1739: Two French youths who murdered Choctaws

1 comment January 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1739, two French youths were executed by musketry in the French Louisiana colony for the murder of two Choctaws — a gesture of juridical diplomacy that didn’t work out as the musketeers hoped.

Our source for this unusual event is Patricia Galloway’s “The Barthelemy Murders: Bienville’s Establishment of the ‘Lex Talionis’ as a Principle of Indian Diplomacy” from the Proceedings of the Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society, Vol. 8 (1985). The “Bienville” of Galloway’s title was Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the French Colonial Governor of Louisiana. It was a post he had held intermittently since 1701, which was back when he and his brother Iberville were still exploring the region.*

Bienville was noted for his deft touch with the native inhabitants of the colony he proposed to govern; in Galloway’s words, he “seemed to have an intuitive grasp of the Indian concept of honor and to understand tribal power structures as no other governor did. In addition, he made it his business to learn and use Choctaw or the Choctaw-like Mobilian trade language in his dealings with the Indians — the only governor to do so.”

Be he ever so empathic, Bienville had a sticky wicket with this case of international violence, when each of the nations involved would have disposed of it very differently had it been a purely internal affair.

On the side of the Choctaw and indeed for all of the tribes of the southeast, the available evidence points to blood vengeance as the accepted response to homicide, but there was no governmental institution to carry it out, so the responsibility for the execution of a murderer fell upon the relatives of the victim … the European notion depended upon handing over regulatory powers to a legal institution; the Indian notion, on the other hand, assumed that familial sanctions would keep individuals in line.

It was a situation that demanded the full measure of Bienville’s diplomatic acumen. The Choctaw people were the largest of several native nations in the French colony, dominating the territory of the latter-day state of Mississippi. Years before the events in this post, Bienville had put them on his team by arming them against the British-allied Chickasaw … but in the late 1730s, Bienville was coming off a failed campaign against the Chickasaw, and with the British making diligent trading inroads with the Choctaw, it wasn’t necessarily a given that they would stick within the French sphere of influence. Indeed, there was a chief of rising stature within the Choctaw nation named Red Shoe whose calling card was pushing a bro-British turn.

Onto this delicate stage barged two Creole half-brothers, whom Galloway identifies as Philippe Alexandre (born in 1710) and a youth of whom we know only the surname Barthelemy (born in 1723): as Barthelemy was the name of the (step-, to Philippe) father who stood patriarch to the whole family, it’s the name by which the affair is known. According to the notes taken on the trial** by the colonial official Etienne Salmon as quoted by Galloway, their crime was motivated by nothing but opportunism and racial animus.

They went in a pirogue from Mobile to the Pascagoulas with a Negro slave to look for some food supplies, and there they found a Choctaw and his wife who were proposing to go to Mobile to trade some bear oil and a few deerskins, and who asked them for passage which they granted them. Contrary winds having cast them ashore on some neighboring islands, they went hunting there. The elder of the two brothers proposed to the Negro that he kill the husband and wife, saying that the savages were dogs, and that if they ran across Frenchmen in the same straits in their country they would not object to killing them. The Negro having rejected the proposition, saying that he had [no] reason at all to kill them, that they had done him no wrong, the two brothers discussed the same thing, and the elder told the younger that he would be doing a valorous deed, and that he would be regarded as a true man, if he made the attack; this child allowed himself to be so persuaded that on the following day at sunrise, while everyone was sleeping, or pretending to, the younger shot twice at the husband and his wife, and killed them.

This happened sometime during 1738. It took some months for the disappearance of these hunter-traders to become known to their communities, and for suspicion to fix on the young men involved. The French colony arrested the culprits and Bienville promised his allies “that justice would be done and would be carried out in Mobile before their appointed witnesses.” For Bienville, this meant the strict application of lex talionis through the French judicial mechanism.

The trial took place on January 10 … the two young men were condemned to die, while the Negro was dismissed as guiltless. The original sentence called for hanging, but to spare the dignity of the boys’ family it was changed to death by a firing squad. Salmon reported that the younger brother had no notion of guilt and was convinced that in the dangerous times then prevailing, he had performed a deed worthy of praise. Even Salmon believed that had the situation been different Bienville would have allowed the younger to escape death. But this was not to be, and the young men were returned to Mobile for execution, which took place before Choctaw witnesses on January 14.

The executions placated the Choctaw and, Bienville hoped, established an understanding that crimes between their nations would be properly satisfied by the offender’s nation more or less on the basis of lex talionis: an orderly and reciprocal life-for-a-life punishment.

