Archive for December, 2013

69: Vitellius, “yet I was once your emperor”

Add comment December 22nd, 2013 Headsman

Were 69 C.E. known as the Year of the Three Emperors, maybe the long and glorious era of the porcine Vitellius would still be celebrated today.

Unfortunately for Vitellius, 69 was the Year of the Four Emperors … and our Emperor No. 3 had his brief reign brutally aborted at the Gemonian Stairs on December 22.

Vitellius came from a political family; his father as Governor of Syria deposed Christ‘s reluctant judge Pontius Pilate.

In time, Vitellius’s own ruin would emerge from the Levant.

But first he had a run down Roman elites’ cursus honorum of Roman offices; he served as Consul in the year 48. Even so, he’s described to us as a ridiculous character, so much so that Vitellius himself supposedly mocked astrologers over the self-evidently preposterous prediction that he of all people could become emperor.

“Addicted as he was to luxury and licentiousness,” Cassius Dio reports, Vitellius “no longer cared for anything else either human or divine. He had indeed always been inclined to idle about in taverns and gaming-houses, and devote himself to dancers and charioteers.”

According to these chroniclers, the dissipated Vitellius entered history by the side door. The first emperor of our august year was Galba, who overthrew Nero late in 68. Galba appointed Vitellius to command the restive Rhine legions, who had notably put down the revolt of one of Galba’s early supporters and were now getting short shrift from the Galba administration. The plan here is a little sketchy; Suetonius says it was “rather through contempt than favour,” perhaps that this no-account fop would deprive the Germanic forces of an adequate figurehead for revolt. Vitellius’s dismayed creditors could scarcely be prevailed upon to let him leave Rome.

Now, Suetonius and Cassius Dio are extremely hostile witnesses who wrote (respectively) during the Flavian dynasty that Vitellius’s own usurper established, and in the wake of that period.* The facts on the ground are that Vitellius had been Consul as well as a provincial governor, was appointed by Galba to manage the vital German frontier, and leveraged the position into mastery (however brief) of the Roman world. Even these historians give Vitellius grudging credit for some of his wise civic reforms once he took power. And at the end, when all was hopeless, Vitellius’s loyalists furiously resisted their foes in the streets of Rome herself, fighting “in a solid mass opposed the victors and to a man fell giving blow for blow, dying with faces to the foe” (Tacitus, who wrote after the Flavians had passed, but whose family was elevated during that dynasty). Read without interlocutors’ gleeful character assassination, we might better incline to perceive not a buffoon but a capable political leader whom fortune (and a very large army) contrived to crush at the moment of his glory.

Be that as it may, the Caput Mundi was to find in the generations ahead that men of mediocre stature could readily be wrapped in purple by a willing army. More often than not it proved a purple shroud — as it did with Vitellius.

These Rhine legions had their grievances and whether Vitellius was a great man or small, he was emperor material enough for them. On New Year’s Day of 69, when they were supposed to take an oath to the sitting emperor, they instead cast down images of the much-resented Galba and acclaimed their new governor in his place. But even as the rebellious legions strapped on their greaves, Galba was being overthrown and executed within the walls of Rome itself.

That left Emperor No. 2, Otho, vainly endeavoring to find an arrangement with Vitellius and his marching German ranks. Even though Vitellius et al had rebelled against Galba (not Otho) they were now entirely too committed to their treasonable endeavor to just turn around and march home. In April, Vitellius won the decisive Battle of Bedriacum and Otho made his fame by nobly taking his own life rather than protracting a bloody civil war: “Let Vitellius be victor, since this has pleased the gods; and let the lives of his soldiers also be spared, since this pleases me. Surely it is far better and far more just that one should perish for all than many for one, and that I should refuse on account of one man alone to embroil the Roman people in civil war and cause so great a multitude of human beings to perish.” (Cassius Dio)

Otho’s scruples were not shared by all, including devoted supporters who could hardly fail to be moved by the sacrificial gesture. Most of these declared with the eastern provinces for the general Vespasian, lately engaged in smashing the Jewish revolt in Judea.

Vespasian was destined to be the ultimate winner in the Year of the Four Emperors — the man who could claim power, and hold it, and pass it on to his heirs. With the East came Egypt’s grain supplies, upon which Rome depended. He moved methodically but by October 69 one of his generals was penetrating Italy. By coincidence, the forces of the rival emperors again met at a second Battle of Bedriacum. Once again, it was won by the upstart.

