Archive for November, 2009

1945: Heinz Eck, U-Boat commander

4 comments November 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1945, Heinz-Wilhelm Eck and two of his former subordinates on the Unterseeboot U-852 were shot in Hamburg for killing the survivors of a sunk target.


The defendants in the U-852 trial. From left to right: Eck, August Hoffmann, Walter Weisspfennig, Hans Lenz, Wolfgang Schwender. The leftmost three were executed.

On March 13, 1944, in the South Atlantic en route to the Indian Ocean, U-852 torpedoed the Greek-flagged Peleus.

The submarine commander Eck feared the steamer’s debris would be observed by a passing airplane, and give enough information to Allied reconnaissance to enable it to find his ship. He therefore surfaced and attempted to have the debris field eliminated by machine-gunning and grenading it into the watery deep.

This seems a rather curious expedient, but evidently it was a common one.

U-Boat ace Adalbert Schnee was called (German link) to testify that blasting away at ship wreckage actually was an effective practice. But on prosecution’s cross-examination, Schnee was deftly trapped — lest he incriminate himself in a potential war crime — into disavowing (pdf) the killing of survivors who happened to be clinging to that debris.*

Q. What would you have done if you had been in Eck’s position?

A. I would under all circumstances have tried my best to save lives, as that is a measure which was taken by all U-boat commanders; but when I hear of this case, then I can only explain it as this, that Captain Eck, through the terrific experience he had been through, lost his nerve.

Q. Does that mean that you would not have done what Captain Eck did if you had kept your nerve?

A. I would not have done it.

Survivors of torpedo attacks usually had problems enough without the sub crew taking pains to attack them. Eck claimed that he worried that the survivors’ rafts might have communications equipment that would call out the sub-hunters tout de suite, but a standing German directive forbade U-boat captains assisting their prey.

No attempt of any kind should be made at rescuing members of ships sunk, and this includes picking up persons in the water and putting them in lifeboats, righting capsized lifeboats and handing over food and water. Rescue runs counter to the rudimentary demands of warfare for the destruction of enemy ships and crews … Be harsh, having in mind that the enemy takes no regard of women and children in his bombing attacks of German cities.

An unpleasant reality of sub warfare, as depicted in the classic submarine film Das Boot:

But in this case, some of the Peleus crew managed to survive the mop-up operation, and then the open ocean, long enough to tell their tale.

The British military tribunal sentenced Eck to death, his plea of “operational necessity” (i.e., “I had to shoot the survivors to sink the debris to save my ship”) rejected; also condemned were the ship’s doctor Walter Weisspfennig, who wasn’t supposed to be involved in gunplay at all, and August Hoffmann. Both of them had taken the “only following [Eck’s] orders” line.

Hans Lenz, who had opposed Eck’s order but ultimately complied with it, drew a life sentence. Wolfgang Schwender, who seems to have shot generally at debris but not (he said) at human beings, and then got bumped off his gun by the reluctant Lenz, got off the easiest at 15 years.

Despite the predictable “victor’s justice” dynamic — American and British sub personnel, and even Japanese I-boat officers, evidently skated on similar conduct — Eck was the only U-boat commander in World War II to draw a war crimes conviction. That was surely due in part to the overwhelming majority of them having simply failed to survive the perilous undersea campaign long enough to see the inside of a war crimes court.

* Part of the past-is-prologue contest for this case was the World War I sinking of the Llandovery Castle by a German submarine, which had then proceeded to hunt down the lifeboats. It resulted in (non-death penalty) war crimes convictions for some of the U-boat officers involved. The existence of this precedent helped to defeat the “superior orders” defense of the junior officers, since they could be held to have known that Eck’s command was illegal.

Part of the Daily Double: Lesser War Criminals.

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Daily Double: Lesser War Criminals

2 comments November 30th, 2009 Headsman

It’s the big wheels in villainy one naturally thinks of when reckoning the Third Reich’s war criminals — the Reichsprotekotors and concentration camp commandants; the Adolf Eichmanns and the Beast of Belsens.

