1817: Gertrudis Bocanegra, Mexican independence heroine

1 comment October 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1817, Mexican War of Independence heroine Gertrudis Bocanegra was publicly shot in her native town of Pátzcuaro for treason.

Bocanegra (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), a literate Enlightenment woman was already 45 years old when the rebellion against the Spanish empire broke out.

Her husband and son joined Hidalgo‘s forces, in which service they would lay down their own lives.

Gertrudis Bocanegra kept a safe house, gathered supplies and money, shuttled messages … until Spanish authorities arrested her in 1817 and tortured her for information. (Need one even ask if the noble Bocanegra informed on her compatriots?)

She’s known as La Heroína de Pátzcuaro and is the namesake for, among other things, a plaza in that city and the striking Biblioteca Gertrudis Bocanegra, where one can find this:


(cc) image from eperales depicts Juan O’Gorman‘s monumental Historia de Michoacan. We’ve seen this monument before, as it depicts the Spanish burning to death the last native Tarasco ruler.

Bocanegra’s own execution is also shown in the mural — in the lower right, obscured by the bookshelves in the photograph above, but captured in detail in this Spanish blog post.

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1817: The Pentrich Rebellion leaders

3 comments November 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1817, Jeremiah Brandreth, William Turner, and Isaac Ludlum or Ludlam were hanged and posthumously beheaded for the Pentrich Revolution or Pentrich Rising.


Retrace the “revolution” on a walking trail (pdf). Scenic!

The executions this day were an ugly consequence of government vigilance against subversives after the Napoleonic Wars.

There was plenty of “subversion” to spark vigilance: economic realignments of the early Industrial Revolution pushed workers into untenable positions, and a political system overgrown with archaic privileges and undemocratic veto points could not respond pending desperately needed reform.

Political Hampden clubs interested in parliamentary reform had cropped up all over England. The government viewed them as potential Robespierres.

So not only the Pentrich rising’s suppression but the rising itself were the product of the state security apparatus. A government spy named William Oliver, in the employ of Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth, infiltrated himself into radical circles in the Derbyshire village, and convinced the real radicals that nationwide protests were planned for June 9.

Expecting sympathetic labor actions in London and elsewhere, a few dozen Pentrich men assembled themselves — alone in the nation, drenched in a downpouring rain. They marched towards Nottingham, killed a man along the way, dissolved pathetically and were rounded up by soldiers in the days ahead. Forty-five stood trial for treason: three doomed to die this day, others sentenced to jail terms or transportation. It was a warning shot against airing grievances, a harbinger of more infamous top-down violence to come.


These hangings and the throwback chopping-off-heads bit succeeded by just a few hours the sudden death of the young Princess Charlotte, a sort of Princess Di moment for the Hanoverians.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, who knew from scaffold bathos, produced for the occasion a meditation on the contrasting characters of their deaths, and the incommensurate public mourning reserved for privileged royalty as against suffering subjects.

The execution of Brandreth, Ludlam, and Turner, is an event of quite a different character from the death of the Princess Charlotte. These men were shut up in a horrible dungeon, for many months, with the fear of a hideous death and of everlasting hell thrust before their eyes; and at last were brought to the scaffold and hung. They too had domestic affections, and were remarkable for the exercise of private virtues. Perhaps their low station permitted the growth of those affections in a degree not consistent with a more exalted rank. They had sons, and brothers, and sisters, and fathers, who loved them, it should seem, more than the Princess Charlotte could be loved by those whom the regulations of her rank had held in perpetual estrangement from her. Her husband was to her as father, mother, and brethren. Ludlam and Turner were men of mature years, and the affections were ripened and strengthened within them. What those sufferers felt shall not be said. But what must have been the lone and various agony of their kindred may be inferred from Edward Turner, who, when he saw his brother dragged along upon the hurdle, shrieked horribly and fell in a fit, and was carried away like a corpse by two men. How fearful must have been their agony, sitting in solitude on that day when the tempestuous voice of horror from the crowd, told them that the head so dear to them was severed from the body! Yes—they listened to the maddening shriek which burst from the multitude: they heard the rush of ten thousand terror-stricken feet, the groans and the hootings which told them that the mangled and distorted head was then lifted into the air. … When man sheds the blood of man, revenge, and hatred, and a long train of executions, and assassinations, and proscriptions, is perpetuated to remotest time. … Their death, by hanging and beheading, and the circumstances of which it is the characteristic and the consequence, constitute a calamity such as the English nation ought to mourn with an unassuageable grief. …

