1730: Cathrine M’Canna, mother’s daughter

Add comment September 23rd, 2018 Headsman

Original Dublin broadsheet via James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches: From Eighteenth-Century Ireland:


THE LAST SPEECH, CONFESSION AND DYEING WORDS OF

CATHRINE M’CANNA

who is to be Executed near St. Stephens Green, this present Wednesday being the 23d of this Instant September 1730. She being Guilty of several Robberies, in and about the City of Dublin.

Good People,

Since the just Hand of Almighty God has at length over reach’d me, and that I must be cut off in the midst of my Transgressions, I shall in a few Words give you a short Narrative of my base and vicious Life, which is as follows, viz.

I drew my first Breath in this City, and descended of very honest Parents, but I wicked wretch about ten Years ago committed a Robbery, and the said Robbery being found with me, I Swore it was my poor Mother gave it me, upon the same she was Hanged, tho’ Innocent of the fact; and had I never been Guilty of no other offence but that, I doubt were I to live a thousand Years, I should not be able to make Restitution for that one Crime; and if so, Oh my God! what shall become of me, who have spent my time in Whoring and Thieving since I came to the Knowledge of committing either, yet my God will I not Despair in thy Mercies, tho’ I must Confess thou have been over and above good to me, in saving my Life when I was to be Hang’d at Killmainham not long since, that thy saying might be fulfilled, who desireth not the Death of a Sinner, but that he should live and save his Soul alive. But it was not so with me, for I no sooner got my Liberty, but (Dog like return’d to his Vomit,) I follow’d my old Trade again, spearing neither Rich nor Poor. Thus I ran on till about the beginning of August last, I went to the Pyde Bull in St. Thomas Street, and Stole thereout the vallue of five Pounds in Linnen and other things, belonging to one Mr. Murphy in said House, but I was soon taken and committed to Newgate, but when I was Try’d and lawfully convicted for the same, I began to plead my Belly, thinking to save my life but all was in vain, for my Jury of Mattrons would not forswear them selves for me, so I must Dye this Day.

Having no more to say, but beg of all Children to be more Dutiful to their Parents than I have been, I also beg the Prayers of all good Christian, [sic] I dye a Roman Catholick, in the 38th Year of my Age, and the Lord Receive my Soul. Amen.

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1730: Sally Bassett, Bermuda slave

Add comment June 6th, 2017 Meaghan

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

Perhaps on this day in 1730,* an elderly mulatto slave named Sarah or Sally Bassett was burned at the stake for attempted murder in the British Caribbean colony of Bermuda.

Sally was the property of Thomas Forster, as was her granddaughter, Beck. (Thomas Forster was the grandson of Josias Forster, who was governor of Bermuda from 1642 to 1643.) The Forster family lived in Sandys Parish.

Being so old, Sally wasn’t worth much: her value was appraised at one pound, four shillings and sixpence, or about $160 in modern U.S. currency. She also had the reputation of a troublemaker: in 1713, for example, she was whipped the length of Southampton Parish after being accused of threats, property damage and killing livestock.

On December 18, 1729, Sally allegedly gave two bags of poison, said to be “white toade”** and “manchineel root”, to her granddaughter, Beck, and told her to poison Thomas, his wife Sarah, and Nancey, another slave in the Forster household.

Beck slipped a dose into the master and mistress’s food, “where if her Mistress did but smell on’t twould poison her.” She put the rest of the poison in the kitchen door, where Nancey found it and “by only looking at it ye said. Nancey was poyson’d.” (Quotes are as cited in Slaves and Slaveholders in Bermuda, 1616-1782.)

Sally was not arrested and charged with the crime until June 2, nearly six months later. The victims were all still “sick and Lye in a very Languishing and dangerous Condition,” but Sarah Forster was at least well enough to drag herself out of her sickbed and testify against her slaves.

Beck was acquitted but Sally, “not having the fear of God before her Eyes, Butt being moved and seduced by ye Instigation of the Devil,” was convicted of petit treason for her attempt on her master and mistress’s lives.

Although she maintained her innocence, she was sentenced to death.

