On this date in 1864, a bustling market Saturday in Port-au-Prince, Haiti was enlivened with the public executions of eight Haitians for cannibalistic murder.
It was perhaps the signal event in a long-running campaign against vodou (voodoo, vaudoux) in whose service the murder was supposedly committed. The charge sheet had it that a man intent on an occult rite to propitiate the spirit world had slaughtered his own young niece and with several friends and family devoured her remains.
It made for some great copy.
“The eye of the law has penetrated into the midst of the bloody mysteries of this religious cannibalism, against which all the teachings of Catholicism have remained powerless,” breathed the world press in salacious revelry.
Sketch of the Bizoton Affair accused from Harper’s Weekly.
Within Haiti and without, vodou itself stood in the dock alongside its adherents. This was quite likely the very point of the trial.
The popular syncretic religion, heavily derived from Haitian slaves’ African roots, represented to Haitian elites and European observers alike all that was most barbarous about the one place that had run white slavers off. Just a few years ago as I write this, the U.S. televagelist Pat Robertson claimed that Haiti had come by its liberty due to a long-ago pact with the devil. That “pact” was a secret vodou ceremony launching the rebellion that became the Haitian Revolution.
Vodou persisted throughout the 19th century — it still persists today — among Haiti’s underclasses. Though frequently persecuted, vodou enjoyed the support and personal devotion of Emperor Faustin Soulouque, a former slave who ruled Haiti in the 1850s. When Soulouque was overthrown by Fabre Geffrard in a coup backed by Haiti’s elites, dissociating from vodou was one of his principal tasks.
As the history blogger Mike Dash explains in a detailed exploration of the case’s background, the deeply Catholic Geffrard had come to an arrangement with the Vatican that
committed the president to making Catholicism Haiti’s state religion — and the executions of February 1864, which so clearly demonstrated Christian “orthodoxy,” took place just weeks before the priests of the first mission to the country arrived from Rome. The trial was followed up, moreover, by a redrafting of Haiti’s Code Pénal, which increased the fines levied for “sorcery” sevenfold and added that “all dances and other practices that … maintain the spirit of fetishism and superstition in the population will be considered spells and punished with the same penalties.”
The original records of the trial are long lost, meaning the surviving accounts are typically the very partisan ones already convinced that pagan vodou cannibalism was rampant in Haiti. The British charge d’affairesSpenser St. John* has one of the best-known and most influential from his 1887 memoir of Haiti. (St. John attended the trial personally with other European dignitaries.)
St. John considered the case self-evident, and dwelt on its lurid revelations of the cannibalism scene — the flaying of little Claircine’s body, the palm of the hand savored by one cannibal as the choicest morsel. Cannibal testimony was St. John’s own choice morsel; in his view, Haitians extremely “sensitive to foreign public opinion” obstinately threw up a collective wall of silence on a practice that “every foreigner in Hayti” just knew was everywhere around him. But even when St. John published, after another 20-odd years past the Bizoton trial to gather evidence of anthropophagism, all that he managed to produce were two highly dubious second-hand accounts of white men allegedly sneaking into vodou ceremonies under cover of blackface and reporting the sacrifice of children. In the hands of Victorian writers prone to still further embroidery these few sketchy dispatches — and the notorious Bizoton case — would help to cement vodou’s sinister reputation.
St. John’s American counterpart was less impressed with the show trial, its moral panic scenario, and the thrashings administered to the accused to force their confessions.
It was not a fair trial; the evidence was extracted by torture. There was a report in circulation. It caused great excitement. Government took it up, and was determined to convict, because it was a seeming stain on their race. The verdict was forced.
Per St. John, the execution itself was badly botched. “The prisoners, tied in pairs” were “fired [at] with such inaccuracy” by their respective shooting teams “that only six fell wounded on the first discharge.” It took half an hour and much reloading to complete the executions, “and the incidents were so painful, that the horror at the prisoners’ crimes was almost turned into pity at witnessing their unnecessary sufferings.”
* As a consular official in a previous post on the opposite side of the globe, St. John accompanied two of the earliest ascents of Mount Kinabalu in Borneo; as a consequence, one of that mountain’s peaks bears his name.
On this date in 1859, Paul Loc, a Catholic Vietnamese Martyr, was summarily beheaded at Saigon ahead of a French landing.
The orphaned child of a Catholic family from Cochinchina (southernmost Vietnam), Paul Loc was brought up by a pastor and went to seminary.
His ministry during the reign of a sovereign very hostile to the inroads of Christian missionaries, lasted less than two years. At that point, France went to war to conquer Cochinchina.
At that point, Father Loc was clapped in prison, but even then the earnest young man’s treatment seems to have been light. But on this date, French warships had been sighted ascending the Dong-Nai River towards Saigon itself, and the city’s panicking defenders martyred the priest almost without warning.
On this date in 1906, Minnesota hanged a Cornish immigrant for the murder of his homosexual lover … and hanged him so clumsily that it never hanged again.
William Williams shot Johnny Keller dead after Keller’s mother intervened in the teenagers’ relationship. A series of mooning-slash-menacing letters failed to win back affections. “I want you to believe that I love you now as much as I ever did,” Williams wrote. “Keep your promise to me this time, old boy, as it is your last chance,” he wrote, later.
When the man with the redundant name went to die in the dead of night at a St. Paul prison, it seems that there’d been a slight miscalculation. When dropped through the trap, Williams’s “feet touched the ground by reason of the fact that his neck stretched four and one-half inches and the rope nearly eight inches.”
Consequently, three deputies on the scaffold hoisted the rope up to get him airborne, where he strangled to death over the span of a ghastly quarter-hour.
Slowly the minutes dragged.
The surgeon, watch in hand, held his fingers on Williams’ pulse as he scanned the dial of his watch.
Five minutes passed.
There was a slight rustle, low murmurs among the spectators and then silence.
Another five minutes dragged by.
Would this man never die?
Fainter and fainter grew the pulsations of the doomed heart as it labored to maintain its function.
The dead man’s suspended body moved with a gentle swaying.
The deputies wiped their perspiring brows with their handkerchiefs.
Members of the crowd shifted from one foot to another.
There were few murmurs, which died at once.
Eleven, twelve, thirteen minutes.
The heart was beating now with spasmodic movement, fainter and fainter.
Fourteen minutes—only a surgeon’s fingers could detect the flow of blood now.
Fourteen and a half minutes.
‘He is dead,’ said Surgeon Moore.
The end has come.
And the end had come.
Two things happened in consequence of this sensational press narrative.
First: the news entities who promulgated these descriptions were themselves prosecuted under a law sponsored by anti-death penalty Republican legislator John Day Smith to make executions as secretive as possible. The St. Paul Pioneer Press, St. Paul Dispatch and St. Paul Daily News each caught fines of 25 bones or clams or whatever you call them.
Second: those illicit descriptions out in the public eye triggered efforts (eventually successful in 1911) to abolish the death penalty full stop in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
Smith’s law was adopted as a half-measure when death penalty abolition couldn’t pass in 1889, as a bit of moral hygiene against the unseemly spectacle of public execution. The measure pioneered the familiar 20th century routine of conducting executions after midnight behind prison walls. Newspapermen derisively called it the “midnight assassination” law — but it was taken up by many other states over the succeeding years as public executions went extinct.
As for Smith himself … there’s a rumor of a ghost story, and (given a tragic love story, a sensational crime, a capital punishment milestone, and a queer identity) the palpable fact of a play.