1856: Six Tennessee slaves, election panic casualties

Add comment December 4th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1856, the white citixens of Dover, Tennessee hanged at least six black slaves in the midst of a regional panic.

They could well sense, as could all Americans, the hollowing authority of slavery in the 1850s with the Civil War looming ahead in 1861. Conflict over the issue had split the country sectionally over the disposition of the huge territory annexed in the Mexican-American War; the matter came to literal blows on the western frontier in the “Bleeding Kansas” bush war.

On the cultural plane, these are the years that germinated the definitive anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); on the legal plane, they produced the the notorious pro-slavery Dred Scott Supreme Court case (1857).

And on the political plane, the slavery issue tore apart the old Whig Party — and so the 1856 presidential election for the first time featured the new anti-slavery Republican Party as the chief opposition. The very first Republican presidential nominee, John Fremont, carried 11 states on November 4, 1856: not enough to capture the White House, but enough to put the Slave Power in fear for its human chattel and catalyze, in the weeks surrounding the vote, paranoid reactions in various southerly locales to the effect that Fremont-inspired blacks would be coming to dispossess all the masters.

Now it only takes a glance at Twitter to evidence the capacity of a presidential ballot to dominate the public mind, so there can hardly be doubt that seditious rumors of liberty fell from black lips which had never been so close to tasting emancipation. “Wait till Fremont is elected, and den I guess as how, missess, you will have to dew de pots yourself,” a Memphis kitchen-slave supposedly told her mistress on the eve of the election. (New York Herald, December 11, 1856) The masters too would have spoken of the same topic, but with trepidation; nobody knew but what the future could hold, and words overheard would have worked their way to and fro across the color line to shape hope, terror, anticipation. The newspapers from the last weeks of 1856 have reports of rumored insurrections and white vigilance committees in Missouri, in Texas, in Arkansas, in Louisiana.

As is usual in slave rising panics no firm evidence exists that black plots consisted in this moment of anything more substantial than whispered hopes. Whites in scattered localities saw Nat Turner everywhere — and nowhere was this more the case than in western Tennessee. There, slaves around the Cumberland River were believed to be organizing a Christmas Day rising* to cut their masters’ throats, run amok, and rendezvous with an imagined army of Fremont liberators. One correspondent described for northern papers how

the credulity of these poor people is such that, in the belief of the whites who excite them, they imagine that Col. Fremont, with a large army is awaiting at the mouth of the river Cumberland … Certain slaves are so greatly imbued with this fable, that I have seen them smile while they are being whipped, and have heard them say that ‘Fremont and his men can bear the blows they receive.’ (via the Barre (Mass.) Gazette, Dec. 19, 1956)

Against such hope — more blows. A truly horrifying and widely republished editorial in the Clarksville (Tenn.) Jeffersonian that Dec. 3 proposed an overwhelming bloodletting to crush this prospective jacquerie.

It is useless to shut our eyes and deny the facts, or sneer at the developments which have been made. Every hour multiplies the proof and corroborates previous discoveries. It is no Titus Oates affair, but a solemn, fearful and startling reality, and must be dealt with accordingly.

The crimes contemplated should be atoned for precisely as though those crimes had been attmpted and consummated. Fearful and terrible examples should be made, and if need be, the fagot and the flame should be brought into requisition to show these deluded maniacs the fierceness and the vigor, the swiftness and completeness of the white man’s vengeance. Let a terrible example be made in every neighborhood where the crime can be established, and if necessary let every tree in the country bend with negro meat. Temporizing in such cases as this is utter madness. We must strike terror, and make a lasting impression, for only in such a course can we find the guaranties of future security …

The path of future safety must be wet with the blood of those who have meditated these awful crimes. Misplaced clemency, and we believe that any clemency would be misplaced, may at no distant day bring upon this people, the horrors and the inexpressible crimes which marked the enfranchisement of St. Domingo. While retributive justice, sternly and unbendingly enforced, will certainly remove the cause of the evils we now suffer and prove our sure protection against their repetition in all time to come.

