Archive for October, 2008

1858: Marion Ira Stout, for loving his sister

3 comments October 22nd, 2008 Headsman

It’s the sesquicentennial of a then-sensational, now-forgotten hanging in Rochester, N.Y.

At dawn on December 20, 1857, the city had awoken to the discovery of a mangled corpse by the Genesee River’s High Falls … and more than enough evidence to have the corpse’s killers in hand by tea time.

Marion Ira Stout — he just went by Ira — had made a dog’s breakfast of the job, according to History of Rochester and Monroe County New York from the Earliest Historic Times to the Beginning of 1907.

[W]hen they got near the edge of the bank, Ira struck his victim a sudden blow with an iron mallet, smashing the skull and producing death instantly. Stout then threw the body over the precipice, supposing that it would fall into the river and be swept into the lake before sunrise, but instead of that it landed on a projecting ledge thirty feet below the upper level. Perceiving that there had been some failure in the matter, Ira started to go down a narrow path that led sideways along the cliff, but in the darkness he missed his footing and fell headlong, breaking his left arm in the descent and landing beside the corpse. Summoning all his remaining strength he was just able to push the body over the bank, when he sank in a dead faint. On recovering from which in a few minutes, he called to his sister, who was still above, to come and help him. When she started to do so, the bushes to which she clung gave way; she stumbled, broke her left wrist, and fell beside her prostrate brother. But it would not do to remain there, wretched as was their plight. So, after searching in vain for Ira’s spectacles, which they had to leave behind them, but taking with them the fatal mallet, they scrambled slowly and painfully up the bank and made their way laboriously to their home on Monroe Street.

In lieu of a last statement, Stout referred his audience to this writing, which was published posthumously. Courtesy of the New York State Historical Association Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.

Sure enough, the glasses were waiting near the victim for the cops to find come daylight.

How did Ira, his sister, and the late Charles Littles — the sister’s husband — find themselves in this macabre dance?

That’s the murky bit, though it’s fair to say there was some negative energy in the family.

Littles was a violent, jealous, philandering drunk. His wife Sarah seems like the classic abused spouse. Ira was an ex-con who seemingly had his life back together. Oh, and Ira and Sarah were sleeping together — professedly true in the literal sense (they were observed to sleep in bed together in their underthings), and possibly true in the Biblical sense.

Now, where in this tangled knot of incestuous desire, domestic violence, protectiveness, jealousy and intrigue lies the motive is less than self-evident, but Ira and Sarah most definitely schemed to lure Charles to his demise. (Charles was found with a club which he’d brought to clobber a lover of Sarah that he’d been told would make a rendezvous.)

Still, the condemned charmer garnered sympathy for having saved his sister from an abusive marriage; Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass rallied to his defense, and a female admirer smuggled him poison to cheat the hangman … which said admirer managed to end up ingesting herself, and barely survived.

Death got all ten-thumbed around Ira Stout, it seems. His hanging was no different.

The New York Times‘ archive has free access to the report of Stout’s execution, interestingly detailing the upward-jerking “sudden suspension” hanging apparatus in use for the job:

The gallows is the same which has always been in use in the jail — the rope, a hempen cord, alone being new. A weight of 186 pounds rests upon a swing door set in the garret floor of the jail. From this weight, the rope runs over two pulleys above, and the end of it drops through two doors, and nearly to the main floor of the jail. The weight falls about eight feet, jerking the slack end that distance. The halter attached to the main rope is a long distance below the main enginery of death, and the latter is not seen by the spectators or prisoner. The Sheriff stood at the foot of the stairs, some forty feet from the prisoner, and by a small cord pulled the latch which let the fatal weight fall.

But since this is Ira Stout, you know it didn’t come off without a hitch.

The death of the ill-fated man was not as sudden as could be desired. His struggles for eight or ten minutes were severe, and caused the spectators to turn away in disgust.

His neck was probably not dislocated, and he died by a slow process of strangulation. Doctors Hall, Avery, James and Miller stood near, and in eight minutes after the drop fell they said his pulse was as full as in life.

