Posts filed under 'Rioting'

Feast Day of St. Eupsychius, anti-Apostate

3 comments April 9th, 2017 Headsman

April 9 is the (Roman) feast date of the minor Cappadocian saint Eupsychius.

As martyr to the hated-of-Christians pagan throwback emperor Julian the Apostate, Eupsychius could perhaps be accounted an ironical late victim of the fratricidal family politics that consumed the heirs of the great Christianizer Constantine the Great.

When Constantine kicked off in 337, he left three sons of a disgraced empress whom he optimistically hoped would share rulership. What happened instead was that, inside of a generation, practically the entire Constantinian line laid one another in the earth by dint of bloodthirsty dynastic rivalries, leaving only two men standing.

And it so happened that those two kinsmen faced one another across late antiquity’s gaping spiritual chasm: one a Christian, the other a pagan.

Constantius was the surviving son of Constantine, and regardless his Christian affiliation had secured his initial control of his father’s new eastern capital by unsentimentally butchering the bulk of his extended family including his own uncle Julius Constantius, and Julius’s firstborn son. Two other sons of Julius Constantine, too young for the abbatoir, escaped their brother’s fate and so our future Julian the Apostate grew up under a perpetually dancing Damoclean sword, a bookish philosophizing type enchanted by classical learning — so enchanted that he would eventually, and at first very quietly, apostatize from his substantial Christian education and adhere instead to the old gods.

In the fullness of time, the remainder of Constantius’s family succumbed to various civil wars — including Julian’s only surviving brother, Gallus, executed for treachery in 354 in an incident that could very well have claimed Julian as well if for no other reason than proximity. A prolific writer, Julian would later recall that “if some God, to inure my safety, had not ingratiated me with his [Constantius’s] beautiful and excellent wife, Eusebia, I could not have escaped his resentment.” Perhaps the childless Constantius could foresee well enough that, resentment or no, his last relation would be required for imperial policy soon enough.

And indeed the very next year, having spent many months mulling over whether to kill him, Constantius instead elevated Julius as his junior co-emperor. The young scholar soon distinguished himself as a surprisingly competent leader and battlefield commander, pacifying Germania and Gaul before, almost inevitably, the two emperors turned on one another in civil war. Julian must have been well-favored of goddess Fortuna whom he will defend in this post, for he won that war before the first spear was chucked when Constantius took ill and died as the rivals steered their armies towards one another.

So suddenly, 40 years after the empire had officially gone Christian, it had a pagan ruler — the last pagan ruler it would ever know.

Julian was an intelligent and idealistic young man. Taking power before the age of 30, he set a bold course to massively remake the empire in the image of its most admirable anachronisms: living modestly, paring the bureaucracy, debating Senators as their equal instead of their overlord, and — the attempted rollback that would mark his nickname and his reputation — restoring a pre-Christian cosmology to philosophical preeminence.

A few books about Julian the Apostate

This could have been Julian the Apostate‘s life’s work, twenty or thirty of forty years dislodging Christianity from the official foothold it had only recently attained and creating the groundwork for a pagan-dominated middle ages: fine grist for speculative alternative history, since Julian actually died in 363 in war against the Persians.

Having learned from the failure of previous rulers’ persecutions, he deployed instead the devious and modern mechanic of liberal religious toleration, starving the “Galileans” of the galvanizing force of either state backing or state oppression while perhaps setting their orthodox edifice up to splinter over time as various heretical movements began freely venting their rival doctrines on one another.


Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage (1875).

