1871: Generals Lecomte and Thomas, at the birth of the Paris Commune

Add comment March 18th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the Paris Commune was born, with the execution of Generals Lecomte and Thomas.

Paris had come to the brink of revolution by dint of the country’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. After a monthslong Prussian siege of the capital, Paris had become thoroughly radicalized and stood at tense loggerheads with the newly elected conservative national government of Adolphe Thiers. A militant National Guard swelled by the city’s large proletariat had defended Paris during its late privations, only to see a government of national humiliation accept punishing peace terms from Bismarck and submit to a Prussian victory parade on the Champs d’Elysees.

Now, it blanched at the national government’s intention to reassert its own long-absent authority in Paris.

These sovereigns’ rivalries chanced to focus in the critical moment upon 400 bronze cannon in Paris, which the National Guard had used in the city’s defense and deployed to working-class neighborhoods with the intention of keeping them out of the government’s hands.

On March 18, upon an order by Thiers which some of his ministers opposed, the army moved upon these guns, intending to seize weapons and authority together. General Claude Lecomte (English Wikipedia entry | French), a rock-ribbed career officer of 63, had charge of this operation so offensive to the Parisian populace.

Lecomte was able to deploy his men at Montmarte where a great portion of the guns would come into his possession, but well did the master observe that “The line between disorder and order lies in logistics” — for a delay in the arrival of the horses and tumbrils by which the artillery would be hauled away gave time for word to spread in the city and an angry crowd assemble to oppose this outrage. Thiers had overruled objections that his soldiery was itself sympathetic to the radicals and would not be reliable in the breach; now, those warnings were vindicated as the soldiery declined to fire on Parisians and instead fraternized as the people took back Montmarte.

Although Lecomte was “merely” seized for the Central Committee of the National Guard, Paris’s blood was up; “the mob wanted to tear their victims to pieces, and it is my opinion they are the culpable judges,” writes John Leighton in Paris Under the Commune.

The first to lay hands on General Lecomte were linesmen and Mobiles, one of the latter observing, as he made a gesture, “Formerly you punished me with thirty days in prison, now I will be the first to fire at you.” Whilst this was going on a new movement was observed in the crowd. It was the arrival of another prisoner, a venerable gentleman, with a white beard, in plain clothes. It was General Clement Thomas, who had been arrested in the Place Pigalle by the National Guards. The General had been advised to run away, but he would remain, saying, “I will walk, it is my right.” This brought about a mob, who conducted him to the Rue des Rosiers, making it still worse for the prisoner Lecomte, for it was well known that Clement Thomas had been pretty severe at the Hotel de Ville and elsewhere, on the battalions of Montmartre and Belleville.

Once in the Rue des Rosiers, General Thomas felt he was lost, but as he would not die without knowing the cause, he mounted some steps and in a loud voice demanded, “What do you reproach me with?” “To death!” replied the crowd. “You are too great cowards to shoot me,” said the General. With these words he was driven into the garden, whilst General Lecomte in the scuffle attempted to escape by the back door, though unfortunately without success. Once in the garden, the old vine-covered walls and chestnut trees became crowded with miserable spectators ready to see the horrible deed perpetrated by a peloton of soldiers of the line and two francs-tireurs. In falling, poor General Lecomte exclaimed, “Oh my poor children! my —-” As he sunk mortally wounded, a villain of the group stepped forward and slapped him in the face. Clement Thomas was shot by National Guards. At first only wounded, he afterwards fell pierced in fourteen places. A National Guard pulled him over by the beard, that his face might be seen, and for two hours afterwards the bodies afforded a ghastly spectacle that was enjoyed by an ignoble procession of spectators.

Outside the garden, with the city in an uproar, the proletarian organs that had grown over the long siege took Paris firmly in hand while national government officials fled as they could — or were rounded up as hostages if they could not. The Commune would be master of Paris for ten tense weeks, until Thiers’s republic drowned it in blood.

