Murder and Execution

A Lofty Gallows : literally a fingernail sketch.

Murder at Buenos Ayres

The day before we received our mail we were told that an execution was to take place at 10 oClock. We enquired into the crime and found that a man had murdered his wife and two children. This account excited our curiosity to learn some further particulars. About 2 two years ago the criminal, an Italian by birth, had been a waiter at Smyths, who keeps one of the best Fondas in Buenos Ayres, and while he was there had been remarkable for his quietness & taciturnity. He was married to a Buenos Ayrian woman, who from some cause left her husband and cohabited with another man. To a jealous Italian no offence could be more deadly & fearfully did he avenge it. One night he went to a house where she was, stabbed her several times, and following her as she tried to escape, ripped up her belly when she dropped thro’ loss of blood. Not content with this most inhuman deed, the monster next attacked his own children, and succeeded in murdering two – but the third escaped. Meanwhile the people were at first thunderstruck & paralysed, so as not to be able to interfere to prevent these murders – at last they interposed and endeavoured to secure the Italian, who seeing their intention aimed at his own life, tho’ in vain as he was seized before he could do more than wound himself slightly.

These dreadful events created a sensation even in a place, where assassination is common, as to excite no surprise or notice. A trial took place in an incredibly short space of time for Spaniards – the murders were clearly brought home to the prisoner at the bar, and he received sentence to be shot – then his body to be dragged by a horse on a hide to a gallows prepared for the purpose, on the spot where his wife fell – there to remain suspended for 8 hours. Now I have heard it alleged that all this speed in the leaden pace of law – all this laudable anxiety to punish such horrible crimes and satisfy the loud claims of outraged justice arose from a motive far from pure. If he had been rich, they say, justice might have slept, & the learned judges would have spared themselves the farce of passing so ignominious a sentence against a wealthy sinner, much less would have inflicted it. Not a few instances were related to me in proof of the practice of blood-money being well known & followed in B. Ayres, and I am rather inclined to credit the assertions repeated to me from so many and so respectable quarters. This Italian then did not suffer death, because he had committed a crime worthy of death, an inference which every Englishman would instantly make – but, alas for poor human nature, his real crime was, poverty – or not being possessed of a sum sufficiently large to soften the flinty hearts of his judges – to blunt the edge of the sword of justice – or to satisfy the hunger after gold of the lions, the executors of the law.

If such indeed be the truth and justice is sold, and heaven masked for gold, how laughable, nay rather how disgusting is it to read the hypocritical professions made by the officials of their lone of justice – of their haste to pronounce sentence on a monster of nature & their promptness to execute. This assumption of self-praise – this magniloquent bragadario, the more glaring because they are conscious that their real character & main spring of action are suspected is enough to make a man foreswear all intercourse [with] such avaricious, & heartless wretches. But I must stop this strain of invective – otherwise I shall not overtake the account of the execution at all –only premising that I am glad, be their motives what they may, that in the present instance Justice has had her due course.

Execution at Buenos Ayres

I have said that I was told that the execution was to take place the day before we received the mail – but upon more particular inquiry this was discovered to be false as in reality the sentence was to be carried into execution the next day. Many motives induced me to wish to be present. The satisfaction of seeing due punishment meted out to so atrocious a criminal – a curiosity to be a spectator of a mode of execution of which I often heard – and lastly a desire to judge for myself of the feelings and behaviours of the crowd of natives which such a spectacular case as it was would naturally collect together. I am far from pretending that any of these motives may appear sufficiently powerful to many persons to excuse me in their judgement from the charge of folly, brutality & I know no what – but all I can say, I am content to submit to the censure of such – am well pleased with myself, that I did what I did.

Tuesday 20 November – this is our last day in Buenos Ayres i.e. the last we shall ever spend there because after us no more Packets will be sent from Falmouth, but two man-of-war schooners, the Cockatrice & the Hornet [11] will be employed in carrying the Mail from Rio to Buenos Ayres & back. I do not regret this arrangement. The voyage to Buenos Ayres is so long and what you see & find there is so little worth the trouble, that indeed I rather rejoice that our travels thither are finally put an end to.

Early in the morning we started from the Packet to be in time to settle all our affairs on shore & witness the execution. Before ten oClock, we were completely at leisure, and set off in different parties in the direction of the Plaza de Lorea, the scene of the Tragedy. This plaza or square lies a long way from the beach, and the road is in general very bad. On however we went peck, pecking, under a hot sun from which we could get no shelter or shade, whilst a strong breeze whirled up the stour and dashed it in our faces, filling nose, eyes, throat & ears with an impalpable powder. If the number of those in the same predicament with ourselves could have been any comfort or alleviation to us, our progress would have been bearable enough – for as far as eye could reach in a long extended line, were to be seen men, women, children, horses & dogs all coursing along to the common place of rendezvous – the common centre of magnetic attraction. A stranger now ran no risk of losing his way. He had only to follow in the wake of those who were before him, and to stop where they stopped. Tis rare at B. Ayres to see so many people braving the ordeal of the Sun’s heat, and the annoyance of the dust.

