1647: Francesco Toraldo

Add comment October 21st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1647, Francesco Toraldo was put to summary death by rebelling Neapolitans.

Toraldo was a decorated commander during the Thirty Years’ War who was all set up to enjoy retirement as the Duke of Palata, a dignity conjured for him by the grateful Spanish.

This title persists in the Spanish peerage to this day, even though the namesake “duchy”, Palata, is a town in Italy — which is where Toraldo had some family holdings.

That meant he was in the neighborhood to get pulled into the action when Naples in 1647 rebelled against the King of Spain, the neglectful overlord of the City of the Sun.

In July 1647 a tax revolt led by a fisherman named Masaniello briefly gained control of the city.*


The Anti-Spanish Revolt of Masaniello in the Piazza del Mercato in Naples on 7 July 1648, by Michelangelo Cerquozzi and Viviano Codazzi, the latter of whom fled Naples because of this very event.

After the city’s merchants murdered Masaniello, Toraldo was called on as governor-general. He enjoyed widespread support among the still-restive populace, and when the Spanish royal house attempted a show of force under John of Austria to decisively quell the disturbance, Toraldo’s defense of the city might have led a more ambitious soul to declare himself the master of Naples. Indeed, many Neapolitans urged this course upon him — but Toraldo hewed to an increasingly untenable middle way of simultaneous fidelity to Spain and the Neapolitan masses that did for him in the end. (In fairness, the bolder attempt would surely have done for him just the same; his safety would have been in retiring.)

Hitherto the people had at least recognised the external sovereignty of Spain. Whilst they fought against the Spaniards, they professed their allegiance to the king of Spain; they rejected the accusation of rebellion, decidedly as well as vehemently; they had respected the pictures and arms of Philip IV and his ancestors, and always called themselves his most faithful people. But by degrees this had changed, and the unsuccessful expedition of Don John had given the last blow to this feeling of attachment to the royal family …A manifesto of the people on the 17th of October, 1647, set forth the grievance of the nation against their rulers, and invoked the aid of the Pope and the Emperor of kings and of princes. Political parties were formed; the most active at first were those who cried “Long life to the Pope! were he but our liege lord.” The Cardinal-Archbishop leaned to this side; the Nuncio Altieri was familiar with intrigues, and his brother was mixed up in it … Others, and amongst them some of the nobility, inclined towards France, and intriguers were not wanting who laboured in behalf of this power … Others again, considered a republic as feasible; but the great mass of the middle class began to perceive the danger into which they had fallen by the last steps taken in the revolution. They had been desirous of the abolition of burdens which were too oppressive, but not of a change in the government and dynasty. They had allowed the populace to have its own way about the gabelles. But when the populace prevailed, they changed their minds, as one insurrection followed upon another, when all commerce was at a stand-still, when all security was at an end, when the town was threatened with being turned into a heap of ruins, and that they were on the point of losing every thing, because they wanted too much. It was this middle class which later gave Spain an easy and bloodless victory.

But till this happened, Naples continued the theatre of horrible scenes. As the negotiations with Don John of Austria led to no results, the people tried to drive away the troops from the posts which they still occupied within the town. Thus Michele de Santis, the butcher who had murdered Don Giuseppe Carafa, led six hundred men against the Spanish post at Porta Meina. The Viceroy, after whom it was called, as has already been mentioned, had built this gate in the wall of Charles Vth, upon the heights of Montesanto, on the slope of the mountain upon which is situated the Carthusian convent and Sant’Elmo. Here stood fifteen Spaniards, armed only with pike and swords; they drove back six hundred men. The leaders perceived that, without the advantage of a commanding position, all individual detached successes were of no avail. Santa Chiara had resisted all their attacks. On the 21st of October a mine was sprung under the tower. Don Francesco Toraldo, who had been too weak to extricate himself, as he might possibly have succeeded in doing from his false position, and who now acted as a sort of check upon the people, commanded the attack in person. The mine was sprung, but being improperly laid, it only injured the neighbouring buildings, which buried numbers of the champions of the people under the ruins. The garrison of the convent made a sally at the same time, and the bands of the assailants withdrew, with the cry of treason. Their unfortunate leader was to atone for the treason; they seized him and dragged him to the market-place. In vain did Don Francesco Toraldo attempt to speak, in vain did his adherents try to silence the mad men. He sank down at the fish-market; they cut off his noble head upon a stone fish-stall. They stuck it upon a speak; thus had first [Don Giuseppe] Carafa’s head been carried in triumph, then that of Masaniello. They tore the still warm heart from the mangled corpse, and carried it in a silver dish to the convent, where Donna Alvina Frezza, the very beautiful wife of the unfortunate man, was staying. The savage murderers desired that the princess would show herself at the gate of the convent to receive the heart of her husband. The nuns, horror-struck, refused to deliver the message: then these savages collected the wood and faggots that were about to set fire to the convent. Toraldo’s widow, informed of the danger appeared at the threshold, and was obliged to receive from the hands of the barbarians this dreadful though beloved present. Many even of the mob wept at this sight. The corpse remained hanging on the gallows for two days, then they took it down, and in one of those sudden revulsions of mind that so often take place amongst the rude masses, they buried their murdered Captain-General with great pomp. (Source)

