1745: Eve, her smoke visible throughout the country

4 comments January 29th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1745, Orange County, Virginia was darkened by the smoke from a stake where a slave named Eve died for poisoning her master, Peter Montague.

As accused, Eve, “not having God before her eyes nor considering the obedience to the said Peter Montague, her master, but led and seduced by the instigation of the Devil … with force of arms and her malice forethought, feloniously and traitorously did mingle and poison milk … did give it to the said Peter Montague, which he did taste, eat, drink and swallow down … and did languish until the 27th day of December. Eve falsely, traitorously and feloniously of her malice forethought with the poison … did kill, poison and murder.” (Quoted here.)

Eve asserted her innocence to no avail at her trial on January 23. The court condemned her to “be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution and there to be burnt.”

Upon the execution of that sentence — “the smoke of the burning of Eve was visible over a large extent of the country” — the Montague estate was compensated £50 by the Commonwealth of Virginia for the destruction of its human property.

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1743: Gen. Charles Emil Lewenhaupt, scapegoat

Add comment August 4th, 2014 Headsman

There’s a good chance that you experience an unpleasant degree of performance pressure from time to time in your environs, whatever they might be. Lord knows even the executioner is not immune to it.

But it’s doubtful very many are under the sort of professional pressure that Swedish general Charles Emil Lewenhaupt succumbed to on this date in 1743, when he was beheaded for command incompetence thanks to his country’s defeat in the 1741-1743 Russo-Swedish War.

An aggressive political faction of “Young Turks” — er, Young Swedes — known as the Hats had kicked the country’s cautious former president to the curb and aimed to restore the great power status Sweden had coughed up to Russia decades prior. In Sweden, their engagement with Russia would become known as the Hats’ War.

Lewenhaupt himself was elevated to command of Sweden’s Finland forces — for Finland was Swedish territory at this point, although it had been brutally occupied by Russia from 1714 to 1721 and only returned when Sweden ceded its Baltic possessions to Peter the Great — over a general who opposed the adventurous scheme. Ironically, the whole thing would ultimately redound to the benefit of Peter the Great’s daughter.

In 1741 as the War of Austrian Succession consumed the rest of Europe, Lewenhaupt was placed in charge of the opening gambit, an invasion of Karelia. Russia’s autocratic Empress Anna had just died in 1740, leaving her niece Anna Leopoldovna in charge as regent for the the infant Ivan VI. The idea from the Swedish side was to pair the invasion (with a short line to St. Petersburg, then the capital) with an internal coup against the shaky monarch; further to that latter end, Swedish diplomats* maneuvered behind the scenes to position Peter the Great’s popular daughter Elizaveta to seize power, whereupon she would cede back to Sweden (either out of gratitude or by compulsion of the arriving Swedish armies) the Baltic lands recently torn from Stockholm’s hands.

Make sense?

The entire project was a fiasco for Sweden.

Sweden’s Hats-dominated Riksdag declared war on Russia in July of 1741, but the joint land and naval attack that was supposed to ensue completely failed to materialize: the Swedish fleet had been ravaged by an epidemic while awaiting the action, and the Swedish army massing at Villmanstrand had not yet finished assembling. So having thrown down the gauntlet, the Swedes just stood flat-footed, and it was the Russians who launched the invasion by routing the army at Villmanstrand. Our Gen. Lewenhaupt only arrived at that army two weeks after the battle.

Things went pear-shaped from that point for Sweden, but back in St. Petersburg the invasion’s prospective beneficiary was doing just fine.

Elizaveta had cagily accepted the aid of her French and Swedish “benefactors” but without committing any reciprocal promise to paper. Far from being a catspaw of foreign interests, this daughter of Russia’s conquering tsar was a popular figure in her own right, especially with the elite Preobrazhensky Regiment; on the evening of November 24, 1741, Elizaveta displayed herself at the regimental barracks dramatically clad in a breastplate and wielding a silver cross, summoning her supporters to mount a coup that the guards themselves had long sought. It was achieved (by Elizaveta’s own insistence) without bloodshed** that very night.

Duly installed, Elizaveta simply continued prosecuting a war that was going quite nicely for her side thank you very much, eventually forcing Sweden to conclude the war with a treaty ceding yet more territory to Russia.

The tribulations of this embarrassing (and costly) war led for Sweden to an internal rebellion — but the Hats were able to crush it and hold onto power by farming out blame for their failed war of choice onto the generals in the field. In 1743, Gen. Lewenhaupt and Gen. Henrik Magnus von Buddenbrock were sentenced to death for command negligence. Buddenrock was executed on schedule on July 27, but Lewenhaupt managed to escape — briefly. He was recaptured aboard a ship fleeing for Gdansk and beheaded on August 4.

Needless to say the great classical tradition of “with your shield or on it” did not extend to the Hats’ civilian leadership. These fellows maintained their hold in the Riksdag long enough to fling Sweden into yet another costly war of choice with Prussia in 1757, where they got their ass kicked again by Frederick the Great.

