1824: Agustin de Iturbide, Emperor of Mexico

Add comment July 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1824, the Mexican officer who had made himself emperor was shot at the village of Padilla.

Iturbide‘s military acumen saw him through a meteoric rise in the service of what was then New Spain.

Iturbide rejected an early offer of generalship from the pro-independence leader Hidalgo in favor of spending the 1810s ably quashing the insurgency.

In a bizarre twist of fate, however, it would be Iturbide who would himself cement Mexican independence.

En route to try to finish off the last major rebel leader, Vicente Guerrero, Iturbide caught wind of the recent del Riego liberal revolt back in the mother country,* which had triggered civil war in Spain.

For the conservative royalist general, heir himself to a Basque noble lineage, the potential collapse of Bourbon authority in Spain raised the frightening specter of social upheaval.

All Iturbide’s work killing guerrillas for the sake of public order could come to naught if the Spanish monarchy collapsed or ceased projecting its power overseas … and then who knew what would emerge from the resulting power vacuum in Mexico?

So Iturbide cut a deal with Guerrero to consummate the Mexican War of Independence by separating from Madrid on an essentially conservative basis — a political breakaway without a social revolution. Independent Mexico would make nice with the Spaniards already living there, keep Catholicism as the official state religion, and get itself a constitutional monarchy of its own to insulate itself from the chance outcomes of continental politics across the ocean.

And when Iturbide marched into Mexico City and encountered a crowd conveniently imploring him to take the throne, well, who was he to deny them?

And so Iturbide transitioned smoothly from scourge of the revolution to its man on horseback,** immediately splintering the coalition that lifted him to power.


Contrary to this allegorical take on Iturbide’s coronation, he crowned himself — Bonaparte-like.

Only months after his July 1822 coronation, Iturbide shuttered Congress and began arresting the opposition. Meanwhile, Ferdinand VII had emerged from the Spanish fray as the (momentary) winner, leaving his upstart former subjects without international support.

A general that the freshly-minted emperor had himself had promoted, one Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna — yes, the Alamo guy — declared against Iturbide by the end of 1822, and come the following spring, Agustin I was a European exile, in the paradoxical position of drawing a pension from Mexico while also officially considered a traitor and outlaw.

In Tuscany and then England, Iturbide published an autobiographical justification — Statement of Some of the Principal Events in the Public Life of Agustín de Iturbide — then finally took up a much-asked-for invitation from Mexican conservatives to return and become the savior of his country against internal breakdown and a potential Spanish attack.

Founded on vainglory, this expedition was destined for fiasco; within five days of touching Mexican soil, Iturbide was serenading a firing squad with the last words, “Mexicans! I die with honor, not as a traitor; do not leave this stain on my children and my legacy. I am not a traitor, no.” Apparently they were serious about that injunction never to return.

When in Mexico City, relive happier times for our day’s subject at the Palace of Iturbide where he briefly maintained himself in the purple.


Iturbide’s palace. Creative Commons image from patricio00.

And do think twice about styling yourself Emperor of Mexico, since the only other person to claim that title also ended his reign in front of a firing squad.

* Ironically, it was a body of soldiers assembled for a reconquista of Spain’s independence-minded New World possessions that enabled del Riego to mutiny.

** Iturbide paused in the revolution’s good graces just long enough to design the Mexican flag.

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1847: The San Patricios

7 comments September 13th, 2009 Headsman

At 9:30 a.m. this day, as the American army raised the Stars & Stripes over Chapultepec Castle during the Mexican-American War, it simultaneously carried out a mass hanging of 30 Irish deserters who had gone over to Santa Anna — the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, or the San Patricios.

Irish had been migrating to the United States en masse even well before the Great Famine got rolling in 1845.

And for those of that great migration wave who wound up in the service fighting the Mexican-American War, there was a hint of deja vu — an Anglo and Protestant imperial power seizing land from a “black”* and Catholic neighbor?

Some of the Irish decided they were fighting for the bad guys, and switched sides.**

These were the plurality (though not necessarily the majority) of the couple hundred soldiers who comprised the Saint Patrick’s Battalion. German immigrants and other nationalities, along with American-born deserters (desertion during the Mexican-American War seems to have been rife), made up the balance.

Knowing full well the fate that would await them upon capture, the San Patricios were renowned for their ferocity in battle; at the hopeless Battle of Churubusco, they reputedly forced down a white flag that Mexican comrades were trying to hoist on three separate occasions.

Eventually, the ammunition ran out, and with it, the San Patricios’ luck.

Within days, courts-martial began handing out death sentences to almost the whole of the surviving unit. U.S. General Winfield Scott subsequently reduced a number of sentences, and those who had deserted before the war couldn’t legally be executed … but even the “lucky” ones suffered faint-inducing scourgings and branding on the cheeks with the letter “D”.

