1794: The Comte de Feuillide, Jane Austen in-law

1 comment February 22nd, 2018 Headsman

To Madame la Comtesse de Feuillide this novel is inscribed by her obliged humble servant The Author.

-Jane Austen’s author’s dedication in Love and Freindship

On this date in 1794, the guillotine brought tragedy to Jane Austen’s family.

The blade’s more immediate victim was Jean Gabriel Capotte, the Comte de Feuillide and the husband of Eliza de Feuillide (nee Hancock), Jane Austen’s “outlandish cousin.”

Fourteen years the novelist’s senior, Eliza was born in India to Jane’s Aunt Philadelphia who went abroad seeking a mercenary marriage and landed an unhappy one to a surgeon twice her age, Tysoe Saul Hancock. Eliza Hancock might possibly have been the illegitimate daughter of colonial administrator Warren Hastings, who stoked rumors by establishing a trust for the young woman. (Eliza also later named her only son “Hastings”.)

Either way, she didn’t grow up in the colonies but in England and France, where her vivacity conquered the heart of a prosperous French officer on the make, a barrister’s son who self-aggrandized his rank of Comte de Feuillide. As a gadabout exile “French countess” during the French Revolution, the charming Eliza de Feuillide was a hit both with London society and with her debutante cousin Jane, “whose kind partiality to me” Eliza would write in a letter “indeed requires a return of the same nature.”

Eliza exerted a magnetic influence on her kinswoman, and she’s popularly suspected to be the model for the Mansfield Park character Mary Crawford.* There’s even a book theorizing that this peripatetic polyglot was the true author of Jane Austen’s canon.


Lucy Cohu as Eliza de Feuillide makes some guillotine banter in Becoming Jane.

Back in France, where he served in the army, the hubby with an emigre wife and an aristocratic pretension made a decidedly poorer impression upon the Jacobins, as Maggie Lane observes in Jane Austen’s Family:

On 22 February 1794 the Comte de Feuillide fell victim to the guillotine. He had foolishly, if gallantly, tried to bribe one of the Secretaries of the Committee of Safety to secure the liberty of the widow of an army colleague, Jacques Marboeuf, Marquis and Marechal-de-camp. The fifty-five-year-old Marquise stood accused of laying down certain arable lands on her estate to fodder crops, with the idea of producing a famine in an effort to undermine the Republic.

De Feuillide was double-crossed by the Secretary and arrested at his lodging in the rue Grenelle et St Honore, where incriminating documents and sums of money parcelled up for the bribery were seized. The Marquise, the Comte and the Marquise’s man of business who had acted as a go-between in the attempt, all were sentenced to death.

After a few years as a merry widow, Eliza wed her cousin Henry Austen — Jane’s brother and Eliza’s “perpetual sunshine”. Eliza Austen died in 1813, with Jane Austen at her bedside.

* In Jane Austen and the French Revolution, Warren Roberts argues that the Comte de Feuillide has his own literary doppelganger in the unfinished Austen novel Catherine, in the form of Edward Stanley.

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1828: Uriah Sligh

Add comment February 22nd, 2017 Headsman

From the Charleston Courier, March 29, 1827.

PENDLETON, MARCH 21. — We regret to announce that Captain Jehu Orr, who was stabbed on the 12th of February by Uriah Sligh, died on Sunday morning last of the wound.

Captain Orr has been long an inhabitant of the district, and has been very generally esteemed as an upright man and respectable citizen. His sufferings from the period of the infliction of the wound to that of his death, are represented to have been severe, and to have been borne with the most Christian fortitude.

Sligh, who was some time since admitted to bail, has been recommitted, and will probably be tried at the ensuing Court, which will commence on Monday next.

From Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pa.), March 13, 1828:

Pendleton, (S.C.) February 27, 1828.

On Friday last pursuant to the sentence of the law, Uriah Sligh was executed at this place for the murder of Jehu Orr.

As usual on such occasions, a large concourse of people assembled to witness the last pangs of a suffering fellow creature. It is certainly a strange curiosity which prompts people to attend the execution of a criminal, but it has so happened that the three occurrences of the kind which have unfortunately taken place here within two years, have severally collected together a more numerous assemblage than we have observed on any other occasion.

The following has been handed us by a gentleman who was present; the address being as nearly as can be remembered in the words uttered by the criminal on the eve of execution: —

After some religious exercises, he rose and addressed the crowd as follows.

Fellow-Citizens of Pendleton District — You see me in this situation. It is intemperance has brought me here. I was an honest and industrious man and strove to maintain my family in honesty and comfort.

I have no recollection of the action for which I am now suffering. I never had any ill-will or intention of killing that man.

And I now warn all of the danger of a habit of intemperance; particularly the poorer class who have it not always in their power. When they have an opportunity they will go to great excess.

I would exhort all to seek religion as the only sure guard against such awful practices. If you were always in the discharge of your duty and serving your God, you would be in no danger of coming to an end like mine.

He then knelt down and prayed with much earnestness that the Lord would pardon his sins and receive him to happiness; expressing a strong hope that as the blessed Saviour had promised that none who came to him should be cast out, he would also receive his spirit, and cleanse him by his blood.

