1858: Maniram Dewan, tea infuser

Add comment February 26th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1858, the British hanged Assamese grandee Maniram Dewan for joining the 1857 Indian Rebellion.

Maniram was a young man going on 20 when the British wrested control from Burma of the eastern province Assam, and he carved himself a successful career in the empire.

But without doubt his lasting service to the Union Jack and the world was discovering to the British the existence of a theretofore unknown varietal of the tea plant, cultivated in Assam’s monsoon-drenched jungles by the Singhpo people* — a fact of geopolitical significance since it augured a means to crack the Chinese stranglehold on tea supply so taxing to the current accounts.** Today, rich Assam tea is one of the world’s largest tea crops, yielding 1.5 million pounds annually.

Maniram himself was among its earliest commercial cultivators (in fact, the first native Indian cultivator), setting up with an estate at the village of Chenimora in the 1840s, but the next decade found him increasingly irritated by the injuries British avarice to the extent that he began intriguing to restore the lately dispossessed kings.

With the outbreak of rebellion in 1857, Maniram and the like-minded made their move to restore the Ahom heir Kandarpeswar Singha but the plot was betrayed and landed its authors in irons.

Although he suffered the law’s last extremity for his plot, Maniram’s name lives on in honor in modern India. A trade center in Assam’s largest city bears his name, for instance; and, when India declared tea its official drink in 2013, it timed the announcement to fall on Maniram’s birthday (April 17, 1806).

* It goes without saying that imperial recognition of their secret produce did not redound to the benefit of the Singhpo. Although Singhpo assembled the very first export crop, much of their land was soon gobbled up by tea plantations, and when they rebelled in 1843 the East India Company annexed it outright. “Now it is said that where the tea grows, that is yours, but when we make sacrifices we require tea for our funerals,” a Singhpo chief wrote the Company, mournfully. “We therefore perceive that you have taken all the country, and we, the old and respectable, cannot get tea to drink.” (Source)

** China required payments in specie for tea, an imbalance which London tried to redress by foisting an undesirable import upon China — resulting in the Opium War.

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1747: Thomas Fuller, Hawkhurst Gang smuggler

Add comment November 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1747, a Tyburn hanging dispatched (along with three other, unconnected criminals) Thomas Fuller, member of one of 18th century England’s most notorious gangs.

Named for their home village, the Hawkhurst Gang dominated the trade in contraband in England’s south from Doset to Kent in the 1730s and 1740s, with the arms and ill-temper to trade blow for blow with crown agents who rightly learned to fear the syndicate. In the process that gang contributed several members to Blighty’s gibbets for various deeds of spectacular violence — gentlemen whom this site will revisit in future posts.

Our Mr. Fuller, however, was by the evidence laid at his trial a mere grunt, and his prosecution targeted the gang’s more routine forms of outlawry.

Despite the smuggler’s romantic knight-errant literary profile — Rhett Butler, Han Solo — it was for 18th century England a vast economic sector organized on a nearly industrial scale. Excise duties imposed on in-demand imports, notably tea but also spirits, tobacco, sugar, and other indulgences, made these articles so profitable to move illegally that it’s a fair bet that they were predominantly consumed as contraband. We have seen in these pages, from a post laid 30 years to the future, that tea smuggling was so commonplace that respectable country parsons made no pretense about securing their refreshments on the black market.

It was enterprises like the Hawkhurst Gang that delivered the leaf to its market.

Exploiting the long coastline, from which skiffs could scuttle to rendezvous with channel shipping, the gang built a storage infrastructure, supply chains, distribution networks. We have a taste of how this worked from the words of the attorney general at Fuller’s trial:

About the Beginning of August last the Prisoner at the Bar, with a great Number of other Persons, all of them on Horseback, arm’d with Fire-Arms, the Prisoner particularly, among the rest, with a Carbine or a Blunderbuss, together with the rest, was on Horseback; and they were then accompanied with several drove Horses, and upon the Horses they rode, as upon those they drove, they carried great Quantities of Tea in Oil-skin Bags, and Half-Anchors, peculiar to those Sort of People; a Peculiarity it is which no Goods besides is carried, in order to elude Justice.

Multiple witnesses in this case described how widespread the practice is; they were needed because the crown case had an evidentiary weakness: everyone knew that posses toting oilskin bags were tea smugglers, but the witnesses had not literally seen the defendant reveal the contents of his oilskin bags. Here is a customs agent named Walker explaining the situation:

Sollicitor-General. What is the Practice of Smugglers in carrying off their Goods?

Walker. Such time as I have been an Officer, which has been ten Years, I never took no Tea in my Life upon Horses, but what was in Oil-skin Bags. Wherever I had a Suspicion, and found Oil-skin Bags, I always found Tea.

Q. How many may you have found?

Walker. Thousands of Bags; when they are in a Hurry, and taken from the Sea, they are in Oil-skin Bags; but when they carry them up into the Country, they carry them in Sacks; there is never a Gang that comes from the Sea-side, but rides with something upon their Horses.

Later, a different officer made an equally important observation about the well-known Hawkhurst Gang: “we never attack’d them, because we were over-power’d.” The Hawkhurst Gang was hardly alone in this. As readily as Britons embraced their untaxed smuggled tea and brandy, the underworld firms that delivered them were growing frighteningly in size and propensity to violence during the 1740s.

Accordingly, they were met by a concerted crackdown by authorities. (And, perhaps more helpfully, a reduction in the tea tax.) In 1745, Parliament had stacked upon the century’s vast allotment of property crimes fresh capital offenses for armed smuggling — no matter whether those arms were actually used. For the case at hand, there was no need to link Fuller to a homicide or the like: only to show that he participated in the normal activities of the Hawkhurst Gang.

