1779: James Hackman, sandwich wrecker

1 comment April 19th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1779, Londoners crowded Tyburn to witness the hanging of James Hackman for a sensational high-society murder.

Just twelve days before his date with the hemp, Hackman had walked up to Martha Ray at the Royal Opera and shot her in the head with a single-shot pistol. Then, he turned a second weapon on himself in a vain attempt to commit suicide.

The reader is not mistaken to detect here the mania of unrequited passion. Several years before the young Hackman was a handsome lieutenant introduced to Martha Ray’s social circle. She was a successful soprano on the London stage and though unmarried lived with the Earl of Sandwich as his wife in all but the illustrious name.


(cc image) from Molly Elliott.

Yes, this is the very Earl of Sandwich who pioneered the eating of things stuck between bread slices.* Sandwich — John Montagu to his parents — had other interests besides the munchies; he was the capable First Lord of the Admiralty throughout the 1770s. (As a result, Captain Cook, whose seafaring explorations were occurring at that time, kept naming islands for the Earl of Sandwich).

Domestic life for the Earl and his legal Countess — not “Earless”; that’s a different thing — wasn’t quite as satisfying. Dorothy Montagu, going gradually insane, separated from Sandwich. The lord plucked 17-year-old commoner Martha Ray — a quarter-century Sandwich’s junior — in 1759 and she lived as his mistress from there on out.*

Despite their age difference and never-formalized status they had a comfortable arrangement; Ray bore Sandwich five children** and the two appeared in public as a couple. The Earl sponsored Martha Ray’s opera career and education.

James Hackman met the Earl’s mistress around 1775 and the two formed an intimacy. Just how intimate they might have been has never been firmly established but is clear that as time passed the infatuation increasingly ran in only one direction. Hackman sold his commission in the 68th Regiment of Foot to become a Church of England deacon, perhaps angling by this expedient to woo Martha Ray away from Sandwich to a wholly respectable union.

She understandably demurred on this “opportunity” — leading the greenhorn Reverend to his blackguard act.

Hackman’s pointless waste of Martha Ray’s life and his own plucked his contemporaries’ sentimental heartstrings like nothing else. “All ranks of people … pitied the murderer’s fate,” remarks the Newgate Calendar. One newspaper report of the death sentence noted that “all present were greatly affected” at Hackman’s agitations “and however we may detest the crime, a tear of pity will fall from every humane eye on the fate of the unhappy criminal.” (General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, Apr. 17, 1779)

James Boswell was fascinated by the crime; he attended the trial and spilled many public and private words on its subject.

Boswell empathized with Hackman: in a report of the trial for the St. James’s Chronicle (Apr. 15-17, 1779) he opined that the “natural Effect of disappointed Love, however, shocking it may appear, is to excite the most horrid Resentment against his Object, at least to make us prefer the Destruction of our Mistress, to seeing her possessed by a Rival.” Not that Boswell condoned the murder, but “I would say to all that are conscious that their Passions are violent, Think ye that htis unfortunate Gentleman’s general Character is … worse than yours? No, it is not.”

While Human Justice is to be satisfied, let us consider that his Crime was neither premeditated‡ Cruelty, nor base Greediness. He is therefore an Object neither of Abhorrence nor of Contempt … Let us unite our fervent Prayers to the Throne of Heaven, that this our Brother may obtain Forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and be admitted in another State of Being to everlasting Happiness.

The kinship so many Londoners felt for this homicidal stalker moved print copy high and low, before Martha’s body had gone quite cold. Its most notable product was the 1780 Love and Madness, an epistolary novel of tragic passion presented via the (fictitious) letters exchanged by the supposed lovers. So heavily did this understanding of events by Hackman’s contemporaries color its subsequent remembrance that Love and Madness is also the title or subtitle of two 21st century nonfiction considerations of the affair. (1, 2 | Review of both)

Hackman for his part carried off the requisite public posture of resigned tragic nobility in the few days before he satisfied human justice. The General Evening Post, April 17-20 1779 described the execution:

This unfortunate gentleman received the sacrament in the morning with all the fervency and devotion of a sincere repenting criminal: — he repeated that affecting acknowledgment of his guilt, which on his trial drew tears from the audience, and seemed in a state of composure, unruffled with the idea of punishment, which, he said, was no more than he deserved.