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1864: The pirates of the Flowery Land

Add comment February 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1864, four Philippines Spaniards and a Greek Ottoman who once numbered among the crew of the Flowery Land hanged together in London as mutineers and murderers.

The July preceding, that 400-ton merchant barque had set sail from London to Singapore with a cargo of wine. Outfitted for economy,* her crew numbered only 19 souls.**

This floating hamlet manifested in motley miniature Britain’s sun-never-sets empire. Its chief was a Scotsman with the solid name of John Smith; also on board as a passenger was a 20th man, Smith’s brother George.

The skipper’s seconds were two more British mates, names of Carswell (or Karswell) and Taffer (Taffir, Taffar).

Aboard the Flowery Land — aptly named for this metaphor — the Brits had mastery of a mixed-blood crew from many quarters of the globe. It is apparent from the testimony recorded at the Old Bailey that the men had no one lingua franca among them, but got by as can with ad hoc translation and the pidgin cant of the sea. Spanish was frequently heard among the crew: no surprise considering its composition. (The captain was also described as a capable Spanish speaker.)

The accounts identifying the Flowery Land‘s human cargo give perplexing and partial selections, with varying reports of nationalities. The flexible spelling accorded to proper names of the day, a multitude of aliases, and the infelicity most of these men had with English surely contributes to the confusion. But after the captain, the captain’s brother, and the two mates, the ship’s complement appears to have consisted of the following:

  • Six Spanish/Filipino sailors from Manila: John Leone or Lyons, Francisco Blanco, Mauricio Duranno, Basilio de Los Santos, Marcelino Santa Lacroix, and Miguel Lopez aka Joseph Chancis
  • A Levantine Turkish subject of Greek ancestry, Marcus Vartos (called “Watter” in the Old Bailey records)
  • George Carlos, a Greek from Greece
  • Two Spaniards, Jose Williams and Frank Paul or Powell
  • Michael Andersen, a Norwegian
  • Frank Candereau, a Frenchman
  • Frank Early, a 17-year-old English cabin boy
  • A Malay steward, a Chinese cook, and a Chinese lamp-trimmer boy, sometimes described together as “three Chinamen”

According to the evidence, much of it given via translators, during the dark hours before dawn on September 10, several of the Manila crew members surprised first mate Carswell while he was walking a routine nightwatch, beat him wickedly, and pitched him into the sea. The disturbance roused the captain and as he emerged he too was beaten and stabbed to death, as was his brother the passenger.


Are they coming for your daughter next? Cover illustration for the “penny dreadful” Police Crimes.

Having disposed of both the ranking mariners, the mutineers approached Taffer with a classic offer one can’t refuse: as the last capable navigator aboard, he would guide the ship to the Rio de la Plata.

After a three-week journey that was surely very frightening for Taffer, they reached the mouth of that river dividing Argentina from Uruguay and there scuttled the Flowery Land and put ashore in skiffs. Or at least, most of them did so. Ordered off the boat, the Malay steward refused until the Manila conspirators pelted him with champagne bottles from the ship’s store of cargo, finally driving him into the waves where he drowned; John Lyons remarked on some private grievance that must have been shared by his fellows. The Chinese cook and boy apparently suffered a like fate, being left to go down with the sinking ship … or at least that is what the survivors later deposed wish to have understood. Two little boats made landfall from the ill-starred hulk and each boat’s party reports not having the Chinese aboard or seeing what became of them. There is racism, sure — Taffer doesn’t even know the cook’s name — but it seems bizarre and sinister that two people among they this tiny group of seaborne intimates die completely offstage and the rest barely even think to wonder about them. (“I then missed the cook and the lamp-trimmer,” Taffer deposed pre-trial. “Lyons said they had gone down in the ship.” (Glasgow Herald, Jan. 15, 1864)) Be that as it may, the fate of these unfortunates was very far down the list of injuries done by the mutineers to the British Empire and nobody appears to have been inclined to inquire too closely.

So we take them for dead. Strangely, having slain six people, the mutineers did not make Taffer the seventh — a clemency that Taffer did not anticipate, and with which he would soon punish them. Once the remaining crew had made landfall, Taffer well understood how his dangerous position stood in this party and contrived to escape it at the first opportunity.

Once away, he made for Montevideo and presented himself and his shocking story to British authorities. His 13 former mates, many of whom were pretending to have escaped the wreck of an American guano freighter with an eye to hitching on with some other crew and vanishing into the circuits of imperial trade, were soon recognized or rounded up. By December, all 14 survivors were en route to England.

The inexact process of dividing mutineer from bystander had already begun by now, closely tracking racial proximity. The two British subjects, Taffer and Early, shipped home not as pirates but as witnesses, as did the Norwegian and the Frenchmen. The other ten returned in manacles.

Upon inquiry back in London, it was decided that the two Spaniards (the two from Spain, not Manila) could not be shown to have joined or supported the mutiny, only to have gone along with it when it was a fait accompli. They were set at their liberty.

The remaining eight men — the six from Manila plus the Greek from Turkey and the Greek from Greece — faced trial. All but John Carlos were convicted and condemned to death; Carlos, acquitted of the murder of Captain Smith, was vengefully re-indicted that same day for property destruction committed by scuttling the Flowery Land, and caught a 10-year sentence for that.

