It was the Lâle Devri in Istanbul, whose great families thrilled to the voluptuary pleasures of tulips — a consumption conspicuous not only of wealth but of European affectation.†
Ibrahim himself was a great connoisseur of the fashionable bulb that defines his 1718-1730 administration as the “Tulip Period”. Arts and culture in the empire — there’s no other way to say it — flowered.
But neither horticulture nor family ties were safety in Istanbul when events required of the sultan a politically expedient purge.
For the mass of Turks unable to entertain French noblemen in their cultivated gardens, resentments both economical and cultural accumulated during in Tulip Period until they were discharged by a ham-handed tax imposition in 1730 into a huge mob rising. We have previously covered this revolt; suffice to say that it was briefly a mortal threat to which the ruling dynasty was obliged to sacrifice a few elites: an Albanian shopkeeper named Patrona Halil basically ruled Istanbul for a few weeks, and one of the concessions his angry supporters required of the sultan was the death of his son-in-law. Ahmed himself got off “easy” and was simply made to resign in favor of his nephew.
The end for Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha also meant the end of the Tulip Era; periodization aside, however, the flower does remain a popular Turkish symbol. (Even the word for tulip, Lale, is used as a feminine name.) They’re planted all over in present-day Istanbul, and bloom gloriously in the spring; Turkish Airlines also uses a stylized tulip as its logo.
** His wife Hatice Sultan wielded considerable power of her own; after her husband’s death and her father’s resignation, she played a leading role in statecraft for the government-averse successor sultan.
† This is, however, a century after the completely unrelated Dutch tulip mania. The flower is native to Anatolia, not to the Low Countries.
Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.
This date in 1809, Napoleon gave that dread of punishment to the Spanish with the execution of seven insurgents at Valladolid, where he had come to collect grudging oaths of loyalty from that conquered nation’s grandees to his brother and puppet king Joseph.
Napoleon very distinctly discerned in the alleged devotion of the Spanish people for the house of Bourbon the demagogue passions that stirred them, and which took that strange way to manifest themselves; for it was the most violent democracy under the appearance of the purest royalism.
This people, extreme in all things, had in fact begun again the work of assassination in revenge for the disasters of the Spanish armies. Since the murders of the unfortunate marquis de Parales in Madrid, and of Don Juan Benito at Talavera, they had massacred in Ciudad Real Don Juan Duro, canon of Toledo, and a friend of the prince of the Peace; and at Malagon, the ex-minister of finance, Don Soler. Wherever there were no French armies, honest men trembled for their property and their lives.
Napoleon, resolving to make a severe example of the assassins, ordered the arrest in Valladolid of a dozen of ruffians known to have been concerned in all the massacres, particularly in that of the unfortunate governor of Segovia, Don Miguel Cevallos; and he had them executed, notwithstanding the apparent entreaties of the principal inhabitants of Valladolid.
“You must make yourself feared first, and loved afterwards,” was his frequent remark in his letters to his brother. “They have been soliciting me here for the pardon of some bandits who have committed murder and robbery, but they have been delighted not to obtain it, and subsequently everything has returned to its proper course.”
Our historian encloses as a footnote the text of a Napoleonic correspondence, documenting not only this date’s particular entry into the annals of execution but the Corsican’s methods generally.
The operation effected by Belliard is excellent. You must have a score of rascals hanged. To-morrow I hang seven here, notorious for having committed all sorts of atrocities, and whose presence was an affliction for the honest folks who secretly denounced them, and who are recovering courage since they are quit of them. You must do the same in Madrid. If a hundred incendiaries and brigands are not got rid of there, nothing is done. Of these hundred have a dozen or fifteen shot or hanged, and send the rest to France to the galleys. I have had quiet in France only in consequence of arresting 200 incendiaries, September murderers, and brigands, whom I sent off to the colonies. Since that time the tone of the capital changed as if at a whistle.
There’s a good chance that you experience an unpleasant degree of performance pressure from time to time in your environs, whatever they might be. Lord knows even the executioner is notimmune to it.
But it’s doubtful very many are under the sort of professional pressure that Swedish general Charles Emil Lewenhaupt succumbed to on this date in 1743, when he was beheaded for command incompetence thanks to his country’s defeat in the 1741-1743 Russo-Swedish War.
An aggressive political faction of “Young Turks” — er, Young Swedes — known as the Hats had kicked the country’s cautious former president to the curb and aimed to restore the great power status Sweden had coughed up to Russia decades prior. In Sweden, their engagement with Russia would become known as the Hats’ War.
