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1812: Not Pierre Bezukhov, in War and Peace

3 comments September 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date* in French-occupied Moscow of the War of 1812, many alleged arsonists — unnamed and unnumbered — were shot by Napoleon’s army in the ashes of Moscow.

Although real, flesh-and-blood Muscovites died, they are best known via their bespectacled fictional companion, Pierre Bezukhov, whose miraculous escape is one of the pivotal episodes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Merely the greatest novel in history by some reckonings — we’ll just let Tolstoy fight it out with Dostoyevsky for top of table in the competitive 19th Century Russia literary scene — the epic War and Peace tracks that country’s transformation under the revolutionary pressures of the Napoleonic age.

In Russian director Sergey Bondarchuk’s sprawling cinematic adaptation of War and Peace, the part of Pierre Bezukhov is played by Bondarchuk himself.

Pierre Bezukhov (“without ears”) is one of the book’s central figures, the illegitimate son of a count who unexpectedly inherits, forever consumed with his next impulsive, passionate quest for meaning (boozing around, freemasonry, religion …).

Pierre finds himself present in Moscow when the Grande Armee rolls in following its Pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Borodino. His fancy of the moment is to assassinate Napoleon: “he suddenly felt that what before had seemed to him merely a possibility had now become absolutely necessary and inevitable. He must remain in Moscow, concealing his name, and must meet Napoleon and kill him, and either perish or put an end to the misery of all Europe.” And to think, a younger Pierre actually used to admire Napoleon.


Historically, the city of Moscow started burning as soon as the French occupied it. The reasons for this conflagration have been widely disputed; Tolstoy detours in War and Peace to characterize it as nothing more than the natural consequence of the occupation, when the city’s civil infrastructure has broken down and the everyday fires that spark in wooden buildings are more liable to grow out of control.

The French blamed terrorists.

A bulletin of the Grande Armee dated September 20 (Gregorian date; this corresponds to the Julian date September 8) reports on the successful efforts to bring arsonists to heel through the expedient of mass executions.

Three hundred incendiaries have been arrested and shot; they were provided with fuse six inches long, which they had between two pieces of wood: they had also squibs, which they threw upon the roofs of the houses. The wretch Rastapchin had these prepared, on the pretence that he wished to send a balloon, full of combustible matter, amidst the French army …

The fires subsided on the 19th and 20th; three quarters of the city are burned; among other palaces that beautiful one of Catherine, which had been newly furnished: not above a quarter of the houses remain. …

Manufactures were beginning to flourish at Moscow: they are destroyed. The conflagration of this capital will throw Russia one hundred years back. The weather is becoming rainy: the greatest part of the army is in barracks in Moscow.


In this paranoid occupation, the fictional Pierre, wandering Moscow armed without a good excuse, gets himself picked up by French troops.

The travail of his resulting drumhead trial offers the anti-authoritarian (and anti-death penalty) Tolstoy the opportunity to reflect on the “legal” arrangements, a passage Tolstoy dates September 8 on the Julian calendar — the same day that army bulletin above was penned.

[Pierre] learned that all these prisoners (he, probably, among them) were to be tried for incendiarism. On the third day he was taken with the others to a house where a French general with a white mustache sat with two colonels and other Frenchmen with scarves on their arms. With the precision and definiteness customary in addressing prisoners, and which is supposed to preclude human frailty, Pierre like the others was questioned as to who he was, where he had been, with what object, and so on.

These questions, like questions put at trials generally, left the essence of the matter aside, shut out the possibility of that essence’s being revealed, and were designed only to form a channel through which the judges wished the answers of the accused to flow so as to lead to the desired result, namely a conviction. As soon as Pierre began to say anything that did not fit in with that aim, the channel was removed and the water could flow to waste. Pierre felt, moreover, what the accused always feel at their trial, perplexity as to why these questions were put to him. He had a feeling that it was only out of condescension or a kind of civility that this device of placing a channel was employed. He knew he was in these men’s power, that only by force had they brought him there, that force alone gave them the right to demand answers to their questions, and that the sole object of that assembly was to inculpate him. And so, as they had the power and wish to inculpate him, this expedient of an inquiry and trial seemed unnecessary. It was evident that any answer would lead to conviction.

It’s only by Pierre’s chance ability to forge a human connection with the officer detailed to condemn him that he’s mysteriously, and arbitrarily, not sentenced to death — a fact that Pierre doesn’t even realize until he’s led out with the rest of the prisoners only to see that it’s “only” the others who are being shot. This is the narration at length from Book XII, Chapters 10-11.

On the eighth of September an officer- a very important one judging by the respect the guards showed him- entered the coach house where the prisoners were. This officer, probably someone on the staff, was holding a paper in his hand, and called over all the Russians there, naming Pierre as “the man who does not give his name.” Glancing indolently and indifferently at all the prisoners, he ordered the officer in charge to have them decently dressed and tidied up before taking them to the marshal. An hour later a squad of soldiers arrived and Pierre with thirteen others was led to the Virgin’s Field. It was a fine day, sunny after rain, and the air was unusually pure. The smoke did not hang low as on the day when Pierre had been taken from the guardhouse on the Zubovski rampart, but rose through the pure air in columns. No flames were seen, but columns of smoke rose on all sides, and all Moscow as far as Pierre could see was one vast charred ruin. On all sides there were waste spaces with only stoves and chimney stacks still standing, and here and there the blackened walls of some brick houses. Pierre gazed at the ruins and did not recognize districts he had known well. Here and there he could see churches that had not been burned. The Kremlin, which was not destroyed, gleamed white in the distance with its towers and the belfry of Ivan the Great. The domes of the New Convent of the Virgin glittered brightly and its bells were ringing particularly clearly. These bells reminded Pierre that it was Sunday and the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. But there seemed to be no one to celebrate this holiday: everywhere were blackened ruins, and the few Russians to be seen were tattered and frightened people who tried to hide when they saw the French.

