1885: August Reinsdorf and Emil Kuchler, Kaiser Wilhelm I bombers

Add comment February 7th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1885, anarchists August Reinsdorf and Emil Küchler were guillotined for a failed attempt on the life of Kaiser Wilhelm I.

The King of Prussia turned Emperor of the newborn (in 1871) Deutsches Reich, Wilhelm was honored by assassins equal in enthusiasm to his distinctive whiskers.* The versions distinguished by this post had the cheek to contemplate exploding the Kartätschenprinz** just as he ceremonially inaugurated an important national monument.


The Niederwalddenkmal still stands to this day. (cc) image from Philipp35466

The day was wet, and the dynamite fizzled. Everybody departed none the wiser but police spies later caught wind of the attempt, apparently when the would-be bombers Emil Küchler and Franz Reinhold Rupsch asked reimbursement from leftist typesetter August Reinsdorf, the plot’s mastermind.

Eight were eventually rounded up, secretly at first but later publicized to the prejudice of leftist parties.

Reinsdorf, Küchler and Rupsch all received death sentences; Rupsch’s was commuted in consideration of his youth.

The workers build palaces and live in miserable huts; they produce everything and maintain the whole machinery of state, and yet nothing is done for them; they produce all industrial products, and yet they have little and bad to eat; they are always a despised, raw and superstitious mass of servile minds. Everything the state does tends toward perpetuating these conditions forever. The upper ten thousand rest on the shoulders of the great mass. Is this really going to last? Is not a change our duty? Shall we keep our hands in our laps forever?

-Reinsdorf at trial

* We have in these pages already met one such predecessor who went under the fallbeil in 1878; the zeal of such men had given the Reich pretext to ban the Social Democrats.

** “Prince of Grapeshot”, a bygone nickname that paid derisive tribute to Wilhelm’s mailed fist in the Revolutions of 1848.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Notable for their Victims,Power,Revolutionaries,Terrorists

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1830: Ebenezer Cox, gone postal gunsmith

Add comment August 27th, 2017 Headsman

Long before slavery abolitionist John Brown wrote its name into the firmament, Harpers Ferry* was a vital cog for the military of the young United States. Its armory, founded at George Washington‘s behest at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers whose waters turned its machines, was the 1b supplier of small arms to American soldiery alongside a similar facility in Springfield, Mass.

But it was also a bit of a problem child from the start: the facility too small, the location too inaccessible,** the manufacturing process too inefficient.

Hoping to remedy at least the last of these, a fellow named Thomas Dunn was hired from the Antietam Iron Works in 1829 for a managerial task that was not calculated to please the Harpers Ferry armorers.

So detested were Dunn’s downsizing and production speedups that one armory hand name of Ebenezer Cox — having been laid off and subsequently balked of a re-hire on grounds of being a volatile drunk — simply walked into the boss’s office one day in January 1830 and gave him a taste of his own product.

Hopefully the irony wasn’t lost on anyone because the message for labor-management relations had the sharp report of a Model 1803: Cox “became a folk hero among the armorers; whenever future managers tried to impose factory discipline Cox’s name was always mentioned to the armory officials.” (Source)

Folk hero … and martyr. Cox naturally still had to pay the price for his early instance of going postal, and the Library of Congress helpfully preserves for ready access a Narrative of the life, trial, confession, sentence of death, and execution of Ebenezer W. Cox.

While we can scarcely evaluate Cox’s craft when it came to boring a muzzle, he was certainly not a man who wanted for an engineering cast of mind.

Preceding the fatal hour, strong suspenders were prepared, with hooks under or near the collar of his shirt or shroud, so contrived as to prevent suffocation, provided the rope could be securely placed within the crooks; and no doubt this plan would have succeeded, and the culprit been preserved alive, had the rope been deliberately fixed. But owing, probably, either to want of time, or through perturbation of mind, something was omitted, and only one of the hooks caught the fatal cord which twisted his neck awry; and although it did not prevent his finally suffocating, he apparently died with all the agonies of a lingering and protracted death.


“John Brown’s Fort”, the armory’s former guard and fire engine house. Though not yet extant at the time of Cox’s crime, it’s the best we’ll do since the rest of the original armory was destroyed during the Civil War and never rebuilt. (cc) image by Doug Kerr.

* Harpers Ferry was in Virginia at the time of these events; today, it’s in West Virginia.

** Connections via the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad would arrive in the 1830s.

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1877: Pennsylvania’s Day of the Rope

Add comment June 21st, 2017 Headsman

This date in 1877 was Pennsylvania’s “Day of the Rope”, a Thursday blackened by the execution of ten Irish coal miners as labor radicals.*

These are supposed “Molly Maguires”, others of whom we have previously met in these pages.

Though the term is now best associated with these anthracite miners of eastern Pennsylvania, it enters the textual record earliest in Great Britain right around 1845 … which, no coincidence, was the dawn of Ireland’s Great Famine.

Where tenant farmers starved even as absentee landlords exported crops, militancy naturally ensued — intrinsically criminal and therefore secretive, inevitably characterized as terroristic by its foes. For this desperate movement the fictitious heroine “Molly Maguire” would be name and watchword, a mythic resistance character in the tradition of Captain Swing or Ned Ludd; legend — perhaps reality? — would hold that her earliest followers had desolated a lord’s land after he turned subsistence farmers off it in favor of cash crops by murdering new tenant after new tenant until nobody dared occupy the tract. Newspapers began to denounce her followers proportional to the publication’s proximity to London capital.

A sympathetic domestic description is provided by the Cork Examiner of July 9, 1845, which contends that Molly McGuireism is nothing but “the tenant creed.”

The spirit and letter of legislation are all for ramparting round the rights of property. The meaning of this plainly is — legislating for themselves, whilst the population of the country may perish. Hence, stone walls and bogs, and houses and fields, with all dead matter, are cared for and legislated upon by landlords, whilst the living and producing beings — the Christian inhabitants of the country, who are formed to make up the sum of its riches, naturally and artificially, are exterminated, expatriated, famished, or shot down like dogs. What is the necessary consequence of this infamous state of things? Circumspice. Look around you and behold the monument raised to the desolating idol. Its history and its effects are written in the hovelled mud, and the squalid wretches and the naked children, which form the social and rural beauties of the soil of Ireland.

Well, the people feel and say — they would be stupid and brutal if they did not — that legislation or legislators will do nothing for them. They are thus thrown upon their own resources and their own energies. By the midnight lamp they write their own fearful enactments. If the code of their specified rights be written in blood, it is awful, but it is not unnatural.

And in Pennsylvania’s coal fields, during the depression of the 1870s, this was much the condition of Irish immigrant miners — no few of whom had been driven there by the very famine that spawned the original Molly Maguires.

