Posts filed under 'History'

1985: Vladimir Vetrov, Farewell

Add comment January 23rd, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1985 spelled farewell for the KGB agent Vladimir Vetrov … code-named Farewell by the western handlers to whom he passed Soviet secrets.

Vladimir Vetrov was a career officer in Soviet intelligence who grew disgruntled* and in 1980 went to work for the West.

And he was no ordinary spy. Think Aldrich Ames, to the power of ten.

Vladimir Vetrov oversaw the entire KGB directorate charged with a critical program: Line X, which surveilled western R&D and passed its fruits back to Mother Russia. In the 1960s and 1970s, Line X stole jaw-dropping volumes of military, computer, and industrial advances.

And by 1980, all that information passed through Vetrov’s hands for distribution within the USSR. His betrayal blew the entire thing to smithereens.

When he turned, Vetrov gave 3,000 pages of top-secret documents to his French handlers, information which also made its way to the CIA. “The Soviet military and civil sectors were in large measure running their research on that of the West, particularly the United States,” recalls the gobsmacked American defense advisor who reviewed the file. “Our science was supporting their national defense.”

Book CoverSergei Kostin calls his book about the man Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century, and Vetrov has surely got a claim on that title. (It’s either Vetrov or Sorge when it comes to the annals of Soviet espionage.)

The Farewell dossier exposed the entirety of the Soviet technology-stealing infrastructure, with a couple of enormous consequences.

One, it influenced Cold War strategy in the West, supporting the Reagan administration’s view that the Soviet economy (absent its stolen technological advances) could be pushed into collapse.

And two, it facilitated Langley’s most spectacular counterespionage coup, brainchild of Gus Weiss. Rather than smashing up the Line X network, the CIA turned the enormous (and in Moscow, trusted) apparatus against its creators.

By feeding Soviet agents promising but subtly flawed technology, the Americans infiltrated sabotage points into the USSR — a Trojan Horse for the information age. In 1982, software running the Soviet Trans-Siberian Pipeline allegedly escalated gas pressure fatally on the Urengoy-Surgut-Chelyabinsk pipeline, triggering an explosion so large (three kilotons) that some foreign monitoring stations initially suspected a nuclear detonation. Weiss just told them not to worry.

Meanwhile, goes the story (and one must discount appropriately here for triumphalist spin), other crapware started failing elsewhere in the Soviet Union. “Pseudo-software disrupted factory output. Flawed but convincing ideas on stealth, attack aircraft and space defense made their way into Soviet ministries.” Suddenly, the Russians couldn’t know which Line X acquisitions were dependable and which were time bombs.


From Farewell, a 2009 film.

Vetrov’s candle burned bright, but brief: he stabbed his mistress (non-fatally) during a drunken argument in 1982, then stabbed to death the man who knocked on his window to intervene. Vetrov got a trip to Siberia, but while serving his time, he casually revealed that he’d authored maybe the most spectacular inside betrayal of Russian intelligence in the 20th century. He was duly recalled for a new trial and, eventually, a bullet in the head in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison. Even in the post-communist state, he’s still considered a villain in his homeland.

More about Vladimir Vetrov and the Farewell dossier in this BBC Witness podcast.

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* Vetrov didn’t betray the Kremlin for money. Sergei Kostin believes it was professional frustration — the revenge of the underappreciated nebbish whose merits couldn’t break through the nepotism ceiling at the clubby KGB. However — though the explanations are not necessarily inconsistent — Vetrov also wrote a pre-execution “Confession of a Traitor” savaging the Soviet system: “My only regret is that I was not able to cause more damage to the Soviet Union and render more service to France.”

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1912: Four blacks lynched in Hamilton, Georgia

Add comment January 22nd, 2013 Headsman

By dint of the grueling publishing schedule, this site is rarely equipped to follow as deeply into the wilderness as one might like the trailheads uncovered day by day.

Today is a 101 years since a lynching in Hamilton, Georgia that made national news and is just pregnant with curious little details that seem like they ought to attract an enterprising researcher.

The four, whose names are conflictingly reported, were tenant farmers of Norman Hadley, described as “a well-to-do unmarried farmer.” Some days before, Hadley was killed with a few .32 and .38 caliber gunshots through a window while sitting home alone.

Why were these four promptly arrested? What was known or believed about their probable grievance against Hadley — especially given the inclusion of a woman? We know that some topics of race relations were taboo at this period, and the bare facts seem suggestive of a much richer background where the nearby Columbus Enquirer-Sun only murmurs that “it was known that he [Hadley] had had some trouble with these negroes.”

