On this date in 1964, three officers were executed in Bhutan, including former deputy commander in chief Namgyal Bahadur, for assassinating Prime Minister Jigme Dorji.
A member of the powerful Dorji family and brother-in-law to the Bhutanese king, Dorji was overseeing a modernization campaign for the insular Himalayan kingdom. On April 5, 1964, while the king was in Europe for medical treatment, Dorji was shot dead while relaxing on his veranda. No wholesale seizure of power was attempted.
The assassin, one Zambay,* was caught within days, and he implicated a number of powerful people — including not only Namgyal Bahadur, but the king’s Tibetan mistress.
She eventually fled the country, though her alleged involvement fueled rumors of a Chinese connection, or (more plausibly) of palace politics between her faction that that of the rival Dorjis. Old guard military guys versus the modernizers is another hypothetical dimension, although again the specifics (why now? what was the last straw?) are wanting.
On this date in 1920, the Cheka shot famed female soldier Maria Bochkareva (or Botchkareva).
The “Russian Joan of Arc” was a peasant woman from Novgorod by way of Siberia.
She’d been in the workforce since the age of eight, and had passed almost continuously through abusive male relationships (violently drunken father, marriages to two wife-batterers). She’d also in that time shown herself a natural leader, and become a construction foreman.
It seems the great war came for Bochkareva as a liberating, almost redemptive, force: at least, that is the conclusion of hindsight.
In her memoir Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile and Soldier (freely available here), she recalls the spirit of patriotism that swept Russians into war, just as it did German and French and British youths.
a gigantic wave of popular enthusiasm, sweeping the steppes, valleys, and forests of vast Russia, from Petrograd and Moscow, across the Ural mountains and Siberia, to the borders of China, and the Pacific coast.
There was something sublime about the nation’s response. Old men, who had fought in the Crimean War, in the Turkish Campaign of 1877-78, and the Russo-Japanese War, declared that they never saw such exaltation of spirit. It was a glorious, inspiring, unforgettable moment in one’s life. My soul was deeply stirred, and I had a dim realization of a new world coming to life, a purer, a happier and a holier world.
“Go to war to help save the country!” a voice within me called.
This dovetailed nicely (we do not say insincerely) with Bochkareva’s own striving for a more meaningful life than was on offer in her second marriage.
To leave Yasha for my personal comfort and safety was almost unthinkable. But to leave him for the field of unselfish sacrifice, that was a different matter. And the thought of going to war penetrated deeper and deeper into my whole being, giving me no rest.
Bochkareva appealed directly to the tsar and secured his personal permission to enlist. She earned several decorations for heroism in the tsarist army … and when the Romanovs fell, the pre-Bolshevik revolutionary government under Alexander Keresnky gave her permission to create an all-female formation: the Women’s Battalion of Death.
(“Of Death” was a bombastic cognomen any unit could receive by pledging never to surrender.)
“Come with us in the name of your fallen heroes,” Bochkareva implored in an appeal to Russian women in June 1917. “Come with us to dry the tears and heal the wounds of Russia. Protect her with yours lives. We women are turning into tigresses to protect our children from a shameful yoke — to protect the freedom of our country.”
Maria Bochkareva, center, supervises shooing practice. (Source)
Some 2,000 answered the summons.
Only around 300 of these could withstand Bochkareva’s iron discipline, and though other women’s battalions would follow (one, for instance, defended the Winter Palace against the Bolsheviks), only Bochkareva’s saw service on the front.
The Women’s Battalion at a Moscow ceremony in the summer of 1917.
Although amenable to Kerensky’s Provisional Government, Bochkareva was an unmitigated anti-Bolshevik.
According to her memoirs, her “tigresses” continued fighting while the rest of the front was fraternizing, and enraged her male comrades by drawing artillery fire. She had to flee male soldiers intent on lynching her when she was still fighting after peace was announced. She had a hard time getting used to the idea of the new Soviet government, and the feeling was mutual: her battalion was soon disbanded and it wasn’t long before she took a steamship into exile.
(Her memoirs contain a harrowing account of her once being detained as a counterrevolutionary and barely avoiding execution.)
That memoir of Bochkareva’s was dictated in New York in 1918, just a few months since she had been in the trenches facing the Kaiser. Clearly she did not believe her mission to “heal the wounds of Russia” had been accomplished, for it was her attempt to return to the fight against the Bolsheviks that doomed her: in spring 1919, she went to the Russian Urals during the civil war to try to form a women’s unit under the White Admiral Kolchak.
But she was captured by the Reds inside of a year, and sentenced as an enemy of the people.
There’s an interesting open-access academic article about Bochkareva and the woman-soldier phenomenon here, as well as a larger bibliography here.
