1942: Jacques Decour

Add comment May 30th, 2017 Headsman

The last letter of French Resistance fighter Jacques Decour (an alias for Daniel Decourdemanche) to his family on the morning of his execution, May 30, 1942. (From here.)

Saturday, May 30, 1942 — 6:45 am

My dear parents,

You have been expecting a letter from me for a long time. You did not expect to receive this one. I, too, hoped I would not cause you this grief. Say that I have remained up to the very end worthy of you, of our country, which we love.

You see, I might very well have died in war, or even in the bombardment of that night. So I do not regret having given meaning to this end. You know very well that I have committed no crime, you have no reason to blush at me, I have done my duty as a Frenchman. I do not think that my death is a catastrophe; remember that at this moment thousands of soldiers from all countries die every day, swept along, in a great wind that carries me away too. You know that I had been expecting this morning for two months, so I had time to prepare myself, but since I have no religion, I did not fall into the Meditation of death; I consider myself a little like a leaf that falls from the tree to make potting soil. The quality of the soil will depend on the quality of the leaves. I speak of the French youth, in whom I place all my hope.

My beloved parents, I shall doubtless be at Suresnes; you can if you wish request my transfer to Montmartre. You must forgive me for this sorrow. My only concern for three months has been your anxiety. At this moment, it is to leave you thus without your son, who has caused you more sorrows than joys. You see he is content, however, with the life he has lived, which has been very beautiful.

And now here are some commissions. I would send word to the one I love. If you see her, soon I hope, give her your affection, it is my dearest wish. I would also like you to take care of her parents who are in trouble. Excuse me for leaving them thus; I console myself by thinking that you will want to replace their “guardian angel”. Give them things that belong to me and belong to their daughter: the Pleiades editions, the Fables of La Fontaine, Tristan, the 4 Seasons, the little chickens, the two watercolors (Vernon and Issoire) the map of the 4 Paves du Roy. I would like my friend Michel to have my personal belongings (pen, pencil, wallets, watch, lighter). Embrace them all for me.

I have imagined, lately, the good meals we would share when I was released. You will have them without me, as a family, but not sadly, I beg of you. I do not want your thoughts to dwell on the beautiful things that could have happened, but on all those we have experienced. I have been reborn during these two months of isolation, without reading, without all my travels, all my experiences, all my meals. I even planned a novel. Thoughts of you have not left me, and I wish you much patience and courage, and especially no rancor. Give all my affection to my sisters, to the indefatigable Denise, who has devoted herself so much to me, and to the pretty mother of Michael and Denis. I had a great dinner with Sylvain on February 17, I often thought of it with pleasure as well as the famous meal of New Year’s Eve with Pierre and Renée. It was because the question of food had become more important! Give Sylvain and Pierre all my affection and also to Jean Bailly, my best comrade, say that I thank him very much for all the good times I have spent with him. If I had gone home on the evening of the 17th, I would have ended up arriving here, so there is no regret. I will write a note for Brigitte at the end of this letter, you will copy it to her. God knows how I thought of her. She has not seen her dad for two years …

That I thank him very much for all the good times I have spent with him. If I had gone home on the evening of the 17th, I would have ended up arriving here, so there is no regret. I will write a note for Brigitte at the end of this letter, you will copy it to her. God knows if I thought of her. She has not seen her dad for two years … That I thank him very much for all the good times I have spent with him. If I had gone home on the evening of the 17th, I would have ended up arriving here, so there is no regret. I will write a note for Brigitte at the end of this letter, you will copy it to her. God knows if I thought of her. She has not seen her dad for two years …

If you have the opportunity, have my students in Première* tell my substitute that I thought of the last scene of Egmont and the letter of Th. Körner to his father under any reserve of modesty. .. All my friendships to my colleagues and friend for whom I translated Goethe without betraying.

It is eight o’clock, it will be time to leave. I ate, smoked, drank coffee. I do not see any business to settle. If there are objects belonging to Madame Politzer, 170 bis, rue de Grenelle, (books, especially those of the lycee, phono, etc.) try to recover them. There is also your Memorial of St. Helena.

My dear parents, I embrace you with all my heart. I am near you and thoughts of you do not leave me.

Your Daniel

My beloved little Brigitte

Your daddy has not seen you much for some time but he has thought of you. Tell your mom that I trust her to make you a good, firm, cheerful girl who stands strong on her own two legs. Work hard and try to become a good pianist. Often think of your father and friend and all the good times we have shared together.

I embrace you with all my heart as I love you and embrace your mother.

Your Daniel

* The school he taught at — which, after the war, was renamed College-lycee Jacques-Decour.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1741: Cuffee and Quack, “chained to a stake, and burnt to death”

Add comment May 30th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1741 marked the first official execution for the alleged New York slave conspiracy of 1741.

Nineteen days before, two slaves named Caesar and Prince had hanged, nominally for theft but believed by the populace (and the court) primary instigators of a staggering plot to put New York to the torch, murder the city’s whites, and reign as kings on the ashes of their masters’ city.

Cuffee was, alongside those already-executed Caesar and Prince, part of a trio of slaves known to hang about together at the house of barkeep and fence John Hughson. Already notorious about town for a gin-robbing incident that had seen all three publicly whipped in 1738, and had again burgled a linen store that February. (That’s the crime for which Caesar and Prince were executed.)

