Posts filed under 'Beheaded'

1825: Louis August Papavoine, An Execution in Paris

Add comment March 25th, 2017 Robert Macnish

(Thanks to Dr. Robert Macnish, a young Scottish surgeon, writer, and polymath whose wide-roaming intellect earned him the nickname of “the Modern Pythagorean.” While resident in Paris, Macnish witnessed the public beheading of a French murderer on March 24, 1825 … an experience he rendered into the essay below. The crime which occasioned this spectacle was notorious in his brief day; Victor Hugo refers to Papavoine by name as “the horrible madman who killed the children with a knife to the head!” in The Last Day of a Condemned Man. -ed.)

AN EXECUTION IN PARIS.

In the month of March 1825, Louis Auguste Papavoine lost his head. He was guillotined at the Place de Greve for the murder of two children in the Bois de Vincennes. The man was mad, beyond all doubt, and in Great Britain would have been sentenced to perpetual confinement as a lunatic; but the French criminal court refused to admit the plea of insanity, and he was given over to the executioner: the Cour de Cassation having rejected his appeal from the decision of that which tried him.

To my shame be it spoken, I wished to see an execution by the guillotine. There was a sort of sanguinary spell attached to this instrument, which irresistibly impelled me to witness one of its horrid triumphs. When I thought of it, the overwhelming tragedy of the Revolution was brought before my eyes — that Revolution which plunged Europe in seas of blood, and stamped an indelible impression upon the whole fabric of modern society. There was something appalling in the very name of this terrific engine. M. Guillotine, its inventor, was also one of its victims — he perished by his own contrivance. [this popular legend is untrue -ed.] Let no man hereafter invent an instrument of punishment. Perillus contrived the brazen bull, and was among the first to perish by it. Earl Morton, who brought the “Maiden” to Scotland, underwent a like fate; and Deacon Brodie was hanged upon his own drop.

The day on which Papavoine suffered was beautifully fair; and, profiting by this circumstance, the idle population of the French capital flocked in myriads to witness his exit. It was calculated that there were not fewer than eighty thousand spectators. The Place de Greve was literally paved with human beings. A person might have walked upon their heads without difficulty; and so closely were they wedged together, that had any object larger than an apple been thrown among them, it could not have found its way to the ground. Men, women, and children, were clumped into one dense aggregate of living matter; and as the huge multitude moved itself to and fro, it was as the incipient stirring of an earthquake, or as the lazy floundering of the sea, when its waves, exhausted by a recent storm, tumble their huge sides about, like the indolent leviathan which floats upon their surface. There was no spot of the Place unoccupied save immediately around the scaffold, where a portion was squared off, and kept clear by a strong body of mounted gendarmerie, who kept back with their horses the living wall, which was every moment threatening to break asunder by the pressure behind, and intrude its animated materials into the proscribed area. Nor was the Place de Greve the only spot so crowded. The quays along the Seine were equally peopled, and even the opposite banks of that broad stream were filled with multitudes. Notre Dame shone with spectators, who had mounted its beetling towers to catch a dim prospect of the sacrifice; and every window and height, which afforded the most distant view, were similarly occupied.

In Paris, as in London, it is customary to let out those windows where a good view can be obtained; and on any occasion of particular interest — as the present happened to be — considerable sums are asked, and given. Sometimes half a Napoleon is demanded for a single place; and the sum varies from that to half a franc, according to the eligibility of the situation. Many of the windows are so near to the guillotine, that a very favourable prospect of the painful spectacle can be obtained; and these, of course, are crowded with persons who can afford to pay well for the gratification of their curiosity — if there be, indeed, any gratification in witnessing the instantaneous and sanguinary death of a fellow creature. Yet the view, even from the best windows, is not equal to that from within the open area. But into this space, it is no easy matter to get a footing; the few who are admitted being military men, and such of their friends as they choose to bring along with them. Indeed, at this time, there were few or no officers of any rank within the opening. It was mostly occupied by the gendarmes, who were there upon duty; and by a few dozens of common soldiers, whom curiosity or idleness had brought together. This, however, was the spot to which my wishes led me; and under the guidance of a young French officer of hussars, I was led into the area, and placed in front of the guillotine, not ten feet from its dreadful presence. But dreadful as it is from association, and from its destructive rapidity, this machine is by no means so appalling to look at as the gallows. The same feeling of horror does not attach to it; nor is the mind filled with the same blank dismay, or the same overpowering disgust, which are universally felt on beholding the gibbet, with its looped rope, its horrid beam, and its deceitful platform, which, slipping from beneath the feet of its victim, leaves him dangling and gasping in the winds of heaven. Somehow the same strong idea of disgrace is not connected with the axe as with the gibbet; but this may be from the thought that the noble and the good have shed their blood in torrents beneath its edge, thus giving it a sort of factitious interest, and deadening even with the most criminal the ignominy of its punishment. Nor is it coupled with such inveterate disgust, and such decided outrage to the feelings of humanity. Prolonged physical suffering is at all times revolting; and to see a human being struggling with a violent death — writhing in agony, and perishing like a dog — is the most detestable sight in existence. The guillotine distracts the fancy with no such sickening imagery. Whatever agony is sustained, is the more noble and enduring agony of the spirit, previous to the fatal hour. There is no struggle here with the grim tyrant — no painful encounter between life and death — no tortures like those which wrung Laocoön and his miserable offspring. From perfect life, the individual is transported to as perfect annihilation. He does not enter eternity by slow, unwilling steps: the spirit does not quit its fleshly mansion painfully and tardily, but leaves it with a sudden bound, and plunges at once into a new existence, there to be saved or lost, as its fate chances to be decreed in the Book of Life.