Professing himself ignorant of any stirring popular violence — even though the superior court had only just announced a hurried special sitting so that it could try the case with speed lest vigilantes do what they ultimately did — the local sheriff blithely absented himself from town on the night of the 22nd. Would he have done that were he not Norman Hadley’s uncle? Late that evening,

[The crowd] advanced on the jail and throwing [the jailer] to one side broke the doors down. The terrified negroes were hustled out at the point of guns and marched outside the town. There they were quickly strung up. Immediately their writhing bdies became silhouetted against the sky, revolvers and rifles blazed forth and fully 300 shots were fired before the mob dispersed and left its prey to the winds.

The “prey” — all four of the prey — protested innocence every step of the way.

Whatever was abroad in the town, the wire stories that carried this lynching into press runs around the country found “no motive for the killing of Hadley” that “can be advanced by people here.” But they were absolutely certain: the sheriff had said during the preceding week that the accused were all trying to put the blame on one another, but that “it is not known why the negroes, or whoever killed him did so.” (Columbus Ledger, Jan. 18, 1912) So the interrogation never got around to why?

Whatever skeletons were in Harris County closets, the story’s national import was helped along by the near-simultaneous release of a study indicating that the state of Georgia had contributed a quarter (19 out of 71) of the previous year’s lynchings. It fit the narrative, as they say.

The African-American Savannah Tribune, as one might imagine, editorialized indignantly (Jan. 27, 1912):

The lynching of the four Negroes, one woman and three men, at Hamilton, Ga., on Monday night to avenge the death of a prominent white farmer, which was supposedly committed by the victims, was one of the most brutal and wanton crimes ever perpetrated in this state. There was not even the usual confessions of the unfortunate victims given out, in fact they professed their innocence to the end, but the mob was bent on taking their lives and therefore carried out their murderous intentions. The case was as follows: On last Sunday afternoon the man, who was murdered, was sitting in his home alone, a shot was fired through he window and he fell dead. That afternoon four Negro tenants were arrested charged with the murder and the next night they were taken out and lynched. The sheriff, who was uncle of the dead man feared no lynching and took a trip to Columbus, Ga., and in the mean time the Negroes were seized and put to death. Even circumstancial evidence against the Negroes was slight but they had to die to appease the wrath of the mob. Surely such crimes cannot much longer continue without some effort being put forth on the part of the law abiding citizens to stop them. Such dastardly crimes as this are indicative of the low value which is placed upon human life, especially if the life be that of a Negro.

The tone of moral outrage contrasts rather markedly with the Columbus Ledger‘s “let the law take its course” demand for a more orderly hanging scene.

The Hamilton Lynching

Law abiding citizens of Harris county have doubtless been made to blush with shame at the result of last night’s lynching, which cannot but be condemned by all lovers of good government.

Residents of that county were justly wrought-up over the killing of one of their prominent young citizens and punishment for the guilty party or parties could not have been too severe. But the law should have been allowed to take its course.

Judge Gilbert of the Chattahoochee circuit had, upon urgent request of the citizens of Harris, called a special term of the superior court of that county to investigate the case and give the four negroes a speedy trial, that justice might be meted out witout delay, and it appears that everything possible had been done to bring about the apprehension and speedy punishment of the blacks who murdered young Hadley.

Therefore, it seems to the Ledger that there was absolutely no excuse for the acts of last night.

These men may have put to death the guilty parties, or they may have lynched several innocent blacks. They doubtless feel confident that they got the right negro, but have they assurance of this fact?

Law-abiding citizens cannot endorse the acts of this mob, and we must condemn the incident, or any other which tends to disregard law and disrupt government.

Less sentimental still — the heartless progressivism of economy — was the Ledger‘s reasoning on Jan. 26.

Lynching and Business

Lynching has a business side. Most of us have considered more or less the other aspects of it — the breaking of law, creation and increase of a spirit of lawlessness, the turning back of civilization and the taking of human life, without warrant or justification, which is plain murder.

But, lynching has a business side, which is worth consideration at this time.

In other sections the South is regarded by literally hundreds of thousands of otherwise well-informed people as a country of miasma, fever, laziness and lynching …

Day after day, wee after week and year after year, Southern newspapers and other influences that are devoted to the best interests of the South hammer away at this misinformation about our section in efforts to dissipate it. bout the time they seem to be making some headway along comes a lynching or a massacre, like that in Harris county, and the people of other sections believe that their first opinions and ideas were right and have been confirmed. And most assuredly they hae a reason for thinking so.

Just now the South has opportunities that it has never had before. For many years the tide of home-seekers and the trend of capital seeking investment has been westward … [but they are now] turning to the South — and it should be remembered that there are more homeseekers and investors in this country than ever before.

