1758: Not Florence Hensey, Seven Years’ War spy

1 comment July 12th, 2018 Headsman

The French spy Florence Hensey was due to die at Tyburn on this date in 1758. As it happened, the only violence done there was to the spectators.

A well-traveled Irish Catholic, Hensey had a prosperous London medical practice when he made an offer to a former colleague in France to share intelligence on war preparations at the outset of the England-vs.-France Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

Upon being accepted into the ranks of salaried moles, Hensey set his industry to forming acquaintances at establishments where parliamentarians and their clerks met and gossiped, transmitting the resulting nuggets to France by way of Germany in lemon juice ink concealed within letters bearing nothing but everyday pleasantries. Eventually clerks suspicious at the volume of such superficially trivial exchanges being imposed upon the international post got nosy and found out the real story.

Hensey’s treachery was obvious, ongoing, and in the midst of wartime. He should have died for it, but on that very morning he was spared that miserable fate. The Newgate calendar professes “much surprise at the extension of royal mercy” considering numerous other precedents to the contrary.

De la Motte, the particulars of whose case we shall hereafter give, was “hanged, drawn, and quartered,” for the same kind of offence which Hensey committed; and in still more recent times, numbers have suffered death for similar treason; and yet we have to observe, without finding any especial reason for it, that Doctor Hensey was pardoned. If granted from political motives, it must have been in fear of Spain; an unworthy impulse of the ministers of a far greater and more powerful nation.

Indeed, the Spanish connection appears to be the best explanation for Hensey’s unexpected reprieve: he had a brother in the retinue of a Spanish ambassador who was able to exercise his empire’s diplomatic channels in the doctor’s service. (Spain was on the sidelines at this moment, and Britain keen to keep her there; the Spanish finally joined the war on France’s side very late in the game, in 1762.)

This gambit, however, came as quite a nasty surprise to the ample and bloodthirsty crowd that had turned up at Tyburn.

The awful procession to Tyburn, intended to impress the multitude with sentiments of reverence for the laws of their country, produced a very contrary effect; and the eager and detestable curiosity of the populace, to witness executions, became a source of considerable emolument to certain miscreants, who were in the habit of erecting scaffolds for spectators; many of these scaffolds were substantial wooden buildings, and erected at every point from whence a glimpse of the execution could be obtained; the prices for seats varied according to the turpitude or quality of the criminal: — Dr. Hensey was to have been executed for High Treason in 1758, the prices of seats for that exhibition amounted to 2s. and 2s. 6d.; but, in the midst of general expectation, the Doctor was most provokingly reprieved.

As the mob descended from their stations with unwilling steps, it occurred to them, that, as they had been deprived of the intended entertainment, the proprietors of the seats ought to return the admission-money; which they demanded in terms vociferous, and with blows offensive, and in short, exercised their happy talent for rioting with unbounded success. On this occasion a vast number of these erections were destroyed.

Hensey spent a couple more years in Newgate, then was released into obscurity; presumably he left the realm to his brother’s custody.

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1757: Father Andreas Faulhaber, seal of the confessional martyr

Add comment December 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1757, Catholic priest Andreas Faulhaber was hanged at the order of Frederick the Great to defend the seal of the confessional.

Frederick had been appointed by the Heavenly Father, and a cruel earthly one, to a task far too monumental to tarry with theology: lifting the Kingdom of Prussia from the morass of German principalities and into the ranks of Europe’s great powers. Frederick was nominally a Protestant, as was the bulk of his domain, and der Alte Fritz once remarked that this profession pleasingly liberated his sovereignty from papal interference; his real doctrine was nothing but pragmatism.

Accordingly, the great enlightened absolutist sponsored Jesuit educators where schools were needed and Jewish merchants where trade was needed.

Disgusted at Frederick’s aggressive war on Austria, Voltaire scribbled to a friend,

I’ve seen his good intentions dropped
At the first trumpet blast.
They are nothing more than kings;
And live their lives with bloody things,
They take or rape a few provinces
To suit their ambitious ends
I give up, say goodbye princes
I want no one now but friends.

