Above: Cristus Factus Est, composed by the black Venezuelan musician Juan Antonio Caro de Boesi. He was shot on this date in 1814 by the notoriously brutal royalist caudillo Jose Tomas Boves, for his support of independence.
There are oddly conflicting claims that he shared an orchestral martyrdom with Juan Jose Landaeta, the composer of Venezuela’s national anthem; however, most sources date this man’s death to as early as 1812, not in connection with a firing squad but an earthquake. This might be an instance where the unreliable narrator that is Clio has conflated the biographies of two similar figures.
HEAD QUARTERS, FALLS OF NIAGARA
OCTOBER 28TH 1814.
At a General Court Martial, held at Stamford, on the 25th instant, and continued by adjournment to the 28th of the same month, Private John McMillan, of the 2nd regiment of Lincoln Militia, was arraigned on the following charges, viz.: —
1st. For having deserted to the Enemy, with his Arms and Accoutrements, when on Duty, on or about the 6th of Octoer, 1813.
2nd. For having been taken bearing Arms in the Service of the Enemy on or about the 17th of September last.
And “The Court, after duly considering the Evidence for the Prosecution and on behalf of the Prisoner, were clearly of the opinion that he is guilty of both charges, and therefore Sentence him to suffer Death, at such place and time as His Honor the President may be pleased to direct.”
His Honor the President approves the finding and Sentence of the Court, and directs that the same be carried into Execution at Bridgewater [Niagara Falls] on Monday morning next, the 31st instant, at 11 o’clock
On this date two centuries ago, a man on a mission of mercy found his accidental entry into history.
The mercy in question was required for a Maryland fellow named William Beanes. During the War of 1812, the British had seized this 65-year-old doctor on their march back from torching the White House, on grounds of his role jailing British soldiers who were doing some freelance plundering around his beloved Upper Marlboro.
They were making worrying (possibly empty) threats about hanging the man for infringing the laws of war as they held Dr. Beanes in the Chesapeake Bay aboard the H.M.S. Tonnant.* Beanes’s friends recruited a respected lawyer (and amateur poet) to get the venerable gentleman out of the soup.
This was accomplished easily enough. Approaching the British warship under a flag of truce, the lawyer and a buddy who was the government’s designated prisoner exchange agent managed to convince Gen. Robert Ross to parole his “war criminal” by producing a packet of testimonials from previous British POWs affirming the honorable treatment Dr. Beanes had accorded them. Problem solved.
There was one minor hitch.
Because the British were preparing to attack Baltimore, and the visiting envoys had perforce become privy to some of the forthcoming operational details whose exposure might complicate matters, the hosts detained the whole party at sea pending the encounter’s conclusion.
There the Americans looked on, helplessly entranced, as the Battle of Baltimore unfolded. On September 12, there was a land battle (the munificent Gen. Ross was slain by an American sharpshooter as he directed troops in this affair). Then at dawn on September 13, the British fleet commenced a withering bombardment of Baltimore’s principal harbor bulwark, Fort McHenry. Safely out of range of the fort’s guns, British cannons rained ordnance on the fort throughout the day, 1,500 bombs in all. At one point a missile ripped a white star from the fort’s gigantic American flag.
The firing continued into the night. The American bystanders now saw nothing of the fort save by the fleeting illumination of exploding shells. Could it possibly weather the assault? As morning approached, the fleet’s firing came to a virtual stop. The Americans could only surmise that this abatement might indicate Fort McHenry’s capture by the British. The suspense over the course of the long, dark night must have been near unbearable.
Dawn’s early light on September 14, 1814 brought for the Yankees a wondrous sight: the tattered American banner somehow still fluttered over the fort, where they had watched it all the day before.
On September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key beholds the American flag still flying over Baltimore, just as it had at the previous twilight’s last gleaming. (1912 painting by Edward Moran.)
There’s a noticeable discrepancy here in that the execution order (the first document) references, and names, two people sentenced to die — but the ensuing garrison orders consistently refer to “the prisoner” in the singular. I have not been able to clarify this discrepancy, and it’s worth noting that the Espy file of historic U.S. executions — which is incomplete, but nevertheless pretty complete — does not note an execution on or around this date. It’s possible that either or both of the men were pardoned; there had been an amnesty proclaimed in June for (successful) deserters who were still on the lam, and although that wouldn’t have directly covered these cases, it might have signaled a corresponding leniency liable to extend within the courts-martial system.
Headquarters 3d Military District,
N. Y., July 7th, 1814.
Capt. Moses Swett or officer commanding troops on Governor’s Island.
Sir :–The general court martial which convened on Governor’s Island on the 23d ult., of which Col. D. Brearly,* of the 15th Inft. is president, having sentenced John Reid and Roger Wilson, privates in the corps of artillery, to be shot to death — By power in me vested you are hereby directed to have the sentence carried into execution on the day and at the hour prescribed in the general order of the 3d inst., for which this shall be your warrant. I am, sir, your obedient servant,
The troops on Governor’s Island will parade tomorrow morning at 11:30 o’clock on the Grand Parade, for the purpose of witnessing the execution of the prisoner [singular — sic?] sentenced by a general order of the 3d inst. to be shot to death.
