1807: Ephraim Blackburn, low roller

Add comment November 11th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1807, a throw of the dice noosed Ephraim Blackburn.

The son of a Pennsylvanian who served in George Washington’s army, Blackburn sought his own martial adventure by joining the expedition of Louisiana-Mexico border trader Philip Nolan in 1801.

Nolan had spent the 1790s living and trading along the frontier of Mexico and (Spanish, until 1800) Louisiana. Nolan worked in a legal twilight, earning the connivance of some Mexican officials and the hostility of others; perhaps no Anglo was better-acquainted with Texas.

By 1800 he was barred from the territory but assembled a coterie of 30-plus armed men and ventured into Texas once agan on an apparent filibustering operation seeking to carve out control of some piece of Texas. Our man Ephraim Blackburn was among these daring souls, whose wooden palisade somewhere near the Brazos River was quickly overwhelmed by a Mexican attack.

Nolan died in the battle, leading the remainder of his men to surrender. From there they would embark on a strange years-long legal road, their numbers continually winnowed by escapes. Ordinarily when one is prosecuted as a foreign invader, one is not permitted to have the liberty of the city or to go into business, but that is exactly what occurred with the Nolan men.

One of their number, Peter Ellis Bean, is known to have survived his incarceration; he escaped and fought for Father Miguel Hidalgo‘s Mexican revolutionaries against Spain, returned to the United States in 1818, then re-settled in post-independence Mexico. Bean conferred on posterity a memoir recalling that during their imprisonment,*

Some of my companions got leave of the general to go to other towns to live, but I thought I would find out some way of making something. I gave myself out as a hatter. There was a gentleman who trusted me for whatever was necessary to carry on that business. I employed two Spanish hatters to work with me, for, in fact, I was no hatter at all. In about six months I had so raised my name, that no one would purchase hats except of the American. By this means I got a number of journeymen to work with me. I was clear of debt, and making from fifty to sixty dollars per week.

All this entrepreneurialism was unfolding while capital case meandered with no great urgency among Spanish courts. One judge recommended the prisoners’ outright release in 1804; by the time the message had been shipped across the Atlantic and back, it was 1807, and the judge had died. The crown’s reversal horrifyingly required the death of one in every five of the invaders — although since deaths and escapes had now reduced their ranks to just nine, the local authorities mercifully rounded the figure down to one.

On the 9th of November, the nine remaining prisoners were gathered in a Chihuahua barracks and made aware of their situation. They agreed among themselves to cast dice in order of seniority — low roll hangs.**

Blackburn was the oldest, and the first to roll. He threw a 3 and 1. Bean narrates, beginning with the frighteningly mysterious arrival of confessional priests the night before the survival lottery:

all our conversation that night was in view of our being put to death. I told them that we should trust to fate, and not fret ourselves about what we could not remedy. One of them said the bravest would be cast down to see his open grave before him. “But,” said I, “if you find no way to escape that grave, is it not better to march up to it like a man, than to be dragged to it like one dead? It is enough for them to drag me to it when life is gone. The most cowardly, where under sentence of death, have marched up with great bravery. And, as for myself, if I must die, I mean not to disgrace my country.” The reason I talked so was that I did not believe they would put us to death.

Soon the next morning the priests returned, and David Fero asked them if we were to be put to death. They said they did not know — perhaps some might be. I then began to conclude it would be me, and all my companions thought the same thing. I, however, said nothing; for, as I had before talked of valor in such cases, it became necessary for me to support that character. The priests said we must confess all our sins to them, and we should be forgiven. As for myself, I had been taught that God knew all my crimes and it was not worth while to relate them to the parsons. But some of my companions began to confess, and had their sins forgiven. When they asked me, I told them I must have four or five days to recollect all my sins — that they were so many, it was doubtful whether I could ever remember them all. The parsons advised me to begin, and God would enlighten me, and help me to remember them. I told them I could not that day, but perhaps by the next day I could remember some things. They then left us. All that day the talk among us was as to who it would be. I told them, I supposed, as I was the worst, it would be me; and, as my friend Tony Waters had been put in with us to share our fate, I thought, as he had broken open my letter, that if the thing went according to justice, and they hung the worst man, it must be him, for he was, without doubt, the greatest villain and ought to have been dead some years ago. Waters sighed, but said nothing. The next day the parsons came again, and brought with them a colonel, who read to us the king’s order — which was, that every fifth man was to be hung, for firing on the king’s troops. But, as some were dead, there were but nine of us, and, out of the nine, but one had to die. This was to be decided by throwing dice on the head of a drum. Whoever threw lowest, was to be executed. It was then agreed that the oldest must throw first. I was the youngest, and had to throw last. The first was blindfolded, and two dice put in a glass tumbler. He was led to the drum which was put in the room, and there cast the dice on the head of the drum. And so we went up, one by one, to cast the awful throw of life or death. All of my companions, except one, threw high: he threw four. As I was the last, all his hopes were that I should throw lower than he. As for my part, I was indifferent about it, for I had resigned myself to fortune. I took the glass in my hand, and gained the prize of life, for I threw five.

