Posts filed under 'Capital Punishment'

1882: Bob Jones and Billy Miller, murderers on the open road

Add comment March 3rd, 2015 Headsman

Bob Jones and Billy Miller were hanged together on this date in 1882 for the murder of three sons of Judge J.P. Walker.

The Walker boys had been traveling together for an Arkansas plantation to which their prosperous Alabama father was relocating the family. They “encamped three miles west of Aberdeen [Mississippi], and on Sunday evening some persons passing by found them lying on mattresses, covered with quilts, each with his head split open as though with an axe.”

Miller, a black man, was picked up “under suspicious circumstances” and at the point of lynching he was forced to confess the crime. When he later attempted to disavow it, Judge Walker visited him in his cell, and (per the New Orleans Times-Picayune of Dec. 8, 1881) made the following chilling-but-practical appeal:

I am the father of these murdered boys. I can assure you that you will certainly be hung, if you don’t meet a worse death. It will do you no good to die with a lie on your lips about this matter. I came to get the truth, and you can gain nothing by telling me a lie, for your doom is sealed. Tell me all about the murder of my sons.

According to to the newsmen, Miller then proceeded to tell all. There’s just something persuasive about the grief of a father with a lynch mob at his back.

Per Miller’s confession, he happened by the camp of the Walkers, whose party was actually a foursome. The other white man with them, also just a chance fellow-traveler, pulled Miller aside as he rested by the campfire and indicated that the Walkers, schlepping a wagon full of effects from the Alabama plantation to the Arkansas one, were worth the trouble to put out of the way: “There’s big money in this.” They then axed the trio as they slept.

Miller said that the white man took all the money they could find, giving Miller only a bogus promise to meet him to divide it, and then absconded. The two would next lay eyes on each other in late December, when Jones was apprehended. It had been a job to get him; descriptions of him were shaky and Miller himself didn’t know anything about his accomplice — so random tramps, strangers, and solo sojourners were grabbed and interrogated willy-nilly for some weeks until Jones’s own brothers finally supplied the tip that he had met the Walkers and come back with a gold watch.

Once located, Jones too confessed — in his case, we are assured, “without a semblance of violence and by kind argument.” Surely there was some semblance of violence, since both men were reportedly “in great fear of lynching” even by that time, a month after the murders.


Columbus (Ga.) Daily Ennquirer, Dec. 29, 1881.

Four thousand people were reported to have turned up in Aberdeen to witness these accidental confederates hang for their opportunistic crime. Jones fainted away as he was being arranged on the scaffold; Miller bore it better and swung off with a sad dirge on his lips.

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1401: William Sawtre, Lollard heretic

March 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1401, Lollard priest William Sawtre(y) was burned at Smithfield for heresy — the first known heresy execution in England.

The highlight of late 14th century English literature, Piers Plowman, was a great favorite of Lollards. Though this lengthy allegorical poem is not itself a Lollard text, it spawned a Piers Plowman tradition with many spinoffs that are overtly Wycliffite.

Witness Wycliffe, who told them the truth;
For in good nature he greatly warned
To mend their wickedness and sinful works.
Who these sorry men damned his soul
And overall lolled him with heretics’ works!

-Piers Plowman’s Creed*

Sawtre was a follower of John Wycliffe, the Biblical translator and church reformer 16 years dead as we lay our scene.

Wycliffe anticipated much of Luther’s later critique of the Catholic Church. His call to study Scripture directly without the intercession of doctors in Rome touched a spiritual thirst; his summons to apostolic poverty for the wealthy vicars of Christ was a message with a ready audience.

“From about 1390 to 1425, we hear of the Lollards in all directions,” notes this public domain history, “so that the contemporary chronicler was ale to say that of every two men found on the roads, one was sure to be a Lollard.”

Lollardy did not immediately manifest as an outlaw movement; it had many adherents among England’s elites and even the royal household. Although the papacy had declared various Wycliffe doctrines heretical in that prelate’s time, England had shown little appetite for calling an Inquisition — a step that would project papal authority into the kingdom.**

But with a ferocious ecclesiastical pushback and a change in the occupancy of the throne,† the English state gradually shifted over the course of the 1390s and 1400s towards recognizing Wycliffe’s principles as heresy — and towards treating that heresy into a capital crime. Through spectacles like Sawtre’s burning, Lollards were gradually made to understand that the price of their scruples might run all the way to martyrdom.

This was novel territory for English jurisprudence, and part of a centuries-long European transition towards treating doctrinal dispute as capital crime. There are only a bare handful of alleged quasi-precedents in English history, sketchily documented — like the unnamed apostate deacon burnt to ashes for Judaizing. It was only as late as William Sawtre that Old Blighty clearly established the practice and legal machinery for putting men and women to death for heresy.

Many Lollards capitulated as they came under pressure. This was true of our man Sawtre, a humble parish vicar. When put to questioning by the bishop in 1399, Sawtre initially recanted his unorthodox skepticism as to the transubstantiation of communion bread into Christ’s own literal body — a doctrinal mystery that would be a tougher and tougher sell to dissidents yet to come.

But upon moving from Lynn to London where he served at St. Osyth’s, Sawtre relapsed — and some stirring moved his soul to vindicate himself in the face of mortal peril.

Charged before Parliament, Sawtre now defended his heresies under close questioning by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel. Arundel was even then pressuring this same Parliament for a statute, which he did indeed soon receive — one with the ominous title De Heretico Comburendo, at last elevating heresy to a death penalty offense and making the bishops themselves the decisive arbiters on the matter. It is overtly and all-but-explicitly aimed at the Lollards.

divers false and perverse people of a certain new sect, of the faith of the sacraments of the church, and the authority of the same damnably thinking and against the law of God and of the Church usurping the office of preaching, do perversely and maliciously in divers places within the said realm, under the color of dissembled holiness, preach and teach these days openly and privily divers new doctrines, and wicked heretical and erroneous opinions contrary to the same faith and blessed determinations of the Holy Church, and of such sect and wicked doctrine and opinions they make unlawful conventicles and confederacies, they hold and exercise schools, they make and write books, they do wickedly instruct and inform people, and as such they may excite and stir them to sedition and insurrection, and make great strife and division among the people, and other enormities horrible to be heard daily do perpetrate and commit subversion of the said catholic faith and doctrine of the Holy Church …

the diocesans of the said realm cannot by their jurisdiction spiritual, without aid of the said royal majesty, sufficiently correct the said false and perverse people, nor refrain their malice, because the said false and perverse people do go from diocese to diocese and will not appear before the said diocesans…

[let] none within the said realm or any other dominions subject to his Roval Majesty, presume to preach openly or privily, without the license of the diocesan of the same place first required and obtained, curates in their own churches and persons hitherto privileged, and other of the Canon Law granted, only except; nor that none from henceforth anything preach, hold, teach, or instruct openly or privily, or make or write any book contrary to the catholic faith or determination of the Holy Church, nor of such sect and wicked doctrines and opinions shall make any conventicles, or in any wise hold or exercise schools; and also [let] none from henceforth in any wise favor such preacher or maker of any such and like conventicles, or persons holding or exercising schools, or making or writing such books, or so teaching, informing, or exciting the people, nor any of them maintain or in any wise sustain, and that all and singular having such books or any writings of such wicked doctrine and opinions, shall really with effect deliver or cause to be delivered all such books and writings to the diocesan of the same place within forty days from the time of the proclamation of this ordinance and statute.

