1824: John Smith

2 comments March 14th, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1824, John Smith, 25, was publicly hanged before an angry crowd at Lincoln Castle for the murder of his fiancee, 24-year-old Sarah Arrowsmith.

John and Sarah had been seeing each other for a long time. Sarah had a three-year-old son by him, and was heavily pregnant with another child. She was under the impression that the wedding banns had been published and they would marry soon, but matrimony was the furthest thing from John’s mind.

On December 4, 1823, he bought a pound of white arsenic from the chemist for nine pence, saying he was going to use it for washing sheep. Instead, Smith mixed the arsenic with some flour and gave it to Sarah. She, in turn, baked some cakes with the poisoned flour and served them to her friends for tea.

Neil R. Storey records what happened in his book A Grim Almanac of Lincolnshire:

In less than a quarter of an hour, Sarah, her sister-in-law Eliza Smith, her friend and neighbour Mrs. Dobbs, and three children—two of them her younger sisters, and one of them Smith’s illegitimate child with Sarah—all suffered intense burning in their throats and excruciating pains in their stomachs. Several medical men were sent for and, immediately on arrival, the surgeons, Mr. Tyson West and Mr. Pell, set about administering antidotes and emetics. They rapidly had to admit that Sarah Arrowsmith was in a hopeless condition and sent for magistrates to take her deposition from her death bed. Sarah told them who had given her the flour and soon two constables were sent to the cottage where Smith lived in Little Steeping; they arrested him.

Although Smith presented two character witnesses at his trial who described him as a good farmhand and a sober, even-tempered and hard-working man, the evidence against him was strong and public sentiment equally so. The London Morning Chronicle reported on Dec. 27, 1823, that as Sarah Arrowsmith lay painfully expiring so heavy was the crush of gawkers that her bedroom’s only supporting cross-joint “snapped in the middle, and had not every person except the sufferer, who was in bed, made a hasty retreat, the floor would have fallen in.”

She succumbed the next day (to the poison, not to a fall) and “a great concourse of persons was assembled from all parts of the country round” to lay her to rest — “and the only feelings displayed upon the solemn occasion, were those of indignation against the unhappy wretch who was the author of the untimely death of the poor woman and her child.”

Smith could surely tell that his goose was cooked, and even as his life hung in the balance there was “an extraordinary apathy about him.” (Storey) Prior to his death he admitted his guilt.

It is believed that the other poisoning victims survived.

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1808: Thomas Simmons

Add comment March 14th, 2016 Headsman

(From contemporary newspaper accounts, principally The Bury and Norwich Post, Wednesday, March 09, 1808)

Thomas Simmons was indicted, for that he, at Broxbourn, on the 20th of October last, did make an assault on Sarah Hummerstonne, and wilfully gave her a mortal wound in the neck with a knife, of which she instantly died. [This is the case of the inhuman wretch who murdered the two unfortunate women at Hoddesdon, and the Court was crowded at an early hour in the morning to hear the trial. It did not last long, as the facts lay in a very narrow compass.]

Mr. Pooley, as Counsel for the prosecution, intreated the jury to dismiss from their minds all that they had heard elsewhere, and attend only to the evidence which would be laid before them. He then stated the facts as below detailed, and called the following witnesses:

Samuel James, a surgeon at Hoddesdon, deposed, that on the 20th of October, he went to the house of Mr. Boreham, at Hoddesdon. On going to the house, he saw Mrs. Hummerstone leaning against the paling near the door; she was then alive, but died in three minutes after, of a wound in the neck, near the spine.

