A century ago today, Raymond Caillemin, Elie Monnier and André Soudy were guillotined in Paris for their exploits with Third Republic France’s most celebrated band of anarchist bank-robbers, the Bonnot Gang.
It was actually not Bonnot but Octave Garnier who was the original moving spirit for the gang, which took shape in 1911 around a core of anarchist adherents to the philosophy of illegalism — criminality as resistance. The outlaws were revolutionaries, vegetarians, working-class. Though respectable anarchist communists fled from them, the philosophy bit wasn’t a pose.
“It’s because I didn’t want to live this life of present-day society, because I didn’t want to wait and maybe die before I’d lived, that I defended myself against the oppressors with all the means at my disposal,” Garnier wrote in a memoir discovered after he was killed in a police shootout.
To Garnier the gang owed its signature innovation of using automobiles: they were the first ever to use this novel machine to flee the scene of a crime after knocking over a Paris bank in December 1911. Between their internal combustion engine and their repeating rifles, they had a decided technological advantage on the police who pursued them.
For obvious reasons they were initially dubbed the “Auto Bandits.” But Jules Bonnot stole the marquee by marching into the office of La Petit Parisien in January 1912 to indignantly correct some of its reporting. The newspaper gave him an interview, and started branding the outlaws the “Bonnot Gang” (La bande a Bonnot), a name which has stuck for posterity and titles a 1968 film about them.
For the next three months, they would repeatedly crash the headlines on either side of the French-Belgian border by stealing cars to perpetrate new robberies, often shooting policemen and bank tellers into the bargain.
Meanwhile, they magnetized admirers and enemies alike with their Gallic intrepidity and self-confessedly impossible struggle. Garnier mailed his fingerprints to the police chief. Ground-down proletarians fell into their orbit, cracking bitter fatalistic jokes. Under the pen name La Retif, a young writer extolled the masculine, doomed outlaws: he was the Russian expatriate Victor Serge, at the start of a long revolutionary career.*
To shoot, in full daylight, a miserable bank clerk proved that some men have at least understood the virtues of audacity.
I am not afraid to own up to it: I am with the bandits. I find their role a fine one; I see the Men in them. Besides them I see only fools and nonentities.
Whatever may result, I like those who struggle. Perhaps it will make you die younger, or force you to experience the man-hunt and the penal colony; perhaps you will end up beneath the foul kiss of the guillotine. That may be! I like those who accept the risk of a great struggle. It is manly.
Besides, one’s destiny, whether as victor or vanquished, isn’t it preferable to sullen resignation and the slow interminable agony of the proletarian who will die in retirement, a fool who has gained nothing out of life?
The bandit, he gambles. He has therefore a few chances of winning. And that is enough.
The bandits show strength.
The bandits show audacity.
The bandits show their firm desire to live.
By April and May the authorities were finally overcoming the audacious bandits, though desires to live showed firm to the last: both Bonnot and Garnier were overcome and killed only after holding off protracted sieges against overwhelming numbers.
Although the headline attractions were gone, the ensuing massive trial soon fitted four for death:
Raymond Callemin, Serge’s own friend and reading-companion since childhood
Elie Monier (or Monnier), the onetime refugee draft-dodger whose will grandiloquently bequeathed to the Paris library his copy of Darwin, and to the Paris museum the pistol he was arrested with, provided it be engraved with the phrase “Thou Shalt Not Kill”
The sickly Andre Soudy, reckless in his outlaw adventure since tuberculosis that he was too poor to fend off already had him coughing his way to an earl grave
The joiner Eugene Dieudonne, a friend and compatriot of the gang members but not an actual bank-robber himself. Dieudonne was reprieved on April 20th and dispatched instead to the French penal colony at Devil’s Island
Other prison sentences from a few years up to a lifetime at hard labor were meted out to various other Bonnot gang members and fellow-travelers, several of whom showed themselves dedicated enough to their heroic fatalism to take their own lives. One who attempted an escape only to find himself stymied when he attained the roof of the prison worked fellow-inmates into a frenzied chant of Viva l’anarchie as he hurled slate shingles at the guards who treed him, then wrapped up the performance by hurling himself off the roof, too.
