On this date in 1937, the Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze was executed in Stalin’s purges.
“Titsiani”, who co-founded the “Blue Horns” symbolist circle in 1916, is the addressee of fellow dissident litterateur Boris Pasternak’s Letters to a Georgian Friend.
“There is as much soul in his poetry as there was in him, a reserved and complicated soul, wholly attracted to the good and capable of clairvoyance and self-sacrifice,” Pasternak would remember of his comrade. “The memory of Tabidze puts me in mind of the country; landscapes rise in my imagination, the waves of the sea and a vast flowering plain; clouds drifting in a row and, behind them in the distance, mountains rising to the same level.”
On this date in 1949, two young miners from northern England were hanged together at Durham prison for unrelated crimes of passion: one had ravaged and strangled another man’s wife when his attempts to seduce her were met with a demand for money; the other had murdered a local girl (and then botched his suicide) when he found himself on the third point of a love triangle.
Both crimes happened on the same weekend, just a few miles apart — so they were tried at the same assizes and advanced through the process from murder to hanging-date together. Double executions were already quite rare at this point: this date’s affair was among the last such events in UK history.*
However, it was the very first execution in which Syd Dernley participated.
Dernley was an assistant executioner for 20-odd hangings, and while he’s far from the most noteworthy man to tread the scaffold, his 1989-90 The Hangman’s Tale: Memoirs of a Public Executioner might interest the person who takes up the pen for a labor history of the modern death penalty.
Dernley, a Nottinghamshire pit welder by day, gives an inside look at the recruitment process and on-the-job operations for a minor-league hangman. Bored with his job, he wrote the Prison Commission cold in January 1947 offering his services (“I feel sure that I could do the job”), got a generic polite dismissal, and then was one of several rookie volunteers summoned in October 1948 for a training course — a rationalization of the qualification process to go with the rationalization of hangings themselves.
Dernley had to wait a full year and then some to actually get into the act.** The basic hanging protocol featured a lead executioner and an assistant who would together escort their man to the gallows platform and perform the hanging; since this was a double execution, there are two such pairs involved. Dernley here is the assistant of veteran hangman Steve Wade. The other pair has Henry Kirk as the lead hangman, assisted by Harry Allen.†
Britain didn’t have the volume of executions for anyone to be a full-time hangman, although some hangmen, like Kirk, were also prison officers.
Jobs were farmed out by the Prison Commission among its small roster of active executioners, and would begin for the hangman with the receipt of a package from the Commission with two copies of a Memorandum of Conditions for executioners’ employment — one for the executioner’s records, and one to return to the Commission when formally accepting the assignment.
The day before the hanging, the executioners traveled to the prison where the sentence was to be carried out. The hanging team would not leave the prison’s walls until the execution was complete: after their prep work on execution’s eve, they slept in the jail.
Although prisoners rarely realized this until the last moment, the gallows platform stood just steps outside the condemned cells, the better for the instant performance of the actual hanging. They waited until Wilson and Roberts were safely out of earshot at chapel or in the exercise yard to set up the ropes.
The lead executioner Wade “controlled and double-checked everything from the moment he opened the execution boxes and took out the three ropes. He examined each of them minutely before rejecting one of them which was immediately coiled up and returned to the box. He measured the drop along the rope and marked it with chalk. I was allowed to shackle the rope to one of the chains hanging down from the beam and I had to go up the steps to adjust the chain as we got the chalk mark to the height of the man’s head, but [Wade] went up the steps to check both the shackling and the chain when I had finished.”
Once both ropes had been prepped, they noosed two sandbags approximating the respective weights of the prisoners, summoned the prison governor, and performed an actual test hanging. Everything went off without a hitch.
They dined that night, and breakfasted the next morning, on prison mash — it was invariably eggs and bacon for breakfast, Dernley remembered later in his career. After stealing silently back into the execution chamber, practically in the shadow of the last devotions of their unwitting prey, they repositioned the ropes which had been (intentionally) stretched out by half an inch from being left dangling their sandbags overnight. The ropes, and their supporting chains, needed to be positioned such that the noose dangled at convenient head height — again, the efficiency of the actual hanging was paramount — and so that, when the trap was released, the rope provided a drop of the precise length necessary to break the neck.
The next forty-five minutes as we waited in our quarters for the call were about the worst of my life. Everything that needed to be said had been said and it was clearly no time for social chit-chat, so we sat there and waited. There was fear afoot in the prison; you could almost smell it. The whole place was silent, waiting.
