Archive for July, 2009

1959: Cho Pong-am, Presidential runner-up

Add comment July 31st, 2009 Headsman

A half-century ago today, South Korean strongman Syngman Rhee, winner of that country’s 1956 presidential election, had the runner-up hanged for treason.

Cho Pong-am (or Cho Bong-am), who cut his teeth as a young Communist in the 1920’s and 30’s but had become an independent socialist since, won over 2.1 million votes as the Progressive Party candidate in 1956, on a platform of peaceful reunification with North Korea — the outstanding political issue in South Korea at the time.

The position had some popularity as against Rhee’s “march North” policy of conquering North Korea by force. Peaceful unification and support for the Progressive Party continued to grow after 1956, to Rhee’s fury.

Probably in fear of the increase in popular sentiment favourable to ‘peaceful unification’, the Rhee regime was determined to destroy the Progressive Party. On 13 January 1958, Cho Pong-am was arrested, together with other party officials, on charges of espionage and violation of the National Security Act … Given the fact that the government had suspected Cho’s ideological orientation, and that Communist infiltration of the South was increasing at that time … the arrest of the progressive leader might have been caused partly by the government’s genuine fear of Communist subversion. Cho’s trial, however, clearly indicated that the main purpose of Rhee’s action was to suppress political opposition, and especially to control the idea of ‘peaceful unification’.

Cho Pong-am was indicted on charges that his advocacy of ‘peaceful unification’ by elections in North and South Korea denied the sovereignty of the ROK and consequently was subversive in nature, and that he had been in secret contact with North Korean agents. … police and prosecution officials admitted that the espionage case against Cho was ‘very weak’, and indicated that they were expending considerable effort on analysing his concept of ‘peaceful unification’ in order to classify it as a crime against the ROK.

… Seoul district court, in July, sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment … [and] found that the Progressive Party’s platform did not violate the National Security Law. Three months later, however, the appellate court, reversing the decision of the district court, sentenced Cho to death … [and] ruled that his unification formula represented a plan to overthrow the ROK government.

Cho was hanged just one day after the Supreme Court rejected his appeal — “sudden and highly questionable,” to the American embassy that hurriedly attempted to impress Rhee’s Foreign Minister with the damage this execution could do to South Korea internationally. Cognizant, perhaps, of such concerns, Seoul imposed press censorship from August 1 on further reporting about the case.

Rhee himself would be forced from office by popular outcry the following year after attempting to steal the 1960 election, but “the tragic end of Cho Pong-am and his Progressive Party made it unequivocally clear that a serious leftist movement could not be openly promoted in South Korea without falling victim to violent suppression by the Government.” (Source)

Update: He was posthumously rehabilitated in 2011.

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1540: Three Papists and Three Anti-Papists

3 comments July 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1540, two days after disposing of his former Vicegerent of Spirituals Thomas Cromwell, the just-wedded Henry VIII wrote a terrifying message of religious conformity in blood and smoke at Smithfield.

Edward Hall (as he did with Cromwell) records the scene.

The thirtie daie of July, were drawen on herdelles out of the Tower to Smithfield, Robert Barnes Doctor in Diuinitee, Thomas Garard, and Wyllyam Jerome Bachelers in Diuinitee, Powell, Fetherston and Abell. The firste three were drawen to a stake, there before set up, and were hanged, hedded, and quartered. Here ye must note, that the first three, wer menne that professed the Gospell of Jesu Christ, and were Preachers thereof … [the first three] were detestable and abhominable Heretickes, and … had taught many heresies, the nomber whereof was to greate in the atteindor to be recited, so that there is not one alleged … in deede at their deathe, they asked the Sherifes, wherefore they were condempned, who answered, thei could not tell: but if I maie saie the truthe, moste menne said it was for Preachyng, against the Doctryne of Stephen Gardiner Bishoppe of Wynchester, who chiefly procured this their death … but greate pitie it was, that suche learned menne should bee cast awaie, without examinaction, neither knowyng what was laied to their charge, nor never called to answere.

The laste three … were put to death for Treason, and in their attaindor, is speciall mencion made of their offences, whiche was for the deniyng of the kynge ssupremacie, and affirmyng that his Mariage with the Lady Katheryne was good: These with other were the treasons, that thei wer attainted of, and suffered death for.

