Archive for April, 2011

1534: Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent

2 comments April 20th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1534, Elizabeth Barton was hanged at Tyburn with her “conspirators” for having prophesied the death of Henry VIII and (in the words of the parliamentary attainder against them) “traterously attempted many notable actes intendyng therbye the disturbaunce of the pease and tranquyllytie of this Realm.”

A country servant-girl, this Elizabeth Barton had begun having divine visions around Easter 1525, and developed a popular following for her gift of prophecy, generally delivered during spooky (perhaps epileptic) fits and trances.

This was all just fine with everyone, since King Henry was still a good Catholic at the time; Barton took orders in the St. Sepulchre Nunnery and continued her career in the seer business.

Elizabeth Barton wasn’t going to leave her place in Henrician England … but to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, Henrician England was about to leave her.

And like so many entries that age has given this site, it all went back to Henry’s leaving his first queen, Catherine of Aragon.

If one likes to see in the prophetic tradition a refracted expression of popular sentiment, speaking a religious rather than a political language, Elizabeth Barton’s divine gift set her up to be the mystical exponent of the English populace’s visceral reaction against Henry’s ascending paramour, Anne Boleyn.

Rather rashly, Barton began publicly warning her sovereign against his bedchamber gambit, threatening that if the proposed Boleyn union should come to pass, he “should no longer be King of this realm…and should die a villain’s death.”

That would be compassing the death of the king — which is treason.

Barton articulated a fear of Henry’s policies which was shared by many of his subjects. The anticipated breach with Rome made the citizens of England insecure about the future stability of the realm, and prognostications concerning the state of the country abounded. Barton was not alone in foretelling that wars and plagues would soon rack the country; or in prophesying that the King would be overthrown, that his death was imminent, that he would die as a villain. Many people were discussing such prophecies, by means of which they could “objectify their fears and hopes” in an age of change and disruption.

-Diane Watt, “Reconstructing the Word: the Political Prophecies of Elizabeth Barton (1506-1534)”, Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 1997

So it’s probably only fitting that this creature of her times would be devoured by the Tudor state which made its Reformation from the top.

Devoured, not only bodily.

As the Tudor king breaks with Rome, Barton becomes almost totally obscure to us, the real person who dared to stand openly against her king subsumed entirely by the edifice of state propaganda. As Watt observes, “as a result of her fate … almost all the first-hand evidence concerning Barton’s life and revelations has been destroyed” and “the surviving image of her has therefore been shaped by those who suppressed her visions and prophecies.”

We have her mystical utterances mostly indirectly, through the interlocutors charged with refuting her, and we have the expedient charges against her of fraud, contumacy, and (of course) sexual indiscretion leveled by her foes.


“The Imposture of the Holy Maid of Kent”

Arrested with a circle of supporters, Barton was forced into a public recantation in November 1533 by her persecutors. One supposes such a recantation was in any event obtained under some duress; undoubtedly it was, as the disgusted Spanish ambassador recorded, staged “to blot out from people’s minds the impression they have that the Nun is a saint and a prophet.” (Cited by Watt)

If said duress included an easing of the charges against herself or her associates, Barton was to be disappointed.

She was attainted for treason* in January (the evidence against her being insufficient for a judicial verdict of treason); the bill of attainder also required the public to hand over any writings about her alleged prophecies or revelations, like the popular pamphlets that had circulated with official approval in the 1520’s: there would be nothing to nurture a people’s cult for this exponent of resistance. Over the decades to come, the early writings sympathetic (and proximate) to Barton would be almost completely annihilated, supplanted by Protestant works that rendered Barton a trickster, a puppet, a sham — magnified her retraction into the definitive statement. It was a propaganda victory almost as chilling as Barton’s corporeal fate: even her potentially sympathetic Catholic audiences can latterly make no reliable judgment about her.

And so Barton moulders.

In April 1534, the usurping consort once more apparently pregnant with Henry’s long-sought heir, the once-popular, now-deflated prophetess of the old queen and the old faith was emblematically put to death with her former adherents on a most significant day in the city of London.

[T]his day the Nun of Kent, with two Friars Observant, two monks and one secular priest, were drawn from the Tower to Tyburn, and there hanged and headed. God, if it be his pleasure, have mercy on their souls. Also this day the most part of this City are sworn to the king and his legitimate issue by the Queen’s Grace now had and hereafter to come, and so shall all the realm over be sworn in like manner.

-Letter from John Husee to Lord Lisle, April 20, 1534 (Source)

We trust everybody got the message.

But in case anyone missed the point, there would be plentiful reminders still to come.

* Chancellor Thomas More had some traffic with Barton — very cautious, as befits a skeptical elite’s approach to a loose cannon commoner — and was briefly in some danger of being named in the indictment against her. When his loyal daughter Meg joyously reported to him that he’d been cleared, he’s supposed to have replied, “In faith, Meg, ‘quod differtur non aufertur’, what is put off is not put away.” But it probably didn’t require heavenly foresight for More to perceive the wheel of fortune about to turn on him, too. By the time of Barton’s actual execution, More had already been clapped in the Tower himself.

