1794: Robert Watt, British Conventioner

Add comment October 15th, 2019 Headsman

Our old familiar the Newgate Calendar supplies us with this narration of a Scottish Jacobin to pop the powdered wigs from Edinburgh to Westminster. A published version of the trial in question is available here, and a last-speech broadside awaits you here.

Watt is the only monument in Executed Today‘s pages to the attempted creation of a British National Convention to mirror the operations of that same body across the channel in revolutionary France. If successful, this body would have tended towards displacing the sovereignty of king and parliament, and it laid plains accordingly for an armed insurrection; in the event, it sat briefly and then was broken up with alacrity by ministers who fancied their own necks better than Mr. Paine‘s tongue.

Many members of this movement’s Scottish core were (as the text below eventually notes, just before it devolves into complaining about hostile press) sent not to the gallows but to the new penal colony at Botany Bay, Australia. You’ll find several of them — not including our executed Robert Watt — commemorated at Edinburgh’s Political Martyrs’ Monument.


(cc) image from Kim Traynor.

ROBERT WATT and DAVID DOWNIE

Convicted of High Treason, at Edinburgh, with Particulars of the Execution of a Traitor in Scotland

We are now arrived at an alarming period at the modern history of our country. Just engaged in the ruinous war with France, which continues with increasing obstinacy, to the very hour in which we write. Perplexed by treason at home, and threatened with invasion by our enemy, the nation was in a critical situation. Confederate bodies of dissatisfied men, were formed, from London to Edinburgh, pursuing a systematical course of treason, and corresponding with each other, until Government stretched out its powerful arm to crush the traitors. Many writers charge the ministry with oppression, but at such a time as this, better, surely, to support the constitution, corrupt as may be its administration, than suffer its subversion, and see ourselves thrown into that anarchy and confusion, sought for by such men as we shall soon bring before the reader.

Watt and Downie were principals in the Scottish Conspiracy, and were convicted of the crime of high treason. Their trial brought to light the particulars of the plot, to overthrow the constitution of Great Britain; and from which we shall, therefore, make a copious extract.

Their trial came on before the High Court of Justiciary, at Edinburgh, on the 3d of September, 1794, when Mr. Anstruther stated the case on the part of the Crown. He began, by observing, that such was the peculiar happiness of this country, that we had been unacquainted with the law of treason for nearly half a century. It was not his intention, if he possessed the powers, of inflaming the passions of the Jury against the prisoner: his object, was to give a plain, a dry narrative of the facts, and a succinct statement of the law.

The laws of treason were now the same in England and Scotland, and the duty of the subjects of both kingdoms should be the same. Scotland, in this instance, had reaped much benefit by the Union, as her laws of treason, previous to that period, were much more severe. The act of Edw. III. stated three distinct species of treason: 1. Compassing and imagining the death of the king; 2. Levying war against him; 3. Assisting his enemies. He would not trouble the Court or Jury with the two last: the single species of treason charged in the present case, was the compassing and imagining the death of the king; which was defined by the conceiving such a design; not the actual act, but the attempt to effect it. But the law which thus anxiously guarded the sovereign, was equally favourable to the subject: for it does not affect him until that imagination is fully proved before “men of his condition.” An overt act of treason is the means used for effectuating the purpose of the mind: it is not necessary to prove a direct attempt to assassinate the king: for the crime is the intention, and the overt act the means used to effect it. He wished not that these sentiments might be held as the opinion of counsel: they were founded on the construction of the ablest writers, Chief Justices Foster, Hale, &c, and, whatever could be proved against the prisoners, which may endanger the kings person, was an overt act of high treason, in the language of the ablest writers. After explaining more fully the distinct species of treason which applied to the present case, Mr. Anstruther said, he trusted that if he could prove any design whereby the king’s person is in danger, that was an overt act; if he was wrong, the judges would correct him. He would now state the facts on which these principles of law were to be laid.

The present conspiracy was not that of a few inconsiderable individuals: it had risen, indeed from small beginnings; from meetings for pretended reforms. It had been fostered by seditious correspondence, the distribution of libellous writings, and had, at last, risen to a height, which, but for the vigilance of administration, might have deluged the country, from one end to the other, with blood. The proceedings of these societies, calling, or rather miscalling themselves Friends of the People, were well known; their first intention was apparently to obtain reform; but this not answering their purpose, they proceeded to greater lengths. He meant to detail the general plans and designs formed among the seditious, and then to state how far the prisoners were implicated in them.

The first dawning of this daring plan was in a letter from Hardy, Secretary to the London Corresponding Society, to Skirving, the Secretary to the Friends of the People, here. He writes, that as their petitions had been unsuccessful, they must use separate and more effectual measures. Skirving answered, and admitted the necessity of more effectual measures; that he foresaw the downfall of this government, &c. Here also was the first notice of a convention; a measure which it is no wonder they were fond of, when they saw its effects in a neighbouring kingdom (France.) They meant not to petition Parliament, but to proceed in their own plan, and supersede the existing government of the country; and, in that case, the king’s life was put in danger.

Soon after, a convention, a body unknown to the laws of this country, met; and in this there would have been little harm, had their views been peaceable; but their objects were avowedly unconstitutional, and their intention to carry on their plans by force, and thus virtually to lay aside the prerogative of the king. This convention accordingly met, using all the terms, regulations, &c. adopted by the convention of another country, in which it might be said there was in reality little harm, but it was surely a marking proof of their designs. They meant not to apply to Parliament; for whenever that was mentioned, they proceeded to the order of the day. They resolved to oppose every act of Parliament, which they deemed contrary to the spirit of the Constitution, and were determined to sit, until compelled to rise by a force superior to their own. The Convention, indeed, was dispersed by the spirited conduct of a magistrate, (Provost Elder,) whose merit everyone was forward to acknowledge, and to whose active exertions the country was so much indebted; but another Convention was attempted to be called, who were to frame their own laws, and to be independent of the legislature; or, as they say, independent of their plunderers, enemies, and oppressors, meaning the King, Lords, and Commons: their resolutions will prove that they meant to create a government of their own, to do away the authority of what they called hereditary senators, and packed majorities; all which prove the intention of putting the king’s life in danger.

But what, it may be said, is all this to the prisoner at the bar? who, surprising as it may appear, about two years ago wrote letters to Mr. Secretary Dundas, offering to give information as to certain designs of the Friends of the People. These letters were answered by that right honourable gentleman with that propriety which has ever, marked his public conduct. The prisoner then corresponded with the Lord Advocate, the particulars of which would appear, as his lordship was subpoenaed. Since September 1793, this correspondence has ceased. Previous to that period, the prisoner was not a member of the Society of Friends of the People, nor of the British Convention; but his accession since to its measures, and the calling of another Convention, could be substantiated.

