1707: Bartellemy Pichon dit La Roze, the first executed in Fort Detroit

Add comment November 7th, 2018 Headsman

The execution hook for today’s post does not arrive until the end of the excerpt below

Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac* … the French explorer who founded Fort Pontchartrain** du Detroit, the germ of the present-day U.S. Motor City.

How did Monsieur Cadillac administer criminal justice in his frontier fortress? Read on …

Cadillac’s Autocratic Rule

The next step, and a step that was very early taken, was the enforced obedience to the will of the first commandant, Cadillac. The troubles he had with the Company of the Colony of Canada forced him to be arbitrary with the servants of that company, and he was arrested and sent to Montreal for putting one of these disobedient servants in prison. This was an attack on the government itself, and could not be overlooked by the governor-general. Cadillac kept away from Detroit for a long time, but eventually returned with his powers confirmed by the king. During his absence his little village came near being sacked and destroyed by turbulent Indians, and it was partly on this account that the home government looked with favor upon his attempt at arbitrary rule.

In 1711 Cadillac left Detroit for good and his successor got into trouble with the village priest and with many of the foremost citizens without unnecessary delay. Although the commandant was always very powerful, there were some matters that appeared to be beyond his authority to try. He could not try any cases in which he was personally interested. He could not try any capital cases or cases in which the life or liberty of the defendant was involved. He could not try these cases, but yet we find that Cadillac asserted that his authority reached to the taking of the life of any person who refused to submit to his orders. Cadillac himself was defendant in a civil suit in 1694, which was protracted until 1703, arising out of the seizure of the goods of a trader of Michilimackinac, when Cadillac was commandant there.

The goods were seized for infraction of the laws which prohibited the sale of brandy to the Indians. The suit was for the recovery of the value of these goods, which were destroyed. The trial was held at Montreal and was decided in favor of Cadillac.

INCENDIARISM

In 1703 some one set fire to the buildings in the village of Detroit and the church was burned, as well as a large warehouse filled with furs, and several other buildings. Cadillac himself was severely burned in attempting to stem the conflagration. There was much speculation as to who set the fire. Cadillac accused the Jesuits of instigating the work. There were no Jesuits in Detroit, but he accused them of sending an Indian from Mackinac to do the work for them. There were some very bitter letters written on the subject between Cadillac and the Jesuit priests at Mackinac and Montreal, but the matter, with them, ended with the letter writing. This did not disclose the incendiary and others were suspected or accused of setting the fire. Shortly after this, in 1706, Jacques Campau accused Pierre Roquant dit la Ville of the crime. Canadian or French justice was administered in the manner that appears odd at this distance. In this case La Ville was arrested and taken to Quebec and lodged in prison. Campau was also summoned to attend the investigation as the complaining witness and most important person. The trial, or investigation, was held at Quebec December 2, 1706 before le conseil extraordinairment and resulted in an apparently extraordinary verdict, for not only was the defendant acquitted, but the complaining witness, Campau, was compelled to pay five hundred livres for the trouble and expense he had caused.

CRIMINAL ASSAULT

In 1705 Pierre Berge (or Boucher) dit La Tulipe, a drummer (tambour) in the company of Cadillac, committed a criminal assault upon Susanne Capelle, a little girl twelve years of age. He was convicted before the conseil superieur of Quebec and was sentenced to make a public confession of his crime and on his knees in the church he was compelled to ask pardon for his sins — he was then to be executed. It was almost impossible to carry out the last part of the sentence, for no one appeared willing to act as executioner. In the jail at Quebec was a man named Jacques Elie, who had been condemned to death for some offense committed at the siege of Port Royal in Acadia. Elie was promised a pardon for his crime if he would act as executioner of Tulipe and the latter was thus duly hanged on November 26, 1705. These were some of the cases the commandants were unable to deal with at home and sent to the higher courts at Montreal and Quebec for trial and disposition.

MILITARY LAWS

Another class of cases, those involving the military laws — disobedience to military orders, desertions and that class of cases [–] were attended to by the soldiers themselves and came before the commandant in his capacity of military officer and not as a civilian.

There is a record of one of these early trials by court-martial. During the absence of Cadillac from the village in 1705, Bourgmont had charge of the post for a time. He misbehaved himself in various ways to such an extent that the citizens nearly rose in rebellion and the public indignation was so great that Bourgmont sought safety in flight. After Cadillac’s return, he set about investigating the matter and in 1707 sent an officer named Desane, with fifteen men, to hunt up and capture Bourgmont, Jolicoeur, and Bartellemy Pichon dit La Roze, all of whom were deserters, and who were then leading an abandoned life on the shores of Lake Erie. They were also commanded to bring with them a woman named Tichenet, who was then living a scandalous life with Bourgmont and who was, in part, the cause of Bourgmont’s desertion.

