1393: Karsten Sarnow, Stralsund mayor

Add comment June 28th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1393 the mayor of Stralsund was beheaded.

From the perspective of that Hanseatic city‘s hereditary patricianate, Karsten Sarnow was a chancer — a burgher who championed the political reforms that enabled his own self to enter the city council.

He cinched his municipal preeminence by taking leadership of the naval campaign against some Baltic pirates and successfully suppressing them, marching a hundred or more of them through town for execution.

With this prestige he attained the mayoralty and attempted to implement an ambitious constitutional reform that chased the leading grandee family from the city.

This house, the Wulflams,* successfully intrigued against Sarnow from the Hanse sister-city of Lübeck and eventually Wulfhard Wulflam had the pleasure of revenging the slights against his station by ordering the decapitation of both Sarnow’s person and his constitutional innovations.

This coup scarcely resolved the simmering class and faction conflicts in Stralsund, as discussed by F.L. Carstein in Essays in German History, which notes that “from the beginning of the 14th century the patrician rule was attacked time and again by movements and revolts of the urban Commons, especially in the most important town of Pomerania, Stralsund.”

The popular movement, however, was not stifled. The council was forced to declare the memory of the executed Sarnow untarnished; his body was exhumed and given a solemn funeral. The populist party triumphed once more, helped by battles against the pirates. Yet after only a short time the rule of the old council was restored; the leaders of the rebellion were executed and 48 burghers were expelled …

The 15th century brought new unrest to Stralsund, of a clearly anticlerical character. The ecclesiastical superintendent of the town was a nobleman, Kurt von Bonow. In 1407 he complained about the low offerings the burghers gave to him, quit the town, assembled his noble friends and appeared with 300 horsemen outside the walls. They cut off the hands and feet of burghers whom they found outside, burnt down the farms beyond the walls and departed triumphantly with cattle and other booty; burning villages marked their path. When the priests in Stralsund added their insults and the rumour spread that they supported their leader with arms and money, the burghers, led by the porters’ guild, rose against the clergy, imprisoned sixteen of them and then attempted to burn the house where they were confined. The council tried to protect the priests, but the enraged crowd shouted they were all knaves and evildoers, they had helped to fan the fires and therefore they must burn. The master of the porters’ guild demanded the death of the three senior priests who were burned in the market place; the others were saved by the council. The news of ‘the priests burning at the Sund’ (i.e. Stralsund) spread throughout Germany. Then the burghers marched out of the town and pillaged the houses and estates of noblemen who had participated in Bonow’s enterprise. The feud between them and the nobility allied with the duke lasted seven years, and several other Pomeranian towns supported Stralsund. All trade languished …

About this time the social conflicts in the Hanseatic towns, especially in Lübeck, became so strong that the League — which meant the ruling merchant aristocracies — at a Diet held in Lübeck stipulated the death penalty for burghers who summoned the Commons to take action or agitated otherwise against the council; any member town in which the council was forcibly deposed by the burghers was to lose the Hanseatic privileges and liberties and was not to receive any help from the other towns. Fear had grown to such an extent that it was further ordained no burgher was to appear in front of the council with more than six companions.

Wulfhard Wulflam himself was murdered in 1409 in a revenge killing by the son of a noble knight whom he, Wulflam, had slain several years prior.

* The family’s Wulflamhaus, an outstanding exemplar of the late Gothic style, is still to be seen in Stralsund.

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1916: Not Constance Markievicz, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”

Add comment May 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1916, the British field court meting out death sentences to Irish Easter Rising rebels announced eighteen commutations — most notably including Countess Constance Markievicz.

Markievicz has long been one of the most remarkable and compelling personalities of the Irish independence struggle. As her biographer noted, many other women of that cause are best-known “mainly because of their connection with more famous men.” Markievicz, notably, “stood alone, self-driven and self-confident. She was more than a muse or an enabler or a facilitator, the preferred roles for women to play.”

She was the privileged daughter of a baronet turned polar explorer who came to her distinctive name by marrying a Polish nobleman.** In her girlhood, she’d been presented at court to Queen Victoria.

She trained as a painter and her material circumstances put within her reach that charmed state of comfortable avant-garde consciousness. The Countess gave that up, for Ireland. The abhorrence of the daughter of the Provost of Trinity College Dublin is perhaps her most definitive epitaph: “the one woman amongst them [Irish republicans] of high birth and therefore the most depraved … she took to politics and left our class.”

By the late 1900s and into the 1910s she was a mainstay of hydra-headed radicalism: nationalist, suffragist, socialist. (She was a close friend and comrade of James Connolly.) In those years she could have spent in a pleasant Left Bank garret, she walked picket lines, burned flags, faced arrest, and sold jewelry to fund the soup kitchen she worked in.†

Markievicz co-founded the Fianna Eireann youth organization as a response to Baden-Powell‘s imperial scouting project. It would become an essential feeder for the republican organs (like the Irish Volunteers); Fianna itself was also well-represented among the Easter Rising fighters, and contributed that conflagration’s youngest martyr.

Bust of Constance Markievicz on St. Stephen’s Green, where she served in the Easter Rising.

But for her sex Markievicz would probably have been among the martyrs herself for her role on the St. Stephen’s Green barricade, and perhaps she wished it were so; she greeted the news of her May 6 commutation with the retort, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” She’s been slated with having personally shot a constable during the Rising, although her defenders consider this a baseless smear.

While again in prison — she’d been amnestied from the Easter Rising stuff, but was arrested anew for anti-war activism — Markievicz successfully stood for election to Parliament, and in fact has the distinction of being the first woman elected a British M.P. … although she complied with Sinn Fein policy and refused to take the seat. She was also a member of the First Dail (parliament) of the revolutionary Irish Republic and was the first Irish female cabinet minister (Ministry of Labour).

Constance Markievicz died in 1927 at the age of 59, penniless in a public ward having disbursed the entirety of her wealth. A quarter-million of her fellow peoples of the Irish Free State thronged the streets of Dublin for her funeral.

* The other commutations (with their associated non-capital sentences) as published by the London Times of May 8, 1916:

Penal servitude for life. — Henry O’Hanrahan.

