1530: Johnnie Armstrong, border reiver

Add comment July 5th, 2018 Headsman

Scottish “border reiver” John Armstrong of Gilnockie was hanged on this date in 1530 with his followers at Caerlanrig, without benefit of trial.

The job description of the border reiver was to, well, reave the border. These mounted raiders exploited the wide gaps in sovereignty that opened along the ill-controlled England-Scotland border throughout the 16th century (their heyday) and indeed for centuries prior. They plundered vulnerable* farmers both north and south of the notional line. Sometimes the prize was livestock; other times, the “black rent” due your basic protection racket would suffice.

Their presence left an indelible imprint on the Anglo-Scottish marches, from the farmhouse fortresses called bastle houses to provisions in the “March Law” governing the manner of permissible counter-raiding.

Nettlesome as they were, they also stood useful mercenaries hired out for a number of the era’s battles; notably, English-hired reivers held off a much larger Scottish incursion in 1542. Only with the union of the crowns under James VI of Scotland/James I of England were the reivers finally suppressed.**

Johnny/Johnnie Armstrong, the younger brother of Thomas, Laird of Mangerton, is perhaps the most lasting legend among them — thanks to the signal boost he would later receive from Sir Walter Scott. Chief of a reiver band 160 strong, Armstrong made himself enough of a headache for English-Scottish diplomacy that the Scots king James V resorted to treachery to eliminate him. Having dialed up the frontier “prince” for a meeting, James simply had the sharp-dressed marauder arrested and summarily hanged when the reiver came to call. Thirty-six of his fellow reivers died with him.

Johnny Armstrong is the subject and the title of a notable child ballad (no. 169) whose lyrics can be perused in their entirety here; several renditions of its climactic third chapter can be found in the usual places.

John murdred was at Carlinrigg,
And all his galant companie;
But Scotlands heart was never sae wae,
To see sae mony brave men die.

Because they savd their country deir
Frae Englishmen; nane were sae bauld,
Whyle Johnie livd on the border-syde,
Nane of them durst cum neir his hald.

* “Vulnerable” mostly meant, neither in the ambit of a powerful protector, nor of the reiver’s own clan.

** A subsequent echo of the border reivers — in the same vein and the same region, but clearly distinct from them — emerged later in the 17th century in the form of the moss troopers.

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326: Crispus and Fausta, incestuous lovers?

Add comment July 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around late July of 321,* the Roman emperor Constantine the Great had his son and also his wife mysteriously put to death.

It’s mysterious because besides execution, Constantine had a damnatio memoriae passed over his former family to bury any record of their sins in Time’s obscurity. These edicts didn’t always work … but in this case, if there were any who dared to record what happened, that illicit account did not survive its journey from antiquity.

But it was surely a shocking scandal in its time.

Crispus was Constantine’s first-born son and very much in the father’s favor. He was the child of a wife or concubine named Minervina. In 307, Constantine put this woman aside to make a more politically expedient marriage to Fausta, the daughter of Diocletian‘s retired-now-unretired co-emperor Maximian who with his son Maxentius held sway in Italy at that moment of the Roman Tetrarchy‘s ongoing collapse.**

Although Crispus didn’t offer his dad much in this situation by way of family alliances, Constantine kept him in his favor — by all appearances grooming him as an heir. Call it paying it forward: as a young man, Constantine himself had been in a similar position when his father Constantius dumped Constantine’s peasant mother in favor of an imperial marriage. That moment might have strangled a world-historic career before it even began, but Constantius instead chose to keep Constantine on the paternal cursus honorum.

So it went with Crispus — for a while.

In 317, Constantine, now emperor in the western part of the empire,† made Crispus into his Caesar; the boy ruled in Gaul and Germania for several years, thrashing barbarian tribes as he ought. Dad, meanwhile, was maneuvering towards victory over his eastern opposite number Licinius, with Crispus contributing an important naval victory in 324.

