1793: Armand Louis de Gontaut

Add comment December 31st, 2017 Headsman

Armand Louis de Gontaut, duc de Lauzun and later duc de Biron, an officer in the American Revolution and and the French Revolution, was guillotined during the Paris Terror on this date in 1793.

Born in 1747, Lauzun had some youthful finding-himself years “wasting his fortune in dissipation in various parts of Europe” before he got serious about being an Enlightenment Man, penned an essay on British colonial defenses, and went and fought them in a colonial skirmish.

Satisfactory performance in West Africa qualified him to twist the lion’s tail again by raising a legion of hussars for the American Revolution. Lauzun fought at the independence-clinching upset of Yorktown, winning promotion back in the home country to marechal de camp.

That Lafayette-like package of liberal sensibility, blue blood, and battlefield competence was just the thing for the more moderate early years of the French Revolution, and just the thing to cost his head by the time of the Terror. Our man found himself by 1793 transferred from the French army on the Rhine to the against War in the Vendee where he arrived already too milquetoast for the extreme violence being demanded for pacification. The Jacobin firebrand Marat had already petitioned for the ex-nobleman’s removal; it was effected by Jean-Baptiste Carrier who in 1793 was busily blackening his name by pacifying the Vendee with indiscriminate slaughter.

Lauzun/Biron/Gontaut was arrested at Carrier’s behest for incivisme, that want of revolutionary ardor that in this moment stood tantamount to treason. Vainly he protested (pdf) from his confinement that “my conscience reproaches me for nothing.” Still, he met the inevitable fate at the Revolutionary Tribunal’s hands with peace and was reported to have gone calmly to the guillotine, the last words upon his lips a self-recrimination:

“I die punished for having been false to my God, my King and my order.”

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1778: Samuel Lyons and Samuel Ford, Fort Mifflin deserters

Add comment September 2nd, 2016 Headsman

In Philadelphia this date in 1778, “Lyons, Ford and Wilson, late Lieutenants, and John Lawrence, late gunner, in the navy of this State, were taken from the gaol to one of the gallies lying off Market Street wharf, where the two former were shot agreeable to their sentence, but the two latter reprieved.” (Pennsylvania Evening Post, September 2, 1778)

Samuel Lyons, Samuel Ford, John Wilson and John Lawrence all served on various of the American “row galley” fleet that gave the American revolutionaries at least some seaborne presence in their fight against the world’s preeminent naval power.

The four, executed and pardoned alike, had deserted the American garrison when that preeminent power put Fort Mifflin in the Delaware River under siege the previous autumn. (There’s a very detailed account of this operation here; the British eventually captured the fort from its badly outnumbered defenders.)

While desertion between the antagonists was a common phenomenon in the American Revolution, this made for an especially bad look a year later once the British abandoned Philadelphia to the aggressively triumphalist Patriots.

Even so, the last-minute clemencies alongside the actual shootings were also very much a part of the Continental Army’s delicate enforcement of discipline, in an environment where it feared that being either too lenient or too harsh could fatally undermine the tenuous morale of the rank and file. Every enforcement was considered in the light of its public impression.

“The number of spectators was very great,” our short report in the Evening Post concluded. “And it is hoped the melancholy scene will have a proper effect upon the profligate and thoughtless, who do not seriously consider that the crime of desertion is attended with the dreadful consequences of wilful perjury.”

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1777: James Molesworth, in the words of the Founding Fathers

Add comment March 31st, 2016 Headsman

John Adams to Abigail Adams

Philadelphia
March 31, 1777

I know not the Time, when I have omitted to write you, so long. I have received but three Letters from you, since We parted, and these were short ones. Do you write by the Post? If you do there must have been some Legerdemain. The Post comes now constantly once a Week, and brings me News Papers, but no Letters. I have ventured to write by the Post, but whether my Letters are received or not, I dont know. If you distrust the Post, the Speaker or your Unkle Smith will find frequent Opportunities of conveying Letters.

I never was more desirous of hearing frequently from Home, and never before heard so seldom. We have Reports here, not very favourable to the Town of Boston. It is said that Dissipation prevails and that Toryism abounds, and is openly avowed at the Coffee Houses. I hope the Reports are false. Apostacies in Boston are more abominable than in any other Place. Toryism finds worse Quarter here. A poor fellow, detected here as a Spy, employed as he confesses by Lord Howe and Mr. Galloway to procure Pilots for Delaware River, and for other Purposes, was this day at Noon, executed on the Gallows in the Presence of an immense Crowd of Spectators. His Name was James Molesworth. He has been Mayors Clerk to three or four Mayors.

I believe you will think my Letters, very trifling. Indeed they are. I write in Trammells. Accidents have thrown so many Letters into the Hands of the Enemy, and they take such a malicious Pleasure, in exposing them, that I choose they should have nothing but Trifles from me to expose. For this Reason I never write any Thing of Consequence from Europe, from Philadelphia, from Camp, or any where else. If I could write freely I would lay open to you, the whole system of Politicks and War, and would delineate all the Characters in Either Drama, as minutely, altho I could not do it, so elegantly, as Tully did in his Letters to Atticus.

We have Letters however from France by a Vessell in at Portsmouth — of her important Cargo you have heard. There is News of very great Importance in the Letters, but I am not at Liberty. The News, however, is very agreable.


John Hancock to George Washington

Philada
April 4[-8], 1777

Sir,

The enclosed Resolves of Congress, which I have the Honour of transmitting, will naturally claim your Attention from their great Importance.

The Regulations relative to the Payment of the Troops and the Department of the Paymaster General, will I hope be the Means of introducing Order and Regularity into that Part of the Army; where, it must be confessed, they were extremely wanted.

General Gates having laid before Congress the Proceedings and Sentence of a Court Martial on a certain James Molesworth who was accused and found guilty of being a Spy, they immediately approved the same. He has since suffered the Punishment due to his Crime. From his repeated Confession, it appears, that Mr Galloway was extremely active in engaging him to undertake this infamous Business, and was the Person employed to make the Bargain with him. He says indeed, Lord Howe was present: but from the Description he gave of his Person, it is supposed he must be mistaken.