The troops will form three sides of a square, the artillery will form the right and left flank, the Infantry the rear; the execution parties, consisting of a sergeant and twelve privates, will parade at 11:30 o’clock and placed under the command of Lieut. Forbes, Provost Marshal; the guards of the advanced posts will have their sentries at their respective posts, and will repair to the parade at 11:30, those under charge of the Provost Marshal will join the execution party, for the purpose of escorting the prisoner to the place of execution.
The execution parties, in divisions preceded by the music with the Provost Marshal at their head, will march in front of the prisoner, the music playing the dead march; the guards formed in divisions will march in rear of the prisoner.
The procession will enter the square from the rear, face ten paces from the coffin placed in the center, upon which the prisoner kneels by a signal from the Provost Marshal. The music ceases, the warrant and sentence of death is read, the signal to fire is then given to the execution parties. By order of
A Catholic priest (defrocked for the occasion of his execution) who had previously gone to prison for his nationalist sympathies, Matamoros joined the revolutionary army of fellow-clergyman Jose Maria Morelos as the Mexican War of Independence blossomed.
Matamoros proved to have the knack for martial leadership and was a lieutenant general and Morelos’s second-in-command within months.
The Spanish captured him in early January 1814 after the revolutionaries’ failed attempt to take Valladolid. His foes could not be moved to exchange him on any terms.
Though Morelos too would suffer this fate in time, their cause eventually prevailed. Post-independence, the martyred Matamoros became a Mexican national hero. He’s interred today at Mexico City’s iconic El Angel monumental column.
Captured attempting to escape the approaching royalist forces of Jose Tomas Boves, Salias was shot with the spectacularly defiant last cry of “God Almighty, if the Heavens admit Spaniards, then I renounce the Heavens!”
* There are some revisionist hypotheses postulating other authors.
This isn’t exactly the most historically important execution, but as the Newgate Calendar says, “The circumstance which attended the execution of this unfortunate man alone entitles him to a place in our pages, for otherwise his case is void of interest.”
What follows is the Calendar’s entry, which comes verbatim from the Aug. 23 London Times.
He was apprehended for a highway robbery, and convicted at the Old Bailey, when he received sentence of death. From the time of his conviction, he either affected, or suffered, complete insanity; but this did not release him from the consequence of his sentence; and, on Monday, August 22d, 1814, he was executed in front of Newgate, along with William Henry Lye, for burglary; John Mitchell, for forgery; Francis Sturgess, and Michael Mahoney, for highway robbery; and John Field, alias Jonathan Wild [not that one -ed.], for burglary. By half past six o’clock the Old Bailey, and houses adjacent, were crowded to great excess. At half past seven Mahoney was brought forward, for the purpose of being disencumbered of his irons. While his irons were knocking off, it was found necessary to search for a knife to cut some part of the cordage, which confined the irons. Mahoney, seeing this, stooped, and, with an Herculean effort, tore it asunder. This being the only Catholic, the Rev. Mr. Devereux attended him in constant prayer, in which he joined most fervently. Sturgess, Field, and Mitchell, conducted themselves with great propriety. The unfortunate Ashton had been in a state of insanity since the receipt of the awful warrant for his execution. In the Press Yard he distorted his countenance horribly. He was the fifth who mounted the scaffold, and ran up the steps with great rapidity; and, having gained the summit of the platform, began to kick and dance, and often exclaimed, ‘I’m Lord Wellington!’ The Rev. Mr. Cotton, who officiated for the first time as Ordinary, enjoined him to prayer, to which he paid little attention, and continued to clap his hands as far as he was permitted by the extent of the cord. Mitchell often invited him to prayer. All that could be done was ineffectual, and it was necessary to have two men to hold him during the awful ceremony. When they released him for the purpose of the Lord’s Prayer being said, he turned round, and began to dance, and vociferated, Look at me; ‘I am Lord Wellington!’ At twenty minutes past eight o’clock the signal was given, and the platform fell. Scarcely, however, had the sufferers dropped, before, to the awe and astonishment of every beholder, Ashton rebounded from the rope, and was instantaneously seen dancing near the Ordinary, and crying out very loudly, and apparently unhurt, ‘What do ye think of me? Am I not Lord Wellington now?’ then danced, clapped his hands, and huzzaed. At length the executioner was compelled to get up the scaffold, and to push him forcibly from the place which he stood.
Quite a baptism for the Rev. Horace Salusbury Cotton’s very first gig as the Ordinary. Cotton noted Ashton’s remarkable behavior in his execution diary; the relevant pages can be seen here.
Nothing daunted, Cotton enjoyed a 25-year run in the position (he was the cleric Charles Dickens saw at work when the writer visited Newgate in 1835), and “enjoyed” really does seem like the right word. “He was a robust, rosy, well-fed, unctuous individual, whose picture may be seen in Cruikshank‘s plate of the Press yard in Pierce Egan‘s ‘Life in London,'” wrote Horace Bleackley. “His condemned sermons were more terrific than those of any of his predecessors, and he was censured by the authorities for ‘harrowing the prisoner’s feelings unnecessarily’ in the case of Henry Fauntleroy, the banker.”
