Jonathan Simpson, hanged on this date in 1686, had a good many virtues to judge by the account of his life left by the Newgate Calendar.
He was, first, an enterprising man, who served his apprenticeship “with reputation” and then set up shop as a successful linen-draper in the city of Bristol.
This business enabled him to augment the fortune of his own business by marrying a merchant’s daughter — “but the union proved unhappy, because the young lady was before engaged in affection to a gentleman of less fortune in the neighbourhood, whom her father hindered her from having, and with whom she continued a familiarity that soon displeased her husband.”
Such a scenario has been the germ of many a denizen of this here blog, but Simpson didn’t reach the gallows doing anything as straightforward as murdering his rival or his spouse out of pique.
Instead — and the Calendar leaves the hows and whys of this translation unexplored — he channeled his jealousy into a crime spree. Maybe that’s just the writer’s projection: fella went around the bend, it must’ve been because of a woman. The Newgate Calendar, too, had a home life, and many was the Briton who dreamt of escaping the drudgery of it all for a life of adventure and romance making gentlemen stand and deliver.
At any rate, Simpson managed a career of 18 months on the road, burning through his linen-draper savings (and his highwayman “earnings”) to escape a couple of potential capital prosecutions. (At this time, criminal complaints were initiated by private prosecutions, meaning that a victim prepared to accept direct restitution could potentially be bought off pressing a case.)
This brings us to another of Simpson’s admirable qualities: his silver tongue.
One can only speculate how he wheedled his onetime victims behind closed doors to drop their suits. But the Newgate Calendar attests to the man’s wit under pressure once he was finally hauled to the fatal tree.
It turns out that Simpson did well in business because his family had done well in business before him, and dad staked him to £1,500 when the lad went into business himself. These prosperous burghers accordingly rallied to exert their own wealth and influence behind the scenes to obtain for their kin a timely commutation, delivered only “when he was at Tyburn, with the halter about his neck, and just ready to be turned off in company with several others.” Then bureaucracy happened.
When he was brought to the prison door, the turnkey refused to receive him, telling the officer that, as he was sent to be executed, they were discharged of him, and would not have anything to do with him again, unless there was a fresh warrant for his commitment; whereupon Simpson made this reflection: “What an unhappy cast-off dog am I, that both Tyburn and Newgate should in one day refuse to entertain me! Well, I’ll mend my manners for the future, and try whether I can’t merit a reception at them both the next time I am brought hither.”
That’s kind of funny, right? In a self-destructive braggadocio sort of way?
And then Simpson demonstrated a third quality that (in addition to dad’s money) helped him succeed in commerce before his midlife crisis: his phenomenal industry. Simpson, we are told, committed “above 40 robberies” in Middlesex in the six weeks after his reprieve, a healthy pace of one per day.
He robbed the powerful (our writer credits him with a successful stickup of the king’s own son); he robbed the hoi polloi (“the robberies he committed on drovers, pedlars, market-people, etc., were almost innumerable”); he robbed on ice skates;* when he was finally captured, it was by two captains of the Foot Guards whom he was also attempting to rob.
The man lived to rob. On this date in 1686, he finally died for it.
* The online text versions of the Calendar notice Simpson’s skatebourne pilfering during “the great frost of 1689, which held thirteen weeks,” obviously not chronologically correct relative to his execution date. This is an error, likely on the part of software somewhere along the line; the year in question should be 1684 (computers like to mix up fours and nines). 1684 was one of the longest and deepest winter freezes on record, leaving the iced-over Thames bustling with Londoners at the “Frost Fair”.
“[W]hat unheard of rendezvous is daily kept upon the face of [London's] navigable river; what long and spacious streets of booths and tents are builded; what throngs of passengers, both horse and foot, do travel; what pyramids of provisions, baked, boiled, and roast; what deluges of wine, coffee, beer, ale, and brandy, for sale; what fleets of vessels sailing upon sledges; what troops of coaches, caravans, and waggons; what games and new invented sports and pastimes, bull-baiting, bear-baiting, &c.; together with shops for the vending of most sorts of manufactures and for working artificers, the account of which alone would require a volume to describe …” (Source)
On this date* in French-occupied Moscow of the War of 1812, many alleged arsonists — unnamed and unnumbered — were shot by Napoleon’s army in the ashes of Moscow.
