1822: Augustin Joseph Caron, entrapped

Add comment October 1st, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1822, French Lt. Col. Augustin Joseph Caron was shot at Strasbourg as a rebel.

Little is known of his background, but Caron (English Wikipedia entry | French) enlisted in his army during the revolutionary year of 1791 and advanced into command positions under Napoleon. From his later conduct it’s apparent that these years shaped a political passion that would be starkly at odds with the post-Napoleon Bourbon restoration.

As we have noted elsewhere on this site France’s Liberal (often Bonapartist) opposition during these years was urged by the persecution of the monarchist party into conspiracy as the common coin of its politics.

Out of this mire grew both charbonnerie (France’s analogue to the carbonari terrorists who proliferated in Italy) and an overvigilant secret police whose campaigns of entrapment and threat exaggeration did nothing so well as to further obscure the line between mundane opposition and treason.

The strange interplay between these midnight foes would shape the fate of Col. Caron.

Caron’s path to execution begins with the thwarted rising of the Belfort garrison for New Year’s 1822 — a real plot that the government spies were able to squelch. This resulted in a number of executions, by dint of which it has featured in these very pages.

Caron enters this story in its second chapter: a pensioned former officer of known Bonapartist sympathies, Caron was (with another man named Roger) baited by police spies into mounting an attempted raid on Colmar prison where the arrested Belfort conspirators were being held. Officers chosen to play the part were detailed to meet him as “conspirators” and march with him to Colmar, allowing Caron to make compromising “Vive l’Empereur” exhortations along the way, before finally arresting him.

Though Caron himself had been a willing participant who most certainly did intend to raise a mutiny, the ridiculous spectacle of His Majesty’s warriors congratulating themselves for crushing a plot that they themselves controlled from the get-go came to crystallize the Liberal fulminations against abusive use of agents provocateur. As Alan Barrie Spitzer puts it in Old Hatreds and Young Hopes: The French Carbonari against the Bourbon Restoration,

the means employed to net such a minor, and such a vulnerable, agitator gave the critics of the regime and the defenders of other conspirators the opportunity to assimilate all the operations of the political police to this contemptible one. The government was placed on the defensive from the first. It proved difficult to demonstrate the Caron and Roger had initiated the seditious proposals … Two entire squadrons of chasseurs had conducted their brilliant operation to net only the two original suspects. And then there was the abrasive question of who, under what circumstances, shouted out “Vive l’Empereur!” — that is, tempted innocent passersby-into political crime. The original story … described the squadrons as riding through the countryside crying “Vive l’Empereur,” and innocently wondered whether these purveyors of seditious slogans would be arrested along with Caron, their alleged “leader.”

One Liberal deputy sneeringly pictured future French veterans boasting of their service, “I was in those squadrons that rode through the countryside of the Haut-Rhin shouting ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ in order to test the disposition of the inhabitants.” Indeed, what if the dispositions had been otherwise? It had been only a few years since the emperor really had returned from exile and raised a brief civil war; the idea that the military had risked triggering “the insurrection of a town and the massacre of its inhabitants” for no better reason than to compromise an utter nobody blossomed into a gigantic scandal. Caron became France’s metonym for a patsy;* demands to grant Caron leniency and turn the investigation against his persecutors multiplied discomfitingly.

But this was only one of several high-profile trials against anti-Bourbon plotters unfolding in 1822, and the Liberal denunciations against them practically staked the government’s credibility upon their outcome. So the government saw to the outcome it required — by invoking Caron’s military rank to have him transferred out of the civilian justice system and tried by a military tribunal that would be sure to convict him. Just to complete the shambles, the execution was then hurriedly conducted before Caron’s appeal could be brought before the Court of Cassation.

The Journal of the Lower Rhine gives the following details concerning the execution of Colonel Caron: —

Colonel Caron, who was unanimously condemned to death for the crime of embauchage [“hiring” -ed], by the first permanent council of war of this division, the judgment of which was likewise unanimously confirmed by the council of revision, was executed at two o’clock in the afternoon, in the presence of a small detachment of the garrison, and a numerous concourse of people who were attracted by curiosity. The Abbe Schittig zealously administered to him the consolations of religion, which he received with humility, and he died with the courage of a Christian and an old soldier. Caron was alone in a carriage, amidst the retinue which conducted him to the place of execution. At the entrance of the horn-work, called Finkmatt, where the execution took place, he alighted from the carriage without the assistance of the driver. On arriving in front of the 12 men who were to be his executioners, he refused to have his eyes bandaged. With his hat on, he himself gave the signal. Immediately the muskets were fired, and Caron was no more.

