1836: Pierre François Lacenaire, Manfred of the gutter

Add comment January 9th, 2020 Headsman

The French murderer Pierre François Lacenaire, guillotined on this date in 1836, aspired to be a man of letters … and at least ended up a man in letters.

Lacenaire (English Wikipedia entry | the more considerable French) was a respectable merchants’ son turned ne’er-do-well, dipping in and out of prison after deserting the army in 1829 to wallow in the vices of crime and poetry.

The ensuing years alternate prison stints for various thefts with scrabbling attempts to make a go of it with his quill on the outside that invariably collapse into more thefts. As criminal biographies go, his silverware-robberies and such scarcely leap off the page but his writings in prison flashed even before his homicidal infamy — notably his Villonesque “Petition d’un Voleur a un Roi Voisin” (“Petition of a Thief to his Neighbor, the King”)

Sire, de grâce, écoutez-moi!
Sire, je reviens des galères …
Je suis voleur, vous êtes roi,
Agissons ensemble en bons frères …
Les gens de bien me font horreur,
J’ai le coeur dur et l’âme vile,
Je suis sans pitié, sans honneur,
Ah! faites-moi sergent de ville.

Bon, je me vois déjà sergent,
Mais, sire, c’est bien peu, je pense,
L’appétit me vient en mangeant,
Allons, sire, un peu d’indulgence.
Je suis hargneux comme un roquet,
D’un vieux singe j’ai la malice;
En France, je vaudrais Gisquet,
Faites-moi préfet de police.

Grands dieux! que je suis bon préfet!
Toute prison est trop petite.
Ce métier pourtant n’est pas fait
Pour un homme de mon mérite;
Je sais dévirer un budget,
Je sais embrouiller un registre,
Je signerai “Votre sujet”
Ah! Sire, faites-moi ministre.

Sire! que Votre Majesté
No se mette pas en colére!
Je compte sur votre bonté,
Car ma demande est téméraire.
Je suis hypocrite et vilain,
Ma douceur n’est qu’une grimace;
J’ai fait… se pendre mon cousin,
Sire, cédez-moi votre place.n

Sire, please, listen to me!
Sire, I return from the galleys
I am a thief, you are king,
Let’s act together like brothers …
Good people abhor me,
I have a hard heart and a vile soul,
I am without pity, without honor,
Ah! make me a city sergeant.

Well, I already see myself as a sergeant,
But, sire, it’s very little, I think,
Appetite comes to me while eating,
Come, sire, a little indulgence.
I’m snarling like a pug,
As malicious as a monkey;
In France, I would be worth Gisquet,
Make me the prefect of police.

Great gods! such a good prefect am I!
Any prison is too small.
However, this job is not done
For a man of my merit;
I know how to divert a budget,
I know how to confuse a register,
I will sign myself “Your subject”
Ah! Sire, make me minister.

Sire! that your majesty
Does not anger!
I count on your kindness,
Because my request is reckless.
I’m hypocritical and naughty,
My sweetness is only a grimace;
I made … hang my cousin,
Sire, cede me your place.

His cells, he said, were his “university of crime” although they scarcely turned him into a mastermind. He earned the valedictory hood in December 1834 when with an accomplice named Victor Avril he ax-butchered a transvestite pauper and his mother in Passage du Cheval-Rouge. Lacenaire and Avril had the mistaken belief that the victims were flush with cash.

What he lacked in criminal chops he atoned for in theatrical flair. At the men’s trial in November 1835, Lacenaire made the courtroom the anteroom of a society salon where he delighted fashionable intellectuals, taking “command of the proceedings by confessing all of his crimes in detail and stunned the courtroom with an improvised closing soliloquoy. Rumors circulated that he was to be pardoned after conviction and be made chief of a special branch of police. This sounded much like the familiar case of the bandit, Vidocq. In fact, Lacenaire claimed to have been inspired by Vidocq’s memoirs.”

“I kill a man like I drink a glass of wine,” he exaggeratedly memed to the journalist Jacques Arago — one of numerous philosophical bon mots. (“Whilst I had the capacity to write a play, I had also the capacity to kill. I chose the easiest.” “I love life and its pleasures, but if it ends, what does it matter? The punishment of death? A contradiction in terms: it is no punishment to send a being back again to insensibility and nothingness.”)

He occupied his last weeks producing poems and memoirs that were published after his death but the true success of his performance lay in its echoes through 19th century literature: Baudelaire would call him “one of the heroes of modern life,” and no wonder — in the judgment of Executed Today guest-blogger Henry Brodribb Irving, “no French criminal, except perhaps Cartouche, has left so distinct an impression on the minds of his countrymen.”

Gautier wrote a poem about his hand, which although uncomplimentary also salutes its owner the “Manfred of the gutter”; Balzac made room for this Manfred in La Muse du Departement; Stendahl modeled the brigand Valbayre in Lamiel upon him. Victor Hugo, apparently unimpressed with the guy’s literary pretensions, worked him into Les Miserables as the crowning monster of society’s underbelly, “what is called in theaters a third sub-stage. It is the grave of the depths. It is the cave of the blind.”

