Archive for September, 2017

1622: Charles Spinola, martyr in Japan

1 comment September 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1622, Jesuit Charles Spinola was martyred in Nagasaki.

He was the son of both Spanish noble stock and the spirit of missionary martyrdom that swelled in Europe’s Age of Discovery. As a young man, Spinola thrilled to reports of evangelists suffering for the faith in the New World, for “to die for the faith, to shed his blood for Jesus Christ, seemed to him supreme happiness. Thenceforward all his thoughts tended to the means of attaining this end.” Indeed, his very decision to enter the Jesuit order was “impelled by his ardor for martyrdom.”*

And he would need the ardor, because merely to attain the scene of this hoped-for Calvary in distant Japan would require a Homeric six-year odyssey featuring a shipwreck, a pestilence, a stint in an English prison, nearly drowning in the Caribbean, nearly dying of fever in Goa, and outmaneuvering the attempted interpositions of his powerful family who aspired to a more comfortable and proximate appointment for their kin.

Finally alighting in Nagasaki in 1602, Spinola enjoyed or endured (as the mathematically disposed reader will infer) a twenty-year chase for the palm of martyrdom. He passed most of those years in the small and unglamorous labors of religious and managerial constancy necessary to tend the growing flame of Christianity in Japan.

Around 1612 Japan’s tenuous toleration of Christian proselytizing began taking a turn very much for the worse. The only recently coalesced state had long feared that the Catholic priests dispatched by Spain and Portugal portended the imperial domination visited elsewhere in Asia. Were these Christians, now perhaps two million strong, being prepared as a fifth column?

Spinola went underground, going by the foreshadowing alias “Joseph of the Cross”, a haunt of the shadows who was obliged to conceal himself from daylight because his foreign features were instantly recognizable. With the help of Nagasaki’s ample Christian community he eluded capture for an amazingly long time.

For nearly two years and a half I have devoted myself to encourage and support the Christians of this country, not without great difficulty. Having no home, I pass secretly from house to house, to hear confessions and celebrate our holy mysteries by night. Most of my time I spend in utter solitude, deprived of all human converse and consolation, having only that which God gives to those who suffer for his love … However I am tolerably well, and, though destitute of almost everything and taking but one scanty meal a day, I do not fall away. Does not this prove that “man liveth not by bread alone?”

-Letter of Spinola dated March 20, 1617

He wouldn’t be caught for almost two more years yet after that letter, in December 1618 — whereupon, “seeing that he was discovered, he raised his eyes and hands towards heaven, and in a burst of unutterable joy, humbly thanked God.” God was still going to make Charles Spinola wait another four years for martyrdom, time mostly spent in the “tedium” (Spinola’s word) of prison with some other Christians, on a diet of meager rice portions and regular penitential self-flagellation.

Spinola burned when the time finally came with twenty-one other holy martyrs … plus three Japanese converts who attempted to apostatize to escape the flame, but were put to the stake just the same.

* These quotes, and a good deal of this post’s narrative, come from the public domain hagiography Life of the Blessed Charles Spinola, of the Society of Jesus.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Japan,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1659: Dara Shikoh, deposed Mughal heir

Add comment September 9th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1659,* the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb disposed of his primary competition … his older brother Dara Shukoh or Shikoh.

These two sons of Taj Mahal builder Shah Jahan were the principal contenders in a fratricidal four-way civil war for the Peacock Throne. We’ve previously covered this time of troubles via the execution of yet another of the brothers here.

But if the old man had had his way, Dara would have been the winner. For many years it was the firstborn who had been painstakingly positioned as the heir, not excluding possession of the Mughal capital — a circumstance which helped to goad the envious brothers into rebellion when Shah Jahan’s illness threatened to make Dara’s succession a fait accompli.

It turned out, when Aurangzeb emerged victorious, that Shah Jahan had survived just fine: it’s just that it would be his to contemplate in his enforced retirement the destruction of his former favorite. According to the account of Dara’s French physician, when Aurangzeb captured Dara in battle, he had him humiliatingly

secured on an elephant; his young son, Sipah Shikoh, placed at his side, and behind them, instead of the executioner, was seated Bahadur Khan [one of the royal generals]. This was not one of the majestic elephants of Pegu or Ceylon, which Dara had been in the habit of mounting, pompously caparisoned, the harness gilt, and trappings decorated with figured work; and carrying a beautifully painted howdah inlaid with gold, and a magnificent canopy to shelter the Prince from the sun: Dara was now seen seated on a miserable and worn-out animal, covered with filth; he no longer wore the necklace of large pearls which distinguish the princes of Hindoustan, nor the rich turban and embroidered coat; he and his son were now habited in dirty cloth of the coarsest texture, and his sorry turban was wrapt round with a Kashmir shawl or scarf, resembling that worn by the meanest of the people.

