1871: Louis Rossel, Théophile Ferré, and Sergeant Bourgeois, Communards

1 comment November 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1871, three very disparate men of the recently quashed Paris Commune were shot together at Satory.


Louis Rossel (top) and Theophile Ferre. The mysterious Bourgeois will have to be imagined.

Louis Rossel (French Wikipedia link | English) got the press — the public sighs, the clemency campaign, the big show by Adolphe Thiers of considering mercy. “Rossel,” French scribbler Jules Barthelemy-Saint-Hilaire wrote, “is a man whose hand we grasp even when we shoot him.”

Rossel, to the elites of the Third Republic, was one of them. (Here’s a very sympathetic extended biography via Google books.)

The highest-ranking officer (a colonel) to serve the Commune, a writer of books and thinker of thoughts, the fuzzily lefty Rossel had gone to Paris to serve “the people” when France’s capitulation during the Franco-Prussian War put the capital at the mercy of the Germans.

Rossel was briefly Minister of War for the Commune, but he broke with its leadership’s fire-eating ways and then hung about the city while events played out around him. For his adherents, he was the loyal patriot who had renounced the rebellion. For the rebels … pretty much the same (Rossel resigned/was forced from power three weeks before the Commune fell).

But for the brass, the youngster’s March resignation letter abandoning the Thiers government for the Parisian masses was a little more dangerous than your garden-variety liberalism.

Having learned … that two parties are struggling for mastery of the country, I do not hesitate in joining the side which has not concluded peace [with the Germans], and which has not included in its ranks generals guilty of capitulation. (Source)

Without doubt, Theophile Ferre (French Wikipedia link | English) was a true believer, a radical agitator from way back. Ferre was part of the Commune leadership, and directly involved in the execution of hostages during its desperate last week.*

As such, his sympathy from the bourgeois public was zero, and his prospects of commutation were even worse than that. Ferre took his solace from his faith in the cause.

Joining these two in a sort of literary triad was one “Sergeant Bourgeois” (seriously), a straight-from-central-casting grunt “condemned to death for having struck one of his officers, and for having afterwards taken part in the Commune.”** His role in the story is to be the virtuous avatar of The People, understood to have died in a manner confirming the interlocutor’s take on the Commune, whatever that take might be.

Thus, Lissagaray (French link), eloquently reviling that milquetoast fop Rossel:

For twelve weeks death remained suspended above the heads of the condemned. At last, on the 28th November, at six o’clock in the morning, they were told that they must die. Ferré jumped out of bed without showing the slightest emotion, declined the visit of the chaplain, wrote to ask the military tribunals for the release of his father [also imprisoned -ed.], and to his sister that she should have him buried so that his friends would be able to find him again. Rossel, rather surprised at first, afterwards conversed with his clergyman. He wrote a letter demanding that his death should not be avenged — a very useless precaution — and addressed a few thanks to Jesus Christ. For comrade in death they had a sergeant of the 45th line, Bourgeois, who had gone over to the Commune, and who showed the same calm as Ferré. Rossel was indignant when they put on the handcuffs; Ferré and Bourgeois disdained to protest.

The day was hardly dawning; it was bitterly cold. Before the Butte of Satory 5,000 men under arms surrounded three white stakes, each one guarded by twelve executioners. Colonel Merlin commanded, thus uniting the three functions of conqueror, judge, and hangman.

Some curious lookers-on, officers and journalists, composed the whole public.

At seven o’clock the carts of the condemned appeared; the drums beat a salute, the trumpets sounded. The prisoners descended, escorted by gendarmes. Rossel, on passing before a group of officers, saluted them. The brave Bourgeois, looking on at the whole drama with an indifferent air, leant against the middle stake. Ferré came last, dressed in black and smoking a cigar, not a muscle of his face moving. With a firm and even step he walked up and leant against the third stake.

Rossel, attended by his lawyer and his clergyman, asked to be allowed to command the fire. Merlin refused. Rossel wished to shake hands with him, in order to do homage to his sentence. This was refused. During these negotiations Ferré and Bourgeois remained motionless, silent. In order to put a stop to Rossel’s effusions an officer was obliged to tell him that he was prolonging the torture of the two others. At last they blindfolded him. Ferré pushed back the bandage, and, fixing his eyeglass, looked the soldiers straight in the face.

The sentence read, the adjutants lowered their sabres, the guns were discharged. Rossel and Bourgeois fell back. Ferré remained standing; he was only hit in the side. He was again fired at and fell. A soldier placing his chassepôt at his ear blew out his brains.

By unsurprising contrast, the New York Times reporter found Rossel’s act more convincing than Ferre’s.

