Archive for February, 2009

1887: Roxalana Druse, the last woman hanged in New York

6 comments February 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1887, 40-year-old Roxalana Druse was hanged in Herkimer, N.Y.

Ms. Druse and her daughter* had slain, chopped to pieces and destroyed the remains of Roxalana’s 72-year-old husband William.

Attention to her case ran toward the hyperbolic.


Detail of image courtesy of Special Collections Department, Harvard Law School.

As Roxalana Druse’s fatal date approached, said the Saturday Globe (an early national paper here mining the product-moving public fascination with mayhem we have noted across the pond), “she has dwindled to a mere shadow of her former self and would hardly tip the scales at 85 pounds.”

Still, this infamous-at-the-time crime would be little more than a piece of period folklore were it not for the horrible end Druse suffered.

Shrieking with terror as she was hooded (so says the New York Times account, which also reports that she deferred her last statement to her Universalist spiritual counselor, who made a general denunciation of the death penalty), Roxalana Druse was hanged on an upward-jerking gallows — and the rope reportedly failed to snap her neck, leaving her to slowly strangle to death.

This botched job in a high-profile hanging intensified pressure on the New York legislature to do away with the gallows; the next year, it became the first jurisdiction in the world to adopt electrocution for death sentences.

And Roxalana? She’s preserved in local lore in Herkimer, where she is said to haunt the courthouse where she heard her sentence.

* Roxalana Druse insisted that her teenage daughter Mary had nothing to do with it. Mary received a prison sentence, and was pardoned in 1895.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,New York,The Supernatural,USA,Women

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1916: James Crozier, an Irishman in His Majesty’s service

11 comments February 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1916, a young soldier drugged with rum to the point of stupefaction was dragged to the stake and shot near the western front.

There are hooks on the post; we always do things thoroughly in the Rifles. He is hooked on like dead meat in a butcher’s shop. His eyes are bandaged – not that it really matters, for he is already blind. … A volley rings out — a nervous volley it is true, yet a volley. Before the fatal shots are fired I had called the battalion to attention. There is a pause, I wait. I see the medical officer examining the victim. He makes a sign, the subaltern strides forward, a single shot rings out. Life is now extinct. (quoted in Forgotten Soldiers: The Irishmen Shot at Dawn)

The Belfast youth — who may or may not have been underage; reports appear to vary on this point — enlisted in the 9th Royal Irish Rifles during the initial blush of wartime enthusiasm.

The service of these loyal units from both north and south while Ireland teetered on the brink of of civil war and some of its partisans treated with the Germans was naturally valorized by the crown.

They would experience the full measure of that war’s ample stock of horrors — including numerous executions to enforce military discipline.

Just a few months after 9th was shipped to France, Crozier was found wandering miles behind lines, unarmed and out of uniform, apparently shellshocked.

Events moved quickly from there; Crozier’s lackadaisical service record weighed against him, and it was decided to make an example of him.

Charged with carrying out the sentence* was Frank Crozier (no relation), who would attain some controversial postwar renown. In his memoirs, he recalled the pathos of James Crozier’s fate.

He was no rotter deserving* to die like that. He was merely fragile. He had volunteered to fight for his country … at the dictates of his own young heart. He failed. And for that failure he was condemned to die — and he did at the hands of his friends, his brothers, with the approval of his church.

Eventually, the British government came to agree.


Crozier’s posthumous pardon, from his family genealogy. His Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry is here.

* According to Timothy Bowman, an officer of the 9th Royal Irish Rifles convicted on the same offense received a free pardon days after James Crozier’s conviction, to the consternation of the rank and file.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,England,Execution,France,History,Ireland,Military Crimes,Posthumous Exonerations,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1839: An opium merchant

7 comments February 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1839, the Chinese government provocatively beheaded an opium merchant before the European consulates in Canton.

Opium exports from India into China were a lucrative trade for the British Empire* — for those watching the macroeconomic books, it balanced Britain’s costly importation of Chinese tea — but the consequences for China were wealth hemorrhaging overseas and a growing population of addicts.

Qing decrees against the opium trade dated to decades earlier, but the English had simply smuggled the stuff in. Finally, in the late 1830’s, China began to move to enforce its prohibition.

The trading port of Canton — the English name for Guangzhou — under the administration of upright Confucian governor Lin Zexu (alternately transliterated Lin Tse-hsu) would become the tinder box for open war, by which Britain ultimately compelled China by force of arms to accept its unwanted product.