Such was the appearance of Dara when led through the Bazars and every quarter of the city [of Delhi]. I could not divest myself of the idea that some dreadful execution was about to take place, and felt surprise that government should have the hardihood to commit all these indignities upon a Prince confessedly popular among the lower orders, especially as I saw scarcely any armed force. The people had for some time inveighed bitterly against the unnatural conduct of Aureng-Zebe: the imprisonment of his father, of his son Sultan Mahmud, and of his brother Murad Bakhsh, filled every bosom with horror and disgust. The crowd assembled upon this disgraceful occasion was immense; and everywhere I observed the people weeping, and lamenting the fate of Dara in the most touching language. I took my station in one of the most conspicuous parts of the city, in the midst of the largest bazar; was mounted on a good horse, and accompanied by two servants and two intimate friends. From every quarter I heard piercing and distressing shrieks, for the Indian people have a very tender heart; men, women, and children wailing as if some mighty calamity had happened to themselves. Javan Khan [a Pathan who betrayed Dara into Aurangzeb’s hands] rode near the wretched Dara; and the abusive and indignant cries vociferated as the traitor moved along were absolutely deafening. I observed some faqirs and several poor people throw stones at the infamous Pathan; but not a single movement was made, no one offered to draw his sword, with a view of delivering the beloved and compassionated Prince. When this disgraceful procession had passed through every part of Dehli, the poor prisoner was shut up in one of his own gardens, called Haidarabad.

Aureng-Zebe was immediately made acquainted with the impression which this spectacle produced upon the public mind, the indignation manifested by the populace against the Pathan, the threats held out to stone the perfidious man, and with the fears entertained of a general insurrection. A second council was consequently convened, and the question discussed, whether it were more expedient to conduct Dara to Gwalior, agreeably to the original intention, or to put him to death without further delay … it was ultimately decided that Dara should die, and that Sipah-Shikoh should be confined in Gwalior. At this meeting Raushanara Begam [Dara and Aurangzeb’s sister] betrayed all her enmity against her hapless brother, combating the arguments of Danishmand Khan, and exciting Aureng-Zebe to this foul and unnatural murder….

The charge of this atrocious murder was intrusted to a slave of the name of Nazir, who had been educated by Shah-Jahan, but experienced some ill-treatment from Dara. The Prince, apprehensive that poison would be administered to him, was employed with Sipah Shikoh in boiling lentils, when Nazir and four other ruffians entered his apartment. ‘My dear son,’ he cried out, ‘these men are come to murder us!’ He then seized a small kitchen knife, the only weapon in his possession. One of the murderers having secured Sipah Shikoh, the rest fell upon Dara, threw him down, and while three of the assassins held him, Nazir decapitated his wretched victim. The head was instantly carried to Aureng-Zebe, who commanded that it should be placed in a dish, and that water should be brought. The blood was then washed from the face, and when it could no longer be doubted that it was indeed the head of Dara, he shed tears, and said, ‘Ai Bad-bakht! Ah wretched one! let this shocking sight no more offend my eyes, but take away the head, and let it be buried in Humayun’s tomb.’


That’s not the way to get a-head! Aurangzeb contemplates his fratricidal trophy. Via dara-shikoh.blogspot.com, which has many other illustrations of Dara’s career.

Dara’s daughter was taken that same evening to the saraglio, but afterwards sent to Shah-Jahan and Begam-Sahib; who begged of Aureng-Zebe to commit the young Princess to their care. Dara’s wife, foreseeing the calamities which awaited her and her husband, had already put a period to her existence, by swallowing poison at Lahor. Sipah Shikoh was immured in the fortress of Gwalior; and soon after these tragical events Javan Khan was summoned before the council, and then dismissed from Dehli with a few presents. He did not escape the fate, however, which he merited, being waylaid and assassinated in a forest, within a few leagues of his own territory. This barbarian had not sufficiently reflected, that though tyrants appear to countenance the blackest crimes while they conduce to their interest, or promote a favourite object, they yet hold the perpetrators in abhorrence, and will not scruple to punish them when they can no longer be rendered subservient to any iniquitous project.