Sort of puts a grim twist on Stout’s own (fairly self-pitying) letters to the papers, in one of which he remarked, “I do not wish to show a cowardly tenacity for life, but I consider it my right and duty to live as long as I can.”

According to a feature story in the newsletter of Mount Hope Cemetery where Ira Stout takes his eternal rest, he might have tried to hang on quite a bit longer.

A rumor was current last night at a late hour that Stout was not dead, and that efforts were being made to resuscitate him by the use of galvanic batteries and other means sometimes employed for the restoration of persons supposed to be dead. How much truth there is in the rumors thus made we cannot say, as we have not taken pains to inquire at the house of Mrs. Stout.

No surprise, that didn’t work either.

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Nine Executed People Who Make Great Halloween Costumes

9 comments October 22nd, 2008 Headsman

Executed Today’s Guide to Halloween, Part I (Click here for Part II.)

Grim, ghastly, and gruesome — it must be election time Halloween!

The grisliest tricks of the past are the tastiest treats of the season, and that makes Executed Today purpose-built for the occasion. Heck … that’s why it’s our anniversary.

That’s also why it’s rich with ghoulish inspiration for your Halloween costume.

For all the severed heads and flayed skins around here, the set of execution victims who are Halloween-ready is a limited one. It’s just not enough to be famous (or infamous); one must also have an iconography recognizable enough to get the public credit you deserve for your inspired disguise.

If you happen to roll with a crowd that’s totally going to get your Savonarola outfit, more power to you. The rest of us have to play to the masses.

But some few of our principals fit the bill well enough to be fine Halloween choices without too much exertion in the prep department.

Anne Boleyn

Even a character as renowned as Anne Boleyn is a little hard to play: quick, what does she look like?

But between The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl, there’s a current pop-culture context for the character (and plenty of precedents). Tudor garb plus the famous “B” necklace will be a dead giveaway for those in the know. For extra credit, add a prosthetic sixth finger to simulate her alleged polydactylism.

Accessories: Date decked out as Henry VIII … or as the French swordsman who beheaded her.

Marie Antoinette

You could rock this collection of Antoinette portraits, but unless you’re designing for a movie, an 18th century gown and a big tall stack of hair ought to do the trick.

Though ahistorical for Marie herself, a red ribbon around the neck, a la the post-Terror “Victim’s Balls”, makes a nice twist.

Accessories: Bring cake.

Joan of Arc

Armor, a Christian emblem, and a tomboyish look will take you home. Totally roust any English you come across.

Accessories: Business cards reading “Miss of Arc”.

Mata Hari

There’s the intrinsic sensuality of death and all, but the famous stripper-spy is this blog’s best choice for a sexy look still true to the theme.

Mata Hari was known for her (supposedly) Indian outfits and routines.

Accessories: Orientalism, by Edward Said.

Guy Fawkes

“The only man to enter parliament with honest intentions”: that is, to blow it up.

That V for Vendetta mask is re-usable for Guy Fawkes Day on — remember, remember? — the fifth of November.

Accessories: Let’s just say it’s nothing they’ll let you take on an airplane.

Charles I

Cromwell succeeded where Fawkes failed, at least as pertains the royal person. And if you’re the type who can sell a Charles I costume — possibly requiring a fairly highbrow room — you’ll have nigh outstripped the achievements of both.

The lush coiffure, the wispy facial hair, the delicate movements … not everyone can pull that stuff off. If you can, get your Alec Guinness impression down and you’re on your way to a date at Whitehall.

Accessories: The whole point is to wear the silly hat, isn’t it?

William Wallace

Francophiles may go for Vercingetorix, but Mel Gibson made Wallace the barbarian everyone loves to hang, draw and quarter.

Don’t neglect to bellow “FREEDOM!” repeatedly at the top of your lungs. Everyone loves that.

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Accessories: That big, swingin’ sword. You know what I’m talking about.