The young man (in his twenties at this time; his precise year of birth is uncertain) seemed on his way to a scintillating future.


Bronze coin from the mint of Rome depicting Crispus.

Things went pear-shaped suddenly in 326 when his father had him executed without any kind of warning that survives in the scant records available to us — and not only Crispus, but also Constantine’s own wife, that Fausta whose marriage might have threatened the boy’s status.

We don’t know why but the rumor as trafficked by the much later Byzantine historian Zosimus suggests a possible Parisina and Ugo scenario: “He put to death his son Crispus, styled Caesar, on suspicion of debauching his mother-in-law Fausta, without any regard to the ties of nature … [and] causing a bath to be heated to an extraordinary degree, he shut up Fausta in it, and a short time after took her out dead.”

It is down to conjecture what one ought to make of this nth-hand scandal-mongering; for impugning someone’s character one can hardly do better than an incest accusation. The story does appear to fit the few available facts, however, and Fausta was much closer in age to Crispus than to Constantine. It might also be noteworthy that three of Fausta’s sons went on to become Emperor and one daughter Empress but none of them ever rehabilitated mom.

Damned memory be damned, Crispus was rediscovered during the Renaissance and favored with several dramatic renditions embellishing the young man as a tragic hero, often with speculation that he was wrongly condemned to Constantine’s everlasting shame.‡ The events surrounding Crispus’s death being almost entirely obscured, writers could really go nuts with it; for example, Sir Walter Scott‘s Count Robert of Paris (set in Constantinople during the Crusades) features the story of an entirely fictitious penance built into subsequent Byzantine execution rituals by a remorseful Constantine:

But the death-blow had no sooner struck the innocent youth, than his father obtained proof of the rashness with which he had acted. He had at this period been engaged in constructing the subterranean parts of the Blacquernal palace, which his remorse appointed to contain a record of his paternal grief and contrition. At the upper part of the staircase, called the Pit of Acheron, he caused to be constructed a large chamber, still called the Hall of Judgment, for the purpose of execution. A passage through an archway in the upper wall leads from the hall to the place of misery, where the axe, or other engine, is disposed for the execution of state prisoners of consequence. Over this archway was placed a species of marble altar, surmounted by an image of the unfortunate Crispus — the materials were gold, and it bore the memorable inscription, TO MY SON, WHOM I RASHLY CONDEMNED, AND TOO HASTILY EXECUTED. When constructing this passage, Constantine made a vow, that he himself and his posterity, being reigning Emperors, would stand beside the statue of Crispus, at the time when any individual of their family should be led to execution, and before they suffered him to pass from the Hall of Judgment to the Chamber of Death, that they should themselves be personally convinced of the truth of the charge under which he suffered.

* Approximate times around the spring and summer of 326 have been proposed by various authors based on the very vague allusions of ancient sources. This author argues that numismatic evidence permits a more precise triangulation. Constantine in 326 journeyed from his new capital in the east to Rome: an imperial mint traveled with him, striking coins as it went — and some of those coins show Crispus. His presence on coins from various stops of this journey indicates that Crispus must have been alive as the procession reached Rome on July 21, 326, but the Caesar vanishes from them, and from history, immediately thereafter.

** The History of Rome Podcast narrates this period, with Constantine’s rise into political relevance in episode 130.

† The Tetrarchy was still tetrarching along pending Constantine’s victory over all: the system featured separate senior emperors East and West each dignified Augustus, and each Augustus had a junior fellow-emperor and heir titled Caesar. Constantine was Augustus of the West, and Crispus was a Caesar.

‡ Fausta tends to get somewhat shorter shrift than her putative lover. Crispus’s presence in the literary culture would appear to make him the namesake of the Boston American Revolution martyr Crispus Attucks. African-descended men in North America often carried Roman names, though “Crispus” was by no means a common one.

