1822: Johan Wilhelm Gebhardt, Junior, slave-slayer

Add comment November 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1822, Johan Wilhelm Gebhardt was executed at the Dutch-founded South African settlement of Paarl. His offense, unusual but not unheard-of in our executioner’s annals: killing his slave.

According to Alex Mountain in An Unsung Heritage: Perspectives on Slavery, the 21-year-old Gebhardt, who managed the farm belonging to his father, Rev. Johan Wilhelm Gebhardt Sr., had ordered a slave named Joris flogged “for not working properly.”

the flogging was done repeatedly by a slave called November who had been warned by Gebhardt, who remained present throughout the torture, that he too would be severely punished if he did not flog Joris properly. The flogging was done with a variety of instruments and from time to time salt and vinegar were rubbed into his wounds.

It was only when Joris lost consciousness that the torture stopped.

Joris died that night.

The western Cape had recently been taken under British management, and these looked with surprising hostility on the murder of Joris. Gebhardt was not suffered to plead to manslaughter in order to escape his fate.

Mountain reproduces a photo of Gebhardt’s gravestone (found “being used as a small bridge across a ditch”) with the lines

Rest in Peace
Unfortunate Youth
Your Career was short
and you were led Astray
Few were the Pleasures of your Life
And many your Sufferings!

There’s no gravestone for Joris, of course.

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1822: General Berton

Add comment October 5th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1822,* General Jean Baptiste Berton (sometimes Breton) was guillotined in Poitiers.

A young junior officer during the French Revolutionary Wars, Breton/Berton scaled the Napoleonic ranks in the early 19th century and was elevated by the Corsican’s own hand to Brigadier General.

Upon Napoleon’s 1815 return from exile Breton rallied to the ex-emperor’s cause but he did not suffer the worst of it after Waterloo, instead scribbling his memoirs in enforced half-pay retirement.

This situation permitted the ex-marechal-de-camp both the time and the liberty to dabble in that era’s rife conspiracies intending the overthrow of the Bourbons — a fact which was exposed by mischance when one of the young cavalrymen he had recruited was killed in an accident with incriminating documents in his pockets. Agents provocateur baited him thereafter into a treasonable and doomed rebellion.

* Some sources give October 6, which was a Sunday. Primary documentation prefers October 5.

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1822: Augustin Joseph Caron, entrapped

Add comment October 1st, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1822, French Lt. Col. Augustin Joseph Caron was shot at Strasbourg as a rebel.

Little is known of his background, but Caron (English Wikipedia entry | French) enlisted in his army during the revolutionary year of 1791 and advanced into command positions under Napoleon. From his later conduct it’s apparent that these years shaped a political passion that would be starkly at odds with the post-Napoleon Bourbon restoration.

As we have noted elsewhere on this site France’s Liberal (often Bonapartist) opposition during these years was urged by the persecution of the monarchist party into conspiracy as the common coin of its politics.

Out of this mire grew both charbonnerie (France’s analogue to the carbonari terrorists who proliferated in Italy) and an overvigilant secret police whose campaigns of entrapment and threat exaggeration did nothing so well as to further obscure the line between mundane opposition and treason.

The strange interplay between these midnight foes would shape the fate of Col. Caron.

Caron’s path to execution begins with the thwarted rising of the Belfort garrison for New Year’s 1822 — a real plot that the government spies were able to squelch. This resulted in a number of executions, by dint of which it has featured in these very pages.

Caron enters this story in its second chapter: a pensioned former officer of known Bonapartist sympathies, Caron was (with another man named Roger) baited by police spies into mounting an attempted raid on Colmar prison where the arrested Belfort conspirators were being held. Officers chosen to play the part were detailed to meet him as “conspirators” and march with him to Colmar, allowing Caron to make compromising “Vive l’Empereur” exhortations along the way, before finally arresting him.