Lewenhaupt himself was elevated to command of Sweden’s Finland forces — for Finland was Swedish territory at this point, although it had been brutally occupied by Russia from 1714 to 1721 and only returned when Sweden ceded its Baltic possessions to Peter the Great — over a general who opposed the adventurous scheme. Ironically, the whole thing would ultimately redound to the benefit of Peter the Great’s daughter.
In 1741 as the War of Austrian Succession consumed the rest of Europe, Lewenhaupt was placed in charge of the opening gambit, an invasion of Karelia. Russia’s autocraticEmpress Anna had just died in 1740, leaving her niece Anna Leopoldovna in charge as regent for the the infant Ivan VI. The idea from the Swedish side was to pair the invasion (with a short line to St. Petersburg, then the capital) with an internal coup against the shaky monarch; further to that latter end, Swedish diplomats* maneuvered behind the scenes to position Peter the Great’s popular daughter Elizaveta to seize power, whereupon she would cede back to Sweden (either out of gratitude or by compulsion of the arriving Swedish armies) the Baltic lands recently torn from Stockholm’s hands.
The entire project was a fiasco for Sweden.
Sweden’s Hats-dominated Riksdag declared war on Russia in July of 1741, but the joint land and naval attack that was supposed to ensue completely failed to materialize: the Swedish fleet had been ravaged by an epidemic while awaiting the action, and the Swedish army massing at Villmanstrand had not yet finished assembling. So having thrown down the gauntlet, the Swedes just stood flat-footed, and it was the Russians who launched the invasion by routing the army at Villmanstrand. Our Gen. Lewenhaupt only arrived at that army two weeks after the battle.
Things went pear-shaped from that point for Sweden, but back in St. Petersburg the invasion’s prospective beneficiary was doing just fine.
Elizaveta had cagily accepted the aid of her French and Swedish “benefactors” but without committing any reciprocal promise to paper. Far from being a catspaw of foreign interests, this daughter of Russia’s conquering tsar was a popular figure in her own right, especially with the elite Preobrazhensky Regiment; on the evening of November 24, 1741, Elizaveta displayed herself at the regimental barracks dramatically clad in a breastplate and wielding a silver cross, summoning her supporters to mount a coup that the guards themselves had long sought. It was achieved (by Elizaveta’s own insistence) without bloodshed** that very night.
Duly installed, Elizaveta simply continued prosecuting a war that was going quite nicely for her side thank you very much, eventually forcing Sweden to conclude the war with a treaty ceding yet more territory to Russia.
The tribulations of this embarrassing (and costly) war led for Sweden to an internal rebellion — but the Hats were able to crush it and hold onto power by farming out blame for their failed war of choice onto the generals in the field. In 1743, Gen. Lewenhaupt and Gen. Henrik Magnus von Buddenbrock were sentenced to death for command negligence. Buddenrock was executed on schedule on July 27, but Lewenhaupt managed to escape — briefly. He was recaptured aboard a ship fleeing for Gdansk and beheaded on August 4.
Needless to say the great classical tradition of “with your shield or on it” did not extend to the Hats’ civilian leadership. These fellows maintained their hold in the Riksdag long enough to fling Sweden into yet another costly war of choice with Prussia in 1757, where they got their ass kicked again by Frederick the Great.
* Joined by French diplomats, whose interest in Elizaveta’s takeover was to abort Russia’s alliance with Austria and England in the continental war. The Hats had aligned Sweden with France; the latter helpfully supplied the cash Elizaveta needed as the intrigue unfolded over 1741.
** Never the violent type, Elizaveta is especially notable in these pages for her pledge never to approve a death warrant under her reign. Russia would not see another execution until 1764, under Catherine the Great.
On this date in 756, the imperial consort Yang Guifei was expediently executed during the An Lushan Rebellion.
The Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, whose beloved concubine Yang was, undertook this cruel extremity only in great duress. Initially married to one of the emperor’s sons, Yang so enamored the emperor that he usurped the prince’s place and got the kid a different wife. In the c. 800 classic poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” the poet Bai Juyi mused on the smitten sovereign rushing headlong into waiting tragedy.
The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.
Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty,a
All his gifts were devoted to one person.
Indeed, over the 740s Yang’s relations rose at court on the strength of her hold over the emperor, causing no few resentments among courtiers now obliged to flatter them. She’s been cast as a femme fatale, a siren whose chords called the emperor to capsize his own ship of state.