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1581: James Douglas, Earl of Morton

Add comment June 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1581, James Douglas, the Earl of Morton was beheaded on the Maiden.

The fourth and last of little King James‘s regents, Morton was arguably the most able of the bunch and distinguished his span of authority by winning the raging civil war against James’s mother Mary.

Regent Morton had a reputation for avarice during his run in the 1570s. However, deriving as it does from his executive impingement on the treasures of courtiers and clans no less grasping than himself, that reputation probably ought to be taken with a grain of salt.


Rimshot

If nothing else, Regent Morton had the excuse of king and country. Sir Walter Scott, for one, favored this Red Douglas with a much more charitably statesmanlike gloss in The Monastery and The Abbott.

As one example, Morton irked divines by enforcing with a minimum of pious exceptions a pre-existing statute requiring a one-third cut of ecclesiastical revenues.

Likewise, he made an enemy of Lady Agnes Keith — the widow of the assassinated first regent — and her (subsequent) husband, the Earl of Argyll by forcing them to turn over crown jewels that were being held in their quote-unquote safekeeping.

In 1578, this Argyll kidnapped King James VI and induced the 12-year-old to declare his majority and dismiss the Earl of Morton. Argyll landed a Chancellorship out of the deal: Morton — well, you know. He would eventually be accused, 14 years’ belatedly but not inaccurately, of complicity in the 1567 murder of Lord Darnley.

Argyll in the end lost his head to that distinctive Scottish proto-guillotine known as the Maiden. Though the apparatus actually dates back to 1564,* a legend as moralistic as it is specious holds that the Regent Morton was himself the man who ordered construction of the device that would eventually end his own life. Sir Walter could hardly be asked to resist that kind of material:

“Look you, Adam, I were loth to terrify you, and you just come from a journey; but I promise you, Earl Morton hath brought you down a Maiden from Halifax, you never saw the like of her — and she’ll clasp you round the neck, and your head will remain in her arms.”

“Pshaw!” answered Adam, “I am too old to have my head turned by any maiden of them all. I know my Lord of Morton will go as far for a buxom lass as anyone; but what the devil took him to Halifax all the way? and if he has got a gamester there, what hath she to do with my head?”

“Much, much!” answered Michael. “Herod’s daughter, who did such execution with her foot and ankle, danced not men’s heads off more cleanly than this maiden of Morton. ‘Tis an axe, man, — an axe which falls of itself like a sash window, and never gives the headsmen the trouble to wield it.”

“By my faith, a shrewd device,” said Woodcock; “heaven keep us free on’t!”

-Sir Walter Scott, The Abbott

When next in Edinburgh, quaff Scots engineering acumen with the friendly backpackers crashing at the High Street Hostel — the glorious stone town house that was once Regent Morton’s very own crib.


By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Feast Day of St. Jude

Add comment October 28th, 2012 Headsman

This is the feast date (in Christianity’s western tradition) of Saint Jude.

Possibly one of the bit players among Jesus’s original 12 apostles — “Jude”/”Judah”/”Judas” was a common name among first-century Israelites, so there’s some confusion about the identities among various texts talking about various (?) Judes — St. Jude is aptly-for-this-blog considered the patron saint of “lost causes” or “situations despaired of”.

He’s traditionally supposed to have knocked around the eastern Mediterranean after the Nazarene‘s crucifixion, introducing Christianity (along with St. Bartholomew) to Armenia, which eventually became the first officially Christian kingdom. (Jude is also a patron saint of Armenia; his other patronage gigs include the Philippines, the Chicago Police Department, a a Brazilian football club, and countless hospitals.)

Despite making so many sad songs better, Jude was eventually martyred, possibly in Armenia, allegedly by halberd; as a consequence, that sinuous poleaxe is Jude’s iconographic symbol on the relatively rare occasions when he’s artistically depicted. It’s also something you can buy in pendant form: come on … embrace The Halberd. But again, there are different versions as to who martyred Jude and where, and considerable confusion over how many Judes those versions might be conflating.

