1594: Edward Osbaldeston

Add comment November 16th, 2019 Edward Osbaldeston

(Thanks to Elizabethan Catholic martyr Edward Osbaldeston for the guest post on the 16 November, 1594 York execution of Elizabethan Catholic martyr Edward Osbaldeston. We offer here the letter from his own hand recounting the circumstances of his capture, as published subsequently by Richard Challoner. -ed.)

I was apprehended at Towlerton by Mr. Thomas Clark, the apostate priest, upon St. Hierome’s day [September 30], at night; a thing much more to my comfort, than at any other time; for that I had such a special patron to commend myself to, and such a stout champion under Christ; and, besides, it pleased God, much to my comfort, to let this sign of his love fall unto me that day above all others; for that it was God’s great goodness to call me to the honour of priesthood; and that, upon St. Hierome’s day, I said my first mass, and consecrated the blessed body and blood of my Saviour Jesus Christ, and received him with great reverence and devotion, and ever since have honoured St. Hierome [Jerome]. And the morning before I came forth, I made my prayer to blessed St. Hierome; and, in his merits, I offered myself a sacrifice to God, and recommended myself to him, to direct me to his will and pleasure, and that I might walk aright in my vocation, and follow St. Hierome, as long as God should see it expedient for his church, and most for his honour and glory: and if it pleased him still to preserve me, as he had done before, I never would refuse to labour, or murmur at any pain or travail; and if it should please his majesty to suffer me to fall into the prosecutors’ hands, that then it would please his infinite goodness to protect me to the end; which I have no doubt but he will, after so many and so great goodnesses and gifts, as he hath bestowed on me over all my life, which are without number and inexplicable: wherefore my hope and trust is much helped, that now be will be most sure unto me, since this is the weightiest matter that I ever was about in my life: and so considering this, and infinite others, such like, I find great comfort, and fully trust in God’s goodness, and distrust only in myself; but in him that comforteth me, I can do all things. And this actual oblation of myself that morning, and this that ensueth, maketh me very comfortable, and bringeth me into many good and heavenly cogitations, feeling his strength so much as I have done in lesser matters, and further off from him than this is: therefore I nothing doubt, by his grace, but he will grant me to finish that which was for him, and by him, begun; which I pray God I may worthily do when his good will and pleasure is, and not before: and that I may not wish or desire any thing in this life but what may best please him and honour him, and our blessed lady his mother, and all the court of heaven, the most, and edify the people, and strengthen them in the way to Jesus, the king of bliss.

The manner [of my apprehension] was thus: Abraham Sayre and I came to the Inn a little before Mr. Clark, and we all came before night. I knew him not fully; for I thought he had been in the south; but at supper I looked earnestly at him, and I thought it was he, and yet I still persuaded myself that he knew me not, and if he should know me, he would do me no harm: which fell out otherwise; God forgive him for it. For when we were going to bed, he went and called the curate and constable, and apprehended us, and watched us that night, and came with us to York, and stood by when I was examined before the council, but said nothing then, that I feared; and he was present afterwards when I was called again; and since I have been nothing said unto; what will follow, God knoweth: but I will not be partial to myself, but prepare me for death, and what else may befal unto me. Now I pray you, for God’s sake, what you hear or learn let me know; and what is the best course for me to take in all points; and how my brethren have behaved themselves in this case, that have gone before me; and, for myself, I yield me wholly to obedience to you in that blessed society and number in the castle: and desire, in all points, to live in discipline and order, and as the common live; and what I have, or shall have, it shall be in common. — And therefore I pray you direct me in all things, both for my apparel and diet, and every thing; and as my brethren have gone before me, so would I follow in the humblest sort.

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1888: Not Sarah J. Robinson

Add comment November 16th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1888, Massachusetts almost hanged Sarah J. Robinson.

The reader will easily infer from press appellations such as the “Massachusetts Borgia” or “Sommerville Borgia” that Mrs. Robinson was a prolific poisoner.

The true toll of Robinson’s career remains uncertain to this day but they monstrously included her own son and daughter — the victims that brought her within the shadow of the gallows.

An Irish immigrant, she had discovered the capacity of arsenic for relieving the financial burdens that, then as now, weighed upon the poor. In 1881, her landlord suspiciously died in her care, abating a debt of rent; a few years later, her husband did likewise, leaving her an insurance windfall, and then her sister too.

Still the maintenance of five children — four of her own, plus a nephew — harried her. To keep the wolves at bay she moved frequently, sold off furniture. And last, she enrolled two children in a working-class insurance fraternal and collected so speedily to attract the wrong attention. Her many murders afforded multiple bites at the legal apple, so when a jury hung on a charge of murdering her kids, they just turned around and got her for a nephew instead.

