Archive for December, 2008

1855: The slave Celia, who had no right to resist

5 comments December 21st, 2008 Caitlin GD Hopkins

(Thanks to Caitlin at Vast Public Indifference for the guest post -ed.)

In 1850, 60-year-old Robert Newsom, a prosperous farmer, traveled forty miles from his home in Callaway County, Missouri to neighboring Audrain County to buy a slave. Newsom was the head of a large and complex household that included several of his grown children, grandchildren, and five enslaved boys and men. His wife had died a few years earlier, a consideration that may have influenced his decision to purchase a female slave, a fourteen-year-old girl named Celia.

From the first day, Newsom treated Celia as his concubine. Testimony given before the Missouri Supreme Court in 1855 indicates that Newsom raped Celia for the first time on the journey home from the slave market. He installed her in a small cabin behind his house, where he continued to rape her on a regular basis over the next five years. During that time, she gave birth to two children.

In the spring of 1855, Celia began a relationship with George, another slave on the farm, and soon discovered that she was pregnant again. At George’s urging, Celia approached Newsom’s daughters and pled with them to protect her from their father during her pregnancy. The oldest daughter, Mary, later testified that Celia had threatened to hurt Newsom if he came to her cabin again, but there is no evidence that either she or her sister intervened.

On the night of June 23, 1855, Robert Newsom went to Celia’s cabin, no doubt intent on raping her yet again. He never returned to his own home.

Although Celia was never allowed to testify in her own defense, investigators reconstructed the events of the night through a combination of physical evidence and Celia’s confession. Fearful of Newsom, Celia had hidden a hefty stick in a corner of her cabin. When Newsom attacked her that night, Celia retrieved her weapon and beat him to death with it. She then dismembered the body and burned it to ashes in her fireplace. The next morning, Celia offered Newsom’s eleven-year-old grandson two dozen walnuts in exchange for his help cleaning out the fireplace and spreading the ashes in the yard.

The jury that convicted Celia of murder accepted her confession as fact, but some elements of her tale do not ring true. As Melton McLaurin observes in his book, Celia, A Slave, the task of cutting enough wood and tending the roaring fire necessary to consume a human corpse in a single night “would have taxed the strength of a healthy woman, and Celia was pregnant and sick” (McLaurin, 49). McLaurin implies that George either helped Celia or was primarily responsible for Newsom’s demise and that Celia may have lied to protect him. George disappeared shortly after the murder and was never arrested or charged.

Celia stood trial for Newsom’s murder in October of 1855 (State of Missouri v. Celia, a Slave). Her lawyer, John Jameson, argued that Celia was legally entitled to defend herself from a would-be rapist under an 1845 law that made any attempt “to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled” a felony. He requested that the jury be instructed that

The words “any woman” in the first clause of the 29th section, of second article of laws of Missouri for 1845, concerning crimes & punishments, embrace slave women, as well as free white women.

The judge, William Augustus Hall, refused to honor the defense’s motion. Instead, he instructed the jury that a slave had no right to resist her master, even in the case of sexual assault. The jury found Celia guilty and sentenced her to death. (Celia’s child was delivered stillborn in prison.) The Missouri Supreme Court denied her appeal, and she was hanged on December 21, 1855.

Celia’s story is currently part of the interactive Slavery and the Making of America exhibit at PBS.org.

For more information, please see the following books:

McLaurin, Melton A. Celia, a Slave: A True Story. (University of Georgia Press, 1991). Google Books preview

Gordon-Reed, Annette, ed. Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History. (Oxford University Press, 2002). Google Books preview.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Missouri,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Slaves,USA,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1786: Hannah Ocuish, age 12

19 comments December 20th, 2008 Caitlin GD Hopkins

(Thanks to Caitlin at Vast Public Indifference for the guest post -ed.)

On December 20, 1786, the Sheriff of New London, Conn., led a distraught 12-year-old girl to the gallows, placed a rope around her neck, and hanged her in front of a crowd of spectators. The girl was Hannah Ocuish, a young member of the Pequot nation. She was charged with the murder of six-year-old Eunice Bolles, a white girl with whom Hannah had quarreled the previous summer.

While it is difficult to get a clear picture of Hannah’s life from the available sources, it is clear that hers was not a comfortable existence. An appendix to Rev. Henry Channing’s execution sermon notes that Hannah’s mother was “an abandoned creature, much addicted to the vice of drunkenness,” who sent Hannah to work as a servant in a white family’s home. At the age of six, Hannah was accused of beating a white child while trying to steal her necklace. The anonymous author describes Hannah’s character thus:

Her conduct, as appeared in evidence before the honorable Superior Court was marked with almost every thing bad. Theft and lying were her common vices. To these were added a maliciousness of disposition which made the children in the neighborhood much afraid of her. She had a degree of artful cunning and sagacity beyond many of her years.

This description, expressed in terms designed to emphasize the importance of training children in obedience, may or may not be accurate. Regardless, all evidence suggests that Hannah was alone in a hostile world.

On July 21, 1786, someone found Eunice Bolles’ body at the side of the road outside Norwich, Conn. The corpse displayed signs of extreme trauma: “the head and body were mangled in a shocking manner, the back and one arm broken, and a number of heavy stones placed on the body, arms and legs.” Investigators questioned Hannah, who initially denied any involvement, but mentioned that she had seen a group of boys on the road earlier. The town officials did not believe her. On July 22, “she was closely questioned, but repeatedly denied that she was guilty.” Still unconvinced, the investigators “carried [Hannah] to the house where the body lay, and being charged with the crime, burst into tears and confessed that she killed her, saying if she could be forgiven she would never do so again.”

