Posts filed under 'History'

1816: Marci Zöld, Hungarian outlaw

Add comment December 6th, 2019 Headsman

Legendary Hungarian outlaw Marci Zöld was executed on this date in 1816.

Zöld — Hungarian link, as are most in this post; we’ve inverted the Hungarian surname-first naming convention for ease — followed his father’s footsteps into outlawry; his heyday comprised the months following a Christmas 1815 escape from a previous imprisonment after which he and a confederate “kidnapped and plundered for several months in Sárrét, and in Bihar, Szabolcs, Heves and Szolnok counties.” (Heves was his native soil, so he’s also known as Marci Hevesen.)

By summer he had teamed up with another bandit named Pista Palatinszky and formed a gang that raided promiscuously throughout Transdanubia, escaping justice until he didn’t.

The allure of the road — moreso than any evident virtue distinguishing the brigand’s actual conduct — qualified him to be taken up by poets of the emerging Romantic age, like Sandor Petofi‘s poem which inaccurately portrays Marci doing Robin Hood wealth redistribution. Mor Jokai, Jozsef Gaal, and Lajos Kormendi are among the many other authors who have paid him tribute.

To some extent, his defiance of the Austro-Hungarian empire expressed an inchoate longing for rebellion, like the Balkan hajduks. Even moreso, it was a matter of good timing — for the 18th-19th century pivot was a peak era for romanticizing highwaymen, now that the species was disappearing into the crucible of modernity. This is the same period for the likes of Schinderhannes and Diego Corrientes Mateos; equally, it’s the moment when artists of various nationalities elevated into the cultural canon decades-dead outlaws like Dick Turpin (England) or Juraj Janosik (Slovakia).

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Hungary,Murder,Myths,Outlaws,Theft

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1805: Gabriel Aguilar and Manuel Ubalde, abortive Peruvian rebels

1 comment December 5th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1805, Cusco‘s Plaza Mayor hosted the hangings of two colonial Peruvian creoles who had aspired to revive the Incan resistance to Spain.

The devastating Tupac Amaru rebellion lay just 25 years in the background here, but these men were not themselves indigenes. They were, however, New World-born, and thus heirs to a resentment at colonial control from half a world’s distance that would within the coming generation separate Peru from Spain.

“Denizens of the lower strata of creole society,” as D.A. Brading writes, the lawyer Jose Manuel Ubalde and the mining entrepreneur Gabriel Aguilar — close friends from a previous association in Lina —

inhabited a world in which Catholic piety, patriotic fervour and personal ambition were fuelled by visions and dreams. For Aguilar obtained Ubalde’s support for proclaiming him Inca emperor of Peru by informing him of a childhood vision in which he had been assured of a great role in his country’s history. Both men agreed that Spanish rule was oppressive and that St Thomas Aquinas had recognised the right to rebel against tyranny. When they conferred with like-minded priests, one cleric cited the prediction of Raynal,* the 1771 representation of the Mexico City Council,** and the example of the ‘Americans of Boston’. But the current of religious emotion that underlay these arguments surfaced when another cleric fell into an ecstasy in Aguilar’s presence, and claimed later to have seen the pretender crowned in the cathedral of Cuzco.

Unfortunately, the path to such a coronation ran through the actions of sympathetic military men — and one of the officers that these conspirators reached out to shopped the plotters before they could set anything in motion.

After their arrest, Ubalde was reminded of the traditional doctrine that, since the Catholic king was God’s image on earth, any challenge to his authority was an attack on God. By way of reply, he insisted on the right of rebellion against tyranny and argued that natural law did not prescribe loyalty to any particular dynasty. After all, the Papacy had just recognised Napoleon as emperor of the French, despite the claims of the Bourbon dynasty to that throne. He went to his execution convinced that Aguilar had been chosen by providence as a creole Maccabee, called to liberate Peru from Spanish rule.

* French Enlightenment figure Guillaume Thomas Francois Raynal anticipated a rebellion that would destroy colonial slave empires from below: “Your slaves stand in no need either of your generosity or your counsels, in order to break the sacrilegious yoke of their oppression … they will rush on with more impetuosity than torrents; they will leave behind them, in all parts, indelible traces of their just resentment. Spaniards, Portuguese, English, French, Dutch, all their tyrants will become the victims of fire and sword.”