The general An Lushan was the rock of his ruin. Though An Lushan’s revolt would one day claim Yang’s life, he was a great favorite of hers and eventually adopted as Yang’s son; it was whispered that the imperial gifts showered on this commander might reflect favor with the concubine quite surpassing the bounds of propriety.
The most important favor was command of all northern China’s garrisons, with 150,000-plus troops.
His influence (and the fact that he was not ethnically Han, but of Turkic and Iranic extraction) made him rivals at the imperial court, even including the concubine Yang’s cousin, chancellor Yang Guozhong.
One can speculate as to who suspected whom first, but as we’ve seen with the Roman Empire a sufficiently strong inducement to treachery inevitably becomes tantamount to the real thing: eventually one’s intemperate supporters or implacable enemies will cast the die for even the most retiring general. An Lushan was Caesar enough to cross the Tang’s Rubicon, which for him was the Yellow River, above which his armies had been confined.
In the winter of 755-756, An crossed this river and marched towards Chang’an (Xi’an, then the imperial capital and the world’s most populous city), styling himself the Emperor of Yan. This aspirant state proved far from durable, and vanished by 763 — but by the time that long term had come into view, all of our principal characters were dead.
Yang Guifei was the first of them. (Plenty of secondary characters — generals, eunuchs, rivals and family of rivals — were being put to death all along and well before Yang, of course.) As the rebel army advanced on the capital, Xuanzong and his court fled in panic, Yang included. One day’s march further inland towards Chengdu, the royal guards themselves rebelled. Embittered like many others by the sway Yang and her family held — and blaming the consort for the ignominious retreat they were embarked upon — the soldiers refused to proceed without Yang’s execution. Xuanzong had little choice under the circumstances but to assent to her summary strangulation.
The Son of Heaven made good his escape, and his kingdom prevailed in the fight. (An was assassinated in 757.) Xuanzong himself, however, had to abdicate in favor of his son before the chaotic summer was out, and lived out his last five years as Taishang Huang, “Retired Emperor”.
One can only guess at the regrets he had in those days for the beloved mistress sacrificed to the safety of his person and throne. It’s a circumstance that has become a staple of Chinese literature over the centuries since, from the aforeentioned Bai Juyi right down to the present day, in every medium imaginable.
In Bai’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”, the bereft former emperor at last sends a Taoist priest to the heavens in search of his lost love, whose spirit has not even appeared to him in a dream. Yang Guifei sends the messenger back with a last pledge of sundered love:
“Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments,
Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again.”
And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him
of their midnight vow, secret between them.
“On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver,
In the silent Palace we declared our dream was
To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing,
To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.”
Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days.
But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.
A 37-second security camera clip of a Tehran being mugged by machete-wielding assailants went viral to great outrage in Iran in December 2012, and resulted in the very speedy execution on January 20, 2013, of the culprits.
Alireza Mafiha and Mohammad Ali Sorouri were publicly hanged at a still-dark 6:30 a.m. before a crowd of about 300 people for Moharebeh (waging war against God)
Warning: Graphic severed head pictures await at the bottom of this post.
On this date in 1909, the guillotine returned France after an absence of more than three years.
The sitting president was a staunch death penalty opponent and had blocked all executions since his term began in 1906. That was about the same span of time that the Pollet gang had, in the words of a New York Times wire report,* “infested the Belgian-French frontier, robbing churches, houses, and inns, holding up stage coaches and belated travelers, and torturing and slaying their victims according to the old piratical adage that dead men tell no tales.”
Abel Pollet had been a smuggler who put his native gift for leadership to good use organizing his fellow traffickers into a more lucratively violent line of work. Thanks, presumably, to the syndicate’s pre-existing professional aptitude for evasion, it persisted for years and authored a quantity of robberies and murders that authorities could only guess at. (The official homicide estimation ran north of 50.) It was a spree so atrocious that it helped force the end of the whole death penalty moratorium since sentiment was so strong against the Hazebrouck gang .
“At midnight there were 2,000 watchers in the square,” one report ran. “The main street of the town was crowded as on the eve of a fete. Soon after midnight men brought ladders and benches to the square and mounted them to obtain an uninterrupted view. Others climbed into the branches of trees, where their presence was revealed by the glow of cigarettes and pipes in the dark among the branches.”
