On this date in 1806, the Neapolitan partisan Michele Pezza was hanged as a bandit.
Better known by his infernal nickname “Fra Diavolo” — “Brother Devil” — Pezza (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was forced into the army of the Kingdom of Naples as punishment for manslaughter in 1797, just in time to experience its thrashing at the hands of the French Republicans rolling down the peninsula.
By 1799, Naples was no longer a kingdom at all, but a French-modeled and -backed republic, one of several in Italy.
Populist, Catholic resistance to these impositions commenced almost immediately. Fra Diavolo was destined to become the enduring legend of this sanfedismo movement.
Pezza’s band, which eventually numbered as much as 4,000, stalked the roads around Rome and Naples, terrorizing French soldiers and Republicans. They had a reputation for cruelty.
Francis Maceroni, a writer and an aide (and eventual biographer) for Napoleonic marshal Murat, charges that Fra Diavolo was merely “a well known assassin and highwayman [who] could not but be infamous, in any service. Brief, he was put upon his trial, — found guilty of as many horrid felonies as would fill a dozen volumes like that of ‘Rookwood,’ and hanged upon a gibbet of extraordinary height, at the Ponte della Maddalena at Naples.” The author is disgusted that the name Fra Diavolo “has not only been immortalized by his atrocious crimes, but by the appliances of fine music and operatic representation” for the outlaw “was a most unmitigated mass of evil, without one redeeming point.”
Actually, his effectiveness with irregulars was a very significant redeeming point in a dirty-war environment.
After Naples’ Parthenopean Republic was deposed by France’s foes, Pezza was retired with an aristocratic title, a substantial pension, and a trophy bride: just the Bourbons’ way to say thanks.
But he was recalled to the field when the French re-invaded Naples in 1806, briefly installing Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte as the new Neapolitan king, and again set to raiding with a mass of guerrillas. This time the French hunted him to ground, defeating his irregulars in an October 1806 engagement and capturing Fra Diavolo himself days later.
Pezza hanged as a brigand in Naples, but the city’s exiled royalty funded a funeral mass for their lost commander in the cathedral of Palermo.
Maceroni wasn’t kidding about the “fine music and operative representation,” by the way. Daniel Auber composed a hit 1830 debut, Fra Diavolo.
The band was surprised by constable Joseph Luker, himself a former convict. One or more of the thieves battered him to death on the spot with whatever was at hand: recovered with Luker’s broken body at morning’s light were a bloodied wheelbarrow wheel, and the hilt of Luker’s own cutlass, buried in his brains. Luker was the first policeman killed on duty in Australia, and his name can be found on the country’s National Police Memorial.
But the order of the day in 1803 was a different sort of memorial. “Avenging Heaven directs the Hand of Justice, and the Manes of the Deceased inspires us with Indignation and Resentment,” the Sydney Gazettefulminated. The need to cut a deal for crown’s evidence with one of Samuel’s compatriots eventually meant that Samuel was the only one to bear the vengeance of Luker’s Manes. (A third man, Isaac Simmonds, was acquitted at trial, but he was so heavily suspected that he was made to attend the execution.)
James Hardwicke were brought, in pursuance of the sentence passed upon them on the preceding Friday.
Both prisoners conducted themselves with becoming decency; and when the Reverend Mr. MARSDEN had performed the duties of his function, and quitted Hardwicke, he turned to Samuels (who being a Jew, was prepared by a person of his own profession) and questioning him on the subject of the murder of Luker, he solemnly declared, that during the interval of his confinement in the cell with Isacc [sic] Simmonds, nicknamed Hikey Bull, they in the Hebrew tongue exchanged an oath, by which they bound themselves to secrecy and silence in whatever they might then disclose.
