1741: Juan de la Silva, Spanish Negro

Add comment August 15th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1741 saw the hanging of Juan de la Silva for the slave plot to torch New York.

This second-last execution in that bloody affair takes us to a side plot we have not yet explored in our running series: the “Spanish Negroes”.

New York in 1741 was a distant outpost of the British empire, which itself had seized the colony from the Dutch not eighty years before. The ongoing Atlantic war that Britain was then fighting against Spain and France, winsomely christened the War of Jenkins’ Ear, was serious and frightening business out on the fringe of the wilderness.

The prospect of slave rebels doubling as a fifth column surely helped to stoke the coals under the stakes in 1741. When the Irish soldier William Kane was forced by the threat of execution into giving obviously specious testimony about the plot, he reported that the conspirators’ “design was to wait for the French and Spaniards, whom they expected; and if they did not come in six Weeks, then they were to try what they could do for themselves.” In fact, Spain had even published an offer of “Freedom to all Negroes, and other slaves, that shall Desert from the English Colonies.”

And it just so happened that there were men in New York at that very moment whose own persons straddled the threats within and without.

The previous year, a New York privateer named John Lush had gone adventuring in the Caribbean and returned home with two Spanish prize ships, the Nuestra Senora de la Vittoria and the Solidad … along with about 100 Spanish prisoners.

Among them were 19 dark-skinned men whom Lush described as Negroes or mulattoes and auctioned accordingly. The slaves or “slaves” protested in vain that they were free Spanish subjects, but having no evidence they could produce to that effect they were sold off to various households around the city, and obviously nonplussed about it.

On April 6, 1741, no fewer than four New York homes caught fire, and one of them was the next-door neighbor to one of those Spanish Negroes — to our man, in fact, Juan de la Silva. Someone put two and two together and by evening a cry “Take up the Spanish Negroes!” echoed around Manhattan. A mob descended on de la Silva and hauled him to jail, along with a number of other Lush imports.

Accusations against these Spanish Negroes have more than the usual ration of absurdity, and not only because of the language gap with the witnesses who “overheard” them. At one point, nine of them were brought in turn before two of the major crown witnesses, the slaves Sarah and Sandy, who variously described each as present or not present at the committee meetings; in only three instances did Sarah and Sandy produce the same answer about a Spaniard. They’d have done better flipping pieces of eight.

Investigation of the “Spanish Plot” angle would ultimately zero in on six of these prisoners-made-slaves.

One luckless fellow, named Francis, was tried among an early batch of (non-Spanish) slaves and wound up burned at the stake on June 12, an undercard attraction that day to the hanging of the supposed arch-villains John and Sarah Hughson. Francis spoke little English but this did not inhibit the Hughsons’ monolingual serving-girl Mary Burton from impeaching him: in Daniel Horsmanden‘s account, she tells the court that “She saw [Francis] often at the Meetings at Hughson’s when they were talking of burning the Town and killing the People; and he seemed to be consenting; he spoke a little English, and some other Language she did not understand.”

The very next day after Francis burned, the main body of “Spanish Negroes, lately imported into this City as Prize Slaves, were put to the Bar; and arraigned upon an Indictment for the Conspiracy.”

Though strangers in an enemy kingdom, Juan de la Silva, Pablo Ventura Angel, Augustine Gutierrez, Antonio de la Cruz and Antonio de St. Bendito would fight their corner as ably as any who came before New York’s courts in that terrible year, and four of the five apparently lived to tell the tale.

Brought to trial on June 15, they ferociously renewed their protest against their enslavement. Horsmanden, who was both junior judge and senior investigator in this matter, noticed what a savvy approach this was. The bulk of evidence was slave testimony, and by the court’s rules slaves could only testify against other slaves. Getting themselves ruled free would be the colonial equivalent of having the DNA evidence suppressed.

They complained (as ’tis supposed, they were advised) that they had great Injustice done them by being sold here as Slaves; for that, as they pretended, they were Freemen in their own Country, and gave in their several Sir-names.

The Indictment was grounded upon an Act of Assembly which enumerated several Offences; and Conspiracies amongst the rest; and made one Slave Evidence against another; so that this Fetch might probably be calculated to take off the Negro Evidence: The Prisoners all protested they could not speak English; and as Mary Burton was the only white Evidence against them, and should it be credited that they could speak only in a Tongue which she did not understand, how could she tell what passed between them in Conversation at Hughson’s? Thus their Advisers might think they would stand the best Chance for the Jury to acquit them.

