Archive for December, 2009

1960: The assassins of Hazza Majali

4 comments December 31st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1960 — just two days after they had been sentenced — Saleh Safadi, Mohammed Hindawi, Lt. Husham Dabbas, and Karim Shaqra were hanged in Amman’s Hussein Mosque Square for assassinating Jordan’s prime minister earlier that year.

The marquee casualty of Jordan’s standoff against Nasserite Egypt, Hazza Majali might have just been a footnote to the story. According to King Hussein of Jordan: A Political Life,

[i]t may be that the bomb plot which cost Hazza Majali his life was also aimed at the King himself. The first bomb, which killed the prime minister, was followed by a second explosion at the scene less than forty minutes later. Had the King followed through on his initial intention to visit the bomb site, he might well have been caught in the second blast.

Though the bombings didn’t get King Hussein, they claimed 11 other lives besides Majali’s.

The assassins’ conspiracy traced back to neighboring Syria, which at that time was (briefly) unified with Egypt as the United Arab Republic. Syria and Jordan have found plenty of reasons to bicker over the years, and the former’s alliance here with Nasser‘s pan-Arabism added a pointed ideological critique of Jordan’s throwback Hashemite dynasty.*

Syria and the UAR were busily subverting U.S.-backed Jordan, and in this venture they enjoyed dangerously considerable popular support within Jordan; Majali in particular was “regarded by some Jordanians — and particularly Palestine refugees — as a virtual tool of the Western powers.” (New York Times, Aug. 30, 1960)

So it was a dangerous situation, and King Hussein did well to escape those years un-blown-up himself.

Several weeks of brinksmanship followed Majali’s assassination, with Jordanian troops massed on the Syrian border. Matters stopped short of outright war, but Nasser, Syria, and the UAR were all explicitly accused of this operation and others at the resulting trial of the assassins in December: the plot was supposed to have originated in Damascus, been paid for in Damascus, and used bombs shipped from Damascus.

Eleven in all were condemned to death, but seven of those sentences were given in absentia to suspects who had absconded to Nasser’s dominions.

* In response to the Egypt-Syria union, the kindred Hashemite rulers of Jordan and Iraq had formed the Arab Federation of Iraq and Jordan. That arrangement was even shorter-lived than the UAR, because the Iraqi Hashemites were almost immediately overthrown. You can get Jordan’s official take on those perilous years here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Egypt,Execution,Hanged,History,Jordan,Murder,Public Executions,Soldiers,Syria,Terrorists,Treason

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1957: Václav Mrázek, Czech serial killer

1 comment December 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1957, postwar Czechoslovakia’s most prolific serial killer was put to death at Prague’s Pankrac Prison.

Other than the mandatory Wikipedia entry, most information on Mrazek available online is in Czech.

But there’s little enough nuance to grasp. He was convicted of seven murders (and suspected in several others) to satiate his necrophiliac desires. In all over 100 crimes of sexual abuse and theft were laid at his door.

It was more pedestrian criminality that did him in; the serial killer was at work from 1951 to 1956, but somehow never caught. (This Czech site attributes it to the police force’s postwar prioritization of ideological reliability over investigative professionalism.)

Mrazek was nabbed by accident, rifling jacket pockets (more Czech) at a spa where he worked at an attendant: the subsequent search of his place turned up the evidence of far more villainous behavior, and led Mrazek to confess.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Rape,Serial Killers,Sex

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2009: Akmal Shaikh, mentally ill drug mule

8 comments December 29th, 2009 Headsman

This morning, China confirmed (to London’s fury) the dawn execution of British national Akmal Shaikh.

As tweeted @executedtoday, Shaikh has been at the eye of a media firestorm the past week, though without himself being aware of his impending (and publicly announced) execution until family members who had raced to China to plead for mercy met with him within the past day.

“He was obviously very upset on hearing from us of the sentence,” said the clan’s post-meeting (under)statement.

The 53-year-old Shaikh had been homeless in Poland and apparently duped into schlepping some cargo to China as part of a wild goose chase to become a pop star and bring world peace.

In any case like this (and certainly on any blog like this), the mystery parcel invariably contains drugs, doesn’t it? In this instance, our courier was busted at Ürümqi airport with 4 kg of heroin, some 80 times China’s death-sentencing threshold. He swore he knew nothing about it.

