Archive for July, 2008

1726: William Fly, unrepentant pirate

July 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1726, an obscure boatswain who had mutinied for the liberty of piracy succumbed but did not submit on the gallows in Boston.

Fly overthrew (figuratively and literally — they both ended up in the drink) a tyrannous captain and first mate on a British slave ship in May, reconstituting it Fame’s Revenge, and in a northward journey from North Carolina to New England captured a few less-than-lucrative ships in a month and change.

A minor character in the annals of seaborne pillage. So why should historian Marcus Rediker devote the opening chapter to his Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (review) to this man?

[T]he early-eighteenth-century pirate ship was a world turned upside down, made so by the articles of agreement that established the rules and customs of the pirates’ alternative social order. Pirates “distributed justice,” elected their officers, divided their loot equally, and established a different discipline. They limited the authority of the captain, resisted many of the practices of capitalist merchant shipping industry, and maintained a multicultural, multiracial, and multinational social order. They demonstrated quite clearly — and subversively — that ships did not have to be run in the brutal and oppressive ways of the merchant service and the Royal Navy.

Rediker’s sympathetic but unromantic work treats the radical, doomed sphere of resistance pirates offered to the enormous cruelty of the developing Atlantic economy: grinding exploitation of white sailors in the service of the black slave trade under the iron hand of the empire (British, in this case, but hardly exclusive to Old Blighty.)

It bears the trace of Hakim Bey‘s treatment of Temporary Autonomous Zones:

Fleeing from hideous “benefits” of Imperialism such as slavery, serfdom, racism and intolerance, from the tortures of impressment and the living death of the plantations, the Buccaneers adopted Indian ways, intermarried with Caribs, accepted blacks and Spaniards as equals, rejected all nationality, elected their captains democratically, and reverted to the “state of Nature.” Having declared themselves “at war with all the world,” they sailed forth to plunder under mutual contracts called “Articles” which were so egalitarian that every member received a full share and the Captain usually only 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 shares. Flogging and punishments were forbidden — quarrels were settled by vote or by the code duello.

Certainly many men (and women) turned to piracy for many different reasons. Rediker’s work on the systematic brutality in the guts of the imperial economy and the pressures of resistance and coercion they spawned finds an outstanding individual exponent in this day’s victim.

Fly walked indifferently to the gallows; to the astonishment of the spectators, he upbraided the hangman’s poor knot and remade with his own hands the instrument for his own neck — one last use of his seaman’s proficiency with ropes.

On Fly’s turn upon that fatal stage, he would not read from the classics — not cower before his executioners, not salute the majesty of the crown that hung him, not enjoin the mob to straighten up and sail right, and certainly not be cowed on the cusp of the eternal by officious colonial holy roller Cotton Mather’s vain personal bid to convert the corsair:

When the time came for last words on that awful occasion, Mather wanted Fly and his fellow pirates to act as preachers — that is, he wanted them to provide examples and warnings to those who were assembled to watch the execution. They all complied. Samuel Cole, Henry Greenville, and George Condick [three of Fly’s crew], perhaps hoping for a last-minute pardon, stood penitently before the crowd and warned all to obey their parents and superiors and not to curse, drink, whore, or profane the Lord’s day. These three pirates acknowledged the justice of the proceedings against them, and they thanked the ministers for their assistance. Fly, however, did not ask for forgiveness, did not praise the authorities, and did not affirm the values of Christianity, as he was supposed to do, but he did issue a warning. Addressing the port-city crowd thick with ship captains and sailors, he proclaimed his final, fondest wish: that “all Masters of Vessels might take Warning by the Fate of the Captain (meaning Captain Green) that he had murder’d, and to pay Sailors their Wages when due, and to treat them better; saying, that their Barbarity to them made so many turn Pyrates.” Fly thus used his last breath to protest the conditions of work at sea, what he called “Bad Usage.” He would be launched into eternity with the brash threat of mutiny on his lips.

“Bad Usage.” Rediker later defines it as “the violent disciplinary regime of the eighteenth-century deep-sea sailing ship, the ordinary and pervasive violence of labor discipline as practiced by the ship captain as he moved the commodities that were the lifeblood of the capitalist world economy.”

