1730: Sally Bassett, Bermuda slave

Add comment June 6th, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Perhaps on this day in 1730,* an elderly mulatto slave named Sarah or Sally Bassett was burned at the stake for attempted murder in the British Caribbean colony of Bermuda.

Sally was the property of Thomas Forster, as was her granddaughter, Beck. (Thomas Forster was the grandson of Josias Forster, who was governor of Bermuda from 1642 to 1643.) The Forster family lived in Sandys Parish.

Being so old, Sally wasn’t worth much: her value was appraised at one pound, four shillings and sixpence, or about $160 in modern U.S. currency. She also had the reputation of a troublemaker: in 1713, for example, she was whipped the length of Southampton Parish after being accused of threats, property damage and killing livestock.

On December 18, 1729, Sally allegedly gave two bags of poison, said to be “white toade”** and “manchineel root”, to her granddaughter, Beck, and told her to poison Thomas, his wife Sarah, and Nancey, another slave in the Forster household.

Beck slipped a dose into the master and mistress’s food, “where if her Mistress did but smell on’t twould poison her.” She put the rest of the poison in the kitchen door, where Nancey found it and “by only looking at it ye said. Nancey was poyson’d.” (Quotes are as cited in Slaves and Slaveholders in Bermuda, 1616-1782.)

Sally was not arrested and charged with the crime until June 2, nearly six months later. The victims were all still “sick and Lye in a very Languishing and dangerous Condition,” but Sarah Forster was at least well enough to drag herself out of her sickbed and testify against her slaves.

Beck was acquitted but Sally, “not having the fear of God before her Eyes, Butt being moved and seduced by ye Instigation of the Devil,” was convicted of petit treason for her attempt on her master and mistress’s lives.

Although she maintained her innocence, she was sentenced to death.

Barefoot, wearing only pants and a loose blouse, on the way to the place of execution Sally is said to have looked at the crowds rushing to see the show and quipped, “No use you hurrying folks, there’ll be no fun ’til I get there!” When she looked at the logs waiting to fuel the fire she supposedly said, “Ain’t they darlin’?”

She was burned alive on an unusually hot day, in public, either on an island off Southampton Parish or at Crow Lane at the east end of Hamilton Harbor. After her death a purple Bermudiana, Bermuda’s official flower, is reputed to have grown in the ashes. Days later, Bermuda enacted new laws to tighten control of the “many heinous and grievous Crimes as of that Secret and barbarous way of Murdering by Poison and other Murders … many times Committed by negroes and other Slaves and many times malitiously attempted by them.”

Sally’s death has passed on into legend and is considered part of Bermuda’s cultural heritage. Even today, nearly three hundred years later, a very hot day in Bermuda is sometimes called a Sally Basset day. In 2009, a ten-foot statue of Sally was dedicated at the Cabinet Office grounds in Hamilton, the first time in Bermuda that a slave was so memorialized.

* There are some shouts for June 21, 1730. If there is an authoritative primary document establishing the execution date with certainty, we have not been able to unearth it.

** The involvement of white toad, as historian Justin Pope observes, points — alarmingly for 18th century white Bermudians; intriguingly for posterity — to transatlantic black (in multiple senses) economies.

There were no indigenous white toads in Bermuda. However, as noted by the Bermudian historian Clarence Maxwell, poisonous toads were used in ceremonies among Akan speaking peoples in the tropical forests of West Africa and carried into the voudou traditions of San Domingue.

… If there really was a white toad used in the Bermuda poisoning conspiracy, then it was almost certainly brought to the colony by a slave mariner who believed he was arming a spiritual practitioner against her enemies. It was not something that Sarah Bassett could have asked for lightly. The person who purchased the item would have easily been able to discover, or at least suspect, its usage. Whoever carried it had to be trusted. The toad would have had to been captured or cultivated in the tropical forests of West Africa or northern South America, purchased in the slave markets of towns like Paramaraibo, on the Surinam River of Dutch Guyana, or in the markets of Elmina, on the southern coast of West Africa. We can only surmise the origins of the poisonous toad, yet its very presence on the island of Bermuda suggests a trade in poisons, betweens slave societies and through the hands of black mariners.

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1555: John Bradford, in the grace of God

Add comment July 1st, 2016 Headsman

The Protestant martyr John Bradford, burned for his faith on this date in 1555, is the popularly reputed source of the idiom “There but for the grace of God go I” — a sentiment admirably fashioned for reckoning the scaffold.

