1702: Not Nicholas Bayard, anti-Leislerian

Add comment March 30th, 2017 Headsman

March 30, 1702 was the date colonial New York spared Col. Nicholas Bayard from undergoing a hanging scheduled later that same day.

A “puzzling affair, made so by frustratingly incomplete documentation,” in the estimate of Adrian Howe, whose William and Mary Quarterly article (January 1990) “The Bayard Treason Trial: Dramatizing Anglo-Dutch Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century New York City” is a key source for this post: it was certainly blowback for the execution a decade earlier of the Dutch merchant Jacob Leisler who seized control of New York in a populist rising to cement its adherence to the Glorious Revolution. Bayard, a colonial elite related to Peter Stuyvesant himself, was Leisler’s superior in the militia but abhorred the Leislerian intervention on behalf of the usurping Dutch king William III.

Bayard got his by helping to manage Leisler’s prosecution all the way to the gallows, even reputedly hosting the new royal governor at his own house while his party plied him with alcohol in a (successful) bid to overcome his reluctance to sign Leisler’s death warrant — a triumph Bayard celebrated by gaily hanging a flag from his window on the day Leisler hanged.

For a man who had recently found it necessary to flee the city for his own safety, he was a reckless provocateur of a foe that grew to hate him. Anglican clergyman John Miller surveyed the city during the intervening years and noticed that the Leisler party “have vowed revenge & Some Say want but an opportunity to effect their purpose.”

As the 18th century dawned, the Leislerian party — more think artisans, against the magnates — was back in control of the New York’s Provincial Council, and could finally see a way to that purpose. It seized on an intemperate petition that Bayard had drawn up against the late, pro-Leislerian governor Bellomont* and turned a 1691 anti-Leisler law-and-order statue against it.

The resulting eight-day trial in early March was a nakedly political operation although New York’s Dutchmen fell a bit short of the Robespierrian standard: it’s not clear whether they really meant to hound Bayard all the way to death or whether the last-minute pardon was the plan from day one. To get it, Bayard had to submit himself as far a very grudging apology for the offense — “which by the said sentence he finds and is convinced he has committed.” Apparently this sullen abasement was enough to satisfy Team Leisler, who cut here a picture of moderation and restraint that would do their countrymen’s latter-day stereotypes proud; when a new governor arrived, Bayard’s condemnation was fully reversed and expunged, “as if no such trial had been.”

This escape and restoration left Leisler to publish a pamphlet against his treatment, An Account of the illegal prosecution and tryal of Coll. Nicholas Bayard, in the province of New-York, for supposed high-treason, in the year 1701.

* Among other things in his venturesome life, Bellomont sponsored William Kidd when he was a somewhat legitimate privateer, but eventually orchestrated Kidd’s capture as a pirate.

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1329: The effigy of Pope John XXII, by Antipope Nicholas V

1 comment February 19th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1329, as Wikipedia puts it, Antipope Nicholas V “presided at a bizarre ceremony in the Duomo of Pisa, at which a straw puppet representing Pope John XXII and dressed in pontifical robes was formally condemned, degraded, and handed over to the secular arm (to be ‘executed’).”

Despite the show of force, Nicholas V was on his last legs at this moment as antipope.

He’d been elevated to the putative papacy by Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV. In this, Nicholas was a throwback to an old rivalry between popes and emperors compassing both authority within the church, and authority on the Italian peninsula, a conflict which had generated several German-backed antipopes in centuries previous. Though not the last antipope in history, Nicholas has the distinction of being the last imperial antipope.

Louis (or Ludwig) had a pique of long standing with Pope John XXII dating back to John’s unwelcome intervention in his, Louis’s, disputed accession as emperor: back in 1314, a divided imperial electorate had wrought a “double election” of the Wittelsbach Louis and the Habsburg Frederick the Fair, a circumstance that resulted in civil war within the empire.

While officially neutral in the fight, the pontiff exploited the opportunity to claw back ecclesiastical authority by asserting that the imperial throne was vacant and its edicts null until the papacy had blessed the claimant. Louis told John to pound sand.

Certain persons, blinded by avarice and ambition, and totally ignorant of the Scriptures, have distorted the meanings of certain passages by false and wicked interpretations, and on this basis have attacked the imperial authority and the rights of the emperors, electors, and other princes and subjects of the empire. For they wrongfully assert that the emperor derives his position and authority from the Pope, and that the emperor elect is not the real emperor until his election is confirmed and approved, and he is crowned by the pope … We now declare … that the emperor holds his authority and position from God alone … he has full power … without the approval, confirmation, authorisation or consent of the pope or any other person.

-Sachsenhausen Appellation, 1324 (as translated here)

John excommunicated Louis, and Louis, well, he did the same to John — seizing on the pope’s hostility towards the movements for clerical poverty as excuse to declare put a Spiritual Franciscan into St. Peter’s Throne on his own say-so as imperial armies smashed through Italy.* If a pope was going to crown Louis, it was going to be his pope.


Antipope Nicholas V crowns Louis IV in May 1328.

Peter of Corbara (Pietro Rainalducci) had barely two years to deny himself the emoluments of antioffice before Louis’s withdrawal required his own submission to the man he had executed in effigy. John XXII didn’t go nearly that hard on the former “Nicholas V”: merely absolved him after confession and kept him comfortably imprisoned at the papal palace in Avignon until the would-be usurper’s peaceful death in 1333.