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1996: John Martin Scripps, British serial killer

3 comments April 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1996, the first westerner hanged for murder in Singapore got his deserts in Changi Prison.

Mild-mannered John Martin Scripps had created a sensation in the city-state for turning South African tourist Gerard Lowe into a sack full of dismembered body parts at Clifford Pier.

“The tourist from hell” argued in defense that it had all been a gay panic after Lowe came onto him. Not a bit of it.

Turns out Scripps, recently absconded from British custody after his latest in a series of drug and theft arrests,* had used the same chop-shop m.o. on a Canadian mother and son in Thailand and, as with Lowe, leached their electronic assets thereafter.

(Ever the jet-setter, Scripps was also a suspect in three other murders — of two Brits in Central America and of an American male prostitute in San Francisco.)

“John disappeared on several trips and went to the United States and South-East Asia,” his Mexican ex-wife said later. “I knew something awful was happening, but I could not believe he had started killing people.”

After conviction, Scripps declined to appeal or petition for clemency, saying he wanted the law to take its course quickly. He was hanged alongside two drug traffickers.

* He’d learned butchery in prison — so well that he’d talked about opening a shop when he got out. Which is sort of what he did.

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2001: Five machine-gunned in Thailand

1 comment April 18th, 2011 Headsman

On this date a decade ago, Thailand machine-gunned in Bangkwang Prison five men — four convicted drug-smugglers, and one murderer.

Lee Yuan-kuang, one of those executed this date.

Bazillionaire populist Thaksin Sinawatra had just become the country’s Prime Minister, and would soon stake his administration on a notorious drug suppression push that would be linked to 2,000-plus extrajudicial killings.

This date’s harvest, perhaps, was its judicial preview. Amnesty International complained that it was “outrageous … to flaunt its tough anti-drugs stance by executing people,” and that’s probably exactly the sort of reaction Thaksin had in mind.

According to the BBC, one of the traffickers had been caught with 50,000 methamphetamine pills — meth being the rising drug problem (pdf) du jour — and another with 30 kilos of heroin.

Thailand executed three more drug traffickers later in 2001.


Thailand’s execution arrangement, further described here.

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1457: The Wallachian boyars

2 comments April 17th, 2011 Headsman

This date was Easter Sunday in 1457, which would make it the date associated with one of the more memorable displays of theatrical brutality by Wallachian proto-vampire Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler.

Having only just ascended the less-than-secure throne of Wallachia, a frontier principality pinched between the Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, the 25-ish prince and onetime Ottoman hostage had a bone-chilling inauguration plan to shore up his security both internal and external.

He threw a big party in Targoviste for the nobles of the realm … and had a little surprise waiting for them. It wasn’t an Easter egg hunt.

He asked the assembled noblemen:
“How many princes have you known?”
The latter answered
Each as much as he knew best.
One believed that there had been thirty,
Another twenty.
Even the youngest thought there had been seven.
After having answered this question
As I have just sung it,
Dracula said: “Tell me,
How do you explain the fact
That you have had so many princes
In your land?
The guilt is entirely due to your shameful intrigues.”

With ample proof of the boyars’ deceit and treacherous intents, Dracula decided it was timely to inflict upon them an exemplary punishment … mass impalement …

The oldest Romanian historical chronicle records the event two centuries later. It had taken place in the spring of 1457, during the Easter celebrations that the boyars were attending at the palace … “when Eastern Day came, while all the citizens were feasting and the young ones were dancing he [Dracula] surrounded them [the boyars] … led them together with their wives and children, just as they were dressed up for Easter, to Poenari, where they were put to work until their clothes were torn and they were left naked.” In actual fact, this episode, which is also recalled by the Greek historian Chalcondyles and firmly anchored in popular folklore, involved some two hundred boyars and their wives, as well as leading citizens of Tirgoviste … They were seized by Dracula’s men as they were finishing their meal in the main banqueting hall of the palace, following the elaborate Easter ritual at the Paraclete Chapel. In Dracula’s ingenious mind, one aspect of the punishment had a utilitarian purpose: the reconstruction of the famous castle high up on the Arges … On the way out of the chapel the old boyars and their wives were apprehended by Dracula’s henchmen and impaled beyond the city walls. The young and able-bodied were manacled and chained to each other and then marched northward under the vigilant eye of Dracula’s men.

This was revenge a decade in the making for the boyar class having toppled Vlad’s father and murdered Vlad’s elder brother in 1447.

But personal score-settling aside, Vlad’s sanguinary housekeeping had a statecraft dimension as well. It enabled him to centralize power in his own person, and had the happy side effect of speeding creation of a secure mountain fastness — Poenari Castle, which is one of several structures answering to the lucrative name of Castle Dracula.

While Vlad is (in)famous for his iron fist (and well-oiled spikes), it’s perhaps harder to say with confidence how much good this slaughter did him. Wallachia’s security situation was fundamentally defined by its neighbors no matter how cruel Vlad Tepes might be.

