1766: Thomas Arthur de Lally-Tollendal, undiplomatic

Add comment May 9th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1766, a refugee noble with more honor than sense lost his head in Paris.

Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally, baron de Tollendal — more efficiently known as Lally, or as Lally-Tollendal, though he’s not to be confused in this with his son, a French Revolution bit player — entered this world in County Galway, the child of a minor lord.

Since said lord hewed to the Jacobite party favoring restoration of the Stuarts to the English throne, the family found itself relocated with the exiled Pretender to a continental power whose spiritual and temporal interests were similarly inimical to the Hanoverian king.

Our man landed himself, like a proper retainer of his adoptive liege, a gig in the French army in which capacity he actually served at the Jacobites’ last doomed British hurrah, the 1746 Battle of Falkirk.

But his problems came from his Bourbon service much further afield — in India.

There, his expeditionary force suffered reversal after reversal at the hands of the hated Brits, even then in the process of appending India to their dominions.

Our general’s military misadventures were compounded by impolitic high-handedness towards his officers and men, and to the locals whose alliances he needed. He was, in the main, a man ill-suited to the job entrusted to him. As the Memoirs of Sanson remark, “his temper, his obstinacy, and especially his contempt for all means of action except brutal strength, were destined to lead him into mistakes in a position demanding more knowledge of politics than science of war. Sixteen years before Lally-Tollendal’s appointment, Dupleix, with scanty forces, at enmity with the Company, receiving neither help nor subsidies from the mother country, had held in check English power in the Indian peninsula by mere diplomatic proficiency. Lally knew how to conquer; but he was incapable of studying and detecting the secrets of Dupleix’s policy.”

By the time the bad news that established all this hit France, the subcontinent was pretty much Britain’s to command — just another piece of the imperial butt-kicking France suffered in the Seven Years’ War.

And Lally’s enemies were holding him personally responsible as a potential traitor. After all, he was conveniently now in English custody.

Incensed at having his honor impugned, Lally unwisely obtained English parole to return to repel these charges. He proved no more diplomatic with the barristers than he had been with the Hindus:

he was so convinced of his own innocence that he was imprudent enough to impeach the officers who had served under his orders, together with the administrators of the colony. He charged them with such violence that his death and condemnation became indispensable for their justification … When the accused appeared before his judges, he was no more able to control his temper than when he was in India … answering, fuming, retorting, stigmatising the cowardice of some, the cupidity of others, and hinting that the only guilty party was the powerless Government.

Just the sort of vindication liable to appeal more to posterity than to said government. Louis XV, another man unequal to his position, was by this autumn of his reign plumbing the nadir of his unpopularity; for the officer who had risked his life in battle under French colors throughout adulthood, Louis calculated more profit in severity (or expedience) than in clemency. Hey, it had worked for the English.

And really, for a Stuart adherent, sacrificial execution was kind of an apt fate.

We guess it worked.

“The people were pleased with all that made his punishment ignominious: the cart, the handcuffs, and the gag,” recorded aristocrat-of-letters Madame du Deffand (Source) “He was a great rascal, and besides he was very disagreeable.”

Thomas Carlyle, in his The French Revolution, spared in Lally’s defense a few sentences of delicious invective for the rotting regime that did him in.

The Parlement of Paris may count itself an unloved body; mean, not magnanimous, on the political side. Were the King weak, always (as now) has his Parlement barked, cur-like at his heels; with what popular cry there might be. Were he strong, it barked before his face; hunting for him as his alert beagle. An unjust Body; where foul influences have more than once worked shameful perversion of judgment. Does not, in these very days, the blood of murdered Lally cry aloud for vengeance? Baited, circumvented, driven mad like the snared lion, Valour had to sink extinguished under vindictive Chicane. Behold him, that hapless Lally, his wild dark soul looking through his wild dark face; trailed on the ignominious death-hurdle; the voice of his despair choked by a wooden gag! The wild fire-soul that has known only peril and toil; and, for threescore years, has buffeted against Fate’s obstruction and men’s perfidy, like genius and courage amid poltroonery, dishonesty and commonplace; faithfully enduring and endeavouring,–O Parlement of Paris, dost thou reward it with a gibbet and a gag?

There’s a public-domain 19th century lecture on our man’s adventurous career here. And there’s a monument back home near Tuam, Ireland.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1794: Four members of the Targowica Confederation

3 comments May 9th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1794, four members of Poland’s pro-Russia Targowica Confederation were convicted of treason by a revolutionary court, and promptly hanged before a jeering mob in Warsaw.


The Hanging of traitors at Warsaw’s Old Town Market Square, by Jean-Pierre Norblin de La Gourdaine

This spectacle unfolds in a revolutionary age, which finds the first constitution in Europe* written … in Polish?