But mob rule, lawlessness, ruffianism and murder will not attract them. Even the leader of a mob would hardly want to move to a lawless section of some other part of the [coun]try. No man who has sense enough to make money to invest would buy property in a section in which the law is so disregarded, for robbery is a lesser crime than murder.

If Harris county alone should suffer for the massacre that has been permitted in the shadow of its courthouse, the balance of us would have little to say. But Harris county will not be the only one to suffer. Muscogee will suffer and so will every county in Georgia and so will the whole South.

It is about time for people in this part of the country to look the matter squarely in the face from a business view point.

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1535: Six Protestants for the Affair of the Placards

Add comment January 21st, 2013 Headsman

The Affair of the Placards was the September 11 of the early French Reformation when the overnight posting of anti-Catholic placards sent the polity off the rails, claimed six victims on this date in 1535.

The formerly indulgent Renaissance-king Francis I was obliged by this late-1534 effusion of propagandizing to dissociate violently from heretical tolerance.

And maybe that would have been that. But the first placard incident was repeated by a follow-up posting on the night of Jan. 12-13 of an anti-sacramental pamphlet by Antoine Marcourt — the anthrax mailings to the hijacked planes, as it were — charging (French) that the Catholic “Mass has plunged half the world into an abyss of public idolatry.”

Francis flipped out. He closed bookstores and suppressed publishing. “One does not argue with heretics,” the Sorbonne agreed. What, do you want the terrorists to win?

So on this date in 1535, a grand Catholic procession — representing all the city’s guilds, all its religious orders, all its holy relics, and all its princes of the blood, with Francis himself modestly carrying a penitential taper to absolve his capital — wound through the city, punctuated by the torching of six accused Protestants.

At the ensuing feast, the king announced his intention to destroy heresy.

The procession of January 1535, with the inclusion of the sacrament, the number of holy objects transported, and the involvement of so many notables, was unprecedented. The elaborate character of the ritual is a good indication of the seriousness with which the authorities viewed this most recent evidence of the inclusion of heresy into French territory. The posting of the placards was regarded as a pollution of the king’s realm, the perceived danger being that the disease contaminating and “infecting some of his subjects” would multiply, undermining the very constitution of the social body … An attack upon the holy sacrament, according to the logic of the symbolism employed in the procession, presents a direct threat to the sacral character of the community, to the nation’s well-being, and hence amounts to an oblique attack on the person of the sovereign. Given the close association established between the sacrament and the monarch, it is no wonder that those implicated in the affair of the placards were regarded as being guilty not only of heresy but also of lese-majeste. (Source)

And maybe early modern France had a point with that weird old sacred-monarch stuff. The very same date two and a half centuries later saw a Parisian mob which had clearly lost any sense of the sacral sovereign behead the king himself.

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1964: Preap In, Khmer Serei operative

Add comment January 20th, 2013 Headsman

“It was at that point that I began to hate Sihanouk.”

-Khmer writer Soth Polin on Preap In’s treatment

On this date in 1964, Cambodian dissident Preap In was shot in Trapeang Kraleung … an execution so public that every cinema-goer in the country would witness it.

This is the Cambodia of Narodom Sihanouk — “a libertine and a francophile, a filmmaker and a painter, a serial husband and father and philanderer, a cherubic but ruthless god-king,” in the words of one obituary when he died late last year.

Plucked from the distant branches of the royal family tree and set up on the throne as an 18-year-old French puppet in 1941, Sihanouk cast a long shadow over his country for the balance of his long life. He surprised his colonial overseers by agitating, successfully, for independence, adding to his regal stature the laurels of national patrimony.

He would in 1955 abdicate the throne — settling for “Prince Sihanouk” — to operate as a conventional politician. One who was the father of his country and the shadow-king. Needless to say, Sihanouk dominated the ensuing era of Cambodian politics.

That politics makes for dizzying reading. At one level, Sihanouk was basically an autocrat with a fairly corrupt developing state. But his statecrafting finesse elevated him far above the bog-standard Cold War dictator. Sihanouk dextrously played the French off against the Americans, East off against West, and shifted the tone of his domestic governance from socialism to Buddhism to nationalism with everything in between. He was a consummate survivor steering a small state on an independent course through the dangers of Cold War ideologies and allegiances.

In 1963-64, Sihanouk’s relations with the United States were on the outs.* Although Sihanouk was also a rival of the late Vietnamese ruler Ngo Dinh Diem, he can’t have welcomed that man’s ouster and execution with the blessing of the superpower sitting right next door with so much megatonnage.

