On this date in 1870, the lynching of a mulatto freedman in Alamance County, North Carolina sounded the tocsin for ex-Confederates’ rollback of Reconstruction.
Perhaps America’s most tragic period, the aftermath of the Civil War saw a too-brief attempt to enforce ex-slaves’ civil rights, before it succumbed to violent counterattack. The prevailing historiography in the century-long era of Southern apartheid that followed remembered it as a time of impertinent Negroes ravishing Dixie’s virtue by being seated in the legislature and giving orders to their natural betters.
Winners write history, after all.
Those of the pro-Republican coalition at the time, before Northerners folded their hand, had a mind to write a different history.
Alamance County was one epicenter of this aborted alternative. The enclave was cool to secession from the beginning, and in the early years of Reconstruction had a live black-white coalition. Wyatt Outlaw, a mixed-race Alamance native who had fought for the Union, was a local leader in it. A member of the antislavery Union League, which registered freedmen as voters throughout the South, he was appointed a town commissioner for Graham, N.C. under the state’s new constitution.
This made him a prime target of Ku Kluxers. On the night of February 26, 1870, an armed party of white supremacists about 100 strong raided his home and strung him up on an elm tree facing the county courthouse. Pinned to his corpse for the edification of the morning’s churchgoers was a note:
“Beware you guilty — both white and black.”
North Carolina Governor William Holden complained to the U.S. Senate of federal unwillingness to act against such outrages.
What is being done to protect good citizens in Alamance County? We have Federal troops, but we want power to act. Is it possible the government will abandon its loyal people to be whipped and hanged? The habeas corpus should be at once suspended.
One of the characters in Fool’s Errand is a nearly exact representation of Wyatt Outlaw: “Uncle Jerry Hunt”, who resists the Klan. It is “chiefly through Uncle Jerry’s persuasions, and because of his prominence and acknowledged leadership, this spirit had gone out among the colored men of the county.” He meets a graphic end that almost journalistically reports Outlaw’s real fate.
It was a chill, dreary night. A dry, harsh wind blew from the north. The moon was at the full, and shone clear and cold in the blue vault.
There was one shrill whistle, some noise of quietly moving horses; and those who looked from their windows saw a black-gowned and grimly-masked horseman sitting upon a draped horse at every corner of the streets, and before each house, –grim, silent, threatening. Those who saw dared not move, or give any alarm. Instinctively they knew that the enemy they had feared had come, had them in his clutches, and would work his will of them, whether they resisted or not. So, with the instinct of self-preservation, all were silent–all simulated sleep.
Five, ten, fifteen minutes the silent watch continued. A half-hour passed, and there had been no sound. Each masked sentry sat his horse as if horse and rider were only some magic statuary with which the bleak night cheated the affrighted eye. Then a whistle sounded on the road toward Verdenton. The masked horsemen turned their horses’ heads in that direction, and slowly and silently moved away. Gathering in twos, they fell into ranks with the regularity and ease of a practiced soldiery, and, as they filed on towards Verdenton, showed a cavalcade of several hundred strong; and upon one of the foremost horses rode one with a strange figure lashed securely to him.
When the few who were awake in the little village found courage to inquire as to what the silent enemy had done, they rushed from house to house with chattering teeth and trembling limbs, only to find that all were safe within, until they came to the house where old Uncle Jerry Hunt had been dwelling alone since the death of his wife six months before. The door was open.
The house was empty. The straw mattress had been thrown from the bed, and the hempen cord on which it rested had been removed.