But it’s obvious that in a conflagration as enormous as the Second World War, war crimes would not consist only in great monsters committing great monstrosities.

While this mere blog dare not join that timeless historiographical fray, that of meting out the correct measure of blood guilt throughout the German populace, its competency does extend to noticing the problem (philosophical, political, logistical) the Allies faced of establishing a workable approach to “war crimes” as the war wrapped up.

On these two dates just months after Germany capitulated, British and American military tribunals addressed themselves to two cases of atrocities that rate as forgettable in the scheme of things, by perpetrators who were thereafter forgotten.

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1781: The slaves of the Zong, for the insurance

3 comments November 29th, 2009 Headsman

Beginning this day in 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong began throwing his cargo overboard in a still-notorious case combining the horrors of the Middle Passage with the cruel rapacity of capital.

The Liverpool-based ship was en route from Africa to Jamaica, there to exchange its human chattel for New World produce bound for the European market.

Characteristically for slave ships, it was inhumanly packed: more economical for a slaver to overcrowd its captives and write off the ones who died than to maximize slaves’ chances of survival. And on this particular ship, malnutrition and disease claimed more than 60 slaves (as well as seven crew members).


Underwater sculpture off Grenada commemorating slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage.

With many more in danger of expiring, Captain Luke Collingwood reasoned that the cargo would be a loss if it succumbed, but that shippers’ insurance would reimburse the firm “when slaves are killed, or thrown into thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection.” Over a three-day span beginning Nov. 29, 1781, Collingwood had 133 still-living but sick slaves cast overboard;* “the last ten victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their executioners, and leaped into the sea triumphantly embracing death.” (Source)

This gave the ship’s owners — the good captain himself was not among them — the chance to attempt an insurance scam.

This historical-philosophical book (review, a pdf) analyzes the Zong affair as the emblematic “inauguration of a long twentieth century underwritten by the development of an Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation.”

When the Zong landed having lost in total more than half of its original 440 slaves (and Collingwood himself, that fastidious servant of his shareholders), its owners did indeed attempt to recoup the many who had been intentionally killed. Smelling fraud, the insurer refused to pay.

There followed the signal case of Gregson v. Gilbert, a dry insurance trial that also became a beacon of the slave system’s blood-chilling jurisprudential logic.

After a jury sided with the claimant shippers against the insurers, the matter hit a wide public on appeal before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield when abolitionist activists Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano seized upon its conscience-shocking quality.

While Sharp and Equiano agitated unavailingly for a homicide investigation, the insurer — which was itself in the very same business of human bondage as the shipper — self-righteously posed “as counsel for millions of mankind, and the cause of humanity in general.” (Source) Its interests, after all, would be served by the least possible indemnity for slaves murdered in passage.

Solicitor-General John Lee — “the learned advocate for Liverpool iniquity,” in Sharp’s estimation — successfully insisted upon limiting the case to its commercial considerations.

What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgment of an experienced, well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if horses had been thrown overboard. (Quoted here; Wikipedia has it “as if wood had been thrown overboard.”)

Lord Mansfield agreed, “(though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as … horses,” and simply found with the insurers that no liability attached them since the killings were voluntary rather than necessary.

Nobody was ever prosecuted.


The disturbing 1840 Turner seascape “Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typon [sic] coming on”, also known simply as “The Slave Ship”, is widely thought to have been inspired by the Zong episode. The allusion would have been well-known to his contemporaries.

* One of the 133 survived by climbing back aboard the ship.

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1871: Louis Rossel, Théophile Ferré, and Sergeant Bourgeois, Communards

1 comment November 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1871, three very disparate men of the recently quashed Paris Commune were shot together at Satory.


Louis Rossel (top) and Theophile Ferre. The mysterious Bourgeois will have to be imagined.

