1739: Two French youths who murdered Choctaws

1 comment January 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1739, two French youths were executed by musketry in the French Louisiana colony for the murder of two Choctaws — a gesture of juridical diplomacy that didn’t work out as the musketeers hoped.

Our source for this unusual event is Patricia Galloway’s “The Barthelemy Murders: Bienville’s Establishment of the ‘Lex Talionis’ as a Principle of Indian Diplomacy” from the Proceedings of the Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society, Vol. 8 (1985). The “Bienville” of Galloway’s title was Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the French Colonial Governor of Louisiana. It was a post he had held intermittently since 1701, which was back when he and his brother Iberville were still exploring the region.*

Bienville was noted for his deft touch with the native inhabitants of the colony he proposed to govern; in Galloway’s words, he “seemed to have an intuitive grasp of the Indian concept of honor and to understand tribal power structures as no other governor did. In addition, he made it his business to learn and use Choctaw or the Choctaw-like Mobilian trade language in his dealings with the Indians — the only governor to do so.”

Be he ever so empathic, Bienville had a sticky wicket with this case of international violence, when each of the nations involved would have disposed of it very differently had it been a purely internal affair.

On the side of the Choctaw and indeed for all of the tribes of the southeast, the available evidence points to blood vengeance as the accepted response to homicide, but there was no governmental institution to carry it out, so the responsibility for the execution of a murderer fell upon the relatives of the victim … the European notion depended upon handing over regulatory powers to a legal institution; the Indian notion, on the other hand, assumed that familial sanctions would keep individuals in line.

It was a situation that demanded the full measure of Bienville’s diplomatic acumen. The Choctaw people were the largest of several native nations in the French colony, dominating the territory of the latter-day state of Mississippi. Years before the events in this post, Bienville had put them on his team by arming them against the British-allied Chickasaw … but in the late 1730s, Bienville was coming off a failed campaign against the Chickasaw, and with the British making diligent trading inroads with the Choctaw, it wasn’t necessarily a given that they would stick within the French sphere of influence. Indeed, there was a chief of rising stature within the Choctaw nation named Red Shoe whose calling card was pushing a bro-British turn.

Onto this delicate stage barged two Creole half-brothers, whom Galloway identifies as Philippe Alexandre (born in 1710) and a youth of whom we know only the surname Barthelemy (born in 1723): as Barthelemy was the name of the (step-, to Philippe) father who stood patriarch to the whole family, it’s the name by which the affair is known. According to the notes taken on the trial** by the colonial official Etienne Salmon as quoted by Galloway, their crime was motivated by nothing but opportunism and racial animus.

They went in a pirogue from Mobile to the Pascagoulas with a Negro slave to look for some food supplies, and there they found a Choctaw and his wife who were proposing to go to Mobile to trade some bear oil and a few deerskins, and who asked them for passage which they granted them. Contrary winds having cast them ashore on some neighboring islands, they went hunting there. The elder of the two brothers proposed to the Negro that he kill the husband and wife, saying that the savages were dogs, and that if they ran across Frenchmen in the same straits in their country they would not object to killing them. The Negro having rejected the proposition, saying that he had [no] reason at all to kill them, that they had done him no wrong, the two brothers discussed the same thing, and the elder told the younger that he would be doing a valorous deed, and that he would be regarded as a true man, if he made the attack; this child allowed himself to be so persuaded that on the following day at sunrise, while everyone was sleeping, or pretending to, the younger shot twice at the husband and his wife, and killed them.

This happened sometime during 1738. It took some months for the disappearance of these hunter-traders to become known to their communities, and for suspicion to fix on the young men involved. The French colony arrested the culprits and Bienville promised his allies “that justice would be done and would be carried out in Mobile before their appointed witnesses.” For Bienville, this meant the strict application of lex talionis through the French judicial mechanism.

The trial took place on January 10 … the two young men were condemned to die, while the Negro was dismissed as guiltless. The original sentence called for hanging, but to spare the dignity of the boys’ family it was changed to death by a firing squad. Salmon reported that the younger brother had no notion of guilt and was convinced that in the dangerous times then prevailing, he had performed a deed worthy of praise. Even Salmon believed that had the situation been different Bienville would have allowed the younger to escape death. But this was not to be, and the young men were returned to Mobile for execution, which took place before Choctaw witnesses on January 14.

The executions placated the Choctaw and, Bienville hoped, established an understanding that crimes between their nations would be properly satisfied by the offender’s nation more or less on the basis of lex talionis: an orderly and reciprocal life-for-a-life punishment.

Seven years ahead and Bienville had been retired to France when at last there came a Choctaw-on-Frenchmen murder to test the precedent. The new governor, Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, invoked the principle of this Barthelemy case: “We ask nothing of you but justice, since M. de Bienville had justice done you in 1740 [sic] for a man and woman that some Frenchmen had killed.”

The trouble that the French encountered here in having their claim recognized lay in their failure to understand the distinction made by the Choctaw between domestic and international law in a homicide case. The evidence is quite clear that the Choctaw were prepared to accept the notion of setting off the French deaths by an equal number of Choctaw deaths, but they expected the French, as the injured party, to carry out the killings themselves. If the French wanted the Choctaw to carry out the killings, they said, the French would have to persuade close relatives of the required victims to do it, or else there would be an unending train of vengeance set loose in the nation.