So far as this writer can establish it is not certain how many people overall in Tennessee and throughout the Slave Power met the guns and nooses of white vigilantes, but some of the best-established are a sextet hanged at Dover on December 4, 1856. This town on the Cumberland was roiled by rumors that slaves from nearby communities intended to march, armed, on Dover itself, an idea that seems not much less fanciful than that of deliverance by Fremont; it became thereby an epicenter of the suppression, and favors us from a sea of unreliable timelines and misstated figures with a concrete eyewitness description.

Tuesday morning [sic — the writer means Thursday, Dec. 4, having narrated Wednesday, Dec. 3 immediately prior], I went to Dover, and arrived there about 2 o’clock. The people had hung four negroes at 11 o’clock that morning, and two more then in town to be hung. I got to the place of execution in time to see the last one go off. Of the six that were hung, three had been preachers. They were all proved to be ring-leaders. I learned that the men at the forge were at work whipping the truth out of their negroes, so I rode out there that night, and was up with them all night. I never had such feelings in my life. I saw a list of negroes that had been whipped, and was told what they all had stated, and then I heard the balance examined — some taking five and six hundred lashes before they would tell the tale … One of the negroes at the forge died from whipping that night, several hours after the operation.

We are at work here to-day. We have one negro in chains, and will hang him I think, certain; if the committee will not the community are determined to do it. I think we will have quite an exciting time here before we get through. I have no doubt but that it is a universal thing all over the Southern States, and that every negro fifteen years old, either knows of it or is into it … (Louisville Daily Courier, Dec. 29, 1856)

Two key academic sources on this affair are:

  • Harvey Wish, “The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1856,” The Journal of Southern History, May, 1939
  • Charles Dew, “Black Ironworkers and the Slave Insurrection Panic of 1856,” The Journal of Southern History, August 1975

* Shades of Jamaica.

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1531: Rhys ap Gruffydd

Add comment December 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1531, a Welsh nobleman whose grandfather had been instrumental in raising the Tudor dynasty up caught the downswing of the Tudor dynasty’s axe.

Gruffydd ap Rhys ap Thomas (“son of Rhys, son of Thomas”) was the Welsh patriarch of an illustrious house who had taken the Lancastrian side during the English Wars of the Roses.

When the Lancastrians lost, he took the necessary oaths to the likes of Richard III but his reputed promise to defend Wales for his king with such ferocity that an invader must needs “make his entrance and irruption over my belly” was discharged in a ceremony equally literary and lawyerly — when he stood under a bridge while his invading ally, the Welsh-descended Henry Tudor, marched over it.


There’s always a loophole when one fails to insist on direct language.

Together the two would win the crown for Henry — and in a sense very much win it for Wales — at Bosworth Field, where Gruffydd is sometimes credited personally with the blow that felled King Richard.

He lived on to 1525, a loyal supporter of Henry VII and his son Henry VIII. But the reciprocal gratitude of the kings did not outlive Gruffydd’s passing, for the Welsh offices that he designed to pass to his grandson Rhys ap Gruffydd were instead foisted on Water Devereux, Baron Ferrers.*

The consequent hostility would set Rhys on his way to the block. In 1529, our man drew a blade on Devereux, and their respective bands of retainers skirmished violently with each other over succeeding months.

Attempting to elevate his frustrated political claim by assuming the name “Fitz Urien” — in reference to a half-legendary ancient Welsh king — finally got him clapped in the Tower. His subsequent trial on a fanciful charge of conspiring with Scotland to form a Celtic league against the English asserted the central royal authority against a noble loose cannon who also happened to be part of the Catholic, anti-Anne Boleyn faction; at a stretch it could arguably** be read to make him one of the earliest victims of the still-nascent English Reformation. Be that as it may, his countrymen did not much mourn the fall of a vaunting and greedy line, however spurious the grounds.