Throughout this trying morning ROSSEL was calm and resigned to his fate, and all of his remarks are manly and touching …

It was a cold, dark, November morning, a heavy fog obscuring everything at 6 &frac12, and the street lamps were still lighted. During this time FERRE had dressed himself with unusual care, putting pommade upon his hair, and spending a long time in brushing his clothes … BOURGEOIS rose jauntily from his bed, made his ablutions like a soldier, then listened to the consolation of the priest. After this he lighted a cigar, and went out jauntily, with light military tread, and with his kepi cocked upon one ear. He was cool, but there was no bravado about him, while FERRE seemed to be constantly searching for effect …

ROSSEL … stood calmly before the platoon awaiting the signal to fire.

Meantime Bourgeois had marched gaily to his post, saluting the troops as he passed, and in a business-like way threw down his cigar, threw open his coat, and stood in an easy position, awaiting the word. FERRE was a poseur to the last. A number of times he changed his position, looking at his legs and then at the few spectators, but no position seemed to satisfy him. He then cast a rapid glance toward BOURGEOIS, and immediately struck the soldier’s attitude.

Seeing these archetypes reduced to corpses, the London Times‘ correspondent could hardly resist.

As I cast a last look at them, I could not but feel how different was the spirit which had animated each at the last moment. Rossel had died commending his soul to God; Borugeois had gone through the form of confession, and died probably in the ignorance of a superstitious soldier, while Ferre died, caring as little for his own life as he had for those of others … a Materialist.

* Ferre is supposed to have personally announced the death sentence to Archbishop Georges Darboy, the marquee martyr to the Commune.

** London Times, Nov. 30, 1871.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Notable Jurisprudence,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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1950: James Corbitt, the hangman’s mate

16 comments November 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1950, famed British executioner Albert Pierrepoint carried out his most difficult assignment: hanging his friend.

Though not literally the Isles’ last hangman, Pierrepoint is the last one everyone thinks of, the man who defined the hangman’s job for the 20th century.

Discreet, orderly, and as quiet as he was efficient,* he was the brand-name executioner for stiff-upper-lip England of the waning empire, with over 400** hangings to his name from 1932 until he resigned over a fee dispute in 1956.

Despite his proper avoidance of the spotlight, Pierrepoint’s excellence at his craft would make him a celebrity — especially after the press fixated on his role hanging Nazi war criminals after World War II. The ready-made morality play upon the scaffold boards could hardly be resisted: the English grocer, meting out a dignified and precise measure of justice to the likes of the Beast of Belsen.

Hanging Around

Pierrepoint’s characteristic client wasn’t a war criminal, but a humdrum British murderer, only a handful of which attract especial remembrance today.

Still, in the immediate postwar years, the growing reach of the mass media and burgeoning public controversy over the death penalty would frequently put Pierrepoint in the middle of the era’s highest-profile hangings, including:

Tish and Tosh

Like as not, this day’s affair hit the sturdy hangman harder than any of those.

James Henry Corbitt was a regular at “Help the Poor Struggler”, the piquantly named Oldham pub Pierrepoint bought and managed after World War II. Known as “Tish” to Pierrepont’s “Tosh,” the two had sung a duet of “Danny Boy” on the night that Corbitt went out and murdered his girlfriend in a jealous rage.

Corbitt was not exceptional as a criminal, and he was indisputably guilty; we wouldn’t notice him if not for his acquaintance with the man who put him to death.

But Pierrepoint would remember this one well, as he later wrote in his his autobiography:

I thought if any man had a deterrent to murder poised before him, it was this troubadour whom I called Tish. He was not only aware of the rope, he had the man who handled it beside him singing a duet. The deterrent did not work.

Remarkably, the most prolific executioner in British history had come out against the death penalty, or so it seemed. (He later backed away from a strong anti-death penalty position, though without retracting his original reservations. The death penalty had been a decade off the books by this point, in any case.)

It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men and grandmothers.

I have been amazed to see the courage with which they walk into the unknown.

It did not deter them then and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder. And if death does not work to deter one person, it should not be held to deter any … capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.

It’s an open question how much Tish’s hanging this day really contributed to Pierrepoint’s retirement six years later or his apparent change of stance on his trade. But it provides the gut-wrenching dramatic pivot for the film Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman.

Interestingly, while the hangman saw in Corbitt’s fate a troubling indictment of the death penalty, the hanged man’s son to this day still says dad deserved to die.

More on Albert Pierrepoint

For a man so ubiquitously present in the mid-century experience of Great Britain, and who undertook such a dramatic volte-face, it’s no surprise that Pierrepoint has attracted plenty of attention — including this website, and a number of books.

Also of possible interest: Hangmen of England: History of Execution from Jack Ketch to Albert Pierrepoint (we’ve met Jack Ketch here before). More dry factual data about Pierrepoint, the father and uncle who preceded him in the post, and other recent practitioners in Britain’s colorful line of executioners is here.

