Archive for April, 2010

1591: John Dickson, “broken on ane rack”

3 comments April 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1591, Scotsman John Dickson was condemned to death (which he immediately suffered) for murdering his father.

“The criminal record,” observes this volume of Scottish crime, “contains neither the particulars of the murder, nor the evidence against the prisoner.”

What is particular to this case is the method of execution: the breaking-wheel, or something very similar to it, a tortuous death used throughout continental Europe but that never caught on in the British Isles.

John Dickson, younger of Belchester, being apprehended, ta’en, and brought to Edinburgh, was put to the knawledge of ane assize for the slaughter of his awn natural father [in July 1588], and also for the lying for the said offence at the process of excommunication. [Being convicted, he was] brought to the scaffold, and at the Cross broken on ane rack, [and] worried—where he lay all that night, and on the morn [was] carried to the gallows of the Burgh-moor, where the rack was set up, and the corpse laid thereupon. (Passage from here or here.)

Dickson’s is the first of only two such “breaking” death sentences, in which the doomed is staked out spread-eagled and has his limbs shattered one by one, documented in Scotland. (The other is that of Robert Weir in 1604; an assassin in 1571 “is said, also” to have suffered such a fate, but actual documentation has been lost.)


Sort of like this. (Source)

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1968: Lin Zhao, martyr poet

7 comments April 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1968, a “rightist” student whose critique of the Cultural Revolution was not blunted by the rigors of imprisonment was informed that her jail sentence had been changed to execution — which was immediately imposed at Shanghai’s Longhua Airport.

Utterly obscure at her death, Lin Zhao’s memory was tended by those closest to her, passed down like samizdat to latterly emerge out of Mao’s shadow.

An impassioned young intellectual at Peking University and a dedicated Communist with an irrepressible sense of justice, Lin Zhao once called Mao the “red star in my heart” and actually supervised the execution of a landlord during the country’s land reform push in the early 1950s.

But she also refused to temper or retract her criticisms of China’s path when the government abruptly reversed its brief flirtation with pluralism.

In 1960, after circulating a petition for fallen Communist (but not orthodox Maoist) Marshal Peng Dehuai, Lin was arrested, and eventually sentenced to a 20-year term.

It is here that the judicious person discovers the error of her ways, and accepts such terms as she can make for herself.

Not Lin Zhao.

Lin kept writing. Poetry, political manifestos, letters to the newspaper — hundreds of thousands of “reactionary” words. When they took away her ink, she opened her veins and wrote in blood.

By the end, official maltreatment and Lin’s own hunger strikes had wasted her away to less than 70 pounds. She was literally plucked from her prison hospital bed on this date by soldiers who drug her (gagged) to a show trial and execution. But like Marshal Peng, she never bent.

“Better to be destroyed,” she told her doctor, “than give up one’s principles.” (He’s quoted in Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China.)

Somehow, many of her hematic scribblings (saved by the prison, for possible use against her down the road) were smuggled out to her loved ones.* Somehow, they made their way to filmmaker Hu Jie, who put Lin Zhao back on the cultural map with the banned but well-received 2004 documentary Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (or In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul).

This movie can actually be seen in its entirety in 10-minute installments on YouTube as of this writing.

Lin Zhao was posthumously exonerated by a Shanghai court in 1981. Despite Hu Jie’s efforts, she is still little known in her country, or abroad.

Phosphorescent green light never goes out
And lighting up souls every night
Preserving the soul
Letting go the crippled body
Burning into ashes in misfortune
Someday with a red flower on the head
Recognizing the blood stains
Just as copying a bright red flower
Impossible to paint the real color

-One of Lin Zhao’s poems, inscribed on her tomb

* Stanford’s Hoover Institution also holds a collection of Lin Zhao papers.

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2010: Zheng Minsheng, child-stabbing doctor

1 comment April 28th, 2010 Headsman

This morning in Nanping, China, former doctor Zheng Minsheng was shot to death for a headline-grabbing knife attack on schoolchildren just five weeks ago.

In a brazen attack as efficient as it was unanticipated, Zheng knifed 13 kids at Nanping City Experimental Elementary School on March 23. Eight of them died.