The why of the mutiny is frustratingly — or conveniently — elided in the testimony that crew members gave the court, and we are perhaps meant to understand broadly, as does this author, that “such a ‘dago’ crew” is ever prone to becoming “saucy” and imperiling all order.

As we query beyond a colonial power’s heart of darkness we quickly enter territory that the original documents did not bother to chart. With any mutiny one’s mind flies to that ancient maritime grievance, “bad usage”. The record gives us only guarded indications, but it touches on poor rations and brutal corporal punishments, albeit isolated ones† (e.g., Michael Andersen: “I have seen the captain strike some of the crew … he struck Watter with his flat hand at the side of the head — I did not see that more than once.”)

Those prosecuted, strangers in a foreign land, do not appear to have made any declaration explaining their own conduct even after sentence was secured though the London Times (Feb. 23, 1864) said that they had communicated to their gaolers that they had been driven to desperation by a mean water ration in the tropical swelter. One British newsman reporting the hanging also marked the omission in a voice that, however tinged with racial condescension, empathizes surprisingly with the hanged.

Nothing can extenuate the ferocity of the group of murders they committed, for the lowest savage is bound to observe the instincts of humanity. But God judges provocations, and weighs the frenzy of ignorant men, goaded to crime, in a finer balance than any earthly one. He knows what secrets are gone down with the Flowery Land, and the dead bodies of her captain and mate; knows whether these five men — now also dead — were treated as it is the custom to treat such poor sweepings of maritime places. The evidence hinted strongly at something of the kind — foul water to drink, and little of it under the tropics, insufficient food, and anger and blows; because, having shipped his crew from Babel, the captain and officers could not understand them or be understood … with decent management this kind of tragedy is next to impossible. Had the crowd at the execution been of the same color and vocation as themselves, sympathy would not have been wanting. It would have been believed — justly or not — from the experience of a hundred miserable voyages, that, knowing no Spanish, their officers had made kicks and cuffs interpret for them, as is the case in many a vessel. If it was so in theirs, how could they explain it? Our language, our courts, our long delays between crime and its penalty, were to them all one mystery. They are of a race that prefers to die and be done with it, rather than to fret and fuss too much against the will of Fate; and though we believe that none of the five were guiltless, we have an uncomfortable suspicion that, had they been English, some different facts would have been brought out at the trial … let us not be suspected of pitying a dusky murderer while we have no compassion for his victims of our own color if we demand that the moral of this offensive sight should be drawn in Manillese as well as English — that captains should learn to treat their lascar like a human being, if they would not have his thick Oriental blood boil into the fury of the brute which they have helped to make him.

The prospect of favoring the London mob with a the group hanging of seven “dusky murderers” — a quantity not seen at Newgate or anywhere else in England in decades — excited quite a lot of fretful commentary both moral and logistical. In the event, Basilio de Los Santos and Marcelino Santa Lacroix both received royal mercy on the strength of a petition, supported by the Spanish consulate and by some of the jurors, claiming diminished responsibility for the maritime coup.

That still left five to swing, which promised a remarkable novelty. There had been hangings of six, seven, and even eight on single occasions at Newgate in the 1800s up until the 1820s. The last such event was a septuple hanging on July 22, 1829. But by the 1840s and 1850s hangings had become solo affairs almost all the time; as of 1864, Londoners had not set eyes on a double execution — to say nothing of larger crops — in full 12 years.

Liberal-minded British elites and especially Fleet Street gasbags were already at this point in high dudgeon at the uncouth behavior of the rabble that flocked to public hangings. They approached this spectacle, whose victims had been hissed by the throngs who hemmed the Old Bailey when they arrived for their trial, pre-outraged, as it were — certain that their countrymen and (what is worse) women would soon set a-gnash all the teeth of the right-thinking.

Under the pious headline “Morality, as taught by Professor Calcraft” — that is, the notorious public executioner — the Newcastle Daily Journal of February 17, 1864 wrote (prior to the reduction of two of the seven sentences):

Next Monday morning, at eight o’clock, the gentle successor of Mr. John Ketch, “assisted” by some twenty thousand blood-thirsty ruffians of every grade and station, — ruffians with “handles to their names” from Belgravia, and ruffians with a score of aliases rom the Seven Dials, — will have the gratification of butchering seven of his immortal fellow-creatures, in the name of Justice and with the sanction of the Gospel — as represented by the Rev. John Davis, Ordinary of Newgate. What a thrill of delight will run through his veins as he draws the bolt and offers up this seven-fold sacrifice! How intensely pleasing must be the effect produced upon the spectators by the sight of seven dying men writhing in the agonies of the last struggle at the self-same moment! And what a grand sensation picture will the whole affair form for the pen of Monsieur Assolant, or any other French critic on English manners who may chance to be present!

[W]e are compelled to inquire whether something cannot be done to put a stop to those public exhibitions, so brutal in themselves, and so demoralising in their results, of which we are on Monday next to have so terrible a specimen. Public opinion may, for many years to come, sanction the punishment of death, but it cannot much longer permit the most awful of all spectacles to be made a show for the gratification of the vilest of either sex.