Hannah’s confession, which was accepted as truth by the court, indicated that she had sought revenge on Eunice because the younger girl had “complained of her in strawberry time … for taking away her strawberries.” When Hannah saw Eunice walking to school alone, she beat and choked her, covering the body with rocks “to make people think that the wall fell upon her and killed her.”

Rev. Henry Channing, a talented local minister, visited Hannah in prison many times, urging her to repent so that her soul might be spared. On the day of her execution, he delivered a thundering sermon entitled, God Admonishing His People of Their Duty as Parents and Masters, which held Hannah up as an example of what could happen if parents did not raise their children to be “dutiful and obedient.”

Her crimes, he argued, were the “natural consequences of too great parental indulgence,” and warned that “appetites and passions unrestrained in childhood become furious in youth; and ensure dishonour, disease and an untimely death.” In the portion of the sermon directed at Hannah herself, Channing did his best to scare her into repentance:

HANNAH! — prisoner at the bar– agreeably to the laws of the land you have arraigned, tried and convicted of the crime of murder … The good and safety of society requires, that no one, of such a malignant character, shall be suffered to live, and the punishment of death is but the just demerit of your crime: and the sparing you on account of your age, would, as the law says, be of dangerous consequence to the publick, by holding up an idea, that children might commit such atrocious crimes with impunity … And you must consider that after death you must undergo another trial, infinitely more solemn and awful than what you have here passed through, before that God against whom you offended; at whose bar the deceased child will appear as a swift witness against you — And you will be condemned and consigned to an everlasting punishment, unless you now obtain a pardon, by confessing and sincerely repenting of your sins, and applying to his sovereign grace, through the merits of his Son, Jesus Christ, for mercy, who is able and willing to save the greatest offenders, who repent and believe in him.

At her trial in October, Hannah “appeared entirely unconcerned,” but as the date of her execution approached, she began to show fear. In early December, visitors began to ask her how long she had to live, and Hannah “would tell the Number of her Days with manifest Agitation.” On December 19th, she “appeared in great Distress . . . and continued in Tears most of the Day, and until her Execution.” Witnesses to her execution reported that Hannah “seemed greatly afraid when at the Gallows.” With her last words, she “thanked the Sheriff for his kindness, and launched into the eternal World.”

In the United States, the youngest children put to death by the government have all be children of color. James Arcene, a Cherokee boy, was only 10 or 11 years old when he was hanged for committed a robbery and murder that resulted in his 1885 hanging in Arkansas.* At 12, Hannah Ocuish was the youngest female offender executed by any state. In the 20th century, the youngest children executed were both African-American: 13-year-old Fortune Ferguson of Florida (1927) and 14-year-old George Stinney of South Carolina (1944).

In 2005, the United States Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for criminals who committed their crimes as juveniles (Roper v. Simmons). The court split 5-4, with Jutices Scalia, O’Connor, Thomas, and Chief Justice Rehnquist dissenting. In his dissent, Justice Scalia excoriated the majority for considering international consensus (along with the laws of 30 of the 50 U.S. states) on the cruelty of executing children under the age of 18 when determining the standard for “cruel and unusual.” Justice Scalia, an avowed proponent of Constitutional originalism, proclaimed, “I do not believe that the meaning of our Eighth Amendment, any more than the meaning of other provisions of our Constitution, should be determined by the subjective views of five Members of this Court and like-minded foreigners.”

* This post originally asserted that Arcene was a juvenile when hanged. In fact, he was (or claimed to have been) 10 years old or so at the time he committed the crime, but was not tried and hanged until over a decade later. (This is corrected in the Arcene post.) -ed.

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1922: Seven Republican guerrillas in the Curragh of Kildare

15 comments December 19th, 2008 James Durney

(Thanks to author and historian James Durney for the guest post, an excerpt from On the One Road: Political Unrest in Kildare 1913-1994. -ed.)

Seven men were executed in the Glasshouse, in the Curragh Camp on December 19 in the biggest official executions of the Civil War. They were Patrick Bagnall and Patrick Mangan, Fairgreen, Kildare; Joseph Johnston, Station Road, Kildare; Bryan Moore and Patrick Nolan, Rathbride, Kildare; Stephen White, Abbey St. Kildare and James O’ Connor, Bansha, Co. Tipperary. These seven men, along with Comdt. Thomas Behan were found in a dug-out at Mooresbridge, on the edge of the Curragh, on the night of December 13. They were under the command of Comdt. Bryan Moore, 38, a veteran IRA officer, and comprised a section of the 6th Battn. Column. They were armed with rifles bought from a soldier stationed in Naas Barracks.

