1794: Robert Watt, British Conventioner

Add comment October 15th, 2019 Headsman

Our old familiar the Newgate Calendar supplies us with this narration of a Scottish Jacobin to pop the powdered wigs from Edinburgh to Westminster. A published version of the trial in question is available here, and a last-speech broadside awaits you here.

Watt is the only monument in Executed Today‘s pages to the attempted creation of a British National Convention to mirror the operations of that same body across the channel in revolutionary France. If successful, this body would have tended towards displacing the sovereignty of king and parliament, and it laid plains accordingly for an armed insurrection; in the event, it sat briefly and then was broken up with alacrity by ministers who fancied their own necks better than Mr. Paine‘s tongue.

Many members of this movement’s Scottish core were (as the text below eventually notes, just before it devolves into complaining about hostile press) sent not to the gallows but to the new penal colony at Botany Bay, Australia. You’ll find several of them — not including our executed Robert Watt — commemorated at Edinburgh’s Political Martyrs’ Monument.


(cc) image from Kim Traynor.

ROBERT WATT and DAVID DOWNIE

Convicted of High Treason, at Edinburgh, with Particulars of the Execution of a Traitor in Scotland

We are now arrived at an alarming period at the modern history of our country. Just engaged in the ruinous war with France, which continues with increasing obstinacy, to the very hour in which we write. Perplexed by treason at home, and threatened with invasion by our enemy, the nation was in a critical situation. Confederate bodies of dissatisfied men, were formed, from London to Edinburgh, pursuing a systematical course of treason, and corresponding with each other, until Government stretched out its powerful arm to crush the traitors. Many writers charge the ministry with oppression, but at such a time as this, better, surely, to support the constitution, corrupt as may be its administration, than suffer its subversion, and see ourselves thrown into that anarchy and confusion, sought for by such men as we shall soon bring before the reader.

Watt and Downie were principals in the Scottish Conspiracy, and were convicted of the crime of high treason. Their trial brought to light the particulars of the plot, to overthrow the constitution of Great Britain; and from which we shall, therefore, make a copious extract.

Their trial came on before the High Court of Justiciary, at Edinburgh, on the 3d of September, 1794, when Mr. Anstruther stated the case on the part of the Crown. He began, by observing, that such was the peculiar happiness of this country, that we had been unacquainted with the law of treason for nearly half a century. It was not his intention, if he possessed the powers, of inflaming the passions of the Jury against the prisoner: his object, was to give a plain, a dry narrative of the facts, and a succinct statement of the law.

The laws of treason were now the same in England and Scotland, and the duty of the subjects of both kingdoms should be the same. Scotland, in this instance, had reaped much benefit by the Union, as her laws of treason, previous to that period, were much more severe. The act of Edw. III. stated three distinct species of treason: 1. Compassing and imagining the death of the king; 2. Levying war against him; 3. Assisting his enemies. He would not trouble the Court or Jury with the two last: the single species of treason charged in the present case, was the compassing and imagining the death of the king; which was defined by the conceiving such a design; not the actual act, but the attempt to effect it. But the law which thus anxiously guarded the sovereign, was equally favourable to the subject: for it does not affect him until that imagination is fully proved before “men of his condition.” An overt act of treason is the means used for effectuating the purpose of the mind: it is not necessary to prove a direct attempt to assassinate the king: for the crime is the intention, and the overt act the means used to effect it. He wished not that these sentiments might be held as the opinion of counsel: they were founded on the construction of the ablest writers, Chief Justices Foster, Hale, &c, and, whatever could be proved against the prisoners, which may endanger the kings person, was an overt act of high treason, in the language of the ablest writers. After explaining more fully the distinct species of treason which applied to the present case, Mr. Anstruther said, he trusted that if he could prove any design whereby the king’s person is in danger, that was an overt act; if he was wrong, the judges would correct him. He would now state the facts on which these principles of law were to be laid.

The present conspiracy was not that of a few inconsiderable individuals: it had risen, indeed from small beginnings; from meetings for pretended reforms. It had been fostered by seditious correspondence, the distribution of libellous writings, and had, at last, risen to a height, which, but for the vigilance of administration, might have deluged the country, from one end to the other, with blood. The proceedings of these societies, calling, or rather miscalling themselves Friends of the People, were well known; their first intention was apparently to obtain reform; but this not answering their purpose, they proceeded to greater lengths. He meant to detail the general plans and designs formed among the seditious, and then to state how far the prisoners were implicated in them.

The first dawning of this daring plan was in a letter from Hardy, Secretary to the London Corresponding Society, to Skirving, the Secretary to the Friends of the People, here. He writes, that as their petitions had been unsuccessful, they must use separate and more effectual measures. Skirving answered, and admitted the necessity of more effectual measures; that he foresaw the downfall of this government, &c. Here also was the first notice of a convention; a measure which it is no wonder they were fond of, when they saw its effects in a neighbouring kingdom (France.) They meant not to petition Parliament, but to proceed in their own plan, and supersede the existing government of the country; and, in that case, the king’s life was put in danger.

Soon after, a convention, a body unknown to the laws of this country, met; and in this there would have been little harm, had their views been peaceable; but their objects were avowedly unconstitutional, and their intention to carry on their plans by force, and thus virtually to lay aside the prerogative of the king. This convention accordingly met, using all the terms, regulations, &c. adopted by the convention of another country, in which it might be said there was in reality little harm, but it was surely a marking proof of their designs. They meant not to apply to Parliament; for whenever that was mentioned, they proceeded to the order of the day. They resolved to oppose every act of Parliament, which they deemed contrary to the spirit of the Constitution, and were determined to sit, until compelled to rise by a force superior to their own. The Convention, indeed, was dispersed by the spirited conduct of a magistrate, (Provost Elder,) whose merit everyone was forward to acknowledge, and to whose active exertions the country was so much indebted; but another Convention was attempted to be called, who were to frame their own laws, and to be independent of the legislature; or, as they say, independent of their plunderers, enemies, and oppressors, meaning the King, Lords, and Commons: their resolutions will prove that they meant to create a government of their own, to do away the authority of what they called hereditary senators, and packed majorities; all which prove the intention of putting the king’s life in danger.

But what, it may be said, is all this to the prisoner at the bar? who, surprising as it may appear, about two years ago wrote letters to Mr. Secretary Dundas, offering to give information as to certain designs of the Friends of the People. These letters were answered by that right honourable gentleman with that propriety which has ever, marked his public conduct. The prisoner then corresponded with the Lord Advocate, the particulars of which would appear, as his lordship was subpoenaed. Since September 1793, this correspondence has ceased. Previous to that period, the prisoner was not a member of the Society of Friends of the People, nor of the British Convention; but his accession since to its measures, and the calling of another Convention, could be substantiated.

The Convention, indeed, though dispersed, did not cease to exist. In fact, a Committee of Correspondence, of which the prisoner was a member, was instituted, the object of which was to carry into effect the views of the last British Convention, and to elect delegates to a new one. Mr. Watt attended this Committee, and coincided in its measures, which were expressly to supersede the legislature: The prisoner had moved for a Committee of Union; and another was appointed called the Committee of Ways and Means, of both which he was a member. This last was a Secret Committee, kept no minutes, was permanent, and empowered to collect money to support “the great cause.” Mr. Downie was appointed treasurer, and it was to be the medium through which all instructions and directions were to be given to all Friends of the People throughout the kingdom, and was to procure information of the number of those that would spare no exertions to support the great cause. They corresponded with Hardy, respecting the calling of a new Convention, which was to follow up the purposes of the old one; and, as the prisoner was present, he was in this way coupled with the British Convention.

Their next attempt was to debauch the minds of the soldiers, and to excite them to mutiny; for which purpose a paper was printed, and circulated among a regiment of Fencibles then at Dalkeith. This paper, which was evidently seditious, would be brought home to the prisoner, for the types from which it was printed were found in his house, and a copy traced from him into the hands of a soldier.

The next charge to be brought against the prisoner, and the Committee of which he was a member, was a distinct and deliberate plan to overturn the existing government of the country. The plan proposed was this: — A fire was to be raised near the Excise Office, (Edinburgh,) which would require the attendance of the soldiers in the castle, who were to be met there by a body of the Friends of the People, another party of whom were to issue from the West Bow, to confine the soldiers between two fires, and cut off their retreat; the Castle were next to be attempted; the judges (particularly the Lord Justice Clerk) were to be seized; and all the public banks were to be secured. A proclamation was then to be issued, ordering all the farmers to bring in their grain to market as usual; and enjoining all country gentlemen to keep within their houses, or three miles from them, under penalty of death. Then an address was to be sent to His Majesty, commanding him to put an end to the war, change the ministers, or take the consequences. Such was the plan of the Committee of Ways and Means, as proposed by the prisoner.