Conjured by that GOD before whom he was shortly to appear, not to advance any thing in his latter moments that would endanger his salvation, he now repeated with an air of firmness what he had before declared ; and appearing deeply imprest with a becoming sense of his approaching end, appealed to Heaven to bear him testimony that Simmonds had, under the influence of the oath by which they were reciprocally bound, acknowledged to him that Luker had accidentally surprised him … and that he, in consequence thereof, had “knocked him down, and given him a topper for luck!” … [and] that he would hang 500 Christians to save himself.
Simmonds, as we’ve noted, was right there in forced attendance at the public hanging, and as Samuel’s accusations started the audience murmuring, Simmonds tried to interject his denials. The very fact that the words were spoken by a man on the brink of death and presumably in fear for his soul made Samuel a credible accuser in the eyes of the populace, “in whose breasts a sentiment of abhorrence was universally awakened … and the feelings of the multitude burst forth into invective.” Yikes.
While the gendarmes moved to protect Simmonds from the possible wrath of his neighbors, and Hardwicke received a last-minute pardon,* Samuel commenced the inadvertently superlative finishing act of his persuasive performance.
at length the signal was given, and the cart drove from under him; but by the concussion the suspending cord was separated about the centre, and the culprit fell to the ground, on which he remained motionless with his face downwards. The cart returned, and the criminal was supported on each side until another rope was applied in lieu of the former: he was again launched off, but the line unrove, and, continued to flip until the legs of the sufferer trailed along the ground, the body being only half suspended.
All that beheld were also moved at his protracted sufferings; nor did some hesitate to declare that the invisible hand of Providence was at work in the behalf of him who had revealed the circumstances above related. To every appearance lifeless, the body was now raised, and supported on men’s shoulders, while the executioner prepared anew the work of death. The body was gently lowered, but when left alone, again fell prostrate to the earth, this rope having also snapped short, close to the neck.
Compassion could no longer bear restraint; winged with humanity, the Provost Marshal sped to His EXCELLENCY‘S presence, in which the success of his mission overcame him; A Reprieve was announced — and if Mercy be a fault, it is the dearest attribute of GOD, and surely in Heaven it may find extenuation!
Samuells when the Provost Marshal arrived with the tidings which diffused gladness throughout every heart, was incapable of participating in the general satisfaction. By what he had endured his reasonable faculties were totally impaired; and when his nerves recovered somewhat from their feebleness, he uttered many incoherences, and was alone ignorant of what had past. Surgical assistance has since restored him; And MAY THE GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE OF THESE EVENTS DIRECT HIS FUTURE COURSES!
In 1806, Samuel made an escape attempt with some other convicts by boat. It was swept away in a tempest, with all presumed lost at sea.
* A number of sources claim that Hardwicke did hang successfully while Samuel’s rope repeatedly broke. We think the eyewitness newspaper report days after the execution to the effect that Hardwicke was reprieved is by far the more credible report.
“A youth of about twenty-one, weak, sickly, with a stiff right arm,” Jason had a thing for 18-year-old “neighbor” (they lived more than a mile apart) Elizabeth Fales and she for him, but the Fales family opposed the romance.
So one day in May 1801, Fairbanks “told two of his friends, that he should meet [Fales] in the pasture on Monday, and endeavour to induce her to go off with him, and marry him; and that if she refused to do so he would attempt her chastity.”*
Evidently she just wasn’t that into him, because later that day of their rendezvous, Jason weirdly showed up at the Fales house covered in blood with a cock-and-bull story about how Eliza had committed suicide and he, Jason, had tried and failed to follow suit. Jason Fairbanks was indeed seriously injured (he convalesced in his victim’s family’s house), but Eliza’s wounds were the more interesting: her throat was slashed — she was still breathing faintly through her gashed windpipe when found — and she had stab wounds in her arms and between her shoulder blades.
It’s an atypical suicide who stabs herself in the back.
There was, of course, the matter of Fairbanks’s crippled arm (so did he really overpower Eliza?) and his own injuries (so was it a fight, or what?) — sufficient ambiguity for dueling attorneys to spin every manner of hypothetical to account for the maximum or minimum villainy of the suspect.