The evidentiary chain linking these commonplace prowlers to a spate of fires whose intent must be the annihilation of the city leaves quite a bit to be desired, but the burning spring of 1741 helped solder them together in part thanks to a white New Yorker spying Cuffee in what he thought was a suspicious position during a fire and raising the alarm. Cuffee fled, back to the home of Adolph Philipse — his owner, and also the uncle of one of the judges who would eventually condemn him — where a crowd of incited freemen chased him down and hauled him to gaol, “borne upon the People’s Shoulders.” His skulking seemed to confirm a widening suspicion, spiced by the mother country’s going war against dusky Spaniards, that the city’s Negroes must surely lurk behind a fortnight’s infernos. From this point on it appears as if New Yorkers — or at least the city’s elites — determined by consensus that they “must necessarily conclude, that [the fires] were occasioned and set on Foot by some villainous Confederacy of latent Enemies amongst us.”

Now, this appearance of consensus is an impression nearly three centuries distant, and is heavily shaped by the circumstance that there’s one predominant voice surviving the ravages of years to document for us the official proceedings: Daniel Horsmanden, who both judged and investigated the case and is thus heavily invested in its outcome. His A Journal of the Proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy Formed by Some White People, in Conjunction With Negro and Other Slaves, for Burning the City of New-York in America and Murdering the Inhabitants is Horsmanden’s record of how the plot or “plot” was uncovered; it was assembled in 1742 and presents trial and deposition records curated by Horsmanden with a view to persuading “such as have a Disposition to be convinc’d, and have in Reality doubted, whether any particular Convicts had Justice done them or not” — for by this time such doubts were dogging Horsmanden’s court, having hounded 30-odd people to death on evidence that was already viewed as highly impeachable.

There had been some wanton, wrong-headed Persons amongst us, who took the Liberty to arraign the Justice of the Proceedings, and set up their private Opinions in Superiority to the Court and Grand Jury; tho’ God knows (and all Men of Sense know) they could not be Judges of such Matters; but nevertheless, they declared with no small Assurance (notwithstanding what we saw with our Eyes, and heard with our Ears, and every one might have judg’d of by his Intellects, that had any) That there was no Plot at all!

Whether the entire slave conspiracy to burn New York was a phantom, or whether it did indeed reflect in whatever distorted way a some real mode of resistance, is a factual question that is permanently unanswerable.* But the cases certainly took on a witch hunt quality, and they bore many hallmarks of wrongful conviction that are familiar even today.

Our first two hangings, Caesar and Prince, were doomed by the decision of John Hughson’s teenage serving-girl to turn state’s evidence and denounce them. As Cuffee and Quack would be the first people formally tried for the arson wave, her evidence was buttressed in this case by another common prosecutor’s cheat: the prison snitch.

A (white) petty thief named Arthur Price, who was being held in New York’s dungeon along with the growing ranks of suspected terrorists, helpfully began informing on the people around him. It’s likely he was a longstanding underclass crony of the purported plotters.

At any rate, the civic-minded Price, “having been found by experience to be very adroit at pumping out the Secrets of the Conspirators … was ordered to put Cuffee (Mr. PHILIPSE’s Negro) into the same Cell with him, and to give them a Tankard of Punch now and then, in order to chear up their Spirits, and make them more sociable.” What do you know but the next morning, Price was ready to report that his inebriated cellmate had admitted the conspiracy to him, and had implicated Quack as the man who actually fired the fort.

Quack was promptly arrested. Arthur Price would give evidence against both at their trial, but having made himself an obvious stool pigeon his use as an informant was at an end since nobody would go near him any longer.

More key information against Cuffee and Quack came from two other slaves, whose “Negro evidence” — a distinct class of (significantly derogated) proof in New York courts — would also have been controversial. The crown’s attorney prosecuting the case felt obliged to go out of his way to justify to the jury the unsworn testimony of “Pagan Negroes” on the grounds that without such, “the greatest Villanies would often pass with Impunity.” But pagan or no, both Sandy (a minor) and Fortune were also men who were suspect in the plot. Perhaps as black slaves their king’s evidence could not be as strong as that of the white servant Mary Burton — but it might still be strong enough to save their lives. Sandy spent a week in the dungeon amid his alleged confederates, after which he was hauled before the grand jury and leaned upon until he cracked.

They told him, if he would speak the Truth, the Governor would pardon him, though he had been concerned in them; and this was the Time for him to save his Life by making a free and ingenuous Confession; or in Words to this Purpose. He answered, That the Time before after that the Negroes told all they knew, then the white People hanged them. The Grand Jury assured him, that it was false; for that the Negroes which confessed the Truth and made a Discovery, were certainly pardoned, and shipped off: [which was the Truth] And upon this Assurance he began to open, and gave the following Evidence.

Quack, Sandy said, had solicited Sandy to help him burn down Fort George — and Cuffee “said, D–m him, that hang him or burn him, he would set fire to the Town.” Fortune was among the numerous other names he named — whose “Design was to kill all the Gentlemen, and take their Wives, and that Quack and Cuffee were particular Persons that talked so.”

Strangely, before they suffered at the stake Cuffee and Quack were suffered to conduct a hopeless defense of their own — “indulged with the same Kind of Trial as is due to Freemen, though they might have been proceeded against in a more summary and less favourable Way,” in the crown’s summing-up. This was more than they were entitled to as slaves, and they used the court’s liberality to summon ten witnesses in an attempt to establish good character and alibi; notably, Quack’s owner John Roosevelt avowed that “Quack was employed most Part of that Morning the Fort was fired, from the Time they got up, in cutting away the Ice out of the Yard; that he was hardly ever out of their Sight all that Morning, but a small Time while they were at Breakfast; and that they could not think he could that Morning have been [from] their House so far as the Fort.” But even from a white property owner, these words were far too little against a consensus that had been shaped seemingly from the belly of the conspiracy — from Mary Burton’s evidence and Arthur Price’s evidence and Sandy’s and Fortune’s evidence: that Quack’s were the hands that set the most damaging fire in the arson campaign, and that Cuffee’s, along with Caesar’s and Prince’s, were the hands that directed him.