If “carry suspicious package for shady central Asian contact to usher in Age of Aquarius” sounds a bit daft … well, mental illness was the basis of Shaikh’s family’s appeal for his life. Shaikh seems to have been severely bipolar and to “may also have … delusional psychosis.”

“Insufficient,” said China; it never gave him a formal psychological evaluation.

So this morning, Akmal Shaikh became the first European executed in China in some 50-plus years … and the lone casualty of a lonely quest to somehow save the world.

Update: China flexes its muscle in the diplomatic row: “We hope that the British side can view this matter rationally and not create new obstacles in bilateral relations.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Drugs,England,Execution,Milestones,Pelf,Ripped from the Headlines

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c. 560 B.C.E.: Aesop, fabulist

2 comments December 28th, 2009 Headsman

On an unknown date around the 560s B.C.E., the storyteller Aesop is supposed to have been executed in Delphi by being hurled from the Hyampeia rock.

The semi-legendary fable-fashioner is not quite so irretrievable to history as, say, Homer, although assuredly many or all of the tales that have accrued under the heading “Aesop’s Fables” trace to origins other than this man.

Supposed to have lived from the late 7th to mid 6th centuries B.C.E., Aesop is first referenced by history’s first historian, Herodotus.

But by way of summation, we cannot improve upon Plutarch‘s succinct description of Aesop’s fate in his essay, “On God’s Slowness to Punish Evil”. (Available here; a different translation is free online here.)

I’m sure you know the story of how Aesop came here bringing gold from Croesus. He meant to make a magnificent offering to the god,* and also to give every inhabitant of Delphi four minas, but apparently he got angry and fell out with the locals; so he made the ritual offering, but sent the money back to Sardis, because he didn’t think that the people deserved a windfall. They then engineered a charge against him of temple robbery and executed him by pushing him from the famous cliff called Hyampeia.** Subsequently, the story goes on, divine wrath afflicted them with failed harvests and with all kinds of strange diseases, and as a result they used to visit all the festivals where Greeks were assembled and make an announcement inviting anyone who so wished to claim compensation from them for Aesop. Two generations later Idmon of Samos arrived at Delphi; not only was he not a relative of Aesop, but he was in fact a descendant of the people who had bought Aesop as a slave in Samos.† It was only when the Delphians had compensated him that their troubles ceased.‡ (We are also told that this incident was the reason for moving the place of punishment for temple robbers from Hyampeia to Aulia.)

There are many books and media under the Aesop’s Fables branding available for purchase, but you can also find the same content in the public domain at Gutenberg.org and elsewhere.

In any format, they’re timeless. “The Mischievous Dog”, for instance, could have been written especially for bloggers.

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* Referring to the sacred shrine occupied by the Oracle of Delphi, of course.

** When visiting Delphi, look for Hyampeia marked on your tourist map as “Phleboukos”, one of the Phaedriades surrounding the sacred site. Hyampeia/Phleboukos towers above the Castalian spring. It’s high.

† Besides being a slave, Aesop (at least, the Aesop as legend accumulated) was afflicted with other disadvantages suitable to elevate his mythological wisdom. According to The Life of Aesop:

AESOP (according to Planudes, Cameraius and others) was by Birth, of Ammorius, a Town in the greater Phrygia; (though some will have him to be a Thracian, others a Samian) of a mean Condition, and his Person deformed, to the highest degree: Flat-nos’d, hunch-back’d, blobber-lipp’d; a long mishapen Head; his Body crooked all over, big-belly’d, badger-legg’d, and his Complexion so swarthy, that he took his very Name from’t; for Aesop is the same with Aethiop. And he was not only unhappy in the most scandalous Figure of a Man, that ever was heard of; but he was in a manner Tongue-ty’d too, by such an Impediment in his Speech, that People could very hardly understand what he said.

Be sure to check The Life‘s account of Aesop’s demise, with the undiplomatic Aesop having enraged his hosts with his poor opinion of their digs … and the fables he tells in his defense falling very flat: “He was speaking on, but they pushed him off headlong from the Rock, and he was dashed to pieces with the Fall.”

‡ The Delphians’ search for compensation is directly described by Herodotus’ Histories, written little more than a century after Aesop’s death. Though the execution story itself could be apocryphal, its presence in Herodotus at least makes Greeks’ belief in the event as a real one of their recent past about as credibly documented as anything from 2500+ years ago.