Seven years ahead and Bienville had been retired to France when at last there came a Choctaw-on-Frenchmen murder to test the precedent. The new governor, Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, invoked the principle of this Barthelemy case: “We ask nothing of you but justice, since M. de Bienville had justice done you in 1740 [sic] for a man and woman that some Frenchmen had killed.”

The trouble that the French encountered here in having their claim recognized lay in their failure to understand the distinction made by the Choctaw between domestic and international law in a homicide case. The evidence is quite clear that the Choctaw were prepared to accept the notion of setting off the French deaths by an equal number of Choctaw deaths, but they expected the French, as the injured party, to carry out the killings themselves. If the French wanted the Choctaw to carry out the killings, they said, the French would have to persuade close relatives of the required victims to do it, or else there would be an unending train of vengeance set loose in the nation.

The French didn’t know who had actually murdered their three people and “the usual procedure in such cases was to substitute people who were of little use to the tribe or who for some reason already deserved death.” However, the French greedily bid for a political coup by demanding not a marginal victim but the pro-British chief Red Shoe himself. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t find any of Red Shoe’s relatives willing to turn executioner. The only thing left for the Choctaw to try was

killings committed against a group that was the enemy of both French and Choctaw. Therefore, to set off the deaths of three Frenchmen at the hands of pro-English Choctaws, the pro-French Choctaws attempted to fulfill the French demands in part by killing English traders. This was done in a raid on an English convoy which was being escorted by Red Shoe. After Red Shoe was murdered by stealth, two Englishmen were killed in an open attack, making up the required three deaths.

The French, however, completely missed the point of the Choctaw restitution and refused the two English scalps, insisting on two more Choctaw deaths … The deaths of the Englishmen did not go without notice on the pro-English side. Doubtless as a result of a symmetrical demand by the English, the [pro-English] Choctaw killed five French settlers on the Mobile River. These killings were followed by retaliatory raids by French-allied Choctaws on English trade convoys, killing two more English traders.

This is precisely the sort of blood vengeance spiral that Bienville had been trying to militate against, and it soon pulled the whole Choctaw nation into an outright civil war that killed some 800 people and brought the French into the field as well. Galloway once again:

Bienville’s intentions were good, and it is to the credit of the French that they carried out the execution of the half-brothers, against their inclinations, because this was the kind of justice that the Choctaw understood. Nor are the French to be blamed for expecting the Choctaw to make the same kind of concession to their notion of justice. The tragedy arose not because the Choctaw did not want to render justice at all, but because they had no vicarious legal mechanism to carry it out. In the end, therefore, they were forced into civil war because vengeance carried out by a Choctaw, on another Choctaw, in behalf of a third party not a Choctaw, did not leave the avenger free of punishment himself. Like other aspects of southeastern Indian culture, this one was so inconsistent with European understanding that it had to adapt or disappear, and although it did not actually disappear among the Choctaw themselves until 1823, the principle in dealings with white nations was firmly asserted in treaties from the time of the end of the Choctaw civil war. The Choctaw had dearly bought comprehension of Bienville’s principle with the weighty currency of culture change.

* Iberville and Bienville co-founded Fort Louis de la Mobile (present-day Mobile, Alabama) in 1702; this is where the executions in this post occurred. Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718.

** No original record of the trial survives; Salmon’s recollection is the best we’re going to do for primary sourcing.

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1739: Seven of nine Williamsburg malefactors

3 comments November 23rd, 2012 Headsman

No, not that Seven of Nine. We have no further details on offer about these poor souls, but we thought the assortment of crimes — a mother for murdering her bastard child; a highwayman; an overseer for whipping a slave to death — and the editorial rant about the governor‘s abus’d Clemency, made for a colorful slice of life.

Image: Account of a Williamsburg, Va. mass hanging on Nov. 23, 1739

(Virginia Gazette, Nov. 23, 1739.)

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1739: Michael Blodorn, “selvmordsmord”

1 comment June 1st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1739, Michael Blödorn was stretched out on a scaffold at Copenhagen’s beautiful Kongens Nytorv (King’s Square), where an executioner set about smashing his limbs with heavy wagon wheels.


A 1727 illustration of Danish prisoners broken on the wheel.

Scholar Tyge Krogh’s new book titled (and about) The Lutheran Plague of suicide-murder.

As he lay suffering, Blödorn sang vigorously — a joyful hymn to lift his soul to heaven.

That, indeed, was why he was being broken on the wheel in the first place.