Previous to this, it should have been mentioned, that all the Friends of the People were to be armed; for which purpose, one Fairley was dispatched round the country to levy contributions, and disperse seditious pamphlets; for which purpose, he got particular instructions from the prisoner. Reports were spread through the same channel, that the Goldsmith’s Hall Association were arming, and that, it was necessary for the Friends of the People to arm also, for they would be butchered either by them or the French. It would be proved, that the prisoner gave orders to Robert Orrock to make 4,000 pikes; and also orders to one Brown for the same purpose. These were to be used for completing the great plan; and Fairley’s mission was to inform the country of these intended proceedings. Another representative body was also formed, called “Collectors of Sense and Money,” who were to have the distribution of the pikes, and to command the different parties. In one instance, a person had been desired to carry some pikes to the Collectors; who made answer, that he could not do it, for the Collectors were not to be trusted yet.

Mr. Anstruther then recapitulated shortly the different heads, and concluded an elaborate and most clear and distinct pleading, of more than two hours and a half, by requesting the jury to lay no farther stress on what he had said than it should be proved, as it was meant merely as a clue to the evidence which should be brought before them.

The first witness called, was Edward Lauzon, a king’s messenger. Upon being asked if he was employed last summer to search the house of one Hardy, in London, Mr. Hamilton, counsel for the prisoner, objected to the question, and insisted that, before proving any other matter whatever, some direct overt act committed by the prisoner must be proved. Mr. Anstruther answered, that, before proving the prisoner guilty of being concerned in a particular plot or conspiracy, it was surely necessary first to prove that such plot or conspiracy existed. In the trials in the year 1745, before any particular overt act was attempted to be proved against any of the accused, there was always evidence adduced to prove the existence of a rebellion. The Court over-ruled the objection. The witness then swore, that he seized several papers in Hardy’s house, particularly a letter signed by one Skirving, and several others: also a printed circular letter, signed, “T. Hardy, Secretary.” These letters the witness produced. Mr. William Scott, Procurator Fiscal for the shire of Edinburgh, gave an account of the seizure of Skirving’s papers in December, 1793, and of the after-disposal of them. He produced several of these papers, particularly one intituled, “Minutes of Debate in the General Committee;” also several papers that were found in the lodgings of Margarot, Gerald, and [John] Sinclair. Mr. Scott swore to his being present at the dispersion of the Convention. The letter by Skirving and Hardy being authenticated by Mr. Lauzun, who swore he found it in Hardy’s possession, was then read.

John Taylor, of Fleet-street, London, was then called. He swore he was a member of the London Corresponding Society, and was acquainted with Mr. Hardy, who was Secretary to that Society. Being shown several letters and papers, he believed them to be Hardy’s hand-writing. The Society consisted of several divisions, about fourteen, he thought, in number; there were several Committees, particularly a grand one, which consisted of a member from each division, a Committee of Secrecy, and a Committee of Emergency. The latter was formed in May last. He attended a general meeting of the society at the Globe Tavern, on the 20th of January last, about one thousand were present. So great was the crowd, that the floor gave way, and the meeting adjourned to the Assembly Room, where the secretaries read the resolutions, which were afterwards printed. An address, founded on these resolutions, was afterwards carried by a show of hands. One of the resolutions was, that the motions of Parliament were to be watched over; and if troops were to be brought into the country, or the Habeas Corpus Act suspended, &c. that force ought to be repelled by force. The witness produced a copy of these resolutions, which he got from a person of the name of Muir, in the presence of Hardy. He saw several other copies about the room. The witness was also present at another meeting, held at Chalk Farm (about two miles from London) on the 14th of April last. The meeting was of the same nature as the former; there were about three thousand persons present, and, among others, Mr. Hardy.

Henry Goodman, clerk to Mr. Wickham, London, was present at the meeting at Chalk Farm, and heard the resolutions read. The resolutions now shown to him were, as far as he recollected, the resolutions passed at the meeting. He understood that it was the intention of the society to arm themselves, to protect the members in the same way that the National Convention of France had been protected by the citizens of Paris; that he heard this talked of in different meetings.

Alexander Atchison was a member of, and Assistant Secretary to the British Convention, and wrote part of their minutes: he deposed, that the papers now shown in Court to him, he had often seen before; that he took down the minutes as accurately as he could; that he recollected Mr. Callandar making several motions in the Convention; and particularly an amendment to a motion which was referred to a Committee. This amendment was read: it related to the agreement in the Convention to continue permanent, and watch over the motions of Parliament, &c. &c. that he knew Mr. Watt, the prisoner; and was, together with him, a member of the Committee of Union. That Committee met in January last, the Convention being previously dispersed in December — The purpose of this Committee was to keep up a spirit of union among the Friends of Reform, and that he was sent there by the Division of Cannongate. The great object of the Committee was to obtain the same kind of reform sought for by Mr. Pitt and the Duke of Richmond, about twelve years ago. That he was a member also of the Committee of the Ways and Means which was instituted for the purpose of paying past debts, and to defray the expense of future delegates to another Convention, to be held somewhere in England, which second Convention was meant for the same purpose as the British Convention, namely, obtaining the Reform first proposed by Pitt and Richmond; that he has often had conversations with different persons on the subject of Reform; that he recollected having seen a pike in the house of George Ross, in the presence of several blacksmiths, which was shaped like the head of an halbert. Being asked whether he ever gave a different account of what he had now sworn at any other place, he believed he never did; if he did it, it must be contrary to truth, and this he should say, though he should be guillotined for it.

Mr. W. Erskine, also counsel for the prisoners, here stopped the witness, who was removed. He said, that it was an established point in the law of Scotland, that a witness could not be affected by anything he had before said relative to the present subject of his examination; nor could it hurt him in any degree. Mr. Anstruther said, that this did not exist in the law of England. The Lord President observed, that it appeared to him there was really a discrepancy in the law in this respect. Mr. Anstruther here said, that to put an end to the dispute, and, as Atchison had conducted himself in such a manner, he would, so far from laying any stress on his evidence, request the jury to throw out of their minds every syllable he had used.

George Ross authenticated the minutes of Convention, and other papers; knew the prisoner at the bar, and had seen him at his own house.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk deposed as to the pikes being brought from Watt’s, and the fount of types, of which he had got an impression taken in the precise state they came from Watt’s house.

[Paper read — An Address to the Fencibles.]

James Sommeville, a printer, deposed as to the casting off the impression from the types.

William Watson, of Dalkeith, once saw Watt at his own house, but could not say whether the prisoner at the bar was the man. Remembered a Fencible regiment in Dalkeith, which was about the time he met with Mr. Downie, who carried him to Watt’s, to get a hand-bill about the Fencibles, which he had heard of, and was curious to see, but could not get it there; and went to one Kennedy on the South Bridge, from whence he received several copies.

The Lord Advocate said, that, except those (Downie and Stock,) against whom bills were already found, he meant to bring no other person to trial for treason.

Arthur M’Ewan, weaver, of Leith, a member of the British Convention, and also of the Committee of Ways and Means, of which last Watt was a member, deposed, that, at one of their meetings, Watt read a paper, proposing to seize the judges, bank, &c. to decoy the soldiers by a fire, &c. but did not know what was to be done with the persons seized, nor whether it was to be done in the day or night. Commissioners were to be appointed to take charge of the cash, but knew not what was to follow this. Deposed as to the proclamation to corn-dealers, and country gentlemen, and the address to the king to put an end to the war, &c. Watt asked him to accompany him to Orrock’s, to whom he (Watt) gave orders to make pikes as fast as he could, as he had 4000 to send to Perth, besides what he had to distribute in Edinburgh. Orrock made a draft of one: a gentleman’s servant asking what was their use, was told, that they were for mounting a gate. Knew that Fairley was sent into the country, and had visited a number of places; that he reported Paisley to be in a state of great readiness, but did not know what that meant. The witness disapproved of these proceedings, and would consent to nothing that would disturb the peace, or shed the blood of his countrymen; and he thought the plan proposed would have that tendency. Watt produced, at one of the meetings, a paper containing what was called fundamental principles, which he knew but little of. William Bonthorn was a member of the Society of the Friends of the People, but had resolved to withdraw, as things had passed he disapproved of. Watt, at one of their meetings, read a paper, of which he did not remember the particulars, as it confused him. The paper contained something about seizing the castle, raising an alarm by fire, &c. upon the supposition that numbers could be got to assist them. Remembered nothing of particular persons being intended to be seized; but thought the bank was mentioned; this paper frightened him much; it mentioned also the seizing the guard-house; recollected no numbers that were mentioned to carry this plan into effect. M’Ewan showed an opposition to it. The circular letter of the Committee was written by Mr. Stock.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk deposed as to the finding sundry papers in Watt’s house, one the drawing of a pike, and the paper sworn to by Atchison, in the Sub-Committee.