Terrifying and confusing: here were burnt three Protestants (Barnes, Gerrard and Jerome) for heresy under the Six Articles, essentially for excess radicalism; beside them were hanged, drawn and quartered three Catholics (Powell, Fetherston and Abel) for treasonably refusing the Oath of Succession, that is, for refusing to admit the King of England as the head of the Church of England. It was that old dispute about Anne Boleyn, who was three queens ago by now. (All three Catholic theologians were advisors to Anne’s predecessor and rival Catherine of Aragon, back in the day.)

The one thing that couldn’t possibly be confused in the day’s proceedings was that matters of the faith were matters of state, and in them Henry would brook heterodoxy of neither the liberal nor conservative variety.

“Good Lord! How do these people live?” exclaimed a foreign observer (cited here). “Here are the papists hanged, there are the anti-papists burnt!”

Good for the martyr industry all-around, and fodder for contemporaries to imagine their respective hereafters, as in “The metynge of Doctor Barons and Doctor Powell at Paradise gate”. (pdf)

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1600: The Pappenheimer Family

11 comments July 29th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1600, Bavarians thronged to a half-mile-long procession in Munich for the horrific execution of the Pappenheimer family.

They were marginal, itinerant types: the father, Paulus Pappenheimer, cleaned privies (“Pappenheimer” would remain as Nuremberg slang for a garbageman into the 20th century, according to Robert Butts); the mother, Anna, was the daughter of a gravedigger. They wandered, begged, did odd jobs. They were Lutherans in a Catholic duchy.

So they were vulnerable to their extreme turn of bad luck. Fresh to the throne of Bavaria, young Catholic zealot Duke Maximilian I wanted a crackdown on the infernal arts, and when others accused the Pappenheimers of witchcraft, they found they had become the stars of a show trial.

Tortured into a spectacular litany of confessions, Anne Llewellyn Barstow, records,

they were stripped so that their flesh could be torn off by red-hot pincers. Then Anna’s breasts were cut off. The bloody breasts were forced into her mouth and then into the mouths of her two grown sons … a hideous parody of her role as mother and nurse …

Church bells pealed to celebrate this triumph of Christianity over Satan; the crowd sang hymns; vendors hawked pamphlets describing the sins of the victims.

Meanwhile, Anna’s chest cavity bled. As the carts lurched along, the injured prisoners were in agony. Nonetheless, they were forced at one point to get down from the carts and kneel before a cross, to confess their sins. Then they were offered wine to drink, a strangely humane act in the midst of this barbaric ritual.*

One can hope that between the wine and loss of blood, the Pappenheimers were losing consciousness. They had not been granted the “privilege” of being strangled before being burned, but in keeping with the extreme brutality of these proceedings, they would be forced to endure the very flames.

Further torments awaited Paulus. A heavy iron wheel was dropped on his arms until the bones snapped … [then] Paulus was impaled on a stick driven up through his anus …

The four Pappenheimers were then tied to the stakes, the brushwood pyres were set aflame, and they were burned to death. Their eleven-year-old son was forced to watch the dying agonies of his parents and brothers. We know that Anna was still alive when the flames leapt up around her, for Hansel cried out, “My mother is squirming!” The boy was executed months later.

Ouch.


The Pappenheimers’ appalling end, famous in its own time, hit modern bestseller lists with Michael Kunze‘s work of popular history, Highroad to the Stake: A Tale of Witchcraft (Review).

Dr. Kunze was good enough to share his thoughts on the Pappenheimers’ milieu with Executed Today.

You present the Pappenheimers as a sort of “show trial” case; what makes a witchcraft show trial a compelling need for a German duke at the end of the 16th century? Why do you think witch persecution arises so especially in this period especially?

Towards the end of the 16th century the Middle Ages had been overcome. People no longer believed in a God taking care of every little thing in their lives. The world was no longer regarded a safe home, guarded by the Father in heaven. Religion had been replaced by reason. The kings, princes and dukes took over direct responsibility for their countries and citizens. They started to build modern states, rationally organized und fully controlled.

