1901: Sampson Silas Salmon

Add comment February 19th, 2019 Headsman

“I did it and I will swing for it.”

Said by Samson/Sampson Silas Salmon to the police who found him at the scene with the body of his landlady, her throat slashed nearly to the point of decapitation. Salmon had lost his job, fallen to drinking, and eventually been evicted.

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1951: Jean Lee, the last woman to hang in Australia

Add comment February 19th, 2018 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)

Jean Lee, an attractive 31-year-old redhead, made history as the last woman to hang in Australia when she went to the gallows in Pentridge prison in the Coburg suburb of Melbourne in Victoria state on the morning of Monday, February 19th, 1951. She and her two male companions were hanged for the murder of 73-year-old dwelling house landlord and bookmaker, William “Pop” Kent.

Jean Lee was apparently quite intelligent and a bit rebellious at school and had a succession of dead end jobs from which she soon left or was fired.

She married at 18 and lived with her husband for about nine years before leaving him and entrusting her daughter to her mother. She had a relationship with a petty criminal who got her into prostitution with American servicemen. He acted as her pimp whilst she worked to support them both.

She left him for another professional criminal, Robert David Clayton, with whom she fell deeply in love. As is so often the case, she became caught in a downward spiral. She was in love with a criminal who abused her and used her in his criminal activities.

These centered principally on what was known as the “badger game.” Lee, at the time, a voluptuous and attractive woman would pick up men and get them to a hotel room, their own home, or a car where she would appear to be about to have sex with them. Once they were semi-naked and vulnerable, Clayton would appear in the role of outraged husband and demand money from them. Usually the victims handed over their ready cash but kept quiet for fear of their wives finding out or of being ridiculed — so it was a fairly safe bet. If they were not forthcoming Clayton would beat them up. It was a scheme that had worked well, although at least two previous cases had been reported to the police.
On the evening of November 7th, 1949, Lee, Clayton and a third accomplice, Norman Andrews, whom Clayton had met in prison, saw William Kent in a Melbourne hotel lounge. Jean Lee had several drinks with Kent and soon succeeded in persuading the old man to take her back to his apartment where she tried to pick his pockets.

However, Mr. Kent, although inebriated and quite elderly, was of sterner stuff. He put up a fight with Lee which was ended when Clayton and Andrews entered his room. Mr. Kent was systematically kicked, beaten and tortured over the next hour in an attempt to get him to reveal where he kept his money. His hands had been tied behind his back and his thumbs tied together with bootlaces. He had been repeatedly stabbed with a small knife and was finally manually strangled.

The trio were soon arrested at their hotel and bloodstained clothing was found in Lee’s and Andrew’s rooms. At police headquarters, they were questioned in separate rooms where each initially denied their involvement and then started to blame the others.

They came to trial on March 20th, 1950 at Melbourne’s Criminal Court and the proceedings lasted six days. As each had tried to shift the blame on to the others in their statements to the police, the trial judge Mr. Justice Gavan Duffy explained the law of “common purpose” to the jury, i.e. that when three people take part in a violent robbery and murder they are all equally guilty, irrespective of which one had actually strangled Mr. Kent. The jury took less than three hours to find them all guilty and they were sentenced to death. Lee became hysterical whilst Clayton shouted abuse at the jury.

Their appeal was heard by the Court of Criminal Appeal and was upheld by a two to one majority decision on the 23rd of June 1950. The Appeal Court ruled that their statements to the police had been obtained improperly as the statement of one was used to extract confessions from the other two. They were thus granted a retrial. However, this was not to be as the High Court overturned the Appeal Court and reinstated the convictions and sentences.

There was considerable protest, led by left-wing and feminist groups, when Lee was sentenced to death. However, it seemed to primarily be against the execution of a woman by hanging, rather than the execution of women per se.

Lee would became the first woman to be hanged in Victoria since Emma Williams in November 1895. She had aged noticeably during her time in prison and suffered violent mood swings — now abusing her wardresses, next begging them for an alcoholic drink. She told one of her wardresses: “I just didn’t do it. I haven’t enough strength in my hands to choke anyone. Bobby was stupid but the old man was trying to yell for help. None of us meant to kill him.”

It was decided that Lee should be the first to hang at 8 am, the two men being executed two hours later.

She was heavily sedated as she shuffled under escort to a double cell near the gallows. Her weight was recorded as 7 stone 6 lbs, her height as 5′ 7″ and the drop was set at 8 feet exactly.

Sheriff William Daly was required to read the death warrant to her. She collapsed on seeing the hangman and his assistant — both wearing “massive steel rimmed goggles [with a] soft felt hat … to ensure that they were not recognised in the future”. A doctor examined her and found she was unconscious. However, the execution had to proceed so Daly continued to read out the details of her conviction and sentence although she would not have heard a word of it — if she had, she would have spotted a mistake (the date on which she had been sentenced).