At the period of my admission, it was two o’clock — one hour exactly from the time of execution; and I had, therefore, abundant leisure to contemplate the engine of death, and to witness the behaviour of the vast multitude around it. Things were as quiet as could well be expected in so great an assemblage. There was plenty of talking, but much less disturbance than would have occurred in England upon any similar occasion. In truth, the only quarter which manifested tumult, was in the immediate neighbourhood of the area, which threatened every moment to be broken in, not so much by the fault of those directly in front of it, as by the immense pressure of those in the back-ground. Every now and then its square proportions were destroyed by a portion of the crowd which bulged inwards in a solid mass; and almost at the same moment, this violation of the straight line was repaired by the gendarmes, who kept riding along the square, and pressing back the intruding body into its proper place. The recklessness and fierce temper of the French soldiery were manifest, and formed a strong contrast to the good-humoured forbearance of our own troops. No ceremony was used towards intruders. Whoever came, or was forced into the square by his rearward companions, was thrust back with wanton violence. Where the pressure of the horses was resisted, the gendarmes made use of the flat sides of their sabres, and belaboured the crowd without mercy. The whole scene presented a strange picture of the fearful and the ludicrous. While it was distressing to witness the terrified crowd recoiling before the soldiers, it was amusing to witness the dexterity with which the latter treated the refractory — sometimes pushing them back with their steeds, sometimes beating them with their swords, and sometimes dexterously pitching off their hats into the assemblage. When any unfortunate fellow lost his chapeau in this manner, or received a salutary blow from the weapon of a gendarme, a loud shout of laughter was set up among the spectators. In fact, the whole, except thosewithin reach of punishment, were in excellent humour, and seemed to have come together more to enjoy a farce than witness the horrors of a public execution. Things continued in this state till the hour of three, which, pealing from the clock of the Hotel de Ville, announced the approach of the criminal. Scarcely had the fatal sounds swung upon the air, than the whole host was hushed into silence. They knew that the destined time was at hand, and that Papavoine was on his way to the scaffold; — and every man held his breath with deep interest, and felt, in spite of himself, a solemn awe fall over his spirit. But this dreadful silence did not continue long — for far off, in the direction of the bridge over which the criminal must pass, there was seen a heaving among the assemblage, which moved as if borne on the bosom of a vast wave; and murmurs like the half-suppressed voice of a remote volcano, were heard to proceed from this moving multitude. It was now evident that the procession approached; and every eye was turned towards that direction, and every ear wrought to its keenest pitch to catch the strange sounds which denoted its coming. Each moment the noise became louder, and the motion of the crowd more general. At last the trampling of horses was heard, and a troop of gendarmes, forcing a path through the recoiling people, were seen to approach. Behind them came a cart drawn by two horses; and in this cart sat Papavoine and an old Catholic priest. To the rear of this a second body of gendarmes brought up the procession. The criminal was a small, thin man, of about five feet six. He was dressed in a shabby blue surtout, and brown trowsers, and wore a fur cap upon his head. His arms were pinioned behind him, not by the elbows as with us, but by the wrists. He had no neckcloth on, nor shirt; and the collar of his surtout was drawn some way over his shoulders, so as to leave the neck quite bare and ready for the axe. Though pale and death-like, and seemingly impressed with the marks of sorrow and bad health, he exhibited no signs of terror or dismay. His demeanour was quiet and composed; and to the exhortations of his spiritual adviser he appeared to pay deep attention.