The main problem was that full control was difficult to achieve. The streets were in very bad condition, the countryside far stretched, the woods were dark, the villages far away. All kinds of crimes were committed, and when the police arrived the robbers, thieves and murderers had long disappeared. In time without photographs or identity papers it was difficult to trace them. The slow flow of information was also a problem.

That’s why the authorities tried to abhor criminals by show trials and spectacular executions. A witch trial was ideal, because people believed that all mischief and evil was induced by the devil. All criminals were more or less suspected of a deal with the devil.

What’s the biggest challenge we have in our time to re-imagining the world that witch prosecutors and “witches” lived in, or the biggest difference in mindset?

People in the 16th century were absolutely convinced that the devil was a real force trying to use humans to work against God’s intentions. They believed in a huge battle between good and evil, and those who changed sides and helped the devil were regarded as traitors committing High Treason.

At the same time the modern idea that everything that happens has an explainable cause made the authorities suspect the devil’s work behind every thunderstorm, not to mention deadly accidents. People were not more stupid than we are. It was the mixture of medieval superstitions and modern rationalization that led to the witch trials.

How did contemporaries of the Pappenheimers and Duke Maximilian think about this event?

It was indeed a monstrous case and quite an event at the time. The contemporaries did not doubt that 1) the Pappenheimer family had been instruments of the devil, and 2) that the brutal punishment had saved their souls. Duke Maximilian certainly regarded the execution as a means to stabilize safety in his country.

In researching the interrogations and trials in these cases, where did you get the sense that we still revert to “witch trial logic” in some modern cases? If so, when does it arise?

It’s obvious that we still interpret laws based on our beliefs and point of views. The judges involved in the witch trials thought they “knew” for certain that the devil can talk to people and make deals with them. They also believed that torture brings the truth to light. Isn’t today’s deal bargaining also a form of torture? After all the authorities tell the defendant that he will be severely punished if he does not confess. That’s what I call a forced confession. Yet it is done around the world.

Obviously, this execution is utterly horrific in its particulars. How typical would this sexualized theater — slicing off Anna Pappenheimer’s breasts, impaling Paulus Pappenheimer — have been for a witchcraft case at that time and place? How would this have been understood by witnesses, as opposed to “merely” burning or breaking on the wheel?

The point was to abhor by cruelty. People should see what horrors the criminals had to endure and tell it to everyone for years to come.

* Or, perchance, the wine was offered to revive them and protract their tortures.

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1540: Thomas Cromwell

14 comments July 28th, 2009 Headsman

“Who cannot be sorrowful and amazed that he should be a traitor against your majesty? He that was so advanced by your majesty, he whose surety was only by your majesty, he who loved your majesty, as I ever thought, no less than God; he who studied always to set forward whatsoever was your majesty’s will and pleasure; he that cared for no man’s displeasure to serve your majesty; he that was such a servant, in my judgment, in wisdom, diligence, faithfulness, and experience, as no prince in this realm ever had …

If he be a Traitor, I am sorry that ever I loved him, or trusted him, and I am very glad that his treason is discovered in time; but yet again I am very sorrowful; for who shall your grace trust hereafter, if you might not trust him? Alas!”

-Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, writing to King Henry VIII upon news of the arrest of Thomas Cromwell

It was on this date in 1540 that the Machiavellian minister of Henry VIII fell by the instrument he had wielded so ably against so many others.

While Henry strove to get his end away, Thomas Cromwell made the Reformation, setting his energetic hand to the needfully violent reordering of England.

In almost a decade as the king’s chief minister, he had dissolved so many monasteries, annulled so many noble prerogatives, backstabbed so many courtiers, and sent so many of every class to the scaffold that most at court had some reason to hate him. (Cranmer was the only one to (cautiously) object to his old partner’s arrest.)

Every matter of importance in 1530’s England concerned Cromwell. He raised and then destroyed Anne Boleyn; he managed the realm’s religious turmoil so fearsomely that his ouster was one of the demands of the Pilgrimage of Grace; he did what he had to do in the matter of Sir Thomas More.

Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed Man-Booker Prize-winning 2009 novel Wolf Hall humanizes Cromwell’s side of his clash with Thomas More. (Review)

Though it may be, as Edward Hall recorded, that “many lamented but more rejoiced” at Cromwell’s fall from the very height of his power — “and specially such as either had been religious men, or favoured religious persons; for they banqueted and triumphed together that night [of his execution], many wishing that that day had been seven year before” — the reasons for it are murky enough to invite recourse to the royal person’s irrationality.

The bedroom politics get all the press: Cromwell’s bit of marital statecraft arranging Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was a famous dud, but negotiations to end it were well on their way by the time of Cromwell’s arrest.

Why, too, should the minister have been ennobled Duke of Essex in April 1540, months after the disastrous union? That Cromwell, whose own security rested upon the stability of the realm, was a radical Protestant promulgating inflammatory religious ideas — and he was condemned for both treason and heresy, incidentally giving the king wide latitude for just how painfully to kill his former servant — seems to beggar belief.

Once fallen, Cromwell was kept alive long enough to add testimony to the Cleves divorce; that much is clear. But then why keep him alive still three weeks more?

In the end, maybe it was inevitable that one in his position, at his time and place, had to follow to the scaffold the many he had sent thither, just the Tudor version of that familiar “bad advisors” trope: it were not treason to murmur against the aide whose ill counsel did wrong by His Majesty, and so Cromwell stood to accumulate the share of hostility that properly belonged to his sovereign. As an expert practitioner of the game of power politics, Thomas Cromwell could hardly be in a position to complain.

Oh, and by the by: with the German princess on the outs, the king’s wandering eye had fallen upon a niece of Cromwell’s enemy. On the day that Cromwell lost his head, Henry married Catherine Howard. No matter your brilliance, in Henrican England you only had to lose at court politics once, even if the king would be lamenting this injudicious trade within months.

Henry gave his loyal servant the easiest death, beheading on Tower Hill (although it turned out to be a botched job) — alongside a distinctly undercard attraction, Walter Hungerford, the first person executed under the Buggery Act.

Hall records Cromwell playing ball with a fine entry in the scaffold-speech genre that kept his son in the peerage.

I am come hether to dye, and not to purge my self, as maie happen, some thynke that I will, for if I should do so, I wer a very wretche and miser: I am by the Lawe comdempned to die, and thanke my lorde God that hath appoynted me this deathe, for myne offence: For sithence the tyme that I have had yeres of discrecion, I have lived a synner, and offended my Lorde God, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgevenes. And it is not unknowne to many of you, that I have been a great traveler in this worlde, and beyng but of a base degree, was called to high estate, and sithes the tyme I came thereunto, I have offended my prince, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgevenes, and beseche you all to praie to God with me, that he will forgeve me. O father forgeve me. O sonne forgeve me, O holy Ghost forgeve me: O thre persons in one God forgeve me. And now I praie you that be here, to beare me record, I die in the Catholicke faithe, not doubtyng in any article of my faith, no nor doubtyng in any Sacrament of the Churche.* Many hath sclaundered me, and reported that I have been a bearer, of suche as hath mainteigned evill opinions, whiche is untrue, but I confesse that like as God by his holy spirite, doth instruct us in the truthe, so the devill is redy to seduce us, and I have been seduced: but beare me witnes that I dye in the Catholicke faithe of the holy Churche. And I hartely desire you to praie for the Kynges grace, that he maie long live with you, maie long reigne over you. And once again I desire you to pray for me, that so long as life remaigneth in this fleshe, I waver nothyng in my faithe.

And then made he his praier, whiche was long, but not so long, as bothe Godly and learned, and after committed his soule, into the handes of God, and so paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and Boocherly miser, whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the Office.

If Cromwell’s dying sentiment concealed any lasting bitterness for the crown, maybe his spirit would take some satisfaction a century later when another of his name and family rose high enough to behead a king.

* Cromwell’s bit about the “Catholic faith” in his dying confession is to be carefully handled; it’s sometimes rendered “the traditional faith,” and occasionally treated by later Protestant polemicists as a phony addition made by Roman apologists. It’s not, appearances aside, walking back the Reformation; according to Charles Carlton’s “Thomas Cromwell: A Study in Interrogation” (Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer, 1973)) our day’s victim “did not see himself as a Catholic separate from the Church, but as a Christian, who, with his King, had escaped the Pope’s usurped authority.” Cromwell is also explicit in this passage about rejecting sacramentarianism, which was part of the heresy accusation against him.