Because of her state of collapse, the executioner pinioned her arms in front of rather than behind her back as was normal. His assistant then pinioned her legs with a strap whilst he put the white hood on her head, and they carried her from the cell the few yards to the gallows where she had to be placed on a chair on the trap. Her head drooped to her chest and the executioner had to pull it back in order to adjust the noose correctly.

The flap of the hood, which was to cover her face, had been left open. At a signal from the sheriff, the executioner dropped the flap to obscure her face, stood back from the trap and pulled the lever. The trap fell and both she and the chair plummeted through. The chair had been secured to the gallows by a cord and although it fell with her, the two parted company at the end of the drop leaving her suspended normally. Her weight was recorded as 7 stone 6 lbs, her height as 5’ 7” and the drop was set at 8 feet exactly. The knot was positioned under her left ear and death was said to be “instantaneous”. At 8.05 am the prison doctor found no heartbeat. The death certificate was signed at 8.20.

Two hours later Clayton and Andrews, both mildly sedated, shared her fate.

Capital punishment ended in Australia with Victoria’s next execution, that of Ronald Ryan on the same gallows at Pentridge prison on the 3rd of February 1967.

A recent book, Jean Lee: The last woman hanged in Australia by Paul Wilson, Don Trebl and Robyn Lincoln casts doubt on the justice of her conviction and execution based upon the police interrogation methods and her part in the murders.

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1329: The effigy of Pope John XXII, by Antipope Nicholas V

1 comment February 19th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1329, as Wikipedia puts it, Antipope Nicholas V “presided at a bizarre ceremony in the Duomo of Pisa, at which a straw puppet representing Pope John XXII and dressed in pontifical robes was formally condemned, degraded, and handed over to the secular arm (to be ‘executed’).”

Despite the show of force, Nicholas V was on his last legs at this moment as antipope.

He’d been elevated to the putative papacy by Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV. In this, Nicholas was a throwback to an old rivalry between popes and emperors compassing both authority within the church, and authority on the Italian peninsula, a conflict which had generated several German-backed antipopes in centuries previous. Though not the last antipope in history, Nicholas has the distinction of being the last imperial antipope.

Louis (or Ludwig) had a pique of long standing with Pope John XXII dating back to John’s unwelcome intervention in his, Louis’s, disputed accession as emperor: back in 1314, a divided imperial electorate had wrought a “double election” of the Wittelsbach Louis and the Habsburg Frederick the Fair, a circumstance that resulted in civil war within the empire.

While officially neutral in the fight, the pontiff exploited the opportunity to claw back ecclesiastical authority by asserting that the imperial throne was vacant and its edicts null until the papacy had blessed the claimant. Louis told John to pound sand.

Certain persons, blinded by avarice and ambition, and totally ignorant of the Scriptures, have distorted the meanings of certain passages by false and wicked interpretations, and on this basis have attacked the imperial authority and the rights of the emperors, electors, and other princes and subjects of the empire. For they wrongfully assert that the emperor derives his position and authority from the Pope, and that the emperor elect is not the real emperor until his election is confirmed and approved, and he is crowned by the pope … We now declare … that the emperor holds his authority and position from God alone … he has full power … without the approval, confirmation, authorisation or consent of the pope or any other person.

-Sachsenhausen Appellation, 1324 (as translated here)

John excommunicated Louis, and Louis, well, he did the same to John — seizing on the pope’s hostility towards the movements for clerical poverty as excuse to declare put a Spiritual Franciscan into St. Peter’s Throne on his own say-so as imperial armies smashed through Italy.* If a pope was going to crown Louis, it was going to be his pope.


Antipope Nicholas V crowns Louis IV in May 1328.

Peter of Corbara (Pietro Rainalducci) had barely two years to deny himself the emoluments of antioffice before Louis’s withdrawal required his own submission to the man he had executed in effigy. John XXII didn’t go nearly that hard on the former “Nicholas V”: merely absolved him after confession and kept him comfortably imprisoned at the papal palace in Avignon until the would-be usurper’s peaceful death in 1333.

* This conflict forms the backdrop for Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, set in late 1327. The narrator-monk Adso refers in his epilogue to having heard of the antipope’s elevation soon after leaving the monastery where the bulk of the novel’s action occurs.

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1861: The Bascom Affair hangings, Apache War triggers

Add comment February 19th, 2015 Headsman

The retaliatory executions a U.S. Army lieutenant carried out on this date in 1861 helped set in motion a decade-long war with the Apaches.

Three years out of West Point and brand new to Arizona’s Fort Buchanan, George Bascom in retrospect was probably not the ideal ambassador to send out with orders to retrieve a young half-Apache boy kidnapped from a ranch by an Indian raid. (Along with all the cattle.)