The Convention, indeed, though dispersed, did not cease to exist. In fact, a Committee of Correspondence, of which the prisoner was a member, was instituted, the object of which was to carry into effect the views of the last British Convention, and to elect delegates to a new one. Mr. Watt attended this Committee, and coincided in its measures, which were expressly to supersede the legislature: The prisoner had moved for a Committee of Union; and another was appointed called the Committee of Ways and Means, of both which he was a member. This last was a Secret Committee, kept no minutes, was permanent, and empowered to collect money to support “the great cause.” Mr. Downie was appointed treasurer, and it was to be the medium through which all instructions and directions were to be given to all Friends of the People throughout the kingdom, and was to procure information of the number of those that would spare no exertions to support the great cause. They corresponded with Hardy, respecting the calling of a new Convention, which was to follow up the purposes of the old one; and, as the prisoner was present, he was in this way coupled with the British Convention.

Their next attempt was to debauch the minds of the soldiers, and to excite them to mutiny; for which purpose a paper was printed, and circulated among a regiment of Fencibles then at Dalkeith. This paper, which was evidently seditious, would be brought home to the prisoner, for the types from which it was printed were found in his house, and a copy traced from him into the hands of a soldier.

The next charge to be brought against the prisoner, and the Committee of which he was a member, was a distinct and deliberate plan to overturn the existing government of the country. The plan proposed was this: — A fire was to be raised near the Excise Office, (Edinburgh,) which would require the attendance of the soldiers in the castle, who were to be met there by a body of the Friends of the People, another party of whom were to issue from the West Bow, to confine the soldiers between two fires, and cut off their retreat; the Castle were next to be attempted; the judges (particularly the Lord Justice Clerk) were to be seized; and all the public banks were to be secured. A proclamation was then to be issued, ordering all the farmers to bring in their grain to market as usual; and enjoining all country gentlemen to keep within their houses, or three miles from them, under penalty of death. Then an address was to be sent to His Majesty, commanding him to put an end to the war, change the ministers, or take the consequences. Such was the plan of the Committee of Ways and Means, as proposed by the prisoner.

Previous to this, it should have been mentioned, that all the Friends of the People were to be armed; for which purpose, one Fairley was dispatched round the country to levy contributions, and disperse seditious pamphlets; for which purpose, he got particular instructions from the prisoner. Reports were spread through the same channel, that the Goldsmith’s Hall Association were arming, and that, it was necessary for the Friends of the People to arm also, for they would be butchered either by them or the French. It would be proved, that the prisoner gave orders to Robert Orrock to make 4,000 pikes; and also orders to one Brown for the same purpose. These were to be used for completing the great plan; and Fairley’s mission was to inform the country of these intended proceedings. Another representative body was also formed, called “Collectors of Sense and Money,” who were to have the distribution of the pikes, and to command the different parties. In one instance, a person had been desired to carry some pikes to the Collectors; who made answer, that he could not do it, for the Collectors were not to be trusted yet.

Mr. Anstruther then recapitulated shortly the different heads, and concluded an elaborate and most clear and distinct pleading, of more than two hours and a half, by requesting the jury to lay no farther stress on what he had said than it should be proved, as it was meant merely as a clue to the evidence which should be brought before them.

The first witness called, was Edward Lauzon, a king’s messenger. Upon being asked if he was employed last summer to search the house of one Hardy, in London, Mr. Hamilton, counsel for the prisoner, objected to the question, and insisted that, before proving any other matter whatever, some direct overt act committed by the prisoner must be proved. Mr. Anstruther answered, that, before proving the prisoner guilty of being concerned in a particular plot or conspiracy, it was surely necessary first to prove that such plot or conspiracy existed. In the trials in the year 1745, before any particular overt act was attempted to be proved against any of the accused, there was always evidence adduced to prove the existence of a rebellion. The Court over-ruled the objection. The witness then swore, that he seized several papers in Hardy’s house, particularly a letter signed by one Skirving, and several others: also a printed circular letter, signed, “T. Hardy, Secretary.” These letters the witness produced. Mr. William Scott, Procurator Fiscal for the shire of Edinburgh, gave an account of the seizure of Skirving’s papers in December, 1793, and of the after-disposal of them. He produced several of these papers, particularly one intituled, “Minutes of Debate in the General Committee;” also several papers that were found in the lodgings of Margarot, Gerald, and [John] Sinclair. Mr. Scott swore to his being present at the dispersion of the Convention. The letter by Skirving and Hardy being authenticated by Mr. Lauzun, who swore he found it in Hardy’s possession, was then read.

John Taylor, of Fleet-street, London, was then called. He swore he was a member of the London Corresponding Society, and was acquainted with Mr. Hardy, who was Secretary to that Society. Being shown several letters and papers, he believed them to be Hardy’s hand-writing. The Society consisted of several divisions, about fourteen, he thought, in number; there were several Committees, particularly a grand one, which consisted of a member from each division, a Committee of Secrecy, and a Committee of Emergency. The latter was formed in May last. He attended a general meeting of the society at the Globe Tavern, on the 20th of January last, about one thousand were present. So great was the crowd, that the floor gave way, and the meeting adjourned to the Assembly Room, where the secretaries read the resolutions, which were afterwards printed. An address, founded on these resolutions, was afterwards carried by a show of hands. One of the resolutions was, that the motions of Parliament were to be watched over; and if troops were to be brought into the country, or the Habeas Corpus Act suspended, &c. that force ought to be repelled by force. The witness produced a copy of these resolutions, which he got from a person of the name of Muir, in the presence of Hardy. He saw several other copies about the room. The witness was also present at another meeting, held at Chalk Farm (about two miles from London) on the 14th of April last. The meeting was of the same nature as the former; there were about three thousand persons present, and, among others, Mr. Hardy.

Henry Goodman, clerk to Mr. Wickham, London, was present at the meeting at Chalk Farm, and heard the resolutions read. The resolutions now shown to him were, as far as he recollected, the resolutions passed at the meeting. He understood that it was the intention of the society to arm themselves, to protect the members in the same way that the National Convention of France had been protected by the citizens of Paris; that he heard this talked of in different meetings.

Alexander Atchison was a member of, and Assistant Secretary to the British Convention, and wrote part of their minutes: he deposed, that the papers now shown in Court to him, he had often seen before; that he took down the minutes as accurately as he could; that he recollected Mr. Callandar making several motions in the Convention; and particularly an amendment to a motion which was referred to a Committee. This amendment was read: it related to the agreement in the Convention to continue permanent, and watch over the motions of Parliament, &c. &c. that he knew Mr. Watt, the prisoner; and was, together with him, a member of the Committee of Union. That Committee met in January last, the Convention being previously dispersed in December — The purpose of this Committee was to keep up a spirit of union among the Friends of Reform, and that he was sent there by the Division of Cannongate. The great object of the Committee was to obtain the same kind of reform sought for by Mr. Pitt and the Duke of Richmond, about twelve years ago. That he was a member also of the Committee of the Ways and Means which was instituted for the purpose of paying past debts, and to defray the expense of future delegates to another Convention, to be held somewhere in England, which second Convention was meant for the same purpose as the British Convention, namely, obtaining the Reform first proposed by Pitt and Richmond; that he has often had conversations with different persons on the subject of Reform; that he recollected having seen a pike in the house of George Ross, in the presence of several blacksmiths, which was shaped like the head of an halbert. Being asked whether he ever gave a different account of what he had now sworn at any other place, he believed he never did; if he did it, it must be contrary to truth, and this he should say, though he should be guillotined for it.

