1797: Richard Parker, for the Nore mutiny

Add comment June 30th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1797, a president of the floating republic was put to death by an empire of the lash.

The occasion brings us to the era of Great Britain’s protracted war with Revolutionary France. That war’s essential factor from the British point of view was the navy — crewed in its turn by an immiserated working class, sometimes forcibly impressed, and drawing pay on a schedule that had been set in 1658.

In April 1797, after a wage grievance was dismissed out of hand by the Admiralty, the crew of the Channel Fleet mutinied at Spithead, near Portsmouth. For “mutiny” here, think less H.M.S. Bounty* and more labor strike: keeping discipline within their ranks, they used the leverage of refusing to put out to sea to successfully negotiate that pay rise, as well as the transfer of some distasteful officers who went otherwise unharmed. The Spithead mutiny contributes no execution to our pages.


This hostile caricature of the Spithead mutineers nevertheless depicts — however incredulously — the common sailors’ degree of organization.

However, in its waning days in May, a sympathy mutiny ensued at the fleet lying at an anchorage at the mouth of the Thames, called the Nore. These Spithead and Nore mutinies are generally taken together since they had the same grievances … but their resolutions were very different.

The Nore mutiny, less united and disciplined than that at Spithead, saw several ships at Nore mutiny and elect as their leader this post’s principle character, Richard Parker. Parker was an intelligent, veteran sailor with some history of sticking his neck out for better working conditions. He would always insist that he had no part of the mutiny’s planning and was appointed its leader by surprise; whether or not this was so, he exercised his newfound office, President of the Delegates of the Fleet, as best he could. It was a fraught situation; each ship had its own delegates (hence Parker’s title) who did not always agree, and there were radical and moderate factions, and a proclivity among ships inclining to the latter to slip away from the mutinied fleet even as their erstwhile comrades fired upon them.

But the most perilous function demanded of Parker was to present mutineers’ demands to the Admiralty, whose perspective was that the fleet’s complaints had already been disposed of via Spithead — especially when the Nore demands expanded to include peace with France. The mutiny collapsed, and Parker was marched to Maidstone Prison to the jeers of Londoners.

Even the Newgate Calendar, scold for the status quo, could not resist admiring Parker’s bearing, “throughout the whole of his trial … firm and manly; while he was before the Court, decent and respectful, and from the time he received his sentence, till his execution, resigned and penitent” even while abhorring his “wretched existence.”

After a solemn pause of nearly ten minutes the Lord Advocate rose and, with his head uncovered, read the awful sentence — viz. “The Court judges Richard Parker to suffer death, and to be hanged by the neck, on board any one of his Majesty’s ships, and at such time as the Lords of the Admiralty may think proper to appoint.”

The prisoner listened to the sentence without emotion, and addressed the Court as follows: — “I have heard your sentence; I shall submit to it without a struggle. I feel thus, because I am sensible of the rectitude of my intentions. Whatever offences may have been committed, I hope my life will be the only sacrifice. I trust it will be thought a sufficient atonement. Pardon, I beseech you, the other men; I know they will return with alacrity to their duty.”

The president then briefly addressed himself to the prisoner. He said that, notwithstanding the enormity of the crimes of which he had been found guilty, on the fullest and clearest evidence, yet the Court, in order to afford him the necessary time to expiate his offences, and to make his peace with God, would then not name any day for his execution, but leave that point to the determination of the lords of the admiralty. The prisoner then withdrew, and was soon put in irons.

The time of his execution was fixed for Friday, the 30th of June. 1797. At eight o’clock in the morning a gun was fired on board his Majesty’s ship L’Espion, lying off Sheerness garrison, Vice-Admiral Lutwidge‘s flagship, and the yellow flag, the signal of capital punishment, was hoisted, which was immediately repeated by the Sandwich hoisting the same colour on her foretop.

The prisoner was awakened a little after six o’clock, from a sound sleep, by the provost-marshal, who, with a file of marines, composed his guard; he arose with cheerfulness, and requested permission might be asked for a barber to attend him, which was granted. He soon dressed himself in a neat suit of mourning (waistcoat excepted), wearing his half-boots over a pair of black silk stockings. He then took his breakfast, talked of a will he had written, in which he had bequeathed to his wife a little estate he said he was heir to, and after that lamented the misfortune that had been brought on the country by the mutiny, but solemnly denied having the least connection or correspondence with any disaffected persons ashore; and declared that it was chiefly owing to him that the ships had not been carried into the enemy’s ports. [a threat to sail to France was part of Nore mutiny negotiations]

At half past eight he was told the chaplain of the ship was ready to attend him to prayers upon the quarter-deck, which he immediately ascended, uncovered: at his first entrance on the deck he looked a little paler than corn mon, but soon recovered his usual complexion; he bowed to t lie officers, and, a chair being allowed him, he sat down for a few moments: he then arose, and told the clergyman he wished to attend him: the chaplain informed him he had selected two psalms appropriate to his situation; to which the pris oner, assenting, said, “And with your permission, sir, I will add a third,” and named the 51st. He then recited each alternate verse in a manner peculiarly impressive.

