1721: Jean-Pierre Balagny, Cartouche lieutenant

1 comment December 2nd, 2012 Headsman

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.”

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1715: Four Jacobites including George Lockhart’s brother

2 comments December 2nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1715, four Jacobites who had participated in the 1715 Jacobite rising were shot together at Preston.

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)

False Equivalent

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.

Just Deserts

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.

Martial Prowess

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!

* These Lockharts were sons of the Scottish judge George Lockhart whose senseless 1689 murder we have previously noticed.

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1977: Larry Tacklyn and Erskine Burrows, for the murder of Richard Sharples

Add comment December 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1977, Black Berets Larry Tackly 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

A revolutionary black nationalist organization, the Black Beret cadre took its name from that Che Guevara photograph and its model from the Black Panthers.

The cadres’ agenda for early-1970s Bermuda

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.

Erskine Burrows

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.)

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1938: Robert Lee Cannon and Albert Kessell, the first gassed in California

5 comments December 2nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1938, California debuted the latest in killing technology when its brand new gas chamber consumed Robert Lee Cannon and Albert Kessel for the previous year’s riot in Folsom Prison.


Folsom Prison.

Already near 15 years in service in Nevada and previously mammal-tested in the Golden State, the gas chamber made California’s gallows a thing of the past.

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.

The Times‘ “Daily Mirror” history blog helpfully provides several of the eyewitness reactions (along with ancient newsprint pictures of the condemned).

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.

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1859: John Brown’s body starts a-moulderin’ in the grave

10 comments December 2nd, 2008 Sarah Owocki

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?

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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.

Bleeding Kansas

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.”

That he chose the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) for his historic attack was no accident; it “evinced federal power stained by slavery.”

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 slave rebellions, 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.

“His soul goes marching on…”

Or in the words of Frederick Douglass:

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.

For more John Brown:

* Under the command of future Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

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2005: Van Tuong Nguyen

3 comments December 2nd, 2007 Headsman

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.

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