Archive for January, 2008

1606: Guy Fawkes and other Gunpowder Plot conspirators

14 comments January 31st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1606, Guy Fawkes, “the only man to ever enter parliament with honorable intentions,” was hanged, drawn and quartered in London with three conspirators for attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament … and the government with it.

Fawkes, a soldier, was part of the Gunpowder Plot, a Catholic attempt to assassinate the new king James I when it became clear the House of Stuart would continue its Tudor predecessors’ intolerance of the Roman church.

The conspiracy was crowded, so it was something of a miracle the secret kept for over a year while the plotters filled a rented room under the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder and waited for parliament to open. The explosion would have slain not only James, but numerous officials of the government; the conspirators’ “then what?” plan seems a little vague, but with a modern recreation confirming that the gunpowder packed under Westminster was sufficient to blow the place to smithereens, it’s safe to say something dramatic would have ensued. That “something” might easily have been a savage crackdown against Catholics.

All that remains safely in the domain of the speculative — because as the date approached, one of the conspirators felt moved to warn a Catholic Lord in writing not to attend the opening.

My lord out of the love i beare to some of youere frends i have a care of youer preseruasion therefor i would advise youe as youe tender youre life to devise some excuse to shift of youre attendance at this parliament for god and man hath concurred to punishe the wickedness of this time and think not slightly of this advertisement but retire youre self into youre contri where youe may expect the event in safti for thoughe there be no appearance of any stir yet i saye they shall receive a terrible blowe this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them this councel is not to be condemned because it may do youe good and can do youe no harme for the dangere is passed as soon as youe have burnt the letter and i hope god will give youe the grace to maketh good use of it to whose holy protection i commend youe.

Subtle.

Fawkes was not the leader of the conspiracy, but his wartime siege experience made him an important participant in an operation similar to undermining a castle. The affair became remembered to history under his name because he was the one caught when, once the incriminating letter was turned over to the government, yeoman guards searched the cellars.

Fawkes was tortured by express permission of the king for his conspirators’ identities, but held his tongue; those conspirators, however, went ahead with the desperate uprising that was supposed to follow the explosion, and within days they had been apprehended or killed.

Four lesser conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered on January 30; the remainder suffered that dreadful fate today. Fawkes himself, however, managed to avoid the worst of it by leaping from the scaffold when he was strung up to be half-hung — so he was dead of a broken neck when disemboweled.

The fortuitous abortion of this stupendous act of terrorism (if we can call it “terrorism”) made November 5 Guy Fawkes Night on the English calendar, still a day of fireworks and bonfires in many of the Commonwealth countries.

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up King and Parli’ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

The opening lines of this 17th century poem celebrating the king’s miraculous deliverance introduce the 2006 film V for Vendetta

… in which Fawkes’ subversive persona is pitted against a theocratic dictatorship in the dystopian near future. It’s notable for a forthright celebration, in a mass-market film, of the liberatory power of terrorism.

Today’s well-known victim also left a less obvious but more ubiquitous cultural artifact. The practice of marking Guy Fawkes Night with effigies of the traitor — “Guys” — caused the word to enter the general lexicon as slang for a strangely-dressed man, eventually coming to mean any man (or, arguably, any person regardless of gender) at all.

The House of Commons has a fact sheet (.pdf) on the affair.

Part of the Themed Set: The English Reformation.

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1649: Charles I

34 comments January 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1649, the struggle between parliament and crown cost the Stuart monarch Charles I his head.

Charles‘ political clumsiness and unreconstructed authoritarianism had seen the realm whose unitary sovereignty he insisted upon blunder from disaster to disaster: into bankruptcy, military defeat, religious conflict and the English Civil War.

The assignation of cause and consequence in that war’s genesis has much exercised historians.

What is beyond dispute is that the confrontation between monarch and subject, pitting against each other political and economic epochs, theories of state and power, rates as one of history’s most captivating courtroom dramas.

Charles refused to answer the court’s charge of treason, occasioned most particularly by the king’s fomenting the Second Civil War while already a defeated prisoner of parliament following the first Civil War. He rested firmly on royal prerogatives against what some interlocutors take to be an almost desperate plea by his judges for some hint of acknowledgment that could open the door to compromise:

[A] King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth. But it is not my case alone — it is the freedom and the liberty of the people of England. And do you pretend what you will, I stand more for their liberties — for if the power without law may make laws, may alter the fundamental laws of the kingdom, I do not know what subject he is in England that can be sure of his life or anything that he calls his own. Therefore, when that I came here I did expect particular reasons to know by what law, what authority, you did proceed against me here.