* This conflict forms the backdrop for Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, set in late 1327. The narrator-monk Adso refers in his epilogue to having heard of the antipope’s elevation soon after leaving the monastery where the bulk of the novel’s action occurs.

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1828: Charles French, York printer

Add comment October 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1828, a young printer’s assistant morally corrupted by the theater went to the gallows at York, Upper Canada (soon to become Toronto, Ontario).

After boozing it up at a performance of Tom and Jerry, or, Life in London* at Frank’s Hotel, 21-year-old Charles French fell into a drunken row with Edward Knowlan or Nowlan and shot him dead, in a case that occasioned a local moral panic about the dangerous carousing nurtured by the nightlife in the small frontier town.

Frank’s Hotel, York’s very first theatrical venue, was “neither under order nor restraint,” French’s respectable parents pleaded in their unsuccessful clemency missive. It was “the haunt of the gay and dissolute, the idle and the profligate, the ruffian and woman of bad fame, those who show in the light of the moon were there — and from its temptations few parents or masters could restrain the youth.” (Source) Theater troupes were banned from York stages for five years after the French affair.

French’s defense had likewise attempted to raise doubts about his mental competency, and although this worked as well as it usually did in a 19th century courtroom there was no small sentiment for French’s reprieve: (K)nowlan was a notorious goon, and the circumstances of the fray seemed muddled enough to bring the shooter’s degree of calculation into question. Two alleged accomplices, acquitted in separate trials, swore that Knowlan

The close clemency call carried a sharp political undertone. French was an understudy of the reform publisher William Lyon Mackenzie and his victim a Tory brawler who dealt out bruises in the service of Upper Canada’s “Family Compact” ruling clique. That his petition for mercy was rejected by Lt. Gov. Peregrine Maitland eventually became one of the (lesser) briefs against the Family Compact advanced a decade later during the Upper Canada Rebellion.

* The period’s several Tom and Jerry plays — no overt relationship is known between them and the 20th century Tom and Jerry cartoons — derived from Pierce Egan‘s smash hit Life in London, or, the day and night scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom in their rambles and sprees through the metropolis. The title characters capture vignettes around the city, naturally not excluding the condemned hold at Newgate, which they tour with their friend Bob Logic on the pretext of consoling one of Logic’s old friends.

An opportunity presented itself to our TRIO to visit the Condemned Yard in Newgate. “It was a mournful sight,” Logic observed to the Corinthian; “but as it was the intention of Jerry not to neglect visiting any place that might afford him information during his stay in London, he had been induced to make the proposition to Hawthorn; yet, he was free to confess, it was more especially on his own account, as he was compelled to attend, and companions would, therefore, prove very agreeable to his feelings upon such a melancholy occasion.” “We will accompany you, Bob,” replied Tom and Jerry.

The Plate represents the Morning of Execution, and the malefactors having their irons knocked off previous to their ascending the fatal platform that launches them into eternity. The Yeoman of the Halter [i.e., the hangman — at the time of Egan’s writing this would have been John Foxton] is in waiting to put the ropes about them. The Clergyman is also seen administering consolation to these unfortunate persons in such an awful moment; and the Sheriffs are likewise in attendance to conduct the culprits to the place of execution, to perform the most painful part of their duty, in witnessing the offended laws of their country put in force. It is a truly afflicting scene; and neither the pen nor the PENCIL, however directed by talent, can do it adequate justice, or convey a description of the “harrowed feelings” of the few spectators that are admitted into the Condemned Yard upon such an occasion. The tolling of the bell, too, which breaks in upon the very soul of the already agonized malefactor, announcing to him that he has but a few minutes to live, adds a terrific solemnity to the proceedings: —

Hear it not, Duncan, for ’tis a knell
That summons thee to heav’n or to hell.

The Condemned Yard is long, but narrow, and contains a great number of cells, one above another, forming three stories in height. Each cell measures nine feet in length, and six in width. [Compare with Dickens’s description -ed.] Every indulgence is allowed to those prisoners immediately the “death-warrant” arrives at Newgate, ordering them to prepare for execution. They are then allowed to remain in the Large Room (which the Plate represents), in order that the Clergyman may attend upon them as often as they desire it, and who, generally, previous to the morning on which they are to suffer, sits up praying with them the whole of the night. It is really astonishing, upon most of these occasions, to witness the resignation and fortitude with which these unhappy men conduct themselves: many of the most hardened and desperate offenders, from the kindness, attention, and soothing conduct of the Rev. Mr. Cotton, who is indefatigable in administering consolation to their troubled minds, have become the most sincere penitents; nay more, several prisoners, who have received a free pardon after having been ordered for execution, have since publicly declared that they should never again be in such a fit state to meet eternity. The criminal on the left side of the Plate, lifting up his hands in the attitude of prayer with the Clergyman, was once a character of considerable note at the West End of the Town, and from his vivacity, then designated “Lively Jem!” He soon ran through a fine fortune; and, to keep up his extravagances, he plunged into those destructive habits which ultimately brought him into this ignominious situation. Lively Jem, like most others, saw his error too late to repair it. He had not strength of mind sufficient to bear with the reverses of fortune; to fall from splendour to poverty was too much for his feelings; and, to avoid the jests and sneers of his once dashing acquaintance, under the appellation of “poor fellow!” and being excluded from their company, he thus violently terminated his thoughtless career. Jem had been at college with the Oxonian, and as his last request, lie had sent a message to Logic to attend upon him on this mournful occasion, in order to be the bearer of some important circumstances respecting himself to a female, to whom he had been very much attached, and who had also never been absent from him except this fatal morning. Logic was too much of a man to neglect another in the hour of misfortune; and it was to fulfil the request of a dying unfortunate acquaintance, that he came, accompanied by Corinthian Tom and Jerry, to the condemned Yard of Newgate.

