Posts filed under 'Capital Punishment'

1975: The last executions under Franquismo

Add comment September 27th, 2012 Headsman

Though Spain’s last execution is often misremembered as that of handsome anarchist Salvador Puig Antich in 1974, that milestone actually occurred with the shooting of five anti-Franco terrorists in three different cities on September 27, 1975.

It was an ugly coda to an ugly regime and a 40-year history of political killings.

Gen. Francisco Franco had the previous year been forced by his failing health to hand over power, raising hopes for a democratic transition. But after surprisingly recovering, Franco surprisingly took back his strongman role — and anti-Franco revolutionary movements that had been biding their time greeted the return of Franquismo with a wave of bombings and assassinations.

Spain’s cabinet met in September 1975 to consider eleven death-sentenced prisoners — three Basques of the separatist ETA, and eight members of the communist revolutionary organization FRAP. It upheld five of those sentences, all involving the killing of policemen. (Two women, who both claimed to be pregnant, were among those reprieved.)

The five who ultimately died were (and these are all Spanish Wikipedia links):


Headline from the London Times, September 27, 1975. The garrote was not, in fact, used for any of the executions.

The shootings met angry — often violent — reaction throughout Europe. Spanish embassies in the Netherlands and Turkey were attacked; several countries recalled their ambassadors; and French protesters rioted on the Champs Elysees. The EU predecessor entity EEC (Spain was not then a member) voted to freeze its trade relations with Spain.

And it was about more than just the five humans shot to death.

They had all been condemned within a month before their deaths, by military tribunals requiring harsh mandatory death sentences for crimes against public order. As the unsettled situation on the ground implied quite a lot of disorder and anti-government violence, observers worried that the regime’s willingness to actually carry out those sentences would unleash a “death machine” of unstoppable condemnations, met with inevitable reprisals, and still more unstoppable death sentences. Satans mördare, in the words of outspoken Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. Devilish murders.

The devil had plans for a different soul.

The ailing Franco succumbed to Parkinson’s Disease on November 20, 1975, once again introducing the period of relative calm and stability that Spain could have been enjoying for the previous year had the late caudillo just stayed in retirement. Spain abolished the death penalty under its post-Franco constitution.

Spanish-speakers may enjoy this documentary focusing on one of this day’s victims: parts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5. Indeed, this gruesome parting Franco made with his mortal coil has inspired many remembrances up the present day, especially given the martyrology-friendly anti-fascist credentials of the five. There’s also a 1991 film called The Longest Night and the Luis Eduardo Aute song “At Dawn”:

* This man’s widow Silvia Carretero, who was herself arrested and tortured (while pregnant!) under Franco, pushed an unsuccessful 2010 lawuit for her husband’s execution.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Milestones,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Spain,Terrorists

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2003: Vignes Mourthi, framed in Singapore?

Add comment September 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 2003, 23-year-old Malaysian Vignes Mourthi was hanged in Singapore’s Changi Prison as a drug courier, along with his supposed collaborator Moorthy Angappan.

Mourthi vigorously maintained his innocence, and his family has done likewise in the years since, helping turn the young factory worker into a wrongful-execution poster child.

It was a Sgt. Rajkumar who arrested Mourthi by posing as a buyer of his cargo. Rajkumar would later present an undated, unsigned “confession” purporting to show that Mourthi was completely aware that it was heroin he was moving. At first read one might might indeed doubt Mourthi’s insistence that he thought he was carrying “incense stones” … but his compatriot Angappan was indeed an incense dealer and a family friend known to Mourthi as such.

British journalist Alan Shadrake‘s 2010 indictment of Singaporean justice Once a Jolly Hangman (banned in its titular city-state) calls Mourthi’s hanging “arguably one of the most appalling miscarriages of justice in Singapore’s history”.