Now, here a scene took place which baffles description. No sooner had the wretch entered the area appropriated for his fate, than a shout of deafening execration arose from the hitherto silent multitude. No preparatory murmurs of hatred and revenge preceded this ebullition of feeling. It sprung up simultaneously, and as if those from whom it proceeded were animated with one soul, and felt one pervading vengeance thrilling through their hearts. “Wretch!” “Villain!” “Miscreant!” “Assassin!” arose in a wild swell from the crowd; and above the deeper voices of the men were heard the shrill imprecations of females, denouncing, with even more bitter wrath, the murderer. Had it been for almost any other crime, the women would have felt towards him more kindly than his own sex; but that for which he was to suffer was one of all others the most heinous to a maternal heart — and the natural fountains of woman’s tears were no longer free to flow in their wonted channel.

But Papavoine did not seem to hear the imprecations which were poured like vials of wrath upon his head — nor did he even appear sensible of the presence of those who so bitterly reviled him in his last moments. The cart stopped at the foot of the scaffold, and descending firmly, he conversed for one moment with the old priest, previous to mounting the fatal steps. I was at this time only a few yards from him, and marked him most distinctly. His look was perfectly calm and composed, and, had he died in a better cause, it would have been impossible not to admire his steady heroism. He said a single word in the ear of the priest who kissed him on the cheek, and left him, apparently much affected. Papavoine now ascended the guillotine rapidly and firmly, and committed himself to the hands of the executioner and his assistant satellite. At this part of the scene the loud execrations of the people had melted into breathless awe. Not a whisper was heard, nor even a movement among the vast and silent assemblage. The whole spectacle was dreadful — the very stillness of the crowd had something appalling in it; and the systematic dispatch with which the executioners proceeded among such universal silence, was sickening to the last degree. While gazing upon the victim, my respiration was almost totally suspended — my heart beat violently, and a feeling of intense anxiety and suffocation pervaded my frame.

The process was incredibly short. In a few seconds Papavoine was bound to a board which stood upright, and reached to the middle of his breast. The board moved on a pivot, and as soon as the malefactor was buckled to it, it was depressed, and shoved with its burden towards the groove of the guillotine, at the top of which hung the axe, ready to descend, on the pulling out of a small peg which kept it in its situation. A moveable piece of wood being now drawn down upon the root of the neck, to prevent all attempt at motion, and everything being ready, the executioner pulled a cord, and with the impetuosity of lightning, down came the axe upon its victim. Papavoine was annihilated in a moment. I saw his head slip from the body and tumble into a basket ready to receive it, while the blood spouted forth in little cataracts from the severed trunk, and dyed the scaffold with a purple tide. From the time when he appeared upon the guillotine till the head was severed, only twenty-five seconds elapsed — such is the appalling, yet humane rapidity of a French execution.

I looked attentively to observe if there was any motion in the trunk — any convulsive start at the instant of decapitation, but there was none. It lay from the first perfectly motionless, nor exhibited the slightest shudder — the least quivering — or the faintest indication that, the moment before, it was part of a sentient being, instinct with all the energies of life. This I did not expect. I conceived that a strong muscular spasm would have convulsed it at the fatal instant: and such, I am told, was the case with Brochetti, an Italian, executed some time before, and whose trunk sprung violently from its situation, and shook with universal tremor.

The momentary silence which pervaded the crowd previous to the axe’s descent was now broken, and an instantaneous movement ensued among its before tranquil numbers. The windows were deserted by their occupants; the doors poured their population into the streets; and the house-tops and black Gothic towers of Notre Dame were rid of the crowds which sat perched like eagles upon their lofty summits. But long ere this assembly had melted away, the guillotine had disappeared from the Place de Greve. Two minutes were allowed to elapse, that the head and body of the criminal might part with their blood.

They were then thrown into a long basket, and sent in the cart — which brought them alive — to the Ecole de Medecine for dissection. And the scaffold, after being cleansed of the gore, by having several buckets of water dashed over it, was taken to pieces, and deposited in the Hotel de Ville, till its sanguinary services were again required. The execution, together with the process of cleansing and dismantling the guillotine, did not occupy above seven minutes.

Next morning, the same curiosity which led me to witness this revolting sight took me to the Ecole de Medecine, to witness the remains of Papavoine. There were a number of scientific men present — among others, the celebrated Doctor Gall, who was employed in investigating the developements of the head, and pointing them out to several of his pupils. [A topic of great interest to Macnish, who also wrote a book about phrenology. -ed.] There was no portion whatever of the neck remaining attached to the trunk. It, as well as the head, had been severed from the body. The axe had struck at its very root, and even grazed the collar bone where it is fixed to the sternum. This is not in general the case, the neck being in most instances pretty accurately cut through the middle — one half of it adhering to the head, the other to the trunk.

I am not sure that I had done right in making such a scene as the above the subject of an article. There is something in the minute details of an execution, at which the mind shudders; and it is probable the reader may think that my impressions of the spectacle just related, should have been confined to my own bosom instead of being made public.