His uniqueness and his erudition have made him an attractive character for modern interlocutors, especially those of the Christ-skeptic variety; Gore Vidal sympathetically centered Julian in an engrossing historical novel, and Gibbon warmly admired him:

The Christians, who had now possessed above forty years the civil and ecclesiastical government of the empire, had contracted the insolent vices of prosperity, and the habit of believing that the saints alone were entitled to reign over the earth. As soon as the enmity of Julian deprived the clergy of the privileges which had been conferred by the favour of Constantine, they complained of the most cruel oppression; and the free toleration of idolaters and heretics was a subject of grief and scandal to the orthodox party. The acts of violence, which were no longer countenanced by the magistrates, were still committed by the zeal of the people. At Pessinus the altar of Cybele was overturned almost in the presence of the emperor, and in the city of Caesarea, in Cappadocia, the temple of Fortune, the sole place of worship which had been left to the Pagans, was destroyed by the rage of a popular tumult. On these occasions, a Prince who felt for the honour of the gods was not disposed to interrupt the course of justice; and his mind was still more deeply exasperated when he found that the fanatics, who had deserved and suffered the punishment of incendiaries, were rewarded with the honours of martyrdom.

It is the last named of these incidents that finally brings us round to our date’s principal.

Like Julian himself, St. Eupsychius had no way of knowing that the new, old order would be a transient epoch. In his zeal to resist a rejuvenated paganism, Eupsychius led a riotous sack of a temple to Fortuna (Tyche). The church historian Sozomen gives us the primary-est historical record, and although it dates to several decades after Eupsychius’s martyrdom we can’t be picky when it comes to antiquity.

It is said that at this time were martyred Basilius, a presbyter of the church of Ancyra, and Eupsychius, a nobleman of Caesarea in Cappadocia, newly wed and in a manner of speaking still a bridegroom. As regards Eupsychius, I conjecture that he was executed because of the temple of Tyche, then destroyed, on account of which destruction, as has been said above, all citizens of Caesarea collectively experienced the emperor’s wrath, while those who personally took part in it were punished, some with death, some with banishment.

Later iterations would expand predictably on Eupsychius’s sufferings — tortures, miracle-making, blood and milk springing from his wound, and even eventually eliding the precipitating riot or arson — all of which conspires to pull a discernibly historical figure behind the dark glass of hagiography.*

Little more than a year later, Julian suffered a mortal wound in battle against the Sassanids. The Constantinian dynasty died with Julian, as did his signature project of Apostasy — a sudden volte-face of that fickle Fortuna whose memory and reputation would persist well beyond the twilight of paganism.

The History of Rome podcast deals with Julian in episodes 143, 144, 145, and 146.

* See L.G. Westerink, “The Two Faces of St. Eupsychius,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 7, Okeanos: Essays presented to Ihor Shevchenko on his Sixtieth Birthday by his Colleagues and Students (1983).

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arson,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Rioting,Roman Empire,Torture,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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1832: Three Nottingham rioters, for better governance

Add comment February 1st, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1832, three young men were hanged in front of Nottingham’s County Hall for riots that erupted in late 1831 against Tory lords’ opposition to urgently needed reform of England’s grossly misrepresentative allocations of governing power.

George Beck, 20, George Hearson, 22, and John Armstrong, 26, were among twenty-plus alleged rioters arrested by the military whose intervention had been required to contain the disturbance. They were unlucky as much as anything, prey to statecraft’s requisites of resolve shown and examples made, for in the chaos of the riots the evidence gathered against these three as particular baddies resided at best on the arbitrary and dubious side. Such a public outcry arose against their punishment that officials made sure to delay the hanging until after the day’s post reached town, lest it bear along a last-minute pardon.

Kevin Turton’s A Grim Almanac of Nottinghamshire records,

On 4 January Armstrong had been found guilty of causing the Beeston riot and the destruction of Lowe’s silk mill. The other two had been arrested later the same month and charged with involvement in the same crime. Unfortunately for Beck and Hearson, though, their convictions had been made on spurious identification evidence. No one at their trial had given irrefutable evidence to establish guilt and by the time they climbed on to the scaffold to join Armstrong some 24,000 people had signed petitions for their release and well over that number swelled the crowds which gathered to watch the executions. So nervous were the Nottingham officials that they called out the 15th Hussars, The Queens Bays, the 18th Foot and a significant body of special constables to block off High Pavement and prevent any outbreak of unrest.