This fresh detonation of the powder keg led to the populace declaring itself the Neapolitan Republic; as the passage above hints, that project did not long survive the Spaniards’ pressure.

* Masaniello’s populist revolt left a wide literary footprint. Of special note is the opera La Muette de Portici, whose performance in Brussels in 1830 helped catalyze the Belgian Revolution.

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1773: Levi Ames, Boston burglar

Add comment October 21st, 2019 Headsman

Must Thieves who take men’s goods away
Be put to death? While fierce blood hounds,
Who do their fellow creatures slay,
Are sav’d from death? This cruel sounds.

But, ah! Alas it seems to me,
That Murder now is passed by
While Priests and Rulers all agree
That this poor Criminal must die.

What can they no compassion have?
Upon the poor distressed Thief,
Will none appear his life to save
Or pray that he may have relief?

Oh no! The Ministers they say,
For him there can be no reprieve;
He must be hang’d upon the day,
And his just punishment receive.

-“Theft and Murder! A Poem on the Execution of Levi Ames” (1773 broadside)

On this date in 1773, burglar Levi Ames was hanged in colonial Boston for burglary.


Illustration from a 1773 broadside announcing Levi Ames’s controversial execution (click for an image of the entire document).

This young thief’s death — and his surprising purchase on public sympathy in view of the recent politically charged gallows escape by crown loyalist Ebenezer Richardson for killing patriot protester Christopher Seider — are extensively excavated by Anthony Vaver (author of the books Bound with an Iron Chain and Early American Criminals) at his site Early American Crime. I can’t begin to improve upon this series.

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1826: Seventy-two Janissaries

Add comment October 21st, 2018 Headsman

We credit the London Times of November 27, 1826 for this tidbit on the Ottoman Empire’s mop-up of the Janissaries, the truculent infantry elites who had been shattered earlier that same year during the “Auspicious Incident”.

The news from Constantinople extends to the 25th ult. It is stated that on the 18th a plot was discovered which had for its object to kill MEHEMED PACHA, who commands in Asia, the SERASKIER-PACHA, and the TOPCHI-BACHI [chief of the cannoneers -ed.]. The ex-Janissaries who are incorporated with the new troops were the authors of this project. They had agreed to come to a review, which was to take place on the 19th, provided with ball-cartridges, and on the order to fire, had resolved to discharge their muskets on these Pachas and their Staff-officers. The conspiracy was revealed to MEHEMED PACHA by a Captain and four Topchis, whom the conspirators had endeavoured to gain over to their cause. The information was immediately conveyed to the SULTAN and the Government, who took prompt and decisive measures to punish the guilty and intimidate the disaffected. They despatched 1,500 of the most suspected towards Nicomedia, under the pretext of suppressing a revolt, but with the real design of getting rid of obnoxious and dangerous defenders. It is supposed that when this detachment arrives at the Dardanelles it will be sent to Chios. On the 20th ult. the GRAND VIZIER ordered the execution of eight Mussulmans, and the SERASKIER commanded six to be strangled, on a charge of corresponding with the disaffected. On the 21st, the latter officer is said to have executed in secret, and without trial, 72 more, among whom were four captains. The Government banishes all the unmarried Janissaries, even though they exercise trades and are entirely unconnected with the soldiers of that suppressed corps. The Mussulman population, it is said, are to be disarmed, as well as those whom they call “Christian dogs.”