The resistance to a pattern of savage floggings, cheated wages, and the whole spectrum of rough and arbitrary authority on a shipboard dictatorship might be spontaneous and individual in the instant … but it was thick with the stuff of solidarity, and the fraternity of outlawry could make people equal across the boundaries of national rivalry and institutional racism — “Villains of all Nations,” as the title goes.

And the obdurate, like Fly, could every now and then move the pastors who were sent to thunder hellfire at them rather than the other way around.

As it happened, the “stupid” and “impenitent” pirate [Mather uses these words to describe Fly elsewhere] was able to convince the self-righteous minister of at least one primary cause of piracy. During his execution sermon, Mather made it a point to address the ship captains in the crowd, telling them in no uncertain terms that they must hereafter avoid being “too like the Devil in their Barbarous Usage of the Men that are under them and lay them under Tempations to do Desperate Things.”

After the hanging, William Fly’s body was gibbeted as a warning on Nixes Mate, a barely-there speck of an island at the mouth of Boston Harbor. For Rediker, this date marks the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.

Although the full book is worth the buy, a paper Rediker wrote on the subject prior the book’s publication is available free online.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Notable Participants,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,USA

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Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners

5 comments July 12th, 2008 Headsman

The human body can be a hardy creature, resistant to the best-calculated plans to kill it … and the ignominy of scaffold work has seen many an amateurish headsman trod the boards.

Between the two, we reap a cornucopia of botched executions that practically seem more normal than the “successful” ones.

A few data points to that effect in these next four executions over four different centuries: no mere miscalculated drop from the scaffold, but horrifically grim pratfalls to mock the solemnity of the proceedings and leave egg on the executioner’s face.

Still, if you think that’s bad, you should see the other guy.

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472: Anthemius, twilight emperor of Rome

1 comment July 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 472, one of the last “twilight emperors” of the western Roman Empire — and the last of any conspicuous ability — was beheaded by his rebellious general Ricimer.

Here in Rome’s dying days, the dangerous, centuries-old game for the purple was played with the twist of political triangulation with barbarian kings who had set up permanent shop within the old empire’s borders.

Maybe it was his closet paganism, or his Greek patrician breeding, or the way he slung his toga — whatever it was, Anthemius didn’t have the knack for winning them over.

Born and reared in Constantinople, Anthemius was being groomed for succession in the relatively less treacherous eastern empire when his royal patron (and father-in-law) suddenly got gangrene and died.

The Alan commander who held military power in the east wasn’t into Anthemius, so he got the Al Gore treatment and Leo I got the laurels. Interestingly, although barbarian tribes were establishing themselves as the power behind the throne — and this was even more true in the west — they were not yet prepared to assert the imperial majesty in their own names. That last feeble cultural bulwark, however, would not hold out much longer.

Leo “rewarded” Anthemius for taking it all in stride by appointing him emperor of the perilous west. (He also rewarded the kingmaking barbarian chieftain by having him murdered. “Leo the Butcher,” he’s called.)

That pissed off legendary Vandal king Genseric (or Gaiseric, or Geiseric), who had sacked Rome in 455 and settled into a long career lucratively plundering the Mediterranean. And with good reason: Leo’s idea was for the two emperors jump Genseric.

Now, before this time Leo had already appointed and sent Anthemius as emperor of the west, a man of the senate of great wealth and high birth, in order that he might assist him in the Vandalic war. And yet Gaiseric kept asking and earnestly entreating that the imperial power be given to Olybrius, who was married to Placidia, the daughter of Valentinian, and on account of his relationship well-disposed toward him, and when he failed in this he was still more angry and kept plundering the whole land of the emperor. (Procopius)

That war was a debacle and left Genseric merrily raiding Italy, but Anthemius’ real problem was domestic: his new realm had its own Germanic commander who also preferred to pick his own emperors, and he took an instant dislike to the foreign ponce. Anthemius and Ricimer managed a brief detente, during which the new guy tried to take Gaul back from the Visigoths (no dice), but the two fell to fighting in 472. After a brief siege, Ricimer overran Rome and set up in Anthemius’ place that Genseric-favored Olybrius (who would last all of 39 days).

