1816: John Allen and John Penny, poachers

5 comments April 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1816, poachers John Penny and John Allen hanged for the murder of a gameskeeper.

This wasn’t about preserving endangered elephants from the depredations of the ivory trade, but the centuries-long rural skirmish between classes over land use and property control.

The recipe to make a poacher [said an English Peer in 1825] will be found to contain a very few and simple ingredients which may be met with in every game county in England. Search out (and you need not go far) a poor man with a large family, or a poor man single man, having his natural sense of right and wrong … give him little more than a natural disinclination to go to work, let him exist in the midst of lands where the game is preserved, keep him cool in the winter, by allowing him insufficient wages to purchase fuel; let him feel hungry upon the small pittance of parish relief; and if he be not a poacher it will only be by the blessing of God.

It was the legacy of enclosure, the breaking-up of common lands and the abolition of longstanding privileges that underpinned (among other things) the traditions of English game-hunting and the livelihoods of commoners who depended upon it.

“After estates and commons were removed from public access by enclosure,” writes Babette Smith, “poaching became a manifestation of the class war — a civil war in fact, which was never declared.”

And not only a metaphorical war.


Pew pew pew.

The wholesale seizure of lands, wealth, and social rights had perforce to be upheld by violence. Here in Gloucestershire’s Vale of Berkeley, the principal landowner was one William FitzHardinge Berkeley, tetchy bastard son of an illustrious army officer who inherited the wealth of his family and the chip on his shoulder about not being admitted to the peerage due to his out-of-wedlock birth.

Landowners at this time had no compunctions about setting lethal traps to keep out those they legally defined as trespassers. Late in 1815, a poacher named Thomas Till had actually been killed by a tripwire-activated spring gun, to the outrage of his compatriots.

John Allen, charismatic local farmer and a poacher himself, had some score-settling on his mind one moonlit night in January when he rounded up 15 other poachers, swore them all to silence, and went out armed and looking for trouble.

They found it in a band of Berkeley’s gamekeepers, who confronted the poachers. Shooting broke out; one of the gamekeepers was killed and a few others wounded.

“Eleven young men, nine of whom were farmers’ sons and respectably connected,” in the characterization of the Gloucester Journal, were convicted of murder by a jury weeping as it delivered the verdict. For the real facts on the ground, this criminal justice framework made for a cruel fit, especially since the highhanded lord seems to have engineered the dangerous encounter to begin with. Dr. Edward Jenner, famous pioneer of immunology, was also a Gloucestershire magistrate involved in this case; he, too, had misgivings.

All but the ringleader Allen and John Penny, apparent author of the fatal shot, received the clemency of convict transportation to Van Dieman’s Land, Australia — although a couple got away outright and never stood trial and one of those arrested turned state’s evidence in exchange for a full pardon.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Theft

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1560: Arnaud du Tilh, alias Martin Guerre

8 comments September 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1560, a French peasant was hanged outside the home he had made with another man’s wife in the southwestern French village of Artigat (or Artigues).

A poignant, perplexing tale of identity and social place — and possibly even of love — the story of Martin Guerre is at once exactingly local to its time and place, and timeless in its principals’ humanity.

As told in Natalie Zemon Davis’ captivating social history The Return of Martin Guerre, the restless (or ill-tempered) young titular peasant — impotent with his wife Bertrande, tense living with his father-in-law, chafing in rural Artigat — got out of town in 1548, joined one of the soldiering companies crisscrossing Europe, and was heard of no more.

In the centuries before fingerprints, credit cards, cell phones and Facebook, Guerre just disappeared. Constrained by Catholic law not to remarry without proof of his death, Bertrande just had to wait.

Until “Martin” returned in 1556 simply by reappearing at Artigat — moved in with Bertrande — resumed the vanished man’s name and with it his place in the village. There were suspicions from the first that he wasn’t quite right … but this man had Martin’s stories, and the villagers didn’t have so much as a photograph to test him against.

Martin was accepted in Artigat for three-plus years, fathered two children with Bertrande, and managed the estate as head of household. In Davis’s telling, he appears much the better husband and father than the pre-1548 version, and this bolsters her case that Bertrande must have been complicit in the fraud that unraveled in 1560.

Property and inheritance conflicts with Martin Guerre’s uncle (now married to Bertrande’s widowed mother) brought to the courts the novel case: was this man really Martin Guerre?

The inconclusive tools for establishing identity and a deft defense by “Martin” must have made for a riveting legal drama (French link) — with villagers taking up competing sides and the man put to the test of his memory of Martin’s life, which he impressively aced. So thoroughly did the man command the role that

the gesture, deportment, air, and mode of speaking of the prisoner were cool, consistent, and steady; while those who appeared in the cause of truth were embarrassed, hesitating, confused, and on certain points contradictory in their evidence. (Source)

On the point, perhaps, of acquittal, the case was resolved like any legal potboiler should be: with the dramatic reappearance of the real Martin — for so all the conflicting witnesses quickly agreed him to be, and so confessed the imposter husband, Arnaud du Tilh (or Arnaud du Tilb), a peasant from a nearby village also nicknamed “Pansette”. A onetime army buddy of Guerre’s, the enterprising du Tilh had been mistaken for Guerre, and had pieced together enough of the absconded husband’s life that by dint of total recall and superhuman audacity, he made for his own the place in the world that Martin Guerre disdained.

The sentence of the court was that Martin Arnaud

make amende honorable in the marketplace of Artigat, in his shirt, his head and feet being bare, a halter about his neck, and holding in his hands a lighted torch; to beg pardon of God, the king, and the justice of the nation; of the said Martin Guerre, and de Rols his wife; and this being done, the said du Tilh shall be delivered into the hands of the executioner, who after making him pass through the streets, and other public places in the said town of Artigat, with a rope about his neck, at last shall bring him before the house of the said Martin Guerre, where, on a gallows set up for that purpose, he shall be hanged and strangled, and afterwards his body shall be burnt. (Source of the translation, slightly tidied up based on the French version here)

Arnaud du Tilh, and Martin Guerre with him, passed thereupon into the historical memory, for in assigning names to bodies, had the court really sorted out who was who? What does it mean to drop out of one’s society … and what rights can one expect to command upon returning? What did it mean to be Martin Guerre but to live in the house of Martin Guerre and manage the affairs of Martin Guerre? And the characters: Arnaud with his mysterious spark of bravado; Martin and his sudden and unexplained reappearance; the two of them as if cast for one another’s roles in life and crossed up by the gods.

And the mysterious Bertrande — what did she do, and what did she want?

A bit of Rorschach history, then, which accounts for the still-robust liveliness the tale enjoys four and a half centuries later. And let’s admit: a bit of wistfulness for the time you could start on a clean sheet just by changing your name. (Although illiterate 16th century peasants had achieved TSA-quality security protocols in this respect.)

Natalie Zemon Davis, whose own account has been criticized for overclaiming Bertrande’s role and motivations, also consulted as she was writing it for a Gerard Depardieu film of the same title.


visit videodetective.com for more info

The same story transplanted to the Civil War United States yielded the 1993 film Sommersby:

And if you must, you can see Martin Guerre in show tunes.

(This medley sequence has second and third parts as well.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,God,Hanged,History,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Rape,Scandal,Sex,Theft

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