Pierre had been taken by one set of soldiers and led first to one and then to another place with dozens of other men, and it seemed that they might have forgotten him, or confused him with the others. But no: the answers he had given when questioned had come back to him in his designation as “the man who does not give his name,” and under that appellation, which to Pierre seemed terrible, they were now leading him somewhere with unhesitating assurance on their faces that he and all the other prisoners were exactly the ones they wanted and that they were being taken to the proper place. Pierre felt himself to be an insignificant chip fallen among the wheels of a machine whose action he did not understand but which was working well.

He and the other prisoners were taken to the right side of the Virgin’s Field, to a large white house with an immense garden not far from the convent. This was Prince Shcherbatov‘s house, where Pierre had often been in other days, and which, as he learned from the talk of the soldiers, was now occupied by the marshal, the Duke of Eckmuhl (Davout).

They were taken to the entrance and led into the house one by one. Pierre was the sixth to enter. He was conducted through a glass gallery, an anteroom, and a hall, which were familiar to him, into a long low study at the door of which stood an adjutant.

Davout, spectacles on nose, sat bent over a table at the further end of the room. Pierre went close up to him, but Davout, evidently consulting a paper that lay before him, did not look up. Without raising his eyes, he said in a low voice:

“Who are you?”

Pierre was silent because he was incapable of uttering a word. To him Davout was not merely a French general, but a man notorious for his cruelty. Looking at his cold face, as he sat like a stern schoolmaster who was prepared to wait awhile for an answer, Pierre felt that every instant of delay might cost him his life; but he did not know what to say. He did not venture to repeat what he had said at his first examination, yet to disclose his rank and position was dangerous and embarrassing. So he was silent. But before he had decided what to do, Davout raised his head, pushed his spectacles back on his forehead, screwed up his eyes, and looked intently at him.

“I know that man,” he said in a cold, measured tone, evidently calculated to frighten Pierre.

The chill that had been running down Pierre’s back now seized his head as in a vise.

“You cannot know me, General, I have never seen you…”

“He is a Russian spy,” Davout interrupted, addressing another general who was present, but whom Pierre had not noticed.

Davout turned away. With an unexpected reverberation in his voice Pierre rapidly began:

“No, monseigneur,” he said, suddenly remembering that Davout was a duke. “No, monseigneur, you cannot have known me. I am a militia officer and have not quitted Moscow.”

“Your name?” asked Davout.

“Bezukhov.”

“What proof have I that you are not lying?”

“Monseigneur!” exclaimed Pierre, not in an offended but in a pleading voice.

Davout looked up and gazed intently at him. For some seconds they looked at one another, and that look saved Pierre. Apart from conditions of war and law, that look established human relations between the two men. At that moment an immense number of things passed dimly through both their minds, and they realized that they were both children of humanity and were brothers.

At the first glance, when Davout had only raised his head from the papers where human affairs and lives were indicated by numbers, Pierre was merely a circumstance, and Davout could have shot him without burdening his conscience with an evil deed, but now he saw in him a human being. He reflected for a moment.

“How can you show me that you are telling the truth?” said Davout coldly.

Pierre remembered Ramballe, and named him and his regiment and the street where the house was.

“You are not what you say,” returned Davout.

In a trembling, faltering voice Pierre began adducing proofs of the truth of his statements.

But at that moment an adjutant entered and reported something to Davout.

Davout brightened up at the news the adjutant brought, and began buttoning up his uniform. It seemed that he had quite forgotten Pierre.

When the adjutant reminded him of the prisoner, he jerked his head in Pierre’s direction with a frown and ordered him to be led away. But where they were to take him Pierre did not know: back to the coach house or to the place of execution his companions had pointed out to him as they crossed the Virgin’s Field.

He turned his head and saw that the adjutant was putting another question to Davout.

“Yes, of course!” replied Davout, but what this “yes” meant, Pierre did not know.

Pierre could not afterwards remember how he went, whether it was far, or in which direction. His faculties were quite numbed, he was stupefied, and noticing nothing around him went on moving his legs as the others did till they all stopped and he stopped too. The only thought in his mind at that time was: who was it that had really sentenced him to death? Not the men on the commission that had first examined him — not one of them wished to or, evidently, could have done it. It was not Davout, who had looked at him in so human a way. In another moment Davout would have realized that he was doing wrong, but just then the adjutant had come in and interrupted him. The adjutant, also, had evidently had no evil intent though he might have refrained from coming in. Then who was executing him, killing him, depriving him of life — him, Pierre, with all his memories, aspirations, hopes, and thoughts? Who was doing this? And Pierre felt that it was no one.

It was a system — a concurrence of circumstances.

A system of some sort was killing him — Pierre — depriving him of life, of everything, annihilating him.

From Prince Shcherbatov’s house the prisoners were led straight down the Virgin’s Field, to the left of the nunnery, as far as a kitchen garden in which a post had been set up. Beyond that post a fresh pit had been dug in the ground, and near the post and the pit a large crowd stood in a semicircle. The crowd consisted of a few Russians and many of Napoleon’s soldiers who were not on duty- Germans, Italians, and Frenchmen, in a variety of uniforms. To the right and left of the post stood rows of French troops in blue uniforms with red epaulets and high boots and shakos.

The prisoners were placed in a certain order, according to the list (Pierre was sixth), and were led to the post. Several drums suddenly began to beat on both sides of them, and at that sound Pierre felt as if part of his soul had been torn away. He lost the power of thinking or understanding. He could only hear and see. And he had only one wish- that the frightful thing that had to happen should happen quickly. Pierre looked round at his fellow prisoners and scrutinized them.

The two first were convicts with shaven heads. One was tall and thin, the other dark, shaggy, and sinewy, with a flat nose. The third was a domestic serf, about forty-five years old, with grizzled hair and a plump, well-nourished body. The fourth was a peasant, a very handsome man with a broad, light-brown beard and black eyes. The fifth was a factory hand, a thin, sallow-faced lad of eighteen in a loose coat.

