Posts filed under 'Execution'

1541: Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham, the Queen’s lovers

2 comments December 10th, 2009 Headsman

Indictment:

That Katharine, queen of England, formerly called Kath. Howerd, late of Lambyth, Surr., one of the daughters of lord Edmund Howard, before the marriage between the King and her, led an abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous, and vicious life, like a common harlot, with divers persons, as with Francis Derham of Lambeth and Hen. Manak [Manox] of Streteham, Surr., 20 and 24 May 32 Hen. VIII., and at other times, maintaining however the outward appearance of chastity and honesty. That she led the King by word and gesture to love her and (he believing her to be pure and chaste and free from other matrimonial yoke) arrogantly coupled herself with him in marriage. And the said Queen and Francis, being charged by divers of the King’s Council with their vicious life, could not deny it, but excused themselves by alleging that they were contracted to each other before the marriage with the King;* which contract at the time of the marriage they falsely and traitorously concealed** from the King, to the peril of the King and of his children to be begotten by her and the damage of the whole realm. And after the marriage, the said Queen and Francis, intending to renew their vicious life, 25 Aug. 33 Hen. VIII., at Pomfret, and at other times and places, practised that the said Francis should be retained in the Queen’s service; and the Queen, at Pomfret, 27 Aug. 33 Hen. VIII., did so retain the said Francis, and had him in notable favour above others, and, in her secret chamber and other suspect places, spoke with him and committed secret affairs to him both by word and writing, and for the fulfilling of their wicked and traitorous purpose, gave him divers gifts and sums of money on the 27 Aug. and at other times.

Also the said Queen, not satisfied with her vicious life aforesaid, on the 29 Aug. 33 Hen. VIII., at Pomfret, and at other times and places before and after, with Thos. Culpeper,† late of London, one of the gentlemen of the King’s privy chamber, falsely and traitorously held illicit meeting and conference to incite the said Culpeper to have carnal intercourse with her; and insinuated to him that she loved him above the King and all others. Similarly the said Culpeper incited the Queen. And the better and more secretly to pursue their carnal life they retained Jane lady Rochford, late wife of Sir Geo. Boleyn late lord Rochford, as a go-between to contrive meetings in the Queen’s stole chamber and other suspect places; and so the said Jane falsely and traitorously aided and abetted them.

On this date in 1540, Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham paid the penalty for their indiscretions; the former queen would see her lovers’ severed heads mounted on pikestaffs on London Bridge as she was rowed to the Tower.

The onetime court favorite Culpeper was beheaded for cuckolding the royal person, and that’s no more than one would expect. But the political pull-less Dereham — who had slept with (and possibly “pre-contracted” to wed) the willing young Kate before she meant anything to the king — enjoyed the full measure of the traitor’s torture: hanged, emasculated, eviscerated, and dismembered, all of it basically for having failed to anticipate that his little conquest would one day grow up to turn the monarch’s head.

What a time to be alive.

* Catherine Howard’s confessional letter to Henry VIII … desperately attempting to limit her indiscretions to the time before her marriage:

I, your Grace’s most sorrowful subject and most vile wretch in the world, not worthy to make any recommendation unto your most excellent Majesty, do only make my most humble submission and confession of my faults. And where no cause of mercy is given on my part, yet of your most accustomed mercy extended unto all other men undeserverd, most humbly on my hands and knees do desire one particle thereof to be extended unto me, although of all other creatures I am most unworthy either to be called your wife or subject.

My sorrow I can by no writing express, nevertheless I trust your most benign nature will have some respect unto my youth, my ignorance, my frailness, my humble confession of my faults, and plain declaration of the same, referring me wholly unto Your Grace’s pity and mercy. First, at the flattering and fair persuasions of Manox, being but a young girl, I suffered him a sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of my body which neither became me with honesty to permit, nor him to require. Also, Francis Derehem by many persuasions procured me to his vicious purpose, and obtained first to lie upon my bed with his doublet and hose, and after within the bed, and finally he lay with me naked, and used me in such sort as a man doth his wife, many and sundry times, and our company ended almost a year before the King’s Magesty was married to my Lady Anne of Cleves and continued not past one quarter of a year, or a little above.

