Archive for September, 2010

1586: Anthony Babington and fellow plotters, Walsingham’d

4 comments September 20th, 2010 Headsman

The recently completed papal visit to England has summoned many a recollection of that country’s traumatic break from the Church. (As well as more recent embarrassments.)

While we know the schism from the comfort of retrospection, those present for its 16th century inception (and long afterward) had the task of sorting out winners and losers on blood-soaked scaffolds.

So we pause this date to note the extirpation September 20 and 21 of the Babington Plot, a half-baked scheme to re-establish the Old Faith that turned into one of history’s signature achievements of espionage.

Its namesake, young Sir Anthony Babington, was a secret Catholic with more money than sense; like many a Catholic of this time, he bristled under the rule of Elizabeth I, the daughter of the very woman who started all this English Reformation trouble.

Besotted with fellow-Catholic Mary Queen of Scots after having served as her page in his youth, Babington was easy prey for the fellow invariably described as Elizabeth’s “spymaster”Francis Walsingham.

Not one for scruples where his own security or his sovereign’s was concerned, Walsingham had long considered Mary Queen of Scots too dangerous to be left alive: every Catholic plot against Elizabeth intended to replace her on the throne with this Catholic cousin.

Trying to overcome Elizabeth’s reluctance to off fellow royalty — dangerous precedent, in these dangerous times — Walsingham entrapped Babington and a coterie of other Catholics into designing and documenting a scheme to assassinate Elizabeth and support a Spanish invasion.

And most importantly to Walsingham, they got Mary to sign off on it.

Though the design was grandiose, the real danger was pretty much nil — since Walsingham, a Renaissance reconnaissance man famous for his continent-spanning intelligence network, had penetrated the circle months before.* Walsingham let the conspiracy ripen long after he had the goods on the likes of Babington, intending to make it the instrument of Mary’s destruction. He succeeded.

Coded correspondence that Mary thought she was smuggling in and out of her cell was in fact being intercepted and decrypted.

When Babington wrote to her, alluding to his intent with “six noble gentlemen” to murder Queen Elizabeth, Mary doomed herself with a favorable reply:

The affair being thus prepared, and forces in readiness both within and without the realm, then shall it be time to set the six gentlemen to work; taking order upon the accomplishment of their design, I may be suddenly transported out of this place.

Within days, all — Mary, Babington, six gentlemen, and more — were in chains, and the commoners were being tortured into confessions and implications.**

The reckoning for Mary Queen of Scots would not arrive for some months yet.

But those of lesser breeding were dispatched with dispatch. Tried in two bunches, there were 14 in all condemned; on this date, Babington, was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason, along with accomplices John Ballard, Thomas Salisbury, Robert Barnewell, John Savage, Henry Donn and Chidiock Tichborne — the last of these leaving behind this doleful poetic adieu:

Elegy

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung;
The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves be green,
My youth is gone and yet I am but young,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I am but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

-Chidiock Tichborne

(Hear this bummer of a verse read aloud here and here.)

The torture these first seven unfortunates endured as their entrails were ripped from their still-living bodies was so horrible that Elizabeth ordered the seven others awaiting execution the next day simply to be hanged to death before all the disemboweling business.†

A few books about spymaster Francis Walsingham

* Walsingham had plenty of plots to contend with, but did Elizabeth even greater service keeping tabs on the buildup of the Spanish Armada through a spy network in Italy — even using it to delay the invasion by a crucial extra year by drying up Spain’s credit line with Italian bankers. (Source, via (pdf))

Incidentally, and completely off topic: the subversive, forward-thinking philosopher Giordano Bruno — an Italian who was eventually executed by the Inquisition — has been alleged to be one in Walsingham’s employ.

** Luckily for Elizabeth, the treasonous Protestants who supported her back when she was at the mercy of her Catholic half-sister Mary Tudor were better able to hold their tongues under duress.

† One of those executed on September 21, Charles Tilney, has an oblique Shakespeare connection: he’s one possible author of the play Locrine, which Shakespeare might have revised and/or staged; Locrine is in the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Mature Content,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Spies,Terrorists,Torture,Treason

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1902: Ernest Loveswar, the last hanging in Meade County

Add comment September 19th, 2010 Headsman

From the public-domain (1924) The Black Hills trails : a history of the struggles of the pioneers in the winning of the Black Hills by Jesse Brown and A.M. Willard:

BRUTAL DOUBLE MURDER

In the year of 1902, a couple of young men from Sioux City, Iowa, located on a homestead in eastern Meade county, South Dakota, and there they had built a cabin, fenced their claims and were making great efforts to establish for themselves a home out on the broad prairie. They were fine, industrious and honorable young fellows and at odd times worked among the ranchmen in the neighborhood in order to make the money for their several needed improvements.