Anthemius took refuge in one of Rome’s churches — either St. Peter’s or Santa Maria in Trastevere — where he was betrayed, and beheaded by (naturally) Ricimer’s Burgundian nephew.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Roman Empire,Summary Executions

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2007: Zheng Xiaoyu, former Director of the State Food and Drug Administration

11 comments July 10th, 2008 Headsman

One year ago today, China made to clean up its image — with public health advocates, if not with human rights advocates — by executing* its former Food and Drugs minister for economic crimes.

Zheng Xiaoyu, China’s drug regulation capo from 1994 to 2005 and only (“only”?) the fourth minister-level official to be put to death in China since the immediate aftermath of Mao Zedong’s reign, was sentenced for extracting bribes from pharmaceutical companies he nominally regulated in exchange for approving their worthless and/or unsafe products.

One bogus antibiotic he rubber-stamped killed ten in China before it was pulled from the market, but it was dangerous Chinese products exported abroad — including lethal pet food ingredients to the United States and a cough syrup that killed dozens in Panama — that lit a fire under the export-driven colossus. The court that rejected his appeal explicitly referenced Zheng’s danger to China’s international reputation — simultaneously shifting focus from structural weaknesses by individualizing them to Zheng’s personal failings.

Zheng Xiaoyu hears his death sentence.

On this same day it announced Zheng’s death, China anxiously unveiled plans to safeguard the food supply for its upcoming turn under the Olympic klieg lights. That acid test is now upon it: opening ceremonies are mere weeks away as of this writing.

It may have been a politically-driven execution and an unusually heavy sentence, but Zheng’s passing was exulted in China. Someone even tried to put his name on a rat poison — rejected for that most distinguished reason of modern capitalism, Zheng’s own intellectual property in his name.

For an interesting dive into the social and legal currents surrounding this case, check out this .pdf edition of Criminal Bar Quarterly.

* The method of execution was not announced, and to my knowledge has not been conclusively documented. Gunshot was the longtime standby for Chinese executions, but China has shifted heavily towards lethal injection in recent years; it’s generally assumed that Zheng suffered the latter fate.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Infamous,Lethal Injection,Notable Jurisprudence,Pelf,Politicians,Ripped from the Headlines,Scandal

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1850: The Bab, Prophet of Baha’i

3 comments July 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1850, a Persian merchant who claimed to be the Islamic messiah was shot in Tabriz for apostasy.

The Bab — the handle means “Gate”; he was born Siyyid `Alí Muhammad — started preaching as a young man in 1844 and attracted a following unwelcome to the orthodox Shi’a clergy and the powers that were.

The Bab would claim to be “that person you have been awaiting for one thousand years”: the Mahdi. And in a John the Baptist-like pose, he would also pledge to be preparing the way for another, “He whom God shall make manifest,” to follow his footsteps.

Authorities cracked down on this subversive faith and its heretical claim to have a divine messenger, hailing the Bab before a clerical tribunal that found him a blasphemer and an apostate. After dawdling a couple of years, the government finally ordered him shot … to which punishment a young disciplie submitted himself voluntarily as well.

Reputedly, the public execution by firing squad was quite a fiasco for the government, and/or a miracle for the Bab. It is said that the entire sizable regiment deployed to volley at the Bab and his devotee managed to miss everything, but to shoot through the rope that was holding the prophet suspended a few meters above the ground. In the Baha’i version, he miraculously disappears from the first execution attempt and is found later calmly conversing with a secretary in his prison cell, at which point he’s (successfully) executed a second time.

A less pious version of the story commencing from the same starting point of unmarksmanlike executioners has the Bab shot out of his rope and availing the smoke of the discharge to scramble out of the courtyard, only to be detained before he could make good an escape.

Inevitable disputes about the succession to this charismatic figure ensued his death, and several claimed to be the Bab’s Promised One. The main current of the tradition evolved into the Baha’i faith, accepting the claim of Baha’u’llah to this position. (A tiny remnant of Babism still persists who dispute Baha’u’llah’s legitimacy and still await the Promised One.)