Whether that’s specifically true in Alimohammadi’s case is arguably a bit harder to judge, since he was not directly involved in Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s western opponents have speculated that Tehran itself murdered him because he was a (low-key) supporter of the country’s opposition who in death could serve as an official martyr.
That would be awfully convenient: official martyrs come cheap but Iran doesn’t exactly have a limitless supply of particle physicists.
Accurately or not, Fashi confessed to carrying out Alimohammadi’s assassination, claiming that he was recruited, paid, and trained by the Mossad for the job.
On this date in 1917, Romanian Lieutenant Emil Rebreanu was hanged for attempted desertion by the Austro-Hungarian army.
Here’s Rebreanu’s entry at the Enciclopedia Romaniei, which says in brief that he was one of 14 (!) brothers born in the part of present-day Romania that was then attached to the Kingdom of Hungary.
Upon the outbreak of World War I, Rebreanu was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian forces and fought on several fronts. But his removal to the lines to fight against the independent Romanian state was a front too far: he attempted to cross the lines to the Romanians on the night of May 10-11, but was captured, court-martialed, and sentenced to hang.
However, tragedy for the sizable Rebreanu family was a boon to world literature.
One of Emil’s many brothers was author Liviu Rebreanu, one of the greats of Romanian letters.
The latter’s 1922 novel Forest of the Hanged clearly draws upon his brother’s fate: in Forest, a Romanian officer uneasily serving in the Habsburg army first condemns a Czech deserter to death as part of a tribunal, then attempts himself to desert to Romania.
Further to that body’s sanguinary campaign against papal political domination, they authored an attempted kidnapping and/or assassination of the Vatican’s Romagna enforcer, Cardinal Rivarola. Rivarola had recently issued mass condemnations against carbonari.
Which is very nice. But they didn’t get the Cardinal.
Ubiquitous 19th century papal executioner Mastro Titta conducted the executions — the 266th through 269th of his career (he’d also done Gaetano Montanari’s better-known brother Leonida three years before) — and devoted a chapter of his memoirs to the occasion. You can call the carbonari terrorists if you wish, but the Ravenna populace’s fearsomely cinematic display of solidarity with the doomed makes eloquent historical testimony on their behalf.
The execution took place on May 13 on a large square in Ravenna, occupied by the military so that nobody could not approach the gallows other than the executioners, the soldiers, and the prisoners. The windows and doors of the city and the shops were all closed and many were hung with black. Not a person was seen on the streets. Ravenna seemed transformed into a necropolis. All attempts to convert them were vigorously rejected by the prisoners, who did not want confession nor religious comforters, and protested against the accompaniment of two friars ordered by the Cardinal.** The wagon crossed streets deserted and silent, all surrounded by soldiers on foot and horseback riding at a brisk trot. Arrived at the foot of the gallows, the condemned went down with a firm step, and one by one they boldly climbed the stairs of the gallows, and before the gallows clutching their necks shouted in a voice strong and fearless:
– Viva Italia! Down with the papacy!
The execution was conducted rapidly. I departed with my aide that night under guard, because it was rumored that the conspirators wanted to skin us.
* It appears to me — although it’s not completely clear from what I’ve seen — that a fifth man, a Jewish poisoner named Abramo Isacco Forti (aka “Machino”), was also executed in this group, for collaborating with the carbonari on a different murder. He’s listed on Titta’s roster of victims without date or explanation, but specifically named in, e.g., this Italian book’s roster of death sentences handed out by that same court.
On this date in 1388, James Berners, John Beauchamp, and John Salisbury were convicted by the “Merciless Parliament” of treason, and put to immediate death.
You could say that relations between the branches of government were a bit on the frayed side, since crown and parliament had civil war for political primacy. Parliament won.
It just wasn’t quite one of those all-out, kill-you-when-we’re-done wars to depose the king outright. (That would come later.) “We do not rebel or arm ourselves against the King except in order to instruct him,” one of the rebelling Lord Appellant told His Majesty.
“Instructing” Richard II meant politically isolating him and then mercilessly — hence the resulting parliament’s name — attainting his aides and allies for treason.
So all that spring, young Richard II helplessly “presided” over a parliament where his supporters were condemned on trumped-up charges.
This date was the turn for Sir John Beauchamp of Holt and Sir James Berners (or Barnes), two guys noble enough to suffer “merely” beheading, plus Sir John Salisbury, who was far enough down England’s class hierarchy that he got to endure the full drawing and quartering treatment.
Berners may have been the father of a 15th century prioress and author, Juliana Berners.
