2010: Michel Germaneau, AQIM hostage

2 comments July 24th, 2017 Headsman

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) executed its hostage French national Michel Germaneau on this date in 2010, in the Saharan state of Mauritania.

An engineer who turned 69 years old in captivity, Germaneau was abducted that April while in Niger doing humanitarian aid. AQIM attempted to exchange him for French-held terrorists, including Rachid Ramda, but the militants shot him out of hand when a joint French-Mauritanian raid attempted to free him but stormed the wrong al Qaeda camp.

Germaneau’s body has never been found.

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1653: Six beheaded and one hanged for the Swiss Peasant War

4 comments July 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1653, seven ringleaders of Switzerland’s greatest peasant revolt were executed in Basel.


Six were decapitated (like the foreground) and one hanged (find the triangular gallows in the background).

Not widely known now outside of Switzerland, the peasant war of 1653 shook the Swiss city-states so profoundly that it was described in its own time as a revolution.

Like most peasant rebellions, it was triggered by the economy; a recovery of peacable harvests after the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 had staggered Swiss peasants who had grown accustomed to selling their produce abroad at a premium. When they were pressed even harder by taxes and currency devaluations inflicted by city-states with their own budget problems, they found their breaking-point.

In February 1653, peasants of the Entlebuch Valley gathered in an illegal assembly and decided to stop tax payments to Lucern until they got some concessions.

To the chagrin of urban grandees, Entlebuch’s refusal soon began garnering sympathetic imitations among its neighbors and peasant resistance spread across the whole north, spanning the put-upon rural dominions of four cities: Lucern, Bern, Basel, and Solothurn.


(cc) image by Lupo.

Tense negotiations continued into April, but Lucern’s concessions were undone by its refusal to offer a blanket amnesty that would also cover the rebellion’s leaders. That May, with the cities still powerless to control affairs, the disaffected peasants throughout the region united in the League of Huttwil — named for the little town where they met. In this cross-confessional compact, Catholic and Protestant peasants made common purpose and declared themselves a sovereignty apart from the cantons. Then, the army they had raised from their number marched on both Lucern and Bern simultaneously, the threatened sieges respectively led by Christian Schybi and Niklaus Leuenberger. Bern was so unprepared for this turn of events that it had to capitulate to the peasantry’s demands, which arrangement led Lucern also to conclude a truce.

In so doing the cities had to capitulate to the peasantry’s economic demands. Had this state of affairs somehow stood, it would have forced a rewrite in the relationship between city and country throughout the Swiss confederation.

And for just that reason, the affected cities as well as nearby Zurich were raising armies to undo the nascent revolution. Within days, troops from Zurich had dealt the peasant force a crushing defeat at the Battle of Wohlenschwil, then united with a Bernese column to conclusively shatter the rebellion. Before June was out, all of Entlebuch Valley stood pacified and the rebellion’s leaders lay in dungeons. To the peasantry’s economic burdens was added a bitter levy to fund the war that had smashed them.

Several dozen peasants were executed in the ensuing weeks, most aggressively by the canton of Bern — whence derives today’s illustration.

Notwithstandng such vengeance, The Swiss were wise enough to wield the carrot along with the stick. Even as the cities re-established their political control of the countryside, they took care in the coming years to use a lighter touch in governing the peasantry for fear of stoking new disturbances; arguably, the memory and the threat of the peasant war might have checked the potential development of absolutism in Switzerland.

How’s your German? Two academic books on the Swiss Peasant War

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1722: Marie-Jeanne Roger, “la Grande-Jeanneton”

Add comment July 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1722, Cartouche’s redoubtable lover “Big Jenny” was executed on Paris’s Place de Greve.

As befits a thief intrepid enough to grace the execution playing cards, the great French outlaw Cartouche boasted a veritable harem of mistresses whose offices were no less valuable for their contributions to Cartouche’s criminal enterprises: “‘La Catin,’ ‘La Bel-Air,’ ‘La Galette,’ ‘La Petite Poulailliere,’ ‘La Mion,’ ‘La Belle-Laitiere,’ ‘Margot-Monsieur,’ ‘La Religieuse,’ ‘La Bonne,’ ‘La Blanche,’ “Tape-dru,’ &c. &c. But far beyond them all stands out, in rich relief, the name of that most celebrated, most accomplished, most devoted of all the (titular) wives of Cartouche — Big Jenny!” (Source)

Under the guise of an innocent fruit-pedlar, Marie-Jeanne Roger, alias La Grande-Jeanneton “flitt[ed] about from place to place, spying, plotting, drinking, fighting, robbing, and being robbed — the terror and admiration (according to the spectator’s point of view) of every one that approached her.” And she and the robber prince had by accounts that might admittedly be colored by sentimental projection a passionate romance. (Parlement’s published condemnation traduces her as a “debauched woman, concubine” of a number of disreputable characters. Our doomed principal tartly replied that Paris would halve her vices if only greedy innkeepers were not so eager to play procurer.)

