Archive for November, 2012

1328: Na Prous Boneta, Beguine heresiarch

3 comments November 11th, 2012 Headsman

“Her heart began to marvel that so great a light as the great light that they revealed could be changed so quickly to so great a smoke …”

-Female Beguine quoted by ‘So Great a Light, So Great a Smoke’: The Beguin Heretics of Languedoc

On this date in 1328, the Inquisition relaxed the heretic Na Prous Boneta (or Bonnet) to the secular authorities at Carcassonne for execution.

Na Prous Boneta was part of the great religious movements towards poverty and spiritual rebirth then shaking Europe — the same impulse that drove men like Segarelli and Dolcino to the stake.

In southern France, the first name in this movement so suspect to Catholic orthodoxy was Peter Olivi, a charismatic prophet of egalitarian poverty from the Franciscan order. The Franciscans were the institutional expression of that same renewal movement, but their incorporation into the church had co-opted their once-radical energy. They were divided internally between the ascetic “Spiritual Franciscans” (or Fraticelli) and their brethren grown comfortable with worldly emoluments.*

After Olivi’s (natural) death in Narbonne, France, in 1298, he became an object of popular veneration for the Fraticelli’s lay admirers, among whom the communities of lay Beguin(e) women were especially prominent.**

As we have seen, the Church would soon resolve upon a fearful suppression of the Fraticelli and the Beguines, who came to be closely identified with one another. Scores went to the flames; the Inquisitor Bernard Gui complained that fugitive Beguines (and their Beghard brethren) had the gall to keep up their own calendar of martyrology. (Executed Today fully endorses this practice.)

According to the confession her adversaries would later extract, a mystical vision on Good Friday 1321 in her home town of Montpellier would transport Na Prous Boneta into Beguine leadership — fully aware of the dangers to life and limb.

“Put your heart and mind into the work of the Holy Spirit,” she preached. And “keep your body prepared for martyrdom if it should be necessary.”

And boy, did she have to be prepared.

Prous was all-in on her heretical denunciation of a church that had committed itself to bloody suppression of her sect. She denied the efficacy of the sacraments, said that salvation followed from good deeds even for “Jews and Saracens” and as for the guy in charge just down the way at Avignon …

this present pope, John XXII, is like Caiaphas, who crucified Christ. Moreover, the poor beguins who were burned, and also the burned lepers, were like the innocents beheaded by Herod’s command. Again, just as Herod procured the death of innocent children, thus this Herod, the devil, procured the death of those burned beguins and lepers. Again, she claims that Christ told her the sin of this pope is as great as the sin of Cain.

Though all these confessions were given in 1325, Na Prous Boneta appears to have been kept in prison for three years in an effort to persuade her to change her tune. That Caiaphas-like pope himself took an interest in the case, even ordering (perhaps suggestive of the woman’s following) that her eventual execution take place not in her own city but in Carcassonne.

That execution took place on this date when the visionary, having refused every blandishment to save her soul, caused the inquisitors to declare that

knowing from experience that those who are evil simply get worse by the day when they think they will go unpunished, we, compelled by our office which we are obliged by holy obedience to fulfill diligently, since we neither should nor indeed wish to tolerate any longer such abominations and such dangerous opposition to the entire church and the catholic faith, having obtained counsel concerning the above matters from many religious and secular persons learned in both laws, having God before our eyes and the holy gospels of Jesus Christ placed before us so that our judgment should proceed from God and appear right before God and our eyes should see what is just, on this day, in this place and time assigned by us to hear definitive sentence, sitting as a tribunal, invoking the name of Christ, we pronounce, judge and declare you, Na Prous, to be an impenitent heretic and heresiarch and pertinacious in your obduracy. Since the church can do nothing more with such people, we release you to the secular authorities.

* This conflict is the subject of The Name of the Rose; Olivi’s heir as the Spirituals’ leader, Ubertino of Casale, is a character in that novel.

** One need not stretch too far to see a bit of comeuppance in the emergence of a feminine anti-papal voice at this period; the original movement into all-women beguinages is thought to have been facilitated by the surplus population of unmarried or widowed women created by Europe’s recent enthusiasm for sending young men to die on Crusade.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,God,Heresy,History,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Women

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2009: John Muhammad, D.C. sniper

3 comments November 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 2009, D.C. sniper John Muhammad was executed by lethal injection in Virginia.

Muhammad — born John Allen Williams; he renamed himself after joining the Nation of Islam — authored with Lee Boyd Malvo, a juvenile collaborator under his sway, a spree of random sniper attacks around the Washington D.C. suburbs that terrified the nation’s capital in October 2002.

The two were captured together sleeping out in their sniper-mobile — a Chevy Caprice with a hole drilled in the trunk for taking concealed potshots at gas stations and mall parking lots and the like. Although arrested initially in Maryland, the U.S. Attorney General forced their case to the more aggressive death penalty jurisdiction of Virginia. (The two killed people in both states, tallying 10 dead and three wounded all told.)

From the time of his Oct. 24, 2002 arrest until the very end, Muhammad was frustratingly tight-lipped about how and why the carnage took place. Was it personal pique? Religious terrorism? Just a regular criminal racket?

In 2006 testimony, a now-contrite Lee Malvo — at one point he addressed Muhammad directly, saying “You took me into your house and you made me a monster” — outlined a plan that constituted a fearsomely nutty combination of motives: use the mayhem to extort millions of dollars, then take the money and set up a Canadian camp for 140 homeless black youth and rear them as terrorists. It’s just possible that this proposed enterprise pushed every single button in the collective American id.

