Archive for September, 2008

1952: George Muldowney, for loving and killing the original Bond girl

2 comments September 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1952, Irish steward George Muldowney was hanged at Pentonville Prison for the rather pathetic murder of a dashing Polish spy who had survived much greater villains.

Allowing that nobody ought to die on the floor of the Shelbourne Hotel with a sheath knife stuck in their chest, Christine Granville in particular really deserved a better exit.

Before the outbreak of World War II, she was Krystyna Skarbek, daughter of a Polish aristocrat sinking into poverty. After Germany overran Poland, she went off the marriage meatmarket and on Her Majesty’s Secret Service for a stunning career as a stunning spy that still has ‘em sighing today.

Rechristened “Christine Granville” by Britain’s Special Operations Executive, she spent most of the war carrying out feats of cloak-and-dagger derring-do, with a Bond-like aplomb for extricating herself from tricky situations.

If only half the stories they tell about her are true …

  • Commuting between Hungary and Poland by skiing over the Tatra Mountains to gather intelligence and pull other agents out of harm’s way.
  • Getting herself and a fellow agent released from arrest by feigning tuberculosis by chewing her tongue until it bled.
  • Escaping capture at a checkpoint by pulling the pins on two grenades and daring the guards to shoot her.
  • Marching alone into a not-yet-liberated concentration camp to have POW’s reprieved from execution — by telling the Nazi commandante that he’d get the same treatment unless he spared them.
  • Snatching spymaster Francis Cammaerts from the Gestapo ahead of his execution.

And the love affairs! Or that’s what they say — including fellow agent Ian Fleming.

Granville earned the French Croix de Guerre, the George Medal for Special Services, the Order of the British Empire and other decorations, although merely surviving so much time in the field might have been her greatest achievement … but when the war ended, she was just another unwelcome Polish refugee, scrounging for service work in a recovering economy with no welcome waiting for her in her Soviet-dominated homeland.

From here on in, the trite and the tawdry eclipse the heroic.

A stewardess gig on a cruise ship attracted the attentions of her eventual murderer; his crush unreciprocated, and her companionship with another man jealously noticed, Muldowney stalked her and — on the very eve of Granville’s departure to reunite with a wartime confederate/lover — murdered her at her Kensington hotel.

To read the London Times‘ accounting the last moments of this woman so recently outfoxing the Nazis is to behold the face of banality triumphant.

Mr. Ian Smith, for the prosecution, said that, in a written statement at Kensington police station, Muldowney …

“describes how he waited outside the hotel and saw her go in. He went in after her and asked her for some letters he had exchanged with her. She said she had burned them. He did not believe her, and then says: ‘She told me she did not want anything to do with me and was off to the Continent and would see me in two years’ time.’

He then says: ‘Then I took the knife from the sheath which I had in my hip pocket and stabbed her in the chest, and then somebody came up.'” It was a deep stab wound up to the hilt of the knife, and penetrated the heart.

Muldowney didn’t fight the charge; he’d been planning to poison himself after the murder, and tried it when he was in custody. He declined legal aid and pleaded guilty at trial, seemingly eager to expiate his sin or join his would-be lover in death. It was less than 16 weeks after the crime that he stood on the gallows.

While Muldowney moulders in well-deserved obscurity, his victim reportedly inspired her former lover to create the character of Vesper Lynd — the original femme fatale secret agent in the original James Bond novel, Casino Royale. (And the smashing cocktail named for her in the same volume.)

She — Christine, not Vesper — is buried under a spadeful of symbolic Polish soil in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in London.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Poland

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1979: Francisco Macías Nguema, President for Life

1 comment September 29th, 2008 Headsman

In the early afternoon this date, Equatorial Guinea’s former President for Life was sentenced to death with six aides at the end of a four-day trial for murder, treason, embezzlement, and genocide.

That evening, the seven were shot at Malabo’s Blabich Prison.

Nguema Biyoto Masie, nee Francisco Macías Nguema, rose from the Spanish colonial bureaucracy to win the first post-independence presidency of the minuscule African state.

He quickly created a one-party state and increasingly nutty cult of personality, answering to such horror-comic nicknames as “Unique Miracle”.