La Grande-Jeanneton‘s well-known dalliance with Cartouche made her a prime target after authorities started rolling up that brigand’s gang, and they were mean enough to deny her request to go to the scaffold with her man.

Her sex did not spare her the horrible torture of the Brodequin; posterity has not seen fit to blame her overmuch for succumbing to the leg-crusher to the extent of yielding 52 names, especially since she at least salvaged the opportunity to embarrass many distinguished merchants.

Depuis un an logeait, vers le Palais-Royal,
Une fille de bien qui se gouvernait mal.
Cartouche fréquentait cette tendre poulette;
Salope, s’il en fut, d’ailleurs assez bien faite.
Oeil fripon, petit nez retroussé, teint fleuri,
Friande d’un amant, bien plus que d’un mari,
Fourbe au dernier degré, mutine jusqu’à battre,
Son coeur fut captivé par ce jeune tendron,
Que chacun appelait ta Grande Jeanneton.

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2008: Christopher Scott Emmett, jocund

2 comments July 24th, 2014 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“Tell my family and friends I love them, tell the governor he just lost my vote. Y’all hurry this along, I’m dying to get out of here.”

— Christopher Scott Emmett, convicted of murder, lethal injection, Virginia.
Executed July 24, 2008

The Washington Post reported: “Emmett fatally beat his roofing company co-worker, John F. Langley, with a brass lamp in a Danville, Va., motel room in 2001. He then stole Langley’s money to buy crack.” He later lost an appeal in Virginia claiming that the state’s lethal injection protocol constituted “cruel and unusual” punishment.

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1471: Dmitry Isakevich Boretsky, son of Marfa Boretskaya

Add comment July 24th, 2013 Headsman

Muscovy’s long march to supremacy among the early Russian polities reached a decisive turn on 14 July 1471 when it defeated longtime rival Novgorod at the Battle of Shelon.

Ten days after that defeat, Novgorod’s commander Dmitry Isakevich Boretsky was put to death by the will of Ivan III.

Novgorod the Great had been losing ground to its neighbor for generations. Matters came in the end to the “Mayoress” Marfa Boretskaya, the widow of Novgorod’s former mayor (posadnik) Isaac Boretsky; she emerged in the 1460s as the charismatic leader of the hardline anti-Muscovite types.

Struggling to find a political foothold upon which to resist burgeoning Moscow, Marfa Boretskaya intrigued with the friendly — and similarly Muscophobic — Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This drew Ivan III into what would prove to be the decisive military showdown between these venerable cities.

Marfa’s son Dmitry, our date’s unfortunate executed, would have stood to garner the glory of it had he prevailed.

He didn’t.


Bummer: Klavdy Lebedev‘s 1889 panorama of Marfa Boretskaya surveying the destruction of Novgorod.

Marfa Boretskaya was not put to death herself, but taken prisoner to Moscow upon Novgorod’s formal annexation in 1478 and socked away in a convent.

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1735: Patience Boston, converted

Add comment July 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1735, a truculent indentured servant with a name like a primetime drama was hanged in York, Maine (at that time part of the Massachusetts colony), for killing her master’s grandson.

Patience Boston had cut a hard-partying, hard-drinking swath from her teen years to her execution at age 23, leading a succession of masters to dump her contract on whomever would take it. Early American Crime tracks her rowdy career, “mad and furious in my Drink, speaking dreadful Words, and wishing bad Wishes to my self and others” through a succession of fights, adulteries, dead infants (which she didn’t kill), a nonexistent infant (which she claimed to have killed).

All this draws upon a lengthy “Faithful Narrative of the Wicked Life and Remarkable Conversion of Patience Boston alias Samson” published three years after the woman’s death by her ministers Samuel and Joseph Moody (more on them in a bit). In it, “Patience” relates in a first-person voice* the real murder she finally did commit.