The butterflies in my stomach, which had disappeared when we went to the execution chamber and had something to do, were back with a vengeance. A jumble of thoughts flitted through my mind. Questions: Would we do a good job? Would I put up a good showing? Would we be quick? There were fears too: Will he fight? How will I handle it if he does?
The door opened and a warder took a step into the room. Wade got to his feet. “It’s time,” he said simply. “Are you ready?” I nodded. I don’t think I could have said anything. Kirky looked across at me and smiled. “Make it a good job, young ‘un,” he said quietly.
In those last few moments I was most conscious of faces, faces turned towards us … screws standing quite still at strategic points, all staring at us … the people standing near the doors of the condemned cells watching us approach … the faces of the official party as they glanced over their shoulders … but above all the face of the clock hanging on the wall at the end of the wing. It was a gigantic thing, about three feet across, and the minute hand was now just a fraction away from nine o’clock.
We were halfway to the condemned cells when the silence was broken and my blood froze. The sound was faint to begin with but it rapidly swelled — singing!
I could not believe my ears. “Jesu … lover … of my soul,” croaked the quavering voice.
Another stronger voice joined in: “Let me to thy bosom fly.”
“Who the hell is that?” I asked one of the screws who was walking along beside me.
He looked shattered but he was not going to admit it. “It’s one of them you’re going to top in a minute,” he replied, trying to sound cool.
With that eerie sound ringing round the wing, we arrived outside the condemned cells. The singing was coming from number two cell, and for the next thirty seconds we stood listening to the doomed man and his priest singing in harmony. In other circumstances it might have been lovely. Here, now, it was weird and unreal.
Everyone was in position as the hands of the huge clock moved the last fraction of an inch to nine o’clock: Wade and I outside the number one cell; Harry and Kirky a few steps away across the landing outside the number two cell …
From the instant the cell door cracked open, the prisoner should have just a few seconds left to live — although the prisoner wouldn’t realize that fact since his guards were under strict orders to brush off the doomed fellow’s inevitable questions about procedure. The two executioners would walk to the center of the cell, stand the prisoner up, and each taking an arm, efficiently pinion them behind his back. Then they whisked him out a secondary door which opened directly to the execution chamber, where they’d glide right into the waiting head-height noose. The name of the game for the hangmen was calm and firmness: don’t scare the man unnecessarily, just enter with professional inevitability and have the man on his noose in less time than it would take him to find the wit for panic or swoon or fight.
The double job complicated matters, but only slightly. The plan was for Wade and Dernley to enter cell number one only moments before Kirky and Allen entered cell number two. That way, both Wilson and Roberts would enter the scaffold singly and the respective hanging teams wouldn’t be in one another’s way — but it would only entail an extra second or two on the traps for the dead men as they were positioned in rapid sequence. It didn’t quite work out that way.
Wade moved straight through the door and I followed him into the cell. It seemed quite crowded with the two warders backing clear and the white-faced priest sitting on the other side of the table looking up at us. The condemned man was positioned as per the book, sitting at the table with his back to the door.
By the time I got to him, he was on his feet and Wade was bringing his left arm behind his back. There was no resistance as I caught hold of his right arm. He just let me bring it behind his back and Wade was waiting for it.
Things were moving incredibly quickly, there was hardly time to take anything in. Wade was walking through the yellow doors. Our man had turned to watch him but had not moved so I just put my hand on his shoulder and, with only the gentlest of pressure, he started to follow. A warder either side of him, we walked through and on to the trap. Wade stopped him and I slipped the legstrap out of my pocket, bobbed down and fastened it round his ankles.‡ I doubt I had ever done it so quickly but by the time I stood up and took a pace off the trap, Wade had finished and the man was standing with his head hidden under the bag and the noose round his neck.
Just the way they drew it up … except the Kirky-Allen team was nowhere to be found.
They should have been on the trap by now and there was no sign of them!
They were having some sort of trouble, but what? As the seconds ticked away, I strained to hear what was going on, but there was not a sound coming from the other side of the landing. That at least was reassuring because whatever was going wrong it was not some massive fight. We would have heard that.
I looked around the cell. Wade was staring through the open door, brow creased in a frown, with wide, worried eyes. By God, he looked worried. The governor and the under-sheriff looked as white as a pair of sheets.
In the centre of all this, the hooded and noosed figure of our man — who should have been dead by now — stood waiting patiently without a sound.
I looked back through the door. Still nothing. I felt so helpless; I wanted to run through and help or do something, but I knew I had to stand just where I was.
A double hanging should take around fifteen seconds from start to finish; we had now been standing with our man ready to go for at least forty-five seconds, although it felt like hours.