The Congress have directed Genl Gates to take Genl Fermoy with him to Ticonderoga, and such other french Officers as he may think proper. Genl St Clair being ordered to Ticonderoga, but previously to repair to this City to wait the further Order of Congress, you will please to direct him to repair here accordingly as soon as possible. I have the Honour to be with the most perfect Esteem & Respect Sir Your most obed. & very hble Serv.

John Hancock Presidt

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1774: William Ferguson, redcoat

Add comment December 24th, 2014 Headsman

On the morning of December 24, 1774, the British 10th Regiment encamped on Boston Common shot a 28-year-old soldier named William Ferguson for desertion.

We do know a bit about Ferguson, but the most self-evidently notable thing about him is that he was in Boston in 1774 — his regiment of redcoats a most unwelcome interloper lately brought from Quebec where it had alit after being shipped overseas years before to fight in the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War.

Back in December of 1773, a year before our action, American patriots had ratcheted up the colonies’ running tax dispute with the mother country by dumping 45 tons of East India Company tea into Boston Harbor.

Over the ensuing twelvemonth, London and the colonies escalated unpleasantries to the point where King George III remarked that “The die is now cast. The colonies must either submit or triumph.”

The immediate British response to the Boston Tea Party, and the reason that William Ferguson and His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot made their obnoxious camp on Boston Common, was that Parliament responded to the Tea Party with a series of punitive enactments directed at the colonies in general and Boston in particular: the Coercive Acts. (Or “Intolerable Acts”, as called by the colonists.)

Among other things, these measures:

  1. Closed the port of Boston;
  2. Exempted British officials in the colony from trials before colonial juries for any excesses they might commit against American insurgents, instead removing administration of justice safely to Britain; and,
  3. Put Massachusetts under a military governor: General Thomas Gage

Gage’s first order of business was to garrison truculent Boston (already occupied since 1768) with enough soldiery to enforce Parliament’s will. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1774, British troops arriving from elsewhere in the colonies — or from Canada (as with the 10th) — or mustered in Great Britain — poured into Boston. By the end of 1774, eleven regiments made camp on the Common. “Boston,” Gage wrote to the Secretary of War, “will keep quiet as long as the troops are there.”

But to dominate Boston was not to bring the colonies to heel.

General Gage soon realized that he had a tricky assignment: even while implementing laws designed specifically to antagonize Massachusetts, he simultaneously had to try to pre-empt the gestating American Revolution. Egregiously underestimating the vigor of colonial resistance and the resources required to quell it, London brushed off Gage’s entreaties for thousands of additional troops while counterproductively pressuring him to take more confrontational action against disloyal colonists.

Gage’s attempt to reconcile all these contradictory demands was to use his regiments in Boston in a series of targeted sorties into the Massachusetts countryside, in an effort to deprive colonial militias (and, now, a rebel shadow government that held sway outside of Boston) of the arms they would need in the event of open rebellion. Gage hoped he could pick off tactical objectives one by one, and ideally do so without firing any shots that might further inflame a tense situation. Some of his own subalterns sneeringly nicknamed him the “Old Woman” for insufficient bellicosity.

Gage’s plan was probably always doomed to failure. Massachusetts militiamen had already demonstrated a considerable propensity to redcoat inflammation; some one of these expeditions was bound sooner or later to send musket balls flying.

In April of 1775, that’s exactly what happened: a column of British soldiers, some from the 10th Regiment, marched out to seize a militia arms depot in the town of Concord. About sunrise of April 19, 1775 that column entered the village of Lexington on the approach to Concord and there exchanged with a colonial militia the first shots of the American Revolution.

The only British casualty of the “shot heard round the world” was a minor leg wound suffered by a private of the 10th named Johnson. (The subsequent Battle of Concord was a different story.)

Present for Lexington and Concord and presumably also in attendance at William Ferguson’s execution by musketry was yet another brother Tenther: Ensign Jeremy Lister. Lister’s diary of events is one of our firsthand accounts of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

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1782: The Gnadenhutten Massacre

3 comments March 8th, 2014 Headsman

You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?

-Tecumseh, to William Henry Harrison in 1810

This date in 1782 marks one of the more appalling single atrocities in the United States’s long destruction of indigenous Native Americans — the Gnadenhutten Massacre.

This incident during the American Revolution took place in the Ohio River basin, a vast and fertile flashpoint whose part in not only the revolution but the antecedent French and Indian War perhaps entitles it to claim the midwifery of the coming American empire.

After victory in the French and Indian War, the British closed the area west of the Appalachian mountains to European settlement. This proclamation:

  • Made good a wartime pact Britain had made to secure the support of the Iroquois, Lenape (Delaware) and Shawnee tribes; and
  • Trailed facts on the ground the moment it was issued.

European settlements and land claims already existed in the supposed Indian Reserve, and land-hungry settlers did not let the supposed frontier deter them from advancing new ones. Confrontations between these arriving claimants and the native inhabitants not infrequently came to atrocious resolutions.

By 1768, a new treaty pushed the line further west, effectively ceding to the colonists everything south of the Ohio River — present-day Kentucky and West Virginia.*


Map of the disputed area: the frontier moved from the yellow line along the Applachians to the orange line along the Ohio.

Ohio Country, the remaining territory in dark green shading north of the Ohio River, lay at the time of the American Revolution between the British garrison at Fort Detroit and colonial outposts along the nascent United States’s western marches, such as Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh).

The Lenape Indians in Ohio Country had a difficult calculation to make as to which side (if any) and how to support during the British-American fighting. The question split the Lenape internally.

In this cauldron, a strange morsel: Lenape who were Moravian** Christian converts had established a little missionary village. “Gnadenhutten” literally means “huts of grace”.