That Aesop belonged to Iadmon is proved by many facts — among others, by this. When the Delphians, in obedience to the command of the oracle, made proclamation that if any one claimed compensation for the murder of Aesop he should receive it, the person who at last came forward was Iadmon, grandson of the former Iadmon, and he received the compensation. Aesop therefore must certainly have been the former Iadmon’s slave.

Evidently, Aesop’s reputation for sagacious wit was well-established in the 5th century B.C. Aristophanes makes respectful references to Aesop in his plays The Wasps, Peace and The Birds — in the latter, the birds’ ignorance is underscored because they haven’t read their Aesop.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Greece,History,Myths,Popular Culture,Precipitated,Public Executions,Slaves,Summary Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1899: Hilda Blake, poorhouse orphan

2 comments December 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1899, domestic servant Hilda Blake was hanged in Brandon, Manitoba for murdering the mistress of the house.

Book CoverThe only woman ever executed in Manitoba is the subject of Walk Towards the Gallows: The Tragedy of Hilda Blake, Hanged 1899 (U.S. Amazon link | Canadian), which charts her course from an English poorhouse to death on the Canadian frontier.

(A Norwich newspaper recently profiled its long-lost pauper daughter here and here.)

On the occasion of the 110th anniversary of Hilda’s hanging, Executed Today was able to sit down with Tom Mitchell, co-author (with his Brandon University colleague Reinhold Kramer) of Walk Towards the Gallows.

Here’s an excerpt from that book. And here are some reviews:

ET: How did you run across Hilda Blake?

TM: It’s a very simple story, really. The province of Manitoba tore an old jail down, and handed the property to the department of health for a senior citizens’ center. So, construction began, and an old jail guard named Bill Ryan showed up on the site and confronted the building superintendent and said, this is holy ground, and it is immoral for you to be constructing anything on this site without removing the human remains.

Hilda and two other victims of capital punishment were on the site, and the guard knew what was there. This made front-page news.

I was doing labor history at the time, so the possibility of finding out a lot of detail about domestic servants was compelling. And it turned out she was sort of a magnet for legal proceedings. When I went to find her court pocket, I found there were actually five court pockets.

As an orphan, she ran away from [her previous placement with] the Stewarts and took up residence with a family headed by a widow homesteader Mary Rex, A legal struggle ensued over who should have Hilda, and in the course of that, Hilda had to make a statement about who she was and where she wanted to be. When we read the letter, it’s clearly not Hilda’s voice, it’s somebody else writing for her. You’re almost always dealing with Hilda second-hand.

There is no other domestic servant probably in the British Empire for whom as much documentation exists, and it’s basically because of Hilda’s notoriety in the murder and these court cases previous. And of course you can track her right back to the British census and the records of the poorhouse and her old neighbourhood and community of Chedgrave, Norfolk England.

The only straightforward account Hilda gives is “My Downfall,” [see below -ed.] and if you read that, you get a pretty good sense of her sensibility. And if you read the press accounts of what she read in jail, you say, right, we’re dealing with a 21-year-old woman for whom literature -– Victorian novels — often times provided her with life strategies and notions of how a woman should conduct herself. Of course Victorian sensation novels were also filled with women who used guns for various ends.

Why was this isolated domestic crime such a big deal?

Western Canada in the 19th century was a frontier, and often times the leading edge of civilization in this frontier were white women and the sort of ideals and morality associated with white women — domestic environment, civility, gender relationships, social class and status involving men and women in terms of how they ought to account for themselves and so on.

So when you have an attack on this sort of basic notion of the social order that people are trying to build, the response is more visceral and more trenchant than it might have been in a more settled community. Here, it was almost akin to the Riel Rebellion: the lower orders are rising against us; every middle-class wife probably looked at her husband and said, “I hope you’re not misbehaving with the help, because we could have a problem.”

So what can we in the 21st century say about how British orphans shipped to Canada for domestic servitude experienced the world? And, of course, about how Hilda specifically experienced it?

Hilda was quite literary in her own way, and she obviously read and developed strategies for life from literature. She seemed to take her role models from literature, and we argue that in part that she can be understood through the books that she read, like Jane Eyre.

My colleague, Reinhold Kramer, whose contribution to Walk Towards the Gallows cannot be overstated, is an English professor. He developed this feature of the biography as well as other fundamental themes of the book.

My continuing frustration with the book is that nobody will see it as labor history. Everybody wants to see it as whodunit or something — but that’s okay; it’s been used for a lot of different courses, some on women, some on crime, some on women and the world of work.

