1965: John Harris, white anti-apartheid martyr

3 comments April 1st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1965, John Harris hanged in Pretoria Central Prison for an anti-apartheid bombing: the first and only white person put to death for political crimes in apartheid South Africa.

An idealistic young teacher, Harris planted a bomb in a whites-only section of Johannesburg’s Park Station, intending to demonstrate that whites, too, opposed racial segregation. But the bomb threat he phoned in was not acted upon, and the symbolic device killed a 77-year-old woman and badly burned many others.

5.30 am was the time set for the execution. We were all awake, thinking of John. Not long afterwards the phone rang. Ad Hain answered. The voice said: “Your John is dead.” She recognised the voice as one of the Special Branch men’s.

-John Harris’s widow’s testimony to the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission

His death (reportedly with “We Shall Overcome” on his lips) earned affecting tribute and flattering comparisons from his black countrymen.

Mr. Harris, a teacher and a member of the Liberal Party since 1960, is one of those few courageous White men in South Africa who believed passionately in racial equality, identified himself with the oppressed people and suffered persecution. His passport was seized in 1963. He was served with banning orders in February 1964 preventing him from continuing his work with the Liberal Party and the Non-racial Olympic Committee.

Like many others, he became convinced that there was no way left to influence the situation except by clandestine activity. When most of his colleagues in the underground organization, the African Resistance Movement, were jailed or fled the country, he tried to plan a spectacular demonstration. He placed a bomb in the Johannesburg station and telephoned the police so that the area would be cleared. The police did not act promptly and an elderly lady lost her life as a result of the explosion.

Under the prevailing circumstances in South Africa, the means of struggle are for the liberation movement to decide in the light of the conditions in the country.

The responsibility for the consequences lies very much on the rulers of Pretoria who, in defiance of the world and all sense of decency, created a situation which left no other alternative to decent people than to engage in violence.

In mourning the execution of Mr. Frederick John Harris, let me say that it will not be forgotten that in the struggle of the South African people this man, a member of the privileged group, gave his life because of his passionate belief in racial equality. This will serve to strengthen the faith of all those who fight against the danger of a “race war” and retain their faith that all human beings can live together in dignity irrespective of the colour of their skin.

I have recently received a message sent by him from his death cell in Pretoria Central Prison in January. He wrote:

“The support and warm sympathy of friends has been and is among my basic reinforcements. I daily appreciate the accuracy of the observation that when one really has to endure one relies ultimately on Reason and Courage. I’ve been fortunate in that the first has stood up — my ideals and beliefs have never faltered. As for the second, well, I’m not ashamed — I know I’ve shown at least a modicum of the second. ”

When I think of John Harris, the first White martyr in the cause of equality in South Africa, I am reminded powerfully of a great White American, a man who gave his life over a century ago — on December 2, 1859, to be exact — because of his passionate hatred of slavery: I mean John Brown.

People said then that John Brown was eccentric, that he was unwise in attacking the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and that his act would only strengthen the slave lords.

History has made a very different judgement. Whether the particular act of John Brown was right or wrong, wise or unwise, his cause was right and invincible.

-1965 statement on this date’s hanging by Achkar Marof

Harris’s conviction was secured with the states-evidence turn of one of his compatriots in the white anti-apartheid African Resistance Movement. For this betrayal, John Lloyd earned his freedom and had already moved to England by the time Harris was executed.

Lloyd built a public service life of his own in the UK. However, his bid for parliament on the Labour ticket in the 1990s was scotched when public exposure of his past (as (a) a leftist terrorist; and (b) a betrayer of his fellow-leftists) brought him more baggage than one man can tote in a general election.

Harris’s rough treatment under arrest also continues to haunt his former interrogators in South Africa.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Murder,South Africa,Terrorists

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1777: William Dodd, mind wonderfully concentrated

3 comments June 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1777, they hanged the macaroni parson at Tyburn.

High-living, Cambridge-educated vicar William Dodd achieved this emasculating nickname for his frippery — macaroni (or maccaroni) being 18th century slang for a sort of outrageous continental metrosexual.*

He came particularly in for public ridicule when he was caught trying to bribe his way to a lucrative ecclesiastical position, financial hardship from his lifestyle having driven him to the desperate need for a pay hike. (In sorer straits later, he would sum up his life: “my greatest evil was expense. To supply it, I fell into the dreadful and ruinous mode of raising money by simonies. The annuities devoured me.”

Playwright Samuel Foote skewered the recently-humiliated Dodd on the stage in The Cozeners as “Dr. Simony,” described in the scrambled boast of “Mrs. Simony”:

not a more populous preacher within the sound of Bow-bells: I don’t mean for the mobility only … with a cambric handkerchief in one hand, and a diamond ring on the other: and then he waves this way and that way; and he curtsies, and he bows, and he bounces, that all the people are ready to — but then his wig, madam! I am sure you must admire his dear wig … short, rounded off at the ear, to show his plump cherry cheeks, white as a curd, feather-topped, and the curls as close as a cauliflower…

Then, my doctor is none of your schismatics, madam; believes in the whole thirty-nine! and so he would if there were nine times as many.