John Fairley, of Broughton, a delegate to the Convention, deposed, that his constituents met after the dissolution of that body. Heard that pikes were making, and Watt informed him of this, or rather showed him one. Watt said, that they were only intended for self-defence, and that none were to get them but those who applied and paid for them. Measures of government might drive them to despair, and cause bloodshed; but Watt said, he hoped there would be none, as the obnoxious or active against the cause of the people would be imprisoned. The soldiers would be glad of freedom, and deputations might be sent them. Watt proposed to show the arms to the collectors, which the witness objected to, as hazardous. In going to the West country, a parcel was left for him by Watt, containing paper for distribution, which he left at Stirling, St. Ninion’s, Kirkintulloch, Glasgow, Paisley, &c. On his return to Edinburgh, he went to the Committee of Ways and Means; that Watt, Downie, and M’Ewan were there, to whom he reported the result of his journey, Returned the instructions to Watt; they mentioned, he recollected, something about a plan, and Britain being free, Downie paid him the expenses of his journey.

Dr. Forrest, at Stirling, gave an account of Fairley’s calling on him, showing him his written instructions, &c. In these instructions there was a blank, which he supposed was to be filled up “arms.” Showed him the figure of a weapon like a halbert, which was preparing for defence, and that these weapons could be furnished by a person who he understood was about Edinburgh. Something passed about arming the people, and disarming the soldiers.

Robert Orrock, smith, first heard arms mentioned in G. Ross’s house in March last. In April Watt applied to him to make a pike, and he brought one to Ross’s, where Watt and other members of the committee were, and he left it at Watt’s desire. In May, Watt desired him to make more of that pattern, and some of a different kind. While making them, a person (Martin Todd) called and showed a form of a pike, which he refused to make. Brown also called, and told him he was making pikes for Watt, and that 1000 were wanted: but spoke of this as a secret, which alarmed the witness. The extent of his order was five dozen which were ordered by Watt, but paid for by Downie. He was told, if enquired about, to say they were for the top of a gate: never had an order for pikes before; but had made one for his own defence, without being employed by any person.

Martin Todd, smith, deposed as to calling on Orrock, to enquire about the pikes.

William Brown, a smith, said one Robertson called on him to bespeak several spears of a particular shape, for Watt; and at another time, he made fourteen spears for Mr. Watt, like mole spears. Recollected the conversation with Orrock, but did not say that such a number of pikes would be wanted.

John Fairley was re-examined, at his own desire. He recollected Watt saying, that the banks and public offices were to be seized. The most active against them were to be imprisoned, and couriers sent to the country to announce this. The Magistrates of Edinburgh were particularly spoken of.

Walter Miller, Perth sent money to Downie, for relief of distressed patriots in the cause of reform; never had authority for supposing that the new Convention had any object but reform by legal means.

Here the evidence of the Crown was closed.

Defence of Watt.

Mr. W. Erskine, junior counsel for the prisoner, said, that as the Court had sat so long, he would not trouble them with many words. He would rest his defence upon the correspondence carried on between the Right Hon. Henry Dundas, the Lord Advocate, and the prisoner, by which it would appear, that he had attended the meetings of the Friends of the People, with no other view than a design to give information of their proceedings. A letter from the prisoner to Mr. Secretary Dundas was read, which stated in substance, that, as he did not approve of the dangerous principles which then prevailed in Scotland, and was a friend to the Constitution of his country, he thought it his duty to communicate to him, as a good subject, what information he could procure of the proceedings of those who styled themselves Friends of the People. From an acquaintance with several of the leading men among them, he flattered himself he had this in his power; and then went on to mention some of the names of those leading men in Perth, Dundee, and Edinburgh. In the first of these places, he said, he had been educated, and had resided in the two last for a considerable number of years. It concluded with enjoining secrecy.

To this letter an answer was returned which was also read. It acknowledged the receipt of Mr. Watt’s and, after expressing a hope that things were not so bad as he represented, desired him to go on, and he might depend upon his communications being kept perfectly secret Another letter from Mr. Dundas to Mr. M’Ritche, the prisoner’s agent, was next read, in answer to one from Mr. M’Ritchie, requesting of Mr. Dundas what letters he had of the prisoner’s. The answer bore, that all the letters he had received from Mr. Watt had been delivered to the Lord Advocate.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk authenticated the letter of Mr. Dundas.

The Lord Advocate being sworn, in exculpation, he gave a distinct account of the transactions which he had had with the prisoner. He had conversed with him several times at his own lodgings; and he had at one time given him some information which he thought of importance. This was respecting the disaffection of some dragoons at Perth, which upon enquiry, turned out to be ill-founded. In March, 1793, his lordship said, an offer had been made to him to disclose some important secrets, provided he would give the prisoner 1000l. This he absolutely refused. However, sometime after, the prisoner having informed him that he was much pressed for money to retrieve a bill of 30l. his lordship, who was then in London, not wishing he should be distressed for such a small sum, sent him an order for the payment of it. All this happened previous to the meeting of the Convention; since which time, at least since October last, he did not recollect seeing or having any connection with the prisoner.

Mr. Hamilton contended, that the prosecutor had failed in bringing the most criminal part of it home to the prisoner. He dwelt long on correspondence between Mr. Dundas and Mr. Watt. He said, the prisoner had not deserted the service in which he had engaged; but had not had an opportunity of exercising it until the very time he was apprehended. He contended, that he was a spy for government; and it was well known that a spy was obliged to assume not only the appearance of those whose secrets he meant to reveal, but even to make part in their proceedings, in order to prevent a discovery. He alluded to spies in armies, and mentioned a melancholy circumstance which happened to one last war, a gentleman with whom he had the honour of being acquainted. A spy in an army, he said, was obliged not only to assume the uniform of the enemy, but even to appear in arms; and it would be exceedingly hard indeed, if taken in a conflict, that he should be punished for discharging his duty. He concluded with hoping the jury would bring in a verdict, finding the charges not proved.

The Lord President, after clearly defining the laws of treason, summed up the evidence, narrating and explaining the various parts with much candour; leaving it entirely to the jury to return such a verdict as their judgment should direct.

The jury withdrew about half-past five o’clock in the morning, and in about five minutes, returned with a verdict — Guilty.

The trial lasted nearly twenty-two hours. The jury were upwards of forty minutes considering the case of Downie: the majority agreeing among themselves that he was guilty, they reconciled themselves to this verdict a last, by unanimously consenting to recommend him to mercy, which they did in a very strong manner. Shortly after the following awful sentence of the court was passed upon these unfortunate men.

Robert Watt and David Downie, you have been found guilty of High Treason by your Peers. The sentence of the Court is, therefore, that you be taken from the place, whence you came, from thence you shall be drawn on a sledge to the place of execution, on Wednesday, the 15th of October, there to hang by your necks till you are both dead; your bowels to be taken out, and cast in your faces; and each of your bodies to be cut in four quarters, to be at the disposal of his Majesty: and the Lord have mercy on your souls!

[such gory sentences were no longer conducted in practice, as we shall see. -ed.]

The unfortunate prisoners received the dreadful sentence with much firmness and composure, and were, immediately conducted to the castle. Robert Watt was ordered for execution, but a respite came for David Downie: as soon as it was intimated to Downie, he started, as from a dream, and exclaimed, “Glory to God, and thanks to the king, for his goodness: I will pray for him as long as I live.” After which tears of gratitude flowed. He was transported for life.

About half past one o’clock on the 15th of October, the two junior magistrates, with white rods in their hands, white gloves, &c., the Rev. Principal Baird, and a number of constables, attended them the town officers, and the city guard lining the streets, walked in procession from the Council Chamber to the east end of Castle-hill, when a message was sent to the sheriffs in the Castle, that they were there waiting to receive the prisoner. The prisoner was immediately placed in a hurdle, with his back to the horse, and the executioner, with a large axe in his hand, took his seat opposite him, at the further end of the hurdle. The procession then set out from the Castle, the sheriffs walking in front, with white rods in their hands, white gloves, &c., a number of county constables surrounding the hurdle, and the military keeping off the crowd. In this manner they proceeded, until they joined the magistrates, when the military returned to the Castle, and then the procession was conducted in the following order:

The City Constables;
Town Officers, bare-headed;
Bailie Lothian and Bailie Dalrymple;
Rev. Principal Baird;
Mr. Sheriff Clerk and Mr. Sheriff Davidson;
A number of County Constables;
THE HURDLE,
Painted black, and drawn by a white Horse,
A number of County Constables.

The city-guard lined the streets, to keep off the multitude.

