Posts filed under 'Capital Punishment'

1919: Mehmed Kemal, for the Armenian genocide

3 comments April 10th, 2010 Headsman

Ninety-one years ago today,* the tottering Ottoman Empire hanged one of its officials in Istanbul for his role in the mass slaughter of its Armenian minority during the First World War.

Kemal Bey’s hanging in Bayezid Square occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. Here, on its last legs, the remains of a sultanate splintered apart in the war instituted tribunals for wartime offenses by the Young Turks who had run the government during the war — a sop to the British occupying forces making worrying noises about international trials for much bigger fish.

Much testimony at the trial pointed to the governor’s fervor for massacres; an Armenian priest who survived the slaughter later wrote that a Turkish officer had told him that Kemal “made a vow on the honor of the Prophet: I shall not leave a single Armenian alive in the sanjak of Yozgat.”

A response to the New York Timesreport of the hanging noted that “his part was that of an executioner. The originators of the plan to exterminate the Armenians were primarily Enver, Tallat, and Djemal.”

These “Three Pashas” who had driven Ottoman policy during the war had fled abroad. They would be condemned to death in absentia, and though none would hang, neither would they outlive Mehmed Kemal by as much as four years.

They were among the many unpunished perpetrators of the slaughter hunted down by Armenian assassins. The latter two were avenged by Operation Nemesis; Enver Pasha died in battle in Tajikistan during the Russian Civil War.

Though overshadowed in historical import by those three, our day’s principal is distinguished as the first person executed for “crimes against humanity.”

This novelty, combined with the trial’s victor’s-justice character, were immediately controversial, and remain so in the fraught politicking around the genocide. (This genocide-denialist paper describes, on page 13, the rowdy funeral scene that erupted the next day, also attested** by annoyed British officials.)

Events would soon outstrip these tribunals and lay waste to all parties’ plans for the Ottoman carcass, incidentally leaving the Armenian issue permanently unresolved.

The month after Mehmed Kemal swung, western allies went one dismemberment too far by backing the irredentist Greek state’s landing at Smyrna — an intervention that was to backfire catastrophically for the Greeks, and help birth the Turkish Republic.

* A few secondary sources say April 12 rather than April 10, but the earlier date appears much better attested.

** e.g., a diplomatic note cited in The Burning Tigris, p. 337: “Not one Turk in a thousand will think that any other Turk deserves to be hanged for massacring Christians.”

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1747: Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat

2 comments April 9th, 2010 Headsman

Unprincipled, octogenarian Scottish noble Simon Fraser,* Lord Lovat was on this date in 1747 the last to lose his head on Tower Hill.

The Clan Fraser patriarch was an expert double-dealer from his youth in Restoration England — when he recruited a small regiment in nominal service to William and Mary but allegedly plotting to desert to the Stuarts at the opportune moment.

That moment never came … and the Stuarts’ fruitless quest for it in the decades to come would eventually claim the Lord Lovat.

But first up: a long life of opportunistic, frequently reprehensible political maneuvering.

  • He kidnapped, raped, and forcibly married a woman from a rival clan in order to gain claim on a contested succession (Lovat had to flee the country, a death sentence in absentia at his heels)

  • He expediently converted to Catholicism to get in with the exiled Stuarts and their continental allies
  • He forged incriminating documents in an unsuccessful bid to undermine rival nobles
  • He played both sides of the Hanover-Stuart intrigue, ingratiating himself with both Jacobites and London during the 1715 rising. He did this so adeptly that George I served as Lovat’s son’s godfather

When the Jacobites decided to double down on doomed risings in 1745,** this wily knave finally managed to commit himself to the wrong team at the wrong time. Hey, everyone should be allowed one fatal mistake every 80 years or so. (Read all about those years in this public-domain biography.)

Though Lovat was so infirm he had to be borne on a litter, his military acumen would have been worth the rebels’ while had they possessed the muscle to get into a fair fight.

But they didn’t, and Lord Lovat was captured in the undignified circumstance of being stashed in a tree, and at length fitted for a no less undignified trial.

