Archive for November, 2010

1539: Don Carlos Ometochtzin, Aztec heretic

1 comment November 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1539, the Spanish Inquisition had Aztec noble Don Carlos Ometochtzin (or Don Carlos Chichimecatecuhi, or Don Carlos Ahuachpitzactzin) burned at the stake for reverting to the pre-Columbian indigenous religion.

Just another Mesoamerican depredation?

Surprisingly, this execution stands out as an exception in the first generations of its conquest. It even cost the first bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumarraga, a reprimand for his excess severity. Why?

Certainly any European Christian would have had trouble with the Inquisition if, like Don Carlos (Spanish Wikipedia entry | English), he had been caught with idols of Xipe Totec in his place.

But it was precisely the point that these weren’t Europeans. In 16th century “New Spain,” syncretisms of Christianity and the native Mexican cults still in living memory were the norm, a scenario recalling early Christianity co-opting the pagan rites it supplanted.*


Respect Xipe Totec’s authoritah!

And that created for the Spanish a problem: how stringently to insist upon an alien orthodoxy for its new subjects? The problem was pragmatic at least as much as it was theological, because the business of winning converts for Christ had to coexist with the business of running an empire. No sense provoking civil war just because the newest souls in the fold don’t have the Te Deum down; Cortes himself, in his initial conquest, had prohibited human sacrifice but not risked closing native temples.* That wasn’t done until 1525.

Over the 1530’s, a campaign unfolded to pare down the many holdover native behaviors — polygamy, idolatry — and cement Christianity. Of particular concern were the “converted” elites who had both means (their social position) and motive (privileges lost to the Spanish) to use nostalgia for the old ways to make trouble.

So, a powerful indigenous priest who “converted” and then went about preaching heretically was investigated by Zumarraga, wielding the Inquisitorial authority, in 1536.

But even that didn’t draw a death sentence.

In Zumarraga’s 19 Inquisitorial trials involving at least 75 suspects, the one and only instance of an Indian being “relaxed” to the secular authorities for execution came in 1539, when Zumarraga was tipped that the hereditary ruler of one of the Aztec Triple Alliance‘s principal city-states was a secret idolator, and a public declaimer of treasonable utterances like this:

Who are those that undo us and disturb us and live on us and we have them on our backs and they subjugate us? … no one shall equal us, that this is our land, and our treasure and our jewel, and our possession, and the Dominion is ours and belongs to us.

Don Carlos was ultimately acquitted of the idolatry stuff, but convicted of heretical dogmatizing.

So far, so good, right? Executions for heresy might be horrible in general, but if you live in a world where they’re routine, surely having your colonial satrap out there calling the empire parasitical, and telling the unwashed masses to go ahead and take multiple wives (Aztec elites seem to have been especially piqued by the lifestyle austerity preached by Franciscan missionaries) is the sort of thing that’ll get you burned at the stake.** And there were plenty more like him out there.

But though the Christianizing campaign of the 1530’s would continue in many forms for decades still to come, the bloodletting which Don Carlos figured to presage was abruptly canceled.

According to Patricia Lopes Don’s “Franciscans, Indian Sorcerers, and the Inquisition in New Spain, 1536–1543,” in Journal of World History, Vol. 17, No. 1,

[a] holocaust was most probably at hand in the spring of 1540. However, when the Council of the Indies in Spain learned of Don Carlos’s execution, they reprimanded Zumárraga, sent a visitador, an inspector-auditor, to New Spain to take away the bishop’s inquisitorial powers, and left him in a state of some humiliation until his death in 1548. All indications were that they feared further such executions would lead to widespread indigenous rebellion in New Spain. As was the case with the Muslims in the Old World, although orthodox Christianity was central to the concept of Spain and the monarchy, when the imperial Spanish needed to choose between religious orthodoxy and the security of the state, they could learn very quickly to be flexible and politique, yet express their concerns in judicious language. In a letter of 22 November 1540, Francisco de Nava, bishop of Seville, explained to Zumárraga that while he understood that he had executed Don Carlos “in the belief that burning would put fear into others and make an example of him,” the Indians, he suggested, “might be more persuaded with love than with rigor.”