As was often the case, it was left to the likes of the Ordinary of Newgate to express in words the ideological message of smugglers’ execution. He did so with great vehemence (but less persuasive effect) when Fuller went to hang:

The common People of England in general, fancy there is nothing in the Crime of Smuggling, but cheating the King of a small Part of his Revenue; and that there is no Harm done to the Community in general, or to the Properties of particular Persons: They think they have a Right to shun, as much as possible, paying any Duty for their Goods, and what they get by their Dexterity in that Manner is honest Gain, to be enjoyed as the Fruits of their Industry and Labour; but a little Consideration will teach them to think otherways, and convince them, that Smuggling is in itself a Crime of worse Consequence to Society, and more hurtful to particular Persons, than many other Crimes which Custom has taught them to look upon with great Abhorrence.

The Prejudice done the Society, and the Damage received by Individuals, next to the express Declaration of the divine Will, are the best Marks by which we can judge of the Degree of Immorality in any Action whatever; and if we judge of their Crime of Smuggling by this Criterion, we shall find it a Sin of deep Dye, and to deserve the Resentment of every Man, who pretends to any Share of moral Honesty.

In the first Place, the fair Trader is injured in his Property by their kind of illicit Trade: He pays honestly the Duties and Taxes charged upon his Commodity at his Entry, which in some Cases amounts to near as much as the prime Cost of his Goods at the first Market; this he must charge upon the Consumer, with a living Profit for his Riske, Trouble and Out-lay of his Money; but the Smuggler, who buys his Goods at the same Market, and perhaps at a lower Price, as he chuses the worst Sort upon running them, is able to undersell the fair Dealer at least one Third, and for that Reason is, by the greedy Retailer, preferred, though the Commodity he deals in is worse in Quality. Is not this robbing the honest Merchant of his real Profit, and forcing him either to sell below what his Goods cost, or leave off a Branch of Trade, to which perhaps, he has served an Apprenticeship, and built extraordinary Hopes upon, of being a Support to him or his Family? I appeal to every thinking Man, if there is any material Difference betwixt ruining a Man by robbing him on the Highway, and this Method of beggaring him and his Family by Smuggling? If there is any Difference in Point of Immorality, it must lie on the Side of Smuggling, as the Evil attending it is more universal, and reaches farther. Few Men carry their All in their Pocket; and not one Man in a Thousand is ruined, by what is taken from him by the Highwayman: But there is not a Ship of Goods run upon our Coast but injures Hundreds; perhaps not immediately, but in Process of Time it certainly has that Effect. Not only the Parts adjacent, and the Dealers near the Smuggling Port suffer by this Means, but the most distant Corners of the Kingdom are affected by it in a few Weeks, in Proportion as it lowers the Price of the Commodity, and diminishes the publick Revenue. But it is this lowering the Price which is the great Temptation; the Cheapness of the Smugglers Goods tempts the Retailer to prefer him to the fair Trader, from a mistaken Notion that it is his peculiar Interest to buy as cheap as he can, and consequently he encourages, conceals, and connives at all the Villainies of this Set of People. But if such a Retailer should give himself Time to think, I believe he might easily persuade himself, that he is robbing Peter to pay Paul; that what he gets upon one Article, he loses on another.

It is evident, Taxes must be paid to support the Expences of the Government; and that every Subject, as he enjoys the Benefit of Government, is obliged to contribute his Proportion to that Expence. It is likewise evident, that if the Duties laid upon one Commodity does not answer the Sum charged upon it, that the Deficiency must be charged upon some other. Thus: Suppose the Duties charged upon Teas, Brandy, &c. falls short 100,000 l. of the Sum allotted to be raised upon these Commodities, is it not evident that this 100,000 l. must be charged upon Soap, Candles, Leather, Sand, or some other Branch? Suppose then a Dealer, by dealing with the Smuggler, saves about half the Duty payable to the King, or, which is the same thing, buys it so much cheaper from him than he would from the fair Trader, and that his Gains upon this Article amounts to ten or twenty Pounds a Year, I mean his illicit Gains, or the Difference between the trading Price and smuggling Price; now, as it is evident, that every twenty Pounds gained this Way lessens the Revenue forty Pounds, he or somebody else must re-place this Sum in the Treasury, by a Tax upon another Commodity; from whence it is as clear as the Sum; that instead of gaining twenty Pounds by his smuggling Dealer, he really loses twenty Pounds upon the Ballance. I own, he may not chuse to deal so largely in these other Articles, as to bring it to this Ballance, but some of his Neighbours may. And as much Money as they pay towards making up this Deficiency, occasioned by the Smuggler; just so much does the Person, who deals with such People, rob out of the Pocket of his Neighbour.

If I was to charge several People, who make no scruple for the Lucre of Profit, to buy Goods which they know to be run, with as foul a Crime as Robbery, or even that of cheating their Neighbour, they would be apt to treat me with some Severity, and think I much injured their Reputation: Yet, upon serious considering the Circumstance attending this Practice, they must at last own, they deserve no better Character than that of a Highwayman and Cheat.

Thus it is plain that Smuggling is a Crime of the most dangerous Nature, both against the Community and private Persons, and as such subject to the Divine Displeasure, as much as any other Felony. It is not only a Sin destructive to Society, and contrary to human Laws enacted for the Peace, Protection, and Subsistence of the State, but is a Sin against the literal Precepts, as well as the Meaning and Intent of Christianity: We are commanded Obedience to Government for Conscience sake; we are commanded to pay Tribute to whom Tribute is due. Our Saviour gave that Answer to the Jews, though that People had as much Reason as any People on Earth, to look upon the Romans as Tyrants, and having no Right to that Tribute, but what they founded upon the superior Force of their Arms; but how much stronger is the Christian Obligation, to pay towards the Support of a Government established? Not by Force or Fraud, butby the Consent of a free People, and conducted by all the Arts of prudent Policy conducing to their Happiness, both in their Religious and Civil Capacities.

