Archive for August, 2010

1923: Nathan Lee, the last public hanging in Texas

4 comments August 31st, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1923 was the passing of an era: the last legal public hanging in Texas.

The Texas of legend — the rough and vast frontier — fits the public hanging tableau (and its dark cousin, the lynching) like a hemp necktie.

And up until 1922-23, Texas executions had indeed been hangings administered by county sheriffs. But that newfangled killing technology, the electric chair, beguiled the legislature here as elsewhere. Oil wells popping up all over the state were rewriting its economic future … so why not a futuristic way of killing wrongdoers, too?

A 1923 bill centralized future executions in Huntsville, where they still remain today.

Denouncing countyseat [sic] executions as a barbaric relic of the frontier past, L.K. Irwin launched a one-man campaign to bring Texas in tune with the times. The state legislator converted many to his cause with the argument that public hangings harmed society almost as much as the condemned.

Irwin insisted executions usually degenerated into bloodthirsty carnivals that did nothing to instill in spectators a respect for the law. All too often untrained local officials made the spectacle even more gruesome, when the drop failed to snap the victim’s neck. On those occasions, he slowly strangled in full view of females and impressionable children.

In the 1923 session of the Lone Star legislature, Irwin introduced the Electric Chair Bill. In addition to doing away with the gallows, the proposal relieved county sheriffs of the responsibility of the carrying out death sentences. Future executions would be held behind closed-doors inside the Texas Department of Corrections.

That law took effect on Aug. 14, even though the electric chair hadn’t even been built yet. The hanging of one Roy Mitchell in Waco on July 30 figured to be the last, and thousands packed the public square to witness it. It’s still sometimes cited as the Lone Star State’s last hanging.

Grandfather Clause

But on that very same date in the Gulf town of Angleton, Nathan Lee, an illiterate middle-aged black sharecropper, was condemned to die for shooting his white employer dead in a dispute over money. (The Ku Klux Klan sent flowers to the funeral.)

A month later, he did so — albeit in an area whose public access had intentionally been curtailed, to chill out any potential carnival scene.

“I did it,” Lee said on the scaffold. “I am to blame, and no one else.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,USA

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1996: Ebbisaa Addunyaa, extrajudicially executed

1 comment August 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1996, Oromo singer Ebbissaa Addunyaa was slain in his Addis Ababa home.

He “appeared to have been extrajudicially executed on suspicion of supporting the OLF,” according to Amnesty International. “No investigations were known to have taken place into allegations of torture, ”disappearance” or extrajudicial execution.”

“Extrajudicial execution” is a category challenge for these pages; Ebbisaa Addunyaa was not tried for anything, never mind convicted. His “execution” was a close cousin to simple murder … but a murder carried out by state security forces, targeting him specifically, and acting, if not under color of law, at least with legal impunity.

Ebbisaa and his friend Tana Wayessa

were at Ebbisaa’s home … north of the American Embassy in Addis Ababa, when gunmen burst in. Eyewitnesses claim the bodies were dragged from the house and put in a Land Rover with a government license plate. The security men, who carried out the murders, first cleared the street. Residents who looked out of their houses after the gunfire were told to get back indoors. The bodies were recovered [the] next day from the morgue at the Menelik II hospital.

All this took place in the turbulent 1990s wake of the collapsed Derg dictatorship. An initial multiparty post-Derg coalition government had included the Oromo Liberation Front — an organization upholding the rights of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group — but the OLF soon withdrew from the coalition.

Ebbisaa was an OLF cadre who used his musical gifts for advocacy, and became a target when the outlawed OLF was forced underground.

A United Nations “Special Rapporteur” monitors “Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions” for the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Many of the Special Rapporteur’s reports dating back to the 1990s are available on the website of NYU’s Project on Extrajudicial Executions, and the 1997 country report (pdf) for Ethiopia reveals that Ebbisaa’s execution/assassination/murder was only one in a pattern.

