1786: Five men at York Castle, under the “Bloody Code”

Add comment August 19th, 2018 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1786, five young men were hanged together before a large crowd in front of York Castle. They were William Nicholson, John Charlesworth, James Braithwaite, William Sharp and William Bamford.

William Knipe’s Criminal chronology of York castle; with a register of criminals capitally convicted and executed at the County assizes, commencing March 1st, 1379, to the present time records,

The above were all executed at Tyburn without Micklegate Bar.

Nicholson, aged 27, labourer, for stealing two geldings, the property of Robert Athorpe Esq., of Dinnington. Thomas Whitfield, Mr. Athorpe’s man, was the principal witness against him.

John Charlesworth, of Liversedge, clothier, for breaking into the house of Susan Lister, of Little Gomersal, single woman, and stealing various articles of trifling value; also further charged with stopping William Hemmingway, of Mirfield, clothier, and robbing him of three guineas and a half and some silver and copper. He was 21 years of age.

Braithwaite, for breaking into the dwelling-house of Thomas Paxton, of Long Preston, innkeeper, and stealing various article therefrom. He was a hawker and a pedlar, and 30 years of age.

William Sharp, labourer, aged 26, and William Bamford, labourer, aged 28, for robbing Duncan M’Donald, of Sheffield, button-maker, by breaking into his house, and carrying away a number of horn combs, a silver threepenny-piece, and fourpence in copper. Sharp was a native of Conisbro’, and Bamford, a native of Clifton.

It was noted that Nicholson, Charlesworth, Sharp and Bamford all left a widow and children behind, but Braithwaite had “two wives and three children by his lawful one, and two by the other, to whom he gave £70, and appeared most attached to her, as he would not permit the former to take leave of him.”

This British Library article on crime and punishment in Georgian Britain explains why these individuals were punished so severely for what, to modern eyes, look like relatively minor offenses:

The 18th-century criminal justice system relied heavily on the existence of the ‘bloody code’. This was a list of the many crimes that were punishable by death—by 1800 this included well over 200 separate capital offences. Guilty verdicts in cases of murder, rape and treason — even lesser offences such as poaching, burglary and criminal damage — could all possibly end in a trip to the gallows. Though many people charged with capital crimes were either let off or received a lesser sentence, the hangman’s noose nevertheless loomed large.

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1909: Richard Justin, child batterer

1 comment August 19th, 2017 Meaghan

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

At eight in the morning on this date in 1909, Richard Justin was hanged at Crumlin Road Prison in Belfast, Ireland (now Northern Ireland) for the murder of his four-year-old daughter. Little Annie Thompson — she was born illegitimate, but her parents married a few months before her death — had died at their home at 84 Lepper Street in Belfast on March 12, supposedly from falling out of bed.

A myriad of witnesses, however, reported that Justin abused the child horribly. Her longtime nanny had noticed bruises, a swollen chin, a black eye and one tooth knocked out, but in February, before she could take any action, Annie was removed from her care. Others reported seeing marks and bruises on the child.

When concerned adults asked Annie how she had been hurt, she complained her father had hit and kicked her. People had also heard heartrending cries coming from 84 Lepper Street. One neighbor, for instance, testified she’d heard Annie’s mother wail, “Hit me, and let the child alone.”

The locals were reluctant to intervene in the family’s domestic problems, but after a Mrs. McWilliams saw that Annie’s “wee elbow” was swollen, her wrist was burned and “the skin was off her back,” she told Annie’s mother she was going to complain to the child abuse authorities. She decided not to, though, after Annie’s mother gave her word of honor that the abuse would stop.

It didn’t stop.

The very day of Annie Thompson’s demise, someone had written a letter to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, saying they’d been concerned about her for months and would someone please go to her house and check on her welfare? The anonymous writer added that he or she had meant “to drop you a note last week.”

Too little, too late.

From a forensic standpoint there was the autopsy, which revealed

a litany of injuries. These included some thirty bruises to the chest, arms, thighs and head, though most were several days old. Professor Symmers, who conducted the medical investigation, even went as far as to say they were the worst injuries to a child he had ever seen.

He actually compared her tortured remains to a case he’d seen where a man had been whipped 100 strokes with a cat o’ nine tails. The primary cause of death, however, was a brain hemorrhage

At Richard’s trial in July, ample evidence of child abuse was presented and the prosecution argued that Annie had died of injuries accumulated from the effects of months of beatings. The defense denied that the accused man had ever mistreated his daughter and argued that her death was an accident. Their star witness was Richard Justin’s oldest son, Richard Jr.

According to Richard Jr., he, his younger brother, and Annie were sharing a bed, the girl being closest to the wall. She woke up at 7:00 a.m. and started climbing over the boys to get out of bed, but tripped on the hem of her nightdress, fell off the bed and struck her head on the metal strut of her parents’ bed, an arms’ length away. Annie moaned and wouldn’t move after that. Richard Jr. picked her up and put her back in bed without waking their brother. Richard Sr. then found her lying dead two hours later.