Their condemnation was a mere formality, albeit one whose rhetorical opportunities the court did not mean to neglect.

You both now stand convicted of one of the most horrid and detestable pieces of villainy, that ever satan instilled into the heart of human creatures to put in practice; ye, and the rest of your colour, though you are called slaves in this country; yet you are all far, very far, from the condition of other slaves in other countries; nay, your lot is superior to that of thousands of white people. You are furnished with all the necessaries of life, meat, drink, and clothing, without care, in a much better manner than you could provide for yourselves, were you at liberty; as the miserable condition of many free people here of your complexion might abundantly convince you. What then could prompt you to undertake so vile, so wicked, so monstrous, so execrable and hellish a scheme, as to murder and destroy your own masters and benefactors? nay, to destroy root and branch, all the white people of this place, and to lay the whole town in ashes.

I know not which is the more astonishing, the extreme folly, or wickedness, of so base and shocking a conspiracy; for as to any view of liberty or government you could propose to yourselves, upon the success of burning the city, robbing, butchering, and destroying the inhabitants; what could it be expected to end in, in the account of any rational and considerate person among you, but your own destruction? And as the wickedness of it, you might well have reflected, you that have sense, that there is a God above, who has always a clear view of all your actions, who sees into the utmost recesses of the heart, and knoweth all your thoughts; shall he not, do ye think, for all this bring you into judgment, at that final and great day of account, the day of judgment, when the most secret treachery will be disclosed, and laid open to the view, and everyone will be rewarded according to their deeds, and their use of that degree of reason which God Almighty has entrusted them with.

Ye that were for destroying us without mercy, ye abject wretches, the outcasts of the nations of the earth, are treated here with tenderness and humanity; and, I wish I could not say, with too great indulgence also; for you have grown wanton with excess of liberty, and your idleness has proved your ruin, having given you the opportunities of forming this villainous and detestable conspiracy; a scheme compounded of the blackest and foulest vices, treachery, blood-thirstiness, and ingratitude. But be not deceived, God Almighty only can and will proportion punishments to men’s offences; ye that have shewn no mercy here, and have been for destroying all about ye, and involving them in one general massacre and ruin, what hopes can ye have of mercy in the other world? For shall not the judge of all the earth do right? Let me in compassion advise ye then; there are but a few moments between ye and eternity; ye ought therefore seriously to lay to heart these things; earnestly and sorrowfully to bewail your monstrous and crying sins, in this your extremity; and if ye would reasonably entertain any hopes of mercy at the hands of God, ye must shew mercy here yourselves, and make what amends ye can before ye leave us, for the mischief you have already done, by preventing any more being done. Do not flatter yourselves, for the same measure which you give us here, will be measured to you again in the other world; ye must confess your whole guilt, as to the offences of which ye stand convicted, and for which ye will presently receive judgment; ye must discover the whole scene of iniquity which has been contrived in this monstrous confederacy, the chief authors and actors, and all and every the parties concerned, aiding and assisting therein, that by your means a full stop may be put to this horrible and devilish undertaking. And these are the only means left ye to shew mercy; and the only rea­sonable ground ye can go upon, to entertain any hopes of mercy at the hands of God, before whose judgment seat ye are so soon to appear.

Ye cannot be so stupid, surely, as to imagine, that when ye leave this world, when your souls put off these bodies of clay, ye shall become like the beasts that perish, that your spirits shall only vanish into the soft air and cease to be. No, your souls are immortal, they will live forever, either to be eternally happy, or eternally miserable in the other world, where you are now going.

If ye sincerely and in earnest repent you of your abominable sins, and implore the divine assistance at this critical juncture, in working out the great and momentous article of the salvation of your souls; upon your making all the amends, and giving all the satisfaction which is in each of your powers, by a full and complete discovery of the conspiracy, and of the several persons concerned in it, as I have observed to ye before, then and only upon these conditions can ye reasonably expect mercy at the hands of God Almighty for your poor, wretched and miserable souls.

Here ye must have justice, for the justice of human laws has at length overtaken ye, and we ought to be very thankful, and esteem it a most merciful and wondrous act of Providence, that your treacheries and villainies have been discovered; that your plot and contrivances, your hidden works of darkness have been brought to light, and stopped in their career; that in the same net which you have hid so privly for others your own feet are taken: that the same mischief which you have contrived for others, and have in part executed, is at length fallen upon your own pates, whereby the sentence which I am now to pronounce will be justified against ye; which is,

That you and each of you be carried from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, where you and each of you shall be chained to a stake, and burnt to death; and the lord have mercy upon your poor, wretched souls.

That sentence came down on May 29.

It was implemented the very next day, amid a mob scene.

With Quack and Cuffee staked to their pyres, they were harried to admit the plot with the promise of a reprieve from their horrible sentence. Even if mercy would only amount to moderating death by burning into death by hanging, it would be well worth having — and the frightened slaves grasped at the small succor left them.