From a contemporary news account:

On the day of execution (Wednesday February 1st), the condemned took a glass of wine. Both Hearson and Armstrong protested their innocence by saying “I am a murdered man”. Beck ascended the platform first and a cry of “Murder!” could be heard from the crowd. Despite his irons, Hearson ran quickly up and jumped on the scaffold, calling to friends in the crowd. He then twirled his cap around his hand, “as if in triumph”, followed by his neckerchief, to cheers from the crowd. He also did a little dance before being calmed, and before Armstrong ascended. The ropes had been adjusted, and the chaplain began the service. On uttering the words “in the midst of life we are in death”, the drop fell!

The blog Pallax View has an excellent entry about the riots and resulting trials and executions, focusing on Hearson in particular. He was a married lace manufacturer and an enthusiastic boxer, called “Curley Hearson” in the prize ring.

A poem about the injustice of the executions gained wide circulation:

Hark! The Trumps are mournful sounding,
Wafting souls to realms above,
Where there’s naught but bliss abounding,
Glorying too for Jesu love.

The reckless fate of these poor creatures,
Fills the town with sad dismay,
For Nottingham, with its bright features,
Could not check that dreadful day.

To see the prime of youth now wither,
‘Midst relations, friends so dear,
It makes one’s blood almost to shiver,
Who could stop the burning tear?

Hearson, Beck and Armstrong boldly,
Met their fates beneath the tree;
Villains swore against them coldly,
And their doom we all shall see.

The bitterly-fought parliamentary reform was at last enacted that June.

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1736: Captain John Porteous, riotously lynched

Add comment September 7th, 2016 Headsman

Hated Edinburgh gendarme Captain John Porteous was lynched on this date in 1736.

September 7 was the date of Porteous’s own scheduled hanging, for triggering a mob scene at a previous execution we have already visited: Porteous, commanding the guard detail at that hanging, reacted insaley when

some unlucky boys threw a stone or two at the hangman, which is very common, on which the brutal Porteous (who it seems had ordered his party to load their guns with ball) let drive first himself amongst the inocent mob and commanded his men to folow his example which quickly cleansed the street but left three men, a boy and a woman dead upon the spot, besides several others wounded, some of whom are dead since. After this first fire he took it in his head when half up the Bow to order annother voly & kill’d a taylor in a window three storys high, a young gentleman & a son of Mr Matheson the minister’s and several more were dangerously wounded and all this from no more provocation than what I told you before, the throwing of a stone or two that hurt no body.

Nowadays Porteous might cite officer safety and be back on the job in a week’s time. Edinburghers in 1736 gave their law enforcement a bit less latitude, and the city magistrates were obliged to box Porteous up in the Tolbooth lest a baying mob “would have torn him, Council and Guard all in pices.”

Five months remained to Mr. Porteous, a span in which he must have died a thousand deaths as he watched fortune toss his prospects to and fro from within his dungeon. The temper of the city would admit no other result than his conviction and death sentence but officers of the law have strings to pull with the state their muskets uphold. With King George II out of hand,* Queen Caroline granted Porteous a reprieve (not yet an outright clemency) from an intended September 8 date with his own hangman. That intervention was soon overruled by a higher sovereign, for as the Newgate Calendar puts it, “when the populace were informed, such a scheme of revenge was meditated as is perhaps unprecedented.” This was no sudden spasm of public rage; five calculating days had elapsed from the arrival to Edinburgh of the queen’s mercy when

On the 7th of September, 1736, between nine and ten in the evening, a large body of men entered the city of Edinburgh, and seized the arms belonging to the guard; they then patrolled the streets, crying out, ‘All those who dare avenge innocent blood, let them come here.’ They then shut the gates and placed guards at each.


Illustration of the Porteous mob, from Sir Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian — which dramatizes the lynching.

