1315: Enguerrand de Marigny, on Montfaucon

On this date in 1315, an obscure petty noble who had become the king’s right-hand man was hanged by his rivals a few months after his royal sponsor expired.

Late in the epoch-making reign of King Philip the Fair — under whose rule the papacy was hijacked to Avignon and the Templars were crushedEnguerrand de Marigny was the man loyally keeping the books.

Since Philip was a stubbornly spendthrift fellow, that meant Marigny’s chief pursuit was the creative extraction of new revenues, through fresh taxes and the debasement of coinage. His public esteem suffered commensurately, little aided by the fact that his duties made him fabulously wealthy and the most powerful man in the country, give or take a king.

Said monarch was vigorous in that age-old pastime of the feudal monarchy, centralization of the power scattered among the nobility, further to which end he was happy to promote a competent administrator of scanty lineage and dependable loyalty.

Aggrieved lords, like the grasping Charles de Valois, were ready with their grudges against the unpopular minister when Philip shuffled off in November 1314. When charges of financial impropriety didn’t stick, they cooked up an allegation of sorcery — just then coming into vogue as a trump card in the game of judicial homicide.

Enguerrand hung two years upon the monumentally terrifying Montfaucon Gibbet (the link is to the structure’s French Wikipedia page), but everyone felt just terrible about it later. (the link is French, again) An actual inquiry — they skipped that step when they strung him up — exonerated the luckless minister, allowing his heirs to retrieve his body and a chunk of his fortune from the sympathetic king; Charles was so pursued by guilt that on his deathbed, he sent out a fat dispensation of alms with the request that recipients pray for both Enguerrand de Marigny and himself.

It worked … at least for Marigny’s reputation.

None can tell, after this lapse of time, whether this remorse proceeded from weakness of mind or sincerity of heart, and which of the two personages was really guilty; but, ages afterwards, such is the effect of blind, popular clamor and unrighteous judicial proceedings, that the condemned lives in history as a victim and all but a guileless being. (Source)

It was no hard feelings from Enguerrand’s little brother, Jean. The family influence had landed him a bishopric, and he held the job until his death in 1350, even repelling an English siege of Beauvais during the Hundred Years’ War.

A European Haman?

Enguerrand de Marigny comes in for a passing notice as T.H. White affectionately surveys the Middle Ages in The Once and Future King:

What an amazing time the age of chivalry was! Everybody was essentially himself — was riotously busy fulfilling the vagaries of human nature … [a] coruscating mixture of oddities who reckoned that they possessed the things called souls as well as bodies, and who fulfilled them in the most surprising ways.

[Y]ou might have seen Enguerrand de Marigny, who built the enormous gallows at Mountfalcon, [sic] himself rotting and clanking on the same gallows, because he had been found guilty of Black Magic.*

That Marigny erected the gallows on which he hung is an oft-repeated claim, an instance of a whole subgenre of moralistic folklore in which death-dealing inventors are hoisted on their own petard. These stories are not always dependablecontra rumor, for instance, Dr. Guillotin was not guillotined — and today’s protagonist may not have a firm hold on this small consolation, either.

Here is Victor Hugo’s rendering of the structure’s history in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Montfauçon was, as Sauval says, “the most ancient and the most superb gibbet in the kingdom.” …

Let the reader picture to himself, crowning a limestone hillock, an oblong mass of masonry fifteen feet in height, thirty wide, forty long, with a gate, an external railing and a platform; on this platform sixteen enormous pillars of rough hewn stone, thirty feet in height, arranged in a colonnade round three of the four sides of the mass which support them, bound together at their summits by heavy beams, whence hung chains at intervals; on all these chains, skeletons; in the vicinity, on the plain, a stone cross and two gibbets of secondary importance, which seemed to have sprung up as shoots around the central gallows; above all this, in the sky, a perpetual flock of crows; that was Montfauçon.

