Posts filed under 'Capital Punishment'

1817: The Pentrich Rebellion leaders

3 comments November 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1817, Jeremiah Brandreth, William Turner, and Isaac Ludlum or Ludlam were hanged and posthumously beheaded for the Pentrich Revolution or Pentrich Rising.


Retrace the “revolution” on a walking trail (pdf). Scenic!

The executions this day were an ugly consequence of government vigilance against subversives after the Napoleonic Wars.

There was plenty of “subversion” to spark vigilance: economic realignments of the early Industrial Revolution pushed workers into untenable positions, and a political system overgrown with archaic privileges and undemocratic veto points could not respond pending desperately needed reform.

Political Hampden clubs interested in parliamentary reform had cropped up all over England. The government viewed them as potential Robespierres.

So not only the Pentrich rising’s suppression but the rising itself were the product of the state security apparatus. A government spy named William Oliver, in the employ of Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth, infiltrated himself into radical circles in the Derbyshire village, and convinced the real radicals that nationwide protests were planned for June 9.

Expecting sympathetic labor actions in London and elsewhere, a few dozen Pentrich men assembled themselves — alone in the nation, drenched in a downpouring rain. They marched towards Nottingham, killed a man along the way, dissolved pathetically and were rounded up by soldiers in the days ahead. Forty-five stood trial for treason: three doomed to die this day, others sentenced to jail terms or transportation. It was a warning shot against airing grievances, a harbinger of more infamous top-down violence to come.


These hangings and the throwback chopping-off-heads bit succeeded by just a few hours the sudden death of the young Princess Charlotte, a sort of Princess Di moment for the Hanoverians.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, who knew from scaffold bathos, produced for the occasion a meditation on the contrasting characters of their deaths, and the incommensurate public mourning reserved for privileged royalty as against suffering subjects.

The execution of Brandreth, Ludlam, and Turner, is an event of quite a different character from the death of the Princess Charlotte. These men were shut up in a horrible dungeon, for many months, with the fear of a hideous death and of everlasting hell thrust before their eyes; and at last were brought to the scaffold and hung. They too had domestic affections, and were remarkable for the exercise of private virtues. Perhaps their low station permitted the growth of those affections in a degree not consistent with a more exalted rank. They had sons, and brothers, and sisters, and fathers, who loved them, it should seem, more than the Princess Charlotte could be loved by those whom the regulations of her rank had held in perpetual estrangement from her. Her husband was to her as father, mother, and brethren. Ludlam and Turner were men of mature years, and the affections were ripened and strengthened within them. What those sufferers felt shall not be said. But what must have been the lone and various agony of their kindred may be inferred from Edward Turner, who, when he saw his brother dragged along upon the hurdle, shrieked horribly and fell in a fit, and was carried away like a corpse by two men. How fearful must have been their agony, sitting in solitude on that day when the tempestuous voice of horror from the crowd, told them that the head so dear to them was severed from the body! Yes—they listened to the maddening shriek which burst from the multitude: they heard the rush of ten thousand terror-stricken feet, the groans and the hootings which told them that the mangled and distorted head was then lifted into the air. … When man sheds the blood of man, revenge, and hatred, and a long train of executions, and assassinations, and proscriptions, is perpetuated to remotest time. … Their death, by hanging and beheading, and the circumstances of which it is the characteristic and the consequence, constitute a calamity such as the English nation ought to mourn with an unassuageable grief. …

