Posts filed under 'History'

1505: The Val Camonica witches

Add comment June 23rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1505, seven women and a man were burned in the town of Cemmo in Lombardy’s Val Camonica — the first victims of that region’s outbreak of witch-hunting that would claim over 100 lives all told.

This alpine valley fell in the remit of the city of Brescia which meant that (since the 1420s) it answered ultimately to the Most Serene Republic of Venice. But in the hinterlands of the fragmented Italian peninsula were

Remotenesses like Val Camonica are among the focal points for the fancy or hope that pockets of paganism held on from antiquity even in the heart of Christendom. Brescia lay in the belt spawning doctrinal and political challenges to the medieval church — the very zone that gave rise to the Inquisition.

During two distinct periods — 1505 to 1510, and again from 1518 to 1521 — that Inquisition fastened on folk in this region who constituted “a most pernicious kind of people … utterly damned by the stain of heresy, which was causing them to renounce the sacrament of the baptism they had received, denying their Lord and giving their bodies and souls to Satan whose advice was leading them astray.” (1521 communique of Pope Leo X, quoted here)

The circumstances for these purges can only be guessed at, as most of the primary documentation, particularly of the earlier episode, is lost. But the context of Papal-Venetian rivalry all but insists upon itself. Indeed, Venice’s ruling oligarchy is known during the 1518-1521 Inquisition to have interceded to prevent the Pope’s delegate from putting torch to flesh, provoking one of the innumerable jurisdictional imbroglios between the rival city-states.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Venice,Witchcraft,Women

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1877: Pennsylvania’s Day of the Rope

Add comment June 21st, 2017 Headsman

This date in 1877 was Pennsylvania’s “Day of the Rope”, a Thursday blackened by the execution of ten Irish coal miners as labor radicals.*

These are supposed “Molly Maguires”, others of whom we have previously met in these pages.

Though the term is now best associated with these anthracite miners of eastern Pennsylvania, it enters the textual record earliest in Great Britain right around 1845 … which, no coincidence, was the dawn of Ireland’s Great Famine.

Where tenant farmers starved even as absentee landlords exported crops, militancy naturally ensued — intrinsically criminal and therefore secretive, inevitably characterized as terroristic by its foes. For this desperate movement the fictitious heroine “Molly Maguire” would be name and watchword, a mythic resistance character in the tradition of Captain Swing or Ned Ludd; legend — perhaps reality? — would hold that her earliest followers had desolated a lord’s land after he turned subsistence farmers off it in favor of cash crops by murdering new tenant after new tenant until nobody dared occupy the tract. Newspapers began to denounce her followers proportional to the publication’s proximity to London capital.

A sympathetic domestic description is provided by the Cork Examiner of July 9, 1845, which contends that Molly McGuireism is nothing but “the tenant creed.”

The spirit and letter of legislation are all for ramparting round the rights of property. The meaning of this plainly is — legislating for themselves, whilst the population of the country may perish. Hence, stone walls and bogs, and houses and fields, with all dead matter, are cared for and legislated upon by landlords, whilst the living and producing beings — the Christian inhabitants of the country, who are formed to make up the sum of its riches, naturally and artificially, are exterminated, expatriated, famished, or shot down like dogs. What is the necessary consequence of this infamous state of things? Circumspice. Look around you and behold the monument raised to the desolating idol. Its history and its effects are written in the hovelled mud, and the squalid wretches and the naked children, which form the social and rural beauties of the soil of Ireland.

Well, the people feel and say — they would be stupid and brutal if they did not — that legislation or legislators will do nothing for them. They are thus thrown upon their own resources and their own energies. By the midnight lamp they write their own fearful enactments. If the code of their specified rights be written in blood, it is awful, but it is not unnatural.

And in Pennsylvania’s coal fields, during the depression of the 1870s, this was much the condition of Irish immigrant miners — no few of whom had been driven there by the very famine that spawned the original Molly Maguires.

Since verifiable documentary evidence of Molly Maguireism as an organized movement is very scant it’s an open question for posterity to what extent we behold the traces of an international Irish Catholic labor militancy or the hysteria of the boss. In whichever dimensions, the ghost of Molly Maguire crossed the Atlantic and haunted the violent carbon-harvest business in Pennsylvania … a ghost that rattles its chains ever so faintly whenever your Monopoly piece takes a ride on the Reading.

Though it’s difficult to think it today, the Reading Railroad company was one of the world’s largest corporations in the 1870s. The firm’s captain of industry, Franklin Gowen, figures as the antagonist and perhaps the concoctor of the Mollies, whose appearance as a criminal offshoot of the fraternal Ancient Order of Hibernians he alleged as a calumny against the union he fought blood and nail.

In the course of an 1871 strike, Gowen complained that the union’s ability to achieve general compliance with the work stoppage could only be the result of a shadowy association of foreign agitators “which issues orders which no one dare disobey.”

