On this date in 1559, Protestant parliamentarian Anne du Bourg was publicly strung up and burned for his uncompromising defense of Calvinism.
All France burned, figuratively, with the Protestant Reformation — and literally, with Henri II‘s ruthless reaction against it. But that flame tempered and honed the Huguenots’ steel.
With the dissolute crowned head before him to attend a seating of Parlement considering the matter of the heretics’ suppression, Anne du Bourg delivered himself of a rebuke of “more courage than prudence” (Batiffol and Bodley):
While men are conducted to the stake for the sole crime of praying for their prince, a shameful license encourages and multiplies blasphemies, perjuries, debaucheries, and adulteries. (Martyn)
Incensed, the king had du Bourg and others of the “moderate” party arrested in Parlement and drug to the dungeon. And though his compatriots were satisfied to recant what imperiled them, du Bourg remained obdurate and even provocative, smuggling a pamphlet against the monarch out of prison.
Henri would not make good his vow to see du Bourg burnt, having been slain by a freak jousting accident. But it little availed du Bourg inasmuch as Henri’s untimely demise put the Catholic faction even more firmly in the saddle. The agitation of Protestants for du Bourg’s release went for naught, and the sharp-tongued minister of state had occasion to speak to posterity from the scaffold. “My friends, I am not here as a thief or a martyr, but for the evangelium.”
“His one speech did more harm to the Catholic Church than a hundred ministers could have done.”
-Eyewitness Florimond de Roemond, quoted in The Cambridge Modern History
“Brother, I am not dejected or crestfallen. Life, life is everywhere, life is in us ourselves, not outside. Near me will be people, and to be a person among persons and stay him forever, to not be cast down or despondent no matter what the misfortunes are – therein lies life, therein lies its purpose. I realized that. This idea entered my flesh and blood. Yes! It’s true! The head that created and got accustomed to the higher demands of the spirit, that head is cut off from my shoulders. What’s left are the memories and images created and not reified by me. They will ulcerate me, indeed! What I have left is my heart and the same flesh and blood, which can love, suffer, pity, and remember, and this is life, after all …” (quote — in Russian; the translation is mine)
The square — now named Pionerskaya Ploschad’ — where Dostoyevsky faced a mock execution. Image used with permission.
This slightly rambling epistle is authored by a titan of the world literature, a schizophrenic, a gambler, a true believer, a sufferer, a humanitarian, an epileptic, a Russian, a philosopher, a St. Petersburger, the Writer. Let us forgive him a certain incongruity of thought, since that letter was his first salute to a newly acquired chance to live.
On this date in 1849, Dostoevsky, along with some 20 other condemned, was brought out to St. Petersburg’s Semyonovsky platz. They were meant to be shot for affiliation with the Petrashevsky circle, a group of idealistic young intellectuals, apologists of Fourier and fervent advocates of socialism. Just like the generation of aristocrats (alas, some of them will be featured on this macabre blog) before them and generations of intelligentsia (whose destiny is equally unenviable) after them, Petrashevtsy gathered at Petersburg’s flats, read articles and concerned themselves with the fate of the permanently-rising-from-the-knees Motherland.
The formal charges brought upon Dostoevsky were quite bizarre: he listened to a story that criticized the army; had in his possession an illegal printing press; read an open letter to the circle from Belinsky to Gogol which excoriated the church and government; and participated in a regicide plot. The latter accusation Fyodor Mikhailovich vehemently denied, for indeed he was not a bloodthirsty revolutionary, but a proponent of the peaceful Christ’s teaching (this affliction with Christian philosophy was incidentally somewhat of a mauvais ton among the predominantly atheistic circle).