On the 7th of November, Brandreth, Turner, and Ludlam ascended the scaffold. We feel for Brandreth the less, because it seems he killed a man. But recollect who instigated him to the proceedings which led to murder. On the word of a dying man, Brandreth tells us, that “OLIVER brought him to this”—that, “but for OLIVER, he would not have been there.” See, too, Ludlam and Turner, with their sons and brothers, and sisters, how they kneel together in a dreadful agony of prayer. Hell is before their eyes, and they shudder and feel sick with fear, lest some unrepented or some wilful sin should seal their doom in everlasting fire. With that dreadful penalty before their eyes—with that tremendous sanction for the truth of all he spoke, Turner exclaimed loudly and distinctly, while the executioner was putting the rope round his neck, “THIS IS ALL OLIVER AND THE GOVERNMENT.” What more he might have said we know not, because the chaplain prevented any further observations. Troops of horse, with keen and glittering swords, hemmed in the multitudes collected to witness this abominable exhibition. “When the stroke of the axe was heard, there was a burst of horror from the crowd. The instant the head was exhibited, there was a tremendous shriek set up, and the multitude ran violently in all directions, as if under the impulse of sudden frenzy. Those who resumed their stations, groaned and hooted.” It is a national calamity, that we endure men to rule over us, who sanction for whatever ends a conspiracy which is to arrive at its purpose through such a frightful pouring forth of human blood and agony. But when that purpose is to trample upon our rights and liberties for ever, to present to us the alternatives of anarchy and oppression, and triumph when the astonished nation accepts the latter at their hands, to maintain a vast standing army, and add, year by year, to a public debt, which, already, they know, cannot be discharged; and which, when the delusion that supports it fails, will produce as much misery and confusion through all classes of society as it has continued to produce of famine and degradation to the undefended poor; to imprison and calumniate those who may offend them, at will; when this, if not the purpose, is the effect of that conspiracy, how ought we not to mourn?

Mourn then People of England. Clothe yourselves in solemn black. Let the bells be tolled. Think of mortality and change. Shroud yourselves in solitude and the gloom of sacred sorrow. Spare no symbol of universal grief. Weep-mourn—lament. Fill the great City—fill the boundless fields, with lamentation and the echo of groans. A beautiful Princess is dead:—she who should have been the Queen of her beloved nation, and whose posterity should have ruled it for ever. She loved the domestic affections, and cherished arts which adorn, and valour which defends. She was amiable and would have become wise, but she was young, and in the flower of youth the despoiler came. LIBERTY is dead. Slave! I charge thee disturb not the depth and solemnity of our grief by any meaner sorrow. If One has died who was like her that should have ruled over this land, like Liberty, young, innocent, and lovely, know that the power through which that one perished was God, and that it was a private grief. But man has murdered Liberty, and whilst the life was ebbing from its wound, there descended on the heads and on the hearts of every human thing, the sympathy of an universal blast and curse. Fetters heavier than iron weigh upon us, because they bind our souls. We move about in a dungeon more pestilential than damp and narrow walls, because the earth is its floor and the heavens are its roof. Let us follow the corpse of British Liberty slowly and reverentially to its tomb: and if some glorious Phantom should appear, and make its throne of broken swords and sceptres and royal crowns trampled in the dust, let us say that the Spirit of Liberty has arisen from its grave and left all that was gross and mortal there, and kneel down and worship it as our Queen.

