Archive for February, 2013

1946: Bela Imredy, Hungarian fascist prime minister

1 comment February 28th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1946, Bela Imredy, the fascist former prime minister of Hungary, was shot in Budapest.

Imredy was a Catholic financier who steered Hungarian economic policy in a succession of state posts during the chaotic 1930s.

When one of those governments fell in 1938, regent Miklos Horthy appointed Imredy prime minister. He was forced out of office the next year on revelations that he had Jewish ancestry.

This did nothing to moderate Imredy’s anti-Semitic views; he returned at the head of a new fascist party and nearly became Prime Minister under the German occupation in 1944.

Horthy demurred, and another future gallows-bird got the job instead. Imredy took the Minister of Economic Coordination as his last political gig.

A “People’s Tribunal” condemned Imredy after the war for war crimes and Nazi collaboration.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Hungary,Politicians,Shot,Treason,War Crimes

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1925: Jovan Stanisavljevic Caruga, Slavonian hajduk

Add comment February 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1925, the Serbian outlaw Jovan “Jovo” Stanisavljevic, better known by his nickname Caruga (Charuga), was hanged before a crowd of 3,000 in Osijek.

Caruga was born to peasant stock within the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia within the Hungarian Kingdom within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and at just the right age for service at arms when World War I came along to wreck that agglomeration.

Caruga soon deserted the front lines on a false pass — but his unauthorized leave became permanent when he came across a Hungarian soldier paying court to the innkeeper’s daughter whom Caruga, too, desired. Caruga shot him dead.

He did a short turn in prison but escaped in 1919 and shortly thereafter established himself the captain of a posse of brigands styled the “Mountain Birds”. From roosts in the Papul and Krndija mountains they preyed on the nearby Slavonian plains — ducking away freely when needed to Dalmatia or Bosnia in what was now the independent (and quite unsettled) Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. (This polity would become Yugoslavia four years after Caruga’s execution.)

Caruga et al obtained a reputation as a Robin Hood-esque character who revenged himself on the rich. He was a late throwback to the classical hajduk character, a complex thief-with-the-heart-of-gold archetype who straddled the line between freebooting highwayman and rebel partisan during the era of Ottoman ascendancy in the Balkans. (The term’s roots trace to a caste of independent Hungarian footsoldiers in the 1600s.)

While the Turks were out of the picture at this point, the romance of the road and the social resentments rife in the fractious young kingdom were still sufficient to support a legendary bandit. Sentiment and fair fortune only turned against him after a botched raid on the estate of one Count Eltz of Vukovar, which resulted in an armed standoff with the local gendarmerie and the death of an innocent forester caught in the crossfire. Caruga was taken with some of his gang not long after.

Caruga is the subject of the so-called “last Yugoslavian film” before that country split apart. The movie Caruga stars the Croatian actor Ivo Gregurevic in what could arguably read as an allegory for the banditry of the outgoing communist years.

Most information about this date’s subject is in Serbo-Croatian; see for instance this .doc file.

* A number of present-day sports clubs in the former Yugoslavia use the name “Hajduk”, not unlike the way “Spartak” (Spartacus) brands Bulgarian and former-USSR teams. For instance, HNK Hajduk Split in Croatia, and FK Hajduk Kula in Serbia.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Croatia,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft,Yugoslavia

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1909: C.Y. Timmons

Add comment February 26th, 2013 Meaghan

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

Minutes after midnight on this date in 1909, an Oregon plasterer named C.Y. Timmons was hanged at the state prison in Salem, Oregon for the murder of Estella, his wife of two years.

On October 21 the previous year, he had put an ax in the back of her head, slit her throat from ear to ear with a straight razor and then attempted to take his own life with the same razor. The two were discovered by the neighbors at 7:30 the next morning when a partially unclothed C.Y. came knocking on their door, “covered in blood from head to foot.”

C.Y.’s wound, as R. Michael Wilson explains in his accounting of the case in Legal Executions After Statehood in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, was serious but not fatal, and it responded to medical treatment: “The gash had missed the veins and arteries but had severed the trachea, but it had sealed and prevented him from drowning in his own blood.”

Timmons quickly regained his ability to speak and told authorities Estella had cut his throat while he was sleeping. He grabbed the razor from her hand, slit her throat in self-defense, and then finished her off with an ax. Then he lay down and waited until dawn before he went and asked for help.

The truth came out, however, and at his trial in mid-January 1909, C.Y. admitted that he’d gone round the bend with jealousy over his younger wife’s* affair with one Robert Hornbuckle. C.Y. and Estella had been quarreling for a long time about her relationship with Hornbuckle. Only the day before the murder, the couple had met with an attorney to procure a divorce — a drastic measure in that day and age.

During the meeting, Estella told the lawyer that her husband had a violent temper, especially when he had been drinking, and that he had threatened her life on numerous occasions.

C.Y. apparently believed his victim’s alleged infidelity would outrage the jury into acquitting him. Not so; they deliberated a whopping 35 minutes before finding him guilty. C.Y. broke down in tears when the verdict was read. And, for what it’s worth, all evidence indicates that Estella’s “affair” with Hornbuckle existed only in her husband’s imagination.

C.Y.’s hanging was as gruesome as his crime, as Wilson records:

[A]t 12:31 p.m., the trap was sprung and Timmons dropped six feet, one inch. The force of the drop caused the neck wound to open and for some time the hanging figure breathed through the gaping wound beneath the rope, and the body was drenched with blood. The attending physicians differed on whether Timmons’ neck was broken in the fall, but later examination proved that the vertebrae had been dislocated. This complication, breathing through the open wound, prevented pronouncement of death until 12:54 p.m., and the body was allowed to hang another seven minutes to ensure he was dead.