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1915: 167 Haitian political prisoners

7 comments July 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1915, Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam had his predecessor* Oreste Zamor, and 160 or so of his closest proximity, executed in Port-au-Prince.

Within hours, Sam himself was dead at the hands of an outraged mob — and Haiti on its way to 19 years of American military occupation.

Haiti in the 1910s was a dangerous place to aspire to political authority; Sam was the 7th different man to hold the presidency since 1911. Like many others, he gained it by force, and held it tenuously against rivals who planned to do likewise.

The hecatomb that did in Sam, who had been head of state for less than five months, was seemingly intended to shore himself up in the face of an advance upon Port-au-Prince by one Rosalvo Bobo — or else just done for the principle of the thing. Either way, it left a mess.

A few minutes after 4 a.m., Charles Oscar Etienne, the chief military officer of the Haitian government and a close friend of the President, hurried to the national prison, where ensued the bloody massacre of some 167 prisoners who were held only as political suspects without being even charged with any crime. Among the victims were members of the most prominent families of Haiti …

Stephen Alexis, one of the political prisoners who escaped death in the massacre, has testified before the claims commission that on the morning of the twenty-eighth [sic] of July he has awakened by the prisoner who shared his cell and told that there was firing in town. He heard shots being fired with increasing intensity, and at twenty minutes past four the sound of voices in the conciergerie and the order, “To arms, sound the bugle, prepare for action; fifteen men, forward march.” As the firing squad reached the first cell, Alexis heard Chocotte, the adjutant of the prison, say, “Fire close to the ground; a bullet in the head for each man,” and when the second cell was reached a loud voice cried, “Every one of the political prisoners must die. The arrondissement’s orders are that not one be left standing” …

Except for the very few who escaped by a miracle, the political prisoners were all slaughtered like cattle, their bodies slashed and horribly mutilated, limbs hacked off, the skulls of some of the corpses smashed in, and the bodies of others disembowelled …

The report of the claims commission says: “The barbarous act perpetrated in the prison in Port-au-Prince is all the more inexplicable in that it had no act of war for excuse. There had been no revolt in the interior of the prison. The prisoners were locked into their cells. The prison had not been attacked. The bureau of the arrondissement, which adjoined the prison, had not had to repulse any offensive on the part of the revolutionists. It was with appalling cold-bloodedness that Haitian officers, in whom military authority had been vested, to whom the care and security of the prisoners had been entrusted, perpetrated, with the assistance of their subordinates, the wholesale slaughter of July 27.”

An incensed mob invaded the French embassy (where Sam had taken refuge) and literally tore apart the president.

On July 28, marines from the American ship USS Washington landed in Port-au-Prince to do the usual restore-peace-and-freedom thing. (Greeted as liberators? Surprisingly, “Haitians Dislike[d] Landing of Marines”.)

As a happy side effect, the American occupation froze out French and German commercial interests who had made Haitian inroads, secured debt repayment from the bankrupt country, and allowed Washington to reorder its neighbor to its liking.

From 1915 to 1929 U.S. military tribunals made rulings on political cases. A treaty that provided for American control of customs and construction of roads, as well as supervision of schools and the constabulary, was approved by the Haitian legislature under threat that American troops would remain in the country. American officials dissolved the Haitian legislature when it refused to approve a new American-sponsored constitution, which was then ratified by a referendum supervised by the U.S. military.**

* Zamor was not Sam’s immediate predecessor; rather, Sam had deposed the man who had deposed Zamor.

** Filed under “everything old is new again,” here‘s the American chattering class circa 1921 making a familiar-sounding case for giving the occupation a few more Friedman units on behalf of the Haitian

people, all of whom, less the native ruling class, a small group, recognize the benefits of the American occupation and are grateful for the peace and security they now enjoy … The United States, [Admiral Knapp] says, has only made a start for the good of Haiti, and five years of healing occupation would be lost if the Americans withdrew.