For Leighton, no friend of the Commune, all the woe in its suppression could be traced to the ham-handed cannon debacle of March 18, 1871:

One thing appears certain — that General Lecomte did not take prompt measures and proper precautions, and that the Government, which sent him to remove 171 guns, without teams, and so small a force, acted inconsiderately, and must be held morally responsible for the disasters which ensued — disasters that, terrible as they are, might have been worse and have led to the total ruin of France.

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1871: Eugen Kvaternik, for the Rakovica revolt

Add comment October 11th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1871, Eugen Kvaternik and a number of companions were shot as rebels.

A patriot who had long aspired to detach Croatia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kvaternik (English Wikipedia entry | Croatian) found enough traction to give it a go during the late 19th century’s rise of swirling nationalist rivalries.

His Rakovica Revolt, named after the village where Kvaternik announced the Croatian People’s Republic on October 7, 1871, was speedily crushed, however. Kvaternik’s rebels routed on the 10th with the appearance of a federal army and the arrests began forthwith.

On October 11, a military tribunal sentenced Kvaternik and various comrades to death — sentences that were implemented immediately by musketry. Today, there are streets and city squares in independent Croatia named to Kvaternik’s honor.


The Killings of Rakovica (Death of Eugen Kvaternik), by Oton Ivekovic.

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1871: James Wilson, steely burglar

Add comment October 13th, 2016 Headsman

From the San Francisco Daily Call (Oct. 28, 1871) via a curious trans-Pacific audience in Australia’s Queanbeyan Age (Dec. 21, 1871). As usual, paragraphs added for readability.

EXECUTION OF JAMES WILSON, AT HARTFORD — DESPERATE ATTEMPT AT SUICIDE.

The last hours in the life of the burglar and murderer hanged at Hartford Conn., on Friday, the 13th instant, were sensational enough to suit his morbid craving for notoriety, and strangely rounded out a long career of adventure and rascality.

James Wilson, or to give his true name, David Kently, has been for many years a public outlaw.. He is charged, and justly according to his own confession, with between 200 and 300 burglaries.

The crimination of this career, it will be remembered, was the murderer of Warden Williard, of the State Prison at Weshersfield, on August 16th, 1870. The Warden called to Wilson’s cell-door to hear one of the complaints that troublesome prisoners were always ready with, and was perfidiously stabbed by a sword-cane (how obtained no one knowns), which Wilson thrust between the bars of his door and into the Warden’s abdomen.

Wilson asserted then and to the last that maltreatment provoked the deed.

For this he was condemned to death. Five days before legal limit of his live [sic] expired he was removed from State prison to the Hartford jail.

He had during the previous months exhibited a remarkable mental activity and versatility. He invented several ingenious little machines. He wrote a considerable ways in an autobiography, which was to have been entitled “Thirty Years in the Life of a Crack,” and would certainly have ranked among the curiosities of both crime and literature, had he not in a fit of rage destroyed it.

He made many attempts to get a new trial; then to obtain a communication to Sheriff Russell, designed to explain the desperate means he took, shortly after midnight, to evade the scaffold and the noose.

This attempt at suicide, briefly mentioned by telegraph, was made with a wire three inches long and an eighth of an inch in diameter, sharpened at one end, which he had got from the rim of a ration pan in prison, two months before, and had kept sheathed in leather torn from a Bible binding, concealed as probably no man ever thought of doing so before, in his rectum.

This wire, while keepers slept, he thrust into his heart; but it struck the muscular portion and would not pierce it. He turned over and bent upon the weight of his heavy body, and finally grasped the Testament at his side, and dealt blow for blow upon the wire. He drove it in quite half an inch below the skin, but in vain. The life pulse did not stop, and there in terrible agony the man could no longer suppress a groan, and the keepers found him in a dead faint.

When he was brought to consciousness, he had no regret except for his failure in the attempt.

His demeanour was unshaken thenceforward. He walked to the scaffold, though physically weak, and made a few remarks to the two hundred people in the jail yard, which are thus reported:

I don’t suppose it will amount to much what I can say, or stop the execution. I suppose most of you know why I shall say but a few words to-day. With three inches of steel in his heart a man can’t say much nor be expected to. I did all I could to avoid being here; not that I fear death, but such a kind of death — not fit for a dog or a murderer. I am not a murderer. I killed William Willard in self-defence, and I did just right and I hope his fate will be a warning to all other tyrants like him.

