Archive for February, 2009

1957: Dedan Kimathi, Mau Mau commander

1 comment February 18th, 2009 Headsman

At a Nairobi prison this morning in 1957, the most famed and feared of the so-called Mau Mau was hanged under emergency measures permitting the death penalty for illegal firearms possession.

The armed Mau Mau uprising against British colonialism was by this time on its last legs militarily, having been ground down by years of murderous anti-insurgent operations and pleasantries like mass internment.

It had been an ugly fight on all sides, with overlapping conflicts — within the Kikuyu tribe, between Kenya’s native populations, and between the British Empire and her faraway subjects — brutally settled.

Certainly the Mau Mau’s depredations had garnered voluptuous press coverage in the mother country; accordingly, the capture of “Field Marshal” Kimathi, the biggest name in the insurgency, was a plume in the British lion’s cap.

(An earlier propaganda piece along the same lines sounded the war tocsin “so that peace may come to this troubled colony.”)

Notwithstanding the (still) official London take on Kimathi and the Mau Mau, their fight for the independence Kenya would soon attain has made Kimathi a hero to many Kenyans.* He was honored on the 50th anniversary of his death with a bronze statue in Nairobi.

And more than that: the Mau Mau would metastasize into a sort of floating signifier for implacable racialized anti-colonialism, a powerful symbol for an age of decolonization. Malcolm X frequently invoked the Mau Mau example. Frantz Fanon saw in the Mau Mau the potency of spontaneous rural resistance in generating white interest in “compromise” with the moderate who

never stop saying to the settlers: ‘we are still capable of stopping the slaughter; the masses still have confidence in us; act quickly if you do not want to put everything in jeopardy.’ … as the settlers cannot discuss terms with these Mau-Mau, he himself will be quite willing to begin negotiations.

* Although many surviving Mau Mau themselves are nonplussed by their post-independence treatment.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Kenya,Language,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Separatists,Soldiers,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1600: Giordano Bruno, freethought martyr

12 comments February 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1600, gadfly philosopher Giordano Bruno was burnt for heresy in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori.

A figure of ridicule in the 17th century, Bruno got this statue at the site of his execution in the 19th — when the world finally began to catch up with him.

A Dominican inductee in his teens, Bruno was cast out of the order for his heterodoxy.

There followed a lifetime seemingly always on the run, with each successive safe harbor turned against his pantheistic principles and abrasive personal manner.

Bruno has been understood with hindsight to have grasped, fleetingly, the world-upending implications of the Copernican system. In “a time when more than 99% of the intellectuals believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe, and a few others, like Copernicus and Galileo, believed that it was the Sun, instead, at the center of the Universe,” Bruno intuited modern cosmology — wherein both earth and sun were merely heavenly bodies among many others, situated in an infinite universe that did not revolve around them.

More than that, he intuited the expanse of philosophical, scientific and spiritual inquiry that would follow from that idea’s comprehensive destruction of the medieval order, centuries ahead of his time.

That little of Bruno’s own scientific work has withstood the test of time, and other scientific contemporaries did not sympathize with him, enables a hostile source like the Catholic Encyclopedia to sniff that

the exaggerations, the limitations, and the positive errors of his scientific system; his intolerance of even those who were working for the reforms to which he was devoted; the false analogies, fantastic allegories, and sophistical reasonings into which his emotional fervour often betrayed him have justified, in the eyes of many, Bayle’s characterization of him as “the knight-errant of philosophy.” His attitude of mind towards religious truth was that of a rationalist. Personally, he failed to feel any of the vital significance of Christianity as a religious system.

These latter traits are precisely the reason for his reclamation by Age of Reason deists.

[audio:http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/tapestry_20100425_31274.mp3]

But the sixteenth century had no place for him.

This historical thriller — the first of a series — features Bruno in England, where some think he might have spied for Francis Walsingham.

Bruno fled Italy for Geneva, where he was soon excommunicated by Calvinist authorities, and thence to France, impressing King Henri III before wearing out his welcome. He spent time in England and Lutheran Germany, running afoul of each new host with his radical ideas, his contempt for the dead hand of Aristotelianism, and his decided want of tact.

He returned at last to Italy and these pages, perhaps counting on the Venetians’ historic rivalry with the papacy in accepting a sponsorship in the maritime republic. There the Inquisition clapped him in irons and shipped him to Rome where for unclear reasons he spent six-plus years imprisoned before facing trial as a heretic.

“Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”

Refusing all opportunity to recant, Bruno was led to the stake this morning gagged against any last outrages against St. Peter’s throne, and the friar who recorded Bruno’s unyielding end — famously mythologized in turning away from the proffered crucifix — could hardly have thought he was writing Bruno’s heroic epitaph as a martyr to the spirit of critical inquiry and passionate dissent.

But he insisted till the end always in his damned refractoriness and twisted brain and his mind with a thousand errors; yes, he didn’t give up his stubborness, not even when the court ushers took him away to the Campo de’ Fiori. There his clothes were taken off, he was bound to a stake and burned alive. In all this time he was accompanied by our fraternity, who sang constant litanies, while the comforters tried till the last moment to break his stubborn resistance, till he gave up a miserable and pitiable life.

That end serves as the climax to the forgettable 1973 Italian flick Giordano Bruno.

Sole bird of the sun, thou wandering phoenix!
That measurest thy days as does the world
With lofty summits of Arabia Felix.
Thou art the same thou wast, but I what I was not:
I through the fire of love, unhappy die;
But thee the sun with his warm rays revives;
Thou burn’st in one, and I, in every place;
Eros my fire, while thine Apollo gives.
Predestined is the term of thy long life;
Short span is mine,
And menaced by a thousand ills.
Nor do I know how I have lived, nor how shall live,
Me does blind fate conduct;
But thou wilt come again, again behold thy light.

-From Bruno’s esoteric The Heroic Enthusiasts, available on gutenberg.org

A few recent books about Giordano Bruno

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Freethinkers,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Papal States,Public Executions

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1495: William Stanley, Lord Chamberlain

2 comments February 16th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1495, the former Lord Chamberlain lost his head on Tower Hill for conspiring with the pretender Perkin Warbeck.

The politically nimble Stanleys — William and older brother Thomas — had adroitly navigated the Wars of the Roses with an uncanny talent for tacking to the quick-changing political winds.

Theirs had been a pivotal — and treacherous — intervention in the Battle of Bosworth Field, with William Stanley literally deciding the hand-to-hand encounter between his ostensible liege Richard III and the man who would that day become King Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch.

Lord [Thomas] Stanley took his station on one wing [of Richard III’s lines], and Sir William on the other, so that, thus disposed, they could flank either their own side or the opposed one. … the Stanleys, seizing the critical moment, wheeling round, joined the enemy, and fell on Richard’s flanks. This masterly manoeuvre struck dismay through the lines of Richard … His only hope appeared to be to make a desperate assault on Henry’s van, and, if possible, to reach and kill him on the spot. With this object … he broke into the midst of Henry’s main body, and catching sight of him, dashed forward, crying fantically, “Treason! treason! treason!” He killed Sir William Brandon, Henry’s standard-bearer, with his own hand; struck Sir John Cheyney from his horse; and springing forward on Henry, aimed a desperate blow at him; but Sir William Stanley, breaking in at that moment, surrounded Richard with his brave followers, who bore him to the ground by their numbers, and slew him. (Source)

For this service, Stanley enjoyed the lavish favors of the crown and an appointment as Lord Chamberlain, among other titles.

So it came as a surprise when an informant offered intelligence that one of such unassailable station had offered his services to the Flanders pretender Perkin Warbeck.

According to early 16th century Tudor court historian Polydore Vergil, Stanley was so far above suspicion that

at first [Henry] could not be brought to believe [informant Robert Clifford’s] words, but after sure proofs were shown him, then he ordered William to be arrested and put to the question. He denied nothing, but frankly confessed his guilt, if he had offended in any way. And they say his offence was this. When William and Robert were having a conversation concerning this Peter who falsely claimed to be Edward’s son, William announced he would never take up arms against the young man, if he knew for certain that he was indeed the son of Edward. This went to show that William was momentarily estranged from Henry out of anger, as happens, and hence these suspicions arose, to which were afterward added those things related by Robert. Meanwhile the king was doubtful what he should decide about William, and he weighed what counsel to take by considering outcomes. For he feared that by punishing the man he would offend Thomas Stanley, who was well deserving towards him. On the other hand, if he forgave the insult, he was afraid lest the others would attempt worse things, rendered bolder by that act of leniency. Therefore in the end he decided that severity should prevail, and so William was condemned of a capital crime and put to death.

