1823: Giles East

Add comment January 20th, 2019 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1823, Giles East was hanged for the rape of a girl, Sarah Potter, who was under ten years of age.

In spite of the difference in ages, the sixteen-year-old East cohabitated with Sarah’s forty-five-year-old mother, who was also called Sarah, and was named in some accounts as her husband.

The elder Sarah stood beside her husband in the dock as an accessory after the fact; she had allegedly tried to cover up the crime. However, writes Martin Baggoley of this case in his book Surrey Executions: A Complete List of those Hanged in the County during the Nineteenth Century:

Part way into the trial the judge, Baron Graham, apparently unable to believe that any mother would act in such a manner directed that she be discharged. The judge had been especially moved when the victim described her mother crying when she learnt of the crime.

There was an expectation that East would be reprieved because of his youth and it was widely reported that the foreman of the Grand Jury, Grey Bennet MP, who had found the bill against East, had made a strong appeal to the Government on his behalf. However, he issued a statement strongly denying this and added he thought it inconceivable that any member of the Grand Jury would make such an appeal. Furthermore, he suggested that although a strong opponent of capital punishment, he had never known a case of greater atrocity.

East was hanged at Horsemonger Lane Gaol.

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1875: A day in the death penalty on opposite sides of Pennsylvania

Add comment January 20th, 2018 Headsman

Pennsylvania, that state once described as Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west with Alabama in between, had dueling hangings in its two metropolises on this date in 1875.

Philadelphia: Frederick Heidenblut

German immigrant Fritz Heidenblut, who weighed in at a reported 52 kg, strangled to death on a too-short drop. Boarding with the Kuhnle family, Heidenblut had unexpectedly attacked them on Dec. 31, 1873, with the base objective of stealing cash and valuables.

The mother (barely) survived the ordeal, and would later describe how she

was suddenly awakened by a heavy weight pressing upon my breast; and, looking up, I found Fritz kneeling on me, and his hands grasping my throat. He did not speak, and I was unable to do so. In the struggle I scratched his face, and he bit off a piece of my ear and the end of one of my fingers. He then left me for dead, as I suppose, and went to the bureau-drawer, from which he took $55.

When Mrs. Kuhnle came to, she was able to crawl downstairs where she found her husband murdered in the family bakehouse. Heidenblut was arrested that evening, blowing through the $55 at a nearby tavern.

After execution, Heidenblut’s body was turned over to physicians for galvanic experimentation.

Pittsburgh: Samuel Beightley, Jr.

While Heidenblut’s spirit faltered visibly as his hanging-day approached, Pittsburgh’s Samuel Beightley maintained his obnoxious joviality — even pranking his counsel with a fool’s errand to find his “hidden treasure” on the eve of execution.

Beightley, a few days after being discharged from his seasonal farmhand gig by Murrayville farmer Joseph Kerr in autumn 1873, had returned and slaughtered Mr. Kerr, again with the motive of robbery. Like his Philadelphian brother in homicide, Beightley earned low marks for concealment, leaving his own bloodied coat at the murder scene as he retired home where he popped into bed and pretended to be asleep when the posse came.

“To see Beightley was to hate him,” observed the Chicago Daily Tribune, whose Jan. 21, 1875 issue is our source for both crimes in this post.

He was of that peculiarly brutal cast of countenance which shows murder in the very cut of the jaws, and the bull-neck was but the mere accompaniment to an evidently-merciless disposition. He was about 22 years old, and rather short, but stoutly built. His conduct since his condemnation showed the nature of the man. He evidenced no sorrow or remorse for the killing of the old man, who to him had proved a good and true friend. Beightly was fond of rowing, and led a lazy, vagabond life, scarcely ever working. He lived mostly by petty thefts.

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1905: John Johnson

Add comment January 20th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1905, John Johnson was hanged for the murder of Patrolman Dennis Fitzgerald of the Chicago Police Department.

On September 26, 1903, Johnson and another man, Louis Tedford, were being drunk and disorderly near the corner of 44th Street and Indiana Avenue. Fitzgerald told them to move along. In response, the two men beat him to a pulp and shot him with his own gun.

Fitzgerald was a strong man and he lingered for four months before he died on January 20, 1904. Authorities determined his death was a direct result of his wounds. He was buried in Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery.