At nine o’clock the preparatory gun was fired from L’Espion, which he heard without the smallest emotion. Prayers being soon after closed, he rose, and asked Captain Moss “if he might be indulged with a glass of white wine”: which being granted, he took it, and, lifting up his eyes, exclaimed, “I drink first to the salvation of my soul! and next to the forgiveness of my enemies!” Addressing him self to Captain Moss, he said, “he hoped he would shake hands with him”; which the captain did: he then desired “that he might be remembered to his companions on board the Neptune; with his last breath sent an entreaty to them to prepare for their destiny, and refrain from unbecoming levity.” His arms were now bound, and the procession moved from the quarterdeck to the forecastle, passing through a double file of marines on the starboard side, to a platform erected on the cat-head, with an elevated projection. Arriving there, he knelt with the chaplain, and joined in some devout ejaculations, to all of which he repeated loudly, “Amen.” Rising again, the Admiral’s warrant of execution, addressed to Captain Moss, was now read by the clerk, in which the sentence of the court martial, the order of the Board of Admiralty and his Majesty’s approbation of the whole proceedings were fully recited, which the prisoner heard with great attention, and bowed his head, as if in assent, at the close of it. He now asked the captain whether he might be allowed to speak, and immediately apprehending his intention might be misconceived he added: “I am not going, sir, to address the ship’s company. I wish only to declare that I acknowledge the justice of the sentence under which I suffer; and I hope my death may be deemed a sufficient atonement, and save the lives of others.”

He then requested a minute to collect himself, and knelt down alone, about that space of time; then rose up and said: “I am ready.” Holding his head up, he said to the boatswain’s mate: “Take off my handkerchief (of black silk); which was done, and the provost-marshal placed the halter over his head (which had been prepared with grease,) but, doing it awkwardly, the prisoner said rather pettishly to the boatswain’s mate, “Do you do it, for he seems to know nothing about it.” The halter was then spliced to the reeve-rope: all this being adjusted, the marshal attempted to put a cap on, which he refused; but, on being told that it was indispensable, he submitted, requesting it might not be pulled over his eyes till he desired it. He then turned round, for the first time, and gave a steady look at his shipmates on the forecastle, and, with an affectionate kind of smile, nodded his head, and said “Good-by to you!” He now said, “Captain Moss, is the gun primed?” — “It is.” — “Is the match alight?” — “All is ready.”– On this he advanced a little, and said, “Will any gentleman be so good as to lend me a white handkerchief for the signal?” After some little pause, a gentleman stepped forward and gave him one; to whom bowing, he returned thanks. He now ascended the platform, and repeated the same questions about the gun. He now ascended the platform. The cap was then drawn over his face, and he walked by firm degrees up to the extremity of the scaffold, and dropped a white handkerchief, which he had borrowed from one of the gentlemen present, and put his hands in his coat-pockets with great rapidity. At the moment he sprang off, the fatal bow-gun fired, and the reeve-rope, catching him, ran him up, though not with great velocity, to the yardarm. When suspended about midway his body appeared extremely convulsed for a few seconds, immediately after which no appearance of life remained.

It being ebb of tide, the starboard yard-arm pointed to the Isle of Grain, where scaffolding was erected for the spectators on shore; a considerable number of yachts, cutters, and other craft, surrounded the Sandwich. The last time the prisoner knelt with the chaplain at the cat-head, though he made his responses regularly, his attention was particularly directed the whole time to the armed boats of the fleet, which were plying round on duty. The whole conduct of this awful ceremony was extremely decorous and impressive; it was evident, from the countenances of the crew of the Sandwich, that the general feeling for the fate of their mutinous conductor was such as might be wished: not a word, and scarce a whisper, was heard among them.


The Newgate Calendar’s illustration of Parker’s execution.

