1774: John Malcom, tarred and feathered

Add comment January 25th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1774,* in the British official John Malco(l)m was tarred and feathered and mock-executed by enraged Bostonians during the tense run-up to the American Revolution.

Malcom’s militant Loyalism put him sharply at odds with his city’s’s rising Patriot ultras — the sorts of people who, just a month before, had provocatively dumped British East India Company tea into Boston Harbor.

Malcom himself hadn’t been proximate to that event but as a customs official he’d made himself obnoxious on the docks before. In October of 1773, he seized a ship in Falmouth,** threatening “to sheath his sword in the bowels of any one who dared dispute his authority.” The sailors responded by sheathing John Malcom in a coat of tar and feathers and marching him through the streets.

This vigilante justice was meant to come up short of serious physical injury, and it did. But it was a crippling public disgrace, far beyond the streets of Falmouth — an ironic situation since Malcom’s own late brother Daniel was a celebrated Patriot bootlegger.† Back in Boston, Malcom found himself heckled in the streets about the incident to such an extent that he complained to the governor. (The governor told him to suck it up.) And it bubbled right to the surface in the incident that brings today’s post, too.

On January 25 of 1774, one of the Patriot participants in the aforementioned Boston Tea Party named George Robert Twelves Hewes‡ happened across the hated crown agent — “standing over a small boy who was pushing a little sled before him, cursing, damning, threatening and shaking a very large cane with a very heavy ferril on it.” (That’s according to the next week’s (Jan. 31, 1774) Boston Gazette, as are the subsequent quotes in this post.) Apparently the kid had crashed his conveyance into Malcom while out frolicking in the deep winter’s snow.

Hewes interceded for the child, and Malcom rounded on him: “you are an impertinent rascal, it is none of your business!” Flexing his class rank, Malcom further scolded the “vagabond” that he ought not address a gentleman in public. Hewes dissented and after an exchange of barbs cut Malcom to the quick with the retort, “be that as it will, I never was tarred or feathered.” This own brought Malcom’s heavy cane crashing into Hewes’s head, crumpling the Good Samaritan to the cobblestones.

Angry bystanders to the incident trailed Malcom home, and heaven only knows what hard words were traded on the way. He should have been worried and maybe he was, but his blood was up from Hewes’s insult: Malcom stood on the threshold and verbally sparred with his angry neighbors — “you say I was tarred and feathered, and that it was not done in a proper manner, damn you let me see the man that dare do it better! I want to see it done in the new-fashioned manner.” The man’s Falmouth tarring, you see, had been leniently poured over his clothes, which might have been hell on his dry cleaning bills but also minimized the injury that hot tar could do to naked skin. Now he was daring a rougher treatment at the hands of Bostonians who had certainly proven up to that challenge in the past.

Calmer heads knew this situation could spiral out of control and judiciously steered the irate official into his house. But Malcom was not to be stilled; when his wife opened a sash to implore the crowd to disperse, her husband exploited the opening to thrust a sword into the breast of a bystander. Luckily for both parties the blade struck bone, causing only a glancing flesh wound.

Somehow the irascible coot restrained himself in the house long enough for this disturbance to subside, while Hewes shook off his concussion well enough to swear out a warrant.

But by evening, word of this politically charged provocation had circulated in Boston, along with all Malcom’s bluster — “among other things, that he would split down the yankees by dozens, and receive 20l. sterling a head for every one he destroyed.” A crowd started assembling again at Mr. Malcom’s door, now dangerously intent on its purpose.

they got ladders and beating in an upper window, entered the house and took him without loss of blood, and dragging him out put him on a sled, and amidst the huzzas of thousand[s], brought him into King street. Several Gentlemen endeavoured to divert the populace from their intention, alledging that he was open to the laws of the land which would undoubtedly award a reasonable satisfaction to the parties he had abused; they answered he had been an old, impudent and mischievous offender — he had joined in the murders at North Carolina — he had seized vessels on account of sailors having a bottle or two of gin on board — he had in office, and otherwise, behaved in the most capricious, insulting and daringly abusive manner — and on every occasion discovered the most rooted enmity to this country, and the defenders of its rights — that in case they let him go they might expect a like satisfaction as they had received in the cafes of Richardson and the soldiers, and the other friends of government. With these and such-like arguments, together with a gentle crouding of persons not of their way of thinking out of the ring, they proceeded to elevate Mr. Malcom from his sled into the cart, and stripping him to buff and breeches, gave him a modern jacket, and hurried him away to liberty-tree, where they proposed to him to renounce his present commission, and swear that he would never hold another inconsistent with the liberties of his country; but this he obstinately refusing, they then carted him to the gallows, passed a rope round his neck, and threw the other end over the beam as if they intended to hang him: But this manoeuvre he set at defiance. They then basted him for some time with rope’s end, and threatened to cut his ears off, and on this he complied, and they the brought him home.