Sarah Harris, servant of Mr. Boreham, said she had lived four years with him: Simmons, the prisoner, had lived there three years, and quitted at last Michaelmas: the prisoner wished to marry her, but her mistress disapproved of it; they had quarreled before he quitted the service, on which occasion he beat her; and when he had done he said he did not care if he had killed her. He had often said he would make away with her, because she would not marry him. About half past eight in the evening of the 20th of October, he came to the house; she was in the kitchen, and heard him coming along the yard; he was swearing violently. He came up to the window, and struck at her through the lattice, and swore he would do for them all. She desired him not to make a noise, as they had company: he said he did not care for the company, he would do for them all. Mrs. Hummerstone, hearing the noise, opened the room-door, and came to the yard. She told him to go away. He gave her a blow on the head, which knocked off her bonnet; she ran into the house, and he immediately followed her. The witness immediately heard the shrieks of murder, but did not know from whom. All the family were in the room, viz. the three young ladies; Mr. Boreham’s daughter, Mrs. Warner, the married daughter; Mr. Boreham and his wife, and Mrs. Hummerstone. In a very short time, the prisoner came to the wash-house to her: she shut the door, and cried out murder. The witness ran into the sitting-room. She there saw some one lying under the window — she ran from thence down a passage — the prisoner followed her. She there met her master with the poker in his hand; in running hastily, her master, who is a very old and feeble man, was knocked down. The prisoner caught her, and threw her down, and drew a knife on her. He threw her across Mrs. Warner, who was lying dead, as she believed. He drew a knife across her throat, but she guarded it with her hand, which was cut. He made a second blow, when she wrested the knife out of his hand. He immediately ran away, and she saw no more of him.

Sarah Cakebury said, she lived near Mr. Boreham, and heard the cry of murder. She passed Mrs. Hummerstone, and went into the house; she saw Mrs. Warner lying dead under the window.

Thomas Copperwheat went in search of the murderer. He discovered Simmons concealed under some straw in a crib in the farm-yard; he had on him a smock frock, very bloody; the place where he was found was about 100 yards from the house.

Benjamin Rook, Coroner, said, when the evidence of Harris was read to the prisoner, he said it ws very true, he had murdered them, and no one else. He added, that he did not intend to have murdered Mrs. Hummerstone, but he went with the intention of murdering Mrs. Boreham, Mrs. Warner, and Harris, the maid-servant.

The Constable who carried him to prison, deposed to the same effect. The prisoner also told him, that when he had got Betsy down, he heard something fluttering over his shoulders, which made him get up and run away.

The prisoner being called upon to know if he had any thing to say, answered in a careless tone — No!

Mr. Justice Heath told the Jury, the case was so very clear, that it must be unnecessary for him to address any observations to them; the prisoner, as they had heard, had more than once voluntarily confessed his guilt.

The Jury found him Guilty; and the learned Judge immediately pronounced the sentence of the law — that he should be hanged on Monday next, and his body anatomized.

This unhappy wretch has a very young look, and a good countenance, being rather a well-looking young man than otherwise. He heard the sentence of death with great indifference, and walked very coolly from the bar. The young girl, whom he attempted to murder, was in great agitation, and was obliged to be supported while she ws in Court.

Simmons ws convicted through the exertions of Mr. W. White, Mr. B. Fairfax, of the Bull Inn, Hoddesdon, and Mr. J. Brown, the church warden of that place, the Quakers refusing to come forward as prosecutors.


Execution — Simmons was executed on Monday, pursuant to his sentence, at half past eleven o’clock in the forenoon, between Hertford and Ware. He behaved with that air of indifference which marked his conduct during his trial. He shook hands with three persons who accompanied him to the scaffold, and whispered a few words to the gaoler beffore he was turned off.

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1908: Massillon Coicou and the Firminists

Add comment March 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1908, the octogenarian Haitian president Pierre Nord Alexis had a number of political opponents arrested and, that very night, summarily executed.

Nord Alexis, a career officer risen to the post of Minister of War in a provisional 1902 government* when the previous president Tiresias Simon Sam* resigned to avert a constitutional crisis.

That was a strange affair: a misreading of the constitution had Sam set to rule until 1903, until someone caught the mistake. Sam’s diligently on-time resignation proved not the Rule of Law victory he might have hoped when the resulting power vacuum brought civil war.

The contest for power boiled down to Nord Alexis on one side, and the scholar and diplomat Joseph Auguste Antenor Firmin on the other.**

As one can see, Nord Alexis won it — but the conflict flared again in 1908, with the exiled Fermin making an attempt to return to Haiti. Nord Alexis’s response was ruthless and, for now, effective. (Nord Alexis was ousted later in 1908, however.)

Massillon Coicou

Prominent among the victims of the crackdown this date was the novelist and poet Massillon Coicou (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed French).

