On this date in 1593, a would-be assassin of France’s King Henri IV was broken on the wheel.
An Orleans boatman turned Catholic League soldier in France’s internecine Catholic-Huguenot wars, he was among the numerous Catholics who looked askance at victorious Huguenot Henri IV‘s expeditious conversion to Catholicism.
In the months while Henri IV still held Paris under siege, the Jesuit father Jacques Commolet had called for his assassination from the pulpit. The Bourbon’s (nominal) switch to Catholicism with the words “Paris is worth a mass” had not persuaded hard-core Catholic partisans of the king’s sincerity.
Henri was a practical guy. And with civil slaughter afoot for most of the late 16th century, he took a dim view to loose talk about assassinations, especially his.
The safety of the king’s person was a paramount consideration of magistrates during this period. Thirty years of political assassinations during which the rule of law proved largely ineffective in bringing the guilty to justice had ultimately left a fundamental law of France, the inviolability of the king’s person, subverted. Magistrates … focused their attention on re-establishing the enforcement of this law …
Pierre Barriere was nabbed for planning to subvert that inviolability — arrested August 27, tried August 30, horribly broken on the wheel August 31.
Henri would keep the throne 17 more years, laying the basis for French absolutism. But continual assassination bids — nearly 20 documented — would pursue him throughout his reign … until one finally got him.
On this date in 1850, a 57-year-old Harvard professor expiated upon a gallows at Boston’s Leverett Square the murder of one of the university’s donors.
The buzz of Boston in 1849-50, the Parkman-Webster murder case began with the disappearance of one of the crimson’s great benefactors, George Parkman, a Boston Brahmin known for his Ministry of Silly Walks gait about town (see right). According to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (who appeared as a witness at the trial of Parkman’s accused murderer), “he abstained while others indulged, he walked while others rode, he worked while others slept.”
Also, he inherited a ridiculous sum of money, and was tight with the debtors to whom he lent it.
Back before collection agencies, Parkman disappeared in November 1849 while making the rounds to shake down his borrowers. Within days, suspicion settled on Harvard anatomy and geology professor John Webster, who had squandered his own pile of money buying rock collections and maintaining appearances and such, and sank into desperate hock to the jutting-chinned ambulator who had helped him land the Ivy League appointment in the first place.
A weighty circumstantial case soon formed against Webster, with the invaluable aid of a snoopy janitor who turned up human remains in the office and testified to incriminating-sounding conversations.
Elites-on-elite crime epidemics always churn the scandal mills. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife Fanny wrote a friend,
You will see by the papers what dark horror overshadows us like an eclipse. Of course we cannot believe Dr. Webster guilty, bad as the evidence looks. … Many suspect the janitor, who is known to be a bad man and to have wished for the reward offered for Dr. Parkman’s body. … I trust our minds will be soon relieved, but, meanwhile, they are soiled by new details continually.
Boston high society was about to see a whole different side of Harvard.
Although perhaps individually explicable — anatomists had plausible reasons to have human remains at work, and other anatomists than Webster could have had access to his office — the cumulative weight of Webster’s ham-handed attempts to declare that he had paid up his debts to Parkman just before the latter’s mysterious disappearance, of the discovery of what (disputed) dental forensics declared to be Parkman’s dentures, of the ghastly appearance of a torso (disputedly) declared to be Parkman’s stuffed in a tea chest at Webster’s offices started to really make the man look guilty.
In view of a mediocre defense, the jury convicted Webster of whacking his own professional benefactor, in the university building erected on said benefactor’s donated plot of land.
While the prof’s seeming post-conviction acceptance of guilt — in a plain strategem to secure clemency — and generally shifty demeanor have cemented him as the definitive perpetrator in the standard historical reading,* Fanny’s snobbish take on the “bad man,” janitor (and moonlight body-snatcher) Ephraim Littlefield, has not been entirely lost to the tradition.
At the end of the day, everything about the case is circumstantial — indeed, besides being historically noteworthy for the first use of dental forensic evidence in a murder trial (forensics we might find rather speculative and unconvincing today), Webster’s case generated a landmark ruling from the judge’s jury instruction establishing “reasonable doubt” as the threshold for criminal conviction rather than the “absolute certainty” Webster’s prosecutors had no hope of attaining; that ruling influences American jurisprudence down to the present day.
