Posts filed under 'Rioting'

1891: Benjamin Harrison spares the Navassa rioters

1 comment May 18th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1891, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison settled a death penalty case from the remote Navassa Island by granting a commutation.

Back in the 19th century, islands stacked high with guano were worth their weight in bird crap. The phosphate-rich dung piled meters-deep in some places, and could be mined for agricultural fertilization and for use in gunpowder and explosives.

In 1856, Congress even passed a Guano Islands Act empowering skippers to plant the stars and stripes on any of these lucrative little turd reefs they happened to run across. That’s how the U.S. came to possess, for instance, Midway Island … and more than 100 other islands as well.

Most of these claims have long since been ceded, but a few remain today. One of them is (still!) Navassa, a three-square-mile speck off the coast of Haiti, 100 miles south of Guantanamo Bay.

Today, Navassa is uninhabited and administered by the Department of the Interior on somewhat disputable footing. (Haiti, just two miles away, also claims Navassa.)

But in the late 19th century, its sweet, sweet guano was being extracted by a Baltimore-based firm known as the Navassa Phosphate Company. This operation employed 137 African-American laborers, moving groaning shitloads of product by raw muscle power under a blistering tropical sun … and under 11 white overseers.

The nature of the assignment — an island very far from the nearest American settlement, with no other industry, community or outpost to repair to — made taking a job on Navassa almost like hitching on somewhere as a sailor: you were off to a little floating dictatorship, with no way out until the end of the contract.

Navassa’s overseers turned out to have a taste for the cat o’nine tails, and worse.

“The conditions surrounding the prisoners and their fellows were of a most peculiar character,” Harrison noted in his eventual commutation order.

They were American citizens, under contracts to perform labor upon specified terms, within American territory, removed from any opportunity to appeal to any court or public officer for redress of any injury or the enforcement of any civil right. Their employers were, in fact, their masters. The bosses placed over them imposed fines and penalties without any semblance of trial. These penalties extended to imprisonment, and even to the cruel practice of tricing men up for a refusal to work. Escape was impossible, and the state of things generally such as might make men reckless and dangerous.

Or, as a naval inspection judged it, Navassa resembled “a convict establishment without its comforts and cleanliness”: people being worked brutally to the bone during their contract, eating rancid rations and living in filth.

Not surprisingly, Navassa’s “convict” laboring population rebelled in 1889, and in a vicious hour-long riot slew five overseers while maiming several others.

Warships calling on the island shipped 18 back to face murder charges; ultimately, three black guano-miners were sentenced to death for the affair.*

However, a huge clemency push spearheaded by the Baltimore-based black fraternal organization the Grand United Order of Galilean Fishermen raised the cry to spare the condemned men.

Guano harvesting resumed after the riot, but was aborted in 1898 by the Spanish-American War; the Navassa Phosphate Company fell into bankruptcy, and although the U.S. later threw up a lighthouse on Navassa to aid Panama Canal-bound vessels, it’s been effectively uninhabited ever since.

* The appeals arising from the Navassa conviction generated the 1890 Supreme Court case Jones v. United States, affirming Navassa’s American territoriality, and establishing Congressional jurisdiction over violations of U.S. law that didn’t take place in any particular state. This bit of jurisprudence has turned up all over the place in the century-plus since it was issued.

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1865: Paul Bogle

Add comment October 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Baptist deacon Paul Bogle was hanged at the Morant Bay courthouse for his part in that locale’s eponymous rebellion.


Third World’s “1865 (96 degrees in the shade)” celebrates Paul Bogle: “Today I stand here a victim the truth is I’ll never die”

Bogle helped lead of the protests-cum-riots that became that rebellion.

Baptists played an essential role in the affair, which has led some to call it the “Native Baptist War”. And indeed, Baptism had long intertwined with underclass resistance: Jamaica’s most famous slave rebel, Samuel Sharpe, was also a Baptist deacon. A previous royal governor in Jamaica had once warned that “the worst evil which hangs with a menacing aspect over the destinies of this island is the influence exercised with baneful effect by the majority of Baptist missionaries.”

From the standpoint of the powerful in Jamaica and Britain, 1865 would vindicate that warning.

A (white) Baptist missionary named Edward Underhill had penned a January 1865 letter bemoaning the miserable condition of most Jamaicans and starkly disputing received wisdom that blacks were just too lazy to work: “The simple fact is, there is not sufficient employment for the people; there is neither work for them, nor the capital to employ them.” (Underhill later wrote a book on the events, The tragedy of Morant Bay, a narrative of the distrubances in the Island of Jamaica in 1865.)

Underhill’s letter got into public circulation and as a result there were a number of “Underhill meetings” perhaps comprising an “Underhill movement” on the island in 1865 — essentially a going social campaign that rooted deeply in Jamaica’s native Baptist communities. Though “native Baptists” is a vague term, it distinguishes not only black from white but, in the words of Mary Turner, a whole “proliferation of sects in which the slaves developed religious forms, more or less Christian in content that reflected their needs more closely than the orthodox churches, black or white.”

William Gordon had switched his religious allegiance to native Baptist and was known to speak at Underhill meetings: that’s part of what got him hanged.

Likewise, our day’s focus, Paul Bogle, was a native Baptist minister, in the St. Thomas-in-the-East parish — and it was the protest of Bogle and his supporters against an unjust prosecution that started the whole rebellion off.


Statue of a militant Paul Bogle (that’s a sword in his hands) outside the Morant Bay courthouse where all the trouble started. (cc) image from dubdem sound systems.

There was, accordingly, an immediate reward out on Bogle’s head, and an immediate demonization in the respectable English press. There, he was “the notorious Paul Bogle,” in the words of one letter to the editor (London Times, Nov. 18 1865), in whose Baptist chapel rebellious “panthers” wantonly “drank rum mixed with gunpowder and the brains of their victims.”

By the time that letter had been dispatched, Bogle’s purported orgies had long since been interrupted: captured by Maroons, he was delivered to custody, instantly tried, an hanged that very day in a batch of 18 rebels.