Saddam Hussein

Gone but not forgotten, Saddam offers a variety of looks:

  • Beaten, older Saddam, with salt-and-pepper beard (wear the noose with this look, unless you’re a dead ringer);

  • Haggard, fresh-captured Saddam (not recommended; neither the goofball look nor the implicit triumphalism square with the known sequel)
  • Younger, despotic Saddam, with crazy smile and military fatigues;
  • The Coen brothers’ “bowling alley Saddam” that can double as duds for your neighborhood Lebowski Fest.

Accessories: Be sure to complete the outfit by bringing Colin Powell. Seriously, he’ll be grateful for something to do.

Che Guevara

Love him or hate him, no post-World War II icon is more instantly recognizable than the Cuban guerrilla. Do your part, comrade! Contribute to the posthumous appropriation of his image with a “revolutionary” is-that-ironic-or-not-? Che costume.

Accessories: Che Guevara cigarettes. Che Guevara ankle socks. There’s no shortage of Che Guevara accessories to choose from; for a more meta look, go as Che’s mediated historical image by simply dressing entirely in various Che-branded apparel.

Creative Commons pumpkin image courtesy of fabbio

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Seven Generic Halloween Costumes You Can Spice Up With an Execution Story

4 comments October 22nd, 2008 Headsman

Executed Today’s Guide to Halloween, Part II (Click here for Part I.)

Not enough time to assemble an individual masterpiece to play Halloween make-believe? Looking at that off-the-rack costume, that witch outfit from last year, and sighing that it’ll have to do?

No sweat.

Let Executed Today help you go from so generic to sui generis with a horrible backstory that adds conversation-starting depth to the most bland of disguises.

Witch

The Halloween standby has a few hundred thousand real-life executions of which we’ve covered a bare handful.

Anne de Chartraine, a Walloon teenager burnt for witchcraft during the Thirty Years’ War, makes a good characterization of the classic black-hat-and-broomstick outfit.

More complex occultist disguises might consider presenting themselves as poisoner La Voisin, author Jacques Cazotte or the Weirs.

Pirate

Avast, ye sea-dog — there be more pirates than Blackbeard.

Men (especially leftists, anarchists and Bostonians — but I repeat myself) will enjoy answering the inevitable question when representing as William Fly. Ladies — think Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Ghost

Appropriately, the Great White North has interesting specters to round out the old white-sheet look. Haunt the scene of the kegstand as Madame Marie Josephte Corriveau or assassin Patrick Whelan.

Roman

Cicero is an obvious choice for the toga set, but consider writing Catiline on the nametag instead.

For the whole centurion look, call yourself Sejanus and start settling scores.

Soldier

There are many military looks for many times and places, of course, lots of them liable to be politically touchy in the wrong crowd.

Partisans like Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya and Evagoras Pallikarides cut heroic figures with a plain set of clothes, some basic military gear, and a knapsack full of consonants.

More formally equipped modern-ish choices of various different lands include Francisco Caamano, Breaker Morant, Mikhael Tukhachevsky, Claus von Stauffenberg, Dmytro Bilinchuk, Emil August Fieldorf, and Theophile Maupas et al.

Werewolf

This blog will always have a special place at the stake for supposed real-life lycanthrope Peter Stubbe, the “Werewolf of Bedburg” who was profiled in our very first post: he was executed October 31, 1589.

Executioner

Of course, there is one ubiquitous character in these pages — and his face isn’t always well-hidden.

Klutzy Brit Jack Ketch, prolific French Revolution headsman Sanson, U.S. President Grover Cleveland and (helpfully, for Halloween) flamboyantly costumed Italian executioner Mastro Titta are among the famous characters to tread the scaffold boards.

Creative Commons pumpkin image courtesy of fabbio

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1407: Chen Zuyi, Zheng He’s prisoner

Add comment October 21st, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date this month in 1407, a Sumatran pirate was put to death in Nanking (or Nanjing) to the glory of the Yongle Emperor.

The day’s subject is not the corpse, but Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho or Ma Sanbao), the Muslim Chinese eunuch-mariner whose early 15th century expeditions to the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and beyond* pointed the way to a sea-striding colonial future that his country turned its back upon.

On the first of Zheng’s seven expeditions, his enormous fleet did battle with Chen Zuyi, whose own substantial armada based in Palembang controlled the strategic Strait of Malacca.