(Source)

But Voltaire did not in fact break with his royal admirer and correspondent over Silesia.

Frederick christened his new reign in 1740-42 by ripping the wealthy* province of Silesia away from the Habsburgs.

The Habsburgs were Prussia’s Catholic rivals for preeminence in central Europe and Silesia too was heavily Catholic, so Frederick extended over that province as liberal a grant of religious toleration as he might.

But the attachments of men for the kings of their forefathers are not always so easily displaced, and neither are those of kings for the most lucrative soil of their patrimony. Austria made two subsequent attempts to retrieve Silesia; together with Frederick’s initial invasion, these are the Silesian Wars.

The last of the three was itself just one theater of the gigantic Seven Years’ War. The conflict between Prussia and Austria over Silesia, and the complex continental diplomatic entanglements** each power effected in its pursuit, were among the root causes of that entire globe-spanning conflict.

Prussia won the first two Silesian Wars handily, but the third was a much more doubtful affair — indeed, Prussia was well on its way to defeat before the shock death of the Russian empress delivered that country into the hands of an unabashed Germanophile who pulled Russia out of the war.

But in view of Frederick the Great’s strained situation prior to this providential deliverance, some of his Silesian subjects made free to prefer their prospective Catholic/Austrian allegiance to that of their recent conqueror.

Desertions among Silesian conscripts, some of them even escaping to Austrian lines, called down the dark side of the religious toleration policy. Frederick let people pray as they liked so that he could rule as he liked; here, when he suspected the Silesian Catholic clergy of countenancing wartime disloyalty among their flock, those religious scruples had overstepped their proper sphere.

And so at last we come to our day’s execution.

One young man caught attempting to desert Frederick’s army was captured and interrogated by his commanders. He allowed that he had undertaken the sacrament of confession before escaping, and expressed to the priest his intention to abandon the army.

The priest, Father Andreas Faulhaber, was arrested on this basis, but between his calm defense of himself and the deserter’s shifting, unreliable story, the military court found little basis to proceed. The impression one gets is that the contemplated desertion was not the main thrust of the confession and that Father Faulhaber accordingly discouraged the sin in passing but didn’t bother to dwell on the point.

The impression is difficult to substantiate because the padre rigorously kept the seal of the confessional — another imposition demanded by faith that secular authorities who had armies to field preferred not to honor.

But evidently looking to serve notice that the monarch’s religious indifference could not be used to abrogate subjects’ responsibility to the state, Frederick himself ordered Faulhaber’s sudden execution for the morning of December 30.

The unfortunate priest only discovered his impending fate moments before it was enacted, but still refused under the makeshift gallows to give up anything incriminating about his parishioner. “Hang up the Jesuit Faulhaber, but let him not have a confessor,” read the order, according to this decidedly Catholic account, which adds that Faulhaber was not actually a Jesuit at all, and the word only added to invoke the going 18th century prejudice against that order.

Prussia won this war, too. It kept Silesia in Prussian hands, and then German hands, for two centuries. The bulk of Silesia was transferred to Poland after World War II.

* Silesia provided one-quarter of all the Habsburgs’ tax revenue, according to Frederick the Great: A Life in Deed and Letters.

** For the Seven Years’ War, Austria made common cause with its traditional foe, France: one consequence of this arrangement was the betrothal of the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette to the future French king Louis XVI.

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1763: Gabriela Silang

1 comment September 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1763, the mestiza Philippines national hero Maria Josefa Gabriela Carino Silang was captured and summarily hanged — along with a number of the soldiers she had led against the Spanish.


Monument to Gabriela Silang in Makati City, Philippines. (cc) image from Jun Acullador.

Gabriela took primary leadership of a 2,000-strong rebel army after its co-leader, her husband Diego, was assassinated by his enemies in May 1763.

Said enemies were the Spanish colonial authorities, whom Diego and his helpmate Gabriela had raised revolt against and with an army wielding homemade muskets and blowguns, driven from the capital of Ilocos Sur. It was Great Britain’s occupation of the Philippines during the Seven Years War that opened the opportunity for the rebellion: the British even appointed Diego Silang governor of the province his army was in the process of conquering. They just didn’t actually help him.