Mrs. Robinson was escorted to the court room … A large rocking chair was provided for her comfort in the rear of the court room outside the prisoner’s iron cage. She languidly sank into it, and as soon as seated requested a drink of water, which was brought her by Sheriff Tidd. Her hands trembled like leaves as she eagerly held the tumbler to her lips. (Boston Journal, June 29, 1888)

Notwithstanding her many victims, the prospect of noosing this trembling-hand, rocking-chair mother discomfited the public. The governor commuted her sentence to solitary imprisonment four days before her scheduled November 16, 1888 hanging.

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1880: Alexander Kvyatkovsky and Andrei Presnyakov, Narodnaya Volya terrorists

Add comment November 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1880,* Russian revolutionaries Alexander Kvyatkovsky and Andrei Presnyakov were hanged at St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress.


Kvyatkovsky (left) and Presnyakov.

Kvyatkovsky, 28, and Presnyakov, 24, had each spent the whole of their brief adulthoods agitating, police ever at their heels. As Russia’s “season of terror” opened in the late 1870s, both immediately cast their lot with the violent Narodnaya Volya movement. They were found by police at their respective arrests to have each had more than a passing interest in Narodnaya Volya’s ongoing project to assassinate Tsar Alexander II — an objective that it would indeed achieve a few months later.

Their fellow-traveler Mikhail Frolenko would remember the mass trial they featured at not for any glorious martyr-making but as a propaganda debacle for his movement.

The Trial of the Sixteen** in October 1880 was a model of judicial procedure — the government had learned, planned carefully and conducted the trial with absolute decorum. The sixteen accused included three of the most important figures in the Movement: Shiraev, who had been arrested in Moscow a year before with two suitcases of dynamite, Presnyakov and Kvyatkovsky. The last two were old friends of Andrei Zhelyabov. The evidence against the accused was provided by Grigory Goldenberg; the prosecution’s case was unanswerable. The sixteen were allowed to address the court and their speeches were reported. The prosecutors questioned them with a mix of deliberate courtesy and provocation: the sixteen were given enough rope to hang themselves. They followed no clear line and contradicted each other on endless details. They improvised counter-accusations, became mired in irrelevancies, and exploded in fits of petulance. They made a miserable impression, highlighted at every stage by the correctness of the proceedings. In its sentence the court was lenient, another propaganda victory: fourteen were sentenced to hard labor; two, Presnyakov and Kvyatkovsky, were sentenced to be hanged. We lost sixteen good people, which was bad enough. But worse was our irreparable loss of public esteem. One small sign of this was the fate of the word terror. Hitherto we had freely called ourselves terrorists; it had much the same ring as revolutionary. Terror was simply the first phase of the revolution. Overnight the word became a term of abuse and the exclusive property of the government. That alone might have told us we were following the wrong path. (Excerpted from Saturn’s Daughters: The Birth of Terrorism

Kvyatkovsky’s son, also named Alexander, was a Bolshevik close to Lenin in the early Soviet years.

* November 16 by the Gregorian calendar; it was still November 4 by the archaic Julian calendar still then in use in the Russian Empire.

** Not to be confused with at least two distinct Soviet-era mass trials also respectively designated the “Trial of the Sixteen”.

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1747: Thomas Fuller, Hawkhurst Gang smuggler

Add comment November 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1747, a Tyburn hanging dispatched (along with three other, unconnected criminals) Thomas Fuller, member of one of 18th century England’s most notorious gangs.

Named for their home village, the Hawkhurst Gang dominated the trade in contraband in England’s south from Doset to Kent in the 1730s and 1740s, with the arms and ill-temper to trade blow for blow with crown agents who rightly learned to fear the syndicate. In the process that gang contributed several members to Blighty’s gibbets for various deeds of spectacular violence — gentlemen whom this site will revisit in future posts.

Our Mr. Fuller, however, was by the evidence laid at his trial a mere grunt, and his prosecution targeted the gang’s more routine forms of outlawry.

Despite the smuggler’s romantic knight-errant literary profile — Rhett Butler, Han Solo — it was for 18th century England a vast economic sector organized on a nearly industrial scale. Excise duties imposed on in-demand imports, notably tea but also spirits, tobacco, sugar, and other indulgences, made these articles so profitable to move illegally that it’s a fair bet that they were predominantly consumed as contraband. We have seen in these pages, from a post laid 30 years to the future, that tea smuggling was so commonplace that respectable country parsons made no pretense about securing their refreshments on the black market.

It was enterprises like the Hawkhurst Gang that delivered the leaf to its market.