(Malvo himself pled out to the murders, accepting six life sentences.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Serial Killers,Terrorists,USA,Virginia

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1848: Robert Blum, German democrat

Add comment November 9th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1848, a day short of his forty-second birthday, the German revolutionist Robert Blum was summarily shot in Vienna — a tragic victim of Germany’s Revolutions of 1848.

Marker at Robert Blum’s birthplace in Cologne reads “I die for the German liberty that I fought for. May the fatherland remember me.” (cc) image from Elke Wetzig.

Blum grew up in a penniless proletarian family but drifted into the literary set. He spent the 1830s penning liberal-minded plays, poetry, newspaper correspondence. He uncovered a magnetic personality and a gift for organization.

By the 1840s he was a — maybe the — preeminent left-liberal in the Kingdom of Saxony: pro-parliamentary democracy, anti-violence, for a wide grant of civil liberties and mass education.

The pressures, both liberal and radical, pushed to the brink the small realms in the German Confederation, as well as the neighboring Austrian Empire. Both struggled to handle even the liberals’ demands like expanding the franchise and freedom of the press, with old hereditary polities that might not be up to changing times. Germany, Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto (1847), “is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution.”

Right on cue…

That pregnant year of 1848 found Blum in the Frankfurt parliament, and his neither-fish-nor-fowl leftism — a little too out there for mainstream liberals; a little too bourgeois for real radicals — made Blum the perfect pick for a solidarity mission.

When in September 1848 the Austrian army was defeated trying to crush a Hungarian rebellion, the Habsburg capital of Vienna took the example and mounted a revolution of its own, putting the government to flight.

Blum was sent as sympathetic delegate to this abortive Viennese commune, but found himself trapped in the city when the Austrian army encircled it in late October.

The Austrians, when they caught him, sent their own message back by denying him any form of deference for his parliamentary rank. Blum’s direct condemnation was a stark warning by the Habsburg state to agitators, but also to their putative brethren dreaming of a Greater Germany. Austria wasn’t buying what the Großdeutsche people were selling.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Carl Steffeck’s painting of Robert Blum’s execution. Here’s a YouTube recreation (in German).

Blum went on to a posthumous career as a star liberal martyr among the German circles who had use for such a character.

Blum’s seven-year-old son Hans grew up to follow his father’s literary footsteps … but from quite the other side of the aisle. He was a pro-Bismarck nationalist.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Artists,Arts and Literature,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Revolutionaries,Shot,Summary Executions

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1676: Anna Schmieg and Barbara Schleicher, Langenburg witches

Add comment November 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1676, the tiny German principality of Hohenlohe strangled and burned to death its last convicted “witches”.

This story is the subject of the recent book The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village by Thomas Robisheaux. (Interview with the author.)

Almost a full year had elapsed since Anna Fessler had received a few shrovetide cakes from the daughter of the neighboring millers.* Hours later, Fessler (who had delivered a child just a week before) took painfully ill and died in her bed.

The cakes led back to the miller’s wife Anna Schmieg, of course. But decades after the Thirty Years’ War, the whole witchcraft construct was on its way out. Robisheaux builds a powerful micro-history of the local magistrate’s painstaking effort to satisfy the era’s rigorous legal standards for witch-persecution.

These standards would soon break down entirely, but in the here and now (or there and then), the authorities had to establish Schmieg’s malevolent reputation, and figure out if there was sufficient evidence to license torture. There wasn’t, the legal doctors whom Hohenlohe consulted advised; Hohenlohe made up a justification to do it anyway.

Hey, times hadn’t changed that much. Maybe still haven’t.

Anyway, the torture did to a co-accused what torture usually does. That luckless itinerant local woman was named Barbara Schleicher: she’d been under a pall from the accusation of a previously-tortured “witch” in a nearby village a few years before, and with the requisite pressure she soon copped to everything. Schmieg denied and fought and repelled, but eventually she too broke down and made the fatal confession. So, on November 8, 1676, before a court constituted of local grandees,

Anna Elisabeth Schmieg and Barbara Schleicher had to confess one more time, openly and publicly.

This was the moment of danger. Were Anna now to curse the judges as she had cursed the executioner before she was tortured, “asking them to join her for God’s Judgment in the Valley of Jehosaphat,” the proceedings might break up. She could be tortured again, but the curse would have had a shocking effect and raised the question about whether an injustice was about to be committed.

Because of these dangers, instead of asking the women to speak for themselves, the county’s officer spoke for them, saying that the two poor sinners had freely confessed their crimes and were ready to be given over to justice. The scribe read of Anna’s use of witchcraft and murder, as well as her seduction by Satan. He pronounced that she had done so many evil things that she could not even remember them all. He then read out a list of Schleicher’s crimes, which included witchcraft, murdering two husbands, turning herself into a wolf, and attempting to commit suicide. Whoever these two poor sinners had been before that day, they were now publicly branded as witches, poisoners, and murderers.

Talk about speak now or forever hold your peace. For not raising a ruckus, the court threw a bone to the wicked and now-confessed hags and mitigated the sentence of tearing at their flesh with iron tongs followed by burning at the stake to tearing at their flesh with iron tongs followed by strangulation followed by burning at the stake.