This day’s execution was one small escalation in that conflict.


Lin Zexu supervises the destruction of opium.

Late in 1838, Chinese police initiated drug busts and expelled at least one opium-trading British merchant. The beheading this date was of a Chinese dealer, but unmistakably directed at westerners given its placement before the foreign missions. The consular officials pulled down their flags in protest of the affront.**

But greater provocations were to follow anon, and by year’s end open hostilities were afoot.

The humiliating British victory that ensued forced China to accept Her Majesty’s drug-running … and helped seed domestic agitation that would ultimately undermine China’s decrepit Imperial rule.

* The United States also trafficked opium — primarily lower-quality opium imported from Smyrna, Turkey — into China during this time, on a much smaller scale than Britain. (Source)

** This period would also mark Canton/Guangzhou’s eclipse as a trading port. Britain seized Hong Kong during the Opium Wars and relocated its foreign offices. Most European powers followed suit, making that city the far eastern entrepôt of choice.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1536: Jacob Hutter, Anabaptist leader

4 comments February 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1536, the namesake of a major Anabaptist strain “gave a great sermon through his death” by fire at Innsbruck.

Jacob (or Jakob) Hutter, a hatmaker from the south Tirol, became the leader of a thriving Anabaptist community in Moravia where he shocked authorities with adult baptism and managed the heretics’ affairs so smoothly that the heirs of those who survived the hard years ahead still call themselves Hutterites.

Hutter pulled multiple fractured and sometimes fractious Anabaptist groups together and instilled structure that arguably saved these communities from extinction. (More about this in Hutterite Society.)

His effective evangelism only heightened the persecution of the Habsburgs, who exasperatedly reported on “more than 700 persons” executed or expelled, adding that the re-baptizers “have no horror of punishment but even report themselves; rarely is one converted nearly all only wish to die for their faith.”

Hutter himself was so pursued that he had to take his leave of his community, by that time expelled en masse and living as vagrants;* he did not long outlive his return to his native Tirol. He was captured there, hauled to Innsbruck, and tortured for three months before suffering public burning at the express directive of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I.

* Hutter’s letter of remonstrance to a governor during this period makes affecting reading; this excerpt is from The Anabaptist Story:

Now we are camping on the heath, without disadvantage to any man. We do not want to wrong or harm any human being, not even our worst enemy. Our walk of life is to live in truth and righteousness of God, in peace and unity. We do not hesitate to give an account of our conduct to anyone. But whoever says that we have camped on a field with so many thousands, as if we wanted war or the like, talks like a liar and a rascal. If all the world were like us there would be no war and no injustice. We can go nowhere; may God in heaven show us where we shall go. We cannot be prohibited from the earth, for the earth is the heavenly Father’s; may He do with us what He will.

Here‘s a German site all about Jakob Hutter.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Austria,Burned,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Habsburg Realm,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture

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1613: Ivan Susanin, a life for the tsar

5 comments February 24th, 2009 Headsman

On an uncertain date in February (perhaps) 1613 — so says a cherished Russian national legend — a villager met a Polish army intent on deposing the Russian tsar, offered to guide it on a “shortcut,” and proceeded to lead it into a forest or fen where it succumbed to the elements.

A monument to Ivan Susanin in Kostroma. Image courtesy of Barbara Partee (Barbara adds: to help prevent future executions of the wrongly convicted, check out the Innocence Project.)

That peasant, Ivan Susanin, is supposed to have been put to death as the army realized its folly and imminent doom — the fate one would expect, although also not the sort that would leave a lot of corroborating witnesses.

Though the particulars are of doubtful veracity, Susanin’s son-in-law was awarded estates for the man’s tortures by enemy armies seeking the tsar — so the story is not completely baseless.

It was tsarist public relations, however, that gave us Susanin in his dramatic, familiar* form with the trackless wilderness.

This Susanin embodies the Russian people’s sacrificial love for their autocrat … and more specifically, since this was the Time of Troubles when the Russian crown’s succession was contested, for the Romanov dynasty whose first scion chosen in February 1613 would have been the Poles’ target.**

Thus, Glinka’s 19th century opera A Life for the Tsar.

But Glinka and Ivan proved up to the shifting needs of authority as the tsar gave way to the Politburo, and that to the post-Soviet state.