Exploiting the long coastline, from which skiffs could scuttle to rendezvous with channel shipping, the gang built a storage infrastructure, supply chains, distribution networks. We have a taste of how this worked from the words of the attorney general at Fuller’s trial:

About the Beginning of August last the Prisoner at the Bar, with a great Number of other Persons, all of them on Horseback, arm’d with Fire-Arms, the Prisoner particularly, among the rest, with a Carbine or a Blunderbuss, together with the rest, was on Horseback; and they were then accompanied with several drove Horses, and upon the Horses they rode, as upon those they drove, they carried great Quantities of Tea in Oil-skin Bags, and Half-Anchors, peculiar to those Sort of People; a Peculiarity it is which no Goods besides is carried, in order to elude Justice.

Multiple witnesses in this case described how widespread the practice is; they were needed because the crown case had an evidentiary weakness: everyone knew that posses toting oilskin bags were tea smugglers, but the witnesses had not literally seen the defendant reveal the contents of his oilskin bags. Here is a customs agent named Walker explaining the situation:

Sollicitor-General. What is the Practice of Smugglers in carrying off their Goods?

Walker. Such time as I have been an Officer, which has been ten Years, I never took no Tea in my Life upon Horses, but what was in Oil-skin Bags. Wherever I had a Suspicion, and found Oil-skin Bags, I always found Tea.

Q. How many may you have found?

Walker. Thousands of Bags; when they are in a Hurry, and taken from the Sea, they are in Oil-skin Bags; but when they carry them up into the Country, they carry them in Sacks; there is never a Gang that comes from the Sea-side, but rides with something upon their Horses.

Later, a different officer made an equally important observation about the well-known Hawkhurst Gang: “we never attack’d them, because we were over-power’d.” The Hawkhurst Gang was hardly alone in this. As readily as Britons embraced their untaxed smuggled tea and brandy, the underworld firms that delivered them were growing frighteningly in size and propensity to violence during the 1740s.

Accordingly, they were met by a concerted crackdown by authorities. (And, perhaps more helpfully, a reduction in the tea tax.) In 1745, Parliament had stacked upon the century’s vast allotment of property crimes fresh capital offenses for armed smuggling — no matter whether those arms were actually used. For the case at hand, there was no need to link Fuller to a homicide or the like: only to show that he participated in the normal activities of the Hawkhurst Gang.

As was often the case, it was left to the likes of the Ordinary of Newgate to express in words the ideological message of smugglers’ execution. He did so with great vehemence (but less persuasive effect) when Fuller went to hang:

The common People of England in general, fancy there is nothing in the Crime of Smuggling, but cheating the King of a small Part of his Revenue; and that there is no Harm done to the Community in general, or to the Properties of particular Persons: They think they have a Right to shun, as much as possible, paying any Duty for their Goods, and what they get by their Dexterity in that Manner is honest Gain, to be enjoyed as the Fruits of their Industry and Labour; but a little Consideration will teach them to think otherways, and convince them, that Smuggling is in itself a Crime of worse Consequence to Society, and more hurtful to particular Persons, than many other Crimes which Custom has taught them to look upon with great Abhorrence.

The Prejudice done the Society, and the Damage received by Individuals, next to the express Declaration of the divine Will, are the best Marks by which we can judge of the Degree of Immorality in any Action whatever; and if we judge of their Crime of Smuggling by this Criterion, we shall find it a Sin of deep Dye, and to deserve the Resentment of every Man, who pretends to any Share of moral Honesty.

In the first Place, the fair Trader is injured in his Property by their kind of illicit Trade: He pays honestly the Duties and Taxes charged upon his Commodity at his Entry, which in some Cases amounts to near as much as the prime Cost of his Goods at the first Market; this he must charge upon the Consumer, with a living Profit for his Riske, Trouble and Out-lay of his Money; but the Smuggler, who buys his Goods at the same Market, and perhaps at a lower Price, as he chuses the worst Sort upon running them, is able to undersell the fair Dealer at least one Third, and for that Reason is, by the greedy Retailer, preferred, though the Commodity he deals in is worse in Quality. Is not this robbing the honest Merchant of his real Profit, and forcing him either to sell below what his Goods cost, or leave off a Branch of Trade, to which perhaps, he has served an Apprenticeship, and built extraordinary Hopes upon, of being a Support to him or his Family? I appeal to every thinking Man, if there is any material Difference betwixt ruining a Man by robbing him on the Highway, and this Method of beggaring him and his Family by Smuggling? If there is any Difference in Point of Immorality, it must lie on the Side of Smuggling, as the Evil attending it is more universal, and reaches farther. Few Men carry their All in their Pocket; and not one Man in a Thousand is ruined, by what is taken from him by the Highwayman: But there is not a Ship of Goods run upon our Coast but injures Hundreds; perhaps not immediately, but in Process of Time it certainly has that Effect. Not only the Parts adjacent, and the Dealers near the Smuggling Port suffer by this Means, but the most distant Corners of the Kingdom are affected by it in a few Weeks, in Proportion as it lowers the Price of the Commodity, and diminishes the publick Revenue. But it is this lowering the Price which is the great Temptation; the Cheapness of the Smugglers Goods tempts the Retailer to prefer him to the fair Trader, from a mistaken Notion that it is his peculiar Interest to buy as cheap as he can, and consequently he encourages, conceals, and connives at all the Villainies of this Set of People. But if such a Retailer should give himself Time to think, I believe he might easily persuade himself, that he is robbing Peter to pay Paul; that what he gets upon one Article, he loses on another.