Those who know their own hearts, will be ready to acknowledge, that the seeds of the worst and most aggravated wickedness which have been practised by other men, lie hid therein, (Matt. xv. 19,) and are only restrained from bursting forth by God’s grace. The pious Martyr Bradford, when he saw a poor criminal led to execution, exclaimed, “there, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford”. He knew that the same evil principles were in his own heart which had brought the criminal to that shameful end. (Source)

It was certainly apt for Bradford himself, who got religion as a student in the 1540s, left off law studies for theology, and was ordained an Anglican deacon by Bishop Nicholas Ridley just in time for the wheel of fortune to spin back to Catholicism.

Clapped in prison within the first weeks of Queen Mary‘s attempted Catholic restoration, Bradford for a time shared lodgings in the Tower with both Ridley and Thomas Cranmer.

Alas, be he ever so pious, our holy martyr’s temporal legacy — his authorship of the aphorism attributed him — remains impossible to substantiate. The remark is not known to have appeared in print until well over two centuries after Bradford’s cold ashes melted into the Smithfield market, and it was thereafter attributed in the 19th century to a variety of other figures as well as to Bradford. (The rivals on no better authority than Bradford could claim, it must be said.) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, puts the remark in the mouth of 17th century divine Richard Baxter. (“I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.'” in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”)

But the mysterious provenance is only fitting, since that grace expired soon enough for John Bradford — as it does for all other flesh besides.

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1477: Gerolamo Olgiati, ducal assassin

Add comment January 2nd, 2015 Headsman


Dramatization of events in this post for the video game-derived film Assassin’s Creed: Lineage.

On this date in 1477, the assassins of the Duke of Milan suffered bitter death for fame eternal.

Famous for both his astute political machinations and for cruelty verging on the sadistic, Galeazzo Maria Sforza inherited leadership of Milan in at the age of 22 with the passing of his father, the great condottiero Francesco Sforza.

Francesco, the founder of the Sforza dynasty, had dynastically married himself to one Bianca Maria Visconti, a daughter of Milan’s previous ruling house.* But not all of the Visconti were at home with the Sforza.

A brash young man of that noble family, Carlo Visconti, as full of humanistic idealism as he was of bile for the licentious Duke’s alleged violation of his sister, joined a conspiracy also compassing two other gentlemen, Giovanni Andrea Lampugnani and Gerolamo Olgiati, to do Galeazzo Sforza to death.

At a St. Stephen’s Day service in a basilica christened to Stephen Lampugnani approached the prince feigning supplication for some audience, then produced a hidden blade and stabbed Galeazzo Sforza. Visconti and Olgiati then rushed on Sforza as well and before anyone realized what was happening the Duke, croaking some half-heard invocation of Mary, was falling dead on the church floor.


Illustration of Galeazzo Sforza’s murder on the title page of a 1476 Lament for the Duke decrying the assassination.

Pandemonium ensued, and in the ensuing helter-skelter, Sforza’s bodyguards fell on Lampugnani and killed him on the spot, while Olgiati managed to escape.**

“It now only remains for us to consider those dangers which follow after the execution of a plot,” Machiavelli mused in his “Of Conspiracies” typology of his Discourses. “These in fact resolve themselves into one, namely, that some should survive who will avenge the death of the murdered prince. The part of avenger is likely to be assumed by a son, a brother, or other kinsman of the deceased.”

Well, yeah.

The assassins of the Duke of Milan appear not to have burdened themselves overmuch with advance consideration of this danger, possibly indulging the dream of Brutus that by a dagger’s stroke alone they could restore the lost republic.

Needless to say, this beautiful hope vanished in the bloody revenge carnival that actually ensued the murder. Just a few days after the assassination, having taken refuge with a priest — his justly frightened family had closed its door on him and needed to make theatrical denunciations of his treason for their own safety — Olgiati was captured, put to a torturous interrogation, and publicly butchered. He had outlived the Duke by only a week, and his gashed carcass was hung up in sections around town by way of warning. The rotting heads of the conspirators remained impaled on lances on the city’s bell tower well into the 1490s.

According once again to Machiavelli, Olgiati “exhibited no less composure at his death than resolution in his previous conduct, for being stripped of his apparel, and in the hands of the executioner, who stood by with the sword unsheathed, ready to deprive him of life, he repeated the following words, in the Latin tongue, in which he was well versed

“‘Mors acerba, fama perpetua, stabit vetus memoria facti.'”

