1807: Ephraim Blackburn, low roller

Add comment November 11th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1807, a throw of the dice noosed Ephraim Blackburn.

The son of a Pennsylvanian who served in George Washington’s army, Blackburn sought his own martial adventure by joining the expedition of Louisiana-Mexico border trader Philip Nolan in 1801.

Nolan had spent the 1790s living and trading along the frontier of Mexico and (Spanish, until 1800) Louisiana. Nolan worked in a legal twilight, earning the connivance of some Mexican officials and the hostility of others; perhaps no Anglo was better-acquainted with Texas.

By 1800 he was barred from the territory but assembled a coterie of 30-plus armed men and ventured into Texas once agan on an apparent filibustering operation seeking to carve out control of some piece of Texas. Our man Ephraim Blackburn was among these daring souls, whose wooden palisade somewhere near the Brazos River was quickly overwhelmed by a Mexican attack.

Nolan died in the battle, leading the remainder of his men to surrender. From there they would embark on a strange years-long legal road, their numbers continually winnowed by escapes. Ordinarily when one is prosecuted as a foreign invader, one is not permitted to have the liberty of the city or to go into business, but that is exactly what occurred with the Nolan men.

One of their number, Peter Ellis Bean, is known to have survived his incarceration; he escaped and fought for Father Miguel Hidalgo‘s Mexican revolutionaries against Spain, returned to the United States in 1818, then re-settled in post-independence Mexico. Bean conferred on posterity a memoir recalling that during their imprisonment,*

Some of my companions got leave of the general to go to other towns to live, but I thought I would find out some way of making something. I gave myself out as a hatter. There was a gentleman who trusted me for whatever was necessary to carry on that business. I employed two Spanish hatters to work with me, for, in fact, I was no hatter at all. In about six months I had so raised my name, that no one would purchase hats except of the American. By this means I got a number of journeymen to work with me. I was clear of debt, and making from fifty to sixty dollars per week.

All this entrepreneurialism was unfolding while capital case meandered with no great urgency among Spanish courts. One judge recommended the prisoners’ outright release in 1804; by the time the message had been shipped across the Atlantic and back, it was 1807, and the judge had died. The crown’s reversal horrifyingly required the death of one in every five of the invaders — although since deaths and escapes had now reduced their ranks to just nine, the local authorities mercifully rounded the figure down to one.

On the 9th of November, the nine remaining prisoners were gathered in a Chihuahua barracks and made aware of their situation. They agreed among themselves to cast dice in order of seniority — low roll hangs.**

Blackburn was the oldest, and the first to roll. He threw a 3 and 1. Bean narrates, beginning with the frighteningly mysterious arrival of confessional priests the night before the survival lottery:

all our conversation that night was in view of our being put to death. I told them that we should trust to fate, and not fret ourselves about what we could not remedy. One of them said the bravest would be cast down to see his open grave before him. “But,” said I, “if you find no way to escape that grave, is it not better to march up to it like a man, than to be dragged to it like one dead? It is enough for them to drag me to it when life is gone. The most cowardly, where under sentence of death, have marched up with great bravery. And, as for myself, if I must die, I mean not to disgrace my country.” The reason I talked so was that I did not believe they would put us to death.

Soon the next morning the priests returned, and David Fero asked them if we were to be put to death. They said they did not know — perhaps some might be. I then began to conclude it would be me, and all my companions thought the same thing. I, however, said nothing; for, as I had before talked of valor in such cases, it became necessary for me to support that character. The priests said we must confess all our sins to them, and we should be forgiven. As for myself, I had been taught that God knew all my crimes and it was not worth while to relate them to the parsons. But some of my companions began to confess, and had their sins forgiven. When they asked me, I told them I must have four or five days to recollect all my sins — that they were so many, it was doubtful whether I could ever remember them all. The parsons advised me to begin, and God would enlighten me, and help me to remember them. I told them I could not that day, but perhaps by the next day I could remember some things. They then left us. All that day the talk among us was as to who it would be. I told them, I supposed, as I was the worst, it would be me; and, as my friend Tony Waters had been put in with us to share our fate, I thought, as he had broken open my letter, that if the thing went according to justice, and they hung the worst man, it must be him, for he was, without doubt, the greatest villain and ought to have been dead some years ago. Waters sighed, but said nothing. The next day the parsons came again, and brought with them a colonel, who read to us the king’s order — which was, that every fifth man was to be hung, for firing on the king’s troops. But, as some were dead, there were but nine of us, and, out of the nine, but one had to die. This was to be decided by throwing dice on the head of a drum. Whoever threw lowest, was to be executed. It was then agreed that the oldest must throw first. I was the youngest, and had to throw last. The first was blindfolded, and two dice put in a glass tumbler. He was led to the drum which was put in the room, and there cast the dice on the head of the drum. And so we went up, one by one, to cast the awful throw of life or death. All of my companions, except one, threw high: he threw four. As I was the last, all his hopes were that I should throw lower than he. As for my part, I was indifferent about it, for I had resigned myself to fortune. I took the glass in my hand, and gained the prize of life, for I threw five.

After two days to prepare himself, Blackburn hanged on Chihuahua’s Plaza de los Urangas. The remaining prisoners were scattered to different prisons for many years to come; among the survivors, only Bean is known to have set eyes on his native soil again.