When they had reached the Tolbooth door, the prisoner was taken from the hurdle, and conducted into the prison, where a considerable time was spent in devotional exercise. The prisoner then came out upon the platform, attended: by the Magistrates, Sheriffs, Principal Baird, &c. Some time was then spent in prayer and singing psalms; after which the prisoner mounted the drop-board, and was soon launched into eternity.

When the body was taken down, it was stretched upon a table, and the executioner, with two blows of the axe, severed off the head, which was received into a basket, and then held up to the multitude, while the executioner called aloud, “There is the head of a traitor, and so perish all traitors.” The body and head were then placed in a coffin, and removed. Never was any execution conducted with more solemnity and order. The procession advanced with slow step, and the prisoner exhibited a most melancholy spectacle. He held a bible in his hand; his eyes remained in a fixed posture, upwards, and he was not observed to make one movement, or cast a single glance upon the multitude. He was much emaciated, and his countenance so pale, that, while on his way to the place of execution, he appeared almost lifeless; but, when he came upon the platform, he seemed to be somewhat revived, and behaved himself, during the awful solemnity, with due resignation and humble fortitude. The impression the situation had made upon himself seemed truly astonishing, as those who had ever seen him before, declared, they could not have known him to be the same person. His appearance was dirty, muffled up in a great coat; and he showed signs of peculiar agitation and remorse for the crime for which he was then going to suffer.

The surrounding multitude, during the execution of the awful proceeding, did not discover any other emotion than is usual upon occasions of any other executions. The town-guard, attended by the constables, lined the streets.

Robert Watt was born in the shire of Kincardine, and was, at the time of his execution, about thirty-six years old. He was the natural son of a Mr. Barclay, a gentleman of fortune and respectability; but like most other children of illegitimate parentage, he was brought up and educated under the name of his mother. He was, at about ten years of age, sent to Perth; where he received a very good education. Being sixteen he engaged himself with a lawyer at Perth; but being of a religious disposition, he was disgusted at this profession, and soon withdrew from the desk of his master. Soon after he went to Edinburgh, and engaged as a clerk in a paper-warehouse, where he lived happily and respectably for some years. His only complaint was a deficiency of salary. Having a desire to share in the profits, as well as the toils, of the business, he wrote to his father, and prevailed upon him to assist him with some money, to enable him to procure a partnership with his master. He then made proposals to the above purpose; these were, however, rejected by his employer. Being provided with money, he entered into the wine and spirit trade. His success in business continued very promising, until he was almost ruined by the commencement of the war. At this period, his acquaintance with the Friends of the People commenced.

Several other leaders of this conspiracy in Scotland were seized. Of those where convicted, the Reverend T. Fishe Palmer, William Skirving, Thomas Muir, Maurice Margoret, and Joseph Gerald, who were transported to Botany-bay. Numbers, to avoid the avenging arm of justice, fled to the United States of America, where, with impunity, they disseminated their treason, and poured out volleys of abuse against their native land. These renegades were no sooner landed in a new world, than they rallied round the footstool of faction there, by commencing editors of, and scribblers in, newspapers, which swarm in that boasted land of liberty. In their filthy columns, they extolled the murderous revolutionists of France, and laboured to incense Americans against their own injured country. It is fit these apostates should be pointed at. John Thompson, of Scotland, printed one of these inflammatory sheets, at Richmond, in Virginia: Matthew Duane, of Ireland, another in Philadelphia. John Dinmore, late an apothecary, at Walton, in Norfolk, planted his literary annoyance in Columbia, the seat of the American government, and, for his extraordinary scurrility against England, the Gallic-American President, Jefferson, made him State Printer, and, heaven forefend, a Justice of the American Peace. This inflammatory sheet he called “The Expositor.” In order to give the reader an idea of the infamy of the abandoned scribblers, we shall quote a note from Mr. Janson’s History of America. Speaking of Denmore, says Mr. Janson, “Among the vile scurrility of his Expositor, last summer, was the following: After noticing the introduction of the American minister, Mr. Monroe, to the king, he adds, ‘For once an honest man had appeared at the Court of St. James’s.'” Another paper, printed by Mr. S. Snowden, at the same place, and preferring England to France, makes this observation upon the paragraph, “It is, no doubt, difficult for an honest man in the Doctor’s (apothecary Dinmore’s) estimation of the word, to get admission there; yet, he cannot have forgotten, that he himself was within a cable’s length of having his name announced to his Britannic Majesty — not by Sir Stephen Cotterell, but by the Recorder of London, and Ordinary of Newgate, as joint Masters of the Ceremonies.”

Cooper, the bosom-friend of the hoary apostate, Priestley, the bitterest foe we had in the new world, so greatly misused the press, that the country of his adoption threw him into a prison.

Inferior scribblers against Britain, are almost without number.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1794: Charles-Louis Richard

Add comment August 16th, 2019 Headsman

Eighty-three-year-old Catholic theologian Charles-Louis Richard was shot by the army of revolutionary France on this date in 1794 in Mons, Belgium.

Although not a household name to posterity, this Dominican (English Wikipedia entry | French) was in his day one of his party’s great polemicists and adver

is called by Daniel-Rops the most distinguished apologist of the eighteenth century because of his Universal Dictionary of the Sacred Sciences (six folio volumes of almost 5,000 pages, completed 1765) written to counteract the famous Encyclopedie of Voltaire, the Bible of the Enlightenment. He also produced A General Dictionary of the Theological Sciences (Bibliotheque Sacree, 1822, in 29 volumes, the basis for many later works) and 79 polemical works, plus four volumes of sermons characterized by one critic as “simple, natural, intelligible to all; it instructs, touches and convinces.”

In 1778, he fled the Revolutionary Assembly of Paris to Brussels, but could not keep quiet when he found that the University of Louvain had become Josephist, and fled again to Lille and Mons where he wrote The Parallel, comparing the execution of Louis XVI by the French to the killing of the Messiah by the Jews. Hence when the Republican armies in 1794 entered Mons they arrested this octogenarian prophet. He refused a defender, admitted he had written The Parallel and declared he would sign it with his blood. To the condemnation he answered Deo Gratias, and in prison sang the Te Deum. Before his execution he divided what little he possessed with his barber and the jailers, saying, “Charity should be strong as death and zeal unyielding as hell.”

-From The Dominicans

It’s unclear to me whether this army of occupation afar in the field would have been aware at this moment that Robespierre’s Jacobin government had fallen days … nor whether, if it was not so informed, such information would have directed a different course of action.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , ,

1794: Jean-Pierre du Teil, Napoleon mentor

1 comment February 27th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1794, the French artillery general Jean-Pierre du Teil was guillotined at Lyon.

The baron du Teil (English Wikipedia entry | French) numbered among many ancien regime officers whose talents were needed but allegiances were suspect in the citizens’ army of revolutionary France. Such figures were forever vulnerable to attack as secret royalists; du Teil while serving in the Army of the Alps fell prey to that very charge made by the ferocious Jacobin rulers of Lyon, Collot d’Herbois and Joseph Fouche.

He’s noteworthy to posterity as a mentor to the young Napoleon Bonaparte at the Royal Artillery School of Auxonne. Du Teil took notice of the precocious teenage artillerist and honored him with special assignments — “a mark of unheard-of favor,” Napoleon gushed in private correspondence.

Napoleon upon his death left 100,000 francs in his will to du Teil’s son “as a token of gratitude for the care this great general took in me.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1794: Madame Lavergne and Monsieur Lavergne, united in love

Add comment March 31st, 2018 Headsman

The below will be found in Elizabet Starling’s Noble Deeds of Woman, Or, Examples of Female Courage and Virtue; similar glosses on the same narrative are afoot in several other public domain volumes.

As will be affirmed by a glance at a converter for France’s revolutionary calendar, this text badly botches its translation of the date of “11 Germinal” — another reminder that nobody cares about the dates. “Germinal” means “seed” and so is of course a spring month; there are rosters of the Paris Terror victims available which confirm that March 31 is the correct execution date for both Monsieur and Madame Lavergne.

CONSTANCY OF MADAME LAVERGNE.

Mightier far
Than strength of nerve or sinew, or the sway
Of magic potent over sun and star,
Is love, though oft to agony distrest,
And though his favorite seat be feeble woman’s breast.

WORDSWORTH.