The main body of the mob, all disguised, marched in the mean time to the prison; when finding some difficulty in breaking open the doors with hammers, they immediately set fire to it; taking great care that the flames should not spread beyond their proper bounds. The outer door was hardly consumed before they rushed in, and, ordering the keeper to open the door of the captain’s apartment, cried out, ‘Where is the villain, Porteous?’ He replied, ‘Here I am, what do you want with me?’ To which they answered, that they meant to hang him in the Grass Market, the place where he had shed so much innocent blood.

His expostulations were all in vain, they seized him by the legs and arms, and dragged him instantly to the place of execution.

On their arrival, they broke open a shop to find a rope suitable to their purpose, which they immediately fixed round his neck, then throwing the other end over a dyer’s pole, hoisted him up; when he, endeavouring to save himself, fixed his hands between the halter and his neck, which being observed by some of the mob, one of them struck him with an axe, which obliging him to quit his hold, they soon put an end to his life.

When they were satisfied he was dead they immediately dispersed to their several habitations, unmolested themselves, and without molesting anyone else.

Such was the fate of Captain John Porteous, a man possessed of qualifications which, had they been properly applied, might have rendered him an honourable and useful servant of his country. His undaunted spirit and invincible courage would have done honour to the greatest hero of antiquity. But being advanced to power, he became intoxicated with pride, and instead of being the admiration of his fellow citizens, he was detested and hated by all who knew him. The fate of this unhappy man, it is hoped, will he a caution to those who are in power not to abuse it; but, by a humane as well as diligent discharge of their duty, to render themselves worthy members of society.

Porteous did get a solemn memorial stone in Greyfriars Kirkyard once passions cooled … 237 years later.


(cc) image from Kio Stark.

* The Hanoverian king spent most of 1736 away taking a visit (quite unpopular with his English subjects) back to the family’s namesake German principality, which George II also ruled in a personal union.

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1844: Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, lynched

1 comment June 27th, 2016 Headsman

Joseph Smith, the strange founder of America’s most successful home-grown religion, was lynched on this date in 1844 at the jail in Carthage, Illinois.

Mormonism today boasts some 15 million adherents but it all started in the 1820s when Smith, then an energetic young mystic in the revival hotbed of western New York, claimed to have been guided by an angel to plates engraved in a made-up language that only he could translate and only that one time because the plates disappeared back to angelic custody after Smith’s perusal. It will not be news to this site’s LDS readers that few outside the faith place this origin story on the near side of the laugh test, but then, it is the nature of religions to appear ridiculous to outsiders: Christ crucified is unto the Greeks foolishness.

Smith’s heretical story of America as the ancient zone of a literal “New Jerusalem” founded by Israelites with a theretofore unknown gift for transoceanic navigation was certainly a stumbling-block for Protestant American neighbors, who harried from state to state — a practically Biblical sojourn through the desert — the fast-growing community. It came to pass* that the young man’s implausible scripture struck a resonant chord for the young nation.

“It was a really powerful religion,” says John Dolan in an episode of the War Nerd podcast.** “It said, our people have always been here, America is the promised land, you’re at home here. And that meant so much to 19th century Americans.”

The strange new sect’s capacity for punching above its weight in the missionary game also unleashed violently hostile reactions, marrying to its settler theology a compelling lived experience of persecution. The march of the movement across the continent has an astonishing, can’t-make-this-up character — “full of stir and adventure” in Mark Twain’s words, so again a perfect fit for America.

A few books about Joseph Smith

Smith took his fledgling faith from its New York birthplace to Kirtland, Ohio — where he was fortunate to survive a tarring and feathering in 1832 — and then onward to Missouri where a dirty vigilante war led the governor to issue a notorious “extermination order”: “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.” Scrabbling for a homeland and pursued by a Missouri treason charge (!) Smith ducked over the western border to Illinois and set up a Mormon town called Nauvoo.