From some groundless Prejudice which I had taken against my Master, to whom I was sold by Mr. Bailey, I did last Fall bind my self by a wicked Oath that I would kill that Child, though I seem’d to love him, and he me; which is an Aggravation of my bloody Cruelty to him. Having solemnly sworn that I would be the Death of the Child, I was so far from repenting of it, that I thought I was obliged to fulfil it. And I often renewed my Resolution when I had been in Drink, and made my Master angry, that to be revenged on him, I might Murder his Grand-Child, of which I thought he was very fond, having bro’t him up from his Infancy. I would have killed my Master himself, if I could have done it; and had Thoughts of putting Poison into his Victuals, if I could have got any. But when the Time came for me to be left under the prevailing Power of Satan’s Temptations; I took the Opportunity of my Master and Mistress being from Home, and both his Sons also abroad; that the Child and I were left alone. The Evening before I had been contriving to burn the Barn, but was prevented: I had also once before drawn the Child into the Woods with me, designing to knock him on the Head, and got a great Stick for the same Purpose; but as I was going to lift it up, I fell a trembling, from a sense of God’s Eye upon me; so that I had not Power to strike. — But now, as I was going to say, when the Time was come to fill up the Measure of my Iniquity; I went to the Well and threw the Pole in, that I might have an Excuse to draw the Boy to the Well, which having done, I asked his Help to get up the Pole, that I might push him in, which having done, I took a longer Pole, and thrust him down under the Water, till he was drowned. When I saw he was dead, I lifted up my Hands with my Eyes towards Heaven, speaking after this Manner, Now am I guilty of Murder indeed; though formerly I accused my self falsly, yet now has God left me &c. And it seemed as if the Ground where I went was cursed for my sake, and I thought God would not suffer me to escape his righteous Vengeance. I went forthwith, and informed the Authority, and when the jury sat on the Body, I was ordered to touch it: This terrified me, lest the Blood should come forth, to be a Witness against me; and I then resolved in my Heart, that I would be a Witness against my self, and never deny my Guilt; so I tho’t God would not suffer the Child to bleed; then I laid my Hand on it’s Face, but no Blood appeared. Yet after this, I would fain have covered my Sin in Part, as if the Child had of himself fallen into the Well, and I was tempted to thrust him down under the Water. After the Jury had bro’t in wilful Murder, I was sent to Prison, but got Drunk by the Way, having little Sense of my dreadful Case; yet my Temptation in Part was to drink that I might forget my Sorrow.

Patience would need her namesake virtue, since she had the best part of a year to wait before the Supreme Court could gavel in a session to hear her case — a case where she would plead guilty and embrace the certain sentence.

In the meantime, we get to the real meat of the Moody pamphlet: our murderess’ conversion.

Allowing even for the interlocution of her reverend ministers, it presents a moving portrait of a genuine spiritual experience during the “Great Awakening” of religious revival. The narrative’s latter half tracks the doomed woman’s refinements of conscience, of fear, of religious comfort and joy in God — all as she grapples with her conduct and her fate.** “How are we condemned by the Covenant of Works,” Patience remarks, “and relieved by the Covenant of Grace.”


Now … as for this clan Moody that supplies our day’s post.

Samuel Moody, the father, had nudged young Joseph into the ministry business in York. Both men appear to have ministered to Patience Boston.

In 1738, the same time they were readying all this text about “rejoyc[ing], though with trembling” the younger Moody began a bizarre practice: he took to shrouding his face with a handkerchief.

In boring reality, this seems to have been occasioned by a breakdown caused by the sudden death of his wife in childbirth, a breakdown from which Moody recovered over the succeeding months.

In the much spicier legendary embellishment that developed, however, Moody was thought to have kept this veil for the balance of his life: he would present himself in this state, it is said, to his own congregation, turning his back on the multitude so that he could lift the veil to read a sermon, and likewise sitting face to corner when he should eat in public.

In this version, Moody is supposed to have confessed on his deathbed to having shrunk from men in his own spiritual torment over having accidentally killed a childhood friend while hunting, a killing that had been popularly ascribed to Indians and therefore unpunished save by the scourge of conscience. Nathaniel Hawthorne mined this irresistible New England folklore for his short story “The Minister’s Veil”.

“Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”

-Hawthorne’s “Reverend Hooper”

* “It must be confessed,” the Moodies gamely preface their text, “that it could not be exactly taken in her own Way of expressing her self” so long after her death. But they gave it their best shot, and “here is nothing false or feigned.”