A horror to Victorian planters, Bogle has won the reverence of posterity as a freedom fighter and national hero.


Paul Bogle on the (now out-of-circulation) Jamaican two-dollar bill.

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1865: George William Gordon, Jamaican politician

Add comment October 23rd, 2012 Headsman

“No incident of the dreadful story” of Morant Bay, wrote Edward Underhill, “produced a more painful impression than the arrest, trial, and execution of Mr. G.W. Gordon” this date in 1865.

The son of a white planter and a mulatto slave, George William Gordon was an able businessman and became a Jamaican assemblyman.

In that capacity, he was a vocal critic of British colonial maladministration, an advocate for blacks, and a political foe of Jamaica’s governor, Edward John Eyre. He’d already had government commissions canceled because of his politics.

Gordon had nothing to do with the Morant Bay outbreak. He was away from the disturbance altogether, in Kingston, when it broke out.

But he was regarded by many white elites as a class enemy, and Eyre did not intend to miss this opportunity to eliminate him. A few years later, a French tribunal would express the rationale as it cracked down on the Paris Commune: guilty or no, “a prudent and wise Government must rid itself [of troublemakers] when it finds a legitimate occasion to do so.”

Accordingly, Gordon was arrested by civil authorities in Kingston — he actually turned himself in when he heard there was a warrant out on him — and then transferred into the hands of the drumhead military tribunals that were operating in the conflict zone, obviously with the intent of terminating a gadfly.

This extra-legal act is discussed in greater detail here, but the long and short of it was tartly summarized by no less than the sitting Lord Chief Justice:

[Kingston authorities] were not the ministers or apparitors of the martial authority, and did not possess the power to take up Mr. Gordon for the purpose of handing him over to the martial law. Nevertheless, they did it. They did it by the exercise of the strong hand of power, because it was thought that a conviction could not be got at Kingston. It was altogether unlawful and unjustifiable. To Mr. Gordon it made the difference of life or death.

Gordon, in his last letter to his wife, took it all in an understandably contemptuous stride:

General Nelson has just been kind enough to inform me that the court-martial on Saturday last has ordered me to be hung, and that the sentence is to be expected in a hour hence, so that I shall be gone from this world of sin and sorrow.

I regret that my worldly affairs are so derranged: but it cannot be helped … I never advised or took part in any insurrection. All I ever did was to recommend the people who complained to seek redress in a legitimate way … It is however the will of my heavenly Father that I should thus suffer in obeying His command, to relieve the poor and needy, and to protect, as far as I was able, the oppressed …

do not be ashamed of the death your poor husband will have suffered. The judges seemed against me; and from the rigid manner of the Court, I could not get in all the explanations I intended. … It seemed that I was to be sacrificed.

Much of what Governor Eyre did in those desperate days skirted, at best, the edges of what might be legally colorable. But at least those instances, in the main, were directed at people alleged to have been actual rebels or rioters. Eyre could safely expect wide latitude where the security of the realm was at stake.

In Gordon, however, there was a man whose crime was nothing other than to have sympathized with the real and crushing plight of the lower orders and advanced their cause politically. Eyre’s magistrates made that fact alone into sedition, and twisted the rules of their own courts-martial to pin it on Gordon.

Given the exceptionally lawless nature of this scenario — and Gordon’s own visibility as a colonial elite — his became the lightning-rod case for English liberals incensed at Eyre’s behavior. John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and others demanded Eyre’s prosecution for the affair, Thomas Huxley writing for the faction,

the killing of Mr. Gordon can only be defended on the ground that he was a bad and troublesome man; in short, that although he might not be guilty, it served him right.

I entertain so deeply-rooted an objection to this method of killing people — the act itself appears to me to be so frightful a precedent, that I desire to see it stigmatised by the highest authority as a crime.

It can hardly surprise the reader, versed as we are by this late date in official impunity, that not Eyre nor any lieutenant was ever thus stigmatised.

While Eyre evaded due punishment, Gordon could not escape the plaudits of posterity. He’s been honored as a Jamaican National Hero, and the very building where the present-day parliament sits is called the Gordon House in his honor.

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1865: Johnson Speed, arson bystander

Add comment October 22nd, 2012 Headsman

The line between a snap military tribunal with a preordained outcome, a summary execution in the field, and simple murder blurs over in this affair where the word of any armed man in a British uniform had virtual color of law.

This account of one poor sod flogged within an inch of his life and then summarily shot when his captor soldiers took it into his heads that he might have had something to do with some fire comes from Illustrations of Martial Law in Jamaica: Compiled from the Report of the Royal Commissioners, and Other Blue Books Laid Before Parliament.


On [October] the 22nd four white soldiers were taken by Mr. Christopher Codrington to his house at Rose Garden, where they had dinner. When they returned in the evening to David Mayne’s shop, at Long Bay, two constables were there with two prisoners, James Sparkes and Johnson Speed.

They tied the former to a tree, and gave him 100 lashes.

They then tied up Johnson Speed, and gave him eighty-five lashes, when the cat broke.

One of the soldiers ran into the shop and brought a horsewhip, but another one interfered as it was not a thing to beat a man with. Another looker-on was here asked whether Johnson Speed had done anything during the disturbance, and he replied that when Mr. Hinchelwood’s house was burning Speed was there. Then the soldier said, “Where is my rifle?”

The man cried out, “Lord, I don’t do nothing, and I am going to dead.”

The soldier fired, but his rifle had no ball in it, or he had missed. He loaded the gun afresh, and hit the man in the middle of the back as he was tied to the tree. Another one went up, as he dropped writhing to the ground, and put a rifle to his ear and blew out his brains. These were soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of H. M. 6th Regiment of Foot. Mr. Christopher Codrington, a Justice of the Peace, was present.


The above is one of the very last accounts in a tome heavy with atrocities destined never to be punished in this world.

It seems apt both for the subject matter of this site and for laying bare the biases of the source to include the very last few paragraphs that follow.