At this time the Deputy Sheriff stood behind Wilson with rope in his hand.

The victim turned round quickly seized the rope in his own hands, and then advanced quite dramatically, and leaning over the railing he continued, with great earnestness:

When a man puts this over his head in the cause of humanity, it is not a disgrace in that cause I put it over mine. And Sheriff Russell you may tighten it up as quickly as you please.

While saying these words he had pulled the noose over his head and thrown the rope out toward the sheriff’s hands. The sheriff then said, “Wilson, do you desire to have prayer offered up for you?”

“Well, yes. I have no objection to a short prayer,” replied the victim calmly but rather coolly.

The minister then offered a short but fervent prayer, keeling at Wilson’s side. When the minister had finished, Wilson repeated the word “Amen” quite audibly. While he was being pinioned, he bade all on the scaffold good-by; and to Captain Wooding he said, “I hope, if you have the opportunity, you will tell the warders of Wethersfield Prison they may profit by the example they have had to not oblige any other convict to murder a warden for humanity’s sake.”

The hanging was decently done, and the pulse extinct in fourteen minutes.

The authorities of the Yale Medical College at New Haven must have accepted the body on the terms he required in his will, as it was but in charge of his counsel, Mr Aberdeen, and sent by him to New Haven.

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1871: John Hanlon, guilty but framed

Add comment February 1st, 2016 Headsman


Harrisburg Patriot, Feb. 2, 1871

On this date in 1871, John Hanlon expiated a cold-case Philadelphia murder.

Back in September of 1868, a young girl named Mary Mohrmann vanished while playing outside — her outraged corpse to be discovered days later dumped on a vacant lot a few blocks away at Sixth and Susquehanna.

The crime had every hallmark of a neighborhood perpetrator, someone who would have had the ability to hide away the kidnapped or dead girl in his own home before disposing of her body nearby.

John Hanlon, a nearby barber who knew Mary’s mother, numbered among the several men suspected of the crime and even detained for it. But it was frustratingly impossible to pin a solid accusation on him or anyone else. There were a few witnesses who had seen Mary led off, and a few others who saw someone abandon a bulky encumbrance where Mary was found, but among them all nobody was prepared to venture an identification.

So there the matter rested, and little Mary Mohrmann’s file might to this day reside in the dusty back rooms of the Philadelphia police cold case lockers had Hanlon restraint enough to lay off the predation following his lucky escape.

He did have the wisdom to move (within Philadelphia), and even to change his name to “Charles Harris”, but some detectives who investigated the original case still had him in view. In December 1869, “Harris” caught a fire-year sentence for attempting to molest a 10-year-old girl — and this naturally strengthened the suspicion against him in the Mohrmann case to (as the Cincinnati Enquirer put it on Dec. 30, 1869) “morally certain” despite the “lack of legal evidence to place him on trial.”

Now sure of their mark — indeed, seemingly tunnel-visioned in a fashion highly conducive to a wrongful conviction — police resumed their efforts to remedy that want of legal evidence.

To this end, they provided the suspect a cellmate in the person of a thief named Michael Dunn, whose detail was to elicit from “Harris” particulars of his criminal career. Sure enough, this stool pigeon soon had a self-reported confession in hand.

This distasteful strategem made possible the case that hanged John Hanlon: with it, the state could situate its moral certainty in a coherent narrative of the crime that Dunn read into the court transcripts as issuing straight from the mouth of the accused.

While Hanlon denied to the last that he ever confessed anything to the convenient jailhouse snitch, posterity might comfort itself (as did contemporaries)* by the culprit’s conspicuous caginess when it came to his actual culpability. His refusal even to remark on his own guilt or innocence appeared to speak volumes.