The savage outlines which prowl over this grave, half brute, half phantom, have no thought for universal progress, they ignore ideas and words, they have no care but for individual glut. They are almost unconscious, and there is in them a horrible defacement. They have two mothers, both step-mothers, ignorance and misery. They have one guide, want; and their only form of satisfaction is appetite. They are voracious as beasts, that is to say ferocious, not like the tyrant, but like the tiger. From suffering these goblins pass to crime; fated filiation, giddy procreation the logic of darkness. What crawls in the third sub-stage is no longer the stifled demand for the absolute, it is the protest of matter. Man there becomes a dragon. Hunger and thirst are the point of departure: Satan is the point of arrival. From this cave comes Lacenaire.

Nor in the 19th century could a touchstone of French literature remain confined within the Republic’s borders. Oscar Wilde referenced Lacenaire in The Picture of Dorian Gray; and Dostoyevsky mentioned Lacenaire in The Idiot and perhaps modeled the famous axe murder in Crime and Punishment upon the same.

Although his fame has faded somewhat this curious figure remains of interest to more contemporary eyes. Michel Foucault juxtaposed him against the Vidocq — an underworld creature who becomes an agent of law, the opposite of Lacenaire’s path from respectability to gutter — and perhaps captured the man’s appeal to his era’s novelists.

As for Lacenaire, he is the token of another phenomenon, different from but related to the first — that of the aesthetic and literary interest beginning to be felt in crime: the aesthetic cult of crime.

Up to the eighteenth century crimes were only heroised in two modes: a literary mode when, and because, they were the crimes of a king, and a popular mode found in the broadsheets which narrate the exploits of Mandrin, or of a great murderer. Two genres which absolutely do not communicate with each other.

Around 1840 there appears the figure of the criminal hero, a hero because a criminal, and neither aristocratic nor plebeian. The bourgeoisie produces its own criminal heroes. This is the same moment when the separation is effected between criminals and the popular classes: the criminal cannot be allowed to be a popular hero, he must be an enemy of the poor. The bourgeoisie constitutes for itself an aesthetic in which crime no longer belongs to the people, but is one of those fine arts of which the bourgeoisie alone is capable.

Lacenaire is the model for this new kind of criminal. His origins are bourgeois or petit-bourgeois.

His parents have done some bad things, but he has been properly brought up, he has been to school, he can read and write. This enabled him to act the leader in his milieu. The way he speaks of other criminals is typical: they are brutal animals, cowards and incompetents. He, Lacenaire, is the cold, lucid brain. Thus the new hero is created, displaying all the signs and tokens of the bourgeoisie. That brings us in turn to Gaboriau and the detective novel, in which the criminal is always of bourgeois origins. You never find a working class criminal in nineteenth-century detective novels.

Cinemaphiles should look to Lacenaire in the 1945 classic film Les Enfants du Paradis (clip below) as well as a 1990 biopic, Lacenaire.

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1836: Two English poisoners

Add comment April 9th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1836, two different Englishwomen hanged in Gloucester and Liverpool for seeing off their respective husbands with arsenic.

They’re the subjects of an excellent pair of posts by Naomi Clifford, author of such topical-to-Executed Today fare as Women and the Gallows, 1797-1837 and The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime that Changed English Legal History, which concerns the long overdue abolition of juridical trial by combat in Great Britain … after an accused murderer used this artifact to escape prosecution in 1817.

Here’s Clifford on our poisoners, bound for separate gallows on April 9, 1836:

Clifford makes a triptych here with a third post about yet another poisoner who shared the same fate five days later.

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1836: Felipe Santiago Salaverry, President of Peru

1 comment February 18th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1836,* the deposed President of Peru was shot with his comrades by the new Bolivian boss.

The youngest ever to head his country, Felipe Santiago Salaverry (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Spanish) abandoned his studies in 1820 for the romance of soldiery.

He was all of 15.

By age 28, he was a brigadier general, fresh off crushing a bunch of rebels in the 1834 civil war.

He must have decided he could build a better mousetrap, because by 1835 Salaverry was rebelling himself. He chased off President Luis Orbegoso and was cock of the walk in Peru from the spring of 1835 until the first days of 1836.

By then, his exiled predecessor had made common cause with their Andean neighbor, Bolivian strongman Andres de Santa Cruz — who now proceeded to invade into southern Peru, where Orbegoso remained more popular than his usurper.

Salaverry answered with panache, pronouncing “Guerra a Muerte” and going on the offensive by crossing the border to raid Cobija where he pulled down the Bolivian flag and dragged it around. He was cocksure in victory after defeating his enemies at the Battle of Uchumayo (there’s a Salaverry Hill at the location, where a crumbling bust of our man stands trapezoidal sentinel).


The march “El ataque de Uchumayo” was originally dubbed “La Salaverrina”

But three days later, he was routed at Socabaya; his escapes cut off, Salaverry had to surrender his presidency and his person to the discretion of his foes. This outcome merged both states into the short-lived Peru-Bolivian Confederation under Santa Cruz, who now bore the Cromwellian title Supreme Protector. (Orbegoso was relegated to the tributary presidency of North Peru.)