Though Caron himself had been a willing participant who most certainly did intend to raise a mutiny, the ridiculous spectacle of His Majesty’s warriors congratulating themselves for crushing a plot that they themselves controlled from the get-go came to crystallize the Liberal fulminations against abusive use of agents provocateur. As Alan Barrie Spitzer puts it in Old Hatreds and Young Hopes: The French Carbonari against the Bourbon Restoration,

the means employed to net such a minor, and such a vulnerable, agitator gave the critics of the regime and the defenders of other conspirators the opportunity to assimilate all the operations of the political police to this contemptible one. The government was placed on the defensive from the first. It proved difficult to demonstrate the Caron and Roger had initiated the seditious proposals … Two entire squadrons of chasseurs had conducted their brilliant operation to net only the two original suspects. And then there was the abrasive question of who, under what circumstances, shouted out “Vive l’Empereur!” — that is, tempted innocent passersby-into political crime. The original story … described the squadrons as riding through the countryside crying “Vive l’Empereur,” and innocently wondered whether these purveyors of seditious slogans would be arrested along with Caron, their alleged “leader.”

One Liberal deputy sneeringly pictured future French veterans boasting of their service, “I was in those squadrons that rode through the countryside of the Haut-Rhin shouting ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ in order to test the disposition of the inhabitants.” Indeed, what if the dispositions had been otherwise? It had been only a few years since the emperor really had returned from exile and raised a brief civil war; the idea that the military had risked triggering “the insurrection of a town and the massacre of its inhabitants” for no better reason than to compromise an utter nobody blossomed into a gigantic scandal. Caron became France’s metonym for a patsy;* demands to grant Caron leniency and turn the investigation against his persecutors multiplied discomfitingly.

But this was only one of several high-profile trials against anti-Bourbon plotters unfolding in 1822, and the Liberal denunciations against them practically staked the government’s credibility upon their outcome. So the government saw to the outcome it required — by invoking Caron’s military rank to have him transferred out of the civilian justice system and tried by a military tribunal that would be sure to convict him. Just to complete the shambles, the execution was then hurriedly conducted before Caron’s appeal could be brought before the Court of Cassation.

The Journal of the Lower Rhine gives the following details concerning the execution of Colonel Caron: —

Colonel Caron, who was unanimously condemned to death for the crime of embauchage [“hiring” -ed], by the first permanent council of war of this division, the judgment of which was likewise unanimously confirmed by the council of revision, was executed at two o’clock in the afternoon, in the presence of a small detachment of the garrison, and a numerous concourse of people who were attracted by curiosity. The Abbe Schittig zealously administered to him the consolations of religion, which he received with humility, and he died with the courage of a Christian and an old soldier. Caron was alone in a carriage, amidst the retinue which conducted him to the place of execution. At the entrance of the horn-work, called Finkmatt, where the execution took place, he alighted from the carriage without the assistance of the driver. On arriving in front of the 12 men who were to be his executioners, he refused to have his eyes bandaged. With his hat on, he himself gave the signal. Immediately the muskets were fired, and Caron was no more.

London Times, Oct. 10, 1822

He’s buried in Strasbourg, under a slab that reads MORT POUR LA LIBERTE.

* In The Red and The Black, the main character Julien Sorel at one point muses that, should a provocative letter be attributed to his hand, it could make him “the next Colonel Caron at Colmar.”

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1822: Armand Valle, carbonari plotter

Add comment June 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1822, Armand Valle was guillotined in Toulon.

We meet Restoration France in the 1820s under the sway of an Ultra-Royalist ministry — headed, from December 1821, by Jean-Baptiste de Villele. This was the faction whose perspective on the preceding generation’s tectonic events was to roll it all back; their legislative programme would be to restrict the franchise, reassemble great estates, and generally rebuild as much of the ancien regime as could be salvaged from the aftermath of the Tennis Court Oath.

Villele would serve as Louis’s Prime Minister for six and a half years, and he set the tone right away in 1822 by investigating as conspirators virtually any two Jacobins, Bonapartists, or Liberals who clinked glasses.

The man did have reason to fear.