Mr. W. Erskine, also counsel for the prisoners, here stopped the witness, who was removed. He said, that it was an established point in the law of Scotland, that a witness could not be affected by anything he had before said relative to the present subject of his examination; nor could it hurt him in any degree. Mr. Anstruther said, that this did not exist in the law of England. The Lord President observed, that it appeared to him there was really a discrepancy in the law in this respect. Mr. Anstruther here said, that to put an end to the dispute, and, as Atchison had conducted himself in such a manner, he would, so far from laying any stress on his evidence, request the jury to throw out of their minds every syllable he had used.

George Ross authenticated the minutes of Convention, and other papers; knew the prisoner at the bar, and had seen him at his own house.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk deposed as to the pikes being brought from Watt’s, and the fount of types, of which he had got an impression taken in the precise state they came from Watt’s house.

[Paper read — An Address to the Fencibles.]

James Sommeville, a printer, deposed as to the casting off the impression from the types.

William Watson, of Dalkeith, once saw Watt at his own house, but could not say whether the prisoner at the bar was the man. Remembered a Fencible regiment in Dalkeith, which was about the time he met with Mr. Downie, who carried him to Watt’s, to get a hand-bill about the Fencibles, which he had heard of, and was curious to see, but could not get it there; and went to one Kennedy on the South Bridge, from whence he received several copies.

The Lord Advocate said, that, except those (Downie and Stock,) against whom bills were already found, he meant to bring no other person to trial for treason.

Arthur M’Ewan, weaver, of Leith, a member of the British Convention, and also of the Committee of Ways and Means, of which last Watt was a member, deposed, that, at one of their meetings, Watt read a paper, proposing to seize the judges, bank, &c. to decoy the soldiers by a fire, &c. but did not know what was to be done with the persons seized, nor whether it was to be done in the day or night. Commissioners were to be appointed to take charge of the cash, but knew not what was to follow this. Deposed as to the proclamation to corn-dealers, and country gentlemen, and the address to the king to put an end to the war, &c. Watt asked him to accompany him to Orrock’s, to whom he (Watt) gave orders to make pikes as fast as he could, as he had 4000 to send to Perth, besides what he had to distribute in Edinburgh. Orrock made a draft of one: a gentleman’s servant asking what was their use, was told, that they were for mounting a gate. Knew that Fairley was sent into the country, and had visited a number of places; that he reported Paisley to be in a state of great readiness, but did not know what that meant. The witness disapproved of these proceedings, and would consent to nothing that would disturb the peace, or shed the blood of his countrymen; and he thought the plan proposed would have that tendency. Watt produced, at one of the meetings, a paper containing what was called fundamental principles, which he knew but little of. William Bonthorn was a member of the Society of the Friends of the People, but had resolved to withdraw, as things had passed he disapproved of. Watt, at one of their meetings, read a paper, of which he did not remember the particulars, as it confused him. The paper contained something about seizing the castle, raising an alarm by fire, &c. upon the supposition that numbers could be got to assist them. Remembered nothing of particular persons being intended to be seized; but thought the bank was mentioned; this paper frightened him much; it mentioned also the seizing the guard-house; recollected no numbers that were mentioned to carry this plan into effect. M’Ewan showed an opposition to it. The circular letter of the Committee was written by Mr. Stock.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk deposed as to the finding sundry papers in Watt’s house, one the drawing of a pike, and the paper sworn to by Atchison, in the Sub-Committee.

John Fairley, of Broughton, a delegate to the Convention, deposed, that his constituents met after the dissolution of that body. Heard that pikes were making, and Watt informed him of this, or rather showed him one. Watt said, that they were only intended for self-defence, and that none were to get them but those who applied and paid for them. Measures of government might drive them to despair, and cause bloodshed; but Watt said, he hoped there would be none, as the obnoxious or active against the cause of the people would be imprisoned. The soldiers would be glad of freedom, and deputations might be sent them. Watt proposed to show the arms to the collectors, which the witness objected to, as hazardous. In going to the West country, a parcel was left for him by Watt, containing paper for distribution, which he left at Stirling, St. Ninion’s, Kirkintulloch, Glasgow, Paisley, &c. On his return to Edinburgh, he went to the Committee of Ways and Means; that Watt, Downie, and M’Ewan were there, to whom he reported the result of his journey, Returned the instructions to Watt; they mentioned, he recollected, something about a plan, and Britain being free, Downie paid him the expenses of his journey.

Dr. Forrest, at Stirling, gave an account of Fairley’s calling on him, showing him his written instructions, &c. In these instructions there was a blank, which he supposed was to be filled up “arms.” Showed him the figure of a weapon like a halbert, which was preparing for defence, and that these weapons could be furnished by a person who he understood was about Edinburgh. Something passed about arming the people, and disarming the soldiers.

Robert Orrock, smith, first heard arms mentioned in G. Ross’s house in March last. In April Watt applied to him to make a pike, and he brought one to Ross’s, where Watt and other members of the committee were, and he left it at Watt’s desire. In May, Watt desired him to make more of that pattern, and some of a different kind. While making them, a person (Martin Todd) called and showed a form of a pike, which he refused to make. Brown also called, and told him he was making pikes for Watt, and that 1000 were wanted: but spoke of this as a secret, which alarmed the witness. The extent of his order was five dozen which were ordered by Watt, but paid for by Downie. He was told, if enquired about, to say they were for the top of a gate: never had an order for pikes before; but had made one for his own defence, without being employed by any person.

Martin Todd, smith, deposed as to calling on Orrock, to enquire about the pikes.

William Brown, a smith, said one Robertson called on him to bespeak several spears of a particular shape, for Watt; and at another time, he made fourteen spears for Mr. Watt, like mole spears. Recollected the conversation with Orrock, but did not say that such a number of pikes would be wanted.

John Fairley was re-examined, at his own desire. He recollected Watt saying, that the banks and public offices were to be seized. The most active against them were to be imprisoned, and couriers sent to the country to announce this. The Magistrates of Edinburgh were particularly spoken of.

Walter Miller, Perth sent money to Downie, for relief of distressed patriots in the cause of reform; never had authority for supposing that the new Convention had any object but reform by legal means.

Here the evidence of the Crown was closed.

Defence of Watt.