Rajkumar’s testimony about Mourthi’s confession was instrumental in hanging the young man, but just a couple of days after he arrested Mourthi, Rajkumar himself was arrested (and then released on bail) on a rape accusation. According to the recent book Once a Jolly Hangman, whose denunciations of Singapore’s death penalty system earned its author a prison term in the repressive city-state,

Intense efforts were … made by Rajkumar’s many friends in the CNB and a police friend at Clementi Police Station to persuade ‘J’ to withdraw her statement. The bribes involved large sums of money, which she refused … There were frantic, secret meetings between Rajkumar, his police officer friends and his accuser in shopping malls and fast-food outlets during which he, his family and friends continued to offer large sums of money in exchange for withdrawing her allegations. All this intrigue was going on while Rajkumar was busy getting enough evidence together to ensure Mourthi would be found guilty and hanged.

So. That’s less than ideal.

Sadly for the accused, none of this credibility-melting information was ever known during Mourthi’s trial and appeal. After Mourthi’s execution, the bad cop who hanged him went on trial for corruption over his witness-tampering, and eventually served 15 months.

Certainty is never given to mortals. But Mourthi’s father for one has no doubt: “I know he is innocent.”

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,Malaysia,Ripped from the Headlines,Singapore,Wrongful Executions

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1561: Sehzade Beyazit, inevitably

1 comment September 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1561, the Persian Shah abandoned Ottoman prince Sehzade Beyazit to the vengeance of his “magnificent” father.

A late and sad casualty of Istanbul’s pivotal family tragedy, Beyazit was actually a son of Suleiman the Magnificent‘s favorite wife, the freed Ukrainian slave Hurrem Sultan or Roxelana.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t the first son.

After Roxelana engineered the execution of heir apparent Mustafa on spurious grounds, Beyazit and his brother Selim were the last princes standing.

The natural rivalry between the two for eventual power was surely colored by the clear portent Mustafa’s execution had sent that the succession game was rigged for Selim. After several years of growing estrangement, Beyazit finally revolted outright only to be defeated in battle by Selim in 1559.

The loser found refuge in Persia, but only long enough for the Safavids to negotiate the price of his surrender to the hands of Suleiman … whose executioner went on the road to the Persian city of Qazvin to strangle not only Sehzade Beyazit but his four sons, too.

Extirpating the treasonable branch of the family tree cleared the succession for Selim, whose eight-year turn in power would be remembered as moment the hitherto-all-vanquishing Ottomans began their long, slow slide to Sick Man of Europe status. Particularly given that coda, Suleiman’s own

long reign is flawed by tragedy more subtle than the hubris which had overcome his ancestor Bayezit the Thunderbolt; more consequential than the gilded misery reserved for later sultans. The higher men rose in the empire, the closer they got to the bowstring; and the reign of Suleyman seems in retrospect coiled round with a silken garotte …

When the Austrian ambassador took leave of Suleyman in his old age, it was scarcely a living being he described, but a sort of metaphor of empire, rotting and majestic, fat, made up, and suffering from an ulcerous leg.

There’s more about this misfortunate lesser son in Turkish here, and a Turkish poem he wrote beseeching his father’s forgiveness here.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Iran,Ottoman Empire,Persia,Power,Royalty,Strangled,Turkey

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1830: Stephen Simmons, the last executed by Michigan

Add comment September 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1830, Stephen Simmons was publicly hanged in Detroit, Michigan: the very last time that state has conducted an execution.*

Michigan was the first English-speaking jurisdiction in the world to abolish the death penalty for ordinary crimes. Death penalty foes celebrate March 1 as “International Death Penalty Abolition Day” (pdf) after the date Michigan’s law took effect.

Simmons himself was a minor malefactor in the scheme of things but amply detested in the day of his crime.

A tavern-keeper by trade, he had a habit of getting into the whiskey himself, to violent effect. One night at home, a sodden Simmons picked a fight with his wife Livana and killed her with a vicious blow to the abdomen. The main trouble in this noteworthy trial (pdf) was seating a jury not completely biased against him.

An estimated two thousand people turned up to watch him pay for his crime, and for their “comfort and entertainment” the authorities had “wooden grandstands erected on three sides of the scaffolding, uniformed militia to be deployed around the scaffolding as a guard of honor, a military band to serenade the crowd while it waited for the main event, and vendors to patrol the grounds hawking food, whiskey, and rum.”

