1916: John MacBride

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Major John MacBride was shot on this date in 1916 for his improvised role in the Easter Rising.

A doctor by training and a republican by heart, MacBride earned his officer’s commission when, as an emigre to South Africa, he raised the Irish Transvaal Brigade to fight against the British during the Second Boer War. (The Boer nationalist cause was wildly popular among Irish nationalists: they had the same enemy.)

The British during that conflict were aggressive about treating as “rebels” even guerrillas whose nationality was in question, so the fact that the Irishman MacBride accepted citizenship from the Transvaal Republic and went to war against the Crown made him a right traitor in London’s eyes. After the war, he laid low in Paris and married Maud Gonne to the annoyance of the lovestruck poet W.B. Yeats who had unsuccessfully wooed Gonne.*

Back in Ireland once gone from Gonne, MacBride’s Boer War bona fides made him such an obvious locus of sedition that the Easter Rising conspirators kept him entirely away from their plot for fear of inviting the attention of whomever was watching MacBride. Instead, he walked into events accidentally, finding the rising occurring while he was in town to meet his brother.

A proper Irish patriot with military experience that the revolutionaries sorely needed,** MacBride recognized what was happening and presented himself to Thomas MacDonagh — who gave him a snap appointment to the command team occupying Jacob’s Biscuit Factory.

After events had run their course, MacBride embraced his martyrdom with such equanimity that some wondered whether he hadn’t tired of life. More likely, he was just being realistic: as he halloed to another prisoner who hailed him, “Nothing will save me, Sean. This is the end. Remember this is the second time I have sinned against them.” His dignified and fatalistic final address to the court that condemned him concluded,

I thank the officers of the court for the fair trial I have had, and the Crown counsel for the way he met every application I made. I have looked down the muzzles of too many guns in the South African War to fear death, and now please carry out your sentence.

* The two married in 1903 and divorced in 1905. Yeats alleged in private correspondence that MacBride had molested Gonne’s daughter, Iseult. (Repeatedly rebuffed by Maud Gonne, Yeats later also proposed to Iseult, who was 30 years his junior. There’s a lot going on here.) This allegation has blackened MacBride’s name down the years although its credibility remains in question since the jealous Yeats was an extremely hostile observer.

After the Easter Rising was crushed, Yeats spared some verse in his poem “Easter, 1916″ to throw some (qualified) shade at his dead rival, which drew him a rebuke from Maud.

This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

** General Charles Blackader, who suppressed the Easter Rising and presided over the ensuing courts-martial, reportedly admired “the most soldierly” MacBride: “He on entering the court stood to attention, facing us. In his eyes, I could read: ‘You are soldiers, so am I. You have won. I have lost. Do your worst.'” (From Secret Court Martial Records of the Easter Rising)

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1725: John Coamber

Add comment May 5th, 2017 Headsman

The Dublin hanging of John Coamber on this date in 1725 for the previous year’s notorious mugging/murder of a city counselor named Richard Hoar(e) arrives to us, as have several previous posts, via James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland.

In this instance, Kelly gives us two rival “last speeches.” It’s a genre that he says was exploding in the 1720s, with the burgeoning of print culture and the importation of similar purported gallows unburdenings.

And as we saw in a 1726 exemplar from the same book, the publishers who flooded this burgeoning market were at daggers drawn with one another over precedence for inside information and autobiographical authenticity. This is another case where one of the documents — Cornelius Carter’s — takes space to take a shot at the rival tract.

We also see here in Carter’s more detailed (and here, sarcastic) narrative that two different, innocent, men were hanged for the murder some time before one of the three real killers saved his own neck by shopping Coamber.


The Last Speech, Confession and Dying Words of
John Comber

who is to be Hang’d and Quarter’d this present Wednesday, being the 5th, of this Inst. May 1725. Near St. Stephen’s-Green; for Murdering Councellor Hoar, in January last.

Good Christians,

My Heart has been so hard hitherto, that I had no Manner of thought of either Soul or Body, but now I seeing Death plainly before my Face, causes me to consider of my latter End; and praise God for giving so much Grace so to do; therefore I am resolv’d to make a Publick Confession of my past Life and Conversation, which is as follows.

As to my Birth and Parentage, it is but a folly to relate, yet I can say I came from very honest Parents, who took what Care they could to bring me up in the Love and Fear of God, but I contrary to the Laws of God and Man, have gon [sic] astray, and follow’d Loose Idle Company, which brought me to this untimely Death; and how it came to pass was thus.