* Joined by French diplomats, whose interest in Elizaveta’s takeover was to abort Russia’s alliance with Austria and England in the continental war. The Hats had aligned Sweden with France; the latter helpfully supplied the cash Elizaveta needed as the intrigue unfolded over 1741.

** Never the violent type, Elizaveta is especially notable in these pages for her pledge never to approve a death warrant under her reign. Russia would not see another execution until 1764, under Catherine the Great.

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1740: Elizabeth and Mary Branch, tyrannical mistresses

Add comment May 3rd, 2014 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:

These cruel women were born at Philips Norton, in Somersetshire. The mother was distinguished from her childhood by the cruelty of her disposition. She married a farmer, named Branch, but the husband soon found what an unfortunate choice he had made; for his wife no sooner came into possession of her matrimonial power than she began to exercise her tyranny on her servants, whom she treated with undeserved and unaccountable cruelty, frequently denying them the common necessaries of life, and sometimes turning them out of doors at night in the midst of winter; but their wages in these cases were sent them by Mr Branch, who was as remarkable for his humanity and justice as his wife for the opposite qualities. Mary Branch, the daughter, was an exact resemblance of her mother in every part of her diabolical temper.

Mr Branch dying, and leaving an estate of about three hundred pounds a year, he was no sooner buried than all the servants quitted the family, determined not to live with so tyrannical a mistress; and her character became so notorious that she could obtain no servants but poor creatures who were put out by the parish, or casual vagrants who strolled the country.

It is needless to mention the particulars of the cruelties of this inhuman mother and daughter to their other servants, at whom they used to throw plates, knives and forks on any offence, real or supposed; we shall therefore proceed to an account of their trial and execution for the murder of Jane Buttersworth, a poor girl, who had been placed with them by the parish officers.

At the assizes held at Taunton, in Somersetshire, in March, 1740, Elizabeth Branch and Mary, her daughter, were indicted for the wilful murder of Jane Buttersworth; when the principal evidence against them was in substance as follows: Ann Somers, the dairymaid, deposed that the deceased, having been sent for some yeast, and staying longer than was necessary, excused herself to her old mistress on her return by telling a lie; on which the daughter struck her violently on the head with her fist, and pinched her ears. Then both of them threw her on the ground, and the daughter knelt on her neck, while the mother whipped her with twigs till the blood ran on the ground, and the daughter, taking off one of the girl’s shoes, beat her with it in a cruel manner. The deceased cried for mercy, and after some struggle ran into the parlour, where they followed her and beat her with broomsticks till she fell down senseless; after which the daughter threw a pail of water on her, and used her with other circumstances of cruelty too gross to mention. Somers now went out to milk her cows, and on her return, at the expiration of half-an-hour, found her mistress sitting by the fire and the girl lying dead on the floor; but she observed that a clean cap had been put on her head since she went out, and that the blood had run through it. At night the body was privately buried.

This transaction, added to the character of the mistress, having raised a suspicion in the neighbourhood, a warrant was issued by the coroner to take up the body, and an inquest being made into the cause of the girl’s death, Mr Salmon, a surgeon, declared that she had received several wounds, almost any one of which would have proved mortal. The jury found both prisoners guilty, and they were sentenced to die. As the country people were violently enraged against them, they were conducted to the place of execution between three and four in the morning, attended only by the jailer and about half-a-dozen people, lest they should have been torn in pieces.

When they came to the spot, it was found that the gibbet had been cut down; on which a carpenter was sent for, who immediately put up another, and mother and daughter were executed before six o’clock, to the disappointment of the country to witness the death of two such unworthy wretches.

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1749: Richard Coleman, solemnly declaring

Add comment April 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1749, five men were hanged at Kennington Common.

We wish well the restive shades of Patrick Rena, Thomas Dobbings, Thomas Walker, and Arthur Gibbons; the former two died for a violent robbery upon the roads, and the latter two for a violent robbery upon the Thames.

But our attention for this date is to the fifth man. Richard Coleman also drew the attention of those present, both for the monstrous crime he was accused of, and for his steady assertion of innocence. The minister assigned to salvage these wrongdoers’ souls, which was also a not entirely reputable marketing business in selling scaffold exclusives, knew a lead story when he saw one.

Coleman was executed for being part of a gang of three men who raped to death a woman named Sarah Green on the night of July 23, 1748. He was in no way implicated in this horrific crime for well over a month, a time when the victim lay precariously in hospital.

But by the next April, well … he was the man as far as the law was concerned. Coleman protested his innocence in vain, via Rev. Wilson; the latter’s hanging-day chapbook made Coleman the distinct feature attraction.

The following Paper was delivered to me at the Place of Execution, by Richard Coleman, which he earnestly desired I would publish.

To all Christian People.

The dreadful Sentence passed upon me, I shall meet with Cheerfulness, being in no Degree conscious of the least Guilt of that most inhuman and most unnatural Crime that I have been found guilty of.

I am very sensible that it is not in my Power to make the incredulous World believe me innocent. I leave the following Account with the Rev. Mr. Wilson, who I am very greatly obliged to, and return him my hearty Thanks, for the comfortable Relief I have received from him in a Preparation for a future State of Bliss, and I hope he will cause it to be published for m Satisfaction, that it may pass the impartial Examination of all Persons.