Coicou had been in the diplomatic service in France with Firmin, where the two forged a close affinity, and Coicou became a toast of literary circles.

Coicou and his two brothers Horace and Pierre-Louis, staunch Firminists all, were shot together with a several others at the walls of the Port-au-Prince cemetery on the night of March 14-15. (The exact number of others seems a little hard to come by; there are different counts from around 10-15 ranging up to 27+ total people executed in this incident, although the larger count may encompass executions other than those at the cemetery.)

For Francophones, several of Coicou’s poems can be perused via links at the bottom of this biographical page.

* Sam’s cousin Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam held that same office for a brief and bloody interval in 1915.

** Firmin is noted for his 1885 book De l’égalité des races humaines, which mounted a strong defense for the fundamental equality of the races, and also predicted a black U.S. president.

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1726: William “Vulcan” Gates, Black Act casualty

Add comment March 14th, 2013 Headsman

March 14, 1726, was the hanging date of five men* at the gallows of Tyburn.

We’ll come to the other four of them presently, but our featured case among the group is one Bill Gates — not the Microsoft billionaire, obviously; this fellow was, rather, a victim of the plutocracy.

William Gates was a blacksmith by trade, presumably the source of his outstanding nickname or alias “Vulcan”.

But he also liked to hunt, and that’s how he ended up having his neck pinched.

It was only logical in the early 18th century for hunters like Vulcan to take quarry from the common lands. But these longtime traditional rights were under long-term attack; just a few years before, the “Black Act” dramatically escalated penalties and enforcement mechanisms for “poaching”.

Among other things, the Black Act permitted a suspect to be accused by reading out charges “on two Market Days, and in two Market Towns in the County, where the Offence is committed.” If the named party failed to turn himself in within 40 days, he stood convicted — no trial necessary.

This was Vulcan’s situation exactly. He’d been accused of “being one of the Men that entered Enfield Chace, killed two Deer,” and took some potshots at the gamekeepers. Having not given himself up, the entirety of the short proceeding once Gates was taken was to establish his identity. (A potentially tricky affair in those days, but not in this instance.)

Frequent death-blog litterateur Charles Dickens glossed this story for the literary magazine he founded, All the Year Round, quoting in Vol. 18 the account of the Ordinary of Newgate when Gates and the four who were doomed to die with him “took it into their foolish heads that they would not be hanged.” (I’ve added line breaks to the Dickensian version, for readability.)

The day on which they were executed, when I [the Ordinary] came to Newgate to give them their last exhortations and prayers, they would not allow any person to come near them, having got an iron crow into the prison, with which they had forced out stones of a prodigious bigness, and had made the breach two feet deep in the wall.

They had built up the stones at the back of the door of the condemned hold, so that nobody could get at them. The keepers spoke to them through the door, but they were inflexible, and would by no entreaties yield. I spoke to them also, representing to them how that such foolish and impracticable projects interrupted their repentance, and the special care they should have taken in improving those few moments to the best advantage; but they seemed inexorable.

I said that I hoped they had no quarrel with me. They answered, ‘No, sir, God bless you; for you have been very careful of us.’ Bailey said, that they would not surrender till they either killed or were killed.

It was twelve at night before they began this enterprise; and, to conceal their purpose from the keepers, while part of them were working, the rest sung psalms, that the noise might not be heard.

Sir Jeremiah Morden, one of the present sheriffs of London and Middlesex, came with proper attendance, and, desiring them to open the door, they refused it; upon which they [not the prisoners, but the sheriff and his men] were obliged to go up to the room over the hold, where there is a little place that opens, which is made in case of such disturbances.

This shutter they opened, but the prisoners continuing obstinate, they [the sheriff’s assistants] fired fifteen pistols with small shot among them, not to kill, but to wound and disable them. They retired to the remotest part of the room where the shot could not reach them, yet Barton and Gates, the deer-stealer, were slightly wounded in the arm.

At last Sir Jeremiah Morden spoke seriously to them through the little hole above, desiring them to surrender. Barton asked, ‘Who are you?’ Sir Jeremiah answered, ‘I am one of the principal sheriffs.’