Chief Justice Assum turned to the court assessors and asked them whether the sentence had been decided as the court scribe had read it. Together they replied yes. Assum then rose, broke the ceremonial staff in two, and threw the pieces to the floor. With this old legal gesture, the blood court was symbolically breaking its staff over the lives of the prisoners. Then he said, “God help their poor souls.” [Local Count] Heinrich Friedrich’s representative then asked that the executioner carry out the sentence. According to prescription, the command to the executioner was repeated three times. At the close the chief justice forbade everyone present, on penalty of bodily punishment, from seeking revenge for this act of justice. No one was to take up violence against the law or question what was being done. The court scribe repeated his admonition.

The executioner then led the women out of the court, across the drawbridge, and over into the market square, where they joined the procession that had assembled. Drummers beat out a cadence, schoolboys sang hymns, and the sober procession marched down Langenburg’s long main street and out the gate at the east end of the town.

Once past the town gate, Anna’s and Barbara’s expulsion from the community was complete. From many perspectives, as we have seen, Anna’s emotional world was not like our own. It would be wrong to assume that Anna and Barbara felt the same anxiety and fear that we would today as they climbed the “Path of Straw” to Gallows Hill. The belief that someone who received absolution before an execution, and who did not sin again by resisting, would go right to heaven may help explain why prisoners rarely resisted at this point. Most tried to meet their fate as best as they could. Considering the suffering of the last ten months, Anna may have welcomed her end. She and Schleicher may also have been fortified for the ordeal by wine. Prayer may have brought them solace. However she felt about her fate, no record mentions her resisting or cursing the executioner or members of the court.

The scene at the gallows must have been crowded. The execution was seen as an example, and it was considered essential that the Langenburg schoolchildren be let out of school to join the procession. There, with the rest of their neighbors, they would have watched Anna and Barbara torn with hot irons and then strangled with a rope. After the bodies were burned to ashes, the last ritual gesture was made. “Lord Chief Justice,” Master Endris asked, “Have I carried out the law?” To which Assum would have replied, “If you have executed what the law and the sentence require, then the law has been fulfilled.”

This verbal exchange was critical for the execution to have fulfilled its purpose. At this moment the law, formally in suspense since Anna’s arrest, had been restored. The breach in public order that had opened on Shrove Tuesday was now mended. Count Heinrich Friedrich had seen to it. The chief justice and the assessors filed back into town and into the courtroom. Once they took their seats, it was announced that justice had been done. A lavish feast awaited them.

Just stay away from the cakes.

* A delicious tradition. Here’s a recipe for vanilla-frosted custard-filled shrovetide buns, from Denmark. Deadly deadly Satanpoison is optional.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Innocent Bystanders,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1864: Retaliatory executions by John Mosby

6 comments November 7th, 2012 Headsman

Though executioners don’t quite bat 1.000 — who does, at any human endeavor? — the field on the whole succeeds more often than not.

On this date in 1864, the Confederate guerrilla John S. Mosby had seven Union prisoners executed, but he only managed to kill three of them — an efficiency very well below the Mendoza Line for the executioner’s trade.

It was a rare competence gap for the brilliant cavalryman.

The irregulars Mosby commanded in the Shenandoah Valley had frustrated for six months the consolidation of rampant northern armies, thereby preserving the Confederate capital of Richmond and extending the Civil War.

The situation had quick become intolerable for the Union, and Gen. Ulysses Grant emphasized (pdf) to Gen. Phil Sheridan the cruel anti-insurgent tactics he would countenance for “the necessity of clearing out the country so that it would not support Mosby’s gang. So long as the war lasts they must be prevented from raising another crop.”

By way of example-setting, the Union army had summarily executed six of Mosby’s rangers at Front Royal in September — followed by a seventh who was captured in early October in Rappahanock County.

Incensed, the Confederate “gray ghost” began stockpiling blue bodies from the offending command of George Armstrong Custer — yes, the Little Bighorn guy; he was perceived by Mosby to be responsible for the atrocity, although the actual paper trail on the execution order seems to be a little sketchy.

Mosby, who fancied himself the genteel sort who would closely abide the laws of war when fighting for the right to maintain human chattel, sent a lawlerly appeal up the chain of command seeking permission “to hang an equal number of Custer’s men.” General Robert E. Lee and Confederate Secretary of War James Sedden granted it.

Twenty-seven captives were therefore assembled and subjected to a lethal lottery. Jay Simson’s Custer and the Front Royal Executions of 1864 recounts this horrible affair in an excrutiatingly page-turning narration.

The preparations began innocently enough on a quiet Sunday morning (November 6, 1864) when 27 Union prisoners of war were ushered with no explanation about what was happening out of a brick storehouse located in Rectortown, Virginia …

[They] were then marched to the banks of Goose Creek, about half a mile away. some, but definitely not all, of this specially selected pool of 27 prisoners belonged to Custer’s commands both past and present … [but] of the seven men eventually selected to die on Mosby’s orders only two were actually members of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade.

All 27 of the prisoners were lined up along Goose Creek and then made to draw slips of paper from a hat. Twenty of those slips of paper which were part of the macabre lottery were simply that, blank pieces of paper. The other seven — one for each of Mosby’s men executed at Front Royal and in Rappahanock County — were marked with a number …

Of the men who were forced to draw those slips of paper, some of them simply stared into space. Others, once they understood what was happening, prayed. There were a few of them who simply broke down.