A round of revolutions had rocked Europe in 1820-21; the Italian carbonari in particular certainly spread into France, right down to the name (charbonnerie). And over the preceding decades, each of the royalists’ rival factions had been rudely dispossessed of power in successive violent overturnings of each new social order; each movement nursed its own grievances and spawned true believers ready to spin ahead the cycle of revolutions by intrigue, or munition.

And in 1820 — and this was the proximate reason Villele had ascended to his current place in statecraft — someone had assassinated the heir to the throne, triggering a massive reaction.

Can we pity the secret policeman? Ultra-royalist France had to chase ghosts; the conspiracy against the Orleanists must have seemed omnipresent, yet ever receding as agents provocateur entrapped this or that suspected subversive who turned out to be some embarrassingly minor dissident. At the same time, the security-mad repressive atmosphere of the times — France even went so far as to introduce the death penalty for sacrilege* — tended to channel potentially “normal” political activity into murmured intrigues.

Even as France’s crackdown neatly generated its own self-justifying threat, the cases that it did bring to trial made the martyrs whose sacrifices vindicated the regime’s foes.

We have already met in these pages the Sergeants of La Rochelle, young officers of charbonnerie sympathies. Indeed, France’s citizen army, so recently grande, ran thick with characters who conceived of much worthier polities to exercise their arms for than Bourbon absolutism.

At the end of 1821, a conspiracy for a rising by the Belfort garrison had been suppressed; the liberal deputy (and American Revolution hero) Lafayette was compromised and only narrowly avoided being implicated.**

Just days after the abortive Belfort plot fizzled and with the brass on high alert, our man Armand Valle had the indiscretion to “[entertain] a number of half-pay and retired officers at a tavern at Toulon. After inveighing against the pretensions of the nobles and the growing power of the clergy, he read out to his audience the statutes of the Carbonari.” (Source, which misdates Valle’s subsequent execution) His suspicious superiors had him seized, and soon found half-destroyed documents written in his hand implicating Valle as a carbonarist recruiter.†

Valle perhaps stood a fair chance of beating or minimizing the imputation of treasonable design since the evidence against him was partial and suggestive, and did not point conclusively to an actual plot against the state. But at the court where his barristers attempted to mount such an argument, a martyr-minded Valle overwhelmed all doubts by repeatedly interrupting to rant against the proceedings, the judiciary, the monarchy, and their collusion with France’s enemies. Here, surely, was a man to gratify those frustrating exertions of police spies.

On June 10 before great crowds of the citizens of Toulon, he marched with his escort to the scaffold. That last journey of former captain Valle has been retold in several accounts as a heroic calvary. There is Valle dressed almost foppishly, forbidding women to weep for the demise of his young beauty; asking for a glass to toastt the braves and la patrie; bidding adieu to his country once more on the scaffold as the drum rolls drown out his last words.

This romantic tale is confirmed in the complacent reports of the president of the tribunal at Toulon: Valle takes the glass, he makes the toast, and then, “thrown down on the fatal machine, he tried to address the crowd. The drum roll swallowed up his voice.” (Source)

A decade after Valle’s beheading, fellow-travelers erected a monument to him inscribed, “The Faithful Armand Valle d’Arras, a member of the Legion of Honor, captain of the cavalry of the former Imperial Guard, died June 10, 1822 a martyr of freedom. In gratitude, the patriots of Toulon.” (There’s a photograph of the still-extant obelisk here, part of this French forum post of Toulon markers.)

* It never carried out such a sentence under the Anti-Sacrilege Act prior to that law’s repeal in 1830.

** Lafayette got word of the plot’s failure while en route to the scene, and prudently returned home, destroying whatever was incriminating.

† A Commandant Caron was Valle’s carbonari paymaster, and Valle’s arrest ruined a coup that Caron was planning — helping lead to the latter’s own exposure, arrest, and (later in 1822) execution.

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1822: Hannah Halley, scalding infanticide

Add comment March 26th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1822, Hannah Halley went to the gallows at Derby for murdering her newborn child — by the gruesome expedient of pouring scalding water on it.*

“That it was her intention to destroy the infant was inferred, from her constant denial of the pregnancy,” observed the Derby Mercury (March 27, 1822), building towards indignation, “and from her having made no preparation of baby linen tho’ the child was full grown at the time of its birth.”

