Posts filed under 'Execution'

1829: William Burke, eponymous body-snatcher

4 comments January 28th, 2011 dogboy

Wanted: corpses. Apply to Doctor Robert Knox, MD, FRSCEd, Professor of Medical Studies, Barclay’s Medical College, Surgeon’s Square, Edinburgh. Reference William Burke, hanged Jan. 28, 1829.

Robert Knox was a noted physician in his prime, in the early 1800s.

A surgeon, anatomist, and zoologist, Knox studied anatomy in London, then headed off to Africa in the army. Field surgery was a brutal business, and the poor anatomical knowledge at the time made it even more terrifying for those involved.

In 1821, Knox moved to France to work in the shadow of his heroes, Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire; a year later, he was back in Edinburgh, making himself a career academic.

When his old professor came calling in 1826 with an opportunity to teach at Surgeon’s Square in Edinburgh, Knox jumped at the chance. As a partner to Barclay and curator of the school’s museum, Knox was well aware of the significant problem that faced the school: corpses were hard to come by.

And since the Royal College of Surgeons at Edinburgh certified the school as a prep course for entrance to University, coming up with bodies became a very important task.

If there’s one way to ruin your career, it’s to be caught paying a few pounds for fresh murder victims.

So it was for Knox, who gave out 7 pounds, 10 shillings for the body of an itinerant lodger who died in William Burke’s building in 1827.

This transaction led Burke to realize that such lodgers weren’t paying as much alive as dead. As a collector of bodies, Knox also had a strict no-questions-asked policy, and Burke and his partner William Hare exploited that to its fullest extent.

Almost a score of suspicious bodies later (and after the price had inflated to 10 pounds per), the pair was found out, given away as suspects by the lame and mentally disabled “Daft Jamie” Wilson, then caught when the late Marjory Campbell Docherty was found by a fellow tenant under one of Burke’s lodge’s beds.

Hare copped to a string of murders* and played stool pigeon in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Burke went to the gallows to “vehement cheering from every quarter, mingled with groans and hisses.” (London Times, Feb. 2, 1829)

“When the cheers had subsided, the wretched man was assailed with every epithet of contempt and abhorrence,” the Times continued. “Not a single indication of pity was observable among the vast crowd: on the contrary, every countenance wore the lviely aspect of a gala-day.”


William Burke’s hanging.

As a corpse himself, Burke made one final contribution to science’s insatiable desire for bodies: his cadaver went straight from the gallows to the practiced hands of one Dr Alexander Monro, who performed a complete lecture while dissecting the murderer’s corpse.

Lecture complete, the good doctor opened the doors to all comers to gaze upon the body, and tens of thousands of Scots obliged. Burke’s skeleton remains on exhibit at University of Edinburgh medical college, and, as was the style at the time, his skin was used to make a pocket book now on display at the Surgeons’ School there.


Hello there. William Burke’s skeleton, on display in Edinburgh. (cc) image from ejbaurdo

Knox, for his part, paid not with his neck but with his reputation.

Though never charged with a crime, the doctor was run out of the the lecturing business, first by subtle and not-so-subtle actions by the University, and eventually by the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832.

He was also unable to obtain any surgical post after the incident and spent his later years writing academic books and papers, none of which have lasted like the doggerel that shadowed his steps.

Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.

A few books about Burke and Hare

Anatomy of Anatomy

Robert Knox was operating under the Murder Act of 1751, which expressly forbade the burial of an executed murderer while permitting the malefactor’s dissection.

The Act had the dual effect of allowing the state to gibbet executed criminals (both hanging in chains and dissection were considered an added ignominy, beyond the punishment of the gallows), and of supplying the budding medical community with an immediate source of fresh bodies.

As courses in anatomy became more commonplace, though, the need for cadavers increased dramatically, and the business of selling bodies for science was born.

Typically, these sales manifested themselves in body-snatching — wherein “resurrectionists” illicitly exhumed a freshly buried corpse and conveyed it to some physician’s ready scalpel.

This grim trade in turn spawned a variety of security measures. The favored dead were defended by fences, watchtowers, and human lookouts. But nothing could eliminate the industry.

In particular, those with little money or no immediate relatives were unlikely to be buried in these gated graves; that left their remains ripe for the remaindering. As well, the increase in demand made so-called anatomy murder a possibility. Burke and Hare may have been notorious for the offense,** but they did not invent it.

As detailed by George Mac Gregor in The history of Burke and Hare and of the resurrectionist times: a fragment from the criminal annals of Scotland, the first known case of anatomy murder occurred in 1752, also in Edinburgh.

In that case, two nurses (Jean Waldie and Helen Torrence) on death watch bartered a decent price of two shillings to sell the body of an ill child to a local surgical college. His death was delayed, and the nurses smothered him, possibly through simple carelessness.

Shortly after the Murder Act, simple economics made pikers of Torrence and Waldie. In the 17th century, England executed hundreds of prisoners a year, each a potential dissection. As Dr D.R. Johnson writes in his Introductory Anatomy:

The dissections performed on hanged felons were public: indeed part of the punishment was the delivery from hangman to surgeons at the gallows following public execution, and later public exhibition of the open body itself. …

Agents representing surgeons would bargain with condemned prisoners not under sentence of dissection (remember this only happened for murder: hanging was in vogue for stealing a sheep or even a loaf): occasionally prisoners struck a bargain to pay expenses, to provide for a family or to buy the customary decent apparel for the hanging.