At the end of the fifteenth century, the formidable gibbet which dated from 1328, was already very much dilapidated; the beams were wormeaten, the chains rusted, the pillars green with mould; the layers of hewn stone were all cracked at their joints, and grass was growing on that platform which no feet touched. The monument made a horrible profile against the sky; especially at night when there was a little moonlight on those white skulls, or when the breeze of evening brushed the chains and the skeletons, and swayed all these in the darkness. The presence of this gibbet sufficed to render gloomy all the surrounding places.

The mass of masonry which served as foundation to the odious edifice was hollow. A huge cellar had been constructed there, closed by an old iron grating, which was out of order, into which were cast not only the human remains, which were taken from the chains of Montfauçon, but also the bodies of all the unfortunates executed on the other permanent gibbets of Paris. To that deep charnel-house, where so many human remains and so many crimes have rotted in company, many great ones of this world, many innocent people, have contributed their bones, from Enguerrand de Marigni, the first victim, and a just man, to Admiral de Coligni, who was its last, and who was also a just man.

Hugo — who, let us admit, is not to be depended upon for history — has elevated Marigny to the very first victim of the Montfaucon gallows, but the reader will also notice that the same passage dates the edifice’s construction thirteen years after Marigny’s own execution.

Helpless Historiography

Montfaucon the execution site had a rich history. There seem to have been at least two separate gallows sites (the link is French) on the hill, and its vintage as an execution space dates back to the 13th century. (more French)

About this point, this blog runs against the limits of its writer’s access to primary documentation and werewithal to pursue it. Sources seem mightily confused on the embryonic era of Montfaucon; at least two other ministers — Pierre de La Brosse, a confidante of the previous king, and Pierre Remy, another royal treasurer hanged a generation after Marigny — also have their own claim to have been hanged on the structure they erected.

It may be that this was actually true of Remy, a less dramatically captivating figure with an official portfolio similar to Marigny’s, and the two simply became conflated in legend. Something certainly seems to have been built during his time, and it may have been the stone replacement for the original gallows.

The suggestion of someone who researched it more thoroughly than I have (another French page, but worth the visit if only for the pictorial schematics) is that the landmark structure may have predated all these men.** Brosse and Marigny, in this conception, may simply have worked various repairs upon it that became magnified in the retelling, while the gallows Remy set up might have been those on the secondary location, erected as a stopgap during a more thorough reconstruction of the permanent site, and/or reserved for more vulgar elements than ministers of the crown.

* Readers may appreciate an annotation of other references White makes in his fantasy classic.

** We find repeated claims that the alleged “sorceror” Marigny engaged for his capital crime was hanged below him, which would support that notion; I have been unable to identify the provenance of this detail, however.

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1818: Alexander Arbuthnot and Richard Ambrister

On this date in 1818, on the authority of a military tribunal of doubtful legality, a general who would become a president hanged two British citizens for aiding America’s Indian enemies.

You don’t get to be the $20 bill guy without knocking a few heads.

The First Seminole War saw the ambitious General Andrew Jackson appropriate for himself authority considerably beyond that authorized by Washington to escalate border conflicts around Spanish Florida into an outright invasion.

Though both Spanish and British interests had a foothold on the peninsula, neither was ever formally drawn into war; the conflict pitted Jackson’s armies against Seminole Indians who were also known to take in escaped slaves from over the border. Regardless the immediate casus belli, the war’s eventual effect was to force the Spanish to cede Florida, fitting it unmistakably into America’s evolving pattern of imperial conquests. But Europeans proved not to be exempt from Jackson’s fury.

The elderly Scottish trader Alexander Arbuthnot and the young British ex-marine Robert Ambrister were swept up as Jackson pillaged through Florida. Both had friendly relations with the natives, and somewhere amid personal pique, deliberate provocation, and squelching their knowledge of white Americans’ provocations against the Seminoles lay sufficient reason to string them up.

Due process

Jackson, who would win the White House himself on a populist platform in a decade’s time, has had many advocates in history; few of them would deny the man’s authoritarian streak.