So it is hardly a surprise that few other Philadelphians besides Hanlon’s own mother, sisters, and 16-year-old wife** were at all troubled by the cheat necessary to noose the man. The New York Herald, whose bulletins on the case ran towards sensationalism, reported “a general sense of relief” in the City of Brotherly love post-execution.

When it was found that … Hanlon had really been hung people began to breathe freer — they feel that now their innocents are safe. The influence exerted by Hanlon’s deeds on the minds of every one having helpless children in their family has been something wonderful … no sympathy has been manifested for the guilty wretch.†

He died firmly, having immersed himself in prayer in his last days, and pronounced himself at peace with the world and with his mortal fate.


Editorial from the Feb. 3, 1871 New York Tribune.

* Hanlon, understandably, did not share this equanimity and at sentencing subjected the court to a bitter rant against the prosecutors who stitched him up. “I will die by murder!” he cried. “If ever another such case should come to light, lay before the jury John Hanlon’s last words, and let no more blood be spilled by perjury.” (Harrisburg Patriot, Dec. 12, 1870) Towards the end, in an interview with one of the detectives responsible, a more resigned Hanlon peacably reproached the lawman, “You and I know how it was done, and I don’t want to talk about it.” (New York Tribune, Feb. 2, 1871) By this time, Hanlon had a dying man’s thirst for reconciliation, and he apologized to the detective for the sharp tone he had taken in court.

In his last statement on the gallows, he generically sought forgiveness from “all whom I have injured in any way whatsoever.” (Harrisburg Patriot, Feb. 2, 1871)

** She was 13 when they married.

† New York Herald, Feb. 2, 1871. This author admitted that “it was necessary to use Dunn as a witness … the end will justify the means; yet it is a bad precedent to establish.”

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1871: Archbishop Georges Darboy, Paris Commune hostage

Add comment May 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the doomed Paris Commune martyred Archbishop Georges Darboy.

When Darboy (English Wikipedia entry | French) was tapped for the job in 1863, there had already been two recent occupants of the seat of Notre Dame killed violently over the generation preceding.*

A “learned, conscientious, and respected prelate,” Darboy’s own cross to shoulder was the collapse of the Second Empire with France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.

That conflict in turn triggered the 1871 working-class revolution in Paris which briefly drove the established government to the old Bourbon haunts at Versailles while maintaining the capital as the Paris Commune.

Darboy declined to follow the many Parisian bourgeoisie who escaped the city in those brief months, but his importance as a visible envoy of the rival order was not so easily refused. The Communards seized Darboy as perhaps the crown jewel among dozens of hostages against the anticipated Versailles counterattack.

Versailles declined to bargain for Darboy or any of the other human shields.** Instead, the city’s cobblestones drank the blood of 20,000 or more in a seven-day urban invasion in late May that has become known as the “bloody week” (semaine sangiante) — and the Commune’s hostages would mingle their blood with the those on the barricades, suffering in their few individual persons the vengeance the Parisian workers longed to visit upon an entire class.

When the Versaillese fixed his eye upon you, you must die; when he searched a house, nothing escaped him. “These are no longer soldiers accomplishing a duty,” said a conservative journal, La France. And indeed these were hyenas, thirsting for blood and pillage. In some places it sufficed to have a watch to be shot. The corpses were searched, and the correspondents of foreign newspapers called those thefts the last perquisition. And the same day M. Thiers had the effrontery to tell the Assembly: “Our valiant soldiers conduct themselves in such a manner as to inspire foreign countries with the highest esteem and admiration.”

At half-past seven a great noise was heard before the prison of La Roquette, where the day before the three hundred hostages, detained until then at Mazas, had been transported. Amidst a crowd of guards, exasperated at the massacres, stood a delegate of the Public Safety Commission, who said, ‘Since they shoot our men, six hostages shall be executed. Who will form the platoon?’ ‘I! I!’ was cried from all sides. One advanced and said, ‘I avenge my father,’ another, ‘I avenge my brother.’ ‘As for me,’ said a guard, ‘they have shot my wife.’ Each one brought forward his right to vengeance. Thirty men were chosen and entered the prison.