When the Inquisition was formally instituted in New Spain in 1571, the native populace was explicitly outside its jurisdiction: its job was to monitor the European population for covert Protestants, Muslims, and Jews.

Although this development has to count as a break for the locals, it’s interesting to note that the theological superstructure of the Spanish policy tension between religious conformity and practical colonialism turned at least in part on a condescending dispute over the “capacity” of Indians to truly become Christian. In that dispute, Zumarraga and his Franciscan order were the ones who thought more highly of the indigenous “capacity”, as against the more skeptical Dominicans; the logical consequence of the Franciscan position was to impose upon those capacious natives the fullest severity of God’s law.

* Though not to be underestimated is the persistence within the citadel of Christendom of everyday folk beliefs, and occasional social movements, at odds with ecclesiastical dogma.

** Treasonous quote and details about the investigation and trial from Richard E. Greenleaf, “Persistence of Native Values: The Inquisition and the Indians of Colonial Mexico”, The Americas, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Jan., 1994)

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Auto de Fe,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Mexico,Milestones,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Spain,Wrongful Executions

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1957: Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas

1 comment November 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1957, Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas (Lithuanian link) was shot in Vilnius.

Ramanauskas-Vargas himself was born in the U.S., but his Lithuanian family soon returned to the motherland, where Adolfas grew up and taught seminary during the war years.

When the USSR finally broke the Siege of Leningrad and sent the Wehrmacht running west in 1944, it (re-)occupied the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. And the Soviets didn’t plan to leave.

Bands of anti-Soviet partisans formed in these anti-Soviet states, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe — the evocatively named Forest Brothers. Ramanauskas-Vanagas joined up.

Absent western support which was not forthcoming, these nationalist guerrillas were overmatched against the Red Army — but the movements held out in their secret wilderness fastnesses for years, and in the case of at least a few intransigent individuals, decades.

The Soviets answered with ruthless suppression to quell resistance, coupled (after Stalin’s death in 1953) with an amnesty offer that largely emptied the forests.

Ramanauskas-Vanagas, the South Lithuania commander, wasn’t captured until late in 1956. He enjoyed the customary favors of his KGB captors, and after torture, the Lithuanian SSR Supreme Court sentenced him to execution. (His wife got a trip to the gulag.)

There’s a Lithuanian biography of him here, and a few good photos in this forum thread.

A few topical books

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Lithuania,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Russia,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1783: Johanna Catharina Höhn, by Goethe’s vote

8 comments November 28th, 2010 Headsman

“To think is easy. To act is hard. But the hardest thing in the world is to act in accordance with your thinking.”

-Goethe

On this date in 1783, Johanna Catharina Höhn lost her head for infanticide … thanks to the vote of the man who wrote the most recognizable infanticide story in literature.

Eleven years before, then-22-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had been a firsthand witness to the trial of another infanticide who ultimately lost her head. This case very likely inspired the character Gretchen in Goethe’s best-known work, Faust.

Faust was a lifelong project for the author, but evidently the same could not be said of empathy for infanticidal mothers.

As a Privy Councilor to Carl (or Karl) August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Goethe was presented with the case of Höhn, a 24-year-old unmarried servant girl who cut her newborn son’s throat.

Infanticide was an Enlightenment wedge issue touching not only evolving standards of humane criminal justice, but “as the main eighteenth-century area of conflict surrounding social repression and female sexuality.”*

Was it justice to put mothers to death for infanticide? Was it efficacious for a state to do so — given that such crimes were committed in a state of desperation that might negate deterrence, and that the offenders attracted the pity of potentially unruly scaffold mobs?

And if the executioner’s sword** was not depended upon to keep women keeping it in their britches, what social policies ought to replace it?

Infanticide and its prevention was the favorite theme of the criminologists of that time. [Christian] Rothenberger calls attention to the wide discussion of means to care for the poor, to the evil effects of luxury, and then to a “formliche Kindermordlitteratur.”† [L.W.] Seyffarth, the editor of the best edition of [Johann Heinrich] Pestalozzi‘s works, says: “The question how infanticide might be stopped was at that time a burning one.”