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1968: Harun Thohir and Usman Janatin, for the MacDonald House bombing

Add comment October 17th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1968, Indonesian Lance Corporal Harun Thohir and Sgt. Usman Janatin were hanged in Singapore for bombing the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank three years earlier.

Aptly, such confrontational behavior took place during the era of Konfrontasi, a running fight between Indonesia — feeling its oats as a regional power — and the British straits possessions that had just recently been amalgamated (to Indonesia’s irritation) into the new country Malaysia.

This wasn’t a “war” full of set-piece battles: think commando raids and jungle skirmishing instead. Initially confined to the island of Borneo of which Indonesia occupied three-quarters and coveted the remainder, the fight provocatively spilled to the “homeland” Malay Peninsula itself, including a number of saboteur bombings concentrated in Singapore — which was still a part of Malaysia in the early 1960s.

The most notorious and destructive of these was conducted on March 10, 1965, by our men Harun Thohir and Usman Janatir along with a third commando named Gani bin Arup. Tasked with bombing an electric station, they instead packed 12 kg of nitroglycerin into a bank — an iconic landmark that was at the time the tallest in its vicinity. The MacDonald House bombing killed three civilians and injured 133 more.

Gani bin Arup escaped successfully, but Janatin and Thohir suffered a motorboat breakdown and were apprehended. By the time their execution date arrived, a few things had changed: Singapore itself had been expelled from Malaysia to become an independent city-state; and, the Konfrontasi era had been dialed back with the deposition of Indonesian president Sukarno.

But the hanging still stayed on, and feelings ran understandably high for both the former antagonists.

The jurisdictional issue of most moment for the bombers was not the identity of the offended state, but their contention that they were regular armed forces members just following their orders and entitled to prisoner of war status. Jakarta was indignant at Singaporean courts’ dismissal of this angle; Singapore, well, it didn’t want to take a soft line on terrorists blowing up banks.


Headline in the Oct. 18, 1968 London Times, reporting “a crowd of 10,000 people who joined the procession to the war heroes’ cemetery here [Jakarta] carried banners proclaiming: ‘Declare total war on Singapore’, ‘Annihilate Singapore’, and ‘Hang Lee Kuan Yew‘.”

As is so often the case, one man’s terrorists are often another’s freedom fighters: the hanged marines remain tday official national heroes in Indonesia, and in 2014 the navy created a diplomatic incident with Singapore by christening a Bung Tomo-class corvette the KRI Usman-Harun.

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1716: Five Mug House rioters

Add comment September 21st, 2016 Headsman

Three hundred years ago today, five Jacobites were hanged in London for raising a riot on behalf of the exiled Pretender.

The 1714 childless death of Queen Anne had put the succession question on the political map in England. The Catholic Stuarts who had been run out of the realm a generation before were still hanging around in exile, claiming the throne — now in the person of “the Old Pretender”, James Francis Edward, the son of King James II who meant to become King James III.

But the Whig party instead saw to the succession of Anne’s Protestant cousin, George I, the Elector of Hanover who would therefore become the fount of the Hanoverian dynasty — a change at in the executive that was matched by a parliamentary revolution that set the Whigs up to boss Britain for the best part of the 18th century.

Not everyone was pleased.

As conspiracies and rebellions unfolded among lords, for the London commoners the parties picturesquely (but no less violently) divided at the tavern doors. In the streets, the mobs were Tory: the importation of some German noble in preference to numerous English claimants more closely related to Anne than he had obvious grievance potential.

Whigs in their turn set up politicized tavern clubs — “Mug Houses” — as vehicles to counterpoise a pro-Hanoverian presence, and these houses became an obnoxious presence to Jacobites wont to attract violent attack. Mug House Whigs and Jacobite/Tory mobs bloodied the flagstones with street brawls in 1715-1716, not neglecting to sing taunting partisan doggerel at one another good enough to swell the cockles of any modern-day football hooligan.

Since the Tories could not fight,
And their master took his flight
They labour to keep up their faction
With a bough and a stick
And a stone and a brick
They equip their roaring crew for action.

Thus in battle-array
At the close of the day
After wisely debating their plot,
Upon windows and stalls
They courageously fall
And boast a great victory they’ve got.

But, alas! silly boys!
For all the mighty noise
Of their “High Church and Ormond for ever!”
A brave Whig, with one hand,
At George’s command,
Can make their mightiest hero to quiver.