Apparently La Roze was the only deserter who was captured and he was tried by a court consisting of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, Francois LeGautier, Sieur de la Vallee Derasie, Pierre D’Argenteuil, Guignolet Lafleudor and Francouer Brindamour. The defendant was found guilty and sentenced “a avoir la teste cassee jusque a se que mort sensuive,” meaning that he should have his neck stretched until he was dead. The word “teste” in old French, for modern “tete,” meaning the head, was applied in this case to the neck. This sentence was duly carried out in the garrison of the Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit November 7, 1707. No appeal was taken, nor was it possible that any could be. This was the first capital case in Detroit, but not the last one, for there were several others in later years.

* Cadillac’s adoptive title is of course the inspiration for the automobile manufacturer of that name. The name sources to a town in the Gironde, and has now gone international.

** U.S. readers might better recognize Lake Pontchartrain, the enormous, flood-prone estuary jutting into present-day New Orleans. Post-Detroit, our man Cadillac became the governor of French Louisiana, and between the two tributes left him in the New World it is no surprise to find that the comte de Pontchartrain was Cadillac’s patron.

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1873: Captain Joseph Fry and 36 crew of the Virginius

Add comment November 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1873, Joseph Fry,* captain of the captured U.S. blockade runner Virginius, was shot in Santiago de Cuba along with 36 of his crew members. (The full roster of those executed on November 7 can be found on this page.)

This shocking mass execution just a day after court-martial compassed many U.S. citizens among its number including the captain himself, a former Confederate naval officer, and it threatened to spiral the Virginius crisis into war between the U.S. and Spain.

“The feeling of our citizens was raised to fever heat by the execution of the Cuban leaders,” one paper raged (the Evening Post, as quoted by the Washington, D.C. Daily National Republican of Nov. 13, 1873). “It will now rise to the boiling pitch.” The New York Herald called on the Grant administration to “speak to them [Spain] now with an iron throat before the rest of the victims of the Virginius are slaughtered, and in language that they would understand.” (Nov. 12, 1873)

Within days, the war tocsin rang throughout the American republic, from the lips of Congressmen and the fulminations of editorial pages. Gunships were scrambled from Atlantic ports. Even Tammany Hall passed a resolution demanding hostilities. Under different leadership on either side of the prospective conflict matters could easily have escalated; U.S. papers were soon inflating the already very sizable death toll 80, or even to the entirety of the Virginius crew. This press roundup from the Providence (Rhode Island) Evening Press will suggest the tenor of the moment.

NEW YORK, Nov. 13 — Senator Conkling said in an interview at the 5th Avenue Hotel last night, “If the facts are as represented, I have not the least doubt that instant measures will be adopted to avenge the outraged honor of this country, and teach a lesson they will never forget to those who have dared insult our flag. Those measures will be of a character that will involve not alone the fate of the insurrection in Cuba, but the whole future of the island… The honor of the country will I repeat, be vindicated if on investigation it shall be found that an outrage has been committed on our flag.”

NEW YORK, Nov. 13. — The Herald says, we can no longer trust to diplomatic protest and Madrid orders. Our safety must be in the weight of our metal and bravery of our sailors for the outrage of the murders at Santiago de Cuba …

The Sun says the nation might put up with having their flag trampled upon. They might even submit to murder in cold blood of the Cuban leaders taken under the protection of that flag; but this wholesale butchery shocks every feeling of humanity, and cannot fail to rouse the sentiment of national honor and dignity …

The World says: The pretence of piracy is too absurd for serious discussion. But on any other hypothesis the Cuban authorities had no right to meddle with the Virginius, except within a marine league of their own coast.

The Times says, although we are a peaceable nation,** we have not arrived at the point at which we can stand by and see Spain assassinate American citizens with impunity.

By reply, “The Voz de Cuba of today [Nov. 12, 1873] says editorially that it [is] as humane as anybody, more so than many who make ostentatious professions of philanthropy, but it cannot do less than approve of the energy displayed toward all rebels, and particularly toward those whom the filibustering steamer Virginius brought to make more bloody war on Cuba.” (quoted from the Worcester, Mass. Spy of Nov. 14, 1873)

* An 1875 biography is in the public domain: Life of Capt. Joseph Fry, the Cuban martyr.