Among the prisoners was a young drummer boy … who broke down completely, sobbing … He drew a blank slip and immediately proclaimed: “Damn it, ain’t I lucky!” When a second drummer boy was found to be unlucky enough to have drawn one of the marked slips of paper, upon the request of the men who had been spared, Mosby personally ordered the boy to be released from the seven condemned prisoners and the 18 remaining prisoners (excluding the first drummer boy) drew from the slips of paper for a second time.

Then one of the seven adults also got himself swapped out of the scrap by flashing a Masonic sign at a Confederate lodge member. The things that stand between life and death.

Out of the nine to come under death’s pall and the seven who were actually marched overnight to the place of execution (as close to Custer’s camp as Mosby dared) only three were there successfully ushered past death’s threshold.

At 4 a.m. on Monday, November 7, 1864 (the day before the election which would give Abraham Lincoln his second term in the White House and would therefore become the signature on the death warrant of the Confederacy), the Rangers and their prisoners reached the execution site in Beemer’s Woods, a mile west of Berryville, and the executions were carried forward. However, everything did not go exactly according to plan.

In the pre-dawn darkness and confusion (either through carelessness or lack of caring for their orders, since none of the prisoners had actually been involved in depredations against Confederate civilians) the Rangers allowed two of the seven prisoners (one of whom, G.H. Soule, 5th Michigan Cavalry Regiment, punched out a guard) to escape outright. Two other prisoners were apparently shot in the head, but surviving, having only been grazed, also escaped since they pretended, and were apparently believed, to be dead. The remaining three prisoners were hanged. The identities and whether or not these three prisoners were members of either Custer or Powell’s commands are unknown. Lt. Thompson, in accordance with his orders attached a placard to one of the hanged men (just as similar placards had been attached to the bodies of all three of Mosby’s hanged men). Mosby’s placard read: “These men have been hung in retaliation for an equal number of Colonel Mosby’s men hung by order of General Custer at Front Royal. Measure for Measure.”

Believing his purpose accomplished, or at any rate close enough for rebel government work, Mosby then wrote to Union General Sheridan justifying the action and assuring him that future “prisoners falling into my hands will be treated with the kindness due to their condition, unless some new act of barbarity shall compel me, reluctantly, to adopt a line of policy repugnant to humanity.”

The letter, and the 3-out-of-7 reprisal, actually worked — with no further measures exacted for measure or tits given for tat. For the waning months of the war the rival forces confined themselves to killing one another on the battlefield, and not in the stockade.

Well, mostly: one of the conspirators in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln in April 1865 — which did assassinate Lincoln, but was really a wider attempt to decapitate the entire northern government — was a former Mosby’s ranger named Lewis Powell aka Payne. Lincoln killer John Wilkes Booth also seemed to flee in Mosby’s direction (Mosby’s units were still in the field, not covered by the April 9 Appomattox surrender.) There exists an unproven but delicious speculative hypothesis that the hand of John Mosby was among those behind an exponentially more ambitious “line of policy repugnant to humanity.”

Be that as it may, Mosby actually became a Republican after the war — for which he received some Southern death threats — and lived fifty eventful years. Among other things, the aged Mosby regaled the young George Patton (whose father Mosby knew) with Civil War stories.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Confederates,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Escapes,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Pardons and Clemencies,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USA,Virginia,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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1944: Boy Ecury, Aruban Dutch Resistance hero

Add comment November 6th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Dutch Resistance hero Boy Ecury was shot by the occupying Germans.

Ecury (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch) grew up in Oranjestad, capital of the Dutch-controlled Caribbean island of Aruba, but had packed off to the Netherlands to finish school by the time World War II broke out. He spent the early Forties with a Resistance group sabotaging German assets and the like.

This insurgent clique eventually got rolled up, and Boy Ecury was arrested on November 5, 1944. He had only that one night to enjoy the legendary hospitality of the occupiers before he and several others of his group were shot the next day.

The young martyr’s body was repatriated to Aruba after the war and buried with honors; a public memorial still stands to him in Oranjestad.

Boy’s sister, the venerable poet Nydia Ecury, just passed away earlier this year.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Netherlands,Netherlands Antilles,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Terrorists,Torture,Wartime Executions

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Executioner-in-Chief: a tour of U.S. Presidents and the death penalty

3 comments November 5th, 2012 Headsman

George Washington as Revolutionary War general did not scruple to hang or shoot troublemakers to keep order in the Continental Army, and even approved the first federal execution in U.S. history. But none of that held a candle to the import of the (possible) summary execution Lt. Col. Washington’s forces dished out in a frontier skirmish back in 1754 that helped start the Seven Years’ War.

A sour note on America’s first president: he was ready to let Thomas Paine, that firebrand, go to the guillotine in revolutionary France. (Paine barely avoided that fate.)

Washington’s successor John Adams was a lawyer who had notably defended the British redcoats who fired on an American crowd at the Boston Massacre — successfully defeating a capital charge, to his great pride.

I have reason to remember that fatal Night. The Part I took in Defense of Captn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly, and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgement of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Execution of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.

Adams stood at loggerheads with his eventual successor Thomas Jefferson over federal powers and foreign diplomacy, a conflict that eventually led the controversial rendition of a sailor whom the British hanged in Jamaica. Though the victim was humble, the case remains a keystone executive powers event still cited in legal briefs to this day.

