1861: Melchor Ocampo, liberal statesman

Add comment June 3rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1861, the Mexican statesman Melchor Ocampo was summarily executed by right-wing guerrillas.

Once a seminarian, Ocampo (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) turned his face towards public life, becoming a most eloquent exponent of the era’s movement of liberalism and anticlericalism.

He was among the faction who rebelled in 1854 against recurrent strongman Santa Anna; he served in the ensuing epochal presidency of Benito Juarez and helped to draft the liberal constitution that governed Mexico until 1917. Secular, egalitarian marriage vows promulgated in 1859 by Ocampo are still used in many marriage ceremonies to this day.

The revolutionary social reordering of these years was achieved only by civil war, a conflict remembered as the Reform War which ended only when the conservatives surrendered Mexico City on New Year’s Day of 1861.* Ocampo, who had the stature to stand for president himself, preferred to consolidate the victory by throwing his support to Benito Juarez in the ensuing elections.

Retiring thereafter to private life, he was targeted by one of the numerous remnant right-wing militias that still persisted in the countryside months after the putative conclusion of the Reform War. These abducted him from his home in Michoacan on May 30 and held him for some days, permitting him to write his last letters, before having him shot and strung up on June 3. His remains currently repose in honor at Mexico City’s Rotunda of the Illustrious … as are those of Ocampo’s longtime comrade Santos Degollado, who undertook to hunt down and revenge himself upon his friend’s killers but instead became their prey.

The town of Melchor Ocampo is, quite obviously, named for the man; his surname has been attached as an honorific to his home region of Michoacan, one of Mexico’s 32 states (officially called Michoacan de Ocampo) and to Tepeji del Rio de Ocampo, the place where he was executed.

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1867: Not Santa Anna

Add comment October 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1867, the Mexican general and onetime president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna avoided execution at his court-martial.

Best recognized north of the Rio Grande for overrunning the Alamo, Santa Anna actually enjoyed an amazing career with a near half-century as Mexico’s definitive caudillo.

Antonio López de Santa Anna joined the military he would come to personify as a 16-year-old cadet in 1810 … except it was the Spanish colonial army, where he had hands-on training in the cold counterinsurgency tactics he would subsequently apply in his maturity.

Within barely a decade, the ambitious young officer was advanced to general — the last step by dint of his timely adherence to the incoming emperor of now-independent Mexico, Agustin de Iturbide.

Iturbide was destined for a firing squad, but Santa Anna had a better knack for tacking with his new country’s political gales — turning against his recent patron just in time to help depose the guy.

Santa Anna’s P.T. Barnum*-quality panache for shameless self-promotion — at one pont he repelled Spain’s last attempted reconquista and pronounced himself the “Napoleon of the West” — soon self-promoted himself right to the presidency. From 1833 to 1855, he held the office during 11 distinct stints.

His dictatorial exercise of power and abundant graft aroused resistance from more than just Texan Anglos, so he was often engaged in suppressing internal rebellions, and occasionally in being chased by them into exile. His last turn at president was aborted in 1855 by liberal reformers. Santa Anna fled to Cuba.

Considering the mad twists of fortune in his long career, it’s a miracle that none of his enemies ever actually executed Santa Anna. He was: both adoit and lucky to avoid purging during the tumultuous 1820s; captured by rebelling Texans, who preferred to avenge Alamo by forcing him to treaty terms; handed over to the U.S. government, which eventually sent him back to Mexico; captured again by rebelling Indians in Veracruz who sold him to the Mexican government which sent him to exile; and, tried by the liberals who finally toppled him, but in absentia since he had escaped once more. He had more lives than a cat; small wonder that here in his sixties and seventies he still wasn’t done plotting.

A full decade out of power, Santa Anna spent 1866-1867 in Staten Island, New York,** until the fall of Mexico’s French-backed Emperor Maximilian induced him once more — at the age of 73 — to sail for home with one last summons to his banner. Instead he was captured in a position that must have looked like curtains for sure.

