Archive for May, 2008

1425: Parisina Malatesta and Ugo d’Este, for incest

Add comment May 21st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1425, the Marquess of Ferrara had his wife and son beheaded for an incestuous affair, along with a courtier who had kept their secret.

The “incest” was social rather than sanguinary: the lovers were not related. Like many a Renaissance despot, Niccolò III d’Este produced a multitudinous assortment of illegitimate children and underaged dynastic wives. Small wonder, one might think, that the 14-year-old (at her marriage) Parisina Malatesta (the link is to her Italian Wikipedia page) should come to prefer the attentions of the Duke’s eldest bastard Ugo (one year her junior) to those of a spouse more than twenty years older.


Still, the affair has its curious aspect, apart from the obvious. The Duke was on that timeless monarchical quest for legitimate male issue; Parisina Malatesta would bear him two surviving daughters and a son who died in infancy during her teenage years.

One can hardly fail to think of that more renowned decapitated queen of the next century Anne Boleyn. Like Anne, Parisina lost her head to an incest allegation after a few years’ failure to give her husband an heir.

The need for specifically legitimate succession, however, was somewhat less pressing in tightly run Ferrara than early Tudor England. As the oldest illegitimate son, Ugo himself had a chance to succeed by his father’s appointment — in fact, the second illegitimate son Leonello ultimately did just that. For this reason, Ugo and Parisina — the latter threatening to supplant the former with a legitimate child of her own — might have been natural rivals, and there is some hint of initial enmity between the two. One wonders if there might not have been a twist of obscured courtly skullduggery about this day’s bloody climax.

In any event, interlocutors have preferred the personal aspect, and little wonder. The Marquess played his part by being stricken with anguish and remorse for his ruthless treatment of a favored son, possibly aided by a general reaction of horror among most contemporaries.*

Retold in later years as scandal (though never with much sympathy for the marquess**) its Byronic potential as tragic love story was eventually seized by, well, Lord Byron. His “Parisina” gives us two true hearts in the flower of youth crushed by the cruel weight of their unjust world … although he found it more apt to conclude with only the boy losing his head while the wail of his lover signals a more ambiguous fate.

With all the consciousness that he
Had only passed a just decree;
That they had wrought their doom of ill;
Yet Azo’s† age was wretched still.
The tainted branches of the tree,
If lopped with care, a strength may give,
By which the rest shall bloom and live
All greenly fresh and wildly free:
But if the lightning, in its wrath,
The waving boughs with fury scathe,
The massy trunk the ruin feels,
And never more a leaf reveals.

Mascagni also adapted it for the opera in 1913 — a legendarily tiresome four-hour affair. One review’s famous recommendation (apt enough for the subject as well as the performance) was “Cut, cut, cut!”

* The Marquess was less troubled about his wife, and promulgated a decree imposing like punishment for any other wife guilty of such a crime. The sentence was actually carried out upon a magistrate’s wife.

** Gibbon tut-tutted the affair, simultaneously helping circulate it anew:

Under the reign of Nicholas III, Ferrara was polluted with a domestic tragedy. By the testimony of a maid, and his own observation, the Marquis of Este discovered the incestuous loves of his wife Parisina, and Hugo his bastard son, a beautiful and valiant youth. They were beheaded in the castle by the sentence of a father and husband, who published his shame, and survived their execution. He was unfortunate, if they were guilty: if they were innocent, he was still more unfortunate; nor is there any possible situation in which I can sincerely approve the last act of the justice of a parent.

† Niccolo is “Azo” in the poem, for metric convenience. The House of Este had produced a number of lords named Azzo over the preceding centuries.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Ferrara,History,Italy,Nobility,Scandal,Sex,Women

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1820: Karl Ludwig Sand, a curious strand of German history

2 comments May 20th, 2008 dogboy

Alexandre Dumas recognized the name of Karl Ludwig Sand, who lost his head on this date in 1820 in Mannheim, Germany, for the murder of the dramatist and humorist August von Kotzebue.

The assassination of von Kotzebue* worried the Prussian monarchy — then headed by Friederich Wilhelm III — and precipitated a series of proclamations, reforms, and internal struggles that finally led to a full-scale rebellion 30 years later.