That’s from this pdf on the London Mug Houses, which also supplies this fine cartoon:

In July of 1716, a noisy Whig party at a Mug House in Salisbury Court had been attacked by a Jacobite mob. Though the siege had been repelled on the first occasion, July 20, rioters reorganized and returned for another go and there battered in the doors and ran amok on the lower floor, while their Whig belligerents remained trapped above. Gleefully the rioters sacked their enemies’ refuge, toasting the Pretender’s health with the Whig ale before a none-too-timely arrival of gendarmes finally dispersed them.

“Many notorious Papists were seen to abet and assist in this villainous Rabble, as were other, who call themselves Churchmen,” complained the Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer (July 28, 1716). “‘Tis hoped the Magistrates will take such Methods which may prevent the like Insults for the future.”

The Magistrates did so.

Finally resolved to tamp down on the riots they had so long winked at, the crown threw the book at the rioters and got five condemned to hang on charges of burglary and assault.

Newgate Ordinary Paul Lorrain, who evidently found these goons more spiritually tractable than their behavior might suggest, describes the hangings:

1. George Purchase, condemn’d for being concern’d in the Riot in Salisbury-Court, Fleetstreet, on Tuesday the 24th of July last. He said, he was 23 Years of age, born at Puddle-Dock, London: That he serv’d an Apprentiship of 7 Years with a Shoemaker in Salisbury-Court: That when his Time was expir’d he became a Journeyman to his said Master, and never did an ill thing before this Fact for which he is condemn’d, and which he rashly committed, not considering then (as I endeavour’d now to make him sensible of) the Unlawfulness and dismal Consequences of such a Rebellious Sedition as that was, which so much tended not only to the Ruin of private Persons, but to the great Disturbance of, and Dishonour to, the whole Government. I representing both to him and his Fellow-Criminals and Sufferers, what perfect Nonsense (not to say worse) it was for them to cry-out, High-Church and Ormond; and what an unheard of Impudence and Disloyalty, what an enormous Wickedness and Impiety they all discover’d to be in their Nature, by their uttering these and the like Rebellious and Malicious Expressions; Do Hannoverian, King George, Down with the Mugg-house, &c. by which they excited and stirr’d up both themselves and others, to kill and plunder, to set the Nation in a Flame, and, in a word, to do all the Mischief they could, and to which (no doubt) they were greatly encourag’d underhand by such as neither fear GOD, nor honour the KING; nor indeed have any true Love for, or Regard to the Lives of those poor silly Tools they made use of in that Riot.

Upon this my Observation and Admonition (endeavouring to convince them, that they could have no good Intent in doing what they did, but quite contrary) this George Purchase acknowledg’d it to be a heinous Crime, himself greatly Guilty, and his Sentence just; praying GOD to forgive him this and all other his Sins, and have Mercy upon his Soul.

2. Thomas Beane, condemn’d for the same Fact. He said, he was 22 years of age; born in Salisbury-Court, where his Father formerly kept the Ship Tavern: That he was 5 Years at Sea, as Servant to the Purser of a Man of War , whom he serv’d the last of those 5 Years in the capacity of his Steward: That he was a Servant to some Gentlemen unhappily engag’d in the late Rebellion at Preston, since they were in Newgate, and not before. As to this Fact he was condemn’d for, he confest his guilt of it, acknowledging in particular that he carried part of the Mug-house Sign about the Street, and at last threw it into a Cart; but withal endeavour’d to palliate it, saying, That he inconsiderately join’d in that Riot, the dismal Consequences whereof he did not then apprehend, but now (to his great Sorrow) knew the Mischief he had thereby involv’d himself in.

3. William Price, condemn’d also for the same Riot. He said, he was 21 years of age, born in the Parish of St. Andrew Holbourn: That he was bound Apprentice to a Sword-Cutler , and had now serv’d 4 years of his Time, and never committed any Crime before this Riot hapned. He confess’d, That, hearing there was a great Concourse of People in Salisbury-Court, he presently ran thither, but said withal, That it was with no ill Intent, but out of meer Curiosity; however, when he was come he join’d with others there, and assisted them in demolishing Mr. Read’s Mug-house, destroying his Goods, and crying, high Church and Ormond, &c. Upon which Confession of his, I shewing him the heinousness and mischievous Consequences of that wicked Fact, he began to be sensible, and said, he heartily repented of it, praying GOD to forgive him this, and all other his Sins. He also was much concern’d to hear that his poor Mother had been misrepresented by some Persons, who had reported, that she us’d no Endeavours to save his Life; for he was fully satisfied she did that to her utmost.

4. Richard Price, condemn’d likewise for that Fact. He said, he was 20 Years of age, born at Llangdavery in Caermarthenshire in Wales, where having serv’d his Time with a Taylor , he came up to London, and here wrought Journey-work , and never engag’d in any ill thing before this hapned; adding, That accidentally passing by that Place where the Tumult was, he unhappily fell in among ‘em, not considering the Unlawfulness and ill Consequence of such a Fact. He was very ignorant, and could not so much as read, which was a great disadvantage to him under these his melancholy Circumstances. I endeavour’d to make him sensible of his great Offence, and to beg Pardon for it, and all other his Sins; which he accordingly did with Tears.