But Salaverry was not around to see all that play out because Santa Cruz had he and eight chief officers condemned to death by a drumhead tribunal. Not a one of them had so many as 35 years; Salaverry was still just 29. They were shot together in Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas before a massive, and hostile, crowd: Arequipa was a stronghold for Orbegoso’s forces, and Salaverry in better times had openly relished the prospect of rewarding his own soldiers by putting it to the sack.

My dear Juana,

Within two hours I will be assassinated by Santa Cruz, and I address to you my final vows. I have loved you as you have loved me, and I carry into eternity the profound sorrow that I have made you so unhappy. I preferred my country’s good to my family’s, and I have been permitted neither. Educate my children, care for them; I put my trust in your wisdom and your talents. Do not lose heart that misfortune is the inseparable companion of mortals. Be as happy as you can, and never forget your dear husband.

-Salaverry’s last letter to his wife

* There are some cites out there for February 19. I have had a surprisingly difficult time finding a definitive date for so public and recent an event, but the more numerous and stronger sources — e.g., this very specific narration — prefer the 18th.

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1836: Isaac Young/Heller, axman

Add comment April 29th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1836, a troubled (ex-)family man named Isaac Young — latterly going by Isaac Heller — was publicly hanged in Liberty, Indiana for axing his entire family to death in a fit of madness.

Young hailed from Pennsylvania, and the reason he had changed his name and moved to Indiana was that he had done a similar thing in his native haunts.

As a teenager in the 1820s, Isaac Young had been seized strangely by the spiritual tremors abroad during America’s Second Great Awakening. A baptized zealot who fancied himself blessed with the power of prophesy, Young was also captive to an inescapable — and seemingly defeatist — impression of being forever pursued and haunted by the devil. Young’s religious thunderings tended to produce more interest in the utterer’s state of mind than in the listener’s state of soul, and the youth was known to succumb to “gusts of passion.”

Eventually, those gusts blew a hurricane.

Young lived with his brother, who had a wife and a 10-year-old orphan girl — and, little did they know, the devil watching over them all. One night in 1830, Young awoke with a start at a sound he perceived upon the stair, convinced that some entity had entered the room he shared with the little girl; his religious eccentricities jumbling him right into lunacy.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Young bellowed at the dragon from Revelations come to visit him in his nightshirt in Dauphin County. He tried to grapple with the phantom but missed it, and of a sudden he turned his frenzy on the girl, battering her furiously. Young would later say that he was “forcibly impelled” to the attack by an overwhelming “duty” to “destroy” the child; his brother and his sister-in-law attempted to intervene but Young seized a club and with a berserker rage chased them from the house — then returned to his cowering little roommate, and sawed off her head with his knife.

He was acquitted of this murder by reason of his manifest insanity, but this was not a time and place with resources to aid the mentally ill. All anyone could think to do was to keep him chained in the poor house until after a few months he appeared to return to reason — at which point he was finally released and blew town, now rechristened with his mother’s maiden name.

In the hamlet of Liberty, the new man Heller escaped the devil … for a few years. He opened a grocery store and married a woman named Elizabeth McCollam with whom he had a happy brood of three children.

Until one day the gusts returned to swirl his soul again.

“The first symptom of insanity noticed in this county was about three years ago [i.e., 1833], by a young man who was going home with him on a Sabbath evening,” the Connersville (Ind.) Watchman reported in a profile that was widely reprinted around the Republic.*

The young man noticed something very extraordinary in his manner, and was much affected. At length he asked him what was the matter. He replied in effect that a superhuman influence or inspiration was upon him. Soon after he became very much excited on religious subjects … Witnesses stated that for several days at a time, during the last two or three years, he would act like a wild man or a raving maniac. During that time he was twice taken into the care of the overseers of the poor and kept some time as an insane person.

Heller’s neglect of his work soon exhausted his family’s modest reserves and left wife and children surviving on the charity of neighbors, spiraling Heller even deeper into depression, and in his “great horror of the poor house” he owned “that he would rather die than be separated from his family.” One hears in these words a man with the walls closing in about him … or else, a man hammering out the rationale for the madness he has already determined to undertake. There was calculation in Heller’s fatal outburst; a neighbor visited on the morning of his hecatomb and found the family in good spirits and Heller cogent. The disturbed patriarch waited until the guest was well away before he

took his axe from under the bed, went to the fire, turned round [and] commenced rubbing the fingers of one hand over the edge. His wife asked him what he was going to do — he replied he was going to chop some wood. About this time the woman told the children to get some apples out from under the bed. the two little ones immediately crawled under the bed, and the little sister-in-law stood near the bed looking at Heller. She saw him raise the axe and strike his wife one full blow about the chin and neck. Seeing this she sprang to the door, threw it open and fled for the nearest neighbor’s between a quarter and a half a mile off, crying murder as she ran. After she had fled some two hundred yards, she saw Heller come round the end of the house and look after her. Heller states that after he had despatched his wife he went out of the house and looked after the little girl — that he then went back into the house — his little boy came towards him, when he split him down and chopped his head off. He then dragged his little daughter Sarah out from under the bed — placed his foot upon her breast — she raised her hands for protection, and at the first blow he cut off the fingers of one hand and nearly took off her head. He then went and rolled the mother off of the infant on which she had partly fallen, and cut its head off.