Now the whole truth being declared unto Your Majesty, I most humbly beseech you to consider the subtle persuasions of young men and the ignorance and frailness of young women. I was so desirous to be taken unto your Grace’s favor, and so blinded by with the desire of worldly glory that I could not, nor had grace to consider how great a fault it was to conceal my former faults from your Majesty, considering that I intended ever during my life to be faithful and true unto your Majesty ever after. Nevertheless, the sorrow of mine offenses was ever before mine eyes, considering the infinite goodness of your Majesty toward me from time to time ever increasing and not diminishing. Now, I refer the judgment of my offenses with my life and death wholly unto your most benign and merciful Grace, to be considered by no justice of your Majesty’s laws but only by your infinite goodness, pity, compassion and mercy, without which I acknowledge myself worthy of the most extreme punishment.

** Early the next year, parliament declared, “to avoid doubts in future” — read: “retroactively legislated” — that “an unchaste woman marrying the King shall be guilty of high treason.” This also made anyone who knew about said unchastity guilty of (at least) misprision of treason for failing to report it.

Surviving letter from Howard to Culpeper:

Master Culpeper,

I heartily recommend me unto you, praying you to send me word how that you do. It was showed me that you was sick, the which thing troubled me very much till such time that I hear from you praying you to send me word how that you do, for I never longed so much for a thing as I do to see you and to speak with you, the which I trust shall be shortly now. That which doth comfortly me very much when I think of it, and when I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company. It my trust is always in you that you will be as you have promised me, and in that hope I trust upon still, praying you that you will come when my Lady Rochford is here for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment, thanking you for that you have promised me to be so good unto that poor fellow my man which is one of the griefs that I do feel to depart from him for then I do know no one that I dare trust to send to you, and therefore I pray you take him to be with you that I may sometime hear from you one thing. I pray you to give me a horse for my man for I had much ado to get one and therefore I pray send me one by him and in so doing I am as I said afor, and thus I take my leave of you, trusting to see you shortly again and I would you was with me now that you might see what pain I take in writing to you.

Yours as long as life endures,
Katheryn.

One thing I had forgotten and that is to instruct my man to tarry here with me still for he says whatsomever you bid him he will do it.

Though this letter is far from conclusively inculpatory, Culpeper confessed that he “intended and meant to do ill with the queen and that in like wise the queen so minded to do with him.”

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2007: Seven Tuareg and Arab civilians

Add comment December 9th, 2009 Headsman

On this date two years ago, seven civilians were apparently summarily executed by Niger security forces in that country’s long-running internal conflict with its Tuareg population.

Extrajudicial executions have been a recurring event (among the other usual charms of warfare) in Niger’s fight against the Mouvement des Nigériens pour la Justice (MNJ).

Amnesty International charged that these were among 13 civilians executed in a four-week span, possibly in retaliation for MNJ armed attacks.

A close relative of one of the dead told Amnesty International: “We were waiting for our relatives in Agadez when we saw their vehicles arrive driven by soldiers. We asked them where our relatives were. They refused to answer and then, as we insisted, they agreed to drive us to the place where the seven were buried.”

The people who identified the bodies said that they saw numerous signs on the victims of cigarette burns and whipping as well as many bullet wounds to the face and chest.

The nomadic Tuareg people of Niger’s (and neighboring Mali’s) northern Sahara territories have a long-running history of rebellion against the southerly federal government stretching back into the colonial period. (There’s a very detailed pdf paper on the subject here.)

These executions, which also swept up Arab businessmen, were part of the most recent (as of this writing) incarnation, a 2007-2009 campaign that seems ostensibly to have boiled down for now.

But the lucrative, contentious, and damaging (to the Tuareg) uranium mining industry that fuels the conflict (and that put Niger in the American news for the Bush administration’s duplicitous attempt to impute nuclear ambitions to Iraq in order to justify invading) still remains … and that fact seems to promise more bloodshed yet to come.

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1982: Suriname’s “December murders”

6 comments December 8th, 2009 Headsman

This was the date in 1982 of the “December murders” (“Decembermoorden”), when 15 opponents of Suriname’s military dictatorship were shot at Fort Zeelandia.

(The 15 people shot each have an entry on the Dutch Wikipedia, accessible through its Decembermoorden entry.)