In the early days of the west the latch string was hung out and everybody that came to the home of the man on the prairie was welcome whether the hour of coming be day or night.

On the 4th day of June, 1902, William Horlocker came riding into Sturgis upon a foaming horse and reported to the sheriff, John Smith, that the day before upon going to the cabin occupied by the men, George Puck and Henry Ostrander, he noticed that the door was ajar and in walking in he found before his startled eves the evidence of a foul murder and in going to the bed in the room he found it occupied by two forms who were strangely still beneath the covers. He turned the covering down and beheld their faces smeared with blood and crushed in a horrible manner. As investigation by the authorities failed to disclose any immediate clue but on the 6th day of June, 1902, a young half breed Indian had attended a picnic at Whitewood and had passed to one of the merchants in that little town a check for 125.00 drawn upon a Rapid City bank, made payable to Ernest Loveswar and purporting to have been signed by George Puck. The next day the check was returned to Whitewood by the Rapid City bank on the grounds that it was an absolute forgery. The cashier of the Whitewood bank thereupon called up Henry Perkins, cashier of the Meade County Bank at Sturgis, who immediately reported this information to Jesse Brown, acting deputy sheriff. Brown at the time was alone in town as both the sheriff and deputy were absent on other duties and he immediately proceeded to ascertain the whereabouts of the Indian, Loveswar, as he realized the check was an important clue pointing to the Indian as being implicated in the murder. Before he had proceeded very far he was met by Mr. Smith, the sheriff, who was returning from the inquest and who upon learning of the news from Brown decided to rest his horses and proceed out into the country in search of the Indian.

Accordingly Smith and Brown, after a change of teams went to the Smith ranch on the Belle Fourche river, made another change of teams, and then after a night of travelling arrived at the place where they expected to find the man, Loveswar. Here, hiding their team behind some bushes just about sunup they quietly proceeded to the house, each one to take a separate door to prevent the escape of the Indian if any attempt should be made. There happened to be but, one door leading into the kitchen and as they came quietly without warning they greatly frightened the lady who was preparing breakfast. Paying no attention to her screams. Brown quickly moved to an adjoining room where he soon had Mr. Loveswar under arrest as he had left his guns in the kitchen. A close search of the Indian failed to reveal anything that would connect him with the crime. However, the Indian was taken along Avith the two men and a stop was made for a time at the Jewett’s road house where Sheriff Smith, who had not been asleep for two days and nights rested for awhile. While he was resting Mr. Brown did not ask the Indian any direct questions as to his knowledge of the crime but volunteered the information that the party, whoever it was, that had committed the deed made a mistake. The Indian thereupon became interested and asked in what way and Brown replied, “In not burning the cabin.” This had the effect of causing the Indian to appear to be very much occupied in deep study and convinced Brown that he had the right man.

The next day the prisoner was taken to the sheriff’s office in Sturgis and very closely examined and questioned but he denied any knowledge of the crime whatever. He was finally asked where he was on the night of the murder and he replied, “At the Pete Culbertson ranch and that no one had seen him because it was late and he had slept in the barn.” The officers told him that two cowboys slept in the barn that same night and that no one else slept there, and in this way several other excuses volunteered by the Indian were rebutted until finally he weakened, broke down and cried and admitted killing the two men.

In his confession he told that he went to the home of the boys and asked them to permit him to stay all night. They told him to come in and gave him a cot to sleep on and he waited until they were in a deep sleep then he quietly took Puck’s gun from the wall, placed it to Puck’s head and his own gun to Ostrander’s head and then pulled the triggers of both guns at the same time. Then he procured an axe and crushed the skull of Ostrander but spared the head of Puck. After covering the faces of the dead men with the blankets he carried Puck’s gun away, but on the road near a Cottonwood tree he threw it away.