But when a dude says he’s off to attempt the chastity of a virtuous young woman and she emerges from the encounter with a stab in the back and a slash through the throat, he’s going to have a hard time repelling the charge. Fairbanks was easily convicted of murder on August 8.
Nine days later, or rather nights, this young-love tragedy took an even more amazing turn: Fairbanks’s friends broke him out of prison. Newspapers all over America were soon raising the hue and cry
STOP THE MURDERER
1000 Dollars Reward
The absconding of Jason Fairbanks from the jail of Dedham has excited much interest in the breasts of every one who regard the peace of society and the security of life; it will be the duty of the citizens of the United States to exert themselves in securing the condemned criminal without pecuniary reward, but as that may be the means of stimulating many who would otherwise be inactive, a large gratuity is now offered. Every newspaper printed in the U.S. it is hoped will publish the advertisement of the Sheriff … and by other means extend the hue and cry against him. (Quoted here)
Despite the bulletins, Fairbanks made it all the way to Whitehall on the southern tip of Lake Champlain, where a hired boat waited to carry him to freedom in Canada. Instead of boarding ASAP, Fairbanks and his escort paused for a parting breakfast on the very morning of the prospective embarkation — it’s the most important meal of the day, you know — and the fugitive was there apprehended addressing his table, steps away from safety.
* 1801 murder pamphlet, “A Correct and Concise Account of the Interesting Trial of Jason Fairbanks”
** We couldn’t help but enjoy this explanation for the murder published in the Philadelphia Gazette of the United States as part of an unsigned “Letter from Dedham”: “Fairbanks had been seduced previous to his becoming a murderer, by some European travellers; and joined with a society of Jacobin Deists, who held their meetings in this town. Among other of their tenets, they avowed that a rigid observance of chastity in man or woman was ridiculous; being contrary to natural impulse.” Dedham was to Federalists of 1801 sort of what San Francisco is to the present-day Tea Party, thanks in large measure to a ridiculous case recently charging a so-called “Jacobin” under the ridiculous Alien and Sedition Acts; there was an abortive attempt in the Federalist press to ascribe Fairbanks’s jailbreak to a revolutionary mob.
This killer’s strange m.o. was to entice young women with the promise of divining their fortune in a magic mirror.
His victims were two young women unwise enough to accede to his request to bind their hands on the pretext that the wrong gesture would ruin the spell. With such lamblike naivete, what could Bichel do but clobber the poor maids over the head, strip them down, and butcher them still-living — slicing open their bowels, and cracking their breastbones open with a wedge.
Torture having recently been outlawed with the Napoleonic conquest, Bichel was pressured into coming clean by the novel expedient of moving his questioning ever-closer to the scenes of his crimes — to the Regendorf town hall, at first, and thence to his own home where the two exhumed bodies were stretched out before him.
Visibly affected, Bichel admitted all.
“I opened her breast and with a knife cut through the fleshy parts of the body,” Bichel said. “Then I arranged the body as a butcher does beef, and hacked it with an axe into pieces of a size to fit the hole which I had dug up in the mountain for burying it. I may say that while opening the body I was so greedy that I trembled, and could have cut out a piece and eaten it.”
It was not cannibalism but cupidity that cut Bichel’s spree short: he was foolish enough to sell the women’s distinctive stolen clothes. (An occasional petty thief before he turned Ripper, Bichel said he’d been seduced into homicide by the fine clothes of his first victim.)
The sentence of breaking on the wheel from the feet upwards, which had been pronounced in accordance with the laws still in force, was commuted to beheading. This was done, not for the sake of sparing the criminal, whose crimes deserved the extremest punishment, but out of regard to the moral dignity of the state, which ought not, as it were, to vie with a murderer in cruelty.
On this date in 1804, two known as John Setton/Sutton and James May were hanged at Greenville, Mississippi.
They were, in fact, Wiley “Little” Harpe and his outlaw partner Peter Alston — the survivors (well, up until then) of a notorious gang of Mississippi River pirates and frontier highwaymen.