The sabbath morrow was well advanced when the Fool [i.e., Tourgee himself] was first apprised of the raid. He at once rode into the town, arriving there just as the morning services closed, and met the people coming along the streets to their homes. Upon the limb of a low-branching oak not more than forty steps from the Temple of Justice, hung the lifeless body of old Jerry. The wind turned it slowly to and fro. The snowy hair and beard contrasted strangely with the dusky pallor of the peaceful face, which seemed even in death to proffer a benison to the people of God who passed to and fro from the house of prayer, unmindful both of the peace which lighted the dead face, and of the rifled temple of the Holy Ghost which appealed to them for sepulture. Over all pulsed the sacred echo of the sabbath bells. The sun shone brightly. The wind rustled the autumn leaves. A few idlers sat upon the steps of the court-house, and gazed carelessly at the ghastly burden on the oak. The brightly-dressed church-goers enlivened the streets. Not a colored man was to be seen. All except the brown cadaver on the tree spoke of peace and prayer–a holy day among a godly people, with whom rested the benison of peace.
The Fool asked of some trusty friends the story of the night before. With trembling lips one told it to him,
“I heard the noise of horses–quiet and orderly, but many. Looking from the window in the clear moonlight, I saw horsemen passing down the street, taking their stations here and there, like guards who have been told off for duty, at specific points. Two stopped before my house, two opposite Mr. Haskin’s, and two or three upon the corner below. They seemed to have been sent on before as a sort of picket-guard for the main body, which soon came in. I should say there were from a hundred to a hundred and fifty still in line. They were all masked, and wore black robes. The horses were disguised, too, by drapings. There were only a few mules in the whole company. They were good horses, though: one could tell that by their movements. Oh, it was a respectable crowd! No doubt about that, sir. Beggars don’t ride in this country. I don’t know when I have seen so many good horses together since the Yankee cavalry left here after the surrender. They were well drilled too. Plenty of old soldiers in that crowd. Why, every thing went just like clock-work. Not a word was said–just a few whistles given. They came like a dream, and went away like a mist. I thought we should have to fight for our lives; but they did not disturb any one here. They gathered down by the court-house. I could not see precisely what they were at, but, from my back upper window, saw them down about the tree. After a while a signal was given, and just at that time a match was struck, and I saw a dark body swing down under the limb. I knew then they had hung somebody, but had no idea who it was. To tell the truth, I had a notion it was you, Colonel. I saw several citizens go out and speak to these men on the horses. There were lights in some of the offices about the court-house, and in several of the houses about town. Every thing was as still as the grave,–no shouting or loud talking, and no excitement or stir about town. It was evident that a great many of the citizens expected the movement, and were prepared to co-operate with it by manifesting no curiosity, or otherwise endangering its success. I am inclined to think a good many from this town were in it. I never felt so powerless in my life. Here the town was in the hands of two or three hundred armed and disciplined men, hidden from the eye of the law, and having friends and co-workers in almost every house. I knew that resistance was useless.”
“But why,” asked the Fool, “has not the body been removed?”
“We have been thinking about it,” was the reply; “but the truth is, it don’t seem like a very safe business. And, after what we saw last night, no one feels like being the first to do what may be held an affront by those men. I tell you, Colonel, I went through the war, and saw as much danger as most men in it; but I would rather charge up the Heights of Gettysburg again than be the object of a raid by that crowd.”
After some parley, however, some colored men were found, and a little party made up, who went out and saw the body of Uncle Jerry cut down, and laid upon a box to await the coming of the coroner, who had already been notified. The inquest developed only these facts, and the sworn jurors solemnly and honestly found the cause of death unknown. One of the colored men who had watched the proceedings gave utterance to the prevailing opinion, when he said,–
“It don’t do fer niggers to know too much! Dat’s what ail Uncle Jerry!”
And indeed it did seem as if his case was one in which ignorance might have been bliss.
The multitalented, ahead-of-his-time Tourgee might well have uttered the same sentiment in 1896, when he was the lead attorney on the losing side of Plessy v. Ferguson — the Supreme Court’s landmark sanction of the color line that Uncle Jerry’s hangmen had drawn.
* Narrowly beating Nebraska’s David Butler, who got the boot a few months later. Holden remains the only governor to suffer this indignity in North Carolina history; there has been a recent push in the Raleigh legislature to posthumously pardon him. Holden’s own memoirs are also available free online.