Any Lollard not so complying could be arrested on the say-so of the diocesan bishop and tried for the offending heterodoxy; if convicted, the clergy was then empowered to hand the unfortunate fellow over to the civil authorities who were obliged to carry out an execution without any further inquiry or say-so. Judge, jury, and (virtually) executioner … the same as the guy waiting for you in the confessional.

[I]f any person … do refuse duly to abjure, or by the diocesan of the same place or his commissaries, after the abjuration made by the same person be pronounced relapsed, so that according to the holy canons he ought to be left to the secular court … [then] after such sentence promulgate shall receive, and them before the people in an high place cause to be burnt, that such punishment may strike fear into the minds of others, whereby, nosuch wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions, nor their authors … be sustained or in any way suffered.

With such wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions afoot Sawtre was not suffered to live even the enactment of the law that killed him: De Heretico Comburendo was passed only on March 10, but Sawtre was eight days’ dead by that point. It’s a bit unclear how the sentence was legally effected, but it would seemingly have proceeded under canon, not civil, law.

Both the law and the execution were great victories for the Church. “The king and the archbishop hurried to burn their victim to show that they could send a heretic to the stake whenever they wished, without relying on statute” Leonard Williams Levy writes. “Parliament could neither give nor take the authority to burn a heretic. If the scepter supported the miter, canon law prevailed.”

Be that as it may, the victims of the Lollard-burning period were not nearly so numerous as the chilling language of De Heretico Comburendo might lead one to anticipate. The next Lollard to go to the stake was John Badby in 1410; two merchants were executed in 1415, and the Lollard rebel John Oldcastle was burnt “gallows and all” in 1417. Another handful suffered in the 1420s. It’s thought that about 50 people overall (Lollards and otherwise) were executed as heretics from the enactment of De Heretico Comburendo until Henry VIII broke with Rome 133 years later — an occasion that made heresy-hunting a whole different animal.

* My artless rendering from the Middle English version given in D.A. Lawton in “Lollardy and the ‘Piers Plowman’ Tradition”, The Modern Language Review, Oct. 1981.

** Despite overall caution about the authority of Rome onto Albion’s soil, the English had no overall principled rejection of Inquisitors as such: they convoked such a tribunal to deal with Joan of Arc.

† The political situation in the realm was also been a factor: the usurper Henry IV had taken the crown only in 1399 by deposing, and later murdering, King Richard II. One readily supposes Henry’s keen interest in shoring up the loyalty of the church and keeping tabs on itinerant rabble-rousers, the latter of whom appear to have disproportionately skewed towards Richard’s faction. (All those heretics in the king’s household were in Richard’s household.)

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1996: Antonio James, final judgment

Add comment March 1st, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1996, Antonio James downed a last meal of fried oysters and crab gumbo, then went to the death chamber of Angola Prison to suffer lethal injection for the murder of Henry Silver.

Silver was a 70-year-old fellow whom James shot dead in a New Orleans robbery way back in 1979. (Net return: $35.) A few weeks later, he bungled another robbery and ended up shot with his own gun … and under arrest. It was his second murder conviction. Although James dodged 13 death dates and was the senior figure on the state’s death row when his time came, his was pretty unremarkable as death penalty cases go.

This did chance to be the first execution in Louisiana after the film Dead Man Walking (which is set in that state) was released, and it got a bit of additional media coverage as a consequence.

James’s last hours became the subject of the ABC Primetime Live documentary Final Judgment (or Judgment at Midnight). It’s a little hard to come by clips of this program online, but here’s one review, and here’s another. In it, the warden Burl Cain* described James’s execution.

Well, he was laying there, and then he kind of grabbed my hand, so I held his hand, and then I told him, ‘He’s waiting for us. Get ready, we’re going for the ride.’ And I said, ‘The angels are here.’ He kind of smiled, and he said, ‘Bless you.’ That’s the last words he said. And then I nodded my head to go ahead. He was holding my hand real tight. And then after a couple of minutes, he took about three or four deep breaths, and then he relaxed my hand. I do believe right now his soul is in heaven, and he’s OK. And since I believe that, it makes it easier.

* In the Angola memoir In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance by onetime Louisiana death row habitue turned prison journalist Wilbert Rideau, Cain comes off as a real camera-hound.

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1786: Joseph Richards, aspiring milkman

Add comment February 27th, 2015 Headsman


Click here for the full page image from the 1871 Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising “cocks”, or “catchpennies”, a large and curious assortment of street-drolleries, squibs, histories, comic tales in prose and verse, broadsides on the royal family, political litanies, dialogues, catechisms, acts of Parliament, street political papers, a variety of “ballads on a subject”, dying speeches and confessions. The same story is also to be found here and here.

THE TRIAL.

Old Bailey, February 24th, 1786.

Joseph Richards was arraigned for the wilful murder of Walter Horseman, milkman, in Kentish Town. The deceased’s widow deposed, that the prisoner was formerly a servant to her husband; that he was discharged for negligence; that he had frequently threatened vengeance on the deceased; that on the morning the murder was committed, she was awakened by a noise, and on entering the room her husband slept in, she found him sitting up in the bed, and as far as his waist in blood; that a stick which the prisoner had cut some time before, lay in the room, and an iron bar, covered with blood; that her husband was mangled in a shocking manner: — he lingered a few days, and died a shocking spectacle.

Four other witnesses were examined, whose testimony proved certain corroborating circumstances; such as, being from his lodging the night the murder was committed, being seen to melt lead, and to pour it into the stick that was found in the deceased’s room, &c.

The prisoner confessed the murder to one of the magistrates who committed him for trial; but pleaded Not Guilty at the bar.

The jury, after a few minutes’ consideration, brought in their verdict Guilty.

Mr. Recorder pronounced judgment. He said the voice of innocent blood cried to heaven for vengeance. He dwelt upon the atrociousness of the crime of murder, observing, that the Divine Law had ordained, that whoever sheddeth man’s blood, &c., and then expatiated on the peculiar circumstances of the murder, the murder of an innocent master, to whom he owed duty and reverence.

The sentence was then passed as usual, that he be hanged till dead, and anatomized; and an order of Court was made out, to execute him on Monday, at Kentish Town, as near as possible to the house of the deceased.

THE EXECUTION.

Joseph Richards, a youth about eighteen, who was convicted on Friday last, for the wilful murder of Walter Horseman, with whom he lived servant, was executed at Kentish Town, opposite the house where the horrid fact was perpetrated. The malefactor came out of Newgate about twenty minutes before eight o’clock, and with some alertness stepped into the cart, which conveyed him through Smithfield, Cow Cross, and by the two small-pox hospitals to the spot, where he was removed from that society of which he had proved himself a most unworthy member, at a time of life when such atrocity of guilt as he possessed has been seldom known to degrade humanity. In his way to the place of execution, the convict appeared to be in a state of mind bordering upon stupefaction; he had no book, nor did he employ that short remnant of time in those preparations for eternity which his miserable situation rendered so indispensably necessary.

Before being turned off, the prisoner desired to see the widow of the decreased; she was sent for to her house, but was gone to London; he declared he had no accomplice in the fact, and that he was induced to the perpetration thereof by the supposition, that after the decease of his master he should succeed to his business as a milkman. Just before coming to the village, he burst into tears and when he came to the place of execution, wept bitterly; his expressions of sorrow and contrition being only interrupted by fervent appeals to Heaven for mercy till the last moment of his existence.

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1785: Barbara Erni, the Golden Boos

Add comment February 26th, 2015 Headsman

Tiny Liechtenstein last conducted an execution 230 years ago today: Barbara Erni — the legendary “Golden Boos”.