This woman wasn’t the type to keep to her cloister and meditate: Berners wrote books on her vigorous pastimes of heraldry, hunting, and hawking. Her Treatise of Fishing with an Angle remains one of the seminal books for the sport of angling.
Thousands were arrested, and brutally tortured into betraying their comrades. While most weren’t put to death, Roozbeh was both a true militant — he opposed moderates’ attempt to make common cause with the liberal Mossadegh government that the Shah had deposed — and the organizer of a network of military infiltrators. The British embassy called him the “Red Pimpernel” for his uncanny talent for slipping traps and getting about in disguise. But that act never has a long shelf-life.
Roozbeh was finally winged in a 1957 shootout and taken into custody, where he was tortured into his own confessions (e.g., that he had assassinated Tudeh members who were too willing about their police collaboration). After spending his last night on this planet putting NaNoWriMo to shame by cranking out a 70-page political manifesto, he’s supposed to have met his executioners defiant to the last, refusing a blindfold and crying “Long Live the Tudeh Party of Iran! Long Live Communism! Fire!”
But the volley that silenced Roozbeh’s cry can be seen in retrospect to mark the definitive elimination of communism from Iran’s political stage, the piece de resistance for SAVAK’s campaign of suppression.
After Roozbeh, Tudeh slipped into irrelevancy (Spanish link) … leaving little but the outsized myth of its most renowned martyr.
The two of them weren’t connected to one another save in their common support for expelling the British from the Mediterranean island and reuniting it to the Greek mainland. It was a longtime, long-frustrated Hellenic dream.
Great Britain, even while the death penalty was eroding domestically, spurned international appeals for clemency — the Greek government made history by filing the first state-vs.-state petition to the European Commission of Human Rights a few days before the execution — reckoning that its credibility as a hard line against terrorism was at stake.
In Nicosia, where the hangings took place, schools were shuttered, armed paratroopers patrolled streets barred to traffic, and newspapers operated under a censor’s requirement not to inflame the populace.
In Athens, beyond the reach of the crown, the soundness of this policy was unpleasantly confirmed. Seven deaths and hundreds of injuries resulted from the ensuing brickbats with police. (The mayor of Athens personally smashed up a tributary plaque to Queen Elizabeth II.) And in retaliation, the EOKA subsequently executed two British soldiers it had captured, Gordon Hill and Ronnie Shilton … although British skepticism over this claim required an additional statement clarifying the matter.
On this date in 1474, Peter von Hagenbach was tried in a remarkable judicial proceeding in the Rhine city of Breisach, found guilty, and publicly beheaded by the end of the day.
This Alsatian knight in the train of Charles the Bold had been installed by that Burgundian duke as his satrap in in the Upper Rhine, in lands that Burgundy held on lease from the Habsburgs.
He made a legendary villain of himself in the early 1470s:
His regime of arbitrariness and terror extended to murder, rape, illegal taxation and wanton confiscation of pivate property, and the victim[s] of his depredations included inhabitants of neighbouring territories as well as Swiss merchants on their way to and from the Frankfurt fair … the outrages of Hagenbach, remarkable even by the standards of the late fifteenth century, greatly contributed to forging what, until then, had been considered impossible, that is, alliances against Burgundy by all her neighbours: Austria, Berne, France, and the towns and knights of the Upper Rhine, all formerly at loggerheads with one another.
After overturning Burgundian authority in the Upper Rhine, that unique alliance aired its many grievances with Hagenbach at a unique tribunal. There, the ex-knight was prosecuted before judges drawn from the several Germanic and Swiss principalities who had allied against him.
Breisach: seems like a nice place to oppress. (cc) image from Routard5.
This unusual procedure gained a special prominence in the 20th century postwar era as historical precedent for “war crimes” prosecutions. Since that time, there’s been a going debate over just what kind of precedent it really makes.
Gordon wrote a 2012 paper re-examining the Hagenbach case attempting to reconcile both the legal and historiographical perspectives on Peter von Hagenbach.
ET: You characterize the present-day understanding of the Hagenbach case as proceeding from Georg Schwarzenberger‘s recovery of the incident further to providing legitimizing precedent for the Nuremberg tribunals. Between 1474 and World War II, did anyone think of this case as one with a wider import for jurisprudence? (And if not, do we know anything about how Schwarzenberger unearthed it?)