A natural suspicion, only heightened by known CIA patronage of the Khmer Serei (“Free Khmer”), right-wing but anti-monarchist guerrillas led by a longtime Sihanouk foe named Son Ngoc Thanh.

Long story short, Sihanouk as part of his geopolitical machinations had been firing demands at the Americans that they prevail upon their Southeast Asian clientele to put the screws to the Khmer Serei — who used extraterritorial bases to send radio broadcasts into Cambodia. In late 1963, the young engineering student Preap In, who had become a Khmer Serei operative, slipped back into Cambodia with a safe conduct from his uncle In Tam.

Though he would later help to overthrow it, In Tam was a powerful political figure in Sihanouk’s state, at this time governor of Takeo. But he was setting up his nephew or else someone else was, and the “safe conduct” proved an utter sham.

On November 19, at a special national congress, Sihanouk announced the arrest of the two Khmer Serei operatives, Saing San and Preap In … After several conversations with officials in Takeo, In and Saing San had been arrested peremptorily, brought to Phnom Penh under guard, and put on display in cages at the national congress. Facing the prisoners and surrounded by thousands of supporters, Sihanouk denied making any special arrangements with them, and the congress soon became an impromptu judicial hearing. Sihanouk asked both men to admit that the Americans were aiding Son Ngoc Thanh and providing the Khmer Serei with radio transmitters. Saing San said yes to both questions and was immediately released. Preap In, apparently in shock, stared straight to the front, refusing to answer. Sihanouk then demanded that he be subjected to the “will of the congress.” Hundreds of spectators stormed the cage where Preap In stood in silence, bombarding him with rubber sandals, debris, and abuse until he was hustled away to face trial at the hands of a military court. (Source)

Sihanouk’s official version: Preap In “spontaneously confessed” to treason.

Sihanouk not only advanced the public shooting of the young Khmer Serei, but he ordered it filmed; the graphic 15-minute newsreel was played before feature attractions in cinemas throughout Cambodia for weeks to come, while still shots of the execution were distributed on propaganda posters.

Authoritarian Sihanouk may have been, but theatrical bloodletting wasn’t otherwise known as his style. Preap In’s lasciviously rough treatment stood out for its novelty and revolted many Cambodians; David Chandler would remark that this event “frequently surfaced in the 1980s when informants sought to date the beginning of Sihanouk’s decline.” Despite that onetime multimedia exposure, if the video or still images from it are accessible online I have not found them. This still image from a (I believe) Sihanouk-era firing squad execution is the best I’ve got, but as my Khmer is a little rusty, I’m at a loss to identify the unfortunate fellow on the post.

* For the view from Washington, see this contemporaneous CIA analysis, a FOIA’ed pdf.

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1894: Albert F. Bomberger, for the Kreider family murders

Add comment January 19th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1894, Bomberger was hanged in the four-year-old state of North Dakota for the gruesome mass murder he’d committed the year before. His execution within sight of the Kreider home where he’d slaughtered six people (and raped a seventh) went off smoothly, but it almost didn’t: when the trap was sprung, his feet were only six inches above the ground.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1871, Bomberger left home as a teenager and worked his way west. At some undetermined point, he was hired to work on the Kreider on a farm southeast of Cando, North Dakota, a job that came with his own room within the farmers’ home. Bomberger was apparently a relative of some sort, and hailed from the same part of Pennsylvania the Kreiders were originally from.

The Kreider family was a large one. Besides Daniel S. Kreider* and his wife Barbara, there were eight children: sons Aaron, 12, David, 7, and Henry, 3, and daughters Annie, 15, Bernice, 13, Murby, 11, Mary, 9, and Eva, 5.**

Bomberger became infatuated with the eldest daughter Annie and would not be put off by her rebuffs. After midnight on July 6, 1893, he sneaked into her bedroom, which was next to his own; Annie kicked him out and threatened to tell her parents if he didn’t quit bothering her. Bomberger slunk back to his bed, furious and humiliated, and plotted revenge.

On the morning of July 7, Bomberger found Daniel Kreider asleep in bed and shot him with a double-barreled shotgun.

Then he went down to the kitchen where Mrs. Kreider was fixing breakfast and shot her to death as well.

And last, he penned up Annie, Aaron, Eve and Henry in his bedroom.

With those kids locked up, Bomberger tracked down Murby, Mary and David, and blasted them with a single load of buckshot each.

13-year-old Bernice attempted escape by jumping out a second-floor window and running for help. Bomberger caught her, and she cried and begged to be allowed to see her family again. He obligingly took her inside, showed her each of the dead bodies (Mary turned out to be still alive, so Bomberger slit her throat), then then shot Bernice dead at close range while she cowered in the corner with her hands over her face.

