1721: Walter Kennedy

Add comment July 21st, 2020 Charles Johnson

(Thanks to Captain Charles Johnson — perhaps a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe — for the guest post. It was originally part of Chapter XI “Of Captain Bartho. Roberts, And his Crew” in Johnson’s magnum and only opus, A General History of the Pyrates. As noted by his placement, Kennedy was only a minor figure in the Golden Age of Piracy, a treacherous officer of the Bartholomew Roberts who bumbled right into the noose back on native shores. For another blurb on this bold but mediocre buccaneer, see Marcus Rediker.)

After some Days, the long-wish’d-for Boat came back, but with the most unwellcome News in the World, for Kennedy, who was Lieutenant, and left in Absence of Roberts, to Command the Privateer and Prize, was gone off with both. This was Mortification with a Vengeance, and you may imagine, they did not depart without some hard Speeches from those that were left, and had suffered by their Treachery: And that there need be no further mention of this Kennedy, I shall leave Captain Roberts, for a Page or two, with the Remains of his Crew, to vent their Wrath in a few Oaths and Execrations, and follow the other, whom we may reckon from that Time, as steering his Course towards Execution Dock.

Kenney was now chosen Captain of the revolted Crew, but could not bring his Company to any determined Resolution; some of them were for pursuing the old Game, but the greater Part of them seem’d to have Inclinations to turn from those evil Courses, and get home privately, (for there was no Act of Pardon in Force,) therefore they agree to break up, and every Man to shift for himself, as he should see Occasion. The first Thing they did, was to part with the great Portugueze Prize, and having the Master of the Sloop (whose Name I think was Cane) aboard, who they said was a very honest Fellow, (for he had humoured them upon every Occasion,) told them of the Brigantine that Roberts went after; and when the Pyrates first took him, he complemented them at an odd Rate, telling them they were welcome to his Sloop and Cargo, and wish’d that the Vessel had been larger, and the Loading richer for their Sakes: To this good natured Man they gave the Portugueze Ship, (which was then above half loaded,) three or four Negroes, and all of his own Men, who returned Thanks to his kind Benefactors, and departed.

Captain Kennedy in the Rover, failed to Barbadoes, near which Island, they took a very peaceable Ship belonging to Virginia; the Commander was a Quaker, whose Name was Knot; he had neither Pistol, Sword, nor Cutlass on Board; and Mr. Knot appearing so very passive to all they said to him, some of them thought this a good Opportunity to go off; and accordingly eight of the Pyrates went aboard, and he carried them safe to Virginia: They made the Quaker a Present of 10 Chests of Sugar, 10 Rolls of Brasil Tobacco, 30 Moidors, and some Gold-Dust, in all to the value of about 250 l. They also made Presents to the Sailors, some more, some less, and lived a jovial Life all the while they were upon their Voyage, Captain Knot giving them their Way; nor indeed could he help himself, unless he had taken an Opportunity to surprize them, when they were either drunk or asleep; for awake they wore Arms aboard the Ship, and put him in a continual Terror; it not being his Principle (or the Sect’s) to fight, unless with Art and Collusion; he managed these Weapons well till he arrived at the Capes, and afterwards four of the Pyrates went off in a Boat, which they had taken with them, for the more easily making their Escapes, and made up the Bay towards Maryland, but were forced back by a Storm into an obscure Place of the Country, where meeting with good Entertainment among the Planters, they continued several Days without being discovered to be Pyrates. In the mean Time Captain Knot leaving four others on Board his Ship, (who intended to go to North-Carolina,) made what hast he could to discover to Mr. Spitswood the Governor, what sort of Passengers he had been forced to bring with him, who by good Fortune got them seized; and Search being made after the others, who were revelling about the Country, they were also taken, and all try’d, convicted and hang’d, two Portuguese Jews who were taken on the Coast of Brasil, and whom they brought with them to Virginia, being the principal Evidence. The latter had found Means to lodge Part of their Wealth with the Planters, who never brought it to Account: But Captain Knot surrendered up every Thing that belonged to them, that were taken aboard, even what they presented to him, in lieu of such Things as they had plundered him of in their Passage, and obliged his Men to do the like.

Some Days after the taking of the Virginia Man last mentioned, in cruising in the Latitude of Jamaica, Kennedy took a Sloop bound thither from Boston, loaded with Bread and Flower; aboard of this Sloop went all the Hands who were for breaking the Gang, and left those behind that had a Mind to pursue further Adventures. Among the former were Kennedy, their Captain, of whose Honour they had such a dispicable Notion, that they were about to throw him over-board, when they found him in the Sloop, as fearing he might betray them all, at their return to England, he having in his Childhood been bred a Pick-pocket, and before he became a Pyrate, a House-breaker; both Professions that these Gentlemen have a very mean Opinion of. However, Captain Kennedy, by taking solemn Oaths of Fidelity to his Companions, was suffered to proceed with them.