His spiritual torments and probable schizophrenia here are the framework — a cynic might say, the excuse — for a much more commonplace scourge: the murderer said “in justification of the act ‘that they were likely to become a county charge, and that he would rather see them in their present situation.'” (Connecticut Courant, Mar. 21, 1836) In the confession he willingly supplied later, he admitted having attempted to set his homicidal plan in motion several times prior, once even brandishing a butcher’s blade over his wife like the Psycho shower scene before she soothed him. Elizabeth Heller must have been a woman of remarkable calm under pressure; unfortunately for her, resources for abused spouses were about as plentiful as those for the mentally ill.

“Nearly all … who know any thing about the case, regard it as incomprehensibly mysterious,” the newspaper reports concluded. “Many who know the most about it, say they hardly know how or what to think of it. It is doubted whether the annals of crime can produce a parallel case, and it is devoutly hoped they never may!”

But the annals of crime hold many mansions, as readers of this here site surely know.

Heller’s final, “successful” outburst was actually just one of a number of grisly mass-murders by family fathers who through the closely intimate exertion of a bloody blade drenched their domestic idylls with the gore of their loved ones — enough even to form a discernible pattern. Struggling to come to grips with this “homicidal insanity” or “monomanie-homicide”, the early American psychologist Isaac Ray lamented the “painful frequency” of cases “where the individual, without provocation or any other rational motive, apparently in the full possession of his reason, and oftentimes in spite of his most strenuous efforts to the contrary, imbrues his hands in the blood of others, — oftener than otherwise, of the partner of his bosom, of the children of his affections.” Incomprehensible perhaps, but scarcely unparalleled: what could make sense of this “horrid phenomenon”?

Pious family men turning Middle America domiciles into charnel houses was the going postal of settler-era America, and maybe Ray even had the Young/Heller-style addled religiosity in mind when he noted that absent some rational accounting the mind would default “to that time-honored solution of all the mysteries of human delinquency, the instigation of the devil.”

In a review of the period’s “familicide” cases, Daniel Cohen (“Homicidal Compulsion and the Conditions of Freedom: The Social and Psychological Origins of Familicide in America’s Early Republic,” Journal of Social History, Summer, 1995) speculates that the revolutionary grant of personal autonomy exacted a dangerous emotional toll upon men who felt themselves failures or simply could not pay “the high psychic costs of economic freedom, particularly for men prone to anxiety and depression.” Isaac was surely prone.

The efforts of those men to submit to supernatural authority were less single-minded pursuits of spiritual perfection than desperate attempts to evade seemingly irresolvable personal conflicts, most importantly between moral demands (or social obligations) and destructive urges or desires. It was ultimately less important for them to avoid sin than to resolve dilemmas or evade choice. When the breathless individual freedom of the early republic collided with the relentless responsibilities of paternal stewardship, the result was an implosion of self-destructive violence … the beginning not the end of a disturbing national tradition …

Many social barriers had fallen in post-Revolutionary America, but several unhappy men could still not control the rain, or the currency, or their own darker impulses. Where others may have perceived boundless opportunities, they experienced gnawing fears and terrifying compulsions. Situations of free choice did not inspire them with a “heady feeling of command” or a “sense of marvelous potential,” to use Robert Wiebe’s expansive phrases, but drove them instead to desperation. Physical unsettlement, economic insecurities, and religious speculations all combined to baffle and torment them. Unable to cope with the perplexities of life in a free society, they constructed internal imperatives to evade and annul that very freedom. By their actions, each tacitly endorsed John Cowan’s conclusion in prison: “Liberty would be more horrible to me than death.” Thus did a handful of troubled Americans confront freedoms profound enough to transform sober Christians into deluded visionaries, loving husbands into axe-wielding assassins, and tidy republican households into slaughterhouses.

Where Pennsylvania acquitted, Indiana convicted — but within even a few years the cooling of passions stirred by the slaughter led many to regret the judgment. According to this volume, even the judge later acknowledged that he ought to have set aside the verdict owing to Heller’s state of mind.

* We’re channeling this via the Gloucester (Mass.) Telegraph of May 4, 1836.

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1836: Maria del Rosario Villa and Gervasio Alipas lynched in Alta California

Add comment April 7th, 2016 Headsman

California on April 7, 1836 saw the first known installment of what would become a rich tradition of history of vigilance committee lynchings in the state — over an affair of the heart.

This was Alta California under Mexican rulership, a decade before the Yankees gobbled it up in the Mexican-American War.

Maria del Rosario Villa had abandoned her husband Domingo Felix (or Feliz) back in 1834 to take up with a vaquero named Gervasio Alipas (or Alipaz). The honor-stricken husband spent two years fruitlessly trying to reconcile until in 1836 at his behest the alcalde successfully pressured Maria into returning to her husband.