** Mexico submitted a notable May 2, 1771 petition to King Carlos III calling for most of the imperial positions in the New World to be staffed by people from the New World rather than home country cronies — and warning that to do otherwise was to invite “not only the loss of this America, but the ruin of the State.” (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lawyers,Occupation and Colonialism,Peru,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Spain,Treason

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1969: Fred Hampton, “good and dead now”

Add comment December 4th, 2019 Headsman

Today is the 50th anniversary of the December 4, 1969 extrajudicial execution of American revolutionary Fred Hampton.

This charismatic — nearly every bio uses this word — 21-year-old star of the Illinois Black Panther Party had in his brief life shown himself a visionary exponent of radicalism; he would end as one of the signal martyrs to his movement’s violent suppression.

Well did he know it.

“If you’re asked to make a commitment at the age of 20 and you say, I don’t want to make a commitment only because of the simple reason that I’m too young to die, I want to live a little bit longer. What you did is, you’re dead already,” Hampton once mused. “You have to understand that people have to pay the price for peace. If you dare to struggle, you dare to win. If you dare not struggle then damnit, you don’t deserve to win … And I think that struggle’s going to come. Why don’t you live for the people? Why don’t you struggle for the people? Why don’t you die for the people?”

Emerging late in 1966 out of Oakland, Calif., the Black Panthers were a revolutionary and pointedly armed movement that fused black power demands with critique of the entire edifice — war, imperialism, capitalism and the rest of it. Although the organization was dissolved in 1982, the Panthers’ actions and legacy are still quite controversial and their mere specter remains a potent bogeyman for much of contemporary white America.

One thing is for sure: in their moment, they scared the shit out of the powers that be. Within months of its founding, the Federal Bureau of Investigation turned upon the Panthers its COINTELPRO program of domestic surveillance, suppression, and assassination. One particularly notorious FBI memo drew a bead on “Black Nationalist-Hate Groups” with an avowed intention to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement” — and to “pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them”.

Fred Hampton isn’t mentioned by name in this memo from early 1968; he was just then beginning to emerge onto the FBI’s index of rabble-rousers. (Literally, they had a list called the “Rabble Rouser Index”.) He was fresh out of high school in 1966, and subsequently a wildly successful NAACP chapter leader, but gravitated to the new Illinois Panthers organ by 1968 where he quickly became its most outstanding organizer and spokesman, the prospective future face of a stirring cross-racial, class-conscious justice movement that Hampton perceived with a wisdom well beyond his years. Under his leadership the BPP spun out health care programs, legal aid programs, and free breakfast programs; he forged the original Rainbow Coalition* that brought rival street gangs and activist groups from different racial communities into a shared political ambition.

“We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity,” Hampton said. “We’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”

Just as energetically did the FBI work — and succeed, in the end — to break up such alliances, using informers and agents provocateur and false flags to encourage schisms and discredit leaders. Chicago’s police department was a ready collaborator in these operations; its relationship was the Panthers was hostile and often violent. Just three weeks before Hampton’s murder, two Chicago cops and a 19-year-old Black Panther were killed in a shootout. (Hampton was in California at the time.)

We don’t have the full documentary paper trail with deliberations and countersigned orders, but the known facts (and the smug grins of the cops) admit no reasonable dispute this side of performative naivete that Hampton was assassinated by a state death squad — “executed”, if you like, to fit an admittedly expansive read of this here site‘s mandate.

A compromised Hampton bodyguard named William O’Neal gave his FBI handler — who also happened to be running the Chicago COINTELPRO operation targeting the Panthers — a detailed floor plan of Hampton’s apartment, which the FBI shared with the Chicago police for a raid putatively hunting illegal weaponry. On the night of December 3, O’Neal slipped Hampton a barbituate to dull his reactions for what was to come; surviving comrades would describe Hampton being roused amid the early-morning fusillade only with difficulty, responding barely and in “slow motion” even as Chicago police stormed front and rear entrances and poured nearly 100 rounds into the place. Another Hampton aide named Mark Clark, sitting watch, was blasted dead in the initial barrage, convulsively discharging his shotgun once into the ceiling as he fell. It was the only shot fired that night by any of the Black Panthers.

By the account of Hampton’s eight-months pregnant partner Deborah Johnson, corroborated by other Panthers in the apartment, Fred Hampton was injured by the volley, but alive — and cold-bloodedly finished off with a coup de grace.

