This salutary, and surprise, hanging was a nasty public message during the dirty post-war war to consolidate communist authority in Poland.
The message, however, was not exactly meant for a world wider than Poland itself, so the fact that it was captured in a grainy photograph snapped by WiN agent Józef Stec and subsequently smuggled out to the West was not at all to the liking of Polish authorities.
According to a WiN eyewitness report also presumed to have been filed by Stec,
First the MO [local militia], the UB, and the military occupied the execution square holding their machine guns ready to fire. Then, a car came with uniformed individuals who placed the noose on the hook. After a short time the same car brought three condemned men in white shirts. Their hands and legs were tied with barbed wire. A Jewish prosecutor read the sentence and passed the condemned into the hands of the executioner. Before the execution, one of the condemned yelled: “Long live the Home Army. Long live General Anders and General Bor-Komorowski. Down with the commies. Brothers persevere or you’ll die like us. I swear before God that I have never been a bandit [as communist authorities designated them]. I am dying for the Motherland. Lord forgive them [the executioners] because they know not what they are doing.
* The victims were Józef Grebosz, Józef Kozlowski, and Franciszek Noster, according to the 2003 monograph After the Holocaust: Polish-Jewish conflict in the wake of World War II, by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz. This monograph is also the source for Stec’s quoted report on the hanging.
On this day in 1941, seventeen-year-old Shaya “Shaike” Iwensky came within seconds of being shot by the Einsatzgruppen outside the city of Daugavpils, Latvian SSR. Sheer dumb luck — and a slight miscalculation by the Germans — saved his life.
Shaike was born and raised in Jonava, Lithuania and fled to Daugavpils with his brother when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. On June 29, he was arrested along with the other Jewish male adults in town. His brother, who was fifteen years old, was arrested alongside him, but released the same day because of his age.
For the next week and a half, Shaike was held in a crowded prison cell, fed almost nothing, and forced to work during the day.
On July 8, he noted “a change for the worse in our guards, an extraordinary meanness … In my worst fears, I could not have conjured up the kind of hell in which I now found myself.”
That day he and his comrades were stuck in a truly Sisyphean ordeal: forced to roll rocks up a hill, three men to a rock. They kept losing their grip and the rocks would slide back.
That night some other prisoners told him they had been forced to dig huge ditches, which were covered in chlorine.
The next day, the eighteenth day of Operation Barbarossa, Shaike found out what the ditches were for:
A series of shots … a short interruption and again shots … and again … It wasn’t long before we got the confirmation of what we’d been suspecting all along. One of the men in a neighboring cell stuck his head in the doorway, and said, “They are killing Jews. From the washroom window someone saw people lined up in the yard. They are from the first floor.”
Though this testimony specifically concerns a different massacre, in November of 1941, it gives a sense of the environment.
A couple of hours later, Shaike and the others from his part of the prison were ordered to leave and take all their belongings. They were marched down to the basement and made to empty their pockets into the “knee-deep rows of wallets, documents, pictures, watches, trinkets worthless to anyone else.” Then they were marched into the yard and formed into groups of twenty. Hoping to at least die with people he knew, Shaike stuck together with his old friends from Jonava.
The blue sky was almost clear, with only here and there a wisp of cloud. I looked up, and the thought hit me hard: I will never see the sky again.
It is said that, when a person faces death, his whole life flashes before him. But my thoughts were disjointed, disorderly; they tumbled through my mind rather like the flimsy clouds above, forming, changing shape, disappearing and reappearing … Catching myself picking at a hangnail, I thought, How silly. In a few minutes it will make no difference at all …
It occurred to me that reality was often quite unlike what we expect it to be. People standing in line to be killed didn’t look very different from those waiting to buy bread. Their faces, their eyes betray nothing of what is going on in their minds. People stand in line under the hot sun, they move ahead, then their times comes to die, and it is over.
Shaike and his friends waited in line for over two hours in the heat. He had not thrown out his handkerchief and was glad to have it to wipe the sweat from his face. Finally he and his group of twenty arrived at the gate … but when the soldiers came out, they didn’t escort them to the ditches. Instead they ordered everyone to turn around and march back to the prison.
That evening, the prisoners were ordered out again and taken to the killing ground, and then they realized what had happened: the Nazis had spared them because they had run out of ditches. The Jews had to cover the mass graves with earth, stamping down on the bodies and packing them together, and also to dig new trenches, presumably for themselves, until evening when they were sent back to the prison again.
