1780: David Dawson and Ralph Morden, Quaker “traitors”

4 comments November 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1780, two unconnected Quakers were hanged for two unconnected treason convictions in two different cities in Pennsylvania.

The public executions of Ralph Morden in Easton, Pa., and David Dawson in Philadelphia (in a double hanging along with counterfeiter Richard Chamberlain) had the unusual distinction of being treason convictions against the state of Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War, rather than against any sort of federal entity.

According to the Espy File of American executions, there were only 15 people put to death for treason* during the Revolutionary War. It’s a remarkably low figure under the circumstances — separatist colonial conflict that often pitted revolutionary neighbor against loyalist neighbor.

Morden, a Quaker who kept his head down during the war, agreed to guide one Robert Land, a Tory who needed to slip past Continental sentries, and of course didn’t make it. His case is summarized here, here and here.**

Less is readily available about Dawson, but a fellow-prisoner (and fellow-Quaker) left an account remembering that he and the counterfeiter Chamberlain

were taken out amidst a crowd of spectators — they walked after a cart in which were two coffins and a ladder, etc., each had a rope about his neck and their arms tied behin [sic] them … they were both hanged in the commons of this city abt. 1 o’clock.

This prisoner, Samuel Rowland Fisher, kept a two-year journal (pdf) of his imprisonment in Philadelphia for Tory sympathies, and as one might imagine paints an unflattering picture of the revolutionary “State as they call it.” In his view, Dawson’s hanging was a

greater act of Cruelty in the present Rulers than anything they have heretofore done, for they never gave him even a shadow of a tryal in their own fashion & they have executed him merely as what they call a proscribed person because he came into the City while the Brittish Army lay here, the circumstances of which was, that he was coming from his abode with his Waggon, that being in danger of his life from some of Washington’s Men he fled into the City & left & lost his Wagon, Horses, provisions &c — He never acted in any manner under Brittish, nor had he taken the Test to the present Usurpers, he did not go with the Brittish Army to New York, but had secreted himself in various places till he was betrayed by Jamed Reed last Spring & taken prisoner

Quaker Notes

Quakers who stuck by the sect’s pacifist teachings had a tough go of the American Revolution, often lumped in as Tories by patriots and subject to spasms of popular abuse, official writs confiscating their property, and other indignities from those who considered them “the unfriendly Quakers … notoriously disaffected to the cause of American Liberty.”† That same prejudice occasionally exposed Quakers to the severest punishments for perceived crimes.

Thus Morden, who presumably helped the British agent as a personal gesture of assistance, an everyday “crime” for which hanging was an extreme stricture: one hundred Continental dollars from Chamberlain’s press to the reader who can demonstrate that this was one of the 15 most treasonable acts committed behind American lines. But confronted with the request in a time of war, what was the neutral, pacifist choice?

“A man was hanged this morning,” one British officer’s diary recorded, “for piloting some people through the back woods, to the Indians. He was very old and left a wife and 9 children. His death was chiefly owing to his being a noted friend of Government.” (Cited by John Coleman in “The Treason of Ralph Morden and Robert Land,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Oct. 1955)

Dawson, meanwhile, had worked for the British during the city’s recent occupation by General William Howe and was one of many so-called Loyalists “attainted of High Treason” and stripped of property by the state. Still, the British had been gone more than two years by the time he hanged.

Egged by Benedict

What might have upgraded Dawson’s sentence to a capital one was having the bad sense to be apprehended around the same time news arrived that Benedict Arnold had betrayed the Revolutionary cause two months before this date.

Arnold had recently been stationed in Philadelphia, and there controversially married into a Tory family. The betrayal he wrought thereafter was keenly felt in the cradle of liberty, and Arnold’s

effigy was paraded through the streets and hanged, his wife was ordered to leave the city within fourteen days, and his estate was confiscated. Still more rigorous proceedings were instituted against the tories and Quakers, one of whom [Dawson -ed.] was convicted of high treason and hanged. (Source.)

Discipline and Punish

Since we are students of the morbid here, let us also pause to notice the strikingly throwback nature of the punishment — not merely the fact that the Dawson-Chamberlain hanging was public, but that they were so theatrically marched to it, with ropes drawn about necks like the false Martin Guerre.