Sounds like a place about to abolish the death penalty, right?

Executed Today was pleased to speak with David Chardavoyne, law professor at Wayne State University and the University of Detroit-Michigan, about this case and its place in Michigan’s early path to abolition. Chardavoyne is the author of the award-winning book A Hanging In Detroit: Stephen Wayne Simmons and the Last Execution Under Michigan Law

Book CoverET: To set the scene, what is Detroit like in 1830?

DC: In 1830 Detroit was the capital of the Michigan Territory, but it had only about 2,000 inhabitants. It was, though, a bustling community because it was the entryway for the tens of thousands of settlers heading into the wilderness west and north of Detroit. Most buildings were on a narrow strip of land between the river and Jefferson Avenue, although the capitol, jail, and Simmons’s execution site were further north, about a half mile from the river.

This was the last execution in Michigan, but to what extent can we really say that it led to the end of the death penalty there? It strikes me that support must have been pretty soft to start with if that’s the case.

To be precise, the last execution under Michigan law — there were 2 executions under federal law a short time later and the Chebatoris execution in the 1930s.

I conclude in my book that there is no real evidence that the Simmons case caused the abolition of capital punishment. Most people living in Michigan in the 1840s, and almost all of the legislators who voted for abolition, arrived in Michigan after 1830 and there was no mention of that case in the extensive debates in the constitutional conventions in 1835-36 or in the legislature in the 1840s.

However, incidents surrounding the Simmons execution show that unease about capital punishment existed in 1830. First, the fact that most killers before and after 1830 were convicted of manslaughter whatever the facts. Second, the alleged mob that tore down the city whipping post right after Simmons’s execution. Third, Governor Cass, in his annual address a couple of months later stated that he was sorry that the law did not allow him to reduce Simmons’s sentence to time in prison.

Why was it that this one hanging, of a guy who had clearly killed his wife even if not intentionally, so powerfully affected people? And how troubled were Michiganders by the case itself, before the specific events of execution day?

Whatever effect the Simmons execution had on the spectators had little to do with Simmons but rather their exposure to a gruesome death. The people seem to have been genuinely outraged by the crime and the fact that the victim was his wife, so that it was very difficult to seat a fair jury. There is little to no evidence of any sympathy for Simmons.

What about the accounts of attendees stunned and shamed by Simmons’ last-minute plea for mercy in the midst of the public-festival environment.

In the book, I explain that my research puts this whole story very much in doubt. It first appeared almost 50 years later in a speech at the state historical convention, but it is not clear that the speaker was even in town that day. It was picked up and repeated by subsequent writers, but the Detroit newspaper at the time made no mention of it, nor did the very few other witness accounts.

When Michigan did abolish the death penalty, how were people talking about the Simmons case? Did it swing any votes?

Again, the Simmons case seems to have been forgotten by then, or at least neither side thought that it would help their arguments.

We’re accustomed now to think of clemency decisions as highly political. How did Lewis Cass’s political aspirations affect his handling of Simmons, if they did at all? And for that matter, did he or anyone else end up suffering any political fallout for the way events ultimately transpired?

As noted above, under territorial law Cass’s only option was to pardon Simmons — he could not just reduce the sentence. It may or may not have been relevant that he left town early on the day of the execution to visit his mother in Ohio and did not attend the execution.

What’s really amazing is that Michigan has kept the death penalty off the books for nearing two centuries. That can’t all be about Stephen Simmons. What is it about Michigan’s culture, politics, or demographics that has kept it so staunchly anti-death penalty?

This is a question that writers have been asking for decades. Remember that abolition was a close-run thing. Religion, political party, and other divisions do not appear to have been a factor in the voting.

My guess is that it had to do with personality. The legislators in 1846 were mostly young men who were adventurous and optimistic enough to leave their friends and families in the east for the frontier. Such people, according to my psychologist friends tend to be against capital punishment. Why capital punishment was never reinstated is a tribute, I think, to the fact that the system works. Every so often a particularly bad killing starts politicians shouting about bringing it back, but it never goes anywhere. Since 1963, of course, the ban has been in our state constitution, and removing it would be very difficult.