That night, Shaike and some of his friends hid in an empty cell under blankets. The Nazis didn’t find them the next morning when they ordered the survivors out to get shot. They hid in the cell for two days before they were caught. Fortunately the Latvian guards who found them didn’t realize who they were, and merely beat them and tossed them in with some prisoners who’d arrived that same day.
Eventually, Shaike was released from the prison and taken to the Daugavpils Ghetto. He would eventually escape from there and spent some time living in the woods with a Soviet partisan detachment, going back and forth between there and the ghetto. Finally he was captured and taken first to the Stutthof Concentration Camp, then to Dachau. There he was liberated by Americans on April 29, 1945. At twenty years old, he was the sole survivor of his family.
He had a couple of years to cool his heels and work his rosary while the new king, Henry VII, set about securing a reign of dubious legitimacy. One cunning strategem: Henry had his late rival’s supporters (like our friend Stafford) attainted of treason without actually taking action on those attainders, maintaining continuity with the ancien regime while dangling a Damoclean sword over the head of any lord who might step out of line again in the future.
Nevertheless, in the spring of 1486, the already-attainted Stafford emerged from his holy confines to throw the dice on a minor rebellion that never got off the ground. As the whole thing descended into fiasco, Stafford fled back to sanctuary at Culham.
A cozy but ill-fortified sanctuary: St. Paul’s at Culham. Image (c) Rex Harris and used with permission. (Mr. Harris says the church as pictured is a Victorian-era rebuild.)
Henry broke the asserted sanctuary to haul his man off consecrated grounds.
This was a bit of a sticky wicket, juridically, and Henry’s own judges proceeded very cautiously with it — ultimately holding that sanctuaries proceeded from the common-law grant of the king, and specifically that sanctuary may not be pleaded for instances of treason. There’s more about all this in this Google books freebie, which adds the interesting detail that the Pope himself did not fight this interpretation — assenting in a papal bull later that year to a much-circumscribed view of ecclesiastical refuge:
Where a sanctuary man got out of sanctuary and committed mischief and trespass, he lost the benefit of sanctuary although he returned to it.
The goods of no sanctuary men were to be protected from their Creditors.
If any man took sanctuary for case of treason, the King might appoint keepers to look after him in sanctuary.
“The Rebellion of Humphrey Stafford in 1486″ by C. H. Williams in The English Historical Review, April 1928 — a JSTOR article that seems like it must be in the public domain even if it’s not yet covered by that institution’s free content bloc — is virtually the only semi-detailed source on this affair that’s readily available. Williams’s pithy conclusion: “Henry’s policy towards Stafford and his party was definite enough. Like all problems of statecraft of that period the rebellion ‘was so handled that neither prerogative nor profit went to diminution.'”
* The date is asserted here and here, among other places, although upon what primary authority I have not been able to determine.
By the 1720s — and with a bad eye necessitating that most trite of pirate accessories, the eyepatch — Levasseur had a mixed-race crew raiding the east African coast and the Indian ocean.
His most renowned exploit put him decisively in piracy’s 1%.
Descending upon the Portuguese galleon Cabo — fat with gems and gold bars and loose guineas and silks and a gigantic decorative cross and a noble’s diamond-encrusted +3 vorpal sword, all en route from the wealthy colony of Goa but disarmed at anchor off Reunion Island after having barely survived a storm — Levasseur’s band was able to plunder something on the order of a present-day value well north of £1 billion.
A lot more than that.
This stupendous fortune, even after dividing it democratically with the crew, would cinch Levasseur’s fame, and his fate.
La Buse (“the Buzzard”; alternatively, “la Bouche”, “the mouth”) naturally tried to take advantage of the next available pirate amnesty to cash out and retire, but found that he’d be expected to cough up his loot as part of the deal. So he hoarded his treasure instead, hung up his pirate’s cutlass, and tried to hide out. He was eventually captured casually working as a ship’s pilot off Madagascar and strung up by the French; you can still pour out a rum for him at his grave at Saint-Paul.
By Tonton Bernardo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
So much for Levasseur.
The reason we’re still talking about him three centuries on is that he’s alleged,* just before he dropped, to have hurled a bundle of parchments and/or a cryptogram necklace into the crowd assembled to watch him die, crying “find my treasure, who can!” or “my treasure for he who understands!”