The faith was barely a decade old and still struggling to find an equilibrium. While Smith fought the last battle by creating a gigantic militia to protect his flock from the sorts of military attacks it had faced in Missouri — which state still sought Smith’s head in the 1840s — he attained his martyrdom as the fallout of prosaic internal politics. Seeking to suppress schismatic Mormons, Smith in June 1844 ordered the destruction of their critical newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor.†

By now having worn out his welcome with yet another state, the unpopular Smith became the subject of an Illinois arrest warrant as a result of this lawless attack on his rivals. Expecting better treatment than Missouri would have offered him and angling to keep Mormons in an amicable relationship with neighbors, Smith this time chose to turn himself in to face trial for inciting a riot, along with his brother Hyrum Smith and two other Mormon leaders, Willard Richards and John Taylor.‡

But in this case, the law did not take its course.

On the afternoon of June 27, 1844, a mob of 200 armed men stormed the jail in Carthage where the Mormons were held, meeting only token resistance. (Indeed, many of the force assigned to guard the Mormons joined the attackers instead.) They gunned down Hyrum Smith on the spot and drove Joseph Smith — firing back all the while — to a window where a fusillade knocked him out of the second story. His body was shot up and mutilated; one of the numerous accounts of those moments even has it that the corpse was propped up for a summary firing squad “execution.”

Whatever else one could say of Joseph Smith, he forged a community that survived its founder’s death, and is thriving still nearly two centuries on. With Smith’s passing, leadership of the Mormons fell to Brigham Young, who brought the Mormons out of Illinois for their destiny in Utah.

* Smith — or the angel Moroni, if you like — amusingly abuses the portentous clause “it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon, repeating it in about one-fifth of the tome’s verses.

** Also recommended: Dolan’s article on Joseph Smith as an outstanding product of an era of “text-finding” — his book offering pious Americans their greatest desideratum, a national link to God’s Biblical chosen people much like James MacPherson‘s forged Ossian epic thrilled the patriotic fancies of Scots discomfitingly swallowed up into Great Britain.

† The Expositor published only one single issue: the June 7, 1844 edition that caused its immediate suppression and eventually Smith’s death.

‡ Both Richards and Taylor survived the mob attack on Carthage Jail. Taylor in 1880 succeeded Brigham Young as president of the church.

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1816: Five Ely and Littleport rioters

Add comment June 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1816, England hanged five men for a bread riot.

The war against Napoleon, only just concluded, had from 1812 enthroned a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary government under the Earl of Liverpool.

The 1810s were rough years for England’s working population, and distinguished by violent class conflict whose suppression was among the Crown’s chief cares.

The particular locus of conflict here is the most pressing and ancient in civilization: the price of bread.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon had embargoed continental Europe’s trade with Britain. With the Corsican’s end, the Tory government had in 1815 enacted Corn Laws protecting English grain markets from a sudden onset of competition.

This sop to the Tories’ landowner supporters propped up the already inflated price of bread and triggered social unrest throughout Great Britain.

Preoccupied as she was by the specter of Jacobinism, London could hardly imagine that even geology was conspiring against her: the gigantic 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia caused a global volcanic winter that made 1816 a year without a summer in the northern hemisphere — crippling agriculture across Europe.

But the bottom line was that war-inflated grain prices having fallen precipitously in the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat turned right around and spiked back up once British farmers were protected from import competition. Wages, it need hardly be said, did not enjoy a similar spike; to the contrary, they were suppressed by the legions of demobilized soldiers who returned from Waterloo in glory to discover a ruinous cost of living with scant prospect for employment. Dr. Marjorie Bloy contends that Britons “suffered more, economically, socially, and politically” during the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars than during their prosecution.