The spectators at this execution were very numerous; about three o’clock the criminals were brought to the stake, surrounded with piles of wood ready for setting fire to, which the people were very impatient to have done, their resentment being raised to the utmost pitch against them, and no wonder. The criminals shewed great terror in their countenances, and looked as if they would gladly have discovered all they knew of this accursed scheme, could they have had any encouragement to hope for a reprieve. But as the case was, they might flatter themselves with hopes: they both seemed inclinable to make some confession; the only difficulty between them at last being, who should speak first. Mr. Moore, the deputy secretary, undertook singly to examine them both, endeavoring to persuade them to confess their guilt, and all they knew of the matter, without effect; till at length Mr. Roosevelt [Quack’s owner, who testified for his alibi -ed.] came up to him, and said he would undertake Quack, whilst Mr. Moore examined Cuffee; but before they could proceed to the purpose, each of them was obliged to flatter his respective criminal that his fellow sufferer had begun, which stratagem prevailed: Mr. Roosevelt stuck to Quack altogether, and Mr. Moore took Cuff’s confession, and sometimes also minutes of what each said; and afterwards upon drawing up their confessions in form from their minutes, they therefore intermixed what came from each.

Thus induced by prevaricating confessors amid a mob baying for their blood, both Quack and Cuffee implicated Hughson as the originator of the plot, and themselves as early principals, and named a good many others besides. (Quack also at last claimed responsibility for firing Fort George, as the court had found.)

But the quid for their quo was not the promised abatement of their sufferings. As Sandy had worried to the grand jury in a different context, white men’s reassurances to slave rebels whom they meant to destroy could prove … unreliable.

After the confessions were minuted down (which were taken in the midst of great noise and confusion) Mr. Moore desired the sheriff to delay the execution until the governor be acquainted therewith, and his pleasure known touching their reprieve; which, could it have been effected, it was thought might have been means of producing great discoveries; but from the disposition observed in the spectators, it was much to be apprehended, there would have been great difficulty, if not danger in an attempt to take the criminals back. All this was represented to his honour; and before Mr. Moore could return from him to the place of execution, he met the sheriff upon the common, who declared his opinion, that the carrying the negroes back would be impracticable; and if that was his honour’s order it could not be attempted without a strong guard, which could not be got time enough; and his honour’s directions for the reprieve being conditional and discretionary, for these reasons the execution proceeded.

* For contrasting perspectives, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker present this as a real instance of working-class rebellion in The Many-Headed Hydra, while Jill LePore’s New York Burning approaches it as mostly a concoction.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arson,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,History,New York,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Terrorists,Treason,USA

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1806: Polly Barclay, accessory in the murder of her husband

Add comment May 30th, 2015 Headsman

On May 30, 1806, Polly Barclay of Wilkes County, Georgia was “taken by a proper officer to a gallows previously to be erected in or near the town of Washington, and then and there on the day aforesaid, between the hours of ten o’clock in the forenoon and two o’clock in the afternoon … hung by the neck until you are dead.”

And may God have mercy on her soul.

The purported triggerman, Polly’s brother, had been acquitted of murdering Polly’s husband; then, said assassin turned right around and testified against his sister — who was duly condemned for hiring him. (They do say that Justice is blind.)

But don’t take Executed Today‘s word for it. For this sordid all-in-the-family homicide, we’re pleased to recommend a visit to the annals of Washington, Ga., we gladly defer to genealogist and historian Stephanie Lincecum‘s Peachy Past post.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,USA,Women

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1690: Old Mobb, witty highwayman

Add comment May 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1690, according to the Newgate Calendar,* the venerable gentleman rogue Thomas Sympson — better known as Old Mobb — was hanged for robbery.

Old Mobb — at least, the stylish and erudite version of the man given us in the Calendar — preyed the roads of late 17th century England for many a year, perhaps all the way back to the ill-fated reign of Charles I.

His rollicking adventures could have formed the fair corpus of a durable legend; in some alternate world Ainsworth chose Old Mobb as for Rookwood and it is he and not Dick Turpin who has the television serial and the pub nameplates.

A nobleman Sir Bartholomew Shower, whose name might also be the safeword at a leather masquerade, was apprehended by Old Mobb one day nearly penniless as to his person; taking exception at being shorted by such a wealthy grandee, Mobb forced him to write up a bill for 150 quid to draw on the goldsmith of nearby Exeter, leaving Shower trussed up under an obliging hedge “as security for the payment” while he went into town to cash the cheque.

The annals have next a widow, bound for Bath no less in tribute to the classics, and had a jolly battle of the sexes with her over her condition which of course Old Mobb won, since he had the gun. His target, you see,

wept very plentifully, in order to move him to pity; she told him she was a poor widow, who had lately lost her husband, and therefore she hoped he would have some compassion on her. “And is your losing your husband then,” says he, “an argument that I must lose my booty? I know your sex too well, madam, to suffer myself to be prevailed on by a woman’s tears. Those crocodile drops are always at your command; and no doubt but that dear cuckold of yours, whom you have lately buried, has frequently been persuaded out of his reason by their interposition in your domestic debates. Weeping is so customary to you, that everybody would be disappointed if a woman was to bury her husband and not weep for him; but you would be more disappointed if nobody was to take notice of your crying; for according to the old proverb, the end of a husband is a widow’s tears; and the end of those tears is another husband.”

The poor gentlewoman upon this ran out into an extravagant detail of her deceased husband’s virtues, solemnly protesting that she would never be married again to the best man that wore a head, for she should not expect a blessing to attend her afterwards; with a thousand other things of the same kind. Old Mobb at last interrupted her, and told her he would repeat a pleasant story in verse which he had learned by heart, so, first looking round him to see that the coast was clear on every side, he began as follows: —-

A widow prude had often swore
No bracelet should approach her more;
Had often proved that second marriage
Was ten times worse than maid’s miscarriage,
And always told them of their sin,
When widows would be wives agen:
Women who’d thus themselves abuse,
Should die, she thought, like honest Jews
Let her alone to throw the stones;
If ’twere but law, she’d make no bones.

