiracy; a scheme compounded of the blackest and foulest vices, treachery, blood-thirstiness, and ingratitude. But be not deceived, God Almighty only can and will proportion punishments to men’s offences; ye that have shewn no mercy here, and have been for destroying all about ye, and involving them in one general massacre and ruin, what hopes can ye have of mercy in the other world? For shall not the judge of all the earth do right? Let me in compassion advise ye then; there are but a few moments between ye and eternity; ye ought therefore seriously to lay to heart these things; earnestly and sorrowfully to bewail your monstrous and crying sins, in this your extremity; and if ye would reasonably entertain any hopes of mercy at the hands of God, ye must shew mercy here yourselves, and make what amends ye can before ye leave us, for the mischief you have already done, by preventing any more being done. Do not flatter yourselves, for the same measure which you give us here, will be measured to you again in the other world; ye must confess your whole guilt, as to the offences of which ye stand convicted, and for which ye will presently receive judgment; ye must discover the whole scene of iniquity which has been contrived in this monstrous confederacy, the chief authors and actors, and all and every the parties concerned, aiding and assisting therein, that by your means a full stop may be put to this horrible and devilish undertaking. And these are the only means left ye to shew mercy; and the only reasonable ground ye can go upon, to entertain any hopes of mercy at the hands of God, before whose judgment seat ye are so soon to appear.
Ye cannot be so stupid, surely, as to imagine, that when ye leave this world, when your souls put off these bodies of clay, ye shall become like the beasts that perish, that your spirits shall only vanish into the soft air and cease to be. No, your souls are immortal, they will live forever, either to be eternally happy, or eternally miserable in the other world, where you are now going.
If ye sincerely and in earnest repent you of your abominable sins, and implore the divine assistance at this critical juncture, in working out the great and momentous article of the salvation of your souls; upon your making all the amends, and giving all the satisfaction which is in each of your powers, by a full and complete discovery of the conspiracy, and of the several persons concerned in it, as I have observed to ye before, then and only upon these conditions can ye reasonably expect mercy at the hands of God Almighty for your poor, wretched and miserable souls.
Here ye must have justice, for the justice of human laws has at length overtaken ye, and we ought to be very thankful, and esteem it a most merciful and wondrous act of Providence, that your treacheries and villainies have been discovered; that your plot and contrivances, your hidden works of darkness have been brought to light, and stopped in their career; that in the same net which you have hid so privly for others your own feet are taken: that the same mischief which you have contrived for others, and have in part executed, is at length fallen upon your own pates, whereby the sentence which I am now to pronounce will be justified against ye; which is,
That you and each of you be carried from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, where you and each of you shall be chained to a stake, and burnt to death; and the lord have mercy upon your poor, wretched souls.
That sentence came down on May 29.
It was implemented the very next day, amid a mob scene.
With Quack and Cuffee staked to their pyres, they were harried to admit the plot with the promise of a reprieve from their horrible sentence. Even if mercy would only amount to moderating death by burning into death by hanging, it would be well worth having — and the frightened slaves grasped at the small succor left them.
The spectators at this execution were very numerous; about three o’clock the criminals were brought to the stake, surrounded with piles of wood ready for setting fire to, which the people were very impatient to have done, their resentment being raised to the utmost pitch against them, and no wonder. The criminals shewed great terror in their countenances, and looked as if they would gladly have discovered all they knew of this accursed scheme, could they have had any encouragement to hope for a reprieve. But as the case was, they might flatter themselves with hopes: they both seemed inclinable to make some confession; the only difficulty between them at last being, who should speak first. Mr. Moore, the deputy secretary, undertook singly to examine them both, endeavoring to persuade them to confess their guilt, and all they knew of the matter, without effect; till at length Mr. Roosevelt [Quack’s owner, who testified for his alibi -ed.] came up to him, and said he would undertake Quack, whilst Mr. Moore examined Cuffee; but before they could proceed to the purpose, each of them was obliged to flatter his respective criminal that his fellow sufferer had begun, which stratagem prevailed: Mr. Roosevelt stuck to Quack altogether, and Mr. Moore took Cuff’s confession, and sometimes also minutes of what each said; and afterwards upon drawing up their confessions in form from their minutes, they therefore intermixed what came from each.