Spain’s assault on the rebels, once organized, was sufficiently overwhelming to drive Gabriela Silang out of the city of Vigan, and then to repel her counterattack — the occasion for her capture and her death.

Gabriela Silang is memorialized in a number of monuments and place names in the Philippines; the women’s organization GABRIELA also engineered its acronym to pay tribute to her.

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1766: Thomas Arthur de Lally-Tollendal, undiplomatic

Add comment May 9th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1766, a refugee noble with more honor than sense lost his head in Paris.

Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally, baron de Tollendal — more efficiently known as Lally, or as Lally-Tollendal, though he’s not to be confused in this with his son, a French Revolution bit player — entered this world in County Galway, the child of a minor lord.

Since said lord hewed to the Jacobite party favoring restoration of the Stuarts to the English throne, the family found itself relocated with the exiled Pretender to a continental power whose spiritual and temporal interests were similarly inimical to the Hanoverian king.

Our man landed himself, like a proper retainer of his adoptive liege, a gig in the French army in which capacity he actually served at the Jacobites’ last doomed British hurrah, the 1746 Battle of Falkirk.

But his problems came from his Bourbon service much further afield — in India.

There, his expeditionary force suffered reversal after reversal at the hands of the hated Brits, even then in the process of appending India to their dominions.

Our general’s military misadventures were compounded by impolitic high-handedness towards his officers and men, and to the locals whose alliances he needed. He was, in the main, a man ill-suited to the job entrusted to him. As the Memoirs of Sanson remark, “his temper, his obstinacy, and especially his contempt for all means of action except brutal strength, were destined to lead him into mistakes in a position demanding more knowledge of politics than science of war. Sixteen years before Lally-Tollendal’s appointment, Dupleix, with scanty forces, at enmity with the Company, receiving neither help nor subsidies from the mother country, had held in check English power in the Indian peninsula by mere diplomatic proficiency. Lally knew how to conquer; but he was incapable of studying and detecting the secrets of Dupleix’s policy.”

By the time the bad news that established all this hit France, the subcontinent was pretty much Britain’s to command — just another piece of the imperial butt-kicking France suffered in the Seven Years’ War.

And Lally’s enemies were holding him personally responsible as a potential traitor. After all, he was conveniently now in English custody.

Incensed at having his honor impugned, Lally unwisely obtained English parole to return to repel these charges. He proved no more diplomatic with the barristers than he had been with the Hindus:

he was so convinced of his own innocence that he was imprudent enough to impeach the officers who had served under his orders, together with the administrators of the colony. He charged them with such violence that his death and condemnation became indispensable for their justification … When the accused appeared before his judges, he was no more able to control his temper than when he was in India … answering, fuming, retorting, stigmatising the cowardice of some, the cupidity of others, and hinting that the only guilty party was the powerless Government.

Just the sort of vindication liable to appeal more to posterity than to said government. Louis XV, another man unequal to his position, was by this autumn of his reign plumbing the nadir of his unpopularity; for the officer who had risked his life in battle under French colors throughout adulthood, Louis calculated more profit in severity (or expedience) than in clemency. Hey, it had worked for the English.

And really, for a Stuart adherent, sacrificial execution was kind of an apt fate.

We guess it worked.

“The people were pleased with all that made his punishment ignominious: the cart, the handcuffs, and the gag,” recorded aristocrat-of-letters Madame du Deffand (Source) “He was a great rascal, and besides he was very disagreeable.”

Thomas Carlyle, in his The French Revolution, spared in Lally’s defense a few sentences of delicious invective for the rotting regime that did him in.