How widespread and significant is this phenomenon of the domestic servant?

From 1870 to about 1930, there were something in the order of about 70 or so thousand children shipped from poorhouses (which were created by the 1830s poor law).

The whole idea of adoption is a 20th century thing. If you were a poor kid, an orphan, in the 19th century, you didn’t get adopted, you were put in a poorhouse and shipped off to Australia, Canada. On the western frontier of Canada, the labor of these children was a valuable commodity.

The British government recently apologized to the descendants of these children for the fact that they were sent out, often with sort of gratuitous statements from the organizations that sent them that they would follow them up. For many of them, it was tragic, and for Hilda and Mary Lane it was more than tragic.

As an economic sector, how important was this domestic service trade to Canada at the turn of the century?

Typically these were young women, and not all of them would be living within the residence of their employer, but most of them would be. The vast majority were young British women — Irish, English, what-not — and it was for women in the paid labor force, this was the main occupation. Young women coming off the farm or young immigrant women, this was one step above prostitution.

So, you could be a sex worker, or you could be a domestic worker. You didn’t get into this if there were options, and many young women would choose options that paid less, just to have social freedom.

So what would be a typical life path for a girl like Hilda?

The premise with Hilda was that she would work as a domestic servant and eventually marry, but the difficulty was that you always carried this badge of your social station.

You had basically no place to meet men in private, and the amount of time off you had was perhaps an afternoon per week. The possibility of you having some kind of independent social life was very very unlikely, so you were a captive of your place in the world of work.

For Hilda, she must have realized that her only escape was in moving up within this small world that she resided in. She kissed Mary Lane before she shot her, and I think was saying, this is nothing personal but it’s my only chance of moving up in the world.

You do a lot with how Hilda Blake played as a political issue, and the symbolism invoked by the press in handling her execution. Frankly, a lot of it seems very contemporary: “villains were bad because they were bad,” crime is “a platform upon which to preach the value of bourgeois order”. How did this crime work as a cultural narrative?

The big issue for Canada in the late 1890s was the quality of immigrant coming to Canada, because it was clear that if the West was going to develop, the country needed hundreds of thousands of people.

Clifford Sifton, who happened to be the MP for Brandon was the Minister for Immigration, and he was bringing Count Leo Tolstoy’s Doukhobors from Russia, Ukrainians from Austro-Hungary, and so on, and he considered these good-quality immigrants because they were agrarian, they could survive. He was being attacked bitterly by people whose ideas of adequate immigrants were shaped by Social Darwinism.

The other problem was that working class immigrants, paupers especially, from Britain were viewed as being marginally adequate because of their questionable morality. The notion of gender at the time was that women were, just by their nature, moral creatures, and if they weren’t, then she was more atavistic than even criminal men — they were moral imbeciles, they were dangerous.

When Hilda Blake murdered Mary Lane, it just happened that a federal election was in the offing, and the main issue that the Conservative party was going to use to try to defeat the Liberals and Clifford Sifton in his own district was immigration, so if the federal government didn’t execute Hilda Blake, they would be handing them an issue to run on.

The Melita Enterprise condemned Hilda early on with the line “we don’t want the Hilda Blakes of the world, they carry blood with the taint of Cain,” which is a great line I wanted to use for the title of our book.

So the federal government faced this dilemma, and our argument was that virtually all women who faced the death penalty had had their sentences commuted, but in the case of Blake, her social background made it impossible.

The one powerful person she had in her corner was the Governor General Lord Minto. The thing that made him susceptible in some senses to understanding the case was his own sense of guilt for the affair he was carrying on with a young woman in Ottawa. That wasn’t a secret; she was nicknamed “Minto’s Folly.”

How about the victim, Mary Lane?

Here was a woman who was murdered by someone she had taken in, been friends with, gunned down in the parlor of her own home. She was a very-well respected person in the community, she was an Anglican, and reportedly sympathetic to women in Hilda’s situation in life.

It’s amazing that Robert Lane manages to avoid coming in even for any kind of censure or public embarrassment.

There was nothing, not in terms of any juridical sense; apparently he wasn’t even interviewed.

The theory of the crime in domestic murders was always the love triangle: if the man of the house got gunned down, the hired man had better look out; in this case, when the woman got gunned down, it was a bit confusing about who would have done this. Ultimately Hilda confessed and protected Lane, but what protected him even more was his middle-class status within that community and the notion that men of that ilk were moral creatures who couldn’t possibly have connived to have had their wives gunned down. If he’d been a working class guy whose morals would have been more suspect, he probably would have been hanged with Hilda.

