1855: Giovanni Pianori

Add comment May 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1855, Giovanni Pianori submitted to the guillotine for an unsuccessful assassination attempt — pictured above — on the French Emperor Napoleon III.

Himself an Italian nationalist in his youth, Napoleon as prince had gutted his former cause by intervening to crush the revolutionary Roman Republic and restore the exiled pope to power. No small number of fellow-travelers in the patriotic cause thought Napoleon’s betrayal deserved a bullet.

Pianori’s were launched, without effect, on the Champs-Elysees on April 28, 1855, just sixteen days before his execution.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1858: Alexander Anderson and Henry Richards

Add comment April 9th, 2019 Headsman

The story behind this stunning photograph of Alexander Anderson and Henry Richards on their Lancaster, Pa., gallows on April 9, 1858 we’re going to outsource to our friend (and occasional guest-blogger) Robert Wilhelm at Murder by Gaslight.

The only official witnesses were the twenty-four jurymen who convicted them, the sheriff, two deputies, two clergymen and state senator Cobb — a proponent of the death penalty who attended all Pennsylvania hangings.

Outside the prison walls, the public found other ways to witness the execution. People in surrounding houses could see inside the prison yard from their roofs. One entrepreneur erected a scaffolding on a hill outside the prison and charged a dollar a seat. Those without a view stood outside the prison walls waiting to cheer when the execution was confirmed.

Why were these men so hated? Read the whole thing at Murder by Gaslight.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pennsylvania,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

Tags: , , , , , ,

1855: Manuel da Mota Coquiero, the Beast of Macabu

Add comment March 6th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1855 a wealthy farmer named Manuel da Mota Coqueiro — “the Beast of Macabu” in the popular nomenclature — was hanged for orchestrating the slaughter of a tenant farmer and his entire family.

Mota Coqueiro — that’s a Portuguese link, as are almost all sources about this gentleman — ticked the “motive” box thanks to his running conflict with the victim, Francisco Benedito da Silva. Mota Coqueiro had had an affair with Benedito’s daughter Francisca and the two men quarreled thereafter over compensation for Francisca’s resulting pregnancy — quarrels that broadened over the course of 1852 into the more conventional vectors of landlord-tenant conflict. In a relationship there’s having hand, and then there’s being able to evict your significant other’s entire family.

On a literal dark and stormy night that September, a machete-wielding gang of Black men invaded Francisco’s home, beating and slashing to death the man, his wife, and six children ranging in age from three years to teenagers. The only survivor, fleeing into the woods as the murderers made a pyre of their house, was Mota Coquiero’s former lover Francisca. Naturally the volatile landlord with the grudge against the victim was an immediate suspect, and he compounded the suspicion by fleeing in disguise as the investigation unfolded. In a climate of mounting public outrage, Mota Coquiero quickly became fixed in the eyes of police and public alike as the man who had surely ordered his slaves to commit the crime; a slave and two free Black servants in his household would likewise be executed for the crime. However, the evidence ultimately comprised a tissue of self-confirming inference and hearsay with no direct indicia of Mota Coqueiro’s guilt.

Today, he’s commonly remembered as the victim of a miscarriage of justice,* although there’s a dissatisfying want of firm evidence to implicate anyone in particular in his place. The 1877 historical novel Mota Coqueiro, au A Pena de Morte even resorted to inventing an ahistorical character to carry the blame.

The man himself denied guilt all the way to the end. There’s a rumor that he laid a 100-year curse on the city of Macae that lagged economic development … until the discovery of oil there broke the spell in the 1950s, a century later.

* Mota Coquiero is also widely associated in the popular imagination with the end of capital punishment in Brazil. However, he was not nearly the last executed in Brazil nor even the last free man executed in Brazil. What is certain is that Emperor Pedro II who failed to spare Mota Coquiero would gradually turn against the death penalty over the years to come — although any causation by this particular case remains purely speculative.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Brazil,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

Tags: , , , ,

1859: Pleasant M. Mask, wreck and ruin

Add comment March 4th, 2019 Headsman

This guy goes right into the roster of all-time great gallows names, for it was said (per the New Orleans Daily True Delta of March 15, 1859, rhapsodically channeling a report from the Oxford (Mississippi) Mercury) that “the name of Pleasant M. Mask is only pronounced with a shudder” and that doesn’t seem right at all.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Mississippi,Murder,Public Executions,USA

Tags: , , , , ,

1852: Hélène Jégado, serial arsenic murderer

Add comment February 26th, 2019 Headsman

Prolific French poisoner Hélène Jégado was guillotined on this date in 1852.

