1800: Prosser’s Gabriel, slave rebel

Add comment October 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1800,** the Virginia slave Gabriel — sometimes remembered as Gabriel Prosser after his owner’s surname, although that wasn’t what his contemporaries called him — was hanged in Richmond, along with a number of his confederates in a planned slave rising.

Decades before Virginia’s more famed Nat Turner rebellion, Gabriel was plenty frightening for the growing little burg of Richmond in 1800. (The incident would result in a clampdown on education and mobility for slave and free blacks alike.)

Gabriel and company conceived a daring revolution to seize the city of Richmond, take hostage Governor (and future U.S. President) James Monroe, and rearrange the state’s power structure.

This scheme, in which the rebels actually stay in Virginia, depended on an optimistic assessment for the prospects of a multiracial alliance — with Richmond’s own poor whites, and also, according to testimony given by conspirators, with Indians and with the French in opposition to a pro-British American policy tilt.

But if ever the time might have been right for such a plot, it was in 1800. A bitter presidential contest adjudicating the Republic’s most fundamental issues was unfolding; there were rumors that the governing Federalists would not voluntarily relinquish power, and the matter might fall to civil war between by the factions.

Gabriel unabashedly attempted to leverage this division between whites; working as he and many other urban blacks did side-by-side with white Republican laborers — whose own interests vis-a-vis Federalist merchants were being so bitterly contested — he must have had a good vibe about the situation on the ground to gamble his life on it. Though the hope was that the white working class would join the revolt after it broke out, there were at least a few whites already initiated into the conspiracy beforehand.

Alas, what broke out was not rebellion but a storm: a downpour that rained out the first planned rising, washing out bridges and roads that the conspirators were counting on to assemble. Before the makeup date could be scheduled, some slaves taking a care for their own necks had betrayed it.

The public mind has been much involved in dangerous apprehensions, concerning an insurrection of the negroes in several of the adjacent counties. Such a thing has been in agitation among the blacks, principally instigated by an ambitious and insidious fellow, a slave, by the name of GABRIEL, the property of Mr. Thomas Prosser, of the county of Henrico. This villain, assuming to himself the appellation of General, through his artfulness, has caused some disturbance, having induced many poor, ignorant, and unfortunate creatures to share in his nefarious and horrid design.

The plot has been entirely exploded, which was shallow; and had the attempt even been made to carry it into execution, but little resistance would have been required, to render their scheme entirely abortive. Thirty or forty of the party have been arrested and confined in jail for trial. Yesterday a called court was held for that purpose, at the court house in this city when six of them were convicted and condemned to suffer death this day at 12 o’clock. It is said that the evidence which has been procured, will go to prove nearly this whole of them guilty. To-day the court will proceed to go thro’ with the rest of the trials.

[The Governor has issued his Proclamation, offering a reward of THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS† for the apprehension of the above “GENERAL,” who has thought proper to take himself off. Exclusive of this sum, he likewise promises “to any number not exceeding five of the said accomplices, who shall apprehend the said GABRIEL, and deliver him up so that he be brought to justice, a FULL PARDON for their offences.” ]

Columbian Mirror, Tuesday, Sep. 16, 1800, quoting “a Richmond paper”

It would be interesting counterfactual history to know the world in which the insurrection was actually launched — whether “but little resistance” would have sufficed to put it down. Gabriel might have reckoned naively on the prospective balance of forces,‡ but his read of the fractious alliance against him was spot-on. Maybe with a modern communications infrastructure, the affair could have become a full-blown October Surprise.

The Jeffersonian party, desperate not to give its plantation supporters cause to rethink its partisan alignment, took pains to downplay what was really quite a bold conspiracy. Not for the last time, wealthy merchants (here backing the Federalists) sought their own advantage pressing the racial wedge issue — for the slaves’ prospective lower-class white allies were also part of Jefferson’s coalition.

“If any thing will correct & bring to repentance old hardened sinners in Jacobinism, it must be an insurrection of their slaves,” editorialized the Boston Gazetteex cathedra, as it were, from 18th century America’s very temple of Mammon. (The quote comes from this tome.)

One thing all right-thinking whites could agree on was a heaping serving of scorn for “General” Gabriel.


Columbian Mirror, Saturday, October 4, 1800.

But then, that personal interview with Monroe also gives a lie to Gabriel’s insignificance. (Gabriel told Monroe nothing of any use to the latter; Monroe sent him away with orders to keep him nearly incommunicado from the sort of working stiffs who would figure to be his jailers.)