And that’s pretty tantalizing stuff, considering the treasure has never since been found.
Levasseur’s boodle, if it did then and does still exist, is thought to be stashed somewhere on the Seychelles island of Mahe, and the slow and tantalizing unraveling of our corsair’s mysterious clues have seduced generations of treasure-hunters right into the present — like this fellow, or this one,** chasing after Masonic codes and rock etchings and Labors of Hercules and the promise of turning a five-figure investment in dynamite and scuba gear into a nine-figure payday and all the Discovery channel specials you can handle.
Until that day comes, Olivier is only a minor cinematic fixture. Basil Rathbone portrayed him (loosely) in the 1935 Errol Flynn vehicle Captain Blood (in that version, Rathbone dies by Flynn’s sword). An accessible treasure of this production, courtesy of YouTube: this 1937 radio drama of that same adventure, voiced by the principal actors:
On this date in 1978, peripatetic Communist intellectual Hu Nim vanished into Khmer Rouge Cambodia’s charnel house along with 126 others at Tuol Seng.
The child of a poor peasant’s family, Nim was a gifted young state worker who studied in Paris in the 1950s, where he met several future Khmer Rouge leaders.
Nim charted an independent — some might say hypocritical — course over the next two decades, serving uneasily as a leftist parliamentarian in Prince Sihanouk‘s nationalist coalition government, fleeing ahead of a conservative purge into the bush to join Communist guerrillas, then returning once more to Sihanouk’s now-leftist Chinese-backed government-in-exile. It’s a period whose interests and alliances don’t map straightforwardly onto the familiar Cold War axis.
Hu Nim’s stature as Minister of Information in the government-in-exile transitioned directly to that same portfolio when the Khmer Rouge came to power.
Maybe those old ties to the ancien regime did him in — Vietnam, after invading Cambodia, would seize on the late minister’s reputation for independence to damn the Khmer Rouge for purging a moderate socialist — but there was no ideological talisman for safety during those terrible years. Hu Nim’s longstanding pro-Chinese position was also a dangerous association come 1977, and Phouk Chhay, a fellow officer of the Khmer-Chinese Friendship Association, was among the batch of prisoners shot along with Hu Nim this date.
Early in 1977, a massive internal purge shook the regime; as many people (some 1,500) went to Tuol Sleng from mid-February to mid-April of that year as had gone in all of 1976.* Almost every one of these humans would be, in the terrible bureaucrat-ese of the security apparatus, “smashed.”
Hu Nim was one of these, a denunciation wrung from a local commander leading to his April 10, 1977 arrest. Under repeated torture over the ensuing three months, the ex-Minister of Information would write and re-write his confession, fashioning himself “a counterfeit revolutionary, in fact … an agent of the enemy … the cheapest reactionary intellectual disguised as a revolutionary,” a stooge of the CIA since the high school, and a skeptic of the disastrous forced agricultural collectivization who had swallowed his doubts lest “I would have had my faced smashed in like Prom Sam Ar.” The confession ultimately tallied 200-plus pages. (Here’s some of it.)
Four days after his arrest, Hu Nim submitted the first of seven draft “confessions” to his interrogator, who appended a note to Deuch, saying: “We whipped him four or five times to break his stand, before taking him to be stuffed with water.” On April 22, the interrogator reported: “I have tortured him to write it again.” Five weeks later, Hu Nim was abject: “I am not a human being, I am an animal.” (Source
* Official count for all of 1977: 6,330 “anti-party” types tortured and executed at Tuol Sleng, as against “only” 2,404 in 1975-1976 combined.
On this date in 1691, Jack Collet was hanged for “sacrilegious burglary.”
This little-known highwayman ditched an apprenticeship with a Cheapside upholsterer to take the road, and carved a niche as the guy what robbed while dressed up as a bishop. (Once having lost his ecclesiastical garb at dice, he re-robed by sticking up a churchman on the road and forcing his victim to dis-.)
“As if he had been determined to live by the Church,” clucks the Newgate calndar, “he was at last apprehended for sacrilege and burglary, in breaking open the vestry of Great St Bartholomew’s, in London, in company with one Christopher Ashley, alias Brown, and stealing from thence the pulpit cloth and all the communion plate.”
For this bid to render un-from God, Caesar rendered Collet unto Tyburn.