Though the killings weren’t secret at the time, their circumstances have always been murky, beyond the plain fact of being murders of political dissidents — “counterrevolutionaries,” in the parlance of the “Socialist Republic”.

President Desi Bouterse had seized power in a coup in early 1980, and some of the casualties this day might have been suspected of plotting to pull the same trick on him: at least, several were made to read statements to that effect. Others were regime opponents of a less existential menace: dissident university professors; critical journalists; a prominent former footballer. (When in Paramaribo, take in a match at Andre Kamperveen Stadion, which is named for him.)


Andre Kamperveen.

Bouterse took political responsibility for the slaughter while claiming not to have ordered it. But it’s long been said that Bouterse was actually present for the shootings, personally interviewing/interrogating/”judging” the prisoners. (That’s what the massacre’s lone survivor, the since-deceased Fred Derby, said. (Dutch link))

Decades later, Bouterse — now an ex-dictator — is finally facing trial for the December murders, including fresh evidence of his involvement in the day’s notorious affair.

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1549: Robert Kett, rebelling against enclosures

4 comments December 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1549, Robert Kett (sometimes “Ket” or “Kette”) was hanged over the side of Norwich Castle for an eponymous rebellion.

Reviews here and here.

Possibly England’s last medieval peasant rising, and possibly its first modern revolt, Kett’s Rebellion pitted the agrarian feudal commons against the proto-capitalist world taking shape.

A 15th century of relative prosperity for the English peasant had given way to a decades-long process (centuries-long, really) of enclosure.

Impelled by the profitable wool export business, landlords began “enclosing” formerly open arable land for pasture, thereby destroying the communal and quasi-communal agricultural models of the middle ages.

Karl Marx

For Marx, among many others, this revolution in agricultural production — and the attendant proletarianization of the former peasantry — marks the dawn of the capitalist epoch, when

great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and “unattached” proletarians on the labour-market. The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process …

Although, therefore, the English land, after the Norman Conquest, was distributed in gigantic baronies, one of which often included some 900 of the old Anglo-Saxon lordships, it was bestrewn with small peasant properties, only here and there interspersed with great seignorial domains. Such conditions, together with the prosperity of the towns so characteristic of the 15th century, allowed of that wealth of the people which Chancellor Fortescue so eloquently paints in his “Laudes legum Angliae;” but it excluded the possibility of capitalistic wealth.

The prelude of the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production, was played in the last third of the 15th, and the first decade of the 16th century. A mass of free proletarians was hurled on the labour-market by the breaking-up of the bands of feudal retainers, who, as Sir James Steuart well says, “everywhere uselessly filled house and castle.” … In insolent conflict with king and parliament, the great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter had the same feudal right as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufactures, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to these evictions. The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers. Transformation of arable land into sheep-walks was, therefore, its cry … As Thornton rightly has it, the English working-class was precipitated without any transition from its golden into its iron age. (Capital, volume I, chapters 26-27)

It did not suffer its precipitation quietly.

Thomas More

Enclosures were a predominant social problem in England throughout the century, and if contemporaries could hardly descry the shape of the economic revolution taking shape, they worriedly noticed the poverty, the vagabondage, and the depopulated villages.

In Utopia, Thomas More upbraids a country where

your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the abbots! not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them. As if forests and parks had swallowed up too little of the land, those worthy countrymen turn the best inhabited places into solitudes; for when an insatiable wretch, who is a plague to his country, resolves to enclose many thousand acres of ground, the owners, as well as tenants, are turned out of their possessions by trick or by main force, or, being wearied out by ill usage, they are forced to sell them; by which means those miserable people, both men and women, married and unmarried, old and young, with their poor but numerous families (since country business requires many hands), are all forced to change their seats, not knowing whither to go; and they must sell, almost for nothing, their household stuff

Commissions studied enclosure; edicts forbade and reversed them; commentators denounced them — all to no effect.

Robert Kett

Robert Kett, from a larger painting (click to see it) by Samuel Wale.

Henrician England had plenty of violent social transformation on its plate, of course, and plenty of violent tools to manage it. When the philandering tyrant kicked the bucket in 1547, he left the unfolding social catastrophe to the weakened protectorate government of his sickly nine-year-old heir.