‘Show me your chain,’ says Barton. Sir Jeremiah was so good as to show him his gold chain through the little hole, upon which they consulted, and agreed to surrender.

After this they removed the stones for the back [of the] door, and, the keepers entering, Barton snapped a steel tobacco–box in the face of one of them, which made a little noise like the snapping of a pocket-pistol, and then gave him the box” [saying ‘D-me, you was afraid.’ -Dickens omits this taunting clincher (ed.)]

After this the unctuous Ordinary tried to dog the intended escapees out of any parting sacrament on the grounds that their souls were not adequately prepared, to which the mutineers justly replied that they “been busied otherwise; they said it was only out of a desire of self Preservation … upon which account they desired to be excused.”

The Ordinary is vague on whether he excused them so far as to grant a last absolution. They were never to be excused from the rope.

While we’ve mentioned the singular case of Vulcan Gates, the other four were a more prosaic bunch of convicted burglars. Three of the four denied their guilt to the last. And while it’s nigh-impossible to judge credibility from the few second-hand words of an interlocutor religiously convinced of their culpability, it’s quite an affecting testimony to the scant circumstances needed to doom a fellow under the Bloody Code.

More than likely we’re a little skeptical of Benjamin Jones, who said that he chanced to stumble upon some silver plate in the darkness when stumbling out drunk from his tavern to pick up a whore. Was it just a bit of mutual aid among thieves that Jones accused a different prisoner, one Frazier, who was sick on his deathbed? The Ordinary said that he “ask’d Frazier, if this account was true? who said that it was, and that he had written the full Narrative thereof to Persons of the highest Quality.”

Hmm.

Francis Baily was doomed by the detailed testimony of a fellow-inmate in his same boarding house. He did admit to being a professional robber whose real crimes were quite enough to stretch his neck, but that his particular condemnation was thanks to the perjury of “one of the most infamous, wicked Women in the World who had sworn away his life, as she had the Life of some others, besides several there whom she had got transported and whipp’d &c. Baily pointed the finger at the absconded landlord of the house, the aptly named Matthew Wildman, who was his frequent burglarious partner.

Maybe.

The saddest of the self-proclaimed innocents was William Swift. He was accused along with another man, Lawrence Simpson, of having been part of a gang of highway robbers who committed a couple of muggings one evening. Although it was dark, one woman claimed to have been able to recognize Swift’s face by the light of “a Lamp about 6 Yards off,” and this was enough to seal his fate. Simpson hadn’t been glimpsed so clearly, so he was acquitted.

As for the last fellow at Tyburn that March 14, John Barton didn’t claim any species of innocence at all. Instead, he announced at the scaffold, “I am the Man, who in Company with two or three others, whom he named, particularly one Capel [Bob Cable], who committed the Robbery for which Swift dies.” (Barton had been set to testify at the Swift-Simpson trial, but was disallowed on account of his own pending burglary charges.)

* Seven were originally condemned to die this date; two petty thieves received the crown’s mercy.

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1719: Mary Hamilton, lady in waiting

1 comment March 14th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1719, Mary (Marie) Hamilton, lady-in-waiting upon the tsaritsa Catherine I, was beheaded in St. Petersburg for infanticide.

A frightened Mary Hamilton contemplates her imminent execution in this 1904 painting by Pavel Svedomsky.

Lady Hamilton — her Scottish family had emigrated generations earlier — did not like to wait on her libido.

She could tell you if Peter the Great deserved his nickname, and dish on any number of other courtiers, nobles, and hangers-on.

This pleasing sport, of course, assumes with it the risks imposed by an equally impatient biology. Hamilton’s gallantries two or three times quickened her womb.

Her decision to dispose of these unwanted descendants in the expedient way — once by abortion, and again by infanticide — was done on the sly (voluminous court gowns helped) but surely also with no expectation of such a severe sanction in the unlikely event of detection.

But according to Eve Levin,* Russia’s longtime slap-on-the-wrist policy for infanticide was changing, and beginning “to distinguish between a woman who killed her child to hide illicit sexual conduct, and a woman who killed her child because she was too poor to care for it. In the first instance, the killing of the child reflected selfish behavior and was considered to be murder.”