I being Entimitly Acquainted with one Patrick Freel, and David McClure, with whom I went to a House in New-street, where we then (after several meetings) made a Plot to get Money, by reason it was scarce with us, at length we Consulted the 19th, of January last, to Robb the first we wou’d meet with, and being over perswaided by the Devil, I went to the House of Mr. Carter and meeting a Child of his, bid him fetch his Dady’s Pistol, and I would fetch him some sweet things, upon the same promise, the Child brought me a Pistol, and then I, in Conjunction with the above Named Persons, went towards Stephen’s-Green, where we met with Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Leeson’s Clerk, whom we Robb’d of a Ten Peney Piece, from that we proceeded to Henry-street, where we met the Deceased Gentleman, to whom I went up, and Demanded his Money, with that he moving his Arm, and I having the Pistol Cock’d, caused the same to go off, tho’ as I shall Answer my God I did not think of being his Butcher; and when I found the Pistol went off, I never staid to know whether he had Money or no, but took to my Heels as fast as I could.

Then I went to the Sign of the Black Swan in Mary’s-Lane, where I and my Comrads met; from that my Prosocuter Patrick Freel and I, went to the Country where we staid for some small Time, then I came back, and as God, who never suffers Murder to be Conceal’d, I was soon Apprehended and put to Goal, upon Suspission, where I lay as good as a Month, but a Proclamation being Isued out, concerning the Murder, he came in and made Oath that I was the Person that Shot the Councellor, which to my sorrow is True.

Having no more to say but beging the Prayers of all good Christians, I die a Roman Catholick, and in the 22d. Year of my Age, and the Lord have Mercy on my poor Soul Amen.

Dublin: Printed by C.P. 1725.


The Last Speech, Confession and Dying Words of
John Coamber

who is to be Hang’d, Drawn and Quarter’d this Day, being the 5th of this Instant May 1725. For the Murder of Councellor HOAR in Henry Street the 19th of Jan. last.
Deliver’d to the Printer hereof C. CARTER the 5th of May, and to no other, By me John Coamber. And All others are Imposing on the Publick.

All you my Spectators,

This is to give you the following Account, I was born in the Town which is Call’d Thurles, in the County of Tipperary in Munster, of very honest Parents, that brought me up in the fear of God, and Wou’d give me good Learning, but I was too Head-strong, and wou’d not be Rul’d or Guided by my tender Parents, but left ‘em and went to serve a Tobacco-twister, which I work’t at for about 5 years, being weary of that I came for Dublin, being a stranger, I turn’d Porter about Cork-hill, where I stood and follow’d that business for near 3 years, all this time I behav’d my self very honestly, and was well belov’d by all that knew me, especially in the above Neighbourhood, being weary of that, I took a fancy to Cry News about this City, which in a little time, I began to get a great many pence by it, and in sometime after, I became Acquainted with Idle and loose Company, Viz. and in the process of time I came to be acquainted with particular Persons and some others who first brought me in Company among Whores to Drink and spend my Money &c. Which was the first Cause of my Destruction.

Afterwards I went of my own Accord, and follow’d the said Evil Custom and other ill Actions, then I became as obdurate and as Wicked as the worst of my Ring-leaders.

I have Reason to Curse them Idle fellows which made me first acquainted with the whores and Pick-pockets in this City, of which there is abundance too many.

But finding Money not Answering to keep the above Company, being acquainted with one David McClure who was my chief Comrade, and who made his Escape to France after the Murder was Committed, he and I stuck together, and followed a very Idle Course of Life, and we Committed several ill Facts in this City and Liberties thereof.

All our shifts not Answering, I, McClure, and Patrick Freel (who was the first Evidence against me) Resolv’d to turn Robber, but never did design to be Guilty of Murder, and did design when we got a Sum of money that was worth While, to leave the Country.

I confess, that Patrick Freel, David McClure and I went on the 19th of January last at Night, to Henry Street, with a Design to Rob, or Plunder the first Gentleman that came that way; which was the luck of that worthy honest Gentleman Councellor Hoar, though I declare before God I did not design to hurt him, or any Man else that time.

I do also Confess that I did own to the Blind Boy, Lawrence Dugan, (who was the t’other Evidence against me) that Patrick Freel, David McClure and I myself, were all Guilty of the Murder for which I now suffer, but I wonder he did not Discover, it when one Pitts and another one Hand, had like to suffer for this Murder. (emphasis added -ed.)

