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A King dying by such violence appeals impressively to the imagination; as the like must do, and ought to do. And yet at bottom it is not the King dying, but the Man! Kingship is a coat; the grand loss is of the skin. The man from whom you take his Life, to him can the whole combined world do more? Lally went on his hurdle, his mouth filled with a gag. Miserablest mortals, doomed for picking pockets, have a whole five-act Tragedy in them, in that dumb pain, as they go to the gallows, unregarded; they consume the cup of trembling down to the lees. For Kings and for Beggars, for the justly doomed and the unjustly, it is a hard thing to die. Pity them all: thy utmost pity with all aids and appliances and throne and-scaffold contrasts, how far short is it of the thing pitied!

-Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution

Executed Today is a blog of history, sociology, biography, criminology, law, and kismet — an unrepresentative but arresting view of the human condition across time and circumstance from the parlous vantage of the scaffold.

So what is it?

Executed Today is a daily chronicle — each day the story of an historical execution that took place on this date, and the story behind it.

Why?

That’s a good question.

Why are you here?

What’s your definition of an “execution”?

The death penalty, as a subset within that vast category of “acts of violence homo sapiens do to their fellows,” blends insensibly into a dozen adjacent territories — murder, assassination, warfare, torture, low crime and high statecraft, even suicide.

If we know for certain that extinguishing life is an essential component of the death penalty, our everyday language nevertheless reflects ambiguity about how. We might speak of crime victims as being “killed execution-style” to evoke a sense of deliberation and even ceremony about the act; conversely, we might derogate the formal and official act of a state organ as a “summary execution” to underscore the absence of an appropriate juridical atmosphere. In situations of war and revolution where the legitimate authority of the state is contested, the water muddies still further.

I do not pretend to have demarcated my focus with a bright line; my standard, readily impeachable, is merely what I know when I see. Having said that, and reserving the right to stray occasionally into the disputed frontier marches, the scope of this blog intends to remain rather narrow: this is not an all-purpose chronicle of human cruelty.

What ax do you have to grind?

This blog is neither pro- nor anti-death penalty in general nor in any particular. Its interest is the perspective on humanity we gain through the window of this human institution.

But the subject invites ideology and fairness here demands the biases of the author. I am, personally, a death penalty opponent.

Nor is this the only bias worth considering. I am a westerner, to begin with — a modern English-speaker whose access to certain stories is limited by the tools at my disposal (this blog has been heavily researched online) and whose appreciation of certain stories’ import may not square with others who know them differently. It is, I hope, understood that the inclusion of any particular story at the expense of any other on any given day does not indicate disdain for the one not posted, even if other editors might have chosen differently. If I’ve chosen poorly, I may yet redeem myself: this blog is not limited to a single year.

The conceit of pinning biographies to calendar execution dates, so apt for the blogging form, likewise imposes a certain bias tending towards the western and the modern where, quite simply, we are more likely to know the dates. And for that matter, the dates that are best-recalled have a tendency themselves to track the exceptional few executions — the greatest heroes and villains, the princes of the realm, the milestones — in preference to more humdrum fare. To more fully tell the story of capital punishment in the face of these distortions, there will be occasional entries with uncertain dates … or dates affiliated with events other than the actual execution … or executions notable for not taking place … or less famous men and women put to death in less famous circumstances. But it is confessedly impossible to array such events in any objectively even-handed fashion.

Last but by no means least, the notion of glimpsing some understanding of the human condition through this peculiar institution is necessarily one doomed at the outset to a disproportionately sanguinary view. Whatever truth one might discern from such a perspective, it — thankfully — could hardly ever stand as the whole Truth.

A word about categories.

The metadata that classifies each post should be interpreted in its least judgmental form — although to be sure, there are some judgments one cannot help making. In general, however, the intent where there is ambiguity is to treat these categories without editorial preference as different windows onto the event, from different points of view afforded both by contemporary standards and by the distance of history. They do not in all cases answer literally to their parent category of journalistic inquiry. They are not necessarily even mutually compatible.

For instance, in the entry of Kevin Barry (profiled 1 November, 2007), both Ireland and England answer to “Where”: both had a stake in the event, although the hanging took place on the island of Ireland. From the Republican standpoint, Barry was a soldier — hence, the use of “Soldiers” and “Wartime Executions”; from the British standpoint, he was a criminal — hence, “Murder”, the formal charge that led to his hanging.

Although any category of this emotional subject is prone to controversy, “Wrongful Executions” merits a few words specifically: this batch is not meant to be a definitive claim from either a moral or legal standpoint, but to identify executions with a significant controversy. It refers to a social understanding (even if a contested one) that an incorrect determination, either legal or factual, informed the execution. The limits of this concept are necessarily fuzzy, but roughly speaking, when looking far backwards in time, it’s also been limited to situations where “wrongfulness” is a distinguishing characteristic of the execution, and where the “wrongfulness” is understood as such by the same cultural milieu that produced the execution. The Salem witch trials were immediately regretted, for instance, but to identify every witch-burning in medieval Europe as a “wrongful execution” seems redundant at best … and a misappropriation of an alien mindset at worst.

What about that banner?

It’s from Goya’s The Third of May 1808.

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