Barefoot, wearing only pants and a loose blouse, on the way to the place of execution Sally is said to have looked at the crowds rushing to see the show and quipped, “No use you hurrying folks, there’ll be no fun ’til I get there!” When she looked at the logs waiting to fuel the fire she supposedly said, “Ain’t they darlin’?”

She was burned alive on an unusually hot day, in public, either on an island off Southampton Parish or at Crow Lane at the east end of Hamilton Harbor. After her death a purple Bermudiana, Bermuda’s official flower, is reputed to have grown in the ashes. Days later, Bermuda enacted new laws to tighten control of the “many heinous and grievous Crimes as of that Secret and barbarous way of Murdering by Poison and other Murders … many times Committed by negroes and other Slaves and many times malitiously attempted by them.”

Sally’s death has passed on into legend and is considered part of Bermuda’s cultural heritage. Even today, nearly three hundred years later, a very hot day in Bermuda is sometimes called a Sally Basset day. In 2009, a ten-foot statue of Sally was dedicated at the Cabinet Office grounds in Hamilton, the first time in Bermuda that a slave was so memorialized.

* There are some shouts for June 21, 1730. If there is an authoritative primary document establishing the execution date with certainty, we have not been able to unearth it.

** The involvement of white toad, as historian Justin Pope observes, points — alarmingly for 18th century white Bermudians; intriguingly for posterity — to transatlantic black (in multiple senses) economies.

There were no indigenous white toads in Bermuda. However, as noted by the Bermudian historian Clarence Maxwell, poisonous toads were used in ceremonies among Akan speaking peoples in the tropical forests of West Africa and carried into the voudou traditions of San Domingue.

… If there really was a white toad used in the Bermuda poisoning conspiracy, then it was almost certainly brought to the colony by a slave mariner who believed he was arming a spiritual practitioner against her enemies. It was not something that Sarah Bassett could have asked for lightly. The person who purchased the item would have easily been able to discover, or at least suspect, its usage. Whoever carried it had to be trusted. The toad would have had to been captured or cultivated in the tropical forests of West Africa or northern South America, purchased in the slave markets of towns like Paramaraibo, on the Surinam River of Dutch Guyana, or in the markets of Elmina, on the southern coast of West Africa. We can only surmise the origins of the poisonous toad, yet its very presence on the island of Bermuda suggests a trade in poisons, betweens slave societies and through the hands of black mariners.

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1730: A Natchez woman tortured to death at New Orleans

Add comment April 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1730, French-allied Tunica Indians put a captured Natchez woman to grisly public death under the walls of New Orleans.

This is the English translation of Marc-Antoine Caillot’s Relation du voyage de la Louisianne ou Nouvelle France fait par le Sr. Caillot en l’année 1730, a key firsthand source for the incident in this post.

Months earlier the Natchez had risen in rebellion against the colonists in Louisiana — a bloody settling of accounts the that answered a French push to colonize more land with an attack meant to drive them out of Louisiana altogether. The initial, surprise attacks slew 237 French subjects, many in stomach-turning fashion. Friend of the site Dr. Beachcombing details a particularly atrocious murder in his post on the affair at Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog.

So the French were in a state of rage and fright on April 10 — the day after Easter — when an allied tribe, the Tunica, showed up at the Big Easy with six Natchez captives in tow, three women and three children. Chief among them was a woman readily recognized by the French as the wife of a once-friendly Natchez chief now “known for being an enemy of the French.” Indeed, escapees from Natchez captivity slated her with having given the go-ahead for the torture-murder of three of their countrymen.

And this hated foe the Tunica proceeded to offer to the French, as a gesture of goodwill.

As Sophie White explains in her “Massacre, Mardi Gras, and Torture in Early New Orleans” (The William and Mary Quarterly, July 2013),* Louisiana territory governor Etienne Perier in slyly declining the prisoner intentionally condemned her to a speedy and spectacular death. Rather than taking her into official custody for disposal by the French judiciary or diplomatic organs, Perier put her up for a night in the French jail while her captors prepared a performance for the morrow calculated to slake the bloodlust of French and native alike.

White’s narrative is worth excerpting at length here; all the parentheticals come from White’s original text.

