Posts filed under 'History'

1547: Jan Olivetsky, Moravian publisher

Add comment September 20th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1547, the anti-Catholic publisher Jan Olivetsky was beheaded in the town square of Olomouc. Links in this post are predominantly Czech.

Part of a whole family of pioneers in early Bohemian and Moravian printing — his father Pavel stamped out the first printed editions of Jan Hus‘s writings in Czech — Jan skirted even closer to the lines proscribing subversive and heretical propaganda. Too close.

Jan set up shop a couple miles down the road from Olomouc in Drozdovice where — in addition to ponderous legal compendiums and popular folk stories that comprised his daily bread — he dared to run the presses for a variety of Lutheran sermons and manifestos against the pope.

The outbreak of, and the decisive Catholic triumph in, the Schmalkaldic War of 1546-1547 came a sharp imperial crackdown on this sects trafficking.

He’s regarded as the protomartyr among Moravian publishers, a professional distinction rather than a confessional one.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Habsburg Realm,History,Holy Roman Empire,Martyrs,Milestones,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1809: Six at Halifax for the mutiny aboard the HMS Columbine

Add comment September 18th, 2020 Headsman


(cc) image by Dennis Jarvis.

On this date in 1809, the Royal Navy hanged six for a failed mutiny bid aboard the HMS Columbine, subsequently gibbeting four of them at Maugher Beach upon McNabs Island at the entrance to the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Boatswain William Coates, seamen Jacques L’Oiseau, Alexander McKinley, and William Stock, and marines Henry Coffee and Edward Kelly — the latter of whom might also have been acting as the ship’s steward — suffered the extreme penalty, while a seventh man, Pierre Francoise, was reprieved by royal mercy. L’Oiseau, McKinley, Stock, and Kelly were then painted with tar and hung in chains at the same site as a public warning to seafarers, a scene “very disagreeable as it is hardly possible to sail anywhere below George’s Island without being offended at the sight of those unfortunate sufferers,” in the estimation of the provincial secretary.* Sixteen other actual or aspirant mutineers were tried with them, many receiving heavy sentences of flogging followed by convict transportation in irons.

The Columbine’s tars were motivated by the grievances of ill-treatment typical in the British navy, and the proximity of United States territory — whose appeal to deserters as an escape from the empire’s lash would soon help bring about war between the U.S. and the U.K. — presented an inducement to rebel that they could not resist.

For greater detail, I cannot begin to improve upon the thorough and nuanced exploration of this event presented by the Nova Scotia Maritime Museum. Click through for a great read.

* Legend has it that the guy McNabs Island was named for, Peter McNab, was so put off by the practice of gibbeting near his land that one night he cut down whatever poor sufferers were dangling there, plus the whole apparatus.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions

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1943: The officers of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar, during the Villefranche-de-Rouergue mutiny

Add comment September 17th, 2020 Headsman


Inscription: ICI REPOSANT LES COMBATTANTS YOUGOSLAVES QUI TOMBERENT LOIN DE LEUR PATRIE SOUS LES BALS DE L’ENNEMI NAXI A LA SUITE DE L’INSURRECTION DE VILLEFRANCHE DE ROUERGUE DU 17 SEPTEMBRE 1943

The monument pictured above in the southern France commune of Villefranche-de-Rouergue honors a group of Balkan soldiers of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar who attempted a bold mutiny on the night of September 16-17, 1943 … which began with the arrest and execution of their German commanders.

The mutineers were ethnic Bosniaks recruited and/or conscripted via the Third Reich’s fascist Croatian puppet state. Many were unenthusiastic about their situation, whether due to bigotry from their German officers, rumors of a redeployment to the frightful eastern front, or prior left-wing ideological commitments. Pressed by desperate manpower needs, Berlin could not be so choosy about the political orientations of its cannon-meat.

Some like Ferid Dzanic, actually volunteered out of captivity still in a prisoner of war camp. In Dresden, during the summer of 1943, he met Bozo Jelenek (under the pseudonym Eduard Matutinovic) and Nikola Vukelic at the pionir leaders course. Their plans were to “either desert or organize an uprising against the Germans” Another lesser known ring leader was Luftija Dizdarevic.