And indeed many men regarded his [Rhys’s] death as Divine retribution for the falsehoods of his ancestors, his grandfather, and great-grandfather, and for their oppressions and wrongs. They had many a deep curse from the poor people who were their neighbours, for depriving them of their homes, lands and riches. For I heard the conversations of folk from that part of the country that no common people owned land within twenty miles from the dwelling of Sir Rhys ap Thomas, that if he desired such lands, he would appropriate them without payment or thanks, and the disinherited doubtless cursed him, his children and his grandchildren, which curses in the opinion of many men fell on the family, according to the old proverb which says — the children of Lies are uprooted, and after oppression comes a long death to the oppressors. (Source)

* An ancestor of Elizabethan loverboy Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.

** That argument is made by Ralph Griffiths in Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his Family: A Study in the Wars of the Roses and Early Tudor Politics.

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1914: The six martyrs of Vingre

3 comments December 4th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1914, a France consumed by the First World War made martyrs of six at Vingre.


The men in this post were rehabilitated in 1921, and this marker dedicated to their memory in 1925. Flickr users have posted some striking photos of the memorial site.

An event horribly underscoring the heartlessness of the brass against frail flesh in their ghastly war of machines, this shooting succeeded a surprise German attack on November 27 whose short-lived push into the French line momentarily drove part of the 298th Regiment to fall back out of their forward trench, before the French rallied and retook their own position to restore the status quo ante. The whole back-and-forth spanned mere minutes — just another snapshot of the trench war stalemate that would become so grindingly familiar to all belligerents in the years ahead.

French commanders in the earliest months of the war had shown a notable lack of empathy for any vexation of plans arising from the fog of war; indeed, exemplary executions became policy for enforcing military discipline to an unrealistic expectation. So, as punishment for their units’ “unauthorized* retreat,” six were selected for execution as an example to their fellows.

Some heartbreaking (or blood-boiling) last letters of the doomed survive.

Corporal Henri Floch (to his wife)

My darling Lucie,

By the time you receive this letter I shall be dead by firing squad. This is why: on 27th November, around 5pm, after 2 hours of heavy shelling in a trench on the front line, just as we were finishing our supper, Germans got into the trench. They captured me and two others. In the confusion I was able to escape from the Germans. I followed my comrades and then I was accused of dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy.

Twenty-four of us went before the War Council last night. Six were condemned to death and one of them was me. I am no more guilty than the others, but they want to make an example of us. My wallet will be sent home to you along with its contents.

In haste I say my last farewell to you, with tears in my eyes and a heavy heart. I humbly beg your forgiveness for all the grief that I will cause you and the difficulties that you will have to face because of me.

My dear Lucie, again, please forgive me. I’m going to Confession now and I hope to see you again in a better place. I die innocent of the crime of desertion of which I stand accused. If, instead of escaping from the Germans, I had remained a prisoner, my life would have been spared. It must be fate.

My last thoughts are for you, right to the end.

Henri Floch

Jean Quinault (to his wife)

I am writing to you my latest news. It’s over for me. I do not have the courage. We had a story in the company. We went to the court martial. We are 6 condemned to death. I am in the six and I am no more guilty than the comrades, but our life is sacrificed for others. Last farewell, dear little woman. It’s over for me. Last letter from me, deceased for a reason of which I do not know well the reason. The officers are all wrong and we are condemned to pay for them. I should never have thought of finishing my days at Vingre, and especially of being shot for so little and not guilty. It never happened, a case like this. I am buried in VingrĂ©

Jean Blanchard (to his wife)

3 December 1914, 11.30 pm

My dear Beloved, it is in great distress that I begin to write to you and if God and the Blessed Virgin do not come to my aid it is for the last time …

I will try in a few words to tell you my situation but I do not know if I can, I do not feel the courage. On November 27, at night, as we occupied a trench facing the enemy, the Germans surprised us, and panicked us, in our trench, we retreated into a trench behind, and we returned to resume our places almost immediately, with this result: a dozen prisoners in the company of which one was in my squad, for this fault our squad (twenty-four men) spent today before the council of war and alas! We are six to pay for all, I can not explain it further to you, my dear friend, I suffer too much; friend Darlet will be able to explain to you better, I have a calm conscience, and submit entirely to the will of God who wants it so; It is this which gives me strength to be able to write to you these words, my dear beloved, who have made me so happy the time that I spent with you and of which I had so much hope to find. December 1 morning we were deposed on what had happened, and when I saw the charge that was brought against us and which no one could suspect, I cried a part of the day and have not had the strength to write to you …

