1822: Francisco Javier de Elio

Add comment September 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Spanish royalist Gen. Francisco Javier de Elio was garroted in Republican Valencia.

Elio (English Wikipedia link | Spanish) was a career Spanish officer noted for being the last Viceroy of the Rio de la Plata in South America.

The Rio de la Plata forms the border between present-day Uruguay and Argentina, and by the time Elio self-proclaimed his viceregal rank, the May Revolution had confined Spanish authority to Uruguay.* He maintained the Spanish monarchy’s power in Montevideo until revolutionaries routed his forces at the Battle of Las Piedras** and Elio had to return to Spain.

This was just in time for the Spanish crown, as that country’s liberals had answered the chaos of the French invasion by promulgating in 1812 one of Europe’s most forward-thinking constitutions. King Ferdinand VII wholly repudiated this constitution upon his re-enthronement at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and this soon led to yet another liberal revolt in 1820† and yet another French invasion.

Elio, who administered Valencia with a rough hand for Ferdinand, was such a ferocious monarchist that revolutionaries took him prisoner in the 1820-1823 “Liberal Triennum”. The attempt by a group of mutinous cannoniers in 1822 to place Elio at their head (with or without the general’s foreknowledge) led to his condemnation by a military court.

The September 26 London Times preserves two accounts by opposing partisans of Elio’s end.

EXECUTION OF GENERAL ELIO

The infamous General Elio has at length suffered the pain of death (by the garotte). His execution took place this morning at 11 o’clock, after having been publicly divested of his rank and honours. The General was not condemned on account of his conduct as Captain General, but in consequence of the revolt of the cannoniers who occupied the fort of Valencia, on the 30th of May. Being tried before an ordinary Court Martial on the 2d of June, at which General Villa-Campa presided, he was on the 27th of August adjudged to the most ignominious death known to the Spanish laws, that of the garotte. This sentence, submitted to the Auditor of War to be revised, was not only approved, but the Auditor demanded its immediate execution, comformably to the martial law of the 17th of April, 1821. The arrival of the Brigadier Espina, who was provisionally invested with the military command of this district was regarded as the signal for the execution. If it had been retarded, we should have broken into the prison, and ourselves have conducted the victim to the scaffold. The people maintained that demeanour which becomes an heroic nation, and accompanied the culprit to the scaffold with shouts of — ‘To death with Elio! his blood will cement the constitutional edifice.’

And a contasting version …

The scaffold on which General Elio was strangled at Valencia, on the 4th instant, was erected close to a delightful garden which belonged to him when he was all-powerful in that town. It appears that this spot was selected in order that his tragical end might be marked by a circumstance which was calculated to make him regret life. One of our journals, which is at all times distinguished for its violence, affirms that General Eio, previously to walking to the scaffold, knelt down and asked pardon of the authorities who were present, for all the mischief he had occasioned — this is wholly false. Above 12,000 persons were witnesses of the firmness which he showed on this sad occasion, and of the last words which he pronounced. The General protested his innocence in the face of God and man; he declared that he had only carried into execution the orders which he had received from the Government during the period of his command; that he was utterly unconnected with the revolt of the cannoniers; and, finally, that he begged of God to pardon his murderers, as he himself forgave them. ‘I wish,’ he added, ‘that my blood may be the last which is shed in Spain. Spain will one day do justice to the purity of my intentions, and repeat the cry which is now my last prayer — ‘”Long live the King and religion.”‘

* When a Spanish colony, Uruguay was known as the Banda Oriental.

** The date of this decisive battle, May 18 (1812), is still kept as a Uruguayan national holiday.

† Guess what happened to the guy who led that 1820 revolt.

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1641: Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford

1 comment May 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1641, the doomed English monarch Charles I regretfully sacrificed one of his ablest ministers to the headsman.

Thomas Wentworth and loyal doggie, painted c. 1639 by Anthony van Dyck.

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford had cut his teeth in Parliament in the 1620s as an advocate of the rights of the Commons as against those of the king, but the notion that he’d be hoisted by his own petard would be little comfort to a King soon destined to find himself in similar straits.

After Parliament forced through the 1628 Petition of Right (and Wentworth’s pro-monarchist personal rival George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham had been conveniently assassinated) Wentworth went over to the king’s camp with the sententious declaration

The authority of a king is the keystone which closeth up the arch of order and government.