On the 7th of November, Brandreth, Turner, and Ludlam ascended the scaffold. We feel for Brandreth the less, because it seems he killed a man. But recollect who instigated him to the proceedings which led to murder. On the word of a dying man, Brandreth tells us, that “OLIVER brought him to this”—that, “but for OLIVER, he would not have been there.” See, too, Ludlam and Turner, with their sons and brothers, and sisters, how they kneel together in a dreadful agony of prayer. Hell is before their eyes, and they shudder and feel sick with fear, lest some unrepented or some wilful sin should seal their doom in everlasting fire. With that dreadful penalty before their eyes—with that tremendous sanction for the truth of all he spoke, Turner exclaimed loudly and distinctly, while the executioner was putting the rope round his neck, “THIS IS ALL OLIVER AND THE GOVERNMENT.” What more he might have said we know not, because the chaplain prevented any further observations. Troops of horse, with keen and glittering swords, hemmed in the multitudes collected to witness this abominable exhibition. “When the stroke of the axe was heard, there was a burst of horror from the crowd. The instant the head was exhibited, there was a tremendous shriek set up, and the multitude ran violently in all directions, as if under the impulse of sudden frenzy. Those who resumed their stations, groaned and hooted.” It is a national calamity, that we endure men to rule over us, who sanction for whatever ends a conspiracy which is to arrive at its purpose through such a frightful pouring forth of human blood and agony. But when that purpose is to trample upon our rights and liberties for ever, to present to us the alternatives of anarchy and oppression, and triumph when the astonished nation accepts the latter at their hands, to maintain a vast standing army, and add, year by year, to a public debt, which, already, they know, cannot be discharged; and which, when the delusion that supports it fails, will produce as much misery and confusion through all classes of society as it has continued to produce of famine and degradation to the undefended poor; to imprison and calumniate those who may offend them, at will; when this, if not the purpose, is the effect of that conspiracy, how ought we not to mourn?

Mourn then People of England. Clothe yourselves in solemn black. Let the bells be tolled. Think of mortality and change. Shroud yourselves in solitude and the gloom of sacred sorrow. Spare no symbol of universal grief. Weep-mourn—lament. Fill the great City—fill the boundless fields, with lamentation and the echo of groans. A beautiful Princess is dead:—she who should have been the Queen of her beloved nation, and whose posterity should have ruled it for ever. She loved the domestic affections, and cherished arts which adorn, and valour which defends. She was amiable and would have become wise, but she was young, and in the flower of youth the despoiler came. LIBERTY is dead. Slave! I charge thee disturb not the depth and solemnity of our grief by any meaner sorrow. If One has died who was like her that should have ruled over this land, like Liberty, young, innocent, and lovely, know that the power through which that one perished was God, and that it was a private grief. But man has murdered Liberty, and whilst the life was ebbing from its wound, there descended on the heads and on the hearts of every human thing, the sympathy of an universal blast and curse. Fetters heavier than iron weigh upon us, because they bind our souls. We move about in a dungeon more pestilential than damp and narrow walls, because the earth is its floor and the heavens are its roof. Let us follow the corpse of British Liberty slowly and reverentially to its tomb: and if some glorious Phantom should appear, and make its throne of broken swords and sceptres and royal crowns trampled in the dust, let us say that the Spirit of Liberty has arisen from its grave and left all that was gross and mortal there, and kneel down and worship it as our Queen.

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1793: Philippe Egalite, hoisted on his own petard

5 comments November 6th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Philippe Egalite was hoisted on his own petard.

To hoist with one’s own petard actually has an older derivation, dating to siege warfare engineers whose primitive bombs, petards, were liable to detonate unexpectedly and gave their makers a “hoist.”

Still, the phrase sounds like something that ought to come right out of the French Revolution, redolent (as are petards themselves: the explosive word is from the French “to fart”) of angry mobs hoisting aristocrats, as was their wont, up on pikestaffs and lampposts and … petards. Whatever those are.

Philippe Egalite — the Duke of Orleans, as he was known for most of his life — was such an aristocrat: in fact he was royalty, the First Prince of the Blood and a cousin to Louis XVI.

And he was the member of the royal house who most vibed on the revolutionary spirit of the times, literally bankrolling the Jacobins before the Revolution. Hilary Mantel* notes that Orleans made the Palais Royal “into a sort of demagogue’s shopping centre — Paris’s most volatile public space, crammed with cafés and bookshops, a gathering place for the disaffected. In July 1789, three days of orchestrated violence began there, and culminated in the taking of the Bastille.”

Now that is a petard.

Philippe’s class-traitor politics obviously exposed him to the wrath of the monarchists — a particular irony since the man’s son Louis-Philippe, was France’s last king from 1830 to 1848 — but as usual in Paris during the Terror, it was the the Revolution devouring its children that did him in.