A print showing Sand stabbing August von Koetzebue. Sand is reported to have shouted, “Here, you traitor to the fatherland!”

Sand was a member of a Burschenschaft,** a liberal student fraternity organization which appealed to nationalist Germans seeking a unified German nation-state, and he and others in his group regarded von Kotzebue as a plague on their cause. Von Kotzebue was then Councillor of the Russian Legation, the culmination of over a decade in the Russian civil service, and a spinmeister for the Russian regime. In 1816, while Sand was in college, von Kotzebue was tasked with managing the flow of information into the Prussian state in an effort to increase the monarch’s popularity in Germany.

At the very least, then, von Kotzebue had no love for the Burschenshaft movement from the start, which originated in the university town of Jena, and he did not hold back his criticisms in his weekly literature newpaper Literatische Wochenblatt. He casually disparaged the Burschenschaften, as this stab in the review of a novel in one of the earlier editions evidences:

Longing and love in the work is described in a way which, in the judgment of the Jenaer Recensenten, resembles a light Spring rain that is at least refreshing. That is more than one can say of the Jenaer Literature-Zeitung, which roughly resembles an autumnal rain that simply makes one wet without refreshing at all.

But the student organizations were on the rise during Sand’s time at university as a theology student, and the turbulent events in France during his final days in school were having ripple effects across the German populace. It was in this climate that a young man who was “distinguished at once by the gifts of the mind and the faculties of the soul” (as his Gymnasium rector put it) and who sought to become a pastor was drawn to the nationalistic movement. Sand’s opposition to the imperial rule of Prussia became increasingly more urgent after his studies, and he was determined to make a statement through action, eschewing what he called “simply writing and talking.” On March 23, 1819, the 22-year old found von Kotzebue in his house and stabbed him in front of several witnesses. Sand was quickly arrested and sentenced to death.†

A print depicting the Wartburg Festival of 1817, Burschenschaft colors prominently displayed. (Click for larger image.)

As a result of von Kotzebue’s murder, Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich set down a series of decrees, known as the Karlsbad Decrees, which sought to quell any thoughts of rebellion before they could fully ferment. The decrees limited both university activity and press activity, constraining the actions of university employees and setting down harsh restrictions on anyone who might dare question the monarch’s authority.

Sand’s contemporaries outside of Germany were hardly pleased with the death of von Kotzebue, which they saw as the precursor to a greater turmoil, and two decades of removal from the event proved a powerful force. By the time Dumas visited the site of Sand’s beheading and penned his own biography of the man, a thorough rendering of Sand’s brief life — much of it reconstructed from Sand’s writings and the memories of those who knew him — the rebellion of the Burschenschaften was once again afoot, this time with permanent consequences for the German people.

In the end, nationalism and constitutionalism were not the panaceas Sand and other Burschenschaefter may have liked. While Sand would hardly have counted as a Nazi (his Puritanical theology would have fallen on deaf ears in that regime), he would have recognized that group’s near-religious fervor of the public book burnings anti pro-German sentiments as a distant echo of the Burschenschaft’s Wartburg Festival.†† Indeed, the so-called Third Reich could never have existed without the Second Reich, whose seeds Sand and his fellow nationalists were sowing a half century early when his fateful date with the axe arrived.

* The name is also spelled “Kozebue” by some sources.

** The Burschenschaften were roughly based on the Lützow Free Corps, an academic paramilitary group which fought during the Napoleonic Wars. During their height of popularity, the Burschenschaften adopted the black-red-gold flag that was reclaimed by the Frankfurt Parliament in 1949 to be the official German flag.

† In the end, Sand and von Kotzebue were buried at the same cemetery.

†† The Wartburg Festival, held in 1817, was a celebration of Martin Luther’s proclamation against the church. An interesting discussion of the appeal of such festivals to the students of the day is given in The Course of German Nationalism: From Frederick the Great to Bismarck.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Crime,Freethinkers,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Infamous,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Other Voices,Scandal

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1536: Anne Boleyn

21 comments May 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1536, Anne Boleyn lost her head.

Any queen decapitated by her king would of course rate an entry in these grim pages. But this does not quite explain Anne Boleyn‘s enduring appeal, relevance and recognizability for the most casual of modern observers, and her concomitant footprint in popular culture, even with the “Greek tragedy” quality of her life.

