1798: Henry Joy McCracken

1 comment July 17th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1798, Henry Joy McCracken was hanged by the British for that year’s Irish Rebellion.

The Belfast Presbyterian and cotton trader co-founded the republican Society of United Irishmen in 1791, and spent that revolutionary decade trafficking in ideas that the British crown did not approve at all.

He got busted in 1796 for his radical politics, but ill health prompted his release from prison shortly before the misfortunately ill-organized rising.

McCracken led an attack on Antrim — he dated his call to arms with a French Revolution-esque calendar reboot, “the first year of liberty” — but lost the fight and was captured a few weeks later.

He spurned offers of clemency in exchange for informing on his comrades and was parted at the gallows from his sister, Mary Ann McCracken — herself one of Ireland’s best renowned social reform activists. (She lived to the ripe old age of 96, a furious anti-slavery activist to the end.)

Say what you will about those Irish Republican revolutionaries, they know how to commemorate a body in song:

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1749: Samuel Henzi, excluded

1 comment July 17th, 2010 Headsman

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes

Those lines, written for 20th century America’s struggle with racism, are rooted in the timeless conflict between the haves and the have-nots, and those “exploding” dreams deferred have provided more than a few subjects for these morbid pages.

This date in 1749 saw the beheading of writer and reluctant revolutionary Samuel Henzi (German Wikipedia page), along with two fellow-conspirators in a plot to overthrow the aristocratic government of Bern(e).

Still operating off a 13th century constitution, Berne had ossified into an oligarchic society with privilege derived from heredity and the capable but low-born frustratingly locked out. This arrangement had provoked intermittent uprisings and challenges, but as of the mid-18th century, it was still going strong, and “patricians mockingly observed that the citizens must be stripped of their feathers, that they might not want to fly.” (Source)

Henzi was a man with the ambition and the talent to soar above his place.

Eloquent, cultured, a guy to bang out some French poetry on the side, Henzi had been among a group of lower gentry who in 1744 petitioned for a change to Bern’s governing council, which at that time had become a privately held dynastic trust among a few top burghers.

For a suggestion as incendiary as allocating council seats by lot the better to represent the class, Henzi was treated as a rebel and exiled to Neuchatel.

dass ein eingewurzelter Staatskrebs mit Demuth nicht geheilt werden kann; nein! man muss den Degen in die Faust nehmen, wenn man die verlorne Freiheit wieder erobern will.*

Returning on a pardon, he found that not much had changed. The doors to employment in the civil administration shut tight against him, and not being bought off with a minor sinecure he fell in with a circle of malcontents dreamily conspiring to blow the whole thing up.

These plotters were exposed and three considered ringleaders — merchant Samuel Niklaus Wernier, Stadtlieutenant Emanuel Fueter, and Henzi — were beheaded on this date, each reputedly requiring more than one stroke of the sword.

On embarking with their two sons to quit the Helvetic territory, the wife of Henzi exclaimed, “I would rather see these children sink in the Rhine-stream than they should not one day learn to avenge the murder of their father.” However, when the sons came to manhood, they displayed more magnanimity than their mother; and one of them, who rose to distinction in the service of the Netherlands, requited with good offices to the burghers of his native town the unmerited misfortunes which they had brought upon his family. (Source)


Henzi’s fate greatly excited German dramaturg (and original Conehead) Gotthold Lessing — indeed, he would remark that no other event moved him so deeply.

Almost immediately after Henzi’s decapitation, Lessing wrote his first tragedy, the never-finished but aptly-titled Samuel Henzi, which is available in the original German here.**

Wann man des Staates Flehn, der sie aus Gunst erkoren,
Der nur aus Nachsicht fleht, empfängt mit tauben Ohren;
Wann wer der Freiheit sich das Wort zu reden traut,
Zum Lohn für seine Müh ein schimpflich Elend baut;
Freiheit! wann uns von dir, du aller Tugend Same,
Du aller Laster Gift, nichts bleibet als der Name:
Und dann mein weichlich Herz gerechten Zorn nicht hört,
So bin ich meines Bluts –– ich bin des Tags nicht wert.