Madame Lavergne had not long been married when her husband, who was governor of Longwy, was obliged to surrender that fort to the Prussians. The French however, succeeded in regaining possession of the place, when M. Lavergne was arrested and conducted to one of the prisons in Paris. His wife followed him to the capital: she was then scarcely twenty years of age, and one of the loveliest women of France. Her husband was more than sixty, yet his amiable qualities first won her esteem, and his tenderness succeeded to inspire her with an affection as sincere and fervent as that which he possessed for her. While the unfortunate Lavergne expected every hour to be summoned before the dreaded tribunal, he was attacked with illness in his dungeon. At any other moment this affliction would have been a subject of grief and inquietude to Madame Lavergne; under her present circumstances, it was a source of hope and consolation. She could not believe there existed a tribunal so barbarous as to bring a man before the judgment-seat who was suffering under a burning fever. A perilous disease, she imagined, was the present safeguard of her husband’s life; and she flattered herself that the fluctuation of events would change his destiny, and finish in his favor that which nature had so opportunely begun. Vain expectation! The name of Lavergne had been irrevocably inscribed on the fatal list of the 11th Germinal, of the second year of the republic, (June 25th, 1794,) [sic; see above -ed.] and he must on that day submit to his fate.

Madame Lavergne, informed of this decision, had recourse to tears and supplications. Persuaded that she could soften the hearts of the representatives of the people by a faithful picture of Lavergne’s situation, she presented herself before the Committee of General Safety: she demanded that her husband’s trial should be delayed, whom she represented as a prey to a dangerous and afflicting disease, deprived of the strength of his faculties, and of all those powers, either of body or mind, which could enable him to confront his intrepid and arbitrary accusers. ‘Imagine, oh citizens!’ said the agonized wife of Lavergne, ‘such an unfortunate being as I have described dragged before a tribunal about to decide upon his life, while reason abandons him, while he cannot understand the charges brought against him, nor has sufficient power of utterance to declare his innocence. His accusers, in full possession of their moral and physical strength, and already inflamed with hatred against him, are instigated even by his helplessness to more than ordinary exertions of malice: while the accused, subdued by bodily suffering and mental infirmity, is appalled or stupefied, and barely sustains the dregs of his miserable existence. Will you, oh citizens of France! call a man to trial while in the phrensy of delirium? Will you summon him, who perhaps at this moment expires upon the bed of pain, to hear that irrevocable sentence, which admits of no medium between liberty or the scaffold? and, if you unite humanity with justice, can you suffer in old man — ?’ At these words, every eye was turned on Madame Lavergne, whose youth and beauty, contrasted with the idea of an aged and infirm husband, gave rise to very different emotions in the breasts of the members of the committee from those with which she had so eloquently sought to inspire them. They interrupted her with coarse jests and indecent raillery. One of the members assured her, with a scornful smile, that, young and handsome as she was, it would not be so difficult as she appeared to imagine to find means of consolation for the loss of a husband, who, in the common course of nature, had lived already long enough. Another of them, equally brutal and still more ferocious, added, that the fervor with which she had pleaded the cause of such a husband was an unnatural excess, and therefore the committee could not attend to her petition.

Horror, indignation, and despair, took possession of the soul of Madame Lavergne; she had heard the purest and most exalted affection for one of the worthiest of men condemned as a degraded passion; she had been wantonly insulted, while demanding justice, by the administrators of the laws of a nation; and she rushed in silence from the presence of these inhuman men, to hide the bursting agony of her sorrows.

One faint ray of hope yet arose to cheer the gloom of Madame Lavergne’s despondency. Dumas was one of the judges of the tribunal, and him she had known previous to the Revolution. Her repugnance to seek this man, in his new career, was subdued by a knowledge of his power and her hopes of his influence. She threw heiself at his feet, bathed them with her tears, and conjured him, by all the claims of mercy and humanity, to prevail on the tribunal to delay the trial of her husband till the our of his recovery. Dumas replied, coldly, that it did not belong to him to grant the favor she solicited, nor should he choose to make such a request of the tribunal; then, in a tone somewhat animated by insolence and sarcasm, he added, ‘And is it, then, so great a misfortune, madame, to be delivered from a troublesome husband of sixty, whose death will leave you at liberty to employ your youth and charms more usefully?’

Such a reiteration of insult roused the unfortunate wife of Lavergne to desperation; she shrieked with insupportable anguish, and, rising from her humble posture, she extended her arms towards Heaven, and exclaimed, ‘Just God! will not the crimes of these atrocious men awaken Thy vengeance? Go, monster!’ she cried to Dumas; ‘I no longer want thy aid, — I no longer need to supplicate thy pity; away to the tribunal! — there will I also appear; then shall it be known whether I deserve the outrages which thou and thy base associates have heaped upon me.’ From the presence of Dumas, Madame Lavergne repaired to the hall of the tribunal, and mixing with the crowd, waited in silence for the hour of trial. The barbarous proceedings of the day commenced, and on M. Lavergne being called for, the unfortunate man was carried into the hall by the gaolers, supported on a mattress. To the few questions which were proposed to him, he replied in a feeble and dying voice, and the fatal sentence of death was pronounced upon him.

“Scarcely had the sentence passed the lips of the judge, when Madame Lavergne cried, with a loud voice, ‘Vive le roi!’ The persons nearest the place whereon she stood eagerly surrounded, and endeavored to silence her; but the more the astonishment and alarm of the multitude augmented, the more loud and vehement became her cries of ‘Vive le roi!’ The guard was called, and directed to lead her away. She was followed by a numerous crowd, mute with consternation and pity; but the passages and staircases still resounded every instant with ‘Vive le roi!’ till she was conducted into one of the rooms belonging to the court of justice, into which the public accuser came to interrogate her on the motives of her extraordinary conduct.

‘I am not actuated,’ she answered, ‘by any sudden impulse of despair or revenge for the condemnation of M. Lavergne, but from the love of royalty, which is rooted in my heart. I adore the system that you have destroyed. I do not expect any mercy from you, for I am your enemy; I abhor your republic, and will persist in the confession I have publicly made, as long as I live.’

Such a declaration was without reply, and the name of Madame Lavergne was instantly added to the list of suspected persons: a few minutes afterwards, she was brought before the tribunal, where she again uttered her own accusation, and was condemned to die. From that instant, the agitation of her spirits subsided, serenity took possession of her mind, and her beautiful countenance announced only the peace and satisfaction of her soul.

On the day of execution, Madame Lavergne first ascended the cart, and desired to be so placed that she might behold her husband. The unfortunate Lavergne had fallen into a swoon, and was in that condition extended upon straw in the cart, at the feet of his wife, without any signs of life. On the way to the place of execution, the motion of the cart had loosened the bosom of Lavergne’s shirt, and exposed his breast to the scorching rays of the sun, till his wife entreated the executioner to take a pin from her handkerchief and fasten his shirt. Shortly afterwards, Madame Lavergne, whose attention never wandered from her husband for a single instant, perceived that his senses returned, and called him by his name; at the sound of that voice, whose melody had been so long withheld from him, Lavergne raised his eyes, and fixed them on her with a look at once expressive of terror and affection. ‘Do not be alarmed,’ she said; ‘it is your faithful wife who called you; you know I could not live without you, and we are going to die together.’ Lavergne burst into tears of gratitude, which relieved the oppression of his heart, and he became once more able to express his love and admiration of his virtuous wife. The scaffold, which was intended to separate, united them forever.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Soldiers,Women

Tags: , , , , , ,

1794: The Comte de Feuillide, Jane Austen in-law

1 comment February 22nd, 2018 Headsman

To Madame la Comtesse de Feuillide this novel is inscribed by her obliged humble servant The Author.

-Jane Austen’s author’s dedication in Love and Freindship

On this date in 1794, the guillotine brought tragedy to Jane Austen’s family.

The blade’s more immediate victim was Jean Gabriel Capotte, the Comte de Feuillide and the husband of Eliza de Feuillide (nee Hancock), Jane Austen’s “outlandish cousin.”

Fourteen years the novelist’s senior, Eliza was born in India to Jane’s Aunt Philadelphia who went abroad seeking a mercenary marriage and landed an unhappy one to a surgeon twice her age, Tysoe Saul Hancock. Eliza Hancock might possibly have been the illegitimate daughter of colonial administrator Warren Hastings, who stoked rumors by establishing a trust for the young woman. (Eliza also later named her only son “Hastings”.)

Either way, she didn’t grow up in the colonies but in England and France, where her vivacity conquered the heart of a prosperous French officer on the make, a barrister’s son who self-aggrandized his rank of Comte de Feuillide. As a gadabout exile “French countess” during the French Revolution, the charming Eliza de Feuillide was a hit both with London society and with her debutante cousin Jane, “whose kind partiality to me” Eliza would write in a letter “indeed requires a return of the same nature.”

Eliza exerted a magnetic influence on her kinswoman, and she’s popularly suspected to be the model for the Mansfield Park character Mary Crawford.* There’s even a book theorizing that this peripatetic polyglot was the true author of Jane Austen’s canon.


Lucy Cohu as Eliza de Feuillide makes some guillotine banter in Becoming Jane.