Not only did the treason conviction belong to a pre-American jurisprudence — against the state, yes, but also of a broader British conception of treason that the still-to-come U.S. Constitution would sharply curtail — but the resulting sentence is sharply at odds with Pennsylvania’s historical image as a a haven of penal reform.

Before the decade was out, the Keystone State would establish itself as an international epicenter of the movement away from harsh and (to us) primitive-sounding judicial sanctions, reconceptualizing punishment into the ordered prison system still familiar today. Pennsylvania abolished the death penalty for all crimes but murder by the turn of the century (it had made liberal use of the rope to punish crimes like burglary before that), and even murder hangings were not frequent.

Quakers, and Quaker philosophy, were instrumental in the shift.

If the thought that led to that sea change came from a deeper place, it may yet have been informed by the episodic recent history of the revolution: according to Gail Stuart Rowe’s Embattled Bench, there were around 700 indictments and attainders for treason or misprision of treason in Pennsylvania throughout the American Revolution, and these resulted in only four hangings.

All four of the hanged were Quakers.

* The Espy file is an outstanding resource, with the intent to document every execution that took place in what is now the United States since its colonial antecedents. However, it is not necessarily reliable that it actually does this, so the precise figure of 15 should not be depended upon too greatly.

** Land himself managed to escape from the ambush, leaving only Morden to face the music. The interest in his fate seems to come from genealogists; according to this site, Charles Lindbergh numbered among his descendants — bringing us to another century’s death penalty.

† That was George Washington, cited in George Washington and Slavery. However, according to this listing of famous Quakers, other notable patriots like revolutionary Gen. Nathanael Greene, flag-stitcher Betsy Ross and polemicist Thomas Paine were Quakers, too.

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1780: Major John Andre, Benedict Arnold’s handler

October 2nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1780, the honorable British Major John Andre got what Benedict Arnold had coming to him.

Piqued that his (quite considerable) brilliance in the field did not earn honors he thought his due, General Benedict Arnold contrived to betray West Point to the British during the American Revolution — the plot that made his name a synonym for treachery.

As the scheme ripened, the turncoat asked Sir Henry Clinton for “a personal interview with an officer that you can confide in.”

Enter Clinton’s adjutant John Andre, head of British Special Intelligence.

The dashing officer, well-liked in society on either side of the permeable divide between Tories and Patriots on the continent, slipped into Haverstraw, N.Y. to make the arrangements. On his way back — when he already thought himself safely clear of American-held territory — he was nabbed with the incriminating documents.

The narrowly-averted betrayal was mirrored by the narrowest of escapes: luckily for Benedict Arnold, Andre was received in custody by a subordinate officer of his, whose initial report to Arnold alerted the general to his danger and enabled him to escape to the British a whisker ahead of the law.

Treason, of the blackest dye, was yesterday discovered. General Arnold, who commanded at West Point, lost to every sentiment of honor, of private and public obligation, was about to deliver up that important post into the hands of the enemy. Such an event must have given the American cause a dangerous, if not a fatal wound; happily the treason has been timely discovered, to prevent the fatal misfortune. The providential train of circumstances which led to it, afford the most convincing proofs that the liberties of America are the object of Divine protection.

It was a gentlemanly war, and Andre didn’t seem like the guy to hang in the whole exchange. But his argument before a court-martial that he was merely availing “an advantage taken in war” by agreeing to talk to an enemy general who wanted to hand them the keys to a fort didn’t fly: he’d been behind enemy lines, out of uniform, sneaking around. That made him a spy.

And the British refused to obtain Andre’s liberty by trading the man the Americans really wanted to execute.

Instead, by year’s end, the hero of Saratoga was commanding redcoats in the field — perhaps a little nervously; when he asked a captured American what might happen to him should he be taken, the reply was “Cut off your right leg, bury it with full military honors, and then hang the rest of you on a gibbet.”

John Andre was left holding the bag, to the dismay of just about everyone American and British alike. This extended account of the luckless major’s last moments* is from the pen of Continental Army surgeon James Thacher.