As for the two offenders, both were convicted of murder, but Tedford got off relatively easily with a fourteen-year sentence. The jury determined Johnson was the one most responsible for the officer’s death, and so he paid for it with his life, a year to the day after Fitzgerald died. “Please hurry things along,” were his last words.

It was a busy day with the rope around North America.


Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, Jan 21, 1905


Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, Jan. 21, 1905

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1922: Eleuterio Corral and Rumaldo Losano, escapees

Add comment January 20th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1922, Eleuterio Corral and Rumaldo Losano were hanged in New Mexico’s Grant County Jail in Silver City for the 1921 murder of a prison guard.


Corral (left) and Losano (right).

Losano and Corral were serving time in the Grant County Jail for robbery (Corral) and attempted larceny (Losano) in the spring of 1921. Losano had only fifteen days days left to go on his sentence. Nevertheless, on April 2, 1921, the two young men decided to make a break for it. The jailer, sixty-year-old Ventura Bencoma, had been sick with the flu and during the early morning hours he decided to have a lie-down. While Bencoma slept, Corral and Losano were able to get out of the cell they shared.

A nearby cell was unoccupied and used for storing coal and firewood, and had an ax. The two convicts sneaked up on Bencoma and brained him with the ax, took his gun and keys, and threatened to shoot the other prisoners if they made any noise. They tried to use the keys to release another prisoner, Jesus Rocha, but weren’t able to get the lock undone and gave up. As soon as the pair had run off into the darkness, the others started screaming for help and woke up the sheriff, who was also enjoying a siesta of his own up on the second floor and had missed the entire jailbreak.

Bencoma died within a few hours, as the sheriff and a posse of men were searching for Losano and Corral. On April 5, after a brief exchange of gunfire, the fugitives were captured hiding in a shack. Their statements are summarized in West C. Gilbreath’s Death on the Gallows: The Story of Legal Hangings in New Mexico, 1847-1923:

Both Eleuterio and Rumaldo bragged out loud of their escape and short freedom. Both men told Sheriff Casey it was Jesus Rocha who planned the escape and was to have joined them. Sheriff Casey learned from the two that after Jailer Bencoma’s keys and pistol were removed, they were to unlock the steel cell door to Jesus Rocha. Once he was released, the three were to go up to the second floor where Sheriff Casey’s quarters were and call him to the door. Once the Sheriff opened the door, he would be shot and killed with the jail’s pistol. The three would then arm themselves with the Sheriff’s rifles and ammunition. They planned to saddle the horses in the Sheriff’s corral and flee to Mexico. The plan began to fall apart after both failed to unlock the cell door to Jesus Rocha.

In light of this information, Jesus Rocha was charged with murder alongside his criminal colleagues. At trial, Losano and Corral recanted their statements about his involvement and claimed Rocha had not been a part of the escape plan. All three were convicted and sentenced to hang, but the Supreme Court of New Mexico subsequently reversed Rocha’s conviction, leaving Corral and Losano to face the noose without him.

Their families in Mexico pleaded for mercy, claiming that at the time of the murders, Corral was just sixteen years old and Losano seventeen. However, three physicians who examined them judged Corral was least nineteen and Losano was probably older than twenty.

A few days prior to the execution, the deputy warden conducted a surprise search of the condemned men’s cell. Both of their mattresses contained hacksaws and makeshift knives: they’d been planning another violent escape attempt. Unsurprisingly, the state governor, Merritt C. Mechem, refused to commute the sentences, telling Sheriff Casey, “Every guard’s life out there would be in danger with those two in the penitentiary.”

Officials set up the scaffold only about fifty feet from where Bencoma was murdered. Corral went first, then Losano. Both of them were calm and offered the standard prayers, apologies for their crimes and pleas for forgiveness.

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1964: Preap In, Khmer Serei operative

2 comments January 20th, 2013 Headsman

“It was at that point that I began to hate Sihanouk.”

-Khmer writer Soth Polin on Preap In’s treatment

On this date in 1964, Cambodian dissident Preap In was shot in Trapeang Kraleung … an execution so public that every cinema-goer in the country would witness it.