At nine o’clock he came into the press-yard, where a great crowd of persons assembled to gratify their curiosity. That all might have an equal share of the sight, a lane was formed by the multitude on each side, through which Mr. Hackman passed, dressed in black, leaning on the arm of his friend the Rev. Mr. Porter, whose hand he squeezed as he muttered the solemn invocation to Heaven, not to forsake a sinner of so enormous a degree, in the trying hour of death.

Mr. Hackman was conveyed from Newgate in a mourning coach, attended by the Rev. Mr. Porter Mr. Villette, the ordinary of Newgate, and Mr. Leapingwell, a Sheriff’s officer.

He reached Tyburn about a quarter before eleven o’clock. When he arrived at the fatal tree, a cart lined with black was under the gallows ready to receive him. Mr. Porter and Mr. Villette ascended it by a pair of steps, and he followed them unsupported. As soon as he had got into it he walked forward, and fell on his knees, (a position seldom used by persons in his circumstances at Tyburn, as they always pray standing) and the Clergymen did the like, one on each side of him, where they remained praying for about fifteen minutes, then got up, when the rope was put about his neck, and tied to the gallows.

In this manner he remained praying between the two Divines for ten minutes more, when the Rev. Mr. Porter embraced him, and Mr. Villette took his leave, and both left the cart. The convict[‘]s cap being pulled over his face, he told the executioner to leave him to himself for a few minutes, and he would drop his handkerchief as a signal when he was ready, which he did after a few minutes pause, and was thereupon launched into eternity.

His whole behaviour was manly, but not bold: his mind seemed to be quite calm, from a firm belief in the mercies of his Saviour.

He wore not hat, not any bandage on his face where he gave himself the wound, that the public curiosity might not be interrupted in looking at him; saying, “that he wished to be made a public spectacle of, and hoped his death might be of service to mankind.”

He was no ways convulsed, nor was their [sic] any motion of the body that tended to shew it experienced any pain. Nothing more was to be seen than what proceeded from the jerk on quitting the cart.

The mob was more numerous than on any other occasion since the death of Dr. Dodd. It was expected Mr. Hackman would suffer at Covent-garden, and preparations were made by some speculating carpenters, who met with a mortifying disappointment.

After hanging the usual time, his body was put into a hearse, and taken to Surgeons-hall in the Old Bailey, where it was prepared for the inspection of the public.

Mr. Harkman expressed a wish to his friends, that the ceremony of anatomizing his body might be dispensed with; and that his corpse might be treated in the same manner as that of Lord Ferrers.

Mr. Hackman intimated to a particular friend, that if his remains could be deposited near those of Miss Ray he should feel inexpressible happiness in the hour of death.

A man who was standing near a dray in Oxford-street to see Mr. Hackman pass, was thrown down under one of the horses by the crowd; the horse being frightened, stamped on the man, and beat out his brains.

* Allegedly so that the Earl wouldn’t have to leave his beloved gambling table to dine.

** There is a wonderful bon mot that has enlivened compendia of anecdotes through the years, consisting of more or less the following exchange:

First speaker: You will either die on the gallows or of some social disease.

Second speaker: That depends upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.

Though it’s been variously attributed, it appears that the retort was originally delivered by the comic Samuel Foote to Lord Sandwich — about Martha Ray.

† Notable among the five children of Sandwich and Martha Ray: jurist Basil Montagu.

Sandwich’s wife also bore him a legitimate son, who eventually succeeded to the father’s Earldom; the title still exists today.

‡ Hackman had to be talked off simply pleading guilty but in the end he hung his trial hopes on arguing that he intended to kill himself, in Martha’s presence, and was overwhelmed by a momentary “phrensy”. A letter in his pocket meant to be delivered posthumously to his brother-in-law supported this claim; the fact that he brought two guns to meet her rebutted it.

Trial judge William Blackstone pointed out to Hackman’s jurors that the composure of the accused before and after the crime did not suggest a madman and that accepting Hackman’s claim of only an instant’s insanity could present a very slippery slope indeed for future murder prosecutions.

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Feast Day of St. Agatha

2 comments February 5th, 2011 Headsman

(Thanks to Carl Pyrdum, III, the author of the hilariously incisive blog Got Medieval, for this guest post — which originally appeared as part of his decidedly irreverent Medieval Months stroll through the Catholic Church’s quirky calendar of saintly feast days. -ed.)