Although real, flesh-and-blood Muscovites died, they are best known via their bespectacled fictional companion, Pierre Bezukhov, whose miraculous escape is one of the pivotal episodes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Merely the greatest novel in history by some reckonings — we’ll just let Tolstoy fight it out with Dostoyevsky for top of table in the competitive 19th Century Russia literary scene — the epic War and Peace tracks that country’s transformation under the revolutionary pressures of the Napoleonic age.
In Russian director Sergey Bondarchuk’s sprawling cinematic adaptation of War and Peace, the part of Pierre Bezukhov is played by Bondarchuk himself.
Pierre Bezukhov (“without ears”) is one of the book’s central figures, the illegitimate son of a count who unexpectedly inherits, forever consumed with his next impulsive, passionate quest for meaning (boozing around, freemasonry, religion …).
Pierre finds himself present in Moscow when the Grande Armeerolls in following its Pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Borodino. His fancy of the moment is to assassinate Napoleon: “he suddenly felt that what before had seemed to him merely a possibility had now become absolutely necessary and inevitable. He must remain in Moscow, concealing his name, and must meet Napoleon and kill him, and either perish or put an end to the misery of all Europe.” And to think, a younger Pierre actually used to admire Napoleon.
Historically, the city of Moscow started burning as soon as the French occupied it. The reasons for this conflagration have been widely disputed; Tolstoy detours in War and Peace to characterize it as nothing more than the natural consequence of the occupation, when the city’s civil infrastructure has broken down and the everyday fires that spark in wooden buildings are more liable to grow out of control.
The French blamed terrorists.
A bulletin of the Grande Armee dated September 20 (Gregorian date; this corresponds to the Julian date September 8) reports on the successful efforts to bring arsonists to heel through the expedient of mass executions.
Three hundred incendiaries have been arrested and shot; they were provided with fuse six inches long, which they had between two pieces of wood: they had also squibs, which they threw upon the roofs of the houses. The wretch Rastapchin had these prepared, on the pretence that he wished to send a balloon, full of combustible matter, amidst the French army …
The fires subsided on the 19th and 20th; three quarters of the city are burned; among other palaces that beautiful one of Catherine, which had been newly furnished: not above a quarter of the houses remain. …
Manufactures were beginning to flourish at Moscow: they are destroyed. The conflagration of this capital will throw Russia one hundred years back. The weather is becoming rainy: the greatest part of the army is in barracks in Moscow.
In this paranoid occupation, the fictional Pierre, wandering Moscow armed without a good excuse, gets himself picked up by French troops.
The travail of his resulting drumhead trial offers the anti-authoritarian (and anti-death penalty) Tolstoy the opportunity to reflect on the “legal” arrangements, a passage Tolstoy dates September 8 on the Julian calendar — the same day that army bulletin above was penned.
[Pierre] learned that all these prisoners (he, probably, among them) were to be tried for incendiarism. On the third day he was taken with the others to a house where a French general with a white mustache sat with two colonels and other Frenchmen with scarves on their arms. With the precision and definiteness customary in addressing prisoners, and which is supposed to preclude human frailty, Pierre like the others was questioned as to who he was, where he had been, with what object, and so on.
These questions, like questions put at trials generally, left the essence of the matter aside, shut out the possibility of that essence’s being revealed, and were designed only to form a channel through which the judges wished the answers of the accused to flow so as to lead to the desired result, namely a conviction. As soon as Pierre began to say anything that did not fit in with that aim, the channel was removed and the water could flow to waste. Pierre felt, moreover, what the accused always feel at their trial, perplexity as to why these questions were put to him. He had a feeling that it was only out of condescension or a kind of civility that this device of placing a channel was employed. He knew he was in these men’s power, that only by force had they brought him there, that force alone gave them the right to demand answers to their questions, and that the sole object of that assembly was to inculpate him. And so, as they had the power and wish to inculpate him, this expedient of an inquiry and trial seemed unnecessary. It was evident that any answer would lead to conviction.