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1898: George Clark, fratricide

Add comment October 21st, 2017 Headsman

From the San Diego Union, January 25, 1898:

Napa, Cal., Jan. 24. — In the presence of the sheriff and district attorney of Napa county, and of six other witnesses, George Willard Clark has confessed that he was the murderer of his brother, W.A. Clark, at St. Helena on last Thursday.

Mrs. Levina Clark was married to William A. Clark more more [sic] than twenty years ago in Clay county, Illinois. She is 46 years old and the mother of seven children. George W. Clark, the murderer, became intimate with her thirteen or fourteen years ago. Their relations continued while the husband was in California making a home for her, and during that time a child was born of which George Clark was the father.

After coming to California to live at and near St. Helena, Napa county, Mrs. Clark professed Christianity, and attempted to break off relations with her brother-in-law, but he persisted in his attentions. At times he asked her if she would live with him in case of her husband’s death. Last month he put strychnine in his brother’s coffee on two occasions, but the brother detected the poison and had the coffee analyzed by a druggist. Then, on Thursday morning George Clark lay in wait for his brother and shot him, while he was preparing breakfast in the kitchen of his St. Helena home.

The murderer was brought to Napa. On Saturday Mrs. Clark told at the inquest the story of her relations with her brother-in-law, but George Clark continued to declare his innocence of t[h]e murder, until he was finally induced to make a full confess, the details of which do not differ materially from the facts of the crime already reported and confirmed by the statement of Mrs. Clark.


From the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, January 26, 1898:

The pretty little city of St. Helena nestling in the picturesque Napa valley just a few miles from the Sonoma county line is now shocked and dismayed over one of the most hideous crimes, bristling with the darkest sense of horror, frightful in its details.

The circumstances attending the cruel murder of William A. Clark in the gray dawn of last Thursday morning at St. Helena, as told by the murdered man’s wife at the inquest held Saturday, and on Sunday in the confession of the accused brother of the deceased, were such as to cause stout men’s hearts to quail and to paralyze the better feelings of the women of St. Helena who know Mrs. Clark, not, however, to respect her for many of them had known of her character long before the awful story of the crime.

A PRESS DEMOCRAT reporter spent several hours at St. Helena Sunday and visited the scene of the tragedy. Everything around the town seemed gloomy. A pall seemed to have enveloped the vicinity of the little homestead where the cruel bullet fulfilled its ghastly mission and robbed W.A. Clark of his life.

A glimpse was caught of Mrs. Clark’s face. To say the least of it, it was repulsive. The pictures of her which have appeared in the metropolitan dailies, if anything, flatter her. She is big, ungainly in figure, and not the least bit pretty. What surprises the people of St. Helena and everyone else who knows her, whether by sight or by description, is that any man, especially the brother of him who had taken her to be his wife, could have become infatuated with such a creature as to commit a foul murder in order to marry her, coupled with almost certain discovery of the crime, and the accompanying reward of capital punishment for the offense.

By the people of St. Helena Mrs. Clark is not pitied. How could she be after the revolting story of the double life led by her with the self confessed murderer at the inquest? No. Vina Clark is left alone in her “sorrow.”

Many people are ready to accuse the wretched woman of being a party to the crime. The trend of her dreadful story regarding her illicit relations with her dead husband’s brother, coupled with the repeated declarations of George Clark that she had many times promised to marry him if her husband should die, would seem to prove that she is morally, if not legally an accessory to the terrible crime.

On Saturday night and Sunday, after the revelations made at the inquest, the guilt of George Clark was firmly established in the minds of every resident of St. Helena. Ask everybody you met on the streets of that city as to what their opinion was of the murder and they would reply: “The most cold blooded affair ever perpetrated and beyond doubt the brother did the deed.”

The circumstances of the killing are familiar to the readers of the PRESS DEMOCRAT. Last Thursday morning W.A. Clark was shot down at his home at St. Helena. George W. Colgan was the first person to bring the news to Santa Rosa, and the PRESS DEMOCRAT was the first paper north of San Francisco to publish the report.