This is the Cambodia of Narodom Sihanouk — “a libertine and a francophile, a filmmaker and a painter, a serial husband and father and philanderer, a cherubic but ruthless god-king,” in the words of one obituary when he died late last year.

Plucked from the distant branches of the royal family tree and set up on the throne as an 18-year-old French puppet in 1941, Sihanouk cast a long shadow over his country for the balance of his long life. He surprised his colonial overseers by agitating, successfully, for independence, adding to his regal stature the laurels of national patrimony.

He would in 1955 abdicate the throne — settling for “Prince Sihanouk” — to operate as a conventional politician. One who was the father of his country and the shadow-king. Needless to say, Sihanouk dominated the ensuing era of Cambodian politics.

That politics makes for dizzying reading. At one level, Sihanouk was basically an autocrat with a fairly corrupt developing state. But his statecrafting finesse elevated him far above the bog-standard Cold War dictator. Sihanouk dextrously played the French off against the Americans, East off against West, and shifted the tone of his domestic governance from socialism to Buddhism to nationalism with everything in between. He was a consummate survivor steering a small state on an independent course through the dangers of Cold War ideologies and allegiances.

In 1963-64, Sihanouk’s relations with the United States were on the outs.* Although Sihanouk was also a rival of the late Vietnamese ruler Ngo Dinh Diem, he can’t have welcomed that man’s ouster and execution with the blessing of the superpower sitting right next door with so much megatonnage.

A natural suspicion, only heightened by known CIA patronage of the Khmer Serei (“Free Khmer”), right-wing but anti-monarchist guerrillas led by a longtime Sihanouk foe named Son Ngoc Thanh.

Long story short, Sihanouk as part of his geopolitical machinations had been firing demands at the Americans that they prevail upon their Southeast Asian clientele to put the screws to the Khmer Serei — who used extraterritorial bases to send radio broadcasts into Cambodia. In late 1963, the young engineering student Preap In, who had become a Khmer Serei operative, slipped back into Cambodia with a safe conduct from his uncle In Tam.

Though he would later help to overthrow it, In Tam was a powerful political figure in Sihanouk’s state, at this time governor of Takeo. But he was setting up his nephew or else someone else was, and the “safe conduct” proved an utter sham.

On November 19, at a special national congress, Sihanouk announced the arrest of the two Khmer Serei operatives, Saing San and Preap In … After several conversations with officials in Takeo, In and Saing San had been arrested peremptorily, brought to Phnom Penh under guard, and put on display in cages at the national congress. Facing the prisoners and surrounded by thousands of supporters, Sihanouk denied making any special arrangements with them, and the congress soon became an impromptu judicial hearing. Sihanouk asked both men to admit that the Americans were aiding Son Ngoc Thanh and providing the Khmer Serei with radio transmitters. Saing San said yes to both questions and was immediately released. Preap In, apparently in shock, stared straight to the front, refusing to answer. Sihanouk then demanded that he be subjected to the “will of the congress.” Hundreds of spectators stormed the cage where Preap In stood in silence, bombarding him with rubber sandals, debris, and abuse until he was hustled away to face trial at the hands of a military court. (Source)

Sihanouk’s official version: Preap In “spontaneously confessed” to treason.

Sihanouk not only advanced the public shooting of the young Khmer Serei, but he ordered it filmed; the graphic 15-minute newsreel was played before feature attractions in cinemas throughout Cambodia for weeks to come, while still shots of the execution were distributed on propaganda posters.

Authoritarian Sihanouk may have been, but theatrical bloodletting wasn’t otherwise known as his style. Preap In’s lasciviously rough treatment stood out for its novelty and revolted many Cambodians; David Chandler would remark that this event “frequently surfaced in the 1980s when informants sought to date the beginning of Sihanouk’s decline.” Despite that onetime multimedia exposure, if the video or still images from it are accessible online I have not found them. This still image from a (I believe) Sihanouk-era firing squad execution is the best I’ve got, but as my Khmer is a little rusty, I’m at a loss to identify the unfortunate fellow on the post.

* For the view from Washington, see this contemporaneous CIA analysis, a FOIA’ed pdf.

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1880: Andrew Scott and Thomas Rogan, bushrangers

1 comment January 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1880, Andrew George Scott and Thomas George “condemned to death for the part they took in the outrage at Wantabadgery, resulting in the death of constable Bowen, were executed at Darlinghurst Gaol.”