The great interest in infanticide can best be brought to view by the contest for a prize of 100 ducats offered by [Karl Theodor] von Dalberg, intendant of the Mannheim theater, for the best essay on the subject: “What are the best and most practicable means to eradicate infanticide without promoting prostitution?” The contest closed at Whitsuntide, 1781. The offer of the prize was published in most of the newspapers and magazines of that time and was generally accompanied by editorial comments. The editorial in August Ludwig Schlozer‘s magazine Briefwechsel is typical. “There are crimes committed among us,” the editor writes, “which are the most horrible and at the same time the most common, and among these is infanticide; crimes which are related to virtues, virtues which develop into vices, and among these too is infanticide; crimes which experience teaches are not made less frequent by increasing the severity of the punishment, while not to punish them would bring disgrace to mankind and destruction to law and order, and among these too is infanticide … How long shall we lead to the block these unfortunate girls as sacrificial victims, whose love and the natural weakness of their sex, whose adornment of innocence and modesty has made them to be mothers and murderesses?

The Duke inclined very strongly to the progressive answer gaining ground at the time, and when Hohn’s case surfaced, he put to his aides the prospect of eliminating the death penalty for infanticide and replacing it with other legal sanctions.

Those aides produced a mixed response. Goethe, perhaps the duke’s closest advisor, was ultimately in a position to exercise decisive influence on whether to adopt the duke’s proposal. (Whether it was the decisive influence is a matter of some dispute.)‡

Despite his sensitive portrayal of the fictional Gretchen/Margarete in Faust, the great writer took a distinctly retrograde stance on sparing actual flesh-and-blood women … and Goethe’s position, which he formally voted only 24 days before the execution, carried the day.

The evidence is clear that there was substantial (though not necessarily unanimous) agreement with the duke’s proposal to abolish the death penalty for infanticide.

… Without doubt, then, Goethe’s vote carried considerable weight. How could it not? He was the duke’s best friend and thus easily the most powerful member of the Council after Carl August because of his immense influence over him … [and] Goethe unquestionably cast his vote to retain the death penalty for a crime that was widely seen in his time as resulting from social injustice and harbouring wide potential for extenuating circumstances (in principle, not only in particular cases). His vote thus ran entirely counter to his depiction of the case of Margarete in Faust, in which ‘extenuating circumstances’ abound. While the question of Goethe’s guilt is a moral one that need not concern us, his part in the responsibility for retaining the death penalty for infanticide and thus also for the execution of Johanna Hohn is crystal-clear.*

A Weimar journalist called it “state murder.”

Hohn’s body was delivered to a Jena professor for anatomization.

A recent German book, Goethes Hinrichtung (Goethe’s Execution), novelizes the case.

* W. Daniel Wilson “Goether, his Duke, and Infanticide: New Documents and Reflections on a Controversial Execution,” German Life and Letters, January 2008. This volume includes the (German) text of the previously unpublished Halsgericht, a very detailed “script” for the actual execution. This volume of German Life and Letters also features a ceremonious dialogue between der Scharfrichter, the executioner, and der Richter, the judge, conveying possession of the criminal and legal direction for her punishment, which would all have been enacted in public in the doomed woman’s presence.

** Hohn was beheaded with a sword; this was itself a “mercy,” as she could have been dispatched by drowning.

† Most notably, Die Kindermörderin by Heinrich Leopold Wagner (both German links).

‡ Note that the consideration at the level of the Privy Council was formally about whether to abolish the death penalty for infanticide in general — not directly about Hohn’s case, which proceeded on a separate track. It seems to be generally agreed that Goethe and all other parties understood Hohn would live or die based on the statutory decision.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Murder,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Sex,Women

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1674: The Chevalier de Rohan and Franciscus van den Enden

Add comment November 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1674, the former Grand Huntsman of France was beheaded in Paris for conspiring to betray Normandy during the Franco-Dutch War.

