1612: Robert Crichton, Lord Sanquhar and mediocre swordsman

Add comment June 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1612, the Scottish noble Robert Crichton, Lord Crichton of Sanquhar, swung for revenge served very cold.

Sanquhar (alternatively, Sanquire) was a Scottish noble imported to the English court in the train of King James. Keeping up his swordsmanship in a practice bout with the fencing-master John Turner, Sanquhar had his eye put out by his opponent’s foil.

While this injury was the source of the tragedy that ensued for both men, it is said — perhaps it’s just literary license — that it was the illustrious French king Henri IV who turned the situation deadly with a passing remark when Sanquhar subsequently visited Henri’s duel-mad realm to the effect that it was a wonder that the author of such a horrible wound still lived. Already down one organ for his trouble, Sanquhar was stung to discover emasculation stacked on his woes; even though it was several years after* the duel, Sanquhar began plotting to vindicate eye and honor alike.

If this is so, it is not altogether clear to us that hiring a dependent to shoot the offending duellist unawares in a tavern quite comports with an offended dignity, but that’s chivalry for you. (Actually, the fact that Turner was not himself a gentleman made it socially problematic for Sanquhar to engage him in a proper affair of honor, per the queer codex of early modern masculinity.)

His Lordship had leaned on at least three underlings while engineering his belated revenge, and one of these wisely turned crown’s evidence against the rest of the quartet and hung the lot of his confederates. The headline case was of course the prosecution of the Baron Sanquhar handled personally by the king’s Solicitor-General, one Francis Bacon.

At trial on June 27 — 47 days after the murder; two days before the execution — Sanquhar mounted a better defense for his honor than for his neck.

After this loss of my eye and with the great hazard of the loss of life, I must confess that I ever kept a grudge of my soul against Turner, but had no purpose to take so high a revenge; yet in the course of my revenge I considered not my wrongs upon terms of Christianity — for then I should have sought for other satisfaction — but, being trained up in the courts of princes and in arms, I stood upon the terms of honour, and thence befell this act of dishonour, whereby I have offended — first, God; second, my prince; third, my native country; fourth, this country; fifth, the party murdered; sixth, his wife; seventh, posterity; eighth, Carlisle, now to be executed;** and lastly, ninth, my own soul, and I am now to die for my offence.

But, my lords, besides my own offence, which in its nature needs no aggravation, divers scandalous reports are given out which blemish my reputation, which is more dear to me than my life: first, that I made show of reconciliation with Turner, the which, I protest, is utterly untrue, for what I have formerly said I do again assure your good lordships, that ever after my hurt received I kept a grudge in my soul against him, and never made the least pretence of reconciliation with him. Yet this, my lords, I will say, that if he would have confessed and sworn he did it not of purpose, and withal would have foresworn arms, I would have pardoned him; for, my lords, I considered that it must be done either of set purpose or ignorantly. If the first, I had no occasion to pardon him; if the last, that is no excuse in a master, and therefore for revenge of such a wrong I thought him unworthy to bear arms.

Shorter Lord Sanquhar: I confess.

Needing not so much to contest the case at the bar as to narrate its intended moral, Bacon speculated that Sanquhar must have come by his egregious “affections of dwelling in malice, rather out of Italy … than out of any part of this island, England, or Scotland.” While this murder was not a duel, it sprang from a palpably similar place — and duels, just then taking on their recognizable ritual form, were furiously opposed by the state. Sanquhar had resided in Italy, but more than that, the term was code for the fencing experts who brought from the continent codes duello and mannerly rapiers and the prospect of destructive private vendettas. This was more than premeditated homicide; it was an arrogation of the king’s own prerogatives of justice and order.

“What the law abhorred was not cold-blooded premeditated duelling as such, but the attitudes manifested by that practice,” writes Jeremy Horder.† “The calculating duellist is an ‘isolent’ person acting with ‘arrogancy and rebellion’ in casting off the yoke of obedience, as if he had the power to set his own laws above those of the common law.”

Angling for a promotion to Attorney General (he would get it in 1613), Bacon also made a point to lavish praise on his Scotch-born sovereign for another lesson the trial was meant to underscore to his English subjects: “his majesty hath shewed himself God’s true lieutenant, and that he is no respecter of persons; but the English, Scottish, nobleman, fencer, are to him alike in respect of justice.”

Nobleman and subalterns alike died on different gallows this date: Lord Crichton of Sanquhar hanged before Westminster Hall, while his two assassin-henchmen dangled on gallows at Fleet Street.

* Sources propose various dates from 1604 to 1607 for the eye-foiling; Bacon in arraigning Sanquhar remarks that “it is now five years” since that happened.

