1789: The murderers of the baker Francois

2 comments October 22nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1789, two working stiffs literally became stiffs for a noteworthy bread riot during the French Revolution’s early days.

Ah, 1789.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. And we know how all that ends.

Just three months after the Bastille was stormed, France was merely pregnant with its coming Terrors. The Revolution was in its “moderate stage”.

Some moderation.

“Events of the 22nd of October, 1789: The hanging of a man named Francois, a baker”. Despite the title, sources (like this French-language study in the Annales historiques de la Revolution francaise, overwhelmingly date the baker’s murder to the 21st.

The tumbrils may not have been running (actually, the Revolution’s iconic execution device had not yet even been created), but the “October Days” had enough to scare you, especially if you were a sensible constitutionalist type like the Marquis de Lafayette.*

Like a mob dragging the King back to Paris from Versailles, with the heads of his royal guards on pikestaffs.

A drought had created a calamitous bread shortage, which in turn helped stir the Revolutionary pot. The mob that invaded Louis XVI‘s palace a couple of weeks before had celebrated his return to Paris singing “We Have the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, and the Baker’s Son. We Shall Have Bread.” When the king’s presence failed to ease the shortage, fresh disturbances followed.

On October 21, 1789,** the baker Denis Francois became the unfortunate focus of one such, when a famished woman spuriously denounced him a monopolist. A frenzied crowd lynched the hapless boulanger before he could get a word in edgewise.

This event occasioned the Constituent Assembly to pass a martial law decree, permitting a municipality to signal martial law by raising a red flag, whereupon anyone failing to disperse made him- or herself liable to summary military execution.

According to Lafayette (cited in Revolutionary Justice in Paris: 1789-1790):

During the disturbance stirred up against the baker Francois, another one broke out in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the object of which was to unite with the Faubourg Saint-Marcel for purposes of reducing the price of bread, and for getting into the convents under the pretext of taking the muskets stored there. The National Guard, in breaking up these seditions, arrested the assassin of the baker [a dock porter named Blin] and the principal instigator of the faubourg [i.e., the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, namely a laborer named Michel Adrien†]. Both were judged and hanged the next day.

* We meet Lafayette here as captain of the National Guard; in a few years, the progress of the Revolution that he struggled to contain and direct will make him persona non grata in his country.

** Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History gives the date as Oct. 20, though it’s not clear upon what authority. Archibald Alison placed it on the 19th. Whenever the murder of Francois occurred, the martial law decree’s passage on the 21st appears to be firmly dependable, which would mean the supposed malefactors’ deaths on this date should be as well.

† Revolutionary propagandist Camille Desmoulins later seized on the very skimpily justified Adrien execution — he “was judged and hanged in twenty-four hours for circulating a seditious flyer, although he didn’t know how to read” — to contrast with the outsized tenderheartedness shown for aristocrats who have “different weights on the scales of justice.” (Revolutionary Justice in Paris: 1789-1790)

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1858: Marion Ira Stout, for loving his sister

3 comments October 22nd, 2008 Headsman

It’s the sesquicentennial of a then-sensational, now-forgotten hanging in Rochester, N.Y.

At dawn on December 20, 1857, the city had awoken to the discovery of a mangled corpse by the Genesee River’s High Falls … and more than enough evidence to have the corpse’s killers in hand by tea time.

Marion Ira Stout — he just went by Ira — had made a dog’s breakfast of the job, according to History of Rochester and Monroe County New York from the Earliest Historic Times to the Beginning of 1907.

[W]hen they got near the edge of the bank, Ira struck his victim a sudden blow with an iron mallet, smashing the skull and producing death instantly. Stout then threw the body over the precipice, supposing that it would fall into the river and be swept into the lake before sunrise, but instead of that it landed on a projecting ledge thirty feet below the upper level. Perceiving that there had been some failure in the matter, Ira started to go down a narrow path that led sideways along the cliff, but in the darkness he missed his footing and fell headlong, breaking his left arm in the descent and landing beside the corpse. Summoning all his remaining strength he was just able to push the body over the bank, when he sank in a dead faint. On recovering from which in a few minutes, he called to his sister, who was still above, to come and help him. When she started to do so, the bushes to which she clung gave way; she stumbled, broke her left wrist, and fell beside her prostrate brother. But it would not do to remain there, wretched as was their plight. So, after searching in vain for Ira’s spectacles, which they had to leave behind them, but taking with them the fatal mallet, they scrambled slowly and painfully up the bank and made their way laboriously to their home on Monroe Street.

In lieu of a last statement, Stout referred his audience to this writing, which was published posthumously. Courtesy of the New York State Historical Association Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.

Sure enough, the glasses were waiting near the victim for the cops to find come daylight.

How did Ira, his sister, and the late Charles Littles — the sister’s husband — find themselves in this macabre dance?

That’s the murky bit, though it’s fair to say there was some negative energy in the family.

Littles was a violent, jealous, philandering drunk. His wife Sarah seems like the classic abused spouse. Ira was an ex-con who seemingly had his life back together. Oh, and Ira and Sarah were sleeping together — professedly true in the literal sense (they were observed to sleep in bed together in their underthings), and possibly true in the Biblical sense.

Now, where in this tangled knot of incestuous desire, domestic violence, protectiveness, jealousy and intrigue lies the motive is less than self-evident, but Ira and Sarah most definitely schemed to lure Charles to his demise. (Charles was found with a club which he’d brought to clobber a lover of Sarah that he’d been told would make a rendezvous.)

Still, the condemned charmer garnered sympathy for having saved his sister from an abusive marriage; Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass rallied to his defense, and a female admirer smuggled him poison to cheat the hangman … which said admirer managed to end up ingesting herself, and barely survived.

Death got all ten-thumbed around Ira Stout, it seems. His hanging was no different.

The New York Times‘ archive has free access to the report of Stout’s execution, interestingly detailing the upward-jerking “sudden suspension” hanging apparatus in use for the job:

The gallows is the same which has always been in use in the jail — the rope, a hempen cord, alone being new. A weight of 186 pounds rests upon a swing door set in the garret floor of the jail. From this weight, the rope runs over two pulleys above, and the end of it drops through two doors, and nearly to the main floor of the jail. The weight falls about eight feet, jerking the slack end that distance. The halter attached to the main rope is a long distance below the main enginery of death, and the latter is not seen by the spectators or prisoner. The Sheriff stood at the foot of the stairs, some forty feet from the prisoner, and by a small cord pulled the latch which let the fatal weight fall.

But since this is Ira Stout, you know it didn’t come off without a hitch.

The death of the ill-fated man was not as sudden as could be desired. His struggles for eight or ten minutes were severe, and caused the spectators to turn away in disgust.

His neck was probably not dislocated, and he died by a slow process of strangulation. Doctors Hall, Avery, James and Miller stood near, and in eight minutes after the drop fell they said his pulse was as full as in life.

Sort of puts a grim twist on Stout’s own (fairly self-pitying) letters to the papers, in one of which he remarked, “I do not wish to show a cowardly tenacity for life, but I consider it my right and duty to live as long as I can.”

According to a feature story in the newsletter of Mount Hope Cemetery where Ira Stout takes his eternal rest, he might have tried to hang on quite a bit longer.

A rumor was current last night at a late hour that Stout was not dead, and that efforts were being made to resuscitate him by the use of galvanic batteries and other means sometimes employed for the restoration of persons supposed to be dead. How much truth there is in the rumors thus made we cannot say, as we have not taken pains to inquire at the house of Mrs. Stout.

No surprise, that didn’t work either.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Sex,USA

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