Undeterred by the steady winter’s drizzle, they would wait all the night through, their numbers continually augmented as road-trippers arrived by train.
At four in the morning the dread traveling executioner Anton Diebler, who had already plied this trade for a generation and more and would continue in the role for another 30 years, arrived with four assistants to set up the guillotine. It was only with difficulty that police restrained the pawing mob.
By half-past five the public prosecutor officially informed the condemned men what they surely already knew — that there would be no mercy. The crowd on the square would have its prey.
As the first robber, Theophile Deroo, emerged at 7:25 a.m., “there was a painful silence, and then an outbreak of hoots and curses from the crowd.” A wilting Deroo had to be hustled to the board amid the jeers. “A mort! A mort!” came the howls.
Three times in the next eight minutes the executioners furiously scrubbed the apparatus clean while guards (per the Times) “held the crowd back with main force.”
Canut Vromant followed coolly; Auguste Pollet was third, fighting and shouting. His brother, the leader Abel Pollet, went under a rain of curses that he answered with the words “Down with the priests! Long live the Republic!”
People are ghoulish. Far be it from us to deny them.
After the quadruple executions, the heads are cleaned up. (Source)
Perhaps, dear reader, you find the public exhibition of these severed heads objectionable. If so, you have an ally in the French state that did the severing.
For years, French elites had been fretting the indecorous behavior of the crowd at what was supposed to be a solemn occasion. The advent of photography only made matters worse, for now the discomfiting head-chopping exercise could be shared with those indisposed to sitting up all night smoking pipes in trees.
But as the moratorium gave way, the rising media form of cinema promised even more debased exhibitions. Enterprising cinematographers were already staging execution re-creations; now there was the prospect for film audiences to be incited to countless bloodlust frenzies by on-the-scene deathporn footage of hated criminals going under the blade. It was in response to just this fear that France a bit later in 1909 promulgated (French link) its first film censorship rules — forbidding in this case the public display of film liable to disturb the public tranquility.
* Jan. 16, 1909 … under the excited headline “THIRST FOR BLOOD AMONG THE FRENCH”,
Simonetta’s honors and appointments multiplied as Sforza’s reach expanded; when Sforza died, and then Sforza’s heir was assassinated, a 7-year-old became Duke of Milan.
The late 1470s saw a bitter power struggle during the child duke’s minority for effective control of the state: on the one hand, the boy’s uncle Ludovico; on the other, the boy’s mother Bona of Savoy. Simonetta was the able minister of state for Bona, and his faction briefly prevailed and saw Ludovico into exile.
Simonetta had put several years of hustle into balancing the political factions that kept Bona — and via Bona, himself — in control. Alas for their cause, Bona was eventually induced via her lover, a natural rival of Simonetta’s, to just go and invite Ludovico to return to Milan
Simonetta looked grave, as he well might, when he heard the news. “Most illustrious duchess,” he said to Bona the next day, “do you know what will happen? My head will be cut off, and before long you will lose this state.”
And so it was.
Bad news for Francesco Simonetta, sure, but Ludovico would one day use his position to commission Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
Simonetta’s legacy beyond peninsular politics is somewhat less august. His treatise on code-breaking, Regule ad extrahendum litteras ziferatas sine exemplo (Rules for Decrypting Coded Documents), is a tipsheet for busting elementary substitution ciphers: determine the language, look for common words, exploit the letter patterns caused by standardized word endings (like -ing and -ed in English), isolate the vowels.
On this date* in 1567, Florentine humanist Pietro Carnesecchi was burned after beheading at the Ponte Sant’Angelo in Rome.
Carnesecchi (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was born to a wealthy Florentine merchant family allied with the Medici; as a child, Carnesecchi probably dandled the infant Cosimo, the future ruler of the city. His education was patronized by the Medici cardinal who went on to become Pope Clement VII.
All these friends in high places would prove in time to be a poisoned chalice.
But the young man was in his glory in his twenties at Clement’s papal court, as notary and protonotary, excelling in his lucrative sinecures on the curial cursus honorum.
To his grief and/or glory, he met along the way the Spanish reformer Juan de Valdes, who had taken refuge in Naples from the Spanish Inquisition, and the spellbinding pulpit orator Bernardino Ochino, who was by the late 1530s to trend towards outright apostasy.
Intellectual curiosity was a quality dangerous to its owners during the Reformation. Carnesecchi had his own insider’s view of the Church’s warts to add to the influences of these brilliant associates, and by the 1540s was obliged by his affinities to seek his safety in the more liberal religious environment of Venice … and later, after a close first brush with the Roman Inquisition, to leave Italy altogether.