A detachment of troops from the Curragh searching a farmhouse at Mooresbridge, about one-and-a-half miles from the Curragh Camp, “found the proprietress in possession of a fully loaded Webley revolver.” A subsequent search disclosed a dug-out underneath a floor. The dug-out was surrounded by National soldiers who called on the men to come out. Eight men were in the dug-out, which was also found to contain 10 rifles, a quantity of ammunition, one exploder, a roll of cable and food supplies. When they surrendered Tom Behan was struck with a rifle butt and had his arm broken. When the captives were ordered into the back of a truck Tom Behan could not climb aboard because of his broken arm. He was struck again on the head with a rifle butt and died at the scene. Behan was a veteran IRA man and at the time of his death was Intelligence Officer, 1st Eastern Division. The Free State authorities claimed that Behan was shot while trying to escape through a window in the Glasshouse (so called because of its roof), issuing a statement saying: “One of the party of men arrested when trying to make his escape from the hut in which he was detained at the Curragh, ignoring the warning of the sentry to desist, was fired on and fatally wounded.” Mick Sheehan was in the Glasshouse at the time and thought it highly unusual that an experienced volunteer like Tom Behan would try to escape through such a small window. It was only years later that he found out the truth. The Glasshouse was a small stone and brick military prison up the hill where the military usually housed their own prisoners. It consisted of two floors enclosed within a twelve foot high walled enclosure with cells for 64 prisoners. During the Civil War, and after, it was used as a punishment block for Republican prisoners.

The remaining seven men were executed by firing squad on the morning of December 19. The following official report was issued from Army Headquarters, GHQ, on that evening: “Stephen White, Abbey Street, Kildare, labourer; Joseph Johnson, Station Road, Kildare, railway worker; Patrick Mangan, Fair Green, Kildare, railway worker; Patrick Nolan, Rathbride, Kildare, railway worker; Brian Moore, Rathbride, Kildare, labourer; James O’Connor, Bansha, Tipperary, railway worker; Patrick Bagnel, Fair Green, Kildare, labourer who with others, were arrested at Rathbride, Co. Kildare, on the 13th inst., were charged before a Military Committee with being in possession, without proper authority, of – 10 rifles, 200 rounds of ammunition therefor, 4 bomb detonators, 1 exploder.

“They were found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentence was duly executed this morning, 19th inst., at 8.30 a.m.”

This stone at Grey Abbey commemorates the seven IRA men. Image courtesy of Mario Corrigan.

They were all veteran IRA men and belonged to a column of ten which operated against railways, goods trains and some shops in the vicinity of Kildare. Five of them were on the derailment of engines at Cherryville on December 11 when they made a serious attempt to dislocate the whole railway service on the Great Southern and Western Railway Line. Two engines were taken out of a shed at Kildare and sent down the line by Cherryville. One engine ran out of steam and did no harm, while the other overturned and blocked the line for a considerable time. The column was also responsible for an ambush on National troops at the Curragh Siding on November 23 when a large party of troops were returning to Dublin after escorting prisoners to the Curragh Internment Camp. On their return journey the troops were fired on at the Curragh Siding and two were wounded. In the confusion a policeman was accidentally shot by a National soldier. Father Donnelly, chaplain to the troops, administered to the seven volunteers before their executions. They were shot one by one and were buried in the yard adjacent to the Glasshouse.

The last letters from the seven men were printed in the Republican paper Eire. /The Irish/ /Nation/. James O’Connor of Bansha wrote to his mother: “I am going to Eternal Glory tomorrow morning with six other true-hearted Irishmen.” Patrick Mangan wrote to his mother: “I am to be shot in the morning. I fought for Ireland and am sorry I could not do more… I have made my peace with God and was never so happy as tonight.”

On March 31 1923 Eire (The Irish Nation) printed the last poignant letters from Bryan Moore, Patrick Bagnell and Paddy Nolan under the title ‘Last letters of “executed” soldiers of the IRA.’*

Letter of Bryan Moore to his Brother.

Hare Park Prison, 18-12-22.

Dear Pat, – I am about to die for the Cause of Ireland as many did before. Pray for me and get the children to pray for me. I’ve just had the priest and will see him again in the morning at 6.30 and receive Holy Communion. He says we are to be envied the deaths we are about to meet, as we shall go straight to Heaven.

Do all you can for Father and Mother. Tell Mary and Kathleen to say a prayer for me every night,

Bryan.

Letter of Bryan Moore to Mother and Father.

Hare Park Prison, 18-12-22.

Dear Mother and Father, – I am about to be executed in the morning and I wish to bid you good-bye, and to ask you to pray for me and the rest of the boys.

I had the priest this evening and will see him again to night. I am resigned to die. God comfort you both.

Tell Johnny to pray for me. – Your loving Son.

Bryan.

Letter of Bryan Moore.

Hare Park Prison, 18-12-22.

Dear Johnny, – Good-bye, and be good to Father and Mother. Pray for me. – Bryan.

P.S. – You can do a man’s part by looking after Father and Mother. Tell them not to worry for me, as I am better off. God bless you.

Dear Annie, – Good-bye. God bless you. Pray for me.

Bryan.

Letter of Patrick Bagnall to his Uncle.

Hare Park Prison, 18-12-22.

Dear Jimmy, – I hope you and Willie are well. Tell all the boys and girls I was asking for them. I am writing to my sister and father. I am to be shot in the morning, 19th December, at 8.15. Mind Mary and do what you can for her. I know this will nearly kill her. We had a priest who heard our confessions. We are all here, seven of us – Johnston, Mangan, White, Moore, Nolan, Connor, and I. We are all to go “West” together, so don’t forget to pray for us. I know you and Willie will be sorry, but it is all for the best, and I hope it sets old Ireland free. We are not afraid to die.

Tell them all in Kildare I was asking for them. Don’t forget Harry Moore. We are dying happy anyway. So good-bye old Kildare, good-bye Jimmy and God bless you. I will meet you in Heaven. Tell Tom Byrne I was asking for him. – Your loving nephew, Paddy Bagnall.

The priest’s name and address is Father_____, Curragh Camp, a very nice man: you can write him if you want to. He said we will die like men anyway.