(For writerly firsthand accounts of the guillotine in action in the 19th century, compare to Tolstoy or Turgenev. -ed.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guest Writers,Guillotine,History,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions

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1954: Ernst Jennrich, for 17 June 1953

Add comment March 20th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1954, East Germany beheaded Ernst Jennrich for the previous June’s short-lived popular protests.

A Magdeburg gardener of socialist proclivities, Jennrich was nothing more than an enthusiast who got swept up in events when metalworkers at the Ernst-Thälmann factory struck for better pay and lower food prices — a protest that quickly metastasized into what looked to the Communist authorities like a treasonable movement calling for liberalization, a release of political prisoners, and reunification with West Germany.

The movement was crushed within a day by Russian tanks — although some Soviet soldiers notably (and sacrificially) refused to fire on protesting workers. But before events played out, Jennrich had disarmed a guard at the prison in nearby Sudenburg. He fired the guard’s carbine twice, then destroyed the weapon.

It’s not certain how many people lost their lives in the suppression of this affair — hostile western estimates ran into the thousands — but two policemen were killed at Sudenburg prison, and in a cruel show of official impunity Jennrich got tapped to answer for their deaths. He said he’d just fired the carbine into a wall or the air in order to empty it … but the state said he’d emptied it into those two luckless officers.

On scant evidence, Jennrich harshly received a life sentence that August. But even this did not suffice for officials racing to manifest their righteous indignation against the late subversion. “The protection of our peaceful state requires the death penalty for the crimes committed by the defendant,” huffed the prosecutor, and appealed the sentence to Germany’s high court … which accordingly upgraded the sentence to “the extermination of the defendant from our society, and therefore the death penalty.”

Jennrich was beheaded on the fallbeil at Dresden still protesting his innocence. A post-unification court finally vindicated that protest in 1991, posthumously rehabilitating Jennrich as having been condemned without evidence even by the terms of East Germany’s 1950s laws.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Wrongful Executions

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295: Saint Maximilian, conscientious objector

Add comment March 12th, 2017 Headsman

March 12 is the martyrdom date (in 295) and annual feast date of Saint Maximilian of Tebessa, Christianity’s protomartyr of conscientious objectors.

A Christian from Numidia (the Mediterranean coast of present-day Algeria), Maximilian presented himself to the African proconsul for mandatory conscription and refused in the name of Christ to bear arms.

The proconsul remonstrated with him, and in their interaction Maximilian espoused a vindication of pacifism so clear and timeless that a Vietnam War-era Catholic antiwar organization would take the name Order of Maximilian. “I will not be a soldier of this world, for I am a soldier of Christ.”

The translation below is via Peace Be With You: Justified Warfare or the Way of Nonviolence.

Cassius Dion You must serve or die.

Maximilian I will never serve you. You can cut off my head, but I will not be a soldier of this world, for I am a soldier of Christ.

Cassius Dion What has put these ideas into your head?

Maximilian My conscience and He who has called me.

Cassius Dion (to Maximilian’s father) Put your son right.

Maximilian’s Father He knows what he believes, and he will not change.

Cassius Dion Be a soldier and accept the emperor’s badge.

Maximilian Not at all. I carry the mark of Christ my God already.

Cassius Dion I shall send you to your Christ at once.

Maximilian I ask nothing better. Do it quickly, for there is my glory.

Cassius Dion There are Christian soldiers serving our rulers Diocletian* and Maximian, Constantius and Galerius.

Maximilian That is their business. I also am a Christian, and I cannot serve.

Cassius Dion But what harm do soldiers do?

Maximilian You know well enough.

Cassius Dion If you do not do your service I shall condemn you to death for contempt of the army.

Maximilian I shall not die. If I go from this earth my soul will live in Christ my Lord.

Cassius Dion Write his name down … Your impetiy makes you refuse military service and you shall be punished accordingly as a warning to others. (Reading the sentence) “Maximilian has refused the military oath through impiety. He is to be beheaded.”

Maximilian God lives.

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly Maximilian’s historicity is quite questionable. He’s not to be confused with the remarkable and certainly real World War II martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe.

* 295 was a few years before Diocletian launched his great persecution of Christians.

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Entry Filed under: Algeria,Ancient,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Military Crimes,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Wartime Executions

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1939: Maurice Pilorge, Le Condamné à mort

1 comment February 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the murderer Maurice Pilorge dropped his beautiful head under the blade.

This strange execution by retrospect almost marks the pivot between eras of crime and culture. Public executions were about to disappear entirely; the Third Republic that ordered them would not long outlive them.

And Pilorge’s death specifically would prove to be the last performance of the guillotine in Rennes. It was also to have been the 396th in the legendary career of 75-year-old headsman Anatole Deibler … except that Deibler dropped dead on a Paris metro platform two days before, as he set out for the lethal rendezvous.