The ambitious plan was to have all of the German officers in the town arrested and executed, disarm all of the remaining Bosnians and Germans, assemble them and depart towards the town of Rodez (1st Regt garrison) with the sympathetic French police and deal with the rest in a similar manner. Further plans called for the liquidation of the entire divisional staff. Dzanic spoke of two options following the success of the mutiny, sailing to Northern Africa and putting themselves at the disposal of the western Allies or crossing the Alps and liberating Croatia. (Source)

Shortly after midnight on the big night, the mutineers seized and disarmed German non-commissioned officers, and arrested higher-ranking Germans. Five officers, including SS-Obersturmbannführer Oskar Kirchbaum, were executed within hours, but a deficiency of ruthlessness hamstrung the operation by sparing two men who would be key organizers of the German rally as that morning unfolded: a junior medical officer who was able to talk his way out of their clutches, and the unit’s chaplain-imam* who shammed sympathy long enough to release the NCOs. There was a fearsome firefight through the streets of Villefranche as that bloody Friday unfolded.

Soon reinforced from without, the Germans overwhelmingly prevailed; in the week or so that followed some uncertain number of them — thought to range well over 100 — were hunted to ground and killed in no-hope fight-to-the-death shootouts, or captured and executed in their own turn. But not all of the mutineers. A few managed, with the aid of the sympathetic French civilians, to escape the manhunt; one of the mutiny’s leaders, Božo Jelenek, even reached the French Resistance and earned the Croix de Guerre for his service in that cause over the balance of the war.

After Allied forces liberated the town, Villefranche named a street the Avenue des Croates — the mutineers being perceived by the French as “Muslim Croats” rather than distinctly Bosnian — and marked the 17th of September for annual commemoration of the “revolt of the Croats”. The postwar Yugoslavian government vainly implored Villefranche to recategorize both street and celebration to the honor of “Yugoslavs”.

* After making his way to a company of confused or wavering Bosniak soldiers, Halim Malkoč said, “All of the men looked at me as if they were praying for my help, or hoping that I would protect them. They wanted to hear my word. I stood before them, explained the entire situation, and demanded that they follow me. At this time I took command. I then freed the German men, who were being held in a room. They looked at me with astonished eyes and apparently had little faith in me. I called out to them “Heil Hitler! Long Live the Poglavnik!” and told them that all weapons were to be turned against the communists. They then followed me.” He was executed by the communist Yugoslavian government on March 7, 1947.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bosnia and Herzegovina,Croatia,Execution,France,Germany,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Yugoslavia

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1599: Celestino da Verona

Add comment September 16th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1599, a heretical Franciscan named Fra Celestino of Verona burned at the stake at Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori.

For posterity he is a secondary character in the passion play of Giordano Bruno, who followed him to the same stake just a few months later.

Celestino had been imprisoned with Bruno in the early 1590s — the Inquisition’s legal gears took years to spin — and wrote up for his jailers a denunciation of his Bruno’s deviant doctrines. This might have been precisely what was hoped or demanded: turn the man’s fear of the fagot into an engine for incriminating the heresiarch.

It’s purely speculative whether this viperous intervention really made any difference in Bruno’s case. The rat vanishes from the documentary trail, only resurfacing in early 1599 when the Inquisition takes a sudden and intense look at this loose end. No record remains of Celestino’s specific doctrines, only that interrogators operated under a pall of silence mandated by the Pope himself.

He was condemned as a relapsed heretic, although we can only guess at his heresies. A few days later, an ambassador’s letter made reference to the burned man “who insisted that Christ Our Lord did not redeem mankind.”

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Italy,Papal States,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1812: Juan Jose Crespo y Castillo, Huanuco rebel

Add comment September 14th, 2020 Headsman

Peruvian revolutionary Juan Jose Crespo y Castillo was garroted on this date in 1812.

Bust of Juan Jose Crespo y Castillo at Lima’s Panteon de los Proceres. (cc) image from Fernando Murillo.

An advance shock of the coming Peruvian War of Independence, Crespo y Castillo came to the fore of an indigenous rebellion against Spanish dominion in the mountainous department of Huanuco.

This small — perhaps 1,500 rebels were involveed — rising broke out in February 1812 and lasted only a couple of months but testified to Peru’s ongoing current of native resistance.

Crespo y Castillo wasn’t a firebrand but a prosperous local Creole elite, a farmer and alderman of long standing. Beyond the common grievances of state abuses and corruption he acutely felt the injury imposed by trade tightening that devastated the value of his tobacco crops.