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1941: Paul Ogorzow, the S-Bahn Murderer

1 comment July 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Nazi Berlin disposed of its railway killer.

Roger Moorhouse, author of a forthcoming book about Ogorzow, tells the story of this unjustly neglected homicidal maniac on his blog, and in a BBC History Magazine interview:

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Paul Ogorzow (German link) plied his trade in a city blacked-out against British bombing, but he provides an illuminating glimpse at criminal investigation.

While Ogorzow benefited from Berlin’s preternatural darkness, he didn’t go greatly out of his way to cover his tracks otherwise. At least four of his eight murders were within a mile of his house; one woman who survived his attack reported the assailant was wearing German Railways kit.

The police, prone then as now to (sometimes hastily) settle on a theory and seek evidence to confirm it, remained blind to the seemingly obvious possibility that a railway worker was the culprit … even if he also happened to be a Nazi party member in good standing.

The official fixation on Untermenschen may not be surprising given the ideological climate, but Germany had had its share of noteworthy murderers in the interwar years who were neither Jews nor foreign laborers nor British agents — the suspect profiles favored by German investigators while Ogorzow continued his killing spree.

With the slightest measure of care, the S-Bahn Murderer might have plied his hobby unmolested until the wartime manpower shortages started making him look like an attractive bit of cannon-fodder for the eastern front. Alas for him, his voracious appetite for murder — eight victims with similar m.o. in just a few months — eventually made him so obvious that even the police could no longer overlook him.

Although the government kept the crime and its unedifying investigation fairly quiet, it was known. There was even a 1944 true crime potboiler by Wilhelm Ihde (pseudonymously writing as “Axel Alt”), Der Tod fuhr im Zug (Death Rode the Train). According to Todd Herzog,

Alt’s novel is representative of the dominant tendency of the period to celebrate the work of the criminal police while avoiding any portrayal of the totalitarian apparatus that surrounded criminal politics in the Third Reich.

Little surprise there.

Alt’s novel ultimately aligns itself with [Fritz] Lang’s film [M] in showing the methodical work of professional detectives to be ineffective in capturing the modern killer and explicitly calling for … recruitment of the public to aid the police in fighting crime.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Serial Killers,Wartime Executions

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1826: The Decembrists

7 comments July 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1826, five leaders of the Decembrist revolt were hanged at St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul fortress for their abortive eponymous uprising eight months before.

The most renowned and romantic of Russia’s hapless liberals, the Decembrists were a secret clique of idealistic young officers, many of whom had cut their teeth chasing Napoleon’s grande armee out of Russia in 1812.

In Russia’s complex interaction with the West — its ideas, its political institutions, its ways of life — these were the westernizers, who saw constitutionalism as the way of the future.

Upon the mysteriously sudden death of Tsar Alexander I, an irregular succession to the second-oldest surviving brother, Nicholas I, gave our day’s doomed and gallant youth cause to occupy St. Petersburg’s Senatskaya Square to uphold the rights of the first brother — and more to the point, to uphold the constitution to the extent of constraining the monarchy.


Decembrists at Senate Square, as depicted by Karl Kolman.

Uh … Now What?

This badly organized affair failed in its aim to attract the mass of soldiery and, constitutionalists as its organizers were, did not even aim at mobilizing the general populace.

After the initial heady rush of marching into the square in the name of liberty, the Decembrists were left in a standoff against a much larger force of loyalists. When the latter started shooting, that was that.

Those that survived faced trial, with five — Peter Kakhovsky, Kondraty Ryleyev, Sergei Muravyov-Apostol, Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin and Pavel Pestel — initially sentenced to drawing and quartering.

“Mere” hanging was deemed sufficient for the purpose. That would be about the maximum embrace of liberalism by the Russian autocracy, whose lesson from the uprising was to crack down against any hint of forward-thinking politics — ultimately an unsuccessful strategy for the Romanov dynasty.

St. Petersburg’s Senate Square — renamed Decembrist Square by the Soviet government — where the action happened. The iconic equestrian statue of Peter the Great, commissioned by Catherine the Great and unveiled in 1782, witnessed it all; the statue acquired its enduring moniker, “The Bronze Horseman”, from a poem of the same title penned in 1833 by Alexander Pushkin, a friend of several Decembrists.