He wasn’t on the run per se, but his was a contingent life: a few years in a place, with the ever-present peril that a shift in the political winds could see him or his friends to the scaffold. He returned from France to Venice in 1552, spurned a summons to justify himself once more to the Inquisition under the furiously anti-Protestant Pope Paul IV, and was even able to move back to the Eternal City with the accession to St. Peter’s Throne of another Medici cardinal as Pope Pius IV. The Inquisition, nevertheless, drug its feet when it came to acquitting Carnesecchi once again.
“Nothing progresses!” he cries in one of his letters, for the Inquisitors “will not judge as right and duty dictate, for they suggest scrupulous hesitancy where there is no ground for it, and interpret that prejudicially which, rightly apprehended, is good and praiseworthy.” In other words: prosecutors.
As Popes are said to alternate fat with thin, and old with young, here they traded zealot of the faith with mellow humanist. When Pius IV died, the pendulum swung back against Pietro and the relentlessly orthodox** Pius V took charge.
Carnesecchi took refuge in his native Florence, governed by that baby Cosimo de’ Medici, all grown up now into an authoritarian state-builder. Cosimo had welcomed him before, and interceded on his behalf in the last go-round with the Inquisition; Florence, moreover, had a long-running rivalry with Rome in peninsular politics. Carnesecchi would have supposed himself as safe there as ever he had been in his peregrinations.
“But how did Ghislieri’s [Pope Pius V’s given name] reckless energy paralyse others!” as this book puts it. “Cosimo, too, was destined to feel its influence.”
Carnesecchi was a guest at his sovereign’s table when the friar Tomaso Manrique, the Master of the Papal Palace, was announced, as sent on a special mission to Florence, and desiring an interview with the Duke. The Pope had furnished his messenger with a letter bearing date June 20th, 1566, in which, after greeting Cosimo with the Apostolic Benediction, ‘he was called upon, in an affair which nearly affected obedience to the Divine Majesty and to the Catholic Church, and which the Pope had greatly at heart, as being of the highest importance, to give to the bearer of this letter the same faith as though His Holiness were present conversing with him.” Manrique claimed in the Pope’s name the delivering over of Carnesecchi into the hands of the Inquisition. The Duke made his friend and guest rise from the table and surrender himself on the spot to the Papal messenger. And he abjectly added, that, “had His Holiness — which God forfend — called upon him to surrender his own son for the same motive, he would not have hesitated one moment to have him bound and surrendered.”
Hauled immediately to a Vatican dungeon, Carnesecchi spent his last 15 months in prison, under interrogation, and sometimes on the rack.
“They would fain have me say of the living and of the dead things which I do not know, and which they would so fain hear,” Carnesecchi pleaded in (futile, intercepted) letters to old associates from the Curia. He admirably refused to incriminate anyone, but was convicted in September 1567 on 34 counts of obstinate heresy. They can all be read here — headlined by that hallmark of rank Protestantism, justification by faith alone.
Carnesecchi was stripped of his ecclesiastical ranks and his property, and turned over to the secular arm — the latter hypocritically “beseech[ed] … to mitigate the severity of your sentence with respect to his body, that there may be no anger of death or of shedding of blood,” which was, of course, the very intent and the effect of turning him over. Carnesecchi met his fate sturdily; his Catholic confessor complained that he was more interested in bantering ideas than penitence for his wrong opinions, and showed no proper fear of death.
In 1569, Pius V bestowed the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany on Cosimo.
Carnesecchi, long obscure to posterity, was exhumed almost literally when the Napoleonic Wars gave anti-clerical factions the opportunity to ransack secret Roman Inquisition archives. His meter-long file passed into a succession of private hands and was finally published in the mid-19th century, and as a result there are several public-domain volumes about the heretic in addition to the one we have already cited. Some of the original documents, with English translation, can be read in this volume; Italian speakers might give this one a go.
* There are a few citations out there for October 3. I can’t find a definitive primary source, and it may be that the original records are themselves ambiguous, so I’m going with the bulk of the modern and academic citations in favor of October 1.
** Anglos may recognize Pius V as the pope whose bull explicitly releasing Catholics from their allegiance to Queen Elizabeth put English followers of the Old Faith in an untenable position, muchtothegrislyprofit of this here blog.