As one might imagine, Gnadenhutten and its sister settlements of pacifistic, Christian Lenape stood in a terribly ambiguous position in the brutal irregular war going on around them. Their fellow Lenape distrusted them because they were Christians; their fellow Christians, because they were Lenape.

Suspected by the British of being friendly enough with the American colonists to pass intelligence to their eventual murderers, these converts were in 1781 forced out of Gnadenhutten by British-allied Lenape to a new settlement aptly named “Captive Town”.

Starving there in the ensuing winter, the Moravians dispatched nearly 100 of their number back to Gnadenhutten to retrieve food abandoned at that settlement.

The Moravians were still at their village when a raiding party of Pennsylvanians descended on the town. Under no authority but the militiamen’s own festering grievances from the ongoing dirty war, the Pennsylvanians rounded up the Delaware and heartlessly declared their deaths.

Here were Indians who would pay for the violence Indians had done. And they were the best kind: the kind who didn’t fight back.

After spending a night praying and preparing for the end, the Moravian Lenape were systematically butchered on the morning of March 8† with mallet blows and scalpings.

Depending on your source, there were either 90 or 96 scalps to take that morning – women, men, and children in nearly equal proportions. At least one young boy survived the death squad and reported the massacre. Nor were all the militia themselves at peace with their deed.

one Nathan Rollins & brother had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians, & Williamson was opposed to it; & Nathan Rollins had tomahawked nineteen of the poor Moravians, & after it was over he sat down & cried, & said it was no satisfaction for the loss of his father & uncle after all. — So related Holmes Jr. who was there — who was out on both Moravian campaigns, & Crawford’s. (Source)

Ah, Crawford’s campaign.

Later in 1782, another expedition of frontiersmen under Col. William Crawford set out “to destroy with fire and sword” a different Lenape settlement in Ohio. Instead, the Lenape met and routed the expedition, taking Crawford prisoner. He and the other captives from that misadventure would be burned to death, in part to avenge Gnadenhutten.

This, and whatever like tit for tat could be exacted in the field, was all the justice the Lenape could ever hope to have for the hecatomb of Gnadenhutten. American authorities declined to prosecute or sanction any members of the militia.


“Here triumphed in death ninety Christian Indians March 8, 1782″: inscription at the base of a memorial obelisk in Gnadenhutten. (cc) image from Mike Drabik.

* This might have been a nice solution, except that said treaty was made by the Iroquois — and only the Iroquois. For the Shawnee who actually lived and hunted in this cessation, this was two outside powers bartering their land. They didn’t mean to give it up on the say-so of the Iroquois. Another nasty frontier war followed, and even when that was won by Virginian militia, dissatisfied Shawnee continued targeting settlements in Kentucky; it’s partly for this reason that the Declaration of Independence slates King George III with having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

For more on the long and tragic Shawnee struggle in this period, see “‘We Have Always Been the Frontier': The American Revolution in Shawnee Country” by Colin G. Calloway in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 1992).

** The Moravian Church‘s name harkens to its Czech origins. It’s a successor to the reform tradition of Jan Hus.

† There are a few cites out there for the day before or the day after March 8.

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1778: Josiah Phillips, attainted by Thomas Jefferson

Add comment December 4th, 2013 Headsman

There is one example of this violation in Virginia, of a most striking and shocking nature; an example so horrid, that if I conceived my country would passively permit a repetition of it, dear as it is to me, I should seek means of expatriating myself from it. A man, who was then a citizen, was deprived of his life thus: From a mere reliance on general reports, a gentleman in the house of delegates informed the house, that a certain man had committed several crimes, and was running at large perpetrating other crimes; he, therefore, moved for leave to attaint him; he obtained that leave instantly … Without being confronted with his accusers and witnesses, without the privilege of calling for evidence in his behalf, he was sentenced to death, and was afterwards actually executed. Was this arbitrary deprivation of life, the dearest gift of God to man, consistent with the genius of a republican government? Is this compatible with the spirit of freedom? This, sir, has made the deepest impression in my heart, and I cannot contemplate it without horror.

-Edmund Randolph (Source)

On this date in 1778, attainted Revolutionary War-era outlaw Josiah Phillips was hanged in Virginia.

Contrary to Randolph’s recollection, the execution took place according to a regular jury verdict convicting Philips for stealing 28 hats and five pounds of twine — felony theft by the Bloody Code inherited from England.

Even so, it was the Act of Attainder voted unanimously by the Virginia legislature that stuck in the popular memory, so much so that even the likes of Randolph, a lawyer by trade and later the first Attorney General of the independent United States, misstated* it as the proximate cause of Phillips’s execution.

Another inheritance from the mother country, Acts of Attainder — wherein the legislature declares some party guilty of a crime and declares punishment without benefit of trial — were going right out of style in the twilight of the 18th century. The eventual U.S. Constitution would flatly abolish the practice; Britain herself has not enacted one since 1798.

So it comes as some surprise to see that Phillips was outlawed** at the instigation of no less a person than old Mr. Inalienable Rights himself, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s Bill of Attainder gave Philips and his band a June 1778 deadline to turn themselves in voluntarily, or else they

shall stand and be convicted and attainted of high treason, and shall suffer the pains of death, and incur all forfeitures, penalties and disabilities prescribed by the law against those convicted and attainted of High-treason: and that execution of this sentence of attainder shall be done by order of the General court to be entered as soon as may be conveniently after notice that any of the said offenders are in custody of the keeper of the public gaol …

And that the good people of this commonwealth may not in the mean time be subject to the unrestrained hostilities of the said insurgents, be it further enacted that from and after the passing of this act it shall be lawful for any person with or without orders, to pursue and slay the said Josiah Philips and any others who have been of his associates or confederates at any time.

Now in fairness, Josiah Phillips was no ordinary hat-thief, regardless of what the charge-sheet read. He was a Tory marauder who led a gang of outlaws/guerrillas/terrorists who lurked in the Dismal Swamp and had just weeks before repelled a Commonwealth militia dispatched by Governor Patrick Henry.