It must be borne in mind that the trial of a king was a completely unprecedented event. Charles might be forgiven his attitude, even if it smacked of the impolitic high-handedness that had forced this deadly test of powers.

Parliament’s position — here in the words of its President — is distinctly in the stream of political discourse (if not always actual practice) ascendant in the West to this day.

Sir, as the law is your superior, so truly, sir, there is something that is superior to the law and that is indeed the parent or author of the law — and that is the people of England.

And therefore, sir, for this breach of trust when you are called to account, you are called to account by your superiors — “when a king is summoned to judgment by the people, the lesser is summoned by the greater.”

The modern and the medieval, facing each other at the bar.


A fragment from a World War II bomb-damaged and only-recently-rediscovered Hippolyte Delaroche painting situating Charles in the Christlike pose of enduring the mockery of his captors.

Charles played his lordly disdain to the end, refusing to admit parliament’s jurisdiction by making any sort of plea.

The line between heroic defiance and pig-headed obstinacy being very much in the eye of the beholder, the confrontation is typically played straight-up for its arresting clash of principles — as in the 1970 biopic Cromwell, with Alec Guinness as the monarch:Probably more troubling for the parliamentary party than the regicide taboo was consideration that the execution would transfer royalist loyalties from a man safely imprisoned to an heir beyond their power, who could be expected to (as in fact he did) resume the civil war.

Competing philosophies expounded for the competing interests; the dispute involved the era’s intellectual titans, in conflict over the most fundamental concepts of the state. Thomas Hobbes wrote his magnum opus The Leviathan as a royalist exile in Paris, and its abhorrence for rebellion and divided sovereignty unmistakably reflects the English Civil War experience. John Milton earned his bread as a republican polemicist; his poetic celebration of Satan’s failed rebellion in Paradise Lost, written after the Stuart restoration, can be read as a political critique.

Separated at the block? Charles I and Hobbes’ Leviathan

It’s conventionally thought that the beheading was conducted by a radical minority, though that supposition is debatable, colored as it is by the ultimate restoration of the crown. But although England would have a king again, the weight of political authority would steadily, permanently, gravitate towards parliament, organ of the merchant classes who would steer England henceforward.

Did it have the right? Two implacable powers each claimed an indivisible object; “between equal rights, force decides.” So on this cold winter’s afternoon — Charles wore thick undergarments, so he would not shiver with the appearance of fright — the deposed king was marched to a scaffold erected at Whitehall. He gave a short final address, with the famous words for his principle of martyrdom — “a sovereign and a subject are clean different things” — then laid his head on a low block, where a masked executioner (never definitively identified) cleanly chopped it off.

After the monarchy’s restoration, Charles was canonized as a saint by the Church of England: he’s still the last person so venerated, an odd salute to a mortal career of unalloyed arrogance and incompetence. Observance of the cult was toned down in the 19th century, although a Society of King Charles the Martyr dedicated to its preservation still exists; monarchists of a more secular inclination also continue to mark his martyrdom on this anniversary.

Less reverent by far was Monty Python’s homage:

“The most interesting thing about King Charles the First is that he was five foot six inches tall at the start of his reign, but only four foot eight inches tall at the end of it.”

Part of the Themed Set: The English Reformation.

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1547: Not Thomas Howard, because Henry VIII died first

7 comments January 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1547, the Duke of Norfolk was to have been beheaded.

But thanks to the previous day’s death of the corpulent 55-year-old King Henry VIII, the duke’s death warrant was never signed, and the condemned noble died in bed … seven years later.

A force in the gore-soaked arena of English politics for two generations, Thomas Howard had steered two nieces into the monarch’s bed. Both girls had gone to the scaffold,* and the disgrace of the second, Catherine Howard, brought a collapse in the whole family’s fortunes. Thomas Howard’s son Henry was not as lucky as the father: Henry was beheaded just a few days before the king succumbed, on the same charge of treason that almost claimed Thomas this day.