Mr. W. Erskine, junior counsel for the prisoner, said, that as the Court had sat so long, he would not trouble them with many words. He would rest his defence upon the correspondence carried on between the Right Hon. Henry Dundas, the Lord Advocate, and the prisoner, by which it would appear, that he had attended the meetings of the Friends of the People, with no other view than a design to give information of their proceedings. A letter from the prisoner to Mr. Secretary Dundas was read, which stated in substance, that, as he did not approve of the dangerous principles which then prevailed in Scotland, and was a friend to the Constitution of his country, he thought it his duty to communicate to him, as a good subject, what information he could procure of the proceedings of those who styled themselves Friends of the People. From an acquaintance with several of the leading men among them, he flattered himself he had this in his power; and then went on to mention some of the names of those leading men in Perth, Dundee, and Edinburgh. In the first of these places, he said, he had been educated, and had resided in the two last for a considerable number of years. It concluded with enjoining secrecy.

To this letter an answer was returned which was also read. It acknowledged the receipt of Mr. Watt’s and, after expressing a hope that things were not so bad as he represented, desired him to go on, and he might depend upon his communications being kept perfectly secret Another letter from Mr. Dundas to Mr. M’Ritche, the prisoner’s agent, was next read, in answer to one from Mr. M’Ritchie, requesting of Mr. Dundas what letters he had of the prisoner’s. The answer bore, that all the letters he had received from Mr. Watt had been delivered to the Lord Advocate.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk authenticated the letter of Mr. Dundas.

The Lord Advocate being sworn, in exculpation, he gave a distinct account of the transactions which he had had with the prisoner. He had conversed with him several times at his own lodgings; and he had at one time given him some information which he thought of importance. This was respecting the disaffection of some dragoons at Perth, which upon enquiry, turned out to be ill-founded. In March, 1793, his lordship said, an offer had been made to him to disclose some important secrets, provided he would give the prisoner 1000l. This he absolutely refused. However, sometime after, the prisoner having informed him that he was much pressed for money to retrieve a bill of 30l. his lordship, who was then in London, not wishing he should be distressed for such a small sum, sent him an order for the payment of it. All this happened previous to the meeting of the Convention; since which time, at least since October last, he did not recollect seeing or having any connection with the prisoner.

Mr. Hamilton contended, that the prosecutor had failed in bringing the most criminal part of it home to the prisoner. He dwelt long on correspondence between Mr. Dundas and Mr. Watt. He said, the prisoner had not deserted the service in which he had engaged; but had not had an opportunity of exercising it until the very time he was apprehended. He contended, that he was a spy for government; and it was well known that a spy was obliged to assume not only the appearance of those whose secrets he meant to reveal, but even to make part in their proceedings, in order to prevent a discovery. He alluded to spies in armies, and mentioned a melancholy circumstance which happened to one last war, a gentleman with whom he had the honour of being acquainted. A spy in an army, he said, was obliged not only to assume the uniform of the enemy, but even to appear in arms; and it would be exceedingly hard indeed, if taken in a conflict, that he should be punished for discharging his duty. He concluded with hoping the jury would bring in a verdict, finding the charges not proved.

The Lord President, after clearly defining the laws of treason, summed up the evidence, narrating and explaining the various parts with much candour; leaving it entirely to the jury to return such a verdict as their judgment should direct.

The jury withdrew about half-past five o’clock in the morning, and in about five minutes, returned with a verdict — Guilty.

The trial lasted nearly twenty-two hours. The jury were upwards of forty minutes considering the case of Downie: the majority agreeing among themselves that he was guilty, they reconciled themselves to this verdict a last, by unanimously consenting to recommend him to mercy, which they did in a very strong manner. Shortly after the following awful sentence of the court was passed upon these unfortunate men.

Robert Watt and David Downie, you have been found guilty of High Treason by your Peers. The sentence of the Court is, therefore, that you be taken from the place, whence you came, from thence you shall be drawn on a sledge to the place of execution, on Wednesday, the 15th of October, there to hang by your necks till you are both dead; your bowels to be taken out, and cast in your faces; and each of your bodies to be cut in four quarters, to be at the disposal of his Majesty: and the Lord have mercy on your souls!

[such gory sentences were no longer conducted in practice, as we shall see. -ed.]

The unfortunate prisoners received the dreadful sentence with much firmness and composure, and were, immediately conducted to the castle. Robert Watt was ordered for execution, but a respite came for David Downie: as soon as it was intimated to Downie, he started, as from a dream, and exclaimed, “Glory to God, and thanks to the king, for his goodness: I will pray for him as long as I live.” After which tears of gratitude flowed. He was transported for life.

About half past one o’clock on the 15th of October, the two junior magistrates, with white rods in their hands, white gloves, &c., the Rev. Principal Baird, and a number of constables, attended them the town officers, and the city guard lining the streets, walked in procession from the Council Chamber to the east end of Castle-hill, when a message was sent to the sheriffs in the Castle, that they were there waiting to receive the prisoner. The prisoner was immediately placed in a hurdle, with his back to the horse, and the executioner, with a large axe in his hand, took his seat opposite him, at the further end of the hurdle. The procession then set out from the Castle, the sheriffs walking in front, with white rods in their hands, white gloves, &c., a number of county constables surrounding the hurdle, and the military keeping off the crowd. In this manner they proceeded, until they joined the magistrates, when the military returned to the Castle, and then the procession was conducted in the following order:

The City Constables;
Town Officers, bare-headed;
Bailie Lothian and Bailie Dalrymple;
Rev. Principal Baird;
Mr. Sheriff Clerk and Mr. Sheriff Davidson;
A number of County Constables;
THE HURDLE,
Painted black, and drawn by a white Horse,
A number of County Constables.

The city-guard lined the streets, to keep off the multitude.

When they had reached the Tolbooth door, the prisoner was taken from the hurdle, and conducted into the prison, where a considerable time was spent in devotional exercise. The prisoner then came out upon the platform, attended: by the Magistrates, Sheriffs, Principal Baird, &c. Some time was then spent in prayer and singing psalms; after which the prisoner mounted the drop-board, and was soon launched into eternity.

When the body was taken down, it was stretched upon a table, and the executioner, with two blows of the axe, severed off the head, which was received into a basket, and then held up to the multitude, while the executioner called aloud, “There is the head of a traitor, and so perish all traitors.” The body and head were then placed in a coffin, and removed. Never was any execution conducted with more solemnity and order. The procession advanced with slow step, and the prisoner exhibited a most melancholy spectacle. He held a bible in his hand; his eyes remained in a fixed posture, upwards, and he was not observed to make one movement, or cast a single glance upon the multitude. He was much emaciated, and his countenance so pale, that, while on his way to the place of execution, he appeared almost lifeless; but, when he came upon the platform, he seemed to be somewhat revived, and behaved himself, during the awful solemnity, with due resignation and humble fortitude. The impression the situation had made upon himself seemed truly astonishing, as those who had ever seen him before, declared, they could not have known him to be the same person. His appearance was dirty, muffled up in a great coat; and he showed signs of peculiar agitation and remorse for the crime for which he was then going to suffer.