Supply was unreliable, however: riots at public hangings became common, partly because of the paltry nature of hanging events, partly from superstition. The body was often reclaimed by relatives and the unpopular anatomists stoned, defeated and out of pocket. Competition was often so fierce that a rival anatomy school carried off the body.

Dissection was unpopular and other medical uses were to be found for a recently hung body – the cure of scofula, goitre, wens, ulcers, bleeding tumours, cancers and withered limbs for example. To prevent riots and disorder the Sheriff of London took all bodies of hanged men, except those sentenced to dissection, into his own custody and handed them to the relatives for burial.

Human Trafficking

Hanoverian Britain sure did keep the gallows busy. But the pace of hangings had abated by the 19th century just as demand boomed. The math didn’t add up.

Anatomy schools (officially) dissected some 592 corpses in 1825; at the time of the Burke and Hare murders, only about 50 executions were carried out annually, and each college was guaranteed just one a year.

That meant a shortfall of close to 550 bodies. With limited supply and significant demand, surgical colleges and anatomical lecturers were willing to pay top dollar for new cadavers … and the anatomical murder business really got legs.

This was particularly true in Edinburgh, which boasted an internationally known medical college.

Burke and Hare? Just call them entrepreneurs.

And while the execution of Burke was met with applause from the community, in London, another group was already hard at work both body snatching and murdering its way into the classroom.

The London Burkers were caught in 1831 and convicted of murdering a 14-year-old whose cadaver they sold to St Bartholemew’s Hospital for 9 guineas.† The killers, Thomas Williams and John Bishop, had offed several others prior to the lad in question, making about the same price on each body.‡ In the grand, Burkean tradition of anatomical murderers, these miscreants were also dissected after their execution.§

Williams and Bishop were just two of a group of resurrectionists known collectively as the London Burkers, who claimed to have stolen upwards of 1,000 bodies from nearby cemeteries. That made the Burkers the largest known exploiters of the anatomical trade.

Over the decades after the Murder Act, though, resurrectionists were walking a dangerous line in their communities.

Reverence for the dead sparked community outrage when graves were found empty or disturbed, and it was often the anatomists themselves who felt the wrath of crowds.§§ In Glasgow in 1803, surgeons were threatened by an unruly mob and were forced to seek police protection; in 1813, an empty grave caused a similar furor. Punishments moved from fines to jail time as the surging demand made body-snatching an ever more lucrative trade.

A few books about body-snatching

By the time of the Burkers, anatomists were generally presumed to be body thieves in some capacity, a hostile sentiment graphically underscored during the Aberdeen riots of 1831. When a dog unearthed what looked like a human bone behind the Aberdeen surgical college, a mob coalesced and stormed the lecture hall.

The lecturer (“Dr Moir” — little else is known about the man) fled in terror as the hall was burned to the ground. Soldiers and police clashed with the crowd, which was thought to be over 10,000 strong. Hours later, the riot subsided, but Aberdeen was no longer a friendly place for a prospective medical talent.

And where Burke and Hare were still not quite sufficient to convince the House of Lords to take up a measure providing anatomists with alternatives for corpse acquisition, the Burkers and the Aberdeen riots apparently were.

The underground economy of resurrectionists was supplanted by the Anatomy Act of 1832, which allowed individuals to donate themselves or their unwilled kin to science for a pittance of compensation.

Anatomy murder is, of course, still the subject of horror movies. Like this one, or for the more classically inclined, this 1945 Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi vehicle adapted from a Robert Louis Stevenson story inspired by Burke and Hare:

* The murders included at least one husband/wife pair, a mother and, later, her (adult) daughter, and a grandmother and her young grandson. They are also known as the West Port Murders.

** Burke entered the English language as a verb meaning … well, pretty much exactly what Burke got up to.

We like the poetic explanation of this 19th century popular crime reader:

Dr. Murray, in the new English Dictionary, gives the following definition of the verb to ‘burke.’ ‘To murder in the same manner or for the same purpose as Burke did: to kill secretly by suffocation or strangulation, or for the purpose of selling the victim’s body for dissection,’ and the familiar lines are quoted from the Ingoldsby Legends: —

But when beat on his knees, that confounded De Guise
Just whipped out the “fogle” that caused all the breeze,
Pulled it tight round his neck until backwards it jerked him,
And the rest of the rascals jumped on him and burked him.

† 9 pounds, 9 shillings; by the time of the transactions, the guinea was no longer technically in use, but the term had stuck at the 21-shilling mark.

‡ Over the course of their 6 active months, the pair went from asking 8 guineas to asking 12 guineas; apparently 9 was the negotiated price with St Bartholemew’s.

§ The Burkers are the subject of the song “The Resurrectionist” by the Pet Shop Boys. (Lyrics)

§§ Edinburgh also had trouble as far back as 1742, when several surgeons’ homes were attacked by locals; a local beadle suspected of the crimes also had his home, dubbed resurrectionist hall, burned during the mob incident.

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1550: The leaders of the Prayer Book Rebellion

Add comment January 27th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1550, the leaders of England’s Prayer Book Rebellion were hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn.

When Henry VIII dropped dead in 1547 and pitched his contentious realm and dubious progeny into the mid-Tudor crisis, Henry’s old theological henchman Thomas Cranmer really got to work.

During the unsteady regency of Henry’s sickly heir, Cranmer would push frenetically to make the religious reformation that his former boss never completely backed. The Archbishop sent to the continent for Protestant theologians like Peter Martyr who could help him “do away with doctrinal controversies and establish an entire system of true doctrine.”