At any rate, for those up against the executioner and despairing of any but the most improbable deliverance, St. Jude is your man.

There’s even St. Jude software which prevents execution … of rootkit exploits.

I, Francis Steinernherz, will be the first noble of my profession, where I shall have despatched one more knight of the Empire.”

“Thou hast been ever in my service, hast thou not?” demanded De Hagenbach.

“Under what other master,” replied the executioner, “could I have enjoyed such constant practice? I have executed your decrees on condemned sinners since I could swing a scourge, lift a crow-bar, or wield this trusty weapon; and who can say I even failed of my first blow, or needed to deal a second? The term of the Hospital, and his famous assistants, Petit Andre, and Trois Eschelles, are novices compared with me in the use of the noble and knightly sword. Marry, I should be ashamed to match myself with them in the field practice with bowstring and dagger, these are no feats worthy of a Christian man who would rise to honor and nobility.”

“Thou art a fellow of excellent address, and I do not deny it,” replied De Hagenbach. “But it cannot be — I trust it can — not be — that when noble blood is becoming scarce in the land, and proud churls are lording it over knights and barons, I myself should have caused so much to be spilled?”

“I will number the patients to your excellency by name and title,” said Francis, drawing out a scroll of parchment, and reading with a commentary as he went on, — ” There was Count William of Elvershoe — he was my assay-piece, a sweet youth, and died most like a Christian.”

“I remember — he was indeed a most smart youth, and courted my mistress,” said Sir Archibald.

“He died on St. Jude’s, in the year of grace 1455,” said the executioner.

-Sir Walter Scott, Anne of Geierstein

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1736: Andrew Wilson, in the Heart of Midlothian

Add comment April 14th, 2012 Headsman

“The mob of Edinburgh, when thoroughly excited, had been at all times one of the fiercest which could be found in Europe.”

-Walter Scott, Heart of Midlothian

Cycles of violence often climax in executions. On this date in 1736, the execution of Andrew Wilson instead initiated the cycle … which culminated in one of the most notorious riots in Scottish history.

Worthy fodder indeed for Scott’s pen.

That January, Wilson, George Robertson, and William Hall had robbed an excise tax collector of £200, earning all three of them a death sentence. Hall drew a commutation, and Robertson spectacularly escaped from the condemned men’s sermon when he bolted for the door while Wilson obstructed the guards. (All the civilians present stood aside for the fleeing man, who successfully reached Holland and safety.)

Public sympathy for the self-sacrificing Wilson — whose victim was collecting a much-resented levy for the much-resented new British Union — had become acute by April 14th, when Wilson was to be publicly executed in the Grassmarket.

A great, and tense, crowd turned out for the occasion. The poet Allan Ramsay was present among them.

[The escape of Robertson] made them take a closer care of Wilson who had the best character of them all (til his foly made him seek reprisals at his own hand), which had gaind him so much pity as to raise a report that a great mob would rise on his execution day to relieve him, which noise put our Magistrates on their guard and maybe made some of them unco flayd [unusually afraid] as was evidenced by their inviting in 150 of the Regement that lys [lies] in Cannongate, who were all drawn up in the Lawn Market, while the criminal was conducted to the tree by Captain Porteous and a strong party of the City Guard.

This Captain John Porteous of the also-resented Edinburgh City Guard was not a well-calculated selection to calm everyone’s nerves.

He’d hooked up the lucrative officers’ appointment courtesy of political pull, then proceeded to become a violent, overbearing ass and “procured him the universal hatred of the people in that city.”

Wilson was executed, as Ramsay says, “with all decency & quietnes,” but when the body was being removed the irritable crowd favored its obnoxious guards with a few missiles. Porteous, who obviously wasn’t the turn-the-other-cheek type, destructively escalated the confrontation.