** This phrase assuredly appears in the wartime propaganda campaign drinking game.

Part of Corpses Strewn: The Virginius Affair.

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1765: Alexander Provan, half-handed

Add comment November 7th, 2015 Headsman

A murderer named Alexander Provan was put to death on this date in 1765, the very rare* instance of a Scottish execution enhanced with mutilation.

Provan, who was uncovered as his wife’s murderer when he carelessly poured out her blood from a bottle thinking he was serving his friends an evening tipple, was doomed to have the right hand that authored the horrid deed struck off prior to hanging at Paisley.

But the unusual sentence implied an unpracticed executioner. Visibly nervous, the man missed his aim and instead of severing the evil limb at the wrist, he split Provan right through the palm.

At this the wretched prisoner began shrieking for the halter already fastened around his neck — “the tow, the tow, the tow!” The horrified executioner obliged with all speed, dragging the wailing uxoricide off his feet and past his mortal troubles.

* Unique?

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1898: Sokong, Lavari, and Kruba of the Imperri

1 comment November 7th, 2014 Headsman

Three Sierra Leone natives whose November 7, 1898 hanging we recall here might have had their fate written in the stars before time itself began, but a much more proximate document was the understanding concluded among European powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85.


“Deal table in the middle, plain chairs all round the walls, on one end a large shining map, marked with all the colors of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red — good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer.” –Joseph Conrad

This summit aimed to regularize the so-called “scramble for Africa” among rival European empires by setting forth some rules about who got to plant what flags where. One of those rules was known as the Principle of Effective Occupation: as the name suggests, the Principle was that a colonial power actually had to be in something like control of the territory it proposed to call its own.

The Berlin Conference kicked off a generation of frenetic jockeying and conquest that carved up the continent.

Further to Effective Occupation, the British expanded their longstanding coastal presence at Freetown by, in 1896, annexing the inland regions into something now christened the Protectorate of Sierra Leone.

All that Protectorating didn’t come cheap. Who better to pay for it than the Protectorated?

Britain’s proconsul accordingly dropped a Hut Tax on his subjects — a ruinously steep one that stoked an 1898 rebellion known as the Hut Tax War. The brief but bloody war (actually an amalgamation of two distinct rebellions, north and south) cost hundreds of lives on each side, not sparing civilians.

British colonial agent Thomas Joshua Alldridge, who authored several studies of the colony and its inhabitants, was part of the July expedition raiding a town called Bambaia on Sherbro Island.

I had already sent to the chief of this town, giving him an ultimatum — that if he would not by a certain day, come up and tender his unconditional submission, a punitive expedition would be the result. He was a notoriously bad character and did some terrible things, for which he was afterwards tried and hanged. The disregarding of the ultimatum caused the present expedition. I was informed that when we arrived at the waterside he had cleared out with the people before we could get into the town. Presently a few people returned, and it was evident that he was in hiding near; but to attempt to hunt for men in the African bush is a waste of time, the bush being their natural stronghold.

I sent messages by the people, and had it loudly called out that if he would return to the town by 4 o’clock that I would not destroy the place, but that if he did not appear before me by that time it would be burnt. As he did not do so and I could get no information whatever, the straggling and outlying parts of the town were fired, and in the morning the town itself was destroyed.

Hangings like the one Alldridge references here for the chief of Bambaia were meted out in great number to rebel leadership, some 96 executions known in just a few months. Alldridge knew the country in peacetime and not just in war, and would eventually publish several studies of the country from his observations. (The text just quoted comes from one such.)

In this 1896 photo, Alldridge recorded the election by the chiefs of Imperri — a region of Sherbro Island — of a paramount chief (Sokong). He’s the rightmost of the two seated men, wearing a black top hat; beside him sits a counselor described by Alldridge as the Imperri Prime Minister (Lavari).

The quality of this image isn’t the best; it’s just taken from a Google images scan of Alldridge’s public domain book A Transformed Colony: Sierra Leone, as it Was, and as it Is. Alldridge notes that both the Sokong and the Lavari later “suffered the full penalty of the law” for the rebellion.

That would presumably make those two leaders also part of this portrait, taken just four months before the rebellion’s outbreak at a meeting of Imperri chiefs in that town of Bambaia which Alldridge would later put to the torch:

This latter photo is online in a number of locations with the same descriptive caption:

Identified beneath the print are the Sokong, the Prime Minister and ‘a principal Kruba’ (military leader) with the following remark: ‘all of whom were tried for murder and hanged at Bonthe, Sherbro, 7th November 1898′.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find a version of this photo that actually reproduces in situ the identifications alluded to. Perhaps there is a reader who can identify the Sokong and Lavari from the first picture in the second?