In East Anglia in the summer of 1549, a peasant riot against an enclosure caught a spark. Unexpectedly, when the mob moved to throw down the enclosures put up by Robert Kett (another small landowner), he committed himself to the peasant cause and ably steered the rebellion for six heady weeks.

Kett was the man for his time and place: proving a natural leader, he marshaled the inchoate rage of his countrymen into an orderly, disciplined force.

Kett’s peasant army marched on Norwich, and stunningly captured England’s second city, thereupon petitioning the crown upon a variety of economic grievances (the petition is available on Wikipedia).

And Kett meant business, as this fiery (perhaps slightly fatalistic) oration suggests; he well knew that he had committed his own person to glory or destruction.

Now are ye overtopped and trodden down by gentlemen, and put out of possibility ever to recover foot. Rivers of riches ran into the coffers of your landlords, while you are pair’d to the quick, and fed upon pease and oats like beasts. You are fleeced by these landlords for their private benefit, and as well kept under by the public burdens of State wherein while the richer sort favour themselves, ye are gnawn to the very bones. You tyrannous masters often implead, arrest, and cast you into prison, so that they may the more terrify and torture you in your minds, and wind our necks more surely under their arms. And then they palliate these pillories with the fair pretence of law and authority! Fine workmen, I warrant you, are this law and authority, who can do their dealings so closely that men can only discover them for your undoing. Harmless counsels are fit for tame fools; for you who have already stirred there is no hope but in adventuring boldly.

Alas, like the enclosures themselves, the matter was to be resolved against the peasantry by main force. [bits and bobs on the daily progress of skirmishes and battles in this pdf] Though the rebels actually defeated the first force sent against them, they were decisively beaten at Dussindale on Aug. 27.

“We were promised ynoughe and more then ynoughe. But the more was an hawlter.”*

Promises of clemency induced the survivors to surrender peacably; though wholesale punitive bloodletting seems not to have been imposed, the leaders, of course, had to be made an example of.

Robert Kett and his brother, William, were convicted of treason and hanged.

Smoothly leveraging his dispatch in handling the rebellion, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, overturned the national political leadership of the Lord Protector the Duke of Somerset, who was accused of having triggered the rising with an excess of sympathy for the dispossessed peasant class. (Both Somerset and Northumberland would end up on the chopping block themselves.)

* Quote from a survivor of the rebellion, cited by Diarmaid MacCulloch in “Kett’s Rebellion in Context,” Past & Present, No. 84 (Aug., 1979).

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1823: Dr. Edme Castaing, the first to kill with morphine

1 comment December 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1823, French physician Edme Castaing expiated upon the scaffold history’s first conviction for murder with morphine.

The good doc used the drug, a new twist on an ancient remedy only recently brought to market, apparently to poison off one of two wealthy brothers with the connivance of the other wealthy brother, the latter of whom stood in danger of being disinherited.

And then, the beneficiary of that crime wrote a will of his own to the profit of the poisoner.

Do not try this at home.

Castaing, naturally, poisoned off the other brother, too, and relieved some considerable financial distress along with, one must think, the burdensome company of a complete dullard.

The science of toxicology,” however, “was not greatly advanced at this time, and … the above conclusion was based on presumption rather than fact.”

While today, such a case might be ripped from CSI, in 1823 it entailed an uncertain trial with varying (and wrong) medical testimony and a circumstantial trail of witnesses drawing flailing rebuttals from the accused that ran towards the unconvincing and the contradictory. (Follow the twists and turns from a contemporary chronicle here.)

Quite convicted in the public eye (a verdict history has had little cause to revisit), Castaing was judicially acquitted of the murder of Hippolyte Ballet, and doomed by the barest 7-5 majority verdict for the second Ballet boy. The London Times complained in its report of the execution (printed Dec. 9, 1823), that

[t]he faculty speak in very harsh and unmeasured terms of Dr. Pellatan, who neither described with care and accuracy, what he himself observed on opening of the body of Ballet, nor gave them the means of forming an opinion themselves, by bringing to Paris the intestines of the deceased. The physicians join the rest of the world in ascribing Ballet’s death to substances administered by Castaing, but they regret that criminal justice could not, owing to the neglicence or ignorance of Pellatan, obtain more satisfactory proofs of the crime. Beyond his own confessions, contradictions, and admissions, there was confessedly no ground to convict him.