First thing that I remember after Fred and I had went to sleep was being awakened by somebody shaking Fred while we were laying in the bed. Saying, “Chairman, Chairman, wake up, the pigs are vamping, the pigs are vamping!” And, um, this person who was in the room with me, kept shouting out “we have a pregnant sister in here, stop shooting”. Eventually the shooting stopped and they said we could come out. I remember crossing over Fred, and telling myself over and over, “be real careful, don’t stumble, they’ll try to shoot you, just be real calm, watch how you walk, keep your hands up, don’t reach for anything, don’t even try to close your robe”. I’m walking out of the bedroom, there are two lines of policemen that I have to walk through on my right and my left. I remember focusing on their badge numbers and their faces. Saying them over and over on my head, so I wouldn’t forget. Um, as I walked through these two lines of policemen, one of them grabbed my robe and opened it and said, “Well, what do you know, we have a broad here.” Another policeman grabbed me by the hair and pretty much just shoved me — I had more hair then — pretty much just shoved me into the kitchen area. It was very cold that night. I guess that it snowed. And, ah, the back door was open. Some people were on the floor in the kitchen area. I think it was Harold Bell was standing next to me in the kitchen area. They, ah, it was a police, ah, plainclothes policeman there, and I asked him for a pin, so I could pin my robe, because it was just open. And he said, “Ask the other guy.” And, ah, then somebody came back and handcuffed me, and Harold Bell behind the back. I heard a voice come from the area, I guess from the dining room area, which was, the kitchen was off from that area. And someone said, “He’s barely alive, he’ll barely make it.” The shooting, I heard some shooting start again. Not much. Just a little shooting, and, um, and someone said, “He’s good and dead now.” I’m standing at the, um, kitchen wall, and I’m trying to remember details of these policemen’s face, say it over and over in my head, and, and badge numbers, so, you gotta remember, gotta remember. And then when I felt like I was just going to really just pass out, I started saying the ten-point program over and over in my head. Um, at one point I turned around, the shooting had continued again, and I saw the police drag Verlina Brewer and throw her into the refrigerator. And it looked like blood was all over her. And she fell to the floor and they picked her up and threw her again. I saw Ronald Satchel bleeding. I kept trying to focus on the ten-point program platform, because I, again, I wanted to take myself out of that place. And I knew I just couldn’t break down there. Because I didn’t know if I would be killed, or what would happen.

Incidentally, Hampton’s killing was also a key catalyst for the terroristic turn of the Weather Underground — whose decisive “war council” meeting occurred later that same month of December 1969, with Hampton’s blood heavy in the air (and his picture prominently displayed on the wall) as an emblem of the futility of pacific resistance within the belly of the beast. “It was the murder of Fred Hampton more than any other factor that compelled us to feel we had to take up armed sturggle,” said David Gilbert, who’s now serving a prison sentence for a deadly bank robbery. “We wanted to create some pressure, to overextend the police so they couldn’t concentrate all their forces on the Panthers. We wanted to create a political cost for what they were doing. And we also felt that to build a movement among whites that was a revolutionary movement, a radical movement … it had to respond when our government in our name was destroying the most promising, exciting, and charismatic leadership to come out of the Black movement in a long time.” (Source) It was a paradoxical inspiration, since Hampton himself had criticized the emerging Weathermen after their “Days of Rage” riot in Chicago as “anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic,” and even “Custeristic” — as in Indian Wars cavalryman George Armstrong Custer, famous for his defeat — “in that its leaders take the people into situations where they can be massacred. And they call that revolution.”

* The name and concept of the Rainbow Coalition were later revived by Jesse Jackson in his left-wing presidential challenges in 1984 and 1988, but there is not a continuous institutional thread from Hampton’s coalition to Jackson’s. Jackson did, however, deliver a eulogy at Hampton’s funeral on December 6, 1969.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,History,Illinois,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Shot,Summary Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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1917: Private Joseph Bateman, shot at dawn

Add comment December 3rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1917, Black Country volunteer Joseph Bateman was shot for desertion.

The 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment private was among the earliest wave of young Britons to sign up, in late 1914 — but his three years of service were marked by intermittent AWOL episodes, including when the unit was on home soil, far from the front lines. It’s not clear the reason for this eventually fatal pattern.