I further Declare, tho’ it was falsely and Scandalously Publish’d in Print, by one Mrs. Needham and her Son Dickson; that I had got Mr. Carter’s Pistols from his young Son about 8 years of Age, (we had but one Pistol among us) and as I am a Dying Man I got no such thing from the said Child, nor none of his Family, neither did I steal any such thing out of his House in my Life time.

I accused one Daniel Field and Michael Tankard falsly, which I am heartily sorry for, but it was by the Advice of Winfred Dunn and Patrick Dunn the 2 Informers, that swore against Pitts and Hand that was Try’d the last Term for this Fact.

I beg of my great God to forgive my Prosecutors, and all my Enemies, as I do forgive them from the bottom of my heart.

I hope this my untimely End will be a Warning to my Comrades, and also to all young Men, which I pray to God it may. For my own part I own I am Guilty of the Fact for which I Die, And I hope the Lord of his infinite Goodness, will have Mercy on my Soul and forgive me.

I am about 19 Years of Age I dye a Roman Catholick, and Desires the Prayers of all Good Christians, and the Lord have Mercy on my poor Soul. Amen.

JOHN COAMBER

DUBLIN: Printed by Corn. Carter. 1725.

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1854: John Hendrickson, junk science victim

Add comment May 5th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1854, an Albany, N.Y. man named John Hendrickson hanged for the murder by aconite poisoning of his wife, Maria. “He has suffered the highest penalty of the law,” New York’s Weekly Herald pronounced the next day — “but whether justly or not, will likely never be known on earth.”

Whatever the prisoner’s denials,* a web of suspicious circumstances clasped the hemp around his throat. Hendrickson, whose family had some money and connections, fought the conviction tooth and nail; his then-unusual three appeals, plus clemency petition to the governor, stretched the time from conviction to execution out to nearly a year. “The evidence adduced … was so entirely circumstantial, and the testimony of the scientific men so liable to doubt and contradiction, that it was generally feared the murderer would escape,” a Boston Post correspondent reported.** But not to worry: “the atmosphere of guilt seemed to surround him in the whole county; not a man could be found that, at heart, believed him innocent.” We’re scarcely prepared at this distance to assert an affirmative case for the man’s innocence, but in some ways it reads like an antebellum Cameron Willingham case, all the way down to the dubious forensic evidence.

Like Willingham, Hendrickson was a less than stellar husband. He was noted for abusing his wife, philandering, and doing both together when he “communicated to her a loathsome veneral disease.”

The supposed murder motivation was his wife’s recent inheritance of the estate of her father, who died just a few months before the murder. Little could really be proven save by inference from the man’s bad character; in classic tunnel-vision fashion, the record suggests nearly every data point became fixed according to this theory. For example, Hendrickson’s trial prosecutors read into evidence — in the part of their presentation they called the “Moral Evidence” — that Hendrickson remarked at his wife’s autopsy that “they won’t find arsenic.” You and I might think he’s saying that the examination will dispel the gathering suspicions of poisoning, and saying it by reference to the chemical that was the metonym for poisoning in the nineteenth century. For the state, his uttering these words was

as if he knew (as he undoubtedly did) the precise poison which she had swallowed — as if he knew that that common poison, which is found in most cases of the kind, had not been given by the murderer in this case, and hence they won’t find arsenic. Ah! gentlemen, it was nature speaking out, as she often unconsciously or unguardedly will, disclosing the otherwise well concealed and apparently undiscoverable crime.

(This is why you don’t talk to police.)

The district attorney introduced evidence courtesy of chemists named Salisbury and Swinburne, to the effect that it was no mean arsenic that carried away Maria Hendrickson but the more exotic potion of aconite — derived from a toxic herb seeded (per Ovid) by Cerberus himself.

One can peruse the evidence presented in the case here, but the most remarkable part of this trial record is the appendix — wherein numerous medical men, including a former teacher of Dr. Salisbury, skewer the forensic processes used to decide that Maria Hendrickson died by poison and even offer to reproduce them in person under the eyes of Gov. Horatio Seymour to prove their unreliability. Their findings harshly undercut the only concrete evidence that any murder took place at all.

“I am pained and oppressed with the conviction that the medical witnesses for the prosecution have, in a main point of this case, abused the confidence with which criminal courts so often compliment the man of science,” one writes — words that could still today be applied to many disciplines of junk science that have disappeared bodies into oubliettes on the strength of lie detectors, bite mark analysis, matching hair samples, and suchlike hocus-pocus.