In a fascinating 2006 academic disquisition,† Marina Frolova-Walker dissects A Life for the Tsar‘s transmutation into Ivan Susanin, a Stalin-era opera with the same score but a libretto altered to expunge the tsar — and the success this adaptation of a national classic enjoyed vis-a-vis Soviet artists’ original creations under the impossible aesthetic and political restrictions of official censorship.

Not only did this now-nationalist composition thrive in the USSR, it has been successfully re-staged in its Soviet form, or as a fresh amalgamation of Stalin and Glinka, in the Putin era.‡

From the days of serfdom via the days of the gulag past the fall of the Iron Curtain, here’s Ivan Susanin‘s stirring finale performed by the Russian army at the Vatican, and broadcast on Russian television.

* Familiar to Russians, certainly, and you can call one who gets you lost “susanin”.

** And we all know how they left the throne.

† Marina Frolova-Walker, ‘The Soviet opera project: Ivan Dzerzhinsky vs. Ivan Susanin’, Cambridge Opera Journal (2006), 18:2:181-216

‡ In the Yeltsin era, the opera was staged in its pre-Soviet form. Frolova-Walker argues that the version incorporating Stalinist edits actually speaks to contemporary Russia more aptly than the original, an operatic mirror of the state’s re-adopting the Stalinist national anthem after having used a tsarist piece (written by Glinka!) during the 1990’s.

The reappearance of these cultural tokens is occurring because high Stalinism provides the most easily assimilable model for Russian nationalism today: it is less remote than its nineteenth-century counterpart … The eclectic and confident nationalist of the new Susanin contains the appropriate message for those Russian citizens wealthy enough to attend the Bolshoi today.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Famous,History,Language,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Popular Culture,Put to the Sword,Russia,Summary Executions,Volunteers,Wartime Executions

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1885: Not John “Babbacombe” Lee, the man they could not hang

6 comments February 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1885, a most inexplicable thing occurred on the gallows of Exeter.

It was there that John Lee, nicknamed “Babbacombe”, made his peace with his maker and faced hanging for the murder of an elderly spinster a few months before.

Lee still protested his innocence. He was not generally believed.

We’ll let Charles Hoy Fort, that renowned chronicler of the impossible, take it from here*:

It was a scene of the mechanism and solidity of legal procedure, as nearly real as mechanism and solidity can be.

Noose on his neck, and up on the scaffold they stood him on a trap door. The door was held in position by a bolt. When this bolt was drawn, the door fell —

John Lee, who hadn’t a friend, and hadn’t a dollar —

The Sheriff of Exeter, behind whom was Great Britain.

The Sheriff waved his hand. It represented Justice and Great Britain.

The bolt was drawn, but the trap door did not fall. John Lee stood with the noose around his neck.

It was embarrassing. He should have been strangling. There is something of an etiquette in all things, and this was indecorum. They tinkered with the bolt. There was no difficulty. whatsoever, with the bolt: but when it was drawn, with John Lee standing on the trap door, the door would not fall.

Something unreasonable was happening. Just what is the procedure, in the case of somebody, who is standing erect, when he should be dangling?

Three times they made the attempt. Three times the door failed to open — even though the apparatus performed perfectly when tested without the prisoner.

Lee was returned to his cell by the bewildered authorities, and Home Secretary William Vernon Harcourt commuted his sentence to penal servitude.

Eventually released in 1907, John Lee milked his bizarre celebrity by giving public declamations of his unaccountably aborted Calvary — and continued to maintain his innocence.

After this mighty stroke of — well, was it divine intervention? — that claim carried a lot more weight. Lee’s innocence is hardly an established fact, but the circumstantial nature of the evidence against him looks much weaker now than it did in 1885. The BBC’s Inside Out even speculates that Lee’s own lawyer did the deed.

But does one really care, by now? The principals are long dead and buried. What remains is that brief and timeless encounter with the uncanny.

The British band Fairport Convention cast a look back on Babbacombe Lee with an entire 1971 album.

There’s also a 2001 book, The Man They Could Not Kill (nothing to do with the Boris Karloff movie of the same title), whose online promotional site offers a bounty of information about the case.

* From Fort’s book Wild Talents.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,History,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Pelf,Popular Culture,The Supernatural,Wrongful Executions

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1943: Sophie Scholl of the White Rose

11 comments February 22nd, 2009 Sarah Owocki

On February 22, 1943, Sophie Magdalena Scholl, former student of philosophy and biology at the University of Munich in Germany, was executed by guillotine for her role in the White Rose nonviolent Nazi resistance group.