“The methods used by the defendant Zheng Minsheng were extremely savage, the circumstances of the crime were particularly evil,” the Fujian Province high court said in rejecting his appeal.

The apparent motivation? Being jilted by his girlfriend.

That’s not the sort of trigger calculated to impress Chinese courts that have little sympathy for mental illness claims.

For this shocking crime, justice was swift. But you’d have to question its deterrent effect, since there was yet another high-profile knifing attack on schoolchildren on the very day of Zheng’s execution — part of an “alarming spate of school knifings.”

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1792: Jacob Johan Anckarström, assassin of Gustav III

1 comment April 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1792, Jacob Johan Anckarström lost his right hand and his center head for murdering Gustav III.

Like some other nobles, this officer considered the “theater king” and enlightened despot Gustav III a, well, despot.

Times being what they were, regicide was in order, to usher in an age of constitutional liberalism.

A conspiracy of Swedish nobles surrounded the royal victim at a masquerade ball on March 16, 1792, and shot him in the back. Alas for them, the scene was immediately sealed and the attendees unmasked before the gang could get away.

Although in the confusion nobody knew whodunit among those disguised revelers, it was only a matter of time before the discarded murder weapon was identified as Anckarström’s.

(Actually, it was a much longer matter of time before it became a “murder” weapon. The king only succumbed to the infection 13 days later.)

Five were condemned to death, but the four who hadn’t pulled the trigger were commuted to exile instead. Exile for regicide? Maybe that’s making you wonder why they all thought it was such an oppressive regime they all lived under.

Jacob Johan Anckarström could give them the answer. He was said to have met his beheading joyfully, which would only be natural after he’d been flogged in chains in three different parts of the city over the preceding three days.*

For readers of Swedish (or exploiters of online translation), there’s much more about Jacob and his dastardly plot here and here.

Appropriately, given the murder’s stagey venue, the Anckarstrom assassination was great performance art material in the 19th century. Verdi based Un Ballo in Maschera on it, although he’s given the principals a generic love-triangle relationship — and because of mid-19th century censorship, the iteration of it below is set in colonial Boston with “Anckarstrom” sporting the very New England name “Rennato”.

Although this particular plot didn’t achieve the revolutionary thing its authors intended, it didn’t have the opposite effect either. The king’s teenage son Gustav IV Adolf succeeded the throne, with an unsurprising hatred of Jacobinism. But in the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars (that also cost Sweden its dominion over Finland), Gustav IV was deposed and a liberal constitution adopted.

* He wasn’t handled with kid gloves in prison, either, but you can take in the scene over the libation of your choice at the present-day cafe that occupies Anckarstrom’s onetime dungeon. The joint is named for another Swedish political martyr, Sten Sture.

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1901: “Black Jack” Tom Ketchum, who was left in three pieces

12 comments April 26th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1901, a two-bit outlaw from a vanishing frontier made his reservations for hell.

Tom Ketchum — who had become known as “Black Jack” when misidentified with another hombre he resembled — was the last man to hang in America for attempting to rob a train. Given the way the authorities in Clayton, N.M., conducted the job, that’s probably for the best.

This Texas-born outlaw enjoyed a colorful career in the 1890s Southwest plundering trains, killing folk, and other distinctively American pastimes. His name attaches to the [in]famous Hole in the Wall Gang.

He was finally caught attempting a dangerous one-man train robbery, when a conductor (taking part in his third stickup, and tired of being on the wrong end of the gunbarrel) got the drop on Ketchum and winged him with a shotgun. Too weakened by his injury to escape, Ketchum surrendered himself to the law, and his wounded arm to the surgeons.

The un-amputated remainder belonged to Clayton, N.M. — New Mexico Territory, that is, which was not yet a state at this time, but was keen on making an example to stanch the tide of train robberies.

(Formally, the charge that hung Ketchum was “felonious assault upon a railway train”; he was the only person executed for this offense before the Supreme Court decided that a hanging crime needed more victims than just an iron horse. This jurisprudential advance might not have done Black Jack very much good anyway, since neighboring Arizona had also put in an extradition request for murder.)

So far, so good.

Then, they actually dropped him.