See, reader, the effects of a government in which the people have no confidence!


“Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring and Feathering” (color version of same). This print and the next one make reference to a dubious report in London papers that Malcom was made to guzzle tea to the point of bursting for “your whole Fraternity at the Custom house would drench us with this Poison, and we are to have our Throats cut if it will not stay upon our Stomachs.”


“A new method of macarony making, as practiced in Boston”. (A different print with a nearly identical title shows an expanded view of a gallows here.) The number 45 seen on the hat above was code for Liberty at this period, due to the daring anti-monarchist sentiment in issue no. 45 of radical agitator John Wilkes‘s The North Briton.


A French engraving of the event, from 1784.

* There are a few other dates besides Tuesday, January 25 to be found out there, but newspaper reports from the time clearly place it on that day. Malcom himself later circulated a strange bulletin to Boston churches confirming the date with the words “John Malcom returns thanks to Almighty God, that again he is able to wait on him again in the public worship, after the cruel and barbarous usage of a cruel and barbarous savage mob in Boston, on the 25th evening of January last past confined him to house, bed and room.”

** The town of Falmouth is now Portland, Maine. Its most famous revolutionary war incident was put it to the torch by the British in 1775.

Daniel Malco(l)m’s grave is pocked by musket balls fired at the marker for good luck by redcoats.

‡ Hewes lived to the ripe old age of 98. Enjoy a public domain 1830s biography drawn from personal conversation with the old veteran here … including Hewes’s recollection of the tarring and feathering, which in his telling was clearly extremely traumatic to his antagonist.

The people, however, soon broke open the door, and took Malcom into their custody. They then took him to the place where the massacre was committed, and their flogged him with thirty-nine stripes. After which, they besmeared him thoroughly with tar and feathers; they then whipped him through the town, till they arrived at the gallows, on the neck, where they gave him thirty-nine stripes more, and then, after putting one end of a rope about his neck, and throwing the other end over the gallows, told him to remember that he had come within one of being hanged. They then took him back to the house from whence they had taken him, and discharged him from their custody.

The severity of the flogging they had given him, together with the cold coat of tar with which they had invested him, had such a benumbing effect upon his health, that it required considerable effort to restore his usual circulation. During the process of his chastisement, the deleterious effect of the frost, it being a cold season, generated a morbid affection upon the prominent parts of his face, especially upon his chin, which caused a separation and peeling off of some fragments of loose skin and flesh, which, with a portion of the tar and feathers, which adhered to him, he preserved in a box, and soon after carried with him to England, as the testimonials of his sufferings in the cause of his country. On his arrival in England soon after this catastrophe Malcom obtained an annual pension of fifty pounds, but lived only two years after to enjoy it.

On relating this adventure, the very excitement which the affront must have wrought upon him, evidently began to rekindle, and he remarked with emphasis, I shall carry to my grave the scar which the wound Malcom gave me left on my head; and passing my finger over the spot to which he directed it, there was obviously such a scar, as must have been occasioned by the wound he had described.

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1358: Perrin Mace, de-sanctuaried

Add comment January 25th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1358 — during the height of the great peasant rebellion known as the Jacquerie — a bourgeois named or Perrin Mace or Perrin Marc was summarily hanged in Paris.

Just the day before, January 24,* he had in broad daylight assassinated Jean Baillet, longtime treasurer to the dauphin who would become King Charles V. Mace/Marc then fled to the a church, attempting to assert the unreliable right to sanctuary.

The dauphin found the idea that a man could murder a minister of state with impunity just by winning a footrace to a church door as ridiculous as we would in modernity, so he ordered his marshal to bash in said doors and extract the assassin that very night for immediate execution come daybreak.