Since nobody was present at the time, the identity of the raiders just wasn’t known — but someone’s suspicions affixed on the wily and dangerous* Chiricahua warrior Cochise. The Chiriachuas were just one group among the Apache peoples; they ranged from Mexico to southeastern New Mexico and southwestern Arizona, and were divided into many small local groups each with their own leader — like Cochise.

Lt. Bascom would be killed in a Civil War engagement a year after the events in this post without leaving posterity his memoirs, so his understanding of Apache society can only be guessed at. But his on-the-make bullheadedness is universal to every time and place where young men can be found. “Bascom was a fine-looking fellow, a Kentuckian, a West Pointer, and of course a gentleman,” Arizona frontiersman Charles Poston later remembered. “But he was unfortunately a fool.”


Lt. Bascom and Cochise.

The greenhorn lieutenant rode out with 54 cavalrymen to Apache Pass and lured Cochise to a confabulation. Cochise showed up with his brother, wife, and children — clearly expecting some sort of social call.

Cochise was entirely unaware of the kidnapping, and unaware that Bascom considered him the kidnapper. He offered to find out about it and retrieve the boy from whomever had him.

Bascom, whose troops had surrounded the tent during the parley, accused Cochise of lying to him. Cochise had twice the impertinent lieutnant’s years and at least that multiple of Bascom’s sense, and must have been affronted by his opposite number’s behavior — but when Bascom announced that he would be taking Cochise and his companions as prisoners pending the return of the raiders’ spoils, the Apache commander whipped a knife out of its sheath and instantly slashed his escape route through the wall of the tent. Bursting past the shocked troops (they were as inexperienced as their officer), Cochise escaped into the twilight. This “Bascom Affair” (to Anglos) is remembered more evocatively by Apaches as “Cut Through The Tent”.

But the tent-knifing was only the start of it.

Cochise’s party did not manage to follow his escape, so Bascom now held Cochise’s brother, wife, son, and two other warriors. The Apache tried to put himself in a negotiating position by seizing hostages of his own — first a Butterfield stagecoach stationmaster named Wallace, and later three white men seized from a passing wagon train.

Nor were the hostages’ the only lives at stake. Cochise’s band, including the soon-to-be-legendary Geronimo, had assembled and their campfires burned menacingly in the hills around the little stage station where Bascom’s force fortified themselves. Bascom could have defused it all with a hostage swap, but the kid had his orders and stubbornly refused to make the trade unless it included the one hostage Cochise didn’t have: that little boy from the ranch.

At length, reinforcements for the beleaguered cavalry began arriving, one such party bringing three other Apaches captured en route and entirely unrelated to Cochise. “Troops were sent out to search for us,” a much older Geronimo recalled in his memoirs. “But as we had disbanded, it was, of course, impossible for them to locate any hostile camp … while they searched we watched them from our hiding places and laughed at their failures.”

Despairing now of seeing his family again, Cochise had his hostages killed and dispersed, leaving the mutilated remains to be discovered by his antagonists with the help of circling buzzards. When they did so, they retaliated in fury — releasing only Cochise’s wife and child, but hanging the six other hostages, including Cochise’s brother. In the narration of Sgt. Daniel Robinson,

After witnessing the fiendish acts committed by the Apaches, the minds of our officers and men were filled with horror, and in retaliation, it was decided in Council, that the captive Indians should die. On the 19th we broke camp to return to our respective posts leaving a Sergeant and eight men to take charge of the station until relieved. We halted about half a mile from the station where there was a little grove of Cedar trees. The Indians were brought to the front with their hands tied behind their backs, and led up to the trees. Noosed picket ropes were placed around their necks, the ends thrown over the limbs of the trees and manned by an equal number of willing hands. A signal was given and away flew the spirits of the unfortunate Indians — not to the happy hunting grounds of Indian tradition. According to their ideas or belief in a hereafter, those who die by hanging can never reach that region of bliss. I was in an ambulance with the other Sergeant, and must confess it was a sad spectacle to look upon. An illustration of the Indians sense of Justice: “That the innocent must suffer for the guilty.” And the white man’s notion — “That the only good Indians are dead ones.” Whatever it may be, I do not think it was much worse than the present policy of penning them up on Reservations and starving them to death. (See Cochise: Firsthand Accounts of the Chiricahua Apache Chief.)

A devastating decade-long war against Cochise and his equally able father-in-law Mangas Coloradas ensued, and right when the army most needed its military resources for the Civil War. The conflict claimed hundreds or thousands of lives, crippled mining and ranching, and depopulated fearful white settlements around Apache country in favor of “gravestones … by the road-side like sentinels, bearing the invariable description ‘Killed by the Apaches'”.

A fort near the Texas border was later named for Bascom. The kidnapped boy was never recovered and grew up in a different Apache tribe.

The events of, and following, the Bascom Affair were depicted on the silver screen in the 1950 Jimmy Stewart western Broken Arrow and its 1952 prequel Battle at Apache Pass — among many other cinematic adaptations.


