Archive for August, 2011

1900: William Black, nearly lynched

1 comment August 31st, 2011 Headsman

“Not only the citizens of Aberdeen,” began the Feb. 23, 1900 Baltimore Sun, “but practically those of the whole of Harford county are wrought up to a high degree by the assault which was committed here upon Miss Jessie Bradford, the 15-year-old daughter of Mr. Edward Bradford, a well-to-do and respected farmer.”

A posse of mounted men was even then abroad hunting the suspect, a black shantytown dweller said to have assaulted the “prepossessing, well developed” girl with the “clear, wax-like complexion” as the latter returned on the train tracks to her uncle’s home. A conductor on a passing train had seen them struggling in the ditch and left a note (“Negro raping a white woman”) at the next stop; Miss Bradford, too, survived the trauma and gave an eyewitness description of her assailant that pointed at William Black.*

“The inhabitants of the county will spare no pains nor sacrifices to run down the miscreant,” the Sun concluded.

And we think we have a pretty good idea just what this running down would be liable to entail, since it was only days after Black’s capture that residents of a Harford county town went and lynched another African-American accused of attacking a white woman.

Black had managed to keep on the run for a week and get himself out of Harford County to Baltimore before he was arrested. He certainly owed his lease on the last few months of his life to eluding the outraged citizens.

Indeed, three months after the rape, the state’s attorney filed to handle the case in Baltimore rather than in Harford county on account of the continuing “probability of the negro being lynched had he been brought [to Harford county] for trial … it would only be the work of a few short minutes if he landed here.” (Sun, May 24, 1900) Passions had not cooled: to the contrary, it had since become known that Black had already been released from a previous prison term for a similar crime in neighboring Cecil County, and the law-and-order set was up in arms with the hempen fin de siecle version of a three strikes law.

Baltimore Sun, March 6, 1900

Black’s professed relief at evading the rigors of lynch law was to be short-lived.

A steady drumbeat of coverage for the “Aberdeen Outrage,” the “Miss Bradford Assault”, or whatever other salacious description could be conjured, kept him in papers as public enemy number one; Jessie Bradford, so very young and so very white, tearfully testified against Black in a scene that cannot have failed to stir the three-judge tribunal. (Black sensibly opted against a jury trial.)

He would remain lodged in Baltimore right up until his hanging in Bel Air back in Harford county, as a precaution against the mob. He was there long enough to see another of his race precede him: one Amos Smith, who hanged in Baltimore City Jail on August 3, fraternally comforting his fellow-sufferer that “I am only going ahead of you a few days and will be in the other world to meet you when you come.”** (Sun, Aug. 3, 1900)

Actually getting Black across that Styx in the legally prescribed fashion would require some craft on the part of the lawmen.

Even though the sentence was sure, the good folk of Harford County were feared violently inclined to prefer personally administering the judgment. Harford Sheriff Andrew Kinhart, said the Sun (Sep. 1, 1900), “stole a march on the watchful public” anticipating its potential victim arriving on a 9:30 train by racing his “exceedingly nervous” prisoner from Baltimore to Bel Air under cover of darkness, arriving at 5:40 a.m. in time for Black’s hearty if secretive last breakfast in the company of his wife, and then proceeding swiftly to the scaffold before the rabble could get wind of what was going on. It was a high-risk ploy as it entailed leaving behind in Baltimore Black’s armed escort in the interests of stealth — but it did work, our scribe judging the unhappy business to have been conducted “creditably”.

* Black persisted in his innocence at trial, and up to his execution. Though condemned prisoners’ assertions of virtue are hardly the most reliable gauge, neither are eyewitness statements … although in this case, Black reportedly admitted to the crime in the last hours before his death.

** Both Smith and Black also shared (Sun, July 11, 1900) the same spiritual advisor whilst awaiting execution: Methodist Episcopal preacher Ernest Lyon, later the U.S. ambassador to Liberia.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Maryland,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

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1867: Bridget Durgan, “hardly human”

4 comments August 30th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1867, Irish immigrant maid Bridget Durgan (or Durgin, or Dergan) was hanged in New Brunswick, New Jersey for murdering the mistress of the house.

In this instantly sensational case, Durgan at first represented herself the party raising the hue and cry with the neighbors as her mistress was slaughtered by two unknown visitors. (Since it was a doctor’s house, the “unknown visitors” part wasn’t an unusual circumstance.)