A decidedly unsympathetic — arguably corrective — study of Jackson’s conduct in the Southeast during this period unravels Jackson’s reasoning as to how British citizens in Spanish territory were capitally liable in the eyes of a third country that neither state was at war with:

As soon as [Jackson] reached St. Marks, he set into motion the wheels of his personal justice system to punish Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister for crimes against the United States.

Jackson appointed a military court of twelve voting officers, Edmund Pendleton Gaines presiding, to hear charges that Arbuthnot and Ambrister had aided and abetted the enemy of the United States in the Seminole War. Of the panel, five were Volunteer officers whom Jackson had personally recruited for the campaign. Even though partially stacking the board and conducting the proceeding as a court-martial in the Florida wilderness obviated the need for precise legal punctilio, Old Hickory ruminated over just how to go about the business. His original idea of charging his two prisoners with piracy had appeal because it allowed him to take action against these subjects of a neutral power for aiding one nation against another nation. Yet the similarities of such a circumstance to that of the Marquis de Lafayette’s Revolutionary War service nagged at Jackson as an embarrassing comparison. By the time he convened the court-martial, Jackson had hit upon the solution. “The laws of war did not apply to conflicts with savages,” he solemnly intoned, and thus was he able to dispense with not only the laws of war, but virtually all laws altogether. The court would charge Arbuthnot and Ambrister with assisting and encouraging the Seminoles. In Jackson’s legal universe, these were capital offenses.

The specific charges accused Arbuthnot of inciting the Creeks to make war on the United States, of spying for the Seminoles, and of inciting the Seminoles to kidnap, torture, and kill William Hambly and Edmund Doyle. Charges against Ambrister stated that he had aided and abetted Seminoles and had led Seminoles against the United States.

Arbuthnot requested counsel, and the court obliged him by appointing one, but he apparently managed most of his own defense. Some describe his efforts as eloquent, but both he and Ambrister must have realized that their part in this show was already scripted to its conclusion. Ambrister, in fact, finally abandoned all pretense of due process simply to throw himself on the mercy of the court.

(The original minutes of the trial are available from Google books here.)

Jackson’s justification of himself, essentially placing the condemned men outside the law by stripping them of their whiteness, will not much flatter his latter-day partisans:

These individuals were tried under my orders by a special court of select officers, legally convicted as exciters of this savage and negro war, legally condemned, and most justly punished for their iniquities … I hope the execution of these two unprincipled villains will prove an awful example to the world … that certain, though slow retribution awaits those unchristian wretches who, by false promises, delude and excite an Indian tribe to all the horrid deeds of savage war.

… although a further point takes a tack the modern reader may find more familiar:

The moment the American army retires from Florida the war hatchet will be again raised, and the same scenes of indiscriminate massacre, with which our frontier settlers have been visited, will be repeated, so long as the Indians within the territory of Spain are exposed to the delusion of false prophets and poison of foreign intrigue; so long as they can receive ammunition, munitions of war, from pretended traders and Spanish commandants, it will be impossible to restrain their outrages. … The savages, therefore, must be made dependent on us, and cannot be kept at peace without being persuaded of the certainty of chastisement being inflicted on the commission of the first offence.

Even at the end of his life, this day’s hanging was still flung against Jackson: “By the Eternal! You old Hags! If I get hold of you, I’ll hang you all up under the 7th section as I did Arbuthnot and Ambrister!” (click to see the entire cartoon)

(The letter is as read by a friendly congressman here.)

Jackson’s own popularity essentially carried the day against a measure of Congressional censure, but the affair caused him ongoing political annoyance; for Jackson’s enemies, it would forever impugn the man’s motives and behavior. (See the cartoon, which dates to the incipience of a later generation’s own imperial war.) The success that sufficed to exonerate him to his peers might seem rather less compelling to posterity.

