SALEM, N.J., Dec. 2. — The hanging of Howard Sullivan, the negro, which took place at the county jail this morning, was the closing act of a tragedy that has never been equaled in Salem and rarely in any other county in the State of New-Jersey. Ella Watson, on the night of Aug. 18, while proceeding to her home over a lonely road near Yorktown, a thrifty little village, nine miles north of this place, was waylaid, robbed, ravished, and murdered, and her body concealed in some bushes near by, where it was discovered a few days later.
For a time the murder was enveloped in mystery, but the vigilance of two or three detectives, among them a colored man, who exhibited remarkable skill in working up the case, soon unraveled it, and Sullivan was charged with the murder.
He had not been long in jail before a confession was wormed from him,* and when placed on trial before a Supreme Court and three lay Judges, in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to be hanged. Sullivan stood the prison life bravely, and not once did he display the slightest emotion.
Sullivan did not go to bed until after midnight last night. A great part of the time he spent in singing and praying, and when not engaged in this he was conversing with his death-watchers.
Confined in a cell on the third floor, the one he formerly occupied, and from which he attempted to escape, is a colored woman named Sallie Fisher, convicted of the larceny of a watch chain, and sentenced to imprisonment in the county jail for 90 days. Nearly all last night she prayed and wept aloud for Sullivan. Her voice could be heard for a long distance from the jail, and her cries were piteous in the extreme. Sullivan’s mother called to see him and remained with him for some time. The scene between them was an affecting one.
The morning opened clear and pleasant, and Sullivan arose at exactly 7:05 A.M., when he was awakened by the Warden. He left his breakfast untouched, saying he would eat “after a while.” When asked if he wished to make any statement for the public, he said: “There is nothing more that I care to say about the case. I have got no complaint at all to make about my trial or my treatment. I have had all I want to eat and Sheriff Kelty and ex-Sheriff Coles have been very kind to me. I hope to go to a better world, and I believe my sins will be forgiven.”
Sullivan added that he had slept quite as well as usual during the night. After making this statement he ate the breakfast that had been prepared for him. His manner was calm, and when talking to his companions he was almost cheerful.
At 9 o’clock the gallows was tested and found to be in good working order. A few minutes later the condemned man’s fater and mother called to see him, and while they were with him in the cell all others, except his spiritual adviser, were excluded. The father is a bright, honest looking man, 65 years of age, though his appearance does not indicate it.
The meeting between Sullivan and his father and mother, together with the Rev. Richard Miles, Pastor of the Mount Pisgah Methodist Episcopal (colored) Church, of this city, one of his spiritual advisers, was a quiet one. They all sat around a stove in an outer room and chatted pleasantly for a few minutes. Sullivan said to his parents: “If you cry I will want to cry, but if you control yourselves I will.” This was all he said regarding his feelings.
While his family were still with him the Rev. William S. Zane, Pastor of the Walnut-Street Church, and the Rev. W.V. Louderbough, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, called on him and uttered a few consoling words. They have been regular visitors for some time, but took no part in the execution. The Rev. Wilson Peterson, Pastor of the African Church of Bushtown, also called while Sullivan’s parents were with him, and before taking their final leave all joined in singing “Take the Name of Jesus with you.”
Finally, the prisoner’s sisters entered the jail, and his parting with them was distressing.
His sister Emeline fell in a fainting fit and had to be carried out. This sight proved too much for his mother’s nerves, and, weeping and wailing, she was led into another room. When Emeline was taken to the street, on her way to the railroad station, she again fell in a fainting fit, and was actually dragged to the train. Mrs. Sullivan kept up long enough to reach the house of a friend, where she remained until her departure for Yorktown at noon.
After Sullivan’s cell was cleared of all except his spiritual adviser a final prayer in the jail was offered by the Rev. Mr. Peterson, after which, at 10:20 A.M., Sheriff Kelty, in the presence of Prosecutor Slape, read the death warrant. Sullivan was the coolest man in the party.
At 11:18 the jury appointed by the court filed down stairs to the basement and thence to the yard.
Sullivan, preceded by the two spiritual advisers, and accompanied by his friend, ex-Sheriff Coles, followed immediately after. He was dressed in a neat-fitting black diagonal suit, and wore black cloth gloves.