An orphaned peasant, Jegado (English Wikipedia entry | French) made her way as a domestic servant which was a very fine situation for exploring her true passion of insinuating arsenic into folks’ meals.

This Jegado did with astonishing frequency in her 18 years as Brittany’s Locusta: though condemned for just three successful murders, her body count is thought to run well into the twenties or thirties. Although she was a habitual petty thief as well, she was a true serial killer for whom only a handful of her many murders redounded to some palpable benefit for her. She killed from a compulsion.

For example, as the servant of a village cure, she brazenly poisoned off seven people in 1833,* including the priest himself and her own sister Anne Jegado. But the village had been ravaged by cholera in recent months and Helene Jegado by all accounts made for a convincingly bereaved tragic actress. Amazingly, nobody got suspicious, enabling her to poison off her own aunt and two other people when she returned to her own town to bury that dearly departed sister. For the next several years she kept moving and moving, new lodgings in new towns throughout Brittany but over and over again in a position to season the soup. Surprising and sudden deaths repeatedly occurred in her proximity but the pattern never caught anyone’s eye.

Her fire for the inheritance powder mostly burned out by about 1841 when she had a suspected 23 victims to her name. “I am going into retreat,” she’s said to have strangely declared to an employer who caught her stealing in 1841. “God has forgiven me my sins!” Then the suspicious deaths stopped.

At this point, Helene Jegado was pushing 40. Maybe she thought to cleanse her soul and make a fresh and un-homicidal start, or simply to retire her murder spree while she was so very far ahead. Maybe the sensational Marie Lafarge arsenic case of 1840 scared her straight and made her aware of dangerous forensics advances. There was also some idea that she had somehow procured a large stockpile of arsenic at the outset of her career, but discarded it in a panic the first time that she felt herself in danger of being accused.

Whatever the reason for her lull, she seems to have managed the cold turkey program admirably for a good long time … but surely somewhere inside her lurked the hunger to again give rein to her compulsion.

The last days of 1849 find her at Rennes, where she resumed just as suddenly as she had stopped: the ailing son of a couple who employed her as their only servant was suddenly finished off through his porridge, and then the couple themselves sickened by another meal (they survived). Now the bit was again in her teeth and she ran with it through a series of employers: in the course of just weeks she made fresh attacks in the Ozanne household, upon the family’s little son (he died); in the hotel owned by Monsieur Roussell, upon the proprietor’s mother (she survived) and a rival servant (she died).

By the autumn of 1850 she again had her fresh — and her final — employment, with the law professor and sometime politician Theophile Bidard.

Yet it was not the sharp observations or relentless deductions of her scholar-master that exposed Helene Jegado: it was a want of sangfroid downright shocking in one who had already filled so many tombs. When another servant of the Bidards died unexpectedly, Rennes medical men who suspected poisoning called on Bidard. Jegado answered the door, and upon hearing them announce their mission to the man of the house she unnecessarily blurted out an assertion of innocence. Nobody had even mentioned her.

Once she invited everyone’s suspicion the rest followed inevitably. Bodies she had given Rennes households to bury during the preceding year showed clear evidence of arsenic poisoning when exhumed, and the pattern of deaths associated with her — even though they lay beyond prosecution — seemingly confirmed the worst. Helene denied all but went to the guillotine on the Champ-de-Mars at Rennes on February 26, 1852.

* These seven and most of the others attributed to Helene Jegado’s potions are merely irresistible inference; she was detected long past any opportunity to establish direct proof of her hand behind any of the pre-1849 deaths.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Murder,Public Executions,Serial Killers,Women

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1856: Agesilao Milano, near-assassin

Add comment December 13th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1856, the Bourbon monarchy of Naples avenged the near-murder of its king … but neither sovereign nor state would much outlive the assassin.

Giuseppe Garibaldi had returned two years prior from exile, and the decades-long stirring of patriots whose loyalties eschewed their peninsula’s various sordid rival kingdoms to glory in a shared dream of the future unified Italy — the era of the Risorgimento — was about to draw towards a first culmination.*

The soldier Agesilao Milano (Italian link) shared the dream too. He determined to speed it by removing the man who ruled the Kingdom of the Two Siciliies, Ferdinand II — and so after mass on December 8, he hurled himself upon his sovereign and bayoneted him. The one wound he inflicted before he was subdued was deep, but not fatal, or at least not immediately so: Ferdinand would die three years later at the age of 49 and he morbidly nagged his deathbed doctors to investigate his old bayonet scar for signs of inflammation. (They found none.)