But this was also an attack on the prerogatives of the church, which provoked a furious response by the bishop — who had the assassin’s remained honorably interred. Still more was it an affront to the Parisian populace whose demands for reform were being frustrated by the dauphin and which accordingly was coming to support his rival Charles the Bad during a general political crisis.

Accordingly, the provost Etienne Marcel on February 22 led a popular march upon the dauphin’s palace, fronted by heralds crying out the grievance:

Pray for the soul of Perrin Mace, a bourgeois of Paris, unjustly executed!

John Baillet, the treasurer of the Regent, had borrowed in the name of the King a sum of money from Perrin Mace.

Mace demanded his money in virtue of the new edict that orders the royal officers to pay for what they buy and return what they borrow for the King, under penalty of being brought to law by their creditors.

John Baillet refused to pay, and furthermore insulted, threatened and struck Perrin Mace.

In the exercise of his right of legitimate defence, granted him by the new edict, Perrin Mace returned blow for blow, killed John Baillet and betook himself to the church of St. Mery,** a place of asylum, from where he demanded an inquest and trial.

The Duke of Normandy, now Regent, [i.e., the dauphin -ed.] immediately sent one of his courtiers, the marshal of Normandy, to the church of St. Mery, accompanied with an escort of soldiers and the executioner.

The marshal of Normandy dragged Perrin Mace from the church, and without trial Mace’s right hand was cut off and he was immediately hanged.

Pray for the soul of Perrin Mace, a bourgeois of Paris, unjustly executed.

Marcel’s protest invaded the royal palace and murdered several of his counselors in front of his eyes — “so close to the dauphin, that the royal dress was sprinkled with their blood,” as this history puts it. Charles survived the encounter but found himself virtually a prisoner and it would be months before he had the satisfaction of pacifying the city (and of seeing Etienne Marcel assassinated in his own turn).

French speakers might enjoy this detailed review of events (pdf).

* There are several January 1358 dates in circulation for these events on this here Internet. My authority for this one is the chronicle Chronique des règnes de Jean II et de Charles states in no uncertain terms that Baillet was assassinated on January 24, Mace was hauled from sanctuary that same night, and he was executed on the morning of the 25th.

** Some other sources give it as the church of Saint-Jacques-la-Boucherie, “Saint James of the Butchers” — named to distinguish it from Saint-Jacques-du-Haut-Pas elsewhere in Paris. This church, dating to the 11th or 12th century, was later rebuilt in Gothic style but pulled down during the French Revolution; only its tower, known as Saint-Jacques Tower, survives.

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1830: Benito de Soto, a pirate hanged at Gibraltar

1 comment January 25th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1830, the Galician or Portuguese pirate Benito de Soto was hanged at Gibraltar.

One of the very last of the dying breed of high-seas pirates, de Soto mutinied aboard an Argentine slave smuggler in 1827, re-christened her Burla Negra (“Black Joke”), and ran up the black flag.*

The pirates now entered freely into their villianous [sic] pursuit, and plundered many vessels; amongst others was an American brig, the treatment of which forms the chef d’oeuvre of their atrocity. Having taken out of this brig all the valuables they could find, they hatched down all hands to the hold, except a black man, who was allowed to remain on deck, for the special purpose of affording in his torture an amusing exhibition to Soto and his gang. They set fire to the brig, then lay to, to observe the progress of the flames; and as the miserable African bounded from rope to rope, now climbing to the mast head — now clinging to the shrouds — now leaping to one part of the vessel, and now to another, — their enjoyment seemed raised to its highest pitch. At length the hatches opened to the devouring element, the tortured victim of their fiendish cruelty fell exhausted into the flames, and the horrid and revolting scene closed amidst the shouts of the miscreants who had caused it.