Mary Hamilton was obviously not too poor to raise children.

In 1717, an unrelated investigation of another of Hamilton’s lovers led him to accuse the libertine lady-in-waiting of practicing post-natal birth control, which Mary admitted to,** certainly expecting her mistress the queen and her paramour the king to look forward, not back.

Peter, the towering and intense “learned druzhina” with his eye fixed on the West and a modernity that Russia lagged behind, was a liberal man in many respects. But he remained eminently capable of ruthlessness in service of an idea. This affair played out, after all, in his brand-new capital St. Petersburg, built on the bones of thousands peasants who threw up the city over swampland at Peter’s command. In 1718, he’d had his own son knouted to death.

Apparently infanticide was one of those ideas.

After all, executing women for infanticide was happening where the Hamiltons had come from. And it would still be good enough for late 18th century Enlightenment philosophers.

On the day of the execution, the prisoner appeared on the scaffold in a white silk gown trimmed with black ribbons. Peter climbed the structure to stand beside her and spoke quietly into her ear. The condemned woman and most of the spectators assumed that this would be her last-minute reprieve. Instead, the Tsar gave her a kiss and said sadly, “I cannot violate the laws to save your life. Support your punishment with courage, and, in the hope that God may forgive you your sins, address your prayers to him with a heart full of faith and contrition.” Miss Hamilton knelt and prayed, the Tsar turned away and the headsman struck.

Then, the bystanding tsar picked up the severed head that had once shared his pillow and discoursed to the multitude on its anatomical features — another idea imported from the West. That strange tsar afterward had the disembodied dome preserved in a jar until Catherine the Great ran across it and (after remarking that the woman’s youthful beauty had been preserved this half-century) had it decently buried.

Something else of Mary Hamilton outlasted her pickled cranium, however.

In one of those unaccountable twists of history, Hamilton maybe became conflated with the “four Marys”, Ladies-in-Waiting of Mary, Queen of Scots — and the story seemingly became translated backwards into this altogether different time and place. This is a much-disputed hypothesis† but for purposes of a blog post is well worth the noticing, while resigning to wiser heads the literary forensics at stake.

There was no “Mary Hamilton” among the Queen of Scots’s attendants, but in at least some of the many different versions of this ballad that survive, a person of this name is held to have become the lover of the king (“the highest Stuart,” in this case) and been put to death for killing her illegitimate child.‡ It is, at the very least, rather difficult to miss the parallel.

O little did my mother ken,
The day she cradled me,
The lands I was to travel in,
Or the dog’s death I wad d’ee!

Variants of this ballad remain popular to this day.

* “Infanticide in Pre-Petrine Russia,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Neue Folge, Bd. 34, H. 2 (1986).

** She had also pilfered some effects from the Queen.

† Dissenting opinions on identifying the “Mary Hamilton” of the ballad with our Mary Hamilton can be read here and here.

Presumed basis for the conflation: an actual 1563 infanticide scandal featuring the illicit offspring of Mary’s apothecary and “a Frenchwoman that served in the Queen’s bedchamber.”

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2009: Four Iranians

Add comment March 14th, 2011 Headsman

If not for China, Iran’s hundreds of annual executions would put it in a class all its own for capital punishment.

The legions of hanged in Iran are more than this site will ever manage with the biographical care that their friends might demand for their lives: we are doomed to know only a few, and often what we “know” is little more than a name and what an authority figure has accused him of. Ever it is thus: the kings and potentates, the star-crossed lovers and epic villains, make the history books. But most of the headsman’s clients are, like he himself, obscurities.

From Iran Human Rights, March 14, 2009.

March 14: Four people were executed by hanging in the Adelabad prison of Shiraz, reported the Iranian daily newspaper Etemaad today.

According to the report the men were identified as:

  • Abolhassan (age not given), convicted of a murder in 1981

  • 26 years old man (name not given), convicted of murder
  • Young man (name and age not given), convicted of murder
  • 23 years old man (name and age at the time of committing the offence not given), convicted of raping two boys.

    According to our sources, there are several minor offenders on death row in the Adelabad prison of Shiraz.

    In 2008, at least two minor offenders were executed in the Adelabad prison of Shiraz.