Officially, Governor Perier could claim that he had maintained French notions of justice by rejecting the Tunica offer of the prisoner of war (even though at a later date he would openly write of another four male and two female Natchez having “been burnt here”). Yet he allotted a space for the Tunica to torture her and arranged for her to be kept in jail overnight while the Tunica danced the black “calumet of death” in preparation for her execution. In the morning, after gathering firewood, erecting a frame, and painting their faces and bodies, the Tunica “began to run as if possessed by the devil and, while yelling (it is their custom), they ran to the jail where she was in chains”; she was engaged in a final assertion of sartorial self-preservation, “fixing a ribbon to her braided hair,” hair that she knew would soon be scalped.

Like Perier, the colonial populace also became involved in exacting revenge on this member of the Natchez nation. Not only were “all the Sauvages who were in New Orleans” present at the torture ritual but colonists also attended the performance as spectators, as they might in France attend a public execution. They watched as the Tunica tied her to a frame and as a Natchez man who had abandoned his kin and been adopted by the Tunica stepped forward to burn her, starting with “the hair [poil, or body hair] of her … then one breast, then the buttocks, then the left breast” (the ellipses represent a deliberate authorial omission on the part of Caillot). Commentators described the methodical burning of torture victims as a form of slow-cooking (“a petit feu”). For Caillot, the ritual burning of the victim’s genitals, breasts, and buttocks was marked by the carefully observed but gruesome sight of “the abundance of grease mixed with blood that ran onto the ground.” His description evoked the cooking of meat basted in fat, with the frame simulating a spit on which the victim was roasted; if this frame/spit did not physically turn its meat, the torturers made sure that she was evenly roasted on all sides by their methodical movement across her body. This food preparation imagery was followed by other cooking analogies. As they were about to kill her (in contrast to the procedure in France, where spectators waited for the execution to be complete before grabbing souvenir pieces of the criminal’s body), “the French women who had suffered at her hands at the Natchez [settlement] each took a sharpened cane and larded her,” just as French culinary techniques called for piercing meat with a sharp stick prior to the insertion of thin strips of lard.

The Natchez woman was not impressed, but “during that long and cruel torture never shed a tear. On the contrary, she seemed to deride the unskilfulness of her tormenters, insulting them, and threatening that her death would soon be avenged by her tribe.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of a generic depiction of the torture frame, from Jean-Francois-Benjamin Dumont de Montigny’s memoir. Sophie White notes that this figure is identifiably female based on her genitalia and the long scalped hair mounted on the adjacent pole.

Over the next several years, the French not only turned back the attack but largely shattered and Natchez peoples, dispersing their remnants to fragmented communities throughout the U.S. South. Today only a few thousand Natchez souls remain, and their interesting language has died out entirely.

* Though it’s a bit tangential to the subject of this post, readers interested in this milieu might cotton to White’s Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana.

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1730: Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha, Tulip Era Grand Vizier

1 comment October 16th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1730, the Ottoman Grand Vizier Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha was deposed by strangulation.

Ibrahim Pasha (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish)* was the minister of Sultan Ahmed III; more than that, he was the sultan’s son-in-law.**

It was the Lâle Devri in Istanbul, whose great families thrilled to the voluptuary pleasures of tulips — a consumption conspicuous not only of wealth but of European affectation.†

Ibrahim himself was a great connoisseur of the fashionable bulb that defines his 1718-1730 administration as the “Tulip Period”. Arts and culture in the empire — there’s no other way to say it — flowered.

But neither horticulture nor family ties were safety in Istanbul when events required of the sultan a politically expedient purge.

For the mass of Turks unable to entertain French noblemen in their cultivated gardens, resentments both economical and cultural accumulated during in Tulip Period until they were discharged by a ham-handed tax imposition in 1730 into a huge mob rising. We have previously covered this revolt; suffice to say that it was briefly a mortal threat to which the ruling dynasty was obliged to sacrifice a few elites: an Albanian shopkeeper named Patrona Halil basically ruled Istanbul for a few weeks, and one of the concessions his angry supporters required of the sultan was the death of his son-in-law. Ahmed himself got off “easy” and was simply made to resign in favor of his nephew.