Louis Rossel (French Wikipedia link | English) got the press — the public sighs, the clemency campaign, the big show by Adolphe Thiers of considering mercy. “Rossel,” French scribbler Jules Barthelemy-Saint-Hilaire wrote, “is a man whose hand we grasp even when we shoot him.”

Rossel, to the elites of the Third Republic, was one of them. (Here’s a very sympathetic extended biography via Google books.)

The highest-ranking officer (a colonel) to serve the Commune, a writer of books and thinker of thoughts, the fuzzily lefty Rossel had gone to Paris to serve “the people” when France’s capitulation during the Franco-Prussian War put the capital at the mercy of the Germans.

Rossel was briefly Minister of War for the Commune, but he broke with its leadership’s fire-eating ways and then hung about the city while events played out around him. For his adherents, he was the loyal patriot who had renounced the rebellion. For the rebels … pretty much the same (Rossel resigned/was forced from power three weeks before the Commune fell).

But for the brass, the youngster’s March resignation letter abandoning the Thiers government for the Parisian masses was a little more dangerous than your garden-variety liberalism.

Having learned … that two parties are struggling for mastery of the country, I do not hesitate in joining the side which has not concluded peace [with the Germans], and which has not included in its ranks generals guilty of capitulation. (Source)

Without doubt, Theophile Ferre (French Wikipedia link | English) was a true believer, a radical agitator from way back. Ferre was part of the Commune leadership, and directly involved in the execution of hostages during its desperate last week.*

As such, his sympathy from the bourgeois public was zero, and his prospects of commutation were even worse than that. Ferre took his solace from his faith in the cause.

Joining these two in a sort of literary triad was one “Sergeant Bourgeois” (seriously), a straight-from-central-casting grunt “condemned to death for having struck one of his officers, and for having afterwards taken part in the Commune.”** His role in the story is to be the virtuous avatar of The People, understood to have died in a manner confirming the interlocutor’s take on the Commune, whatever that take might be.

Thus, Lissagaray (French link), eloquently reviling that milquetoast fop Rossel:

For twelve weeks death remained suspended above the heads of the condemned. At last, on the 28th November, at six o’clock in the morning, they were told that they must die. Ferré jumped out of bed without showing the slightest emotion, declined the visit of the chaplain, wrote to ask the military tribunals for the release of his father [also imprisoned -ed.], and to his sister that she should have him buried so that his friends would be able to find him again. Rossel, rather surprised at first, afterwards conversed with his clergyman. He wrote a letter demanding that his death should not be avenged — a very useless precaution — and addressed a few thanks to Jesus Christ. For comrade in death they had a sergeant of the 45th line, Bourgeois, who had gone over to the Commune, and who showed the same calm as Ferré. Rossel was indignant when they put on the handcuffs; Ferré and Bourgeois disdained to protest.

The day was hardly dawning; it was bitterly cold. Before the Butte of Satory 5,000 men under arms surrounded three white stakes, each one guarded by twelve executioners. Colonel Merlin commanded, thus uniting the three functions of conqueror, judge, and hangman.

Some curious lookers-on, officers and journalists, composed the whole public.

At seven o’clock the carts of the condemned appeared; the drums beat a salute, the trumpets sounded. The prisoners descended, escorted by gendarmes. Rossel, on passing before a group of officers, saluted them. The brave Bourgeois, looking on at the whole drama with an indifferent air, leant against the middle stake. Ferré came last, dressed in black and smoking a cigar, not a muscle of his face moving. With a firm and even step he walked up and leant against the third stake.

Rossel, attended by his lawyer and his clergyman, asked to be allowed to command the fire. Merlin refused. Rossel wished to shake hands with him, in order to do homage to his sentence. This was refused. During these negotiations Ferré and Bourgeois remained motionless, silent. In order to put a stop to Rossel’s effusions an officer was obliged to tell him that he was prolonging the torture of the two others. At last they blindfolded him. Ferré pushed back the bandage, and, fixing his eyeglass, looked the soldiers straight in the face.