Scholl was born just 21 years earlier and spent a carefree childhood in Ludwigsburg and later, in Ulm.

Although she initially joined Bund Deutscher Mädel at age 12 (as required), she quickly grew disenchanted with the group and began to identify strongly with the dissenting political views of some of her teachers, family, and friends.

While serving the required six months in the National Labor Service prior to enrolling in university, Scholl began exploring the philosophy and practice of passive resistance, which she was almost immediately able to put into practice at the University of Munich the following spring, where she quickly fell in with the compatriots of her older brother, Hans Scholl.

Initially a forum to entertain the abstract questions of budding young intellectuals, the group (which dubbed itself the White Rose) quickly moved towards taking a more active role in resistance to the Nazi regime.

How should an individual act under a dictatorship? What obligations, or indeed, power, did a group of half a dozen students have in the face of such stifling repression? As Sophie and her brother watched as their father was jailed for a critical remark made about Hitler to an employee, other group members shared stories of atrocities witnessed during war service (of the six members, all but Sophie were male).

It was agreed that some sort of action was necessary. But what?

The group began distributing a series of leaflets urging other Germans to join them in resistance against the Nazi regime. The earlier leaflets were mailed anonymously to addresses all over Germany (copied out of the phone book), but later, the group began targeting the student population. In Fellow Fighters in the Resistance, they wrote: “The name of Germany is dishonoured for all time if German youth does not finally rise, take revenge, smash its tormentors. Students! The German people look to us.”

Passive was their philosophy, but their language was most certainly not.

In February 1943, the group targeted the last of the series of six leaflets for distribution in the main building of the university. Scholl and her brother volunteered to distribute the leaflets one morning, and nearly were able to disappear into the throng of students once classes let out, before being spotted by a janitor and quickly arrested.

After hours of interrogation, Scholl had almost established her innocence, until investigators searched the siblings’ apartment and found proof of her guilt. At this point, she switched tactics and proudly stood by her actions, stating that she was obligated to act in accordance with her conscience and would freely do the same thing again, and this in the face of increasingly hostile and derogatory questioning by her interrogator.

Scholl, her brother Hans, and White Rose member Christoph Probst were subsequently brought to trial in the People’s Court in a crowd of hand-picked Nazi supporters and in front of the notorious Nazi judge Roland Freisler. Found guilty, each was allowed to give a brief statement. Scholl proclaimed, “Where we stand today, you will stand soon.”

Hans and Sophie Scholl and Probst were executed just hours after their trial. Sophie Scholl’s last words were: “Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

Indeed, the pamphlet that led to Scholl’s death did have that very effect. Smuggled out of Germany later that year, the Allied Forces seized on it and dropped thousands of propaganda copies German cities later that year, retitled as “Manifesto of the Students of Munich”.

In the post World War II era, the Geschwister Scholl (Scholl siblings) have since attained an almost mythical stature in German culture and history, with numerous monuments and schools dedicated in their honor (as well as the famous University plaza the siblings crossed the day of their arrest). In a nationwide 2003 poll, Sophie and her brother Hans were voted the fourth most important Germans of all times, above Bach, Goethe and Einstein.

A celebrated movie about Sophie Scholl was released to critical acclaim in 2005, and the White Rose continues to be the subject of numerous books and articles, from the philosophical to the startlingly practical and pertinent questions of the present day, of just what an ordinary and relatively powerless individual can and should do under extraordinarily trying circumstances.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Germany,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Treason,Wartime Executions,Women

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1942: Mykhailo and Olena Teliha, Ukrainian artists

Add comment February 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1942, poet Olena Teliha and her husband Mykhailo were shot by the Nazis at Babi Yar for their Ukrainian nationalist activism.


Olena Teliha (top) and her husband, Mykhailo Teliha.

Having lived in Czechoslovakia (where they met and married) and then Poland during the interwar period, the Telihas weren’t present for the worst of Soviet depredations in Ukraine. Mykhailo, a bandurist, might have been in an especially bad way, since his musical genre of choice harkened to subversive themes of Cossack insurrection, and was therefore heavily persecuted.

Instead, they moved to Kiev as the German invasion opened the prospect of returning to their ancestral homeland. There they found their affiliation with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists quite unwelcome to the new occupiers.

