1864: Jose Maria Chavez Alonso, governor of Aguascalientes

1 comment April 5th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the French executed the governor of Aguascalientes.

Elected to the post during early months of the unfolding French intervention in Mexico, Jose Maria Chavez Alonso (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was deposed by the invaders in December 1863 — to be succeeded by a different Chavez who met an equally violent fate.

Alonso formed a popular militia and continued a short-lived resistance against the French but was captured early in 1864, and although this was still some months before the dirty war’s notorious “Black Decree” the French determined to make an example of him.

Alonso aside, the Mexican adventure proved a right catastrophe for France and its adherents.

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1356: Four friends of Charles the Bad

Add comment April 5th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1356, the French King John II — John the Good, to history — avenged himself on his cousin and rival, Charles the Bad.

This affair embroils us in the French dynastic turmoil that spawned the Hundred Years’ War: five months after the nastiness in this post, King John was an English prisoner following the catastrophic Battle of Poitiers. It’s a good job he got his revenge in when he had the chance.

The fight — in its largest sense — was all about the throne of France, the poisonous fruit of the dynasty-wrecking Tour de Nesle affair of royal adultery decades before. That affair destroyed two princesses who could have become queens, and with it the potential of legitimate heirs for their husbands. With the family tree’s next generation barren, succession passed from brother to brother until the last brother died.

So now who’s big man in France?

Awkwardly, the last king’s nearest male relative also happened to be the king of France’s rival — his nephew, Edward III of England.

France barred Edward with a quickness, on the grounds that Edward was related via a female line. That put the patrimony in the hands of John the Good’s father, a previously un-royal cousin known as Philip the Fortunate. Less fortunately, this succession also conferred upon the new Valois line Edward’s rival claim and the associated interminable violent conflict.

Besides these two, there was yet another cousin who aspired to the French scepter: our guy Charles the Bad, King of the Pyrenees-hugging realm of Navarre. This guy’s mother had her legitimacy cast in doubt by the whole Tour de Nesle adultery thing years ago, and her woman bits had ruled her out of ruling France — but not Navarre. (No Salic Law in Navarre: a digression beyond this post.)

So Charles, her son and heir in Navarre, was at least as close to the Capetian dynasty as were his cousins — and maybe closer. He was also “one of the most complex characters of the 14th century,” in the judgment of Barbara Tuchman (A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century). “A small, slight youth with glistening eyes and a voluble flow of words, he was volatile, intelligent, charming, violent, cunning as a fox, ambitious as Lucifer, and more truly than Byron ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’

“His only constant was hate.”

And Charles sure hated King John. Was it the political rivalry? The daughter John had foisted on him as a bride? The territory John nicked from Navarre to confer on John’s favorite as Constable of France?* Yes.

Charles had subtlety in his bag of clubs, and brutal directness too. In 1354, he revenged at least one slight by having his brother murder the aforementioned Constable — also a favorite and childhood friend** of King John — in a tavern ambush.

(There’s an audio introduction to Charles the Bad complete with hammy re-enactment of the homicide in episode 110 of the History of England podcast. What follows below leads off episode 111.)

Too weak politically at that moment to repay Charles in his own coin, John had to sullenly consent to a putative reconciliation … but he was only biding his time. Charles compounded the enmity by his scheming on-again, off-again negotiations with the English, hoping to leverage the war between those powers to his own advantage.

He was a constant thorn in King John’s side, and the latter had problem enough with the English invasions and the struggle he had to gin up tax revenue to oppose them. The apparent last straw: Charles buddied up to John’s son the Dauphin and tried to engineer a coup d’etat against John. John settled on a vengeful stroke to put both the King of Navarre and the crown prince in their places, a party-fouling scene to beggar Game of Thrones in Froissart’s description:

The king of France, on Tuesday the 5th of April, which was the Tuesday after midlent Sunday, set out early, completely armed, from Mainville, attended by about one hundred lances. There were with him his son the earl of Anjou, his brother the duke of Orleans, the lord John d’Artois, earl of Eu, the lord Charles his brother, cousins-german to the king, the earl of Tancarville, sir Arnold d’Andreghen, marshal of France, and many other barons and knights. They rode straight for the castle of Rouen, by a back way, without passing through the town, and on entering found, in the hall of the castle, Charles, duke of Normandy, Charles king of Navarre, John earl of Harcourt, the lords de Preaux, de Clerc, de Graville, and some others seated at dinner. The king immediately ordered them all, except the dauphin, to be arrested, as also sir William and sir Louis de Harcourt, brothers to the earl, the lord Fricquet de Friquart, the lord de Tournebeu, the lord Maubué de Mamesnars, two squires called Oliver Doublet and John de Vaubatu, and many others. He had them shut up in different rooms in the castle; and his reason for so doing was, that, since the reconciliation made on occasion of the death of the constable of France, the king of Navarre had conspired and done many things contrary to the honour of the king, and the good of his realm: the earl of Harcourt had also used many injurious expressions in the castle of Vaudreuil, when an assembly was holden there to grant a subsidy to the king of France against the said king, in order to prevent, as much as lay in his power, the subsidy from being agreed to. The king, after this, sat down to dinner, and afterwards, mounting his horse, rode, attended by all his company, to a field behind the castle, called the Field of Pardon.

The king then ordered the earl of Harcourt, the lord of Graville, the lord Maubué and Oliver Doublet to be brought thither in two carts: their heads were cut off,† and their bodies dragged to the gibbet at Rouen, where they were hung, and their heads placed upon the gibbet. In the course of that day and the morrow, the king set at liberty all the other prisoners, except three: Charles king of Navarre, who was conducted to prison in the Louvre at Paris, and afterwards to the Châtelet: some of the king’s council were appointed as a guard over him. Fricquet and Vaubatu were also confined in the Châtelet. Philip of Navarre, however, kept possession of several castles which the king his brother had in Normandy, and, when the king of France sent him orders to surrender them, refused to obey, but in conjunction with the lord Godfrey de Harcourt and other enemies of France, raised forces in the country of Coutantin, which they defended against the king’s troops.

* The post was vacant because the previous Constable had been executed.

** And distant kin, but who isn’t?

† By a convenient prisoner dragooned into the duty, who required many more hacks at the bone than there were heads to sever.

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1766: William Whittle

1 comment April 5th, 2015 Headsman

William Whittle, a Catholic, was executed at Lancaster on this date in 1766 for murdering his Protestant wife and their children in a religious frenzy.

For whatever reason, several years into his union, Whittle took deeply to heart a priestly warning that he was liable to damnation for marrying a heretic. He accordingly ended the marriage by “cleaving his Wife’s Head with an Axe, and ripping her Belly open, and afterwards cutting off the Heads of the two Children, one of whom he also ripped open and took out its Heart.” (St. James’s Chronicle, April 5, 1766)

(The children, Whittle said, had been imperiled in soul by their mother’s taking them to an Episcopal church; in murdering them their loving father had sent them to purgatory en route to heaven, saving them from eternal hellfire.)

Whittle was condemned to be hung in chains for the shocking crime, a demonstration that Catholics understood as aimed pointedly at them. At least of their number replied with like menace in an anonymous letter to the Rev. Mr. Oliver of Preston, the magistrate who committed Whittle to prison.

Sir, I make bold to acquaint you, that your house and every clergyman’s that is in the town, or any black son of a bitch like you, for you are nothing but hereticks and damned fouls. If William Whittle, that worthy man, hangs up ten days, you may fully expect to be blown to damnation. I have nothing more material, but I desire that you will make interest for him to be cut down, or else you may fully expect it at ten days end. My name is S.M. and W.G.

(Letter as quoted in the Leeds Intelligencer, April 22, 1766 — also the source of the newspaper screenshot above)

Mainstream suspicion of Catholics at this time — which was within living memory of the last great Jacobite restoration attempt — was quite deeply ingrained; as one can see from the riposte above, the sentiment was mutual. After all, these were matters of eternal salvation even if Whittle himself “appeared to be a stupid, bigotted, ignorant fellow.”