But on the couple’s return trip to their ranch, the lover Alipas intercepted them and did the husband Felix to death. Narciso Botello’s* annals describe that Alipas “took hold of his [Felix’s] horse and threw himself on Felix, grabbed him by his neckerchief, and pulled him off, dragging him along downhill and twisting the neckerchief, strangling him” — then pitched the choking victim into a gully where he finished him off with a machete. “Later it was proven by the tracks that the wife had been present.” (Source) She helped him dump the body near San Gabriel Mission, too.

Outraged both by the dastardly murder and by the wanton violation of matrimony that precipitated it, a gang of 55 organized themselves as a Junta of the Defenders of the Public Safety, led by Victor Prudon, a recent arrival to the area from the Hijar-Padres colony.** As no militia could be mustered inclined to oppose its will, on April 7 the junta forced open the jail where Alipas was interred, stood him up behind a church, and shot him to death. Villa — being held in an apartment at a private residence — was likewise forced out and marched to a nearby stable where she got the same treatment.

The vigilantes deposited the bodies back at the jail with the communique,

Junta of the Defendres of the Public Safety —

To the First constitutional Alcalde:

The dead bodies of Gervacio Alispaz and Maria del Rosario Villa are at your disposal. We also forward you the jail keys that you may deliver them to whomsoever is on guard. In case you are in need of men to serve as guards we are at your disposal.

God and Liberty. Angeles, April 7, 1836.

Victor Prudon, President
Manuel Arzaga, Secretary

And that was the end of the Defenders of the Public Safety, who disbanded a few days later, never to reconstitute. Indeed, while vigilance committees became regular features on the Californian landscape in later years, this is the sole such incident ever known to have occurred there under Spanish or Mexican rule.

* A Mexican who would serve two terms in the state assembly of California after it became a U.S. state in 1850.

** Mexico at this point was still in its first generation of independence; its hold on sparsely-populated California was not strong — and the missions set down there to convert natives to Christianity and project a Spanish presence had Russian competition.

The Hijar-Padres colony (Padres was the name of the colony’s organizer, Hijar its financier) was a nucleus of 200-odd souls dispatched to settle in California by one of the liberal intra-Santa Anna governments. The leaders soon became embroiled in a complex political rivalry with California’s governor and the colony itself failed to take root, its emissaries settling and taking work wherever they could. Many set down roots in California’s “Southlands” where Los Angeles, then just a small town but still the regional capital, would one day splay out its sunlit superhighways. While colonists were involved in the vigilance committee proceedings, no member of the love triangle was a colonist. (See C. Alan Hutchinson, “An Official List of the Members of the Híjar-Padrés Colony for Mexican California, 1834,” Pacific Historical Review, Aug. 1973.)

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1836: Six Creek rebels, amid removal

Add comment November 25th, 2015 Headsman

We ask you how the Muscogee Nation came by this country? You came from the west and took the country from another people who were in possession. After living here a great many years, the people from over the big waters came in large vessels and took some of the country from you and set up their own government, and made laws, & made you obey them …

you must be sensible that it will be impossible for you to remain, for any length of time, in your present situation, as a distinct society or nation, within the limits of Georgia, or any other State. Such a community is incompatible with our system, and must yield to it. This truth is too striking and obvious not to be seen by all of you, surrounded as you are by the people of the several States. You must either cease to be a distinct community, and become, at no distant period, a part of the State within whose limits you are, or remove beyond the limits of any State …

Brothers, we now tell you, what we, in the name of your Father the President, want you to do. We want the country you now occupy. It is within the limits of Georgia and Alabama. These States insist upon having their lines cleared. The President will do this by giving you a better country, and will aid you in removing; protect you where you may go, against whites and all others, and give you a solemn guaranty in the title and occupancy of the new country which you may select … By deciding for yourselves, it may prevent others from deciding for you.

-U.S. federal communication to the Muscogee Creek chiefs, Dec. 9, 1824


Brothers, you have been deceived. A snake has been coiled in the shade, and you are running into his mouth … drunk with the fire of the pale-face. Brothers, the hunting grounds of our fathers have been stolen by our chief and sold to the pale-face, whose gold is in his pouch. Brothers, our grounds are gone, and the plow of the pale-face will soon upturn the bones of our fathers. Brothers, are you tame? Will you submit?

Opothle Yoholo

On this date in 1836, six Muscogee Creek rebels were hanged in Alabama as murderers.

This age of the bellicose Andrew Jackson comprised the peak years of America’s Indian Removal — a frightful term denoting the forcible expulsion of indigenous nations from America’s east to her frontier wastelands. This was the fate ordained for the Creek people of Alabama, just as it was with their “civilized tribes” brethren, the Choctaw of Mississippi and the Cherokee of Georgia and the Carolinas.

Jackson himself had tangled with the Creek during his career-making appearance as America’s up-and-coming caudillo in the War of 1812: the eponymous Fort Jackson in Alabama was the base from which the Tennessee militia captain had defeated rebellious natives in the 1813-1814 Creek War and forced upon them the Treaty of Fort Jackson.* “Numberless aggressions,” read that document, “had been committed [by the Creeks] against the peace, the property, and the lives of citizens of the United States.”