Olena kept writing for a prohibited nationalist paper, and Mykhailo gamely stuck by her.

Without a Name

Neither love, nor caprice nor adventure–
Not everything must be named.
As not always in abysmal waters
Can one find a motionless floor.

And when Your reawakened soul
Again rushes to a luminous path,
Do not question whose inspired oars
Were able to cast aside the dark shore.

Neither love, nor tenderness, nor passion,
Only heart — tumultuous eagle!
Drink then splashes, fresh, effervescent,
Of nameless, joyful sources.

(Executed Today friend Sonechka’s original translation from the Ukrainian text, found among this collection of Olena Teliha’s work)

Their execution this date is not to be confused with the mass execution of thirty thousand-plus Jews in September 1941, the atrocity with which Babi Yar is most frequently associated. This ravine continued to be used for Nazi executioners throughout the occupation of Kiev, including for more than 600 Ukrainian nationalists — who are today honored at the site with this monument:

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Ukraine,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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1258: Al-Musta’sim, the last Abbasid Caliph

5 comments February 20th, 2009 Headsman

For centuries after the prophet Muhammad trod the earth, the caliph had stood as a unifying principle in the Islamic world, conferring moral authority on the sultans and amirs who in turn gave the caliph temporal security. Despite political conflicts, rival claimants, and contested successions, the office, like the papacy, had weight for all Muslims, even the usurpers who conquered to the very gates of Baghdad only to “kiss the ground … and walk astride the caliph’s stirrup.”*

Seven hundred fifty-one years ago today, that last redoubt of that single Muslim community was extinguished when the last Abbasid caliph was put to death by the Mongols.

Al-Musta’sim Billah held power in the sunset days of a once-mighty empire,

a weak and miserly creature, in whose improvident hands the Caliphate, even in quieter times, would have fared ill … we need not to travel beyond the imbecility of the Caliph and the demoralisation of his now shrunken kingdom, for the causes of impending ruin. … As characteristic of his meanness, we are told that he appro­priated the state jewels of the Chief of Kerak, who with difficulty obtained their partial restitution by proclaiming the Caliph’s dishonesty before the assembled pilgrims at Mecca. (Sir William Muir)

Retrospection, of course, aids us in appreciating the “sunset” — certainly it did not occur to Musta’sim that the ascension in Egypt of Shajar al-Durr in 1250 that marks the dawn of Mamluk rule was the seed of a successor order. On the contrary, he sent this Islamic queen a contemptuous offer to provide a man for Egypt, since it could find none to seat on its throne.

He would have done better to man up against the Mongols, who had not failed to notice that Baghdad lacked the muscle to protect its accumulated wealth.

A gold dinar from the Al-Musta’sim period. Interestingly, albeit tangentially, Sir Thomas Arnold recorded that for decades after this date, some Islamic rulers “went on putting the name of the dead Musta’sim on [their] coins, because [they] could find no other [caliph], and the Muslim theory of the state had not succeeded in adjusting itself to the fact that there was no Khalifah or Imam in existence.”

Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu Khan (or Hulegu, or Hülegü) reduced Baghdad in a matter of days and plundered the city.** Al-Musta’sim having combined an impolitic bluster towards the advancing horde with an utter failure to ready the city’s defenses, Hulagu Khan was most unimpressed with his prisoner.

On February 20th, in a village near to Baghdad, Al-Musta’sim was executed. Contemporary chroniclers are silent as to the method; Marco Polo reported that he had been immured with his treasures in an opulent tower to starve to death.

According to The Cambridge History of Iran (volume 5), this was likely a later interpolation of a story that 13th century intellectual Nasir al-Din Tusi recorded:

[Hulagu Khan] set a golden tray before the Caliph and said: ‘Eat!’ ‘It is not edible,’ said the Caliph. ‘Then why didst thou keep it,’ asked the King, ‘and not give it to thy soldiers? And why didst thou not make these iron doors into arrow-heads and come to the bank of the river so that I might not have been able to cross it?’ ‘Such,’ replied the Caliph, ‘was God’s will.’ ‘What will befall thee,’ said the King, ‘is also God’s will.'”

It is more generally supposed that Al-Musta’sim was rolled in a carpet and trampled to death — the Mongols’ own method for putting princes to death without shedding royal blood.

