Sentences of Death: Infamous Executions and the Power of Romantic Nationalism

If an execution is done well, it is – barring a “traitor’s death” — supposed to be painless.  If one’s heart and intestines are not being ripped from the body post-genital mutilation but prior to decapitation, then the bullet, axe, or rope is meant to be a fairly speedy conduit to the hereafter.

However, for some state-sanctioned deaths, the immediate event may be quick, but the ramifications of a momentary action can live for centuries… and even flirt with immortality.

Woodcut - The Execution of Anne Boleyn

My previous mutterings about the death of Queen Anne Boleyn have me thinking (a dangerous pastime, I know).  While certain sentences of death – like those of Anne, Charles I, the Russian Imperial Family, and Mary, Queen of Scots – were executions of royalty deemed necessary and expedient by political factions of the day, the cultural creations of these various snuffings were, in the end, lethal for the given regime. 

To wit: Henry VIII kept making a muddle of all his monasteries and marriages while Anne’s daughter became England’s greatest queen; the regicides of Charles I were hounded down and butchered themselves during the Restoration, while Cromwell’s body was burned and scattered to the wind; Communism was the great failure of the twentieth century while the Romanovs have been made national saints of the Russian Orthodox Church; and Mary’s son – and, therefore, dynasty – inherited Elizabeth’s crown despite Walsingham’s string-pulling during the Babington Plot.

The power of romantic nationalism, that atavistic, incorporeal, yet wholly absorbing belief in the legitimacy of an imagined patriotic future, becomes even more grand when looking at certain “political” killings: William Wallace at Smithfield, Joan of Arc at Rouen, John Brown in Virginia, Roger Casement and the leaders of the Irish Easter Rising in 1916, and – to give my own patrimony its due – the tangled, mistaken, and long-to-be-rued deaths (murders?) of Thomas Scott and Louis Riel in the Dominion of Canada’s infancy.  In all of these cases, the act of execution did not end the state’s problems but, instead, increased them exponentially, mainly due to the passionate fervour of romanticized and idealized nationalism baptized by the blood of each cause’s given “martyr.”

Now, this is not to say that all executions are wrong.  On 29 December 1170 – a Christmas theme, how appropriate! – I, too, would have ridden from Chinon and crossed the Channel to Canterbury in order to rid my king of a turbulent priest.  The only good thing about Thomas Becket was that he had the good fortune nearly 800 years after his death to be played on film by the amazing, the awesome, and the irreplaceable Richard Burton.  In all other aspects, however, the man was a shit not one of my favourite people.  A traitor to his king and, worse in my estimation, a betrayer of a beloved friend, Saint Thomas sneered at the Great Seal of England, nearly caused a civil war through his stubborn vanity, and turned one of the greatest reigns in English history – that of Henry Plantagenet, Second of That Name, King of England, Duke of Normandy, Poitou, Gascony and the Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, Nantes and Maine, Lord of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, Possessor of the Vexen, Emperor of the Angevins, and the creator of English civil law, juris prudence and, in its way, responsible government – into that quip about a murder in the cathedral.

Actually, I don’t like any of the St Thomases.  I won’t go into too much detail here about the sainted More, except to say that he was a very bad man, a burner of books and people who, in 2000, was named the patron saint of politicians.  I smile at the thought of the fun the late, great Christopher Hitchens and I could have had over a bottle of whiskey and a copy of A Man for All Seasons

Anyways, Becket was an East End Cockney bastard who, I’m sure, gave Henry’s knights a bit of a time before they smeared his brains across the high altar (he certainly does in Schama’s depiction of the scene in A History of Britain).  Although this was not so much a state-sanctioned execution as a misapprehended assassination – and Henry did do his penance for his rash, drunken words (whatever the exact phrase might have been) – I, for one, do not miss this particular Archbishop of Canterbury.

Thomas Cranmer, on the other hand, I do lament and didn’t Mary Tudor’s decision to reduce him to ashes, and thus destroy the Protestant Church of England, pay bloody dividends.  [insert sarcastic snort here]

Nascent nationalisms often appear to be bound up in the blood of martyrs.  As Padraic Pearse wrote less than five years before his death in front of a British firing squad after the botched rising at Dublin’s GPO, “It is a goodly thing to see arms in Irish hands … We must accustom ourselves to the thought of arms, to the sight of arms, to the use of arms.  We may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people, but bloodshed is a cleansing and a purifying thing.” 