While Bomberger was thus occupied, Aaron, Eva and Henry escaped his room and hid elsewhere in the farm. The murderer wasn’t interested in them anyway; he turned his attentions to Annie. He raped her in her bedroom, took her to the barn, raped her again and then forced her to make his breakfast, give him $50, and pack his lunch.

Bomberger then tied Annie up, put her in the barn’s loft, saddled up and rode straight for the nearby Canadian border on one of the children’s horses.

He did make it to Manitoba, but that didn’t stop Cando’s sheriff from hopping the 49th parallel himself to arrest the murderer. Bomberger had little to say for himself. He seemed indifferent to his fate and, when asked to explain why he’d committed such a horrific crime, blamed booze.

He even pleaded guilty: the entire court procedure lasted fifteen minutes.

Almost 120 years later, amateur historian R. Michael Wilson would say that, of all the criminals he’d written about in his extensive studies of crime in the western United States, Albert Bomberger stood out as one of the most horrible.

The dead Kreiders were buried together in one grave at a Mennonite cemetery in their home state of Pennsylvania. Some 15,000 people attended their funeral. The murder farm was sold at auction; the house where the murders took place burned down in 1917.

As for the surviving children, they stayed in Pennsylvania after the murders. Annie married, had at least two children and lived a long life: she died in 1960, age 82.


Um …

* The brother of future Pennsylvania Congressman Aaron Kreider (R).

** Various sources give them different ages; these are the best estimations I could make. It’s also worth noting that Murby’s name is occasionally given as “Merby” or “Melby” and Bernice may be called “Beatrice”. I’m going with the names as they were listed in the cemetery records, but those could well be wrong.

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1863: Mangas Coloradas, Apache leader

1 comment January 18th, 2013 Headsman

One hundred and fifty years ago, day to day,* the Apache chief Dasoda-hae — better known as Mangas Coloradas, “red sleeves” — was extrajudicially executed by U.S. Army soldiers at Fort McLane, New Mexico.

This legendary Apache statesman’s nickname was Spanish, because he’d spent the 1830s and 1840s fighting Mexicans seeking bounties on Apache scalps. Indeed, when the U.S. in 1846 attacked Mexico, Mangas Coloradas gave U.S. soldiers safe passage through Apache territory, and subsequently signed a treaty with the victorious Americans. (There’s a handy map of the scene in this pdf.)

He did his utmost to keep relations with the gigantic industrial society on his borders safely diplomatic, but over the 1850s Apaches spiraled into conflict with aggressive Anglo settlers drawn by the call of gold. In 1861 Mangas Coloradas married his daughter to another Apache chief, Cochise. These two were able to keep whites at bay with raids for a short time (and given a big assist from the resource diversion of the Civil War). But there was only one way this was going to end.

In January 1863, Mangas Coloradas — about 70 years old and still alive to the impossibility of long-term success by force of arms — arrived under a flag of truce to negotiate a ceasefire with Brigadier General Joseph Rodman West. West had him clapped in irons instead, and let his soldiers know exactly how to handle their prisoner.

Men, that old murderer has got away from every soldier command and has left a trail of blood for 500 miles on the old stage line. I want him dead or alive tomorrow morning, do you understand? I want him dead.

That night, Mangas Coloradas was tortured with red-hot bayonets and shot “trying to escape.” The Apache Wars would expand calamitously in the years to come.

The army medical officer David Sturgeon took the Apache’s scalped head (they scalped him, too), eventually bringing it to Ohio after he left the service. Sturgeon finally presented his prize to Prof. Orson Squire Fowler; Fowler examined it and published a description in his 1873 work Human Science: Or, Phrenology: Its Principles, Proofs, Faculties, Organs, Temperaments, Combinations, Conditions, Teachings, Philosophies, Etc., Etc..**

The fate of this horrid trophy after it passed through Fowler’s hands is a mystery. It’s rumored that the Smithsonian received it, and perhaps surreptitiously got rid of it; while the institution has always denied ever having the skull of Mangas Coloradas, it is a fact that the Smithsonian collected and still possesses an alarmingly enormous trove of Native American remains.

* It appears to me that Mangas Coloradas entered into army custody on January 17, and was shot just about midnight that night: the exact moment of the incident could be either the 17th or the 18th. An eyewitness account from one of the soldiers on night watch describes giving over the watch to George Lount until midnight. When the first watchman returned at that time, he noticed that “Mangas arose upon his left elbow, angrily protesting that he was no child to be played with. Thereupon the two soldiers [who had been torturing Mangas], without removing their bayonets from their Minie muskets, each quickly fired upon the chief, following with two shots each from their navy six-shooters.”