The French didn’t know who had actually murdered their three people and “the usual procedure in such cases was to substitute people who were of little use to the tribe or who for some reason already deserved death.” However, the French greedily bid for a political coup by demanding not a marginal victim but the pro-British chief Red Shoe himself. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t find any of Red Shoe’s relatives willing to turn executioner. The only thing left for the Choctaw to try was

killings committed against a group that was the enemy of both French and Choctaw. Therefore, to set off the deaths of three Frenchmen at the hands of pro-English Choctaws, the pro-French Choctaws attempted to fulfill the French demands in part by killing English traders. This was done in a raid on an English convoy which was being escorted by Red Shoe. After Red Shoe was murdered by stealth, two Englishmen were killed in an open attack, making up the required three deaths.

The French, however, completely missed the point of the Choctaw restitution and refused the two English scalps, insisting on two more Choctaw deaths … The deaths of the Englishmen did not go without notice on the pro-English side. Doubtless as a result of a symmetrical demand by the English, the [pro-English] Choctaw killed five French settlers on the Mobile River. These killings were followed by retaliatory raids by French-allied Choctaws on English trade convoys, killing two more English traders.

This is precisely the sort of blood vengeance spiral that Bienville had been trying to militate against, and it soon pulled the whole Choctaw nation into an outright civil war that killed some 800 people and brought the French into the field as well. Galloway once again:

Bienville’s intentions were good, and it is to the credit of the French that they carried out the execution of the half-brothers, against their inclinations, because this was the kind of justice that the Choctaw understood. Nor are the French to be blamed for expecting the Choctaw to make the same kind of concession to their notion of justice. The tragedy arose not because the Choctaw did not want to render justice at all, but because they had no vicarious legal mechanism to carry it out. In the end, therefore, they were forced into civil war because vengeance carried out by a Choctaw, on another Choctaw, in behalf of a third party not a Choctaw, did not leave the avenger free of punishment himself. Like other aspects of southeastern Indian culture, this one was so inconsistent with European understanding that it had to adapt or disappear, and although it did not actually disappear among the Choctaw themselves until 1823, the principle in dealings with white nations was firmly asserted in treaties from the time of the end of the Choctaw civil war. The Choctaw had dearly bought comprehension of Bienville’s principle with the weighty currency of culture change.

* Iberville and Bienville co-founded Fort Louis de la Mobile (present-day Mobile, Alabama) in 1702; this is where the executions in this post occurred. Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718.

** No original record of the trial survives; Salmon’s recollection is the best we’re going to do for primary sourcing.

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1813: A Nez Perce thief, by the Pacific Fur Company

Add comment June 1st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1813, Anglo-American fur trader John Clarke had an indigenous Nez Perce summarily hanged for stealing a goblet … dangerously poisoning relations between the respective communities in the Pacific Northwest.

We lay our day’s scene in the Oregon Territory, far frontier of then-only-prospective American continental expansion, beyond even the fathomless reaches of the Louisiana Purchase. The Stars and Stripes had penetrated there courtesy of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but British, Spanish, and Russian expeditions had planted their own flags too, to say nothing of the claims of its native inhabitants.

And all these claimants had one common desire: the pelts of the beavers swarming that verdant sector.

The New York businessman John Jacob Astor bought a stake in the fur trade in the form of the Pacific Fur Company, and set down the outpost of Astoria, Oregon. (Astor was destined to become one of the republic’s early homegrown plutocrats, a fact which is merely incidental for our purposes. It was the fur business that propelled him to wealth.)

One agent of the P.F.C. was a singularly undiplomatic trader aged about 31 summers, John Clarke. Calling on a mixed Nez Perce-Palouse village to trade his canoes for horses to make an overland journey, Clarke was irritated to find that prices weren’t to his liking and the locals enjoyed pilfering his baubles.

American scribbler Washington Irving recorded the ensuing events:

[Clarke] was a tall, good-looking man, and somewhat given to pomp and circumstance, which made him an object of note in the eyes of the wondering savages. He was stately, too, in his appointments, and had a silver goblet or drinking cup, out of which he would drink with a magnificent air, and then lock it up in a large gardevin, which accompanied him in his travels, and stood in his tent. This goblet had originally been sent as a present from Mr. Astor to Mr. M’Kay, the partner who had unfortunately been blown up in the Tonquin. As it reached Astoria after the departure of that gentleman, it had remained in the possession of Mr. Clarke.

A silver goblet was too glittering a prize not to catch the eye of a Pierced-nose. It was like the shining tin case of John Reed. Such a wonder had never been seen in the land before. The Indians talked about it to one another. They marked the care with which it was deposited in the gardevin, like a relic in its shrine, and concluded that it must be a “great medicine.” That night Mr. Clarke neglected to lock up his treasure; in the morning the sacred casket was open—the precious relic gone!

Clarke was now outrageous. All the past vexations that he had suffered from this pilfering community rose to mind, and he threatened that, unless the goblet was promptly returned, he would hang the thief should he eventually discover him. The day [May 31st, 1813] gassed away, however, without the restoration of the cup. At night sentinels were secretly posted about the camp. With all their vigilance a Pierced-nose contrived to get into the camp unperceived, and to load himself with booty; it was only on his retreat that he was discovered and taken. At daybreak the culprit was brought to trial, and promptly convicted. He stood responsible for all the spoliations of the camp, the precious goblet among the number, and Mr. Clarke passed sentence of death upon him.

A gibbet was accordingly constructed of oars; the chief of the village and his people were assembled and the culprit was produced, with his legs and arms pinioned. Clarke then made a harangue. He reminded the tribe of the benefits he had bestowed upon them during his former visits, and the many thefts an other misdeeds which he had overlooked. The prisoner especially had always been peculiarly well treated by the white men, but had repeatedly been guilty of pilfering. He was to be punished for his own misdeeds, and as a warning to is tribe.