** The Faithful Narrative takes special note of the impression made on our subject by “the Case of the Prisoners at Boston, especially when the Day came for their Execution”. Although the text here refers to “three Malefactors”, there’s no 1734-1735 triple execution recorded in the Espy files; I believe the event intended here is the October 1734 double hanging of Matthew Cushing and John Ormsby.

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1588: Nicholas Garlick, Robert Ludlam, and Richard Simpson

Add comment July 24th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1588, three Catholic priests were hanged, drawn, and quartered at St. Mary’s Bridge in Derbyshire.

Though we find Catholic proselytizers at risk of their lives throughout the Elizabethan period, at few moments was the profession of the Old Faith more fraught than during the summer of 1588.

Elizabeth’s Catholic rival Mary, Queen of Scots had lost her head just the year before, having been the focal point of one too many Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth. England’s support for Dutch Protestants rebelling against Spain had drawn the Spanish Armada, a feared invasion force even at this moment beginning to engage the English navy a couple of weeks ahead of its ultimate defeat. Even the French Wars of Religion were running white-hot, with an ultra-Catholic pogrom in Paris that spring.

If ever the wrong religion constituted treason, this was the time.

This also made it a great moment for zealous local authorities to crack down on suspected Catholics. When that happened in Derbyshire, a raid of a recusant‘s property (prompted by a tip from the target’s nephew) turned up two Popish clerics living in the lovely medieval manor house on-site, Padley Chapel.


Padley Chapel. (cc) image from kev747.

Fathers Nicholas Garlick and Robert Ludlam were condemned within days to a traitor’s death for endeavoring to “seduce” the Queen’s subjects to Catholicism.* Their few hours left in this vale of tears were sufficient to firm the resolve of a wavering fellow-priest, Richard Simpson, who joined Garlick and Ludlam on the scaffold.

A hagiography of these men — they have all since been beatified — notes that the less steely Simpson “suffered with great constancy, though not with such (remarkable) signs of joy and alacrity as the other two.” But considering he was out there getting disemboweled for God and you’re just sitting around reading some blog, you probably ought to cut him a little slack.

When Garlick did the ladder kiss,
And Sympson after hie,
Methought that there St. Andrew was
Desirous for to die.

When Ludlam lookèd smilingly,
And joyful did remain,
It seemed St. Stephen was standing by,
For to be stoned again.

And what if Sympson seemed to yield,
For doubt and dread to die;
He rose again, and won the field
And died most constantly.

His watching, fasting, shirt of hair;
His speech, his death, and all,
Do record give, do witness bear,
He wailed his former fall.

There are still pilgrimages made in honor of the “Padley Martyrs” every year on the anniversary of the priests’ arrest, July 12.

* Garlick, at least, had been a specific target of priest-hunters for some time; he appears in reports to Francis Walsingham‘s spy network, where he is once accursed as “the demonite,” presumably for taking part in some well-publicized exorcisms in 1585-1586. (These exorcisms seem to be reflected in Shakespeare’s King Lear.) There’s a very large pdf touching the “demonite” reference: a scan of the public-domain 19th century tome The Troubles of our Catholic Forefathers.

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1892: Ruggles brothers lynched

July 24th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1892, highway robbers John and Charles Ruggles were shanghaied from a Redding, Calif. jail and lynched.


John and Charles Ruggles, lynched in Redding, Calif.

These two charmers knocked over the Redding & Weaverville stage on May 14, 1892, killing the coach’s guard when he fired back.

Charles Ruggles was wounded in the exchange and soon captured, but John Ruggles got away with the lockbox.

With a price on his head, John secreted the stolen loot somewhere and was not arrested until June 19.

Reunited in jail, the handsome outlaws were evidently a big hit with the ladies. As the Los Angeles Times reported on July 25, 1892,

The recent sentimental attitude of a number of women toward the prisoners as well as the line of defense adopted by their counsel, who has been evidently endeavoring to implicate Messenger [Amos “Buck”] Montgomery [the dead victim] as a party to the crime, had been denounced by a number of persons in the county and it is believed the lynching was due to those causes.

When the vigilantes came for him, John tried to buy the boys’ way out of trouble — or at least, buy Charley’s way out — by offering to reveal the location of his treasure.