The gun was later picked up by Frank Smith and Doctor McSloy. In due course of time a charge of murder was placed against the Indian to which he entered a plea of guilty but Judge Rice refused to accept the plea and ordered that a regular trial be held. States Attorney McClung introduced the evidence on the part of the State and Michael McMahon appeared for the defendant. The evidence on the part of the State of course was mostly circumstantial and the defendant on the other hand had no witnesses except himself. He took the witness stand and denied everything and claimed that the confession had been obtaind by duress and that he had been annoyed and bothered so that he did not remember what he had confessed to but the fact that he had told where the gun he had taken from Puck might be found and that the gun later was found just where he said it would be, and despite the fact that he explained the possession of the check as being the difference paid to him in a horse trade made with Puck whom he claimed wrote it out in the field, explaining the difference of the check signature and the original signature on file at the bank, the jury after retiring brought in a verdict of ”Guilty” and placed the penalty at death.

Also see this auction lot of Loveswar hanging photos.

Thereafter on the 6th day of August he was sentenced to be hanged on the 19th day of September, 1902.

The sentence was duly carried out on that day before a number of invited officials and within an enclosure erected at the side of the court house. This was the last legal hanging in Meade county.

The Indian made out and delivered to Jesse Brown the following written confession : “I am going to write just what I have done in this matter, just the truth so that you all may know. Well, I had a quarrel with Ostrander. I come pretty near having a fight with him. It was about a girl but I will not tell who the girl was but he said he would take her away from me. I waited to get him alone but they were always together so I had to kill both of them. I had nothing against Puck. Well, I went to that house about dark. They said, ‘Stake out your horse and come in.’ I did just that and went to bed. When they were asleep I get up and take Puck’s gun off the wall, held guns in each hand, placed one to Puck’s head and one to Ostrander’s head and pulled both triggers. The thing was done. I ain’t got time to look things around the house. I looked for money but found none, I get blank checks and gun. Now this is all.”

(Signed) “Ernest Loveswar.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Sex,South Dakota,USA

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1944: Six Jesuits in Palau

1 comment September 18th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1944, six Spanish Jesuit missionaries were executed in Palau by the island’s increasingly desperate Japanese defenders.

Fr. Elias Fernandez Gonzalez, Fr. Marino de la Hoz, and Br. Emilio del Villar were on hand to spread Catholicism in the island, which fell into Japan’s lap at the end of World War I and was therefore incorporated into the Asian hegemon’s economic plans.

Taking no chances with these foreign proselytizers, Japan had them confined when the Pacific War broke out in 1941.

By 1944, with the writing clearly visible on the wall, they were joined by three other Jesuits captured from nearby Yap, now a part of the Federated States of Micronesia, Fr. Luis Blanco Suarez, Fr. Bernardo de Espriella, and Br. Francisco Hernandez.

After a few months’ confinement, all six were summarily executed. Their remains have never been recovered; they were allegedly exhumed and burned shortly before Allied occupation, a bit of evidence-destruction similar to Wake Island.

There was a Japanese officer arrested for these executions and other war crimes, but he committed suicide before he could face judgment.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,History,Japan,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Micronesia (FSM),Occupation and Colonialism,Palau,Religious Figures,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1773: David Reynolds, colonial counterfeiter

1 comment September 17th, 2010 Headsman

On Friday the 17th Instant at Morris Town in East New Jersey, was executed, David Reynolds, a Native of Ireland, about 32 years of age, for counterfeiting the money Bills of Credit of that Colony. He arrived there about ten Years ago, and chiefly followed the farming business, till getting acquainted with one Rosecrans (executed some time ago for the like Crime, but without declaring his Accomplices) he was by him led into the Scheme of making and passing counterfeit Money; after the Execution of Rosecrans, Reynolds accidentally met with Capt. Richardson (of Philadelphia, who is fled) and getting acquainted with each other’s Characters, was by him introduced to Ford, Haynes, Cooper, Budd, King, and the rest of the Gang. Ford the Principal, termed by the Rest, the Treasurer of the three Provinces, had counterfeited the Money Bills of New York, New-Jersey, and Pennsylvania, in so Masterly a manner as not to be distinguished from the true Bills without the nicest Inspection, and also several of the Gold and Silver Coins current in the British Colonies: and in passing these, Reynolds and the Rest of the Accomplices continued, till Ford and King were apprehended and imprisoned in Morris County Gaol, from whence they soon made their escape, as mentioned in the Papers.


Paper currency of colonial New Jersey.