After he was cut down and the guard drawing up to go off, some unlucky boys threw a stone or two at the hangman, which is very common, on which the brutal Porteous (who it seems had ordered his party to load their guns with ball) let drive first himself amongst the inocent mob and commanded his men to folow his example which quickly cleansed the street but left three men, a boy and a woman dead upon the spot, besides several others wounded, some of whom are dead since. After this first fire he took it in his head when half up the Bow to order annother voly & kill’d a taylor in a window three storys high, a young gentleman & a son of Mr Matheson the minister’s and several more were dangerously wounded and all this from no more provocation than what I told you before, the throwing of a stone or two that hurt no body. Believe this to be true, for I was ane eye witness and within a yard or two of being shot as I sat with some gentlemen in a stabler’s window oposite to the Galows. After this the crazy brute march’d with his ragamuffins to the Guard, as if he had done nothing worth noticing but was not long there till the hue and cry rose from them that had lost friends & servants, demanding justice. … I could have acted more discreetly had I been in Porteous’s place.

There were up to 30 casualties, and the temper of that fierce Edinburgh mob went from bad to worse over the ensuing months.

Authorities were obliged by public outrage to arrest Porteous for murder, and in an electric trial with a good deal of witness testimony scrambled by the post-hanging chaos, Porteous himself was condemned to hang.

We might, however, suppose with Scott that “if Captain Porteous’s violence was not altogether regarded as good service, it might certainly be thought, that to visit it with a capital punishment would render it both delicate and dangerous for future officers” — to say nothing of the “natural feeling, on the part of all members of Government, for the general maintenance of authority.” It’s not as if there are a lot of cops charged with capital crimes today for even the most egregious homicides.

Intervention to block the hanging came straight from London at the instigation of first Prime Minister Robert Walpole, whose intervention was also not liable to tame any passions. Instead …

In the ensuing riot, an Edinburgh lynch mob overpowered Captain Porteous’s guards at the Tolbooth and hauled the scoundrel out to the Grassmarket where he was beaten and hanged on a dyer’s pole.

Despite a £200 reward for the authors of Porteous’s death, and a passing Parliamentary threat to revoke the city’s charter altogether, no Edinburgher ever talked, and no person was ever prosecuted for the Porteous riots.


It was not until 1973, with “all passion spent”, that this memorial stone was erected for John Porteous in Greyfriars Kirkyard. (cc) image from Kio Stark.

The Heart of Midlothian, Scott’s novel that features these infamous riots, was also the nickname for the the Old Tolbooth, the Edinburgh gaol where both Wilson and Porteous were housed before their respective unfortunate demises. Today, the Heart only remains as a literal heart-shaped mosaic in the city’s paving-stones marking the building’s former location.

Generations of passersby have paused to hawk a loogie on this design as a gesture of the citizenry’s lasting contempt for the long-demolished prison.


The present-day “Heart of Midlothian” in Edinburgh’s paving-stones. (cc) image from Lee Carson.

Much less hostile is the reception given Walter Scott’s oeuvre.

The names of the novelist’s books and their characters were often repurposed by Scots to name nigh anything … stuff like, a Heart of Midlothian Dancing Club in Edinburgh, from which in turn emerged a cadre of sportive youth who formed the still-extant Heart of Midlothian Football Club.

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1640: Bishop John Atherton, buggerer

1 comment December 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1640, John Atherton achieved the unenviable distinction of being the only Anglican bishop hanged for buggery.* (His proctor, and alleged lover, John Childe, got the same treatment a few months later.)


Suppose a Devill from th’infernall Pit,
More Monsterlike, then ere was Devill yet,
Contrary to course, taking a male fiend
To Sodomize with him, such was the mind
Of this Lord Bishop, he did take a Childe
By name, not years, acting a sinne so vilde
-From the text of the pamphlet this image decorates

The Oxford-educated Englishman was appointed Lord Bishop of Waterford and Lismore by King Charles‘s hated governor Thomas Wentworth.