Your basic debt-mired noble and court cad, the Chevalier de Rohan (French Wikipedia link) through an accomplice “intimated that Normandy was very much dispos’d to a revolt, & that if hee would send a fleet with 6 thousand men, & armes for twenty thousand, with necessaries for sieges & two million of livres, that there was a greate man who would engage himself upon the assurance of thirty thousand crownes pension …”

The correspondence was discovered and Rohan arrested, but his role in the plot was sufficiently anonymized that even an absolutist state didn’t have the goods to convict him. Meanwhile, Rohan’s accomplice was hunted to ground and killed in Rouen during the attempt to arrest him.

This left the authorities in the position, common to every cop show and not a few real-life cases, of requiring a confession from the accused to proceed at all. Rohan’s friends realized this too, and tried desperately to warn him against self-incrimination.

Persons attached to the chevalier de Rohan went every evening round the Bastile, crying through a speaking trumpet, “La Tuanderie is dead, and has said nothing;” but the chevalier did not hear them. The commissioners, not being able to get any thing from him, told him, “that the king knew all, that they had proofs, but only wished for his own confession, and that they were authorized to promise him pardon if he would declare the truth.” The chevalier, too credulous, confessed the whole. Then the perfidious commissioners changed their language. They said, “that with respect to the pardon, they could not answer for it: but that they had hopes of obtaining it, and would go and solicit it.” This they troubled themselves very little about; and condemned the criminal to lose his head. He was conducted on a platform to the scaffold, by means of a gallery raised to the height of the window of the armoury in the arsenal, which looks towards the little square at the end of the Rue des Tournelles. He was beheaded on November 27, 1674.

It is hoped that, should the reader ever become a person of police interest, s/he will recall from Rohan’s example that inspectors do not have suspects’ best interests in mind.

A couple of other nobles also lost their heads along with our chevalier.

Hanged for his trouble was Franciscus van den Enden (English Wikipedia page | Dutch), the elderly Dutchman — and accused Dutch agent — who recruited these toffs for the purpose of seizing Le Havre.

Van den Enden is an interesting, perhaps underappreciated, radical intellectual of secular-democratic persuasion (he attracted the suspicion of atheism, and his Vrye Politijke Stellingen made an unabashed case for democratic government). He’s best known for being a schoolmaster of philosopher Baruch Spinoza; W.N.A. Klever, in an October 1991 paper in the Journal of the History of Philosophy (“A New Source of Spinozism: Franciscus Van den Enden”) traces the connections between the philosophy of the master and that of the pupil and rather dramatically argues that

Van den Enden must be considered as a kind of “Proto-Spinoza.” … He was the hidden agent behind Spinoza’s genius … [t]he origin of Spinoza’s anomalous philosophy.

A variety of (untranslated) references to the “Proto-Spinoza” from 17th century correspondence are available here.

Those inclined more towards geopolitics than philosophy might enjoy Victor Magagna’s podcast lecture on the great-power calculus driving France’s conflict with the Netherlands — which, as we have noticed in these pages, claimed the life of the longtime Dutch leader Johan de Witt.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Freethinkers,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Spies,Treason

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1940: Jilava Massacre

1 comment November 26th, 2010 Headsman

On the night of November 26-27, 1940, the Romanian Iron Guard massacred sixty-plus political prisoners of the pre-fascist regime at Jilava — the Jilava Massacre.

This incident marked the interregnum of the National Legionary State, and the friction between the fascist Legionaries under Horia Sima and Prime Minister Ion Antonescu.

An authoritarian right-wing dictatorship by any standard, but like any polity it had its own internal conflicts. Of moment for this date: the detention of people whom the Legions considered implicated in the execution of fascist martyr Corneliu Zelea Codreanu two years before, as well as miscellaneous other undesirables who had prospered under the abdicated King Carol II.

Antonescu, who had a thing about rectitude, proposed to ornament these men’s inevitable deaths with the formalities of investigation and trial. Long story short, Sima and the Legionaries didn’t trust Antonescu; when Antonescu ordered some of the prisoners transfered to a different prison, the Guard refused — and when replacement jailers were consequently slated for the Guard, the Guard took matters into its own hands by slaughtering its charges this night.