“I would have liked to eat black bread with black hands,” that man’s last testament read. “But I was forced to eat white bread with red hands.”
* Serge got himself in some hot water as an anti-Stalinist in the Soviet Union. Serge’s mature (1945) appraisal of his youthful infatuation with the Bonnot gang, as well as his first-person recollections of the Bonnot gang trial (which got Serge himself a five-year sentence) can be read here
On this date in 1897, some 4,000 residents of Lafayette turned up to watch the hanging of two Parisian-born young men.
It had been nearly a full year since Martin Begnaud was discovered bound, gagged, and stabbed over 50 times in his general store at Scott, Louisiana, just outside Lafayette. That was on April 22, 1896.
The motive was self-evident: the prosperous late burgher had been plundered of several thousand dollars. But who did it?
The matter remained a mystery for many months, although two men were indicted for the deed — and blessedly never brought to trial.
But a few days after the murders, brothers Ernest and Alexis Blanc, teenage French orphans who were sharecropping on a plantation in April 1896 also abruptly disappeared without even bothering to sell their crop shares. This naturally raised suspicion as well, but their whereabouts were totally unknown and as months passed any hope of finding them had practically vanished.
Just after New Year’s 1897, the Blancs made a slight miscalculation: they turned up again in Scott and applied to work at their old plantation.
They were swiftly arrested and questioned separately. It did not take long for them to crack; indeed, full of guilt as they were, one might speculate whether these young Catholics didn’t return with the subconscious desire to purge themselves.
The older sibling Ernest explained that they had
secured the loan of a book treating of the daring deeds of Jesse James. From reading this book originated the idea and our plans for the murder. Seeing how poor we were, and how difficult to otherwise better our situation, we made up our minds to emulate the examples inculcated by the book.
The boys executed this plan with something less than the steel-hearted aplomb of a seasoned outlaw, however. Having gained access after hours to Begnaud and his store on the pretext of making a purchase, the brothers nervously bought tobacco … and then sardines … and then made small talk about mouse traps … all the while trying to screw up the nerve to do the deed, and get Begnaud to turn his back on them so they could have the advantage. When Ernest (as he claimed) finally murdered the shopkeep, “my hand trembled. The triangular instrument burned my hand. I shut my eyes.”
After that, they took off on a travel spree which ought to have carried them safely away from the scene of their crime for good. Instead they returned, like a dog to vomit, and gave up their lives to unburden their hearts. “We have talked too much,” Alexis said matter-of-factly to a reporter before their sentencing. “That is all. Had we kept the secret and not confessed, we would not be here.”
The fact that there was a sentencing at all was a bit of an achievement, and the Blancs have generally been considered the first legal hangings in Lafayette Parish. Actual or suspected malefactors were typically handled with more dispatch and fewer legal niceties previously (also making it something of a miracle that the original, wrongly-accused pair was still around to draw breath). Both Ernest and Alexis spent a good deal of their time jailed in New Orleans for their own protection.
The Lafayette Gazette scored a coup by securing a lengthy confessional from the hands of the doomed lads themselves, which ran on April 3 and reiterated the role of leisure reading in the crime spree.*
It was a life of tranquility, sweet and honest, which we regret having discarded to follow the evil promptings of ambition; the love of fortune, and the desire for gold which the devil suggested to us through the leaves of a book entitled the “James Boys.”** It was by reading this book we were lead to steal. Why work in the field? Why walk behind a plow? And at the end of the year receive not enough to buy clothes to put on our backs?
To rob one of his gold in a single night appeared to us much easier. The birds had eaten the crops and we were discouraged.
The murder itself, they said, had not been premeditated. But
[w]e were discussing the manner in which we would tie [Begnaud] so that he could not give the alarm before morning, when he said:
“Do not destroy my account books nor my private papers, without which I cannot make a living.”
