1797: David McLane, an American traitor in Quebec

Add comment July 21st, 2015 Headsman

On only one occasion has the sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering been executed on the soil of the (eventual) United States.

But on this date in 1797, that terrible death was visited on American citizen David McLane in Quebec for attempting to topple British authority in that Canadian province.

David McLane, a Rhode Island merchant, was arrested in the suburbs of Quebec City in May of 1797 and accused of conniving with French diplomats to recover their former colony by dint of an invasion of raftborne pikemen across the St. Lawrence to support a planned French landing. This tome claims it to be Quebec’s first treason trial under British rule; the Attorney General prosecuting it thought it the first in the North American colonies since Nicholas Bayard‘s in 1701. (Cobbett’s State Trials has the entire trial transcript.)

The Quebecois spectators crowded the courts in dread of hearing the ancient English punishment pronounced. They were not disappointed.

Writing many decades later about an execution he had witnessed as a 10-year-old boy, Philippe Aubert de Gaspe recollected its grisly particulars — and the surprising (to the audience) fact that McLane was hanged to death before the emasculating-and-disembowelling portions of the sentence were visited on him.*

The government having little confidence in the loyalty which the French Canadians had proved during the war of 1775, wished to strike terror into the people, by the preparations for the execution. From the early morning was heard the noise of the pieces of aitillery that were being dragged to the place of execution outside St. John’s gate; and strong detachments of armed soldiers paraded the streets. It was a parody on the execution of the unfortunate Louis 16th and all to no purpose.

I saw McLane conducted to the place of execution, he was seated with his back to the horse on a wood-sleigh whose runners grated on the bare ground and stones. An axe and a block were on the front part of the conveyance. He looked at the spectators in a calm, confident manner, but without the least effrontery. He Was a tall and remarkably handsome man. I heard some women of the lower class exclaim, whilst deploring his sad fate:

Ah if it were only as in old times, that handsome man would not have to die! There would be plenty of girls who would be ready to marry him in order to save his life!

And even several days after the execution, I heard the same thing repeated.

This belief then universal among the lower class must, I suppose, have arisen from the fact that many French prisoners, condemned to the stake by the savages, had owed their lives to the Indian women who had then married them.

The sentence of McLane, however, was not executed in all its barbarity. I saw all with my own eyes, a big student named Boudrault, lifted me up from time to time in his arms, so that I might lose nothing of the horrible butchery. And Dr. Duvert was near us, he drew out his watch as soon as Ward, the hangman, threw down the ladder upon which McLane was stretched on his back, with the cord round his neck made fast to the beam of the gallows; thrown sideways by this abrupt movement the body struck the northern post of the gallows, and then remained stationary, with the exception of some slight oscillations.

“He is quite dead,” said. Dr. Duvert, when the hangman cut down the body at the end of about twenty-five minutes; “he is quite dead, and will not feel the indignities yet to be inflicted on him.” Every one was under the impression that the sentence would be executed in all its rigor, and that the disembowelled victim, still alive, would see his own entrails burnt but no; the poor unhappy man was really dead when Ward cut him open, took out his bowels and his heart which he burnt in a chafing dish, and cut off his head which he showed all bloody to the people.

The spectators who were nearest to the scaffold say that the hangman refused to proceed further with the execution after the hanging, alleging “that he was a hangman, but not a butcher,” and it was only after a good supply of guineas, that the sheriff succeeded in making him execute all the sentence, and that after each act of the fearful drama, his demands became more and more exorbitant. Certain it is that after that time Mr. Ward became quite a grand personage; never walking in the streets except with silk stockings, a three-cornered hat and a sword at his side. Two watches, one in his breeches pocket, and the other hanging from his neck by a silver chain, completed his toilet.