Since verifiable documentary evidence of Molly Maguireism as an organized movement is very scant it’s an open question for posterity to what extent we behold the traces of an international Irish Catholic labor militancy or the hysteria of the boss. In whichever dimensions, the ghost of Molly Maguire crossed the Atlantic and haunted the violent carbon-harvest business in Pennsylvania … a ghost that rattles its chains ever so faintly whenever your Monopoly piece takes a ride on the Reading.

Though it’s difficult to think it today, the Reading Railroad company was one of the world’s largest corporations in the 1870s. The firm’s captain of industry, Franklin Gowen, figures as the antagonist and perhaps the concoctor of the Mollies, whose appearance as a criminal offshoot of the fraternal Ancient Order of Hibernians he alleged as a calumny against the union he fought blood and nail.

In the course of an 1871 strike, Gowen complained that the union’s ability to achieve general compliance with the work stoppage could only be the result of a shadowy association of foreign agitators “which issues orders which no one dare disobey.”

There has never, since the middle ages, existed a tyranny like this on the face of God’s earth. There has never been, in the most despotic government in the world, such a tyranny, before which the poor laboring man has to crouch like a whipped spaniel before the lash, and dare not say that his soul is his own … I say there is an association which votes in secret, at night, that men’s lives shall be taken, and that they shall be shot before their wives, murdered in cold blood, for daring to work against the order. (Source)

Fired by his public-spirited humanitarianism, Gowen went to work against the despotism of refusing his wage by retaining the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Its agent, James McParland, would make his name** famous or infamous with his claim to have infiltrated secret Molly meetings orchestrating routine political assassinations (assassinations he notably failed to prevent). His (thrilling) allegations, supplemented by confessions of alleged Mollies who turned state’s evidence to save their own lives,† were decisive in noosing the Mollies as murderers. For this McParland would receive both laurels and death threats, and also inspire a character in the Sherlock Holmes adventures.


Cincinnati Commercial, June 22, 1877.

The hysteria Gowen, McParland et al orchestrated was so self-confirming in the moment that newsmen wrote as categorically about the Mollies as they would in our era about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and their terroristic reputation would be freely wielded to bludgeon the miners’ union. But curiously these existential menaces, once prosecuted, vanished with nary a footprint from their former rollick … so was the whole network phenomenally thorough about its secrecy, or was there never any such Hibernian Black Sabbath at all? There’s never been a historical consensus save that their trials by political allies of Gowen were at the very least travesties of justice — if not outright frame-ups.

Three weeks after the Day of the Rope, deep wage cuts for railroad workers triggered the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 which soon gave the Reading Railroad company its second bloody association in as many months: the Reading Railroad Massacre.

* Six hanged in Pottsville, and four in Mauch Chunk (since renamed as Jim Thorpe). Andrew Lanahan also hanged for murder on the same day at Wilkes-Barre, giving Pennsylvania 11 executions overall for its day of the rope; Lanahan’s was not one of the Molly Maguire cases but owing to his own Irish heritage there was never-proven conjecture that his crime was “inspired” by Maguireism. Accordingly, one can find different sources claiming either 10 or 11 Mollies hanged on this occasion. After this date’s harvest, ten additional supposed Molly Maguires were hanged by Pennsylvania during the next 18 months.

** McParland is the subject of a recent biography, Pinkerton’s Great Detective.

† Pennsylvania deployed demonstrative ferocity here: a 15-year-old who gave an alibi for her uncle got slapped with a thirty-month perjury sentence for contradicting a Pinkerton detective.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Pennsylvania,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1707: John Whittingham

1 comment July 18th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1707, John Whittingham was hanged as a burglar.

The Newgate Ordinary Paul Lorrain worked, as was his wont, on Whittingham’s soul, and as was his custom published an Ordinary’s Account celebrating Whittingham’s conversion. The thief, “before he was turned off, desired the Standers-by to take Warning by him, and pray for his departing Soul. His last Words were, Lord, have Mercy upon me! Lord, forgive me my Sins! Lord Jesus receive my Soul.”

But publishing these items was not merely the Ordinary’s custom — it was, especially in Lorrain’s hands, his very lucrative business.

The Ordinary’s Account of John Whittingham is a slender one; Lorrain spends 1,164 words on it, but most of these are formulaic description of the circumstances of Whittingham’s trial and conviction, followed by a padding-out with details of Lorrain’s own sermons. Only 679 words touch on Lorrain’s specific grappling with Whittingham’s own forgettable demons. (A bog-standard Newgate collection of “Sabbath-breaking, Idleness, Gaming, keeping bad Company, and having to do with Lewd Women.”)

Once Whittingham has been disposed of, however, we come to brass tacks for the Ordinary. Sure, Whittingham might have thought his hempen strangulation was the apotheosis of a life’s tragedy of sin and redemption. Actually it was just Lorrain’s daily bread and butter, in the literal sense of the term.

A lengthy footnote immediately following the execution remarks asserts Lorrain’s prime market position in the increasingly competitive execution broadsheet business:

Whereas some Persons do frequently take the Liberty of putting out of Sham-Papers, pretending to give an Account of the Malefactors (called the Lives and Conversations of the Persons Executed) in which Papers they are so defective and unjust, as sometimes to mistake even their Names and Crimes, and often misrepresent the State they plainly appear to be in under their Condemnation, and at the time of their Death. To prevent which great Abuses, These are to give Notice, That the only true Account of the Dying Criminals, is that which comes out the Day after their Execution in a single half Sheet, about 9 in the Morning, the Title whereof constantly be gins with these Words, The ORDINARY of NEWGATE his Account of the Behaviour, &c. In which Paper (always Printed on both sides the better to distinguish it from Counterfeits) are set down the Heads of the several Sermons Preach’d before the Condemned: And after their Confessions and Prayers, and Atestation thereto under the Ordinary’s Hand, that is, his Name at length; and at the bottom the Printer’s Name, Dryden Leach; which if the Readers would but observe, they would avoid those scandalous Cheats heretofore constantly impos’d upon them.

You got that?

And then, we have 1,213 words — significantly more than Lorrain spends on Whittingham himself — that underscore just why the Ordinary’s Account brand was worth such vigorous defense.

ADVERTISEMENTS.

In few Days will be Publish’d.

THE Monthly Miscellany, or Memoirs for the Curious, occasionaly containing Divinity and Law, Philosophy Morral Natural and Experimental, Mathematicks in its several Branches, Physick Chymistry Surgery, Anotomy and Botany, Epitome of Books and News impartially done. Lives and Characters of Famous Persons as well Living as Dead, being the Life of Doctor Sherloch, Letters on several Subjects; History Poetry and Travels. For the Month of June. Sold by J. Morphew near Stationers-Hall Price, 6d. where may be had the 5 foregoing, Lives of Prince Lewis of Baden and my Lord Cutts, Mr. Jeremiah White late Chaplain to Oliver Cromwel, and D. Drake. Containing several other curious Miscellaneous Works in sundry Faculties.