There was good reason.

The once-proud empire had been reduced to a pliable rump state under a sclerotic aristocracy.

The Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791 aimed for national rebirth with a constitutional monarchy and circumscribed nobility. This nationalist ferment was opposed equally by the Russian monarch Catherine the Great, and by a league of those circumscribed, sclerotic nobles which constituted itself the Targowica Confederation and immediately “invited” Russia to invade. Russia was happy to oblige.

This launched the countries into a war whose predictable outcome further reduced Polish territory in 1793.

There’d be one more hurrah for independent Poland, however: a 1794 national uprising under the leadership of war hero** Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

In Warsaw, that uprising drove the Polish King Stanislaw August Poniatowski† into Warsaw Castle as it overwhelmed the Russian garrison.

On May 9, four prominent Targowica supporters who had the misfortune to be trapped in the city — Jozef Ankwicz, Piotr Ozarowski, Jozef Zabiello and the Bishop of Livonia Jozef Kossakowski — were tried and demonstratively hanged.

Unfortunately for the Kosciuszko Uprising, the next day would mark Prussia’s entry into the fray, on the side of Russia, exacerbating the already dire balance-of-forces situation.

By the next year, defeated Poland ceased to exist altogether, partitioned among its stronger neighbors Russia, Prussia and Austria.

The historical legacy, nevertheless, is pretty clear. Kosciuszko has monuments in every Polish city, while targowiczanin remains an epithet for “traitor” in the Polish tongue to the present day.

* Except the Corsican Constitution.

** Kosciuszko was already an old hand at the revolution game: he’d crossed the Atlantic to fight for George Washington in the American Revolution.

† Catherine the Great’s former lover.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1947: Willie Francis, this time successfully

9 comments May 9th, 2009 Gilbert King

(Thanks to Gilbert King, author of The Execution of Willie Francis (book site), for the guest post, the second of two. Read the first here.)

On May 9, 1947, Willie Francis was executed in the same electric chair that he had walked away from a year and a week earlier, when a drunken prison guard and trustee bungled the wiring. Willie’s story had made front-page headlines around the country as the United States Supreme Court grappled with questions about what the State of Louisiana was permitted to do with regard to double jeopardy and cruel and unusual punishments.

One of the things that drew me to this story as I was working on my book, The Execution of Willie Francis, was the shroud of secrecy that surrounded the Willie Francis case.

Willie was accused and convicted of killing 53-year-old Andrew Thomas, a Cajun pharmacist who was something of a mystery to the people in the small town of St. Martinville, Louisiana. Thomas’ brother Claude was the town’s chief of police, and Willie was convicted by twelve Cajun jurors and sentenced to death by a Cajun judge. His court-appointed attorneys neither called nor cross examined any witnesses, and did not even make a case in defense of their 16-year-old client.

The prosecution based its entire case on a confession obtained while Willie was in police custody without the aid of a lawyer. In this confession, Willie wrote, “it was a secret about me and him,” which was never explained. It was obvious to me that there was more to Willie’s story than the version presented in trial and to the public.

In my research, I came across a photograph taken on the evening Willie had survived his own execution. He’d been brought back to his cell, and the sheriff allowed reporters and a photographer to visit with Willie, where he told them that death tasted “like peanut butter” and looked a lot “like shines in a rooster’s tail.” The photographer asked for a few pictures, and Willie, holding his dog-eared Bible, stood in front of a dull pink wall. The flash fired.

This picture was never used by any of the newspapers. There was a lot of glare on the wall, and the photographer had gotten a much better one of Willie smiling — the picture that ended up on the front page of many newspapers the next day. But there was some writing on the wall image that was barely legible. I scanned it onto my computer and ran it through Photoshop, adding contrast and burning and dodging until the words could be read. The handwriting matched Willie’s.


Detail of the enhanced photograph. Click for the full image.

Not surprisingly, the sheriff had testified under oath that Willie had confessed to killing Andrew Thomas in writing on the wall of his cell a month before he was scheduled to die in the chair. But the Sheriff had also taken Willie’s words out of context, reading only select portions of the writing, and mischaracterizing others. In fact, Willie Francis, just as he had when he wrote in his confession that “it was a secret about me and him,” alluded to something different than the robbery-turned killing prosecutors accused him of. Willie wrote, “Practically I killed Andrew by accident. It will happen once in a life time”

Only two people know the truth about that fateful confrontation at the house of the Cajun bachelor and the black teenager who once worked for him. Both are dead, and the official story does not ring true. Willie Francis never denied killing Andrew Thomas. But he disputed the prosecution’s accusation that he was trying to rob the pharmacist. “I wasn’t after money,” Willie insisted to a reporter before he went to the chair a second time. Yet he would never elaborate, and took whatever “secret” there was between him and Thomas to his grave.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Louisiana,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1628: Johan Bernhard Reichardt, a nine-year-old witch

2 comments May 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1628, a prepubescent boy went to the stake at Würzburg, the victim of a witch-hunting spasm amid the confusion of the Thirty Years’ War.