A few years later, an English visitor captured at second hand this indefatigable portrait of the doomed slave in his masters’ courts.

I passed by a field in which several poor slaves had lately been executed, on the charge of having an intention to rise against their masters. A lawyer who was present at their trials at Richmond, informed me that on one of them being asked, what he had to say to the court in his defence, he replied, in a manly tone of voice: “I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial by them. I have adventured my life in endeavouring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice to their cause: and I beg, as a favour, that I may be immediately led to execution. I know that you have pre-determined to shed my blood, why then all this mockery of a trial?”

In 2007, James Monroe’s (distant) successor as governor of the Old Dominion (informally) posthumously pardoned Prosser’s Gabriel. Gov. Tim Kaine’s statement on the occasion validated Gabriel’s own defense of himself.

“Gabriel and his colleagues were freedom fighters and deserve their rightful place in history as women and men of integrity who fought for freedom.”

And the site of his martyrdom? Well, it’s … a good place to park.

* Some sources give Oct. 7 as the date of execution; this apparently was the initial sentence of the court but delayed a few days to hang the ringleader along with others in a variety of spots around town.


Virginia Argus, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 1800.

** A pregnant year in the history of slave rebellion: Denmark Vesey bought his freedom in 1800; Nat Turner and John Brown were both born in 1800. (Noted here.)

† It was a slave who eventually turned in Prosser’s Gabriel … but Virginia stiffed him on the reward, handing over only $50 instead of the promised $300.

‡ Or maybe that’s just hindsight talking. In 1800, the Haitian Revolution was underway — so who could blame slaves for thinking big?

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Notable Participants,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Treason,USA,Virginia

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1794: Three generations of Noailles women, but not the Marquise de Lafayette

7 comments July 22nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1794, three women of the Noailles family were guillotined in Paris.

The grandmother, mother and sister of Adrienne Noailles all shed their blue blood on the scaffold (grandpa, with impeccable timing, had died of natural causes the previous summer) for their aristocratic stock — the eldest had been Marie Antoinette‘s etiquette tutor.

They are noteworthy of themselves because their courageous Catholic confessor, one Abbe Carrichon, made good a promise to accompany them to the very shadow of the blade to give them absolution and left to us in a description of these pious ladies’ nerve-wracking journey on the tumbrils one of the surprisingly few first-hand narrative descriptions of the Terror’s guillotine at work. We’ll come to it momentarily.

But they are noteworthy, too, for the fourth kinswoman who stood in the same mortal peril but did not join them. Adrienne was the wife of the the Marquis de Lafayette.

Adrienne and Lafayette had hitched wagons in their teens — an arranged match, but one that evidently blossomed into real love between like-minded partners — before the Marquis ran off to become that famous imported general and patron of the American Revolution.

Such liberal credentials made him an early star in the French Revolution, but by the time of the Terror the reformist gentleman rated a hidebound right-winger on the political spectrum and in short order a refugee in Prussia and Austria; neither his name nor (obviously) his title would have availed him safety had he had the misfortune to be captured in France.

A (possible) portrait of the Marquise de Lafayette, c. 1790. (More.)

But American regard for the name remained high — and at a time when virtually the whole world set its hand against France. Future U.S. president James Monroe arrived in Paris as ambassador just after the Terror, when his predecessor Gouverneur Morris had delicately impressed upon the Committee of Public Safety the damage Adrienne’s beheading would do to one of France’s few remaining friendly foreign relations. Together with his wife Elizabeth, who visited the still-imprisoned Adrienne in an intentionally theatrical gesture, Monroe was able to procure her eventual her release.

(Adrienne decamped to Austria where her husband was considered not a dangerous reactionary but a dangerous radical, and had been imprisoned on that ground. She voluntarily shared his dungeon until Napoleon forced their release. There’s a short account of her life from the New York Times here (pdf))

If Adrienne’s married name was insufficient to purchase the lives of her own family, the latter have acquired a measure of remembrance in their death in one of the Revolution’s most human and emotional scenes, and not least because one is conscious in the account that the priest who gives them comfort and absolution and whose narrative remains for us was himself running a mortal risk at every step (he confesses in the narrative to his nerve having failed him in such a mission on a previous occasion, as it nearly fails him this time).

Here — because it is of such deep interest not only to the theme not only of this week, but of this blog altogether — is the Abbe Carrichon’s account excerpted at length, as drawn from Madame de Lafayette and Her Family, a biography in the public domain and available free at Google Books. (There is another free biography whose focus is the Marquis Lafayette that also treats this episode here.)