The Indians now gathered round Mr. Clarke and interceded for the culprit, They were willing he should be punished severely, but implored that his life might be spared. The companions, too, of Mr. Clarke, considered the sentence too severe, and advised him to mitigate it; but he was inexorable. He was not naturally a stern or cruel man; but from his boyhood he had lived in the Indian country among lndian traders, and held the life of a savage extremely cheap. He was, moreover, a firm believer in the doctrine of intimidation.

Farnham, a clerk, a tall “Green Mountain boy” from Vermont, who had been robbed of a pistol, acted as executioner. The signal was given, and the poor Pierced-nose, resisting, struggling, and screaming, in the most frightful manner, was launched into eternity. The Indians stood round gazing in silence and mute awe, but made no attempt to oppose the execution, nor testified any emotion when it was over. They locked up their feelings within their bosoms until an opportunity should arrive to gratify them with — a bloody act of vengeance.

Having made his grand gesture, Clarke quickly realized that he had enacted it while his small party was alone in an Indian village where they were at the mercy of their far more numerous hosts. Fearing a backlash, the white traders accordingly hightailed it back to Astoria, and then evacuated Astoria itself.

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1844: Samuel Mohawk

Add comment March 22nd, 2018 Headsman


Philadelphia Sun, March 26, 1884.

On this date in 1844, Samuel Mohawk, an indigenous Seneca Indian, was hanged for slaughtering Mary McQuiston Wigton and her five children in Slippery Rock, Penn.

Many witnesses noticed Mohawk in a violent rage as he traveled by stage from New York, and his mood grew fouler with drink and with the repeated refusal of hospitality by white establishments. It’s unclear what specific trigger turned his evil temper to murder at the Wigton residence — if there was any real trigger at all — but in his fury, he pounded the brains of his victims out of their skulls with rocks. The case remains locally notorious to this day, in part for being the first execution in Butler County.

I’d tell you all about it but the (inert but very interesting) blog YesterYear Once More has already got it covered.

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1882: Dead Shot, Dandy Jim and Skippy, mutinous Apache scouts

Add comment March 3rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1882,* the U.S. Army hanged three White Mountain Apache scouts as mutineers.

This small tragedy in the long-running Apache Wars of the American Southwest had its seeds in the 1870s, when the Army forced onto the San Carlos reservation several bands of Apache peoples, including the Chiricahua, Yavapai, and the Western Apache nations of Tonto, White Mountain, and Cibecue.

The concentration proved potent, unexpectedly so since the tribes in question were not all on friendly terms with one another.

Noch-ay-del-klinne (many other transliterations are possible), an influential White Mountain medicine man of 36 summers or so — and a man who had been to Washington DC with a peace delegation and laid his own eyes on the encroaching industrial civilization — began cultivating something very like a ghost dance for the San Carlos Indians.

Though the ghost dance is most closely associated with the Lakota Sioux, several years and several hundred kilometers’ distance from the Apache of Arizona, the movement actually originated among the much nearer Nevada Paiute. Incarnations of ghost dancing throughout the American West gave a millenial expression to indigenes’ shared trauma of defeat, displacement, and death.

Noch-ay-del-klinne’s rituals were called Na’Ilde’, meaning raising from the dead,** and his prophesy that lost comrades would rise from their graves and the white man would vanish from Apache lands when the corn was ripe, spoke to that trauma for the denizens of the San Carlos reservation — and alarmed the U.S. Army troops stationed at nearby Fort Apache. Especially troubling was the “fraternizing that went on between tribes and elements of tribes which had always held for each other the most deadly aversion,” in the words of the later memoir of Thomas Cruse, who commanded the army’s company of native Apache scouts. He had granted leave for some of his scouts to attend these dances and didn’t like what he saw when they returned.

After the medicine dances began around the post I noticed a change. Generally they [the scouts] are very ready to communicate anything they know or may have seen, but after these dances they became very uncommunicative and would not tell anything that was going on among the other Indians or among themselves … when they came back they were not only exhausted and unfit for duty, but they showed surliness and insubordination. They grumbled constantly and made vague remarks about the country being theirs, not ours. Dozens of small incidents showed that something, or someone, was giving them new thoughts.

Cruse gave a grim — and as events soon proved, sound — assessment of his men’s unreliability: “he entirely distrusted his scouts in event of the rising of the White Mountains and believed all or nearly all would go with the enemy.” But the affirmative reply to Cruse’s plea to discharge the unit was delayed due to telegraph problems by the time that unit set out with Col. Eugene Asa Carr on an August 1881 mission to arrest Noch-ay-del-klinne.†

This incursion, which will set in motion dozens of untimely deaths, was entirely aggressive, justified by no act of overt hostility by the Apache. Although Cruse was writing many years after the fact, his complaints about his subalterns’ “surliness” and “new thoughts” have the ring of the boss’s know-your-placeism, as directed in this same period at social insubordination elsewhere in the American experiment — at organized labor, for example; or at Black men and women.

The army found the medicine man and took him into custody on August 30. That evening, as the troop bivouaced down for the night, Apaches began gathering ominously beyond their fringes. They were visibly armed, and unhappy about the unprovoked seizure of Noch-ay-del-klinne; according to an oral history relayed by Tom Friday, the orphaned son of one of the men destined for the gallows in this post, “All Cibecue Indian people know that the soldiers were coming. They were ready for them. They were ready to fight. They sent word to all Indians, ‘Come, clean your guns; get ready.’ … The Indians were very angry: they had done no wrong and could not understand why the soldiers would come.”‡

Whether upon an arranged signal or merely the alert of the sort of random confrontation this situation invited, those Apaches started firing at the army camp — and as Cruse had anticipated, his scouts in the breach adhered to their people, not the flag.