July 9 is a major holiday for Baha’i, for whom the Bab is a revered figure.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Executions Survived,Famous,Famous Last Words,God,Heresy,History,Iran,Martyrs,Myths,Notably Survived By,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Shot,The Supernatural,Wrongful Executions

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1999: Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis, the end of the road for Old Sparky

56 comments July 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1999, America’s obesity epidemic met Florida’s death penalty politics in the ugly electrocution of Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis.

The reader will discern that Tiny earned his nickname ironically. Reportedly 159 kg (350 pounds) at his death, he’d put his ample heft to work bludgeoning a pregnant mother of two beyond recognition with a revolver handle back in 1982 … and then shooting to death the now-motherless two.

As his appeals meandered through the courts, Davis got fatter — and got high blood pressure, arthritis, hypertension and a wheelchair. Meanwhile, the death penalty was meandering its own way across the weird political chessboard of the Sunshine State.

For the American death penalty nowadays, it’s Texas and then everyone else … but time was that Florida was the capital of capital punishment.

It conducted the first “modern” involuntary execution in 1979. It had carried out three executions before anyone else had more than one. And when the the drip-drip-drip pace of one or two execution nationwide per year in the early 1980’s finally burst into a torrent, Florida led the way with eight of the 21 executions in 1984.

Not until late in 1986 did Texas overtake Florida in the body count sweepstakes.

All that time, Florida was happily using its vintage electric chair, Old Sparky (one of several electric chairs with that moniker), built in 1923 of 100% oak wood and prison labor. And the more the chair’s quasi-medieval ickiness drove other states to lethal injection, the more Floridians cherished electrocution.

Law-and-order Tampa mayor Bob Martinez won the governorship in 1986 on the promise that “Florida’s electric bill will go up.” There was a high-profile botch in 1990, and another in 1997 — flames shooting from the inmates’ heads. What was the state’s Attorney General going to do about it? “People who wish to commit murder, they’d better not do it in the state of Florida because we may have a problem with the electric chair.” Under pressure to move to lethal injection — the chair’s unsightly malfunctions were spawning legal and public relations nightmares that were gumming up the gears — the legislature voted nearly unanimously to keep Old Sparky.

And then along came a giant.

After three-quarters of a century and 266 jobs, Old Sparky was “falling apart” … and that was going to be a problem for a man of Davis’ carriage.

The killer’s lawyers argued that Davis was so fat he couldn’t conduct electricity efficiently and would be slowly cooked to death. According to Slate, Florida authorities were nervous that he’d break the chair during his electrocution and send a disconnected live cable scything into someone else in the room.

It was time for the unthinkable: Florida retired Old Sparky and built a new chair … and supersized it. (Image, from the Florida Department of Corrections)

And it worked, in that it killed Tiny. But what a mess — especially when an ensuing Florida Supreme Court opinion once again upheld the constitutionality of electrocution, and a dissenting judge attached the photos on this page to his opinions. Naturally, they became a grisly Internet sensation.

Old Sparky’s custom-built successor would only manage this single execution before Florida finally got on the lethal injection bandgurney.

Or at least, it’s only managed one so far. Old electric chairs don’t die, they just fade away … and in Florida, Tiny Davis’s chair remains available for condemned prisoners who choose it. Since this date in 1999, none have.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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1865: Four for Abraham Lincoln’s assassination

July 7th, 2008 Headsman

On a sweltering July 7, 1865, a mere 12 weeks after Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater, four of his assassin’s accomplices were hanged in the courtyard of the District of Columbia’s Washington Arsenal — present-day Fort McNair, and specifically its tennis courts.

Booth, on the far left, playing Marc Antony in Julius Caesar opposite his brothers. He had Brutus’ example in mind, as he wrote in his diary while on the run: “with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.”

The exact nature of the conspiracy against the man who had seen the North to victory in the Civil War has been debated ever since actor John Wilkes Booth lodged a ball from his one-shot Derringer behind Honest Abe’s ear. But it was a conspiracy — an astoundingly bold one.