The Special Rapporteur transmitted the following allegations of violations of the right to life concerning 16 identified persons and 13 unidentified persons: Ahmed Good Abdi, Ahmed Sanay Farah, Ahmed Sangaab and Hassan Ahmed Sagal, reportedly arrested and killed on 8 August 1996 in Toon-Ceeley by members of the Ethiopian armed forces; Ebissa Addunya, a singer and musician, and Tana Wayessa, reportedly shot and killed on 30 August 1996 by members of the Ethiopian security forces in the former’s house in Addis Ababa; 4 unidentified persons reportedly killed on 8 August 1996 in Gabababo; Awal Idire, aged 16, Awal Sani, aged 13, Badiri Shaza, aged 12, and Usen Kalu, aged 12, reportedly killed on 20 July 1996 by members of the Ethiopian armed forces because they had the initials of the Oromo Liberation Front tattooed on their hands; Mohamed Arabi Hirsi, Abdi Mohamed Yare, Gahnug Yusuf Aare, Mohamed Aw Farah Ga’iye, Haye Hirad, alleged to be tribal chiefs and clan elders, reportedly killed on 18 July 1996 by members of the Ethiopian armed forces; Sarecya Seerar Mohamed, her newborn child and eight other unidentified individuals, reportedly killed in mid-August 1996 by members of the Ethiopian armed forces in Qabridaharre (30 September 1996).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Ethiopia,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Wrongful Executions

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1938: Bela Kun, Hungarian Communist leader

2 comments August 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938 — so the Soviet government finally announced in 1989, after decades of opacity — the Hungarian Communist leader Bela Kun was secretly shot by firing squad in the gulag.

The pudgy and pugnacious* onetime journalist whose capture by the Russians during World War I enabled him to get in on the ground floor with the Bolshevik Revolution became the de facto leader of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. For a few months in 1919, it was the world’s second Soviet state after Russia itself.

Bela Kun’s moment in the sun was particularly notorious for his advocacy late in the Soviet Republic’s brief life of a Red Terror against internal opposition. Several hundred people were killed over the last few weeks of the state’s existence, until a Romanian invasion toppled the reds and sent Bela Kun fleeing back to the Soviets. There, he’s supposed to have brought his gift for wholesale murder to surrendered White prisoners in the Crimea.

Still, Hungary was an insurrectionary success next to most everywhere else, and Bela Kun was detailed to Germany to revive the flagging fortunes of a revolution that the Bolsheviks thought would be critical to sustaining their own. Modeling on Lenin’s own coup d’etat in 1917, Kun pushed the Germans to go all-in on an aggressive 1921 “March Action” offensive to capture state power — which backfired catastrophically, essentially marking the end of the post-World War I revolutionary window. Vladimir Ilyich gave his Magyar counterpart a dressing-down for that gambit at that summer’s Comintern summit.

He’d become associated in this time with Zinoviev, an Old Bolshevik whose comradeship would blow an ill wind come the killing time of the 1930s. Kun himself was long past his sell-by date at this stage, knocking around Moscow feuding with other Hungarian exiles.

Stalin eventually had him arrested for “Trotskyism”, and he disappeared into the Gulag never to be seen again.

Like many purge victims, Bela Kun was rehabilitated under Khrushchev, which also made him fitting source material for statuary congenial to the post-World War II Hungary, situated (however unhappily) within Moscow’s sphere. Some of the detritus of this age can be found at Budapest’s Mememto Park outdoor fairgrounds of discarded Communist kitsch.


Bela Kun, marshaling the Magyar masses. The streetlamp behind him (a literary symbol of hanging) alludes to his martyrdom. Wider views of the entire monument: 1 | 2

* He had a rep in his youth for fighting duels.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,History,Hungary,Infamous,Jews,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,USSR

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1793: Adam Philippe, Comte de Custine

Add comment August 28th, 2010 Headsman

The best defense would have been a good offense for French General Adam Philippe, Comte de Custine — guillotined in Paris this date in 1793 for inadequacy in command of the French revolutionary armies fighting continental monarchist armies.

