On this date in 1612, Spanish colonial authorities smashed an alleged plot among Mexico City’s black slaves with a grisly mass execution.*
In Mexico as elsewhere in the Americas, African labor had been imported en masse in the 16th and 17th centuries; David Davidson estimated** that Mexico City had a black population ranging from 20,000 to 50,000. And as elsewhere in the Americas, they frequently resisted: Mexico City slave risings dating back to the 1540s had badly shaken the city, and led the viceroy Luis de Velasco to worry in 1553 that “this land is so full of Negroes and mestizos who exceed the Spaniards in great quantity, and all desire to purchase their liberty with the lives of their masters.”
The most illustrious name of this era was Gaspar Yanga, who was kidnapped into bondage from the Gold Coast, and escaped bondage by leading a large band of fugitive slaves into the highlands of Veracruz and founded an outlaw colony that still bears his name today.
Yanga’s palenque — known in his time as San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo — had to fend off military action by the Spanish authorities from 1609 until a truce in 1618.
Still, a truce was possible: a refuge like San Lorenzo offered slaves the unwelcome-to-their-masters prospect of escape from the scourge economy, but the real threat to New Spain was that purchasing liberty with lives bit.
As we have seen in the American South, the situation on the ground begat paranoia that makes it nigh impossible for later interlocutors to disentangle fact from fantasy: was there really a phenomenal slave rebellion nipped in the bud? Or just informers and torturers refracting the terrors of those outnumbered Spaniards?
The slaves in this case were said by a Portuguese merchant who overheard them to be readying themselves to exploit Spanish inattention during Holy Week celebrations, and to bloody those days by falling upon their masters and taking possession of the colony. In the inevitable rounds of arrests and torture that ensue, the alleged plot as recorded by the annalist Chimalpahin (Spanish link) sounds suspiciously like a psychosexual projection, for it
involved castrating any surviving Spanish males, making sexual slaves of white women, and gradually “blackening” the latter’s descendants.**
Certainly the punishment blackened Mexico City; our correspondent uses this same word to describe the condition of the gibbeted corpses when they were finally let down from their gallows on the feast of the Holy Cross. Even then, the flesh of the would-be slave kings could not rest: most were beheaded posthumously and mounted on pikes while six others were quartered for display on all the roads entering the capital. This in itself was a small moderation for the public good. Chimalpahin reports that doctors advised the state that “if all the dead were to be quartered and hung up in the main streets to rot, their stench will blow a sickness across the city.”
* Thirty-five is the execution count supplied by Chimalpahin; some sources give 33.
** “Negro Slave Control and Resistance in Colonial Mexico, 1519-1650,” The Hispanic American Historial Review, Aug. 1966.
† Maria Elena Martinez, “The Black Blood of New Spain: Limpieza de Sangre, Racial Violence, and Gendered Power in Early Colonial Mexico,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jul. 2004.
Thanks to the outstanding Trove digitized records of Australian newspapers, we have this item from the Advertiser (Adelaide) published May 4, 1910, concerning an affair from two days previous on the other side of the globe.
The death penalty was barely in use in Switzerland at this point; Muff’s execution would be the fifth-last for common crimes in Swiss history.
LONDON, May 3.
Mathias Muff, who some time ago murdered four persons in the canton of Lucerne, was executed in Lucerne, the capital, yesterday, the guillotine being used.
This is the first execution which has taken place for many years in Switzerland, Lucerne being one of the cantons which have re-enacted the death penalty after its abolition. Muff, when urged to sign a petition to the President for the commutation of the death sentenced, refused, saying, “I cannot live to hear the voices of fifteen orphans reproaching me.”
There was some difficulty in obtaining a guillotine, there being none in existence in Switzerland, and the authorities were compelled to secure the loan of one from the French Government. In France there are but two official guillotines, and both are kept in Paris, but one is specially reserved for executions in the provinces. Neither of these could be spared, but one was obtained from the French colonies, which between them have nine.