The Parlement of Paris may count itself an unloved body; mean, not magnanimous, on the political side. Were the King weak, always (as now) has his Parlement barked, cur-like at his heels; with what popular cry there might be. Were he strong, it barked before his face; hunting for him as his alert beagle. An unjust Body; where foul influences have more than once worked shameful perversion of judgment. Does not, in these very days, the blood of murdered Lally cry aloud for vengeance? Baited, circumvented, driven mad like the snared lion, Valour had to sink extinguished under vindictive Chicane. Behold him, that hapless Lally, his wild dark soul looking through his wild dark face; trailed on the ignominious death-hurdle; the voice of his despair choked by a wooden gag! The wild fire-soul that has known only peril and toil; and, for threescore years, has buffeted against Fate’s obstruction and men’s perfidy, like genius and courage amid poltroonery, dishonesty and commonplace; faithfully enduring and endeavouring,–O Parlement of Paris, dost thou reward it with a gibbet and a gag?

There’s a public-domain 19th century lecture on our man’s adventurous career here. And there’s a monument back home near Tuam, Ireland.

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1757: Admiral John Byng

5 comments March 14th, 2010 Headsman

Every Person in the Fleet, who through Cowardice, Negligence, or Disaffection, shall in Time of Action withdraw or keep, or not come into the Fight or Engagement, or shall not to do his utmost to take or destroy every Ship which it shall be his Duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of his Majesty’s Ships, or those of his Allies, which it shall be his Duty to assist and relieve, every such Person so offending, and being convicted thereof the Sentence of a Court-martial, shall suffer Death.

-British Articles of War (1749)

On this date in 1757, English Admiral John Byng was shot to death by musketry on the quarterdeck of the HMS Monarque for failing to “do his utmost” to defend Minorca against the French.

The first and last man of that rank executed by the Royal Navy, Byng was one of 15 (!) children of an ennobled admiral. He’d been 40 years at sea himself, a competent, forgettable senior officer unburdened by genius.

The 1750s found him in service of a listless British Empire sliding towards war with France.

London had her eye mostly on the North American conflict already underway … but that conflagration was about to jump the pond.

In 1756, the Brits belatedly realized the French were about to grab the Mediterranean island/naval base of Minorca (Menorca) from them, and dispatched a too-little, too-late expedition under Admiral Byng.

By the time he got there, the French already had Minorca in hand, save the last, besieged garrison. Byng attempted to land reinforcements for the garrison — without enthusiasm, since he perceived the inadequacy of his force — and was repelled in an inconclusive naval engagement.

The loss of Minorca raised the curtain on the Seven Years War: the first “world war,” in Winston Churchill’s reckoning, in which European alliances would duke it out for continent and colonies.

But it dropped the curtain on the ill-starred Admiral Byng.

Popular outrage at the military setback had the Duke of Newcastle‘s government scrambling to find a scapegoat, and the commander on the scene fit the bill exactly.

A gloating French account of the engagement — “the English had the advantage of the wind, but still seemed unwilling to fight” — reached Albion’s shores ahead of the admiral’s dispatch; when the latter arrived, it was publicly leaked in unflatteringly redacted form that generally made Byng look like a big fraidy-cat.

Having been thus attainted in the court of public opinion, the admiral was hailed before a court martial and convicted of not doing enough to relieve the English garrison and generally not fighting a very good fight.

Only one penalty was prescribed for this offense: death.

“The officers who composed this tribunal” themselves had such misgivings about shooting an officer for an on-the-scene tactical miscalculation “unanimously subscribed a letter to the board of admiralty [reading] ‘for our own consciences sake, as well as in justice to the prisoner, we pray your lordships, in the most earnest manner, to recommend him to his majesty’s clemency.'”

But Hanoverian George II had no upside in getting involved. He faced complaints enough wringing the revenue out of Englanders to defend a hereditary German electorate of no consequence to British security; what sense could there be in antagonizing the irritated masses by going to bat for the official fall guy in the realm’s scandalous military reversal?