A few years later, Victor Hugo (we keep meeting him here) had the title character in “The Last Day of a Condemned Man” occupying Castaing’s former cell, and evidently thought the matter possessed sufficient notoriety to name-check the headless poisoner decades afterwards in Les Miserables.

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1950: Werner Gladow, teen Capone

1 comment December 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1950, 19-year-old gangster Werner Gladow was beheaded in East Germany for his brief but scintillating criminal career terrorizing the postwar ruins of Berlin.

Werner Gladow

Young Gladow (German link) was just young enough not to get drafted as cannon-meat for the Red Army at the end of World War II, and just old enough to forge his own way as a crimelord when his conscripted dad returned from a Russian prison camp and started whaling on the family.

Evidently, the boy had charisma to burn.

Gladow soon gathered to his service a couple dozen young people doing a brisk business in black marketeering, stickup robberies, and kindred underworld phenomena, very soon to include homicide. He was a quintessential creature of the war-ravaged (but not yet wall-divided) capital, ducking between the city’s uncoordinated, rival jurisdictions for refuge.* The Gladow-bande‘s typical m.o. was a robbery in West Berlin, followed by flight to their base in the east.

There’s an interesting literature around Werner Gladow, who seems in his day to have epitomized to elders that eternal fear of the degenerate youth culture. His generation’s conception of youthful rebellion was warped by the World War it had survived, and the occupation it lived under. According to John Borneman,

Stealing had become a routinized, everyday activity; for the parents, it was a source of guilt, for the children, it was neither work nor play, but pleasure … Their economic activity led to increased autonomy and self-esteem. Adult attempts to discipline the children with a now-discredited moral authority, enforced by local civilian police or foreign occupation troops, were unlikely to have much success.

A sort of “freedom of the road,” in the old highwayman‘s sense.

Gladow, in turn, found his inspiration for this freedom in pop culture inputs like gangland movies (he’d make it to celluloid himself). Self-consciously self-styled after Chicago mobster Al Capone and resolved to become “an American-style gangster,”** Gladow would exude to a court psychologist “a psychopathological drive for freedom and unboundedness.”

Taking a Cut

Former Berlin executioner and Gladow accessory Gustav Voelpel (Ministry of Silly Masks department) served time, as did Voelpel’s wife Martha.

If our young Capone wanted a preview of his short life’s final destination, he had it readily at hand in the person of supposed assistant Berlin executioner Gustav Voelpel.

Voelpel claimed to have taken off a mere 30 heads from 1945 to 1949, a drastic falloff in business from the good old Hitler days, and

At 1,000 marks a head, I can scarcely make both ends meet.

So, he too turned to crime, with both an independent portfolio (he was nicked for robbing a woman with his mask for a disguise) and as an informant/tipster for the Gladow gang. Voelpel, papers reported,

preferred to use the axe in his executions as the guillotine was likely to jam after the second or third victim, whereas he never missed with an axe.

And Werner Gladow ought to have asked him about that, too.

German Engineering

We mentioned that Gladow’s base was in East Berlin.

Unfortunately for Gladow, this meant that when he was finally tracked down at his apartment just after his 18th birthday — his 48-year-old mother was with him, firing from the windows — he enjoyed the rough justice of the Russian administration, married to the political exigencies of using the “youth amok” trope as a club to beat the West with.

East and West German officials, like authorities in the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, grew increasingly worried about the impact that American movies, jazz, and boogie-woogie had on German youth … East German authorities made highly publicized efforts to exploit hostilities toward American culture that existed in East and West Germany. During the 1950 trial of Werner Gladow, whose gang had engaged in a crime spree across East and West Berlin … officials and the press linked American culture directly to juvenile delinquency and political deviance.

-Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany

Setting a stern example for future ne’er-do-wells, Gladow was beheaded in Frankfurt an der Oder† on the fallbeil, the German guillotine (literally “falling axe”).

According to the German Wikipedia account, the fallbeil actually failed to kill Werner Gladow the first time, and had to be re-dropped two more times. Wikipedia has the blade grotesquely lodging in the prisoner’s neck (non-fatally; he started screaming), which must have indicated some problem with the motion or lubrication of the mechanism that prevented its falling at speed, and/or an appallingly blunt blade.