The murderer was buried separately from his victim, at the Lee Mission Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

* Her age was given in different accounts as either 19 or 21; C.Y. Was 37. Another pathetic detail to her tragic life: Estella was an orphan, raised in an orphanage after her parents both died of tuberculosis.

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1969: The peasants of Thanh Phong (allegedly)

4 comments February 25th, 2013 Headsman

Late this night in 1969, a platoon of seven Navy SEALs slipped into the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong.*

At their head was a 25-year-old lieutenant, the future United States Senator Bob Kerrey.

Thanh Phong was reportedly an official U.S. Army free fire zone. That meant that any Vietnamese civilians within it were presumptively enemies and could be slain at will — according to the U.S. Army, if not to any recognizable law of war.

In Thanh Phong, they were slain. Nearly every single person in the town.

Gregory Vistica’s disturbing investigation brought this story to wide public attention in 2001; he subsequently expanded his investigation into a book.

Kerrey’s Raiders — the commando team’s comradely self-designation — were hunting a local National Liberation Front “general secretary” purported to be in Thanh Phong. By “hunting,” we mean they intended to murder him; given the nature and timing of the operation, it was presumably part of the brute-force assassination program Operation Speedy Express and/or its equally sinister CIA-run cousin, the Phoenix Program.

On this particular mission, Lt. Kerrey’s team first encountered an unexpected hut, not on their map. Fearing the people inhabiting it would blow their cover, they entered and killed the five inhabitants: quietly, intimately, at close quarters with their knives. It was an old man, a woman, and three young children. It’s a nasty business but it’s not what qualifies Thanh Phong as a potential execution … though it may explain the execution that followed.

After these unfortunate villagers were disposed of, the SEALs moved on towards the doomed hamlet. This same platoon had been to Thanh Phong two weeks before, and reported then that it held nothing but a few women. On February 25, they found much the same scene: no “general secretary.” Just 16 women and children.

Gerhard Klann, one of Kerrey’s men, described the SEALs’ actions that night in this interview with 60 Minutes’ Dan Rather:

Rather: What’d you do this time?

Klann: We gathered everybody up, searched the place, searched everything.

Rather: What was the make-up of this group?

Klann: Probably a majority of em were kids. And women. And some younger women.

Rather: So you got all the people out of there.

Klann: We herded them together and in a group.

Rather: Were any of these people armed?

Klann: I don’t believe so.

Rather: Fair to say you didn’t see any weapons?

Klann: I didn’t see any.

Rather: Did you decide pretty quickly or not that the target of your mission, the Viet Cong leader, was not among them?

Klann: Yeah, we got together and we were, hey the guy ain’t here. Now we got these people, what do we do now?

Rather: What did you do then?

Klann: We killed them.

Rather: What do you mean, you killed em?

Klann: We shot them all.

Rather: Was an order given for that or was it more or less spontaneous?

Klann: I don’t think we would have acted spontaneously on something like that. There was an order given.

Rather: What was the order?

Klann: To kill them.

Rather: Why?

Klann: Cause we’d already compromised ourselves by killing the other group.

Rather: Whose responsibility, whose obligation as it to say that?

Klann: The ultimate responsibility fell on Bob Kerrey.

Rather: Do you remember him saying that?

Klann: I don’t remember his exact words, but he was the officer in charge. The call was his.

Rather: And then what happened?

Klann: We lined up, and we opened fire.

Rather: Individually or raked them with automatic weapons fire?

Klann: No. We, we just slaughtered them. It was automatic weapons fire. Rifle fire.

Rather: At roughly what range?

Klann: Six feet, ten feet, very close.

Rather: Then did the shooting stop?

Klann: Yeah, for a little bit.

Rather: Was it quiet?

Klann: It was dead quiet. It was dead quiet. Then you could just hear certain people, hear their moaning. So we would just fire into that area until it was silent there. And that was it. And, and until, we were sure that everybody was dead.

Rather: You said certain people were moaning or making noises. Were all those adults?

Klann: A few. I remember one baby still crying. That baby was probably the last one alive.

Rather: What happened to that baby?

Klann: Shot like the rest of em.

Klann’s testimony of a summary execution comports with that of a Vietnamese woman who says she hid on the outskirts of the tiny village and witnessed the slaughter.

Bob Kerrey has a different version of these events. The reader is invited to peruse the evidence available and conclude as desired; for me, Kerrey’s version is not very persuasive especially given the witness testimony to the contrary and the known normalization of atrocities in Indochina.

Kerrey agrees with Klann that the entire village ended up slaughtered together in a heap; a complaint against this atrocity was officially filed with the Army by Vietnamese locals within days of the incident, so there’s not much scope to deny the outcome. But Kerrey claims this happened when the SEAL team received incoming fire as they approached the village, then started shooting back wildly in the dark. Only after the bullets stopped flying did they find the civilians 50 to 100 yards further on.

Improbably — but much more consistent with an intentional, close-range massacre — all these women and children chanced to be huddled together, and all of them were stone dead from the crossfire. Not a one of these people accidentally winged in the night was wounded but alive, says Kerrey.

Kerrey’s commentary in Vistica’s initial story and its follow-ups suggests the judicious politician he had by that time become. In 2001 he had just retired from the Senate and was an elder statesman in government; he was said to be weighing a 2004 presidential bid. (His actual next gig, not anticipated at the time the story broke, was the 9/11 Commission.)

In interviews with Vistica and subsequently, Kerrey waffled and qualified cagily — shifting from a flat denial, to a weird acknowledgment that “it’s possible a slight version of that happened.” He wouldn’t commit to asserting that there really was incoming fire. He moved the conversation wherever possible to the abiding torments of conscience and the slipperiness of memory and perspective, as if this could span the distance from “summary execution” to “accidentally killed in the crossfire.” He maintained that there were only men in the first hut — that hut, alone among the village — but that this was only an indirect recollection since he didn’t enter it or participate in the killings.