Though Howard pere would survive long enough to see his title restored, this day was far from the last chapter of his grasping family’s encounter with that classic Tudor denouement, the chopping-block. Thomas, his executed son, and his executed grandson today stock the family tombs at St. Michael, Framlingham — itself a sort of late monument to the aristocracy unmade by Henry’s reforms more than by his executioners.

* “She has miscarried of her savior,” Howard famously remarked of the male heir his niece Anne Boleyn delivered stillborn. A few months later, the Duke presided over Anne’s trial and voted to condemn her to death. (Hat tip: Fiz.)

Part of the Themed Set: The English Reformation.

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Themed Set: The English Reformation

14 comments January 29th, 2008 Headsman

Simultaneous with — but in many senses outside — the Protestant Reformation sweeping continental Europe, England in the 16th and early 17th centuries shook with the day’s fatal upheaval.

If the transition from Catholicism proposed by Henry VIII appears theologically mild in retrospect, it wrought earth-shattering changes: desperate conflict between faiths in shifting dynastic alliances; the germ of a vast middle class seeded with confiscation of the Church’s enormous estates; the evolution of governmental forms — and political theory — to comport with a landscape of redistributed power.

Many thousands suffered the ultimate penalty in those days for reasons godly, venal, or a little of both. The next three dates frame the contest over a century’s time, the violent birth of modern England.

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1853: Nicholas Saul and William Howlett, teenage New York gangsters

Add comment January 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1853, two chiefs of the New York street gang Daybreak Boys were hanged at “the Tombs” jail in Manhattan.

It was a yeasty era in the Big Apple, burgeoning with immigrants into one of the great urban centers of the world. The city’s stupefying growth — it would triple in size during this generation — fertilized a thousand niches, neighborhoods and enclaves, all the boroughs’ glorious mess.

Not for the last time in the city’s history, organized crime* flourished, too:

Gangs were sometimes necessary as a support system for the new immigrants, who were otherwise powerless. Soon, the gangs were the undisputed rulers of their districts, and the politicians soon began to call upon them for assistance. Before long, an election day in New York City meant sinister looking men armed with clubs hovering around the polling places ensuring that people voted for the “right” candidate.

Other gangs operated independently of the political machines and served only themselves and answered to no one. They were found mostly along the waterfront of the Fourth Ward, and were likened to bloodthirsty pirates who plundered vessels in the harbor, killing anyone who got in their way.

The Daybreak Boys was one such gang. Operating out of Pete Williams’ gin mill at the intersection of James and Water Sts., an area known as Slaughterhouse Point, the Daybreakers were the terror of the East River in the early 1850s. Between 1850 and 1852, they were credited (blamed?) for the loss of $100,000 in property and at least 20 murders. The origin of their name is uncertain, though that they were known to operate on the East River sometimes into the early morning is a theory. The phonetic spelling of “b’hoy” soon became a badge of honor for men in the area, for a man was not truly considered part of the “in” crowd if he were not “one of the b’hoys.”

It was an era Martin Scorsese depicted in Gangs of New York:

The Prohibition-era book that gave title and inspiration to that film is the go-to source on the Daybreak Boys, among many other contemporaneous criminal syndicates. Nicholas Saul, hanged in his 20th year, co-founded and led the gang of youthful toughs. Their evolution towards murderous piracy on the Hudson and East Rivers set the backdrop for this day’s drop: they had killed a watchman during an unsuccessful raid on a ship the previous summer, and been cornered and arrested by police.

Local luminaries — including the gangster played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the Gangs clip above — turned out for the occasion to pay the condemned tribute, shaking hands with the young men on their way to the gallows.

The Daybreak Boys would have a few years left in their run yet. A fellow with the estimable nickname of Slobbery Jim inherited leadership — talents that would later serve him as an officer in the Confederate army — and the enterprise didn’t peter out until the depredations of kindred river raiders drove the New York Police Department to establish its Harbor Unit.

* Often colorfully named.

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1142: Yue Fei, paragon of loyalty

1 comment January 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1142, the great Chinese general Yue Fei was executed by the Song dynasty he had loyally served.

Loyalty is what Yue Fei is known for, so unbendable that going on nine centuries later it can still work as shorthand for understanding the daily paper.

Yue fought for the Song Dynasty against the neighboring Jin Dynasty. He was a disciplined commander, an honorable and well-studied man — the very Confucian ideal.