A sound to my right brought my eyes back from the door into the execution chamber. One of the screws seemed about to take a pace towards our man, a look almost of horror on his face. The hooded figure was starting to sway. He was going to faint!
At that moment Kirky rushed through the door followed by the lover and Harry. Kirky, looking red-faced and flustered, immediately peeled off to the left and Wade in a blur of motion was stopping the man on the chalk T. In what seemed almost one motion, he whipped the white hood over the man’s head and flicked the noose on. I didn’t even see Harry get the legstrap on before Wade was hurling himself off the trap. The lever went over and away the whole lot went with that massive boom.
Allen later told Dernley that their man, the singing one, “just wasn’t ready” and while he didn’t fight the executioners he also didn’t comply with them as they tried to get his arms into their straps. “In the end we just had to force him.”
His nerves none the worse for the off-script debut, Dernley would remain an assistant executioner — he was never the head man — until another one of his hobbies came embarrassingly to light.
From the April 28, 1954 London Times.
Dernley published his book in 1989, by which time the British hangman was almost as archaic as the smut bust. (The poor lech died in 1994, just short of the Internet revolution.) But Dernley, unlike Pierrepoint, never evinced any second thoughts about his career on the gallows and had an unabashed pro-capital punishment position.§
“I have no regrets about what I did and I sleep pretty soundly in my bed,” he sums up. “I do not believe that my career as a hangman has had any ill-effect on me. Not that you ever get away from it so far as people are concerned — once a hangman always a hangman, it seems. Even after all these years I am still pointed out to people and I have a little chuckle to myself when I find somebody in a pub staring at me in that familiar way and I wonder who has been talking to them.” The inference from his lines, and the photos of Dernley jovially showing off his private model gallows, is that the old hangman made it a point to keep the talk going.
* Per the extremely useful Capital Punishment UK page, there was a double execution in 1950, another in 1951, another in 1952, and the last in 1954.
** Dernley did avail himself of an opportunity to witness personally the March 29, 1949, hanging of James Farrell.
‡ “As assistant your job will be to strap [the prisoner’s] ankles and get yourself off the trap; the number one will do everything else,” Dernley had been told at his training the year before. “If you’re still mucking about when he’s ready, the number one will tap you on the shoulder and then you don’t bugger about … you get off or go down — and it’s a nasty drop even if you haven’t got a rope round your neck.”
§ Dernley was Pierrepoint’s assistant for the hanging of Timothy Evans, for a murder that, three years later, would be imputed to a serial killer living in his building. Dernley’s autobiography backs the government’s whitewash conclusion that Evans was probably guilty too on the weak grounds that Evans didn’t declared his innocence at his hanging.
Seven straight years of nailing every-24-hours deadlines — over 2,500 posts by now — is a little feather in our headsman’s hood. But even in pausing to preen, I must admit that this labor of love has felt more like labor than ever before these past months. There’s a reason that seven years comes with its own itch.
No need to belabor the point. The site presses ahead to Year 8; as a matter of fact, there are dozens of posts already pre-scheduled. But the editor under the hood is also searching for a fresh spark from the Muse to leave this fallow period behind. Executioner’s angst: surely there must be more to this world than the chopping of heads?
There are innumerable stories worth the telling that we have not yet touched and justify perseverance in an existential desert. But one also must also acknowledge that this will still be true after seven more years or seventeen. Every executioner comes to his end, sometimes when least expected.
Seven years deep, the annual list of most popular posts ever has ossified to the point where the minor yearly rearrangements just don’t have much new to say that previous annual reports haven’t already said. Last year’s installment ran up to an unwieldy 66; I’ve pared it back to 40 this year for better digestion. Check out the Year 6 report and you’ll get a pretty good idea what the next 20 or 30 on the list would have been.
One reason this list looks the same year after year is that the lifetime-pageview metric confers such a huge early mover advantage on older posts. Meaghan Good’s guest post on the electrocution of 14-year-old George Stinney, Jr. just squeaked onto our countdown at no. 39 above: it’s the most recently-posted story in that cohort, and it ran 28 months ago. Only two of the remaining 39 were published within the past four years. The random emergence of a news story or bit of cultural ephemera may cause some heretofore obscure post to pop onto the marquee come next year, but the list just posted increasingly resembles the light of a distant star — the snapshot of what transpired when the blog was young.
The diversity for periods, topics, and especially geography in the above list pleases me. One of the intentions of this site is to capture snapshots of the death penalty experience in many times and places.