Only those whose misfortune it is to have been compelled to attend public executions, can form any conception of their unspeakable horrors, or of the injurious influence they exercise upon the mob who witness them. Let our readers thank God that it has never been their awful duty to … stand upon the scaffold whilst one of God’s creatures, made in His own image, is thrust into Eternity amid shrieks and blasphemies so appalling that the infernal world itselff could scarcely equal them. And let them on no account imagine that this is an over-drawn picture. It was such a spectacle as this that a few heart-sickened men were compelled to witness, less than twelve months since, in this very town of Newcastle, as they gathered round George Vass in his cell and on the scaffold; and those who heard the yells of positive exultation, the screams of delight with which the victim of the law was hailed on that occasion when he appeared before the herd of brutes assembled to see him die, and who afterwards heard the conversation which filled every tavern in the neighbourhood, must have had all preconceived notions with respect to the beneficial influence of capital punishments upon the public forevver dispelled … it is only gross ignorance or hardened sin that can venture to maintain that a public execution is other than a public lesson in blasphemy, murder, and infidelity.

Certainly execution day turned out the city in quantity. Following the funereal procession from within prison walls, the Times of London (Feb. 23, 1864) heard “the shouts and cries and uproar of the mob” as “a loud indistinct noise like the roar of the angry sea.” This sea swelled 20,000 strong or 25 or 30, and adjacent apartments with suitable sightlines reportedly renting for 75 guineas. As he zoomed upon the end of his life in the insane eye of such a spectacle, one of the mutineers, Duranno, swooned in vertigo and sagged against the already-attached noose until warders could retrieve a stool to prop him up while his fellows were marched out in turn.

Was it wise, just, and conducive to moral hygiene to expose such scenes to the general public? Even if the tide was turning against that classic tableau, and would before the 1860s were out be resolved to the permanent detriment of public executions, many still rose to defend their propriety. The exceptional character of the Flowery Land case made it a sure candidate for the respective partisans in that argument who wished — to appropriate a latter-day shibboleth — to control narrative. Each found on the Newgate gallows what they wished and expected to see; indeed, found with suspect familiarity.

The Feb. 23 Daily Telegraph, which supplies us the humane remarks on treating lascars like human beings extensively excerpted above, was full aghast.

The five pirates have died that horrible death by which it is still believed evil natures are terrified from crime, and society edified as to the sacredness of human life. We wish that we could think so in view of that surging, blasphemous, excited crowd that treated the occasion as a drama of the liveliest sensational kind — with nothing to pay for a place — and homicide, not fictitious, but natural and authentic, perpetrated before their eyes. In grimy, haggard thousands, the thieves and prostitutes of London and the suburbs gathered about the foot of the big gallows, jamming and crushing each other for a share of the spectacle. … The accounts of the demeanor of the crowd answer the question, whether it is good to gather for such a sight the scum and dregs of a vast city. Coarse, heartless, bestial, and brutalised by the official manslaughter which they had witnessed, the drabs and pickpockets made a “finish” of it in the public-houses, canvassing the skill of Jack Ketch and the “gameness” of each of his swarthy patients. The hideous roar that went up at the various stages of the sight was not the expression of gratified justice: it was the howl of the circus at the smell of blood — the grunt of what is hog-like in our nature at suffering we do not share. … Let us dismiss this devilish carousal of agony on one side, and eager excitement on the other, with its accompaniment of brutality and disorder ten times aggravated, and ask whether such a sight was wisely furnished, since we cannot call in question its jutice, so long as blood is purged with blood and a Mosaic law governs a Christian nation?

Whew!

The Times for its part had no use for the fainting-couch routine, insisting that reverent “deep silence” had reigned among the rude multitude once the moment of execution arrived, broken only as “the gibbet creaked audibly.” Opposite the detailed report of its delegate to Newgate, it presented a pseudoymous letter quite at odds with the Telegraph:

Sir, — I am not ashamed to avow that I went this morning to the hanging of the five pirates at the Old Bailey, and I am concerned to state my impressions at this public spectacle, because they were so utterly different from all which I have heard or read, or which it is the current fashion or folly to express at such exhibitions.

It was to me the most solemn sight I ever witnessed — an instance of the punishment which awaits a bloody crime, where mercy is not prostituted or justice defrauded by the mitigation, without reason, of a salutary doom.

As I watched from a commanding position an enormous crowd of spectators, which I should not hesitate to compute at as many as 20,000 or 25,000, chiefly men, and surveyed the sea of faces at the fatal instant when the drop fell and their expression was generalized by a sudden and common emotion, I should say that the pervading feeling was a cordial acceptance of the act then transacted before them, and a complete recognition that it was just and inevitable.

I am convinced that there were few present who could have escaped this emotion and conviction, from the sudden silence and entranced interest of this multitude of men; and if there had been previously some levity on the part of the lowest who had waited for this catastrophe, I am satisfied that at the last moment the better nature of all responded in concert to the terrible appeal, and that the sum total was a public good.