Thus long she led a life demure;
But not with character secure:
For people said (what won’t folks say?)
That she with Edward went astray:
(This Edward was her servant-man)
The rumour through the parish ran,
She heard, she wept, she called up Ned,
Wiped her eyes dry, sighed, sobbed, and said:

‘Alas! what sland’rous times are these!
What shall we come to by degrees!
This wicked world! I quite abhor it!
The Lord give me a better for it!
On me this scandal do they fix?
On me? who, God knows, hate such tricks!
Have mercy, Heaven, upon mankind,
And grant us all a better mind!
My husband — Ah that dearest man!
Forget his love I never can;
He took such care of my good name,
And put all sland’rous tongues to shame. —
But, ah! he’s dead –‘ Here grief amain,
Came bubbling up, and stopped the strain.

Ned was no fool; he saw his cue,
And how to use good fortune knew:
Old Opportunity at hand,
He seized the lock, and bid him stand;
Urged of what use a husband was
To vindicate a woman’s cause,
Exclaimed against the sland’rous age;
And swore he could his soul engage
That madam was so free from fault
She ne’er so much as sinned in thought;
Vowing he’d lose each drop of blood
To make that just assertion good.

This logic, which well pleased the dame,
At the same time eludes her shame:
A husband, for a husband’s sake,
Was what she’d ne’er consent to take.
Yet, as the age was so censorious,
And Ned’s proposals were so glorious,
She thought ’twas best to take upon her,
A second guardian of her honour.

“This,” says Old Mobb, “is an exact picture of woman-kind, and as such I committed it to memory; you are very much obliged to me for the recital, which has taken me up more time than I usually spend in taking a purse; let us now pass from the dead to the living, for it is these that I live by. I am in a pretty good humour, and so will not deal rudely by you. Be so kind, therefore, as to search yourself, and use me as honestly as you are able; you know I can examine afterwards, if I am not satisfied with what you give me.” The gentlewoman found he was resolute, and so thought it the best way to keep him in temper, which she did by pulling out forty guineas in a silk purse, and presented them to him. It is fifty to one but Old Mobb got more by repeating the verses above than the poor poet that wrote them ever made of his copy. Such is the fate of the sons of Apollo. [dear reader, why not take this opportunity to click on an ad? -ed.]

We certainly have in these puffed-up knaves torn down for our amusement a little window into the romance of the road where by means of Stand And Deliver one attains the liberty to put put hypocrites in their place whilst usurping the abundance that is the latter’s usual wages.

Old Mobb robs a famous astrologer whose constellations fail to predict the engagement; to a doctor who upbraids him, he retorts, “I only take [my victims’] money away from them; but you frequently take away their lives: and what makes it the worse you do it safely, under a pretence of restoring them to health.”

As pieces de resistance, Old Mobb gets the better of two of Restoration England’s most infamous grandees.

The Duchess of Portsmouth, the widely hated French Catholic mistress to Charles II,** Old Mobb improbably manages to trap in her stagecoach giving him leave to excoriate her in words similar to those that real 17th century Britons must have muttered many times while in their cups. “I know you to be the greatest whore in the kingdom; and that you are maintained at the public charge. I know that all the courtiers depend on your smiles, and that even the K— himself is your slave,” Mobb says, rubbishing her sex and her nationality all at once. “That haughty French spirit will do you no good here. I am an English freebooter; and insist upon it as my native privilege to seize all foreign commodities. Your money indeed is English, and the prodigious sums that have been lavished on you will be a lasting proof of English folly; nevertheless, all you have is confiscated to me by being bestowed on such a worthless b—h. I am king here, madam, and I have a whore to keep on the public contributions as well as King Charles.”

The ruthless hanging judge Lord Jeffreys Old Mobb likewise pays in his own coin when Jeffreys threatens our marauder with potential damnation, speaking as it were through Jeffreys to the obsequious blackguards who afflict the public life of every time and place.

When justice has overtaken us both, I shall stand at least as good a chance as your Lordship; who have already written your name in indelible characters of blood, by putting to death so many hundred innocent men, for only standing up in defence of our common liberties, that you might secure the favour of your Prince. It is enough for you to preach morality upon the Bench, where nobody dares to contradict you; but your lessons can have no effect upon me at this time; for I know you too well not to see that they are only calculated to preserve money.

* The Newgate Calendar positively avers a hanging of Friday, May 30, 1690, but there are some complicating data points. There’s his purported campaign with William “the Golden Farmer” Davis, who was supposed to have left a parting note for Old Mobb upon Davis’s December 1690 execution. (However, 1690 was the year when May 30 was on a Friday, not 1691.)

The invaluable Old Bailey Online has none of this, though the date range is a period of spotty recordkeeping. It does give us a nondescript and lamely apologetic “Old Mobb” hanged on the 18th of September 1691; although this guy had done some highway robbery, he doesn’t otherwise bear an obvious resemblance to the Newgate Calendar’s colorful character. He might be the same guy, or they might just share a cant alias. “Mob” — short for mobilevulgus, the “fickle crowd” — was just establishing itself in English at this point with a usage a bit more flexible than it has for us today; our criminals’ point of contact might be simply that each lasted unusually long in the profession, and therefore each received a nickname meaning something like “Old Man”. Jonathan Swift complained bitterly of this truncated neologism in 1710, writing that “I have done my utmost for some years past to stop the progress of Mobb and Banter, but have been plainly borne down by numbers, and betrayed by those who promised to assist me.” (Sorry, buddy … English is a living language.)