On this date in 1921, Great Britain hanged one of its own paramilitaries in Ireland. William Mitchell was, in fact, the only member of the reviled Black and Tans executed during the Irish War of Independence.*
Was Mitchell hanged for political expediency? Did he even commit the murder for which he stood condemned?
Kelly was kind enough to talk with Executed Today about exhuming a dead soul.
ET: What led you to take an interest in this hanging?
DJK: A third cousin of mine, who shares my interest in family history research, asked me to help her verify her late father’s claim that they were related to a Black and Tan who had been hanged for murder.
I knew that the ‘Tans’ were temporary policemen recruited in England from ex-combatants of The Great War and sent to Ireland to bolster the ranks of the beleaguered Royal Irish Constabulary during the Irish War of Independence. It took me no time at all to discovered that only one Black and Tan — indeed only one member of the entire British Crown Forces — had been executed during that conflict, and that indeed he shared a surname with my cousin.
However, I could find only the briefest of mentions of him in any accounts of that bitter struggle for Ireland’s freedom. It took me and my cousin two years to track down the elusive official case papers, to establish exactly who Mitchell was, and to tell his hitherto untold story. To date however, we still have not established a firm link with my cousin’s family.
The Black and Tans are of course still notorious in Ireland and elsewhere. In this book you’re complicating their story quite a bit, making at least this one Tan a sympathetic character. What sort of audience reception has Running with Crows had? Do you find there’s a lot of resistance to the story you have to tell? For that matter, did you have any misgivings to overcome in writing it?
You are right about their notoriety. The ‘Tans’ were bored, drunk and indisciplined during the short period of their service in Ireland. They were also poorly managed and allowed to run amok, robbing and assaulting the Irish population. There is no evidence however to support the popular myth that they included a greater number of criminals than has any police force before or since. They were disillusioned and battle-hardened men who were unable to find employment back in the ‘land fit for heroes’.
Ironically, one lone reviewer of my book has accused me of not making Mitchell sympathetic enough. It was not my intention though to create sympathy for this flawed and tragic man or to turn him into a folk hero. However, whilst I do not think he was the most honourable of men, I am not persuaded he deserved to hang.
I was indeed wary of uncovering this controversial case, especially as folks in Ireland, my own relatives included, are still sensitive and emotional about the events of the 1920s. The accepted view is that the old IRA were the heroes and the ‘Tans’ were the baddies. Few people realise however that at least a quarter of the Black and Tans were Irishmen, as indeed was Mitchell. However, I am delighted to have received highly positive reviews, from ‘both sides of the divide’, that is from an IRA re-enactment group as well as from supporters and historians of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Moreover, a theatrical production company, based in the town where the murder took place, and where people still remember and sympathise with the murdered magistrate’s family, has adapted my book to a stage play, which will debut there on 15 June at the Dunlavin Arts Festival. They have also kindly invited me to hold an author talk at the festival on the 16th June.
William Mitchell was hanged for killing a magistrate named Robert Dixon. Who was Robert Dixon and why was he a target during the war?
Robert Gilbert Dixon was an Anglo-Irish gentleman; a gentleman farmer who acted as an auctioneer at the local livestock auctions and who served as a district magistrate on the local circuit. He and his wife were descended from noble and philanthropic English forebears, and indeed Robert Dixon was respected in his community for his generosity shown both to his neighbours and to the police.
During the conflict though, both magistrates and police were viewed by the Nationalists as instruments of the occupying power (the British) and as such were prime targets for assassination by the IRA. Dixon’s murder was not a political killing however. He was shot dead, and his war hero son seriously wounded, during the course of a robbery at his home.
This post-war era saw the erosion of the class system and marked the beginning of the end for ‘the old order’. Socialism was gaining popularity and the working classes were shrugging off the idea that they should ‘know their place’. The awful loss of life, mainly through mis-management of the war, meant that many had lost respect for, and indeed were resentful of, the privileged classes. A truce was now imminent in Ireland and so the ‘Tans’, who were being paid per day what the regular Irish constables earned in a week, saw their lucrative employment coming to an end, and meanwhile, in Dunlavin, the Dixon family were conspicuously wealthy …
Coming at last to the main character here, who was William Mitchell? Why was he serving in the Black and Tans, and why did he end up at the end of a noose?
Contrary to what some commentators on the conflict have written, Mitchell was not English but Irish. He was a Dublin-born former professional soldier, who had served King and Empire, both in India and in the trenches of the Western Front. He was the son of Joseph Mitchell, a London-born soldier; a respectable man who had fought in the Boer War and who had married a Dublin Protestant girl.