Here Coleman proceeds to give a detailed, almost hour-by-hour account of his activities on the night of the murder … and the activities of those around him.

Coleman was at pains to do this not only to assert his own innocence, but to decry a particular witness who ought to have supported his alibi but instead made it known “that if he was subpoenaed he should do me more Harm than Good … The Occasion of expressing himself in that severe Manner, I suppose, was owing to his being unluckily found by me with Mrs. B—t in very indecent Actions soon after her Husband’s Death; and having been often detected by me in the same Manner, it has caused ill Blood between us.”

Whether this man’s testimony would have made the difference one can only guess. At any rate, Coleman insisted,

On Monday the 25th of July I heard that a Woman had been used very ill by three of our Men, but no-body was taken up for it till a Quarrel happened between me and one [Daniel] T[rotma]n, at the Queen’s Arms Alehouse in Bandy-Leg Walk, which was as follows:

— On the 27th of August last … I was very much in Liquor; we had a Pint of Bumbo in the publick Room; and as I was stirring it with a Spoon, Trotman, an entire Stranger to me, very abruptly asked me what was done with the Pig, (meaning a Pig that our Men had taken and killed belonging to a Neighbour, and had been in Custody for it.) … I said to Trotman, Damn the Pig, what is it to me. He damn’d me, and I him; we gave each other very bad Language, and because it had been reported that three or four of our Men committed the Cruelty on Sarah Green, he made use of the following aggravating Words, namely (says he) Don’t you know Kennington Lane. I reply’d yes, I do, damn you, what of that? He said again don’t you know the Woman that was so cruelly treated, Yes, said I, Damn you what of that? Said he, was not you one of the Persons concerned in doing it; I reply’d if I was, you Dog what then, and immediately threw the Spoon at him. He returned it in the same Manner at me, and had it not been for the Persons present we should have fought.

The Morning after the Quarrel happened I called at the Queen’s Arms Alehouse; and Mr. C—t, who keeps the House, said to me Mr. Coleman you was silly last Night … and he repeated the Discourse aforesaid, and told me I did not consider what Advantage bad People might make of such unguarded Expressions. I reply’d that I was much in Liquor, and did not remember what I said.

But as prophesied, the offended Daniel Trotman and a woman in the pub who witnessed the exchange did indeed proceed on the basis of this “admission” to swear out an oath against Coleman who

was carried to the poor Woman in St. Thomas’s Hospital, to see if she knew any Thing of me; and when I came before her I was particularly pointed out by Mr. C— P—e, who laid his Hand on me, and said, is this one of the Men; which was not fair, for she should [not] have fixed upon me without being dictated. Upon that she said I believe he is one. I said to her consider well what you say, for my Life is at Stake. Will you swear I am one of the Persons. She reply’d, No I won’t, and likewise said if I was one of them we walked a good Way, and talk’d of indifferent Things, and you behav’d much like a Gentleman; but when she was assaulted, I ran away, which was not behaving like a Man.

Coleman’s story was that he wasn’t with Sarah Green as friend or foe at all that night. The justice of the peace clearly thought little enough of Green’s sketchy witness guesstimate that Coleman was released on his own word to return for more questioning.

The next scene at Sarah Green’s bedside begins with Coleman outside the room, and the victim asked

what sort of a Man Mr. Coleman was. She reply’d that he wore his Hair, and had a Carroty Beard. As to having my own Hair she was mistaken, for I have not wore it these 14 Years.

His Worship asked the Deceased if she could swear that I aided or assisted in the Assault. She said No, I cannot, for it was dark.

I was called in, and she made the following Information.

This Informant on her Oath says, that on Saturday Night the 23rd of July last between the Hours of 11 and 12 o’Clock, as she was going thro’ Newington Church-Yard to her Lodging in Bandy-Leg-Walk, she was assaulted and cruelly beaten by two Men to her unknown, and that R. Coleman was present in her Company at the Time she was assaulted and cruelly treated.

Coleman would say in his last publication that he believed Sarah Green was coached. Being conscious of innocence — we’ll come to that — the evidence aligning against him must have struck the young man as the product of an evil hand. Maybe it was just a lot of circumstantial stuff and half-mistaken witnesses falling into a terrible pattern.

The next mischance to befall the accused was that his victim/accuser succumbed to her injuries prior to the formal September 19 hearing.

This made the charge against him murder. Well, rape was already a capital crime, so no real change for Coleman … except that he had now lost the chance to confront openly a witness whose testimony sounds from the hospital interviews like it was eminently impeachable. Now, Green’s last affidavit was going to her final word on the matter.*

Coleman fled the warrant consequently taken out for him, which was read as evidence of guilt by neighbors who had the luxury of not reckoning their own survival odds upon a jury-box. Coleman says he tried to place an advertisement which a lily-livered editor rejected, reading

I, Richard Coleman, seeing myself advertised in the Gazette as absconding on Account of the Murder of Sarah Green, knowing my self not any ways culpable, do assert, that I have not absconded from Justice, but will readily and willingly appear at the Assizes, knowing my Innocence will acquit me.

