1900: Joseph Hurst

Add comment March 30th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1900, Joseph Hurst hanged in Glendive, Montana for murdering Sheriff Dominick Cavanaugh — whom Hurst had run against in the most recent election. A literal life-and-death ballot!

Did he assassinate a political opponent to gain his office? (Hurst was briefly appointed to the sheriff’s post after Cavanaugh’s murder, before the investigation turned against him.) Or, was he railroaded by a prejudiced town? “If the evidence upon which this man has been convicted and twice sentenced to death, had been laid before me as the prosecuting officer of this county,” wrote another Montana district attorney in a widely circulated missive, “I should be ashamed to think I had compelled Hurst to employ a lawyer and submit to a prosecution before a magistrate.”

The question generated a furious controversy in its time, inundating Gov. Robert Burns Smith with a record deluge of mercy appeals from around the American West. Newspapers drew up column-inches for vigorous briefs as to Hurst’s innocence or guilt.

As is frequently the case, partisan political fissures reached all the way to bedrock disagreement about reality itself, for although Hurst expressed his innocence on the scaffold the respective sides circulated opposing contentions about whether he did or did not privately confess the crime in the end.

A representative bit of the original newspaper coverage. More can be found in Officer Down, by Jim Jones.


Anaconda Standard, February 28, 1900


Anaconda Standard, March 4, 1900


Anaconda Standard, March 13, 1900


Helena Independent, March 30, 1900.


Butte Weekly Miner, April 5, 1900


A different story from the very same Butte Weekly Miner, April 5, 1900

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Montana,Murder,Politicians,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1815: Six militiamen, Andrew Jackson’s electoral dirty laundry

Add comment February 21st, 2015 Headsman

If present-day electoral politics strike you as disreputable, take comfort in the knowledge that the Republic has survived its share of low-down, brass-knuckle campaigns in the past. The presidential election of 1828 might have been the very dirtiest.

This race pitted incumbent John Quincy Adams, the silver-spoon New Englander and son of Federalist founding father John Adams, against Andrew Jackson, the uncouth self-made westerner of Scotch peasant stock. Jackson was [in]famous for his duels, and his willingness to push the envelope on acceptable use of the military forces he commanded. Some foes saw him as an American Napoleon; some supporters, likewise.

One of the juiciest gobs of slung mud in that 1828 campaign involved Jackson’s actions as a Major General during the War of 1812, and specifically right around the Battle of New Orleans.

Karl Rove would have approved of this tactical attack on the strength of a candidate, for it was to this service that Jackson owed his national repute. De Tocqueville, who considered Jackson “a man of violent temper and very moderate talents,” said that he “was raised to the Presidency, and has been maintained there, solely by the recollection of a victory which he gained, twenty years ago, under the walls of New Orleans.”*

At any rate, back in 1815, when army regulars were engaged on the east coast (or in the quixotic attempt to invade Canada), battle in the south and west pitted shaky American militia against British-allied Indian tribes in dirty, bloody ethnic cleansing.

Immediately prior to New Orleans, Jackson, west Tennessee’s biggest landowner and therefore its militia commander, took his forces south to Alabama, combined them with other militia, and routed the Creek, ending the Creek War subplot to the War of 1812. ‘Twas this conquest gave Jackson his “Old Hickory” nickname for controlling the Muscogee Creeks of Hickory Ground.

Cool beans for A.J., but not everyone on his team was equally excited.

After the Creek surrendered at the newly-raised Fort Jackson — vanity, vanity, all is vanity! — a number of soldiers stationed there with the 1st Regiment West Tennessee Militia started agitating to pack up and leave, even with the British navy still lurking. Come September, some even went so far as to demonstratively tramp out of Fort Jackson, vowing to return to hearth and home.

These were not enlisted soldiers of a standing army, so they did not necessarily conceive themselves bound to fight the British in Louisiana or the Creeks in Alabama: rights and obligations and loyalties were still being sorted out in the young Republic. These deserters had, however, been mustered that June for an announced six-month term, and September was only three months later. Moreover, these weren’t the only rumblings of desertion in Jackson’s ambit, and since he was potentially facing the prospect of defending the whole Gulf Coast against the world’s preeminent military power using nothing but a motley collection of farmers, Indian allies, pirates, and what-have-you, Old Hickory was not inclined to countenance anything that could erode his forces’ tenuous unity. Like George Washington before him, Jackson shot some malcontents today to pre-empt trouble tomorrow.

On November 21, 1814, Jackson ordered the six deserters/mutineers to court-martial. The next day, he departed to New Orleans where he would cover himself with glory.

After winning that battle, Jackson adjudicated a message from the Alabama court-martial, announcing six men condemned who had not been recommended for leniency.

As is well-known, the War of 1812 had officially been settled by treaty for weeks at this point, but it took approximately f.o.r.e.v.e.r for word to get around in these pre-telegraph days. Jackson didn’t know the war was over: he did know that British ships were still lurking around in the Gulf. (They also didn’t know the war was over.)