On February 22, 1812, Indians from several outlying towns marched on the town of Huanuco, putting the Spanish authorities to flight. Crespo y Castillo was elevated to the leadership of a small governing board for the rebellion, whose limited ambitions were marked by its slogan, Viva el rey, muera el mal gobierno.

By May, the whole thing had succumbed to the customary remedy of overwhelming counterattack plus clemency offer for the rank-and-file — among whom, of course, our man numbered not.

He was put to death at the Plaza Mayor of Huanoco, uttering the inspiring last words,

“Muero yo, pero mil se levantaran para ahorcar a los tiranos. Viva la libertad!”

(“I die, but a thousand will rise to hang the tyrants! Long live freedom!”)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Garrote,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Peru,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Spain,Strangled,Treason

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1568: Ivan Fedorov, zemshchina boyar

Add comment September 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1568, the Russian boyar Ivan Petrovich Fedorov-Chelyadnin was personally “executed” by Ivan the Terrible.

The vengeful tsar suspecting this man of aspiring to his position had him dressed in royal robes and sat him on the throne, then mockingly paid obeisance before stabbing him to death. It’s unclear whether this great lord had the benefit beforehand of any semblance of judicial process.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Nevrev‘s painting of Ivan the Terrible, coiled in fury with dagger drawn, about to “depose” Ivan Fedorov.

The poet A.K. Tolstoy* (cousin of the Tolstoy) sketched the scene in an 1858 verse, “The Staritsky Voivode”:

When the old governor was accused,
That, proud of the nobility and antiquity of the family,
He dreamt of assigning himself a royal dignity,
Ivan ordered him to appear before his eyes.
And to the condemned he brought a rich crown,
And a garment of pearls and gold,
And he laid on the barmi,** and seated him on his own throne
He raised the guilty one on silk carpets.
And, dropping his gaze before him, he fell in the middle of the chamber,
And, bowing to the ground in mock obedience,
Said: “Satisfied in your majesty,
Behold, your slave smites your brow!”
And, having risen with merciless malice,
Plunged a knife into his heart with a greedy hand.
And, bending his face over the overthrown enemy,
He stepped on the corpse with a patterned boot
And he looked into the eyes of the dead, and with trembling unsteady
Sovereign lips snaked a smile.

The late 1560s bring us to the crescendo of Ivan’s oprichnina, years of terror and purging visited by the paranoid sovereign on his internal foes — actual, potential, or imagined.

Although remembered as the name for Ivan’s policy, the oprichnina was also a literal physical territory — created in 1565 when Ivan successfully forced his nobles to give him absolute power over life and death in the appanage of the oprichnina.† Over the succeeding years, Ivan extended both the physical reach of that realm, and the reach of the dictatorial authority that it embodied — threatening the zemschina, a distinct geographical area where terrified boyars administered the incumbent, non-Ivan Russian state.

“Ivan’s open hostility towards the zemshchina could not fail to alarm its leaders,” not Maureen Perrie and Andrei Pavlov in this biography of Ivan the Terrible … and this fact could not fail to catalyze those much-feared internal foes.

It is quite probable in the circumstances that the idea of removing the tsar and transferring the throne to his cousin Prince Vladimir Staritskii might have been discussed among zemshchina boyars. Two foreign observers — the Germans Heinrich von Staden and Albert Schlichting, who both served in the oprichnina — refer to a conspiracy of the zemshchina boyars in favour of Vladimir. An unofficial Russian chronicle also mentions the ‘inclination’ of the opposition to promote Vladimir’s candidature for the Russian throne. But according to a chronicle account there was no overt conspiracy, only discussions (‘words’), for which the boyars who opposed the oprichnina paid a heavy price.

Our date’s principal, Ivan Fedorov, attracted Ivan’s attention in the ensuing investigation. A prince from a venerable noble family, Fedorov had been a pillar of the state, an important governor and military commander, for three-plus decades. It availed him little under Ivan’s suspicion.

Fedorov was placed in disgrace and exiled to Kolomna. Nobles and officials among his supporters were arrested and executed, and many of the equerry’s armed servants were exterminated. The oprichniki [Ivan’s personal army, the enforcers of the oprichnina -ed.] carried out several punitive raids against Fedorov’s lands. Many of the inhabitants were slaughtered (some were put to the sword, while others were herded into their cottages and burned alive). According to Staden, women and girls were stripped naked ‘and forced in that state to catch chickens in the fields’. Buildings were demolished, livestock was slaughtered and chancellery officials were put to death, along with about 300 boyars’ servants.