Parker was not mistaken to warn his compatriots to brace for punishment, and his hope that his would be the only life paid in forfeit was sorely disappointed. Twenty-nine more men were hanged as Nore mutineers, in addition to a number of others imprisoned, flogged, or transported. (The Sydney, Australia suburb of Redfern is named for the transported Nore mutineer who once owned the land.)

* Speaking of the Bounty, its old notorious captain William Bligh in 1797 captained one of the mutinied ships at the Nore, on which occasion Bligh discovered “that his common nickname among men in the fleet was ‘that Bounty Bastard’.”

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1797: Thomas Starr, penknife murderer

Add comment June 14th, 2018 Headsman

“Sermon preached at Haddam [Connecticut], June 14, 1797. On the day of the Execution of Thomas Starr, condemned for the murder of his kinsman Samuel Cornwell by seven wounds given him, by a penknife, in the trunk of his body, July 26th, 1796, of which he languished a few days and died; with a sketch of the life and character of said Starr,” by Enoch Huntington, pastor of the First Church of Christ of Middletown, Connecticut.


Also available online here.

The good minister was brother to the late governor of the state, and (eventually) maternal grandfather to abolitionist William Huntington Russell, co-founder of famed Yale secret society Skull and Bones. Russell was a personal friend of anti-slavery militant John Brown and received the honorary rank of Major General for his service organizing the Connecticut militia for the Civil War.

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1797: Martin Clinch and Samuel Mackley

Add comment June 5th, 2017 Headsman

Say’s Weekly Journal, May 13, 1797:

On Sunday evening, between eight and nine o’clock, as Mr. Fryer, of Southampton Buildings, Holborn, was returning home, accompanied by a young Lady, in passing through the fields near White Conduit-house, he heard the screams of a woman in distress. He hastened to her assistance, and perceived her in the hands of three footpads, who, on seeing him approach, shot him through the head.

Some of the Bow-street patrols, who go that road, hearing the report of the pistol, made up to the place, where they found Mr. F. lying, not quite dead, but who expired in a few minutes afterwards; he appeared to have been robbed of his watch and money, and near the spot lay a stick with a sword in it.

The young Lady, who was in company with him, it is supposed, ran away on the villains first attacking him.

Three men were last night taken up on suspicion of the above murder.

General Evening Post, May 11-13, 1797:

Mr. Fryer, who was murdered on Sunday evening last, in Islington fields, was a young man of some property, and had been brought up to the law.

The young Lady, who accompanied him at the time, was his intended bride. They had been to spend the day at the house of a Mrs. P. in Paradise-row, Islington, and were returning home when the murder took place.

Mrs. P. had come a short distance from her own house with them, and after they had bid her good night, and had got about 100 yards from her, she was attacked by three villains, who robbed her of her cloak and money.

Her cries alarming Mr. F. he ran back to her assistance, which being perceived by the robbers, one of them advanced and shot him through the head, and then robbed him.

The young Lady was a distant spectator of this shocking scene.

London Evening Post, May 16-18, 1797:

Yesterday evening three men were examined at Bow-street, for the murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington Fields, but, after a long investigation, they were discharged.

London Star, May 25, 1797:

Tuesday Martyn Clynch and James Mackley were committed to Newgate by John Floud and William Brodie, Esqs. charged with the oath of Ann Fryer and others, on suspicion of being the persons guilty of the wilful murder of Sydney Fryer on Sunday the 7th inst. in the fields near the Work-house, in the black road, Islington.

London Chronicle, June 1-3, 1797:

OLD BAILEY.

Yesterday, 14 prisoners were tried at the Old Bailey, two of whom were capitally convicted, viz. Samuel Mackley and Martin Clinch, for the wilful murder of Mr. Fryer in the parish of St. Mary, Islington.

It appeared by the evidence, that the deceased and his cousin, Miss Fryer, were walking across the fields in their way from Southampton Buildings, Holborn, towards Islington: that when they arrived at the field called the Cricket field, near White Conduit House, they heard a noise as of some person in distress; this induced the deceased to go to the spot.

At this time, Miss Fryer, the principal witness on this occasion, was at some distance from him. By the time she came to the stile, which he had crossed in his way to the place, she saw Clinch fire, when the deceased fell into a small pond. Clinch then took his watch out of his fob, and a sum of money out of his pocket.

By this time Miss Frye [sic] had got on the other side of the stile, when the prisoner, Mackley, held a pistol to her head, and took her cloak from her. They then went away, and Mr. Fryer was taken to a house at a short distance from the spot, where he died at eleven o’clock the same evening.