Soon after the crime the officers suspected George Clark of the murder. Why? Because it had been rumored in the community that it was George Clark who had on two occasions tried to poison his brother by putting strychnine in his coffee. The officers knew this.

The officers went to George Clark’s house. They found him in bed. He was apparently asleep. He was awakened and told of the murder. He expressed great surprise and consternation at the news.

The officers espied under the bed the suspects’ shoes. Those shoes were wet with fresh mud. A few minutes later those shoes corresponded with the prints in the mud at the murdered man’s house. Little by little the yoke was clasped upon the brother’s shoulders, and he is now awaiting trial in Napa county jail.


From the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, October 8, 1898

San Quentin, Oct. 5. — George W. Clark, who is to be hanged at San Quentin Friday of next week, has made formal confession that he, and he alone, is responsible for the death of his brother.

Clark, it will be remembered, is the man who was enamored of his brother’s wife, and with whom he had sustained forbidden relations.

He imagined that if his brother were put out of the way the woman would marry him.

Detection quickly followed the commission of the crime, and for a time Mrs. Clark was believed to be implicated.

The confession of the condemned man is made with a view of clearing her, as he had previously intimated that she had been aware of his intention to commit murder. The confession is as follows:

San Quentin state prison, Cal., October 4, A.D. 1898. — To whom it may concern: I, George W. Clark, incarcerate, believing that I am about to die, and sincerely desiring in these, my last days on earth, that the truth with reference to the specific crime with which I stand charged, shall be known, do hereby solemnly state that I, and I alone, am guilty of the same. That no one save myself alone was in any wise implicated in the same either before or after the fact, and the same was wholly plotted, planned, arranged and executed by myself with the knowledge or consent directly or indirectly of no one save myself only. I make this my last statement, more particularly to and to exhonerate [sic] one Mrs. Lavina Clark, then wife and present widow of William A. Clark, now deceased. I positively aver that she was not implicated therein in any shape or form, and so far as my knowledge goes had no knowledge or suspicion thereof.

(Signed)
G.W. Clark.

Witness: F.L. Abrogast, B.J. O’Neil.


From the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, October 22, 1898

San Quentin, Oct. 21. — George W. Clark of St. Helena, who murdered his brother because he loved the brother’s wife, was executed this morning at the penitentiary here. Coward though nature made the man, religion was able to transform him. Even Durrant was not more cool than Clark when he stepped on the death trap. The officers of the prison, knowing the mental and moral weakness of the fratricide, were prepared for what they most dread, a “scene” at the gallows. Until recently Clark shrank with most pitiable terror from the fate that the sentence had set upon him. Within the past few days, however, Chaplain Drahm the prison [sic] converted the condemned man and filled him with fortitude and resignation. Clark’s guards thought it was merely a temporary exultation of spirit that would depart when the prisoner stood on the brink of death. They erred.

An hour before his execution Clark said to a press representative that he would die like a brave man.

I am ready. The grave has no terrors for me; death has lost its sting. The Lord has been very good to me and I bear up bravely through this aid. My hope is in God. His strength and not my own supports me today.

Beyond acknowledging my gratitude to God I have no statement to make. In the next life I shall receive my just due. I bear malice to no man, have no complaint to make, and will spend my last hour in pious exercises. The prison officials have been very kind. They could not have done more for me than they have done.

Then Clark began to pray with Chaplain Drahm. With hymns and prayer they passed the speeding minutes until at 10:25 o’clock Warden Hale interrupted the devotions. The fratricide waived the reading of the death warrant. Guards fastened straps to his wrists and ankles and the little procession formed and [ … ] to the slate-colored gallows in the next room.

Clark climbed the thirteen steps of the scaffold with firm tread. Of the fifty spectators a number were from Napa county. From the death trap Clark recognized a number of acquaintances to whom he nodded and smiled, as though he were passing them on the street.

Quickly the knot was adjusted behind his ear, the black cap was drawn over his face, Amos Lunt, the hangman, lifted his hand as a signal, three concealed men cut three ropes, one of which released the trap, and the body of the fratricide dropped and hung quite still.