5. John Love, condemn’d for being concern’d with the ‘forementioned Rioters. He said, he was about 16 years of age, born in White-Fryers, London: That he had learnt to make Buttons , but his chief Employment was, the helping of Bargemen and Lightermen to unlade their Boats . He further said, That he never was (nor ever deserv’d to be) brought before Justice till this Riot happen’d, in which he unfortunately involv’d himself, without considering what he then did, or what might follow thereupon. I found him a very ignorant Person, who could not read at all, and hardly knew any thing of Religion; and he was, for some Days past, so very sick and weak, that I was forced to attend him in the Condemn’d Hold; so all I could do there was, to pray for him.

At the Place of their Execution, whither they were this Day carried in two Carts from Newgate, I gave them my last Attendance, exhorting them still more and more to repent of this and all other their Sins. I pray’d and sung some Penitential Psalms with them, and made them rehearse the Apostles Creed. They desir’d, that all young Men and others would take Warning by them, and learn Wisdom from their Folly. They also desir’d the Standers-by to pray for their departing Souls: They begg’d Pardon of GOD and of the KING, and of all they had offended; and declar’d, That they dy’d in Charity with all Men; wishing that none would be so unhappy as to follow them in this, or any other Evil Course, that might bring them to an Untimely End. After this I pray’d with ‘em again, That God would grant ‘em the Pardon of their Sins, and the Salvation of their Souls; that they might have a happy Passage out of this miserable Life, and be admitted into a State of Everlasting Bliss and Glory. Then I withdrew from them, and left ‘em to their private Devotions, for which they had some Time allotted them: When that was expir’d, the Cart drew away, and they were launch’d into Eternity, they all the while praying to GOD to have Mercy on them, and receive their Souls.

This sharp show of resolve evidently did do the trick, as Mug House disturbances came to an abrupt end thereafter.

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1653: Six beheaded and one hanged for the Swiss Peasant War

3 comments July 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1653, seven ringleaders of Switzerland’s greatest peasant revolt were executed in Basel.


Six were decapitated (like the foreground) and one hanged (find the triangular gallows in the background).

Not widely known now outside of Switzerland, the peasant war of 1653 shook the Swiss city-states so profoundly that it was described in its own time as a revolution.

Like most peasant rebellions, it was triggered by the economy; a recovery of peacable harvests after the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 had staggered Swiss peasants who had grown accustomed to selling their produce abroad at a premium. When they were pressed even harder by taxes and currency devaluations inflicted by the city-states with their own budget problems, they found their breaking-point.

In February 1653, peasants of the Entlebuch Valley gathered in an illegal assembly and decided to stop tax payments to Lucern until they got some concessions.

To the chagrin of urban grandees, Entlebuch’s refusal soon began garnering sympathetic imitations among its neighbors and peasant resistance spread across the whole north, spanning the put-upon rural dominions of four cities: Lucern, Bern, Basel, and Solothurn.


(cc) image by Lupo.

Tense negotiations continued into April, but Lucern’s concessions were undone by its refusal to offer a blanket amnesty that would also cover the rebellion’s leaders. That May, with the cities still powerless to control affairs, the disaffected peasants throughout the region united in theLeague of Huttwil — named for the little town where they met. In this cross-confessional compact, Catholic and Protestant peasants made common purpose and declared themselves a sovereignty apart from the cantons. Then, the army they had raised from their number marched on both Lucern and Bern simultaneously, the threatened sieges respectively led by Christian Schybi and Niklaus Leuenberger. Bern was so unprepared for this turn of events that it had to capitulate to the peasantry’s demands, which arrangement led Lucern also to conclude a truce.

In so doing the cities had to capitulate to the peasantry’s economic demands. Had this state of affairs somehow stood, it would have forced a rewrite in the relationship between city and country throughout the Swiss confederation.

And for just that reason, the affected cities as well as nearby Zurich were raising armies to undo the nascent revolution. Within days, troops from Zurich had dealt the peasant force a crushing defeat at the Battle of Wohlenschwil, then united with a Bernese column to conclusively shatter the rebellion. Before June was out, all of Entlebuch Valley stood pacified and the rebellion’s leaders lay in dungeons. To the peasantry’s economic burdens was added a bitter levy to fund the war that had smashed them.

Several dozen peasants were executed in the ensuing weeks, most aggressively by the canton of Bern — whence derives today’s illustration.

Notwithstandng such vengeance, The Swiss were wise enough to wield the carrot along with the stick. Even as the cities re-established their political control of the countryside, they took care in the coming years to use a lighter touch in governing the peasantry for fear of stoking new disturbances; arguably, the memory and the threat of the peasant war might have checked the potential development of absolutism in Switzerland.

How’s your German? Two academic books on the Swiss Peasant War

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1650: James Graham. Earl of Montrose

Add comment May 21st, 2016 Headsman

On this day in 1650, James Graham, Earl of Montrose, was hanged in Edinburgh.

The tragic “Great Montrose” was renowned for his tactical genius on the battlefield during the civil wars that cost King Charles I both crown and head. Although Montrose would die as a royalist he first entered the lists in the 1630s’ Bishops’ War as part of the Covenanter army resisting the king’s bid to impose top-down religious governance on Scotland.

But Montrose was the moderate and post-Bisops War found himself a leading exponent of the pro-reconciliation faction, bitterly opposed by the chief of the Campbell clan, the Marquess of Argyll.