Letter of Paddy Nolan to his Father and Mother.

Curragh Camp Prison, 18-12-22.

Dear father and Mother, – I am writing my last few lines to you. I am to be executed to-morrow morning, and I hope you will bear it with the courage of an Irish Father and Mother. I am proud to die for the Cause I loved and honoured, and for which I give up my young life.

Six more of my comrades are to be executed. We have all been to confession and Holy Communion. Father ______ told us we would go straight to Heaven, so do not worry.

Dearest Mother, there are a few pounds in my suitcase, you can have them, or anything else in the house belonging to me.

Loving Father and Mother , good-bye for ever, – Your fond and faithful Son.

Paddy.

Father _____, Curragh Camp, sends his sympathies and prayers.

Letter of Paddy Nolan to his Elder Brothers and Sisters.

Curragh Camp Prison, 18-12-22.

My Dear Brothers and Sisters.

Now that I’m about to part from this world, I ask you for one favour – be kind and good to Father and Mother, and never dishonour the Cause for which I die – a Free and Independent Ireland. I bear no ill will to any person. Fond Sisters and Brothers, pray for me. Good-bye forever.

Paddy.

Letter to his Young Brothers and Sisters.

My Dear little ones, – I, your fond brother about to pass out of this world, ask you loving little ones to offer up your innocent prayers for me and my comrades on Christmas morning. Be good children, and always obey your parents and do everything in your power to make them happy. God bless you little ones. Good-bye for ever. – Paddy.

The executions caused a lot of bitterness locally. Both Mick Sheehan’s uncles, who had taken the pro-Treaty side, left the National Army. One, Capt. Patrick Kelly, who had served in the Republican Police, resigned his commission and went to the Civic Guards.

* The last letter of 18-year-old Stephen White, which seems not to have been printed at the time, can be read on this history of the day’s executions. -ed.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guerrillas,Guest Writers,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1878: John Kehoe, king and last of the Molly Maguires

17 comments December 18th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1878, John “Black Jack” Kehoe was hanged in Pottsville — as Pennsylvania’s anthracite trusts took a victory lap around the corpses of the Molly Maguires.

Even to say what the Mollies were is to take a side in their life-and-death struggle. Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine had poured into Pennsylvania’s coal mining country in the mid-19th century, where life in the mines was nasty, brutish and short, and the pay wasn’t anything to write home about either.

In a time when capital ruthlessly hunted any intimation of labor organizing and the Irish were a distinctly second-class people, the (apparent, or at least alleged) response of the Mollies was natural: form a secret society, and wring by threat of bodily harm the concessions it could not pursue by collective bargaining. For the recent Irish transplants, the tableau of a Catholic underclass working for a Protestant landlord who owned (and gouged on) everything in sight had a certain familiar feel.

Terrorists? They certainly used violence to achieve political objectives, at least if the testimony of their foes is credited. But they weren’t the only ones.

Mine owners turned public and private violence on Irish radicals pushing for things like the eight-hour day. The notorious strike-breaking Pinkerton Detective Agency was detailed to infiltrate the Mollies.

The main blow against the Mollies was struck over a period of (extrajudicial) vigilante justice in the mid-1870’s, culminating in “Pennsylvania’s Day of the Rope” in 1877, when ten supposed members were (judicially) hanged around the Keystone State.

Kehoe, a power broker in mining country with some sway at the capital who was reputed to call the shots among the Maguires, faced the hangman singly a year later for an 1862 cold-case murder so doubtfully ascribed to Kehoe that the governor hesitated to sign the death warrant.

He signed it just the same, marking a sort of ceremonial “end to Molly-ism.” The New York Times exulted two days hence “that the widely-extended and long-continued tyranny and terror of this association is at an end,” and all because the resolute executive had gone and sent a hempen message to “the savage and benighted population of the coal region.”

The lesson taught by the punishment of the Molly Maguires would have been shorn of much of its terror and impressiveness if the energetic and persistent efforts made in behalf of KEHOE, the reputed king of that organization, had resulted in rescuing him from the gallows. If they had even so far succeeded as to have caused his punishment to be commuted to imprisonment for life, the admonitory influence of his fate upon the murderous clain of whom he was the last surviving chief would have been greatly lessened, and the snake of Molly Maguire-ism, of which he was the forked tongue and fangs, might haply have been only scotched, not killed. … The law has shown that it has subtlety enough to hunt [the Molly Maguires] through every possible labyrinth of refuge and strip from them every artifice of disguise, and power enough to wring them out of the desperate grasp of sympathizing constituencies and crush them.

Florid.

Like we said, violence wasn’t the exclusive resort of one side. But the monopoly of violence … that was held, as always, by the same hands that held the monopolies. Sean Connery as Kehoe reflects on the uneven contest while awaiting his fate in a (fictional) exchange with the Pinkerton mole who condemned him from the 1970 film The Molly Maguires.*

Pennsylvania Gov. John Hartranft left office a few weeks later, and reflected in his outgoing address on the lessons “the manufacturers and operators” ought to draw from the late unpleasantness.

The Mollie Maguire murders, like the agrarian murders in Ireland, and the trades-union outrages, arsons, and machine-breakings in England, were not the work of the so-called criminal classes. They were essentially class murders … If some of the leading spirits of the class had been members of a board of arbitration as representatives of labor, with some of the employers or their agents as representatives of capital, it is not unreasonable to suppose that most of the disagreements that have kept the coal regions in a state of turmoil might have been amicably adjusted, and many of those who were assassinated and of those who have been hanged living to-day.