* A.K. Tolstoy also wrote a tragedy for the stage (banned in tsarist Russia), The Death of Ivan the Terrible.

** Barmi: an ornamental mantle or collar that comprised part of the royal regalia.


It’s the semicircle between Tsar Alexis‘s beard and his crucifix.

The term, now so dreadful in Russian historiography, originally denoted an inheritance of land left to a widow, as distinct from that left to her children.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Put to the Sword,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason

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1664: Sawny Douglas, Chevy Chaser

Add comment September 10th, 2020 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:


SAWNY DOUGLAS

A Scottish Highwayman who laid England under toll, and took a Copy of “Chevy Chase” to Tyburn when he was hanged on 10th of September, 1664

SAWNY DOUGLAS, a Scotsman, was the son of a tanner, and born at Portpatrick in the shire of Galloway, where he lived till the unnatural Civil War broke out in 1641. Sawny at this time being very zealous on the side of the Kirk, and consequently against the King, entered himself into the service of the Parliament, was at the siege of Dundee, and boasted after that bloody action was over that he killed with his own hands no less than twenty-nine persons.

Those who have read the histories of that time will remember that Dundee was taken by storm, and that the garrison was put to the sword; which gave Sawny an opportunity to discover his cruelty.

After the restoration of King Charles II, when the Scots were reduced to obedience, Sawny found himself obliged to seek some other subsistence than the army.

He had now been a soldier about twenty years, and though he had never been advanced higher than to carry a halberd [i.e., a sergeant -ed.], yet he was something loth to lay down his commission. However, there was no opposing necessity, and he was obliged to submit, as well as many of his betters, who were glad they could come off thus, after having been so deeply concerned in the rebellion.

Coming into England, and being destitute of both money and bread, he was not long in resolving what course to take in order to supply himself. The highway, he thought, was as free for him as for anybody else, and he was both strong and desperate. But the question was, where should he get a horse and accoutrements? “What,” said he again, “should hinder my taking the first that comes in my way, and seems fit for my purpose?” Pursuant to this last resolution he kept on the main road, with a good crab-tree stick in his hand, till he saw a gentleman’s servant alone, well mounted, with pistols before him.

He had some question ready to ask, and after that another, till the poor footman was engaged in a discourse with him, and rode along gently by his side. At last Sawny observes an opportunity, and gives him an effectual knock on the pate, which, followed with four or five more, left him insensible on the ground, while our young adventurer rode off with the horse till he thought himself out of the way of any inquiry.

The first robbery he committed was in Maidenhead Thicket, in Berkshire, in those times a very noted haunt for highwaymen. The person he stopped was one Mr Thurston, at that time Mayor of Thornbury, in Gloucestershire. He got about eighteen pounds, and was so uncivil as to refuse the poor gentleman ten shillings to bear his charges home; which was all he required, and for which he begged very hard.

Another time he robbed the Duchess of Albemarle* of diamond rings to the value of two hundred pounds, besides a pearl necklace, rich bracelets and ear-rings. After this he came and took lodgings at the house of one Mr Knowles, an apothecary in Tuthil Street, Westminster, where he set up for a gentleman, appeared very fine, and made love to his landlord’s daughter, who was reputed to be a two thousand pounds fortune.

For some time he was very well received both by the young lady and her father; but when his money was gone, and they found him full of shifts, arts and evasions, they not only discarded him as a husband and son-in-law, but turned him fairly out of doors.

Sawny now took to the road again, and committed more robberies than before, ranging all over the north of England, and being often so fortunate as to escape justice when it pursued him. He moreover contracted a familiarity with Du Vall, the most generous-spirited highwayman that ever lived, which friendship continued till Death parted them by his deputy Jack Ketch.

Sawny’s last attempt was on the Earl of Sandwich,** who was afterwards admiral in the Dutch war, and unfortunately lost his life, together with his ship. This noble commander, having arms in the coach, resolved not to be insulted by a highwayman, and discharged a pistol into Sawny’s horse, which immediately dropping down under him, the servants came up and secured our bonny North Briton, who was thereupon committed to Newgate, and in less than a month after ordered for Tyburn.