It’s only by Pierre’s chance ability to forge a human connection with the officer detailed to condemn him that he’s mysteriously, and arbitrarily, not sentenced to death — a fact that Pierre doesn’t even realize until he’s led out with the rest of the prisoners only to see that it’s “only” the others who are being shot. This is the narration at length from Book XII, Chapters 10-11.
On the eighth of September an officer- a very important one judging by the respect the guards showed him- entered the coach house where the prisoners were. This officer, probably someone on the staff, was holding a paper in his hand, and called over all the Russians there, naming Pierre as “the man who does not give his name.” Glancing indolently and indifferently at all the prisoners, he ordered the officer in charge to have them decently dressed and tidied up before taking them to the marshal. An hour later a squad of soldiers arrived and Pierre with thirteen others was led to the Virgin’s Field. It was a fine day, sunny after rain, and the air was unusually pure. The smoke did not hang low as on the day when Pierre had been taken from the guardhouse on the Zubovski rampart, but rose through the pure air in columns. No flames were seen, but columns of smoke rose on all sides, and all Moscow as far as Pierre could see was one vast charred ruin. On all sides there were waste spaces with only stoves and chimney stacks still standing, and here and there the blackened walls of some brick houses. Pierre gazed at the ruins and did not recognize districts he had known well. Here and there he could see churches that had not been burned. The Kremlin, which was not destroyed, gleamed white in the distance with its towers and the belfry of Ivan the Great. The domes of the New Convent of the Virgin glittered brightly and its bells were ringing particularly clearly. These bells reminded Pierre that it was Sunday and the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. But there seemed to be no one to celebrate this holiday: everywhere were blackened ruins, and the few Russians to be seen were tattered and frightened people who tried to hide when they saw the French.
Pierre had been taken by one set of soldiers and led first to one and then to another place with dozens of other men, and it seemed that they might have forgotten him, or confused him with the others. But no: the answers he had given when questioned had come back to him in his designation as “the man who does not give his name,” and under that appellation, which to Pierre seemed terrible, they were now leading him somewhere with unhesitating assurance on their faces that he and all the other prisoners were exactly the ones they wanted and that they were being taken to the proper place. Pierre felt himself to be an insignificant chip fallen among the wheels of a machine whose action he did not understand but which was working well.
He and the other prisoners were taken to the right side of the Virgin’s Field, to a large white house with an immense garden not far from the convent. This was Prince Shcherbatov‘s house, where Pierre had often been in other days, and which, as he learned from the talk of the soldiers, was now occupied by the marshal, the Duke of Eckmuhl (Davout).
They were taken to the entrance and led into the house one by one. Pierre was the sixth to enter. He was conducted through a glass gallery, an anteroom, and a hall, which were familiar to him, into a long low study at the door of which stood an adjutant.
Davout, spectacles on nose, sat bent over a table at the further end of the room. Pierre went close up to him, but Davout, evidently consulting a paper that lay before him, did not look up. Without raising his eyes, he said in a low voice:
“Who are you?”
Pierre was silent because he was incapable of uttering a word. To him Davout was not merely a French general, but a man notorious for his cruelty. Looking at his cold face, as he sat like a stern schoolmaster who was prepared to wait awhile for an answer, Pierre felt that every instant of delay might cost him his life; but he did not know what to say. He did not venture to repeat what he had said at his first examination, yet to disclose his rank and position was dangerous and embarrassing. So he was silent. But before he had decided what to do, Davout raised his head, pushed his spectacles back on his forehead, screwed up his eyes, and looked intently at him.
“I know that man,” he said in a cold, measured tone, evidently calculated to frighten Pierre.
The chill that had been running down Pierre’s back now seized his head as in a vise.
“You cannot know me, General, I have never seen you…”
“He is a Russian spy,” Davout interrupted, addressing another general who was present, but whom Pierre had not noticed.