The delegate looked over the jail register, pointed out the Archbishop Darboy, the President Bonjean, the banker Jecker, the Jesuits Allard, Clerc, and Ducoudray; at the last moment Jecker was replaced by the Curé Deguerry.

They were taken to the exercise-ground. Darboy stammered out, ‘I am not the enemy of the Commune. I have done all I could. I have written twice to Versailles.’ He recovered a little when he saw death was inevitable. Bonjean could not keep on his legs. ‘Who condemns us?’ said he. ‘The justice of the people.’ ‘0h, this is not the right one,’ replied the president. One of the priests threw himself against the sentry-box and uncovered his breast. They were led further on, and, turning a corner, — met the firing-party. Some men harangued them; the delegate at once ordered silence. The hostages placed themselves against the wall, and the officer of the platoon said to them, ‘It is not we whom you must accuse of your death, but the Versaillese, who are shooting the prisoners.’ He then gave the signal and the guns were fired. The hostages fell back in one line, at an equal distance from each other. Darboy alone remained standing, wounded in the head, one hand raised. A second volley laid him by the side of the others.

The blind justice of revolutions punishes in the first-comers the accumulated crimes of their caste.

Lissagaray

The six who fell on this occasion would be followed in the Commune’s few remaining days by many more of their fellow hostages — and by countless communards. Theophile Ferre, who authorized the May 24 reprisal execution (and specifically called for Archbishop Darboy’s selection) was himself executed by the victorious bourgeois government that November.

* One of those violent deaths sent an assassin to the guillotine in 1857.

** Specifically, the Commune attempted to exchange Darboy and other hostages for Louis Auguste Blanqui, the great socialist leader whom Versailles had taken prisoner.

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1871: Edward Rulloff

1 comment May 18th, 2014 Robert Wilhelm

(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm, author of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and author of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime, including his more detailed exploration of Edward Rulloff. -ed.)

An 1871 biography of Edward Rulloff was entitled The Man of Two Lives. This was an understatement.

Rulloff — also known as James Nelson, E. C. Howard, James Dalton, Edward Lieurio, etc. — had been a doctor, a lawyer, a schoolmaster, a photographer, a carpet designer, an inventor, and a phrenologist. Most notably, Rulloff was a philologist, who could speak Latin, Greek and six modern languages and in 1870, was working on a manuscript, Method in the Formation of Language, which he believed would revolutionize the field. But the real dichotomy of Edward Rulloff’s life was the fact that he financed his research by theft and did much of his philological work in prison.

Rulloff started both sides of his life early, working in a law firm and spending two years in the penitentiary for theft, both before age twenty. In 1844 his wife and daughter disappeared and Rulloff was charged with their murder. He handled his own defense and managed to beat the murder charge but was convicted of abduction and spent ten years in Auburn Prison.

After being released, Rulloff divided his time between is intellectual and criminal pursuits, and saw the inside of a jail more than once. In 1870 he was living in New York City, working on his book and running with a gang of petty thieves.

The morning of August 17, 1870, Rulloff and two others broke into Halbert’s dry goods store in Binghamton, New York. A gunfight ensued which left night watchman Fred A. Merrick dead. Rulloff was captured in the manhunt that followed.

Rulloff’s trial for the murder Fred Merrick was sensational, receiving national press coverage and attracting thousands of spectators. Once again Rulloff handled his own defense but this time he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang on March 3, 1871.

Unsuccessful appeals delayed the hanging by two and a half months. While awaiting execution, the case became a subject of national debate. Some said it was wrong to take the life of such a learned man who may be on the verge of a great intellectual breakthrough. Horace Greely, owner of the New York Tribune wrote: “In the prison in Binghamton there is a man awaiting death who is too curious an intellectual problem to be wasted on the gallows.”

Others however believed that Rulloff was an intellectual fraud, among them Mark Twain, who satirized Greely’s position saying: “If a life be offered up to the gallows to atone for the murder Rulloff did, will that suffice? If so … I will bring forward a man who, in the interest of learning and science, will take Rulloff’s crime upon himself and submit to be hanged in Rulloff’s place.”