That is,

‘Death is bitter but fame is eternal, and the memory of the deed will endure.’

This attempt, quixotic and doomed, to depose an Italian tyrant by murdering him in church might well have formed the blueprint for a similar plot in Florence in 1478, the Pazzi conspiracy. That version was even less successful than its Milanese predecessor: at least Olgiati and company could say that they actually managed to kill their target before everything else hit the fan.

And republic or not, Sforza’s murder did shake up the polity. It put the Duchy of Milan in the hands of his wife, as the unsteady regent of a seven-year-old heir. A few years later, the late duke’s brother Ludovico displaced the regent and effectively bossed Milan until the French imprisoned him in 1500 during the Italian Wars.

While he had the run of the place, Ludovico Sforza commissioned of Leonardo da Vinci a monumental equestrian statue in memory of his brother that da Vinci never finished.† Quite strangely, the master’s notes were plumbed by a 20th century Pennsylvania airline pilot who dedicated the latter part of his life to actually casting “Leonardo’s Horse”.

* The names Visconti and Sforza are also associated with some of the earliest tarot decks and among the first to introduce to playing cards the use of trionfi, or “triumph” cards — that is, “trumps”. One can readily purchase present-day reprints of this historic pack.

** There is a positively maddening inconsistency, thus far irresolvable for this author, between accounts (here’s one example | and another) asserting that Carlo Visconti was slain by Sforza’s bodyguards directly after the assassination, and other accounts (like Gregory Lubkin’s 1994 history of Sforza’s Milan) that put Visconti on the scaffold beside Olgiati.

† Da Vinci’s ponderously slow progress on this high-profile project led Michelangelo to cattily impugn the rival artist’s bronze-casting aptitude.

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1942: José Abad Santos, Chief Justice

1 comment May 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1942, Jose Abad Santos was shot by the Japanese forces occupying the Philippines.

Brother of a famous socialist agitator who fought the Japanese from the bush, Jose Santos had an impeccably mainline elite career: university degrees in America, corporate lawyering gigs, followed by a stint in the Ministry of Justice and elevation to the high court.

In December 1941, Santos administered the oath of office to re-elected president Manuel Quezon even as the archipelago was being invaded by the Japanese. Quezon would evacuate, forming a government-in-exile.

Santos preferred to stay, and would spend his last remaining weeks as the Philippines’ Acting President.

“It is an honor to die for one’s country,” he would say to his son, after their capture. (The son survived.) “Not everybody has that chance.”


Santos (who’s also been on stamps) is pictured in the back left on the 1000-peso bill. (The woman at bottom front is another executed patriot, Josefa Llanes Escoda.)

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1961: Four for the assassination of Rafael Trujillo

2 comments November 18th, 2011 Headsman

Fifty years ago today, four men were shot for the ajusticiamiento — “execution” — of longtime Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo.

El Jefe had run his half of Hispaniola for more than thirty years, mirroring his contemporary Stalin for creepy personality cult — giant signs reading “God and Trujillo”; the capital city renamed after him — and dictatorial ruthlessness. Except, of course, that Trujillo was violently anti-communist. He’s the very man for whom U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull coined the memorable (and endlessly recyclable) quip, “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he is our son-of-a-bitch.” The guy could even get away with disappearing people from New York City.

The Mario Vargas Llosa novel Feast of the Goat revolves around the Trujillo assassination.

But by the last decade of Trujillo’s reign, Dominicans were increasingly tired of his being their son-of-a-bitch.

An abortive 1959 invasion by Dominican exiles was defeated militarily but helped spawn the dissident 14th of June movement — which naturally met with state repression, most emblematically the 1960 murder of the Mirabal sisters. World opinion turned against Trujillo, and even Washington, chastened by the recent Cuban Revolution, feared that their son-of-a-bitch was becoming counterproductive.

So the CIA had actually collaborated with the plot against him hatched among other Dominican elites, providing guns, money, and its all-important blessing. “From a purely practical standpoint, it will be best for us … if the Dominicans put an end to Trujillo before he leaves this island,” the spy agency’s local station chief reported to his superiors late in 1960,

If I were a Dominican, which thank heaven I am not, I would favor destroying Trujillo as being the first necessary step in the salvation of my country and I would regard this, in fact, as my Christian duty. If you recall Dracula, you will remember it was necessary to drive a stake through his heart to prevent a continuation of his crimes. I believe sudden death would be more humane than the solution of the Nuncio who once told me he thought he should pray that Trujillo would have a long and lingering illness.