This is so different from the effect which others ascribe to such scenes that I ask to state my own conviction, and to subscribe myself

Yours faithfully,
VIGIL

Neither the dignified decorum nor the raucous carousing of the crowd under the Newgate gallows prevented the infamous crime from doing a sharp trade in the mass entertainment ventures of the day, from disposable true-crime pulp to Allsop’s Waxwork Exhibition. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a boy still shy of his fifth birthday at the moment the traps opened, surely absorbed some of this cultural ejecta in his growing-up years; he eventually dramatized “The True Story of the Tragedy of Flowery Land” in a short story.

* Since barques could be handled by a small crew, they had carved out a large slice of the world’s shipping lanes in the Golden Age of Sail … right before steam power showed up and relegated them to the sideline.

** Compare to the likes of the HMS Bounty, with a complement of 46 — requiring a numerically wider network of plotters. This vulnerability a minimalistic crew had to a mere handful of malcontents appears again a decade later with the mutiny of the Lennie (crew: 16).

† One possible way to interpret the evidence is that the first mate Carswell was the brutal overseer. In a deposition that Taffer only passingly alludes to during his Old Bailey testimony, he described how Carswell thrashed John Carlos when the latter, citing sickness, refused to take his turn at the watch, and even lashed Carlos to the mast. The captain arrived a few minutes later and had Carlos untied and sent back to berth, with medicine. The mate is also the man to whom Taffer attributes some “corrective” beatings with ropes.

One can at a stretch imagine what occurred on September 10 as an attempt “only” to murder Carswell, perhaps then to attribute his absence come morning to some mysterious nighttime accident overboard — but that the personal settling of scores mushroomed into a full-blown mutiny when the captain presented himself and the logic of the situation required his destruction, too. Taffer said that the mutineers had to confer among themselves where to make him steer the ship they had taken possession of, perhaps corroborating a more improvised series of events. This, however, is an entirely speculative reading; there is plenty of other evidence to suggest intentional coordination.

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1848: Harriet Parker, crime of passion

Add comment February 22nd, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1848, Harriet Parker was publicly hanged in front of the Debtors’ Door at Newgate for the murder of her lover’s two young children.

The sad story is described in Nicola Sly’s In Hot Blood: A Casebook of Historic British Crimes of Passion.

Harriet was a widow. Her partner, Robert Henry Blake, was legally married to another woman, but they were separated and he lived with Harriet and two of his children by his wife: Amina, age seven, and Robert Jr., age five.

Despite residing at Cupid’s Court in London, their relationship was far from blissful. Robert was an inveterate womanizer who openly flaunted his affairs. It all came to a head on New Years’ Eve, 1847, when Robert told Harriet he was going to the theater without her. He’d made plans with a friend, Stephen Hewlett, and she wasn’t invited.

Harriet was furious and suspected, rightly, that Robert was actually going to be with another woman. She followed him as he left their home and tagged along behind him wherever he went, telling him he’d better get used to it because she would be with him all night.

Robert did meet up with his friend Stephen and complained of Harriet’s jealousy. “If I was to kiss that post,” he said, “she would be jealous of it.” Eventually he was able to give Harriet the slip, though, and went immediately to a prostitute’s house, where he stayed the night.

Harriet, meanwhile, angrily searched for her errant lover for hours, saying darkly that Robert would regret his actions for the rest of his life.

“I will do something that he shall repent and will die in Newgate,” she told Stephen Hewlett. She added, “I have something very black in mind … You will hear of me before you see me.”

He didn’t take her seriously. He should have.

A few hours after midnight on New Years’ Day, witnesses saw Harriet walking the city streets with little Amina, still asking people if they’d seen Robert. The next time anyone saw her was at 4:00 a.m. She was alone, and knocked frantically at her neighbor’s door. The neighbor opened the bedroom window and looked out, and asked what on earth was wrong.

“Oh, Mrs. Moore, I have done it,” Harriet said. She added that Blake had “met a little strumpet” and left her last night, and hadn’t come home. “A pretty spectacle is there for him when he does come home,” she added. “I shall go and deliver myself up to a policeman.”

Her neighbor asked why and she replied, “I have murdered the two children.”

That got Mrs. Moore’s attention and she sent her husband to find a police officer. Harriet herself went looking and found one, and asked to be arrested, but she didn’t disclose the reason until they were on the way to the station house. Finally she unburdened her secret:

I have murdered the children to revenge their father. They were innocent — through my vindictiveness I have done the deed.

A look in at the Blake/Parker house showed Harriet was telling the truth: Amina and Robert Jr. were lying in bed, quite dead. They had been smothered and their bodies were still warm. Harriet’s clothes were stiff with dried blood, but it wasn’t the children’s; it was her own blood, from a beating Blake had given her a few days before.

Harriet had to be persuaded not to plead guilty to her crimes from the outset. At her trial, which was presided over by two judges, her defense was that of provocation. Her attorney argued that Robert’s horrible treatment of her had driven her out of her mind and she was not a “responsible agent” at the time of the murders.

The jury was out for only ten minutes before returning with a verdict of guilty of willful murder. The automatic sentence was death, but the jurors included a strong recommendation of mercy because of the provocation Harriet had received. (Even after the murders Robert had boasted of all the women he’d seduced during the time he lived with Harriet.)

Judge Baron didn’t agree with the jury, pointing out that “the children gave her no provocation at all.”