I think the authorities also couldn’t have been unaware of the implications: if they hanged Lane, his four kids would be orphans.

How widespread were these sexual relationships — or sexual exploitation — between masters of the house and domestics?

Domestic servants should have received danger pay, because they were victimized so often. Most of the women set up in these Magdalene Houses, these houses for single women who were pregnant, were domestic servants.

We talk about the amendments to the criminal code in the late 19th century, and there were some protections put in for women, but Charles Tupper, a Conservative, opposed these because he said they would arm domestic servants with terrific power to blackmail their employers. So the largest class of women in the paid economy were left outside the protection of the code, and any domestic servant who claimed that their employer impregnated them would face a court that would use every possible mechanism to get at their immorality.

It was almost akin to a feudal relationship within the home.

Why did Hilda plead guilty and ask for the maximum punishment?

This was, I think, Hilda’s sense of how a proper woman would behave. You have to think of Hilda growing up as an orphan, with no strong role models. So a lot of I think how she thought of herself and how she should behave came out of what she read.

Reviewers of the book weren’t always satisfied with that.

Sure. You write that “writing a history that did not ignore Blake’s subjectivity required a historical ‘reading’ of a wide range of sources,” and you build some ambitious speculative history on that basis. What kind of reception did that get?

Some reviewers saw that treatment as sort of postmodern, that we were satisfying ourselves with kind of a literary account of Hilda without too seriously thinking about the things we couldn’t talk about because we didn’t have the evidence.

We didn’t go that way without first being made aware by Hilda of her own great interest in novels and coon songs — the sort of Victorian era rap music; it’s a lower-class music, a sort of Victorian blues … you can see how Hilda would have identified.

We felt it was quite reasonable to argue as we did that often times her life strategies were rooted in Victorian novels.

Is there any sort of lasting public memory of these events, or were you resuscitating a completely cold case?

The Lane family still resents any discussion of this case. They still reside in Brandon, and it’s still a very live matter for them.

One descendant from outside Brandon called me after the book published and told me it wasn’t at all the version he had heard growing up. The story he’d been told is that Mary died when she was standing out in her front yard and she was hit by a bolt of lightning.

By the same token, after Hilda accused a tramp of the shooting, all the itinerant foreign born men in town making their way from one job to another were rounded up. There’s another family we found that who had a story in the family that grandpa had almost been hanged when “the maid fell in love with the master and murdered the mistress.”

It’s really fascinating how these echoes of the past persist through family oral tradition. These are the skeletons in the closet, and they show up in different guises.

In Brandon once a year, a local dramatic society go to the cemetery in Brandon and represent various well-known figures in the graveyard, and the public is invited to go and ask them questions about their lives. After the one year where Robert Lane was represented by one of the actors, his descendents objected and said that it was a serious incursion into their family privacy.

How about Hilda? Has she been portrayed?

Hilda hasn’t been represented because she’s not in the cemetery; she’s still under the senior citizens’ building. The superintendent told me he got a backhoe and an undertaker one Saturday and went exploring for human remains, and they couldn’t find any. So the building project went ahead and Hilda is now under the northeast corner of the Rideau Park Personal Care Home. Not exactly what the poorhouse guardians had promised Hilda’s older sister when they sought her permission to send Hilda and her brother Tommy to Canada in 1889.

Tom Mitchell and Reinhold Kramer are also co-authors of the forthcoming When the State Trembled: How A.J. Andrews & the Citizens Broke the Winnipeg General Strike.


“My Downfall”
by Hilda Blake

(From Walk Towards the Gallows, as published on the Western Sun, Dec. 14 1899)

One I was innocent, lighthearted and gay,
And sang while I worked through all the long day;
A stranger to sorrow, not a care had I,
A laugh on my lip, but never a sigh.

But one day the devil, in the form of a man,
Came smiling towards me; said he “You can
Know more, if you’ll take them,
Of joy and pleasure,” I heard him say,
“Than e’er you have dreamed of; I’ll show you the way.”

I followed the tempter, along the smooth track,
I’d gone a long distance, ‘fore e’er I looked back,
Or thought of returning —
When I turned, the way back seemed so lonely and dreary,
E’er I’d gone many steps I grew footsore and weary,
That down by the roadside, to rest and to weep,
My strength was exhausted, I soon fell asleep.