On May 30, 1961 (Spanish link), Trujillo’s car was ambushed on Avenida George Washington outside “Ciudad Trujillo” by members of his own armed forces, and riddled with gunfire. When the bullets stopped flying, Rafael Trujillo’s body was a bloody heap on the asphalt. Today, the spot is marked by a memorial plaque — commemorating not Trujillo, but the men who killed him.

That did for the dictator, but the larger aspiration of regime change experienced a little blowback.

Rather than a new dawn of liberalism and human rights, Trujillo’s son Ramfis seized power and vengefully went after his father’s killers. The Dominican Republic became prey thereafter to that familiar cycle of military coups and unstable juntas, leading a few years later to outright American occupation.

But before Trujillo fils was pushed out of the job, he had six of the assassins hunted down: two were killed resisting capture, and the other four put to death by firing squad on this date — their remains allegedly thrown to the sharks (pdf) after their executions.

There’s a BBC interview from spring 2011 with a surviving co-conspirator, Gen. Antonio Imbert, here.

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1772: The Marquis de Sade and his servant, in effigy

2 comments September 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1772, straw effigies of the (in)famous French libertine Marquis de Sade and his servant Latour were executed in Marseilles for sodomy.

“It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.”

The aristocrat christened Donatien Alphonse François (even the name would become taboo for later use among his family) was at this point just 32 years old, but already cultivating the reputation that would make his name a byword for violent sex. He had in 1768 got the boot from Paris in view of the many courtesans who complained of his mistreatment.

Five more would do so for the incident that triggered his “execution”: de Sade took his baroque pleasure from these “very young girls” obtained by his manservant Latour (who also took part in the bisexual debauch). The whole scene was spiced with liberal dosage of the poison/aphrodisiac* spanish fly.

“Cruelty, very far from being a vice, is the first sentiment Nature injects in us all.”

One of these working girls seriously overindulged on the the love potion and spent the next week puking up “a black and fetid substance.” The authorities got interested, and de Sade and Latour bolted to Italy.**

Back in Marseilles, proceedings against the fugitives saw them sentenced for (non-fatal) poisoning and sodomy

for the said Sade to be decapitated … and the said Latour to be hanged by the neck and strangled … then the body of the said Sade and that of the said Latour to be burned and their ashes strewn to the wind.

This was duly carried out against straw effigies of de Sade and Latour on September 12, 1772.

“Lust is to the other passions what the nervous fluid is to life; it supports them all, lends strength to them all: ambition, cruelty, avarice, revenge, are all founded on lust.”

Although the Marquis eventually got this sentence overturned, it did in a sense mark an end to his life as it had been. Later in 1772, he’d be arrested in Italy; though he escaped and went back on the orgy circuit, most of the four-plus decades left to his life would be spent imprisoned or on the run — an ironic situation for the man Guillaume Apollinaire would celebrate as “the freest spirit that has yet existed.”

(Astonishingly, de Sade also avoided execution during the French Revolution: he was supposed to have been in the last batch guillotined before Robespierre fell; either through bureaucratic bungling or efficacious bribery, he avoided the tumbril.† De Sade also cheated death when a man whose daughter the marquis had outraged attempted to shoot him point-blank … only to have the gun misfire.)

“My manner of thinking, so you say, cannot be approved. Do you suppose I care? A poor fool indeed is he who adopts a manner of thinking for others!”

From this latter half of the infamous satyr’s life — when he often had time on his hands not available to dispose in more corporal pursuits — date the pornographic/philosophic writings that would stake de Sade’s disputed reputation for posterity.

* Alleged aphrodisiac.

** With another lover, his sister-in-law Anne … who was also a Benedictine canoness.

† It was on some firsthand authority, then, that de Sade took a dim view of capital punishment: “‘Til the infallibility of human judgements shall have been proved to me, I shall demand the abolition of the penalty of death.” This and other pithy de Sade quotes in this entry are from here.

Part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

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1645: William Laud, given to the devil

4 comments January 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1645, Archbishop William Laud was beheaded on Tower Hill for treason.


Portrait of William Laud by Anthony Van Dyck. For this image’s subsequent life in popular circulation (and its contribution to its subject’s beheading) see Mercurius Politicus.