The fourth president James Madison — scion of an old Virginia plantation family, Madison’s grandfather had been poisoned by his own slaves in a landmark death penalty case — tried his luck seizing Canada from the British while they were busy with Napoleon and got the White House torched instead. (Indirectly generating the national anthem.) That didn’t mean that soldiers savvy enough to desert were spared the firing squad.

Madison was followed by James Monroe, the last president from the “Founding Fathers” generation. The young Monroe had served in the Continental Congress, and was a member of the first U.S. Senate; he had also been the U.S. envoy to Revolutionary France at the climax and conclusion of Robespierre’s Terror, and leveraged French-American goodwill to save from the guillotine the kin of the American Revolution hero (and French Revolution proscribed reactionary) Lafayette.

Like his presidential father, John Quincy Adams traced the family name to colonial slaveholders; in J.Q. Adams’s case (though not his father’s, since the lineage came via wife and mother Abigail Adams), one piece of human chattel once in the family was a famous escaped slave turned pirate who met his end on the gallows. John Quincy Adams was named for the magnate who used to own that fellow.

Less genteel by far was Andrew Jackson, who readily shot alleged deserters in the War of 1812 and raised himself to presidential contention with the legally doubtful hanging of two British subjects during his incursions into Florida. (Propaganda traducing Jackson for his executioner proclivities gave birth to the first “coffin handbills”.) Legal or not, Jackson successfully pried the state out of Spanish hands: thanks for the hanging chads, Old Hickory!

The Honey Badger of the White House, Jackson said he only had two regrets: “I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.” Calhoun was Jackson’s own Vice President.


Political cartoon shows Andrew Jackson stringing up his predecessor John Quincy Adams, who balked Jackson of the 1824 election.

Jackson’s other Vice-President Martin Van Buren succeeded as a one-termer. Van Buren was the former Attorney General of New York, in which capacity his office had helped prosecute a few capital cases in its day (Van Buren personally assisted in the capital prosecution of Maggie Houghtaling and Nathan Foster); he also put a bow on Jackson’s ghastly “Indian removal” policy by forcing the Cherokee into a death march to Oklahoma.

William Henry Harrison and his grandson Benjamin Harrison are among the Republic’s less remarkable executives, but their blue-blooded family traces its roots back to a beheaded English noblemen.

The John Tyler administration had tragedy in the cabinet itself when the son of Tyler’s Secretary of War was controversially hanged at sea for mutiny by a paranoid ship’s captain. This execution helped spur creation of the U.S. Naval Academy to professionalize the whole outfit.

Only a few years later, a like fate befell the son of Millard Fillmore‘s Attorney General: that lad was executed in Cuba after being captured on a filibustering expedition.

Filibustering, a discreditable hybrid of piracy and putsch, was (among other things) a strategy to maintain the Slave Power’s political parity by annexing neighboring territories of southerly latitudes. It was all the rage at this point in U.S. history in part due to Anglo success in the Texas Revolution and James K. Polk‘s ensuing Mexican-American War. That war gave the U.S. more than half of Mexico, and gave Mexico heroic martyrs in the noblest bunch of turncoats that Yankees have never heard of, the San Patricios — Irish immigrants who got wise to the odious land-grab and deserted the forces of future U.S. President Zachary Taylor to fight for the Mexicans.


In this “cryptic satire” of the 1848 election, outgoing Democratic president James K. Polk (depicted as the executioner) and the party’s successor nominee Lewis Cass (with victims on a chain as he flourishes his top hat) have various rival politicians of the era lined up for beheading. (Detail view; click for the full image.)

Manifest Destiny was in the air. Isaac Stevens, a Mexican-American veteran, got posted to the new Washington Territory as a plum for supporting Franklin Pierce. There, Stevens strong-armed the indigenous peoples, eventually resulting in the hanging of Chief Leschi.

Also in the air: civil war. The last antebellum president, James Buchanan, went whistling past the imminent graveyards, instead trying to stir up more trouble with Mexico over an American citizen’s hanging — a provocation that even made it into Buchanan’s State of the Union address.

But the real provocation of his time was anti-slavery paladin John Brown‘s raid on Harpers Ferry and subsequent hanging in Virginia, omen of the bloody war to come.

With the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, the slavery question was settled on the battlefield, with scads of military executions into the bargain. Honest Abe earned his “Great Heart” reputation for liberal clemency grants with a number of pardons, including one on the very day of his assassination. (Outside of the war between the states, Lincoln also advanced the largest mass hanging in U.S. history, of 38 Sioux in Mankato, Minn.)


Northern propaganda widely anticipated treasonous Confederate President Jefferson Davis being “hanged on a sour apple tree”: a sour apple is one of the caged Davis’s heraldic props in this depiction of John Brown come to avenge slavery upon him. Davis was not executed, however.

Lincoln was the first U.S. President to be assassinated, and the conspirators in the operation were hanged inside of three months on Andrew Johnson‘s okay. Johnson also leaned on France to withdraw from a Mexican intervention, hanging out to dry their imported puppet Hapsburg emperor whom Mexican republicans promptly shot.

Stateside, the tragic era of Reconstruction ensued, rolled back by Southern resistance that extended to extrajudicial executions. Prior to his presidency, former Union commander Ulysses S. Grant quashed a war crimes case over Confederate General George Pickett’s wartime execution of POWs; once in office, Grant took a similar bygones-be-bygones approach to Spain’s execution of U.S. nationals to avoid war over Cuba. Grant also appointed Isaac Parker to a federal judgeship in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Parker became the Old West’s most famous hanging judge.