The sentence read, the adjutants lowered their sabres, the guns were discharged. Rossel and Bourgeois fell back. Ferré remained standing; he was only hit in the side. He was again fired at and fell. A soldier placing his chassepôt at his ear blew out his brains.

By unsurprising contrast, the New York Times reporter found Rossel’s act more convincing than Ferre’s.

Throughout this trying morning ROSSEL was calm and resigned to his fate, and all of his remarks are manly and touching …

It was a cold, dark, November morning, a heavy fog obscuring everything at 6 &frac12, and the street lamps were still lighted. During this time FERRE had dressed himself with unusual care, putting pommade upon his hair, and spending a long time in brushing his clothes … BOURGEOIS rose jauntily from his bed, made his ablutions like a soldier, then listened to the consolation of the priest. After this he lighted a cigar, and went out jauntily, with light military tread, and with his kepi cocked upon one ear. He was cool, but there was no bravado about him, while FERRE seemed to be constantly searching for effect …

ROSSEL … stood calmly before the platoon awaiting the signal to fire.

Meantime Bourgeois had marched gaily to his post, saluting the troops as he passed, and in a business-like way threw down his cigar, threw open his coat, and stood in an easy position, awaiting the word. FERRE was a poseur to the last. A number of times he changed his position, looking at his legs and then at the few spectators, but no position seemed to satisfy him. He then cast a rapid glance toward BOURGEOIS, and immediately struck the soldier’s attitude.

Seeing these archetypes reduced to corpses, the London Times‘ correspondent could hardly resist.

As I cast a last look at them, I could not but feel how different was the spirit which had animated each at the last moment. Rossel had died commending his soul to God; Borugeois had gone through the form of confession, and died probably in the ignorance of a superstitious soldier, while Ferre died, caring as little for his own life as he had for those of others … a Materialist.

* Ferre is supposed to have personally announced the death sentence to Archbishop Georges Darboy, the marquee martyr to the Commune.

** London Times, Nov. 30, 1871.

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1911: Ah Q

Add comment November 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1911, the fictional title character of Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q was shot in “Weichuang village,” China.

Ah Q wins another victory. Image from the Marxist Internet Archive.

A modern masterpiece that remains standard reading in China, The True Story of Ah Q was also one of the first literary pieces in the vernacular. Published in 1921 and set in the events of the Xinhai Revolution ten years prior, the novella/short story acidly satirizes China through the biography of the absurdly hapless Ah Q.

Lu Xun (or Lu Hsun) presents the reader a peasant whose real name is literally unknown — an everyman, and no man at all — and proceeds to characterize this discomfiting allegory: a weakling, a bully, a chauvinist, a fool, whose pluck is all folly born of a bottomless capacity for convincing himself that each new failure and humiliation of his abject life is a victory. (In 1933, the American journalist Edgar Snow asked Lu Xun if there were still manh Ah Qs in China. “It’s worse now,” Lu Xun replied. “Now it’s Ah Qs who are running the country.”)

The second and third chapters detail many such “victories.” Through them, the Chinese tongue gained the phrase “the spirit of Ah Q” to indicate determined self-deception.

This story is well worth reading, which can be done for free here.

Though specific calendar dates are scarcely at all alluded to in the narrative itself, the timing of the “climactic” execution — it is an empty death tragic only in its dearth of tragedy, for a revolution that from the author’s standpoint of hindsight was still struggling with the country’s colonial legacy of weakness and backwardness — can be deduced from the text.

Its action takes place in the confused days immediately following the town’s going over to the revolution, which swept through the Chinese provinces in late October and early November of 1911.*

The robbery that precipitates Ah Q’s execution takes place on a night with “no moon”; according to the year’s lunar chart, there was a new moon on the night of Nov. 20. (The December new moon is much too late to make sense.) In the story, it is “four days later” that Ah Q is arrested at night, then drug out for interrogation the next morning (the 25th); returned to his cell and recalled the morning after (the 26th) to sign a confession;** and after one more night in custody,&dagger hauled to an execution he does not even realize is taking place until the last moment.