At the scaffold the Rev. Mr. Miles offered a prayer. Then the prisoner’s ankles were pinioned and his hands were fastened behind him with handcuffs
Ex-Sheriff Coles asked him if he desired to say anything, and he replied: “I hope the Lord will bless you all, and I hope to meet you all in heaven. Good-bye. When I fall from here I will fall into the arms of Jesus. It is a warning for all. It is very sad for my mother, my father, for Mr. Kelty, and for every one, but it is not sad for me. It is a marriage ceremony with me, and I want to be there in time for the feast with all those good men that have gone before me. I want all you gentlemen who have sons to take heed and learn them. Good-bye all.”
As the black cap was being adjusted Sullivan bade his friend Coles good-bye. There was just the slightest tremor in his voice as he spoke.
At exactly 11:29 the drop fell. There was a twitching of the body for a minute, and then it hung withut motion. In three minutes Sullivan was pronounced dead; his neck had been broken. The body was allowed to hang for half an hour, when it was cut down and placed in the coffin. It was buried at Bushtown in the afternoon.
* By a Pinkerton detective infiltrated into his cell for the purpose. According to the Chicago Tribune report of the trial, relating that detective’s gloss on Sullivan’s alleged jailhouse confession,
Sullivan said he sneaked up behind Ella Watson unperceived and struck her three or four terrible blows with a cane had had picked up in the woods. She fell to the ground, and, grasping the prostrate form, he dragged it across the road into the bushes, where he attempted to commit a dastardly assault upon the dying girl. She resisted his attempts, but he accomplished his design. Then the girl raised her head and exclaimed, “O, I know you!” “Then,” said Sullivan, “I clutched her by the throat and choked her with all my might. That killed her. I didn’t stop choking her until a shudder ran through her and I knew she was dead.”
On this date in 1302, Norwegian nobleman Audun Hugleiksson was hanged at Nordnes in Bergen.
Hugleiksson (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Norwegian) was one of the great lords of the realm in the late 13th century; as he had studied law in Paris and Bologna, he became a key figure in the monumental legal reform that gives Magnus the Lawmender his nickname.
Our man enjoyed a somewhat less exalted nickname than his patron: “Hestakorn”, which refers to either oats fed to horses or a special tax being levied in the period. Either variant suggests an intriguing backstory which is unfortunately lost to posterity. (Sources for this period tend regrettably sketchy, as we shall see.)
At any rate, horse-oats was at the Lawmender’s elbow as Norwegian and Icelandic laws were collected, organized, and rewritten from 1269 to 1281 — “the wisest legal mind in the land,” by contemporaries’ reckoning. He’s thought to have brought continental European legal traditions heavily to bear on the new codes.
Magnus died in 1280, leaving power to a 12-year-old son, Erik … but Hugleiksson continued as a leading man of the guardians’ council and, once Erik attained his majority, a close advisor to son as to father. He was trusted as an envoy to England to hammer out the arrangements for the ill-starred dynastic marriage of the princess Margaret.
As a monument to his prestige, Hestakorn threw up a stone castle, Hegrenes — a very rare indulgence for even the greatest lords.
But when King Erik died in 1299, Hugleiksson fell dramatically foul of his successor, Haakon V. Before the year was out, the onetime magnate had been clapped in prison; on December 2, 1302, he was put to death not with a blade, the traditional deference to his rank, but with hemp — as if he were a common thief. The date of the execution comes from the Icelandic Annals; likewise the dishonorable method.
Clearly the regime change made his fall possible. But what operatic catastrophe of high statecraft and low morals brought him to such destruction? Was he found to go in for political perfidy, peculation, pederasty, or poison? Was he rolled up by a witch-sniffer, or emulate Macbeth in his Glamis? Did his other portfolio as the taxman rub someone the wrong way? Reader, your imagination must suffice — for those inconstant sources ever so keen on where and how are not so hot on why.
On this date in 1917, 24-year-old black farmhand Lation (or Ligon) Scott died a horrible death in Dyersburg, Tennessee.
For the two years prior to his extrajudicial “execution” by a lynch mob, Scott had worked as a farmhand for a white family, doing the farm chores while the husband worked at his job in Dyersburg.
He got on well with the family and was fond of the two children. He seemed like an ordinary enough man and a good worker, according to the NAACP journal The Crisis:
Accounts as to his intelligence vary widely. One report asserts that he was almost half-witted. Others attribute to him the intelligence of the average country Negro… He had the reputation of being a splendid hand at doing general housework, or “spring-cleaning,” and…had done this sort of work for a prominent woman of Dyersburg. She states that she was alone in the house with him for two days.