Even though the major Anglo countries — the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia — ranked one through four in traffic sources and collectively supplied over two million of the site’s three million or so pageviews this past year, we also boasted traffic hot spots from the Philippines, Pakistan and India, South Africa, and (it doesn’t really pop on the map) Singapore … with a clear assist to the fabricators of the British Empire for promulgating English in all these places.
Outstanding guest posts accounted for more than 10% of the content for the past year, led as usual by the indefatigable Meaghan Good. Meaghan’s own individual contributions to the site are nearing a half-year’s worth of content; she also recently published for Kindle a fictional story, Execution Detail in Tartu, exploring the experience of an ordinary Einsatzgruppe commando carrying out his little bit of the Holocaust on the Second World War’s eastern front.
Though the Communists polled just 17% (with a similar tally for the Social Democrats), the General Secretary of the postwar party, Matyas Rakosi,* predicted that the putative defeat would “not play an important role in Communist plans.” And he was right.
Rakosi named his policy in response to the Smallholders “salami tactics” — as in slicing down the opposition piece by piece.
1947 was the knife’s edge.
From their post within the ensuing governing coalition — an outsized foothold relative to their electoral returns, as compelled by the presence of the still-occupying Red Army — the minority Communists in January 1947 announced the discovery of a conspiracy of “small agrarians,” and set about reducing the Smallholders and allies through a series of police raids and show trials.** Donath’s prominence in an irredentist fraternity, the Hungarian Community organization, was denounced the ringleader of the treasonable conspiracy.
Over the subsequent two years, independent and opposition parties were generally reduced to irrelevance, forced to take the Communist line, or dissolved entirely.
* Rakosi was the man whom Imre Nagy would eventually displace. The more moderate Nagy willingly swept himself up in Hungary’s abortive 1956 revolution against Communist domination. Soviet tanks crushed that revolution; Nagy hanged.
In Arequipa, there is active devotion to Victor Apaza Quispe, who was born in the Miraflores district in 1932. Apaza led a vagrant life supported by odd jobs after fleeing his abusive father. In a variant version that he related to inmates, he was sold by his father into farm labor. Apaza married in 1953, continued a life of transient jobs and petty crime, drank heavily, and physically abused his wife and daughter until he finally abandoned the home. When he returned ten years later, the marriage was beyond repair. In January 1969, Apaza dreamed that his wife was unfaithful to him. He went to the location revealed in the dream and saw the shadowy figure of a man escaping. His wife, also there, was not as fortunate. Apaza beat her to death with a rock.
It was later revealed that the crime was premeditated and carefully planned. Apaza originally denied responsibility but confessed his guilt once the evidence mounted against him. Later, during appeals for clemency, he again declared his innocence. He was convicted partially on the evidence of his two daughters, who wittingly or unwittingly offered testimony that supported the death penalty. Apaza did not understand the sentence until his lawyer translated it for him into Quechua. He hugged his lawyer, the two of them crying, and then collapsed into his chair.
People in the courtroom were shocked by the death sentence. The rarity of the event — this would be the first execution in Arequipa — resulted in extensive press coverage. Apaza suddenly gained a celebrity derived less from his crime than from the punishment. The press represented him as a poor, simple man and a good Christian. According to Apaza’s defense attorney, “the very foundation of society was shaken” when the public learned that Apaza had been sentenced to death. Horror and indignation were aroused because the imminent execution was “an unjust action of human justice.” Divine justice would make amends.
Apaza faced the firing squad in prison on September 17, 1971. (The drama is intensified in some folkloric versions by locating the execution in Arequipa’s main plaza.) Arequipa’s residents were outraged, even traumatized, and some fifteen hundred attended Apaza’s funeral. They organized themselves into squads, taking turns to carry the coffin.
Apaza had been in prison for two years before he was executed. Like Ubilberto Vasquez Bautista in Cajamarca, he became a model prisoner and something of a populist. Fellow inmates described Apaza as a good, hardworking, honest man. In 1971, the 531 men incracerated with him sent a letter to the court petitioning clemency, in part because Apaza had proven himself to be “an honorable man and dedicated to his work.” The prison chaplain, a Jesuit, found Apaza to be pious and God-fearing, and the warden thought he was a “completely good” man. Later, retrospective press accounts described Apaza and Ubilberto together as “innocent men crushed by the Kafkaesque and labyrinthine cruelties of the administration of justice in Peru.”
The devotees with whom I spoke in Arequipa knew little about Apaza. Even the official rezador, a man who prays for tips at the shrine, did not have the story clear. Many devotees had a vague idea that Apaza had been executed under circumstances that suggested injustice, however, and the key word offered by all was “innocent.” Some believed that the true killer confessed the crime after Apaza was executed.