Davout turned away. With an unexpected reverberation in his voice Pierre rapidly began:
“No, monseigneur,” he said, suddenly remembering that Davout was a duke. “No, monseigneur, you cannot have known me. I am a militia officer and have not quitted Moscow.”
“Your name?” asked Davout.
“What proof have I that you are not lying?”
“Monseigneur!” exclaimed Pierre, not in an offended but in a pleading voice.
Davout looked up and gazed intently at him. For some seconds they looked at one another, and that look saved Pierre. Apart from conditions of war and law, that look established human relations between the two men. At that moment an immense number of things passed dimly through both their minds, and they realized that they were both children of humanity and were brothers.
At the first glance, when Davout had only raised his head from the papers where human affairs and lives were indicated by numbers, Pierre was merely a circumstance, and Davout could have shot him without burdening his conscience with an evil deed, but now he saw in him a human being. He reflected for a moment.
“How can you show me that you are telling the truth?” said Davout coldly.
Pierre remembered Ramballe, and named him and his regiment and the street where the house was.
“You are not what you say,” returned Davout.
In a trembling, faltering voice Pierre began adducing proofs of the truth of his statements.
But at that moment an adjutant entered and reported something to Davout.
Davout brightened up at the news the adjutant brought, and began buttoning up his uniform. It seemed that he had quite forgotten Pierre.
When the adjutant reminded him of the prisoner, he jerked his head in Pierre’s direction with a frown and ordered him to be led away. But where they were to take him Pierre did not know: back to the coach house or to the place of execution his companions had pointed out to him as they crossed the Virgin’s Field.
He turned his head and saw that the adjutant was putting another question to Davout.
“Yes, of course!” replied Davout, but what this “yes” meant, Pierre did not know.
Pierre could not afterwards remember how he went, whether it was far, or in which direction. His faculties were quite numbed, he was stupefied, and noticing nothing around him went on moving his legs as the others did till they all stopped and he stopped too. The only thought in his mind at that time was: who was it that had really sentenced him to death? Not the men on the commission that had first examined him — not one of them wished to or, evidently, could have done it. It was not Davout, who had looked at him in so human a way. In another moment Davout would have realized that he was doing wrong, but just then the adjutant had come in and interrupted him. The adjutant, also, had evidently had no evil intent though he might have refrained from coming in. Then who was executing him, killing him, depriving him of life — him, Pierre, with all his memories, aspirations, hopes, and thoughts? Who was doing this? And Pierre felt that it was no one.
It was a system — a concurrence of circumstances.
A system of some sort was killing him — Pierre — depriving him of life, of everything, annihilating him.
From Prince Shcherbatov’s house the prisoners were led straight down the Virgin’s Field, to the left of the nunnery, as far as a kitchen garden in which a post had been set up. Beyond that post a fresh pit had been dug in the ground, and near the post and the pit a large crowd stood in a semicircle. The crowd consisted of a few Russians and many of Napoleon’s soldiers who were not on duty- Germans, Italians, and Frenchmen, in a variety of uniforms. To the right and left of the post stood rows of French troops in blue uniforms with red epaulets and high boots and shakos.
The prisoners were placed in a certain order, according to the list (Pierre was sixth), and were led to the post. Several drums suddenly began to beat on both sides of them, and at that sound Pierre felt as if part of his soul had been torn away. He lost the power of thinking or understanding. He could only hear and see. And he had only one wish- that the frightful thing that had to happen should happen quickly. Pierre looked round at his fellow prisoners and scrutinized them.
The two first were convicts with shaven heads. One was tall and thin, the other dark, shaggy, and sinewy, with a flat nose. The third was a domestic serf, about forty-five years old, with grizzled hair and a plump, well-nourished body. The fourth was a peasant, a very handsome man with a broad, light-brown beard and black eyes. The fifth was a factory hand, a thin, sallow-faced lad of eighteen in a loose coat.
Pierre heard the French consulting whether to shoot them separately or two at a time. “In couples,” replied the officer in command in a calm voice. There was a stir in the ranks of the soldiers and it was evident that they were all hurrying — not as men hurry to do something they understand, but as people hurry to finish a necessary but unpleasant and incomprehensible task.