Antonescu was furious.

the handful of reprobates who have committed this crime will be punished in an exemplary manner. I will not allow that the country and the future of the nation be compromised by the action of a band of terrorists … I was reserving the punishment of those held at Jilava for the justice system of the country. But the street decreed otherwise, proceeding to implement justice itself

By the following January, the conflict between the National Legionary State factions came to a head. With the support of the Third Reich, Antonescu mastered the Iron Guard, took control of the state, and sent Sima into exile.

And he did indeed punish — up to and including execution — several of the Guard members involved in this date’s massacre.

On the other hand, as a prize for serving as wartime Prime Minister of an Axis-aligned state, Antonescu himself was shot for war crimes not far from Jilava Prison in 1946. Sima, on the other hand, had a few in absentia death sentences, but checked out comfortably in Madrid at the age of 85.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Execution,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Romania,Shot,Summary Executions

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1838: Tsali, Cherokee

5 comments November 25th, 2010 Headsman

The decade following establishment of the “permanent Indian frontier” was a bad time for the eastern tribes. The great Cherokee nation had survived more than a hundred years of the white man’s wars, diseases, and whiskey, but now it was to be blotted out. Because the Cherokees numbered several thousands, their removal to the West was planned to be in gradual stages, but discovery of Appalachian gold within their territory brought on a clamor for their immediate wholesale exodus. During the autumn of 1838, General Winfield Scott‘s soldiers rounded them up and concentrated them into camps. (A few hundred escaped to the Smoky Mountains and many years later were given a small reservation in North Carolina.) From the prison camps they were started westward to Indian Territory. On the long winter trek, one of every four Cherokees died from cold, hunger, or disease. They called the march their “trail of tears.”

-Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

This date in 2010 happens to be Thanksgiving in the United States.

Dating to the Civil War in its modern incarnation, its ancestral event is the “first thanksgiving” wherein European colonists* chowed down with the Wampanoags who had saved them from starvation in New England.

This moment of apparent amity obviously also presages the near-annihilation of native peoples by those European colonists over the succeeding centuries; even in 1621, the seeds of future conflict were at hand. By the very next year, Wampanoag chief Massasoit would demand the execution of legendary Pilgrim-befriender Tisquantum (Squanto).

So it’s also fitting to remember that this day in 1838** was the execution of Tsali, the hero of those escaped North Carolina Cherokee whom Brown mentions — a man tied to a tree and shot this date by the U.S. Army for resisting “Indian removal”.

While assimilated Cherokees like Chief John Ross were themselves right in the thick of the debate about deportation, Tsali was a traditionalist farmer in North Carolina who had little contact with such sketchy political machinations.

When Washington’s ethnic cleansing policy shed its diplomatic cover for naked force, Tsali and his family killed some of the soldiers sent to capture them for removal.** General Scott was not amused.

The individuals guilty of this unprovoked outrage must be shot down; & there is another object demanding equal & immediate attention, viz: –the protection of the white families, residing in that region, who are, doubtless, much alarmed (& may be in great danger) at the most unexpected spirit of hostility evinced by the fugitive Indians about them by the murders in question.†

And, of course, they were. Tsali is said to die in that fearlessness of the noble savage, a fitting aspect for any martyr at the last.

I have a little boy…If he is not dead, tell him the last words of his father were that he must never go beyond the Father of Waters, but die in the land of his birth. It is sweet to die in one’s native land and be buried by the margins of one’s native stream.

-Tsali’s recorded last words

It’s one of those ironies of empire (not unlike Thanksgiving Day itself) that Tsali’s dying wish was made possible by the very fact that other Cherokees collaborated in his death. Or at least, that’s how Tsali came to be remembered.