Five thousand pirates are said to have gone to Davy Jones’ locker in Zheng’s victory; his captured enemy got a ride back to the Chinese capital to be made an example of.

But Zheng’s heroics in this adventure and others did not long outlive the emperor Zhu Di.

He had rivals at court. Enormous treasure ships don’t come cheap, and though they brought back curiosities like giraffes, they didn’t earn back their investment in new tribute; the state budget had competing priorities, while China’s concern with the sea was so overwhelmingly fear of piracy that it all but shut down maritime activity for a time.

Though the pat story of Chinese isolationism might be a tad overstated, hindsight from New World locales with Spanish or English or French names rather than Chinese ones still can’t help but see the aborted age of discovery as a turning point.

An enormous, wealthy, centralized state on the rim of the Pacific Ocean, with the baddest seafaring flotilla around. If you had to pick the world’s probable leading colonial power of the coming centuries, you’d probably have put your money on China in October 1407.

Chen Zuyi sure would have.

* To America ahead of Christopher Columbus? To Italy to launch the Renaissance? To 1955 to inspire Chuck Berry? Hey, whatever pays the bills.

Point. Counterpoint.

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1865: Champ Ferguson, Confederate guerrilla

6 comments October 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Champ Ferguson was controversially hanged at Nashville for the “murders” he committed as a Confederate guerrilla.

There seems to be some slight difference of opinion (and do click that link) over Champ‘s role in the War Between the States.

Had the Confederate cause prevailed, he probably would have been a hero. Since history is written by the winners … here he is instead.

For reasons that lie in the uncertain junction between personal enmity and sectional loyalty, the war’s start saw Ferguson terrorizing Union supporters in the Kentucky-Tennessee borderlands, operating primarily around Sparta, Tenn.

These were not only state borders, but borders between the rival federal and Confederate territories. Civil War borders, obviously, were hazy and violently contested affairs: Kentucky was northern-controlled but claimed by both sides (it had rival governments); Tennessee seceded only after Fort Sumter.

Loyalties within Kentucky and Tennessee were divided as well. Ferguson’s own brother died fighting for the Union, and his cousin was killed by Ferguson’s own men. But the main battles were fought far away, leaving the conflict to play out locally.

In many cases … guerrillas identifying with the Confederacy operated well outside Confederate lines and Confederate control, leading to a certain ambiguity in official attitudes, since they did have their uses.

Guerrilla activity was … a feature of those up-country or back-country areas of states like North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, in which there were significant internal divisions in terms of sympathy for Confederacy or Union … guerrilla conflict was the only direct face of war experienced by many in Tennessee and Kentucky, since the movements of the main armies remained distant from them throughout. Unionist guerrillas, for example, controlled many of the counties of eastern Tennessee, while Confederate guerrillas disputed Union control of western Kentucky and middle Tennessee. One of the ironies of the situation in the Appalachians, the Cumberlands and the Ozarks was that, while these areas of rugged terrain were favoured by Confederate guerrillas, they were also the very areas within the Confederacy which most Union sympathisers inhabited

-Ian Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies

That was Ferguson — a “legendary Confederate partisan and guerrilla” or little better than a bandit, depending on your point of view. Either way, he was feared by area Unionists and renowned for killing prisoners. Stories of his savagery — severing heads and the like — made the rounds. Ferguson would argue (and did) that he did nothing his enemies weren’t also doing. (The New York Times printed a lengthy account (.pdf) of Ferguson’s versions of the many killings he was accused of — disputing some, frankly acknowledging many.)

That brings us back to winners and losers.

Ferguson, of course, got the losers’ treatment after the war; while vendettas against rank and file Confederate officers were not on the agenda, Ferguson’s irregular status and unbecoming reputation set him up for a war crimes trial. All attempts to claim wartime protections were rejected.