I cannot refrain, in parting from this doer of worthy deeds, from relating a fact which I have never been able to account for. When I arrived in Quebec in order to go to school, at about nine years of age, people seemed to regret a certain good hangman named Bob; he was a negro, whom every one praised. This Ethiopian ought to have inspired the same horror which is always felt towards men of his calling; but, on the contrary he visited at all the houses like the other citizens, enjoyed a name for unimpeachable honesty, ran errands, in fact was a universal favorite. As well as I can remember, there was something very touching in Bob’s history; he was a victim of circumstances, which compelled him to become a hangman in self-defence. He used to shed tears when he had to perform his terrible task. I do not know why my memory, generally so tenacious concerning all I saw and heard in my early childhood, fails me in the matter of explaining the reason of the universal sympathy extended to Bob.**

Now I return to McLane. Such a spectacle as I have described could not fail to make a great impression on a child of my age; hence it arises that I have thought a great deal about the fate of a man, whom many people looked upon as a victim to the politics of the day. I have tried to satisfy myself as to his greater or less guilt. I could say a great deal on this subject; but I will be silent. Suffice it to say, that if in these days a boasting Yankee were to proclaim to all comers, that with five hundred able men, armed with sticks hardened in the fire, it would be easy to take the town of Quebec, the young men would crowd round him to humor him and encourage him to talk, and then giving him lots of champagne to drink, would laugh heartily at him, without the government dreaming of having him hung, drawn and quartered.

It has been said that McLane was an emissary of the French government; I do not myself believe so; the French republic, at war with all the European powers, had too much work on its hands to concern itself about a little colony, containing some millions of acres of snow; to use an expression not very flattering to us.

The policy of our then rulers was crafty and hence cruel. Every where they thought they discovered emissaries of the French government. There were two Canadians banished from the country, their crime being that they had been to Martinique in, I believe, an American vessel, to transact some commercial business: they granted them the favour of allowing them to take with them their wives and children.

* Actual complete hung, drawn, quartered sentences were already passe in Great Britain.

** Colonial Quebec had several black executioners; the best-known was Martinican slave Mathieu Léveillé from 1733 to 1743. (There an interesting .pdf about Leveille and his world here.)

The identity of the affable “Bob” our narrator half-remembers is a bit of a mystery; he has been identified with George Burns, a black man who held the job in the early 1800s, but the timetable isn’t quite right relative to de Gaspe’s admittedly distant memories. (The diarist thinks Bob was the former executioner by the time concerned with our post.) Frank Mackey in Done with Slavery: The Black Fact in Montreal, 1760-1840 suggests we take the name at face value and identify this executioner as either or both of “Bob a Nigro man” jailed as a felon in 1781 (we don’t know that Bob a Nigro man became a hangman), or “Robert Lane the Hangman” who was charged with a crime in 1789 (we don’t know that Robert Lane the Hangman was African). Mackey suspects that these are one and the same man.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Businessmen,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Quebec,Spies,Treason

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1673: The effigy of Charles Alexis dit Dessessards

Add comment March 6th, 2013 Headsman

According to this registry of events in French Quebec before the English conquest, one Charles Alexis dit Dessessards was ordered broken on the wheel by Quebec’s high executioner on this date in 1673.

He had been convicted of murdering a fur-trapping buddy named Herme, and plundering his pelts.

In the terrifying words of the sentence, he was at 3 p.m. to have “arms and legs broken with four blows, then be strangled and thrown on a wheel to remain there until seven o’clock in the evening. His body will then be brought to the gallows, there to remain until entirely consumed” by the elements. On top of everything, he had a 200-livre fine to pay.

There was just one bit of good news for the murderer Charles Alexis dit Dessessards:

“Until the said Charles Alexis is apprehended, the aforesaid sentence will be executed upon his effigy.”