It always seemed to me that Dostoevsky’s participation in the Petrashevky circle was a tribute to the epoch’s fad. It was the imperfections of human nature, not the peculiarities of a hypothetical social structure, that concerned him greatly. The world’s wrongdoings result from something rotten in a man’s soul, and once those internal blemishes are erased, the external harmony emerges. “Beauty will save the world”, a cliché instilled in every Russian by a literature teacher in 10th grade, a phrase attributed to Christ-like kniaz’ Myshkin, and one of Dostoevsky’s most important statements: inner beauty is vital, the rest is a consequence.
The military court condemned Dostoevsky to death. The general-auditor amended this decision and recommended a lighter punishment: “… deprive of all fortune and send to hard labor in fortresses for eight years”. The final resolution of Nicholas I reduced the sentence to four years, “and then [relegate] to [the rank of] private … declare clemency only at the moment when everything is ready for execution”.
“Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute could be a century of happiness …” continued Dostoevsky his letter. In three days, he received a prisoner’s dress, a fur coat, and valenki. He was put in shackles and dispatched to Siberia …
when his mother and sister in law visited him on the morning of the day of execution, they were told by an officer ‘could you come again at noon since we are very busy at the end of the year?’ When they returned they were told that he had already been executed during the morning. The officer made no mention of the time of his execution. His family members said that although he had asked the detention house to inform them they had not done so. In addition, he had hurriedly written a short letter to his family during the few minutes just before his execution
On this date in 1882, Italian nationalist Guglielmo Oberdan was hanged for attempting to assassinate Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.
“I will throw my corpse between the emperor and Italy and Italian youth will at least have an example.” (quote)
A native of Trieste, a melting pot of Italian and Slovenian ethnicities, Oberdan was of mixed parentage but identified with an Italy coming of age just as he himself did.
Trieste was a treasured Habsburg jewel, the empire’s most consequential port. So Franz Joseph’s visit to celebrate the city’s 500th anniversary under the Austrian crown was undertaken with no less heartfelt sincerity than the enthusiastic student had in packing a suitcase full of explosives in greeting.
Police intercepted this memorable gift and young Oberdan as well, and in short order he swung from the gallows — thousands of worldwide petitioners, Victor Hugo among them, notwithstanding — still urging cocksure verses of national redemption.
As a handsome young martyr who had chosen his Italian identity, Oberdan’s name and face became fare for boulevards, piazzas and monuments … doubly so for the boy’s dispatch contemporaneous with Italy’s cynical Triple Alliance pact with Austria-Hungary that sternly apprenticed the infant nation’s irredentist spirit to realpolitik under the sway of the man now reviled as the “Emperor of the Hangmen.” Nor would it appear a fate unworthy of his deed that he should personify in death all the impulsive romanticism his country had not strength enough to effect.
Oberdan is the subject of a rousing (and murderous — the refrain is “Morte a Franz, viva Oberdan!”) patriotic song dating from the 1880’s:
On this date in 1948, leftist former Indonesian Prime Minister Amir Sjarifuddin was summarily executed by forces of the infant Indonesian Republic for his participation in an attempted coup d’etat three months before.
A Dutch-educated Communist politician who had adhered to an anti-fascist “common front” position, Sjarifuddin was a vigorous activist against the Japanese occupation during World War II — and lucky to avoid execution for it.
Indonesia’s declaration of independence following the war sparked the National Revolution, during which Sjarifuddin emerged a leading player of the left as rival factions maneuvered against each other within Indonesia under pressure from the Dutch colonial power looking to reassemble its old dominions.
Sjarifuddin briefly served as the fledgling state’s second prime minister, but resigned in January 1948 after an unpopular diplomatic foray to calm tensions with the Dutch. His support for a botched and premature revolt by Communist officers in September sealed his end as a political factor and eviscerated left influence in the revolution, confining the latter’s character to an essentially nationalist one.
The rising’s suggestion of internal division may also have encouraged the Dutch incursion into Java on this date. There was a touch of poetic justice if that was the case: Republican troops, melting away from superior firepower for an insurgency campaign, opted to execute Sjarifuddin and about 50 other captured leftists before retreating rather than free them.