The New York Times actually reported on July 5, 1867 that Santa Anna had been summarily executed; in fact, the restored liberal government of Benito Juarez clapped the nettlesome general in prison and subjected him to a court martial that ran Oct. 7-10. Juarez allegedly expected the old snake to be convicted of treason and finally executed, but like the Times, Juarez too was frustrated: the commission sentenced Santa Anna to exile and he was carried away to Havana once again.

It proved to be a waking death: cheated of the glory of a firing squad, the old general was pitiably forgotten.

“His schemes” — for still he schemed — “became increasingly the ravings of an old, deluded, sick man,” writes Robert Scheina in Santa Anna: A Curse Upon Mexico.

Permitted with Juarez’s death in 1874 to return to Mexico, Santa Anna now fought only for a pension. (He lost that fight.) So long his country’s first man, he “became increasingly depressed which was only relieved by his increasing senility. Santa Anna was suffering the worst possible punishment — obscurity and irrelevancy.” He died penniless of diarrhea in 1876.

* Santa Anna eventually came to hobble about on a cork leg, courtesy of a war wound. The leg was captured during the Mexican-American War, and Barnum put the artificial limb on exhibit.

That limb has never been returned to its native soil: Santa Anna’s prosthesis remains available to the Yankee gawker at the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield.

** Santa Anna’s legacy in the United States (apart from that Alamo unpleasantness) was the importation of chicle, which the general liked to chew. Santa Anna’s American secretary, Thomas Adams, used it to create the chewing gum marketed as chiclets.

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1865: Mexican Republican officers, under the Black Decree

2 comments October 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1865, two Republican generals, four colonels, and various other officers captured earlier in the month were executed on the authority of Mexico’s notorious Bando Negro — the “Black Decree.”

Halfway into his ill-fated three-year reign as “Emperor,” Maximilian I was in a bad way against Mexican president-turned-guerrilla Benito Juarez.

On October 3, 1865, he authorized summary execution for captured Republicans … and for anyone else who ran afoul of a nearby military official without having speedy proof of his or her political bona fides.

All individuals forming a part of armed bands or bodies existing without legal authority, whether or not proclaiming a political pretext, whatever the number of those forming such band, or its organization, character, and denomination, shall be judged militarily by the courts martial. If found guilty, even though only of the fact of belonging to an armed band, they shall be condemned to capital punishment, and the sentence shall be executed within twenty-four hours.*

In signing the Black Decree, said Mexican essayist Carlos Fuentes, Maximilian “signed his own death warrant.”

But more immediately, of course, he signed a lot of other people’s death warrants.

Republican General José María Arteaga Magallanes (Spanish link), a man of famous chivalry (once, recovering the body of the Belgian Foreign Minister’s son, he returned the boy’s watch home to dad), and fellow General Carlos Salazar Ruiz (Spanish again) were the biggest fish; they and the others are honored today as the Martyrs of Uruapan. (Spanish yet again)


The square in Uruapan where this day’s victims were shot … now known as Plaza Mártires.

* The excerpted text is Article I of the Black Decree, whose entire (taken from here) follows:

THE BANDO NEGRO (BLACK DECREE) PROCLAMATION
OF EMPEROR MAXIMILIAN, OCTOBER 3, 1865

MEXICANS: The cause sustained by D. Benito Juarez with so much valor and constancy had already succumbed, not only before the national will, but before the very law invoked by him in support of his claims. To-day this cause, having degenerated into a faction, is abandoned by the fact of the removal of its leaders from the country’s territory.

The national government has long been indulgent, and has lavished its clemency in order that men led astray or ignorant of the true condition of things might still unite with the majority of the nation and return to the path of duty. The desired result has been obtained. Men of honor have rallied around the flag and have accepted the just and liberal principles which guide its policy. Disorder is now only kept up by a few leaders swayed by their unpatriotic passions, by demoralized individuals unable to rise to the height of political principle, and by an unruly soldiery such as ever remains the last and sad vestige of civil wars.

Henceforth the struggle must be between the honorable men of the nation and bands of brigands and evil-doers. The time for indulgence has gone by: it would only encourage the despotism of bands of incendiaries, of thieves, of highwaymen, and of murderers of old men and defenseless women.

The government, strong in its power, will henceforth be inflexible in meting ont punishment when the laws of civilization, humanity, or morality demand it.