Their villainous coterie had plagued the Mississippi (river) and the proximate byways from Kentucky down to Mississippi (state), making a couple of spots on the great river legendary pirate hideouts in the process.
With a price on the head of the notorious leader Samuel Mason, “Sutton” and “May” coldly murdered their captain to turn in his head for the reward.
They got their reward alright. They were recognized as Mason’s own fellow-bandits, and themselves put on trial for piracy.
The Harpe Brothers
This date’s hanging was not only the end of the Mason gang — it was the end of the Harpe Brothers.
Micajah Harpe (“Big Harpe”) and Wiley Harpe were brothers or cousins who cut a bloody swathe through the early American Republic, such that some have acclaimed the Harpes that young nation’s first serial killers. They were, in one historian’s words, “the most brutal monsters of the human race.”
Heading west out of North Carolina after Revolutionary War service as Tory irregulars, the Harpes made for Knoxville, Tennessee, kidnapping wives for themselves along the way. When they were rousted out of their cabin on accusations of livestock-rustling in 1797, their notorious careers really began in earnest.
This was, then, the extreme western frontier of the United States, and the Harpes were consequently able to plunder in wilderness impunity.
Big Harp confessed before dying in 1798 to 20 murders, probably not counting the babies. Estimates are as high as 40, but usually around 30. After two killings, one in Knox County and one on the Wilderness Trail, the Harps left Tennessee in December 1798 for Kentucky, where they killed two traveling men from Maryland…
The final stretch of slaughter took place soon after this, in July 1798, when the Harps returned to Eastern Tennessee. The victims included a farmer named Bradbury; a man named Hardin; a boy named Coffey; William Ballard, who was cut open, filled with stones, and dumped in the Holston River; James Brassel, with his throat ripped apart on Brassel’s Knob; John Tully, father of eight. On the Marrowbone Creek in south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son, out planting crops, had their heads axed. Moving toward Logan County, the Harps came upon a little girl, whom they killed, as they did a young slave on his way to the mill. Once in Logan County, near today’s Adairville, near the Whippoorwill River, they butchered an entire migrating family asleep in their camp, but for one son who survived. (Source)
TruTV also has an account of them sending a hijacked flatboat passenger over a cliff, and bashing a little girl’s head in against the side of a bridge.
“They murdered all classes and sexes, without distinction,” a Knoxville man* recounted years later, “not for plunder but for the love of shedding human blood.” We don’t have Little Harpe’s conscience on the record, but Big Harpe would only express remorse for one of his dozens of homicides: smashing his own infant child against a tree to make it stop crying.
That sentiment would come at the end, when Big Harpe had been cornered by a posse after murdering a frontier woman. The widower in that posse halved the Harpe menace by hewing Big Harpe’s head from his shoulders.
For generations after the subsequent roosting-spot of this deathly visage — presented to a justice of the peace to verify the man’s death (and pocket the price on his literal head), then hung up for public display by the intersection of Morgenfield, Henderson, and Maidensville Roads in Union County — was known as Harpe’s Head.
Little Harpe’s subsequent career with Sam Mason and his own violent demise capped the Harpe brothers’ nefarious legacy.
Their name was so infamous that many of their family changed it … including, according to rumor, the ancestors of legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp.
* J.W.M. Breazeale was part of the posse that hunted down Big Harpe, and a witness to Big Harpe’s death, and gives the outlaw the (possibly tall-tale) last words directed to his slaughterer in mid-beheading: “You are a God damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.”
On this date in 1801, 73-year-old James Legg(e) was hanged for murdering his mate William Lamb(e) at Chelsea Hospital.