When the body dropped through the trap the half-inch rope severed the head as cleanly as if a knife had cut it. The body pitched forward with blood spurting from the headless trunk. The head remained in the black sack and flew down into the pit.

SOME MEN GROANED.

Some men groaned and others turned away, unable to endure the sight. For a few seconds the body was allowed to lie there half-doubled up on its right side, with the blood issuing in an intermittent stream from the severed neck as the heart kept on with its mechanical beating. Then with cries of consternation the officers rushed down from the scaffold and lifted the body from the ground. It was only then apparent exactly what happened.

The drop of the body was seven feet and the noose was made so it slipped easily. Ketchum was a heavy man, and the weight of the body, with the easy-running noose, caused the rope to cut the head cleanly off. Dr. Slack pronounced life extinct a little over five minutes from the time the body dropped through the trap. It is stated too much of a drop was given for so heavy a man.

Just so we’re clear: a seven-foot drop is much, much too far for a man of Ketchum’s 190-plus pounds. Maybe they were distracted by rumors of an escape attempt.

The newspaper account above cites much more forgettable scaffold-talk from Ketchum, but we can’t help but find charm (and obviously, black humor) in his alleged last words,

I’ll be in hell before you start breakfast, boys! Let her rip!

Fictional? If so, they’re more like what Ketchum’s last words ought to be. Although let St. Peter‘s ledger reflect that Ketchum was a decent enough chap to post a letter to President McKinley on the morning of his own execution copping to several robberies for which other people were imprisoned.

Initially buried — naturally — at Clayton’s Boot Hill, this infernal denizen’s grave can now be found (and more than a century on, tourists and admirers do find it) at Clayton Memorial Cemetery.

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1644: Looters in conquered Beijing

1 comment April 25th, 2010 dogboy

The Shun Dynasty only lasted two months in China, but it still managed to find its way to these pages by deposing the ruling Ming Dynasty and setting the scene for the Q’ing Dynasty.

In the early 1500s, the Ming Dynasty significantly increased contact with Europe, and it immediately saw the value in exploited mineral wealth from the West. At the time, the government was having difficulty maintaining a currency with perceived value: paper money was a massive flop and standard copper coins could not be trusted. Something new was needed, and European silver was a quick and easy answer.

But the decision to move to silver coins backfired a century later, when a variety of converging factors cut the silver supply to China and caused a spike in the price of the metal. As a result, the economy sagged. In the mid-1640s, a drought also gripped the country, and the Ming government was in the unenviable position of watching over a collapsing nation. It didn’t help that the government was highly centralized, with almost all activity occurring in Beijing; a working regional governing mechanism may have allowed it to dig out of the hole, but with the rise of an elite class — and prospective officials seeking every opportunity to serve as close to the power center as possible — there was no hope of a savior once the emperor’s power waned.

Enter the Manchu.

(This is long.)

Originating in Northeast China and Southeast Siberia,* the Manchu occupied their own territory under a local khan. The Manchu army was building strength at the same time that the economic woes under Ming rule increased. While the Manchu originally considered themselves distinct from and superior to the Han Chinese, they made several legal concessions to match the social mores of those they ruled over which enhanced their credibility.

With the Ming Dynasty weakening, the Manchu saw their opportunity to move south.

But even as the Ming fought to repel those Manchu invaders, an internal insurrection was brewing under a man named Li Zu’cheng, an apprentice ironworker from Yan’an. The Chuang Wang (“Roaming King”, Li’s regnal name) was considered a savior of the common folk, even earning a widespread local song looking forward to the day he would arrive:

You’ll feed your mates,
You’ll dress your mates,
You’ll open wide your city gates.
When Prince Chuang arrives, there’ll be no more rates.

(Source)

Li had a strong foothold in the heart of the country, and he was persistent. More importantly, the Ming government was hemorrhaging cash to its frontiers. Eventually, the money began to dry up, and even the ministers within the Chongzhen Emperor’s circle saw the writing on the wall. By mid-March, the Manchus were known to be marching through nearly undefended lines; by mid-April, the treasury stopped paying its military entirely.