The cultured Dara cuts a charismatic figure for posterity, and given that the Mughal Empire fell into precipitous decline after Aurangzeb — opening the way for British colonization — some can’t help wondering whether India’s destiny could have been entirely different had Dara successfully followed his father to the throne.

* September 9 on the Gregorian calendar; the equivalent Julian date of August 30 is also commonly reported.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Execution,History,India,Mughal Empire,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1306: Simon Fraser, William Wallace comrade in arms

Add comment September 8th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1306, Scottish patriot Simon Fraser was drawn and quartered in London.

This Norman-descended lord was one of the side-switching nobles during the wars of William Wallace, but after completing the full circuit from Wallace to Edward I and back again, he unexpectedly decided to lash himself to St. Andrew‘s cross for good.

Perhaps he could tell where the wind was blowing, and not just for his historical reputation: Fraser’s former ally, “Red” Comyn, went down the other fork in the road, submitting himself to an irresistible English invasion the better to devote his energies to his longshot horse in the confusing Scottish regnal derby.

Comyn’s reward was to be personally daggered to death at the altar of Greyfriars Church by Robert the Bruce.


The murder of John Comyn.

But no amount of royal sacrilege could arrest the popular fad for cutting a deal, and as celebrated in this History of the Frasers,

Every man of influence in the Kingdom, except Sir Simon Fraser, Sir William Wallace, and the band of patriots who comprised the garrison of Stirling, followed the example of Cumming [Comyn] … The patriots were proclaimed outlaws and their estates forfeited, and they ultimately sacrificed their noble lives in the undying service of their country. The redoubted Sir William Wallace continued most deservedly to be the idol of his countrymen for the glorious part which he took in establishing the independence of his fatherland, but “if to him be due the glory of being the first to awaken Scotland from her ignominious slumber, his efforts were nobly seconded by Sir Simon Fraser, who alone of the aristocracy was disposed to view with envy the merit which called his hero to command.”

Fraser outlived Wallace by a year, persisting in the field “bold as Caesar” which supposedly led a couple of Scottish knights imprisoned in the Tower to cockily wager their heads that the English would never corral him.*

Fraser suffered the torment of being hanged and cut down still alive for beheading, the spectacle of a double death (with the disemboweling part mercifully saved for posthumous application). His head was set on a spike on London Bridge beside Wallace’s, and his mangled trunk hung in chains under guard lest any soul sensitive to Scotch nationalism or mephitis should undertake to cut it down.

For all that he’s not even the most famous Simon Fraser to be executed by the English.

* Edward collected his prize; you can read all about it as an aside in this ballad on the execution of Fraser.

Sire Herbert of Morham, feyr knyht ant bold,
For the love of Frysel ys lyf wes ysold.
A wajour he made, so hit wes ytold,
Ys heued of to smhyte yef me him brohte in hold,
Wat so bytyde.
Sory wes he thenne,
Tho he myhte him kenne
Thourh the toun ryde.

Thenne seide ys scwyer a word anon-ryht:
“Sire, we beth dede; ne helpeth hit no wyht!”
(Thomas de Boys the scwyer wes to nome.)
“Nou Ychot oure wajour turneth ous to grome,
So Y bate!”
Y do ou to wyte,
Here heued was ofsmyte
Byfore the Tour gate.

Sir Herbert of Morham, a fair and bold knight,
For the love of Fraser his life was sold.
A wager he made, as it was told,
To have his head cut off if they captured Fraser,
Whatever betide.
Sorry was he then,
When he might see him
Ride through the town.

Then his squire spoke a word immediately:
“Sir, we’re dead; there’s no creature to help us!”
(Thomas de Bois was the squire’s name.)
“Now I know that our wager brings us to harm,
So my courage ends!”
I give you to know,
Their heads were cut off
Before the Tower gate.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1960: George Scott

Add comment September 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1960, a goon went to the San Quentin gas chamber for his violent retort.

On the evening of December 30, 1958, George Albert Scott was exiting a Melrose cafe with his partner in crime Curtis Lichtenwalter, having profitably held up the joint with a sawed-off shotgun.