When I asked devotees how they knew that Apaza was innocent, one woman astonished me with her answer: “because a sinner cannot work miracles.” I later encountered this same response in other devotions. Once a folk saint’s fame for miracles is accepted as true, then this truth — this evidence — revises backward to create the conditions necessary for the production of miracles. Miracles make Apaza’s apparent guilt impossible, so the verdict is reversed. Innocence causes miracles, and miracles cause innocence. Miracles occur within the circularity defined by these parameters.
Apaza is miraculous, like all folk saints of this prototype, because “he died innocent and is beside Our Lord.” “You were shot, you suffered,” people said when they requested the first miracles, because these misfortunes qualified Apaza for sainthood.
Somarama was a 44-year-old ayurvedic medicine practitioner when he was tapped for the job by a powerful Buddhist named Mapitigana Buddharakkitha, high priest of the Kelaniya temple. The latter had played kingmaker in Bandaranaike’s 1956 election — and had perhaps two interlocking grievances against Bandaranaike:
Buddharakkitha had been balked by the government of lucrative trade concessions he anticipated as the quid for his quo; and,
Buddharakkitha was closely linked to the movement of partisan Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists who in Ceylon’s early years systematically discriminatedagainst the island’s ethnic Tamils — and were angered at Bandaranaike’s halting moves to reach an accommodation.*
Exploiting the prerogatives of clergy, Somarama obtained a September 25, 1959, meeting un-screened by security for one of the Prime Minister’s public-audience days, a revolver secreted in his saffron robes. When Bandaranaike knelt ceremonially to the monk, Somarama shot him in the stomach.
The wound was mortal, but the Prime Minister lingered on all that night — long enough even to give a televised address from his hospital bed asking his countrymen to “show compassion to” his assassin “and not try to wreak vengeance on him.”* Only months before the murder, ethnic riots had devastated minority Tamil communities, and another pogrom might have been averted on this occasion only the quick thinking of a government official to promulgate immediate word that the assassin was not Tamil.
Ironically Buddharakkitha was so far above suspicion at that he was solicited for a broadcast eulogy of his victim. One can only imagine his relish at the performance — but it was not to last. Buddharakkitha was tried as a conspirator for orchestrating Somarama’s deed, dodged a prospective death sentence, and died in 1967 serving a prison sentence at hard labor.
Talduwe Somara on the steps of the courthouse …
… and Buddharakkitha likewise.
Bandaranaike’s daughter Sirimavo succeeded him as Prime Minister in 1960, becoming the world’s first elected female head of government. A second daughter, Chandrika, and a son, Anura, have also been prominent Sri Lanka politicians.
This three-part series unpacks some of the primary sources on the murder and speculates as to cui bono: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
* Buddharakkitha, also noted for exploring paths to enlightenment with various Sinhalese elites’ wives, was the high priest of the Kelaniya temple — which is the titular temple in the 1953 Sinhalese nationalist tract The Revolt in the Temple, “a blunt statement that the Tamils are a threat to [the Sinhalese] historic mission.” Its author was Don Charles Wijewardena, who had been a patron of Bandaranaike as a young monk; the (still-extant) Wijewardena dynasty had likewise associated itself with the Kelaniya temple itself, the political and the devotional mutually reinforcing one another.
You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?
This incident during the American Revolution took place in the Ohio River basin, a vast and fertile flashpoint whose part in not only the revolution but the antecedent French and Indian War perhaps entitles it to claim the midwifery of the coming American empire.
After victory in the French and Indian War, the British closed the area west of the Appalachian mountains to European settlement. This proclamation:
Made good a wartime pact Britain had made to secure the support of the Iroquois, Lenape (Delaware) and Shawnee tribes; and
Trailed facts on the ground the moment it was issued.
European settlements and land claims already existed in the supposed Indian Reserve, and land-hungry settlers did not let the supposed frontier deter them from advancing new ones. Confrontations between these arriving claimants and the native inhabitants not infrequently came to atrocious resolutions.
By 1768, a new treaty pushed the line further west, effectively ceding to the colonists everything south of the Ohio River — present-day Kentucky and West Virginia.*
Map of the disputed area: the frontier moved from the yellow line along the Applachians to the orange line along the Ohio.
Ohio Country, the remaining territory in dark green shading north of the Ohio River, lay at the time of the American Revolution between the British garrison at Fort Detroit and colonial outposts along the nascent United States’s western marches, such as Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh).
The Lenape Indians in Ohio Country had a difficult calculation to make as to which side (if any) and how to support during the British-American fighting. The question split the Lenape internally.