The Battle of Cibecue Creek could easily have wiped out the expedition, for as one of their number named William Carter later wrote, there were at the outset of “more than 100 Indians besides the scouts in camp, and less than forty dismounted men engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict.”

In averting catastrophe, Carr was one of four U.S. soldiers to earn the Medal of Honor for gallantry in the battle, repulsing the hostiles from the camp and scrambling his surprised men to hold off any further attacks until night dispelled the combatants. He also had Noch-ay-del-klinne summarily shot during the fight. Carter again:

Before leaving the field Colonel Carr sent Lieutenant Carter to examine the body of the Medicine Man and determine if life was extinct. Strange to say, notwithstanding his wounds [he’d been shot in the head -ed.], he was still alive. The recovery of this Indian, if left in the hands of his friends, would have given him a commanding influence over these superstitious people, which would have resulted in endless war. Colonel Carr then repeated the order for his death, specifying that no more shots should be fired. Guide Burns was directed to carry out the order with the understanding that a knife was to be used. Burns, fearing failure, took an ax and crushed the forehead of the deluded fanatic, and from this time forward every person murdered by these Apaches was treated in a similar manner.

Carr’s bloodied expedition proceeded that night upon a forced march for the safety of Fort Apache, reaching it the following afternoon — although “many of the Indians had preceded the command, and all night they were haranguing in the vicinity. They covered the roads and trails, and killed a number of citizens.” The fort came under a brief siege in the ensuing days, and hostilities in the resulting regional uprising dragged on for two years, concluding with the outcome customary for the Apache Wars.

Four of the absconded scouts were arrested in the months ahead and tried at court-martial. (Other captured Apache who were not enlisted in the army were not prosecuted for the firefight.) A Private Mucheco was sentenced to hard labor at Alcatraz. The other three, sergeants jauntily known to the whites as Dead Shot, Dandy Jim, and Skippy,

On the appointed day, per a detailed report in the New York Herald (March 4, 1882),

Wagons of all descriptions loaded with men anxious to see the execution of the Indian scouts, Dead Shot, Dandy Jim and Skippy, came pouring into this place from Wilcox, Thomas, Safford and all points from very early this morning. The time not being known at which the event would take place, there was a state of suspense until the moment arrived for the execution. The gallows was erected in front of the guard house and was fourteen feet high, with a platform six feet four inches from the ground and a distance of seven feet four inches from the floor to the gallows pole. The whole measured twelve feet in length by eight feet wide. The rope used was three-quarters of an inch thick and the drop was four feet six inches.

Dandy Jim, from this forum thread.

[On the scaffold] Dead Shot said he had nothing to say. What was being done was correct. He would probably meet his people. He had suffered much in this world and now he was through and would see his people. Since he first saw white men he had been well treated. He had plenty to eat and plenty of clothes, but this day paid for all he got from the white men. He also said Dandy Jim was a nephew and Eskiticha, or “Skippy,” a cousin of his. He had seen a good many of his people die and did not know where they went, but he was going to follow. He thought there was no use in dressing an Indian up as he was and then hanging him. When he came into San Carlos, if he had done anything wrong, he would not have given himself up, yet he gave up his rifle and the twenty rounds of ammunition that were furnished him at Camp Apache.

Dandy Jim said he had to be hanged, as such were the orders. He could not talk much. It was no use to beg for his life, as people would only laugh at him for his trouble. Eskiticha said: — “The sun is going down, and God is looking after me.” He did not think they were doing right, as he had never done anything to warrant being hanged.

The chaplain, Rev. A.D. Mitchell, then repeated a short prayer, which was interpreted by Merijilda, when all retired from the scaffold, except the hangman, a military prisoner. The black caps were then placed over the heads of the men, and at one o’clock the drop fell. Death was instantaneous in the case of Dead Shot and Eskiticha; Dandy Jim quivered once or twice. After being allowed to hang about twenty minutes they were cut down and pronounced dead by the doctors.

* The same date as an unrelated Mississippi double hanging, previously covered in these pages.

** According to John R. Welch, Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Mark Altaha in “Retracing the Battle of Cibecue: Western Apache, Documentary, and Archaeological Interpretations,” Kiva, Winter 2005. Noch-ay-del-klinne had some exposure to Christian doctrine, which seems present in his own movement’s interest in resurrection.

† Also in the scouting party for this mission was famed frontiersman and eventual Executed Today client Tom Horn.

‡ Thomas Friday’s full account of this affair — which is a second-hand version, since Friday himself was a small child at this time — comes courtesy of William B. Kessel in “The Battle of Cibecue and Its Aftermath: A White Mountain Apache’s Account,” Ethnohistory, Spring 1974.

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1525: Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor

Add comment February 28th, 2018 Headsman

Although the primary accounts — those by conquistadors Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara* — did not explicitly record the date, February 28 is the traditionally recognized anniversary of the execution of the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc.

A monument to Cuauhtemoc in Mexico City. (Author’s photo; public domain)

Cuauhtemoc (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was enthroned early in 1521, in a Tenochtitlan already in the train of devastation brought by the Spanish, which had over the preceding months laid low the Emperor Moctezuma II (by violence) and his brother Cuitlahuac (by smallpox, a disease that halved the city’s population within a year).