The Ballad of Chevy Chase, a popular song that survives in several variants, tells the story of a great battle between Scotsmen and Englishmen — won by the Scottish side, as occurred in its likely real-life inspiration, the Battle of Otterburn (1388).

Much beloved on both halves of Britain, it survives in several variants to the present day. The ballad also directly inspired the naming of Chevy Chase, Maryland (which once contained a number of street names alluding to Otterburn), as well as the stage name of National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live comedian Cornelius Crane “Chevy” Chase.

While he was under sentence he behaved in a very profane and indecent manner, cursing the bellman for his bad English when he repeated the usual Memento the night before his execution. At St Sepulchre’s the next day, when the appointed ceremony was performed, instead of composing his countenance, and looking as a man in his condition ought to do, he only told the spectators that it was hard a man could not be suffered to go to the gallows in peace; and that he had rather be hanged twice over without ceremony, than once after this superstitious manner.

He read no Prayer Book, but carried the ballad of Chevy Chase [see sidebar -ed.] in his hand all the way to Tyburn. When he came thither he took no notice of the ordinary, but bid the hangman be speedy, and not make a great deal of work about nothing, or at most about a mere trifle. He died 10th of September, 1664, aged fifty-three, and was buried in Tyburn Road.

* There were only three legitimate Dukes of Albemarle. The first was ancient history, a casualty at Agincourt centuries before. Chronologically, this robbery victim should refer to the wife of the first Duke, who was also the great Roundhead commander — and indeed, the robber’s very own commander at Dundee — George Monck. However, the text might instead be an anachronistic invocation of the wife of the second Duke of Albemarle who attained notoriety, and great wealth, as the “Mad Duchess” even though she didn’t attain the title until 1669. These entries, especially the ones dating back to the 17th century, were full liable to crisscross the unmarked boundaries between history and legend.

** Not the Earl who gave us sammiches, but his ancestor.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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906: Adalbert of Badenberg

Add comment September 9th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 906, Frankish noble Adalbert of Babenberg was done in by a feud.

Our setting is the German duchy of Franconia, in the remains of Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire. That mighty polity had been dismembered by subdivisions split among rivalrous sons, so Franconia here falls within a third part of a third part — the Kingdom of Saxony.

This decomposition summoned all manner of scavengers to squabble over the meat, and Franconia “was divided into counties, or gauen, which were ruled by counts, prominent among whom were members of the families of Conradine and Babenberg, by whose feuds it was frequently devastated.”

The latter of these houses, Babenberg, was sired by one of the last great Carolingian commanders. Descendants of this notable line would become in time dukes in their own right, and the red-white-red triband of their family arms are the basis for the flag of modern Austria. The city of Bamberg grew up around their family stronghold of Babenberg Castle.

Around the turn into the 10th century, however, they were getting the rough end of the pineapple from the Conradines — who waxed in royal favor and regional power while the Babenbergs waned.

Adalhard of Babenberg, the older brother of this post’s principal, had been seized and beheaded by the Conradines in 903. Not to be out-feuded, our guy Adalbert gave battle to his rivals in 906, killing the enemy family silverback.*

He was in his own turn besieged in Theres until he surrendered to a safe conduct promised by Saxon King Otto the Illustrious — who was his own brother-in-law thanks to Otto’s marrying Adalbert’s sister back when the Babenbergs stood higher in the pecking order. So much for sentiment: as soon as Adalbert gave up the protection of his city walls, Otto had his head cut off.

* A guy named Conrad: hence, the Conradines.

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Entry Filed under: Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Germany,History,Nobility,Power,Wartime Executions

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1943: Julius Fučík, Notes from the Gallows

Add comment September 8th, 2020 Headsman

Czechoslovakian journalist Julius Fučík was executed by the Third Reich on this date in 1943.

Nephew of a great composer of the same name, our Julius Fučík was an 18-year-old left-wing activist when the Social Democrat party he was a part of founded the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Fučík and his pen grew up in this world, together generating a substantial corpus of essays and analysis on pregnant years.

Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia drove his party and his work underground, which eventually resulted in his arrest.

He’d eventually be deported to Germany and hanged at Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison, but Fučík made his lasting fame to posterity through the clandestine diary notes, bursting with anticipation for a bright Communist future, that he scribbled during his initial detention at Prague’s Pankrác Prison from 1942-1943.

After the war, these would be published as Notes from the Gallows — a text so scriptural in Communist Czechoslovakia that it weighed like manacles.

