1842: Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, Great Game diplomats

1 comment June 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1842,* British diplomats Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly were summarily beheaded by a Central Asian potentate as London’s ill-chosen intervention in Afganistan came to a disastrous conclusion.

The backdrop is “the Great Game”,** the long-running chess match for supremacy in Central Asia between an expanding Russian Empire and Great Britain, with its imperial position in India.

Seeking to pre-empt a Russian move into Afghanistan, Britain invaded in 1839. This was the First Anglo-Afghan War: it would have, for the Brits, an inglorious end.

Our day’s featured principals were among the postscript casualties of that catastrophe, never-avenged losses for an empire that had overreached itself.

Stoddart, an intelligence officer, had been dispatched northward to the ancient silk road city of Bokhara intending enlist the allegiance, or at least the benign neutrality, of its emir, Nasrullah Khan. Today Uzbekistan’s fifth-largest city, Bokhara was then an independent state .

[I]n the nineteenth century, the executions carried out there with genuine cruelty, as well as the tales told by travelers gave the city a reputation of being a forbidden, closed, and hostile place. It was “despotic” Bukhara, and the Europeans projected onto it their own oriental fantasies: with citadel, dungeons, palaces, and city walls bolted shut at night, all helping to set the scene.

(Vibe on some the oriental fantasy in the 1911 volume The Emir of Bokhara and His Country, or this volume on Russian Central Asia, which by then included Bokhara.)


Scenic! Bukhara’s historic citadel, the Ark, where Stoddart (and later Conolly) were imprisoned (and later executed). (cc) image from elif ayse.

Into this scene, our Brit entered clumsily, immediately irritating the ruler he intended to supplicate. Reportedly (though the fact has been disputed), he was on the brink of execution when he acceded to save his life to Nasrullah’s formulaic offer of clemency in exchange for conversion to Islam.

In any event, Stoddart languished for years, alternately imprisoned and in the custody of the (better-received) Russian mission. Though the latter had also been charged by its sovereign to retrieve the ill-favored English emissary as a gesture of Great Powers goodwill (and to deprive England of any rationale for intervention that his captivity might offer), Stoddart seems to have been too stubbornly prideful to get out via St. Petersburg while the getting was good.

Instead, he waited on the arrival of countryman Arthur Conolly, who showed up in late 1841 on a mission to secure Stoddart’s release. But Stoddart’s situation little improved, considering Nasrullah Khan’s wary reaction to this second British interloper.

Word has it that the Bukharan prince was piqued that correspondence to him did not arrive over the signature of the British monarch herself, but merely some subcontinental subaltern — as well as, we might think understandably, suspicious at his guests’ motivations and mission.

The captor’s uncertain attitude towards his prisoners was resolved by Britain’s catastrophic loss of Kabul and the subsequent massacre of an entire 16,000-strong army as it attempted to retreat.

Seriously, the whole army. To a man. Except for one guy.


Remnants of an Army, by Elizabeth Butler, depicts the only British subject on retreat from Kabul to reach Jalalabad, William Brydon.

Battles don’t get much more decisive than that.†

Reasoning‡ that the routed British were now of no conceivable threat, nor his prisoners of any conceivable benefit, Nasrullah Khan now accused them of espionage and abused them with impunity.

The two were cast into an Indiana Jones-esque “bug pit,” an oubliette infested with … well, you know.§

Later, finding illicit writing materials secreted on his captives’ persons, the mercurial Nasrullah disposed of them outright.

their quarters were entered by several men, who stripped them, and carried them off to prison … In stripping Colonel Stoddart a lead pencil was found in the lining of his coat, and some papers in his waist. These were taken to the Ameer, who gave orders that Colonel Stoddart should be beaten with heavy sticks until he disclosed who brought the papers, and to whom he wrote. He was most violently beaten, but he revealed nothing; he was beaten repeatedly for two or three days. On Friday, the 8th or 9th (the 7th) of Jemmadee-ool-Eovel (17th of June), the Ameer gave orders that Colonel Stoddart should be killed in the presence of Captain Conolly, who was to be offered life if he would become a Mahomedan. In the afternoon they were taken outside the prison into the street, which is a kind of small square. Their hands were tied across in front. Many people assembled to behold the spectacle. Their graves were dug before their eyes. Colonel Stoddart exclaimed aloud at the cruelty and tyranny of the Ameer. His head was then cut off with a knife.