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1918: Louis Harris and Ernest Jackson, the last British soldiers shot at dawn

4 comments November 7th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On November 7, 1918, mere days before the end of World War I, British privates Louis Harris and Ernest Jackson were shot for desertion and cowardice. Jackson, of the 24th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, and Harris, of the 10th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, were the last British soldiers shot for military offenses in the First World War.

Jackson had been conscripted into the military in July 1916 and sent to France in November. He first ran into trouble in April 1917, when he went AWOL for 28 hours and was sentenced to two years in prison. In most cases the sentence would have been suspended, but for some reason that didn’t happen with Jackson and he spent sixteen months behind bars before he was released and returned to his battalion in August 1918.

A little over a month later, on September 29, he disappeared from his battalion transport lines near Flesquières, where he’d been sick and waiting to be sent to the field ambulance.

Arrested on October 3, Jackson got sent back to the to the 24th Battalion, which was then at Noyelles, 3,000 yards from the front lines. By mid-afternoon he had dropped out of sight again, but was arrested by the military police the next day at Douellens. On October 8, Jackson’s NCO found his arms and equipment in a shelter not far from where he’d gone missing.

Jackson faced a Field General Court Martial (FGCM) on three charges:

  1. Going AWOL on September 29
  2. Deserting on October 4
  3. “Shamefully casting away his arms, ammunition and equipment in the presence of the enemy” on October 4

When asked to explain himself before the tribunal, Jackson said, “I left because I could not stand the treatment I was receiving. I wanted to get away from everything … I have been looked down on by everyone and that is the cause of my being here today.” He added that both his parents had died in insane asylums and he himself suffered from “mental problems caused by worries.”

The FGCM would have none of it and sentenced Jackson to death. He was shot at St. Python in northern France at 6:10 a.m. He was 32 years old.

Nineteen minutes later and 25 kilometers away, at Locquignol, Private Louis Harris faced the firing squad.

Harris had volunteered for the Army in 1915, but was discharged as unfit. He got conscripted in 1916, however, and was sent to France in July, where he served as part of a Lewis gun team. On September 2, in the middle of an attack at Rocquigny, while there was “no firing and practically no opposition,” Harris ditched his kit and his comrades and vanished. He was arrested the next day and faced an FGCM for desertion and cowardice.

The book Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War notes,

Harris — surprisingly … was not defended at his trial and made no attempt to cross-examine any of the witnesses, nor did he make a statement in his own defence. It would appear that the 23-year-old soldier either did not understand the seriousness of his position, or was resigned to his fate.

He was found not guilty of cowardice, but guilty of desertion, and his bad record (which included repeated charges of insubordination) was held against him. His CO wrote, “Pte. Harris L. has not got a good record in this Battalion. His fighting value is NIL.” The Brigade Commander agreed, summing up his case thusly:

I recommend that the extreme penalty be carried out for the following reasons:

  1. Pte. Harris’s action was deliberate.
  2. He has previously attempted to desert unsuccessfully.
  3. He is worthless as a soldier.
  4. During an action he deliberately abandoned his comrades.
  5. His example is a disgraceful one.

Harris’s execution was, as previously stated, the last. Four days later on November 11, the war ended and all death sentences for military offenses were commuted to penal servitude. In 1929 the death penalty was abolished for desertion and other military crimes.

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1864: Retaliatory executions by John Mosby

6 comments November 7th, 2012 Headsman

Though executioners don’t quite bat 1.000 — who does, at any human endeavor? — the field on the whole succeeds more often than not.

On this date in 1864, the Confederate guerrilla John S. Mosby had seven Union prisoners executed, but he only managed to kill three of them — an efficiency very well below the Mendoza Line for the executioner’s trade.

It was a rare competence gap for the brilliant cavalryman.

The irregulars Mosby commanded in the Shenandoah Valley had frustrated for six months the consolidation of rampant northern armies, thereby preserving the Confederate capital of Richmond and extending the Civil War.

The situation had quick become intolerable for the Union, and Gen. Ulysses Grant emphasized (pdf) to Gen. Phil Sheridan the cruel anti-insurgent tactics he would countenance for “the necessity of clearing out the country so that it would not support Mosby’s gang. So long as the war lasts they must be prevented from raising another crop.”

By way of example-setting, the Union army had summarily executed six of Mosby’s rangers at Front Royal in September — followed by a seventh who was captured in early October in Rappahanock County.