No trouble resulted.
In addition to farming and the doing of odd jobs, he was a preacher. On November 22, 1917, however, he allegedly raped the farmer’s wife while her husband was at work. He threatened to kill her if she reported what he had done. He then fled, leaving his victim bound and gagged inside the farmhouse.
The woman was able to free herself and identify her attacker, and the community took swift action, searching extensively for Scott and offering a $200 reward for his apprehension. Scott was able to elude capture for ten days, though, making his way fifty miles to Madison County. There, a railroad worker recognized him and he was arrested.
The sheriff’s deputy for Dyer County, along with some other men (including, presciently, an undertaker), picked up the accused man and started off back to Dyersburg by car in the wee hours of the morning. They didn’t bother taking an indirect route for the purpose of their journey.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people gathered along the road and waited for their quarry.
And when he appeared, they forced the car off the road and made the officers turn over their prisoner.
These people were not typical of the average lynch mob: rather than stringing him up on the spot, they drew up a list of twelve “jurors” and, at noon, after church let out, drove Scott to the county courthouse for a “trial.”
Scott was ordered to stand up and asked, “Are you guilty or not guilty?”
Scott admitted he was guilty, and the “jury” voted for conviction.
Although one “prominent citizen” asked the people not to be barbaric, because it was Sunday and because “the reputation of the county was at stake,” both the rape victim and her husband wanted Scott to be burned alive rather than merely hanged.
The Crisis‘s description of what happened is not for the faint-hearted.
The Negro was seated on the ground and a buggy-axle driven into the ground between his legs. His feet were chained together, with logging chains, and he was tied with wire. A fire was built. Pokers and flat-irons were procured and heated in the fire… Reports of the torturing, which have been generally accepted and have not been contradicted, are that the Negro’s clothes and skin were ripped from his body simultaneously with a knife. His self-appointed executioners burned his eye-balls with red-hot irons. When he opened his mouth to cry for mercy a red-hot poker was rammed down his gullet. In the same subtle way he was robbed of his sexual organs. Red-hot irons were placed on his feet, back and body, until a hideous stench of burning flesh filled the Sabbath air of Dyersburg, Tenn.
Thousands of people witnessed this scene. They had to be pushed back from the stake to which the Negro was chained. Roof-tops, second-story windows, and porch-tops were filled with spectators. Children were lifted to shoulders, that they might behold the agony of the victim.
It took three and a half hours for the man to die.
This spectacle of horror took place in broad daylight, and no one in the mob wore masks.
Nevertheless, no one was ever prosecuted.
According to The Crisis,
Public opinion in Dyersburg and Dyer County seems to be divided into two groups. One group considers that the Negro got what he deserved. The other group feels that he should have had a “decent lynching.”
A “decent lynching” was defined as “a quick, quiet hanging, with no display or torturing.”
One local citizen remarked that he thought the people who tortured and killed Lation Scott were no better than the rapist himself. Another simply commented, “It was the biggest thing since the Ringling Brothers’ Circus came to town.”
Lation Scott’s was the last lynching in Dyer County history.
Wire report in the Salt Lake Telegram, Dec. 3, 1917.
On this day in 1721, Jean-Pierre Balagny, alias Capuchin, was broken on the wheel in Paris. He was one of the lieutenants and boon companions of legendary French outlaws Cartouche.
We have noted that that renowned bandit crowned his fame at the last by enduring all tortures, only to voluntarily give up the names of his companions as he approached the scaffold and perceived that they had failed to arrange a rescue.
“Capuchin”, who was with Cartouche when he was captured and subject to much the same interrogation, proved as good as his captain. He, too, endured the boot without breaking. And he, with two companions, likewise reached the scaffold and only there coughed it up.
They gave information as to their accomplices, and made, at the foot of the scaffold, confessions which torture had failed to elicit from them.