When asked about this in court, Professor Symmers reluctantly allowed the boy’s story about Annie’s fall, if accurate, could explain the brain hemorrhage that had caused her death.

Nevertheless, the jury returned a guilty verdict.

“The defence,” writes Steven Moore in his book Hanged at Crumlin Road Gaol: The Story of Capital Punishment in Belfast,

with some justification, considered that Richard Justin hadn’t been given the benefit of what appeared to be reasonable doubt. There was a possibility, it was felt, the jury had believed him guilty of scheming to kill the child, and that the plot had not succeeded only because of an unfortunate accident. In other words, even if he hadn’t actually murdered Annie, there was no reason to consider him innocent when he had evil intent to the girl. A petition sent to the Lord Lieutenant asking for a reprieve was turned down.

A large crowd gathered outside the prison as Richard Justin was hanged, but there was nothing to see: his execution took place within the prison walls, and even the custom of raising the black flag at the moment of death had been abandoned. He reportedly “walked firmly to the scaffold and had shown great remorse for his crime.”

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1774: Not Patrick Madan, saved at the death

1 comment August 19th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1774, convicted robber Patrick Madan and two other men went to Tyburn to be hanged for their crimes. Madan, however, was reprieved at the literal last minute.

He was standing at the dread triple tree with the noose already around his neck, the final prayers over, when a man in the crowd, Amos Merritt, cried out that Madan was innocent.

Confounded, the authorities ordered a short stay. For almost an hour the condemned men stood at the gallows with the ropes draped over their necks. Finally Madan was returned to prison and the others were hanged.

When brought before the magistrate, Merritt claimed he himself was guilty of the robbery Madan was convicted of. Madan was pardoned and Merritt was charged with the crime instead.

As recorded in Emma Christopher’s A Merciless Place: The Fate of Britain’s Convicts after the American Revolution:

Quite what had happened remained a mystery. Many claimed that Amos Merritt, hardly the repentant suddenly feeling the weight of his conscience as another man stood ready to be hanged for his crime, was really one of Madan’s own criminal crew who had put his neck on the line for his gang leader. Others maintained that Merritt really was guilty and had been forced by the many underworld characters who admired Madan to come forward and save him.

The saga did not end there. As it turned out Amos Merritt would not be required to make the ultimate sacrifice on this occasion, as when the case was retried at the Old Bailey, Merritt was acquitted. By then it was impossible for any jury to know who to believe.

If Merritt learned a lesson from this escapade it seems to have been overconfidence in his ability to game the system. Within a month of his release he committed another robbery, and was hanged less than five months later.

As for Patrick Madan, Christopher says, he “returned triumphantly to his gang, now a criminal celebrity.” His brushes with the law continued; according to Atlantic Biographies: Individuals and Peoples in the Atlantic World, Madan was eventually transported to Africa and there disappeared, amid never-substantiated rumors that he had made an escape to the New World or slipped back to London.


There’s another public domain life-of-Madan pamphlet available free from Google Books here.

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1901: Three Boer rebels against the Cape Colony

1 comment August 19th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1901, Petrus Jacobus Fourie, Jan van Rensburg, and Lodewyk Francois Stephanus Pfeiffer were shot by the British at Graaff-Reinet.

They were among the numerous subjects of the British Cape Colony whose sympathy with the independent Boer republics which Britain was in the process of conquering extended so far as aiding their Dutch brethren’s resistance. In this case, the young men joined the famed Boer guerrilla Gideon Scheepers — and whatever one might say about the fuzziness of ethnic and national identity in a frontier region, this rated in London’s eyes as rebellion.

On July 6, 1901, Scheepers executed a raid on the town of Murraysburg — “Scheepersburg”, he called it — and put loyalist houses to the torch.

The British Gen. John French sent columns of men into the rugged Camdeboo Mountains in an effort to trap the irksome commando. Scheepers and most of his troop of about 240 men escaped, but about 27 or 28 Cape Colony rebels were captured (along with a few free staters, who could not be charged as rebels).

A particularly revolting incident happened in the execution of the three who were shot. This was, that the firing parties were a body of ten men, five with ball, and five with blank cartridges. After the word “present,” which brings the rifle to the shoulder, one of them “‘pulled off” before the command “fire” was given, and the bullet blew off the top of one man’s head.

-British guard Wilfrid H. Harrison in his Memoirs of a Socialist in South Africa

Eight of these people were executed as rebels over the ensuing weeks, with the aid of Jan Momberg, one of their erstwhile mates who turned Crown’s evidence against them to save his own life.

After Fourie, van Rensburg and Pfeiffer were shot on Aug. 19, Ignatius Nel and Daniel Olwagen — both teenagers — died at Graaff-Reinet on August 26; and, Hendrik van Vuuren, Fredrick Toy and Hendrik Veenstra were shot at Colesberg on September 4.

