1870: Sylvain Salnave, deposed Haitian president

Add comment January 15th, 2019 Headsman

Former Haitian president Sylvain Salnave was executed on this date in 1870.

Salnave was a general who in 1866 overthrew and replaced president Fabre Geffrard — an act which “profoundly unsettled the country.”

Salnave stood at the head of a triumvirate that promulgated a new and more democratic constitution in 1867, abolishing the president-for-life position that his predecessors had asserted — but the political rearrangement collapsed within months and saw the the president and legislature at loggerheads, and then at outright civil war as regional risings multiplied against Salnave.

The president held out under bombardment in the capital of Port-au-Prince until the last days of 1869, when he fled to what he believed was the safety in the Dominican Republic — only to be arrested by the Dominican general Jose Maria Cabral and handed back over to the now-triumphant Haitian rebels. They had Salnave tried on January 15 and immediately executed that same day.

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1964: Louis Drouin and Marcel Numa, Jeune Haiti

1 comment November 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1964, the last two members of a noble and doomed rebel movement against Papa Doc Duvalier were shot in a repellent carnival outside the Haitian capital’s national cemetery.

Thirteen young Haitian expatriates had alit from sea, Granma-like, early that August of 1964, weeks after Duvalier was “elected” President-for-Life with an entirely plausible 99.9% of the vote.*

Taking to heart Machiavelli‘s maxim that it is better for a sovereign to be feared than loved, Papa Doc buttressed his rule with a vicious paramilitary force. Some 30,000 Haitians are thought to have been murdered during his 14-year reign, and many thousands of others fled into exile.

The Cuban example — a few plucky armed men in the mountain somehow toppling the ancien regime — must have inspired the U.S. exiles of the so-called Jeune Haiti. Certainly they did not want for the guerrilla’s raw courage and hardiness. In some alternate history their tramping through southern Haiti’s hills under the barrage of Hurricane Cleo is the stuff schoolchildren recite.

But in our world the rising Jeune Haiti hoped to spark did not materialize. Port-au-Prince brandished horrific reprisals against the rebels’ non-combatant family members in the city of Jeremie, and the men themselves were simply picked off in ones and twos in the bush. The last Jeune Haiti members still at liberty were killed in late October, leaving only the two whom the government had managed to capture. Papa Doc had evil plans for Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin.**

On November 12, a Thursday, government offices shuttered for the grotesque holiday, and schools were ordered to bring their pupils to this special lesson of the dictatorship. “No force will stop the invincible march of the Duvalierist revolution,” read a leaflet distributed at the execution. “It carries the strength of a torrent.” (Source)

Under the eyes of this curious throng and the whirr of cameras, Numa and Drouin were lashed to pine poles by the Tonton Macoutes. Un-blindfolded, they received the whispered last rites of a Catholic priest, and then were shot dead by a firing detail.

When the men’s bodies slide down the poles, Numa’s arms end up slightly above his shoulders and Drouin’s below his. Their heads return to an upright position above their kneeling bodies, until a soldier in camouflage walks over and delivers the final coup de grace, after which their heads slump forward and their bodies slide further toward the bottom of the pole. Blood spills out of Numa’s mouth. Drouin’s glasses fall to the ground, pieces of blood and brain matter clouding the cracked lenses.

The next day, Le Matin, the country’s national newspaper, described the stunned-looking crowd as “feverish, communicating in a mutual patriotic exaltation to curse adventurism and brigandage.”

“The government pamphlets circulating in Port-au-Prince last week left little to the imagination,” reported the November 27, 1964, edition of the American newsweekly Time. “‘Dr. Francois Duvalier will fulfill his sacrosanct mission. He has crushed and will always crush the attempts of the opposition. Think well, renegades. Here is the fate awaiting you and your kind.'”

* Actually a bit of a setback for Duvalier after winning every single vote (finaly tally of 1,320,748 to 0) in his 1961 “re-election”.

** Drouin, who was wounded in a battle and captured for that reason, openly lamented at his execution his failure to commit suicide.

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1908: Massillon Coicou and the Firminists

Add comment March 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1908, the octogenarian Haitian president Pierre Nord Alexis had a number of political opponents arrested and, that very night, summarily executed.

Nord Alexis, a career officer risen to the post of Minister of War in a provisional 1902 government* when the previous president Tiresias Simon Sam* resigned to avert a constitutional crisis.

That was a strange affair: a misreading of the constitution had Sam set to rule until 1903, until someone caught the mistake. Sam’s diligently on-time resignation proved not the Rule of Law victory he might have hoped when the resulting power vacuum brought civil war.