Edward Rulloff was hanged on May 18, 1871. Before his execution, he confessed to killing his wife by smashing her skull with a pestle he used to grind medicine. Rulloff requested that his body be put in a vault so it would not be desecrated, but his request was not honored. Before his lawyer could claim the body, it was placed on public display and the owner of a local art gallery made a plaster death mask. His lawyer gave the body to Dr. George Burr of the Geneva Medical College who promised to bury the body in a private cemetery if he could keep the head for study. After the body was buried it was dug up and stolen by medical students. Edward Rulloff’s brain still exists as part of the Wilder Brain Collection at Cornell University.

Visit Murder by Gaslight for more information on the life and crimes of Edward Rulloff.

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1871: Ma Hualong, Dungan rebel

Add comment March 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the Qing executed Ma Hualong (or Ma Hua-lung), one of the principal leaders of a 15-year Muslim revolt in northwest China.

Ma was the fifth leader of the Jahriyya, a Sufi order whose founder Ma Mingxin had himself been executed during disturbances in the early 1780s.

By the time of Ma’s ascendancy, the Jahriyya were a major force in Gansu, Shaanxi and Ningxia.

Neither Ma nor any other single person led the Dungan revolt. (“Dungan” was a 19th century term for the ethnicity that’s now known as the Hui.) Rather, a cascading series of ethnic riots led in 1862 — while the Chinese army was absorbed elsewhere with the bloody Taiping Rebellion — to a patchwork of rebellious leaders and movements, operating independently and often viewing one another as rivals.

The Jahriyya was the closest thing to a unifying element among discontented Muslims. According to this volume, though Ma struck a pose of moderation and loyalty, in the Chinese court’s eyes, the disturbances “depend[ed] on Ma Hua-lung.” For the Qing, Ma’s nearly impregnable position at Jinjipu (Chin-chi-pao) and his diplomatic finesse were the lynchpin.

Dispatched to put down the revolt, General Tso Tsung-tang had the prestigious Ma as his primary target: with him gone, the rest of the rebels could be divided and conquered at leisure.

Unable to take Jinjipu by storm, General Tso besieged it unto near starvation, forcing Ma to surrender himself. Notwithstanding his attempts to take all the blame for the revolt on his own shoulders,

Ma was executed, together with twelve members of his immediate family, by the “slicing process”; some eighty of the lesser Muslim leaders were beheaded. Chin-chi-p’u was depopulated, and the surviving Muslims were sent, en masse, into exile or slavery.

Just a drop in a bucket for a conflict with 8 million-plus dead.

The Jahriyya order still exists to this day. And so too, of course, does General Tso — on Chinese restaurant menus.

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1871: Gaston Cremieux, Marseilles Commune leader

Add comment November 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1871, Gaston Cremieux was shot at Marseilles for his role in that city’s lately-destroyed Commune.

Cremieux (French Wikipedia page: most external links in this post are also in French) was a gifted young lawyer with a social conscience who was known for taking on indigent-defense cases and working-class causes.

Given his prominence in radical circles, Cremieux was naturally thrust into leadership when word of the Paris Commune brought Marseilles, too, into a popular rising.

Lissagaray called Cremieux “an elegant and effeminate speaker … a mild enthusiast, who beheld the revolution under rather a bucolic aspect.” His admirable principles were not those of bloody revolutionary will, and he was accordingly viewed (or disdained) as a moderate.

The Marseilles Commune lasted only a fortnight: neighboring towns did not rally to it, and elsewhere in the south Toulouse and Narbonne communards were crushed within days.

When troops of the bourgeois Versailles government — the city to which it had fled from Paris — took Marseilles, according to Lissagaray, they “arrested at random, and dragged their victims into the lamp-stores of the station. There an officer scrutinized the prisoners, made a sign to one or the other of them to step out, and blew out his brains. The following days there were rumours of summary executions in the barracks, the forts and the prisons. The number of dead the people lost is unknown, but it exceeded 150.”