Nguema’s Unique Miracle for Equatorial Guinea was a Pol Pot-style catastrophe, killing or driving out most of the population (including Nguema’s own wife), eviscerating the economy, and getting into military brinksmanship with neighboring Nigeria.*

His nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, overthrew him a few weeks before this date. Despite the speedy resolution of the case, international observers on the scene considered it a fair enough trial and the dictator’s guilt duly established; procedurally, the execution happened immediately because he was tried by the highest court in the land and there was nowhere to appeal.


Francisco Macias Nguema during his trial.

Still, the shooting itself was handled by hired Moroccan troops, rather than citizens of Equatorial Guinea: Nguema had convinced quite a lot of people that he had magic powers, and the locals weren’t eager to be the ones to test the proposition.

Bloody but necessary first step to parliamentary democracy?

Not quite. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, one of the worst dictators you’ve never heard of, still runs Equatorial Guinea in much the manner of his predecessor to this day.


Did we mention that Equatorial Guinea has oil?

* Francisco Macias Nguema’s daughter, “Empress Bella Syttam Macias”, lives in Utah and defends her dad. She seems to have been too young to have been personally involved in anything unsavory in the 70’s.

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1402: False Olaf

2 comments September 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1402, a Prussian commoner was put to death on the road between Falsterbo and Skanor in Sweden for masquerading as the long-dead King Olaf IV.

The real Oluf IV Haakonsson — or Olav, or Olaf — had inherited the crowns of Denmark and Norway and a claim to that of Sweden’s but died at the age of 17 in 1387. His mother, Margaret I (or Margrethe I), the real power behind the teenager, ruled outright upon her son’s death.

She proved an able hand and far-sighted ruler, cautiously welding Denmark, Sweden and Norway into the Kalmar Union that would hold until the 16th century. They called her “the Semiramis of the North,” centuries before Catherine the Great nicked the nickname.

But her son’s youthful demise had set persistent rumors abroad — that he was poisoned, for instance, and more to the point for our purposes, that he wasn’t dead at all.

So when his spitting image was recognized, and hailed as the prince of the realm … well, back in the day, equally audacious identity theft was attempted for much smaller stakes than a throne.

Anyway, “Olaf” got some robes befitting Olaf’s station and banged out some letters to Margaret demanding his kingdom back, and Margaret said, come on down.

That goes to show how far looks will take you in life.

Unfortunately for Olaf, his regal jawline wasn’t capable of enunciating Danish speech … so the jig was up as soon as he got to Margaret. One hopes he got a good ride out of his brief masquerade, because he was burned to ashes — possibly after being broken on the wheel — along with those presumptuous letters.

The date of False Olaf’s death comes from Horace Marryat’s 19th century Scandinavian travelogues, One Year in Sweden; including a visit to the isle of Gotland and A Residence in Jutland, the Danish Isles, and Copenhagen (both free reads at Google Books). In both volumes, Marryat identifies the date as the morning before Michaelmas.

The traditional last day of the harvest season celebrated on September 29, Michaelmas was once a four-star holiday on the medieval calendar.

There’s a fair amount of commentary online saying that an “Old Michaelmas” used to be celebrated on October 10 or 11. But that looks to this writer like an interesting inversion stemming ultimately from the celebration’s fall into obscurity as the entity once known as Christendom has become more secular and less agrarian — although it’s admittedly nothing to do with the fate of False Olaf, or Semiramis for that matter.

In 1752, when England finally switched to the Gregorian Calendar, the switch took place in early September.*

For logistical pragmatism (the harvest wasn’t going to come in 11 days earlier just because the calendar changed), the then-imminent Michaelmas got pushed back 11 days to October 10. October 10 then became known as “Old Michaelmas,” no longer Michaelmas by the church calendar but the 365-day interval from when it used to be celebrated, and more importantly, the real end of the harvest season.**

In the next century, the difference between Julian and Gregorian calendars would have advanced to 12 days, placing Old Michaelmas on the 11th; by this present day, it’d be 13 days in principle, but the original meaning of the holiday and the host of cultural traditions associated with it have fallen away … so “Old Michaelmas” is a footnote still pinned to October 10th or 11th, and moderns rediscovering it suppose from the name that it’s the former date of the feast.