** The man who actually shot John Turner.

† “The Duel and the English Law of Homicide,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Autumn 1992.

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1855: Emmanuel Barthelemy, duelist

1 comment January 22nd, 2014 Headsman

The winner of England’s last fatal duel was hanged at Newgate on this date in 1855 … but not for the duel.

Both participants in that duel, Emmanuel Bart(h)elemy and Frederic Cournet, were French emigres* who had commanded Parisian barricades during the 1848 revolution.

On its surface the duel was one of those trivial affairs of honor: Barthelemy heard that Cournet (otherwise unknown to him) had repeated some defamatory rumors about Barthelemy already abroad in France, and challenged Cournet on that basis; Cournet at first dissociated himself from any such smears, but upon better consideration thought he considered Barthelemy’s notice a little on the ultimatum side and took exception to that.

The consequent set-to was delayed some time by negotiations over every element of its ceremony. When at last it was arranged, it unfolded thus:**

it should commence with pistols, the combatants, being 40 paces apart, advancing 10 paces before firing if they chose, and having two shots each, miss-fires not counting; that the choice of position, the choice of pistols, and the signal for firing should be determined by tossing up; that if the pistols proved ineffectual swords should be resorted to to terminate the affair.

Cournet won the toss and got to choose his position and take the first shot. Barthelemy had to stand stock-still as Cournet

advanced his 10 paces and fired, but though on 14 similar occasions he had never failed to hit his opponent this time he missed. Barthelemy then told him that he had his life in his hands, but would surrender his right to fire if Cournet would agree to terminate the duel with swords. [Barthelemy had wanted swords to be the dueling weapon in the first place -ed.] Cournet declined to do so, saying that he would stand his adversary’s fire and take his second shot. Barthelemy then levelled his pistol, but … it snapped. He put a fresh cap on and it snapped a second time,† and it was then agreed that he should use Cournet’s pistol, which was loaded and handed to him. Before discharging it, however, he again offered ineffectually to terminate the contest with swords. He then fired, and with fatal precision.

Barthelemy himself and all four of the seconds involved (both Barthelemy’s and Cournet’s) were arraigned in this case, but the jury returned only a manslaughter verdict. Barthelemy served a few months; he would have to exercise fatal precision once again to find a different route to the scaffold.

In his non-duelling life, Barthelemy was a mechanical engineer, and it was in this capacity that a soda-water manufacturer named George Moore employed him to repair his machinery at 73 Warren Street, just off Fitzroy Square.

Late the night of Friday, December 8, Barthelemy showed up with a veiled woman at the place and asked for Moore. Minutes later, the servant-girl saw all three emerge struggling violently together from their private meeting. As she raced to the door to scream for help she saw the Frenchman raise a pistol and fire …

“Murder!”

Her screams started attracting the neighbors as Barthelemy burst past her, but an iron gate in front of the house obstructed him. Before more people could assemble he fled back into the house and locked it shut behind him.

Moore’s neighbor, a former East India Company man named Charles Collard, thought quickly to his own grief. Collard raced around the back side of the house where a garden opened onto another street, and arrived just in time to catch Barthelemy vaulting over the garden wall. Collard pounced on him, and in the ensuing melee Barthelemy shot him, too.

This was all too late for Barthelemy, for the delay had brought an onrushing of neighbors and passersby who quickly subdued the gunman. Somehow — nobody quite knew how — his companion was nowhere to be found. She had vanished from the house leaving only her veil, and as she had surely not escaped by the front gate it was thought that she must have found some way to slip out the back casually amid the commotion and made a nonchalant escape. She was never seen again.

Moore was found quite dead in his home: he’d been shot through the head, and the marks on his body indicated that the fatal wound had been preceded by some whacks with a cane. Collard lingered on many hours in agony — long enough for his captured murderer to be brought before him and Collard to deliver a signed j’accuse identifying Barthelemy as the villain.

Barthelemy must have had a way with jurors because even in convicting him for murder on this occasion, the panel still recommended mercy. There seems to have been some thought that the mysterious dispute in the house might have been a spontaneous affair qualifying as manslaughter, while the murder of Collard might have passed (since Collard grabbed Barthelemy) as self-defense. The crown unsurprisingly did not share this exceptionally generous view of a man who had already been in the dock for homicide in the past and declined to extend mercy.

Barthelemy disdained the religious entreaties of his captors, scandalizing the right-thinking with bon mots like “it is no use to pray to God, as God will not break the rope.” Indeed, He did not.

* It was perhaps fitting that Frenchmen, a people with an abiding enthusiasm for the duel, who transacted this milestone encounter. En garde!