Thus induced by prevaricating confessors amid a mob baying for their blood, both Quack and Cuffee implicated Hughson as the originator of the plot, and themselves as early principals, and named a good many others besides. (Quack also at last claimed responsibility for firing Fort George, as the court had found.)
But the quid for their quo was not the promised abatement of their sufferings. As Sandy had worried to the grand jury in a different context, white men’s reassurances to slave rebels whom they meant to destroy could prove … unreliable.
After the confessions were minuted down (which were taken in the midst of great noise and confusion) Mr. Moore desired the sheriff to delay the execution until the governor be acquainted therewith, and his pleasure known touching their reprieve; which, could it have been effected, it was thought might have been means of producing great discoveries; but from the disposition observed in the spectators, it was much to be apprehended, there would have been great difficulty, if not danger in an attempt to take the criminals back. All this was represented to his honour; and before Mr. Moore could return from him to the place of execution, he met the sheriff upon the common, who declared his opinion, that the carrying the negroes back would be impracticable; and if that was his honour’s order it could not be attempted without a strong guard, which could not be got time enough; and his honour’s directions for the reprieve being conditional and discretionary, for these reasons the execution proceeded.
* For contrasting perspectives, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker present this as a real instance of working-class rebellion in The Many-Headed Hydra, while Jill LePore’s New York Burning approaches it as mostly a concoction.
On this day in 1650, James Graham, Earl of Montrose, was hanged in Edinburgh.
The tragic “Great Montrose” was renowned for his tactical genius on the battlefield during the civil wars that cost King Charles I both crown and head. Although Montrose would die as a royalist he first entered the lists in the 1630s’ Bishops’ War as part of the Covenanter army resisting the king’s bid to impose top-down religious governance on Scotland.
But Montrose was the moderate and post-Bisops War found himself a leading exponent of the pro-reconciliation faction, bitterly opposed by the chief of the Campbell clan, the Marquess of Argyll.
These two became the opposing poles for the ensuing civil war in Scotland, at once a local clan war and the vortex of a border-hopping conflict that sucked in Ireland and England too. Although Montrose, now King Charles’s lieutenant-general in Scotland, could kicktail in battle his faction was divided and ultimately outnumbered by the Covenanters. Montrose had to flee Scotland for exile in 1646.
The execution of Charles I opened the door for Montrose’s own untimely end, in one of those classic affairs of double-dealing. The exiled Charles II, having now inherited the claim, named Montrose his lieutenant in Scotland and dispatched his family’s longtime paladin back to native soil to try to raise an army. But even as he did so, he was negotiating with Argyll’s Covenanters, who saw a chance to make good their political and religious objectives by playing kingmaker with their former enemy.
So when Montrose landed in 1650, he found little support and was overwhelmed at the Battle of Carbisdale. After several days’ wandering he sought refuge with a former friend who he did not realize was now also on the government’s side, and was promptly arrested and given over to his enemies for execution and for posthumous indignities: his head was mounted on a pike atop Edinburgh’s Tolbooth, and his four limbs nailed to the gates of Stirling, Glasgow, Perth and Aberdeen.
After the end of Cromwell‘s Protectorate, and the actual restoration of Charles II, these scattered remains were gathered up and interred with reverence at St. Giles Cathedral. The present-day Dukes of Montrose are his direct descendants.
The Execution of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose
A Historical Poem
‘Twas in the year of 1650, and on the twenty-first of May,
The city of Edinburgh was put into a state of dismay
By the noise of drums and trumpets, which on the air arose,
That the great sound attracted the notice of Montrose.