Nicknamed for her strawberry blond hair, the Golden Boos had an ingenious scam that required every bit of her Bunyanesque strength: she would wander the countryside and check into inns with a large chest or pack. Intimating that the parcel contained something of great value, she would insist upon its overnight safekeeping in a very secure room.

Once the inn had tucked in for the night, a diminutive accomplice would emerge from the trunk, plunder the lonely room of its valuables, and the two would escape into the night. Evidently, secure rooms in 18th century Liechtenstein were never secured from the inside.

She admitted to 17 such thefts. Liechtentein, whose population at the present time numbers fewer than 40,000 souls, had to import the executioner to chop off Barbara Erni’s Golden Boos on a public scaffold in Vaduz on February 26, 1785.

Liechtenstein officiall abolished the death penalty in 1987.

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1601: Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Add comment February 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1601, Queen Elizabeth’s last great favorite became the last man beheaded in the Tower of London.

Vain and dashing Robert Devereux rolled into the royal court in 1584 around age 19 and immediately established himself as the new favorite of the monarch, 30-some years his senior. They spent long walks and late nights in enchanted private company, and Devereux “commeth not to his owne lodginge tyll the birdes singe in the morninge.” Ye olde walke of shayme.

In becoming the (presumed) lover* of the aging Virgin Queen, the Earl of Essex was only following the family** trade: his stepfather Robert Dudley was the younger Elizabeth’s longtime intimate.

It is up to the artists to postulate the relative measures of passion and cynicism in these dalliances; many have tried, inspired by the scaffold sundering of one of history’s great May-December affairs. The Essex-Elizabeth drama was a popular topic for broadsides, ballads, and stage treatments from the 17th century to the present day.


Benjamin Britten but the Elizabeth-Essex romance into opera in Gloriana, based on Lytton Strachey’s popular book.

He was wildly popular in London, but Essex was also afflicted by the follies of youth. Rash, temperamental, vainglorious; he aspired to leverage the favor of his sovereign into statesmanship and he achieved heroic repute for his swashbuckling raid on Cadiz.

Yet Essex reads like a whelp who never quite grew into a man’s boots. Every sketch of Essex includes, because it seems so starkly illustrative of his unstable character, the story of the time his impertinence led the queen to box his ears publicly — and the hothead’s hand flew instinctively to his sword-hilt. Everyone reconciled over this brush with lese-majeste, but only after Essex scribbled some skulking reproaches (“What, cannot princes err? cannot subjects receive wrong? is an earthly power or authority infinite?”) that he had the petulance to actually send to Elizabeth.

The less mercurial Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil, who was the son of Elizabeth’s earliest close advisor and the protege of her spymaster, was just two years Essex’s senior but smoothly outmaneuvered the loverboy in their mutual pursuit of England’s Secretaryship of State.†

Essex chased martial glory with mixed results. His last great enterprise was an ill-starred 1599 offensive in Ireland to bring Gaelic rebels to heel in the Nine Years’ War.

Not for the last time an Englishman found this conquest more easily aspired than achieved. Essex liberally overused his authority to knight men as a reward for their service, but his soldiers mostly slogged to and fro with little headway to show for it. After a frustrating campaign season chasing his tail, Essex defied the increasingly strident directives to attack issuing from Elizabeth’s irate pen, and made terms with the Irish commander Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Then he defied Elizabeth’s order to remain in Ireland and hastened back to London to justify himself. It was said of him that he “never drew sword but to make knights.”

This was the beginning of Essex’s end. Elizabeth’s fury at the aimless military campaign was compounded when her churlish captain turned up from Ireland unbidden and burst into her private chambers while she was still dressing to report on his unauthorized summit. Cecil et al, whose ascendance Essex had meant to reverse with the triumph of his arms, now murmured that the earl had strayed near outright treason to parley with the rebel whom he was supposed to be routing. The Privy Council put him under house arrest.

Heaped in debt and deprived of the prestigious proximity to power he had enjoyed literally throughout his adulthood, the man’s turbulent spirit stirred strangely in York House. We have seen that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was a man to abhor an indignity even past the point of self-preservation. He unwisely sent secret missives to try to turn the ongoing succession negotiations‡ against Robert Cecil; when the Privy Council caught wind of this intrusion, he refused its demand that he present himself to account for his actions. Instead, he made matters worse by mounting a pathetic march through London with his supporters.

This “Essex Rebellion” was meant to rally the citizenry to him and turn some sort of coup against Robert Cecil. It seems so foolhardy and ill-considered that it’s difficult to think what was in the earl’s head. If you squint at it just so, it perhaps had a big-R Romantic quality, a gallant band of brothers saving the nation from its duplicitous ministers; the night before the rebellion, Essex (a liberal arts patron in his time) splurged to have William Shakespeare’s company§ stage a special performance of Richard II — a play wherein the English monarch is deposed. Presumably this was his inspirational pregame speech.

Thinking much more clearly than Essex, Londoners vigorously ignored his summons and the marching party trudged alone — and surely increasingly frightened — through the city until it was stopped by a barricade. Its participants then fled back to Essex House where they soon found themselves surrounded.

Whatever the fancy that led the Earl of Essex on his fatal February 8 march, and whatever the extent of his ambitions for that occasion, the careless threat to the public peace went several bridges beyond a boyish foible that Elizabeth could overlook in her impulsive courtier. He was prosecuted for treason within days and Elizabeth signed his death warrant on February 20th. The only mercy extended the ex-favorite was to suffer the noble execution of beheading, rather than a traitor’s drawing and quartering. Essex also successfully appealed for a private execution within the walls of the Tower, away from the gawks of those London masses who had so signally failed to rebel along with him.

On the specially built wooden platform, Essex favored his select audience with a bog-standard execution-day mea culpa:

My sins are more in number than the hairs on my head. I have bestowed my youth in wantonness, lust and uncleanness; I have been puffed up with pride, vanity and love of this wicked world’s pleasures. For all which, I humbly beseech my Saviour Christ to be a mediator to the eternal Majesty for my pardon, especially for this my last sin, this great, this bloody, this crying, this infectious sin, whereby so many for love of me have been drawn to offend God, to offend their sovereign, to offend the world. I beseech God to forgive it us, and to forgive it me — most wretched of all.

He prayed a Psalm. Then, stretching out his neck on a low block and thrusting his arms from his sides, he bid the headsman strike. The executioner had to oblige his patient in triplicate in order to sever the puffed-up head.

The Earl of Essex has the distinction of being the last person beheaded on the Tower Green, within the walls off the Tower of London — the last name on the little placard of headless notables photographed by tour groups. Note that Essex was not the last person beheaded at the Tower, when the adjacent Tower Hill is included (that distinction belongs to Jacobite rebel Simon Fraser); nor was he the last person executed within the Tower (that distinction belongs to World War II spy Josef Jakobs, who was not beheaded but shot).

Weary and depressed, Elizabeth died little more than two years afterwards.

* There’s a mind-bending speculative hypothesis out there — cousin to the Shakespeare-focused Prince Tudor theory — that Essex was actually Elizabeth’s secret, illegitimate son. This secret history is obviously more congenial with the queen’s early favoritism for Essex than with her eventually chopping off his head.

** Essex was also a distant cousin of Elizabeth herself: his maternal great-grandmother was Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn — who was Elizabeth’s mother.

Walter Raleigh was a notable Cecil ally in this factional conflict. Raleigh attended Essex’s execution … and, of course, shared that fate many years afterwards.