We turn from the contemplation of this subject with feelings of sorrow, not that any of ours have been crushed under the wheels of mutilated justice, set in motion by ignorance and false science, but we feel now, as we have always felt, that a great personal wrong has been committed under the authority of law, for which there can be no atonement, as the dead cannot be brought to life, nor the blasted feelings of the living restored.

It would be well, too, for judges and jurors, who are very often hasty and inconsiderate in letting their feelings and prejudices get the better of their judgment, to remember that life, human life, is neither a toy nor a rattle, but the gift of God; when once extinguished, no matter how, it is gone forever, and the dead never rise again.

-Dr. Charles A. Lee, reviewing the Hendrickson case

* Hendrickson’s final message to his parents via his spiritual advisor, on the eve of his hanging:

To-morrow I am to die, and standing as I do on the brink of eternity, I wish to say to you, in the presence of that God before whom I am so soon to appear, that I am entirely innocent of the crime of murdering my wife. I did not give her poison. I do not know that any one gave her poison. She did not come to her death by violence of any kind, so far as I know. I believe she died a natural death. She did not vomit on the night of her death. [This remark touches the disputed forensic evidence; vomiting would be a symptom of poisoning, and state chemists’ assertion that Maria had done so was among the conclusions challenged by outside scientists. -ed.] I never knew that there was such an article as aconite in the world, until after I was in jail. Nor did I know it by any other name. I do not know that I have anything further to add, except to say some farewell words to my parents. But you will remember what I have said to you, and inform them of it. I wish you to make it public.

** Transcribed here via the Portland (Me.) Advertiser of Apr. 18, 1854.

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1432: Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola, scheming condottiero

Add comment May 5th, 2015 Headsman

Italian mercenary Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola was beheaded on this date in 1432.

A successful condottiero was defined by a mixture of battlefield success and cutthroat scheming, and it was his clumsiness with the latter that did in Carmagnola.

His name denotes his origin, from a town in the Piedmont where despite his low birth, his talents raised him to a command for Filippo Maria Visconti‘s brutally successful campaign* to reunite his father’s divided patrimony and make the Duchy of Milan a peninsular power.

So you might think that Carmagnola stood to reap ample rewards for fastening himself to a rising star. But Visconti, perhaps fearing the prospect of a subordinate accumulating enough power to mount a coup d’etat, used a niggardly hand with the emoluments that his general was anticipating — and this led Carmagnola to ditch the Duchy and make an arrangement with its rival, Venice.

The turncoat had the satisfaction of smashing his former Milanese mates at the 1427 Battle of Maclodio, a battle that helped to achieve for Serene Republic its largest-ever Italian territorial expanse.

But his failure to follow up the victory aggressively soon tested the patience of his new patrons. After a short interval of peace, Venice resumed war with Milan in 1431, and here Carmagnola dilated unacceptably (Italian link), failing to advance on Cremona and instead proposing to winter his army — in August.

The Venetian Council of Ten also caught wind that Carmagnola was maintaining a secret correspondence with Milan and exploring the prospect of changing teams yet again.

Determined to have done with the snake, it summoned him back to Venice under the pretense of convening a war council for the 1432 campaign season. He arrived to find that it was too late in the day to meet the Doge, but as he started for his gondola to retire one of the Venetian gentlemen who had been sent to meet him instead directed his steps away.

“That is not my way,” Carmagnola objected.

“Yes, yes, this is your right path,” the man insisted — and Bussone, beholding him gesturing to the yawning gate of the Piombi dungeon, could only exclaim, “I am lost!”


The arrest of Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola

He was beheaded as a traitor between the scenic columns of San Marco and San Todaro. His widow returned to Milan and eventually repatriated the late commander’s remains to his native soil.

* Carmagnola left a nasty legacy to the world’s architectural heritage during this time by collapsing the Trezzo sull’Adda Bridge, the widest-spanning single-arch bridge ever built before the industrial age.

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1624: Antonio Homem, at the hands of the Portuguese Inquisition

Add comment May 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1624, Coimbra University theologian Antonio Homem was burned at the stake in a Lisbon auto de fe.

Homem came from a “neo-Christian” family, Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity. Considering the compulsion, one could fairly question the piety of such “Christians”; in a great moment in damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t, the Spanish Inquisition fired up to probe the potential un-Christian activity of neo-Christians.