THERE is now prepared and to be Sold only at Mr. Deighton’s, a Perfumer, at his Shop at the corner of Chancery-Lane in Fleet-street, the only famous Beautifying Water, for the clearing and making the Face fair, tho’ of the brownish Complexion, which by its use has been experimented to make the Skin smooth and white and also to take off all Pimples and Redness, from 2s. 6d. to 5s. a Bottle. Just Publish’d.

*** A new and exact Draught of the City of Thoulon, with all its Fortifications. The Basom for the King’s Ships of War, &c. Sold by John Philips next the Fleece Tavern in Cornhill and by B. Bragg, in Pater-Noster-Row. Where may be had a Haxagon, fortify’d with all sorts of Out-works, according to the modern Method of Fortification, useful for those who read the publick News.

A Presentative against Atheism and Infidelity. The Remains of Cardinal Du Perron, president Thumanus, Monsieur St Evremont, and other great Men. Both by Thomas Osborn in Gray’s Inn next to the Walks, and Samuel Butler near Bernard’s Inn, Holbourn.

This Day is Publish’d.

THE Diverting Muse, or the Universal Medley, Written by a Society of merry Gentlemen, for the Entertainment of the Town. The First Part. Consisting of the Husmours of a Coffee-house. Sollitary Enjoyment, or the Pleasure of Contemplation. An off-hand Epitaph upon the Weasel. A Lampoon upon two Sisters, famous Strumpets in the City The dying Husband and the joyful Wife. The Resolute Lady. The plain Dealer A Dialogue Song between a forward Youth and a young Lady The meaning Lover. London: Printed, and Sold by B. Bragg at the Raven in Pater-noster-row, 1707.
Newly Publish’d the 2d Edition of

*** The Life and Glorious History of his Grace John Duke and Earl of Malborough, Prince of the Empire, Capt. General of her Majesty’s Forces &c. containing an Account of the most Important Battles, Seiges, Negotiations &c. managed under his Auspicious Conduct; both in the Wars of Flanders and Ireland, with a large Account of the ever Memorable Battles of Hockstet and Schellenberg in Germany, also his March to the Moselle in 1705. his return to the Netherlands and forcing the French Lines near Tirlemont and his last Victory at Ramallies, with many Remarkable Passagos from his 1st advancement in the Court of King Charles the II. to this present time. Printed for John Chantry at the Sign of Lincolnsin-back Gate, Price bound one Sailling.

Jst published,

A Cry from the Desart: Or, Testimonials of the Things lately come to pass in the Cevennes, upon Oath and by other Pros. Translated from the Original. The 2d Edition. With a Preface by John Lacy, Esq ; price 8d. Sold by B. Bragge at the Raven Pter-noster-Rw; where way be had Prophetical Warnings of Marion, heretofore one of the Commanders of the Protestnes tha had taken Arms i the Cevennes, or Discourses uttered by him in London the Operation o the Spirit, and faithfully taken in Writing whilst they were spoken, price 1s. An Apology for the English Dissenters, by the Confessions of Foreign Protestant Churches, and particularly by Letters from that of Geneva, which may serve as an Answer to several Letters from the Pastors of the Church of Geneva, to the Archbishop of Canerbury, the Bishop of London, and the University f Oxford, with the Answers to them, price 6d. The Historical Catehisme: Or, an Explanation of the Old and New Testament, by way of Questions and Answers, after a more easie and familiar manner thn hitherto extant, very edifying and profitable for Children to learn, before they begin to Read the Bible. By a Reverend Divine of the Church of England.

Lately printed,

Bishop Hickman’s 14 Sermons. Ostervald’s Grounds and Principles of the Cheistian Religion, M Norris’ Theory of the World, in 2 Vols. Dr. Attetbury’s Vindication of p. Tils 14 Vo s. of Sermons against Popery. Sir ustrde Which Essays. Mr. Lewis’s Companion for the Afflictd, and the Church explained. An Essay against Idleness. A Postural Letter from a Minister to hs Parishioners, with the Christian daily Devotion. George Foxe’s last Will and Testament. Mr. Keth’s serious Call to the Quakers. Dr. Bray’s aptismal Covenant. All printed for W. Hawes, at the Bible and Rse in Ludgate-street, for whom will be speedily published, Dr. Bray’s Bibliotheca with large Additions.

THE second part of the Pulpt Fool, a Satyr; containing a distct Character of the most noted Clergy-men in the Queen’s Dominiors, Church-men and Dissenters Price 1 s. To this Satyr is annexd a paneyrick upon Archbishop Tenison, Bp. Burnet, Bp. , Dr. Sou, D. Stanhope, Dr. Lucas, Dr. Blackall, Dr. Moss, Mr. Norris, Mr. Hoadly, M. Flamstead, Mr. Graener, Mr. Stennet. Mr. Rosewl, Mr. Franks, Mr. Clark, Mr. Palmer, Mr. Calamy, Mr. Showers. Mr. Henery, Mr. Lews, Mr. Maudit, Mr Freks, Mr. Walker. Wh the Characters of near 200 Clergy-men more, eminent for prety d Learning. Printed for B. Bragge, in Patter-Nester-Row, of whom may be had, The first Part of the Pulpit Fool, a Satyr which (together with the 2d part) comprehends a general History, of tho Verse, but more especially of such as are Heterodox and ten, for Railing at protestant Dissenters.

Newly publish’d.

THE Devout Christians Companion consisting of Devotions for all Occasions. An Office for the Sick, and a Treatise for the H. Sacrament. Collected from the Works of Abp. Tiotson, Bp. Kenn, Bp. patrick, Bp. Beverge, Dr. Scots, Dr. Horneck, Dr. Stanhope &c. The 2d Edition price 2 s. 6 d. Likewise Caesar’s Commentaries of his Wars in Gaul and Civil war with popey, to which is added. Alus Hirtus, or Opius’s supplement of the Alexandriau, African, and Spanish War. With the Author’s Life. Adorned with pters from the designs of the Famous plado. Made English from the Original Latin, by Capt. Martain Blden. The 2d. Edition, 8vo. With Ntes, and a Comparison between the Antient and Modern Geography. Both printed for Charles Smith, at the Buck between the two Temple gates in Fleetstreet and Edmund Curl at the peacock without Templebar.

AT the Golden Acorn in White Fryars, Fronting Fleet-Street, London are lately come in above a 1000 Vols of Tracts, which was Collected by a Person of great eminency and worth and will be Sold at the Rates mention’d in the Post Boy, Note, these following Pamphlets may be had viz. Naked Gospel Naked Truth, Cobler of Gloster, killing no Murder, Absolum and Athitophel Religio Laiti Table o Love &c, with Acts of Parlament Proclamations Declarations &c. according to the method of William Millersale of London Stationer.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Theft

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1822: Hannah Halley, scalding infanticide

Add comment March 26th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1822, Hannah Halley went to the gallows at Derby for murdering her newborn child — by the gruesome expedient of pouring scalding water on it.*

“That it was her intention to destroy the infant was inferred, from her constant denial of the pregnancy,” observed the Derby Mercury (March 27, 1822), building towards indignation, “and from her having made no preparation of baby linen tho’ the child was full grown at the time of its birth.”