‡ Elizabeth was nearing age 70; her childless death was imminent. James VI of Scotland was being vetted by Robert Cecil as the successor. Essex tried to stick his thumb in the pie by warning James that the Cecil faction would conspire to foist the English crown on the Spanish infanta — daughter of the Spanish king who had been the Catholic Mary Tudor’s husband. (The infanta was not Mary’s own daughter.) This was no idle threat, as at this point it was only a few years since the Spanish Armada had sallied for English seas.

§ Another noteworthy Shakespeare connection: one of the participants in the Essex Rebellion was the Earl of Southampton (he was spared execution). Southampton, whose given name was Henry Wriothesley, is often identified as the “Fair Youth” to whom Shakespeare dedicated numerous love sonnets. (Some of those are directly addressed to a Mr. “W.H.”)

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1513: Pietro Boscoli and Agostino Capponi, but not Niccolo Machiavelli

Add comment February 23rd, 2015 Headsman

Niccolo Machiavelli‘s exile from Florentine politics — and subsequent entry into the intellectual canon — was cinched this date in 1513 when two of his friends (or possibly co-conspirators) were executed for a plot against the Medici.

Before he was an adjective, Machiavelli was a powerful minister of state for the Florentine Republic — the polity ensuing the 1498 execution of Savonarola.

Days after that stern friar burned to ashes on the Piazza della Signoria, Machiavelli was named the secondo segretario fiorentino,* alongside a primo segretario counterpart, the older and more cautious Marcello Virgilio Adriani.

What a moment this was to be a Florentine! The mighty Medici had been chased out of Florence and with the fall of Savonarola and his grim morals police the humanist dream of a classical republic suddenly seemed within grasp.

Machiavelli was just 29 years old when he reached this office, bursting with a patriot’s reckless exuberance — and a virile young man’s hedonism. He delighted in whores and in boozing around with his Chancery cronies Agostino Vespucci** and Biagio Buonaccorsi.

The correspondence of these indiscreet young Turks fill with profane and cutting takes on the leading citizens of Florence; Machiavelli, who was known in his own time as a playwright and not a political philosopher, was even bold enough to put such ridicule in print. The 1504 play Le Maschere is tragically lost, but by surviving accounts it lampooned “under feigned names, many citizens who were still living.”†

A few books about Niccolo Machiavelli

While not scribbling pasquinades and getting laid, the Second Secretary had matters of state to attend to. We have met him in these pages, as the Florentine ambassador to the court of Cesare Borgia; Machiavelli could not help but admire the condottiero‘s ruthlessness. Machiavelli also represented Florence in Rome, Spain and France.

Showing an equal aptitude for politics by other means, Machiavelli moved the Florentine military muscle towards a citizen militia, presciently replacing its dependence on mercenaries. In 1509 this force captured Pisa.

But Machiavelli’s excessive regard for this strategic advance married to his excessive affinity for the republic of Piero Soderini undid him in the end. While the First Secretary, Adriani, quietly cultivated contacts of various political persuasions, Machiavelli went all in against the stirring Medicean party. This became a problem when the fortunes of peninsular war drove Florence’s French allies away, leaving the city ripe for recapture by Giuliano de’ Medici, who also happened to be the brother of the pope in waiting.

In 1512, a hastily-assembled city militia of about three or four thousand infantry and 100 men-at-arms met an overwhelming Spanish-Papal-Medicean force at Prato. Scrambling to defend a lost cause, Machiavelli had mustered about a third of the militia and was trying to organize the city’s defenses. Florence’s crushing defeat in this battle and the ensuing civic massacre in Prato (with “countless murders, sacrileges and rapes”) convinced the Florentines to depose Piero Soderini and throw open the gates to Giuliano de’ Medici.

This was the end of Machiavelli the statesman … and, of course, the birth of Machiavelli the philosopher. The ensuing 15 years’ frustrating exile left him no other outlet for his political passions save his pen; needless to say, works like The Prince and Discourses on Livy retain exalted seats in the canon down to the present day. (They made little impression on Machiavelli’s contemporaries; Florentines still knew him for the plays he kept writing.)

A few books by Niccolo Machiavelli

When eveniing comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of the court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified of death. I metamorphose into them completely.

-Machiavelli, December 10, 1513

The cautious primo segretario Adriani, who could better see where the winds were blowing, survived the transition by having the wisdom not to align himself with the losing party. Whatever the verdict of posterity, the 1510s were Adriani’s time to bask in the center of events while Machiavelli did his work of ages in obscurity.

But what cinched Machiavelli’s unhappy permanent banishment from Florentine politics — notwithstanding unctuous expedients like dedicating The Prince to the Medici ruler — were the events culminating in two February 23, 1513 beheadings.

Machiavelli had been dismissed in November 1512. Four months later, a nascent (or wildly exaggerated) anti-Medici conspiracy led by a republican named Pietro Boscoli came to light. Its chief, and paltry, evidence was little more than a written list of around 20 fellow-travelers, upon which appeared the name of Niccolo Machiavelli. It’s more than likely that the “treason” amounted to little more than the idle chatter of some disaffected republicans, but after a generation in exile the newly restored Medici dynasty wasn’t taking any chances.

For the onetime Second Secretary, this meant prison and torture by the strappado. Three months on, he was released to his estate with no political succor save the haunts in his head.

But the head he got to keep — and that was better than one could say for Pietro Boscoli.

Boscoli and one Agostino Capponi were beheaded early in the morning of February 23, a bare eight hours after their death sentences were announced. Their last hours were recorded as a Recitazione by a young friend named Luca della Robbia: the tender Passion scene of Boscoli in particular struggling to come to grips with his shockingly sudden fates. The full narrative can be found in translation by Alison Knowles Frazier in The Art of Executing Well: Rituals of Execution in Renaissance Italy. We excerpt a little taste below:

At about 8 o’clock, having had his supper, Boscoli was brought with his legs in irons to the chapel where … he was told that he had to die …

Pietro Paolo cried out “Oh Pietro Paolo, oh poor Pietro Paolo! What has become of you!”

Then I, moved by the greatest compassion, seeing my beloved friend in such great distress, went first to him as lovingly as I could, with a gesture full of mercy, and greeted him like this: “God save you, dearest friend. ‘Do not fear those who kill the body, for they cannot kill the soul.’

Poor Pietro Paolo struggles on here for 15-odd pages in evident anguish, veering between practical considerations of the family he is leaving behind and whom to rustle up as his last-minute confessor, and his uncertain spiritual readiness for death (he was particularly upset at being told of his fate after dinner, for “I am too loaded down with food, and I have eaten salty things, so that I don’t feel able to join my spirit to God”). Della Robbia stays with him the whole time; in the latter’s introduction, he says he “noted diligently all his words, both questions and replies, and kept them in my memory … that such a great and well-formed example of strength and spiritedness would not be lost” and recorded them faithfully later on.

By the end, Boscoli has reconciled his mind to the scaffold.

He is escorted down the stairs from the chapel of the Bargello to its interior courtyard where

leaving the first step, he encountered the Confraternity’s‡ crucifix.

“What am I to do?” [Boscoli] said.

“This is your captain, who comes to arm you,” the friar responded. “Greet him, honor him, ask him to make you strong.”

Then he said, “Greetings, Lord Jesus. I adore you, hanging on the cross. Make me, I beg you, like to your Passion. True Lord, I ask you for peace.”

And thus, going down the second step, he kept commending himself, saying, “‘Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit. You redeemed me, Lord, God of truth.’” When he was on the little platform of the stair, he said, “Is it enough, a good preparation towards God? For I feel some battle. Recall to me those three things.”

Then I, who was behind him, said, “Well you know that it is enough. Say to him, Fra Cipriano, that verse by David, ‘Your ear heard the preparation of their heart, Lord.’