Pierre heard the French consulting whether to shoot them separately or two at a time. “In couples,” replied the officer in command in a calm voice. There was a stir in the ranks of the soldiers and it was evident that they were all hurrying — not as men hurry to do something they understand, but as people hurry to finish a necessary but unpleasant and incomprehensible task.

A French official wearing a scarf came up to the right of the row of prisoners and read out the sentence in Russian and in French.

Then two pairs of Frenchmen approached the criminals and at the officer’s command took the two convicts who stood first in the row. The convicts stopped when they reached the post and, while sacks were being brought, looked dumbly around as a wounded beast looks at an approaching huntsman. One crossed himself continually, the other scratched his back and made a movement of the lips resembling a smile. With hurried hands the soldiers blindfolded them, drawing the sacks over their heads, and bound them to the post.

Twelve sharpshooters with muskets stepped out of the ranks with a firm regular tread and halted eight paces from the post. Pierre turned away to avoid seeing what was going to happen. Suddenly a crackling, rolling noise was heard which seemed to him louder than the most terrific thunder, and he looked round. There was some smoke, and the Frenchmen were doing something near the pit, with pale faces and trembling hands. Two more prisoners were led up. In the same way and with similar looks, these two glanced vainly at the onlookers with only a silent appeal for protection in their eyes, evidently unable to understand or believe what was going to happen to them. They could not believe it because they alone knew what their life meant to them, and so they neither understood nor believed that it could be taken from them.

Again Pierre did not wish to look and again turned away; but again the sound as of a frightful explosion struck his ear, and at the same moment he saw smoke, blood, and the pale, scared faces of the Frenchmen who were again doing something by the post, their trembling hands impeding one another. Pierre, breathing heavily, looked around as if asking what it meant. The same question was expressed in all the looks that met his.

On the faces of all the Russians and of the French soldiers and officers without exception, he read the same dismay, horror, and conflict that were in his own heart. “But who, after all, is doing this? They are all suffering as I am. Who then is it? Who?” flashed for an instant through his mind.

“Sharpshooters of the 86th, forward!” shouted someone. The fifth prisoner, the one next to Pierre, was led away- alone. Pierre did not understand that he was saved, that he and the rest had been brought there only to witness the execution. With ever-growing horror, and no sense of joy or relief, he gazed at what was taking place. The fifth man was the factory lad in the loose cloak. The moment they laid hands on him he sprang aside in terror and clutched at Pierre. (Pierre shuddered and shook himself free.) The lad was unable to walk. They dragged him along, holding him up under the arms, and he screamed. When they got him to the post he grew quiet, as if he suddenly understood something. Whether he understood that screaming was useless or whether he thought it incredible that men should kill him, at any rate he took his stand at the post, waiting to be blindfolded like the others, and like a wounded animal looked around him with glittering eyes.

Pierre was no longer able to turn away and close his eyes. His curiosity and agitation, like that of the whole crowd, reached the highest pitch at this fifth murder. Like the others this fifth man seemed calm; he wrapped his loose cloak closer and rubbed one bare foot with the other.

When they began to blindfold him he himself adjusted the knot which hurt the back of his head; then when they propped him against the bloodstained post, he leaned back and, not being comfortable in that position, straightened himself, adjusted his feet, and leaned back again more comfortably. Pierre did not take his eyes from him and did not miss his slightest movement.

Probably a word of command was given and was followed by the reports of eight muskets; but try as he would Pierre could not afterwards remember having heard the slightest sound of the shots. He only saw how the workman suddenly sank down on the cords that held him, how blood showed itself in two places, how the ropes slackened under the weight of the hanging body, and how the workman sat down, his head hanging unnaturally and one leg bent under him. Pierre ran up to the post. No one hindered him. Pale, frightened people were doing something around the workman. The lower jaw of an old Frenchman with a thick mustache trembled as he untied the ropes. The body collapsed. The soldiers dragged it awkwardly from the post and began pushing it into the pit.

They all plainly and certainly knew that they were criminals who must hide the traces of their guilt as quickly as possible.

Pierre glanced into the pit and saw that the factory lad was lying with his knees close up to his head and one shoulder higher than the other. That shoulder rose and fell rhythmically and convulsively, but spadefuls of earth were already being thrown over the whole body. One of the soldiers, evidently suffering, shouted gruffly and angrily at Pierre to go back. But Pierre did not understand him and remained near the post, and no one drove him away.

When the pit had been filled up a command was given. Pierre was taken back to his place, and the rows of troops on both sides of the post made a half turn and went past it at a measured pace. The twenty-four sharpshooters with discharged muskets, standing in the center of the circle, ran back to their places as the companies passed by.

Pierre gazed now with dazed eyes at these sharpshooters who ran in couples out of the circle. All but one rejoined their companies. This one, a young soldier, his face deadly pale, his shako pushed back, and his musket resting on the ground, still stood near the pit at the spot from which he had fired. He swayed like a drunken man, taking some steps forward and back to save himself from falling. An old, noncommissioned officer ran out of the ranks and taking him by the elbow dragged him to his company. The crowd of Russians and Frenchmen began to disperse. They all went away silently and with drooping heads.

“That will teach them to start fires,” said one of the Frenchmen.

Pierre glanced round at the speaker and saw that it was a soldier who was trying to find some relief after what had been done, but was not able to do so. Without finishing what he had begun to say he made a hopeless movement with his arm and went away.

* It’s our practice (although we’re sure it’s been violated here and there) to utilize Gregorian dates universally after the mid-18th century, even for executions in Orthodox Christendom where the Julian calendar prevailed into the 20th century. For this post, seeing as it’s straight from the text of Tolstoy himself, in his magnum opus, channeling the soul of the Russian rodina, we’re making an exception: the 12-day-slower, local-to-Russia Julian calendar prevails … just like the Russians themselves did.

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1707: Pierre Fatio, Genevan Gracchus

Add comment September 6th, 2012 Headsman

On the evening of this date* in 1707, Pierre Fatio was secretly shot by arquebusers in a Geneva prison.

This Swiss Gracchus — classically-minded contemporaries could hardly fail to draw the parallel — was a magistrate and a rising member of the patrician oligarchy that ran nominally democratic Geneva.

