Archive for November, 2007

1831: Nat Turner

12 comments November 11th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1831, the slave Nat — remembered to history as Nat Turner after the surname of his original owner — was hanged, flayed and dismembered for leading the most notorious slave rebellion in antebellum America.

A deeply religious man known to other slaves as “The Prophet”, Nat followed what he took to be divine directive to launch a bloody uprising on the night of August 21-22 in Southampton County, Virginia. Using (at first) axes, knives and clubs to avoid attracting attention to gunfire, Nat’s band slaughtered whites from house to house, freeing slaves as they went. At least 55 whites were killed, and a like number of slaves by white militias that mobilized to put down the revolt … and then hundreds more slaves as far away as North Carolina suspected of some tangential involvement or simmering disloyalty.

The uprising was suppressed within two days, but it rooted so deeply in the conscience of the South that it persists to this day.

“I have not slept without anxiety in three months. Our nights are sometimes spent listening to noises.”
-Slaveowner after the rebellion

Nat Turner embodied slaveowners’ terror of the subject population living about them, outnumbering them, resentfully supporting Southern gentility at the end of a whip — the conundrum Jefferson had described barely a decade before as “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Arguably, the revolt hardened southern whites against moderating slavery; some legislatures tightened restrictions against teaching slaves to read, thinking that literate slaves like Nat were more liable to uprisings.

Conversely, he was a powerful martyr of resistance in the slave quarters, a symbol of scores of other lesser-known uprisings and of the countless more that lurked in dreams and fantasies, awaiting some spark of outrage, some sudden opportunity, some wild carelessness of death.

He was a figure of literature even before his death — The Confessions of Nat Turner, dictated to a white interrogator, left Nat’s own riveting testimony from the shadow of the gallows; the Virginia-born white novelist William Styron used the same title for a controversial 1967 historical novel which earned a Pulitzer but drew a critical rebuttal from many black writers. (Nat Turner also stalks the memory of Styron’s semi-autobiographical narrator in Sophie’s Choice.) More recently, Nat has received graphic novel treatment.

Historians of every stripe, meanwhile, have struggled over the meaning of the man’s deeds and — especially — his paradoxical legacy as symbol.

Update: The occasion received a tribute in Alabama about the time this post went up.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Cycle of Violence,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Famous,Flayed,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,Infamous,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Murder,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Slaves,USA,Virginia

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1995: Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Nine

16 comments November 10th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1995, author Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow activists of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) were hanged by the Nigerian military junta in Port Harcourt.

Saro-Wiwa, the author of works such as Sozaboy, was already considered among Nigeria’s greatest writers before becoming an activist for the rights of his Ogoni people in the face of Nigeria’s lucrative and ecologically destructive Niger Delta oil trade.

Few benefits of that trade returned to the politically marginalized Ogoni, whose overwhelming response to MOSOP’s organizing soon began choking off oil exploitation in Ogoniland and brought a violent response from the Nigerian dictatorship — operating hand in glove with Shell Oil, as Saro-Wiwa himself noted in his closing remarks to the sham tribunal that convicted him of inciting a murderous riot.

I repeat that we all stand before history. I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial and it is as well that it is represented by counsel said to be holding a watching brief. The Company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come and the lessons learnt here may prove useful to it for there is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the Company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and the crimes of that war be duly punished. The crime of the Company’s dirty wars against the Ogoni people will also be punished.

In my innocence of the false charges I face here, in my utter conviction, I call upon the Ogoni people, the peoples of the Niger delta, and the oppressed ethnic minorities of Nigeria to stand up now and fight fearlessly and peacefully for their rights. History is on their side. God is on their side. For the Holy Quran says in Sura 42, verse 41: “All those that fight when oppressed incur no guilt, but Allah shall punish the oppressor.” Come the day.

Though Saro-Wiwa’s hanging helped quell Ogoniland sufficiently for Shell to resume production, it left an opposition martyr. Saro-Wiwa’s prison diary was published shortly after his hanging; his son, journalist Ken Wiwa, has written a biography; and separate UK- and Canada-based organizations exist to carry on his memory and work.