The surrounding multitude, during the execution of the awful proceeding, did not discover any other emotion than is usual upon occasions of any other executions. The town-guard, attended by the constables, lined the streets.

Robert Watt was born in the shire of Kincardine, and was, at the time of his execution, about thirty-six years old. He was the natural son of a Mr. Barclay, a gentleman of fortune and respectability; but like most other children of illegitimate parentage, he was brought up and educated under the name of his mother. He was, at about ten years of age, sent to Perth; where he received a very good education. Being sixteen he engaged himself with a lawyer at Perth; but being of a religious disposition, he was disgusted at this profession, and soon withdrew from the desk of his master. Soon after he went to Edinburgh, and engaged as a clerk in a paper-warehouse, where he lived happily and respectably for some years. His only complaint was a deficiency of salary. Having a desire to share in the profits, as well as the toils, of the business, he wrote to his father, and prevailed upon him to assist him with some money, to enable him to procure a partnership with his master. He then made proposals to the above purpose; these were, however, rejected by his employer. Being provided with money, he entered into the wine and spirit trade. His success in business continued very promising, until he was almost ruined by the commencement of the war. At this period, his acquaintance with the Friends of the People commenced.

Several other leaders of this conspiracy in Scotland were seized. Of those where convicted, the Reverend T. Fishe Palmer, William Skirving, Thomas Muir, Maurice Margoret, and Joseph Gerald, who were transported to Botany-bay. Numbers, to avoid the avenging arm of justice, fled to the United States of America, where, with impunity, they disseminated their treason, and poured out volleys of abuse against their native land. These renegades were no sooner landed in a new world, than they rallied round the footstool of faction there, by commencing editors of, and scribblers in, newspapers, which swarm in that boasted land of liberty. In their filthy columns, they extolled the murderous revolutionists of France, and laboured to incense Americans against their own injured country. It is fit these apostates should be pointed at. John Thompson, of Scotland, printed one of these inflammatory sheets, at Richmond, in Virginia: Matthew Duane, of Ireland, another in Philadelphia. John Dinmore, late an apothecary, at Walton, in Norfolk, planted his literary annoyance in Columbia, the seat of the American government, and, for his extraordinary scurrility against England, the Gallic-American President, Jefferson, made him State Printer, and, heaven forefend, a Justice of the American Peace. This inflammatory sheet he called “The Expositor.” In order to give the reader an idea of the infamy of the abandoned scribblers, we shall quote a note from Mr. Janson’s History of America. Speaking of Denmore, says Mr. Janson, “Among the vile scurrility of his Expositor, last summer, was the following: After noticing the introduction of the American minister, Mr. Monroe, to the king, he adds, ‘For once an honest man had appeared at the Court of St. James’s.'” Another paper, printed by Mr. S. Snowden, at the same place, and preferring England to France, makes this observation upon the paragraph, “It is, no doubt, difficult for an honest man in the Doctor’s (apothecary Dinmore’s) estimation of the word, to get admission there; yet, he cannot have forgotten, that he himself was within a cable’s length of having his name announced to his Britannic Majesty — not by Sir Stephen Cotterell, but by the Recorder of London, and Ordinary of Newgate, as joint Masters of the Ceremonies.”

Cooper, the bosom-friend of the hoary apostate, Priestley, the bitterest foe we had in the new world, so greatly misused the press, that the country of his adoption threw him into a prison.

Inferior scribblers against Britain, are almost without number.

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1660: John Carew, regicide

Add comment October 15th, 2018 Headsman

This morning Mr. Carew was hanged and quartered at Charing Cross; but his quarters, by a great favour, are not to be hanged up.

Diary of Samuel Pepys, October 15, 1660

John Carew, one of the 59 Parliamentarians to sign the death warrant of King Charles I, was executed on this date in 1660 for regicide. He was the second regicide upon the gallows in a week of bloodshed, following the October 13 butchery of Major General Thomas Harrison.

According to the Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow, Carew

was a gentleman of an ancient family in the county of Cornwall, educated in one of the universities, and at the inns of court. He had a plentiful estate, and being chosen to serve in the great parliament, he was elected into the council of state, and employed in many important affairs; in which he shewed great ability. He found the same usage from the court as major-general Harrison had done, being frequently interrupted, and counsel denied, though earnestly desired by him, in that point of law touching the authority by which he had acted: when he saw that all he could say was to no purpose, he frankly acknowledged, that he sat in the high court of justice, and had signed two warrants, one for summoning the court in order to the king’s trial, and another for his execution. Upon this, the court, who were well acquainted with the disposition of the jury, permitting him to speak, he said, That in the year 1640, a parliament was called according to the laws and constitution of this nation: That some differences arising between the king and that parliament, the king withdrew his person from them; upon which the lords and commons declared — Here the court being conscious, that their cobweb coverings were not sufficient to keep the light of those truths he was going to produce, contrary to the liberty they had promised, interrupted him, under colour that what he was about to say, tended not only to justify the action for which he was accused, but to cast a ball of division among those who were present. But Mr. Carew going on to say, The lords and commons by their declaration — Judge Foster interrupted him again, and told him, he endeavoured to revive those differences which he hoped were laid asleep, and that he did so to blow the trumpet of sedition; demanding, if he had ever heard, or could produce an act of parliament made by the commons alone? To this he would have answered, but was not permitted to finish what he began to say, or hardly any one thing he endeaoured to speak in his defence during the whole trial; Mr. Arthur Annesley particularly charging him with the exclusion of the members in the year 1648, of which number he had been one; to which he only replied, That it seemed strange to find a man who sat as a judge on the bench, to give evidence as a witness in the court. These irregular proceedings, unbecoming a court of judicature, obliged Mr. Carew to address himself to the jury, leaving them to judge of the legality of his trial; and appealing to their consciences, whether he had been permitted to make his defence. But they, who were not to be diverted from the resolutions they had taken, without any regard to the manner of his trial, declared him guilty as he was accused.

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1767: Tom, slave of the Baylor family

Add comment October 15th, 2017 Headsman

From The Baylors of Newmarket: The Decline and Fall of a Virginia Planter Family, by Thomas Katheder. The specific “Baylor” referenced in this text is John Baylor III, a slave merchandising heir then in the midst of squandering the family fortune through his passion for horseracing. (In the latter capacity, Baylor also imported the legendary colonial stud Fearnought.) Baylor died in 1772, still straining his creditors for maintenance of his oligarchic station … but his son John Baylor IV died in a debtor’s prison that his “gentleman justice” father had helped to construct. We have the date of the hanging, although not the explanation for the delay between trial and execution, via a different book, Murder at Montpelier.