There has never, since the middle ages, existed a tyranny like this on the face of God’s earth. There has never been, in the most despotic government in the world, such a tyranny, before which the poor laboring man has to crouch like a whipped spaniel before the lash, and dare not say that his soul is his own … I say there is an association which votes in secret, at night, that men’s lives shall be taken, and that they shall be shot before their wives, murdered in cold blood, for daring to work against the order. (Source)

Fired by his public-spirited humanitarianism, Gowen went to work against the despotism of refusing his wage by retaining the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Its agent, James McParland, would make his name** famous or infamous with his claim to have infiltrated secret Molly meetings orchestrating routine political assassinations (assassinations he notably failed to prevent). His (thrilling) allegations, supplemented by confessions of alleged Mollies who turned state’s evidence to save their own lives,† were decisive in noosing the Mollies as murderers. For this McParland would receive both laurels and death threats, and also inspire a character in the Sherlock Holmes adventures.


Cincinnati Commercial, June 22, 1877.

The hysteria Gowen, McParland et al orchestrated was so self-confirming in the moment that newsmen wrote as categorically about the Mollies as they would in our era about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and their terroristic reputation would be freely wielded to bludgeon the miners’ union. But curiously these existential menaces, once prosecuted, vanished with nary a footprint from their former rollick … so was the whole network phenomenally thorough about its secrecy, or was there never any such Hibernian Black Sabbath at all? There’s never been a historical consensus save that their trials by political allies of Gowen were at the very least travesties of justice — if not outright frame-ups.

Three weeks after the Day of the Rope, deep wage cuts for railroad workers triggered the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 which soon gave the Reading Railroad company its second bloody association in as many months: the Reading Railroad Massacre.

* Six hanged in Pottsville, and four in Mauch Chunk (since renamed as Jim Thorpe). Andrew Lanahan also hanged for murder on the same day at Wilkes-Barre, giving Pennsylvania 11 executions overall for its day of the rope; Lanahan’s was not one of the Molly Maguire cases but owing to his own Irish heritage there was never-proven conjecture that his crime was “inspired” by Maguireism. Accordingly, one can find different sources claiming either 10 or 11 Mollies hanged on this occasion. After this date’s harvest, ten additional supposed Molly Maguires were hanged by Pennsylvania during the next 18 months.

** McParland is the subject of a recent biography, Pinkerton’s Great Detective.

† Pennsylvania deployed demonstrative ferocity here: a 15-year-old who gave an alibi for her uncle got slapped with a thirty-month perjury sentence for contradicting a Pinkerton detective.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Pennsylvania,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1684: Sir Thomas Armstrong, Whig plotter

Add comment June 20th, 2017 Headsman

Whig knight Sir Thomas Armstrong was hanged, drawn, and quartered on this date in 1684, for adhering to Lord Russell‘s treasonable Rye House Plot.

Armstrong had been tempting the executioner for some years: he fell foul of the Cromwell protectorate for shuttling funds to the exiled Charles II, and in 1675 he slew a Mr. Scroope at a theater brawl. Both times he kept his head.

He would not be so lucky when conniving to kidnap the king.

Armstrong was shut out of the leadership clique of the Rye House Plot but he was active scheming with Monmouth and others about “how to surprize the Kings Guards” to get at the royal person, with Armstrong observing that “the Guards were very remiss in their places, and not like Souldiers, and the thing was feasible if they had strength to do it.”*

Briefly escaped to the Low Countries along with a number of other fellow-travelers,** Armstrong was arrested in Leiden and repatriated to face royal justice.


Detail view (click for a larger image) of the dismembering of Thomas Armstrong. Condemned to drawing and quartering, Armstrong was hanged to death and only “after such time the Sufferer had hung about half an Hour, and the Executioner had divested him of his Aparrel, he was cut down according to his Sentence; his Privy Members dissected from his Body, and Burnt; his Head cut off, and shewed to the People as that of a Traytor; his Heart and Bowels taken out, and committed to the Flames; and his Body Quartered into four Parts, which, with his Head, was conveyed back to Newgate, to be disposed of according to his Majesties Pleasure, and Order.” (

In an era of bitter factional politics spiced by burgeoning print culture, Armstrong’s delayed handling gave Tory squibs ample space to gleefully taunt the Whigs through him, and savor in doggerel (via repeat reference to executioner Jack Ketch) the inevitable rending of flesh that ensued.

The Bully WHIG: OR, The Poor Whores Lamentation for the Apprehending OF Sir THOMAS ARMSTRONG.

To the Tune of, Ah! Cruel Bloody Fate! &c.

I.

AH! Cruel Bloody Tom!
What canst thou hope for more,
Than to receive the Doom
Of all thy Crimes before?
For all thy bold Conspiracies
Thy Head must pay the score;
Thy Cheats and Lies,
Thy Box and Dice,
Will serve thy turn no more.