He could neither walk nor ride, as he was almost helpless; he was deaf, purblind, eighty years of age, ignorant of English law, and it was therefore not a matter of surprise that the high-born tribes, who thronged to his trial, were disappointed in the brilliancy of his parts, and in the readiness of his wit. “I see little of parts in him,” observes Walpole, “nor attributed much to that cunning for which he is so famous; it might catch wild Highlanders.” … It appeared, indeed, doubtful in what form death would seize him first, and whether disease and age might not cheat the scaffold of its victim.

Oh, well.

Only the good die young.

By his public life, he has left an indelible stain upon the honour of the Highland character, upon his party, upon his country.

* Not to be confused with the Canadian explorer for whom British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University is named.

** The 1745 rebellion spawned a popular patriotic song that became the national anthem: “God Save the King/Queen”.

One of the tune’s impolitic verses you won’t hear performed at glitzy official ceremonies (or much of anywhere at all) is this nationalist blast at the Jacobite party:

Lord grant that Marshal Wade
Shall by thy mighty aid
Victory bring
May he sedition hush,
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush
God save the King.

All of which, one supposes, gives Simon Fraser claim to a spot in the fine print of the credits for the song, and for that matter, for the Sex Pistols’ riposte.

Nothing new, this scandalous punk riff: English radicals were travestying the nationalist anthem within the lifetime of many who personally saw the rebellious Scot Lord Lovat crushed.

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1520: Gaspar Quesada, Magellan’s expedition mutineer

2 comments April 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1520, on his famous voyage of circumnavigation, explorer Ferdinand Magellan ordered the immediate execution of a mutinous captain.

Not to be trifled with.

Having alit just days before at the natural harbor of Puerto San Julien on the Brazilian Argentine coast (Magellan named it) with plans to winter there, the overweening Portuguese explorer faced an uprising of grumpy Spanish officers.

Gaspar Quesada, captain of the Concepcion, along with Luis de Mendoza of the Victoria and recently displaced San Antonio skipper Juan de Cartagena, seized some of the expedition’s ships during the night of April 1-2.

Since you know Magellan’s name five centuries later, you already know he quashed it.

As the sovereign of this fragile floating world, Magellan had little choice but to treat a challenge to his authority mercilessly.**

Though accounts are inconsistent, it seems Mendoza was boldly slain by one of Magellan’s men meeting him under color of “negotiation”.


Mendoza’s assassination. From this site.

Mendoza was then posthumously beheaded and quartered along with Gaspar Quesada. Juan de Cartagena was either executed as well, or else caught a “break”: some sources relate that, instead of executing Cartagena, Magellan had him marooned.

the twentieth of June [1578], wee harboured ourselues againe in a very good harborough, called by Magellan Port S. Julian, where we found a gibbet standing upon the maine, which we supposed to be the place where Magellan did execution upon some of his disobedient and rebellious company.

-From a member of the Francis Drake expedition. Just 12 days later and at the very same place, Drake visited a similar penalty for a similar offense upon one of his own crew.

* “‘The authorities’ are divertingly divergent on the precise date of these events,” says O.H.K. Spate in The Spanish Lake, referring specifically to the dates of the mutiny. “Denucé puts them on Easter Sunday and Monday, 1–2 April; Merriman on Easter Sunday and Monday, 8–9 April; Nowell on Palm Sunday and the next day, with the trial verdict on 7 April. By the Julian calendar, in use until 1582, the dates would be 1–2 April; by the Gregorian, ten days later. Pigafetta and Maximilian, who slur over the whole affair, give no dates at all. It is not of vast moment.” Clearly, O.H.K. Spate never had to write an almanac blog.

Anyway, there’s some primary sourcing on this affair here.

** Though Magellan made an example of the leaders, he pragmatically spared about 40 others after keeping them in chains and working the pumps for three months. After all, the man still needed to crew his ships.

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1199: Pierre Basile, marksman

2 comments April 6th, 2010 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

If you kill a king, expect swift retribution.

Expect avengers.

Expect to not live long after you deal the final fatal blow to a royal personage.

A boy, Pierre Basile, was executed on this date in 1199 for shooting King Richard the Lionhearted* with an arrow expelled from his crossbow.

The wound wasn’t fatal to Richard I; the gangrene was. (French page) Although the king pardoned the boy for the shot before dying, Richard’s right hand man, French Provencal warrior Mercadier, would hear none of it. After the king’s death, Mercadier stormed Chateau de Chalus-Chabrol, defended weakly by Basile, then flayed him alive before hanging him.