Both men were pensioned ensigns from His Majesty’s service. According to the trial transcript, Legg was sinking into obvious depression. A nurse of long acquaintance remarked on
a lowness, a melancholy and deranged state; knowing him so long, I took the opportunity of asking him what was the matter with him, and the reason of his melancholy; he told me his mind was confused; that he had no rest night or day; that he was hurried from place to place, and could not tell what he was doing; and I really was afraid he would make away with himself; I was always unhappy when he was out of my sight, for fear he should do himself an injury; I never mentioned it to the doctor, because he was harmless … sometimes when I spoke to him, he would start like a person surprized out of a sleep; sometimes he would give me an answer, and sometimes only just a bow; I still observed that lowness and melancholy, and that his head was always confused down to the time of this unfortunate event.
Ah. The “unfortunate event.” Legg took it to mind that Lamb was “a tyrannical tempered man” who gave him “repeated insults” and challenged him to a duel. (Lamb’s widow, the only witness to the murder, said her husband had no beef with his killer.)
When Lamb quizzically (or scornfully) discarded the pistol that the irate Legg had forced into his hand, Legg just shot him dead.
He probably had no expectation that he’d just punched his ticket to artistic immortality.
It was a natural outgrowth of Europe’s long fascination with anatomical accuracy — a fascination that made liberal use of executed bodies.
Despite the centrality of Christ’s crucifixion to western culture, nobody had seen an actual crucifixion — not for centuries. So, sure, you can make the guy on the cross look like a proportioned, three-dimensional human being …
… but is this really what a proportioned, three-dimensional human being would look like when nailed to a cross?
That Chelsea surgeon Carpue and his artist friends had the best way to find out. (Well … the second-best.)
“A building was erected near the place of the execution; a cross provided,” Carpue recorded. After hanging, “the subject was nailed on the cross; the cross suspended … the body, being warm, fell into the position that a dead body must fall into … When cool, a cast was made, under the direction of Mr. Banks, and when the mob was dispersed it was removed to my theatre.” West supposedly exclaimed that he had “never before seen the human hand” until he saw James Legg’s nailed and stretched.
Carpue proceeded to flay the cadaver and make a second cast from the grisly skin-less ecorche … an artistic/anatomical practice of the age whose best-known product is Smugglerius, also cast from a hanged man.
On this date in 1804, royalist counterrevolutionary Georges Cadoudal was guillotined in Paris with eleven of his chouan brothers-in-arms.
Cadoudal (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed French) was the French Revolution’s ultimate antagonist, a Breton notary (and commoner, obviously) who obstinately resisted the bloody progress of those years to the last of his strength.
His decade of royalist adventures (French) reads* like an adventure novel, a mind-bogglingly perilous series of revolts, captures, escapes, rappelling, martial exploits, diplomatic intrigue, terrorist plotting, high principles, low politics … a desperately heroic (or anti-heroic) struggle using every resource of a changing world to claw back the lost age of Bourbons.
After that dynasty’s last (up until then) king was guillotined in 1793, the intrepid Cadoudal staked his life to the 1793 Vendee rising, mounted an insurrection at Brest, and became one of the principal leaders of the anti-revolutionary Chouannerie fighting les bleus around northwest France through the 1790s.
Beaten but not bowed, Cadoudal took refuge in England when those campaigns came to grief following the royalist debacle at Quiberon, but he was never one to retire to the exile social circuit. Cadoudal remained an active schemer against the France of a rising Napoleon Bonaparte, and he was backed now by Britain’s statecraft … and her gold.
Spurning a proffered arrangement with the Corsican — who, say what one will, could recognize ability when he saw it — Cadoudal instead oversaw a dramatic 1800 assassination attempt on Napoleon that didn’t get the dictator but blew a bunch of Parisian bystanders to smithereens.
This effort having failed, our persistent intriguer slipped back into France to attempt an even bolder venture to kidnap Napoleon and elevate the Duke of Enghien — the going Bourbon candidate, who lurked on the French frontier to rush into the power vacuum.
This didn’t work either. As outlandish as the idea seems with benefit of hindsight, it was hardly a crackpot plan — as attested by the credentials of its participants.