While not one of the Holy Helpers proper, St. Agatha, whose feast falls on February 5, has special powers to heal ailments of the breasts, on account of having had hers cut off for refusing to worship pagan idols.

Like Bartholomew, she is usually depicted in the unfortunate after state in iconography, carrying her severed breasts before her on a tray or plate.


St. Agatha of Sicily, by Orazio Riminaldi (1625).

Because detached breasts sort of resemble bells, she’s the patron saint of bellfounders, and because they also kind of resemble dough, she works double duty as the patron of bakers, too. Oh, and just to be clear, that last sentence isn’t one of those clearly nonsensical sentences I pepper my writing with for purposes of the comedy. Agatha is the patron saint of severed boobs and everything that kind of looks like a severed boob.


The treats on the left are a traditional Catania cassata known as “Agatha’s breasts” or “Virgin breasts” (“Minni di Vergini”). Image (c) Gergely Sipos and used with permission.

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2009: Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping, for tainted milk

6 comments November 24th, 2010 Meaghan

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

On this day in 2009, Chinese citizens Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping were shot to death in connection with China’s tainted milk scandal.

The affair caused some 300,000 infants to became sick, six of them fatally. They were killed by powdered milk tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical used in plastics and fertilizer. Zhang, a dairy farmer from the province of Hebei, sold hundreds of tons of tainted milk powder in 2007 and 2008; he was the largest supplier. Geng supplied toxic milk to dairy companies.

The scandal was stupendous and made headlines all over the world. According to Time magazine, the tainted milk found its way to Taiwan, Singapore and Japan. China’s $232 million dairy export industry cratered as the European Union and a dozen nations in Asia and Africa banned Chinese milk and milk products. The farmers who depended on milk sales for their livelihood were reduced to simply pouring their surplus stock down the drain, and since nobody wanted to buy dairy cows under these conditions, some farmers just slaughtered their animals.

Top: Chinese farmers destroy tainted milk. Bottom: Zhang Yujun (left) and a supplicating Geng Jinping (right).

Nor was milk wasn’t the only export product with this problem; Wikipedia’s timeline of the scandal states melamine was subsequently discovered in Chinese eggs, egg powder, baking ammonia, chicken, crackers and animal food.

Melamine was added to the milk to fool government protein tests, which would show whether the milk had been diluted or not. (Watered-down milk had been a problem in the past; in 2004 thirteen Chinese babies died of malnutrition after being fed milk that was so watery it had almost zero nutritional value.) Melamine, like protein, is high in nitrogen, so the presence of melamine in food would cause the protein content to appear higher than it really was.

It isn’t clear whether the people who altered the milk knew — or cared — that it was poisonous. Very poisonous. Melamine is never supposed to be used in food; it causes kidney stones and in some cases complete renal failure, especially in young children. A child can take over six months to recover from exposure.

Some blame must be attached to the (suspect) Chinese food safety administration, which in May 2008 reported that over 99% of baby milk powders had been deemed safe. (In fact, one major dairy company had begun hearing complaints about its baby milk as far back as the previous December.) The Ministry of Health was informed about the sick infants in July. There are strong suspicions that the government tried to suppress the reports to avoid embarrassment; the Olympics were in Beijing that summer and the world’s eye was on China. The scandal was only made public in September, after the Games.

Twenty-one people involved in the scandal were brought to trial on various charges in December 2008, and convicted in January.

Tian Wenhua, the general manager of the Chinese dairy giant Sanlu, pleaded guilty to producing substandard goods and was sentenced to life in prison. She admitted she’d known the milk was bad for four months before she reported this fact to the authorities. Sanlu tried to keep complaining parents quiet by giving them free milk, which was also tainted. Tien was widely perceived as being the person most responsible for the scandal, and many were disappointed that she didn’t get the death sentence.

Other defendants received various prison terms. One of them was given a suspended death sentence, but only Zhang (guilty of endangering public safety) and Geng (guilty of producing and selling toxic food) were actually executed.

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Feast Day of the Holy Maccabees

1 comment August 1st, 2010 Headsman

This is the feast date, in both the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, of the Woman with Seven Sons — each of whom is supposed to have been put to death for refusing to break the Mosaic law by eating pork.