On being charged with the intention of murdering the infant by those who first discovered it, she made no answer; and subsequently when asked what incited her to commit such a deed, she replied “it was the devil who caused her to do it.” This is the usual apology assigned for their evil deeds by those who are too ignorant to analyze the real motives of their actions; who are not willing, from self love, to view their conduct in its true light; and who chuse to refer the corrupt habits formed by previous indulgence, to any cause however improbable and groundless, rather than to their own depraved dispositions.

One might perceive other factors in Halley’s desperation than her depravity.

The 31-year-old cotton mill laborer had conceived the child out of wedlock and lacked the means to care for it. Family and workplace constraints converge here, in what sequence one can only guess: Hannah married a man — not the baby’s father — two months before she secretly delivered.

Infanticide cases we have seen on this site frequently involve a pregnant woman far advanced in her term who raises eyebrows by denying the pregnancy all the way to the end; surely this must also be true of some infanticidal mothers who get away with the deed in the end.

In this instance, the husband too denied knowledge of his wife’s pregnancy: he was believed, and was not punished. I cannot document this hypothesis, but I often wonder if individuals who end up executed for infanticide are falling prey as much as anything to their standing among their community. For a woman of little means like Hannah Halley, does it all come down to whether her popularity among her neighbors — or specifically among the other women who shared her lodging-house and decided to report hearing a baby’s cry from her room — is sufficient to induce them tacitly to go along with the cover story? Was her husband’s convenient (and conveniently accepted) denial only produced because the matter unexpectedly went to the courts?

A woman of “feeble frame”, she died with apparent ease and was given over for dissection afterwards. She was the second and last woman hanged outside Friar Gate Gaol, and the second and last Hannah.

And the march of industry that shaped Halley’s working life was also to be found at work in her death. The Mercury once again:

The drop used on the above occasion was constructed by Mr. Bamford, of this town. It is formed principally of wrought iron, and tho’ it has a general resemblance to that previously in use, it has a much lighter appearance. The great advantages of the new drop consist in the facility with which it can be put up, the consequent diminution of expense on every execution, and the decreased annoyance to the neighbourhood. Formerly it was necessary to commence bringing out the heavy timbers of which the old drop was constructed early in the morning, and many hours were required to complete its erection, during which the loud sounds of mallets and hammers rung in the ears and suddened the hearts of the surrounding inhabitants. The new drop can be prepared for use in ten minutes (as we are informed) and taken down in the same time. In fact it is drawn from the wall of which the front of it forms a part, and is supported by iron rods let down upon the ground beneath. Ingenious however as its construction appears, it would be infinitely more consonant to our feelings to report such improved arrangements in prison discipline, and such modifications of the existing criminal code as should render the use of this dreadful instrument of death less familiar to the public mind.

* The nameless child survived four days in what one supposes must have been unbearable pain.

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1822: Francisco Javier de Elio

Add comment September 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Spanish royalist Gen. Francisco Javier de Elio was garroted in Republican Valencia.

Elio (English Wikipedia link | Spanish) was a career Spanish officer noted for being the last Viceroy of the Rio de la Plata in South America.

The Rio de la Plata forms the border between present-day Uruguay and Argentina, and by the time Elio self-proclaimed his viceregal rank, the May Revolution had confined Spanish authority to Uruguay.* He maintained the Spanish monarchy’s power in Montevideo until revolutionaries routed his forces at the Battle of Las Piedras** and Elio had to return to Spain.

This was just in time for the Spanish crown, as that country’s liberals had answered the chaos of the French invasion by promulgating in 1812 one of Europe’s most forward-thinking constitutions. King Ferdinand VII wholly repudiated this constitution upon his re-enthronement at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and this soon led to yet another liberal revolt in 1820† and yet another French invasion.