Neighboring Portugal was just a beat behind Spain in all this; Spain expelled its Jews — the ones who weren’t willing to convert — in 1492, and Portugal did so in 1497. The Portuguese Inquisition began in 1536 and, like Spain’s, took conversos as a primary focus.*

Homem’s family’s response was to be more Catholic than the Pope and have Antonio trained for the clergy; he became canon of the Cathedral of Coimbra and a doctor at the University of Coimbra.

Homem was in his fifties when it became known among his colleagues that he was of New Christian stock, and this circumstance soon attracted unwanted attention — and eventually, his denunciation for allegedly leading a secret Judaic cell. Homem, it is said, “often took the part of priest”; The Other Within: The Marranos, Split Identity and Emerging Modernity describes a Kippur ceremony from the Inquisition records.

The public, all fasting and dressed in white, used the Christian Bible (the Vulgate) to recite Latin Psalms that expressed a Jewish-Marrano sentiment (Psalms such as “When Israel came out of Egypt,” “On the rivers of Babylon,” and “From the Abyss I called you, O God”). In those ancient Jewish poems the Marranos expressed their own, specific sense of exile and yearning for redemption. A few “priests of the Law of Moses,” replicating a Catholic ceremony, dressed Homem in a long elegant garment and put “a sort of miter” on his head, decorated with golden plaque. There was an altar there, and incense, and painted images of Moses and of a Marrano martyr or saint “who had been … burned as a Jew.”

The inner life of the converso is a great riddle from our distance of time and context. It is immediately tempting to perceive religious martyrs here, people who were forced underground but still kept what they could of the faith of their fathers at risk of life and limb.

Such a reading paradoxically allies us with their persecutors, for it is by the Inquisition’s hand that we have the evidence — and this is a source whose evidence we greet very skeptically when it, for instance, charges conversos with murdering Christian children. Inquisitors all around Europe were after all involved in these very years in scaring up secret witches’ covens to incinerate, and it was not unknown for the deadly judicial apparatus to be borrowed here and there from restraining the minions of Hell in order to service business opportunities, political aspirations, or private grudges of the personal or professional variety. Try asking a present-day academic how easy they’d sleep knowing their colleagues on the tenure committee also had a few buddies in the Holy Inquisition.

Antonio Jose Saraiva’s The Marrano Factory: The Portuguese Inquisition and Its New Christians 1536-1765** contends that most “Judaizing” Christians were just plain Christians — caught up like accused witches and warlocks could be in some specious neighborhood rumor that became a self-fulfilling accusation. “Inevitably,” says Saraiva, “a family quarrel or a commercial intrigue would lead to several series of denunciations, followed by arrests. Arrests led to trials which spiraled into new rounds of arrests and trials.” Saraiva argues that Homem’s recently-exposed Jewish heritage probably just made him a ready target when a commercial dispute of some sort led the Inquisition’s Coimbra tribunal to seize “scores of merchants engaged in the triangular commerce between Brazil, Oporto and Amsterdam.”

Whether Homem really did head a covert cult with 100-plus adherents reading Old Testament verses from the Latin Bible — or whether this was what an inquisitor goaded by Homem’s enemies supposed a secret Jew might do — he was left to rot in prison several years† after his 1619 condemnation while the Inquisition investigated dozens of his alleged adherents. These included other cathedral canons, professors and students at the university, nuns from four nearby convents, and other persons of some stature. (Homem, to his credit, refused to accuse anyone else.)

Homem was eventually among eight burned (Portuguese link) at an auto this date at the Ribeira de Lisboa, and his house was torn down to be replaced with a pillar inscribed “Praeceptor infelix”. Prior to their destruction they were favored with the preachings of Friar Antonio de Sousa who railed against the insidious Semitic threat to homeland security.

For our sins of the last years people of quality have been cross-breeding with these perverse Jews to whom I am referring. They became corrupted by their contact with them and have become Jews like they are. Just a few years ago only low-class, trashy Jews were paraded at the autos-da-fe. See what now appears for sentencing in the autos-da-fe and in this very one at which I am preaching: ecclesiastical personnel, friars, nuns, holders of master’s degrees, licentiates, doctors and professors with family connections to the nobility, people only half of New Christian origin, or a quarter, or an eighth, all confessing and convicted of Judaism. (Translated excerpt via Saraiva)

Readers with Portuguese proficiency can find more on this case in this 1999 book exploring the Inquisition’s Coimbra archives, or in Antonio Homem e a inquisição.

* For the setting of this post, the 1620s, Spain and Portugal are under the personal union of a common monarch, Philip IV.