For Henry, who sought the attainder, and for Jefferson the Phillips band looked like a clear security threat. “The delays which would attend the proceeding to outlaw the said offenders according to the usual forms and procedures of the courts of law would leave the said good people for a long time exposed to murder and devastation,” in the words of the attainder. And indeed, the rebellious colonies — ultra-patriotic Pennsylvania especially — had had regular recourse to Acts of Attainder against Tory loyalists over the span of the American Revolution. (Actual executions under attainders were extremely rare.)

However, the inconsistency of such an instrument long associated with monarchical tyranny with its author’s more usual Rights of Man fulminations had Jefferson still defending the Phillips attainder as late as 1815.

Whatever might have best suited Josiah Phillips, the last word on the matter in American jurisprudence has belonged to the overwhelming sentiment of his fellow-Founders … like James Madison, whose Federalist no. 44 flatly avers that Bills of Attainder “are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation.”

* Randolph himself, as Virginia’s attorney general, made the call not to use the attainder against Phillips because of Randolph’s own discomfort with it. But his “misremembering” was convenient to a later interest in excoriating Patrick Henry.

** Arguably contravening Virginia’s existing 1776 Declaration of Rights. “In all capital or criminal prosecutions a man has a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of twelve men of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; that no man be deprived of his liberty except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.”

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1781: Francois Henri de la Motte, French spy

1 comment July 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in history, the French spy Francois Henri de la Motte was hanged at Tyburn — and, only after hanging, his head was cut off and his heart carved out. Old Blighty was going a bit soft: it didn’t do actual drawings and quarterings at this late enlightened date. (Well, just one.)

Those old enemies Britain and France had renewed hostilities over the American Revolution, which France backed to twist the neighboring lion’s tail.

De la Motte was a French expat living in England, in which capacity he supported the statecraft of his native realm by coyly picking up British army and naval dispositions and sending word home of who was going where, when. His intelligence allegedly enabled the French navy to turn an unusually aggressive gambit against the British in an engagement in the East Indies, with the loss of 207 souls.

“In the whole history of mankind, an instance was not to be produced of a more ingenious, able, and industrious spy than Mr. De La Motte,” his prosecutors charged. (There’s an account of the trial here.)

Perhaps this was flattery, since the operation was not defeated by counterintelligence except de la Motte’s own counter-intelligence. The guy dropped a bunch of incriminating notes he had taken on naval movements in a staircase, and they were there snatched up by King George’s true subjects and forthwith sent their owner to Newgate. His English accomplice quickly turned Crown’s evidence

Days after the spy’s ignominious end, General Cornwallis’s army in the American south arrived from Charleston at Yorktown, Va., a deep-water port from which he meant to command the Chesapeake. There, Cornwallis was surrounded by an overwhelming force of both American rebels and their French armies. The British defeat at Yorktown that October clinched independence for the colonies.


De la Motte’s trial — accused perfidious Frenchman in danger of barbaric old-timey punishment — appears to be the model for the London trial against Charles Darnay depicted at the start of A Tale of Two Cities. See if this sketch by noted death penalty skeptic (but also death penalty obsessive) Charles Dickens doesn’t essentially depict Francois de la Motte’s situation:

“What’s coming on?”

“The Treason case.”

“The quartering one, eh?”

“Ah!” returned the man, with a relish; “he’ll be drawn on a hurdle to be half hanged, and then he’ll be taken down and sliced before his own face, and then his inside will be taken out and burnt while he looks on, and then his head will be chopped off, and he’ll be cut into quarters. That’s the sentence.”

“If he’s found Guilty, you mean to say?” Jerry added, by way of proviso.

“Oh! they’ll find him guilty,” said the other.

Charles Darnay had yesterday pleaded Not Guilty to an indictment denouncing him (with infinite jingle and jangle) for that he was a false traitor to our serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, prince, our Lord the King, by reason of his having, on divers occasions, and by divers means and ways, assisted Lewis, the French King, in his wars against our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth; that was to say, by coming and going, between the dominions of our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, and those of the said French Lewis, and wickedly, falsely, traitorously, and otherwise evil-adverbiously, revealing to the said French Lewis what forces our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, had in preparation to send to Canada and North America.

Darnay is acquitted, obviously, as Dickens was only three chapters in and being paid for a novel-length serial.

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1776: Thomas Hickey, plotting against George Washington

3 comments June 28th, 2013 Headsman

“A most infernal plot has lately been discovered here, which, had it been put into execution, would have made America tremble, and been as fatal a stroke to us, this Country, as Gun Powder Treason would to England, had it succeeded.”

-Continental Army surgeon Solomon Drowne, July 13, 1776

On this date in 1776, Continental Army soldier Thomas Hickey was hanged before “a vast concourse of people” for a plot that might have strangled the American Revolution in its crib.

That revolution was a highly uncertain venture at this moment, and in a different timeline Thomas Hickey might have been a British hero for squelching it. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine wrote late in 1776. Hickey had to face his trial in the flesh.

George Washington had holed up in New York City in the spring to fortify it against an expected British invasion — an invasion that did indeed arrive and eventually drove the Continental Army all the way to Philadelphia.* As Paine beheld, the wrong turn of events here could have been decisive. The Continental Army was badly outnumbered and afflicted by desertion. The Continental Congress itself had to abandon Philadelphia not long after boldly declaring independence on July 4.

Whatever one might say of the great-man historiographical mood, you’d have to think that knocking out the rebel army’s top general at this juncture would have been a coup for the British.

In June of 1776, New York was tense ahead of the fighting. A British ship of the line sat forebodingly in the harbor, and even as she awaited the coming British force, her crew members rowed freely ashore for provisions. Plots went abroad among the mixed population of “Patriot” and “Loyalist” citizens. Nathan Hale would soon earn his martyr’s laurels in New York, trying to reconnoiter behind enemy lines as Washington staged a series of losing battles and a gradual retreat.