The chief executioner then turned to Captain Conolly, and said — “The Ameer spares your life if you will become a Mussulman.” Captain Conolly answered, “Colonel Stoddart has been a Mussulman for three years, and you have killed him, you killed Yoosoof too; I will not be a Mussulman, and I am ready to die.” Saying which he stretched forth his neck. His head was then cut off.

-London Times, Aug. 22, 1843, reporting the testimony of a dubious local semi-ally

The veracity of this faint bulletin from a distant and inaccessible realm nevertheless remained in some doubt. Friends of the lost men, despairing of obtaining definitive word of their fate, commissioned a strange but courageous missionary named Joseph Wolff to brave his own sojourn to Bokhara to investigate.

Wolff barely escaped with his own life, but seemingly confirmed the sad story and published a Narrative of his travels in 1845 (Part 1, Part 2).

* The initially reported June 17 execution date was subsequently contested by Joseph Pierre Ferrier, who argued that the chronology instead pointed to the next Friday, June 24. The matter appears to me permanently unresolvable.

** Ironically, the sportive phrase “the Great Game” was itself attributed to Arthur Conolly for whom, in the end, events turned out to be quite other than playful.

† Britain recaptured Kabul in reprisal later in 1842, upon which pretext it was able to declare its honor vindicated and depart Kabul (sans massacre), ending the war. Certain latter-day occupations of that “graveyard of empires” might envy their forebear’s talent for declaring victory and leaving.

‡ Correctly. Nasrullah Khan faced no British reprisal for his treatment of Stoddart and Conolly, notwithstanding the attempt by some friends to use their sad fate as some sort of casus belli. This public domain book from 1845 bears a dedication to Queen Victoria in “hope of directing your Majesty’s attention to the cruel sufferings and alleged murder of two British officers … abandoned in an unaccountable manner, by your Majesty’s Government … [in circumstances] degrading to the British nation;” the same man had previously published an “Appeal to the British Nation” in an “endeavour to excite the public sympathy.” Sympathy or no, the two British officers stayed abandoned.

§ Bug tortureenhanced interrogation was actually authorized during the Bush administration for the insect-averse Abu Zubaydah. The gentleman approving that technique, Jay Bybee, is now a federal circuit judge.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,History,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Uncertain Dates,Uzbekistan,Wartime Executions

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1842: Stephen Brennan, desperate bushranger

1 comment November 9th, 2011 Headsman

From the 1908 History of the Australian Bushrangers:

Stephen Brennan was sent to the island for bushranging. He was tried there and found guilty of the murder of another convict. There had been no quarrel between the two men, who were as friendly as circumstances permitted under the rigid discipline, nevertheless Brennan suddenly struck Patrick Lynch a blow with a stone-breaker’s hammer, and then stabbed him with a knife. The murder was committed avowedly so that the perpetrator might be hung, and thus escape the harsh treatment he was subjected to, and it is not improbable that it was committed with the consent of the victim, for although there is no evidence of this in this case, it is well known that men had actually drawn lots in Norfolk Island, to decide which should murder the other and get hung for the crime.

This is a very compelling parable, but as a factual matter we’re not sure the basis of the word “avowedly” here; be that mutual lot-drawing trend as it may, the reporting accessible from the National Library of Australia archives suggests that Brennan mounted a vigorous defense, and continued to claim to the foot of the gallows that the homicide was strictly self-defense.

Incidents of “suicide by hangman” had been known among the prison population under the island’s rigorous recent commandant, Joseph Anderson.

But in the early 1840s, the once notoriously draconian penal colony was being run by noted reformer Alexander Maconochie, who relaxed prison discipline with mixed results. (Rougher varieties of discipline would be reimposed thereafter, contributing to the prison riot that resulted in the hanging of bushranger Jackey Jackey.)

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1842: Maketu Wharetotara, New Zealand’s first execution

Add comment March 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1842, New Zealand carried out its first official execution: the hanging of Maori teen Maketu Wharetotara for murdering five people.

The son of a Nga Puhi chief named Ruhe, Maketu took employment as a farmhand for a white household.