One day, as the ladies were exhorting each other to prepare for death, I said to them, as by foresight: ‘If you go the scaffold and if God gives me strength to do so, I shall accompany you.’

They took me at my word and eagerly exclaimed: ‘Will you promise to do so?’ For a moment I hesitated.

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘and so that you may recognize me, I shall wear a dark blue coat and a red waistcoat.’ … On the 22nd of July on a Tuesday morning, as I was just going out, I heard a knock. I opened the door and saw the Noailles children with their tutor. The children were cheerful … the tutor looked sad, careworn, pale, haggard. ‘Let us go to your study,’ said he, ‘and leave the children in this room.’ We did so. He threw himself on a chair.

‘All is over, my friend,’ he said. ‘The ladies are before the Revolutionary Tribunal. I summon you to keep your word. I shall take the boys to Vincennes to see [their sister]. While in the woods I shall prepare those unfortunate children for their terrible loss.’

Although I had been prepared for this news, I was greatly shocked … I soon recovered myself, and after a few questions and answers full of mournful details, I said to M. Grellet:

‘You must go now, and I must change my dress. What a task I have before me! Pray that God may give me strength to accomplish it.’

Thoughtful and irresolute, I slowly retraced my steps to the ‘Palais de Justice,’ dreading to get there and hoping not to find those for whom I was seeking. I arrived before five o’clock. There were no signs of departure. Sick at heart, I ascended the steps of the Saint-Chapelle, then I walked slowly unto the Grande salle, and walked about. I sat down, I rose again, but spoke to no one. From time to time I cast a melancholy glance towards the courtyard, to see if there were any signs of departure. My constant thought was that in two hours, perhaps one, they would be no more. I cannot say how overwhelmed I was by that idea, which has affected me all through life on such occasions, and they have been only too frequent. While a prey to these mournful feelings, never did an hour appear to me so long or so short as the one which elapsed between five and six o’clock on that day. Conflicting thoughts were constantly crossing my mind, which made me suddenly pass from the illusions of vain hopes to fears, alas! too well founded. At last I saw from a movement in the crowd, that the prison door was on the point of being opened. I went down and placed myself near the outer gate … The first cart was filled with prisoners and came toward me. It was occupied by eight ladies whose demeanor was most edifying. Of these seven were unknown to me. The last, who was very near me, was the Marechale de Noailles. A transient ray of hope crossed my heart when I saw that her daughter and grand-daughter were not with her, but alas! they were in the second cart.

I heard one near me say: ‘Look at the young one; how anxious she seems. See how she is speaking to the other one.’ For my part, I felt as if I had heard all they were saying. ‘Mama, he is not there.’ ‘Look again.’ ‘Nothing escapes me — I assure you he is not there!’ The first cart stopped before me during at least a quarter of an hour. It moved on, the second followed. I approached the ladies, they did not see me. … I followed the cart over the bridge, and thus kept near the ladies, though separated from them by the crowd. Mme. de Noailles still looking for me, did not perceive me. … I felt tempted to turn back. Have I not done all that I could, I inwardly exclaimed? Everywhere the crowd will be greater; it is useless to go any further. I was on the point of giving up the attempt. Suddenly the sky became overclouded, thunder was heard in the distance. I made a fresh effort. A short distance brought me before the carts to the Rue Saint-Antoine, nearly opposite the too famous La Force [prison]. At that moment the storm broke forth, the wind blew violently; flashes of lightning and claps of thunder followed in rapid succession; the rain poured down in torrents. I took shelter at a shop door. In one moment the street was cleared; the crowd had taken refuge in the shops and gateways. … By a precipitate and involuntary movement I quitted the shop door and rushed towards the second cart and found myself close to the ladies. Mme. de Noailles perceived me, and, smiling, seemed to say:

‘There you are at last! How happy we are to see you! How we have looked for you! Mama, there he is!’

… all the irresolution vanished from my mind. By the grace of God, I felt possessed of extraordinary courage. Soaked with rain and perspiration I continued to walk by them …

We were close to the carrefour preceding the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. I went forward, examined the spot, and said to myself, ‘This is the place for granting them what they so much long for.’

The cart was going slower. I turned towards the ladies and made a sign which Mme. de Noailles understood perfectly.