A Samuel Goldwyn Studio executive with very poor timing named Kenneth Savoy just happened to be walking in the door as the robbers were walking out, and Scott decided to augment their takings en passant.

“Just a minute, mister,” Scott hailed Savoy (according to this Los Angeles Times blog retrospective). “Give your wallet.”

Savoy upped the ante with a bravado that he might have regretted seconds later when Scott’s shotgun blasted him in the stomach: “I’m single and have no responsibilities — no one will miss me. If you want my wallet, you will have to shoot me first.”

This was the first casualty in the course of several Los Angeles stickups the pair had perpetrated that December. Lichtenwalter, who had no previous criminal record, bailed out of the duo’s Jesse James act after this but the parolee Scott went on to knock over a couple more places before he was cornered in a hotel with a woman named Barbara White, picturesquely described via a lax Eisenhower-era Times copyeditor as “a former woman wrestler.”

Scott made multiple suicide attempts during his death row stint, ranging from a gory throat-slashing at his sanity hearing to (according to the Associated Press wire dispatch*) three tries on the more desperate end of the spectrum on the literal eve of his execution:

First he smashed a light globe and stuffed glass in his mouth. A doctor said he was not harmed seriously.

Two hours later, guards reported, he stood on his cot and dived against the wall with his head.

Restrained, he eluded guards and began ramming his head against the cell wall.

He went to his death calmly, and with a skull-splitting headache.

* Quoted here from the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle of September 9, 1960.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Murder,Pelf,Theft,USA

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1594: Thomas Merry and Rachel Merry, lamentable tragedie

Add comment September 6th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1594, Thomas Merry (Merrey, Merrye) and his sister Rachel were executed at Smithfield — Thomas for the robbery-motivated bludgeon murder of their neighbor Master Beech, and (too-)loyal* Rachel as an accessory to it.

No original record of this case survives, but we have its date from a registry record of one of the numerous now-lost ballads about the case, The pitifull lamentation of Rachell Merrye, whoe suffred in Smithfield with her brother Thoms Merrye the vj of September 1594.

The one remaining artifact available for specifics, be they ever so embroidered, is a play from 1601; the date alone underscores the hold of the by-then-seven-year-old crime on public imagination.** And small wonder it was the talk of London, considering the cracking action seen in Robert Yarington’s Two lamentable tragedies:† The one, of the murther of Maister Beech a chaundler in Thames-streete, and his boye, done by Thomas Merry. The other of a young childe murthered in a wood by two ruffins, with the consent of his unckle — like this scene where brother and sister figure out how to carve up the victim. (Slightly tidied for readability.)

Enter Merry and Rachel with a bag.

Merry
What hast thou sped? have you bought the bag?

Rachel
I brother, here it is, what is’t to do?

Merry
To beate hence Beeches body in the night.

Rachel
You cannot beare so great a waight your selfe,
And ’tis no trusting of another man.

Merry
Yes well enough, as I will order it,
Ile cut him peece-meale, first his head and legs
Will be one burthen, then the mangled rest,
Will be another, which I will transport,
Beyond the water in a Ferry boate,
And throw it into Paris-garden ditch.
Fetch me the chopping-knife, and in the meane
Ile move the Fagots that do cover him.

Rachel
Oh can you finde in hart to cut and carve,
His stone colde flesh, and rob the greedy grave,
Of his disseuered blood besprinckled lims?

Merry
I mary can I fetch the chopping knife.

Rachel
This deed is worse, then when you tooke his life.

Merry
But worse, or better, now it must be so,
Better do thus, then feele a greater woe.

Rachel
Here is the knife, I cannot stay to see,
This barbarous deed of inhumanitie.

Exit Rachel

Merry begins to cut the body, and bindes the armes behinde his backe with Beeches garters, leaves out the body, covers the head and legs againe.

If we credit the play — and it’s the only source in town — poor Master Beech ended up hacked into many pieces that were secreted in various places around London as a ploy to avoid detection.

Amazingly, this gruesome and obscure drama has been staged in the 21st century, using not only the Sheakespeare-era script but the rehearsal and performance methods common at the time. There’s a site all about it, including a Tedx Talk by director Emma Whipday and her collaborator Freyja Cox Jensen. (Readers interested in the play production challenges might enjoy this pdf paper by Whipday and Jensen.)