So too did Pilorge’s crime belong to that interwar moment of cosmopolitan decadence. He fatally slashed the throat of a Mexican visitor named Escudero after what Pilorge claimed, in an unsuccessful attempt to leverage the “gay panic” defense, was an indecent proposition. The facts of the case appear better to fit the hypothesis that indecent propositions were Pilorge’s stock in trade: a black book full of dates and initials whose owners he would not identify, a short late-night visit to Escudero’s hotel room, and a total refusal to explain his activities.

Pilorge, who maintained a wry and mirthful attitude throughout his trial, could not but laugh at the judge’s speculation — inspired by the swarthiness of his victim in the case at hand? — that his prisoner was involved in traite des blanches, the white slave trade: “I was never cut out for that. I assure you that I have never fallen so low.”

If Pilorge’s character entered the public gaze awash in same-sex eros, he was fixed in the firmament as such by the pen of Villonesque criminal/writer Jean Genet after the war years.

Claiming (falsely) to have had a prison intimacy with this doomed “Apollo”, Genet dedicated to Pilorge, “assasin de vingt ans,” one of his breakthrough works. Written in prison in 1942, Le Condamné à mort is a homoerotic hallucination of lovemaking ahead of a gathering doom and it helped to launch the theretofore Genet into literary superstardom. I’ve found the lengthy poem available online only in the original French, but here’s a translated excerpt via The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature:

O come my beautiful sun, o come my night of Spain,
Arrive in my eyes which will be dead tomorrow.
Arrive, open my door, bring me your hand,
Lead me far from here to scour the battleground.

Heaven may awaken, the stars may blossom,
Nor flowers sigh, and from the meadows the black grass
Gather the dew where morning is about to drink,
The bell may ring: I alone am about to die.

O come my heaven of rose, o my blond basket!
Visit in his night your condemned-to-death.
Tear away your own flesh, kill, climb, bite,
But come! Place your cheek against my round head.

We had not finished speaking to each other of love.
We had not finished smoking our gitanes.
Well we might ask why the Courts condemn
A murderer so beautiful he makes the day to pale.

Love come to my mouth! Love open your doors!
Run through the hallways, come down, step lightly,
Fly down the stairs more supple than a shepherd,
More borne up by the air than a flight of dead leaves.

O cross the walls; so it must be walk on the brink
Of roofs, of oceans; cover yourself with light,
Use menace, use prayer,
But come, o my frigate, an hour before my death.

The poem was one of several that Genet wrote later set to music by herhis friend, Helene Martin. (It’s also been covered and reinterpreted by several others.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Homosexuals,Murder,Pelf

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1731: Alejo Calatayud, Mestizo

Add comment January 31st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1731, rebel Alejo Calatayud was beheaded in present-day Bolivia.

A silversmith of mixed Spanish and native lineage, Calatayud (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was all of 25 years old when he came to the fore of an indigenous-Mestizo rising in the Andean Cochabamba valley.

What began as a tax revolt against fresh impositions being mooted for the province soon gathered grievances of both class and caste and frightened the empire with a massacre of 39 Spaniards when the rebels overran the city of Cochabamba.

Ultimately, it was more rebellion than revolution — one among a sporadic series of resistance movements in the Andes — and was quelled within weeks by the intervention of a Spanish viceroy for whom the quick dispatch of the insurrectionary leader was no more than natural.

Today, Cochabamba remembers its very brief master Calatayud with an excitingly kinetic equestrian monument.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Bolivia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Spain,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1830: Agnus Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson, Iceland’s last executions

Add comment January 12th, 2017 Headsman

Iceland last used the death penalty on January 12, 1830 with the beheading of farm servants Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson.

Only threadbare details survive to posterity about their crime: one night in 1828, Agnes roused a neighboring farm to give the alarm that Natan Ketilsson’s farmhouse, where she worked, was afire. Neighbors were able to quench the blaze quickly enough to realize that Ketilsson himself had not died because he was trapped in the flame — but because he had been stabbed to death, along with another man known as a criminal, Petur Jonsson.

Agnes, 33, and teenager Fridrik were arrested for murder and eventually beheaded on a desolate hill on the frozen northern coast where a mossed-over stone still silently marks the spot.*


(cc) photo taken by Jennifer Boyer on the walking path to be found at the site of crime.

Why were these men killed? The trial record attributes it to Fridrik’s “hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal,” which are answers that ask their own questions. If the stones remember, they aren’t telling and in the scantiness of documentation the job has fallen to literature instead, for there is something to be said for an mysterious double murder in the ashes of a half-burned farm and the novelty of a woman being the very last human to have her head chopped off in Iceland. (On execution day, Fridrik went first.)