Gladow’s prosecutor, present to witness the festivities, fainted dead away. Unlike Gladow, he was alive again the next morning.

* More here.

** Gladow’s own words as quoted in a press report of his trial in the Chicago Daily Tribune, March 25, 1950.

† Far to the east, near the Polish border; not to be confused with the western metropolis Frankfurt am Main.

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1689: Karposh, Macedonian rebel

Add comment December 4th, 2009 Headsman

On an uncertain date in early December (or possibly late November), the Macedonian* rebel Karposh was executed at Skopje.

The Great Turkish War had seen the Ottomans advance to the gates of Vienna, but an alliance of European powers pushed the Mohammedan back.

Their crisscrossing armies roiled the Balkans, creating the opportunity for a bit of ill-fated separatism.

Arambasha [a title, not a name] Karposh raised a native Macedonian rebellion (detailed account of it here) that waxed and waned with the fortunes of the Austrian army. In his brief heyday, he was acclaimed “Prince of Kumanovo“.

But a November 1689 counteroffensive seriously harshed that vibe; the Turks overran his force and drug Karposh back to Skopje where he and a couple hundred fellow Macedonian captives are said to have been put to death by impalement on the lovely Stone Bridge over the Vardar. (Other versions of this story cite, less picturesquely, hanging.)

You can still see this landmark today in Skopje … capital of the now-independent Macedonia.

* Lest I wade carelessly into the Balkan ethnic crossfire, I hasten to declaim that “Macedonian” here refers to the geographic environs roughly coincident with the present-day Republic of Macedonia. No representation as to the man’s ethnicity or his project is intended, or attempted.

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1876: The samurai leaders of the Hagi and Akizuki rebellions

4 comments December 3rd, 2009 Headsman

Unless you’re a Jedi knight, feudal warrior castes and industrial civilization go together like sashimi and fries. So, when the Meiji Restoration made its choice for Japanese modernization, it gained the enmity of the samurai it necessarily dispossessed.

A news nishiki-e woodblock depicting the defeat of the Hagi Rebellion, with the conquering Miura Goro on horseback. (Click for a wider, three-panel image.) From here.

In many cases, said samurai were especially burned at having initially backed the restoration’s restoration of the emperor and attendant jingoistic sloganeering, only to find themselves on the outs as soon as the new government got its feet under it.

Over the 1870′s, the samurai caste was essentially abolished, and it lost its sword-toting privileges along with (come the advent of a new conscript army) its military import.

Small wonder that once-haughty military folk fought this unwelcome progress katana and wakizashi.

In 1876, the Shimpuren Rebellion helped spark sympathetic retrograde uprisings both named for their locations, Akizuki and Hagi. In all of these, the aggrieved samurai made desperate bids to reassert their lost position and reverse Japan’s westernization.

In all of these, they failed.

Leaders of both the Akizuki and Hagi Rebellions — Wikipedia gives it as two from the former (Masuda Shizukata and Imamura Hyakuhachiro) and seven from the latter (notably Maebara Issei) — were beheaded together this date in Fukuoka.

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1938: Robert Lee Cannon and Albert Kessell, the first gassed in California

5 comments December 2nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1938, California debuted the latest in killing technology when its brand new gas chamber consumed Robert Lee Cannon and Albert Kessel for the previous year’s riot in Folsom Prison.


Folsom Prison.

Already near 15 years in service in Nevada and previously mammal-tested in the Golden State, the gas chamber made California’s gallows a thing of the past.

First up were five convicts in three installments: Cannon and Kessel on Friday, Dec. 2; Wesley Eudy and Fred Barnes the following Friday, Dec. 9; and Ed Davis by his lonesome on Dec. 16. (The gas chamber only seated two at a time, and had to be aired out for hours after completing an execution.)

They were the five survivors of a bloody rising at Folsom in September 1937 that had killed Warden Clarence Larkin, plus a prison guard and two inmates. And they earned thereby the distinction of being blogged about in the 21st century as Californian pioneers.