Although they are Jewish martyrs more than a century before Christ, they are revered most especially by the Christian faith that elbowed Judaism aside. Their story comes from 2 Maccabees, a “deuterocanonical” text that is part of the Old Testament but not part of the Hebrew Bible — for reasons having to do with the contingent process of formulating the canon.* (Short explanation | Long explanation)

Whether sent from the Lord or not, this story features the righteous resistance of the faithful family against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, which was one of the successor Hellenistic states to Alexander the Great’s conquests.

In 2 Maccabees (and also in 1 Maccabees, which covers the same period, though not this specific martyrdom), Antiochus IV is making an unwelcome pro-heathen intervention in a Jewish civil war on the side of the hellenizers as against the hidebound traditionalists. This comes to attempting “to compel the Jews to depart from the laws of their fathers, and not to live after the laws of God: And to pollute also the temple in Jerusalem, and to call it the temple of Jupiter Olympius.” (2 Maccabees 6:1-2; this chapter features a Whitman’s sampler of other faithful traditionalists slaughtered for various forms of adherence to the Law.)

Same deal with the dietary laws, whose countermanding edict Antiochus (being a wicked heathen king) is pleased to enforce by the most ghastly tortures.

Here’s the description of the martyrdom from 2 Maccabees chapter 7:

Das Martyrium der sieben Makkabaer, by Antonio Ciseri, in an aptly classical setting.

1: It came to pass also, that seven brethren with their mother were taken, and compelled by the king against the law to taste swine’s flesh, and were tormented with scourges and whips.
2: But one of them that spake first said thus, What wouldest thou ask or learn of us? we are ready to die, rather than to transgress the laws of our fathers.
3: Then the king, being in a rage, commanded pans and caldrons to be made hot:
4: Which forthwith being heated, he commanded to cut out the tongue of him that spake first, and to cut off the utmost parts of his body, the rest of his brethren and his mother looking on.
5: Now when he was thus maimed in all his members, he commanded him being yet alive to be brought to the fire, and to be fried in the pan: and as the vapour of the pan was for a good space dispersed, they exhorted one another with the mother to die manfully, saying thus,
6: The Lord God looketh upon us, and in truth hath comfort in us, as Moses in his song, which witnessed to their faces, declared, saying, And he shall be comforted in his servants.
7: So when the first was dead after this number, they brought the second to make him a mocking stock: and when they had pulled off the skin of his head with the hair, they asked him, Wilt thou eat, before thou be punished throughout every member of thy body?
8: But he answered in his own language, and said, No. Wherefore he also received the next torment in order, as the former did.
9: And when he was at the last gasp, he said, Thou like a fury takest us out of this present life, but the King of the world shall raise us up, who have died for his laws, unto everlasting life.
10: After him was the third made a mocking stock: and when he was required, he put out his tongue, and that right soon, holding forth his hands manfully.
11: And said courageously, These I had from heaven; and for his laws I despise them; and from him I hope to receive them again.
12: Insomuch that the king, and they that were with him, marvelled at the young man’s courage, for that he nothing regarded the pains.
13: Now when this man was dead also, they tormented and mangled the fourth in like manner.
14: So when he was ready to die he said thus, It is good, being put to death by men, to look for hope from God to be raised up again by him: as for thee, thou shalt have no resurrection to life.
15: Afterward they brought the fifth also, and mangled him.
16: Then looked he unto the king, and said, Thou hast power over men, thou art corruptible, thou doest what thou wilt; yet think not that our nation is forsaken of God;
17: But abide a while, and behold his great power, how he will torment thee and thy seed.
18: After him also they brought the sixth, who being ready to die said, Be not deceived without cause: for we suffer these things for ourselves, having sinned against our God: therefore marvellous things are done unto us.
19: But think not thou, that takest in hand to strive against God, that thou shalt escape unpunished.
20: But the mother was marvellous above all, and worthy of honourable memory: for when she saw her seven sons slain within the space of one day, she bare it with a good courage, because of the hope that she had in the Lord.
21: Yea, she exhorted every one of them in her own language, filled with courageous spirits; and stirring up her womanish thoughts with a manly stomach, she said unto them,
22: I cannot tell how ye came into my womb: for I neither gave you breath nor life, neither was it I that formed the members of every one of you;
23: But doubtless the Creator of the world, who formed the generation of man, and found out the beginning of all things, will also of his own mercy give you breath and life again, as ye now regard not your own selves for his laws’ sake.
24: Now Antiochus, thinking himself despised, and suspecting it to be a reproachful speech, whilst the youngest was yet alive, did not only exhort him by words, but also assured him with oaths, that he would make him both a rich and a happy man, if he would turn from the laws of his fathers; and that also he would take him for his friend, and trust him with affairs.
25: But when the young man would in no case hearken unto him, the king called his mother, and exhorted her that she would counsel the young man to save his life.
26: And when he had exhorted her with many words, she promised him that she would counsel her son.
27: But she bowing herself toward him, laughing the cruel tyrant to scorn, spake in her country language on this manner; O my son, have pity upon me that bare thee nine months in my womb, and gave thee such three years, and nourished thee, and brought thee up unto this age, and endured the troubles of education.
28: I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise.
29: Fear not this tormentor, but, being worthy of thy brethren, take thy death that I may receive thee again in mercy with thy brethren.
30: Whiles she was yet speaking these words, the young man said, Whom wait ye for? I will not obey the king’s commandment: but I will obey the commandment of the law that was given unto our fathers by Moses.
31: And thou, that hast been the author of all mischief against the Hebrews, shalt not escape the hands of God.
32: For we suffer because of our sins.
33: And though the living Lord be angry with us a little while for our chastening and correction, yet shall he be at one again with his servants.
34: But thou, O godless man, and of all other most wicked, be not lifted up without a cause, nor puffed up with uncertain hopes, lifting up thy hand against the servants of God:
35: For thou hast not yet escaped the judgment of Almighty God, who seeth all things.
36: For our brethren, who now have suffered a short pain, are dead under God’s covenant of everlasting life: but thou, through the judgment of God, shalt receive just punishment for thy pride.
37: But I, as my brethren, offer up my body and life for the laws of our fathers, beseeching God that he would speedily be merciful unto our nation; and that thou by torments and plagues mayest confess, that he alone is God;
38: And that in me and my brethren the wrath of the Almighty, which is justly brought upon our nation, may cease.
39: Than the king’ being in a rage, handed him worse than all the rest, and took it grievously that he was mocked.
40: So this man died undefiled, and put his whole trust in the Lord.
41: Last of all after the sons the mother died.
42: Let this be enough now to have spoken concerning the idolatrous feasts, and the extreme tortures.