An ill-tempered white servant evidently offended him sufficiently to split the bugger’s skull with an axe … and since Maketu wasn’t the type to leave a job half-done, he went ahead and murdered the rest of the household, too.

European settlers, still a minority, initially worried that this outburst might herald the onset of a general native rising. The police magistrate even refused to apprehend the criminal, who had fled back to his people, for fear of triggering conflict.

But internal Maori politics would not let the boy off so lightly.

One of the household members he had murdered was a mixed-race granddaughter of another important Nga Puhi chief, which raised the specter of intertribal strife.

To pre-empt a possible bloodbath, Ruhe turned his own son over to the Europeans.

By British law, it was a pretty cut-and-dried case with a pretty predictable outcome which became, for the crown, a precedent establishing its authority over incidents of interracial violence.

(Maketu Wharetotara — baptized “Wiremu Kingi” by an Anglican minister on the morning of his execution — obtained his milestone status because another Maori minor who had previously been condemned to death died of dysentery before they could noose him.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,New Zealand,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities

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1842: Francisco Morazan, Central American statesman

Add comment September 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1842, church bells throughout Central America tolled in celebration of the death by firing squad of the great liberal statesman Francisco Morazan.

Morazan monuments litter Central America. Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez once claimed (he later backed away from it) that this equestrian job in Tegucigalpa, Honduras was actually a remaindered statue of Napoleonic general Michel Ney.

The self-educated soldier and politician rose to helm the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America after it broke free of Spain (and a brief hitch with Mexico) but before it splintered into Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica.

After beating conservative forces in the field, Morazan forced upon them a slate of liberal reforms that had the knives out for him for a decade-plus: free speech, civil equality, separation of church and state guaranteed by the expulsion of clergy. As this patronizingly favorable biography from the late 19th century wrote,

His ambition was for the advancement and development of Central America; and while the means he used cannot be entirely approved, his purpose should be applauded. His crusade was quite as important in the civilization of this continent as the bloody work England attempted to accomplish in Egypt and the Soudan. He was better than his race, was far in advance of his generation …

Thanks, racist uncle.

Anyway, the Federal Republic fell apart in the late 1830s as its constituent statelets broke apart and the familiar conservatives-landowners-priests coalition started getting the upper hand on Morazan. After an 1842 landing that briefly established him as ruler of Costa Rica (he had also had shifts as the head of state of El Salvador and of Honduras), he overreached with an announcement for universal conscription to form an army that would reunite the Central American state.

“Posterity,” he said before the bullets felled him, “shall do us justice.”

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1842: Philip Spencer, Samuel Cromwell and Elisha Small, on the ship yardarm

11 comments December 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1842, three American sailors were hanged at sea for attempted mutiny.

To meet the circumstances of the only Americans put to death for mutiny, we travel a long way back to a time long before the U.S. Navy was (or could claim to be) this:

Here in the antebellum Atlantic, bereft for weeks of any outside communication, every ship is a world — and sometimes a law — unto itself.

Philip Spencer. From the Chi Psi Fraternity, which Spencer co-founded and which maintains a Philip Spencer Memorial Trust.

Aboard the USS Somers, the law was a disciplinarian captain named Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, who received report that ne’er-do-well brat Philip Spencer — whose dad just happened to be John Tyler’s Secretary of War — was talking mutiny with enlisted sailors chafing under Mackenzie’s liberal use of the flog.

Spencer was a midshipman; the cadets largely untested youth whose purpose in going to sea was to get their feet wet.

Rashomon-like, the viewer can draw dramatically different conclusions from the actions thereupon ensuing. Underneath it all is this: aboard a ship that had no recourse to outside aid or communication, that was its inhabitants’ sole lifeline athwart a vast ocean, and that was held by its officers against the overwhelming numerical superiority of its crew, every misapprehension became magnified and every decision became one of life or death.

The bare facts are that Mackenzie became convinced that the intention was real, and as he held first Spencer, and then two supposed conspirators, Samuel Crowell and Elisha Small, in chains on the deck, his fears hourly grew that the plot was metastasizing and might strike with effect at any moment.