They implicated so many persons, that another series of trials began, which lasted as long as the declarations of convicted prisoners compromised other persons, and threw new light on the immense ramifications of an association of miscreants which had for many years defied the police. More than sixty persons were under lock and key at the time of the execution of Cartouche and Balagny. This number increased every day in consequence of the confession of those who hoped to save their lives by denouncing their accomplices, and in June of the following year it rose to one hundred and fifty … all this blood, instead of washing the affair away, seemed rather to make it more serious. Every day brought to light some new discovery; and this shows how profoundly mistaken were those who denied that Cartouche, the centre and wire-puller of this horrible association, possessed the organising spirit without which he could not have extended this immense net over the Parisian society.
One is left to infer from this entry in the memoirs of the Parisian hereditary executioner-family Sanson that Balagny likewise did in his friends over some ornate notion of honor … although if the anecdote is true, one could as easily suppose any number of less “creditable” reasons.
At any rate, Balagny’s evidence added to that of Cartouche’s snowballed into a bloody cycle of tortures and executions and fresh denunciations over the year to come.
Of course, getting rid of all the criminals did not get rid of crime.
“In spite of the executions at La Greve, there are more thieves than ever in Paris,” lamented one observer (quoted here). “Cartouche has died on the wheel; but his name and memory engender robbers.”
These executions came in the aftermath of the Battle of Preston, with the Jacobite cause in full collapse. It was an affecting scene, the first of many among the Preston captives.
After [Major John Nairn] was shot, Captain Lockhart would not suffer any of the common soldiers to touch his friend’s body, but, with his own hands and the help of the other two gentlemen [about to be executed], laid Major Nairn in his coffin, and, with the greatest composure of mind, performed the last offices to his dear companion: After which, he was shot, and the other two performed the like to his body.
Then the others [John Shaftoe and John Erskine] were shot, and laid together, without a coffin, in a pit digged for that purpose. Which tragical scene being thus finished, Mr. Nairn and Mr. Lockhart were decently buried. (Source)
The “Captain Lockhart” named here was Philip Lockhart, brother to anti-unionist politician George Lockhart.* George Lockhart, years before, somehow ended up on the committee whose job it was to hammer out the terms on which that union would take place.
As a result, Lockhart’s memoirs record an inside look at the tawdry payoffs that roped Scottish elites into the union arrangement — beginning first of all with “the Equivalent”, a massive British inducement to Scottish lords who had lately gone comprehensively bust gambling on the dot-com scam of New World colonization, the Darien scheme.
the Equivalent was the mighty Bait; here was the Sum of 398,085 Pound Sterling to be remitted in Cash to Scotland (tho’ the Scots were to pay it and much more back again in a few Years, by engaging to bear a Share of the Burthens impos’d on England, and appropriated for Paymnt of England’s Debts.) … here was a swinging Bribe to buy off the Scots Members of Parliament from their Duty to their Country, as it accordingly prov’d: For to it we may chiefly ascribe, that so many of them agreed to this Union. The Hopes of recovering what they had expended on the African Company, and obtaining Payment of Debts and Arrears due to them by the Scots Government (it being articled in the Treaty, that it should be expended this Way) prevail’d upon many to overlook the general Interest of their Country.
This, however, was not the reason that Philip et al were first in line for punishment after Preston. Instead, they were in trouble because they were British officers who had deserted.
At least, that was the crown’s position. As a legal matter, it wasn’t quite that simple: the “deserters” weren’t on active duty, but rather, were half-pay officers.
This ambiguous category had been introduced as a sort of reserve system to keep idled officers available to the army, but developed into a general dumping-ground of incompetents, invalids, and retirees (half-pay could be used as an ad hoc pension) in an army still only semi-professionalized. Moreover, according to Margaret Sankey, the system
was thoroughly corrupt by 1715. Much of the half-pay list was made up of men who were unfit to be called back into active service, while many of the commissions had been sold to brokers for an immediate cash settlement … [some officers] saw half-pay as a well-deserved personal gift from Queen Anne for … service under Marlborough, and one that carried no obligations to the current monarch whatsoever ‘as no more than a gratuity and a reward for the hazards they had run and the fidelity they had shewn their late mistress.’
It was also a period of dynastic turnover: six different monarchs representing three different houses had ruled England/Great Britain in the preceding 30 years, each man or woman coming to the throne under contestable circumstances. Various gentlemen-officers had sworn various oaths to various entities and they in good faith did not necessarily consider those blanket oaths transferable to the new “British” state and to every Tom, Dick, and German elector who styled himself king of it.