** Along with the book’s contention that northern Republicans were to blame for vacillating on Reconstruction. “This cowardly shirking of responsibility, this pandering to sentimental whimsicalities, this snuffling whine about peace and conciliation, is sheer weakness … [the North is] a country debauched by weak humanitarianisms, more anxious to avoid the appearance of offending its enemies than desirous of securing its own power or its own ends.”
On this date in 1870, Japanese samurai Kumoi Tatuo was beheaded for attempting to topple the Meiji government.
Briefly a bureaucrat under the restored emperor, Tatsuo like manysamurai grew disillusioned with the new state and its eclipse of the old ways.
Suspected of plotting an attack on senior government officials, he was arrested and beheaded with eleven others.
At death, I fear no dying;
In life embrace not living;
The brilliance of the sun
Is rivaled by integrity.
Execution has no terror,
Though it be a boiling cauldron;
But how insignificant my poor person,
Against the Great Wall!
You are only twenty-seven or -eight of age and your future is greatly promising. Above all, you must aim to be a great man in maturity and, without becoming content with temporary honor, work hard from this moment, striving to leave a name imperishable for a thousand years in the history of English literature. Tatsuo … has left nothing for the history of Japan, let alone for the history of the world. It is merely that because his poems are inept (they are, yes, inept when viewed in Chinese literature), because they meet the taste of those without a discerning eye as readers, a handful of students, who just want to feel good, recite them. You must draw your own conclusion from Tatsuo’s example.
Tortured by a Bungling Hangman — Half Executed with a Rotten Rope — A Monster under the Gibbet.
The four negroes who were hanged on Friday last at the Court House of Isle of Wight county, Virginia, were convicted of the murder, under most brutal circumstances, of Josiah P. Grey, a citizen of that country, in December last. Six negroes were implicated in the crime, named respectively, Guyanetta Mears, Alfred Bunckley, Moses and Peter Newby, alias Lawrence, Jacob Wallace, and Henry Coston, alias East. The last five were immediately arrested, Mears having either effected his escape in a somewhat miraculous manner, or, as it is rumored, having been lynched by his captors. The five taken were tried at the August term of Isle of Wight county. Bunckley having turned State’s evidence, escaped, but by their own confession of complicity in the killing, four of them were condemned to be hanged. The Norfolk Virginian gives this account of the execution:
About 12 1/2 o’clock the officers entered the cell in which the prisoners were confined, and striking off their iron shackles, tied their hands behind their backs, at the same time telling them they could make any communication which they wished. To this no satisfactory answer was returned, and the condemned continued chanting their prayers for mercy from on high. As soon as the pinioning was performed, the condemned were marched out of the jail on the steps and upon the scaffold.
They walked firmly and undoubtedly, with one exception, Moses Newby, who shook as if in an ague fit, and were ranged in the following order: Peter Newby, Henry Coston, Moses Newby, and Jacob Wallace. The fatal nooses were then adjusted, when the Sheriff read the death warrant and sentence of death. The prisoners were informed that they could have an opportunity of saying a few words each.
The feet of the condemned having been pinioned upon their first taking their stand upon the scaffold, as each one ceased to speak the black cap was drawn over his head, and when all had finished, the scaffold was cleared of all but the condemned and at exactly 1 o’clock, at a signal from Deputy Sheriff Ely, the prop was pulled violently away, and the drop fell.
Then ensued a scene the recital of which we would willingly spare our readers, and a repetition of which we earnestly hope it may never be our lot to witness. As the bodies fell in the drop, the two end men, Peter Newby and Jacob Wallace, both large, athletic men, snapped the rope like pack-thread, and fell heavily to the earth, apparently insensible.