Back in France, where he served in the army, the hubby with an emigre wife and an aristocratic pretension made a decidedly poorer impression upon the Jacobins, as Maggie Lane observes in Jane Austen’s Family:

On 22 February 1794 the Comte de Feuillide fell victim to the guillotine. He had foolishly, if gallantly, tried to bribe one of the Secretaries of the Committee of Safety to secure the liberty of the widow of an army colleague, Jacques Marboeuf, Marquis and Marechal-de-camp. The fifty-five-year-old Marquise stood accused of laying down certain arable lands on her estate to fodder crops, with the idea of producing a famine in an effort to undermine the Republic.

De Feuillide was double-crossed by the Secretary and arrested at his lodging in the rue Grenelle et St Honore, where incriminating documents and sums of money parcelled up for the bribery were seized. The Marquise, the Comte and the Marquise’s man of business who had acted as a go-between in the attempt, all were sentenced to death.

After a few years as a merry widow, Eliza wed her cousin Henry Austen — Jane’s brother and Eliza’s “perpetual sunshine”. Eliza Austen died in 1813, with Jane Austen at her bedside.

* In Jane Austen and the French Revolution, Warren Roberts argues that the Comte de Feuillide has his own literary doppelganger in the unfinished Austen novel Catherine, in the form of Edward Stanley.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Pelf,Public Executions,Soldiers

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1794: Rosalie Filleul, painter

1 comment June 24th, 2017 Headsman

Pastel painter Rosalie Filleul (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed French) was guillotined on this date in 1794, during the Paris Terror.

The prodigy daughter of a Paris, young Rosalie Boquet — as she was born — exhibited several times in the 1770s when she was barely out of her teens.

Famous for her beauty as well as her brushstrokes, she married into a comfortable sinecure held by the Superintendant of the Chateau de la Muette. As this fine post by history writer Melanie Clegg describes, Filleul cultivated an Enlightenment artist’s friendships with both revolution (Benjamin Franklin, whose portrait she painted) and ancien regime (Marie Antoinette, who commissioned more canvasses — like this one, of children of the Comte d’Artois).


The baby of this eldest trio of kids of the future King Charles X has been sighted on this here blog for his 1820 exit at an assassin’s hands.

Moved like many whom the Revolution would come to devour by hope in its possibilities, she declined to flee France. She came within a month of surviving the crucible but her relationship with the beheaded king and queen played fatally against her in the end.

We catch a glimpse of this woman and her vanished possibilities through the memoirs of her fellow-artist contemporary Madame Lebrun:

drew from nature and from casts, often working by lamplight with Mlle. Boquet, with whom I was closely acquainted. I went to her house in the evenings; she lived in the Rue Saint Denis, where her father had a bric-à-brac shop. It was a long way off, since we lodged in the Rue de Cléry, opposite the Lubert mansion. My mother, therefore, insisted on my being escorted whenever I went. We likewise frequently repaired, Mlle. Boquet and I, to Briard’s, a painter, who lent us his etchings and his classical busts. Briard was but a moderate painter, although he did some ceilings of rather unusual conception. On the other hand, he could draw admirably, which was the reason why several young people went to him for lessons. His rooms were in the Louvre, and each of us brought her little dinner, carried in a basket by a nurse, in order that we might make a long day of it.

Mlle. Boquet was fifteen years old and I fourteen. We were rival beauties. I had changed completely and had become good looking. Her artistic abilities were considerable; as for mine, I made such speedy progress that I soon was talked about

On Sundays and saints’ days, after hearing high mass, my mother and my stepfather took me to the Palais Royal for a walk. The gardens were then far more spacious and beautiful than they are now, strangled and straightened by the houses enclosing them. There was a very broad and long avenue on the left arched by gigantic trees, which formed a vault impenetrable to the rays of the sun. There good society assembled in its best clothes. The opera house was hard by the palace. In summer the performance ended at half-past eight, and all elegant people left even before it was over, in order to ramble in the garden. It was the fashion for the women to wear huge nosegays, which, added to the perfumed powder sprinkled in everybody’s hair, really made the air one breathed quite fragrant. Later, yet still before the Revolution, I have known these assemblies to last until two in the morning. There was music by moonlight, out in the open; artists and amateurs sang songs; there was playing on the harp and the guitar; the celebrated Saint Georges often executed pieces on his violin. Crowds flocked to the spot.

We never entered this avenue, Mlle. Boquet and I, without attracting lively attention. We both were then between sixteen and seventeen years old, Mlle. Boquet being a great beauty. At nineteen she was taken with the smallpox, which called forth such general interest that numbers from all classes of society made anxious inquiries, and a string of carriages was constantly drawn up outside her door.

She had a remarkable talent for painting, but she gave up the pursuit almost immediately after her marriage with M. Filleul, when the Queen made her Gatekeeper of the Castle of La Muette. [Marie Antoinette designated the position to Madame Filleul after her husband’s death. -ed.] Would that I could speak of the dear creature without calling her dreadful end to mind. Alas! how well I remember Mme. Filleul saying to me, on the eve of my departure from France, when I was to escape from the horrors I foresaw: “You are wrong to go. I intend to stay, because I believe in the happiness the Revolution is to bring us.” And that Revolution took her to the scaffold! Before she quitted La Muette the Terror had begun. Mme. Chalgrin, a daughter of Joseph Vernet, and Mme. Filleul’s bosom friend, came to the castle to celebrate her daughter’s wedding – quietly, as a matter of course. However, the next day the Jacobins none the less proceeded to arrest Mme. Filleul and Mme. Chalgrin, who, they said, had wasted the candles of the nation. A few days later they were both guillotined.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Public Executions,Treason,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1794: The neighbors of Susan Sorel, the female atheist

1 comment May 28th, 2017 Lewis Goldsmith Stewarton

(Thanks to Lewis Goldsmith aka “Stewarton” for the guest post, cribbed from his The Female Revolutionary Plutarch -ed.)

Susan Sorel

The Female Atheist

Mais tout passe, et tout meurt, tel est l’arret du sort;
L’instant ou nous naissons est un pas vers la mort.

That the hardened criminal should silence or repulse the clamour of his conscience, and in a trembling despair call out “There is no God!” cannot be surprising; his enormities bid defiance to a divinity; he cannot endure to think of what he has such dreadful reason to fear; the very idea of an omnipotent God must to him be a hell upon earth. But that modest virtue, pure morality, honour, and loyalty, should be misled, to embrace the shocking, despairing, and destructive tenets of atheism, and disbelieve and deny a remunerator of good and evil, after all the abominations witnessed in France since the revolution, loudly proclaims the dangerous progress infidelity has made in that country, as well as the dangerous effects of the sophistical notions disseminated in the works of a Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Helvetius, Raynal, and other French philosophers.

Susan Sorel had inherited from her parents property producing about nine thousand livres (375 l.) per annum, near Metz, in ci-devant Lorrain. She had from her youth evinced an inclination for literary information and for a studious life; and when at the age of twenty-five, by the death of her parents, she became mistress of her fortune, she declined all offers of marriage entirely, to avoid all interruption to the gratification of her leading passion for reading. The revolution, and the famine and the horrors that accompanied it, gave her an opportunity to gain the admiration of all her neighbours by acts of generosity, that announced a heart as tender and liberal as a mind noble and philanthropic. She not only distributed among the poor all her superfluities, but frequently refused herself the necessaries of life to relieve suffering humanity. She paid no visits, and received but little company. Though she never went to church herself, she advised her servants never to neglect mass or vespers. She frequently presented the curate of her parish with liberal donations; and when in the beginning of 1794 the republicans proscribed and pursued him with all other christian priests, she, at the risk of her own life, concealed him in her house, and paid the same attention and respect to him as if she had belonged to his flock, or been one of the faithful. Four days before her death she presented him with a purse containing one hundred louis-d’ors, and a passport which would carry him safe to Germany, for which she had paid the same sum.

On the 21st of May 1794, she invited forty-four children of her neighbours to a dinner and ball, which continued till past midnight. She seemed not only composed and tranquil, but lively and gay, partaking with pleasure in the enjoyments and amusements of innocence and youth. When they retired she gave them each a louis-d’or in money, to be spent when monarchy was restored in France, and six yards of white riband to decorate themselves with on the same occasion.

A few weeks before, she had caused a small summer-house, or rather hut of dry wood, to be constructed in her garden, which she furnished in a neat and plain manner. Half an hour after the children had left her, the gardener heard reports of pistols, and looking out observed the hut on fire on all sides; and before he could procure any water or assistance to extinguish it, the hut was consumed, and Mademoiselle Sorel reduced to ashes. She probably had this hut built only to serve her as a funeral pile.