Blödorn was part of an alarming trend in Lutheran countries that waxed especially strong in Denmark: a homicide-to-heaven loophole apparently licensed by the Reformation theology.

Crudely put, the scam is this: you have a sure ticket to salvation if you die with no un-repented sin on your soul. But the only real way to know when you’re going to die is to kill yourself … and since that’s a mortal sin, that’s even worse than risking the everyday mischance of life.

But do like Mike and kill a random stranger to incur a death sentence, and you get to check out pure as the driven snow: assured last-minute repentance with no suicidal downside. Everybody wins!

Um.

Actually carrying out this plan required what you might call a deep commitment to your theology: in an effort to discourage the practice without backing off the death penalty for murder, penalties for apparent suicide-by-executioner cases had been ramped up into an archaic bloody theater. Blödorn, a soldier, had already been suffering weekly floggings leading up to the execution. Civilian murderers could look forward to having the flesh ripped with red-hot tongs.


Ouch. A 1727 illustration of judicial penalties that might attend a suicide-murder: tearing with hot tongs, the breaking-wheel, and severed hands.

Still, selvmordsmord persisted (Danish link: or, here’s the same story in Norwegian).

At last in 1767, the Danes reversed course abandoned capital punishment for “melancholy and other dismal persons [who committed murder] for the exclusive purpose of losing their lives,” implementing instead sentences of humiliating hard labor: a punishment to fit the crime and also meet the larger society’s need for deterrence.

“This made Denmark a pioneer when it came to abolishing the death penalty,” said Danish academic Tyghe Kroghe, author of a new book about the suicide-murder phenomenon. “But it was not something they did proudly. The decision violated the religious understanding of the criminal system.”

Here’s Kroghe discussing his research … in Danish.

Crazy, right?

Executions of men and women who not only decline to fight their sentences, but even commit their capital crimes with the intent to engineer their own executions, are hardly confined to the foreign country that is the past.

Maybe you wouldn’t point the finger at Martin Luther any longer, but Denmark’s very last civil execution was of an arsonist so insistent about attempting murder that the authorities finally gave him the peace of the grave that he desired. We’ve seen in these pages the headsman courted by people motivated by depression and by romantic love.

And numerous more modern criminals right into the 21st century look every bit like selvmordsmord cases. For example:

  • Christopher Newton, who killed his cellmate to draw a death sentence and was executed in Ohio in 2007;
  • Daniel Colwell, who gunned down a couple randomly to “win” a death sentence in Georgia in 2003 but died before reaching execution;
  • Mamoru Takuma, the mentally disturbed author of Japan’s notorious Osaka school massacre, who committed the crime with no intent to escape and immediately demanded a death sentence (carried out in 2004).

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1739: Dick Turpin, outlaw legend

15 comments April 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1739, famed desperado Richard “Dick” Turpin rode through York on an open cart, saluting his admirers, then sat upon his gallows at the York raceway for half an hour, chatting with spectators and executioners, until he “with undaunted courage looked about him, and after speaking a few words to the topsman, he threw himself off the ladder and expired in about five minutes.”

Turpin was the ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race, which (we were almost about to say, we regret) is now altogether extinct. Several successors he had, it is true, but no name worthy to be recorded after his own. With him expired the chivalrous spirit which animated successively the bosoms of so many knights of the road; with him died away that passionate love of enterprise, that high spirit of devotion to the fair sex, which was first breathed upon the highway by the gay, gallant Claude Du-Val, the Bayard of the road — le filou sans peur et sans reproche — but which was extinguished at last by the cord that tied the heroic Turpin to the remorseless tree…

Turpin, like the setting sun, threw up some parting rays of glory, and tinged the far highways with a lustre that may yet be traced like a cloud of dust raised by his horse’s retreating heels.

The cloud hasn’t settled since William Harrison Ainsworth wrote those words.*

The “knight of the road”, one understands, is an artifice — a romantic construct. One name to bear its lustre to the present may be as good as another. Even so, in Dick Turpin, it has an exponent who bore very scant resemblance to the archetype … save for celebrity.

Turpin washed out of his apprenticed career as a butcher and took to the road, where he joined the “Essex Gang”. Far from dashing post-road stickups, this troupe specialized in invading domiciles where they would torture women into revealing the household stashes of valuables.


The Newgate Calendar captions this image, “Dick Turpin placing an old woman on the fire, to compel the discovry [sic] of her treasure”

Turpin’s highwayman career commenced when the gang was busted — our principal leaping out a window to evade capture — and he had a profitable couple of years plundering the traffic around Epping Forest.