Andrew George Scott, aka Captain Moonlite (top); Thomas Rogan (bottom)

Scott is our main man here, an Anglican lay reader turned grifter turned flat-out outlaw with the nom de plunder “Captain Moonlite”: one of the strangest characters in Australia’s criminal annals.

How did a fellow with such a family-friendly alias end up involved in an “outrage”?

This colorful, charismatic immigrant (from Ireland, via New Zealand — and, legend has it, with a side trip to Italy to fight with Garibaldi) became a notorious public figure when, in outlandish masked getup, he robbed the bank of the South Victoria gold rush town of Mount Egerton.

His distinctive voice — remember, he was a parish reader — was recognized by his erstwhile friend at the other end of the gun, but Scott brazenly reversed the accusation and actually had his victim in the dock for a time. This Mount Egerton crime is the source of the man’s luminescent nickname, after the signature placed on a stickup note.

When he got out of prison in 1879 — having defended himself with panache, and escaped once along the way — he had a public profile, and actually got out on the lecture circuit for a brief spell.

But he soon returned to the annals of preposterous criminality.

Gathering five young followers, Moonlite went full-time into the bush. Allegedly spurned in a bid to join Ned Kelly‘s gang, Moonlite et al sought work at Wantabadgery Station.

When this refuge, too, turned them away, the outlaws found themselves in a rather pathetic state of hunger and desperately seized the place by main force. The resulting “outrage” was not a wholesale plunder of the station or wanton abuse of the prisoners (no rapes, no murders … although Moonlite did conduct a kangaroo “trial” of one of his hostages for attempting to escape: the verdict was not guilty): it was the inevitable ensuing shootout with police in which the bushrangers James Nesbitt and Augustus Wernicke died, along with the constable Bowen.

Two of the other three who survived this shootout also survived their brush with the law by blaming Captain Moonlite. The “Captain” may have been plenty eager to accept this fatal inculpation for reasons beyond those of mere honor.

In his prolific prison correspondence awaiting execution, Scott avowed his broken-hearted love for James Nesbitt, one of the two companions who had been killed in the shootout. The terms are astonishingly explicit for the time.

“My boy with a golden heart who died trying to save me … He was my constant companion; we had the deepest, truest bond of friendship. We were one heart and soul, he died in my arms and I long to join him, where there shall be no more parting. He died in my arms; his death has broken my hear. When I think of my dearest Jim, I am nearly driven mad. My dying wish is to be buried beside my beloved James Nesbitt”

Scott hanged wearing a ring of the late Nesbitt’s hair,* but his wish to share a burial plot was not honored — until Captain Moonlite was exhumed and reburied in 1995.


(cc) image from AYArktos.

* Asserted in Who’s Who In Gay and Lesbian History from Antiquity to World War II.

Part of the Daily Triple: 1880 and Death.

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1677: William Drummond, for Bacon’s Rebellion

3 comments January 20th, 2010 Headsman

“Mr. Drummond, I am more glad to see you than any man in Virginia; you shall hang in half an hour.”

Virginia Governor William Berkeley didn’t deliver gallows justice as rapidly as promised, but the outcome was just as certain.

Scotsman William Drummond, the former colonial governor of Abermarle and therefore the first governor of North Carolina,

was made to walk to Middle Plantation, about eight miles distant, and tried before a drum-head court-martial, the next day, at the house of James Bray, Esq., under circumstances of great brutality. He was not permitted to answer for himself; his wife’s ring was torn from his finger; he was stripped before conviction, was sentenced at one o’clock and hanged at four. (Source)

There’s nothing worse than a poor winner.

Drummond caught Berkeley’s considerable wrath for associating himself with Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion of frontier settlers demanding lower taxes and more energetic genocide against their Indian neighbors. When Berkeley balked, the movement metastasized into a republican revolution which declared the agent of royal authority in Virginia to have abdicated and proposed to reconstitute it by popular convocation.

It was very much short of an actual attempt to separate from England, but in its form and complaints one easily perceives the germ of the American Revolution a century hence. Sarah Drummond was reported to have been at least as vehement as her hanged spouse, and she is credited with prophesying “the child that is unborn shall have cause to rejoice for the good that will come by the rising of the country.”