London Times, Oct. 10, 1822

He’s buried in Strasbourg, under a slab that reads MORT POUR LA LIBERTE.

* In The Red and The Black, the main character Julien Sorel at one point muses that, should a provocative letter be attributed to his hand, it could make him “the next Colonel Caron at Colmar.”

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1825: Angelo Targhini and Leonidas Montanari, carbonari

Add comment November 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1825, alleged carbonari plotters Angelo Targhini and Leonidas Montanari were guillotined by Papal executioner Mastro Titta.

This excommunicate revolutionary secret society was spending the 1820s — a decade in-between revolutions — harrying the restored crowned heads of Italy and France with assassination plots.

It was accordingly much-harried in its own turn, to the repeated profit of this grim chronicle.

The pair we feature today were casualties of all that cloak-and-dagger, specifically the latter.

The story (Italian link) goes that the Carbonari became convinced (correctly) that one of their number, a Filippo Spada, was informing against them; thereupon, our Angelo Targhini — very much the impressionable young zealot — was tasked with stabbing the turncoat to death in an alley. The victim, known familiarly as “Spontini”, survived the attack. Montanari, a physician, was one of the first on the scene but arriving policemen perceived that the “treatment” he was applying to the victim was actually deepening his wounds, and seized him as a conspirator.

Montanari admitted nothing of the kind and was accused solely on the impressions of police plus the information of another informant. But he was in no position to impeach this information because it was a secret court of the automcratic Pope Leo XII that condemned both men for treason — solicitous of neither defense nor appeals.

In his diaries, as detailed here as ever, the headsman Mastro Titta reports receiving death threats. Security on the Piazza del Popolo, “thick with people, as I never saw her,” in Titto’s words, was extremely tight — but no public disturbance or carbonari raid disturbed proceedings. That was left only to the prisoners, who declined to receive the sacrament of confession or acknowledge themselves assassins.

“All attempts to persuade them to repent came to nothing,” Titta laments. “They invariably replied only: ‘We have no account to render to anyone. Our God plumbs the fathoms of our conscience.'”

The young men are the subjects of the 1969 Luigi Magni film Nell’anno del Signore.

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1822: Armand Valle, carbonari plotter

Add comment June 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1822, Armand Valle was guillotined in Toulon.

We meet Restoration France in the 1820s under the sway of an Ultra-Royalist ministry — headed, from December 1821, by Jean-Baptiste de Villele. This was the faction whose perspective on the preceding generation’s tectonic events was to roll it all back; their legislative programme would be to restrict the franchise, reassemble great estates, and generally rebuild as much of the ancien regime as could be salvaged from the aftermath of the Tennis Court Oath.

Villele would serve as Louis’s Prime Minister for six and a half years, and he set the tone right away in 1822 by investigating as conspirators virtually any two Jacobins, Bonapartists, or Liberals who clinked glasses.

The man did have reason to fear.

A round of revolutions had rocked Europe in 1820-21; the Italian carbonari in particular certainly spread into France, right down to the name (charbonnerie). And over the preceding decades, each of the royalists’ rival factions had been rudely dispossessed of power in successive violent overturnings of each new social order; each movement nursed its own grievances and spawned true believers ready to spin ahead the cycle of revolutions by intrigue, or munition.

And in 1820 — and this was the proximate reason Villele had ascended to his current place in statecraft — someone had assassinated the heir to the throne, triggering a massive reaction.

Can we pity the secret policeman? Ultra-royalist France had to chase ghosts; the conspiracy against the Orleanists must have seemed omnipresent, yet ever receding as agents provocateur entrapped this or that suspected subversive who turned out to be some embarrassingly minor dissident. At the same time, the security-mad repressive atmosphere of the times — France even went so far as to introduce the death penalty for sacrilege* — tended to channel potentially “normal” political activity into murmured intrigues.

Even as France’s crackdown neatly generated its own self-justifying threat, the cases that it did bring to trial made the martyrs whose sacrifices vindicated the regime’s foes.

We have already met in these pages the Sergeants of La Rochelle, young officers of charbonnerie sympathies. Indeed, France’s citizen army, so recently grande, ran thick with characters who conceived of much worthier polities to exercise their arms for than Bourbon absolutism.