“Okay, yes,” the friar replied, “Your ear heard the preparations …,” and told him once again the three things.§

And he answered, and said, “‘Let your ear hear the preparation of my heart, Lord Jesus.'”


Then the execution, because he wanted to put a kerchief over his eyes, asked his forgiveness and offered to pray to God for him.

“Go ahead and do your duty,” Pietro Paolo said. “And when you have put me at the block, leave me like that for a bit and then finish me off, and that you pray God for me, I accept.”

The reason why he asked for a little time at the block, was that he had all night long always desired a great joining with God and he didn’t feel that he had achieved it as he desired, so that he hoped in that last moment to make a great effort and so to offer himself wholly to God …

And placing himself down, and the executioner, giving him the shortest time, cleanly removed his head, which, so cut, continued to move its mouth for a time.

Agostino Capponi, whom della Robbia has seen only glancingly over his long narrative, follows Boscoli. Although Capponi required two blows of the executioner’s blade, he perhaps went into the hereafter with a soul better at peace — for he “retained on his face a certain wry expression, perhaps not distant from true sincerity.”

* Summary of Machiavelli’s career based on William Landon’s Politics, Patriotism and Language: Niccolò Machiavelli’s «Secular Patria» and the Creation of an Italian National Identity.

** Machiavelli’s clerk Agostino Vespucci — a cousin of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci for whom the American continents were named — made the headlines recently when discovery of a scribble he left in the margin of a 16th century text established the identity of the long-mysterious first lady of Renaissance art, Mona Lisa: she was Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentine cloth merchant.

† Landon says the primo segretario Adriani encouraged Machiavelli to publish this play, even though Adriani himself is one of its targets — in Landon’s view, because Adriani was playing a long game for power, and revenge: quietly encouraging Machiavelli’s excesses while positioning himself politically to profit from his consequent fall.

‡ The Confraternity of the Blacks: a lay brotherhood associated with Florence’s [former] Chiesa di Santa Maria Vergine della Croce al Tempio, tasked with the spiritual assistance of prisoners condemned to death.

§ Shortly before proceeding to execution, Boscoli steeled himself for the ordeal by resolving that “In this journey I have to have three things. I have to believe the faith. I have to have firm hope that God will pardon me. And the third is that I have to suffer this death for love of Christ and not for others.”

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1848: Harriet Parker, crime of passion

Add comment February 22nd, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1848, Harriet Parker was publicly hanged in front of the Debtors’ Door at Newgate for the murder of her lover’s two young children.

The sad story is described in Nicola Sly’s In Hot Blood: A Casebook of Historic British Crimes of Passion.

Harriet was a widow. Her partner, Robert Henry Blake, was legally married to another woman, but they were separated and he lived with Harriet and two of his children by his wife: Amina, age seven, and Robert Jr., age five.

Despite residing at Cupid’s Court in London, their relationship was far from blissful. Robert was an inveterate womanizer who openly flaunted his affairs. It all came to a head on New Years’ Eve, 1847, when Robert told Harriet he was going to the theater without her. He’d made plans with a friend, Stephen Hewlett, and she wasn’t invited.

Harriet was furious and suspected, rightly, that Robert was actually going to be with another woman. She followed him as he left their home and tagged along behind him wherever he went, telling him he’d better get used to it because she would be with him all night.

Robert did meet up with his friend Stephen and complained of Harriet’s jealousy. “If I was to kiss that post,” he said, “she would be jealous of it.” Eventually he was able to give Harriet the slip, though, and went immediately to a prostitute’s house, where he stayed the night.

Harriet, meanwhile, angrily searched for her errant lover for hours, saying darkly that Robert would regret his actions for the rest of his life.

“I will do something that he shall repent and will die in Newgate,” she told Stephen Hewlett. She added, “I have something very black in mind … You will hear of me before you see me.”

He didn’t take her seriously. He should have.

A few hours after midnight on New Years’ Day, witnesses saw Harriet walking the city streets with little Amina, still asking people if they’d seen Robert. The next time anyone saw her was at 4:00 a.m. She was alone, and knocked frantically at her neighbor’s door. The neighbor opened the bedroom window and looked out, and asked what on earth was wrong.

“Oh, Mrs. Moore, I have done it,” Harriet said. She added that Blake had “met a little strumpet” and left her last night, and hadn’t come home. “A pretty spectacle is there for him when he does come home,” she added. “I shall go and deliver myself up to a policeman.”

Her neighbor asked why and she replied, “I have murdered the two children.”

That got Mrs. Moore’s attention and she sent her husband to find a police officer. Harriet herself went looking and found one, and asked to be arrested, but she didn’t disclose the reason until they were on the way to the station house. Finally she unburdened her secret:

I have murdered the children to revenge their father. They were innocent — through my vindictiveness I have done the deed.

A look in at the Blake/Parker house showed Harriet was telling the truth: Amina and Robert Jr. were lying in bed, quite dead. They had been smothered and their bodies were still warm. Harriet’s clothes were stiff with dried blood, but it wasn’t the children’s; it was her own blood, from a beating Blake had given her a few days before.

Harriet had to be persuaded not to plead guilty to her crimes from the outset. At her trial, which was presided over by two judges, her defense was that of provocation. Her attorney argued that Robert’s horrible treatment of her had driven her out of her mind and she was not a “responsible agent” at the time of the murders.

The jury was out for only ten minutes before returning with a verdict of guilty of willful murder. The automatic sentence was death, but the jurors included a strong recommendation of mercy because of the provocation Harriet had received. (Even after the murders Robert had boasted of all the women he’d seduced during the time he lived with Harriet.)

Judge Baron didn’t agree with the jury, pointing out that “the children gave her no provocation at all.”

Nevertheless, he promised to pass the recommendation on to the Home Secretary. When the two judges passed their sentence on the convicted woman, they emphasized that she had no right to take her feelings about Blake out on two “unoffending children” who were “in a sweet, innocent sleep.”

Harriet cried out, before being lead from court, “God forgive you, Robert. You have brought me to this.”

The Home Secretary did receive the jury’s recommendation of mercy, but didn’t act on it. The widespread perception was that if Harriet had murdered her louse of a partner rather than his children, she would gotten off with a lesser verdict of manslaughter. But the deaths of two small children, killed for the actions of their father, could not be countenanced.

Harriet spent her last days dictating letters to people. In one of several letters sent to Blake, she wrote, “Awful as my fate is, I would rather die than live again the wretched life I have done for the last twelve months.” She sent him a Bible and a pair of cuffs she’d knitted, and advised him to return to his wife and forsake drinking, bad company and other women.

The crowd of persons assembled to witness the awful scene was immense, and far exceeded in number those present at any execution of late — their conduct, also, we regret to add, was worse than usual, the yells and hootings which prevailed for some time previous to the culprit making her appearance being perfectly dreadful.

-London Times, February 22, 1848

Mrs. Moore visited her in her cell and found her surprisingly at ease. “I have received more kindness in Newgate than ever since I left my mother’s home,” Harriet told her former neighbor.

Harriet was hanged by one of Britain’s most famous executioners, William Calcraft — although it was never the tidiness of his executions that he was famous for. Calcraft didn’t handle Harriet all that well, either: according to one account, Harriet’s “muscular contortions and violent motion of the hands and arms … were truly dreadful” as she choked to death. Her frame was so slight that the fall didn’t break her neck.

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1815: Six militiamen, Andrew Jackson’s electoral dirty laundry

Add comment February 21st, 2015 Headsman

If present-day electoral politics strike you as disreputable, take comfort in the knowledge that the Republic has survived its share of low-down, brass-knuckle campaigns in the past. The presidential election of 1828 might have been the very dirtiest.