The end for Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha also meant the end of the Tulip Era; periodization aside, however, the flower does remain a popular Turkish symbol. (Even the word for tulip, Lale, is used as a feminine name.) They’re planted all over in present-day Istanbul, and bloom gloriously in the spring; Turkish Airlines also uses a stylized tulip as its logo.

* Not to be confused with the Damat Ibrahim Pasha who was Grand Vizier from 1596 to 1601, and still less with the Grand Vizier executed by Suleiman the Magnificent, Pargali Ibrahim Pasha.

** His wife Hatice Sultan wielded considerable power of her own; after her husband’s death and her father’s resignation, she played a leading role in statecraft for the government-averse successor sultan.

† This is, however, a century after the completely unrelated Dutch tulip mania. The flower is native to Anatolia, not to the Low Countries.

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1730: Patrona Halil, Ottoman rebel

1 comment November 25th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1730, Patrona Halil, the virtual ruler of the Ottoman capital at the head of a popular rabble, was lured to Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace on the pretext of receiving an imperial honorific — and there seized by the sultan’s guards and put to summary death.

An Albanian shopkeep and Janissary, Halil (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish) had been at the fore of an extraordinarily successful rebellion that bears his name in Turkish histories.

Very recently the mortal terror of Europe, the Ottoman Empire was into its midlife crisis by the early 18th century — a long transition, as it would transpire, into its terminal “sick man of Europe” stage.

Incensed at the splendor of the grandees during the so-called “Tulip Period” — elites’ 1720s fad for that flower, which accompanied years of decadent, and perhaps impious, openness towards Europe — struggling* Istanbul artisan guilds revolted in 1730 over taxes imposed to pay for war with Persia.

Not for the last time, the impositions of the taxman only served to catalyze wider grievances that had already been mounting. Janissaries cast a gimlet eye on the sultan’s dalliances with European military innovations — which those feudal infantrymen rightly perceived as an existential threat. Everyday Turks and the ulama alike resented the cultural inroads of the West. In the paroxysm of 1730, these factions combined with the petite bourgeois guilds to shake the Porte far more deeply than some riot ought.

There had been many rebellions in Istanbul before, but this was the first to show a syndrome that was thereafter often repeated: an effort to Westernize military and administrative organization propounded by a section of the official elite, accompanied by some aping of Western manners, and used by another interest group to mobilize the masses against Westernization.*


Jean-Baptiste van Mour, a Flemish painter residing in Istanbul at the time. He’s notable for numerous paintings of the Tulip Era Ottoman Empire, including that of the sword-brandishing Patrona Halil further up this post.

The rebellion forced the execution of the grand vizier, and the abdication of Sultan Ahmed III in favor of his nephew Mahmud. Rioters sacked the estates of the wealthy and put a definitive end to the Tulip Period by trashing the delicate gardens emblematic of their sybaritic lords.

For nearly two months, the impertinent Halil was virtually the master of the capital. He rode with the new sultan to the ceremony investing him with Osman’s sword; he dictated appointments for his rude associates, like a Greek butcher named Yanaki who was to become Hospodar of Moldavia. At Halil’s whim, Mahmud was forced to order mansions put to the torch and (of course) that hated war tax rescinded.

Halil probably ought to have been better on his guard against the maneuver the sultan executed this date — and was always likely to attempt in some form. Then again, what he had already achieved, however briefly, was outlandish, and pointed to weaknesses in the Ottoman state far more durable than Halil himself. By slaying the insurgent chief, Mahmud got himself some breathing space: popular dissatisfaction, however, was too widely rooted to be destroyed at a single stroke, and would resume again with intermittent disturbances and purges well into 1731, with a successor revolt in 1740.†

And over a still longer arc, the parties of the Halil revolt would guard their prerogatives so jealously and effectively over the generations to come as to fatally compromise the capacity of the sultanate to compel the modernization that the Empire required. Patrona Halil’s revenge was two centuries in coming … but it was worth the wait.

* According to Robert W. Olson’s “The Esnaf and the Patrona Halil Rebellion of 1730: A Realignment in Ottoman Politics?”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, September 1974, the major beefs of the esnaf (guilds) were a spiral of inflation brought by the devaluing Ottoman currency, the influx of immigrants to the capital, and taxes.