Prison Surgeon Lawler, assisted by Dr. Mish of San Francisco and Dr. Jones of San Rafael, felt for the pulses and for respiratory movements. It was 10:32 o’clock when the body dropped. Ten minutes later the pulses ceased to beat and the lungs to expand. The corpse was cut down and laid in a coffin.

Mindful of the ghastly incident of last Friday, when the rope nearly pulled Miller’s head from the trunk, Warden Hale was cautious that Clark should not be cut. The rope was given only five feet of slack, and after the execution the head of the corpse swung in the very aperture left by the opened trap door. It was a nice calculation, well made. The stiff, new hemp caused a slight abrasion from which blood trickled, but the flesh was not torn.

Clark murdered his brother that he might be free to marry his brother’s widow. He had been unlawfully intimate with the woman during thirteen years.

Very early one morning Clark went to his brother’s hom and found the man whom he was about to murder lighting the kitchen fire. Clark crept to a window and shot his brother from the rear. The victim died instantly.

Clark was arrested on suspicion, and in the county jail at Napa broke down and confessed. He was convicted on March 23 of murder in the first degree. He was the twenty-first man hanged at San Quentin penitentiary.

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1573: Hugh Cahun, unjustly

Add comment October 21st, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1573, miscarried justice took the head of Scottish cavalryman Hugh Cahun in Stockholm.

Modernizing in the 16th century, Sweden flattered Scotland with deepening ties not excluding marriage feelers for Mary, Queen of Scots. When a rising Sweden’s ambitions brought her into conflict with Russia, Sweden summoned thousands of Scots soldiers to her banner.


1555 illustration of a Scottish sword dance in the chronicle of Swedish monk Olaus Magnus. (Source).

Hugh Cahun had been in Sweden since probably 1565, in the service of a unit commanded by his older brother William. It was one of three Scottish cavalry commands in Sweden at this time; French and German troops too joined the polyglot coalition.*

In the summer of 1573, Cahun caught wind of recruitment among these foreign auxiliaries for a plot to depose the Swedish King John III in favor of his imprisoned predecessor Erik XIV. Cahun reported the plot, but he didn’t know enough about it to make it stick to someone else — so perversely, he himself became the one suspected of seditious design.

King John appears by his vacillation not to have been all that convinced of the turn justice had taken in this case, twice reprieving Cahun and ultimately sparing him the horrors of the breaking-wheel for a simple beheading — sort of the early modern equivalent of the calculating modern governor who, faced with compelling evidence of innocence, consents to send a condemned man to a dungeon for the rest of his life instead of letting the law take its course. (There’s an account of the back-and-forth run-up to Cahun’s execution in this public domain book, provided you’re packing your Swedish proficiency.)

He would have cause to regret his severity soon enough: in the months to come, it would emerge that the plot was actually being spearheaded by a French loyalist of Erik named Charles de Mornay, who would himself be executed the following September.

* The Scottish were suffered their Calvinist religious devotions because of their foreign tongue — “otherwise their heresy could have infected others.”

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2009: Soheila Ghadiri

Add comment October 21st, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 2009, Soheila Ghadiri (or Qadiri) was one of five prisoners hanged at Tehran’s Evin Prison.

The homeless 28-year-old killed her newborn child in a possible bout of post-partum depression — telling the court (according to this German anti-death penalty site),

I ran away from my home at age 16 and married the boy I loved. He died in an accident and after that I commenced prostitution and became addicted to drugs. I contracted HIV and hepatitis. When my baby was born, I killed her because I did not want to have the same fate as me.

It’s been reported that the prosecution against her advanced in spite of the forgiveness extended her by the victim’s family; one supposes in this case that means the family of her late husband; ordinarily, under Iran’s sharia law, the victim’s family has the right to pardon an offender any time up to or even during the execution.

You’ll need Persian to understand this video blog about Soheila Ghadiri by Iranian opposition figure Azar Majedi:

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1621: Rodrigo Calderon, ambitious

Add comment October 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1621, Spain’s once-powerful Marquis of the Seven Churches fell as far as tragedy can drop a man.

Still to this day a Spanish emblem of the perils of ambition, Rodrigo Calderon hailed from the minor nobility in the rebellious Low Countries breaking away from Hapsburg rule.