Ferdinand’s son Francis was the last ruler the Kingdom of the Two Silicies would ever have, for in 1860 Garibaldi’s Expedition of the Thousand marched upon that realm and its polity speedily collapsed, becoming absorbed into the newly forged Kingdom of Italy

Milano shared the triumph only from the plane of spirits, for he had been hanged five days after his treasonable attack at the Piazza del Mercato, bearing a placard dishonoring him a “parricide” and crying out, “I die a martyr … Long live Italy! .. Long live the independence of the peoples …”

The Risorgimento cosigned his martyr’s credentials, with Garibaldi creating a diplomatic furor by awarding pension and dowries to the late parricide’s mother and sisters, respectively.

* The Risorgimento truly triumphed (and concluded) only in 1871 after swallowing up the holdout Papal States.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Italy,Murder,Naples,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers

Tags: , , , , , ,

1856: Six Tennessee slaves, election panic casualties

Add comment December 4th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1856, the white citixens of Dover, Tennessee hanged at least six black slaves in the midst of a regional panic.

They could well sense, as could all Americans, the hollowing authority of slavery in the 1850s with the Civil War looming ahead in 1861. Conflict over the issue had split the country sectionally over the disposition of the huge territory annexed in the Mexican-American War; the matter came to literal blows on the western frontier in the “Bleeding Kansas” bush war.

On the cultural plane, these are the years that germinated the definitive anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); on the legal plane, they produced the the notorious pro-slavery Dred Scott Supreme Court case (1857).

And on the political plane, the slavery issue tore apart the old Whig Party — and so the 1856 presidential election for the first time featured the new anti-slavery Republican Party as the chief opposition. The very first Republican presidential nominee, John Fremont, carried 11 states on November 4, 1856: not enough to capture the White House, but enough to put the Slave Power in fear for its human chattel and catalyze, in the weeks surrounding the vote, paranoid reactions in various southerly locales to the effect that Fremont-inspired blacks would be coming to dispossess all the masters.

Now it only takes a glance at Twitter to evidence the capacity of a presidential ballot to dominate the public mind, so there can hardly be doubt that seditious rumors of liberty fell from black lips which had never been so close to tasting emancipation. “Wait till Fremont is elected, and den I guess as how, missess, you will have to dew de pots yourself,” a Memphis kitchen-slave supposedly told her mistress on the eve of the election. (New York Herald, December 11, 1856) The masters too would have spoken of the same topic, but with trepidation; nobody knew but what the future could hold, and words overheard would have worked their way to and fro across the color line to shape hope, terror, anticipation. The newspapers from the last weeks of 1856 have reports of rumored insurrections and white vigilance committees in Missouri, in Texas, in Arkansas, in Louisiana.

As is usual in slave rising panics no firm evidence exists that black plots consisted in this moment of anything more substantial than whispered hopes. Whites in scattered localities saw Nat Turner everywhere — and nowhere was this more the case than in western Tennessee. There, slaves around the Cumberland River were believed to be organizing a Christmas Day rising* to cut their masters’ throats, run amok, and rendezvous with an imagined army of Fremont liberators. One correspondent described for northern papers how

the credulity of these poor people is such that, in the belief of the whites who excite them, they imagine that Col. Fremont, with a large army is awaiting at the mouth of the river Cumberland … Certain slaves are so greatly imbued with this fable, that I have seen them smile while they are being whipped, and have heard them say that ‘Fremont and his men can bear the blows they receive.’ (via the Barre (Mass.) Gazette, Dec. 19, 1956)

Against such hope — more blows. A truly horrifying and widely republished editorial in the Clarksville (Tenn.) Jeffersonian that Dec. 3 proposed an overwhelming bloodletting to crush this prospective jacquerie.

It is useless to shut our eyes and deny the facts, or sneer at the developments which have been made. Every hour multiplies the proof and corroborates previous discoveries. It is no Titus Oates affair, but a solemn, fearful and startling reality, and must be dealt with accordingly.