Ha.

From some combination of partiality, malice, and groupthink, some additional eyewitness testimony — people who think they might have seen him that night, people who swear they talked to Coleman and Green together but never thought to bring it up to the authorities until he was arrested, and alibi witnesses of his own whom jurors disbelieved — Coleman was judged guilty and doomed to the noose.

Basically, the evidence against him was that he’d popped off to Daniel Trotman while in his cups, Sarah Green (mostly) ID’d him, and some people thought he’d been seen with her in the dark that night while some of Coleman’s own friends and relatives claimed otherwise. There isn’t exactly going to be crime lab evidence here, nor was there an explicit threshold for jurors to require near-certainty to convict. It probably looked to the court like a pretty darn good case.

Coleman had no recourse but to commit his futile self-vindication to posterity.

I do also most solemnly protest, that I am not in any Manner of Degree guilty of that most inhuman Murder of Sarah Green, neither was I at Newington, or in Kennington-Lane that Night that the cruel Fact was committed on Sarah Green.

This I declare as a dying Man, and I sincerely believe (as the Rev. Mr. Wilson told me several Times) if I was either directly or indirectly guilty of that Murder, and should go out of the World with denying it, that eternal Damnation would be my Portion.

… I have the Satisfaction to declare myself to the World (as I have often done to the Rev. Mr. Wilson) that I never was so serene in Mind, or so easy in my Conscience in my Life, as I am at this Time, and I heartily wish that every wicked Sinner may have the Opportunity of so good a Divine as the Rev. Mr. Wilson has been unto me, which must be a great Means to the Enjoyment of eternal Bliss.

It is an inexpressible Pleasure to me, that I am soon to leave this very wicked World; and I hope that GOD Almight of his infinite Mercy and Goodness, will, through the Merits and Intercession of my blessed Redeemer, his only Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, pardon all my Sins, and receive my Soul into eternal Happiness …

There is nothing that gives me so much Concern as the Distress that I leave my poor Wife and two Infants in. She has been very good to me under my unhappy Misfortune and so have my poor afflicted Brothers. I hope that the Almighty will be the Guardian of my Wife and Children.

Oops

We’ve been speaking of Coleman as categorically innocent but presented only conflicting and doubtful witnesses.

The resolution of the matter did not come until two full years after Coleman serenely strangled to death. The rest of the story was incautiously blabbed by a gentleman named James Welch to a companion as they walked the road to Newington Butts.

“Their conversation,” says the Newgate Calendar, “happened to turn on the subject of those who had been executed without being guilty; and Welch said: ‘Among whom was Coleman. Nichols, Jones and I were the persons who committed the murder for which he was hanged.'”

Maybe he should have chatted about the weather.

In the course of conversation Welch owned that, having been at a public-house called Sot’s Hole, they had drunk plentifully, and on their return through Kennington Lane they met with a woman, with whom they went as far as the Parsonage Walk, near the churchyard of Newington where she was so horridly abused by Nichols and Jones that Welch declined offering her any further insult.

Welch’s companion informed on him, but upon arrest there was no better evidence against Welch, Nichols, and Jones than there had been against Coleman. Actually, this later case was much weaker: one guy’s alleged hearsay statement.

In a classic prisoner’s-dilemma scenario, John Nichols was finally persuaded to turn crown’s evidence on the other two before they turned on him, and his testimony to the vile end of Sarah Green got his former mates hanged.

“The poor woman was treated in a manner too shocking to be described,” our correspondent relates. And “it appeared that at the time of the perpetration of the fact the murderers wore white aprons, and that Jones and Welch called Nichols by the name of Coleman — circumstances that evidently led to the conviction of the unfortunate man of that name.”

Mistakes Happen…

The hangings in the case of Sarah Green — both the right ones and the wrong one — occurred at the acme of Britain’s “Bloody Code” days.

It’s instructive to note that the reality of wrongful executions seems to have been widely accepted. In the case at hand, the Newgate Calendar does not mince words in describing Richard Coleman as innocent.

And while doubt about individual defendants’ guilt often led jurors to acquittals or the ad hoc “pious perjury” downgrading of potentially capital charges, the existence of this or that wrongful execution in no way imperiled the capital statutes as a whole. It was merely another risk in a brutal world all too full of them.

Just a few months after Welch and Jones went to the gallows, another woman controversially on trial for her life received from one of her correspondents a lament that “We see nothing more frequent than Persons confessing the Crimes that others had suffer’d for before.”

* Although Green’s case was a bit different since she actually had time to swear a statement, the legal footing of “dying declarations” vis-a-vis the usual right of a defendant to confront an accuser has long remained a jurisprudential sticky wicket.