You must be this tall to go on the General Moustache* ride, and poor results in the field at this time could leave you shorter. Losing to the enemy looked an awful lot like conspiring with the enemy, especially when there was a “Comte” in your name.

Custine spent the winter of 1792-1793 coughing up French conquests across the Rhine. (In his defense, several of them were things that he’d previously conquered himself.)

Recalled once to Paris to justify himself, the bewhiskered general was defended by no less than Robespierre, and thereafter returned to the field. Given this background, it was not wise of him to resume the losing streak — but he did.*

The resultant second recall saw the moustache — and its associated head — permanently shaved for treacherously throwing battles like the 1919 White Sox. This met with the great approval** of Hebert‘s Pere Duchesne :

“Epitaph on General Custine”

Here lies an headless General—(I’ll say dead)
As many living Generals want an head.

You have just done something worthy of me by denouncing Custine. You have brought into broad daylight his plots and his treason. If we had waited a few more days to recall him freedom would have been fucked. This infamous rascal, after having had the French in Frankfurt massacred, after having abandoned Mainz, after having allowed Valenciennes to be encircled, after having delivered Condé, only awaited the right moment to lead his army into a slaughter and to deliver the coup de grace to the republic by sacrificing its last resources. Fortunately, the bugger has been put to the side. His crimes have been proved, let his head promptly fall under the national razor, but let his not be the only one! Let all the scoundrels who compose his headquarters also be shortened. Pursue, denounce without rest the infamous Tourville, who was the right arm of Lameth, and who will deliver Maubeuge if we leave him in command. Make known the swindler Lapallière, and especially the ci-devant marquis de Verigni, known in all the gaming houses under the name of Debrulis. Tell the Sans Culottes in the army that this rat has emigrated twice. Don’t forget Leveneur, the intimate friend of Lafayette, and the henchman of Custine. Don’t allow these bandits a moments rest until they’ve been chased and punished as traitors.

Custine’s son also got the chop for defending his old man.

Surviving the purge: Adam Philippe’s then-three-year-old grandson, Astolphe Custine. Custine would become famous as “the de Tocqueville of Russia,” and for his aphoristic and still-current travelogue La Russie en 1839.

* Actual nickname.

** And characteristically profane. Pere Duchesne would not have had a lot of patience for coy little cunnilingus references where a salty sans-culotte f-bomb would do instead.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Military Crimes,Nobility,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1679: St. David Lewis, the last Welsh martyr

Add comment August 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1679, the Jesuit David Lewis was hanged, drawn and quartered.

Lewis suffered just days after a fellow priest and fellow victim of Titus Oates’ “Popish Plot” concoctions, John Kemble.

Lewis was arrested at the Wales town of Llantarnam where he was Tad y Tlodion, “father of the poor”; hauled to London’s Newgate Prison, he was returned to Usk, also in Wales, for execution.

As with Kemble, Lewis “discover the plot I could not, as I knew of none; and conform I would not, for it was against my conscience.” Where terroristic plotting could not be established, taking Holy Orders in the church would do just as well.

Lewis is not actually the last Catholic martyr in Britain* — Oliver Plunkett earned that distinction in 1681 — but at this late date he goes down as the last Welsh martyr, which is also the title of an energetic Catholic blog all about the man and his milieu.

Seems that site has a virtual pilgrimage to go along with the annual meatspace tradition that takes place this year on Sunday, August 29. The faithful might also enjoy friendsofsaintdavidlewis.co.uk.

* An inventory of martyrs for the faith in the Isles is here.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Hanged,Martyrs,Milestones,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason,Wales,Wrongful Executions

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2008: Behnam Zare, pleading for his life

Add comment August 26th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 2008, Behnam Zare (or Zareh) was hanged in Shiraz for murdering, at the age of 15, another youth during a fight about a bird.