Ten years’ penal servitude. — Count George Plunkett, John Plunkett (his son).

Five years’ penal servitude. — Philip B. Cosgrave.

Three years’ penal servitude. — R. Kelly, W. Wilson, J. Clarke, J. Marks, J. Brennan, P. Wilson, W. Mechan, F. Brooks, R. Coleman, T. Peppard, J. Norton, J. Byrne, T. O’Kelly.

** It turned out that although Casimir Markievicz went by “Count Markievicz” there wasn’t actually any such title. But “Count” and “Countess” stuck nevertheless.

† She does perhaps forfeit some wokeness points for complaining of her post-Easter Rising imprisonment at Aylesbury that she was lodged with “the dregs of the population … no one to speak to except prostitutes who have been convicted for murder or violence. The atmosphere is the conversation of the brothel.”

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1727: Three at Tyburn

Add comment September 18th, 2017 Headsman

Daniel Defoe* once summarized early 18th century England’s class strata as

  1. The great, who live profusely
  2. The rich, who live plentifully
  3. The middle sort, who live well
  4. The working trades, who labour hard, but feel no want
  5. The country people, farmers, etc. who fare indifferently
  6. The poor, who fare hard
  7. The miserable, that really pinch and suffer want.

These ranks of “poor” and “miserably poor” were quite enormous in the 18th century, with something like a tenth of the population subsisting below the “breadline” even when the harvests were good.

It is arguably the struggle to control this lot that brings us that era’s notoriously aggressive “Bloody Code” of hanging laws; certainly the law flaunts its class character openly in many particular capital statutes such as the Black Acts to enforce rural enclosure and harsh laws against labor organizing.

The heaving of these great swells could not but drown a great many already struggling to keep their heads above the waves. And our visit this week to the Ordinary of Newgate brings a sad quartet of Tyburn hangings culled from that fringe of disposable young men “that really pinch and suffer want.”

Thomas Johnson, alias “Handy”

Handy’s nickname tells us something about the progress of his life, for (according to the Ordinary) in his infancy “his Right Arm and Hand had been bruis’d, so that being distorted, they decay’d and were only of the bigness of a Child’s Arm and Hand, neither had he the Use of them, having no strength and scarce any Motion in them.”

Abandoned to be succored by the Stepney parish poor relief around the age of three, Handy was considered able-bodied enough to be dropped from the rolls once he hit adolescence — and maybe the gentlemen of Stepney had a point, for Handy once set to shift for himself “turn[ed] Thief and Housebreaker … [and] made considerable proficiency, and turn’d dexterous in his Profession.” But he had a near-impossible task of finding honest work: city and country were everywhere awash in working poor ready to hire who had two good hands.

Eventually one of Handy’s misadventures caught him a sentence to convict transportation — which was yet another juridical innovation of the Hanoverian age for managing the mother country’s vast underclass. But transportation, a sort of mercantile slavery in the colonies, depended for its part on a market for the human cargo and our man’s crippled arm again militated against him. Handy would lament this again at the very gallows, where he

exclaim’d against one who Transported Felons, saying that after he had caused them to Work for him in these foreign Countries; he brought them Home to England in the same Ship which he had carried them off; and that the Reason of his returning was, because No body would Buy him, and that he must have starv’d there and that when at Home he had no way to get his Bread because he wanted his Right Hand to enable him for Work.

This act — returning from convict transportation — itself constituted a capital crime. And when arrested again, Handy confessed it, almost whimsically. He would tell the Ordinary that he was wearying of life and anticipated additional indictments, but the record of the trial suggests that he sent himself to the gallows to revenge himself on the informers who would have made evidence against him in hopes of pocketing a reward: “the Prosecutors thought to hang him for the sake of the 40 Pounds allowed by the Government, but he would baulk their Expectations, for he would be hanged for returning from Transportation according to Law.”

Samuel Hammond

In comparison to Handy, Samuel Hammond had it made.

Apprenticed to a man named Thomas Barker, Hammond had a path to Defoe’s “working trades” class (“who labour hard, but feel no want”), undone by a youth’s impulsiveness. One day when Barker chastised him — “You Blockhead you’ll break the Drill, why don’t you use the Pliers” — Barker grabbed a sword and stabbed him through the ribcage. Barker’s son arrived to find the apprentice brandishing the weapon over his fallen father, “saying to the Decesed [sic], D – n your B – d you Son of a B – h I’ll kill you; upon which then Deceased said, you have done it already.”

The Ordinary reported that Hammond was tearfully repentant and insisted even before his conviction on joining chapel services for the condemned. The only grievance he could point to against his master besides that “blockhead” burn was that he was sweet on a maid in the house whom Barker had also “corrected … for a Fault” months before. We hear this frightened young man through the Ordinary here, so one can only guess whether our surviving account elides a longer litany of domestic cruelty for the boy or the maid.

“Luckily” Samuel Hammond did not suffer the ignominy of hanging for all that: he fell grievously ill in the pestilential Newgate cells, and “after that Sentence of Death was pronounc’d upon him, he was never able to rise and go to Chappel, but lay in a high Fever, to Thursday, the 7th of September, when about 11 o’Clock at Night he expir’d.”

Henry Chaplin and Peter Boother

These housebreakers each blamed the other as well as several other confederates (one of them still at large, plus two others who had given evidence against them) as the principal authors of the robbery that did them in. Oh, sure, they were there, invading Daniel Lyver’s house — where the gang “in a violent Manner broke the Windows, burst open the Window-Shutters and the Door, took the Goods mentioned in the Indictment, and beat him [Lyver] at the same Time with much Barbarity” — but (each said) he’d been there urging all his accomplices to come away and not steal all the pewter. Each carried that eye-rolling story from trial to gallows.

Chaplin was about 27; his father had tried to teach him his trade of “Ribband-weaving” which suggests (as does his surname) that his family might have been among the Huguenot weavers who escaped France’s religious crackdown decades before. He must have been a restless sort, for instead of sweltering over a loom he joined the army around age 15, perhaps about the right timing to put down the Jacobites, and afterwards basically went adrift in London’s criminal substratum. There he led “a very vicious Life … much addicted to Drinking, Swearing, and Whoring.”