Armed struggle between two desperate factions was truncated by the fatal case of dysentery* contracted by the namesake insurrectionary. His unpleasant and untimely demise crippled the rising rising, and left Drummond as about the most prominent target available for the victorious Berkeley’s fury.

Not that there wasn’t much more to go around — even when the British navy finally landed in late January with reinforcements too late to do any good, a general amnesty Berkeley had not clemency enough to use, and a successor to Berkeley the aging governor did not like one bit. Nineteenth-century historian George Bancroft in his History of the Colonization of the United States writes of the crackdown,

In defiance of remonstrances, executions continued till twenty-two had been hanged.** Three others had died of cruelty in prison; three more had fled before trial; two had escaped after conviction. More blood was shed than, on the action of our present system [i.e., the constitutional government of the United States], would be shed for political offences in a thousand years. Nor is it certain when the carnage would have ended, had not the assembly convened in February, 1677, voted an address “that the governor would spill no more blood.”

Finally the new guy managed to get Drummond on a boat back to the mother country with an unflattering report of his conduct. The crotchety septuagenarian, who had been a spry mid-30’s courtier when first appointed Virginia governor by Charles I, was coldly received by Charles II. “The old fool,” remarked the sovereign, “has taken more lives in that naked country than I have taken for the murder of my father.”

* “The bloodie flux” was an unsatisfying avenger for his foes, as indicated by the doggerel

“Bacon is Dead, I am sorry at my hart
That lice and flux should take the hangman’s part”

** Some sources put the total number executed at 23, not 22; I have been unable to locate the source of this discrepancy.

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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1758: Francois Macandal, forgotten black messiah

6 comments January 20th, 2009 Headsman

(Thanks to Mark Davis of macandal.org for the guest post on a remarkable historical parallel to today’s inauguration of Barack Obama. -ed.)

The world was astounded when Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency in 2008 knowing the cultural barriers minorities have faced for hundreds of years. The date of inauguration, January 20, also happens to be the anniversary of the burning at the stake of a virtually unknown man, Francois Macandal,* whose epic war against cultural barriers has been buried for centuries.

Read some of his story and judge if the historic election of Barack Obama could have occurred without the man they called “Macandal.”

The parallels with Barack Obama’s journey are numerous, but the life of Macandal was perhaps even more remarkable, reaching great heights and falling into the darkest chasms of despair, yet succeeding in spite of staggering odds. Macandal’s travails may be about finding one’s purpose and dreaming of victory even when condemned by a majority, as he was relentlessly pursued by soldiers and hounded by countless naysayers.

251 years ago on January 20, 1758, Macandal was chained to a post on a platform before thousands of slaves brought together to witness his brutal torture and execution. Because of his importance, the French gathered slaves from hundreds of plantations throughout the colony of St. Domingue (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). They believed such a horrific spectacle would quash Macandal’s Revolution, which he began to end French rule and abolish slavery, 12 years before.

Around 1746 Macandal escaped his plantation, united thousands of escaped slaves along with many still enslaved, and proclaimed that he would lead them all to independence and freedom. This declaration, from someone who had only six years before been taken from his home in the Congo, was unprecedented, since no slave colony had ever defeated a European nation. Then Macandal mobilized tens of thousands and may have inspired millions to end slavery and defeat colonial hegemony in the Haitian Revolution consummated decades after his death.

But ironically even the famous, black Marxist writer C.L.R. James, attributed one of the greatest revolutions in history to something akin to ‘spontaneous rioting’ by 500,000 black slaves in 1791. Since 1791 almost every historian has reduced the “Haitian Revolution,” the only successful overthrow of a colonial power by black slaves, to a ‘collective rage,’ inspired by the whites of the “French Revolution.” Yet it may have been Macandal’s Revolution, not the starving peasants of France, that inspired their uprising in 1789.

The true story of Macandal represents obscure but recorded testimonies about his life and explains why the slave revolt of 1791 was in fact, “Macandal’s Revolution,” almost 50 years in the making. Macandal foretold the end of slavery, then planned it, plotted it and began it. His story shatters a myth that has gone unchallenged for over 200 years: that the Haitian Revolution of 1791 was a spontaneous slave uprising inspired by the French peasants who had charged the Bastille Prison in Paris two years earlier.