For ninety years, Bateman was, like most “shot at dawn” soldiers, persona non grata for official war commemorations. His name was finally added to Wordsley‘s Great War cenotaph in 2007, thanks to the tireless campaigning of an interested teacher/historian named Graham Hodgson.*

Press reporting on Hodgson’s campaign subsequently turned up Bateman’s relations, including a grateful granddaughter whose only photo of Joseph Bateman was “marked by lipstick where her grandmother kissed it after learning of his death.” (BBC)

He’s buried at Rocquigny-Equancourt British Cemetery in the Somme.

* Unfortunately, Mr. Hodgson was killed in a car accident on Cyprus shortly afterwards. At the time he apparently had a historical novel about Private Bateman in progress, but I can find no indication that it’s been posthumously published; however, Bateman does figure in To War with God: The Army Chaplain who Lost his Faith by Peter Fiennes. Fiennes’s grandfather, the titular army chaplain, stayed up all night consoling Joseph Bateman in the hours ahead of his execution.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,France,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1958: Sass Kalman and Istvan Hollos

Add comment December 2nd, 2019 Headsman

Ethnic Hungarians Sass Kálmán and Istvan Hollos were shot in Romania on this date in 1958. Links in this post are in Hungarian.

Both were condemned — along with a third man, Vilmos Balasko, his sentence subsequently commuted — as the result of a mass trial earlier that year of alleged traitors and saboteurs.

The trial targeted the large ethnic Hungarian population in Transylvania, bordering Hungary, in the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. There the feared Romanian secret police rolled up culprits for offenses ranging from subversive leaflets in simpatico with failed revolution, to a general penumbra of perceived unreliable loyalty.

Istvan Hollos, a lawyer and teacher, had fought in the German-allied Hungarian army during World War II and unsuccessfully attempted to flee to Switzerland afterwards. Sass Kálmán was a Calvinist pastor once close to anticommunist peasant party leader Ferenc Nagy; a previous brush with political scrutiny had been shielded by towering general Pal Maleter, but Maleter’s participation in (and execution for) the 1956 revolution played against Kálmán too. (A third man, pastor Vilmos Balasko, was condemned to death in the same mass trial but he received clemency and was released a few years later in a general amnesty. He lived until 2004 and published a memoir after the fall of the Iron Curtain.)

Kálmán’s Reformed Church, whose adherents are predominantly ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania, treat Kálmán as a martyr and have pressed hard for his official rehabilitation — thus far, to no avail.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Hungary,Lawyers,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Romania,Shot

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1892: Jozef Lippens and Henri De Bruyne, Congo Free State hostages

Add comment December 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1892,* Belgian colonial agents Jozef Lippens and Henri De Bruyne were executed by the rebelling native king who had taken them hostage.

The gentlemen were a lieutenant (Lippens) and sergeant (De Bruyne) of the Force Publique colonial deployment in Belgian Congo.

Their misfortune was proximity when in 1892, rivalry over control of the eastern Congo ivory trade brought the European power into war with its erstwhile Zanzibar “Arab”** allies. (The Arabs were slave-traders, affording a classic humanitarian intervention pretext … which obviously is pretty rich coming from Belgium.)

The Congo-Arab War — which in practice was fought on both sides mostly by black Congolese troops — saw in its opening months the defection of one of the Arabs’ best commanders, Gongo Lutete,† a manumitted former slave who had risen to leadership of the Batetela and Bakussu tribes. In revenge when he switched sides to join the Europeans, the Arab leader Sefu bin Hamid seized Lippens, Belgium’s representative Resident at Kasongo, and De Bruyne, Lippens’s aide — demanding the return of his disloyal general and a settlement of hostilities as the price for these European envoys’ lives.

In fact, it was De Bruyne himself who had the honor of delivering the demand. Escorted by his captors to the eastern bank of the Lomami River on November 15, the emaciated De Bruyne shouted across to Belgian officers on the western side the terms of his captivity. The Belgians, who had the river covered by gunners, urged their countryman to leap into the water and swim for it; De Bruyne declined to abandon his comrade. “By this act of self-abnegation he was to go down in the Belgian folklore as a national hero.” (European Atrocity, African Catastrophe: Leopold II, the Congo Free State and its Aftermath)

His flight would have meant certain death for Lippens; instead, both paid the forfeit together after the Belgian commander Francis Dhanis repelled Sefu bin Hamid’s attack and smashed across the Lomani. According to the account of the war by Sidney Langford Hinde, one of many British officers employed by the Force Publique,