* The English practice was for Pierrepoint to pinion the prisoner’s arms in the condemned cell, escort him a few steps into a hanging chamber, hood him, and execute the sentence without further ceremony. The whole process took mere seconds — a record fast seven seconds from cell door to trap door in the case of James Inglis — which Pierrepoint seems to have had a gift for dignifying in his (usual) silence with a sort of calming paternal assurance.

Pierrepoint hanged six American soldiers under the auspices of U.S. military forces deployed to England during the Second World War, and confessed to considerable discomfort with that entity’s protracted pre-hanging procedures that had him standing on the scaffold with the condemned man for several minutes.

* And perhaps well over 600 hangings; the figures are disputed.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Notable Participants

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1922: Six Greek former ministers of state

11 comments November 28th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1922,* on the morning after a revolutionary tribunal held them liable for treason in the catastrophic Greek loss of Smyrna, six former high-ranking political and military officials of the Greek government were shot in Athens.

The long-running national conflict between liberals and monarchists had boiled over during World War I, setting the stage for increasingly bitter internecine conflict played out against the backdrop of a misbegotten foreign adventure.

Greece’s territorial aspirations after World War I.

As the Ottoman Empire — Greece’s neighbor and historical rival — collapsed in the aftermath of the world war, Athens under liberal colossus Eleftherios Venizelos set her sights on a vast pan-Hellenic domain spanning Constantinople, western Anatolia, and the Black Sea coast.

In 1919, backed — even pushed — by the British, Greece occupied Smyrna, a multiethnic economic hub in Asia Minor. But cruelty towards the Turkish population sparked immediate resistance which soon blended insensibly into the burgeoning Turkish National Movement, already on the path towards its destiny of forging the modern state of Turkey.

As the Greek army pressed outwards from Smyrna, it became drawn into full-fledged war. In 1920, the Greek government turned over (as it was often wont to do) and under the ascendant monarchists whose irredentism was not to be upstaged “fantasy began to direct Greek policy” — like a quixotic scheme to march on Constantinople rather than hold a defensible position. Greece’s European allies and sponsors began to cut bait.

September 14, 1922: Smyrna burns.

Far from threatening Constantinople, the Greeks suffered one of their greatest disasters — the “Catastrophe of Asia Minor”, when Ataturk drove them back to, and then out of, Smyrna, emptying the once-cosmopolitan city of thousands of Greek (and Armenian) refugees fleeing a sectarian carnage. Some swam out of the burning city only to be refused aid by ships of nations unwilling to be drawn into the affair politically.

In the dismayed Greek capital, anti-monarchist officers who had been purged by the new government revolted and rounded up the opposition’s leadership. “The Six” who faced public trial for treason included three former Prime Ministers:

With two other ministers of state and a general, they comprised all but one member of the offending monarchist government, a bloody thoroughness the New York Times compared to Robespierre. Western governments temporarily broke off relations.

After the day’s bloody deeds, Venizelos returned from exile to conclude the war on Turkish terms, including “population exchange” — fragrant euphemism — to solidify each government’s demarcation as a nation-state and ratify the destruction of Smyrna (renamed Izmir) as a multiconfessional melting pot.

Today, Smyrna is largely forgotten by those to whom it is not intensely remembered — and among the latter, its meaning is ferociously contested. To Turks, a chapter in their founding expulsion of foreign occupation; to Greeks, the calamitous end of the ancient Hellenic presence in Asia Minor; to each, a touchstone for one another’s atrocities; to others of a less parochial frame of mind, a parable of the perfidy of an entire enemy faith, or a subplot in the great game for Ottoman oil, or as Henry Miller conceived it writing in the antechamber of the second World War, the avatar of a stunted and cynical moral sense among European powers that would lead them to their next great reckoning:

Even the most ignorant yokel knows that the name Attila is associated with untold horrors and vandalism. But the Smyrna affair, which far outweighs the horrors of the first World War or even the present one, has been somehow soft-pedalled and almost expunged from the memory of present day man. The peculiar horror which clings to this catastrophe is due not alone to the savagery and barbarism of the Turks but to the disgraceful, supine acquiescence of the big powers.

Smyrna, like the Boxer Rebellion and other incidents too numerous to mention, was a premonitory example of the fate which lay in store for European nations, the fate which they were slowly accumulating by their diplomatic intrigues, their petty horse-trading, their cultivated neutrality and indifference in the face of obvious wrongs and injustices.

*Greece did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1923, the last European country to do so — so the date in Greece on the day of the execution was actually November 15.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Greece,Heads of State,Mass Executions,Notable Jurisprudence,Politicians,Power,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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