“Please understand,” Kerrey emailed to Vistica in 2000, “that my memory of this event is clouded by the fog of the evening, age and desire.” Desire is a striking word to select.

For all their plausible deniability, Kerrey’s remarks on this matter markedly lacked indignation at bearing such a monstrous charge. Kerrey’s great and unfeigned sense of personal guilt was oddly mirrored by his inability to own a specifically culpable act. The Senator expressly declined to deny Gerhard Klann’s “memory.” (Klann said Kerrey urged him not to talk about Thanh Phong.)

Kerrey won a Bronze Star for Thanh Phong. “The net result of his patrol,” according to a citation Kerrey has acknowledged is fanciful, “was 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured.”

Seventeen days after Thanh Phong, Kerrey’s service career came to an end when a grenade exploded at his feet during another assassination mission. Kerrey earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for continuing to direct fire while crippled by wounds on that day; by accounts, he spent the several years following mired deep in depression.

“I went out on a mission and after it was over I was so ashamed I wanted to die,” he said of Thanh Phong in 2001. “This is killing me. I’m tired of people describing me as a hero and holding this inside.”

It goes without saying that war crimes in Vietnam remain much too sensitive for the U.S. to grapple with formally. The story is out there now, but it’s been effectively reburied as far as the American public memory goes — another everyday horror in a horrible conflict. More information might oneday surface, but the matter will only be adjudicated between Gerhard Klann, Bob Kerrey, their comrades that night, and their Maker.

Not so in Vietnam where — with all due respect to the pangs that conscience can exact — the real victims lie.

February 25, 1969 has a dedicated exhibit in Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum.


A display of the sewer pipe where the three children killed at the first hut tried to hide, along with photographs and an explanatory placard describing the Thanh Phong massacre, at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. (cc) images by Schwede66.

* The only other member of the team who has spoken publicly, Mike Ambrose, backs Klann’s version of the hut narrative, and (mostly) Kerrey’s version of the (non-)execution. As Vistica’s initial investigation was going public, Kerrey convened a meeting of the other Raiders, their first since Vietnam; the group issued a statement denying that they had committed an execution of prisoners.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Scandal,Shot,Summary Executions,U.S. Military,USA,Vietnam,War Crimes,Wartime Executions,Women

Purim

2 comments February 24th, 2013 Headsman

February 24, 2013 is the Jewish festival of Purim. (Actually, it began at sundown last night.)

This holiday, corresponding to 14 Adar of the Hebrew calendar, falls on different dates of the Gregorian calendar (most often in March). It commemorates a bloody story from the Book of Esther. (The quotes in this post are from this translation of Esther.)

The factual historicity of Esther is pretty questionable, but that debate is a bit beside the point for purposes of the present post. As folklore or fact, the story of Esther and Mordecai, of their near-destruction and the consequent execution of their persecutor, is a staple of tradition and literature.


The thumbnail version of the Purim story has Esther (Hadassah), a Jew living in the Persian capital of Susa, plucked out of obscurity to become the (or a) queen of a “King Ahasverus”.

If Esther has a historical basis, this would be about the fourth or fifth century B.C.E., and “Ahasverus” could be Xerxes (the guy who invaded Greece and made Herodotus famous), or the much later Artaxerxes II.

Esther is an orphan being raised by her cousin Mordecai, and when Esther wins “Who Wants To Live In The Persian Harem?” Mordecai advises her to keep judiciously silent about her Hebrew lineage.

Mordecai doesn’t manage the same trick, however, and offends the king’s powerful minister Haman by refusing to bow to him. This gets the overweening Haman upset at not only Mordecai but at all Jews who share his anti-idolatry scruples, and Haman persuades King Ahasverus to authorize their indiscriminate slaughter:

“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed.”

13 Adar is the date fixed for the Jews’ destruction, by pur, a casting of lots — hence the festival’s eventual date and name. Haman, of course, does not realize that this policy makes Esther his enemy.

In order to save her cousin and her people, Esther must risk a death sentence of her own by approaching the king unbidden in his inner chambers. Mordecai charges her to her duty with a timeless moral force:

“Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

Esther pulls this dangerous maneuver off, and gains thereby a private audience with just the king and Haman. There, she springs her trap — revealing her Jewish identity.

The king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”

Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”

Then King Ahasverus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, that would presume to do this?”

And Esther said, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” Then Haman was in terror before the king and the queen.

Word arrives at this inopportune juncture that Haman, who has been gleefully preparing his vengeance, has just had completed a 50-cubit (~20-meter) gallows to execute Mordecai upon. The enraged king instead orders Haman hung on it.

“Hanging” Haman on the “gallows” was traditionally interpreted in the ancient and medieval world as crucifixion,* or some analogously excrutiating way to die.

By any method of execution, though, the dramatic power of the scene — sudden reversal of fortune, virtue elevated over wickedness, the oppressed turning the tables on their oppressors, divine deliverance — is obvious.

Haman and his gallows have consequently stood as a potent literary device ever since: for perfidious council; for violent anti-Semitism; for unusually spectacular punishment (to be hung “as high as Haman”); for the concept of getting one’s comeuppance or being hoisted by one’s own petard.

At least the guy was remembered. Hands up if you can name any other ancient Persian courtier.


“The Punishment of Haman” is a corner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

However, this satisfying palace politics turnabout is not the end of the story, and punishment is not reserved only for the wicked minister.

Esther persuades the king not only to revoke Haman’s order, but to issue a new one — one that Esther and Mordecai will write tabula rasa over the king’s seal.

The writing was in the name of King Ahasverus and sealed with the king’s ring, and letters were sent by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud. By these the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods, upon one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasverus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar

So the Jews smote all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the capital itself the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men, and also slew Parshandatha and Dalphon and Aspatha and Poratha and Adalia and Aridatha and Parmashta and Arisai and Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they laid no hand on the plunder. That very day the number of those slain in Susa the capital was reported to the king.