One of the Gang being convicted of aiding them in their Escape and other high Misdemeanors, to mitigate the Punishment, made some Confessions tending to the Discovery of the Rest, which alarmed another, who made an ample confession of the whole, in Consequence of which Reynolds, Haynes, Cooper, and Budd, were tried, confessed their Guilt, and were condemned to be hanged. Their Execution was ordered to be on the 17th Instant; before that Time, Budd and Haynes were respited for a Month, but Reynolds and Cooper were ordered to prepare for Execution at the Time appointed. A few Minutes before the Time, Cooper confessed himself privy to the Robbery of the Treasury at Amboy, and that he received Three Hundred Pounds of the Money; on which he was also respited till he should make further Discoveries. Reynolds was therefore ordered for Execution alone, at which he seemed much affected and burst into Tears, but thro’ the Assistance of a Minister who attended him, he grew Calm, and resigned to his Fate. His Behaviour during his Confinement and after his Sentence, was penitent and submissive; he shewed a proper Sensibility of his unhappy Situation, and earnestly exhorted his Companions in Guilt, to a sincere Repentance. On the fatal Day, he took an affecting Leave of them; and they all discovered the most lively Expressions of that Distress to which their Crimes and Follies had reduced them, which drew Tears from the Eyes of the Spectators. At the Place of Execution, Reynolds sung and prayed very earnestly, and in a short but pathetic Speech, warned the People to avoid the Vices that had undone him, and earnestly requested them not to reflect on his innocent Wife and helpless Infants.

The New-York Gazette; and The Weekly Mercury, September 27, 1773

All the other three reprieved ultimately escaped hanging, owing to influential connections.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,New Jersey,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Public Executions,USA

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1870: Jacob Wallace, Henry Coston, and Moses and Peter Newby

Add comment September 16th, 2010 Headsman

The Daily Cleveland Herald, September 22 1870

THE VIRGINIA GALLOWS HORROR.

Tortured by a Bungling Hangman — Half Executed with a Rotten Rope — A Monster under the Gibbet.

The four negroes who were hanged on Friday last at the Court House of Isle of Wight county, Virginia, were convicted of the murder, under most brutal circumstances, of Josiah P. Grey, a citizen of that country, in December last. Six negroes were implicated in the crime, named respectively, Guyanetta Mears, Alfred Bunckley, Moses and Peter Newby, alias Lawrence, Jacob Wallace, and Henry Coston, alias East. The last five were immediately arrested, Mears having either effected his escape in a somewhat miraculous manner, or, as it is rumored, having been lynched by his captors. The five taken were tried at the August term of Isle of Wight county. Bunckley having turned State’s evidence, escaped, but by their own confession of complicity in the killing, four of them were condemned to be hanged. The Norfolk Virginian gives this account of the execution:

About 12 1/2 o’clock the officers entered the cell in which the prisoners were confined, and striking off their iron shackles, tied their hands behind their backs, at the same time telling them they could make any communication which they wished. To this no satisfactory answer was returned, and the condemned continued chanting their prayers for mercy from on high. As soon as the pinioning was performed, the condemned were marched out of the jail on the steps and upon the scaffold.

They walked firmly and undoubtedly, with one exception, Moses Newby, who shook as if in an ague fit, and were ranged in the following order: Peter Newby, Henry Coston, Moses Newby, and Jacob Wallace. The fatal nooses were then adjusted, when the Sheriff read the death warrant and sentence of death. The prisoners were informed that they could have an opportunity of saying a few words each.

The feet of the condemned having been pinioned upon their first taking their stand upon the scaffold, as each one ceased to speak the black cap was drawn over his head, and when all had finished, the scaffold was cleared of all but the condemned and at exactly 1 o’clock, at a signal from Deputy Sheriff Ely, the prop was pulled violently away, and the drop fell.

Then ensued a scene the recital of which we would willingly spare our readers, and a repetition of which we earnestly hope it may never be our lot to witness. As the bodies fell in the drop, the two end men, Peter Newby and Jacob Wallace, both large, athletic men, snapped the rope like pack-thread, and fell heavily to the earth, apparently insensible.

The other two remained suspended; but one was hanging by only one strand of the rope, the other two having been broken by the fall. Moses Newby died instantly, his neck being broken, but Henry Coston lived for nearly ten minutes, gasping for breath, and his limbs working convulsively.