He was about 23 or 24 years old, a nobleman who must have distinguished himself in war — “a handsome man, both as regards his countenance and his figure,” in Bernal Diaz’s estimation; “a valiant man and a good warrior” by Gomara’s account.

And it would fall to him to bear his proud kingdom’s ruin.

Having previously been welcomed to Tenochtitlan as guests, Cortes and the Spanish had fought their way out and now returned as besiegers, joined by most of the Aztecs’ resentful former subject kingdoms. They soon had Tenochtitlan in a stranglehold, undaunted by the frightening sacrifice of captured prisoners.

all in a moment the large drum of Huitzilopochtli again resounded from the summit of the temple, accompanied by all the hellish music of shell trumpets, horns, and other instruments. The sound was truly dismal and terrifying, but still more agonizing was all this to us when we looked up and beheld how the Mexicans were mercilessly sacrificing to their idols our unfortunate companions, who had been captured in Cortes’ flight across the opening.

We could plainly see the platform, with the chapel in which those cursed idols stood; how the Mexicans had adorned the heads of the Spaniards with feathers, and compelled their victims to dance round the god Huitzilopochtli; we saw how they stretched them out at full length on a large stone, ripped open their breasts with flint knives, tore out the palpitating heart, and offered it to their idols. Alas! we were forced to be spectators of all this, and how they then seized hold of the dead bodies by the legs and threw them headlong down the steps of the temple, at the bottom of which other executioners stood ready to receive them, who severed the arms, legs, and heads from the bodies, drew the skin off the faces, which were tanned with the beards still adhering to them, and produced as spectacles of mockery and derision at their feasts ; the legs, arms, and other parts of the body being cut up and devoured!

In this way the Mexicans served all the Spaniards they took prisoners; and the entrails alone were thrown to the tigers, lions, otters, and serpents, which were kept in cages. These abominable barbarities we were forced to witness with our own eyes from our very camp; and the reader may easily imagine our feelings, how excessively agonizing! the more so as we were so near our unfortunate companions without being able to assist them. Every one of us thanked God from the bottom of his soul for His great mercy in having rescued us from such a horrible death!

Bernal Diaz

Wracked by famine after Cortes successfully cut off its food and water, Tenochtitlan succumbed that August. (The conquistadors found they could barely endure the stench of countless rotting bodies as they took control of the famished city.) When captured, Cuauhtemoc implored Cortes through tears (again according to Bernal Diaz),

I have done what I was bound to do in the defence of my metropolis, and of my subjects. My resources have now become entirely exhausted. I have succumbed to superior power, and stand a prisoner before you. Now draw the dagger which hangs at your belt, and plunge it into my bosom.

There would be no bosom-daggering. Cortes had a much worse fate in mind.

He saluted Cuauhtemoc for his intrepidity in defense, vowing to maintain the latter as the ruler of Mexico … Cortes’s ruler, to ratify the dictates of the conquerors, beginning with commanding his remaining loyalists to surrender. Cuauhtemoc obeyed, with what posterity can only guess must have been fathomless shame and sorrow.

Upon humiliation, Cortes heaped physical torture when the invaders’ ransack of their captured city turned up far less lesser quantities of material loot than they had anticipated — torture which Cuauhtemoc and a cousin-king of a loyal Aztec ally both endured heroically without augmenting the Spanish bottom line. Bernal Diaz once again:

The next thing which Cortes did was to collect all the gold, silver, and jewels that had been found in Mexico, of which, however, there was very little; for Quauhtemoctzin, it was said, had ordered all the treasures to be thrown into the lake four days previous to his capture. A great quantity had likewise been purloined by the Tlascallans, Tezcucans, Huexotzincans, Cholullans, and other auxiliary troops which had assisted us in the siege, besides what had fallen into the hands of the troops on board the brigantines.

The crown officials were positive that Quauhtemoctzin had concealed the greater part, and asserted that Cortes was very pleased that the monarch refused to say a word where it was hidden; for he would then be able to get the whole treasure into his own possession.

The officers then proposed that Quauhtemoctzin and the king of Tlacupa, his most intimate friend and cousin, should be put to the torture, in order to extort from them a confession as to what had become of the treasures: but Cortes could not make up his mind to insult so great a monarch as Quauhtemoctzin, whose territory more than trebled that of Spain, and that for mere lust after gold. Moreover, the monarch’s household assured us they had given up all the gold they possessed to the officers of the crown, which, it was well known, amounted to 380,000 pesos, the whole of which had been melted into bars; and one thing is certain, that the emperor’s and Cortes’ fifths were deducted from that sum; but the conquistadores were not at all satisfied, and considered this sum much below the real amount, and several expressed their suspicion to Alderete, the royal treasurer, that Cortes’ only reason for not wishing to put the monarch to the torture was, that he might secretly take possession of all his riches. Cortes, not willing that such a suspicion should any longer he upon him, or that he should afterwards be called to an account on this score, at last consented that both should be put to the torture.


Detail view (click for the full image) of David Alfaro Siquieros‘s monumental 1950-51 mural, The Torment of Cuauhtemoc.

Boiling hot oil was then applied to their feet; upon which they confessed that, four days prior to Quauhtemoctzin’s capture, all the gold, with the cannon, crossbows, and muskets, which we had lost in the night of sorrows, when we retreated from Mexico, besides those which had been taken in Cortes’ last defeat on the causeway, had been thrown into the lake. A number of good swimmers were then sent to dive for the treasure in the spot they pointed out, but nothing was found. Yet there was some truth in the statement; for I was myself present when Quauhtemoctzin led us to a large and deep reservoir of water, built of stone, which lay near his palace. From this reservoir we fished up a sun of gold similar to the one sent us by Motecusuma, besides many jewels and other trinkets, though all of little value. The king of Tlacupa also informed us that he had hidden all manner of valuable things in some large houses, about twelve miles from Tlacupa, and he would accompany us there to point out the spot where he had buried them.