They give this reason why William’s good will towards Henry later turned into malevolence, and likewise why the king’s affection for William was transformed into hatred. To omit the other favors they did each other from the beginning, in that battle in which he finally deprived King Richard of his life and his kingdom, when he, defended by only a few of his followers, was suddenly surrounded by Richard himself, so that his life was in immediate danger, William, sent with a strong band of soldiers by his brother Thomas, who had been sitting idle not far from the battlefield, came bearing quick and very timely aid and rescued him safe and sound from a slaughter. Richard was killed at the selfsame moment, as I have abundantly recounted in my preceding Book. This assuredly was the greatest benefit performed in human memory, by means of which Henry was freed from the fear of death and acquired a kingdom. For his part, as soon as Henry had gained the throne, not forgetful of this favor, which he freely remembered and spoke of, first made Thomas Stanley Earl of Derby, and then appointed William, loaded down with great gifts, his chamberlain and held him in the highest honor. But William, although he held a great place of friendship with the king, was more mindful of the favor he had conferred than that he received, and he still hoped, as the Gospel verse has it, to have more abundance, so that he put a low value on the rewards given him by the king. When Henry perceived these were cheap in his eyes, he began to be so angry that the both of them, their minds provoked, lost the fruit of their grace. Thus it often that happens that, because of an unjust valuation of meritorious deeds, great hostility often follows upon the conferral of great benefits.

Whether personal resentment or ambition really motivated Stanley is up for speculation; it surely appears remarkable that he would gamble his position on so doubtful a claimant as Warbeck. But then, Warbeck appears doubtful in retrospect; in the months to come, he would wreak considerable mischief on a crown that had not sat easy on a monarch’s head for many years.

Misplaced Yorkist loyalty also stands as a possible explanation, if one takes William Stanley’s guilt as a given.

Stanley copped to the charge of stating that “if he knew certainly that the young man [Warbeck] was the undoubted heir of King Edward IV, he would never fight or bear armour against him,” throwing him on the mercy of the king whose crown his arms had once assured.

Henry showed him no mercy, casting a dread pall over lingering Yorkists likewise disposed to entertain the young pretender’s aspirations and left the plotters “like sand without lime, ill bound together … not knowing who was faithful.” (Bacon) It also left Henry with Stanley’s colossal estate, confiscated to the crown by late lord’s attainder, from which the king generously contrived to pay his former chamberlain’s burial costs.

* There are some conflicting dates cited for William Stanley’s beheading, notably February 10, which is currently favored by Wikipedia. February 16 appears more broadly and credibly supported, but I have not been able to establish a determinative primary document.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1573: Matija Gubec, peasant revolt leader

Add comment February 15th, 2009 Headsman

On February 15, 1573, the brief but scintillating career of insurrectionary Matija Gubec came to a brutal end when he was publicly tortured to death in Zagreb.


You know what they say about the size of a man’s feet: Matija Gubec about to be crowned with a red-hot iron ringlet and quartered.

Gubec emerged from (to us, at least) obscurity to leadership of a short-lived peasant uprising in Croatia against Franjo Tahi (Croatian Wikipedia link), your basic feudal tyrant.

Although put down inside of two weeks, this revolt and its personification in Gubec have endured as potent national symbols in Croatia.

In the revolutionary 20th century, both left and right claimed Gubec’s standard as their own: a multiethnic company of Yugoslav volunteers fought under his name in the Spanish Civil War, as did multiple partisan units during World War II who took inspiration in his peasant class uprising. By contrast, the Ustasha conceived Gubec as

one man, who was not the exponent of any class, but … a reflection of an entire nation’s beliefs.*

Fascist and communist alike can jam to the rock opera Gubec Beg.**

* See Pavlakovic, Vjeran (2004) ‘Matija Gubec Goes to Spain: Symbols and Ideology in Croatia, 1936-1939’, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 17:4, 727 — 755.

** According to Pavlakovic, Gubec’s real given name is unknown and birth records suggest it might have been “Ambroz”. He was known as “Gubec called Beg,” using the Turkish term for a lord.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Capital Punishment,Croatia,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,Habsburg Realm,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Torture,Treason,Yugoslavia

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1530: Tangaxuan II, the last Tarasco ruler

1 comment February 14th, 2009 Headsman

This date in 1530 marked the end of the pre-Columbian Tarasco Empire, when the Spaniard Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán lashed its last independent king (Spanish link) to a tree and burned him to death.