On being charged with the intention of murdering the infant by those who first discovered it, she made no answer; and subsequently when asked what incited her to commit such a deed, she replied “it was the devil who caused her to do it.” This is the usual apology assigned for their evil deeds by those who are too ignorant to analyze the real motives of their actions; who are not willing, from self love, to view their conduct in its true light; and who chuse to refer the corrupt habits formed by previous indulgence, to any cause however improbable and groundless, rather than to their own depraved dispositions.

One might perceive other factors in Halley’s desperation than her depravity.

The 31-year-old cotton mill laborer had conceived the child out of wedlock and lacked the means to care for it. Family and workplace constraints converge here, in what sequence one can only guess: Hannah married a man — not the baby’s father — two months before she secretly delivered.

Infanticide cases we have seen on this site frequently involve a pregnant woman far advanced in her term who raises eyebrows by denying the pregnancy all the way to the end; surely this must also be true of some infanticidal mothers who get away with the deed in the end.

In this instance, the husband too denied knowledge of his wife’s pregnancy: he was believed, and was not punished. I cannot document this hypothesis, but I often wonder if individuals who end up executed for infanticide are falling prey as much as anything to their standing among their community. For a woman of little means like Hannah Halley, does it all come down to whether her popularity among her neighbors — or specifically among the other women who shared her lodging-house and decided to report hearing a baby’s cry from her room — is sufficient to induce them tacitly to go along with the cover story? Was her husband’s convenient (and conveniently accepted) denial only produced because the matter unexpectedly went to the courts?

A woman of “feeble frame”, she died with apparent ease and was given over for dissection afterwards. She was the second and last woman hanged outside Friar Gate Gaol, and the second and last Hannah.

And the march of industry that shaped Halley’s working life was also to be found at work in her death. The Mercury once again:

The drop used on the above occasion was constructed by Mr. Bamford, of this town. It is formed principally of wrought iron, and tho’ it has a general resemblance to that previously in use, it has a much lighter appearance. The great advantages of the new drop consist in the facility with which it can be put up, the consequent diminution of expense on every execution, and the decreased annoyance to the neighbourhood. Formerly it was necessary to commence bringing out the heavy timbers of which the old drop was constructed early in the morning, and many hours were required to complete its erection, during which the loud sounds of mallets and hammers rung in the ears and suddened the hearts of the surrounding inhabitants. The new drop can be prepared for use in ten minutes (as we are informed) and taken down in the same time. In fact it is drawn from the wall of which the front of it forms a part, and is supported by iron rods let down upon the ground beneath. Ingenious however as its construction appears, it would be infinitely more consonant to our feelings to report such improved arrangements in prison discipline, and such modifications of the existing criminal code as should render the use of this dreadful instrument of death less familiar to the public mind.

* The nameless child survived four days in what one supposes must have been unbearable pain.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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1759: William Davis, St. Croix slave revolt suicide

Add comment December 14th, 2013 Headsman

On the morning of December 14, 1759, William Davis succumbed to a self-inflicted wound rather than face St. Croix’s harsh justice for an alleged slave rising plot.

They strung up his remains just the same.

St. Croix, today part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, was at the time a Danish colony.* As with other Caribbean islands, its economy catered to the lucrative new European taste for sugar — powered by human bondage.

“The establishment of the sugar industry created the demand for labor in the West Indian islands,” Eric Williams wrote. “It was a choice, from the sugar planter’s point of view, of Negro labor or no labor at all. Sugar meant slavery.”

It was, in fact, sugar which raised these insignificant tropical islands from the status of pirates’ nests to the dignity of the most precious colonies known to the Western World up to the nineteenth century …

Tremendous wealth was produced from an unstable economy based on a single crop, which combined the vices of feudalism and capitalism with the virtues of neither. Liverpool in England, Nantes in France, Rhode Island in America, prospered on the slave trade. London and Bristol, Bordeaux and Marseilles, Cadiz and Seville, Lisbon and New England, all waxed fat on the profits of the trade in the tropical produce raised by the Negro slave. … Sugar was king; without his Negro slave his kingdom would have been a desert.

For those in King Sugar’s castle this desert stuff was no mere metaphor, but life and limb itself. They trafficked fantastical wealth from the shores of tiny islets where they took their sleep surrounded by a vastly more numerous** servile population. Just let the serfs of such a manor commence a jacquerie

White planters’ vulnerability to a potential slave revolt, dramatically underscored by a 1733 revolt on neighboring St. John, bred great paranoia about imagined plots: a casual word here or there could be heard as a seditious murmuring, and then a politically motivated judicial machinery of torture, hearsay, and panicked accusations set into motion. It can be maddeningly difficult from the distance of centuries to weigh the truth value of a supposed slave plot strangled in the crib. Intrepid resistance? Or phantom from the planters’ nightmares?

Either way the slaves wound up just as dead.

We have the story of this revolt’s suppression from one of the judges, Engelbert Hasselberg, and this naturally constrains our view. Hasselberg wrote up his report, complete with an index of all the slaves punished, for eyes in Copenhagen. He’s certain that there really was an intended rising, even as he acknowledges a want of firm evidence: “many of the conspirators have refused to confess anything at all, although there has been sufficient evidence against them, insofar as it may be called evidence at all, where rogues have plotted and been the sole witnesses.” That is, a few people’s highly questionable accusations/confessions† sustained the entire affair.

But the story must have had the judges’ hearts in their throats.

Each [Negro] was if possible to slay his master or foreman; next, those whose masters’ plantations lay in the Christianstaed district, were to gather on Colleman’s plantation … and those Negroes who belonged to the West-End, were to assemble at the West-End fort, and first take possession of Fort Friderichswaern and of all the ammunition there to be found. Thereupon all those who had procured weapons were to march to Christianstaed, setting the plantation[s] on fire on the way, and killing or burning all whites who collected to put out the fires, and finally to storm [Fort] Christianstvaern.

Hasselberg’s report begins, oddly enough, by meditating that “the greater part of the slaves on colonies as recently developed as St. Croix are free-born, and have therefore just as good claim to their freedom as we have to ours. One or other fateful occurrence has brought them out of that natural equality which at birth they enjoyed with us, and made those persons our slaves who by a contrary event might have become our masters. What wonder then that such persons seek their freedom when they are provoked by the unreasonable conduct of unwise masters, and when they believe that the enterprise is not impossible.”

For Hasselberg this freely acknowledged natural inclination is not so much a systemic critique as a management challenge, and he expands on the talents required by the slaveowner to extract surplus-labor without “expos[ing] himself to resentment”, while not neglecting to request that Denmark increase its subsidy to St. Croix.