** Per the London Times of Oct. 28, 1852, summarizing evidence presented in court.

† Upon post-duel examination it emerged that Barthelemy’s pistol had failed to discharge because of a bit of linen rag stuck in the breach. This eyebrow-raising fact gave rise to the suspicion of foul play, though on whose part and to what end is less distinct. Both guys ended up with a shot at one another with the exact same pistol. Cournet just missed his.

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1801: James Legg, crucified ecorche

1 comment November 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1801, 73-year-old James Legg(e) was hanged for murdering his mate William Lamb(e) at Chelsea Hospital.

Both men were pensioned ensigns from His Majesty’s service. According to the trial transcript, Legg was sinking into obvious depression. A nurse of long acquaintance remarked on

a lowness, a melancholy and deranged state; knowing him so long, I took the opportunity of asking him what was the matter with him, and the reason of his melancholy; he told me his mind was confused; that he had no rest night or day; that he was hurried from place to place, and could not tell what he was doing; and I really was afraid he would make away with himself; I was always unhappy when he was out of my sight, for fear he should do himself an injury; I never mentioned it to the doctor, because he was harmless … sometimes when I spoke to him, he would start like a person surprized out of a sleep; sometimes he would give me an answer, and sometimes only just a bow; I still observed that lowness and melancholy, and that his head was always confused down to the time of this unfortunate event.

Ah. The “unfortunate event.” Legg took it to mind that Lamb was “a tyrannical tempered man” who gave him “repeated insults” and challenged him to a duel. (Lamb’s widow, the only witness to the murder, said her husband had no beef with his killer.)

When Lamb quizzically (or scornfully) discarded the pistol that the irate Legg had forced into his hand, Legg just shot him dead.

He probably had no expectation that he’d just punched his ticket to artistic immortality.

Legg hanged exactly a month after the homicide. During the interval, three Royal Academy of Arts members — sculptor Thomas Banks and painters Benjamin West and Richard Cosway — pulled some strings with the Chelsea Hospital surgeon Joseph Carpue to get Legg’s body after death.

These gentlemen had an idea that centuries of artistic representation of Christ’s crucifixion were nonsense from a physiological point of view.


Giotto crucifixion fresco, c. 1300.

It was a natural outgrowth of Europe’s long fascination with anatomical accuracy — a fascination that made liberal use of executed bodies.

Despite the centrality of Christ’s crucifixion to western culture, nobody had seen an actual crucifixion — not for centuries. So, sure, you can make the guy on the cross look like a proportioned, three-dimensional human being …


Possible Michelangelo (otherwise, Marcello Venusti) Crucifixion with the Madonna, St. John and Two Mourning Angels.

… but is this really what a proportioned, three-dimensional human being would look like when nailed to a cross?

That Chelsea surgeon Carpue and his artist friends had the best way to find out. (Well … the second-best.)

“A building was erected near the place of the execution; a cross provided,” Carpue recorded. After hanging, “the subject was nailed on the cross; the cross suspended … the body, being warm, fell into the position that a dead body must fall into … When cool, a cast was made, under the direction of Mr. Banks, and when the mob was dispersed it was removed to my theatre.” West supposedly exclaimed that he had “never before seen the human hand” until he saw James Legg’s nailed and stretched.

Carpue proceeded to flay the cadaver and make a second cast from the grisly skin-less ecorche … an artistic/anatomical practice of the age whose best-known product is Smugglerius, also cast from a hanged man.

That latter ecorche still survives, and the despondent veteran James Legg’s last pose, hypothetically in the manner of the Savior, can be seen to this day the Royal Academy.

(Debate and experimentation over the particulars of an execution by cross also continue to this day.)

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1821: Timothy Bennett, duelist

Add comment September 3rd, 2012 Headsman

From the Oct. 12, 1927 Republican Herald recapping the Land of Lincoln’s hanging history on the occasion of its trendy switch to the electric chair.

Hanging has been the legal method of execution in the state of Illinois for 106 years, the first execution in the state being held at Belleville on September 3, 1821, when Timothy Bennett paid the penalty for murder resulting in a duel in which Timothy [sic -- the rest of the article refers to the victim as "Alphonso"] C. Stewart was killed.

According to the account appearing in an old history of St. Clair county, now in the state historical library, Timothy Bennett and Alphonso C. Stewart became involved in an argument while under the influence of liquor, on February 8, 1819, at Belleville. Friends interfered and sought to effect a reconciliation, but their efforts were unavail[ing]. Finally it was agreed to arrange a sham duel in the belief that the ridiculous issue would bring the two participants to their senses.