It is evident, Taxes must be paid to support the Expences of the Government; and that every Subject, as he enjoys the Benefit of Government, is obliged to contribute his Proportion to that Expence. It is likewise evident, that if the Duties laid upon one Commodity does not answer the Sum charged upon it, that the Deficiency must be charged upon some other. Thus: Suppose the Duties charged upon Teas, Brandy, &c. falls short 100,000 l. of the Sum allotted to be raised upon these Commodities, is it not evident that this 100,000 l. must be charged upon Soap, Candles, Leather, Sand, or some other Branch? Suppose then a Dealer, by dealing with the Smuggler, saves about half the Duty payable to the King, or, which is the same thing, buys it so much cheaper from him than he would from the fair Trader, and that his Gains upon this Article amounts to ten or twenty Pounds a Year, I mean his illicit Gains, or the Difference between the trading Price and smuggling Price; now, as it is evident, that every twenty Pounds gained this Way lessens the Revenue forty Pounds, he or somebody else must re-place this Sum in the Treasury, by a Tax upon another Commodity; from whence it is as clear as the Sum; that instead of gaining twenty Pounds by his smuggling Dealer, he really loses twenty Pounds upon the Ballance. I own, he may not chuse to deal so largely in these other Articles, as to bring it to this Ballance, but some of his Neighbours may. And as much Money as they pay towards making up this Deficiency, occasioned by the Smuggler; just so much does the Person, who deals with such People, rob out of the Pocket of his Neighbour.

If I was to charge several People, who make no scruple for the Lucre of Profit, to buy Goods which they know to be run, with as foul a Crime as Robbery, or even that of cheating their Neighbour, they would be apt to treat me with some Severity, and think I much injured their Reputation: Yet, upon serious considering the Circumstance attending this Practice, they must at last own, they deserve no better Character than that of a Highwayman and Cheat.

Thus it is plain that Smuggling is a Crime of the most dangerous Nature, both against the Community and private Persons, and as such subject to the Divine Displeasure, as much as any other Felony. It is not only a Sin destructive to Society, and contrary to human Laws enacted for the Peace, Protection, and Subsistence of the State, but is a Sin against the literal Precepts, as well as the Meaning and Intent of Christianity: We are commanded Obedience to Government for Conscience sake; we are commanded to pay Tribute to whom Tribute is due. Our Saviour gave that Answer to the Jews, though that People had as much Reason as any People on Earth, to look upon the Romans as Tyrants, and having no Right to that Tribute, but what they founded upon the superior Force of their Arms; but how much stronger is the Christian Obligation, to pay towards the Support of a Government established? Not by Force or Fraud, butby the Consent of a free People, and conducted by all the Arts of prudent Policy conducing to their Happiness, both in their Religious and Civil Capacities.

If we consider ourselves as several Members united in one Society for our mutual Peace and Protection, we must conclude it the highest Piece of Injustice in us to refuse or evade by Force or Fraud to pay our Contingent of the Expence incurred for such valuable Purposes, as the securing our Religion and Liberties.

If the Government was to make any Infringement upon the Properties of Individuals, or aim at lessening the Freedom of the Constitution, how would the Smuggler and his Friends rail and exaggerate the mighty Grievance? Yet at the same Time grudge to pay their Quota, and take all Means in their Power by Deceit or Violence to cheat the Government of what enables them to preserve Order and Peace in the Community.

These Considerations alone are sufficient to awaken the Conscience of the Guilty in this Way, and to hinder us from affording them an unseasonable Compassion; but there yet remains some other Circumstances to blacken the Blackness of their Crime. These are the Manner in which they go about to execute their Smuggling Purposes.