In the silence of the night this sonorous voice appeared probably stronger than it really was and impressed us with a feeling impossible to express, and we rushed to his room and I (Ernest) stabbed Martin who was sitting on his bed. How many times I stabbed him I know not, nor did I ever know.
The Blancs logged some serious mileage in their months living on the Begnaud score. But Catholic guilt aside, it sounds as if their capture might really be attributed more to the country’s miserable economic situation.
After visiting Belgium and England we boarded a steamer for New York City arriving there on the 12th of July. We had already spent the greater portion of the $3,000 [stolen from Begnaud]. Then we commenced our journey across the United States, visiting Chicago, St. Paul, Helena, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, El Paso, Salt Lake City, Ogden, Omaha, Council Bluffs and St. Louis. In the latter city we spent the remainder of our money. Each one having ten dollars, we took the Frisco line on foot, passing through Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana Territory and Texas, and followed the Texas Pacific as far as Mexico, where we rested a few days. All along the route we tried to get work, but failed. There was nothing for strangers to do. It is in this manner that we reached Lafayette on January 2, 1897. Knowing so many people there we thought it would be easy to find employment. We knew that we were risking our necks, but being so miserable, did not care very much.
And this decision to risk returning in preference to starvation is, after all, nothing but the same calculation of risk and reward that people at the economic margins have always made: to descend a lethal mine to feed one’s family; to seek one’s fortune on the treacherous seas; or if it should come to that, not to walk behind the plow but to follow the lead of the James boys and make one’s bread by banditry.
* According to No Spark of Malice: The Murder of Martin Begnaud, the Gazette cleverly obtained the full rights to all the Blancs’ prison writings, and were able to turn them into a 23-page French pamphlet La Vie, le Crime et les Confessions d’Ernest et Alexis Blanc; ou, L’Histoire d’un Crime Horrible. This sold like hotcakes after the hangings and would now be in the public domain; sadly, it does not appear to be available online as of present writing.
** There were probably several books of this title then, just as there have been severalsince. This volume has a 1911 copyright, but if it is not a version of the same book the Blancs read, it’s surely not too far distant.
John’s counsel went with the insanity defense — you know, the classic; he’d been raving incoherently in prison and seemed not in his right mind. A doctor ruled that John “laboured under a state of idiotism … incapable of knowing the right hand from the left.”
So, despite the jailer’s suspicion that Lyal was simulating (he testified that John Lyal knew a hawk from a handsaw when he was first captured and didn’t start with the crazy talk for a few days), John Lyal was ruled unfit for trial.
That left Adam Boyd alone to answer for both. Maybe he should have requested a psychological evaluation too, because he was crazy to go on trial.
In that proceeding, he faced the detailed testimony of Matthew Boyd that on Oct. 25 previous, he was returning from the fair when the pair approached him.
On coming up, one of them laid his arm over the bridle, and having both pistols in their hands, they presented them, and desired him to deliver up his pocketbook, or they would blow his brains out.
Boyd boldly tried to bluff his way out of this at the risk of his life, but the robbers thrashed him until he coughed up a parcel of small notes … and then, most begrudgingly, another £100 of large notes he had stashed in his vest.
He’d relinquished his cash, for now, but this Matthew Boyd was an intrepid soul.
As he had been robbed in broad daylight, Boyd had plenty of time to get to Stirling, procure a warrant, and track Boyd’s assailants all the way to Edinburgh where the next day he finally found them in the streets and personally collared them.
Conclusion: do not rob Matthew Boyd.
Adam Lyal’s defense, considerably less effective than that of his brother, was to argue that the indictment charged a robbery in the shire of Perth, but it was actually done in the county of Stirling.
On this date in 1881, George Parrott, a cattle rustler popularly known as Big Nose George, was lynched in Rawlins, Wyoming.
His story doesn’t end with his death, however: as his Wikipedia entry notes, Parrott was notable for “Banditry, Murder, being made into a pair of shoes.” Oh, and being pickled.
The series of events that lead to Parrott’s death began on August 19, 1878, when he and his gang tried to wreck a train near Medicine Bow, Wyoming so they could rob it. They loosened a rail and waited patiently, but an alert section foreman spotted the loose rail and notified railroad authorities, who came and fixed it before the train arrived.