The two men on the ground lay still for a few minutes, when Jacob Wallace rose to a sitting posture and broke into prayers and supplications. Peter Newby lay a while longer, when he also sat up, but kept silent, except groans extorted by pain. Their feet were then untied, when both stood up, Newby leaning heavily against the steps of the gallows, while Wallace walked back and forth, praying intently. New ropes were procured and adjusted to the beam, the two men hanging preventing the drop being raised. At the expiration of seventeen minutes the physicians in attendance, Drs. Jordan and Chapman, examined the bodies and pronounced them both dead, when another horror was enacted which made strong men shudder and turn pale.

Instead of lowering the bodies as is always customary, the ropes were cut, allowing the ghastly corpses to fall with a horrible thud at the very feet of the two half-hanged men standing below. Not content with this, the brutal monster who officiated as hangman, an occupation which he dishonored, and who rejoices in the name of the name of [sic] John J. Murphy, descended from the scaffold, and taking hold of the rope attached to the neck of one of the dead men, drew the body by it across the yard, and tumbled it into the coffin, as if it had been a dead dog. He repeated the operation on the next one, and seemed to think that by his disgusting brutality he had done some meritorious action.

During the whole of the time this disgusting scene was transpiring, Wallace and Peter Newby, although suffering horribly from the effects of the rope around their necks, in their fall, betrayed no emotion, save that Wallace used the time in praying loud and fast. Newby looked on apparently as unconcerned as if he was not an actor in the dreadful drama.

The new ropes, which were of stout cotton cord, having been fixed, the drop was replaced and the miserable men mounted the scaffold the second time, this time never to return alive.

The condemned both spoke to the crowd around in the same strain as before, at the conclusion of which the black caps were again drawn over their heads, and at half past one o’clock the drop again fell, and the ropes proving strong enough, they were left struggling in the air. Neither of their necks were broken, and for several minutes they gave painful evidence of life by their forced breathing and the convulsive jerking of their arms and legs. They were allowed to hang for half an hour, when they too were cut down, placed in their coffins, and taken to the court-house graveyard for interment.

[editor’s note: here’s the perfunctory and much less colorful New York Times report of the incident.]

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Virginia

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1944: Mala Zimetbaum and Edek Galinski

11 comments September 15th, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On or about this day in 1944, Malka “Mala” Zimetbaum and Edward “Edek” Galinski were executed in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp after a failed escape attempt. Mala was 22 or 24; Edek was 20 or 21.

Mala Zimetbaum.

Mala, a Belgian Jew of Polish descent, had been living in Auschwitz for two years and had a privileged position because of her linguistic skill; she could speak about five languages and worked as an interpreter and courier. The staff trusted her and she had permission to go everywhere in camp. She often used her position to help the inmates.

Mala fell in love with Edek Galinski, a Polish gentile prisoner. He was also a longtime inmate, having been in Auschwitz since 1940. He also had the freedom to go anywhere in the camp in his capacity as a mechanic.

Sometime in the late spring or early summer of 1944, they escaped together. What they planned to do afterward is unclear; there are some stories that Mala carried documents from the camp and planned to tell the world what was happening there. How they were caught is also a bit of a mystery. According to some accounts, only one was arrested and the other went voluntarily so they could die together.

Their subsequent executions have been the subject of legend, and lives large in many memoirs by survivors of the camp. Among those who wrote about it were Primo Levi, Sara Nomberg-Przytyk and Fania Fenelon. A witness, Raya Kagan, also testified about it at Adolf Eichmann‘s 1961 war crimes trial.

All the accounts contradict each other; practically everything about the execution is disputed. Contrary to what the Wikipedia entry says as of this writing, we don’t even know whether it really took place on September 15; other dates have been suggested, including August 22. (Curiously, September 15 is also the date given for Mala’s arrival at Auschwitz in 1942.) Edek was apparently hung in the men’s camp, possibly alongside several other prisoners; Mala was executed in the women’s camp that same day. Edek supposedly tried to jump into the noose before the SS guard could finish reading his sentence, in defiance of protocol. His last words may have been “Long live Poland.” Everyone agrees that Mala slit her wrist with a hidden razor blade as she was standing before the crowd of woman prisoners waiting to be hanged. When the SS guards tried to intervene, she slapped one of them. They bound up her arm to keep her from bleeding to death. She may have been trampled to death at the execution site, but most accounts state the guards ordered some prisoners to cart her to the crematorium and throw her in alive. Several reports state that she either died on the way there, or was shot or poisoned by an SS guard who took pity on her.