Of their other exploits, that which ranks next in turpitude, and which led to their overthrow, was the piracy of the Morning Star. They fell in with that vessel near the Island Ascension, in the year 1828, as she was on her voyage from Ceylon to England. This vessel, besides a valuable cargo, had on board sevreal [sic] passengers, consisting of a major and his wife, an assistant surgeon, two civilians, about five and twenty invalid soldiers, and three or four of their wives. As soon as Benito de Soto perceived the ship, which was at day-light on the 21st of February, he called up all hands, and prepared for attacking her; he was at the time steering on an opposite course to that of the Morning Star. On reconnoitring [sic] her, he at first supposed she was a French vessel; but Rabazan, one of his crew, who was himself a Frenchman, assured him the ship was British. “So much the better,” exclaimed Soto, in English, (for he could speak that language,) “we shall find the more booty.”

The Burla Negra was much the faster and better-armed ship — in fact the Morning Star was completely unarmed, with not even a store of small arms for her frightened passengers — and soon corralled her prey, murdered the captain and mate, plundered the ship, and gang-raped the women aboard. The only mercy was that the marauders, out of tenderness or drunkenness (having also helped themselves to the Morning Star‘s wine), only imprisoned the human cargo below when they scuttled the ship and sailed away — and the passengers and crew were able to free themselves before they drowned and return safe home to tell the tale of their outrage.

Benito de Soto sailed next for his home port of Corunna, with the aid of a hostage navigator commandeered from his next prize. (The captain ruthlessly shot said unwilling helmsman dead upon arrival.) This adventure, however, marked the last of his career for on the way back to sea the corsairs were shipwrecked and had to take refuge at British Gibraltar where, after residing some time under false identities, a survivor of the Morning Star recognized them.

Easy come, easy go. “Adeus todos!” were his understated last words, not counting those syllables whistled by the salt winds through his posthumous pike-mounted skull.

However, British authorities — who were very conscious that they had detected the villain by pure chance — were not at all amused by the ease with which he had set up in Gibraltar. His legacy would be an impetus to Gibraltar officials to tighten up entrance regulations and, later that same year of 1830, to institute the Royal Gibraltar Police — the oldest police force in the Commonwealth outside the British isles.

* The slaver was full of African slaves, so the first profitable thing the buccaneers did was complete the vessel’s “legitimate” purpose by smuggling them to the West Indies. A black cabin boy that de Soto chose to retain would be captured with the rest and give evidence against the pirates. “The black slave of the pirate stood upon the battery trembling before his dying master to behold the awful termination of a series of events, the recital of which to his African countrymen, when he shall return to his home, will give them no doubt, a dreadful picture of European civilization,” muses our reporter.

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2017: Seven in Kuwait, including a sheikh

3 comments January 25th, 2017 Headsman

A sheikh, and six others much less exalted hanged this morning in Kuwait.

Garnering most of the headlines, Sheikh Faisal Abdullah al-Jaber al-Sabah — the first Kuwaiti royal ever put to death — shot an equally royal nephew dead in 2010.

He was one of only two actual Kuwaitis among the seven hanged; the population of the oil-rich Gulf emirate is more than half comprised of foreign nationals at any given time. The other Kuwaiti was a woman, Nasra al-Enezi, who vengefully set fire to a wedding tent when her husband took a second wife. More than 50 people reportedly died in the blaze.

The Philippines was exercised over the fate of its national, Jakatia Pawa — a domestic worker condemned for stabbing her employer’s adult daughter to death. Kuwait is the sixth-largest destination for the vast expatriate labor sector known as Overseas Filipino/a Workers (OFWs).

An Ethiopian maid, unnamed in the press reports that I have been able to find, was also convicted of murder, as were two Egyptians. The seventh to go to the scaffold today was a Bangladeshi man condemned for a non-fatal kidnapping and rape.

Human rights organizations were naturally aghast, with Human Rights Watch denouncing the mass hanging — on the heels of capital punishment resumptions in Jordan and Bahrain — as part of an “alarming trend in the region for countries to return to or increasingly use the death penalty.”

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2010: Chemical Ali

Add comment January 25th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2010, American-occupied Iraq hanged Ali Hassan al-Majid — Saddam Hussein‘s cousin and longtime aide, better known as Chemical Ali.

Ali Hassan al-Majid as the King of Spades in the U.S. invasion force’s playing-card deck of wanted Iraqis.

Al-Majid acquired his chilling nickname for the notorious March 1988 attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja.

That day, after an appetizer of conventional bombing, Iraqi jets dropped a cocktail of multiple chemical weapons — mustard gas, sarin, tabun, and VX, give or take — killing up to 5,000 people.