The tale about him — the reason he is so well-recalled as a model of patriotism — is that his counterattack after the Jin overran the northern half of the Song realms was so effective that it threatened to repel the invaders. On the cusp of conquering the old northern capital, Kaifeng, he was supposed to have been ordered to lift the siege and return — an order Yue obeyed for the safety of his kingdom, even though it meant fatally confiding himself to his enemy‘s power.

The story’s dramatics are to be doubted; he seems in fact to have been recalled (with other officers) after the battle and duly cashiered into a civilian post months before dying. Much of Yue Fei’s biography is recorded by undependable sources such as a fantastical biography written decades after his death, and a historical novel dating to centuries later. Even his death — whether execution or simple murder, and the means by which it was effected — is not reliably reported.

But his place in the firmament of Chinese heroes is well beyond dispute. Yue Fei was rehabilitated not long after his death, and a shrine built (still on public display to this day) with statues of his persecutors, often abused by visitors, carved kneeling in supplication.

Yue Fei’s mausoleum in Hangzhou.

And just as Yue Fei is a pinnacle of honor and loyalty, those who struck him down remain contemporary emblems of infamy. It is said that the Song minister Qin Hui, pressed for his reasons for ordering Yue’s execution, responded to the effect that “Though it isn’t sure whether there is something that he did to betray the dynasty, maybe there is.” As a result, the phrase maybe there is or it could be true denotes trumped-up charges in Chinese. In a more toothsome vein, the traitors who slew the general are also supposed to have given Chinese cuisine the fried-dough dish youtiao.

Update: The Yue Fei legend gets a skeptical inquiry in view of the political situation on the ground here.

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2007: Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, “the burden thus shifted to him”

11 comments January 26th, 2008 Tim Goodwin

(Thanks to Tim Goodwin at Asia Death Penalty for the guest post -ed.)

On this day one year ago, a promising young Nigerian soccer player was taken from his cell in Singapore’s Changi Prison. It was dawn on a Friday morning, execution time in a country that has come to be known for its uncompromising use of the death penalty.

Tochi, and his football kit. (Source)

Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, 21, and his co-accused Okele Nelson Malachy, 35, were hanged one after the other in the prison’s death chamber. Tochi’s lawyers had been informed he would die that morning, but it had not been announced that Malachy would also hang.

Later that day the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), Singapore’s “primary drug enforcement agency”, issued a 138 word statement. With the terse formality that is common to statements by Singapore’s criminal justice authorities, it noted:

The appeals of both Tochi and Malachy to the Court of Appeal and to the President for clemency have been turned down. Their sentences were carried out this morning at Changi Prison.

Tochi was arrested at Changi Airport on 28 November 2004, in possession of 100 capsules of diamorphine, or 727.02g of high grade heroin, which the CNB claimed was worth “about $1.5 million”. He said in a later interview [.doc] that he had arrived in the country expecting to be met by an African man named Mr Marshall. He did not have enough money to clear immigration, and an airport hotel called the police when he attempted to take a room. Malachy was identified as his contact after flying in from Indonesia, although he strenuously denied any connection with the drugs.

Tochi claimed he was carrying the package for a man named Mr Smith, who had befriended him at Sunday services at St Andrew’s Church in Islamabad, Pakistan. He had become stranded in Pakistan while attempting to travel to Dubai, where he hoped to play soccer professionally. As a boy, he represented Nigeria in soccer tournaments, travelling to Senegal when he was 14 to play in a West African youth Championship.

According to Tochi, Mr Smith asked him to take a package of herbs to a sick friend in Singapore, saying he could then apply to play for Singapore soccer clubs. He agreed, and was given a ticket and $200 in cash.

Many sites on the web have quoted the trial judge’s acknowledgement that there was no proof that Tochi knew he was carrying heroin:

There was no direct evidence that he knew the capsules contained diamorphine. There was nothing to suggest that Smith had told him they contained diamorphine, or that he had found that out on his own.

The trial judge was clearly doubtful of Tochi’s knowledge. Nevertheless, he found the defendant had “wilfully turned a blind eye on the contents of the capsules because he was tempted” by what police claimed was an offer of US$2000 in payment.