Anne stands at the fulcrum of England’s epochal leap into modernity. Whether she was that fulcrum might depend on the reader’s sympathy for the Great Man theory of history, but little more do we injure our headless queen to regard her as the woman for her time and place — the accidental hero (or villain) raised up and thrown down by the tectonic forces of her milieu.

Through Anne was born — for reasons of momentary political arrangements of long-forgotten dynasts, which seems a shockingly parochial proximate cause — the English Reformation, and through the Reformation was born the crown’s decisive triumph over the nobility, the broad middle class nurtured on the spoils of Catholic monasteries, the rising Britannia fit to rule. Most would take as an epitaph historical accidents of such magnitude.

Of course, by those same accidents, Anne was the instrument of thousands of deaths herself, and little did she appear troubled in life by the corpses upon which she ascended the throne.

Her own family maps the change wrought on England. An ancestor was beheaded in the Wars of the Roses, medieval England’s last great breakdown; her uncle Thomas Howard was one of the throwback scheming Dukes, mastered by his sovereign to the extent of issuing Anne’s capital sentence from his own lips;* the beheaded woman’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, set a recognizably centralized English state on the path of empire.

Fitting tribute that, from the Tower where she met her end** to lands undreamt-of in her time, people still, like Henry, find her captivating.


* Anne’s father also declared for her guilt. Unprincipled as these men undoubtedly were, it cannot have been a pleasant responsibility; the question of whether she was actually guilty of adultery-cum-treason, the fatal charge extracted from a supposed lover by torture, has been hotly and inconclusively disputed by posterity.

** With a solemn speech submissive to Henry but not admitting any guilt — in an earlier moment of levity, she had famously remarked of the French swordsman hired to do the job, “I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.”

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2004: Case Study: Kelsey Patterson

12 comments May 18th, 2008 Kristin Houle

The case of Kelsey Patterson, who was executed in 2004, is one of the most compelling examples of what can happen when the mental health system fails to provide adequate care and in doing so, puts the public at risk. For more than two decades, Patterson struggled with paranoid schizophrenia. His severe delusions and elaborate conspiracy theories led him to commit several irrational and motiveless assaults. Yet instead of investing resources in a long-term treatment plan, the state of Texas largely left Patterson to his own devices, until one day his mental illness pushed him to the point of no return.

A Cycle of Illness, Violence, and Neglect

Kelsey Patterson spent much of the 1980s in and out of two state mental hospitals. His condition would be stabilized, but would deteriorate once he was removed from psychiatric care. According to a Houston Chronicle from 11 August 2002 (“Mentally Ill Killer’s Life on the Line”), when he stopped taking his medication, he would become belligerent. An earlier article in the same newspaper (“Is Mentally Ill Death Row Inmate Sane Enough to Die?”, Houston Chronicle, 14 November 1999) noted he was “left half-treated and unsupervised by the state for years despite a history of psychotically inspired, near-fatal assaults.”

Kelsey Patterson: Not all there.

In 1980, Patterson shot and wounded Richard Lane, a Dallas co-worker who he believed was conspiring against him and attempting to poison his food (it was Lane’s first day on the job). Lane survived and Patterson was sent to the maximum security unit at Rusk State Hospital, where he was found incompetent to stand trial and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Although restored to competency through treatment, doctors determined that he had been unable to conform his conduct to the law, a key provision of Texas’ insanity statute at the time. Prosecutors dismissed the charges, deeming him insane at the time of the crime.

In 1983, Patterson shot and wounded a co-worker in his hometown of Palestine in another motiveless, delusional assault. Again he spent months at Rusk State Hospital before being restored to competency. Once again he was found unable to conform his behavior to the law, and the attempted murder charge was dismissed.

Back in Dallas in 1986, he assaulted yet another co-worker and was sent to Terrell State Hospital. As with the previous incidents, no charges were filed because of his mental health status. He was hospitalized once more in 1988 after reportedly threatening family members and complaining that people were trying to poison him. That hospital stay lasted only 34 days.