“It was life frozen. Life had stopped, like watching a film and suddenly it hangs on one frame,” wrote the ethnically Iranian BBC correspondent Kaveh Golestan,* who arrived on the scene after the bombardment.

“It was a new kind of death to me. You went into a room, a kitchen and you saw the body of a woman holding a knife where she had been cutting a carrot. (…) The aftermath was worse. Victims were still being brought in. Some villagers came to our chopper. They had 15 or 16 beautiful children, begging us to take them to hospital. So all the press sat there and we were each handed a child to carry. As we took off, fluid came out of my little girl’s mouth and she died in my arms.”

It was the most emblematically ghastly event in a running ethnic cleansing campaign of the late 1980s, also headed by al-Majid.

The Halabja attack was the last of four separate death sentences Chemical Ali racked up after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and it was handed down just a week before he stood on the gallows. The larger Kurdish genocide campaign as a whole was a separate death sentence from Halabja; there were also two others for his brutal suppressions of Shia uprisings in the 1990s.

He met all his tribunals defiantly, refusing to enter a plea and then openly embracing the atrocities imputed him. “I am the one who gave orders to the army to demolish villages and relocate villagers,” he once spat in court. “I am not defending myself, I am not apologizing. I did not make a mistake.”

* Himself a casualty of the Iraq War: Golestan was killed when he stepped on a landmine in 2003.

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1971: Ousmane Balde, Barry III, Magassouba Moriba, Loffo Camara, Keita Kara Soufiana, and many others in Conakry

Add comment January 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1971, at least four former members of Guinea’s government were publicly hanged for supposed complicity in the previous year’s Portuguese invasion from neighboring Guinea-Bissau.*

The coup-threatened government of Sekou Toure was trying to send a message:

It did not scruple to make examples of men and women in very high places. Ousmane Balde (or Baldet) was Guinea’s former Finance Minister, Magassouba Moriba an Interior Minister, Barry III (also known as Ibrahima Barry; the link is French) the former Secretary of State. Keita Kara Soufiana had been Chief of Police. Loffo Camara was a National Assembly member.

Besides the quality of its reprisal victims, Conakry went in for quantity, too. Somewhere close to 100 death sentences were handed down with the barest of legal pretense, and the majority of them actually carried out on and around this date.

Personally arranging the grisly tableau for our hanged ex-ministers was a captain, Diarra Traore, who would one day help to overthrow the Guinean government, become Prime Minister … and wind up executed himself for his trouble.

* Guinea-Bissau was at that time still a Portuguese possession, known as Portuguese Guinea.

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1911: Sugako Kanno, radical feminist

Add comment January 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1911, Japanese anarchist writer Sugako (“Suga”) Kanno was executed for the High Treason Incident — the only woman ever hanged for treason in Japan.

Radicalized by suffering rape in her teens, Kanno was known for her discomfiting engagement with Japan’s unsettled “woman question.”

More to the point, she was one of the handful of the treason trial subjects who was directly involved in the actual plot to assassinate the emperor. (Her diaries are full of anguish for those tried with her who were merely guiltly by association.)

Kanno is often subsumed in retrospective accounts by Shusui Kotoku, the more famous male anarchist who was also her lover.

But Kanno was also one of her country’s first female journalists, first notable feminists … a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction, and a radical intellectual in her own right.

Her voluminous diaries in the run-up to her hanging are reprinted in Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan.

[E]ven among anarchists I was among the more radical thinkers [she told her interrogators]. When I was imprisoned in June 1908 in connection with the Red Flag incident I was outraged at the brutal behavior of the police. I concluded that a peaceful propagation of our principles could not be conducted under these circumstances. It was necessary to arouse the people’s awareness by staging riots or a revolution or by undertaking assassinations … Emperor Mutsuhito, compared with other emperors in history, seems to be popular with the people and is a good individual. Although I feel sorry for him personally, he is, as emperor, the chief person responsible for the exploitation of the people economically. Politically he is at the root of all the crimes being committed, and intellectually he is the fundamental cause of superstitious belief. A person in such a position, I concluded, must be killed.

Succinct. Little wonder she admired Russian assassin Sophia Perovskaya … and that she shared Perovskaya’s fate.