In this cauldron, a strange morsel: Lenape who were Moravian** Christian converts had established a little missionary village. “Gnadenhutten” literally means “huts of grace”.
As one might imagine, Gnadenhutten and its sister settlements of pacifistic, Christian Lenape stood in a terribly ambiguous position in the brutal irregular war going on around them. Their fellow Lenape distrusted them because they were Christians; their fellow Christians, because they were Lenape.
Suspected by the British of being friendly enough with the American colonists to pass intelligence to their eventual murderers, these converts were in 1781 forced out of Gnadenhutten by British-allied Lenape to a new settlement aptly named “Captive Town”.
Starving there in the ensuing winter, the Moravians dispatched nearly 100 of their number back to Gnadenhutten to retrieve food abandoned at that settlement.
The Moravians were still at their village when a raiding party of Pennsylvanians descended on the town. Under no authority but the militiamen’s own festering grievances from the ongoing dirty war, the Pennsylvanians rounded up the Delaware and heartlessly declared their deaths.
Here were Indians who would pay for the violence Indians had done. And they were the best kind: the kind who didn’t fight back.
After spending a night praying and preparing for the end, the Moravian Lenape were systematically butchered on the morning of March 8† with mallet blows and scalpings.
Depending on your source, there were either 90 or 96 scalps to take that morning – women, men, and children in nearly equal proportions. At least one young boy survived the death squad and reported the massacre. Nor were all the militia themselves at peace with their deed.
one Nathan Rollins & brother had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians, & Williamson was opposed to it; & Nathan Rollins had tomahawked nineteen of the poor Moravians, & after it was over he sat down & cried, & said it was no satisfaction for the loss of his father & uncle after all. — So related Holmes Jr. who was there — who was out on both Moravian campaigns, & Crawford’s. (Source)
Ah, Crawford’s campaign.
Later in 1782, another expedition of frontiersmen under Col. William Crawford set out “to destroy with fire and sword” a different Lenape settlement in Ohio. Instead, the Lenape met and routed the expedition, taking Crawford prisoner. He and the other captives from that misadventure would be burned to death, in part to avenge Gnadenhutten.
This, and whatever like tit for tat could be exacted in the field, was all the justice the Lenape could ever hope to have for the hecatomb of Gnadenhutten. American authorities declined to prosecute or sanction any members of the militia.
“Here triumphed in death ninety Christian Indians March 8, 1782″: inscription at the base of a memorial obelisk in Gnadenhutten. (cc) image from Mike Drabik.
* This might have been a nice solution, except that said treaty was made by the Iroquois — and only the Iroquois. For the Shawnee who actually lived and hunted in this cessation, this was two outside powers bartering their land. They didn’t mean to give it up on the say-so of the Iroquois. Another nasty frontier war followed, and even when that was won by Virginian militia, dissatisfied Shawnee continued targeting settlements in Kentucky; it’s partly for this reason that the Declaration of Independence slates King George III with having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
For more on the long and tragic Shawnee struggle in this period, see “‘We Have Always Been the Frontier': The American Revolution in Shawnee Country” by Colin G. Calloway in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 1992).
** The Moravian Church‘s name harkens to its Czech origins. It’s a successor to the reform tradition of Jan Hus.
† There are a few cites out there for the day before or the day after March 8.
They say the coward dies a thousand deaths. Executed Today has now made it six full trips around the sun, and died two thousand, one hundred and ninety-two.*
We’re getting pretty long in the tooth in blog years, and as noted in this space last year blogging daily for five, and now six, years puts us well past our original win conditions for this site.
There has been some consideration hereabouts about how and when to let this blog die its own cowards’ death, but there are still so many stories left untold for the faithful executioner. “Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau,” as Madame du Barry is said to have begged under the guillotine. Just one moment more … one more year at least.
This image teases a forthcoming post …
We logged about 2.77 million pageviews over the past twelve months, bringing the site near 10 million all time. (It should reach that milestone in about a month.)
That figure was spiked by a Reddit frontpage referral to the fascinating medical-history guest post on the nameless woman “Aochababa”, whose 1771 beheading and subsequent medical dissection initiated a new era of anatomical learning in Japan. That post, originally published in 2010, had five-sixths of Executed Today’s one-day traffic record (53,646 on May 1, 2013). On that strength it became the most-trafficked post on the site for the entire year, the most common visitor entrance page other than the home site, vaulting from undeserved obscurity into the site’s top 10 all time.