Throughout this period, Patterson denied that he was mentally ill, would stop taking his medications, and refused to comply with treatment plans. His delusions continued to worsen, and he believed that everyone was out to get him, particularly “the authorities.” According to his brother, he sometimes would tape the edges of his windows and doors to determine if anyone had come in the room. He also heard voices talking to him through the walls and over the loudspeakers during his time in jail.

On September 25, 1992, just days after his brother once again tried to have him committed to a psychiatric facility, Patterson walked a short distance from his home to a local oil supply business in Palestine, where he shot and killed both the owner, Louis Oates, and his secretary, Dorothy Kay Harris, at whom he screamed “You ain’t going to get away with it.” After the shooting, he put down the gun, stripped to his socks, and paced, shouting incomprehensibly until the police arrived. As with his previous assaults, there seemed to be no real motive or explanation for the crime – Patterson had only a casual acquaintance with the victims. Yet in this instance, the state not only decided to pursue charges but also to seek the death penalty, arguing that Patterson met the new legal standard of sanity, which merely required the defendant to know that his conduct was wrong. The ability to conform one’s conduct to the law was no longer part of the insanity defense in Texas. By all accounts, however, Patterson’s delusional beliefs were the same as always.

Excerpt from a 13-page letter from Kelsey Patterson to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. (Image owned by author.)


Patterson’s Competency Hearing and Capital Trial

At his competency hearing, two physicians did not dispute his mental illness but declared Patterson to be competent to stand trial. Dr. James Grigson – who had diagnosed Patterson with schizophrenia 12 years earlier – reversed course and testified that in this latest assault, Patterson had been sane at the time of the crime. He had spoken with Patterson for less than five minutes and had not conducted a comprehensive evaluation, yet was absolutely confident in his assessment.*

Against the advice of his attorneys, Patterson took the witness stand during the hearing and rambled about the conspiracies against him. He offered this explanation for his behavior:

They have some type of implant devices that they used on me in the military, which I receive. Like the device that they put in the inner ear in which they can send subliminal message and make a person act beyond their controllability to know you have taken an action.”

The jury found him competent to stand trial, in spite of the clear evidence that he did not possess a rational or factual understanding of the proceedings against him and was unable to consult with his attorneys, whom he believed were plotting against him. Patterson was constantly removed from the courtroom during his trial because of his disruptive behavior and outbursts about the devices implanted in his body. The jury rejected his insanity defense, found him guilty of capital murder, and sentenced him to death.

A Permanent Stay of Execution

During his time on death row, Patterson consistently maintained that he was the victim of an elaborate conspiracy, and he wrote rambling, incoherent letters to court officials, his family, politicians, and others. He refused to meet with mental health professionals or his lawyers, which made it impossible to formally assess his competence. Both state and federal courts upheld his conviction and found him competent to be executed. In November 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal and the state set his execution for the following May.

Upon learning of his execution date, Patterson’s letters referred to a “permanent stay of execution” that he said he had received on grounds of innocence. Competency for execution requires an inmate to be aware of the impending execution and the reason for it.

On May 17, 2004, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles issued an extremely rare recommendation of clemency for Kelsey Patterson because of his mental illness; the vote was 5-1 and was only the second such recommendation in the board’s history. Governor Rick Perry rejected the recommendation, however, “in the interests of justice and public safety.” Kelsey Patterson was executed on May 18, 2004, delusional until the very end, as evidenced by his incoherent last statement:

Statement to what? State what? I am not guilty of the charge of capital murder. Steal me and my family’s money. My truth will always be my truth. There is no kin and no friend; no fear what you do to me. No kin to you undertaker. Murderer. … Get my money. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my life back.

For more information on death penalty cases involving mental illness, go to or visit

* Dr. Grigson was known as “Dr. Death” because his testimony was instrumental in sending so many people to death row. He later was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians because of his unethical, unscientific testimony in such cases.

Kristin Houle is a 2007 Soros Justice Fellow based in Austin, Texas.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Famous Last Words,Guest Writers,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Texas,USA

1955: Leslie George Hylton, a better bowler than liar

1 comment May 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1955, Test cricketer Leslie George Hylton was hanged in Spanish Town, Jamaica, for murdering his wife.

Hylton represented the West Indies in six grueling Test cricket matches in the 1930’s. (Career statistics.)