It may well have been the internecine politics of the day that claimed Atherton’s life, just as the civil wars they engendered in the ensuing decades claimed the original trial records.

While posterity is left to speculation, Atherton was defended in print in those years as well. (Defended as no homo, that is — not defended on principle against ubiquitous anti-gay laws.) If it wasn’t really a voracious sexual appetite (not exclusively same-sex**), goes this argument, it was intra-Protestant infighting, with Atherton’s successful clawback of land for the weak Irish Anglican church stepping on the toes of the local land barons who had recently expropriated it.

This politics outside the boudoir argument gets compelling treatment in Mother Leakey and the Bishop, a historical investigative thriller that links Atherton to a weird ghost story† in his native Somerset — that of “Old Mother Leakey,” the Minehead ghost.

Mother Leakey was Atherton’s mother-in-law, and Somerset family members claimed she haunted them — including with a message for the bishop that one of his sisters-in-law actually went to deliver in Ireland. The message isn’t known; in legend, this was a warning from beyond against the prelate’s ungodly behavior; in reality, it was more probably a family shakedown.‡

Despite the skepticism of the Leakey family’s own contemporaries, the facts, allegations, suppositions, and pure flights of fancy somehow managed to blend and recombine into a lasting tale of the paranormal that Minehead still retails to this day.

And it goes right back to the public opprobrium Bishop Atherton endured — as described in that 1641 hanging pamphlet:

“demonstrates the link between the stories of Mother Leakey and Bishop John Atherton … in a highly readable and often entertaining fashion”

… through pride, high fare, and lustfull life,
Incest committed with the Sister of his wife,
For which he sued his pardon, and then fled
To Ireland, where a worser life he led

He surely warned was to mend his life,
By his own Sister Master Leakies wife,
Which Master Leakies Mother being dead,
And in her life-time conscious how he led
His lustfull life, her Ghoast in gastful wise
Did oft appeare before her Sisters Eyes,
But she feare-strucken durst not speak unto it,
Till oft appearing forced her to doe it:
Then thus she spake, Mother in Law what cause
You from your rest, to my unrest thus drawes?
Who answered, daughter tis the wicked life
Your Brother leads, warne him to mend his life;
If not, then plainely tell him tis decreed,
He shall be hangd, bid him repent with speede:
Then shall my restless spirit be at rest,
And not till then; Thus vanisht. She addrest
Herselfe for travaile, Into Ireland went
With this sad message unto him was sent:
Which how he tooke to heart may plaine appeare
By the slight answer he returned her,
What must be, shalbe: If I must, I must dye,
Mariage, and hanging, come by destiny.
Thus scoft her counsell, sent her back, and when
Shee was returnd, he grew farre viler then
He was before, if Viler man may be,
For one bad Act before, committed three.

* According to Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History, Atherton and Childe were the second pair of alleged homosexual lovers executed in the British Isles. The first was the Earl of Castlehaven in 1631, along with his manservants.

** “[O]ne should note the compound sexual nature of the ‘sodomy’ charge in this context, a portmanteau omnibus of non-procreative sex, which is what ’sodomy’ was widely held to be.”

† Walter Scott footnotes this legend in Rokeby: “Mrs Leakey … dispatched her [daughter-in-law] to an Irish prelate, famous for his crimes and misfortunes, to exhort him to repentance, and to apprize him that otherwise he would be hanged; and how the bishop was satisfied with replying, that if he was born to be hanged, he should not be drowned.”

‡ Archbishop William Laud dispatched a team of ghost-whisperers to investigate the Leakey story well before the ectoplasm hit the fan for Atherton, and they weren’t buying: “certainly it is a fiction and a practice … it may be some money business.” Bishop Atherton had left home under a cloud with the suspicion that he’d had an affair with his wife’s sister, and this was part of the eventual Irish complaint against the horny goat.