If we consider ourselves as several Members united in one Society for our mutual Peace and Protection, we must conclude it the highest Piece of Injustice in us to refuse or evade by Force or Fraud to pay our Contingent of the Expence incurred for such valuable Purposes, as the securing our Religion and Liberties.

If the Government was to make any Infringement upon the Properties of Individuals, or aim at lessening the Freedom of the Constitution, how would the Smuggler and his Friends rail and exaggerate the mighty Grievance? Yet at the same Time grudge to pay their Quota, and take all Means in their Power by Deceit or Violence to cheat the Government of what enables them to preserve Order and Peace in the Community.

These Considerations alone are sufficient to awaken the Conscience of the Guilty in this Way, and to hinder us from affording them an unseasonable Compassion; but there yet remains some other Circumstances to blacken the Blackness of their Crime. These are the Manner in which they go about to execute their Smuggling Purposes.

They go in Companies together, armed with all Manner of offensive Weapons, and escorted by the most profligate Wretches they can pick up: They employ none in their Service but Fellows who have given Instances that their Consciences are Proof against all Checks of Morality, Religion or Law, and whose Courage is equal to the most daring Attempts upon the Peace of the Society. By these Men Perjury amongst others, is looked upon as a venial Transgression, beneath the Conscience of a Gentleman Smuggler to be troubled with. Murder, Rapes, and Robberies are with them but as frequent, as they conduce to their Interest. Their Character, their Cruelty, and Numbers has given them another Source of Encouragement, and a new set of Allies. For Numbers of the Country People who perhaps abhor their Practice, from the Dread they have justly conceived of their Power, find themselves obliged, tho’ against their Wills, to connive at or conceal, and even to assist them, and when they are not willing, they are compelled to lend their Aid. For when a Smuggling Vessel touches on the Coast, those concerned or their Associates meet at a Place of Rendezvous, and press all the Horses they meet with for their Service, which they sometimes return, and sometimes not, just as their Business requires, and the Owners dare not complain for fear of having their Throats cut, or their Houses set on Fire: Not only single Houses, but whole Villages and trading Boroughs are kept in this slavish Dependence upon them, out of real Apprehension of Danger, without any Regard to Profit in dealing with them.

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1719: Frans Anneessens, Brussels guildmaster

Add comment September 19th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1719, Dutch guild chief Frans Anneessens was beheaded on Brussels’ Grand Place.

The southern Low Countries — today’s Belgium — had remained in Spanish hands when the northern part — present-day Netherlands — broke free back in the 16th century.

That meant it was one of the lots on the table when Europe bargained the Spanish patrimony by arms in the early 18th century. For geopolitical reasons (basically, as a bulwark against France, who had lost the war), this proto-Belgium was handed over to Austria.

Neither the empire nor its ward greeted this absentee-landlord arrangement with enthusiasm.

The city of Brussels at this point* was governed by the “nine nations”, nine craft guild consortiums wielding privileges dating to the medieval economy who together dominated the city. Defending these privileges against absolutist states intent on rolling them back was a major bone of contention in Brussels, even years before the Austrian handover.

Monument in Brussels to Frans Anneessens. (cc) image from EmDee

Frans Anneessens (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch | French) who was dean of the “Saint Christopher” nation (comprising dyers, cloth shearers, lacemakers and chairmakers), had a prominent part advancing the (losing) argument for maximal guild privileges.

Just what the ancient rights of the guilds embraced had long been contested with the Spanish crown, and apparently the Brussels town council kept the charters enumerating a very expansive grant of them locked up — until they were accidentally revealed thanks to a bombing in the Nine Years’ War, then published widely.

So did the guilds get these rights or no?

Anneessens in 1698-99 argued the nations’ case before the equally ancient Council of Brabant, and lost: Spanish Austria was suffered to curtail the Brussels guilds, and although the guilds provocatively refused to swear their customary oath to the new arrangement the Spanish were able to squelch the ensuing disturbances by 1700.

The tensions rested, unresolved, through the war years but come 1717 they resurfaced when the Austrian-import governor the Marquis of Prie demanded fresh oaths upon the hamstrung guild privileges, and new taxes to boot. Again the guilds refused — not only in Brussels but Ghent, Antwerp and Mechlin.

Prie only quelled this half-revolt in 1719 but when he did,

he took drastic measures. Five leaders, including Anneessens, were arrested. They were all locked inside the Stone Gate, and a scandalous trial followed, during which Prie did everything he could to get Anneessens, whom he viewed as the brains behind the resistance, convicted. Anneessens received a death sentence, which he proudly refused to sign, and was beheaded on 18 September 1719 [sic**]. After the execution the people of Brussels mourned and collected his blood as relics, and priests in some of the churches held requiems in spite of strenuous attempts by Prie, supported by the higher clergy (the Archbishop of Mechlin) to prevent this. Prie had wanted to “make an example” with this execution and in fact succeeded, despite the sympathy of the people of Brussels for their martyr. (Hetty Wertheim-Gijse Weenink, “Early 18th Century Uprisings in the Low Countries: Prelude to the Democratic Revolution,” History Workshop, spring 1983)

* The guild-nation governance system would persist until Belgium was occupied by France after the French Revolution.

** Literally every other source I found, including the inscription on the Anneessens monument, prefers September 19 for the man’s execution.

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1653: Six beheaded and one hanged for the Swiss Peasant War

3 comments July 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1653, seven ringleaders of Switzerland’s greatest peasant revolt were executed in Basel.


Six were decapitated (like the foreground) and one hanged (find the triangular gallows in the background).

Not widely known now outside of Switzerland, the peasant war of 1653 shook the Swiss city-states so profoundly that it was described in its own time as a revolution.