Legendary even by conquistador standards for his cruelty, Beltran de Guzman eliminated the Tarascan state in western Mexico — a onetime Aztec rival which had got off relatively easy during Cortes’s 1520s incursion by cooperating with the Spanish.

Beltran de Guzman had set out from Spanish holdings on the hunt for gold, butchering the many natives on his westward jag unable or unwilling to comply with his demand for more and better treasure.

Tangaxuan — or Tangaxoan, or Tanganxoan, or Tangaxhuan, and other such variants — met his foreign-born visitor peacefully with some gifts of gold and silver. This only whetted Nuno Beltran de Guzman’s appetite, and he promptly had the king detained and tortured for more pelf before dispatching him by dragging by horses and burning alive at the confluence of the Río Lerma and the Río Angulo. (Spanish, again.)


The monumental Juan O’Gorman mural in Michoacan, the present-day Mexican state occupying what was once Tarascan land, depicts this day’s execution above the inscription, “Tangaxhuán, the last monarch of the Purhépecha Indians was tortured and assassinated by the ferocious hordes led by the sadistic, vile, Nuño de Guzmán.”

Although even other Spanish officials viewed our bloodthirsty conquistador with distaste, his depredations were ultimately rooted in the logic of imperial expansion, and the conquest of Tarasco consolidated (Spanish link) the colonial power’s grip on “New Spain”.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Public Executions,Royalty,Spain,Summary Executions,Torture

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1542: Kathryn Howard, the rose without a thorn

18 comments February 13th, 2009 Lara Eakins

(Thanks to Lara Eakins of the TudorHistory.org Blog for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1542, Henry VIII’s fifth queen, Kathryn Howard, was beheaded in the Tower of London for high treason. She was the second of Henry’s queens to face this fate, the other being Kathryn’s first cousin Anne Boleyn.

This Hans Holbein miniature is generally thought to be Kathryn Howard, though the identification is uncertain. From the TudorHistory.org blog Kathryn Howard gallery.

Kathryn Howard* was born sometime between 1518 and 1524 to Lord Edmund Howard (a younger brother of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk) and his wife Joyce Culpepper. Joyce died while Kathryn was young and her father took a post in Calais, leaving Kathryn in the charge of her step-grandmother, Agnes Tilney the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The Duchess oversaw Kathryn’s education, but apparently didn’t keep as close an eye on other aspects of the girl’s life.

Kathryn’s first physical relationship that we know of occurred in around 1536 with her music teacher Henry Manox. In her later confession she told of “the fair and flattering persuasions of Mannock, being but a young girl, suffered him at sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of my body…”. In late 1538, Kathryn began a sexual relationship with Francis Dereham, which was to become part of her downfall as Queen.

The next year, 1539, Kathryn took a position at court, becoming a maid of honor for Henry’s soon-to-be fourth Queen, Anne of Cleves. The Dowager Duchess of Norfolk later recalled that Henry first took notice of Kathryn at Greenwich in December of 1539 during the preparations for Anne’s arrival. Henry was famously disappointed by his new foreign bride and by early July 1540 the marriage was annulled. During the short marriage to Anne of Cleves, Henry had already begun to send gifts to Kathryn and took her as his fifth Queen on July 28th at Oatlands Palace.

Henry was 49 years old and Kathryn was no older than 22 (and more likely around 19). For all that can be said against this match, the vivacious young girl brought back some of Henry’s zest for life. The King lavished gifts on his young wife and called her his ‘rose without a thorn’ and the ‘very jewel of womanhood’.

Thomas Culpepper, a distant relation of Kathryn’s through her mother, sought favor from the Queen in early 1541 which was probably when their secret meetings began. Their rendezvous were aided by Kathryn’s lady of the privy chamber, Jane Boleyn, sister-in-law to the late Queen Anne Boleyn through Jane’s marriage to Anne’s brother George.** Also at this time, Francis Dereham returned to England from Ireland and gained a position in Kathryn’s household, possibly arranged to keep his silence about their earlier relationship.

During the summer of 1541, Henry and his young queen went on progress to the north of England and returned to Hampton Court on October 29. Just a few days later everything would begin to unravel. On November 2, Archbishop Cranmer sent a letter to the King telling him of his wife’s previous lovers. Henry seemed reluctant to believe the charges at first, but upon the questioning of Dereham and Manox –- who confirmed the allegations –- Henry left Kathryn at Hampton Court and returned to London. He never saw her again.