The shocking family butchery evoked a minor wave of fretting over insidious Catholic-Protestant intermarriages. I think the present-day reader will not have much difficulty recognizing contemporary analogues to this thrust of resulting commentary:

I am likewise persuaded that there are many lay-papists in the kingdom who abhor this fact of Whittle as much as any protestant can do. But if their religion does not give countenance to such doctrines as this alledged by this miserable man, why do they not by some public act disavow their approbation of them? why do they leave suspicions upon themselves and their religion by their silence, when such occasions call upon them so pressingly to explain themselves, and particularly when they are complaining of the severity of the penal laws[?]

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2005: Glen James Ocha, poorly endowed

Add comment April 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2005, Glen James Ocha took a lethal injection on account of his tiny penis.

It’s true. Ocha on Ocober 5, 1999 picked up a Kissimmee, Fla., barmaid named Carol Skjerva and got her (consensually) into bed.

But Skjerva sent his manhood meter to half mast by busting on Ocha’s unimpressive junk and threatening to tell her boyfriend, who was probably the kind of guy who wouldn’t stand for another man rogering his girl with a mere gherkin.

It’s sad but true that we can’t all wear magnums, and probably most on the hung-like-a-mouse side of the spectrum would prefer not to broadcast the fact to the wide world. But here’s a tip it might have done Glen Ocha well to reflect upon: one good way of keeping strangers in the dark about the paltry dimensions of your John Thomas is not to get yourself arrested for strangling and beheading a woman who makes fun of the paltry dimensions of your John Thomas.

Adolescent chortling aside, this was obviously quite a horrible tragedy for Carol Skjerva, as well as the boyfriend (actually her fiance). Nor was genitalia the only compromised characteristic of the murderer, who was high on ecstasy at the time this all happened and had a history of psychiatric problems and suicidal ideation, all circumstances that comport well with Ocha’s decision to sit his victim’s decapitated head in his lap for a little post-mortem conversation.

This gentleman went right onto suicide watch in the prison, but they needn’t have worried: Ocha was more than ready to work within the system. He confessed to the murder, pled guilty at trial, and dropped all appeals past the minimum required by law, hastening his trip to Florida’s gurney. (Along the way he legally changed his name to Raven Raven.)

His final statement:

I would like to say I apologize to Carol Skjerva, the girl that I murdered, her family and her friends. This is the punishment that I deserve. I’m taking responsibility for my actions. I want everybody to know I’m not a volunteer but this is my responsibility I have to take.

(Meanwhile, he released a last written statement, reading “I unjustly took the life of Carol Skjerva. I have made my peace with my God and go now to face His judgment.”)

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Catholic just as Ocha was, said he was actually prepared to delay the execution out of respect to the April 2 passing of Pope John Paul II. Ocha, the determined volunteer, had no interest in any delay.

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1916: Joseph Hani, abandoned

Add comment April 5th, 2012 Headsman

“Mr Joseph Hani was hanged for treason in the Burj at 5 a.m. At 8 a.m. 40 families deported.

-Diary of Mrs. Harry Dorman, April 5, 1916*

The unfortunate Joseph Hani — Yusuf al-Hani — was among the worthies of Beirut’s Maronite Christian community to petition the French consulate for western aid in detaching Lebanon from the Ottoman Empire.

With the development of World War I, the French ambassador Francois Georges-Picot abandoned the embassy … without removing or destroying this sort of incriminating correspondence. As a result, the Turks ransacked the embassy and identified several dozen of reproachable loyalty to the Porte to put to death.

May 6 — Martyrs’ Day — honors these victims, but Hani was among the very first of them.

While most of the other Maronite signers were able to fly, Hani stuck around to face the music. A British agent was able to contact the implicated characters in Aley Prison, and received the plaintive answer,

‘Where are the English? Where are the French? Why are we left like this?’