Suddenly it occurred to him — “Can I be going to have my head cut off?” Panic seized him and everything turned dark before his eyes, while there was a humming in his ears as if he had fainted. But he did not really faint. Although he felt frightened some of the time, the rest of the time he was quite calm. It seemed to him that in this world probably it was the fate of everybody at some time to have his head cut off.

He still recognized the road and felt rather surprised: why were they not going to the execution ground? He did not know that he was being paraded round the streets as a public example. But if he had known, it would have been the same; he would only have thought that in this world probably it was the fate of everybody at some time to be made a public example of.

Ah Q suddenly became ashamed of his lack of spirit, because he had not sung any lines from an opera. His thoughts revolved like a whirlwind: The Young Widow at Her Husband’s Grave was not heroic enough. The words of “I regret to have killed” in The Battle of Dragon and Tiger were too poor. I’ll thrash you with a steel mace was still the best. But when he wanted to raise his hands, he remembered that they were bound together; so he did not sing I’ll thrash you either.

“In twenty years I shall be another …”‡ In his agitation Ah Q uttered half a saying which he had picked up himself but never used before. The crowd’s roar “Good!!!” sounded like the growl of a wolf.

At that instant his thoughts revolved again like a whirlwind. Four years before, at the foot of the mountain, he had met a hungry wolf which had followed him at a set distance, wanting to eat him. He had nearly died of fright, but luckily he happened to have an axe in his hand, which gave him the courage to get back to Weichuang. He had never forgotten that wolf’s eyes, fierce yet cowardly, gleaming like two will-o’-the-wisps, as if boring into him from a distance. Now he saw eyes more terrible even than the wolf’s: dull yet penetrating eyes that, having devoured his words, still seemed eager to devour something beyond his flesh and blood. And these eyes kept following him at a set distance.

These eyes seemed to have merged into one, biting into his soul.

“Help, help!”

But Ah Q never uttered these words. All had turned black before his eyes, there was a buzzing in his ears, and he felt as if his whole body were being scattered like so much light dust.

As for any discussion of the event, no question was raised in Weichuang. Naturally all agreed that Ah Q had been a bad man, the proof being that he had been shot; for if he had not been bad, how could he have been shot? But the consensus of opinion in town was unfavourable. Most people were dissatisfied, because a shooting was not such a fine spectacle as a decapitation; and what a ridiculous culprit he had been too, to pass through so many streets without singing a single line from an opera. They had followed him for nothing.

* According to this footnote, it can be more specifically dated to the fall of Shaoxing, which would have been early November.

** Ah Q has no idea he is signing a confession; an illiterate, he makes his mark with a circle — fixated only on making it a perfect circle, at which endeavor he naturally fails “victoriously.”

† During Ah Q’s last night on earth, the scene cuts to two local officials arguing about the prisoner’s fate, where the man’s life is forfeit in some other mean contest of the municipal pecking order — “Punish one to awe one hundred! See now, I have been a member of the revolutionary party for less than twenty days, but there have been a dozen cases of robbery, none of them solved yet; and think how badly that reflects on me. Now this one has been solved, you come and argue like a pedant. It won’t do!”

‡ According to this footnote, “‘In twenty years I shall be another stout young fellow’ was a phrase often used by criminals before execution, to show their scorn of death.”

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1600: Hansel Pappenheimer, following his family

Add comment November 26th, 2009 Headsman

A few months ago, Executed Today detailed the dreadful fate of the Pappenheimers, a family of poor itinerants swept into a witch scare and horrifically executed.

10- or 11-year-old Hansel Pappenheimer was made to provide some of the testimony that condemned his parents and older siblings to a torturous public death. Then, he was made to watch.