This diminutive “martinet” made himself odious to the rising Puritan party through his rigorous (some would say narrow-minded) enforcement of so-called “High Church” dogma and decor. It was a time when believers were prepared to rend the fabric of the church over a literal fabric, the surplice worn by the clergy — among other innumerable points of doctrinal rectitude.

Laud’s run as Archbishop of Canterbury also happened to coincide with Charles I‘s 11-year personal rule, sans parliament. The overweening divine’s influence on secular as well as religious policy would do his sovereign no favors in the public mind.

Roughly enforcing an unpopular minority position, Laud got the woodblock blogosphere in a tizzy with heavy-handed stunts like having dissenters’ ears cut off.

That’s the sort of thing that’ll give a guy an image problem. The king’s fool, Archibald Armstrong, is supposed to have tweaked our high and mighty subject (and warned the king against his influence*) with the punny aphorism,

Give great praise to the Lord, and little laud to the devil.

Funny because it’s true.

So when Charles ran out of money and finally had to call parliament in 1640, that august representative of the nation had some business with Laud. Ironically — since the prelate was always sensitive about his height — it would involve shortening him.

Laud was impeached as early as December 1640 and soon tossed in the Tower, where his neck awaited the unfolding radicalization of the pent-up Puritans and the onset of armed hostilities in their contest with the obdurate king. (While his hands blessed the allies who preceded him to the block.)


Wenceslas Hollar’s etching of William Laud’s trial.

For more about Laud’s life and work, check out the detailed Britannica entry or this Google books freebie.

* If a warning, it apparently was not heard. This 19th-century publication of Armstrong’s jests cites a 1637 royal order to the effect that

the King’s Fool, for certain scandalous words of a high nature, spoken by him against the Lord Arch-Bishop of Canterbury his Grace … shall have his coat pulled over his head, and be discharged of the King’s service, and banished the Court.

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1864: Six of Mosby’s Rangers

4 comments September 23rd, 2009 Headsman

It was on this date in 1864* that an infamous Union war crime took place in Front Royal, Virginia.

Union forces in the Old Dominion were bedeviled by John Singleton Mosby, whose bold and legendary guerrilla tactics are commemorated in Herman Melville’s “The Scout Toward Aldie”:

All spake of him, but few had seen
Except the maimed ones or the low;
Yet rumor made him every thing–
A farmer–woodman–refugee–
The man who crossed the field but now;
A spell about his life did cling —
Who to the ground shall Mosby bring?

In 1864, the “Gray Ghost” haunted the Shenandoah Valley, and his spooky brand of warfare eventually goaded the Union into crossing the streams.

Allegedly raging from the murder by Mosby’s troops of a surrendering northern cavalryman, the blues rounded up six captured Mosby men — actually only five, plus one 17-year-old civilian who had opportunistically joined the fray — and summarily executed them.

David Jones, Lucien Love and Thomas Anderson were shot. So was the aforementioned civilian, Henry Rhodes, under the eyes of his shrieking mother.

Then, two last unfortunates were hanged. William Thomas Overton spurned an offer of clemency in exchange for information on Mosby’s hideouts with the memorable parting, “Mosby will hang 10 of you for every one of us.”

Not quite so … but not an empty threat, either. Weeks later, Mosby would order the retaliatory executions of a like number** of randomly-selected Union prisoners of war, and communicate this intelligence to his foes along with his (successful) suit to resume more gentlemanly methods of killing one another.

* Some sources (including some cited in this post) claim September 22nd. The consensus of authoritative sources appears to be clearly September 23rd. The Gray Ghost himself may be one source of the confusion; according to Custer and the Front Royal Executions, “In his memoirs, which were published over 50 years after the event, Mosby got the date wrong, apparently based upon one of the newspaper accounts … [which] stated that the Front Royal incident occurred on September 22, not September 23, the date upon which it actually did occur.”

** Seven were condemned in retaliation, for these six plus a separate execution that occurred Oct. 13.

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1777: William Dodd, mind wonderfully concentrated

4 comments June 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1777, they hanged the macaroni parson at Tyburn.

High-living, Cambridge-educated vicar William Dodd achieved this emasculating nickname for his frippery — macaroni (or maccaroni) being 18th century slang for a sort of outrageous continental metrosexual.*

He came particularly in for public ridicule when he was caught trying to bribe his way to a lucrative ecclesiastical position, financial hardship from his lifestyle having driven him to the desperate need for a pay hike. (In sorer straits later, he would sum up his life: “my greatest evil was expense. To supply it, I fell into the dreadful and ruinous mode of raising money by simonies. The annuities devoured me.”