At the end of 1821, a conspiracy for a rising by the Belfort garrison had been suppressed; the liberal deputy (and American Revolution hero) Lafayette was compromised and only narrowly avoided being implicated.**

Just days after the abortive Belfort plot fizzled and with the brass on high alert, our man Armand Valle had the indiscretion to “[entertain] a number of half-pay and retired officers at a tavern at Toulon. After inveighing against the pretensions of the nobles and the growing power of the clergy, he read out to his audience the statutes of the Carbonari.” (Source, which misdates Valle’s subsequent execution) His suspicious superiors had him seized, and soon found half-destroyed documents written in his hand implicating Valle as a carbonarist recruiter.†

Valle perhaps stood a fair chance of beating or minimizing the imputation of treasonable design since the evidence against him was partial and suggestive, and did not point conclusively to an actual plot against the state. But at the court where his barristers attempted to mount such an argument, a martyr-minded Valle overwhelmed all doubts by repeatedly interrupting to rant against the proceedings, the judiciary, the monarchy, and their collusion with France’s enemies. Here, surely, was a man to gratify those frustrating exertions of police spies.

On June 10 before great crowds of the citizens of Toulon, he marched with his escort to the scaffold. That last journey of former captain Valle has been retold in several accounts as a heroic calvary. There is Valle dressed almost foppishly, forbidding women to weep for the demise of his young beauty; asking for a glass to toastt the braves and la patrie; bidding adieu to his country once more on the scaffold as the drum rolls drown out his last words.

This romantic tale is confirmed in the complacent reports of the president of the tribunal at Toulon: Valle takes the glass, he makes the toast, and then, “thrown down on the fatal machine, he tried to address the crowd. The drum roll swallowed up his voice.” (Source)

A decade after Valle’s beheading, fellow-travelers erected a monument to him inscribed, “The Faithful Armand Valle d’Arras, a member of the Legion of Honor, captain of the cavalry of the former Imperial Guard, died June 10, 1822 a martyr of freedom. In gratitude, the patriots of Toulon.” (There’s a photograph of the still-extant obelisk here, part of this French forum post of Toulon markers.)

* It never carried out such a sentence under the Anti-Sacrilege Act prior to that law’s repeal in 1830.

** Lafayette got word of the plot’s failure while en route to the scene, and prudently returned home, destroying whatever was incriminating.

† A Commandant Caron was Valle’s carbonari paymaster, and Valle’s arrest ruined a coup that Caron was planning — helping lead to the latter’s own exposure, arrest, and (later in 1822) execution.

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1828: Carbonari in Ravenna

2 comments May 13th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1828, revolutionaries Luigi Zanoli, Ortolani Angiolo, Gaetano Montanari, and Gaetano Rambelli were hanged in Ravenna.*

These were members of the carbonari, charcoal-burnersan anti-clerical political secret society of the early 19th century.

Further to that body’s sanguinary campaign against papal political domination, they authored an attempted kidnapping and/or assassination of the Vatican’s Romagna enforcer, Cardinal Rivarola. Rivarola had recently issued mass condemnations against carbonari.

Which is very nice. But they didn’t get the Cardinal.

Ubiquitous 19th century papal executioner Mastro Titta conducted the executions — the 266th through 269th of his career (he’d also done Gaetano Montanari’s better-known brother Leonida three years before) — and devoted a chapter of his memoirs to the occasion. You can call the carbonari terrorists if you wish, but the Ravenna populace’s fearsomely cinematic display of solidarity with the doomed makes eloquent historical testimony on their behalf.

The execution took place on May 13 on a large square in Ravenna, occupied by the military so that nobody could not approach the gallows other than the executioners, the soldiers, and the prisoners. The windows and doors of the city and the shops were all closed and many were hung with black. Not a person was seen on the streets. Ravenna seemed transformed into a necropolis. All attempts to convert them were vigorously rejected by the prisoners, who did not want confession nor religious comforters, and protested against the accompaniment of two friars ordered by the Cardinal.** The wagon crossed streets deserted and silent, all surrounded by soldiers on foot and horseback riding at a brisk trot. Arrived at the foot of the gallows, the condemned went down with a firm step, and one by one they boldly climbed the stairs of the gallows, and before the gallows clutching their necks shouted in a voice strong and fearless:

– Viva Italia! Down with the papacy!

The execution was conducted rapidly. I departed with my aide that night under guard, because it was rumored that the conspirators wanted to skin us.