Nevertheless, he promised to pass the recommendation on to the Home Secretary. When the two judges passed their sentence on the convicted woman, they emphasized that she had no right to take her feelings about Blake out on two “unoffending children” who were “in a sweet, innocent sleep.”

Harriet cried out, before being lead from court, “God forgive you, Robert. You have brought me to this.”

The Home Secretary did receive the jury’s recommendation of mercy, but didn’t act on it. The widespread perception was that if Harriet had murdered her louse of a partner rather than his children, she would gotten off with a lesser verdict of manslaughter. But the deaths of two small children, killed for the actions of their father, could not be countenanced.

Harriet spent her last days dictating letters to people. In one of several letters sent to Blake, she wrote, “Awful as my fate is, I would rather die than live again the wretched life I have done for the last twelve months.” She sent him a Bible and a pair of cuffs she’d knitted, and advised him to return to his wife and forsake drinking, bad company and other women.

The crowd of persons assembled to witness the awful scene was immense, and far exceeded in number those present at any execution of late — their conduct, also, we regret to add, was worse than usual, the yells and hootings which prevailed for some time previous to the culprit making her appearance being perfectly dreadful.

London Times, February 22, 1848

Mrs. Moore visited her in her cell and found her surprisingly at ease. “I have received more kindness in Newgate than ever since I left my mother’s home,” Harriet told her former neighbor.

Harriet was hanged by one of Britain’s most famous executioners, William Calcraft — although it was never the tidiness of his executions that he was famous for. Calcraft didn’t handle Harriet all that well, either: according to one account, Harriet’s “muscular contortions and violent motion of the hands and arms … were truly dreadful” as she choked to death. Her frame was so slight that the fall didn’t break her neck.

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1698: Guido Franceschini, The Ring and the Book inspiration

Add comment February 22nd, 2014 Headsman

Robert Browning‘s long narrative poem The Ring and the Book concerns the murder trial of the nobleman Guido Franceschini — a real-life case that saw the defendant in question executed in Rome on this date in 1698 for murdering his wife Pompilia as a suspected adultress. (And her parents just because.)

The 21,000-line work was Browning’s greatest success in life, though many particulars of Browning’s spin on events have been challenged by the 2001 study Roman Murder Mystery.

We’ll be content this day to take Browning’s audience’s-eye view of the jealous husband’s scaffold comeuppance on execution-day.

To mount the scaffold-steps, Guido was last
Here also, as atriciousest in crime.
We hardly noticed how the peasants died,
They dangled somehow soon to right and left,
And we remained all ears and eyes, could give
Ourselves to Guido undividedly,
As he harangued the multitude beneath.
He begged forgiveness on the part of God,
And fair construction of his act from men,
Whose suffrage he entreated for his soul,
Suggesting that we should forthwith repeat
A Pater and an Ave with the hymn
Salve Regina Coeli, for his sake.
Which said, he turned to the confessor, crossed
And reconciled himself, with decency,
Oft glancing at Saint Mary’s opposite,
Where they possess, and showed in shrine to-day,
The blessed Umbilicus of our Lord,
(A relic ’tis believed no other church
In Rome can boast of) — then rose up, as brisk
Knelt down again, bent head, adapted neck,
And, with the name of Jesus on his lips,
Received the fatal blow.

The headsman showed
The head to the populace. Must I avouch
We strangers own to disappointment here?
Report pronounced him fully six feet high,
Youngish, considering his fifty years,
And, if not handsome, dignified at least.
Indeed, it was no face to please a wife!

The “old yellow book” of original case notes that Browning found at a Florentine market and subsequently served as his reference source is available here. The poem itself is, of course, in the public domain; read it in its entirety here, or get hours of free audio reading here.

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1684: Three Covenanters

Add comment February 22nd, 2012 Headsman

Just three indistinguishable Covenanters among very many in the Killing Time.

From the journal of John Erskine of Cardross:

22 February 1684. — After dinner I went to the Laigh Council house, where the three condemned men were brought before Baillie Chancellour, who inquired if they had any more to say for themselves, and if they would bid God save the King? They said, they were not now come to answer, neither would they answer questions, and the refused not to obey all the King’s lawful commands. They refused to hear one of the town curates pray; but he beginning, not desired, George Martin offered to interrupt him the time of his prayer, by saying, ‘Let us be gone, what have we to do here?’ but he ended his prayer without stopping. They were hanged in the Grassmarket, but I went not to the place of execution.

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1799: Heshen forced to commit suicide

2 comments February 22nd, 2011 Headsman

It was on this date that notoriously corrupt Chinese minister of state Heshen or Ho-Shen was forced to commit suicide in lieu of execution.

The able child of a Manchu military officer, Heshen came of age in the long reign of the emperor Qianlong.

That Heshen rose above his modest station with this monarch’s favor was the source of no small resentment. Rumors circulated that the attractive young former bodyguard reminded the emperor of a lost, beloved concubine — with all that implies.

“Elegant in looks, sprucely handsome in a dandified way that suggested a lack of virtue,” a Korean diplomat described Heshen.

Whatever there might have been to the homosexuality angle, Heshen exploited the imperial protection to gorge himself on the state’s revenues; he’s reported to have filled the bureaucracy with clients who saw to it that Heshen got a yuan out of every tael that passed through state business in the last quarter of the 18th century. He even dynastically married his own son to one of Qianlong’s daughters.