Mexico, October 2, 1865.

Maximilian, Emperor Of Mexico : Our Council of Ministers and our Council of State having been heard, we decree:

Article I. All individuals forming a part of armed bands or bodies existing without legal authority, whether or not proclaiming a political pretext, whatever the number of those forming such band, or its organization, character, and denomination, shall be judged militarily by the courts martial. If found guilty, even though only of the fact of belonging to an armed band, they shall be condemned to capital punishment, and the sentence shall be executed within twenty-four hours.

Article II. Those who, forming part of the bands mentioned in the above article, shall have been taken prisoners in combat shall be judged by the officer commanding the force into the power of which they have fallen. It shall become the duty of said officer within the twenty-four hours following to institute an inquest, hearing the accused in his own behalf. Upon this inquest a report shall be drawn and sentence shall be passed. The pain of death shall be pronounced against offenders even if only found guilty of belonging to an armed band. The chief shall have the sentence carried into execution within twenty-four hours,—being careful to secure to the condemned spiritual aid,—after which he will address the report to the Minister of War.

Article III. Sentence of death shall not be imposed upon those who, although forming part of a band, can prove that they were coerced into its ranks, or upon those who, without belonging to a band, are accidentally found there.

Article IV. If from the inquest mentioned in Article II facts should appear calculated to induce the chief to believe that the accused has been enrolled by force, or that, although forming part of the band, he was there accidentally, he shall abstain from pronouncing a sentence, and will consign the prisoner, with the corresponding report, to the court martial, to be judged in accordance with Article I.

Article V. There shall be judged and sentenced under the terms of Article I of the present law:

I. All individuals who voluntarily have procured money or any other succor to guerrilleros.

II. Those who have given them advice, news, or counsel.

III. Those who voluntarily and with knowledge of the position of said guerrilleros have sold them or procured for them arms, horses, ammunition, provisions, or any other materials of war.

Article VI. There shall be judged and sentenced in accordance with Article I:

I. Those who have entertained with guerrilleros relations constituting the fact of connivance.

II. Those who of their own free will and knowingly have given them shelter in their houses or on their estate.

III. Those who have spread orally or in writing false or alarming news calculated to disturb order, or who have made any demonstration against the public peace.

IV. The owners or agents of rural property who have not at once given notice to the nearest authority of the passage of a band upon their estate.

The persons included in the first and second sections of this article shall be liable to an imprisonment of from six months to two years, or from one to three years’ hard labor, according to the gravity of the offense.

Those who, placed in the second category, are connected with the individual concealed by them by ties of relationship, whether as parents, consorts, or brothers, shall not be liable to the penalty above prescribed, but they shall be subject to surveillance by the authorities during such time as may be prescribed by the court martial.

Those included in the third category shall be sentenced to a fine of from twenty-five to one thousand piasters or to one year’s imprisonment, according to the gravity of the offense.

Article VII. When the authorities have not given notice to their immediate superior of the passage of an armed force in their locality, the superior authority shall inflict a fine of from two hundred to two thousand piasters or from three months’ to two years’ imprisonment.

Article VIII. Every inhabitant who, having knowledge of the passage of an armed band in a village or of its approach, has not notified the authorities shall be liable to a fine of from five to five hundred piasters.

Article IX. All inhabitants between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five years of age not physically incapacitated shall, when the locality inhabited by them is threatened by a band, take part in the defense of the place, under penalty of a fine of from five to two hundred piasters or of from fifteen days’ to four months’ imprisonment. If the authorities deem it proper to punish the village for nonresistance, they may impose a fine of from two hundred to two thousand piasters, which shall be payable by all those who have not taken part in the defense.

Article X. The owners or agents of country property who, being able to defend themselves, have not kept guerrillas and other evil-doers away from their estates or have not notified the nearest military authority of their presence, or who have received the tired or wounded horses of the guerrillas without advising the said authority, shall be punished by said authority by a fine of from one hundred to two thousand piasters, according to the gravity of the offense. In cases of extreme gravity they shall be arrested and brought before the court martial, to be judged in conformity with the rules laid down by the present law. The fine shall be paid to the principal administrator of the revenue of the district where the estate is situated. The provisions of the first part of the present article are applicable to the populations.