The blood and bones of various English victims of Queen Mary I’s purges certainly were the foundation stones for English (and later British) Protestantism, arguably beginning with Queen Anne Boleyn – the first proto-Protestant queen of England – and everyone else beatified in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Likewise, John Brown’s body mouldering in the grave after swinging from a rope in Charles Town for his rising in Harper’s Ferry gave strength and purpose not only to the abolitionist cause, but also to the North in general on the eve of the American Civil War.  The day of his demise, 2 December 1859, he said the following about the need for slaughter to justify the making of nations: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”  On a related note, I am constantly intrigued as to how Brown’s grisly end supplanted the lyrics to the Battle Hymn of the Republic – and then how those lyrics were, in turn, changed into an ode to John Brown’s baby having colic:

John Brown’s baby had a cold upon its chest
John Brown’s baby had a cold upon its chest
John Brown’s baby had a cold upon its chest
And they rubbed it with camphorated oil

Yeah, I’m confused, too.

The execution of Roger Casement sixty-two years after Brown’s (both by hanging) is particularly intriguing.  Casement was sentenced to die for his involvement in arming Irish revolutionaries with German guns during the First World War.  First of all, he was hardly the first Irishman to use Germany as a guns ‘n ammo outlet as the Ulster unionists, with Fred Crawford at the forefront, had done the same thing in 1914 at Larne and Donaghadee.  As the Royal Irish Constabulary at the time had strong unionist sympathies (with an 80% Roman Catholic demographic, this feature somewhat destroys the simplistic RC-nationalist/Prod-unionist binary of Irish politics), the 1914 gun-running did not receive the full censure of the law, though I suppose one could argue that Casement using German guns in 1916 was far more treasonous because of the Great War than Crawford’s actions in April of 1914.  Maybe.

Casement’s trial for high treason was a sensation throughout the British Isles, coming in the aftermath of both the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.  Roger was not just Roger – he was Sir Roger Casement, an international hero of the Edwardian Era who had revealed the horrors of human rights abuses in the Congo and been knighted for his efforts to expose the truth.  He was the star of Anglo-Irish society… and then he fell.

What really traumatized the British establishment (and, to be fair, a great number of the Irish intelligentsia, too) was not Casement’s gun-running to support the Rising or his attempts to recruit Irish POWs to the German cause along the Western Front, but “The Black Diaries.”  When Sir Roger had been in Africa, he had noted the various crimes and misdemeanours of colonial society in “The White Diaries” – but he kept a second, secret journal that was a running tally of his various affairs and which portrayed him (in modern parlance) as a sexual tourist with a fondness for young boys.  For a society that still had sharp memories of the Oscar Wilde trials firmly etched on its psyche, Casement’s greatest crime, arguably, was not seditious in nature, but sexual.  Friends attempted to defend the prisoner in the press, claiming “The Black Diaries” were a forgery and untrue – but the court of public opinion had already returned its verdict – and it matched that of the Courts of Justice.  Casement was hanged in August 1916 at Pentonville Prison in north London; after the execution, his body was buried in quicklime.

In the dock, however, Casement gave his own elegy to the romance of Irish nationalism which, for him, remained the primary feature of his ‘treasonous’ act.  Sir Roger argued that loyalty was “a sentiment, not a law.  It rests on Love, not restraint.”  Ironically, this sentiment was something quite similar to what Ulster and Irish unionists felt about the British connection.  Even Sir Edward Carson, the leader of the Unionist Party, shared similar views on the romance of national sentiment: “If it be treasonous to love your King, to try and save your Constitution, and to preserve your birthright of civil and religious liberty, then I glory in being a traitor.”

It took the better part of fifty years for Casement’s popular reputation to receive national rehabilitation – rather like Anne Boleyn’s shade growing ever more distinct as her daughter’s reign grew in glory.  In 1965, Casement’s remains (we can talk about what quicklime does to a body another time) were repatriated to the Republic of Ireland and, after a state funeral, re-interred with full military honours in the area of Glasnevin Cemetery reserved for heroes of the republic.  Some 30,000 Irishmen and women attended the ceremony, including President de Valera, who by that time was the last surviving leader of the 1916 Rising.  Casement, as an executed martyr, helped to build the foundations of the modern Irish republic, the nationalist vision that had enchanted generations prior to independence.

And then there was Manitoba.  The first of the western provinces to join Canadian Confederation – although ‘joining’ is a bit of a misnomer – the territory formerly known as part of Rupert’s Land was skinned and tanned and bled by the deaths of two men who, together, represent the absolute extremes of Canadiana, Anglo-Franco relations, Catholic-Protestant violence in the Great White North, and the awful power of memory in a nation’s soul.