But despising the side his class bread was buttered, Fatio (English Wikipedia page | French) took up the standard of the masses … or at least the masses of the bourgeoisie, whose universal-propertied-male suffrage was belied by the power exercised by Geneva’s magnates club, the “Petit Conseil” of 25 who actually ran the city-state.

Pierre Fatio really looks less like a revolutionary and more like a would-be liberal reformer. What started all the trouble was Fatio’s January 1707 sponsorship of a measure for a secret ballot and a little less nepotism: a modest downward redistribution of power.

Then as now, the powerful resisted.

From the pulpit the ministers cried at the top of their lungs against the people … accusing the people of rebellion against the magistrates, of insubordination to the laws, of enjoying only disorder and fomenting divisions, violating the oath which promises to be good and loyal to the city. (Source)

Oligarch apologists went on and on about these secret-balloteers having “broken all the bonds of society” (Benedict Calandrini) as the popular clamor for a bit of state accountability grew. In political-philosophy terms, this manifested itself as a debate between whether the sovereignty of the people (again, meaning the propertied male people) actually implied that these sovereigns were entitled to govern.

And the Little Council won the debate the old-fashioned way: by crushing its opponents as seditious, with the military aid of their brother-oligarchs at neighboring Swiss cantons. Several popular-sovereignty types were killed or exiled (French link) in mid-1707.

Its government is a mixture of Aristocracy and Democracy; but as the principal and most ancient families use their utmost endeavours to derogate from, and by slow degrees destroy the privileges of the citizens, in order to draw the power over to themselves, and perpetuate themselves in their posts, this practice is attended with frequent murmurings, and in these last times an insurrection had began, which would have broken out into a great fire, if Zurich and Bern had not sent wise and able deputies to extinguish it, and afterwards a good number of troops to garrison the city, which at present seems to keep quiet, though with evident prejudice to the liberty of its citizens. (Vendramino Bianchi in Relazi one del paese de Svizzeri (1708), quoted in this book

Fatio was the last and most noteworthy to go, and the council was so nervous about the “murmurings” if it should behead him in public, it determined its death sentence in secret: apt climax for a struggle over state accountability.

Rather than risk further disturbances, it simply dispatched its agents directly to Fatio’s cell where they informed him that he was condemned, and had him shot inside the prison without further ado.

“I would look with great honor on being the martyr of liberty,” a cool Fatio is said (by his party, naturally) to have remarked upon hearing his condemnation.

Martyr he may have been, but unlike the Roman Gracchi, Pierre did not have a brother to catch up his falling torch: Pierre’s, who was already among the Little Council, went ahead and voted for his sibling’s execution.

The martyr had more impressive family in cousin Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, a mathematician and Isaac Newton collaborator. Still more noteworthy heirs were kin of spirit, not of blood: one David Rousseau lost his state job for supporting Fatio’s movement … and Rousseau’s famous Genevan grandson would become the favored philosopher of the coming revolutionary age.

There’s a hard-to-find French biography of our man, Pierre Fatio et la crise de 1707, by his descendants Nicole and Oliver Fatio. (Here’s a French interview with Oliver.)

* I really hate to contradict the 7 September date that’s carved into marble, but as best I can interpret the documentation, Fatio’s sentence was finalized on the day of 6 September and executed within just a few hours that very evening. See e.g. the 6 September document excerpted in fn 1 here.

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1937: Andrei Stepanovich Arzhilovsky, counterrevolutionary kulak

Add comment September 5th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1937, a 51-year-old Russian peasant by the name of Andrei Stepanovich Arzhilovsky was executed by firing squad, having been convicted of membership in a “counterrevolutionary kulak sabotage organization.”

Arzhilovsky, who had five young children by the time of his death, was evidently a nefarious thought-criminal with a record. He had sufficient literacy to join the regional administration in the nineteen-teens, which led to his arrest in 1919 in the wake of the October Revolution of two years previously.

He denied having ever persecuted Communist sympathizers, but a revolutionary tribunal sentenced him to eight years in prison.

Released after an amnesty in 1923, Arzhilovsky returned home, took up farming again, joined the peasant cooperative and took up a number of other minor civic posts. He owned 8.1 hectares of cultivated land, a house and outbuildings, two horses, two cows and other livestock. He was classified as a farmer of average means — that is, not a kulak or class enemy — but in 1929 he was convicted of “counterrevolutionary agitation” and sentenced to a decade in a labor camp.

In 1936, Arzhilovsky was released from detention early for health reasons. They expected him to go home and die, but instead he took an accounting job at a factory.

Perhaps frustrated by Arzhilovsky’s refusal to expire, the NKVD “uncovered” the “conspiracy” that lead to his death sentence. Under interrogation, he had to admit his opinions weren’t purely Soviet. Perhaps that alone was enough.

Arzhilovsky was a simple farmer, just one of the millions who died during Stalin’s Great Terror from 1936-1938. He probably would have been forgotten entirely today were it not for the forty-page diary he kept during the year prior to his death.

It was confiscated by NKVD agents when they searched his home. The diary was translated and published in 1995 in an anthology of several others from that period, under the title Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s.

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1778: Patrick McMullen, repeat deserter

Add comment September 4th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1778, Patrick McMullen was hanged on the Philadelphia commons for deserting, repeatedly, the Continental Army.

This poor fellow had started off (promisingly enough for the colonies) by deserting the British.

Such documentation as remains easily accessible isn’t very detailed about his pre-war background; the British had recently passed a Recruiting Act authorizing press gangs to shanghai Scotsmen into the royal army, but that measure was only 99 days old at this time. There were also many Scots-Irish who had already immigrated to the Pennsylvania colony or thereabouts.

This Irishman, however, enlisted pre-1775 in the British 38th Regiment of Foot, deserted, presumably served in a Continental Army unit at some point thereafter, and then by 1778 was back in British colors for the Battle of Monmouth, after which he deserted once again. Maybe he even changed teams four times, instead of twice.