Vlad got some more impaling under his belt defending his country from Ottoman invaders (you’ll be shocked to learn that many boyars were more than happy to help the sultan get rid of this tyrant), but he was clapped in prison by the Hungarian ruler Matthias Hunyadi in 1462, lived most of the rest of his life in exile, and then died in battle attempting a Wallachian comeback in 1476. So basically, he got a few good years in … plus that whole latter-day afterlife he enjoys as tourist magnet, alleged literary inspiration, and nationalist icon.

And that’s more than one can say for most of the 15th century rulers who weren’t impaling their boyars.

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1783: Philip, a negro slave of Henry Garrett

Add comment April 16th, 2011 Headsman

From the Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish settlement in Virginia

Called Court on Philip, a negro slave of Henry Garrett, and formerly property of Major Thomas Johnston, of Louisa County, charged with murdering Alexander Hunter, of Augusta County, and wounding the wife of Samuel Henry.–Guilty and to be hanged on 16th April next at 10 o’clock a. m. His value is fixed at £65.

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1982: Khalid Islambouli and the assassins of Anwar Sadat

2 comments April 15th, 2011 Headsman

With Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s recent unwilling separation from power, we remember today how he got into power in the first place — for this was the execution date in 1982 for the assassins of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat.

Here’s some raw-er footage:

The murdered president inherited the office from the first name in pan-Arab nationalism, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Sadat led Egypt through the turbulent 1970s, fighting a war against Israel and then making peace with its Jewish neighbor to regain the Sinai, and generally proving himself more adept at the job than many had assumed.

But the secular dictatorship was increasingly afflicted by that then-emerging, now-familiar specter, Islamic fundamentalism — specifically aggrieved by those Camp David Accords, but also confronting Sadat’s neoliberal economic realignment and political disaffection.

Khalid Islambouli, the man who actually got Sadat, was a 26-year-old officer with an illicit affiliation to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

At an October 6, 1981 military parade, Islambouli led an orchestrated hit, leaping from military vehicles to bombard the presidential dais with grenades and automatic weapon fire.

Sadat was dead before he reached the hospital, and his office assumed by his vice president — Hosni Mubarak.

Unsurprisingly, he played rough with the assassins.

A military tribunal ultimately convicted 22 people of participating in the plot, sentencing five to death. While the state press was obviously supportive of the verdict,

Many Egyptians interviewed by Reuters considered the death sentences fair. “It is up to President Mubarak now to show his people that terrorism is unacceptable in Egypt by approving the sentences”, a shopkeeper said.*

And Mubarak did … albeit carefully.

Five self-proclaimed Muslim fundamentalists convicted of assassinating President Sadat of Egypt were executed at dawn today hours after their plea for mercy had been rejected by President Mubarak.

The two assassins who had been in the Army were executed by firing squad and the others, civilians, were hanged at a remote military base outside Cairo …

News of the executions was carried briefly on Cairo radio, then dropped from subsequent broadcasts. The evening newspaper did the same, an indication that the authorities may be sensitive to possible public reaction, Muslim fundamentalism being widespread in all the Egyptian universities.**

The precaution was, perhaps, well-taken.

Muslim fundamentalism would gain steam in Egypt during the years ahead, drawing a severe state response.

Islambouli’s younger brother Showqi almost accomplished an all-in-the-family twin killing by coming within a whisker’s breadth of assassinating Mubarak in 1995. The family name is still honored in the breach by other Muslim militants: there’s an “al-Islambouli Brigades of al-Qaeda” in Pakistan and an “al-Islambouli Brigades” in Chechnya.

* London Times, March 8, 1982

** London Times, April 16, 1982 (under an April 15 dateline)

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1647: Domenica Gratiadei and her coven of witches

2 comments April 14th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1647 marked the execution of five supposed witches in Trentino.

Secular and modernist as this grim site‘s curators confessedly stand, we have perhaps given too little credence to those devout officers of the law who labored in those years to uphold the throne of heaven besieged by Satan’s varied earthly minions.

Montague Summers

In an effort to balance the record, we present this date’s account as rendered by a guy who took the supernatural a bit more seriously: Montague Summers.

Summers is a weird figure, but if he wasn’t really a throwback believer in Rome’s phantasmagoric early modern theology, he was the century’s most sublime performance artist.

Converting to Catholicism as an Anglican deacon, he went about in spooky clerical robes although his ordination status remains unclear to this day, immersed his capacious mind in supernatural arcana, and penned voluptuously eloquent books credulously treating the spectral evidence another era had given against sorcerers, vampires, lycanthropes, and suchlike habitues of the Monster Manual.*

I have endeavoured to show the witch as she really was -– an evil liver: a social pest and parasite: the devotee of a loathly and obscene creed: an adept at poisoning, blackmail, and other creeping crimes: a member of a powerful secret organization inimical to Church and State: a blasphemer in word and deed, swaying the villagers by terror and superstition: a charlatan and a quack sometimes: a bawd: an abortionist: the dark counselor of lewd court ladies and adulterous gallants: a minister to vice and inconceivable corruption, battening upon the filth and foulest passions of the age.