The piece de resistance of Cranmer’s project was his Book of Common Prayer — a reformed liturgy, and in English, to go with the new English Bible. Many centuries — and revisions — later, it’s still the basis of Anglican services and of rites in many other Protestant denominations.

In 1549, it debuted to decidedly mixed reviews.

Enforced by Parliament’s Act of Uniformity, the Book of Common Prayer replaced all Latin liturgies on Whitsunday 1549, and for many of England’s Catholics, it was one affront too many. (The country’s outright revolt, heavy with suppressed Cornish nationalism.

We, the Cornishmen, whereof certain of us understand no English, utterly refuse this new English.

Religion, theology, the liturgy, the text of the Scripture … these were things that early modern Europeans were ready to fight and die for.

Yet the most problematic demand made by the men of Cornwall was probably not for the dead tongue of Latin, but for a partial reversal of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Since this considerable plunder of Church wealth had been widely redistributed to the English gentry, talk about repossessing it really emptied the pews of potential allies.

At any rate, neither Latin nor monastic restoration would be provided as carrots; London under Lord Protector Edward Seymour instead put down the rising with the more customary stick.

After the bloody Battle of Clyst Heath and the conclusive Battle of Sampford Courtenay, English troops rounded up and summarily executed survivors and sympathizers.

Such principals as remained were reserved a more awful fate: drawing and quartering at Tyburn. These seem to be the chaps who endured it:

  • Henry Bray, Mayor of Bodmin
  • Landowner and military leader Humphrey Arundell
  • Landowner John Wynslade
  • Thomas Holmes
  • John Bury

Bill Ind, Anglican Bishop of Truro, made news in 2007 acknowledging “that the English government behaved brutally and stupidly” in crushing the rebellion.

The Book of Common Prayer was never translated into Cornish, a circumstance sometimes credited with speeding the tongue‘s demise.


A stone commemorates the Prayer Book Rebellion at Penryn. (cc) image from Drewhound

* Petitioning:

We wyll haue the masse in Latten, as was before.

We wyll haue the Sacrament hang Oller the hyeghe aulter, and there to be worshypped as it was wount to be, and they whiche will not thereto consent, we wyll haue them dye lyke heretykes against the Holy Catholyque fayth.

We wyll haue . . . images to be set vp again in euery church, and all other auncient olde Ceremonyes vsed heretofore, by our mother the holy Church.

We wyll not receyue the newe seruyce because it is but lyke a Christmas game, but we wyll haue oure old seruice of Mattens, masse, Euensong and procession in Latten as it was before.

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1891: Ramon Lopez, a Spaniard, aged 38 years

Add comment January 26th, 2011 Headsman

“Escaped the Rope”

Los Angeles Time, Oct. 21, 1890

SANTA BARBARA, Oct. 20 — [By the Associated Press.] Mary Dezirello, aged 22 years, was shot and instantly killed this morning at 10 o’clock by Ramon Lopez, a Spaniard, aged 38 years. Lopez has been bothering the girl with his attentions for some time past, and had made threats of violence against her, declaring that if she did not marry him she should not marry anyone.

This morning he called at her father’s residence and called her out to the gate. He wanted to make up with her. She refused to have anything to do with him, when he pulled a big Colt’s revolver and shot her through the body. She died almost instantly. Lopez then shot twice at himself, without effect, and then walked away.

Shortly afterwards an officer came up and went toward Lopez’s house, which is in the same block. Lopez fired three shots at the officer without effect and was then arrested and locked up. Threats of lynching were so strongly made that this afternoon the murderer was taken to Ventura for safe keeping.


“Bound to Hang Him”

Los Angeles Times, Oct. 22, 1890

SANTA BARBARA, Oct. 21 — [By the Associated Press.] A vigilance committee was formed here yesterday to avenge the death of Mary Dezirello, the young girl who was murdered early yesterday morning by Ramon Lopez, because she refused to accept the latter’s attentions. The prisoner was taken to Ventura during the afternoon, but the committee did not believe this and last night over one hundred men visited the County Jail and demanded that Lopez be delivered to them.

The keys were given to the leader and the jail and courthouse searched, but the murdered [sic] was not found. The feeling against Lopez is at fever heat, and it is reported that members of the Vigilance Committee have sworn to hang him. The officers in Ventura feared that the crowd would go there to take the prisoner, and this morning Lopez and Edwardo Espinosa, another Santa Barbara murderer, were placed on a train at Ventura and taken to Los Angeles for safe-keeping.

It is reported here tonight that the mother of the murdered girl is dying on account of the tragedy, and that her father is nearly crazed.


“Last Day on Earth”

Los Angeles Times, Jan. 26, 1891

SANTA BARBARA (Cal.) Jan. 25 — [Special.] This was the last day for Ramon Lopez on this terrestrial sphere. Tomorrow, at some time between the hours of 10 and 3, he will be hanged in the jail-yard here for the murder of pretty Mary Dezirello in October last. Everything is in readiness and the rope has been thoroughly tested. He has spent much of the day in company with a priest.

Sheriff Broughton opened the gates to the jail-yard yesterday and today, and hundreds availed themselves of the opportunity to see a scaffold ready for the hangman. There is considerable suppressed excitement over the event. Lopez eats heartily and is cool and quiet. Several peace officers from adjoining counties are already in the city for the purpose of witnessing the execution.