Many are the colorful tales of Turpin’s career; the one of most moment for his legacy may be this chance encounter with a fellow outlaw, as related in the Newgate Calendar.

On a journey towards Cambridge, he met a man genteelly dressed, and well mounted: and expecting a good booty, he presented a pistol to the supposed gentleman, and demanded his money. The party thus stopped happened to be one King, a famous highwayman, who knew Turpin; and when the latter threatened destruction if he did not deliver his money, King burst into a fit of laughter, and said, “What, dog eat dog? — Come, come, brother Turpin; if you don’t know me, I know you, and shall be glad of your company.”

The well-mannered Tom King — “the gentleman highwayman” — seems to have had his courteous mien conjoined in legend with his much more villainous partner’s prolific career.

Nor is King the only fellow-outlaw whose exploits Turpin has absorbed.

Our anti-hero’s days pillaging the environs of London came to an end in an escapade that saw Turpin shoot his accomplice while trying to rescue him — a klutzy critical miss not usually associated with the swashbuckling rogue character kit. The dying King is supposed to have repaid this bit of friendly fire by revealing to the authorities the pair’s Epping Forest hideouts.

Escaping capture once again, Turpin changed his address, and it is said that the highwayman shed his pursuers with a marvelous 200-mile ride north to Yorkshire in 15 hours.

This feat was not Turpin’s originally, but ascribed to the 17th-century robber John “Swift Nick” Nevison, although even that might be folklore.

Ainsworth, bless his heart, fabricated (pdf) the Turpin ride in the interest of his yarn — “they were distancing Time’s swift chariot in its whirling passage o’er the earth … [Turpin] rode like one insane, and his courser partook of his frenzy. She bounded; she leaped; she tore up the ground beneath her; while Dick gave vent to his exultation in one wild prolonged halloo.” (Picturesquely, he rides his famous steed Black Bess to death on the trip.)

The story has been fixed ever since in the firmament, and licenses every pub along the route to claim Turpin’s patronage.

His end, if not heroic, was certainly attention-grabbing. Turpin settled in Yorkshire under the alias “John Palmer” and passed as a gentleman farmer … with a larcenous side business rustling stock.

His career, in a sense, had come full circle: ’twas a youthful cost-cutting practice of abducting animals that had put the kibosh on his legitimate butcher’s business.

His cover was blown most ingloriously, when he was detained as a possible horse thief and sent a pseudonymous letter to his brother in London asking for help. The brother was too cheap to pay the postage due, so the letter returned to the post office where Turpin’s schoolmaster chanced to see writing in a hand he recognized, and journeyed to York to identify the wanted man and pocket the reward.

So it was not housebreaking, highway heists, or his homicide that hung Turpin, but horse-rustling … although Turpin’s celebrity career attracted curiosity-seekers from far and wide when word of his capture got out. Whatever Ainsworth may have made of Turpin, he did not fabricate the man’s fame; Dick Turpin earned his own ballad sheets and made his own legend possible playing the man at his death.

This man lived in the most gay and thoughtless manner after conviction, regardless of all considerations of futurity, and affecting to make a jest of the dreadful fate that awaited him.

Not many days before his execution, he purchased a new fustian frock and a pair of pumps, in order to wear them at the time of his death: and, on the day before, he hired five poor men, at ten shillings each, to follow the cart as mourners: and he gave hatbands and gloves to several other persons: and he also left a ring, and some other articles, to a married woman in Lincolnshire, with whom he had been acquainted.

On the morning of his death he was put into a cart, and being followed by his mourners, as above-mentioned, he was drawn to the place of execution, in his way to which he bowed to the spectators with an air of the most astonishing indifference and intrepidity.

When he came to the fatal tree, he ascended the ladder; when his right leg trembling, he stamped it down with an air of assumed courage, as if he was ashamed of discovering any signs of fear, Having conversed with the executioner about half an hour, he threw himself off the ladder, and expired in a few minutes.

The spectators of the execution were affected at his fate, as he was distinguished by the comeliness of his appearance … The grave was dug remarkably deep, but notwithstanding the people who acted as mourners took such measures as they thought would secure the body: it was carried off about three o’clock on the following morning; the populace, however, got intimation whither it was conveyed, and found it in a garden belonging to one of the surgeons of the city.

Having got possession of it they laid it on a board, and carried it through the streets in a kind of triumphal manner, they then filled the coffin with unslacked lime, and buried it in the grave where it had been before deposited.