These neither-fish-nor-fowl soldiers, then, presented a delicate jurisprudential question. No less a personage than the Lord High Chancellor suggested back in Privy Council that, since half-pay officers would not be eligible to sit on a court-martial jury, they must likewise not be eligible to be court-martialed.
The plurality of the government, and certainly the military, saw it otherwise.
Nevertheless, all concerned were constrained not to be entirely indiscriminate. Of six men prosecuted, the one who was able to prove that he had “thrown up” his half-pay commission walked altogether: he’d been in rebellion, but he hadn’t deserted to do it. Another defendant, who threw himself on the court’s mercy rather than trying to parse a half-reason why half-pay licensed his revolt, received that mercy. (It didn’t hurt that that one was also the child of a (loyal) duke.)
The rest of the lot was abandoned to its fate, leading the correspondent who recorded the particulars of their execution concluded to conclude,
this is a swatch of the usage people may expect that fall into some men’s clutches, from whom all good Christians and true Scotsmen should fervently pray, that God, out of his infinite goodness and mercy, would deliver every honest man!
On this date in 1977, Black Berets Larry Tacklyn and Erskine “Buck” Burrows were hanged in Bermuda for assassinating the islands’ police chief and governor.
“During the 1970s, a black power organization in Bermuda conspired to bring about social change ‘by any means necessary,’ including assassination. This is the first full account of the murders and the Black Beret Cadre, the revolutionary group whose activities resulted in mayhem throughout the island.”
-Book’s advance publicity
was ‘freedom by any means necessary’ which included assassination. Taking their cue from the Black Panthers, whose primary aim was to bait the ‘racist cops’, the Black Berets exhorted its members and all Bermudian youth to confront the ‘English racist police’ as frequently as possible and prepare for the coming conflict between blacks and whites …
Its purpose was to indoctrinate young black Bermudians in communist revolution and the ideology of Black Power.
Cadres Tacklyn and Burrows were one part liberators of their oppressed brothers, one part common criminals.
In 1972, they gunned down white police commissioner (a veteran of Britain’s colonies) George Duckett; in 1973, they ambushed governor (and former Tory M.P.) Richard Sharples and slew him, along with his aide-de-camp.
Neither perp was apprehended, which meant they went on to kill a couple of supermarket executives before someone I.D.’d Tacklyn. Burrows stayed on the lam long enough to rob a bank of $28,000.
The trials were a sensation — apt for the involvement of sensational Bermudian lawyer and politician Julian Hall — with Burrows convicted all around. He openly avowed the political murders.
The motive for killing the Governor (his ADC was not our objective, he was shot only because he happened to be with the Governor at the time) was to seek to make the people, black people in particular, become aware of the evilness and wickedness of the colonialist system in the Island of Bermuda.
Secondly, the motive was to show that these colonialists were just ordinary people like ourselves who eat, sleep and die just like anybody else and that we need not stand in fear or awe of them.
Finally, the motive was to reveal to black people unto themselves.
This refers to the revealed reactions of many black people during the Governor’s funeral, when black people were seen to be standing with tears in their eyes, crying for a man who when he was alive didn’t care if they lived or died and here they were crying for a white Governor and yet when many of their own people pass away there is sometimes hardly a tear shed for them.
This shows clearly the evil effects that the colonialist propaganda has had over the long years they have ruled over this little Island.
Tacklyn managed to win acquittals over Duckett and Sharples but was condemned for killing the grocers. With “only” the two murder raps, Tacklyn’s appeals against execution might have stood a chance in other circumstances. But his affiliation with Burrows, who so openly avowed the other crimes and declined to mitigate them in court, “hung like an albatross around Tacklyn’s neck.”
That wasn’t the only thing that was hanging.
Massive riots rocked Bermuda after it became known that eleventh-hour clemency bids were rejected; “Fires erupted across Bermuda,” Reuters report, “causing millions of dollars in damage as a dusk-to-dawn curfew failed to halt the racial violence.” (Per Chicago Tribune, Dec. 3, 1977) British troops were deployed to help quell the riots.
Tacklyn and Burrows were the first people executed in Bermuda in 34 years, and remain the last executed there to this date.
Because all Britain’s overseas territories in the Caribbean subsequently abolished the death penalty (Bermuda in a contentious 1999 parliamentary dispute decided by a single tiebreaking vote), Tacklyn and Burrows also hold the distinction of being the last people put to death anywhere under British law. (As distinct from the last executed in Britain.)