However effected, the caliph’s demise ended the classical period of Islam. And yet, as Gustave Edmund von Grunebaum observes in his book on the period, that ending was itself a beginning for the flowering of high Islamic civilization that the days of the caliphate had prepared.

What terminates in 1258 is the major chain of political legitimacy to which reality had failed to conform for rather more than four centuries when the extent of the Muslim empire had ceased to be coterminous with the rule of Islam and the unity of tradition had become no more than a postulate.

None the less, the fall of Baghdad did more than bring home the precariousness of all human structures, even those erected on the true faith and devised to safeguard it. It demonstrated that the ‘Abode of Islam’ had become saturated with Islam, that the community no longer required a caliphate to give it a political and religious centre of gravity, that the vitality of Islam as an interpretation of man and the world, a way of life, and a style of thinking and feeling was now independent of any institutional support.

… the very irreparability of the calamity made the faithful realize that the abiding of their world, its beliefs and manifestations, had outgrown any particular political form and had indeed become too wide to be contained in history. In this realization the epigones undoubtedly rejoined the innermost intent of ancestors and founder.

* Later historian Ibn Tabataba, cited in The Middle East Remembered.

** Christians were spared the rapine, as Khan had a Coptic wife.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Caliphate,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Iraq,Milestones,Mongol Empire,Mongolia,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Royalty,Trampled,Wartime Executions

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1858: Chief Leschi

2 comments February 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1858, Chief Leschi of the Nisqually tribe was controversially hanged at Fort Steilacoom (present-day Lakewood) in the Washington Territory.

Yankee officer Isaac Stevens only spent four years in the Washington Territory as Franklin Pierce’s appointed governor, but he left his stamp on the state.

And no project defined the tenure of this authoritarian but effective executive like putting the screws to the native peoples. Growing white settlement in the Pacific Northwest was creating conflict with the Indians who already inhabited it. In time, that conflict would claim Leschi.

Late in 1854, Stevens summoned the chiefs of several tribes in the newly-minted Washington Territory for an offer they couldn’t refuse: pack up and move to reservations of a few square miles’ undesirable territory, ceding 2.5 million acres to white settlers.

Chief Leschi — and it was Stevens’ men who had designated him a “chief”, the operation upon an alien culture of a bureaucracy that required official spokesmen — allegedly refused to sign the Treaty of Medicine Creek, although the evidence is unclear. Whatever the truth of that matter, sufficient signatures were cajoled for the government to ratify an agreement for massive dispossession, and Leschi became a prominent voice in the growing Indian dissatisfaction once the extent of the hustle became clear.

An attempt to arrest Leschi, who increasingly feared white assassination, touched off the Puget Sound War in 1855, and with an analogous conflict brewing on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, all Washington was soon a conflict zone.

That story’s end is predictable enough, but Leschi’s fate was protested by both native and white contemporaries. Leschi was condemned for “murdering” a militiaman during hostilities, a charge whose logic flowed from the rights asserted by American authorities but whose fundamental injustice (even leaving aside the very doubtful factual evidence) seems manifest, as it did to the defendant.

I have supposed that the killing of armed men in wartime was not murder; if it was, the soldiers who killed Indians are guilty of murder too.

George W. Bush would’ve called him an illegal combatant. That was hardly common sentiment.

So much good will did Leschi enjoy among whites — with whom he had years of amicable relations prior to Gov. Stevens’ arrival — that a scheduled January 22 hanging was deviously put off by the sheriff charged with the task: he arranged to have himself arrested on a liquor charge while in possession of the death warrant shortly before Leschi was to have been hung, and the two-hour window allotted for the execution of the sentence elapsed before matters could be put right.

They carried the sentence out four weeks later — “I felt then I was hanging an innocent man,” executioner Charles Grainger would say, “and I believe it yet” — but that hardly put an end to Chief Leschi’s story. The Nisqually have pushed hard for Leschi’s official exoneration, and won a Washington Senate resolution to that effect and an “acquittal” (of no legal force) from a panel of state jurists. But even though it attached to a convicted murderer, Leschi’s was never a black name in the state; it adorns a Seattle neighborhood and a number of schools and other public places. (“Stevens” is similarly prominent.)

There’s an excellent summary of the Leschi case from Oregon Historical Quarterly, a Washington State Historical Society website, and a 1905 public domain book published to make the case for Leschi.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,USA,Washington,Wrongful Executions

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