* As Prof. Chardavoyne mentions, a few executions have been conducted in Michigan under federal (not state) law since 1830.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Michigan,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,USA

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1944: Pietro Caruso, fascist chief of police

2 comments September 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Pietro Caruso was shot to death by a firing squad for his reign as the head of police in fascist Rome.

Renowned for his sadism towards the enemies of Mussolini, Caruso was most infamous for his role rounding up Italians* for a Nazi mass-execution just months before — the Ardeatine Massacre.

Subject of the first war crimes trial in Allied-occupied Italy, Caruso almost wasn’t around long enough to make this blog: an angry mob invaded the courtroom where he was tried just days earlier, attempting to lynch him.

Authorities managed to safeguard the war criminal, but the mob sated its bloodlust by grabbing another fascist who had turned state’s evidence and was all set to testify against Caruso until he was hauled out and drowned in the Tiber.

Apparently they didn’t need his evidence anyway.

The war, of course, was not yet over … and in northern Italy’s ongoing fascist enterprise, the blackshirts conducted retaliatory executions to retaliate for executing Caruso for retaliatory executions.

* Caruso’s defense: the Nazis had demanded 80 prisoners of him for this reprisal execution. Caruso moderated it to 50. David Broder would have approved.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Milestones,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Shot,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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1783: Mutinous prisoners of the Swift

Add comment September 21st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1783, six men were hanged at Tyburn for “returning before expiry” from convict transportation.

This was a neat little euphemism covering a very desperate act at the sundering of the American colonies from their mother country.

We’ve previously covered in these pages the underappreciated extent of convict transportation from the British Isles in populating the future United States. Anthony Vaver, who blogs at Early American Crime, in his recent book Bound With An Iron Chain pegs convicts as the second-largest bloc of American “immigrants,” (after African slaves) to the tune of 50,000 souls in the 18th century.

The American Revolution put a halt to that human traffic.

In time, London would transition to dumping its criminal cargo on Australia.

But at the moment the colonies broke free, the Down Under wasn’t yet fulfilling that role, and policymakers faced a conundrum. The judicial machinery continued to sentence thieves to transportation; without an outlet, those unfortunates accumulated cheek to jowl aboard stinking prison hulks on the Thames.

What to do? In 1785, a Parliamentary committee looked back wistfully on the good old days:

That the old system of transporting to America answered every good purpose that could be expected from it; that it tended directly to reclaim the objects on which it was inflicted, and to render them good citizens; that the climate being temperate, and the means of gaining a livelihood easy, it was safe to entrust country magistrates with the discretionary power of inflicting it … that it tended to break, in their infancy, those gangs and combinations which have since proved so injurious to the community; that it was not attended with much expense to the public …

(cited in Botany Bay: The Real Story)

Well, it so happened that this effective and affordable solution, though interrupted by war, was not legally barred in the new United States.

So Britain did what any cost-conscious imperial power would do: sent out a ship with some convicts to see if they couldn’t still be gifted to labor-hungry America. “Perhaps a greater insult to any Nation could hardly have been offered,” griped one Founding Father afterwards.

The gallows held little terror for some prisoners sentenced to convict transportation, who might even have preferred execution. London’s Public Advertiser reported this never-implemented threat on March 24, 1785:

We hear that one of the respited capital convicts, who received sentence of transportation at the adjourned session at the Old Bailey, told the Recorder, in his own name and those of his companions, that they did not esteem the being pardoned, on condition of transportation to Africa, as an act of mercy, but had much rather be hanged at home; and that they were determined to endeavour to sink either the lighter which is to convey them to Gravesend (to which place they are to be guarded by 30 of the militia) or the ship which is to carry them over.

Alright, America. You don’t have to be that way about it.

The ship detailed for this insulting mission was the Swift, and its passage was troubled long before it sighted the Chesapeake. The “cargo” of the Swift mutinied and ran the ship aground in England.

Thirty-nine escapees were recaptured and most sentenced once again to transportation, but six swung at Tyburn on this date. They really were at the end of an era, and not only of North American convict transportation: Tyburn itself hosted its last public execution just a few weeks later.