Summers projected (perhaps intentionally) a mysterious and vaguely sinister persona and did not disdain to cultivate a friendship with nefarious occultist Aleister Crowley, his contemporary. There were even rumors of an unwholesome interest in pederasty.

We’re confident that none of this has done his sales a bit of harm. So who are we social pests and parasites of the blogosphere not to batten upon it ourselves?

The below is drawn from Summers’ The Geography of Witchcraft — and as the reader will perceive, Geography at least purports to treat the flying-off-to-infernal-orgy stock in trade of those bygone witch hunters as legitimate evidence of the lead crone’s “attendance at the Sabbat, sometimes, no doubt, an experience on the psychic plane, for she was undoubtedly a medium of unusual powers, and sometimes in actual fact.”

A typical case of Witchcraft, and one which owing to its prominence and the meticulous investigations of the authorities has luckily been reported in full, attracted considerable attention in the winter of 1646 and the following spring. It will, moreover, be found to present so many factors and features, which occur again and again in the contemporary trials of wellnigh every European country, that it may profitably be dealt with in some detail.

A certain old woman of Castelnovo, Maria Salvatori, nicknamed “la Mercuria,” who had long been suspected of sorcery, was arrested on 26 October, 1646, and formally examined. At first the two principal charges, sufficiently damning in themselves, seem to have been that at her communions she did not swallow the Sacred Host, but kept It in her mouth to spit It out secretly and reserve It for some abominable purpose, and also that by her ecbolic spells she had caused the young Marchesa Bevilacqua to miscarry in childbirth. She was again interrogated on 8 November and put to the torture of the cord when she accused Domenica, the widow of a certain Tomaso Camelli, and Domenica’s daughter, Lucia, the wife of Antonio Caveden, both of whom dwelt at the hamlet of Villa, of being rank witches. She also avowed she had taken a Host from her mouth to give to Lucia Caveden, who thereby confected a charm which caused the abortion of the Marcioness. She added that she had also bewitched Cristoforo Sparamani, the son of Cecilia Sparamani, and that a certain Delaito Cavaleri was a necromancer and a worshipper of Satan. A further interrogation followed on 15 November, as a result of which the court, consisting of Paride Madernino, delegate in all criminal and civil cases in the districts of Castelnovo and Castellano, and his assessor Giovanni Ropele, doctor utriusque iuris, promptly gave orders to GiuseppeCoriziano, “bargello di questa turia,” to arrest Domenica and Lucia. This was done, and on Saturday, 24 November, 1646, at Nogaredo, the proceedings against the witches were formally opened. “Processus Criminalis pro destructione lamiarum.” On 27 November Domenica Carnelli was questioned by the judges, but they got little enough out of her. Two days following Lucia Caveden was brought before the tribunal. She vehemently declared that the charges were all malice; the hag Salvatori was her enemy; and with many cries she called Heaven to witness her innocence, repeatedly exclaiming “per grazia del Signor Iddio no son una stria” But the next day she proved less firm and implicated yet another woman, Domenica Gratiadei, who was immediately thrown into prison, a number of suspicious objects being found in her house when it was closely searched by the officers. Certain pots of a dark unguent and a mysterious powder being produced in court, Lucia Caveden confessed that these were for the destruction of human life and cattle. Seeing that the game was up Domenica Gratiadei, upon being put to the torture, soon laid bare all the secrets of the infernal sisterhood. She had made this unguent with which she annointed herself to attend the Sabbat “trasformata in gatto,” she had cast the evil eye on Cristofero Sparamani, she had renounced her baptism, defiled the Blessed Sacrament, adored Satan with divine honours. The judges were filled with horror, and trembled at the hideous tale of diabolism these women poured forth. Cecilia Sparamani, a plain honest woman, was next summoned as a witness and told how her son fell into fits of no ordinary kind. The doctors had acknowledged their skill baffled, and in spite of the prayers of two Capuchin fathers and the exorcisms of Monsignore the Bishop of Brondolo, this preternatural sickness still persisted. She informed the court that as soon as summer came and the roads were passable she intended to take the boy to the shrine of S. Antony at Padua, to whom she had a special devotion.

On 18 December, 1646, Benvenuta, the daughter of Domenica Gratiadei, made a startling confession. She declared that she had been taken by her mother “as if in a dream” to a place where there was dancing and singing, where she had been welcomed by a large number of revellers, and especially by a young man, who having kissed and fondled her awhile afterwards had connexion with her. This was, her mother averred, Satan himself. When closely questioned as to these proceedings the girl could only reply: “Tutto mi sembra, come ho detto, un sogno: e parevami che sempre vi fosse il diavolo in forma di quel giovene.” It would seem from these very striking and significant words that the girl was a hypnotic subject, entirely under her mother’s control, and that on these occasions she passed into a semi-trance state. The case dragged on throughout the months of January and February, 1647. There were interminable interrogations, and a large number of persons were gradually implicated.