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1757: Admiral John Byng

5 comments March 14th, 2010 Headsman

Every Person in the Fleet, who through Cowardice, Negligence, or Disaffection, shall in Time of Action withdraw or keep, or not come into the Fight or Engagement, or shall not to do his utmost to take or destroy every Ship which it shall be his Duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of his Majesty’s Ships, or those of his Allies, which it shall be his Duty to assist and relieve, every such Person so offending, and being convicted thereof the Sentence of a Court-martial, shall suffer Death.

-British Articles of War (1749)

On this date in 1757, English Admiral John Byng was shot to death by musketry on the quarterdeck of the HMS Monarque for failing to “do his utmost” to defend Minorca against the French.

The first and last man of that rank executed by the Royal Navy, Byng was one of 15 (!) children of an ennobled admiral. He’d been 40 years at sea himself, a competent, forgettable senior officer unburdened by genius.

The 1750s found him in service of a listless British Empire sliding towards war with France.

London had her eye mostly on the North American conflict already underway … but that conflagration was about to jump the pond.

In 1756, the Brits belatedly realized the French were about to grab the Mediterranean island/naval base of Minorca (Menorca) from them, and dispatched a too-little, too-late expedition under Admiral Byng.

By the time he got there, the French already had Minorca in hand, save the last, besieged garrison. Byng attempted to land reinforcements for the garrison — without enthusiasm, since he perceived the inadequacy of his force — and was repelled in an inconclusive naval engagement.

The loss of Minorca raised the curtain on the Seven Years War: the first “world war,” in Winston Churchill’s reckoning, in which European alliances would duke it out for continent and colonies.

But it dropped the curtain on the ill-starred Admiral Byng.

Popular outrage at the military setback had the Duke of Newcastle‘s government scrambling to find a scapegoat, and the commander on the scene fit the bill exactly.

A gloating French account of the engagement — “the English had the advantage of the wind, but still seemed unwilling to fight” — reached Albion’s shores ahead of the admiral’s dispatch; when the latter arrived, it was publicly leaked in unflatteringly redacted form that generally made Byng look like a big fraidy-cat.

Having been thus attainted in the court of public opinion, the admiral was hailed before a court martial and convicted of not doing enough to relieve the English garrison and generally not fighting a very good fight.

Only one penalty was prescribed for this offense: death.

“The officers who composed this tribunal” themselves had such misgivings about shooting an officer for an on-the-scene tactical miscalculation “unanimously subscribed a letter to the board of admiralty [reading] ‘for our own consciences sake, as well as in justice to the prisoner, we pray your lordships, in the most earnest manner, to recommend him to his majesty’s clemency.'”

But Hanoverian George II had no upside in getting involved. He faced complaints enough wringing the revenue out of Englanders to defend a hereditary German electorate of no consequence to British security; what sense could there be in antagonizing the irritated masses by going to bat for the official fall guy in the realm’s scandalous military reversal?

On the day fixed for his execution [relates the Newgate Calendar] the boats belonging to the squadron at Spithead being manned and armed, containing their captains and officers, with a detachment of marines, attended this solemnity in the harbour, which was also crowded with an infinite number of other boats and vessels filled with spectators. About noon, the Admiral having taken leave of a clergyman, and two friends who accompanied him, walked out of the great cabin to the quarter-deck, where two files of marines were ready to execute the sentence. He advanced with a firm deliberate step, a composed and resolute countenance, and resolved to suffer with his face uncovered, until his friends, representing that his looks would possibly intimidate the soldiers, and prevent their taking aim properly, he submitted to their request, threw his hat on the deck, kneeled on a cushion, tied one white handkerchief over his eyes, and dropped the other as a signal for his executioners, who fired a volley so decisive, that five balls passed through his body, and he dropped down dead in an instant. The time in which this tragedy was acted, from his walking out of the cabin to his being deposited in the coffin, did not exceed three minutes.


The execution of John Byng, from the British National Maritime Museum.

Thus fell, to the astonishment of all Europe, Admiral John Byng; who, whatever his errors and indiscretions might have been, was at least rashly condemned, meanly given up, and cruelly sacrificed to vile political intrigues.