As soon as it was day-light the servants sent for the justice of peace (in France they have ho coroners), who, after taking an inventory of her effects, put a seal on the house. He found upon the table in her study a letter addressed to himself. In it she made him a present of fifty louis-d’ors, desiring him to have her ashes collected to be thrown into the river Moselle. She informed him that it was not by accident but by design, that she had burned the hut and herself, having chosen that death as the most agreeable and the most clean in departing from a world she detested so much, that she preferred to it even an annihilation, of which she was certain. She stated that, not to surwive the day she had calmly fixed on for her exit, she had set the hut on fire before she shot herself. She asked him to have her last will read at the department, as well as the papers accompanying it, some of which she hoped would give consolation to the wretched, and explain and palliate her conduct to the good and loyal.

My Last Will and Testament

In the name of no God! I, Susan Sorel, sound in mind and body, de bequeath all my landed property and estate, all my household furniture, money, and valuables; in few words, every thing that can be called mine upon earth, (after two years wages have been paid to each of my servants), to his Majesty the king of France and Navarre, Louis XVII or his heirs and successors, to be disposed of by him or by them, as he or they judge and think proper, to some unfortunate sufferer whom the revolution has ruined for his attachment to his lawful sovereign. Until the restoration of royalty, Nicholas Nerein and Jacques Meunier, my neighbours, whom I appoint my executors, are requested to see that my lands are well cultivated and my rents paid; and to distribute the same to the full amount among all the poor of our parish, deducting only six hundred livres (25 l.) a year each for their trouble. They may either let or occupy themselves my principal dwelling, upon condition of keeping it in the best possible repair, until it with every thing else can be delivered up to the rightful owner; such a one as is nominated by the first Bourbon who is acknowledged a King of France and Navarre. Written, signed, and sealed by myself, at ten o’clock in the morning, May 21st, 1794; or, in the republican jargon, Floreal 30th, year II of the republic, one and indivisible.

(Signed)
SUSAN SOREL.

My Last Creed.

The world has never been created, but produced by incomprehensible, mechanical causes and occurrences, and has by degrees become nearly as it is. It will remain with little variation in the same state’ to all eternity.

A God is the invention of fear, and the idol of folly and ignorance. I too in my youth worshipped a God, adored his Son, prayed to a virgin-mother, and knelt before human saints. I too confessed, fasted, subjected myself to mortifications, and wore relics. I too attended church, followed processions, prostrated myself before the host, sung hymns, and made vows. My sincere piety, my ardent devotion, was first shaken by seeing the prosperity of crime, the sufferings of innocence, and the misfortunes of virtue.

When I saw the best and most virtuous king that ever ruled France, in return for his pure and patriotic wishes to make his subjects free and happy, rewarded by ingratitude, insults, and pains — I said, No, there is no God!

When his loyal life-guards were murdered in doing their duty, and their known assassins remained unpunished — I said, No, there is no God!

When this good king was carried to Paris, and there detained a prisoner by those very subjects to whom he had offered liberty, and outrage was added to confinement — I said, No, there is no God!

When with his nobly resigned queen and family, he was arrested and ill-treated in a journey he had undertaken to restore order to his kingdom, and tranquillity and happiness to his subjects — I said, No, no, there is no God!.

When first treacherously assaulted in his own palace, and afterwards barbarously dragged from the throne he was so worthy to occupy, to a prison his virtues purified and sanctified — No! no! no! said I, there can be no God!

When, in the course of a few months, his innocent blood was shed by the hands of criminals on a scaffold erected for criminals — It is impossible, said I, it is impossible there can be any God!

When I saw honour and loyalty bleeding and flying, and robbers, rebels, and regicides victorious — No! no! said I, there is no God!

When I saw altars erected to Marat, and heard that his sanguinary accomplices pronounced his apotheosis, without being crushed by the thunder of heaven — No! no! no! said I, there is no God!

When I read that a prostitute was worshipped upon an altar consecrated to a God who did not revenge this sacrilegious outrage — No! no! said I, there is no God!

When Marie Antoinette, whose courage, sufferings, and resignation, were so great and so edifying, and whose faults and errors were so few and so exaggerated, ascended the same scaffold where her royal consort Louis XVI had bled — No! no! no! said I, there is no God!

When the model of fennale virtue and purity, of religious sanctity, of parental and sisterly heroism, the royal Princess Madame Elizabeth, was condemned by regicide murderers to die like the parricide or assassin — No! no! no! said I, there never has been, there never can be a God!

It is time, said I, to depart from a world where every thing vile, corrupt, and guilty, is fortunate, and where every thing elevated, good, generous, and honourable, is wretched. If there is another world, what have I to apprehend? My life is pure; the blood of no being have I shed; the property of no person have I plundered; the rights of no individual have I invaded, and the reputation of no person have I injured. I may therefore, said I, reduce myself to ashes, to annihilation, with as much indifference as I strip myself of my garment when I undress to go to bed. Should a God, a supernatural being, whom I am unable to comprehend or to believe in ; should he really exist, and have created such vile creatures as man and woman, I — humble I, am no shame, no disgrace to his work, to his performance! Though not confiding in him myself, I have not only not prevented any body from doing so, but have encouraged and enjoined many to trust in his justice and his bounty. It is also true, I observed that those I thus advised had neither energy of character, for strength of mind, to see in themselves every thing inferior, equal, and above them. For their repose they required some terrific superior — a Robespierre in the heavens to bow to, to tremble before.

To my young neighbours, whose innocent enjoyments made my last hours so happy, and my journey into the shades of oblivion so easy.

Sweet children! die soon, or misery is your lot; die soon, or you will deplore existence as a curse. Die soon, or the assassin’s dagger will stab you, the poisoned tooth of the calumniator wound you; or, what is worse, and more insupportable, the arrow of wretchedness will pierce your tender bosom without killing you, suspend you for years between existence and annihilation, and leave you just enough of life to feel all its horrors. Die soon, or you will, like myself, witness that what disgraces human nature prospers, what degrades it succeeds. Die soon, or you will see modesty trampled upon by impertinent or rude audacity; folly and impertinence tyrannize over wisdom and prudence; and unpunished ferocity intimidate equally the brave and the coward, the good and the bad, the virtuous and the wicked. Die soon, or you will die a thousand times before you expire. To die is nothing; you must all die sooner or later: it is only the agony of death that is terrible, insufferable.

To my good neighbours, Nicholas Nerein and Jacques Meuitier.

My will and the charge entrusted to you, my friends, prove how sincerely I esteem you, and my confidence in you. Shew yourselves worthy of it by discharging your duty faithfully. You know since the death of my nephews I have no relations left: I therefore do not infringe on the ties of consanguinity in presenting my offering to loyalty. As the last proof of my friendship for you both when, tired of living, I bequeath you my example of dying. Embrace your wives and children on the part of your and their departed friend,

SUSAN SOREL.


The department of the Moselle, instead of approving of the will of Susan Sorel, considered her as an enemy of the republic, who by suicide had prevented the effect of national justice, and therefore confiscated her property for the benefit of the nation. Nicholas Nerein and Jacques Meunier they caused to be arrested as suspected, and delivered up to the revolutionary tribunal, which condemned them both to death as accomplices of Susan Sorel. They were executed on the 28th of May, 1794.

On the back of the paper containing what she called Her Last Creed, were written the following lines:

On a vue souvent des athees
Vertueux malgre leurs erreurs:
Leurs opinion infectees
N’avoient point infectes leurs moeurs.
Spinosa fut doux, juste, aimable:
Le Dieu que son esprit coupable
Avoit follement combattu,
Prenant pitie de sa foiblesse,
Lui laissa l’humain sagesse,
Et les ombres de la vertu.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guest Writers,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Other Voices,Public Executions

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1794: Nicolas Luckner, German marshal of France

1 comment January 4th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Nicolas Luckner was guillotined in Paris.

A count with his own manor on the German-Danish frontier, Luckner (English Wikipedia entry | German, where he’s Nikolaus von Luckner) made the sort of cross-national career pivot that was still possible in the pre-revolutionary world by going from commanding hussars against France in the Seven Years’ War to serving in the Bourbon army.

Allegedly convinced that Marie Antoinette had blocked his advancement, Luckner supported the French Revolution, and by 1791 had summited his profession as Marshal of France.

He was the very commander of the Army of the Rhine to whom Rouget de Lisle dedicated the 1792 Chant de Guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin … the marchable tune which later became the Marseillaise. (Luckner’s name also appears on the Arc de Triomphe.)

Things did not go as swimmingly with the Army of the North, where he bogged down in the Low Countries — and the incriminating defection of the Marquis de Lafayette to France’s royalist enemies did him no favors in the court of Jacobin opinion. Luckner was relieved of his command by the impatient National Convention.*

This septuagenarian foreign count showed a lordly blindness to his adoptive country’s situation both fiscal and political by journeying to Paris later in 1793 to complain that his pension was not being funded in full. Other officers had already fallen under the Terror’s blade for command failure, where any shortcoming in the field could be readily conflated with treachery — and Luckner, no surprise, was soon denounced as a royalist.