The evidence in support of the above statement, as given by Miss Fryer, was clear, artless, and unembarrassed. When asked if she really believed Clinch to be the man who shot Mr. Fryer, she said she believed from her soul he was; with respect to Mackley she seemed not quite so positive; several witnesses, however, proved his being seen in the same field within a few minutes of the time the murder happened, who all had noticed him on account of his having red hair.

The prisoners being called on for their defence, they only said they were innocent, but could give no account where they were at the time the murder was committed.

The jury went out for about half an hour, and returned with a verdict — Guilty. They were both ordered for execution on Monday next.

Five were convicted of felony, and seven acquitted.

Hereford Journal, June 7, 1797:

This morning were executed at the front of Newgate, Clinch and Mackley, for the robbery and murder of Mr. Frye, in Islington Fields.

An extremely disagreeable circumstance happened. The floor of the scaffold, from some previous misarrangement gave way, and precipitated into the area of the apparatus, Messrs. Vilette and Gaffy, the latter a Catholic Priest, who attended Clinch, and the two executioners. Mr. Sheriff Staines had a very narrow escape.

Mr. Gaffy was very severely hurt, as were both the executioners; Mr. Villette escaped with a slight bruise.

The two malefactors swung off with their distorted features exposed to the view of the distressed spectators. Their bodies were removed for the purposes of dissection and exposure.

Lloyd’s Evening Post, September 11-13, 1797:

Burton Wood and William Harlington, the two persons executed a few days ago on Kennington Common, for highway-robbery and sheep-stealing, made voluntary confessions of the various depredations in which they had been concerned.

Burton Wood positively declared, that Clinch and Mackley, who were hanged for the murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington Fields, were totally innocent of that crime, it having been committed by himself and two others.

Harling made a similar confession respecting the murder of Mrs. Gray at Waltham-Abbey, for which two men, of the names of Harold and Upsham, were taken up; but who, he averred, had no connection in that shocking transaction. The robberies mentioned in their confessions were very numerous.

Whitehall Evening Post, September 12-14, 1797:

The following is a copy of a Letter sent from Burton Wood (who was hanged a short time since on Kennington Common, for a footpad robbery) to Mr. Carpenter Smith, in the Borough, from which it appears that he was the person concerned in the murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington-fields, and that Clinch and Mackley, who were hanged for that murder, died innocent; also the copy of another letter which was sent from William Harling, a person that was hanged with Wood for sheep-stealing, to a friend of his, in which it appears is a confession of the robberies that he has been guilty of.

Honoured Sir,

I confess to robbing Mr. Francis, near Dulwich; I was mounted a grey horse. To stopping the Chatham coach the other side of Shooter’s-hill: I was dressed in a blue great-coat: I was mounted on a brown crop mare; it was between four and five in the afternoon; and to the robbing and murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington-fields; the two men, Clinch and Mackley, was innocent of it; and to breaking open the house of Mr. Emery, brass-founder, in Shoe-lane, Fleet-street, and taking away Bank notes, cash, and other articles to the amount of 130 l.: and to robbing the waggon of Mr. Newport and Sons, of Crayford, in Kent, on Blackheath, last Easter Wednesday night, about ten o’clock — the man that was tried at Maidstone for it in the name of George Rhodes, was innocent of it; and I was the person that stopped and robbed the carriage on the night of Thursday the 25th of May last near Ball’s Pond turnpike; and to breaking open the house of Mr. Parkes, the brewer, in Baldwin’s Gardens, Gray’s-inn-lane, Holborn; I was the person that broke open the iron chest in Mr. Parke’s Counting-house; and to breaking open the house of Mr. Sewell, Seward-street, Goswell-street, St. Lukes, and taking away two Bank-notes, one of 5 l. and one of 10 l. and cash to the amount of 15 l. on Sunday night the 14th of last February; I as by myself; and to robbing a Mr. Robert Morris, belonging to the Custom-house, of his watch and fourteen shillings in Locks Field’s; and to the robbery that I now suffer for; and to robbing the Fishman near Sutton, when I robbed George May, of Banstead, in Surrey, of 2 l. 16 s. 6 d. for which I now suffer.

The Lord have mercy upon my sinful soul!