And one cannot but notice how many of the circumstances — creepily playing Sherlock Holmes with a freelance dig into the professor’s furnace to discover charred bones, for instance — were provided by the fellow-suspect-turned-star-witness Littlefield, who niftily reaped the $3,000 reward for his offices in substituting Webster for himself under the pall of suspicion.
According to peripatetic crime blogger Laura James, a forthcoming (2009) book promises to revisit the sensational trial, “to examine all the intricacies for ourselves — not aided by the eager voice of the janitor.”
On this date in 1966, author and intellectual Sayyid Qutb was hanged for plotting to overthrow the Egyptian state.
Qutb — whose names can be transliterated many ways (Saïd, Syed, Seyyid, Sayid, or Sayed; Koteb, Kotb, Qutub or Kutb) — was one of the most influential Islamist thinkers of the 20th century, and helped shape the ideas of Osama bin Laden.
A traditionally-minded Muslim civil servant in a westernizing Egypt, Qutb’s journey to radicalism is traditionally dated to his late 1940’s study abroad in the U.S. at what is now the University of Northern Colorado, where the decadence, materialism, and lax morality of the global hegemon saw him seeing existential evil in the everyday all around him:
The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs — and she shows all this and does not hide it.
Qutb left Greeley, Colo., in 1950 with a master’s degree and an intention to mount an Islamic revolution in his home country that would implement sharia and keep shapely thighs safely under wraps. (Qutb never married, bemoaning the scanty pickings of pure fish in the sea. He may have faced the gallows a virgin.)
He hooked up with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, landed in Egypt’s famously savage prisons (future president Anwar Sadat was one of his judges), and the experience of torture hardened his commitment to a vanguard-led revolution. He kept up his prolific writing output, penning perhaps his most notable work, Milestones (the text was later used against him at his capital trial).
Qutb’s release in 1964 was only for a few months, before Egyptian security got wind of a new Muslim Brotherhood plot to overthrow the government and rounded up Qutb as the supposed ringleader — or just railroaded him because it didn’t like where he was going with passages like
there are many practical obstacles in establishing God’s rule on earth, such as the power of the state, the social system and traditions and, in general, the whole human environment. Islam uses force only to remove these obstacles so that there may not remain any wall between Islam and individual human beings.
With the benefit of hindsight, one can readily imagine that his martyr’s death did not squelch his movement, but greatened his stature to admiring eyes.
But it was hardly a direct path into an un-critiqued hall of martyrs in an undifferentiated “radical Islam”. While Qutb had his own influence in Egypt, Cairo has managed to keep the lid on the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutbism, however, was exported to Saudi Arabia — which intentionally imported it for various practical and geopolitical reasons — where it flourished, often in a fractious relationship with official Saudi Wahhabism.
One of Qutb’s students was the uncle of Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the hanged intellectual greatly influenced Zawahiri’s own path into radicalism and to al-Qaeda. Since September 11, of course, the path Qutb himself followed has become of much more pressing interest to the West as well as within the Muslim world.
On this date in 1807, James McLean survived one hanging but not a second at Batavia, N.Y.
Subject of the first public execution in Genesee County, the drunken Scottish immigrant had axed to death a fellow squatter in an argument … and then a second man who ran to his victim’s aid … and then almost a third who was saved by flight.
This minor execution is the subject of an extensive historical inquiry* by a descendant of one of the victims full of period color: the defendant claiming the (then-recognized) right to a jury consisting of half non-citizen aliens as a “jury of his peers”; the billing receipts for the manhunt and the gallows construction (including gallons of brandy for the guards); and the indeterminate legends about what happened when the rope broke the first time.
The story has been told and retold that during the hanging the rope broke and McLean fell to the ground, shaken and stunned but alive. While another rope was being secured, McLean was reputed to remark, “As I killed two men, I deserve two hangings.” Another version has McLean protesting a second hanging since he had been convicted of only the one murder and had already been hung for that.
However, a historian’s recounting of the era’s newspaper accounts claims
that when the weight fell, the rope broke and McClean fell to the ground. He soon recovered from the shock and rising to his feet, expressed a strong desire not to be “hung again.” Some insisted that one hanging was a fulfillment of the law. Others, however, thought differently and informed McClean that “as he had killed two men, he ought to be hung twice.”
* The writer’s use of “gibbet” to mean an apparatus for a “sudden suspension” hanging, where the prisoner is not dropped but jerked into the air by a countervailing weight, is non-standard; “gibbet” means a gallows (or certain types of gallows structures, if you’re persnickety about it), and became a verb signifying the salutary posthumous display upon such a structure of an executed prisoner’s remains.