In this Company there was but one that pretended to any skill in Navigation, (for Kennedy could neither write nor read, he being preferred to the Command merely for his Courage, which indeed he had often signaliz’d, particularly in taking the Portuguese Ship,) and he proved to be a Pretender only; for shaping their Course to Ireland, where they agree to land, they ran away to the North-West Coast of Scotland, and there were tost about by hard Storms of Wind for several Days, without knowing where they were, and in great Danger of perishing: AAt length they pushed the Vessel into a little creek, and went all ashore, leaving the Sloop at an Anchor for the next Comers.

The whole Company refresh’d themselves at a little Village about five Miles from the Place where they left the Sloop, and passed there for Ship-wreck’d Sailors, and no doubt might have travelled on without Suspicion; but the mad and riotous Manner of their Living on the Road, occasion’d their Journey to be cut short, as we shall observe presently.

Kennedy and another left them here, and traveling to one of the Sea-Ports, ship’d themselves for Ireland, and arrived there in Safety. Six or seven wisely withdrew from the rest, travelled at their leisure, and got to their much desired Port of London, without being disturbed or suspected, but the main Gang alarm’d the Country where-ever they came, drinking and roaring at such a Rate, that the People shut themselves up in their Houses, in some Places, not daring to venture out among so many made Fellows: In other Villages, they treated the whole Town, squandering their Money away, as if, like Aesop, they wanted to lighten their Burthens: This expensive manner of Living procured two of their drunken Straglers to be knocked on the Head, they being found murdered in the Road, and their Money taken from them: All the rest, to the Number of seventeen as they drew nigh to Edinburgh, were arrested and thrown into Goal, upon Suspicion, of they knew not what; However, the Magistrates were not long at a Loss for proper Accusations, for two of the Gang offering themselves for Evidences were accepted of; and the others were brought to a speedy Tryal, whereof nine were convicted and executed.

Kennedy having spent all his Money, came over from Ireland, and kept a common B—y-House on Deptford Road, and now and then, ’twas thought, made an Excursion abroad in the Way of his former Profession, till one of his Houshold W—s gave Information against him for a Robbery, for which he was committed to Bridewell; but because she would not do the Business by halves, she found out a Mate of a Ship that Kennedy had committed Pyracy upon, as he foolishly confess’d to her. This Mate, whose Name was Grant, paid Kennedy a Visit in Bridewell, and knowing him to be the Man, procured a Warrant, and had him committed to the Marshalsea Prison.

The Game that Kennedy had now to play was to turn Evidence himself; accordingly he gave a List of eight or ten of his Comrades; but not being acquainted with their Habitations, one only was taken, who, tho’ condemn’d, appeared to be a Man of a fair Character, was forc’d into their Service and took the first Opportunity to get from them, and therefore receiv’d a Pardon; but Walter Kennedy being a notorious Offender, was executed the 19th of July, 1721,* at Execution Dock.

The rest of the Pyrates who were left in the Ship Rover, staid not long behind, for they went ashore to one of the West-India Islands; what became of them afterwards, I can’t tell, but the Ship was found at Sea by a Sloop belonging to St. Christophers, and carried into that Island with only nine Negroes aboard.

Thus we see what a disastrous Fate ever attends the Wicked, and how rarely they escape the Punishment due to their Crimes, who, abandon’d to such a profligate Life, rob, spoil, and prey upon Mankind, contrary to the Light and Law of Nature, as well as the Law of God. It might have been hoped, that the Examples of these Deaths, would have been as Marks to the Remainder of this Gang, how to shun the Rocks their Companions had split on; that they would have surrendered to Mercy, or divided themselves, for ever from such Pursuits, as in the End they might be sure would subject them to the same Law and Punishment, which they must be conscious they now equally deserved; impending Law, which never let them sleep well, unless when drunk. But all the Use that was made of it here, was to commend the Justice of the Court, that condemn’d Kennedy, for he was a sad Dog (they said) and deserved the Fate he met with.

* The correct date is Friday, July 21 (per the then-current Julian calendar). Speculatively, the author might have crossed date references in a source surveying multiple executions, such as this Gazetteer which reports both Kennedy’s hanging, and some executions on July 19 in Dublin, and several other death sentences carried out besides those.