Major Andre is no more among the living. I have just witnessed his exit. It was a tragical scene of the deepest interest. During his confinement and trial, he exhibited those proud and elevated sensibilities which designate greatness and dignity of mind. Not a murmur or a sigh ever escaped him, and the civilities and attentions bestowed on him were politely acknowledged…

The fatal hour having arrived, a large detachment of troops was paraded, and an immense concourse of people assembled; almost all our general and field officers, excepting his excellency [George Washington] and his staff, were present on horseback; melancholy and gloom pervaded all ranks, and the scene was affectingly awful … Major Andre walked from the stone house, in which he had been confined, between two of our subaltern officers, arm in arm; the eyes of the immense multitude were fixed on him, who, rising superior to the fears of death, appeared as if conscious of the dignified deportment which he displayed. He betrayed no want of fortitude, but retained a complacent smile on his countenance, and politely bowed to several gentlemen whom he knew, which was respectfully returned. It was his earnest desire to be shot, as being the mode of death most comformable to the feelings of a military man, and he had indulged the hope that his request would be granted. At the moment, therefore, when suddenly he came in view of the gallows, he involuntarily started backward, and made a pause. “Why this emotion, sir?” said an officer by his side. Instantly recovering his composure, he said, “I am reconciled to my death, but I detest the mode.” While waiting and standing near the gallows, I observed some degree of trepidation; placing his foot on a stone, and rolling it over and choking in his throat, as if attempting to swallow. So soon, however, as he perceived that things were in readiness, he stepped quickly into the wagon, and at this moment he appeared to shrink, but instantly elevating his head with firmness, he said, “It will be but a momentary pang,” and taking from his pocket two white handkerchiefs, the provost-marshal, with one, loosely pinioned his arms, and with the other, the victim, after taking off his had and stock, bandaged his own eyes with perfect firmness, which melted the hearts and moistened the cheeks, not only of his servant, but of the throng of spectators. The rope being appended to the gallows, he slipped the noose over his head and adjusted it to his neck, without the assistance of the awkward executioner. Colonel Scammel now informed him that he had an opportunity to speak, if he desired it; he raised the handkerchief from his eyes, and said, “I pray you to bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man.” The wagon being now removed from under him, he was suspended, and instantly expired; it proved indeed “but a momentary pang.” He was dressed in his royal regimentals and boots, and his remains, in the same dress, were placed in an ordinary coffin, and interred at the foot of the gallows; and the spot was consecrated by the tears of thousands.

Thus died, in the bloom of life, the accomplished Major Andre, the pride of the royal army, and the valued friend of Sir Henry Clinton. He was about twenty-nine years of age, in his person well proportioned, tall, genteel and graceful. His mien respectable and dignified. His countenance mild, expressive and prepossessing, indicative of an intelligent and amiable mind. … considered as a skilful, brave and enterprising officer, and he is reported to have been benevolent and humane to our people who have been prisoners in New York. … The heart of sensibility mourns when a life of so much worth is sacrified on a gibbet. General Washington was called to discharge a duty from which his soul revolted; and it is asserted that his hand could scarcely command his pen, when signing the warrant for the execution of Major Andre. … Could Arnold have been suspended on the gibbet erected for Andre, not a tear or a sigh would have been produced, but exultation and joy would have been visible on every countenance.

Andre makes a sort of loyalist counterpart to Nathan Hale. Interestingly, Thacher’s account — in which he uses his old diaries for a book that was published in 1823 — footnotes an extended narration of Nathan Hale in a comparative vein, complaining that “whilst almost every historian of the American Revolution has celebrated the virtues and lamented the fate of Andre, Hale has remained unnoticed, and it is scarcely known that such a character ever existed.” Today, in terms of their public recognizability, the two are rather reversed.

* Andre was to have been hanged October 1, but the matter was stayed when a British deputation arrived under flag of truce to make one last parley for their man’s life.