So Jackson behaved just as if he had a going conflict on his hands and sent back confirmation of the sentences. His six mutineers were shot kneeling on their coffins before 1,500 troops in Mobile, Ala. on February 21, 1815. Only after that did everybody (British included) find out that there wasn’t anything left to fight for.

But when Andrew Jackson eventually ran for U.S. President in 1828, the poor militiamen were exhumed (only metaphorically!) to traduce the general, whose reputation already ran to the bloodthirsty. This was a country where a great many of the men casting ballots would be, actually or potentially, subject to militia duty: the prospect of a frontier Queeg actually executing militia was calculated to impair Jackson’s famous appeal to the common man and raise the specter of the president as a potential strongman.

Propaganda pamphlets circulated this execution story widely that year, the swiftboating of the 19th century.

Their inevitable inclusion of six coffin-shaped blocks to symbolize the dead men this date eventually gave to anti-Jackson broadsides the name “Coffin Handbills” — a term that eventually extended to the entire genre of political libels. This linguistic relic is surely due for a bicentennial resurrection.

Sordid campaigning over Jackson’s questionable military freelancing was somewhat ironic in 1828, since Jackson also had that reputation from his extra-legal Florida incursions, after the War of 1812. Those adventures rankled many within the Monroe administration, but were stoutly defended by Monroe’s Secretary of State — none other than John Quincy Adams. (Adams’s own signature graces the 1819 treaty with Spain which ceded Florida; it was largely secured by Jackson’s depredations.)

Irony or no, the attacks had to be dealt with.

Jackson’s partisans responded with equal vigor. For instance, newspapers (the excerpt below comes from the May 1, 1828 Maryland Gazette) carried a lengthy vindication penned by a Jackson partisan and fellow-Tennessean then sitting his first term in Congress … but destined in time to follow Jackson to the White House.**

I had supposed it scarcely possible that any candid, intelligent man, could for a moment doubt the correctness of General Jackson’s conduct, in relation to this subject … No man has ever been more misrepresented and slandered by his political adversaries than Gen. Jackson, and upon no subject more than that in relation to the execution of the ‘six militia men.’ …

The corps to which the ‘six militiamen’ belonged, was stationed at Fort Jackson. Between the 10th and 20th of September 1814, before the period even of three months, much less six months, had expired, an alarming mutiny, such as was seldom ever witnessed in any army, took place in the camp, of which these ‘six militia men’ were the ringleaders. Harris who seems to have been the principal, several days before the mutiny broke out, carried about a subscription paper thro’ the camp, obtaining the signatures of all who would agree to go home. In defiance of their officers commanding the post, they on the 19th of September 1814, violently and tumultuously assembled together, to the number of near two hundred, broke open the public stores, took out provisions, demolished the bake house, shot down breves, and in the face of authority, left the camp on the next morning ‘at the end of revielle beat;’ yelling and firing scattering guns as they departed, proclaiming to all who would, to follow them.

Th proceedings of the court martial were forwarded to General Jackson then at New Orleans, for his approval. The six ringleaders were not recommended to mercy by the court martial. No palliating circumstances existed in their case, known to him. He knew they had been tried by a court martial composed of their fellow citizens and neighbours at home. The news of peace had not then arrived. The enemy’s forces were still in our waters and on our border. When an attack might be made was unknown, and the militia under General Winchester‘s command at Mobile, were ‘threatening to mutiny.’ … General Jackson saw that the salvation of the country was still in jeopardy, if subordination was not preserved in the army. He approved the sentence, and these six unfortunate, tho’ guilty men, were executed. This approval of the sentence of the court martial was made at New Orleans on the 22d of January, 1815. The first intimation which the General had of the news of peace even by rumour, was received on the 18th or 19th of February, 1815 … Col. G.C. Russell, who commanded on the day the sentence of the court martial was carried into execution, states in a letter of the 29th of July, 1827, that ‘we had no knowledge of a treaty of peace having been signed at Ghent, till more than a month after the approval of the sentence, and fifteen or twenty days after its execution.’ The official news of peace did not reach General Jackson until the 18th of March, 1815, and on the 19th of the same month, the British commander received the official intelligence from his government. It was not until after this period that the British forces left their position on that border of the union.

The effect which the execution of these men produced in the army was most salutary. Not a whisper was afterwards heard of the mutiny which had threatened General Winchester’s command. Subordination was restored, and all the troops in the service were willing, and did without a murmur perform their duty. Mutiny and desertion were no longer heard of in that part of the military service.

it is impossible to conceive how censure can attach to General Jackson. At the time he approved the sentence of the six ringleaders, he pardoned all those who had been recommended to mercy by the court martial that tried them. At the time of the execution all acquiesced in its justice. Every officer in the army responded to the importance of the example, for the good of the service. At that time the whole country was satisfied. Not a whisper of censure was heard against the commanding General, or any member of the court martial in reference to it.

James K. Polk

Polk, indeed, advised his friend Jackson closely during the latter’s 1828 campaign, and specifically counseled an active campaign to rebut the “six militiamen” attacks.

Polk’s energetic response and others like it must have worked well enough: Jackson crushed John Quincy Adams as handily as he had once done the Creeks, and wound up with his hatchet face on the American $20 bill.