MARS

Le 6. — “Charles Alexis dit Dessessards, convaincu d avoir tué de guet-à-pens le nommé Herme, son camarade de voyage, et d’avoir volé ses hardes et pelleteries, sera conduit sur la grande place de cette vile (Québec), par l;exécuteur de la haute justice, un lundi, à trois heures après-midi, et là, sur un échafaud qui y sera dressé à cet effet, y aura les bras et les jambes rompues de quatre coups qu’il recevra vif; sera ensuite étranglé et jeté sur une roue pour y demeurer jusqu’à sept heures du soir. Son corps sera porté sur les fourches patibulaires pour y demeurer jusqu’à parfaite consommation. Condamne en outre à deux cents livres d’amende envers le Roy, à la restitution des choses volées et le surplus de ses biens confisqué. Et en attendant que le dit Charles Alexis soit appréhendé, sera exécuté en effigie aux fourches patibulaires, un lundi, à l’heure que dessus.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Executed in Effigy,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,History,Murder,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Public Executions,Quebec,Theft

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1608: Jean Duval, for plotting against Champlain

2 comments August 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On or about this date in 1608, explorer Samuel de Champlain judged guilty and had executed for plotting his own murder a Norman locksmith among his host of men establishing the Quebec settlement.

Though there were previous European forts on the site, Quebec City had been formally founded by Champlain just a month earlier, on July 3, and we here join the exposition of the public-domain Pioneers of France in the New World.

Hanging judge: Samuel de Champlain monument in Ottawa. Creative Commons image from dugspr.

They were pioneers of an advancing host, — advancing, it is true, with feeble and uncertain progress, — priests, soldiers, peasants, feudal scutcheons, royal insignia: not the Middle Age, but engendered of it by the stronger life of modern centralization, sharply stamped with a parental likeness, heir to parental weakness and parental force.

In a few weeks a pile of wooden buildings rose on the brink of the St. Lawrence, on or near the site of the market-place of the Lower Town of Quebec. The pencil of Champlain, always regardless of proportion and perspective, has preserved its likeness. A strong wooden wall, surmounted by a gallery loopholed for musketry, enclosed three buildings, containing quarters for himself and his men, together with a courtyard, from one side of which rose a tall dove-cot, like a belfry. A moat surrounded the whole, and two or three small cannon were planted on salient platforms towards the river. There was a large storehouse near at hand, and a part of the adjacent ground was laid out as a garden.

In this garden Champlain was one morning directing his laborers, when Tetu, his pilot, approached him with an anxious countenance, and muttered a request to speak with him in private. Champlain assenting, they withdrew to the neighboring woods, when the pilot disburdened himself of his secret. One Antoine Natel, a locksmith, smitten by conscience or fear, had revealed to him a conspiracy to murder his commander and deliver Quebec into the hands of the Basques and Spaniards then at Tadoussac. Another locksmith, named Duval, was author of the plot, and, with the aid of three accomplices, had befooled or frightened nearly all the company into taking part in it. Each was assured that he should make his fortune, and all were mutually pledged to poniard the first betrayer of the secret. The critical point of their enterprise was the killing of Champlain. Some were for strangling him, some for raising a false alarm in the night and shooting him as he came out from his quarters.

Having heard the pilot’s story, Champlain, remaining in the woods, desired his informant to find Antoine Natel, and bring him to the spot. Natel soon appeared, trembling with excitement and fear, and a close examination left no doubt of the truth of his statement. A small vessel, built by [Francois] Pontgrave at Tadoussac, had lately arrived, and orders were now given that it should anchor close at hand. On board was a young man in whom confidence could be placed. Champlain sent him two bottles of wine, with a direction to tell the four ringleaders that they had been given him by his Basque friends at Tadoussac, and to invite them to share the good cheer. They came aboard in the evening, and were seized and secured. “Voyla donc mes galants bien estonnez,” writes Champlain.

It was ten o’clock, and most of the men on shore were asleep. They were wakened suddenly, and told of the discovery of the plot and the arrest of the ringleaders. Pardon was then promised them, and they were dismissed again to their beds, greatly relieved; for they had lived in trepidation, each fearing the other. Duval’s body, swinging from a gibbet, gave wholesome warning to those he had seduced; and his head was displayed on a pike, from the highest roof of the buildings, food for birds and a lesson in sedition. His three accomplices were carried by Pontgrave to France, where they made their atonement in the galleys.

More about Champlain in this podcast, by the author of Champlain’s Dream: the Visionary Adventurer Who Made a New World in Canada.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Public Executions,Quebec,Treason,Uncertain Dates

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