Oh! Blessed be my parents! My poor parents, my poor mother, my poor father, what will become of them when they learn what I have become? O my beloved, my dear Michelle, take good care of my poor parents so long as they are of this world, be their consolation and support in their grief, I leave them to your good care, tell them I have not deserved this hard punishment and we will all find each other in the other world, assist them in their last moments and God will reward you for it, beg my forgiveness of your good parents for the punishment that they will experience by me, tell them well that I loved them very much and that they do not forget me in their prayers, that I was happy to have become their son and to be able to support and care for them their old days but since God has judged otherwise, that His will be done and not mine. Goodbye up there, my dear wife.

Jean


(cc) image from Soissonnais 14-18.

* The “cowards” contended that a falling-back had been ordered by a lieutenant who no doubt was as war-befogged as everyone else. Since this order could have set up Lt. Paulaud himself to be the guy shot for example, he naturally denied issuing it; when the six were exonerated after the war, Paulaud was indicted for perjury, but acquitted.

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1591: Four of The Sixteen

Add comment December 4th, 2015 Headsman

When the Huguenot prince turned Henri IV of France finally mastered his realm by attending Catholic services in his capital city with the legendary words “Paris is worth a mass,” he was not merely overcoming some residual sectarian prejudice. There had been civil war in France for the best part of a century, and the bitterness of Catholic opposition to a Protestant king would eventually claim Henri’s life.

And in that conflict, Paris herself was militantly Catholic.

During the last phase of France’s devastating Wars of Religion, suitably titled the War of the Three Henrys, a Paris dominated by the staunch Catholic League held out against a joint siege by the sitting, Catholic king Henri III — who was so much the moderate sellout as to have made common cause with his cousin and heir, the Protestant Henri of Navarre (our future Henri IV).*

We have dealt elsewhere in these pages with those dramatic years, including Paris eventually falling into the hands of a despot clique of Catholic fanatics known as “The Sixteen” — who made so bold as to execute Catholic “politiques” of insufficient zeal.


An armed march of the Holy League in Paris in 1590. (Anonymous painting)

Just days after the signal hanging of jurist Barnabe Brisson in November of 1591, the city was taken back in hand by the Duke of Mayenne, a Catholic whom some radicals wished to advance to the throne.

Mayenne preferred the role of kingmaker, stabilizing the long unrest of his realm. He was horrified by the Sixteen, and on December 4 he seized four of their number — Nicolas Ameline, Barthelemy Anroux, Jean Emmenot and Jean Louchart — and had them summarily hanged at the Louvre. The Sixteen’s days were done.

Mayenne had the wisdom not to follow these exemplary executions with any provocative purges — neither of the other 12 nor other intemperate elements in town — but proclaimed a general amnesty. It was he who, over the months ahead, smoothed the way for Henri IV’s famous mass.

* The third Henri in the War of the Three Henrys was the late Duke of Guise, whom King Henri III had had assassinated. The House of Guise was characteristically an ardent Catholic party in these years, so his murder had helped sunder the allegiance of Paris to her king.

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1900: Joseph Holden, killer of his own grandson

Add comment December 4th, 2014 Headsman

This morning in 1900, Bury ironturner Joseph Holden was executed at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison for the murder of his grandson.

“The convict’s sanity had been in some doubt,” in the bloodless words of the next day’s London Times. To read it a century later is to see a man deeply in need of help.

It was his married daughter Mary Dawes who tried to give it to him by taking him in under her own roof after Holden was reduced to living in a workhouse.

In August of 1900 he took another of his grandchildren — not by Mary Dawes — to a quarry to cut tobacco, then hurled a stone that hit the child in the head. George Eldred was badly injured, but survived.