Incensed, the Confederate “gray ghost” began stockpiling blue bodies from the offending command of George Armstrong Custer — yes, the Little Bighorn guy; he was perceived by Mosby to be responsible for the atrocity, although the actual paper trail on the execution order seems to be a little sketchy.

Mosby, who fancied himself the genteel sort who would closely abide the laws of war when fighting for the right to maintain human chattel, sent a lawlerly appeal up the chain of command seeking permission “to hang an equal number of Custer’s men.” General Robert E. Lee and Confederate Secretary of War James Sedden granted it.

Twenty-seven captives were therefore assembled and subjected to a lethal lottery. Jay Simson’s Custer and the Front Royal Executions of 1864 recounts this horrible affair in an excrutiatingly page-turning narration.

The preparations began innocently enough on a quiet Sunday morning (November 6, 1864) when 27 Union prisoners of war were ushered with no explanation about what was happening out of a brick storehouse located in Rectortown, Virginia …

[They] were then marched to the banks of Goose Creek, about half a mile away. some, but definitely not all, of this specially selected pool of 27 prisoners belonged to Custer’s commands both past and present … [but] of the seven men eventually selected to die on Mosby’s orders only two were actually members of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade.

All 27 of the prisoners were lined up along Goose Creek and then made to draw slips of paper from a hat. Twenty of those slips of paper which were part of the macabre lottery were simply that, blank pieces of paper. The other seven — one for each of Mosby’s men executed at Front Royal and in Rappahanock County — were marked with a number …

Of the men who were forced to draw those slips of paper, some of them simply stared into space. Others, once they understood what was happening, prayed. There were a few of them who simply broke down.

Among the prisoners was a young drummer boy … who broke down completely, sobbing … He drew a blank slip and immediately proclaimed: “Damn it, ain’t I lucky!” When a second drummer boy was found to be unlucky enough to have drawn one of the marked slips of paper, upon the request of the men who had been spared, Mosby personally ordered the boy to be released from the seven condemned prisoners and the 18 remaining prisoners (excluding the first drummer boy) drew from the slips of paper for a second time.

Then one of the seven adults also got himself swapped out of the scrap by flashing a Masonic sign at a Confederate lodge member. The things that stand between life and death.

Out of the nine to come under death’s pall and the seven who were actually marched overnight to the place of execution (as close to Custer’s camp as Mosby dared) only three were there successfully ushered past death’s threshold.

At 4 a.m. on Monday, November 7, 1864 (the day before the election which would give Abraham Lincoln his second term in the White House and would therefore become the signature on the death warrant of the Confederacy), the Rangers and their prisoners reached the execution site in Beemer’s Woods, a mile west of Berryville, and the executions were carried forward. However, everything did not go exactly according to plan.

In the pre-dawn darkness and confusion (either through carelessness or lack of caring for their orders, since none of the prisoners had actually been involved in depredations against Confederate civilians) the Rangers allowed two of the seven prisoners (one of whom, G.H. Soule, 5th Michigan Cavalry Regiment, punched out a guard) to escape outright. Two other prisoners were apparently shot in the head, but surviving, having only been grazed, also escaped since they pretended, and were apparently believed, to be dead. The remaining three prisoners were hanged. The identities and whether or not these three prisoners were members of either Custer or Powell’s commands are unknown. Lt. Thompson, in accordance with his orders attached a placard to one of the hanged men (just as similar placards had been attached to the bodies of all three of Mosby’s hanged men). Mosby’s placard read: “These men have been hung in retaliation for an equal number of Colonel Mosby’s men hung by order of General Custer at Front Royal. Measure for Measure.”

Believing his purpose accomplished, or at any rate close enough for rebel government work, Mosby then wrote to Union General Sheridan justifying the action and assuring him that future “prisoners falling into my hands will be treated with the kindness due to their condition, unless some new act of barbarity shall compel me, reluctantly, to adopt a line of policy repugnant to humanity.”

The letter, and the 3-out-of-7 reprisal, actually worked — with no further measures exacted for measure or tits given for tat. For the waning months of the war the rival forces confined themselves to killing one another on the battlefield, and not in the stockade.

Well, mostly: one of the conspirators in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln in April 1865 — which did assassinate Lincoln, but was really a wider attempt to decapitate the entire northern government — was a former Mosby’s ranger named Lewis Powell aka Payne. Lincoln killer John Wilkes Booth also seemed to flee in Mosby’s direction (Mosby’s units were still in the field, not covered by the April 9 Appomattox surrender.) There exists an unproven but delicious speculative hypothesis that the hand of John Mosby was among those behind an exponentially more ambitious “line of policy repugnant to humanity.”