Don Hagist is the author of the forthcoming book British Soldiers, American War.

This sort of “treachery” was not at all unusual.

“A good number of men switched sides, some several times, during the war,” said Don Hagist of the fascinating British Soldiers, American Revolution blog. “For many of them it did not impugn their reputations as soldiers; for example, many British prisoners of war escaped from captivity, joined in the American army as a means to get close to the front lines, then deserted again to rejoin the British army.

“At least, that is the story they’d give when brought to trial. Even when acquitted, sometimes these same men deserted yet again. When McMullen returned to the British army, he may have given the popular story that he was kidnapped by Bostonians and carried away from the garrison. This happened to a number of British soldiers in 1774 and early 1775; some turned up years later and gave their stories in court.”

McMullen had the bad luck to have to give this story to a court in Philaelphia at the time of that patriotic city’s maximum hostility following the British occupation.

Philadelphia’s Revolutionary military governor at this time was Benedict Arnold — still two years from his infamous betrayal, but even now finding himself stressed by the revolutionary extremism of his charges. Never a fire-eater himself, Arnold personally wrote to the Continental Congress with his own pitch for showing McMullen a bit of brotherly love, vouchsafing the view that our deserter’s culpability was “is in his [Arnold’s] opinion insufficient” to warrant execution.

A Congressional committee respectfully disagreed, judging McMullen “a person of a most atrocious character” and directed that the hanging proceed.

Short review of these volumes about Revolutionary War desertion.

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1821: Timothy Bennett, duelist

Add comment September 3rd, 2012 Headsman

From the Oct. 12, 1927 Republican Herald recapping the Land of Lincoln’s hanging history on the occasion of its trendy switch to the electric chair.

Hanging has been the legal method of execution in the state of Illinois for 106 years, the first execution in the state being held at Belleville on September 3, 1821, when Timothy Bennett paid the penalty for murder resulting in a duel in which Timothy [sic — the rest of the article refers to the victim as “Alphonso”] C. Stewart was killed.

According to the account appearing in an old history of St. Clair county, now in the state historical library, Timothy Bennett and Alphonso C. Stewart became involved in an argument while under the influence of liquor, on February 8, 1819, at Belleville. Friends interfered and sought to effect a reconciliation, but their efforts were unavail[ing]. Finally it was agreed to arrange a sham duel in the belief that the ridiculous issue would bring the two participants to their senses.

“The duel was arranged,” the account reads. “Jacob Short and Nathan Fike acted as seconds. When the word was given and the rifles discharged, it was proven the ‘sham’ duel was fought with powder and lead-at any rate Alphonso C. Stewart fell to the ground mortally wounded.

Special Session in Court

“Timothy Bennett was arrested and so were the seconds, Short and Fike. A special term of the circuit court was held March 8, 1919 [sic], under a special law of the legislature to hold said term. The officers of the court, John Reynolds, judge; John Hay, clerk, and W.A. Beard, sheriff, were all appointed by Governor Shadrack Bond.

“The grand jury found true bills of indictments for murder against Bennett and the two seconds after hearing the testimony of Reuben Anderson, James Parks, James Kincade, James Reed, Daniel Million, Ben Million, Peter Sprinkle and Michael Tannahill.

“When the case was called for trial the sheriff reported that Bennett had broken jail and was at large. Short and Fike had their trial in June 1819, and were acquited [sic].

“Bennett was captured and jailed about July 1, 1821. A special term of court was held July 26, 1821. The grand jury found a new indictment against him for the same offense

Trial Starts Immediately

“Bennett was put on trial July 27, 1821, before Judge Reynolds and a jury. The jury rendered a verdict July 28, and found the presoner [sic] guilty. He had entered a plea of not guilty.

“The court then proceeded to pass sentence upon him in the following words:

“And it being demanded of him if anything for himself he had or knew to say why the court should not proceed to pass sentence upon him, he said he had nothing more than he had before said. Therefore it was considered by the court that he be hanged by the neck until he is dead, and that the sheriff of the county do cause execution of this judgment to be done and performed on him, the said Timothy Bennett, on Monday, the third of September, next, between the hours of ten in the forenoon and four in the afternoon at or near the town of Belleville.”

“Neither Bennett nor his friends believed that this awful sentence would ever be executed. The latter made strenuous efforts to have him pardoned. Failing in this, they tried to have the sentence commuted. But the governor remained firm and against all entreaty.

“On the day appointed for his execution, Bennett was hanged near West Belleville, near the site of the Henry Raab school. The execution was witnessed by a multitude of men, women and children.

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1944: Six Milice collaborators in France

Add comment September 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1944, just days after the Liberation of Paris secured the restoration of the French Republic, six collaborators were publicly shot in the foothills of the French Alps. They were the condemned of the first court-martial to sit in liberated France.

A London Times correspondent estimated that 4,000 or more of their countrymen braved cruel wind and rain to cheer the traitors’ deaths meted to these young members of the Vichy government’s hated milice.

They were among ten members of that militia captured at a training grounds in Grenoble, and the shooting of these six was preceded by a loudspeaker announcement decrying the tribunal which tried them for having the softness merely to imprison the other four.

“The Liberation Committee considers that the sentences which failed to inflict the death penalty on all the militiamen not to be in conformity with the wishes of the French people and accordingly promises, in conformity with those wishes, to see that the composition of the court-martial is revised in order to avoid a repetition of such weakness.” The people answered with a cheer.

-London Times, Sep. 4 1944

The executions, carried out on a grounds the Gestapo had once used to executed Resistance members, were also photographed, and the striking images published in the Oct. 2 issue of Life magazine. Once available online from Life at this now-dead link, the gallery is reproduced at this Chinese page; Warning: Disturbing Content.

Photographer John Osborne, later a noted editor and habitue of Richard Nixon’s enemies list, would not have been a candidate for the Resistance’s court.

“I am susceptible as most,” he wrote in Life‘s original dispatch. “When I first saw the 10 men and boys in the courtroom dock at this trial, I wanted to cry. They looked so young, wretched, unshaven … It was very easy to sentimentalize over these men, all of whom were underlings. It was easy to agree with the [collaborators’] chief defender, Pierre Guy, that France would be harming only herself if she killed them now.”