The crimes contemplated should be atoned for precisely as though those crimes had been attmpted and consummated. Fearful and terrible examples should be made, and if need be, the fagot and the flame should be brought into requisition to show these deluded maniacs the fierceness and the vigor, the swiftness and completeness of the white man’s vengeance. Let a terrible example be made in every neighborhood where the crime can be established, and if necessary let every tree in the country bend with negro meat. Temporizing in such cases as this is utter madness. We must strike terror, and make a lasting impression, for only in such a course can we find the guaranties of future security …

The path of future safety must be wet with the blood of those who have meditated these awful crimes. Misplaced clemency, and we believe that any clemency would be misplaced, may at no distant day bring upon this people, the horrors and the inexpressible crimes which marked the enfranchisement of St. Domingo. While retributive justice, sternly and unbendingly enforced, will certainly remove the cause of the evils we now suffer and prove our sure protection against their repetition in all time to come.

So far as this writer can establish it is not certain how many people overall in Tennessee and throughout the Slave Power met the guns and nooses of white vigilantes, but some of the best-established are a sextet hanged at Dover on December 4, 1856. This town on the Cumberland was roiled by rumors that slaves from nearby communities intended to march, armed, on Dover itself, an idea that seems not much less fanciful than that of deliverance by Fremont; it became thereby an epicenter of the suppression, and favors us from a sea of unreliable timelines and misstated figures with a concrete eyewitness description.

Tuesday morning [sic — the writer means Thursday, Dec. 4, having narrated Wednesday, Dec. 3 immediately prior], I went to Dover, and arrived there about 2 o’clock. The people had hung four negroes at 11 o’clock that morning, and two more then in town to be hung. I got to the place of execution in time to see the last one go off. Of the six that were hung, three had been preachers. They were all proved to be ring-leaders. I learned that the men at the forge were at work whipping the truth out of their negroes, so I rode out there that night, and was up with them all night. I never had such feelings in my life. I saw a list of negroes that had been whipped, and was told what they all had stated, and then I heard the balance examined — some taking five and six hundred lashes before they would tell the tale … One of the negroes at the forge died from whipping that night, several hours after the operation.

We are at work here to-day. We have one negro in chains, and will hang him I think, certain; if the committee will not the community are determined to do it. I think we will have quite an exciting time here before we get through. I have no doubt but that it is a universal thing all over the Southern States, and that every negro fifteen years old, either knows of it or is into it … (Louisville Daily Courier, Dec. 29, 1856)

Two key academic sources on this affair are:

  • Harvey Wish, “The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1856,” The Journal of Southern History, May, 1939
  • Charles Dew, “Black Ironworkers and the Slave Insurrection Panic of 1856,” The Journal of Southern History, August 1975

* Shades of Jamaica.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Summary Executions,Tennessee,Torture,Treason,USA

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1857: Two surviving members of the Aiken Party

Add comment November 28th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1857, the Utah Territory finished the extrajudicial executions it had botched three days before.

As we have detailed, Utah’s Mormon authorities had during these months of near-war against federal authorities taken prisoner a party of Californians crossing their territory — the Aiken (or Aikin) Party.

On November 25, four members of that party were murdered by the Mormon guards escorting them out of the state — killings that were quite extrajudicial, but also quite deliberately orchestrated by the stated.

Except, they had only killed two of the four.

Although outnumbered by their attackers and miles from the nearest settlement, somehow two men — perhaps John Aiken and John “Colonel” Eichard or Achard, although we cannot be certain of their identities — survived the bludgeons and staggered, wounded, back to the town of Nephi whose residents could not but take them in: an awkward situation since they still had to be done to death and could not very well be gunned down right there in the town.

We excerpt at length here from J.H. Beadle’s explanatory appendix in the autobiography of frontiersman and confessed Brigham Young hit man Wild Bill Hickman. Beadle was a vituperative anti-Mormon propagandist and his prose runs to the purple, but the core facts of the case are historically well-supported; see David Bigler, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858,” The Western Historical Quarterly, Winter 2007.

Two died without a struggle. But John Aikin bounded to his feet, but slightly wounded, and sprang into the brush. A shot from the pistol of John Kink laid him senseless. “Colonel” also reached the brush, receiving a shot in the shoulder from Port Rockwell, and believing the whole party had been attacked by banditti, he made his way back to Nephi. “With almost superhuman strength he held out during the twenty-five miles, and the first bright rays of a Utah sun showed the man, who twenty-four hours before had left them handsome and vigorous in the pride of manhood, now ghastly pale and drenched with his own blood, staggering feebly along the streets of Nephi. He reached Bishop Foote’s, and his story elicited a well-feigned horror.