Dr Cotton, Ordinary of Newgate, Announcing the Death Warrant, by a prisoner named W. Thomson. This 1826 watercolor is at the Tate gallery.
We’ve already met Mary’s father in these pages. The old man would outlive his child, which no parent ought to do, but he made it up to her by the way he checked out.
The two cases are closely related. The father killed one John Jacobs, a half-breed, because he had been the chief witness against his daughter. The daughter allegedly killed a “female” who had “alienated her husband’s affection.” Despite public sympathy being associated with the Indian Abram, the law was obliged to take its course. (Source)
On this date* in 1814, an American army in Buffalo, N.Y., shaken by desertions lined up five absconding soldiers for execution.
The memoirs of one Jarvis Hanks, a drummer, recalled the singular scene that ensued.
In this alternative history of the war of 1812, the sergeant commanding the firing party and the soldier not executed make their way down the continent as an odd couple and fight in the Battle of New Orleans.
During the time we remained at Buffalo, five men were sentenced to be publicly shot for the offence of desertion. They were dressed in white robes with white caps upon their heads, and a red target fastened over the heart. The army was drawn up into a hollow square to witness the example that was about to be made of their comrades who had proved recreant to the regulations of the service. Five graves were dug in a row, five coffins placed near them, also in a line, with distance between coffins and graves to enable the criminals to kneel between them. About twelve men were assigned to the execution of each offender. Their guns were loaded by officers, and they were not permitted to examine them afterwards until they had fired.
All things being in readiness, the chaplain made a prayer, the caps were pulled down over the eyes of the poor culprits, and the word of command given: “Ready! Aim! Fire!” They all fell! Some into their graves, some over their coffins. One struggled faintly and the commanding officer ordered a sergeant to approach and end his misery. He obeyed by putting the muzzle of his piece within a yard of his head, and discharging it. This quieted him perfectly!
At this time one of the condemned slowly arose from his recumbent position to his knees and was assisted to his feet. His first remark was, “By God, I thought I was dead”. In consequence of his youth and the peculiar circumstances of his case, he had been reprieved, but the fact was not communicated to him until this moment. He had anticipated execution with his comrades, and when the report of the guns took place, he fell with them, though not a ball touched him. The platoon assigned to him had guns given to them which were not charged, or at least had nothing but powder in them.
Even Dostoyevsky didn’t get to the point where the mock executioners actually “fired”.
These executions took place during the Niagara campaign in the latter stages of the war — the Americans’ last push in their unsuccessful bid to conquer Canada.
An alarming rumour, meanwhile, … spread throughout the Colonies; a rumour which, whatever of truth or fact, little or none, might be at the foundation, gathering, as it went, size and gloom, and dust of slander, was calculated to make them all feel very unhappy. The report was that a slave insurrection had been discovered, having its centre on the Berbice West Coast, but extending right and left so as to include all the shore from the Corentyne Coast to Mahaica, about eighty miles; that the negroes had chosen a governor and other officers; that it was their intention to murder all the white men, and take possession of all the rest; that some of the Demerara East Coast negroes were leaders in the rebellion, especially Philip, a member of the church on Le Resouvenir; and that instruction of the negroes was to blame.
the account which the negroes gave of the matter was, that there had been formed a society in imitation of the Freemasons, they wishing to have, as well as their buckras or masters, a society of that nature; and that the money collected was to support the poor and defray the expense of their dances, &c.; just as it had been formerly very common for them to assume the names of their masters, or of the Governor or Fiscal, and send invitations to friends to supper or a dance, and appoint a captain of their own as president of the feast; sometimes to put feathers in their hats at holiday time and parade the streets. “No one,” as far as Mr. Wray could learn, “had been injured by them, neither was any property destroyed,” yet on 12th April six of the unhappy people apprehended on the West Coast were executed in New Amsterdam as ringleaders, their heads cut off and fixed upon poles on the different estates to which they belonged; one of them white with age, whose master, Mr. Rader, told Mr. Wray that he denied to the last having any bad intentions. Several others were flogged under the gallows, and some were transported.
A proclamation was subsequently issued to the effect that as “the privilege allowed the slaves of the Colony, of publicly or privately dancing on estates and other places at stated periods, had been perverted by them to purposes of the most dangerous nature, all dancing was forbidden until next year, 1815, or the further pleasure of the Court;” … This was followed, late in the year, by another calling upon the colonists to pay their quota of the expenses incurred in crushing the plot and indemnifying the proprietors of the slaves capitally punished … Better still, the law concerning Sunday labour was amended in favour of the slave, forbidding field-work on that day, except in sudden emergencies; and further enactments were issued limiting and regulating the excessive use of the whip, and forbidding the burial of any slave dying suddenly or by suicide, or in consequence of punishment or hurt, without previously acquainting the authorities …