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1987: Moses Jantjies and Wellington Mielies, after the Langa massacre

Add comment September 1st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1987, Moses Jantjies and Wellington Mielies — “political prisoners” in the estimation of their supporters — hanged along with five common criminals at Pretoria for the murder of Ben Kinikini and five others.*

The killing of Kinikini occurred in an environment of bitterly escalating hostilities in the eastern cape city of Uitenhage and especially the KwaNobuhle township. Anti-apartheid school boycotts dating back to September 1984 (part of a spreading revolt in the townships at that time) had metastasized into violent confrontations when protesters were denied meeting space by the black KwaNobuhle councillors.

Kinikini was such a councillor, and he and the others had been under popular pressure to resign, and even had their homes stoned, since the last weeks of 1984.

Protesters stoned vehicles. Riot squads roamed the streets. Police shootings became everyday events, and more enraged crowds gathered at the resulting funerals of their victims.**

On March 21, 1985,† police opened fire on one such funeral procession, slaying some 20 people in a single go — the Langa Massacre.


Coffins of the Langa Massacre’s victims. (cc) image from United Nations Photo Library. Also see this, this, this and this.

And then it really hit the fan.

Riots erupted following the Langa massacre, and it was on March 23 that Kinikini was dragged from his house and murdered: black township councillors were liable to be seen as apartheid collaborators. Defense witnesses for Jantjies and Mielies were quite a bit more specific, slating Kinikini with direct links to murderous vigilantes who liked to beat up and rape protesters in the creepy privacy of Kinikini’s apt personal business, a mortuary.

And as one memoir of the period puts it, “the government knew black councillors would not participate in a democratic charade unless their lives and property were protected and avenged. Some two and a half thousand black councillors, policemen and informers, real and rumoured, had been killed in the unrest that had begun in 1984.”

For South African president and white-rule stalwart P.W. Botha, those were far more pressing constituencies than mercy appeals from usual suspects like black activists and the West German government. These were also the first two township-rising convicts to come up for execution, out of some 33 then on death row, so their treatment figured to set the precedent for even higher-profile cases on the horizon like the Sharpeville Six. (In the event, apartheid collapsed before the Six could actually be hanged.)

The message was hardly lost on its internal audience.

“We have come to terms with the fact that the enemy has declared war,” Winnie Mandela told a Johanessburg memorial service for Jantjies and Mielies hanged. “We accept the challenge. The blood of the comrades has not flowed in vain.”

* Ben Kinikini, his four sons and nephews, and one other person were stabbed and burned to death. Some reports term at least Ben Kinikini’s killing a “necklacing” — the brutal method of popular execution that arose in the 1980s in which the “jewelry” was a rubber tire filled with flaming petrol. It sounds from the widow’s secondhand description as if this could indeed characterize it, though the fact that the Truth and Reconcilation Commission called a July 1985 killing the country’s first necklacing might indicate otherwise. News stories suggest that photographs and video exist of, if not the murder, at least the aftermath: perhaps these are dispositive on the point.

** See Thole Majodina, “A Short Background to the Shooting Incident in Langa Township, Uitenhage,” Human Rights Quarterly, August 1986.

† March 21 also happened to be the very anniversary date of one of apartheid South Africa’s most infamous police atrocities, the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. Thanks to Sharpeville, this first day of spring is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, as well as the date on which South Africa marks Human Rights Day.

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1887: Henri Pranzini, repentant?

3 comments August 31st, 2012 Headsman

On this date 125 years ago, a notorious French triple murderer was guillotined outside La Roquette Prison.

This condemned murderer, so infamous that anarchist bomber Ravachol planned to invoke his name as an emblem of crime in a suppressed courtroom speech, slaughtered a prostitute, her maid, and the maid’s child so that he could plunder the apartment’s jewelry.

Your basic sensational common butchery, given added legs by comparison to the next year’s apparition across the channel of the Whitechapel murderer.*

That’s just one of several more famous (or infamous) contemporaries for whom Pranzini was a sort of subplot character.

The artist Paul Gauguin — though he couldn’t quite remember the name right — suspected that this particular killer plotted his crime at the cafe that both he and Vincent Van Gogh frequented. (Van Gogh painted the proprietress, who was also possibly his lover.)

According to Van Gogh, the whole Pansini [Pranzini] affair, as well as many others, was hatched in this place … From this Pansini case sprang another case, also, according to Van Gogh, hatched in this famous cafe, the Prado case

We’ve noticed in these pages Gauguin’s disturbing severed-head jug, and its seeming inspiration from that other guillotinee, Prado.

While Gauguin’s meditations on the guillotine veered to the grotesque, a Norman teenager fresh off an apparition of Jesus Christ found spiritual sublimity in this villain. The woman eventually known as St. Therese of Lisieux later recollected

I heard talk of a great criminal just condemned to death for some horrible crimes; everything pointed to the fact that he would die impenitent…. I felt in the depths of my heart certain that our desires would be granted, but to obtain courage to pray for sinners I told God I was sure He would pardon the poor, unfortunate Pranzini; that I’d believe this even if he went to his death without any signs of repentance or without having gone to confession. I was absolutely confident in the mercy of Jesus. But I was begging Him for a “sign” of repentance only for my own simple consolation.

My prayer was answered to the letter! In spite of Papa’s prohibition that we read no papers, I didn’t think I was disobeying when reading passages pertaining to Pranzini. The day after the execution I found the newspaper “La Croix.” I opened it quickly and what did I see? Ah! my tears betrayed my emotion and I was obliged to hide. Pranzini had not gone to confession. He had mounted the scaffold and was preparing to place his head in the formidable opening, when suddenly, seized by an inspiration, he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times! Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of Him who declares that in heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance.

I had obtained the sign I requested.