No semblance of due process attended this determination; Mackenzie got the officers he did have to vouchsafe their opinion of the situation in writing:

the evidence which has come to our knowledge is of such a nature, that, after as dispassionate and deliberate a consideration of the case as the exigency of the time would admit, we have come to a cool, decided, and unanimous opinion, that they have been guilty of a full and determined intention to commit a mutiny on board of this vessel of a most atrocious nature, and … we are convinced that it would be impossible to carry them to the United States, and that the safety of the public property, the lives of ourselves, and of those committed to our charge, requires that … they should be put to death.

Spencer, Cromwell and Small were hanged with ten minutes’ notice from the yardarm of the ship, Spencer protesting that the others were innocent.


The USS Somers … with its supposed mutineers hanged from the yardarm, just under the American flag. This and other images of the Somers can be found at a Department of the Navy page.

As one might imagine, there was a bit of an uproar when the vessel finally made port stateside. Oddly (or maybe not so odd) Mackenzie was initially the toast of the town for putting down a mutiny, before that Secretary of War guy and others started picking apart the case.

Though Mackenzie won acquittal at a court martial* — a verdict that could not possibly not have been colored by the competing pressures of Spencer’s influential (and enraged) father on the one hand, and the navy’s institutional need for a whitewash on the other — the cloud of the USS Somers would hover over him for the rest of his life.

And no wonder.

The ominous suggestions of treachery that Mackenzie perceived all around him looked to some others like phantoms; having taken the conviction into his head that a mutiny was afoot, he perceived it everywhere — a doodle of a pirate ship! stealthy glances! men standing about talking! — and panicked. One politician of the day even wrote years later that he believed “the éclat which would follow the hanging of a son of the Secretary of War as a pirate” influenced the captain towards hanging, the opposite of one what might assume.

And even if Spencer really were guilty, Mackenzie had less good cause for suspicion about Small, and practically nothing but his gut on Cromwell. Other sailors Mackenzie considered certainly culpable were returned to dry land, held in chains, and eventually released uncharged because the evidence was so paltry. These three were hanged in part because Mackenzie thought he would have more prisoners than he could control on his small ship.

It’s a debatable premise, and among the point author James Fenimore Cooper later assailed in Mackenzie’s defense.

That these are complaints issued after the fact and from the safety of land does not invalidate them. Mackenzie had command of the ship, and with power to order boys hanged from the yardarm came as much responsibility for steady judgment as for a firm hand. At the same time, others look at the same set of facts and approve Mackenzie’s actions.

Mackenzie may have been a Queeg-like commander, temperamentally ill-suited to his charge of blooding young cadets. And Spencer may have been a dangerously irresponsible character with no business aboard a ship at all. Neither man’s character flaws, however, resolve the inquiry however much they may have contributed to the tragedy.

The Somers incident was the spur towards important reforms in the navy. Three years later, the U.S. Naval Academy opened at Annapolis, Md., institutionalizing cadet instruction away from the haphazard stick-a-boy-on-a-boat routine that was understood to have set the scene for this day’s hangings.

George Bancroft was the father of the professional school at Annapolis, but Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, in association with Philip Spencer, were among the academy’s remoter forebears. (The Captain Called It Mutiny, by Frederic Franklyn Van de Water)

In 1850, flogging was abolished — another issue that permeated the Somers case.**

And Spencer et al may have left a literary legacy as well: this event is often cited as a likely inspiration for Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, through Melville’s cousin Guert Gansevoort, a lieutenant on the Somers and one of the signatories of the officers’ opinion that the prisoners ought to hang.†

Of less literary pretention but more suitable for sending-off as we return young Masters Spencer, Cromwell and Small to the deep: this weirdly wonderful anime mashup to the shanty “Curse of the Somers” falls in the category of “you can find anything on YouTube.”

* The court of inquiry which preceded the court martial produced a report that can be read here.

** Ironically, the USS Somers was returning from a trip to the African coast to deliver dispatches to the USS Vandalia, which in 1838 had become a pioneering vessel in the reduction of corporal punishment under the command of Uriah Levy.

Aptly, the Somers never caught up with the Vandalia to deliver those dispatches.

† Gansevoort retired an admiral; a World War II destroyer was named for him.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,At Sea,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Military Crimes,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wrongful Executions

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