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1776: Nathan Hale, with regrets

4 comments September 22nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1776, Revolutionary spy Nathan Hale was hanged by the British in Manhattan — allegedly uttering the immortal last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Nathan Hale statuary (with bound feet and hands) ironically stationed at Washington D.C.’s Department of Justice. Like statues are at the Chicago Tribune building and the Yale University campus; dueling plaques in New York contend to mark the execution spot.

Two years out of Yale when the Revolution broke out in 1775, the Connecticut-born Hale hitched onto the Continental Army and was directly promoted to captain.

When British Gen. William Howe landed at New York in the summer of 1776, Nathan Hale volunteered to slip behind enemy lines and reconnoiter enemy strength for George Washington. It turned out to be his mission into eternity.

As one might suspect, there’s a great deal more to Nathan Hale than his last words — and a fair bit of uncertainty about what his last words really were. Hale’s Wikipedia page retails many versions of the line from many sources.

The sentiment commonly attributed him (formulated in slight variations, e.g., “I only regret that I have but one life to give to my country”) was supposed to have been reported by a British officer attending him; it’s certainly a punchier version than, e.g., a Revolutionary War era report of “I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is, that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.” Gah.

If all these presumably paraphrased reports have the gist right, it’s possible the 21-year-old recited an identical sentiment in the tragic play Cato:*

How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.

There’s much more about this short-lived character and his larger-than-life transfiguration in mythologia Americana. The Library of Congress has a collection of links, and William Phelps recently penned this new (and surprisingly, first) biography of the revolutionary legend.

* The play was all the rage among patriots; Patrick Henry might have plucked his immortal “give me liberty or give me death” line from it, too. (“It is not now time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death.”)

Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.

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1777: A British spy, by Israel Putnam

1 comment August 7th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1777, a general of the American Revolution laconically asserted his prerogatives with the hanging of a British spy.

A former ranger in the British service, Israel Putnam — he may or may not be the “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” guy — was camped at Peekskill, New York, when he caught one Edmund Palmer stalking the camp.

It was early in the American Revolution, and American spies were being hanged by the British … but the commanders of Albion evidently entertained some notion that the shoe would not go on the other foot. When Palmer was condemned to death for spying, the British General Sir Henry Clinton hurried a missive to his opposite number under flag of truce claiming Palmer as a British lieutenant.

Old Put firmly believed “the speedy execution of spies is agreeable to the laws of nature and nations and absolutely necessary to the preservation of the army.” (According to the unimpeachable sourcing that is the “about” page of an intel e-learning university named for him.)

And Putnam’s reply to Clinton, a terse little masterpiece answering Cicero‘s dictum that “Brevity is a great praise of eloquence,” was one for the ages.

Headquarters, 7th August, 1777.

Sir — Edmund Palmer, an officer in the enemy’s service, was taken as a spy lurking within our lines; he has been tried as a spy, condemned as a spy, and shall be executed as a spy, and the flag is ordered to depart immediately.

Yours, &c.,

Israel Putnam

P.S. He has accordingly been executed.

(Some versions give the slightly zippier postscript as “afternoon — he is hanged.”)

Read all about this spry American Cincinnatus in Old Put, a now-public-domain book published for America’s centennial celebration; or at this enthusiastic fan page. Also of some now-current relevance: tangential background on the jurisdictional wrangling around military commissions at this period, here.

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1794: Alexandre de Beauharnais, widowing Josephine for Napoleon

8 comments July 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Napoleon Bonaparte’s future Empress became a widow.

Alexandre de Beauharnais — excuse me, that’s Alexandre François Marie de Beauharnais, Vicomte de Beauharnais to you — a liberal noble from Martinique who had served as a general in the American Revolution, was a pol with some juice in the earlier stages of the French Revolution, even declining to become Minister of War in June 1793.

It was a long fall to a short chop when he was accused of allowing Mainz to fall to the Germans through incompetence and/or insufficient revolutionary ardor. His brother Augustin was also among the day’s batch.

Just another forgettable aristocrat, shaved by the national razor.