The Haitian Revolution ultimately ousted the French, defeating Napoleon and numerous French generals. It also succeeded against the vaunted British army and established a new government run by former slaves. It was the first domino in a series of colonial defeats and changes in law that led to the end of institutional slavery; and Macandal started it all.

Correcting the Historical Record

Macandal is rarely the focus of historians and when mentioned only his insignificance is noted. But the popular version of his story was immortalized by the original French writers themselves, in the interest of bolstering a self-image of innate superiority as a nation and a race. To have recognized Macandal’s brilliance would have acknowledged slavery’s illegitimacy, so Macandal’s real story had to be trivialized and buried.

This telling of Macandal’s journey from a free child in Africa to slavery and then revolution, relies less on popular writings and more on a review of all of the records in context. For example French writers claimed Macandal broke free because he was tied with ropes and the post was made of rotted wood that fell apart when he was set ablaze. Historians have repeated this without scrutiny. The French on St. Domingue regularly burned slaves to death at the town square of the capital, “Cap Francais.” At Macandal’s execution they gathered thousands of slaves as witnesses, to insure a humiliating defeat and halt his widely supported rebellion. Yet, despite this grandiose staging, we are supposed to believe Macandal was insignificant. And we must accept that the French military was so inept they forgot how to execute and did not know that ropes burn and untreated, rotted wood is flammable. Many such dubious “facts,” are still repeated blithely about Macandal and few Westerners grant him his bravery, genius or impact.

Interestingly, the U.S. Bill of Rights guaranteeing equality for all was also adopted in 1791, but it would be more than seven decades before slavery was outlawed in the U.S. and almost two centuries before equal opportunity laws were passed and enforced. For one tiny nation, Macandal enabled this to occur over 200 years ago.

Background

I began researching the life of Macandal 20 years ago, startled and inspired by one chapter in Wade Davis’ popular book The Serpent and the Rainbow, which focused on secret societies, Voodoo and Zombification. His version of Macandal’s story was dictated to him by Rachel Bouvoir-Dominique, a Haitian Anthropologist I interviewed in 1997, at her office in Cap Haitien. Working under the tutelage of well-known author and expert on Haitian history Michel Laguerre, a professor at U.C. Berkeley, I received grants for a field study and documentary on the subject of Macandal.

Anthropologists often allocate greater weight to oral history, informal observer accounts, burial remains, maps and gravures, re-evaluating more accepted published works historians rely on, and so this account reflects my perspective and research as an Anthropologist. I examined European gravures (illustrations) and colonial records cited commonly more skeptically, because they were clearly burdened by religious, sexist and racial paradigms of the day. For example illustrations portrayed slaves with happy smiles and sanguine facades, enjoying their lives in idyllic settings on the plantations. Yet slaves faced torture, rape, separation of family and death from over-work, every day. Blacks were often drawn with monkey features (toes, ears etc.) and other demeaning caricatures.

Western writers were fiercely loyal to provincial rhetoric, including the gender and racial bias then considered crucial foundations of Christian theology. Western scholars dehumanized natives and women to rationalize slavery, prejudice and justify the infamous “hierarchy of being,” which granted “white men” a closeness to God that no one else could approach. This endowed them with the right to use others as they saw fit.

There were many reasons colonial authorities destroyed or buried the noteworthy exploits of slaves. Few accounts of courageous acts from among the ranks of millions of Africans during 400 years of slavery were recorded and preserved, primarily to maintain the perception that slavery was justified, necessary and Nubian Africans were not truly human but beasts of burden. There are literally thousands of articles, books and films about individuals among the six million Jews who died during the holocaust but only a scant few from among the 100-200 million indigenous peoples killed during the colonial expansion; all the more reason to re-evaluate slaves like Macandal.

A Brief History of Macandal

During the early 18th century, around the age of 12, Macandal was taken from the west coast of Africa, probably the Loango Kingdom in the Congo. I claim the date of his birth was 1728 primarily because oral historians in Haiti I interviewed believed him to be 30 when he was fastened to a post before thousands and set on fire in 1758.