And apparently he had a thing about adultery, because when he found out his wife was having an affair, he shot her dead. Trying to shoot himself, he told John Law, but his alibi was even worse than his aim: she’d been shot seven times, meaning the fast bowler had reloaded.

Hylton is the only Test cricketer known to have suffered the death penalty. Fans took his death in stride:

Australia were touring the West Indies, and when the Jamaican opener JK Holt followed a run of low scores by dropping two catches in the Test at Bridgetown, a play card urged “Save Hylton, hang Holt.”

Cricket officialdom, though, kept such a stiff upper lip that Hylton’s obituary in its leading publication managed not to mention that his passing had involved a noose.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,Jamaica,Murder


1569: Dirk Willems, for loving his enemy

5 comments May 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1569, Dirk Willems paid the penalty for a famous act of charity.

Willems was condemned by the still-ascendant Catholic church as an Anabaptist, but escaped prison.

Fleeing a pursuer across a frozen pond, Willems had an opportunity to make good his escape when his persecutor crashed through the ice. But he turned back to save the drowning man:

One good turn did not deserve another: the man arrested Willems, and the compassionate Protestant found himself burned to death* this day at Asperen.

Hundreds of Anabaptists suffered similar fates, many of them registered in the Martyrs Mirror (available online here). But Dirk Willems’ story has always been one of the most affecting and popular with the Mennonite communities who trace their lineage to the Anabaptists:

[W]hen he fled he was hotly pursued by a thief-catcher, and as there had been some frost, said Dirk Willems ran before over the ice, getting across with considerable peril. The thief-catcher following him broke through, when Dirk Willems, perceiving that the former was in danger of his life, quickly returned and aided him in getting out, and thus saved his life. The thiefcatcher wanted to let him go, but the burgomaster, very sternly called to him to consider his oath, and thus he was again seized by the thief-catcher, and, at said place, after severe imprisonment and great trials proceeding from the deceitful papists, put to death at a lingering fire by these bloodthirsty, ravening wolves, enduring it with great steadfastness, and confirming the genuine faith of the truth with his death and blood, as an instructive example to all pious Christians of this time, and to the everlasting disgrace of the tyrannous papists.

(Bygones, tyrannous papists: last year, a Mennonite delegation to the Vatican gave Pope Benedict XVI a framed picture of Willems saving his romish persecutor.)

Few are the faiths that lack a martyrology, but notwithstanding the incendiary language of our 17th-century source, the place of martyrs (“Dirk Willems warns Mennonites not to expect to be rewarded for good works — a sharp contradiction to the American gospel of success”) and the right way to commemorate them without stoking confessional hostility occupy unusually nuanced places in Mennonite thought.

* The burning came off badly, the Martyrs Mirror records:

[A] strong east wind blowing that day, the kindled fire was much driven away from the upper part of his body, as he stood at the stake; in consequence of which this good man suffered a lingering death, insomuch that in the town of Leerdam, towards which the wind was blowing, he was heard to exclaim over seventy times, “O my Lord; my God,” etc., for which cause the judge or bailiff, who was present on horseback, filled with sorrow and regret at the man’s sufferings, wheeled about his horse, turning his back toward the place of execution, and said to the executioner, “Dispatch the man with a quick death.” But how or in what manner the executioner then dealt with this pious witness of Jesus, I have not been able to learn, except only, that his life was consumed by the fire.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Botched Executions,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Escapes,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Netherlands,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Spain

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1916: Jesse Washington lynched after conviction

95 comments May 15th, 2008 dogboy

Lynching is such a vile word. Likely taken from the name of Captain William Lynch of Virginia (circa 1780), the term for administering justice while dispensing with a trial had, by 1916, long since taken on its more common meaning of a white-on-black public killing.

But Jesse Washington‘s case defies this simple definition, straddling the line between state execution and an unrestrained populace. Washington’s brutal lynching at the hands of a white mob in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916, clearly fits the definition, and the particularly grisly details of his demise conjure all-too-familiar images of violent racism in the pre-Civil Rights South; but in another more disturbing way, Washington was effectively executed, his punishment carried out not by the state of Texas, but by the people themselves.

Jesse Washington’s charred corpse after the lynching.