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1749: Bosavern Penlez, whorehouse expropriator

1 comment October 18th, 2012 Headsman

To the memory of the unfortunate
BOSAVERN PEN LEZ
Who finished a Life, generall well reported of,
By a violent and ignominious Death.
He was the Son of a Clergyman,
To whom he was indebted for an Education, which he so wisely improv’d
As to merit the Love and Esteem of all that knew him.
But actuated by Principles, in themselves truly laudable
(When rightly directed, and properly restrain’d)
He was hurried by a Zeal for his countrymen,
And an honest Detestation of Public Stews
(The most certain Bane of Youth, and the Disgrace of Government)
To engage in an Undertaking, which the most Partial cannot defend,
And yet the least Candid must excuse.
For thus indeliberately mixing with Rioters, whom he accidentally met with,
He was condemn’d to die:
And of 400 Persons concerned in the same Attempt, he only suffer’d,
Tho’ neither Principal, nor Contriver.

How well he deserved Life, appears
From his generous Contempt of it, in forbidding a Rescue of himself;
And what Returns he would have made to Royal Clemency,
Had it been extended to him, may fairly be presumed
From his noble Endeavours to prevent the least Affront to that Power,
Which, tho greatly importun’d, refused to save him.

What was denied to his Person, was paid to his Ashes,
By the Inhabitants of St. Clement Danes,
Who order’d him to be interr’d among their Brethren,
Defray’d the Charges of his Funeral,
And thought no Mark of Pity or Respect too much
For this Unhappy Youth,
Whose Death was occasioned by no other Fault
But a too warm Indignation for their Sufferings.

By his sad Example, Reader be admonish’d
Of the many ill Consequences that attend an intemperate Zeal.
Learn hence to respect the Laws — even the most oppressive;
And think thyself happy under that Government
‘That doth truly and indifferently administer Justice,
‘To the Punishment of Wickedness and Vice,
‘And to the Maintenance of God’s True Religion and Virtue.’

On this date in 1749, Bosavern Penlez — surely one of the all-time great names to hang on a gibbet — was put to death to the sorrow of all of England. You know how they say that horse thieves are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses might not be stolen? Bosavern Penlez was hanged that whorehouses might not be torn down by mobs of angry sailors.

(Fourteen other less remarkable folk were hanged for less remarkable crimes at the same time. Just another mass execution day at Tyburn.)

A petition of over 300 St. Clement Danes residents for sparing the two men condemned in the riots. (From the General Advertiser, Oct. 11, 1749.) John Wilson received the solicited pardon; Bosavern Penlez did not.

On the first three days of July in 1749, the Strand in London saw a running series of riots after a mob of angry sailors descended on a whorehouse where some of their brethren had been robbed and abused. Those sailors pulled down that bordello and then moved on to the nearby bawdy-houses, eventually also ransacking the Star Tavern owned by a character named Peter Wood.

Gendarmes had to be called out to control the situation (and this done without proper legal authorization), but somehow not the mob’s ringleaders nor its inciters nor its most enthusiastic wreckers wound up in legal jeopardy.

Only two faced death: John Wilson, a journeyman shoemaker. And Bosavern Penlez, a young wig-maker who’d been out drinking in the neighborhood. And both of these seemed to have just been caught up accidentally or opportunistically in events.

They were comprehensively damned by the testimony of Peter Wood, the aggrieved procurer of Star Tavern, and his wife — disreputable people of whom a neighbor remarked, “I would not hang a dog or a cat upon their evidence.” But then, besides the eyewitness testimony, Bosavern Penlez was also apprehended with a bundle of linens he had evidently liberated from the Wood’s devastated cathouse, linens whose source he unconvincingly claimed not to remember. So the picture one has is that Wilson was perhaps little more than a passerby … but Penlez was a distinct, if minor, participant who could more or less be shown to have got himself tanked and treated the mayhem like it was a gift certificate to Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Not exactly saintly but also not a cardinal sin. Public sentiment for these fellows’ clemency was intense, starting right with the jury that convicted them but also recommended mercy.

Only Wilson was spared, however.

According to the Newgate Calendar, George II was mightily disposed to pardon both, but justice John Willes, who heard the case personally, vigorously opposed the royal mercy for “no regard would be paid to the laws except one of them was made an example of.”

Penlez, in the end, was the one made example of.

His hanging this date in 1749 would bleed into an election held later that same autumn, almost dealing a serious setback to the sitting Pelham government. Those events are detailed in Malvin Zirker’s introduction to this out-of-print volume.

And the resultant fusillade of pamphlets and public protests asserting a maximalist take on Penlez’s purity induced novelist Henry Fielding to enter the fray with a manifesto of his own strongly supporting the young man’s execution.

Readers of Fielding’s fiction might start at the rigidity of his editorial line.

Penlez’s defenders couldn’t really argue that he was completely innocent. Still, they contested the justice of the death penalty for such a character whose involvement in the whole thing was so tertiary and happenstance, not to mention influenced by drink. Doubly so that it was attested by the word of such a villain as Peter Wood. In the words of one pro-Penlez polemic, Wood would “run at every one, like a mad Dog, … indifferent who it was he hang’d by his Oath.”

Fanny Hill author John Cleland entered the fray on the side of the accused; his The Case of the Unfortunate Bosavern Penlez is aghast at “shedding the Blood of this young Man for the Example-sake … such a Severity being too much for the Nature of the Guilt actually chargeable on him, [and] will serve rather to confound and destroy all Ideas of Right and Wrong.”