This child was being monitored by the authorities for any sign of infernal possession himself, so his heartbreaking exclamations as the butchery unfolded — “Look how they’re thumping my father’s arms!” as the man was broken on the wheel; “My mother is squirming!” as she burned alive — were recorded.

That’s just about as horrible as the annals of execution get.

The only thing that would make it more horrible would be the coda the Bavarian duchy added this date in 1600, when it burned little Hansel Pappenheimer too.

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2008: Amoudou Samassa, to quell a lynch mob

Add comment November 25th, 2009 Headsman

Last year on this date, a Central African Republic presidential guard summarily executed a man in a hospital to satisfy a lynch mob pursuing him for murdering his wife.

Amoudou Samassa was supposed to have stabbed his estranged wife to death, provoking an armed mob intent on dispensing street justice. After gendarmes pried him away unkilled, the incensed crowd jammed the streets of the capital Bangui.

Reuters reported that when negotiations to disperse them proved fruitless,

one guard officer, Lt. Jean-Claude Ngaikoisset, finally told the crowd: “If the death of this criminal is the only thing you’re asking for to clear these avenues, then I see no objection”.

File it under “Creative solutions to gridlock.”


Central African Republic security forces.

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1326: Hugh Despenser the Younger, King Edward II’s lover?

8 comments November 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1326, the power behind Edward II’s throne — and the presumed lover in his bed — was hanged, drawn and quartered and pointedly emasculated in a grisly public execution as the Queen and her lover took control of England.

(Wince.)

The younger Despenser, being carved up in an illustration from Froissart.

Poor King Edward — that’s the swishy princeling gay-baited in Braveheart — would suffer a horrid demise of his own a few weeks later. He’s the one most conveniently read as a gay martyr.

Hugh Despenser the Younger (or Hugh le Despenser) has his fans, but he’s much more likely to be taken for a villain.

An upstart knight who unexpectedly lucked into a jackpot inheritance when his wife’s brother died at Bannockburn — that’s the rumble Robert the Bruce starts at the end of Braveheart — Hugh the younger parlayed his newfound position of feudal magnate into the still better gig of royal favorite.

That job was open because its occupants had a distressing tendency to get dead, a fate obviously ordained for Hugh Despenser as well.

But whereas Edward’s childhood pal Piers Gaveston, the murdered former fave, aroused mostly personal pique among rival nobles, Hugh Despenser meant to use his favor to rule.

Despenser exploited his position to build up his wealth and control the king; with his father (you’ll never guess that he went by “the elder”), he became the de facto if never the de jure ruler of the realm.

At one point, his rivals in the nobility turned the tables and got him exiled. Hugh became a pirate in the English Channel while he maneuvered his way back onto dry land in his customary most-favored-consigliere position.

So although the British barons who wanted Despenser’s head were undoubtedly a distasteful lot themselves, and certainly capable of all manner of depravity in pursuit of their own crass self-interest, it doesn’t take a backwards view of human sexuality to get why Hugh Despenser would raise an early 14th century Briton’s hackles.

But you have to give England this: its politics back then were a damn sight more interesting than you get today. Anyone who uses the term “bloodsport” for the modern electoral charade ought to cross cutlasses with the likes of the dread pirate Despenser.

And it gets better. Meaning, for Hugh Despenser the Younger, worse. Much.

Queen Isabella — that’s Sophie Marceau’s hot-for-barbarian imported princess in Braveheart — became estranged from her Hugh-lovin’ husband,* and established herself back in France with her lover Roger Mortimer.

Then, the lovebirds invaded England.

Edward and Hugh were so unpopular at this point that “their” nobles who should have repelled the incursion went in a landslide for the invading adulterers.

Hugh Despenser’s father had already been hanged for his trouble by the time The Younger was taken; the latter tried to cheat the executioner by refusing all food and drink for days, truly a spartan image of desperate self-mortification in a rough day and age.

When you get a load of the death his royal captors had worked out for him — and which they were obliged to deliver to their starving captive hurriedly in Hereford rather than more ceremoniously back in London — you can understand why. After a perfunctory trial that same morning, they tore the former favorite apart.