But the prosecution didn’t have to prove Tochi knew; it was up to him to prove that he didn’t know what was in the capsules. If he couldn’t prove his ignorance of that fact — a challenging philosophical notion in itself — then the law would presume he knew, and therefore convict him of drug trafficking. Under section 18(2) of Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act:

Any person who is proved or presumed to have had a controlled drug in his possession shall, until the contrary is proved, be presumed to have known the nature of that drug.

The Misuse of Drugs Act reverses many principles that are taken as central to a fair trial, including the burden of proof and the idea that a court should consider the facts of the case before deciding a penalty.

Amnesty International reports that the Act contains a series of presumptions that:

shift the burden of proof from the prosecution to the accused. This conflicts with the universally guaranteed right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Amnesty International is gravely concerned that such presumptions erode the right to a fair trial, increasing the risk that an innocent person may be executed…

The Act applies a mandatory death penalty for a wide range of drug offences, including for importing more than 15 grams of diamorphine or pure heroin.

Possession of relatively small amounts of drugs — by the standards of many countries — is classed as “trafficking” in that drug. Trafficking in that drug carries a mandatory death penalty. Courts have no power to consider the individual circumstances of the case.

Famously described as “Disneyland with the death penalty” by novelist William Gibson, Singapore brings together a record of social order and strict political control, and an unwavering use of the death penalty, particularly for drug-related offences. (Such as a similar recent case profiled here -ed.)

No surprises then that Tochi was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to death in December 2005. His appeal was rejected in March 2006, with the judge pausing only to note that the accused had to prove he didn’t know what was in the bag:

Under s 18(2) of the Act, the first appellant was presumed to know the nature of the drugs in his possession. The burden thus shifted to him to persuade the court on a balance of probabilities that he did not know that he was carrying drugs or that what he was carrying were drugs.

The appeal court judge acknowledged Tochi’s claim that he didn’t know, but agreed that he hadn’t proven his ignorance.

Seven months before Tochi’s execution, his brother Uzonna told a reporter from IPS News he had not told their parents that their son, who once supported the family, was now on death row.

“My poor parents will die if they hear that a child who has worked so hard to sustain them is facing a death sentence,” he said.

Tochi was hanged in the face of widespread international protest: legal efforts and a presidential appeal in Nigeria, urgent global appeals from Amnesty International activists, intervention from a United Nations human rights expert, and discreet but unequivocal opposition from a small group of human rights activists within Singapore itself.

Reflecting the colonial origins of the country’s modern death penalty, Tochi was “hanged by the neck till he [was] dead”, in the words of Singapore’s Criminal Procedure Code. The same British legal phrase was taken with the empire to, among other countries, the United States, India, Pakistan, Brunei and Malaysia.

Mr Smith has not been found.

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1663: Nathaniel Greensmith, Rebecca Greensmith and possibly Mary Barnes, Connecticut “witches”

15 comments January 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1663,* a husband and wife were hanged for witchcraft in colonial Connecticut.

Salem, Mass. gets the publicity — and the tourism — but it was actually the Constitution State where the colonies’ first witch hangings took place, only a few years after the earliest European settlements were established.

As in the Old World, witch purges in New England took place episodically. It had been nearly a decade since any (documented) witchcraft execution when the witch-hunt erupted in Hartford that would claim this day’s victims.

The persecutions began with the deathbed ravings of an 8-year-old girl, who accused a certain Goodwife of the town, the latter preserving herself only by escaping detention and fleeing the colony with her husband.

A familiar cycle of indictments, denunciations, and extracted confessions ensued, as narrated by a 19th century historian.

The reasons for witch persecutions have been extensively and inconclusively debated. As the indispensable Walking the Berkshires blog observes, “Feuds, gossip, and a culture that demanded conformity to rigid social norms certainly played their part, but these secular explanations are easier for us moderns to accept than the sacred, and the two were inextricably linked in 17th-century New England.” It is achingly pitiable to suppose that when Rebecca Greensmith denounced her husband in her confession, she might have been in earnest:

I speak all of this out of love to my husband’s soul, and it is much against my will that I am now necessitate to speak against my husband. I desire that the Lord would open his heart to own and speak the truth.

Nathaniel Greensmith did not “own and speak the truth,” but he shared his wife’s fate this day. They may have been executed with a third accused witch as well, but the documentary trail for Mary Barnes’ case seems less certain. Though she, and perhaps another woman, may have been hanged after the Greensmiths in this particular spasm of supernatural paranoia, the Hartford witch trials of 1662-63 would mark the last witchcraft executions in Connecticut.