Honoured Sir, I hope the robberies that I have confessed I hope will be the means of many innocent men’s escaping to be brought to justice for the same, for I am the transgressor thereof. It would have been a good thing if I had suffered while Clinch and Mackley were under confinement in Newgate, for the robbery and murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington-fields; for they died innocent. I confess to being one of the party, but they was not with me; I might have been the saving of their two lives had I have suffered sooner, but now it is too late; but I hope they are happy, I hope my soul will meet them in Heaven.

These are the confessions of your long-lost and unfortunate

Humble servant,
Burton Wood
August 21, 1797


Dear Charles,

The following names are them that I have robbed, and therefore I hope that nobody else may be brought to justice when I am dead and gone concerning them, for nobody but me did them, except Alderson, that suffered last Thursday at Maidstone, rob robbing Mr. Robinson, at Sydenham.

1st. Mr. Polton, of his horse.

2nd. Mr. Spinks, the bricklayer, of his horse.

3rd. And broke open the house of Mr. Mason.

4. Mr. John Hudson, the shopkeeper; Mr. Pinner, butcher, of nine sheep and two beasts; to taking the eleven sheep off Mitcham Common; Mr. Mills, of Mordon, of eleven fat weathers; breaking open the house of Mr. Marriot, of Mitcham; Newton and Leache’s callico-grounds twice; Mr. John Waggoner’s callico-grounds once; Mr. Groves, of his ten hogs; Mr. Blink, last Easter Monday; the Epsom Fisherman, Easter Tuesday; the two Gentlemen that had been to Ewill with their children to a boarding-school, near the turnpike, in a single-horse chaise: and Mr. Robinson, at Sydenham; a Gentleman in a single-horse chaise, on Mordon Common, going to Ewill.

I am sorry that Robert Harrold and Frederick Upham was taken up for the murder of Mrs. Gray, at Waltham Abbey, for they were innocent: I was one that was concerned in it, and these sheep that I now suffer for; therefore I wish to let you know, that they may not give themselves any more trouble to take any body else into custody, for it was only me and Alderson, for that robbery at Mr. Robinson’s at Sydenham, which robbery I was concerned with.

Give my remembrance to Mason, and ask him if he has hanged that great black dog of his, that laid upon the basket of clothes; if not, it is high time he had, for he was a very neglectful servant, for he lay as still as a mouse while I and my Pall drank a bottle of peppermint over his head. But now they have got what they longed for, and it is to be hoped they will sleep in peace when I am dead.

William Harling.

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1797: David McLane, an American traitor in Quebec

Add comment July 21st, 2015 Headsman

On only one occasion has the sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering been executed on the soil of the (eventual) United States.

But on this date in 1797, that terrible death was visited on American citizen David McLane in Quebec for attempting to topple British authority in that Canadian province.

David McLane, a Rhode Island merchant, was arrested in the suburbs of Quebec City in May of 1797 and accused of conniving with French diplomats to recover their former colony by dint of an invasion of raftborne pikemen across the St. Lawrence to support a planned French landing. This tome claims it to be Quebec’s first treason trial under British rule; the Attorney General prosecuting it thought it the first in the North American colonies since Nicholas Bayard‘s in 1701. (Cobbett’s State Trials has the entire trial transcript.)

The Quebecois spectators crowded the courts in dread of hearing the ancient English punishment pronounced. They were not disappointed.

Writing many decades later about an execution he had witnessed as a 10-year-old boy, Philippe Aubert de Gaspe recollected its grisly particulars — and the surprising (to the audience) fact that McLane was hanged to death before the emasculating-and-disembowelling portions of the sentence were visited on him.*

The government having little confidence in the loyalty which the French Canadians had proved during the war of 1775, wished to strike terror into the people, by the preparations for the execution. From the early morning was heard the noise of the pieces of aitillery that were being dragged to the place of execution outside St. John’s gate; and strong detachments of armed soldiers paraded the streets. It was a parody on the execution of the unfortunate Louis 16th and all to no purpose.

I saw McLane conducted to the place of execution, he was seated with his back to the horse on a wood-sleigh whose runners grated on the bare ground and stones. An axe and a block were on the front part of the conveyance. He looked at the spectators in a calm, confident manner, but without the least effrontery. He Was a tall and remarkably handsome man. I heard some women of the lower class exclaim, whilst deploring his sad fate:

Ah if it were only as in old times, that handsome man would not have to die! There would be plenty of girls who would be ready to marry him in order to save his life!

And even several days after the execution, I heard the same thing repeated.

This belief then universal among the lower class must, I suppose, have arisen from the fact that many French prisoners, condemned to the stake by the savages, had owed their lives to the Indian women who had then married them.