This was indeed an awkward argument. New York’s Supreme Court took a two-day adjournment to mull how to counter the gambit.

Its solution was quite bizarre. In a single trial, with a single jury, it would try the five men on two different indictments for the same crime: one indictment charged them as slaves; the other, as free men. Even their names varied with their station: from “Juan, Sarly’s” the slave locution indicating Juan’s owner, into the more dignified “Juan de la Sylva”.

This did allow the jurors to hear all the Negro evidence, from the several slaves who (like the Irishman Kane) were made to name whatever names the prosecutors demanded as the price of escaping a gallows of their own — plus, of course, Mary Burton, that ubiquitous accuser who said her late master had informed her that the Spanish Negroes “would burn Lush’s House, and tie Lush to a Beam, and roast him like a Piece of Beef.”

Still, the Spaniards mounted a resourceful defense.

They summoned no fewer than twelve witnesses, all white men and women; each also had his New York owner speak in defense. Four of those owners positively insisted that after a brutal winter their man had been confined at home with an ailment of some kind at the time he was alleged to be out making revolution. The fifth, Juan de la Silva’s master Jacob Sarly, could not posit an ailment but noted that Juan was not permitted out of the house at night and that Juan himself had discovered one of the fires and faithfully called the alarm to Salary’s wife. Sarly even acknowledged “that he heard that his Negro was free.”

Through an interpreter, each man also spoke in his own defense, generally insisting that they were not slaves and had not kept slaves’ company in New York.

The jury convicted them all just the same — “in about half an Hour,” as Horsmanden recalls it.

And then … something happened.

The Spanish Negroes all but disappear from the record for two months, months when New York conducted numerous additional executions but seemingly did not lay a hand on these condemned foreigners. What was afoot?

Two weeks after their conviction — during which time an offer of executive amnesty came and went — we catch sight of them again when they are brought out of the city dungeon for sentencing. The court’s translator was instructed to advise them to this effect:

1st. THAT they were taken with some Spaniards by an English Privateer; were brought into this Port, and condemned as lawful Prize, being suppos’d to be Slaves belonging to the Subjects of the King of Spain; and Nothing appear’d to the Court of Admiralty (which is the Court, to which Jurisdiction concerning Things of this Nature does properly belong) to shew that they were Freemen; and they having made no Pretence or Claim in that Court to be such, they were therefore adjudg’d to be Slaves.

2dly. That the Court of Admiralty having so adjudg’d them to be Slaves, they had been severally sold and disposed of; by which means they were discharged from Confinement in Prison; and thereby have had the Opportunity of caballing with other wicked, mischievous and evil disposed Persons, as well White-Men as Slaves, and have confederated themselves with them, in a most diabolical Conspiracy, to lay this City in Ashes, and to murder and destroy all the Inhabitants; whereas had they appear’d to have been Freemen, they would have been prevented this Opportunity of venting and gratifying the Rancour of their Hearts, by being closely confined as Prisoners of War.

3dly, If notwithstanding they were Free-men, they ought in all Reason to have waited the Event of the War, and suffer’d patiently under their Misfortune; and when Peace should have been concluded, they might have made the Truth of their Pretensions appear, and then Justice would have been done them.

But now, as they are found Guilty of this most horrid and villainous Conspiracy, by the Laws of our Land, Nothing remains but to pronounce Sentence of Death against them.

Accordingly they were Sentenced to be hanged.

Had they been offered the amnesty, but refused it — whether pridefully or tactically? How comes it that these are the very last words, in Horsmanden or anywhere else, that we have of Pablo Ventura Angel, Augustine Gutierrez, Antonio de la Cruz and Antonio de St. Bendito? One infers that these four must have been pardoned and transported out of New York like scores of other condemned slaves in that period, though these pardons are themselves extensively recorded by Horsmanden. Perhaps they were quietly handled another way — able to buy their freedom or return to Spanish hands in some prisoner swap. Maybe their anonymous helper was able to orchestrate something.

Only Juan de la Silva makes it from sentence to execution, and he with unnervingly little comment. Six more unwritten weeks after his condemnation, he was brought back to court for a pro forma hearing to order his hanging, his comrades now nowhere to be found.

He was supposed to join John Ury on the gallows; our series will meet this man in its next post. But Ury was respited, leaving “Wan” to a strange, lonely death far from his kith and kin — and one single sentence from Horsmanden to dispatch the strangest sub-plot of a sordid story.