Nevertheless, there are defenders of America’s “War on Terrorism” military tribunals prepared to number this farcical procedure among their precedents.*

* A 2004 Congressional Research Service report (pdf) on military tribunals also touches the Arbuthnot and Ambrister affair and hints, in its neutral way, at the Napoleonic direction Jackson’s legal reasoning would mark out:

Experts in military law have differed on the legitimacy of Jackson’s action. William Winthrop, writing toward the end of the nineteenth century, noted that if any officer ordered an execution in the manner of Jackson he “would now be indictable for murder.” To William Birkhimer, in his 1904 treatise, Jackson had asked the special court only for its opinion, both as to guilt and punishment, and the delivery of that opinion could not divest Jackson of the authority he possessed from the beginning: to proceed summarily against Arbuthnot and Ambrister and order their execution. Birkhimer’s analysis would allow generals to execute civilians without trial or to dispense with the fact-finding and judgment that results from trial proceedings.

It bears remembering that this incident was in fact only three years removed from Bonaparte’s last hurrah, and some few of Jackson’s countrymen saw such a figure in Old Hickory.

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1945: Benito Mussolini, his mistress, and his aides

On this date in 1945, Communist partisans shot Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci near Lake Como, along with fifteen or so additional fascist aides and officials.

It was an inglorious end for the flamboyant onetime socialist turned violent rightist, the man who had founded (and named) fascism; whose had inspired Hitler when the latter was still a streetcorner rabble-rouser, and then wandered suicidally into Germany’s orbit.

The next day, the victims’ bodies were hung up in Milan — the heart of Mussolini’s own power and still a stronghold of neo-fascist parties today — at Piazza Loreto for public abuse. The deposed Duce still had it in his power to stir the imagination of his Teutonic partner: news of the Italian dictator’s fate made it to the Fuhrer’s bunker and was said to have steeled Hitler’s resolve to take his own life with the dread vision of what should befall him if he were taken alive.

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1733: William Gordon, almost cheating death

On this date in 1733, English highwayman William Gordon was hanged at Tyburn (along with three thieves unconnected to him) for stealing a hat, wig, watch and ring while “in a state of intoxication.”

Gordon is hardly notable as a criminal at a time and place hangings were ubiquitous. But the Newgate Calendar relates that he came within a whisker’s breadth of making himself very notable indeed in the history of hangings; indeed, since punching a hole in one’s own neck is far less desperate than the straits of a man expecting the rope, it’s a bit surprising that this relatively favorable experiment didn’t find more imitators.

Mr. Chovot, a surgeon, having, by frequent experiments on dogs, discovered, that opening the windpipe, would prevent the fatal consequences of being hanged by the neck, communicated it to Gordon, who consented to the experiment being made on him. Accordingly, pretending to take his last leave of him, the surgeon secretly made an incision in his windpipe; and the effect this produced on the malefactor was, that when he stopt his mouth, nostrils, and ears, air sufficient to prolong life, issued from the cavity. When he was hanged, he was observed to retain life, after the others executed with him were dead. His body, after hanging three quarters of an hour, was cut down, and carried to a house in Edgware road., where Chovot was in attendance, who immediately opened a vein, which bled freely, and soon after the culprit opened his mouth and groaned. He, however, died; but it was the opinion of those present at the experiment, that had he been cut down only five minutes sooner, life would have returned.

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1478: Pazzi Conspiracy attempted … and suppressed

On this date in 1478, a coup d’etat against the Medici family in Florence was attempted during Easter mass — and by day’s end, its leading perpetrators had been hanged.

The Pazzi conspiracy implicates, even more than the municipal political rivalries of the Pazzi and Medici families, the peninsular geopolitics pitting Florence against the Pope, each side with its own constellations of allied lords and city-states.

The arrangement of players and their assorted interests is amply covered elsewhere; we shall suffice for this space to say that the Pazzi were a family of wealth and lineage (another death-sentenced Florentine, Dante, had dropped a couple of their ancestors into his infernal tableau), and proceed to the aftermath.

When one strikes a king, one must strike to kill. In this case, the co-ruling Medici brothers, Giuliano and Lorenzo were both attacked — but Lorenzo survived, and visited a terrible vengeance upon the assailants.