The sentence of McLane, however, was not executed in all its barbarity. I saw all with my own eyes, a big student named Boudrault, lifted me up from time to time in his arms, so that I might lose nothing of the horrible butchery. And Dr. Duvert was near us, he drew out his watch as soon as Ward, the hangman, threw down the ladder upon which McLane was stretched on his back, with the cord round his neck made fast to the beam of the gallows; thrown sideways by this abrupt movement the body struck the northern post of the gallows, and then remained stationary, with the exception of some slight oscillations.

“He is quite dead,” said. Dr. Duvert, when the hangman cut down the body at the end of about twenty-five minutes; “he is quite dead, and will not feel the indignities yet to be inflicted on him.” Every one was under the impression that the sentence would be executed in all its rigor, and that the disembowelled victim, still alive, would see his own entrails burnt but no; the poor unhappy man was really dead when Ward cut him open, took out his bowels and his heart which he burnt in a chafing dish, and cut off his head which he showed all bloody to the people.

The spectators who were nearest to the scaffold say that the hangman refused to proceed further with the execution after the hanging, alleging “that he was a hangman, but not a butcher,” and it was only after a good supply of guineas, that the sheriff succeeded in making him execute all the sentence, and that after each act of the fearful drama, his demands became more and more exorbitant. Certain it is that after that time Mr. Ward became quite a grand personage; never walking in the streets except with silk stockings, a three-cornered hat and a sword at his side. Two watches, one in his breeches pocket, and the other hanging from his neck by a silver chain, completed his toilet.

I cannot refrain, in parting from this doer of worthy deeds, from relating a fact which I have never been able to account for. When I arrived in Quebec in order to go to school, at about nine years of age, people seemed to regret a certain good hangman named Bob; he was a negro, whom every one praised. This Ethiopian ought to have inspired the same horror which is always felt towards men of his calling; but, on the contrary he visited at all the houses like the other citizens, enjoyed a name for unimpeachable honesty, ran errands, in fact was a universal favorite. As well as I can remember, there was something very touching in Bob’s history; he was a victim of circumstances, which compelled him to become a hangman in self-defence. He used to shed tears when he had to perform his terrible task. I do not know why my memory, generally so tenacious concerning all I saw and heard in my early childhood, fails me in the matter of explaining the reason of the universal sympathy extended to Bob.**

Now I return to McLane. Such a spectacle as I have described could not fail to make a great impression on a child of my age; hence it arises that I have thought a great deal about the fate of a man, whom many people looked upon as a victim to the politics of the day. I have tried to satisfy myself as to his greater or less guilt. I could say a great deal on this subject; but I will be silent. Suffice it to say, that if in these days a boasting Yankee were to proclaim to all comers, that with five hundred able men, armed with sticks hardened in the fire, it would be easy to take the town of Quebec, the young men would crowd round him to humor him and encourage him to talk, and then giving him lots of champagne to drink, would laugh heartily at him, without the government dreaming of having him hung, drawn and quartered.

It has been said that McLane was an emissary of the French government; I do not myself believe so; the French republic, at war with all the European powers, had too much work on its hands to concern itself about a little colony, containing some millions of acres of snow; to use an expression not very flattering to us.

The policy of our then rulers was crafty and hence cruel. Every where they thought they discovered emissaries of the French government. There were two Canadians banished from the country, their crime being that they had been to Martinique in, I believe, an American vessel, to transact some commercial business: they granted them the favour of allowing them to take with them their wives and children.

* Actual complete hung, drawn, quartered sentences were already passe in Great Britain.

** Colonial Quebec had several black executioners; the best-known was Martinican slave Mathieu Léveillé from 1733 to 1743. (There an interesting .pdf about Leveille and his world here.)

The identity of the affable “Bob” our narrator half-remembers is a bit of a mystery; he has been identified with George Burns, a black man who held the job in the early 1800s, but the timetable isn’t quite right relative to de Gaspe’s admittedly distant memories. (The diarist thinks Bob was the former executioner by the time concerned with our post.) Frank Mackey in Done with Slavery: The Black Fact in Montreal, 1760-1840 suggests we take the name at face value and identify this executioner as either or both of “Bob a Nigro man” jailed as a felon in 1781 (we don’t know that Bob a Nigro man became a hangman), or “Robert Lane the Hangman” who was charged with a crime in 1789 (we don’t know that Robert Lane the Hangman was African). Mackey suspects that these are one and the same man.