In colonial Virginia, the county courts, which were controlled by “gentleman justices” like Baylor, governed the counties with an oligarchic, unchecked, and largely self-perpetuating rule utterly unthinkable in modern America. [sic]

With legislative, executive, and judicial functions combined into a single governing body, the county courts impacted the day-to-day lives of Virginians more than any other civil authority. The county court adjudicated most civil matters, including debt and contract disputes, presided over nonfelony criminal cases (accused felons were bound over for trial at the General Court in Williamsburg), and determined whether wills were admitted to probate and whether deeds, mortgages, or other instruments were worthy of being recorded in the county records.

The justices established the amount of the county levy each year and decided who was exempt from taxation and exactly how the money would be spent — no road, bridge, or public building could be built without their approval. They issued bonds, permits, and licenses, including permits for ferries and mills, as well as licenses for taverns and inns; they even set the prices that could be charged for alcoholic beverages.

They appointed all county officers, including tax collectors, the county clerk, militia officers, the coroner, and the sheriff (some of these positions were subject to the royal governor’s usually perfunctory assent). As historian Jack P. Greene points out, in colonial Virginia “[n]ot a single local civil or judicial officer was elected.”

The justices also apprenticed orphans to artisans or tradesman; they fined the parents of illegitimate children or sometimes ordered they be publicly whipped; and they put able-bodied paupers to work or exiled them from the county if they were from somewhere else (under ancient English custom and law the poor were supposed to be dealt with in their home communities.)

The justices were most powerful when they sat as a “Court of Oyer and Terminer” under special commission from the governor. In that capacity the justices could — and did — try slaves for capital offenses and order their execution, without any right of appeal.

In the summer of 1767 one of Col. Baylor’s slaves, Tom, was tried and found guilty of breaking into a white planter’s house and stealing items worth about five shillings. The Orange County Court, presided over by James Madison Sr. (father of the future president) [and a man who had lost his father to an alleged slave murder -ed.], noted that Tom was “precluded from the Benefit of Clergy” because he had already received it once before and ordered him executed.

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1937: Panfiliya Tanailidi, Azerbaijani actress

Add comment October 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Azerbaijani actress Panfiliya Tanailidi (various other transliterations are possible) was purged during Stalin’s terror.

Born in a tsarist governorate to Greek emigres, Tanailidi (English Wikipedia entry | Azerbaijani) was treading the Caucasus boards as a teenager in the pregnant century’s first decade.

She became an accomplished stage and screen actress, starring in 1930s silents Ismet and Almaz.

Come the Stalin years when any pretext was enough to destroy a body, the pretext against Tanailidi was apparently her affiliations with an Iran then taking a concerted anti-Soviet line: the actress had toured Iran in 1917 and had friends like Govhar Aliyeva who had fled the Soviet Union for Iran. This was more than enough to cast the pall of espionage about her.

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1651: James Stanley, Earl of Derby

Add comment October 15th, 2015 Headsman

Oliver Cromwell famously called his victory in the last battle of the English Civil War “a crowning mercy” … but it was anything but for royalist nobleman James Stanley, who was beheaded a few weeks afterwards, on this date in 1651.

Packing the marvelous title of Earl of Derby and the Marvel Comics-esque one of Baron Strange, Stanley was the maternal grandson of playwright Edward de Vere.

He had fought the cavalier side in the 1640s and made his name notorious with the storming of Bolton that resulted in the Bolton Massacre. Weeks later, he was present when royalist fortunes went pear-shaped in the north at the Battle of Marston Moor.

Stanley holed up on the Isle of Man after King Charles I lost his head, refusing his enemies’ every blandishment until he could re-enter the field as a commander for Charles II‘s reboot of hostilities.

This also proved a catastrophic failure, and while Charles was able to slip back to continental exile the Lord Derby could not find such obliging oak trees as served his master.*

Though given terms by his captors, a court martial subsequently disallowed such liberality to the butcher of Bolton and condemned him as a traitor.

The parliamentarians would take him back to Bolton to face his punishment; the spot of the beheading is marked by a column in Bolton’s market cross.

Undependable local folklore holds that Lord Derby spent his last night in the ancient (and still-extant) Ye Olde Man and Scythe inn, whose environs exhibit some artifacts of Lord Derby, including a prop severed head.

It’s even said that Stanley’s ghost haunts the pub.

* Stanley was also the Lord of Mann (i.e., of the Isle of Man), and the efforts of Stanley’s wife to negotiate surrender of the royalist island in exchange for her husband’s safety triggered the rebellion of Illiam Dhone.

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2012: Eric Robert, determined volunteer

4 comments October 15th, 2012 Headsman

Tonight at 10 p.m. local (U.S. Central) time* in Sioux Falls, South Dakota will administer a toxic lethal injection to Eric Robert … with Robert’s complete consent. (Update: Robert has indeed been executed as scheduled.)

Robert will reach the gurney on the greased-lightning legal path, thanks to his own willingness to die.

It’s a mere 18 months since Robert (then serving a prison term for kidnapping) and another convict murdered guard Ronald “RJ” Johnson for his uniform during an unsuccessful escape attempt.

Robert pled guilty, requested the death penalty, and waived his appeals. This phenomenon is surprisingly common; the Death Penalty Information Center’s invaluable executions database classifies over 10% of modern U.S. executions as voluntary. (138 volunteers out of 1,308 total executions as of this writing: Robert will be the 139th and 1,309th)

While many of those abandoned their appeals in despair once they’d been on death row for a while, Robert has shown uncommon clarity of purpose from the very first, and his firm and intelligent resistance to any attempt to intervene against his death sentence has undermined any possible argument that the guy isn’t in his right mind. So far as anyone can tell, he sincerely believes in a retributive criminal justice ethos.

It might help that the man has followed an atypical criminal arc. He has a biology degree and was a law-abiding wastewater treatment supervisor and Little League coach until he weirdly posed as a police officer and kidnapped a teenager in 2005.** (He says he was drunk.)

Robert even complained publicly when South Dakota nixed a spring 2012 execution date to conduct the mandatory appellate review all capital cases receive; he wrote a letter to the Associated Press saying that he would kill again.

“Victims of non-capital offenses receive their justice when the perpetrator is placed in custody,” Robert wrote. “Victims in capital cases receive their justice when the perpetrator is executed.” That might indeed constitute a persuasive reason to execute Eric Robert, though the same logic would just as readily dispute the suitability of the death penalty as public policy. It’s invariably justice delayed, after all.

I am free to admit my guilt, as well as acknowledge and accept society’s punishment just as I am free to proclaim innocence in defiance of a verdict. I believe that the sentence of death is justly deserved in any murder and should be carried out … Give the Ron Johnson family their justice, they have been forced to wait too long. I finish where I started — I deserve to die.

The court soon obliged him. With legal interventions seemingly at an end and no reason to expect a change of heart from Robert (who could stop the proceeding at any time by announcing his intent to file additional appeals) his execution tonight appears to be inevitable.