After two days to prepare himself, Blackburn hanged on Chihuahua’s Plaza de los Urangas. The remaining prisoners were scattered to different prisons for many years to come; among the survivors, only Bean is known to have set eyes on his native soil again.

* On the expedition that would staple his name to mainland America’s highest peak, Zebulon Pike was briefly captured by the Mexicans and taken to Chihuahua, where he met some of the Nolan gang prisoners.

** Both the random selection and its circumstances — punishing Anglo adventurers — strongly foreshadow Mexico’s later Black Bean Lottery.

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1851: Col. William Logan Crittenden, nephew of the Attorney General

6 comments August 16th, 2011 Headsman

“An American kneels only to his God, and always faces his enemy,”* declared William Logan Crittenden, refusing to kneel before his executioners in Havana this date in 1851.

This well-bred** Kentuckian veteran of the Mexican-American War ditched a New Orleans customs-house gig when Narciso Lopez formed a private filibustering expedition to try to steal Cuba from the Spanish.

Placed at the head of one of Lopez’s three battalions, Crittenden’s force was cut off and overwhelmed by the Spanish. (The detailed progress of the campaign is described here.)

He and 50 of his command captured with him were all ordered for immediate execution, six at a time, as pirates, with just a few hours’ allowance to take down official statements and scribble their hasty goodbyes. With “not the heart to write to any of my family,” Crittenden sent one to a friend giving his farewells … then, just before the end, dashed off another addressed to the Attorney General of the United States — his uncle, John J. Crittenden.†

Dear Uncle: In a few moments some fifty of us will be shot. We came with Lopez. You will do me the justice to believe that my motive was a good one. I was deceived by Lopez — he, as well as the public press,‡ assured me tat the island was in a state of prosperous revolution.

I am commanded to finish writing at once.

Your nephew,
W.L. Crittenden

I will die like a man

(Some other affecting last letters from Crittenden’s party can be perused here.)

All this scene, including a post-mortem mutilation by the enraged mob of onlookers, became a bloody banner for U.S. Southerners — since expanding the slave power was core to the entire filibustering project.

When word of the shootings reached New Orleans, a crowd sacked the Spanish consulate.

But in the international relations game, the U.S. had disavowed filibustering and its raiders enjoyed no special diplomatic protection. When a number of the later prisoners were returned in chains to Spain, the Millard Fillmore administration asked their release, but had no grounds to demand it. It was a touchy diplomatic situation … one that our late Crittenden’s uncle, as a member of cabinet, was right in the middle of.

Fillmore eventually secured the captives’ release, atoning the insult to the European power’s agents by causing the Spanish colors to be saluted in New Orleans in honor of the birth of the Infanta Isabella.

All this mincing instead of brawling struck a certain variety of hothead as distinctly unmanful.

Our flag has been wantonly insulted in the Caribbean sea … captured citizens of our country [were] sent in a slave ship to the coast of Spain, fettered, according to the custom of that inhuman traffic, and released, not as an acknowledgement of wrong on demand of our government, but as a gracious boon accorded to a friendly suit … Whilst the dying words of Crittenden yet rung in the American ear, and the heart turned sickening away from the mutilated remains of his liberty-loving followers; whilst public indignation yet swelled at the torture which had been inflicted on our captive countrymen, even then we were called upon to witness a further manifestation of the truckling spirit of the administration …

Jefferson Davis (yes, that one)

* An alternative version has Crittenden declaring that Kentuckians kneel only to their God.