Meanwhile the murderers had gathered up the other three and thrown them into the river, supposing all to be dead. But John Aikin revived and crawled out on the same side, and hiding in the brush, heard these terrible words:

“Are the damned Gentiles all dead, Port?”

“All but one — the son of a b– ran.”

Supposing himself to be meant, Aikin lay still till the Danites left, then, without hat, coat, or boots, on a November night, the ground covered with snow, he set out for Nephi. Who can imagine the feelings of the man? Unlike “Colonel” he knew too well who the murderers were, and believed himself the only survivor. To return to Nephi offered but slight hope, but it was the only hope, and incredible as it may appear he reached it next day. He sank helpless at the door of the first house he reached, but the words he heard infused new life into him. The woman, afterwards a witness, said to him, “Why, another of you ones got away from the robbers, and is at Brother Foote’s.” “Thank God; it is my brother,” he said, and started on. The citizens tell with wonder that he ran the whole distance, his hair clotted with blood, reeling like a drunken man all the way. It was not his brother, but “Colonel.” The meeting of the two at Foote’s was too affecting for language to describe. They fell upon each other’s necks, clasped their blood-spattered arms around each other, and with mingled tears and sobs kissed and embraced as only men can who together have passed through death …

[But] the murderers had returned, and a new plan was concocted. “Colonel” had saved his pistol and Aikin his watch, a gold one, worth at least $250. When ready to leave they asked the bill, and were informed it was $30. They promised to send it from the city, and were told that “would not do.” Aikin then said, “Here is my watch and my partner’s pistol — take your choice.” Foote took the pistol. When he handed it to him, Aikin said, “There, take my best friend. But God knows it will do us no good.” Then to his partner, with tears streaming from his eyes, “Prepare for death. Colonel, we will never get out of this valley alive.”

According to the main witness, a woman of Nephi, all regarded them as doomed. They had got four miles on the road, when their driver, a Mormon named [Absalom] Woolf,* stopped the wagon near an old cabin; informed them he must water his horses; unhitched them, and moved away. Two men then stepped from the cabin, and fired with double-barreled guns; Aiken and “Colonel” were both shot through the head, and fell dead from the wagon. Their bodies were then loaded with stone and put in one of those “bottomless springs” — so called — common in that part of Utah.

I passed the place in 1869, and heard from a native the whispered rumors about “some bad men that were sunk in that spring.” The scenery would seem to shut out all idea of crime, and irresistibly awaken thoughts of heaven. The soft air of Utah is around; above the blue sky smiles as if it were impossible there could be such things as sin or crime; and the neat village of Nephi brightens the plain, as innocently fair as if it had not witnessed a crime as black and dastardly as ever disgraced the annals of the civilized world.

* Grandfather of jockey George Woolf, who rode Seabiscuit to a famous victory over Triple Crown winner War Admiral in 1938.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Espionage,Execution,Executions Survived,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Summary Executions,USA,Utah

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1857: Two members of the Aiken Party

Add comment November 25th, 2018 Headsman

The first “executions” meted out by Mormon captors to the Aiken or Aikin Party men who were attempting to cross the war-footing territory eastward from California took place on November 25, 1857, and were as clumsy as they were brutal.

Under the pretext of escorting them out of the state, Thomas Aiken, John Aiken, John “Colonel” Eichard, and Andrew Jackson “Honesty” Jones reached the small settlement of Salt Creek, Utah, on November 24. They had their least peaceful sleep there that night while their guides, acting on orders from the top of the state’s hierarchy, planned their murders.

Four toughs dispatched by Bishop Jacob Bigler slipped out of Nephi before dawn the next day. They’d ride on ahead, and later that evening “accidentally” meet the southbound Aiken men and their escorts, presenting themselves as a chance encounter on the trails to share a camp that night. These toughs plus the escorts gave the Mormons an 8-to-4 advantage on their prisoners, which was still only good enough to kill 2-of-4 when the time came:

David Bigler’s 2007 Western Historical Quarterly article, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858.”

After supper, the newcomers sat around the fire singing. “Each assassin had selected his man. At a signal from [Porter] Rockwell, [the] four men drew a bar of iron each from his sleeve and struck his victim on the head. Collett did not stun his man and was getting worsted. Rockwell fired across the camp fire and wounded the man in the back. Two escaped and got back to Salt Creek.”