An enraged mob — the Pazzi had misjudged the city’s mood to begin with, and committing murder in church was ill-calculated to win sympathy — and a star chamber of Medici loyalists immediately began rounding up the numerous conspirators, many of whom were summarily hanged from the windows of the Palazzo Vecchio.

Along with a number of obscure foot soldiers and family retainers who suffered such indignities as being thrown from high windows onto cobblestones and torn apart by the mob, the most prominent victims this day were Francesco de Pazzi (the link is to his Italian wikipedia page) and Archbishop Francesco Salviati, a papal loyalist whose grievance against Florence for delaying his seat as archbishop of Pisa had done much to instigate the conspiracy.

They were far from the only victims: fugitives who had escaped the city were hunted for weeks and months thereafter, although Lorenzo “the Great” — who cuts the very model of the enlightened prince to posterity, rightly or not — was disposed in several cases to grant mercy to innocents against the dictates of political expediency.

However, the culpable after this day had every reason to fear. Perhaps the most affecting story is that of elderly Pazzi patriarch Jacopo de Pazzi (Italian again), caught in flight by Tuscan villagers whom he tried desperately (and unavailingly) to bribe for the privilege of suicide rather than a return to the fate of his kinsmen. Florentine communal pride celebrated popular participation in vengeance against the papal plot. Botticelli was commissioned to paint the executed conspirators hanging in their death throes on the very facade of the palace where they had in fact been put to death.

The Pazzi family wasn’t quite blotted out literally — later, it would even be restored to the city — but a comprehensive sentence of civic damnatio memoriae followed in the weeks after the immediate danger was checked. The family property was confiscated, its name and coat of arms banished, even the public festival its Crusader forebear had inspired was (unsuccessfully) renamed. For a time, merely to marry a Pazzi was to exclude oneself from public office.

Niccolo Machiavelli was a boy of eight at the time the Pazzi conspiracy was attempted. As a political theorist in later years, the event would liberally illustrate his writings. In Machiavelli’s Discourses (available free from Project Gutenberg), for instance, the Pazzi conspiracy is a lesson in the danger of conspiring against two princes at once, the risk inherent in having any great number of people aware of the plot, and the unpredictable small turns of fortune and minor slips in execution upon which a great matter may succeed or fail.

[I]n these grave undertakings, no one who is without such experience, however bold and resolute, is to be trusted.

The confusion of which I speak may either cause you to drop your weapon from your hand, or to use words which will have the same results. Quintianus being commanded by Lucilla, sister of Commodus, to slay him, lay in wait for him at the entrance of the amphitheatre, and rushing upon him with a drawn dagger, cried out, “The senate sends you this;” which words caused him to be seized before his blow descended. In like manner Messer Antonio of Volterra, who as we have elsewhere seen was told off to kill Lorenzo de’ Medici, exclaimed as he approached him, “Ah traitor!” and this exclamation proved the salvation of Lorenzo and the ruin of that conspiracy.

Machiavelli also renders his account of this day’s affair in his History of Florence, another Gutenberg freebie.

A detailed exploration of the event is available here.

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1792: Nicolas Pelletier, Madame Guillotine’s first kiss

On this date in 1792 — a surprisingly late date, just nine months before the king himself would die under its blade — debuted the iconic symbol of the French Revolution, the guillotine.

Today, it turned a thief and killer named Nicolas Pelletier from thug to trivia. Much more illustrious names would follow, and anon.

Though predecessors of the grim machine had been used centuries before in Scotland, Italy and Switzerland, the guillotine ushered in a distinctly modern era of technological application to capital punishment informed by egalitarianism — prior to the French Revolution, nobles and commoners had different modes of execution — and by legal and medical expertise aimed at minimizing pain.*

In fact, the device’s namesake, physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, opposed the death penalty altogether; he approved scientific and “painless” execution as a stopgap measure.**

For his troubles, the humane doctor’s name became synonymous with terror, enough so that his descendants changed their handle. One wonders how the doctor judged his own legacy; certainly better for any condemned person to die on the guillotine than the breaking wheel, but the mechanical efficiency of the “French razor” and the depersonalization of the condemned in relation to the headsman and the witnesses also made possible the mass executions the French Revolution is known for.