They go in Companies together, armed with all Manner of offensive Weapons, and escorted by the most profligate Wretches they can pick up: They employ none in their Service but Fellows who have given Instances that their Consciences are Proof against all Checks of Morality, Religion or Law, and whose Courage is equal to the most daring Attempts upon the Peace of the Society. By these Men Perjury amongst others, is looked upon as a venial Transgression, beneath the Conscience of a Gentleman Smuggler to be troubled with. Murder, Rapes, and Robberies are with them but as frequent, as they conduce to their Interest. Their Character, their Cruelty, and Numbers has given them another Source of Encouragement, and a new set of Allies. For Numbers of the Country People who perhaps abhor their Practice, from the Dread they have justly conceived of their Power, find themselves obliged, tho’ against their Wills, to connive at or conceal, and even to assist them, and when they are not willing, they are compelled to lend their Aid. For when a Smuggling Vessel touches on the Coast, those concerned or their Associates meet at a Place of Rendezvous, and press all the Horses they meet with for their Service, which they sometimes return, and sometimes not, just as their Business requires, and the Owners dare not complain for fear of having their Throats cut, or their Houses set on Fire: Not only single Houses, but whole Villages and trading Boroughs are kept in this slavish Dependence upon them, out of real Apprehension of Danger, without any Regard to Profit in dealing with them.

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1915: The Ghadar Mutineers

Add comment November 16th, 2015 Headsman

Prior to the war certain European nations, and especially those now ranged against us, regarded our Easern Dependency as a country where the great Mutiny would be surpassed in horror by the upheaval that would inevitably follow the entanglement of Britain in a great war, and at the outset of the conflict the German Press confidently relied upon trouble in India as a large factor on their side. Even among a not inconsiderable section of our own countrymen, too, there seemed to be a feeling of doubt. The moment Germany threw down the gauntlet, however, his Majesty’s dusky subjects forgot their little quarrels, closed their ranks, and offered all they possessed in defence of the Empire to which they are all so proud to belong, and with which their future prosperity and advancement are bound up.

Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette, Dec. 31, 1915

One century ago today, seven of his Majesty’s “dusky subjects” submitted to the noose at Lahore Central Gaol in preference to submitting to his Majesty.

These partisans of the two-year-old expatriate Ghadar party — the word means “revolt” — had been cogitating the subcontinent’s independence since its founding two years prior in the United States.

With the onset of World War I, the Ghadarites began returning to India by the thousands with a view towards ejecting the British Raj. For an ambitious objective, an ambitious plot spanning multiple interlocking conspiracies and reaching to the sepoy bunkers of Singapore.

The project was a logistical nightmare: no surprise considering the distances and communications lags involved. German-supplied munitions arrived late or (when intercepted in North America) not at all. The movement was penetrated by counterintelligence, and many of its adherents arrested.

Full of the desperate recklessness of patriotism, the remains of the conspiracy tried to go ahead with a rising in February 1915: this too was compromised, and easily squelched.

The resulting Lahore Conspiracy Case saw nearly 300 who were not quite so proud to belong to the Empire as the crown had hoped — seven of whom hanged on November 16:

The last in particular, only 19 years old when he hanged, has attained wide recognition as a Punjabi martyr.

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1700: Jamie Macpherson, Highlander

5 comments November 16th, 2014 Headsman

The legendary Highlands freebooter Jamie Macpherson was hanged on this date in 1700 in Banff.

Macpherson is said to be an illegitimate half-Gypsy child with every talent necessary to live larger than life — and if gigantism can be inferred from the size of his enormous alleged sword, that would be extremely large indeed.

Besides his elite SPARQ score, Macpherson was blessed with complementary gifts for making music and sweet sweet love, and plundered livestock and merchandise and maidenheads as he sprang through the vicinities of Banff and Aberdeen. Despite living by his prowess with the sword every source concurs that he never used it to harm anyone that the audience would sympathize with.

But he outraged the local grandees, and at length he was apprehended (as befits his outsized tale) by a fellow with the improbable name “Duff of Braco” — then was duly condemned to hang on market-day (“Forasmeikle as you James McPherson, pannal are found guilty by ane verdict of ane assyse, to be knoun, holden, and repute to be Egiptian and a wagabond” etc.).

In the week before his hanging, Macpherson reportedly composed an air variously described as “Macpherson’s Lament” or “Rant” or “Farewell” which he then performed on the gallows.

In the most picturuesque version, he played his own fiddle in this exit performance, then dramatically smashed the instrument. As Chambers’s Journal observes, it seems hard to accept that the sheriff would have given this veritable Goliath the free use of his hands at such a desperate moment. Indeed, local legend has it that the authorities were so afraid that a reprieve might arrive that upon catching sight of an approaching rider on the horizon, they put the town’s clocks 15 minutes forward.

At any rate, several versions of the Lament/Rant/Farewell survive and one can follow its evolution in this open-source Annals of Banff. Robert Burns’s eventually immortalized the verse with this gloss on it from the late 18th century:

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1724: Willem Mons, head grafter

1 comment November 16th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1724, Willem Mons was beheaded in St. Petersburg for peculation.