We don’t actually know which two died at the camp and which two made it back to Salt Creek. Bigler suspects Thomas Aiken and John Eichard were the victims to die on the 25th; the editors of Mormon assassin Bill Hickman‘s confessional autobiography make it Thomas Aiken and Honesty Jones.

The doomed men were stopping at T. B. Foote’s, and some persons in the family afterwards testified to having heard the council that condemned them. The selected murderers, at 11 p.m., started from the Tithing House and got ahead of the Aikins, who did not start till dayhght. The latter reached the Sevier River, when Rockwell informed them they could find no other camp that day; they halted, when the other party approached and asked to camp with them, for which permission was granted. The weary men removed their arms and heavy clothing, and were soon lost in sleep — that sleep which for two of them was to have no waking on earth. All seemed fit for their damnable purpose, and yet the murderers hesitated. As near as can be determined, they still feared that all could not be done with perfect secrecy, and determined to use no firearms. With this view the escort and the party from Nephi attacked the sleeping men with clubs and the kingbolts of the wagons. Two died without a struggle.

As for the two survivors … that’s a tale for another day.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Businessmen,Espionage,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Lucky to be Alive,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,USA,Utah,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , ,

1859: Yoshida Shoin, samurai sage

Add comment November 21st, 2018 Headsman

The name at the head of this page is probably unknown to the English reader, and yet I think it should become a household word like that of Garibaldi or John Brown. Some day soon, we may expect to hear more fully the details of Yoshida’s history, and the degree of his influence in the transformation of Japan …

Robert Louis Stevenson

On this date in 1859,* Japan’s fading Tokugawa Shogunate beheaded samurai sage Yoshida Shoin as an enemy of the state.

Inheriting leadership of an unprosperous samurai house by the untimely death of his adoptive father, Yoshida (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Japanese) studied war and philosophy from the age of five but understood right away that the classics he knew backward and forward were no match for the American gunships that steamed into Edo Bay in 1853.

Keen to learn the barbarian’s secrets, Yoshida and a friend named Sakuma Shozan* surreptitiously presented the American flotilla with an illicit request to come aboard. The American Commodore Perry never knew their identities, but he remembered the two “men of some position and rank, as each wore the two swords characteristic of distinction, and were dressed in the wide but short trowsers of rich silk brocade. Their manner showed the usual courtly refinement of the better classes, but they exhibited the embarrassment of men who evidently were not perfectly at their ease, and were about doing something of dubious propriety. They cast their eyes stealthily about as if to assure themselves that none of their countrymen were at hand to observe their proceedings, and then approaching one of the officers and pretending to admire his watch-chain, slipped within the breast of his coat a folded paper.” That paper, in courtly Mandarin, implored the visitor that the authors

have been for many years desirous of going over the ‘five great continents,’ but the laws of our country in all maritime points are very strict; for foreigners to come into the country, and for natives to go abroad, are both immutably forbidden … we now secretly send you this private request, that you will take us on board your ships as they go out to sea.

Instead, the shogunate clapped them in cages.

Would that iron bars could contain the shock Commodore Perry’s ships had given to Japan. Those islands had long closed themselves against the West save for narrow apertures on Dutch Learning. The evident superiority of American arms and the consequent necessity of accepting unequal treaties proved a fatal blow to the shogunate. Anger at the shogun manifested in a movement to restore the rights of the emperor — a position that the shogunate had centuries before reduced to a mere figurehead.

Our man Yoshida Shoin emerged from prison as a teacher whose loyalty hewed to the emperor. In vain did the shogunate attempt to purge such characters, for their cause far outstripped this or that man. Several of Yoshida’s students would be important players in the coming Meiji Restoration that did indeed reanimate the imperial office and topple the shogunate by the late 1860s.

By that time, Yoshida was rated a martyr and spiritual forerunner, for the dying shogunate had indeed seen fit to destroy him: “the old story of a power upon its last legs,” as Stevenson’s biography figures it: “learning to the bastille, and courage to the block … He failed in each particular enterprise that he attempted; and yet we have only to look at his country to see how complete has been his general success.”

* The Gregorian date. By the Japanese calendar it occurred in the tenth month, and some sites erroneously place it in October for that reason.

** Shozan was destined to be assassinated in 1864 by Kawakami Gensai.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Japan,Martyrs,Nobility,Power,Treason

Tags: , , , , , ,

Previous Posts


Calendar

August 2019
M T W T F S S
« Jul    
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
262728293031  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!