Realizing the law would be after them, Parrott’s gang fled toward Elk Mountain and hid in Rattlesnake Canyon, waiting to ambush the posse they knew would be coming.
As soon as the lawmen were within their rifle sights, the bandits opened fire. Parrott killed Tip Vincent, a Union Pacific Railroad agent; one of the other fugitives, “Dutch” Charley Bates, killed Deputy Sheriff Robert Widdowfield. The gang then fled and hid out in Montana for a span, eventually reaching Canada — and all the while continuing their criminal ways.
Parrott couldn’t keep his mouth shut about his outlaw exploits and bragged everywhere he went. Inevitably, someone who’d heard one of his stories went to Rawlins and happened to mention the hook-nosed man who’d tried to derail a train, then killed two people when their plan failed.
“Dutch” Charley Bates was arrested in Green River, Wyoming in December 1878 and put on a train bound for Rawlins to face trial. Ironically, it was the same train he’d tried to derail earlier that year.
But Bates never made it to Rawlins: when the train made a stop at Carbon City, a group of masked vigilantes overpowered Bates’s guards, hauled him off the train, forced him to confess to his crimes and then hoisted him up on a rope to slowly strangle to death.
Parrott remained at large and the reward for his capture grew to $2,000 before his big mouth got him into trouble again. He and his gang had held up several stagecoaches and pulled off a particularly lucrative job in July 1880. He bragged about it to a lady friend, who told other people, and eventually word reached the ears of the Rawlins sheriff. Within hours he was under arrest.
In a repeat of the Bates lynching, a posse forced Parrott from his Rawlins-bound train in Carbon City. R. Michael Wilson, in his book Frontier Justice in the Wild West, writes what happened next:
They escorted him onto the station platform, put a noose around his neck, yanked him up, then lowered him and asked for a full confession. When he hesitated the men pulled him up several times and then promised that if he confessed, he would be given a fair trial — but if he did not confess, he would be hung. Parrott talked, and once he began, he gave every detail of his various criminal ventures, some of which were quite a surprise to the vigilantes. The mob, true to their word, then returned the prisoner to the custody of Sheriff Rankin.
That’s touching behavior for a vigilante mob, but it sure feels like Carbon City could stand to tighten up its railroad security.
At any rate, Parrott was tried for Tip Vincent’s murder in the fall of 1880, convicted, and sentenced to death.
However, on March 20, 1881, thirteen days before he was scheduled to hang, he made a desperate escape attempt. Though Parrott managed to knock Sheriff Rankin unconscious, Mrs. Rankin foiled the breakout by locking up the cells before Parrott could get out. Extra guards were assigned to watch him after that.
As Wilson records,
Sheriff Rankin asked the townsmen to wait the short time remaining before the prisoner was to be legally hanged, but the general opinion was that the sheriff had taken enough abuse from the prisoner and that Parrott might yet escape if left to await his fate on April 2. On March 22 at 10:55 p.m., a party of thirty masked men went to the jail and removed Parrott. They marched him to the telegraph pole … A rope was placed over the crossbeam of a telegraph pole, the noose was secured around the prisoner’s neck, and Parrott was forced to stand upon a barrel. Parrott begged piteously to be shot and cried out that it was cruel to hang him, but his pleas were ignored.
They kicked the barrel out from under him, but it was too short: the rope and Parrott’s neck stretched enough so that his toes touched the ground.
The mob cut him down and went and got a ladder. Parrott climbed it and said he would jump off and break his neck, but as far as the vigilantes were concerned, that was too good for him: they pulled the ladder away instead, and he slowly strangled to death, tearing off one of his ears in the process.
Drs. Thomas Maghee and John Eugene Osborne conducted the autopsy, examined Parrott’s brain, and could find no apparent abnormalities. Osborne then removed a large piece of skin from the dead man’s chest, kept the skullcap, and put the rest of the body in a whiskey barrel full of saline solution, effectively pickling it. The barrel was buried without ceremony, and Dr. Osborne had the skin tanned. He sent the leather to a shoemaker, who made him a pair of shoes with it.