** According to this public domain book (pdf; it’s also on Google books) of the Lopez expedition, William Crittenden’s cousin George Bibb Crittenden — eventually a Confederate general — was among the Texan filibusters to survive the Black Bean Lottery.

William Crittenden’s brother Thomas Theodore Crittenden fought on the Union side of the Civil War, and became Governor of Missouri in 1881. He’s noteworthy for having issued the bounty on outlaw Jesse James that led to the latter’s assassination by Robert Ford.

† Family in the president’s cabinet was just no guarantee of preferential treatment, abroad or at home; just a few years before, a son of the sitting Secretary of War had been hanged at sea for mutiny.

‡ The Spanish press likewise excoriated American yellow journalism in terms that no few present-day scribes would also deserve.

New Orleans papers, there is your work! There is the result of your diragations, of your iniquitous falsehoods, of your placards with large black letters, and your detestable extras … This blood must flow, drop by drop, upon your heads — this blood will torment you in your sleep, for they have lost their lives when you were in security in your houses.

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1851: Narciso Lopez, filibuster

2 comments September 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1851, Venezuelan-born adventurer Narciso Lopez was garroted in Havana for his repeated expeditions to overturn Spanish dominion in Cuba.

Narciso Lopez had fought for the Spanish against Simon Bolivar, and migrated to Cuba when Bolivar carried the day.

Initially a loyal government functionary, Lopez gradually became sweet on the anti-Spanish cause, and fled Cuba for the United States (pursued by a death sentence in absentia) when a treasonable conspiracy of his was discovered.

Like MacArthur, he meant to return — and did.

Lopez crisscrossed the United States, drumming up support for filibustering raids on Cuba meant to detach it from Spain and make it an American slave state.

In this proposed enterprise, wedded alike to both national expansionism and southern sectionalism, Lopez rubbed shoulders with the likes of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, even helping precipitate criminal charges against a former U.S. Senator who backed him.

But the five expeditions went from bad to worse, until Lopez was captured in August 1851.

Tom Chaffin’s Fatal Glory: Narciso Lopez and the First Clandestine U.S. War Against Cuba, describes the scene of his death, just days after capture.

Between the wide Gulf sky and the waters of Havana harbor, the Gothic Morro Castle’s high tabby walls gleamed in the Sunday morning light on September 1, 1851. Though it was barely seven o’clock, a noisy crowd of four thousand already had gathered in a public plaza just across the harbor from the Morro. The plaza spread below the walls of the Punta, a small citadel guarding the western side of Havana’s finger-shaped harbor. At the center of the crowd’s attention on the cloudless dawn was a ten-foot high wooden scaffold that rose from the plaza. At its top was a garrote, an iron chair with a pair of clasps on its back. The mechanics of this grim machine were simple: just below its clasps, designed to grip the condemned man’s head, was a metal collar for his throat. With a turn of the screw on the garrote’s back, the collar tightens, strangling the prisoner.

Lopez was brought out at seven o’clock. At age fifty-four, with his mustache, white hair, and dark piercing eyes, he remained a handsome man. Accompanied by a line of Spanish soldiers, he wore a long white gown and a white cap. His wrists were tied in front. Another rope, binding his elbows, was knotted from behind, its strands held by guards. With two friends who had been allowed to join him, Lopez climbed the steps of the wooden tower. At the top he knelt in prayer for a moment, then rose and faced the crowd. “Countrymen,” he said in a steady voice that observers would recall as one of remarkable composure, “I most solemnly, in this last awful moment of my life, ask your pardon for any injury I have caused you. It was not my wish to injure anyone, my object was your freedom and happiness.” When an officer interrupted, Lopez quickly concluded, “My intention was good, and my hope is in God.”

He bowed, took his seat in the iron chair, and eased his head back. The executioner, a black man, placed the iron clamps around Lopez’s throat. His feet were then tied to bolts on the sides of the chair. He exchanged a few words with his friends and kissed a small cross. Then, with a turn of a screw, Narciso Lopez’s three-year campaign to vanquish Spain’s dominion over Cuba came to an end.