Agnes was Natan’s lover, but the farmer had a reputation for womanizing and, so all suspect, eyes for Fridrik’s young girlfriend;** the inference of a jealous domestic psychodrama cast on the fringe of the Arctic Sea, of chilly twilit tables gathering furtive eyes above with wandering hands below, seems hard to resist. One of Natan’s other paramours was the poet Skald-Rosa, who addressed an anguished quatrain to Agnes in the weeks after the murder, helping to fix the latter’s place in national lore as the wicked moving spirit behind the whole disaster.

Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
Nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming he who gave my life meaning,
And thrown your life to the Devil to deal.

And then there was the strange coda, while verdicts were sent to Denmark for confirmation,† of the condemned simply living and working among the community waiting to execute them. Nineteenth century rural Iceland was a little short on jail cells and surplus provisions.

After studying on an exchange program in Iceland, Australian Hannah Kent found this speculative environment a rich source for her well-received first novel, Burial Rites. (There’s a lengthy and interesting podcast interview with her by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here.)

Kent’s drama has made headway in Hollywood, with Jennifer Lawrence said to be keen on playing the tragic lead; if it someday does hit the silver screen, however, it won’t even be the first on its subject matter — witness the 1995 film Agnes.


As of this writing, the full movie can also be searched on YouTube…

The criminals Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were today moved out of custody to the place of execution, and following them to the execution site were the priests Reverend Tomasson and Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, an assistant priest. The criminals had wished that the latter two help them prepare for their deaths. After the priest Johann Tomasson completed a speech of admonition to the convict Fridrik Sigurdsson, Fridrik’s head was taken off with one blow of the axe. The farmer Gudmundur Ketilsson,‡ who had been ordered to be executioner, committed the work that he had been asked to do with dexterity and fearlessness. The criminal Agnes Magnusdottir, who, while this was taking place, had been kept at a remote station where she could not see the site of execution, was then fetched. After the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson had appropriately prepared her for death, the same executioner cut off her head, and with the same craftsmanship as before. The lifeless heads were then set upon two stakes at the site of execution, and their bodies put in two coffins of untreated boards, and buried before the men were dismissed. While the deed took place, and there until it was finished, everything was appropriately quiet and well-ordered, and it was concluded by a short address by Reverend Magnus Arnason to those that were there.

Actum ut supra.

B. Blondal, R. Olsen, A. Arnason
(From the Magistrate’s Book of Hunavatn District, 1830 — as quoted in the epilogue of Kent’s Burial Rites)

* The milestone murderers, or at least their heads, rest in Tjörn.

** This young woman, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, was condemned to death with the other two but got to keep her head in the end.

† Iceland did not become independent of Denmark until 1944.

‡ The victim’s brother was the executioner.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Iceland,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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2014: Ismai Khan Sayed, a Pakistani heroin smuggler in Saudi Arabia

Add comment December 25th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 2014, Saudi Arabia beheaded Ismail Khan Sayed for smuggling “a large amount” of heroin into the kingdom.

Despite (or because of) its strict sharia mores, Saudi Arabia has developed a national appetite for mind-altering substances. It’s an epidemic that the kingdom’s busy headsmen have been detailed to address on the supply side, although of course the treatment for foreign gofers like Sayed differs markedly from that of the many drug-addled royals who enjoy the product.

“Most of our shit originates in Afghanistan,” a Saudi drug dealer told Vice in 2013. “It’s a long chain of selling that starts with nomads in Afghani fields. They grow it, then it gets hidden between crates away from the mutawa [the religious police -ed.] and goes from seller to seller like a spider web.”

For hashish as well as heroin sourced to Afghanistan, Pakistani couriers play an essential role in that web — even if they are eminently disposable individually. They have had a growing prominence in Saudi Arabia’s frequent execution bulletins: Sayed was the 12th Pakistani drug mule executed in Saudi Arabia in a two-month span at the end of 2014; there have been (and continue to be) many more since.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drugs,Execution,Pakistan,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Saudi Arabia

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1651: Arnold Johan Messenius and his son

2 comments December 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1651, Sweden’s Queen Christina revenged a libel on the head of Arnold Johan Messenius and his 17-year-old son.

The educated and determinedly unmarried Christina ranks among history’s most remarkable monarchs; her disinterest in marriage, her masculine dress, and her intimate friendship with Countess Ebba Spare have led her to be speculatively identified as lesbian, hermaphroditic, or otherwise subversive of gender — as in the recent film The Girl King.

However, for the matter at hand the relevant fact about Christina was her lineage: she was the daughter of the great Lutheran king Gustavus Adolphus, whose father had expelled the Catholic king, Sigismund Vasa. The Vasas still ruled Poland and gazed rivalrously across the Baltic dreaming of a return of their Nordic estates — and became a natural focal point for schemers in Sweden.