* The De Tocqueville quote in the text is the part germane to this post, but it disdainfully goes on to pronounce New Orleans “a victory which was, however, a very ordinary achievement and which could only be remembered in a country where battles are rare. Now the people who are thus carried away by the illusions of glory are unquestionably the most cold and calculating, the most unmilitary, if I may so speak, and the most prosaic of all the nations of the earth.” Sniff.

** And to follow Jackson’s policy of dubious southerly land-grabs.

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1896: Bartholomew “Bat” Shea, political machine ballot-stuffer

3 comments February 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1896, during a driving Adirondack snowstorm, Bartholomew “Bat” Shea was electrocuted at New York’s Clinton Prison for a political murder two years prior.

This was the great boom time for machine politics, corrupt political patronage networks doling “spoils” like jobs and benefits to members who in turn maintained a party’s stranglehold on an electorate. These flourished in an industrializing America’s burgeoning cities; Troy, N.Y., at 60,000-plus in the 1890s (it has fewer than that today), was one of upstate New York’s prime industrial centers, and home to a municipal machine rooted in Irish Catholic immigrants and bossed by Democratic U.S. Senator Edward Murphy.

Machine politics were a major bone of contention in the Progressive Era, and certainly in the Troy elections of 1894. The ballot that year would decide Troy’s mayor, and as per usual the Murphy machine meant to stuff the box for its handpicked candidate.

On March 6, 1894, a group of Murphy “repeaters” (so called for their intent to vote repeatedly) including “Bat” Shea and (he’ll figure momentarily) John McGough approached a Thirteenth Ward polling place.

Republican poll watchers Robert and William Ross awaited them — armed, and expecting trouble. They had sparred with the Murphy machine at the ward caucus a few days previous.

“In a twinkling,” went a press report, “clubs and revolvers were flourished. Many shots were fired and when the fight closed it was found that Robert Ross had been fatally shot, that his brother, William, received a bullet in the neck and that Shea and McGough, who fled from the scene, had each been slightly wounded.”

This bloodshed, profaning as it seemed a sacred pillar of the polis, aroused a passionate if opportunistic response from Republicans, anti-machine reformers, and Troy’s Protestants. The killer(s) “were guilty of a crime against the Republic and against republican institutions,” as the resulting Committee of Public Safety put it, deep into the appeals process. (NYT, Jan. 15, 1896) “If such a crime is to go unpunished, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ must perish from the earth.”

“In this case there is something dearer than a single life,” said a prosecutor.*

It is the question of American citizenship, a question which comes home to us all, Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor. The question is whether it is the good citizen with the ballot, or the thug with his revolver, who shall control our nation.

Two other men were actually implicated in Robert Ross’s death before “Bat” Shea. John Boland, a fellow ballot-watcher, was the first arrested, but outcry against the apparent bid by the Murphy machine to fix the homicide on the victimized party soon freed him.

John McGough of the “repeater” party was also taken into custody, and accused at first of having fired the fatal shot.

Eyewitnesses soon pinned the murder on “Bat” Shea, and a conviction was speedily secured on this basis — with McGough subsequently receiving a long prison sentence for attempted murder, his shot having come within centimeters of taking William Ross’s life, too.

But many of those whom the Murphy machine benefited never believed the evidence against Shea and certainly never thought him capitally liable. Eyewitnesses hewing to their own party affiliation, pushing their own political agenda aided by convenient certainty upon the triggerman of this or that specific bullet in a general firefight. (The Rosses were shooting, too.)

The evidence could certainly be disputed, and over nearly two years Shea’s advocates did just that in courts and clemency petitions — a remarkable (for the time) odyssey to save Shea from the executioner.

Days prior to Shea’s January 1896 execution, his fellow repeater McGough sent a letter to Republican Gov. Levi Morton,** claiming that he, not Shea, shot Ross.

Interviewed directly by the governor’s agents, McGough stuck to his story. This wasn’t enough to convince Morton to spare Shea. For one thing, it would invite the suspicion that the Murphy people were conniving to weasel each other out of the debt that someone owed for Ross’s blood — McGough having already been convicted for his part in the skirmish, and thus safely out of the executioner’s potential grasp.

So much for Republican New York, Protestant New York, respectable New York. Shea’s many supporters who could never secure a legal toehold received his remains in honor at Troy, crowding a train platform where the coffin arrived in at 2:30 a.m. the morning after the electrocution. All that Wednesday, February 12, throngs of supporters paid their respects as the electrocuted man lay in state at his family’s River Street home.

At funeral services at St. Patrick’s Church on February 13, the officiating Father Swift averred uncertainty as to Shea’s guilt.

“If he was guilty,” said Swift (NYT, Feb. 14, 1896), “I do not believe he was conscious of it.”

For the reported 10,000 who turned out to lay the “murderer” to rest, the sentiment was quite a bit less ambivalent. Countless floral arrangements crowded into the Shea home. “Innocent,” read the cards upon many of them. Or, “Murdered.” (With a similar sympathy but perhaps much less taste, someone else sent flowers shaped like the electric chair.)