And the king said to Queen Esther, “In Susa the capital the Jews have slain five hundred men and also the ten sons of Haman. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.”

And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict. And let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.”

So the king commanded this to be done; a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they slew three hundred men in Susa; but they laid no hands on the plunder.

Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and got relief from their enemies, and slew seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder.


This bloodbath is obviously a bit more ethically problematic than Haman’s individual fate.

Now, sure, this is an event of questionable authenticity situated in Iron Age tribal mores and exaggerated by the ubiquitous ancient inflation of head counts. The subtext (“defend their lives” … “relief from their enemies”) also implies something like civil strife, blows exchanged rather than merely blows delivered. The overt text says that the victims were people who intended to do exactly the same thing to the Jews.

Still, the plain words on the page says 75,000 humans were slaughtered by a mobilized ethno-nationalist group, “children and women” among them. Just imagine the same parable about a Serb in a Bosnian king’s court, and say a little thanksgiving that the Book of Esther doesn’t identify these 75,000 as constituents of any specific demographic group that remains a going concern today.

Purim is a beloved holiday among its celebrants, but most any explication of it on the Internet comes with a comment thread agonizing over (or rationalizing) the body count. (For example.)

That part of the narrative has unsurprisingly invited highly prejudicial interpretations, especially among hostile Christian interlocutors (pdf).

American pastor Washington Gladden called the first Purim “a fiendish outbreak of fanatical cruelty.”

The fact that the story was told, and that it gained great popularity among the Jews, and by some of those in later ages came to be regarded as one of the most sacred books of their canon is, however, a revelation to us of the extent to which the most baleful and horrible passions may be cherished in the name of religion … it is not merely true that these atrocities are here recited; they are clearly indorsed.

The Nazis promoted the Jews-as-mass-murderers version, too; there’s even an instance where the Zdunska Wola ghetto was required to provide ten Jews to hang for the ten hanged sons of Haman. The frothing anti-Semitic propagandist Julius Streicher, being positioned on the trap for execution after the Nuremberg trials, reportedly bellowed “Purim Fest 1946!” to the witnesses.

Blessedly Purim Fest is not ultimately defined by the likes of Streicher, nor by the bloodthirstiness that is this site’s regrettable stock in trade. For most observants it’s simply one of the most joyous holidays of the year, a time for gifts and feasting and dress-up and carnivals and celebration sometimes thought of as the “Jewish Mardi Gras” or “Jewish Halloween”. Adherents have even been encouraged in all religious solemnity to drink in celebration until they can no longer tell “blessed be Mordecai” from “cursed be Haman.”

Deliverance indeed. L’chaim.

* The concept of Haman crucified in turn encouraged Jews under Christendom to use the figure of Haman (who once upon a time, could be subject to Guy Fawkes-like effigy-burning on Purim) as a veiled stand-in for the current oppressor Christ, and/or encouraged Judeophobic Christians to impute this intention to Purim observances.

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1939: Alexander Kosarev, Spartak Moscow patron

1 comment February 23rd, 2013 Headsman

Set against the background of the Soviet moderisation process, the development of sport in the two decades from the early 1930s to the early 1950s not only established the world-recognised pattern of sport in the Soviet Union and, later, in many other communistcountries (like China, Cuba and the GDR), it also resulted in a phenomenon unprecedentedin world sports history: the arrest and execution of a host of sports personalities. No one knows the exact numberof victims; but the purges carried off five sports ministers, Olympic Committee members for the Baltic states, heads of the major physical education colleges, eminent sports scientists and medics4 and probably thousands of leading athletes.

-Jim Riordan*

Sports and the physical body emerged early in Soviet history as a major doctrinal focus. A 1925 party resolution (quoted in this pdf) declared it

“essential to consider physical culture not only from the standpoint of physical education and health, and as one aspect of our youth’s cultural-industrial and military training, but also as a method of educating the masses.”


Dziga Vertov’s Soviet silent masterpiece Man With A Movie Camera (1929). This clip should cue up at the sports bit (45:26), but the entire film is a must-watch.

In the Stalin years, Soviet athletics took on the institutional patterns that continue to structure Russian sport to this day.

Given his position during the time of purges, Alexander Kosarev might have been bound for a bad end regardless. At least he had the consolation of leaving his fingerprints on a sporting institution that still thrives to this day.

We get to Kosarev by way of another man, Nikolai Starostin, an elite athlete of the 1920s and 1930s.**

A hockey star as well as a footballer, Starostin supported his family with his athletic gifts in the 1920s, and in 1922 helped found the local sports club that eventually developed into one of Europe’s most storied champions.

After juggling sponsorships and team names for a decade, Starostin approached Kosarev about bringing the club under the patronage of the Communist Party’s youth organ Komsomol, which Kosarev headed. He also suggested the name by which the team is still known, Spartak Moscow — paying tribute to the ancient rebel Spartacus.†

Komsomol support was not Komsomol control, however: Spartak remained basically independent, and this set it starkly apart from the other top Soviet teams, each controlled by a state ministry and its associated industry. (e.g., Lokomotiv Moscow, or the Red Army team CSKA.‡)

The football bully on the block at the time was Dynamo Moscow, a club dating to the tsarist age that was in the ambit of the internal security services. Dynamo won the first Soviet championship in 1936.

But Spartak quickly stepped over the Lokomotivs and established itself as Dynamo’s top rival.

Football matches, like everything else in Stalinist Moscow, were about politics, bureaucratic infighting, and the characteristic through-the-looking-glass rules of the dictatorship. Spartak used a controversial goal to beat Dynamo Tblisi (there were six Dynamo teams in the top division) in a Soviet Cup semifinals in 1939, the last before World War II. After Spartak went on to win the final, the Dynamo teams’ scary patron, NKVD boss Lavrenty Beria, ordered the semifinal match replayed. Spartak, already the tournament champion, then proceeded to win its semifinal a second time, compounding Beria’s fury. The referee from the first match was later arrested.