The enterprise was exposed by a few stray remarks from a quarrelsome slave.

It was in the month of December, 1759, that 2 white men, Matthias and Benjamin Bear, were molding bullets on Sr. Soren Bagge’s plantation. A Negro slave by the name of Cudjo, working at that time on Bagge’s plantation, asked Benjamin Bear to give him some of the bullets as a present, but as he was unable to give a proper account of what he was going to do with them, Bear gave him none. But Matthias, who did not think so far ahead, gave Cudjo a dozen bullets while Bear had stepped aside. Bear learned about it, and in the afternoon of the same day, he said to Cudjo, in the presence of a white man, Peter Hyde, and of a number of other Negroes, that he had heard that Matthias had given him some bullets, but he, Cudjo, had better look out, or his head might some day be found lying at his feet. To this, Cudjo replied, addressing himself to the 2 white men, Benjamin Bear and Peter Hyde, “You look out that some of your heads won’t lie at your feet pretty soon.” Peter Hyde then asked, “Whom will you then kill?” and Cudjo replied, “You shall be the first that I shall kill.”

The day before this conversation took place between Bear, Hyde and Cudjo, the Cudjo aforementioned had said concerning Mr. Bagge’s plantation house, “Maybe that house will be mine in a short time,” to which one of Bagge’s Negroes, namely Will, replied, “God damn you, you can’t keep a secret.” The same day Cudjo had asked B. Bear how long it would be until Christmas, and when Bear asked Cudjo why he wanted to know this, he answered, “I am asking about it, as I hope by that time to be a little Petit Maitre.”

Bear and Hyde reported the conversation and under questioning on December 11, Cudjo and his blood brother started revealing details of a slave rebellion in the offing — scheduled to capitalize on whites’ distracting Christmas celebrations. William Davis, a free black, was its supposed instigator.

Davis was under interrogation the very next day. The particular suspicion he was under would have instantly impressed him as placing him in the gravest peril; when induced with a plea bargain-type offer to merely suffer banishment, he “made a frank confession” and “exposed the whole dessein, and gave the names of quite a number of Negroes, some of whom have been found guilty and others acquitted.”

Hasselberg’s categorical assertion that Davis’s plea-induced statement was a “frank confession” doesn’t square comfortably either with Davis’s subsequent attempt to repudiate the “confession” or with the acknowledged denials and acquittals of most of the people he named. Perhaps this speaks well of St. Croix’s judicial restraint, but what might actually have been afoot for Christmas 1759, and how many people it might have involved, is heavily conjectural.

Not least because Davis — in remorse for naming names, perhaps, or else not trusting his captors’ assurance of humane treatment — took any subsequent remarks to an early grave.

[H]e managed to cut his throat in the morning of December 13, while in the fort. The wound was not considered dangerous by the surgeon, and he was immediately bound. He made various confessions after that time, but on the following night, he tore the bandage from his neck, cursed and scolded those who approached him, and swore that if they cut him up piece by piece, and roasted on the fire, he would nevertheless confess nothing. On the following morning, December 14, he died, and he was made an example of.

Hasselberg is not completely explicit here that the posthumous punishment occurred on that same day Davis succumbed, but he does not mince words when it comes to the example itself.

His dead body was dragged through the streets by a horse, by one leg; thereafter hanged on a gallows by a leg, and finally taken down and burned at the stake.†

By Hasselberg’s accounting, Davis was just the first of 14 people hanged, burned, broken on the wheel, or “set up in a gibbet or iron cage” to die of thirst and exposure.§

* St. Croix’s most famous denizen for posterity at this hour was a very small child named Alexander Hamilton.

** Of the British territory Nevis, one late 18th century chronicler remarked, “the present number of whites is stated not to exceed six hundred, while the negroes amount to about ten thousand; a disproportion which necessarily converts all such white men as are not exempted by age and decrepitude into a well regulated militia.” According to Hasselberg, the ratio on St. Croix was 1,690 whites to 11,807 blacks.

† The first slave to provide a corroborating account, one Qvamina, received his freedom and 50 rigsdalers in a conspicuous ceremony performed in front of other slaves.

‡ All translations are via Waldemar Westergaard in “Account of the Negro Rebellion on St. Croix, Danish West Indies, 1759” in The Journal of Negro History, January 1926.

§ William Davis was the first; the full roster of additional executions in Hasselberg’s report:

2. Franch (or French), free negro, convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing himself.

He was broken on the wheel with an iron crowbar, laid alive on the wheel, where he survived 12 hours. The head was then set on a stake, and the hand fastened on the gallows.

3. Prince Qvakoe, belonging to his Majesty, convicted by witnesses, and has confessed being implicated.

Was executed in the same way as Franch and lived 2 hours.

4. Cudjo, belonging to Doran, is convicted by witnesses, and has himself confessed.

Was burned alive on a pyre, lived in the fire 4½ minutes.

5. Gomas, belonging to John Bradshou, is convicted and has confessed.

6. George, belonging to James Hughes, has confessed and is convicted.

Both these negroes (5 and 6) were first pinched with hot tongs, then hanged by the legs in a gallows, and a dog likewise, by the neck, between them. Gomas lived ½ an hour and was strangled; George lived 3 hours and was strangled.

7. London, belonging to Thomas Lacke, is convicted and has himself confessed.

He was first pinched with glowing tongs, then hanged up by the legs, lived 12 hours and was strangled.

8. Sam Hector, belonging to Pieter Heyliger, Senior, is convicted by witnesses, but has confessed nothing himself.

He was set up in a gibbet or iron cage and lived 42 hours.

9. Michel, belonging to Hugh O’Donnell, is convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing.

Got the same punishment as Sam Hector, lived 91 hours.

10. Will, belonging to Soren Bagge, is convicted by witnesses, but made no confession.

Was burned alive, lived in the fire 14 minutes.

11. George, belonging to John Cookly, confessed and was convicted by witnesses.

He was pinched with glowing tongs and hanged by the neck.

12. [Name not given], belonging to Manan Rogers, is convicted by witnesses, and made a partial confession.

Was set up in a gibbet from January 18, at 3:30 p.m. to Jan. 27, 8:30 a.m.

13. Sylvester, belonging to James Conningham, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.

He was burned alive, and lived in the fire 4½ minutes.

14. Jupiter, belonging to W. Burnet, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.

He was burned alive, and lived in the fire for 1½ minutes.

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2013: Xia Junfeng, chengguan slayer

1 comment September 25th, 2013 Headsman

China has announced the execution this day of “homicide criminal” Xia Junfeng, a kebab vendor from Shenyang.

This case has been in the public eye for several years, and the predominant sentiment has been sympathetic towards the condemned man.

Xia and his wife Zhang Jing were part of China’s vast population of working urban poor, Xia having found his way into job insecurity by virtue of a layoff from the state electricity company. In the entrepreneurial spirit of the age, Xia started up an unlicensed business selling sausages and the like.