The tensions left unresolved in the Delta, meanwhile, have spawned ever more militant resistance movements.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Mass Executions,Murder,Nigeria,Pelf,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rioting,Ripped from the Headlines,Wrongful Executions

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1911: Charles Justice

10 comments November 9th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1911, Charles Justice was electrocuted by the State of Ohio.

It was an ironic end, since when serving an earlier stint in the state penitentiary shortly after the electric chair was introduced, Justice had hit upon the idea of metal clamps in place of leather straps to more securely hold down the chair’s clientele and avoid burnt flesh.

The improvement, duly implemented, was there awaiting its creator.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Gallows Humor,Murder,Ohio,Theft,USA

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1520: Stockholm Bloodbath

7 comments November 8th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1520, four days after the Danish King Christian II gained the Swedish throne, nearly 100 prominent supporters of Swedish independence were executed en masse as a civil war’s apparent victors purged their enemies.

The Stockholm Bloodbath followed years of conflict between supporters of the Danish-dominated Kalmar Union and independence advocates under the banner of Sten Sture the Younger. With Sture’s death in battle earlier in 1520, the unionists had gained the upper hand. Stockholm, the last outpost of resistance, had held against four months’ siege before accepting a general amnesty in exchange for capitulation.

But with the city in hand, Christian — known to Swedish history as “Christian the Tyrant” — had its leaders charged for having deposed during the conflict the pro-union Archbishop Gustav Trolle, construed as an offense against the Church not in the temporal authority’s power to reprieve. Less than 24 hours after this legal maneuver was sprung, public beheadings of prelates, merchants and burgomasters were underway at Stortorget* — and Sture’s remains were exhumed and posthumously burnt at the stake.

Stortorget

It proved a Pyrrhic victory for the Danish party.

Inside of three years, Christian himself had been deposed with multiple lands and factions throughout his realm in open revolt. Gustav Vasa, whose father had been one of the Stockholm Bloodbath’s victims, would not only decisively break Denmark’s hold on Sweden but found the Vasa Dynasty under which Sweden would burgeon into one of Europe’s great powers.

*One Hans Brask survived the purge despite having endorsed the removal of Archbishop Trolle. Brask supposedly placed a note under his seal on this document saying “To this I am forced and compelled.” This cunning device gave the Swedish tongue the word Brasklapp — a secret reservation.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Denmark,Famous,God,Language,Mass Executions,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Popular Culture,Posthumous Executions,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Sweden,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1944: Richard Sorge and Hotsumi Ozaki

11 comments November 7th, 2007 Headsman

On the day of the USSR’s October Revolution holiday in 1944, Stalin’s greatest spies were hanged in Japan.

Renowned among espionage aficionados for supposedly forewarning Moscow of the exact date of Germany’s planned surprise attack in 1941, Richard Sorge‘s work in the pregnant years leading up to World War II produced multiple intelligence coups and could lay claim to the uncommon distinction of having materially affected the course of the war.

His signal achievement was establishing, as a foreigner in a highly xenophobic Japan, a spy ring that for years penetrated the highest levels of the Japanese government and the German embassy, giving Moscow an inside look at Axis planning.

Working under the cover of journalism in the German expat community — he had grown up in a mixed German-Russian household in Berlin and won the Iron Cross for his service in the Kaiser’s army in World War I before embracing communism — Sorge struck Hitler from half a world away. His access to the German embassy was untrammeled — indeed, he had an affair with the ambassador’s wife. His lead Japanese collaborator Hotsumi Ozaki was a major public intellectual similarly privy to sensitive information through his contacts.

The two, along with several other Japanese and foreign collaborators, produced a steady diet of top-shelf intelligence, including the (ignored) forecast of Operation Barbarossa. But the ring’s most important coup — arguably a decisive one in the history of the war as a whole — was to inform Moscow in September 1941 that Japan did not intend to attack the Russian Far East. Relieved of the nightmare prospect of a two-front war, Stalin transfered desperately needed Siberian divisions to help throw back the German advance on Moscow.