The other two remained suspended; but one was hanging by only one strand of the rope, the other two having been broken by the fall. Moses Newby died instantly, his neck being broken, but Henry Coston lived for nearly ten minutes, gasping for breath, and his limbs working convulsively.
The two men on the ground lay still for a few minutes, when Jacob Wallace rose to a sitting posture and broke into prayers and supplications. Peter Newby lay a while longer, when he also sat up, but kept silent, except groans extorted by pain. Their feet were then untied, when both stood up, Newby leaning heavily against the steps of the gallows, while Wallace walked back and forth, praying intently. New ropes were procured and adjusted to the beam, the two men hanging preventing the drop being raised. At the expiration of seventeen minutes the physicians in attendance, Drs. Jordan and Chapman, examined the bodies and pronounced them both dead, when another horror was enacted which made strong men shudder and turn pale.
Instead of lowering the bodies as is always customary, the ropes were cut, allowing the ghastly corpses to fall with a horrible thud at the very feet of the two half-hanged men standing below. Not content with this, the brutal monster who officiated as hangman, an occupation which he dishonored, and who rejoices in the name of the name of [sic] John J. Murphy, descended from the scaffold, and taking hold of the rope attached to the neck of one of the dead men, drew the body by it across the yard, and tumbled it into the coffin, as if it had been a dead dog. He repeated the operation on the next one, and seemed to think that by his disgusting brutality he had done some meritorious action.
During the whole of the time this disgusting scene was transpiring, Wallace and Peter Newby, although suffering horribly from the effects of the rope around their necks, in their fall, betrayed no emotion, save that Wallace used the time in praying loud and fast. Newby looked on apparently as unconcerned as if he was not an actor in the dreadful drama.
The new ropes, which were of stout cotton cord, having been fixed, the drop was replaced and the miserable men mounted the scaffold the second time, this time never to return alive.
The condemned both spoke to the crowd around in the same strain as before, at the conclusion of which the black caps were again drawn over their heads, and at half past one o’clock the drop again fell, and the ropes proving strong enough, they were left struggling in the air. Neither of their necks were broken, and for several minutes they gave painful evidence of life by their forced breathing and the convulsive jerking of their arms and legs. They were allowed to hang for half an hour, when they too were cut down, placed in their coffins, and taken to the court-house graveyard for interment.
[editor's note: here's the perfunctory and much less colorful New York Times report of the incident.]
On this date in 1870, Margaret Waters became the first woman in England to hang for baby-farming.
Waters was condemned for murdering an infant she had taken in as a contractual temporary adoption; there is the matter in the dry language of the law.
But Waters’ import — and in fact, since press outrage that her ward’s death had initially been ruled only manslaughter by the coroner, the extremity of her legal straits as well — derived from her milestone symbolism in a burgeoning Victorian-era moral panic.
Margaret Waters’ case dominates the cover of the Oct. 15, 1870 Illustrated Police News, with a central illustration of Margaret Waters hanged … surrounded, appropriately, by men.
“Baby farming” hit the papers in the 1860’s with sensational exposes of a gray market business whose model was:
Relieve unwilling mother of her newborn infant for a fee
It’s the “???” that’s up for grabs.
To the newspapermen, and the day’s elite crusaders for reform, and especially to the nascent medical industry whose British Medical Journal was instrumental in fomenting public alarm,* it signified nothing short of infanticide, a sort of post-partum abortion.
Thus, the Times of London’s sermonizing post-hanging editorial (Oct. 12, 1870):
A most just sentence has thus been executed, and the law has conspicuously fulfilled its appointed office of being a terror to evil-doers. A more terrible case, with respect both to the heinousness of the offence and to the unexpected vengeance which has overtaken it, has never occurred … The wretched woman and her sister were proved to have systematically published advertisements offering to “adopt” children for a remuneration which no one in his senses could believe to be adequate. In other words, they offered to the parents of illegitimate children a means of getting rid of charges at once burdensome and shameful to them … For the sake of a paltry and precarious gain MARGARET WATERS and her sister had the heart to make away with the helpless little creatures … nothing can palliate the hideous spectacle thus brought to light. A murder in hot blood, the deliberate gratification of revenge, or even a premeditated act of violence in the pursuit of some selfish object, fall short in some respects to the heinousness of this offence. The deepest instincts of a woman’s heart must have been deadened, and the most ordinary feelings of human nature extinguished, before such slow murder could be perpetrated upon piteous little innocents.