David Burke was shot at Manchioneal. The soldiers ordered him to go before and point out rebels. “He was a big stout young man,” said a witness, ” and he walked quite lumber-like, and they said he was a rebel too, and shot him dead”.

Andrew Clarke was shot in his own house, at Manchioneal, under the following circumstances, as described by his widow :—

I was sitting with the baby, and I saw a black soldier, and he asked Andrew Clark, “Where are all the men’s goods you have ? Please bring them out.” Clarke said, “I have been sick three months, and I did not interfere.” The soldiers searched and found nothing. Then I was sitting down, and three soldiers came in, and a man named Saunders came in with them, and I explained that it was John Murray’s house, and the soldier dropped him, and he dropped on his side and bawled for mercy. The soldier told me, “Take yourself right out,” and I came out, and another soldier said, “Put another bullet into that fellow’s head,” and they blew out his brains. They burnt the house with fire from the kitchen.

These are samples of the scenes enacted in the beautiful island of Jamaica under pretence of repressing disturbances. My task has not been undertaken in vain if it tends to deepen the resolve of my countrymen to resist at all hazards, the preposterous pretensions of Colonial Governors and military officers, to deal with human life and property as they please, without responsibility to the laws which bind society together, or to the nation which places the sword in their hands for the purposes of justice and mercy.

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1865: William Grant, evidently a ringleader, a persuader, and adviser

Add comment October 20th, 2012 Headsman

The account below of a forgotten saddler hastily attainted a participant “in the background” in the Morant Bay rebellion comes from Illustrations of Martial Law in Jamaica: Compiled from the Report of the Royal Commissioners, and Other Blue Books Laid Before Parliament.


Another victim was William Grant, saddler, of Morant Bay. The following record of the proceedings in his case is probably unique in the history of judicial or quasi-judicial investigations :—

October 20th, 1865.
Drum-head Court Martial.

President:—Lieut. H. Brand, E.N.
Members:—Lieut. Errington, K.N., Ensign Kelly, 4th W.I.R.

William Grant, charged with being one of the ringleaders and originators of this rebellion.

The Provost sworn states :—

About four or five days ago I was informed that this man was the originator and founder of the party who raised the rebellion, that he was not likely to be seen himself, but makes the others. He keeps a saddler’s shop, where the secret meetings took place. On the road from St. Thomas-in-the-East to the Guinness (Ginnep) tree, where placards had been posted, calling secret meetings, I searched the house of Chisholm, also a confederate, and in the presence of Mr. Jones, E.A., I took a blue card, as an admission ticket to a Society of Friends, printed William Grant, Founder. That card I sent to the Governor.

The prisoner Duncan Stuart, in his defence, when called upon by Captain Astwood, voluntarily made this statement. He had previously made it in the presence of Mr. Miller, J.P., whose signatures I here produce. “Grant called Bogle at Dr Alveranga’s, and said, ‘Don’t pull this down, wait a little, don’t join with the Volunteers, when you see what they do, run in.’ Grant said, ‘Now is the time to vindicate.’ ”

Mr. Miller, Justice of Peace, for St. Thomas-in-the-East, sworn:—

That statement was voluntarily given and sworn to before me.

Geo. F. Judah, Sergeant-Major of Volunteers:—

I gave the prisoner my rifle to repair on the morning of the riot, and he has kept it, and I have never seen it since.

The prisoner in his defence merely states that he never knew anything about the riot before it actually broke out. He has acknowledged to having corresponded with Mr. Gordon, but that, he states, was quite private, about some land.

This man was evidently a ringleader, a persuader, and adviser, and did his utmost to keep in the background and push the ignorant on to rebel.

Found Guilty, October 20th, 1865. Sentence, Death.

H. Brand, President,
Lieutenant E.N.
Approved and confirmed,

A. A. Nelson,
Brig. Genl. Commanding Field Force.

[The proceedings of the Courts-martial were retained by the Commissioners, and they refused to exhibit them to the Counsel for the parties complaining of the measures of suppression. General Nelson and others were therefore not cross-examined in reference to these trials.]

The first witness, Ramsay, the Provost-Marshal, told the Court only of what he had been informed — the great crime of the prisoner apparently being that he was the founder of a Society of Friends, and had actually a blue card of membership in his house.

The witness, Duncan Stewart, was not called. He had already been tried and was under sentence of death, and was duly hanged the same evening along with Grant. (See List). A so-called statement of this man was produced in writing. It will be noticed he spoke only of “Grant” having used certain words. Three Grants were hung at Morant Bay, and a William Grant was convicted by a Special Commission at Kingston, while the Royal Commissioners were sitting, and sentenced to penal servitude for life. It is clear from the evidence then given that the William Grant alluded to by Duncan Stewart was the one who was then sentenced. John Dickenson, on being examined by the living William Grant at that trial said:— “There was a William Grant, a saddler, who is hung. You are left. You are the man.” (No. 355 of Papers laid before the Royal Commissioners by Mr. Eyre).

Ramsay had evidently a strong interest in the conviction of this prisoner. He sent the following letter to Captain Luke, on 16th October, 1865:— “I also personally apprehended William Grant, the founder of the Society of Friends. I hope I may not be thought seeking for pecuniary benefit alone in claiming the rewards for information against G. W. Gordon at large, seizure of Chisholm, Grant, and Miles.”

Brand, the President of the Court-Martial, seems to have felt the evidence was weak, and he supplemented it by the following statement of his own. “This man was evidently a ringleader, a persuader, and adviser, and did his utmost to keep in the back ground and push the ignorant on to rebel.” The Judge having thus convinced himself, by his own conclusive testimony, adds “Found guilty. Sentence, death,” and, as a matter of course, the experienced officer of Her Majesty’s Service, who was the revising officer, adds:—”Approved and confirmed. A. A. Nelson, Brig.-Genl., Commanding Field Force, Morant Bay, 20th October, 1865.”

It is unnecessary to add that in the list of the executed is to be found the name “William Grant, under date of the 20th October. Charge, ringleader of rebellion!”

