1789: The murderers of the baker Francois

2 comments October 22nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1789, two working stiffs literally became stiffs for a noteworthy bread riot during the French Revolution’s early days.

Ah, 1789.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. And we know how all that ends.

Just three months after the Bastille was stormed, France was merely pregnant with its coming Terrors. The Revolution was in its “moderate stage”.

Some moderation.


“Events of the 22nd of October, 1789: The hanging of a man named Francois, a baker”. Despite the title, sources (like this French-language study in the Annales historiques de la Revolution francaise, overwhelmingly date the baker’s murder to the 21st.

The tumbrils may not have been running (actually, the Revolution’s iconic execution device had not yet even been created), but the “October Days” had enough to scare you, especially if you were a sensible constitutionalist type like the Marquis de Lafayette.*

Like a mob dragging the King back to Paris from Versailles, with the heads of his royal guards on pikestaffs.

A drought had created a calamitous bread shortage, which in turn helped stir the Revolutionary pot. The mob that invaded Louis XVI‘s palace a couple of weeks before had celebrated his return to Paris singing “We Have the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, and the Baker’s Son. We Shall Have Bread.” When the king’s presence failed to ease the shortage, fresh disturbances followed.

On October 21, 1789,** the baker Denis Francois became the unfortunate focus of one such, when a famished woman spuriously denounced him a monopolist. A frenzied crowd lynched the hapless boulanger before he could get a word in edgewise.

This event occasioned the Constituent Assembly to pass a martial law decree, permitting a municipality to signal martial law by raising a red flag, whereupon anyone failing to disperse made him- or herself liable to summary military execution.

According to Lafayette (cited in Revolutionary Justice in Paris: 1789-1790):

During the disturbance stirred up against the baker Francois, another one broke out in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the object of which was to unite with the Faubourg Saint-Marcel for purposes of reducing the price of bread, and for getting into the convents under the pretext of taking the muskets stored there. The National Guard, in breaking up these seditions, arrested the assassin of the baker [a dock porter named Blin] and the principal instigator of the faubourg [i.e., the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, namely a laborer named Michel Adrien†]. Both were judged and hanged the next day.

* We meet Lafayette here as captain of the National Guard; in a few years, the progress of the Revolution that he struggled to contain and direct will make him persona non grata in his country.

** Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History gives the date as Oct. 20, though it’s not clear upon what authority. Archibald Alison placed it on the 19th. Whenever the murder of Francois occurred, the martial law decree’s passage on the 21st appears to be firmly dependable, which would mean the supposed malefactors’ deaths on this date should be as well.

† Revolutionary propagandist Camille Desmoulins later seized on the very skimpily justified Adrien execution — he “was judged and hanged in twenty-four hours for circulating a seditious flyer, although he didn’t know how to read” — to contrast with the outsized tenderheartedness shown for aristocrats who have “different weights on the scales of justice.” (Revolutionary Justice in Paris: 1789-1790)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Lynching,Murder,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Rioting,Summary Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1789: Rachel Wall, female pirate

2 comments October 8th, 2009 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

“Into the hands of the Almighty God I commit my soul, relying on his mercy … and die an unworthy member of the Presbyterian Church, in the 29th year of my age.”

These were the last words of Rachel Wall, on this date in 1789. It was she, whom the Presbyterians must have frowned upon mightily, who was the last woman hanged in Massachusetts and, further, the first noted American-born female pirate.

No walking the plank for her. She was hanged, proven guilty of robbery, by Sheriff Joe Robinson on a beautiful fall day. Her downfall after a brief career with her husband of piracy, thievery and murder? A pretty bonnet.

Rachel, around the age of 16, loved the water. The boats and dockyards always spoke to her. Born on a farm outside of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, it bored her; so, while in Harrisburg, she went to the docks. She was harassed, harangued and attacked by a group of girls. Enter George Wall –- a fisherman and former privateer who served in the Revolutionary War. He saved Rachel from the girls and Rachel, against her devout Presbyterian parents, eloped with him.

They went to Boston where she stayed on as a servant girl while George plundered. He convinced her to join him and his cohorts in piracy. It proved successful, for a time.

Their plan was this: anchor near an island during a storm. When it passed, make their boat appear damaged. When another boat came, Rachel would shout for help. Help would come. They’d then murder the would-be rescuers, steal their valuables, and sink their ship. Those awaiting the unfortunate sailors would think simply that the storm had taken them away, not Mr. and Mrs. Wall. Between 1781 and 1782 they captured 12 boats, murdered 24 sailors and kept around $6,000 in booty for themselves.

Another Brick in the Wall

This plan worked quite well, until September of 1782 when one storm proved too powerful. George Wall and his motley crew drowned. The only survivor was Rachel. She returned to Boston and in the remaining years of her life she became a maid, a petty thief, and possibly a prostitute, stealing from johns as they slept.

Then, the bonnet incident.

One day Margaret Bender, a 17-year-old Bostonian, was minding her own business, walking down the street, a pretty bonnet affixed to her head. Wall, seeing said bonnet, pushed Bender down, stole the bonnet and then tried to rip out the girl’s tongue. Wall ran from the police when they were summoned. She was caught, put in jail and tried on September 10, 1789 for robbery (she copped to her piratical career, but claimed she had never killed anyone). Less than a month later, she hung from the gallows.

Part of the Themed Set: Women Who Kill.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Milestones,Pirates,Public Executions,Theft,USA,Women

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1789: Catherine Murphy, Britain’s last burning at the stake

4 comments March 18th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1789, Catherine Murphy was led past the hanging bodies of her husband and their other male codefendants at Newgate Prison, secured to a stake, and put to the last burning at the stake in English history.

The convicted coiners — counterfeiting rated as high treason at the time — were the last heirs to gender-specific execution methods before the Treason Act of 1790 gave coin-shaving ladies equal access to the halter.

Though Murphy thereby earned an unenviable historical footnote, the de facto practice on the scaffold had long since been changed to spare lawmen the spectacle of a woman roasting to death. Murphy, in fact, was killed by hanging — and the “burning” part of the sentence only imposed upon her corpse. (This, however, was still more than enough: NIMBYing prison neighbors appalled by the stench of burning flesh had lent their support to the Treason Act’s reforms.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Pelf,Public Executions,Treason,Women

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