A French official wearing a scarf came up to the right of the row of prisoners and read out the sentence in Russian and in French.
Then two pairs of Frenchmen approached the criminals and at the officer’s command took the two convicts who stood first in the row. The convicts stopped when they reached the post and, while sacks were being brought, looked dumbly around as a wounded beast looks at an approaching huntsman. One crossed himself continually, the other scratched his back and made a movement of the lips resembling a smile. With hurried hands the soldiers blindfolded them, drawing the sacks over their heads, and bound them to the post.
Twelve sharpshooters with muskets stepped out of the ranks with a firm regular tread and halted eight paces from the post. Pierre turned away to avoid seeing what was going to happen. Suddenly a crackling, rolling noise was heard which seemed to him louder than the most terrific thunder, and he looked round. There was some smoke, and the Frenchmen were doing something near the pit, with pale faces and trembling hands. Two more prisoners were led up. In the same way and with similar looks, these two glanced vainly at the onlookers with only a silent appeal for protection in their eyes, evidently unable to understand or believe what was going to happen to them. They could not believe it because they alone knew what their life meant to them, and so they neither understood nor believed that it could be taken from them.
Again Pierre did not wish to look and again turned away; but again the sound as of a frightful explosion struck his ear, and at the same moment he saw smoke, blood, and the pale, scared faces of the Frenchmen who were again doing something by the post, their trembling hands impeding one another. Pierre, breathing heavily, looked around as if asking what it meant. The same question was expressed in all the looks that met his.
On the faces of all the Russians and of the French soldiers and officers without exception, he read the same dismay, horror, and conflict that were in his own heart. “But who, after all, is doing this? They are all suffering as I am. Who then is it? Who?” flashed for an instant through his mind.
“Sharpshooters of the 86th, forward!” shouted someone. The fifth prisoner, the one next to Pierre, was led away- alone. Pierre did not understand that he was saved, that he and the rest had been brought there only to witness the execution. With ever-growing horror, and no sense of joy or relief, he gazed at what was taking place. The fifth man was the factory lad in the loose cloak. The moment they laid hands on him he sprang aside in terror and clutched at Pierre. (Pierre shuddered and shook himself free.) The lad was unable to walk. They dragged him along, holding him up under the arms, and he screamed. When they got him to the post he grew quiet, as if he suddenly understood something. Whether he understood that screaming was useless or whether he thought it incredible that men should kill him, at any rate he took his stand at the post, waiting to be blindfolded like the others, and like a wounded animal looked around him with glittering eyes.
Pierre was no longer able to turn away and close his eyes. His curiosity and agitation, like that of the whole crowd, reached the highest pitch at this fifth murder. Like the others this fifth man seemed calm; he wrapped his loose cloak closer and rubbed one bare foot with the other.
When they began to blindfold him he himself adjusted the knot which hurt the back of his head; then when they propped him against the bloodstained post, he leaned back and, not being comfortable in that position, straightened himself, adjusted his feet, and leaned back again more comfortably. Pierre did not take his eyes from him and did not miss his slightest movement.
Probably a word of command was given and was followed by the reports of eight muskets; but try as he would Pierre could not afterwards remember having heard the slightest sound of the shots. He only saw how the workman suddenly sank down on the cords that held him, how blood showed itself in two places, how the ropes slackened under the weight of the hanging body, and how the workman sat down, his head hanging unnaturally and one leg bent under him. Pierre ran up to the post. No one hindered him. Pale, frightened people were doing something around the workman. The lower jaw of an old Frenchman with a thick mustache trembled as he untied the ropes. The body collapsed. The soldiers dragged it awkwardly from the post and began pushing it into the pit.
They all plainly and certainly knew that they were criminals who must hide the traces of their guilt as quickly as possible.
Pierre glanced into the pit and saw that the factory lad was lying with his knees close up to his head and one shoulder higher than the other. That shoulder rose and fell rhythmically and convulsively, but spadefuls of earth were already being thrown over the whole body. One of the soldiers, evidently suffering, shouted gruffly and angrily at Pierre to go back. But Pierre did not understand him and remained near the post, and no one drove him away.