Little is known of the boy defender. Also known as Bertran de Gurdun and John Sabroz (the various names suggest we’ll never know his real name), Basile was one of only two knights defending the castle against the king’s siege.

This castle protected the southern approach to Limoges and was betwixt routes from Paris and Spain and the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The English army openly mocked its defenses as the siege continued. The ramparts were cobbled together with makeshift armor. A shield was constructed out of a frying pan.

Knowing the castle would fall sooner than later, the English were lax in their siege, though eager for the riches inside. (Supposedly within the castle walls was a treasure trove of Roman gold.)

Richard I, as feudal overlord, claimed it for himself and no boy knights were going to get in his way. The king had been in the area suppressing a revolt by Viscount Aimar V of Limoges. The viscount’s forces had been decimated by the king’s army. The riches for the win lay in the castle and Basile stood atop it.

It was early evening, March 25, 1199, when Richard walked around the castle perimeter without his chainmail on. Arrows had been shot from the ramparts by Basile but were paid little attention. The king applauded when one arrow was aimed at him. The next arrow fired struck the king in the left shoulder near the neck.


Richard the Lionhearted, mortally wounded.

The king returned to the privacy of his tent to pull it out. He couldn’t. The surgeon Hoveden, Mercadier’s personal physician, was summoned. He removed the arrow, but not swiftly, or cleanly. Gangrene quickly set in. The king asked for the crossbowman. The boy, Basile, appeared before the stricken king, expecting to be executed on the spot. The boy spoke first, saying he had tried to kill Richard because the king had killed the boy’s father and two brothers.

“Live on,” the king replied, “and by my bounty behold the light of day.”

He ordered the boy set free and, further, sent him away with 100 shillings. Deliriously jubilant at the king’s decision, the boy quickly returned to the castle.

On April 6, in the arms of his mother, Richard I died. His remains were buried at the foot of the tower from which Basile shot the arrow.

And with the king died his chivalry towards Basile.

Mercadier, who had entered the king’s service in 1184 and fought in battles in Berry and Brittany, Flanders and Normandy, brought the castle’s defenders to a swift and punishing death.

Hanging the defenders, he took the boy and flayed him first — that is, he removed the boy’s skin while he was still alive. Then Pierre Basile was hung, and his body consigned in an unmarked grave.

* Last seen in these parts slaughtering Muslims on Crusade.

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1984: Elmo Patrick Sonnier, Dead Man Walking

27 comments April 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1984, Elmo Patrick Sonnier was electrocuted in Louisiana’s Angola Prison for abducting and murdering two teens in St. Martin Parish.*

Elmo and his brother Eddie posed as police officers and handcuffed two high schoolers parked at a local makeout point. Then they raped the girl, and shot both of them dead.

Both were given death sentences for the crime.

Eddie managed, as he said, to “give it back” on the grounds that Patrick was the one who did the shooting.

Once Eddie was clear of the death penalty, he tried to cop to the shooting after all, in order to save his little brother.

The appellate life of this case involved unedifying revisions of the “who shot whom” story. Ultimately, Eddie’s later claim to have been the triggerman, though quite possibly true, is not likely to win very much sympathy for his brother. It didn’t help him in the courts, either.

Just the 17th person executed since reinstatement of the death penalty, Sonnier learned that his longshot bid for clemency had been denied straight from the man who denied it — colorful, corrupt Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, who personally phoned Sonnier to give him the bad news.

Little did Sonnier know that he had equally famous company meeting him in his cell.

Sonnier was the first condemned inmate to receive the spiritual ministration of Sister Helen Prejean.

The then-obscure Louisiana nun would later write the bestseller Dead Man Walking about her experiences with Sonnier and a second death row prisoner, Robert Lee Willie. Prejean remains among the most well-known death penalty opponents in the world today.

While the book Dead Man Walking treats Sonnier and Willie in a nonfiction vein, the film adaptation (review) amalgamated those people into a single character, the fictional “Matthew Poncelet”. It’s apparent from the flashbacks in Dead Man Walking‘s execution scene, however, that Sonnier is the predominant influence on “Poncelet”.