According to George Kahin, Sjarifuddin rendered with his death one last service to his nationalist — if not his Communist — ambitions:
[O]nce the [Indonesian] government … had put down the [September] rebellion and shot its leaders, it was no longer possible for the Dutch to make American officials and the US Congress believe — as previously many of them had — that most leaders of the Republic were under strong Communist influence and that their government was providing a bridge to an ultimately Communist Indonesia.
On this date in 1838, seven white men were hanged for an unprovoked massacre of aborigines in Australia.
A memorial stands over the the site of the Myall Creek Massacre. Image used with permission.
Native life was cheap on the continent and countless brutalities blithely visited by European settlers have gone to that vast forgotten register of unavenged atrocities.
The Myall Creek massacre was not atypical of such incidents, save in its outcome: it was the first execution of whites for crimes against Australia’s natives, a fact that aroused furious opposition in much of Australia’s settler population.
The massacre took place on June 10, when a group of 12 whites rounded up 28 aboriginals, mostly women and children, at a remote outback station, raping some women and murdering all. Unusually, it was reported, investigated, and prosecuted. Eleven of the party (the ringleader escaped and was never punished) stood trial and were acquitted in an apparent gesture of jury nullification:
“I knew the men were guilty of murder but I would never see a white man hanged for killing a black,” one juror told a newspaper.
But he would see it, and soon.
The governor had seven of the group immediately re-arrested and tried again — technically for a different specific murder amid among the slaughter — and this time, condemned. Along with much of its readership, the Sydney Morning Herald was incensed:
We want neither the classic nor the romantic savage here. We have far too many of the murderous wretches about us already.
The whole gang of black animals are not worth the money the colonists will have to pay for printing the silly court documents on which we have already wasted too much time.
That bilious sentiment, far from expunged in Australia, has an enduring symbol in the Myall Creek Massacre. The aboriginal victims of this day’s hanged are commemorated in a monument overlooking the scene of their deaths … and they have occasioned modern efforts at reconciliation, including some of the descendants of their murderers.
On this date in 1594, Alison Balfour was burned as a witch on the strength of a confession extracted under the hideous torture of her family.
Balfour had been implicated in a plot — probably entirely fictitious — to poison the tyrannical young Earl of Orkney, with some misshapen blob of wax appearing as evidence of her communion with the infernal.
sche … declarit and tuik upoun hir saull and conscience, as sche wald ansuer att the day of judgement … that sche wes als innocent and wald die als innocent on ony point of Wichcraft as ane barne new borne … the tyme of hir first Depositioun sche wes tortourit diverse and severall tymes in the Caschielawis, and sindrie tymis takin out of thame deid,* … as lykewyis hir guidman being in the stokis, hir sone tortourit in the Buitis, and hir dochtir put in the Pilliewinkis, quhairwith sche and thay wer swa vexit and tormentit, that pairtlie to eschew ane gretar torment and pwneischement, and upoun promeis of hir lyffe, and guid deid be the said Personne, falslie, aganis hir saull and conscience, sche maid that Confessioun, and na uthirwyis.
Around this time in the late autumn or early winter some weeks following the Battle of Cunaxa, the general of a Greek mercenary army — along with most of its other commanders — was treacherously seized by a Persian satrap and summarily beheaded.
The prince marched the Hellenes deep into Persia before falling in battle at Cunaxa in Mesopotamia, a discomfiting scenario alike for the stranded but still-potent invading army and the somewhat outclassed Persians.
The seizure around this day of the veteran soldier and former tyrant of Byzantium Clearchus — lured under color of friendship — aimed to crush the Greeks’ morale, but instead feathered the laurels of “the Ten Thousand”. This “marching Republic” hastily self-organized and proceeded upon an astonishing escape, intrepidly fighting its way north over the ensuing year to the Black Sea, and thence to hearth and home.