News also reached us here of the murder of Lippens and Debruyne, two officers representing the Free State Government, resident at Sefu’s court in Kasongo. We found out later that, after the defeat of Sefu on the Lomami (which resulted in the death of his cousin and several other noted chiefs), an advance party of the retreating Arabs arrived at Kasongo, and, by way of individual revenge, murdered the two Residents. It is probable, since we have no actual proof to the contrary, that this was done without Sefu’s orders. Twelve of these people, armed with knives hidden in their clothing, made some trivial pretext for visiting Lippens at the Residency, who, however, refused to come out and interview them. They then said that news of a big battle had come to them from Sefu; on hearing which Lippens came out, and, while talking in the verandah, was promptly and silently stabbed. Some of the murderers entering the adjoining room, found Debruyne writing, and killed him before he had learned the fate of his chief. When Sefu returned to Kasongo, a day or two afterwards, he gave orders that the pieces of Debruyne’s body should be collected and buried with Lippens, whose body, with the exception of the hands (which had been sent to Sefu and Mohara of Nyangwe as tokens), was otherwise unmutilated. The strong innate respect for a chief had protected Lippens’ body, while that of his subordinate had been hacked to pieces.

A curious fatality followed these twelve murderers. The chief of the band, Kabwarri by name, was killed by us in the battle of the 26th of February with Lippens’ Martini express in his hand. Of the others — all of whom were the sons of chiefs, and some of them important men on their own account — four died of smallpox, one was killed at Nyangwe, one in the storming of Kasongo, and the remaining six we took prisoners at Kasongo. During the trial they one day, though in a chained gang, succeeded in overpowering the sentry, and thus escaped. One was drowned in crossing a river; three more were killed, either fighting or by accident, within a month or two of their escape; and the two remaining we retook and hanged; — which brings to me a curious point. Of the many men I have seen hanged nearly all died by strangulation, and not by having the neck broken. As compared with shooting, hanging seems to me the less painful death; the wretched being becomes insensible in a very few seconds, whereas a man shot will often require a coup de grace, no matter how carefully the firing party is placed.


Monument to De Bruyne and Lippens in Blankenberge. (cc) image from Zeisterre.

* December 1 is the commonly attributed date for the hostages’ butchery but it can’t be documented with certainty.

** As we’ve noted elsewhere, the term “Arabs” as used for eastern Congo by European sources in this period denotes Muslim bantus. We’re following the prevailing term here, whatever its imprecision.

† As a reward for his services, Gongo Lutete was spuriously accused of treason by a Belgian officer in September 1893 and speedily executed without any form of superior approval.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Belgium,Borderline "Executions",Congo (Kinshasa),History,Hostages,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1881: Percy Lefroy Mapleton, police sketch milestone

Add comment November 29th, 2019 Headsman

When Percy Lefroy Mapleton plunged through the gallows-trap at Lewes Prison on this date in 1881 for robbing and murdering a train passenger, he had the consolation of a minor milestone in policing history: he was the bobble-headed subject of the first published police sketch.

Mapleton (he gave his name initially as Percy Mapleton Lefroy) entered the annals of crime lore at Brighton‘s Preston Park railway station on the 27th of June, a mere five months before his execution. On that occasion, he presented himself, bloodied and bedraggled, to a ticket agent with a complaint that he’d been assaulted on the train by two unknown men.

Maybe it was the gold watch chain dangling out of his boot (the man said he’d stashed it there for safekeeping) or an unexplained couple of Hanoverian medals he possessed (the man didn’t know anything about those!), or his keen desire to ditch the investigators and return immediately to London for some business (so why take the train to Brighton in the first place?). There wasn’t quite sufficient reason to hold him, but there was ample cause to give him a minder for his ride back to London.

Apparently Sgt. George Holmes hadn’t been fully briefed on suspect escort protocol.

During their ride, police searching the rail line by which the strange bloodied man had arrived turned up the body of an elderly coin dealer named Isaac Gold, the sort of character who would have pocket watches and Hanoverian medals to steal. A telegraph sent from the nearest station arrived ahead of Mapleton’s train, reading

Man found dead this afternoon in tunnel here. Name on papers “I Gold”. He is now lying here. Reply quick.

At this point, explicit instructions to keep eagle eyes on Percy Mapleton would hardly seem to be required — yet they were indeed forthcoming. Despite what headquarters and common sense were telling him, however, Sgt. Holmes allowed the murder suspect to talk him into letting him “change clothes” unsupervised in a house. And so began a nationwide manhunt.