Beria was a passionate fan of the beautiful game — the ultimate football hooligan, you might say. He frequently attended Dynamo matches.

The secret police chief had even played for a Georgian club in his youth; in fact, he had played against (and lost to) a Starostin team. (Starostin thought Beria was a dirty player. Truly the Georgian was a man who tackled life studs-up.)

In contrast to Dynamo’s establishment backing, independent Spartak didn’t even have a home stadium until 1956. Nevertheless, it soon began attracting a sizable popular following. Its tactics were less stodgy; its persona less institutionally leaden; its star, Starostin, was a legend. And Spartak won, a lot.

“The people’s team” became a pole for — not resistance, exactly. But something a little bit alienated. A little bit defiant. Sport might not be your thing, but you have to appreciate any team that can embarrass the national torturer-in-chief. You have to appreciate the opportunity to hiss the secret police under cover of innocent fandom.

Unfortunately, Spartak’s Komsomol patron Kosarev fell. There’s an apocryphal sory that Kosarev’s fate was football-related; surely the rivalry did him no favors when his life was hanging in the balance.

But it was actually just the routine infighting that did Soviet bureaucrats in throughout the late 1930s. His power eroded; a Komsomol official whom Kosarev had previously booted went over his head to Stalin himself, and Uncle Joe’s apparatchiks brought him down at a November 1938 Komsomol plenum with accusations of favoritism and alcoholism. (Stalin popped in briefly to see if “maybe this is a system and not a mistake?”)

Kosarev spent November 19-22 desperately fending off accusations at the rostrum, was removed from his post by the end of the session, and resided in a Lubyanka dungeon before the month was out. And you thought your committee meetings were awful.§

Kosarev got the bullet. Spartak lived on.

So did Starostin, who was not executed but sent to the Gulag. In 1948, Stalin’s son Vasily extracted Starostin to use as a coach for the Soviet Air Force’s football team, leading to a bizarre saga as a, well, human football between Vasily and Beria. (Beria’s security services kept trying to arrest Starostin, leaving the coach shuttled from city to city as the political winds shifted — and sometimes even bunking with his young protector and the revolver Vasily kept under his pillow. All for football!)

Kosarev was rehabilitated shortly after Stalin died. Khrushchev mentioned him by name in his “secret speech” denouncing the previous years’ terror.

Book CoverAnd since Stalin’s death precipitated Beria’s own execution, Starostin was rehabilitated as well. “It was like the sun rising in the Far North after the long Polar night,” Starostin remembered of 1953.

The exiled football legend returned to coach and manage Spartak Moscow — from 1955 until 1992, when he retired at age 90. Nikolai Starostin was associated with the club he helped create in 1922 almost as long as the Soviet Union was associated with Russia: 70 years … minus those lost to the Arctic labor camps.

“Camp bosses, arbiters of the life and death of thousands upon thousands of human beings, personifications of the GULAG brutalities and horrors, were so benevolent to anything concerning soccer,” said Starostin in his memoirs of the starstruck commandants who treated their special prisoner with kid gloves and invariably recruited Starostin to coach local clubs. (Dynamo clubs, ironically.) “Their unbridled power over human lives was nothing compared to the power of soccer over them.”

“The soccer ball was always out of Beria’s reach.”

* “The Strange Story of Nikolai Starostin, Football and Lavrentii Beria,” Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 46, No. 4 (1994). Riordan, a Briton, played for Spartak in the 1960s. (He wote an autobiography about it.)

** Nikolai was the oldest of four Kosarev brothers, all four of whom played for Spartak. All four were also arrested and tortured in 1942. Nikolai was the only one of them to remain involved in football after his release.

† Spartak was a change from the previous name, Red Presnya — an equally revolutionary nomenclature.

‡ In the 1930s, the Red Army team was known as CDKA. The reason its name changed was because a CDKA-based national team lost to Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1952 World Cup, and Stalin in a huff ordered the CDKA club dissolved.

§ Information on Kosarev’s fall and the November 1938 Komsomol plenum from Seth Bernstein’s 2011 University of Toronto graduate paper “‘Lifestyle Cannot Be Separate from Politics': Degeneracy and Promotion in the Purge of the Soviet Komsomol Leadership, 1934-1938″. This paper no longer appears to be available online.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Politicians,Power,Russia,Shot,Treason,USSR

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1136: Gwenllian, the Welsh warrior woman

1 comment February 22nd, 2013 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around February 1136, the Welsh princess Gwenllian (or Gwenlhian, or Gwenliana) lost a battle to a Norman lord, who had her summarily beheaded.

This execution occurred in the aftermath of the Norman conquest. Having taken England, those invaders had made inroads into its western neighbor, even temporarily occupying much of the country.

But Welsh lords pushed the Normans back, and we find those Normans at this moment in disarray over an internal succession crisis — a period known as “The Anarchy”.

Map of medieval Wales.

Seeing the opportunity, Wales’s constituent principalities rose in a “Great Revolt”.

Gwenllian, that hottie from history, was daughter of the ruler of Gwynedd, married in a political match to the ruler of Deheubarth.

While these two men in Gwenllian’s life met up with one another to plot their next moves, Norman raids on Deheubarth forced Gwenllian to lead a force into the field to fight them.

It was a sight “like the queen of the Amazons, and a second Penthesilea,” writes the chronicler. “Morgan, one of her sons, whom she had arrogantly brought with her in that expedition, was slain, and the other, Malgo, taken prisoner; and she, with many of her followers, was put to death.”