* I believe an ancestor of the current president of the American University of Beirut, Peter Dorman. The source of the diary citation is Nicholas Z. Ajay Jr.’s “Political Intrigue and Suppression in Lebanon during World War I” in International Journal of Middle East Studies, Apr., 1974.

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1918: Robert Prager lynched during war hysteria

1 comment April 5th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1918, German coalminer Robert Prager was lynched near Collinsville, Ill., for making disloyal utterances against the United States as his adoptive country entered World War I.

Basically the most visible and famed victim of patriotic anti-German bellicosity, Prager ironically is rather difficult to reconstruct as an unambiguous anti-war activist. After his mob execution, a baker would even come forward to say that he had been thrown in the clink when Prager accused him … of badmouthing a patriotic display. Prager himself had tried to enlist in the Navy and been rejected for medical reasons.

“Prager was, in fact, as loyal to the United States as any native-born citizen, and his innocence was attested to by many who knew him,” according to Donald Hickey in the summer 1969 Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. “Two of the men with whom he boarded attested to Prager’s loyalty. One said that although Prager was a radical socialist, he had said he was ‘all for the United States’ when this country entered the war.”

But he was a socialist, and a German, and seems like the sort whom others might have found personally unpleasant. It is in the midst of a tiresome local dispute with a union leader (the union also rejected him) that Prager came to the unwelcome attention of the rabble: the union leadership accused him of being a spy, which led Prager to post handbills around town denouncing this lot for their scurrilous accusation. This obviously did him more harm than good and as the public conviction that Prager was disloyal took hold, it overran the halfhearted efforts of the town’s putative authorities to keep a semblance of order.

A mob on April 4 captured Prager at his home, paraded him, made him kiss the flag — momentarily rescued and hustled off to jail by police and a mayor who tried to talk the mob out of its design — then shanghaied from his “protective” custody cell and taken to the outskirts of Collinsville for hanging on a tree.

Eleven men stood trial for the affair over three weeks. Once the matter was finally rested with the jury, they were instantly acquitted.

There was wild applauding and cheers from ‘most everyone present. Relatives, friends and acquaintances rushed toward the bar to shake hands with the defendants. …

There was a peculiar coincidence at the trial Saturday. The Jackie Band was in Edwardsville for a patriotic demonstration.

When a shower of rain came up the musicians were sent to the court house where it had been arranged to give a program. At 2:40 o’clock judge Bernreuter ordered a recess after the completion of arguments and before reading the instructions.

Then word was sent that the band might play until court re-convened. The first number of all concerts is the Star Spangled Banner and it was played Saturday.

The strains from the Jackie Band caused tears to flow down the cheeks of Riegel. He was still crying when he returned to the court room.

As the jury came in with its verdict the band was at the head of a procession of draft boys and in passing the court house played “Over There.”

While Prager’s murder stands as the most emblematic event of anti-German intimidation during America’s months in the Great War, it was far from the only one: many others nearly as ugly stopped just this side of homicide. Papers were rife with reports of German immigrants being made to kiss the flag; clapped in jail for suspect utterances; of being menaced by mobs.

Outrageously, Germany made propagandistic use of these events, which the virtuous Entente powers would certainly never do.


Washington Post, April 11, 1918.

A number of federal lawmakers, as well as former presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, condemned the lynching, mostly in the familiar coded terms with which lynchings were opposed in those days: one would rather let justice take its course. Mob rule is itself disloyal. Etc. (See Hickey)

But the right-thinking potentates of the war party were also finding themselves relieved that a polity which had re-seated the current president on the slogan “he kept us out of war” would so pliably turn towards bellicosity. This charade so mechanically familiar in our time was still an arcane and uncertain art in America’s imperial adolescence.

“The recent lynching of a German in Illinois and violent outbreaks of the same character in other parts of the country,” intoned the Washington Post, “have awakened the Department of Justice to the need of a law which will enable government officers to prosecute pro-Germans rather than leave them to be dealt with by mob law.”

Oh. Danke very much.