II.

Ungrateful thankless Wretch!
How could’st thou hope in vain
(Without the reach of Ketch)
Thy Treasons to maintain?
For Murders long since done and past,
Thou Pardons hast had store,
And yet would’st still
Stab on, and kill,
As if thou hop’dst for more.

III.

Yet Tom, e’r he would starve,
More Blood resolv’d to’ve spilt;
Thy flight did only serve
To justifie thy Guilt:
While They whose harmless Innocence
Submit to Chains at home,
Are each day freed,
While Traytors bleed,
And suffer in their room.

IV.

When Whigs a PLOT did Vote,
What Peer Justice fled?
In the FANATICK PLOT
Tom durst not shew his head.
Now Sacred Justice rules above,
The Guiltless are set free,
And the Napper’s napt,
And Clapper clapt
In his CONSPIRACY.

V.

Like Cain, thou hast a Mark
Of Murder on thy Brow;
Remote, and in the dark,
Black Guilt did still pursue:
Nor England, Holland, France, or Spain,
The Traytor can defend;
He will be found
In Fetters bound,
To pay for’t in the end.

VI.

Tom might about the Town
Have bully’d, huff’d and roar’d,
By every Venus known,
Been for a Mars ador’d:
By friendly Pimping and false Dice
Thou might’st have longer liv’d,
Hector’d and shamm’d,
And swore and gam’d,
Hadst thou no Plots contriv’d.

VII.

Tom once was Cock-a-hoop
Of all the Huffs in Town;
But now his Pride must stoop,
His Courage is pull’d down:
So long his Spurs are grown, poor Tom
Can neither fly nor fight;
Ah Cruel Fate!
That at this rate
The ‘Squire shou’d foil the Knight!

VIII.

But now no remedy,
It being his just Reward;
In his own Trap, you see,
The Tygre is ensnar’d:
So may all Traytors fare, till all
Who for their Guilt did fly,
With Bully Tom
By timely Doom
Like him, unpity’d die.


Sr. Thomas Armstrongs Last Farewell to the WORLD: He being Condemned for HIGH-TREASON, and Conspiring the Death of the KING and the DUKE, and subverting the Government of these three Kingdoms A SONG.

To the Tune STATE and AMBITION [no embeddable sound file, alas, but for the arrangement see here and here]

A Due to the pleasure of murther and whoring,
Of plotting conspiring the death of a King:
Confound the temptation of Bastard Adoring,
For which I confess I deserve for to Swing.
Poor Monmouth may Curse me, ’twas I over Ruled
In all his Intreagues by Tony’s black spell,
His timerous contrivance I constantly Schooled;
And told him how safe it was then to rebell.
I shew’d him the glimps of a Crown and a Scepter,
The strength of the Crow’d, and applause of the Town
Till glory did dazle his Soul in a Rapture;
That all things inferior appear’d but a Crown:
Then I was in hopes to be second Assistant;
Therefore to unKing him our party would bring:
But now as the Devil wou’d have it I mist on’t,
For which I before the damn’d Doctor must swing.
The Doctor confused three parts of the Nation;
He murthered thirty; I murthered but two,
With long sword and Codpiss I made it the fashion
Rogues Whores to advance, and the Kingdom subdue:
Brave Monmouth I shew’d him all ways of debauching,
And ne’r let him want procurer nor Whore;
Some Aldermens Wives they were proud to approach him,
I often as Grey have stood Pimp at the door.
Nay, many were sure, that their souls would be sainted
Had they but one hour his sweet grace to enjoy
How oft in my Arms they have sighed and panted,
Untill I conveyed ‘em to their Princely Boy
But now all those pleasures are faded with glory,
His Grace in Disgrace and Tom is Condemn’d;
Jack Ketch now looks sharp for to shorten my story,
And leaves me no time to murder or mend.
Yet I must confess, I was oft Monmouths taster,
For fear, least some fire-ship might blow up her Prince,
Which caused our party to flock in much faster,
All Officers from the Plot Office advance.
Old Tony took Care too, that nothing was wanting,
In Wapping, the Square, and Algers-gate-street,
I brought in Bess Mackrel, to help out the taping,
And Tony swore damn him, theres nothing so sweet.
Sweet Betty farewell, ’twas for thee I abjured,
My Lady and Children, this fourteen long years;
They always were kind, but I still was obdured,
Seeking the Destruction of King, Church, & Peers
Had I Grey and Mellvin now here to condole with
And their Recommendations to’th’ Cabals below –,
I might have Commissions in Hell to controle with
But sure I shall find some Friends where I go.


The WHIGS laid open, OR, An Honest Ballad of these sad Times.

To a Mery Tune, called Old Symon the King.

Now the Plotters & Plots are confounded,
And all their Designs are made known
Which smellt so strong of the Round-head,
And Treason of Forty One.
And all the Pious Intentions
For Property, Liberty, Laws,
Are found to be only Inventions,
To bring in their Good Old Cause.
And all the Pious, &c.