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1775: Not Richard Carpenter, strong swimmer

Add comment July 21st, 2019 Headsman

20th [July 1775]. Mr. Carpenter was taken by the night Patrole — upon examination he had swum over to Dorchester and back again, was tried here that day and sentence passed on him to be executed the next day, — his coffin bro’t into the Goal-yard, his halter [noose] brought and he dressed as criminals are before execution. Sentence was respited and a few days after was pardoned.

-from the diary of Boston selectman Timothy Newell

On or around this date in 1775, an immigrant wig-maker was faux-executed by the British garrisoned in a besieged Boston.

Richard Carpenter was not a figure of decisive importance to the onrushing American Revolution but the excellent and venerable blog Boston 1775 by J.L. Bell has made a wonderful little microhistory of the man by cobbling together his appearances across different sources from his first 1769 business advert until his 1781 death in a British prison hulk.

Carpenter swam across Boston harbor to escape to patriot lines, then swam back into Boston; the Brits who captured him naturally took him for an enemy agent who could have been hanged … but from multiple reports (sometimes with muddled dates) this fate was “merely” visibly prepared for him only to be abated shortly before execution. In Bell’s speculation, hostilities were still not yet fully matured and “neither side had the stomach for such fatal measures. The executions of Thomas Hickey and Nathan Hale were still several months away.”

For an extraordinary snapshot of this revolutionary everyman, click through the full series:

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1972: Misao Katagiri

Add comment July 21st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1972, Misao Katagiri hanged for a Tokyo gunfight he had perpetrated seven years earlier.

A gun fancying 18-year-old, Katagiri triggered a shootout by seizing some hostages in Shibuya, an event that thousands of Tokyo residents witnessed — including future spree shooter Norio Nagayama. Somewhat miraculously the death toll from Katagiri’s moment of madness numbered only one, a policeman. (Seventeen others were injured.) But the one was enough.

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1834: Catherine Snow, the last hanged in Newfoundland

1 comment July 21st, 2016 Headsman

The last woman executed on Newfoundland hanged on this date in 1834.

Historical novel about Catherine Snow.

Born Catherine Mandeville, Catherine was seven children into an audibly-to-the-neighbors combative marriage with John Snow when Snow disappeared in 1833, leaving behind only a splatter of blood on his Salmon Cove fishing stage.

Though the corpse was never found, the inference seemed clear enough — and the suspects were obvious: Catherine Snow, her cousin and lover Tobias Manderville, and a household servant named Arthur Spring. But whether the crown ever converted reasonable suspicion into proof sufficient to justly hang Catherine Snow was controversial then and remains so today.

Now, if all three did go in together on a murder plot, it was one which signally neglected adequate planning for the police investigation that was sure to follow.

Manderville and Spring were arrested on suspicion of murder, and they were not long in jail befoe Spring summoned the sheriff to announce that “we killed him; Manderville and myself, and Mrs. Snow” — shooting him dead and sinking him into the Atlantic with a grapnel. So, no code of silence here. Soon, Manderville and Spring were each accusing the other of being the guy who pulled the trigger when they went out to murder John Snow together. However the matter of the trigger finger might weigh in their afterlives, it was juridically irrelevant to their fate in Newfoundland.

Catherine Snow was supposed to have initiated this conspiracy and certainly her violent marriage would have given her ample motivation to do so — perhaps a far stronger motivation than the men had. The inference strengthened by Snow’s changing her story to police, and then by her fleeing her home when she heard about Spring’s jailhouse revelation.

But she could never really be shown to have been present at the murder nor proven to have clearly conspired in it, and to the discomfiture of all she insisted on maintaining her innocence all along. “There is no direct or positive evidence of her guilt,” attorney general James Simms admitted to the jury. (Source) “But I have a chain of circumstantial evidence to show her guilt.” The jury convicted her.

Manderville and Spring hanged in the provincial capital of St. John’s mere days after the trial in January of 1834.

Snow had a substantial reprieve: she was pregnant.

For six months Newfoundland was abuzz with the case while Catherine Snow came to term, bore her putative victim a posthumous son named Richard, and nursed him in his infancy. Was she really guilty? And guilty or no, could they bear to leave her months to bring new life into the world only to orphan it?

Catherine Snow did not offer the sizable crowd of onlookers any peace of mind when she mounted the scaffold on Duckworth Street on July 21, 1834. “I was a wretched woman, but I am as innocent of any participation in the crime of murder as an unborn child.”

CNN reporter Mary Snow is a descendant of Catherine Snow.