These denizens of the gray economy are, as a class, afflicted by the attentions of the City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, better known as the chengguan. Their benign job description entails administering municipal regulations, but this much-loathed force’s relationship to everyday citizens is perhaps best illustrated by the word chengguan‘s status as a shorthand neologism for bullying and abuse. Too many people know this goon squad firsthand, and too many stories of their worst excesses have circulated. Just this past July, the chengguan made headlines by killing a watermelon vendor.

“Chengguan abuses are an open scandal in China,” said Human Rights Watch’s China director. “The chengguan’s ability to flout China’s laws and inflict harm on members of the public is a recipe for greater public resentment and more violent confrontations.”

In the violent confrontation at issue in today’s execution, the chengguan chengguanned Xia Junfeng in May 2009. Xia fought back with his meat-carving knife, and slew two of his tormenters.

Death penalty cases redolent of the social stratification and institutional corruption that ordinary Chinese people experience have proven to be lightning rods in recent years.

Xia Junfeng’s turned, legally, on his claim that he killed protecting himself from the chengguan‘s beating.*

“Extralegal violence, thus employed to compensate for inadequate regulation and an absence of authority and legal deterrence, is no longer individual behavior. Such violence exists everywhere with the permission of the authorities. It is needed because of an overriding concern for “city image” and “urban management.” Finally, when extralegal violence is not monitored by the people and the media, and not punished by the law, it is only natural for Chengguan members to feel justified. Using violence with impunity enables the Chengguans to see violence psychologically as their “privilege,” a sign of status and pride. Since the legal and political status of Chengguan is unclear, it is only natural for its members to seek personal gain, vent their anger, and prey on the citizens they were intended to protect.”

-from the closing argument of Xia’s defense attorney

This allegation didn’t fly in court, where brother chengguan denied that they’d been abusing the shishkebaber, but it’s won in a rout when it comes to the court of public opinion. “His life and death are more than just a legal matter, but a bellwether of the era, with the tsunami-like public opinion firmly on the side of Xia Junfeng,” wrote author Yi Chen today.

Particularly galling for many is the disparity in treatment between Xia Junfeng and the likes of Gu Kailai, the latter a powerful business and political figure who was able to avoid execution despite being convicted of a scandalous contract murder. And Chengguan themselves never seem to be at risk of harsh punishment for any misbehavior; had Xia Junfeng been the one to leave that confrontation in a body bag, there certainly wouldn’t have been a death penalty case.


Anonymous cartoon circulated on Weibo criticizing Xia Junfeng’s condemnation. (Via) The drawing of the boy in the background was done by Xia’s son, whose art school fees were earned by his father’s roadside business.

Chinese speakers might want to peruse the Weibo feed of Xia’s widow.

* Several years ago, self-defense helped a Beijing migrat worker avoid execution for killing a chengguan who attempted to confiscate his bicycle cart.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines

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1888: One Newfoundland, for Thomas Alva Edison

5 comments July 30th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1888, a 76-pound Newfoundland was electrocuted before a crowd in a lecture hall at the Columbia College School of Mines (now the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University) in New York City. The pooch was an innocent bystander who’d fallen victim to the War of Currents between Thomas Edison and his electrical adversary, George Westinghouse.

Edison was a proponent of direct current (DC), where the electricity flows in one direction from source to receiver. Westinghouse, one the other hand, favored AC, alternating current, where the electrical current will reverse direction from time to time and electricity doesn’t flow from the source to the receiver so much as in between them.

In the late 1800s, as electrical systems were spreading all over America, Westinghouse’s company and Edison’s company were duking it out as to which system would prevail over the other. Westinghouse’s AC, being far more efficient, was usually the system of choice for providing electricity to houses, businesses and streetlights, which was where most of the profits lay. (DC was better for things like batteries.)

Desperate to hold onto eroding market share, Edison saw an opportunity to do Westinghouse dirty when New York State adopted the electric chair as their means of execution. Some notable botches had rendered hanging unpalatable, but industrial electrification was still such a newfangled concept that at the time the law was passed, the chair had yet to be built. Edison figured that a propaganda blitz to make sure the device used AC would help convince the public that the rival current was too deadly to be used in private homes and city streets.

Edison hired Harold P. Brown to help him in his campaign to prove AC’s dangerousness: which brings us to this day’s event, as described in Craig Brandon’s detailed book The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History.

In private experiments, Brown and his assistant, Arthur E. Kennelly, “attached electrodes to dozens of stray dogs and tried various combinations of volts and amperes before announcing that it took only 300 volts of alternating current to kill a dog, but 1,000 volts of direct current.”


Seriously?*

Satisfied that they were ready to go public, Brown scheduled a demonstration at Columbia on July 30, inviting electricians, scientists and the press to watch. Kennelly and Dr. Frederick Peterson, a member of the Medico-Legal Society of New York, assisted him.

Book CoverBrown opened his demonstration by insisting that he had been drawn into the controversy not out of any self-interest but because of his concern that alternating current was too dangerous to be used on city streets. He denied charges that he was in the pay of any electric light company and had “no financial or commercial interest” in the results of his experiments. Of course, the fact that he was using Edison’s equipment and was assisted by Edison’s chief of research spoke of itself.

Brown then brought in the first experimental subject: a 76-pound Newfoundland dog in a metal cage. The dog had been muzzled and had electrodes attached to one foreleg and one hind leg.


SERIOUSLY?! (cc) image from DanDee Shots.

Brown connected the dog to the DC generator that Edison had loaned him and starting with 300 volts gradually increased the voltage to 1,000 volts. As the voltage increased, the observers noted, the dog’s yelping increased but it remained alive.

Having proven the safety of DC current, Brown disconnected the suffering animal from the DC generator and connected it to the AC generator with the remark, “We shall make him feel better.” (No word on whether he was twirling his mustache as he said so.)

Brown turned the voltage to 330, and the dog collapsed and died instantly.

The viewers were impressed, but Brown wasn’t done yet and brought in another dog. He said he was going to connect this one to the AC generator first. This, he said, would prove that the animal didn’t die because the shocks from the DC generator had weakened it.

Before he could accomplish this, however, an agent from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrived and asked Brown to stop the experiment and spare the poor dog’s life. It took some convincing, but in the end Brown agreed to stay of execution. The second dog would die another day.

Although the regular newspapers loved this bit of theater, the trade magazine The Electrical Engineer claimed the experiment was unscientific. The magazine offered a terrible little poem about the proceedings:

The dog stood in the lattice box,
The wires around him led,
He knew not that electric shocks
So soon would strike him dead…
At last there came a deadly bolt,
The dog, O where was he?
Three hundred alternating volts,
Had burst his vicerae

Although the ASPCA might have brought his first experiment to a premature end, Brown was not deterred. He toured New York State for months, giving dog and pony shows before fascinated crowds, where he would electrocute cats, cows, calves, and well, dogs and ponies, using both direct and alternating currents. He paid young boys twenty-five cents apiece to round up stray animals to get fried.