II.

By their delicate Bill of Exclusion,
So hotly pursu’d by the Rabble;
They hop’d to have made such Confusion,
As never was seen at Old Babel.
The Shaftsbury’s brave City Boys,
And M—ths Countrey Relations,
Were ready to second the Noise,
And send it throughout the 3 Nations.
Then Shaftsbury’s, &c.

III.

No more of the 5th of November,
That Dangerous Desperate Plot;
But ever with horruor remember
Old Tony, Armstrong, and Scot.
For Tony shou’d ne’re be forgotten,
Nor Ferguson’s Popular Rules;
Nor M—th, or G—y, when they’re rotten,
For Popular, Politick Fools.
For Tony shou’d, &c.

IV.

The Murder of Father and King,
And Extinguishing all the right Line,
Was a Good and a Godly thing;
And worthy the Whigs Design:
The Hanging of Prelate, and Peer,
And putting the Guards to the Sword,
And Fleying, and Slashing Lord Mayors,
Was to do the Work o’the Lord.
The Hanging of, &c.

V.

But I hope they will have their Desert,
And the Gallows will have its due,
And Jack Ketch will be more Expert,
And in time be as Rich as a Jew,
Whilst now in the Tavern we Sing,
All Joy to great York and his Right,
A Glorious long Reign to our King;
But when They’ve occasion we’ll Fight.
Whilst now in the Tavern, &c.

VI.

The name of a Whig and a Tory,
No more shall Disquiet the Nation;
We’ll Fight for the Church and her Glory,
And Pray for this Reformation.
That ev’ry Factious Professor,
And ev’ry Zealous Pretender
May humble ‘em, to the Successor
Of Charles, our Nations Defender.
That every Faction &c.


An Elegie On the never to be forgotten Sir Thomas Armstrong Knight; Executed for Conspiring the Death of His most Sacred Majesty, and Royal Brother, June 20. 1684. With some Satyrical Reflections on the whole Faction.

Stand forth ye damn’d deluding Priests of Baal,
And found from out each Trumpet Mouth a Call
Let it be loud and shrill, that ev’ry Man
May hear the noise, from Beersheba to Dan;
To summon all the Faction, that they may
In doleful Hums and Haws, bewail this day,
And to their Just Confusion howl and roar,
For the great Bully of their Cause, is now no more.

But now methinks I hear the Faction cry,
Ohone! Where’s all thy Pomp and Gallantry?
Thy Great Commands, thy Interest and thy State?
The many Crouds which did upon thee wait?

When thou like Atlas on thy shoulders bore,
That mighty World which we so much adore
(That Pageant Heroe, Off-spring of a Whore.)

Behold ye stubborn Crew, the certain Fate
That waits upon the hardened Reprobate.
See; the effects of Treason’s Terrible,
In this life Infamy, and i’th’ next a Hell,
While Heav’n attends on Kings with special Care,
The Traitor to himself becomes a snare:
Drove out like Cain, to wander through the World,
By his own thoughts into Distraction hurl’d,
Despis’d by all, perplext with hourly fear,
And by his Friends push’t like the hunted Deer,
Like a mad Dog, still houted as he ran,
A just Reward for th’ base Rebellious man.

How often has kind Heaven preserv’d the Crown,
And tumbled the Audacious Rebel down?
How many Warnings have they had of late?
How often read their own impending Fate?
That still they dare their wicked Acts pursue,
And know what Heaven has ordain’d their due?
That man who cou’d not reas’nably desire
To raise his Fortunes, and his Glories higher,
Who did enjoy, unto a wish, such store,
That all his Ancestors scarce heard of more,
Shou’d by his own procuring fall so low,
As if he’d study’d his own overthrow,
Looks like a story yet without a Name,
And may be stil’d the first Novel in Fame?
So the fam’d Angels, Turbulent as Great,
Who always waited ’bout the Mercy-Seat,
Desiring to be something yet unknown,
Blunder’d at all, and would have graspt the Crown,
Till Heaven’s Great Monarch, saw they wou’d Rebel,
Then dasht their Hopes, and damn’d them down to Hell.

And now methinks I see to th’fatal place
A Troop of Whiggs with Faction in each Face,
And Red-swoln Eyes, moving with mournful pace,

Pitying the Mighty Sampson of their Cause,
Curse their Fates, and Railing at the Laws.
The Sisters too appear, with sniveling Cryes
To celebrate their Stallions Obsequies;
From th’ Play-house and from Change, how they resort,
From Country, City, nay, there’s some from Court,
From the Old C—ss wither’d and decay’d,
To a Whigg Brewers Youthful Lovely Maid.
Gods! What a Troop is here? sure Hercules
Had found enough so many Whores to please.