Evidently about 19 when he was finally put to death, Zare was hanged without any prior notice to his lawyer or his family.

A recording of Zare’s voice in what turned out to be his last call with his lawyer, pleading “I want to stay alive. Please, please I want to stay alive,” was used to open a 2008 documentary against executing juvenile offenders.

That attorney who represented Zare (and created the documentary) was Mohamad Mostafaei — an activist lawyer who described various forms of official harassment for his unwelcome work. Mostafaei has recently been in the news for his representation of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the woman who made international headlines for receiving a sentence of stoning to death. (Mostafaei also represented cause celebre Delara Darabi, hanged in 2009.)

Just a few weeks ago, Mostafaei fled Iran ahead of an arrest warrant (several members of his family were also arrested as virtual hostages).

He was interviewed by the BBC in exile in Oslo. (Read on to the comments for a transcript.)

(Also of interest: Mostafaei’s gut-wrenching description of another child offender’s hanging in October 2009, and the desperate attempts to beg for mercy from the victim’s parents. StopChildExecutions.com has regular coverage of the juvenile death penalty in the Islamic Republic.)

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Iran,Murder,Notable Participants,Ripped from the Headlines

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1972: Vassilis Lymberis, the last executed in Greece

2 comments August 25th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1972, 27-year-old Cretan electrician Vassilis Lymberis was shot for murdering his mother-in-law, his wife, and his two children by burning down the family house that January. It would be the last execution in Greece.

Lymberis didn’t so much deny torching the place as he did go for the insanity-esque defense of being off his rocker from the mother-in-law. (As seen on TV.)

He also insisted that he didn’t know his children were in the house when he set it ablaze. “If you don’t believe me,” he insisted, “execute me this very moment!”

That Lymberis would obtain his milestone status was hardly predictable at the time; the country was still under the military junta; two years later, the regime collapsed and its former principals were themselves sentenced to death. (Those sentences were later commuted.)

Greece abolished the death penalty in stages (initially retaining it for serious wartime crimes) in the 1990s and early 2000s.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Greece,History,Milestones,Murder,Shot

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1460: The residents of Amlas, impaled by Vlad Dracula

5 comments August 24th, 2010 Headsman

This date is the 550th anniversary of (in)famous Wallachian dictator/vampire prototype Vlad III Tepes‘s destruction of the town of Amlas, impaling all its surviving citizens.

The signature execution form of “Vlad the Impaler” was as nasty as it sounds: still-living victim mounted on a long, oiled stake driven through the rectum and emerging through the mouth to expire agonizingly over a period of hours or days. Or, alternatively, stuck through the midsection, leaving the subject horizontally mounted like a flopping fish.

And he had frequent recourse to it during his long struggle for power in the treacherous 1450s and 1460s, the period* when Vlad III became famous for the iron-willed cruelty required to exercise power in a Wallachia squeezed between the expanding Ottoman Empire and Hungary.

It was this terrifying period from the late 1450s that made Vlad Dracula — the titular second name inherited from his father‘s investment into the Order of the Dragon, Draco in Latin — the namesake for Bram Stoker‘s famous bloodthirsty Transylvanian noble, and the granddaddy of all its lucrative latter-day offspring.

(Bram Stoker didn’t invent the vampire myth, and the notion that Vlad Dracula “is” Count Dracula is one of those bits of popular folklore that’s become academically unfashionable. But still.)

The historical Vlad has his latter-day defenders, who see him as a nation-builder. Certainly, both the man himself and his vulnerable frontier principality were menaced by innumerable threats both foreign and domestic.

This date’s massacre was to deal with one such, Germans in the territory of Transylvania, which lay to the north of Vlad’s own Wallachia. Both realms are part of present-day Romania, and they were closely connected in Vlad’s time as well; the young Dracula himself was born in Transylvania, and Transylvanian towns had helped him take the Wallachian throne with the support of Hungary.