Mons was the brother of the German commoner Anna Mons, a beautiful young woman who segued from being the May-December lover of Peter the Great‘s trusted admiral Franz Lefort to the mistress of the teenage emperor himself. Peter and Anna had a famous (famously scandalous) romance through her twenties, but as she entered her thirties and heard the clock ticking, her bid to make Peter put a ring on it by flirting with a Prussian diplomat came to grief and got her briefly tossed in prison.

Willem Mons was still a minor when his big sister fell from Peter’s graces. He would prove to have an equally adroit instinct for imperial bedchamber politics.

“One of the best-made and most handsome men that I have ever seen,” in the French ambassador’s estimation, Mons hustled his way into the train of the woman Peter had married instead of Anna — Catherine.

There Willem Mons and his other sister Matryona Balk monopolized the access routes to the empress and lucratively tolled all petitioners who traveled them. Wealth and status accumulated; the immigrant bourgeois’s son even stopped going by William in favor of the more impressive “Moens de la Croix”.

Not surprisingly, the emperor himself was the last to discover the open secret of his wife’s household’s river of graft.* Peter, who could be quite the moralist, was incensed; he interrogated the chamberlain so terribly that the young man fainted dead away.

“Moens de la Croix” was no longer. In both senses.

Having issued the confessions to condemn himself under the very credible threat of torture, Mons was socked away in Peter and Paul Fortress. Catherine made bold to defy Peter’s edict that nobody petition him for Mons’s life; in response, the enraged tsar smashed a Venetian mirror with his bare hand and roared, “thus I can annihilate the most beautiful adornment of my palace!” Court observers reported that marital relations between the two were visibly strained well after the scandal.

These weren’t happy days for the oft-sickly Peter; indeed, they were the last months of his life. Early the next year, he would succumb to a gangrenous bladder and leave the throne to this very Catherine. Perhaps his decrepit state accounts for the likely scurrilous rumor that the handsome chamberlain’s real offense wasn’t so much corruption as cuckoldry. It’s fair to say that such an affair would have been an extraordinarily reckless thing for Catherine.

On November 16, 1724, William Mons and Matrena Balk were taken in sledges to the execution site. Mons behaved courageously, nodding and bowing to friends he saw in the crowd. Mounting the scaffold, he calmly took off his heavy fur coat, listened to the reading of the sentence of death and laid his head on the block. After his death, his sister received eleven blows of the knout, very lightly administered so that not much harm was done, and was exiled for life to Tobolsk in Siberia. Her husband, General Balk, was given permission to marry again if he wished. (Source)

The late courtier’s severed head was preserved in alcohol (legend says that the fuming Peter made Catherine contemplate it). It was eventually deposited in the Kunstkamera museum, famous for housing Peter’s gross horde of collected pickled fetuses, dwarves, and other medical curios. Mons’s head still resides there today.

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1724: Jack Sheppard, celebrity escape artist

9 comments November 16th, 2011 Headsman

“Yes sir, I am The Sheppard, and all the gaolers in the town are my flocks, and I cannot stir into the country but they are at my heels baaing after me.”

Jack Sheppard

On this date in 1724, the hangman finally got Jack Sheppard.

Sheppard was a thief, a romantic hero, a highwayman of the urban proletariat, a Houdini whom no prison could hold.

It had become possible in his time to ride criminal notoriety into celebrity: Jack Sheppard, a mere 22 at his death, proved as adept with that quicksilver element during his personal annus mirabilis of 1724 as he was with a lockpick.

Sheppard’s world had him fitted to wield a hammer better than thieves’ tools — but at about age 20, a young man awash in the illicit liberty of London’s underbelly, he ditched the square carpenter to whom he was apprenticed to live free by his wits.

Peter Linebaug’s The London Hanged finds in Jack Sheppard’s career and his runaway popularity an important marker of the capital city’s “refusal of subordination: — contra Foucaultian discipline, which “makes the rulers of government and society seem all-powerful.”

An important meaning of liberation … [consisted of] the growing propensity, skill and success of London working people in escaping from the newly created institutions that were designed to discipline people by closing them in. This tendency I have dubbed ‘excarceration’ because I wish to draw attention to the activity of freedom in contrast to its ideological or theoretical expressions…

This lithe youth is most famous for his literal talent for freedom: four times in 1724 he escaped from custody in ever more dramatic fashion.

He busted out through the ceiling of St. Giles Roundhouse. He rappelled with a bedsheet rope down the 20-foot wall of Clerkenwell Prison with his lover.