The French called him Macandal which may derive from a city in the Congo called “Makanda.” The town of Makanda no longer exists due to civil war but could have ancient roots and slaves were often named after the places they came from. His name may have been taken from the term makanda (plural form of “kanda”) referring to African societal groups. Some written accounts report that Macandal claimed to be descended from a ranking societal group and the son of a Chief or King.

Amazingly, Macandal could speak, read and write Arabic fluently. Some believe this is because he was raised Muslim, yet the Congo was Christianized long before Macandal was born. Portuguese mercenaries, missionaries and armies had combed every square inch of the Congo beginning in the late 1400’s, searching for gold, diamonds and slaves, forcing conversion to Christianity. However Macandal’s words and actions reveal a unique knowledge of both Christianity and Islam. His ancestors may have emigrated from the east coast where Muslims and Asians had allied with Swahilis to build beautiful cities and schools before the Portuguese invasion. His family may have then hidden themselves for centuries.

Conversion to Christianity was also a requirement for slaves on colony plantations but Macandal defied the French by learning the underpinnings of Christianity, to understand the roots of slavery and challenge newly acquired doctrines. Despite many influences the adult Macandal claimed no affiliation with Christianity, Islam, Voodoo or Animism.

As a child Macandal was educated and known to be accomplished in both music and art, including painting and sculpture. His dedication to learning was apparent throughout his life. He displayed a vast knowledge of plants, became a doctor on the plantation he was taken to and was sought by even the French themselves for treatment of diseases and ailments. Yet the vegetation on St. Domingue was completely different from that of the Congo; therefore, Macandal had to study his new environment and learn the properties of perhaps hundreds of plants. He secretly taught himself French and became so eloquent that the French aristocrats remarked that he could speak it better than they themselves, though education was strictly forbidden for slaves.

Based on historical records and interviews, it appears that Macandal was first sentenced to death on his plantation, around 1746 at the age of 18, for falling in love with the plantation owner’s favorite lover, a young and beautiful house slave. He underwent a scene of heinous torture intended to culminate in his death in front of many witnesses, but escaped mysteriously and fled into the hills. The French replaced this account with a tale about Macandal becoming handicapped from losing a hand in a sugar mill and then being left unguarded. His escapes were always attributed to poor guard oversight.

Though Macandal probably began his new life of freedom with the intention of bringing vengeance to his former owner Lenormand de Mezy and rescuing his true love, for some reason his objective evolved. Perhaps because of the totality of his traumatic experiences or because of the influence of Maroons (ex-slaves already living in the distant mountains) Macandal met after escaping, he began working for a new goal of freedom for all.

Macandal led a sweeping and unwavering revolution during the 12 years after his escape from the plantation. Unlike other escaped slaves, Macandal actually made the end of slavery his stated mission. He became the first to unite thousands of disparate Maroons who were living free but divided by tribal affiliation and known to be ardently dedicated to the destruction of each other. His uniting of these groups was an extraordinary accomplishment and he is the first known black leader and ex-slave to do so.

He began calling himself the “Black Messiah” and gave rousing speeches in secret locations to recruit slaves. He made dangerous and daring appearances on plantations during the night to urge loyalty and inspire hope. The name “Black Messiah” had great meaning to Macandal as evidenced by one of his famous speeches at a secret recruitment meeting. The words exposed Macandal’s understanding of Islam and Christianity and their link to institutional slavery. The term was a powerful catalyst he used to preempt religious and ethical indoctrination of blacks and free them from the ideological bonds of slavery. He had to usurp the authority of the Church and French government to convince slaves they deserved equality, freedom, family sanctity, education and self-government.

Macandal became a brilliant strategist and had a large, organized camp with lieutenants, captains and other ranks. He led countless attacks and escaped capture mysteriously many times. His tactics were unique and devastating. They were known to be carried on after his disappearance despite the brutal efforts of the French to extinguish illegal grassroots activity. During his reign as a Maroon leader he may have recruited half or more of the 100,000 slaves living on the plantations as secret agents of his revolution.

Maroons and slaves apparently employed his tactics for decades after his disappearance in 1758. During the decade before the final thrust for overthrow in 1791, and despite harsh measures to thwart rebellion, Maroon activity greatly increased. This activity was so secret that virtually nothing is known about this period and is one reason historians assume the war for independence was unplanned, even though the first massive attack was led by Boukman Dutty, formerly a cruel black overseer who was a contemporary of Macandal. His gathering, which launched the war, was convened at a hidden location where Macandal formerly gave his speeches, the symbolism of which cannot be denied.