But surviving Beauharnais — in prison herself at this moment, and in some danger of following his footsteps were it not for the imminent coup of Thermidor — was his wife by arranged marriage, 31-year-old sugar plantation heiress Josephine, later immortalized by remarrying the officer who would go on to bend all Europe to his will, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Thanks to his widow’s well-chosen conquest, Beauharnais’ children, dynastically married off under Napoleon’s adoption, would go on to sire a plethora of European royalty.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

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1794: Three generations of Noailles women, but not the Marquise de Lafayette

7 comments July 22nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1794, three women of the Noailles family were guillotined in Paris.

The grandmother, mother and sister of Adrienne Noailles all shed their blue blood on the scaffold (grandpa, with impeccable timing, had died of natural causes the previous summer) for their aristocratic stock — the eldest had been Marie Antoinette‘s etiquette tutor.

They are noteworthy of themselves because their courageous Catholic confessor, one Abbe Carrichon, made good a promise to accompany them to the very shadow of the blade to give them absolution and left to us in a description of these pious ladies’ nerve-wracking journey on the tumbrils one of the surprisingly few first-hand narrative descriptions of the Terror’s guillotine at work. We’ll come to it momentarily.

But they are noteworthy, too, for the fourth kinswoman who stood in the same mortal peril but did not join them. Adrienne was the wife of the the Marquis de Lafayette.

Adrienne and Lafayette had hitched wagons in their teens — an arranged match, but one that evidently blossomed into real love between like-minded partners — before the Marquis ran off to become that famous imported general and patron of the American Revolution.

Such liberal credentials made him an early star in the French Revolution, but by the time of the Terror the reformist gentleman rated a hidebound right-winger on the political spectrum and in short order a refugee in Prussia and Austria; neither his name nor (obviously) his title would have availed him safety had he had the misfortune to be captured in France.

A (possible) portrait of the Marquise de Lafayette, c. 1790. (More.)

But American regard for the name remained high — and at a time when virtually the whole world set its hand against France. Future U.S. president James Monroe arrived in Paris as ambassador just after the Terror, when his predecessor Gouverneur Morris had delicately impressed upon the Committee of Public Safety the damage Adrienne’s beheading would do to one of France’s few remaining friendly foreign relations. Together with his wife Elizabeth, who visited the still-imprisoned Adrienne in an intentionally theatrical gesture, Monroe was able to procure her eventual her release.

(Adrienne decamped to Austria where her husband was considered not a dangerous reactionary but a dangerous radical, and had been imprisoned on that ground. She voluntarily shared his dungeon until Napoleon forced their release. There’s a short account of her life from the New York Times here (pdf))

If Adrienne’s married name was insufficient to purchase the lives of her own family, the latter have acquired a measure of remembrance in their death in one of the Revolution’s most human and emotional scenes, and not least because one is conscious in the account that the priest who gives them comfort and absolution and whose narrative remains for us was himself running a mortal risk at every step (he confesses in the narrative to his nerve having failed him in such a mission on a previous occasion, as it nearly fails him this time).

Here — because it is of such deep interest not only to the theme not only of this week, but of this blog altogether — is the Abbe Carrichon’s account excerpted at length, as drawn from Madame de Lafayette and Her Family, a biography in the public domain and available free at Google Books. (There is another free biography whose focus is the Marquis Lafayette that also treats this episode here.)

One day, as the ladies were exhorting each other to prepare for death, I said to them, as by foresight: ‘If you go the scaffold and if God gives me strength to do so, I shall accompany you.’

They took me at my word and eagerly exclaimed: ‘Will you promise to do so?’ For a moment I hesitated.

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘and so that you may recognize me, I shall wear a dark blue coat and a red waistcoat.’ … On the 22nd of July on a Tuesday morning, as I was just going out, I heard a knock. I opened the door and saw the Noailles children with their tutor. The children were cheerful … the tutor looked sad, careworn, pale, haggard. ‘Let us go to your study,’ said he, ‘and leave the children in this room.’ We did so. He threw himself on a chair.

‘All is over, my friend,’ he said. ‘The ladies are before the Revolutionary Tribunal. I summon you to keep your word. I shall take the boys to Vincennes to see [their sister]. While in the woods I shall prepare those unfortunate children for their terrible loss.’