Simultaneous with Booth’s successful attack upon Lincoln, there was an unsuccessful attempt to kill Secretary of State William Seward; it would emerge in the investigation that another man had been detailed to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson, but got drunk and chickened out. The apparent upshot: with the President and Vice President dead, new national elections would be required to replace the Senator who would become acting president — and with the Secretary of State dead too, there’d be nobody to implement them. Booth was trying to paralyze the North with its own constitutional machinery in some desperate hope of reviving the defeated South.

Ten Against D.C.

Hundreds were detained in the stunning assassination’s immediate aftermath, but ten would ultimately be the federals’ targets. A massive manhunt pursued Booth through southern Maryland and into Virginia, where he was killed in a shootout. John Surratt, who had conspired with Booth in an earlier plot to kidnap the president — that failed plot had been reconfigured into the assassination — escaped from the country.

The other eight were rounded up and stashed at the Arsenal to face a military tribunal. It was a highly controversial arrangement: the war had entered a gray area — Robert E. Lee’s surrender just days before the murder had effectively ended the war, but when the trial opened in May Confederate President Jefferson Davis was still at large, and the last Southern general wouldn’t lay down his arms until late June. The District of Columbia was still technically under martial law … so would it do to use a military court?

Military Tribunal

So the government asked itself: government, would you rather have looser evidentiary rules and a lower bar of conviction than you would have in civil court? The government duly produced for the government an opinion that the military characteristic of the assassination — that is, to help whatever southern war effort still obtained — licensed the government to use the military courts.

That didn’t sit well with everyone. One former Attorney General griped:

If the offenders are done to death by that tribunal, however truly guilty, they will pass for martyrs with half the world.

Indeed, a year later, the Supreme Court’s landmark ex parte Milligan ruling would forbid the use of military courts where civilian courts are open — which they were in Washington, D.C.

That, of course, was too late to help Booth’s comrades. It would be a military trial, with a majority vote needed for conviction and no right of appeal but to the president for the most infamous crime of the Republic. Everyone had a pretty good idea what the results would be.

A cartoon depicting the defendants as Gallow's (sic) Birds.

Rogues’ Gallery

Two of the four today were doomed from the outset under any juridical arrangement imaginable: Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Paine or Lewis Payne) had made the attempt on Secretary of State Seward; David Herold had guided him there with the getaway horse, and later escaped along with Booth. They were in way past their eyeballs. George Atzerodt, the schmo who couldn’t rise to the occasion of popping Andrew Johnson, looks a bit more peripheral from the distance of a century and a half, but in the weeks following the assassination he was much too close to the action to have any hope. All received death sentences.

Two others — Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Arnold — had been involved in Booth’s earlier scheme to kidnap the president, but didn’t seem to have much to do with the murder. Still another two — Ned Spangler and Dr. Samuel Mudd* — were lesser participants. They all received long prison sentences for their pains, and the three of them still surviving were pardoned by Andrew Johnson as he left the presidency in 1869.

That left Mary Surratt, mother of the fugitive John and the only woman in the dock, the focus of attention and controversy. The 42-year-old widow owned a downtown boardinghouse, plus a tavern of sufficient importance at a Prince George’s County, Maryland, crossroads, that its community was called Surrattsville.**

The conspirators met frequently in her lodgings; Surratt maintained her innocence beyond that, but evidence and witness testimony began to pile up heavily against her … especially when Seward assailant Lewis Powell wandered into her place looking for refuge right while the police were questioning her. Booth and Herold turned out to have made a pit stop at her Surrattsville tavern to pick up a package of guns that Mary had prepared for them.

Though Surratt’s avowal of ignorance was not widely believed, a gesture of presidential mercy was anticipated — many thought (and think) she went on trial as a virtual hostage for her absconded son, who declined to take the bait. Strangely, five members of the nine-judge panel who condemned Mary Surratt turned around and asked President Johnson for clemency. Johnson claimed never to have seen the memo, but his mind seemed pretty made up — when Surratt won a habeas corpus stay on the morning of her scheduled hanging, he promptly “specially-suspended” the writ specifically to hang her:

I, Andrew Johnson, President of the United States do hereby declare that the writ of habeas corpus had been heretofore suspended in such cases as this; and I do hereby specially-suspend this writ, and direct that you proceed to execute the order heretofore given upon the judgment of the Military Commission.