Unfortunately our maidservant conducted this office without recognizing that her own dress was bloodstained and would implicate her in the crime — as would the suspicious circumstance that the homicide took place on the very eve of Durgan’s involuntary termination date, the victim having judged her contribution to the household inadequate.

If Durgan’s published confession is to be believed — and many didn’t believe it, since the condemned woman’s stories varied wildly before settling on the rather pat version that none of the other suspected participants were involved — she had come down in the world from a less abject birth in Ireland, transferred upon her victim a hatred conceived for a previous mistress in a previous household, and done the deed in some confused attempt to supplant Mrs. Coriell.

(This confession offers a florid narration — and illustration (pdf) — of the dying woman staying Bridget’s coup de grace long enough to give her infant child one last kiss.)

So, from the standpoint of criminal heinousness and public outrage over same, this was definitely the sort of thing to hang a body.

Difficult questions of weighing the proper level of culpability for offenses committed by those with a seemingly diminished mental capacity were at this time becoming a hot topic in criminology; in a few years, a madman who assassinated a president would make them national news.

Poet and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Oakes Smith, then entering her seventh decade, went to see Bridget Durgan. It was, she said, a habit of hers to “visit the prisons … that I may the better understand my own sex in every aspect.”*

Smith published a study (pdf; the same analysis was also printed in the New York Times) of our unhappy subject for the edification of the popular press. It’s quite an interesting read for a window on the social outlook in the post-Civil War North, doubly so when recalling as one reads that Smith is attempting to argue a case for clemency for her subject, and against the death penalty in general.

In the scale of human intelligence I find Bridget Durgin on the very lowest level. She has cunning and ability to conceal her real actions; and so have the fox, the panther, and many inferior animals, whose instincts are not more clearly defined than those of Bridget Durgin …

Ain’t nothin’ but mammals: left, Bridget Durgan, as illustrated in her confessions (pdf); center, a panther ((cc) image from Iain Purdie); right, a cunning fox ((cc) image from Jakob Newman).

her hair combed close to her head … give the observer an opportunity to notice her strong animal organization. She is large in the base of the brain, and swells out over the ears, where destructiveness and secretiveness are located by phrenologists, while the whole region of intellect, ideality and moral sentiment is small …

Her texture, temperature, all are coarse; hair coarse and scanty, forehead naturally corrugated and low, nose concave and square at the nostrils, leaving a very long upper lip … her eyes wavering constantly. They open across, not below, the ball, and the pupil is uncommonly small; I should say she would be naturally dim-sighted. It is purely the eye of a reptile in shape and expression. The jaws are large and heavy, but the mouth is small … narrow gums, catlike in shape, with pointed teeth.


(cc) image from Jarrod Carruthers.

There is not one character of beauty, even in the lowest degree, about the girl — not one ray of sentiment, nothing genuine, hardly human …

I looked upon Bridget Durgin without prejudice, and I describe her without exageration. She was born without moral responsibility, just as much as the tiger or the wolf is so born;

Tiger ((cc) image from Chris Ruggles); wolf ((cc) image from C. Young Photography).

and the question naturally arises, what is the duty of a wise, humane and just legislator in her case … whether it is right to take an irresponsible, morally idiotic creature, and she a woman, whose sex has had no voice in making the laws under which she will suffer, and hang her by the neck till she is dead, is a question for our advanced civilization to consider.

Durgan, who bore all the public opprobrium of a Casey Anthony — plus points for being unattractive,** and for class-based moral panic, and for actually being convicted — had little chance to avoid her sentence, as Smith herself admitted.

When the time came, she met her fate steadily (in some quarters, this was also held against her insofar as it could support the “dumb animal” narrative) and yanked aloft on an upward-jerking gallows, ushered to the afterlife by a couple thousand people who crowded adjoining buildings for a view into the jailhouse yard. (A spectators’ platform collapsed.) This bit of technological wizardry was poorly engineered and, rather than efficiently snapping Durgan’s neck as was its intent, strangled the murderess to death instead.

“More abominable curiosity, more mawkish sentimentality, more religious affectation, has been expended on this bloodthirsty animal than we remember in the case of almost any other modern criminal,” complained The New York Times.