Repent, ye Factious Rout, Repent and be
Forewarn’d by this bold Traytors Destiny.
Go home ye Factious Dogs, and mend your Lives;
Be Loyal, and make honest all your Wives.
You keep from Conventicles first, and then
Keep all your Wives from Conventicling Men.
Leave off your Railing ‘gainst the King and State,
Your foolish Prating, and more foolish Hate.
Obey the Laws, and bravely act your parts,
And to the Church unite in Tongues and Hearts;
Be sudden too, before it proves too late,
Lest you partake of this bold Traytors Fate.

And if the Faction thinks it worth the Cost,
(To keep this Bully’s Name from being lost)
To raise a Pillar, to perpetuate
His Wond’rous Actions, and Ignoble Fate,
Let’em about it streight, and when ’tis done,
I’le Crown the Work with this Inscription.

Bold Fame thou Ly’st! Read here all you
That wou’d this Mighty Mortal know;
First, he was one of low degree,
But rose to an Hyperbole.
Famous t’ excess in ev’ry thing,
But duty to his God, and King;
In Oaths as Great as any He,
That ever Grac’d the Tripple Tree;
So Absolute, when Drencht in Wine,
He might have been the God o’th’ Vine.
His Brutal Lust was still so strong,
He never spar’d, or old, or young;
In Cards and Dice he was well known,
T’ out-cheat the Cheaters of the Town.

These were his Virtues, if you’d know
His Vices too pray read below.

Not wholly Whig, nor Atheist neither,
But something form’d of both together,
Famous in horrid Blasphemies,
Practic’d in base Adulteries.
In Murders vers’d as black, and foul
As his Degenerated Soul.
In’s Maxims too, as great a Beast,
As those his honest Father drest. [his father was a groom -ed.]
The Factions Bully, Sisters Stallion:
Now Hang’d, and Damn’d, for his Rebellion.

* Per “An impartial and full account of the life & death of the late unhappy William Lord Russel eldest son and heir of the present Earl of Bedford, who was executed for high treason July 21, 1683, in Lincolns-Inn-Fields: together with the original and rise of the earls of Bedford, giving a brief account of each of them.” (1684)

** Notably joining Armstrong in continental refuge — and narrowly escaping recapture with him — were fellow plotters Lord Thomas Grey and Robert Ferguson. Both these worthies returned in power with the rest of the Whig party come the Glorious Revolution … an event for which Ferguson, a prolific pamphleteer, wrote the definitive justification.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Terrorists,Treason

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1943: Maria Kislyak, honeytrapper

Add comment June 18th, 2017 Headsman

Soviet resistance operatives Maria Kislyak, Fedor Roudenko and Vasily Bougrimenko hanged on this date in 1943 by Nazi occupation.

Kislyak, an 18-year-old from Kharkov, Ukraine who is esteemed a Hero of the Soviet Union,* is the best-known of them and made herself the poisoned honey in a trap for German officers.

As ferocious Eastern Front fighting raged near her city, Kislyak feigned affection for a German lieutenant and thereby lured him to a woodland rendezvous where her friend Roudenko ambushed him and bludgeoned him to death.

Kislyak endured German torture without admitting anything and was even released since the man’s comrades couldn’t be sure that the local flirt had anything to do with the murder. But when she and her friends pulled the trick a second time, the Germans forced the assassins to reveal themselves by threatening to shoot random hostages en masse.

* One of three women so honored for their service during World War II, all of whom have been featured in these grim annals; the others are Klava Nazarova and Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mature Content,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Torture,Ukraine,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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1939: Robert Nixon, Richard Wright inspiration

Add comment June 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Illinois electrocuted Robert Nixon for bashing Florence Johnson to death with a brick as he burgled her Chicago home.*


The Chicago Tribune‘s Family Circus-esque May 28, 1938 illustration of the crime scene.

Nixon’s fingerprints would also link him to three previous rape-murders in California; separately, he admitted raping and killing Illinois nursing student Anna Kuchta in 1937, although he would also argue that Chicago police tortured the confessions from his lips.

Crudely nicknamed the “Brick Moron”, Nixon was vilified in shockingly racist terms by a hostile press.

This Chicago Tribune article is one of the worst exemplars and is only the start of a much longer piece in the same vein but even straight-news bulletins routinely went with a casual “savage colored rapist” label. His possible developmental disability (“moron” …) was generally cast not as any sort of mitigating consideration but as the indicator of a superpredator: “It has been demonstrated here that nothing can be done with Robert Nixon,” the sheriff of the Louisiana town where he grew up wrote to Chicago. “Only death can cure him.”

Richard Wright allegedly mined the commentary on Nixon to inform his classic novel Native Son, which hit print the next year … and sees its lead character Bigger Thomas die in the Illinois electric chair.