* That is, “humility cannot cure the cancer of the state; one must take the sword in fist.” The comment is cited in Edward M. Batley, “‘Tu executes comme tes maitres jugent!’ – The Henzi Affair and the question of Lessing’s political judgment”, German Life and Letters, July 1984.

** Lessing’s next stab at stagecraft in the key of seria produced what’s generally described as the German theater’s first domestic or bourgeois tragedy, Miss Sara Sampson (German Wikipedia entry).

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1793: Charlotte Corday, Marat’s murderess

13 comments July 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Charlotte Corday lightly dropped her head beneath the guillotine for the murder of Jean-Paul Marat.


The Death of Marat, by David.

She is of stately Norman figure; in her twenty-fifth year; of beautiful still countenance: her name is Charlotte Corday, heretofore styled d’Armans, while Nobility still was … A completeness, a decision is in this fair female Figure: ‘by energy she means the spirit that will prompt one to sacrifice himself for his country.’ What if she, this fair young Charlotte, had emerged from her secluded stillness, suddenly like a Star; cruel-lovely, with half-angelic, half-demonic splendour; to gleam for a moment, and in a moment be extinguished: to be held in memory, so bright complete was she, through long centuries!–Quitting Cimmerian Coalitions without, and the dim-simmering Twenty-five millions within, History will look fixedly at this one fair Apparition of a Charlotte Corday; will note whither Charlotte moves, how the little Life burns forth so radiant, then vanishes swallowed of the Night.

Carlyle’s voluptuous prose is well-suited to our heroine (for so she has officially seemed, since fall of Robespierre, or from the very first): in the mere hours from striking dead the ferocious Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat on July 13 to her beheading this day, she captivated the country and immortalized her name.

Hapless beautiful Charlotte; hapless squalid Marat! From Caen in the utmost West, from Neuchatel in the utmost East, they two are drawing nigh each other; they two have, very strangely, business together.

Or was it strange at all?

Implacable in her purpose, utopian in her design, unafraid to plant a butcher’s knife into the chest of an enemy of France, Corday has a little something in common with her mortal foe.


Charlotte Corday, by Paul-Jacques-Aime Baudry.

These make casting too easy: Marat, bad because he was ugly and ugly because he was bad; Charlotte, therefore, just the reverse. (She was also a virgin; they made sure to check at the autopsy.) Our Norman assassin’s looks have inordinately exercised her interlocutors from the moment of her arrest; her prosecutors, too, understood them as essential.

“Not at all pretty,” a contemporaneous government article (cited in Crisis in Representation) put about. “She was a virago, brawny rather than fresh, without grace, untidy as are almost all female philosophers and eggheads … an old maid … with a masculinized bearing … [who] had thrown herself absolutely outside of her sex.”

And there it is. Charlotte Corday’s power to excite both rapture and repulsion is plainly rooted in the unexpected contradiction between her sex and her crime. If she is a resolute political assassin, surely she is not feminine … or is it the other way around?

Take Andre Chenier‘s engorged ode: “Fair, young, resplendent, led to the executioners, you seemed to be riding in your bridal car … You alone were a man and vindicated the human race. And we, vile eunuchs, a cowardly and soulless herd, we know how to repeat some womanly whimper, but the steel would weigh heavy in our feeble hands. … One scoundrel less crawls in this slime. Virtue applauds you. Hear the majestic sound of its virile praise, heroic maid.” This is “throwing herself outside of her sex” in the affirmative sense of uplifting herself beyond mere womanhood, a girl so heroic she might almost qualify as a dude.

Place it at the historical pivot into a modernity unready to reckon with the place of the woman, and confusion reigns.