This race pitted incumbent John Quincy Adams, the silver-spoon New Englander and son of Federalist founding father John Adams, against Andrew Jackson, the uncouth self-made westerner of Scotch peasant stock. Jackson was [in]famous for his duels, and his willingness to push the envelope on acceptable use of the military forces he commanded. Some foes saw him as an American Napoleon; some supporters, likewise.

One of the juiciest gobs of slung mud in that 1828 campaign involved Jackson’s actions as a Major General during the War of 1812, and specifically right around the Battle of New Orleans.

Karl Rove would have approved of this tactical attack on the strength of a candidate, for it was to this service that Jackson owed his national repute. De Tocqueville, who considered Jackson “a man of violent temper and very moderate talents,” said that he “was raised to the Presidency, and has been maintained there, solely by the recollection of a victory which he gained, twenty years ago, under the walls of New Orleans.”*

At any rate, back in 1815, when army regulars were engaged on the east coast (or in the quixotic attempt to invade Canada), battle in the south and west pitted shaky American militia against British-allied Indian tribes in dirty, bloody ethnic cleansing.

Immediately prior to New Orleans, Jackson, west Tennessee’s biggest landowner and therefore its militia commander, took his forces south to Alabama, combined them with other militia, and routed the Creek, ending the Creek War subplot to the War of 1812. ‘Twas this conquest gave Jackson his “Old Hickory” nickname for controlling the Muscogee Creeks of Hickory Ground.

Cool beans for A.J., but not everyone on his team was equally excited.

After the Creek surrendered at the newly-raised Fort Jackson — vanity, vanity, all is vanity! — a number of soldiers stationed there with the 1st Regiment West Tennessee Militia started agitating to pack up and leave, even with the British navy still lurking. Come September, some even went so far as to demonstratively tramp out of Fort Jackson, vowing to return to hearth and home.

These were not enlisted soldiers of a standing army, so they did not necessarily conceive themselves bound to fight the British in Louisiana or the Creeks in Alabama: rights and obligations and loyalties were still being sorted out in the young Republic. These deserters had, however, been mustered that June for an announced six-month term, and September was only three months later. Moreover, these weren’t the only rumblings of desertion in Jackson’s ambit, and since he was potentially facing the prospect of defending the whole Gulf Coast against the world’s preeminent military power using nothing but a motley collection of farmers, Indian allies, pirates, and what-have-you, Old Hickory was not inclined to countenance anything that could erode his forces’ tenuous unity. Like George Washington before him, Jackson shot some malcontents today to pre-empt trouble tomorrow.

On November 21, 1814, Jackson ordered the six deserters/mutineers to court-martial. The next day, he departed to New Orleans where he would cover himself with glory.

After winning that battle, Jackson adjudicated a message from the Alabama court-martial, announcing six men condemned who had not been recommended for leniency.

As is well-known, the War of 1812 had officially been settled by treaty for weeks at this point, but it took approximately f.o.r.e.v.e.r for word to get around in these pre-telegraph days. Jackson didn’t know the war was over: he did know that British ships were still lurking around in the Gulf. (They also didn’t know the war was over.)

So Jackson behaved just as if he had a going conflict on his hands and sent back confirmation of the sentences. His six mutineers were shot kneeling on their coffins before 1,500 troops in Mobile, Ala. on February 21, 1815. Only after that did everybody (British included) find out that there wasn’t anything left to fight for.

But when Andrew Jackson eventually ran for U.S. President in 1828, the poor militiamen were exhumed (only metaphorically!) to traduce the general, whose reputation already ran to the bloodthirsty. This was a country where a great many of the men casting ballots would be, actually or potentially, subject to militia duty: the prospect of a frontier Queeg actually executing militia was calculated to impair Jackson’s famous appeal to the common man and raise the specter of the president as a potential strongman.

Propaganda pamphlets circulated this execution story widely that year, the swiftboating of the 19th century.

Their inevitable inclusion of six coffin-shaped blocks to symbolize the dead men this date eventually gave to anti-Jackson broadsides the name “Coffin Handbills” — a term that eventually extended to the entire genre of political libels. This linguistic relic is surely due for a bicentennial resurrection.

Sordid campaigning over Jackson’s questionable military freelancing was somewhat ironic in 1828, since Jackson also had that reputation from his extra-legal Florida incursions, after the War of 1812. Those adventures rankled many within the Monroe administration, but were stoutly defended by Monroe’s Secretary of State — none other than John Quincy Adams. (Adams’s own signature graces the 1819 treaty with Spain which ceded Florida; it was largely secured by Jackson’s depredations.)

Irony or no, the attacks had to be dealt with.

Jackson’s partisans responded with equal vigor. For instance, newspapers (the excerpt below comes from the May 1, 1828 Maryland Gazette) carried a lengthy vindication penned by a Jackson partisan and fellow-Tennessean then sitting his first term in Congress … but destined in time to follow Jackson to the White House.**

I had supposed it scarcely possible that any candid, intelligent man, could for a moment doubt the correctness of General Jackson’s conduct, in relation to this subject … No man has ever been more misrepresented and slandered by his political adversaries than Gen. Jackson, and upon no subject more than that in relation to the execution of the ‘six militia men.’ …

The corps to which the ‘six militiamen’ belonged, was stationed at Fort Jackson. Between the 10th and 20th of September 1814, before the period even of three months, much less six months, had expired, an alarming mutiny, such as was seldom ever witnessed in any army, took place in the camp, of which these ‘six militia men’ were the ringleaders. Harris who seems to have been the principal, several days before the mutiny broke out, carried about a subscription paper thro’ the camp, obtaining the signatures of all who would agree to go home. In defiance of their officers commanding the post, they on the 19th of September 1814, violently and tumultuously assembled together, to the number of near two hundred, broke open the public stores, took out provisions, demolished the bake house, shot down breves, and in the face of authority, left the camp on the next morning ‘at the end of revielle beat;’ yelling and firing scattering guns as they departed, proclaiming to all who would, to follow them.

Th proceedings of the court martial were forwarded to General Jackson then at New Orleans, for his approval. The six ringleaders were not recommended to mercy by the court martial. No palliating circumstances existed in their case, known to him. He knew they had been tried by a court martial composed of their fellow citizens and neighbours at home. The news of peace had not then arrived. The enemy’s forces were still in our waters and on our border. When an attack might be made was unknown, and the militia under General Winchester‘s command at Mobile, were ‘threatening to mutiny.’ … General Jackson saw that the salvation of the country was still in jeopardy, if subordination was not preserved in the army. He approved the sentence, and these six unfortunate, tho’ guilty men, were executed. This approval of the sentence of the court martial was made at New Orleans on the 22d of January, 1815. The first intimation which the General had of the news of peace even by rumour, was received on the 18th or 19th of February, 1815 … Col. G.C. Russell, who commanded on the day the sentence of the court martial was carried into execution, states in a letter of the 29th of July, 1827, that ‘we had no knowledge of a treaty of peace having been signed at Ghent, till more than a month after the approval of the sentence, and fifteen or twenty days after its execution.’ The official news of peace did not reach General Jackson until the 18th of March, 1815, and on the 19th of the same month, the British commander received the official intelligence from his government. It was not until after this period that the British forces left their position on that border of the union.