* Smith had another reason for familiarity with prisons: her son Appleton Oaksmith, late a filibuster in William Walker‘s party, did time during the Civil War for pro-Confederate gun-running and slave trading. His mother helped secure him a pardon.

** The New York Times (May 21, 1867) had simply called our hated Irishwoman “ordinary-looking.” We’ve seen with, for instance, Charlotte Corday that observers are wont to shape perceived feminine beauty according to perceived criminal monstrousness, and vice versa.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Jersey,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Women

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Themed Set: Americana

15 comments August 30th, 2011 Headsman

American executions, and those glimpses of the larger American story attainable through them, have been a prominent feature on this site, from the guy who came over on the Mayflower to the guy who’s about to be a 2012 campaign issue, and all the many martyrs, patriots, traitors, and legends in between.

For all that, these data points each in isolation have never quite given us pause to survey the grand sweep of the American story, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and all their varied carols.

The posts in these next few days are scarcely that country’s most memorable executions, but they are every inch American, the rack and ruin of gangster deaths for quintessential homo Americani from the 13 colonies to the postwar empire.


(cc) image from Beverly & Pack

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Entry Filed under: Themed Sets

1541: Cristóvão da Gama, Portuguese crusader in Ethiopia

Add comment August 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1541, Cristóvão da Gama — “the most chivalrous soldier of a chivalrous age” — was beheaded in Ethiopia.

This moment was the apex of Lisbon’s empire-building, most vividly symbolized by Cristovao’s famous dad, explorer Vasco de Gama. In the Age of Discovery, Caravels bore Portuguese colors from Brazil to Japan.

Alas, Portugal’s global maritime empire of coastal colonies and remote ports was immediately menaced by rival powers like the also at-its-apex Ottoman Empire.

Young Cristovao would be ground up in this conflict whose mixture of geopolitics and sectarianism overtly smacked of those old-time Crusades.

After a jaunt to India in the train of his older brother, appointed the Portuguese governor of India, Cristavao was sidetracked on a return voyage for an intervention on the Christian side in a raging local war. For Europeans who for generations had trafficked in the vague and fantastical rumors of mythical Abyssinian ruler “Prester John”, putting a thumb on the scale for Ethiopian Christians against the rampant Arabs must have been nigh irresistible.

Let’s listen in.

Joao III and his government, faced with mounting debts as the costs of military operations in the East steadily grew, were now forced to re-evaluate their global commitments … the new viceroy, Estevao da Gama, was ordered to destroy the Turkish fleet in Suez …

Estevao da Gama’s raid into the Red Sea became one of the best remembered episodes in the history of the Portuguese Estado da India. The fleet assembled at Massawa on the African shore and then proceeded to Suakin which was burnt and plundered. Part of the fleet then returned to Massawa while the rest sailed on to Suez where the Turkish ships proved to be securely based and inaccessible. On the shore of Sinai, as close to Jerusalem as the Portuguese were ever to come, Estevao da Gama enacted some of the rituals of crusading chivalary and made a number of knights before returning to Massawa. Meanwhile, Dom Joao de Castro, who accompanied the expedition, used the time to produce his famous guide to the Red Sea, the Roteiro do Mar Roxo, complete with the meticulous drawings of the ports and anchorages, a masterpiece of Portuguese Renaissance geography and science.


One of Joao de Castro’s drawings. (Source, a Portuguese pdf)

Meanwhile the Portuguese at Massawa had suffered extreme privations and a hundred of them had deserted, having been persuaded by [untrustworthy Potuguese-descended Ethiopian ambassador Joao] Bermudes of the richness and wealth of the interior. Their fate was to be captured and massacred by Ahmed Gran. Estevao da Gama now dispatched a force of four hundred soldiers under the command of his brother, Cristovao da Gama, into the interior to assist the Ethiopian king. Cristovao da Gama advanced from the coast with a force much the same size as that which Cortez had led into Mexico in 1519. He had with him horses, arquebuses and eight small cannon. His first objective was to link up with the fugitive Ethiopian king and his followers, but da Gama got separated from his supplies and was forced to fight a superior Somali force supported by Turkish mercenaries. The result was catastrophe. The small Portuguese army was badly mauled and da Gama himself fled wounded from the battlefield and was taken prisoner.