The mental deterioration betokened by such behavior must have put Mary Dawes or any other kin with an interest in the patriarch’s well-being into a terrible bind. What resources of state or charity could they have called upon, short of consigning him to the miasma of some gaol? At 57 years of age, Holden was already 10 years past the male life expectancy for the time and looked still older thanks to the ravages of alcoholism. Maybe Mary thought that having him at her hearth would stabilize him well enough to dignify whatever little measure of life remained to her father.

That is nothing but a speculative assessment of these bare and tragic facts: Mary Dawes took her father in; days later, on September 5, Mary’s father took Mary’s son John to a quarry and drowned him.


Hampshire Advertiser, September 12, 1900.

Holden’s only defense — practically the only one really available to him — was insanity. But Holden wasn’t starkers; his mind perambulated that foggy wilderness between lucidity and dementia and this was simply insufficient disturbance for the then-prevailing legal standard of madness, the M’Naghten Test. Basically, if he could understand what he’d done, he was sane enough to hang. Still to this day the basis of competency assessments in much of the English-speaking world, M’Naghten offers only a narrow ground for avoiding the full measure of criminal responsibility. And Holden was clearly competent enough by that test; indeed, he had complained of his treatment in Mary’s house, hinting at a real motive.

Although Holden’s death sentence was automatic upon the unhelpful sanity assessment of the doctors,* he was thought a prime candidate for a reprieve from the Home Secretary. This too did not materialize; Holden’s own contrition and resignation to his fate in the days leading up to the execution might have contributed to the judgment that he was in fact sane enough to die. That’s some catch: the best there is.

A murderer named Oscar Mattson — a Russian sailor who had slain a young English prostitute named Mary Ann Macguire in a rage over stolen money and rebuffed advances — did win a Home Secretary reprieve on the same day that Holden hanged.

* It was only necessary for doctors to find him competent enough to make his own plea. When they did so, he simply pleaded guilty.

Part of the Themed Set: Filicide.

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1778: Josiah Phillips, attainted by Thomas Jefferson

Add comment December 4th, 2013 Headsman

There is one example of this violation in Virginia, of a most striking and shocking nature; an example so horrid, that if I conceived my country would passively permit a repetition of it, dear as it is to me, I should seek means of expatriating myself from it. A man, who was then a citizen, was deprived of his life thus: From a mere reliance on general reports, a gentleman in the house of delegates informed the house, that a certain man had committed several crimes, and was running at large perpetrating other crimes; he, therefore, moved for leave to attaint him; he obtained that leave instantly … Without being confronted with his accusers and witnesses, without the privilege of calling for evidence in his behalf, he was sentenced to death, and was afterwards actually executed. Was this arbitrary deprivation of life, the dearest gift of God to man, consistent with the genius of a republican government? Is this compatible with the spirit of freedom? This, sir, has made the deepest impression in my heart, and I cannot contemplate it without horror.

Edmund Randolph (Source)

On this date in 1778, attainted Revolutionary War-era outlaw Josiah Phillips was hanged in Virginia.

Contrary to Randolph’s recollection, the execution took place according to a regular jury verdict convicting Philips for stealing 28 hats and five pounds of twine — felony theft by the Bloody Code inherited from England.

Even so, it was the Act of Attainder voted unanimously by the Virginia legislature that stuck in the popular memory, so much so that even the likes of Randolph, a lawyer by trade and later the first Attorney General of the independent United States, misstated* it as the proximate cause of Phillips’s execution.

Another inheritance from the mother country, Acts of Attainder — wherein the legislature declares some party guilty of a crime and declares punishment without benefit of trial — were going right out of style in the twilight of the 18th century. The eventual U.S. Constitution would flatly abolish the practice; Britain herself has not enacted one since 1798.