When the pit had been filled up a command was given. Pierre was taken back to his place, and the rows of troops on both sides of the post made a half turn and went past it at a measured pace. The twenty-four sharpshooters with discharged muskets, standing in the center of the circle, ran back to their places as the companies passed by.
Pierre gazed now with dazed eyes at these sharpshooters who ran in couples out of the circle. All but one rejoined their companies. This one, a young soldier, his face deadly pale, his shako pushed back, and his musket resting on the ground, still stood near the pit at the spot from which he had fired. He swayed like a drunken man, taking some steps forward and back to save himself from falling. An old, noncommissioned officer ran out of the ranks and taking him by the elbow dragged him to his company. The crowd of Russians and Frenchmen began to disperse. They all went away silently and with drooping heads.
“That will teach them to start fires,” said one of the Frenchmen.
Pierre glanced round at the speaker and saw that it was a soldier who was trying to find some relief after what had been done, but was not able to do so. Without finishing what he had begun to say he made a hopeless movement with his arm and went away.
* It’s our practice (although we’re sure it’s been violated here and there) to utilize Gregorian dates universally after the mid-18th century, even for executions in Orthodox Christendom where the Julian calendar prevailed into the 20th century. For this post, seeing as it’s straight from the text of Tolstoy himself, in his magnum opus, channeling the soul of the Russian rodina, we’re making an exception: the 12-day-slower, local-to-Russia Julian calendar prevails … just like the Russians themselves did.
For whatever reason, Arkansas really cottoned to this format in the Nineties. It carried out a double execution on May 11, 1994, and two separate triple executions on August 3, 1994 and January 8, 1997. Volume packages account for nearly half of the 21 Arkansan executions in that decade.*
But the operational efficiency of killing people in multiples inevitably bowed in the more deliberate modern era to the overriding inefficiency of its supporting judicial process. Rare would be the day — especially for a smaller state like Arkansas — when more than one prisoner exhausted remedies at the same time, even if they’d begun their legal journey as parties to the same crime.
In this late degenerate age, whatever rationales may once have existed for group executions have faded well away. The double execution this date in 1999 was at best a minor public relations flourish, and there wasn’t any symbolic import at all. The two culprits were completely unconnected:
Mark Gardner, a career criminal out on parole who had slaughtered a family in order to rape their daughter and steal their valuables (last meal: fried shrimp, grilled salmon, garden salad, and chocolate cake with a Coke);**
Alan Willett, a guy who killed his own son and mentally impaired brother, then dropped appeals to volunteer for execution (last meal: beef jerky, barbecue-flavored potato chips, onion dip, garlic dip, buttered popcorn, and Pepsi)
The volunteer aspect helped make the twofer scheduling happen, but to what end? A “double execution” here really means two individual executions back-to-back, each one with its own witness room, its own set of last-minute appeals, its own dose of poison. So why bother coordinating execution dates when there are already so many other moving pieces in the machinery of death? It’s just bad engineering
So this date’s exercise was the last multiple execution in the United States save one. In 2000, the absolute high-water mark for execution pace in the country’s busiest death chamber, Texas injected Oliver Cruz and Brian Robertson on the same day, Aug. 9. That’s the last multiple-execution to date in the U.S.
** Gardner piously anticipated “a never-ending feast” at “the Lord’s supper” in his last statement, but his worldly appetites were less transcendental. He was accused of rape by his neighbor on death row: Damien Echols.
Echols was one of the West Memphis Three convicted for a supposedly occult triple homicide during the late gasps of America’s infantile Satanism panic. This case became a cause celebre (literally so: Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and other glitterati were among his vocal supporters), and the convictions were debunked to such an extent that Echols and his two friends (both serving prison terms) were all released earlier this year.
Dissatisfaction worked on multiple planes: nobles were angry at Gustav’s circumventing aristocratic prerogatives (both to launch this war, and elsewhere); those with Finnish estates were especially piqued at the prospect of bearing the burdens of a war and a possible Russian occupation.