Be that as it may, Mosby actually became a Republican after the war — for which he received some Southern death threats — and lived fifty eventful years. Among other things, the aged Mosby regaled the young George Patton (whose father Mosby knew) with Civil War stories.

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1823: Rafael Riego, Spanish liberal

Add comment November 7th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1823, Rafael Riego was hanged in Madrid.

Riego was a leading exponent of the supine cause of Spanish liberalism during the 1810s reign of the feckless Ferdinand VII, who had reversed Spain’s extraordinarily progressive 1812 constitution.

On the first day of the 1820s, he led an army mutiny that forced the king to restore that constitution.

Feckless Ferdinand went along with the new sheriff, and the result was a three-year interregnum of constitutional government — the Trienio Liberal.

But the Bourbon king was only too pleased to solicit the aid of Europe’s counterrevolutionary monarchs.

In 1823, a French expedition — the “hundred thousand sons of St. Louis — invaded Spain at Ferdinand’s invitation and swiftly crushed Riego’s liberals. Then Ferdinand crushed Riego himself.

Induced like Cranmer to sully his reputation by recanting in the vain hope of a pardon (and by starvation and other coercions), Riego was instead stripped of military honors, given a summary trial, and ignominiously drug to the gallows in a basket.


Text of a propaganda leaflet that circulated in England following Riego’s execution. (Source)

Post-Riego, Spain’s liberal and absolutist factions still had years of bloody fighting and martyr-making yet to go.

And we’re not just talking 19th century. There’s a Himno de Riego, which was also the anthem of the 1930s Spanish Republic that Franco laid low.

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1817: The Pentrich Rebellion leaders

3 comments November 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1817, Jeremiah Brandreth, William Turner, and Isaac Ludlum or Ludlam were hanged and posthumously beheaded for the Pentrich Revolution or Pentrich Rising.


Retrace the “revolution” on a walking trail (pdf). Scenic!

The executions this day were an ugly consequence of government vigilance against subversives after the Napoleonic Wars.

There was plenty of “subversion” to spark vigilance: economic realignments of the early Industrial Revolution pushed workers into untenable positions, and a political system overgrown with archaic privileges and undemocratic veto points could not respond pending desperately needed reform.

Political Hampden clubs interested in parliamentary reform had cropped up all over England. The government viewed them as potential Robespierres.

So not only the Pentrich rising’s suppression but the rising itself were the product of the state security apparatus. A government spy named William Oliver, in the employ of Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth, infiltrated himself into radical circles in the Derbyshire village, and convinced the real radicals that nationwide protests were planned for June 9.

Expecting sympathetic labor actions in London and elsewhere, a few dozen Pentrich men assembled themselves — alone in the nation, drenched in a downpouring rain. They marched towards Nottingham, killed a man along the way, dissolved pathetically and were rounded up by soldiers in the days ahead. Forty-five stood trial for treason: three doomed to die this day, others sentenced to jail terms or transportation. It was a warning shot against airing grievances, a harbinger of more infamous top-down violence to come.


These hangings and the throwback chopping-off-heads bit succeeded by just a few hours the sudden death of the young Princess Charlotte, a sort of Princess Di moment for the Hanoverians.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, who knew from scaffold bathos, produced for the occasion a meditation on the contrasting characters of their deaths, and the incommensurate public mourning reserved for privileged royalty as against suffering subjects.

The execution of Brandreth, Ludlam, and Turner, is an event of quite a different character from the death of the Princess Charlotte. These men were shut up in a horrible dungeon, for many months, with the fear of a hideous death and of everlasting hell thrust before their eyes; and at last were brought to the scaffold and hung. They too had domestic affections, and were remarkable for the exercise of private virtues. Perhaps their low station permitted the growth of those affections in a degree not consistent with a more exalted rank. They had sons, and brothers, and sisters, and fathers, who loved them, it should seem, more than the Princess Charlotte could be loved by those whom the regulations of her rank had held in perpetual estrangement from her. Her husband was to her as father, mother, and brethren. Ludlam and Turner were men of mature years, and the affections were ripened and strengthened within them. What those sufferers felt shall not be said. But what must have been the lone and various agony of their kindred may be inferred from Edward Turner, who, when he saw his brother dragged along upon the hurdle, shrieked horribly and fell in a fit, and was carried away like a corpse by two men. How fearful must have been their agony, sitting in solitude on that day when the tempestuous voice of horror from the crowd, told them that the head so dear to them was severed from the body! Yes—they listened to the maddening shriek which burst from the multitude: they heard the rush of ten thousand terror-stricken feet, the groans and the hootings which told them that the mangled and distorted head was then lifted into the air. … When man sheds the blood of man, revenge, and hatred, and a long train of executions, and assassinations, and proscriptions, is perpetuated to remotest time. … Their death, by hanging and beheading, and the circumstances of which it is the characteristic and the consequence, constitute a calamity such as the English nation ought to mourn with an unassuageable grief. …