The present-day visitor to Troy can see “Bat” Shea’s name on a downtown Irish pub … and a monument of Robert Ross defending a ballot box at Oakwood Cemetery.


(cc) image from @zakkforchilli.

* This statement was made in the McGough trial, not the Shea trial. It’s sourced to this 1890s celebration of Ross and his cause.

** Morton had been U.S. Vice President from 1889 to 1893. More interestingly for this blog, Morton was U.S. President James Garfield’s 1881 appointee as ambassador to France. This was the very diplomatic post for which Charles Guiteau had petitioned Garfield, and being passed over (on account of being a whackadoodle obscurity) caused Guiteau to assassinate Garfield. Morton was succeeded as governor by Frank Swett Black … a Troy clean-elections crusader who had gone into politics after sitting at the prosecution’s bar in the case of “Bat” Shea.

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1923: Eligiusz Niewiadomski, assassin-artist

1 comment January 31st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1923, Polish nationalist painter Eligiusz Niewiadomski was executed for assassinating Poland’s first president.

After more than a century under German, Austrian, and (most especially hated) Russian domination, Poland had established itself an independent republic in the first world war’s imperial wreckage.

Niewiadomski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish), whose father had taken part in the 19th century’s anti-Russian January Uprising, was a talented painter with a serious nationalist streak.

And that was really the done thing for his time and generation: his painting career from the 1890’s into the early 20th century maps the Young Poland movement of up-and-coming artists experimenting with new forms and celebrating romantic attachment to their prostrate homeland.


“The conscience of Polish literature,” Young Poland writer Stefan Zeromski, as depicted by Niewiadomski.

When not promoting patriotic appreciation of the Tatra Mountains, Niewiadomski enjoyed supporting Polish National Democracy, a right-wing movement raging against the Cossack yoke.

Niewiadomski was a true enough believer to serve time in a tsarist prison, but he was far from the leading light of either the artistic or political movements. By the time Poland attained independence (Niewiadomski worked for Polish intelligence during World War I, and even finagled a cameo on the front lines), he was in his fifties and seemingly settling in for a slow moulder into obsolescence in bureaucratic posts and artistic monographs.

(Of course, had he done so, the next decades would have brought him their own surprises.)

Instead, the 1922 election for President of the Polish Republic, which was decided in that country’s National Assembly, saw parliamentary horsetrading elevate an engineer on the strength of the left parties’ votes — a shock victory over Niewiadomski’s preferred right-wing candidate Count Maurycy Klemens Zamoyski, the infant republic’s Bush v. Gore.

It came to street disturbances, to assaulting members of parliament, to demonstrations “for” and “against.” There were casualties. Lumps of dirty snow were thrown at the carriage of the president-elect as it drove across the town. Newspapers dreamt of “a lump of snow that will change into an avalanche” and about removal of that man-“hindrance,” that man-“obstacle.” … The infamous ride through the streets of Warsaw was a ride down death’s lane. Someone hit the first president of the republic in the head with a stick, someone else waved brass knuckles in his face …

-Anna Bojarska in From the Polish Underground

So, five days into Gabriel Narutowicz‘s term, Niewiadomski did what any violent, disaffected patriot would do: he gunned down the new Polish president at the Zacheta art gallery. It’s always great to see artists participating in the political dialogue.

This event is the subject of the 1977 Polish film Smierc prezydenta (Death of a President).

The shots by Niewiadomski marked an end to the week of hatred. Poland suffered a shock — even the Right did. National reconciliation bloomed like a thousand flowers. The president’s funeral became an occasion for a deeply disturbed society to demonstrate. Half a million people walked in the funeral procession!

-Bojarska, again

Less than seven weeks later, Niewiadomski christened that national reconciliation with his blood … at a fortress the Russians had once used to garrison his country, Warsaw Citadel.

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1800: Prosser’s Gabriel, slave rebel

Add comment October 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1800,** the Virginia slave Gabriel — sometimes remembered as Gabriel Prosser after his owner’s surname, although that wasn’t what his contemporaries called him — was hanged in Richmond, along with a number of his confederates in a planned slave rising.

Decades before Virginia’s more famed Nat Turner rebellion, Gabriel was plenty frightening for the growing little burg of Richmond in 1800. (The incident would result in a clampdown on education and mobility for slave and free blacks alike.)

Gabriel and company conceived a daring revolution to seize the city of Richmond, take hostage Governor (and future U.S. President) James Monroe, and rearrange the state’s power structure.

This scheme, in which the rebels actually stay in Virginia, depended on an optimistic assessment for the prospects of a multiracial alliance — with Richmond’s own poor whites, and also, according to testimony given by conspirators, with Indians and with the French in opposition to a pro-British American policy tilt.

But if ever the time might have been right for such a plot, it was in 1800. A bitter presidential contest adjudicating the Republic’s most fundamental issues was unfolding; there were rumors that the governing Federalists would not voluntarily relinquish power, and the matter might fall to civil war between by the factions.

Gabriel unabashedly attempted to leverage this division between whites; working as he and many other urban blacks did side-by-side with white Republican laborers — whose own interests vis-a-vis Federalist merchants were being so bitterly contested — he must have had a good vibe about the situation on the ground to gamble his life on it. Though the hope was that the white working class would join the revolt after it broke out, there were at least a few whites already initiated into the conspiracy beforehand.