“The duel was arranged,” the account reads. “Jacob Short and Nathan Fike acted as seconds. When the word was given and the rifles discharged, it was proven the ‘sham’ duel was fought with powder and lead-at any rate Alphonso C. Stewart fell to the ground mortally wounded.

Special Session in Court

“Timothy Bennett was arrested and so were the seconds, Short and Fike. A special term of the circuit court was held March 8, 1919 [sic], under a special law of the legislature to hold said term. The officers of the court, John Reynolds, judge; John Hay, clerk, and W.A. Beard, sheriff, were all appointed by Governor Shadrack Bond.

“The grand jury found true bills of indictments for murder against Bennett and the two seconds after hearing the testimony of Reuben Anderson, James Parks, James Kincade, James Reed, Daniel Million, Ben Million, Peter Sprinkle and Michael Tannahill.

“When the case was called for trial the sheriff reported that Bennett had broken jail and was at large. Short and Fike had their trial in June 1819, and were acquited [sic].

“Bennett was captured and jailed about July 1, 1821. A special term of court was held July 26, 1821. The grand jury found a new indictment against him for the same offense

Trial Starts Immediately

“Bennett was put on trial July 27, 1821, before Judge Reynolds and a jury. The jury rendered a verdict July 28, and found the presoner [sic] guilty. He had entered a plea of not guilty.

“The court then proceeded to pass sentence upon him in the following words:

“And it being demanded of him if anything for himself he had or knew to say why the court should not proceed to pass sentence upon him, he said he had nothing more than he had before said. Therefore it was considered by the court that he be hanged by the neck until he is dead, and that the sheriff of the county do cause execution of this judgment to be done and performed on him, the said Timothy Bennett, on Monday, the third of September, next, between the hours of ten in the forenoon and four in the afternoon at or near the town of Belleville.”

“Neither Bennett nor his friends believed that this awful sentence would ever be executed. The latter made strenuous efforts to have him pardoned. Failing in this, they tried to have the sentence commuted. But the governor remained firm and against all entreaty.

“On the day appointed for his execution, Bennett was hanged near West Belleville, near the site of the Henry Raab school. The execution was witnessed by a multitude of men, women and children.

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1627: Francois de Montmorency and his second, for dueling

2 comments June 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1627, the Comte de Bouteville plus his cousin Des Chapelles lost their heads for fighting a duel — ultimately (because of the execution) one of the most notorious duels in French history.

Though this is the duel that everyone knows, Francois de Montmorency-Bouteville (English Wikipedia entry | French) had engaged in 22 such affairs of honor between the tender ages of 15 and 28. Like as not, he was the duellist par excellence in an age where demanding lethal satisfaction was all the rage among devil-may-care aristocratic straplings.

And this, of course, is why he was nominated for condign punishment in Louis XIII’s struggling anti-dueling campaign. One might say he nominated himself.

Dueling, a mano-a-mano vindication of feuds between fops, was an archaic holdover of Burgundian clan violence turned preposterous baroque ritual of conspicuous consociation.

It was also incredibly epidemic in France at this period.

During the reign of Louis’s predecessor Henri IV, 7,000 to 8,000 people are reported to have died in duels, which works out to the suspect rate of one per day for the entire period. Then again, France did have an excess supply of noble progeny whose violent impulses were no longer preoccupied by fratricidal religious warfare.*

Henri IV had tried to ban dueling, even in 1610 executing for lese majeste a couple members of his own guard who defied the ban. Just weeks later, and for no reason connected to dueling, Henri was assassinated. Then-nine-year-old heir Louis XIII was in no position at the time to follow up his father’s policy, and the naughty sport continued to flourish.

“Duels had become so common among the French nobility that the streets of Paris usually served as the field of combat,” according to the Mercure Francois. And as Richard Herr described in his “Honor versus Absolutism: Richelieu’s Fight against Dueling” (The Journal of Modern History, September 1955; this is also the source of all other quotes in this post), they often arose over utterly trivial “slights.”**

Typical was a duel in Lent of 1626 in which Bouteville [i.e., the subject of our post] with two seconds engaged the Comte de Thorigny and his two seconds. The fight was over a dispute between Thorigny and the Marquis de Chalais, who was in prison accused of treason. Bouteville was merely defending the honor of a friend. All six spent the night before the engagement in an inn outside Paris, and in the course of a fairly amicable conversation, they expressed regret that being good friends, they were going to kill each other over another gentleman’s quarrel. But they agreed that they had gone too far to be able to abandon the project without loss of honor. The next day Bouteville killed Thorigny after the latter’s sword broke.