“Only One Hitch; An Artistic Execution at the Channel City”

Los Angeles Times, Jan. 27, 1891

SANTA BARBARA, Jan. 26 — [Special.] Another life has been snuffed out in obedience to the mandates of the law. Ramon E. Lopez was executed on the gallows here today by the Sheriff of this county in a most expeditious and faultless manner. People who have witnessed a large number of executions say that they never saw anything of the kind so perfectly accomplished.

The sentence of Lopez said that he should be hanged by the neck until dead some time between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. of today. Sheriff Broughton had not given out what would be the exact time of the hanging. By 10 o’clock, however, a large number of curious people, including a few women, were on the grounds, some of whom, of course, held permits which were to admit the bearers of the jail yard. About this time it was rumored around that the execution would be at 11 o’clock.

THE FAVORED FEW.

At 10:30 o’clock the gate to the jail inclosure was opened, and the ticket-holders were allowed to pass in one at a time, but before they were permitted to pass under the canvas where the scaffold was erected, each one was required to sign his name in a large blank book, which was kept near the entrance. About one hundred and fifty names were registered in this manner in this manner, which constituted probably three-fourths of those who witnessed the execution. At 10:57 o’clock Sheriff Broughton ascended the platform, and, addressing the crowd below, said: “Gentlemen, I think that a proper respect for the prisoner requires that you should all remove your hats and cease smoking when he comes upon the platform. Please do so from that time until the execution is over.”

THE PRISONER’S APPEARANCE.

The speaker then went down the steps and entered the jail, but reappeared almost immediately afterward, accompanied by the prisoner, two deputies and a Catholic priest. The condemned man was dressed in black, wore a plain black tie and carried aloft a large Roman cross. While crossing the yard to the scaffold the priest read aloud in Spanish an invocation from a small book. Lopez walked with a firm, deliberate tread across the grounds and up the steps. A general murmur went through the crowd of “How cool he is!” “What nerve!”

CONFESSED TO THE PRIEST.

The priest then stepped to the edge of the platform, and, looking down upon the heads below, said in broken English: “This man has confessed to me that he is guilty of the crime for which he is about to be hanged; he says that he deserves the punishment, and wishes me to ask all whom he may have offended, to forgive him; he is ready.”

Lopez’s arms and legs were then tied securely by the deputies. In about one minute the black cap was placed over his head, followed immediately by the fatal rope, and at 11:05 Sheriff Broughton pressed the pedal to the platform with his right foot, the trap door was free, and the condemned

SHOT LIKE AN ARROW

through the aperture beneath him, a distance of six and a half feet, and there he remained suspended for fifteen minutes, during which time not one tremor or convulsion of any kind was discernable. His neck had been dislocated by the fall, and he moved not a muscle.

The body vibrated very slightly but did not turn round, and remained exactly was when it dropped. This was considered very remarkable by the crowd. The knot, which had been placed under the left ear, by some means slipped around almost under the center of the chin.

THE BODY CUT DOWN.

At the end of the time mentioned the corpse was lowered into a coffin and was taken away by a local undertaker. Two physicians took turns testing the heart’s action and one of them reported to the Sheriff that “the prisoner is dead” at the end of the fifteenth minute.

The condemned man uttered not a word during the ordeal of the final preparations. Immediately after he ascended the platform the town clock struck eleven times. Lopez soon after turned his face to the south and upward, and seemed for a moment to

GAZE FULL UPON THE SUN,

which shone in uninterrupted rays upon him. This was his only voluntary act while on the platform, except kissing the cross, which the priest placed to his lips. The rest of the time he stood perfectly still with his eyes closed, and was apparently the most composed man on the platform.


“The Crime and Criminal”

Los Angeles Times, Jan. 27, 1891

SANTA BARBARA, Jan. 26 — [Special.] For days and days almost the sole topic of conversation here among all classes has been the forthcoming execution of Ramon E. Lopez. This was partly the result of the extraordinary nature of his crime, for which he has suffered death, and partly from the fact that it is the first legal execution ever held in the county. During these days of discussion the condemned man has occupied a small cell upstairs in the county jail, under the eyes of the “death watch,” pacing up and down in his small room or lying stretched out on his cot, conversing with the attendants or an occasional visitor, or playing on his favorite instrument — the guitar.

RESIGNED TO HIS FATE.

He was a small, compactly built Spaniard with a typical Castilian face and a very large head which required a 7 1/2 hat. When seen by your correspondent a few days ago he was perfectly calm and collected, and seemed everyway resigned to his impending fate. He was asked if he had any statement for the public, but answered in the negative and added: “The poor girl I loved so well, is gone to her long home; I shall soon go too. I am ready; there is nothing more to be said.”

I learn that Lopez was a man of considerable intellectual attainments, being especially well versed in the history of his own and contemporary nations. He was a natural mechanic of unusual skill. He had worked at the blacksmith’s trade, but of late years was principally engaged in repairing complicated machinery, including watches and clocks. He was born and raised in this city and was 38 years of age. He has relatives in Los Angeles, Ventura and San Jose.

LOPEZ’S CRIME.

The murder he committed was among the most atrocious and inexcusable known to the annals of crime. About 8 o’clock in the morning of October 20, last, he called at the home of his victim in one of the principal residence streets of this city, summoned her to his side, and without even the pretext of a personal quarrel, shot her down on the spot. She was his sweetheart, and they had been engaged to be married. Her parents were opposed to the match and she felt compelled to break off the engagement, and for this she lost her life! Her name was Mary Dezirello, and she was young, beautiful, and accomplished.