… MARGARET WATERS confesses to receiving children for purposes of profit, whom she, at least, knew she could not support. She confesses to receiving them for 5 l. or 10 l., and finding other people who would receive them for a fortnight’s expenses paid in advance, and would then let her hear no more of them. She confesses to taking them into the streets, placing them in the hands of children, and then running away and leaving them to their fate. She confessed to all this, and yet she professed to see in it nothing but “falsehood and deceit.” It was not murder, and nothing seems to have astonished her so much as the sudden vengeance which overtook her … while admitting the most damning facts, she extenuates their criminality. It is well that the stern sentence of the law has pronounced a terrible condemnation of these heartless excuses. “Baby Farming” as practiced by MARGARET WATERS was ruthless and systematic murder, and her doom will indelibly stamp this brand upon her infamous trade.
We wish it could be thought this unhappy woman was a solitary instance of such wilful blindness. It is to be feared she has expiated the sins of others who have actually perpetrated similar crimes, and it is certain there are many who are direct accomplices in her guilt. When she says that “the parents of illegitimate children who seek to get rid of them are more culpable than persons like herself, and that if there were no such parents there would be no ‘Baby Farmers,'” she does but exaggerate a just charge. When MARGARET WATERS abandoned children in the streets to the casual care of passers-by, she did but repeat what had been done by those who had first abandoned them to her in the dark of the night at obscure railway stations. It cannot be too strongly asserted that this execution reflects more or less the brand of murder upon all who contributed to the offence — upon the parents who only sought to get rid of their children, and upon those who allowed their journals to be the instruments of what they might have known to be an infamous traffic. It must be acknowledged that the justice of the law is but brought justice, and spares many who deserve punishment. That is inevitable. But one of the great uses of the law is to depict in true colours the real meaning of common offences. Selfish and licentious men and women will know for the future what is the natural issue of the offences against morality and society which they lightly commit. It is murder, and nothing less, that is the ultimate meaning of these social evils, and this is the contamination incurred by those who facilitate such offences.
Sounds pretty bad.
But then … all those other “selfish and licentious men and women”: had Waters somehow been the bad apple to spoil an entire bushel? (Reformers of the time write often of illicit behavior as a contagion whose example inspires a wider moral deadening.) Or was there something else going on?
Even the Times agrees that our culprit “never entertained the intention of becoming a ‘Baby Farmer’ and a Murderess. She drifted into it under the pressure of want and temptation. … It is, according to her statement, only six years since she was a married woman in good circumstances.”