Froissart’s rendering:

When the feast was over sir Hugh, who was not beloved in those parts, was brought before the queen and knights assembled; the charges were read to him – to which he made no reply; the barons and knights then passed the following sentence on him: first, that he should be drawn on a hurdle, attended by trumpets and clarions, through all the streets in the city of Hereford, and then conducted to the market-place, where all the people were assembled; at that place he was to be bound on a high scaffold, in order that he might be more easily seen by the people. First, his privates were cut off, because he was deemed a heretic, and guilty of unnatural practices, even with the king, whose affections he had alienated from the queen by his wicked suggestions. His private parts were cast into a large fire kindled close to him; Afterwards, his heart was thrown into the same fire, because it had been false and traitorous, since he had by his treasonable counsels so advised the king, as to bring shame and mischief on the land, and had caused some of the greatest lords to be beheaded, by whom the kingdom ought to have been supported and defended; and had so seduced the king, that he could not or would not see the queen, or his eldest son, who was to be their future sovereign, both of whom had, to preserve their lives, been forced to quit the kingdom. The other parts of sir Hugh thus disposed of, his head was cut off and sent to London.**

It’s reported that Isabella and Mortimer feasted and made merry as they beheld this hideous spectacle. Now that’s bloodsport politics.

Hugh the younger Despenser and his life and times are covered in amazing detail by a couple of active-posting enthusiasts of this particular period who have already been linked elsewhere in this post: the aptly-named Edward II blog (dig his biography of Hugh Despenser, among many other such dramatis personae; also his account of the execution, already cited); and, Lady Despenser’s Scribery (whose entire sidebar is pretty much all about our day’s principal; for the quick tour, see her biography and posts on the “trial” and execution).

* The reason for said estrangement can be situated anywhere one likes along the personal-political spectrum; one recent historical novel speculates (upon no authority but dramatic license) that Hugh raped the queen.

** Remains reportedly discovered last year were speculatively identified as Hugh Despenser’s; the litany of injuries to the body testify to the ghastly death-ritual its owner underwent.

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1974: Black Saturday in Ethiopia

3 comments November 23rd, 2009 Headsman

November 23, 1974 was “Bloody Saturday” in Ethiopia for that day’s* surprise purge of some threescore politicians and soldiers by the ruling Derg.

It was barely ten weeks since the Derg — an Amharic word meaning “committee”, in this case a leftist military junta — had formally overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie, so ancient that he was already middle-aged back when he’d been leading Ethiopia’s resistance against Mussolini.

It’s strange to say in retrospect, but having spent the best part of a year systematically supplanting the political authority of the decrepit ancien regime with widespread public support, the Derg had engendered hope that its revolution would be accomplished without slaughter.

“Ityopiya tikdem/yala mimin dem” — “Let Ethiopia progress/Without any bloodshed” — became the popular slogan of that heady time. (pdf source)

Black Saturday turned the leaf on all that, and opened the sanguinary chapter of Ethiopian history today evoked by the name of the Derg.

What went wrong with Ethiopia's bloodless revolution?
“The prospect,” concluded the analysis that appeared under this headline in the Nov. 29, 1974 London Times, “is that the mass executions will be followed by further drastic action aimed at consolidating the control of the new military rulers.” The same author, Michael Knipe, had written on Nov. 16 that “the firmness of [the military’s] control appears to be matched by an overall moderation of approach, which holds promise for Ethiopia’s future.”

The Derg long remained a shadowy body, its members largely unknown and its internecine factional politics only guessed-at. The executions this date are generally read as the consolidation of the coup’s “radical” elements as against its “moderates” and the first signal event in Derg member Mengistu Haile Mariam‘s eventual conquest of supreme authority.

The crucial issue that separated radicals from moderates at the revolution’s early stage appears to be their approach to the ongoing struggle of coastal Eritrea — then still a province of Ethiopia.