The cost of the guillotines is said to be £250 each, but they are well made, for the two now in use in France were made in 1870 in the place of those burnt during the Commune and by all accounts they still work as well as when first tested on a bundle of straw.
Emperor Pic and Florence were together in a vehicle crossing from the British Columbia border in September, 1922, when an attempt to serve a warrant resulted in a chase in which Picariello’s son (fleeing in another vehicle) was shot through the hand. Shortly thereafter, Picariello and Lassandro sought out the shooter, police constable Steve Lawson, and in the resulting confrontation Lawson himself was shot dead.
The circumstances of this fatal encounter are murky and disputed; Lassandro initially claimed to have pulled the trigger, and this helped to get she along with Picariello condemned to death for the crime. As her execution neared — under circumstances we’ll get into momentarily — she amended that statement.
“We agreed that it would be best for me to take the responsibility and say that I did it, as women don’t hang in Canada and he would get off,” she said in a telegram to the Justice Minister (according to Jana Pruden‘s Edmonton Journal story of Oct. 9, 2011). “I never shot a gun in my life — was always afraid of them.”
But in the public debate over her prospective hanging, the question wasn’t so much about Lassandro not being a triggerman but about her not being a man.
The discomfiture still usual in our own day over putting a woman to death was certainly present in early 20th century Canada. No woman had hanged anywhere in Canada since Hilda Blake 24 years years prior.
But Florence Lassandro found an unexpected hand cutting away this lifeline: the women’s movement.
Canadian women had won suffrage in most provinces during the war years, and only in 1921 had the first woman been seated in Parliament. The next movement milestone on the horizon (it would be achieved in 1929) was winning juridical recognition of women as legal “persons”.
So the women’s movement in 1920s Canada was deeply sensitive to any appearance of special pleading which appeared to place adult women on any footing lesser to adult men. A Prohibition gangster who shot a cop would surely be hanged if a man; indeed, Emilio Picariello, slated to die on the same morning as Florence Lassandro, had no real hope of clemency. So wasn’t Florence Lassandro’s claim on mercy nothing but the old sentimental paternalism that women were trying to escape?*
“I also desire to protest against the pernicious doctrine that because a person who commits a murder is a woman that person should escape from capital punishment,” wrote Emily Murphy, Canada’s (and the British Empire’s) first female magistrate. “As women we claim the privileges of citizenship for our sex, and we accordingly are prepared to take upon ourselves the weight of the penalties as well.”
An Alberta provincial barrister agreed, if a bit condescendingly: if “women will occupy themselves with all those things (law, Bench, franchise, etc.), taking the places side by side with men as their equal in all things, including even part in the framing and administration of our own laws, surely women should be equally subject to those laws in the event of their offending against them.” (Both quotes from Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law, and the Making of a Settler Society.)
So Florence Lassandro was subject to those laws indeed.**
Early on the morning of May 2, Emilio Picariello (about whom, just go prove the point, we’ve barely spoken) went first to the gallows, scornfully refusing the hood. Minutes after he swung, Lassandro — visibly stricken with fright — followed.
“Why do you hang me when I didn’t do anything?” she implored of the official witnesses. “Is there not anyone who has any pity?”
No one answered.
“I forgive everyone.”
And then she hanged.
Twelve months later, Prohibition was repealed in Alberta.
As a somewhat digressive aside, Paul Friedland has made the case that men experiencing a very gender-specific shock at seeing women attending executions was instrumental in the gradual removal of once-public executions behind prison walls.
** Lassandro’s fellow-Italians had her back where her fellow-women did not, and they argued — not unreasonably — that Canada already had a de facto practice of never executing women and it was awfully convenient that everyone was now so high-minded about scrapping taboo once there was a poor Italian immigrant in the dock.
On this date in 1883, Heinrich “Henry” Furhmann was hanged in Helena in the then-territory of Montana. He was the first person hanged in that city, and at seventy years old, the oldest person ever executed in Montana.