Singular Guillotin, respectable practitioner: doomed by a satiric destiny to the strangest immortal glory that ever kept obscure mortal from his resting-place, the bosom of oblivion! … “With my machine, Messieurs, I whisk off your head (vous fais sauter la tete) in a twinkling, and you have no pain;”–whereat they all laugh. (Moniteur Newspaper, of December 1st, 1789 (in Histoire Parlementaire).) Unfortunate Doctor! For two-and-twenty years he, unguillotined, shall near nothing but guillotine, see nothing but guillotine; then dying, shall through long centuries wander, as it were, a disconsolate ghost, on the wrong side of Styx and Lethe; his name like to outlive Caesar’s.


Whither the ethical role of the physician dedicated to life in the protocol of dishing out death? It’s a strikingly current dilemma.

Want to know more about how the guillotine was built? Want to build your own?

* Pain reduction was distinctly not the order of the day under the ancien regime. Often, quite the opposite.

** It was still another physician, Antoine Louis, who actually designed the decapitation machine; for a time, it was known as the Louisette. The working model was built from Louis’ design by a piano maker — and it may be more than coincidence that the science of constructing this mechanically complex musical instrument was also bursting with creativity on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.

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1868: John Millian, who martyred a madam

On this date in 1868, Mark Twain witnessed a Frenchman hanged in Virginia City, Nevada for murdering a popular prostitute.

Julia Bulette had turned up murdered in January 1867, her parlor ransacked for valuables. The crime went unsolved for several months until John Millian — or, Millain or Milleain — was caught selling one of her dresses.

The immigrant spoke very little English and was effortlessly convicted, though he maintained his innocence to the gallows.

Some three thousand people turned out for the hanging … among them Mark Twain, who was back to visit the town where he had lived a few years before, writing for a local newspaper.

He wrote about the execution in a letter from Virginia City, published in the Chicago Republican May 31, 1868 and only recently excavated by Nevada archivist Guy Rocha:


But I am tired talking about mines. I saw a man hanged the other day. John Melanie, of France. He was the first man ever hanged in this city (or country either), where the first twenty six graves in the cemetery were those of men who died by shots and stabs.

I never had witnessed an execution before, and did not believe I could be present at this one without turning away my head at the last moment. But I did not know what fascination there was about the thing, then. I only went because I thought I ought to have a lesson, and because I believed that if ever it would be possible to see a man hanged, and derive satisfaction from the spectacle, this was the time. For John Melanie was no common murderer — else he would have gone free. He was a heartless assassin. A year ago, he secreted himself under the house of a woman of the town who lived alone, and in the dead watches of the night, he entered her room, knocked her senseless with a billet of wood as she slept, and then strangled her with his fingers. He carried off all her money, her watches, and every article of her wearing apparel, and the next day, with quiet effrontery, put some crepe on his arm and walked in her funeral procession.

Afterward he secreted himself under the bed of another woman of the town, and in the middle of the night was crawling out with a slung-shot in one hand and a butcher knife in the other, when the woman discovered him, alarmed the neighborhood with her screams, and he retreated from the house. Melanie sold dresses and jewelry here and there until some of the articles were identified as belonging to the murdered courtezan. He was arrested and then his later intended victim recognized him.

After he was tried and condemned to death, he used to curse and swear at all who approached him; and he once grossly insulted some young Sisters of Charity who came to minister kindly to his wants. The morning of the execution, he joked with the barber, and told him not to cut his throat — he wanted the distinction of being hanged.