“The spectacle of such wickedness, beauty, and talent united in the same person,” a newspaper recorded, “the contrast between the magnitude of her crime and the weakness of her sex, her appearance of actual gaiety, and her smile before the judges, who could not fail to condemn her, all combined to create an impression on the spectators that is difficult to portray.”*

Still, this judgment offers more insight than some latterly “tributes,” like this Anglo magazine piece 30 years later: “an ornament and an honour to the sex of woman … Woman is the child of feeling. From this source spring up all her good and bad qualities. It is seldom ambition or policy which leads her on to any enterprise: it is the passions. … it was under the influence of such feelings that Charlotte Corday performed that act, which virtuous and generous minds, so far from considering a crime, will look upon as one of the most heroic deeds of recorded history.”

Which is a fascinating form of sexism, since it was precisely Corday’s unearthly calm — masculine virtue! — that awed the Revolutionary Tribunal. But everything about Charlotte Corday is up for interpretive grabs; Nina Rattner Gelbart even argues, in “The Blonding of Charlotte Corday” (Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.1 (2004)) that though a real-life brunette, her depictions trend increasingly flaxen-haired.**

As for Charlotte Corday her work is accomplished; the recompense of it is near and sure. The chere amie, and neighbours of the house, flying at her, she ‘overturns some movables,’ entrenches herself till the gendarmes arrive; then quietly surrenders; goes quietly to the Abbaye Prison: she alone quiet, all Paris sounding in wonder, in rage or admiration, round her. …

On Wednesday morning, the thronged Palais de Justice and Revolutionary Tribunal can see her face; beautiful and calm: she dates it ‘fourth day of the Preparation of Peace.’ A strange murmur ran through the Hall, at sight of her; you could not say of what character. Tinville has his indictments and tape-papers the cutler of the Palais Royal will testify that he sold her the sheath-knife; “all these details are needless,” interrupted Charlotte; “it is I that killed Marat.” By whose instigation? — “By no one’s.” What tempted you, then? His crimes. “I killed one man,” added she, raising her voice extremely (extremement), as they went on with their questions, “I killed one man to save a hundred thousand; a villain to save innocents; a savage wild-beast to give repose to my country. I was a Republican before the Revolution; I never wanted energy.” There is therefore nothing to be said. The public gazes astonished: the hasty limners sketch her features, Charlotte not disapproving; the men of law proceed with their formalities. The doom is Death as a murderess. To her Advocate she gives thanks; in gentle phrase, in high-flown classical spirit. To the Priest they send her she gives thanks; but needs not any shriving, or ghostly or other aid from him.

On this same evening, therefore, about half-past seven o’clock, from the gate of the Conciergerie, to a City all on tiptoe, the fatal Cart issues: seated on it a fair young creature, sheeted in red smock of Murderess; so beautiful, serene, so full of life; journeying towards death,–alone amid the world. Many take off their hats, saluting reverently; for what heart but must be touched? Others growl and howl. Adam Lux, of Mentz, declares that she is greater than Brutus; that it were beautiful to die with her: the head of this young man seems turned. At the Place de la Revolution, the countenance of Charlotte wears the same still smile. The executioners proceed to bind her feet; she resists, thinking it meant as an insult; on a word of explanation, she submits with cheerful apology. As the last act, all being now ready, they take the neckerchief from her neck: a blush of maidenly shame overspreads that fair face and neck; the cheeks were still tinged with it, when the executioner lifted the severed head, to shew it to the people. ‘It is most true,’ says Foster, ‘that he struck the cheek insultingly; for I saw it with my eyes: the Police imprisoned him for it.’†

In this manner have the Beautifullest and the Squalidest come in collision, and extinguished one another. Jean-Paul Marat and Marie-Anne Charlotte Corday both, suddenly, are no more. ‘Day of the Preparation of Peace?’ Alas, how were peace possible or preparable, while, for example, the hearts of lovely Maidens, in their convent-stillness, are dreaming not of Love- paradises, and the light of Life; but of Codrus’-sacrifices, and death well earned? That Twenty-five million hearts have got to such temper, this is the Anarchy; the soul of it lies in this: whereof not peace can be the embodyment! The death of Marat, whetting old animosities tenfold, will be worse than any life. O ye hapless Two, mutually extinctive, the Beautiful and the Squalid, sleep ye well,–in the Mother’s bosom that bore you both!