So it comes as some surprise to see that Phillips was outlawed** at the instigation of no less a person than old Mr. Inalienable Rights himself, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s Bill of Attainder gave Philips and his band a June 1778 deadline to turn themselves in voluntarily, or else they

shall stand and be convicted and attainted of high treason, and shall suffer the pains of death, and incur all forfeitures, penalties and disabilities prescribed by the law against those convicted and attainted of High-treason: and that execution of this sentence of attainder shall be done by order of the General court to be entered as soon as may be conveniently after notice that any of the said offenders are in custody of the keeper of the public gaol …

And that the good people of this commonwealth may not in the mean time be subject to the unrestrained hostilities of the said insurgents, be it further enacted that from and after the passing of this act it shall be lawful for any person with or without orders, to pursue and slay the said Josiah Philips and any others who have been of his associates or confederates at any time.

Now in fairness, Josiah Phillips was no ordinary hat-thief, regardless of what the charge-sheet read. He was a Tory marauder who led a gang of outlaws/guerrillas/terrorists who lurked in the Dismal Swamp and had just weeks before repelled a Commonwealth militia dispatched by Governor Patrick Henry.

For Henry, who sought the attainder, and for Jefferson the Phillips band looked like a clear security threat. “The delays which would attend the proceeding to outlaw the said offenders according to the usual forms and procedures of the courts of law would leave the said good people for a long time exposed to murder and devastation,” in the words of the attainder. And indeed, the rebellious colonies — ultra-patriotic Pennsylvania especially — had had regular recourse to Acts of Attainder against Tory loyalists over the span of the American Revolution. (Actual executions under attainders were extremely rare.)

However, the inconsistency of such an instrument long associated with monarchical tyranny with its author’s more usual Rights of Man fulminations had Jefferson still defending the Phillips attainder as late as 1815.

Whatever might have best suited Josiah Phillips, the last word on the matter in American jurisprudence has belonged to the overwhelming sentiment of his fellow-Founders … like James Madison, whose Federalist no. 44 flatly avers that Bills of Attainder “are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation.”

* Randolph himself, as Virginia’s attorney general, made the call not to use the attainder against Phillips because of Randolph’s own discomfort with it. But his “misremembering” was convenient to a later interest in excoriating Patrick Henry.

** Arguably contravening Virginia’s existing 1776 Declaration of Rights. “In all capital or criminal prosecutions a man has a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of twelve men of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; that no man be deprived of his liberty except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.”

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1723: The first London executions under the Waltham Black Act

3 comments December 4th, 2012 Headsman

“The law of England has displayed no unnecessary nicety, in apportioning the punishments of death …. Kill your father, or catch a rabbit in a warren — the penalty is the same! Destroy three kingdoms, or destroy a hop-bine — the penalty is the same!”

Sir Thomas Buxton, commenting on the “Bloody Code” in 1821

E.P. Thompson’s classic Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act, has its titular legislation as “an expression of the ascendancy of a Whig oligarchy, which created new laws and bent old legal forms in order to legitimize its own property and status”

On this date in 1723, seven Waltham Blacks were hanged at Tyburn.

These poachers were the impressive first salvo of the Black Act, a new-minted statute early in the landmark government of Robert Walpole.

This law had been enacted to combat the rise of game poaching. As we’ve noted before, poaching was a longtime conflict zone in a Great Britain emerging as distinctly capitalist.

The Black Act would not merely sharpen those conflicts — it would intentionally define them, helping to enclose a labor marketplace enforced with hemp.* The Black Act added nearly 50 capital offenses to the rolls; it was a seminal statute for the 18th century’s notorious “Bloody Code”.

“The Black Act had a much wider sweep than a statute intended merely to protect the royal forests,” Frank McLynn notes. Poaching gangs “provided the occasion for draconian legislation; they were not its cause.”

These huntsmen were, early in the 18th century, increasingly bold taking game on forest preserves in defiance of hunting restrictions that made an absurd mishmash of feudal anachronisms and latter-day statues all of which contrived to limit the hunt only to a handful of wealthy landed aristocrats. It was, per Blackstone, “a bastard slip, known by the name of the game laws … wantoning in the highest vigour.”

This vigourous wantoning actually made for a multilateral class conflict. The rural poor, being displaced by enclosures, were barred from opting out of proletarianization for a life on the forage. (Nobody was allowed to sell game meat.) Sportsmen had the run of the land, but only the very richly landed could be “sportsmen”: small farmers were forbidden to take game even on their own property, whereas those whose huge estates licensed them to hunt were entitled to tramp through neighboring crops in pursuit of their quarry.