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1817: Three criminals in Rome, as witnessed by Lord Byron

5 comments May 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1817, the day before he left his Roman holiday for Venice, Lord Byron saw three criminals beheaded at the Piazza del Popolo.

He wrote all about it in his correspondence with John Murray.

The day before I left Rome* I saw three robbers** guillotined. The ceremony — including the masqued priests; the half-naked executioners; the bandaged criminals; the black Christ and his banner; the scaffold; the soldiery; the slow procession, and the quick rattle and heavy fall of the axe; the splash of the blood, and the ghastliness of the exposed heads — is altogether more impressive than the vulgar and ungentlemanly dirty ‘new drop’, and dog-like agony of infliction upon the sufferers of the English sentence. Two of these men behaved calmly enough, but the first of the three died with great terror and reluctance, which was very horrible. He would not lie down; then his neck was too large for the aperture, and the priest was obliged to drown his exclamations by still louder exhortations. The head was off before the eye could trace the blow; but from an attempt to draw back the head, notwithstanding it was held forward by the hair, the first head was cut off close to the ears: the other two were taken off more cleanly. It is better than the oriental way, and (I should think) than the axe of our ancestors. The pain seems little; and yet the effect to the spectator, and the preparation to the criminal, are very striking and chilling. The first turned me quite hot and thirsty, and made me shake so that I could hardly hold the opera-glass (I was close, but determined to see, as one should, see every thing, once, with attention); the second and third (which shows how dreadfully soon things grow indifferent), I am ashamed to say, had no effect on me as a horror, though I would have saved them if I could.

– Venice, May 30, 1817

* The date is not stated directly in Byron’s missive, but his movements are known in some detail — for instance, this timeline.

** According to the notes of executioner Mastro Titta, the three criminals “‘decapitati’ al Popolo, per omicidi e grassazioni” this day were Giovanni Francesco Trani, Felice Rocchi and Felice De Simoni.

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1817: Policarpa Salavarrieta, Colombian independence heroine

1 comment November 14th, 2008 Headsman

This morning in 1837, a Colombian seamstress was shot in Bogota for spying on the Spanish forces fighting to quell South America’s Bolivarian independence movements.

Policarpa Salavarrieta — it was the name her brother used for her; her legal given name and origin are romantically lost — was infiltrated into Bogota during the reconquista, when a Spain recovering from Napoleon’s intrusion deployed in force to quash the separatist aspirations of its New World colonies.

It was the day of Simon Bolivar, but Spain had completed its apparent pacification of New Granada* in 1816, and established a stronghold in Bogota. Subversives had to mind their P’s and Q’s.

Although she was a known agitator in the city of Guadas, “La Pola” could slip into Bogota without drawing attention.

There, she used her skills as a domestic to hang around royalist households, sewing up clothes while snooping around, and helping revolutionaries recruit soldiers.

She was arrested when the Spanish busted the network, (the link is in Spanish) and shot publicly with her lover, Alejo Sabarain, and a number** of others — all men, none of them half so well-remembered or beloved as Salavarrieta. She was supposed to have ignored the priests murmuring te deums in her ear on the scaffold in order to exhort the onlookers to resistance.

Over the years to come, she would become an emblematic martyr of independence; just see how many times her theme is visited in this history of Colombian painting (Spanish again). She’s also the only historical (not mythological/allegorical) woman ever used on Colombian currency.

As will be readily surmised, of course, she merits her tribute because the movement in whose service she died soon rallied and carried the day.

* The Spanish territory of New Granada encompassed most of the ice cream of the South American cone.

** Various numbers are given for the day’s total execution count. This site (Spanish) says a total of nine — Policarpa Salavarrieta and eight men, including Alejo Sabarain — and persuasively names all of them.

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