I awakened refreshed, my exhaustion all gone,
Saw the phantom of Pleasure, still beckoning me on;
Then I made up my mind
To leave Prudence behind,
And pursue my perilous way.

As I journeyed along my heart lost its song,
For the path grew stony and dark;
Each step that I took tore the flesh off my feet,
And the track was a blood-stained mark.

I looked at the tempter, in his eye was a gleam;
I saw he was standing beside a dark stream;
He cried, “Come along, take a few steps more
And your struggle is ended, your journey is o’er.”

As I stood on the brink of that river,
My heart grew faint and sick;
What I saw only made me shiver —
I thought Fortune had played me a trick.

“As I look across I see only the dead,
Neither joy, nor pleasure,” to Satan, I said:
“But pleasures there are, though hidden from view,
They only wait to be claimed by you.”

I thought as he spoke, he moved his hand
And I saw I was standing on sinking sand.
As I leaped across, a frantic yell
Reached my ear
When too late, I saw I had leaped into hell;
I tried to go back, but an awful wall
Loomed up, and separated me from all
My youth and innocence.

Forsaken by friendship, kith, and kin
I lie in my lonely cell;
It seems but a dream that I’ve crossed that dark stream
And descended from heaven to hell.

You hypocrites, pleading religion,
You inquisitive seekers of fame,
Ready now with your good advice
When I’ve drunk of the sorrow and shame;
You gave me no timely warning,
You held out no helping hand, —
Why didn’t you see me sinking
As I stepped on this treacherous sand?

Oh Friend of all Friends who rules earth and sea,
Look down with a pitying eye upon me;
Thou’ll forgive my transgressions, says the book that is best —
Come ye that are weary, and I’ll give you the rest.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Murder,Other Voices,Sex,Women

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Feast Day of St. Stephen

5 comments December 26th, 2009 Headsman

The day after Christmas — or the second day of the twelve days of Christmas, in a more traditional coinage — is the feast of St. Stephen.*

St. Stephen is well-known as the “protomartyr”, the first Christian to die for his faith. (Jesus doesn’t count.) There’s a St. Stephen’s Gate in Jerusalem so named for its supposed proximity to the site of the protomartyrdom.

We get the Stephen story from the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, as given in this from the Tyndale-derived King James Version (Acts 6:8 – 8:3)

And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.

Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God. And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council, and set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law: For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us. And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.

Then said the high priest, Are these things so? … [elided; Stephen preaches on at great length before he comes to the point]

Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest? Hath not my hand made all these things?

Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.

When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.

But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.

And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.

The persecuting “Saul” at the end of this text is, of course, Saul of Tarsus, the future St. Paul.

Here’s a set of Catholic devotionals for the day, and here’s a more secular vibe on the day’s various quirky Anglo traditions.

As for that song …

Good King Wencesla(u)s, a tenth-century Bohemian ruler, is himself a saint — the patron saint of the Czechs, as a matter of fact.

Wenceslas was murdered in a palace coup, supposedly leading his servant Podevin to avenge that death, for which said Podevin was in turn executed. The lyrics of the song “Good King Wenceslas” celebrate the king and his loyal page undertaking together the charitable works they were famous for.

“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

* At least, it’s the Feast of St. Stephen in the Latin rite. The occasion is observed on Dec. 27 in the Orthodox tradition.

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1683: Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha, for the Battle of Vienna

4 comments December 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1683, the commander who just months before had brought the Turkish army to the gates of Vienna was executed in Belgrade for losing one of the pivotal battles in European history.

The Battle of Vienna saw the Ottoman Empire’s high tide and its last great bid to capture control of the strategic Danube city.

Despite an army of well over 100,000 that had besieged a frightened garrison of less than 20,000 soldiers and civilians, Kara Mustafa Pasha had been unable to reduce the city, and then decisively beaten after the timely arrival of a 70,000-strong relief force under the command of the Polish monarch Jan Sobieski. Here’s a great Italian map of the battle, with Mustafa himself hanging out in the lower corner; apparently, you can buy the original.

For both contemporaries and posterity, the “miraculous” defeat of an overwhelming Turkish threat by a coalition of Christian forces — a sort of earthbound equivalent to the previous century’s Battle of Lepanto — has appeared as a signal clash-of-civilizations event. In the right audience, a knowing 1683 reference is a sort of dominionist gang handshake.

So, anyway: big win.