Although I had been prepared for this news, I was greatly shocked … I soon recovered myself, and after a few questions and answers full of mournful details, I said to M. Grellet:

‘You must go now, and I must change my dress. What a task I have before me! Pray that God may give me strength to accomplish it.’

Thoughtful and irresolute, I slowly retraced my steps to the ‘Palais de Justice,’ dreading to get there and hoping not to find those for whom I was seeking. I arrived before five o’clock. There were no signs of departure. Sick at heart, I ascended the steps of the Saint-Chapelle, then I walked slowly unto the Grande salle, and walked about. I sat down, I rose again, but spoke to no one. From time to time I cast a melancholy glance towards the courtyard, to see if there were any signs of departure. My constant thought was that in two hours, perhaps one, they would be no more. I cannot say how overwhelmed I was by that idea, which has affected me all through life on such occasions, and they have been only too frequent. While a prey to these mournful feelings, never did an hour appear to me so long or so short as the one which elapsed between five and six o’clock on that day. Conflicting thoughts were constantly crossing my mind, which made me suddenly pass from the illusions of vain hopes to fears, alas! too well founded. At last I saw from a movement in the crowd, that the prison door was on the point of being opened. I went down and placed myself near the outer gate … The first cart was filled with prisoners and came toward me. It was occupied by eight ladies whose demeanor was most edifying. Of these seven were unknown to me. The last, who was very near me, was the Marechale de Noailles. A transient ray of hope crossed my heart when I saw that her daughter and grand-daughter were not with her, but alas! they were in the second cart.

I heard one near me say: ‘Look at the young one; how anxious she seems. See how she is speaking to the other one.’ For my part, I felt as if I had heard all they were saying. ‘Mama, he is not there.’ ‘Look again.’ ‘Nothing escapes me — I assure you he is not there!’ The first cart stopped before me during at least a quarter of an hour. It moved on, the second followed. I approached the ladies, they did not see me. … I followed the cart over the bridge, and thus kept near the ladies, though separated from them by the crowd. Mme. de Noailles still looking for me, did not perceive me. … I felt tempted to turn back. Have I not done all that I could, I inwardly exclaimed? Everywhere the crowd will be greater; it is useless to go any further. I was on the point of giving up the attempt. Suddenly the sky became overclouded, thunder was heard in the distance. I made a fresh effort. A short distance brought me before the carts to the Rue Saint-Antoine, nearly opposite the too famous La Force [prison]. At that moment the storm broke forth, the wind blew violently; flashes of lightning and claps of thunder followed in rapid succession; the rain poured down in torrents. I took shelter at a shop door. In one moment the street was cleared; the crowd had taken refuge in the shops and gateways. … By a precipitate and involuntary movement I quitted the shop door and rushed towards the second cart and found myself close to the ladies. Mme. de Noailles perceived me, and, smiling, seemed to say:

‘There you are at last! How happy we are to see you! How we have looked for you! Mama, there he is!’

… all the irresolution vanished from my mind. By the grace of God, I felt possessed of extraordinary courage. Soaked with rain and perspiration I continued to walk by them …

We were close to the carrefour preceding the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. I went forward, examined the spot, and said to myself, ‘This is the place for granting them what they so much long for.’

The cart was going slower. I turned towards the ladies and made a sign which Mme. de Noailles understood perfectly.

‘Mama, M. Carrichon is going to give us absolution,’ she evidently whispered. They piously bowed their heads with a look of repentance, contrition and hope. Then I lifted my hand, and, without uncovering my head, pronounced the form of absolution and the words which follow it distinctly and with supernatural attention. Never shall I forget the expression on their faces. From that moment the storm abated, the rain diminished, and seemed only to have fallen for the furtherance of our wishes. I offered up my thanks to God, and so did, I am sure, those pious women. Their exterior appearance spoke contentment, security and joy. …

At last we reached the fatal spot. I cannot describe what I felt. What a moment! What a separation! What an affliction for the children, husbands, sisters, relations, and friends who are to survive those beloved ones in this valley of tears! There they are before me full of health, and in one moment I shall see them no more. What anguish! Yet not without deep consolation at beholding them so resigned. … A ring of numerous spectators soon formed, most of whom were laughing and amusing themselves at the horrible sight. It was dreadful to be amongst them.