Dead Man Walking is an interesting movie. Though its principals were all vocal death penalty opponents, the film itself is much better art than propaganda. Arguably, the doomed criminal attains a sort of personal redemption — finally admitting responsibility for a crime he had denied for much of the film; seeking the forgiveness of his victims’ surviving family — only because the death penalty awaits him.

The real-life Sister Helen. Her most recent book is The Death of Innocents:An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.

Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for Best Actress for her turn as Sister Helen. Note that while Sonnier was in fact put to death in the electric chair (as was Robert Lee Willie), director Tim Robbins opted to portray a lethal injection because, as Helen Prejean herself put it,

we don’t want to give people the moral out whereby people could say ‘oh well, we used to do electrocution but that’s too barbaric so now we are humane and inject them’

* The murder that led to this date’s execution took place in the same area where Willie Francis survived a trip to the electric chair: the very chair that killed Patrick Sonnier.

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1693: Anne Palles, the last witch executed in Denmark

Add comment April 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1693, fortified with a half-pot of wine provided at public expense, 74-year-old Anne Palles was beheaded and then burned as a sorceress — the last “witch” put to death in Danish history.

Palles got caught up in the usual way: an aged farmer’s wife misfortunate enough to be attached to a couple of incriminating coincidences. Nine-tenths of Denmark’s 1,000 or fewer executed witches were women, two-thirds of them over 50 years old. (Danish-language source.)

Palles was accused (Danish) by a “wise woman” who was herself trying to beat a rap for attempted murder with black magic.

Once that happened, it all started to make sense (more Danish): the sudden death of a woman her husband had once danced with; the poor production of cows passing a place where Palles had pissed.

Clap her in prison and twist her arm a little, and she’ll cop to having “given herself to the Devil, life and soul”, and rolled with an infernal familiar (a black cat: how trite) by the name of “Puus”.

Though you wouldn’t call a thousand executions a drop in the bucket, Denmark never really experienced the witches’ holocaust that occurred in some other European locales. A 1576 law* providing an automatic judicial appeal for sorcery condemnations is often credited for this happy-ish circumstance; in this case, Palles recanted her confession on appeal as torture-induced, and a divided high court in Copenhagen only confirmed the death sentence by an 11-6 vote. (Antonin Scalia writing for the majority.) Even her burning-alive sentence was moderated by the crown to beheading, followed by posthumous burning.

Everyone being a little uncomfortable with the case didn’t ultimately do Anne Palles much good. Another woman, Anne Kruse, had died in prison with her, and was posthumously burned at the stake; the woman who’d made the initial accusations was flogged … and Anne Palles had her head struck from her body and her remains burned to ashes as a witch.

But an era had passed with the cooling of those embers.

Just three years later, an outbreak of witch accusations — the “possessions of Thisted” — rocked northern Jutland. This case boomeranged on its accusers (we’ve seen that elsewhere in Scandinavia), and largely put a stop to witchcraft prosecutions … though the superstition that generated them would persist for quite some time longer.

After 1650 — and thus long before the official day of reckoning for witch-belief during ‘the possession of Thisted’ in 1696-98 — a marked drop in the numbers of witch-trials took place … and the Jutland High Court judges grew more and more sceptical. One of them, the Professor of Mathematics, Villum Lange [Danish bio], wrote to Peder Schumacher (the later Griffenfeldt) in 1670: ‘During the past few days we have had a crowd of women brought before us, accused of sorcery. We have condemned a number of them to the stake; but because they are so foolish and simple-minded we have recommended to the court that the case should first be brought before His Majesty for appeal … One of them confessed to us herself that she had talked with the devil; but whether it was melancholia or some other form of fantasy, or was the honest truth, God alone knows. To me she appeared to be a person in her second childhood.’ No wonder that rumours soon began to circulte that this High Court judge ‘was siding with the sorceresses and saying that no sorceresses existed.’ Towards the close of the century the common people were complaining that the Jutland High Court judges never condemned anyone to the stake any more, and tht was the reason for there being so many sorceresses in Jutland.