Like most peasant rebellions, it was triggered by the economy; a recovery of peacable harvests after the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 had staggered Swiss peasants who had grown accustomed to selling their produce abroad at a premium. When they were pressed even harder by taxes and currency devaluations inflicted by the city-states with their own budget problems, they found their breaking-point.

In February 1653, peasants of the Entlebuch Valley gathered in an illegal assembly and decided to stop tax payments to Lucern until they got some concessions.

To the chagrin of urban grandees, Entlebuch’s refusal soon began garnering sympathetic imitations among its neighbors and peasant resistance spread across the whole north, spanning the put-upon rural dominions of four cities: Lucern, Bern, Basel, and Solothurn.


(cc) image by Lupo.

Tense negotiations continued into April, but Lucern’s concessions were undone by its refusal to offer a blanket amnesty that would also cover the rebellion’s leaders. That May, with the cities still powerless to control affairs, the disaffected peasants throughout the region united in theLeague of Huttwil — named for the little town where they met. In this cross-confessional compact, Catholic and Protestant peasants made common purpose and declared themselves a sovereignty apart from the cantons. Then, the army they had raised from their number marched on both Lucern and Bern simultaneously, the threatened sieges respectively led by Christian Schybi and Niklaus Leuenberger. Bern was so unprepared for this turn of events that it had to capitulate to the peasantry’s demands, which arrangement led Lucern also to conclude a truce.

In so doing the cities had to capitulate to the peasantry’s economic demands. Had this state of affairs somehow stood, it would have forced a rewrite in the relationship between city and country throughout the Swiss confederation.

And for just that reason, the affected cities as well as nearby Zurich were raising armies to undo the nascent revolution. Within days, troops from Zurich had dealt the peasant force a crushing defeat at the Battle of Wohlenschwil, then united with a Bernese column to conclusively shatter the rebellion. Before June was out, all of Entlebuch Valley stood pacified and the rebellion’s leaders lay in dungeons. To the peasantry’s economic burdens was added a bitter levy to fund the war that had smashed them.

Several dozen peasants were executed in the ensuing weeks, most aggressively by the canton of Bern — whence derives today’s illustration.

Notwithstandng such vengeance, The Swiss were wise enough to wield the carrot along with the stick. Even as the cities re-established their political control of the countryside, they took care in the coming years to use a lighter touch in governing the peasantry for fear of stoking new disturbances; arguably, the memory and the threat of the peasant war might have checked the potential development of absolutism in Switzerland.

How’s your German? Two academic books on the Swiss Peasant War

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1573: Lippold ben Chluchim, scapegoat

Add comment January 28th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Jewish courtier Lippold ben Chluchim was broken on the wheel and cut into quarters.

Most of the readily available information about poor Lippold is in German; his was a fate similar to the 18th century “Jud Süß”, minus the worldwide notoriety conferred by a Nazi propaganda film.

Though born in Prague, Lippold would live a life, and die a death, in the orbit of the Elector of Brandenburg — a principality where Jews endured precipitous reversals of fortune over the centuries.

Elector Joachim I had actually expelled Jews from the territory in 1510* after riots incited by rumors of desecrating the Host; Lippold and his family would benefit when Joachim’s son, also named Joachim, rescinded some of the old man’s harsh ordinances and invited Jews to return. Lippold was about 12 years old when his family took advantage of the liberalization and relocated to Berlin in 1542.

By adulthood, the able Lippold had plugged into Joachim II’s court and become a trusted favorite. While Joachim’s dad must have been turning in the grave, one imagines the son appreciated the loyalty of an aide whose prestige depended entirely upon the prince himself.

Events would underscore painfully Lippold’s vulnerability to the turning wheel of fortune.

As Brandenburg’s master of the mint, it fell to Lippold to implement a wide-ranging currency debasement program required by Joachim to finance his spendthrift government — basically passing on the cost to merchants who were required by edict to accept the local coinage at its fanciful face value.

Despite this hated policy, plus additions to the state’s rounds of direct taxation, Joachim was 2.5 million guilders in debt when he died suddenly during a hunting trip on the third of January in 1571. Things immediately turned grim for Brandenburg’s Jewry after the liberal Joachim fils was in the earth; a pogrom sacked Berlin’s synagogue and rampaged through the Jewish quarter.

Joachim’s son and successor Johann Georg likewise found in his father’s Jewish henchman — a man who had naturally waxed very wealthy and very unpopular doing the previous sovereign’s dirty work — a ready scapegoat for Brandenburg’s financial woes. Johann Georg accused Lippold of using black magic and poison to assassinate his benefactor and persuaded Lippold in the usual way to confirm it. Jews beheld the reinstatement of that old proscription, little more than 30 years after Joachim II had canceled it — and they were once again expelled from Berlin en masse.

* Complete with a mass execution.

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1831: Edmund Bushby, Swing rioter

Add comment January 1st, 2016 Headsman

On New Year’s Day of 1831, Edmund Bushby was hanged in Horsham for arson committed during southern England’s great agricultural labor rising, the Swing Riots.

“Captain Swing” was the rebellion’s namesake, a Ned Ludd-like legendary archetype, a figurehead who could never swing from the gallows. Swing was a long-suffering tenant farmer fallen desperately below subsistence and ready to fight back, and it goes without saying that in this the fictional “captain” mirrored his very real cohort — who were known to sign the captain’s anonymizing name to their letters threatening prosperous farmers: “work, money, or fire”.

Wages in Britain, which perhaps were mired in a generations-long slide to begin with, had cratered painfully following the Napoleonic Wars. And few felt the pinch more sharply than the working class in the rural economies of England’s southern half from East Anglia, Essex and Kent clear across to Somerset and Devon. Here, without the wage prop that coal mining was already beginning to confer in the north, the situation in the fields grew desperate.*

Years later, in 1851, James Caird would draw an east-west line through the English countryside — a wages line, he called it. North of that line, Caird noticed, agricultural workers were still being paid better than their brethren to the south by an enormous margin, 30% or more.