The contest for power boiled down to Nord Alexis on one side, and the scholar and diplomat Joseph Auguste Antenor Firmin on the other.**

As one can see, Nord Alexis won it — but the conflict flared again in 1908, with the exiled Fermin making an attempt to return to Haiti. Nord Alexis’s response was ruthless and, for now, effective. (Nord Alexis was ousted later in 1908, however.)

Massillon Coicou

Prominent among the victims of the crackdown this date was the novelist and poet Massillon Coicou (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed French).

Coicou had been in the diplomatic service in France with Firmin, where the two forged a close affinity, and Coicou became a toast of literary circles.

Coicou and his two brothers Horace and Pierre-Louis, staunch Firminists all, were shot together with a several others at the walls of the Port-au-Prince cemetery on the night of March 14-15. (The exact number of others seems a little hard to come by; there are different counts from around 10-15 ranging up to 27+ total people executed in this incident, although the larger count may encompass executions other than those at the cemetery.)

For Francophones, several of Coicou’s poems can be perused via links at the bottom of this biographical page.

* Sam’s cousin Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam held that same office for a brief and bloody interval in 1915.

** Firmin is noted for his 1885 book De l’égalité des races humaines, which mounted a strong defense for the fundamental equality of the races, and also predicted a black U.S. president.

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1864: Bizoton Affair executions

Add comment February 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1864, a bustling market Saturday in Port-au-Prince, Haiti was enlivened with the public executions of eight Haitians for cannibalistic murder.

It was perhaps the signal event in a long-running campaign against vodou (voodoo, vaudoux) in whose service the murder was supposedly committed. The charge sheet had it that a man intent on an occult rite to propitiate the spirit world had slaughtered his own young niece and with several friends and family devoured her remains.

It made for some great copy.

“The eye of the law has penetrated into the midst of the bloody mysteries of this religious cannibalism, against which all the teachings of Catholicism have remained powerless,” breathed the world press in salacious revelry.


Sketch of the Bizoton Affair accused from Harper’s Weekly.

Within Haiti and without, vodou itself stood in the dock alongside its adherents. This was quite likely the very point of the trial.

The popular syncretic religion, heavily derived from Haitian slaves’ African roots, represented to Haitian elites and European observers alike all that was most barbarous about the one place that had run white slavers off. Just a few years ago as I write this, the U.S. televagelist Pat Robertson claimed that Haiti had come by its liberty due to a long-ago pact with the devil. That “pact” was a secret vodou ceremony launching the rebellion that became the Haitian Revolution.

Vodou persisted throughout the 19th century — it still persists today — among Haiti’s underclasses. Though frequently persecuted, vodou enjoyed the support and personal devotion of Emperor Faustin Soulouque, a former slave who ruled Haiti in the 1850s. When Soulouque was overthrown by Fabre Geffrard in a coup backed by Haiti’s elites, dissociating from vodou was one of his principal tasks.

As the history blogger Mike Dash explains in a detailed exploration of the case’s background, the deeply Catholic Geffrard had come to an arrangement with the Vatican that

committed the president to making Catholicism Haiti’s state religion — and the executions of February 1864, which so clearly demonstrated Christian “orthodoxy,” took place just weeks before the priests of the first mission to the country arrived from Rome. The trial was followed up, moreover, by a redrafting of Haiti’s Code Pénal, which increased the fines levied for “sorcery” sevenfold and added that “all dances and other practices that … maintain the spirit of fetishism and superstition in the population will be considered spells and punished with the same penalties.”

The original records of the trial are long lost, meaning the surviving accounts are typically the very partisan ones already convinced that pagan vodou cannibalism was rampant in Haiti. The British charge d’affaires Spenser St. John* has one of the best-known and most influential from his 1887 memoir of Haiti. (St. John attended the trial personally with other European dignitaries.)

St. John considered the case self-evident, and dwelt on its lurid revelations of the cannibalism scene — the flaying of little Claircine’s body, the palm of the hand savored by one cannibal as the choicest morsel. Cannibal testimony was St. John’s own choice morsel; in his view, Haitians extremely “sensitive to foreign public opinion” obstinately threw up a collective wall of silence on a practice that “every foreigner in Hayti” just knew was everywhere around him. But even when St. John published, after another 20-odd years past the Bizoton trial to gather evidence of anthropophagism, all that he managed to produce were two highly dubious second-hand accounts of white men allegedly sneaking into vodou ceremonies under cover of blackface and reporting the sacrifice of children. In the hands of Victorian writers prone to still further embroidery these few sketchy dispatches — and the notorious Bizoton case — would help to cement vodou’s sinister reputation.

St. John’s American counterpart was less impressed with the show trial, its moral panic scenario, and the thrashings administered to the accused to force their confessions.