First up were five convicts in three installments: Cannon and Kessel on Friday, Dec. 2; Wesley Eudy and Fred Barnes the following Friday, Dec. 9; and Ed Davis by his lonesome on Dec. 16. (The gas chamber only seated two at a time, and had to be aired out for hours after completing an execution.)
They were the five survivors of a bloody rising at Folsom in September 1937 that had killed Warden Clarence Larkin, plus a prison guard and two inmates. And they earned thereby the distinction of being blogged about in the 21st century as Californian pioneers.
Though the gas chamber’s maiden run doesn’t appear to have experienced what we might call an actual botch (a later article would report that they “stoically shuddered to their deaths”), the unfamiliar procedure made plenty of witnesses queasy. According to the Dec. 3, 1938 Los Angeles Times,
Prison attendants, used to watching men die, said the exhibition sickened them. It led almost immediately to a movement to have the new law repealed and hanging reinstuted as the method of capital punishment in this State.
Kessell’s death was visibly unpleasant. He “appeared to be trying to hold his breath. He was rigid and his hands gripped the arms of his chair as the gas hit him. He gasped: ‘It’s bad!'” Cannon’s seems to have been less so.
But the real source of spectator revulsion was the audience’s aesthetic experience — in this case, of excessively prolonged and intimate proximity to the dying men.
What several witnesses said made today’s executions so terrible was the fact that the condemned men were not masked or blindfolded and that it took so long,* from the time they entered the chamber to be strapped into the chairs until they were pronounced dead.
The movement to restore the gallows never got, er, off the ground; California kept gassing condemned men and women into the 1990’s, when it switched to lethal injection.
Killed in San Quentin for crimes in Folsom? Here’s the mandatory Johnny Cash callout.
* A couple of minutes to strap down, and another 16 minutes from the start of the execution until death was pronounced. This same newspaper article said hangings clocked in at under 15 minutes for the entire procedure.
Everything is relative, of course. Renowned British hangman Albert Pierrepoint had to conduct a few executions for the U.S. military, and he found the American hanging ritual to be intolerably prolonged and personal compared to his baseline assumption.
That line between “martyr” and “terrorist” is often a matter of historical perspective or even accident.
Were the person’s actions justified?
If not justified, were they at least historically significant?
If not historically significant, did they at least inspire some really great songs?
Or, movies?John Brown, abolitionist, father of 20 children, advocate of armed insurrection as a direct means of ending slavery, is just such a figure. Before looking at how his actions influenced history, however, it is instructive to consider how history influenced him.
Born into a devout family opposed to slavery on religious and moral grounds, Brown grew up in a vehemently anti-slavery district of Ohio and, as a young man, began training in New England to become a Congregationalist minister.
When money ran out, he returned to Ohio and began a series of variously successful business ventures and married his first wife, with whom he would have seven children. When his businesses failed, he moved to Pennsylvania, buried his wife, married his second, and started a tannery, which began to founder as one of his sons died and Brown fell ill. He moved his family –- now with more than a dozen children –- back to Ohio, where he was hit hard by the economic crisis of 1839 (PDF link). In 1842, he was declared bankrupt; the following year, four more of his children died of dysentery.
In spite of these setbacks, Brown remained dogged in his pursuit of ventures to get himself out of debt, becoming a seasoned expert among small sheep farmers and acting as a self-appointed crusader for their empowerment against the encroaching interests of manufacturers. While this backfired and Brown remained impoverished into the 1850s (thought not as much as when he was declared bankrupt), it solidified his interest in helping the underdog.
Moral and religious interest in the abolition of slavery had been part of Brown’s upbringing, but it wasn’t until 1855, when five of Brown’s adult sons began sending words of often violent pro-slavery machinations in the Kansas territory, that Brown first became committed to drastic action on behalf of the cause. His strategy wasn’t at first overtly violent, but was rather convinced that the anti-slavery cause could win by the ballot box; over the course of the next year, however, he became convinced that the only sure way of preserve Kansas as a free territory was by “fighting fire with fire” (historical opinion as to the precise extent of the pro-slavery violence in relation to Brown’s later actions is divided).
In 1856, with tensions reaching a boiling point, Brown, four of his sons, and a band of other abolitionists killed five pro-slavery settlers in Franklin County, Kansas in what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. No legal retribution was possible or likely; Brown and his party escaped handily (although one of his sons was killed the following August), and Brown spent the next three years using various aliases to travel among abolitionists raising funds to launch an all-out assault on slaveowners back East.