A school of thought does exist that the empire reaped from its rash, mean, and cruel example a generation of aggressive captains and commodores — or, as Voltaire put it shortly afterwards in Candide, “it is thought good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.” (“pour encourager les autres”)

Whatever the morale effects, the British soon rallied from their early setbacks in the Seven Years’ War and emerged from the conflict undisputed masters of North America and India.

And they even got Minorca back, too.

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1551: Alice Arden, husband killer

6 comments March 14th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1551, Alice Arden was put to death for one of 16th century England’s most shocking crimes.

Stuck in what one gathers was a dull marriage of political convenience, Alice Arden took up with a lover, Richard Mosby.

Although the whole scene was tolerated by her husband, Alice and Richard conspired to have Thomas murdered, because nobody would ever suspect the vivacious wife and her paramour to be behind the unexplained death of her husband. (And, Alice reckoned, Thomas “was so evil beloved that no man would make inquiry after his death.”) Holinshed‘s chronicle saw fit to include this tabloid-esque crime in its narrative of English history.

Arden’s wife, Mistress Alice, young, tall, and well favoured of shape and countenance, formed a criminal connection with a paramour, named Mosbye, a black, swart man. Mosbye had been servant to Sir Edward North, Alice’s father in law; and then settled as a tailor in London. The infatuated wife, lost to all sense of duty and morality, conspired with Mosbye to put an end to her husband’s existence, in order that she might marry the profligate black, swart man.

They employed as their confederates one John Green, a Faversham tailor; George Bradshaw, a goldsmith of the same town; and one Black Will, of Calyce (Calais), a murderer, which murderer was privily sent for to Calyce by the earnest sute, appoyntment, and confederate of Alice Arden and Thomas Mosbye.

The conspirators watched Master Arden walking in Poule’s (St. Paul’s Cathedral, the nave of which was a public promenade in those days), but could not find an opportunity to murder him; they then lay in wait for him on Rainham Down, and a second time in the Broomy Close (two places near Faversham), but on all these occasions failed in obtaining an opportunity.

The wicked wife then laid a plot for murdering her husband in his own house. She procured the services of Mosbye’s sister, Cicely Pounder, and of two of Arden’s domestic servants, Michael Saunderson and Elizabeth Stafford. On a particular day selected Sunday, too Black Will was hidden in a closet at the end of Arden’s parlour. After supper, Arden sat down to play some kind of game with Mosbye; Green stood at Arden’s hack, holding a candle in his hand, to shaddowe Black Will when he should come out; and the other conspirators had their cue. At a given signal in the game, Black Will came with a napkyn in his hand, and sodenlye came behind Arden’s back, threw the said napkyn over his hedd and face, and strangled him; and forthwith Mosbye stept to him, and strake him with a taylor’s great pressing iron upon the scull to the braine, and immediately drew out his dagger, which was groat and broad, and therewith cut the said Arden’s throat.

Having failed to convincingly position the body, and thereby leading police straight back to her house, Alice was immediately implicated in the crime. The conspiracy unraveled and the various people involved were brought to swift and merciless justice, including one poor bastard who had known nothing of the plot but had inadvertently supplied the credentials of that colorful assassin “Black Will” by decrying him as a murderous villain.

Alice Arden herself was burned in Canterbury while her confederates suffered various executions in various places around a country duly scandalized by the bold crime.

Six lives were taken for that of a worthless miser who connived at his wife’s infidelity. It was a sign of the horror inspired by husband murder among the Elizabethans. (Source*)

Indeed, the homicide and resulting executions kept as public scandal so long that the tale was reproduced as an Elizabethan tragedy, Arden of Faversham, in the 1590’s.

A possible uncredited Shakespeare play, it can be read for free in The Shakespeare apocrypha

Gentlemen, we hope youle pardon this naked Tragedy,
Wherin no filed points are foisted in
To make it gratious to the eare or eye;
For simple trueth is gratious enough,
And needes no other points of glosing stuffe.

FINIS.