According to Waters’ own account, summarized third-hand in the Times a few days prior to the hanging, (Oct. 7, 1870) her fall from respectable wedlock to public enemy number one began with the 1864 death of her husband, leaving the woman
with 300 l. in her possession. Intending to turn her capital to account, she took a house in Addington-square, Camberwell, and put into it a number of sewing-machines. Her plan was to make collars and other such articles, and sell them to the city houses. She knew little or nothing of the business, however, and, partly owing to that circumstance and partly to the miserable prices which were paid for such goods, she was at the end of the year a loser of 250 l. She then resolved to save herself by letting lodgings, and that step led her imperceptibly into her career of baby farming. … she was steadily going down-hill, and she found herself obliged to leave Addington-square and go to Bournemouth-terrace, Peckham, where she commenced baby farming as a system. She advertised for children, and she had answers from persons in all stations … She drifted along in this course, getting from bad to worse. But she protested that she had no idea of injuring the children, though she did some things she was very sorry for, owing to the difficulties of her position … She took the Clerkenwell News, and there she used to find a whole string of advertisements — three of them were put in for a shilling — from women who wanted children to nurse. She advertised herself for children to adopt, and she generally got 10 l. with one. When she got the child and the money she went to one of the other advertisers in the Clerkenwell News and arranged to put the baby out to nurse. Upon paying two weeks in advance she was hardly ever asked even for her address, and when she went away of course she never heard anything more of the child. She gained the difference between the 10 l. given her for adopting the child and the fortnight’s payment for nursing it. This was, after all, a very precarious resource, and she fell into great distress … The time came soon when she was unable to pay the money-lender his instalments, and he threatened to strip her of everything under her bill of sale … When she went to Brixton five children died, some from diarrhoea and wasting, and others from convulsions. She was very poor, and determined to save the price of burial by leaving them about. She wrapped the bodies in brown paper and took them out at night, and left them where they were found by people afterwards. She maintains that she did what she could for these children, and attended to them to the best of her power. There were also four other children whom she got rid of in a way for which she is now very sorry. She took them, one at a time, into the streets, and when she saw little boys and girls at play she called one of them and said, “Oh, I am so tired! Here, hold my baby, and here is sixpence for you to go into the sweetstuff-shop and get something nice.” While the boy or girl went into the shop she made off. The babies, she believes, were generally taken to the workhouse.
The slide into the vast but shadow world of poverty, in short … a timeless story.
While intentional infanticide undoubtedly formed some part of the baby farming picture, its nature and extent is also nothing to presume. In an era of staggering child mortality, dead infants were a norm, sometimes the norm. In the context of desperate penury, it was all the more likely. Middle-class authorities who raided Waters’ “farm” saw (and testified to) a slum purposely structured to kill off children. They may simply have beheld indigence.
Waters herself always rejected any notion that she had intentionally killed any of her charges.
Summing up the doomed woman’s testimonial, the doctor who took it underscored the point with an entirely plausible counter-narrative.
Dr. Edmunds, in concluding the recital of the remarkable and instructive statement Margaret Waters made to him a few hours before, said that when children, even under the best conditions, were taken from the breast and brought up by hand, the chances were all against them. What, then, was the chance of infants taken out in the open air the moment they were born and brought up with only such appliances as Mrs. Waters, at her wits’ end for money, flying from money-lenders and dodging landlords, had at her disposal? From what he could judge she had no intention of murdering any of the children, but they died off, as they might have been expected to die off, from diarrhoea, thrush, and convulsions, and when they died she callously got rid of their bodies as best she could when she became poor.
If Waters’ story holds water, her fees so inadequate to the long-term maintenance of children represent much the same calculated gamble involved in insurance: foul play or no, she had no reason to expect to maintain children long-term.** Cold … but hardly incomprehensible.
Interestingly, one of the key antecedents of the baby farming scandals in the 1860s and 70s was the codification of prim sexual mores for which the Victorian era is a byword.
Earlier in the 19th century, financial responsibility for illegitimate children had shifted from the (putative) father to the mother, and government Poor Relief to single mothers had been slashed — a bit of abstinence-only social engineering meant to stigmatize single motherhood to the greater good of the softer sex: “We trust that as soon as it has become … burdensome and disgraceful, it will soon become … rare.”
Surprisingly, welfare reform did not stop Victorians having sex. Given a milieu where birth control and abortion are illicit and single motherhood severely stigmatized, the policy implied a swath of single mothers powerfully incentivized to have burdensome and death-prone children taken off their hands … and an industry of entrepreneurs ready to meet the demand.
Waters was the first of eight women in England, Scotland and Wales hanged as baby farmers from 1870 to 1909. Her execution would help lead to the 1872 adoption of the Infant Life Protection Act, which introduced a regimen of license and registration in the heretofore libertarian economy of freelance child-brokering.