His companion in the Lyver home and at the triple tree was Peter Boother, “about 21 Years of Age, descended of honest but very poor Parents, about 14 Miles from this Town his Father having been a mean Labourer in the Country.” The Ordinary does not give us a clear picture of Boother’s path into the felonious way of life, merely that he was young, penniless, and completely uneducated; combined with Boother’s tearful susceptibility to the Ordinary’s preaching, it suggests an impressionable youth, malleable to the forces around him which happened to be those of vicious want. (Chaplin, the Ordinary noticed, “appear’d to be a Man of more Resolution than his Companion, being more compos’d and settled in his Behaviour.”)

* Defoe had a few thoughts on the death penalty, too.

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1155: Arnold of Brescia

Add comment June 4th, 2014 Headsman

At some point in the first weeks of June 1155 — nobody knows the exact date, but it precedes June 18 — the Roman authorities disposed of Arnold of Brescia.

For a decade the tongue of a fragile new Roman Republic, Arnold was a student of the cutting-edge theologian (and castrated romantic) Peter Abelard. Arnold held the temporal pretensions of the Vatican invalid, a theology sublimely according with the popular revolt that from 1143 overturned Rome’s overweening princes and even slew a pope in a melee on the Capitoline.

The Senate long forsaken was re-founded by this new Republic and an equestrian order re-founded to resume to the rights of a now-growing middle rank. The slain pope’s successor became a refugee tenant of the neighboring cities, orchestrating crusades against Turks, Moors, and Wends — but dying at Tivoli in 1153 still awaiting a prince who would restore his own person to the authority of the Eternal City.

That prince, however, had just begun to stir. The Hohenstaufen king Frederick I had concluded in the months before Pope Eugenius’s death a compact to restore the pontiff, which policy dovetailed nicely with an intent to show the German power against other wayward cites in Italy. It was Frederick’s Italian subjects, and conquests, who gave this man the distinctive name by which history recalls him: Barbarossa, or “red-beard”.

All these years — or at least, from 1145, when he surfaced in the rebellious city from past years’ exile in Zurich — Arnold of Brescia’s “eloquence thundered over the seven hills.” (Gibbon)

Blending in the same discourse the texts of Livy and St. Paul, uniting the motives of Gospel, and of classic, enthusiasm, he admonished the Romans how strangely their patience and the vices of the clergy had degenerated from the primitive times of the church and the city. He exhorted them to assert the inalienable rights of men and Christians; to restore the laws and magistrates of the republic; to respect the name of the emperor: but to confine their shepherd to the spiritual government of his flock. Nor could his spiritual government escape the censure and control of the reformer; and the inferior clergy were taught by his lessons to resist the cardinals, who had usurped a despotic command over the twenty-eight regions or parishes of Rome.

The absentee pope excommunicated Arnold in 1148. It was to no effect until Barbarossa’s legions neared the city.

As King Frederick approached, Pope Adrian IV* applied a deft turn of the screw by laying Rome itself under an interdict, depriving his quarrelsome flock of both spiritual balm and pilgrim revenue and at long last forcing the heresiarch’s ejection.

Arnold was seized in Tuscany and delivered to the Roman curia for punishment; the record of when or where this occurred is lost, but it is specified in the particular that his corpse was reduced to ashes that were scattered to the Tiber — proof against the prospect of a plebeian graveside shrine.

On June 18 even as his soldiers tamed Rome’s resisting republicans, Barbarossa accepted the crown of the Holy Roman Empire from the hands of Pope Adrian in St. Peter’s Basilica.**

Though Arnold had vanished into the Tiber’s silt, the thirst of his former flock for spiritual succor beyond that which the worldly Vicar of Christ could offer did not die so easily. Succeeding movements — indeed, perhaps, one continuous movement — took up Arnold’s objection to the clergy’s worldly emoluments and his summons to plain virtue. There are the Arnoldists to start with, but a bare few years after Arnold’s death emerge Peter Waldo of the heretical Waldensians, as well as the Cathars in southern France; a generation on finds St. Francis of Assisi, giving way to 13th and 14th centuries thick with oft-suppressed popular reform currents — the Beguines, the Apostolic Brethren, even the Fraticelli who criticized other followers of the aforementioned St. Francis for having already abandoned the poverty of his order.

Later Protestants would claim all these, and Arnold too (Arnold reportedly opposed infant baptism), as their forebears, which is why we have the nice Colosseum’s-shadow picture above from Foxe’s Martyrs’ Mirror. Just how literally one should take that lineage might be a matter of debate, but there is little doubt that Arnold of Brescia’s critique maintained its potency into that era and keeps it still in the modern age — one reason that the incinerated firebrand could still make a powerful subject for a risorgimento writer like Giovannini Battista Niccolini 700 years later.

* Born Nicholas Breakspear, Adrian remains to this day the only English pope ever.

** Popes and Holy Roman Emperors were most usually rivals rather than allies in peninsular politics; indeed, the Roman Republic had issued its own summons to Frederick’s predecessor to come to its aid — and rule Rome with its support — to humble the pretensions of the papacy. Arguably, Barbarossa missed a trick by not availing that potential alliance and instead exalting the pontifex maximus in the manner of his coronation: Barbarossa probably thought so himself often enough during his running rivalry over the ensuing generation with Pope Alexander III.

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1864: Samuel Wright, by contrast

Add comment January 12th, 2014 Headsman

Samuel Wright and George Townley both murdered romantic partners late in 1863. Both were tried, convicted, and condemned to hang in very short order and both the subjects of intense pressure for a crown commutation of sentence.

Only one of those men hanged. It was 150 years ago today.

George Townley

Townley lived near Manchester and was courting a young woman named Bessie Goodwin from Derbyshire. Described as a man from a respectable upper middle class family with “refined manners,” and an intelligent linguist* to boot, Townley was nevertheless a rung or two below Miss Goodwin on the wealth and status ladder.