The Times account of his hanging this day — witnessed by his wife and 16-year-old daughter; their alleged rape is sometimes given as the reason for Ferguson’s campaign — is picturesque. (.pdf)

He stood composedly on the drop some twenty minutes, while the charges, specifications and sentence were read by Col. Shafter. He nodded recognition to several persons in the crowd, and shifted his position in an impatient manner while the sentence was being read. To some specifications he inclined his head in assent. To others he shook his head. That about Elam Huddleston caused him to say, “I can tell it better than that.” When the speaker read, “To all of which the prisoner pleads not guilty,” he said, “I don’t now.”


An 1865 Harper’s illustration of the hanging. See the way the troops surround the scaffold? There’s a bit of folklore that the military did that in order to fake the hanging and cut him down still alive.

Along with Henry Wirz, commandant of the notorious Confederate prison Andersonville, Ferguson was the only Confederate executed for Civil War “war crimes.”

Arguably somewhat neglected as a Civil War figure, Ferguson still has a few books detailing his life. An interview with the a author of the newly-published Cumberland Blood: Champ Ferguson’s Civil War is here.

A few books about Champ Ferguson

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2005: Wang Binyu, desperate migrant laborer

3 comments October 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 2005, a Chinese murderer who became the unlikely symbol of migrant laborers’ desperate plight was — quickly and quietly — put to death.

Binyu knifed four people to death, which isn’t the typical stuff to earn a public outpouring. In the course of things, he’d ordinarily have gone to his grave in the anonymity that attends most Chinese executions, perhaps not even a number to international monitors who struggle to ballpark China’s executions to the nearest thousand.

But the government news service published a surprisingly sympathetic interview of him, raising the case up for public comment that state authorities surely did not intend.

Jobbed

Wang earned his sentence during an altercation that occurred as he tried to collect years of unpaid back wages from his employer. It was the last of several encounters of escalating desperation driven by Wang’s father’s need for expensive medical treatment. Wang’s boss kept refusing to settle with his man, ultimately barring him from the factory premises.

In a China shaken by industrialization — proletarianization — Wang’s plight struck a chord. (Although there may have been a mistaken sense that he killed the nasty boss; in fact, the victims were the foreman and other factory employees who’d been detailed to force him out.) China has 200 million migrant workers like Wang, collectively owed billions in unpaid wages they have scant prospect of recovering.

I want to die. When I am dead, nobody can exploit me anymore. Right?

Exploitation at an end, Wang Binyu became the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning profile* in the New York Times; some additional coverage is here. The briefly vigorous conversation about his case in China, however, was forcibly shut down.

* The Pulitzer was actually awarded to the Times’ Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley for a series of articles on the Chinese justice system; the linked story on Wang Binyu is one of eight.

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31: Sejanus, captain of the Praetorian Guard

14 comments October 18th, 2008 Headsman

Over the course of this day in 31, Lucius Aelius Seianus went from virtual master of the Roman Empire to strangulation at the order of the Senate.

Patrick Stewart as Sejanus in I, Claudius.

Known simply as Sejanus, he was of equestrian stock who rose to prefect the Praetorian Guard when Tiberius succeeded Augustus as Rome’s first citizen.

It was not yet the “infamous Praetorian Guard”. Sejanus would make it so: his were the institutional aggrandizement — long outliving Sejanus — that would position the Guard to arbitrate imperial succession; his the persecutorial internal policing that made it a swords-and-sandals Gestapo.

Sejanus maneuvered skillfully towards supreme power in Rome — and ruthlessly enough that he is suspected of having murdered Tiberius’s son and heir Drusus. Though the Emperor refused a dynastic marriage with Drusus’s widow that would have set Sejanus up for official succession, the Praetorian had the purple in all but name in the late 20’s when Tiberius decamped for the dissolution of Capri.

The usual sort of thing ensued: spies, informers, purges and political murders.

The Republic had been down this road before. After the peace of Augustus, it was a chilling preview of Imperial Rome’s coming attractions.

Unlike most of those, the Sejanus issue was ultimately resolved without civil war. Finally wise to his captain’s game, Tiberius snuffed out the threat in a single blow without bestirring himself from his island retreat by sending word to convoke Sejanus and the Senate to elevate the soldier to the tribunate … and having a letter there read which demanded the soldier’s arrest.