So far, everyone was on the same page. But when a power struggle erupted for the Hungarian throne in 1457, the “Saxon” emigres who formed the upper crust of merchants in Transylvania (supported by a vast sea of Romanian peasants) backed the Holy Roman Emperor while Vlad supported the usurping Hunyadi family that had so ably patronized him.** It’s quite a bit more dizzyingly complex than that, but the bottom line is that commercial and political conflicts soon saw Vlad Dracula mounting a campaign of Transylvanian terror from 1458 onward.

During the summer of 1460 Dracula organized his final raid on Transylvania. This time he attacked townships and villages in the district of Amlas known as the “Land of the Forest” or Unterwald … The meistersinger Beheim gives the exact date of the attack as falling on the feast day of Saint Bartholomew in the year 1460: August 24. Dracula struck in the early morning after “passing through the great forest” with his cavalry force. He burned the town of Amlas and impaled all the citizens, a priest having led the procession to the burial scene …

Dracula’s raid on Amlas was aimed at eliminating any remaining dissident resistance and at killing rival contenders to his throne … Dracula knew, for instance, that … the boyar Bogdan Doboca, was hiding in the village of Sercaia, in the Fagaras district. So he had the entire village razed to the ground; it had to be completely repopulated in the following century. Similar was the fat of the village of Mica. The narrator Beheim tells us that Dracula burned or destroyed half the communities in the Amlas district, including the capital city by that name. He “assembled all the citizens and all those he could find” from other villages and hanged them on hooks and pitchforks, after having had his men hack them to pieces with knives, swords, and sabers. Amlas was reduced to a ghost town, as it still is today, and other villages such as Saliste, Apodul de Sus, and Tilisca were similarly destroyed. Beheim claims that altogether some 30,000 Germans were killed during this Dracula raid on the district of Amlas.

Impressive as this date’s butchery would have been — although we know it from German propagandists who figure to have made the most of it — it was simply of a piece with Vlad’s Transylvanian campaign. To this campaign, Florescu and McNally attribute an impressive catalogue of atrocities, such as:

  • Slaughtering all the inhabitants of a village named Bod

  • Impaling one of his own captains who reported an inability to take an enemy position “for the inhabitants are brave and well fortified”
  • Boiling alive 600 Saxon merchants
  • Impaling as spies 41 Saxons who came to Wallachia to learn the Romanian language
  • Forcing one captured rival claimant with Saxon support to go through a Mass for the dead clothed in funerary vestments before personally beheading him

Fleeing Germans carrying spine-tingling eyewitness accounts and rumors of even worse made a happy match with that new media technology, the printing press, giving Dracula continental infamy and a purchase on future literary immortality.

“The horror genre conformed to the tastes of the fifteenth-century reading public as much as it does today,” observe those same authors Florescu and McNally in another volume. “No fewer than thirteen different fiteenth- and sixteenth-century Dracula stories have been discovered thus far in the various German states.”

The St. Bartholomew’s Day 1460 events are seemingly sometimes conflated† with a more famous bloodbath during the spring of 1459, when Vlad arranged a demonstrative mass impaling on the outskirts of Brasov.‡

All those whom he had taken captive, men and women, young and old, chlidren, he had impaled on the hill by the chapel and all around the hill, and under them he proceeded to eat at table and enjoyed himself in that way.

It’s this 1459 event that provides us the most horribly recognizable images of Dracula’s reign, with the insouciant Wallachian prince enjoying his repast amid a thicket of impaled wretches.

* 1456 to 1462, specifically, which was the second (and most consequential) of the three different periods Vlad III was Prince of Wallachia. The Ottomans drove him out in 1462, and he took refuge in Hungary before a return bid in 1476, which ended in his own death in battle.

** And specifically, Mihaly Szilagy (Hungarian link), the uncle of the ascendant king Matthias Corvinus. The latter would seek to woo Saxon support, and he had an on-again, off-again relationship with Vlad Dracula. Wallachia was a small buffer state from the standpoint of a greater power like Hungary, and Wallachia’s ruler a political instrument no matter how much impaling he might do.