Tom Jeffords (Jimmy Stewart): “Cochise didn’t start this war! A snooty little lieutenant fresh out of the east started it. He flew a flag of truce which Cochise honored, and then he hanged Cochise’s brother and five others under the flag.”

* Cochise was officially at peace with the Americans at this point and hostile to Mexicans. In “Cochise: Apache War Leader, 1858-1861,” in the Journal of Arizona History (Spring 1965), Barbara Ann Tyler argues that the reality of the situation was that his warband flexibly shifted between temporary peace and opportunistic small raids, moving north and south of the Mexican border as convenient.

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1878: J.W. Rover, sulfurous

Add comment February 19th, 2014 Headsman

Reno, Nevada had its only hanging on this date in 1878, and it’s never since been certain whether it was the right man they hung.

J.W. Rover, Frank McWorthy, and Isaac Sharp(e) had come from Oakland to work a sulfur claim in present-day Pershing County (then Humboldt County).

Sharp ended up dead, his body horribly mutilated and its dismembered parts scattered to different burial holes.

A mental health counselor I know is fond of saying of the family dysfunctions he has handled that who is crazy depends upon who gets to the phone first. It turns out that sometimes murder does, too.

McWorthy rode in to Winnemucca and swore out a complaint accusing Rover of the murder. Rover would spend the next three years vigorously but never quite successfully insisting that McWorthy was the one who killed Sharp.

Rover was convicted of murder in July 1875, but because the verdict didn’t mention degree of murder, the case had to be retried. In April 1876, Rover was convicted again, of first-degree murder, thank you very much. But the Nevada Supreme Court overturned that verdict, too, and granted Rover a change of venue to Reno’s Washoe County, where Rover was convicted for a third time in June 1877.

In all these proceedings, Rover never wavered from his claim of innocence, calling God to witness at trial after trial that it was his associate and accuser McWorthy who was the guilty party and wanted to frame up Rover to get his hands on that lucrative sulfur deposit.

Having failed three times over in court, Rover’s lawyers turned as the hanging approached to Section 458, a remote provision of the criminal code permitting a special jury to be impaneled “if after judgment of death there be good reason to suppose that the defendant has become insane.”

Three years and all those hearings on, Rover’s fate would finally rest in the hands of twelve new jurors impaneled on the very eve of his hanging. While Rover passed his final night in the Reno jail, his sanity jury met in a courtroom in an upper-story room.

Rover’s lawyers and the District Attorney made their arguments to the jury until midnight that night, then adjourned, and then re-assembled at 7:30 on the morning of the scheduled execution. Rover couldn’t sleep a wink, passing the night rambling emotionally with reporters — at one point breaking down as he read them a letter from his sister.

“As he lay there he formed an object at once of pity and interest,” one scribe wrote for the newspaper of nearby silver mining boomtown Virginia City.*

He was reclining upon a rude bed covered by a coarse blanket. His pillow had no case, and his hair was unkempt and rough-looking. His beard had the appearance of being about one month’s growth. The cell was narrow, and was lighted by the feeble rays of a tallow candle held by a Deputy Sheriff.

Once or twice, he would furtively ask the reporters’ estimation of his chances with the proceedings upstairs. The reporters didn’t know. The jury didn’t either.

That morning, as crowds besieged the courthouse seeking one of the 200 visitors’ permits for the “private” execution, the jury huddled inside it making its final deliberations over four long hours. At last, at noon, it came down seven votes for sane, five for insane.**

Seventy minutes after that vote, Rover was escorted to the gallows supported by two men and a stiff drink of whiskey. This was nearly a two-hour theater in its own right: after a 20-minute recitation of the death warrant, Rover spoke for 50-plus minutes, continuing to insist upon his innocence:

I am so prostrated by this long prosecution that I am unable to say what I want to say …

Gentlemen, McWorthy has got away, but if I had my liberty the face of the world would not be large enough to hide him. I would search him out and bring him to justice, and if the law could not reach him I would find a strong arm of justice that would reach him …

I must be hung; you will be sorry for it some day, but what good will that do me when I am dead and gone? Good-by. My heart is with you.

By the end, Rover could barely hold up. He took a drink of water. “Oh, gentlemen, I cannot realize that I am to be hung!” he cried as his limbs were pinioned at last, and had to be supported lest he swoon. The Catholic priest finally had to settle him down from his last babbling.

“Not guilty,” he insisted one last time. Then to the sheriff: “Go on and do your duty.”


Rumors of Rover’s innocence persisted for years after his hanging, not excluding claims that his ghost was on the haunt.†

In 1899, a newspaper reported that “It afterward developed that Rover was innocent of the crime for which he suffered. McWorthy died a few years ago in Arizona, and on his deathbed confessed that he was the murderer of Sharp.”