He was, accordingly, frustrated of his designs when the young lady accepted a clergyman’s proposal and broke off her previous engagement to Townley. Despite being disinvited by ex-fiancee, Townley took a train to her village and pressed his company on her. The two went for a walk that evening, and Townley stabbed her in the throat — a fact which he confessed on the scene to the first person who responded to the commotion and found Miss Goodwin staggering towards her home with a fatal gash in her neck.

In the great tradition of weird stalkers everywhere, Townley then helped the Good Samaritan carry the dying woman home, and kissed her tenderly, all the while bemoaning to arriving gawkers his guilt. “She has deceived me, and the woman who deceives me must die,” he responded chillingly to the inquiries of his would-be father-in-law. “I told her I would kill her. She knew my temper.”

This is all a very bad hand to deal a defense barrister.

Having little to work with, his superstar attorney — remember, the family had money — went with an insanity defense, aided by the lunacy diagnosis of prominent psychiatrist Forbes Winslow.** There was some history of insanity in his family, and everyone seemed agreed on the point that Townley didn’t set out with the intent to commit murder, but impulsively — madly? — took that course as he realized during his interview that he would surely not be putting a ring on that.

The legal standard of the time gave no purchase to this sort of thing. Townley’s judge instructed the jury to find insanity only if he “was under delusions … [and] supposed a state of things to exist which did not exist, and whose diseased mind was in such a condition that he acted upon an imaginary existence of things as if those things were real.” This is the M’Naghten rule, a historically pivotal and also highly restrictive insanity definition dating to 1843.

On December 12, 1863 Townley was sentenced to death for the murder, with the hanging scheduled for the approaching New Year’s Day. According to the London Times report the next week (Dec. 18), the sentence “has not made the slightest alteration in his demeanour. He partakes of his meals heartily, sleeps well, and repeatedly asserts that he was perfectly justified in taking away his victim’s life, and that he feels no remorse for the deed.”

Nevertheless, Townley’s well-off family and friends had enough pull to pry open a previously little-known legal escape hatch.

Upon the judge’s own request, the crown empaneled a committee to adjudicate Townley’s sanity for his mercy petition. But a sloppily written law actually allowed any two doctors plus any two magistrates to issue a formal certification of madness which would compel the prisoner’s removal to the asylum. Townley’s own solicitor simply assembled himself a quartet so minded and presented their finding to the Home Secretary, forcing his hand — to a great deal of public outrage once the obscure mechanism became known.

“Good friends and abundant means may give a convicted criminal unexpected advantages over an ordinary offender,” the Times complained in an editorial. (Jan. 27, 1864) Plus ça change.

Samuel Wright

Samuel Wright was not a man of means or linguistic gifts, but a bricklayer who lived in a Waterloo Road public house in Surrey, on London’s southern outskirts.

On December 13, 1863, he slashed the throat of his live-in lover Maria Green after they’d both been on a drinking bout. On December 16, mere three days later, Wright voluntarily pleaded guilty and received a death sentence.

A hue and cry for Wright’s sentence to be abated soon arose among London’s working classes, especially in the wake of Townley’s commutation. Wright had a good reputation, while Green was known for her violent temper. Wright intimated that she had menaced him with a knife during a quarrel.

Was this not a case like George Townley’s, only more so?

The contrast in the fates between the two murderers did not flatter. The crimes were analogous even to the mode of slaying.† If anything, the rich man’s suggested a more egregious context: Townley’s victim appeared more sympathetic, and Townley had gone out of his way to track her down in order to kill. Why was Townley’s heat of passion “insanity” but Wright’s was motive and deliberation?

The Home Secretary offered his sympathy but not his mercy. After all, Wright himself agreed that he intentionally killed Green. “To commute the sentence on the grounds on which it has been pressed would, in fact, be to lay down a rule of law as to the distinction between murder and manslaughter contrary to that which is well established,” wrote a Home Office spokesman on Jan. 7 in response to three separate petitions submitted on Wright’s behalf. Maybe they thought the same thing about Townley … but that decision was out of their hands.

In one of the period’s characteristic hanging broadsides, the balladeer has Wright lament,

Friends, for me have persevered,
To save me from the gallows high;
Alas! for me there is no mercy,
Every boon they did deny,
While others who was tried for murder,
And doomed to die upon a tree,
Through friends and money has been pardon’d
who deserved to die as well as me.

But, oh! my friends, you must acknowledge
what I say has oft been said before.
Some laws are made to suit two classes,
One for the rich, one for the poor;
So it is with me and Townley,
A reprieve they quickly granted he,
He was rich, and I was poor, —
And I must face the fatal tree.

The mood of the populace for the hanging at Horsemonger Lane Gaol this date in 1864‡ was decidedly ugly. On the night of the 11th, when it became clear that the many last-ditch bids for commutation — directed not only at the Home Secretary but even to Queen Victoria and even to the Prince of Wales appealing for a boon on the occasion of his first son‘s January 8 birth§ — a handbill circulated in the prison’s neighborhood entreating its denizens to protest the execution by shuttering all windows. “Let Calcraft and Co. do their work this time with none but the eye of Heaven to look upon their crime.”

Indeed this summons was widely obeyed.

A small crowd only turned out for the occasion, and shouted their disgust for the proceedings: “Shame!” and “Judicial murder!” and “Where’s Townley?” Even many months later, at the controversial August 10 hanging of Richard Thomas Parker, the crowd chanted Townley’s name, now the emblem of the unequal justice of the law.

One diarist’s entry for the day recalled that “[t]he blinds were down in all the neighbouring streets and the military were called out in case of an attempted rescue. When the unfortunate man appeared on the scaffold, loud cries of ‘Take him, take him down’ were heard in every direction, to which the unhappy man responded by repeated bows to the multitude, he still continued bowing and was actually bowing when the drop fell.”

Postscript

The language of the law that permitted Townley his backdoor commutation was revised by Parliament within weeks.

As to Townley himself, another panel appointed by the Home Office found him fully cogent, which meant that officially, he had become insane after his death sentence and the insanity abated thereafter. While this finding theoretically reinstated the death penalty, actually hanging him after these circumstances was thought to be inhumane, and he was reprieved. One supposes there must have been some thought for the potential disturbance Townley’s hanging would have occasioned.