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1797: David McLane, an American traitor in Quebec

Add comment July 21st, 2015 Headsman

On only one occasion has the sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering been executed on the soil of the (eventual) United States.

But on this date in 1797, that terrible death was visited on American citizen David McLane in Quebec for attempting to topple British authority in that Canadian province.

David McLane, a Rhode Island merchant, was arrested in the suburbs of Quebec City in May of 1797 and accused of conniving with French diplomats to recover their former colony by dint of an invasion of raftborne pikemen across the St. Lawrence to support a planned French landing. This tome claims it to be Quebec’s first treason trial under British rule; the Attorney General prosecuting it thought it the first in the North American colonies since Nicholas Bayard‘s in 1701. (Cobbett’s State Trials has the entire trial transcript.)

The Quebecois spectators crowded the courts in dread of hearing the ancient English punishment pronounced. They were not disappointed.

Writing many decades later about an execution he had witnessed as a 10-year-old boy, Philippe Aubert de Gaspe recollected its grisly particulars — and the surprising (to the audience) fact that McLane was hanged to death before the emasculating-and-disembowelling portions of the sentence were visited on him.*

The government having little confidence in the loyalty which the French Canadians had proved during the war of 1775, wished to strike terror into the people, by the preparations for the execution. From the early morning was heard the noise of the pieces of aitillery that were being dragged to the place of execution outside St. John’s gate; and strong detachments of armed soldiers paraded the streets. It was a parody on the execution of the unfortunate Louis 16th and all to no purpose.

I saw McLane conducted to the place of execution, he was seated with his back to the horse on a wood-sleigh whose runners grated on the bare ground and stones. An axe and a block were on the front part of the conveyance. He looked at the spectators in a calm, confident manner, but without the least effrontery. He Was a tall and remarkably handsome man. I heard some women of the lower class exclaim, whilst deploring his sad fate:

Ah if it were only as in old times, that handsome man would not have to die! There would be plenty of girls who would be ready to marry him in order to save his life!

And even several days after the execution, I heard the same thing repeated.

This belief then universal among the lower class must, I suppose, have arisen from the fact that many French prisoners, condemned to the stake by the savages, had owed their lives to the Indian women who had then married them.

The sentence of McLane, however, was not executed in all its barbarity. I saw all with my own eyes, a big student named Boudrault, lifted me up from time to time in his arms, so that I might lose nothing of the horrible butchery. And Dr. Duvert was near us, he drew out his watch as soon as Ward, the hangman, threw down the ladder upon which McLane was stretched on his back, with the cord round his neck made fast to the beam of the gallows; thrown sideways by this abrupt movement the body struck the northern post of the gallows, and then remained stationary, with the exception of some slight oscillations.

“He is quite dead,” said. Dr. Duvert, when the hangman cut down the body at the end of about twenty-five minutes; “he is quite dead, and will not feel the indignities yet to be inflicted on him.” Every one was under the impression that the sentence would be executed in all its rigor, and that the disembowelled victim, still alive, would see his own entrails burnt but no; the poor unhappy man was really dead when Ward cut him open, took out his bowels and his heart which he burnt in a chafing dish, and cut off his head which he showed all bloody to the people.

The spectators who were nearest to the scaffold say that the hangman refused to proceed further with the execution after the hanging, alleging “that he was a hangman, but not a butcher,” and it was only after a good supply of guineas, that the sheriff succeeded in making him execute all the sentence, and that after each act of the fearful drama, his demands became more and more exorbitant. Certain it is that after that time Mr. Ward became quite a grand personage; never walking in the streets except with silk stockings, a three-cornered hat and a sword at his side. Two watches, one in his breeches pocket, and the other hanging from his neck by a silver chain, completed his toilet.

I cannot refrain, in parting from this doer of worthy deeds, from relating a fact which I have never been able to account for. When I arrived in Quebec in order to go to school, at about nine years of age, people seemed to regret a certain good hangman named Bob; he was a negro, whom every one praised. This Ethiopian ought to have inspired the same horror which is always felt towards men of his calling; but, on the contrary he visited at all the houses like the other citizens, enjoyed a name for unimpeachable honesty, ran errands, in fact was a universal favorite. As well as I can remember, there was something very touching in Bob’s history; he was a victim of circumstances, which compelled him to become a hangman in self-defence. He used to shed tears when he had to perform his terrible task. I do not know why my memory, generally so tenacious concerning all I saw and heard in my early childhood, fails me in the matter of explaining the reason of the universal sympathy extended to Bob.**

Now I return to McLane. Such a spectacle as I have described could not fail to make a great impression on a child of my age; hence it arises that I have thought a great deal about the fate of a man, whom many people looked upon as a victim to the politics of the day. I have tried to satisfy myself as to his greater or less guilt. I could say a great deal on this subject; but I will be silent. Suffice it to say, that if in these days a boasting Yankee were to proclaim to all comers, that with five hundred able men, armed with sticks hardened in the fire, it would be easy to take the town of Quebec, the young men would crowd round him to humor him and encourage him to talk, and then giving him lots of champagne to drink, would laugh heartily at him, without the government dreaming of having him hung, drawn and quartered.