This sort of thing won the enterprising rogue growing folk hero status. The vaunted Sheppard “made such a noise in the town, that it was thought the common people would have gone mad about him, there being not a porter to be had for love nor money, nor getting into an ale-house, for butchers, shoemakers and barbers, all engaged in controversies and wagers about Sheppard.”*

It also drew the unwanted attention of 1720s London’s Jabba the Hutt: “thief-taker” Jonathan Wild, who managed a vast thieving cartel enforced by Wild’s willingness to turn in non-participants in his ingenious cover role as the city’ preeminent lawman. That’s some protection racket.

Sheppard, to the fame of his memory, scorned obeisance to the crime lord as much as to any guild carpenter and worked for no man but himself. A vengeful Wild shopped him to the authorities.

This time, Sheppard was actually condemned to death for burglary but broke prison again, using yet another classic ruse: the “disguised in smuggled women’s clothes.”

Back on the lam, he posted a cocky letter to his executioner “Jack Ketch” giving his regrets at not having joined two fellow-sufferers on the scheduled hanging date. (September 4.)

I thank you for the favour you intended me this day: I am a Gentleman, and allow you to be the same, and I hope can forgive injuries; fond Nature pointed, I follow’d, Oh, propitious minute! and to show that I am in charity, I am now drinking your health, and a Bon Repo to poor Joseph and Anthony. I am gone a few days for the air, but design speedily to embark, and this night I am going upon a mansion for a supply; its a stout fortification, but what difficulties can’t I encounter, when, dear Jack, you find that bars and chains are but trifling obstacles in the way of your Friend and Servant

JOHN SHEPPARD

London’s finest were determined to put an end to this character’s preposterous run of prison breaks, so when they caught him the fourth time Sheppard found himself loaded with manacles and chained to the floor of a special strongroom in Newgate Prison. Get out of that, Jack.

Somehow, Jack got out of it.

On the night of Oct. 14, Sheppard authored the sublimest breakout in Newgate’s voluminous annals. Picking the locks of his fetters with a small nail, our acrobat scurried up a chimney, picked, prised, or otherwise passed a succession of locked doors in the dead of night, paused to rest on the condemned pew of the gaol chapel, forced a grille, reached the roof, and threw another homemade rope over the wall to scamper down to safety.

And then “he promptly went forth and robbed a pawnbroker’s shop in Drury Lane of a sword, a suit of apparel, snuff boxes, rings, &c., and suddenly made a startling appearance among his friends, rigged out as a gentleman from top to toe.”

There’s no doubt but that Jack had showmanship, but at a certain point he could have done with just the tiniest measure of discretion. But then, this was a man writing his own legend. Sure, he could have put his head down and tried to disappear into some nameless Puritan settlement in the New World. (His distraught mother kept telling him to get out of the country.) He traded those dull and toilsome years for the fame of generations: his candle burned at both ends.

When next Sheppard was detained, it was towards his apotheosis. It was the only time he would be arrested and fail to escape.

A throng of thousands mobbed London’s route to execution this date, almost universally supporting the ace escapologist. And Sheppard very nearly had for them the piece de resistance in his career of magical disappearances: it was only at the last moment before boarding the fatal tumbril that Sheppard’s executioners found the penknife their prey had secreted on his person, evidently intending to cut his cords and spring from the cart into the safety of the surging crowd. What an exploit that would have been.


Detail view (click for full image) of George Cruikshank‘s illustration of Sheppard’s death for William Ainsworth‘s Victorian novel about the legendary criminal. More of these illustrations here.

This indomitable soul has enjoyed a long afterlife as a subversive hero.

A celebrity in his own time, his execution-eve portrait was taken by the Hanover court painter himself, James Thornhill. Sheppard is a very likely candidate as an inspiration for the criminal Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera completed just a few years after his death; likewise, his abandoned apprenticeship makes him the most apparent model for Hogarth‘s “idle prentice” plates.

A century later, prolific historical novelist William Ainsworth** claimed the convict-martyr for an 1839 retelling. This popular potboiler — read it free online here — came in for a spate of 19th century social panic when it was learned that a notorious servant-on-master murder had been carried out by a young man who had recently read it. A two-decade ban on public plays based on the Jack Sheppard novel ensued.

For as much as Jack Sheppard is romanticized in his remarkable individual characteristics, his story has always had a class undertow that raises the hackles of the powerful — and is celebrated by the people who menace that power. Linebaugh, again:

Jack Sheppard, housebreaker and gaol-breaker, was once the single most well-known name from eighteenth-century England. His fame spread across oceans and the centuries. When the bandit Ned Kelly was alive, the Australian press was full of comparisons between him and Sheppard. At the same time on the other side of the globe in Missouri, Frank and Jesse James wrote letters to the Kansas City Star signed ‘Jack Sheppard’. In England his name cut deep into the landscape of popular consciousness. Henry Mayhew noted that Cambridgeshire gypsies accepted Sheppard stories as the archetype of ‘blackguard tales’. Among English sailors anyone with the surname of ‘Sheppard’ was automatically called ‘Jack’. Within the Manchester proletariat of the 1840s his name was more widely known than that of the Queen herself. One of these lads said, ‘I was employed in a warehouse at 6s. 6d. a week, and was allowed 6d. of it for myself, and with that I went regularly to the play. I saw Jack Sheppard four times in one week.’