Playwright Samuel Foote skewered the recently-humiliated Dodd on the stage in The Cozeners as “Dr. Simony,” described in the scrambled boast of “Mrs. Simony”:

not a more populous preacher within the sound of Bow-bells: I don’t mean for the mobility only … with a cambric handkerchief in one hand, and a diamond ring on the other: and then he waves this way and that way; and he curtsies, and he bows, and he bounces, that all the people are ready to — but then his wig, madam! I am sure you must admire his dear wig … short, rounded off at the ear, to show his plump cherry cheeks, white as a curd, feather-topped, and the curls as close as a cauliflower…

Then, my doctor is none of your schismatics, madam; believes in the whole thirty-nine! and so he would if there were nine times as many.

Three years after Foote’s cruel pen gave Dodd’s name immortality, the divine himself was (so he should think) ushered into eternity, after he got caught passing a forged bond against the revenues of his onetime student Lord Chesterfield.

Condemned to die for the offense,** a longer-than-usual lag from sentence to execution gave Dr. Simony leave to follow that classic Calvary of errant clerics with a mien of pious self-flagellation that helped his case raised a public outcry for clemency.

Samuel Johnson was among thousands of Britons who petitioned for mercy, and in Johnson’s case, went a bit further to ghost-write a piece in Dodd’s name, “The convict’s address to his unhappy brethren”. It was when the litterateur’s hand was suspected behind this prose† that Johnson made his quotable, tweetable remark,

“Depend upon it Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Dr. Johnson, nevertheless, was the true author, and the old scribbler used it to express some of his particular opinions on the proper staging of gallows-theater.

It is the duty of a penitent to repair, so far as he has the power, the injury which he has done. What we can do, is commonly nothing more than to leave the world an example of contrition. On the dreadful day, when the sentence of the law has its full force, some will be found to have affected a shameless bravery, or negligent intrepidity. Such is not the proper behaviour of a convicted criminal. To rejoice in tortures is the privilege of a martyr; to meet death with intrepidity is the right only of innocence, if in any human being innocence could be found. Of him, whose life is shortened by his crimes, the last duties are humility and self-abasement. We owe to God sincere repentance; we owe to man the appearance of repentance.—-We ought not to propagate an opinion, that he who lived in wickedness can die with courage.‡

William Dodd (together with another criminal, John Harris) had occasion to do just that this day in 1777. Dodd became the last person hanged for forgery at Tyburn.

Updated: According to Wendy Moore, there was an posthumous attempt at resuscitation, which was known to work sometimes.

Dodd, himself a big death penalty opponent from his former public perch, gave a sermon the very year of his eventual death titled The Frequency of Capital Punishments Inconsistent with Justice, Sound Policy and Religion, critiquing “voluntary destruction” of human life and its inconsistency with “the humane and benevolent spirit which characterizes the present times.”

He was also — which helps explain the revival attempt — a big supporter of the Humane Society, which sought to apply the developing science of the Enlightenment to the problem of resuscitating the (near-)drowned. (The Royal Humane Society’s motto today is lateat scintillula forsan, “a small spark may perhaps lie hid.”)

Dodd preached an enthusiastic sermon to this body in 1776, expansively anticipating its work for analogous “various other kinds of sudden and accidental death” such as “malefactors executed at the gallows, [which] would afford opportunities of discovering how far this method might be successful in relieving such as may have unhappily become their own executioners by hanging themselves.” Dodd’s own engagement with both the medical and the theological questions at stake in resuscitation surely conditioned his own anticipation under the noose that, if revived, he might live on as a “renovated being.”

(Dodd’s involvement with the Humane Society is detailed in Kelly McGuire’s “Raising the Dead: Sermons, Suicide, and Transnational Exchange in the Eighteenth Century,” Literature and Medicine, Spring 2009.)

It was, surely, an astounding time to live; no less so, to die. And the mysterious border between the two might be re-engineered by human ingenuity.

As Lord Byron (a man with his own fascination for the scaffold) wrote in Don Juan,

What opposite discoveries we have seen!
(Signs of true genius, and of empty pockets.)
One makes new noses, one a guillotine,
One breaks your bones, one sets them in their sockets;

Bread has been made (indifferent) from potatoes;
And galvanism has set some corpses grinning,
But has not answer’d like the apparatus
Of the Humane Society’s beginning
By which men are unsuffocated gratis:
What wondrous new machines have late been spinning!