Despite taking up during the Revolution the very Republican name Egalite by which we know him, and despite Egalite‘s vote in the Convention in favor of guillotining Louis XVI (this is sometimes described with more melodrama than accuracy as the “decisive” vote), and despite his many years’ prior revolutionary sympathy, the Duke of Orleans was rounded up with the rest of the available Bourbons when the French General Dumouriez‘s spring 1793 defection prompted a panicky revolutionary purge in Paris. Philippe’s own son, the future king, had gone over with Dumouriez to the Austrians.

Rosebud

The Duc d’Orleans employed Choderlos de Laclos, author of the notoriously delicious Dangerous Liaisons.

As an individual citizen turned politician turned guillotinee, Egalite doesn’t much stand out in those perilous years: one more vulnerable Convention delegate outmaneuvered by Robespierre et al.

As the Daddy Warbucks of the Rights of Man, however, Egalite was a titanic figure for his contemporaries. Not many held him in high personal esteem, but movements need moneybags, and the Prince of the Blood bankrolled his from the bottomless revenues he earned on estates that would dwarf entire departements.

The Duke of Orleans and those around him, according to George Armstrong Kelly in “The Machine of the Duc D’Orléans and the New Politics” (The Journal of Modern History, Dec. 1979)

invented something novel in the history of French politics: the massive use of wealth, research, and propaganda** for the purpose of forming public opinion and swaying public policy. No doubt there are analogues among the Romans and the eighteenth-century English; but here we are almost reminded of the Rockefellers and Kennedys.

Orleans was accused of generating all this mayhem to make his own bid for the throne; those accusations may even hold a bit of truth. Such machinations remain for the conspiratorial among posterity a shadow-play upon the wall; one is left to guess at their potential dimensions from shreds of evidence and the vying vituperations of various contemporary revolutionary factions.

But if extant, such schemes were fatally compromised by the mediocrity of the figurehead who lost his head this day. Though a revolutionary in his philosophy, he was still a doughy Bourbon scion in his soul, and heir to the many shortcomings that characterized that dynasty in its decadence.

Dissolute in the enjoyment of privilege; irresolute in the conquest of power; blithely rearing wolves to his own destruction. That was some petard.


Philippe Egalite and his onetime lover Grace Elliott are the titular characters of the 2001 Eric Rohmer movie The Lady and the Duke.

* Hilary Mantel is the same author who penned the acclaimed historical novel Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell.

** Kelly claims that Egalite funded Marat.

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555: Rusticus and John

Add comment November 5th, 2010 Headsman

On an uncertain date in the autumn of 555, a Byzantine commander and his brother were put to death for the treacherous murder of the vassal king of Lazica.

Rusticus, the commander, probably had good cause to be annoyed with Gubazes II, who ruled a borderlands realm on the eastern edge of the Black Sea, in modern-day Georgia.

Gubazes had gone from calling in Persian aid in 541 against Lazica’s Byzantine masters, to summoning Byzantine help against the Persians a few years later. Now, he was kvetching to Byzantine Emperor Justinian about the Byzantine generals he’d called for.

We’ll let J.B. Bury take it from here:

King Gubazes, who had been engaged in frequent quarrels with the Roman commanders, sent a complaint to Justinian accusing them of negligence in conducting the war. Bessas, Martin, and Rusticus were specially named. The Emperor deposed Bessas from his post, but assigned the chief command to martin and did not recall Rusticus. This Rusticus was the Emperor’s pursebearer who had been sent to bestow rewards on soldiers for special merit. He and Martin determined to remove Gubazes. To secure themselves from blame, they despatched John, brother of Rusticus, to Justinian with the false message that Gubazes was secretly favouring the Persians. Justinian was surprised, and determined to summon the king to Constantinople. “What,” asked John, “is to be done, if he refuses?” “Compel him,” said the Emperor; “he is our subject.” “But if he resist?” urged the conspirator. “Then treat him as a tyrant.” And will he who should slay him have naught to fear?” “Naught, if he act disobediently and be slain as an enemy.” Justinian signed a letter to this effect, and armed with it John returned to Colchis. The conspirators hastened to execute their treacherous design. Gubazes was invited to assist in an attack on the fortress of Onoguris, and with a few attendants he met the Roman army on the banks of the Chobus. An altercation arose between the king and Rusticus, and on the pretext that the gainsayer of a Roman general must necessarily be a friend of the enemy, John drew his dagger and plunged it in the royal breast. The wound was not mortal but it unhorsed the king, and when he attempted to rise from the ground, a blow from the squire of Rusticus killed him outright.