Another myth, that of the privileged position of those in the ‘Protestant ascendancy’ in Ireland, is dispelled by William Mitchell’s impoverished upbringing in Dublin’s Monto district, which was not only Ireland’s, but indeed Europe’s, biggest slum and red-light district. William Mitchell was a man who did not respect authority — some might say, with good reason. When two masked intruders forced their way into the Dixon household and killed the magistrate during a bungled robbery, and when one of the ‘Tans’ shot himself dead at the local barracks the following day, it was believed the dead ‘Tan’ was the shooter, and so Mitchell was then arrested as his accomplice.
This hanging occurred just as London was determining to wind things down in Ireland; later that June, Prime Minister Lloyd George proposed peace talks. As a political sop, how important domestically within Ireland was William Mitchell’s execution in June 1921? Did it even register? Had he been spared, would that have affected at all the progress towards a truce?
Ah, you have put your finger on the nub of the issue.
As ill-disciplined and unruly as the temporary constables were, there was another arm of the Black and Tans which was far more undisciplined. The Auxiliaries were demobilised officers who had been engaged ostensibly to act as an officer cadre for the temporary constables but who had instead formed themselves into hit squads and set about abducting, torturing and killing suspects without due process of law. It was the Auxiliaries who were identified with some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, including the destruction of whole villages and towns and even of the murder of the mayor of Cork.
Several Auxiliaries had been tried for murder but acquitted, usually because crucial prosecution witnesses had ‘disappeared’. One indicted auxiliary, who was a decorated war hero, but most likely also a psychopath, and was head of the self-designated ‘murder squad’ based in Dublin Castle, was facing his second murder trial. By April 1921, the world’s press were united in condemning the British administration in Ireland for letting loose this uncontrolled ‘pseudo gendarmerie’ upon the Irish population. The number of Republicans who would be executed would run to two dozen, yet thus far, no member of the British Crown Forces had been convicted for any atrocity.
The Americans and the heads of the Commonwealth nations were demanding fair play. The British public were revolted by the way the conflict was being managed and now no less a personage than King George V stepped into the arena and demanded that Lloyd George‘s government show even handedness in the way it dealt with both rebel and law enforcer. Another acquittal was fully expected in the trial of the twice-tried Auxiliary, who had carried out his grisly and murderous duty on behalf of his government, but then along came the hapless Constable Mitchell, a ‘difficult’ Irishman who had allegedly killed, not an Irish rebel, but a magistrate; an Englishman and a representative of the establishment.
The outcome in the April trial of the Auxiliary, whose defence costs (equating in today’s values to £17,600) were met from the personal funds of Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland, was an acquittal, as expected.
Mitchell’s swift trial a couple of days later, by court martial (so no right of appeal) attracted little publicity. He went stoically to the scaffold, leaving behind him a 23-year-old widow and a seven-week-old baby daughter.
Political events moved fairly swiftly thereafter, so it is hard to judge whether his execution had much effect on the progress of Ireland’s achieving independence. The focus of public attention was taken up next with the internal struggles leading up to the Civil War. It seems Mitchell’s execution had little effect in the grand scheme of things.
So, did Mitchell kill the magistrate? Was he even present at the crime scene or was he a sacrificial lamb, slaughtered to offset criticism of Lloyd George’s administration in Ireland? I have presented all there is to know of this man’s life and death, as found in his military and police records, trial transcripts etcetera, and whether or not he killed the magistrate for whose murder he was hanged, or whether this was an awful miscarriage of justice, I leave for the reader to judge.
What happened to Mitchell’s family afterwards? And all these years later, what do the descendants think about their ancestor’s execution, and about the work you did with it?
I felt I could not let Mitchell’s story end with his execution. Since this is a novel closely based on a true and tragic story, I felt the reader would want to know what happened next. I know I certainly did, so I continued my research, and my narrative, to recount what had happened to many of the players in the story, and this may be found in the book’s epilogue.
Mitchell’s baby daughter lived into her nineties, always believing her father had died a hero in the course of his police service. Her respectable and courageous widowed mother did not want her little girl to grow up with any sort of stigma. Other family members knew of Mitchell’s fate however. When I tracked down his living descendants, I was cautious of the sensitivities surrounding my exposing Mitchell’s history. However, the family were keen for the full story to come out, and moreover they provided me with photographs of Mitchell, for which I am most grateful, as they enabled me to put a face to a man who hitherto had been simply a statistic.