Displaced to Spain, Calderon had a meteoric rise as the trusted henchman of the Duke of Lerma — who was himself the trusted (some say over-trusted) favorite of the Spanish King Philip III from the moment the latter came to the throne at age 20 in 1598. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Calderon’s who became perhaps Spain’s most powerful figure, and surely its most resented. By Philip’s own decree, nothing came to the royal quill but through his valido Lerma. Lerma dominated access to Philip and to a great extent, Calderon dominated access to Lerma. Both men prospered accordingly.

Calderon cut an operatic character — he’s one of those characters awaiting a suitably coruscating literary treatment, although Bulwer-Lytton gave it a shot — of zealotry mixed with greed. His family was the aristocratic equivalent of “new money”; his father had not been born to the nobility at all, and Calderon hustled to climb so high as he did. He did not mean to forego the emoluments of office, like the flattering Rubens portrait that illustrates this post.*

Inevitably, such a figure attracted the resentment of other courtiers, and not only courtiers.

Calderon almost fell in 1607 for extracting bribes far in excess of what acceptable corruption permitted. But he had by then the open enmity of the queen herself. It’s testimony to Lerma’s power that his patronage sufficed for Calderon to maintain his station in the face of such a powerful foe.

Queen Margaret died in 1611. The cause was complications from childbirth, but rumors, like this anonymous pamphlet, hinted at other hands in her death.

moved by the outcries of the people and the advice of wise and virtuous persons … felt obliged to confront the ill intentions of those who without doubt have caused her death. Her goal was to serve our Lord by promoting justice in the distribution of favors, appointments of good ministers, and the elimination of bribes, simonies, the sale of offices, and the promotion of unworthy and inept persons.

While not daring such an accusation, a friar preaching Margaret’s funeral sermon directly to Philip made bold that

a king has two wives, the queen and the community … the offspring of the first marrriage should be children. The offspring of the second marriage should be prudent laws, the appointment of good ministers, mercies to those who deserve them, the punishment of criminals, audiences to all your subjects, dedication to affairs of state, and the consolation of the afflicted. To repay God for the abundant offspring from the first marriage Your Majesty has to comply with your duties towards your second wife. (Both quotes via Kingship and Favoritism in the Spain of Philip III.)

Nothing troubled, Calderon had become a marquis by 1614.

But the rumor mill played the long game. Calderon’s patron Lerma was displaced by his son in 1618, leaving his longtime crony vulnerable to the next turn of fortune. That turn was the 1621 death of Philip III himself and the succession of a 16-year-old son, Philip IV.

It is said that when Calderon heard the bells tolling the elder Philip’s passing he remarked, “the king is dead, and I am dead.”

Determined to rein in the perceived decadences of the last era — this period was the peak, and the very start of the decline, of Spain’s wealth and global power — the younger Philip’s Lerma figure the Duke of Olivares had Calderon arrested. Regicide and witchcraft were right there on the charge sheet, but it was the murder of a different man in 1614 allegedly killed to keep him silent about Calderon’s misdeeds that sustained the sentence. A bit more exotic than regular beheading, Calderon had his throat slashed, then was left to bleed out on the scaffold.

As Calderon had come to personify courtly corruption, the new regime anticipated a salutary effect from making an example of him. To their surprise, the pitiless and obviously politically-motivated handling of the fellow — who bore his fate with lauded stoicism — made the late grasping aristocrat the subject of no small sympathy.

Calderon’s mummy, the executioner’s gash through its neck still gruesomely visible, is still preserved in Valladolid. (Link in Spanish, but more importantly, with pictures.)

* Calderon was himself a great collector of art.

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1698: 250 Streltsy from the walls of Moscow

Add comment October 21st, 2013 Johann Georg Korb

This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.

To prove to all the people how holy and inviolable are those walls of the city [of Moscow], which the Strelitz rashly meditated scaling in a sudden assault, beams were run out from all the embrasures in the walls near the gates, on each of which two rebels were hanged. This day beheld about two hundred and fifty die that death. There are few cities fortified with as many palisades as Moscow has given gibbets to her guardian Strelitz.