Alas, what broke out was not rebellion but a storm: a downpour that rained out the first planned rising, washing out bridges and roads that the conspirators were counting on to assemble. Before the makeup date could be scheduled, some slaves taking a care for their own necks had betrayed it.

The public mind has been much involved in dangerous apprehensions, concerning an insurrection of the negroes in several of the adjacent counties. Such a thing has been in agitation among the blacks, principally instigated by an ambitious and insidious fellow, a slave, by the name of GABRIEL, the property of Mr. Thomas Prosser, of the county of Henrico. This villain, assuming to himself the appellation of General, through his artfulness, has caused some disturbance, having induced many poor, ignorant, and unfortunate creatures to share in his nefarious and horrid design.

The plot has been entirely exploded, which was shallow; and had the attempt even been made to carry it into execution, but little resistance would have been required, to render their scheme entirely abortive. Thirty or forty of the party have been arrested and confined in jail for trial. Yesterday a called court was held for that purpose, at the court house in this city when six of them were convicted and condemned to suffer death this day at 12 o’clock. It is said that the evidence which has been procured, will go to prove nearly this whole of them guilty. To-day the court will proceed to go thro’ with the rest of the trials.

[The Governor has issued his Proclamation, offering a reward of THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS† for the apprehension of the above “GENERAL,” who has thought proper to take himself off. Exclusive of this sum, he likewise promises “to any number not exceeding five of the said accomplices, who shall apprehend the said GABRIEL, and deliver him up so that he be brought to justice, a FULL PARDON for their offences.” ]

Columbian Mirror, Tuesday, Sep. 16, 1800, quoting “a Richmond paper”

It would be interesting counterfactual history to know the world in which the insurrection was actually launched — whether “but little resistance” would have sufficed to put it down. Gabriel might have reckoned naively on the prospective balance of forces,‡ but his read of the fractious alliance against him was spot-on. Maybe with a modern communications infrastructure, the affair could have become a full-blown October Surprise.

The Jeffersonian party, desperate not to give its plantation supporters cause to rethink its partisan alignment, took pains to downplay what was really quite a bold conspiracy. Not for the last time, wealthy merchants (here backing the Federalists) sought their own advantage pressing the racial wedge issue — for the slaves’ prospective lower-class white allies were also part of Jefferson’s coalition.

“If any thing will correct & bring to repentance old hardened sinners in Jacobinism, it must be an insurrection of their slaves,” editorialized the Boston Gazetteex cathedra, as it were, from 18th century America’s very temple of Mammon. (The quote comes from this tome.)

One thing all right-thinking whites could agree on was a heaping serving of scorn for “General” Gabriel.


Columbian Mirror, Saturday, October 4, 1800.

But then, that personal interview with Monroe also gives a lie to Gabriel’s insignificance. (Gabriel told Monroe nothing of any use to the latter; Monroe sent him away with orders to keep him nearly incommunicado from the sort of working stiffs who would figure to be his jailers.)

A few years later, an English visitor captured at second hand this indefatigable portrait of the doomed slave in his masters’ courts.

I passed by a field in which several poor slaves had lately been executed, on the charge of having an intention to rise against their masters. A lawyer who was present at their trials at Richmond, informed me that on one of them being asked, what he had to say to the court in his defence, he replied, in a manly tone of voice: “I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial by them. I have adventured my life in endeavouring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice to their cause: and I beg, as a favour, that I may be immediately led to execution. I know that you have pre-determined to shed my blood, why then all this mockery of a trial?”

In 2007, James Monroe’s (distant) successor as governor of the Old Dominion (informally) posthumously pardoned Prosser’s Gabriel. Gov. Tim Kaine’s statement on the occasion validated Gabriel’s own defense of himself.

“Gabriel and his colleagues were freedom fighters and deserve their rightful place in history as women and men of integrity who fought for freedom.”

And the site of his martyrdom? Well, it’s … a good place to park.

* Some sources give Oct. 7 as the date of execution; this apparently was the initial sentence of the court but delayed a few days to hang the ringleader along with others in a variety of spots around town.


Virginia Argus, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 1800.

** A pregnant year in the history of slave rebellion: Denmark Vesey bought his freedom in 1800; Nat Turner and John Brown were both born in 1800. (Noted here.)

† It was a slave who eventually turned in Prosser’s Gabriel … but Virginia stiffed him on the reward, handing over only $50 instead of the promised $300.

‡ Or maybe that’s just hindsight talking. In 1800, the Haitian Revolution was underway — so who could blame slaves for thinking big?

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1799: Thomas Nash, after rendition to the British

4 comments August 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Thomas Nash was hanged in Jamaica for the bloody mutiny on the HMS Hermione.


Before there was Hermione Granger, there was the HMS Hermione. Painting by Thomas Whitcombe.

The Admiralty’s most notorious mutiny this side of the Bounty was actually a far bloodier affair. Dig the description from one of the conspirators who later turned state’s evidence.