We would be remiss on a site such as this not to spare a peep for the actual execution scene. We pick it up with Thomas Merry already standing upon the ladder with the hemp about his throat, exhorting his sister to firmness.

Merry
God strengthen me with patience to endure,
This chastisement, which I confesse too small
A punishment for this my hainous sinne:
Oh be couragious sister, fight it well,
We shall be crown’d with immortallitie.

Rachel
I will not faint, but combat manfully,
Christ is of power to helpe and strengthen me.

Officer.
I pray make hast, the hower is almost past.

Merry
I am prepar’d, oh God receive my soule,
Forgive my sinnes, for they are numberlesse,
Receive me God, for now I come to thee.

Turne of the Lather: Rachel shrinketh.

Officer
Nay shrinke not woman, have a cheerefull hart.

Rachel
I, so I do, and yet this sinfull flesh,
Will be rebellious gainst my willing spirit.
Come let me clime these steps that lead to heaven,
Although they seeme the staires of infamie!
Let me be merror to ensuing times,
And teach all sisters how they do conceale,
The wicked deeds, of brethren, or of friends,
I not repent me of my love to him,
But that thereby I have provoked God,
To heavie wrath and indignation,
Which turne away great God, for Christes sake.
Ah Harry Williams, thou wert chiefest cause,
That I do drinke of this most bitter cup,
For hadst thou opened Beeches death at first,
The boy had liv’d, and thou hadst sav’d my life:
But thou art bronded with a marke of shame,
And I forgive thee from my very soule,
Let him and me, learne all that heare of this,
To utter brothers or their maisters misse,
Conceale no murther, least it do beget,
More bloody deeds of like deformitie.
Thus God forgive my sinnes, receive my soule,
And though my dinner be of bitter death,
I hope my soule shall sup with Iesus Christ,
And see his presence everlastingly.

Dyeth.

Officer
The Lord of heaven have mercy on her soule,
And teach all other by this spectacle,
To shunne such dangers as she ran into,
By her misguided taciturnitie:
Cut downe their bodies, give hers funerall,
But let his body be conveyed hence,
To Mile-end greene, and there be hang’d in chaines.

Exeunt omnes.

* At one point in the play described in this text, Rachel Merry muses on the enormity of the crime and the likelihood of its detection — “such cruell deedes can never long be hid / Although we practice nere so cunningly.” Neveretheless, she stands by her kin: “Lo he is my brother, I will cover it, / And rather dye than have it spoken rife, / Lo where she goes, betrai’d her brothers life.

** There’s yet another known play about the case from 1599, also lost.

† This play strangely cuts back and forth between the action in the titular two tragedies, which are the Merry crime and a fictitious murder set in Padua — the whole thing scaffolded by a chorus of narrator-allegories comprising Homicide, Avarice, and Truth. The Italian story also ends in a pair of executions.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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1917: James Smith, Early One Morning

Add comment September 5th, 2017 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, a Bolton private (formerly lance corporal) named James Smith fell to his countrymen’s guns on Belgian soil during World War I.

A career soldier since 1909, Smith had served honorably in India and Egypt before the war. He had the hardiness and luck to survive Gallipoli and the Somme — but their horrors broke him mentally.

According to this biography, “Jimmy almost lost his life on the Somme on 11 October 1916 when a German artillery shell exploded, burying him alive and causing a shrapnel wound ‘the size of a fist’ on his right shoulder.” When he returned from two months’ convalescence leave his mates could see that shellshock had destroyed the old Jimmy Smith.

Erratic behavior that cost him his good conduct badges culminated in a break on July 30, 1917, the eve of the frightful Battle of Passchendaele, when Smith deserted his post and disappeared from the front — to be found later, wandering in a nearby town. In World War I, such an offense invited the brass to make an example of you.

Smith’s own comrades from the 17th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment were drafted into the firing squad. Pitying their victim, the executioners pulled their shots and missed the target, only succeeding in wounding the brutalized private. When the firing squad commander faltered at his duty to deliver the coup de grace, the task monstrously fell on a close friend of Smith’s, Private Richard Blundell, to press the revolver to Smith’s temple and blow out his brains. For its service to the war effort, the firing detail got 10 days’ R&R … and a lifetime of shame.

In the weeks before his own death, in February 1989, Blundell was often heard by his son, William, to murmur deliriously: ‘What a way to get leave, what a way to get leave.’