On the day fixed for his execution [relates the Newgate Calendar] the boats belonging to the squadron at Spithead being manned and armed, containing their captains and officers, with a detachment of marines, attended this solemnity in the harbour, which was also crowded with an infinite number of other boats and vessels filled with spectators. About noon, the Admiral having taken leave of a clergyman, and two friends who accompanied him, walked out of the great cabin to the quarter-deck, where two files of marines were ready to execute the sentence. He advanced with a firm deliberate step, a composed and resolute countenance, and resolved to suffer with his face uncovered, until his friends, representing that his looks would possibly intimidate the soldiers, and prevent their taking aim properly, he submitted to their request, threw his hat on the deck, kneeled on a cushion, tied one white handkerchief over his eyes, and dropped the other as a signal for his executioners, who fired a volley so decisive, that five balls passed through his body, and he dropped down dead in an instant. The time in which this tragedy was acted, from his walking out of the cabin to his being deposited in the coffin, did not exceed three minutes.


The execution of John Byng, from the British National Maritime Museum.

Thus fell, to the astonishment of all Europe, Admiral John Byng; who, whatever his errors and indiscretions might have been, was at least rashly condemned, meanly given up, and cruelly sacrificed to vile political intrigues.

A school of thought does exist that the empire reaped from its rash, mean, and cruel example a generation of aggressive captains and commodores — or, as Voltaire put it shortly afterwards in Candide, “it is thought good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.” (“pour encourager les autres”)

Whatever the morale effects, the British soon rallied from their early setbacks in the Seven Years’ War and emerged from the conflict undisputed masters of North America and India.

And they even got Minorca back, too.

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1793: Marie Antoinette

16 comments October 16th, 2008 Headsman

This afternoon in Paris, 1793, the French Revolution devoured the Queen.

Thirteen-year-old Madame Antoine — a year before marriage, and rebranding as Marie Antoinette. A vast gallery of her portraiture awaits here.

Among the most emblematic death penalty victims in history, Marie Antoinette — the “widow Capet,” as she was styled in egalite, after the guillotine shortened her husband — had the bad luck to personify the decadence of the ancien regime under the hegemony of the sans-culotte.

(And, of course, the good luck to be born heir to all the perks of absolutism she enjoyed for the first thirty-plus years of life. So, you know: a mixed bag.)

Those infamous excesses — and her infamous alleged bon mot, “let them eat cake” — are said to have been greatly exaggerated, nothing that everyone wasn’t doing, nothing that wasn’t understandable under the circumstances.

She had a gift, it seems, for accumulating to her personal reputation the outrage incurred by every gross and petty indulgence of the old order. And she had a popular press, the libelles, ready to embroider them salaciously.

Poor Marie.

Jacques-Louis David sketched this portrait of a haggard Marie Antoinette en route to the guillotine.

Cruel, wanton, senseless … her death was all of these, but then many others in the Terror suffered the same, as many others had under the Bourbons.

As royal dynastic pairings go, she’d been dealt a bad hand.

Her mere presence in France was fruit of the controversial policy of alliance with the Austrian Habsburgs from the Seven Years’ War, and she was trundled off with her dowry and her teenage wiles to the foreign snakepit of Versailles just as the minister advancing that policy fell. Distrusted by the French as an Austrian catspaw, castigated by her family for her inadequacies thereto, socially expected to display conspicuous regal largesse during a budget crisis not of her making, and unable for the longest time to get a successful coition from her indifferent and/or impotent husband, it must have seemed to her some days like every play was a losing one.

She struggled to gain traction at court. But she would lose much more than influence.

I was a queen, and you took away my crown; a wife, and you killed my husband; a mother, and you deprived me of my children. My blood alone remains: take it, but do not make me suffer long. (WikiQuote)

Her bearing she kept forever: in a kangaroo court with a foreordained outcome where her imperious dignity still managed to turn aside an accusation of sexual abuse her son had been cajoled into supplying; on the scaffold, when she did not neglect courtesy to the executioner whose foot she trod:

“Monsieur, je vous demande pardon. Je ne l’ai pas fait exprès.”

For much more queenliness, Marie-Antoinette.org delivers what the url promises, in quantity. If this figure or this period appeals, be sure to browse its forums.

Naturally, the doomed queen has had plenty of attention from printed word as well:

A few books about Marie Antoinette

As well as less, er, traditional media.

Part of the Themed Set: Belles Epoque.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,France,Guillotine,Habsburg Realm,History,Martyrs,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Royalty,Scandal,The Worm Turns,Treason,Women

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