Also making an enormous move: the Ottoman Grand Vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha. This post just snuck into the top 60 last year as it began receiving search traffic after the debut of a Turkish costume drama about the reign of Pasha’s friend, sovereign, and executioner Suleiman the Magnificent. In Executed Today’s sixth year, Pargali was consistently among the top two or three most-seen posts day in and day out; it’s the ninth-most-trafficked post all-time on the site as of this writing, but if the next year is like the last, it could easily stand as high as no. 2 next Halloween. (A different post about the capable heir Suleiman foolishly executed also reached the top 50.) For close-but-no-cigar cultural ephemera, the TV series Vikings drove “Ragnar Lodbrok” to the no. 21 search term for the year — surely a spoiler for viewers who learned that the show’s protagonist is destined for execution in a snakepit. Like those snakes, such search wins can be poisonous; while once we had one of the few pages on the whole Intertubes about this fellow, it has subsequently been buried by posts about the television program.**
Current events spurred other movers. Eva Dugan, the last woman executed in Arizona, shot up into the top 20 thanks to the wall-to-wall media coverage of Jodi Arias’s Arizona capital murder case. John Bennett, the last U.S. military execution to date, cracked the top-posts list for the first time because of Major Nidal Hasan‘s death penalty court-martial for the Fort Hood shootings. We’re not above drawing such connections explicitly ourselves on Twitter, where we’ve sent about 17,200 tweets (4,500 in the past year) to a follower universe now nearing 3,000.
One of the more noticeable site trends in the past year has been the continued steady growth in traffic share of mobile devices. Those accounted for only a bit over 10% of the traffic in Year V (Nov. 2011-Oct. 2012), but that soared to 25% in Year VI (Nov. 2012-Oct. 2013). The month-over-month change shows a still stronger trend than that, with site views from desktop devices bottoming out at 68.7% in August 2013 before rebounding ever so slightly the past two months. Both mobile phone views and tablet views have grown by about +50% relative to where they were last October — perhaps facilitated by plumping for WPTouch Pro, money very well spent by my lights.
The site has always managed to get by on the kindness of strangers, several of whom once again contributed a trove of guest posts.
In addition to those named below, a special thanks is due my correspondent “Mastro Titta” (here‘s the inspiration for the name) for adding countless names and dates to our expansive archives of potential source material. Similar gratitude goes to Tom E. for reasons which will become clear in the near future.
Grazie to them, and to all of these …
Co-authored with Bora Chung
Our 2001 days‘ meta-post musings on the death penalty in dystopian literature
With this year’s contributions (and there are many more already scheduled for future dates), Meaghan’s published posts on Executed today ran past 100. As noted last year, we’d have been hard-pressed to keep this operation running all these years without her prolific and thoroughly researched output.
If all goes well, we’ll manage a bit more of these in the year to come.
* Actual sum total of persons executed in the 2,192 posts — or however many it ends up being — would be an interesting figure to have but an extremely tedious (not to say depressing) job to compile.
** This same thing happened with Cameron Todd Willingham: when the New Yorker put the story in the national eye, our longstanding account of Willingham’s likely innocence was one of the few already online and became one of the most visited pages on the site in 2009. As one can see from the traffic ranker above where it now sits at #57, it’s been subsumed for everyday websearchers by the many thousands of new Willingham links in the past few years.
She was the third-last woman hanged in Britain and the very last woman to be executed at that particular prison, which now houses only men; the job was performed by Albert Pierrepoint.
Born in 1906, Louisa had already served prison time for ration book fraud by the time of the murder, and she lost custody of her four children due to her excessive drinking and neglect.
She couldn’t seem to hold on to a man (she was married three times) or a job (she had 20 in three years).
She took her final position on March 12, 1953, after she and her husband of one month, 71-year-old Alfred Edward Merrifield, became housekeepers and live-in companions to Sarah Ann Ricketts, a spinster who was nearly eighty years old. Sarah Ricketts owned a bungalow at 339 Devonshire Road, North Shore, Blackpool.
The Merrifields indulged in elder abuse and neglect, and Sarah Ann complained she didn’t get enough to eat and that her housekeepers swilled rum on her dime. Meanwhile, Louisa was going around boasting that she’d inherited a £3,000 house.
When someone asked her who had died, she answered, “She’s not dead yet, but she soon will be.”
Louisa’s prophecy was eerily accurate: Sarah Ann Ricketts expired on the night of April 14, 1953, only a month after she’d hired the Merrifields and three days after Louisa’s prediction … but not before drafting a new will which left her bungalow to the Merrifields.
Louisa didn’t call a doctor until the next morning. She said that, as the old woman was clearly beyond help, she didn’t want to drag anyone out of bed in the middle of the night.