Nothing daunted, the owners of the Swift reassembled a slate of captives and made another run, reaching Annapolis, Md. on Christmas eve: fortuitous timing, because irritated state legislators weren’t in session and therefore couldn’t block the ship’s unwanted merchandising. The problem was, it was little better wanted by its intended market. According to Vaver, “[o]nly 30 of those on board were sold by mid-January … [the shippers] managed to sell most of the convicts by the spring, but they incurred serious losses after having to provide food, clothing, and medicine for those who languished on board the ship until they could be unloaded.”

They were the last British convicts sold in her rebellious colonies. One last ship made another voyage in 1784 and was turned away flat by every U.S. port, finally managing to offload in British Honduras.

Ere the decade was out, London had established a new penal colony at Botany Bay and set about transferring this particular “special relationship” from the United States to Australia.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,USA

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1763: Gabriela Silang

1 comment September 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1763, the mestiza Philippines national hero Maria Josefa Gabriela Carino Silang was captured and summarily hanged — along with a number of the soldiers she had led against the Spanish.


Monument to Gabriela Silang in Makati City, Philippines. (cc) image from Jun Acullador.

Gabriela took primary leadership of a 2,000-strong rebel army after its co-leader, her husband Diego, was assassinated by his enemies in May 1763.

Said enemies were the Spanish colonial authorities, whom Diego and his helpmate Gabriela had raised revolt against and with an army wielding homemade muskets and blowguns, driven from the capital of Ilocos Sur. It was Great Britain’s occupation of the Philippines during the Seven Years War that opened the opportunity for the rebellion: the British even appointed Diego Silang governor of the province his army was in the process of conquering. They just didn’t actually help him.

Spain’s assault on the rebels, once organized, was sufficiently overwhelming to drive Gabriela Silang out of the city of Vigan, and then to repel her counterattack — the occasion for her capture and her death.

Gabriela Silang is memorialized in a number of monuments and place names in the Philippines; the women’s organization GABRIELA also engineered its acronym to pay tribute to her.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Philippines,Power,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions,Women

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2011: Abdul Hamid Bin Hussain Bin Moustafa al-Fakki, sorcerer

Add comment September 19th, 2012 Headsman

On this date last year, a Sudanese man who “practised witchcraft and sorcery” was beheaded in a Medina carpark.

This being the 21st century — whatever the Saudi statutes might say — it was caught on film.

Warning: Mature Content It’s filmed from too far away to be gory per se, but this video clearly captures the severing of a man’s head.

“Abdul Hamid is understood to have been arrested in 2005 after he was entrapped by a man working for the Mutawa’een (religious police),” according to the Daily Mail.

He was asked to concoct a spell that would cause the officer’s father to leave his second wife.

According to the officer’s account Abdul Hamid agreed to carry out the curse in exchange for 6,000 Saudi Arabian riyals (approximately £1,000).

He was beaten after his arrest and thought to have been forced to admit to acts of sorcery.

In a secret trial, where he was not allowed legal representation, he was sentenced to death by the General Court in Medina in March 2007.

Few details are available about his trial but he is reported to have been tried behind closed doors and without legal representation.

At the time of his arrest, English language Saudi daily The Saudi Gazette ran an article entitled Magic Maids which said that ‘we must face up to the threats from some maids and servants and their satanic games of witchcraft and sorcery, their robbery, murder, entrapment of husbands, corruption of children and other countless stories of crime that have been highlighted by both experts and victims of these crimes’.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Mature Content,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Saudi Arabia,Witchcraft

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1959: Harvey Glatman, signature killer

5 comments September 18th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1959, serial sex killer Harvey Glatman was gassed in San Quentin.

The dweeby, jug-eared TV repairman manifested an early kinky streak when his parents discovered the rope burns he’d given himself practicing autoerotic asphyxiation.

In time, he would do it without that important prefix.

Paroled from Sing Sing for teenage molestation convictions, Glatman moved west — to Denver, and then to Los Angeles, spending several years in monklike isolation from the opposite sex.