Though the British made an effort to obscure the final resting-places of these potential martyr figures, their graves were located. Fourie, van Rensburg and Pfeiffer, along with Ignatius Nel and Daniel Olwagen, are among the men subsequently exhumed and placed in a collective grave. A monument in Graaff-Reinet honors these and three other guerrillas executed there … one of whom is Gideon Scheepers himself, who was captured in October of 1901 and executed the following January.

There’s a good deal more about Scheeper’s rebels, and these men in particular, in a two-part article by a descendant of van Rensburg here: part 1 | part 2.

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1738: Helena Curtens and Agnes Olmans, inviolable dignity

1 comment August 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1738, the last victims of witch trials in the Lower Rhine were burned at the stake in Gerresheim, an ancient German city today subsumed by Düsseldorf.

More eccentric than demoniacal, the sicky 14-year-old Helena Curtens reported having seen some ghostly apparition during a curative pilgrimage to Kevelaer, and received from him some towels with weird occult inscription. (She actually did have such towels.)

This adolescent attention-seeking turned into a whole thing when judge Johann Weyrich Sigismund Schwarz’s long ears caught hold of Gerresheim’s wagging tongues.

The whole idea of witches and witchcraft was trending ever less fashionable at this time, but not for Schwarz: he routed Curtens’s occult encounter into the judicial Hexenprozess and got on record an accusation against her neighbor Agnes Olmans as well as the usual stuff about playing the harlot with a visiting devil.

Their case extended for more than a year; Helena Curtens was 16 by the time she burned.

In that time, Curtens stayed curiously committed to her crazy story, even knowing that it was putting her under the shadow of the stake.

Olmans, by contrast, fought with every fiber the allegations that her young neighbor kept confirming. Olmans even fell ironic victim to the uneven development of rational witch-law reform when she tried to demand that she be put to the ordeal of water to prove her innocence: it turned out that this backwards practice of pseudo-forensics had been barred in 1555, so Schwarz could not order it. At trial, her denials were easily overcome by the gossip of neighbors, and even her own husband — who recalled that the mother-in-law had a distinctly witchy reputation. Hey, ’til death do us part, babe.

Today, there’s a public stone monument to these milestone sorceresses, the Gerresheimer Hexenstein (“Gerresheim witches’ stone”)

Its inscription reads:

Human dignity is inviolable.
For Helene Mechthildis Curtens and Agnes Olmanns.
Burned in Gerresheim on August 19, 1738.
After the last witch trial in the Lower Rhine
and for all those tortured and outcast

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1897: Harvey DeBerry, raving like a madman

Add comment August 19th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1897, a 23-year-old black man named Harvey DeBerry was hanged for sexually assaulting his employer’s daughter.

His offense, this sexual assault, was a new one under the Tennessee statutes, different from the crimes of rape and attempted rape, and DeBerry was the first person in Shelby County to be convicted of it.

DeBerry was a live-in laborer on the Eigiman farm in Frayser Station, Tennessee, and his wife was the farm’s cook. Mr. and Mrs. Eigiman had three children aged seven, five and two. It was the oldest child, Elenora, that DeBerry assaulted on October 8, 1896.

At the time of the crime, Mr. Eigiman was in the hospital in Memphis recuperating from a fractured skull and a broken leg. Mrs. Eigiman went to see him that day, leaving her children in the care of the DeBerrys. She left Elenora in bed in her nightgown, because the little girl said she wasn’t feeling well.

When Mrs. Eigiman returned at the end of the day, Elenora was still in bed, crying and acting as if she was in pain. She refused to tell her mother what was wrong, and cried and moaned all night.

The next morning, her mother stripped the bed and found blood on the sheets. Mrs. Eigiman confronted her daughter, and Elenora said Harvey DeBerry had come into her room, lain on top of her and hurt her. That same day, a doctor was called to examine the victim. His findings, according to court documents, were as follows:

He found the child highly excited, nervous, and trembling; that the person of the child was swollen, and very tender to the touch; that the parts showed acute inflammation and swelling; that he found a purulent discharge, and a slight rupture of the hymen; that penetration had been partial, but not complete; that the acute inflammation, purulent discharge, and swelling indicated that the injury was recent. During the course of the examination the physician asked the child who hurt her, and she replied that ‘Harvey hurt her.’ The mother was not present when the child made this statement.

Harvey DeBerry fled when Mrs. Eigiman and Elenora confronted him with their accusations.

He turned up soon enough, though, living in Arkansas under the alias Frank Berry, and was extradited to Tennessee for trial. He was represented by a father-and-son team of black lawyers and offered two witnesses in his defense: a washerwoman who said there was no blood on Elenora’s clothing, and someone who said he and DeBerry were harvesting corn together at the time of the crime.

However, the prosecution was able to prove that DeBerry’s alibi witness was mistaken about the date, and the washerwoman had laundered Elenora’ clothing a full month before she was attacked.

Elenora testified about her experience at the trial, saying the reason she hadn’t immediately told her mother about the attack was that Harvey had threatened to kill her if she breathed a word about what he had done. The defense tried to convince the court that another man had abused the little girl, but Elenora denied this on the stand.