WANTED TO LYNCH HIM.

The reading public will probably remember the frantic attempts of a mob which came near lynching the murderer, and of his being spirited away by the officers to Ventura, and later to Los Angeles, in order to save his neck. He remained in the Los Angeles County Jail for a month and was then returned to this city. He was tried in December last and promptly convicted of murder in the first degree, the jury occupying only twenty minutes in finding a verdict.

ANOTHER VICTIM.

But this was not his only crime. He killed Henry Heldt in Los Angeles in 1883, in a row at a dance, and got three years at San Quentin for manslaughter, but was pardoned out a few years since by Gov. Stoneman. Lopez has not been guilty of any of the smaller vices so common to murderers. On the contrary, he has generally led a quiet, peaceable and industrious life, but has always been known to possess an ungovernable temper.

THE SOLACE OF RELIGION.

During the last few days of his life he was under the almost constant tutorage of his father confessor. His prison life has otherwise been quiet and uneventful. A few Christian ladies did, occasionally, visit him and pray and sing in his presence. He was always attentive and respectful to them, and generally asked them to return again. There has been a notable lack of that sickly sentimentality in his case so often displayed by the morbid and curious. It may be worth while to state that after the murder, and before he left the spot, Lopez fired two shots over his own head as if to take his own life; but he seems to have exercised considerable caution in doing so, since neither of the shots took effect.

A STRANGE ADVERTISEMENT.

A few days before the killing this extraordinary notice appeared over Lopez’s signature in one of the local papers:

All those desiring to marry a certain girl might be on the lookout, as their steps, manners and customs will be made known through the press next week in a historical point of view.

This was no doubt meant for a threat against any gentleman who might sue for the girl’s hand in marriage.

THE INSTRUMENT OF DEATH.

The scaffold, which was erected in a corner of the jail yard, has been ready since Friday last, and has been viewed by hundreds of people who were admitted to the premises by the Sheriff. The framework and platform of this scaffold was made in San Bernardino several years ago and its first service was in the case of the murderer McDowell, about the year 1883. Since that time it has done yeoman’s service in “removing” Silvas and Martinez in Los Angeles. It was also got in readiness to add dramatic effect to the taking off of one [Fritz] Anschlag, but that accomplished butcher chose his own method of quitting the earth, and cheated this useful instrument. It was shipped here from Los Angeles several days ago, and althrough it looks a little scarred and weather-beaten, seems sufficient for much substantial service in behalf of good society yet.

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1911: Sugako Kanno, radical feminist

Add comment January 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1911, Japanese anarchist writer Sugako (“Suga”) Kanno was executed for the High Treason Incident — the only woman ever hanged for treason in Japan.

Radicalized by suffering rape in her teens, Kanno was known for her discomfiting engagement with Japan’s unsettled “woman question.”

More to the point, she was one of the handful of the treason trial subjects who was directly involved in the actual plot to assassinate the emperor. (Her diaries are full of anguish for those tried with her who were merely guiltly by association.)

Kanno is often subsumed in retrospective accounts by Shusui Kotoku, the more famous male anarchist who was also her lover.

But Kanno was also one of her country’s first female journalists, first notable feminists … a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction, and a radical intellectual in her own right.

Her voluminous diaries in the run-up to her hanging are reprinted in Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan.

[E]ven among anarchists I was among the more radical thinkers [she told her interrogators]. When I was imprisoned in June 1908 in connection with the Red Flag incident I was outraged at the brutal behavior of the police. I concluded that a peaceful propagation of our principles could not be conducted under these circumstances. It was necessary to arouse the people’s awareness by staging riots or a revolution or by undertaking assassinations … Emperor Mutsuhito, compared with other emperors in history, seems to be popular with the people and is a good individual. Although I feel sorry for him personally, he is, as emperor, the chief person responsible for the exploitation of the people economically. Politically he is at the root of all the crimes being committed, and intellectually he is the fundamental cause of superstitious belief. A person in such a position, I concluded, must be killed.

Succinct. Little wonder she admired Russian assassin Sophia Perovskaya … and that she shared Perovskaya’s fate.

She mounted the scaffold escorted by guards on both sides. Her face was covered quickly by a white cloth … She was then ordered to sit upright on the floor. Two thin cords were placed around her neck. The floor-board was removed. In twelve minutes she was dead.

-newspaper account

Sugako Kanno is profiled more extensively in Treacherous Women of Imperial Japan: Patriarchal Fictions, Patricidal Fantasies.

She was back in the news in 2010 when a long-hidden secret message of hers surfaced, corroborating the orthodox historical take that while Kanno was up to her eyeballs in a real plot to murder the emperor, Shusui Kotoku was not part of it.

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1911: Shusui Kotoku and ten other anarchists

4 comments January 24th, 2011 Headsman

A century ago today, eleven Japanese anarchists were hanged for plotting the assassination of the Emperor.

Radical journalist Shusui Kotoku challenged Meiji Japan from the insurrectionary anarchist left.

A socialist early on — he helped translate The Communist Manifesto into Japanese — Kotoku turned towards anarchism when he read Kropotkin while serving time for opposing the Russo-Japanese War. He “had gone [to jail] as a Marxian Socialist,” he said, “and returned as a radical Anarchist.”