Thomas Scott (another Thomas!) was, to be blunt, a git.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but the man was one of the most cantankerous, obstreperous, and annoying Canadians of all time.  However, was his rudeness to his Métis jailers enough justification to execute him?  They had already taken him out back of Upper Fort Garry and beaten the crap out of him the week before his court martial – so was a firing squad really necessary?

Thomas Scott

Scott was an Irishman from Co. Down who immigrated to Canada West (Ontario), joining the 49th Hastings Battalion of Rifles at Stirling in the aftermath of the Fenian invasions.  An Orange imperialist, Scott felt that countries needed to be defended with arms, not with rhetoric.  He then headed west to the Red River settlement as a labourer and quickly fell in with John Schultz’s Canadian annexationists, who wanted Red River and the rest of Rupert’s Land to join the young dominion to the east.  Red River, however, was not going to be forced into any union without their consent, so a provisional government was created, led by Louis Riel, to negotiate with the Canadian envoys rather than just take it lying down.

By the time Scott had joined the annexationists, Riel and the Métis – descendents of aboriginal women and French-Canadian men – already had a firm grip on Red River; undeterred, the Canadianists got their dander up and soon were captured by the Métis.  Scott managed to escape after less than a month into his incarceration, and then started working on plans to break the rest of his friends out of jail (if this is starting to sound like a Steve McQueen movie, trust me, it’s not).  Was Scott aware that most of Red River was actually in favour of Riel’s position?  (Maybe.)   Did he care?  (Probably not.)  To quote the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Thomas Scott was “an active and zealous Orangeman” who was noted by his one-time landlord and future Governor-General of Canada, Lord Dufferin, as “a violent and boisterous man such as are often found in the North of Ireland.”

In other words, Scott was a fire-breathing anti-Catholic anti-French annexationist with a taste for violence and belligerence, living in a settlement that was run by half-French, wholly Catholic Métis.  Given those circumstances, it shouldn’t be surprising that Scott decided on a final defiant gesture – basically a one-fingered salute to Riel – by passing under the walls of Upper Fort Garry where Riel and his followers were established.  Riel ordered Scott to be arrested.  In total, forty-eight men, including Scott, were confined in the fort; their leader, Major Charles Boulton, was sentenced to death by a Métis court martial, but Riel spared Boulton’s life in order to ease negotiations with the Canadian diplomats.

What followed in the next two weeks has become a cornerstone of Canadian history textbooks – although, interestingly, the precise text changes in emphasis depending upon in which official language it is written.

Scott was a terrible prisoner who yelled abuse at his jailers, was undoubtedly full of various inventive racial slurs and insults, and was a definite thorn in Riel’s side.  After ten days of incarceration, the guards had had enough, took Scott outside, and thrashed him.  If anything, this violent incident merely increased the hatred between Scott and his keepers, and there was a growing demand within the fort for Scott to punished properly.  Pardoning Boulton was one thing, but ignoring Scott’s foulness was something else for Riel.  He felt he needed to do something so that he and the Red River cause would be taken seriously by the Canadian government.  An ad hoc tribunal met on 3 March 1870 charging Scott with “insubordination” and, not surprisingly, finding him very guilty very quickly.  The death penalty was invoked and the following morning, 4 March 1870, Scott was shot dead by a Métis firing squad.

The Execution of Thomas Scott

Riel’s decision to execute Scott came back to haunt him, to say the least.  As word of the Orangeman’s death became known, Scott’s fellow lodge members back in Ontario went crazy, inflamed by propaganda such as the above cartoon, printed throughout Ontario newspapers, and props displayed at large Orange meetings, such as the rope that supposedly bound Scott’s hands when he was shot in the snow. Loyal Orange Lodge No. 404 in Toronto printed a resolution in The Globe a month later, citing,

Whereas Brother Thomas Scott, a member of our Order was cruelly murdered by the enemies of our Queen, country, and religion, therefore be it resolved that … we, the members of LOL No. 404 call upon the Government to avenge his death, pledging ourselves to assist in rescuing Red River Territory from those who have turned it over to Popery, and bring to justice the murderers of our countrymen.

For those of you unaware of nineteenth-century Canadian history, the Orange Order was a highly influential fraternity in British North America, particularly in Upper Canada/Canada West, where Ogle Gowan and Protestant immigrants from Ireland had established the Orange Lodge in North America in 1830.  Pissing them off meant business – which is how hundreds of Orange Torontonians started their pilgrimage, on foot from Lake Superior for the most part, from Hogtown to the future Winnipeg in order to fight Riel.

Riel was stopped, but Scott was still dead.  For some, the entrance of Manitoba to Confederation (and Riel’s exile to the USA) ended the matter; for others, like Scott’s brother, Hugh, more needed to be done to avenge the Orange martyr who had been “a very quiet and inoffensive young man, but yet when principle and loyalty to his Queen and Country were at stake throughout a brave and loyal man.”