A jury acquitted DeBerry of two counts of rape, but convicted him of “assault and battery upon a female under ten years of age, with intent to unlawfully and carnally know her.” What exactly constituted “rape” when there was scant to no penetration was a grey area in Anglo jurisprudence, but with the sexual assault law it was six of one and a half-dozen of the other: both rape and sexual assault were capital offenses.

On the scaffold DeBerry was sobbing and appeared terrified.

A newspaper said later that his last words were “the ravings of a madman. There was no connection of coherency in what he said.”

When he stood on the trap and the sheriff pulled the lever, nothing happened. After an agonizing moment, a deputy stepped forward and pulled it a second time. This time the trap worked and DeBerry fell, cleanly breaking his neck. He was pronounced dead within twelve minutes.

As to whether he confessed before he died, the sheriff and the minister refused to say.


For a bit of period context, the same date that DeBerry hung lawfully saw the summary lynching of an unknown tramp in Manheim, Illinois, outside Chicago. That man attempted to outrage a farmer’s wife but was fought off by the “muscular German woman,” then led a desperate chase through woods and cornfields for half an hour until one of the pursuing posse finally plunked him with a gunshot.

The wounded assailant was searched for identity papers (none turned up), then instantly strung up on the nearest sturdy tree. (Source: The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), Aug. 20, 1897)

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1919: Boonpeng Heep Lek, the last public beheading in Thailand

2 comments August 19th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1919, Thailand — in the sunset years of its absolute monarchy — conducted its last-ever public beheading.

Boonpeng Heep Lek apparently killed his own mother, but the crime takes a back seat here to the visuals. We have these grainy-but-grisly images of the man, and then … just the trunk of the man.

This execution took place, as many did, at the grounds of the Wat Phasi or Wat Phasee temple complex in Bangkok (then, at the edge of Bangkok); bizarrely, said complex today preserves a shrine to our milestone matricide, where devotees visit to … seek better luck?!. Okay.

(This temple isn’t much on the standard tourist beat for Bangkok despite a central location and gorgeous architecture and the creepy history. It appears to be, as of this writing, completely absent even from the usually-encyclopedic Flickr.)

If the executioners in this case followed the procedures promulgated in recent years, then after the victim was tied down seated at a small wooden cross — visible in the pictures above — he would have had his ears and mouth filled with clay, and clay likewise used to mark the base of his neck.

The two-man execution team would then contrive to get a sword through that valuable protuberance via a strange ceremony, with one man performing a hypnotic sword dance in front of the prisoner — apparently meant to relax or distract him, although it seems like it would do better for ratcheting up the panic — while the second man bided his time for the opportunity to dart in unseen with a leaping decapitation slash from behind, “a quick rush, a circle of light in the air, and a sudden jet of crimson.” After that, they chopped the guy’s feet off in order to remove the manacles, and left the corpse as carrion for the local vultures.

We’ve followed those birds’ lead by scavenging a variety of pictures of old Siamese executions (not Boonpeng Heep Lek’s specifically), at least one of which certainly merits the Mature Content Warning. Image credits via here and the series of posts beginning here.

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1692: Martha Carrier, ferocious woman

8 comments August 19th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1692 was the third of four execution dates during the notorious Salem witch trials.

Five souls were dispatched at Gallows Hill this date. With the executioner’s due respect to John Willard, George Burroughs, George Jacobs, Sr. and The Crucible main character John Proctor, we’re elated this date to focus on the only woman among them — Martha Carrier.

Carrier is the subject of the recent historical novel The Heretic’s Daughter by her tenth-generation descendant Kathleen Kent, whom we’re delighted to welcome for an interview on this anniversary.

How did you first learn of your connection to Martha Carrier, and how does your family feel about this link?

I was very fortunate to have heard stories of the colonial Carriers from the time I was a young child. My first memory of hearing about the Salem witch trials was when I was eight years old, visiting my maternal grandmother. She was the first one to tell me that my grandmother back nine generations, Martha Carrier, had been hanged as a witch in 1692. When I asked her if Martha was in fact a witch, my grandmother said, “Sweetheart, there are no such things as witches, just ferocious women.”

She, along with the rest of my family, had a great sense of pride over Martha’s courage in standing up to her accusers. She was one of the few people, out of the 150 New Englanders accused of practicing witchcraft, who not only refused to admit to being guilty, but also never accused anyone else of being a witch, which most people did to save themselves.

Your book tells the story of Martha Carrier from the perspective of her 10-year-old daughter. As an author, how did you approach the research, especially when it comes to Martha as an individual? Is that something you were able to source pretty strongly or did it require a lot of filling in the blanks?

The Heretic’s Daughter was my first novel, and it took five years of research and writing to complete it.

Fortunately, there is a wealth of historical information about the colonies during that time. The courts where the witch trials were conducted kept very meticulous records so I was able to gather a lot of facts regarding the magistrates and deponents, as well as the accused. There are so many wonderful fiction and non-fiction books alike that have been written about the Salem witch trials, but I wanted to write a very personal story about the Carrier family; how they lived day to day, how they survived disease, Indian raids, hostility from their neighbors, and ultimately the witch trials. I was able to weave in a lot of my family’s stories — the cow that gave golden milk, Andrew’s near death experience in the prison — that have been passed down through 10 generations.