Late 19th century America is an age of weak and forgettable presidents, although the march of science continued apace and American ingenuity gave birth to the electric chair.

James Garfield (who counts as an ancestor the very first man hanged in the Plymouth Colony) had his term cut short by an assassin’s bullet. The vice president who succeeded him, Chester A. Arthur, could hardly in good conscience spare the assassin Charles Guiteau, even though Guiteau was as mad as a march hare.

Democratic President Grover Cleveland, who got his start in politics as the sheriff of Buffalo, N.Y., had actually personally conducted executions, leading Republicans to label him “the Buffalo Hangman”.

Republicans to this day have not captured the White House without taking Ohio, but that was no problem for the first 20th century occupant of the White House. William McKinley, himself a product of the Ohio political machine, mounted the Spanish-American War, and the U.S. took over Spain’s former job of executing Filipino rebels. But McKinley didn’t even make it through 1901 before an immigrant anarchist (subsequently electrocuted) assassinated him and put Theodore Roosevelt in the White House.

Teddy did not hesitate to let the law take its course; he denied clemency, for instance, in the first fairly legal hanging in Alaska and the case of two Philippines War deserters. But closer to home, all Roosevelt’s bluster — “whoever in any part of our country has ever taken part in lawlessly putting to death a criminal by the dreadful torture of fire,” Roosevelt said, “must forever after have the awful spectacle of his own handiwork seared into his brain and soul. He can never again be the same man” — was useless against the burgeoning of lynch law. Lynchings increased every year of Roosevelt’s tenure and white southern congressmen blocked any federal response. The NAACP was founded days before T.R. left office.

William Howard Taft used the Nicaraguan government’s execution of two American terrorists as an excuse to invade. After losing the 1912 election, Taft was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court where he pushed the judicial reorganization that still structures the high court’s handling (and usual rejection) of death penalty appeals. (His great-grandson Bob Taft served as governor of Ohio during that state’s recent ramp-up of executions.) Before his own 1930 hanging, mass murderer Carl Panzram fantastically claimed to have burgled Justice Taft’s home in 1920 and committed 10 murders with the ex-president’s stolen gun.

Woodrow Wilson invaded Haiti after a political execution, but he kept the U.S. out of World War I until he didn’t. Wilson presided over the nadir of race relations … which is why an Oklahoma white supremacist named his son for Woodrow and gave the future folk troubadour Woodie Guthrie a lynching in the family to live down.

Roaring past the Twenties, we come to the Great Depression. That economic calamity ousted President Herbert Hoover, who could nevertheless count himself fortunate to have escaped a Buenos Aires bombing attempt plotted by Severino di Giovanni — an anarchist eventually executed in Argentina for other more successful terrorist attacks in retaliation for Sacco and Vanzetti‘s electrocution.

Hoover gave way to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR, who narrowly escaped assassination himself, was surprisingly among the 20th century’s more prolific U.S. executioners owing to his pre-presidency tenure as Governor of New York. As the wartime president for most of World War II, Roosevelt also convened a secret military tribunal that ordered the electrocution of a group of German saboteurs who’d been dropped by submarine on the U.S. mainland.

Harry S Truman named Robert Jackson to prosecute the postwar Nuremberg trials, and saw the Cold War begin with the Chinese execution of military chaplain John Birch. (Hence, the Society of his name.) Closer to home, Truman survived an assassination plot, and commuted the resulting death sentence of the Puerto Rican nationalist who had come gunning for him.

Dwight David Eisenhower took office well-known to Americans for his wartime generalship. It was he who approved the controversial shooting of Eddie Slovik during that war; Slovik remains the last American executed for desertion. As commander-in-chief, Ike had more life-and-death decisions to make … like refusing clemency to Soviet agents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

The 35th president John F. Kennedy put his signature to the last U.S. military execution to date … as well as the overthrow (and summary execution) of troublesome South Vietnam ruler Ngo Dinh Diem. Lyndon Baines Johnson and his Defense Secretary Robert McNamara reaped the whirlwind for that.


“How can they say he hasn’t faithfully executed the law?” runs the caption to this Watergate-era Herblock cartoon.

The death penalty was disappearing from the U.S. at this period, although this was hardly true throughout America’s global sphere of influence. Thus, Henry Kissinger under Richard Nixon toppled Allende and made countless martyrs, then complained in the Gerald Ford administration when Angola shot an American mercenary.

Jimmy Carter is an outspoken death penalty foe these days, but when the death penalty returned to the U.S. it was courtesy of a 1976 Supreme Court ruling called Gregg v. Georgia. Carter as governor of Georgia signed the legislation at issue in that case, reinstituting the death penalty and setting the template for the contemporary capital murder trial.

(In an embarrassing sidelight, Carter’s wife Rosalynn took a handshake photo with Illinois Democratic operative John Wayne Gacy, later exposed as a serial killer.)

Carter’s successor Ronald Reagan was a tough-on-crime guy, but owing to the death penalty lull which spanned Reagan’s political career, he only signed off on one single death warrant in his entire life. Reagan’s secret arms-for-hostages deals with Iran, however, did result in the hanging of the Iranian official who exposed the Iran-Contra scandal.


Death penalty politics were so toxic that a CNN journalist without any apparent trace of shame posed this question as a “gotcha” in a 1988 presidential debate.