That august old body — “men fit to be slaves,” in Tiberius’s estimation — took it from there. Sejanus was summarily executed this very evening, his body torn apart by the mob, and a witch hunt for his lieutenants and supporters immediately began.

Nice coverage of Sejanus and Tiberius on the History of Rome podcast.

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1622: Anne de Chantraine, young witch

2 comments October 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1622, Anne de Chantraine was burned at the stake for witchcraft in Waret-la-Chaussee, Belgium.

Our day’s heroine answers most prominently to fictional modern interpretations — about which more in a moment — but Anne de Chantraine was a flesh-and-blood person, at least for 17 years.*

In outline form, Anne is said to have faced the usual litany of sorcerous allegations and the usual ordeals to demonstrate guilt, with the usual result: confession, execution. Here in the opening years of the Thirty Years’ War coeval with the the conflicts of the Protestant Reformation, one cannot but suspect the fearful hand of endangered authority in witch-hunts. Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper argued that

this recrudescence of the witch-craze in the 1560s was directly connected with the return of religious war … It can be shown from geography: every major outbreak is in the frontier-area where religious strife is not intellectual, a dissent of opinion, but social, the dissidence of a society. … Thereafter, almost every local outbreak can be related to the aggression of one religion upon the other.

Anne de Chantraine’s environs fit the theorem.

The Walloon region of Liege at this point was governed by a Catholic Prince-Bishop of Habsburg stock, just as the Holy Roman Empire was putting down the Protestant stirrings in Bohemia that would initiate Europe’s epochal war and send armies to and fro through the Low Countries. Said Prince-Bishop, name of Ferdinand of Bavaria, would win renown as a zealous persecutor of the diabolical in his realms.

Alas for Anne.

She’s a bit better documented among Francophones (see this biography in French, for instance, full of sensual details like the gorgeous red hair, a spurned lover accusing her, and the rough play of medieval torture; there’s also a brief roundup in German here), but worldwide, she’s a literary character of some consequence — most notably, perhaps, through the work of Belgian author Francoise Mallet-Joris: her 1968 Trois âges de la nuit (translated to English as simply The Witches) presents Anne de Chantraine as the focal point of one of three vignettes reimagining real historical “witches” as persons struggling for spiritual growth.

Anne, in this version, does participate in (staged, not-really-supernatural) witches’ sabbaths, plus a lesbian affair with a fellow participant. Her seekings both godly and infernal (paralleled by lifestyles both monastic and hedonistic) fall short of satisfactory; in the end, exercising magic unto her own death is a form of self-actualization among fellow people who, unable to recognize her humanity, brutalize or ignore her.

Players of the long-running video board game Atmosfear (or Nightmare) will also recognize Anne de Chantraine as a recurring witch character. The series uses recordings (VCR tapes originally; DVDs now) played during gameplay; “the witch” is featured as the central character in Atmosfear III/Nightmare III:

(In the comment thread for this video on YouTube, the French actress Frederique Fouche drops in to confirm her part as the witch. According to this French interview, the role caused her to become an emigre in Australia.)

* Some reports say she was burned at age 17, others that she was arrested at 17, which would have made her 18 or 19 at her death.

Part of the Themed Set: Belles Epoque.

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1793: Marie Antoinette

15 comments October 16th, 2008 Headsman

This afternoon in Paris, 1793, the French Revolution devoured the Queen.

Thirteen-year-old Madame Antoine — a year before marriage, and rebranding as Marie Antoinette. A vast gallery of her portraiture awaits here.

Among the most emblematic death penalty victims in history, Marie Antoinette — the “widow Capet,” as she was styled in egalite, after the guillotine shortened her husband — had the bad luck to personify the decadence of the ancien regime under the hegemony of the sans-culotte.

(And, of course, the good luck to be born heir to all the perks of absolutism she enjoyed for the first thirty-plus years of life. So, you know: a mixed bag.)

Those infamous excesses — and her infamous alleged bon mot, “let them eat cake” — are said to have been greatly exaggerated, nothing that everyone wasn’t doing, nothing that wasn’t understandable under the circumstances.