† Perhaps because Brasov’s Church of St. Bartholomew was among the targets ravaged by Dracula’s force?

‡ Attack staged from picturesquely vampiric Castle Bran.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Impaled,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Romania,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1927: Sacco and Vanzetti (and Celestino Madeiros)

6 comments August 23rd, 2010 Headsman

America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die

-Allen Ginsberg, “America” (mp3)

We have now reached a stage of the case the details of which shake one’s confidence in the whole course of the proceedings and reveal a situation which undermines the respect usually to be accorded to a jury’s verdict.

-Felix Frankfurter in The Atlantic

America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul

their hired men sit on the judge`s bench they sit back with their feet on the tables under the dome of the State House they are ignorant of our beliefs they have the dollars the guns the armed forces the powerplants

they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the switch

all right we are two nations

. . .

but do they know the old words of the immigrants are being renewed in blood and agony tonight do they know the old American speech of the haters of oppression is new tonight in the mouth of an old woman from Pittsburgh of a husky boilermaker from Frisco who hopped freights clear from the Coast to come here …

the men in the deathhouse made the old words new before they died.

-John Dos Passos, The Big Money (part of the U.S.A. trilogy)

Let us abandon then our gardens and go home
And sit in the sitting room.
Shall the larkspur blossom or the corn grow under this cloud?
Sour to the fruitful seed
Is the cold earth under this cloud,
Fostering quack and weed, we have marched upon but cannot conquer;
We have bent the blades of our hoes against the stalks of them.

Let us go home, and sit in the sitting room.
Not in our day
Shall the cloud go over and the sun rise as before,
Beneficent upon us
Out of the glittering bay,
And the warm winds be blown inward from the sea
Moving the blades of corn
With a peaceful sound.
Forlorn, forlorn,
Stands the blue hay-rack by the empty mow.
And the petals drop to the ground,
Leaving the tree unfruited.
The sun that warmed our stooping backs and withered the weed uprooted
We shall not feel it again.
We shall die in darkness, and be buried in the rain.

What from the splendid dead
We have inherited —
Furrows sweet to the grain, and the weed subdued —
See now the slug and the mildew plunder.
Evil does overwhelm
The larkspur and the corn;
We have seen them go under.

Let us sit here, sit still,
Here is the sitting-room until we die;
At the step of Death on the walk, rise and go;
Leaving to our children`s children this beautiful doorway,
And this elm,
And a blighted earth to till
With a broken hoe.

-Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Justice Denied in Massachusetts”

If it had not been for these things, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words — our lives — our pains — nothing! The taking of our lives — lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish-peddler — all! That last moment belongs to us — that agony is our triumph.

-Bartolomeo Vanzetti


Ben Shahn, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti

A recently discovered letter indicates that Upton Sinclair was convinced of his subjects’ guilt.

“Alone in a hotel room with Fred [Moore], I begged him to tell me the full truth … He then told me that the men were guilty, and he told me in every detail how he had framed a set of alibis for them … I faced the most difficult ethical problem of my life at that point … I had come to Boston with the announcement that I was going to write the truth about the case.”

But Sinclair had reasons beyond the “ethical” to tell what he saw as the larger truth. From a different letter:

“My wife is absolutely certain that if I tell what I believe, I will be called a traitor to the movement and may not live to finish the book … Of course, the next big case may be a frame-up, and my telling the truth about the Sacco-Vanzetti case will make things harder for the victims … It is much better copy as a naïve defense of Sacco and Vanzetti because this is what all my foreign readers expect, and they are 90% of my public.”