* LibriVox has a well-done free reading of Rookwood.

[audio:http://ia360943.us.archive.org/0/items/rookwood_pc_librivox/rookwood_26_ainsworth.mp3]

Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.

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1739: Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson

6 comments December 27th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1739, Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson were publicly hanged in colonial New Hampshire for “feloniously concealing the death of a[n] … infant bastard child.”

The first people — male or female — executed in New Hampshire history had separately disposed in August 1739 of their respective newborns. Unluckily for them, some never-discovered third woman did the same thing around the same time much less adroitly … and her dead infant was found in a well.

The ensuing investigation uncovered (in one case by the forcible ministrations of a midwife team) the recent pregnancies of this day’s victims, and though Simpson claimed her child was miscarried, she still fell under a law making a capital crime of covering up the death of a baby.

Today, Executed Today interviews New Hampshire historian Christopher Benedetto, whose research situates Kenny and Simpson in the context of their times:

In provincial New Hampshire, as was common across colonial America, the punishment of fornication and bastardy was harsh, and the stigma that followed could cost a working class woman her livelihood. When Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson gave birth in August 1739, they both knew that the physical product of their sexual improprieties must be concealed. It was an awful decision to have to make, but in their minds “infanticide might have seemed a matter of survival.” The discarding of illegitimate children, however, seems to have been an issue in New Hampshire long before 1739. In 1714, the General Assembly passed “An Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children,” which declared

Whereas many lewd women that have been delivered of Bastard children, to avoid shame and escape punishment, do secretly bury or conceal the death of their children…Be it therefore enacted…that if any woman be delivered of any Issue of her body, male or female, which if it were born alive should by law be a Bastard; and that she endeavor privately either by drowning or secret burying thereof…so to conceal the death thereof that it may not come to light, whether it were born alive or not but be concealed. In every such case the Mother soe offending shall suffer Death…except such Mother cann make proof by one witness at least, the Child whose death was by her so intended to be concealed was born dead.

Executed Today: The first hanging in New Hampshire didn’t happen until 1739?!

Christopher Benedetto: There were plenty of capital laws and there definitely were cases where people were tried for their lives, but why it took so long … they had crossed some sort of a boundary. I’m sure the loss of so many children only a few years before [in a diphtheria epidemic] made these crimes that much more shocking.

ET: You’re working on a book on crime in New Hampshire.*

CB: The criminal history of Massachusetts has been studied for so long, but there’s really nothing like this for New Hampshire at all. And there’s so much there. There’s a whole chapter in the book on infanticide and child murder.

ET: What’s the perspective you get working deeply in a local milieu?

CB: I think having grown up here, my own family I’ve been able to trace back to the 1650’s in Massachusetts … it’s always been a big part of my life.

I like being able to go to different sites where these things actually happened. I think that’s true for any historian — you’re drawn to the specific places. The town I grew up in, Ipswich, they have plaques of people who lived there. Anne Bradstreet‘s house is still there.

I could walk on a lot of the streets or at least go to some of the places where these things took place.

But to me, history is about people. It’s about passions. To me, these people are so much like us today. Human nature has not changed a lot over the years.

ET: Does that lead to any conclusions on the death penalty in general?

CB: It’s one of the few things that’s as controversial now as it was two, three hundred years ago. I don’t think capital punishment prevents crime. I do think there are certain instances where the crime is so heinous, so bad — I don’t know, I’m sort of in the middle on it. I think we should reserve the right to do it, but does it improve our society at all?

ET: What advice would you have for a young person about being a historian? What’s the historical method for you?

CB: I would say, just be curious. You’ve got to be relentless. You’ve got to go after what you’re passionate about — nobody wants to do research about something they’re just not interested in.

To me, I love writing, but I think one of the most thrilling parts can be when you’re sort of on the hunt. I kind of see being a historian — and not just professionally; anyone who’s researching a family history — you’re almost like a quilter. You’re taking all these little pieces of fabric and just trying to create a whole picture. That might be my favorite part, taking all those pieces of information and just putting them together.

It’s not that nobody had ever written about that execution [of Kenny and Simpson] before, but maybe nobody had taken all that information and just kind of put it together in that way. You’re not always going to have something 100% new to say, but you might present it in a way that casts a new light or makes somebody think about it differently.

* Tentatively titled Gruesome Stories from the Granite State with an anticipated release in 2009 through regional press Commonwealth Editions.

Part of the Themed Set: The Spectacle of Public Hanging in America.

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