Japan by 1941 was a dangerous place to operate, however, and the nerve-rattling work — and the alcoholism to which it contributed — were taking its toll on the master spy just as the authorities were closing in. Sorge and his ring were arrested in October 1941.

Sorge’s decisive communique regarding Japanese intentions in the East had not yet borne its fruit. The war had nearly four years yet to run, and Sorge would languish in prison for most of them — long enough to leave fellow detainees with recollections of the captured operative jubilant at Red Army victories. Soviet tanks were at Germany’s doorstep by the time the two went to the gallows, one after the other, with the few minutes’ notice still customary for Japanese hangings to this day.

The spies in history who can say from their graves, the infomation I supplied to my masters, for better or worse, altered the history of our planet, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Richard Sorge was in that group.

Spy novelist Frederick Forsythe

Sorge’s personal role in the crucible of world-shaping politics have proven a compelling topic for biographers. Among the notable works:

The Soviet government did not officially acknowledge Sorge until 1964, but the case had immediate and widespread interest in Japan. Ozaki inspired an early Kurosawa film, No Regrets for Our Youth:

The espionage ring’s operations were also the subject of a recent multilingual Japanese epic, Spy Sorge:

Part of the Themed Set: Spies.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Famous,Germany,Hanged,History,Japan,Russia,Spies,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1914: Carl Hans Lody

4 comments November 6th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1914, German spy Carl Hans Lody was put to death in the Tower of London during the opening months of World War I.

Lody‘s was the first execution in the Tower since its heyday as the chopping-block of disfavored nobility had passed in the mid-18th century. Times had changed by the era of trench warfare: Lody was not beheaded, but shot inside a wooden shed erected for the purpose in the Tower yard. Ten more German spies, who seem to have had a harder go of infiltrating Britain than their English counterparts had in Germany, would suffer the same fate by war’s end.

A Berlin-born naval officer, Lody had no experience spying but was tapped for the job because he had traveled abroad and spoke English well enough to pass for an American tourist. He was dead scarcely three months after he entered the Isles, though his work may have helped a U-boat sink a British warship.

According to A.W. Brian Simpson in Domestic and International Trials 1700-2000, the case was a legal landmark as the first espionage trial in England held partly in camera — outside the public view. The outcome, however, was a foregone conclusion, and Lody himself didn’t bother to contest his guilt — seemingly fixated on going to his grave with nothing short of the utmost in romantic gentlemanly decorum.

Part of the Themed Set: Spies.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Germany,History,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,Wartime Executions

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1925: Sidney Reilly

9 comments November 5th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1925, legendary British spy — and subsequent James Bond inspiration — Sidney Reilly was shot in a forest outside Moscow for his efforts to overthrow the Soviet government.

Fact blends insensibly into fiction in Reilly‘s biography; much of what is known or believed about him is conjectural or colored by his posthumous valorization, such the 1967 book Reilly: Ace of Spies written by [the son of] his onetime cloak-and-dagger collaborator Robin Bruce Lockhart — who was himself a close friend of Bond author Ian Fleming.

However, even at the word of less sensational biographers — such as Andrew Cook — Reilly lived a life almost too extraordinary for belief.

A Jewish child of tsarist Russia born in what is now the Ukraine, Reilly claimed to have escaped Odessa by faking his death and hopping a ship bound for Brazil. Like much of Reilly’s life, the story is unverifiable, but by hook or by crook — and possibly by way of a murder in France — he arrived in London in 1895, hitched himself to a wealthy woman a few months after the suspicious death of her husband (discarding the inconvenient surname Rosenblum in the process), and became entangled with British intelligence.

In the first decade of the 20th century, he apparently spied promiscuously on England’s imperial rivals Germany and Russia, though the particulars are disputed. He arrived in Port Arthur, Russia, shortly before the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War and may have provided the Japanese fleet intelligence enabling it to navigate the mined harbor — in addition to a copious side business in war profiteering. He may also have had a hand in capturing British oil concessions in Persia and reconnoitering behind German lines during World War I.

Like his fictional heir 007, he gambled often and left a string of lovers and mistresses in his wake. His true allegiances, and the extent to which his exploits were inflated or outright fabricated, are debated to this day.