* On the expedition that would staple his name to mainland America’s highest peak, Zebulon Pike was briefly captured by the Mexicans and taken to Chihuahua, where he met some of the Nolan gang prisoners.

** Both the random selection and its circumstances — punishing Anglo adventurers — strongly foreshadow Mexico’s later Black Bean Lottery.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Mexico,Public Executions,Soldiers,Spain,Terrorists,Texas,USA

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1811: Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, for Mexican independence

2 comments July 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1811, Mexican independence icon Miguel Hidalgo was shot for treason at the government palace in Chihuahua.

The subversive priest had set the spark to the Mexican War of Independence in the hours before sunrise of September 16, 1810. There, he rang the parish bell in the small town of Dolores and issued his “Grito de Dolores” — “Cry of Dolores” — summoning native Amerindians and mestizos to throw off the Spanish.

The movement got added juice from the fact that the Spanish jackboot was then being worn by Napoleon, who had installed his brother as king.*

Hidalgo tributes are a mainstay of every Mexican town. This Orozco mural is in a government building in Guadalajara.

Hidalgo’s fired-up downtrodden mob slaughtered the local garrison and gathered numbers on a march towards Mexico City before the professional Spanish soldiery rallied to stop it. But the priest wouldn’t make his father-of-the-country credentials in generalship: he’d been relieved of command after repeated combat debacles by the time the insurrection’s leaders were betrayed in March.**

While his comrades Ignacio Allende, Jose Mariano Jimenez and Juan Aldama were shot on June 26, Hidalgo got an old-school detour through the ecclesiastical arm for defrocking (and a highly suspect alleged retraction).

When he was shot this day, he directed the firing squad to aim for the hand he placed over his heart.

Then, his head was cut off and stuck on a pike as a warning.

The struggle lived on, long past Hidalgo’s execution and Bonaparte’s fall, and finally resulted in Mexican independence in 1820. Today, the padre whose call to action not only started the revolt but made it a mass movement is the face on the 1,000-peso note, and his Grito de Dolores is repeated every Diez y Seis de Septiembre as an independence day tribute by Mexican authorities — as in this from 2006:

* Inspiring this blog’s banner in the process.

** There’s a map of Hidalgo and Allende’s army’s movements — and subsequent campaigns in the war — here.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,History,Martyrs,Mexico,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Spain,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1919: Felipe Angeles

11 comments November 26th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1919, Mexican hero General Felipe Angeles was shot at dawn in Chihuahua, hours after a military tribunal condemned him for rebellion.

Angeles, a humane and cosmopolitan socialist, had tacked a unique course through the dangerous Mexican Revolution. The career artillerist’s military counsel was a high card in the hands of the revolutionaries, and helped to make the coruscating career of Pancho Villa. Crucially, Angeles advised Villa to seize the mines of Zacatecas, dealing a mortal blow to the putschist Huerta government by throttling its currency at the source.

But that brilliant maneuver countermanded an order of the Revolution’s moderate political face, Venustiano Carranza, and both personality conflicts and support for more radically redistributionist measures soon sundered the Villa factions’ alliance with Carranza.

Angeles hitched his destiny to Pancho Villa and is historically recalled as the “angelic” opposite number to the famed guerrilla’s other top military henchman, the murderous Roberto Fierro. The three lend themselves almost implausibly to allegorical literature — “the decisive biographical proof of Villa’s duality … found in the two men closest to him, equidistant and extreme extensions of his nature.” (Enrique Krauze)

Angeles aimed, perhaps, at a statesmanship that might have remembered him the father of his country.

‘It was the recurrent dream of the impotent revolutionary intellectual: to play Plato to some powerful but pliant popular caudillo.’ This may well be an accurate analysis of Angeles, who probably had ambitions to be president of Mexico, with Villa as the power behind the throne but based in Chihuahua, allowing Angeles free rein to implement radical reforms in the capital

… Angeles probably saw Villa as a tabula rasa on which he could imprint his ideology. The problem was that Villa had no taste for abstract thought; as [John] Reed remarked ironically: ‘You had to be a philosopher to explain anything to Villa.’

To the grief of both, Villa neglected Angeles’ expertise when the Villists faced Carranzo at arms. Against advice, Villa abandoned Mexico City, failed to attack when the constitutionalists were tenuous, then spurned guerrilla operations for a frontal assault into the teeth of a foe with numerical superiority and lethal tactical advances culled from the slaughterhouse of World War I.

All was postscript after the Battle of Celaya — Villa maintaining for a few years as a bandit force and famously raiding New Mexico while his strategist drifted into exile in Texas before returning to Mexico on a quixotic peacemaking mission that led him instead to a show trial.

Angeles’ end came with the all the dignity of his romantic age. Before his judges — before all the world — he gave “full and clear expositions of his history and his ideas about everything from politics to ontology. It was clear that he knew this was his end, and he seems to have written a kind of intellectual memoir in the protracted answers … he was not defeated morally so much as physically.”

Angeles himself arranged particulars of his own execution with the Carranza men detailed to shoot him. He enjoys posthumous esteem commensurate with his qualities in life:

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,Mexico,Notable Participants,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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