At any rate, I don’t know whether Old Mobb is one guy or two, nor am I fully confident of the best date of execution. These are the least of our difficulties when it comes to veracity, considering that the man’s attributed exploits likely comprise 100% shameless fabrication. It’s just that kind of post.

** Careful how you speak of her: she’s an ancestor (via the late Princess Diana) of the current royal princes.

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1868: Joseph Brown, for arson, murder, and money

1 comment May 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1868, Joseph Brown hanged in Hudson, N.Y..

He and his wife Josephine had recently moved to the hamlet of Canaan just this side of the Massachusetts border. With them was a twelve-year-old daughter.

On the night of December 5, 1867, they left little Angie in their basement rental and called on neighbors for the evening — and the house went up in flames. Neighbors rushing to the emergency had to force their way through the doors to extinguish the blaze, and discovered the Angie’s scorched remains amid several bushels of suspiciously flammable rubbish. Some neighbors thought the Browns had not hurried to the scene as they ought, and found their expressions of grief unconvincing.

These dubious circumstances could hardly help but lift an eyebrow, but in the end there was little for it and a coroner ruled the death accidental, perhaps caused by the unattended child attempting to fill a lighted kerosene lamp.

However, the fate of “poor little Angie” took on a decidedly more sinister cast when the Browns turned around and filed for a $5,000 life insurance benefit on Angie’s bones — a short-term, three-month policy due to expire in two weeks. A suspiciously dead child was one thing, but now there was money at stake. Travelers Insurance — the present-day corporate conglomerate then in its infancy, carving out its titular niche with innovative policies insuring against once-dangerous rail travel — put some real investigative muscle into the situation before it paid up.

The facts as developed by Travelers made a damning circumstantial case against the couple that was soon taken over by the criminal authorities: “a reflected glow of guilt,” in the summing-up of the state’s attorney who prosecuted Joseph.

Angie turned out not to be the couple’s own child at all, but a loaner from a woman in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. She had given permission for her daughter to accompany the couple on a trip to Connecticut. (A weird arrangement in which the child was to call them “mother” and “father”, but one made innocently by the victim’s natural mother so far as anyone could determine.)

En route, Joe and Jo insured the life of this child who was not their own. And by the time they got to Canaan, Joseph had indiscreetly negotiated to purchase some property, intimating an ability in no way justified by his pre-fire resources to pay several thousand dollars cash on the nail.

To cinch Joseph’s conviction, physicians hired by Travelers testified that Angie had not inhaled smoke … meaning that she was dead before the fire started at all.

“I have told the insurance company that I would give them the policy if they would let me go,” a desperate Joseph at one point said in a police interview. He should have thought of that sooner.

But he was, as he said on the scaffold, “not an accomplished man” and he could only complain confusedly about minor points of the trial he considered prejudicial while maintaining a general insistence upon his innocence that persuaded nobody.

At the time of this hanging, Josephine Brown still lay in the Columbia County jail awaiting her turn at the bar in the same affair. But despite the sense among many participants in the case that it was she who instigated her cloddish husband to the lucrative homicide, the prosecution couldn’t assemble a satisfactory case and dropped charges later that year.

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1416: Jerome of Prague, the first Hussite martyr

Add comment May 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1416, the Council of Constance had Jerome of Prague burned at the stake in the town square.

This eloquent, injudicious theologian studied at Prague, Oxford, Paris, Cologne, Heidelberg … accumulating Master’s degrees along the way like a career graduate student, but repeatedly finding himself run off the premises on suspicion of heresy.

Jerome’s “heresy” was an excessively combative hostility to ecclesiastical corruption. And although Jerome was known for his rapier tongue, he didn’t always find the pen mightier than the sword: he got into a few physical scraps with his foes.

While in England, he copied out a manuscript of preacher John Wycliffe — whose radical piety (or pious radicalism) inspired the rebellious Lollard movement.

Back on the continent, Jerome fell in with Jan Hus. Ten years Jerome’s senior, Hus was and remains the first name in Bohemian religious reform, and the “Hussite” church he founded still retains his name.

After Hus unwisely accepted a guarantee of safe conduct to dispute at the Council of Constance, the more ornery Jerome slipped into town to propagandize on his mentor’s behalf. After placarding his way to trouble, he slipped back out and must have thought he’d had his cake and eaten it too … until he was caught in the Black Forest.

Jerome spent nearly a full year in a dungeon — the Council met for four years; it had a massive schism to sort out — and at one point the privations of imprisonment led him recant. He later bitterly regretted that concession to “pusillanimity of mind and fear of death,” but on a strictly doctrinal level Jerome of Prague wasn’t anti-Catholic: he just wanted the church to be less of a bunch of corrupt, overweening racketeers.

By the time he was ready to answer for himself, and his soul, he was well past any spirit of capitulation. A witness to the procedure wrote of Jerome on trial for his life:

I have never seen any one, who, in pleading, especially in a capital offence, approached nearer the eloquence of the ancients, whom we so greatly admire. It was so amazing to see with what fluency of language, what force of expression, what arguments, what looks and tones of voice, with what eloquence, he answered his adversaries and finally closed his defence. It was impossible not to feel grieved, that so noble, so transcendent a genius had turned aside to heretical studies, if indeed the charges brought against him are true.