The capture of the viceroy’s brother, son of the great admiral, carried with it huge importance for the Turks. After being ritually humiliated (his beard being set on fire and his face buffeted with the shoes of his negro servant) Cristovao da Gama was beheaded.* For the Portuguese this was a disaster, the symbolic significance of which far transcended the military consequences of the defeat. However, the Christian church had long experience of turning catastrophe into triumph and, soon after the news of Cristovao da Gama’s death reached the outside world, rumours of miracles began to circulate.** Da Gama became one of the first martyrs of the new church overseas which in a hundred years of expansion had had all too few heroic deeds to celebrate.

After the death of their commander fewer than two hundred of the original army survived, but they were able to meet up with the Christian Ethiopian forces and, when the next campaigning season started in 1542, the combined army inflicted a heavy defeat on the Muslims, a defeat which took on a decisive complexion when it was realised that the leader of the jihad, Ahmed Gran, had been killed in the battle.

Da Gama’s expedition had been mounted from the resources of the official empire and had been commanded by one of the leading fidalgos of the Estado da India. However, few of da Gama’s soldiers returned to India Instead they settled in Ethiopia and married Ethiopian women, establishing a ‘Portuguese’ community that mirrored the ‘Portuguese’ communities in Aythia, Bengal, Kongo and elsewhere where soldiers had offered their military expertise to local rulers an had been content to settle and make their fortures far removed from the jurisdiction of the Portuguese Crown.

Although da Gama’s own end was unfortunate, his surviving force’s exploits on a side badly pressed could arguably be considered the decisive factor enabling Christianity to survive in Ethiopia’s highlands interior. Prester John would have been proud.

* “I write what I heard, it may well be that it was thus, for all that is barbarous and cruel about the Moorish king can be believed. The body, after death, was dismembered and sent to various places … because once when Granha was speaking with Dom Christovao, he asked him: ‘If you had me in your power, as I have you, what would you do to me?’ Dom Christovao, with great resolution and freedom replied, ‘If I had you in my power, I would have you killed, the head I would send to one place and the quarters I would distribute to other places’ (naming them, but I do not recall them). And Granha, they say that it was because he heard this, scattered the body to various places.”

** “Directly they cut off his head, God worked a great and manifest miracle through it, which was, that in the place where they slew him a fountain of running water gushed out, which had never been seen before: its water, through the goodness and power of God, gives sight to the blind, and cures those ill of other diseases. It appears that this miracle is like the one that God did in Rome for His Apostle St. Paul. The remains of the body of D. Christovao smell sweetly, giving forth so delightful an odour, that it seems rather of heaven than of earth.”

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1941: Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Indochina Communist cadre

Add comment August 28th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Vietnamese Communist cadre Nguyen Thi Minh Khai was shot as an anti-France insurrectionary.*

Khai (Vietnamese Wikipedia page | English) surely fit the description: she was a leader of the Indochinese Communist Party in the 1930’s, working directly with Ho Chi Minh in his Hong Kong exile. She would return in 1936 to the city later named for that redoubtable revolutionary as its ranking agitator.

Khai, the most famous of the Indochinese Wars’ vast ranks of women fighters, would marry fellow revolutionary Le Hong Phong, the chairman of the party, who died in prison in 1942. Khai’s sister’s marriage made Khai sister-in-law to the revolution’s military lion Vo Nguyen Giap.**

But her prominent position also made her a target.

Arrested by the French late in 1940, she was tortured and condemned to death. She was shot with other cadres, shouting last words that the decades yet to come would pretty well vindicate.

Long live the Communist party of Indochina. Long live the victorious Vietnamese revolution. (Source)

Readers whose Vietnamese is stronger than mine — i.e., extant in any form whatsoever — might get something out of this video:

As a national heroine, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai is the namesake of any number of public spaces in Vietnam, like schools and roads.


Paradoxical historiography: the street address visible to the right of the photo brands a revolutionary name onto an upscale coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City. (cc) image from Lawrence Sinclair.

* Some sources give an April 1941 execution date, particularly April 25. I believe this may actually be the date Khai was condemned. There are also some sources indicating a guillotine execution; though the guillotine was certainly available, the bulk of the sources seem to say that Khai was shot.