** We’ve mentioned it before.

† One of the great (and eventually fatal) inefficiencies of the auto-de-fe system was its tendency to leave its future exhibits to languish for years in prisons before the prescribed spectacle could be properly arranged.

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1937: Camillo Berneri, anarchist intellectual

Add comment May 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Italian anarchist Camillo Berneri was kidnapped from his home by in Barcelona by armed paramilitaries. Berneri was shot that night.

Berneri (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish | timeline) had once been a University of Florence professor, but was forced into exile for opposing the fascist conquest of power in Italy.

When a coup threatened a similar right-wing conquest of power in Spain, Berneri organized the first column of Italian volunteers to oppose it.

International brigades poured into Spain to fight for the Republican government, but not everybody in the “popular front” was on the same side — a fact which became horrifyingly clear during Barcelona’s “May Days”, a week of internecine bloodletting in Republican Catalonia.

Anarcho-syndicalists of the CNT party and anti-Stalinist communists of POUM were the ones whose blood was mostly let; indeed, it might better be called a purge. The Moscow-backed Communist Party opposed the power of its putative comrades as much as or more than that of Franco. During the May Days, the Communists’ Catalan ally, a party called the PSUC, essentially took over Barcelona with the help of thousands of Assault Guards and killed, arrested, or dispersed the anarchists and Trotskyites.

Berneri clearly saw it coming, quoting Pravda in an April 1937 letter to the anarchist Health Minister criticizing his participation in the Popular Front government: “As for Catalonia, the purging of Trotskyist and anarcho-syndicalist elements has begun; this work will be carried out with the same energy with which it was done in the USSR.”

The British writer George Orwell served in a POUM unit, and the last third or so of his Spanish Civil War memoir Homage to Catalonia attempts to make sense of the chaotic scene.

Smitten when he arrived in Barcelona the previous December — “the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle”* — the writer scoffed at the Communists’ official justification that anarchists and friends were a “counter-revolutionary” element, or even in actual league with their nationalist enemies.

It seemed queer, in the barber’s shop, to see the Anarchist notice still on the wall, explaining that tips were prohibited. ‘The Revolution has struck off our chains,’ the notice said. I felt like telling the barbers that their chains would soon be back again if they didn’t look out.

I wandered back to the centre of the town. Over the P.O.U.M. buildings the red flags had been torn down, Republican flags were floating in their place, and knots of armed Civil Guards were lounging in the doorways. At the Red Aid centre on the corner of the Plaza de Cataluña the police had amused themselves by smashing most of the windows. The P.O.U.M. book-stalls had been emptied of books and the notice-board farther down the Ramblas had been plastered with an anti-P.O.U.M. cartoon — the one representing the mask and the Fascist face beneath.

Down at the bottom of the Ramblas, near the quay, I came upon a queer sight; a row of militiamen, still ragged and muddy from the front, sprawling exhaustedly on the chairs placed there for the bootblacks. I knew who they were — indeed, I recognized one of them. They were P.O.U.M. militiamen who had come down the line on the previous day to find that the P.O.U.M. had been suppressed, and had had to spend the night in the streets because their homes had been raided. Any P.O.U.M. militiaman who returned to Barcelona at this time had the choice of going straight into hiding or into jail — not a pleasant reception after three or four months in the line.

Also a fighter of the liquidated POUM, Orwell too was proscribed: he had a job to make it out of Barcelona without winding up in someone’s dungeon or firing range. His disgust with what revolutionary Barcelona had come to would help to inform his subsequent anti-Soviet literary efforts.

Berneri, too, was an outspoken anti-Communist. Long a major intellectual in the anarchist camp, he was clearly targeted by name, and hauled from his house along with his brother-in-law Francesco Barbieri by a death squad. Their bodies turned up riddled with bullet holes the next morning.

There’s a collection of Berneri’s writings in English translation here, including one piece dated to the very day of his disappearance; also see this pdf of Berneri’s work. He was survived by his daughter, Marie-Louise Berneri, who herself became a noted anarchist activist of the 1940s.

* Orwell on Barcelona circa December 1936: “Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt … Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’ … Tipping was forbidden by law … revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

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1760: Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers

2 comments May 5th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1760, Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers became the last member of the House of Lords to hang.

A violent-tempered man — madness was said to run in the family, and this was in fact the Earl’s defense at this trial — Ferrers’ nastiness ran his wife right out of the house. Consider this was the 18th century, he must have been some kind of intolerable.