And 50 men more were still bound for the gallows.

Twenty hung in the days prior to this at two separate sites, but the Yanks’ piece de resistance was an orchestrated scene on the second day of the Battle of Chapultepec.

On September 13, 1847, at dawn, Harney ordered the thirty remaining prisoners to be brought forward. They stood on wagons with nooses placed around their necks. This included one man who had lost both legs and was unable to walk to his own execution. The site of these executions was within viewing distance of the site where the final battle — the outcome of which could not have been in doubt — was to be fought. There the sentenced soldiers watched until finally, at 9:30, the US victors raised the American flag atop Chapultepec Castle.† At that point the order was given, the wagons were pulled away and the men were all hanged.

It must be remembered that the San Patricios had been standing, bound hand and foot, each with his head in a noose, for nearly four hours in the burning Mexican sun. When Harney finally gave the order for the hangings to proceed, such was the relief that their sufferings were finally at an end that “some of the men actually cheered as the nooses tightened and the wagons pulled away.”

The cruelty of the punishments led a Mexican paper to spit,

these are the men that call us barbarians and tell us that they have come to civilize us … May they be damned by all Christians, as they are by God.

The San Patricios are still honored as heroes in Mexico.

They brand with hot irons the faces of the Irish deserters and then hang them from the gallows. The Saint Patrick Irish Battalion arrived with the invaders, but fought alongside the invaded.

From the north to Molino del Rey, the Irish made theirs the fate, ill fate, of the Mexicans. Many died defending the Churubusco monastery without ammunition. The prisoners, their faces burned, rock to and fro on the gallows. -Eduardo Galeano, Masks and Faces

* The “blackness” of the Irish and the process of their “becoming white” later in the 19th and 20th centuries is one of the more illustrative and well-documented case studies of race and racism as social rather than biological constructs.

** They weren’t alone in this opinion. Many hundreds of miles from the fighting, Henry David Thoreau famously landed in jail for tax resistance in 1846 largely because of his disgust with the war. From Civil Disobedience:

The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.

Abraham Lincoln, then a young Whig delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, excoriated President James K. Polk for lying the nation into war.

† The capture of Chapultepec Castle, forgotten north of the Rio Grande, is still commemorated in Mexico for the heroism of six teenage cadets who died in its defense. The last of their number, Juan Escutia, leapt from the castle walls wrapped in the Mexican standard to prevent its capture.

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1929: José de León Toral, assassin of Álvaro Obregón

Add comment February 9th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1929, a Catholic militant who had gunned down the president of Mexico was shot for his trouble.

In the midst of the dirty Cristero War pitting Catholics against a secular, development-minded state, adroit former president Alvaro Obregon had just won election to a new term.

On July 17, 1928, as the president-elect banqueted in Mexico City, starving artist and father of three Jose de Leon Toral (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) gained admittance as an itinerant caricaturist … then shot dead his putative subject square in the face.

En route to his inevitable Calvary, which he met like Father Miguel Pro with the insurgents’ cry of “Viva Cristo Rey!”, Toral had occasion to stand in a sensational trial where he described to a live radio audience his tortures at the hands of the police. (There’s an illustration at this Spanish-language biography.)

And of course, he’s got his own corrido.

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1927: Father Miguel Pro, “Viva Cristo Rey!”

4 comments November 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1927, the anti-clerical Mexican government made the emblematic martyr of the Cristero War.

This video is in Spanish, but the storyline is pretty easy to follow — young man finds faith, lives faith, dies faith.

Miguel Pro‘s dying cry, “Viva Cristo Rey!” — “Long live Christ the King!” — was a refrain of Cristeros, anti-government guerrillas who in the late 1920′s fought the revolutionary Mexican government’s attempts to forcibly restrict the power of the Catholic Church.

That conflict had been brewing for years, an outgrowth of Mexico’s own complex history of colonization and development — measures to restrict the church’s size, wealth, and social reach had been mooted and sometimes implemented well back to the middle of the 19th century.

Early in the 20th, the confrontation was merely a twist on its classic form: liberal state-builders and the Catholic hierarchy were (or increasingly saw themselves as) diametrically opposed in their vision for Mexico.

That conflict came to a head under president Plutarco Elias Calles, an irreligious northerner with a project of national capital development for whom the church’s intransigence from its agrarian strongholds was most unwelcome … and who seemed to delight in provoking Rome with sport like mandatory physicals for priests, not neglecting to publicize the incidence of venereal disease thereby revealed.

Liberals had already brought about drastically reduced clerical privileges in the Mexican Constitution of 1917; its somewhat draconian measures were neither fully enforced nor fully resisted, but initiated a period where the two hostile institutions rudely grappled for their respective spheres of influence on the ground.