On April 24, with Li Zu’cheng at the city gates, Emperor Ch’ung Chen tried in vain to escape his own compound. In his wake, he left the corpse of the empress (suicide), the corpse of his daughter (killed by the drunken emperor in a rage), and a seriously injured crown princess (maimed by the drunken emperor). Having mowed through his family, the emperor joined his chief eunuch Wang Cheng’en, climbed atop a local hill, and, shortly after midnight on April 25, hanged himself.

Li Zu’cheng entered the city unopposed, the gates (as the ditty had promised) flung open for his invading army.

Government officials hid in an attempt to escape retribution, but Li’s forces were reportedly quite orderly and did not seek revenge. Instead, they marched slowly through the city, where many of the locals marked themselves as Shun-min, or subjects of Li’s Shun dynasty.

Looters and bandits, however, were not tolerated, and the well-disciplined force dispatched them quickly and without trial. Their bodies were put on display by nailing them to local streetposts, and by noon, the city was calm.

The Roaming King only managed to hold power for a few weeks before his army was swept away by the Manchus. Li Zu’cheng lived almost two more years on the run, still claiming his title of Emperor of Shaanxi as he fled the newly installed government. It would be several more years before the Manchu would retake Southern China,** but the Q’ing Dynasty would dominate China until the Xinhai Revolution in 1912.

* The Manchurians were technically Tungusic, a significant Chinese minority both then and now. The Manchu largely resisted integration into Han society until the latter half of the 19th century.

** Southern China remained, technically, a distinct entity called the Southern Ming Dynasty, south of the Huai River, until 1662.

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1723: Major Jean Abram Davel

2 comments April 24th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1723, Major Jean Davel was beheaded for an abortive separatist bid in Vaud.

The French-speaking Swiss Canton was at this time under the heavy-handed domination of neighboring Bern(e), part of an oligarchic arrangement of power in Switzerland that would provoke regular unrest.

Davel (German Wikipedia page), a notary turned soldier who had fought at Villmergen, identified with the underdog.

On March 31, 1723, Davel took advantage of a general absence of bailiffs gone to Berne for government sinecures, and marched 600 men to the Vaud capital of Lausanne to pitch the town on breaking away from its Teutonic overlords.

Instead, the city worthies paid him lip service just long enough to betray him.*

“I see well enough,” Davel observed, “I will be the first victim in this affair.”

Yup.

But he held firm under torture to his insistence that the revolt was his doing alone (well, his and God’s), and perhaps thereby saved others from sharing his fate.


The Execution of Major Davel, by Charles Gleyre. A very in-depth analysis of this work by Michel Thevoz titled “Painting and Ideology: A Commentary on a Painting by Charles Gleyre” is available in pdf form here.

Davel is noted for checking out with a unique scaffold speech, discoursing on a topic rarely explored on that platform: the role of music in worship.**

As concerns the praise of God, in what manner is it sung? Is there any sense of orderliness, any real music, anything whatever calculated to excite and sustain the devotion? Yet this part of divine service is one of the most considerable and the one by which is the most effectively demonstrated the lifting up of our hearts to God … Such being the importance of this part of Christian worship, I cannot too much emphasize my exhortation to you to give it a new and serious attention, in order to correct the faults of which you are at present guilty in connection with it.

In a similar vein, the 52-year-old groused at the kids these days, to wit, young divinity students in attendance who, in the immortal tradition of kids these days throughout all days,

neglect your studies for worldly pleasure. You take no pains to learn music, which is so necessary for the singing of God’s praises. The songs of the church form an essential part of divine worship, and have an infinite value in helping us to lift our hearts to God. I pray you, then, to apply yourselves with all possible zeal to your preparation for the holy ministry.

Music in worship was in the Zeitgeist, and 1723 in liturgical composition suggests the (otherwise wholly unrelated to Davel) move by Johann Sebastian Bach that very year to Leipzig. Bach took up his post there just weeks after Davel lost his head, and would spend the remaining 27 years of his life in Leipzig. But it only took him until the very next Easter to lift up his congregation’s heart to God with the Johannes-Passion.

* Better late than never, Lausanne gave Davel a statue.

** According to Percy A. Scholes, “Church Music: A Plea from the Scaffold,” The Musical Times, vol. 78, no. 1136 (Oct. 1937).