The suspicious GP refused to sign a death certificate and insisted on an autopsy, which revealed the cause of death as phosphorus poisoning, administered in the form of a rat poison called Rodine.
Although a police search of the bungalow didn’t turn up any Rodine, a check at the local pharmacy showed Louisa had recently purchased the stuff and signed the poison register.
The Merrifields found themselves charged with murder. Louisa was arrested first, two weeks after Sarah Ricketts died, and Alfred a few days later.
At their trial in July 1953, Louisa was convicted and sentenced to hang. The judge called her crime “as wicked and cruel a murder as I ever heard tell of.”
The jury couldn’t reach a verdict on Alfred, however, and the district attorney decided not to prosecute again. He was released and in due time inherited a half-share in Mrs. Ricketts’s bungalow. He died in 1962 at the age of 80.
Louisa Merrifield’s ghost is said to haunt the cell she once inhabited at Strangeways Prison.
Stalin was already a wanted Bolshevik revolutionary at this time, but so was Svanidze. Kato was a homebody with no known political interest, and sufficient piety to force her communist groom to say his vows in an Orthodox church. Afterwards, his priorities reasserted themselves.
While Stalin agitated, propagandized, and politicked against Menshevism in the wild oil boom city of Baku,** his pretty wife kept an empty apartment tidy and fretted the omnipresent danger of her husband’s arrest. “When he was involved, he forgot everything,” fellow-Bolshevik Mikheil Monoselidze remembered. Many revolutionaries’ wives walked similarly lonely roads.
Kato did not have to walk hers very long: she contracted a horrible stomach/bowel disease and wasted rapidly away late in 1907. Stalin’s own indifference might have been the ultimate cause, for when she was unwell the young cadre took her on a sweltering 13-hour train ride back to Tiflis that greatly worsened her condition — all so that her family could care for her, and free Stalin’s time for his plots. Kato died in Stalin’s arms, but only when he had been urgently summoned back from Baku with word that her condition had become dire.
Whatever his actions said about him as a family man, the future dictator really loved his neglected wife. He “was in such despair that his friends were worried about leaving him with his Mauser,” writes Simon Montefiore in Young Stalin.
“This creature,” [Stalin] gestured at the open coffin [at her funeral], “softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.” He placed his hand over his heart: “It’s all so desolate here, so indescribably desolate.”
At the burial, Soso’s habitual control cracked. He threw himself into the grave with the coffin. The men had to haul him out. Kato was buried — but, just then, revolutionary konspiratsia disrupted family grief. Soso noticed some Okhrana agents sidling towards the funeral. He scarpered towards the back of the graveyard and vaulted over the fence, disappearing from his own wife’s funeral — an ironic comment on his marital negligence.
For two months, Stalin vanishes from the record. “Soso sank into deep grief,” says Monoselidze. “He barely spoke and nobody dared speak to him” … “He cried like a brat, hard as he was.”
Stalin’s deep grief did not change his life’s work. If anything, he would seem in later years almost too aghast by the whole experience (and his uncharacteristic bout of sentiment) to grapple with it. He abandoned little Yakov to the Svanidzes, and would curiously dislike his son so much that he eventually permitted Yakov to die as a German POW during World War II rather than exchange prisoners for his release.
By the time of the great purges, then, being Stalin’s brother-in-law was of little help to Alexander Svanidze. It might have been an outright detriment; certainly Svanidze’s own prominence — he had served as People’s Commissar for Finances of the Georgian SSR, and found a scholarly journal in his capacity as a historian — were of a kind with Old Bolsheviks who had also attracted denunciations.
In 1937, most of the beloved Kato’s family was arrested: Alexander Svanidze, but also Alexander’s wife Maria, and opera singer, and his sister Mariko. Svanidze defiantly refused NKVD blandishments to confess to spying for Berlin to save himself, perhaps realizing that such a deal would merely sell his pride for a mess of pottage. “Such aristocratic pride!” Stalin is supposed to have tutted upon hearing the way Svanidze went to his execution still insisting he had done nothing wrong. (Svanidze’s ancestors were petty nobility.)
* There are some other dates out there for Svanidze’s execution. I’ve had difficulty identifying a primary source for any of them, but am prepared to be corrected if an alternative possibility can be strongly documented.
† Revolutionary Russia produced a number of similarly curious neologisms on birth certificates, such as “Vladlen” (crudely blending “Vladimir Lenin”), and even the outlandish “Electralampochka” (“light bulb”, inspired by the Soviet electrification campaign).