Calles was the rudest grappler of all, and his 1926 Calles Law pushed for anti-clericalism stricter than the letter of the constitution … and sparked armed resistance.

It was an exceptionally dirty war with routine summary executions on both sides and thousands of Catholic refugees — a dangerous environment for any priest with legal sanctions against basically every practice of the vocation. (Photos of Cristeros, some in heroic resistance and others in grisly martyrdom, can be eyeballed here.)

Pro, a Jesuit who like many was forced underground, was under state surveillance and got picked up in the aftermath of an assassination attempt against a prominent politician. He was chosen to make an example of — without an actual trial, possibly because there’s no actual reason to think he was involved in the bombing.

Looking at these pictures of Pro’s last moments, it’s hard to believe that they were taken and circulated at government direction to cow the Cristero movement. Fail.


Led out to execution in a police courtyard. The place of his death today is (bizarrely) Calle Loteria Nacional.


Calmly at prayer before his death, under the eye of the firing squad commander.


Pro himself refused a blindfold. But why state authorities carrying out the execution with an eye towards public relations would allow him to die in this pose is anyone’s guess.


He blessed and forgave the firing squad, of course.


Just beginning to topple at the moment the bullets struck him.


Like many firing squad executions, this one failed to kill its victim with the ceremonial volley. Pro was finished off with a coup de grace.

Calles was simultaneously — the key measures were also enacted in 1926 — involved in a confrontation with the United States over oil rights, a situation that came to the brink of war, with Washington saber-rattling about “Soviet Mexico”. It’s tempting to wonder whether the two situations weren’t related, especially since the new American ambassador* who had arrived only the month before Pro’s execution would ultimately negotiate both situations’ resolutions.

While the natural resource politics went their separate way, the Mexican Revolution’s anti-clerical strain didn’t so much disappear by negotiation as fade away over decades, with regular new outbreaks.

One thinks of Mexico today as such so staunch a Catholic country that it’s hard to imagine that some of these provisions were only officially repealed in 1998.

As for Pro, he’s welcome in Mexico by now — celebrated by Pope John Paul II who ultimately beatified him, and the inspirational source of this hymn whose refrain is his famous last cry.

There’s a faithful site in his honor here, and apparently a shrine to him in Houston, Texas run by a group pushing for his canonization.

* The American ambassador in question, Dwight Morrow, invited Charles Lindbergh on a goodwill tour to Mexico, where the aviator would meet the diplomat’s daughter not long after Miguel Pro’s martyrdom. Little could Lindbergh and Anne Morrow suspect that their love match would set them on the path to their own famous encounter with capital punishment.

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1596: Francisca Nunez de Carvajal, her children, and four other crypto-Jews of her family

3 comments December 8th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1596, the Inquisition sent nine Jewish converts to Christianity to the stake in Mexico City for Judaizing — a cruel fate offering a window into a secret history of New World settlement.

When Spain expelled its Jews (and subsequently its Muslims), those who did not flee had to convert. Conversions at swordpoint being of suspect sincerity, the Inquisition spent much of the following centuries hunting Conversos — so-called “New Christians” — who secretly preserved their outlawed faiths.

For some crypto-Jews, the New World held an appeal akin to that which would draw later generations of northern Europe’s religious minorities.

Latin America in particular attracted considerable numbers of New Christians. The advantage of these territories was that they offered the New Christians a familiar culture and the possiblity of direct — even if infrequent — contact with the mother countries … These factors also helped permit [crypto-Jews] to practice Judaism.

The Carvajals (or Carabajals) were just such a family, settling in Monterrey under the aegis of their kinsman, Spanish governor Luis de Carvajal y Cueva.

But in 1590, the governor’s sister Francisa was tortured by the Inquisition into implicating her entire family in Judaism.

They got off with a humiliating public recantation, but evidence of a relapse a few years later resulted in Francisca being burned at the stake at an auto de fe — along with her children Isabel, Catalina, Leonor and Luis, and four of their in-laws. The 30-year-old Luis left a testimonial to his faith and his tortures.

A headstone in New Mexico, USA, suggests crypto-Jewish descent. Image used with permission.

Despite the grisly doings of this day, however, the Inquisition never could extirpate Jews from its American territory.

These hidden communities filtered into Mexico and north to the present-day United States, keeping adapted versions of Jewish traditions secretly alive.

Still, crypto-Jews produced scant potentially self-incriminating documentary evidence. Although DNA testing has latterly entered the scene, the true extent and nature of these populations has been the subject of lively scholarly controversy.

But the Carvajals and others like them, seemingly lost to the Inquisition’s depredations, are coming alive again. This day’s executions are the subject of a modern opera and a spring 2008 Texas A&M symposium.

And the wider community of crypto-Jews have their own umbrella organization and a burgeoning body of historical literature.

Books about crypto-Jews

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