Other Cherokee with farms outside the boundaries of the formal Cherokee nation were then maneuvering to avoid the effects of the removal treaty — which by its own letter ought not apply to other Cherokee. William Holland Thomas, the remarkable Caucasian-born orphan adopted by the chief of these Cherokee, Dancing Bear, cut a deal with General Scott:

if [Dancing Bear’s Cherokee] would seize Charley [Tsali] and the others who had been concerned in the attack upon the soldiers and surrender them for punishment, the pursuit [for other Cherokee in the Great Smokies] would be called off and the fugitives allowed to stay unmolested … he could secure respite for his sorely pressed followers, with the ultimate hope that they might be allowed to remain in their own country …

It was known that Charley and his party were in hiding in a cave of the Great Smokies, at the head of Deep creek, but it was not thought likely that he could be taken without bloodshed and a further delay which might prejudice the whole undertaking. Thomas determined to go to him and try to persuade him to come in and surrender. Declining Scott’s offer of an escort, he went alone to the cave, and, getting between the Indians and their guns as they were sitting around the fire near the entrance, he walked up to Charley and announced his message. The old man listened in silence and then said simply, “I will come in. I don’t want to be hunted down by my own people.” They came in voluntarily and were shot … one only, a mere boy, being spared on account of his youth.†

Scott honored the deal, goes the story, and those un-removed Cherokee indeed persisted in North Carolina. Whether due to Tsali’s sacrifice or not, they remain there to this day: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, headquartered in Cherokee, N.C.

On November 25, 1838, Tsali was executed … They were ordered to kill him so they could stay in North Carolina. Tsali was killed. We are still here. Tsali is a Cherokee hero.

-Resolution of the Cherokee Tribal Council (Source)


Bilingual English/Cherokee street sign in Cherokee, N.C. (cc) image from Chuck “Caveman” Coker.

Nearby, you can hike, bike, or ride horses in the Tsali recreation area.

* Including the first man hanged at Plymouth Colony.

** Or at least, the most widely reported date. The sourcing is slightly inconsistent and ambiguous as to whether all the family turned itself in and was shot together, or whether Tsali’s three kinsmen were executed on a previous date with Tsali shot on this date.

† As cited by Paul Kutsche, “The Tsali Legend: Culture Heroes and Historiography,” Ethnohistory, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Autumn, 1963)

‡ These Cherokee would form a legion in the Confederate army which actually had the distinction — under then-Colonel William Thomas — of firing the last shots in the Civil War east of the Mississippi.

§ John Finger’s sacred cow-slaying take on the evolution of the Tsali legend in The Eastern Band of Cherokees: 1819-1900 is that only the family turned in voluntarily, but the army left Tsali alone once the younger men were killed, and the old man was mopped up (involuntarily) by the Cherokee themselves: “there was no noble sacrifice … [and] the capture and execution of Tsali little affected the right of the Qualla Cherokees to remain in North Carolina.”

That version would also resolve the apparent discrepancy in the date and number executed, with Tsali captured on the 24th and shot on the 25th.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,North Carolina,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA

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2009: Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping, for tainted milk

6 comments November 24th, 2010 Meaghan

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

On this day in 2009, Chinese citizens Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping were shot to death in connection with China’s tainted milk scandal.

The affair caused some 300,000 infants to became sick, six of them fatally. They were killed by powdered milk tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical used in plastics and fertilizer. Zhang, a dairy farmer from the province of Hebei, sold hundreds of tons of tainted milk powder in 2007 and 2008; he was the largest supplier. Geng supplied toxic milk to dairy companies.

The scandal was stupendous and made headlines all over the world. According to Time magazine, the tainted milk found its way to Taiwan, Singapore and Japan. China’s $232 million dairy export industry cratered as the European Union and a dozen nations in Asia and Africa banned Chinese milk and milk products. The farmers who depended on milk sales for their livelihood were reduced to simply pouring their surplus stock down the drain, and since nobody wanted to buy dairy cows under these conditions, some farmers just slaughtered their animals.


Top: Chinese farmers destroy tainted milk. Bottom: Zhang Yujun (left) and a supplicating Geng Jinping (right).

Nor was milk wasn’t the only export product with this problem; Wikipedia’s timeline of the scandal states melamine was subsequently discovered in Chinese eggs, egg powder, baking ammonia, chicken, crackers and animal food.

Melamine was added to the milk to fool government protein tests, which would show whether the milk had been diluted or not. (Watered-down milk had been a problem in the past; in 2004 thirteen Chinese babies died of malnutrition after being fed milk that was so watery it had almost zero nutritional value.) Melamine, like protein, is high in nitrogen, so the presence of melamine in food would cause the protein content to appear higher than it really was.