After his release, and a trip to America which had just birthed the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, Kotoku returned to Japan as his nation’s patriarch of anarchism.*

All of this, naturally, drew a Sarah Palin-sized targetsurveyors’ symbol on Kotoku’s back.

So, when police uncovered an apparent plot by other radicals to off Emperor Meiji, and opportunistically used it to sweep up as fellow-travelers a nationwide “conspiracy” of twenty-plus alleged plotters, Kotoku was naturally one of the bad apples they were pleased to indict.**

The twelve ultimately doomed to death were slated to receive their judicially appointed sanctions on this occasion, just six days after conviction. (The rest of the anarchist movement was harshly suppressed in the years ahead.)

Among the most noteworthy of these Japanese Saccos and Vanzettis:

The first eleven (all men) took so long that the twelfth doomed soul, Suga Kanno — Kotoku’s lover and a genuine bomb-plot participant, who enjoys the distinction of being the only woman her country ever hanged for treason — had her execution put off to the 25th for want of daylight.

Though he’s never been officially [judicially] exonerated, Kotoku’s native Nakamura voted in 2000 to declare his rehabilitation. A secret letter that surfaced only in 2010 appears to support that position.

* Shusui Kotoku in turn greatly influenced Chinese anarchism.

Some of Kotoku’s writing is available online in Japanese here.

** George Elison translated a Kotoku Shusui letter denying any interest in the anarchist assassination racket. It appears as “Discussion of Violent Revolution, From a Jail Cell,” in the Vol. 22, No. 3/4 (1967) Monumenta Nipponica.

How is the anarchist revolution to be brought about if not by bomb-throwing attempts upon the life of the sovereign? The Japanese word for “revolution” — kakumei — is Chinese in origin. In China, the term was used to describe the process in which the emperor of dynasty A, receiving the Mandate of Heaven, replaced the emperor of dynasty B; so it signified mainly the change of emperors, the change of sovereigns. Our “revolution” has quite a different meaning. We do not place much value upon the mere transfer of power between potentates; we do not use the word “revolution” except to mean a fundamental change in the governmental system and in the organization of society.

… they who for the sake of universal peace and liberty participate in this revolution must endeavor as best they can to avoid violence, to avoid producing victims to the revolution. For it seems that the great revolutions of the past were accompanied by much violence and required a great number of victims … I only hope for the disappearance of the misconception that the anarchist revolution has as its objective the assassination of the sovereign …

the prosecution and the examiners first put the title “Violent Revolution” to what I had said and contrived the stern-sounding phrase “death-defying band,” with other similar phrases. And I believe they condemned us under this syllogism: “The anarchist revolution is concerned with the destruction of the Imperial Family. But Kotoku’s plan was to carry out a revolution by violence. Therefore, all who were party to this plot planned to commit the crime of High Treason.” So the fact that these people used to discuss such things as direct action and the revolutionary movement has now served to get them into trouble! This I deeply regret.

On the other hand, Kotoku openly celebrated the assassination of Ito Hirobumi by a Korean nationalist.

Part of the Daily Double: The High Treason Incident.

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1996: Richard Townes, Jr.

Add comment January 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1996, the executioners of Richard Townes, Jr., mucked about for 22 minutes looking for a vein before sticking the lethal injection needle into his foot. (Source)

The Vietnam veteran’s last words were murmured to the prison warden, an assertion of innocence in the execution-style murder of convenience store worker Virginia Goebel in 1985.

He didn’t have a lot of takers; even the de rigueur anti-death penalty protesters outside the prison were reportedly nowhere to be found.

Townes’s clemency push turned on a once common issue now largely passe: his trial jurors were concerned that the alternative “life” sentence might put the killer back on the street before his dotage. The panel asked the judge to clarify the matter, and in 1985, the judge wasn’t allowed to answer the question — even though the real answer was a reassuring “life means life.” In most jurisdictions, jurors are now entitled to know that information.

Once they got off the jury and found out the answer, two of Townes’s jurors regretted the death sentence sufficiently to sign affidavits opposing Townes’s execution.

“I would not have sentenced Mr. Townes to death had I known that a life sentence meant that he would have really served a life sentence and not been eligible for parole,” juror Ethel Keith said in an affidavit. “In fact, I do not believe any of the jurors would have sentenced him to die under those circumstances.” (Virginian-Pilot, Jan. 23, 1996)

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1952: Yosef Basri and Shalom Salah, Jewish bombers?

Add comment January 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1952, Iraq hanged Yosef Basri and Shalom Salah for an alleged Zionist bombing campaign in Baghdad.

The most remarkable thing about this campaign is that it was perpetrated against Iraq’s Jews — and if these men’s conviction was rightly secured, it was conducted by other Jews for the purpose of driving those Iraqi Jews to emigrate to the still-tenuous new state of Israel.

As the 1940’s closed, well over 100,000 Jews lived in Iraq, a populace legendarily* dating to the Biblical Babylonian exile.

While this community had at certain moments in centuries past been the very flower of the diaspora, it was justifiably nervous here in the perilous 20th century.

In 1950-51, the Iraqi government offered its Jewish citizens an emigration window from a homeland tense with anti-Jewish hostility — at the same time the Israeli government was practically begging them to come. (The cost: give up Iraqi citizenship permanently. Iraq seems to have expected only a few thousand to depart.)

Against the grain of this “monstrous” mutuality of interest stood the natural obstacles for any emigre: affection for the familiarity of one’s native lands, the trauma and uncertainty of uprooting … plus the specific problem that most stood to lose their illiquid wealth either by hasty firesale disposal or (as eventually happened) outright confiscation. Particularly pending clarity in property remuneration, many Iraqi Jews were initially wary about departing.