Somewhat below this plane of world-shaping combat and statecraft, a guy named Isaac Ketcham (or Ketchum) found himself clapped in gaol for counterfeiting the easily-counterfeited colonial paper currency. There, Ketcham caught jailhouse scuttlebutt of Loyalist plots afoot in New York. Realizing this could be his ticket out of prison, Ketcham wrote New York’s Provincial Congress informing on the schemes.

Sadly, Ketcham’s full memorandum has been lost, and as the ensuing trial records are circumspect the “plot” or “plots” in question are a bit of a historical muddle. Roughly, there are two discernible thrusts:

  • A fifth-column plot against the patriot position in New York, with Loyalist-inclined soldiers set to desert back to the arriving British army.
  • A plot against the person of George Washington himself.

Ketcham was eagerly interrogated by the Provincial Congress on these matters, and returned to his dungeon in the capacity of an informant. There, he made the acquaintance of the Irish-born Thomas Hickey, a member of George Washington‘s personal guards who had on June 15th been committed for doing his own bit of private currency-printing.

Representing himself as a Tory loyalist, Ketcham apparently induced Hickey to boast about something quite a bit more serious than counterfeiting.

“In different conversations he informed me that the Army was become damnably corrupted,” Ketcham told the court-martial that tried Hickey. “That the fleet was soon expected; and that he and a number of others were in a band to turn against the American Army when the King’s troops should arrive.”

The whole scheme went under the pay of Loyalist New York mayor David Mathews, who was also arrested by patriot troops — although Mathews, whose execution might have turned the British very nasty in the various diplomatic conferences ongoing during the New York campaign, was never even tried.** He escaped to British protection shortly after capture.

No kid gloves were available to the treacherous Irishman Hickey, however. Word of the conspiracy against the patriots had also been obtained from a businessman, William Leary, who reported the attempt of his former employee to recruit him into it. The sheer quantity of highly indiscreet men blabbing about it in taverns and jails and the like makes the whole thing seem crazy in retrospect, but if it had succeeded in, say, destroying Kingsbridge, it might have trapped the Continental Army on Manhattan where they would have been easy pickings for the vastly superior British. Someone surely had to pay for this.

Several of Hickey’s accomplices provided evidence against him, and the speedy conclusion of the military commission that tried him was that Hickey should hang in order to, as Washington wrote the Continental Congress, “produce many salutary consequences, and deter others from entering into like traitorous practices.” So far as is known, however, Hickey was the only person to suffer this extremity.

The unhappy fate of Thomas Hickey, executed this day for mutiny, sedition, and treachery, the General hopes will be a warning to every soldier in the Army to avoid those crimes, and all others, so disgraceful to the character of a soldier, and pernicious to his country, whose pay he receives and bread he eats. And in order to avoid those crimes, the most certain method is to keep out of the temptation of them, and particularly to avoid lewd women, who, by the dying confession of this poor criminal, first led him into practices which ended in an untimely and ignominious death.

-Washington’s general order, June 28, 1776

Physician William Eustis (eventually the U.S. Secretary of War), who was among the 20,000 to see Hickey hanged, wrote a friend that afternoon of the execution.

Their design was, upon the first engagement which took place, to have murdered (with trembling I say it) the best man on earth: Genl Washington was to have been the first subject of their unheard of Sacricide: our magazines which, as you know, are very capacious, were to have been blown up: every General Officer and every other who was active in serving his country in the field was to have been assassinated: our cannon were to be spiked up: and in short every the most accursed scheme was laid to give us into the hands of the enemy, and to ruin us. (Source)

The scarcity of original documentation makes it very difficult to say with confidence just how impressive this accursed scheme really was. One can see from Eustis’s letter that it was understood immediately to have compassed the murder of George Washington. This prospective “Sacricide” of America’s founding father par excellence has been worth a good bit of embellishment; one bit of utterly insupportable folklore congenial to vegetable-hating schoolchildren is that Hickey arranged to have General Washington’s peas poisoned with arsenic, but the faithful housekeeper exposed the scheme in the nick of time.

Only a bit more fantastical is the video game Assassins Creed III, whose representation of the death of Thomas Hickey — this version of Hickey is a Templar agent — uses a wacky sequence that begins with the public execution of the game player’s own assassin character, complete with first-person, inside-the-hood perspective.

It might well be that Hickey had been engaged in a plot not to murder but to kidnap the rebel general. David Mathews, the New York mayor, would later tell a royal commission in London autopsying Britain’s Revolutionary War defeat, “I formed a plan for the taking of Mr. Washington and his Guard prisoners but which was not effected.” It’s been speculated that the Continental Army itself chose to play up the “murder” angle for public consumption in preference to “kidnap” — perhaps because the notion that the Tories had the strength to contemplate the more complex objective of snatching Washington away from his own army, and were in a position to use his very own guards to accomplish it, implied a weakness in the revolutionary cause far too grave to acknowledge openly.

* It’s from this position that Washington would [re-]cross the Delaware amid December ice floes to conduct a morale-salvaging raid on Hessian troops in New Jersey after many long months of reversals. The British, for their part, held New York for the balance of the war, and this helped make adjacent New Jersey a battleground between pro-British and pro-American militias.

** Mathews administered New York until 1783, when the British ceded it to the victorious colonists.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Kidnapping,New York,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Scandal,Soldiers,Treason,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1777: James Aitken, aka John the Painter, terrorist of the American Revolution

1 comment March 10th, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1777 saw the public execution of “John the Painter” — a Scotsman who had been christened “James Aitken” at his birth less than 25 years before, but who had run through countless aliases in his adult life as a (mostly) petty thief.

But this man was not a hapless victim of England’s Bloody Code, although he often enough offended the capital statutes against petty property crime.