Landholders as a class had gained more than anyone else from the preceding generation of warfare and its attendant embargo, and not neglected to aggressively enclose more and more acreage on which to raise their ever more lucrative produce. Their transparent cupidity in gouging from the hard-won peace chagrined their countrymen. In “Age of Bronze” (1823), Lord Byron skewered the sententious patriotism of “The landed interest — (you may understand / The phrase much better leaving out the land)”:

See these inglorious Cincinnati swarm,
Farmers of war, dictators of the farm;
Their ploughshare was the sword in hireling hands,
Their fields manured by gore of other lands;
Safe in their barns, these Sabine tillers sent
Their brethren out to battle — why? for rent!
Year after year they voted cent per cent,
Blood, sweat, and tear-wrung millions — why? for rent!
They roar’d, they dined, they drank, they swore they meant
To die for England — why then live? — for rent!
The peace has made one general malcontent
Of these high-market patriots; war was rent!
Their love of country, millions all mis-spent,
How reconcile? by reconciling rent!
And will they not repay the treasures lent?
No: down with every thing, and up with rent!
Their good, ill, health, wealth, joy, or discontent,
Being, end, aim, religion — rent, rent, rent!

On May 22, 1816, some residents of the Cambridgeshire village of Littleport collected at a local pub to commiserate with one another about this common grievance.

Fortified by their tankards, the crowd spilled out into the streets and began abusing their most prosperous neighbors — in some cases merely menacing them; in others, invading and looting homes, extorting money, and gorging on wine.

A Rev. John Vachell fled the unfolding riot to the nearby (and larger) town of Ely where he alerted authorities. By daybreak, the Ely rioters, now swollen to a mob of hundreds and armed with pitchforks and guns, had arrived at Ely too. There local grandees engaged them in a dilatory negotiation with liberal wage concessions to mellow the mood — while the dragoons, cavalry, and militia that had been called for at Rev. Vachell’s first alarm were being summoned from Bury St. Edmunds.

They did not arrive until late the afternoon of the 23rd, and were not able to press their confrontation with the unrulies until the following day.

A small-scale but frightening urban skirmish took place on May 24 with rioters firing at the gendarmes from houses and the soldiers returning same, until the crowd was pinned down at last in the George and Dragon and from there its members either surrendered or scattered to flight.

Out of an estimated 300 or so rioters, about 80 went to trial, and 24 received capital sentences — all of this taking place within a month after events. The court understood in imposing its sentences that the punitive bloodbath would be a bit more constrained: 19 sentences were commuted, many of them joining comrades who had been directly sentenced to convict transportation.

William Beamiss, George Crow, John Dennis, Isaac Harley, and Thomas South were the five left to pay for the day’s excesses; their black-shrouded gallows-cart had to be rented from Cambridge lest a local provisioner incur the wrath of the populace.

Hauled to the suitably evil-sounding “Parnell Pits”, they were swung off after making penitential remarks submitting to the justice of their doom. As an example, Dennis (who also managed to attribute his end to those old gallows saws, “Sabbath-breaking, whoremongery, and bad company”) begged the crowd come to watch him die to “refrain from breaking the laws of your country! Remember the words o the Judge, that tried us for the crimes for which we are now going to suffer, who said, ‘The law of the land will always be too strong for its assailants, and those who defy the law, will, in the end, be subdued by the law, and be compelled to submit to its justice or its mercy.'” (Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette, July 6, 1816)

Though the speaker evidently meant his words earnestly, some of those onlookers scrabbling to afford their daily bread must have heard them with a certain amount of bitterness. To argue the law’s strength is not to argue its justice.

But the address, and the strangulation that its author was put to directly thereafter, served their purpose. Cambridgeshire’s fens became quiescent — though it was very far from deterring the rest of the English working class.


Memorial to the executed rioters at St. Mary’s church, Ely. ((cc) image from John McCullough)

The Corn Laws were not repealed until 1846.

* Edward Christian, older brother of HMS Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian, was Chief Justice of the Isle of Ely (not a literal island) and one of the presiding magistrates at the rioters’ tribunal.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Rioting,Theft

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1751: Lobsang Trashi and the Lhasa Rebellion leaders

Add comment January 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On January 23, 1751 Lhasa … witnessed another horrible example of Chinese justice. Lobsang Trashi and six other leaders of the rebellion were executed by cutting them into pieces. Other people were beheaded or strangled. The heads of the executed were mounted on spikes. The other leaders were exiled and stripped of their property.