* People inclined to think of their death dates as foreordained in heaven’s celestial notebook protested the switch: “give us back our 11 days!” This reform, incidentally, also moved the official beginning of the New Year to January 1 from Michaelmas’ springtime “Quarter Day” counterpart, March 25; winter dates from years prior are often written with both years, e.g. 1738/9. “Old Lady Day“, April 6, is still the beginning of the fiscal year in England, and Thomas Hardy uses its traditional contractual character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Aside: Tess’s hanged real-life inspiration) when the title character takes a farm job running through that date:

Tess was so wrapt up in this fanciful dream that she seemed not to know how the season was advancing; that the days had lengthened, that Lady-Day was at hand, and would soon be followed by Old Lady-Day, the end of her term …

At length it was the eve of Old Lady-Day, and the agricultural world was in a fever of mobility such as only occurs at that particular date of the year. It is a day of fulfilment; agreements for outdoor service during the ensuing year, entered into at Candlemas, are to be now carried out. The labourers — or “work-folk”, as they used to call themselves immemorially till the other word was introduced from without — who wish to remain no longer in old places are removing to the new farms.

… With the younger families it was a pleasant excitement which might possibly be an advantage. The Egypt of one family was the Land of Promise to the family who saw it from a distance, till by residence there it became it turn their Egypt also; and so they changed and changed.

** Residents of the former Soviet Republics who switched to the Gregorian calendar in the 20th century still celebrate both the familiar January 1 New Year’s and “Old New Year’s” 13 days later, and the same trick with the (lesser, there) holiday of Christmas too … packing four party occasions into a three-week span.

Part of the Themed Set: Semiramis.

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1976: Three terrorists in Syria

2 comments September 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1976, three Abu Nidal terrorists were hanged before the Hotel Semiramis in Damascus, barely 24 hours after they had entered it and taken 90 hostages in a bid to win release of Palestinian prisoners.

Palestinians Muhammad al-Barqawi and Mouatassem Jayyoushi and Iraqi Jabbar Darwish suffered Syria’s first public execution since an accused Israeli spy more than a decade before — and as the late Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad had pledged, justice was swift and ruthless.

The security of the citizen is sacred. We shall not be soft in this matter. We shall hit back very hard and we denounce this criminal action committed by the gang, which acted as if it was in Israel.

They were the surviving 75% of a quartet of gunmen who early the previous morning had seized the hotel, barricaded themselves on the fifth floor, and attempted to make their trade. Plainly, it didn’t quite work out; the attempt precipitated a battle with Syrian troops which saw the fourth terrorist killed, along with four of the hostages. The Supreme State Security Court condemned the captured men to death overnight; the sentence was carried out between 6:00 and 6:30 the next morning.

New York Times coverage of the raid and the execution is unfortunately behind the paper’s paid-login firewall, but a photo of the execution shows onlookers ringing a single wooden frame for what must have been a short-drop hanging. An unused fourth noose, possibly symbolically present for the killed fourth terrorist (or possibly not; there’s no explicit comment on it), hangs beside the dead men.

So why the grievance? That June — “Black June,” to the Palestinians — Syria had bailed on hard-line Palestinians and entered the Lebanese Civil War on the side of Phalangist Christians,* just as they were on the verge of being overrun. It was the second time in six years that a neighboring Arab power had turned its guns on Palestinians. (In 1970, Jordan had expelled the Palestine Liberation Organization in “Black September.” Lots of black in the Palestinian annals.)

And why the Iraqi, among the hanged?

Palestinian terrormeister Abu Nidal had hung out his shingle in Iraq, then under the control of a rising young dictator destined for the gallows himself, but who grasped the opportunist potential of backing the Palestinian cause while states like Jordan and Syria visibly sold it out. Television crews had a few words in edgewise with the doomed men the evening before their hanging, and they claimed to have trained for their abortive mission in Iraq.

* This put Damascus on the same side as Israel.

Part of the Themed Set: Semiramis.

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Themed Set: Semiramis

2 comments September 27th, 2008 Headsman

As a gauzy figure of Orientalist fantasy, the half-legendary (at least) Bronze Age queen Semiramis is hard to top.

Supposedly a Babylonian ruler, the exploits of Semiramis — erotic, politic, possibly magic — have been worthy of otherly projection from Dante on down.