The Anjala conspirators pitched Russian Empress Catherine the Great on the prospect of making peace on their authority and withdrawing Finland from Gustav’s control. Catherine demurred, and enough of the army stayed loyal to the crown that the conspiracy collapsed.
Product of an old Swedish-Finnish noble lineage, he might well have expected leniency: for all his executive overreach, Gustav III wasn’t the wholesale-execution type. And indeed, Hastesko was the only conspirator to visit the scaffold.
Cold comfort both to the condemned and to his widow Beata, the latter of whom wore mourning clothes for the remaining 51 years of her life. But she would see in her time the wheel of fortune turn for her late husband’s defeated project quite dramatically.
This particular Russo-Swedish War ultimately amounted to a tempest in a teapot, but not long after it blew over, another tetchy noble assassinated Gustav III.
On this date in 1820, Scottish radicals John Baird and Andrew Hardie were hanged and then posthumously beheaded (execution broadside | another) at Stirling for treason.
They were the casualties (along with James Wilson, who suffered the same fate on August 30) of the “Radical War”, a short-lived Scottish uprising for economic and political reform.
The whole realm was convulsed by the birth pangs of industrial capitalism: artisans driven into factories; urbanization, exacerbated by lagging political representation for burgeoning population centers; and the revolutionary ideas of 1789 everywhere afoot in Europe.
Indeed, ever since the cataclysmic French Revolution, nervous authorities had kept a very tight lid on excesses of popular agitation. On May 1, 1820, London police hanged the Cato Street conspirators, a small group of radicals baited into plotting an assassination by an agent provocateur who meant to destroy them.
Similar methods were employed further north.
Troubled by dangerous reform movements, the government itself helped instigate a violent rising so it could identify and round up radical elements.
Long story short: in spite of giving itself a bit of a fright with the breadth of response to a general strike, it got a few easily crushed firebreathers to march out in arms. Baird and Hardie, two weavers (an artisan profession that had been particularly affected and therefore particularly radicalized by incipient industrialization), were two of its leaders.
While this blog naturally gravitates to the activities of the iron fist, the crown had wit enough to wear the velvet glove as well. Agitation like the Radical War and the Cato Street conspiracy helped shape the context of gradual constitutional concessions that enabled the British Empire to adapt itself to its changing circumstances. In 1822, the great Scottish jurist Lord Jeffrey (who defended Baird and Hardie at the bar) would write in a private correspondence, “I rather think we are tending to a revolution, steadily, though slowly — so slowly, that it may not come for fifty years yet.”
Traitors’ heads were all a part of the dialectic of authority and legitimacy, the prospect of popular violence in the streets and official violence on the scaffold helping validate moderate reforms as sensible accommodations by both state and populace.
As Gordon Pentland puts it,*
The lesson was one for putative radicals and the authorities as well — attempted risings and executions were to be expected if the opportunities to engage in constitutional activities … were shut down in favour of relying on the machinations of spies.
This lesson looks simple enough in retrospect. But states that did not heed it as the 19th century unfolded ultimately charted a very different course.
That intervening history, Pentland observes, has left layers of contesting interpretative frameworks to debate the proper understanding of the Radical War “martyrs”.
The usability of 1820 was enhanced by its leaving, like William Wallace, precious little in the way of documentary information on actions and intentions. This has allowed the martyrs to be imagined and reimagined in a number of different ways and recruited to a range of political narratives: as the innocent victims of rancorous Tory persecution and as an object lesson in the strengths of British popular constitutionalism; as heirs to the Covenanters and as exemplars of the continuing constitutional duty to resist tyranny; as prototype proletarian revolutionaries; and, latterly, as insurrectionary republican nationalists.
* “‘Betrayed by Infamous Spies’? The Commemoration of Scotland’s ‘Radical War’ of 1820″, Past & Present, November 2008, 201(1).