Vitellius was offered appealing surrender terms by the approaching army but his negotiations with Vespasian’s brother were aborted by his own supporters, who besieged that enemy envoy on the Capitoline Hill and eventually put him to death over Vitellius’s objections. Yet as furiously as the Vitellian faction in Rome resisted Vespasian’s conquest that December, the balance of forces decided the outcome in advance. The Flavians at length broke through and on the 22nd of December a desperate Vitellius was captured hiding himself in the palace and making ready to flee once night fell. “Tearing off his tunic,” Cassius Dio writes,

they bound his hands behind his back and put a rope round his neck. And thus they led down from the palace the Caesar who had revelled there; along the Sacred Way they dragged the emperor who had often paraded past in his chair of state, and they conducted the Augustus to the Forum, where he had often addressed the people. Some buffeted him, some plucked at his beard; all mocked him, all insulted him, making comments especially upon his riotous living, since he had a protuberant belly. When, in shame at this treatment, he lowered his gaze, the soldiers would prick him under the chin with their daggers, in order to make him look up even against his will. A German who witnessed this could not endure it, but taking pity on him cried: “I will help you in the only way that I can.” Thereupon he wounded Vitellius and slew himself. Now, Vitellius did not die of the wound, but was dragged to the prison, as were also his statues, while many jests and many opprobrious remarks were made about them. Finally, grieved to the heart at what he had suffered and what he had been hearing, he cried: “And yet I was once your emperor.” At that the soldiers became enraged and led him to the Stairway, where they struck him down. Then they cut off his head and carried it about all over the city.

The Roman History podcast covers Vitellius in Episodes 71 and 72

* Suetonius was also directly self-interested: his father fought for Otho, and against Vitellius, at Bedriacum.

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1893: Frederick Wyndham, unrepentant patricide

Add comment December 21st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1893, Frederick Wyndham, aged 45, was hanged at Gloucester Gaol for the shotgun murder of his own father near Stroud.


From Illustrated Police News, via.

This murder discharged a vast accumulation of Oedipal wrath in the Wyndham family.

The eventual victim, 73-year-old widower farmer James Wyndham, had taken up with his housekeeper, a woman by the provocative and wholly unmerited name of Virtue.

She was, James retorted to his son’s protests, the “biggest whore” he could lay hands on.

Meanwhile, Frederick’s unmarried sisters had been turned out of the house. Following a dispute over money, Old Man Wyndham actually tried to run one of them down with his horse and cart.

On October 19, 1893, it all came to a head. Frederick, drunk on rum and cider, took some friends in a hunting party to James’s land and ran into dad. The two fell into a furious row over Virtue, the sister, and who knows how many pent-up grievances when Frederick finally whipped out his shotgun and blasted his father through the neck and heart.

Then the parricide went straight back to his sister to inform her what he had done and make some arrangements for the disposal of affairs, and marched himself off to the police to turn himself in.

“I have only done my duty,” he told the lawmen. “I solemnly declare I shot him. I put two barrels into him. I hope he is dead. I can die happy.” (London Times, Oct. 21, 1893) By the time his trial came around he’d thought of something else that would make his life complete, belligerently interrupting the testimony of his late father’s lover with sundry threatening vituperations.

His last sentiment on the scaffold, after shaking hands with his executioner,* was the regret that he had not killed “that whore” Virtue, too. (Times, Dec. 22)

* According to the Times (Oct. 21), Frederick Wyndham himself once applied for the hangman’s job.

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1806: Hepburn Graham, HMS St. George rapist

2 comments December 20th, 2013 Headsman

Hepburn Graham, masters’ mate aboard the HMS St. George, was tried by Admiralty court-martial in early December on a charge of sodomy forwarded by the ship’s captain, Thomas Bertie.

We excerpt from the trial record via Gay Warriors: A Documentary History from the Ancient World to the Present:

George Parr, a boy of fourteen years of age belonging to His Majesty’s ship, St. George, called in and sworn:

Capain Bertie asked:

Q. Do you know the prisoner?

A. Yes

Q. Relate to the court what the prisoner was guilty of with you on the twenty-first of November last, the day after the St. George arrived in Torbay, and also n the twenty-seventh of November last.

A. On the twenty-first of November last, Mr. Graham took me into his hammock. He got me on a stool and got hold of me, telling me I must be a good boy. He got hold of my hair, and pulled me into his hammock in his berth on the starboard side, forward on the lower gun deck. It was between eight and nine o’clock in the evening of the first watch. He told me to put down my trousers, and he put them down himself. He pulled his yard out, and put it into my backside. He kept doing backwards and forwards, and made my arse wet. I was laying on my side in his hammock when he committed the act, and immediately afterwards he said you may go to your hammock now, and told me I must not tell any one, and if I did he would get me flogged …

On the twenty-seventh of November at night, between eight and nine o’clock in the [illegible] watch, I was in his berth attending him as his servant. He told me I must be a good boy. He would make me a good boy. He got hold of me and pulled me into his hammock. I did not want to get into it and he kept hitting me on the head while I was in the hammock. I wanted to get out, and he kept hitting me and asked me to stay in and said if I did not, he would get me flogged, he would get me three dozen [lashes]. He had made me unbutton the buttons before, and he them pulled down my trousers and pulled out his yard and put it into my backside. It went into my backside. He kept moving backwards and forwards, and made my backside wet. He then told me to go to my hammock and get up in good time in the morning and I went away. On the following morning early, I was again in his berth. It was before breakfast, before the hammocks were up. He pulled a hole in my trousers behind with his fingers and told me he would get them mended. He then pulled his yard out, and put it through the hole of my trousers to my backside, but did not enter it, but kept moving backwards and forwards and made my arse wet.