Dr. Osborne was disappointed that Parrott’s nipples weren’t on the tips of the toes like he’d requested (!!!), but you can’t have everything you want in life.
He wore the human leather shoes on special occasions, including at his inaugural ball when he was elected governor of Wyoming in 1890. The skullcap he gave to his fifteen-year-old female assistant, Lillian Heath, who used it variously as a doorstop and an ashtray. (She would grow up to become the first female doctor in Wyoming.)
Parrott’s pickled remains were dug up at a construction site in 1950, and identified after some confusion. His skull, as well as the shoes, are now on display at the Carbon County Museum.
We’ll come to the other four of them presently, but our featured case among the group is one Bill Gates — not the Microsoft billionaire, obviously; this fellow was, rather, a victim of the plutocracy.
William Gates was a blacksmith by trade, presumably the source of his outstanding nickname or alias “Vulcan”.
But he also liked to hunt, and that’s how he ended up having his neck pinched.
It was only logical in the early 18th century for hunters like Vulcan to take quarry from the common lands. But these longtime traditional rights were under long-term attack; just a few years before, the “Black Act” dramatically escalated penalties and enforcement mechanisms for “poaching”.
Among other things, the Black Act permitted a suspect to be accused by reading out charges “on two Market Days, and in two Market Towns in the County, where the Offence is committed.” If the named party failed to turn himself in within 40 days, he stood convicted — no trial necessary.
This was Vulcan’s situation exactly. He’d been accused of “being one of the Men that entered Enfield Chace, killed two Deer,” and took some potshots at the gamekeepers. Having not given himself up, the entirety of the short proceeding once Gates was taken was to establish his identity. (A potentially tricky affair in those days, but not in this instance.)
The day on which they were executed, when I [the Ordinary] came to Newgate to give them their last exhortations and prayers, they would not allow any person to come near them, having got an iron crow into the prison, with which they had forced out stones of a prodigious bigness, and had made the breach two feet deep in the wall.
They had built up the stones at the back of the door of the condemned hold, so that nobody could get at them. The keepers spoke to them through the door, but they were inflexible, and would by no entreaties yield. I spoke to them also, representing to them how that such foolish and impracticable projects interrupted their repentance, and the special care they should have taken in improving those few moments to the best advantage; but they seemed inexorable.
I said that I hoped they had no quarrel with me. They answered, ‘No, sir, God bless you; for you have been very careful of us.’ Bailey said, that they would not surrender till they either killed or were killed.
It was twelve at night before they began this enterprise; and, to conceal their purpose from the keepers, while part of them were working, the rest sung psalms, that the noise might not be heard.
Sir Jeremiah Morden, one of the present sheriffs of London and Middlesex, came with proper attendance, and, desiring them to open the door, they refused it; upon which they [not the prisoners, but the sheriff and his men] were obliged to go up to the room over the hold, where there is a little place that opens, which is made in case of such disturbances.
This shutter they opened, but the prisoners continuing obstinate, they [the sheriff's assistants] fired fifteen pistols with small shot among them, not to kill, but to wound and disable them. They retired to the remotest part of the room where the shot could not reach them, yet Barton and Gates, the deer-stealer, were slightly wounded in the arm.
At last Sir Jeremiah Morden spoke seriously to them through the little hole above, desiring them to surrender. Barton asked, ‘Who are you?’ Sir Jeremiah answered, ‘I am one of the principal sheriffs.’
‘Show me your chain,’ says Barton. Sir Jeremiah was so good as to show him his gold chain through the little hole, upon which they consulted, and agreed to surrender.
After this they removed the stones for the back [of the] door, and, the keepers entering, Barton snapped a steel tobacco–box in the face of one of them, which made a little noise like the snapping of a pocket-pistol, and then gave him the box” [saying 'D-me, you was afraid.' -Dickens omits this taunting clincher (ed.)]