On 2 January 1647, Domenica Gratiadei gave a detailed description of the Sabbats she had attended. She and an old warlock named Santo Peterlino always led the coven. “The rest followed in the shape of cats; but the Devil went first of all.” They enjoyed banquets, dances, plays, music, songs, and afterwards all worshipped Satan, presenting him with Hosts which they kept from their last communion. Before attending the Sabbat she anointed herself with an unguent made of “the Blessed Sacrament, the blood of certain small animals, Holy Water, the fat of dead babies” which was mixed with horrible imprecations and blasphemies to confect the charm.

On 10 January, a strange figure, Maddalena Andrei, nicknamed “La Filosofa,” first appears in the case. She confessed that she had assisted in the making of the ointment and had also adored the Devil who frequently appeared to her, “brave, like a gallant captain, dressed all in red.” On 9 March, when Giuseppe Goriziano entered the cell of La Filosofa to summon her to court he found her lying dead upon the floor. The common people believed that she had been carried off by Satan, especially as the Archpriest of Villa, Don Giovanni Bragliardi, shrewdly suspecting that the unhappy woman had committed suicide, refused her sepulture in consecrated ground.

This long and complicated Witchcraft-trial at length came to an end in April 1647. The court was throned with an excited yet hushed crowd, when the judge Paride Madernino and his assessors the Counts of Lodrone and Castel-Romano delivered the sentences. Domenica Camelli, Lucia Caveden, Domenica Gratiadei, Catterina Baroni, Zinevra Chemola, Isabella and Plonia Gratiadei, and Valentina Andrei were condemned to death. Maria Salvatori, “la Mercuria,” and Maddalena Andrei, “la Filosofa” had expired in prison. The condemned were beheaded and their bodies burned. It would seem, however, that Isabella and Polonia Gratiadei and Valentina Andrei managed to escape and could not be traced. The execution of the rest took place on 14 April, 1647, when Leonard Oberrdorfer the common hangman carried out the judicial sentence.

The chief witches here naturally fall into four groups each constituted of one old and one young woman, Domenica Camelli and Lucia her daughter; Domenica Gratiadei and Benvenuta her daughter; Isabella Gratiadei and Plonia her daughter; Maddalena Andrei and her daughter Valentina. The chief of the coven was undoubtedly Domenica Gratiadei, whose vile confessions, a mixture of most horrid blasphemies and lewdest obscenity, convince her of being a wretch wholly devoted to evil, and an active propagandist of the Satanic cult. It was she who had debauched her own daughter to “the Devil,” that young man whose name and individuality do not appear, but who may be guessed to have been a noble of the district, using the witches for his own ends and, presumably, supplying them with money to carry out his dark designs. That the whole gang frequently attended the Sabbat, at which he was not unseldom present, there can, I think, be no question.

This case is recounted in much greater detail in Italian in this Google book; this page has another summary, also in Italian.

* “[I]n every way a ‘character,’ and in some sort a throwback to the Middle Ages,” the London Times blurbed Summers at his death (obituary in the Aug. 11, 1948 issue). But his “preoccupations with the supernatural, however, represented only one side of his nature. His solid services to learning lie rather in his copious editorial and critical work on the English Restoration drama — a field in which he possessed the most comprehensive and expert knowledge.”

Summers’ edited compendium of 17th century playwright Aphra Behn‘s works is available free at gutenberg.org.

For exemplars of the stuff more topical to this post, one can also peruse free online his The Vampire: His Kith and Kin and his translation of the notorious witch-persecution manual Malleus Maleficarum.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Mass Executions,Public Executions,The Supernatural,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1942: Anton Schmid

5 comments April 13th, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1942, Sergeant Anton Schmid was executed for high treason. His crime: saving the lives of Jews in Nazi-occupied Vilna, Poland (now part of Lithuania and called Vilnius).

Schmid was born in Vienna and owned a radio shop there before he was drafted into the German Army following the Anschluss in 1938.

After Germany’s invasion of Russia in mid-1941, Schmid was put in charge of a unit in Vilna, tasked with collecting and reassigning soldiers who had been separated from their units. He witnessed the sufferings of the Jewish population in the Vilna Ghetto and was so horrified, he decided to take action.

Schmid used his position in the military to help Jews by employing them as workers for his unit, forging papers to get them out of prison and out of the ghetto, and using Army trucks to escort them away from the city.

At great personal risk, he would go into the ghetto to hand out food and warn the inhabitants when the Germans were planning roundups. In dire situations he would even hide people in his own apartment to protect them from the Nazis. He maintained close contact with Jewish resistance organizations and assisted their activities in a variety of ways.

According to one account by a Jewish woman who was herself killed later in 1942,

[Schmid] would mock the Jews and say how easily they could be fooled, and at the same time tried to find out what the Germans were planning. As soon as he learned something new, he would tell his Jews and order them to tell their friends so that they could hide until the situation stabilized … He negotiated on their behalf like a dedicated father, without fear of being punished if he was found out. He put them in his working place and provided them with food and drink. He gave them soup and bread. In short, in those chaotic days of massacres he managed to save dozens of Jews …

Although the Jewish Underground warned Schmid that his activities had become too widely known and he was in great danger, he refused to put a stop to his effort to save the Vilna Jews. In response to their concerns he reportedly said that if given a choice between “living as a murderer and dying as a rescuer,” he would choose to die.