GG: To the extent anyone did, from my research, it would have been historians, not jurists per se. Hagenbach was the object of a fair amount of historical scholarship but that had evolved over the years. In the initial period after the trial, Hagenbach was portrayed as the quintessential bogeyman. But over the centuries, historians began to view him in a different light. By 1945, a more nuanced view of Hagenbach had been established. I have not researched Schwarzenberger’s biography in great detail. So I’m not sure how his eureka moment arose. What is clear is that the Nuremberg trial caused him to focus on Hagenbach (my sense is that Hagenbach was fairly well known in Europe — his supposed mummified head was on display in an Upper Alsace museum, for example — but given the absence of anything resembling Nuremberg before Nuremberg, people tended to ignore the details of the Hagenbach legal proceedings).
And my sense is that Schwarzenberger had an agenda — he realized the case could help legitimize what many would claim to be illegitimate ex post facto law at Nuremberg. So he relied on the earlier historical accounts of the Hagenbach case (it seems he based his seminal Manchester Guardian article primarily on the account of French historian Prosper de Barante). And thus he created a fissure between legal scholars and contemporary historians.
Who tried Hagenbach, under what authority, and how were the different interested parties formally represented? Whose idea was all this? What can we tell of the public atmosphere surrounding the trial — was there bottom-up pressure to do this?
After the League of Constance (consisting of various regional polities fed up with Hagenbach) paid off his debt for him, Archduke Sigismund of Austria resumed control over the Upper Alsace territory mortgaged to Charles the Bold. And thus Sigismund made the decision to have Hagenbach tried by the international ad hoc tribunal (another inexplicable link in the chain: Hagenbach escaped lynch-mob justice on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1474 — only thanks to Breisach resident Friedrich Kappelar’s decision to arrest him and await instructions from Sigismund).
Sigismund’s decision to convene an ad hoc international tribunal was utterly remarkable for the time. And it is not clear how or why Sigismund came up with it (although historians suggest it had something to do with the prominent position Hagenbach held as representative of the Duke of Burgundy).
Numerous representatives of sovereigns from around the region, twenty-eight in all — including sixteen knights, sat as part of this international ad hoc tribunal.
Eight of the judges were nominated by Breisach, and two by each of the other allied Alsatian and Upper Rhenanian towns [Strasbourg, Sélestat, Colmar, Basel, Thann, Kenzingen, Neuburg am Rhein, and Freiburg im Breisgau] as well as by Berne, a member of the Swiss Confederation, and Solothurn, allied with Berne.
In fact, each sovereign represented a member of the League of Constance (Berne being the only representative of the Swiss cantons).
Thomas Schutz, the chief magistrate of Ensisheim, was designated as the tribunal’s presiding judge. The nominal trial prosecutuor was the new Alsatian bailiff chosen by Sigismund to replace Hagenbach — Hermann von Eptingen. Eptingen, for his part, chose Heinrich Iselin, one of the commissioners from Basel (one of the League of Constance’s members), to present the prosecution’s case to the court. The other representative from Basel, Hans Irmy, took on Hagenbach’s representation. At some point later in the trial, Iselin resigned because, as the evidence came in, he felt the case lacked merit (and even made a motion to withdraw the charges). He was then replaced by Hildebrand Rasp. Hagenbach also requested additional attorneys and the tribunal assigned him two attorneys — one from Colmar and one from Selestat.
The trial was held in open air before the Breisach mayor’s residence and was attended by “a multitude” of people from Breisach and surrounding towns. It appears as if it were somewhat of a circus atmosphere.
Is there a degree to which the pre-modern characteristics of the belligerents — Burgundian duchies, Swiss cantons, the Holy Roman Empire patchwork — set a contradictory precedent for the postwar world?
Let me quote my paper:
Nothing in history leading up to that moment in 1474 would have suggested the remarkable course of action taken by Sigismund. It is tempting to see that decision as an historic anomaly that would not be repeated for centuries to come. But on closer inspection, Sigismund’s choice to hold a trial before an international court fits well within the historical narrative of that era.
It was a time of religious and political disintegration. The Holy Roman Empire was fading into irrelevance and the Catholic Church was on the verge of losing its European hegemony. It was the eve of the nation-state — a unique moment when the old collective structures were dying and the new ones had yet to be born. Given the interstitial political turbulence, the time was ripe for a plural approach to law enforcement in the cosmopolitan geographic center of Europe. Hagenbach’s inter-regional depredations, which helped forge a rare pan-Germanic consensus, provided the perfect forum to experiment with international justice during that fragmented time. The Westphalian order, already on the horizon, would foreclose any such future experiments until Nazi brutality put a chink in the Westphalian armor and inspired an unprecedented transnational justice operation in the wake of a truly global war. In that sense, although on much different scales, Breisach and Nuremberg have much in common. And should the nation-state ever manage to reassert its absolute supremacy again, Breisach will undoubtedly be on the lips of future international jurists seeking, as before, to end impunity at the expense of sovereignty.