Rather, the scraggly redhead with the thick Scottish brogue was the author of a stunning act of domestic terrorism, in England, in freelance support of the rebellious American colonies an ocean away.

“So dangerous an individual to the kingdom as this man perhaps never existed,” in the judgment of the Newgate Calendar, who knew him as “John Hill” — just one of Aitken’s many aliases. “and whose confession and repentence can hardly soften the abhorrence felt on the contemplation of the extent of his crimes.”

James Aitken, aka John Hill, aka John the Painter — for this last was, unfortunately, the unprofitable occupation of his apprenticeship training — fired the Portsmouth dockyards on December 7, 1776, then followed that up with an attack on the Bristol dock and city shortly after the New Year, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to ignite the Plymouth quay.

There are ready reasons we imagine men to undertake terrorist activities. James Aitken did not have them, according to Jessica Warner’s John the Painter: Terrorist of the American Revolution (review).

Although he was well-read for his class, he was not ideological, not a zealot of any creed religious or secular.

He was not American himself even in the loose sense that term could hold for the immigrant proto-nation. His only brush with that land was brief and unedifying: fearing his many thefts had made London a bit too hot for him, he signed on as an indentured servant and shipped out to the colonies in 1773 and slave-like labor in the fields. He escaped his master in 1775 and immediately shipped back to Europe, leaving no evidence of any revolutionary contacts.

And he wasn’t a madman. Just lonely, as evidenced, Warner says, by the “sad and always desperate invitations” to drink with which he plied the newest of acquaintances, to their discomfort. “He asked complete strangers to drink with him because he was lonely, and loneliness overrode his reason. His invitations always came too quickly, and his conversation and his manner always just a little off.” He even invited this indiscreet attention when on the incendiary job.

James Aitken reads like an Enlightenment version of the disaffected loser “going postal” on a world that could barely see him to tread upon him. His fondest desire from childhood was that classic Scots aspiration, the army commission. The closest he came was a series of short-term army enlistments to pocket the enrollment bonus, each of which he deserted as soon as practicable. (He did dream that his terrorism spree would earn him an appointment in the Americans’ Continental Army.)


Back in Britain after his unsuccessful foray in the colonies, Aitken conceived a disordered affinity for the burgeoning patriotic cause of the colonies he had recently fled. (Warner thinks he read Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense.) Only accidentally, when he overheard boozers at an Oxford pub chatting about the importance of the dockyards to the British Navy, did the heretofore aimless Aitken animate his wanderings with a new revolutionary purpose: he, scorned nobody, could win the War of Independence by crippling these facilities.

I spent two days in the contemplation of this malicious design, and promised myself immortal honour in the accomplishment of it. I beheld it in the light of a truly heroic enterprise, such as never would have been equalled to the end of time. I was persuaded it would entitle me to the first rank in America, and flattered myself with the ambition of becoming the admiration of the world! (Source)

Aitken was not a criminal mastermind, but there was a plausibility to the plot that fluttered the Admiralty’s heart once the details emerged. The dockyards were critical. They were also — Aitken readily perceived this as he began to case them — scarcely guarded; at Portsmouth, Aitken came and went as he pleased, freely schlepping his materiel in and out. (His attempt at Portsmouth set the subsequent facilities more on guard; the man’s initial plan to hit five different dockyards in sequence would ultimately have been as self-defeating as the 9/11 hijackers planning to commandeer a different plane on five consecutive days … but this was the way Aitken had to conceive it since he lacked the charisma or leadership aptitude to form a cell of fellow-travelers for a coordinated attack.)

Before launching himself into history, Aitken made an autumn 1776 visit to Paris to call upon the American representative there, Silas Deane.

Deane’s own recounting says he was struck by the wildness of Aitken’s scheme. But he was sufficiently taken with the prospective payoff to lend it his blessing, and “sponsor” it to the extent of giving the Scotsman a little pocket money to make his way back to England. He would later defend himself against “respectable persons,” presumably British ones, who “[regard] me equally criminal with the actor.”

[S]upposing me to be the liege subject, not of Great Brittain, but of a foreign independant Nation, at the Time at War with Great Brittain, and that imagining that I had found a favorable opportunity, & met with a proper Agent to destroy, at one blow, the Fleet & armaments preparing to carry, and to spread devastation, and bloodshed in my Country, and that I improved the favorable moment, and attempted through this agency, to effect this great object; on this view of the case I am confident that every one of common sense & impartiality must acquit me, nay more though they rejoice at the defeat of the enterprize they must approve of the motives, which influenced me to engage in it, motives no less than a desire to weaken a declared Enemy, and to preserve my Country, by every means in my power, from the horrors, and distress of Fire and desolation.

… if it was a noble, and most honorable Action in Lord Rodney to defeat the Count de Grasse, would not the Man who at equal hazard of his Life, had set fire to the Count’s Squadron in Brest, & thereby have equally defeated his expedition, been entitled (at least in the Court of Common sense) to the same Honors?

This was certainly good enough to convince Aitken that he torched in the name of Liberty, and he made his way back to set his plan in motion.


After botching his first attempt at Portsmouth and getting locked in the rope house — he pounded on the door until he got someone to open up, then bluffed his way out of the situation — Aitken got the least mileage possible from a superficially successful attack.

At about 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 7, Aitken fired three homemade incendiaries in the rope house and slipped away in what witnesses would later reconstruct as an evident state of agitation. The flames soon gutted the brick building (the damage would eventually reckon to £20,000) but he was this close to an exponentially more impressive bit of sabotage.

To begin with, many of his matches failed to start up Aitken’s jerry-built fuses. (This is also what caused his initial arson attempt to abort.) Having been once bitten by finding himself locked into the rope house at night, Aitken made his next trip earlier in the afternoon: that ensured that plenty of dockhands would still be in the vicinity to contain the fire to the one building. It also meant that the tide was in, and the nearby brig swollen with two thousand pounds of gunpowder could be easily put out to sea and away from danger as soon as the alarm went up.*

Admiralty investigators weren’t even sure at first that it was arson. Yards in the era of wood ships and wood buildings had a lot of flammable materials lying around. Fires happened.