Elio, who administered Valencia with a rough hand for Ferdinand, was such a ferocious monarchist that revolutionaries took him prisoner in the 1820-1823 “Liberal Triennum”. The attempt by a group of mutinous cannoniers in 1822 to place Elio at their head (with or without the general’s foreknowledge) led to his condemnation by a military court.

The September 26 London Times preserves two accounts by opposing partisans of Elio’s end.

EXECUTION OF GENERAL ELIO

The infamous General Elio has at length suffered the pain of death (by the garotte). His execution took place this morning at 11 o’clock, after having been publicly divested of his rank and honours. The General was not condemned on account of his conduct as Captain General, but in consequence of the revolt of the cannoniers who occupied the fort of Valencia, on the 30th of May. Being tried before an ordinary Court Martial on the 2d of June, at which General Villa-Campa presided, he was on the 27th of August adjudged to the most ignominious death known to the Spanish laws, that of the garotte. This sentence, submitted to the Auditor of War to be revised, was not only approved, but the Auditor demanded its immediate execution, comformably to the martial law of the 17th of April, 1821. The arrival of the Brigadier Espina, who was provisionally invested with the military command of this district was regarded as the signal for the execution. If it had been retarded, we should have broken into the prison, and ourselves have conducted the victim to the scaffold. The people maintained that demeanour which becomes an heroic nation, and accompanied the culprit to the scaffold with shouts of — ‘To death with Elio! his blood will cement the constitutional edifice.’

And a contasting version …

The scaffold on which General Elio was strangled at Valencia, on the 4th instant, was erected close to a delightful garden which belonged to him when he was all-powerful in that town. It appears that this spot was selected in order that his tragical end might be marked by a circumstance which was calculated to make him regret life. One of our journals, which is at all times distinguished for its violence, affirms that General Eio, previously to walking to the scaffold, knelt down and asked pardon of the authorities who were present, for all the mischief he had occasioned — this is wholly false. Above 12,000 persons were witnesses of the firmness which he showed on this sad occasion, and of the last words which he pronounced. The General protested his innocence in the face of God and man; he declared that he had only carried into execution the orders which he had received from the Government during the period of his command; that he was utterly unconnected with the revolt of the cannoniers; and, finally, that he begged of God to pardon his murderers, as he himself forgave them. ‘I wish,’ he added, ‘that my blood may be the last which is shed in Spain. Spain will one day do justice to the purity of my intentions, and repeat the cry which is now my last prayer — ‘”Long live the King and religion.”‘

* When a Spanish colony, Uruguay was known as the Banda Oriental.

** The date of this decisive battle, May 18 (1812), is still kept as a Uruguayan national holiday.

† Guess what happened to the guy who led that 1820 revolt.

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1822: David Lamphier

Add comment November 1st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1822, David Lamphier was hanged for “a deed of unparalleled atrocity” as multiple newspaper reports put it: striking Sadsbury Township constable Samuel W. Smith dead with an ax blow that nearly beheaded the lawman.

Smith had been out to arrest Lamphier in Crawford county near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border for what’s described in the documents as “obtaining goods upon false pretense,” which seems like it could mean a great many possible malfeasances.

Whatever they were, Lamphier’s pretenses to Constable Smith were perfectly plain.

“As I Came to Mr. Campbell’s bars I saw Abel Freeman and one or two other Persons & bid them good evening I Stept over the Bans and walk’d along towards the Porch,” the strapping six-footer said later under interrogation. He had a heavy ax slung over his shoulder. (Not during the interrogation, of course.)

I got along towards the end of the house and saw Mr. Smith the Constable Coming out of the entry partly behind me. I turned Round and spoke to him and said I understand you want to take me tonight but I don’t mean that you Shall. Mr. Smith then step’d up to me I took my ax off my shoulder and I told him to stand back or I would strike him, as he Came up I step’d back a few steps intending to run and get out of his way. As he advanced upon me I made use of my ax I hardly know how, whether with the edge or the head or how, as soon as I made the blow I turned and run but did not know that I injured him untill I saw men coming to my father’s in Ohio with guns and supposed they might be after me.

Lamphier fled into a nearby swamp but gave himself up a few days later. He was shocked to learn that the constable was dead.