A non-English-speaking German national who walked with a cane, Furhmann was tiny. There was even speculation that at less than 100 pounds, he didn’t weigh enough to stretch the rope.*
Furhmann was executed for the murder of his son-in-law, Jacob Kenck, whom he’d shot three days before Christmas the previous year. While Kenck was standing in the doorway of his saloon on upper Main Street, talking to another man, Furhmann walked up to him from behind and shot him in the head.
The victim collapsed immediately, but didn’t seem to realize what had happened: as a crowd gathered around him, he said, “Boys, what is the matter? Is somebody hurt?” He passed out and was carried home, where a doctor was summoned to tend to his wound.
Furhmann was arrested immediately and, when told Kenck might survive, said he was sorry and would kill him again if he could.
But Furhmann’s disappointment didn’t last long: Kenck died within hours.
The old man had moved to Montana from his native country a decade before, after his daughter, who had emigrated before him, raised the money for his passage. She sickened and died several years after his arrival and Furhmann blamed her husband, Kenck, and nursed a bitter grudge against Kenck the way Kenck hadn’t nursed his late wife back to health.
After the emigre’s arrest he admitted he’d been plotting the murder for a year and had been carrying a gun everywhere he went, waiting for his chance.
There was quite a lot of shouting, but no actual attempt to storm the jail, and eventually the mob dispersed. The curious, perhaps, went home disappointed.
Given the fact that Furhmann shot the victim at literal high noon on literal Main Street in front of witnesses, it’s surprising that the jury deliberated a full 24 hours before convicting. When jurors returned with the condemnation — after it was translated for the defendant — he responded indifferently, “It is what I expected.”
He didn’t hope for clemency, just for the more-honorable death of a firing squad. Nein!
Furhmann died with a smirk on his face. His last words, referring to Jacob Kenck’s brother, were, “Now Chris Kenck will laugh.”
After his death, doctors removed and examined his brain, which turned out to be of average size and perfectly ordinary in appearance.
* Not that it was being used in Big Sky Country, but the classic drop tables/formula would potentially imply a fall of more than three meters to develop the necessary force to break such a slight man’s neck.
On this date in 1942, Jose Abad Santos was shot by the Japanese forces occupying the Philippines.
Brother of a famous socialist agitator who fought the Japanese from the bush, Jose Santos had an impeccably mainline elite career: university degrees in America, corporate lawyering gigs, followed by a stint in the Ministry of Justice and elevation to the high court.
In December 1941, Santos administered the oath of office to re-elected president Manuel Quezon even as the archipelago was being invaded by the Japanese. Quezon would evacuate, forming a government-in-exile.
Santos preferred to stay, and would spend his last remaining weeks as the Philippines’ Acting President.
On this date fifty years ago, death row author and celebrity Caryl Chessman choked to death in San Quentin Prison’s gas chamber while the phone outside rang, too late, with his stay.
During his abnormally protracted* (for the times) 12 years fighting death, Chessman became the poster child for the anti-capital punishment cause and the most recognizable face on death row.
He was condemned as the “Red Light Bandit,” a Los Angeles criminal who would waylay cars in lovers’ lanes with police-like flashing red lights, then rob and, for some female victims, rape them. A career felon, Chessman denied his guilt to his death (he insisted that his signed confession was beaten out of him by the LAPD, which would not exactly have been out of character).
The prickly Chessman — “not generally regarded as a pleasant or socially minded fellow,” he conceded about himself — unwisely represented himself at trial, where the confession plus eyewitness testimony of Bandit victims were enough to convict him.
Not, however, of murder.
Instead, Chessman drew two death sentences under one of the country’s several draconian “Little Lindbergh” anti-kidnapping statutes, on the intriguing jurisprudential theory that the Red Light Bandit’s having dragged a rape victim several feet from her car constituted “kidnapping.”**
This astonishingly expansive reading only became more controversial when California repealed the kidnapping law in question in the 1950s. But the repeal was not retroactive.
That left Chessman to fight his sentence with a terrifyingly iron willpower, fending off eight execution dates in the process. The last of them came in February 1960, an 11th-hour reprieve as had been several others, when a two-month stay was granted ostensibly to protect the traveling President Eisenhower from some act of vengeful local retaliation from one of Chessman’s legions of international supporters.