On this date in 1945, Japanese forces occupying Indonesia cut off Dr. Achmad Mochtar’s head for a medical experiment gone horribly awry.
Officially, Dr. Mochtar had been responsible for a supposed vaccine whose administration killed hundreds of Indonesian foced laborers.
Latter-day research, however, indicates that it was the Japanese military who administered the vaccine (Indonesian link), an experimental tetanus-cholera-typhoid-dysentery combination shot, getting a trial run before it was administered to Japan’s own soldiers. When this drug proved lethal to most of its recipients, Mochtar and his staff at the Eijkman Institute were arrested in 1944 and subjected to harrowing torture.
According to Jakarta-based British researcher Kevin Baird, Mochtar agreed to take the fall for the experiment in exchange for the release of his colleagues.
“We think of this sort of heroism as the reserve of military men and not learned intellectuals,” Baird told the Guardian. “Achmad Mochtar was not only a hero of Indonesia, but a hero of science and humanity.”
On this date in 1931, the “Vampire of Düsseldorf” was beheaded for that city’s most infamous serial murder binge.
It was, perhaps, the logical end of a terrible journey.
A factory moulder and World War I deserter in his late forties, Peter Kürten commenced a series of uncommonly bestial rape-murders in early 1929 … the harvest of a lifetime’s twisted brutality.
He’d been the oldest of 11 children stuffed in a hellish one-room apartment with a violent drunk of a father who battered the children and openly raped their mother. Well, “if they hadn’t been married, it would have been rape,” in Peter’s words.
The future vampire took his refuge turning his own abuse on younger siblings and, with the help of a degenerate dogcatcher in the neighborhood, on obliging animals he could lay his hands on — which creatures he was soon learning to torture, and to rape, alongside more conventional human delinquencies like arson and burglary.
Kürten is known to have strangled at least one ten-year-old prior to World War I (he would also claim to have surreptitiously drowned a couple of school chums in his boyhood) but it was on the far side of the Great War — which he’d spent mostly in miserable prisons, nursing increasingly twisted fantasies of vengeance — that the beast truly emerged.
The spree that carried him to these pages began in Febuary 1929, when he slew an eight-year-old, attacked a middle-aged woman, stabbed a mechanic to death. Kürten’s crimes were irregular, but distinguished by a fiendish wrath: he abducted one young woman and hammered her to death in the woods outside town; he stabbed a five-year-old to death with scissors as he achieved his orgasm; he asked a teenager to run off and get him some cigarettes, so he could use her absence to slit her younger sister’s throat; he stabbed strangers randomly.
“I derived the sort of pleasure from these visions” of mayhem and cruelty, he said, “that other people would get from thinking about a naked woman.”
Düsseldorf endured a year of terror, finally aborted when Kürten’s own wife — whom he seems to have loved genuinely — turned him in, at Kürten’s own request, for the reward money.
At a packed trial, the accused’s accumulated hatred for the sadistic world poured out in words just as it had done in deeds over the months preceding.
I said to myself in my youthful way ‘You just wait, you pack of scoundrels!’ That was more or less the kind of retaliation or revenge idea. For example, I kill someone who is innocent and not responsible for the fact that I had been badly treated, but if there really is such a thing on this earth as compensating justice, then my tormentors must feel it, even if they do not know that I have done it …
Never have I felt any misgiving in my soul; never did I think to myself that what I did was bad, even though human society condemns it. My blood and the blood of my victims will be on the heads of my torturers. There must be a Higher Being who gave in the first place the first vital spark to life. That Higher Being would deem my actions good since I revenged injustice. The punishments I have suffered have destroyed all my feelings as a human being. That was why I had no pity for my victims.
Amateurs though we are, we incline to doubt the sufficiency of the tit-for-tat explanation. Kürten might well have believed that about himself, but the “vampire” moniker gets at an essential, organic sensuality about his crimes whose roots go quite a bit deeper than revenge.
“Tell me,” the doomed murderer is supposed to have asked a prison doctor shortly before facing the guillotine, “after my head has been chopped off will I still be able to hear; at least for a moment, the sound of my own blood gushing from the stump of my neck?”
“That,” mused the killer, “would be the pleasure to end all pleasures.”
Kürten is one of several predatory sex-slayers — also see the likes of Fritz Haarman and Carl Grossman — who prospered in interwar Germany, and helped to inspire Fritz Lang’s cinematic classic M. (Kürten is often thought the most direct model for that movie’s murderer. Lang denied that was the case, but in some countries’ releases it went out under the title not of M, but of The Vampire of Düsseldorf.)