On the 7th of November, Brandreth, Turner, and Ludlam ascended the scaffold. We feel for Brandreth the less, because it seems he killed a man. But recollect who instigated him to the proceedings which led to murder. On the word of a dying man, Brandreth tells us, that “OLIVER brought him to this”—that, “but for OLIVER, he would not have been there.” See, too, Ludlam and Turner, with their sons and brothers, and sisters, how they kneel together in a dreadful agony of prayer. Hell is before their eyes, and they shudder and feel sick with fear, lest some unrepented or some wilful sin should seal their doom in everlasting fire. With that dreadful penalty before their eyes—with that tremendous sanction for the truth of all he spoke, Turner exclaimed loudly and distinctly, while the executioner was putting the rope round his neck, “THIS IS ALL OLIVER AND THE GOVERNMENT.” What more he might have said we know not, because the chaplain prevented any further observations. Troops of horse, with keen and glittering swords, hemmed in the multitudes collected to witness this abominable exhibition. “When the stroke of the axe was heard, there was a burst of horror from the crowd. The instant the head was exhibited, there was a tremendous shriek set up, and the multitude ran violently in all directions, as if under the impulse of sudden frenzy. Those who resumed their stations, groaned and hooted.” It is a national calamity, that we endure men to rule over us, who sanction for whatever ends a conspiracy which is to arrive at its purpose through such a frightful pouring forth of human blood and agony. But when that purpose is to trample upon our rights and liberties for ever, to present to us the alternatives of anarchy and oppression, and triumph when the astonished nation accepts the latter at their hands, to maintain a vast standing army, and add, year by year, to a public debt, which, already, they know, cannot be discharged; and which, when the delusion that supports it fails, will produce as much misery and confusion through all classes of society as it has continued to produce of famine and degradation to the undefended poor; to imprison and calumniate those who may offend them, at will; when this, if not the purpose, is the effect of that conspiracy, how ought we not to mourn?

Mourn then People of England. Clothe yourselves in solemn black. Let the bells be tolled. Think of mortality and change. Shroud yourselves in solitude and the gloom of sacred sorrow. Spare no symbol of universal grief. Weep-mourn—lament. Fill the great City—fill the boundless fields, with lamentation and the echo of groans. A beautiful Princess is dead:—she who should have been the Queen of her beloved nation, and whose posterity should have ruled it for ever. She loved the domestic affections, and cherished arts which adorn, and valour which defends. She was amiable and would have become wise, but she was young, and in the flower of youth the despoiler came. LIBERTY is dead. Slave! I charge thee disturb not the depth and solemnity of our grief by any meaner sorrow. If One has died who was like her that should have ruled over this land, like Liberty, young, innocent, and lovely, know that the power through which that one perished was God, and that it was a private grief. But man has murdered Liberty, and whilst the life was ebbing from its wound, there descended on the heads and on the hearts of every human thing, the sympathy of an universal blast and curse. Fetters heavier than iron weigh upon us, because they bind our souls. We move about in a dungeon more pestilential than damp and narrow walls, because the earth is its floor and the heavens are its roof. Let us follow the corpse of British Liberty slowly and reverentially to its tomb: and if some glorious Phantom should appear, and make its throne of broken swords and sceptres and royal crowns trampled in the dust, let us say that the Spirit of Liberty has arisen from its grave and left all that was gross and mortal there, and kneel down and worship it as our Queen.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable Sleuthing,Public Executions,Revolutionaries

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1550: Jon Arason, the last Catholic bishop of Iceland

Add comment November 7th, 2009 Headsman

At dawn this date in 1550, two sons* of Jon Arason were beheaded at Skalholt, followed by the energetic sextegenerian prelate himself — cementing Lutheranism in Iceland.

As bishop of the northern diocese of Holar and one of the most powerful pols in Iceland, Arason did what he could to maintain papal authority when the Danish King Christian III began pushing Protestantism.

Arason was a practical guy; remote from any prospect of aid, he was content to maintain a cordial balance between his diocese and the southern one of Skalholt. (The two sees were political rivals of long standing; Skalholt’s previous Catholic representative, Ogmundur, had at one point many years before our narrative excommunicated Arason and forced the latter to flee to Denmark.)