When I first began working on the book, it was written from Martha’s point of view, but I decided it would make more compelling reading if the narrator was one of the Carrier children, Sarah, and it is through her eyes that we see the growing hysteria over witchcraft, and her struggle with Martha’s strong, unyielding character. This theme of mother-daughter conflict is central to the book’s development.

So, who was Martha Carrier and why did she become one of the people caught up in the Salem witch trials?

Martha Carrier had evidently long been resented by the community in Andover, where the Carrier family lived during the Salem witch trials, because of her forceful nature. She argued over boundary lines with several neighbors (which was a common occurrence amongst the settlers), telling one neighbor, “I will stick as close to you as bark on a tree.” (source: Salem witch trial deposition; see this document) She was also married to a man who had fought in the English Civil War, and was widely rumored to be one of the executioners of King Charles I of England. Martha fell outside of the Puritan ideal of what a woman was supposed to be and was so vocal in her own defense during the trials that when she was asked by her judges if she had ever seen the Devil, she responded by telling them that the only devils she had ever seen were the men sitting in judgment before her.


One of 20 granite benches commemorating the Salem witch trial victims at a memorial. (cc) image from Deaf RED Bear.

Her own children accused her of witchcraft. Are you descended through those kids as well? And do we know anything about how they later dealt with or rationalized that act?

My family is descended from Tom, Jr., and I learned the full genealogy at an early age from my grandparents. Four of Martha’s five children were arrested to compel her to admit to being guilty. Her two oldest sons were arrested first, and they were tortured until they agreed to testify against their mother. Tom and Sarah were then arrested — the real Sarah being only 7 years old at the time, and the second youngest child to be imprisoned during the trials — and they quickly admitted that they, too, were complicit in witchcraft.

During the research, I discovered how truly awful the conditions were in the Salem jail. Nearly half of the 150 people arrested from towns all over New England were under the age of 18. The surprising thing was not that people died, but that anyone survived at all. The four children were kept imprisoned for months after their mother was hanged and they were finally released in the fall of 1692. Within a few years, their father, Thomas, collected his children and grandchildren and moved to the wilds of Connecticut to start a new life.

How did she try to defend herself?

Martha Carrier was so vocal in her own defense during the trials that Cotton Mather, one of the most famous theologians of his day, named her the “Queen of Hell.”

This Rampant Hag, Martha Carrier, was the Person, of whom the Confessions of the Witches, and of her own Children among the rest, agreed, That the Devil had promised her, she should be Queen of Hell.

Mather

When she was confronted by the accusing girls, she turned to her judges and said, “It is a shameful thing that you should listen to these folks who are out of their wits.”

By the time of her arrest, several women had already been sentenced to be hanged, and she knew that her refusal to confess would mean death. She never wavered in her testimony and never accused another person to save herself, even when her four children were arrested and two of her sons were tortured.

Do you feel like she’s an overlooked figure in this affair? She’s not, for instance, even a character in The Crucible.

Arthur Miller did extensive research for The Crucible, but he did make changes to the historical facts for fictional purposes: for example John Proctor was in his seventies during the trials; hardly the strapping figure played by Daniel Day Lewis in the film adaptation.

There were so many remarkable people and events during the trials that he had to choose selectively in order to illustrate his primary motivation in writing the play which was to shed light on the McCarthy era communist “witch” trials.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about Martha Carrier, as did Cotton Mather, but her forceful character made her a difficult subject, especially when there were more motherly figures like Rebecca Nurse, or titillating young characters like Abigail Williams to explore.

At this distance of time, Martha Carrier must have a great many descendants. Are you in touch with other branches of the family?

Soon after publishing The Heretic’s Daughter, I started getting emails and letters from fellow descendents of Thomas and Martha Carrier telling me that they, too, had heard many of the stories that I had grown up with.

For the release of my second novel, The Wolves of Andover, about Thomas Carrier’s life, I decided it would be fun to invite some of these extended family members to Salem for a book launch. On November 5th, 2010, nearly 250 Carrier descendents, some of them flying in from as far away as Washington State, California and Arizona, came to Salem for a weekend of author talks, receptions and story swapping. A video on my web site captured some of the highlights from that remarkable weekend.

We came as strangers and left Salem as family.

Ultimately, what’s changed about you yourself from your literary encounter with this famous ancestor?

The Salem witch trials were a dark period in American history, but from researching those events I discovered that positive changes occurred over time in the judicial system, the penal system, and for religious tolerance. I am awe-struck by the courage and fortitude of the settlers who sacrificed so much for their children and grandchildren.

And I am especially proud of my heritage: that my 9x great-grandmother defended her principles and conscience, even in the face of death. An interviewer once asked if, having written the novel, I felt I was speaking for Martha Carrier, and I said that I felt she had been speaking for me. A ferocious woman indeed!