-Luciano Petech, China and Tibet in the Early XVIIIth Century

China’s domination of Tibet, dating to 1720, has generated resistance, intermittently violent, down to the present day.

The incident at hand here was a November 1750 Lhasa riot sparked by the assassination of Tibet’s prince by China’s plenipotentiary, who had caught wind of the local ruler’s intention to detach his kingdom from Qing domination.

The royal chamberlain, Lobsang Trashi (German Wikipedia entry | Dutch) managed to escape the scene and found himself at the head of a furious rabble that sacked the Qing embassy, looted a treasury, and killed dozens of Chinese soldiers — and dozens more Chinese civilians.

But the popular furor burned itself out within days, most Tibetan elites sagely declining to get involved in the pogrom pending the likely — and soon, actual — overwhelming Qing response. These guys got the fire-eaters arrested (they’d be handed over to the arriving Chinese army) and installed the Dalai Lama as the new secular as well as religious authority.

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1854: Aslak Hetta and Mons Somby, Sami rebels

Add comment October 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1854, two Sami men were beheaded for Norway’s Kautokeino Rebellion.

The indigenous Sami people — often known as Lapps, although this nomenclature is not preferred by the Sami themselves — had by this point become territorially assimilated to the states of the Scandinavian peninsula across which their ancestral homeland had once spanned.

The material benefits of this association for the Sami were much less apparent.

In Norway — our focus for this post — Sami shared little of the economic growth in the 19th century save for a startling proliferation of alcoholism.

In the 1840s a charismatic Sami preacher named Lars Levi Laestadius founded a Lutheran revival movement that went over like reindeer among his people. Religious enthusiasm and social critique went hand in hand: Laestadius’s hard anti-alcohol line and criticism of the comfortable state clergy touched deeply felt grievances, and Laestadius could deliver these messages in Sami dialects. Villages devastated by drink would go dry in response to his exhortations with pleasing results for the social fabric, further stoking adherents’ piety.

The most militant expression of this movement soon detached itself from any restraint Lars Levi Laestadius might hope to exercise upon it. Eventually it would move towards disruptive actions like interrupting services of the official clergy and protesting licensed alcohol merchants.

In a rising in November 1852, firebrand Laestadians attacked the trading post of Carl Johan Ruth, the liquor merchant in the Finnmark village of Kautokeino. Both Ruth and the local sheriff, responding to the disturbance, were slain in the ensuing fray and several other buildings in town torched. A counterattack managed to quell the disturbance — killing two rebels in turn — and eventually 17 men and 11 women were condemned to sentences ranging from short prison terms to lifelong prison terms to (our concern, of course) execution.

The two leaders of the mob, Aslak Hetta (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian) and Mons Somby (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian), were both beheaded at the Arctic Circle town of Alta.

After decapitation, the men’s bodies were buried at Alta’s Kafjorddalen Church, but their severed heads went off to the Royal Fredrik’s University (today the University of Oslo) for scientists to probe. The heads eventually went missing until a search turned them up at a cranium collection in Copenhagen in 1997, which returned them at the behest of the descendants for burial back with the trunks from which they parted ways 160 years ago today.

A 2008 Nils Gaup-directed feature film, The Kautokeino Rebellion, dramatizes these events. (Synopsis | review) Armas Launis, a Finnish composer with an interest in ethnography, also wrote a libretto (Finnish link) in honor of Aslak Hetta after residing among the Sami for some time.


As of this writing, the full movie is also available on YouTube provided you can understand Norwegian, or read Spanish subtitles.

* Laestadianism still exists today. According to Wikipedia, “Because of doctrinal opinion differences and personality conflicts, the movement split into 19 branches, of which about 15 are active today.” Said Wikipedia entry enumerates all 19 groups, ranging from the Conservative Laestadians (approximately 115,000 adherents) all the way down to the Sten group (15 adherents) and the Kontio group (5 adherents).

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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 fertilizer 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. For audio product handling the guano binge, try this 99 Percent Invisible podcast.

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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