This manhunt would be distinguished by a police sketch of the fugitive created with the help of Mapleton’s acquaintances. London Metropolitan Police’s (then-newborn) Criminal Investigation Department appealed to the press for help and the Telegraph made history by printing the man’s profile, first time such a drawing had hit newsprint for this purpose.

Age 22, middle height, very thin, sickly appearance, scratches on throat, wounds on head, probably clean shaved, low felt hat, black coat, teeth much discoloured … He is very round shouldered, and his thin overcoat hangs in awkward folds about his spare figure. His forehead and chin are both receding. He has a slight moustache, and very small dark whiskers. His jawbones are prominent, his cheeks sunken and sallow, and his teeth fully exposed when laughing. His upper lip is thin and drawn inwards. His eyes are grey and large. His gait is singular; he is inclined to slouch and when not carrying a bag, his left hand is usually in his pocket. He generally carries a crutch stick.

The publicity blitz generated dozens of erroneous reported sightings throughout the country, but successfully put the screws to the wanted man who was hemmed into an untenable boarding house bolt-hole with an increasingly suspicious landlady and a dwindling pool of money. At last he was

apprehended on Friday evening, July 8, at 32, Smith-street, Stepney, where he took lodgings two days after his disappearance from Wallington … He went out very little, and chiefly at night … He described himself as an engraver, and as one who needed quietness. A telegram sent by Lefroy from 32, Smith-street, to his friend Seele was the cause of his arrest. It appears that the suspicions of his landlady, Mrs. Bickers, being aroused by his peculiar mode of living, she sent her daughter to the address indicated on the telegram, which ran as follows: —

From G. Clark, 32, Smith-street, Stepney, to S. Seele, at J.T. Hutchinson’s, 56, Gresham-street, London, E.C. — Please bring me my wages this evening, about eight, without fail. Flour to-morrow. Not 33.

This telegram led some unknown person, it is said, to call at Scotland-yard, and give information.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Theft

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1499: Edward, Earl of Warwick, the last Plantagenet claimant

Add comment November 28th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1499, the Plantagenet prince Edward, Earl of Warwick lost his head — and his once-mighty house lost its last direct male successor to its claim upon kingship.

A lagging casualty of the Wars of the Roses, little Ted was only three when he lost his old man to a treason charge and a butt of malmsey. The same blade dangled close to Edward’s neck throughout his few years, for he became a potential royal claimant after his young cousins, the Princes in the Tower, were killed off in 1483.

Warwick was all of eight years old at that moment. When he was 10, he was shut up in the Tower of London by Henry VII, never really to leave it again.* “Being kept in the Tower from his tender age, that is to say from his first year of the king [i.e., of Henry VII’s reign] to this fifteenth year, out of all company of men and sight of beasts, in so much that he could not discern a goose from a capon,” in the words of chronicler Edward Hall. Some historians have taken that to mean that Edward was was mentally disabled, but under the circumstances, who wouldn’t be?*

It was cold and eminently practical mistreatment, for this boy however innocent in his own person was the potential champion of the Yorkists. In 1487, an abortive rebellion arose in Warwick’s name, with a 10-year-old kid named Lambert Simnel presented as a faux-Edward. Henry crushed the rebellion and was obliged to make his proofs to the populace by parading the real Edward around London which was at least a rare excursion outside the Tower walls for the tween hostage.**

Pretenders tossed the boy prisoner hither and yon on the currents of fortune. The next one to have a go at Henry, a Low Countries twerp named Perkin Warbeck who claimed to be one of the lost Princes in the Tower, mounted landings in the mid-1490s, vainly hoping to spark a general revolt. After he was finally captured in 1497, he wound up in the Tower with poor Warwick. Warbeck persuaded the desperate youth upon a desperate course — or was it by the intentional policy of that scheming king to dispose of a threat and thereby cinch that famously ill-fated Spanish marriage so productive of clientele for our grim annals? A century-plus later, Francis Bacon described in History of the Reign of King Henry VII the popular suspicion that had attached to this convenient tying up of loose ends:

it was ordained, that this winding-ivy of a Plantagenet should kill the true tree itself. For Perkin, after he had been a while in the Tower, began to insinuate himself into the favour and kindness of his keepers, servants to the lieutenant of the Tower Sir John Digby, being four in number; Strangeways, Blewet, Astwood, and Long Roger. These varlets, with mountains of promises, he sought to corrupt, to obtain his escape; but knowing well, that his own fortunes were made so contemptible, as he could feed no man’s hopes, and by hopes he must work, for rewards he had none, he had contrived with himself a vast and tragical plot; which was, to draw into his company Edward Plantagenet earl of Warwick, then prisoner in the Tower; whom the weary life of a long imprisonment, and the often and renewing fears of being put to death, had softened to take any impression of counsel for his liberty. This young Prince he thought these servants would look upon, though not upon himself: and therefore, after that by some message by one or two of them, he had tasted of the earl’s consent; it was agreed that these four should murder their master the lieutenant secretly in the night, and make their best of such money and portable goods of his, as they should find ready at hand, and get the keys of the Tower, and presently let forth Perkin and the earl. But this conspiracy was revealed in time, before it could be executed. And in this again the opinion of the King’s great wisdom did surcharge him with a sinister fame, that Perkin was but his bait, to entrap the earl of Warwick.

… Howsoever it were, hereupon Perkin, that had offended against grace now the third time, was at the last proceeded with, and by commissioners of oyer and terminer arraigned at Westminster, upon divers treasons committed and perpetrated after his coming on land within this kingdom, for so the judges advised, for that he was a foreigner, and condemned, and a few days after executed at Tyburn; where he did again openly read his confession, and take it upon his death to be true. This was the end of this little cockatrice of a King, that was able to destroy those that did not espy him first. It was one of the longest plays of that kind that hath been in memory, and might perhaps have had another end, if he had not met with a King both wise, stout, and fortunate.

And immediately after was arraigned before the Earl of Oxford, then for the time high steward of England, the poor Prince, the Earl of Warwick; not for the attempt to escape simply, for that was not acted; and besides, the imprisonment not being for treason, the escape by law could not be treason, but for conspiring with Perkin to raise sedition, and to destroy the King: and the earl confessing the indictment, had judgment, and was shortly after beheaded on Tower-hill.

This was also the end, not only of this noble and commiserable person Edward the earl of Warwick, eldest son to the duke of Clarence: but likewise of the line male of the Plantagenets, which had flourished in great royalty and renown, from the time of the famous King of England, King Henry the second. Howbeit it was a race often dipped in their own blood. It hath remained since only transplanted into other names, as well of the imperial line, as of other noble houses. But it was neither guilt of crime, nor treason of state, that could quench the envy that was upon the King for this execution: so that he thought good to export it out of the land, and to lay it upon his new ally, Ferdinando King of Spain. For these two Kings understanding one another at half a word, so it was that there were letters shewed out of Spain, whereby in the passages concerning the treaty of marriage, Ferdinando had written to the King in plain terms, that he saw no assurance of his succession, as long as the earl of Warwick lived; and that he was loth to send his daughter to troubles and dangers. But hereby, as the King did in some part remove the envy from himself; so he did not observe, that he did withal bring a kind of malediction and infausting upon the marriage, as an ill prognostic: which in event so far proved true, as both Prince Arthur enjoyed a very small time after the marriage, and the lady Catharine herself, a sad and a religious woman, long after, when King Henry the eighth his resolution of a divorce from her was first made known to her, used some words, that she had not offended, but it was a judgment of God, for that her former marriage was made in blood; meaning that of the earl of Warwick.

* The situation reminds of little Tsar Ivan VI in the 18th century, although that Russian prince was held from an even younger age, under even more oppressive conditions.

** Being only a figurehead, the pretend Warwick ironically enjoyed great mercy compared to the real one. Simnel was installed in Henry’s kitchens instead and lived out a comfortable life in the royal household.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Milestones,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Royalty

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1620: Michal Piekarski, warhammer wielder

Add comment November 27th, 2019 Headsman

Calvinist nobleman Michal Piekarski was spectacularly executed in Warsaw on this date in 1620 for attempting the life of the Polish-Lithuanian king.

The lengthy reign of Sigismund III Vasa marks Poland’s downward slide out of her golden age, although how much of this trendline is personally attributable to Sigismund embarks scholarly debates well beyond this writer’s ken.

Sigismund III Vasa held both the Polish-Lithuanian and the Swedish thrones in a personal union but he lost the latter realm to rebellion; he meddled unsuccessfully in Russia’s Time of Troubles interregnum; and he faced a rebellion of nobility in 1606-1608 that, although it failed to overthrow him, permanently curtailed the power Polish monarchy.