McWorthy might or might not have been the guilty party. But that story was not accurate — McWorthy was still alive at the time in Oakland, California.

* The newspaper in question was the Territorial Enterprise, notable for employing the young Mark Twain in the early 1860s. Indeed, it was here that the writer Samuel Clemens first employed that nom de plume. Ten years before Rover’s hanging, Clemens/Twain actually witnessed and wrote about a public hanging in Virginia City.

** Not as close as it sounds: Rover needed a unanimous verdict.

† The present-day Washoe County Courthouse, not built until many years after Rover’s hanging, allegedly has a haunted jail whose spook might be Rover.

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1762: Francois Rochette and the Grenier brothes, the last Huguenot martyrs in France

Add comment February 19th, 2013 Headsman

In September 1761, a man named Francois Rochette was detained in Toulouse, France, having been arrested traversing the nearby countryside on suspicion of being one of that area’s robbers.

Rochette was not a robber.

He was much, much worse: a Huguenot minister.

Interrogation soon made the situation clear. Technically, his heretical calling could subject Rochette to the death penalty, but the authorities weren’t going to be unreasonable about this — and “as Rochette was not surprised in the exercise of his function, he might easily have escaped by concealing his profession. Those, who interrogated him went even so far as to point out to him this means of acquittal.”

Every legal regime needs a bit of discretion, a bit of look-the-other-wayism, lest the letter of the law excite a judicial slaughter that public sentiment could never support.

Francois Rochette wasn’t interested in signing himself off a clerk or a cloth-merchant and being on his cagey way. He would not elide his calling: would not abet an other-way look.

Rochette’s obstinately overt Protestantism and the prospect of juridical proceedings against him put the whole city on edge. Catholics and Huguenots armed themselves, bracing for a horrid St. Bartholomew’s Day replay. Three brothers named Grenier hastened to Toulouse to aid their fellow-Huguenots, and were arrested; miraculously, the feared citywide bloodbath never quite materialized.

But now Francois Rochette and his Grenier backers would stand trial, in an environment where authorities were disposed to view their offense as one not merely of wrongthink but of stirring up a civic disturbance and endangering the city itself. They were accordingly condemned to death by a now-stringent court for their literally dangerous heresy on February 18, 1762.

That night, the Huguenots’ last on earth, inevitably featured a visitation of Catholic priests come to save their souls.

“It is for your salvation,” said they, “that we are here.” The answer of one of the prisoners was, “If you were at Geneva, ready to die in your bed (for no one is slain there on account of his religion), would you be pleased if four ministers came, under the pretence of zeal, to persecute you until your last breath? Do not, then unto others that which you would not wish to be done unto yourselves.”

This is from the public-domain History of the Protestants of France, to whom we turn the fatal narration.

On the 19th of February, at two o’clock in the afternoon, the mournful procession started on its way. Rochette was, according to the terms of the sentence, bare-headed, bare-footed, with a halter hung about his neck, from which, before and behind, labels were suspended, with these words, Minister of the pretended Reformed religion.

When the array passed before the church of Saint Etienne, an attempt was made to force him, in pursuance of the terms of the Parliament’s condemnation, to kneel with a torch of yellow wax in his hand, and to ask pardon of God, the king, and justice, for all his crimes and misdeeds.

Rochette stepped down from the tumbril, and instead of abjuring or making a confession which his heart denied, he pronounced on his knees the following words: “I beseech God to pardon me for all my sins, and I firmly believe that they have been washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ, who has redeemed us so dearly. I have no pardon to ask of the king, whom I have ever honoured as the Lord’s annointed, and loved as the father of my native land; I have ever been a good and faithful subject, and of this I believe my judges to be convinced. I have always preached to my flock patience, obedience, and submission; and my sermons, which you possess, are summed up in these words: ‘Fear God, honour the king.’ If I have contravened the law touching religious assemblies, it was by God’s commandments I contravened them; God must be obeyed before men. As for justice and the law, I am guilty of no offence against them, and I pray God may pardon my judges.”

Every door, balcony, window, roof, and approach near to the place of execution, was covered with spectators. “Toulouse,” says Count de Gebelin, an eye-witness, who related these circumstances, “Toulouse, that city drunk with the blood of martyrs, seemed a Protestant town. People asked what was the creed of these heretics; and when they heard our martyrs speak of Jesus Christ and of his death, every one was surprised and afflicted. They were infinitely touched, also, with the lofty, yet mild bearing of the three brothers, which compelled their admiration almost as much as the inexpressible serenity of the minister, whose graceful and spiritual physiognomy, whose words full of firmness and courage, and whose youth, filled every beholder with interest, knowing, as all did, that he only died because he disdained to save his life by a lie.”