After this the unctuous Ordinary tried to dog the intended escapees out of any parting sacrament on the grounds that their souls were not adequately prepared, to which the mutineers justly replied that they “been busied otherwise; they said it was only out of a desire of self Preservation … upon which account they desired to be excused.”
The Ordinary is vague on whether he excused them so far as to grant a last absolution. They were never to be excused from the rope.
While we’ve mentioned the singular case of Vulcan Gates, the other four were a more prosaic bunch of convicted burglars. Three of the four denied their guilt to the last. And while it’s nigh-impossible to judge credibility from the few second-hand words of an interlocutor religiously convinced of their culpability, it’s quite an affecting testimony to the scant circumstances needed to doom a fellow under the Bloody Code.
More than likely we’re a little skeptical of Benjamin Jones, who said that he chanced to stumble upon some silver plate in the darkness when stumbling out drunk from his tavern to pick up a whore. Was it just a bit of mutual aid among thieves that Jones accused a different prisoner, one Frazier, who was sick on his deathbed? The Ordinary said that he “ask’d Frazier, if this account was true? who said that it was, and that he had written the full Narrative thereof to Persons of the highest Quality.”
Francis Baily was doomed by the detailed testimony of a fellow-inmate in his same boarding house. He did admit to being a professional robber whose real crimes were quite enough to stretch his neck, but that his particular condemnation was thanks to the perjury of “one of the most infamous, wicked Women in the World who had sworn away his life, as she had the Life of some others, besides several there whom she had got transported and whipp’d &c. Baily pointed the finger at the absconded landlord of the house, the aptly named Matthew Wildman, who was his frequent burglarious partner.
The saddest of the self-proclaimed innocents was William Swift. He was accused along with another man, Lawrence Simpson, of having been part of a gang of highway robbers who committed a couple of muggings one evening. Although it was dark, one woman claimed to have been able to recognize Swift’s face by the light of “a Lamp about 6 Yards off,” and this was enough to seal his fate. Simpson hadn’t been glimpsed so clearly, so he was acquitted.
As for the last fellow at Tyburn that March 14, John Barton didn’t claim any species of innocence at all. Instead, he announced at the scaffold, “I am the Man, who in Company with two or three others, whom he named, particularly one Capel [Bob Cable], who committed the Robbery for which Swift dies.” (Barton had been set to testify at the Swift-Simpson trial, but was disallowed on account of his own pending burglary charges.)
* Seven were originally condemned to die this date; two petty thieves received the crown’s mercy.
According to this registry of events in French Quebec before the English conquest, one Charles Alexis dit Dessessards was ordered broken on the wheel by Quebec’s high executioner on this date in 1673.
He had been convicted of murdering a fur-trapping buddy named Herme, and plundering his pelts.
In the terrifying words of the sentence, he was at 3 p.m. to have “arms and legs broken with four blows, then be strangled and thrown on a wheel to remain there until seven o’clock in the evening. His body will then be brought to the gallows, there to remain until entirely consumed” by the elements. On top of everything, he had a 200-livre fine to pay.
There was just one bit of good news for the murderer Charles Alexis dit Dessessards:
“Until the said Charles Alexis is apprehended, the aforesaid sentence will be executed upon his effigy.”
Le 6. — “Charles Alexis dit Dessessards, convaincu d avoir tué de guet-à-pens le nommé Herme, son camarade de voyage, et d’avoir volé ses hardes et pelleteries, sera conduit sur la grande place de cette vile (Québec), par l;exécuteur de la haute justice, un lundi, à trois heures après-midi, et là, sur un échafaud qui y sera dressé à cet effet, y aura les bras et les jambes rompues de quatre coups qu’il recevra vif; sera ensuite étranglé et jeté sur une roue pour y demeurer jusqu’à sept heures du soir. Son corps sera porté sur les fourches patibulaires pour y demeurer jusqu’à parfaite consommation. Condamne en outre à deux cents livres d’amende envers le Roy, à la restitution des choses volées et le surplus de ses biens confisqué. Et en attendant que le dit Charles Alexis soit appréhendé, sera exécuté en effigie aux fourches patibulaires, un lundi, à l’heure que dessus.