Washington was born in 1899, a black farmhand who may or may not have been mentally retarded.* While his life is not well-documented, his death most certainly is. Washington was arrested on May 8 of that year for the rape and murder of Lucy Fryer, the 53-year old wife of a well-to-do cotton farmer. Fryer was found bludgeoned to death. Washington was spared for a week by the Waco sheriff, who successfully took him into custody before a pre-trial mob got their hands on him; Washington was then sent to Dallas for holding to prevent a local incident. To appease the mob, he was transferred back to Waco and tried for the crime just one week later.

It’s unclear whether Washington was guilty — evidence is scant and the trial lasted just one hour, but Washington appears to have had ample opportunity to perpetrate the act and is purported to have confessed — but his guilt or innocence in the matter was not on the mob’s mind. On May 15, the well-attended trial ended, and in four minutes, the jury reached its guilty verdict. Before the 17-year old could be sentenced, and with little or no resistance offered by any of the various legal entities in the courthouse, several hundred of the onlookers (some brandishing weapons) rushed Washington and carried him out the doors. Outside, a larger crowd waited to beat and castrate him. A chain was thrown around Washington’s neck, and he was dragged to the town square, where he met an immense crowd as well as the pile of dry goods boxes that was to be his end.

A Fred Gildersleeve image of the lynching of Jesse Washington.

By some estimates, up to 15,000 (mostly white, though not exclusively white) people watched the horrible events unfold; without question, Waco’s mayor as well as several other public officials watched from their second-story perch at town hall on one side of the square. Washington was tossed onto the boxes and coal oil was poured over him. The other end of the chain was thrown over what has become known as the Hanging Tree, and the fuel below Washington’s feet was set ablaze. Immersed in the flames, he attempted to climb the blisteringly hot chain multiple times, each time to be lowered back into the cauldron. It’s unclear how long Washington was alive, but the event lasted more than an hour, after which his fingers and teeth were claimed as souvenirs, his body parts were separated from the torso, and the remains of Washington were dumped in a bag so they might be dragged once more through the Waco streets.

Also watching from the mayor’s position was a cameraman who wanted to sell photographs of Washington’s charred corpse as postcards. Fred Gildersleeve snapped a series of images which would briefly make Waco the most shamefully famous city in the nation. Gildersleeve’s work paints a portrait of a town possessed by spite and uncontrolled rage: thousands of white spectators standing about the burning body of Washington from above, then hundreds of blacks gathered around his burned and brutalized remains from ground level. Others took pictures as well,
some more disturbing than others.

A complete and startlingly brutal account of this murder is given by Patricia Bernstein in her 2005 book The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP, which also tracks the increased viability of the NAACP in the wake of the slaying. What makes this case noteworthy for this column, though, is that Washington was found guilty prior to his lynching, and he would doubtless have received a state-supported death sentence. At the time, Texas law would have allowed for a public hanging; presumably, the spectacle surrounding Washington’s execution would have been just as significant (though not nearly as gruesome). Instead, vigilante justice was administered on the young farmhand, and his case because a linchpin for the Civil Rights movement. As with other lynchings of the time, no persons were charged in the incident, though it was obvious that there was significant planning involved and, from some of the images, that some form of self-appointed executioner actively participated in the deed.

Unlike a state-sponsored execution, though, Washington’s death raised the ire of the jury foreman, who harshly criticized the court for not protecting him. And because he was lynched, his cause was also taken up by several Northern papers, pushed into the national spotlight by NAACP secretary Royal Freeman Nash and Elisabeth Freeman.** Over 90 years later, the town of Waco is still dealing with the Waco Horror. The lynching has reared its head multiple times as many residents have pushed for a plaque to be erected on the site of the lynching, as one was for a distressingly large number of prior lynchings in Waco. Some in the town continue to resist, asserting that Washington’s guilt absolved the mob of responsibility for its act.

A postcard commemorating the lynching; written on the back: “This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe [Myers].”

Washington’s case raises two of the critical issues in the modern death penalty debate: culpability of the executioner (and witnesses), and cruelty of punishment. Nobody in the mob was prosecuted for the crime, and in the Waco of that day, it would have been unusual if someone had; today, we take little interest in the state executioner but would vociferously condemn such mob action. On a similar note, Washington’s death was barbaric and brutal, and few would argue that such an execution should be undertaken through legal channels, but recent Supreme Court cases have found it difficult to identify the meaning of “cruel and unusual punishment”. The debate continues in the United States, but these are two arguments, posed by Cesare Beccaria, that caused Leopold II to outlaw capital punishment in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1789, and cases like Washington’s suggest they should continue at the very least to give us pause today.