That conflict with the aristocracy overlapped with a sectarian schism common throughout Europe in the train of the Protestant Reformation — for Sigismund was very Catholic and his nobility divided.

It’s the latter fissure that’s thought to have supplied the proximate motivation for our date’s principal. Piekarski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish), a petty noble, had long been noted as a moody, melancholic man too unstable even to be entrusted with the management of his own estates — the consequence of a childhood head injury.

He was also a staunch Calvinist, but broad-minded enough to find virtue in his opponents’ tactics. In 1610, Catholic ultra Francois Ravaillac had assassinated France’s Henri IV, and it’s thought that Ravaillac’s boldness put the bee into Piekarski’s bonnet.

A decade later, the Pole stung with cinematic flair: he jumped Sigismund in a narrow corridor while the latter was en route to Mass and dealt 1d8 bludgeoning damage by thumping the king in the back with a warhammer; after a second attempted blow only grazed the sovereign’s cheek, the royal entourage subdued Piekarski and started looking up chiropractors.


It’s only a model: replica of the would-be assassin’s instrument on display in Warsaw.

Torture failed to elucidate a coherent motivation from a muddled mind. Reports had him only babbling nonsense, so attribution of the attack to religious grievance remains no more than partially satisfying; there were rumors of other more determined instigators to steer Piekarski’s mind towards regicide for their own ends. (Although he didn’t get the king, he did confer upon the Polish tongue the idiom “plesc jak Piekarski na mekach” — “to mumble like Piekarski under torture”.)

In the end, for Ravaillac’s crime, he took Ravaillac’s suffering: the Sejm condemned him to an elaborate public execution which comprised having his flesh torn by red-hot pincers as he was carted around Warsaw, until reaching a place called Piekielko (“Devil’s Den”) where the hand he had dared to raise against the king was struck off, and then what was left of his ruined flesh was torn into quarters with the aid of four straining horses.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,By Animals,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Poland,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Treason

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1954: Jonas Žemaitis, Lithuanian Forest Brother

Add comment November 26th, 2019 Headsman

Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan Jonas Žemaitis was shot in Moscow’s Butyrka prison on this date in 1954. He’s one of the big names in the Forest Brothers movement that kept up a hopeless fight against Moscow from 1944 into the 1950s.

An artillerist of Polish ancestry who deserted the retreating Red Army and surrendered himself the Wehrmacht arriving in the summer 1941, Žemaitis is breezily credited in state histories (and as of this writing, both English and Lithuanian Wikipedia pages) of essentially taking the war years off because “he did not want to serve the Nazis.” That was sure considerate of the Nazis! Instead the fellow just mined peat since he preferred not to get involved.

Now, peat production was and is an important economic sector in Lithuania; indeed, even this seemingly innocuous activity hints at exploitation of Jewish slave labor. But there is circumstantial and even eyewitness evidence that Žemaitis’s participation in one of the Reich’s most thorough exterminations was quite a bit more nefarious than vegetation management.

One could turn here to Joseph Melamed, a survivor of the Kovno Ghetto who collected witness testimonies and published thousands of names of alleged Lithuanian “Jew-Shooters” (zydsaudys). Melamed has charged that Žemaitis put his Polish fluency to use facilitating genocide and “having proved his efficiency and diligence in murdering Jews, was rewarded by the SS and promoted to the rank of Colonel” in the Police Battalions, Lithuanian paramilitaries that worked hand in glove with Nazi executioners.*

Or alternatively, one could rely on the plain fact that Žemaitis was a trained, early-30s officer in a desperate war zone where everyone was being pressed into action, and that anti-Soviet fighters afterwards treated him as a General. That’s not the profile of a figure who simply kept his head down while the Great War raged past him.

The post-USSR independent state of Lithuania, which has not been shy about whitewashing Holocaust collaborators, absolutely rejects such inferences and has retroactively elevated Žemaitis to its officially recognized head of state during his postwar resistance; there’s a Vilnius military academy that’s named for him.

* Melamed is now deceased but during his latter years Vilnius accused him of slander. Modern Lithuania is ferociously determined about apotheosizing the Forest Brothers; officially, the Venn diagram between wartime genocidaires and the postwar anti-Soviet resistance consists of two different shapes on two different planets.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Heads of State,History,Lithuania,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Torture,USSR

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