Reagan’s Veep George Bush knew a good thing when he saw it and kept clobbering Democrats as soft on crime; although Bush never had to make that agonizing life-or-death decision in any individual case, it’s quite possible that the unfinished business Bush left with Saddam Hussein encouraged Bush’s famously execution-happy son George W. Bush to blunder his way into Iraq. Bush the younger also authorized the first modern federal execution, that of Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh.

Though he couldn’t match the younger Bush’s execution count, inter-Bush President Bill Clinton famously kneecapped the party’s liberal base by theatrically overseeing the execution of a mentally disabled black cop-killer while on the 1992 campaign trail.

The post-Bush successor, Barack Obama, showed little taste for capital punishment, drone assassinations aside — but the father for whom he titled his autobiography came to the U.S. to sire the future president on a scholarship program created by Kenyan politician Tom Mboya. Mboya was later murdered, and his assassin swung in 1969.

Against every standard of reason and probability, he is succeeded by authoritarian twitter troll Donald Trump, whose want of statecraft has not excluded him from making a notorious intervention in the country’s racialized death penalty politics back when he was merely a loudmouthed real estate developer in 1989. The Donald put his John Hancock to his first real-life death warrant during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Full-page advertisement Donald Trump published in the New York Daily News on May 1, 1989 demanding the execution of five Black and Latino youths accused in a high-profile gang rape attack on a jogger in the city’s Central Park. The ‘Central Park Five’ were later cleared of any involvement in the crime but only after spending between 6 and 13 years in prison apiece. Despite DNA exonerations, Trump has continued to claim that the men are really guilty.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Administrative Messages

1927: Alfredo Jauregui, Bolivian lottery winner

Add comment November 5th, 2012 Headsman

La Paz, Bolivia, Nov. 5 (AP). — Selected by lot to die for the murder ten years ago of former President Jose Manuel Pando, Alfredo Jauregui, 28, was executed this morning. The young man died instantly from eight bullets from the rifles of a firing squad.

New York Times, Nov. 6, 1927

Jose Manuel Pando (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), wealthy landowner, military leader, former president, had seen Bolivia’s Liberal Party to power by prevailing in civil war in 1899, then peaceably handed off power to a Liberal successor in 1904.

The Liberals controlled Bolivia until 1920, but Pando grew overtly critical of his increasingly authoritarian successors. Though the circumstances of his murder in 1917 remain murky, his disgruntled affinity for the upstart Republican party is a likely contributing factor.

Jauregui faced the fusillade proclaiming his innocence; his supposed confederates were the beneficiaries of a Bolivian law permitting only one execution for a single murder … even of the former President’s murder. The four drew lots to determine which would be the “one”.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Bolivia,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Shot

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2005: Brian Steckel, the Driftwood Killer

10 comments November 4th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 2005, Brian Steckel was executed by lethal injection for a Delaware rape-murder.

Steckel got 29-year-old Sandra Lee Long to let him into her apartment on the pretext of making a phone call. (This was 1994, pre-cell phones.) Then he throttled her, sodomized her, raped her with a screwdriver, and set her bedroom on fire. Then he fled. (Long survived the immediate attack; she would die of smoke inhalation from the arson.)

Hours later, he called The News Journal identifying himself as the “Driftwood Killer” and threatening his next prospective victim by name. Police took that woman into protective custody and traced harassing calls she’d been receiving to Steckel, who obligingly confessed when arrested.

And investigators took Steckel’s threats at their word — as well they might with Long’s ghastly murder already under his belt — and counted themselves lucky to have nipped a potential spree killer in the bud. Steckel “thought about committing a murder for a long time,” New Castle County detective John Downs said. “We got him relatively early in his career. This was something he’d worked at.”

Fond of the drink and none too stable, Steckel menaced his own attorneys, spat at prosecutors, soaked up the media attention, and sent dozens of letters from prison, including Long’s autopsy sent to Long’s mother with a scribbled taunt reading “Happy, Happy. Joy Joy. Read it and weep. She’s gone forever. Don’t cry over burnt flesh.” He also made and retracted various dubious confessions to various murders in various states, and alternated between slandering his (known) victim and calling himself an “animal” for killing her.

If the evil was unfeigned, so was the remorse. At the end of his trial, he surprisingly addressed the the jury with an assent to his own execution.

I didn’t know how to say I’m sorry. How do you tell someone’s family you’re sorry for strangling them? … How do you do such a thing? I don’t know. I ask you people to hold me accountable for what I did. I’ve gotten away with so much in my life that I stand here today … I know I deserve to die for what I did to Sandy. … I’m prepared to give up my life because I deserve to.

He carried a like sentiment to the gurney, where he was apologetic to the victim’s mother he had once mocked.

I want to say I’m sorry for the cruel things I did. I’m not the same man I was when I came to jail. I changed. I’m a better man … I walked in here without a fight, and I accept my punishment. It is time to go. I love you people … I’m at peace.

At this point where the repentant felon ought to close his eyes and exit, an awkward 12-minute delay followed while the lethal injection machine clicked several times and Steckel remained lucid, appending his last statement with observations like, “I didn’t think it would take this long.”

While state officials denied there was any problem with the exceedingly slow lethal injection, Steckel did not appear to have been rendered unconscious, and was awake when he finally snorted and convulsed into death.