“Then,” writes Carlton Smith in a book about the BTK killer, “one sweltering afternoon in July 1957, the dam broke.”*

Glatman began trolling the City of Angels’ famous seedy underbelly for young women to model for “detective magazines” shoots — an understood euphemism for snapping illicit bondage pics. This excellent cover not only enabled him to have his victims willingly put themselves at his mercy in private, it enabled him to take their pictures as trophies.

They were images of Glatman’s detailed methodology of murder, which showed a sequence of terror by re-creating the entire psychological arc of the crime. He first photographed each victim with a look of innocence on her face as if she were truly enjoying a modeling session. The next series represented a sadist’s view of a sexually terrorized victim with the impending horror of a slow and painful death etched across her face. The final frame depicted the victim’s position that Glatman himself had arranged after he strangled her.

-Robert Keppel, Signature Killers



Photos Glatman took of two of his victims, models Judy Ann Dull (top) and Ruth Mercado (bottom). Images via Murderpedia’s collection, at least one of which is very distinctly NSFW. Murderpedia also has, as per usual, a detailed writeup of the Glatman case.

Glatman killed two women this way and a third via a lonely-hearts club meeting,** while losing a few targets along the way who were put off by his aspect or wily enough to demand a male escort for the photography sessions.

He was only stopped in 1958 when a police officer chanced to encounter him while attempting the more daring enterprise of roadside kidnapping. The perp was only 30 years old at the time, a frightening mixture of predatory calculation and homicidal lust: if not for this fortuitous early detection, it’s not too hard to imagine 1957-58 Glatman standing at the outset of a serial rape-murder spree of Bundyesque dimensions.

Unlike that later conniving, spotlight-hogging monster, Glatman post-arrest retreated quickly back to reclusion. He made only a token effort to deny his crimes; as soon as detectives tricked him (by pretending they had it already) into coming clean about a hidden toolbox full of incriminating evidence, the confessions started gushing out of him — another dam burst. He was begging detectives for death well before trial and willingly pled guilty to speed his own steps to San Quentin’s gas chamber. It took less than a year, time Glatman mostly spent in self-imposed isolation from the society of the inmates and guards around him in prison.

“It’s better this way,” he once said near the end, of his imminent date with those noxious fumes. “I knew this is the way it would be.”

Glatman’s LAPD interrogator, legendary detective Pierce Brooks, would later serve as a consultant for the made-for-TV Dragnet 1966 movie. In that film, the serial kidnapper, bondage-photographer, and murderer of young models, “Don Negler”, is conned by police into revealing the location of his incriminating toolbox — just like Glatman was.

The full film is available on YouTube; the interrogation sequence begins about 1:23:56. It clinches with the nebbishy “Negler’s” pathetic self-explanation.

Negler: The reason I killed those girls is they asked me to. (pause) They did; all of ‘em.

Joe Friday: They asked you to.

Negler: Sure. They said they’d rather be dead than be with me.

* Glatman is also a suspect in a never-solved Colorado murder from 1954. So maybe that dam had a few leaks.

** The personal-ad gambit led the press to start nicknaming Glatman the “Lonely-Hearts Killer,” which appellation was of course already spoken for.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,History,Murder,Rape,Serial Killers,Sex,USA,Volunteers

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1895: The Vegetarian perpetrators of the Kucheng Massacre

1 comment September 17th, 2012 Headsman

On the morning of September 17, 1895, in the presence of the British and American consuls, seven perpetrators of a Chinese massacre of western Christian missionaries were beheaded at Foochow.

Anticipating the better-known Boxer Rebellion by four years, the Kucheng Massacre (there are many other transliterations of “Kucheng”) was likewise a response to the Celestial Empire’s frustrating second-class status as against European interlopers.

Christian missionaries had been a point of friction in China for decades. Though their rights to proselytize had been guaranteed in a hated treaty dictated to China by force of arms, they often met resentment or worse on the ground.