Poaching followed these un-neighborly injuries to traditional commons rights as vigorously as hounds follow hares. The state answered with the Black Act, and did not scruple to accuse known companies of “Blacks” of being Jacobite catspaws.

So named because it targeted poachers’ practice of “blackening” their faces, the 1722 law made it a hanging crime to go on the hunt in disguise, as well as a hanging crime to poach deer, rabbits, conies, or fish. Formerly, “deer-stealing” and the like had been mere misdemeanors.

The act also mandated death for a broad range of other rustic crimes such as damaging orchards, gardens, or cattle, with like penalties attached to conspiring to commit any of these crimes or rescuing anyone imprisoned for these crimes.**

The seven hanged this date were “Blacks” who happened to be captured shortly after the Black Act took effect in mid-1723 — from Windsor forest, and elsewhere. As a show of resolve in enforcing its grim new decrees, the crown had all these men shipped to London, far from their own communities where jurymen themselves aggrieved by game laws were known to acquit.

* Lest one doubt this red-tinged historiography of the Act, its apologists were no less clear on its objectives.

“No man, however successful in the profession, can expect to get as much profit by deer-stealing, as by following his lawful business,” intoned the Newgate Calendar about today’s hangings. “[Y]oung persons cannot learn a more important maxim than that in the scripture; ‘the hand of the diligent maketh rich.’

“In this place it may not be improper to make a single remark on the game laws. These are supposed to be, possibly not without reason, severe: it is contended that those animals which are wild by nature are equally the property of every man. Perhaps this is the truth: but persons in the lower ranks of life should remember, that when laws are once enacted, THEY MUST BE OBEYED. Safety lies in acquiescence with, not in opposition to, legal institutions.” (emphasis added)

** Just for good measure, it also prescribed the noose for just about every form of arson, and for anyone who “shall wilfully and maliciously shoot at any person in any dwelling-house, or other place” regardless of injury.

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Feast Day of Santa Barbara

1 comment December 4th, 2011 Headsman


Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino arrived on Dec. 4, 1602 at the California coastal plain he named Santa Barbara.
“The Ballad of St. Barbara”
by G.K. Chesterton

They are firing, we are falling, and the red skies rend and shiver us,
Barbara, Barbara, we may not loose a breath—
Be at the bursting doors of doom, and in the dark deliver us,
Who loosen the last window on the sun of sudden death.

Although the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic church has booted her from the liturgical calendar as a probable legend, this is the feast date of still-popular early Christian martyr St. Barbara.

There are a million fishy details of the story: nobody’s clear on which anti-Christian persecution claimed her; nobody’s clear on where in the Roman Empire she died; and it’s hard to keep a straight face at the clincher that her unsympathetic pagan father gets struck by lightning after her execution.

Actually, the story is practically straight out of a fairy-tale reader: nasty rich dad Dioscurus locked her up in a tower like Rapunzel, but flew into a rage when he discovered she had secretly become a Christian, and dragged her to the Roman prefect to be tortured and, eventually, beheaded. There are any number of further variations, like that mean old dad personally gave her the chop.

As one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, medieval Christianity’s all-star team of divine intercessors, Barbara was big on both sides of the east-west schism. She’s got saintly portfolios of special relevance to this site: she’s the patron saint of prisoners and of everyone who risks violent death at work, a rare but real occupational hazard for executioners. (We also think that her gig protecting against lightning storms might qualify Barbara for safekeeping people sentenced to die in the electric chair: maybe she saved Willie Francis.)

She’s best known as the guardian of miners and artillerists — folks who work around explosions, like Guy Fawkes — and the word santabarbara denotes a powder magazine in both Spanish and Italian.