An unsigned editorialist in the paper’s April 12 edition opined so nauseatingly brutal and specious that in another age it would have earned its author an immediate contract with Fox News:

Stamping Out Treason

The question whether or not the laxity of the laws against treasonable utterances has been responsible for the people’s acts in taking the law into their own hands has been much debated of late.

While sedition may have been encouraged to some extent because of the comparatively mild risks involved, it is quite probable that the pro-German intrigues would have been carried on if the risk had been greater. This suggests the thought that other reasons must be looked for to account for the general revulsion of public sentiment against the treason spreaders and the prompt punishment meted out to them in so many instances.

A plausible explanation is found in the fact that the open and ingenuous American mind had been fed up on German lies to the point where it broke out in fierce revolt. At the beginning of the war, and even after the entrance of America into it, there remained debatable points in many minds. Though of a minor nature and scarcely affecting the larger issue, these points were emphasized by enemy agencies which had been at work from the beginning. But as the truth has been laid bare the indignation of the people has grown stronger. The fact that the rounding-up process has been most vigorously conducted in the middle West tells its own story in this respect. It was that section which was slowest to wake up. There the enemy propaganda apparently worked with most success. So it is there that the people have arisen unitedly in their righteous wrath against the treason talkers.

The comparative absence of outbreaks of this character in the East is explainable on the same theory. In the East the public mind toward the war was much earlier divested of errors. Consequently the enemy agents were more wary in their utterances, not because of any greater stringency of the law, but because of their appreciation of the temper of the people.

In spite of excesses such as lynchings, it is a healthful and wholesome awakening in the interior part of the country. Enemy propaganda must be stopped, even if a few lynchings may occur. The people know what they want. They are not seeking to subvert law and order.

Other powerful institutions were not quite so sanguine as the Post: the lynching was discussed hours after it occurred in the U.S. cabinet, no doubt mindful that it was also being denounced in the German Reichstag. And indeed all concerned marshaled these animal spirits of the populace towards killing men by the thousands under the auspices of the state rather than singly by drunken small-town mobs.

Fears of German reprisals against American prisoners never seem to have materialized; neither is there any other documented lynching in the short course of America’s World War I involvement that was conducted on unambiguously “patriotic” grounds.

* Any number of other papers joined the Post in this campaign, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune. A few weeks later, they got their wish — the Sedition Act, under which the Socialist Eugene Debs was arrested for speaking against the war.

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1984: Elmo Patrick Sonnier, Dead Man Walking

31 comments April 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1984, Elmo Patrick Sonnier was electrocuted in Louisiana’s Angola Prison for abducting and murdering two teens in St. Martin Parish.*

Elmo and his brother Eddie posed as police officers and handcuffed two high schoolers parked at a local makeout point. Then they raped the girl, and shot both of them dead.

Both were given death sentences for the crime.

Eddie managed, as he said, to “give it back” on the grounds that Patrick was the one who did the shooting.

Once Eddie was clear of the death penalty, he tried to cop to the shooting after all, in order to save his little brother.

The appellate life of this case involved unedifying revisions of the “who shot whom” story. Ultimately, Eddie’s later claim to have been the triggerman, though quite possibly true, is not likely to win very much sympathy for his brother. It didn’t help him in the courts, either.

Just the 17th person executed since reinstatement of the death penalty, Sonnier learned that his longshot bid for clemency had been denied straight from the man who denied it — colorful, corrupt Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, who personally phoned Sonnier to give him the bad news.

Little did Sonnier know that he had equally famous company meeting him in his cell.

Sonnier was the first condemned inmate to receive the spiritual ministration of Sister Helen Prejean.

The then-obscure Louisiana nun would later write the bestseller Dead Man Walking about her experiences with Sonnier and a second death row prisoner, Robert Lee Willie. Prejean remains among the most well-known death penalty opponents in the world today.

While the book Dead Man Walking treats Sonnier and Willie in a nonfiction vein, the film adaptation (review) amalgamated those people into a single character, the fictional “Matthew Poncelet”. It’s apparent from the flashbacks in Dead Man Walking‘s execution scene, however, that Sonnier is the predominant influence on “Poncelet”.