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1799: The defenders of Jaffa, at Napoleon’s command

5 comments March 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte gave, and saw executed, the dreadful order to slaughter thousands of Muslim prisoners from the Siege of Jaffa.

Having just conquered the city from the Ottomans, the Corsican faced the inconvenience of having a large number of POWs with no way to provision them. What to do?

His private secretary Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne later remembered the scene.

The Arnauts and Albanians, of whom these refugees were almost entirely composed, cried from the windows that they were willing to surrender upon an assurance that they would be exempted from the massacre to which the town was doomed; if not, they threatened to fire on the ‘aides de camp’, and to defend themselves to the last extremity. The two officers thought that they ought to accede to the proposition, notwithstanding the decree of death which had been pronounced against the whole garrison, in consequence of the town being taken by storm. They brought them to our camp in two divisions, one consisting of about 2500 men, the other of about 1600.

I was walking with General Bonaparte, in front of his tent, when he beheld this mass of men approaching, and before he even saw his ‘aides de camp’ he said to me, in a tone of profound sorrow, “What do they wish me to do with these men? Have I food for them?–ships to convey them to Egypt or France? Why, in the devil’s name, have they served me thus?” After their arrival, and the explanations which the General-in-Chief demanded and listened to with anger, Eugene* and Croisier [the officers who accepted the Jaffa garrison’s surrender] received the most severe reprimand for their conduct. But the deed was done. Four thousand men were there. It was necessary to decide upon their fate. The two aides de camp observed that they had found themselves alone in the midst of numerous enemies, and that he had directed them to restrain the carnage. “Yes, doubtless,” replied the General-in-Chief, with great warmth, “as to women, children, and old men–all the peaceable inhabitants; but not with respect to armed soldiers. It was your duty to die rather than bring these unfortunate creatures to me. What do you want me to do with them?”

The third day arrived without its being possible, anxiously as it was desired, to come to any conclusion favourable to the preservation of these unfortunate men. The murmurs in the camp grew louder the evil went on increasing–remedy appeared impossible–the danger was real and imminent. The order for shooting the prisoners was given and executed on the 10th of March.

This atrocious scene, when I think of it, still makes me shudder, as it did on the day I beheld it; and I would wish it were possible for me to forget it, rather than be compelled to describe it. All the horrors imagination can conceive, relative to that day of blood, would fall short of the reality.**

… the situation of the army, the scarcity of food, our small numerical strength, in the midst of a country where every individual was an enemy, would have induced me to vote in the affirmative of the proposition which was carried into effect, if I had a vote to give. It was necessary to be on the spot in order to understand the horrible necessity which existed.

War, unfortunately, presents too many occasions on which a law, immutable in all ages, and common to all nations, requires that private interests should be sacrificed to a great general interest, and that even humanity should be forgotten. It is for posterity to judge whether this terrible situation was that in which Bonaparte was placed.† For my own part, I have a perfect conviction that he could not do otherwise than yield to the dire necessity of the case. It was the advice of the council, whose opinion was unanimous in favour of the execution, that governed him, Indeed I ought in truth to say, that he yielded only in the last extremity, and was one of those, perhaps, who beheld the massacre with the deepest pain.

As tends to happen, this sort of thing made future garrisons much less interested in surrender.

Walter Scott, in his biography of the Corsican, judged that the “bloody deed must always remain a deep stain on the character of Napoleon.”

[W]e do not view it as the indulgence of an innate love of cruelty; for nothing in Bonaparte’s history shows the existence of that vice, and there are many things which intimate his disposition to have been naturally humane. But he was ambitious, aimed at immense and gigantic undertakings, and easily learned to overlook the waste of human life, which the execution of his projjects necessarily invvolved … That sort of necessity, therefore, which men fancy to themselves when they are unwilling to forego a favourite object for the sake of obeying a moral precept — that necessity which might be more properly termed a temptation difficult to be resisted — that necessity which has been called the tyrant’s plea, was the cause of the massacre at Jaffa, and must remain its sole apology.