** Giap is still going strong after all these years; he just turned 100 a few days ago. Khai’s sister was not as lucky; she died in French custody at the prison American pilots would later refer to as the “Hanoi Hilton”.

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1500: 18 thieves in Rome

Add comment August 27th, 2011 Headsman

Tourism is pretty essential to the Roman economy, and for as long as there have been dumb foreigners come to gawk, the Caput Mundi has supplied robbers alert to relieve them of their opes mundi.

And as it happens, that’s been for quite a long time. They don’t call it the Eternal City for nothing.


Ponte Sant’Angelo. (Hanged corpses not included.) The bridge was built by Emperor Hadrian in the early second century. (cc) image from Jimmy Harris.

On this date in 1500, a gang of 18 brigands were all hanged (Italian link) along Rome’s Ponte Sant’Angelo for their activities preying on traveling pilgrims.

One of those executed was an orderly at the nearby Ospedale S. Spirito, whose particular specialty was casing the infirmaries for weakened patients

This death penalty venue facing the Vatican’s Castel Sant’Angelo across the Tiber saw plenty of traffic in its day. Bookending the other end of the 16th century, it would host the legendary execution of Beatrice Cenci.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Italy,Mass Executions,Murder,Organized Crime,Outlaws,Papal States,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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1823: Natty and Louie, Demerara rebels

Add comment August 26th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1823 was that of the trial, conviction, and immediate execution of the first two men to suffer under color of law for the 1823 slave revolt in Demerara.

A sugar-producing colony recently ceded from the Netherlands to Britain (today, Demerara is part of Guyana), Demerara’s population was nearly 95% slaves. They would author one of the New World’s largest slave rebellions.

Ten thousand-plus are thought to have taken part in the rising — short-lived despite the numbers — starting on Aug. 18.

At the insistence of a well-regarded older slave named Quamina — nowadays honored as a Guyanese national hero — the rebels paradoxically committed themselves to nonviolence. Very few whites died; most plantation owners taken were simply tied up and held prisoner, to be rescued when government troops quelled the disturbance over the next few days.

This consideration was not reciprocated, including to Quamina himself: he was summarily executed upon capture, one of scores of rebels so treated.

But even while scattered mutineers still maintained themselves in the bush, “proper” judicial proceedings commenced on this date. (They’d been authorized just the day before. No time to stand on ceremony.)

Well … maybe a little ceremony.

Since these were the first public executions, they were carried out with great solemnity. A procession was formed to conduct the prisoners to the gallows that had been erected on the Parade Ground at Cumingsburg. First came an advance guard, followed by blacks beaing empty coffins. Then came the prisoners between guards, the garrison chaplain, and the band of the First Battalion, Demerara militia …

The procession moved slowly through the streets, the band playing a funeral march. As the procession passed up the main street of Cumingsburg, the whole of the Marine Battalion turned out and presented arms, until the procession had passed. When the prisoners were executed, a gun shot announced their deaths.

This author reports that, in contrast with the raucous scaffold support given popular “traitors” in the British homeland like Arthur Thistlewood, “in Demerara, silence and gloom surrounded the prisoners’ deaths. Those who dared to speak said they were dying for the sake of religion.”

Many would go to that silent gloom: two more the next day; four on the day after that; 47 judicially executed by the end of September. Different sources give different counts, so we’ll just say, look, it was more than a handful.

But in addition to whatever religious weight the condemned might have reckoned their sacrifice, they also died in the cause of slavery abolition. Alarmed by the scale of the uprising and not a little put off by the brutishness of its suppression, Parliament pressured on its overseas possessions to relieve the lot of the slave. Fewer beatings, a morsel of education, as a hedge against the danger of revolution. How about a bit of enlightened self-interest?

A decade after these hangings — a decade nearly to the day — London had had enough half-measures and, spurred on by yet another New World slave revolt, abolished slavery altogether.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guyana,Hanged,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Slaves,Treason

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1936: Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, Old Bolsheviks

4 comments August 25th, 2011 Headsman

During the purges of the 1930s, Josef Stalin showed a particular relish for eliminating the Old Bolsheviks whose red credentials predated the revolution. (And potentially, outshone his own.)

Zinoviev

On this date in 1936, one of the oldest of them, Grigory Zinoviev, was shot with his longtime ally Lev Kamenev.