Penlez was convicted not as a thief — which charge would have given the jury leave to find that the value of his linens amounted to less than the threshold necessary to hang him — but under the Riot Act which directly mandated death for “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together, to the disturbance of the publick peace.” Wood’s eyewitness testimony to the effect that Penlez (and Wilson, too) smashed up windows and furniture in his house and threatened him was essential to establishing a part in the tumultuous assembly.*

As this level of guilt was popularly doubted, our friend Henry Fielding — himself the very magistrate** who had engineered the suppression of the disturbance, having returned on the third day of it from a weekend away from London — took up his pen post-hanging to support the government’s handling of Penlez from arrest all the way to the scaffold. His A True State of the Case of Bosavern Penlez produces the witness accounts sworn before him as magistrate during the riots themselves, and reproves those Penlez supporters whose anger at his execution made the “malefactor” into “an object of sedition, when he is transformed into a hero, and the most merciful prince who ever sat on any throne is arraigned of blameable severity, if not of downright cruelty, for suffering justice to take place.”

If, after perusing the evidence which I have here produced, there should remain any private compassion in the breast of the reader, far be it from me to endeavour to remove it. I hope I have said enough to prove that this was such a riot as called for some example, and that the man [Penlez] who was made that example deserved his fate. Which, if he did, I think it will follow, that more hath been said and done in his favour than ought to have been; and that the clamour of severity against the government hath been in the highest degree unjustifiable.

* The Ordinary of Newgate reported that Penlez, who long remained cagey on the point, admitted in the end entering the bawdy-house during the riot, but disavowed any attack upon its owner. Wilson, for what it’s worth, always denied having entered the house and insisted Wood had misidentified him.

** Henry Fielding was the half-brother of magistrate and policing pioneer John Fielding. The Fieldings’ mutual roles in the creation of London’s first professional investigators to supplant the problematic “thief-taking” system of private, rewards-driven prosecution, is the subject of The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840.

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1740: Artemy Volynsky

1 comment June 27th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1740, the Russian politician Artemy Volynsky was beheaded in St. Petersburg.

Volynsky, as famously corrupt as he was famously able, had worked himself up from Peter the Great’s dragoons into the circles of high statecraft but lost a power struggle in the notoriously cruel court of Empress Anna. He’d made it all the way to Anna’s cabinet, but there made himself the rival of powerful Baltic grand chamberlain Ernst Johann von Biron: in political terms, Biron and the fellow Balt who ran foreign policy had a west-facing, German orientation, while Volynsky looked east to Central Asia, India, and China; in personal terms, Biron was the lover of the queen, and Volynsky … was not.

After Volynsky beat up a poet, Biron had the excuse to have him investigated and was able to construct as treasonable some private correspondence about changing the way things are done in Russia, Biron thereby ridding himself of the rival.


Just a few months after Volynsky’s execution, Anna herself died, leaving an ill-starred one-year-old heir and an uncertain political situation.

In the event, Biron and his fellow Germanophiles were driven out of court by the Russian grandees, who then constructed the late Volynsky — by all indications as cutthroat and grasping as anyone else at court — as a patriotic martyr vis-a-vis the detested late ascendancy of the Baltic types.*

As a result, in 1741, a modest monument (later aggrandized) was set up to Volynsky et al at St. Sampson’s Cathedral.**

Further to that same end, the scaffold-bound 19th century Decembrist poet Ryleyev (Ryleev) paid his own tribute to Volynsky in verse. So far, I’ve only found Ryleyev’s “Volynsky” in Russian, but here’s a little taste [courtesy of blog friend Sonechka] of the gist:

He who resists the overweening
Expects no reward and asks for none
And forgetting even himself
Sacrifices all to the motherland.
Against the cruel tyrants
He will be free even in chains
At execution justly proud
And ever after exalted.


In that same vein, Ryleyev’s contemporary Ivan Lazhechnikov featured Volynsky as the protagonist of his historical novel The Ice Palace or The Ice House,† again whitewashing the man’s ample stock of disreputable qualities.

The book’s title alludes to a famous structure put up in the winter of 1739-1740 for the royal court’s amusement, a vast frozen edifice 20 meters tall and 50 meters wide, designed by the architect Pyotr Yeropkin … a Volynsky ally who ultimately shared Volynsky’s fate on June 27, 1740.

This sounds great, but the decadent amusement park soon became the scene for one of imperial Russia’s more infamous and bizarre horrors: Anna forced an ex-prince who had been demoted to court jester for marrying a Catholic to wed a homely Kalmyk serving-girl, with whom he would have to pass a “wedding night” naked in that icebox. (Somehow, they managed to survive.)


The yellow-clad Anna dances merrily while her terrified servants/prey brace to survive a winter night on the ice bed. Detail view; click for the full painting.

Volynsky’s machiavellian contribution to the ghastly scene had been to associate this spectacle with a celebration of Anna’s name day.

This bit of sucking up didn’t buy him quite enough time when it was all said and done, but it reminds of Volynsky’s highly mitigated claim on eternal exaltation.