During the interrogations of the men, Francis Dereham said that Thomas Culpepper had replaced him in the Queen’s affections. Kathryn was presented with these new allegations and admitted to secret meetings with Culpepper (as well as the relationships with Manox and Dereham before her marriage), but denied that a sexual relationship had existed between them. Culpepper was imprisoned in the Tower of London and Kathryn was moved to the former abbey at Syon and deprived of her queenship.

Dereham and Culpepper were found guilty of treason on December 1 and were executed on December 10. Dereham was hanged, disemboweled, beheaded and quartered at Tyburn. Culpepper fared better, owing to his status, and was only beheaded. The former queen and her lady Jane Boleyn never faced a trial for their actions but instead had acts of attainder passed against them. On February 10, 1542, the ladies entered the Tower of London to await their executions.

Kathryn was told on the 12th that her execution would be the next morning and according to Imperial Ambassador Chapuys, she rehearsed the execution for several hours and even requested that the block be brought to her so she would know how to place her head. A merchant named Ottwell Johnson was an eyewitness to the execution on the morning of the 13th and wrote in a letter to his brother that Kathryn and Jane both “made the most godly and Christian end” and that Kathryn, in her scaffold speech, said that her punishment was worthy and just. (The letter is among period correspondence printed in this public-domain book.)

Kathryn’s head was struck from her body with one stoke of the axe, as was Jane’s, a merciful outcome compared to other ladies who shared their fate, such as Margaret Pole and Mary Queen of Scots. Kathryn and Jane were both quickly buried in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower precincts, joining Henry’s other beheaded queen, Anne Boleyn and Jane’s husband, George.

[flv:http://www.executedtoday.com/video/Lynne_Frederick_as_Katherine_Howard.flv 440 330]

* Or Catherine Howard, or Katherine Howard, or Katheryn Howard. Spelling at the time, even of proper names, was fluid.

** Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, is popularly supposed to have supplied the explosive incest allegation against her husband, George Boleyn, and his sister Anne Boleyn. Being subsequently hoisted on her own petard in the game of courtly purging, she tends to get short shrift in the sympathy department — though the fact is that we really don’t know much about her.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Nobility,Other Voices,Power,Royalty,Sex,Treason,Women

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2003: Richard Edwin Fox, bogus job interviewer

Add comment February 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 2003, Richard Edwin Fox was put to death by lethal injection at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility for murdering 18-year-old Bowling Green student Leslie Keckler in 1989.

Fox had plucked Keckler’s phone number from a job application she submitted to the Bob Evans restaurant where he worked as a short-order cook, then lured her to a phony job interview.

On the pretext of taking her on her prospective “sales route,” Fox drove Keckler to a rural area outside of Bowling Green where he stabbed and strangled her to death.

Creepily, the exact same modus operandi was linked to another woman whose meeting had been more fortunate than Keckler’s. Marla Ritchey met Fox — posing as “Jeff Bennett” — for a similar interview, and after she realized it was a hoax,

[Fox] asked her what she would do if someone pulled a knife on her and asked her for all of her money or asked her to do “other things” at which point Ritchey did jump out of the [parked] car. The man then attempted to grab Ritchie and told her to come back and as Ritchey ran for her car the man immediately pulled away. (Account from Death Penalty USA: 2003-2004)

Fox left an orphaned daughter (then aged 20) who had pled for her father’s life. Keckler’s brother spoke to the media for the victim’s family afterwards, remarking,

“The family feels justice has been served, that Leslie and my mother can now be at peace.”

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Ohio,USA

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1944: Twenty-two or more Poles

3 comments February 11th, 2009 Headsman

The demonstrative public hanging this day in 1944 of Poles in the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto* was little more than an everyday atrocity in Nazi-occupied Poland — although, ten days after the gauleiter responsible for previous mass executions had himself been assassinated by the Polish Home Army, it presumably had an extra bit of meaning for the city’s denizens.