Alvarado was then despatched thither with six soldiers, among which number I also was; but when we arrived at the spot, this king assured us he had merely invented all this in the hopes that we would have killed him in a moment of anger at our disappointment.

(Diaz later added that “the suspicion was become pretty general that he [Cortes] had concealed the greater part of Quauhtemoctzin’s treasure,” and indeed some disgruntled companions — unsatisfied with the share they had been allotted for so magnificent a conquest — would come to lodge this charge against Cortes formally with Emperor Charles V.)

Cortes eventually brought both these hostages/puppet kings/torture victims along with him on a 1524-1525 expedition to Honduras, perhaps to deprive them of any opportunity to rebel in his absence.

On the evening of February 27, Cortes received a report or a rumor that the Indian kings had rebellion on their mind just the same. The timetable from this report to execution is uncertain from the records, but if it was not within 24 hours it cannot have been much longer. Diaz, a hostile-to-Cortes witness here whose narrative indicates his dismay at proceedings, describes it thus:

I have now to relate a circumstance of a very different nature, which occasioned much grief to us all. Quauhtemoctzin and other Mexican chiefs who accompanied our army had, it would appear, spoken among themselves, or secretly determined to put the whole of us to death, then march back to Mexico, and assemble the whole armed power of the country against the few remaining Spaniards, and raise an insurrection throughout the whole of New Spain. This circumstance was discovered to Cortes by two distinguished Mexican chiefs, one of whom was named Tapia, and the other Juan Velasquez. This latter personage had been Quauhtemoctzin’s captain-general during our war with Mexico, and his testimony was borne out by the investigation which Cortes made into the matter, and by the confession of several of the caziques themselves who were implicated in the conspiracy. These men fearlessly declared, that seeing how carelessly and dispiritedly we roamed about; that numbers of the men were ill from want of food; that four of our musicians, with the buffoon and five soldiers, had died of hunger; and that three other men had turned back, more willing to run the risk of reaching Mexico again than of moving forward, the thought struck them that they could not do better than fall suddenly upon us while we were crossing some river or marsh, particularly as they were upwards of 3000 in number, all armed with lances, and several of them with swords. Quauhtemoctzin did not hesitate to acknowledge that these men had spoken the truth, but added that the conspiracy did not emanate with him, and that he himself had never for a moment contemplated carrying it into effect, but had merely spoken about it with the other caziques. All the cazique of Tlacupa confessed was, his having declared to Quauhtemoctzin that it was better to die at once than daily to have death before their eyes on these fatiguing marches, and see their countrymen and relations perish with hunger.

These were sufficient proofs for Cortes, and without any further ceremony he sentenced Quauhtemoctzin and his cousin the king of Tlacupa to the gallows. Before, however, this sentence was executed, the Franciscan monks, with the assistance of Dona Marina, strove to comfort these unfortunate men, and commended their souls to God. When they were being led to the place of execution, Quauhtemoctzin turned to Cortes, and said: “Oh Malinche! I have for a long time perceived, from your false words, that you had destined me for such a death, because I did not lay violent hands on myself when you entered my city of Mexico! Why are you thus going to put me unjustly to death? God will one time ask this of you!”

The king of Tlacupa said, he could only rejoice in a death which he would be permitted to suffer with his monarch Quauhtemoctzin.

Previous to their being hung, both these unhappy caziques confessed to father Juan, who understood the Mexican language, and they begged of him to commend their souls to God. For Indians they were good Christians, and they died in the true faith, and fully believed in our holy religion.

The death of these two monarchs grieved me excessively, for I had known them in all their glory, and on our march they honoured me with their friendship, and showed me many little attentions; for instance, they would often order their servants to go in quest of fodder for my horse; besides which, they were innocent of the guilt imputed to them, and it was the opinion of all who accompanied this expedition that they were put to death unjustly.

But I will leave this miserable subject, and return to our march, on which we henceforth observed the utmost vigilance, for we greatly feared the Mexicans might rise up in arms against us, after they had thus beheld their monarch ignominiously hung by the neck from a tree. But hunger, fatigue, and sickness weighed heavier upon their minds than the misfortune of Quauhtemoctzin.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the “rebel” kings hanged from a tree.

Gomara and, of course, Cortes characterize the accusations against the Indian kings as true and the proceedings against them lawful. From the footnotes in this same Bernal Diaz volume, we have this from the later Jesuit historian and ethnographer Juan de Torquemada, who was fluent in Nahuatl:

I find it differently represented in a history written in the Mexican language, and which I believe to be perfectly correct. While Cortes (the Mexican author says) was quartered in a certain township, the Mexican chiefs one evening began to discourse among themselves about the recent hardships they had suffered, and Cohuanacotzin said to Quauhtemoctzin, to Tetlepanquetzaltzin, and to other distinguished Mexicans, ‘Thus you see, gentlemen, from kings we are become slaves, and we suffer ourselves to be led about by Cortes and this handful of Christians. If we were other people than we are, and would break through the promise we have made these Spaniards, we could play them a pretty trick here, and revenge ourselves upon them for all they have done to us, and the ill-treatment my cousin Quauhtemoctzin has suffered at their hands.’ To this the Mexican monarch replied, ‘I beg of you Cohuanacotzin to drop this subject, lest some one should overhear us, and imagine we were in earnest.’ It appears (continues Torquemada) that they were indeed overheard, for the whole of this discourse was reported to Cortes by a low-minded Mexican of the lower classes.