But it was only among the educated upper clases [sic] that attitudes were changing. Among ordinary folk the need for witch-trials continued to be felt far into the future, and when the authorities would no longer agree to her this type of case, people several times took the law into their own hands. In 1722 some pesants at Gronning on Salling lynched a witch by burning, and in 1800 the last murder of a witch occurred at Brigsted in the neighbourhood of Vejle.

Gustav Henningsen, “Witchcraft in Denmark”, Folklore, Vol. 93, No. 2 (1982), pp. 131-137

* The first of its kind in Europe. Two other legal ordinances from earlier in the 16th century restricted the use of torture to gain confessions and barred courts from crediting the accusations of other convicted witches, and they also helped constrain outbreaks of widespread persecutions. (Anne Palles’s case looks to have skated pretty close to the line on both of those counts.)

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1689: John Chiesly, for alimony

3 comments April 3rd, 2010 Headsman

Q. Why is divorce so expensive?
A. Because it’s worth it!

This date brings us a cautionary parable of the dangers of wedlock.

John Chiesly (or Chiesley, or Cheisly), an ill-tempered bloke with a wife he’d wished to put aside, had been ordered in arbitration to support her (and their 11-strong brood) to the tune of a £93 annuity.

Chiesly had a counteroffer to this liberal award: he shot dead the magistrate, Sir George Lockhart, the highest-ranking judicial officer in Scotland.* And he did it in broad daylight, making no attempt to fly.

“I have taught the President how to do justice,” Chiesly boasted as he was arrested.

That was on March 31, 1689.

On April 1, he was tried and convicted (torture was authorized “for discovering if ther were any accomplices, advysers, or assisters to him in that horrid and most inhumane act … yet the samen shall be no preparative or warrand to proceed to torture at any tyme hereafter, nor homologatione of what hes bein done at any tyme bypast”).

On April 3, he was drawn to execution at either Drumsheugh or at the Gallowlee, had the offending right hand cut off while still alive, then was hanged in chains with the murder weapon around his neck.

Then his spirit went on to haunt Dalry as “One-Armed Johnny,” until his remains were discovered and properly buried in 1965.

Still.

If you think this guy had relationship issues, consider the fate of his daughter, Rachel.

She inherited dad’s hot temper and took it to her own marriage.

When her husband tried to ditch her, the woman now known as Lady Grange stalked him so relentlessly that Lord Grange kidnapped her, faked her death, and held her secretly imprisoned in the Hebrides for 15 years. (More in this pdf)

Now that is an expensive divorce.

* Chiesly’s murder orphaned George Lockhart, later a notable anti-union politician; George’s brother Philip Lockhart was himself executed for the 1715 anti-Hanoverian Jacobite rising.

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Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews

25 comments April 2nd, 2010 Jeffrey Fisher

Images of the Crucifixion









(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

On Good Friday every year,* Christians around the world commemorate the death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, rabbi, prophet, Son of God, Son of Man, messiah, and all-around trouble-maker.

The truth is that very little is known of Jesus’ life and teachings from verifiable accounts, but this has not stopped generation after generation of Christians from telling his story, beginning with Jesus’ semi-official biographers, the evangelists of the New Testament. Almost everything we know about the life and teachings of the physical human being Jesus are in those writings, which do not portray him always in compatible ways, and which are almost entirely unconfirmed by any external source. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions (with disdain if not disgust) Jesus’ cult following, as does the Jewish historian and philosopher Josephus, but neither gives us anything to work with as historians (or, for that matter, as theologians). For the record, Suetonius and Pliny also talk about Christians, but these piecemeal sources tell us much more about Roman perceptions of Christians than about Christ and his teachings, or even necessarily Christian beliefs and practices.

What, then, can we reasonably say about Jesus?

It is almost impossible to find universal agreement around anything more than a few basics, including most importantly Jesus’ crucifixion. The Gospels narrate it; Paul the Apostle (who never met Jesus in the flesh, as it were) hangs his theology on it, together with the equally important resurrection; and no contemporary sources (Christian or otherwise) dispute it.

But it’s when we ask why Jesus was crucified that things start to get interesting.