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1797: Figaro the Elder and Jean Louis, Charleston slaves of Dominguan exiles

Add comment November 21st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1797, two French slaves were hanged in Charleston for plotting rebellion.

This plot was the product of the liberation-minded aftermath of the Haitian Revolution … although whether the product was in the minds of the slaves, or those of the paranoid slaveowners, is still up for debate.

As the great slave revolution unfolded, many of Saint Domingue’s white planters had fled abroad. Charleston, South Carolina was a major destination, one of several Atlantic cities in the U.S. that received these refugees in quantity* — lugging along as many slaves as they could. “My Fellow-Citizens know your goodness,” said one of their number in an address to the South Carolina legislature, “and anticipate the Share you are about to take in their Calamities.” The state government accordingly granted relief money to these put-upon immigrants; the British themselves are thought to have been kicking into the relief kitties in Charleston as part of 18th century covert ops to check the spread of Jacobinism.

With the Haitian Revolution and its beneficiaries aligned (for the moment) with the French Revolution,** these French exiles fit right in with pro-British federalists to a continental reactionary backlash.

Revolutionary France’s consul in Charleston (he was U.S. ambassador by the time of the events in this post) maneuvered against that city’s planter exiles (“colonial aristocrats,” as he called them†) and eyed hemispheric emancipation, according to this book.

Yet the very flight of Saint Domingue planters also brought like a contagion the idea and experience of successful revolt in the breast of those refugees’ own chattel slaves … and in the midnight terrors of those slaves’ owners. As early as August 1793, rumor gripped Charleston that a slave revolt was in the offing. Jittery Southern states began passing laws to restrict slave imports from the West Indies who might be carriers of the virulent dream of liberty.

It was in this context that Charleston authorities discovered in 1797 “a conspiracy of several French Negroes to fire the City and to act here as they formerly done at St. Domingo.”

These several Negroes denied the plot, for a while.

Eventually, and surely encouraged by what me might today dignify “enhanced” interrogation, one of them turned state’s evidence. This “Figaro the Younger” — there were two named Figaro arrested for this same plot‡ — was the property of one Jacques Delaire, one of the Dominguan community’s more belligerent aristocratic grandees. Figaro the Younger’s evidence, though only a “partial confession” was enough to doom two of his fellows.

After the condemnation of Jean Louis, he turned to the two Figaros and said, “I do not blame the whites, though I suffer, they have done right, but it is you who have brought me to this trouble.”

(A French freedman named Mercredi hanged for the same affair a week later.)

For testifying against his mates, Figaro the Younger saved his own life and was sentenced to be transported to Suriname. En route, the pressure of his leg irons caused “a swelling about the ankles which turn’d into a sore & … a mortification of the flesh ensuing his toes rotted & one of his feet drop’d of[f] entirely.”

The southern anti-slavery cause was soon crippled, too.

Especially after the 1800 Gabriel Prosser revolt, any dalliance with emancipation, republicanism, revolution, became practically unutterable, as if to speak the words would conjure up the flames of Cap-Francais. “Beyond a reasoned fear of domestic insurrection seems to have lain a desire to banish the reality of St. Domingo,” as Winthrop Jordan put it.

But the threat and the example of Haiti long stalked the imagination of those caught in the toils of the South’s peculiar institution. And more literally than that, as Robert J. Alderson notes,

Captain Joseph Vesey … was [one] of the dispensers of [refugee relief] aid, [and] many Domingan refugees made calls on him. When the Domingan planters visited, their slaves had a chance to speak with one of Captain Vesey’s slaves, Denmark Vesey.

* For example, see Gary Nash, “Reverberations of Haiti in the American North: Black Saint Dominguans in Philadelphia” in Pennsylvania History, Vol. 65 (1998). Philadelphia was at the time still the U.S. capital.

** Said alignment between revolutionary Haiti and the mother country was, of course, tenuous and not permanent.

There’s a report in the Paris archives from this period of the French consulate’s low opinion of Charleston’s Dominguans: “tricky people, at the end of their resources that vengeance towards their country and despair may lead to anything. Among the French whom we have here, there are some very good patriots who know what the hospitality of the country demands of their gratitude, but the number is small.”

‡ The Figaro plays and some of their operatic adaptations were culturally current in the 1780s and 1790s. That includes Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro but not yet Rossini’s Barber of Seville with its definitive Figaro aria … although such would be very poor excuse not to post the latter.