And so with the onset of harder times, like a devastating financial crash in the 1820s, this was also the line below which every farmhand existed at the edge of utter destitution — mitigated only by a niggardly allotment of poor relief forever squeezed smaller by its donors, the local landowners.** This zone of rural immiseration was the home of Captain Swing.


From Stuart Macdonald, “The progress of the early threshing machine”, Agricultural History Review, 23:1 (1975). It’s available online in pdf form here.

In 1830, following two consecutive years of crop failures, English radical William Cobbett published his survey of the countryside’s growing want in his Rural Rides. Written over the course of several years previous, it was a prescient appraisal.

As far as I had an opportunity of ascertaining the facts, the farmers feel all the pinchings of distress, and the still harsher pinchings of anxiety for the future; and the labouring people are suffering in a degree not to be described. The shutting of the male paupers up in pounds is common through Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Left at large during the day, they roam about and maraud. What are the farmers to do with them? God knows how long the peace is to be kept, if this state of things be not put a stop to.

Those words Cobbett set down late in 1829. By the summer of the following year, labor rebellions began breaking out in these counties.

This wave of mutually inspired resistance saw villages’ working classes take the offensive against their local grandees. Beginning that summer, farmers’ hay ricks were set ablaze by secret arsonists; resistance rapidly metastasized from that point. (See this pdf.) “Burnings were necessary to bring people to their senses,” one Swing radical proclaimed — to force the rural gentry to come to terms with the plight of their neighbors.


1844 Punch magazine cartoon. (Source)

Following a long tradition of English machine-wrecking, Swing rioters also turned their fury on hated threshing machines, which were popping up by the hundreds and promising to displace still more of the shrinking wage share available in the countryside. (A very cheap portable machine invented in 1829 augured especially ill for the workers whose labor it would obviate; see N.E. Fox, “The Spread of the Threshing Machine in Central Southern England”, The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1978).)

Nearly 400 were reportedly destroyed from 1830-1832 — and typically the owner of the machine would then be mulcted £2 per thresher for the dismantling labor. (In the subsequent assizes, these forcibly exactions were prosecuted as highway robbery.)

A countryside threatening to go up in flames like the farmers’ ricks inspired the requisite shock and exercise of state suppression, beginning with an aggressive investigation with widespread prosecutions in the last weeks of 1830. By the time it was all said and done, 252 people were sentenced to die and although all save 19 of those were commuted to transportation, the effect of a few very public examples would scarcely be neglected. Thomas Hardy,† born in 1840 the son of rural Dorset stonemason, would later describe his father’s recollection of the Swing days:

My father saw four men hung for being with some others who had set fire to a rick. Among them was a stripling boy of eighteen … with youth’s excitement he had rushed to the scene to see the blaze … Nothing my father ever said to me drove the tragedy of life so deeply into mind.

Edmund Bushby was one of these misfortunate souls marked for the scaffold instead of Australia. (Another Swing arsonist, Thomas Goodman, was to have hanged immediately after Bushby. Goodman was reprieved but was not told of it until after Bushby died.)

Convicted at the busy Lewes assizes of torching farmer George Oliver’s wheat in East Preston, Bushby hanged firmly‡ before a crowd of “eight to nine hundred persons,” according to the January 4 Morning Chronicle reprint of a Sussex Advertiser report,

three parts out of four of whom appeared to be agricultural labourers, who seemed deeply affected at the awful scene, and the most profound silence prevailed amongst them. The Sheriff’s javelin men surrounded the gallows, and two companies of foot guards were drawn up on the square, in the centre of the town, a considerable distance from the jail, and not within sight of the populace. Every thing passed off with the utmost order and decorum.

After the body had been suspended the usual time, it was cut down and delivered to the friends of the deceased for interment, who were waiting with a cart to receive it.

* The southern counties, nearest London, were also the areas where enclosure was most advanced and the rural labor force most thoroughly proletarianized.

** To add to the woes, comfortable parish parsons also had a customary right to exact a cash tithe that their flock could scarcely afford in bad times.

† We have met Thomas Hardy several times in these pages; his was surely a soul sensitive to the plight of the condemned. Hardy [probably] set the action of his short story “The Withered Arm” (with its gallows climax) in the Swing Riots period.

‡ His reported last words on the scaffold: “I hope you will take warning from my fate; and, my dear fellows, always attend to the Sabbath-day.” If accurately reported — and unironically uttered — this ageless gallows formula so irrelevant to Bushby’s situation surely attests to the power of a cliche. There is a good chance that Bushby heard these words spoken by some other hanged fellow in his lifetime, and knew them described more widely than that as the sort of thing everyone ought to say before turning off.

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1816: Five Ely and Littleport rioters

Add comment June 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1816, England hanged five men for a bread riot.

The war against Napoleon, only just concluded, had from 1812 enthroned a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary government under the Earl of Liverpool.

The 1810s were rough years for England’s working population, and distinguished by violent class conflict whose suppression was among the Crown’s chief cares.

The particular locus of conflict here is the most pressing and ancient in civilization: the price of bread.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon had embargoed continental Europe’s trade with Britain. With the Corsican’s end, the Tory government had in 1815 enacted Corn Laws protecting English grain markets from a sudden onset of competition.

This sop to the Tories’ landowner supporters propped up the already inflated price of bread and triggered social unrest throughout Great Britain.

Preoccupied as she was by the specter of Jacobinism, London could hardly imagine that even geology was conspiring against her: the gigantic 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia caused a global volcanic winter that made 1816 a year without a summer in the northern hemisphere — crippling agriculture across Europe.