City hall in the small Bavarian town of Cham, where Luckner was born in 1722, still chimes the Marseillaise every day to honor its native son … whose name also associates with Germany’s World War I naval hero Felix von Luckner, the great grandson of our man Nicolas.

* The Convention’s emissary on this occasion was Choderlos de Laclos … best known now (and then) as the author of the viperous epistolary novel of ancien regime misbehavior Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Germany,Guillotine,History,Nobility,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1794: Edmund Fortis, in the hands of God

Add comment September 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Edmund Fortis was hanged in Dresden, Maine* — at the time still a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Fortis was born a slave in Virginia but escaped and slipped into the wage economy by hiring out as a seaman on a ship bound from Alexandria, Va., to England. According to his dying confession he was a habitual petty thief; by the time he had made his way to Maine, “my life was dreadful — Drinking, stealing and gaming.”

Fortis admitted to, and even pleaded guilty to, the rape-murder of a young girl named Pamela Tilton whom he saw by chance and waylaid on a country road on May 18. This confession “the evidence of credible witnesses on oath … abundantly confirmed.” That’s from the sentencing oration of Justice Robert Treat Paine, via The Oracle of the Day (Portsmouth, N.H.), July 26, 1794, which continues with flourishes of hellfire —

This sentence, when executed, will remove you from this world, where you have proved yourself so unworthy an inhabitant, to a state of existence where you must reap the fruits of your past life; where you must appear before the awful tribunal of that holy Being, who cannot be deceived and who will not be mocked, and who will judge you for this and all the other sins in your life …

you have cast off the fear of God from your eyes, and all restraint of reverence to him from your thoughts, words, and actions, till your unbridled lust and malicious disposition had arrived to full ripeness, and urged you to the commission of crimes, at your own relation of which, nature revolts and the human heart is rent with agony. To what a pitch of brutal lust must you have arrived, that a person of your nation, your age, having a wife and children in the neighborhood, should so inhumanly assault and violate the chastity of that young girl in spight of her intreaties and remonstrances, and then with all the savage cruelty of a ruffian and an assassin, deaf to those cries and supplications which would have melted any heart but one lost to every humane feeling, you barbarously strangled to death the inoffensive victim of your lustful crime; thus in a short space of time destroying life, the first right of all mankind, and chastity, the second right of woman.

… repent and live … so, although your aggravated crimes must bring you to an untimely and disgraceful death, yet that you may escape that weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, that destruction from the face of the Lord, that bitterness of misery which cannot be discribed nor conceived, which will be inflicted on all the enemies of the holy Governour of the Universe, and that your soul may be happy forever in the heavenly world.

But Fortis did not need much convincing of his soul’s peril.

The bulk of his confession is taken up describing the transformative apparition of God’s grace as he awaited arraignment in prison — the appearance of which is precisely what induced him to plead guilty to the charge, lest he “lie against God.”

I could not rest, there was no comfort or peace for me: I tho’t no person was so bad as I, my whole life filled with sin, stealing, lying, whoring and drinking, and now murder. At length I got up, and endeavoured to pray, but my heart was hard as a stone, and it seemed bound up; still I thought I would keep praying to the Lord whether he had mercy on me or not.

On Saturday morning it seemed as if I had more desire to pray and plead with God than before; and in the afternoon it seemed as if my heart was in some degree melted, and there was some hope. I heard something like a voice, saying “verily, verily give him a new heart,” and it seemed as if a man was in me working downward, and clearing or cleaning my heart. I thought I could breathe out my heart to God, and could see a light shining from heaven, brighter than snow, and in the light it seemed as though a great many angels were singing, which drowned my groans and prayers; and I cried O Lord! and looked up, and I saw in a corner of the prison something red like fire, and thought it was the Devil. I found I had another feeling, and I cried to the Lord. I now felt relieved; but was doubtful whether it could be true that the Lord had mercy on me, and wanted to see the light again.

On Lord’s day morning I felt more contented; but could hardly believe what I saw, and felt. I looked out of the grates, and all things looked strange, as if in another place; the birds seemed to come near the Goal and sing. Putting myself in the same place where I first saw the light, I prayed, and said, O Lord, for thy dear Son Jesus’ sake, who died for sinners, have mercy on me! And immediately the same angels began to sing again; and I believed in the Lord, and loved every body. I felt cool and calm; all the dread and fear which I had suffered were gone.

When I was brought to the bar, a gentleman spoke to me, and advised me to plead not guilty: Oh! I thought he wanted me to lie against God; and I considered how dreadful it was for a man that could read to give such advice. When the indictment was read, and the judge asked me whether I was guilty or not guilty, I felt very calm, and answered, guilty. And when I was brought the next day to hear my sentence, I felt perfectly resigned and thankful to the court, God knows their sentence was just. I now wait for the last stroke of death. I can trust my soul in the hands of the Lord, and am willing to do, or suffer any thing God shall lay upon me; and if he should cast me off, it will be right for I deserve it.

However wondrous this gallows-foot conversion was for Edmund Fortis, it augured ill for some other residents of the Commonwealth.

A Henry McCausling (or McCaslane), whose own minister also tended to Fortis, took from this example the prospect of using the murder-repentance two-step as a back door into heaven.

It appears that M’Causling has lately become deluded in matters of religion. For some time he has principally associated himself with a party of baptists, living on a plantation back off Pittston, headed by one Stinson, and two or three others. In one of his paroxisms of religious insanity, he burnt an elegant church in the town of Pittston. He says that Stinson told him, that his brother Edmund Fortis, who was lately executed for the murder of Pamela Tilton, was certainly gone to heaven, and that the road to Heaven was marked with blood. M’Causling thought, that as Fortis had gone to heaven, he should go there too, provided he was to use the same means. (Boston Gazette and Weekly Republican Journal, Nov. 17, 1794)

Consequently, McCausling stalked a Mrs. Warren** “in a dark night, through woods and over rivers which were almost impassable by day” until he finally came upon her at her sick mother’s house, tending to her, and thereupon

he flung her back with his left hand, and with his right, drew a knife from his pocket, where he had concealed it, and instantly cut her throat, without her being able to say more than this — “M’Causling, are you going to murder me!” He immediately fled, but was soon arrested and committed to gaol, where he must remain for the sentence which awaits him.

Like his predecessor, McCausling also pleaded guilty to his crime; the court judging him quite mad, he was balked of his objective in this world at least: how he has fared in the next we dare not guess.

* The Pownalborough Court House, which doubled as a jail, can still be seen today. It’s where Fortis spent his last days, although he was not tried in that building.

** From the press accounts I have seen, she is identified only as “the wife of a Mr. Pelton Warren.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Maine,Massachusetts,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

Tags: , , , , ,

1794: Rosalie Lubomirska, mother of Balzac’s antagonist

Add comment June 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1794, the Polish princess Rosalie Lubomirska was guillotined during the Paris Terror.

The hottest thing to come out of Chernobyl before 1986, the glamorous young Lubomirska had it all going for her before Europe turned revolutionary.

Her support for the reformist Patriotic Party in her homeland required her flight on to France when a Russian invasion defeated that movement in 1792. Indeed, short as her own thread was cut, Rosalie Lubomirska was only barely outlived by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth itself.

But escaping to her friend Marie Antoinette in France might not have been the savviest choice.

The irrepressible Melanie “Madame Guillotine” Clegane, author of such topical historical fiction as The Secret Diary of a Princess: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, has everything you need to know about Rosalie Lubomirska’s activities from that point in this post: going royalist after the execution of Louis XVI, taking Vendee rebels into her salon and/or bed, and seeing her lovers precede her to the guillotine while she desperately bought time by feigning pregnancy.

She left behind a young daughter. In much later years, this little girl grown up and married to noted Orientalist scholar Waclaw Seweryn Rzeuwski would manifest as a side character in a very different story: she is “Aunt Rozalia”, whose niece was Ewelina Hanska, the admirer turned wife of the novelist Honore de Balzac. Aunt Rozalia was a bitter foe of Ewelina’s declasse romance with the bourgeois scribbler and to judge by the correspondence of the lovers was continually trafficking in rumors that Balzac — who was in actuality a legendary workaholic — was a gambler, boozer, or suchlike dissipated wastrel.

Balzac gave his antagonist the gift of literary immortality by using her as an inspiration (one inspiration: his own mother was another) for the titular killjoy spinster in his novel Cousin Bette.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Nobility,Public Executions,Women

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Previous Posts


Calendar

December 2019
M T W T F S S
« Nov    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!