It isn’t clear whether the people who altered the milk knew — or cared — that it was poisonous. Very poisonous. Melamine is never supposed to be used in food; it causes kidney stones and in some cases complete renal failure, especially in young children. A child can take over six months to recover from exposure.

Some blame must be attached to the (suspect) Chinese food safety administration, which in May 2008 reported that over 99% of baby milk powders had been deemed safe. (In fact, one major dairy company had begun hearing complaints about its baby milk as far back as the previous December.) The Ministry of Health was informed about the sick infants in July. There are strong suspicions that the government tried to suppress the reports to avoid embarrassment; the Olympics were in Beijing that summer and the world’s eye was on China. The scandal was only made public in September, after the Games.

Twenty-one people involved in the scandal were brought to trial on various charges in December 2008, and convicted in January.

Tian Wenhua, the general manager of the Chinese dairy giant Sanlu, pleaded guilty to producing substandard goods and was sentenced to life in prison. She admitted she’d known the milk was bad for four months before she reported this fact to the authorities. Sanlu tried to keep complaining parents quiet by giving them free milk, which was also tainted. Tien was widely perceived as being the person most responsible for the scandal, and many were disappointed that she didn’t get the death sentence.

Other defendants received various prison terms. One of them was given a suspended death sentence, but only Zhang (guilty of endangering public safety) and Geng (guilty of producing and selling toxic food) were actually executed.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Pelf,Ripped from the Headlines,Scandal,Shot

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1499: Perkin Warbeck, Princes in the Tower pretender

18 comments November 23rd, 2010 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1499, Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the English throne, was hung at Tyburn for treason. He didn’t fare as well as the previous royal pretender, Lambert Simnel, who was pardoned by King Henry VII and made a spit-turner in the royal kitchens.

Warbeck claimed he was Richard, Duke of York, the younger son of King Edward IV. Richard and his older brother, the would-be Edward V, mysteriously vanished around 1483, allegedly murdered by their allegedly evil uncle Richard III, who had already had them declared illegitimate. (Shakespeare made this version — which was congenial to the ruling Tudor dynasty of his time — the standard in Richard III; the play channeled Thomas More‘s history of Richard.)

The murder story has never been proven and the princes’ bodies were never identified, leaving a yeasty petri dish for pretenders to grow and multiply — and so they did.

Warbeck, who later admitted he was actually born in Tournai, in Flanders, in approximately 1474 (his father is described by one source as “a renegade Jew”) first claimed to be the Duke of York either while at the court of Burgundy in France in 1490, or while serving a silk merchant in Ireland in 1491.

He did bear a strong resemblance to Edward IV, but there is no evidence that he was really Richard of York or that he and the late king were related in any way.

Nonetheless, his claim was soon recognized by Charles VIII, King of France … and it naturally appealed to the fledgling Tudor dynasty’s potential internal rivals, too.

Margaret of Burgundy, who was Edward IV’s sister and the disappeared Duke of York’s aunt, was one of these educated the pretender about “his” history and the ways of the English court, and she helped finance Warbeck’s attempted conquest of England in 1495. It went badly from the beginning: Warbeck’s army was trounced and 150 of his troops were killed on the beach in Kent before he even made it ashore. Warbeck fled to Ireland and then Scotland.

Warbeck had more success in his second invasion attempt, in Cornwall in 1497 on the heels of the Cornish Rebellion.

Warbeck promised an end to the exorbitant taxes levied on the citizenry, which welcomed both pretender and promise with open arms. His army grew to 6,000 or 7,000 men, and Warbeck began calling himself Richard IV of England, but when he found out King Henry was after him he panicked and deserted his men.

He was captured and imprisoned at the infamous Tower of London, but not before being “paraded through the streets on horseback amid much hooting and derision of the citizens.”

The execution was not until 1499, and only after it was alleged that Warbeck tried to escape with a real royal claimant, Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick. On November 23, Warbeck was taken from the Tower to Tyburn, where he read out a confession and was hanged. His wife, Lady Catherine Gordon, a cousin of the King of Scotland, had a better fate; she was given a pension and a job of lady-in-waiting to the Queen.