** Serif Mardin, “Center-Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?”, Daedalus, Winter 1973.

† See Olson, “Jews, Janissaries, Esnaf and the Revolt of 1740 in Istanbul: Social Upheaval and Political Realignment in the Ottoman Empire”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, May 1977.

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1730: Neither James Prouse nor James Mitchel, much to their surprise

Add comment January 14th, 2014 Benjamin Franklin

January 14, 1730, was the date appointed for the public hanging in Philadelphia of James Prouse and James Mitchel for burglary.

Prouse, for his part, admitted the crime but insisted that James Mitchel had nothing to do with it — and Mitchel insisted the same. This ultimately generated considerable support for clemency which the authorities did not seem inclined to act upon.

Naturally the young newspaperman Benjamin Franklin — just turning 24 in January 1730 — was keen to publish this affecting story in his Philadelphia Gazette. Through the magic of public domain, he’s generously allowed us to republish his account from the January 20, 1730 Gazette as our guest post today.

Hyperlinks are, as one may surmise, Executed Today‘s own annotations.


We think our Readers will not be displeased to have the following remarkable Transaction related to them in this particular Manner.

Wednesday the 14th Instant, being the Day appointed for the Execution of James Prouse and James Mitchel for Burglary, suitable Preparations were accordingly made. The tender Youth of one of them (who was but about 19) and the supposed Innocence of the other as to the Fact for which they were condemned, had induced the Judges (upon the Application of some compassionate People) to recommend them to His Honour‘s known Clemency: But several Malefactors having been already pardoned, and every Body being sensible, that, considering the great Increase of Vagrants and idle Persons, by the late large Importation of such from several Parts of Europe, it was become necessary for the common Good to make some Examples, there was but little Reason to hope that either, and less that both of them might escape the Punishment justly due to Crimes of that enormous Nature. About 11 o’Clock the Bell began to Toll, and a numerous Croud of People was gathered near the Prison, to see these unhappy young Men brought forth to suffer. While their Irons were taken off, and their Arms were binding, Prouse cry’d immoderately; but Mitchel (who had himself all along behaved with unusual Fortitude) endeavoured in a friendly tender Manner to comfort him: Do not cry, Jemmy; (says he) In an Hour or two it will be over with us, and we shall both be easy. They were then placed in a Cart, together with a Coffin for each of them, and led thro’ the Town to the Place of Execution: Prouse appear’d extreamly dejected, but Mitchel seemed to support himself with a becoming manly Constancy: When they arriv’d at the fatal Tree, they were told that it was expected they should make some Confession of their Crimes, and say something by Way of Exhortation to the People. Prouse was at length with some Difficulty prevailed on to speak; he said, his Confession had been taken in Writing the Evening before; he acknowledged the Fact for which he was to die, but said, That Greyer who had sworn against him was the Person that persuaded him to it; and declared that he had never wronged any Man beside Mr. Sheed, and his Master. Mitchel being desired to speak, reply’d with a sober compos’d Countenance, What would you have me to say? I am innocent of the Fact. He was then told, that it did not appear well in him to persist in asserting his Innocence; that he had had a fair Trial, and was found guilty by twelve honest and good Men. He only answer’d, I am innocent; and it will appear so before God; and sat down. Then they were both bid to stand up, and the Ropes were order’d to be thrown over the Beam; when the Sheriff took a Paper out of his Pocket and began to read. The poor Wretches, whose Souls were at that Time fill’d with the immediate Terrors of approaching Death, having nothing else before their Eyes, and being without the least Apprehension or Hope of a Reprieve, took but little Notice of what was read; or it seems imagined it to be some previous Matter of Form, as a Warrant for their Execution or the like, ’till they heard the Words PITY and MERCY [And whereas the said James Prouse and James Mitchel have been recommended to me as proper Objects of Pity and Mercy.] Immediately Mitchel fell into the most violent Agony; and having only said, God bless the Governor, he swooned away in the Cart. Suitable Means were used to recover him; and when he came a little to himself, he added; I have been a great Sinner; I have been guilty of almost every Crime; Sabbath-breaking in particular, which led me into ill Company; but Theft I never was guilty of. God bless the Governor; and God Almighty’s Name be praised; and then swooned again. Prouse likewise seemed to be overwhelmed with Joy, but did not swoon. All the Way back to the Prison, Mitchel lean’d on his Coffin, being unable to support himself, and shed Tears in abundance. He who went out to die with a large Share of Resolution and Fortitude, returned in the most dispirited Manner imaginable; being utterly over-power’d by the Force of that sudden Turn of excessive Joy, for which he had been no Way prepared. The Concern that appeared in every Face while these Criminals were leading to Execution, and the Joy that diffused it self thro’ the whole Multitude, so visible in their Countenances upon the mention of a Reprieve, seems to be a pleasing Instance, and no small Argument of the general laudable Humanity even of our common People, who were unanimous in their loud Acclamations of God bless the Governor for his Mercy.