Juan, alias Wan de Sylva; the Spanish Negro, condemned for the Conspiracy, was this Day executed according to Sentence: He was neatly dressed in a white Shirt, Jacket, Drawers and Stockings, behaved decently, prayed in Spanish, kiss’d a Crucifix, insisting on his Innocence to the last.

* In New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, Jill Lepore speculates that the attorney James Alexander might have given the Spanish Negroes advice. Although he would have been seated at the prosecutors’ bar in this trial — defending any of the accused terrorists was politically impossible for any of the city’s lawyers — Horsmanden never records Alexander speaking or taking any other active part in the prosecution, and Lepore thinks that might indicate that he was becoming silently disenchanted with events.

Alexander did have the dissident chops to play this part: it was he who “anonymously” penned the scathing attacks on the previous governor that led to the arrest of the man who printed them, Peter Zenger, and thence to Zenger’s acquittal in a landmark freedom of the press case.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,New York,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Soldiers,Spain,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions

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1714: Constantine Brancoveanu and his sons

1 comment August 15th, 2014 Headsman

Three centuries ago today, Wallachian prince Constantine Brancoveanu was beheaded in Istanbul with his four sons.

Brancoveanu (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) had fallen foul of the Sublime Porte, which dominated Wallachia, by dallying with the Ottomans’ European rivals, the Habsburgs and the Russians.

During the then-current installment the oft-renewed Russo-Turkish War derby, he actually massed armies for a potential swing all the way to the anti-Ottoman team. Breaking those up and returning Peter the Great’s gifts after the Russian clock got cleaned did not a tribute of loyalty make in the eyes of Turkey.

Not only Contantine but his entirely family — wife, four sons, and six daughters — were carried thereafter to Istanbul prisons. On the Feast Day of the Blessed Virgin, in the presence of the Sultan himself and of Christian diplomats who would be sure to put the word out, his four sons Constantine, Stefan, Radu and Matei were beheaded in his presence, as was the Wallachian treasurer Enache Vacarescu. The 60-year-old prince exhorted them as they endured their martyrdoms to remain steadfast, until at last he too lost his head. (Istanbul Christians managed to give the bodies honorable burials after fishing them out of the Bosphorus. The remains were later translated to Bucharest.*)

Most of the web sites about Branacoveanu and family are in Romanian; he was in his quarter-century reign a great cultural patron. The first Romanian Bible was completed in his time, and he undertook a great building program whose distinctive architectural stile still bears his name — Brancovenesc.

The Romanian Orthodox church conferred upon the martyred family the laurels of sainthood in 1992, a fine time to honor Romanian independence from foreign domination although of course by that time the Ottomans were yesteryear’s news and the outside heavy in question was the Russians.


Brancoveanu and his sons, from a mural at a monastery Brancoveanu founded.

Constantine also has a full panoply of secular miscellany in his honor: roads, statues, ballads, a metro station named after him, and so forth.

* At least, the alleged remains; it is well not to turn a forensic lens on saintly relics, and when Brancoveanu’s tomb was opened at the bicentennial of his death the skeleton therein appeared by the state of its teeth to be that of a man half Brancoveanu’s age. (Source)

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1812: William Booth, forger

Add comment August 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1812, William Booth was hanged at Stafford for counterfeiting.

Booth might have murdered his brother John, who was found beaten to death in a Warwickshire stable in 1808. He defeated that charge for want of evidence.

But he would not be two times lucky before the bar.

As a “farmer” living on 200 acres, he enjoyed the privacy to build his own mint, complete with forged royal stamps for churning out banknotes — more than enough cause to hang a man should he be caught, which Booth was. He was a difficult fellow to arrest, the Bury and Norwich Post reported (Aug. 19, 1812), because his farmhouse turned out to be “a little fort, full of trap-doors, and barred and bolted like a bastile.”

Booth’s engineering acumen might have come in handy for his executioners. As a broadside notes, the gallows Booth

ascended with a firm and steady step, but turned his back upon the populace almost immediately; after some time spent in prayer, the rope was adjusted, and a signal being given by the malefactor, (throwing his handkerchief from him that he was ready to submit to his fate,) the drop sunk, when, shocking to relate, by the cord slipping from the fatal tree, the unfortunate man fell from the top of the gallows upon the platform, a distance of eight or ten feet, where he remained motionless and insensible for some minutes.