“The captain,” said he, “was very severe with the men, who were all good seamen, and they were determined to either run the ship on shore and desert, or else take her by force. This had been in their minds for months before it happened. At last,” said he, “on a dark night, when the young lieutenant had the watch, our minds were made up. A party went to the cabin-door, knocked down the sentry, and entered it. The captain was in his cot, and he was soon overpowered. We threw him out of the cabin-window. Another party threw the officer of the watch over the larboard quarter, but he, being young and active, caught hold of the hammock-stanchion, when one of the men cut his hands off, and he soon dropped astern. The first lieutenant had been ill and keeping his cot, but on hearing the noise, he came up the hatchway in his shirt, when one of the carpenter’s crew cut him down with an axe, and he was sent overboard with several others.”

(There’s a fine audio lecture about this mutiny in the context of maritime class violence at the Bristol Radical History Group, which reminds that in a context where most of a ship’s manpower was marshaled with the violence of involuntary conscription, mutiny bids were a regular feature of Old Blighty’s maritime empire. London Times archives are available from 1785, and searches on the word “mutiny” in those early years reveal dozens of episodes — and those were just the reported ones.)

After making sharkmeat of that tyrannical captain, 27-year-old Hugh Pigot, the Hermione mutineers got drunk, and then delivered the frigate to the Spanish.

A Royal Navy vessel aptly named the Surprise* was able to surprise the wayward warship and cut her out of the Venezuelan harbor Puerto Cabello. The Hermione was then aptly renamed the Retaliation (and later, Retribution). Then, the British put the ominous word into action with a global manhunt for the mutineers.

Nearly thirty men ultimately hanged for the affair, though that meant that most of those involved escaped the noose.

And Executed Today never** deals with the lucky ones.

Mind if I do a Jay?

And so we come at last to our day’s protagonist, one of the Hermione mutineers who was at length recognized in the breakaway former British colonies now constituting themselves the United States of America.

Upon catching this intelligence, British envoys demanded the extradition of this character — who now claimed to be an American citizen by the name of “Jonathan Robbins” — under the terms of the recent and controversial Jay Treaty. After several months under lock and key without any American charge against him, Robbins/Nash eventually had a habeas corpus hearing before Judge Thomas Bee, who decided† that this “American citizen” was no such thing. With an okay from the Adams administration, Bee had the man delivered to the crown.

Nash was immediately shipped down to the British colony of Jamaica, put on trial on Aug. 15 (he had no defense), and hanged on Aug. 19.

Little could the Waterford-born seaman imagine the legacy he bequeathed his fake-adopted country.

I know my rights, man

The Nash extradition became a political firestorm in the U.S., with anti-British Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans decrying the Federalist administration’s handling of the case. For the infant republic, formulating juridical precedent on the fly, this played as a separation-of-powers issue: was it within the president’s power to fulfill the treaty unilaterally, absent executing legislation passed by Congress? Was it within a judge’s purview to approve an extradition request without the constitutionally assured right to trial by jury?

Sounding eerily contemporary, New York Rep. Robert Livingston denounced a system whereby “a citizen of the United States might be dragged from his country, his connections and his friends, and subjected to the judgment of an unrelenting military tribunal.” Less measured, a Philadelphia Aurora headline announced: “BRITISH INFLUENCE threatens destruction of these United States!” (Source of both quotes)

Though it was surely not decisive, this issue provided great fodder in the 1800 elections swept by the Democratic-Republicans and standard-bearer Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s home state of

Virginia, the stronghold of inimical feeling to Great Britain … passed a law forbidding under heavy punishment a magistrate to be instrumental in extraditing any person out of the state. Thus desertions from British ships in a Virginian port became a regular event. Captains of British vessels sailing to United States ports in no long time would meet their men strolling in the streets, furnished with naturalization papers, who set them at defiance, for their arrest was impossible.

“This passage of history,” the otherwise hostile-to-Nash source is obliged to concede, “tells unfavourably on the character of the treatment of British seamen … the Discipline was harsh and oppressive, one of pure repression. The consideration of others, enforced by benevolence and duty, was often regarded as weakness.”

Hard to imagine why anyone would want to mutiny! It calls to mind, at the end of this passion play as at its start, the words supposed to have been hurled at the Hermione‘s doomed Captain Pigot as he pled with his assailants for mercy: “You’ve shown no mercy yourself and therefore deserve none.”

A real reactionary

Despite the electoral slam dunk, the real last word on the case ultimately belonged to the administration’s defenders.

Among these rose in Congress a first-term — for he would only serve a single such term — member of the House of Representatives also from the Old Dominion, John Marshall.

Just months later, Marshall would be one of outgoing President Adams’s “midnight judges” appointed to the federal courts: in Marshall’s case, to the U.S. Supreme Court, where his epochal 34-year term as Chief Justice would shape the future evolution of American jurisprudence.

Rising on March 7, 1800, in defense of President Adams’s conduct in the Nash case, Representative Marshall gave a preview of the strong federalist perspective that would define his time on the bench. (Read it in full here.)

The President is the sole organ of the nation in its external relations, and its sole representative with foreign nations … He possesses the whole Executive power. He holds and directs the force of the nation. Of consequence, any act to be performed by the force of the nation is to be performed through him.