And, Scott adds, “it might almost seem that Heaven set its vindictive brand upon this deed of butchery.”

This city the French wanted so desperately as to “forget humanity” was beset with plague; Antoine-Jean Gros would depict Napoleon on canvas humanely visiting the stricken right around the time he ordered a couple thousand prisoners shot dead.


Bonaparte Visiting the Pesthouse in Jaffa, by Antoine-Jean Gros (1804).

Bourrienne recorded that

[a]fter the siege of Jaffe the plague began to exhibit itself with a little more virulence. We lost between seven and eight hundred, men by the contagion during the campaign of Syria.

* “Eugene” is Napoleon’s adopted son-in-law Eugene de Beauharnais, one of the commanders whose expedient clemency inconvenienced the marshal. Beauharnais’s father was executed himself, during the French Revolution.

** Bourrienne goes light on the atrocity details, and makes it sound like it’s all shootings; Muslim sources record bayonet work.

† [sic!] By “terrible situation … in which Bonaparte was placed,” he of course means the terrible situation in which Bonaparte placed himself by launching his Egyptian campaign.

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1725: John Gow and his pirate crew

1 comment June 11th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1725, John Gow and seven comrade raiders hanged for piracy.

Having mutinied to commandeer a merchant vessel in November 1724, Gow managed merely a three-month career of seaboard outlawry* in European waters before an ill-fated landward raid in his native Scotland saw the ship run aground.

Captured, Gow and confederates were hailed to London to stand trial, the captain delaying matters by refusing to plead before the threat of being pressed forced his hand. The inevitable sentence came off a little … unevenly. During the hanging,

[Gow’s] friends, anxious to put him out of his pain, pulled his legs so forcibly that the rope broke and he dropped down; on which he was again taken up to the gibbet, and when he was dead was hanged in chains on the banks of the Thames.

Scottish scribbler Sir Walter Scott mined the local lore of “the Orkney pirate” heavily for his novel The Pirate.

* Exhaustingly catalogued in the Newgate calendar.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,Scotland,Torture

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1663: Illiam Dhone

Add comment January 2nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1663, Illiam Dhone was shot for treason at Hango Hill on the Isle of Man.

William Christian — “Illiam Dhone” is a Gaelic sobriquet meaning “Brown William” — committed his fatal offense in 1651: as a powerful Manx pol charged with defense of the island against a prospective Roundhead invasion, he overthrew the Royalist lords and bloodlessly surrendered instead.

Although documentation seems to be fragmentary, an overreaching assertion of lordly prerogatives by James Stanley, Earl of Derby, of late made Cromwell‘s prisoner, might have prepared a powder keg ignited by the efforts of the Earl’s wife to ransom her husband by the Isle’s sacrifice.

Treason doth never prosper, so with the prosperity of Cromwell’s revolution, Christian earned the Manx governorship. Only upon restoration of the crown did his putsch come a cropper.

“In all likelihood Illiam Dhone was probably executed as an act of revenge by the Stanley family,” Roger Sims of the Manx Museum says. “However, the fact remains that Illiam Dhone’s actions in surrendering the island probably saved a great many lives and a great deal of property.”

The case, however, proceeded despite a general amnesty that should have spared the “traitor”. A week after he had already delivered himself of his dying denunciation against “a prompted and threatened jury, a pretended Court of Justice, of which the greater part were by no means qualified,” his appeal finally reached London — and was granted.

The patriot’s martyrdom made its mark in literature with the Gaelic ballad “Baase Illiam Dhone” (lyrics and translation, sheet music) and Sir Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Isle of Man,Martyrs,Notable Jurisprudence,Pardons and Clemencies,Politicians,Popular Culture,Reprieved Too Late,Shot,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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