Harsh treatment, and possibly well-deserved, for the first woman executed by the U.S. government. Even so, it does seem a curious thing when all is said and done that the mother of “the nest that hatched the egg” was worth a special suspension of the Great Writ, and even the stagehand who just held Booth’s horse for him caught six years, but old Jeff Davis — who apart from having figureheaded a treasonous four-year insurrection was implicated for giving Booth’s kidnapping plot official Confederate sanction — got to retire to write his memoirs.

Fine pages on the Lincoln assassination are here, here and here. There are also contemporary newspaper accounts posted online as filed for The Boston Post and The New York Herald.

The Surratt houses, by the way, are still standing. The Maryland tavern is kept as the Surratt House Museum by the Surratt Society. The downtown boarding house is a Chinese restaurant … marked with a plaque remembering more momentous doings than bubble tea.

The Chinatown restaurant where Mary Surratt had her boarding house ...

... as marked by plaque ...

... and how it looked back then.

* The panel voted 5-4 to hang Mudd, a Maryland doctor who not only set the leg Booth broke when he leaped onto the stage after shooting Lincoln, but then misdirected Booth’s pursuers. However, the rules for the trial said a two-thirds majority was required for execution.

** They changed the name after the unpleasantness. Today, it’s Clinton, Maryland.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Infamous,Maryland,Milestones,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notably Survived By,Popular Culture,Power,Scandal,Separatists,Treason,U.S. Federal,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions,Washington DC,Women

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1535: Thomas More, the king’s good servant but God’s first

16 comments July 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1535, Sir — later Saint — Thomas More kept his conscience at the expense of his head on Tower Hill.

For all More‘s greatness — as intellectual, polemicist, lawyer, statesman, father — none of his many gifts at the end could avail him beside his commitment to Catholicism at the dawn of the English Reformation.

Yet it is for those gifts that he cut such a commanding presence in his times, for those very reasons that his sovereign hounded his first citizen to assent to the divorce and remarriage he was fixed upon.

A devotee and friend of Erasmus from years before, More was in Henry’s more orthodox youth the king’s very scourge of Protestantism. His scatological invective against Martin Luther in Responsio ad Lutherum — much in the impolite tenor of Catholic-Protestant rhetoric continent-wide, it should be noted — is of the sort to crimson the cheeks of the milquetoast modern:

Since he has written that he already has a prior right to bespatter and besmirch the royal crown with shit, will we not have the posterior right to proclaim the beshitted tongue of this practitioner of posterioristics most fit to lick with his anterior the very posterior of a pissing she-mule until he shall have learned more correctly to infer posterior conclusions from prior premises?

Over that hairshirt, he wore the robes of state. But his engagement with the world had a selective bent that must have exasperated his colleague and predecessor as Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. Orson Welles and Paul Scofield spar here in the definitive More hagiography A Man for All Seasons over the intellectual’s delicate refusal to dirty his gloves with the great matter of state before them — the annulment the king demanded of his marriage to the Queen (and More’s friend) Catherine of Aragon:

Peas in a pod, these two: Wolsey, the cleric grounded in realpolitik; More, the barrister who trusts to God. (More considered holy orders as a young man.)

Our man’s reputation for honesty in a den of hypocrites has certainly outrun Wolsey’s. Still, all More’s disdain for the deal-making that invests the sovereign majesty and all his foreboding for the relationship he had with his dangerous king were not quite enough to stop him accepting the Chancellorship and the opportunity to stamp out Lutheranism … knowing perfectly well the simultaneous thrust of Henry’s boudoir policy.