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1749: Bosavern Penlez, whorehouse expropriator

1 comment October 18th, 2012 Headsman

To the memory of the unfortunate
BOSAVERN PEN LEZ
Who finished a Life, generall well reported of,
By a violent and ignominious Death.
He was the Son of a Clergyman,
To whom he was indebted for an Education, which he so wisely improv’d
As to merit the Love and Esteem of all that knew him.
But actuated by Principles, in themselves truly laudable
(When rightly directed, and properly restrain’d)
He was hurried by a Zeal for his countrymen,
And an honest Detestation of Public Stews
(The most certain Bane of Youth, and the Disgrace of Government)
To engage in an Undertaking, which the most Partial cannot defend,
And yet the least Candid must excuse.
For thus indeliberately mixing with Rioters, whom he accidentally met with,
He was condemn’d to die:
And of 400 Persons concerned in the same Attempt, he only suffer’d,
Tho’ neither Principal, nor Contriver.

How well he deserved Life, appears
From his generous Contempt of it, in forbidding a Rescue of himself;
And what Returns he would have made to Royal Clemency,
Had it been extended to him, may fairly be presumed
From his noble Endeavours to prevent the least Affront to that Power,
Which, tho greatly importun’d, refused to save him.

What was denied to his Person, was paid to his Ashes,
By the Inhabitants of St. Clement Danes,
Who order’d him to be interr’d among their Brethren,
Defray’d the Charges of his Funeral,
And thought no Mark of Pity or Respect too much
For this Unhappy Youth,
Whose Death was occasioned by no other Fault
But a too warm Indignation for their Sufferings.

By his sad Example, Reader be admonish’d
Of the many ill Consequences that attend an intemperate Zeal.
Learn hence to respect the Laws — even the most oppressive;
And think thyself happy under that Government
‘That doth truly and indifferently administer Justice,
‘To the Punishment of Wickedness and Vice,
‘And to the Maintenance of God’s True Religion and Virtue.’

On this date in 1749, Bosavern Penlez — surely one of the all-time great names to hang on a gibbet — was put to death to the sorrow of all of England. You know how they say that horse thieves are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses might not be stolen? Bosavern Penlez was hanged that whorehouses might not be torn down by mobs of angry sailors.

(Fourteen other less remarkable folk were hanged for less remarkable crimes at the same time. Just another mass execution day at Tyburn.)

A petition of over 300 St. Clement Danes residents for sparing the two men condemned in the riots. (From the General Advertiser, Oct. 11, 1749.) John Wilson received the solicited pardon; Bosavern Penlez did not.

On the first three days of July in 1749, the Strand in London saw a running series of riots after a mob of angry sailors descended on a whorehouse where some of their brethren had been robbed and abused. Those sailors pulled down that bordello and then moved on to the nearby bawdy-houses, eventually also ransacking the Star Tavern owned by a character named Peter Wood.

Gendarmes had to be called out to control the situation (and this done without proper legal authorization), but somehow not the mob’s ringleaders nor its inciters nor its most enthusiastic wreckers wound up in legal jeopardy.

Only two faced death: John Wilson, a journeyman shoemaker. And Bosavern Penlez, a young wig-maker who’d been out drinking in the neighborhood. And both of these seemed to have just been caught up accidentally or opportunistically in events.

They were comprehensively damned by the testimony of Peter Wood, the aggrieved procurer of Star Tavern, and his wife — disreputable people of whom a neighbor remarked, “I would not hang a dog or a cat upon their evidence.” But then, besides the eyewitness testimony, Bosavern Penlez was also apprehended with a bundle of linens he had evidently liberated from the Wood’s devastated cathouse, linens whose source he unconvincingly claimed not to remember. So the picture one has is that Wilson was perhaps little more than a passerby … but Penlez was a distinct, if minor, participant who could more or less be shown to have got himself tanked and treated the mayhem like it was a gift certificate to Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Not exactly saintly but also not a cardinal sin. Public sentiment for these fellows’ clemency was intense, starting right with the jury that convicted them but also recommended mercy.

Only Wilson was spared, however.

According to the Newgate Calendar, George II was mightily disposed to pardon both, but justice John Willes, who heard the case personally, vigorously opposed the royal mercy for “no regard would be paid to the laws except one of them was made an example of.”

Penlez, in the end, was the one made example of.

His hanging this date in 1749 would bleed into an election held later that same autumn, almost dealing a serious setback to the sitting Pelham government. Those events are detailed in Malvin Zirker’s introduction to this out-of-print volume.

And the resultant fusillade of pamphlets and public protests asserting a maximalist take on Penlez’s purity induced novelist Henry Fielding to enter the fray with a manifesto of his own strongly supporting the young man’s execution.

Readers of Fielding’s fiction might start at the rigid Toryism of his editorial line.

Penlez’s defenders couldn’t really argue that he was completely innocent. Still, they contested the justice of the death penalty for such a character whose involvement in the whole thing was so tertiary and happenstance, not to mention influenced by drink. Doubly so that it was attested by the word of such a villain as Peter Wood. In the words of one pro-Penlez polemic, Wood would “run at every one, like a mad Dog, … indifferent who it was he hang’d by his Oath.”

Fanny Hill author John Cleland entered the fray on the side of the accused; his The Case of the Unfortunate Bosavern Penlez is aghast at “shedding the Blood of this young Man for the Example-sake … such a Severity being too much for the Nature of the Guilt actually chargeable on him, [and] will serve rather to confound and destroy all Ideas of Right and Wrong.”