Q. Did he ever make any more attempts than what you have related?

A. Yes, he has attempted it five times in all, but only entered me twice.

A second boy on the same ship gave similar testimony.

John Sky, a boy about fifteen years of age, belonging to the St. George, called in and sworn.

Captain Bertie asked:

Q. Relate to the court what the prisoner was guilty of with you on the twenty-ninth of November, last.

A. On the twenty-ninth of November last I was down between decks talking to one of the boys whose name is Taylor. Mr. Graham, the prisoner came to me and [illegible] me he wanted me in his berth. I went in and he told me he would give me a bed. He then took me round the deck and set me down on a stool [illegible] of him. He began kissing me and told me he must feel my cock. I told him to leave it alone. If he did not, I would sing out. He was at this time going to unbutton the flap of my trousers. Mr. Miller, a midshipman, came in and he asked Mr. Miller to take down a great coat that [illegible] on the gun to give him more light. He said it gave him light. Whilst Mr. Miller was taking down the coat, he took me by the arm and hoved me out of the berth. I told the boy, George Parr, if he did not complain, I would. He then said that he would complain, and I told him to mention my name. He did complain to the first lieutenant, and mentioned my name. I told Mr. Graham that I could not stand it, and would complain. About a fortnight before, Mr. Graham [illegible] me in his berth and had my trousers down and pulled out his private parts. He tried to get these into my backside, but could [illegible], but got them between my thighs. Before he had had his turn, someone came in and disturbed him. I told him I would go out of the berth, and he put me out of the berth. He never succeeded with me in what he wanted to do.

George Parr’s rape claim was vouched by the ship’s surgeon.

Mr. Hugh Hughes, surgeon of the St. George, called in and sworn:

Captain Bertie asked:

Q. On the twenty-ninth of November was the boy, George Parr, sent to you to undergo a certain examination?

A. Yes.

Request: Relate to the court the result of your examination.

A. About seven o’clock in the evening of the twenty-ninth of November I was sent for by Lieutenant Caulfield on the quarter deck, and when I appeared, he said that Captain Bertie desired that I should examine the two boys, Parr and Sky. I immediately took them down to the sick bay accompanied by my two assistants, and there examined them immediately and found the anus of George Parr inflamed and not excoriated at all. I also examined Sky, and found no appearance of inflamation in the anus, as in the former boy. In order to corroborate what I have now stated I requested both my assistants to examine them also and begged that they would give me their opinion, and it corresponded with my own.

The court asked:

Q. Did you ask the boy, Parr, what had occasioned this appearance in his anus?

A. I did. He answered that two nights before, the twenty-seventh, that Mr. Graham had connection with him and gave him an infinite deal of pain. I asked him whether the anus was very painful at the time he was examining. He said, no, not very painful just then.

Q. Was it your opinion that the apperance was occasioned by the insertion of an instrument similar to a man’s yard?

A. I could not ascertain that.

Q. Would such an insertion cause a similar appearance in your opinion?

A. I think it would.

Q. As a professional man, do you think that the crime of which the prisoner stands charged could be committed upon a boy so young as George Parr.

A. Yes, I do.

Q From your knowledge of instruments could you imagine that the crime could be committed with a passive obedience on the part of that boy?

A. I do think he must have been placed in a particular position and he must have been a passive instrument.

One of the surgeon’s assistants testified to like effect. At this point, the Graham gave a scanty defense, merely describing his service since 1793 without addressing the charges against him.

The court was cleared and agreed that the charge had been proved against the said Hepburn Graham, and did adjudge him to suffer death by being hanged by the neck onboard such ship of His Majesty and at such time as the commissioners for executing the Office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, etc. or any three of them for the time being should direct.

The court was again opened, the prisoner brought, [illegible] audience admitted, and sentence passed accordingly.

Greentham
Deputy Judge Advocate of the Fleet

Just a few weeks before he’d been wetting the arse of boys on the St. George. Now, only King George III stood between Graham and the noose.

Admiralty, 16 Dec 1806.

Mr. Grenville has the honour to lay before your Majesty the minutes and sentence of a court martial held on Mr Hepburn Graham, master’s mate on board the St George for an unnatural crime.

Mr. Grenville humbly submits to your Majesty that the sentence of the court martial may be put into immediate execution.

This petition was transmitted simultaneously with a like appeal from a seaman condemned for a Caribbean mutiny. Mr. Grenville recommended a pardon for the mutineer, and recommended denying pardon for the sodomite; King George endorsed both recommendations.

The King’s reply, Windsor Castle, 17 Dec.