* The lyrics of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (“stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni”) may be the most recognizable modern-day relic of this lexicon.

** Dodd made a groveling plea to the jury in the face of overwhelming evidence against him, at one point bold enough to appeal to injury his death would inflict upon those who lent him money: “I have creditors, honest men, who will lose much by my death. I hope, for the sake of justice towards them, some mercy will be shown to me. ”

† Dodd could write a little himself; he had a theological tract and a commentary on Shakespeare already to his name, and at Newgate cranked out Thoughts in Prison, a collection of sub-Villon poetry.

‡ In an addendum that would have warmed the cockles of the Roberts court, Johnson-as-Dodd also opined,

Every man reposes upon the tribunals of his country the stability of possession, and the serenity of life. He therefore who unjustly exposes the courts of judicature to suspicion, either of partiality or error, not only does an injury to those who dispense the laws, but diminishes the public confidence in the laws themselves, and shakes the foundation of public tranquility.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Theft

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1450: William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk

2 comments May 2nd, 2009 Headsman

Henry VI, Part 2 — Act IV, Scene 1

The Coast of Kent.

[Alarum. Fight at sea. Ordnance goes off. Enter a Captain, a Master, a Master’s Mate, WALTER WHITMORE, and others; with them SUFFOLK, and others, prisoners.]

SUFFOLK.
Obscure and lowly swain, King Henry‘s blood,
The honourable blood of Lancaster,1
Must not be shed by such a jaded groom.
Hast thou not kiss’d thy hand and held my stirrup?
Bare-headed plodded by my foot-cloth mule
And thought thee happy when I shook my head?
How often hast thou waited at my cup,
Fed from my trencher, kneel’d down at the board,
When I have feasted with Queen Margaret?2
Remember it and let it make thee crest-fallen,
Ay, and allay thus thy abortive pride,
How in our voiding lobby hast thou stood
And duly waited for my coming forth.
This hand of mine hath writ in thy behalf,
And therefore shall it charm thy riotous tongue.

WHITMORE.
Speak, captain, shall I stab the forlorn swain?

CAPTAIN.
First let my words stab him, as he hath me.

SUFFOLK.
Base slave, thy words are blunt and so art thou.

CAPTAIN.
Convey him hence, and on our long-boat’s side
Strike off his head.

SUFFOLK.
Thou dar’st not, for thy own.

CAPTAIN.
Yes, Pole!

SUFFOLK.
Pole!

CAPTAIN.
Pool! Sir Pool! lord!
Ay, kennel, puddle, sink, whose filth and dirt
Troubles the silver spring where England drinks.
Now will I dam up this thy yawning mouth
For swallowing the treasure of the realm;3
Thy lips that kiss’d the queen shall sweep the ground;
And thou that smil’dst at good Duke Humphrey‘s death4
Against the senseless winds shalt grin in vain,
Who in contempt shall hiss at thee again.
And wedded be thou to the hags of hell,
For daring to affy a mighty lord
Unto the daughter of a worthless king,
Having neither subject, wealth, nor diadem.
By devilish policy art thou grown great
And, like ambitious Sylla, overgorg’d
With gobbets of thy mother’s bleeding heart.
By thee Anjou and Maine were sold to France,
The false revolting Normans thorough thee
Disdain to call us lord, and Picardy
Hath slain their governors, surpris’d our forts,
And sent the ragged soldiers wounded home.5
The princely Warwick, and the Nevils all,
Whose dreadful swords were never drawn in vain,
As hating thee are rising up in arms;
And now the house of York, thrust from the crown
By shameful murther of a guiltless king6
And lofty proud encroaching tyranny,
Burns with revenging fire, whose hopeful colours
Advance our half-fac’d sun, striving to shine,
Under the which is writ ‘Invitis nubibus.’
The commons here in Kent are up in arms;7
And, to conclude, reproach and beggary
Is crept into the palace of our king,
And all by thee.–Away! convey him hence.

SUFFOLK.
O that I were a god, to shoot forth thunder
Upon these paltry, servile, abject drudges!
Small things make base men proud; this villain here,
Being captain of a pinnace, threatens more
Than Bargulus the strong Illyrian pirate.8
Drones suck not eagles’ blood but rob bee-hives.
It is impossible that I should die
By such a lowly vassal as thyself.
Thy words move rage and not remorse in me.
I go of message from the queen to France;
I charge thee waft me safely cross the Channel.9

CAPTAIN.
Walter,–

WHITMORE.
Come, Suffolk, I must waft thee to thy death.