Who enquired at the Captain of the guard the cause of it,
Then the officer told him, as he thought most fit,
That the Parliament dreading an attempt might be made to rescue him,
The soldiers were called out to arms, and that had made the din.
Do I, said Montrose, continue such a terror still?
Now when these good men are about my blood to spill,
But let them look to themselves, for after I am dead,
Their wicked consciences will be in continual dread.
After partaking of a hearty breakfast, he commenced his toilet,
Which, in his greatest trouble, he seldom did forget.
And while in the act of combing his hair,
He was visited by the Clerk Register, who made him stare,
When he told him he shouldn’t be so particular with his head,
For in a few hours he would be dead;
But Montrose replied, While my head is my own I’ll dress it at my ease,
And to-morrow, when it becomes yours, treat it as you please.
He was waited upon by the Magistrates of the city,
But, alas! for him they had no pity.
He was habited in a superb cloak, ornamented with gold and silver lace;
And before the hour of execution an immense assemblage of people were round the place.
From the prison, bareheaded, in a cart, they conveyed him along the Watergate
To the place of execution on the High Street, where about thirty thousand people did wait,
Some crying and sighing, a most pitiful sight to see,
All waiting patiently to see the executioner hang Montrose, a man of high degree.
Around the place of execution, all of them were deeply affected,
But Montrose, the noble hero, seemed not the least dejected;
And when on the scaffold he had, says his biographer Wishart,
Such a grand air and majesty, which made the people start.
As the fatal hour was approaching when he had to bid the world adieu,
He told the executioner to make haste and get quickly through,
But the executioner smiled grimly, but spoke not a word,
Then he tied the Book of Montrose’s Wars round his neck with a cord.
Then he told the executioner his foes would remember him hereafter,
And he was as well pleased as if his Majesty had made him Knight of the Garter;
Then he asked to be allowed to cover his head,
But he was denied permission, yet he felt no dread.
He then asked leave to keep on his cloak,
But was also denied, which was a most grievous stroke;
Then he told the Magistrates, if they could invent any more tortures for him,
He would endure them all for the cause he suffered, and think it no sin.
On arriving at the top of the ladder with great firmness,
His heroic appearance greatly did the bystanders impress,
Then Montrose asked the executioner how long his body would be suspended,
Three hours was the answer, but Montrose was not the least offended.
Then he presented the executioner with three or four pieces of gold,
Whom he freely forgave, to his honour be it told,
And told him to throw him off as soon as he uplifted his hands,
While the executioner watched the fatal signal, and in amazement stands.
And on the noble patriot raising his hands, the executioner began to cry,
Then quickly he pulled the rope down from the gibbet on high,
And around Montrose’s neck he fixed the rope very gently,
And in an instant the great Montrose was launched into eternity.
Then the spectators expressed their disapprobation by general groan,
And they all dispersed quietly, and wended their way home
And his bitterest enemies that saw his death that day,
Their hearts were filled with sorrow and dismay.
Thus died, at the age of thirty-eight, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose,
Who was brought to a premature grave by his bitter foes;
A commander who had acquired great military glory
In a short space of time, which cannot be equalled in story.
On this date in 1649, Oliver Cromwell had three leaders of his army’s working-class Levellers movement shot against the walls of Burford church.
The revolutionary army with which Cromwell had overthrown King Charles I came to a crisis in 1649 as the interests of senior officers and the class of landowners and merchants they hailed from clashed against those of the common soldiery.
This democratic and class-conscious Leveller movement has invited the sympathy of later radicals, and it would be hard to flatly call that attention anachronistic; Leveller William Walyn even anticipated Marx’s language in dismissing the Magna Carta as “that mess of pottage.”* This is an England whose capitalist shape is coming clearly into view.