This is not the end of the Mitchell story, however. His mortal remains (which are amongst the few still buried within the precincts of Dublin’s Mountjoy Gaol) will one day be exhumed when planned re-development of the gaol is commenced. When that day comes, my cousin and I will press for his re-interment in a local cemetery. Mitchell may not warrant the hero’s funeral accorded the Republicans who have all be disinterred from Mountjoy, but I believe he deserves at least a Christian burial.
David’s mildness managed it so well,
The bad found no occasion to rebel.
But when to sin our biassed nature leans,
The careful devil is still at hand with means, 
And providently pimps for ill desires;
The good old cause, revived, a plot requires.
Plots, true or false, are necessary things,
To raise up commonwealths, and ruin kings.
-John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, a Biblical allegory of the English political/religious scene in which the Popish Plot (“plots, true or false”) took place
On this date in 1679, a Catholic goldsmith was hanged and quartered for treason … a preposterous case that would preview the tragic main acts of the “Popish Plot”.
This 17th century anti-Catholic witch hunt traced to weird and unprincipled Anglican divine Titus Oates.
With his friend Israel Tonge, Oates in 1678 ginned up a fantastical Jesuit plot against the life of Charles II — which supposed conspiracy played insidiously to the realm’s age-old religious divisions, in a moment when a Catholic royal sibling stood next in line to the throne.
In Queen Elizabeth’s time there were conspiracies against her, when Mary Queen of Scots was taken off. In King James’s time, the Gunpowder-Treason. In the last King’s time, a horrid Rebellion, that ended in his murder; but here the Crown is under such a character as is more dangerous than all those; and from Popery came the notion of a standing Army and arbitrary power.
Oh, and London had just burned down within everyone’s living memory, an event popularly ascribed to a French Catholic conspiracy even into the 19th century.
There was an awful lot of latent (and not-so-latent) anti-Popery around for Oates to stir up, and he proved to have a gift for this demagoguery. (pdf) In late 1678, a magistrate investigating Oates’s claims, Edmund Berry Godfrey, was mysteriously murdered, and all hell broke loose: a political assassination could now be hung on the alleged Catholic conspiracy. In short order, alleged Catholic conspirators would themselves hang for it.
It was a full 9/12 mentality: people going about armed, loyalty oaths, rumors of French invasion or Guy Fawkes tunneling.
Oates, when feeling his, would have the juice to put peers of the realm on the scaffold … so what chance did poor William Staley have?
This patsy, no great ornament of the “plot”, was more an incidental (and expedient) casualty of the swelling paranoia. Overheard at a tavern chatting about the Protestant freak-out, in French (quelle horreur!), a couple of unscrupulous eavesdroppers shopped for treason when they couldn’t blackmail him.
The sovereign was supposed to have been characterized in this chat as “a great Persecutor or Tormentor of the people of God … And ([Staley] stretching forth his Arm, and then clapping his Hand on his Breast), speaking of His Sacred Majesty, said, I my self will kill him.” (Source) Whether a frustrated Catholic into his cups incautiously popping off, an innocent naif set up by reprobates, or a case of lost in translation, it seems safe to say that William Staley was no danger to the monarchy.
Staley, at any rate, denied having said anything of the sort all the few hours that remained to draw breath, which wasn’t many. It was a mere 12 days from the “treasonable” conversation on Nov. 14 to Staley’s execution.
Image from William Faithorne‘s 1681 (misdated) engraving depicting William Staley being drawn to execution.
With this hanging, and another (that of Edward Coleman) a week later, the Popish Plot persecutions were into full swing … three years of Stuart England McCarthyism that would claim at least 15 lives and end with Titus Oates imprisoned, whipped, and pilloried.
After the Orange Revolution chased the Catholic monarch out of England, Oates was released and pensioned: the incident long remained an ideological litmus test between proto-Whigs (pro-Oates, as he was a club wielded against the absolutist aspirations of Charles II and James II) and Tories (anti-Oates, for the same reason). Centuries later, one commenter could still remark, “There are three events in our history that may be regarded as the touchstone of party men: an English whig who asserts the reality of the Popish plot, an Irish Catholic who denies the massacre of 1641, a Scotch Jacobite who maintains the innocence of Queen Mary, must be considered as men beyond the reach of argument or reason.”