The oral history of Sheppard has maintained his memory within human contexts where books were scarce and working-class resources for an independent historiography were non-existent. Moreover, that memory was kept in contexts of social struggle in which a continuity, if not a development, with earlier moral and political conflicts was suggested.

* cited in Andrea McKenzie, “The Real Macheath: Social Satire, Appropriation, and Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography,” Huntington Library Quarterly, December 2006

** Ainsworth is also known for a novel about Sheppard’s near-contemporary, highwayman Dick Turpin.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Escapes,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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1999: Zarmeena

4 comments November 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1999,* a burka-clad woman known only as Zarmeena (alternatively, Zarmina … or in some early reports, Zareena) was executed by gunshot in Kabul’s Ghazi Sports Stadium.

This first public execution of a woman under the Taliban — ordered because she had supposedly killed her husband** — was secretly filmed by a Revolutionary Association of the Woman of Afghanistan activist smuggling a camera under her own burka.

Caution: This video is (in)famous enough, thanks to its inclusion in the documentary Beneath the Veil, that you’ve probably already seen it. But it’s still a graphic image of a woman shot through the head at point-blank range. (From around 2:20)

The book With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan expands somewhat on RAWA’s calculations on this occasion, on the young activist who pulled off the risky filming, and on the purportedly hostile-to-the-Taliban crowd reaction.

* Some web resources give Nov. 17 as the date, but all the (admittedly limited) primary documentation available appears to me to point definitively to Nov. 16. RAWA, which shot the video, posts it with this date; wire copy that ran in western papers on Nov. 16 (here) and Nov. 17 (here) attributed the execution to Nov. 16.

** It’s not clear to me how dependable the information about the executee is; it’s said that she had been in prison well over a year but was rather suddenly executed for the Taliban’s exigent reasons of public intimidation. It’s also said that her husband’s family forgave her — which, under sharia as practiced by, e.g., Saudi Arabia, ought to have spared her life — and that Zarmeena herself may not have understood or believed that she was actually going to be executed until the very last moment.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Afghanistan,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Known But To God,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Shot,Women

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1885: Louis Riel, Metis leader

3 comments November 16th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1885, Louis Riel, “the puzzling Messianic figure of Canadian history,” was hanged in Regina for treason.

We have already met in these pages the magnetic, controversial figure of Louis Riel when his Red River Rebellion caused the 1870 execution of Thomas Scott, one of the soldiers sent to suppress it.

Now, after a decade and a half in the political and sometimes literal wilderness, the champion of the Métis had been recalled from the United States to press the rights of his mixed-race French-indigenous people against the Anglo Canadians’ westward march.

It was North America’s familiar clash of civilizations between expanding industrial economies and the traditional ways of life they displaced. (Here’s a good background documentary video, with a Part 2 that gets into the weeds on battlefield events.) Because the Metis were “half-breeds” whose European stock was French, the story’s familiar cocktail of racism had a twist of Canada’s Anglo-French rivalry, too.

Riel declared an independent Provisional Government of Saskatchewan, and the North-West Rebellion was on.

The rebels had some initial successes. But hampered by an inability to make a firm alliance with the more politically realistic Cree, by the non-support of the Catholic Church in view of Riel’s increasingly out-there millenarianism, and by the extension of technological superiority another 15 years’ railroad-building had given the Ottawa government, Riel’s forces soon gave way.

The lightning-rod leader was arrested and repaired to the provincial capital for trial, where he spurned his lawyers’ desperation attempt to plead insanity and cogently vindicated his position.

“Life, without the dignity of an intelligent being, is not worth having.”
Riel

For a man twice a rebel, the hanging sentence was no surprise. Later, juror Edwin Brooks would tell a newspaper “We [the jury] tried Louis Riel for treason but he was hanged for the murder of Thomas Scott.” (Source, via this pdf handbook all about the Metis.)

His hanging was met with outrage in Francophone Quebec, and Louis Riel remains a polarizing figure down to the present day — an emblem of multiple overlapping cultural conflicts never fully resolved. The upcoming year’s 125th anniversary of events profiled here promise a renewed examination of Louis Riel (or at least of his tourism potential).

Below are a few more-or-less obtainable recent books about Riel and the North-West Rebellion, culled from this pdf reading list. Also note the public-domain volume The history of the North-west rebellion of 1885.

Recent considerations of Louis Riel and the North-West Rebellion

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Canada,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Treason

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