The stunned prisoner was gradually revived, and redoubled his pieties. The fall must have rendered the noose unusable, because for some reason a delay ensued sufficient to stretch out the proceedings to two full hours, all of which Booth spent in the shadow of the gallows. Even when they finally had him trussed up and ready to hang again, they needed a do-over: Booth once more dropped his handkerchief, but the drop embarrassingly failed to dislodge. Booth, who had twice prepared himself to walk to the brink of death only to twice survive, asked for his handkerchief back once the apparatus had been fixed so that he could re-drop it.

Having faced two capital trials, and two executions, Booth couldn’t even get buried right on the first time. Apparently a re-drawing of the county line required his remains to be exhumed and re-interred, giving rise to a ballad, “Twice Tried, Twice Hung, Twice Buried”.

(Although this version proposes twice hanged and once drowned: suffice to say, Booth lived an interesting death.)

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1941: Josef Jakobs, the last executed in the Tower of London

15 comments August 15th, 2012 Headsman

In its day, the Tower of London has seen off with many an illustrious head.*

Its last use as an execution grounds occurred, all but invisibly, on this date in 1941, with the shooting of German spy Josef Jakobs.

It’s safe to say that Jakobs won’t be competing with Anne Boleyn in the book sales department any time soon. He was, truth be told, barely a spy at all: parachuted into Huntingdonshire on January 31, 1941 with intent to reconnoiter, the guy was observed in his descent by (undoubtedly excited) local defense volunteers. They raced to the landing point but needn’t have: Jakobs was practically immobile, having broken his ankle upon landing. So that was the end of the espionage mission.

After a secret trial under the Treachery Act of 1940, Jakobs was shot at a small rifle range where a number of his countrymen and predecessors from the First World War had met their own ends.

To: The Constable of H.M. Tower of London. 13th August 1941.

Sir,

I have the honour to acquaint you that JOSEF JAKOBS, an enemy alien, has been found guilty of an offence against the Treachery Act 1940 and has been sentenced to suffer death by being shot.

The said enemy alien has been attached to the Holding Battalion, Scots Guards for the purpose of punishment and the execution has been fixed to take place at H.M. Tower of London on Friday the 15th August 1941 at 7.15am.

Sgd. Sir Bertram N. Sergison-Brooke,

Lieutenant-General Commanding London District.

The Royal Armouries artefacts store still preserves the chair (pdf) Jakobs was strapped to for this historic execution. All subsequent executions of World War II spies took place by hanging at Pentonville Prison or Wandsworth Prison.

* It should be added that the Tower’s bloody reputation correctly associates more with the doomed men and women it held than with actual executions: only a very few, mostly high-ranking, folk actually got the chop in the Tower prior to 20th century spies: people such as Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, and Monmouth were more commonly put to death at the adjacent (and public) Tower Hill.

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2010: Two Afghan adulterers stoned

5 comments August 15th, 2011 Headsman

On this date last year, the Taliban carried out the public stoning of an adulterous couple who had attempted to elope in northern Afghanistan.

“Even family members were involved,” the New York Times reported, “both in the stoning and in tricking the couple into returning after they had fled.”

as a Taliban mullah prepared to read the judgment of a religious court, the lovers, a 25-year-old man named Khayyam and a 19-year-old woman named Siddiqa, defiantly confessed in public to their relationship. “They said, ‘We love each other no matter what happens,'” [local farmer Nadir] Khan said.

The executions were the latest in a series of cases where the Taliban have imposed their harsh version of Shariah law for social crimes, reminiscent of their behavior during their decade of ruling the country. In recent years, Taliban officials have sought to play down their bloody punishments of the past, as they concentrated on building up popular support.

“We see it as a sign of a new confidence on the part of the Taliban in the application of their rules, like they did in the ’90s,” said Nader Nadery, a senior commissioner on the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. “We do see it as a trend. They’re showing more strength in recent months, not just in attacks, but including their own way of implementing laws, arbitrary and extrajudicial killings.”

Apparent cell phone video of the execution later surfaced.

Warning: Mature Content. It’s two filmed stonings, after all.

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2004: Atefah Rajabi Shalaaleh, schoolgirl

6 comments August 15th, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 2004, a sixteen-year-old Iranian schoolgirl, Atefah Salaaleh, was publicly hanged from a truck-mounted crane for adultery and “crimes against chastity.”