The King upon consideration of what is stated in Mr Grenville’s letter in regard to the case of Naiad Sware, consents to remit the sentence of death pronounced by the court martial. Under the circumstances which attend the crime of which Mr Hepburn Graham has been found guilty, his Majesty is under the painful necessity of directing that the sentence of death may be carried into immediate execution.

Accordingly, that same day the Admiralty issued a warrant to hang Hepburn Graham on the upcoming Saturday, December 20.

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1475: Louis de Luxembourg, Count of Saint-Pol

Add comment December 19th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1475, the Louis de Luxembourg, Count of Saint-Pol was beheaded.

The French King Louis XI “had need of a head such as his” because of Louis de Luxembourg’s part in the pompously self-styled League of the Public Weal. The “public weal” in question comprised civil war on behalf of feudal prerogatives that had slipped from aristocratic hands during the Hundred Years’ War.

They were led by the ruthless Duke of Burgundy Charles the Bold.

Louis de Luxembourg’s allegiance with Charles the Bold netted him, during the League’s successes, the title of Constable of France and the hand of the queen’s sister as inducements from Louis XI.

But Saint-Pol was not the type to stay bought.

Treacherously maneuvering between the Burgundian party, the royals, and the English (Luxembourg’s uncle sold Joan of Arc to the English, so they went way back) Louis eventually managed to irritate them all. He ultimately hatched a plan to assassinate Louis XI himself and fracture the French realm among a variety of great lords.

The English and French kings having acquainted each other with the comte’s underhanded schemes on their respective sides of the channel, Saint-Pol was obliged to seek Charles the Bold’s protection — but the latter had himself contracted with the French crown to hand him over if captured, and duly forwarded the traitor to the Bastille. (There’s more about Saint-Pol’s prosecution in this volume.)

Louis did his sovereign one last little injury on his way off this mortal coil: sixty additional sous were required by the executioner of Paris “for having the old sword done up, which was damaged, and had become notched whilst carrying out the sentence of justice upon Messire Louis de Luxembourg.”

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1894: John Cronin, by an automated gallows

1 comment December 18th, 2013 Headsman

From the Dec. 18, 1894 Atchison (Ks.) Daily:

HARTFORD, Conn., Dec. 18. — John Cronin was hanged here at 1:00 o’clock this morning.

The execution of Cronin was especially interesting, being the first hanging in this state under the law passed by the last general assembly and the first trial of an automatic gallows in the east.

This last is the idea of Warden Woodbridge. Aided by James H. Rabbett, a forger, now serving a two and one-half years’ sentence, the warden evolved what he considers an improvement on the hanging machine in use in Colorado.

Small shot has been substituted for water in the operation of the lever which releases the weight and an arrangement made whereby the execution may be stayed at any moment.

The compartment in which the shot are confined resembles an hour glass and the mechanism is thoroughly under the warden’s control. The shot was started in motion by the movement of a lever, and another lever would have enabled the warden to have stopped it at any time. The progress of the shot and the approaching moment when the weight would be released is indicated on a dial resembling a clock.

When Cronin had been seated in the chair and made fast, a signal from the executioner indicated to the man who had charge of the lever that he was ready. The machinery was then set in motion, there being no visible evidence of anything unusual.

The adjustment of the machine was made so perfect that the weight of 306 pounds made no perceptible noise as it was released and fell back to the ground beneath. Instantaneously the victim was jerked into the air, falling backward to within 2 feet of the floor.

One of the principal improvements over the Colorado appliance is the fact that the prisoner is not his own executioner. With the original machine,* when the prisoner was placed on the chair it released a lever which started the mechanism and in this way the man was practically forced to commit suicide.

John Cronin’s crime was the murder of Albert Skinner, at South Windsor, October 6, 1893. He was prompted by revenge for some fancied grievance. He had been boarding with Skinner for several months, but finally was ordered away. A fight ensued at the time and Cronin then went on a protracted debauch. The morning of the murder he went to Skinner’s house and meeting Skinner in the yard immediately shot him, inflicting a fatal wound.

* Developed to hang Dr. T. Thatcher Graves but to my knowledge never actually used.

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1963: Russell Pascoe and Dennis Whitty, Britain’s second-last hanging date

1 comment December 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1963, gallows traps dropped simultaneously in Bristol and Winchester to hang two men for murdering a Cornish farmer.

Russell Pascoe and Dennis Whitty were laborers living out of a caravan in the Truro area; Pascoe had formerly worked for the victim, William Rowe, and knew a rumor that the 64-year-old recluse kept a small fortune stashed at Nanjarrow farm.

Late the night of August 14, 1963, the young toughs called at Nanjarrow. When William Rowe answered the door, they instantly beat and stabbed him to death. Perhaps they ought to have thought the plan out better, because William Rowe actually did have £3,000 on the premises … but Pascoe and Whitty only found four quid. (They split it.)

The killers were picked up before the week was out.

“We are both over twenty-one, so I suppose we can hang?” Whitty inquired.

Then they both started trying to blame each other. So the answer was yes.