She had a gift, it seems, for accumulating to her personal reputation the outrage incurred by every gross and petty indulgence of the old order. And she had a popular press, the libelles, ready to embroider them salaciously.

Poor Marie.

Jacques-Louis David sketched this portrait of a haggard Marie Antoinette en route to the guillotine.

Cruel, wanton, senseless … her death was all of these, but then many others in the Terror suffered the same, as many others had under the Bourbons.

As royal dynastic pairings go, she’d been dealt a bad hand.

Her mere presence in France was fruit of the controversial policy of alliance with the Austrian Habsburgs from the Seven Years’ War, and she was trundled off with her dowry and her teenage wiles to the foreign snakepit of Versailles just as the minister advancing that policy fell. Distrusted by the French as an Austrian catspaw, castigated by her family for her inadequacies thereto, socially expected to display conspicuous regal largesse during a budget crisis not of her making, and unable for the longest time to get a successful coition from her indifferent and/or impotent husband, it must have seemed to her some days like every play was a losing one.

She struggled to gain traction at court. But she would lose much more than influence.

I was a queen, and you took away my crown; a wife, and you killed my husband; a mother, and you deprived me of my children. My blood alone remains: take it, but do not make me suffer long. (WikiQuote)

Her bearing she kept forever: in a kangaroo court with a foreordained outcome where her imperious dignity still managed to turn aside an accusation of sexual abuse her son had been cajoled into supplying; on the scaffold, when she did not neglect courtesy to the executioner whose foot she trod:

“Monsieur, je vous demande pardon. Je ne l’ai pas fait exprès.”

For much more queenliness, Marie-Antoinette.org delivers what the url promises, in quantity. If this figure or this period appeals, be sure to browse its forums.

Naturally, the doomed queen has had plenty of attention from printed word as well:

A few books about Marie Antoinette

As well as less, er, traditional media.

Part of the Themed Set: Belles Epoque.

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1917: Mata Hari, femme fatale

6 comments October 15th, 2008 Headsman

At 5 a.m. this date in 1917, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle — better known as Mata Hari — was awoken at Saint-Lazare Prison to news that it was her last day on earth.

She died in a muddy drill field outside Paris, facing a firing squad as she had lived: self-possessed, mysterious, her eyes (she refused a blindfold) open.

For the oldest profession, it may be there is nothing truly original, nothing new under the sun. But Mata Hari — thanks in no small part to her genuinely fatale end — redefined it for the dawning age of mass visual media and tapped the power of sexual allure for a commercial century.

She was already pushing 30 when she got into the exotic dance game, with a failed May-December marriage behind her from what a wag might call her first sexual bargain, to get out from under the thumb of her family and see the world. In Paris in the belle epoque, there were assuredly dancers younger, prettier. Margaretha, who here debuted the show name by which history would know here, surpassed them with showmanship.

She exploited her exotic olive-toned looks — there were rumors of Javanese or Jewish blood even in her childhood — and claimed to be an Indian princess; her talent for repackaging oriental exoticism with just the right amount of otherness combined with her willingness to push boundaries of eroticism made her an instant sensation. Naturally gregarious and unprudish, she segued into the courtesan biz on the side with dashing officers and wealthy industrialists.

Not bad for a thirty-something mother of two.

She comes at the start of our own era: sensual postcards and posed photos of Mata Hari were at once her pitch and her product; celluloid was just coming online, and 14 years after her death, she’d be portrayed by silver screen femme fatale Greta Garbo:

That’s her with the last object of her affections, a Russian aviator young enough to be her son, and a reminder that the birth of Greta Garbo’s era was also the death of Mata Hari’s own.

She was aging, for one thing. For another, of course, war shattered Europe. Famous, decadent, polyglot … those things that had been her passport suddenly became her liabilities. Globetrotting travel? Payoffs from a multinational cast of officers for her companionship?

There’s no take here on whether she was really, as convicted, a German spy of any variety at all — she seems to have been approached, to have tried her hand clumsily or to have been set up by either French or German intelligence, or simply to have behaved indiscreetly. Once she was caught up against events, her maneating reputation did her no favors.