So small wonder that as President, Old Hickory — for whom Indian Removal was a signature policy — had no time for Creek appeals to Washington to uphold their treaty rights in Alabama and Georgia. Their defeat in 1814 had left the Creek polity a powerless dependency, whose rights and even survival extended precisely so far as the American government wished. With the shrunken remnant** of their ancestral lands increasingly sought by white settlers, all the pressure within Anglo America ran towards the ethnic cleansing option.

“Voluntary” emigration under steady white pressure gnawed away at Creek numbers in the Southeast for a decade or more preceding the events of this post, but there was always going to be a militant slice of the population for whom no inducement short of violence would suffice. In 1836, land incursions finally triggered a Creek revolt, and became the Second Creek War — Jackson’s justification at last for completing the long-sought elimination of the Creek in the East.†

“The Creek Indians, below the Federal Road, are all in arms and killing every white person they have fallen in with,” ran the May 12, 1836 Macon Messenger. Everything was in “confusion and disarray” — the fleeting advantage of initiative while Anglos mustered an overwhelming response.

Attacks on stagecoaches this same month “created a greater sensation throughout the country than any previous act of Indian hostility,” per this public domain history of Columbus, Ga. (The town abuts the Alabama border.)

Two stages carrying the United States mail, going from Columbus to Tuskegee, Ala., were attacked about eighteen miles from Columbus. The Indians killed Mr. Green, one of the drivers, and two horses, and robbed the mail. The next day a party of fifteen men started to come through to Columbus with two stages. Some of these men were passengers and others volunteers who accompanied the stages to assist in their protection.

It was for this raid that claimed Green’s life that Tuscoona Fixico and four others — never named in any source I have been able to find — were condemned to hang on Nov. 25, alongside a man named Chilancha for the unrelated killing of a man named Fannin during the uprising.

The Second Creek War went much the same way as the first, and proved those American diplomats prescient as to the inevitability of the conquered peoples’ fate. Today, the Poarch Creek — numbering barely 2,000 — are the only remaining band of Muscogee Creek in Alabama.

* It was from this engagement that Jackson proceeded to the famous Battle of New Orleans.

** In one vain bid to stanch the loss of Creek territory, the tribe — incensed by the Treaty of Indian Springs — had in 1821 enacted capital punishment for anyone who sold land to whites. It was on the strength of this statute that Creek assassins murdered/executed the collaborationist chief William McIntosh in 1825.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Alabama,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists,USA,Wartime Executions

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1836: Abraham Prescott, homicidal somnabulist

Add comment January 6th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1836, Abraham Prescott was hanged in Hopkinton, New Hampshire.

His crime was sensational at the time; the trial record can be viewed here. The slaying was horrifying in and of itself, and there was the added element of betrayal: Prescott had turned on the people who had treated him like kin.

A gentleman farmer, Chauncey Cochran, had taken Abraham Prescott in during his mid-teens and given him a place to stay on his farm in Pembroke, New Hampshire. In return, Prescott worked for Cochran on the farm.

This relationship continued amicably for three years, and Abraham grew very close to Chauncey and his wife, Sally. They trusted him and treated him like a son.

Our story begins on January 6, 1833, three years to the day before Prescott swung. During the early morning hours, Prescott took an ax and struck Chauncey and Sally in the head as they slept. Either he didn’t mean to kill them or he didn’t know how to aim, because he delivered glancing blows that merely caused considerable bruising and bleeding.

Abraham told them he’d been sleepwalking, and he hadn’t even realized he’d attacked his master and mistress until he saw Chauncey rising up from the bed, covered in blood. He wasn’t the first person on these pages to use the sleepwalking defense, but Abraham’s wild story actually worked — that time, anyway.

Perhaps the Cochrans were blinded by their affection for their employee. Perhaps they simply had no common sense. In any case, they accepted Prescott’s explanation and didn’t summon the police or even dismiss him. After he axed them both in bed. Most bosses would probably consider that a one-strike offense.

A report of this “unhappy and and almost unheard-of occurrence of somnambulism” was actually published in the New Hampshire Patriot several days later. Even after subsequent events cast the incident in a very sinister light, Chauncey still referred to it as “the accident.”

Several months passed and Prescott behaved normally, diligently working on the farm and causing no trouble. Then, on June 23, Sally asked him to go with her on a berry-picking expedition.

They set off together, and several hours later he came home alone and visibly agitated.

When asked what was wrong, Abraham said he’d been bothered by a toothache and lay down against a tree to rest. He evidently fell asleep, and when he woke up Sally was lying prone. Abraham had been sleepwalking again, and had clubbed her with a three-foot wooden stake, and he thought he’d killed her.

This time Chauncey didn’t give Prescott the benefit of doubt. The eighteen-year-old found himself jailed and charged with capital murder.

Abraham Prescott’s lawyer went for the insanity defense, focusing on his culpability rather than his actions. Prescott was not terribly bright and may have actually been developmentally disabled. Various witnesses testified that there was mental illness in his family. Abraham’s mother said he’d had hydrocephalus as an infant and had sleepwalked frequently during his childhood. Several doctors testified about somnambulism and insanity, and how the defendant could be a good example of both, although they were all speaking theoretically as none of them had examined him.