If the blame for the defeat — Sobieski’s intervention apart — lay at Kara Mustafa’s door, it was due less to his decision to march straight for Vienna than to a number of technical miscalculations on his part, such as failing to bring heavy artillery to the siege but relying instead on light guns … inadequate to breach Vienna’s strongly fortified walls …

Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha had long been a close adviser of the Sultan, but any doubts Mehmed IV might have harboured about him were given substance during his absence on campaign as plotters fabricated reports of disorder in the empire. On hearing of the defeat at Vienna, one of the plotters … announced, in the words of Silahdar Findiklih Mehmed Agha, that ‘our enemy is finished with; the time is ripe for revenge’ …

Mehmed succumbed to the pressure from Kara Mustafa’s detractors, and the Grand Vezir was executed in Belgrade on Christmas Day 1683 while engaged in planning a new advance for the following spring … a skull in Vienna’s city museum is commonly believed to be his.

The Austrian victory at Vienna cost the Turks more than Mustafa’s service, which was quite a lot in itself. (Twelve different viziers held the post in the two decades after Kara Mustafa Pasha was strangled.)

The empire’s longstanding (and to Christendom, terrifying) expansionist posture towards Europe was at an end; in the future, the Musulman would have to ward off the Christian.

Ensuing Holy League victories wrested central Europe away from Constantinople, inaugurating a long Ottoman stagnation that would culminate in the empire’s destruction after World War I.

The Hapsburgs — though likewise marked for calamity in the War to End All Wars — for their part won hegemony in central Europe … and, it is said, the literal coffee beans captured as war booty with which to brew the famous Viennese cafe scene.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,No Formal Charge,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Serbia,Strangled,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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2008: Nine hanged in Iran

Add comment December 24th, 2009 Headsman

Iran has been dinged for ramping up its execution pace in the wake of its mid-2009 crisis of political authority. (Like this, just yesterday.)

There might well be something to that, but Iran’s “baseline” starting point for any such escalation is already pretty high, and had already been trending up.

It was in that spirit at dawn this day last year that Tehran’s Evin Prison conducted a mass hanging of eight men and one woman, with a tenth potential victim spared at the last moment only due to the absence of his family.

All were executed for homicide, including the woman, one “Tayyabeh”, who insisted that she was tortured into confessing to burying her 8-year-old stepdaughter alive.

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1953: Lavrenty Beria, Stalin henchman

6 comments December 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1953, Stalin’s feared minister Lavrenty Beria was shot — finally on the receiving end of the cruelty he had administered to countless Soviet citizens.

Lavrenty Pavlovich was, like Stalin, a Georgian peasant, albeit one generation younger.

He won his way into Stalin’s confidence from the 1920’s, and in 1938 replaced Nikolai Yezhov as head of the KGB predecessor NKVD. Yezhov did much of the bloody work of the Great Purge, and was himself in turn purged. The cunning Beria must have taken note.

Though his initial project was to clean up the excesses of the Yezhovshchina — releasing thousands of innocent convicts, making the gulag camps less homicidal and more effective and keeping prisoners alive long enough to get some work out of them, that sort of thing — it wasn’t long before Beria cast a terrifying shadow of his own. (Beria was Yezhov’s deputy, so it’s not like he walked into the job without the requisite qualifications for mass murder.) He wrote the memo proposing the execution of Polish officers that led to the Katyn massacre.

To the more everyday repressive operations of the Soviet secret police, Beria added his notorious (perhaps propagandistically exaggerated?) personal peccadilloes: nothing to trouble the boss, just a little penchant for seducing, or raping, and at his pleasure murdering, comely young lasses.

Soviet author Sergei Dovlatov sketched his character in this imagined vignette (translated by Executed Today friend Sonechka from the Russian original here):

As is well known, winsome high school girls were delivered to Lavrenty Beria’s house. Then his chauffeur presented a bouquet of flowers to the next victim. And rendered her home. This was an established ceremony. Suddenly, one of the damsels became unruly. She began to struggle and scratch. In short, held her ground and did not succumb to the charms of the Internal Affairs minister. Beria told her:

-You can leave.

The young woman descended the stairs. The chauffeur, not expecting such a turn of events, handed her over the prepared bouquet. The girl, somewhat more composed now, addressed the minister who was standing on the balcony:

-You see, Lavrenty Pavlovich! Your chauffeur is more courteous than you are. He gave me a bouquet of flowers.