On this date in 1979, the only anonymous photograph to win a Pulitzer Prize captured nine Kurdish rebels and two of the Shah’s policemen executed by firing squad in revolutionary Iran.
This shot, one of a series taken of the event with the permission of the judge who condemned the men to immediate death in a half-hour trial at the Sanandaj airfield, ran the next day in the Iranian paper Ettela’at, whose editor prudently kept the photographer’s identity secret. Within two days, the stunning photo had rocketed around the world.
It won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography the following spring, still credited anonymously.
Two years ago, the Wall Street Journalrevealed — with the photographer’s permission — the identity of the man who shot this indelible image: Jahangir Razmi, who had gone on to a career as one of Iran’s top photographic journalists. He came to New York to collect the prize 27 years late.
Some people think I am some sort of a Rambo who loves strong emotions and seeing people die. I am miles away from that mentality. I am a convinced pacifist and for that reason I am curious to understand what make normal people brandish a gun.
Baldoni reported from Iraq for the Italian weekly Diario and kept a blog from the ground as well. On August 21, he was kidnapped after being caught in a firefight between Baghdad and Najaf.** Three days later, Al Jazeera aired his captors’ demand for Italian withdrawal within 48 hours; Baldoni was killed when that demand was ignored.
The day after Baldoni’s death, the black armband-clad Azzurri defeated the upstart Iraqi soccer team for the Olympic bronze medal.
The final legacies of Baldoni’s work well reflected his generous principles. The last entry on his blog Bloghdad (now defunct; here’s how it looked four years ago) was this picture:
And his (translated, obviously) “last testament” as released by a fellow journalist described a man who would not want this blog post to linger on mawkishly.
[At my funeral] I want people to smile — did you notice? Funerals always end up with someone smiling: it’s natural, it’s Life taking over Death. And let people smoke freely anything they like; I’d also be pleased if new love stories would come out, and I’d even consider some casual sex an offer to Life rather than an offense to Death.
At about eight or nine o’clock, with little or no ceremony, bring my coffin quietly to the crematorium, while the party and the music should last until late night.
About my ashes … throw them into the sea. Or do as you want, who fucking cares? Just nothing phony like in The Big Lebowski.
* Obviously, this is a case of a borderline execution, owing to the Islamic Army in Iraq’s non-state credentials — in a legal sense, Enzo Baldoni was murdered. But it was precisely the point of his killing to contest legitimate state authority, and according to a later interview with an alleged spokesman of the faction, there was even a juridical proceeding “convicting” Baldoni of espionage.
** According to Reporters Without Borders, a stupefying 142 journalists — Baldoni among them — were killed in Iraq from 2004 through 2007, nearly half the worldwide total of 299 reporters who died in their line of work during that span.
On this date in 1945, according to a fringe faction of American conservatism, the first victim of the Cold War was shot by Chinese Communists at Suchow, China, near Xi’an.
John Birch, a military chaplain proselytizing in China and an agent of the CIA’s precursor entity Office of Strategic Services, had the kind of portfolio sure to rub Mao’s boys the wrong way.
Apparently it was his personality that got him into trouble.
On recon duty days after the end of World War II, he bumped into a patrol of Red Chinese. According to Time, he failed his diplomacy check.
As the scene has been reconstructed, Birch argued violently with the Communist officer who wanted to disarm him. Birch was seized and shot after his hands had been tied. The Communists then bayoneted him at least 15 times and tossed his body on a heap of junk and garbage.
“In the confusing situation,” said [Birch's commanding officer Major Gustav] Krause last week, “my instructions were to act with diplomacy. Birch made the Communist lieutenant lose face before his own men. Militarily, John Birch brought about his own death.”
Days after World War II — how does that square with your international Communist conspiracy? The incident was not especially notable at the time, but some elements later conceived John Birch the first American casualty of Communism during the Cold War, and in this guise he became the namesake of the John Birch Society (Wikipedia entry | homepage — evidently forward-thinking enough to have grabbed their own three-letter acronym)
Here’s candy magnate and founder Robert Welch, Jr., explaining:
Despite the young lieutenant’s credentials as a martyr of evangelical anti-Communism, the oft-loopy Society’s relationship to the mainstream conservative movement and the Republican Party it took over was never completely comfortable and eventually came to a definite sundering.