In Milan Kundera‘s The Joke, one of the characters standing trial is browbeaten by a prosecutor using Fučík’s words, while Fučík’s “fervent, pure” portrait gazes in judgment. (Consonant with the stature of Notes from the Gallows, its author was saluted via many street names, public monuments, and so forth. Quite few still remain today, in Germany as well as the former Czechoslovakia.)

“‘Death, you have been long in coming. And yet it was my hope to postpone our meeting until many years hence. To go on living the life of a free man, to work more, love more, sing more, and wander the world over …'” I recognized Fucik’s Notes from the Gallows.

“‘I loved life, and for the sake of its beauty I went to war. I loved you, good people, rejoicing when you returned my love, suffering when you failed to understand me …'”

That text, written clandestinely in prison, then published after the war in a million copies, broadcast over the radio, studied in schools as required reading, was the sacred book of the era. Zemanek read out the most famous passages, the ones everyone knew by heart.

“‘Let sadness never be linked with my name. That is my testament to you, Papa, Mama, and sisters, to you, my Gustina, to you, Comrades, to everyone I have loved …'” The drawing of Fucik on the wall was a reproduction of the famous sketch by Max Svabinsky, the old Jugendstil painter, the virtuoso of allegories, plump women, butterflies, and everything delightful; after the war, or so the story goes, Svabinsky had a visit from the Comrades, who asked him to do a portrait of Fucik from a photograph, and Svabinsky had drawn him (in profile) in graceful lines in accord with his own taste: almost girlish, fervent, pure, and so handsome that people who had known him personally preferred Svabinsky’s sublime drawing to their memories of the living face.

Fučík, and the idealized Max Švabinský portrait of him — one of several times it’s been used on postage stamps.

Meanwhile Zemanek read on, everyone in the hall silent and attentive and the fat girl at the table unable to tear her eyes away from him; suddenly his voice grew firm, almost menacing; he had come to the passage about Mirek the traitor: “‘And to think that he was no coward, a man who did not take flight when bullets rained down on him at the Spanish front, who did not knuckle under when he ran the gauntlet of cruelties in a concentration camp in France. Now he pales under the club of a Gestapo agent and turns informer to save his skin. How superficial was his bravery if so few blows could shake it. As superficial as his convictions … He lost everything the moment he began to think of himself. To save his own life, he sacrificed the lives of his friends. He succumbed to cowardice and through cowardice betrayed them …'” Fucik’s handsome face hung on the wall as it hung in a thousand other public places in our country, and it was so handsome, with the radiant expression of a young girl in love, that when I looked at it I felt inferior not just because of my guilt, but because of my appearance as well. And Zemanek read on: “‘They can take our lives, can’t they, Gustina, but they cannot take our honor and love. Can you imagine, good people, the life we might have led if we had met again after all this suffering, met again in a free life, a life made beautiful by freedom and creation? The life we shall lead when we finally achieve everything we’ve longed for and fought for and I now die for?'” After the pathos of these last sentences Zemanek was silent.

In the post-Communist era Fučík has had a critical re-examination, with an updated version of Notes published now including for the first time the bits his widow had judiciously excised, wherein Fučík admits to breaking under torture — although he also records that he “confessed” only inaccurate information that would not endanger comrades. He’s also been knocked for failing to use his firearms on either his captors or himself at the time of his arrest.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1917: Sgt. John Wall, Passchendaele casualty

Add comment September 6th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1917, Sgt. John Thomas Wall of the 3rd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment was shot at dawn during the horrific Battle of Passchendaele, for cowardice.

Passchendaele (or the Third Battle of Ypres) was a futile, weekslong attempt by the western allies to break through in Flanders, a stalemate bought at the price of hundreds of thousands of casualties on each side. Pounding August rains that turned trenches and no-man’s-lands into sucking bogs amplified the misery, and perhaps factored into Wall’s situation.

At 2 a.m. on August 10, Wall’s platoon crawled out of trenches and up Bellewarde Ridge. Theirs was a part of the 25th Division’s attack on Westhoek and while this attack would capture that village, it did so at the cost of 1,291 casualties — and an exposed right flank that left Westhoek open to withering German fire from the adjacent Glencorse Wood.


Detail view of the section of the battlefield attempted by Wall. Click for a wider, but still local, perspective.