She mounted the scaffold escorted by guards on both sides. Her face was covered quickly by a white cloth … She was then ordered to sit upright on the floor. Two thin cords were placed around her neck. The floor-board was removed. In twelve minutes she was dead.

-newspaper account

Sugako Kanno is profiled more extensively in Treacherous Women of Imperial Japan: Patriarchal Fictions, Patricidal Fantasies.

She was back in the news in 2010 when a long-hidden secret message of hers surfaced, corroborating the orthodox historical take that while Kanno was up to her eyeballs in a real plot to murder the emperor, Shusui Kotoku was not part of it.

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1996: Billy Bailey, the last American hanged

11 comments January 25th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1996, Billy Bailey was hanged for murdering an elderly couple in Delaware.

Bailey was condemned in 1980, which was before Texas debuted the lethal injection trend that would sweep the nation; therefore, he was sentenced to hang. When Delaware switched to injection in 1986, Bailey had the choice between his original hempen-necktie sentence or the newfangled gurney.

Authorities wanted him to get with the times. Warden Robert Snyder, who would also serve as hangman, told the press, “Our gallows is pretty primitive here. We’ve made some improvement, but hopefully this will be the last hanging in Delaware.”

Billy Bailey wasn’t interested.

“I’m not a dog,” he said to one visitor. “I’m not going to let them put me to sleep.”

For all the worry that a state out of practice with its gallows technique would botch the job, Delaware carried it off without embarrassment.

Though Bailey’s pretty certain to be the last man hanged in the Blue Hen State — Delaware has gone and dismantled that primitive gallows — he is no lock to keep his place as the last hanged anywhere in the U.S.

Washington state, which hanged two people in the early 1990’s and did some consulting on the procedure for Delaware officials, still allows the condemned a choice between lethal injection and hanging. Executions there aren’t common — it’s been over eight years as of this writing — but they’re not unheard-of. Between the prospect of a lethal injection botch and the morbid appeal of notching milestone status, it’s only a matter of time before someone else opts to hang.

(New Hampshire, which is even more out of practice with the art, also still retains hanging as a backup option.)

Part of the Daily Double: Throwback Executions.

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1795: Unspecified Robespierrists

1 comment January 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1795, a Balzac story La Comedie humaine reaches its climax as the tumbrils of the Thermidorian Reaction wind their way to the scaffold.

In “An Episode Under the Terror”, a mysterious man appears to a priest in hiding and prevails upon him to say a secret mass for the recently executed Louis XVI.

It transpires in an exchange between the two that the stranger’s own conscience is somehow troubled.

“Remember, my son, [said the abbe] that it is not enough to have taken no active part in the great crime; that fact does not absolve you. The men who might have defended the King and left their swords in their scabbards, will have a very heavy account to render to the King of Heaven — Ah! yes,” he added, with an eloquent shake of the head, “heavy indeed! — for by doing nothing they became accomplices in the awful wickedness—-”

“But do you think that an indirect participation will be punished?” the stranger asked with a bewildered look. “There is the private soldier commanded to fall into line — is he actually responsible?”

We have no more answer in the text than we have in life.

Spoiler (That You Saw Coming) Alert

The stranger returns on the anniversary of the king’s martyrdom, but he remains enigmatic, until the abbe is caught up in a crowd watching the procession to the guillotine.

“What is the matter?” [the abbe] asked Madame Ragon.

“Nothing,” she said; “it is only the tumbril cart and the executioner going to the Place Louis XV. Ah! we used to see it often enough last year; but to-day, four days after the anniversary of the twenty-first of January, one does not feel sorry to see the ghastly procession.”

“Why not?” asked the abbe. “That is not said like a Christian.”

“Eh! but it is the execution of Robespierre‘s accomplices. They defended themselves as long as they could, but now it is their turn to go where they sent so many innocent people.”

The crowd poured by like a flood. The abbe, yielding to an impulse of curiosity, looked up above the heads, and there in the tumbril stood the man who had heard mass in the garret three days ago.

“Who is it?” he asked; “who is the man with—-”

“That is the headsman,” answered M. Ragon.

Meaning (though unnamed as such by Balzac), the phenomenally prolific Sanson.

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