This is the man I wanted to see hung. I joined the appointed physicians, so that I might be admitted within the charmed circle and be close to Melanie. Now I never more shall be surprised at anything. That assassin got out of the closed carriage, and the first thing his eye fell upon was that awful gallows towering above a great sea of human heads, out yonder on the hill side and his cheek never blanched, and never a muscle quivered! He strode firmly away, and skipped gaily up the steps of the gallows like a happy girl. He looked around upon the people, calmly; he examined the gallows with a critical eye, and with the pleased curiosity of a man who sees for the first time a wonder he has often heard of. He swallowed frequently, but there was no evidence of trepidation about him — and not the slightest air of braggadocio whatever. He prayed with the priest, and then drew out an abusive manuscript and read from it in a clear, strong voice, without a quaver in it. It was a broad, thin sheet of paper, and he held it apart in front of him as he stood. If ever his hand trembled in even the slightest degree, it never quivered that paper. I watched him at that sickening moment when the sheriff was fitting the noose about his neck, and pushing the knot this way and that to get it nicely adjusted to the hollow under his ear — and if they had been measuring Melanie for a shirt, he could not have been more perfectly serene. I never saw anything like that before. My own suspense was almost unbearable — my blood was leaping through my veins, and my thoughts were crowding and trampling upon each other. Twenty moments to live — fifteen to live — ten to live — five — three — heaven and earth, how the time galloped! — and yet that man stood there unmoved though he knew that the sheriff was reaching deliberately for the drop while the black cap descended over his quiet face! — then down through the hole in the scaffold the strap-bound figure shot like a dart! — a dreadful shiver started at the shoulders, violently convulsed the whole body all the way down, and died away with a tense drawing of the toes downward, like a doubled fist — and all was over!

I saw it all. I took exact note of every detail, even to Melanie’s considerately helping to fix the leather strap that bound his legs together and his quiet removal of his slippers — and I never wish to see it again. I can see that stiff, straight corpse hanging there yet, with its black pillow-cased head turned rigidly to one side, and the purple streaks creeping through the hands and driving the fleshy hue of life before them. Ugh!

This text, as well as a local paper’s report of the hanging, are also here.

Though Twain’s take on the hanging may attract our attention in posterity, the most famous party in the affair is the victim, Julia Bulette. A public figure in life, she was publicly mourned in death and quickly attained mythic status with the full panoply of secular laurels — dimestore paperbacks, “Bonanza” adaptations, and audio book treatment by the Nevada Library and Archives:


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1945: Albrecht Haushofer, German Resistance intellectual

On April 23, 1945, in Nazi Germany’s Berlin-Moabit prison, with the Red Army fast approaching, the SS executed Albrecht Haushofer for his part in the previous year’s July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

A social and political conservative and driving force behind the nascent field of “geopolitics,” which held views of the State “as a geographic organism or a spatial phenomenon” that were incorporated into the National Socialist ideology of “Lebensraum,” Haushofer was an early darling of the drive to find academic and scientific justification for Nazi beliefs and ideals — this despite his own part-Jewish parentage.

Haushofer had reservations about the intentions of the Nazi party following its rise to power in the 1930s, but he nonetheless consented to represent it in foreign affairs, having spent significant time abroad as a geopolitics student in the 1920s. Acting as chief foreign affairs adviser to Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s chief deputy, Haushofer traveled widely to promote German foreign policy. During this time, he wrote a series of historical dramas — Scipio (1934), Sulla (1938), and Augustus (1939) — containing progressively more strident symbolic criticisms of his age.

Believing that Germany must not get involved in another disastrous foreign war, Haushofer was a significant force in negotiating for peace with Britain and France. “The peoples of Europe are in a position in which they have to get on together lest they all perish,” he wrote; “and although one realises that it is not common sense but emotional urges which govern the world, one must try to control such urges.” As Hitler’s desire for war became ever more paramount, however, Haushofer lost his position with the government and returned to Germany, remaining active in secret talks to persuade the British to accept a new peace agreement.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Haushofer remained a professor of geopolitics at the University of Berlin, but distanced himself from his Nazi past and began associating with elements of the German resistance. As the war wore on, he consistently opposed any attempt on Hitler’s life, but finally agreed to join the July plot as the only way to end the war without bringing further disaster upon Germany. With the plot’s failure, he was arrested by the Gestapo, and executed just days before the Red Army liberated Berlin.