The mob wasn’t interested, and the cache has never been found since. On the other hand …

The lynching of a brace of stage-robbers at Redding a few nights ago was not at all in accordance with law and order; but that it will have a discouraging effect on the “hold-up” industry, there is little question. It will be perfectly safe to indulge in stage rides in Shasta county, no doubt, for some time to come.

Los Angeles Times, July 27, 1892

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1942: Joan Peiro i Belis, Catalan anarchist

2 comments July 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1942, anarchist, trade unionist and anti-fascist Joan Peiro was shot with six others at Paterna, Spain.

Joan (or Juan) Peiro (English Wikipedia page | Spanish) was a Barcelona glassworker of anarcho-syndicalist politics.

As Secretary General of the Confederacion National del Trabajo (CNT) and editor of the anarchist rag Solidaridad Obrera, Peiro mixed it up in the rough-and-tumble interwar political scene, eventually becoming Minister of Industry for Republican Spain — an untoward position to more orthodox anarchists.

When the Spanish Republic lost the Civil War, Peiro fled to France, where he was nabbed and extradited.

The nationalist general Emilio Mola had said before the war’s conclusion,

Whoever is, openly or secretly, a supporter of the Popular Front, must be shot … we must sow terror … eliminating without scruple or hesitation those who do not think as we do. (Source)

In practice, reprisals weren’t that vicious (maybe because Mola himself had died in a plane crash and wasn’t managing them) — but the leadership and intelligentsia who could rally an anti-Franco political bloc were purged ruthlessly.

The imprisoned Peiro was offered — repeatedly — a sellout package to oversee Franco’s house unions, and he repeatedly refused.

He earned martyrdom for his troubles, and after Franco’s death re-entered the public sphere as the sort of bloke to name streets after. (As an anti-Stalinist, Peiro had had all the right enemies.)


Placa Joan Peiro, a major square in Barcelona.

The Spanish judiciary, however, has thus far declined (Spanish link) to overturn his sentence.

Peiro is saluted in Catalan here.

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1794: Not Thomas Paine

11 comments July 24th, 2008 Headsman

An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself. -Thomas Paine

On this date in 1794, revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine got a date with the guillotine when the public prosecutor Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville put his name on the list for the next batch of heads.

Paine — “Mad Tom” to foes of his fire-eating opposition to despotic church and crown — is best-known for his part in the American Revolution; his pamphlet “Common Sense” made an incendiary and influential case for revolution.

More so than any other high-profile compatriot in the cause of American independence, Paine took to heart the age’s revolutionary spirit, the fine principles of solidarity, the zeal to put life and fortune at liberty’s service.

Not content to retire to the estate granted him for his services to the fledgling United States of America — Paine coined that name, by the way — the hellraiser sailed for the Old World to help overthrow the sclerotic Bourbon despotism whose geopolitically-minded aid* had had such material effect for American liberty.

Paine served in France’s National Convention, one of the highest-profile and least-impeachable members of that body as well as one of only two foreigners. These distinctions offered him some safety in the Revolution’s internecine tempests — some, but not quite enough. He drew the ire of the Montagnards by opposing the execution of Louis XVI.

The terrible gears of mass fratricide which apparently doomed Paine as the Terror unfolded turned out to be his refuge, and that of three fortunate fellows with him. Had he gone to the scaffold as a single high-profile traitor, there would have been no mistake about it; now, at the height of the Terror, jailers marked dozens for death by the fallible expedient of chalking their cell doors. If the guillotine made mass execution feasible, the bureaucratic apparatus to manage it was still catching up.

Here’s the version of a Paine’s preservation that he himself later related — albeit second-hand, since he was suffering this day “a violent fever which had nearly terminated my existence” and “was not in a condition to be removed, or to know of what was passing, or of what had passed, for more than a month. It makes a blank in my remembrance of life. The first thing I was informed of was the fall of Robespierre.”

[T]he manner in which I escaped that fate is curious, and has all the appearance of accident.

The room in which I was lodged was on the ground floor, and one of a long range of rooms under a gallery, and the door of it opened outward and flat against the wall; so that when it was open the inside of the door appeared outward, and the contrary when it was shut. I had three comrades, fellow-prisoners with me, Joseph Vanhuile, of Bruges, since president of the municipality of that town, Michael Robins, and Bastini, of Louvain.