It has been said that McLane was an emissary of the French government; I do not myself believe so; the French republic, at war with all the European powers, had too much work on its hands to concern itself about a little colony, containing some millions of acres of snow; to use an expression not very flattering to us.

The policy of our then rulers was crafty and hence cruel. Every where they thought they discovered emissaries of the French government. There were two Canadians banished from the country, their crime being that they had been to Martinique in, I believe, an American vessel, to transact some commercial business: they granted them the favour of allowing them to take with them their wives and children.

* Actual complete hung, drawn, quartered sentences were already passe in Great Britain.

** Colonial Quebec had several black executioners; the best-known was Martinican slave Mathieu Léveillé from 1733 to 1743. (There an interesting .pdf about Leveille and his world here.)

The identity of the affable “Bob” our narrator half-remembers is a bit of a mystery; he has been identified with George Burns, a black man who held the job in the early 1800s, but the timetable isn’t quite right relative to de Gaspe’s admittedly distant memories. (The diarist thinks Bob was the former executioner by the time concerned with our post.) Frank Mackey in Done with Slavery: The Black Fact in Montreal, 1760-1840 suggests we take the name at face value and identify this executioner as either or both of “Bob a Nigro man” jailed as a felon in 1781 (we don’t know that Bob a Nigro man became a hangman), or “Robert Lane the Hangman” who was charged with a crime in 1789 (we don’t know that Robert Lane the Hangman was African). Mackey suspects that these are one and the same man.

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1683: Lord Russell, Whig martyr

2 comments July 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1683 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London the great Whig parliamentarian William, Lord Russell was beheaded with a legendary want of dexterity by Jack Ketch.

The third son of the Earl (later Duke) of Bedford, Lord Russell emerged from a decade of comfortable obscurity in the Parliament’s back benches to become a leading exponent of the nascent Whigs* opposed to royal absolutism and to Catholicism — two heads of the same coin, for the Whigs, given that the heir presumptive James had controversially converted to Catholicism.

The national freakout from 1678 over an alleged “Popish Plot” to undo Old Blighty gave Russell his cause; his leadership of the resulting parliamentary bid to exclude James from royal succession made the gregarious Russell “the governing man in the House of Commons”.

Lord Russell was a man of great candour, and of general reputation; universally beloved and trusted; of a generous and obliging temper,” his friend Gilbert Burnet recorded of our man. “He had given such proofs of an undaunted courage and of an unshaken firmness, that I never knew any man have so entire a credit in the nation as he had.”

Russell was, Burnet allowed, “a slow man, and of little discourse, but he had a true judgment, when he considered things at his own leisure: his understanding was not defective; but his virtues were so eminent, that they would have more than balanced real defects, if any had been found in the other.”

Chief among those virtues was his wholehearted sincerity for his cause — a passion the source of both his renown, and his destruction. Russell was heard to espouse the view that James ought not merely be excluded from succession, but executed like his father.

Matters never quite approached that point, but the crisis provoked by the Exclusion Bill firebrands led King Charles II to dissolve parliament in 1681, depriving the Whigs of their legal perch. In the ensuing years politics played out not as legislation but conspiracy, and the crown’s rather more successful harassment of same: many of the chief Whig actors were driven offstage to scaffolds, dungeons, or continental exile.

The half-dozen most eminent Whigs remaining — to whom, besides Lord Russell, we number the king’s illegitimate son Monmouth, the Earl of Essex, Baron Howard of Escrick,** Algernon Sidney, and John Hampden† — formed a sort of informal Council of Six who met secretly to consider the bad options available to the fractured Whig movement. Some section of the wider Whig network in which this Council operated turned eventually to considering the most desperate of measures.

Their Rye House Plot schemed to waylay and assassinate the royal person near a fortified manor handily on the king’s route back to London from the Newmarket races. It was owned then by a radical former soldier of Cromwell‘s New Model Army.