With your second book, The Wolves of Andover, you’ve written two about the Carrier family. What’s your next project?

Wolves is a prequel to Heretic, as it explores the life of Thomas Carrier during the English Civil War and his journey to the new world from London.

I am about halfway through my third novel, but this one is quite different from the first two. It takes place during reconstruction era Texas in 1870, and chronicles a particularly chaotic, violent time in Texas history.

There’s another fine interview with Kathleen Kent here. -ed.

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1799: Thomas Nash, after rendition to the British

4 comments August 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Thomas Nash was hanged in Jamaica for the bloody mutiny on the HMS Hermione.


Before there was Hermione Granger, there was the HMS Hermione. Painting by Thomas Whitcombe.

The Admiralty’s most notorious mutiny this side of the Bounty was actually a far bloodier affair. Dig the description from one of the conspirators who later turned state’s evidence.

“The captain,” said he, “was very severe with the men, who were all good seamen, and they were determined to either run the ship on shore and desert, or else take her by force. This had been in their minds for months before it happened. At last,” said he, “on a dark night, when the young lieutenant had the watch, our minds were made up. A party went to the cabin-door, knocked down the sentry, and entered it. The captain was in his cot, and he was soon overpowered. We threw him out of the cabin-window. Another party threw the officer of the watch over the larboard quarter, but he, being young and active, caught hold of the hammock-stanchion, when one of the men cut his hands off, and he soon dropped astern. The first lieutenant had been ill and keeping his cot, but on hearing the noise, he came up the hatchway in his shirt, when one of the carpenter’s crew cut him down with an axe, and he was sent overboard with several others.”

(There’s a fine audio lecture about this mutiny in the context of maritime class violence at the Bristol Radical History Group, which reminds that in a context where most of a ship’s manpower was marshaled with the violence of involuntary conscription, mutiny bids were a regular feature of Old Blighty’s maritime empire. London Times archives are available from 1785, and searches on the word “mutiny” in those early years reveal dozens of episodes — and those were just the reported ones.)

After making sharkmeat of that tyrannical captain, 27-year-old Hugh Pigot, the Hermione mutineers got drunk, and then delivered the frigate to the Spanish.

A Royal Navy vessel aptly named the Surprise* was able to surprise the wayward warship and cut her out of the Venezuelan harbor Puerto Cabello. The Hermione was then aptly renamed the Retaliation (and later, Retribution). Then, the British put the ominous word into action with a global manhunt for the mutineers.

Nearly thirty men ultimately hanged for the affair, though that meant that most of those involved escaped the noose.

And Executed Today never** deals with the lucky ones.

Mind if I do a Jay?

And so we come at last to our day’s protagonist, one of the Hermione mutineers who was at length recognized in the breakaway former British colonies now constituting themselves the United States of America.

Upon catching this intelligence, British envoys demanded the extradition of this character — who now claimed to be an American citizen by the name of “Jonathan Robbins” — under the terms of the recent and controversial Jay Treaty. After several months under lock and key without any American charge against him, Robbins/Nash eventually had a habeas corpus hearing before Judge Thomas Bee, who decided† that this “American citizen” was no such thing. With an okay from the Adams administration, Bee had the man delivered to the crown.

Nash was immediately shipped down to the British colony of Jamaica, put on trial on Aug. 15 (he had no defense), and hanged on Aug. 19.

Little could the Waterford-born seaman imagine the legacy he bequeathed his fake-adopted country.

I know my rights, man

The Nash extradition became a political firestorm in the U.S., with anti-British Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans decrying the Federalist administration’s handling of the case. For the infant republic, formulating juridical precedent on the fly, this played as a separation-of-powers issue: was it within the president’s power to fulfill the treaty unilaterally, absent executing legislation passed by Congress? Was it within a judge’s purview to approve an extradition request without the constitutionally assured right to trial by jury?

Sounding eerily contemporary, New York Rep. Robert Livingston denounced a system whereby “a citizen of the United States might be dragged from his country, his connections and his friends, and subjected to the judgment of an unrelenting military tribunal.” Less measured, a Philadelphia Aurora headline announced: “BRITISH INFLUENCE threatens destruction of these United States!” (Source of both quotes)

Though it was surely not decisive, this issue provided great fodder in the 1800 elections swept by the Democratic-Republicans and standard-bearer Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s home state of

Virginia, the stronghold of inimical feeling to Great Britain … passed a law forbidding under heavy punishment a magistrate to be instrumental in extraditing any person out of the state. Thus desertions from British ships in a Virginian port became a regular event. Captains of British vessels sailing to United States ports in no long time would meet their men strolling in the streets, furnished with naturalization papers, who set them at defiance, for their arrest was impossible.

“This passage of history,” the otherwise hostile-to-Nash source is obliged to concede, “tells unfavourably on the character of the treatment of British seamen … the Discipline was harsh and oppressive, one of pure repression. The consideration of others, enforced by benevolence and duty, was often regarded as weakness.”