Haushofer composed the Moabiter Sonette (pdf) while in prison, a series of poems posthumously published in 1946 regarded as among the most powerful documents of the German antiwar movement. One of his most well-known sonnets, “Schuld,” attemps to express — in sad retrospect — the weight of his moral guilt in the face of impending death:


…schuldig bin ich
Anders als Ihr denkt.
Ich musste früher meine Pflicht erkennen;
Ich musste schärfer Unheil Unheil nennen;
Mein Urteil habe ich zu lang gelenkt…
Ich habe gewarnt,
Aber nicht genug, und klar;
Und heute weiß ich, was ich schuldig war.


I am guilty,
But not in the way you think.
I should have earlier recognized my duty;
I should have more sharply called evil evil;
I reined in my judgment too long.
I did warn,
But not enough, and clear;
And today I know what I was guilty of.

The poem’s last line can be variously translated as “And today I know what I was guilty of” or “And today I know what my obligation had been.” Through this subtle play on words, Haushofer created a powerful poetic link between his failure to act decisively and the supposed “guilt” — “not in the way you think” — for which he had been condemned. His poems remain a testament to the power as well as the responsiblities of the individual under dictatorship, and have earned their writer a place in the annals of history as well as modern-day memorials to the German resistance movement.

On this day..

1980: Thirteen deposed Americo-Liberian officials

On this date in 1980, days after the coup d’etat that overthrew the Liberian government, thirteen of its former officials were shot on the beach near an army barracks in Monrovia.

This day’s scene — messily conducted, according to journalist witnesses, and with four forced to watch the first nine shot owing to a shortage of stakes — got its start in antebellum America, where a weird coalition of slaveholders, abolitionists and slaves themselves conceived ex-slave colonies in Africa as the way to let off the domestic pressure of the “peculiar institution.”

And thus was born Liberia, where African-American settlers promptly assumed the role of privileged elite vis-a-vis the natives that white colonists had elsewhere in the colonial world. The tiny “Americo-Liberian” population ran the country for over a century through the True Whig Party — an aptly retro title.

This was a better deal for the Americo-Liberians than for the other 15 or so ethnic groups, and resentment over economic disparities started gathering head through the 1970’s.

On April 12, 1980, an ethnically Krahn officer named Samuel Doe overthrew — and personally murdered — the last Americo-Liberian president, William Tolbert.

Ten days later, Tolbert’s older brother and an assortment of cabinet officers and other ministers of the True Whig government followed the ex-president into the hereafter* — setting the stage for Doe’s brutal turn in power and the almost continual civil war that has become Liberia’s watchword over the past generation.

* Only four had actually been death-sentenced by their military tribunals, but Doe had the more lenient sentences overruled.

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1792: Tiradentes, for a Brazilian republic

On this date in 1792, Joaquim José da Silva Xavier — better known to Brazilian history as Tiradentes — was hanged in Rio de Janeiro and his body quartered for public exposition.

Pedro Americo’s 1893 Tiradentes Esquartejado delivers what it promises.

Tiradentes — “tooth-puller,” a scornful nickname its owner has made glorious, alluding to the span of his itinerant career spent in dentistry — had participated in a conspiracy to detach the province of Minas Gerais from the Portuguese empire.

The Inconfidência Mineira featured the unpromising combination of a large number (the conspiracy was betrayed from within) of middle-class intellectuals (Tiradentes was of an unusually low social strata) without a common programme or a practical notion of what to do once they had seized power. That the Portuguese monarch felt at liberty to commute every other death sentence seems a measure of the plotters’ — if one may put it this way — toothlessness.

Tiradentes was obstinate in maintaining responsibility for the plot, although he wasn’t the leader in particular; for his resulting pains on the scaffold, he traded dentistry for immortality. Now officially recognized as a hero of Brazil, his name adorns the square where he was dismembered and (like Zumbi dos Palmares) his execution date is a public holiday.

When the tides of national fervor made such a rehabilitation politic, the would-be free state of Minas Gerais likewise adopted the conspirators’ banner as its own flag: the motto reads “Liberty, although overdue”.

On this day..