The following are Copies of the Papers delivered out by Prouse and Mitchel the Evening before, with little or no Alteration from their own Words.

I James Prouse was born in the Town of Brentford in Middlesex County in Old England, of honest Parents, who gave me but little Education. My Father was a Corporal in the late Lord Oxford’s Regiment of Horse, (then named the said Lord’s Blues) and I was for some Time in the Care of an Uncle who lived at Eling near Brentford aforesaid, and who would have given me good Learning; but I being young would not take his good Counsel, and in the 12th Year of my Age came into Philadelphia, where I was recommended to one of the best of Masters, who never let me want for any Thing: But I minding the evil Insinuations of wicked People, more than the good Dictates of my Master, and having not the Fear of God before my Eyes, am deservedly brought to this wretched and shameful End. I acknowledge I justly merit Death for the Fact which condemns me; but I never had the least Design or Thought of the like, until often press’d, and at length seduced to it by John Greyer, who was the only Person that ruined me. He often solicited me to be guilty of other Crimes of the like Nature, but I never was guilty of any such, neither with him or any one else; neither did I ever wrong any Man before, save my too indulgent Master; from whom I now and then pilfer’d a Yard or the like of Cloth, in order to make Money to spend with the said Greyer. As for James Mitchel who dies for the same Fact with me, as I hope to receive Mercy at the great Tribunal, he the said James Mitchel is intirely innocent, (*) and knew nothing of the Fact until apprehended and taken. I am about Nineteen Years of Age and die a Protestant.

JAMES PROUSE.

(*) N. B. He declared the same Thing at the Bar just before he received Sentence.

The Speech or Declaration of James Mitchel written with his own Hand.

I James Mitchel, was born, at Antrim in the Kingdom of Ireland, of good and honest Parents, and brought up with them until the Age of 13 Years, and had a suitable Education given me, such as being taught to read and write English, with some Latin; and might have been further instructed, but at my earnest Request was bound Apprentice to a Book-binder, and served 4 Years to that Trade; after which I left the Kingdom and went for England in order to be further improved in my Business; but there had the Misfortune to be press’d on board the Berwick Man of War, commanded by the Honorable George Gordon, and having been at several Parts abroad, returned to England in Octob. 1728. where I was by Sickness reduced to a very sad Condition, through which I came over to this Country a Servant; here I was it seems unfortunately led into bad Company, and one Evening by James Prouse was raised out of my Bed to go and drink with him and one Greyer, the which Greyer after parting gave to the said James Prouse Six-pence, which was all the Money I saw that Night and till next Morning, and then James Prouse took out of his Pocket a 15 Shilling Bill, and desired me to get it changed for him, in order to spend some of it; but coming unto Town I was apprehended for the robbing of Mr. George Sheed, and now am to die for the same. I die a Protestant.

JAMES MITCHEL.

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1730: Olivier Levasseur, “La Buse”

Add comment July 7th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1730, the pirate Olivier Levasseur was hanged at Reunion Island– legendarily hurling into the crowd cryptic directions to his vast hidden treasure.

Supposedly a bourgeois son of Calais, Levasseur (English Wikipedia entry | French) made his start on the briny deep as a French naval officer-turned-privateer during the War of Spanish Succession, transitioning to full-time buccaneer after that conflict ended in 1714.

By the 1720s — and with a bad eye necessitating that most trite of pirate accessories, the eyepatch — Levasseur had a mixed-race crew raiding the east African coast and the Indian ocean.

His most renowned exploit put him decisively in piracy’s 1%.