The Greensmiths left behind 15- and 17-year-old daughters, a modest estate, and community lore of the miraculous post-execution recovery of the party they were supposed to have been afflicting.

Noted colonial pietist Increase Mather would subsequently retail this latter point further to the fraying credibility of witch-hunting:

After the suspected Witches were either executed or fled, Ann Cole was restored to health, and has continued well for many years, approving her self a serious Christian.

The instance of the witch executed at Hartford, considering the circumstances of that confession, is as convictive a proof as most single examples that I have met with.

David Hall’s Witch-Hunting in Seventeen-Century New England reprints many of the original documentary fragments relating to the Connecticut witch trials, as does an acerbic century-old volume in the public domain, The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut, 1647-1697.

* Sometimes recorded as 1662 or 1662/3, since January 1 was not the legal beginning of the new year.

Update: A resolution officially clearing Connecticut’s “witches” is being mooted, thanks to the pressure of 8th- and 9th-generation descendants of one of the victims. The bill expired in committee in 2008, but could come up again in future sessions. (Thanks to Melisende for the story.)

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1992: Ricky Ray Rector, “a date which ought to live in infamy for the Democratic Party”

18 comments January 24th, 2008 David Elliot

(Thanks to David Elliot at Abolish the Death Penalty for the guest post -ed.)

The strange case of Ricky Ray Rector, executed by the state of Arkansas on Jan. 24, 1992, is what many observers of the death penalty system in the U.S. might call a trifecta.

First, Rector was African American. Of course, African Americans are disproportionately represented on death rows in the U.S., compared with their representation in the general U.S. population.

Second, Rector was severely mentally impaired. More about that in a couple of paragraphs.

Third, Rector suffered from a botched execution. It took a team of five executioners 50 minutes to find a suitable vein in which to inject the lethal cocktail. During this time, witnesses heard continued moaning from the inmate. (The process of repeatedly jabbing an inmate with a needle, over and over and over again, might not seem as torturous as, say, garroting or drawing and quartering. But it can hardly be described as painless.)

Now, on with the story.

According to Wikipedia, on March 21, 1981, Rector and some friends drove to a dance hall at Tommy’s Old-Fashioned Home-Style Restaurant in Conway. When one of Rector’s friends was refused entry after being unable to pay the three dollar cover charge, Rector became incensed and pulled a .38 pistol from his waist band. He fired several shots, wounding two and killing a third man. The third man, Arthur Criswell, died almost instantaneously after being struck in the throat and forehead. Rector left the scene of the murder in a friend’s car and wandered the city for three days, alternately staying in the woods or with relatives. On March 24, Rector’s sister convinced him to turn himself in. Rector agreed to surrender only to Officer Robert Martin, who he had known since he was a child.

Officer Martin arrived at Rector’s mother’s home shortly after three p.m. and began chatting with Rector’s mother and sister. Shortly thereafter, Rector arrived and greeted Officer Martin. As Officer Martin turned away to continue his conversation with Mrs. Rector, Rickey pulled his pistol from behind his back and fired two shots into Officer Martin, striking him in the jaw and neck. Rector then turned and walked out of the house. Once he had walked past his mother’s backyard, Rector put his gun to his own temple and fired. Rector was quickly discovered by other police officers and was rushed to the local hospital. The shot had destroyed Rector’s frontal lobe, resulting in what was essentially a self-lobotomy.

Rector survived the surgery and was put on trial for the murders of Criswell and Martin. His defense attorneys argued that Rector was not competent to stand trial, but after hearing conflicting testimony from several experts who had evaluated Rector, Judge George F. Hartje ruled that Rector was competent to stand trial. Rector was convicted on both counts and sentenced to death.

When Rector’s execution day approached, he was given the standard last meal. For dessert, he was offered a slice of pecan pie, which he moved to the window sill of his holding cell. When asked why he was not eating his pie, he remarked that he was “saving it” for “after the execution.”

If there had been any doubt that Rector did not understand his impending fate, that sealed it. His execution proceeded nonetheless – this was, after all, Arkansas in the early 1990s.

If that were the end of the story, we probably would not be writing about Rector today. (Then again, given the nature of this blog, maybe we would.)