Rochette was executed first. He exhorted his companions until the end, and sang the canticle of the Protestant martyrs: This is the blessed day. “Die a Catholic,” said the executioner, moved with pity. “Judge which is the better religion,” replied Rochette, “that which persecutes, or that which is persecuted.”

The youngest of the thre brothers (he was only twenty-two years of age), hid his face in his hands to shut out this tragic scene. The two others contemplated it with calmness. As they were gentlemen, their sentence was, to be beheaded. Tyembraced each other, recommending their souls to God. The eldest offered his head to the axe first. When it came to the turn of the last, the executioner said: “You have seen your brothers die; change, lest you perish like them.” “Do thy duty,” said the martyr, and his head rolled upon the scaffold.

Count de Gebelin adds, as he concludes his recital: “Everyone present returned home in silence, in a state of consternation, and unable to persuade themselves that there could be such courage and such cruelty in the world; and I, who describe it, cannot refrain from tears of joy and sadness, as I contemplate their blessed lot, and that our church should be still capable of affording examples of piety and firmness that will compare with the most illustrious monuments of the primitive church.”

It was only days later — March 10, 1762 — that Toulouse followed up this example of piety and firmness by breaking Jean Calas on the wheel in another prosecution of a Huguenot driven by sectarian sentiment (albeit not directly for heresy, in the Calas case).

Backlash against the Calas case, led by Voltaire, helped put to the fore the long-percolating Enlightenment values of tolerance. Official persecution of Protestants slackened greatly in the years to come and never again rose to a death penalty situation; the whole policy was officially revoked in 1787.

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1836: Giuseppe Fieschi, Pierre Morey, and Theodore Pepin, infernal machinists

2 comments February 19th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1836, three men were guillotined for a spectacular but unsuccessful regicide attempt.

Giuseppe Fieschi

This was in the days of the July Monarchy, a much-despised government of the country’s wealthiest elites that generated opposition both right and left and a ceaseless string of assassination attempts (French link) against King Louis-Philippe.* As Marx put it,

when the liberal banker Laffitte led his compère, the Duke of Orléans, in triumph to the Hôtel de Ville, he let fall the words: “From now on the bankers will rule”. Laffitte had betrayed the secret of the revolution.

It was not the French bourgeoisie that ruled under Louis Philippe, but one faction of it … the so-called financial aristocracy. It sat on the throne, it dictated laws in the Chambers, it distributed public offices, from cabinet portfolios to tobacco bureau posts.

Hard to imagine such a state of affairs.

Fieschi (English Wikipedia page | French) et al conceived a bold attempt to destroy the entire ruling family in a single fusillade, and to that end constructed a machine infernale of 25 gun barrels mounted together to fire on a single fuse.

Unleashed upon a royal procession along the Boulevard du Temple on the fifth anniversary of the monarchy’s founding July days, this monster proved quite impressively destructive.


The assassination attempt of Fieschi, 28 July 1835 by Eugene Lami.

The infernale barrage took out an esteemed marshal and a bunch of bystanders, but somehow managed to miss everyone in the royal family. (Louis-Philippe himself was grazed … and his horse was hit.)

Exploiting the familiar power of a terrorist incident to enact horrible new policies not available in normal times, “Parliament was hastily recalled and in a near-panic atmosphere passed severe measures against the newspaper press,” notes William Fortescue. “Approximately thirty more republican newspapers were closed down by the September 1835 Press Laws.”

Police soon traced the conspiracy to Fieschi, a truly Gallic character of mixed-up national pride, personal honor, class envy, and opportunistic lechery, who had fought for Bonaparte and helped Joachim Murat on the latter’s fatal attempt to re-take “his” kingdom of Naples back in his youth. But lately, a more worn-out and middle-aged Fieschi had been booted out by his mistress and lost all his money.

Fieschi, according to Barricades: The War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris, 1830-1848, basically became a dependent of Morey and Pepin, true-blue republicans who helped channel Fieschi’s unmoored passions into engineering his hydra-headed musket. He’d be back on the French-nationalism side by the end.

“I’m going to appear before God,” Fieschi said on the scaffold, after Morey and Pepin had preceded him. “I have spoken the truth. I die content. I have rendered a service to my country in signaling my accomplices … I regret my victims more than my life.”

More repressive laws and radical-hunting followed. They did not slake the thirst abroad in France for regicide.

* Louis-Philippe’s royal dad backed the French Revolution, but was still executed by Robespierre.

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1790: Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras

Add comment February 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1790, Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras, became a penal milestone: the first French noble executed without class distinction from commoners.

At least he made history.

The scion of an ancient and penurious noble line, Favras was trying to make a different kind of history: he’d hitched onto a plot of the future Louis XVIII to reverse the still-infant French Revolution and rescue the king and queen from captivity in the Tuileries.

The royal couple were ultimately destined to escape this palatial dungeon only to the guillotine.

But in Mahy’s day, it was possible to dream of counterrevolution. And that terrifying machine of the revolution hadn’t even been invented.