Hard to imagine why anyone would want to mutiny! It calls to mind, at the end of this passion play as at its start, the words supposed to have been hurled at the Hermione‘s doomed Captain Pigot as he pled with his assailants for mercy: “You’ve shown no mercy yourself and therefore deserve none.”

A real reactionary

Despite the electoral slam dunk, the real last word on the case ultimately belonged to the administration’s defenders.

Among these rose in Congress a first-term — for he would only serve a single such term — member of the House of Representatives also from the Old Dominion, John Marshall.

Just months later, Marshall would be one of outgoing President Adams’s “midnight judges” appointed to the federal courts: in Marshall’s case, to the U.S. Supreme Court, where his epochal 34-year term as Chief Justice would shape the future evolution of American jurisprudence.

Rising on March 7, 1800, in defense of President Adams’s conduct in the Nash case, Representative Marshall gave a preview of the strong federalist perspective that would define his time on the bench. (Read it in full here.)

The President is the sole organ of the nation in its external relations, and its sole representative with foreign nations … He possesses the whole Executive power. He holds and directs the force of the nation. Of consequence, any act to be performed by the force of the nation is to be performed through him.

This passage was exhumed from Congressional archives for citation in a 1936 Supreme Court case on federal supremacy, and has proceeded thence into a go-to bullet point for every latter-day defender of any arbitrary executive authority.

Of consequence (as Marshall might put it), Marshall’s speech about Nash gets an approving reference in Bush administration lawyer — and possible future extradition subject?John Yoo‘s September 25, 2001 memorandum on “The President’s Constitutional Authority to Conduct Military Operations Against Terrorists and Nations Supporting Them”.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, too, quotes this phrase in his Hamdi v. Rumsfeld dissent, further to the doctrine that a man consigned to a presidential oubliette has no recourse to the courts; Justice John Harlan used it (with the rather grandiosely exaggerated qualifier that “from that time, shortly after the founding of the Nation, to this, there has been no substantial challenge to this description”) in his dissent in the Pentagon Papers case to claim that Richard Nixon could prevent the New York Times and Washington Post from publishing the embarrassing classified history of the Vietnam War.‡

So in this imperial age, Thomas Nash is more with us than ever he was. Who knows but what noxious monarchical theories are even now being buttressed with footnotes resolving to the vindictive execution of that obscure mariner two centuries past?

* The Surprise features prominently in novelist Patrick O’Brian‘s beloved Aubrey-Maturin series of nautical adventure novels, the most widely recognized of which is Master and Commander.

Given the vessel’s centrality in this popular series, there’s a book all about the colorful history of the Surprise. In reality, the Surprise — actually a captured French ship herself — was sold out of the service in 1802, prior to the notional 1805 setting of both the cinematic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and the book in the series when Jack Aubrey first commands her.

** … hardly ever.

† Rightly, it’s generally presumed; “Robbins” is alleged (albeit by his self-interested executioners) to have confessed to being Nash before his execution. This entry garners the Wrongful Execution tag on the basis of its contested American jurisprudence.

‡ The limited aim of Marshall’s speech in context, and its subsequent (mis)appropriation, is the subject of an interesting and accessible-to-laypersons law review article here. (pdf) This tome gets a bit more into the weeds on the way the separation of powers operated practically as the Nash case unfolded in Judge Bee’s court.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Soldiers,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1626: Henri Talleyrand, Comte de Chalais

4 comments August 19th, 2009 dogboy

The name Talleyrand is generally synonymous with the famed “Prince of Diplomats” who spanned the Republic, Empire, and Kingdom.

But that Talleyrand — Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, multiply French foreign minister, former Bishop of Autun, one-time Prince of Benevento, Ambassador to the United Kingdom — was just one in a long line of the Talleyrand-Perigords (pdf link) who made a name for themselves.

In 1626, Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord, Comte de Chalais, head of wardrobe to King Louis XIII, was one member of that house whose neck was shortened for an offense against the king’s court.

Henri — as he shall be herein known, so as not to confuse him with his many relatives — was the youngest of three children. Born in 1599, he served in the military at the unsuccessful Siege of Montauban in 1621 and 1622. (The defeat (temporarily) preserved Huguenot rights in France.)

In 1623, Henri returned from war and married Charlotte de Castille (not to be confused with the modern porn star!). It was not long after that rumors of Castille’s impropriety started making the rounds, as immortalized in Tallemant de Réaux‘s verse, whose rough translation is as follows:

Pontgibault boasts,
On seeing the slit
Of the Countess of Alais
Who likes the strong ballet,
And says hers is more charming
Than the Chalais’.

And that, not so roughly translated, is why Pontgibault received a visit from an irate Henri.

Henri is alleged to have challenged a duel, where he cock-blocked his cuckold — permanently. The European ideals of chivalry yet persisted, so there was some question whether this affair constituted murder, and the trial was the talk of France through the winter of 1623.

It was at this trial that the lines were drawn: Henri was joined in his effort to fight the charges by the Grand Prieur Alexandre de Vêndome, Monseiur Gaston d’Orléans (brother to the king), Jean-Baptiste d’Ornano, Louis de Bourbon (Comte de Soissons), and others.