The Lazi silently buried their king according to their customs, and turned away in mute reproach from their Roman protectors. They no longer took part in the military operations, but hid themselves away as men who had lost their hereditary glory. The other commanders, Buzes and Justin the son of Germanus, concealed the indignation which they felt, supposing that the outrage had the Emperor’s authority. Some months later, when winter had begun, the Lazi met in secret council in some remote Caucasian ravine, and debated whether they should throw themselves on the protection of Chosroes. But their attachment to the Christian religion as well as their memory of Persian oppression forbade them to take this step, and they decided to appeal for justice and satisfaction to the Emperor, and at the same time to supplicate him to nominate Tzath, the younger brother of Gubazes, as their new king. Justinian promptly complied with both demands. Athanasius, a senator of high repute, was sent to investigate the circumstances of the assassination, and on his arrival he incarcerated Rusticus and John, pending a trial. In the spring (A.D. 555) Tzath arrived in royal state, and when the Lazi beheld the Roman army saluting him as he rode in royal apparel, a tunic embroidered with gold reaching to his feet, a white mantle with a gold stripe, red shoes, a turban adorned with gold and gems, and a crown, they forgot their sorrow and escorted him in a gay and brilliant procession. It was not till the ensuing autumn that the authors of the death of the late king were brought to justice, and the natives witnessed the solemn procedure of a Roman trial. Rusticus and John were executed. Martin’s complicity was not so clear, and the Emperor, to whom his case was referred, deposed him from his command in favour of his own cousin Justin, the son of Germanus. Martin perhaps would not have been acquitted if he had not been popular with the army and a highly competent general. (link)

“The historical importance of the Lazic War,” Bury says, “lay in the fact that if the Romans had not succeeded in holding the country and thwarting the design of Chosroes, the great Asiatic power would have had access to the Euxine and the Empire would have had a rival on the waters of that sea. The serious menace involved in this possibility was fully realised by the Imperial government and explains the comparative magnitude of the forces which were sent to the defence of the Lazic kingdom.”

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1778: Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts, triggering Benedict Arnold’s betrayal?

3 comments November 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1778, the hanging in Philadelphia of two elderly Quakers for treason perhaps set in motion Benedict Arnold’s notorious defection from the American Revolution.

Brotherly love was a little scarce on the ground in Philly after Gen. William Howe occupied it for the British in 1777-1778.*

British control of the cradle of liberty exacerbated the social tensions swirling around the revolution, most particularly between radical revolutionaries and those of a more go-along, get-along variety. Plenty of North Americans, after all, were British loyalists. Plenty of others were fine with political independence but horrified at the more radically democratic ideas of, say, Tom Paine.

Pennsylvania had proven a relative bastion for militants, who authored its progressive 1776 constitution and imposed loyalty tests to disenfranchise Tories and neutrals. When Howe withdrew from Philadelphia, these elements returned, loaded for bear. Or in this case, Quakers.

Members of this sect were suspect to begin with for pacifism, which is the sort of ideology that would fail a loyalty test. Spurning a Moravian pitch for exemption from the oath, the authorities complained of

persons among us, preferring a slavish dependence on the British King, from prejudice, expectation from lucrative offices, or the most unworthy motives, and screening themselves from the notice of Government, by a professed neutrality, have, nevertheless, as soon as opportunity offered declared themselves in favour of our Enemies, and became active against the Liberties of America

Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts, Quakers of an advanced age who had collaborated with the British, were thought to have done precisely this perfidious thing. In the sentence delivered to Roberts (the men had separate trials), the judge insisted his defendant was either with liberty, or against it.