You discuss a revisionist thesis about Hagenbach that essentially says he wasn’t a monster, and even that he was a forward-thinking but star-crossed reformer. Why do you think that we can, in fact, conclude that there’s something to the claim that Hagenbach was tyrannous or criminal? What do you consider the most credible charges, and the ones that to his judges would have distinguished Hagenbach from a run-of-the-mill brutal lord or military commander?
What evidence supports the view that the good burghers of Alsace were the victims of Sir Peter’s violence? Their treatment of the wayward knight after his arrest is most revealing in this regard.
While torture may have been commonplace in ordinary criminal inquisitions of the time, the severity of torment inflicted leads one to believe it was inspired by and directed at the kind of mass, depraved criminality of which Hagenbach has traditionally been accused. Significantly, in this regard, in addition to enduring horrific torture, he was stripped of his knighthood. Degradation of knighthood was exceedingly rare in the Middle Ages and reserved only for the most extreme and infamous crimes.
And there is other evidence to suggest Hagenbach’s culpability for atrocities. Most telling perhaps is the trial record itself.
Hans Irmy, it must be remembered, mounted a valiant and spirited defense to the very end. And yet the record does not reveal his even attempting to refute the charge that Hagenbach planned to exterminate the citizens of Breisach or that he murdered the four petitioning residents of Thann. At most, he offered the rejected defense of superior orders. Nor did Irmy (or Hagenbach, for that matter), directly deny the rape charges (merely objecting that taking women in this fashion was common practice and/or he had paid for services rendered). Rape, as opposed to murder, appears to have been Hagenbach’s preferred weapon of terror and atrocity.
And there is a plausible explanation for why Hagenbach would have wanted to murder the citizens of Breisach.
Hagenbach was aware of other towns that had plotted to kill him during the previous year and, when requesting entry to create defensive fortifications in anticipation of an attack by the League of Constance, he had already been denied admittance with his troops into Thann and Ensisheim. He was only able to gain entry into Breisach because his mercenaries were already present there. Given the animosity shown him in these other towns and the previous conspiracy to kill him, Hagenbach did not want to take any chances. Killing Breisach’s citizens would have permitted him to use the town as a defensive fortification without the risk of an uprising from its citizens.
Did Hagenbach slaughter thousands of innocent civilians in concentrated liquidation campaigns? There is no evidence to suggest he did — he was not a fifteenth century proto-Nazi. But the record suggests that he terrorized the local population by murdering civilians, raping numerous women and conspiring to commit a large-scale massacre in Breisach. It should be noted that the rape charges are the most persuasive as there are numerous examples and they were never directly refuted.
And Hagenbach’s back story further validates this view of him. He was the product of a Burgundian ducal culture that was steeped in and glorified violence — the reflection of its bellicose chief, Charles the Bold (known to his enemies as Charles the Terrible). The duchy was in almost a permanent state of war with one enemy or another during Charles’s reign. Charles the Bold’s Burgundy was in the practice of laying siege to towns and routinely killing civilians who resisted — Liege, Dinant, Neuss — all were subjected to horrific violence by Burgundian troops, and Hagenbach played a leading role in the first two. And within that violent culture, Hagenbach was Charles’s fiercest, most loyal lieutenant. In that regard, Sir Peter’s steadfast reliance on superior orders at trial speaks volumes.
And it is not to be overlooked that a criminal disposition was apparent even before Hagenbach cast his lot with Charles the Bold. The reported kidnapping of Marquard Baldeck, the Swiss banker for whom Hagenbach demanded ransom, is telling in that regard. As noted previously, Hagenbach supposedly demanded ransom from Baldeck’s family and the scheme was scuttled only when Philip the Good ordered Baldeck released without any extortion payment. Hagenbach also seems to have fabricated a murder plot against Charles the Bold, which he falsely pinned on a court rival to have him eliminated.
Add to this Hagenbach’s contempt for the emerging bourgeoisie and townspeople, as well as a deep animosity toward the Swiss, and his stewardship of the Upper Rhine represented the perfect storm. By 1474, he had indeed become the scourge of the Sundgau. In this regard, it is interesting to note Burgundy expert Richard Vaughan’s insight that, in fact, it may have been Hagenbach driving policy and tactics in Charles’s Alsatian territory, not the other way around:
Many of Hagenbach’s activities were undertaken at [Charles’s] express command, though often as a result of representations made to him by Hagenbach in the first place. It is possible, for example, that Charles only agreed to sign the treaty of St. Omer on Hagenbach’s persuasion. In the duke’s letters to Hagenbach of 8 August 1470 he orders him to undertake the siege and conquest of Ortenberg castle, ‘in accordance with your memorandum (advertissement)’, which seems to imply that Charles was here acting on detailed advice to take Ortenberg sent him by Hagenbach. As to other mortgaged places, the bailiff wrote to Charles describing how he had seized possession of Landser and seeking the duke’s approval, which was given on 6 January 1474. . . . On 26 December 1470 he wrote congratulating Hagenbach on taking Ortenberg . . .”