Penlez was convicted not as a thief — which charge would have given the jury leave to find that the value of his linens amounted to less than the threshold necessary to hang him — but under the Riot Act which directly mandated death for “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together, to the disturbance of the publick peace.” Wood’s eyewitness testimony to the effect that Penlez (and Wilson, too) smashed up windows and furniture in his house and threatened him was essential to establishing a part in the tumultuous assembly.*

As this level of guilt was popularly doubted, our friend Henry Fielding — himself the very magistrate** who had engineered the suppression of the disturbance, having returned on the third day of it from a weekend away from London — took up his pen post-hanging to support the government’s handling of Penlez from arrest all the way to the scaffold. His A True State of the Case of Bosavern Penlez produces the witness accounts sworn before him as magistrate during the riots themselves, and reproves those Penlez supporters whose anger at his execution made the “malefactor” into “an object of sedition, when he is transformed into a hero, and the most merciful prince who ever sat on any throne is arraigned of blameable severity, if not of downright cruelty, for suffering justice to take place.”

If, after perusing the evidence which I have here produced, there should remain any private compassion in the breast of the reader, far be it from me to endeavour to remove it. I hope I have said enough to prove that this was such a riot as called for some example, and that the man [Penlez] who was made that example deserved his fate. Which, if he did, I think it will follow, that more hath been said and done in his favour than ought to have been; and that the clamour of severity against the government hath been in the highest degree unjustifiable.

* The Ordinary of Newgate reported that Penlez, who long remained cagey on the point, admitted in the end entering the bawdy-house during the riot, but disavowed any attack upon its owner. Wilson, for what it’s worth, always denied having entered the house and insisted Wood had misidentified him.

** Henry Fielding was the half-brother of magistrate and policing pioneer John Fielding. The Fieldings’ mutual roles in the creation of London’s first professional investigators to supplant the problematic “thief-taking” system of private, rewards-driven prosecution, is the subject of The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840.

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1768: Seven coal-heavers to crush the London port strike

Add comment July 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1768, a year of tremendous labor agitation in London, seven coal-heavers were hanged near the Shadwell dock.

With food prices surging,* the city’s hard-pressed urban proletariat was at peak militancy — which also lent violent energy the cause of hunted radical politician John Wilkes, who had returned from exile this year to stand for Parliament. Two principal loci of labor insurgency in 1768 were the Spitalfields weavers, whose struggle we have already observed, and the “coal heavers” — the men who did the grueling labor of offloading coal from Thames barges.

Coal-heaving was ill-paid and dangerous, and it was notoriously sensitive to fraud: workers (largely Irish: they’d been imported to hold down wages) being paid by the “sack” or the “vat” fought supervisors at riverside over just how fully loaded with coal such a sack or vat should be. Workers had their own recourse to “indirect Practises,” pilfering a few coals on the side to supplement pay up to within hailing distance of subsistence. The boss would call “theft” this grey-area practice harkening to labor traditions ancient and still-current. The rope would help him define it so.

Peter Linebaugh’s magisterial social history The London Hanged dramatically treats the fraught and violent months of the spring of 1768, when Irish workingmen were “bringing river traffic to a stand-still … [and] stopped the imperialist artery.”

Dockside taverns doubled as fraternal entities and regiments in the unfolding dock war. One John Green, keeper of a pub on New-Gravel Lane (not as scenic as the nearby Cutthroat Lane)

organized scab labour from [his] Roundabout Tavern. It was attacked in April with gunfire. A shoemaker bled to death on the pavement, a coal-heaver took a bullet in the head, ‘dropped down backwards, and never stirred’. The taverns were besieged, their furnishings destroyed. Gunfire was frequent. Green was acquitted of murder. Those testifying for him were mobbed and one witness had her jaw broken. The coal-heavers were as violent in word as in deed. ‘They would have Green’s Heart and Liver and Do for him'; ‘they would have him joint from joint'; ‘they would have his heart and liver, and cut him in pieces and hang him on his sign'; ‘they would hang him over his sign Post & cut him into Beef Stakes’.

Our seven — by name John Grainger, Daniel Clark, Richard Cornwall, Patrick Lynch, Thomas Murray, Peter Flaharty, and Nicholas McCabe — were indicted on grounds that they “with force and arms, with certain guns loaded with gunpowder and leaden bullets, feloniously, wilfully, and maliciously did shoot off at John Green.” Not quite cut into Beef Stakes, but it’ll get the job done.

Though the trials of Green, and then of Green’s assailants, were weeks apart, they concerned the very same disturbance on the night of April 20-21, when Green’s residence had been besieged by angry coal-heavers and Green with others had shot out the windows and killed at least two … but managed to hold his foes at bay during what must have been a harrowing night. Green wasn’t hurt, and gave evidence at the “shooting off” trial.

The London Irish had by 1768 an unparalleled knowledge of arms and armed struggle. They contributed to an insurrectionary impulse within the London working class. At the same time, as a consequence, the Irish had close knowledge of violent death. The intimacy of that knowledge was expressed in vivid euphemisms designed to reduce the terror of hanging. Seven coal-heavers received the ‘cramp jaw’ at the Old Bailey only after a new interpretation was placed upon the Waltham Black Act. The seven danced ‘a new jig without music’ on 26 July 1768. This particular ‘crack neck assembly’ was located in Sun Tavern fields, Shadwell … The move from Tyburn was designed to terrify the poor and working people of the river parishes. The ‘breath stopper’ was witnessed by 50,000 spectators, perhaps the largest crowd at such a scene since the hanging of the Earl of Ferrers eight years earlier. The Government anticipated disorders, if not rescue attempts, when these seven were to dance ‘tuxt de ert and de skies’. From 6 a.m. more than 600 soldiers patrolled the streets of Wapping and Shadwell. The Sheriff ordered all the constables of the Tower and Holborn divisions to assemble at the hanging site and to come armed with their staves. Thomas Turlis, the hangman, had stolen coal from a neighbour’s cellar five years earlier. But, that his work might not be interrupted, the Sheriff quickly obtained a pardon for him. He did his duty upon the coal-heavers, sent ‘a-spinning like a whirligig’. Once they had ‘peacably’ exited the world, many of the spectators may have gone for a drink as was customary:

Wid a facer we coddled our blood
For de wind id blows cold from de gibbett.

… The hanging at Sun Tavern Fields … taught a hard lesson about collective bargaining: attempts to counteract the rise in the price of provisions by improving wage rates would not be allowed. … the insurrectionary vanguard of the river proletariat was broken.