101 years later, Kehoe received what was thought to be the first and only posthumous pardon in the state’s history. The Mollies’ true extent, purpose and actual actions — even their very existence as anything but a stalking-horse for the more thorough conquest of surplus labor — remain hotly debated to this day, since the public record of this tight-lipped society consists of little beyond the courtroom testimony of a handful of parties thoroughly prejudiced to hostility by class interest or payoffs.

* Written by Walter Bernstein, who had only recently emerged from the Hollywood blacklist for his Communist proclivities.

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1182: Maria of Antioch

Add comment December 17th, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date thought to be around the end of 1182, the mother of the Byzantine emperor was strangled to death in Constantinople on her adolescent son’s authority.

In signing his mother’s death warrant, 13-year-old Alexios II signed his own … and that of his dynasty.

The progeny of a nearby Crusader principality, Maria of Antioch was dynastically married to Alexios’ dad, Manuel I.

Two realms separated by a common religion, Orthodox Byzantium’s relationship with western Crusaders was fraught at best, and it was about to get a lot testier. Maria’s Latin heritage went over like a lead balloon in the Greek empire.

When her husband died in 1180, the widow was left in a tenuous position as the unpopular regent of a child-emperor in a political snakepit.

In short order, Andronikos I Komnenos, after a lifetime of scheming, got his mitts on the throne two years after he’d been obliged to grovel in chains before Maria’s husband to be allowed a peacable retirement.

Some retirement.

Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates narrates Andronikos’s ruthless divide-and-conquer path to the purple.

Having thus slaughtered those whom he had been most eager to seize, Andronikos bided his time to assail others; some he delivered over to prison, some he condemned to banishment, and some he utterly destroyed in various ways. Those few who remained were anxious to go along with the majority and to reverse their former course. They changed their minds like the unstable planets and offered their necks to Andronikos to be tread underfoot, revolving around him as their axis, and so Andronikos hastened to bring about the ruin of the empress. After leveling several accusations against her, he finally charged her with treason and convened a court sympathetic to his cause with judges certain to condemn, not try, the wretched woman. The empress, who had attempted to enlist the help of her sister’s husband, Bela [III], the king of Hungary, writing him letters and tempting him with grand promises to ravage the lands around Branicevo and Belgrade, was led away to a cramped dungeon near the Monastery of Saint Diomedes. There she was grossly reviled by the guards as the butt of their jokes, and, pining with hunger and thirst, she was haunted by a vision of the executioner standing on her right where his edge would cut most surely. Andronikos’s ferocity did not abate even a whit. In the words of David, he perceived trouble and wrath and hastened to deliver her over to death, annoyed by the fact that she was still numbered among the living. Ere long he again assembled the justices who mete out injustice and whose right hand is the right hand of iniquity. He inquired as to what punishment the laws decree for traitors of cities and provinces, receiving in hand a written judgment sentencing such criminals to death, his assault against the empress went unchecked. When these lawless men raised their voices and shouted aloud as they cast their votes that this ill-starred woman must depart this life, a decree condemning her to death was immediately signed by her son, the emperor, written as though with a drop of his mother’s blood.

Elected to carry out this loathsome and unholy deed were Andronikos’s firstborn son Manuel and the sebastos George, the brother of Andronikos’s wife. Both men recoiled from their selection in disgust and contemned the emperor’s decree, declaring that they had not concurred earlier in the empress’s execution and that their hands would remain guiltless of such defilement; now, even more so, they could not endure to see her innocent body broken. This unexpected reply struck Andronikos like a thunderbolt. He continually twisted the hairs of his beard around his fingers, his eyes were filled with fire, and, shaking his head up and down, he repeatedly pitied himself and was greatly troubled that he did not have friends who delighted in blood and were eager to commit murder at the nod of his head. Holding his rage in check, like a hot-blooded horse champing at the bit or like smoke wrapping itself around a flame, he quenched his unremitting anger and postponed the execution. A few days later he condemned the ill-starred empress to a wretched death by strangulation. The sentence was carried out under the supervision of Constantine Tripsychos, who held the office of hetairarch, and the eunuch Pterygeonites … And she, who was the sweet light and a vision of beauty unto men, was buried in obscurity in the sand of the nearby shore (O Sun, who didst look down upon this defilement, and Thou, O Word of God, who art without beginning, how inscrutable is thy forbearance!). The bloodthirsty soul of Andronikos exulted at this, for with the extermination of Manuel’s family, with the imperial garden laid waste, he would reign as sole monarch over the Roman empire and hold sway with impunity.

The next year, Andronikos dispensed with the charade and had the young Alexios strangled, too.

A much worse fate awaited Andronikos himself not long after, with still less able successors to follow him … sending the Byzantine Empire into a calamitous tailspin that would see Constantinople sacked by those antagonistic western Crusaders within a generation.

Update: Maria’s German Wikipedia page pegs her execution date at August 27, 1182, citing Detlev Schwennike, Europäische Stammtafeln Band II, Tafel 177, Verlag Stargardt, Marburg, 1984.

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1943: Elfriede Scholz, Erich Maria Remarque’s sister

10 comments December 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1943, pacifist novelist Erich Maria Remarque lost his youngest sister to the Nazi regime — beheaded because her “brother is beyond our reach.”