In Carlyle’s third volume on the French Revolution, “Charlotte Corday” is the first chapter in Book IV: The Terror.

While the assassin went contentedly to her death, and left smitten admirers in her passing, more realistic politicians saw that all her magnificent stoicism, all her self-sacrifice, had doomed the liberals who were her political fellow-travelers and opened the door to the very Terror she meant to avert. (And also that the gesture might have been better directed elsewhere, since Marat was already dying.)

“She has killed us,” prophesied Girondin deputy Pierre Vergniaud. “But she has taught us how to die.”

What meaning this leaves one with — any at all? — is the subject of the Peter Weiss play-within-a-play Marat/Sade, which sets a cast of lunatics in the Napoleonic era under the direction of the Marquis de Sade to portraying Marat’s rendezvous with Charlotte Corday.

* Cited by Elizabeth R. Kindleberger in “Charlotte Corday in Text and Image: A Case Study in the French Revolution and Women’s History,” French Historical Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Autumn, 1994).

** Also of interest from Gelbart is the Vichy government’s affinity for our murderess: “Antisemitism made of Marat a Jew and a vile creature, dark, dirty, satanic, a bloodthirsty monster. In contrast, Corday was pure, saintly, beautiful, virginal, and of course fair.”

† The slap given Charlotte Corday’s severed head is historically attested by the French press (which was aghast); the famous story about it of a much more fantastic quality is that the severed head blushed — and, in the phrasing of Englishwoman Helen Maria Williams, “exhibited this last impression of offended modesty.” The legend of Charlotte’s crimsoned cheeks always comes up in the backstory of the guillotine’s experiments to determine if a head retained consciousness; Charlotte’s blush may in fact be credited as one of the reasons these experiments actually came to pass.

Part of the Themed Set: The Feminine Mystique.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Women

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1795: The last Montagnards

1 comment June 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1795, the Mountain that had so recently dominated revolutionary France was destroyed by the blade.

This largely forgotten date is actually a significant milestone of those years’ imbroglio: the date on which the French bourgeoisie achieved its revolution by slaying the last sans-culottes-affiliated deputies in punishment for the last sans-culottes uprising.

In the year since the fall of Robespierre, a White Terror had purged his former adherents — or in class terms, had put Madame Guillotine to work pushing the Paris working class out of its former political authority.

The latter’s last hurrah of resistance was the Prairal Rebellion of May 20, 1795, when a mob stormed the Convention.

In the florid narration of Thomas Carlyle,

[I]t billows free through all Corridors; within and without, far as the eye reaches, nothing but Bedlam, and the great Deep broken loose! … Insurrection rages; rolls its drums; will read its Paper of Grievances, will have this decreed, will have that.

… National Representation, deluged with black Sansculottism, glides out; for help elsewhere, for safety elsewhere; here is no help.

About four in the afternoon, there remain hardly more than some Sixty Members: mere friends, or even secret leaders; a remnant of the Mountain-crest, held in silence by Thermidorian thraldom. Now is the time for them; now or never let them descend, and speak! They descend, these Sixty, invited by Sansculottism: Romme of the New Calendar, Ruhl of the Sacred Phial, Goujon, Duquesnoy, Soubrany, and the rest. Glad Sansculottism forms a ring for them; Romme takes the President’s chair; they begin resolving and decreeing. Fast enough now comes Decree after Decree, in alternate brief strains, or strophe and antistrophe, — what will cheapen bread, what will awaken the dormant lion. And at every new decree,* Sansculottism shouts “Decreed, decreed!” and rolls its drums.