This passage was exhumed from Congressional archives for citation in a 1936 Supreme Court case on federal supremacy, and has proceeded thence into a go-to bullet point for every latter-day defender of any arbitrary executive authority.

Of consequence (as Marshall might put it), Marshall’s speech about Nash gets an approving reference in Bush administration lawyer — and possible future extradition subject?John Yoo‘s September 25, 2001 memorandum on “The President’s Constitutional Authority to Conduct Military Operations Against Terrorists and Nations Supporting Them”.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, too, quotes this phrase in his Hamdi v. Rumsfeld dissent, further to the doctrine that a man consigned to a presidential oubliette has no recourse to the courts; Justice John Harlan used it (with the rather grandiosely exaggerated qualifier that “from that time, shortly after the founding of the Nation, to this, there has been no substantial challenge to this description”) in his dissent in the Pentagon Papers case to claim that Richard Nixon could prevent the New York Times and Washington Post from publishing the embarrassing classified history of the Vietnam War.‡

So in this imperial age, Thomas Nash is more with us than ever he was. Who knows but what noxious monarchical theories are even now being buttressed with footnotes resolving to the vindictive execution of that obscure mariner two centuries past?

* The Surprise features prominently in novelist Patrick O’Brian‘s beloved Aubrey-Maturin series of nautical adventure novels, the most widely recognized of which is Master and Commander.

Given the vessel’s centrality in this popular series, there’s a book all about the colorful history of the Surprise. In reality, the Surprise — actually a captured French ship herself — was sold out of the service in 1802, prior to the notional 1805 setting of both the cinematic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and the book in the series when Jack Aubrey first commands her.

** … hardly ever.

† Rightly, it’s generally presumed; “Robbins” is alleged (albeit by his self-interested executioners) to have confessed to being Nash before his execution. This entry garners the Wrongful Execution tag on the basis of its contested American jurisprudence.

‡ The limited aim of Marshall’s speech in context, and its subsequent (mis)appropriation, is the subject of an interesting and accessible-to-laypersons law review article here. (pdf) This tome gets a bit more into the weeds on the way the separation of powers operated practically as the Nash case unfolded in Judge Bee’s court.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Soldiers,USA,Wrongful Executions

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2009: Hiroshi Maeue, suicide website murderer

Add comment July 28th, 2010 Headsman

One year ago today, Japan hanged three men, among whom the most notorious was Internet suicide-club serial sex killer (you can see why he made the headlines) Hiroshi Maeue.

After a couple brushes with the law over asphyxiation-oriented assaults in the 1990s, Maeue found his medium in hypertext.

Trolling a Japanese “cyber-suicide” site — they’re notoriously popular in Japan — the late-30s Maeue lured two young women and a 14-year-old schoolgirl to separate meetings for the ostensible purpose of committing joint suicides.

M.O.: get the “partner”/victim into a car on the pretext of doing the carbon monoxide poisoning thing together, then tie her up and throttle her. Rape doesn’t seem to have been a part of it, but word was that Maeue “confessed to deriving sexual pleasure from seeing people suffocate.”

He got that treatment himself little more than two years after he was sentenced. Hanged along with Maeue in Osaka this date was Yukio Yamaji, who raped and murdered two sisters in 2005. On the same day in Tokyo, Chinese national Chen Detong got the rope for a 1999 triple homicide.

Perhaps not coincidentally, these high-profile executions occurred just weeks before national elections that were looking bad (and turned out worse) for the then-governing Liberal Democratic Party.

Update: Japan observed the one-year anniversary by hanging two more people this same date in 2010, executions personally witnessed by anti-death penalty Justice Minister.

“It made me again think deeply about the death penalty,” said Keiko Chiba. “and I once again strongly felt that there is a need for a fundamental discussion about the death penalty.”

They were the first executions under the Democratic Party government elected shortly after Maeue’s hanging.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Japan,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Serial Killers,Sex

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1969: Sirhan Sirhan condemned

4 comments April 23rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1969, Sirhan Sirhan was condemned to the California gas chamber for assassinating Robert F. Kennedy.

The aggrieved Palestinian was not marked by fate to suffer that last extremity of the law, however; instead, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when all existing death penalty statutes were invalidated in 1972.*

As a result, Sirhan Sirhan remains alive as of this writing, serving that sentence in the Golden State’s Pleasant Valley State Prison. He’ll be next up for parole in 2011.

(In a parole appeal back in 1982 — he’s been on a bit of a losing streak — the convicted assassin had the chutzpah to complain that “if Robert Kennedy were alive today, I believe he would not countenance singling me out for this kind of treatment.”)

Although the guy was seen in a crowded room pulling the trigger (onlookers tackled him) and he subsequently confessed to the deed, there has long been a conspiratorial counternarrative suggesting that other shooters were there, too. It’s pretty hard to say that the guy who emptied his chamber in front of dozens of witnesses wasn’t involved, but there are versions of this where he’s a Manchurian Candidate-style hypnotized patsy.

Politics: much more interesting in the 1960s.