By the 1620s, Louis was old enough to make another run at this intractable elite-on-elite crime wave, and did so with the full encouragement of his famous consigliere Cardinal Richelieu. Depriving the aristocracy of this weird extra-judicial prerogative fit right into the latter’s going campaign to centralize the French state and bring its quarrelsome lords to heel.

What with all those duels he liked to fight, Francois de Montmorency-Bouteville was a great test case. Fighting a public duel in January 1627 — at which his second was slain — made Bouteville a target, and he fled to the Netherlands for safety.

Our fugitive figured he’d send word that a pardon would be appreciated, and everything would blow over like it always did. But Louis was determined to disabuse this type of any privilege to commit public mayhem, and refused to grant Bouteville his absolution.

Honor offended — his default state, to judge by his career — Bouteville vowed angrily to “fight in Paris and in the Place Royale!” This he did on May 12, 1627, slipping back into France for the express purpose of dueling Guy Harcourt, the Marquis de Beuvron. And Bouteville disdained a private fight for the occasion, insisting, as he had declared, on a daytime melee where everyone could see it at the grand new Place Royale (today, Places des Vosges).


At least the setting was operatic. (cc) image from Christophe Alary.

Bouteville and Beuvron fought to a bloodless stalemate and agreed to call it a draw. But Bouteville’s second Des Chapelles mortally wounded Beuvron’s second.

Everyone fled, and while Beuvron made it out of the country, Montmorency and Des Chapelles were nabbed, and condemned to death by the Parlement of Paris for violating Louis’s royal edict against duels.

From the king’s standpoint, this was just about the most egregious possible arrangement of factors.

  • The guy was a serial offender, and he was already a fugitive for his last duel.
  • The fight had produced a fatality.
  • Worst, the whole scene — sneaking back into Paris, fighting openly within the potential view of the sovereign — had been overtly staged to scorn the royal ban.

If Louis intended his decree to mean anything at all, he had to come down hard on this one. “It is a question of cutting the throat of duels or of your majesty’s edicts,” Richelieu summarized.

But as clear-cut as were the case indicia, this was still a hard one for Louis, and even for the usually-ruthless Richelieu. Bouteville was a well-born noble, with powerful friends and family who were also close to the king, and they besieged the royal person with petitions for mercy. A sorrowing but firm Louis had to personally refuse mercy to Bouteville’s tearful wife. “Their loss affects me as much as it does you,” he said. “But my conscience prevents my pardoning them.”

Although the poor wife couldn’t make any headway for clemency, she had the better of Bouteville’s swordsmanship off the field of honor. The doomed duke bequeathed one last rapier thrust to posterity by leaving his widow-to-be pregnant with a posthumous son who eventually generalled French armies to any number of routs of the Dutch in the late 17th century.

And while Richelieu’s memoirs would depict this instance of executive implacability as a decisive turn, Herr argues that it was nothing but a brief interruption. The pernicious hobby was back in all its glory within a couple of years, an evil that even Richelieu could never master. France’s aspired-to absolutism could not reach that ancient and intimate noble right save in the very most exemplary case.

In Dumas’s Three Musketeers, set in 1620s France, D’Artagnan is charged by his father in the opening pages to “[n]ever fear quarrels … Fight on all occasions. Fight the more for duels being forbidden, since consequently there is twice as much courage in fighting.” And indeed, it is by blundering into silly duels (e.g., the “offense” caused by bumping into Porthos while hurrying down the stairs, the latter of whom considers D’Artagnan’s apology discourteously perfunctory) that D’Artagnan becomes the fourth of their cadre … because Richelieu’s men arrive to break up the illegal D’Artagnan-vs.-Musketeer melees, and D’Artagnan joins with his “foes” to defend, all for one and one for all, their privilege as gentlemen to slaughter one another.

The dueling phenomenon faded significantly under Louis XIV, but still not completely: Voltaire almost fought a duel in 1726; the artist Manet dueled a critic in 1870; and YouTube will favor the viewer with a number of 20th century professors and litterateurs settling long-forgotten affairs of honor — like disputes over wartime collaboration after World War II — in ceremonial swordfights.

And elsewhere in Germany, Russia, and everywhere Europe touched, duelling persisted into the 19th and even the 20th and even the 21st centuries.

* Also worth noting relative to the casualty numbers: each side’s seconds also fought, so it wasn’t strictly a one-on-one affair. A move for taking seconds out of the fight eventually prevailed, long before the end (if there has been a real end) of dueling, but in 1627 that time was not yet come.

** Across the Channel at this time, Francis Bacon was making much the same complaint against English duels.

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