But the bottom line was that war-inflated grain prices having fallen precipitously in the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat turned right around and spiked back up once British farmers were protected from import competition. Wages, it need hardly be said, did not enjoy a similar spike; to the contrary, they were suppressed by the legions of demobilized soldiers who returned from Waterloo in glory to discover a ruinous cost of living with scant prospect for employment. Dr. Marjorie Bloy contends that Britons “suffered more, economically, socially, and politically” during the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars than during their prosecution.

Landholders as a class had gained more than anyone else from the preceding generation of warfare and its attendant embargo, and not neglected to aggressively enclose more and more acreage on which to raise their ever more lucrative produce. Their transparent cupidity in gouging from the hard-won peace chagrined their countrymen. In “Age of Bronze” (1823), Lord Byron skewered the sententious patriotism of “The landed interest — (you may understand / The phrase much better leaving out the land)”:

See these inglorious Cincinnati swarm,
Farmers of war, dictators of the farm;
Their ploughshare was the sword in hireling hands,
Their fields manured by gore of other lands;
Safe in their barns, these Sabine tillers sent
Their brethren out to battle — why? for rent!
Year after year they voted cent per cent,
Blood, sweat, and tear-wrung millions — why? for rent!
They roar’d, they dined, they drank, they swore they meant
To die for England — why then live? — for rent!
The peace has made one general malcontent
Of these high-market patriots; war was rent!
Their love of country, millions all mis-spent,
How reconcile? by reconciling rent!
And will they not repay the treasures lent?
No: down with every thing, and up with rent!
Their good, ill, health, wealth, joy, or discontent,
Being, end, aim, religion — rent, rent, rent!

On May 22, 1816, some residents of the Cambridgeshire village of Littleport collected at a local pub to commiserate with one another about this common grievance.

Fortified by their tankards, the crowd spilled out into the streets and began abusing their most prosperous neighbors — in some cases merely menacing them; in others, invading and looting homes, extorting money, and gorging on wine.

A Rev. John Vachell fled the unfolding riot to the nearby (and larger) town of Ely where he alerted authorities. By daybreak, the Ely rioters, now swollen to a mob of hundreds and armed with pitchforks and guns, had arrived at Ely too. There local grandees engaged them in a dilatory negotiation with liberal wage concessions to mellow the mood — while the dragoons, cavalry, and militia that had been called for at Rev. Vachell’s first alarm were being summoned from Bury St. Edmunds.

They did not arrive until late the afternoon of the 23rd, and were not able to press their confrontation with the unrulies until the following day.

A small-scale but frightening urban skirmish took place on May 24 with rioters firing at the gendarmes from houses and the soldiers returning same, until the crowd was pinned down at last in the George and Dragon and from there its members either surrendered or scattered to flight.

Out of an estimated 300 or so rioters, about 80 went to trial, and 24 received capital sentences — all of this taking place within a month after events. The court understood in imposing its sentences that the punitive bloodbath would be a bit more constrained: 19 sentences were commuted, many of them joining comrades who had been directly sentenced to convict transportation.

William Beamiss, George Crow, John Dennis, Isaac Harley, and Thomas South were the five left to pay for the day’s excesses; their black-shrouded gallows-cart had to be rented from Cambridge lest a local provisioner incur the wrath of the populace.

Hauled to the suitably evil-sounding “Parnell Pits”, they were swung off after making penitential remarks submitting to the justice of their doom. As an example, Dennis (who also managed to attribute his end to those old gallows saws, “Sabbath-breaking, whoremongery, and bad company”) begged the crowd come to watch him die to “refrain from breaking the laws of your country! Remember the words o the Judge, that tried us for the crimes for which we are now going to suffer, who said, ‘The law of the land will always be too strong for its assailants, and those who defy the law, will, in the end, be subdued by the law, and be compelled to submit to its justice or its mercy.'” (Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette, July 6, 1816)

Though the speaker evidently meant his words earnestly, some of those onlookers scrabbling to afford their daily bread must have heard them with a certain amount of bitterness. To argue the law’s strength is not to argue its justice.

But the address, and the strangulation that its author was put to directly thereafter, served their purpose. Cambridgeshire’s fens became quiescent — though it was very far from deterring the rest of the English working class.


Memorial to the executed rioters at St. Mary’s church, Ely. ((cc) image from John McCullough)

The Corn Laws were not repealed until 1846.

* Edward Christian, older brother of HMS Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian, was Chief Justice of the Isle of Ely (not a literal island) and one of the presiding magistrates at the rioters’ tribunal.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Rioting,Theft

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1929: Nikolaus Karlovich von Meck, wrecker

Add comment May 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On or about this date in 1929, Russian railway magnate Nikolaus (Nikolai) Karlovich von Meck was shot as a saboteur.

Von Meck (Russian link) had the iron horse in his blood: his father Karl was among Russia’s first railroad-builders after the Crimean War clock-cleaning motivated the tsar to make with the modernizing.

While von Meck pere was busy laying crossties in the 1860s, the St. Petersburg Conservatory was germinating the young composer Tchaikovsky. In time, the two men would be linked by the union of their kin: our man Nikolaus Karlovich von Meck married Tchaikovsky’s niece, Anna.

It wasn’t just a glancing association with the musical colossus for the von Mecks. Karl’s widow — Nikolaus’s mother — Nadezhda was Tchaikovsky’s main financial patron for 13 years. They weren’t lovers: Tchaikovsky was gay, and the reclusive Nadezhda von Meck demanded as a condition of her patronage that they never meet. But they kept up a voluminous correspondence, and Tchaikovsksy dedicated several works to her — like this Sympohony No. 4 in F minor.

So Nikolaus von Meck was the genius’s patron’s son as well as the genius’s niece’s husband.