The authority of that king, which Wentworth now worked vigorously to uphold during the crown’s Parliament-free Personal Rule of the 1630s, also elevated Wentworth to higher honors.

He would have occasion to exercise his own “personal rule” as dictatorial viceroy in Ireland, and when push came to shove between King and Commons, advocated the most tyrannical measures to compel the compliance of obstinate Englishmen.

By 1640, Wentworth had become in the eyes of his enemies the very embodiment of the monarch’s every sin, and when Charles was obliged by his deteriorating situation to summon Parliament once more, its first order of business was the impeachment of this obnoxious retainer. When Wentworth skillfully repelled the charges and won acquittal on April 10, his parliamentarian opponents simply passed a bill of attainder condemning him to death anyway.

The only thing that stood in the way of the chop was the signature of that ruler whom Wentworth had served so loyally. As Charles dithered — for he had personally guaranteed Wentworth his safety upon his most recent summons to London — popular hatred for the Earl threatened to escalate the crisis into something much more dangerous for the throne.

In one last gesture of fealty, Wentworth dashed off a note to his sovereign, magnanimously releasing him from any obligation save political calculation.

Sire, out of much sadness, I am come to a resolution of that which I take to be the best becoming me; and that is, to look upon the prosperity of your sacred person and the commonwealth as infinitely to be preferred before any man’s private interest. And therefore, in few words, as I have placed myself wholly upon the honour and justice of my peers, I do most humbly beseech you, for the preventing of such mischiefs as may happen by your refusal to pass this bill, by this means to remove this unfortunate thing forth of the way towards that blessed agreement, which God, I trust, shall for ever establish betwixt you and your subjects. Sire, my consent herein shall acquit you more to God than all the world can do beside. To a willing man there is no injury done; and as, by God’s grace, I forgive all the world with a calmness and meekness of infinite contentment to my disloding soul, so, Sire, I can give the life of this world with all cheerfulness imaginable, in the just acknowledgment of your exceeding favours; and only beg that, in your goodness, you would vouchsafe to cast your gracious regard upon my poor son and his three sisters, less or more, and no otherwise, than their unfortunate father shall appear more or less guilty of this death. (Quoted here)

This letter’s place in the annals of sacrificial loyalty is compromised only slightly by its author’s dismay upon finding out that his feckless majesty had quickly taken up the offer:* Wentworth rolled his eyes heavenward and exclaimed

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.**

But the miscalculation was done.

Two days after Charles signed off, Wentworth was beheaded on Tower Hill to the rapture of an audience supposed to have numbered 200,000 strong.


Strafford Led to Execution, by Paul Delaroche, with Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Stafford, receiving the blessing of his ally, the imprisoned Archbishop William Laud.


1642 pamphlet illustration of the beheading, from here.

As things went from bad to worse for Charles in the years ahead, he would have many occasions to regret the sacrifice of so loyal and energetic a minister … and to lament, upon hearing his own death sentence, that he was suffering divine judgment for this date’s act of expedient faithlessness.

A few books about Thomas Wentworth

* In acceding to the sentence, Charles proposed giving Strafford the best part of a week to prepare himself. Parliament ignored that request and set the execution for the very next day.

** That’s Psalm 146:3.

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1796: Francois de Charette, Vendee rebel

3 comments March 29th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1796, Republican France subdued the troublesome Vendee with the execution of its last great rebel.

Royalist officer Charette (English Wikipedia link | French) had assumed leadership of the anti-Republican revolt that broke out in the Vendee in 1796 — albeit with some turf rivalry with other anti-Republican figures in the area.

After a capable stretch of guerrilla campaigning, Charette had no sooner laid down his arms than the desperately counterrevolutionary English pushed for an ill-considered resumption of hostilities.

This time, the rebels took it in the culottes.

Charette, having upheld the monarchist cause long past his fellows — and much past any hope of success — became the figure the Republic had to eliminate to pacify the region. As English historian Archibald Alison has it, Charette paid a grim price for refusing to just be bought off.