A cat, I am told, has nine lives. If that is true, I know how a cat feels when, under the most hair-raising conditions, it has been obliged to expend the first eight of those lives in a chamber-of-horrors battle for survival, and the Grim Reaper gets it into his head that it will be great sport to try to bag the ninth. All pussy can do is spit. Homo sapiens can write books.
So Chessman wrote.
Fiction and nonfiction books, numerous articles — copping to a criminal life but insistently denying his involvement in the crimes that would doom him. For a time, prison officials seized his work and forbade his writing, and Chessman resorted to sacrificing his sleep to write illicitly by night and encode his work in putative “legal documents”. Bandit or not, the man had an indomitable spirit, and it won him worldwide attention and support.
Books by and about Caryl Chessman
And bandit or not, the Grim Reaper had a mind to take that ninth life.
One might have thought that for such a lightning-rod anti-death penalty case, the election of anti-death penalty Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown in 1958 would spell good news.
According to Hamm, Pat Brown claimed he would have been “impeached” if he had granted clemency to his uppity prisoner, leaving Chessman and his lefty backers† expediently triangulated by a Democratic governor. It’s a timeless story.
With executive clemency off the table, Chessman’s lawyer Rosalie Ashler was scrambling on the morning of the 10 a.m. execution to interest a judge in an appeal claiming that one Charles Terranova was the actual Red Light Bandit. The judge took his time reading the brief, and by the time his secretary placed a call to the death house (legend says, after once misdialing it), the cyanide pellets had already dropped.
I thought Chessman must be dead but no, there was another agonizing period during which he choked on the gas. And again. And then again. There was a long period, another deep gasp. At the fourth such straining, Chessman’s head lolled in a half circle, coming forward so that he faced downward with his chin almost touching his chest. This must be the end. But the dying went on.
A deep gasp, his head came up for an instant, dropped forward again. After two or three deep breaths, which seemed something like sobs, a trembling set up throughout the body. Along the line of his broad shoulders, down the arms to his fingers, I could see the tremor run.
Then I saw his pale face grow suddenly paler, though I had not thought that it could be after his 12 years in prison. A little saliva came from his lips, spotted the white shirt that a condemned man wears for his last appearance. Even more color drained from his face and the furrows in his head smoothed out a little. And I knew he was dead.
Chessman would persist as a cultural touchstone for the issue of capital punishment for a generation.
Jim Minor, “Death Row” (1960)
Ronnie Hawkins, “The Ballad of Caryl Chessman” (1960)
Merle Haggard, “Sing Me Back Home” (1968)
(Though this tune about watching men taken to the gas chamber doesn’t explicitly reference Caryl Chessman, it was inspired by Haggard’s own prison stint where he met Chessman and experienced a “scared straight” moment.)
Neil Diamond, “Done Too Soon” (1970)
The Hates, “Do the Caryl Chessman” (1980)
In view of Chessman’s onetime celebrity, he’s an oddly forgotten character today: too strange an individual for easy approachability; too ethically indeterminate for convenient demagoguery; not sufficiently emblematic of any larger cause or community that would tend to his memory. His non-murder death sentence and method of execution seem anachronistic, no longer relevant.
Chessman surely was an avatar of the end to capital punishment that unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s, but as it went with his own case, so it went with his legacy: the simultaneous right-wing backlash ultimately rewrote the story. After all, the “liberal” governor too chicken to spare Chessman would go on to lose his office to Ronald Reagan.
Our day’s protagonist might have had a different place in the national consciousness, in stories with the phrase “as late as 1960,” had that interregnum of “abolition” Chessman presaged not turned out to be a false start.
I am not guilty. I am sure a future generation will listen.
* While 12 years between sentence and execution wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today (especially in California), Chessman at the time was thought to have set a record for the longest stint on death row in U.S. history.