(Fun fact: one of the expert witnesses was George Parkman, who was himself the victim of a homicide sixteen years later and is featured elsewhere on these pages.)

The prosecution had a much easier time of it: they had a very good case that Prescott had murdered his mistress deliberately. His attempt to conceal her body suggested he knew the wrongfulness of his actions. He was under the impression that he stood to inherit everything if the Cochrans died (since they said he was “like family”).

Vis-à-vis the sleepwalking, Abraham’s own statements contradicted each other. When questioned right after his arrest, he had provided a much more straightforward account of what happened, one that didn’t involve somnambulism: Abraham said that while he and Sally were picking berries, he had done or said something “improper” to her and she threatened to tell her husband. He killed her because he was afraid he would be sent to prison if Chauncey found out about it.

(Prescott subsequently retracted that statement and went back to the sleepwalking story.)

Even after conviction, however, questions remained. Several reprieves were issued while the state tried to figure out whether or not he was crazy and, if so, how crazy. He copped a retrial because the first jury that convicted him had been improperly exposed to the popular belief in Prescott’s guilt by virtue of being barracked at a local pub. The sentencing judge at his last trial remarked on the court’s meticulous solicitation of “the most experienced witnesses, in our own and neighboring States, to throw upon the secret operations and sudden derangements of the mind, and all the evidence which the highest records of the history of man could furnish.”

Prescott spent in all two years awaiting execution, a very long time in those days. In the end, however, the law decided that Prescott knew what he was doing that day in the strawberry patch, and he had to die.

We will never know for sure why he killed Sally Cochran. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that Abraham Prescott was a very troubled young man.

A large crowd braved a snowstorm to watch him die.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,New Hampshire,Other Voices,Public Executions,USA

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1836: Giuseppe Fieschi, Pierre Morey, and Theodore Pepin, infernal machinists

2 comments February 19th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1836, three men were guillotined for a spectacular but unsuccessful regicide attempt.

Giuseppe Fieschi

This was in the days of the July Monarchy, a much-despised government of the country’s wealthiest elites that generated opposition both right and left and a ceaseless string of assassination attempts (French link) against King Louis-Philippe.* As Marx put it,

when the liberal banker Laffitte led his compère, the Duke of Orléans, in triumph to the Hôtel de Ville, he let fall the words: “From now on the bankers will rule”. Laffitte had betrayed the secret of the revolution.

It was not the French bourgeoisie that ruled under Louis Philippe, but one faction of it … the so-called financial aristocracy. It sat on the throne, it dictated laws in the Chambers, it distributed public offices, from cabinet portfolios to tobacco bureau posts.

Hard to imagine such a state of affairs.

Fieschi (English Wikipedia page | French) et al conceived a bold attempt to destroy the entire ruling family in a single fusillade, and to that end constructed a machine infernale of 25 gun barrels mounted together to fire on a single fuse.

Unleashed upon a royal procession along the Boulevard du Temple on the fifth anniversary of the monarchy’s founding July days, this monster proved quite impressively destructive.


The assassination attempt of Fieschi, 28 July 1835 by Eugene Lami.

The infernale barrage took out an esteemed marshal and a bunch of bystanders, but somehow managed to miss everyone in the royal family. (Louis-Philippe himself was grazed … and his horse was hit.)

Exploiting the familiar power of a terrorist incident to enact horrible new policies not available in normal times, “Parliament was hastily recalled and in a near-panic atmosphere passed severe measures against the newspaper press,” notes William Fortescue. “Approximately thirty more republican newspapers were closed down by the September 1835 Press Laws.”

Police soon traced the conspiracy to Fieschi, a truly Gallic character of mixed-up national pride, personal honor, class envy, and opportunistic lechery, who had fought for Bonaparte and helped Joachim Murat on the latter’s fatal attempt to re-take “his” kingdom of Naples back in his youth. But lately, a more worn-out and middle-aged Fieschi had been booted out by his mistress and lost all his money.

Fieschi, according to Barricades: The War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris, 1830-1848, basically became a dependent of Morey and Pepin, true-blue republicans who helped channel Fieschi’s unmoored passions into engineering his hydra-headed musket. He’d be back on the French-nationalism side by the end.

“I’m going to appear before God,” Fieschi said on the scaffold, after Morey and Pepin had preceded him. “I have spoken the truth. I die content. I have rendered a service to my country in signaling my accomplices … I regret my victims more than my life.”

More repressive laws and radical-hunting followed. They did not slake the thirst abroad in France for regicide.

* Louis-Philippe’s royal dad backed the French Revolution, but was still executed by Robespierre.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Terrorists

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1836: Louis Alibaud, failed regicide

2 comments July 11th, 2009 Headsman

Early this Monday morning in 1836, Louis Alibaud — having been condemned to death by the Chamber of Peers at trial the preceding Friday and Saturday — lost his head for taking a shot at oftshotat French King Louis-Philippe.