Finally, it should be pointed out that Hagenbach may be responsible for atrocities in the region, even if he personally did not commit or order or was unaware of all of them. In particular, the Picard and Wallon mercenaries he hired toward the end of his reign had a well-known reputation for being unruly, violent and hostile toward the local Alsatian population. French historian Emile Paul Toutey, for example, describes Picard soldiers engaging in mass rape of Breisach’s women toward the very end of 1473. These troops may have acted on their own initiative but Hagenbach was their superior and, at the very least, he bore command responsibility. And this may also have contributed toward the writing of Hagenbach’s black legend.
Did the Hagenbach case, in your opinion, actually break new legal ground relative to what had occurred up through 1473? Does it have any analogues you’re aware of over the next century or two, prior to the advent of the Westphalian system?
In my opinion, nothing in the historical record up through 1473 suggests the possibility (certainly not the likelihood!) of what actually took place in 1474.
Eminent German historian Hermann Heimpel does note that the contemplated trial was consistent with other legal actions in late fifteenth century Swabia. What must have seemed entirely unprecedented, though, was the make-up of the court that would sit in judgment of Peter von Hagenbach. He was not to be tried by a local judge. Instead, numerous representatives of sovereigns from around the region, twenty-eight in all — including sixteen knights — would sit as part of an international ad hoc tribunal. Nothing after this, until the Versailles Treaty’s Article 227 contemplated international ad hoc tribunal trial of Kaiser Wilhelm II post-World War I (which never took place since the Dutch refused to extradite), even suggested such a procedure.
Hagenbach tried to raise a “superior orders” type of defense, claiming that Charles the Bold had ordered him to do the nasty things that were imputed to him. The dismissal of this defense does sound pretty modern, but was it mere expedience on the part of the court since it had no way to compel evidence from Charles the Bold?
That’s a great question! I don’t think so. Why? Because Hans Irmy asked for a trial continuance to contact Charles the Bold to appear before the tribunal and corroborate Hagenbach’s claims of superior orders. The tribunal flatly denied the motion for continuance. There was not even an attempt to contact the Duke of Burgundy. Like the decision to try Hagenbach before an ad hoc international tribunal, the decision to deny the motion (and flatly reject the defense) seems nothing other than ground-breaking. In short, it was an epochal precedent.
What interpretive conflicts does this case raise for you when considering it as a legal scholar, versus as a historian? How do you think people today should understand Peter von Hagenbach’s prosecution?
Again, I quote from my paper:
My piece attempts to identify and resolve certain vertical and horizontal dissonances in Hagenbach scholarship. With respect to the former, this has amounted to an exercise in historiographic and historical archeology. The recent attention lavished on the case by international criminal law (ICL) experts is informed by a cartoonish conception of the defendant — an ultra-violent, sexually depraved monster who ran amok for years along the Upper Rhine and terrorized its population. Consistent with that interpretation, the authorities who captured and tried him engaged in a righteous and visionary justice enterprise. They came out on the winning side of a Manichean struggle that gave birth to ICL and ennobled its pedigree.
Digging deeper, though, one finds a very different narrative developed initially by nineteenth century historians and embraced by most of their twentieth century confreres. They saw Hagenbach as a would-be administrative reformer whose efforts were thwarted by xenophobic subjects and a parsimonious superior. In trying to transform a fragmented archipelago of city-states into a cohesive governmental entity, Hagenbach was despised because he threatened an ingrained culture of seigneurial privilege and parochial complacency. In his efforts to redeem property put in hock by Sigismund, he likely reinforced views of Burgundy as excessively acquisitive and bent on conquest (this was exacerbated by Charles’s own efforts to accede to the imperial throne). And in levying taxes to pay for good government, Hagenbach stoked local fears of financial servitude and ruin. But in doing the Duke’s bidding, he did not have the Duke’s support. And so he was left to flounder, his undoing hastened by his admitted crass and prurient behavior. They point out that his trial, a marketplace spectacle based on torture-extracted confessions, was little more than drumhead justice. It was akin to executing Charles the Bold in effigy. Peter von Hagenbach may not have been the most adroit governor and perhaps he did manifest contempt for the rising merchant and urban classes. But, the revisionists would contend, his final deserts were not just at all.