Ther was a youth whose name was Thomas Granger; he was servant to an honest man of Duxbery, being aboute 16 or 17 years of age. (His father and mother lived at the same time at Sityate.) He was this year detected of buggery (and indicted for the same) with a mare, a cowe, tow goats, five sheep, 2 calves, and a turkey. Horrible it is to mention, but the truth of the historie requires it. He was first discovered by one that accidentally saw his lewd practise towards the mare. (I forbear perticulers.) Being upon it examined and committed, in the end he not only confest the fact with that beast at that time, but sundrie times before, and at severall times with all the rest of the forenamed in his indictmente; and this his free-confession was not only in private to the magistrates, (though at first he strived to deney it,) but to sundrie, both ministers and others, and afterwards, upon his indictemente, to the whole court and jury; and confirmed it at his execution. And whereas some of the sheep could not so well be knowne by his description of them, others with them were brought before him, and he declared which were they, and which were not. And accordingly he was cast by the jury, and condemned, and after executed about the 8 of Sept 1642. A very sade spectakle it was; for first the mare, and then the cowe, and the rest of the lesser catle, were kild before his face, according to the law, Levit: 20.15 and then he him selfe was executed.* The catle were all cast into a great and large pitte that was digged of purposs for them, and no use made of any part of them.
Granger is the first juvenile known to be executed in the territory of the modern United States — if you like, you could read it as the start of a pattern, even though almost a century would pass before the next such execution. “Juvenile” is a relative term, of course, since we see our day’s victim across a historical redefinition (arguably, outright creation) of “childhood” in the centuries to come: Granger left a wife and daughter.
“Sodomy, rapes, buggery,” were one of the five classes of crimes punishable by death according to the Plymouth Colony’s 1636 statutes. Still, Granger’s is the only one of ten recorded Plymouth Colony executions not imposed for murder (Source, via.) — not that other hot-blooded Puritans, including later zoophiles, didn’t get themselves into hot water.
From the beginning, SIN
and the reason, note, known from the start
says Mr. Bradford: As it is with waters when
their streames are stopped or damed up, wickednes
(Morton, Morton, Morton)
here by strict laws as in no more,
or so much, that I have known or heard of,
and ye same nerly looked unto
so, as it cannot rune in a comone road of liberty
as it would, and is inclined,
it searches every wher (everywhere)
and breaks out wher it getts vente, says he
Rest, Tom, in your pit where they put you
a great & large pitte digged of purposs for them
of Duxbery, servant, being aboute 16. or 17. years of age
his father & mother living at the time at Sityate
espetially drunkennes & unclainnes
incontinencie betweene persons unmaried
but some maried persons allso
And that which is worse
(things fearfull to name)
HAVE BROAK FORTH OFTENER THAN ONCE
IN THIS LAND
indicated for ye same) with
a mare, a cowe, tow goats, five sheep, 2. calves
and a turkey (Plymouth Plantation)
Now follows ye ministers answers
Mr Charles Channcys a reverend, godly, very larned man
who shortly thereafter, due to a difference aboute baptising
he holding it ought only to be by diping
that sprinkling was unlawful, removed him selfe
to the same Sityate, a minister to ye church ther
in this case proved, by reference to ye judicials of Moyses
& see: Luther, Calvin, Hen: Bulin:. Theo: Beza. Zanch:
what greevous sin in ye sight of God,
by ye instigation of burning lusts, set on fire of hell,
to procede to contactum & fricationem ad emissionem seminis,
& yt contra naturam, or to attempt ye grosse acts of
Mr Bradford: I forbear perticulers.
And accordingly he was cast by ye jury,
It being demanded of him
the youth confessed he had it of another
who had long used it in old England,
and they kept cattle together.
And after executed about ye 8. Of Septr, 1642.
A very sade spectakle it was; for first the mare,
and then ye cowe, and ye rest of ye lesser catle,
were kild before his face, according to ye law
and then he him selfe
and no use made of any part of them
* The hangman, John Holmes — no, not that one — claimed a fee “for x weeks dyett for Granger £1., and for executing Granger and viij beasts, £2.10.0.” His count of executed beasts falls short of the total (12) enumerated by Bradford, presumably accounted by the difficulty in identifying the sheep.