These two became the opposing poles for the ensuing civil war in Scotland, at once a local clan war and the vortex of a border-hopping conflict that sucked in Ireland and England too. Although Montrose, now King Charles’s lieutenant-general in Scotland, could kick tail in battle his faction was divided and ultimately outnumbered by the Covenanters. Montrose had to flee Scotland for exile in 1646.

The execution of Charles I opened the door for Montrose’s own untimely end, in one of those classic affairs of double-dealing. The exiled Charles II, having now inherited the claim, named Montrose his lieutenant in Scotland and dispatched his family’s longtime paladin back to native soil to try to raise an army. But even as he did so, he was negotiating with Argyll’s Covenanters, who saw a chance to make good their political and religious objectives by playing kingmaker with their former enemy.

So when Montrose landed in 1650, he found little support and was overwhelmed at the Battle of Carbisdale. After several days’ wandering he sought refuge with a former friend who he did not realize was now also on the government’s side, and was promptly arrested and given over to his enemies for execution and for posthumous indignities: his head was mounted on a pike atop Edinburgh’s Tolbooth, and his four limbs nailed to the gates of Stirling, Glasgow, Perth and Aberdeen.

After the end of Cromwell‘s Protectorate, and the actual restoration of Charles II, these scattered remains were gathered up and interred with reverence at St. Giles Cathedral. The present-day Dukes of Montrose are his direct descendants.

James Graham, Earl of Montrose and his execution have the still more considerable honor of a verse tribute by legendary dreadful poet William McGonagall. (Montrose himself was known to try his hand at poetry, too.)

The Execution of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose
A Historical Poem

‘Twas in the year of 1650, and on the twenty-first of May,
The city of Edinburgh was put into a state of dismay
By the noise of drums and trumpets, which on the air arose,
That the great sound attracted the notice of Montrose.

Who enquired at the Captain of the guard the cause of it,
Then the officer told him, as he thought most fit,
That the Parliament dreading an attempt might be made to rescue him,
The soldiers were called out to arms, and that had made the din.

Do I, said Montrose, continue such a terror still?
Now when these good men are about my blood to spill,
But let them look to themselves, for after I am dead,
Their wicked consciences will be in continual dread.

After partaking of a hearty breakfast, he commenced his toilet,
Which, in his greatest trouble, he seldom did forget.
And while in the act of combing his hair,
He was visited by the Clerk Register, who made him stare,

When he told him he shouldn’t be so particular with his head,
For in a few hours he would be dead;
But Montrose replied, While my head is my own I’ll dress it at my ease,
And to-morrow, when it becomes yours, treat it as you please.

He was waited upon by the Magistrates of the city,
But, alas! for him they had no pity.
He was habited in a superb cloak, ornamented with gold and silver lace;
And before the hour of execution an immense assemblage of people were round the place.

From the prison, bareheaded, in a cart, they conveyed him along the Watergate
To the place of execution on the High Street, where about thirty thousand people did wait,
Some crying and sighing, a most pitiful sight to see,
All waiting patiently to see the executioner hang Montrose, a man of high degree.

Around the place of execution, all of them were deeply affected,
But Montrose, the noble hero, seemed not the least dejected;
And when on the scaffold he had, says his biographer Wishart,
Such a grand air and majesty, which made the people start.

As the fatal hour was approaching when he had to bid the world adieu,
He told the executioner to make haste and get quickly through,
But the executioner smiled grimly, but spoke not a word,
Then he tied the Book of Montrose’s Wars round his neck with a cord.

Then he told the executioner his foes would remember him hereafter,
And he was as well pleased as if his Majesty had made him Knight of the Garter;
Then he asked to be allowed to cover his head,
But he was denied permission, yet he felt no dread.

He then asked leave to keep on his cloak,
But was also denied, which was a most grievous stroke;
Then he told the Magistrates, if they could invent any more tortures for him,
He would endure them all for the cause he suffered, and think it no sin.

On arriving at the top of the ladder with great firmness,
His heroic appearance greatly did the bystanders impress,
Then Montrose asked the executioner how long his body would be suspended,
Three hours was the answer, but Montrose was not the least offended.

Then he presented the executioner with three or four pieces of gold,
Whom he freely forgave, to his honour be it told,
And told him to throw him off as soon as he uplifted his hands,
While the executioner watched the fatal signal, and in amazement stands.

And on the noble patriot raising his hands, the executioner began to cry,
Then quickly he pulled the rope down from the gibbet on high,
And around Montrose’s neck he fixed the rope very gently,
And in an instant the great Montrose was launched into eternity.

Then the spectators expressed their disapprobation by general groan,
And they all dispersed quietly, and wended their way home
And his bitterest enemies that saw his death that day,
Their hearts were filled with sorrow and dismay.

Thus died, at the age of thirty-eight, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose,
Who was brought to a premature grave by his bitter foes;
A commander who had acquired great military glory
In a short space of time, which cannot be equalled in story.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1619: Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, laandsadvocaat

Add comment May 13th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1619, Dutch stadtholder Maurice of Orange beheaded his political and religious rival, jurist Johan van Oldenbarnevelt.