At least she didn’t have to turn a kitchen spit.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Other Voices,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Treason

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Feast Day of St. Cecilia, patron of music

1 comment November 22nd, 2010 Headsman

This is the feast day of the early Christian saint Cecilia.

There’s more than serendipity in that name’s pop culture connection: Cecilia is the patron saint of music for the rather slight reason that her heart sung only for God even when she was forced to marry the pagan Valerian. Seriously, Christianity didn’t have any early martyr with a stronger biographical context for a portfolio as significant as music?*

Being the go-to divine intermediary for something this big made Cece a popular saint centuries after her martyrdom, supposed to be either later in the 2nd century or early in the 3rd. (As with many other martyrs’ legends, Cecilia survives several executions before the Romans finally manage to cut her head off.)

Musician and songwriter Paul Simon knew enough St. Cecilia lore to explicitly use her in her musical-patronage role in a different song, “The Coast” (lyrics). The song “Cecilia” deepens immensely if it’s understood as mixed frustration and exaltation with the minstrel’s inconstant artistic muse.

Nor would that be the only 20th century musical homage for this accessible saint. In a more traditional vein, Benjamin Britten set to music a W.H. Auden poem about Cecilia, creating the Hymn to St. Cecilia.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

Fans of classical music should hit YouTube for Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, which appropriately premiered on this date in 1739. Here’s a nibble:

* So far as we know, blogging remains a niche of divine patronage as-yet unfilled. We propose to accept the protection of the patron saint of lost causes.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Executions Survived,Famous,God,History,Italy,Martyrs,Myths,Nobility,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates,Women

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1920: Bloody Sunday in Ireland

4 comments November 21st, 2010 Headsman

Sunday, Nov. 21 in 1920 was “Bloody Sunday” in Ireland, a date begun with the IRA execution of British agents in Dublin, and concluded with three IRA men killed in British custody.

Thirty-one people lost their lives on this 1920 Bloody Sunday, a signal event of the Irish War of Independence; the thirteen of them who were British intelligence officers or assets targeted for an en masse morning liquidation suffices to qualify the affair for these grim pages.

“Executions”, assassinations or otherwise, the killings were ordered by Irish revolutionary Michael Collins in the escalating dirty war between his Irish Republican Army and the Black and Tans dispatched by London to crush the IRA.

My one intention was the destruction of the undesirables who continued to make miserable the lives of ordinary decent citizens. I have proof enough to assure myself of the atrocities which this gang of spies and informers have committed. If I had a second motive it was no more than a feeling such as I would have for a dangerous reptile. By their destruction the very air is made sweeter. For myself, my conscience is clear. There is no crime in detecting in wartime the spy and the informer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.

-Michael Collins, on the executions

There were a couple of hitches in the plan: most particularly, that out of an initial list of 50 targets, Collins had been forced by his own government to trim to 35 … and then his hit teams “only” actually managed to get about a third of them.

And, of course, it drew a British rampage that day, most famously at a football match at Croke Park* concluding when Dirk McKee, Peadar Clancy and Conor Clune were killed that evening in a British police station — “trying to escape.”

But in all, the day was a coup for the Republicans, who crippled British intelligence in Dublin and gave any future recruits grave reason to think twice about the engagement, while reaping a public relations bonanza both domestic and international from the indiscriminate English response against civilians.

Occurring as it did while the fight for Ireland everywhere intensified — and that fight culminating in Ireland’s independence** — 1920’s Bloody Sunday is a sacred day for Irish nationalism.

Just to be clear, however, this is not the Bloody Sunday of U2 “Sunday Bloody Sunday” fame, which was an altogether different bit of carnage in 1972. “Bloody Sunday” actually has a disturbingly populous Wikipedia disambiguation page, with at least four Ireland-related entries and others from Turkey, Canada, South Africa, and points beyond.

* An England-Ireland rugby match in that stadium in 2007 grabbed headlines for its associations this date; you can see the respective anthems played before a respectful Irish crowd here.

** Leading, of course, to further assassinations, including Michael Collins’s own, and the internecine Irish Civil War.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,England,Espionage,Execution,History,Ireland,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,Summary Executions,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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