Dead Man Walking is an interesting movie. Though its principals were all vocal death penalty opponents, the film itself is much better art than propaganda. Arguably, the doomed criminal attains a sort of personal redemption — finally admitting responsibility for a crime he had denied for much of the film; seeking the forgiveness of his victims’ surviving family — only because the death penalty awaits him.

The real-life Sister Helen. Her most recent book is The Death of Innocents:An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.

Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for Best Actress for her turn as Sister Helen. Note that while Sonnier was in fact put to death in the electric chair (as was Robert Lee Willie), director Tim Robbins opted to portray a lethal injection because, as Helen Prejean herself put it,

we don’t want to give people the moral out whereby people could say ‘oh well, we used to do electrocution but that’s too barbaric so now we are humane and inject them’

* The murder that led to this date’s execution took place in the same area where Willie Francis survived a trip to the electric chair: the very chair that killed Patrick Sonnier.

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1722: Arundel Cooke and John Woodburne, despite a novel defense

1 comment April 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1722, Arundel Cooke and John Woodburne were hanged at Bury St. Edmunds, curiously becoming the first victims [edit: or maybe not] of a law of unintended consequences.

This duo’s path to the gallows begins years before their births, when Stuart Restoration parliamentarian John Coventry trod on the royal toes and was in consequence beaten up by some of Monmouth‘s goons.

Incensed, parliament passed the Coventry Act.

By this statute it is enacted that if any person shall of malice aforethought, and by laying in wait, unlawfully cut or disable the tongue, put out an eye, slit the nose, cut off the nose or lip, or cut off or disable any limb or member of any other person, with intent to maim or disfigure him, such person, his counsellors, aiders and abettors, shall be guilty of felony, without benefit of clergy.

“Previous to the passing,” claims The Newgate Calendar, “it was customary for revengeful men to waylay another and cut and maim him, so that though he did not die of such wounds he might remain a cripple during the remainder of life, and such case was not then a capital offence. It was also a dangerous practice resorted to by thieves, who would often cut the sinews of men’s legs, called ham-stringing, in order to prevent their escape from being robbed.”

Sounds like an interesting time. One may well wonder how very customary this practice was, with the half-century lapse before the law found its first prey.

Cooke and Woodburne, for that matter, did not commit the sort of crime that long-ago parliament had had in mind.

Cooke, a well-off barrister, desired to secure for himself the sizable estate to which he was married, and hired working stiff John Woodburne to bump off his brother-in-law, on Christmas evening no less. The would-be assassin jumped him in a churchyard and

knocked down the unhappy man, and cut and maimed him in a terrible manner, in which he was abetted by the counsellor [Cooke].

Imagining they had dispatched him, Mr Cooke rewarded Woodburne with a few shillings and instantly went home; but he had not arrived more than a quarter of an hour before [the victim] knocked at the door, and entered, covered with wounds, and almost dead through loss of blood. He was unable to speak, but by his looks seemed to accuse Cooke with the intended murder, and was then put to bed and his wounds dressed by a surgeon. At the end of about a week he was so much mended that he was removed to his own house.

The perps were easily discovered, and having maimed the intended victim, appeared to fall within the compass of the Coventry Act.

But had they really committed a hanging offense? The defendant put his professional legal training to use.

[Cooke] urged that judgment could not pass on the verdict, because the Act of Parliament simply mentions an intention to maim or deface, whereas he was firmly resolved to have committed murder.

That’s a defense you don’t hear every day. Evidently, the court wanted to keep it that way.

Lord Chief Justice King, who presided on this occasion, declared he could not admit the force of Mr Cooke’s plea, consistent with his own oath as a judge — “For,” said he, “it would establish a principle in the law inconsistent with the first dictates of natural reason, as the greatest villain might, when convicted of a smaller offence, plead that the judgment must be arrested because he intended to commit a greater. In the present instance judgment cannot be arrested, as the intention is naturally implied when the crime is actually committed.”