He saved an estimated 250 to 300 people before his arrest in January or February 1942.

At his court-marshal, his attorney tried to say Schmid had taken the Jews out of the Vilna Ghetto because he thought they could better serve the Reich elsewhere. Schmid refused to allow this, however, openly proclaiming that he had been trying to save Jewish lives. He was convicted on February 25 and sentenced to die.

In a letter to his wife and daughter, just days before his death, he tried to explain himself:

Here there were a great many Jews who were being rounded up by the Lithuanian militia and shot to death in a meadow outside the city, groups of 2-3,000 at a time. On the way there, they were smashing children against trees and such like. You can imagine how I felt … You know how I am with my soft heart. I couldn’t think otherwise and helped them… This is a heavy blow for us, but please forgive me. I was just behaving like a human being and didn’t want to hurt anyone.

In 1967, twenty-five years after his death, Schmid was honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem. His widow attended the ceremony on his behalf and accepted a medal reading “Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world.”

A street in Vienna and a military base in Germany are named after him.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Lithuania,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Soldiers,Spies,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1967: Aaron Mitchell, Ronald Reagan’s first and only execution

8 comments April 12th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1967, Aaron Mitchell was gassed in California on the authority of a governor holding his first elected office — Ronald Reagan, future U.S. president and emerging avatar of conservative white ressentiment in the turbulent 1960s.

It was only 23 days after California’s last previous execution, in January 1963, that Mitchell killed a white cop during a shootout occasioned by his abortive bar robbery. He’d been on death row fighting execution ever since, with a few dozen others who had been there even longer.

That gummed-up death penalty process, for which the Golden State is so well-known today, was most vividly symbolized at the time by the 12-year death row odyssey of Caryl Chessman.

And it had been among the many grievances catalyzing a conservative backlash against the civil rights movement, the Great Society, anti-war protesters, permissive social mores … the whole aspect of Sixties counterculture and American liberalism.

Ronald Reagan was born to wield the sword against it all. The sword, or some little cyanide pellets.

Reagan, a film actor, had cut his political teeth as a spokesman for General Electric and against commie plots like Medicare.

After famously backing the failed 1964 presidential bid of Barry Goldwater, Reagan emerged as the favored son of the New Right, and in his first foray into electoral politics, steamrolled over incumbent Democrat Edmund Brown in California’s 1966 gubernatorial election.

Reagan had an undoubted gift for packaging the sometimes unpalatable ennui of his potential constituencies into soundbites that respectable people could repeat in public, which talent proved essential to his bright political future.

“Why is it,” he demanded during the campaign, “that no street in our city is safe for women after dark?” (Los Angeles Times, September 21, 1966) Stung by Republican attacks on rising crime rates, Gov. Brown had vainly pushed a tough-on-crime platform of his own in 1966.

Too little. Too late.

“Mr. Reagan is outspokenly in favor of capital punishment and he has just been elected by a tremendous majority,” said Jesse James Gilbert, 41, who has languished on Death Row for two years.* “If the courts begin to reflect his thinking, he will be in a position to become the greatest butcher governor in history.”

Los Angeles Times, Dec. 4, 1966

What a different world it was from today’s that a major paper unabashedly used a death row prisoner’s own voice for analytical comment. Still, that same article noted (not in Gilbert’s voice, but as a plain fact on the ground) that “even a single execution could endanger Reagan’s chances for reelection or stifle voices which are beginning to urge him to seek the Republican Presidential nomination in 1968 or 1972.” A different world indeed.

Reagan had outspokenly run on capital punishment, however, and there’s such a thing as feeding your base. He surely was not going to execute nobody.

Mitchell was the man in line, and he certainly fit that not-safe-to-walk-the-streets-at-night angle, if you catch the drift. In an Ebony (June 1967) profile of his last days, Mitchell emerges at once radicalized and resigned, his four years awaiting death spent “researching and studying the race problem.”

“Every negro ever convicted of killing a police officer has died in that gas chamber,” Mitchell said on the day of his death. “So what chance did I have?”**

When the aide in charge of the clemency application is overtly pro-Scrooge future Attorney General Edwin Meese … not much chance, no.

So on this date, and in spite of an energetic protest outside San Quentin, a suicide attempt inside it, an open line to the governor’s office just in case, and a hysterical mother (who fled Mitchell’s clemency session in tears two days before, complaining that it was “a sham hearing”), Mitchell became the 501st person put to death since the state moved all executions from county auspices into state prisons.†

The 502nd would not take place until another quarter-century had elapsed.

Cold comfort to Mitchell, but Reagan himself did not vindicate Jesse Gilbert’s worst fears, and did not present the execution rubber-stamp of a later political generation; for his time and place, being visibly willing to approve some executions amply proved his credentials. (Newsweek called the governor a “man of conviction” after the Mitchell execution. (Source) Mission accomplished.)

Reagan would stay the next death date on his watch, that of Daniel Allen Roberts, over questions of mental competency; later in 1967, he would do the same for Robert Lee Massie just hours ahead of execution so that Massie could testify in another trial, inadvertently providing a bullet point in the conservative critique of death penalty squeamishness.