Intriguingly, Richard Helgerson argues in Adulterous Alliances: Home, State, and History in Early Modern European Drama and Painting that this play restores some relevant political context to the Arden crime that Holinshed, perhaps deliberately, obscures. The Arden of Faversham victim is an apparatchik of the Duke of Somerset, a connection perhaps exaggerating Thomas Arden’s rank but not his position as the king’s man, with some important sponsors. Alice Arden and Richard Mosby, too, were national-level elites, Helgerson says.

The very (still-standing) Arden house was obtained through the English Reformation‘s dissolution of the monasteries; the London transplant Arden apparently used his (some must have felt) ill-gotten lands and power to impinge upon the prerogatives of his neighbors.

Helgerson doesn’t quite have an ah-ha conclusion to the tale, but the suggestion of a more layered meaning lurking behind what typically plays as straight Tudor police blotter throws a different light on the affair.

Arden’s appropriation of the abbey lands in Faversham finds its counterpart in Mosby’s appropriation of Alice Arden’s body … Seen this way, adultery is no longer a purely private crime … [but] rather a vehicle for thinking about history, for thinking, in particular, about that “improvement in the sovereignty” that was responsible both for the emergence of politic history and for the dissolution of the English monasteries, including Faversham Abbey.

* This source also supplies the date of March 14. However, the date is difficult to come by generally, and it may not be fully dependable.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,20th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Sex,Treason,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1957: Evagoras Pallikarides, teenage guerrilla poet

3 comments March 14th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1957, Cypriot guerrilla Evagoras Pallikarides was hanged by British colonial authorities for gun possession.

As it was throughout the Empire in the middle 20th century, independence was the order of the day in Cyprus. But it was not simply whether there would be self-rule in Cyprus: the form and terms of independence were themselves hotly contested.

Cyprus would be a fresh battleground between those bitter rivals Turkey and Greece, each asserting an interest in their ethnic cousins on the island; overlapping that, it would be a battleground between the institutional Communist opposition AKEL, which opposed military action for separatism, and the nationalist EOKA, demanding not simply independence but enosis, union with Greece as part of the pan-Hellenic project so inflammatory to the Turks.

From 1955 to 1959, EOKA conducted a four-year campaign of bombing, assassinations and military engagements.

As a 17-year-old, Palikarides — already facing trial and likely prison time for his resistance activities — disappeared to join an EOKA guerrilla cell. A poetic young soul, he bid his classmates farewell with this note left to explain his absence on their first morning without him:

Old classmates. At this time, someone is missing from among you, someone who has left in search of freedom’s air, someone who you might not see alive again. Don’t cry at his graveside. It won’t do for you to cry. A few spring flowers scatter on his grave. This is enough for him …

I’ll take an uphill road
I’ll take the paths
To find the stairs
That lead to freedom

I’ll leave brothers, sisters
My mother, my father
In the valleys beyond
And the mountainsides

Searching for freedom
I’ll have as company
The white snow
Mountains and torrents

Even if it’s winter now
The summer will come
Bringing Freedom
To cities and villages

I’ll take an uphill road
I’ll take the paths
To find the stairs
That lead to freedom

I’ll climb the stairs
I’ll enter a palace
I know it will be an illusion
I know it won’t be real

I’ll wonder in the palace
Until I find the throne
Only a queen
Sitting on it

Beautiful daughter, I will say,
Open your wings
And take me in your embrace
That’s all I ask …

Pallikarides fought for a year before being apprehended with a gun illegally in his possession — a hanging crime under British anti-terrorism laws, but as Pallikarides was just the ninth (and last) EOKA man executed, it seems plain that law was not receiving draconian enforcement. At least one author claims that the authorities threw the book at him on the gun charge because of a murder they believed he committed as a guerrilla but could not prove.

The fact that he turned 19 a fortnight before his execution likewise did not avail him clemency — as the young rebel predicted in court:

I know you will hang me. Whatever I did, I did as a Cypriot Greek fighting for liberty.

As youthful martyrs to nationhood are wont to become, Pallikarides (along with his poetry) lives on as a potent symbol to Greek Cypriots. Shortly after Cyprus achieved independence in 1960, his name and visage were affiliated with a Cyprus football club, Evagoras (which later merged with another club to become AEP Paphos).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Cyprus,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Greece,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Terrorists,Treason,Wartime Executions

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