* It was supposed to be a triple execution but late reprieves spared Steve Cygan and Charles Price, both murderers in unrelated cases.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Theft,USA

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1820: William Holmes, Edward Rosewaine, and Thomas Warrington, pirates

Add comment June 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1820, William Holmes, Edward Rosewain, and Thomas Warrington aka Warren Fawcett all hanged in Boston as pirates.

A Scotsman, an Englishman, and a Connecticut Yankee (respectively), the three numbered crewed a privateer bearing the flag of newly independent Argentina. Having captured a merchantman heavy with valuable cargo, they’d been put aboard it with a few others, to sail the prize home.

On July 4, 1818, following a drunken quarrel between one of their number and the mate of this skeleton crew, they stole below and agreed upon a mutiny whereupon that very evening they crept upon the sleeping mate and “Holmes and Warrington seized him by the heels and pitched him over the rail of the vessel.” Roused by the mate’s shrieking, the captain raced up to the deck where he too was overpowered and forced over the edge where he clung for dear life to a rope, until the trio cut it. (According to the testimony of one of the surviving crew, Salem Gazette, July 12, 1819)

The hijackers then trimmed sail for Baltimore which even those pre-Wire days was renowned as a haven for freebooters. Unfortunately they weren’t the best mariners, and overshot the Chesapeake all the way to Scituate, Massachusetts, where they clumsily ditched their ride and were rounded up in due course. A U.S. Circuit Court condemned them for “piratical and felonious homicide upon the high seas,” and the Supreme Court upheld the judgment. (A pdf of proceedings is here)

Heinousness aside, we are by this point in history well abroad in the period of fretful chin-wagging over the deleterious spectacle of public execution, and as church bells tolled the condemned out of jail on the morning of June 15 in 1820 right-thinking observers again wondered whether the whole scene wasn’t counterproductive to its purported objectives.

The Christian Watchman of June 17, 1820 — having observed with “regret” that “no satisfactory evidence of the genuine repentance of the sufferers has come to our knowledge” — approvingly reprinted another paper’s editorializing against the public execution:

The frequent recurrence of these scenes compels us to ask, whether the manner in which, in obedience to custom, they are now conducted, be such as promotes the great ends of this dreadful judicial infliction.

It scarcely need be said, that every thing which has a tendency to mislead the public feeling on these occasions, — to turn the reflections of the beholders from the enormity of the crime to the severity of the punishment — defeats the great objects, which the law has in view.

It is not from any want of humanity and tenderness toward the unhappy persons themselves, that we make this remark; but because we think the scene of a public execution, as it takes place among us, runs too far into a dramatic spectacle, and has the effect, first of exciting and occupying the curiosity, and then of making an untimely pity for those, whose dark and murderous passions have brought down upon them the righteous inflictions of the law.

The unreflecting spectator, who sees the Reverend priest in the party-coloured vestments of his church, pouring into the ears of the convicts those precious promises of Christianity, which it is scarce the right of the most tried faith and patience to claim, who sees them standing on the fatal scaffold in the arms of a Confessor, and receiving with the fatal doom of bloody crime in this world, the promises of eternal blessedness in the other; we say that the unreflecting spectator, who beholds this, if he do not conclude that the whole is a solemn mockery — will either be thrown wholly into confusion to his notion of judicial infliction, or he will be inclined to pity and sympathise with the sufferers. And either of these effects will defeat the order of justice.

The ceremony of execution should, in our opinion, be as short and simple as possible. The Warrant of Execution, in an abridged form, should be read; a short and solemn prayer, without purple surplices or embracings, or kissings, be made, and the last horrid moment hastened, as far as public decency admits.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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Feast Day of St. Cetteus

Add comment June 13th, 2017 Headsman

June 13 is the feast of St. Cetteus, patron of the Adriatic port city of Pescara.

This saint’s legends the line between just-so story and real historical events, illustrating the Church martyrology’s great strengths as a read-made memorial of Christians’ trials down the years. That in this case the suffering was less a religious persecution per se than the shame of being trod over by conquerors who installed themselves almost without opposition in the hollowed husk of Roman greatness and did as they pleased.

The Lombard incursion beginning in 568 in some ways signals the permanent sundering of east from west in the Roman world, for the Germanic invaders — a mixture of pagans and Arian heretics, no less — in time ousted Byzantium from the latter’s Italian holdings and meanwhile underscored the Roman Empire’s near-impotence in its ancestral homelands. “From Italy the emperors were incessantly tormented by tales of misery and demands of succor, which extorted the humiliating confession of their own weakness,” writes Gibbon. “The expiring dignity of Rome was only marked by the freedom and energy of her complaints: ‘If you are incapable,’ she said, ‘of delivering us from the sword of the Lombards, save us at least from the calamity of famine.'”

For the near term, it was a violent and unstable period; Lombard rulers assassinated and warred with one another as their hegemony devolved into a patchwork of feuding duchies, helping set the scene for the fractured medieval peninsula.