“You bring incense in one hand, a spear in the other;” one evangelist reported being told: that is, however honorable the immediate intentions of many individual missionaries, their presence looked like a stalking horse for less reputable western interventions like the opium trade. (That’s how it looked to many Chinese. Professional western diplomats themselves found the impolitic preachers a hindrance to their statecraft, according to Ian Welch’s 2006 paper “Missionaries, Murder and Diplomacy in Late 19th Century China: A Case Study” (pdf).*)

On August 1, 1895, these frustrations unleashed a river of blood at the village of Huashan in Gutian County, where a Buddhist secret society — known as “Vegetarians” in the western press for their characteristic dietary vow — fell upon a group of vacationing British Anglican missionaries still abed at dawn and ruthlessly slaughtered eleven of them. (There are some 1890s books paying tribute to the fallen available online: Robert and Louisa Stewart: In Life and in Death, and The sister martyrs of Ku Cheng : Memoir and Letters of Eleanor and Elizabeth Saunders (“Nellie” and “Topsie”) of Melbourne.)

“The attack came,” said a physician from a nearby town who was summoned to the bloody scene, “like a thunderbolt from a clear sky, not one of the victims having received the slightest intimation of the intended assault.”

Word of the carnage struck western powers with similar force.

Incensed newspaper-readers literally demanded** gunboat diplomacy, and literally got it, especially when Chinese authorities drug their feet on the condign punishment the missionaries’ countrymen were clamoring for.

All this put British diplomacy on a sticky wicket, which Welch (pdf) deals with in detail. To satisfy the domestic audience, the government had to be seen to be taking a hard line on avenging the outrages; at the same time, London was wise to the Chinese state’s shakiness and wary that a “barbarous holocaust” perpetrated against the Vegetarians would trigger a mass backlash and bring the whole thing down.

An obdurate Chinese viceroy impeded the quick resolution everyone was after by making inflammatory public proclamations against Christians, and releasing without explanation six of the thirteen men who had initially been condemned to death in the month of August. The seven who were executed on this date were therefore only the vanguard of 26 humans ultimately put to death for their involvement in the atrocity.

Some of the execution photographs that follow are Mature Content. They’re obtained via Visual Cultures in East Asia; some also available at USC Digital Library.



Raids and investigations to bring the Vegetarian movement to heel continued for several months thereafter, and the whole affair ultimately was quelled without doing any of the wider damage that might have been feared — not even to missionaries who continued pouring into China.

And that, effectively, kicked the can down the road on the anti-foreigner sentiments afoot in the land … sentiments that would find much costlier expression a few years later when another secret society kicked off the Boxer Rebellion.

* I’ve relied heavily on Welch for this post. He’s also collected a massive trove (over 1,200 pages) of primary documents from this incident available in a series of pdfs (some quite large) from the Australian National University website:

** This was not universally so. The wife of missionary Stephen Livingston Baldwin, who knew some of the victims of the attack, urged a “charitable” response and sensitivity that “the Chinese feel that all the world is against them, and they are not far from right.” (New York Times, Aug. 10, 1895) In letters responding to intemperate coverage elsewhere, she acidly compared (pdf) western editorialists’ high dudgeon to their look-forward-not-back dismissal of recent stateside anti-Chinese violence.

It was ten years yesterday since more Chinese were killed, and burned alive and left to die wounded, in one hour, at Rock Springs, Wyoming (the very same Territory in which the recent massacre occurred) than have been Americans and English in China in the thirty-four years I have personally known that land, being a resident there twenty years and closely connected with it ever since. Ten years yesterday since that awful Rock Springs massacre, and up to date no one arrested, much less punished! The anti-Chinese papers of the town and neighbourhood gloating over the awful details and assuring all that there would be “no Congressional investigation,” and no waste of “enterprising newspaper eloquence” over the woes of the Chinese, “though their blood flow like rivers, as they had no votes and no friends.” In less than four weeks after the Ku-Cheng massacre, arrest, investigation and execution have all taken place for the Ku-Cheng massacre. Would that our colored, red and yellow brethren, so helpless in our so-called civilized and Christian land, had some power behind them to bestir Ministers Plenipotentiary, wave flags, and run gunboats to the front, to bully, if necessary, our pusillanimous Government into some sort of civilization — I will not say Christian justice!

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,History,Mass Executions,Mature Content,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Terrorists

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