Robert Douglas, later a bestselling author, was then a young prison guard beginning a career in corrections. He was on the detail guarding Pascoe and on friendly terms with the condemned man who was practically his own age.

Years later, with a lifetime’s wisdom at his back, Douglas wrote about it in his memoir of the prison At Her Majesty’s Pleasure. It’s an experience he says he has always remembered:

I can remember saying to Ken [Russell, another guard], ‘I’m not looking forward to this shift — I mean, what the hell are we going to talk about all evening?’ I was only 24 years old myself at the time, and we had built up a good relationship with Pascoe over the previous six weeks – playing cards and Monopoly and listening to the radio.

We went into the cell, and I asked Russell if he wanted a cup of tea. He said he didn’t. So I tried to coax him – ‘I’ve brought you a cream doughnut’ – I’d brought him a cream cake each day as a little treat. With that, he perked up a little and said, ‘ah go on then, I’ll have a tea’.

So we sat drinking tea for a while, none of us really saying anything. Just blathering about nothing to try to fill the silences.

Then Russell suddenly said, ‘They weighed me today, so they’ll know how far I’ll drop.’ Ken and I just looked at each other – what are you meant to say to that?

These were the third- and fourth-last men people put to death under Britain’s capital punishment statutes. (Here’s a picture at the doors of Bristol’s Horfield Gaol.) England would see only one more hanging date, another double execution conducted at two different prisons, before it abolished the death penalty.

* Writing a piece for his local paper about the hanging actually led Douglas into his later career

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1794: Jean-Baptiste Carrier, of the Noyades de Nantes

5 comments December 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1794,* a revolutionary Montagnard who had overstayed his welcome made his departure through the guillotine’s window.

Carrier (English Wikipedia entry | French) was the Revolutionary Convention’s proxy in Nantes where he distinguished himself in bloodthirstiness while putting down a counterrevolutionary revolt.

He’s most particularly noted for the Noyades de Nantes, a series of mass drownings in the Loire that claimed two thousand or more victims — mostly priests and civilians viewed as refractory. Overall the casualties in the Vendee ran to six figures; there’s been latter-day debate over whether the Republican policy there rose to the level of genocide.


Les noyades de Nantes en 1793, by Joseph Aubert (1882).

He was “one of those inferior and violent spirits, who, in the excitement of civil wars, become monsters of cruelty and extravagance” Adolphe Thiers judged him. (Ironically, considering Thiers’ subsequent career.) “This frantic wretch imagined that he had no other mission than to slaughter.”

Now, one could author a bloodbath in the provinces and still stick around for posterity, but that play depended on a timely volte-face with the Thermidorean reaction.

Unlike Fouche and Tallien, Carrier couldn’t pull that off. He was left in an increasingly untenable position after Robespierre fell.

What would follow Robespierre? Carrier’s own person and the Noyades de Nantes were central to this question in the tumultuous latter half of 1794. His beheading would be the climax of a string of pivotal trials.

Ninety-four Bretons already under arrest by the revolutionary committee were put to trial in the weeks following Thermidor. En route to their spectacular acquittal, these accused

subpoenaed as witnesses the members of the Nantes revolutionary committee, who had also been arrested … [and] charged that they were guilty of summary executions and of mass drownings in the Loire; they acknowledged these acts but placed the responsibility for them on Carrier. This meant that there were three trials — that of the ninety-four, that of the Nantes revolutionary committee, and that of Carrier — each revealing ghastly atrocities, which were given wide coverage in the anti-Jacobin press throughout France. (Gilded Youth of Thermidor)

The atrocious stories from Nantes promulgated in Paris by these first trials soon had the city in an uproar and dealt the already-reeling Jacobins “a terrible blow in public opinion” according to one newspaper also quoted in Gilded Youth. The Nantes revelations would provide the impetus (or the pretext) for the riots that soon shuttered the Jacobin Club and placed the Parisian bourgeoisie firmly in control.

If Carrier was the casualty in all this, well, he wasn’t exactly in a position to complain about being sacrificed for someone’s ideology.

Gracchus Babeuf, later to drop his own head into the basket, campaigned against Carrier furiously during a robust pamphlet war.

Carrier: this horrible name strikes all ears, is issued from all mouths. Merely speaking it causes a shiver of horror. There is not a single Frenchman for whom this word does not suffice to tell the story of the man it designates. It reminds all of his contemporaries of the most irascible of carnivorous beings. Posterity will not be able to find in any tradition an exterminator who was his equal. The crimes of this master villain are recognized by, and proven to, all, and yet he has unofficial defenders in the National Convention, and it even appears that there exists a strong party that wants to save him. Even more, there are signs that announce that there are those who want to influence, even terrify the just tribunal that, with its usual wisdom, is investigating the affair of the infamous drowner who has far surpassed Nero and all the other great executioners. …

they’ll justify the mass killer of the west with the excuse that the terrorism he provided the earth an example of was necessary for the salvation of the Fatherland.