** What did the skull-measurer make of his prize? “It bulges out at its side in the region of Secretion, Caution, and Destruction, beyond anything I ever saw. Cunning is his largest organ, and far exceeds any other development of it I have ever seen, even in any and all Indian heads. It is simply monstrous. Yet Destruction also far exceeds any other development of it I ever saw …

“Conscience and Worship are unusually large, both absolutely and relatively, which coincides with the scrupulous fidelity with which he kept his promises. He doubtless thought he was but doing his duty in avenging the injuries white men had done to his tribe, by torturing and killing them. He must also have been a devout worshipper of the Great Spirit and extremely superstitious. Benevolence is very poorly developed indeed.”

(Mangas Coloradas actually was a very tall man with a very large head: a number of accounts attest to this.)

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1907: Three “terrorists” in an Odessa public garden

Add comment January 17th, 2013 Headsman

Chicago Daily Tribune Jan 18, 1907

Hang Terrorists in Public Gardens.

ODESSA, Jan. 17. — The public gardens was the scene of a triple execution today. Three terrorists were hanged in a row after having been condemned to death for the armed robbery of a shop. Their trial took place before a drumhead court martial.


New York Times Jan 18, 1907

ODESSA, Jan. 17. — The public gardens here to-day were the scene of a triple execution. Three Terrorists condemned to death for the armed robbery of a shop were hanged in a row. They obtained only $3.50 from the store they robbed.


This atrocity (derogated as “Field Courts Martial which endeavor to confuse ordinary civil offenses with revolutionary acts leading to the almost daily execution of offenders, who in civilized lands would receive only the most trivial sentences.”) appeared in a petition for the U.S. Congress to condemn the Russian crackdown against agitators in the waning 1905 revolution.

Mark Twain was among the worthies* who lent their name to the appeal:

We, the undersigned, believe that it is time for civilized nations to protest against the atrocities practiced by the Russian Government in its prolonged warfare against its own people.

The subject is one which interests all nations, as a matter of common humanity. On more than one occasion governments have taken action for the amelioration of termination of abhorrent conditions existing in foreign countries. Many instances might be cited, but we content ourselves, as sufficient for our present purposes in citing the case of the Bulgarian atrocities in 1877, when Russia, in taking advantage of the general horror excited by the inhumanities of the Turkish forces within the dominions of the Sultan, intervened in the name of humanity, to rescue the inhabitants of Bulgaria from their deplorable condition. Fifty years before, various European powers, of whom Russia was one, intervened to redeem the Greek inhabitants of the Sultan’s dominions from barbarities and oppression. In seeking now some entirely pacific means of inducing the Russian Government to ameliorate the condition of its subjects, we are asking for nothing which the Russian Government has not itself in times past afforded a good precedent.

This petition and protest rest solely and entirely upon the instances wherein the Russian Government is disregardful of the usual customs of civilized nations; and wherein it is guilty within its borders of flagrant violation of the terms of agreement of the Geneva Treaty of 1864 and 1868 between the Nations, and also the Second Convention of the Peace Conference at the Hague in 1902.

One notices that among the behaviors viewed by this petition’s congressional sponsors as “disregardful of the usual customs of civilized nations” when conducted by tsarist Russia were acts that in other times members of that august body would rise to defend: “Tortures are applied to prisoners within fortresses and prisons to elicit information.”

* Signers also included: New York judge Samuel Greenbaum; “Battle Hymn of the Republic” author Julia Ward Howe; explorer George Kennan (cousin of the famous American diplomat of that name); future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis; and others.

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69: Galba, in the Year of the Four Emperors

2 comments January 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in the year 69, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him emperor of Rome Galba was slain — the first casualty in ancient Rome’s Year of the Four Emperors.

From the standpoint of this blog’s portfolio, Galba’s death admittedly makes for an edge case; in their time, the Romans experimented with every shade and interval for the span from extrajudicial execution to assassination to simple murder. Certainly the sudden homicide which forms our subject today proceeded under no purported legal color.

But dead is dead, and in Rome at that moment, dead was the essential fact. You had to get the incumbent into the ground to don the blood-drenched purple.

That’s exactly how Galba managed it himself: his predecessor was the infamous Nero, dead the previous June in a revolt that had set Galba up as the rival emperor.

Galba was a classic Peter Principle guy, a respected wealthy patrician who had been a prominent public figure for decades. At the end of Nero’s run, Galba was governor of a Spanish province and everyone thought would make a swell emperor … until he actually got the job.