Article XI. All authorities, whether political, military, or municipal, who have not acted in accordance with the provisions of the present law against those who are suspected of or recognized as being guilty of the offenses with which it deals, shall be liable to a fine of from fifty to one thousand piasters; and when the omission implies acquaintance with the guilty, the delinquent shall be brought before the court martial, who shall judge him and inflict a penalty in proportion to the offense.

Article XTT. Plagiarios [kidnappers] shall be judged and sentenced under the provisions of Article I of the present law, without regard to the circumstances under which the abduction shall have been committed.

Article XIII. Sentence of death passed upon those guilty of the offenses enumerated by the present law shall be executed in the time fixed, and the benefit of appeal for mercy shall be refused to the condemned. When the accused has not been condemned to death, and is a stranger, the government, after he shall have undergone punishment, may make use with regard to him of its right to expel from its territory pernicious strangers.

i Kidnappers. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, intrusted with the Department

Article XIV. Amnesty is proclaimed in favor of all who, having belonged or still belonging to armed bands and having committed no other offense, shall present themselves to the authorities before the 15th of next November. The authorities shall take possession of the arms of those so surrendering themselves.

Akticle XV. The government reserves unto itself the right to fix the time when the provisions of the present law shall cease to be enforced. Each of our ministers is bound, as far as his department is concerned, to enforce the present law and to issue such orders as will secure its strict observance.

Issued in the Palace of Mexico, October 3, 1865.

Maximilian.

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1867: Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, “Archdupe”

4 comments June 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1867, a firing squad disabused a Habsburg heir of his pretensions to the throne of Mexico.

A little bit loopy, a little bit liberal, and fatally short of common sense, Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph* decamped from the easy life at his still-under-construction dream palace outside Trieste for an exalted title that really meant playing catspaw for Napoleon III‘s Mexican land grab.

(To assuage the pangs of imperial adventurism upon our tender-headed hero, Maximilian had been “invited” to assume the Mexican throne by a convention handpicked to do just that.)

There the puppet emperor with the silver spoon in his mouth found himself pitted in civil war against the Amerindian peasant from the school of hard knocks: Benito Juarez, one of Mexico’s great liberal statesmen.

As the tide turned in favor of Juarez and the liberals, and Napoleon’s attention increasingly fixated on problems closer to home, the French threw in the towel.

But Maximilian had too much honor or too little sense to heed his patron’s advice to get out while the getting was good; sticking it out with “his people,” he was captured in May, 1867.

Juarez desiring to give any future bored European nobles second thoughts about New World filibustering, Maximilian got no quarter.**

While Louis Napoleon emceed a world’s fair on the other side of the planet, Maximilian was shot with two of his generals, Miguel Miramon and Tomas Mejia.


Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, showing an obvious compositional debt to Goya’s Executions of the Third of May. Further analysis: written English; video Spanish.

Maximilian’s widow Charlotte — “Carlota”, when trying to blend with her adoptive subjects — descended into a long-lived madness back in the Old World, but was rumored to have borne with one of Maximilian’s French officers an illegitimate child who would go on to become an infamous Vichy collaborator.

Books about Emperor Maximilian

This sensational affair attracted plenty of coverage in the ensuing years; as a result, there is a good deal of topical material from near-contemporaries now in the public domain. Maximilian in Mexico: A Woman’s Reminisces of the French Intervention 1862-1867 (Gutenberg | Google Books) is a zippy read.

* Brother to Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.

** Spanish trial records are here. European appeals for clemency poured in, but Maximilian had doomed himself with the “Black Decree” of 1865, ordering summary executions of captured Republicans.

The time for indulgence has gone by: it would only encourage the despotism of bands of incendiaries, of thieves, of highwaymen, and of murderers of old men and defenseless women.

The government, strong in its power, will henceforth be inflexible in meting out punishment when the laws of civilization, humanity, or morality demand it.

Juarez answered the clemency appeal of Princess Salm-Salm with solemn words:

If all the Kings and Queens in Europe [pled for Maximilian] I could not spare that life. It is not I who take it; it is the people and the law, and if I should not do their will the people would take it and mine also.

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