For that matter, the machinery of revolutionary justice had also not been born; this was Lafayette‘s year, the revolution in its moderate phase.

It was ancien regime jurists of the Chatelet who were here appointed to judge the enemies of the nation. Having just acquitted the guy who commanded monarchist forces in Paris on Bastille Day, these establishment magistrates proceeded to throw the revolutionary left a bone by condemning Favras to the democratic capital expiration of … hanging. (Back in the good old days, he would have had the right to a beheading. Plus ça change.)

The crowd was said to be quite enthusiastic.


“Thomas de Mahy, Marquis of Favras Making Honourable Amends before Notre-Dame,” engraving by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault (French link).

Little less interested in Favras’s elimination — he was executed the day after sentence — were his fellow conspirators and other sympathetic members of the royalist party. (Future-Louis XVIII hurriedly washed his hands of the scheme.) These were quite pleased to suppress any wider exploration of

the project that this lost child of royalist enthusiasm had formed in the interest of the royal family. Among those participating in this project, but with a cowardice that is well known, were persons that an important consideration prevented from naming at the time.*

You’ve got to look forward, not back.

Despite the mob scene surrounding him as he carried his damning information to the grave, Favras had the sang-froid to remark upon being handed a copy of the order for his execution, “I see that you have made three spelling mistakes.”

“It can be said,” wrote Camille Desmoulins, “that all the aristocrats have been hung through him.”

And since they did such a metaphorically comprehensive job through this single unfortunate, it’s no wonder that Favras was the only aristocrat executed for counterrevolutionary activity during the entire first three years of the Revolution.*

* Barry Shapiro, “Revolutionary Justice in 1789-1790: The Comité des Recherches, the Châtelet, and the Fayettist Coalition,” French Historical Studies, Spring 1992.

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1388: Robert Tresilian, former Chief Justice

2 comments February 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1388, England’s former Chief Justice was executed for his executive-friendly jurisprudence.

For some reason, this illustration of Tresilian’s execution from Froissart‘s chronicles shows him receiving a dignified beheading, rather than a nude hanging.

The ambitious Robert Tresilian (or Tresillian) had shimmied his way up the 14th century legal ranks for his dutiful service to the monarch, including presiding over a “bloody assize” after Wat Tyler’s revolt.

Despite stringing up 500 rebels, Tresilian couldn’t have been too upset about the disturbance: it also killed off the sitting Chief Justice and opened the seat for a man of Tresilian’s talents and loyalty.

A few years later, Richard would require of this position a legal opinion vindicating his personal authority as against the council his rivals had foisted upon him. Tresilian duly produced a writ affirming the unitary executive authority.

The upshot of this opinion was to put that council at risk of life and limb. It turned out to be more dangerous to its author.

When the Lords Appellant defeated the Ricardian party, Tresilian was among the royal retainers attainted for treason by the vengeful “Merciless Parliament”.

The lords thereupon announced that in matters of such high concern the rules of civil law oculd not be observed; the parliament was itself the supreme judge; it was not to be bound by the forms which guided inferior courts, that were merely the executors of the ancient laws and customs of the realm, and of the ordinances and establishments of parliament.

In a characteristically judge-like juxtaposition of wit, naivete and arrogance, Tresilian was somehow smart enough to go into hiding but dumb enough to hide by disguising himself and hanging around the parliament where his associate, London Mayor Nicholas Brembre, was putting on a theatrically futile defense. Since Tresilian had absconded, he was already judged guilty in absentia and liable to suffer execution immediately upon capture.

This date in 1388, that’s exactly what happened: capture, and summary hanging.