* Remembered as the Bironovshchina. Compare to the Yezhovshchina, at the height of Stalin’s purges: why don’t these things ever get named for the actual chief executive?

** Saint Sampson the Hospitable has a June 27 feast date; the cathedral was dedicated in his honor because that was also the date, in 1709, of Russia’s watershed victory over Sweden at the Battle of Poltava.

† There’s more about this novel in the context of both 19th century literature and Volynsky’s own era in this pdf dissertation extract, pp. 7-22.

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1744: Jan, of Johonnes Van Houten

Add comment May 11th, 2011 Headsman

From the Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, only one small instance of the “terrible example” in store for the Garden State’s “large body of slaves to be kept in subjection.”

May 10, 1744 — The negro man “Jan,” of Johonnes Van Houten, was tried “for poysoning and attempting to do the same to several blacks at the township of Bergen; to wit, the negro man of Arent Toers, named Lowis, and has some time past poysoned two wenches of Garret Ross, of the same precinct, and attempted several more.” Convicted and sentenced to be hanged May 11, between 10 and 12, at Bergen; “at the suitablest place, where Peter Marselis and Michel Vreeland shall think proper.”


Was it the slave trade that capitalized the Van Houten cracker empire?

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1749: Samuel Henzi, excluded

1 comment July 17th, 2010 Headsman

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes

Those lines, written for 20th century America’s struggle with racism, are rooted in the timeless conflict between the haves and the have-nots, and those “exploding” dreams deferred have provided more than a few subjects for these morbid pages.

This date in 1749 saw the beheading of writer and reluctant revolutionary Samuel Henzi (German Wikipedia page), along with two fellow-conspirators in a plot to overthrow the aristocratic government of Bern(e).

Still operating off a 13th century constitution, Berne had ossified into an oligarchic society with privilege derived from heredity and the capable but low-born frustratingly locked out. This arrangement had provoked intermittent uprisings and challenges, but as of the mid-18th century, it was still going strong, and “patricians mockingly observed that the citizens must be stripped of their feathers, that they might not want to fly.” (Source)

Henzi was a man with the ambition and the talent to soar above his place.

Eloquent, cultured, a guy to bang out some French poetry on the side, Henzi had been among a group of lower gentry who in 1744 petitioned for a change to Bern’s governing council, which at that time had become a privately held dynastic trust among a few top burghers.

For a suggestion as incendiary as allocating council seats by lot the better to represent the class, Henzi was treated as a rebel and exiled to Neuchatel.

dass ein eingewurzelter Staatskrebs mit Demuth nicht geheilt werden kann; nein! man muss den Degen in die Faust nehmen, wenn man die verlorne Freiheit wieder erobern will.*

Returning on a pardon, he found that not much had changed. The doors to employment in the civil administration shut tight against him, and not being bought off with a minor sinecure he fell in with a circle of malcontents dreamily conspiring to blow the whole thing up.

These plotters were exposed and three considered ringleaders — merchant Samuel Niklaus Wernier, Stadtlieutenant Emanuel Fueter, and Henzi — were beheaded on this date, each reputedly requiring more than one stroke of the sword.

On embarking with their two sons to quit the Helvetic territory, the wife of Henzi exclaimed, “I would rather see these children sink in the Rhine-stream than they should not one day learn to avenge the murder of their father.” However, when the sons came to manhood, they displayed more magnanimity than their mother; and one of them, who rose to distinction in the service of the Netherlands, requited with good offices to the burghers of his native town the unmerited misfortunes which they had brought upon his family. (Source)


Henzi’s fate greatly excited German dramaturg (and original Conehead) Gotthold Lessing — indeed, he would remark that no other event moved him so deeply.

Almost immediately after Henzi’s decapitation, Lessing wrote his first tragedy, the never-finished but aptly-titled Samuel Henzi, which is available in the original German here.**

Wann man des Staates Flehn, der sie aus Gunst erkoren,
Der nur aus Nachsicht fleht, empfängt mit tauben Ohren;
Wann wer der Freiheit sich das Wort zu reden traut,
Zum Lohn für seine Müh ein schimpflich Elend baut;
Freiheit! wann uns von dir, du aller Tugend Same,
Du aller Laster Gift, nichts bleibet als der Name:
Und dann mein weichlich Herz gerechten Zorn nicht hört,
So bin ich meines Bluts –– ich bin des Tags nicht wert.

* That is, “humility cannot cure the cancer of the state; one must take the sword in fist.” The comment is cited in Edward M. Batley, “‘Tu executes comme tes maitres jugent!’ – The Henzi Affair and the question of Lessing’s political judgment”, German Life and Letters, July 1984.

** Lessing’s next stab at stagecraft in the key of seria produced what’s generally described as the German theater’s first domestic or bourgeois tragedy, Miss Sara Sampson (German Wikipedia entry).

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1747: Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat

2 comments April 9th, 2010 Headsman

Unprincipled, octogenarian Scottish noble Simon Fraser,* Lord Lovat was on this date in 1747 the last to lose his head on Tower Hill.

The Clan Fraser patriarch was an expert double-dealer from his youth in Restoration England — when he recruited a small regiment in nominal service to William and Mary but allegedly plotting to desert to the Stuarts at the opportune moment.