* Some accounts state simply that he was illiterate, and if this is the litmus test for mental retardation in the early 1900s, around 6 percent of the population fell into that category.

** Freeman worked tirelessly to drag information from Waco’s inhabitants, her actions likely sparking papers like the local Waco Times-Herald to quickly shut the door on the case; that paper officially apologized 90 years later for its and other newspapers’ roles in venerating the lynch mob.

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1941: Maurice Bavaud, who couldn’t get a shot off

3 comments May 14th, 2008 Headsman

Early this morning in 1941, a Swiss theology student had his head cut off at Berlin’s Plotzensee Prison for plotting to kill Adolph Hitler.

Maurice Bavaud, 25 at his execution, cuts one of the more quixotic (the link is French) of the many figures who schemed Hitler’s death — and also one of the more affecting, for at this early date he might have spared Europe most of the great war’s horror.

But Bavaud was also, fundamentally, a poor assassin.

Apparently motivated by pique at Germany’s repression of Catholicism — he’s most commonly cast as a lone gunmen, although there are also theories that he was affiliated with a wider network of students — Bavaud slipped into Germany in 1938 and spent the ensuing weeks knocking around Bavaria looking for a chance to do the thing.

That November, the chancellor turned up for the 15th anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch* … to which Bavaud secured VIP seating. The aspiring assassin had only a low-caliber pistol, but as the Fuhrer passed his vicinity, a copse of saluting arms from the spectators around him obstructed any chance to shoot. November 9, 1938 instead became famous for other reasons.

One can appreciate at this juncture the young man’s discouragement and desire to leave Germany. One can understand that, penniless, he felt obliged to sneak aboard a passenger train. But one will strain very hard to imagine why even the most desperate straits should impel a man to do either of these things while still carrying the incriminating pistol and notes revealing his plans. When he was nabbed for skipping the fare, his situation quickly became catastrophic, with the help of Gestapo torturers. (One can see, in Bavaud’s own hand, a 1940 letter to his family informing them of his sentence here.)

Switzerland essentially exerted no diplomatic effort on behalf of their subject, and this fact informed the Swiss courts which, years after the war, posthumously reduced Bavaud’s sentence. Germany eventually paid reparations to the family of the man who tried to off their head of state.

Update: Maurice Bavaud has been officially rehabilitated by Switzerland.

* He wasn’t even the best failed Hitler assassin in the Bürgerbräukeller that day.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Notable for their Victims,Posthumous Exonerations,Ripped from the Headlines,Switzerland,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1881: Not Billy the Kid

6 comments May 13th, 2008 Headsman

“You will be hanged by the neck, Billy, until you are dead, dead, dead!”

“You can go, Judge, to hell, hell, hell!”

We have no source for whether William Bonney’s reply to the judge who sentenced him to hang was vindicated by the Almighty. But the judge’s sentence, due to be executed this day, assuredly never came to pass: two weeks before, Billy the Kid effected the last of his famous escapes.

The exploits of this legendary gunfighter — and his legend rather exceeds his exploits — are exhaustively chronicled online. The Manhattan-born Kid, a pup of 21 at his death, was a gunfighter in the Lincoln County War, a fight between two frontier magnates. Billy counted himself among the Regulators, a deputized posse (so it claimed, by way of legality) that was the armed militia of a murdered rancher.

Billy’s winning way with the press after his capture helped endear him to popular imagination, even after he was condemned in Mesilla, New Mexico for ambushing a lawman.

Here’s how Emilio Estevez played the crime in Young Guns:

On April 28, in a building that still stands in Lincoln, New Mexico, Bonney got the drop on one of his guards and high-tailed it out of town.

Though spared the ignominy of the gallows, Billy the Kid would not long outlive his judicially appointed hour. Lincoln County sheriff Pat Garrett found and killed the fugitive a few months later.