Though it was directed at another member of the household, this anecdote from the Newgate Calendar may prove illustrative of the sort of fellow we’re dealing with:

Some oysters had been sent from London, which not proving good, his lordship directed one of the servants to swear that the carrier had changed them; but the servant declining to take such an oath, the earl flew on him in a rage, stabbed him in the breast with a knife, cut his head with a candlestick and kicked him on the groin with such severity, that he was incapable of a retention of urine for several years afterwards.

Right.

We’ve seen in these pages how a certain sort of ill-humored man would sooner go to the scaffold than subsidize his ex. Ferrers was this sort.

The arrangement for the Ferrers spouses (they weren’t divorced, just separated) was that Ferrers would pay her support via his old household steward. Chafing at the payments and resenting the middleman, Ferrers one day in January summoned him to his, theatrically accused him of breaking faith, and shot him through the chest.

The Earl was tried before the House of Lords (a jury of his peers, and Peers!),* but his sentence was straight from the Old Bailey: not just hanging, but anatomization.

However, his exalted rank did draw a few odd perquisites.

Most noticeably, perhaps, was the fact that Ferrers was allegedly hanged with a rope of silk, rather than hemp. For only the softest coiling around noble throats, you see.

The other, and in hindsight more consequential, was that he didn’t get the low-rent treatment of being shoved off a cart. Instead, the scaffold was surmounted with a small platform supporting a set of trap doors whose opening would suspend the malefactor for his asphyxiatory journey to the hereafter.

This, one of many illustrations of the hanging, suggests this novel feature:

This innovation presents us an obvious forebear of the now-familiar “drop” method of hanging which evolved over the subsequent centuries. Though the drop was not repeated at Tyburn, it became wholesale practice when hangings moved to Newgate Gaol; the drop itself thereafter became the very art of the hanging when it was lengthened and scientifically measured to snap the neck of the condemned on the fall instead of strangling him or her.

And you could trace it all back to May 5, 1760.

To judge from other engravings, this red-letter day did not want for witnesses.

Perhaps stage-frightened by all these eyeballs on their noteworthy prey, the executioners put on an amateur-hour show. They openly fought over the £5 tip Ferrers gave (he accidentally handed it to an assistant), and likewise again over the rope that conducted the sentence.

When next in London, wet your whistle at Streatham’s The Earl Ferrers, a local pub.

* Ferrers defended himself: a norm for the time, but to latter-day eyes rather hard to square with his insanity defense. You’ve got a lucid defendant relying upon his wits to save him in a juridical proceeding inquiring of his own witnesses, “Was I generally reputed a Madman?” (Ferrers’s defense, specifically, was “I’m periodically insane.” But when the wind is southerly, he knows a hawk from a handsaw.)

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1720: A deserter, by fellow-deserters

Add comment May 5th, 2011 Headsman

The sentence of death was often pronounced by courts-martial and not unfrequently carried out, a deserter convicted for the third time rarely escaping with his life. Many a man was shot in Hyde Park during the twenty years of peace, and no opportunity was lost to enhance the terror of the penalty, the firing party sometimes consisting solely of fellow-deserters, who were spared in consideration of the warning given by the ghastly body which their own bullets had pierced

-John Fortescue, A History of the British Army, vol. 2

Fortescue’s notes on this passage draw attention to the following account in the May 7, 1720 Weekly Journal.

On Thursday Morning the four Men, sentenced by a Court-Martial for Desertion, were brought hand-cuff’d to the Tilt-Yard Guard, from whence they marched with the Grenadiers at the Head of the Detachment to Hyde-Park; at the Place of Execution they were met by the Chaplain of the second Regiment of Guards, who prayed with them for a while; then three of the Prisoners, having before received the King’s Pardon, were restored to the Regiment, and ordered immediately to load their Pieces, and fire at their Comrade, which they obey’d; the Man was observed to give a little Spring after the Discharge of their Pieces, and a Corporal, who was kept, as usual, in Reserve, shot him through the Head; the other three Shot were lodged in his Breast. This is the third Time of his deserting.

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2003: Guillermo Gaviria Correa and nine other FARC hostages

Add comment May 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 2003, the Colombian military mounted a raid in an attempt to free 13 hostages of the narco-trafficking guerrilla organization FARC — causing the rebels to summarily execute their hostages. (Three survived.)

Most notable among the victims of what Colombian President Alvaro Uribe called “another massacre” in that country’s long-running civil war were two men:

Scion of a political family, Gaviria had become a notable exponent of nonviolence; he and Echeverri had been captured leading an unarmed, 1,000-person solidarity march in April of 2002.