That moment never came … and the Stuarts’ fruitless quest for it in the decades to come would eventually claim the Lord Lovat.

But first up: a long life of opportunistic, frequently reprehensible political maneuvering.

  • He kidnapped, raped, and forcibly married a woman from a rival clan in order to gain claim on a contested succession (Lovat had to flee the country, a death sentence in absentia at his heels)
  • He expediently converted to Catholicism to get in with the exiled Stuarts and their continental allies
  • He forged incriminating documents in an unsuccessful bid to undermine rival nobles
  • He played both sides of the Hanover-Stuart intrigue, ingratiating himself with both Jacobites and London during the 1715 rising. He did this so adeptly that George I served as Lovat’s son’s godfather

When the Jacobites decided to double down on doomed risings in 1745,** this wily knave finally managed to commit himself to the wrong team at the wrong time. Hey, everyone should be allowed one fatal mistake every 80 years or so. (Read all about those years in this public-domain biography.)

Though Lovat was so infirm he had to be borne on a litter, his military acumen would have been worth the rebels’ while had they possessed the muscle to get into a fair fight.

But they didn’t, and Lord Lovat was captured in the undignified circumstance of being stashed in a tree, and at length fitted for a no less undignified trial.

He could neither walk nor ride, as he was almost helpless; he was deaf, purblind, eighty years of age, ignorant of English law, and it was therefore not a matter of surprise that the high-born tribes, who thronged to his trial, were disappointed in the brilliancy of his parts, and in the readiness of his wit. “I see little of parts in him,” observes Walpole, “nor attributed much to that cunning for which he is so famous; it might catch wild Highlanders.” … It appeared, indeed, doubtful in what form death would seize him first, and whether disease and age might not cheat the scaffold of its victim.

Oh, well.

Only the good die young.

By his public life, he has left an indelible stain upon the honour of the Highland character, upon his party, upon his country.

* Not to be confused with the Canadian explorer for whom British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University is named.

** The 1745 rebellion spawned a popular patriotic song that became the national anthem: “God Save the King/Queen”.

One of the tune’s impolitic verses you won’t hear performed at glitzy official ceremonies (or much of anywhere at all) is this nationalist blast at the Jacobite party:

Lord grant that Marshal Wade
Shall by thy mighty aid
Victory bring
May he sedition hush,
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush
God save the King.

All of which, one supposes, gives Simon Fraser claim to a spot in the fine print of the credits for the song, and for that matter, for the Sex Pistols’ riposte.

Nothing new, this scandalous punk riff: English radicals were travestying the nationalist anthem within the lifetime of many who personally saw the rebellious Scot Lord Lovat crushed.

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1749: Antonio Camardella

1 comment September 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1749, an unrepentant Antonio Camardella was hanged in Rome’s Piazza di Ponte Sant’Angelo (Italian link).

Camardella offed prelate Donato Morgigni for stiffing him in a business arrangement, and repelled all sanctimonious summons to contrition. When a priest mounted the scaffold with him to make one last go of it, verse has it, Camardella insisted on dying impenitent, crying “vendetta!” even as he dropped.

Dannato fu alle forche un delinquente
Per preticidio, detto Camardella.
Un santo fratacchion ch’era assistente
Dichiarollo per anima rubella,
Perche egli morir volle impenitente.
Invano a pentimento ei lo rappella,
Vendetta grida il reo, ne altrui da retta;
Penzolon cade e grida ancor vendetta.

This devil-may-care display of ferocity evidently made an impression on the denizens of a city still ruled by the papacy: they were still talking about it a century later, when Roman sonneteer Giuseppe Gioachino Belli anachronistically situated him on the scaffold with Belli’s own contemporary, renowned executioner Mastro Titta.

This pairing (written in the Roman dialect) of iconic criminal with iconic headsman, observed by our youthful narrator and his father, makes for a vivid scene of coming-of-age in an Eternal City where the Catholic Church extends ritual control over both life and death.

Il giorno che impiccarono Camardella
Io mi ero appena cresimato.
Mi sembra adesso, che il padrino al mercato
mi comprò un pupazzo e una ciambella.
Mio padre prese poi il carrozzino
Ma prima volle godersi l’impiccato:
E mi teneva in alto sollevato
Dicendo: “Guarda la forca quant’è bella!”
Nello stesso istante al condannato mastro Titta
Applicò un calcio nelle terga, e papà a me
Uno schiaffone alla guancia destra.
“Prendi”, mi disse, “e ricordati bene
Che questa stessa fine è destinata
A mille altri che sono migliori di te.”
The day they hanged Camardella
I had just been confirmed.
It seems to me now that my godfather took me to the market
I bought myself a top and a sweet roll.
My father then took the buggy
But first he wanted to enjoy the hanging:
He lifted me up high
Saying, “See how beautiful the gallows!”
Suddenly Mastro Titta struck the condemned
A kick in the rear, my father struck me
A slap to the right cheek.
“Take it,” he said, “and remember well
That this same fate is destined
A thousand others who are better than you.”

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