* It appears to me — although it’s not completely clear from what I’ve seen — that a fifth man, a Jewish poisoner named Abramo Isacco Forti (aka “Machino”), was also executed in this group, for collaborating with the carbonari on a different murder. He’s listed on Titta’s roster of victims without date or explanation, but specifically named in, e.g., this Italian book’s roster of death sentences handed out by that same court.

** This public-domain Italian independence martyrology attributes to the prisoners the worthy quote, “Who becomes a king and an executioner ceases to be a minister of God.”

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1822: Four Sergeants of La Rochelle

2 comments September 21st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1822, four sergeants from La Rochelle were guillotined at the Place de Greve with “Vive la liberte! on their lips for plotting to overthrow the restored Bourbon monarchy.

In the Restoration following Napoleon, the cautious gouty brother of the Revolution’s most famous guillotinee came to the throne as Louis XVIII.

And in a right-wing reaction following a royal assassination, Louis found himself in the anomalous position of having a government more monarchist than he himself. Though not renowned for his sagacity, the sovereign had the wit to see that completely reversing the Revolution was a nonstarter. His ultra-royalist deputies, however, wanted nothing less than the full restoration of an absolute monarchy.

The new Prime Minister cracked down hard on the Liberal opposition. Here’s the scene as described by The Cambridge Modern History, a Google Books freebie:

The Chief Minister [Villele] had the merit of keeping constantly in mind the fact that his friends owed their power to the forces of reaction and alarm, aroused in the country by the dagger of an assassin who had mortally wounded a member of the royal family. To keep this fear awake, in order to establish his authority, was his first care. In this he succeeded. The Liberals, finding themselves compelled to prudence, organized themselves into secret societies; and the Republcians, imitating the Neapolitans, actually formed in 1821 the Charbonnerie francaise, which avowedly aimed at giving back “to the French nation the free exercise of the right to choose its sovereign.” In order to give battle to the ancien regime and its Bourbon protectors, they recruited their soldiers and captains without hesitation from among the officers, commissioned and non-commissioned, of the old Imperial army. Villele showed particular skill in the discovery, exaggeration, and signal punishment of these conspiracies … With a magistracy obedient to its orders, the Ministry devoted itself assiduously to representing isolated movements no sooner known than crushed, as forming part of a permanent conspiracy organized by the Liberals, not only against the monarchy, but against society itself.

Les quatre sergents de La Rochelle — by the names of Bories, Goubin, Pommier and Raoulx — comprised perhaps the most egregious such case.

Driven underground (the link is French) like the rest of the Liberal opposition, they had joined the charbonnerie, a loose network modeled on Naples’ carbonari. (Lower-level officers were prime recruits for the dissidents, since their career prospects were truncated by aristocratic privilege in the upper brass.)

It was never clear that their subversiveness extended to anything beyond their affiliation with a criminalized ideology, and they kept their own peace to protect other associates in the charbonnerie. Guillotining them on this basis conformed neatly to the principles of, say, an Ann Coulter: “We need to execute [these] people … in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.”

Back to The Cambridge Modern History:

It seemed that the Ministers were eager to multiply these trials and executions. Since certain deputies of the Liberal Opposition, Lafayette* among others, and D’Argenson, had openly associated themselves with these enterprises, which otherwise were devoid of danger, this supplied a fair pretext for exhibiting them publicly as criminals. The indictment with the King’s Procurator, Marchangy, formulated, in order to obtain the condemnation of the four sergeants of La Rochelle, left no doubt as to the intentions of the Government. Its chief aim was to terrorise the French people “by this vast conspiracy against social order, against the families of citizens, which threatened to plunge them once more into all the horrors of anarchy.” While keeping up the appearance of saving society, Villele gained forthwith the power to govern it in accordance with the wishes of his friends. The threat of anarchy, exploited by the judges in his service, allowed him to organise a despotism.

The public execution reportedly had its onlookers appalled, (more French) and as word of the young men’s heroic deaths got around, they elbowed into the vast host of (somebody’s) martyrs. (In Balzac’s Human Comedy, the courtesan Aquilina is said to have been involved with one of the four sergeants; in her appearances after the executions, she always commemorates him by wearing something red.) The Lantern Tower in their garrison’s city — depicted below in a 1927 Paul Signac painting — was renamed in their honor, Tour de Quatre Sergents.

* Lafayette always seemed to be somebody’s dangerous element. It’s a wonder he never got himself into this blog.

Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.

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