These guys had been major movers and shakers among the early Bolsheviki, adherents of Lenin during the first decade of the century when the aspiration for a Communist Russia seemed hopelessly far-fetched. Zinoviev rode with Lenin from Switzerland to Petrograd in the famous sealed train after the February Revolution toppled the tsar. (Not so Kamenev: he was serving time in Siberia, but was freed by the revolution.)

In the years that followed, both played leading roles in the Soviet government despite their impolitic opposition to the Bolshevik coup in October.

Kamenev was briefly head of state in 1917, and he married Leon Trotsky’s sister. Zinoviev was the longtime head of the Communist International, in which capacity he showed Moscow’s public face for communist movements in other countries. Bela Kun was another ally of Zinoviev’s.)

In this capacity, he’s known in British history for the “Zinoviev letter”, a purported summons to Anglo agitation that was actually a dirty trick dropped before an election to help the Tories sweep to power.*

Those were the good old days — when Lenin was fading away and Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin were the “troika” running things. They should have checked with the Romans how triumvirates work out.

Because of their alliance, Zinoviev and Kamenev provided the decisive support that enabled Stalin to remain General Secretary of the party after the public airing of Lenin’s Testament warning against him. Without Zinoviev and Kamenev at this crucial moment, Stalin probably could not have survived politically; the name Koba might have gone into history books as little more than a terror to the paperwork of some forgotten bureau. (And the pre-revolutionary Caucasus!)

Talk about hoisted by your own petard.

Having been helpfully maintained in his position against Lenin’s dying wish, Stalin soon marginalized these formerly useful creatures. Their last decade was doomed to a spiral of failing power struggles, sinking rank, furtive dissension, and craven submission to party discipline.

Stalin at length destroyed them at the first great Moscow show trial, the Trial of the Sixteen — which hyped a “Trotskyite-Zinovievite” plot in a nicely Orwellian twist. (Despite Kamenev’s marital connection, Trotsky was actually a political rival.) The charge sheet must have reminded the defendants on every one of their dwindling days of the alliance with Trotsky they could have made back when they mattered.

The Trial of the 16 defendants would help to write the script for succeeding acts of this awful theater: after fighting the allegations, Zinoviev and Kamenev agreed to plead guilty on private assurances that their lives would be spared.

But once he had their “admissions” on the record, Stalin altered the deal.

Not only Zinoviev and Kamenev, but all 16 from the trial of the 16 were shot shortly after midnight this date.

From exile, their “conspirator” Trotsky called it the “end of an epoch”.

His obituary for Zinoviev and Kamenev minces no words about the men’s personal shortcomings (“they lacked sufficient character”), but still achieves a certain elegaic sympathy for these former fellow-travelers and their shared movement, now swallowed by Stalinism.

I have had the occasion to hear tranquil petty bourgeois tell me in the days between the beginnings of the trial and my internment: “It’s impossible to understand Zinoviev … He is so lacking in character!” And I would reply: “Have you yourselves experienced the full weight of the pressure to which he has been subjected for a number of years?” Unintelligent in the extreme are the comparisons, so widespread in intellectual circles, of the conduct in court of Danton, Robespierre and others. These were the instances of revolutionary tribunes who found the knife of justice suspended over them, directly in the midst of the arena of struggle; at a time when they were in the full flower of their strength, with their nervous system almost untouched and, at the same time, when they despaired of all hope of salvation.

[By contrast] For ten years they [Zinoviev and Kamenev] had been enveloped by clouds of slander paid for in heavy gold. For ten years they had swayed between life and death, first in a political sense, then in a moral sense, and lastly in a physical sense. Can one find in all past history examples of such systematic, refined and fiendish destruction of spines, nerves and all the fibers of the soul? Zinoviev or Kamenev would have had more than ample character for a tranquil period. But the epoch of grandiose social and political convulsions demanded an extraordinary firmness of these men, whose abilities secured them a leading place in the revolution. The disproportion between their abilities and their wills led to tragic results.

* There are numerous theories of the Zinoviev Letter’s origin; one has it that spy Sidney Reilly had a hand in it.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Murder,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1782: David Tyrie, the last hanged, drawn, and quartered

11 comments August 24th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1782, a crowd contemporaries pegged at 100,000 mobbed the gruesome public execution of David Tyrie — the last man hanged, drawn, and quartered in British history.