And if legal maneuvering has been light, South Dakota — whose 2007 execution of Elijah Page, another volunteer, was the first in that state since the Truman administration — has not been spared the lethal injection misadventures that have bedeviled American death chambers the country over.

Sodium thiopental, one of the drugs used in the classic three-drug lethal injection cocktail, has become very hard to come by for executions. In 2011, South Dakota was exposed for having purchased a supply of unlicensed thiopental from the India company Kayem Pharamaceuticals.

That led South Dakota to switch its lethal injection process to instead use pentobarbital, again following a nationwide trend. Pentobarbital executions have been subject to their own legal challenges, and in South Dakota such suits have been pushed by advocates for Donald Moeller.

Moeller is the next man scheduled to die at Sioux Falls; like Robert, he’s a volunteer, and he’s successfully rejected the “assistance” of the pentobarbital appeal. If all goes to plan Moeller will die during the week of Halloween: two executions in three weeks for a state where the death chamber went unused for a lifetime.

* See this handy list of the times of day each U.S. jurisdiction conducts its executions. The time is rather unusual; many states have moved away from the stereotypical “midnight assassination” late-night execution in favor of something more proximate to business hours.

** The available public evidence suggests Robert perhaps (and understandably) loathes incarceration; rather than shibboleths about society’s punishment, Robert fought to reduce his kidnapping sentence to bring a potential parole opportunity within his grasp. The escape attempt and bluster about killing people happened after those kidnapping appeals foundered.

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1964: Nguyen Van Troi, Viet Cong urban guerrilla

4 comments October 15th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1964, South Vietnam executed a 17-year-old Communist for a plot to assassinate American Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

The young electrical worker and Viet Cong urban guerrilla Nguyen Van Troi was nabbed in the spring of 1963 trying to off both McNamara, famous for the megatonnage he would bestow on Southeast Asia, and U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.

(Later, when the South Vietnamese client president whose guests these men ostensibly were was being shot in an armored personnel carrier with the Americans’ blessing, Ngo Dinh Diem might have had cause to wish this youth’s inhospitable gesture had not been undone by his men. Lodge was a particularly vocal advocate in the Kennedy administration for overthrowing Diem.)

For the months leading up to his public shooting, he became an international cause celebre; North Vietnam would later milk his martyrdom with a postage stamp, an award, and numerous public streets.

The international reach of his case was underscored when a Venezuelan revolutionary cell kidnapped an American officer shortly before Troi’s execution, and threatened to shoot him in retaliation. (They didn’t.)

Against this, South Vietnam counterposed the unedifying spectacle of a 17-year-old patriot put to death, energetically declaiming at the stake while cameras rolled,

It is the Americans who have committed aggression on our country, it is they who have been killing our people with planes and bombs…. I have never acted against the will of my people. It is against the Americans that I have taken action.

Naturally, he became a worldwide leftist martyr. There’s an Estadio Nguyen Van Troi in Cuba; American actor Troy Garity, son of Jane Fonda from her “Hanoi Jane” days, is also named for Nguyen Van Troi.

Robert McNamara, meanwhile, had many, many years yet to live, and many, many more Vietnamese deaths to burden his conscience.Troi’s widow wrote a 1965 book about him, out of print but still available on the used book market.

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1942: Three Doolittle raiders

4 comments October 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1942, three captured American airmen who had bombed Japan in the Doolittle Raid were shot in Tokyo.

The Doolittle Raid — named for its commander, Jimmy Doolittle — was America’s April 1942 retaliation for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor a few months before.

The mission: bomb the Japanese homeland.

Later in the war, American advances in the Pacific would enable the Yankee to do this regularly. In 1942, it was all but a suicide mission.

The plan involved launching 16 B-25s from an aircraft carrier — an unprecedented feat in itself — to fly light with arms and heavy with fuel to just make it 400 miles to Honshu, and with any luck on to China before the tanks ran dry.

Considering that the bombers had to launch in a panic when the carrier group was spotted a couple hundred miles too early, the raid’s success was downright miraculous: all 16 bombers made it on to (or near enough) the mainland without being shot down, where the crews bailed out and, for the most part, escaped to allied forces. Jimmy Doolittle would title his autobiography I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.

But not all were quite as lucky as Lt. Col. (later, General) Doolittle.

Farrow (left) and Hallmark. Spatz was a member of Farrow’s crew, and is pictured center in that plane’s crew shot here.

Two (out of eighty) drowned when their ride was ditched in the drink. Eight others were captured by the Japanese.

Four of those eight captives would survive the war to tell the tale. A fifth died in captivity. And the other three — pilots William Farrow and Dean Edward Hallmark, and (for somewhat unclear reasons) gunner Harold Spatz — were shot this day in a Shanghai cemetery following a sketchy military trial which condemned them for hitting civilian targets.

Designed largely for its psychological effect, the morale-boosting Doolittle raid has attracted interest from countless other sources who treat it in greater depth. DoolittleRaid.com and DoolittleRaider.com both provide detailed online information about the raid.

For more traditional media, one could do worse than bomber pilot Ted Lawson’s book, and its subsequent propaganda film adaptation, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.

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1896: Rainandriamampandry and Prince Ratsimamanga

Add comment October 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1896, two Malagasy movers and shakers were shot to help cement French colonial control of Madagascar.

Interior Minister Rainandriamampandry

Having conquered the island militarily by 1895, France immediately faced indigenous resistance.

According to Stephen Ellis*

One of the most puzzling and fascinating of all resistance movements is that known as the revolt of the menalamba. It occurred over a wide area of central Madagascar, mostly in the kingdom of Imerina, in the two years following the French invasion of Madagascar in 1895. The most mysterious aspect of the rising has always been the question of who, if anyone, was its leader. The official version, that reported by the French government in Madagascar, was that the movement was inspired or directed by a number of magnates at the old Merina court. The published evidence is so ambiguous as to have obliged every subsequent author to accept this version, although there was considerable doubt expressed as to its truth at that time.

Managing this drumhead tribunal was just-arrived “Resident-General” Joseph Simon Gallieni, who seems to have alit (fresh from an assignment in Indochina) with the certain conviction that examples must be made.

While more wholesale bloodletting was deployed in the field, Gallieni selected some suitably high-profile exemplars from the supine state’s ruling elite — “Ratsimamanga, a nobleman who had been unpopular for many years because of his financial extortions,” says Ellis, and “Rainandriamampandry because … he had no close political friends and might therefore be considered dispensable.”

The convenient loss of the tribunal paperwork, which renders evaluation impossible and colonial motivation suspect, hardly would have been well beside the point. As one periodical in Paris (where Gallieni’s pacification project received enthusiastic greeting) approvingly put it,

As a lesson to the rebels, two great figures who had sided with them, Prince Ratsimamanga and Minister of the Interior Rainandriamampandry have both been tried, convicted and shot, all with such rapidity as to inspire their accomplices to salutary reflections.