In a classic example of a miscarriage of justice, the same person, Haji Rezai, served as prosecutor, witness, judge and hangman against this young girl. In violation of Iranian law, Atefah did not have legal representation at her trial.

Iran, when it signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, had promised not to execute minors, but according to Amnesty International, Atefah has been at least the tenth person under 18 to be executed in Iran since 1990. Her family says they gave her 1988 birth certificate to the court, but Judge Rezai just looked at her and decided she was at least 22. Because it’s so easy to determine a person’s exact age just based on their appearance.

Atefah appears to be a good example of a problem child: her mother was killed in a car accident when she was very young and her father was a drug addict, so she was given to the inadequate care of her elderly grandparents. Although she was described as “lively and intelligent,” she often roamed the streets and became a delinquent.

In the years prior to the arrest that lead to Atefah’s death, she had already been arrested multiple times by Iran’s Morals Police for crimes including being in a car alone with a boy (her cousin) and having sex with unmarried men. According to friends quoted in Iran Focus, she may have been sexually abused by a close relative, and she also alleged abuse by the Morals Police.

For the arrest that lead to her death, Atefah was not charged with committing any specific offenses; rather, she was arrested after an unsigned petition named her as a “bad influence” on the community and a “source of immorality.”

Under torture she admitted she had had sex with a 51-year-old married taxi driver, whom she claimed had repeatedly raped her. In court, she defiantly removed her hijab, threw her shoes at judge Rezai, and said the taxi driver should be punished rather than herself. (Reportedly, he was given about 100 lashes and then released.) Atefah’s death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court of Iran and she was hung three months after her trial.

Atefah’s life and death have been the subject of a BBC documentary which you can see in six parts on YouTube. Keep a hanky handy.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Iran,Other Voices,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1986: The Stoning of Soraya M

7 comments August 15th, 2009 Headsman

It was on this date, according to French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam’s The Stoning of Soraya M, that 35-year-old mother Soraya Manutchehri was stoned to death in an Iranian village.


In a scene from The Stoning of Soraya M, the titular character awaits her titular fate.

In Sahebjam’s telling, a journalistic trip to the Islamic Republic chances upon a mountain village with a terrible secret.

The story he uncovers features one Ghorban-Ali, nasty husband par excellence who grows tired of the arranged wife he’s spent 22 years beating and (falsely) accuses her of adultery in order to put her out of the way so that he can remarry a younger bride.

With the complicity of the local mullah, the impolitic silence of the accused, and the structural misogyny of the law, Soraya Manutchehri quickly finds herself condemned to death on this date, and stoned within hours — Soraya’s own father casting the first stones.

This powerful story, officially denied by Tehran, has just been released in cinematic form. The Stoning of Soraya M. (movie homepage) features an unsubtle dramatic tableau, a stomach-churning 20-minute stoning sequence, and Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo as Soraya’s aunt Zahra Kahnum, fearlessly giving the foreign journalist this explosive story

As it happened, this cinematic condemnation of the reduced status of women in the Ayatollah’s Iran made its American debut the same week that cell phone footage of Neda Agha-Soltan, bleeding to death after being shot dead during protests against Iran’s recent election results, became an Internet sensation.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Iran,Known But To God,Notable Sleuthing,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Stoned,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1963: Henry John Burnett, Scotland’s last hanging

Add comment August 15th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1963, the executioner paid his last call to Scotland with the hanging of Henry John Burnett for the murder of a rival-in-love seaman.

The type whom parents hope their daughter never dates, Burnett liked to keep his squeeze Margaret May Guyan under lock and key to keep her stepping out on him.

It’s an old, old tale. Boy meets girl, boy makes girl his prisoner, girl gets creeped out and returns to estranged hubby Thomas Guyan at 14 Jackson Terrace in Aberdeen, boy blasts Guyan in the face with a shotgun. How many times have we heard it told?

Even though the noose was on its way out — this is not only the last execution in Scotland, but the only hanging in Aberdeen in the past century and a half — there wasn’t much pussyfooting around when they’d made up their mind to use it: Burnett outlived his victim by only eleven weeks — notwithstanding an insanity plea and clemency petitions from both his own and the victim’s families — before hanging at Craiginches Prison, a facility that surely ought to be somebody’s porn name.

It’s got pride of place in a book about Aberdeen crime history, Blood and Granite. Because you can find anything on YouTube, there’s also this fine teaser for a forthcoming animation project of some kind:

Part of the Themed Set: At the End of the Rope.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Scotland,Sex

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