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1969: Sirhan Sirhan condemned

4 comments April 23rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1969, Sirhan Sirhan was condemned to the California gas chamber for assassinating Robert F. Kennedy.

The aggrieved Palestinian was not marked by fate to suffer that last extremity of the law, however; instead, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when all existing death penalty statutes were invalidated in 1972.*

As a result, Sirhan Sirhan remains alive as of this writing, serving that sentence in the Golden State’s Pleasant Valley State Prison. He’ll be next up for parole in 2011.

(In a parole appeal back in 1982 — he’s been on a bit of a losing streak — the convicted assassin had the chutzpah to complain that “if Robert Kennedy were alive today, I believe he would not countenance singling me out for this kind of treatment.”)

Although the guy was seen in a crowded room pulling the trigger (onlookers tackled him) and he subsequently confessed to the deed, there has long been a conspiratorial counternarrative suggesting that other shooters were there, too. It’s pretty hard to say that the guy who emptied his chamber in front of dozens of witnesses wasn’t involved, but there are versions of this where he’s a Manchurian Candidate-style hypnotized patsy.

Politics: much more interesting in the 1960s.

Precisely because that is so, this particular man’s crime attracts retrospective interest for what followed: the charismatic Democratic frontrunner from Camelot cut down; the sinister Richard Nixon arising in his place to bomb Cambodia, burgle Watergate, and create the Environmental Protection Agency. Sirhan Sirhan “assassinated modern U.S. history.”

That really seems a bit much.

Sirhan Sirhan himself has contributed to the trippy theorizing about his case by being all over the map on it. At one point, he attempted to plead guilty and draw the death penalty; the trial judge forced him to go through with a defense. Subsequently, as noted, he’s whinged for an early release. He’s claimed to have had no memory of the attack, which certainly isn’t what he said after he got arrested.

Ultimately, the most self-evident explanation has always been the first one that he offered: “I did it for my country.”

Sirhan was a Jerusalem-born Palestinian dismayed by Israel’s success in the Six-Day War, and by America’s concomitant foreign policy tilt towards Israel.

Kennedy was a strong advocate of that policy, and his death happened to coincide with the anniversary of war.

Maybe that’s just what they want you to think. But it has to be allowed that the cause in question has claimed more lives than just RFK’s.

* People v. Anderson, decided by the California Supreme Court. Later that same year, the U.S. Supreme Court would issue Furman v. Georgia, which would have had the same effect for Sirhan Sirhan.

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1846: The last civil executions in Portugal

5 comments April 22nd, 2010 Headsman

Portugal has not carried out a civil (non-military, non-wartime) execution since hanging two murderers on this date in 1846.*

Despite some impressively sanguinary exercises of capital punishment in its history, the Iberian nation has been in the European vanguard of death penalty abolition.

Writing on what turned out to be the eve of Portugal’s landmark 1867 renunciation of the death penalty for criminal offenses, the 1866 report of Britain’s capital punishment commission observed:

The last execution which took place was at Lagos, on the 22nd of April 1846. And it is right to state also, that ever since the definitive re-establishment of a liberal government in this country, capital punishments have never been very numerous. Thus during the 13 years which elapsed between 1833 and 1846, inclusive, out of 99 culprits condemned to death there were only 32 executed, and the sentences of the remaining 67 were commuted.

[Portugal] is, then, the only [country] in Europe in which the punishment of death has been for the last 18 years de facto suppressed. Public opinion has gone before the law: and the law, in effacing this punishment from its provisions, far from being in anticipation of society, will not do more than give its sanction to a fact which has long been accepted by general feeling, and which at the present day it would be difficult to contravene. Even if the punishment of death were to remain inserted in the text of our penal legislation, I think I may with safety affirm it would be impossible to meet with a Minister of Justice who would venture to recommend the King to withhold the exercise of the Royal prerogative of pardon, and who would have the heart to order the timbers of a new scaffold to be again erected on the soil of Portugal.

Despite an abortive feint at backsliding during World War I, the popular sense of the issue does not seem to have changed much in the interim.