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1865: An unnamed Obeah man

1 comment October 21st, 2012 Headsman

From William James Gardner’s (public domain) A History of Jamaica:

On the 21st a circumstance occurred which created much controversy. A reputed Obeah-man was tried by court-martial and convicted. One of the favourite assertions of these people has been that “Buckra can’t hurt them.” Colonel Hobbs directed him to be placed on a hill-side, about four hundred yards from the firing party. The bullets caused almost instantaneous death, and it is stated that the effect on the minds of the prisoners was so great, that the colonel felt at liberty to release a considerable number then in his camp, many of whom were heard to say they never would believe in Obeah again.

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1803: Thomas Russell, the man from God knows where

2 comments October 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1803, Irish revolutionary Thomas Russell was hanged at Ireland’s Downpatrick Gaol.

Russell was such a republican original gangster that as a young junior officer in the British army in the late 1780s, he refused to eat sugar because it was the product of the empire’s slave plantations. (Hardly a bygone issue.) And while his own family was Anglican, Russell was also a staunch supporter of the then-radical (to Anglicans) position of Catholic equality.

For Russell, this personal stuff was all most intently political. And his politics in no way ended with the dumbwaiter.

After leaving the army, he fell in with Irish separatists and in 1795 co-founded the United Irishmen movement, along with a lot of other guys who would wind up in these executioners’ annals. He joined Henry Joy McCracken, Wolfe Tone, and Samuel Neilson in a convocation of Celtic martyrs atop Belfast’s Cave Hill to pledge one another “never to desist in our effort until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence.”

Subversion was Russell’s game for the remaining years of his life; his Letter to the People of Ireland unveils a Tom Paine-like vision of a revolutionary world — a world that the ancien regime would remain violently vigilant against in the wake of the recent French example. Like many of the most dazzling egalitarian dreams of that insurrectionary moment at the end of the 18th century, it’s still never been realized.

Great pains have been taken to prevent the mass of mankind from interfering in political pursuits; force, and argument, and wit, and ridicule, and invective, have been used by the governing party, and with such success, that any of the lower, or even middle rank of society who engage in politics, have been, and are, considered not only as ridiculous but in some degree culpable … Those insolent enslavers of the human race, who wish to fetter the minds as well as the body, exclaim to the poor, ‘mind your looms, and your spades and ploughs; have you not the means of subsistence; can you not earn your bread … leave the government to wiser heads and to people who understand it, and interfere no more!’

-Russell, Letter to the People of Ireland

Russell actually spent most of his final decade imprisoned without trial while tragic Irish insurrections came and went. England finally released him to Hamburg in 1802, and as might be expected, Russell was so itchy by then to get back in the scrap that he immediately broke his parole to return to Ireland for the next available rising.

And as also might be expected, he showed more haste than discrimination in his project. Hey, he did vow “never to desist.”

He joined up with Robert Emmet‘s rebellion — another doomed patriot; Russell was his designated organizer of the north — but found little success canvassing for potential rebels and took the field on July 23, 1803 in a gesture of little more than hopeless romanticism. His band fell apart and fled without a shot fired.


Memorial plaque in Downpatrick commemorating Russell’s execution. (cc) image from Ardfern.

The British did what the British always did and hunted down the Irish rebel, while the Irish did what the Irish always did and stuffed his remains in a ballad.* It’s called “The Man from God Knows Where” — and God knows, two centuries later, where that man has gone.

Whiles I said “Please God” to his dying hope
And “Amen” to his dying prayer,
That the Wrong would cease and the Right prevail.
For the man that they hanged at Downpatrick Jail
Was the Man from God-knows-where!

Peter Linebaugh, author of the indispensable scaffold social history The London Hanged, surveyed Russell’s life and times on the occasion of his 200th death-day here

* Russell tried his own hand at verse, and some Jacobin lines in his hand helped to hang him, e.g.

Proud Bishops next we will translate
Among priest-crafted martyrs;
The guillotine on Peers shall wait,
And Knights we’ll hang in garters;
These Despots long have trod us down,
And Judges are their engines;
These wretched minions of a crown
Demand a people’s vengeance.

Part of the Themed Set: Illegitimate Power.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Ireland,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Treason

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