Precisely because that is so, this particular man’s crime attracts retrospective interest for what followed: the charismatic Democratic frontrunner from Camelot cut down; the sinister Richard Nixon arising in his place to bomb Cambodia, burgle Watergate, and create the Environmental Protection Agency. Sirhan Sirhan “assassinated modern U.S. history.”

That really seems a bit much.

Sirhan Sirhan himself has contributed to the trippy theorizing about his case by being all over the map on it. At one point, he attempted to plead guilty and draw the death penalty; the trial judge forced him to go through with a defense. Subsequently, as noted, he’s whinged for an early release. He’s claimed to have had no memory of the attack, which certainly isn’t what he said after he got arrested.

Ultimately, the most self-evident explanation has always been the first one that he offered: “I did it for my country.”

Sirhan was a Jerusalem-born Palestinian dismayed by Israel’s success in the Six-Day War, and by America’s concomitant foreign policy tilt towards Israel.

Kennedy was a strong advocate of that policy, and his death happened to coincide with the anniversary of war.

Maybe that’s just what they want you to think. But it has to be allowed that the cause in question has claimed more lives than just RFK’s.

* People v. Anderson, decided by the California Supreme Court. Later that same year, the U.S. Supreme Court would issue Furman v. Georgia, which would have had the same effect for Sirhan Sirhan.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,California,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Gassed,History,Infamous,Murder,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists,USA

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1965: John Harris, white anti-apartheid martyr

10 comments April 1st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1965, John Harris hanged in Pretoria Central Prison for an anti-apartheid bombing: the first and only white person put to death for political crimes in apartheid South Africa.

An idealistic young teacher, Harris planted a bomb in a whites-only section of Johannesburg’s Park Station, intending to demonstrate that whites, too, opposed racial segregation. But the bomb threat he phoned in was not acted upon, and the symbolic device killed a 77-year-old woman and badly burned many others.

5.30 am was the time set for the execution. We were all awake, thinking of John. Not long afterwards the phone rang. Ad Hain answered. The voice said: “Your John is dead.” She recognised the voice as one of the Special Branch men’s.

-John Harris’s widow’s testimony to the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission

His death (reportedly with “We Shall Overcome” on his lips) earned affecting tribute and flattering comparisons from his black countrymen.

Mr. Harris, a teacher and a member of the Liberal Party since 1960, is one of those few courageous White men in South Africa who believed passionately in racial equality, identified himself with the oppressed people and suffered persecution. His passport was seized in 1963. He was served with banning orders in February 1964 preventing him from continuing his work with the Liberal Party and the Non-racial Olympic Committee.

Like many others, he became convinced that there was no way left to influence the situation except by clandestine activity. When most of his colleagues in the underground organization, the African Resistance Movement, were jailed or fled the country, he tried to plan a spectacular demonstration. He placed a bomb in the Johannesburg station and telephoned the police so that the area would be cleared. The police did not act promptly and an elderly lady lost her life as a result of the explosion.

Under the prevailing circumstances in South Africa, the means of struggle are for the liberation movement to decide in the light of the conditions in the country.

The responsibility for the consequences lies very much on the rulers of Pretoria who, in defiance of the world and all sense of decency, created a situation which left no other alternative to decent people than to engage in violence.

In mourning the execution of Mr. Frederick John Harris, let me say that it will not be forgotten that in the struggle of the South African people this man, a member of the privileged group, gave his life because of his passionate belief in racial equality. This will serve to strengthen the faith of all those who fight against the danger of a “race war” and retain their faith that all human beings can live together in dignity irrespective of the colour of their skin.

I have recently received a message sent by him from his death cell in Pretoria Central Prison in January. He wrote:

“The support and warm sympathy of friends has been and is among my basic reinforcements. I daily appreciate the accuracy of the observation that when one really has to endure one relies ultimately on Reason and Courage. I’ve been fortunate in that the first has stood up — my ideals and beliefs have never faltered. As for the second, well, I’m not ashamed — I know I’ve shown at least a modicum of the second. ”

When I think of John Harris, the first White martyr in the cause of equality in South Africa, I am reminded powerfully of a great White American, a man who gave his life over a century ago — on December 2, 1859, to be exact — because of his passionate hatred of slavery: I mean John Brown.

People said then that John Brown was eccentric, that he was unwise in attacking the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and that his act would only strengthen the slave lords.

History has made a very different judgement. Whether the particular act of John Brown was right or wrong, wise or unwise, his cause was right and invincible.

-1965 statement on this date’s hanging by Achkar Marof

Harris’s conviction was secured with the states-evidence turn of one of his compatriots in the white anti-apartheid African Resistance Movement. For this betrayal, John Lloyd earned his freedom and had already moved to England by the time Harris was executed.

Lloyd built a public service life of his own in the UK. However, his bid for parliament on the Labour ticket in the 1990s was scotched when public exposure of his past (as (a) a leftist terrorist; and (b) a betrayer of his fellow-leftists) brought him more baggage than one man can tote in a general election.

Harris’s rough treatment under arrest also continues to haunt his former interrogators in South Africa.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Murder,South Africa,Terrorists

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