It has been long debated to what extent any of the top Whigs knew of or actively participated in this Guy Fawkesian plot, or its complement, a projected armed rising of the sort that Monmouth would indeed mount in 1685. One school of thought is that the Tories seized it as an expedient to eviscerate the remaining Whig leadership by conflating the entire movement with a regicidal scheme; another is that the Whig insistence upon its martyrs’ innocence — and Lord Russell is the chief man in this pantheon — has amounted to a fantastic propaganda coup.‡

In June 1683, a salter who was in on the Rye House planning got a cold sweat and informed on the Whigs. This backstab earned a royal pardon for himself, and started a familiar policing sequence of incriminated conspirators turning crown’s evidence and informing in their turn on the next part of the network.

Many of the Whigs fled to the Netherlands, received there by the House of Orange which would seat itself on the English throne inside of six years.

Lord Russell, however, refused to fly. He landed in the Tower of London by the end of the month, to face trial as a traitor on the evidence of his association with other Whigs and his entertaining the plan of raising an armed revolt. (He would have been joined in the dock by Essex, but that worthy cut his own throat in the Tower.) The judge’s summation to the jury even underscored that “You have not Evidence in the Case as there was [in other Rye House cases] against the Conspirators to kill the King at the Rye. There was a direct Evidence of a Consult to kill the King, that is not given you in this Case: This is an Act of contriving Rebellion, and an Insurrection within the Kingdom, and to seize his Guards, which is urged an Evidence, and surely is in itself an Evidence, to seize and destroy the King.”

Lord Russell’s case shifted around the fringes of actual innocence — those plans for Insurrection within the Kingdom, he said, occurred sometimes at meetings he happened to attend but only off on the side, or without Lord Russell’s own involvement or support. (Speaking from the scaffold, he would several times insist that his acts were at worst misprision of treason, which was no longer a capital crime at this point.)

Against this the crown produced Lord Howard, a cravenly interested party to be sure, who saved his own skin by testifying that the six-headed cabal was down to planning the specifics of the places where a rebellion might best be stirred up, the procurements of arms and bankroll that would be necessary to same, and how to draw Scotland into the fray as an ally. “Every one knows my Lord Russell is a Person of great Judgment, and not very lavish in Discourse,” Howard allowed on the point of Russell’s active assent to the plans. “We did not put it to the Vote, but it went without Contradiction, and I took it that all there gave their Consent.”

David Hume would observe in his History of Great Britain that Russell’s “present but not part of it” parsing didn’t make for a very compelling story. “Russell’s crime fell plainly under the statute … his defence was very feeble.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of an 1825 painting of Lord Russell’s trial, commissioned of George Hayter by Lord Russell’s admiring kinsman John Russell, Duke of Bedford. John Russell also wrote a biography of his famous ancestor. The unbroken succession of Dukes of Bedford from William Russell’s father continues to the present day; the current Duke of Bedford, 15th of that line, is one of Britain’s richest men.

Conscious of the great pulpit his scaffold would offer, Lord Russell drafted with the aid of his wife a last statement vindicating his own person and the Whig cause that flew into print before the onlookers at Lincoln’s Inn Fields were dipping their handkerchiefs into his martyrs’ blood.

Nor did I ever pretend to a great readiness in speaking: I wish those gentlemen of the law who have it, would make more conscience int he use of it, and not run men down by strains and fetches, impose on easy and willing juries, to the ruin of innocent men: For to kill by forms and subtilties of law, is the worst sort of murder …

I never had any design against the king’s life, or the life of any man whatsoever; so I never was in any contrivance of altering the government. What the heats, wickedness, passions, and vanities of other men have occasioned, I ought not to be answerable for; nor could I repress them, though I now suffer for them.

These notices drew furious confutations from Tory pamphleteers aghast at the face these traitors had to forswear their malice against King Charles; a battle of broadsides to control the historical narrative ensued, and was resolved in the Whigs’ favor by the imminent conquest of power by the aforementioned House of Orange. The Whig-aligned William and Mary reversed Lord Russell’s attainder in 1689 — but that’s never stood in the way of historians’ debates.

In a much lower historical register, Lord Russell’s execution was egregiously bungled by the London headsman Jack Ketch, who had to bash repeatedly at the man’s neck before he could remove it from the shoulders. It is largely from this event that Ketch derives his lasting reputation as an incompetent and/or sadistic butcher, mutually reinforcing with Russell’s martyr status.