The tragedy of man, ‘a postponed dead body’ as Fernando Pessoa said, does not need an untimely exit from the stage. It is tense enough without an end that is artificial and planned by butchers, megalomaniacs, potentates, racisms, and orthodoxies. Therefore, being human, we demand unequivocally that all peoples should have a code of humanity. A code that for all citizens guarantees the right to die their own death.

-Portuguese writer Miguel Torga, at a 1967 colloquy marking the centennial of Portugal’s formal abolition of the death penalty for ordinary crimes.

* There are some scantily documented World War II treason executions; the death penalty was officially abolished for treason (the last capital crime on the books) in 1977.

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1597: Severyn Nalyvaiko

3 comments April 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1597, Cossack Severyn Nalyvaiko was publicly quartered in Warsaw.

Nalyvaiko organized “unregistered” Cossacks in Poland’s eastern realms, modern-day Belarus and Ukraine, into what became a significant rebellion. (Poland’s efforts to “register” and thereby control Cossacks would continue to cause tension in the years ahead.)

The Poles outmuscled him, and here he is.

However, because longer-term historical trends were not so favorable to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Nalyvaiko rates a place as an early independence martyr for (east) Slavic resistance to Warsaw’s Polish imperialism.

Not only does he get a spot on present-day Ukrainian coinage (as pictured); 19th century Russian poet Kondraty Ryleyev, who would himself be executed for his part in the Decembrist plot, lyricized Nalyvaiko’s death as heroic national sacrifice … and simultaneously elevated the poet’s own prophesied fate for himself.

“In Ryleyev’s poetry, fate — romantic fate — is not simply personal and individual,” writes Lauren Leighton. “The fate of his heroes, and so his own fate, is raised to the level of national-historical tragedy. By welcoming his fate and dying for his land, Nalivayko ennobles his people.”


“Nalyvaiko”

Say not, thou holy man, again
That this is sin, thy words are vain,
Be it a fearful mortal sin
Worse than all crimes that e’er have been,
I care not — for could I but see
My native land at liberty,
Could I but see my race restored
To freedom from the foreign horde,
All sins would I upon me take
Without one sigh for Russia’s sake. —
The crimes of all the Tartar race,
The apostates Uniates‘ treason base,
The sins of every Jew and Pole —
All would I take upon my soul.
Try not with threats my mind to shake,
Persuasive words no change can make,
For hell to me is to have viewed
My loved Ukraine in servitude;
To see my fatherland set free,
This, this alone, is heaven for me!

E’en from the cradle was my breast
With love of liberty possessed;
My mother sang me glorious lays
Of those long-past historic days,
Whose memory yet lives ‘mongst men,
For no fear seized on Russians then,
None cringed before the haughty Pole;
The iron of a foreign yoke
Weighed upon no free Russian’s soul,
None cowered beneath a stranger’s stroke;
Cossacks were then the Pole’s allies,
Bound each to each in equal ties,
Such as free men would well beseem —
Now all is vanished like a dream.
Cossacks long since had learned to know
How into tyrants friends may grow;
The Lithuanian, and the Jew,
The Pole, and all the Uniate crew,
Like ravening crows around their prey
Seize us, and tear our limbs away.
The voice of law no more is heard
In Warsaw’s city, none are stirred
At hearing all a nation’s wail,
Our mourning voices nought avail,
And now within me burns a flame
Of hatred for the Polish name —
A fierce hot flame of raging fire —
My look is wild with passion dire
And frenzied wrath; the soul in me
Sickens for love of liberty.
One thought have I by night and day,
Which like a shadow haunts my way,
E’en where the steppes lie silent, bare,
Unresting it pursues me there;
E’en in the soldier’s camp, and when
The battle’s whirl, and tramp of men,
Around me roar with maddening rush,
I hear it still, and in the hush
Of the still church’s vaulted gloom,
Sound in my ears the words of doom
“‘Tis time,” the holy accents say,
“‘Tis time to sweep the foes away,
“O’er the Ukraine who bear their sway.”
I know full well the direful 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 — but say
When, when has freedom won her way
Without the blood of martyrs shed,
When none for liberty have bled?
My coming doom I feel and know
And bless the stroke which lays me low
And, father, now with joy I meet
My death, to me such end is sweet.

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