Here is the story as related by Midelfort’s Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany, 1562-1684:

Bernhard Reichardt, a magistrate and wealthy man of Markelsheim, had tried to give his young son, Johan Bernhard, a decent education by sending him to school at Neuen Münster in Würzburg. In December of 1627, however, the father became convinced that his son had been seduced into witchcraft there, and transferred Johan Bernhard to the Jesuit school at Dettelbach. By mid-March 1628 the authorities in Würzburg were aware that this nine-year-old boy had been involved in witchcraft and wrote politely to the Teutonic Order in Mergentheim to ask for assistance in extraditing the child to Würzburg for questioning. Johann Caspar, Administrator of the Teutonic Order, responded at once that the boy was to be delivered up formally to the authorities at the border. By the end of March he was under the jurisdiction of the Würzburg authorities. Far from merely questioning him, the Würzburg court got Johan Bernhard to sign a confession on April 8 that he had been seduced into witchcraft by a classmate. Among other horrors, he had denied God, Mary, and all the saints and angels. With his own blood he had written “Ich, Johannes Bernhardus Reichard, hab mich dem Teüfel vergeben.” He had flown to numerous dances and, although only nine years old, had had intercourse with the devil on numerous occasions. Like adults, Johan Bernhard always found the devil “hard as horn” and “of a cold nature.” Implicating his complices, the boy noted that he had seen three other persons known to him at the dances.

One month later, on May 9, 1628, the authorities at Würzburg burned Johan Bernhard Reichardt and four others. Johann Caspar in Mergentheim heard of the execution only after it had occurred, but agreed fully that it had been justified.

Little Johan was far from the only child prosecuted as a witch in Europe, and many very young children number among the casualties of the Würzburg witch trials. With Catholic and Protestant armies romping back and forth over German principalities, it was a ripe moment for feeling the presence of existential threats to the civilization … and for trying children as adults.

Midelfort, again:

[A] “New Treatise on the Seduced Child-Witches” thundered against the rapid increase in childhood witchcraft. The author asserted that the first reason for such conditions was the sins of the parents, for whom witch-children were a fitting punishment. But more important, such witchcraft was due to the sins of the children themselves. One should not think that they were innocent merely because they were young. Their cursing, coveting, and immoral words and games were proof enough that these children had fallen into mortal sin.

And why, after all, shouldn’t children be witches? Everybody else was. The chancellor of Würzburg’s Catholic Prince-Bishop wrote a comrade in the summer of 1629:

As to the affair of the witches, which Your Grace thinks brought to an end before this, it has started up afresh, and no words can do justice to it. Ah, the woe and the misery of it — there are still four hundred in the city, high and low, of every rank and sex, nay, even clerics, so strongly accused that they may be arrested at any hour … a third part of the city is surely involved … there are children of three and four years, to the number of three hundred, who are said to have had intercourse with the Devil. I have seen put to death children of seven, promising students of ten, twelve, fourteen, and fifteen.

In the version of this story preserved in Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, desperate public demonic incantations repeated by “witches” who were either persuaded of their own guilt or hopeless of any source of aid save the infernal were absorbed by youngsters’ timeless instinct for that which is forbidden by their elders, further feeding the frenzy:

Many an unhappy urchin, who in a youthful frolic had repeated it, paid for his folly the penalty of his life. Three, whose ages varied from ten to fifteen, were burned alive at Wurzburg for no other offence. Of course every other boy in the city became still more convinced of the power of the charm. One boy confessed that he would willingly have sold himself to the devil, if he could have raised him, for a good dinner and cakes every day of his life, and a pony to ride upon. This luxurious youngster, instead of being horsewhipped for his folly, was hanged and burned.

However locally and temporarily overwhelming this current, it was never without resistance — everyday people willing to complain that charges were absurd, judges inclined to skepticism. An onset of acquittals was known to presage the end of a witch-hunting spasm.

A particular voice left to us is Friedrich von Spee, a Jesuit theologian whose tract Cautio CriminalisPrecautions for Prosecutors — accepted the existence of witches but argued forcefully against the legal apparatus of accusation and torture. To Spee’s mind, not two in fifty burned witches were truly in league with the devil, and his book quickly became influential to both Catholic and Protestant audiences. It remains in print down to the present day

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Wrongful Executions

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