It was not a fair trial; the evidence was extracted by torture. There was a report in circulation. It caused great excitement. Government took it up, and was determined to convict, because it was a seeming stain on their race. The verdict was forced.

Per St. John, the execution itself was badly botched. “The prisoners, tied in pairs” were “fired [at] with such inaccuracy” by their respective shooting teams “that only six fell wounded on the first discharge.” It took half an hour and much reloading to complete the executions, “and the incidents were so painful, that the horror at the prisoners’ crimes was almost turned into pity at witnessing their unnecessary sufferings.”

* As a consular official in a previous post on the opposite side of the globe, St. John accompanied two of the earliest ascents of Mount Kinabalu in Borneo; as a consequence, one of that mountain’s peaks bears his name.

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1915: 167 Haitian political prisoners

7 comments July 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1915, Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam had his predecessor* Oreste Zamor, and 160 or so of his closest proximity, executed in Port-au-Prince.

Within hours, Sam himself was dead at the hands of an outraged mob — and Haiti on its way to 19 years of American military occupation.

Haiti in the 1910s was a dangerous place to aspire to political authority; Sam was the 7th different man to hold the presidency since 1911. Like many others, he gained it by force, and held it tenuously against rivals who planned to do likewise.

The hecatomb that did in Sam, who had been head of state for less than five months, was seemingly intended to shore himself up in the face of an advance upon Port-au-Prince by one Rosalvo Bobo — or else just done for the principle of the thing. Either way, it left a mess.

A few minutes after 4 a.m., Charles Oscar Etienne, the chief military officer of the Haitian government and a close friend of the President, hurried to the national prison, where ensued the bloody massacre of some 167 prisoners who were held only as political suspects without being even charged with any crime. Among the victims were members of the most prominent families of Haiti …

Stephen Alexis, one of the political prisoners who escaped death in the massacre, has testified before the claims commission that on the morning of the twenty-eighth [sic] of July he has awakened by the prisoner who shared his cell and told that there was firing in town. He heard shots being fired with increasing intensity, and at twenty minutes past four the sound of voices in the conciergerie and the order, “To arms, sound the bugle, prepare for action; fifteen men, forward march.” As the firing squad reached the first cell, Alexis heard Chocotte, the adjutant of the prison, say, “Fire close to the ground; a bullet in the head for each man,” and when the second cell was reached a loud voice cried, “Every one of the political prisoners must die. The arrondissement’s orders are that not one be left standing” …

Except for the very few who escaped by a miracle, the political prisoners were all slaughtered like cattle, their bodies slashed and horribly mutilated, limbs hacked off, the skulls of some of the corpses smashed in, and the bodies of others disembowelled …

The report of the claims commission says: “The barbarous act perpetrated in the prison in Port-au-Prince is all the more inexplicable in that it had no act of war for excuse. There had been no revolt in the interior of the prison. The prisoners were locked into their cells. The prison had not been attacked. The bureau of the arrondissement, which adjoined the prison, had not had to repulse any offensive on the part of the revolutionists. It was with appalling cold-bloodedness that Haitian officers, in whom military authority had been vested, to whom the care and security of the prisoners had been entrusted, perpetrated, with the assistance of their subordinates, the wholesale slaughter of July 27.”

An incensed mob invaded the French embassy (where Sam had taken refuge) and literally tore apart the president.

On July 28, marines from the American ship USS Washington landed in Port-au-Prince to do the usual restore-peace-and-freedom thing. (Greeted as liberators? Surprisingly, “Haitians Dislike[d] Landing of Marines”.)

As a happy side effect, the American occupation froze out French and German commercial interests who had made Haitian inroads, secured debt repayment from the bankrupt country, and allowed Washington to reorder its neighbor to its liking.

From 1915 to 1929 U.S. military tribunals made rulings on political cases. A treaty that provided for American control of customs and construction of roads, as well as supervision of schools and the constabulary, was approved by the Haitian legislature under threat that American troops would remain in the country. American officials dissolved the Haitian legislature when it refused to approve a new American-sponsored constitution, which was then ratified by a referendum supervised by the U.S. military.**

* Zamor was not Sam’s immediate predecessor; rather, Sam had deposed the man who had deposed Zamor.

** Filed under “everything old is new again,” here‘s the American chattering class circa 1921 making a familiar-sounding case for giving the occupation a few more Friedman units on behalf of the Haitian

people, all of whom, less the native ruling class, a small group, recognize the benefits of the American occupation and are grateful for the peace and security they now enjoy … The United States, [Admiral Knapp] says, has only made a start for the good of Haiti, and five years of healing occupation would be lost if the Americans withdrew.

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