And in the event, the Great Communicator would be spared any great need to answer for a significant slate of individual clemency decisions. It was judicial activity far more than executive reticence that stayed the hand of California’s executioner; only one more execution after Mitchell’s took place in all of the U.S. before the country slipped into a complete death penalty moratorium from which it would not emerge for another decade.

And when the Reagan-appointed California Chief Justice Donald Wright authored a 1972 opinion striking down that state’s death penalty laws, it emptied death row outright.‡ (Sparing, among over 100 others, Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan.)

Capital punishment is impermissibly cruel. It degrades and dehumanizes all who participate in its processes. It is unnecessary to any legitimate goal of the state and is incompatible with the dignity of man and the judicial process. Our conclusion that the death penalty may no longer be exacted in California consistently with article I, section 6, of our Constitution is not grounded in sympathy for those who would commit crimes of violence, but in concern for the society that diminishes itself whenever it takes the life of one of its members. Lord Chancellor Gardiner reminded the House of Lords, debating abolition of capital punishment in England: “When we abolished the punishment for treason that you should be hanged, and then cut down while still alive, and then disembowelled while still alive, and then quartered, we did not abolish that punishment because we sympathised with traitors, but because we took the view that it was a punishment no longer consistent with our self respect.”

California v. Anderson

That would not stand as the final word on capital punishment in California, but by the time other condemned prisoners had come to the end of their appeals, they were the concern of different governors.

Reagan left the California governor’s mansion in 1975 during the death penalty’s long hiatus; as U.S. president from 1981 to 1989, the death penalty was only just coming back online from that period, and that at the state level. Beyond platitudinous approval of the trend, Reagan never had to put his own signature on a federal death warrant.

So as it turned out, Aaron Mitchell was the first, last, and only man so distinguished.

And Reagan’s minuscule career execution count was hardly the anomaly that it might now appear. Prior to Reagan, the last Chief Executive who had actually entered the White House having previously forwarded any fellow to the executioner was … Dwight Eisenhower.

* Gilbert is the appellant in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision Gilbert v. California, reversing his conviction because of a police lineup identification unconstitutionally obtained without his lawyer’s knowledge.

** The cop-killing Mitchell wasn’t getting any love from the beleaguered Brown administration, either; Brown almost had a shot to pull a Ricky Ray Rector with Mitchell during the campaign, but the prisoner won a judicial stay just 24 hours from execution in May 1966.

The now-former governor was quoted after Mitchell’s actual 1967 execution expressing general support for Reagan’s non-clemency in spite of Brown’s own philosophical opposition to capital punishment.

† A journalist who witnessed the gassing later described it as something less than a triumph of the killing arts.

as the gas hit him, his head immediately fell to his chest. Then his head came up and he looked directly into the window. For nearly seven minutes he sat up that way, with his chest heaving, saliva bubbling between his lips. He tucked his thumbs into his fists, and finally his head fell again … I believe he was aware many minutes … He appeared to be in great anguish

‡ “A mockery of the constitutional process,” fumed (pdf) Reagan, who claimed that Wright had told him he backed capital punishment. (See Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1705: Captain Thomas Green and two of his crew on the Worcester

17 comments April 11th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1705, another century’s supposed terrorist was hanged on Leith Sands with two of his “pirate” crew by a Scottish court “drunk with patriotic prejudice.”*

This execution took place in the feverish run-up to England and Scotland’s Acts of Union welding the neighboring realms into Great Britain in 1707.

Arising as it did from the same causes that animated that national marriage of convenience, Green’s execution also endangered it: Daniel Defoe, who was at this time a pro-Unionist mole (and prolific pamphleteer) for English pol Robert Harley, described this hanging as one of the six crises that had to be overcome en route to the Union.

A Man, A Plan, A Calamity

Panama.

That’s where it all started, for Green and Union alike.

Mired in economic backwardness as neighboring European states carved up the world, Scotland made a bold, doomed bid for a chit in the empire game: the Darien scheme. One part visionary and (at least) two parts daft, this venture attempted to establish a Scottish colony on the Isthmus of Panama (aka the Isthmus of Darien) with a view to porting freight across the narrow strip of land separating Atlantic and Pacific, and dominating the dramatically more efficient east-west trade route that would result.


The intended Scottish colony in Panama; map from this University of Glasgow exhibit.

Students of the Panama Canal project will be aware that this malarial tropic would not be described as especially hospitable; to the natural disadvantages of the climate were added the political interpositions of England herself, whose hostility to the advent of her Caledonian neighbor as a New World rival was expressed in legislation choking the Darien adventure of foreign aid.

(Also a problem: Spain. The colony was abandoned at last under Spanish siege.)

So Scotland went it intrepidly, injudiciously alone in this last bid for real independent muscle in Europe. The hyperbole of the Isthmus’s publicists eventually sucked in 20 percent or more of the capital circulating in Scotland. And when Darien-dot-com went bust by 1700 at the cost of a couple thousand lives, it cratered the Scottish economy too. That set the stage for Edinburgh’s partnership in a different scheme: Great Britain.