According to Gregor Dallas’s 1945: The War That Never Ended,

Nazi terror reached new heights for the non-Jewish population of Warsaw in the winter of 1943-4. People were seized at random in the streets and executed on the spot; between October and February some 270 to 300 men and women were publicly hanged or shot each week — the kind of atrocities the French commemorate in Tulle and Oradour were, in Warsaw, a part of daily life. ‘On my way to Leszno Church today,’ Julian Kulski, a young soldier of the Home Army, recorded on 11 February 1944, ‘I saw a crowd of people standing in front of the Wall. They were gazing at something above the Wall, on the Ghetto side of it. As I got closer, I could see for myself — hanged from the upper-storey balconies of what had been an apartment house were the bodies of twenty-two of our Freedom Fighters.’ Kulski, at any rate, took them for Freedom Fighters.


This blurry photo dated to the same day and location was taken from a moving tram.

This mass execution may also be one alluded to by Jewish resistance fighter Yizhak “Antek” Zuckerman,** who survived the war in Warsaw with false papers identifying him as a Pole. His A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising remembers such an execution occurring while they lived on Leszno Street after the ghetto’s destruction — and that it greatly upset his wife, Zivia Lubetkin, because Zuckerman was so late arriving home that day.

One day the Germans hanged fifty Poles on street lamps, something they often did. This time it was on Leszno Street, in retaliation for harassing Germans. In such a case, they would take fifty Poles from their “stock” in Pawiak, publish their names, add the crime for which they were being murdered, and hang them in the city on electric poles. In this case, they also strung people up on the outside walls of the ghetto, where there was still a wall, even though there was no longer a ghetto.

* Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto had been liquidated the previous spring; at this point, it was rubble behind the still-standing wall.

** Zuckerman also appeared as a witness in the Israeli trial of Adolf Eichmann.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Hostages,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Mature Content,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Wartime Executions

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1956: Wilbert Coffin

6 comments February 10th, 2009 Headsman

Just after midnight this day in 1956, Wilbert Coffin hanged for murdering three American tourists — a case that has since entered Canadian annals as a paradigmatic wrongful execution.

The aptly-named Coffin affair saw the prospector sent up on an entirely circumstantial case.

Under the pressure of losing tourist dollars to breathless coverage in the U.S., and with the aid of a desultory defense attorney, the Coffin case was rushed along to completion. Though sympathy in Gaspe seems to have been considerable, its elevation to cause celebre was likewise bound up in Quebec politics, pushed by foes of powerful, unscrupulous premier Maurice Duplessis.

Gadfly journalist Jacques Hebert (not the guillotined French Revolution demagogue of the same name, of course) published three books on the case (the 1963 volume immoderately titled J’accuse les assassins de Coffin landed him in jail)

While the death penalty vanished from Canada, the Coffin case has never fully faded as a public controversy. And it’s had something of a revival around the hanging’s recent 50th anniversary, with the government flirting with a posthumous pardon.

There’s even a prime alternate suspect, now dead, whose family has allegedly implicated him.

The Gaspe guitarist who appears in the above piece, Dale Boyle, makes his Wilbert Coffin song (and details about the case) available on his web site.

Lew Stoddard’s blog covers the Coffin case in exacting detail from the standpoint of a strong advocate of the hanged man’s innocence. The Coffin family itself also maintains wilbertcoffin.com, naturally dedicated to clearing Wilbert’s name.

Still, even should officialdom ultimately side with the apparent judgment in the court of public opinion, a wrongful execution is a wound that can never be salved.

I’ve often wondered what went through my brother’s mind when they came and took him out of his cell to take that last walk to be hanged. You can’t imagine what it’s been like to live with this all these years. It’s like a black, black hole that never ends.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Wrongful Executions

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1929: José de León Toral, assassin of Álvaro Obregón

Add comment February 9th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1929, a Catholic militant who had gunned down the president of Mexico was shot for his trouble.

In the midst of the dirty Cristero War pitting Catholics against a secular, development-minded state, adroit former president Alvaro Obregon had just won election to a new term.

On July 17, 1928, as the president-elect banqueted in Mexico City, starving artist and father of three Jose de Leon Toral (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) gained admittance as an itinerant caricaturist … then shot dead his putative subject square in the face.

En route to his inevitable Calvary, which he met like Father Miguel Pro with the insurgents’ cry of “Viva Cristo Rey!”, Toral had occasion to stand in a sensational trial where he described to a live radio audience his tortures at the hands of the police. (There’s an illustration at this Spanish-language biography.)

And of course, he’s got his own corrido.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mexico,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Shot,Wartime Executions

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