“All Europe laughs at the conspiracy in Paris; it was, however, a well-built machine. Men, money, everything was ready. Bonaparte was to be taken alive and carried out like lightning from one post to the sea and the English fleet … I am inconsolable that it missed its mark. Those who criticize the French princes that they do not risk themselves while others fight for them, they will be the first to cry: What madness! How childish! [that d'Enghien risked himself] That is how men are made.”
Which is a long way of saying that it still comes down to wins and losses.
Having lost, the Bourbon pretender (he’s a pretender because he lost, of course) d’Enghien was arrested and immediately shot for his trouble; Cadoudal, taken on the streets of Paris,** was around long enough to see the hated Bonaparte take sufficient warning from the conspiracies against him to vest his governance in the imperial dignity. That was proclaimed on May 18. (The famous coronation wasn’t until December.)
“We have done better than we hoped,” the doomed Cadoudal remarked caustically from his dungeon. “We intended to give France a king, and we have given her an emperor.”
He was rock-ribbed in his royalism to the very last.
He’d met Napoleon face to face years before in an abortive parley — when Cadoudal was offered, and rejected, the bribe of a lucrative Republican military commission — and now Cadoudal’s proposed victim let it be known to him that mercy was his for the asking. The indignant Breton scorned as dishonorable the very idea of supplicating Napoleon, even when the invitation was refreshed as he underwent the fatal toilette on his final day. His dozen-strong party went to their deaths this date taking heart from following the very footsteps of their martyred king.
The Execution of Georges Cadoudal, by Armand de Polignac … who portrayed several scenes of the conspirators.
A very lovely mausoleum in his native village of Kerleano preserves Cadoudal’s remains (reburied honorably there after his Bourbon Restoration finally came to pass), and his memory.
On this date in 1801, a Jacobin chemist was wrongly executed for Royalists’ plot against Napoleon.
Our scene is France, the year following Napoleon’s coup of 18th Brumaire (November 9, 1799 on the stodgy old Gregorian calendar). Marx’s “first time as tragedy”* saw the Corsican achieve monarch-esque power, and the months ensuing saw a plethora of plots against him.
The ranks of aggrieved potential assassins included both Jacobins, incensed at the military dictatorship, and Bourbons, incensed that it wasn’t their dictatorship — in both cases exacerbated by Napoleon’s decisive battlefield triumphs which consolidated his hold on power.
On Christmas Eve 1800, the man on horseback was a man in a carriage, careening through Paris to catch a performance of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation.
When, all of a sudden, a gigantic explosion on the Rue Saint-Nicaise attempted to un-create the First Consul. It failed, exploding after Napoleon had passed and before Josephine’s family followed, “merely” killing and maiming fifty-some miscellaneous Parisian bystanders instead.
shocked with the wild atrocity of such a reckless plot, became, while they execrated the perpetrators, attached in proportion to the object of their cruelty. A disappointed conspiracy always adds strength to the government against which it is directed; and Buonaparte did not fail to push this advantage to the uttermost.
This “Infernal Machine” had actually been built by disgruntled monarchists at the instigation of intriguer Georges Cadoudal, as was swiftly discerned by Napoleon’s Minister of Police, the ruthless ex-revolutionary Joseph Fouche.
Realpolitik exigencies — Napoleon was trying (unsuccessfully) to reach political terms with the royalist faction — instead drove a rush to pin the detonation on the Jacobins.
Who, it should be said, made themselves the primary suspects by virtue of the fact that they’d also been trying to blow up Napoleon. Chevalier had been arrested a couple of months before when a bomb of his, evidently an experiment for a similar Jacobin plot, loudly blew up near Salpetriere.
Four other Jacobins followed Chevalier to death later in January (and two royalists actually involved in the bomb got the same treatment). Some 130 other prominent Jacobins (French link) were expelled on Napoleon’s say-so — no legislative consultation — to the empire’s far-flung colonies, pretty much putting the remains of the long-supine revolutionary left permanently out of the picture as a political force.