As Suetonius observed, Galba’s “popularity and prestige were greater when he won, than while he ruled the empire.” Tightfisted (or fiscally responsible) and inflexible (or upright), the new emperor proved to have a gift for alienating his subjects.

The skinflint sovereign bullied enemies real and perceived, took an obnoxiously lordly attitude towards inferiors, and even decimated a legion (a practice long since out of date at this point). He set about restoring the ruined state finances by seizing even from parties at second and third hand goods which allegedly traced to Nero’s graft, then re-auctioning them … many of those auctions suspiciously won at a discount by Galba’s hated advisors-slash-controllers, the “Three Pedagogues.” And he “condemned to death divers distinguished men of both orders on trivial suspicions without a trial.” (Suetonius, again)

Very dangerously, Galba also refused to pay the customary donative to those arbiters of imperial succession, the Praetorian Guard.

All this mess brought the distant German legions into rebellion.

However, Galba triggered his downfall directly when he passed over for official heir an early Galba supporter, Otho — who had been dispensing liberal largesse on the understanding that he had the inside track to the throne — in favor of a youth named Piso.

Personally affronted and also in danger of having his now-unpayable debts called in, Otho brought the disaffected Praetorians over to his side and revolted.

The capital was thrown into a tumult. On January 15, Galba’s litter was being borne in the Roman Forum when Otho’s militia appeared,

loudly ordering all private citizens out of their way. The multitude, accordingly, took to their heels, not scattering in flight, but seeking the porticoes and eminences of the forum, as if to get a view of the spectacle. Hostilities began with the overthrow of a statue of Galba by Attilius Vergilio, and then the soldiers hurled javelins at the litter; and since they failed to strike it, they advanced upon it with their swords drawn. No one opposed them or tried to defend the emperor, except one man, and he was the only one, among all the thousands there on whom the sun looked down, who was worthy of the Roman empire. This was Sempronius Densus, a centurion, and though he had received no special favours from Galba, yet in defence of honour and the law he took his stand in front of the litter. And first, lifting up the switch with which centurions punish soldiers deserving of stripes, he cried out to the assailants and ordered them to spare the emperor. Then, as they came to close quarters with him, he drew his sword, and fought them off a long time, until he fell with a wound in the groin.

The litter was upset at the place called Lacus Curtius, and there Galba tumbled out and lay in his corselet, while the soldiers ran up and struck at him. But he merely presented his neck to their swords, saying: “Do your work, if this is better for the Roman people.” (Plutarch)

Piso tried to take refuge with the sacred Vestal Virgins, but was hauled out most impiously and abruptly put to death on the temple’s steps. Otho was said to greet this severed head of his rival heir with particular satisfaction. (Galba’s head was paraded through town on a spear, then given over to the servants of a guy Galba had executed so that they could dishonor it on the execution grounds.)

As for the victorious Otho, you’ll recall those restive German legions … and the fact that this is the Year of the Four Emperors. Galba was the first of those four; Otho, the second. As Cassius Dio tells it, “as he [Otho] was offering his first sacrifice, the omens were seen to be unfavourable, so that he repented of what had been done and exclaimed: ‘What need was there of my playing on the long flutes?’ (This is a colloquial and proverbial expression applying to those who do something for which they are not fitted.)”

Three months later, it was time to pay the flautist. Those German legions arrived, bumped off Otho, and made their own commander into emperor number three. (Otho, not theretofore viewed as particularly noble soul, redeemed himself for posterity by committing suicide for the good of Rome rather than press a ruinous civil war — uttering the Spock-like sentiment, “It is far more just to perish one for all, than many for one.”)

The History of Rome podcast series covers Galba’s abortive reign here.

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1864: Five Virginia City road agents

Add comment January 14th, 2013 Headsman

The frontier town of Virginia City, Montana, saw a quintuple hanging on this date in 1864, authored by the local vigilance committee.


(cc) image from Rich Luhr of the hanged men’s gravestones at Virginia City’s Boot Hill. (It’s one of several American West cemeteries known as “Boot Hill”)

A miners’ boom town since prospectors struck gold nearby the previous year, Virginia City was even, briefly, the capital of the Montana Territory.

For order, it depended upon a Vigilance Committee of local grandees … and that committee had just days before carried out the hanging of Henry Plummer, the sheriff of the nearby mining town of Bannack and a reputed outlaw gang boss.

Plummer’s supposed “road agents” did the wilderness-trail robbery act familiar of the western milieu, but on a nearly industrial scale: it was suspected that “horses, men and coaches” traveling around Bannack and Virginia City were systematically “marked in some understood manner, to designate them as fit objects for plunder.”