Green with Envy

In the years following the Darien catastrophe, the Scottish corporation chartered to undertake it was still throwing stuff against the wall in the world trade game, trying to get something to stick to at least take the edge off the losses.

This company (theoretically a potential rival of England’s own East India Company) had suffered the further national indignity of having one of its ships, the Annandale, seized in the Thames for infringing the East India Company’s royal monopoly. Its appeals for redress falling on deaf ears, the Darien company apparently induced Scottish authorities to undertake the retaliatory seizure of an English merchant ship, the Worcester, that had the ill luck to weather a storm at the Firth of Forth.

Rumor soon connected this ship to another vanished Darien company vessel overdue from its return trip from the East Indies … and, as it quickly became understood by all right-thinking Scots, overtaken in the Indian Ocean by this same Worcester and its crew butchered.

Captain Thomas Green and his English crew were hailed before an Admiralty court** on piracy charges on this extremely fantastical connection in a virtual mob atmosphere.

It never was clearly established that an act of piracy had been committed as a distinct fact, but by putting certain circumstances together it was inferred that Green was guilty of piracy. The very shape in which the accusation is set forth, shows that the accusers could not point to the specific act of piracy which had been committed …

[There] was no specification as to the vessel taken, which might enable the accused to prove that it had not been taken; no names of parties murdered, who might be shown still to be alive; no ownership of cargo, which might admit of proof that the owner’s goods had arrived safe. As Green himself is made justly to say in the document published as his dying speech, “We are condemned as pirates and murderers on a coast far distant from this place — is there any of you who wants either a friend whom we have murdered, or whose goods we have taken?”

Worcester Sauce

The Worcester‘s Malabari cook provided a highly dubious charge — dubious, for he was not yet among the crew when it last called at the location he claimed the crime took place — of Green and crew hatchet-murdering approximately ten English-speaking mariners on an unnamed vessel off the Indian coast.

Upon this evidence, 14 or more members (the ready sources are a little loose on the total number) of the Worcester crew were condemned for piracy, and initially slated for three batches of hangings. Queen Anne‘s personal intervention managed a stay,

The Scottish Privy Council unto the very last hours debated what to do with the diplomatic appeals, with evidence forwarded from London to the effect that the crew these Worcester men had supposedly slaughtered were alive, their vessel having been hijacked in another place, by another man.

But a surging Scottish mob aggrieved by the preceding years’ misadventures and the impending shotgun marriage to Westminster rather than anything Green himself had really done was already engorged on the blood of the supposed English corsairs. Most of the Council thought better than to deny them their sacrifice.†

The Streets fill’d with Incredible Numbers of Men, Women and Children, calling for Justice upon those ENGLISH Murtherers. The Lord Chancellor Seafield‘s Coach happening to pass by, they stop’d it, broket he Sashes, haul’d him out, and oblig’d him to promise Execution should speedily be done before he could get from ’em … According to the Chancellors promise, soon after, on the same Day, being Wednesday, Captain Green, Madder [the mate], and Sympson [the gunner] were brought out, and convey’d to Execution, which was at Leith Road upon the Sands, and all the way was Huzza’d in Triumph as it were, and insulted with the sharpest and most bitter Invectives. Being come to the place of Execution, Good God! what a moving sight was it to see those Men stand upon the very Varge of Life, just launching in to Eternity, and at the same time see the whole Multitudet ransported with Joy!”

-From an anonymous Letter From Scotland To a Friend in London, quoted by James Kelly, “The Worcester Affair,” The Review of English Studies, Feb. 2000

In the event, these three were the only ones actually hanged; passions cooled enough for the other “pirates” to be quietly released.

But the wider, national passions unleashed by this date’s executions would long provide fodder for intemperate patriotic recrimination, and specifically anti-Unionist propaganda — on both sides of the border.

Competing propagandistic broadsides framed and re-framed the events, as the affair of unscrupulous English buccaneers or perfidious highland barbarians. (Defoe, maneuvering for Union, wrote to chill such bad-for-business hostility: “Nothing could be more horrid, than that the Scots should Execute these Men on a meer Pique at the English Nation. Nothing can be more like it, than to conclude rashly, that it is so, and improve it on purpose to Exasperate our People against the Scots.” (Kelly))

And that, of course, is precisely the viewpoint that prevailed.

While the hemp neckties issued to Green et al this date threatened to (ahem) scotch the Union project, that very danger might have ultimately hastened its completion — as elites recognized, in Defoe’s words, that Union represented “the only way to preserve the publick Tranquillity, and prevent the certain Mischiefs that threatened the whole Body,” (Kelly, again) and rammed it through with dispatch.‡

* English historian G.M. Trevelyan.

** A lengthy account of the trial can be found in this Google books freebie

† In their very scanty defense, the Scottish magistrates had reason to fear Scottish citizens.

‡ The ebb and flow of national resentment continued long after the Acts of Union, of course; continuing Scottish support for the restoration of the Stuart monarchy was one expression of Scottish nationalism and anti-Union sentiment.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Piracy,Pirates,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Scotland,Wrongful Executions

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