On February 12, 1865 — a year and change after escaping the noose that claimed Samuel Wright — George Townley hurled himself headlong off a high staircase onto a stone floor in Pentonville Prison, where he had been transferred as an ordinary inmate. He died on the spot.

* Of course, he could never hope to match the linguistic’s fields most famous English murderer.

** You might recognize this distinctive name from our Winslow’s son, L. Forbes Winslow, a figure in the Jack the Ripper investigation.

† An additional unflatterering comparison point to Derbyshire contemporaries: a proletarian named Richard Thorley had been hanged in Derby in 1862 for a very similar crime: he slashed his girlfriend’s throat when she tried to break up with him.

‡ Among the very last public hangings at Horsemonger Lane Gaol. All UK hangings were conducted behind prison walls by 1868.

§ This infant, Prince Albert Victor, is the royal eventually identified with Jack the Ripper by a particularly inventive hypothesis.

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1940: Lluis Companys, Catalan president

3 comments October 15th, 2013 Headsman

“Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.

-George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

On this date in 1940, Catalan president Lluis Companys was shot by the Spanish fascists.

Companys had held that notional office for mere hours six years before — but he’s still the last to hold it in any form at all.

Political exile was no unfamiliar terrain for Companys. As a young lawyer, his activism in the first two decades of the century had seen him incarcerated over a dozen times; in fact, his path to political respectability had entailed getting out of a Menorca prison in 1920 courtesy of the parliamentary immunity conferred by winning an election.

And he’d drawn a long sentence for an attempted 1934 rising against a center-right government — the occasion when he had become the President of the Catalan Republic on October 6, and been dispossessed of both office and state by the very next day.

That prison sentence’s reversal by the new republican government in 1936 was a bit of Pyrrhic victory for Companys’s left-wing politics — inasmuch as said republicans’ ascent was also the trigger for the nationalist revolt that resulted in the Spanish Civil War and a military dictatorship lasting until the 1970s.

As the virtual personification of Catalan national aspirations, Companys remained head of the Generalitat de Catalunya from 1933 until his death — in prison, in exile, wherever Companys went he bore along the Catalan cause.

As such, he was in the thick of the civil war’s scrap for control of Barcelona: not only against the fascists but among the left parties whose fractious alliance tore apart in 1937.

It was truly a case of riding the tiger. Companys struggled to maintain the cooperation of his alliance even while the republicans’ Soviet sponsors excommunicated anarchist and anti-Stalinist elements internally. The dreadful spectacle of internecine street fighting among the anti-fascists in May 1937 fills the final tragic pages of Orwell’s Homage, decided by the inescapable materialist circumstances: “the Government could not afford to offend the Communist Party while the Russians were supplying arms.”

Few sources direct much personal blame at Companys for what followed. Under Soviet pressure, he accepted the Communist police raids that had set off the street fighting, accepted the purges and the press censorsip, sacked anti-Stalinist minister Andres Nin from the government. (Nin was later “disappeared” and murdered.)

Who knows but that even these evil days were not still the best that could be made of a bad circumstance: whatever they were, they were not enough for republican Spain or for Catalonia.

When those dreams fell under the fascist advance little more than a year later, Companys couldn’t flee Franco far enough for safety. Soon after his 1939 escape to France, that country was overrun by militaristic rightists from the other direction — and the German occupiers happily handed Companys back to Spain as soon as they got their hands on him.

Condemned after the formality of a perfunctory trial for “military rebellion” conducted on October 14, 1940, Companys was shot the very next morning Montjuic Castle. (See Franco: A Biography)

Spain, where questions of Catalan sovereignty and the Franco years are both sensitive subjects, has never reversed the judgment (Spanish link) against Companys. However, a Barcelona promenade is named in Companys’s honor, as is a major stadium — actually the arena where the anti-fascist 1936 People’s Olympiad in opposition to the notorious master race spectacle of Berlin was to have taken place, before that whole Civil War unpleasantness.

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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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1769: Two weavers, for the Spitalfield riots

4 comments December 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1769, two weavers hanged in East London in a bitter fight over wages and labor power.

Spitalfields, the East London district also known as the stomping-ground of legendary jailbreaker Jack Sheppard, was the capital of a thriving English silk-weaving industry. It had attained 18th century prosperity thanks in large measure to the decision of William and Mary to invite Lyons Huguenots being hard-pressed by the French crown to relocate their talents across the channel. This now-domestic industry* quickly began supplanting formerly dominant French imports.

In 1713 it was stated that silks, gold and silver stuffs and ribbon made here were as good as those from France, and that £300,000 worth of black silk for hoods and scarves was made annually. In 1721 the value of the silk manufactured in England amounted to £700,000 more than in 1688, when wrought silks were imported from France to the annual value of half a million sterling. (Source)

In this roaring and prestigious business, William Hogarth situated his 1747 Industry & Idleness plates: both the Industrious Prentice (eventually destined to become Lord Mayor of London) and the Idle Prentice (eventually executed at Tyburn) start off shoulder to shoulder at the Spitalfields looms.

But as the 18th century unfolded, even the most industrious Spitalfield weavers came under increasing competitive pressure especially from Chinese and Indian imports.

Although Parliament attempted to ban textile imports to preserve the domestic industries, Spitalfield workers were known to enforce their prerogatives directly by attacking people in the street thought to be wearing foreign prints. This simmering tension came to a rapid boil after settlement of the Seven Years’ War enabled England and France to resume trading — and a glut of French textiles to undermine weavers’ price controls.

Conflicts were no less fierce within the weavers’ community, between masters and laborers. Workers combined to maintain wages by attacking those thought to be undercutting prices.

In September 1769, one such action punished a wealthy anti-“combination” (for “combination”, read “labor union”) manufacturer named Lewis Chauvet, and cut the silk handkerchiefs right out of his looms.


From Season 3, Episode 2 of the BBC drama Garrow’s Law, which is directly based on this case. As of this writing, the entire episode can be found on YouTube.

Cutting silk from the loom was a rough method of enforcement by the labor combination. It had also been made a capital crime a few years before. And it turned out that Chauvet was ready to make his the test case.