‘Mama, M. Carrichon is going to give us absolution,’ she evidently whispered. They piously bowed their heads with a look of repentance, contrition and hope. Then I lifted my hand, and, without uncovering my head, pronounced the form of absolution and the words which follow it distinctly and with supernatural attention. Never shall I forget the expression on their faces. From that moment the storm abated, the rain diminished, and seemed only to have fallen for the furtherance of our wishes. I offered up my thanks to God, and so did, I am sure, those pious women. Their exterior appearance spoke contentment, security and joy. …

At last we reached the fatal spot. I cannot describe what I felt. What a moment! What a separation! What an affliction for the children, husbands, sisters, relations, and friends who are to survive those beloved ones in this valley of tears! There they are before me full of health, and in one moment I shall see them no more. What anguish! Yet not without deep consolation at beholding them so resigned. … A ring of numerous spectators soon formed, most of whom were laughing and amusing themselves at the horrible sight. It was dreadful to be amongst them.

While the executioner and his two assistants were helping the prisoners out of the first cart, Mme. de Noailles’s eyes sought for me in the crowd. She caught sight of me. What a wonderful expression there was in those looks! Sometimes raised towards heaven, sometimes lowered towards earth, her eyes so animated, so gentle, so expressive, so heavenly, were often fixed on me in a manner which would have attracted notice if those around me had had time for observation. I pulled my hat over my eyes without taking them off her. I felt as if I could hear her say: ‘Our sacrifice is accomplished; we have the firm and comforting hope that a merciful God is calling us to him. How many dear to us we leave behind! but we shall forget no one. Farewell to them, and thanks to you. Jesus Christ who died for us is our strength. May we die in Him. Farewell. May we all meet in heaven!’

It is impossible to give an idea of the animation and fervour of those signs, the eloquence of which was so touching that a bystander exclaimed: ‘Oh, that young woman, how happy she seems, how she looks up to heaven, how she is praying! But what is the use of it all?’ and then, on second thoughts, ‘Oh, the rascals, the bigots!’

The mother and daughter took a last farewell of each other and descended from the cart. As for me, the outer world disappeared for a moment. At once broken-hearted and comforted, I could only return thanks to God for not having waited for this moment to give them absolution, or, what would have been still worse, delayed it until they had ascended the scaffold. We could not have joined in prayer while I gave and they received this great blessing as we had been enabled to do in the most favourable circumstances possible at such a time. I left the spot where I was standing and went over to the other side, while the victims were getting out. I found myself opposite to the wooden steps which led to the scaffold. An old man, tall and straight, with white hair and a good-natured countenance, was leaning against it. I was told he was a fermier general. Near him stood a very edifying lady whom I did not know. Then came the Marechale de Noailles [the grandmother] exactly opposite me, dressed in black taffetas, for she was still in mourning for her husband. She was sitting on a block of wood or stone which happened to be there, her large eyes fixed with a vacant look. … All the others were drawn up in two lines looking towards the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. From where I stood I could only see Mme. d’Ayen [the mother], whose attitude and countenance expressed the most sublime, unaffected, and devout resignation. She seemed only occupied with the sacrifice she was about to make to God, through the merits of the Saviour, his divine son. She looked as she was wont to do when she had the happiness of approaching the altar for holy communion. I shall never forget the impression she made on me at that moment. It is often in my thoughts. God grant that I may profit by it!

The Marechale de Noailles was the third person who ascended the scaffold. The upper part of her dress had to be cut away in order to uncover her throat. I was impatient to leave the place, yet I wished to drink the cup of bitterness to the dregs and to keep my promise, as God was giving me strength to do so, even in the midst of all my shuddering horror. Six ladies followed; Mme. d’Ayen was the tenth. How happy she seemed to die before her daughter! The executioner tore off her cap, as it was fastened by a pin which he had forgotten to remove; he pulled her hair violently, and the pain he caused was visible on her countenance.

The mother disappeared; the daughter took her place. What a sight to behold that young creature, all in white, looking still younger than she really was, like a gentle lamb going to the slaughter! I fancied I was witnessing the martyrdom of one of the young virgins or holy women whom we read of in the history of the church. What had happened to the mother also happened to her; the same pin in the removal of her cap, then the same composure, the same death. Oh! the abundant crimson stream that gushed from her head and neck; how happy she is now, I thought, as her body was thrown into that frightful coffin!

May Almighty God in his mercy bestow on the members of that family all the blessings which I ask and entreat them to ask for mine! May we all be saved with those who have gone before us to that happy dwelling where revolutions are unknown, to that abode which, according to the words of Saint Augustine, has truth for its King, Charity for its law, and will endure for eternity!

(Also in this batch: Gen. Louis-Charles de Flers, who was recalled on trumped-up charges of treason by Revolutionary commissars after he lost a battle against the Spanish in the War of the Pyrenees.)

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Nobility,Not Executed,Notably Survived By,Public Executions,Treason,Women

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