It all cuts quite a contrast to More’s (barely) pre-Reformation text, Utopia (available free from Project Gutenberg), which named a literary genre and described an imagined society of tolerant primitive communism that surely would have blanched at its inventor’s coming role in the state’s machinations:

I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that they have so ill-acquired, and then, that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please

[E]very man might be of what religion he pleased, and might endeavour to draw others to it by the force of argument and by amicable and modest ways, but without bitterness against those of other opinions; but that he ought to use no other force but that of persuasion, and was neither to mix with it reproaches nor violence* …

It’s not a given that More himself agrees with every (or even any) sentiment expressed in Utopia, but his most famous work’s criticism of the death penalty too liberally applied makes interesting reading.

[E]xtreme justice is an extreme injury: for we ought not to approve of those terrible laws that make the smallest offences capital … God has commanded us not to kill, and shall we kill so easily for a little money [i.e., execute petty thieves]? But if one shall say, that by that law we are only forbid to kill any except when the laws of the land allow of it, upon the same grounds, laws may be made, in some cases, to allow of adultery and perjury: for God having taken from us the right of disposing either of our own or of other people’s lives, if it is pretended that the mutual consent of men in making laws can authorise man-slaughter in cases in which God has given us no example, that it frees people from the obligation of the divine law, and so makes murder a lawful action, what is this, but to give a preference to human laws before the divine? and, if this is once admitted, by the same rule men may, in all other things, put what restrictions they please upon the laws of God.

This insistence on the supremacy of divine law over human institutions forms the basis of his objection to parliament’s overthrowing the papacy — which he expressed openly only after he was convicted by obviously perjured “jailhouse snitch” testimony

[Y]ou have no authority, without the common consent of all Christians, to make a law or Act of Parliament or Council against the union of Christendom.

Paul Scofield bears enjoying in the role in A Man for All Seasons:

More is sometimes suspected of desiring martyrdom since he marched so unerringly into it, but he also made every attempt to survive Henry’s demand the he affirm the royal remarriage and the king’s ecclesiastical supremacy by withdrawing silently from the public sphere rather than openly opposing it. More had by every account an enviable, downright happy life at his own hearth, and a tender and intellectual relationship with his favorite daughter Meg. (Meg corresponded with her father in prison, collected his works, and retrieved his head from London Bridge.)

But by his way of thinking — Meg tried to talk him out of it — he couldn’t swear to the Act of Succession acknowledging the king’s right to divorce Queen Catherine and disinherit her daughter Mary if Henry decided to force the choice. And in the king’s eyes, there was no middle ground for someone of the ex-Chancellor’s stature.

Henry could see to it, though, to cut his old friend a break and commute the sentence from drawing and quartering to “mere” beheading, here depicted in the past season of the Showtime series The Tudors.

More’s last moments as rendered here — the ironic remark at the foot of the scaffold, “See me safe up: for my coming down, I can shift for myself”;** his generous answer to the headsman’s plea for forgiveness — are well-documented. Undoubtedly, his sturdy martyr’s bearing, the extension of a life of joyful piety, helped cement for posterity the fame he held in life.

And that dying address — “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first” — gathers in one sentiment free of bombast or self-pity the irreconcilable demands of conscience that would lead many thousands besides More to Henry VIII’s scaffolds, and rings equally true to less lethal challenges to the conscience in every land and time since.

Anne Boleyn, who caused More’s fate, shared it less than a year afterwards.

Thomas More was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1935 — the patron saint of politicians. Rather bizarrely, July 6 is also his feast day on the Anglican calendar, a tribute to the nearly universal regard his memory enjoys.

Thomas More's statue at the Chelsea Old Church

Chelsea resident Thomas More’s statue at the (Anglican) Chelsea Old Church.

* Despite its religious tolerance, More’s Utopia — anticipating Dostoyevsky — maintains:

a solemn and severe law against such as should so far degenerate from the dignity of human nature, as to think that our souls died with our bodies, or that the world was governed by chance, without a wise overruling Providence … since a man of such principles must needs, as oft as he dares do it, despise all their laws and customs: for there is no doubt to be made, that a man who is afraid of nothing but the law, and apprehends nothing after death, will not scruple to break through all the laws of his country, either by fraud or force, when by this means he may satisfy his appetites.