Ironically, this transaction darkened the reputation of the successful officer of the law — the circumstances of the killing were ambiguous, and seem less than honorable to some — while helping valorize the young outlaw who by all rights should long since have been at the end of a rope. And for this, maybe Billy’s shade has stood Garrett’s a drink or two, because a shadowy and youthful disappearance from the scene helped catapult Billy into folklore that has long outlasted the forgotten Lincoln County War.

Billy the Kid — even the name evokes the American self-image with perfect pitch — has come to so fully embody the floating signifiers of the Wild West, of America in its adolescence, that around the same time Bob Dylan composed “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” for the clip above (the 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), Billy Joel took the gunslinger for an all-purpose western motif in “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”. Joel’s song’s describes a life that seems to be just what the listener thinks it ought to be while remaining factually untrue of its titular character in almost every particular, including, in his version, a picturesque death by hanging:

The ballad form of romanticized narrative poetry suits our elusive subject well. Skip music and cinema a generation ahead and we have Guns n’ Roses covering “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and power balladeer par excellence Jon Bon Jovi climbing the charts with this signature hit from the Young Guns II soundtrack:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Escapes,Famous,Gallows Humor,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,New Mexico,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,USA

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1916: James Connolly, socialist revolutionary

9 comments May 12th, 2008 Sem

On this date in 1916, James Connolly was tied to a chair and executed by firing squad along with Sean Mac Diarmada.

James Connolly: Irish revolutionary.

Connolly was born to Irish immigrant parents in Scotland. His first experience in his ancestral home of Ireland was during his stint in the British Army where, stationed in and around Cork, he had the opportunity to witness firsthand both the poor treatment of the native Irish by the British forces as well as the grave disparities between the landowning and peasant classes. When he returned home to Scotland, he fell in with the socialist crowd and quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the movement’s leaders. He actively participated in socialist organizations in several countries and joined the ranks of the Industrial Workers of the World.

A variety of circumstances brought him back to Ireland, where he led Irish socialists in seeking rights for the working class, joining the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1912. He went on to head the union two years later when the General Secretary, “Big” Jim Larkin, left for a speaking tour. In this capacity, he found a crowd for his increasingly open talks of revolution. Frustrated by what he saw as the unwillingness of the bourgeois Irish Volunteers, Connolly spoke persistently about sacrificing his own life in the name of economic freedom for Ireland, starting The Workers’ Republic journal, then printing his treatise The Re-Conquest of Ireland in 1915. Connolly headed just one revolutionary faction in Ireland at the time. Not wishing to have their festivities spoiled by Connolly, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, another revolutionary paramilitary group, decided to invite him to their Easter party.

The General Post Office in Dublin after the uprising.

The Easter Rising, which had little support from the Irish public at the time, began on April 24, 1916. Connolly led the Dublin Brigrade, which held the Dublin General Post Office, and so was in essence a sort of Commander-in-Chief during the uprising. Six days later, the Easter Rising came to a close with a surrender to British troops; its leaders, who had issued a proclamation of Irish freedom, were quickly sentenced to death by firing squad in the courtyard of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.

Injured during the fighting, Connolly had only been given a few more days to live by the doctors that attended him at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. Unable to stand on his own due to his injuries, he was tied to a chair in order to face the firing squad.

The rapidity and brutality of the executions shocked the Irish public and the conditions of Connolly’s death were most shocking of all. After the executions, the corpses of the 15 put to death (killed between May 3 and May 12) were placed into an unmarked mass grave. The Irish people, previously largely indifferent to the republican rantings of the revolutionaries, angrily regarded British action against the leaders of the Easter Rising, granting legitimacy to the rebellion.

The death of Connolly and the other leaders of the six-day siege presaged the final revolution that led to a free Irish state. Two of Connolly’s cohorts in the Easter campaign were Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins; within a half dozen years, the two* expanded revolutionary tactics through Sinn Fein that forced the British to the bargaining table, meetings that would give rise to the bitterly partitioned Ireland of today. Connolly is still regarded as one of the greatest Britons, though he spent his life fighting the British, and the Irish have celebrated his memory through several songs.

* While de Valera and Collins were regarded as the primary players in Irish statehood, the Easter Rising included dozens of revolutionaries who would spend their lives fighting for Irish independence.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Freethinkers,Guest Writers,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Politicians,Popular Culture,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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