Iraqi Jews also dismayed Zionist recruiters with their “lack [of] a Zionist outlook and even a Zionist instinct.”**

But these stick-in-the-Mesopotamians would soon receive some explosive encouragement: a headline-grabbing series of attacks on Jews and Jewish establishments during the emigration window encouraged thousands to seize the moment.

“The pace of registration for the citizenship waiver was slow in the beginning, but it increased as tensions rose between Jews and their neighbors and after acts of terror were perpetrated against Jewish businesses and institutions – especially the Mas’uda Shem-Tov Synagogue [bombed January 14, 1951]”

-Sasson Somekh, Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew

Israel historian Benny Morris summarizes the situation in this Q&A from 2009:

Iraqi Jews being airlifted to Israel.

Ultimately, Israel’s Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, named for two Old Testament prophets who led the Biblical Israelites out of bondage, relocated virtually the whole of Iraqi Jewry to Israel — more than 120,000 people. Today, virtually no Iraqi Jews remain.

Morris’s conclusion that Israeli intelligence did not engineer the bombing campaign that so spectacularly served its statecraft is the subject of vociferous dispute. It’s also, perhaps, a bit finely cut: a handful of zealots in the local Zionist underground, sensitive to the local sentiment and keen on the urgency of the brief denaturalization opportunity, might have undertaken the project freelance without actual straight-from-Jerusalem coordination.

Amazingly, this notion that some species of Zionist agents bombed Iraqi synagogues (pdf) in the interests of the Levant’s demographic future was commonly believed not only by Iraqi Arabs but by emigre Iraqi Jews themselves. Their suspicions can hardly have been allayed when a similar misadventure went down in Egypt a couple years later.

The inevitable dispute over the factual question can’t help but roll over into everything else that’s disputatious about the Zionist Entity.

Like, to pick just one, can Iraq and other Arab states be said to have ethnically cleansed their Jewish populations in the same sense that Zionist militias ethnically cleansed Palestine?

An account already exists between us and the Arab world: the account of the compensation that accrues to the Arabs who left the territory of Israel and abandoned their property … The act that has now been perpetrated by the Kingdom of Iraq … forces us to link the two accounts . . . We will take into account the value of the Jewish property that has been frozen in Iraq when calculating the compensation that we have undertaken to pay the Arabs who abandoned property in Israel.

-Moshe Sharett, Israeli Foreign Minister, March 1951**

This sort of opportunistic ethnic arithmetic obviously loses its limited suasion to the extent that Jews can be held to have driven Jews out of Iraq — which is not to say that goring this or that ox is necessarily the reason for any one scholar’s taking this or that position.

One might, however, be less inclined to extend that benefit of the doubt to the Kingdom of Iraq itself. That realm was very pleased to point the finger at its absconding Jewry.

Our Zionist cadres, Yosef Basri and Shalom Salah, were hanged by that Iraqi Entity for three grenade attacks in the bombing series. Basri repudiated his confession in court, plausibly claiming it had been tortured out of him. (A third Jew was also convicted but not executed: Yehuda Tajar is the man Morris refers to, who returned to Israel after spending the Fifties imprisoned in Iraq.)

“Long live the state of Israel,” were their last words.

But not all “beneficiaries” of their alleged efforts shared the sentiment.

“That is God’s revenge on the movement that brought us to such depths,” one Iraqi Jewish refugee in the Holy Land reportedly exclaimed.**

Just where guilt really lies in all of this has been contested (pdf) ever since, a matter that mere hooded functionaries such as your author can hardly address with authority.

Jews Done It …
… They Never Did

* Not necessarily literally; the Mongol invasions are supposed to have broken the cultural chain of Jewish habitation of Babylon, with the city re-populated later by other Jewish migrants not of a lineal connection back to Nebuchadnezzar‘s conquests.

** Quoted by Yehouda Shenhav in “The Jews of Iraq, Zionist Ideology, and the Property of the Palestinian Refugees of 1948: An Anomaly of National Accounting,” International Journal of Middle East Studies (Nov., 1999)

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1943: Hemu Kalani, Sindh revolutionary

1 comment January 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1943, the British hanged India independence activist Hemu Kalani in Sukkur for attempting to sabotage a rail line.

You could say the Sindh youth was not cowed by the Empire’s suppression of the Quit India movement.

“In the face of this shameful capitulation of the ‘left’ leaders,” he raged of respectable pols prepared to accept office at the pleasure of the British during wholesale confinement of political prisoners, “what should the rank and file ‘leftists’ do?”

It is only by waging unremitting struggle against capitulation in every form, by fighting against dissolution of their own organizations, that they can seriously fight to attain the goal. Intransigent opposition to every capitulationist masquerading as a ‘leftist’!

As the British rounded up the Quit India leadership, less conciliatory young people like Kalani came to the fore (pdf) and then were further radicalized by British intransigence.

If you’re going to lock up Mr. Nonviolence himself, Mahatma Gandhi, you’re going to get to deal instead with the elements he keeps in check. That was certainly Gandhi’s argument: he refused to condemn violence, observing that the British themselves had called it up.

Mass protests gave way to more aggressive direct action; in Kalani’s case, that meant derailing a train bringing ammunition to the European forces occupying his native province.