Cremieux’s own conscience was pretty clean in all this — he’d even advocated against keeping hostages. (Unsuccessfully, but Marseilles did not kill its hostages, unlike Paris.) “Show me those whom Cremieux has shot,” his lawyer would later protest to the military tribunal called to try him.

Cremieux’s own shooting would have to suffice. He died crying “Vive la République!” as the firing squad emptied its barrels into his torso … as per Cremieux’s request to preserve his face lest his parents be too shaken by his corpse. Just call him a family man.

A posthumously-published French volume of Cremieux’s work contains verse, a play about Robespierre’s fall, and his “Impressions of a Condemned Man”.

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1871: Hostages of the Paris Commune

Add comment May 26th, 2010 Headsman

The fall of the Paris Commune on May 28, 1871 launched many a leftist insurrectionary into the martyrs’ firmament.

But the last semaine sanglante that engulfed the Commune there was blood enough for many martyrdoms.

On this date in 1871, just days before the Commune gave way, it executed a clutch of hostages (French link) in desperate reprisal for the Versailles army’s cruelties. For the Commune, it was too little ruthlessness and much too late. For the 52 who stood up against the wall this date, they were just as dead.

These unfortunates were marched from La Roquette prison — whose inmates by dint of timely resistance only narrowly avoided a more extensive massacre — to Rue Haxo and slaughtered.

A number of them were men of the cloth. In 1938, the Catholic church of Notre Dame des Otages was erected on the site and dedicated to the victims’ memory.


A crucifix at Notre Dame des Otages. Copyrighted image used with permission.

(The markers on the spot have settled on 52 as the number of the victims, which might be the historically authoritative count; different sources, however, provide slightly different numbers.)

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1871: Louis Rossel, Théophile Ferré, and Sergeant Bourgeois, Communards

1 comment November 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1871, three very disparate men of the recently quashed Paris Commune were shot together at Satory.


Louis Rossel (top) and Theophile Ferre. The mysterious Bourgeois will have to be imagined.

Louis Rossel (French Wikipedia link | English) got the press — the public sighs, the clemency campaign, the big show by Adolphe Thiers of considering mercy. “Rossel,” French scribbler Jules Barthelemy-Saint-Hilaire wrote, “is a man whose hand we grasp even when we shoot him.”

Rossel, to the elites of the Third Republic, was one of them. (Here’s a very sympathetic extended biography via Google books.)

The highest-ranking officer (a colonel) to serve the Commune, a writer of books and thinker of thoughts, the fuzzily lefty Rossel had gone to Paris to serve “the people” when France’s capitulation during the Franco-Prussian War put the capital at the mercy of the Germans.

Rossel was briefly Minister of War for the Commune, but he broke with its leadership’s fire-eating ways and then hung about the city while events played out around him. For his adherents, he was the loyal patriot who had renounced the rebellion. For the rebels … pretty much the same (Rossel resigned/was forced from power three weeks before the Commune fell).

But for the brass, the youngster’s March resignation letter abandoning the Thiers government for the Parisian masses was a little more dangerous than your garden-variety liberalism.

Having learned … that two parties are struggling for mastery of the country, I do not hesitate in joining the side which has not concluded peace [with the Germans], and which has not included in its ranks generals guilty of capitulation. (Source)

Without doubt, Theophile Ferre (French Wikipedia link | English) was a true believer, a radical agitator from way back. Ferre was part of the Commune leadership, and directly involved in the execution of hostages during its desperate last week.*

As such, his sympathy from the bourgeois public was zero, and his prospects of commutation were even worse than that. Ferre took his solace from his faith in the cause.

Joining these two in a sort of literary triad was one “Sergeant Bourgeois” (seriously), a straight-from-central-casting grunt “condemned to death for having struck one of his officers, and for having afterwards taken part in the Commune.”** His role in the story is to be the virtuous avatar of The People, understood to have died in a manner confirming the interlocutor’s take on the Commune, whatever that take might be.