Actually, Elfriede Scholz was convicted (upon the denunciation of her landlady a few weeks before) by the kangaroo People’s Court for undermining the war effort. (“Wehrkraftzersetzung” — German has a word for everything.)

Like her brother, Elfriede was a staunch opponent of the Nazi government, and in 1943 that could certainly have sufficed to get her a one-way trip to Plotzensee Prison.

But Roland Freisler‘s verdict explicitly referenced (German link) her more famous brother — upon whom the Nazis would have poured out an interwar era’s worth of fury had they been able to get to him in America.

Ihr Bruder ist uns entwischt, aber Sie werden uns nicht entwischen! (Your brother is beyond our reach, but you will not escape us!

Though Erich Maria Remarque and Adolf Hitler had served together at the Third Battle of Ypres, they didn’t quite see eye to eye after the Great War.

Remarque’s immortal anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front was banned and burned by war-glorifying Nazis (they also said Remarque was of Jewish descent, apparently without any factual basis).

Erna, Elfriede and Erich Remark — the author later restored an ancestral spelling of his name that had been Germanized in the 19th century — in happier times.

Remarque left Germany, an intellectual celebrity and man-about-town who rubbed shoulders with the likes of Marlene Dietrich (with whom he had a passionate affair) and Ernest Hemingway (with whom he did not).

The Nazis stripped his citizenship, and fumed that they couldn’t get their jackboots on him. (At one point, Goebbels invited Remarque to return. Sly.)

But Elfriede, they could get. She had stayed in her native Germany with her husband and family.

Not content with taking her head off, Berlin added a particularly vicious twist by billing the expatriate author 90 marks for the executioner’s trouble.

The author never said or wrote much about Elfriede, even his diaries. But years later, Erich Remarque dedicated his novel about life in a concentration camp, Spark of Life, to his late sister. Today, there’s a street named for Elfriede in the Remarques’ native Osnabruck.

More about Remarque at the German (but the site is multilingual) Erich Maria Remarque-Friedenszentrum and this online exhibit from New York University.

Better still, here’s the 1930 film version of All Quiet on the Western Front — that year’s Academy Award winner as Best Picture.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,Murder,Notably Survived By,Wartime Executions,Women

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1914: Regiment Mixte de Tirailleurs decimated

2 comments December 15th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1914, the French army decimated a regiment of its Tunisian soldiers for retreating.

Seriously, decimation? In the 20th century?

Even the most jaded navigator of World War I’s extensive stock of horror may be gobsmacked to find that military executions in this conflict extended to the Roman-pioneered practice of imposing collective punishment on a unit by killing a random tenth of it. Little more is evidently available about this situation online, but the idea of the French military selecting randomly for salutary executions is used in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory where one officer, charged with providing an enlisted man for trial, simply has them all draw lots.

And according to Gilbert Meynier’s L’Algérie Révélée: La guerre de. 1914–1918 et le premier quart du XX sie`cle (French review), African soldiers’ experience in the Great War with incidents like this tended to underscore France’s colonial domination … and helped contribute to the national identity-forming that would break the French grip on North Africa as the century unfolded.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Military Crimes,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Piracy,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Theft,Tunisia,Uncategorized,Wartime Executions

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1903: William Ennis, wife-murdering cop

Add comment December 14th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1903, a nine-year veteran of the Brooklyn police became the first member of the thin blue line to die in the electric chair.

Then 31-year-old William Ennis had gunned down his estranged wife (and, not fatally, his mother-in-law) early the preceding year, and his attempt to claim insanity at trial was rejected as shamming.

This slice of New York color is the second story in this New York Times column reporting the day after the crime.

While in a frenzy of rage, as a result of heavy drinking and brooding over family troubles, William H. Ennis, a policeman attached to the Adams Street Station, Brooklyn, early yesterday morning broke into the hime [sic] of Mrs. Alice Gorman, his mother-in-law, in Canarsie, wounded her seriously with a bullet from his revolver, and then shot and killed his wife, who was living there.

He then rushed from the house and ran along the railroad tracks to East New York, two miles distant, where he was found asleep in a room in a hotel by the police several hours later. …

Two weeks ago Mrs. Ennis had her husband in court on a charge of non-support, and he was ordered to pay her a weekly stipend. At that time Ennis declared that he would “rot in jail” before he would pay his wife any money unless she left her mother’s house and returned to live with him. …

Early on Saturday morning he reported sick at Adams Street Station and was excused from duty. It was learned that he came to Manhattan and in the evening was arrested at Forty-second Street and First Avenue for intoxication and disorderly conduct, but at the East Thirty-fifth Street Station was allowed to go when it was found that he was a policeman.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Murder,New York,USA

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1945: The Belsen war criminals

6 comments December 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1945, British hangman Albert Pierrepoint executed eleven guards of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and two other Nazis in occupied Hameln.

Liberated only eight months before these hangings, Belsen provided the to-us-familiar store of Nazi atrocity stories. Forty-five sat in the dock at the Belsen trial under British military authority, including the notorious camp commandante Josef Kramer — better known as the Beast of Belsen — and the “Angel of Death” Irma Grese.

Those two, and nine others less distinctively nicknamed, faced the gallows. (They were hanged together with two other war criminal convicts not connected to the Belsen trial, Georg Otto Sandrock and Ludwig Schweinberger, for a total of 13.)

On December 13, 1945, Pierrepoint hanged Grese; then, Elisabeth Volkenrath; and then, Juana Bormann, each individually. Finally, the men were then dispatched in pairs.