But, completely unbeknownst to him, Rector would enter the annals of American presidential politics.

Back in 1988, at one time, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis enjoyed a huge advantage in the polls over the Republican nominee, George H. W. Bush. Why he lost that lead is probably the focal point of another blog somewhere, but one reason is certainly due to The Question.

The Question came during a presidential debate between Bush and Dukakis when CNN Anchor Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis what his view on the death penalty would be if his wife Kitty were raped and murdered. To this day, pundits remember Dukakis’ tepid, emotionless and altogether inadequate response.

Enter Bill Clinton, 1992 presidential candidate. Clinton interrupted campaigning in New Hampshire to fly home to preside over the execution of the mentally challenged Rector. (Such an act was not necessary legally – the execution could well have proceeded without the governor’s presence in the state. But Clinton wanted to prove that he was a “new” Democrat, tough on crime.)

History has not treated Clinton kindly for this calculated and callous act of political opportunism. In 2002, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote:

A date which ought to live in infamy for the Democratic Party is Jan. 24, 1992. That’s the day Ricky Ray Rector was executed in Arkansas while Gov. Bill Clinton stood by and did nothing. On that day in Arkansas, the Democratic Party also died. Its body is still with us, to be sure, but its heart and soul died 10 years ago.

There’s evidence this could be changing. Although no major Democratic candidate (sorry, Dennis) has come out against the death penalty, the fact of the matter is the death penalty, at least in Democratic circles, has lost its saliency as a political issue.

And that, at least, is a baby step.

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1945: Nikolaus Gross, Catholic anti-Nazi labor activist

1 comment January 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1945, labor activist Nikolaus Gross entered the ranks of Catholic martyrs of Nazi Germany.

A miner turned newsman of the Catholic labor movement, Gross was a peripheral associate of the July 20 Plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He had been known and watched as a dissident and was detained shortly after the plot’s failure, but was only put to death after months of torture, along with a batch of other smaller fish in the conspiracy.

A prelate recalled a conversation he had before the dangerous venture was attempted:

I said to Nikolaus Gross on the day before the assassination attempt on Hitler of 20 July 1944: “Mr Gross, remember that you have seven children. I have no family for which I am responsible. It’s a matter of your life.” To which Gross made a really great statement to me: “If we do not risk our life today, how do we then want one day to justify ourselves before God and our people?”

Gross is notable as the first Catholic lay victim of Naziism subsequently beatified by the Church. The timing (he was beatified in 2001) is interesting to note.*

The long-running controversy over the complicated role of Catholicism writ large — if indeed such a thing could be assessed at all — during the Holocaust had surged into popular conversation with the 1999 publication of Hitler’s Pope.**

Was the Vatican’s silence during the war years complicity or powerlessness? How does one measure and weigh the behavior of the hierarchy as against individuals who risked death in resistance large and small — and they against others who collaborated for advantage, and against the vast multitude who simply went along? Can we speak of a responsibility of “the Church” for its own history of anti-Semitism, and if so, what did that mean for the live people facing real choices in the 1930’s and 40’s?

Bound up as they are in their respondents’ own present-day agendas, these questions seem certain to remain a point of conflict. Propagandists will always keep their own store of exemplars in either perfidy or saintliness, but let us give Nikolaus Gross no less than his due: he answered his duty unswervingly, and on this day, answered with his life.

Online accounts differ as to whether Gross was hanged or beheaded. Both methods were in use.

German-language pages on Gross are here and here. His farewell letter to his family, also in German, is here.

* Lest too grand a claim of causal relationship be inferred, note that beatification is a meandering procedure of bureaucracy rarely answering the day’s headlines; that the late Pope John Paul II elevated such legions to the choirs of heaven as to provoke complaints of debased coinage; and that in an Italian church headed by a Polish pontiff honoring a German martyr, the relationship between fascism and Catholicism was not something that, as in the English-speaking world, might have waned into forgetfulness before a timely work of popular history.

** The controversy surrounding this book, and the author’s subsequent moderation of some conclusions, is covered in a Wikipedia article. Naturally, it spawned more books — both in support of its thesis of Catholic collaboration and against.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Assassins,Beheaded,Disfavored Minorities,Germany,Hanged,Mass Executions,Notable for their Victims,Religious Figures,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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