Perry is the subject of the 2011 Werner Herzog documentary Into the Abyss; being a Herzog film, it comes recommended.
Abyss is “not an issue film; it’s not an activist film against capital punishment,” Herzog has said. “In this particular case, with this very senseless crime, so senseless it’s staggering, what fascinated me was that it points to a decay in family values and the cohesion of society, all these things that looked so big and beyond this case.”
He was a trusted admiral from a noble family, and indeed had served with the British Navy (Italian link). Caracciolo got tapped for escort duty to help King Ferdinand IV and his wife Maria Carolina* flee from a Naples threatened by French troops to the safety of a British fleet stationed at Sicily.**
But he seems to have been troubled by that flight by consciousness of a conflict between civic duty and duty to sovereign.
Carraciolo would later tell the drumhead court that condemned him that it was not he who had turned coat; rather, “the King deserted me and all his faithful subjects … The King collected everything that could be converted into specie on pretence of paying [the] army … and fled with it to Palermo, there to riot in luxurious safety. Who was then the traitor — the King or myself?”
With said King a-riot offshore, French conquest initiated in January 1799 the Parthenopean Republic, a fine obscurity for a pub bet today, but for Caracciolo a matter of life and death. He’d returned to Naples, supposedly to tend to his personal affairs; his prominence and popularity, he found, required him to choose between his allegiances.
Under whatever inducement of conscience or calculation, Caracciolo put to sea for the new Republic and engaged the Parthenopeans’ enemies, actually preventing one British landing attempting to restore his former boss.
Alas, the French — by whose arms alone was the puppet Republic supported — soon decamped for greater priorities than Naples, and the royalist elements had the city back in hand by June. While the political revolutionaries would face their own reckoning, the Jacobin admiral was caught attempting to fly and delivered to Nelson for the most summary simulacrum of justice.
“A slight breeze; a cloudy sky,” Lord Nelson’s laconic journal entry for June 29 reads. “Sentenced, condemned, and hung Francesco Caracciolo.”
Fairly or otherwise, this incident is one of the very few blots upon the beloved Nelson’s reputation. That’s partly for the haste with which it was conducted and partly for the jurisdictional matter of the British — to whom Caracciolo owed no loyalty, and against whom he had committed no treachery — doing the Bourbon monarchs’ dirty work by receiving the prisoner, conducting the trial aboard a British ship, and directing the sentence.
And it was all over under that single day’s cloudy sky.
Caracciolo was brought aboard the Foudroyant that morning, a five-member panel of Neapolitan royalist officers rounded up to try him, given a two-hour trial, and condemned to hang that very evening at 5. (Requests for a soldier’s death by shooting, or a day’s time to make peace with one’s maker, went begging.) At sunset, the body was cut down, loaded with weights, and cast into the sea.
They figured that was the last they’d seen of the admiral, but a few days later — with King Ferdinand now having moved onto the Foudroyant — the corpse somehow bobbed up to the surface right beside the ship, like a revenant spirit come to accuse the royal still too nervous to reside in Naples.
“What does that dead man want?” the shocked king is supposed to have exclaimed as he took sight of it.
“Sire,” answered a priest, “I think he comes to demand Christian burial.”
“Francesco Caracciolo, Admiral of the Republic of Naples, who fell victim of the hatred and the lack of mercy of his enemies. He was hanged at the mast on 29 June 1799. The people of Santa Lucia took it upon themselves to honour him with a Christian burial. The City Council of Naples, 1881.”
Naples’ harbor-front street, from which one would have had a fine view of Nelson’s fleet back in the day, is today known as the via Francesco Caracciolo. The Republic of Italy’s navy had a Caracciolo-class battleship type in production in the 1910s, but the line was discontinued before any of the four vessels reached completion.
† Apropos of the preceding footnote, there’s been some grousing about Lady Hamilton’s role in all this. She was an intimate of the temporarily exiled queen, and the old Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Caracciolo slates her with having exploited her hold over the infatuated Nelson to work Maria Carolina’s vengeful will. We’re inclined to suppose that Nelson’s own reasons of warcraft-slash-statecraft, attempting to swiftly cow any potential Neapolitan resistance, suffice as explanation — whether right or wrong.