Spying, she was terrible at. Commanding men’s attention? As a British correspondent reported, Margaretha Zelle owned her role to the very last.

The first intimation she received that her plea had been denied was when she was led at daybreak from her cell in the Saint-Lazare prison to a waiting automobile and then rushed to the barracks where the firing squad awaited her.

Never once had the iron will of the beautiful woman failed her. Father Arbaux, accompanied by two sisters of charity, Captain Bouchardon, and Maitre Clunet, her lawyer, entered her cell, where she was still sleeping – a calm, untroubled sleep, it was remarked by the turnkeys and trusties.

The sisters gently shook her. She arose and was told that her hour had come.

‘May I write two letters?’ was all she asked.

Consent was given immediately by Captain Bouchardon, and pen, ink, paper, and envelopes were given to her.

She seated herself at the edge of the bed and wrote the letters with feverish haste. She handed them over to the custody of her lawyer.

Then she drew on her stockings, black, silken, filmy things, grotesque in the circumstances. She placed her high-heeled slippers on her feet and tied the silken ribbons over her insteps.

She arose and took the long black velvet cloak, edged around the bottom with fur and with a huge square fur collar hanging down the back, from a hook over the head of her bed. She placed this cloak over the heavy silk kimono which she had been wearing over her nightdress.

Her wealth of black hair was still coiled about her head in braids. She put on a large, flapping black felt hat with a black silk ribbon and bow. Slowly and indifferently, it seemed, she pulled on a pair of black kid gloves. Then she said calmly:

‘I am ready.’

The party slowly filed out of her cell to the waiting automobile.

The car sped through the heart of the sleeping city. It was scarcely half-past five in the morning and the sun was not yet fully up.

Clear across Paris the car whirled to the Caserne de Vincennes, the barracks of the old fort which the Germans stormed in 1870.

The troops were already drawn up for the execution. The twelve Zouaves, forming the firing squad, stood in line, their rifles at ease. A subofficer stood behind them, sword drawn.

The automobile stopped, and the party descended, Mata Hari last. The party walked straight to the spot, where a little hummock of earth reared itself seven or eight feet high and afforded a background for such bullets as might miss the human target.

As Father Arbaux spoke with the condemned woman, a French officer approached, carrying a white cloth.

‘The blindfold,’ he whispered to the nuns who stood there and handed it to them.

‘Must I wear that?’ asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold.

Maitre Clunet turned interrogatively to the French officer.

‘If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,’ replied the officer, hurriedly turning away. .

Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her.*

The officer in command of the firing squad, who had been watching his men like a hawk that none might examine his rifle and try to find out whether he was destined to fire the blank cartridge which was in the breech of one rifle, seemed relieved that the business would soon be over.

A sharp, crackling command and the file of twelve men assumed rigid positions at attention. Another command, and their rifles were at their shoulders; each man gazed down his barrel at the breast of the women which was the target.

She did not move a muscle.

The underofficer in charge had moved to a position where from the corners of their eyes they could see him. His sword was extended in the air.

It dropped. The sun – by this time up – flashed on the burnished blade as it described an arc in falling. Simultaneously the sound of the volley rang out. Flame and a tiny puff of greyish smoke issued from the muzzle of each rifle. Automatically the men dropped their arms.

At the report Mata Hari fell. She did not die as actors and moving picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot. She did not throw up her hands nor did she plunge straight forward or straight back.

Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. She lay prone, motionless, with her face turned towards the sky.

A non-commissioned officer, who accompanied a lieutenant, drew his revolver from the big, black holster strapped about his waist. Bending over, he placed the muzzle of the revolver almost – but not quite – against the left temple of the spy. He pulled the trigger, and the bullet tore into the brain of the woman.

Mata Hari was surely dead.

* Inevitably, a story got around that she’d opened her funereal coat to the firing squad, revealing no clothing beneath it.

Part of the Themed Set: Belles Epoque.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Espionage,Execution,Famous,France,Germany,History,Language,Netherlands,Popular Culture,Sex,Shot,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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