It was the peak of the Qing dynasty’s glory, and the dawn of its imperial stagnation. Heshen — resplendent, omnipotent, and sunk in vice* — remains to this day its persona par excellence.

As long as the emperor lived, Heshen had a virtual free hand.

But as soon as the emperor died — on February 7, 1799, at the age of 87 — the successor** Jiaqing destroyed him.

Citing Heshen’s inability to suppress the nettlesome White Lotus and Miao rebellions, Jiaqing arrested and tortured the former retainer into copping to all manner of offenses both mortal and venial.

My thoughts dwell ever on the Confucian precept: ‘For three years after a parent’s death none of his former surroundings should be changed.’ …

But as regards Ho Shen, his crimes are too grave to admit of possible pardon … Ho Shen is a deep-dyed traitor, lost to all moral sense, who has betrayed his Sovereign and jeopardised the State. As self-constituted dictator he has usurped supreme authority.

Seeing the man’s abrupt change of fortunes, Heshen’s people in the bureaucracy fell over each other to denounce him.

He was condemned to the horrific expiation of “slow slicing”; however, given “the undesirability of executing the chief Minister of State like a common felon in the public square,” Jiaqing “allowed him the privilege of committing suicide, as a mark of high favour and out of regard to the dignity of the nation.”

A principal accomplice was made to witness Heshen ceremonially hanging himself; then the accomplice was reprieved of his own death sentence and sent into exile.

The new sovereign found his nation’s dignity sufficiently upheld by the doomed man’s melancholy inventory of loot destined (of course) for the re-appropriation of the Qing … and sufficiently outraged that, upon discovering weeks after the some artifact Heshen had failed to enumerate,

Had these facts come to Our knowledge before the 18th day of the 1st Moon [i.e., February 22], we should assuredly have decreed Ho Shen’s decapitation, even if We had spared him the lingering death and dismemberment.

However, he has already been permitted to commit suicide, and thus luckily escaped the extreme penalty of public execution. We do not, therefore, insist on his corpse being hacked to pieces.

Jiaqing had better to worry about his own now-declining state, which was about to be hacked to pieces by encroaching European powers.

Having made an example of Heshen and a handful of his most visible allies, he was still saddled with the endemic structural corruption Heshen had fostered in the institutions of Qing governance.

“Historians have tended to see Jiaqing’s failure of nerve in purging the bureaucracy of all tainted officials as something of an original sin whose commission predetermined the dynasty’s steady decline,” writes William T. Rowe of this turning point. “But given the need for at least some continuity in routine administration, it is not at all clear that he could have acted otherwise.”

(Hey, at least he did make the few examples. Not everyone even does that much.)

And so Jiaqing struggled in vain to maintain China’s fading prestige; his reign would witness economic erosion and a burgeoning opium trade that eventually led it to war with the British and humiliating western domination.

Since a sclerotic bureaucracy at once crushing in its expanse, helpless in its effect, and riven with self-dealers, is a timeless theme (especially in China), Heshen persists as a lively emblem of corruption.

Heshen’s luxurious mansion — which was also among Jiaqing’s indictments — still stands; today, it’s a museum.

* It bears remembering that it is principally by the testimony of Heshen’s enemies that we know him.

** Technically, Jiaqing had been ruling since Qianlong symbolically “abdicated” in 1796; in reality, Qianlong continued to run the realm until his death.

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1880: Ippolit Mlodetsky, Loris-Melikov’s would-be assassin

Add comment February 22nd, 2010 Headsman

If you were a person of any privilege or official authority in late 19th century Russia, chances are that Narodnaya Volya was planning to take a shot at you.

If you were General Loris-Melikov, a Ukrainian Jew did that to you two days before this date in 1880.*

And if you were that errant assassin, Ippolit Mlodetsky, this was your execution date.

Even though Melikov rated as something of a liberal on the Russian autocracy spectrum, he had no qualms about ordering legal proceedings barely this side of summary.

Gen. Melikoff, on Wednesday evening, ordered a court-martial to assemble on Thursday morning. The trial of the prisoner was opened at 11 o’clock in the morning. The prisoner was insolent in his language and demeanor, and refused to stand up or take any part in the proceedings. He said he had nothing to add … that he did not want to be troubled any more, and wanted the matter finished. … at 1 o’clock … judgment was pronounced against him. The judgment on the prisoner sentenced him to be hanged, and his execution was appointed for 10 o’clock this (Friday) morning on the Simeonofsky Plain, near the Tsarskoe-selo Railway terminus.

And so he was.

Mlodetsky’s public hanging was witnessed by novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky in the very square where Dostoyevsky himself had faced mock-execution for revolutionary activity 30 years before.

Dostoyevsky was, even then, pulling together his magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov.

The very day Mlodetsky tried to kill Melikov found Fyodor Mikhailovich chatting with fellow reactionary journalist Aleksey Suvorin about the plague of terrorism and its accompanying social malaise.

On the day of the attempt by Mlodetsky on Loris Melikov I was with F. M. Dostoyevsky.