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1797: Gracchus Babeuf, for the Conspiracy of Equals

Add comment May 27th, 2010 Headsman

If the “revolutionary extremist” exists at all as an identifiable type, he exists in purest incarnation in Gracchus Babeuf. No revolutionary better fits the description “narrowminded to the point of genius”; few have defined their heaven more clearly or crusaded so fanatically, ascetically, so religiously to bring it to earth.

Gracchus Babeuf: The First Revolutionary Communist

On this date in 1797, Francois-Noel Babeuf lost his head for the Conspiracy of Equals — the last Jacobin upheaval of the French Revolution, or the first Communist upheaval of post-Revolution modernity.

Francois-Noel — he styled himself “Gracchus” after the populist Roman tribunes — was a young man of Desmoulins‘ generation but from a considerably more hardscrabble background. Like the starry-eyed Dantonist scribbler, Babeuf discovered himself a brilliant journalist and pamphleteer with the onset of the Revolution; he did several prison stints during various revolutionary phases of the early 1790s for his too-radical-for-school opinions.

He did another in 1795 under the French Directory for his firebreathing rag Le Tribun du Peuple, which was particularly unfashionable stuff during the post-Robespierre Thermidorian regime.

Nothing daunted, Babeuf emerged from prison the leading apostle of the Parisian proletariat which had by then been decisively separated from power.

The order of the day was class consolidation with the spoils of the aristocracy apportioned among a new oligarchy of wealth. As France rushed headlong towards Bonaparte and Bourbon restoration, Babeuf was the man left to rally “the party which desires the reign of pure equality.”

The French Revolution was nothing but a precursor of another revolution, one that will be bigger, more solemn, and which will be the last.

The people marched over the bodies of kings and priests who were in league against it: it will do the same to the new tyrants, the new political Tartuffes seated in the place of the old.

Manifesto of the Equals, 1796

One can see why later revolutionaries — Marx included; Babeuf makes a cameo in the Communist Manifesto — would adopt this sort of thing as a harbinger of the next century’s revolutions.

And if the Directory had known who Nicholas II would be, it would have had no intention of going the way of his family.

Instead, it shut him down in February, 1796: Napoleon Bonaparte personally carried out the operation, just days before he wed Josephine.


The Babeuf Conspiracy. Anonymous French print.

Babeuf’s party comes down to us as a “conspiracy,” under which word the state would charge him and which his follower Philippe Buonarroti would later rebrand the “Conspiracy of Equals”. It was not so much a grassy-knoll type of conspiracy as it was an underground organization.

When its adherents placarded Paris with the seditious “Analysis of the Doctrine of Babeuf” as the city endured a potentially dangerous economic crisis in April 1796, the government was put to a test of its strength.

It passed.

Having infiltrated Babeuf’s network, it arrested the principals on the eve of the Conspiracy’s intended insurrection. They were hailed out of Paris (a safeguard against sympathetic risings) to the commune of Vendome and there put on trial.* Babeuf and his associate Augustin Alexandre Darthe were condemned to death on May 26th and guillotined the very next day.

The last gasp of the French Revolution dropped with their heads into the basket.

Revolutionary Babeuvism, however, had scarcely just begun.

I don’t know what will become of the republicans, their families, and even the babies still at their mothers’ breasts, in the midst of the royalist fury that the counter-revolution will bring. O my friends! How heart-rending these thoughts are in my final moments! … To die for the fatherland, to leave a family, children, a beloved wife, all would be bearable if at the end of this I didn’t see liberty lost and all that belongs to sincere republicans wrapped in a horrible proscription.

-Babeuf’s last letter to his family

* The trial of Babeuf was itself a jurisprudential milestone: it was the first French trial to be transcribed verbatim.

What might look today like a nifty little advance for efficient judicature was bitterly controversial in 1797. The French Revolution had overturned an ancien regime practice of professional magistrates accepting legal testimony by written deposition and deciding matters behind closed doors. The liberte, egalite, fraternite way would instead demand that testimony be given live in the courtroom where citizen jurors could weigh its credibility.

Babeuf’s lawyer, Pierre-Francois Real, protested against the court stenographers, arguing that “The law insists that the system of written depositions not be restored in any way. That system will undoubtedly return if any means are used to save testimony given orally.”

There’s a fascinating disquisition on the curious and contradictory development of this issue and the way it “violates … common assumptions about the advance of textuality in the West” during the French Revolution in Laura Mason, “The ‘Bosom of Proof’: Criminal Justice and the Renewal of Oral Culture during the French Revolution” The Journal of Modern History, March 2004.

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