Henri successfully defended himself, but this did not put the fire back into the marital bed. Instead, Henri’s loins turned toward Marie de Rohan-Montbazon, duchesse de Chevreuse.

Madame de Chevreuse, former lover of Henry Rich (later Earl of Holland), had a string of lovers, and it’s questionable whether Henri was among them. Whether he was or not, she ignited in him a passion that would lead to his execution.

The impetus for this execution was ostensibly a plot to save Gaston d’Orléans, who, by decree of Louis XIII, was to marry Marie de Bourbon, duchesse de Montpensier. The union would bring significant wealth into the family of Louis XIII.

Backed by his First Minister Cardinal Richelieu, the king was insistent. For several years, Richelieu had also been reducing the power of the nobility and consolidating central authority around the king, which was not the way Madame de Chevreuse envisioned the world.

Instead, she sought to install Gaston d’Orléans on the throne, thus advancing her agenda to restore power to the nobility. The forced marriage became a convenient excuse to enact her plan against Richelieu. And her charming way with men made it easy to find participants.

Madame de Chevreuse and d’Ornano were at the heart of the conspiracy, but their reach extended as far as England and Spain. She was also supported by Anne of Austria, who is thought to have played a critical role in organizing the conspirators. At the very least, the collective hope was to make Monseiur abandon Louis XIII’s court and seek an alliance with the Hugenots, who would be sympathetic to a cause against the Catholic Church.

The juicy details of the winter of 1625-1626 are cataloged in H. Noel Williams’ A Fair Conspirator Marie De Rohan, Duchesse De Chevreuse, but a summary version is sufficient here.

At some point, Richelieu caught wind of d’Ornano’s involvement in a conspiracy against the throne; not knowing the extent of the effort, he had d’Ornano detained. Lest their plot be found out, the conspirators encouraged Gaston to initiate a war; this was particularly true of Comte de Soissons, who posted a reward should Monseiur take up arms against his brother.

Gaston hesitated, and a new plan was enacted.

Instead, some of the conspirators would take audience with Richelieu and either detain or kill him, depending on the story. Needless to say, the plan failed, and the conspirators were found out. Chalais tried to lay low while the plot against the king and his minister unfolded, but he did not sufficiently distance himself from Madame de Chevreuse: Gaston was exposed and named names, and Chalais, not well-connected enough to fight the charges against him, was captured at Nantz on July 8.

Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord, Comte de Chalais, was sentenced to death by beheading for lèse-majesté, and on August 19, 1626, he mounted the scaffold at Place de Bouffay in Nantz. In a last, cruel twist, the conspiracy had bought off the town executioner in hopes that, lacking a practitioner of the macabre art, Chalais might be spared. But a replacement had been hastily found: a man himself condemned to death:

The [replacement] was so unskillful that, besides two blows from a Swiss sword, which had been purchased on the spot, he gave him thirty-four with an adze such as carpenters use; and was obliged to turn the body round to finish the severing of the neck, the patient exclaiming up to the twentieth blow: ‘Jesus, Maria et Regina Cali!’

No other conspirators were put to the sword, and Gaston and his brother eventually made up. Richelieu, meanwhile, gained more power and transitioned France from a feudal state to an absolute monarchy under Louis XIII and his successor, Louis XIV. His dealings form the backdrop of The Three Musketeers.

As for Madame de Chevreuse — who also figures in The Three Musketeers, scheming behind the scenes against Richelieu and crushed on by Aramis — she fled to Château d’Dampierre, then was exiled to England, where she fell in with the Duke of Lorraine (and became his mistress); she attempted to organize several more coups against the Red Eminence, but each fell short of the mark.

Madame de Chevreuse eventually ended up in Spain, then moved back to England, then shipped out to Flanders, where she connected once again with the Comte de Soissons and attempted to usurp the throne before it could be passed to Louis XIV. When Richelieu finally passed, she sought to oust his replacement, this time relying on César de Bourbon, duc de Vendôme, who was also involved in the Chalais conspiracy. After this failure, Madame de Chevreuse retired to Gagny.

Elizabeth Stone writes of Madame de Chevreuse in Political Women, “It was not she evidently who made of Buckingham a species of paladin without genius; a brilliant adventurer of Charles IV of Lorraine; of Chalais a hair-brained blunderer, rash enough to commit himself in a conspiracy against Richelieu, on the faith of the faithless Duke d’Orleans; of Châteauneaf, an ambitious statesman, impatient of holding second rank in the Government, without being capable of taking the first.”

Be that as it may, she is a compelling historical figure, and the Chalais conspiracy formed the basis for the operatic tragedy Maria di Rohan.

The conspiracy has also been used in an unusual modern form as an audio drama episode of Doctor Who.

(A complete discussion of Talleyrand-Périgord’s life can be found here. (French link) Breathless French court gossip in a 19th century biography of Chevreuse here.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Notably Survived By,Power,Public Executions,Sex,Treason

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