One such schemer was a brilliant and cantankerous historian, Johannes Messenius, who was father and grandfather of the men whose eventual execution occasions this post. After serving Sigismund Vasa’s Polish court some years, this most senior Messenius returned in 1608 to Sweden for career reasons, pretending an expedient Lutheran conversion into the bargain. But the quarrelsome intellectual “could hardly breathe except in an atmosphere of strife” (per this public domain volume) and after making himself unwelcome at a university continued picking fights at the Stockholm archives until

he was accused of carrying on a traitorous correspondence with the Polish Vasas, in which he urged them to attack Sweden. It does not appear that the proofs of this treason are now in existence, but its probability has been shown by a letter from Messenius, in which he owned his undiminished attachment to the Roman Church, and said that he only conformed to the Lutheran rites outwardly and by compulsion.

Gustavus Adolphus had him clapped the dungeons of an Arctic fortress which is where his son Arnold Johan Messenius (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) grew up — understandably absorbing the grudges of his frostbitten hereditary imprisonment, until he was ripped away to a Lutheran education against which he sturdily rebelled by killing a classmate and fleeing into exile. By the time he was all of 17 he had been re-taken and locked away as a Polish agent in his own right. He’d be 33 before he regained liberty.

The liberal Christina and Count Per Brahe the Younger attempted in the 1640s to atone for Arnold Johan’s mistreatment by detailing him for a (successful) mission to Poland to retrieve his father’s magnum opus, a history of Sweden all the way back to Noah’s flood that the late father had written in prison and taken pleasure in denying to his jailers.

But Arnold Johan’s subsequent reintroduction into polite society as a nobleman with a state pension to continue the father’s histories just didn’t come with a happy ending. The boy had his father’s knack for playing both sides of the Baltic, but less so his craft with a quill: Arnold’s Swedish commission to write some histories of his own foundered on the prospective scribe’s authorial torpor. Meanwhile,

Messenius was neither softened by adversity nor improved by prosperity. He was harsh to his inferiors, insolent to his equals, and ungrateful to his benefactress. The peasants on his estate complained of his injustice and cruelty, and he was on bad terms with all his neighbours. He resisted some just claims of his own sister’s, and … a judgment given against him, Christina obliged him to make restitution to his sister. From that time he became an agitator against the government.

Now “the elder Messenius invented the most absurd and contradictory accusations against the Queen and her Ministers, which were exaggerated by the heated imagination of his son,” Arnold Messenius, our source avers, and the boy bursting with the family bile proceed to circulate “a virulent squib against the queen and the nobility, and, in the frankest language invited the heir to the throne to place himself at the head of a rebellion.” This is the so-called “Messenian conspiracy,” after the surname of father and son who both soon found themselves under Christina’s personal interrogation for this incitement, the father first denying any part in the affair and subsequently claiming the letter as his own inspiration in an apparent effort to shield the boy.

Humane Christina was rigorous with this third-generation treason, and had both beheaded without delay — although she also confined the punishment to these two rather than others they accused of collaborating on a general rising.

For her part, Christina by this time had grown weary of rule and interested in Roman Catholicism to which she perceived she could not convert without splinterizing her kingdom. She had already set in motion her own abdication, which she effected in 1654. Christina would play out the string in Rome, as the guest of the papacy and the friend of intellectuals, artists and eccentrics — while that heir the Messenians had sought to incite peacably ascended to her place as Charles X Gustav.

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1661: Murad Bakhsh, son of the Taj Mahal builder

Add comment December 14th, 2016 Headsman

Mughal prince Murad Bakhsh, the youngest son of Taj Mahal builder Shah Jahan, was executed on December 14, 1661.*


There’s blood in the stones … (cc) image from Vil Sandi.

Despite writing into stone a love to transcend time, Shah Jahan had the monarchy’s eternal managerial challenge: succession.

This ought not have surprised him. Jahan himself had been a third son, who took his own power by rebellion and clinched it by fratricide. And through the empress to whom Jahan would dedicate the Taj, Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan had four sons who all thought they like their illustrious dad deserved the helm of the wealthy Mughal state.

In descending order of age, those rivalrous brothers were: Dara Shikoh,** Shuja, Aurangzeb, and our man Muhammad Murad Bakhsh. As we open the scene, each governs a portion of the father’s empire; by the end of this post, Aurangzeb will be emperor — his reign to span nearly a half-century — and his brothers will be all be dead.

The oldest boys had the first go, with Dara Shikoh’s power as the officially designated regent of the incapacitated Jahan challenged quickly by Shuja, who was governor of Bengal. Shuja decared himself emperor and marched on Dara Shikoh, who turned little brother aside.