Well, the dying time came, the legal midnight hour,
The moment set by law for the Chair to be at work,
To substantiate the majesty of the State of Massachusetts
That hour was at hand, had arrived, was struck by the clocks,
The time for two men to be carried cool on a cooling board
Beyond the immeasurably thin walls between day and night,
Beyond the reach of airmail, telegrams, radiophones,
Beyond the brotherhoods of blood into the fraternities
Of mist and foggy dew, of stars and ice.
 The time was on for two men
 To march beyond blood into dust —
 A time that comes to all men,
 Some with a few loved ones at a bedside,
 Some alone in the wilderness or the wide sea,
 Some before a vast audience of all manking.

 Now Sacco saw the witnesses
 As the straps were fitted on
 Tying him down in the Chair —
 And seeing the witnesses were
Respectable men and responsible citizens
And even though there had been no introductions,
 Sacco said, “Good-evening, gentlemen.”
And before the last of the straps was fastened so to hold
Sacco murmured, “Farewell, mother.”

Then came Vanzetti.
He wished the vast audience of all mankind
To know something he carried in his breast.
This was the time to tell it.
He had to speak now or hold his peace forever.
The headgear was being clamped on.
The straps muffling his mouth were going on.
He shouted, “I wish to forgive some people
  for what they are now doing.”
 And so now
 the dead are dead????

-Carl Sandburg, “Legal Midnight Hour”


(The executions took place just after midnight Aug. 22-23)

THE names of the “good shoe-maker and poor fish-peddler” have ceased to represent merely two Italian workingmen. Throughout the civilised world Sacco and Vanzetti have become a symbol, the shibboleth of Justice crushed by Might. That is the great historic significance of this twentieth century crucifixion, and truly prophetic, were the words of Vanzetti when he declared, “The last moment belongs to us–that agony is our triumph.”

Vanzetti was right when he declared that his execution was his greatest triumph, for all through history it has been the martyrs of progress that have ultimately triumphed. Where are the Caesars and Torquemadas of yesterday? Who remembers the names of the judges who condemned Giordano Bruno and John Brown? The Parsons and the Ferrers, the Saccos and Vanzettis live eternal and their spirits still march on.

-Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, “Sacco and Vanzetti”

Starting points for the many Sacco and Vanzetti resources online: Famous American Trials | Wikipedia | Massachusetts Supreme Court virtual tour | American Writers and the Sacco-Vanzetti Case

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Massachusetts,Murder,Myths,Pelf,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1679: St. John Kemble, 80-year-old priest

2 comments August 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1679, 80-year-old Catholic priest John Kemble was martyred for the faith at Hereford.

Kemble had been discreetly performing the offices of his faith — still illicit, but less liable to get you killed at this late date — for over five decades since ordination.

Unhappily, Titus Oates and his tall tales of a Popish Plot to assassinate King Charles II came along at the end of that run. In the ensuing anti-Catholic spasm, Kemble was one of the unlucky ones rousted.

Even in the hysteria of the times, nobody could make an actual conspiracy charge stick against this ancient cleric, but in the hands of a sufficiently hostile judiciary, his demonstrable exercise of the priesthood could be enough to make him a traitor. And at his age, the opportunity to buy his life at the cost of his conscience didn’t look the bargain:

According to the course of nature I have but a few years to live. It will be an advantage to suffer for my religion and therefore I will not abscond.

He got the mild consolation of hanging to death before the unpleasant drawing-and-quartering bits were executed upon him, and calmly puffed a pipe and shared a bowl of wine with the sympathetic representatives of the law before it all happened. As a result, Herefordshire long called the comforts enjoyed before a parting a “Kemble pipe” and “Kemble cup”.

He’s been elevated to sainthood on the strength of his posthumous miracles, like healing the jailer’s daughter of throat cancer; the holy man’s severed hand, held at St. Francis Xavier’s in Hereford, is supposed to have saved a man from death as recently as 1995.

(The rest of St. John Kemble reposes at Welsh Newton, and is venerated at an annual pilgrimage.)

Kemble was among the last of the Forty Martyrs of England to die for the Catholic faith; a fellow-inmate, David Lewis, paid his own penalty just five days later.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Language,Martyrs,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Religious Figures,The Supernatural,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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