Generals that followed Boukman used ingenuity and unique strategies to win the 13-year war and Toussaint L’Ouverture is given most of the credit for the victory. But Toussaint refused to support the war until after it had begun; its inevitability certain. He was 13 when Macandal was sentenced to death in 1758. A voracious reader and student of warfare he was well aware of Macandal but content as a slave under a liberal planter.

It is my thesis the “Macandal Revolution” continued through the three decades preceding the Haitian Revolution. No other slave is known to have prophesied and promised the end of slavery yet Macandal predicted that blacks would defeat the French, become free and independent of colonial rule and control the colony of St. Domingue. His rally cry and pronouncement repeatedly rang throughout the colony despite opposition and betrayal from many slaves who greatly feared the French and did not believe victory was possible.

The Haitian Revolution remains the only successful movement by black slaves to defeat a colonial power and achieve complete independence. It stands alone as a towering victory against incalculable odds. Though it is characterized as a ‘riot’ that generated its own momentum, 500,000 slaves and free blacks mysteriously rose up in unison, using sticks and stones, against over 50,000 heavily armed soldiers, landowners and henchmen.

The Fall of Colonialism

As Macandal’s victories mounted I propose that word of his revolution spread to Europe and bolstered many anti-colonial movements. For example one of his closest secret allies was a French Jesuit priest and the Jesuits along with other religious leaders in Europe began fomenting rebellion during this period. Before news of Macandal’s revolt spread, many in Europe believed the slave trade was not only profitable but philanthropic. It had long been heard in the churches that slaves were heathens being brought to Christ and treated well in the process. His uprising no doubt made many Europeans aware that slaves were not being treated well and were desperate. Macandal’s shocking victories may have provoked Europeans to finally condemn colonialism and slavery. His fearless attacks and disregard for colonial might may have also seeded the French Revolution.

What really happened on January 20, 1758? Macandal endured great agony during an intense and excruciating punishment. He did this so that slaves everywhere might become free. The French claim Macandal was burned alive at the town square in Cap Francais.** Admitting he broke free and leaped out of the fire, they wrote that soldiers reclaimed Macandal and threw him back in. However some observers claimed Macandal broke his chains and fled, never to be seen again. How he broke free during any of his escapes despite being surrounded by guards and soldiers, is not known. It is interesting to note that his remains were never found and there is no burial site. Given the French proclivity for making examples of slaves to increase fear and enforce discipline, a successful execution should have been commemorated by another French monument.

For most historians, January 20, 1758, came and went with barely a mention in official memorandums. Yet a detailed search of documents reveals a massive cover-up, confusion and consternation. Macandal’s Revolution was not quashed or even slowed; instead it was impelled and sent wildly rumbling down a path of manifest destiny. Plantation owners later discovered their most trusted slaves were working for the revolution. New restrictions were put on all blacks throughout the colony and 4-5 rebels were burned at the town square every month to strike fear into the rest. Intense interrogation and torture revealed ever more depth to the conspiracy. Macandal’s execution day inflamed slaves and intensified their commitment to him and they became more united and fervently bent on winning freedom. Jesuits were banned from St. Domingue five years later.

As the first U.S. President with African roots is inaugurated on January 20, no one will speak of Macandal or Macandal’s Revolution, which led to equal rights in 1804 for one small nation. January 20, 1758, the day the French sought to secure colonialism and slavery in perpetuity, became a day of victory for Macandal and a watershed event which brought colonialism down. Though Macandal has been denied his place, his actions may have ended slavery and paved the way for people like Barack Obama to make history.

Mark Davis received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology from U.C. Berkeley and a Master’s in Anthropology from the University of Hawaii. He is the foremost authority on Macandal and his one hour documentary The Black Messiah was broadcast on PBS in 1997. He publishes information through his website at www.macandal.org.

* The man’s true name is lost to us; the one he was given by the French can be alternately spelled “Mackandal” or “Makandal” or “Mackendal”.

** Renamed Cap Haitien after Haiti won its independence.

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