The Greeks’ perseverance offers one of classical antiquity’s stock testimonies to the resilient polis — and at this stage, practically the last breath of that dying spirit. More to the immediate point, it illustrated strikingly the Persian army’s vulnerability to the phalanx, exploited to decisive effect in the century to come by Alexander the Great.
One of the replacement generals, Xenophon, immortalized the Greeks’ march in the Anabasis.
After the generals had been seized, and the captains and soldiers who formed their escort had been killed, the Hellenes lay in deep perplexity — a prey to painful reflections. Here were they at the king’s gates, and on every side environing them were many hostile cities and tribes of men. Who was there now to furnish them with a market? Separated from Hellas by more than a thousand miles, they had not even a guide to point the way. Impassable rivers lay athwart their homeward route, and hemmed them in. Betrayed even by the Asiatics, at whose side they had marched with Cyrus to the attack, they were left in isolation. Without a single mounted trooper to aid them in pursuit: was it not perfectly plain that if they won a battle, their enemies would escape to a man, but if they were beaten themselves, not one soul of them would survive?
Haunted by such thoughts, and with hearts full of despair, but few of them tasted food that evening; but few of them kindled even a fire, and many never came into camp at all that night, but took their rest where each chanced to be. They could not close their eyes for very pain and yearning after their fatherlands or their parents, the wife or child whom they never expected to look upon again. Such was the plight in which each and all tried to seek repose.
The tale’s motif was borrowed for a 1965 novel of a New York gang struck leaderless making its way out of hostile territory, later adapted for a cult 1970’s film:
On or about this date in 1974, a young American traveler — or perhaps intelligence agent — named Charles Dean and his Australian friend Neal Sharman are believed to have been executed in Laos by the Pathet Lao guerrillas.
The 23-year-old Dean was in the midst of a protracted post-university globetrotting when he was apprehended with his friend traveling down the Mekong River in the war-torn country. They were held in captivity for three months — long enough for the family to learn they were detained, and Dean’s father to fly to Laos to negotiate in vain for his release.
Coincidentally, it was also at about this point of the 2003-04 presidential election cycle that Howard Dean, then the frontrunner for his party’s presidential nomination, learned through DNA analysis that remains recovered in Laos were indeed those of his brother. Twenty-nine years after his execution, Charles Dean was repatriated and buried with military honors.
[Charlie] wrote me a letter about what it was like to sit outside his bungalow [in Laos] at night, listening to the thump of distant artillery and the muffled explosions as the shells hit the ground. I almost wrote him back, saying, “What are you thinking? Get out of there — it’s not safe.” Then I reminded myself that he was a twenty-three-year-old who was capable of making these judgments himself. I’ve often wished I had written that letter, although I don’t think he would have changed his mind had he read it.
There was speculation that Charlie was in Laos because he was working for the CIA and I think my parents believed that to be the case. Personally, I don’t think he was employed by the U.S. government in any capacity, but we’ll probably never know the answer to that question.
Charlie’s capture and death were the most traumatic events of my life. They have eaten at me ever since. You never get over something like this; all you can do is live with it. It was awful for my two other brothers and me, and it was far worse for our mother and father. It was so painful for my father that he rarely spoke of it afterward.
One of the feelings that accompanies survivor’s guilt is anger at the person who was killed. You are angry because your loved one left you with this terrible loss. I had never understood why Charlie had gone to Laos and stayed there so long.
I often think about the courses our lives might have taken had Charlie been around. One thing is certain: I’m sure that, had he lived, he’d be the one running for president and not me.
Update: Gov. Dean’s December 2012 tweets on his family’s loss:
@executedtoday It was Dec 14. Charlie was my younger brother. He would have turned 63 on April 5, 2013. view original
@executedtodayHe was likely killed by North Vietnamese operating inside Laos. I have been to the site of his execution thanks to JTFA view original
Australian Neil Sharman was captured with him in September, 1973 and also died with him 38 years ago today view original