Flint struck steel when the army’s Grandees laid a nasty Sophie’s choice on troops whose pay was deep in arrears: leave the army (forfeiting the back pay) or leave the country (to invade Ireland). Both options redounded to the advantage of the state and its moneyed interests, at the expense of the lower orders.
Army mutinies commenced immediately and the massive London procession that carried the executed Leveller Robert Lockyer to his grave proved the depth and danger of the public sentiment.
In early May of 1649, Colonel Scrope’s horse regiment — another of those offered the “opportunity” of serving in Ireland — followed suit, seizing the regimental colors, re-electing its own officers and marching out from Banbury across Salisbury plain to rendezvous with other discontented soldiers. In the words of one survivor,
the whole fabric of the Commonwealth fell into the grossest and vilest tyranny that ever Englishmen groaned under … which, with the considerations of the particular, most insufferable abuses and dissatisfactions put upon us, moved us to an unanimous refusal to go … till full satisfaction and security was given to us as Soldiers and Commoners, by a Council of our own free election.
Cromwell had a different satisfaction in mind.
Aided by an envoy sent to stall the rebels with a diversionary negotiation, Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax were able to surprise the 1,500 Levellers camped at Burford with a midnight attack the night of May 13-14. By morning, 340 soldiers were locked in Burford’s church as prisoners.
The tragic denouement of this Banbury mutiny was the execution of three soldiers, Cornet Thompson, Corporal Perkins, and Private Church. A plaque at the site still commemorates the event.
Both men had in their day been instrumental to winning the independence (de facto, if not yet de jure) that the Low Countries were already enjoying: laandsadvocaat van Oldenbarnevelt as the commanding political personality holding together the potentially fractious provinces in the 1580s and 1590s; stadtholder Maurice as the great general* of those provinces, whose sword-arm in the 1590s and 1600s more or less staked out the borders of the present-day Netherlands.
Thanks to their good offices, the once-desperate Dutch Revolt had triumphed in all but name, and in the 1610s paused to savor the fruits of victory during the Twelve Years’ Truce.**
Increasingly after 1600, the two developed a rivalry that was both personal, and political, andreligious — for in their prominence they also became the chief exponents of the neighborhood schism, van Oldenbarnevelt championing the Remonstrants or Arminians (they remonstrated against some Calvinist doctrines) and Maurice upholding the orthodox Counter-Remonstrants or Gomarist side. The conflict was no joke; the States of Holland at van Oldenbarnevelt’s urging went so far as to hire its own mercenary army, knowing that it could not trust the national army commanded by the Counter-Remonstrant William. William secured the support of the States-General to forcibly disband this rival militia in July 1618† — and from that point until his death in 1625, William was the strongman in the Low Countries.
And van Oldenbarnevelt, well — he got the kangaroo court. See?
Tried by a special (dubiously legal) court comprised of enemies, the grizzled pol was condemned to death as a traitor. On May 13, the day he went to the block at the Binnenhof in The Hague, his home province the States of Holland saluted him as “a man of great business, activity, memory and wisdom — yes, extra-ordinary in every respect.”
He who stands, let him take care that he does not fall
Detail view (click for the full image) of a 17th century engraving of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt’s beheading.
Van Oldenbarnevelt’s son Reinier, lord of Groeneveld was beheaded in 1623 for conspiring to assassinate Maurice in revenge for his father’s execution.
* Maurice of Orange was recognized in his time as perhaps Europe’s greatest and most innovative commander. His introduction of infantry volley fire and highly disciplined drill regimens revolutionized the battlefield — and made the Dutch very difficult for their Spanish masters to handle.
The Indian Ocean island-nation Mauritius, discovered by Dutch explorers in 1598, was named for him.
** Posterity has the luxury of hindsight knowledge that although war would resume for the Low Countries in 1621, the peace of Westphalia would secure an independent Netherlands. However, already during the Twelve Years’ Truce the place was acting as an independent country, and some other states formally recognized it as such.