Or, as a more sanguine observer put it, after the hangings “the tumults immediately ceased, and peace and industry was happily restored.” And they all lived happily ever after.

* Bread prices doubled in 1768, leading to work stoppages, hoarding, and food riots throughout the city. Representative slogan shouted by desperate rioters: “We might as well be hanged as starve.” (George Rude, “The London ‘Mob’ of the Eighteenth Century,” The Historical Journal, Vol. II, no. 1 (1959))

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1989: A day in the death penalty around post-Tiananmen China

3 comments June 21st, 2012 Headsman


Yue Minjun, who still lives in China, says Tiananmen was “the catalyst for conceiving” of his Execution but that it is most certainly not about the famous protest and ensuing crackdown.

Although 1989 protests toppled dictatorships in Eastern Europe, this pregnant year’s great rally in China brought a bloody (pdf) crackdown.

The student-led Tiananmen Square protests packed hundreds of thousands into that Beijing plaza — with sympathy protests in other major cities — demanding liberalization.

For seven weeks, they seemed on the brink of making another world.

Then on June 4th came the crackdown.

The masters of China must have been holding their breath that day: would the soldiers follow their orders? Would the rebellion shrink away, or metastasize? You really never know.

By night, the masters of China could exhale.

Judicial reprisals were mere days in commencing … and June 21 appears to mark the first known executions* resulting from that tragic movement. And while most “perpetrators” didn’t die for the affair, it seems from the distance of a generation as if their cause did.

There was likewise, it was noticed in the American press, no comment on this date’s signal executions from the United States president. Washington and Beijing, these regimes west and east, alike weathering the end of the Cold War — they had a future in common.

Despite the harsh crackdown on protest, Chinese leaders and mass media have been almost desperately urging foreign businesses to maintain their ties with the country.

The New China News Agency carried a whole series of reports aimed at promoting international economic ties. These included:

— A report that foreign businesses will in the future be permitted to set up officially recognized chambers of commerce in China.

— An announcement that 10 large international industrial exhibitions will be held this year in Shanghai.

— A report that a Japanese businessman said investors from his country have confidence in China’s economy. “Some businessmen from the United States and the European Community have expressed their desire to continue to invest in China,” the report added.

— A statement by Ma Shizhong, vice governor of Shandong province, stressing that his part of China has “a favorable environment for import of foreign capital and introduction of up-to-date overseas technology.”


Only eleven days after the June 4th massacre that cleared Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the first trial of pro-democracy protesters saw three workers condemned to death in Shanghai.

According to this pdf on the aftermath of Tiananmen, Xu Guoming, a brewery worker, Bian Hanwu, unemployed, and Yan Xuerong, a factory worker, were all convicted of “setting fire to a train and indiscriminate destruction of transport and transport equipment in a serious riot at the Guangxin Road Rail Crossing of Huning Railroad on June 6.”

According to Nick Kristof, that “riot” had been a sit-in on a rail line to protest the June 4 military incursion — until a train actually rammed the demonstrators, who retaliated by torching the machine. Some firefighters were beaten in the disturbance, but nobody was killed.

For their part in this — whatever part that was — Xu, Bian and Yan were deprived of their political rights, and expeditiously shot on June 21. Eight other people got prison sentences shortly thereafter for the same “riot”, having pleaded guilty (all but one of them) to “smashing railway cars, setting fire to nine railway cars and six public security motorcycles, turning over police boxes, beating up firemen to impede them from putting the fire out and fabricating rumors to mislead the people.”


Lin Zhaorong, Zhang Wenkui, Chen Jian, Zu Jianjun, Wang Hanwu, Luo Hongjun, and Ban Huijie, meanwhile, were sentenced for “vandalism and arson in a counter-revolutionary riot” on June 17, 1989, by the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court — stuff like burning a military vehicle, looting supplies from it, and beating up (although again, not killing) a soldier.

(This pdf gives the execution date as June 22; most other sources list June 21.)

An eighth member of their same party, Wang Lianxi, received a suspended death sentence instead. She was spared.


“An undetermined number of anti-government demonstrators,” according to a UPI report, were among 17 prisoners publicly convicted and immediately shot in Jinan on a generic charge of endangering public order on June 21. (UPI is explicit as to the date, but some reports say June 20.)

State radio reported that 10,000 people attended the trial, which meted out 45 sentences in all on a variety of charges and is said to have mixed political prisoners with common criminals.


We note in passing a gentleman who has never qualified for an entry in this blog, and we hope never will.

The identity and fate of the figure at the center of those protests’ most indelible images, the so-called “Tank Man”, remain an enduring mystery.

There exist widespread rumors and ill-substantiated press reports of his execution. But who Tank Man was and what really became of him remains utterly unknown.

* Amnesty International’s appeal for the three workers — and this is the Spanish version; if the English is available, I have not found it — very plausibly alleges that secret, summary executions were already underway before this date’s grim milestone.

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1769: Two weavers, for the Spitalfield riots

4 comments December 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1769, two weavers hanged in East London in a bitter fight over wages and labor power.

Spitalfields, the East London district also known as the stomping-ground of legendary jailbreaker Jack Sheppard, was the capital of a thriving English silk-weaving industry. It had attained 18th century prosperity thanks in large measure to the decision of William and Mary to invite Lyons Huguenots being hard-pressed by the French crown to relocate their talents across the channel. This now-domestic industry* quickly began supplanting formerly dominant French imports.

In 1713 it was stated that silks, gold and silver stuffs and ribbon made here were as good as those from France, and that £300,000 worth of black silk for hoods and scarves was made annually. In 1721 the value of the silk manufactured in England amounted to £700,000 more than in 1688, when wrought silks were imported from France to the annual value of half a million sterling. (Source)

In this roaring and prestigious business, William Hogarth situated his 1747 Industry & Idleness plates: both the Industrious Prentice (eventually destined to become Lord Mayor of London) and the Idle Prentice (eventually executed at Tyburn) start off shoulder to shoulder at the Spitalfields looms.