The effect which the execution of these men produced in the army was most salutary. Not a whisper was afterwards heard of the mutiny which had threatened General Winchester’s command. Subordination was restored, and all the troops in the service were willing, and did without a murmur perform their duty. Mutiny and desertion were no longer heard of in that part of the military service.

it is impossible to conceive how censure can attach to General Jackson. At the time he approved the sentence of the six ringleaders, he pardoned all those who had been recommended to mercy by the court martial that tried them. At the time of the execution all acquiesced in its justice. Every officer in the army responded to the importance of the example, for the good of the service. At that time the whole country was satisfied. Not a whisper of censure was heard against the commanding General, or any member of the court martial in reference to it.

-James K. Polk

Polk, indeed, advised his friend Jackson closely during the latter’s 1828 campaign, and specifically counseled an active campaign to rebut the “six militiamen” attacks.

Polk’s energetic response and others like it must have worked well enough: Jackson crushed John Quincy Adams as handily as he had once done the Creeks, and wound up with his hatchet face on the American $20 bill.

* The De Tocqueville quote in the text is the part germane to this post, but it disdainfully goes on to pronounce New Orleans “a victory which was, however, a very ordinary achievement and which could only be remembered in a country where battles are rare. Now the people who are thus carried away by the illusions of glory are unquestionably the most cold and calculating, the most unmilitary, if I may so speak, and the most prosaic of all the nations of the earth.” Sniff.

** And to follow Jackson’s policy of dubious southerly land-grabs.

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1942: Max Hertz, chronicled by Oskar Rosenfeld

1 comment February 20th, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1942,* a middle-aged man was hanged in the Lodz Ghetto in front of an audience of twenty thousand. His name was Max Hertz, son of Salli Hertz and Helena Hertz née Abraham. He was from Germany.

His death was recorded in heartbreaking detail by Oskar Rosenfeld, a resident of the ghetto. Rosenfeld was an Austrian-Jewish writer and translator who’d published six novels before the war. After the Anschulss in 1938, he and his wife emigrated to Prague in Czechoslovkia to escape Nazi aggression. Nazi aggression followed them, however, and the couple made plans to move to England.

Mrs. Rosenfeld left in 1939 and her husband was supposed to come later, but the war started and Rosenfeld found himself trapped in Prague.

Deported to the Lodz Ghetto in 1941, within a few months he secured a relatively cushy position as an archivist with the ghetto administration. He helped write the official Lodz Ghetto Chronicle, a diary of the day-to-day events of the ghetto.

Oskar Rosenfeld

Behind closed doors, Oskar Rosenfeld was keeping his own, personal diary, accumulating twenty-one notebooks in all. Sixty years later, the director of the Yad Vashem libraries described his style as “riveting. At times he is philosophical and literary, at others he is spare and raw. Often instead of full sentences, Rosenfeld writes strings of words words so packed with meaning that normal sentence structure is superfluous.”

The diary was mostly in German, with occasional parts in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.

Rosenfeld employed a simple, fairly transparent code to avoid trouble if his notebooks should come into the wrong hands. He refered to the Nazis, for example, as “Ashkenes.” When he wrote “Germans,” he meant only German Jews. The Ghetto Chairman, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, designated Eldest of the Jews, was often called “Praeses.” The words “Gestapo” and “Kripo” were written using the Greek alphabet.

His entries described in painstaking detail the grotesque land in which he was imprisoned: the religious and cultural life of the ghetto, the residents’ attitude toward the administration, the rumors flying around about the war front, the deportations, and above all everyone’s struggle to survive from day to day.

Starvation, overwork, disease and despair wore away at the Lodz Jews, like sand castles crumbling. The Nazis’ Jewish problem, Rosenfeld noted wryly, was being solved “in installments.”

During the frigid Polish winters—unusually harsh in those years—the coal ration was pitiful, and people chopped up their own furniture for firewood. When that was gone, they turned to the streets and stole whatever they could get their hands on: fences, even sheds and outhouses were dismantled for burning. In spite of this hundreds of people froze to death.

A bigger problem was food. Or rather, lack of food.

“According to German scientific findings,” Rosenfeld wrote,

the consumption of calories in normal times was 3,640 calories with 93 grams of albumen per person. The allocated ration in the fall of 1941 was 1,300 calories and 36 grams of albumen. Since the fall of 1941, the ghetto — with the minor exception of the workers in the factories — received a mere 900 calories and 25 grams of albumen per person. Not taking into account the lack of vitamins. This was no longer nutrition, this was a prescription for a slow death.

People traded everything they had, literally the clothes off their backs, for a few turnips or some sausage. During times when food was particularly scarce, a diamond necklace or a good pair of shoes might fetch a single loaf of bread. And sometimes one loaf was all a person could expect to get for an entire week.

When someone died — and there were deaths in nearly every family — their surviving relatives would often wait several days to report it, so they could claim the dead person’s rations. There were even reports of cannibalism, which Rosenfeld dutifully recorded.

The Lodz Ghetto was a work camp, not a death camp, and was designed to squeeze all the labor it could out of the inhabitants. People who were just too sick or weak to keep up were likely to find themselves on the next list for deportation to mysterious “labor camps in the East.”

Nobody knew for sure where the deportees were going, but the ghetto residents had reason to be suspicious and fearful and most of them did everything they could to stay out of the transports. No one who was deported ever returned to the ghetto. These were supposed to be long journeys and deportees were advised to pack several days’ worth of food, but like as not, the trains would come back empty the very next day.

In fact, the deportation transports usually traveled no more than forty miles outside of Lodz.

Their destination was Chelmno, the Germans’ first death camp. There they used gas vans to asphyxiate their victims. These were relatively primitive and inefficient; it wasn’t until later that they came up with the idea of gas chambers instead of vehicles.

The Lodz Ghetto had its own police force staffed by Jewish volunteers (who were universally despised as collaborators by the others) and a court that presided over criminal trials.

Violent crime, and for that matter most crimes against other persons, was rare: most of the court cases involved crime against the ghetto community as a whole. (Demolishing public fences and buildings for fuel, for example. See above.)

The rules were harsh. Kitchen workers caught sneaking even a spoonful of soup or some half-rotted beets were subject to prosecution. A carpenter could be brought up on charges of sabotage if he took some scrap wood home to burn. Jozef Zelkowicz, another employee in the Ghetto Archives, wrote about one case where a tailor forgot he’d draped a length of of thread over his shoulder for easy access during his work. After leaving at the end of his shift, he was arrested for “stealing” the thread.

Offenders usually got a short jail term of a few weeks or months. That was the least of the punishment, however: when they got out, they were often banned from working again and their families were banned from receiving welfare, essentially a death sentence. Convicted criminals and their families also had priority for deportation, however, and tended to get shipped out before they starved to death.

Not this time, however. For whatever reason, the Nazis decided to make a public example of Max Hertz.

It was the very first public execution in the ghetto. In fact, Rosenfeld said, they’d constructed the gallows just for this occasion:

At 5 p.m. on Friday, the building department had received the order for a gallows to be erected on Fischplatz by 7 a.m. the next morning. Precise specifications were given: wooden beams, heavy iron hooks, bent to a shape just this long and that wide. A man from Germany was entrusted with the job. He worked hard and long, and got it done on time. This worker was, it turned out, an intimate friend of the condemned man.

The Nazis were so pleased with the craftsmanship that they placed another for a set of gallows designed to hang twelve people at once.