Richly paying off a couple of independent artisan weavers for their questionable testimony, he secured the conviction of John Valloine or Valline (other alternate spellings are possible; the name clearly denotes the district’s Huguenot heritage) and John Doyle, two weavers allegedly part of the loom-smashing action. The accused denied it, Doyle reported to have fulminated at the gallows, “I am as innocent of the fact I am now to die for as the child unborn. Let my blood lie to that wicked man who has purchased it with gold, and them notorious wretches who swore it falsely away.”**

Manufacturers’ purposes were served just as well whether innocent or guilty. The point was labor discipline, not a few lost hankies.

Accordingly fixing “to strike Terror into the Rioters”, the crown ordered the execution to occur not at the Tyburn gallows, but right in the weavers’ backyard, adjacent Spitalfields at Bethnal Green.

This order actually delayed the sentence for the judiciary’s consideration of the minor point of whether this was allowed at all — since the actual boilerplate sentence read from the bench had specified “the usual place.” The wisest magistrates of the land considered the matter and in time agreed that “the time and place of execution was no part of the sentence” and therefore subject to His Majesty’s discretion. Bethnal Green it was.

They were therefore this morning taken in a cart from Newgate through the City to Whitechapel, and thence up the road to Bethnal Green, attended by the Sheriffs &c, with the gallows, made for the purpose, in another cart; it was fixed in the cross road, near the Salmon and Ball.


The Salmon and Ball pub, where the execution happened, today. (cc) image by Ewan Munro.

There was an inconceivable number of people assembled, and many bricks, tiles, stones &c thrown while the gallows was fixing, and a great apprehension of a general tumult, notwithstanding the persuasion and endeavours of several gentlemen to appease the same. The unhappy sufferers were therefore obliged to be turned off before the usual time allowed on such occasions, which was about 11 o’clock; when, after hanging about fifty minutes they were cut down and delivered to their friends. (cited here)

Vengeful weavers having their noses rubbed in their comrades’ executions smashed up Chauvet’s house in the riots on this date, and the powers that be decided that one hanging-day at Bethnal Green was plenty. A few other rioters convicted as confederates of Doyle and Valline were put to death at Tybun later in December 1769.

Years of violent labor conflict were finally quelled with the 1773 Spitalfield Weavers Act, a political compromise which protected the domestic industry from foreign competition and enabled magistrates to set wages.

Though this act stabilized a tense domestic situation, its effect over several decades was seriously problematic: a protected monopoly with wage-controlled workers maintained an increasingly obsolete system of labor-intensive manufacture that fell behind power looms coming online elsewhere.

As late as 1851 — mechanization wouldn’t fully take over until Britain’s trade liberalization of the 1860s — Charles Dickens visited Spitalfields, and saw a weaver

doing now, exactly what his grandfather did. Nothing would induce him to use a simple improvement (the ‘fly shuttle’) to prevent the contraction of the chest of which he complains. Nothing would turn him aside from his old ways. It is the old custom to work at home, in a crowded room, instead of in a factory.

Disallowed from taking lower wages even in bad times (or when cheaper cotton started displacing silk), many weavers sat completely unemployed instead — gradually sinking into a proletarianization they had fought to avoid. Spitalfield weavers eventually became one of the classic case studies in the laissez faire economics canon.

* Just to be clear, Huguenots weren’t the first silk weavers in Spitalfields; it’s just that their arrival let the industry take off.

** The hanged man’s comrades made good his gallows menace. Peter Linebaugh, whose The London Hanged is an outstanding resource on the economic pressures that brought these weavers and many others to the gallows, relates:

At noon upon a cold and snowy day, 16 April 1771, [Chauvet’s paid witness against the weavers] Daniel Clarke … went walking in Spitalfields. It had been sixteen months since the hangings of the cutters whom Clarke had sworn against, and he must have thought the people cowed or forgetful. He was recognized. ‘There goes Clarke, that blood-selling rascal,’ was the shout, and instantly a small crowd gathered to badger and pester him. He took to his heels and found temporary refuge in the house of Mary Snee. The currents of popular memory run deep; now they flooded to the surface. A hundred people beset the house hurling maledictions. ‘They would hang him, or burn him, or stone him,’ said Mary Snee. He was cornered, stripped and dragged by his feet into the street, where he was led by the neck on a parade of humiliation. The crowds grew. Widow Horsford [wife of one of the weavers hanged later in December 1769 at Tyburn] was seen to ‘jump out of the loom’ at the news Clarke was cursed and dragged to the brick-fields. Children pelted him with dirt. Bespattered with muck, he was thrown into a pond where he was ducked within a breath of drowning. He was removed to a sandheap, buried, dug up and returned to the freezing water. It was estimated that the crowd numbered 3,000. While he could speak, he taunted his tormentors, saying ‘he would take twenty of them’. Widow Horsford said, ‘Clarke, Clarke, I am left a widow, my children is fatherless on account of you.’ Clarke answered, ‘Chauvet is worse than me,’ and then he expired. A grim ending that would be remembered for generations.

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1724: Jack Sheppard, celebrity escape artist

9 comments November 16th, 2011 Headsman

“Yes sir, I am The Sheppard, and all the gaolers in the town are my flocks, and I cannot stir into the country but they are at my heels baaing after me.”

Jack Sheppard

On this date in 1724, the hangman finally got Jack Sheppard.

Sheppard was a thief, a romantic hero, a highwayman of the urban proletariat, a Houdini whom no prison could hold.

It had become possible in his time to ride criminal notoriety into celebrity: Jack Sheppard, a mere 22 at his death, proved as adept with that quicksilver element during his personal annus mirabilis of 1724 as he was with a lockpick.

Sheppard’s world had him fitted to wield a hammer better than thieves’ tools — but at about age 20, a young man awash in the illicit liberty of London’s underbelly, he ditched the square carpenter to whom he was apprenticed to live free by his wits.

Peter Linebaug’s The London Hanged finds in Jack Sheppard’s career and his runaway popularity an important marker of the capital city’s “refusal of subordination: — contra Foucaultian discipline, which “makes the rulers of government and society seem all-powerful.”