Although Lamphier would maintain on the scaffold that he had not intended Smith’s life, but “had given the fatal blow from the suddenness with which Smith had pressed upon him,” the fact that he admitted explicitly warning his Javert not to approach him put the fatal chop squarely into premeditation territory.

Shortly after noon this date, according to Murders, Mysteries and History of Crawford County, Pennsylvania 1800-1956, Lamphier appeared at the Meadville courthouse with a rope about his neck. Escorted by the local militia and fortified by a swig of wine, he walked the mile to the gallows on Baldwin Street, where three or four thousand souls had turned up to see him bravely die (after an hour-long exegesis there on the scaffold by the local minister).

“It is stated that the wretched man manifested the greatest resignation and composure to the last moment of his existence; but whether it was the composure of hardened depravity, the resignation of contrition for past sins, or of despair, it is not necessary for us to decide.” (Baltimore Patriot & Mercantile Advertiser, Nov. 16, 1822; this same story made the rounds of many other papers.)

His friends, less resigned, tried in vain to resuscitate Lamphier when he was cut down after hanging only a survivable twenty minutes.

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1822: Four Sergeants of La Rochelle

2 comments September 21st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1822, four sergeants from La Rochelle were guillotined at the Place de Greve with “Vive la liberte! on their lips for plotting to overthrow the restored Bourbon monarchy.

In the Restoration following Napoleon, the cautious gouty brother of the Revolution’s most famous guillotinee came to the throne as Louis XVIII.

And in a right-wing reaction following a royal assassination, Louis found himself in the anomalous position of having a government more monarchist than he himself. Though not renowned for his sagacity, the sovereign had the wit to see that completely reversing the Revolution was a nonstarter. His ultra-royalist deputies, however, wanted nothing less than the full restoration of an absolute monarchy.

The new Prime Minister cracked down hard on the Liberal opposition. Here’s the scene as described by The Cambridge Modern History, a Google Books freebie:

The Chief Minister [Villele] had the merit of keeping constantly in mind the fact that his friends owed their power to the forces of reaction and alarm, aroused in the country by the dagger of an assassin who had mortally wounded a member of the royal family. To keep this fear awake, in order to establish his authority, was his first care. In this he succeeded. The Liberals, finding themselves compelled to prudence, organized themselves into secret societies; and the Republcians, imitating the Neapolitans, actually formed in 1821 the Charbonnerie francaise, which avowedly aimed at giving back “to the French nation the free exercise of the right to choose its sovereign.” In order to give battle to the ancien regime and its Bourbon protectors, they recruited their soldiers and captains without hesitation from among the officers, commissioned and non-commissioned, of the old Imperial army. Villele showed particular skill in the discovery, exaggeration, and signal punishment of these conspiracies … With a magistracy obedient to its orders, the Ministry devoted itself assiduously to representing isolated movements no sooner known than crushed, as forming part of a permanent conspiracy organized by the Liberals, not only against the monarchy, but against society itself.

Les quatre sergents de La Rochelle — by the names of Bories, Goubin, Pommier and Raoulx — comprised perhaps the most egregious such case.

Driven underground (the link is French) like the rest of the Liberal opposition, they had joined the charbonnerie, a loose network modeled on Naples’ carbonari. (Lower-level officers were prime recruits for the dissidents, since their career prospects were truncated by aristocratic privilege in the upper brass.)

It was never clear that their subversiveness extended to anything beyond their affiliation with a criminalized ideology, and they kept their own peace to protect other associates in the charbonnerie. Guillotining them on this basis conformed neatly to the principles of, say, an Ann Coulter: “We need to execute [these] people … in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.”