† One of van Oldenbarnevelt’s supporters was international law pioneer Hugo Grotius. Grotius was clapped in prison with van Oldenbarnevelt’s fall in 1618; he famously escaped this dungeon in 1621 by hiding in a chest of books and lived out his scribbling days in France.
On this date in 1612, Spanish colonial authorities smashed an alleged plot among Mexico City’s black slaves with a grisly mass execution.*
In Mexico as elsewhere in the Americas, African labor had been imported en masse in the 16th and 17th centuries; David Davidson estimated** that Mexico City had a black population ranging from 20,000 to 50,000. And as elsewhere in the Americas, they frequently resisted: Mexico City slave risings dating back to the 1540s had badly shaken the city, and led the viceroy Luis de Velasco to worry in 1553 that “this land is so full of Negroes and mestizos who exceed the Spaniards in great quantity, and all desire to purchase their liberty with the lives of their masters.”
The most illustrious name of this era was Gaspar Yanga, who was kidnapped into bondage from the Gold Coast, and escaped bondage by leading a large band of fugitive slaves into the highlands of Veracruz and founded an outlaw colony that still bears his name today.
Yanga’s palenque — known in his time as San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo — had to fend off military action by the Spanish authorities from 1609 until a truce in 1618.
Still, a truce was possible: a refuge like San Lorenzo offered slaves the unwelcome-to-their-masters prospect of escape from the scourge economy, but the real threat to New Spain was that purchasing liberty with lives bit.
As we have seen in the American South, the situation on the ground begat paranoia that makes it nigh impossible for later interlocutors to disentangle fact from fantasy: was there really a phenomenal slave rebellion nipped in the bud? Or just informers and torturers refracting the terrors of those outnumbered Spaniards?
The slaves in this case were said by a Portuguese merchant who overheard them to be readying themselves to exploit Spanish inattention during Holy Week celebrations, and to bloody those days by falling upon their masters and taking possession of the colony. In the inevitable rounds of arrests and torture that ensue, the alleged plot as recorded by the annalist Chimalpahin (Spanish link) sounds suspiciously like a psychosexual projection, for it
involved castrating any surviving Spanish males, making sexual slaves of white women, and gradually “blackening” the latter’s descendants.**
Certainly the punishment blackened Mexico City; our correspondent uses this same word to describe the condition of the gibbeted corpses when they were finally let down from their gallows on the feast of the Holy Cross. Even then, the flesh of the would-be slave kings could not rest: most were beheaded posthumously and mounted on pikes while six others were quartered for display on all the roads entering the capital. This in itself was a small moderation for the public good. Chimalpahin reports that doctors advised the state that “if all the dead were to be quartered and hung up in the main streets to rot, their stench will blow a sickness across the city.”
* Thirty-five is the execution count supplied by Chimalpahin; some sources give 33.
** “Negro Slave Control and Resistance in Colonial Mexico, 1519-1650,” The Hispanic American Historial Review, Aug. 1966.
† Maria Elena Martinez, “The Black Blood of New Spain: Limpieza de Sangre, Racial Violence, and Gendered Power in Early Colonial Mexico,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jul. 2004.
On or around this date in 535,* the Ostrogothic queen Amalasuntha was put to death in the Italian lake island of Martana (You can also find her name rendered Amalasountha and Amalaswintha.)
The Roman-educated princess had inherited rulership of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, a successor state to the lately fallen Roman Empire, from its redoutable founder Theodoric. Technically the crown had passed to Amalasuntha’s 10-year-old kid; ruling as regent in a perilous situation, mom cultivated an alliance with the Byzantine emperor Justinian.