According to some accounts, Mala’s last words were directed at the guard she hit: “I shall die a heroine, but you shall die like a dog!” Others say she addressed the crowd of prisoners and told them liberation was in sight, or urged them to revolt. We will never know what her final words truly were, but their meaning is clear enough.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,Germany,Hanged,History,Jews,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Power,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions,Women

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2000: Cheng Kejie of the National People’s Congress

1 comment September 14th, 2010 Headsman

Ten years ago today, former Chinese politburo member Cheng Kejie was executed for gobbling up an impressive $5 million in bribes.

The onetime chairman of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region was (and, as best I can determine, remains) the highest-ranking official judicially executed since the Communists took power in China in 1949. He’d spent the best part of the 1990s soaking up kickbacks from his powerful post, much of it secreted in out-of-country accounts.

The execution was part of a massive campaign against official corruption which has long bedeviled China’s economic surge. Cheng’s own former boss around this time warned that “graft could destroy China”.

Cheng’s execution was announced after the fact, at the same time that China belatedly publicized the arrest of former Vice-Minister of Public Security Li Jizhou in a billion-dollar smuggling scandal. Li somehow managed to duck execution for similarly show-stopping corruption allegations (including scandalous details supplied by his mistress*), a fact which raised eyebrows in the People’s Republic about improper influence.** He “deserves to die ten thousand times over,” opined the Beijing Youth Daily.

Here in 2010, China (whose wholesale execution pace is quietly on the decline) has moved — not without opposition — to drop the death penalty for a number of non-violent economic crimes. That rollback apparently would not apply to bribery, however.

* Cheng’s case also featured the salacious “other woman” hook, which often rounds out modern-day tales of official malfeasance. Cheng and his bit on the side “conspired to amass wealth for their planned marriage after divorcing their spouses”; Cheng’s lover, however, turned state’s evidence on him. She wound up with a life sentence.

** Li had some serious political weight to throw around; his father had helped prosecute the Gang of Four after the Cultural Revolution.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Infamous,Milestones,Pelf,Politicians,Ripped from the Headlines,Scandal

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1962: Mack Merrill Rivenburgh cheats the executioner

Add comment September 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1962, just hours before he was to face a firing squad for the murder of a fellow inmate, Mack Merrill Rivenburgh cheated the executioner with a fatal drug overdose.

It was the final escape for a prisoner who had had a lot of them: five previous stays had scotched scheduled executions, sometimes with just hours to spare, back when such stays were anything but routine. The state’s Pardons Board was a long time mulling the case.

Rivenburgh’s own suicide note complained that he was “tired of waiting, tired of the excessive delays,” which is an interesting reason to take one’s own life just before the executioner was going to do it anyway. (Rivenburgh also asserted his innocence.)

Actually, Utah had built wooden execution chairs for two men set for death a September 14 death by musketry, but didn’t manage to seat either inmate.

The other, Jesse Garcia — condemned for helping Rivenburgh slay LeRoy Varner — was granted a commutation on the evening of September 13.

As it turned out, Utah would not put another criminal to death until Gary Gilmore in 1977.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Shot,USA,Utah

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1772: The Marquis de Sade and his servant, in effigy

2 comments September 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1772, straw effigies of the (in)famous French libertine Marquis de Sade and his servant Latour were executed in Marseilles for sodomy.

“It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.”

The aristocrat christened Donatien Alphonse François (even the name would become taboo for later use among his family) was at this point just 32 years old, but already cultivating the reputation that would make his name a byword for violent sex. He had in 1768 got the boot from Paris in view of the many courtesans who complained of his mistreatment.

Five more would do so for the incident that triggered his “execution”: de Sade took his baroque pleasure from these “very young girls” obtained by his manservant Latour (who also took part in the bisexual debauch). The whole scene was spiced with liberal dosage of the poison/aphrodisiac* spanish fly.

“Cruelty, very far from being a vice, is the first sentiment Nature injects in us all.”

One of these working girls seriously overindulged on the the love potion and spent the next week puking up “a black and fetid substance.” The authorities got interested, and de Sade and Latour bolted to Italy.**

Back in Marseilles, proceedings against the fugitives saw them sentenced for (non-fatal) poisoning and sodomy

for the said Sade to be decapitated … and the said Latour to be hanged by the neck and strangled … then the body of the said Sade and that of the said Latour to be burned and their ashes strewn to the wind.