Herodotus (to whom she was already archaic) has her a pan-Asian ruler; the guy whose proclivities gave us the term “masochism” wrote a novel about her (but good luck finding it in English). Of course, Queen S. was divinely descended and radiantly beautiful; in the general legend, she becomes queen when her husband King Ninus is killed (or in some versions, when she kills him), rules competently (or aggressively, or simply lustfully), then maybe gets killed by her son. This bare scaffolding will enact many a play. And the costumes!

Thanks, Rossini.

Check out some versions of her myth here, here and the hostile Armenian version here. Rumor has it her tomb is quite the find, too.

In Boccaccio’s Famous Women, she’s a girl who knows how to have a good time, but invents the chastity belt to keep her female courtiers in line, or possibly to reduce competition. (More about this volume here (pdf), though this review doesn’t have a lot to say about our heroine.)

In the dour outlook of a particular brand of fundamentalist Protestant, Semiramis can also be a sort of proto-pagan, a former harlot (natch) who invented goddess-worship. (A seminal text in this theory is this 19th century pamphlet by Rev. Alexander Hislop.)

Does it say anywhere that she built Babylon? Eh. It does now!


Semiramis Building Babylon, by Edgar Degas (1861)

So what does Semiramis have to do with the ultimate sanction? Not much … but thanks for reading.

She breaks the monotony a little bit — and what do you know? She makes two blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameos for totally unrelated (to each other or, really, to Semiramis) executions this weekend.

Update: And the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are sometimes attributed to her as the Hanging Gardens of Semiramis. So what if that’s almost certainly wrong … doesn’t the name just take you right there?

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1396: Thousands of knights of the Last Crusade

5 comments September 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1396, Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I put thousands of Christian Crusaders to the sword — and with them, Christians’ zest for holy war against the Turk.

The day after crushing a European Crusading expedition at the Battle of Nicopolis — where Christ’s multinational divisions might have crippled themselves by opting for political reasons to go with gloryhounding French knights’ demand for a heavy cavalry charge as opposed to sneakier tactics — Bayezid was mighty sore to find that the invaders had executed en masse Muslim prisoners from their last engagement.

Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror relates the result:

The defeat was followed by a frightful sequel. As Bajazet toured the battlefield … he was “torn by grief” at the sight of his losses, which outnumbered the Christian. He swore he would not leave their blood unavenged, and the discovery of the massacre of the prisoners of Rachowa augmented his rage. He ordered all prisoners to be brought before him next morning. … [T]he leading nobles … were … spared [for ransom], as well as all those judged to be under twenty for forced service with the Turks.

The rest, an uncertain figure of several thousand, were marched naked before the Sultan, bound together in groups of three or four, with hands tied and ropes around their necks. Bajazet looked at them briefly, then signed to the executioners to set to work. They decapitated the captives group by group, in some cases cut their throats or severed their limbs until corpses and killers alike were awash in blood. [The Christian nobles being spared] were forced to stand by the Sultan and watch the heads of their companions fall under the scimitars and the blood spurt from their headless trunks…. The killing continued from early morning to late afternoon until Bajazet, himself sickened at the sight or, as some say, persuaded by his ministers that too much rage in Christendom would be raised against him, called off the executioners.

In truth, the era of the Crusade as most readily conceived — a bid to conquer the Holy Land — was long past by this time. But it had been under that tattered old banner that Christendom summoned its vassals to check the rising Ottoman Empire, which by this time had reduced Byzantium to a rump state around Constantinople.

The battle that precipitated this day’s* feast of carrion occurred in Bulgaria, where the Turks’ growing European footprint (and this affair essentially pinched out the Bulgarian Empire of the day) exercised the European courts in figurative as well as literal ways. Though other ventures would hoist the crusading pennant, there would be no major offensive incursions against the Turks until “crusades” had fallen well out of fashion.

None of this gory affair is to be confused with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where a leap of faith proved more felicitous.

* Most sources place the Battle of Nicopolis at September 25, although some say September 28 — the latter date would obviously place this massacre on September 29.

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1792: Jacques Cazotte, occultist

2 comments September 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1792, Jacques Cazotte, a writer distinctly out of step with his times, was guillotined for treason in Paris.

The Martinique-born Cazotte (English Wikipedia entry | French) was into his 40s when he launched the writing career that earns him notice enough for this blog.