Ketch would later claim in a published “Apologie” issued against “those grievous Obloquies and Invectives that have been thrown upon me for not Severing my Lords Head from his Body at one blow” that his prey

died with more Galantry than Discresion, and did not dispose him for receiving of the fatal Stroke in such a posture as was most suitable, for whereas he should have put his hands before his Breast, or else behind him, he spread them out before him, nor would he be persuaded to give any Signal or pull his Cap over his eyes, which might possibly be the Occasion that discovering the Blow, he somewhat heav’d his Body

and besides that Ketch “receav’d some Interruption just as I was taking Aim, and going to give the Blow.” How would you like it if someone came to your workplace and did that?

The damage to Ketch’s reputation was already done. Two years later, en route to the block for a subsequent failed bid to topple the Stuarts, the Duke of Monmouth tipped Ketch with the scornful charge not to “hack me as you did my Lord Russell.” When Ketch botched that execution too, he was nearly lynched — but escaped the scaffold to live on in Punch and Judy and in the English tongue as the definitive lowlife executioner.

* Short for “Whiggamores”, who were Covenanter rebels in the 1640s. “Tories”, by contrast, took their name from Irish Catholic outlaws: each party became known by the slur its foes attached to it.

** Yes, another one of those Howards: this Howard’s great-grandfather lost his head for the Ridolfi intrigue.

† Hampden survived the suppression of Whig intrigues long enough to coin the term “Glorious Revolution” when the Stuarts were finally overthrownJournal of British Studies, January 1985 for a skeptical-of-Russell reading of the evidence. “The government did not concoct the plot; it was frightened by the revelations, whatever use it made of them. There is no doubt that proposals for an insurrection of some kind were discussed; Russell’s impetuosity and extremism make it more likely than not that he was an active party to these discussions. What is in doubt, since nothing came of the discussions, is how far the parties had gone in developing a concrete plan for a rising.”

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356 BCE: Herostratus burns the Temple of Artemis

3 comments July 21st, 2013 Headsman

By the ancient world’s tradition, it was on July 21, 356 — the night of Alexander the Great‘s birth* — that a theretofore forgettable man set fire to the wooden rafters of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

Situated on the Hellenized coast of Asia Minor, near present-day Selcuk, Turkey, Ephesus was one of the great cities of the Mediterranean. It counted Artemis (Diana) its patron deity, and gloried in a jaw-dropping marble temple, bankrolled two centuries before by the Lydian king Croesus, that would have nearly covered a modern football pitch. Ephesians took their Artemis seriously: 400-plus years later, St. Paul would barely escape lynching at the hands of enraged Artemis devotees when he proselytized there.

What a horror it must have been for 4th century BCE Ephesians to awake this day to the destruction of their city’s own sacred pride.

Even more shockingly, the temple’s destroyer made no effort to conceal himself. He openly boasted of his act, and of the horrifying reason for it: merely to exalt his obscure name with the luster of infamy.

Ephesus not only put this man to death, but passed a damnatio memoriae upon him, forbidding any mention of his name, in order to deny him his victory.

But the the historian Theopompus, who was not Ephesian, cheated the city of its sentence by recording it: Herostratus. It’s a word that has become a metonym in many languages and an allegory in many books for any villain impelled to his wickedness by the allure of celebrity.

We have no specific date for Herostratus’s execution. But we do have his last tortured victory. We do have his name.

The Ephesians in time rebuilt the magnificent temple, bigger and more awe-inspiring than before. It stood some 600 years more until the Goths sacked it in 268 AD, long enough to secure its place among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus,” wrote Antipater of Sidon of the reconstructed, post-Herostratus temple. “But when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.'”


The Temple of Artemis today: a weedy rubble. (cc) image from LWY.

* Plutarch remarked that Artemis was too distracted delivering the conqueror into the world to protect her shrine.

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1798: Anthony Perry and Mogue Kearns, Protestant and Catholic

Add comment July 21st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1798,* two Irish rebels — a Catholic and a Protestant — were hanged side by side at Blundell Hill, Edenderry for their parts in that year’s Irish Rebellion.

Their biographies were a study in contrast: Anthony Perry, “a Protestant gentleman of independent fortune, liberal education, and benevolent mind”; Mogue Kearns, the brooding and ordained stock of Catholic farmers. Legend has it that Kearns even survived a mob lynching in Paris during the French Revolution.**

If so, it didn’t dampen his revolutionary ardor.

The two men were major movers in the Wexford Rebellion, one of the more successful and (to the British) surprising centers of insurrection in 1798. Perry, still half-broken by British torture,† returned to the field to help rout the Brits at the Battle of Tuberneering, obtaining the nickname “the Screeching General” for his barbaric vociferations in battle.