Nameless citizens on the square when the blade fell settled for less exalted signs, like the ancient superstition of dipping into the spattered blood. (“Such scenes would disgust the black savages of Dahomey and the Gold Coast,” the London Times sniffed (September 1, 1887), and in vain urged the French government to take up legislation for private executions.)

* Pranzini found himself in Madame Tussaud’s for a spell.

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1481: Michal Olelkowicz and Iwan Holszanski, Lithuanian princes

Add comment August 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1481, two Lithuanian princes were beheaded in Vilnius for plotting the assassination of the Polish-Lithuanian king.

This late 15th century was a heady time for Poland under the Jagiellon dynasty, and one of this dynasty’s going projects was keeping the adjacent realms of Poland and Lithuania linked together. In time, they would become formally joined, but at this point they were independent entities “united” only by the personal union of the Jagiellon monarch himself.

That monarch in the late 15th century was the redoubtable Casimir IV (Kazimierz IV): Grand Duke of Lithuania since 1440, King of Poland since 1447. Casimir’s family hailed from Lithuania; indeed, as that place had been last European place to Christianize, Casimir’s own father had been born a pagan.

Casimir IV’s eponymous son is St. Casimir, patron saint of both Lithuania and Poland; both actively honor his feast date of March 4.
Lithuania agonistes

Lithuania had a strong independent streak (pdf), and its boyars did not necessarily see eye to eye with the Grand Duke. Casimir was keen on centralizing Lithuania’s administration and checking the potential rivalry of the most powerful Lithuanian families, the classic seeds of crown-vs-nobility conflict the world over.

And both watched with a wary eye the growth of Muscovy under the energetic leadership of Ivan III, aka Ivan the Great.

That expanding state in the 1470s gobbled up the buffer city-state of Novgorod; Ivan III’s newly-minted honorific Tsar of all the Rus(sians) openly announced his designs on Lithuania’s own historically Slavic Ruthenian territory. “The gatherer of the Russian lands,” Ivan is known as … and Lithuania (much larger then than it is now) stood to be the gatheree.

The Great Stand on the River Ugra

Come 1480, Casimir was allied against Moscow with the Mongol Horde, the famous “Tatar yoke” that had been collecting Russian tribute for two-plus centuries. In Russian historiography this is the crucial moment when that yoke is thrown off, and the Muscovites accomplished that in part by crossing up the Lithuanians.

The Horde, having marched through Lithuanian territory, assembled on the banks of the Ugra River, opposite a waiting Muscovite army. Neither army attacked. Instead, they waited … and waited … and waited some more.

The Horde, for its part, was waiting for reinforcements from its Lithuanian ally. But those reinforcements never arrived, thanks in part to Russia’s alliance with Crimean khan Mengli Giray, who seems to have absorbed Casimir’s attention in the fall of 1480 with a vexing combination of raids into southern Lithuania and dilatory ceasefire diplomacy. Distracted by the homeland threat, Lithuania never got around to supporting the Horde … and the Horde, after freezing itself on the banks of the Ugra for a couple of months, simply marched away in frustration.

Moscow never again paid it tribute … and its Crimean ally destroyed the Great Horde utterly in 1502.

Chop

This was the context, back in Lithuania, for the attempt on Casimir’s life that would cost two princes their heads. Notwithstanding his unhelpful alliance with the Great Horde, it seems apparent that Casimir himself espoused a fundamentally western policy: the Jagiellon dynasty had branches in Hungary, Bohemia, Germany, and Casimir had more taste for meddling in these realms than dealing with Russia. One could imagine how a Lithuanian magnate out his lucrative Novgorod trade would feel like the head man didn’t really have his eye on the ball; in 1478, a Lithuanian delegation even requested that Casimir appoint a Lithuanian governor to look after the interests of the Grand Duchy. (Casimir refused.)

And these nobles were getting it at both ends, since Casimir’s state-centralization project meant that they were being cut down to size in terms of their internal political power, too.

Apparently with the support of Moscow itself (whose expansionary interest is self-evident) Iwan Holszanski and Fedor Bielski hatched a plan to murder the Grand Duke and his sons on Palm Sunday, 1481 — which was also the occasion of Fedor Bielski’s wedding. The idea was to replace him with Michal Olelkowicz (Mikhail Olelkevich), who had been Novgorod’s elected prince-ruler in the late 1460s; it’s not clear to me if Olelkowicz himself was actually in on the scheme.

Casimir, at any rate, caught wind of the plot. Legend has it that a servant decorating a room ran across the conspirators’ weapons niches and reported it; it’s alternately alleged that the assassins meant to jump Casimir while out on his favorite pastime, hunting.

However it was supposed to go down, it didn’t work. Bielski was able to flee to Moscow (ditching his newlywed bride), but left Holszanski and the coup’s prospective beneficiary Olelkowicz to suffer beheading this date upon evidence “brighter than the sun” of their treason.

Sources:

This webcache page.

The Polish-Lithuanian State 1386-1795, by Daniel Stone.

Russia’s Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500-1800, by Michael Khodarkovsky.

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1890: Otto Leuth

1 comment August 29th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1890 at the Columbus Penitentiary in Ohio, a sullen German-American teenager named Otto Leuth (sometimes spelled “Lueth”) paid with his life for the brutal murder of his seven-year-old neighbor, Maggie Thompson.

John Stark Bellamy II, writing of the murder in his book The Corpse in the Cellar: And Further Tales of Cleveland Woe, noted how familiar the case sounds to modern ears:

[T]he sickening murder of an innocent child; yet another child accused for the dreadful deed; a sensational trial, replete with dubiously “expert” testimony, suspicious “confessions,” allegations of police “third-degree” methods, and charges of biased press; not to mention “latchkey” children, systematic child abuse, saccharine sympathy for the guilty, and charges of ethnic favoritism.

Yet it happened over a century ago.