Caught in the act, he refused under torture to shop his comrade, earning a hemp necktie from the occupiers and the tribute of posterity on the subcontinent.

Somewhat ironically, the relative intransigence of Quit India supporters during this period, as compared with the Muslim League‘s greater support for Britain’s immediate World War II exigencies, helped to cleave apart Pakistan and India when independence did come in the late 1940s … which is why the Hindu Kalani is most honored in India, even though his native soil is now in Pakistan.

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250: Pope St. Fabian

Add comment January 20th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 250 is the feast day and traditional martyrdom date for Pope (and Saint) Fabian(us).

“They say,” quoth ecclesiastical historian Eusebius, “that Fabianus having come, after the death of Anteros, with others from the country, was staying at Rome, and that while there he was chosen to the office through a most wonderful manifestation of divine and heavenly grace.”

For when all the brethren had assembled to select by vote him who should succeed to the episcopate of the church, several renowned and honorable men were in the minds of many, but Fabianus, although present, was in the mind of none. But they relate that suddenly a dove flying down lighted on his head, resembling the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Saviour in the form of a dove.

Thereupon all the people, as if moved by one Divine Spirit, with all eagerness and unanimity cried out that he was worthy, and without delay they took him and placed him upon the episcopal seat.

Fabian seems to have been a competent administrator and had the luxury of occupying St. Peter‘s throne during the lull in persecutions under the Roman Emperor Philip the Arab. If you like the highly speculative hypothesis that Philip was not merely sympathetic to Christians but actually a Christian himself,* then Pope Fabian is probably the guy who baptized him.

But uneasy is the head that wears the crown, and never more so than during Rome’s Third Century Crisis.

In due time, the ambitious Senator Decius toppled Philip, and implemented loyalty oathssacrifices to Roman’s pagan divinities.

Sacrifices, or else.

Fabian paid the piper for those years on easy street with Philip by refusing to make the requisite sacrifices and delivering himself to a demonstrative** martyrdom in January 250. A Greek epitaph — “Fabian, bishop and martyr” — has been discovered in the catacombs.

With the surly Decius hovering around to lop off the next Roman head bold enough to submit to a bishop’s cap, the papacy stood vacant for more than a year before (with Decius out of town on campaign — for good, as it turned out) said papacy made up for lost time when it was claimed by two men set at loggerheads by the persecutions themselves: the little-known caretaker Cornelius (the Church’s official successor) and Novatian (the schismatic antipope).

The always recommended History of Rome podcast deals with this period in episode 110.

* If Philip the Arab was Christian, then he would displace Constantine the Great as the realm’s first Christian ruler; the faithful might regard the transfer of that distinction as a downgrade.

** Edward Gibbon, much less impressed than the Church with Decius’s severity, notes that

[t]he martyrs, devoted to immediate execution by the Roman magistrates, appear to have been selected from the most opposite extremes. They were either bishops and presbyters, the persons the most distinguished among the Christians by their rank and influence, and whose example might strike terror into the whole sect; or else they were the meanest and most abject among them, particularly those of the servile condition, whose lives were esteemed of little value …

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1866: Martha Grinder, the Pittsburgh Borgia

Add comment January 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1866, serial killer Martha Grinder was hanged in Pittsburgh for a poisoning spree.

The “Pittsburgh poisoner” or — we think rather more colorfully — the “Pittsburgh Borgia” — was supposed to suffer from the 19th century’s favorite mental illness, the now-passe “monomania”, which means overwhelming fixation on some single thing or idea.

The idea? Murder.

The national press was captivated by this woman, “the Lucretia Borgia of that day — a woman who, under the guise of helping her sick neighbors, without apparent motive, poisoned them.”

While killers may be nothing new, and even female killers not exactly unheard-of, it was that absence of any object — love, greed, vengeance, anything — save killing itself that moved the papers: one monomania, feeding on another.

According to The Penalty Is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women’s Executions, the Pittsburgh press saluted her as “wretched torturer,” “a demon embodied,” “fiendish”; her arrest caused the Philadelphia Inquirer (Aug. 30, 1865: fresh from the gallows expiation of a national catastrophe) to bemoan “a saturnalia of crime … passing over the land.”

One particular neighbor, Mary Caruthers, was poisoned over a period of weeks by her neighbor and apparent caretaker — just the gender role betrayal to really freak out the 19th century. (The court played along: at one point, it admonished the many women attending for their un-feminine interest in this public trial. No indication that it admonished the Pittsburgh Post for its daily trial dispatches.)

This one murder conviction is why Grinder swung, but by that time she had been conclusively hanged in the public mind as a veritable Tofana.

Martha Grinder did eventually confess (pdf) to Caruthers’s murder and to another, but denied any others; papers postulated a total death toll of at least several more who died under Grinder’s nursing “care.” This strikes one as the sort of circumstantial evidence that could be marshaled against anyone in a caregiving position, especially in an environment of dubious forensic technique, and might prove amenable to liberal adoption by newspapermen free from the burden of proof but fettered to the “Borgia” appellation.

On the other hand, and even though the confession came only on the very eve of hanging, our condemned might be thought incentivized by the executive pardon system to own enough guilt to demonstrate contrition without admitting so much as to undercut any possible sympathy. What has one got to lose, right? If that was her game, she didn’t win it.

“Quite prostrated” by her imminent doom, Grinder was reported to have ground away her final days in an opiate haze, but she composed herself sufficiently for an unexpectedly calm performance on the scaffold.


Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 1866.

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