Rosenfeld’s description of the execution is worth of being quoted almost in full:

Friday, collective, six o’clock in the evening, impersonal declaration to all members of the collective… Meet at nine o’clock at the Fish Market. Rumors: military parade, directives from the German military, the Eldest to speak. –Afterward some reported that they knew… The sick had express dispensation from attending the meeting. Shabbat from nine o’clock on a queue of men and women being led by room commandant through the almost empty streets across the “little bridge” at the Old Market Place between the ghetto and the city, past Hamburgerstrasse to the Fish Market. Along the way local passersby asked what was going on… Nobody had the answer. Frost. Clear. Biting wind. Terribly uncomfortable in the open air. The closerto the square, the clearer that something terrible was about to happen. The streets usually teeming with people on Shabbat — empty…

The rumor of the true drama seems to have gained credence in the ghetto, none of the local inhabitants want to risk being forced to participate and therefore remained at home.

Goaded by the sharp commands of the Jewish police, took their places, men in the front, women in the back, similar queues were streaming toward the square from other directions. It didn’t take long. Shortly before nine o’clock, Fish Square was filled with a human wall, was encircled, a horrifying silence, a few locals out of curiosity.

Finally the masses begin to understand. Sense of foreboding during the march that they were to attend an execution scene (or a witch burning); in the square, many for the first time, gallows. It had been erected early in the morning by the Jewish police. Several women fainted at the sight, others fell into convulsive sobbing; several of the men managed to send some of the women back home or took them (secretly!) to nearby apartments. Those who wanted to go back later found the street blocked off; then order to seal off the surrounding area of Fish Square.

Quite low on three steps, small podium, to the left across from the post office for newly settled rectangular trapdoor; above the trapdoor a vertical balcony, at the upper end a horizontal beam with a hemp cord.

A cold shudder went through the onlookers… No more ilusions, no dream, raw reality, for everybody knew who was Ashkenes.

Several well-fed, field-gray SS officers. At the corner of the square, soldiers with mounted machine guns to keep the crowd in check. Nobody had the courage to flee. The transport leader warned of the most severe consequence for anybody who tried to leave. A few managed to get to the collective. An Ashkenes car was parked not far from the square.

Word making the round: cause and candidate. Cause: Jewish star; another variant: a Communist wanted for a long time, flight only a pretext. Left wife and child to take better care of them from Germany (name: Herz [sic], Cologne). The wife is said to be among the onlookers, unaware of what’s happening.

Men quite numb. Some of the women somewhat worried. The Ashkenes men are in a good mood, well fed, smoking, looking cheerfully at the crowd.

Almost an hour and a half. Cold is intensifying…rubbing to generate warmth, with hands on the knees. About ten-thirty suddenly complete silences. From the direction of Zgierz, probably from the Baluter Ring (Gestapo Headquarters, office of the Praeses — government square), appears a man without a hat, flanked right and left by field-gray soldiers, his gray hair in the wind, no collar, open neck, moving closer slowly, in a short winter jacket…directly to the gallows. Most onlookers, especially the women, avert their eyes, others turn their backs to the square; many look nevertheless sideways to the spot where the scene is to unfold. (Tragic irony…joke, perhaps to be released again!!!) Most of them after all witnessing for the first time such business and desire for sensationalism. Since none had ever attended a witch burning or torture or pillory, they didn’t know how to behave, didn’t find the right style; tugged embarrassed on their clothing, clenched the fists, and waited for a sign that was to tell them what it was they should do. Suddenly the silence was so horrifying that the healthy voices of the field-gray Ashkenes could clearly be heard in the square. A man of more than eighty suddenly remembered hearing from his room a strong voice by the wire around midnight, a song that began with la-la and ended with “and if the world were full of devils,” and began to make, quite unexpectedly, his own observations about this. Yes, this old man even rolled up the torn gloves for a moment to make sure that his fingernails were clean. A women her lipstick —

Not a word was heard. Silence. The candidate shivered in the cold. The field-grays in furs. His overcoat was taken from him. He folded his hands. Saw the entire scene, the crowd. Implacable. Mounted the steps to the podium. There was met by two Jewish policemen and a third man who busied himself callously with the cord.

It was said that a Jewish policeman, a well-known Communist, had been ordered to assist in this execution — as a deterrent. Completely dull expression of the crowd, who didn’t like to see Ben Israel [son of Israel] under the gallows. Sensationalism won out over disgust, women there with handkerchiefs over their faces but peering nevertheless, men completely dispassionate. The symbolism — a people pilloried — did not enter their conciousness. The bareheaded man shivered, folded his hands. Something was wrong with the cord. The Jewish policeman handled it very clumsily. The field gray standing next to him straightened it out, busied himself; the Jewish policemen in their excitement had made a wrong move, not well familiar with the executioner’s tool, more used to tefellin [phylacteries] (observation of an onlooker). The moment came when the crowd thought something was going to happen, a declaration or reading of the sentence or some other matter. But nothing. Continued silence. When the man saw that there was no escape, he again folded his hands and suddenly, with a lamenting voice: “Why don’t you let me live…”


A hanging (not necessarily this one) in Lodz Ghetto.

Many expected instead of this plea some kind of demonstration as a legacy from the crowd, some inspiring motto. But nothing of the sort. He was no hero in our sense. Now eyes averted from the gallows, dull thumping was heard of heavy material and wood, a few seconds for the convulsing body, dangling. The crowd was even able to look at it for some time—seconds (counting to thirteen). The corpse softly in the wind. Rigid features, rigid limbs.

The field grays gave a sign, Jewish police gave a sign, and the crowd quickly began to disperse, going home, the wife of the delinquent was present…

The body remained hanging the entire Shabbat. The Jews avoided the place.

The Lodz Ghetto Chronicle includes an entry on this execution, noting it took place in a large square at Bazarna and Lutomierska Streets. According to the chronicle, Max Hertz had escaped the ghetto and spent several days in Lodz proper. He was arrested at the train station when he tried to buy a ticket to Cologne. This was about three weeks before his execution.

The Polish writer and child Holocaust survivor Henryk Grynberg later honored him in a fragment of poetry:

Max Hertz brought from Cologne
on October 23, 1941
went back to the station
but when paying for his ticket
a star fell out of his pocket
right into the ticket clerk’s eye
and he hung over the bazaar
showing the shortest way back
to Europe

The spectacle of Max Hertz’s death had indeed left an unforgettable impression on its audience, just as the Nazis intended.

As for Oskar Rosenfeld: he continued working in the Ghetto Archives up until August 1944. His final diary entry was on July 28 of that year. He was well aware that the fate of the ghetto hung in the balance:

We are facing either apocalypse or redemption… There are plenty of skeptics, nigglers, who don’t want to believe it and still have doubts about that which they have been long and waiting for years… After so much suffering and terror, after so many disappointments, it is hardly surprising that they are not willing to give themselves over to anticipatory rejoicing. The heart is marred with scars, the brain encrusted with dashed hopes.

It turned out to be apocalypse: in August, before the Red Army liberated Lodz, the ghetto was liquidated and almost all of its inhabitants sent to Auschwitz. Like most of the others, Rosenfeld was gassed on arrival. He was sixty years old. But his notebooks survived him, and ultimately ended up in the custody of Yad Vashem. His diary was published in English for the first time in 2003, under the title In the Beginning was the Ghetto: Notebooks From Lodz.

* Rosenfeld places the date of the execution on Friday, February 20. All other sources, including the Lodz Ghetto Chronicle and Max Hertz’s Yad Vashem page of testimony, place it as Saturday, February 21, but I’m sure Rosenfeld is right. The execution seems to have taken place at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. The Sabbath is on Saturday, but to religious Jews it actually starts after sunset on Friday; Rosenfeld writes that the body “remained hanging the entire Sabbath” which implies it hung for some time. If it hung “for the entire Sabbath” starting Saturday night, that would have been for less than two hours.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Jews,Poland,Public Executions,Theft

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