** The legal weirdness didn’t stop with the kidnapping law. The official court reporter in Chessman’s case actually died with his trial transcription still in semi-legible shorthand. It was partially reconstructed (by a relative of prosecuting attorney J. Miller Leavy, who also won the death sentence against Barbara “I Want to Live!” Graham), but portions that could not be read were ballparked by the recollections of … prosecutor Leavy.
Appeals courts, of course, frequently have recourse to the original trial record to make various legal determinations; the evidentiary gap left by this second-hand-abridged-by-the-DA transcript was frequently protested by Chessman’s camp on appeal.
† They weren’t exclusively leftists. William Buckley and Billy Graham both supported clemency for Chessman. Nor were they all political: the directors of the schlocky cult horror flick The Hypnotic Eye crassly pitched the headline-grabbing condemned con on a hypnotism promotional stunt, and ended up themselves being drawn into the case and believing Chessman was innocent.
[Alarum. Fight at sea. Ordnance goes off. Enter a Captain, a Master, a Master’s Mate, WALTER WHITMORE, and others; with them SUFFOLK, and others, prisoners.]
Obscure and lowly swain, King Henry‘s blood,
The honourable blood of Lancaster,1
Must not be shed by such a jaded groom.
Hast thou not kiss’d thy hand and held my stirrup?
Bare-headed plodded by my foot-cloth mule
And thought thee happy when I shook my head?
How often hast thou waited at my cup,
Fed from my trencher, kneel’d down at the board,
When I have feasted with Queen Margaret?2
Remember it and let it make thee crest-fallen,
Ay, and allay thus thy abortive pride,
How in our voiding lobby hast thou stood
And duly waited for my coming forth.
This hand of mine hath writ in thy behalf,
And therefore shall it charm thy riotous tongue.
Speak, captain, shall I stab the forlorn swain?
First let my words stab him, as he hath me.
Base slave, thy words are blunt and so art thou.
Convey him hence, and on our long-boat’s side
Strike off his head.
Thou dar’st not, for thy own.
Pool! Sir Pool! lord!
Ay, kennel, puddle, sink, whose filth and dirt
Troubles the silver spring where England drinks.
Now will I dam up this thy yawning mouth
For swallowing the treasure of the realm;3
Thy lips that kiss’d the queen shall sweep the ground;
And thou that smil’dst at good Duke Humphrey‘s death4
Against the senseless winds shalt grin in vain,
Who in contempt shall hiss at thee again.
And wedded be thou to the hags of hell,
For daring to affy a mighty lord
Unto the daughter of a worthless king,
Having neither subject, wealth, nor diadem.
By devilish policy art thou grown great
And, like ambitious Sylla, overgorg’d
With gobbets of thy mother’s bleeding heart.
By thee Anjou and Maine were sold to France,
The false revolting Normans thorough thee
Disdain to call us lord, and Picardy
Hath slain their governors, surpris’d our forts,
And sent the ragged soldiers wounded home.5
The princely Warwick, and the Nevils all,
Whose dreadful swords were never drawn in vain,
As hating thee are rising up in arms;
And now the house of York, thrust from the crown
By shameful murther of a guiltless king6
And lofty proud encroaching tyranny,
Burns with revenging fire, whose hopeful colours
Advance our half-fac’d sun, striving to shine,
Under the which is writ ‘Invitis nubibus.’
The commons here in Kent are up in arms;7
And, to conclude, reproach and beggary
Is crept into the palace of our king,
And all by thee.–Away! convey him hence.
O that I were a god, to shoot forth thunder
Upon these paltry, servile, abject drudges!
Small things make base men proud; this villain here,
Being captain of a pinnace, threatens more
Than Bargulus the strong Illyrian pirate.8–
Drones suck not eagles’ blood but rob bee-hives.
It is impossible that I should die
By such a lowly vassal as thyself.
Thy words move rage and not remorse in me.
I go of message from the queen to France;
I charge thee waft me safely cross the Channel.9
Come, Suffolk, I must waft thee to thy death.
Gelidus timor occupat artus; it is thee I fear.