Descending upon the Portuguese galleon Cabo — fat with gems and gold bars and loose guineas and silks and a gigantic decorative cross and a noble’s diamond-encrusted +3 vorpal sword, all en route from the wealthy colony of Goa but disarmed at anchor off Reunion Island after having barely survived a storm — Levasseur’s band was able to plunder something on the order of a present-day value well north of £1 billion.


A lot more than that.

This stupendous fortune, even after dividing it democratically with the crew, would cinch Levasseur’s fame, and his fate.

La Buse (“the Buzzard”; alternatively, “la Bouche”, “the mouth”) naturally tried to take advantage of the next available pirate amnesty to cash out and retire, but found that he’d be expected to cough up his loot as part of the deal. So he hoarded his treasure instead, hung up his pirate’s cutlass, and tried to hide out. He was eventually captured casually working as a ship’s pilot off Madagascar and strung up by the French; you can still pour out a rum for him at his grave at Saint-Paul.


By Tonton Bernardo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So much for Levasseur.

The reason we’re still talking about him three centuries on is that he’s alleged,* just before he dropped, to have hurled a bundle of parchments and/or a cryptogram necklace into the crowd assembled to watch him die, crying “find my treasure, who can!” or “my treasure for he who understands!”

And that’s pretty tantalizing stuff, considering the treasure has never since been found.

Levasseur’s boodle, if it did then and does still exist, is thought to be stashed somewhere on the Seychelles island of Mahe, and the slow and tantalizing unraveling of our corsair’s mysterious clues have seduced generations of treasure-hunters right into the present — like this fellow, or this one,** chasing after Masonic codes and rock etchings and Labors of Hercules and the promise of turning a five-figure investment in dynamite and scuba gear into a nine-figure payday and all the Discovery channel specials you can handle.

Until that day comes, Olivier is only a minor cinematic fixture. Basil Rathbone portrayed him (loosely) in the 1935 Errol Flynn vehicle Captain Blood (in that version, Rathbone dies by Flynn’s sword). An accessible treasure of this production, courtesy of YouTube: this 1937 radio drama of that same adventure, voiced by the principal actors:

* Here’s a skeptical take on the whole thing.

** If someone does have to find it, we’re rooting for this guy.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,Reunion Island

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1730: James Dalton, Hogarth allusion

1 comment May 12th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1730, career criminal James Dalton was executed at Tyburn.

Detail view (click for full image) of James Dalton’s wig box depicted in the boudoir of prostitute Moll Hackabout in Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress.

Crime ran in the family for young master Dalton; his father hanged upon the information of notorious (and himself eventual gallows-bird) Jonathan Wild. According to the Ordinary of Newgate’s report, our day’s principal “went between his Father’s Legs in the Cart, to his fatal Exit at Tyburn.”*

Who knows but what naughty urchins (or parents) in the throng were deterred by that affecting spectacle. For the Daltons, it was more like Take Your Child to Work Day.

While the elder Dalton’s skills ran towards card-sharping, young master James went in for the more conventional varieties of larceny — both those practiced by stealth, and those practiced by force.

These pursuits saw him twice transported to America, for which we have to thank the English judiciary on account of Dalton’s resultant biography at Early American Crime.

(In)famous for his many dalliances, Dalton’s exploits could move copy in their day — and their author transgress the lines between the underworld and “legitimate” celebrity.

“In the height of all our Robberies” [Dalton] and his companions “used to go to the Playhouse, dressed like Gentlemen,” and that once, while watching The Beggar’s Opera, “Captain Macheath’s Fetters happening to be loose,” one of them “call’d out, Captain, Captain, your Bazzel is undone.” The real thieves, having shown up the actors with their superior knowledge of both irons and cant, then retired in style to an alehouse, “in four Chairs, with six Lights before each Chair.”**

Just another hanged thief.

Except, also not — because while his career in malefaction would undoubtedly have added up to a death sentence, his condemnation was secured upon the word of a perjurer upon a very doubtful charge.