The Society soldiers on, its “Get US out of the United Nations” billboards a minor fixture of Americana from Port Angeles, Washington to this one in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Lise Olsen — interviewed by NPR here — blew up the case; Cantu’s jury forewoman and the district attorney who tried him for his life are among those who have publicly regretted their roles in what has emerged one of the most compelling cases of an executed innocent in the modern American death penalty era. Nobody could possibly have predicted that pitiable public defender resources and an extremely aggressive capital punishment regime could result in such a thing.
Among the lesser (but more pertinent here): that they weren’t — you knew this already — offering the former Guardian of Scotland the opportunity to reduce his suffering with a public submission, or use the stage for theatrical defiance. Hanging, drawing and quartering was a brand new execution Edward I was experimenting with for emasculating, disemboweling, and (so the idea went) utterly cowing the rebellious hinterlands of the British Isles. Wallace may have been just the second person to suffer it.
But only a pointy-headed blogger could possibly care when the main point is that back before Christendom succumbed to nancy decadences like Vatican II, men wore woad, defenestratedqueers, and tapped top-shelf babes.
Among the few things known for certain about William Wallace is that he did not score with Isabella of France. Or with Sophie Marceau.
However genuinely flesh-and-blood the limbs that wrought his feats and were torn apart on this day, Wallace returns to his generations of interlocutors half-shrouded in mythology. Seven centuries on, his contested (and sometimes absurd) use as precedent or metaphor stakes a claim to his Truth at least as compelling as battlefield tactics at Stirling Bridge. What does he “really” have to tell us? No matter how grisly his end, William Wallace doesn’t get to decide: it’s between you, me, Mel, and a few billion other folks.
Only a character really worth remembering is worth that kind of fictionalizing.
Sixteen hundred years ago today, the general whose talents were the last bulwark against barbarian conquest of the Western Roman Empire submitted for the sake of civil peace to execution at the hands of a callow boy-emperor.
The half-Vandal patrician Stilicho comes to the notice of posterity late in the reign of Theodosius the Great, the last Roman to rule both Eastern and Western Empires. At Theodosius’s death in 395, his two sons ascended the separate thrones.
Honorius, a 10-year-old child, took the purple in the west and somehow held it for 28 lackluster years that saw Rome’s long erosion finally set the realm on the slide into collapse.*
Stilicho and his wife Serena, with their child: two were executed, one was murdered.
Distrusted because of his part-barbarian parentage — and hated by the still-significant pagan community for burning the Sibylline Books — Stilicho’s service never made him popular. Because Alaric had escaped his battlefield defeats, it was whispered that Stilicho had connived with him … and Stilicho’s alliance of his legions with Alaric against other barbarians in Illyrium and Burgundy only heightened the suspicions.
We have little reliable basis to judge the possible truth of these accusations; the fundamental fact was that Rome no longer exercised its accustomed hegemony, and its principals needed to balance interests, cut deals and allocate scarce resources in ways that would have been unthinkable a century or two before.** The army itself was mostly barbarian; Alaric himself had once been a Roman officer.
In the story as related by Zosimus — a later Byzantine historian, a pagan famously abusive towards Christians and elsewhere critical of Stilicho, here softening his stance as he turns to savage his executioners — a wormtongued advisor got the ear of the still-youthful emperor and turned him against the general who was holding back the cataclysm.
Stilicho … was not conscious of any ill intention either against the emperor or the soldiers, [but] Olympius, a native of the vicinity of the Euxine sea, and an officer of rank in the court-guards, concealed under the disguise of the Christian religion the most atrocious designs in his heart. Being accustomed, because of his affected modesty and gentle demeanor, to converse frequently with the emperor, he used many bitter expressions against Stilicho, and stated that he was desirous to proceed into the east, from no other motive than to acquire an opportunity of … placing the empire in the hands of his own son, Eucherius. … Olympius, accustoming himself to visit the sick soldiers, which was the master-piece of his hypocrisy, dispersed among them, likewise, similar insinuations. … they were excited almost to madness … then dispersing themselves about the city, killed as many of the magistrates as they could lay hands on, tearing them out of the houses into which they had fled, and plundered all the town. … The tumult continued till late in the night, and the emperor fearing lest any violence should be committed against his own person also, for which reason he withdrew. … There likewise perished so great a number of promiscuous persons as is beyond all computation.