That was a bummer for Gwenllian — doomed to haunt the castle under whose walls she fought her fatal battle — but not only her, as her bereaved proceeded to mount a furious counterattackwith a vast destruction of churches, towns, growing crops, and cattle, the burning of castles and other fortified places, and the slaughter, dispersion, and sale into foreign parts, of innumerable men, both rich and poor.”

For centuries afterwards, Welsh armies took the field crying “Revenge for Gwenllian!” The field where the battle was fought is named in her honor, as is a spring there that’s reputed to have welled up at the spot where her head fell. She’s even been speculatively — maybe a bit hopefully — identified as a possible author of the Mabinogion, a Welsh literary classic, but she’s definitely the subject of a bardic lullaby

Sleep, Gwenllian, my heart’s delight
Sleep on through shivering spear and brand,
An apple rosy red within thy baby hand;
Thy pillowed cheeks a pair of roses bright,
Thy heart as happy day and night!
Mid all our woe, O vision rare!
Sweet little princess cradled there,
Thy apple in thy hand thy all of earthly care.
Thy brethren battle with the foe,
Thy sire’s red strokes around him sweep,
Whilst thou, his bonny babe, art smiling through thy sleep
All Gwalia shudders at the Norman blow!
What are the angels whispering low
Of thy father now
Bright babe, asleep upon my knee,
How many a Queen of high degree
Would cast away her crown to slumber thus like thee!

There’s obvious, as-yet-unrealized commercial potential here in this sacrificial princess (though she’s not to be confused with Gwenllian of Wales). Word is that a silver screen treatment of the Gwenllian legend is circulating in Hollywood studios looking to duplicate the success of Braveheart.

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Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Wales,Wartime Executions,Women

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1946: Cristino Garcia, Spanish Republican and French Resistance hero

Add comment February 21st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1946, ten* Spanish Republicans were shot — most famously including Cristino Garcia.

Garcia, a Communist veteran of the Spanish Civil War, had put his guerrilla skills to good use by joining the French Resistance during World War II.

Garcia ultimately held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Resistance, and was perhaps the most individually famous of the numerous Spaniards** who fought as maquisards. His unit broke out hundreds of people before potential deportation to German death camps, and Garcia helped orchestrate the guerrilla-led liberation of Foix in August 1944. (There’s a lengthier roundup of Garcia’s career in the field in Spanish, here.)

The French had nothing but good feelings for this guy, but Garcia wasn’t looking to take a pension from De Gaulle and settle down in a vineyard. As France fell to Allies, Garcia — going on ten years a professional leftist revolutionary — headed back to Spain (Spanish link) to carry on the fight against fascism closer to home.

His tasks over a few months in 1945 ran to the less legendary: bank attacks and the like, blurring the line between “ordinary” and “political” crimes. Garcia was also detailed as a result of intra-party politicking to murder fellow-Communist Gabriel Leon Trilla (Spanish link).†

Garcia and his group were arrested shortly thereafter and faced a military tribunal on January 22, 1946. (Spanish source)

As an agent of the Spanish Communist Party, which was backed by a French Communist Party riding high on its World War II heroics, Garcia’s situation became a national cause celebre. French left parties uniformly protested the planned execution, and the government made repeated diplomatic overtures to Madrid to stay the sentence. Editorialists protested floridly.

Have we forgotten that fascism exists at our border; Was it not against all fascisms that Cristino Garcia and thousands of our Spanish brothers fought with us on our soil? Did they not fall beside us, as at the Eysses prisons, under the same Nazi bullets, for France? And today will we disown their sacrifice, their blood and their martyrdom because the fight against fascism has moved to the other side of the Pyrenees? (from the Franc-Tireur, quoted here

Incensed when Franco ignore their appeals and shot the men anyway, France retaliated by closing its border with Spain on March 1, 1946. Spain did not neglect to point out the irony that, during the war years, innumerable resistance fighters and others fleeing Naziism or the Vichy regime had taken refuge by crossing that very border. (Less stress was understandably laid on the Francoists’ onetime demand — not honored by Paris — that France close its border against escaping Republicans in 1939.)

* I believe from press reports that there were 12 total executions of Republicans Feb. 21-22, 10 of which took place on Feb. 21. However, I might be mistaken about the overall numbers or their distribution by dates. Garcia’s, certainly, took place on Thursday the 21st.

** The Resistance was blessed by with no small amount of foreign blood. (French)

† Garcia delegated this task to two subalterns, one of whom (Francisco Esteban Carranque) was shot with him on this date. The other man, Jose Olmedo, was arrested in 1947 and executed in 1948.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Murder,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Spain,Terrorists

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1645: Conor Macguire, Lord Baron of Enniskillen

Add comment February 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1645, Conor Ma(c)guire, Lord Baron of Enniskillen, was drawn, hanged, and quartered at Tyburn.

Lord Macguire’s offense had occurred three-plus years earlier during the Irish Rebellion of 1641 — a bloody Catholic-Protestant civil war that would start the ball rolling towards Cromwell‘s depredations.

If the grievances of the latter are still well-remembered, English and Scottish Protestants had their own bill of particulars from the Irish Rebellion over Catholic-perpetrated slaughters like the Portadown Massacre. (Irish Catholics had their grievances from spending the preceding decade suffering land grabs for English settlers under the authoritarian rule of Thomas Wentworth. And on it goes.)

Actually, in the wake of the Irish Rebellion, there was a systematic project to collect witness testimony (not all of it reliable) about Catholic-on-Protestant violence. This codex would come in handy for Cromwell’s subsequent statecraft; it’s freely available online in an enormous searchable database.

Such beyond-the-pale doings took place literally beyond “the Pale” around Dublin, and outside similar fortified spots where the English holed themselves up.