(Other than Kramer, the most notable was Nazi doctor Fritz Klein, who gave this reading of medical ethics when queried while the camps were still operating: “My Hippocratic oath tells me to cut a gangrenous appendix out of the human body. The Jews are the gangrenous appendix of mankind. That’s why I cut them out.”)


Of all this batch, Irma Grese, the “beautiful beast”, enjoys the liveliest afterlife.

If one finds her pretty, then she was a pretty young thing — only 16 when she hitched herself to the SS; turning 22 during her fatal postwar trial.

Stalking the camp with her whip, and (rather conveniently) cited with the ravenous sexual appetite a B-movie screenwriter would give such a character, part of her siren song is plainly the fetishistic magnetism of Nazi women.

But in the numerous discussion threads about Irma Grese, any number of her advocates will emerge.

Can we leave it at the fascination that female war criminals inspire? Certainly few 22-year-old Einsatzgruppen men have the mitigatory evidence of a coming-of-age in farming and retail so lovingly emphasized, the precise measure of complicity in genocide analyzed in such detail (pdf).

Grese, perhaps, strikes as impressionable, in the youthful sense of absorbing one’s place from the world one inhabits. Her hangman wrote that “[s]he seemed as bonny a girl as one could ever wish to meet.” As a camp guard, she wins promotions; to her interrogators, she accepts responsibility equal to Himmler’s; among those condemned at the Belsen trial, she alone is defiant.

In that guise — and whether or not it is rightly attributed to her — she presents back to her interlocutor those timeless questions of personal identity and moral responsibility: where does abnormal psychology leave off into perfectly conventional psychology that just happens to occupy an abnormal world?

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Germany,Hanged,History,Infamous,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,War Crimes,Women

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1984: Alpha Otis O’Daniel Stephens: hear it live

8 comments December 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1984, Alpha Otis O’Daniel Stephens was electrocuted in Georgia for the execution-style murder of Roy Asbell after the latter surprised Stephens in the course of a burglary.

Stephens makes these pages for two reasons:

First, he survived his initial electrocution, requiring a second application of the lethal current — awful, though not exactly unheard-of.

Second, it emerged years later that the Georgia Department of Corrections was making audio recordings of its executions as a secret archive of the proceedings.

Several hours’ worth of these (subsequently leaked) recordings from various different Georgia electrocutions are available at SoundPortraits.org.*

We begin our trip back in time to Georgia’s execution chamber with the atmospheric sound of the warrant for his execution being read to the condemned and the witness — nicely juxtaposing the sentence of death with the body responsible for administering it: the Georgia Department of Offender Rehabilitation.

[audio:Alpha_Otis_O’Daniel_Stephens_warrant.mp3]

But the real action is the sound behind the curtain as prison officials realize the electrocution has not killed their man, wait agonizing minutes for the still-living body to cool enough for doctors to examine it officially, and begin the execution cycle anew. From the sound of it, they only barely killed him with the second pass: the officials are worrying openly that it looks like he’s still breathing very late in the procedure.

This file, obviously, comes with a content advisory sticker — though it lacks any directly identifiable hideous sound from the chair, or the prisoner, or the witnesses, the routine narrative of a prison bureaucrat as a man dies dreadfully in the next room is an altogether different order of horror.

[audio:Alpha_Otis_O’Daniel_Stephens_botched_execution.mp3]

This audio file was helpfully clipped by Dysfunctional Playground from the Pacifica radio Democracy Now! broadcast which aired it; the clip is itself an abridged version of a 20-minute original with long silences and unintelligible content excised.

The transcript of the abridged clip as aired by Democracy Now! follows below. Willis Marable, the main speaker on the tapes, was an assistant warden.


UNIDENTIFIED: Carry out the execution by the order of the court. There’s no reason to delay.

UNIDENTIFIED: Very well. On my count of three, press your buttons. One, two, three.

WILLIS MARABLE: The execution now has begun. There was one small jerk from the condemned at the time the execution was initiated. He is sitting very still now, and we are also now into the second phase of the execution. We are now into the third phase of the execution. No movement from the condemned. No activity, no movement from the witnesses. He appears to be relaxing a little bit more now. There’s sixty seconds remaining on the third phase of the execution. There is a slight movement from the condemned’s head. He seems to be moving his head from side to side slightly.

UNIDENTIFIED: I show the time is 12:19.

WILLIS MARABLE: Commissioner, he is still moving his head, and he seems to have slumped down in a relaxing-type position in the chair. But his head is moving from side to side slightly. Commissioner, Mr. Low, the execution is completed at this time. The electrical panel box is secured and locked. I do not detect any movement from the condemned at this time. He seems to have stopped moving his head and also his arms.

UNIDENTIFIED: I show the time is 12:20.

UNIDENTIFIED: You are in the lapse time countdown, is that correct?

WILLIS MARABLE: Yes, sir. We’re into the first minute of the lapse time now. No movement from any of the witnesses, and at this time no movement from the condemned. We have now completed one minute of lapsed time, four minutes remaining. Two minutes of lapsed time completed at this time, three minutes remaining. Still very little movement from any of the witnesses, and I detect no movement from the condemned at this time.

UNIDENTIFIED: I show the time is 12:22.

WILLIS MARABLE: Commissioner?

COMMISSIONER: Yes?

WILLIS MARABLE: Mr. Low?

COLONEL LOW: Yes.

WILLIS MARABLE: There is some slight movement. He’s still moving his head slightly. The only thing we can do is continue until the physicians can check him after the lapse time has expired.