Beria sneered and dully uttered:

-You are mistaken. It is not a bouquet. It is a funeral wreath.

More consequential for his fate was his position among the handful of Stalin’s closest associates, in which capacity he maintained himself for a remarkably extended period of time. This made him one of the people with a shot at succeeding Stalin, which in turn put him in the middle of the furious political infighting Uncle Joe was pleased to subject his subordinates to.

And the natural enmity between sovereign and heir — the one whose interest is the other’s death — may have even led Beria to poison Stalin in March 1953 when he was on the verge of a falling-out himself. Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (he of the pact, and the cocktail) remembered in his memoir Beria boasting after Stalin’s sudden and mysterious death,

“I did him in! I saved all of you!”

Briefly the official #2 man in the post-Stalin state, he would again preside over a political liberalization that belied his monstrous personal reputation.

But this pallbearer of Stalin soon followed his former master to the grave. Outmaneuvered by rivals Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, and Molotov, Beria was purged as a traitor in the summer of 1953 and secretly executed Dec. 23, 1953 with six confederates after a summary trial before the Supreme Court. (One of the expedients laid at his feet in that affair was a set of executions he had ordered in a 1941 purge).

According to a chapter by Michael Ross and Anne E. Wilson in Memory, Brain and Belief, after Beria’s fall, subscribers to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia

were instructed to destroy the article on Beria and were provided additional information on the Bering Strait to fill the gap in the pages.

Beria’s heirs actually applied to the post-Soviet government for a reversal of the conviction under laws granting victims of politically motivated prosecutions right of redress. The Russian judiciary turned them down.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,Politicians,Power,Russia,Shot,The Worm Turns,Torture,USSR

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1942: Eleven members of the Red Orchestra

Add comment December 22nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1942, eleven members* of a Berlin-based anti-Nazi resistance circle were executed at Plotzensee Prison — five by hanging, six by guillotine.

These members of the group organized around leftist Luftwaffe communications officer Harro Schulze-Boysen and intellectual Arvid Harnack were one of three Soviet intelligence nodes all of whom were confusingly designated Die Rote Kapelle.

That designation, assigned by Nazi intelligence rather than the networks themselves, has basically stuck and colored their postwar reputation with the anti-Communist politics of the Cold War.


Red affiliations that blackened Die Rote Kapelle’s memory west of the Berlin wall were more readily embraced by the Warsaw Pact. This East German stamp also honors John Sieg, a member of the circle who committed suicide upon his arrest.

And not only in retrospect: according to Gerald Reitlinger, the capture of known lefties misbehaving became the occasion of a McCarthyesque freakout full of internal political score-settling among the Nazis.

The affair of Burgess and Maclean will give some idea what capital can be made when someone with a leftish record enters and betrays a position of trust. The emotions roused are out of all proportion to the things that have been betrayed. [German military intelligence chief Wilhelm] Canaris declared that the conspiracy had cost the lives of 200,000 German soldiers.

While the cells in France/Belgium and Switzerland also covered by the “Red Orchestra” designation look like straight NKVD espionage operations, the Berliners were apparently more of a loose network of civilian dissidents who got pulled into (amateurish) spying as a part of their variety of quixotic protests from the very citadel of the Third Reich. When not nicking sensitive documents from Schulze-Boysen’s day job and haplessly attempting to ship them to the Russians, they made futile White Rose-like gestures of conscience, like anti-Nazi placarding under the cover of darkness, and more calculated stuff, like collecting war crimes evidence in the hopes of indicting their perpetrators after the war.

Well, what is one supposed to do as an anti-Nazi in Berlin in 1941?

And what if one is in a position to answer that question with, “provide effectual aid to the enormous army poised to destroy Hitler”?

Anne Nelson’s Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler (review | another) attempts to rehabilitate the Berlin circle from postwar red-smearing and underscore the everyday-ness of the participants (not all of them politically left) and the courage of their respective decisions to oppose Hitler actively.

Nelson’s book is new, but her argument is not unique.

Other books also titled Red Orchestra (Perrault, Tarrant | review of both) more strongly emphasize the commie-taskmaster dimension in what by any standard is thrilling real-life fare.

The German Resistance Memorial Center has salutes to the Red Orchestra’s members, networks and activities.

* Arvid Harnack’s American wife Mildred, initially condemned only to a prison term for her part in the Orchestra, had her sentence upgraded and followed her comrades’ fate on February 16, 1942.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Spies,Treason,Wartime Executions

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