This forbidding example put a real damper on American plans to annex Cuba (for a while), but hardly stanched the North American appetite for filibustering.

Despite the bad end of his own project, Lopez managed to bequeath the eventually independent Cuba the flag (Spanish link) which it still flies today.

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1860: (William) Walker, Nicaragua Ranger

13 comments September 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1860, a kid from Tennessee who had made himself President of Nicaragua got his grateful subjects’ comeuppance in the form of a fusillade.

It was westward the wagons that first bestirred the pioneering blood of William Walker, a scion of privilege with an Ivy League medical degree, who uprooted for San Francisco in 1849.

But the “grey-eyed man of destiny” had an altogether grander gold rush in mind, as he stared pensively into the middle distance.

The air was fervid with Manifest Destiny, and most Americans reckoned that the entire hemisphere was its rightful Manifestation. In a time when private settlers effected the statecraft of conquering the Great Plains, was it really any crazier for Walker to fancy privately conquering some distracted European power’s American colonies?

Walker was one of — soon to be the most famous of — a whole class of such characters: filibusters, a word etymologically rooted in piracy but now claimed by the bustling ranks of soldiers of fortune with private militias bent on detaching some parcel of land from south of the border, for money or glory or what have you.*

Oh, and “what have you”? That means slavery.

Nicely dovetailing the individual spur to derring-do, the South’s structural impulsion to expand slaveholding territories to maintain political parity encouraged — and often bankrolled — filibuster adventuring.

It is to these unwholesome fellows that the United States likely owes its sovereignty over Texas, which was pelted with Anglo filibustering expeditions in the early 19th century, helping set the table for the revolution that severed the Lone Star state from Mexico; arguably, the Texas Revolution itself was a (fantastically successful) filibuster.

So Walker had the glittering destinies manifest before his grey eyes when he put off the white collar career to play soldier. After an abortive 1853 attempt to set up his own country in Mexico’s Baja California — a jury instantly acquitted him of waging war on a neutral power; filibustering, and damn near anything that promised America more Manifestly Destined land, was as popular as it was illegal — Walker moved on war-torn Nicaragua under the guise of a “colony”. With a few hundred men, he was able to conquer the capital and set himself up as head of state.

Who knows whether he could have had a future if he’d done it differently. In the actual fact, he wasn’t as hot an administrator as his ego might then have been telling him. He revoked Nicaragua’s anti-slavery edicts, of course; though this sparked resistance, more damaging may have been revoking a Vanderbilt trade concession and bringing a tycoon into the private warfare game on the opposite team.

Cornelius Vanderbilt-backed opponents drove Walker out of Nicaragua in 1857. Not knowing when he was beat, the ex-Presidente kept knocking around stateside piecing together several expeditions, each sadder than the last … until in 1860, when a landing at Honduras collapsed, and he surrendered himself to a British (rather than American) officer. Europeans with colonies to exploit didn’t have much use for filibustering, and Walker had made everyone nervous by openly aspiring to conquer Nicaragua’s neighbors — including British assets. Rather than return him home where he could continue scheming to meddle in the future canal zone, the Brits handed him over to the Hondurans, who stood him in a court-martial, then stood him up against a wall.

Alex Cox (Repo Man) turned this bizarre biography into a film, back when Ronald Reagan’s filibusters narco-terrorists “moral equals of our founding fathers” were having their own unofficial way with the country Walker once governed:


visit videodetective.com for more info

And for a corner of Americana little-known to most in the U.S. — well, the colorful, nigh-unbelievable quality of the action has overridden its obscurity when it comes to the written word.

Various books about William Walker and Filibustering

* More familiar for most Americans is “filibuster” as a legislative maneuver — refusing to yield the floor during debate to forestall the passage of a bill. Not surprisingly, this usage came online at the same time mercenary filibusters were active, and proceeds from the word’s original sense of “piracy”.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Heads of State,History,Honduras,Language,Mercenaries,Nicaragua,Occupation and Colonialism,Pirates,Power,Shot,Soldiers,USA

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