According to historian Graham Maddocks, in his book Liverpool Pals, William Blundell asked his father in a more lucid moment what he meant.

Still desperately upset seven decades after the incident, the dying Richard told his son what had happened. It was clear, that as he faced his own death, Richard had never forgiven himself.

Jimmy Smith was the subject of a 1998 play, Early One Morning.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1964: James Coburn, George Wallace’s first death warrant

1 comment September 4th, 2017 Headsman

James Coburn was electrocuted on this date in 1964 in Alabama’s “Yellow Mama”.

He’d been condemned for a Dallas County robbery … and only for that. He has the distinction of being the very last human being executed in the United States for any non-homicide crime; at a stretch one could perhaps reckon him the most distant echo of the Anglosphere’s long-ago “Bloody Code” days, when the sturdy Tyburn tree strained with mere burglars and pickpockets.

Such draconian laws were not enforced in England any more, not for a very long time. (Great Britain abolished the death penalty for purely property crimes in the 1830s.) In fact, the last British executions for any kind of crime at all had occurred weeks before Yellow Mama destroyed James Coburn for robbery.

Presiding over this anachronistic penal event was a knight of the nascent American reaction: Alabama Governor George Wallace. He’d been sworn in just the previous year with the infamous vow, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Coburn’s was the first death warrant to bear Governor Wallace’s signature, but it’s a small surprise that it was the first of just four — considering that Wallace served 16 total years in three separate stints as a conservative executive in a southern state.

One reason was simply because, like his contemporary Ronald Reagan, Wallace’s political star reached its height during the the death penalty’s late sixties to early eighties lull.

But another is that, despite musing inclusively about “a lot of bad white folks and a lot of bad black folks who ought to be electrocuted,” Wallace nurtured gnawing doubts about capital punishment that seem to have grown throughout his strange career.

As a young law student, Wallace had assisted a capital defense for a man who had murdered his wife by dynamiting the house — the charge “blew her through the roof, and she fell down a mass of meat,” in Wallace’s words. The defense seemed hopeless, but Wallace conjured a strategy to keep this particular bad white folk out of the electric chair.

One morning before court opened, just as Beale and Wallace thought all was lost, a relative brought the defendant’s son to see his father. “He was about ten or eleven,” Wallace remembered, “but he looked younger than that. He was a sallow-looking boy, like he had hookworms, and he ran over to his daddy when he came into the courthouse and hugged him and kissed him.” Wallace, who witnessed the scene, told Beale they could use the boy to try to whip up some sympathy among the jurors. Beale agreed; the two took the boy into a room, and Wallace asked him if he understood what was going on. “Do you understand that people in that courtroom are asking that your daddy be electrocuted? That they want to do away with him? Do you understand that?” And Wallace said that every time he would mention it, the boy would break down and cry. So Wallace sat the boy right behind the defendant’s table. “Every time Attorney Beale was asking questions of a witness,” Wallace said, “I would lean over and whisper to this young boy, ‘Son, they’re trying to kill your daddy.’ He would immediately break down in sobs, and the judge would have to recess the court.”

After the testimony concluded, Beale addressed the jury on the circumstantial nature of the state’s evidence; then he asked Wallace to make a final statement for the defense. “I pinned it all on the boy,” Wallace recalled. “I put my arms around him and I said, ‘Now listen, this fellow here has nobody left in the world but his father. His father is no good, he’s no account — but his son still loves him; you saw that in the courtroom. So I am pleading with you for this boy. Save his daddy’s life so he’ll have somebody in the world who loves him, even though he’s in prison.'” The prosecutor had asked for the death penalty, Wallace told the jury. “He said, ‘If anybody deserves the electric chair, this man deserves it.’ If we were trying this man on whether he is a sorry, no-good individual, I would agree: he’s no good; he’s no account; he’s killed his wife for no good reason. But I ask you to let this man live so the son will still have a father.” Wallace then brought the boy to the jury box and said: “Gentlemen, think of this child when you are making that decision. He comes from a poor family. He has not had many good things in life. But he still loves his daddy, whether or not he has committed this horrible crime. I plead with you for this little boy.” After the judge’s charge, Wallace and Beale went to a cafe, but they had barely finished a cup of coffee when the bailiff rushed over and told them the jury was coming back in. “We find the defendant guilty,” the foreman said, “and we fix his punishment at life in prison.” Wallace was elated — so much so that he refused the hundred-dollar fee that Beale offered him. “I would have given you a hundred dollars for the experience this gave me,” he told Beale.