On this date in 1886, David Roberts was hanged at Cardiff for a murder-robbery the October previous.
Both Roberts and his father, Edward Roberts, were arraigned for the murder. The Robertses, father and son, had both been playing cards with the late David Thomas on the night of the crime, and left together with him (as well as another man).
The next day, David Thomas was found in a field bludgeoned and stabbed to death, with David Roberts’ pipe nearby. A search of the Roberts home revealed a £66 stashed away in a bloody handkerchief, the approximate amount Thomas as known to have made at market on the day before he died.
Apparently he was persuasive: prosecutors decided to present no evidence against Edward Thomas and allowed him to be acquitted.
So Roberts stood alone on the trap this day, having at least the comfort of having done right by his family duty. Unfortunately the hangman did not quite do right by Roberts fils as he appeared to survive the drop. Witnesses were hastily conducted away while Roberts dangled, still twitching and strangling. The error was ascribed to the condemned man’s “muscular neck,” but this alleged physiognomy only mattered because at this late date British hangmen still designed the parameters of the drop impressionistically.
All that was changing to follow the professional example of the scientific William Marwood, however. Later in 1886, a commission was formed under former Liberal Home Secretary Baron Aberdare to examine the issue. This commission ultimately produced the first official table of drops specifying the fall that should be allotted to prisoners based on their weight, with a view to reliably breaking the neck.
Caruga soon deserted the front lines on a false pass — but his unauthorized leave became permanent when he came across a Hungarian soldier paying court to the innkeeper’s daughter whom Caruga, too, desired. Caruga shot him dead.
He did a short turn in prison but escaped in 1919 and shortly thereafter established himself the captain of a posse of brigands styled the “Mountain Birds”. From roosts in the Papul and Krndija mountains they preyed on the nearby Slavonian plains — ducking away freely when needed to Dalmatia or Bosnia in what was now the independent (and quite unsettled) Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. (This polity would become Yugoslavia four years after Caruga’s execution.)
Caruga et al obtained a reputation as a Robin Hood-esque character who revenged himself on the rich. He was a late throwback to the classical hajduk character, a complex thief-with-the-heart-of-gold archetype who straddled the line between freebooting highwayman and rebel partisan during the era of Ottoman ascendancy in the Balkans. (The term’s roots trace to a caste of independent Hungarian footsoldiers in the 1600s.)
While the Turks were out of the picture at this point, the romance of the road and the social resentments rife in the fractious young kingdom were still sufficient to support a legendary bandit. Sentiment and fair fortune only turned against him after a botched raid on the estate of one Count Eltz of Vukovar, which resulted in an armed standoff with the local gendarmerie and the death of an innocent forester caught in the crossfire. Caruga was taken with some of his gang not long after.
Caruga is the subject of the so-called “last Yugoslavian film” before that country split apart. The movie Caruga stars the Croatian actor Ivo Gregurevic in what could arguably read as an allegory for the banditry of the outgoing communist years.
Most information about this date’s subject is in Serbo-Croatian; see for instance this .doc file.
* A number of present-day sports clubs in the former Yugoslavia use the name “Hajduk”, not unlike the way “Spartak” (Spartacus) brands Bulgarian and former-USSR teams. For instance, HNK Hajduk Split in Croatia, and FK Hajduk Kula in Serbia.
On this date in 1751, Irish boxer James Field was hanged at Tyburn.
He had ditched his criminal record in Dublin for the burgeoning London metropolis and hung out a shingle at a pub on Drury Lane. (Perhaps he knew the Muffin Man.)
“dustmen, scavengers, flue-fakers, gardeners, fish-fags, and brick-layer’s labourers … the Hibernian was relating the ill usage he had been subjected to, and the necessity he had of making a hasty retreat from the quarters he had taken up” (Description of Drury Lane … from 1821. Close enough.)
Field soon developed a blackhearted reputation in London, and because he was a big bad boxer on the brute squad, constables were known to “fail to recognize” him the better to get home safe to dinner.