Anxious to get quit of so formidable an enemy on any terms, the Directory offered [Charette] a safe retreat into England with his family and such of his followers as he might select, and a million of francs for his own maintenance. Charette replied, “I am ready to die with arms in my hands; but not to fly, and abandon my companions in misfortune. All the vessels of the Republic would not be sufficient to transport my brave soldiers into England. Far from fearing your menaces, I will myself come to seek you in your own camp.” …

This indomitable chief, however, could not long withstand the immense bodies which were now directed against him. His band was gradually reduced from seven hundred to fifty, and at last, ten followers. With this handful of heroes he long kept at bay the Republican forces; but at length, pursued on every side, and tracked out like a wild beast by bloodhounds, he was seized after a furious combat, and brought, bleeding and mutilated, but unsubdued, to the Republican headquarters. … Maltreated by the brutal soldiery, dragged along, yet dripping with blood from his wounds, before the populace of the town, weakened by loss of blood, he had need of all his strength of mind to sustain his courage; but, even in this extremity, his firmness never deserted him.

He was shot in Nantes after a perfunctory trial, refusing a blindfold and giving the orders to his own firing squad.


The execution of Charette. Mid-19th century illustration.


Execution of General Charette, in Nantes, March 1796, by Julien Le Blant.

Napoleon, who had done well to duck a possibly career-killing assignment to the Vendee the year before and was in consequence at this very moment the Revolution’s emergent man on horseback,* paid tribute from his suitable distance to Charette’s brilliance.

Charette was a great character; the true hero of that interesting period of our Revolution, which, if it presents great misfortunes, has at least not injured our glory. He left on me the impression of real grandeur of mind; the traces of no common energy and audacity, the sparks of genius, are apparent in his actions.

* Having made his name by efficiently putting down a royalist putsch in Paris a few months before, Napoleon had wed Josephine just three weeks before Charette’s execution.

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1939: The 18 corpses of the rebellion

Add comment December 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1939, 18 junior officers of the Thai military were shot in Bangkok.

Ostensibly condemned for being part of a coup plot to depose the adolescent King Ananda Mahidol in favor of his abdicated predecessor Prajadhipok, they were in reality the casualties of a purge by the Field Marshal-turned-Prime Minister Phibun Songkhram.

It’s alternatively transliterated “Phibun Songkhram” or “Pibunsonggram”, and familiarly abbreviated to “Por”, but by any name he dominated Thai politics for a generation.

One of the military leaders of the bloodless 1932 Siamese Revolution that made the country a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy, Phibun had in 1938 muscled his way to the Prime Ministership.

Beset by assassination attempts linked to royal revanchists to whose purposes the young turk’s programme was deeply inimical, Phibun determined to break the back of monarchism en route to a modernized, militaristic nationalism (pdf) that would be right at home in the imminent world war.*

As 1939 opens, we join the narrative of Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles:

Phibun swept the capital and arrested 50 royals, nobles, and soldiers in the clique of his People’s Party rival Colonel Song Suradej for plotting his overthrow …

Whatever the truth behind the cabal, its quashing came to represent the final victory of the 1932 revolutionists and the constitutionalists over the monarchists. To mark it, Phibun commissioned a huge monument to the constitution, later called Democracy Monument, in the middle of the city’s main thoroughfare, Rajadamnoen (“royal progress”) Avenue.


The Democracy Monument in Bangkok.

The eighteen officers who took it in the shorts on this date were not joined by condemned VIPs like royal blood Prince Rangsit, who copped a commutation. It’s widely thought now that the “Songsuradet Rebellion” — or aptly-named “Rebellion of 18 Corpses” — was trumped-up, if not an phantasm altogether.

The Democracy Monument was not the only bulwark of Thai nationalism thrown up by Phibun in the year between the “conspirators'” January arrest and their deaths this day.**

He dropped the old absolutist name “Siam” in favor of the more nationalistic “Thailand” in June of that year; made the date of the 1932 revolution a national holiday; stripped the language of class-distinctive structures; and pressed irredentist claims against neighboring French colonies.

And if the royal house was efficiently marginalized by Phibun, it would yet develop in the latter part of the century into one of the region’s weightiest political entities† … intertwined with the Thai military Phibun helped hoist to pride of place, a formula that has left coups and unstable governments a presistent feature of the political landscape down to the present day.

* And subsequently, too. Despite aligning with the Axis powers during World War II, Phibun was a feted anti-Communist dictator as Washington started counting dominoes in Southeast Asia in the 1950’s.