By law, Mexican flags fly at half-staff in his honor on February 28.

* These texts are cited throughout the post, but for ease of reference … Bernal Diaz: Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, vol. 1, vol. 2 | Gomara: The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the West India; now called New Spaine | Cortes: History of New Spain, which is a Spanish text as I could not locate an English translation. However, even the Anglophone is liable to appreciate (from p. 225) the illustrations of Indian material culture observed by the Spaniards.

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1673: Kaelkompte and Keketamape, Albany milestones

Add comment February 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1673, Indians named Kaelkompte and Keketamape were sentenced to hanging and gibbeting for the murder of an English soldier near Albany, New York. (The date this sentence was executed, if it was not immediate, has been lost to history.)

This place had been known as Beverwijck up until a few years prior, when the English gave it its new and still-current christening* after taking away New Netherland during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The transition of its legal organs was a more gradual process — with a long survival of Dutch practices upon which the English were gradually overlaid.

The case at hand was a milestone in that jurisprudence: it appears to be the first documented jury trial (pdf) in Albany — a practice imported from England and reflective of the growing sway of the new boss.

Jury trials did not from that point become universal practice, however, and their use in this instance might have connected to the unusual nature of the prosecution.

Lying at the most northerly navigable point of the Hudson River, at the frontier of the powerful Mohawk and dependent upon they and other friendly indigenes to facilitate its fur trading, Albany kept a practiced blind eye when it came to Indian crimes. The 1665 murder of a Dutchman, the last previous documented homicide between the peoples, appears to have gone completely unpunished: in practice, intercultural grievances were settled privately, if at all.

But English law at least aspired to a more totalizing view and when one of the King’s subjects was murdered by natives who were not members of the powerful Iroquois confederation, it found its ideal test case — as we see in Courts Minutes of Albany, Rennselaerswyck and Schenectady, 1668-1673 (landing page | specific pdf volume). The ability of Albany to impose not only hanging but a potentially provocative gibbeting in this instance essentially confirmed the precedence of colonial jurisdiction over the smaller Hudson tribes. (The Iroquois were quite a different question and maintained expansive rights against the European encroach even into the post-colonial era.)

Kaelkompte, a northern Indian, from Narachtack castle, appearing in irons before the court, was asked whether he had any objection against any of the 12 jurymen standing before him?

Answered, that none of them had done him any harm.

Thereupon 12 jurors were sworn, as shown by the list, to do justice between the king and the prisoner.

As to the first point of the preliminary examination, as to conspiracy, etc., Kaelkompte answers that Keketamape asked him in the woods whether Stuart had any goods? To which he replied that some time ago he had seen three blankets and some coats there. Also, that Keketamape, sitting with him near the fire in the woods, said to him: “I shall kill Stuart.”

Whereupon Kaelkompte, saying that he did not quite understand, asked him: “W hat did you say? You wish to kill Stuart? If you kill him, you will kill yourself.”

Nota Bene. Here followed the further circumstances of the case. From the proceedings and the further documents it appears that Keketamape confessed that he was guilty of the murder.

Dirck Wessels, Meyndert Hermansz, Johannes Wendel, Willem Nottingam and Jan Jacobsz declare under oath that some time ago, being with the prisoners, listening to their caviling, [they heard] Keketamape say to Kaelkompe: “You killed Stuart and you say that I did it all.” Kaelkompe replied to this: “You did too.”

Kaelkompte acknowledges that he said it, but [declares] that it was longer ago than they say.

Indictment read to Keketamape and Kaelkompte

Keketamape admits that he had a hand in the murder and that he is guilty of having killed Stuart.

Kaelkompte admits that he consented by using these words: “There he is now. First kill him!” But he denies that he is guilty of the killing and says that he is not a bit afraid. He admits further, upon conviction by the interpreters, that he helped to kill Stuart by [the words of] his mouth.

The jury, having carefully weighed and considered the case according to the evidence, informations and confessions, conclude and decide that Keketamape and Kaelkompte are guilty of the murder of the person of Mr Stuart.

Sentence

Therefore, their honors sitting as this Special Court of Oyer and Terminer, having duly taken into account and considered the proceedings and also the verdict of the twelve jurymen that according to the documents placed into their hands the said Kaelkompte and Keketamape are guilty of the murder of the aforesaid Jan Stuart, condemn them both, as they condemn them hereby in the name of his Royal Majesty of Great Britain, under the government of the Right Honorable Colonel Francis Lovelace, to be brought together to the place of execution to be hanged by the neck until they are dead, dead, dead, and thereafter to hang in chains. Actum in Fort Albany, the 15th of February 1672/73.

By order of the honorable Court of Oyer and Terminer
Ludovicus Cobes, Secretary

One of the jurors in this trial, Willem Teller, might have been the same man at issue in a case five years later when “a certain squaw was shot dead at the house of Teller, burgher of this city.” The court found it an accident and ordered him to pay the Mahican nation fifty florins: laying aside any question of proportionality, this later case also demonstrates English courts successfully asserting their rights over violence between peoples that formerly would have been settled in private.

* The name “Albany” honored the Duke of Albany, the man who would eventually be King James II … until he was deposed by a Dutchman.

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1731: Alejo Calatayud, Mestizo

Add comment January 31st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1731, rebel Alejo Calatayud was beheaded in present-day Bolivia.

A silversmith of mixed Spanish and native lineage, Calatayud (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was all of 25 years old when he came to the fore of an indigenous-Mestizo rising in the Andean Cochabamba valley.