Treason is a crime of the most dangerous and fatal consequence to society; it is of a most malignant nature; it is of a crimson colour and of a scarlet dye. Maliciously to deprive one man of life, merits the punishment of death, and blood for blood is a just restitution. What punishment, then, must he deserve, who joins the enemies of his country, and endeavours the total destruction of the lives, liberties, and property of all his fellow citizens; who wilfully aids and assists in so impious a cause; a cause which has been complicated with the horrid and crying sin of murdering thousands, who were not only innocent, but meritorious; and aggravated by burning some of them alive, and starving others to death. It is in vain to plead, that you have not personally acted in this wicked business; for all who countenance and assist, are partakers in the guilt.**

The wholesale purge such a logic would license was thankfully not forthcoming, because even revolutionary sentiment was uncomfortable with the treatment of these exemplars. Roberts’s own jury had to be cajoled into a conviction, and most of its members joined thousands of Philadelphians of different political stripes petitioning for mercy.

The post-Howe military governor of Philadelphia at this time was none other than Benedict Arnold, still an American general but putting himself ostentatiously into the tug-of-war over the proper revolutionary line with his profligate living and his courtship of a British-friendly merchant‘s daughter.

Arnold stuck his thumb in the radicals’ eye by hosting a party on the eve of this date’s hanging for society ladies of doubtful [revolutionary] virtue … prompting a fulsome protest by Joseph Reed

Treason, disaffection to the interests of America, and even assistance to the British interest, is called openly only error of judgment, which candour and liberality will overlook … it would astonish you to observe the weight of interest excited to pardon [Carlisle and Roberts] … will you not think it extraordinary that General Arnold made a public entertainment the night before last, of which not only common Tory ladies, but the wives and daughters of persons proscribed by the State, and now with the enemy at New York, formed a very considerable number. The fact is literally true.

Left- and right-wing factions of the revolution crystallized around Reed and Arnold, and the abuse of the more-patriotic-than-thou set soon wore on Gen. Arnold. The latter put his contacts with un-revolutionary Philadelphia to work — specifically, that merchant’s daughter’s former suitor, British Major John Andre. Arnold and Andre began their correspondence six months after Carlisle and Roberts hanged; little more than a year later, Arnold ditched the American revolution … and entered the American lexicon.

* This was the winter George Washington famously spent at Valley Forge, 20 miles from Philly.

** The sentence is as printed in in the Pennsylvania Evening Post, Nov. 6, 1778. The magistrate concludes the sentence by pointing out that in Pennsylvania’s “leniency,” treason was punished “only” with hanging … while in the mother country, it could still get you drawn and quartered.

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1920: James Daly, Connaught Rangers mutineer

1 comment November 2nd, 2010 Headsman

The British Empire administered its last execution for mutiny on this date in 1920 — that of Irish Private James Daly of the Connaught Rangers.

A Dublin cemetery preserves a monument to Daly and his comrades.

You can take the Irishman out of Ireland, but not Ireland out of the Irishman. Something like that.

Daly was shot in Dagshai prison, India, but the reason for his death was that old familiar of his homeland’s history: nationalism.

Half a world away, London was playing the bad guys in the Irish War of Independence.

It was a conflict uniquely suited for dividing comrades; little wonder that it also divided comrades in arms.

Having lately bled for His Majesty in the War to End All Wars, plenty of Irish enlistees were nonplussed to see troops deployed to their own neighborhoods, Black and Tans shooting up their friends and family.*

From June 1920, a number of Irish Connaught Rangers “grounded arms” for their brethren in Eire, refusing to serve Britain while British troops occupied Ireland. One thing led to another, and a group (led by Daly, and his brother William) ended up trying to rush an armory to recover its weapons, opposed by other Rangers who remained loyal to the crown.

Fourteen death sentences were handed down for this show of indiscipline, but Daly’s was the only one actually carried out. The Rangers were disbanded two years later with the formation of the Irish Free State. And everyone lived happily ever after.

* Connaught Rangers had been used (without incident) to suppress the Easter Rising in 1916.

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1943: Six POWs, inscribed on a ouija board

Add comment November 1st, 2010 Headsman

Here lie the remains of 3529270 Pte T Jackson Manch Reg. CQMS C Anderson FMSVF, A S H Justice USS Houston. 33271– Pte Mar- … here the letters had been eaten away. At the bottom of the board there were several more words which it was not possible to decipher but still discernible were the words

Executed 1/11/43

The WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar.