SUFFOLK.
Gelidus timor occupat artus; it is thee I fear.

WHITMORE.
Thou shalt have cause to fear before I leave thee.
What, are ye daunted now? now will ye stoop?

1 GENTLEMAN.
My gracious lord, entreat him, speak him fair.

SUFFOLK.
Suffolk’s imperial tongue is stern and rough,
Us’d to command, untaught to plead for favour.
Far be it we should honour such as these
With humble suit; no, rather let my head
Stoop to the block than these knees bow to any
Save to the God of heaven and to my king,
And sooner dance upon a bloody pole
Than stand uncover’d to the vulgar groom.
True nobility is exempt from fear;
More can I bear than you dare execute.

CAPTAIN.
Hale him away, and let him talk no more.

SUFFOLK.
Come, soldiers, show what cruelty ye can,
That this my death may never be forgot!
Great men oft die by vile bezonians:
A Roman sworder and banditto slave
Murther’d sweet Tully; Brutus’ bastard hand
Stabb’d Julius Caesar; savage islanders
Pompey the Great; and Suffolk dies by pirates.10

1 Shakespeare brackets Suffolk clearly into the political faction that would become the winning contestant in the War of the Roses and give rise to the Tudor dynasty that ruled England at the time of the play’s writing. Suffolk’s key ally, Somerset, was slain in 1455 at the first battle of the generation-long conflict.

2 Margaret of Anjou was wed to the feebleminded King Henry VI by William de la Pole’s offices. Shakespeare portrays Suffolk and Margaret as maybe a little too close. When Suffolk’s head is posthumously retrieved for her, she laments,

… who can cease to weep and look on this?
Here may his head lie on my throbbing breast;
But where’s the body that I should embrace?

3 William de la Pole had a serious popularity problem, on several scores (as we shall see). Endemic corruption that had dissipated the wealth of the crown during Henry VI’s reign was among the most explosive, and laid at his door because of his proximity to power (and because Suffolk had not failed to exploit the revenue opportunities afforded by his position).

4 Another grievance: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the popular uncle to the king and onetime Lord Protector, had been arrested for treason at the Suffolk-Beaufort faction’s instigation in 1447. He died shortly thereafter, which naturally gave rise to suspicions of assassination.

5 Perhaps most damaging of all for Suffolk, England’s foothold in northern France from which it had maintained itself during the Hundred Years’ War preceding, had suddenly collapsed in the 1440s. Maine was handed directly over to Charles VII — the price, critics charged, of the king’s marriage to Anjou. Then an ill-advised offensive had invited a French counterattack that rousted the English from Normandy and brought furious domestic recriminations for the debacle.

Incidentally, as a younger man, this day’s victim had been one of the commanders besieging Orleans when Joan of Arc famously relieved the city. He was captured by the Maid shortly thereafter, and eventually ransomed.

6 Again, a clear identification of the the factions taking shape for the Wars of the Roses. Richard, Duke of York, the standard-bearer of (obviously) the Yorkist cause in the coming conflict, had been Suffolk’s main rival at court, and is a key suspect in engineering Suffolk’s death. The guiltless king referred to is Richard II, overthrown a half-century before by Henry Bolingbroke which gave rise to the competing claims of legitimacy that would color the York-Lancaster contest.

7 Weeks after Suffolk’s death, Jack Cade’s rebellion erupted in Kent, an infamous affair whose dubious connection to York was great fodder for Tudor propaganda like, well, Henry VI, Part 2. Be that as it may, the Bard placed one of his immortal lines in the mouth of one of Cade’s peasants:

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

8 This reference may be an anachronism. Pirates operating from Illyria — the uskoci (or uskoks) — plagued the Adriatic Sea in Shakespeare’s time.

9 As a royal minister, Suffolk was essentially immune from Parliament as long as the king backed him … unless he could be hit with a treason charge. Given his unpopularity, a great many mostly outlandish charges of treason were duly conjured early in 1450, and Suffolk had not the political support to repel them. Henry VI, still Suffolk’s supporter, exiled the noble to protect him from possible execution. He was intercepted as he left England for France, however, and what the House of Commons had wanted done by a bill of attainder was simply handled extrajudicially upon the seas instead.

10 The duke was beheaded (“within half a dozen strokes” of “a rusty sword”) upon one of the pirate vessel’s small boats.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",England,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Wartime Executions

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