The upshot of the Maccabees texts is the revolt of Judas Maccabeus against the Seleucids, the episode that gives us Hanukkah, when that “temple of Jupiter Olympius” was rededicated back to YHWH.

And though not specifically because of the Holy Maccabees, the start of that revolt is the very next thing to occur in the text,** at the start of chapter 8:

1: Then Judas Maccabeus, and they that were with him, went privily into the towns, and called their kinsfolks together, and took unto them all such as continued in the Jews’ religion, and assembled about six thousand men.
2: And they called upon the Lord, that he would look upon the people that was trodden down of all; and also pity the temple profaned of ungodly men.
3: And that he would have compassion upon the city, sore defaced, and ready to be made even with the ground; and hear the blood that cried unto him,
4: And remember the wicked slaughter of harmless infants, and the blasphemies committed against his name; and that he would shew his hatred against the wicked.

And then, of course, it’s the good guys’ turn to start killing.

* It is worth noting that deuterocanonical books aren’t part of the Old Testament for most Protestants; Martin Luther declared himself “so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all, for they have too many heathen unnaturalities.”

** The book’s chronology is scarcely rigorous, but if the episode is considered historical, it would have occurred in 167 B.C.E. (the year the Maccabean revolt began) or the few years before, reaching back to Antiochus’s anti-Mosaic injunctions c. 175 B.C.E.

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1843: 17 who drew the black beans

2 comments March 25th, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1843 was a good one to just stick with the guacamole.

Though the Republic of Texas (it would join the United States in 1846) had won its independence from Mexico a few years before, hostilities between the two continued.

Skirmishes in the frontierlands at length triggered a Texan reprisal-slash-plundering expedition.

The officially independent Somervell Expedition of volunteer Texan militiamen captured a couple of Mexican towns, then disbanded to go home. Those members of it optimistic about their chances for more raiding set off for Ciudad Mier* — the Mier Expedition.

Their optimism was misplaced.

The Mier Expedition was a flop, and the irate Mexican President Santa Anna ordered the entire band shot to make an example. Anglo diplomatic wrangling got him to go down to shooting one tenth of the band.