The two were soon forced to come to terms with one another as the younger brothers, Aurangzeb and Murad, had combined their own forces — and the youth had their say in May 1658, smashing Dara Shikoh at the Battle of Samugarh. Murad is credited in this watershed battle with a decisive charge, personally slaying the enemy second-in-command using a composite bow. This fight made Aurangzeb emperor; Dara fled for Afghanistan but was caught and killed a few months later. (Shah Jahan, still living, was confined comfortably but sorrowfully by Aurangzeb.) In January of 1659, Aurangzeb put down Shuja’s challenge at the Batte of Khajwa.

Having wagered the Peacock Throne in battle twice for the honor of supplanting his elders, Aurangzeb had a more expedient solution to sweep away his last potential rival.

On arriving at Muttra (Mathura) Aurangzeb threw off the veil that he had worn with Murad. That brave but savage Prince was arrested while suffering from the effects of a carouse, and sent in all secrecy, a prisoner, to Dehli, where he was confined in the Salimgarh, a fort near the palace.

Murad would be put to death a couple of years later via the instrument of a murder charge supplied by the family of a courtier whom Murad had previously killed.

* The equivalent date on the Julian calendar, December 4, is also sometimes reported.

** The name means “as magnificent as Darius,” which is the sort of conceit destined to set a body up for disappointment.

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1683: Algernon Sidney, republican philosopher

Add comment December 7th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1683 the English politician and philosopher Algernon Sidney (or Sydney) was beheaded to uphold (so he conceived it) “the common rights of mankind, the laws of this land, and the true Protestant religion, against corrupt principles, arbitrary power, and Popery.”

He was one of the 17th century’s great philosophers of republicanism, and his Discourses Concerning Government was more influential in his lifetime than the work of his contemporary (and fellow-Whig*) John Locke.

Although the pen might be mightier than the sword, Sydney himself did not eschew the more literal form of combat and entered a triumphant battlefield for the Roundheads at Marston Moor. But despite penning a strong defense of assassinating despots,** Sidney’s disapproval of the proceedings against King Charles I — a trial at which Sidney, now a parliamentarian, sat as a commissioner — kept him free of the whiff of regicide.

The Republic that prevailed after King Charles’s scaffold, and in which he continued as an MP, was the closest thing Sidney would experience to the political order his writings expounded. When Parliament was forcibly disbanded in 1653 to give over to Cromwell’s rule, Sidney (like his friend and mentor Henry Vane) would not quit the legislature until General Harrison physically seized him. He sorely provoked the interregnum state thereafter by staging a pointed performance of that tyrannicidal play, Julius Caesar … starring himself as Brutus.

Away on the continent when the monarchy was restored in 1660, Sidney would not lay eyes on native soil again until 1677, when he secured a royal mulligan that also spared him the fruits of various plots he had cogitated while in exile to re-depose the Stuarts with the aid of France or the Netherlands. But he returned as one of the leading men of a Whig faction that increasingly courted the ire of the crown and from whose machinations the arch-republican was in no way dissuaded.

Sidney’s prosecution as a party to the Rye House Plot to murder King Charles II helped to earn the new Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys his reputation as a notorious hanging judge: promoted to the post weeks earlier as a reward for his prosecution of Sidney’s alleged conspirator Lord Russell, Jeffreys stacked the trial against the defendant leading Sidney to issue from the scaffold a lengthy disquisition on the iniquities of the court. (Notably, Jeffreys circumvented a standard requiring two witnesses to prove treason by ruling that Jeffreys’ own writings made their author a “second witness”.)

Algernon Sidney is the namesake, along with English parliamentarian John Hampden, of Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College, reflecting Sidney’s importance to the next century’s American revolutionaries. Archive.org has a lengthy public domain compendium (including his discourses on government), The Works of Algernon Sydney.

* Locke had no appetite for the noble martyrdom act pulled by the likes of Sidney and Lord Russell. He fled to the Netherlands during the Rye House Plot crackdown, only returning to England with the Glorious Revolution.

** For example:

Honour and riches are justly heaped upon the heads of those who rightly perform their duty [of tyrannicide], because the difficulty as well as the excellency of the work is great. It requires courage, experience, industry, fidelity, and wisdom. “The good shepherd,” says our Saviour, “lays down his life for his sheep.” The hireling, who flies in time of danger, is represented under an ill character; but he that sets himself to destroy his flock, is a wolf. His authority is incompatible with their subsistence. And whoever disapproves tumults, seditions, or war, by which he may be removed from it, if gentler means are ineffectual, subverts the foundation of all law, exalts the fury of one man to the destruction of a nation, and giving an irresistible power to the most abominable iniquity, exposes all that are good to be destroyed, and virtue to be utterly extinguished.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Notable for their Victims,Politicians,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason

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