COLONEL LOW: Don’t vary from your checklist.

WILLIS MARABLE: OK, sir. OK, we have completed three minutes of lapsed time, two minutes remaining. Commissioner? Mr. Low?

COLONEL LOW: Yes.

WILLIS MARABLE: He is still moving his head slightly, kind of a bobbing up-and-down movement. Commissioner?

COMMISSIONER: Yes.

WILLIS MARABLE: Mr. Low? We have completed four minutes of lapsed time. We have one minute remaining. And from my vantage point I do detect or it seems to be that he is breathing. Commissioner? Mr. Low? We have completed the five minutes lapsed time. Stand by for the physicians’ check. Commissioner?

COMMISSIONER: Yes?

WILLIS MARABLE: It appears the doctors agree with me that he’s still breathing. You want us to check him and then go through it again, or just go ahead and go through it again?

COMMISSIONER: Check him, and then go through it again. Definitely check him. Don’t vary from the checklist.

WILLIS MARABLE: Alright.

COMMISSIONER: Have them check him.

WILLIS MARABLE: OK. [inaudible] We’re going to do it again?

UNIDENTIFIED: It doesn’t say so.

WILLIS MARABLE: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED: It remains on.

WILLIS MARABLE: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED: The time is 12:26 and thirty seconds.

WILLIS MARABLE: Commissioner?

COMMISSIONER: Yes.

WILLIS MARABLE: The doctors have verified that he is still alive.

COMMISSIONER: Repeat the execution.

WILLIS MARABLE: Very well. You ready to go again?

COMMISSIONER: Better check all the connections. Val?

VAL: Yes, sir.

COMMISSIONER: Did you tell the witnesses that you’re repeating?

VAL: No, I didn’t.

COMMISSIONER: I think you should tell them.

VAL: OK. You want me to just advise them that—

COMMISSIONER: Just advise them—

VAL:—repeating the process and not go into any detail?

COMMISSIONER: That’s right.

VAL: OK.

WILLIS MARABLE: Commissioner? The superintendent is entering the execution chamber and approaching the mic at this time to advise the witnesses that we will proceed again with the execution.

COMMISSIONER: Well, listen, you can’t tell them—tell them there were some vital signs remaining, so the execution will repeat. See if you can get that message to them.

WILLIS MARABLE: It’s too late now. He’s already briefed them, and he’s on the way back in, sir.

COMMISSIONER: Fine, alright.

UNIDENTIFIED: I show the time is 12:28.

UNIDENTIFIED: OK, Commissioner, we’ll proceed at this time.

COMMISSIONER: Proceed.

UNIDENTIFIED: On my count of three, you press your button. One, two, three.

WILLIS MARABLE: Commissioner? Mr. Low? The execution is initiated again at this time. The condemned made one big jerk, and now he is relaxing in the chair. I do not detect any other movement from the condemned at this time. We have completed the first and second phase of the execution. We are now into the third phase. I do detect his head moving from side to side again. We’re still into the third phase of the execution. Commissioner? Mr. Low?

COMMISSIONER: Yes.

WILLIS MARABLE: He is still at this time moving his head from side to side and appears to be breathing. We’ll continue it just like we did previously.

UNIDENTIFIED: We’re going to have to check that [inaudible].

WILLIS MARABLE: We have fifteen seconds remaining on the third phase of the execution. Commissioner, Mr. Low, the third phase of the execution is completed. The equipment is switched off, secured at this time. We are now into the five-minutes lapse time.

COMMISSIONER: What is the status on the condemned?

WILLIS MARABLE: Sir, he appears to be breathing to me.

COMMISSIONER: You’re going to have to have them check those sponges and check their connections or something. There’s something they don’t have connected right, Willis.

WILLIS MARABLE: Yes, sir. Do you want us to go ahead and complete this whole thing and then—

COMMISSIONER: Yeah, complete the phase, and then you’re going to have to make the check.

WILLIS MARABLE: OK, sir. Commissioner, Mr. Low, we have completed one minute of lapse time. We have four minutes remaining. I might also advise at this time that I do not detect any movement from him at this time. He appears to have stopped moving. Still no movement from any of the witnesses. They were just sitting very still, observing the condemned in the chair.

UNIDENTIFIED: I show the time at 12:32.

WILLIS MARABLE: We have now completed two minutes of phase time, lapse time. We have three minutes remaining. I might also add that I do not detect any movement from the condemned. Commissioner, Mr. Low, we have now completed three minutes lapse time. We have two minutes remaining. There is still no movement from the condemned. Commissioner, Mr. Low, we have completed four minutes of lapse time. We have one minute remaining. Still no detectable movement from the condemned. He does seem to have stopped moving entirely. Commissioner, Mr. Low, we have completed our five minutes lapse time. Stand by for the physicians’ check.

At this time, the superintendent and the two physicians are entering the execution chambers for their check. The first doctor is now in the process of making his check for vital signs.

UNIDENTIFIED: I show the time at 12:36. I show the time is 12:37.

WILLIS MARABLE: The second doctor is still in the process of conducting his check for vital signs. The superintendent is at this time, Commissioner, Mr. Low, is still in the process of briefing the witnesses that at 12:37 hours this date the condemned was pronounced dead. He has instructed all witnesses to depart the witness room. Back to the front of the institution. At this time, the curtains are drawn.

* Here’s another recorded Georgia execution we’ve featured.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Georgia,Mature Content,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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