The public watched — but wasn’t fooled, and continued to use alternating currents. Even the 1890 execution of William Kemmler in New York’s brand-spanking new AC electric chair failed to convince anyone that they were going to drop dead if they installed AC electricity in their homes. (Brown helped design the chair.) AC won the War of Currents hands-down.

The poor Newfoundland, having laid down its small life for the greater prosperity of Edison’s investors, died, unmourned, in vain.

* This shock-a-dog diagram is from “Death-Current Experiments at the Edison Laboratory,” an article that Harold Brown published in the New York Medico-Legal Journal, vol. 6, issue 4. He remarks therein, just by the by, on alternating current’s “life-destroying qualities,” and how the august committee carrying out these electrocutions “were not a little startled when I told of them results of recent tests for leakage made by me not long since on the circuit of one of the alternating current stations in this city.” Brown was, he said, indebted to “Mr. Thos. A. Edison, through whose kindness I was allowed the use of apparatus.”

As noted, the thorough Brown put said apparatus to use on a variety of fauna. In the interest of science, he also includes in this same article diagrams on the electrocution of a calf and a horse; we enclose them here for your edification.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Animals,Borderline "Executions",Electrocuted,Guest Writers,History,Innocent Bystanders,New York,No Formal Charge,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions,USA

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1813: 14 Luddites at York

Add comment January 16th, 2013 Luddite Bicentennary

On this date in 1813, the British intensified their war against machine-wrecking Luddites by executing 14 at York.

We touched last week on Mellor, Smith, and Thorpe, three Luddites hanged for assassinating a wool manufacturer during the dirty war that resulted from mechanizing formerly-artisanal textile production. The Luddite Bicentenary blog was prominently linked in that post; it’s been chronicling the real-time course of the Luddite rebellion from two hundred years’ remove, and is a recommended follow for anyone interested in this period.

Today, the Luddite Bicentenary marks the mass hangings of January 16, 1813, pursuant to sentences issued by that same special tribunal in York. Most had been convicted of an attack on nearby Rawfolds Mill; others, for taking part in two home-invasion robberies for the purpose of obtaining weapons.

Enjoy the full story at Luddite Bicentenary … but here’s a teaser excerpt from the January 23, 1813 Leeds Mercury‘s account of the “inexpressibly awful” sequential mass-hangings, seven upon seven, widowing 13 wives and leaving 56 children (and a 57th on the way) fatherless.

Execution.

After sentence of death had been passed upon the persons convicted of making the attack on Mr. Cartwright’s Mill, at Rawfolds, and of the Burglaries, fifteen in number, all of them except John Lumb, who was reprieved, were removed to the condemned-ward, and their behaviour in that place was very suitable to their unhappy situation…

if any of these unfortunate men possessed any secret that it might have been important to the public to know, they suffered it to die with them. Their discoveries were meagre in the extreme. Not one of them impeached any of their accomplices, nor did they state, as might reasonably have been expected, where the depot of arms, in the collection of which some of them had been personally engaged, was to be found. When interrogated on this point, some of them disclaimed all knowledge of the place, and others said, Benjamin Walker, the informer against Mellor, Thorpe, and Smith, could give the best information about the arms, as he had been present at most of the depredations. … The principal part of these ill-fated men were married and have left families. William Hartley, has left seven children, their mother, happily for herself, died about half a year ago. John Ogden, wife and two children; Nathan Hoyle, wife and seven children; Joseph Crowther, wife pregnant, and four children; John Hill, wife and two children; John Walker, wife and five children; Jonathan Dean, wife and seven children; Thomas Brook, wife and three children; John Swallow, wife and six children; John Batley, wife and one child; John Fisher, wife and three children; Job Hey, wife and seven children; James Hey, wife and two children; James Haigh, wife, but no children. On the morning before the execution, the eldest daughter of Hartley obtain permission to visit a wretched parent, when a scene took place which we will not attempt to describe. The heart-broken father wished to have been spared the anguish of this parting interval, but the importunate intreaties of his child a last prevailed, and they met to take a long farewell, never again to be repeated in this world. What must be the feelings of an affectionate father, (for such in this trying moment he appears to have shewn himself,) when, though standing on the brink of eternity, he declines to see a darling child; how great an aggravation of his punishment must those parting pangs of inflicted, and how loud an admonition does this melancholy incident suggest to the Fathers of families against entering into combinations that may place them in the same inexpressibly afflicted situations. It was Hartley’s particular request that the public should be informed of the number and unprovided situation of his orphan family.

At 11 o’clock on Saturday morning, the Under Sheriff went to demand the bodies of John Ogden, Nathan Hoyle, Joseph Crowther, John Hill, John Walker, Jonathan Dean, and Thomas Brook. They were all engaged in singing a hymn:

Behold the Saviour of Mankind,
Nail’d to the shameful tree;
How vast the love that him inclin’d
To bleed and for me, &c.

Which one of them [Luddite Bicentennary notes: John Walker, according to the Leeds Intelligencer] dictated in a firm tone of voice; and in this religious service they continued on their way to the platform, and some time after they had arrived at the fatal spot. They then join the ordinary with great fervency in the prayers appointed to be read on such occasions, and after that gentleman had taken his final leave of them, ejaculations to the throne of mercy rose from every part of the crowded platform.

Joseph Crowther addressing himself to the spectators said, “Farewell Lads;” another whose name we could not collect said, “I am prepared for the Lord,” and John Hill, advancing a step or two on the platform, said, “Friends! all take warning by my fate; for three years I followed the Lord, but about half a year since, I began to fall away; and fell by little and little, and at last I am come to this; persevere in the ways of godliness, and O! take warning by my fate!” The executioner then proceeded to the discharge of his duty, and the falling of the platform soon after, forced an involuntary shriek from the vast concourse of spectators assembled to witness this tremendous sacrifice to the injured laws of the country.

The bodies having remained suspended for the usual time [LB: 12.00 p.m.], they were removed, and while the place of execution was yet warm with the blood of the former victims, the remaining seven, namely, John Swallow, John Batley, Joseph Fisher, William Hartley, James Haigh, James Hey, and Job Hey, were led at half-past one o’clock from their cell to the fatal stage, their behaviour, like that of their deceased confederates, was contrite and becoming; James Haigh expressed deep contrition for his offences. John Swallow said he had been led away by wicked and unprincipled men, and hoped his fate would be a warning to all, and teach them to live a life of sobriety and uprightness. They all united in prayer with an earnestness that is seldom witnessed in the services of devotion, except in the immediate prospect of death [LB: the Leeds Intelligencer said they sung the same hymn as those executed earlier]. A few moments closed their mortal existence, and placed at the bar differing from all earthly tribunal’s [sic] in this infinitely important particular — here, owing to the imperfections of all human institutions, repentance though sincere, cannot procure forgiveness — there, we have the authority of God himself for saying, that the cries of the contrite and broken-hearted shall not be despised. Charity hopeth all things.