Cooke’s university education and oleaginous lawyering did, however, enable him to make a successful request to be hanged before dawn on his scheduled day of execution, so as not to be exposed to the rude opprobrium of the commoners. John Woodburne (whether due to class position or the value he put on his last hours of life, the text does not inform us) was not extended the same courtesy, and swung later that day in full public view.

Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.

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1794: Georges Danton and his followers

13 comments April 5th, 2008 Headsman

At twilight this date in 1794, the most magnetic and perhaps most statesmanlike politician of the French Revolution mounted the scaffold at the Place de la Revolution in the revolution — as described by the poet Arnault:

In the dying light of day the great leader seemed to be rising out of his tomb as much as preparing to descend into it. Never was anything more bold than that great athlete’s countenance, never anything more formidable than the look of that profile which seemed to defy the knife. That great head, even as it was about to fall, appeared to be in the act of dictating laws.

The famously ugly revolutionary had been the moving spirit overthrowing the monarchy of Louis XVI in 1792; as the firmest public minister holding up against the ensuing military collapse he was for a few weeks something close to the head of the government.

Some credit him with saving Paris from military rout or internal anarchy during this time; some implicate him in the horrific September Massacres — and it may well be that neither view is mistaken.

He was destroyed by his sometime ally Robespierre — Danton had returned from semi-retirement on his farm late in 1793 to engage this losing power struggle — and the two are easily, albeit simplistically, read as yin and yang in the Revolution.

Danton’s earthy, all-too-human joie de vivre — his carnality, profanity, arrogance, venality — opposed to cold-blooded, sexless Robespierre, “the Incorruptible”; Danton’s (arguable) far-seeing vision of Revolutionary France’s place in the wider world opposed to Robespierre’s bloodthirsty peccadilloes of “virtue”. For most observers, though by no means all, the comparison profits Danton. (Just see if France ever names a warship for Robespierre.)

“We must dare, and again dare, and forever dare.”

Like many before him, most especially the Girondins who had (fatally to both parties) scorned an alliance with the Dantonists, Danton sought to arrest the revolution where he stood. The confrontation that finished him was precipitated by Danton’s attempt — with the assistance of his longtime confederate Camille Desmoulins, the most notable of the other men to lose their heads this day — to apply the brake to the excesses of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, that lethal organ he himself established as a pillar of order for a time of peril now abated. With the worst of the very real dangers to the Revolution checked, Danton in the Convention and Desmoulins in his fiery journalistic writings proposed to rein in the bloodbath and overturn the power of the sans-culottes.

The time was not yet ripe for the former, although the far-left Hebertist party preceded Danton to the guillotine by a few weeks. In this clip from the 1983 film Danton (review | another | still another (pdf)), Robespierre — who had long resisted denouncing Danton, but did it with characteristic gusto once he committed to the course — turns the terrified Convention against the title character:

Danton’s action in those last days seems vacillating, uncertain; fate devours him. For Georg Buchner in Danton’s Death (here it is free in the original German), he’s paralyzed by the contradictions and uncertainties of an unknown new world in its birth pangs, despairing as all his good-natured philosophies drench themselves in gore.

He roused himself one last time for a ferocious and hopeless defense before the Revolutionary Tribunal, coming near enough to swinging the mob in his favor that the Convention felt obliged to vote a measure to gag him.*

He went to his death this day in full character, making the most of his last turn on that stage — strutting, jesting,** boastful to the very end, prophesying (accurately) Robespierre’s imminent demise. He was the last to lose his head, having seen Desmoulins and his fellows die before him, “with such coolness as does not belong to man,” the headsman Sanson recalled. His last words were an instruction to the executioner: “Show my head to the people. It will be worth it.”

* Later codified into a regulation preventing any prisoner mounting a defense, the law would boomerang against its authors when Robespierre’s cadre was hailed before the Tribunal and condemned without a hearing.

** Another in the doomed party, Fabre d’Eglantine, was a writer who on the day of the execution complained of the loss of his verses, vers, a French word also meaning “worms.” Danton observed that he’d soon be making plenty more vers.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,France,Gallows Humor,Guillotine,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason,Wartime Executions

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