Tyrie was a Scotsman clerking at a Portsmouth naval office, who was caught in a treacherous correspondence with the French. He lacked political pull of his own and either the means or inclination to shop confederates, and therefore faced the full weight of the treason statute.

Said venerable statute, a theatrically bloody relic of the Middle Ages popularized by Edward I for terrorizing malcontent subjects, had persisted for half a millennium or so and in its grisly Tudor efflorescence crowned the careers of saints, terrorists, lovers, fighters, and Shakespeare characters.

Tyrie might have been small time by those standards, but he wore it well this date — “played the man,” in the old parlance — before the throng on Southsea Common.


Southsea Common today. (cc) image from Roo Reynolds.

From the time he was put on the sledge, till be came to the gibbet, he continued in an unconcerned conversation with the gaoler, in which he expressed that he thought there were not three better, sounder, or honester hearts in the kingdom, than his own, which was just going to be burnt. That there was only one thing which gave him concern, which was, that his father was living, and he feared this misfortune would bring his grey hairs with sorrow to the grave. He declined saying a word to the populace, observing, that he knew not why he was to feed or gratify the idle curiosity of the multitude. He never hung his head the whole time. — When arrived at the place of execution, no halter was provided, upon which he smiled, and expressed astonishment as the inattention and neglect of his executioners; and indeed the business would have been retarded for some time, had not a rope and pulley been procured out of a lugger that lay under shore, during which time he read several passages in a bible he carried in his hand. – Before he was drawn up, he delivered a paper, setting forth, that he had authorised no person to publish any account of his life, nor was there any one who knew sufficiently of him to give any genuine particulars of his transactions in the world.

After hanging exactly twenty-two minutes, he was lowered upon the sledge, and the sentence literally put in execution. His head was severed from his body, his heart taken out and burnt, his privities cut off, and his body quartered. He was then put into a coffin, and buried among the pebbles by the sea-side; but no sooner had the officers retired, but the sailors dug up the coffin, took out the body, and cut it in a thousand pieces, every one carrying away a piece of his body to shew their messmates on board. — A more dreadful, affecting execution was perhaps never seen.


Before disemboweling, he was probably stretched out somewhat like David Tyree.

In fact, it was so dreadful (including many injuries in the distasteful rush for souvenirs) that they stopped doing it. Only gradually: Edward Marcus Despard, for instance, was sentenced to drawing and quartering, but they only hanged him to death and cut off his head posthumously. In 1814, that sentence — hanging plus posthumous beheading — formally replaced the old disemboweling-and-quartering bit as the penalty for treason.

(The invaluable CapitalPunishmentUK.org says that one James O’Coigley suffered hanging, drawing, and quartering in 1798 for that year’s Irish Rebellion; however, the Newgate Calendar’s record says that O’Coigley was “merely” hanged and beheaded, like Despard.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Espionage,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Spies,Treason

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1594: Ishikawa Goemon, bandit

Add comment August 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1594, legendary Japanese outlaw and folk hero Ishikawa Goemon was boiled to death in oil for attempting to assassinate Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

And he’s supposed to have had his son thrown into the kettle* with him, and, boiling to death himself, to have held the boy aloft out of harm’s way.

A 19th-century image painted by Toyokuni III of Goemon in one of the several kabuki plays he features in.

Ishikawa is a sort of Japanese Robin Hood figure, and the (very much) that isn’t offered by the documentary record is helpfully expanded in folklore.

Trained in forbidden ninja ways? Check.

Or maybe a samurai? Why not?

Henchman named “rat boy”? Oh, yes.

Just what his beef with national unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi might have been is also subject to the exigencies of the story at hand. Let it be oppression or something, good enough for one of those classic outlaw-with-a-heart-of-gold retorts against condemnation for his thieving career.

It is you who are the robber who stole the whole country!

He gets to be the title character of the 2009 film Goemon:

Thanks to the inevitable marketing tie-ins, the world also has a Goemon action figure.

Personally, and especially because I would lose all these nifty accessories, I much prefer the adorable Goemon Cosbaby series.

* As a result of this famous exit, a Goeomon-buro (Goemon bath) in Japanese refers to a large iron kettle-shaped bathtub.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Boiled,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Innocent Bystanders,Japan,Language,Notable for their Victims,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions

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