The criminal records of Yorkshire do not perhaps afford an instance of so many victims having been offered in one day to the injured laws of the country. The scene was inexpressibly awful, and the large body of soldiers, both horse and foot, who guarded the approach to the castle, and were planted in front of the fatal tree, gave to the scene of peculiar degree of terror, and exhibited the appearance of a military execution. The spectators, particularly in the morning, were unusually numerous, and their behaviour on both occasions, were strictly decorous and unbecoming. [sic]

Full post at Luddite Bicentennary. Also see LB on the mood of the town.

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1813: The Yorkshire Luddites, for murdering William Horsfall

1 comment January 8th, 2013 Headsman

This is the bicentennial of the hanging of three Luddites for the murder of manufacturer William Horsfall.

“Luddite” has come to refer imprecisely to a wide range of anti-mechanization machine-wrecking in early 19th century Britain; however, it’s most properly applied to a specific 1811-1816 movement.

While often understood casually as a sort of mindless technophobia, wreckers — Luddites and otherwise — actually had material labor grievances. New more efficient power looms reduced skilled workers to the ranks of unskilled subsistence labor, or to those of the superfluous unemployed.

With trade unionism illegal (and severely repressed), their means of resistance were of a desperate character. Lord Byron, almost alone in Parliament, rose to defend them: “These men were willing to dig, but the spade was in other hands; they were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them. Their own means of subsistence were cut off; all other employments pre-occupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be the subject of surprise.”

Hence, Byron sarcastically remarked, “new capital punishments must be devised, new snares of death must be spread, for the wretched mechanic who is famished into guilt.” Parliament did indeed extend its capital statutes to the protection of these new looms.


Via

“Wrecking,” in the analysis of the late Eric Hobsbawm, “was simply a technique of trade unionism in the period before, and during the early phases of, the industrial revolution.”

Hobsbawm quotes a Nottingham town clerk describing the way textile manufacturers “acquire entire control of their workmen” by putting them to work on the owners’ power looms rather than hiring out workers who use their own looms. “Perhaps the most effectual manner in which the combination [read: proto-union] could coerce them was their former manner of carrying on war by destroying their frames.”

And the descriptor “war” was not far off.

The Luddites — so named for legendary loom-smasher Ned Ludd — proliferated in 1811-1812. Beginning in Nottingham with a protest against falling wages signed by General Ned Ludd and the Army of Redressers, they tapped a wellspring of discontent.

It was a time of war, of economic crisis, of spiking wheat prices whose rise to an 1812 record peak further immiserated those who scraped to earn a living by the sweat of their brow. A generation after the French Revolution, with Napoleon rampant on the continent, English elites had reason to fear their own legitimacy stood on unstable ground.* In 1811, the king even went mad.

And they thrive well who from the poor
Have snatched the bread of penury,
And heap the houseless wanderer’s store
On the rank pile of luxury.

-Percy Bysshe Shelly, “The Devil’s Walk” (1812)

From their birthplace in Nottingham, Luddite societies spread out through textile country, conspiring by moonlight to break into factories and smash up frames or commit other acts of industrial sabotage. (There’s a pdf timeline here) Byron, the Luddites’ defender, owned that the night before he departed a recent visit to Nottingham, “forty frames had been broken the preceding evening as usual, without resistance and without detection.”

Terrified manufacturers — some were known to have armored their establishments with what amount to siege fortifications; others, to outfit homes with early panic rooms as bolt-holes in the event of a Luddite attack — met this mob action violently. Westminster put 12,000 troops into Luddite country to fight the wreckers.

And the wreckers fought back.

William Horsfall, owner of a Marsden wool mill with 400 employees, had vowed to “ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood” … which promise gave a poetic twist to his actual fate: while riding on Huddersfield‘s Crosland Moor** in April 1812, a group of Luddites lying in wait opened fire on him and shot Horsfall through the groin.

“As soon as he fell after being wounded the inhuman populace surrounding him reproached him with having been the oppressor of the poor — they did not offer assistance,” an officer later reported. “Nor did any one attempt to pursue or secure the assassins who were seen to retire to an adjoining wood.” A fellow-manufacturer helped Horsfall to an inn, where he expired painfully 38 hours later.

It was several months before the powers that be were able to crack it.

Eventually, the energetic Huddersfield magistrate Joseph Radcliffe† was able to exploit the threat of hanging to force a Luddite cropper‡ into impeaching his confederates in the plot. This investigation is covered in marvelous detail at the Luddite Bicentenary blog, an outstanding resource on the period in general, but for our purposes we’ll sum up to say that the hunt for Horsfall’s killers wound up zeroing in on George Mellor, Thomas Smith, and William Thorpe.

They were tried over 11 hours on a single day, January 6, 1813 (summary: 1, 2, 3, 4).

That was a Wednesday.

That Friday, the three hanged in their manacles behind York Castle under heavy military guard to forestall any possible rescue, having never admitted any part in the murder. The authorities judiciously eschewed a more demonstrative (and potentially riot-inducing) execution at the scene of the crime.

“The number of people assembled was much greater than is usual in York, on those melancholy occasions; but not the slightest indication of tumult prevailed, and the greatest silence reigned during the whole of this solemn and painful scene,” the Leeds Mercury reported§ — and darkly explicated the intended lesson of the scene for other machine-wreckers.

all those who may have been so far infatuated as to become members of such societies should, from this moment, and by one common consent, desist from taking another step in furtherance of their objects. They must now see that they have stood on the brink of a frightful precipice, and that another step might have plunged them into that gulph which has overwhelmed their less fortunate associates.

The mailed fist deployed against wreckers in 1812-1813 did indeed smash the movement. Still, sporadic Luddite attacks would continue as late as 1816, and Luddite veterans went at the fore of the 1817 Pentrich Rising … just outside the place it all began, Nottingham.

* It was in just this period — in fact, only a few days after William Horsfall’s murder — that Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated. Given the conditions abroad in the land, many an elite feared upon first notice of this event a revolutionary rising … although Perceval’s killer turned out to be a deranged merchant whose confused private grievance had nothing to do with Britain’s social tensions.

** Not far from the spot of Horsfall’s murder — and a standard stop on every present-day Luddite commemorative walk — you’ll still find William Horsfall Street.

† Radcliffe’s exertions in the war against the Luddites secured for his family a still-extant baronetcy.

‡ Benjamin Walker, the Luddite informer who sent Mellor, Smith, and Thorpe to the gallows, was denied the advertised £2000 reward and wound up a beggar in London.

§ Leeds Mercury report via a reprint in the London Times of Jan. 12, 1813. (Also see this excerpt.)

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