The perils of internal strife manifest in our martyr’s story; despite his eventual association with Pescara, his bishopric was inland at Amiternum and it was there, the story goes, that he was ordered drowned in 597 by a tyrannous Lombard warlord who mistakenly thought him a crony of his rival.

Tossed into the drink, the bish floated downstream to Pescara where a fisherman, recognizing the corpse’s ecclesiastical raiments without knowing exactly who wore them, buried him under the whimsical name “Peregrino”.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Drowned,Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Italy,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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Feast Day of Saint Eskil

Add comment June 12th, 2017 Headsman

June 12 is the feast date* of Saint Eskil, a martyr to the slow Christianization of Scandinavia.

Ol’ “God-kettle” was one of several missionaries known to have been dispatched in the 11th and 12th century from England to Sweden, a traffic in religious conversion across the North Sea crossroads to invert the centuries-past course of Vikingers who put so many British sanctuaries to the sack.

The Northmen realms were ripe to join Christendom but sagas touching the time describe an uneven transitional period where the new and old faiths jostled for primacy.

“Ingi was king for a long time, well-liked and a good Christian; he put down [pagan] sacrificing in Sweden and ordered all the people of the land to become Christian,” runs The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise** (available in pdf translation here), about King Inge the Elder.

But the Swedes had too strong a belief in the heathen gods and held to their ancient ways … the Swedes thought that King Ingi had infringed their rights under the ancient law of the land, when he found fault with many things that Steinkel his [Christian] father had let be; and at a certain assembly which the Swedes held with King Ingi they gave him the choice of two things, either to observe the ancient laws or else to give up his throne. Then King Ingi spoke, and said that he would not leave the true faith; whereat the Swedes cried out, and pelted him with stones, and drove him from the law-assembly.

Svein, the king’s kinsman, remained behind at that assembly, and he offered to make sacrifice for the Swedes if they would grant him the kingdom; all agreed to Svein’s offer, and he was accepted as king over all the Swedish realm. Then a horse was led forth to the assembly, hewn in pieces, and divided up for eating, and the sacrificial tree was reddened with its blood. Thereafter all the Swedes cast off the Christian faith, and sacrifices were instituted, and they drove King Ingi away; he departed into western Gautland. For three years Svein the Sacrificer was king over the Swedes.

King Ingi went with his own bodyguard and some followers, though it was only a small force … into Sweden; he rode by day and night and came upon Svein unawares in the early morning. They seized the house over their heads and set it on fire, and burnt all the company who were inside … Svein came out and was cut down. And so Ingi took the kingship of the Swedes anew, and restored the Christian faith; he ruled the realm till the day of his death.

The “Svein” referred to here is a gentleman whom the historians recall as Blot-Sweyn — “Sweyn the Sacrificer” — and this Norse answer to Julian the Apostate apparently enjoyed his interregnum authority in about the 1080s thanks to Inge’s disrespect of the old rites still honored at the ancient Temple at Uppsala.

The timeline of high statecraft is extremely sketchy, and Saint Eskil’s relationship to events doubly so. Commonly recalled as a victim of the Blot-Sweyn period, Eskil is first marked in the 1120s annals of another Anglo-Saxon monk abroad in Scandinavia, Aelnoth from Canterbury — “Eschillus of sacred memory” who succumbed evangelizing to the “barbarorum feritate.” That’s the whole of it, with nothing like a year or a regnal era to hang one’s hat upon. In the 13th century, with Christianity truly triumphant, a hagiography of Eskil greatly embroidered the martyrdom story and tied it to the land’s most notorious rearguard ruling unbeliever, featuring a cast of heathens so nonplussed at the monk’s interruption of their feast that, notwithstanding his show of divine miracles, Blood-Sweyn has him sentenced to immediate stoning.

The town of Eskilstuna bears his name (it used to just be “Tuna”).

* Though it’s been bumped to June 12 everywhere else, the feast is still marked on its original June 11 date in the diocese Strängnäs, where the saint was supposed to have attained his martyr’s crown. (Strängnäs Cathedral is supposed to mark the very spot of his fatal confrontation with the Aesir followers.)

** This saga’s narrative stretches from an outright legendary prehistory to the Middle Ages. The Ingi-Svein affair is its last episode, but its first locates a more Wagnerian milieu: “Sigrlami was the name of a king who ruled over Gardariki; his daughter was Eyfura, most beautiful of all women. This king had obtained from dwarves the sword called Tyrfing, the keenest of all blades; every time it was drawn a light shone from it like a ray of the sun. It could never be held unsheathed without being the death of a man, and it had always to be sheathed with blood still warm upon it. There was no living thing, neither man nor beast, that could live to see another day if it were wounded by Tyrfing, whether the wound were big or little …”

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Entry Filed under: 11th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Stoned,Summary Executions,Sweden,Uncertain Dates

Feast Day of St. Barnabas

1 comment June 11th, 2017 Headsman

June 11 is the feast date of St. Barnabas, St. Paul‘s New Testament wingman.