One of the greatest works of Russian literature, Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” weaves an ambiguous Decembrist-tinged critique of cruel imperial power and overreach into a complex narrative of St. Petersburg whose upshot is still up for lively literary debate. “The Bronze Horseman’s crag rose up before the poet on an empty square,” wrote one historian, “washed with the blood of those who rebelled on December 14, 1825″

Appalling there
He sat, begirt with mist and air.
What thoughts engrave His brow! what hidden
Power and authority He claims!
What fire in yonder charger flames!
Proud charger, whither art thou ridden,
Where leapest thou? and where, on whom,
Wilt plant thy hoof?

“They don’t even know how to hang you …”

When the hangings were carried out, Kakhovsky, Muravyov-Apostol and Ryleyev all had their ropes break; while some in the crowd anticipated the old prerogative of mercy for any prisoner who survives an execution, they just got re-hung instead. “Unhappy country,” quipped Ryleyev as the fresh nooses were fixed up, “where they don’t even know how to hang you.”**

Other Decembrists not condemned to the unreliable craftmanship of the Russian gallows were shipped to Siberia, where they invigorated the cultural life of the Lake Baikal city of Irkutsk — many of them famously followed by their “Decembrists’ wives,” an iconic type that continues to denote heroically sacrificial loyalty since the women had to renounce their own right to return to European Russia.

These, at least, had a place to call their own, however distant. But the class of Russian elites to which they belonged would be thrust into a trackless wilderness by their failure (in the Decembrist rising and otherwise) to carve out some distinct place for themselves. Russia’s long reckoning with modernity still had many years to run.


A worn postcard of a 19th century Russian painting depicting (perhaps) a political prisoner in the Peter and Paul Fortress.

* July 25 was the date on the Gregorian calendar; per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time, the date was July 13.

** Ryleyev was quite the saucy one, having fought a “mysterious” duel with Pushkin in 1823, and instigated (and served as second at) a famous St. Petersburg jilted-love duel in 1825 that cost the lives of both antagonists.

A poet himself and a romantic to the point of fanaticism, Ryleyev wrote odes extolling executed national heroes like Artemy Volynsky and Severyn Nalyvaiko, seemingly alluding (as in this excerpt from the latter work) to his anticipation of joining them.

I know full well the dire fate
Which must upon the patriot wait
Who first dare rise against the foe
And at the tyrant aim the blow.
This is my destined fate

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Language,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Nobility,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Soldiers,Treason

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1942: Joan Peiro i Belis, Catalan anarchist

2 comments July 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1942, anarchist, trade unionist and anti-fascist Joan Peiro was shot with six others at Paterna, Spain.

Joan (or Juan) Peiro (English Wikipedia page | Spanish) was a Barcelona glassworker of anarcho-syndicalist politics.

As Secretary General of the Confederacion National del Trabajo (CNT) and editor of the anarchist rag Solidaridad Obrera, Peiro mixed it up in the rough-and-tumble interwar political scene, eventually becoming Minister of Industry for Republican Spain — an untoward position to more orthodox anarchists.

When the Spanish Republic lost the Civil War, Peiro fled to France, where he was nabbed and extradited.

The nationalist general Emilio Mola had said before the war’s conclusion,

Whoever is, openly or secretly, a supporter of the Popular Front, must be shot … we must sow terror … eliminating without scruple or hesitation those who do not think as we do. (Source)

In practice, reprisals weren’t that vicious (maybe because Mola himself had died in a plane crash and wasn’t managing them) — but the leadership and intelligentsia who could rally an anti-Franco political bloc were purged ruthlessly.

The imprisoned Peiro was offered — repeatedly — a sellout package to oversee Franco’s house unions, and he repeatedly refused.

He earned martyrdom for his troubles, and after Franco’s death re-entered the public sphere as the sort of bloke to name streets after. (As an anti-Stalinist, Peiro had had all the right enemies.)


Placa Joan Peiro, a major square in Barcelona.

The Spanish judiciary, however, has thus far declined (Spanish link) to overturn his sentence.