As related by the London Times (July 6, 1836),

at half-past 6 in the afternoon of the 25th of June, 1836; the windows of the carriage were lowered, and it was passing through the gate [of the Tuileries palace] leading to the Pont Royale, when a man, who had been standing by a post in the court, raise [sic] a cane gun and discharged it against the King. By a miraculous chance the King was lowering his head to salute the National Guard under arms, and the ball passed just four lines above his head, and entered one of the angles of the carriage, settling about an inch deep in an oak beam.

The assassin was immediately arrested; he was a young man, of about 25 years of age, dressed in a dark coat, cloth pantaloons, and black hat, and wearing under his chin a thick brown beard.

The disabled former infantryman, “inspired by political fanaticism and a morbid satiety of life,” mounted no defense of himself save for a defense of tyrannicide — “I had the same right to his life that Brutus had to the life of Julius Caesar!” (Source)

Naturally, this line had neither the intent nor the effect of securing clemency, and he was repeatedly cautioned by the court against pursuing it; all concerned knew precisely where matters were headed, of course, and the state had no interest in providing a public forum for sedition.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Soldiers

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1836: Goliad Massacre

5 comments March 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1836 — Palm Sunday, as it happened — over 300 Anglo POWs fighting to separate Texas from Mexico were executed en masse outside Goliad’s fortress

Less widely celebrated than the Battle of the Alamo preceding it by a fortnight, the Battle of Coleto on March 19-20 had seen Mexican troops surround and capture another force of Texians at Goliad.

Unaware of a Mexican order issued the previous December to execute foreign prisoners,* the men under Col. J.W. Fannin — a dithering commander whose military competence didn’t quite equal his romantic aspirations — expected to be released in a matter of weeks. They were marched out this morning on some innocuous pretext and had bare moments to apprehend their impending fate before their guards mowed them down. (Fannin was individually shot apart from his troops.)

Nineteenth-century musketry was a mediocre tool for mass slaughter, especially when the targets were nearly as many as their executioners. A number of prisoners survived the volley and managed to escape the subsequent cavalry charge and bayoneting by leaping into a nearby river. A fortunate few others were intentionally preserved. This thorough site on the massacre** preserves several survivor accounts.

These memoirs also detail life in the unit and troop maneuvers that are certainly of interest; in these pages, of course, we are most drawn to the accounts of those who stared death in the face — like this (understandably melodramatic) description by Herman Ehrenberg:

Either life or death! Behind were the bayonets of the murderers, and before me was the sword of a coward that crossed my way to the saving stream. Determinedly I rushed upon him. Forward I must go, and — the coward took flight in characteristic Mexican gallantry. Now the path was open, near was the point of my escape.

Arriving at the other bank of the river, I looked around once more to where my comrades were dying, while the bullets of the still firing enemies whistled about me. The hellish exaltations of the enemy mixed with the cries of pain of my dying brothers sounded over to me. What feelings took possession of me here! I cast another look and a farewell greeting to my dead companions and turned to flee. I had to hasten if I did not wish to fall into the hands of the lancers who were now on this side of the river less than a half a mile below me.

Which makes an interesting stylistic contrast with the story of John C. Duval, similar in its events but strikingly low-key, even ironic:

Some one near me exclaimed “Boys! they are going to shoot us!” and at the same instant I heard the clicking of a musket locks all along the Mexican line. I turned to look, and as I did so, the Mexicans fired upon us, killing probably one hundred out of the one hundred and fifty men in the division. We were in the double file and I was in the rear rank. The man in front of me was shot dead, and in falling he knocked me down. I didn’t get up for a minute, and when I rose to my feet, I found that the whole Mexican line had charged over me, and were in hot pursuit of those who had not been shot and who were fleeing towards the river about five hundred yards distant. I followed on after them, for I knew that escape in any direction (all open prairie) would be impossible, and I had nearly reached the river before it became necessary to make my way through the Mexican line ahead. As I did so, one of the soldiers charged upon me with his bayonet (his gun I suppose being empty). As he drew his musket back to make a lunge at me, one of our men coming from another direction, ran between us, and the bayonet was driven through his body. The blow was given with such force, that in falling, the man probably wrenched or twisted the bayonet in such a way as to prevent the Mexican from withdrawing it immediately. I saw him put his foot upon the man, and make an ineffectual attempt to extricate the bayonet from his body, but one look satisfied me, as I was somewhat in a hurry just then, and I hastened to the bank of the river and plunged in. The river at that point was deep and swift, but not wide, and being a good swimmer, I soon gained the opposite bank, untouched by any of the bullets that were pattering in the water around my head.


The Texas state flower — the bluebonnet — blooms in front of the monument put up to the Goliad Massacre on its centennial. Creative Commons image from Matthew Lee High.

History buffs in the Goliad environs this weekend can catch the annual re-enactment of the Goliad Massacre this weekend at Presidio La Bahia.

* The order came from the top, but the general who captured Goliad had no stomach to carry it out. He asked for leniency … but received an emphatic confirmation of the execution order.

** Also see its unit rosters tracking the particular fates of most of Fannin’s men, and these biographies of the unit.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Texas,Wartime Executions

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