A Cypriot Jew named Joseph, “Barnabas” (“Son of Encouragement”) was so christened in the fourth chapter of the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles because upon his conversion he sold his land for a donative to the Galileans.

After that, Barnabas reappears throughout Acts as one of the most important of the early Christian missionaries, usually joining St. Paul — whom Barnabas himself introduced to the Christians after Paul got religion — as emissary to the non-Jews, for which purpose the Holy Spirit itself demanded him by name. (Acts 13:2: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”)

They’re frequently paired thereafter in the narrative although it’s invariably Saint Paul’s honeyed tongue that does the confounding before the companions flee this city or that ahead of a furious mob.* Evidently the Holy Spirit’s labor policies could have used some updating: Barnabas also features in a whinge by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 against the excess sacrifices the Jesus sect is exacting from its most successful envoys, who get no wages and no sex and (so it seems) have to hustle side jobs to keep up their proselytizing.

Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas [St. Peter]? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? … whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

Barnabas eventually parted ways with Paul, proceeding to Cyprus with the mysterious John Mark (possibly Mark the evangelist, author of the Gospel, or possibly a different guy) where hagiography holds that Jews angered by his preaching fell on Barnabas and stoned him to death, perhaps around the year 61.

Although obviously a consequential figure in early Christianity, Barnabas’s many Biblical appearances do not capture his voice. The apocrypha preserves at least two tracts** further animating this important character: the Epistle of Barnabas dating to the late first century or early second century; and, the Acts of Barnabas, a 5th century creation which purports to arise from the hand of John Mark and describes a martyrdom by fire, not stone:

And Barjesus, having arrived after two days, after not a few Jews had been instructed, was enraged, and brought together all the multitude of the Jews; and they having laid hold of Barnabas, wished to hand him over to Hypatius, the governor of Salamis. And having bound him to take him away to the governor, and a pious Jebusite, a kinsman of Nero, having count to Cyprus, the Jews, learning this, took Barnabas by night, and bound him with a rope by the neck; and having dragged him to the hippodrome from the synagogue, and having gone out of the city, standing round him, they burned him with fire, so that even his bones became dust. And straightway that night, having taken his dust, they cast it into a cloth; and having se cured it with lead. they intended to throw it into the sea. But I, finding an opportunity in the night, and being able along with Timon and Rhodon to carry it, we came to a certain place, and having found a cave, put it down there, where the nation of the Jebusites formerly dwelt. And having found a secret place in it, we put it away, with the documents which he had received from Matthew. And it was the fourth hour of the night of the second of the week.

Because June 11 formerly fell on/near Midsummer, ere the Gregorian reforms skipped the calendar 10-11 days forward, St. Barnabas’s Day has a festive agrarian history commemorated by the proverb, “Barnaby bright, Barnaby bright, the longest day and the shortest night.” The saint is also the patron of Cyprus, and may be invoked to protect against hailstorms or in service of peacemaking. Numerous schools, churches, and monasteries around the world bear his name.

* There’s a comic touch to their preaching travails, too: in one exciting episode (Acts 14), Paul (of course) heals a cripple while the dynamic duo preaches in Lystra, leading excited witnesses to take them for Hermes and Zeus and start sacrificing to them.


No tips, please: Paul and Barnabas refusing the sacrifices of Lystrans in this detail (click for the full image) of a 1650 painting by Nicolaes Berchem.

** Beyond the Epistle and the Acts, there is also a very much later Gospel of Barnabas.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Burned,Cyprus,Disfavored Minorities,God,History,Lynching,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Stoned,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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1863: Not Nathaniel Pruitt, reprieved deserter

Add comment June 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date 150 years ago, according to Larry Daniel’s Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee, a middle-aged man was all set to be shot for deserting the Army of Tennessee, and the much-resented command of Gen. Braxton Bragg.

In a well-documented incident, a soldier received a reprieve as a result of a dramatic incident. Forty-seven-year-old Nathaniel Pruitt of the Nineteenth Tennessee was found guilty of desertion and on June 10, 1863, was taken to a field beside his regimental camp, his coffin placed beside an open grave. A minister cut a lock of hair to give to Pruitt’s wife. The firing squad was positioned and ordered to take aim, but just then an officer came galloping up with a special order to suspend the sentence. The prisoner began crying. “I was truly glad [of the reprieve], but must say some of the boys were disappointed,” a Mississippi diarist noted. Incredibly, the very next day, Pruitt again deserted and was never heard from again.

One takes the author’s point here about Pruitt’s risk-seeking second flight, but even so it might not really be all that “incredible” that one would desert the company of armed men who had recently shown open disappointment about being prevented from shooting one dead.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Military Crimes,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Shot,Soldiers,Tennessee,USA,Wartime Executions

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