Digging deeper still, the bottom layer of historiography consists of the journalistic rough draft and the first generations of historians that followed. It is largely consistent with the modern ICL expert view but without the larger historical perspective and legal focus. And it is more regionally tinged and archaic. This layer is at once more reliable, given its comtemporaneity or relative proximity, and less reliable, given the inherent biases of its initial chroniclers and the disproportionate influence they exerted on sixteenth through eighteenth century historians.
But my piece demonstrates that each layer is not necessarily inconsistent with the others. In fact, there are many points of convergence. And it is there that a unified, coherent narrative can be stitched together. Hagenbach was coarse and confrontational. But he was also hardworking and loyal and wanted to do right by his master. His entire career had been built on pleasing Charles the Bold. He undoubtedly meant to reform and upgrade the administration of his Alsatian fiefdom. And consequently resentment of the bailiff grew over the years as he pushed while the Alsatians pulled. Hostilities boiled over in 1473 and matters came to a head in 1474. Charles’s loyal lieutenant with a criminal past and odd sexual predilections felt increasingly boxed in and he eventually lashed out. The almost exclusive procedural focus of his defense at trial strongly supports accounts of the resulting crime spree.
It should also be noted that modern Hagenbach scholarship is characterized by a certain horizontal dissonance as well — between jurists and historians. Given the historical points of convergence just noted, however, these two schools ought to find common ground too. Certain views of the revisionist historians concerning the Hagenbach judicial proceedings are not without merit. The Breisach ad hoc tribunal may not have been a kangaroo court but it bears no resemblance to the well-oiled machine of modern international criminal justice administration. The defendant was hideously tortured for days before the trial. He was given no notice of the charges or allegations against him in advance of the hearing. He had no time to speak with a lawyer before standing in front of the judges. The proceeding itself was held on a market square in a circus atmosphere and concluded within a matter of hours. He was not able to call his most important (and only) witness to the stand – Charles the Bold. And there is no indication of a high burden of proof or that any such burden even rested with the prosecution. The Breisach Trial was certainly not the paragon of due process.
On the other hand, this was the late Middle Ages — centuries removed from our modern notions of due process. Torture was part of standard pre-trial procedure at that time. And the trial itself seems relatively fair for that era. Hagenbach was represented by a zealous advocate in Hans Irmy and he was given two additional lawyers of his choice. There is as well a flip side to the “public spectacle” aspect of his trial — transparency. Hagenbach could have been summarily condemned in front of a secretive Star Chamber but his trial was held in public (and that was consistent with local custom). He was able to confront witnesses called against him. He had twenty-eight finders of fact (compared to twelve in the modern jury system). And Charles the Bold, his sole designated witness, was not allowed to testify because the defense of superior orders was rejected ab initio. As well, the proceedings lasted from early in the morning until late at night — which could equate to two or three modern court days. There seems to have been significant deliberation among the twenty-eight judges suggesting that a consensus was cobbled together after carefully sifting through the evidence. In an age of witch-hunts, trials by ordeal, the Star Chamber, and the Inquisition, this was an exceedingly fair trial.
And in many ways it seems inappropriate to use twenty-first century ICL terminology to analyze a fifteenth century judicial proceeding. But if that terminology is used, this piece has demonstrated that the Breisach Trial has many of the hallmarks of a modern international atrocity adjudication. As a threshold matter, regardless of anything else, it is the first recorded case in history to reject the defense of superior orders. In itself, that distinction invests the trial with universal historic importance in the development of atrocity law.
On this date in 1788, two highwaymen were hanged at Boston Neck: Archibald Taylor, and Joseph Taylor.*
According to a letter later published purporting to be from that Joseph Taylor, however, he and a sympathetic doctor actually engineered one of the most amazing scaffold escapes on record. It all got started when Joseph Taylor found his fellow-condemned Archibald in high spirits one day on death row.
I never, even after my condemnation, realized that I was suddenly to die in so awful a manner, until a gentleman, who I afterwards found was a doctor, came and talked privately with the late unhappy sufferer, and my fellow convict, Archibald Taylor, who, when the gentleman was gone, came to me with money in his hand, and so smiling a countenance, that I thought he had received it in charity. But he soon undeceived me, telling me with an air of gaiety, that it was the price of his body.
This doctor dropped was doing the workaday ghoulishness of procuring imminent corpses for medical cadavers.
Such practices were still highly taboo, viscerally shocking in this case to Joseph Taylor:
This was the first time since my condemnation that I thought what it was to die. The shock was terrible, and Taylor increased it, saying that the doctor had desired him to bargain with me for my body also. The thoughts of my bones not being permitted to remain in the grave in peace, and my body, which my poor mother had so oten caressed and dandled on her knee, and wich had been so pampered by my friends in my better days, being slashed and mangled by the doctors, was too much for me. I had been deaf to the pious exhortations of the priests; but now my conscience was awakened, and hell seemed indeed to yawn for me.