** According to the biography published by More’s son-in-law — who married More’s favorite, Margaret — the jest was occasioned by the rickety look of the scaffold. The Mirrour of Vertue in Worldly Greatness; Or, The Life of Sir Thomas More is available free on Google Books.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,God,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Rape,Religious Figures,The Worm Turns,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1947: Ding Mocun, not as hot a lay in real life

Add comment July 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Ding Mocun was shot for “conspiring with a foreign government to overthrow China” in Shanghai by the Kuomintang.

This former Communist turned right-wing radical may be most readily recognizable outside China as the real-life inspiration behind Ang Lee’s steamy 2007 art-house menace to undergarments Lust, Caution.

Based on a story by Eileen Chang (or Zhang Ailing), Lust, Caution fictionalizes Mocun’s real-life escape from an attempted assassination in 1939.

That incident was authored by Ding’s young plaything, who turned out to have a very serious side indeed. (Ding had her shot.)

While the attempt on the turncoat spy’s life really happened, there’s some dispute over whether Chang really had this particular woman strongly in mind over the twenty-plus years she composed her story. There’s more about the evolution of the fictional story here, but you’ll need Chinese skills to follow the links to Chang’s evolving text.

At any rate, Ding’s actual death would come by order of a more august character: Chiang Kai-shek.

Why so many people out to get him?

Despite his nationalist credentials, when Ding lost a party struggle in 1938, he found a gig with the collaborationist government of Japanese-occupied China running a nasty intelligence unit that made nationalists and Communists disappear. That’s the sort of resume anyone would be touching up come the mid-1940’s, and Ding went with a revision (not widely credited, though it has its advocates) that he was secretly passing information to the nationalist resistance all along. And as the nationalists and Communists turned on one another in the postwar power vacuum, it looked like his usefulness to the Kuomintang might get him off the hook after all.

It worked for a while, but Chiang — or so goes the story — caught a tabloid expose about Ding catching R&R at a lake when he’d used a medical pass to get out of prison, and impulsively ordered him shot.

Perhaps Ding’s status as official evildoer vis-a-vis a China whose messy birth many are old enough to remember helps account for the resonance of literary works that engage him as a human being. In a nonfiction vein, Konrad Lawson’s layered critique of the pro-Ding apologia linked above thoughtfully evokes the complexity of Ding’s era and the challenges it poses for historiography.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Japan,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Treason

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1946: Eleven from the Stutthof concentration camp

15 comments July 4th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1946, officials of Soviet-occupied Poland publicly hanged eleven convicted war criminals of the Stutthof concentration camp.

Set up immediately upon Germany’s September 1, 1939 invasion of Poland and not liberated until after official German capitulation in 1945, Stutthoff handled over 100,000 prisoners during its long service.

This day’s condemned — camp commandant Johann Pauls, five male kapos, and five female guards — were the product of the first of four Stutthof trials held in 1946-1947. At a hill in Gdansk known as Biskupia Gorka (Bishop Hill), upon a specially-erected row of four T-shaped double gallows centered around a pi-shaped triple gallows, and before a crowd of thousands, the doomed eleven were noosed on the back of military trucks which then drove away to leave them strangling to death with a “short drop” hanging.

The following gut-twisting images are among a number to be found here.

Above: on one end of the gallows row, the truck has just pulled away from Jenny Wanda Barkmann — a modish Hamburg lass in her mid-20’s known to Stutthof prisoners as “the Beautiful Specter” for her cruelty. Down the row, one can see that some of the prisoners are already swinging, while others have not yet been dropped.

Upon hearing her sentence, Jenny Barkmann retorted, “Life is indeed a pleasure, and pleasures are usually short.” (More about Barkmann, including trial photos, here.) In this closer view of her, just as in the first photo, she is still alive and struggling. Next to her, Ewa Paradies, another guard, is prepared for the same fate.

The central triple gallows. Commandant Johann Pauls hangs in the middle with Gerda Steinhoff — one of the senior female guards — in the foreground. The line of five male kapos recedes behind them into the enormous crowd of onlookers.

There’s more about Stutthof’s history at the Holocaust Research Project, and at the current memorial facility’s home page.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Mature Content,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Public Executions,Russia,USSR,War Crimes,Women

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