This was duly carried out against straw effigies of de Sade and Latour on September 12, 1772.

“Lust is to the other passions what the nervous fluid is to life; it supports them all, lends strength to them all: ambition, cruelty, avarice, revenge, are all founded on lust.”

Although the Marquis eventually got this sentence overturned, it did in a sense mark an end to his life as it had been. Later in 1772, he’d be arrested in Italy; though he escaped and went back on the orgy circuit, most of the four-plus decades left to his life would be spent imprisoned or on the run — an ironic situation for the man Guillaume Apollinaire would celebrate as “the freest spirit that has yet existed.”

(Astonishingly, de Sade also avoided execution during the French Revolution: he was supposed to have been in the last batch guillotined before Robespierre fell; either through bureaucratic bungling or efficacious bribery, he avoided the tumbril.† De Sade also cheated death when a man whose daughter the marquis had outraged attempted to shoot him point-blank … only to have the gun misfire.)

“My manner of thinking, so you say, cannot be approved. Do you suppose I care? A poor fool indeed is he who adopts a manner of thinking for others!”

From this latter half of the infamous satyr’s life — when he often had time on his hands not available to dispose in more corporal pursuits — date the pornographic/philosophic writings that would stake de Sade’s disputed reputation for posterity.

* Alleged aphrodisiac.

** With another lover, his sister-in-law Anne … who was also a Benedictine canoness.

† It was on some firsthand authority, then, that de Sade took a dim view of capital punishment: “‘Til the infallibility of human judgements shall have been proved to me, I shall demand the abolition of the penalty of death.” This and other pithy de Sade quotes in this entry are from here.

Part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Executed in Effigy,Execution,Famous,France,Freethinkers,Hanged,History,Infamous,Language,Mature Content,Nobility,Not Executed,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex

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1764: The Sirven family, in effigy

1 comment September 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1764, Pierre-Paul Sirven and his wife — who lay beyond the reach of the law, in Switzerland — were burned in effigy at Mazamet, France, for murdering their daughter.

The Sirvens actually had three daughters; the purported victim, Elisabeth, was mentally unbalanced. The Protestant Pierre-Paul Sirven had had a recent run-in with the Catholic hierarchy in his native Castres, when Elisabeth was shanghaied to a convent for Catholic indoctrination under a lettre de cachet.

The Sirvens moved away to Saint Alby, near Mazamet, but when Elisabeth turned up dead in a well there early in 1762, the official presumption was that her schismatic parents had done her in to prevent her returning to the true church. It could have been that she just fell down the well accidentally, or went and committed suicide; as often in such cases, investigations commencing from a suspicion of foul play are liable to find that suspicion self-affirming.

To make matters worse, all this transpired during the dangerous run-up to the execution of Jean Calas in Toulouse, another instance where a doubtful criminal case was pursued against a Protestant.

Wisely, the Sirvens (parents and two remaining daughters) blew town.

They made it to Switzerland, where they holed up with Voltaire. Back in Mamazet, the parents were condemned to death and the other two children to exile for participating in the purported murder of Elisabeth. “This judgment was equally absurd and abominable,” Voltaire wrote.

If the father, in concert with his wife, had strangled his daughter, he ought to have been broken on the wheel, like Calas, and the mother to have been burned — at least, after having been strangled — because the practice of breaking women on the wheel is not yet the custom in the country of this judge. To limit the punishment to hanging in such a case, was an acknowledgment that the crime was not proved, and that in the doubt the halter was adopted to compromise for want of evidence.

The death sentences — further compromised by the absence of their objects — were nevertheless carried out in effigy on September 11, 1764.

Meanwhile, Voltaire turned his pen to the service of the Sirven cause; a French pamphlet he wrote vindicating both the Sirvens and Calas can be perused here. (Deadly religious persecution in France kept Voltaire quite preoccupied in the 1760s.)

After spending the decade trying to clear the family name from abroad, Pierre-Paul Sirven sensed an opening to return and gave himself up in 1769. The anti-Protestant hostility of the early 1760s had cooled by this time; the Calas execution was widely regretted.

Pierre-Paul Sirven was officially tried and exonerated in 1771, leading Voltaire to remark,

It only took two hours to sentence a virtuous family to death and it took us nine years to give them justice.

Part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Executed in Effigy,Execution,France,History,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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