When that part of his indictment was read in which he is accused of being “a defamer of the papal dignity, an opposer of the Roman pontiff, an enemy of the cardinals, a persecutor of the prelates and clergy, and a despiser of the Christian religion,” he arose, and with outstretched hands and with lamenting tones, exclaimed: “Whither now, conscript Fathers, shall I turn myself? Whose aid can I implore? Whom supplicate, whom entreat for help? Shall I turn to you? Your minds have been fatally alienated from me by my persecutors, when they pronounced me an enemy of all mankind, even of those by whom I am to be judged. They supposed, should the accusations which they had conjured up against me, seem trivial, — you would, by your decisions, not fail to crush the common enemy and opposer of all, — such as I had been held up to view, in their false representations. If, therefore, you rely upon their words there is no longer any ground for me to hope.”

Some of them he wrung hard by the sallies of his wit; while others he overwhelmed with biting sarcasms; and from many, even in the midst of sadness, he forced frequent smiles, by the ridicule which he heaped upon their accusations.

At length, launching out in praise of John Huss who had been condemned to the fire, he pronounced him a good, just, and holy man, altogether unworthy of such a death, — adding that he was also prepared to undergo, with fortitude and constancy, any punishment whatsoever, yielding himself up to his enemies and the impudent lying witnesses, “who would, at length, have to give an account of all they had uttered, before God, whom they could not possibly deceive.” Great was the grief of all that stood around him. Thee was a universal desire among them to save so noble a personage, could his own consent be obtained. Persevering, however, in his opinions, he seemed voluntarily toseek death; and continuing his praise of John Huss, he declared that man had never conceived any hostility to the church of God; but that it was to the abuses of the clergy, and the pride, pageantry and insolence of her prelates alone he felt opposed; for, since the patrimony of the church was due, in the first place, to her poor; then to her guests; and finally to her on workshops; it seemed to that good man, a shameful thing, to have it expended upon courtezans and in banquets; for the sustenance of horses and dogs, the adornment of garments and other things unworthy of the religion of Christ.

Most exalted was the genius of which he showed himself possessed! Often was he interrupted in his discourse by various noises; and greatly vexed by those who carped at his opinions; yet he left none of them untouched, but equally avenging himself upon all, he either covered them with confusion, or else compelled them to hold their peace. A murmur arising against him, he paused for a moment; and then, having admonished the crowd, proceeded with his defence, — praying and beseeching them to suffer one to speak whom they would soon hear no more. At none of the noise and commotion around him did he tremble, or lose, for a single instant, the firmness and the intrepidity of his mind.

“You will condemn me iniquitously and unjustly,” he prophesied to his judges, “and when I am dead, I shall leave remorse in your consciences and a dagger in your hearts; and soon, within a hundred years, — you will all have to answer me, in the presence of a Judge most high and perfectly just.”

Reports differ as to the subsequent standing of all these men’s souls. But for the church as a going earthly concern, Jerome nailed it almost exactly: 101 years after he followed Jan Hus to the stake,* that long-suppressed spirit of reform irrevocably splintered papal authority.

* In the very same spot where Hus himself was burnt.

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1916: Robert Digby in Villeret

Add comment May 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Private Robert Digby was shot by a German firing squad in the tiny northern France village of Villeret.

Digby was the last of a quartet of English soldiers who had been part of the British Expeditionary Force who met the Hun’s first foray into France in 1914.

Digby and his mates, Thomas Donohoe, David Martin and William Thorpe, were stranded behind lines.

Villeret took them in and changed their uniforms for peasant clothes while they worked the fields and tried to keep their heads down.

“Every inhabitant of Villeret knew of the British soldiers in their midst but none breathed a word, although the Germans had threatened to execute anyone harbouring enemy fugitives,” writes Ben McIntyre, who wrote the book on these men. “Even when food ran low and German troops were billeted on every house, the secret was kept safe. It was an astonishing act of collective bravery.”

To the west, in trenches the men could not pass, the war ground uncounted souls into horsemeat.

Digby became the lover of a village girl, and fathered a daughter by her.

This perilous idyll under the very bowers of hell could not last long. The Brits were mysteriously betrayed, and arrested by the Germans in May 1916 — all save Digby, who escaped out the window of a barn.

Donohoe, Martin and Thorpe were shot as spies on May 27.

After a week on the run in the nearby woods, the mayor of Villeret found Digby, and told him that the Germans were threatening to execute the villagers unless he turned himself in to face his comrades’ fate. Digby did so.

McIntyre’s book, A Foreign Field: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in the Great War, explored the village of Villeret and the life of Digby’s daughter Hélène Cornaille-Digby — an infant when her father was shot; an octogenarian when McIntyre met her.

The enduring mystery of the place, at least to McIntyre as an outsider, was the unanswered question of who betrayed the English. Was it a jealous lover? A disapproving family? A fearful neighbor?

Years after the publication of the book, McIntyre (so he thinks) accidentally solved the mystery.

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2000: Fu Xinrong, involuntary organ donor

4 comments May 30th, 2009 Headsman

One Fu Xinrong was shot in the back of the head this day in China’s Jiangxi province. The previous fall, he had raped his girlfriend, murdered their newborn son, and turned himself in to police.

His death, just one no-account criminal among China’s thousands of practically anonymous execution victims, attracted no particular notice.

But quite against all odds, Fu Xinrong posthumously became the subject of a scandal: the hook for a story in the Chinese press piquantly titled, “Where Did My Brother’s Body Go?”

For the answer — that Fu Xinrong’s corpse had been driven to a Nanchang hospital and its kidneys transplanted to unidentified recipients — unveiled the shadowy post-execution operations even more unseemly than China’s industrial-scale death penalty.