While the executioner and his two assistants were helping the prisoners out of the first cart, Mme. de Noailles’s eyes sought for me in the crowd. She caught sight of me. What a wonderful expression there was in those looks! Sometimes raised towards heaven, sometimes lowered towards earth, her eyes so animated, so gentle, so expressive, so heavenly, were often fixed on me in a manner which would have attracted notice if those around me had had time for observation. I pulled my hat over my eyes without taking them off her. I felt as if I could hear her say: ‘Our sacrifice is accomplished; we have the firm and comforting hope that a merciful God is calling us to him. How many dear to us we leave behind! but we shall forget no one. Farewell to them, and thanks to you. Jesus Christ who died for us is our strength. May we die in Him. Farewell. May we all meet in heaven!’

It is impossible to give an idea of the animation and fervour of those signs, the eloquence of which was so touching that a bystander exclaimed: ‘Oh, that young woman, how happy she seems, how she looks up to heaven, how she is praying! But what is the use of it all?’ and then, on second thoughts, ‘Oh, the rascals, the bigots!’

The mother and daughter took a last farewell of each other and descended from the cart. As for me, the outer world disappeared for a moment. At once broken-hearted and comforted, I could only return thanks to God for not having waited for this moment to give them absolution, or, what would have been still worse, delayed it until they had ascended the scaffold. We could not have joined in prayer while I gave and they received this great blessing as we had been enabled to do in the most favourable circumstances possible at such a time. I left the spot where I was standing and went over to the other side, while the victims were getting out. I found myself opposite to the wooden steps which led to the scaffold. An old man, tall and straight, with white hair and a good-natured countenance, was leaning against it. I was told he was a fermier general. Near him stood a very edifying lady whom I did not know. Then came the Marechale de Noailles [the grandmother] exactly opposite me, dressed in black taffetas, for she was still in mourning for her husband. She was sitting on a block of wood or stone which happened to be there, her large eyes fixed with a vacant look. … All the others were drawn up in two lines looking towards the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. From where I stood I could only see Mme. d’Ayen [the mother], whose attitude and countenance expressed the most sublime, unaffected, and devout resignation. She seemed only occupied with the sacrifice she was about to make to God, through the merits of the Saviour, his divine son. She looked as she was wont to do when she had the happiness of approaching the altar for holy communion. I shall never forget the impression she made on me at that moment. It is often in my thoughts. God grant that I may profit by it!

The Marechale de Noailles was the third person who ascended the scaffold. The upper part of her dress had to be cut away in order to uncover her throat. I was impatient to leave the place, yet I wished to drink the cup of bitterness to the dregs and to keep my promise, as God was giving me strength to do so, even in the midst of all my shuddering horror. Six ladies followed; Mme. d’Ayen was the tenth. How happy she seemed to die before her daughter! The executioner tore off her cap, as it was fastened by a pin which he had forgotten to remove; he pulled her hair violently, and the pain he caused was visible on her countenance.

The mother disappeared; the daughter took her place. What a sight to behold that young creature, all in white, looking still younger than she really was, like a gentle lamb going to the slaughter! I fancied I was witnessing the martyrdom of one of the young virgins or holy women whom we read of in the history of the church. What had happened to the mother also happened to her; the same pin in the removal of her cap, then the same composure, the same death. Oh! the abundant crimson stream that gushed from her head and neck; how happy she is now, I thought, as her body was thrown into that frightful coffin!

May Almighty God in his mercy bestow on the members of that family all the blessings which I ask and entreat them to ask for mine! May we all be saved with those who have gone before us to that happy dwelling where revolutions are unknown, to that abode which, according to the words of Saint Augustine, has truth for its King, Charity for its law, and will endure for eternity!

(Also in this batch: Gen. Louis-Charles de Flers, who was recalled on trumped-up charges of treason by Revolutionary commissars after he lost a battle against the Spanish in the War of the Pyrenees.)

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Nobility,Not Executed,Notably Survived By,Public Executions,Treason,Women

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