Exterminable system! It was necessary for the salvation of France to erase the entire population of its western parts! It was necessary for the salvation of the Fatherland to turn its most beautiful countryside into a horrible desert, to make it the lair of voracious animals both terrestrial and aquatic by covering the waters, fields, and woods with corpses! …

In order to save the Fatherland were the 23 noyades of Nantes, one of 600 children, needed? Were “republican marriages” necessary, where young boys and girls tied together naked were knocked unconscious with saber blows and then tossed into the Loire? (Deposition by Philippe Tronjoli and Bourier) Was it necessary (another deposition of 25 Vendémiaire) to cause to die in the prisons of Nantes through hunger, infection, and misery, 10,000 citizens, 30,000 if we include the executions and noyades? Were the sabrades necessary (deposition of Laéné) on the departmental square, which occupied 300 men for six weeks filling the mass graves with those who perished from this torture? Was it necessary for Carrier (deposition of Tronjoli of the 27) to sleep with three beautiful women and then drown them? Was it necessary to execute (deposition of Renaudot) infantry and cavalry detachments of the rebel army who had voluntarily surrendered? Was it necessary to drown or execute (deposition of Thomas) 500 children, the oldest of whom wasn’t fourteen and who Carrier called vipers that must be suppressed? Was it necessary (same deposition) to drown 30-40 women eight and eight and a half months pregnant and to offer horrified eyes the still palpitating corpses of the babies tossed into a tub filled with excrement? Was it necessary (deposition of Abraham and goodwife Puchotte) to kill in one night by suffocation (caused by infection and lack of air) 50-60 prisoners in a galleon whose side panels were shut expressly to cause suffocation?

Carrier’s likeness is preserved in wax at Madame Tussaud’s.

* A few sources give November 16; this is unambiguously mistaken. (See e.g. London Times, Jan. 15, 1795, reporting the December 16 execution.)

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1941: The massacre at Skede in Liepaja

12 comments December 15th, 2013 Headsman

The World War II occupation of the Latvian town of Liepaja (Libau, to the Germans) produced mass executions throughout 1941.

This date in 1941 commenced one of the largest such actions: over 2,700 Jews as well as 23 Communists forced over the course of two-plus days to strip on the freezing Skede dunes overlooking the Baltic and there shot by German and Latvian teams into a vast pit. It’s one of the most recognizable Holocaust atrocities because it was extensively photographed.*

As one can see from the pictures, the victims here were mostly women.


Some of the women in this photographs can be identified by name (pdf). Left to right: (1) Sorella Epstein; (2) presumably Rosa Epstein, her mother; (3) unknown; (4) Mia Epstein; (5) unknown. Alternate identification makes Mia Epstein (5) instead of (4), and (2) Pauline Goldman.

Almost all of Liepaja’s Jews perished during the war.

* Germany’s Bundesarchiv (search on Libau 1941) confirms the precise December 15 dating for these images; it also has some other photographs of atrocities in Liepaja/Libau on other occasions.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,History,Jews,Known But To God,Latvia,Mass Executions,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Summary Executions,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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1759: William Davis, St. Croix slave revolt suicide

Add comment December 14th, 2013 Headsman

On the morning of December 14, 1759, William Davis succumbed to a self-inflicted wound rather than face St. Croix’s harsh justice for an alleged slave rising plot.

They strung up his remains just the same.

St. Croix, today part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, was at the time a Danish colony.* As with other Caribbean islands, its economy catered to the lucrative new European taste for sugar — powered by human bondage.

“The establishment of the sugar industry created the demand for labor in the West Indian islands,” Eric Williams wrote. “It was a choice, from the sugar planter’s point of view, of Negro labor or no labor at all. Sugar meant slavery.”

It was, in fact, sugar which raised these insignificant tropical islands from the status of pirates’ nests to the dignity of the most precious colonies known to the Western World up to the nineteenth century …

Tremendous wealth was produced from an unstable economy based on a single crop, which combined the vices of feudalism and capitalism with the virtues of neither. Liverpool in England, Nantes in France, Rhode Island in America, prospered on the slave trade. London and Bristol, Bordeaux and Marseilles, Cadiz and Seville, Lisbon and New England, all waxed fat on the profits of the trade in the tropical produce raised by the Negro slave. … Sugar was king; without his Negro slave his kingdom would have been a desert.

For those in King Sugar’s castle this desert stuff was no mere metaphor, but life and limb itself. They trafficked fantastical wealth from the shores of tiny islets where they took their sleep surrounded by a vastly more numerous** servile population whom they controlled ever so delicately. Just let the serfs of such a manor commence a jacquerie

White planters’ vulnerability to a potential slave revolt, dramatically underscored by a 1733 revolt on neighboring St. John, bred great paranoia about imagined plots: a casual word here or there could be heard as a seditious murmuring, and then a politically motivated judicial machinery of torture, hearsay, and panicked accusations set into motion. It can be maddeningly difficult from the distance of centuries to weigh the truth value of a supposed slave plot strangled in the crib. Intrepid resistance? Or phantom from the planters’ nightmares?