Her son took to boozing and carousing and died as a teenager, so Amalasuntha sought a new male imprimatur for her reign by the expedient of marrying a wealthy cousin, Theodahad. Though the nuptial deal had been for Theo to butt out of actual governance, he immediately strove to convert his power from titular to actual and became his wife’s deadliest rival — and then clapped her in prison. From the History of the Wars of Byzantine scribbler Procopius:
Theodahad, upon receiving the supreme power, began to act in all things contrary to the hopes she had entertained and to the promises he had made. And after winning the adherence of the relatives of the Goths who had been slain by her — and they were both numerous and men of very high standing among the Goths — he suddenly put to death some of the connections of Amalasuntha and imprisoned her, the envoys not having as yet reached Byzantium. Now there is a certain lake in Tuscany called Vulsina, within which rises an island, exceedingly small but having a strong fortress upon it. There Theodatus confined Amalasuntha and kept her under guard.
A Roman diplomat named Peter had already been dispatched by this time from the court of Constantinople to do some routine statecraft with the Goths, and he learned of the surprise reshuffling of power when he met Theodohad’s envoys on the road.
Procopius says — or does he? — that Byzantium tried to twist the Goths’ shaggy arms in support of their matronly ally, but could not prevail against the vengeance of the deposed queen’s foes.
When the Emperor Justinian heard these things, he formed the purpose of throwing the Goths and Theodahad into confusion; accordingly he wrote a letter to Amalasuntha, stating that he was eager to give her every possible support, and at the same time he directed Peter by no means to conceal this message, but to make it known to Theodatus himself and to all the Goths. … Now when Peter arrived in Italy, it so happened that Amalasuntha had been removed from among men. For the relatives of the Goths who had been slain by her came before Theodahad declaring that neither his life nor theirs was secure unless Amalasuntha should be put out of their way as quickly as possible. And as soon as he gave in to them, they went to the island and killed Amalasuntha, — an act which grieved exceedingly all the Italians and the Goths as well. For the woman had the strictest regard for every kind of virtue … Theodahad, such was his stupid folly, while still holding the slayers of Amalasuntha in honour and favour kept trying to persuade Peter and the emperor that this unholy deed had been committed by the Goths by no means with his approval, but decidedly against his will.
The “stupid folly” helped to trigger Justinian’s war against the Goths, which resulted in Byzantium’s conquest of Italy and (temporary) reunification of the empire. It also led Amalasuntha’s son-in-law Vitiges to depose and murder Theodahad in his own turn: just another turn of the wheel among backstabbing aristocrats.
Speaking of which: despite the pious good faith Procopius presents for Byzantium in his history above, his gossipy Secret History rewrites the story to attribute Amalsuntha’s fall not to the Ostrogoths’ internal political rivalries but to a catty assassination by Byzantine empress Theodora, whose low-born origin shows through here in murderous insecurity:
At the time when Amalasuntha, desiring to leave the company of the Goths, decided to transform her life and to take the road to Byzantium, as has been stated in the previous narrative, Theodora, considering that the woman was of noble birth and a queen, and very comely to look upon and exceedingly quick at contriving ways and means for whatever she wanted, but feeling suspicious of her magnificent bearing and exceptionally virile manner, and at the same time fearing the fickleness of her husband Justinian, expressed her jealousy in no trivial way, but she schemed to lie in wait for the woman even unto her death. Straightway, then, she persuaded her husband to send Peter, unaccompanied by others, to be his ambassador to Italy. And as he was setting out, the Emperor gave him such instructions as have been set forth in the appropriate passage, where, however, it was impossible for me, through fear of the Empress, to reveal the truth of what took place. She herself, however, gave him one command only, namely, to put the woman out of the world as quickly as possible, causing the man to be carried away by the hope of great rewards if he should execute her commands. So as soon as he arrived in Italy — and indeed man’s nature knows not how to proceed in a hesitant, shrinking way to a foul murder when some office, perhaps, or a large sum of money is to be hoped for — he persuaded Theodahad, by what kind of exhortation I do not know, to destroy Amalasuntha. And as a reward for this he attained the rank of Magister, and acquired great power and a hatred surpassed by none.