When intelligence of this reached Stilicho, who was then at Bononia, he was extremely disturbed by it. Summoning, therefore, all the commanders of his confederate Barbarians, who were with him, he proposed a consultation relative to what measures it would be most prudent to adopt. It was agreed with common consent, that if the emperor were killed, which was yet doubtful, all the confederated Barbarians should join together, and fall at once on the Roman soldiers, and by that means afford a warning to all others to use greater moderation and submissiveness. But if the emperor were safe, although the magistrates were cut off, the authors of the tumult were to be brought to condign punishment. Such was the result of the consultation held by Stilicho with his Barbarians. When they knew that no indignity had been offered to the person of the emperor, Stilicho resolved to proceed no further in punishing or correcting the soldiers, but to return to Ravenna. For he reflected both on the number of the soldiers, and that the emperor was not steadfastly his friend. Nor did he think it either honourable or safe to incite Barbarians against the Roman army.
It came to a bad end, Stilicho nobly refusing the prospect of his allies upholding his cause by arms:
Stilicho being therefore filled with anxiety concerning these circumstances, the Barbarians who were with him were very desirous of putting in force their former resolutions, and therefore endeavoured to dissuade him from the measures which he afterwards thought proper to be adopted. But being unable to prevail with him, they all determined to remain in some place until they should be better apprized of the emperor’s sentiments towards Stilicho, … In the meantime Olympius, who was now become master of the emperor’s inclination, sent the imperial mandate to the soldiers at Ravenna, ordering them immediately to apprehend Stilicho, and to detain him in prison without fetters. When Stilicho heard this, he took refuge in a Christian church that was near, while it was night. His Barbarians and his other familiars, who, with his servants, were all armed, upon seeing this expected what would ensue. When day appeared, the soldiers, entering the church, swore before the bishop that they were commanded by the emperor not to kill Stilicho, but to keep him in custody. Being brought out of the church, and in the custody of the soldiers, other letters were delivered by the person who brought the first, in which the punishment of death was denounced against Stilicho, for his crimes against the commonwealth. Thus, while Eucherius, his son, fled towards Rome, Stilicho was led to execution. The Barbarians who attended him, with his servants and other friends and relations, of whom there was a vast number, preparing and resolving to rescue him from the stroke, Stilicho deterred them from the attempt by all imaginable menaces, and calmly submitted his neck to the sword. He was the most moderate and just of all the men who possessed great authority in his time. … he never conferred military rank for money, or coverted the stipend of the soldiers to his own use. … In order that no studious person, or astrologers, may be ignorant of the time of his death, I shall relate that it happened in the consulship of Bassus and Philippus, during which the emperor Arcadius submitted to fate, on the twenty-second day of August.
This date is the end of the line for Stilicho, but hardly the end of the troubles that laid him low. A spasm of mob violence against barbarians on the peninsula ensued; the executed general’s son was among those murdered. Teutons, many of them Roman soldiers, in turn flocked to the banner of Alaric, who promptly swarmed into the enfeebled Italian lands and for the first time in 800 years sacked Rome.
The first emotions of the nobles, and of the people, were those of surprise and indignation, that a vile Barbarian should dare to insult the capital of the world: but their arrogance was soon humbled by misfortune; and their unmanly rage, instead of being directed against an enemy in arms, was meanly exercised on a defenceless and innocent victim. Perhaps in the person of Serena, the Romans might have respected the niece of Theodosius, the aunt, nay, even the adoptive mother, of the reigning emperor: but they abhorred the widow of Stilicho; and they listened with credulous passion to the tale of calumny, which accused her of maintaining a secret and criminal correspondence with the Gothic invader. Actuated, or overawed, by the same popular frenzy, the senate, without requiring any evidence of his guilt, pronounced the sentence of her death. Serena was ignominiously strangled; and the infatuated multitude were astonished to find, that this cruel act of injustice did not immediately produce the retreat of the Barbarians, and the deliverance of the city. That unfortunate city gradually experienced the distress of scarcity, and at length the horrid calamities of famine.
* Such, at least, is the conventional assessment of Honorius. For a take friendlier to the emperor (and less so to Stilicho), see here.
** Stilicho, incidentally, called home the second-last legion of Roman troops from Britain for use closer to home, and the island’s remaining Roman presence was cut off by barbarian incursions into Gaul during his lifetime … setting that island on its independent way (into, if you like, the Arthurian age); Honorius would later answer a plea for help from those lands with a note to the effect of, “good luck on your own.”