He wasn’t a liberte, egalite, fraternite kind of guy: Cazotte’s works, like Le Diable Amoureux (The Devil in Love),* were fantastical, Gothic — far from the rationalist fare of the Enlightenment.

And that wasn’t exclusively a literary posture.

Cazotte fancied himself gifted with prophecy — enthusiasts’ accounts have him prophesying the course of the Revolution — and preferred the mystical enlightenment of the illuminati to the Voltairean kind.** He viewed the onset of the French Revolution with horror.

When some scribblings to that effect were discovered in his papers, the mystical goose was cooked. The French Wikipedia entry credits his daughter with saving his life during the September Massacres … buying the 72-year-old only a few weeks of life.

Cazotte’s Le Diable Amoureux has the devil as a young man’s servant girl, endeavoring to seduce him. Here is Cesare Pugni‘s balletic rendition, Satanella, with its grand pas de deux, “Le Carnaval de Venise,” from the Kirov:

Cazotte finds his way to us, as the dark arts are wont to do, through more meandering channels as well.

Le Diable Amoureux inspired supernatural mystery The Club Dumas by Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte. That novel in turn was riffed by Roman Polanski for the weird 1999 flick The Ninth Gate (review), starring Johnny Depp. (Cazotte’s book is explicitly referenced in both its progeny.)

Although only tangentially related, this digression into the occult gives us leave to notice one of the many cultural ephemera of executions linked to no particularly blog-friendly date. The Club Dumas and The Ninth Gate make use of striking woodcuts of modern vintage but after a style of centuries past that help unlock the central puzzle.

Charged with esoterica, the topical-looking “hanged man” print comes clearly modeled after its tarot cousin … although the tarot version, in most instances, is hoped to be of less deadly effect upon the plot.

* Available free in the original French at Project Gutenberg.

** Voltairean rationalism had its own ways of getting in trouble. It may have been an age of ideas, but it was hardly safe to have them.

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1652: Captain James Hind, royalist highwayman

1 comment September 24th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1652, James Hind, a highwayman who preyed on Roundheads, was drawn and quartered for treason.

Famed throughout the realm for his dashing heists on the roads, Hind was the subject of no less than 16 printed pamphlets of the nascent popular press in the early 1650’s, which magnified brigand’s feats, oratory and persona into a sort of populist Cavalier superhero: Marvel Comics for the woodcut age.

The highlights of Hind’s adventures receive rapturous attention from the Newgate Chronicles:

  • Setting upon Oliver Cromwell shortly after the execution of Charles I, his partner Thomas Allen being taken in the affray;

  • An amusing duel of Biblical citations while robbing regicide Hugh Peters, resolved in the characteristic manner of such impasses by reference to which disputant holds the gun.

    “Pray, sir, make no reflections on my profession; for Solomon plainly says, ‘Do not despise a thief'; but it is to little purpose for us to dispute. The substance of what I have to say is this: deliver thy money presently, or else I shall send thee out of the world to thy master in an instant.”

  • Any number of pleasing episodes with lesser personages suitable for the gallant highwayman — ladies charmed but un-pillaged, paupers subsidized, and always, wicked Parliamentarians chastened. Several excellent Hind anecdotes are gathered by Gillian Spraggs here.

As to the veracity of this stuff, the Captain himself suggests a pinch of caution.

A Gentleman or two, desired so much favour of [the gaoler], as to aske Mr. Hind a civil question; which was granted. So pulling two books out of his pocket, the one entituled, Hind’s Ramble, The other Hind’s Exploits, asked him whether he had ever seen them or not: He answered, yes; And said upon the word of a Christian, they were fictions: But some merry Pranks and Revels I have plaid, that I deny not.

But Hind’s adherence to the Stuart cause was real enough, or at any rate something he had the 17th century media savvy to play up. At his execution, he professed pleasure in having targeted Roundheads for most of his crimes, and it was not theft that saw him to the scaffold, but treason. He made free royalist talk upon his arrest, proposing a toast to the exiled king that otherwise sympathetic guests were too cautious to take up.