Before they had argued to the finish the end of the trial against Nicholas Brembre, the hapless Tresilian occupied their attention. He had been located above the gutter of a certain house annexed to the wall of the palace, hiding among the roofs the sake of watching the lords coming and going from parliament. However, when resolute soldiers had entered that house and looking around found no one, a certain knight with intent expression strode to the father of the house and pulled his head up by the hair, drawing his dagger, saying, “Show us where Tresilian is or your days are numbered.” Immediately, the terrified father of the household said, “Behold the place where that man is positioned at this moment,” and under a certain round table which was covered for deception with a tablecloth, the unfortunate Tresilian, disguised as usual, was miraculously discovered. His tunic was made out of old russet, extending down to mid-shin, as if he were an old man, and he had a wiry and thick beard, and wore red boots with the soles of Joseph, looking more like a pilgrim or beggar than a king’s justice. This event was immediately made clear to the lords’ ears, and when, quicker than a word, the aforesaid five appellants under a hasty pretext left the parliament without explaining the reason for their departure, all who remain in parliament were stunned, and many others followed them with passionate zeal. And when at the palace gate they had seized Tresilian, leading him toward the parliament, they proclaimed in a universal voice, “We havet hym! We havet hym!” Meanwhile, interrogated in the parliament how he would excuse himself concerning the false treachery of this kind and other things done by him, he remained nonetheless stock-still and mute, his heart hardened even in the face of death, and he would not confess to the things committed. Immediately parliament was broken for the sake of this matter, and on the grounds of dealing with Tresilian they sent away for the day Brembre, who had remained present. And at once Tresilian was led to the Tower of London so that execution of his sentence might be carried out on his person. His wife and daughters, moaning and imploring weepingly, were present at hand there in that place, and with voiceless requests, kissing him first from one side then the other, they forgave him for one or another of the crimes he had committed. But she, overwhelmed with sorrow in her heart, fell to the ground as if dead. At length Tresilian was bound hand and foot to a hurdle, and along with a vast multitude of lords and commoners, horsemen and pedestrians, he was dragged from the back of horses through the city squares, resting at intervals of about the length of a furlong out of considerations of charity, to see if he wanted to repent anything. But alas, he did not publicly confess, and indeed it is not known what he would say to his friar confessor, nor has it been ours to discover: the friars well treated Tresilian, preserving him from his transgression. And when he had come to the place of Calvary that he might be made defunct, he did not want to climb the stairs but goaded by sticks and whips that he might ascend, he said, “While I carry a certain something around me, I am not able to die.” Immediately they stripped him and found particular instructions with particular signs depicted in them, in the manner of astronomical characters; and one depicted a demon’s head, many others were inscribed with demons’ names. With these taken away, he was hanged nude, and for greater certainty of his death his throat was cut.

“His fate,” wrote Baron John Campbell, “seems to have excited little compassion, for he had shown himself ready to mete out like injustice to others, and he had extra-judicially pronounced opinions which, if acted upon, would have been for ever fatal to public liberty.”

Part of the Daily Double: The Merciless Parliament.

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1858: Chief Leschi

2 comments February 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1858, Chief Leschi of the Nisqually tribe was controversially hanged at Fort Steilacoom (present-day Lakewood) in the Washington Territory.

Yankee officer Isaac Stevens only spent four years in the Washington Territory as Franklin Pierce’s appointed governor, but he left his stamp on the state.

And no project defined the tenure of this authoritarian executive like putting the screws to the native peoples. Growing white settlement in the Pacific Northwest was creating conflict with the Indians who already inhabited it. In time, that conflict would claim Leschi.

Late in 1854, Stevens summoned the chiefs of several tribes in the newly-minted Washington Territory for an offer they couldn’t refuse: pack up and move to reservations of a few square miles’ undesirable territory, ceding 2.5 million acres to white settlers.

Chief Leschi — and it was Stevens’ men who had designated him a “chief”, the operation upon an alien culture of a bureaucracy that required official spokesmen — allegedly refused to sign the Treaty of Medicine Creek, although the evidence is unclear. Whatever the truth of that matter, sufficient signatures were cajoled for the government to ratify an agreement for massive dispossession, and Leschi became a prominent voice in the growing Indian dissatisfaction once the extent of the hustle became clear.

An attempt to arrest Leschi, who increasingly feared white assassination, touched off the Puget Sound War in 1855, and with an analogous conflict brewing on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, all Washington was soon a conflict zone.

That story’s end is predictable enough, but Leschi’s fate was protested by both native and white contemporaries. Leschi was condemned for “murdering” a militiaman during hostilities, a charge whose logic flowed from the rights asserted by American authorities but whose fundamental injustice (even leaving aside the very doubtful factual evidence) seems manifest, as it did to the defendant.

I have supposed that the killing of armed men in wartime was not murder; if it was, the soldiers who killed Indians are guilty of murder too.

George W. Bush would’ve called him an illegal combatant. That was hardly common sentiment.

So much good will did Leschi enjoy among whites — with whom he had years of amicable relations prior to Gov. Stevens’ arrival — that a scheduled January 22 hanging was deviously put off by the sheriff charged with the task: he arranged to have himself arrested on a liquor charge while in possession of the death warrant shortly before Leschi was to have been hung, and the two-hour window allotted for the execution of the sentence elapsed before matters could be put right.

They carried the sentence out four weeks later — “I felt then I was hanging an innocent man,” executioner Charles Grainger would say, “and I believe it yet” — but that hardly put an end to Chief Leschi’s story. The Nisqually have pushed hard for Leschi’s official exoneration, and won a Washington Senate resolution to that effect and an “acquittal” (of no legal force) from a panel of state jurists. But even though it attached to a convicted murderer, Leschi’s was never a black name in the state; it adorns a Seattle neighborhood and a number of schools and other public places. (“Stevens” is similarly prominent.)

There’s an excellent summary of the Leschi case from Oregon Historical Quarterly, a Washington State Historical Society website, and a 1905 public domain book published to make the case for Leschi.

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