Attorney Michael Wiseman, pursuing a later lawsuit against the state’s death penalty procedure, claimed that the main IV line was blocked and when executioners switched to the backup line, they didn’t bother (pdf) re-administering the anesthetic sodium thiopental that forms the first drug of the basic three-drug lethal injection cocktail. That omission meant that Steckel would have been conscious when he was hit with a paralytic dose of pancuronium bromide, and still conscious when that was followed with an excrutiating heart-stopping shot of potassium chloride. (More on the process.)

Wiseman even got a member of the execution team to testify that he was “okay with” causing Steckel suffering owing to the bestial nature of Steckel’s crimes. (The source for this is the January 29, 2009 News Journal; the article is no longer available online.)

A federal circuit court rapped Delaware for “occasional blitheness” and “isolated examples of maladministration,” but rejected the lawsuit.

After a five-plus year hiatus following Steckel’s execution, the Blue Hen State resumed executions in 2011, switching for the occasion to the trendy new anesthetic drug pentobarbital since execution chambers can no longer get hold of sodium thiopental. Just like Brian Steckel.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arson,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Connecticut,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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Which U.S. Governors have overseen the most executions?

2 comments November 3rd, 2012 Headsman

This past week, Texas Governor Rick Perry notched his 250th execution. Writers, movie stars, guys who didn’t do it … Perry has executed them all.

That’s far and away the most for governors under the modern US death penalty regime. But is it an all-time record?

Rick Perry is number one.

The answer appears to be “yes”: a review of state execution data reveals no other governor throughout the U.S. constitutional era who even approaches Perry’s body count, at least not when it comes to peacetime civilian cases. Only two other men — Perry’s predecessor George W. Bush, and Depression-era New York chief executive Herbert Lehman* — appear to have signed off on as many as one hundred executions.

In attempting to explore this question, I compiled this rough list of the U.S. governors who have overseen a large number (35+) of executions. Emphasis on rough. The method I’ve used here is just a quick manual comparison of the historical U.S. executions recorded in the Espy file to U.S. governor terms as reported on Wikipedia. Then, I backed out known federal executions, which for most of U.S. history took place in various state prisons. (For instance, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were electrocuted at Sing Sing in New York … but not by authorities of the Empire State.)

I would not suggest sourcing anything one depends on to the figures in this chart without further investigation and qualification; the list is certain to contain errors, including:

  • Omissions or mistakes by the Espy file itself.
  • Miscalculations or misdating on my part.
  • Governors who served non-consecutive terms who I’ve failed to identify.
  • Any consideration of governors who might have been temporarily incapacitated or absent during their term with another party exercising the relevant powers in their stead
  • Civil War executions, which I simply steered around

Beyond attributing numerical counts to date ranges, this list reflects essentially no state- or period-specific research: it’s worth bearing in mind that the legal context and gubernatorial authority relative to the death penalty vary over time and between states. A name and a number on this list is not the same as judging a governor personally “responsible” for all or any of those executions, not even necessarily to the extent of having signed off on a death warrant. It’s only in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century that states centralized all executions away from localities and into state penitentiaries, with the familiar appeal-for-clemency ritual. A given governor’s personal involvement in a given local execution prior to that (and particularly in antebellum America) is not to be assumed. Even now, some states (present-day Texas included) limit the ability of the governor to extend clemency, or vest that power in an agency.

Caveats aside, here’s that rough (rough!) list:

The large numbers here predictably map to large states (with lots of people to commit lots of crime and generate lots of death cases) and/or long-serving governors. Rick Perry is about to start his 13th year as Texas governor, and this is actually a remarkably long tenure. Most governors in U.S. history have held the office for surprisingly brief periods, just 2-4 years.

For example, post-Reconstruction Jim Crow Georgia executed at a terrific pace (routinely ten or more executions per year, for decades on end) and several of its governors therefore appear on this list … but those governors had what you might call limited upside, as they were term-limited to two consecutive two-year terms. Had Georgia ever put an executive kingpin in the governor’s mansion for a decade or more, that person would easily rank up there with Bush and Lehman. (Not with Perry, though.)

Typical office tenures have somewhat lengthened into the 20th and 21st centuries, but this is just when the execution rate itself has fallen off. Many of the larger (50+) execution totals come from the period when those two trends crossed in the first half of the 20th century, with men (Ann Richards, George W. Bush’s predecessor, is the only woman to show) running large states for five-plus years.

This confluence also leads to the interesting appearance of liberal lions among the 20th century’s most prolific American executioners:

  • Liberal “Rockefeller Republican” Thomas Dewey, with 95 executions as New York’s governor.
  • Dewey’s running mate in the “Dewey Defeats Truman” presidential election, Earl Warren: he sent 82 to the gas chamber in a decade as California governor before he was appointed to leave his lasting legacy heading a left-leaning Supreme Court
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who okayed 51 executions as governor of New York (and then 16 more federal executions as president)
  • Gifford Pinchot, who’s best known as the progressive-era father of the Forest Service, but also spent eight years as Pennsylvania’s governor and oversaw 81 executions.

Feel free to chime in with corrections, data points, musings, and bootless speculations in the comments.

* Herbert Lehman was the son of one of the founders of Lehman Bothers investment bank. Bush was the son of the founder of the inexplicable Bush political dynasty. We’re guessing nobody thought of their prolific-executioner connection when the Bush administration let Lehman Brothers go bankrupt in 2008.

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Entry Filed under: USA

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