What did he do? The two men he is traditionally said to have been crucified with are commonly understood to be “robbers,” but that they were common criminals is highly unlikely. Crucifixion is a horrible death designed to make a very public statement about the crucified, the sort of thing you use on gladiator-slave rebels like Spartacus, not on pickpockets and roustabouts. The Greek term used for these two men (lestai) is consistent with the description of the released Barabbas as one who had participated in rebellious activities, whose “criminality” was related to his revolutionary business. Moreover, the name “Barabbas” means literally “son of the father,” a purely symbolic and surely entirely fictional name, and that the people choose to have him released indicates their affinity for him as a thorn in the side of the Romans. He is thus contrasted with Jesus, the other son of the father, the peaceful (apocalyptic) revolutionary.

So Jesus would have been crucified as a political criminal, a rebel. This would make sense of accounts of his having been identified by the Romans as “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Anyone claiming to be king (and “son of God” was a Jewish way of talking about the king of Israel recorded clearly in Psalm 2), would, if taken seriously, be understood as challenging Roman authority.

Insofar as Jesus seems to have been deliberately poking the Romans’ local running dogs, the Sadducees and the Temple priests, his seizure and termination were surely inevitable. If his teaching is as opposed to violence and unconcerned with “politics” as it seems to have been, it’s hard to believe the Romans would have noticed him without some prodding, this coming not from the “crowd,” but from the leadership (who in Mark and Matthew incite the crowd). Indeed, the priests and scribes look for ways to arrest him when the crowds are not around, because they fear a riot.

If we take the Gospel of Mark at all seriously, Jesus was preaching a new kingdom of God, an apocalyptic redemption of the people of the earth by God’s direct intervention (and with Jesus as the sacrificial pesach lamb). If we take the Gospel of Luke seriously, Jesus spoke in a classic prophetic mode, calling people — Jew and Gentile both — to care for the oppressed of the earth, the poor and the hungry and the helpless. Both Jesuses called for people to be better to each other, to love each other, and indeed to love each other when love was, according to common sense, the foolish thing.

Why would this get you executed?

Well, in itself, it wouldn’t. But the Gospel of Mark tells us of Jesus speaking with a man who realizes that all the animal sacrifices in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans (in that crazy world). When love counts more than sacrifice, we are undermining the Temple. When we go into the Temple, start knocking things over, and say it’s become about robbing the poor and not about loving God and one’s neighbor, we are undermining the Temple. And to undermine the Temple’s authority is also to undermine Rome’s authority, and Rome’s cash flow.

Jesus, like the Essenes he may or may not have associated with, was a purist.

The Temple was full of collaborators and exploiters, the kind seen before in the history of Israel (and berated by prophets like Isaiah and Amos), the kind hated also by the Dead Sea community of apocalyptic purists awaiting a final showdown between God and evil (i.e., the Roman Empire and their local potentates, the Temple authorities).

Jesus, like other Jewish prophets before him, thought that Judaism was about something. That it was somehow about justice and not just about following rules or waiting around for things to get better: that it was about our making the world a better place, and not just making our own lives better.

Start talking that way and get people on your side, and you’re fairly likely to get killed, even twenty centuries later.

* Though the actual date (even the year) of the execution marked by the movable feast of Good Friday is fundamentally unknowable, there are some present-day astronomer types who’d like to sell you April 3, 33 A.D.

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1965: John Harris, white anti-apartheid martyr

3 comments April 1st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1965, John Harris hanged in Pretoria Central Prison for an anti-apartheid bombing: the first and only white person put to death for political crimes in apartheid South Africa.

An idealistic young teacher, Harris planted a bomb in a whites-only section of Johannesburg’s Park Station, intending to demonstrate that whites, too, opposed racial segregation. But the bomb threat he phoned in was not acted upon, and the symbolic device killed a 77-year-old woman and badly burned many others.

5.30 am was the time set for the execution. We were all awake, thinking of John. Not long afterwards the phone rang. Ad Hain answered. The voice said: “Your John is dead.” She recognised the voice as one of the Special Branch men’s.

-John Harris’s widow’s testimony to the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission

His death (reportedly with “We Shall Overcome” on his lips) earned affecting tribute and flattering comparisons from his black countrymen.

Mr. Harris, a teacher and a member of the Liberal Party since 1960, is one of those few courageous White men in South Africa who believed passionately in racial equality, identified himself with the oppressed people and suffered persecution. His passport was seized in 1963. He was served with banning orders in February 1964 preventing him from continuing his work with the Liberal Party and the Non-racial Olympic Committee.