What began as a tax revolt against fresh impositions being mooted for the province soon gathered grievances of both class and caste and frightened the empire with a massacre of 39 Spaniards when the rebels overran the city of Cochabamba.

Ultimately, it was more rebellion than revolution — one among a sporadic series of resistance movements in the Andes — and was quelled within weeks by the intervention of a Spanish viceroy for whom the quick dispatch of the insurrectionary leader was no more than natural.

Today, Cochabamba remembers its very brief master Calatayud with an excitingly kinetic equestrian monument.

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1726: Joseph Quasson

Add comment June 29th, 2016 Headsman

Hanged on this date in 1726, Joseph Quasson enjoys a minor distinction in the annals of the gallows press: according to friend of the blog Anthony Vaver, Samuel Moody’s account of Quasson’s long* jailhouse sojourn was the first published in the colonies as a standalone conversion narrative, without cover of an attached ministerial sermon.

And here it is:

* Quasson fatally shot a fellow enlistee serving during Father Rale’s War. There was no question about his guilt, but when the murder took place the next sitting of the court was nine months away so the man just got to cool his heels.

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1557: Galvarino, Mapuche warrior

Add comment November 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1557, the handless Mapuche cacique Galvarino was executed by the Spanish during the Arauco War.

The Mapuche people, still extant today, inhabited present-day Chile and Argentina; Spanish explorers pushing south from the wreck of the Inca Empire encountered them, and naturally antagonized them.

Rebellion broke out among the Mapuche in 1553, led by Caupolican and his able commander Lautaro; they won some signal victories but the conflict was never decisively finished by either side. The Arauco War — encompassing many distinct rebellions and campaigns punctuated by relative calm — ran until the early 19th century.

Our fellow Galvarino was elevated to folk hero status by the Spanish in the very first period of rebellion when he was captured in battle at Lagunillas. Instead of cutting off his head, the Europeans chopped off his hands — then sent him (with a number of like mutilated prisoners) back to his people. The intent was to make a terrifying example, but Galvarino made the example his own: brandishing the bloodied stumps and oratorical fury to match, he incited his comrades to further resistance.

At the Battle of Millarapue on this date in 1557, hours before his execution, the Spanish beheld him urging on the Mapuche:

My Brothers, why have you stopped attacking these Christians, seeing the manifest damage that from the day which they entered our kingdom until today they have done and are doing? And they still will do to you what you see that they have done and they are doing? And still they will do to you what you see that they have done to me, cut your hands off, if you are not diligent in making the most of wreaking destruction on these so injurious people for us and or or our children and women!

But by evening, the Spanish carried the day — and once again had Galvarino in their custody.

“The poet Ercilla, impressed by the Indian’s valor, made every effort to keep him from being executed, arguing that he had seen Galvarino changing sides and joining the Spanish troops,” writes Guillermo I. Castillo-Feliu in Culture and Customs of Chile. “Galvarino, displaying his mutilated arms, until then covered by a shawl, refused Ercilla’s offer to commute his death sentence and said that he only wished that he could tear his enemies apart with his teeth.”

They put him to death straightaway. Accounts of the execution method range from hanging to impalement to being thrown to dogs.

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1676: Matoonas, a Nipmuc shot on Boston Common

Add comment July 27th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1676, an indigenous Nipmuc named Matoonas was marched into Boston, condemned by a summary judicial proceeding, and immediately shot on Boston Common.

Though he was a so-called “Jesus Indian” — a converted Christian — Matoonas had become a principal adversary of the European colonists once long-building tensions exploded into King Philip’s War.

To the communal grievances that made up this war, Matoonas brought a very personal injury: back in 1671, his son Nehemiah had been accused by English colonists of murder and executed on that basis. And not just executed, but his rotting head set up on a pike at the gallows, to really rub it in.

Matoonas bided his time, but when the opportunity to fight back arrived he joined King Philip (Metacomet) with gusto. On July 14, 1675, Nipmuc warriors under his command raided the town of Mendon, Massachusetts, leaving five dead — the very first Anglo casualties of the war.

“A dark cloud of anxiety and fear now settled down upon the place,” a bicentennial a Rev. Carlton Staples recalled in a bicentennial address on Mendon’s history 1867. “With tears and lamentations they tenderly gathered the bodies of the slain and laid them away in some pleasant spot, we know not where. The houses and farms remote from this central point were abandoned, and the people fled to other places, or gathered here to save their flocks and growing crops. All sense of security was gone. They only dared to go abroad in companies. While some worked in the fields and gardens, others watched for the lurking foe.” A few months later, the settlers had to abandon Mendon altogether, and the Nipmuc burned the ghost town to the ground.

But the tide of the war soon turned against the natives, and Matoonas would find that he had his own lurking foe.

Sagamore John comes in, brings Mattoonus and his sonne prisoner. Mattoonus shot to death the same day by John’s men.

diary of Samuel Sewall

A mysterious Nipmuc leader known as Sagamore John (“Sagamore” designates a sachem or chief) betrayed Matoonas in exchange for a pardon from the Massachusetts colony, marching Matoonas and his son right into Boston on the 27th of July.

After an improvised tribunal set down the inevitable punishment, Matoonas was lashed to a tree on Boston Common. Sagamore John performed the execution himself — although whether he volunteered or “volunteered” is not quite clear. The late Nipmuc raider’s head, too, was set on a pole — just opposite Nehemiah’s.


Memorial to Sagamore John in Medford, Mass. (cc) image from David Bruce.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Massachusetts,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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