When persons by scores and hundreds were to be taken out of prison for the guillotine, it was always done in the night, and those who performed that office had a private mark or signal by which they, knew what rooms to go to, and what number to take. We, as I have said, were four, and the door of our room was marked unobserved by us with that number in chalk; but it happened, if happening is a proper word, that the mark was put on when the door was open and flat against the wall, and thereby came on the inside when we shut it at night, and the destroying angel passed by it. A few days after this Robespierre fell, and the American ambassador arrived and reclaimed me and invited me to his house.

During the whole of my imprisonment, prior to the fall of Robespierre, there was no time when I could think my life worth twenty-four hours, and my mind was made up to meet its fate.

Presumably this would have been a short reprieve, had not Jacobin rule (and rulers) promptly expired.

We noticed two days ago the U.S. mission’s willingness to exert itself for Lafayette’s wife, who surely had not done better service for the American Revolution than had Paine himself.

Paine waited in vain for American intervention, and was incandescent with rage at George Washington and his envoy Gouverneur Morris for abandoning him (Morris was replaced by the more Paine-friendly James Monroe a few weeks later). In a wide-ranging 1796 denunciation of Washington’s conduct and American political tilt towards Britain and away from France, Paine accused his country** of giving the Jacobins the green light to cut off a gadfly’s head.

Could I have known to what degree of corruption and perfidy the administrative part of the Government of America had descended, I could have been at no loss to have understood the reservedness of Mr. Washington toward me, during my imprisonment in the Luxembourg. There are cases in which silence is a loud language.

Soon after I was put into arrestation and imprisonment in the Luxembourg, the Americans who were then in Paris went in a body to the bar of the Convention to reclaim me. They were answered … that I was born in England, and … their reclamation of me was only the act of individuals, without any authority from the American Government.

A few days after this, all communication from persons imprisoned to any person without the prison was cut off by an order of the police. I neither saw, nor heard from, anybody for six months; and the only hope that remained to me was that a new Minister would arrive from America to supersede Morris …

One hundred and sixty-nine were taken out of the Luxembourg one night, in the month of July, and one hundred and sixty of them guillotined. A list of two hundred more, according to the report in the prison, was preparing a few days before Robespierre fell. In this last list I have good reason to believe I was included. A memorandum in the hand-writing of Robespierre was afterwards produced in the Convention, by the committee to whom the papers of Robespierre were referred, in these words:

Demander que Thomas Payne soit de decrete d’accusation pour les interets de l’Amerique, autant que de la France.

I had then been imprisoned seven months, and the silence of the Executive part of the Government of America (Mr. Washington) upon the case, and upon everything respecting me, was explanation enough to Robespierre that he might proceed to extremities.

This venomous open letter and the deistic tract The Age of Reason he was banging out during the Revolution, combined with the frightening turn of the French Revolution itself, helped send Paine’s public regard into decline. “Atheist,” they tutted, and he’s been the most untouchable Founding Father ever since.

Next year is the bicentennial of his death in obscurity and pauperhood; his homelessness, so to say, in the annals of political thought and national pantheons testifies in some ways to the defeat his principles suffered in his very lifetime. The American Revolution turned conservative; France’s fell to despotism; England’s was strangled in its crib.

Even so, he fired the imaginations of many troublemakers still to come. A man of no wealth or position who etched in fire the spirit of his times, Paine saw further and spoke plainer than most of his contemporaries. If a prophet is not welcome in his own country, it scarcely diminishes the power of the prophecy.

And/or, enjoy this free biography at Google Books.

* Given by the French crown in opposition to France’s great rival Britain, of course.

** Paine certainly considered himself American, though he wouldn’t have made that inconsistent with being French, too. The matter of his citizenship between England (where his pamphlets had him attainted in absentia on a capital charge), France and the United States was a contested one at a time when the very notion was being reforged in the heat of revolution; at any rate, as diplomatic pretext for failing to ask for his life, citizenship makes a feeble excuse.

Republican radicals in England didn’t mind claiming him as their own, developing this alternate lyric sheet to the national anthem:

[audio:God_Save_the_Queen.mp3]

God save great Thomas Paine
His ‘Rights of Man’ explain
To every soul.
He makes the blind to see
What dupes and slaves they be,
And points out liberty,
From pole to pole.

Thousands cry ‘Church and King’
That well deserve to swing,
All must allow:
Birmingham blush for shame,
Manchester do the same,
Infamous is your name,
Patriots vow.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,France,Freethinkers,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Language,Lucky to be Alive,Not Executed,Politicians,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,The Worm Turns,USA

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