Aitken soon dispelled any possible confusion.

Finding the Royal Navy dockyards at Plymouth too vigilant for his machinations, Aitken settled on an ambitious, and again somewhat plausible, scheme to engulf the densely-populated port of Bristol — dockyard and city alike. Repeatedly his blazes petered out or were suppressed. They did little consequential damage, but raised a rapidly-escalating panic at revolutionary incendiaries abroad, and it did not take long to link them to Portsmouth. (Copycat attempts and crackpot anonymous letters threatening same also started popping up elsewhere in the realm.)

I have not the least doubt that the late fires have been the effects of premeditated malice,” wrote Bristol’s M.P. — the political philosopher Edmund Burke. Naturally this only had the effect of silencing potentially considerable pro-American sentiment in Bristol and throughout the realm. Lord Germain exploited the terrorist panic to push through a February 1777 Treason Act aimed at the American colonies. It authorized detention of suspected rebels without habeas corpus protection at His Majesty’s pleasure.

Aitken himself, though, was at the end of his own fuse. At Sir John Fielding‘s urging, the Admiralty posted an eye-popping £1,000 reward for the terrorists’ (multiple attackers were presumed, owing to the quantity of fires) capture. The arsonist was in irons with a week; a gaoler had noticed him and recognized Aitken’s fit to the description of the unknown Scotsman who had been seen in the vicinity of some of these blazes which Fielding had published in his crime clearinghouse periodical, Hue and Cry.** That man rode off after the suspect and overtook him in the village of Odiham,† where an exhausted and by now fatalistic Aitken surrendered without a fight.


The mizzenmast of the docked HMS Arethusa was removed and set up on land to hang this enemy of the navy outside the walls of the damaged Portsmouth dockyard.

Upon it, they would hang their man as high as Haman: after being turned off, a team of workmen hoisted Aitken’s still-strangling body 60 feet into the air. It’s reportedly the highest gallows ever known to be erected in England, and for the benefit of anyone who didn’t get a good enough look at the spectacle, his body remained conspicuously suspended in chains for years thereafter at Fort Blockhouse, overlooking the Portsmouth harbor as it rotted away.

One might expect that a man who had turned his face against king and country to such an extent would make his end defiantly. James Aitken, once again, defies expectations here, sounding submissive and contrite in the officially reported last words.

I asked John the Painter author Jessica Warner what it was that the state hoped a prisoner like Aitken would say from the scaffold. How did condemned prisoners typically come to shape their last words in (usual) conformity to the expected models? Was it usually necessary for somebody to convince them to do so?

JW: I can only speak for eighteenth-century England. The so-called “dying speeches” of the condemned follow a pretty predictable pattern: the condemned man expresses contrition for his crime, warns others against following his example, and says, in so many words, that he is reconciled with his Creator. That’s the official version, and really two things are going on here: the prisoner is in effect upholding the state’s right to take his life while also upholding the moral order of the Ancien Regime, its laws as much as its religious teachings. I say “official” because just about all dying speeches were penned by other people, the most notorious being the succession of chaplains (ordinaries) who presided over the condemned prisoners at Newgate. It was a bit of a standing joke that dying speeches were printed before they were delivered. The irony is that shorthand was used in the eighteenth century, and so theoretically it was possible to take down exactly what prisoners said.

Popular expectations, to the extent that they can be penetrated, also expected the condemned to make a good end, a good end being measured in terms of bravery bordering on contemptuous indifference to one’s fate. It’s hard to reconcile this indifference with the regret the prisoner was supposed to express.

ET: Did the fact that Aitken was a hated state criminal, rather than an everyday felon, alter anything about the role he was expected to play in the execution ritual?

JW: I don’t think so. The various accounts of his last moments read suspiciously like those you find in other dying speeches. Given the fact that he was a Scot who had poor social skills and who was also more than a little off his head, it beggars belief that he would have performed his part so well and in so conventional a fashion. I don’t doubt, though, that he made a brave end of it.

* The original Portsmouth plan was to start with a diversionary fire in the city itself, and then burn the dockyard while fire engines were occupied with the previous blaze. Again, his imagination outstripped his reach as a lone wolf: the attempt to kindle this preliminary fire just got him run out of his boarding-house and made the landlady a later witness against him.

** For more on Fielding’s criminal investigation reforms, see this post.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Interviews,Other Voices,Public Executions,Terrorists,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions

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1782: William Crawford, expeditioneer

2 comments June 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1782, Col. William Crawford was burned to death by Delaware Indians after being captured leading a punitive expedition to Ohio’s Sandusky River.

Originally an Atlantic coast peoples — “Manhattan” is a Delaware word, although “Delaware” itself isn’t — the Delawares or Lenape had with other native peoples removed to an Ohio territory supposed to be reserved against white settlement. It was the fruit of a deal that kept them on the British side (or at least, off the French side) in the Seven Years’ War.

But staying out of it would be a nonstarter during the American Revolution, because said territory was situated right between the British in Detroit and the westward American settlements in the Ohio Valley. Our man William Crawford was on hand to sign the colonists’ 1778 Treaty of Fort Pitt making nice with the Delawares: it’s the first written treaty between the United States and any Native Americans, and like most of that genre it didn’t last long.

The Delawares were okay with letting colonists march through their territory to attack Detroit, but when the U.S. pushed for them to get into the fight themselves — and when frontiersman murdered the pro-neutrality chief — it pushed many Delawares over to the British side. Opinion among their neighbors, the Shawnee, Wyandot and Mingo, likewise tended to range from “hoping to stay out of it” to “allying with the British,” and the latter sentiment was further encouraged by a kindling sentiment among peoples all along the frontier that uniting their efforts was their only hope of holding back imminent Anglo expansion.