Louis Riel

Flash-forward fifteen years and we arrive at the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, Riel’s second insurrection against the Canadian government, but the one that did not work out in his favour.  Put on trial for the deaths of mounted policemen and civilians, Riel became the single-most polarizing figure in Canadian history.  Refusing to use his previous mental illness as a reason for pleading ‘not guilty by reason of insanity,’ Louis acted in his own defence in front of a jury that was, to a man, Protestant Anglophones.  Riel, a Métis with strong links to both Montreal and Francophone culture, generally, was viewed very sympathetically by French Canada; English Canada (read: Ontario) still had not forgotten about Scott.  To one part of the population, Riel was a Father of Confederation; the other saw him as a murderer and traitor to the crown.

Louis Riel at his trial, 1885

The jury found Riel guilty, but recommended mercy; despite this suggestion, the sentence of death was upheld.  Sir John A. Macdonald (the Prime Minister of Canada and also… wait for it… an Orangeman!) famously stated that Riel would hang “though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour.”

Although there were other mitigating circumstances in the charges against Riel – the need for the completion of the national railway, the insurrection in Saskatchewan itself, and Riel’s refusal to acknowledge the authority of the Canadian government – most historians, and Riel himself, felt that he was sentenced to die because of the execution of Thomas Scott.  “Sir John Macdonald,” Riel said, “is now committing me to death for the same reason I committed Scott, because it is necessary for the country’s good….  I was pardoned once for his death, but am now going to die for it.”

In a cruel twist of fate, the hangman on 16 November 1885 at the Regina jail had been one of the men captured in Upper Fort Garry that chilly winter of 1870 – the man behind the hood was a friend of Scott’s and a fellow Orangeman.  Intentionally or not, Riel’s death was not swift and sure, but messy and prolonged.  Major Boulton, who had been saved by Riel’s intervention in 1870, was now a witness to the latter’s demise and recorded the sight:

The cap was pulled down, and while he was praying the trap was pulled. Death was not instantaneous. Louis Riel’s pulse ceased four minutes after the trap-door fell and during that time the rope around his neck slowly strangled and choked him to death.

So Riel died… and so French Canadian nationalism was born.  The death of Louis Riel is the single-most controversial event in Canadian history, with conscription in the Great War and the use of the War Measures Act in 1970 running closely behind.  Implicit within the patriotic fervour created by Riel’s end lies the death of another man, Thomas Scott, and the vehemence with which Canadian Orangemen vowed to avenge his untimely demise.  While Riel’s execution has cast the larger shadow in Canadian history, the Orangemen who formed part of the Red River Expedition to defeat Riel in 1870 also left a mark, changing Manitoba within a few decades of its creation from a bilingual province into a hot-bed of sectarian feeling and political nightmares that had the power to bring down governments twenty-five years after Scott’s morning exeuction (see: The Manitoba Schools Act).

Romantic nationalism is a fiery thing, so be careful how you play with it.  Few things burn brighter in the historical fabric than the dreams of idealists and the visions of patriotic heroes… except for their own flesh, of course, when they meet their grisly ends and, later, the passion with which they achieve glory through the actions of others.

People can debate the existence of heaven until the end of time, but for historians dealing with infamous executions, there will always will be a hereafter for those sentenced to die… so long as their names remain things to conjure with.

Further Reading

Belfast Evening Telegraph, 24 September 1912
Charles A. Boulton, Reminiscences of the Northwest Rebellions (1886)
Donald Creighton, Sir John A. Macdonald: The Old Chieftain (1955)
Dictionary of Canadian Biography
National Archives, Kew, Cabinet Decisions regarding the Repatriation of Sir Roger Casement’s Remains, CAB/128/39
Linda Colley, Britons (1992)
Paul Finkelman (ed.), His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid (1995)
John Foxe, The Book of Martyrs (1563)
W. J. McCormack, Roger Casement in Death or Haunting the Free State (2002)
Padraic Pearse, Collected Works (1917)
Simon Schama, A History of Britain (DVD – Vol. 1, Episode 3, “Dynasty”)
The Globe
, 13 April 1870
The Times
, 30 June 1916

This is the last posting for 2011 — thank you for reading for the past few months, have a very Happy Christmas (hopefully without the carnage quotient that Becket received) and I’ll see you in 2012!

Creative Commons Licence
Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About midatlanticmusings

Historian of the Irish Diaspora and masculinities, wife, mother, lover of good books, red wine, fine whiskies, pop culture aficionado, and Star Wars wonk.
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