** The Wikipedia page for the rebellion claims that the executions were carried out in batches of four per day. A New York Times report of December 6, 1939 said that all 18 had been executed the previous day.

† The current King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who coincidentally turns 81 today, is the world’s longest-reigning monarch as of this writing … with no shortage of concern about the conflict his passing may unstop.

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1822: Four Sergeants of La Rochelle

2 comments September 21st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1822, four sergeants from La Rochelle were guillotined at the Place de Greve with “Vive la liberte! on their lips for plotting to overthrow the restored Bourbon monarchy.

In the Restoration following Napoleon, the cautious gouty brother of the Revolution’s most famous guillotinee came to the throne as Louis XVIII.

And in a right-wing reaction following a royal assassination, Louis found himself in the anomalous position of having a government more monarchist than he himself. Though not renowned for his sagacity, the sovereign had the wit to see that completely reversing the Revolution was a nonstarter. His ultra-royalist deputies, however, wanted nothing less than the full restoration of an absolute monarchy.

The new Prime Minister cracked down hard on the Liberal opposition. Here’s the scene as described by The Cambridge Modern History, a Google Books freebie:

The Chief Minister [Villele] had the merit of keeping constantly in mind the fact that his friends owed their power to the forces of reaction and alarm, aroused in the country by the dagger of an assassin who had mortally wounded a member of the royal family. To keep this fear awake, in order to establish his authority, was his first care. In this he succeeded. The Liberals, finding themselves compelled to prudence, organized themselves into secret societies; and the Republcians, imitating the Neapolitans, actually formed in 1821 the Charbonnerie francaise, which avowedly aimed at giving back “to the French nation the free exercise of the right to choose its sovereign.” In order to give battle to the ancien regime and its Bourbon protectors, they recruited their soldiers and captains without hesitation from among the officers, commissioned and non-commissioned, of the old Imperial army. Villele showed particular skill in the discovery, exaggeration, and signal punishment of these conspiracies … With a magistracy obedient to its orders, the Ministry devoted itself assiduously to representing isolated movements no sooner known than crushed, as forming part of a permanent conspiracy organized by the Liberals, not only against the monarchy, but against society itself.

Les quatre sergents de La Rochelle — by the names of Bories, Goubin, Pommier and Raoulx — comprised perhaps the most egregious such case.

Driven underground (the link is French) like the rest of the Liberal opposition, they had joined the charbonnerie, a loose network modeled on Naples’ carbonari. (Lower-level officers were prime recruits for the dissidents, since their career prospects were truncated by aristocratic privilege in the upper brass.)

It was never clear that their subversiveness extended to anything beyond their affiliation with a criminalized ideology, and they kept their own peace to protect other associates in the charbonnerie. Guillotining them on this basis conformed neatly to the principles of, say, an Ann Coulter: “We need to execute [these] people … in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.”

Back to The Cambridge Modern History:

It seemed that the Ministers were eager to multiply these trials and executions. Since certain deputies of the Liberal Opposition, Lafayette* among others, and D’Argenson, had openly associated themselves with these enterprises, which otherwise were devoid of danger, this supplied a fair pretext for exhibiting them publicly as criminals. The indictment with the King’s Procurator, Marchangy, formulated, in order to obtain the condemnation of the four sergeants of La Rochelle, left no doubt as to the intentions of the Government. Its chief aim was to terrorise the French people “by this vast conspiracy against social order, against the families of citizens, which threatened to plunge them once more into all the horrors of anarchy.” While keeping up the appearance of saving society, Villele gained forthwith the power to govern it in accordance with the wishes of his friends. The threat of anarchy, exploited by the judges in his service, allowed him to organise a despotism.

The public execution reportedly had its onlookers appalled, (more French) and as word of the young men’s heroic deaths got around, they elbowed into the vast host of (somebody’s) martyrs. (In Balzac’s Human Comedy, the courtesan Aquilina is said to have been involved with one of the four sergeants; in her appearances after the executions, she always commemorates him by wearing something red.) The Lantern Tower in their garrison’s city — depicted below in a 1927 Paul Signac painting — was renamed in their honor, Tour de Quatre Sergents.

* Lafayette always seemed to be somebody’s dangerous element. It’s a wonder he never got himself into this blog.

Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.

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