Like many others, he became convinced that there was no way left to influence the situation except by clandestine activity. When most of his colleagues in the underground organization, the African Resistance Movement, were jailed or fled the country, he tried to plan a spectacular demonstration. He placed a bomb in the Johannesburg station and telephoned the police so that the area would be cleared. The police did not act promptly and an elderly lady lost her life as a result of the explosion.

Under the prevailing circumstances in South Africa, the means of struggle are for the liberation movement to decide in the light of the conditions in the country.

The responsibility for the consequences lies very much on the rulers of Pretoria who, in defiance of the world and all sense of decency, created a situation which left no other alternative to decent people than to engage in violence.

In mourning the execution of Mr. Frederick John Harris, let me say that it will not be forgotten that in the struggle of the South African people this man, a member of the privileged group, gave his life because of his passionate belief in racial equality. This will serve to strengthen the faith of all those who fight against the danger of a “race war” and retain their faith that all human beings can live together in dignity irrespective of the colour of their skin.

I have recently received a message sent by him from his death cell in Pretoria Central Prison in January. He wrote:

“The support and warm sympathy of friends has been and is among my basic reinforcements. I daily appreciate the accuracy of the observation that when one really has to endure one relies ultimately on Reason and Courage. I’ve been fortunate in that the first has stood up — my ideals and beliefs have never faltered. As for the second, well, I’m not ashamed — I know I’ve shown at least a modicum of the second. ”

When I think of John Harris, the first White martyr in the cause of equality in South Africa, I am reminded powerfully of a great White American, a man who gave his life over a century ago — on December 2, 1859, to be exact — because of his passionate hatred of slavery: I mean John Brown.

People said then that John Brown was eccentric, that he was unwise in attacking the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and that his act would only strengthen the slave lords.

History has made a very different judgement. Whether the particular act of John Brown was right or wrong, wise or unwise, his cause was right and invincible.

-1965 statement on this date’s hanging by Achkar Marof

Harris’s conviction was secured with the states-evidence turn of one of his compatriots in the white anti-apartheid African Resistance Movement. For this betrayal, John Lloyd earned his freedom and had already moved to England by the time Harris was executed.

Lloyd built a public service life of his own in the UK. However, his bid for parliament on the Labour ticket in the 1990s was scotched when public exposure of his past (as (a) a leftist terrorist; and (b) a betrayer of his fellow-leftists) brought him more baggage than one man can tote in a general election.

Harris’s rough treatment under arrest also continues to haunt his former interrogators in South Africa.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Murder,South Africa,Terrorists

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1856: William Bousfield, Calcraft’d

4 comments March 31st, 2010 Headsman

Until the very end of public hanging in 1868 and thereafter in prisons, hangmen were unreliable executioners…

In nearly every year the grim chronicle of bungled executions and lackadaisical hangmen was extended … [William] Calcraft the hangman simply miscalculated the drops required to effect a speedy death. In office since 1829, Calcraft was ‘a mild-mannered man of simple tastes, much given to angling in the New River, and a devoted rabbit fancier’. Nice to rabbits, he had a casual way with people. He hanged them like dogs, it was said. Another dismal apotheosis was reached in the Newgate execution of William Bousfield in 1856. The night before his execution Bousfield* tried to kill himself in his condemned cell by throwing himself into the fire; next morning [March 31, 1856] he had to be carried to the scaffold swathed in bandages. Calcraft was nervous; he had received a letter threatening his assassination. He pulled the bolt to let the drop fall and disappeared hastily into the prison. Astonishingly, Bousfield drew himself up and lodged his feet on the side of the drop. Pushed off by a turnkey, he again found the side of the drop; and yet again. He was defeated only when Calcraft was summoned back to drag on his legs and ‘the strangulation was completed’. In front of an angry crowd, Bousfield gurgled his way to death as church bells rang to celebrate the end of the Crimean War.

After this debacle, they started pinioning the prisoners’ legs to prevent them getting a foothold on the scaffold, removing any hope of preservation to the inscrutable hand of Providence.

* Charles Dickens scribbled a few rambling thoughts on the subject of Bousfield’s trial.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions

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