Even in a city without a professional police force, though, that’s a thin reed to rest one’s liberty upon. Eventually the mighty British Empire marshaled the marshals necessary to bring Field to bar for a violent heist. This time, his hulking build clinched his sure identification, and he earned the hemp for his felonies.
On this date in 1804, two known as John Setton/Sutton and James May were hanged at Greenville, Mississippi.
They were, in fact, Wiley “Little” Harpe and his outlaw partner Peter Alston — the survivors (well, up until then) of a notorious gang of Mississippi River pirates and frontier highwaymen.
Their villainous coterie had plagued the Mississippi (river) and the proximate byways from Kentucky down to Mississippi (state), making a couple of spots on the great river legendary pirate hideouts in the process.
With a price on the head of the notorious leader Samuel Mason, “Sutton” and “May” coldly murdered their captain to turn in his head for the reward.
They got their reward alright. They were recognized as Mason’s own fellow-bandits, and themselves put on trial for piracy.
The Harpe Brothers
This date’s hanging was not only the end of the Mason gang — it was the end of the Harpe Brothers.
Micajah Harpe (“Big Harpe”) and Wiley Harpe were brothers or cousins who cut a bloody swathe through the early American Republic, such that some have acclaimed the Harpes that young nation’s first serial killers. They were, in one historian’s words, “the most brutal monsters of the human race.”
Heading west out of North Carolina after Revolutionary War service as Tory irregulars, the Harpes made for Knoxville, Tennessee, kidnapping wives for themselves along the way. When they were rousted out of their cabin on accusations of livestock-rustling in 1797, their notorious careers really began in earnest.
This was, then, the extreme western frontier of the United States, and the Harpes were consequently able to plunder in wilderness impunity.
Big Harp confessed before dying in 1798 to 20 murders, probably not counting the babies. Estimates are as high as 40, but usually around 30. After two killings, one in Knox County and one on the Wilderness Trail, the Harps left Tennessee in December 1798 for Kentucky, where they killed two traveling men from Maryland…
The final stretch of slaughter took place soon after this, in July 1798, when the Harps returned to Eastern Tennessee. The victims included a farmer named Bradbury; a man named Hardin; a boy named Coffey; William Ballard, who was cut open, filled with stones, and dumped in the Holston River; James Brassel, with his throat ripped apart on Brassel’s Knob; John Tully, father of eight. On the Marrowbone Creek in south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son, out planting crops, had their heads axed. Moving toward Logan County, the Harps came upon a little girl, whom they killed, as they did a young slave on his way to the mill. Once in Logan County, near today’s Adairville, near the Whippoorwill River, they butchered an entire migrating family asleep in their camp, but for one son who survived. (Source)
TruTV also has an account of them sending a hijacked flatboat passenger over a cliff, and bashing a little girl’s head in against the side of a bridge.
“They murdered all classes and sexes, without distinction,” a Knoxville man* recounted years later, “not for plunder but for the love of shedding human blood.” We don’t have Little Harpe’s conscience on the record, but Big Harpe would only express remorse for one of his dozens of homicides: smashing his own infant child against a tree to make it stop crying.
That sentiment would come at the end, when Big Harpe had been cornered by a posse after murdering a frontier woman. The widower in that posse halved the Harpe menace by hewing Big Harpe’s head from his shoulders.
For generations after the subsequent roosting-spot of this deathly visage — presented to a justice of the peace to verify the man’s death (and pocket the price on his literal head), then hung up for public display by the intersection of Morgenfield, Henderson, and Maidensville Roads in Union County — was known as Harpe’s Head.
Little Harpe’s subsequent career with Sam Mason and his own violent demise capped the Harpe brothers’ nefarious legacy.
Their name was so infamous that many of their family changed it … including, according to rumor, the ancestors of legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp.
* J.W.M. Breazeale was part of the posse that hunted down Big Harpe, and a witness to Big Harpe’s death, and gives the outlaw the (possibly tall-tale) last words directed to his slaughterer in mid-beheading: “You are a God damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.”