Hind fits symbolically into the tradition of the romantic outlaw of Robin Hood stock, and anticipates the 18th century rogues’ gallery of noble brigands fighting a doomed rearguard against capitalism. Hind’s acts, criminal by any standard, are justified by the illegitimacy of the society he preys upon; he embodies at once a social and political rejection of the nascent mercantile England, and a biographical realization of its actuating mythos — personal aptitude and acquisition,* with a cover story for why his victims had it coming.

Neither did I ever wrong any poor man of the worth of a penny: but I must confess, I have (when I have been necessitated thereto) made bold with a rich Bompkin, or a lying Lawyer, whose full-fed fees from the rich Farmer, doth too too much impoverish the poor cottage-keeper: And truly I could wish, that thing were as little used in England amongst Lawyers, as the eating of Swines-flesh was amongst the Jews.

A dead-end position — just like James Hind himself.

* In a supposed rhapsody over gold forced from the hand of John Bradshaw — yet another regicide; Hind seemingly met them at every turn — our robber rather has his cake and eats it too in extolling and condemning lucre.

Ay, marry, sir, this is the metal that wins my heart for ever. Oh! precious gold, I admire thee as much as Bradshaw, Prynne or other such villains, who would for the sake of it sell our Redeemer again, were He now upon earth.

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1994: Johannes van Damme, heroin smuggler

9 comments September 23rd, 2008 Headsman

At dawn this date in 1994, Dutch citizen Johannes van Damme was hanged at Singapore’s Changi Prison for drug trafficking.

The first westerner hanged under Singapore’s draconian anti-drug law, the engineer had been nabbed at the airport with 4.32 kilos of heroin.

Van Damme, 59 at his death, claimed ignorance of the illicit contents and his case drew appeals from the Dutch government — to no avail.

The city-state’s severe criminal code and comprehensively ordered society — “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” in cyberpunk author William Gibson’s formulation — is somewhat notorious at this point.

But while foreign migrants and guest workers had regularly faced the gallows for similar offenses, van Damme’s hanging marked a significant ramping-up of enforcement. According to Amnesty International, Singapore carried out 54 drug-related hangings in 1994 and another 52 in 1995, after an early-90’s pace of under ten per year. It’s maintained rates in the dozens of executions per annum since then, making it the heaviest per-capita user of the death penalty in the world.

And it doesn’t mind making its visitors sweat about it.

Welcome to Singapore. You’ll also see the warning on your embarkation card.

An intensified pace perhaps came with a new resolve on the part of the former British colony to forswear juridical perks to European offenders — at least to some extent. Van Damme’s fate makes an interesting contrast with that of his countrywoman, Maria Krol-Hmelak (the link is to her scanty Dutch Wikipedia page). Krol-Hmelak had been arrested a few months before van Damme also for possessing enough heroin to be presumed a smuggler and incur an automatic death sentence; at her trial a few months after van Damme’s, she received a surprise acquittal.

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1776: Nathan Hale, with regrets

4 comments September 22nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1776, Revolutionary spy Nathan Hale was hanged by the British in Manhattan — allegedly uttering the immortal last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Nathan Hale statuary (with bound feet and hands) ironically stationed at Washington D.C.’s Department of Justice. Like statues are at the Chicago Tribune building and the Yale University campus; dueling plaques in New York contend to mark the execution spot.

Two years out of Yale when the Revolution broke out in 1775, the Connecticut-born Hale hitched onto the Continental Army and was directly promoted to captain.

When British Gen. William Howe landed at New York in the summer of 1776, Nathan Hale volunteered to slip behind enemy lines and reconnoiter enemy strength for George Washington. It turned out to be his mission into eternity.

As one might suspect, there’s a great deal more to Nathan Hale than his last words — and a fair bit of uncertainty about what his last words really were. Hale’s Wikipedia page retails many versions of the line from many sources.

The sentiment commonly attributed him (formulated in slight variations, e.g., “I only regret that I have but one life to give to my country”) was supposed to have been reported by a British officer attending him; it’s certainly a punchier version than, e.g., a Revolutionary War era report of “I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is, that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.” Gah.

If all these presumably paraphrased reports have the gist right, it’s possible the 21-year-old recited an identical sentiment in the tragic play Cato:

How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.

There’s much more about this short-lived character and his larger-than-life transfiguration in mythologia Americana. The Library of Congress has a collection of links, and William Phelps recently penned this new (and surprisingly, first) biography of the revolutionary legend.

Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.

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