He was also a brilliant engineer and entrepreneur in his own right; over the 26 years preceding the Russian Revolution, he chaired the Moscow-Kazan Railway firm that his father had begun back in the 1860s. Under the son’s leadership its rail-mileage multiplied more than tenfold. He was also one of Russia’s first motorists.

Von Meck remained in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, continuing to work on developing the now-Soviet state’s rail infrastructure — his means reduced, he remained no less the conscientious and patriotic artificer. That held even after the man was arrested as a counter-revolutionary a few different times in the revolution’s early years; each time he was soon released.

But by the late 1920s, Stalin was in full control and the industrialist would become the first subject of a new Soviet law against “wreckers”.

Ostensibly designed to target the saboteurs that were supposedly retarding economic growth, it would prove its utility in the frightful years ahead as a first-rate instrument of the Terror. The prospect that any economic setback, inefficiency or controversy could be lethally attributed to a cabal of global capitalists intent on strangling communism in the crib made “wrecking” as flexible and as devastating a charge as witchcraft had once been. How do you even begin to rebut that? Wrecking would in time be attributed to innumerable purge victims, great and small, and an implied whip against every worker who might be slacking on his production quota.

This potent juridical apparatus went for its first spin in the North Caucuses city of Shakhty in 1928-29. The Shakhty Trial of 53 engineers and technicians as “wreckers” also has the distinction of being Stalin’s first show trial. Von Meck and four other men* were condemned to die, a comparatively modest harvest of blood next to what was to come; 44 others went to prison.

“What accomplished villains these old engineers were! What diabolical ways to sabotage they found!” Solzhenitsyn mused of those luckless souls in The Gulag Archipelago.

Nikolai Karlovich von Meck of the People’s Commissariat of Railroads, pretended to be terribly devoted to the development of the new economy, and would hold forth for hours on end about the economic problems involved in the construction of socialism, and he loved to give advice. One such pernicious piece of advice was to increase the size of freight trains and not worry about heavier than average loads. The GPU [forerunner of the NKVD, which in turn became the KGB -ed.] exposed von Meck, and he was shot: his objective had been to wear out rails and roadbeds, freight cars and locomotives, so as to leave the Republic without railroads in case of foreign military intervention! When, not long afterward, the new People’s Commissar of Railroads, Comrade Kaganovich, ordered that average loads should be increased, and even doubled and tripled them (and for this discovery received the Order of Lenin along with others of our leaders) — the malicious engineers who protested became known as limiters. They raised the outcry that this was too much, and would result in the breakdown of the rolling stock, and they were rightly shot for their lack of faith in the possibilities of socialist transport.

Nikolaus and Anna’s daughter Galina Nikolayevna von Meck — who did time in Siberian exile herself in the 1930s — wrote a memoir of her famous family in 1973, As I Remember Them.

* Notably Peter Palchinsky, whose life is dealt with in some detail in Loren Graham’s The Ghost of the Executed Engineer: Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1715: Thomas Nairne, Charles Town Indian agent

Add comment April 15th, 2015 Headsman

The generations-long conquest of indigenous peoples in North America might look from posterity like a historical ienvitability, but the 1715-1718 Yamasee War was perhaps “as close to wiping out the European colonists as ever [they] came during the colonial period.” (Gary Nash, quoted by William Ramsey in “‘Something Cloudy in Their Looks': The Origins of the Yamasee War Reconsidered”, Journal of American History, June 2003. This post draws heavily from Ramsey’s article, which is the source of any quote not otherwise attributed.) In it, not only the Yamasee but a vast coalition of peoples throughout what is today the United States Southeast nearly swept the British out of South Carolina.

And it started three hundred years ago today with some executions.

British South Carolina had extensive trading contacts with the native peoples in their environs — acquiring deerskins and Indian slaves for the plantation colony — and said trading had too often been a flashpoint between alien cultures. South Carolina’s annals record a number of instances of natives crudely abused by Anglo merchants, including women whose bodies were next to sacrosanct for the matrilineal Yamasee, and traders aggressively taking slaves even from friendly tribes. Many years later a Lower Creek man would recall that “we lived as brothers for some time till the traders began to use us very ill and wanted to enslave us which occasioned a war.”

It has never been entirely clear just why and how such individual abuses, even as a pattern, triggered in 1715 something as drastic as military action; our source William Ramsey suspects that they only hint at much wider-ranging economic pressures of the Atlantic economy, which entangled native peoples in debt and warped traditional lifeways towards producing ever more deerskins for export, obtained at ever poorer prices from ever more belligerent merchants.

Just as trade relations were at their most antagonistic, the colonial capital Charles Town fell down on the diplomatic side of the job. (This is, again, per Ramsey.)

The colony had created in 1707 an office of Indian Agent.

Intended to manage the complications of its sometimes-delicate cross-cultural trade and police the traders, the post instead became a locus of bitter competition between two men: Thomas Nairne and John Wright. (There’s a 1710 account of South Carolina in Nairne’s hand available here.) These two men, South Carolina’s most expert Indian diplomats and the only two men ever to hold the Indian agent office, had by the 1713-1715 period become consumed with their internal rivalry. Wright, a trader who thought Nairne too accommodating of the natives generally and unduly meddlesome with Wright’s own commerce specifically, bombarded the latter with lawsuits; Nairne eventually had to stay in Charles Town almost permanently to protect his own affairs. The colony’s diplomatic voice fell silent — which meant that rapacious traders squeezing mounting debts on their spring rounds in 1715 were that voice.

In annoyance, one tribe returned an ultimatum to Charles Town: “upon the first Afront from any of the Traders they would down with them and soe goe on with itt.” (See The Southern Frontier, 1670-1732)

That warning got the colony’s attention.

The Indian Agent rivals Wright and Nairne were dispatched together to meet with the Yamasees at Pocotaligo and smooth things over. But just as these men stood at loggerheads professionally, they were noted for quite distinct policies towards the Indians: Nairne was the friendly hand, the man who sympathized with natives. Wright was the asshole. If their joint presence was intended to be a good cop-bad cop act, they carried it off as clumsily as their mutual antipathy might suggest.