This date’s execution — contributed to WW2 People’s War by Chris Comer of Stockport Libraries on behalf of Arthur Lane — concerns six Commonwealth POWs who were shot for attempting to escape at Thambazayat, a prison camp in Burma.

They’re remembered by a fellow-prisoner from their time at the Thailand prison camp Chungkai, where the prisoners pulled off a memorable caper with a ouija board and some of their guards.


Chungkai War Cemetery, on the site of camp’s POW burials. (From Australian War Memorial)

These executions did not reshape history. But this story of a few men under the shadow of a senseless death has the spark of humanity that animates these pages. Read it in its entirety here: part 1 | part 2.

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1492: Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, Nearly Headless Nick

3 comments October 31st, 2010 Elizabeth M. Hull

(Thanks to Elizabeth M. Hull for the guest post. -ed.)

Post-mortem resident of Gryffindor House, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Hogsmeade, U.K.

A minor character in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga, Nearly Headless Nick remains one of the most memorable. Executed — badly — on Halloween of 1492, Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington became the ghost of Gryffindor House. The school has about 20 resident ghosts: the Grey Lady (Helena Ravenclaw) and the Bloody Baron of Slytherin House died violently as well, in a murder-suicide.

Rowling says that her editor suggested that she cut a ballad Mimsy-Porpington wrote about himself from The Chamber of Secrets. In the song, the ghost claimed to have been executed for “a mistake any wizard could make,” a “piffling error,” a case of wizardry gone wrong. Asked by Lady Grieve (otherwise unknown) to straighten her teeth, Mimsy-Porpington seems to have given her a tusk. “They” imprisoned the piffler immediately, though he cried all night that he could fix his mistake, and his beheading followed the next morning.

Unfortunately for Mimsy-Porpington, his was not the only incompetence: “they’d mislaid the rock/Where they usually sharpened the axe”! The “cack-handed twit” of a headsman said “this may sting a bit” to the gibbering wizard, and swung the axe in the air. Alas, unable to sharpen the blade, the executioner was reduced to bestowing numerous blows: “But oh the blunt blade! No difference it made,” the ghost sang,

My head was still definitely there.
The axeman he hacked and he whacked and he thwacked,
“Won’t be too long,” he assured me,
But quick it was not, and the bone-headed clot
Took forty-five goes ’til he floored me.

(The full ballad is here and here; the original handwritten version can be seen here.)

After repeated strokes of the edgeless axe, Mimsy-Porpington finally expired. On festival occasions, he re-enacts his near-beheading, a show quite popular with the Hogwarts student body (Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 159).

However, the bone-headed, cloddish headsman was unable to completely behead the wizard. As Ron Weasly notes, the ghost is merely nearly headless.


Nick, as played in the Harry Potter films by John Cleese. Rowling’s own original sketch of Nearly Headless Nick is here.

While he gets a great deal of pleasure from entertaining Hogwarts residents by swinging “his whole head . . . off his neck and . . . onto his shoulder as if it was on a hinge” (Sorceror’s Stone, p. 124), his condition limits his access to the dizziest heights of post-mortem society. Beheading was an aristocratic execution, meant to bring a swift death to the privileged, those able to hunt legally in their lifetime. In the afterlife, the beheaded aristocrats have established a “Headless Hunt” Club, and have blackballed Mimsy-Porpington, who misses their entrance requirements by that much: “‘half an inch of skin and sinew holding my neck on.'” Unable to participate in Club sports like “Horseback Head-Juggling and Head Polo,” Mimsy-Porpington is denied admission into the elite society (Chamber of Secrets, p. 124).

Sadly, their scorn for his crippling condition is not limited to exclusion from their company.

Mimsy-Porpington’s five hundredth Deathday anniversary party, held on Halloween 1992, welcomes hundreds of ghosts from as far away as Kent to a feast of rotten fish, putrid, “maggoty haggis,” and a tombstone cake with grey icing, while an orchestra of 30 musical saws plays waltzes. The Deathday Boy’s speech is interrupted by the members of the Headless Hunt: “Sir Properly Decapitated-Podmore” begins a game of Head Hockey, sending his own head sailing past the humiliated Mimsy-Porpington as he tries to address his guests (Chamber of Secrets, p. 132-7).