The next act in the Vigilance Committee’s confrontation with these highwaymen and bywaymen was to bust up the Plummer network by seizing and hanging five supposed road agents on this date.

The evidentiary basis for these conclusions was varied, and in most cases less than what you’d call ironclad; the club-footed cobbler George Lane was thought to be marking stages for outlaws to hit, but the crippled rancher Frank Parish? Or Jack Gallagher, who wasn’t even on the list of wanted road agents the vigilantes were working from?

(The Vigilance Committee’s Parish Pfouts would record in his diary “that every man executed by the Vigilance Committee at that time was proved to be a murderer or highway robber.” The unsavory whiff of lynch law notwithstanding, those vigilantes have not wanted for latter-day defenders.)

This text summarizes all the accused men’s backgrounds, including the colorful Boone Helm.

Upon the Vigilance men’s summary and predetermined judgment, the quintet was marched down the street to a then-unfinished log structure and strung up on an inside beam.

That log store can still be seen in Virginia City, where it’s kitschily advertised as the Hangman’s Building.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Mass Executions,Montana,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Theft,USA

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1400: Sir Thomas Blount, “bowels burning before him”

2 comments January 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1400, Sir Thomas Blount was drawn and quartered at Oxford.

He was a loyalist of the latterly deposed (and soon to be murdered) Richard II. Blount took part in the Epiphany Rising plot against the usurper Henry IV.

The chronicles supply an unusually graphic and detailed description (pdf) of this horrible manner of death. (Paragraph breaks have been added for readability.)

The King [Henry IV] commanded his chamberlain, Sir Thomas Erpingham, to have justice executed upon the lords who were taken prisoners, and to put them all to death, except a young knight whom he had dubbed the Saturday before his coronation, whom the King pardoned for rising in arms against him, on account of his youth and noble lineage.

Sir Thomas Blount and Sir Benet [Shelley] were drawn from Oxford unto the place of execution, a long league or more, and there they were hung; they then cut them down and made them speak, and placed them before a long fire. Then came the executioner with a razor in his hand, and kneeling down before Sir Thomas Blount, who had his hands tied, begged his foregiveness [sic] for putting him to death, for he was obliged to perform his office.

‘Are you he,’ said Sir Thomas, ‘who will deliver me from this world?’

The executioner replied, ‘Yes, my lord; I beg you to pardon me.’

The lord then kissed him and forgave him.

The executioner had with him a small basin and a razor, and kneeling between the fire and the lords, unbuttoned Sir Thomas Blount, and ripped open his stomach and tied the bowels with a piece of whipcord that the breath of the heart might not escape, and cast the bowels into the fire.

As Sir Thomas was thus seated before the fire, his bowels burning before him, Sir Thomas Erpingham said, ‘Now go and seek a master who will cure you.’

Sir Thomas Blount placed his hands together, saying, ‘Te Deum laudamus! Blessed be the hour when I was born, and blessed be this day, for I die this day in the service of my sovereign lord King Richard.’

After he had thus spoken, Sir Thomas Erpingham asked him, ‘Who are the lords, knights, and esquires who are of your accord, and treason?’

To which the good knight replied, suffering as he was, ‘Art thou the traitor Erpingham? Thou art more false than I am or ever was; and thou liest, false knight as thou art; for, by the death which I must suffer, I never spake ill of any knight, lord, or esquire, nor of anybody in the world; but thou utteredst thy false spleen like a false and disloyal traitor; for by thee, and by the false traitor the Earl of Rutland [who ratted out the conspiracy], the noble knighthood of England is destroyed.

‘Cursed be the hour when thou and he were born! I pray to God to pardon my sins: and thou traitor Rutland, and thou false Erpingham, I call you both to answer before the face of Jesus Christ for the great treason that you two have committed against our sovereign lord noble King Richard, and against his noble knighthood.’

The executioner then asked him if he would drink.

‘No,’ he replied, ‘you have taken away wherein to put it, thank God’! and then he begged the executioner to deliver him from this world, for it did him harm to see the traitors.

The executioner kneeled down, and, Sir Thomas having kissed him, the executioner cut off his head and quartered him; and he did the same to the other lords, and parboiled the quarters. And in Oxford castle many other knights and esquires were beheaded.

Thomas Erpingham doesn’t exactly exude charm in this account, going out of his way to bust on a guy having his entrails ripped out. But good guys and bad guys are a matter of perspective: Erpingham’s loyal service to the new dynasty got him a complimentary bit part in Shakespeare’s Henry V (Erpingham fought at Agincourt). Shakespeare’s young King Harry calls him his “Good old Knight”.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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