Peiro is saluted in Catalan here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Murder,Politicians,Power,Shot,Spain,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1977: 178 enemies of the people

1 comment July 23rd, 2009 Headsman

A final example of the S-21 archives discovered by the Documentation Center is more mundane, yet poignant and telling. This particular document is of a type we refer to as an “execution log,” a daily record of executions at a given security center, in this case, at Tuol Sleng itself. Dated July 23, 1977, it is signed You Huy (a chief of guards) and authorized by Hor, the deputy director of S-21. The typewritten form lists biographical details on eighteen prisoners executed that day and, almost as an afterthought, in Huy’s handwriting a note at the bottom adds, “Also killed 160 children today for a total of 178 enemies killed.” This chilling glimpse into the Khmer Rouge internal security services is but a tiny example of the tens of thousands of documents discovered by the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

The “You Huy” named in Craig Etcheson’s After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide is this man, Him Huy:

Huy survived his stint as a guard at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, which was no mean feat: guards were routinely arrested and executed themselves. (Of course, prisoners had it worse.)

Now a 54-year-old farmer, Huy has been a spellbinding presence at and outside of Cambodia’s ongoing-as-of-this-writing “mixed tribunal”, reckoning with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

Like the method of execution.

All prisoners were blindfolded so they did not know where they were taken and their hands were tied up to prevent them from contesting us …

They were asked to sit on the edge of the pits and they were struck with stick on their necks …

Their throats were slashed before we removed their handcuffs and clothes, and they were thrown into the pits.

Him Huy has argued that guards like him “were victims too”. At least some victims and outside observers view him as a man more important to the killing process than Huy makes himself out to be.

Both accounts, though, could be true simultaneously: everyone in Cambodia was in danger of being purged, and guards at Tuol Sleng could find themselves inmates for the slightest derelictions of duty or enthusiasm. From April 17, 1975, Cambodia fell into madness.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cambodia,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Notable Participants,Ripped from the Headlines,Summary Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1209: Massacre of Beziers, “kill them all, let God sort them out”

25 comments July 22nd, 2009 Headsman

Today the French town of Beziers remembers the 800th anniversary of the first sack and massacre of the Albigensian Crusade.

Rome was alarmed by the advent in southern France of a mass religious movement, Catharism, with such scandalous doctrines as spirit-body dualism and not giving tons of money to Rome.

Naturally, God said to cut them to pieces.

Beziers was the first town invested by the invading crusader army, left to its fate as the Cathars mustered in Carcassone. Interestingly, this particular city did not so much present that familiar spectacle of Christians killing Christians who thought differently — unless the thought in question was about handing over their neighbors to a throng of land-grabbing nobles.

Part of the Catholic faith did itself honor this day: those Biterrois who refused to abandon to the glories of martyrdom the Cathars in their midst, who are thought to have numbered merely a few hundred. So when the walls fell, it was mostly orthodox Catholics killing orthodox Catholics.

Well, what’s a crusading army with other cities to sack supposed to do?

“Kill them all”

After the fortified city embarrassingly got itself captured within hours by camp followers, Caesar of Heisterbach recorded one of history’s more quotably infamous instances of prayerful deliberation:

When they discovered, from the admissions of some of them, that there were Catholics mingled with the heretics they said to the abbot “Sir, what shall we do, for we cannot distinguish between the faithful and the heretics.” The abbot, like the others, was afraid that many, in fear of death, would pretend to be Catholics, and after their departure, would return to their heresy, and is said to have replied “Kill them all for the Lord knoweth them that are His” (2 Tim. ii. 19) and so countless number in that town were slain.

Or, in glorious Latin:

Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.

And so they did.

And they killed everyone who fled into the church; no cross or altar or crucifix could save them. And these raving beggarly lads, they killed the clergy too, and the women and children. I doubt if one person came out alive … such a slaughter has not been known or consented to, I think, since the time of the Saracens. (William of Tudela, cited in Cathar Castles)

Ten to twenty thousand are thought to have been slain this day — in what proportions Catholic and heretic, only God can say.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,France,God,Heresy,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Language,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Power,Put to the Sword,Summary Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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