Either way the slaves wound up just as dead.

We have the story of this revolt’s suppression from one of the judges, Engelbert Hasselberg, and this naturally constrains our view. Hasselberg wrote up his report, complete with an index of all the slaves punished, for eyes in Copenhagen. He’s certain that there really was an intended rising, even as he acknowledges a want of firm evidence: “many of the conspirators have refused to confess anything at all, although there has been sufficient evidence against them, insofar as it may be called evidence at all, where rogues have plotted and been the sole witnesses.” That is, a few people’s highly questionable accusations/confessions† sustained the entire affair.

But the story must have had the judges’ hearts in their throats.

Each [Negro] was if possible to slay his master or foreman; next, those whose masters’ plantations lay in the Christianstaed district, were to gather on Colleman’s plantation … and those Negroes who belonged to the West-End, were to assemble at the West-End fort, and first take possession of Fort Friderichswaern and of all the ammunition there to be found. Thereupon all those who had procured weapons were to march to Christianstaed, setting the plantation[s] on fire on the way, and killing or burning all whites who collected to put out the fires, and finally to storm [Fort] Christianstvaern.

Hasselberg’s report begins, oddly enough, by meditating that “the greater part of the slaves on colonies as recently developed as St. Croix are free-born, and have therefore just as good claim to their freedom as we have to ours. One or other fateful occurrence has brought them out of that natural equality which at birth they enjoyed with us, and made those persons our slaves who by a contrary event might have become our masters. What wonder then that such persons seek their freedom when they are provoked by the unreasonable conduct of unwise masters, and when they believe that the enterprise is not impossible.”

For Hasselberg this freely acknowledged natural inclination is not so much a systemic critique as a management challenge, and he expands on the talents required by the slaveowner to extract surplus-labor without “expos[ing] himself to resentment”, while not neglecting to request that Denmark increase its subsidy to St. Croix.

The enterprise was exposed by a few stray remarks from a quarrelsome slave.

It was in the month of December, 1759, that 2 white men, Matthias and Benjamin Bear, were molding bullets on Sr. Soren Bagge’s plantation. A Negro slave by the name of Cudjo, working at that time on Bagge’s plantation, asked Benjamin Bear to give him some of the bullets as a present, but as he was unable to give a proper account of what he was going to do with them, Bear gave him none. But Matthias, who did not think so far ahead, gave Cudjo a dozen bullets while Bear had stepped aside. Bear learned about it, and in the afternoon of the same day, he said to Cudjo, in the presence of a white man, Peter Hyde, and of a number of other Negroes, that he had heard that Matthias had given him some bullets, but he, Cudjo, had better look out, or his head might some day be found lying at his feet. To this, Cudjo replied, addressing himself to the 2 white men, Benjamin Bear and Peter Hyde, “You look out that some of your heads won’t lie at your feet pretty soon.” Peter Hyde then asked, “Whom will you then kill?” and Cudjo replied, “You shall be the first that I shall kill.”

The day before this conversation took place between Bear, Hyde and Cudjo, the Cudjo aforementioned had said concerning Mr. Bagge’s plantation house, “Maybe that house will be mine in a short time,” to which one of Bagge’s Negroes, namely Will, replied, “God damn you, you can’t keep a secret.” The same day Cudjo had asked B. Bear how long it would be until Christmas, and when Bear asked Cudjo why he wanted to know this, he answered, “I am asking about it, as I hope by that time to be a little Petit Maitre.”

Bear and Hyde reported the conversation and under questioning on December 11, Cudjo and his blood brother started revealing details of a slave rebellion in the offing — scheduled to capitalize on whites’ distracting Christmas celebrations. William Davis, a free black, was its supposed instigator.

Davis was under interrogation the very next day. The particular suspicion he was under would have instantly impressed him as placing him in the gravest peril; when induced with a plea bargain-type offer to merely suffer banishment, he “made a frank confession” and “exposed the whole dessein, and gave the names of quite a number of Negroes, some of whom have been found guilty and others acquitted.”

Hasselberg’s categorical assertion that Davis’s plea-induced statement was a “frank confession” doesn’t square comfortably either with Davis’s subsequent attempt to repudiate the “confession” or with the acknowledged denials and acquittals of most of the people he named. Perhaps this speaks well of St. Croix’s judicial restraint, but what might actually have been afoot for Christmas 1759, and how many people it might have involved, is heavily conjectural.

Not least because Davis — in remorse for naming names, perhaps, or else not trusting his captors’ assurance of humane treatment — took any subsequent remarks to an early grave.

[H]e managed to cut his throat in the morning of December 13, while in the fort. The wound was not considered dangerous by the surgeon, and he was immediately bound. He made various confessions after that time, but on the following night, he tore the bandage from his neck, cursed and scolded those who approached him, and swore that if they cut him up piece by piece, and roasted on the fire, he would nevertheless confess nothing. On the following morning, December 14, he died, and he was made an example of.