The Martyrdom of Saint Barbara by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1510, is clearly sensible in the swarthy, scimitar-wielding executioner of the contemporary-to-Cranach Turkish menace. (cc) image from Wally Gobetz.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Language,Martyrs,Myths,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Torture,Uncertain Dates,Women

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1896: Fred Behme, evangelical Methodist

1 comment December 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1896, McLeansboro, Ill. hosted its only hanging.

German emigre Fred Behme was settled into married life when he converted from Catholicism to Methodism.

Unfortunately — so Behme saw it — his wife Mary didn’t hew to the old cuius region, eius religio principle where the man of the house was concerned, and stuck with the bishop of Rome for the salvation of her immortal soul.

And there’s just something about the zeal of a convert.

Fred Behme’s domestic missionary work grew more violent (pdf), and eventually his battered spouse moved out; when Fred coaxed her back, and found out that she’d baptized their infant son into idolatrous Catholicism while living apart from him, he chose Easter Sunday to commit what one newspaper called “one of the most hideous and blood-thirsty crimes that ever stained the good name and honor of McLeansboro”: Fred got the other kids out of the house, he attacked Mary with an axe,

drug her by the hair into the yard, and beat in the side of her head. He covered the body with corn fodder. He then took the little boy [whom Mary had baptized] to the barn and hanged him by the neck until he died. (Source)

Though the hanging was invitation-only, it was visible from McLeansboro’s public square and large crowds gathered to witness the hirsute Protestant check out with a short speech in German.

Wikipedia alleges (without a clear source indication) that one G. Phil Hanna was among this multitude, and that seeing Behme strangle to death on an inexpertly deployed rope launched a lifelong interest in the hangman’s craft that would culminate when Hanna pinch-hit on the execution team that carried out America’s last public hanging 40 years later. Others of less august accomplishment no less vividly recalled their (and their town’s) one-time walk through the valley of death.


The family that prays together … (The perp is the bearded man; the victims are the woman seated next to him, and the child in her lap.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Illinois,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,USA

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2001: Lois Nadean Smith

8 comments December 4th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 2001, Lois Nadean Smith was executed by lethal injection in Oklahoma for the murder of her son’s ex-girlfriend.

By the standards of the 1,099 executions in the “modern” death penalty in America — those since the 1972 Furman v. Georgia Supreme Court decision — very little especially distinguished Smith‘s case.

Sentenced some 19 years before her death, she had committed a single horrifying and rather tawdry kidnapping and murder. Her guilt was in no question, although she stood trial along with her son — who received a life sentence — and would later argue on appeal that their lawyer had pursued a defense intentionally shifting blame onto her in order to save him.

As a woman, though, Smith was inherently an oddity. This date completed a remarkable year in which Oklahoma, having not put any woman to death since 1903, emptied its women’s death row with three such executions.

Including those three, only eleven women have been executed in the United States since Furman — or, indeed, since the Kennedy administration. There had been no calendar year in which three women were executed in the entire country since 1953 … and no single state had executed three women in one year since Virginia when the women in question were property.*

According to the Death Penalty Information Center:

Death sentences and actual executions for female offenders are also rare in comparison to such events for male offenders. In fact, women are more likely to be dropped out of the system the further the capital punishment system progresses. Following in summary outline form are the data indicating this screening out effect:

  • women account for about 1 in 10 (10%) murder arrests;
  • women account for only 1 in 50 (2.1%) death sentences imposed at the trial level;
  • women account for only 1 in 70 (1.4%) persons presently on death row; and
  • women account for only 1 in 90 (1.1%) persons actually executed in the modern era.**

At the end of a chain of improbabilities, Smith apparently met her death with composure. “To the families, I want to say I’m sorry for the pain and loss I’ve caused you,” she said from the gurney. “I ask that you forgive me. You must forgive to be forgiven.”

* See charts of female executions through 1962 and since 1900, both courtesy of the comprehensive Espy file of all executions in American history.

** This calculation appears to be slightly dated, with women currently accounting almost exactly 1 in 100 persons actually executed. The last 117 American prisoners executed have all been men.

(All stats are as of publication date in December 2007)

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Common Criminals,Lethal Injection,Milestones,Murder,Oklahoma,USA,Women

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