Books about Baby Farming and its Context
* In “Wolves in Women’s Clothing: Baby-Farming and the British Medical Journal, 1860-1872″ (Journal of Family History, vol. 26, no. 3, July 2001), Ruth Ellen Homrighaus argues that
[b]y using their ‘expertise’ to stake a claim on infanticide and to relegate female reformers to the ranks of amateurs, writers for the BMJ made one of many moves to professionalize medicine … [and] establish a monopoly over health care by improving and standardizing medical education and restricting competition from untrained ‘charlatans.’
Infanticide writ large being a complex social problem, it found in baby farming a specific target amenable to outraged public mobilization, with a “subtext … [that] denied that working-class women were fit to manage childbirth and infant care.”
Margaret Waters had the ill luck to be discovered just as this campaign was in need of a potent emblematic villain. Despite the pestering of the moralistic set, police interest in hounding the persons who attended England’s considerable produce of disposable children rapidly waned in the 1870’s.
** Reviewing the still-lively baby farming scene in early 20th century America, Lawrence Friedman notes that
baby farms made a profit from a “grisly calculus”: most babies, in the days before reliable bottle-feeding, simply died when separated from their mothers. Add to this filthy conditions and poor care, and it is no surprise that most babies in baby farms did not survive. Allegedly, up to 80 percent of all babies admitted to one Baltimore baby farm died within weeks.
On this date in 1870, a troublesome Anglophone was shot in Fort Garry by the rebellious Metis provisional government.
The Red River “Rebellion” pitted the Métis people — Francophone mixed-race descendants of Europeans and natives, constantly referred to as “half-breeds” in the period’s literature — of the inland plains against the Canadian government that had just bought the rights to their land from the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Needless to say, this sale was not effected with reference to the consent of said land’s inhabitants, which makes the term “rebellion” something of a misnomer — rightful authority was not clearly constituted, and in this period it would be negotiated on the fly.
Distrustful of the Ontario government and the Red River Settlement’s own minority of Anglo settlers, Louis Riel led a headquarters in Upper Fort Garry.* Riel’s negotiations with Canadian authorities set the parameters for the future province of Manitoba.
Parallel to the diplomatic overtures, however, were skirmish-level military hostilities.
Scott, an Irish-born Orangeman of fiercely anti-Catholic disposition, was captured with a few dozen Anglos attempting to mount an assault on Metis holdings and imprisoned in Fort Garry. He escaped with some of the other prisoners, but was re-arrested making a return trip to attack the fort again and liberate the remaining captives.
Scott’s execution this day helped inflame anti-Metis sentiment and contributed to the Riel government’s collapse a few months later.** But the guy makes a bit of a problematic martyr because — and we want to be fair here — he seems to have been an unmitigated prick.
The leader of Scott’s fatal expedition, Charles Boulton, was likewise condemned by the Metis, but Riel pardoned Boulton and even offered to bring him into Riel’s own government. Scott, by contrast, let no one be mistaken about his contempt for the half-breeds and abused his captors; his particular sentence was procured on the grounds of having defied the provisional government’s authority and threatened Riel.
Since Riel was looking for someone to make an example of, he was the guy.
As so often with firing squads, the execution was a botch … and upon that botch was laid, according to the testimony of a Metis opponent of Riel quoted by Boulton, a downright sadistic final chapter. (It must be noted that both the original source and the man citing it have an interest in maximizing the alleged brutality of Riel.)