An important meaning of liberation … [consisted of] the growing propensity, skill and success of London working people in escaping from the newly created institutions that were designed to discipline people by closing them in. This tendency I have dubbed ‘excarceration’ because I wish to draw attention to the activity of freedom in contrast to its ideological or theoretical expressions…

This lithe youth is most famous for his literal talent for freedom: four times in 1724 he escaped from custody in ever more dramatic fashion.

He busted out through the ceiling of St. Giles Roundhouse. He rappelled with a bedsheet rope down the 20-foot wall of Clerkenwell Prison with his lover.

This sort of thing won the enterprising rogue growing folk hero status. The vaunted Sheppard “made such a noise in the town, that it was thought the common people would have gone mad about him, there being not a porter to be had for love nor money, nor getting into an ale-house, for butchers, shoemakers and barbers, all engaged in controversies and wagers about Sheppard.”*

It also drew the unwanted attention of 1720s London’s Jabba the Hutt: “thief-taker” Jonathan Wild, who managed a vast thieving cartel enforced by Wild’s willingness to turn in non-participants in his ingenious cover role as the city’ preeminent lawman. That’s some protection racket.

Sheppard, to the fame of his memory, scorned obeisance to the crime lord as much as to any guild carpenter and worked for no man but himself. A vengeful Wild shopped him to the authorities.

This time, Sheppard was actually condemned to death for burglary but broke prison again, using yet another classic ruse: the “disguised in smuggled women’s clothes.”

Back on the lam, he posted a cocky letter to his executioner “Jack Ketch” giving his regrets at not having joined two fellow-sufferers on the scheduled hanging date. (September 4.)

I thank you for the favour you intended me this day: I am a Gentleman, and allow you to be the same, and I hope can forgive injuries; fond Nature pointed, I follow’d, Oh, propitious minute! and to show that I am in charity, I am now drinking your health, and a Bon Repo to poor Joseph and Anthony. I am gone a few days for the air, but design speedily to embark, and this night I am going upon a mansion for a supply; its a stout fortification, but what difficulties can’t I encounter, when, dear Jack, you find that bars and chains are but trifling obstacles in the way of your Friend and Servant

JOHN SHEPPARD

London’s finest were determined to put an end to this character’s preposterous run of prison breaks, so when they caught him the fourth time Sheppard found himself loaded with manacles and chained to the floor of a special strongroom in Newgate Prison. Get out of that, Jack.

Somehow, Jack got out of it.

On the night of Oct. 14, Sheppard authored the sublimest breakout in Newgate’s voluminous annals. Picking the locks of his fetters with a small nail, our acrobat scurried up a chimney, picked, prised, or otherwise passed a succession of locked doors in the dead of night, paused to rest on the condemned pew of the gaol chapel, forced a grille, reached the roof, and threw another homemade rope over the wall to scamper down to safety.

And then “he promptly went forth and robbed a pawnbroker’s shop in Drury Lane of a sword, a suit of apparel, snuff boxes, rings, &c., and suddenly made a startling appearance among his friends, rigged out as a gentleman from top to toe.”

There’s no doubt but that Jack had showmanship, but at a certain point he could have done with just the tiniest measure of discretion. But then, this was a man writing his own legend. Sure, he could have put his head down and tried to disappear into some nameless Puritan settlement in the New World. (His distraught mother kept telling him to get out of the country.) He traded those dull and toilsome years for the fame of generations: his candle burned at both ends.

When next Sheppard was detained, it was towards his apotheosis. It was the only time he would be arrested and fail to escape.

A throng of thousands mobbed London’s route to execution this date, almost universally supporting the ace escapologist. And Sheppard very nearly had for them the piece de resistance in his career of magical disappearances: it was only at the last moment before boarding the fatal tumbril that Sheppard’s executioners found the penknife their prey had secreted on his person, evidently intending to cut his cords and spring from the cart into the safety of the surging crowd. What an exploit that would have been.


Detail view (click for full image) of George Cruikshank‘s illustration of Sheppard’s death for William Ainsworth‘s Victorian novel about the legendary criminal. More of these illustrations here.

This indomitable soul has enjoyed a long afterlife as a subversive hero.

A celebrity in his own time, his execution-eve portrait was taken by the Hanover court painter himself, James Thornhill. Sheppard is a very likely candidate as an inspiration for the criminal Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera completed just a few years after his death; likewise, his abandoned apprenticeship makes him the most apparent model for Hogarth‘s “idle prentice” plates.

A century later, prolific historical novelist William Ainsworth** claimed the convict-martyr for an 1839 retelling. This popular potboiler — read it free online here — came in for a spate of 19th century social panic when it was learned that a notorious servant-on-master murder had been carried out by a young man who had recently read it. A two-decade ban on public plays based on the Jack Sheppard novel ensued.

For as much as Jack Sheppard is romanticized in his remarkable individual characteristics, his story has always had a class undertow that raises the hackles of the powerful — and is celebrated by the people who menace that power. Linebaugh, again:

Jack Sheppard, housebreaker and gaol-breaker, was once the single most well-known name from eighteenth-century England. His fame spread across oceans and the centuries. When the bandit Ned Kelly was alive, the Australian press was full of comparisons between him and Sheppard. At the same time on the other side of the globe in Missouri, Frank and Jesse James wrote letters to the Kansas City Star signed ‘Jack Sheppard’. In England his name cut deep into the landscape of popular consciousness. Henry Mayhew noted that Cambridgeshire gypsies accepted Sheppard stories as the archetype of ‘blackguard tales’. Among English sailors anyone with the surname of ‘Sheppard’ was automatically called ‘Jack’. Within the Manchester proletariat of the 1840s his name was more widely known than that of the Queen herself. One of these lads said, ‘I was employed in a warehouse at 6s. 6d. a week, and was allowed 6d. of it for myself, and with that I went regularly to the play. I saw Jack Sheppard four times in one week.’

The oral history of Sheppard has maintained his memory within human contexts where books were scarce and working-class resources for an independent historiography were non-existent. Moreover, that memory was kept in contexts of social struggle in which a continuity, if not a development, with earlier moral and political conflicts was suggested.