Somehow the courageous Gryffindor ghost overcomes this diabolical heads-up-manship and several months as a petrified cloud to live a useful afterlife, helping Harry many times. Most significantly, in the final pages of The Order of the Phoenix, a traumatized and grieving Harry turns to Mimsy-Porpington, hoping to discover a way to keep his dead friend and guardian Sirius Black alive. “‘You’re dead,'” Harry says, “‘But you’re still here, aren’t you? … People can come back, right? As ghosts. They don’t have to disappear completely.'” Mimsy-Porpington gently tells Harry that he can only “‘walk palely'” where his living self once trod, “‘neither here nor there,'” hovering between life and death for fear of the unknown. However, Black risked his life joyously and died laughing; he will not linger between death and life. Harry must live on without him.

There may be historical precedent for Mimsy-Porpington’s death in the botched execution of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth (1685), when the notorious Jack Ketch took five blows to kill the rebel, and finally had to use a knife to sever the last “skin and sinew” connecting the head to the corpse. Monmouth’s hairstyle in portraits from the late 1600s resembles that drawn by Rowling in her sketch of Nearly Headless Nick, although that sketch shows a beard style from the early 1600s, nearly 70 years earlier. Moreover, the ghost enters Harry Potter’s life wearing an Elizabethan neck ruff and says that he has not eaten in nearly 400 years, implying a death in the late 1500s.

In spite of this wibbly-wobbly timeline, Mimsy-Porpington’s deathdate establishes the firm chronology of Rowling’s series: the five hundredth anniversary of his death in 1492 would fall in 1992; therefore the events of Chamber of Secrets (published in 1997) must occur in 1992. The dating of the series is confirmed five books later by the tombstones of Harry’s parents, who died on Halloween Day, 1981 (Deathly Hallows, p. 328). For J.K. Rowling, death, the last enemy — not life — marks the measure of this world’s time.

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2008: Greg Wright, still fighting for exoneration

Add comment October 30th, 2010 Headsman

Two years on from his execution in Texas this date in 2008, the website FreeGregWright.com still bears its namesake’s now-hopeless case for exoneration.


Wright’s wife Connie (the woman on the right) and their friend Bente Hjortshøj released this photo of Greg Wright 15 minutes after execution “to show the world the cruel and unusual punishment and its horrible consequences.”

Wright and another homeless man, John Adams, were taken in by a generous 52-year-old widow named Donna Vick. Vick paid for her charity with her life … but who was the killer?

Adams fingered Wright, but Wright always insisted that Adams killed her. Late-arriving DNA evidence appeared to back Wright. So did too-late-to-matter confessions by Adams. (Adams, for his part, was also convicted for capital murder; each man was separately tried on the theory that he was the murderer and the other the bystander.)

The disputed facts of this case are a muddier affair that don’t readily admit a slam-dunk exoneration. An episode of the Dallas DNA television series looked at Wright’s case and disappointed Wright’s supporters with its unfavorable view of the subject’s case.

Wright, nevertheless, maintained his innocence from the execution gurney.

John Adams lied. He went to the police and told them a story. He made deals and sold stuff to keep from going to prison. I left the house, and I left him there. My only act or involvement was not telling on him. John Adams is the one that killed Donna Vick. I took a polygraph and passed. John Adams never volunteered to take one. … I was in the bathroom when [Adams] attacked [Vick]. I am deaf in one ear and I thought the T.V. was up too loud. I ran in to the bedroom. By the time I came in, when I tried to help her, with first aid, it was too late. The veins were cut on her throat. He stabbed her in her heart, and that’s what killed her. I told John Adams, “turn yourself in or hit the high road.” I owed him a favor because he pulled someone off my back. I was in a fight downtown. Two or three days later he turned on me. I have done everything to prove my innocence. Before you is an innocent man.

The victim’s son — for whom little ice was cut by Wright’s admitted failure to summon medical help for the victim, or to turn in the alleged killer Adams — complained that the statement was “the same thing we’ve got since day one, each of them blaming it on the other one.”

Former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney witnessed the execution, taking a break from her Green Party presidential bid.