Ethnically Eritrean officer Aman Michael Andom, the first titular head of the Derg who had been deposed from his position only a week ago, was a noteworthy advocate of negotiating a peacable settlement with Eritrean agitators. He was among the casualties of Black Saturday. (Aman was later reported to have been killed resisting arrest, rather than actually executed; many of the available accounts of this massacre have slightly varying numbers and particulars.) Henceforth, military force would be Addis Ababa’s only approach to the Eritrean problem.

A few other Aman supporters in the Derg shared his fate in a political wipeout. But more numerous among the 29 civilian and 31 military men announced as casualties the next morning — and there had been no prior warning that executions were imminent — were aristocrats and officials of the Haile Selassie government, including:

  • Two former Prime Ministers, Endelkachew Makonnen and Aklilu Habte-Wold (or Aklilou Wold), both of whom had been slated for trial for the recent famine in Wollo (London Times, Nov. 14, 1974);**

  • Solomon Abrahami, the former governor of Wollo;
  • Selassie’s own grandsom, Rear Adm. Iskender (Alexander) Desta;
  • 16 generals, including Selassie’s son-in-law (and former Defense Minister) Abiye Abebe.

(This Nov. 25, 1974 New York Times article — behind the paper’s pay wall — lists all 60 vicitms.)

These were a selection of some 200 political prisoners held by the Derg; how hard to come down on these officials was another point of contention between radicals and moderates. It emerged later that the Derg had met earlier on the 23rd to vote, name by name, which among its prisoners deserved execution.

So if you look at it right, summarily machine-gunning only 30% of your political prisoners is a moderate policy. Alas: these would hardly be the last.

After the Derg government was itself finally overthrown in 1991 — and the troubled province of Eritrea finally won its independence from Ethiopia — some of the perpetrators of its genocidal atrocities were themselves put on trial.

* It’s obscure — perhaps permanently so — whether the nighttime killings transpired before or after the end of the day, and both the 23rd and 24th are variously cited as the date of death. “Reliable sources said the executions were by machine gun at midnight,” the unhelpfully breezy New York Times reported on Nov. 25. This account (pdf) has the shootings occupying several batches with midnight passing during the process. We give precedence to Saturday the 23rd here because that’s the day that earned the “Bloody” appellation.

** According to Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution, Mengistu was rumored to have disposed of Aklilu personally.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Ethiopia,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Notable Participants,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1895: Florence English and Amanda Cody

1 comment November 22nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1895, Amanda (Mandy) Cody became the first woman hanged in Georgia’s Warren County when she died with her (male) lover Florence English for murdering Cody’s husband, Cicero and dumping his body in a swamp.

According to The Penalty is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women’s Executions (citing the Atlanta Constitution), they were all set to get away with it until English told his mother and “to the surprise of all, [she] told it to the white people living near.”

To credit the New York Times (Nov. 23), they went to the gallows in a rhapsodic religious transport.

SANG HYMNS WHILE BEING EXECUTED

A Negro Man and Woman Continued Their Melody Until the Drop fell.

WARRENTON, Ga., Nov. 22. — Florence English, twenty years old, and Mandy Cody, both colored, were executed here to-day for the murder of the latter’s husband. They died in the ecstacy of religious enthusiasm.

A trio of colored ministers held a prayer meeting in the corridor of the jail during the early morning. The prisoners at times mingled their supplications with those of the preachers, producing intense excitement. The culprits stood in the midst of the visitors, swaying their bodies to and fro, singing plaintive melodies characteristic of the black race.

Shortly before noon the prisoners marched from their cells to the scaffold. As they stepped on the platform both commenced singing an old negro camp meeting melody, “We’ll Soon Be on the Way to Heaven.” While their hands and feet were being pinioned, the murderers still continued the hymn.

They refused to make a statement. The black caps were then drawn over their faces, the hymn still being sung with renewed vigor. When the trap was sprung they were still singing.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Sex,USA,Women

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