… Neither he nor I knew anything about the assassination. But our conversation presently turned to political crimes in general, and a [recent] explosion in the Winter Palace in particular. In the course of talking about this, Dostoyevsky commented on the odd attitude of the public to these crimes. Society seemed to sympathize with them, or, it might be truer to say, was not too clear about how to look upon them … (Quoted here.)

Dostoyevsky in this conversation revealed that for the planned sequel to The Brothers Karamazov — never to be realized in the event —

he was going to write a novel with Alyosha Karamazov as the hero. He planned to bring him out of the monastery and make a revolutionary of him. He would commit a political crime. He would be executed.

(Much more about this sequel in this paper.)

Melikov’s brush with death did not dissuade him from continuing to push for constitutional reforms as the antidote to terrorism, including introduction of a parliament. Tsar Alexander II was on the point of implementing that proposal … when he himself was assassinated by Narodnaya Volya, precipitating a political backlash.

That murder of Alexander II helped put the kibosh on the Karamazov sequel, which would thereafter have become politically problematic.

Nor was that the only artistic casualty of the Russian terrorists.

A discomfiting thematic similarity in Mlodetsky’s execution with that of the protagonist resulted in the cancellation of a just-opened opera: The Merchant Kalashnikov. (It would be a few more decades before that connection could appear ironic.)

* The assassination attempt occurred on February 20, with the execution on February 22, according to the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the then-12-days-later Gregorian calendar, the dates were March 3 and March 5, respectively.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Jews,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Terrorists

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1943: Sophie Scholl of the White Rose

11 comments February 22nd, 2009 Sarah Owocki

On February 22, 1943, Sophie Magdalena Scholl, former student of philosophy and biology at the University of Munich in Germany, was executed by guillotine for her role in the White Rose nonviolent Nazi resistance group.

Scholl was born just 21 years earlier and spent a carefree childhood in Ludwigsburg and later, in Ulm.

Although she initially joined Bund Deutscher Mädel at age 12 (as required), she quickly grew disenchanted with the group and began to identify strongly with the dissenting political views of some of her teachers, family, and friends.

While serving the required six months in the National Labor Service prior to enrolling in university, Scholl began exploring the philosophy and practice of passive resistance, which she was almost immediately able to put into practice at the University of Munich the following spring, where she quickly fell in with the compatriots of her older brother, Hans Scholl.

Initially a forum to entertain the abstract questions of budding young intellectuals, the group (which dubbed itself the White Rose) quickly moved towards taking a more active role in resistance to the Nazi regime.

How should an individual act under a dictatorship? What obligations, or indeed, power, did a group of half a dozen students have in the face of such stifling repression? As Sophie and her brother watched as their father was jailed for a critical remark made about Hitler to an employee, other group members shared stories of atrocities witnessed during war service (of the six members, all but Sophie were male).

It was agreed that some sort of action was necessary. But what?

The group began distributing a series of leaflets urging other Germans to join them in resistance against the Nazi regime. The earlier leaflets were mailed anonymously to addresses all over Germany (copied out of the phone book), but later, the group began targeting the student population. In Fellow Fighters in the Resistance, they wrote: “The name of Germany is dishonoured for all time if German youth does not finally rise, take revenge, smash its tormentors. Students! The German people look to us.”

Passive was their philosophy, but their language was most certainly not.

In February 1943, the group targeted the last of the series of six leaflets for distribution in the main building of the university. Scholl and her brother volunteered to distribute the leaflets one morning, and nearly were able to disappear into the throng of students once classes let out, before being spotted by a janitor and quickly arrested.

After hours of interrogation, Scholl had almost established her innocence, until investigators searched the siblings’ apartment and found proof of her guilt. At this point, she switched tactics and proudly stood by her actions, stating that she was obligated to act in accordance with her conscience and would freely do the same thing again, and this in the face of increasingly hostile and derogatory questioning by her interrogator.

Scholl, her brother Hans, and White Rose member Christoph Probst were subsequently brought to trial in the People’s Court in a crowd of hand-picked Nazi supporters and in front of the notorious Nazi judge Roland Freisler. Found guilty, each was allowed to give a brief statement. Scholl proclaimed, “Where we stand today, you will stand soon.”

Hans and Sophie Scholl and Probst were executed just hours after their trial. Sophie Scholl’s last words were: “Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

Indeed, the pamphlet that led to Scholl’s death did have that very effect. Smuggled out of Germany later that year, the Allied Forces seized on it and dropped thousands of propaganda copies German cities later that year, retitled as “Manifesto of the Students of Munich”.

In the post World War II era, the Geschwister Scholl (Scholl siblings) have since attained an almost mythical stature in German culture and history, with numerous monuments and schools dedicated in their honor (as well as the famous University plaza the siblings crossed the day of their arrest). In a nationwide 2003 poll, Sophie and her brother Hans were voted the fourth most important Germans of all times, above Bach, Goethe and Einstein.

A celebrated movie about Sophie Scholl was released to critical acclaim in 2005, and the White Rose continues to be the subject of numerous books and articles, from the philosophical to the startlingly practical and pertinent questions of the present day, of just what an ordinary and relatively powerless individual can and should do under extraordinarily trying circumstances.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Germany,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Treason,Wartime Executions,Women

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