All however seemed to bear these inconveniences very patiently, nay cheerfully. There was an air in every one, as if he were going to some highly agreeable and gratifying spectacle – an air more marked than I think I have ever seen it in Scotland. I will not pretend to say but that I felt something like the excitement – nor stopped in my onward course, till we reached one of the entrances to the square. Here the way was almost blocked by gentlemen & peons on horseback – by mules donkeys & bipeds. Beyond them I could not see, till forcing my way, by the dexterous use & application of shoulders & elbows, thro’ the dense mass, I found myself in a very large unpaved square, & forming one of an immense multitude there assembled. It was some time ere I could obtain a little space and leisure to examine into the details of different objects around me. I gained the centre of the Plaza & posted myself on a little eminence of mud, from whence I had a tolerable view.

The four sides of the square were formed by low houses, 1 story high, & of rather a mean appearance, indicating this part of the Town to be the quarter of the lower sort of inhabitants. Where two sides would otherwise be joined if continued, there was an opening – making four inlets in all. Two of these [were] barricaded near where the criminal was to suffer – the other two were left free for the ingress & egress of the public. The flat tops of the houses were literally crammed with a most heterogeneous mixture, in which however I am very sorry to say that the fair and tender sex largely predominated. Thro’ out the Plaza very little room was left unoccupied. Two objects principally attracted your attention. To the right of the place by which we entered was erected a lofty gallows [see illustration] on the spot where the murderer’s wife fell & but a very few yards from the pulperie or grog shop, where he first attacked. To the left of us again was a small square formed by soldiers & close to the walls of the houses on that side was the scene of the execution. I have already told you of the numerous curl posts to be seen in the streets. To one of these was fixed a small piece of wood, so as to form a seat, having the post for a back. This was the seat of punishment – and close beside is was a true rosinante of a horse with a hide behind for the body, & a rascally looking fellow to ride.

The intermediate space between the gallows & the place where the man was to be shot was filled up with a motley group, in which I mingled. Respectably dressed persons – as for instance our party – were there not a few. Ragamuffins – dark-looking, scowling faces of the canaille stared you where ever you turn your eye – peons and gauchos with their picturesque dresses, with countenances expressive of curiosity and wonder gave a complete air of romance to us. The whole picture – I had almost said – was enlivened of such a vast number of females, all chattering, laughing, & coquetting, while the preparations for the execution were going on.

Such was the disposition of things in the Plaza de Lorea, when I had leisure to survey it. Now I sought out the best place, whence I could witness what was going on. Now here now there – jostling and jostled – now in contact with whites, now receiving a scent from the odiferous persons of the strong scented blacks. Had I been dropped at once into the centre of the mob, I should have fancied myself in the midst of an fair where all was mirth and jollity. I was a long time ere I could settle myself to my satisfaction. Finding it impossible to gain the tops of the houses, the best places, I took up my final station behind the soldiers & in full view of the fatal chair. In this situation I was roasting & stewing both for a good half an hour as I was afterwards told, but in my apprehension, double that time.

At last the music sounded – the drums beat & the whole mass, the most remote from me were moving to and fro like waves of the sea. I could not as yet see any thing – but I waited patiently & not long, until the procession came in view. I cannot pretend to describe it. There were first soldiers – then a military band playing some doleful tune – then a line of persons in plain clothes and behind them the criminal pinioned & with his eyes bandaged, followed at a very slow & staggering pace, stumbling across with nervous twitches, apparently devoutly attentive to the exhortations of the Padre, who kept constantly whispering in his ear. A halt was made – the sentence of the court was read aloud – & the procession advanced, till they arrived at the chair. On it the Italian seated himself – the crowd of persons surrounding him retired to a respectful distance – the Padre hastily repeating the last words of consolation to be heard in this world gradually withdrew to one side – and six soldiers, approaching within a few feet, four of them discharged their musquets right into the breast of the unhappy man. The instant he received the balls he gave a spring up then suddenly fell to one side to the ground, still exhibiting signs of life and suffering. Then one of the two, who had reserved their fire went up close to him, and placing the muzzle of his piece in the mouth, fired upwards thro’ the head, by which means the scull was blown to pieces and the whole of the brain bespattered the wall. Immediately afterwards the body was placed according to the sentence, on a hide, & dragged to the gallows, from which it was finally suspended by the arm-pits, there not being sufficient left to suspend it by the neck. The sight now was most horrible & disgusting – & indeed seemed to be so considered by the mass of spectators, so that in a very few hours – one or two – hardly any would be found gazing upon the gallows.[12]

For my own part I wended back my way in a more solemn, serious and moralising humour than I was when I first came. Finding the main street most inconveniently crowded I diverged into some of the collateral streets and reached very comfortably my old quarters. There at 3 P.M. I met the Master with the Mail & by four, we all bid a final adieu to Buenos Ayres & took a kind farewell of those from whom we met with civility and attention on shore. At 5 we regained the Pacquet, & in half an hour, we got under weigh for Monte Video.

I had got thus far in my Journal, thinking that I had mentioned every thing I had noticed at Buenos Ayres – but reflecting afterwards I found that I had forgotten some particulars which I shall notice very briefly.

Read on …