Below: Selected photographs of the execution from the University of Southern California Digital Library. Click for larger images.

An aside: Madagascar was also the scene of intensely sectarian competition in the soul-saving business, resulting in an execution-day travesty reported in An Empire Divided: Religion, Republicanism, and the Making of French Colonialism, 1880-1914:

Gallieni gave permission to both the cure of the Antananarivo cathedral and a local French pastor to be with [Rainandriamampandry] during his last hours. But … the two started quarreling almost at once. Gallieni was deeply disturbed by the image of two religious men fighting during “the final minutes of a condemned man.”

* “The Political Elite of Imerina and the Revolt of the Menalamba. The Creation of a Colonial Myth in Madagascar, 1895-1898,” The Journal of African History, vol. 21, no. 2 (1980).

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1917: Mata Hari, femme fatale

6 comments October 15th, 2008 Headsman

At 5 a.m. this date in 1917, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle — better known as Mata Hari — was awoken at Saint-Lazare Prison to news that it was her last day on earth.

She died in a muddy drill field outside Paris, facing a firing squad as she had lived: self-possessed, mysterious, her eyes (she refused a blindfold) open.

For the oldest profession, it may be there is nothing truly original, nothing new under the sun. But Mata Hari — thanks in no small part to her genuinely fatale end — redefined it for the dawning age of mass visual media and tapped the power of sexual allure for a commercial century.

She was already pushing 30 when she got into the exotic dance game, with a failed May-December marriage behind her from what a wag might call her first sexual bargain, to get out from under the thumb of her family and see the world. In Paris in the belle epoque, there were assuredly dancers younger, prettier. Margaretha, who here debuted the show name by which history would know here, surpassed them with showmanship.

She exploited her exotic olive-toned looks — there were rumors of Javanese or Jewish blood even in her childhood — and claimed to be an Indian princess; her talent for repackaging oriental exoticism with just the right amount of otherness combined with her willingness to push boundaries of eroticism made her an instant sensation. Naturally gregarious and unprudish, she segued into the courtesan biz on the side with dashing officers and wealthy industrialists.

Not bad for a thirty-something mother of two.

She comes at the start of our own era: sensual postcards and posed photos of Mata Hari were at once her pitch and her product; celluloid was just coming online, and 14 years after her death, she’d be portrayed by silver screen femme fatale Greta Garbo:

That’s her with the last object of her affections, a Russian aviator young enough to be her son, and a reminder that the birth of Greta Garbo’s era was also the death of Mata Hari’s own.

She was aging, for one thing. For another, of course, war shattered Europe. Famous, decadent, polyglot … those things that had been her passport suddenly became her liabilities. Globetrotting travel? Payoffs from a multinational cast of officers for her companionship?

There’s no take here on whether she was really, as convicted, a German spy of any variety at all — she seems to have been approached, to have tried her hand clumsily or to have been set up by either French or German intelligence, or simply to have behaved indiscreetly. Once she was caught up against events, her maneating reputation did her no favors.

Spying, she was terrible at. Commanding men’s attention? As a British correspondent reported, Margaretha Zelle owned her role to the very last.

The first intimation she received that her plea had been denied was when she was led at daybreak from her cell in the Saint-Lazare prison to a waiting automobile and then rushed to the barracks where the firing squad awaited her.

Never once had the iron will of the beautiful woman failed her. Father Arbaux, accompanied by two sisters of charity, Captain Bouchardon, and Maitre Clunet, her lawyer, entered her cell, where she was still sleeping – a calm, untroubled sleep, it was remarked by the turnkeys and trusties.

The sisters gently shook her. She arose and was told that her hour had come.

‘May I write two letters?’ was all she asked.

Consent was given immediately by Captain Bouchardon, and pen, ink, paper, and envelopes were given to her.

She seated herself at the edge of the bed and wrote the letters with feverish haste. She handed them over to the custody of her lawyer.

Then she drew on her stockings, black, silken, filmy things, grotesque in the circumstances. She placed her high-heeled slippers on her feet and tied the silken ribbons over her insteps.

She arose and took the long black velvet cloak, edged around the bottom with fur and with a huge square fur collar hanging down the back, from a hook over the head of her bed. She placed this cloak over the heavy silk kimono which she had been wearing over her nightdress.

Her wealth of black hair was still coiled about her head in braids. She put on a large, flapping black felt hat with a black silk ribbon and bow. Slowly and indifferently, it seemed, she pulled on a pair of black kid gloves. Then she said calmly:

‘I am ready.’

The party slowly filed out of her cell to the waiting automobile.

The car sped through the heart of the sleeping city. It was scarcely half-past five in the morning and the sun was not yet fully up.

Clear across Paris the car whirled to the Caserne de Vincennes, the barracks of the old fort which the Germans stormed in 1870.

The troops were already drawn up for the execution. The twelve Zouaves, forming the firing squad, stood in line, their rifles at ease. A subofficer stood behind them, sword drawn.

The automobile stopped, and the party descended, Mata Hari last. The party walked straight to the spot, where a little hummock of earth reared itself seven or eight feet high and afforded a background for such bullets as might miss the human target.

As Father Arbaux spoke with the condemned woman, a French officer approached, carrying a white cloth.

‘The blindfold,’ he whispered to the nuns who stood there and handed it to them.

‘Must I wear that?’ asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold.

Maitre Clunet turned interrogatively to the French officer.

‘If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,’ replied the officer, hurriedly turning away. .

Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her.*

The officer in command of the firing squad, who had been watching his men like a hawk that none might examine his rifle and try to find out whether he was destined to fire the blank cartridge which was in the breech of one rifle, seemed relieved that the business would soon be over.

A sharp, crackling command and the file of twelve men assumed rigid positions at attention. Another command, and their rifles were at their shoulders; each man gazed down his barrel at the breast of the women which was the target.

She did not move a muscle.

The underofficer in charge had moved to a position where from the corners of their eyes they could see him. His sword was extended in the air.

It dropped. The sun – by this time up – flashed on the burnished blade as it described an arc in falling. Simultaneously the sound of the volley rang out. Flame and a tiny puff of greyish smoke issued from the muzzle of each rifle. Automatically the men dropped their arms.

At the report Mata Hari fell. She did not die as actors and moving picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot. She did not throw up her hands nor did she plunge straight forward or straight back.

Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. She lay prone, motionless, with her face turned towards the sky.

A non-commissioned officer, who accompanied a lieutenant, drew his revolver from the big, black holster strapped about his waist. Bending over, he placed the muzzle of the revolver almost – but not quite – against the left temple of the spy. He pulled the trigger, and the bullet tore into the brain of the woman.

Mata Hari was surely dead.

* Inevitably, a story got around that she’d opened her funereal coat to the firing squad, revealing no clothing beneath it.

Part of the Themed Set: Belles Epoque.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Espionage,Execution,Famous,France,Germany,History,Language,Netherlands,Popular Culture,Sex,Shot,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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