But as the 18th century unfolded, even the most industrious Spitalfield weavers came under increasing competitive pressure especially from Chinese and Indian imports.

Although Parliament attempted to ban textile imports to preserve the domestic industries, Spitalfield workers were known to enforce their prerogatives directly by attacking people in the street thought to be wearing foreign prints. This simmering tension came to a rapid boil after settlement of the Seven Years’ War enabled England and France to resume trading — and a glut of French textiles to undermine weavers’ price controls.

Conflicts were no less fierce within the weavers’ community, between masters and laborers. Workers combined to maintain wages by attacking those thought to be undercutting prices.

In September 1769, one such action punished a wealthy anti-“combination” (for “combination”, read “labor union”) manufacturer named Lewis Chauvet, and cut the silk handkerchiefs right out of his looms.


From Season 3, Episode 2 of the BBC drama Garrow’s Law, which is directly based on this case. As of this writing, the entire episode can be found on YouTube.

Cutting silk from the loom was a rough method of enforcement by the labor combination. It had also been made a capital crime a few years before. And it turned out that Chauvet was ready to make his the test case.

Richly paying off a couple of independent artisan weavers for their questionable testimony, he secured the conviction of John Valloine or Valline (other alternate spellings are possible; the name clearly denotes the district’s Huguenot heritage) and John Doyle, two weavers allegedly part of the loom-smashing action. The accused denied it, Doyle reported to have fulminated at the gallows, “I am as innocent of the fact I am now to die for as the child unborn. Let my blood lie to that wicked man who has purchased it with gold, and them notorious wretches who swore it falsely away.”**

Manufacturers’ purposes were served just as well whether innocent or guilty. The point was labor discipline, not a few lost hankies.

Accordingly fixing “to strike Terror into the Rioters”, the crown ordered the execution to occur not at the Tyburn gallows, but right in the weavers’ backyard, adjacent Spitalfields at Bethnal Green.

This order actually delayed the sentence for the judiciary’s consideration of the minor point of whether this was allowed at all — since the actual boilerplate sentence read from the bench had specified “the usual place.” The wisest magistrates of the land considered the matter and in time agreed that “the time and place of execution was no part of the sentence” and therefore subject to His Majesty’s discretion. Bethnal Green it was.

They were therefore this morning taken in a cart from Newgate through the City to Whitechapel, and thence up the road to Bethnal Green, attended by the Sheriffs &c, with the gallows, made for the purpose, in another cart; it was fixed in the cross road, near the Salmon and Ball.


The Salmon and Ball pub, where the execution happened, today. (cc) image by Ewan Munro.

There was an inconceivable number of people assembled, and many bricks, tiles, stones &c thrown while the gallows was fixing, and a great apprehension of a general tumult, notwithstanding the persuasion and endeavours of several gentlemen to appease the same. The unhappy sufferers were therefore obliged to be turned off before the usual time allowed on such occasions, which was about 11 o’clock; when, after hanging about fifty minutes they were cut down and delivered to their friends. (cited here)

Vengeful weavers having their noses rubbed in their comrades’ executions smashed up Chauvet’s house in the riots on this date, and the powers that be decided that one hanging-day at Bethnal Green was plenty. A few other rioters convicted as confederates of Doyle and Valline were put to death at Tybun later in December 1769.

Years of violent labor conflict were finally quelled with the 1773 Spitalfield Weavers Act, a political compromise which protected the domestic industry from foreign competition and enabled magistrates to set wages.

Though this act stabilized a tense domestic situation, its effect over several decades was seriously problematic: a protected monopoly with wage-controlled workers maintained an increasingly obsolete system of labor-intensive manufacture that fell behind power looms coming online elsewhere.

As late as 1851 — mechanization wouldn’t fully take over until Britain’s trade liberalization of the 1860s — Charles Dickens visited Spitalfields, and saw a weaver

doing now, exactly what his grandfather did. Nothing would induce him to use a simple improvement (the ‘fly shuttle’) to prevent the contraction of the chest of which he complains. Nothing would turn him aside from his old ways. It is the old custom to work at home, in a crowded room, instead of in a factory.

Disallowed from taking lower wages even in bad times (or when cheaper cotton started displacing silk), many weavers sat completely unemployed instead — gradually sinking into a proletarianization they had fought to avoid. Spitalfield weavers eventually became one of the classic case studies in the laissez faire economics canon.

* Just to be clear, Huguenots weren’t the first silk weavers in Spitalfields; it’s just that their arrival let the industry take off.

** The hanged man’s comrades made good his gallows menace. Peter Linebaugh, whose The London Hanged is an outstanding resource on the economic pressures that brought these weavers and many others to the gallows, relates:

At noon upon a cold and snowy day, 16 April 1771, [Chauvet's paid witness against the weavers] Daniel Clarke … went walking in Spitalfields. It had been sixteen months since the hangings of the cutters whom Clarke had sworn against, and he must have thought the people cowed or forgetful. He was recognized. ‘There goes Clarke, that blood-selling rascal,’ was the shout, and instantly a small crowd gathered to badger and pester him. He took to his heels and found temporary refuge in the house of Mary Snee. The currents of popular memory run deep; now they flooded to the surface. A hundred people beset the house hurling maledictions. ‘They would hang him, or burn him, or stone him,’ said Mary Snee. He was cornered, stripped and dragged by his feet into the street, where he was led by the neck on a parade of humiliation. The crowds grew. Widow Horsford [wife of one of the weavers hanged later in December 1769 at Tyburn] was seen to ‘jump out of the loom’ at the news Clarke was cursed and dragged to the brick-fields. Children pelted him with dirt. Bespattered with muck, he was thrown into a pond where he was ducked within a breath of drowning. He was removed to a sandheap, buried, dug up and returned to the freezing water. It was estimated that the crowd numbered 3,000. While he could speak, he taunted his tormentors, saying ‘he would take twenty of them’. Widow Horsford said, ‘Clarke, Clarke, I am left a widow, my children is fatherless on account of you.’ Clarke answered, ‘Chauvet is worse than me,’ and then he expired. A grim ending that would be remembered for generations.