Whether driven by the prince or the bishop within,** Arason took advantage of his Protestant opposite number’s timely passing in 1548 to make a play for power in the south as well. Early returns augured well; Arason arrested the Lutheran replacement, got the Icelandic parliament to throw in with him, and captured key points in the Holar diocese, reconsecrating ecclesiastical properties as Catholic.†

But his rival Dadi Gudmundsson turned the tables on the man who was becoming the de facto ruler of the island by ambushing him at a parley. The cleric and the two sons, having been declared outlaws months before by Danish decree, were executed on that basis without trial, lest holding them for the planned hearing the following spring enable their supporters to rally. Arason’s beheading was reportedly botched.

Legally doubtful but practically effectual, the axe that (eventually) decapitated the divine did likewise to his flock. Lutheranism thereafter settled comfortably into the ascendancy: Iceland would not have another Catholic bishop for nearly four centuries, by which time its Catholic population had shrunk near the vanishing point.

Although his faith didn’t have legs on the island, Arason reads very easily as a proto-nationalist figure and political actor; he’s been well-loved by Protestant, Catholic, and irreligious posterity alike.

He also gave Icelandic a bit of vernacular on his way to shuffling off this mortal coil. When a priest named Sveinn proffered the solace, “There is a life after this one!” as the last bishop approached the block, he replied, “Veit ég það, Sveinki!”“This I know, Sveinki!”

In everyday conversation in Iceland, that phrase is still used to tease someone who has just stated the obvious.

* Although this is well into the period when Catholic clergy were supposed to be practicing celibacy, Arason’s indifference to this particular mortification of the flesh is just another bit of his charm. With his mistress Helga Sigurdardottir, he sired nine sons and daughters, marrying them into politically advantageous allegiances where possible. At least eight subsequent Lutheran bishops sprang from his seed; by the present, “virtually all Icelanders can validly claim direct descent” from Jon Arason, according to Iceland, the First New Society.

** Jon Arason was also a notable poet. Ljomur, whose attribution to Arason is speculative, can be enjoyed for free here.

† More particulars about the Icelandic political chessboard are available in this 19th century text (the pdf is easier on the eyes than the text), or in “An Icelandic Martyr: Jón Arason,” by Thomas Buck, in the Jesuit publication Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 46, No. 182 (Summer, 1957), pp. 213-222.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,God,History,Iceland,Language,Martyrs,Milestones,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Religious Figures

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1944: Hannah Szenes, who gambled on what mattered most

2 comments November 7th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Hannah Szenes was shot by the Nazis in her native city of Budapest — a city she had left five years before, and to which she had returned as a British special operative.

Hannah Szenes (alternatively, “Chana Senesh” or “Hannah Senesh”) grew up in interwar Hungary.

Reaching adulthood in a period of rising anti-semitism in the late 1930’s, she became a Zionist and emigrated to British-controlled Palestine.

But with the onset of war, she signed up with the British Special Operations Executive and was parachuted behind German lines in March 1944.

Her brief: to save both Jews and downed Allied pilots. It is often described as the only military expedition to relieve European Jewry during World War II.

And it was as dangerous as it sounds.

[flv:http://www.blessedisthematch.com/BITMclip4.flv 425 344]

Hannah was nabbed crossing into Hungary on a mission that her colleagues (rightly, it seems) deemed too perilous to attempt, and withstood months of torture without divulging her codes.

By the time she went in the dock for treason, Nazi control of Hungary was collapsing and judicial administration itself was breaking down to the timpani of falling shells. Her sentencing November 4 was postponed; on November 7, an officer peremptorily informed her that she had been condemned to death. It’s believed that she was actually never formally sentenced, merely mopped up ahead of the unstoppable Red Army, which on this very day first entered Budapest’s suburbs.

A writer as well as a fighter, Szenes’ poetry survived as her monument to life — like the present-day Israeli standard “Blessed is the Match”, also the title of the documentary excerpted above; and, her “Halikha LeKesariya” (“A Walk to Caesarea”), also known as “Eli, Eli” (“My God, My God”). Here it is sung by Regina Spektor.

These lines were reportedly her last-known verses from prison:

One – two – three … eight feet long
Two strides across, the rest is dark …
Life is a fleeting question mark
One – two – three … maybe another week.
Or the next month may still find me here,
But death, I feel is very near.
I could have been 23 next July
I gambled on what mattered most, the dice were cast. I lost.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Germany,Guerrillas,History,Hungary,Jews,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions,Women

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