Thou shalt have cause to fear before I leave thee.
What, are ye daunted now? now will ye stoop?
My gracious lord, entreat him, speak him fair.
Suffolk’s imperial tongue is stern and rough,
Us’d to command, untaught to plead for favour.
Far be it we should honour such as these
With humble suit; no, rather let my head
Stoop to the block than these knees bow to any
Save to the God of heaven and to my king,
And sooner dance upon a bloody pole
Than stand uncover’d to the vulgar groom.
True nobility is exempt from fear;
More can I bear than you dare execute.
Hale him away, and let him talk no more.
Come, soldiers, show what cruelty ye can,
That this my death may never be forgot!
Great men oft die by vile bezonians:
A Roman sworder and banditto slave
Murther’d sweet Tully; Brutus’ bastard hand
Stabb’d Julius Caesar; savage islanders
Pompey the Great; and Suffolk dies by pirates.10
1 Shakespeare brackets Suffolk clearly into the political faction that would become the winning contestant in the War of the Roses and give rise to the Tudor dynasty that ruled England at the time of the play’s writing. Suffolk’s key ally, Somerset, was slain in 1455 at the first battle of the generation-long conflict.
2 Margaret of Anjou was wed to the feebleminded King Henry VI by William de la Pole’s offices. Shakespeare portrays Suffolk and Margaret as maybe a little too close. When Suffolk’s head is posthumously retrieved for her, she laments,
… who can cease to weep and look on this?
Here may his head lie on my throbbing breast;
But where’s the body that I should embrace?
3 William de la Pole had a serious popularity problem, on several scores (as we shall see). Endemic corruption that had dissipated the wealth of the crown during Henry VI’s reign was among the most explosive, and laid at his door because of his proximity to power (and because Suffolk had not failed to exploit the revenue opportunities afforded by his position).
4 Another grievance: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the popular uncle to the king and onetime Lord Protector, had been arrested for treason at the Suffolk-Beaufort faction’s instigation in 1447. He died shortly thereafter, which naturally gave rise to suspicions of assassination.
5 Perhaps most damaging of all for Suffolk, England’s foothold in northern France from which it had maintained itself during the Hundred Years’ War preceding, had suddenly collapsed in the 1440’s. Maine was handed directly over to Charles VII — the price, critics charged, of the king’s marriage to Anjou. Then an ill-advised offensive had invited a French counterattack that rousted the English from Normandy and brought furious domestic recriminations for the debacle.
Incidentally, as a younger man, this day’s victim had been one of the commanders besieging Orleans when Joan of Arc famously relieved the city. He was captured by the Maid shortly thereafter, and eventually ransomed.
6 Again, a clear identification of the the factions taking shape for the Wars of the Roses. Richard, Duke of York, the standard-bearer of (obviously) the Yorkist cause in the coming conflict, had been Suffolk’s main rival at court, and is a key suspect in engineering Suffolk’s death. The guiltless king referred to is Richard II, overthrown a half-century before by Henry Bolingbroke which gave rise to the competing claims of legitimacy that would color the York-Lancaster contest.
7 Weeks after Suffolk’s death, Jack Cade’s rebellion erupted in Kent, an infamous affair whose dubious connection to York was great fodder for Tudor propaganda like, well, Henry VI, Part 2. Be that as it may, the Bard placed one of his immortal lines in the mouth of one of Cade’s peasants:
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
8 This reference may be an anachronism. Pirates operating from Illyria — the uskoci (or uskoks) — plagued the Adriatic Sea in Shakespeare’s time.
9 As a royal minister, Suffolk was essentially immune from Parliament as long as the king backed him … unless he could be hit with a treason charge. Given his unpopularity, a great many mostly outlandish charges of treason were duly conjured early in 1450, and Suffolk had not the political support to repel them. Henry VI, still Suffolk’s supporter, exiled the noble to protect him from possible execution. He was intercepted as he left England for France, however, and what the House of Commons had wanted done by a bill of attainder was simply handled extrajudicially upon the seas instead.