George Wallace: American Populist

Cynical, sure. (Even Wallace’s ultra-segregationist persona was cynical, adopted after he lost an earlier election as the moderate running against a Klan-endorsed opponent.) But whatever his other faults, he genuinely didn’t seem to delight in the executioner, and by the end of his life his acquaintance with this character had put him in fear for his soul.

Governor Wallace signed one other death warrant in 1965, and — after an interim of three presidential bids on the white ressentiment ticket plus a near-assassination that left him wheelchair-bound — found himself governor again in the 1980s. The first death cases under the “modern” Alabama law that Wallace himself had signed in 1975 were just then beginning to reach the end of the line.

And we find, via this post channeling Evan Mandery’s A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America, that Wallace was agonized before doing what he was always going to do.

George Wallace was beginning his final term as Alabama’s governor when he was asked to sign [John Louis] Evans’s death warrant. Wallace’s notoriety, of course, rests primarily on the day in 1963 that he stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama to keep black students out. But it is also worth noting that his 1968 third-party presidential campaign perfected the “tough-on-crime” sloganeering that would dominate much of American electoral politics into the 1990s.

Privately, George Wallace had long harbored doubts about capital punishment. In 1964, he told his law clerk that he thought it should be ruled unconstitutional. By 1983, Wallace had survived a shooting, converted to born-again Christianity, and recanted his segregationism. In Mandery’s words, his “reservations about the constitutionality of capital punishment had evolved into full-blown opposition.” The night before Evans was due to be executed, Wallace telephoned his lieutenant governor “in tears,” Mandery recounts. Wallace said that “he had been up all night ‘praying the Bible,’ and couldn’t bring himself to sign the warrant.” That lieutenant governor was the former law clerk, Bill Baxley,* with whom Wallace had shared his reservations 20 years before. Baxley was a liberal Democrat — as Alabama’s attorney general, he had earned the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan for his investigation and prosecution of civil rights cases — who supported the death penalty. He convinced George Wallace that there was no political choice but to sign the warrant … Evans was strapped into an electric chair and, after two botched jolts that left him burned but alive, was shocked to death on the state of Alabama’s third attempt.

* Baxley is famous for investigating a notorious 1963 church bombing, and relatedly for deploying Alabama state letterhead in one of its very best uses ever.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Milestones,Theft,USA

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1653: Sakura Sogoro, righteous peasant

Add comment September 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Perhaps on this date in 1653 — it is, at any rate, the date saluted by a festival that honors him — the peasant Sakura Sogoro was crucified for protesting the oppressive taxation of his local lord.

Sogoro — familiarly known as Sogo-sama — was a village head man who dared to take his complaints about his daimyo‘s heavy hand right to the shogun himself. As punishment for this effrontery, the daimyo had the peasant executed (which punishment the sacrificial Sogoro anticipated in making his appeal) along with his wife and sons (which was an outrage).

As classically described, Sogoro from the cross damns the cruelty of the punishment and promises to revenge himself as a ghost, destroying the daimyo‘s house within three years. A century or so after his death, a shrine was erected to his memory which attracted pilgrims throughout the realm and made Sakura Sogoro “the patron saint of protest” (Anne Walthall, whom we shall hear more from later.) The tale has earned popular staging in Japanese culture from the kabuki stage to television.


The great 19th century kabuki actor Ichikawa Kodanji as the avenging specter of “Asakura Togo”, the Kabuki character based on Sakura Sogoro. Image from this gorgeous collection.

As one might infer from the sketchy account here, the story’s historicity is shaky despite its popularity down the centuries in Japan. According to an academic paper by Walthall,*

The archetype of the peasant martyr, a man who deliberately sacrificed himself on behalf of his community.”