Both men had in their day been instrumental to winning the independence (de facto, if not yet de jure) that the Low Countries were already enjoying: laandsadvocaat van Oldenbarnevelt as the commanding political personality holding together the potentially fractious provinces in the 1580s and 1590s; stadtholder Maurice as the great general* of those provinces, whose sword-arm in the 1590s and 1600s more or less staked out the borders of the present-day Netherlands.

Thanks to their good offices, the once-desperate Dutch Revolt had triumphed in all but name, and in the 1610s paused to savor the fruits of victory during the Twelve Years’ Truce.**

Increasingly after 1600, the two developed a rivalry that was both personal, and political, and religious — for in their prominence they also became the chief exponents of the neighborhood schism, van Oldenbarnevelt championing the Remonstrants or Arminians (they remonstrated against some Calvinist doctrines) and Maurice upholding the orthodox Counter-Remonstrants or Gomarist side. The conflict was no joke; the States of Holland at van Oldenbarnevelt’s urging went so far as to hire its own mercenary army, knowing that it could not trust the national army commanded by the Counter-Remonstrant William. William secured the support of the States-General to forcibly disband this rival militia in July 1618† — and from that point until his death in 1625, William was the strongman in the Low Countries.

And van Oldenbarnevelt, well — he got the kangaroo court. See?


Detail view (click for the full image) of Satire on the trial of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, by Cornelis Saftleven (1663). Saftleven liked painting animals.

Tried by a special (dubiously legal) court comprised of enemies, the grizzled pol was condemned to death as a traitor. On May 13, the day he went to the block at the Binnenhof in The Hague, his home province the States of Holland saluted him as “a man of great business, activity, memory and wisdom — yes, extra-ordinary in every respect.”

And it added a passage from Corinthians:

Die staet siet toe dat hij niet en valle

He who stands, let him take care that he does not fall


Detail view (click for the full image) of a 17th century engraving of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt’s beheading.

Van Oldenbarnevelt’s son Reinier, lord of Groeneveld was beheaded in 1623 for conspiring to assassinate Maurice in revenge for his father’s execution.

* Maurice of Orange was recognized in his time as perhaps Europe’s greatest and most innovative commander. His introduction of infantry volley fire and highly disciplined drill regimens revolutionized the battlefield — and made the Dutch very difficult for their Spanish masters to handle.

The Indian Ocean island-nation Mauritius, discovered by Dutch explorers in 1598, was named for him.

** Posterity has the luxury of hindsight knowledge that although war would resume for the Low Countries in 1621, the peace of Westphalia would secure an independent Netherlands. However, already during the Twelve Years’ Truce the place was acting as an independent country, and some other states formally recognized it as such.

† One of van Oldenbarnevelt’s supporters was international law pioneer Hugo Grotius. Grotius was clapped in prison with van Oldenbarnevelt’s fall in 1618; he famously escaped this dungeon in 1621 by hiding in a chest of books and lived out his scribbling days in France.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lawyers,Netherlands,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason

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1868: Eleven samurai, for the Sakai Incident

Add comment March 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1868,* eleven samurai committed seppuku before the French consul in Japan spared their nine comrades.

The affair was stunning punishment for what’s known as the Sakai Incident — an offense eight days prior that occurred during Japan’s Boshin War, a last rearguard battle of loyalists to the (now officially ended) Tokugawa Shogunate against the rising imperial party of the Meiji Restoration.

What’s noteworthy for our purposes in this period is that the Meiji espoused an anti-foreigner policy — one that was not the less intently felt by the Meiji base for being entirely insincere on the part of elites.

It was in this tense context that a boat full of French sailors from the corvette Dupleix called on March 8 at Sakai — a port city whose shogunate forces had routed. It had been recently occupied by imperial troops.

Japan had only been opened to the west 15 years before, and access was still quite restricted; there might have been a misunderstanding between the French sailors and Sakai’s Tosa clan occupiers over whether this city was open at all. There was definitely a misunderstanding once the tourists ran into samurai on shore, and before you know it high words and suspicious glares turned into a street skirmish that left eleven Frenchmen dead.


Illustration from Le Monde Diplomatique (1868)

This Sakai Incident (English Wikipedia entry | French) incensed western powers, and not only the French: the British, Dutch, Prussians, Italians, and Americans all pulled down their embassy colors in solidarity pending adequate satisfaction for the French. Japan at this moment was not at all in a position to take a stand against foreign gunships over this dust-up, and it met the conditions — which consisted of some personal groveling by a state minister, the payment of a 150,000-piastres indemnity, and the execution of the officers and soldiers involed. The punishment would be self-administered by seppuku at a Sakai shrine. This set the scene for a powerful climax, in which the soldiers one by one tore out their own guts in a ceremony that must have played as defiance no less than submission.

Quoting the Moniteur, the London Morning Post of May 19, 1868 (news was slow in those days) describes the operatic punishment.

On the 15th [a Japanese] high functionary brought a written reply from his Government conceding all the satisfaction required. On the following day Captain du Petit-Thouars, commander of the Dupleix, landed at Sakai to witness the execution of two officers, a subaltern, and 17 Japanese soldiers, condemned to death as the principal authors of the aggression. The two chiefs were the first put to death, after which nine others perished successively. Captain du Petit-Thouars then seeing that the Japanese Government was decided on carrying out its engagements to the end, and ceding to a feeling of humanity, stayed the execution, declaring that he considered the reparation sufficient, and that he proposed to ask the Minister of France to intercede for a commutation of punishment in favour of the other condemned.