What a night of horror was the next night! — When the doctor came in the morning to bargain for my body, I was in a cold sweat; my knees smote together, and my tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of my mouth.
According to the letter, the doctor “perceived the agony of my soul” and in the conversation as it unfolded agreed to try to help Joseph Taylor survive the hanging — advising him, in order to “not dislocate the Vertebrae of the Neck,” to “Work the Knot behind your Neck and Press your Throat upon the Halter which will prevent the Necks breaking and likewise the Compression of the Jugular and preserve the circulations in some degree.” (This is actually sound advice in case you ever find yourself about to be hanged in the 18th century.)
And the doctor — remember, he was only there in the first place to get his hands on some raw materials that he could autopsy the day after the hanging — even agreed to receive the “body” in secret from Taylor’s confederates and try to restore it to life.
This bit is essential to the narrative, but the skeptical reader can’t help but doubt. What an enormous and unprofitable risk for the unnamed physician to take on behalf of a slab of meat!
I want to propose (and this is too delicious to be anything better than baseless speculation) a false-flag operation on behalf of the medical profession, which just days before the Taylors’ hanging had suffered an astounding public relations debacle. Obnoxious Manhattan medical students had wantonly displayed severed limbs from one of their subjects to schoolboys, whose frightened reports of it ultimately set off the “Doctors Mob”.
Ordinary people hated and feared anatomization, and resented “resurrection men” who stole corpses (sometimes madecorpses) for the industry. The mob smashed up the hospital, thrashed the med students, and made off with the human remains.
This is the idiom for Joseph Taylor’s revulsion at being propositioned with the body trade. Although it nevertheless turned out to be his path to salvation, it is evident in his remarks that even then, something in Taylor himself rebels at the coldly utilitarian use to which he himself must put his flesh and bones, and his consequent “reliance on the doctor”, as inimical to the interests of his soul.
The state of my mind after my conversation with the doctor, until the day of execution, it is impossible for me to describe. This glimpse of hope, this mere chance of escaping the jaws of death, and of avoiding the eyes of an offended Judge, at whose bar I was no ways prepared to appear, semed to render my mind but more distracted. I sometimes indulged myself with the thoughts of being recovered t life; and as I had fortunately concealed my real name, that I might return, like the Prodigal, to my parents, and live a life devoted to God and their comfort. But I oftener feared the means might fail to bring me to life: and then I wished that this scheme had never been mentioned, as the hopes of life seemed to prevent my conversion; and then, to be surprised into another world, totally unprepared, how terrible!
Walking out to the gallows with a case of stagefright — he was worried that his demeanor as he thought about worldly subterfuge rather than spiritual salvation would give away the game — Taylor nonetheless
preserved my presence of mind; and when the halter was fastened, remembered the doctor’s directions, and while the prayer was making I kept gently turning my head so as to bring the knot on the back of my neck … When the trap fell I had all my senses about me; and though I have no remembrance of hearing any sounds among the people, yet I believe I did not lose my sense until some minutes after. My first feelings after the shock of falling was a violent strangling and oppression for want of breath: this soon gave way to a pain in my eyes, which seemed to be burned by two balls of fire which appeared before them, which seemed to dart on and off like lightning; settling ever and anon upon my shoulders as if they weighed ten hundred tons; and after one terrible flash, in which the two balls seemed to join in one, I sunk away without pain, like one falling to sleep. [compare to this account from a survived hanging. -ed.]
As promised, his buddies got hold of the body and spirited it away to the doctor. After the application of a conveniently unreported treatment, Joseph Taylor quickened back to life two hours and forty-three minutes after he had been “turned off” with the knot at the back of his neck. The reawakening — “I cannot describe the intolerable agony of that moment. Ten thousand stranglings are trifling to it!” — was no more pleasant than the passing had been.
Now … is this account true? In the completely unverifiable and also completely sensational version that circulated (quite widely) in periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic, Taylor completed his escape by sailing for the Old World, disappearing thence into obscurity.
However, according to another, killjoy newspaper (Western Star, Feb. 2, 1790) some early-American Mythbusters team got wind of this popular fable and went to dig up Joe Taylor’s alleged grave — finding the highwayman securely taking his dirt nap after all.
That may be so, but the reader will kindly observe that two-plus centuries on, nobody’s posting anything about Archibald Taylor.
* No relation between the two Taylors, to judge by the indifferent way Joseph writes about Archibald.