It was part of the governor’s visionary (or quixotic) bid to transform his society.

As time passes, my confidence about the benefits of spreading and promoting nonviolence in Antioquia grows stronger. It is not about using nonviolence as a tool to try to transform FARC-EP attitudes. Before we can aim that high, it is absolutely necessary for the people of Antioquia to familiarize themselves with the concept of nonviolence and to adopt it, to the best of their abilities, as their own. We need nonviolence as a society to overcome our mistakes and transform the cruel reality suffered by so many in Antioquia. Here I have pondered about what kind of message I could offer as a leader. I came to the conclusion that the only message I want and can give is about the transforming power of nonviolence, its tremendous capacity to bring out the best in human beings, even in the worst of circumstances.

Peace activist Glenn D. Paige paid Gaviria the tribute of comparing him to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and nominated the governor for a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize.

The diary Gaviria kept during his year’s captivity, reflecting on his “journey toward nonviolent transformation,” has been published.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Activists,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Colombia,Cycle of Violence,Drugs,Execution,Executions Survived,Famous,History,Hostages,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Summary Executions

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1708: Jack Ovet, who left no hempen widow

Add comment May 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1708, an English highwayman whose sense of chivalry crossed the line between old-fashioned and delusional was hanged at Leicester.

Love and outlaws: a match made for balladeers.

Apprenticed a shoemaker, Jack Ovet had a mind to be a gentleman and the enterprise to seek his fortune among the unguarded coaches of Stuart England’s highways. And he affected full rehearsal for his future social role with an arch mien of chivalry. When one of his victims cited him for cowardice, Ovet laid down his pistols and fought a duel with swords, slaying the burgher.

In Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England, Frank McLynn examines the odd but sometimes real rules of honor observed by this romanticized species:

… there clearly were ‘Robin Hoods’ among the highwaymen, as well as individuals of refined sensibility and exquisite courtesy … The courtesy of highwaymen was shown in various ways: politeness to women, avoidance of pointing guns directly at victims, lack of thorough searches of passengers, even the return of favourite items of sentimental value.

Ovet went so far as to become genuinely besotten with a pretty young thing whose purse he relieved, rarely a wise move for a fellow living on his guile. He made bold to seduce his victim in a pseudonymous letter, thus:

MADAM,-These few lines are to acquaint you that though I lately had the cruelty to rob you of twenty guineas, yet you committed a greater robbery at the same time in robbing me of my heart; on which you may behold yourself enthroned, and all my faculties paying their homage to your unparalleled beauty. Therefore be pleased to propose but the method how I may win your belief, and were the way to it as deep as from hence to the centre, I will search it out. For by all my hopes, by all those rites that crown a happy union, by the rosy tincture of your checks, and by your all-subduing eyes, I prize you above all the world. Oh, then, my fair Venus, can you be afraid of Love? His brow is smooth, and his face beset with banks full of delight; about his neck hangs a chain of golden smiles. Let us taste the pleasures which Cupid commands, and for that unmerited favour I shall become another man, to make you happy. So requesting the small boon of a favourable answer to be sent me to Mr Walker’s, who keeps an ale-house at the sign of the Bell in Thornbury, in Gloucestershire, give me leave to subscribe myself your most humble servant to command for ever,

JOHN BURTON.

The lady remained resolutely unsmitten — and had a significantly more accurate forecast of her suitor’s future prospects than all that golden-smiles stuff:

SIR,-Yours I received with as great dissatisfaction as when you robbed me, and admire at your impudence of offering me yourself for a husband, when I am sensible ‘twould not be long ere you made me a hempen widow. Perhaps some foolish girl or another may be so bewitched as to go in white to beg the favour of marrying you under the gallows; but indeed I should venture neither there nor in a church to marry one of your profession, whose vows are treacherous, and whose smiles, words and actions, like small rivulets through a thousand turnings of loose passions, at last arrive to the dead sea of sin. Should you therefore dissolve your eyes into tears, was every accent a sigh in your speech, had you all the spells and magic charms of love, I should seal up my ears that I might not hear your dissimulation. You have already broken your word in not sending what you villainously took from me; but not valuing that, let me tell you, for fear you should have too great a conceit of yourself, that you are the first, to my remembrance, whom I ever hated; and sealing my hatred with the hopes of quickly reading your dying speech, in case you die in London, I presume to subscribe myself yours never to command,

D. C.

(Longtime readers may remember this piece briefly published last year on this date — a small snafu of the pre-publishing art.)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Theft

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