The adventures that brought both death and fame were his machinations to overthrow the Bolshevik government in the fraught early months after Lenin took power. A planned coup d’etat in September 1918 came to grief and Reilly fled Russia steps ahead of the authorities, who subsequently condemned him to death in absentia.

Notwithstanding the sentence, which had been ruthlessly visited on his less-fortunate conspirators, Reilly was lured back to the USSR in 1925 by the Soviet counterintelligence project Operation Trust. Intending to meet anti-Bolshevik agitators, he was instead arrested at the border and tortured at the infamous Lubyanka Prison, where he kept notes on cigarette papers about enemy interrogation techniques for the eventuality of an escape or release that never came.

Part of the Themed Set: Spies.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Famous,History,Jews,Popular Culture,Power,Russia,Shot,Spies,Torture,USSR

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Themed Set: Spies

4 comments November 5th, 2007 Headsman

One of the occasional conceits these pages will indulge is the predilection of history for unexpected combinations and rhythms. The next three days’ entries are not individually related, but capture a snapshot both of an avocation liable to inclusion in these pages and of an era — the great power jockeying of the early 20th century — through the lives of three men who spied upon one another’s countries.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Themed Sets

1936: Edgar André

2 comments November 4th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1936, communist politician Edgar Andre was beheaded in Fuhlsbüttel Prison for treasonous complicity in the Reichstag Fire.

This 1936 German pamphlet denouncing Andre’s execution concludes: “Edgar André lives. In his spirit, we march: Despite all.”

A politician raised in Belgium, Andre had bolted the Socialist Party of Germany for the Communist Party in the early 1920’s, becoming a major labor leader in Hamburg. Andre was arrested within days of the 1933 Reichstag Fire as Adolf Hitler crushed official leftist opposition.

But Andre was not brought to trial for over three years — by which time torture had crippled and deafened him, and the political climate made the doubtful nature of the evidence against him scant protection in the courts. His conviction and sentence were a foregone conclusion.

The Spanish Civil War, which erupted over the summer of 1936 between Andre’s trial and execution, saw the service of a battalion in the International Brigades named for Edgar Andre.

Just days after Andre was beheaded, that battalion entered its first action — with German volunteers helping stave off fascist capture of Madrid. The unit’s hymn commemorated their namesake:

[audio:Das_Batallion_Edgar_Andre.mp3]

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arson,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,Politicians,Power,Torture,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1783: John Austin

12 comments November 3rd, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1783, highwayman John Austin was hanged at Tyburn for robbing and murdering John Spicer on the road to London.

The village Tyburn on the outskirts of London had been used for public hangings dating to the 12th century. Though not the only site of executions in London, it was the iconic one. Situated at the modern intersection of Edgware and Bayswater Roads on the northeast corner of Hyde Park, the distinctive “Tyburn tree” — a triangular gallows capable of hanging over twenty prisoners simultaneously — made a foreboding landmark round which teemed thousands of spectators on execution days. Some 1,200 people were executed on this singular device.

Public executions typically began four kilometers away at Newgate Prison, where the condemned were loaded into ox carts for a two-to-three-hour procession through public streets now at the very core of London, perhaps including stops at public ale houses.


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While Tyburn carved its niche during England’s age of religious bloodletting, its social role had changed significantly by the 18th century. Most of the doomed were offenders against property, often executed for stealing negligible sums or else reprieved for transport to the New World or, later, Australia. Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged intriguingly suggests that hangings of this era were an assertion of nascent capitalism, violently throwing off the remains of feudal labor relations. (Summarized more thoroughly in this friendly review.)

Even that formative age was receding. Once a neighboring village, Tyburn had been swallowed up by the city; a generation before Austin’s death, residents of the now-upscale neighborhood had successfully pushed for the removal of the macabre “Tyburn tree”.

Austin was hanged, instead, on a portable gallows, a typical penitent imploring heavenly mercy and taking 10 minutes to strangle to death — the very last execution at that somber and storied crossroads.

Here’s the story of the Tyburn hangings from London writer Peter Ackroyd:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Common Criminals,England,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft,Tyburn

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