One of the crime scene investigators in this case, Eric George Rosenstrom, is now himself wanted for murder.

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1268: Conradin of Swabia

3 comments October 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1268, 16-year-old boy-king Conradin was beheaded in Naples with his best friend.

This short-lived son of German king Conrad IV inherited his call on the purple at the age of 26. 26 months.

While the infant king worked on his ABC’s in Swabia, different regents tried to keep his Sicily and Jerusalem thrones warm in the far-flung empire.

Knowing an opportunity when he saw it, Conradin’s uncle and “regent” Manfred usurped him in Sicily, tipping over the first domino in a peninsular political chain that would fell both relatives. With Manfred’s accession, the rival power of the papacy now faced an active military strongman at its doorstep — and it, in turn, sponsored French noble Charles of Anjou to oppose, and eventually overthrow, Manfred.

By the time all this played out, Conradin was, if not exactly a seasoned man of the world, at least old enough to hear his voice cracking and start noticing girls. By the standards of medieval Europe, that was plenty old enough to press his injured rights in battle.

Accordingly, Conradin — Corradino, to the Italians — led Hohenstaufen boots down the boot to reclaim Sicily. No dice.

His captor’s attitude was summed up in the sentiment, Conradi vita, Caroli mors — “Conrad’s life is Charles’s death,” somewhat doubtfully ascribed to the counsel of Pope Clement IV — so when you think about it, it was no more than self-defense to cut short that vita. And his buddy’s, too, since the scaffold was already hired for the day.


Conradin of Swabia and Frederick of Baden Being Informed of Their Execution in Prison in Naples, by Goethe buddy Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. Did either try the Sicilian Defence?

He turns to clasp with longing arms his friend,
And turning, sees the fatal blow descend,
Then presses with his lips the severed head,
Last greeting of the dying to the dead.
One quivering flash, a shock that is not pain,
And those he parted death unites again.
So perished Conradin, but legends tell
That as the trenchant blade descending fell,
An eagle, that, unseen by human eyes,
Had poised aloft, down swooping from the skies,
For one short instant hovered o’er the slain,
And dyed his pinions with a crimson stain,
Then wildly shrieked, and upward soaring sped
To witness for the blood unjustly shed.

-Tribute in purple poetry by William John Rous (Here’s a more prose-y review of Conradin’s campaign and demise)

This upward-soaring, crimson-pinioned raptor saw off the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the unstable years that followed, as rival princes and factions jockeyed for influence, there’d be some serious nostalgia for the bygone Hohenstaufens. But there is opportunity as well as peril in change, and though it may be that this fractious realm was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, it emerged from its interregnum with its first Habsburg ruler — of many.

What’s left of Corradino di Svevia (and Frederick of Baden) lies entombed at a Neapolitan church, watched over by a monumental 19th century marble sculpture of the youth.

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1941: Twenty Red Army officers

Add comment October 28th, 2010 Headsman




Top to bottom: Proskurov, Rychagov, Shtern, and Smushkevich.

“Quantity has a quality all its own.”

-Stalin

The aphoristic Uncle Joe doomed Soviet officers in both quantity and quality on this date in 1941, shooting 20 Soviet officers at the very moment when Mother Russia could have used them most.

This wouldn’t seem like the ideal time for a purge, but old habits are hard to break.

As the Wehrmacht closed in on Moscow, these prisoners had been evacuated to the Volga city of Kuybyshev (today, Samara). In this, they were already treated more courteously than some.

But any semblance of consideration for these fallen brass — to say nothing of bourgeois indulgences like due process — went out the window when an order arrived from Lavrenty Beria:

“Investigation to be stopped, all to be executed by firing squad without delay.”

They were.

Those “all” included:

Many of this day’s victims were rehabilitated after Stalin fell.

Cold comfort, perhaps, but for their survivors there was bloodier satisfaction: the personal order Beria gave to execute them was in turn used against Beria when he was purged.

It’s a bit tangential, but here‘s an interesting interview with one of their contemporaries in Soviet combat aviation, who managed to survive those terrible years (despite being “taken out to be shot on three occasions” while a POW in Spain). There are some pictures of the planes these men would have used in this thread of a Spanish-language military forum.

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