More has been written about Sakura Sogoro than about any other peasant hero, but the evidence of his existence is extremely circumstantial. Written accounts of him remain fragmentary until the 1770s …

The first mention of the Sogoro legend appears in Sakura fudoki (a record of provincial lore on Sakura), compiled by a Sakura domain bureaucrat, Isobe Shogen. He recounts how an old man had told him that Sogoro’s vengeful spirit caused the downfall of a seventeenth-century lord. This emphasis on revenge after death is common to many Japanese folktales. Its constant recurrence as a theme in Japanese history reflects a widely held belief in the power of strong emotions to wreak havoc after a person has died. At this point Sogoro was hardly a martyr for the peasants — they remembered not his own deeds, if any, but what had happened to the lord.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the story gains more detail. After the death of the just lord, Hotta Masamori, his retainers take control of domanial administration, treat the peasants unjustly, and increase the land tax. To save the people, Sogoro makes a direct appeal to the shogun … becom[ing] an exemplar of righteous action, a man who placed community welfare above individual self-interest …

In narratives from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the plot becomes still more elaborate. Sogoro is described as a man of scholarship, deeply religious, respectful of his superiors, mindful of his subordinates, esteemed by his neighbors. “He was intelligent, tactful, and did not look like he was peasant born. Everyone said he must be the descendant of a warrior” … As the savior of his village, he represented the peasants’ aspirations; as an angry spirit, he reflected their resentment of those in authority.

The most modern version of the legend omits all reference to revenge by angry spirits. Now the story depicts the courage of Sogoro and his supporters among the peasants and his heartrending renunciation of his family when he resolves to sacrifice himself for the community. He still puts his appeal directly in the hands of the shogun, even though modern historians have long argued that a meeting with the shogun was impossible for a peasant. In contrast to the “good king,” (the shogun Ietsuna) the villain, Hotta Masanobu, executes not merely Sogoro, but his four children. Even the cruelty of this command has become further elaborated. To evade the bakufu prohibition on the execution of women, officials pretend that Sogoro’s three daughters are actually sons and cut off their heads. In short, today people know only a lachrymose tale of tyranny and heroism.

English speakers can grab a couple renderings of this story in the public domain:

* Walthall, “Narratives of Peasant Uprisings in Japan,” The Journal of Asian Studies, May 1983.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Children,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Japan,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Myths,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Uncertain Dates,Women

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1942: Tom Williams, IRA martyr

2 comments September 2nd, 2017 Headsman

Irish revolutionary Tom Williams was hanged at Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol on this date in 1942.

A plaque at 46 Bombay Street in Belfast marks the home Tom Williams shared with his grandmother.

The 19-year-old Belfast Catholic had been the chief of a six-man Irish Republican Army team that mounted an Easter Sunday attack intended to divert Northern Ireland’s Royal Ulster Constabulary from preventing Republican marches to commemorate the Easter Rising. The attack killed an RUC officer, and all six IRA men were arrested and sentenced to death.

As the acknowledged leader, Williams alone paid that forfeit; the five others all had their sentences commuted. (Notably, their number included 21-year-old Joe Cahill, who was destined for an illustrious career in the movement; he would go on to co-found the Provisional IRA in 1969, and to become a prominent exponent of the peace process in the 1990s.)

“Tom Williams walked to that scaffold without a tremor in his body. The only people who were shaking were us and the hangman,” his priest said later that day. “I’ve one other thing to say to you. Don’t pray for Tom Williams, pray to him, for at this moment Tom is a saint in heaven.”

That’s about the size of Williams’s place in the Republican memory. After the prison was closed, Williams was reburied with honors (Gerry Adams attended) in 2000. He’s commemorated in a ballad.

Tom Williams (Irish republican) from REBELS OF IRELAND on Vimeo.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Separatists,Soldiers,Terrorists

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1914: Frédéric Henri Wolff, the first Frenchman executed during World War I

Add comment September 1st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1914, Captain Frédéric Henri Wolff became the first French soldier fusillé pour l’exemple during World War I.

One week before, surrounded by the devastating German advance, Wolff had struck a white handkerchief to the tip of his saber and attempted to brandish it for surrendering the 36th Colonial Infantry Regiment. Wolff was no greenhorn a-panic; he was 45 years old, a career officer who received the Legion of Honor and had been decorated for his part in the French campaigns in Indochina.

Other officers pulled down the sigil and orchestrated a successful retreat … after which Wolff was court martialed for cowardice.

Shot at Remenoville, he was not only the first person of nearly 1,000 executed by the French military in the Great War, but also the highest-ranking officer so handled. Attempts to rehabilitate him officially date to the 1930s, but have thus far never been successful.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Milestones,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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