According to a Washington Post report of July 31, 2001,

After Fu was shot in the back of the head, four attendants got out of the van and picked up his corpse … A government prosecutor attempted to stop them, but they explained that they were from Nanchang and that they had a deal with the court …

“We found the hospital’s director and confronted him with the evidence,” one reporter said. “In the beginning, he refused to say anything about it, but when he saw what we had, he had to admit it on the condition that we did not release the hospital’s name in our report.”

Further investigation indicated that a senior court official, whose surname is Yang, had sold the body to the hospital, the report said.

Fu’s father committed suicide. The family sued the court in 2001; I have not been able to establish whether or how that suit was resolved. However, according to a 2003 U.S. Congress report (pdf) the editor who green-lighted the story’s publication was sacked.*

Fu’s case, in any event, is far from unusual.

On the contrary, his kidneys entered a veritable souk** of transplanted organs that’s been openly pitched at westerners willing to part with five figures and their decency in exchange for a life-giving replacement part from a shot-to-order prisoner.

* This would have been around the same time that a similar fate befell journalists indiscreet enough to explore the unflattering-to-the-People’s-Republic social environment of an executed gangster.

** Finally officially acknowledged in 2005.

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1431: Joan of Arc

May 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1431, Joan of Arc (also Jeanne d’Arc, even though d’Arc wasn’t really her name at all) was burned at the stake for heresy in the marketplace of Rouen, France.

A Joan of Arc statue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Very much has been written and said about this strange figure, the Maid of Orleans — not quite so much larger than life as she seems otherworldly to it: in her mystical exaltation, in her unthinkable elevation from the illiterate peasantry to military command (and bizarrely effective intervention in the intractable Hundred Years’ War).

Apotheosis to the ranks of France’s national heroes is the least of it; Joan’s iconography extends well outside her homelands and well beyond the project of feudal restoration that was her short life’s concern.

Her myth has had a robust afterlife, but her accomplishments in the flesh were quite real — staggering, even. At the nadir of France’s fortunes, she convinced the French dauphin Charles VII of her divine inspiration in April 1429 and, far more aggressive (and some would say lucky) than the army’s noble commanders, immediately relieved the English siege of Orleans. By July, she had captured Reims, where Charles was crowned king.

The next year, Joan was captured by the Burgundians, who sold her to the British, who in turn subjected her to an ecclesiastical inquiry — what became a remarkable, exhaustively documented three-week interrogation, in which she deftly matched wits with academic persecutors over the reality and nature of her divine visions.

She was immediately considered a martyr by her own side — and twenty years later, when the war had finally ended, another court reversed the verdict against her — but her universal appeal and cultural ubiquity remained a long time off.*

“Dark-minded man!”
The Maid of Orleans answered, “to act well
Brings with itself an ample recompense.
I have not reared the oriflamme of death —
Now God forbid! The banner of the Lord
Is this; and, come what will, me it behooves,
Mindful of Him whose minister I am,
To spare the fallen foe: that gracious God
Sends me a messenger of mercy forth,
Sends me to save this ravaged realm of France,
To England friendly as to all the world;
Only to those an enemy, whose lust
Of sway makes them the enemies of man.”

-Robert Southey

The romantic 19th century took up her standard when the trial records were uncovered — liberals cottoned to her lowly birth, conservatives to her monarchist project, all France to her proto-nationalism, all Catholics to her faith (she was elevated to sainthood in the early 20th century; May 30 is also her feast day). The Vichy government and the French Resistance both claimed her in World War II. Her gender and sexuality have invited modern attention, just as they did for her judges: she works (anachronistically, of course) as a girl-power pop feminism icon, and her masculine social role gives her queer cachet; she made a point of keeping her virginity, but may have been sexually assaulted in prison, an event that figures in Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse.

Joan stands equal to such varied identities because the mysteriously personal qualities of her story invite the observer into it, and those qualities hold precisely because of her fiery end this day. What would Joan have been in five or ten years’ time, had she escaped capture or held to her temporary renunciation of wearing men’s clothes (the head-scratching but subtly profound charge that finally doomed her)? An aging commander with the gloss off her, a partisan of some faction of the abject French court, a hostage somewhere being ransomed for gold plate or quietly poisoned off?

Her myth and its antithesis work because she came in radiance from dust, and followed her conscience — her God, her will, her destiny, or what have you — back to dust.

Though adapted many times for the screen, the definitive Joan of Arc film remains the 1928 silent treament La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, scripted largely from the original trial transcripts. The movie’s lead Maria Falconetti — and indeed the very silence of the medium — convey something of that mysterious, multifaceted meaning left to us tantalizingly suspended between the 19-year-old who stood at the stake this day and the legend that arose from her ashes.

Books about Joan of Arc

(The Mark Twain book is in the public domain and available free at Project Gutenberg in both text (part 1 | part 2) and audio (part 1 | part 2) forms.)

* Shakespeare, for instance, writing Henry VI Part I about Charles VII’s English opposite number, has Joan in a rather more negative light than a modern reader is used to seeing — as a witch and a whore. In her last battlefield appearance, she summons demons …

Enter Fiends
This speedy and quick appearance argues proof
Of your accustom’d diligence to me.
Now, ye familiar spirits, that are cull’d
Out of the powerful regions under earth,
Help me this once, that France may get the field.

… who fail to aid her although she offers them her body. Later, condemned to the stake, she cravenly tries to plead her belly by claiming that she slept with several other characters.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,France,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Myths,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Soldiers,The Supernatural,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women

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