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1780: Five for the Gordon Riots

1 comment July 11th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1780 saw three men and two women hanged at various spots around London for the previous month’s Gordon Riots. They were the first five souls among 19 who would suffer the last extremity of the law for that disturbance.

The eponymous Protestant Lord George Gordon, had inflamed a mob against the 1778 Papists Act, which disencumbered British Catholics of some of their legal disabilities. (In part to pad out the redcoat ranks as the army found itself stretched thin by the American Revolution.)

The Gordon Riots started from Lord Gordon’s march on Parliament to serve it an anti-Catholic petition, and turned into five days of anti-Catholic mayhem before the troops were finally called out to quell it. (The want of a standing professional police force was among the deficiencies London encountered.)


This did not help Britain’s diplomatic overtures towards Habsburg Austria.

But the matter metastasized well beyond a merely sectarian event: a mass rally originating in the working-class Moorfields took an unmistakable class dynamic — assailing Newgate Prison and The Clink, liberating convicts in the process. The latter dungeon would never resume operations. “Crimping houses” for impressed sailors and “sponging houses” imprisoning debtors were also liberated.

Alongside white sailors and day laborers, London’s emerging black population would feature prominently in this affair. A “copper coloured person,” a former slave named John Glover, was observed at the front rank of those torching Newgate. Peter Linebaugh attributes to Glover the incendiary (and, as it turned out, credible) threat, “Damn you, Open the Gate or we will Burn you down and have Everybody out.” (Glover was condemned to death, but reprieved for likely-fatal servitude on the African coast.)

Three of the five executed in London on this date were hanged at Tower Hill, including both women, Mary Roberts and Charlotte Gardiner. Gardiner, like Glover, was an African; she and Roberts had helped sack the house of an Italian Catholic innkeeper.

Although nineteen folks put to death within a month and a half hardly constitutes giving the rioters a pass, it’s somewhat striking in view of the unabashedly anti-authority conflagration in hemp-happy 18th-century England that the death toll wasn’t greater. And it could have been: in a treatment in the December 1997 History Today, Marika Sherwood reports that fully 326 people were tried for some role in the Gordon Riots. But elites’ sense of the situation may well be captured by Edmund Burke’s remark,

If I understand the temper of the publick at this moment a very great part of the lower, and some of the middling people of this city, are in a very critical disposition, and such as ought to be managed with firmness and delicacy.

Less than two score were actually condemned to death for all this mess, and barely half of them were actually executed.


The 19th century writer Charles Dickens set his very first historical novel,* Barnaby Rudge, during the riots, and has his fictitious lead characters among the crops doomed to the scaffold.

(As we have seen several times, Dickens abhorred public executions, a circumstance also apparent in this passage.)

Barnaby would have mounted the steps at the same time — indeed he would have gone before them, but in both attempts he was restrained, as he was to undergo the sentence elsewhere. In a few minutes the sheriffs reappeared, the same procession was again formed, and they passed through various rooms and passages to another door — that at which the cart was waiting. He held down his head to avoid seeing what he knew his eyes must otherwise encounter, and took his seat sorrowfully, — and yet with something of a childish pride and pleasure, — in the vehicle. The officers fell into their places at the sides, in front and in the rear; the sheriffs’ carriages rolled on; a guard of soldiers surrounded the whole; and they moved slowly forward through the throng and pressure toward Lord Mansfield‘s** ruined house.

It was a sad sight — all the show, and strength, and glitter, assembled round one helpless creature — and sadder yet to note, as he rode along, how his wandering thoughts found strange encouragement in the crowded windows and the concourse in the streets; and how, even then, he felt the influence of the bright sky, and looked up, smiling, into its deep unfathomable blue. But there had been many such sights since the riots were over — some so moving in their nature, and so repulsive too, that they were far more calculated to awaken pity for the sufferers, than respect for that law whose strong arm seemed in more than one case to be as wantonly stretched forth now that all was safe, as it had been basely paralysed in time of danger.

Two cripples — both mere boys — one with a leg of wood, one who dragged his twisted limbs along by the help of a crutch, were hanged in this same Bloomsbury Square. As the cart was about to glide from under them, it was observed that they stood with their faces from, not to, the house they had assisted to despoil; and their misery was protracted that this omission might be remedied. Another boy was hanged in Bow Street; other young lads in various quarters of the town. Four wretched women,† too, were put to death. In a word, those who suffered as rioters were, for the most part, the weakest, meanest, and most miserable among them. It was a most exquisite satire upon the false religious cry which had led to so much misery, that some of these people owned themselves to be Catholics, and begged to be attended by their own priests.

One young man was hanged in Bishopsgate Street, whose aged grey-headed father waited for him at the gallows, kissed him at its foot when he arrived, and sat there, on the ground, till they took him down. They would have given him the body of his child; but he had no hearse, no coffin, nothing to remove it in, being too poor — and walked meekly away beside the cart that took it back to prison, trying, as he went, to touch its lifeless hand.


Gordon himself, an odd duck, had better resources than these poor saps, and repelled a treason prosecution.

However, fate still ordained him a death in Newgate Prison — by illness many years later, after being convicted of defaming Marie Antoinette. By that time, the former Anglican rabble-rouser had converted to Orthodox Judaism, circumcision and all.

* The first of just two historical novels for Dickens; the second, of course, was A Tale of Two Cities.

** We’ve met Lord Mansfield before, articulating the jurisprudence of a slave society. His home was also targeted by Moorsfield rioters.

† Dickens is wrong about “four wretched women” being hanged: Gardiner and Roberts, our day’s pair, were the only two. Evidently, though, these two were arresting enough in the public conscience to forge “memories” of entire cartloads of ladies gone to Tyburn. (n.b.: none of the Gordon Rioters were hanged at Tyburn, either.)

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