* cited in Andrea McKenzie, “The Real Macheath: Social Satire, Appropriation, and Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography,” Huntington Library Quarterly, December 2006

** Ainsworth is also known for a novel about Sheppard’s near-contemporary, highwayman Dick Turpin.

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1780: Five for the Gordon Riots

1 comment July 11th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1780 saw three men and two women hanged at various spots around London for the previous month’s Gordon Riots. They were the first five souls among 19 who would suffer the last extremity of the law for that disturbance.

The eponymous Protestant Lord George Gordon, had inflamed a mob against the 1778 Papists Act, which disencumbered British Catholics of some of their legal disabilities. (In part to pad out the redcoat ranks as the army found itself stretched thin by the American Revolution.)

The Gordon Riots started from Lord Gordon’s march on Parliament to serve it an anti-Catholic petition, and turned into five days of anti-Catholic mayhem before the troops were finally called out to quell it. (The want of a standing professional police force was among the deficiencies London encountered.)


This did not help Britain’s diplomatic overtures towards Habsburg Austria.

But the matter metastasized well beyond a merely sectarian event: a mass rally originating in the working-class Moorfields took an unmistakable class dynamic — assailing Newgate Prison and The Clink, liberating convicts in the process. The latter dungeon would never resume operations. “Crimping houses” for impressed sailors and “sponging houses” imprisoning debtors were also liberated.

Alongside white sailors and day laborers, London’s emerging black population would feature prominently in this affair. A “copper coloured person,” a former slave named John Glover, was observed at the front rank of those torching Newgate. Peter Linebaugh attributes to Glover the incendiary (and, as it turned out, credible) threat, “Damn you, Open the Gate or we will Burn you down and have Everybody out.” (Glover was condemned to death, but reprieved for likely-fatal servitude on the African coast.)

Three of the five executed in London on this date were hanged at Tower Hill, including both women, Mary Roberts and Charlotte Gardiner. Gardiner, like Glover, was an African; she and Roberts had helped sack the house of an Italian Catholic innkeeper.

Although nineteen folks put to death within a month and a half hardly constitutes giving the rioters a pass, it’s somewhat striking in view of the unabashedly anti-authority conflagration in hemp-happy 18th-century England that the death toll wasn’t greater. And it could have been: in a treatment in the December 1997 History Today, Marika Sherwood reports that fully 326 people were tried for some role in the Gordon Riots. But elites’ sense of the situation may well be captured by Edmund Burke’s remark,

If I understand the temper of the publick at this moment a very great part of the lower, and some of the middling people of this city, are in a very critical disposition, and such as ought to be managed with firmness and delicacy.

Less than two score were actually condemned to death for all this mess, and barely half of them were actually executed.


The 19th century writer Charles Dickens set his very first historical novel,* Barnaby Rudge, during the riots, and has his fictitious lead characters among the crops doomed to the scaffold.

(As we have seen several times, Dickens abhorred public executions, a circumstance also apparent in this passage.)

Barnaby would have mounted the steps at the same time — indeed he would have gone before them, but in both attempts he was restrained, as he was to undergo the sentence elsewhere. In a few minutes the sheriffs reappeared, the same procession was again formed, and they passed through various rooms and passages to another door — that at which the cart was waiting. He held down his head to avoid seeing what he knew his eyes must otherwise encounter, and took his seat sorrowfully, — and yet with something of a childish pride and pleasure, — in the vehicle. The officers fell into their places at the sides, in front and in the rear; the sheriffs’ carriages rolled on; a guard of soldiers surrounded the whole; and they moved slowly forward through the throng and pressure toward Lord Mansfield‘s** ruined house.

It was a sad sight — all the show, and strength, and glitter, assembled round one helpless creature — and sadder yet to note, as he rode along, how his wandering thoughts found strange encouragement in the crowded windows and the concourse in the streets; and how, even then, he felt the influence of the bright sky, and looked up, smiling, into its deep unfathomable blue. But there had been many such sights since the riots were over — some so moving in their nature, and so repulsive too, that they were far more calculated to awaken pity for the sufferers, than respect for that law whose strong arm seemed in more than one case to be as wantonly stretched forth now that all was safe, as it had been basely paralysed in time of danger.

Two cripples — both mere boys — one with a leg of wood, one who dragged his twisted limbs along by the help of a crutch, were hanged in this same Bloomsbury Square. As the cart was about to glide from under them, it was observed that they stood with their faces from, not to, the house they had assisted to despoil; and their misery was protracted that this omission might be remedied. Another boy was hanged in Bow Street; other young lads in various quarters of the town. Four wretched women,† too, were put to death. In a word, those who suffered as rioters were, for the most part, the weakest, meanest, and most miserable among them. It was a most exquisite satire upon the false religious cry which had led to so much misery, that some of these people owned themselves to be Catholics, and begged to be attended by their own priests.

One young man was hanged in Bishopsgate Street, whose aged grey-headed father waited for him at the gallows, kissed him at its foot when he arrived, and sat there, on the ground, till they took him down. They would have given him the body of his child; but he had no hearse, no coffin, nothing to remove it in, being too poor — and walked meekly away beside the cart that took it back to prison, trying, as he went, to touch its lifeless hand.


Gordon himself, an odd duck, had better resources than these poor saps, and repelled a treason prosecution.

However, fate still ordained him a death in Newgate Prison — by illness many years later, after being convicted of defaming Marie Antoinette. By that time, the former Anglican rabble-rouser had converted to Orthodox Judaism, circumcision and all.

* The first of just two historical novels for Dickens; the second, of course, was A Tale of Two Cities.

** We’ve met Lord Mansfield before, articulating the jurisprudence of a slave society. His home was also targeted by Moorsfield rioters.

† Dickens is wrong about “four wretched women” being hanged: Gardiner and Roberts, our day’s pair, were the only two. Evidently, though, these two were arresting enough in the public conscience to forge “memories” of entire cartloads of ladies gone to Tyburn. (n.b.: none of the Gordon Rioters were hanged at Tyburn, either.)

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!