John Wall had enrolled in the army in 1912, as a 16-year-old drummer boy. He made sergeant during the Great War, which means that by this point he’d already survived three years of this hell and no disciplinary lapse prior to his fatal one suggests that he was anything other than exemplary soldier.

But on this occasion, Wall turned up on the evening of August 11 not at Westhoek but back in the reserve trenches.

Evidence to his field court-martial a few days later established that his platoon had become lost in the dark and at a lieutenant’s order huddled for safety in a small concrete dugout under German bombardment. Several of their number were requisitioned for a patrol, leaving only Wall and two other men — but the onset of more German fire pinned them down until 5 or 6 p.m. on August 11th. Exhausted and seeing no friendly forces, they fell back under a thunderstorm to their starting position. This was Wall’s whole defense: one of good-faith soldiering, with no recourse to excusing a failure by dint of fatigue or shellshock.

This detailed and sympathetic-to-Wall telling speculates that the remarkably severe punishment Wall received might have been a statement by brand-new regimental commander Alexander Johnston — he was a famous Hampshire cricketer before the war — to assert his authority, given that this, his very first operation in charge, had been such a bloody disaster.

The same post also produces this at-ease letter from Wall to his sister on the eve of his trial, either hoping to soothe his family from the mouth of the grave or else completely oblivious to the impending danger his officers posed to his own life and the future happiness of a forever nameless Belgian girl.

I now take the pleasure of writing these few lines in answer to your most kind and ever welcome letter which I received quite safe. Pleased to hear that you are in the best of health as it leaves me quite well at the present time of writing. Well dear Emily, I received the photo alright and I think he looks very nice it is as you say he does look wicked. Its a nice little boy all the same. Dear Emily, I received the tobacco alright. I wrote back and answered your parcel. They must have crossed on the way. Well dear Emily I had a letter from home the other day they are all getting on alright there at present. We are having soon lovely weather over here very hot the people are all busy harvesting now. You asked me if I have heard about the draft well yes. I have heard about them. Well dear Emily I haven’t married that Belgian girl not yet. I don’t think I shall not till after the war nor where we are because we are not allowed to. Well dear sister, I think I have said all for this time and I will close my short letter in sending my best hope and kisses from your loving brother Jack XXXXXX

P.S. Remember me to all. Thanks very much for the tobacco and photo.

And as an opposite keyhole glimpse from the far side of the dread procedure, this Warfare Magazine article* captures the testimony of a Private Eustace Rushby of the 1/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment, who was apparently part of Sgt. Wall’s firing squad.

The first execution I saw was at Kandis, not far from Doullens, in September 1916, near a Flying Corps aerodrome, and the other occasion was behind Poperinge, and this was September 1917. The firing squad consisted of eighteen men and the witnesses would be anything up to fifty, including ten men from four regiments. I was in the firing party at Poperinge. We found out afterwards that he was from a Worcester Regiment. There were six men lying, six kneeling, and six standing, and we were rehearsed before the victim arrived. We would receive instructions beforehand, but during the actual event there was not a word, not a sound, it was all done by signal. As soon as we fired, we dropped our rifles down where they were, and stepped back clear in our three ranks, and they would come along and check to see that we’d fired. Anyone who refused to fire or fired wide would be severely dealt with. The shooting took place in an orchard. The man was led out by two red caps with a gas helmet round the wrong way. They would warn you it was an order, but they knew it was no good choosing someone who would point blank refuse to fire or whose nerve wouldn’t allow them to do it. We were excused fatigues or guard duty for a week.

* We would be remiss on a site such as this not to excerpt another story from the same article, of a nearby farmer who was suspected of signaling the Germans under guise of his routine labors, and was summarily shot.

There was a windmill at Reninghurst, near Ypres, and the guard who was on duty that day noticed that the sail started to go around, stopped, then started to go round again. And he said, ‘That’s funny, there’s no wind, but it keeps stopping and starting.’ He couldn’t understand it, so he got it into his head to call out the guard. The duty officer took some men and observed what was going on and then went and arrested a Belgian who was using the position of the sails to signal to the enemy. I’d seen this farmer on several occasions going about his normal work. Anyway, they took him away and about half an hour afterwards somebody came along and said, ‘They’ve shot that bloke,’ and we said, ‘Really?’ He said they must have tried him straightaway and brought up a firing squad and shot him.

On this day..

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

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