Otto, sixteen at the time he killed little Maggie Thompson, had had a hard life, as Bellamy explains in his book. His mother, Lena, testified at his trial that she

went into veritably demonic fits of rage, during which she was in the habit of physically abusing her children, especially Otto. From an early age, she blandly admitted, she had pulled his hair, kicked him, beaten him, walked on him, and often hit him with any object that came to hand. Once, when Otto was eight, she had beaten him with a chair leg and, when [Otto’s father] Henry tried to intervene, stabbed Henry twice with a convenient butcher knife. Just a few months before Maggie Thompson’s murder, Lena had repeatedly slammed Otto’s head into a wooden door.

It speaks volumes of the difference between that century and this one that nobody who heard Lena’s testimony seemed to think this was in any way excessive, never mind cruel; on the contrary, one person praised her methods as being “good German discipline.”

On May 9, 1889, sixteen-year-old Otto was alone at his family’s home at 47 Merchant Avenue in Tremont, a suburb of Cleveland. He was used to being alone: his mother had been committed to a mental hospital some months before, his father was wrapped up in his cabinet-making business, and his older brother had moved out of the house.


Otto (top) and his victim.

That morning, down the street at 24 Merchant Avenue, Maggie Thompson set off for school. Her mother, Clara, dropped her off at the front gate; it was the last time she would see her daughter alive.

Maggie attended the morning classes and, when school was dismissed for lunch at 11:15 a.m., started on the four-block walk home. En route, she vanished without a trace, as if “the sidewalk might have opened and swallowed the girl.”

Naturally there was a frantic search, lead by her devastated parents and the Cleveland Police Department, who tore the city apart looking for her.

But, although there were numerous false sightings and a few wild stories about Maggie’s disappearance, in spite of everyone’s efforts they couldn’t find her.

Otto participated in the search, along with most of the neighborhood. Nearly every day he would approach Clara Thompson and solicitously ask if she’d heard any news of her child.

In early June, Clarissa Shevel, the woman who lived with her husband in the back of the Lueths’ two-family house, asked Otto to do something about the terrible stench that pervaded the entire building. Otto suggested the odor was caused by a dead animal. He bought some chloride of lime and put it in the ventilation hole, then burned some sulfur, but it didn’t help.

Around that time he was witnessed carrying some badly stained bedding to the smokehouse at the back of the property.

On June 9, Otto’s mother Lena, who had by now been discharged from the mental hospital, became fed up with the smell and sent her husband Henry down to the cellar to investigate. He came back up a few minutes later, deeply shaken, and ran out to find a policeman.

In the Lueths’ cellar was the nude corpse of Maggie Thompson.

She was wrapped in one of Lena’s dresses and her own clothes lay underneath her. She had been beaten to death and her body was so badly decomposed that her parents had to identify her by scars on her hips.

The police promptly arrested everyone who lived at the house: Henry and Lena Lueth, Clarissa Shevel and her husband, and Otto, who was picked up on his way home from the ice cream parlor. All five suspects were separated and subjected to a serious “sweating,” but Otto was the prime suspect. He had a reputation as a bully, and he’d been at home alone for much of the previous month.

Bellamy records:

The climax came at 3:30 a.m., when an agonized female shriek resounded from the floor below the sweating room. “Who is that?” cried Otto to Detective Francis Douglass. “Your mother, I believe,” replied Douglass. “She had nothing to do with it!” blurted out Otto. “Who did?” queried Douglass. Otto: “I did it! I did it!” Douglass: “Did what, Otto?” “I killed her! I killed her! Please give me your revolver so I can kill myself!”

Resisting the temptation, the police instead took his verbal confession, wrote it down, had him sign it and escorted him to a cell.

Otto said he had been standing outside his parents’ home at about 11:30 a.m. on May 9 when he encountered Maggie. She asked him if he could donate any buttons to the “button-string” she was making, and he said he had four and would give them to her if she came inside.

Maggie obediently followed him in, and he led her upstairs to his bedroom, where he attempted to rape her. When she screamed, he hit her with a nearby hammer.

Otto said he thought he’d probably killed her with the first blow, but he kept striking her until her head was a pulp and the bed was covered in blood. After an unsuccessful attempt to have sex with her body, he fled the scene. He did go back to the house that night, but spent the next several days at his brother’s home.

Six days later, just before his mother was supposed to come home, Otto returned home to clean up. He carried Maggie’s corpse to the family cellar and left it lying there; he didn’t even bother to bury it or cover it up.

Given Otto’s confession, the circumstantial evidence and the revulsion his crime invoked in the city of Cleveland, his lawyer didn’t have much to work with. Not even trying for an acquittal, his defense instead claimed Otto was mentally impaired and/or insane.

Otto had a strange depression in his skull and his attorney suggested he was brain-damaged — which might very well have been true, given the abuse he had suffered at Lena’s hands. Several members of his family, including his mother and brother, had epilepsy, and his attorney suggested he might have had a seizure and committed his crime without even knowing what he was doing.

Such a scenario was possible. The problem was, though, that none of the medical experts who testified for the defense could diagnose Otto with epilepsy.

The claims of subnormal intelligence were contradicted by the testimony of Otto’s former teachers. Although his pathetic attempts to conceal Maggie’s body might indicate otherwise, his intellect seems to have been about average. Before he quit school at age 13, he had been an unexceptional student with some talent as a violinist.

Otto’s lawyer also said his client had not, in fact, attempted to sexually assault Maggie Thompson either before or after death, and Otto had invented that part of his confession because the police were pressing him to cough up an explanation for his motiveless crime. But given the fact that Maggie’s body was found naked, this claim didn’t carry much weight either.

It was no surprise that, when the trial concluded on December 27, 1889, the jury came back with a verdict of guilty without a recommendation of mercy. Perhaps the only surprising thing was that they actually bothered to deliberate for a whole four and a half hours.

Otto rapidly exhausted his appeals and was hanged eight months after his trial, alongside another killer, one John “Brocky” Smith of Cincinnati. Two other men had also been scheduled to die that night, but one got reprieved and the other’s execution was postponed.

Otto left behind a statement where he admitted he’d killed Maggie Thompson, but denied his previous claims that he’d tried to rape her. He died calmly and without a fuss, standing on the trap and saying simply “All right, let her go.”

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