Fast enough; the work of months in hours, — when see, a Figure enters … And then Gilt Youth, with levelled bayonets, countenances screwed to the sticking-place! Tramp, tramp, with bayonets gleaming in the lamp-light: what can one do, worn down with long riot, grown heartless, dark, hungry, but roll back, but rush back, and escape who can? The very windows need to be thrown up, that Sansculottism may escape fast enough. Money-changer Sections and Gilt Youth sweep them forth, with steel besom, far into the depths of Saint-Antoine. Triumph once more! The Decrees of that Sixty are not so much as rescinded; they are declared null and non-extant. Romme, Ruhl, Goujon and the ringleaders, some thirteen in all, are decreed Accused. Permanent-session ends at three in the morning. Sansculottism, once more flung resupine, lies sprawling; sprawling its last.

The so-called Cretois were hailed before a tribunal; six were condemned to death on this date.**

They dramatically attempted to cheat the headsman by stabbing themselves after the trial, somehow passing down the line without intervention a single knife smuggled by Goujon.

Three of them died of their self-inflicted injuries. The other three went immediately to the guillotine.

“They were,” Carlyle concludes, “the Ultimi Romanorum … Sansculottism sprawls no more. The dormant lion has become a dead one; and now, as we see, any hoof may smite him.”

* According to A Popular History of France from the First Revolution to the Present Time, one of the decrees was abolition of the death penalty “except in the case of emigrants and forgers of assignats.”

** Other less treasonably culpable former Montagnards who had not cast their lot squarely with the Thermidorians were proscribed or otherwise cut off from power in the aftermath of the Prairal rebellion.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Milestones,Not Executed,Politicians,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1918: Tsar Nicholas II and his family

18 comments July 17th, 2008 Headsman

In the small hours after midnight on the night of July 16-17 90 years ago, the former Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, children, and four family retainers, were shot in a Yekaterinburg basement by their Bolshevik jailers.

Doting family man, vacillating dictator, as weak and rich as Croesus … the doomed Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias was a man small of stature. His reign emerged under a bad star when 1,300 Muscovites were trampled to death in the crush for his coronation largesse; 18 years later, Nicholas‘s support for Serbia against Austria-Hungary was instrumental in pitching Europe into World War I, a blunder for which he reaped a whirlwind long in the making.

When an anti-Bolshevik force approached Yekaterinburg (or Ekaterinburg), where the deposed royals had been stashed in a commandeered private residence,* Yakov Sverdlov (for whom the city was subsequently renamed) ordered the prisoners shot — not only the tsar, but his beloved wife, their hemophiliac heir, and those four daughters who had to be bayoneted because the state jewels secreted in their corsets shielded them from the gunfire.

The executioners (here’s the account of their leader; here’s another guard’s version) did their best to destroy and conceal the remains, helping fuel subsequent rumors that one of the children had survived and escaped.

Those rumors are only now, with post-Soviet investigation and DNA forensics, being debunked, and not yet to the satisfaction of all comers. This very week, Moscow affirmed (though the Orthodox church has not accepted) that the last of Nicholas’s family had been accounted for:

Modern nostalgia for this unimpressive sovereign is making a minor comeback, with Nicholas absurdly contending in a current poll for the title of “greatest Russian” … supported not only by the miseries of the state that succeeded his, but by the family’s decent and accessible private life.

Even a monarchist — especially a monarchist! — shouldn’t reason that the greatest monarch is the one who drove the bus over the cliff. But much is forgiven a martyr. Indeed, like Charles I of England, the last Romanov monarch has been posthumously saddled with divine sanction; he and all the family are certified “passion bearers”. (Update: And possible future relics!)

A handful of the many books about the Romanovs and their fall

* The Ipatiev House where the tsar was held (and shot) no longer stands. On its spot is a church consecrated five years ago yesterday to the Romanov canonization.

Update: The Romanovs were officially rehabilitated by the Russian Supreme Court on October 1, 2008.

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