But after this successful ambush, the United Irishmen were driven from pillar to post — a failed attack on Arklow followed by the rebels’ defeat at their Vinegar Hill encampment.

A few weeks later, the multiconfessional leaders were captured, and quickly hanged at Edenderry, with “benefit” only of a summary court-martial.

Perry was extremely communicative, and while in custody, both before and after trial, gratified the enquiries of every person who spoke to him, and made such a favourable impression, that many regretted his fate …

Kearns was exactly the reverse of his companion — he was silent and sulk, and seldom spoke, save to upbraid Perry for his candid acknowledgments … [he had] an hypocritical and malignant heart, filled with gloomy and ferocious passions — He seemed rather to be an instrument of Hell, than a minister of Heaven, for his mind was perpetually brooding over sanguinary schemes and plans of rapines, while he assumed the sacred vestments of a servant of Christ!

Their capture marked the final collapse of Wexford’s rebellious “republic”; by September of that same year, all Irish disturbances had been definitively, and bloodily, quelled.

* Some sources have July 12, an apparent transposition of the correct date; both men appear to have skirmished in Clonard on July 11 and again at Knightstown Bog on July 14, and only captured thereafter, followed by several days’ captivity before hanging.

** “The history of the Priest is somewhat extraordinary — he had actually been hanged in Paris, during the reign of Robespierre, but being a large heavy man, the lamp-iron from which he was suspended, gave way, till his toes reached the ground — in this state he was cut down by a physician, who had known him, brought him to his house, and recovered him.”

† Perry’s troops happened to capture two men involved in Perry’s torture in early June. He had his ex-tormenters executed.

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1915: Private Herbert Burden, memorial model

Add comment July 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1915, Private Herbert Burden was shot for desertion — at age 17, still too young to even legally enlist in the Northumberland Fusilliers he’d deserted from.

This teenager rashly joined up at the outbreak of hostilities, fudging his age up by two years to qualify. It’s more than likely that he, and his real age, were known to the recruiters who signed him up. (He wasn’t the only child soldier in that war.)

A few months on into this less-noble-than-advertised perdition, with friends and comrades becoming burger meat all around him at the dreadful Battle of Bellewaarde Ridge,* the kid panicked and ran.

Burden is the “model” for the memorial statue a later, more soft-hearted British Empire put up in 2001 commemorating 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers shot during the first World War for desertion and cowardice.

* Here’s a book about an Irish battalion that was nearly annihilated in the battle.

Shot at Dawn memorial/Herbert Burden likeness photo (cc) Noisette.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,France,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1986: Vice-President Paulo Correia and five others

1 comment July 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1986, six people were executed by firing squad for attempting a coup in the West African state of Guinea-Bissau.

Correia, an ethnic Balanta war hero, was an African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) activist from the days of Portuguese colonial control — which only ended in 1974.

He was among the revolutionary council that governed the country after Joao Bernardo (Nino) Vieira‘s 1980 coup d’etat.*

This latter strongman was finally assassinated in 2009, but in the interim he was one of the world’s most plotted-against heads of state — in no small part because he came from a tiny ethnic group, and had a fraught relationship with military brass from the plurality (but not majority) Balanta. Vieira needed Balanta officers like Correia to keep the army on his team. Balanta officers like Correia had to wonder whether they needed Vieira.

Correia had perhaps been involved in a 1982 coup attempt that got a tank commander executed, but such was the danger to Vieira of alienating the Balanta (and Correia’s personal following in the military) that rather than face prosecution, he was simply shifted from Minister of the Armed Forces to the less martial post of Minister of Rural Development in the aftermath. Two years later, still trying to keep his treacherous officer inside the tent pissing out, Vieira took him on as Vice-President.

Despite these relative concessions, however, neither Correia nor his fellow military men were thwarted in their drive to augment their power, and in November I985 they planned to overthrow the regime and to install Correia as President and [Balanta lawyer] Viriato Pan as Vice-President. Correia and about one dozen Balanta were immediately arrested before their coup could be implemented; a total of 53 accused conspirators were later convicted, including Correia and Pan, who were both executed along with four others in July 1986.**

“This event,” reports Human Rights Library, “is vividly remembered in Bissau, where rumor has it that Correia’s eyes were gouged out before he was shot. True or not, this belief is clear evidence of the gruesome reputation of the security forces.”

* Just a captain at the time of the 1980 coup, Correia was a colonel at the time of his execution.

** Joshua B. Forrest, “Guinea-Bissau since Independence: A Decade of Domestic Power Struggles,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, March 1987.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guinea-Bissau,History,Mass Executions,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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