Six soldiers had been chosen to shoot Scott. I have here again to write the name of a man whose behaviour in that circumstance reflects on him the greatest honour. Augustin Parisien, one of the six soldiers, declared openly that he would not shoot at Scott; in fact, he took off the cap from his gun before the word of command ‘present’ was given. Of the five balls remaining, only two hit the poor victim, one on the left shoulder, and the other in the upper part of the chest above the heart. Had the other soldiers missed the mark undesignedly, or had they intentionally aimed away from Riel’s victim, it is not known. However that may be, as the two wounds were not sufficient to cause death, at least sudden death, a man, named Guillemette stepped forward and discharged the contents of a pistol close to Scott’s head while he was lying on the ground. This ball, however, took a wrong direction. It penetrated the upper part of the left cheek and came out somewhere about the cartilage of the nose. Scott was still not dead, but that did not prevent his butchers from placing him alive and still speaking, in a kind of coffin made of four rough boards. It was nailed and plated in the south-eastern bastion, and an armed soldier was placed at the door. This would seem like a story made at one’s ease, if there were not several credible witnesses who, between the hours of five and six in the evening, heard the unfortunate Scott speaking from under the lid of his coffin, and it was known that he had been shot at half-past twelve. What a long and horrible agony, and what ferocious cruelty was this on the part of his butchers. The words heard and understood by the French Metis were only these ‘My God, My God!’ Some English Metis, and those understanding English, heard distinctly these words: ‘For God’s sake take me out of here or kill me.’ Towards 11 o’clock — that is, after ten and a half hours of frightful agony — a person, whose name I shalt withhold for the present, went into the bastion, and, according to some, gave him the finishing stroke with a butcher’s knife, with a pistol, according to others. After having inflicted the last blow on poor Scott, that person said, as he was coming back from the bastion: ‘He is dead this time!’ The corpse was left for a few days in the south-eastern bastion, being guarded by the soldiers, relieving each other in turn.
* The site — most of the fort is demolished — is now in downtown Winnipeg.
The horrific state of the bodies (caution: link displays grisly post-mortem photos) produced a public sensation with the curious phenomenon of mass citizen pilgrimmages to the “field of cadavers” such that the Parisian police chief would later remember that “[i]t was necessary to close the entrance gate of the train station on the crowd that could no longer go in or out, that screamed from every direction in explosions of terror and rage: ‘Yet another victim of Pantin!'”
Troppmann had last been seen accompanying family father Jean Kinck on a business trip from which the latter was destined never to return … and it soon came to light that Jean Kinck had been the first of Troppmann’s victims, followed by the eldest son, interspersed with letters written to Kinck’s unwitting widow requesting bank transfers in the name of his deceased business partner.
As a judicial matter, this case was open and shut; Troppmann was convicted three months after his arrest, and went under the blade three weeks after that.
Small wonder such a staggering throng assembled for the dawn beheading — assembled even from the previous evening, to catch a glimpse of the grim apparatus being assembled for the next day’s play.
Among the multitude were various intellectual worthies, including the liberal Russian author Ivan Turgenev. His subsequent “Kazn’ Tropmana” (“The Execution of Troppmann” — the link is in Russian; I haven’t found a full English version), which includes meeting the remorseless prisoner and witnessing his pre-execution “toilette,” reflects the writer’s discomfiture with Madame Guillotine. Too appalled to watch the beheading, he turns away and narrates its sound.
a light knocking of wood on wood — that was the sound made by the top part of the yoke with the slit for the passage of the knife as it fell round the murderer’s head and kept it immobile … Then something suddenly descended with a hollow growl and stopped with an abrupt thud … Just as though a huge animal had retched … I felt dizzy. Everything swam before my eyes. … None of us, absolutely none looked like a person who realized that he had been present at the implementation of an act of social justice; each one tried mentally to turn aside and, as it were, throw off any responsibility for this murder
“I will not forget that horrible night,” Turgenev later wrote to a friend (pdf link), “in the course of which ‘I have supp’d full of horrors’ and acquired a definite loathing for capital punishment in general, and in particular for the way it is carried out in France.”
Although Troppmann’s name appears on some lists of serial killers, his eight homicides do not fit the term’s usual definition of a compulsive pattern of murders spread over time. Troppmann’s blood offerings were meant for no other idol but Mammon.