The last nine beneficiaries of the captain’s clemency were sent into internal exile instead.

The Japanese writer Mori Ogai wrote a short story about this affair, Sakai Jiken. (See Suicidal Honor: General Nogi and the Writings of Mori ?gai and Natsume Soseki.)

* There are some citations that give the date as the 23rd. The original reporting I have located unambiguously asserts that the execution occurred on the 16th.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Japan,Mass Executions,Murder,Political Expedience,Put to the Sword,Soldiers

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1554: Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk

Add comment February 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1554, Tudor nobleman Henry Grey — who for nine days had been the father of the queen — was beheaded at Queen Mary’s command.

He was one of the inveterate schemers who grappled to secure his family’s foot upon the throne during the uncertain years when Edward VI succeeded Henry VIII. Frail and underaged, Edward’s foreseeable early death without issue created a situation where the cream of the aristocracy could plausibly dream themselves the namesakes of the next great English dynasty. Heck, the late royal monster was himself just the son of the guy who had taken the throne in battle by offing the previous dynasty, an event still knocking about in a few living, wizened memories.

So for the late 1540s into the early 1550s the court’s nigh-incestuous parlor game of consanguinary bedroom alliances was played for the highest stakes.

Queens were wild at this table. Henry VIII’s will had queued up the succession after Edward with his two half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, followed next the three daughters of our man Henry Grey — because Henry Grey was married to King Henry’s niece. (That niece got cut out of the succession herself, however.) It was Henry’s fond hope, but not his kingdom’s destiny, that Edward would have grown up to sire a male heir who would render academic the ladies’ pecking-order.

But until that time the order mattered, and Henry Grey — let’s just call him Suffolk for simplicity’s sake even though he doesn’t obtain that title until 1551; he’d previously been Marquess of Dorset — started angling to jump the queue by cuddling up to King Edward.

There was a concoction with Thomas Seymour in the 1540s to orchestrate the marriage of Suffolk’s oldest daughter Jane Grey to Edward, where the Grey family could do the heir-siring directly; but, Edward’s other guardians discovered and scotched the plan. Yet even though young Edward didn’t put a ring on it, he so favored this family — and, a staunch Protestant, he so feared the potential succession of his Catholic sister Mary — that Edward when dying drew up his own will designating this same Jane Grey as his heir while declaring Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate.*

This was actually a coup not so much for Suffolk as for the realm’s de facto executive, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland — who had been the one to secure Jane Grey’s hand in marriage to Dudley’s own son, Lord Guildford Dudley. Both were teenagers: it was Northumberland who meant, through them, to rule. It need hardly be added that Suffolk was pleased enough in 1553 to tie his family’s fortunes to the big man on campus.

The plan’s speedy and total failure is well-known but that is not the same as saying it was foreordained. England had to this point never submitted to a female sovereign ruling in her own right; Mary, an on-again off-again bastard during the wild realignments of Tudor dynastic politics, was a Catholic who had remained nearly cloistered on her estates for the past several years, rarely seen at court. How much “legitimacy” would she command when the chips were down, against Northumberland who already had the apparatus of state in his hand? For the chance to make the Tudors just the overture to the glorious era of Dudley England it was surely worth a roll of the bones.

At any rate, Edward died on July 6, 1553 and Lady Jane Grey was duly pronounced queen on July 10 — the “Nine Days’ Queen” for the span of her reign before Mary supplanted her. On that very same July day a letter from Mary, gathering her adherents in Dudley-hostile East Anglia, arrived to the realm’s ruling clique demanding her own prompt recognition. Even as Northumberland marched out to fight for Jane’s rights (and his own) English grandees were going over to Mary’s claim in a landslide. That’s legitimacy for you: when you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

It was Dudley who caught the brunt of Mary’s wrath in this instance; the kids (quite rightly) were understood as his pawns and stored away in the Tower, heads firmly attached to shoulders but under a dangling treason conviction with which Mary could destroy them at her whim. That time would not be long in coming: as many monarchs have found before and since, a living rival claimant, however submissive, poses a grave danger just by breathing in and out.

Suffolk made sure of it — and doomed his daughter in the process.

Although he already owed his life and his liberty to Mary’s clemency to the onetime friends of Northumberland,** Suffolk wagered both desperately as one of the chief conspirators in Thomas Wyatt‘s January 1554 Protestant rising. This attempted restoration of Protestant power in the kingdom brought fighting to the walls of London and gave the shaken Queen Mary cause to close one security gap by having the Nine Days’ Queen beheaded on February 12, 1554 — while, to far fewer tears, avenging another more self-evident treason by executing Jane’s father as a rebel, too.

* King Edward didn’t have a beef with the Protestant Elizabeth; it’s just that as a legal matter she was either in or out on the line of succession by the same logic that Mary would be in or out. The point was to disinherit Mary.

** Suffolk’s wife, the one whom Henry VIII cut out of the female succession scramble, was friendly with Mary and got hubby released from the Tower post-Northumberland with a slap on the wrist.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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