Back east, the colonists beat the British at Yorktown in October 1781, more or less clinching independence. Hostilities around the eastern seaboard settled down in the run-up to the war’s formal diplomatic conclusion in 1783.

“Quite otherwise,” said M.M. Quaife in a 1930 address to Ohio’s Wittenberg College* “was the situation west of the Alleghenies. In this area the war was prosecuted with increased vigor and fury throughout 1782, which thereafter acquired the significant designation, the Bloody Year.” It was not a clean fight by any party.

In March of 1782, an expedition by colonials hunting settler-killing Indian raiders resulted in the Gnadenhütten massacre, the wholesale butchery of a settlement of noncombatant Delawares — Christian converts, no less.

In May of that same year, finding Indian raids not deterred, the Crawford Expedition finally set out: a party of officially-blessed volunteer frontiersmen whose object was “to destroy with fire and sword (if practicable) the [Delaware] Indian town and settlement at Sandusky, by which we hope to give ease and safety to the inhabitants of this country; but, if impracticable, then you will doubtless perform such other services in your power as will, in their consequences, have a tendency to answer this great end.” (General William Irvine)

Crawford had come out of retirement for this great end. And he made out his will before he departed.

The expedition came to grief within days, as an attempt to fall back by nightfall from a spot called Battle Island (actually a copse of trees in an open space, not an island in a river) deteriorated into a disordered rout. And though most of the expedition was able to flee safely back to their point of departure, Crawford himself and a few subalterns became separated, and lost.

When Indians picked them up, with Gnadenhütten still on their minds … well, Crawford made out that will for a reason. Most of the lesser prisoners were simply tomahawked and disposed of, but Crawford and a Dr. John Knight were reserved for more fearful treatment.

Knight — who would escape before his own execution — left this blood-chilling description** of his compatriot’s end, under the eyes of the British agent Simon Girty. (Knight later also composed a ballad about the expedition.†)

When we went to the fire the colonel was stripped naked, ordered to sit down by the fire, and then they beat him with sticks and their fists. Presently after I was treated in the same manner. They then tied a rope to the foot of a post about fifteen feet high, bound the colonel’s hands behind his back and fastened the rope to the ligature between his wrists. The rope was long enough for him to sit down or walk round the post once or twice, and return the same way. The colonel then called to Girty, and asked if they intended to burn him? Girty answered, “Yes.” The colonel said he would take it all patiently. Upon this Captain Pipe, a Delaware chief, mae a speech to the Indians, viz., about thirty or forty men, sixty or seventy squaws and boys.

When the speech was finished they all yelled a hideous and hearty assent to what had been said. The Indian men then took up their guns and shot powder into the Colonel’s body, from his feet as far up as his neck. I think not less than seventy loads were discharged upon his naked body. They then crowded about him, and to the best of my observation, cut off his ears; when the throng had dispersed a little, I saw the blood running from both sides of his head in consequence thereof.

The fire was about six or seven yards from the post to which the Colonel was tied; it was made of small hickory poles, burnt quite through in the middle, each end of the poles remaining about six feet in length. Three or four Indians by turns would take up, individually one of these burning pieces of wood and apply it to his naked body, already burnt black with the powder These tormentors presented themselves on every side of him with the burning fagots and poles. Some of the squaws took broad boards, upon which they would carry a quantity of burning coals and hot embers and throw on him, so that in short time he had nothing but coals of fire and hot ashes to walk upon.

In the midst of these extreme tortures he called to Simon Girty and begged of him to shoot him; but Girty making no answer, he called to him again. Girty then, by way of derision, told the colonel he had no gun, at the same time turning about to an Indian who was behind him, laughed heartily, and by all his gestures seemed delighted at the horrid scene.

Girty then came up and bade me prepare for death. He said, however, I was not to die at that place, but to be burnt by the Shawanese towns. He swore by G-d I need not expect to escape death, but should suffer it in all its extremities …

Col. Crawford, at this period of his sufferings, besought the Almighty to have mercy on hi soul, spoke very low, and bore his torments with the most manly fortitude. He continued in all the extremities of pain for an hour and three-quarters or two hours longer, as near as I can judge, when at last, being almost exhausted, he lay down on his belly; they then scalped him, and repeatedly threw the scalp in my face, telling me that “that was my great captain.” An old squaw (whose appearance every way answered the ideas people entertain of the devil) got a board, took a parcel of coals and ashes and laid them on his back and head, after he had been scalped; he then raised himself upon his feet and began to walk round the post; they next put a burning stick to him, as usual, but he seemed more insensible to pain than before.

The Indian fellow who ha me in charge now took me away to Capt. Pipe’s house, about three-quarters of a mile from the place of the colonel’s execution. I was bound all night, and thus prevented from seeing the last of the horrid spectacle. Next morning, being June 12, the Indian untied me, painted me black [signaling his imminent execution -ed.], and we set off for the Shawanese town, which he told me was somewhat less than forty miles distant from that place. We soon came to the spot where the colonel had been burnt, as it was partly in our way; I saw his bones lying among the remain of the fire, almost burnt to ashes: I suppose, after he was dead, they laid his body on the fire. The Indian told me that was my big captain, and gave the scalp halloo.


Detail image (click for the full view) of an illustration of Crawford’s torture and execution. Here’s another.

Counties in both Pennsylvania and Ohio bear Crawford’s name; several historical markers in Ohio chart the course of the ill-starred Sandusky campaign … including a phallic monument at the approximate spot of the burning, just north of the tiny town of Crawford, Ohio. (Map)

* Printed as “The Ohio Campaigns of 1782″ in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, March 1931.

** Here’s another description by another white eyewitness (alleged, anyway), who was taken in an unrelated raid some weeks before.

† A recent mp3 rendition of “Crawford’s Defeat by the Indians” is available for a 99-cent download.

Part of the Themed Set: Ohio.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ohio,Public Executions,Soldiers,Torture,USA,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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