In a famous meeting on the night of April 14, Nairne, Wright, and a number of traders seemingly reassured the Yamasees over a feast that their grievances would be redressed, and went to sleep satisfied that matters were well in hand.

It was not so for the Yamasees, who held council that night after the Europeans were tucked away. An unknown Indian leader who signed himself “the Huspaw King” would later dictate a letter to a hostage charging that at the April 14 meeting

Mr. Wright said that the white men would come and fetch [illegible] the Yamasees in one night and that they would hang four of the head men and take all the rest of them for slaves, and that he would send them all off the country, for he said that the men of the Yamasees were like women, and shew’d his hands one to the other, and what he said vex’d the great warrier’s, and this made them begin the war.

We don’t know if this was on-message for the delegation — a glimpse of the iron fist that Nairne’s politesse was to glove — or delivered privately in Wright’s going campaign to undermine his opposite number. What we do know is that the Yamasees had seen both these men in authority over colonial-Indian trade over the past several years: on the night of April 14-15, they had to decide between mixed messages. Could they count on Nairne’s reassurances of comity? Or should they believe, as Wright intimated, the increasingly obnoxious inroads of traders presaged the outright destruction of their people?

April 15th was Good Friday. And the Europeans awoke to their Calvary.

The Yamasees’ decision about the intentions of their European counterparts was far from internally unanimous — but it was instantly effected.

“The next morning at dawn their terrible war-whoop was heard and a great multitude was seen whose faces and several other parts of their bodies were painted with red and black streaks, resembling devils come out of Hell,” a plantation owner later wrote to London. Most of the Europeans were killed on the spot, Wright apparently among them. A couple of them escaped.

And for Thomas Nairne, a stake in the center of the little village awaited, with an agonizing torture-execution said to have required three days before Nairne mercifully expired on April 17th.

The red indicates War, and the black represents the death without mercy which their enemies must expect.

They threw themselves first upon the Agents and on Mr. Wright, seized their houses and effects, fired on everybody without distinction, and put to death, with torture, in the most cruel manner in the world, those who escaped the fire of their weapons. Amongst those who were there, Captain Burage (who is now in this town, and from whom I derive what I have just said) escaped by swimming across a river; but he was wounded at the same time by two bullets, one of which pierced his neck and came out of his mouth, and the other pierced his back and is lodged in his chest, without touching a vital spot. …

Another Indian Trader (the only one who escaped out of a large number) saved his life by crawling into a marsh, where he kept himself hid near the town. He heard, during the whole day, an almost continual fire, and cries and grievous groans. He often raised his head in his hiding-place, and heard and saw unheard-of things done; for the Indians burned the men, and made them die in torture. They treated the women in the most shameful manner in the world. And when these poor wretches cried O Lord! O my God! they danced and repeated the same words mocking them. Modesty forbids me to tell you in what manner they treated the women: modesty demands that I should draw a veil over this subject.

This man who had witnessed so many cruelties, stripped himself naked so as completely to resemble the Indians; and in this state, made his escape by night, crossing the town without being perceived, he heard many people talking there, and saw several candles in each house; and having avoided the sentries, God granted that he should arrive here safe and sound.

Mr. Jean Wright, with whom I had struck up a close friendship, and Mr. Nairne have been overwhelmed in this disaster. I do not know if Mr. Wright was burnt piece-meal, or not: but it is said that the criminals loaded Mr. Nairne with a great number of pieces of wood, to which they set fire, and burnt him in this manner so that he suffered horrible torture, during several days, before he was allowed to die.

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1937: Alexander Chayanov, economist of the peasantry

Add comment October 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Soviet economist Alexander Chayanov was shot during Stalin’s purges.

“Our present capitalist form of economy represents only one particular instance of economic life and the validity of the scientific discipline of the national economics as we understand it today, based on the capitalist form and meant for its scientific investigation, cannot and should not be extended to other organizational forms of economic life.” (via)

A specialist in the rural economy, Chayanov was noted for his forward thinking about Russia’s backwards peasantry.

Prevailing Marxist orthodoxy envisioned this class hurtling inevitably towards capitalism as its members sought their own advantage;* against this, Chayanov emphasized the resilience of the peasantry. And not only that, he postulated that the unwaged peasantry operated in an economic constellation alien to the classical model of value maximization — and would rather tend to relax labor once it reached subsistence production, rather than working ever onwards to attain surplus value and Five-Year Plan quotas.

This theory accurately anticipated difficulty for Soviet agricultural policies like collectivization and grain confiscation.

Denounced as an apologist for the refractory kulaks — official agrarian bogeymen of the early Soviet state — Chayanov was arrested in 1930 and found himself shipped to a labor camp in Kazakhstan. He was re-arrested in 1937, tried, condemned, and shot in a single day; his wife Olga also disappeared into the gulag only to be released in 1955, after Stalin’s death. They were officially rehabilitated in 1987 under Mikhail Gorbachev.

Though Chayanov’s own work was cut short by his suppression, his ideas would resurface in the postwar period and find exponents among western economists and social scientists. Nor have those ideas been exclusively of interest to academics studying peasant societies; Chayanov’s emphasis on the family as an essential economic unit found an echo in the New Home Economics field launched in the 1960s by classical economists like Gary Becker, while his appreciation for maintaining a harmonious relationship to the land has been revived in contemporary Russia by Vladimir Megre‘s “Ringing Cedars” eco-cult.

* Marx wrote in Theories of Surplus Value that the “peasant who produces with his own means of production will either gradually be transformed into a small capitalist who also exploits the labor of others, or he will suffer the loss of his means of production … and be transformed into a wage worker.”

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