These outposts gave the foreign heretics quite a bit of leverage, which Macguire and some other lords contrived to reverse via a plot to seize Dublin castle, kill its English lords, “and to put all the Protestants there likewise to the sword.” It was the lynchpin of an audacious coup that involved similar actions at English strongholds all around the island.

While some other fortresses did succumb, the plot against Dublin failed when Macguire’s co-conspirator Hugh “the Stereotype” MacMahon got drunk the night before and blabbed about it to his Presbyterian brother-in-law. Thus narrowly preserved, Dublin authorities arrested MacMahon and Macguire. (MacMahon was drawn and quartered in November 1644.)

The personal was very much political here, with the loss of lands and revenues under Wentworth stoking national and religious resentments against the English lords and settlers. Macguire described the recruiting pitch made by one of the rebellion’s leading spirits, Rory O’Mo(o)re: “[O’More] began to lay down to me the case that I was in then, overwhelmed in debt, the smallness of my estate, and the greatness of the estate my ancestors had, and how I should be sure to get it again, or at least a good part thereof.” (Source)

Whatever rank greed held in Conor Macguire’s motivations, however, he was constant to his horrific end. This interesting account of the scene on the scaffold will hardly fail to move the most ardent Orangeman to a bit of pity for the poor bastard enduring in his last moments on earth an endless badgering by the London sheriff to endorse a policy statement on intersectional strife.

On Thursday, February 20th, he was drawn on a sledge from the Tower, through London, and so to Tyburn; when being removed into a cart, he kneeled and prayed awhile; after which Sheriff Gibbs spake to him, representing the heinousness of his crime, and the vast numbers who had been murdered by that conspiracy, for which he was to suffer, and, therefore, exhorted him to express his sorrow for it: to which he answered, ‘I desire Almighty God to forgive me my sins.’

Sheriff Gibbs.—Do you believe you did well in those wicked actions?

Macg.—I have but a short time, do not trouble me.

Sher.—Sir, it is but just I should trouble you, that you may not be troubled for ever.

Macg.—I beseech you, Sir, trouble me not; I have but a little time to spend.

Sher.—I shall give you as much time after as you shall spend to give satisfaction to the people; I do require you, as an instrument set in God’s hands here, to make an acknowledgment to the people, whether you are sorry for what you have done or no; whether it be good or no.

Macg.—I beseech you do not trouble me; I am not disposed to give you an account. Pray give .me leave to pray.

Dr. Sibbald.—Give glory to God, that your soul may not be presented to God with the blood of so many thousand people.

Sher.—You are either to go to heaven or hell. If you make not an ingenuous confession your case is desperate. Had you any commission or not?

Macg.—I tell you there was no commission that ever I saw.

Sher.—Who were actors or plotters with you? or, who gave you any commission?

Macg.—For God’s sake give mo leave to depart in peace. They then asked him if he had not some pardon or bull from the Pope for what he did? to which he only answered, ‘I am not of the same religion with you.’ And being further urged about a bull, or pardon, said, ‘I saw none of it; all that I knew I delivered on my examinations; all that I said on my examinations are true; all that I said is right. I beseech you let me depart in peace.’ And so not returning them any answer to their question, he continued mumbling over a paper, which he had in his hand, as he had done from his first coming. The sheriffs commanded his pockets to be searched, whether ho had no bull or pardon about him, but they found in his pocket only some beads and a crucifix, which were taken from him. And then Dr. Sibbald said to him, ‘Come, my Lord, leave these, and acknowledge your fault to God and the world: one drop of the blood of Jesus Christ is able to purge you of all the heavy load that is upon you; it is not your Ave Marias nor these things will do you any good, but it is Agnus Dei qui tollit peccata Mundi.’ The Lord Macguire seemed not to regard his discourse, but read out of his paper to the people as followeth:

Since I am here to die, I desire to depart with a quiet mind, and with the marks of a good Christian; that is, asking forgiveness first of God, and next of the world. And I do forgive, from the bottom of my heart, all my enemies and offenders, even those that have a hand in my death. I die a Roman Catholick, and although I have been a great sinner, yet I am now, by God’s grace, heartily sorry for all my sins; and I do most confidently trust to be saved, not by my own works, but only by the passion, merits, and mercy of my dear Saviour Jesus Christ, into whose hand I commend my soul.

And then added, ‘I beseech you, gentlemen, let me have a little time to say my prayers.’

Sher.—Sir, if you answer ingenuously to those questions we shall ask you, you shall have time afterwards; whether do you account the shedding of Protestant blood to be a sin or not, and whether do you desire pardon of God for that sin?

Macg.—I do desire pardon of God for all my sins: I cannot resolve you in anything for my part.

Sher.—You can tell what your conscience dictates to you. Do you think it was a sin or not?

Macg.—For my part I cannot determine it.

Sher.—Then now it seems nothing to you to kill so many.

Macg.—How do you mean killing of them? to tell you my mind directly, for the killing, I do not know that, but I think, the Irish had a great cause for their wars.

Sher.—Was there any assault made upon you? Had you not entered into a covenant? Had you not engaged yourselves by oath to the king?

Macg.—For Jesus Christ’s sake, I beseech you, give me a little time to prepare myself.

Sher.—Have pity on your own soul.

Macg.—For God’s sake have pity on me, and let me say my prayers.

Sher.—I say the like to you, in relation to your own soul, whether do you think the massacre of so many thousand Protestants was a good act? For Jesus Christ’s sake have pity on your soul.

Macg.—Pray let me have a little time to say my prayers.

All this time his eye was mostly on his papers, mumbling something out of them to himself. Whereupon one of the sheriffs demanded these papers from him; he flung them down; they were taken up and given to the sheriff. They asked him further, whether they were not some agreement with the recusants in England? Whereunto he answered, ‘I take it upon my death, I do not know that any man knew of it;’ and after some other such like talk, the sheriff bidding him prepare for death, he said: ‘I beseech all the Catholics here to pray for me. I beseech God to have mercy on my soul:’ and so was executed.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Ireland,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason

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1762: Francois Rochette and the Grenier brothes, the last Huguenot martyrs in France

Add comment February 19th, 2013 Headsman

In September 1761, a man named Francois Rochette was detained in Toulouse, France, having been arrested traversing the nearby countryside on suspicion of being one of that area’s robbers.