Over the course of 1802, Leclerc made headway towards accomplishing just that, as much with carrots as with sticks.
Maurepas was one of the Haitian commanders tasked by Toussaint L’Ouverture with defending Saint-Domingue, in his case, Port-de-Paix. Faced with a French landing, Maurepas burned the town to the ground and withdrew for an effective guerrilla resistance in the mountains.
But he eventually came to terms with the French, as did other Haitian officers, L’Ouverture included — reintegrating forces back with the French on the understanding that all that liberte, egalite, fraternite stuff would at least extend as far as not reintroducing slavery.
The French had other plans for their lucrative once-and-future colony, and when the Haitians caught wind of them, trouble resumed — now under the leadership (since the French had sagely deported L’Ouverture) of Jean-Jacques Dessalines.**
Leclerc had the, er, “fortune” of succumbing to yellow fever shortly after Dessalines’ promising revolt got underway; he was succeeded by the brutal Rochambeau, who threw away the carrots and relied on naked violence to control the island. (Again, not uncharacteristic of Napoleonic conquests.)
Maurepas had not actually gone over to Dessalines, but the fact that he was a black Haitian general was reason enough for his white French superior officer to arrest him preventively. Immediately upon assuming command, Rochambeau made an example of Maurepas.
The sea off the Cape was chosen to be the theatre of an execution, unparalleled in what is called civilized life. For fear that Maurepas, who had gained distinction under Toussaint L’Ouverture, after having embraced the side of France, should join the insurgents, Leclerc had written to him to come by sea, with his family and his troop, to take the command of the Cape, which he destined for him as a reward for his services. No sooner had he arrived than he and his soldiers were seized and disarmed. Rochambeau ordered preparations to be made for a barbarous punishment in order to put the negro general to death, with his troop, consisting of 400 blacks. It was also put in deliberation whether death should be inflicted on his children, in order to prevent them from rising up to avenge their father.
After having been bound to the mast of a vessel, Maurepas was frightfully insulted. His wife, his children, and his soldiers were brought to be drowned under his eyes. The executioners were astounded when they beheld a father fix his dying eyes by turns on his children, his wife, and his companions in arms, undergoing a violent death; while they, on their part, turned their eyes away from a father, a husband, a general, whose countenance was disfigured by the tortures he was enduring. After being made to contemplate each other’s sufferings, they were all tossed into the ocean. They died without complaining in a manner worthy the champions of liberty. With a reversal of the order of nature, the father died last; he also suffered most.
Thus died Maurepas, whose character was a compound of frankness and severity. Thrice had he repulsed the French at the gorge of Trois-Rivières; he had at once the glory and the misfortune to go over to the French with victorious arms. The elevation of his soul equalled his valor. He preserved a tender feeling for the master whose slave he had been; he caused funeral honors to be paid to that master, and when his grave had been negligently prepared, he threw off his upper garment in order to perform the pious office properly. Among men of his own blood he was a powerful chief. A spirit of order and justice prevailed in his life. His riches, which were considerable, were given up to pillage. It would almost seem as if so much excellence were subjected to so much ignominy, expressly to show that while black men are capable of any virtue, white men are capable of any crime. Certainly, my narrative is replete with instances which, beyond a question, prove that moral as well as mental excellence is independent of the varieties of color.
This brutal punishment, preceded by vile perfidy, filled the camps of the insurgents with horror. That horror was augmented when Rochambeau, at the Cape, put to death five hundred prisoners. On the place of execution, and under the eyes of the victims, they dug a large hole for their grave, so that the poor wretches may be said to have been present at their own funeral.
Far from cowing the rebels into submission, this savagery fired more ferocious resistance from men, women, and children who now perceived that their race subjected them to wholesale and arbitrary cruelty that no display of loyalty could overcome.
A terrible retribution was determined upon. Dessalines erected 500 gibbets, and hanged half a regiment of French that he had captured by a bold countermarch. A war of extermination followed, and in December, 1803, aided by an English squadron, the French were compelled to evacuate the island.