Well, you’ve gotta pick that tenth somehow.

The Black Bean Lottery

So on this day, 176 potentially condemned men were made to draw a bean from a pot containing 159 white ones and 17 fatal black ones.

For the lucky 159, there was no rush quite like winning your life from a legume, as this survivors’ account describes:

I knew then that I was safe, and the revulsion of feeling was so great and rapid that I can compare it to nothing except the sudden lifting of an immense weight from off one’s shoulders. I felt as light as a feather.

The 17 for whom the cosmos had ordained frijoles negros took a quick leave of their companions, and were shot in two batches. (Here is a thorough discussion of the entire affair.)

It was a typically dicey death by musketry, with lots of people requiring multiple volleys. One of the 17, one James Shepherd, even survived the execution altogether by playing dead. (He fled during the night, but was later recaptured and [successfully] re-shot.)

The most hated man (by the Mexicans), Ewen Cameron, pulled white, but Santa Anna thought better of letting him draw air and had him separately executed a month later. The rest of the lottery’s “winners” languished in prisons and work camps for more than a year of continued Texas-Mexico hostility, until they were amnestied and released in September 1844 — many destined to renew hostilities in the imminent Mexican-American War.

That survivor quoted above, William “Bigfoot” Wallace, was one of those re-enlistees. His colorful career with the Texas Rangers earned him a minor star in the firmament of Americana; he appears in Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove prequel Dead Man’s Walk … only in that version, he gets cinematically black-beaned at the big moment, as in this clip from the miniseries of the same title.

* The town is latterly famous as a key transit point for arms smuggling to Fidel Castro to supply the Cuban Revolution.

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1793: Madame du Barry, who hated to go

5 comments December 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Madame du Barry — shrieking pitiably in terror — was guillotined in Paris.

Versaille costume dramas have made great hay with the courtesan who became the mistress of Louis XV, and her catty court rivalry with Marie Antoinette. (Madame Tussaud’s still-on-display Sleeping Beauty figure was also created way back in 1763 in her likeness.)

More portraits of Madame du Barry here.

The sovereign’s bed implied a station of wealth and extravagance, but the low birth that caused Marie to turn up her nose didn’t much help this day’s victim standing with the Jacobins.

Poor Madame du Barry, at 50 years of age, had not lost an ounce of her considerable zest for life … and her apparently ingenuous joie de vivre while the Revolution raged looks somewhere between innocent and daft.

While nobles were scrambling to get out of France, the Comtesse born Jeanne Bécu shuttled back and forth over the English Channel in 1792 to settle her jewelry accounts … and decided to stay in France, returning after the September Massacres no less. Later, she would detail to her gaolers where she had stashed her baubles around her estate, in the delusion that they could buy her life — or at least, “did not each word give her a second of time?”*

She’s remembered for the uncommon scene she made being hauled to the guillotine this date — in a time when the scaffold’s pageantry demanded a stoic public dignity from the guillotine’s victims, the Comtesse came apart, and begged the crowd for her life so frantically and heart-wrenchingly that the executioners felt hurried to dispatch her lest the scene turn against them.

Even to the last, hopeless second she implored Sanson,

Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment.**

One could make the case that if more clients of the national razor had displayed such naked humanity to onlookers, the guillotine‘s technical and social capacity for mass butchery might have been lessened.

Whether true or not, she gives us a glimpse, oddly unusual in these pages, of unadulterated fright — of that visceral instinct to cling to life, even under the blade, even for one little moment more.

Dostoyevsky, who knew whereof he spoke would write in The Idiot,

After all this honour and glory, after having been almost a Queen, she was guillotined by that butcher, Samson. She was quite innocent, but it had to be done, for the satisfaction of the fishwives of Paris. She was so terrified, that she did not understand what was happening. But when Samson seized her head, and pushed her under the knife with his foot, she cried out: ‘Wait a moment! wait a moment, monsieur!’ Well, because of that moment of bitter suffering, perhaps the Saviour will pardon her other faults, for one cannot imagine a greater agony.

Spare a thought for that moment of bitter suffering, next time you … uh, dine on cauliflower?

* This line, obviously in the vein of her famous last request to the headsman, is from Memoirs of the Comtesse Du Barry, actually a 19th century work of historical fiction by Baron Etienne Leon Lamothe-Langon.

** “One moment more, executioner, one little moment!”

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