Tag Archives: july 10

1941: George Johnson Armstrong, under the Treachery Act

Marine engineer George Johnson Armstrong on this date in 1941 was hanged at Wandsworth Prison … attaining an unenviable distinction as the first of five Britons executed under the Treachery Act of 1940.

One of the very first laws enacted by the incoming wartime government of Winston Churchill as the Wehrmacht overran France, the Treachery Act anticipated two potential difficulties in punishing various forms of aid that folk might thereafter attempt to extend to the Third Reich.

We’ll let all about those difficulties:

if we rely upon the Treason Act — the main Act, as I have said, is an Act of great antiquity — and other Acts which establish special procedure and special formalities, we shall have a much more complicated and cumbrous procedure than may, in existing circumstances, be justified.

There is also this further point. The law of treason in this country applies, of course, to every British subject wherever that British subject is living, because every British subject owes allegiance to the King. The law of treason also applies to aliens in so far as they owe to the King local allegiance — that is to say, as long as they are resident in this country and enjoying the protection of its laws. It is a very doubtful question indeed whether under the existing law of treason you could proceed against an alien who has come here suddenly, surreptitiously by air or otherwise, for the purposes of wreaking clandestine destruction or doing other acts against the safety of the real. In as much as treason is a crime committed by someone who owes allegiance, it might be well argued that such a person does not owe allegiance to the British Crown.

This act was handy indeed against enemy spies like Josef Jakobs, but it was also employed against five British citizens during and immediately following the war. (We’ve previously met a couple of them in these very pages: Theodore Schurch and Duncan Scott-Ford.) Johnson’s particular offense was to communicate an offer to a German consulate in the United States to help keep the then-still-neutral U.S. out of the war.

A full list of those executed for wartime treachery can be found at CapitalPunishmehtUK.org.

1835: Ruel Blake, “often seen among negroes”

On this date in 1835, Ruel Blake hanged in Livingston as one of the white instigators of a supposed slave uprising.

Blake was an foreigner to Madison County, a Connecticut carpetbagger who (according to the vigilance committee’s proceedings) “could claim but few or none as friends” as he was “of a cold, phlegmatic temperament, with a forbidding countenance; kept himself almost aloof from white society, but was often seen among negroes” and “was noted for cold-blooded revenge, insatiable avarice, and unnatural cruelty.” He worked as a wheelwright and carpenter, and had only a single slave, Peter.

But not everyone in Livingston had it in for the guy. As the excitement first began to bubble up as June turned to July, Captain Thomas Hudnall, a wealthy plantation owner gave Ruel Blake money and a horse and sagely suggested he lay low somewhere else while the storm passed. Blake had not yet been accused by anyone, but he’d aroused the ire and seemingly the suspicion of his neighbors when his own slave was accused and Blake administered an unconvincing and pro forma flogging — “he did not wish to hurt [the slave], occasionally striking a hard lick to keep up appearances.” Eventually other white citizens forcibly relieved him of the job, and Blake had the effrontery as he saw his man being thrashed to “[rush] through the crowd to where his negro was, and swore, if he was touched another lick, they would have to whip him first,” a threat that brought him to blows with the man wielding the whip.

Hudnall rightly anticipated that his neighbors’ presumption of “mere” excess sympathy for the slave would soon take a much darker turn: Blake blew town on July 1, and with the arrival into Livingston the very next day of the fantastical slave revolt claims from nearby Beatties Bluff, a $500 reward for his capture soon went nipping at Blake’s heels. In the ensuing panicked days, Blake along with the “steam doctors” Cotton and Saunders — all strangers come to Mississippi, all of them socially marginal and noted for fraternizing with black people — came to be acclaimed as the chief white conspirators, accusations that became self-affirming as men under the lash or in fear of the gallows repeated the names, knowing from their torturers’ leading questions who was already condemned by acclamation.

Blake was captured after just a few days, in Vicksburg, where he posed as a boatman from upriver. Now Hudnall’s favor cut against him, for the flight from Livingston appeared to prove his guilt:

He arrived in Livingston on the 8th of July, under a strong escort, intimations being obtained that an attempt would be made by the clan [John Murrell’s bandits, the alleged nexus of the slave rising plot -ed.] to rescue him.

His appearance in Livingston created a most alarming excitement; and, but for the committee’s being in session, in all probability he would have been forcibly taken from the guard, and immediately executed. After arriving, he was immediately put on his trial before the committee … Every disclosure which was made [by previous interrogations] was replete with testimony against him.

After hearing all the evidence, every opportunity was given him to produce counteracting testimony, which he failed to do. There being no doubt on the minds of the committee, he was, by a unanimous vote, condemned to be hanged; and, just before leaving the committee-room, he requested the committee to give him time to settle his affairs.

On the 10th of July, in the presence of an immense concourse of people, he was executed. He privately commended the verdict of the committee, and said they could not have done otherwise than condemn him from the evidence before them, and publicly, under the gallows, made the same declaration. He protested in his innocence to the last, and said that his life was sworn away.