January 1, 1804 is Haiti’s Independence Day.
* By way of marriage to Napoleon’s sister Pauline. Pauline enjoyed the Saint-Domingue adventure more than did her spouse; she sported with lovers and balked at returning to France. “Here,” she noted, “I reign like Josephine; I hold first place.”
This character is the subject of a recent biography.
** After expelling the French and becoming the first ruler of independent Haiti, Dessalines took a page from Napoleon’s own playbook and crowned himself Emperor.
On this date in 1803, Irish revolutionary Thomas Russell was hanged at Ireland’s Downpatrick Gaol.
Russell was such a republican original gangster that as a young junior officer in the British army in the late 1780s, he refused to eat sugar because it was the product of the empire’s slave plantations. (Hardly a bygone issue.) And while his own family was Anglican, Russell was also a staunch supporter of the then-radical (to Anglicans) position of Catholic equality.
For Russell, this personal stuff was all most intently political. And his politics in no way ended with the dumbwaiter.
After leaving the army, he fell in with Irish separatists and in 1795 co-founded the United Irishmen movement, along with a lot of other guys who would wind up in these executioners’ annals. He joined Henry Joy McCracken, Wolfe Tone, and Samuel Neilson in a convocation of Celtic martyrs atop Belfast’s Cave Hill to pledge one another “never to desist in our effort until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence.”
Subversion was Russell’s game for the remaining years of his life; his Letter to the People of Ireland unveils a Tom Paine-like vision of a revolutionary world — a world that the ancien regime would remain violently vigilant against in the wake of the recent French example. Like many of the most dazzling egalitarian dreams of that insurrectionary moment at the end of the 18th century, it’s still never been realized.
Great pains have been taken to prevent the mass of mankind from interfering in political pursuits; force, and argument, and wit, and ridicule, and invective, have been used by the governing party, and with such success, that any of the lower, or even middle rank of society who engage in politics, have been, and are, considered not only as ridiculous but in some degree culpable … Those insolent enslavers of the human race, who wish to fetter the minds as well as the body, exclaim to the poor, ‘mind your looms, and your spades and ploughs; have you not the means of subsistence; can you not earn your bread … leave the government to wiser heads and to people who understand it, and interfere no more!’
-Russell, Letter to the People of Ireland
Russell actually spent most of his final decade imprisoned without trial while tragic Irish insurrections came and went. England finally released him to Hamburg in 1802, and as might be expected, Russell was so itchy by then to get back in the scrap that he immediately broke his parole to return to Ireland for the next available rising.
And as also might be expected, he showed more haste than discrimination in his project. Hey, he did vow “never to desist.”
He joined up with Robert Emmet‘s rebellion — another doomed patriot; Russell was his designated organizer of the north — but found little success canvassing for potential rebels and took the field on July 23, 1803 in a gesture of little more than hopeless romanticism. His band fell apart and fled without a shot fired.
Memorial plaque in Downpatrick commemorating Russell’s execution. (cc) image from Ardfern.
The British did what the British always did and hunted down the Irish rebel, while the Irish did what the Irish always did and stuffed his remains in a ballad.* It’s called “The Man from God Knows Where” — and God knows, two centuries later, where that man has gone.
Whiles I said “Please God” to his dying hope
And “Amen” to his dying prayer,
That the Wrong would cease and the Right prevail.
For the man that they hanged at Downpatrick Jail
Was the Man from God-knows-where!
Peter Linebaugh, author of the indispensable scaffold social history The London Hanged, surveyed Russell’s life and times on the occasion of his 200th death-day here
* Russell tried his own hand at verse, and some Jacobin lines in his hand helped to hang him, e.g.
Proud Bishops next we will translate
Among priest-crafted martyrs;
The guillotine on Peers shall wait,
And Knights we’ll hang in garters;
These Despots long have trod us down,
And Judges are their engines;
These wretched minions of a crown
Demand a people’s vengeance.