Back to The Cambridge Modern History:

It seemed that the Ministers were eager to multiply these trials and executions. Since certain deputies of the Liberal Opposition, Lafayette* among others, and D’Argenson, had openly associated themselves with these enterprises, which otherwise were devoid of danger, this supplied a fair pretext for exhibiting them publicly as criminals. The indictment with the King’s Procurator, Marchangy, formulated, in order to obtain the condemnation of the four sergeants of La Rochelle, left no doubt as to the intentions of the Government. Its chief aim was to terrorise the French people “by this vast conspiracy against social order, against the families of citizens, which threatened to plunge them once more into all the horrors of anarchy.” While keeping up the appearance of saving society, Villele gained forthwith the power to govern it in accordance with the wishes of his friends. The threat of anarchy, exploited by the judges in his service, allowed him to organise a despotism.

The public execution reportedly had its onlookers appalled, (more French) and as word of the young men’s heroic deaths got around, they elbowed into the vast host of (somebody’s) martyrs. (In Balzac’s Human Comedy, the courtesan Aquilina is said to have been involved with one of the four sergeants; in her appearances after the executions, she always commemorates him by wearing something red.) The Lantern Tower in their garrison’s city — depicted below in a 1927 Paul Signac painting — was renamed in their honor, Tour de Quatre Sergents.

* Lafayette always seemed to be somebody’s dangerous element. It’s a wonder he never got himself into this blog.

Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.

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1822: The audacious Denmark Vesey

5 comments July 2nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1822, white South Carolinians hanged the most terrifying slave insurrectionary who never rose — and breathed a sigh of relief as they clamped the shackles ever tighter upon their groaning servile class.

Inspired by slave revolts shaking the Caribbean, the Denmark Vesey plot was the South’s worst nightmare: Nat Turner, multiplied by about nine thousand.

That’s the size of the slave and free black network Vesey is said to have recruited — ready to undertake a coordinated uprising to seize Charleston, slaughter the white populace, and possibly then to sail for a Haiti whose own slave revolt had recently established it a black-governed republic. The mind boggles at such a scheme’s bravado … but in an age when horseshoes and mizzenmasts could outrun information, Vesey’s plot could have been past any prospect of obstruction before anyone in a position to obstruct it even knew what happened. Had they not flown but defended Charleston, the event would have ignited a conflagration to outshine every other slave uprising.

The weak point, of course, were those 9,000 — or however many — slaves who had to act ruthlessly and in unison, and keep their peace until they struck. It is incredible enough that such a secret kept among so many for up to four years.

The plot finally leaked mere days before it was to have been attempted when a middling player attempted the unnecessary freelance recruitment of a house slave — a class Vesey had intentionally (and rightly, events would prove) excluded for dangerously excessive personal loyalty to their masters’ families.*

Melancholy Dane

A well-educated and well-traveled man on account of his years as the personal property of a slaver — Joseph Vesey, who bequeathed his purchase both a surname and the given name Telemaque, subsequently corrupted into “Denmark” by Charlestonians — the plot’s signature hero/villain had managed to purchase his freedom and establish himself in the anomalous position of free black artisan/entrepreneur in the slaveholding South.

His successful carpentry business (apt choice, for a martyr) had given him the prestige and the werewithal to start an independent African Methodist Episcopal church where he poured out a hatred of chattel slavery undiminished by his own liberty.

For several years before he disclosed his intentions to any one, he appears to have been constantly and assiduously engaged in endeavoring to imbitter [sic] the minds of the colored population against the whites. He rendered himself perfectly familiar with those parts of the Scriptures which he could use to show that slavery was contrary to the laws of God; that slaves were bound to attempt their emancipation, however shocking and bloody might be the consequences … (Source)

His judges were later incredulous that he’d be so hung up about it:

It is difficult to imagine, what infatuation could have prompted you to attempt an enterprise so wild and visionary. You were a free man, comely, wealthy, and enjoyed every comfort compatible with your situation. You had, therefore, much to risk and little to gain.

An American Spartacus?

Denmark Vesey blurs into myth as he approaches his end, together with lieutenants: among them, Peter Poyas, the organizational maven of the operation who was hanged along with Vesey and four others; and Gullah Jack, an African priest among the 29 more who would die in the weeks ahead.

Most of the principals held their tongues before interrogators; the tribunals were held secretly; their records were censored against the apprehension by other slaves of the potential for such designs as “a bottle with poison to put into my master’s pump & into as many pumps he could about town.”