A character named John Waller, an “affidavit man” whose profession was supplying bogus testimony to hang whomever could be hanged where a reward was available, insisted that Dalton had robbed him upon the roads. Dalton vigorously denied (and even rebutted with evidence) this charge even while admitting his general life of crime, but it was upon this dubious offense against Waller that he stretched his neck. Dalton died at Tyburn with three others, though a fifth member of their party, one Hugh Norton or Haughton, managed to cheat the executioner by hanging himself in his cell.†

It was the rough justice of the 18th century, a time frequently admitting opportunity to repay tit for tat.

In this case, the professional perjurer who hanged Dalton was two years later convicted himself after making a bogus accusation of highway robbery. Waller was condemned by the court to stand in the pillory at the Seven Dials — a dangerous punishment cousin to the era’s death penalty, inasmuch as the mob violence thereby invited not infrequently proved fatal.


John Waller bombarded with refuse in the pillory.

Waller had quite a reputation, but the fury of the crowd was nothing next to that of James Dalton’s brother, Edward — who, with a confederate, brazenly climbed onto the platform, wrenched the “assize man” out of his pillory, and savagely beat him to death.

* Cited in this impressive compendium of Dalton-related primary sources.

** Andrea McKenzie, “The Real Macheath: Social Satire, Appropriation, and Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography,” Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 4 (December 2006), with the quotes supplied by a 1730 publication called “The Life and Actions of James Dalton (the Noted Street-Robber)”

† Norton/Haughton was posthumously hanged in chains the next day.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Pelf,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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1730: Hans Hermann von Katte, Frederick the Great’s lover

7 comments November 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1730, Prussia’s greatest king watched his boyhood lover put to death at his father’s order.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Most of those ways were explored at some point by a Hohenzollern.

The 18-year-old prince Frederick had a thoroughly frosty relationship with the old man. Surly Frederick William I — “the soldier king” — didn’t have much use for his sensitive, music-loving son. An “effeminate fool,” dad thought the boy, and did not scruple to beat him publicly as he forcibly molded the unwilling heir into a military man.

Now, blue bloods have often had rocky relationships with their sires, but running away is not the usual option for a prince of the realm.

But Frederick contrived to hit the bricks, and 26-year-old officer Hans Hermann von Katte had the bad luck to be his best friend (and presumed homosexual lover). When Frederick turned to him for help, they started plotting flight.

Both were apprehended and imprisoned, and Frederick was himself in some danger of being executed by command of his own father. Dad softened up enough to keep his son’s head attached to his shoulders.

Von Katte wasn’t so lucky: sentenced only to imprisonment, the verdict was upgraded by the vindictive monarch — and as part of Frederick William’s ongoing project to break his son, he made the kid watch his friend’s beheading from close enough proximity to beg (and receive) von Katte’s forgiveness.

Here’s a melodramatic interpretation from a short film called Der Tod des Hans Hermann von Katte:

Frederick spent the next decade under the father’s thumb, chafing but bending himself to the austere demands of Prussian statecraft.

Well did he absorb them, for upon succeeding in 1740, he far surpassed his father in the martial pursuits, and for the half-century span of his reign was Europe’s acknowledged battlefield master. Known to posterity as Frederich the Great — and more familiarly as der alte Fritz, “old Fritz” — his augmentation of the empire vaulted Prussia into Europe’s great powers club and set the stage for German unification.

[flv:http://play-mcvideos.howstuffworks.com/2008-07/31/12211.flv 425 344]

Frederick scarcely ever spoke again of von Katte, but neither did he lose his native intelligence, and he kept up a long-running correspondence with Voltaire.

It gives an achingly tragic cast to the boy who suffered the horrible loss of his intimate this day — who dutifully delivered to his country genius as a commander and statesman, at the uncomplaining sacrifice of the life he yearned to lead.

UC-Berkeley professor Margaret Anderson’s wonderful “Rise and Fall of the Second Reich” course podcast situates Frederick in the arc of Prussia’s development out of the Middle Ages —

[audio:http://webcast.berkeley.edu/media/f2007/hist167b/hist167b_20070904.mp3]

— and treats his adroit foreign policy and active mind in the age of the Enlightenment.

[audio:http://webcast.berkeley.edu/media/f2007/hist167b/hist167b_20070906.mp3]

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Homosexuals,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Power,Prussia,Scandal,Soldiers,Treason

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