“The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
Brown believed his actions would be the start of a lasting insurrection in which slaves would rise up against their owners in an insurrection that would quickly spread to neighboring counties and throughout the South. While violence was expected, it was to be minimized, and, after the initial raid, used only in self-defense.
Twenty-one men, in total, took part in the raid; Brown’s expected hundreds of recruits never materialized. The slave population never got a chance to rise up against their masters, as townspeople promptly began firing on the raiders; by the morning after the start of the raid, the invaders were surrounded by a company of US Marines.* Brown was captured, along with seven of his men; ten were killed, and four escaped.
Tried in Virginia for murder, treason and conspiracy, Brown was convicted on November 2, just weeks after his failed insurrection, and sentenced to be hanged within a month. His often-cited speech in Court in response to this sentence would become a rallying cry for the abolitionist movement:
This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction… Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!
“Make the gallows glorious like the Cross.”
During his last month on Earth, Brown seemed well-aware that he was on his way to be a martyr. Refusing rescue by a supporter who had managed to infiltrate the prison, he wrote letters of valor and conviction which were increasingly picked up by the Northern abolitionst press, and attracted pleas of clemency from sources as removed as Victor Hugo.
Christ-like: The Last Moments of John Brown, by Thomas Hovdenden.
John Brown hanged at Charles Town, Virginia (present-day West Virginia — another thing Virginia lost during the Civil War). This 19th-century drawing is from the Virginia Military Institute archive of the event, which includes eyewitness accounts of soldiers who attended the hanging, including Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Hanged in the mid-morning of December 2, 1859, Brown stated ominously: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”
Brown’s dramatic enactment of an attempted armed insurrection –- even an abortive one –- stoked longstanding Southern fears of slaverebellions, leading the South to reorganize and equip its outdated militias, and the Union to increasingly valorize a man who held, with sheer and utter clarity, the very convictions in which they must needs believe to fight and win the coming War Between the States.
Called a “misguided fanatic” by the man who would lead that war, Brown’s actions nonetheless both hastened the inevitable schism already drawn so dramatically across a nation in which one out of every ten human beings was held in legal bondage, as well as gave moral and spiritual courage to those who would ultimately rise to eradicate it.
Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? And to this I answer ten thousand times, No! No man fails, or can fail, who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause. No man, who in his hour of extremest need, when on his way to meet an ignominious death, could so forget himself as to stop and kiss a little child, one of the hated race for whom he was about to die, could by any possibility fail.
Did John Brown fail? Ask Henry A. Wise in whose house less than two years after, a school for the emancipated slaves was taught.
Did John Brown fail? Ask James M. Mason, the author of the inhuman fugitive slave bill, who was cooped up in Fort Warren, as a traitor less than two years from the time that he stood over the prostrate body of John Brown.
Did John Brown fail? Ask Clement C. Vallandingham, one other of the inquisitorial party; for he too went down in the tremendous whirlpool created by the powerful hand of this bold invader. If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates, places and men for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia, not Fort Sumter, but Harpers Ferry, and the arsenal, not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises.
When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone – the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union – and the clash of arms was at hand. The South staked all upon getting possession of the Federal Government, and failing to do that, drew the sword of rebellion and thus made her own, and not Brown’s, the lost cause of the century.
On this date in 2005, Australian national Van Tuong Nguyen was hanged* in Singapore’s Changi Prison for smuggling heroin.
Three years before, in dire financial straits, Nguyen had agreed to act as a drug courier and been caught attempting to carry 396.2 grams — less than a pound — of heroin through the airport of the notoriously execution-happy city-state. He had no criminal history and cooperated with the authorities, but the quantity of contraband on his person incurred an automatic death sentence.
Nguyen became an international cause celebre and the Australian government appealed for clemency — though some detected tepid public notice for the young man of Vietnamese extraction in comparison with white Australians in similar situations.
His family’s two-year campaign mobilizing worldwide pressure to save him was the profile of a 2006 documentary that laid bare the continuing grief left to Nguyen’s family and friends … and their continuing work against the death penalty in his remembrance. This personal tribute of unidentified provenance captures both:
* By Darshan Singh, whose identity as Singapore’s hangman was exposed on the occasion.