But there was enough known to shatter forever any illusion of paternal congeniality more liberal masters might have fancied. One planter was incredulous that his agreeable charge might be involved in such nefarious doings until he asked the man directly and was astonished to hear from his trusted coachman’s lips the frank intention “to kill you, rip open your belly and throw your guts in your face.” (Both quotes are from this book review.)

Whites were scared. “I have never heard in my life, of more deep laid plots or plots more likely to succeed,” wrote Anna Haynes Johnson, niece to Gov. Thomas Bennett. (Source) Another concluded that “our NEGROES are truly the Jacobins of the country.” (Source)

But as initial panic (and federal troop deployments) gave way to a more pervasive undertow of security paranoia, the affair was self-consciously downplayed and records intentionally destroyed for fear that too-careful documentation of its particulars could map the way for a revival. An 1861 piece in The Atlantic — an excellent read on the progress of the conspiracy — grapples with what was even then a gaping evidentiary vacuum.

The intense avidity which at first grasped at every incident of the great insurrectionary plot was succeeded by a distaste for the memory of the tale; and the official reports which told what slaves had once planned and dared have now come to be among the rarest of American historical documents. In 1841, a friend of the writer, then visiting South Carolina, heard from her hostess for the first time the events which are recounted here. On asking to see the reports of the trials, she was cautiously told that the only copy in the house, after being carefully kept for years under lock and key, had been burnt at last, lest it should reach the dangerous eyes of the slaves. The same thing had happened, it was added, in many other families. This partially accounts for the great difficulty now to be found in obtaining a single copy of either publication; and this is why, to the readers of American history, Denmark Vesey and Peter Poyas have been heretofore but the shadows of names.

Antebellum September 11

Even as a nonstarter, the insurrection was an antebellum 9/11 that spurred a reactionary crackdown on perceived liberalities in the system — most vividly symbolized by the construction of the fortress that became the still-extant military academy The Citadel, but more systematically impinging blacks’ everyday freedom to assemble and worship, and even requiring (until the Supreme Court overruled the law) free black sailors be detained whenever a northern ship called at port. Pro-slavery southerners blamed open disapprobation for slavery voiced in Congress during the recent Missouri Compromise wrangling, and even similar sentiments expressed in the British parliament, for emboldening the terrorists.

All this yielded a rich political harvest from the fruit of the gallows — like Charleston mayor James “there is nothing they are bad enough to do, that we are not powerful enough to punish” Hamilton, who rode his timely suppression of the plot to Congress later that year.

Such political profiteering, combined with the sketchiness of primary sources, has licensed a revisionist take on the orthodox history — that there was never any conspiracy, but that reactionary white elites concocted the plot from a tissue of loose liberation talk, false confessions, and latent white fear in order to win political power. This contested minority interpretation has been a recent topic of academic dispute, since Michael P. Johnson floated it in 2001 (an account is required to read Johnson’s original essay; here’s a synoptic article that appeared subsequently in The Nation).

Markers of historiography around these competing versions of Vesey, bearing directly on the question current in today’s Charleston of whether and how to memorialize this episode, are ripe with controversial modern-day implications.

Consider: if Vesey is a rebel indeed, the silence of (most of) the plotters is a noble acceptance of torture to protect their confederates; if they’re framed, they’re silent because there’s nothing to confess. Either way, the modern reader’s sympathies are likely to lie with the blacks, but Johnson’s interpretation removes the locus of action from them to white elites. If he’s right, would that derogate an entire narrative of black resistance to slavery, drain the martyrdom from their deaths? Or would it correct an overstated romantic mythology of armed resistance, and color this day’s hanging with a different heroism: refusing to purchase their lives with a false accusation?

* For his timely betrayal, Peter Desverneys received his liberty and a state pension; he later became a slaveholder himself. See Black Slaveowners.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Infamous,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Notable Sleuthing,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Ripped from the Headlines,Scandal,Slaves,South Carolina,Torture,Treason,USA,Wrongful Executions

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