Three years after Foote’s cruel pen gave Dodd’s name immortality, the divine himself was (so he should think) ushered into eternity, after he got caught passing a forged bond against the revenues of his onetime student Lord Chesterfield.

Condemned to die for the offense,** a longer-than-usual lag from sentence to execution gave Dr. Simony leave to follow that classic Calvary of errant clerics with a mien of pious self-flagellation that helped his case raised a public outcry for clemency.

Samuel Johnson was among thousands of Britons who petitioned for mercy, and in Johnson’s case, went a bit further to ghost-write a piece in Dodd’s name, “The convict’s address to his unhappy brethren”. It was when the litterateur’s hand was suspected behind this prose† that Johnson made his quotable, tweetable remark,

“Depend upon it Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Dr. Johnson, nevertheless, was the true author, and the old scribbler used it to express some of his particular opinions on the proper staging of gallows-theater.

It is the duty of a penitent to repair, so far as he has the power, the injury which he has done. What we can do, is commonly nothing more than to leave the world an example of contrition. On the dreadful day, when the sentence of the law has its full force, some will be found to have affected a shameless bravery, or negligent intrepidity. Such is not the proper behaviour of a convicted criminal. To rejoice in tortures is the privilege of a martyr; to meet death with intrepidity is the right only of innocence, if in any human being innocence could be found. Of him, whose life is shortened by his crimes, the last duties are humility and self-abasement. We owe to God sincere repentance; we owe to man the appearance of repentance.—-We ought not to propagate an opinion, that he who lived in wickedness can die with courage.‡

William Dodd (together with another criminal, John Harris) had occasion to do just that this day in 1777. Dodd became the last person hanged for forgery at Tyburn.

Updated: According to Wendy Moore, there was an posthumous attempt at resuscitation, which was known to work sometimes.

Dodd, himself a big death penalty opponent from his former public perch, gave a sermon the very year of his eventual death titled The Frequency of Capital Punishments Inconsistent with Justice, Sound Policy and Religion, critiquing “voluntary destruction” of human life and its inconsistency with “the humane and benevolent spirit which characterizes the present times.”

He was also — which helps explain the revival attempt — a big supporter of the Humane Society, which sought to apply the developing science of the Enlightenment to the problem of resuscitating the (near-)drowned. (The Royal Humane Society’s motto today is lateat scintillula forsan, “a small spark may perhaps lie hid.”)

Dodd preached an enthusiastic sermon to this body in 1776, expansively anticipating its work for analogous “various other kinds of sudden and accidental death” such as “malefactors executed at the gallows, [which] would afford opportunities of discovering how far this method might be successful in relieving such as may have unhappily become their own executioners by hanging themselves.” Dodd’s own engagement with both the medical and the theological questions at stake in resuscitation surely conditioned his own anticipation under the noose that, if revived, he might live on as a “renovated being.”

(Dodd’s involvement with the Humane Society is detailed in Kelly McGuire’s “Raising the Dead: Sermons, Suicide, and Transnational Exchange in the Eighteenth Century,” Literature and Medicine, Spring 2009.)

It was, surely, an astounding time to live; no less so, to die. And the mysterious border between the two might be re-engineered by human ingenuity.

As Lord Byron (a man with his own fascination for the scaffold) wrote in Don Juan,

What opposite discoveries we have seen!
(Signs of true genius, and of empty pockets.)
One makes new noses, one a guillotine,
One breaks your bones, one sets them in their sockets;

Bread has been made (indifferent) from potatoes;
And galvanism has set some corpses grinning,
But has not answer’d like the apparatus
Of the Humane Society’s beginning
By which men are unsuffocated gratis:
What wondrous new machines have late been spinning!

* The lyrics of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (“stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni”) may be the most recognizable modern-day relic of this lexicon.

** Dodd made a groveling plea to the jury in the face of overwhelming evidence against him, at one point bold enough to appeal to injury his death would inflict upon those who lent him money: “I have creditors, honest men, who will lose much by my death. I hope, for the sake of justice towards them, some mercy will be shown to me. ”

† Dodd could write a little himself; he had a theological tract and a commentary on Shakespeare already to his name, and at Newgate cranked out Thoughts in Prison, a collection of sub-Villon poetry.

‡ In an addendum that would have warmed the cockles of the Roberts court, Johnson-as-Dodd also opined,

Every man reposes upon the tribunals of his country the stability of possession, and the serenity of life. He therefore who unjustly exposes the courts of judicature to suspicion, either of partiality or error, not only does an injury to those who dispense the laws, but diminishes the public confidence in the laws themselves, and shakes the foundation of public tranquility.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Theft

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