Hasselberg is not completely explicit here that the posthumous punishment occurred on that same day Davis succumbed, but he does not mince words when it comes to the example itself.

His dead body was dragged through the streets by a horse, by one leg; thereafter hanged on a gallows by a leg, and finally taken down and burned at the stake.†

By Hasselberg’s accounting, Davis was just the first of 14 people hanged, burned, broken on the wheel, or “set up in a gibbet or iron cage” to die of thirst and exposure.§

* St. Croix’s most famous denizen for posterity at this hour was a very small child named Alexander Hamilton.

** Of the British territory Nevis, one late 18th century chronicler remarked, “the present number of whites is stated not to exceed six hundred, while the negroes amount to about ten thousand; a disproportion which necessarily converts all such white men as are not exempted by age and decrepitude into a well regulated militia.” According to Hasselberg, the ratio on St. Croix was 1,690 whites to 11,807 blacks.

† The first slave to provide a corroborating account, one Qvamina, received his freedom and 50 rigsdalers in a conspicuous ceremony performed in front of other slaves.

‡ All translations are via Waldemar Westergaard in “Account of the Negro Rebellion on St. Croix, Danish West Indies, 1759” in The Journal of Negro History, January 1926.

§ William Davis was the first; the full roster of additional executions in Hasselberg’s report:

2. Franch (or French), free negro, convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing himself.

He was broken on the wheel with an iron crowbar, laid alive on the wheel, where he survived 12 hours. The head was then set on a stake, and the hand fastened on the gallows.

3. Prince Qvakoe, belonging to his Majesty, convicted by witnesses, and has confessed being implicated.

Was executed in the same way as Franch and lived 2 hours.

4. Cudjo, belonging to Doran, is convicted by witnesses, and has himself confessed.

Was burned alive on a pyre, lived in the fire 4½ minutes.

5. Gomas, belonging to John Bradshou, is convicted and has confessed.

6. George, belonging to James Hughes, has confessed and is convicted.

Both these negroes (5 and 6) were first pinched with hot tongs, then hanged by the legs in a gallows, and a dog likewise, by the neck, between them. Gomas lived ½ an hour and was strangled; George lived 3 hours and was strangled.

7. London, belonging to Thomas Lacke, is convicted and has himself confessed.

He was first pinched with glowing tongs, then hanged up by the legs, lived 12 hours and was strangled.

8. Sam Hector, belonging to Pieter Heyliger, Senior, is convicted by witnesses, but has confessed nothing himself.

He was set up in a gibbet or iron cage and lived 42 hours.

9. Michel, belonging to Hugh O’Donnell, is convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing.

Got the same punishment as Sam Hector, lived 91 hours.

10. Will, belonging to Soren Bagge, is convicted by witnesses, but made no confession.

Was burned alive, lived in the fire 14 minutes.

11. George, belonging to John Cookly, confessed and was convicted by witnesses.

He was pinched with glowing tongs and hanged by the neck.

12. [Name not given], belonging to Manan Rogers, is convicted by witnesses, and made a partial confession.

Was set up in a gibbet from January 18, at 3:30 p.m. to Jan. 27, 8:30 a.m.

13. Sylvester, belonging to James Conningham, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.

He was burned alive, and lived in the fire 4½ minutes.

14. Jupiter, belonging to W. Burnet, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.

He was burned alive, and lived in the fire for 1½ minutes.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Public Executions,Slaves,Uncertain Dates,US Virgin Islands

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1980: Erdal Eren, leftist student

Add comment December 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1980, 17-year-old Turkish student radical Erdal Eren was hanged as a terrorist by the military regime.

Eren (Turkish Wikipedia link; most other links here are also in Turkish) was one of about 50 people executed following the military coup of September 12, 1980.

After a decade of bloody left-right civil strife, the Turkish generals toppled the civilian government on that date. Hundreds of thousands of arrests with rampant torture marked the period, but it did quell the endemic street fighting and terrorism of the 1970s.

Erdal Eren was actually arrested during the chaotic pre-coup period. February 1980 student protests after the murder of Sinan Suner, an activist of the communist Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Association, turned into a melee that resulted in an officer shot dead under confused circumstances. Eren was among 24 students rounded up.

Despite his youth, Eren was sentenced to die in a March 19 trial — but his appeals had legs until the post-coup military junta abruptly sent him to the gallows on December 13.

Eren went to his death with a brave step, gamely writing his family that he had witnessed so much torture in prison that death was a relief and not a terror.

He’s very warmly remembered today. A number of cultural artifacts pay tribute to the young martyr, including two different songs (“Two Children”, “Seventeen”) by Teoman, a relative of Erdal Eren’s.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Children,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Murder,Popular Culture,Torture,Turkey,Wrongful Executions

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