Rochette was not a robber.

He was much, much worse: a Huguenot minister.

Interrogation soon made the situation clear. Technically, his heretical calling could subject Rochette to the death penalty, but the authorities weren’t going to be unreasonable about this — and “as Rochette was not surprised in the exercise of his function, he might easily have escaped by concealing his profession. Those, who interrogated him went even so far as to point out to him this means of acquittal.”

Every legal regime needs a bit of discretion, a bit of look-the-other-wayism, lest the letter of the law excite a judicial slaughter that public sentiment could never support.

Francois Rochette wasn’t interested in signing himself off a clerk or a cloth-merchant and being on his cagey way. He would not elide his calling: would not abet an other-way look.

Rochette’s obstinately overt Protestantism and the prospect of juridical proceedings against him put the whole city on edge. Catholics and Huguenots armed themselves, bracing for a horrid St. Bartholomew’s Day replay. Three brothers named Grenier hastened to Toulouse to aid their fellow-Huguenots, and were arrested; miraculously, the feared citywide bloodbath never quite materialized.

But now Francois Rochette and his Grenier backers would stand trial, in an environment where authorities were disposed to view their offense as one not merely of wrongthink but of stirring up a civic disturbance and endangering the city itself. They were accordingly condemned to death by a now-stringent court for their literally dangerous heresy on February 18, 1762.

That night, the Huguenots’ last on earth, inevitably featured a visitation of Catholic priests come to save their souls.

“It is for your salvation,” said they, “that we are here.” The answer of one of the prisoners was, “If you were at Geneva, ready to die in your bed (for no one is slain there on account of his religion), would you be pleased if four ministers came, under the pretence of zeal, to persecute you until your last breath? Do not, then unto others that which you would not wish to be done unto yourselves.”

This is from the public-domain History of the Protestants of France, to whom we turn the fatal narration.

On the 19th of February, at two o’clock in the afternoon, the mournful procession started on its way. Rochette was, according to the terms of the sentence, bare-headed, bare-footed, with a halter hung about his neck, from which, before and behind, labels were suspended, with these words, Minister of the pretended Reformed religion.

When the array passed before the church of Saint Etienne, an attempt was made to force him, in pursuance of the terms of the Parliament’s condemnation, to kneel with a torch of yellow wax in his hand, and to ask pardon of God, the king, and justice, for all his crimes and misdeeds.

Rochette stepped down from the tumbril, and instead of abjuring or making a confession which his heart denied, he pronounced on his knees the following words: “I beseech God to pardon me for all my sins, and I firmly believe that they have been washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ, who has redeemed us so dearly. I have no pardon to ask of the king, whom I have ever honoured as the Lord’s annointed, and loved as the father of my native land; I have ever been a good and faithful subject, and of this I believe my judges to be convinced. I have always preached to my flock patience, obedience, and submission; and my sermons, which you possess, are summed up in these words: ‘Fear God, honour the king.’ If I have contravened the law touching religious assemblies, it was by God’s commandments I contravened them; God must be obeyed before men. As for justice and the law, I am guilty of no offence against them, and I pray God may pardon my judges.”

Every door, balcony, window, roof, and approach near to the place of execution, was covered with spectators. “Toulouse,” says Count de Gebelin, an eye-witness, who related these circumstances, “Toulouse, that city drunk with the blood of martyrs, seemed a Protestant town. People asked what was the creed of these heretics; and when they heard our martyrs speak of Jesus Christ and of his death, every one was surprised and afflicted. They were infinitely touched, also, with the lofty, yet mild bearing of the three brothers, which compelled their admiration almost as much as the inexpressible serenity of the minister, whose graceful and spiritual physiognomy, whose words full of firmness and courage, and whose youth, filled every beholder with interest, knowing, as all did, that he only died because he disdained to save his life by a lie.”

Rochette was executed first. He exhorted his companions until the end, and sang the canticle of the Protestant martyrs: This is the blessed day. “Die a Catholic,” said the executioner, moved with pity. “Judge which is the better religion,” replied Rochette, “that which persecutes, or that which is persecuted.”

The youngest of the thre brothers (he was only twenty-two years of age), hid his face in his hands to shut out this tragic scene. The two others contemplated it with calmness. As they were gentlemen, their sentence was, to be beheaded. Tyembraced each other, recommending their souls to God. The eldest offered his head to the axe first. When it came to the turn of the last, the executioner said: “You have seen your brothers die; change, lest you perish like them.” “Do thy duty,” said the martyr, and his head rolled upon the scaffold.

Count de Gebelin adds, as he concludes his recital: “Everyone present returned home in silence, in a state of consternation, and unable to persuade themselves that there could be such courage and such cruelty in the world; and I, who describe it, cannot refrain from tears of joy and sadness, as I contemplate their blessed lot, and that our church should be still capable of affording examples of piety and firmness that will compare with the most illustrious monuments of the primitive church.”

It was only days later — March 10, 1762 — that Toulouse followed up this example of piety and firmness by breaking Jean Calas on the wheel in another prosecution of a Huguenot driven by sectarian sentiment (albeit not directly for heresy, in the Calas case).

Backlash against the Calas case, led by Voltaire, helped put to the fore the long-percolating Enlightenment values of tolerance. Official persecution of Protestants slackened greatly in the years to come and never again rose to a death penalty situation; the whole policy was officially revoked in 1787.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,Hanged,Heresy,History,Milestones,Nobility,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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