Thus, Lissagaray (French link), eloquently reviling that milquetoast fop Rossel:

For twelve weeks death remained suspended above the heads of the condemned. At last, on the 28th November, at six o’clock in the morning, they were told that they must die. Ferré jumped out of bed without showing the slightest emotion, declined the visit of the chaplain, wrote to ask the military tribunals for the release of his father [also imprisoned -ed.], and to his sister that she should have him buried so that his friends would be able to find him again. Rossel, rather surprised at first, afterwards conversed with his clergyman. He wrote a letter demanding that his death should not be avenged — a very useless precaution — and addressed a few thanks to Jesus Christ. For comrade in death they had a sergeant of the 45th line, Bourgeois, who had gone over to the Commune, and who showed the same calm as Ferré. Rossel was indignant when they put on the handcuffs; Ferré and Bourgeois disdained to protest.

The day was hardly dawning; it was bitterly cold. Before the Butte of Satory 5,000 men under arms surrounded three white stakes, each one guarded by twelve executioners. Colonel Merlin commanded, thus uniting the three functions of conqueror, judge, and hangman.

Some curious lookers-on, officers and journalists, composed the whole public.

At seven o’clock the carts of the condemned appeared; the drums beat a salute, the trumpets sounded. The prisoners descended, escorted by gendarmes. Rossel, on passing before a group of officers, saluted them. The brave Bourgeois, looking on at the whole drama with an indifferent air, leant against the middle stake. Ferré came last, dressed in black and smoking a cigar, not a muscle of his face moving. With a firm and even step he walked up and leant against the third stake.

Rossel, attended by his lawyer and his clergyman, asked to be allowed to command the fire. Merlin refused. Rossel wished to shake hands with him, in order to do homage to his sentence. This was refused. During these negotiations Ferré and Bourgeois remained motionless, silent. In order to put a stop to Rossel’s effusions an officer was obliged to tell him that he was prolonging the torture of the two others. At last they blindfolded him. Ferré pushed back the bandage, and, fixing his eyeglass, looked the soldiers straight in the face.

The sentence read, the adjutants lowered their sabres, the guns were discharged. Rossel and Bourgeois fell back. Ferré remained standing; he was only hit in the side. He was again fired at and fell. A soldier placing his chassepôt at his ear blew out his brains.

By unsurprising contrast, the New York Times reporter found Rossel’s act more convincing than Ferre’s.

Throughout this trying morning ROSSEL was calm and resigned to his fate, and all of his remarks are manly and touching …

It was a cold, dark, November morning, a heavy fog obscuring everything at 6 &frac12, and the street lamps were still lighted. During this time FERRE had dressed himself with unusual care, putting pommade upon his hair, and spending a long time in brushing his clothes … BOURGEOIS rose jauntily from his bed, made his ablutions like a soldier, then listened to the consolation of the priest. After this he lighted a cigar, and went out jauntily, with light military tread, and with his kepi cocked upon one ear. He was cool, but there was no bravado about him, while FERRE seemed to be constantly searching for effect …

ROSSEL … stood calmly before the platoon awaiting the signal to fire.

Meantime Bourgeois had marched gaily to his post, saluting the troops as he passed, and in a business-like way threw down his cigar, threw open his coat, and stood in an easy position, awaiting the word. FERRE was a poseur to the last. A number of times he changed his position, looking at his legs and then at the few spectators, but no position seemed to satisfy him. He then cast a rapid glance toward BOURGEOIS, and immediately struck the soldier’s attitude.

Seeing these archetypes reduced to corpses, the London Times‘ correspondent could hardly resist.

As I cast a last look at them, I could not but feel how different was the spirit which had animated each at the last moment. Rossel had died commending his soul to God; Borugeois had gone through the form of confession, and died probably in the ignorance of a superstitious soldier, while Ferre died, caring as little for his own life as he had for those of others … a Materialist.

* Ferre is supposed to have personally announced the death sentence to Archbishop Georges Darboy, the marquee martyr to the Commune.

** London Times, Nov. 30, 1871.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Notable Jurisprudence,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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