Though the gas chamber’s maiden run doesn’t appear to have experienced what we might call an actual botch (a later article would report that they “stoically shuddered to their deaths”), the unfamiliar procedure made plenty of witnesses queasy. According to the Dec. 3, 1938 Los Angeles Times,

Prison attendants, used to watching men die, said the exhibition sickened them. It led almost immediately to a movement to have the new law repealed and hanging reinstuted as the method of capital punishment in this State.

The Times‘ “Daily Mirror” history blog helpfully provides several of the eyewitness reactions (along with ancient newsprint pictures of the condemned).

Kessell’s death was visibly unpleasant. He “appeared to be trying to hold his breath. He was rigid and his hands gripped the arms of his chair as the gas hit him. He gasped: ‘It’s bad!’” Cannon’s seems to have been less so.

But the real source of spectator revulsion was the audience’s aesthetic experience — in this case, of excessively prolonged and intimate proximity to the dying men.

What several witnesses said made today’s executions so terrible was the fact that the condemned men were not masked or blindfolded and that it took so long,* from the time they entered the chamber to be strapped into the chairs until they were pronounced dead.

The movement to restore the gallows never got, er, off the ground; California kept gassing condemned men and women into the 1990′s, when it switched to lethal injection.

Killed in San Quentin for crimes in Folsom? Here’s the mandatory Johnny Cash callout.

* A couple of minutes to strap down, and another 16 minutes from the start of the execution until death was pronounced. This same newspaper article said hangings clocked in at under 15 minutes for the entire procedure.

Everything is relative, of course. Renowned British hangman Albert Pierrepoint had to conduct a few executions for the U.S. military, and he found the American hanging ritual to be intolerably prolonged and personal compared to his baseline assumption.

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1945: Anton Dostler, gone commando

6 comments December 1st, 2009 Headsman

On December 1, 1945, German General Anton Dostler was shot by the American military at Aversa, Italy, for war crimes.

Gen. Dostler readied for execution, from the U.S. National Archives. Click for larger image, or click here for the post-execution photo.

Specifically, General Dostler was condemned for having ordered the summary execution of American saboteurs who had been taken behind enemy lines.* Dostler was the first German general tried by an American military commission, and the first put to death for war crimes.

And his sentence did not sit well with all.

There had been a group of German saboteurs captured in the United States during the war who had themselves been executed (after becoming the subject of Supreme Court landmark Ex parte Quirin). Here, a mirroring act on the German side brought a death sentence for its (supposed) author.

Dostler’s scenario therefore raised interesting questions of war crimes law, jurisdiction … and politics.

The essential legal difference between the German saboteurs and the OSS men shot at La Spezia was that the latter were found to have been taken in uniform. If uniformed, they were entitled to prisoner of war status; if not, then a summary execution might have been (however repugnant) permissible.

It seems to be generally agreed, and even conceded by Dostler’s defense, that the saboteurs were indeed in uniform, though the notes of the trial are rather vague on the point; there’s an intriguing indication that the defense disputed the notion that the captive saboteurs’ uniform had the necessary “fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance.” (Time said that “they wore no insignia, had turned their field jackets inside out.”)

In a do-over, Dostler’s defense might have dug very deep into what met the Geneva Convention’s definition of a uniform.**

For the Germans, however, the saboteurs’ fate was decided by Hitler’s notorious Commando Order, inflicting immediate death on any enemy personnel (uniformed or not) captured behind German lines.†

Understandably, then, Dostler’s counsel seems to have been much more interested in pursuing the “superior orders” defense, and did so with gusto: in this early landmark trial, it was an as-yet untested strategem even though the Allied Powers had decided as a matter of policy not to protect potential war criminals on that basis. Not only was the Führerbefehl at work in general, but Dostler had kicked this specific decision upstairs to the office of Gen. Albert Kesselring, which had insisted upon the executions (to the point of directly phoning the fortress which held the Americans to ask why they weren’t dead yet).

Dostler defense attorney Col. Claudius Wolfe appeared to strike a chord with the tribunal’s career military officers in his closing summation, impressing upon them the danger to military order or to their own persons of establishing a precedent that subordinates can be held accountable for illegal orders from above.‡

We won the war this time, but no one knows who will win the next time. We might lose and then you gentlemen might find yourselves sitting where this man is now sitting…

If we find this man guilty because of political pressure or because he lost the war and is in our power, we might as well not have won the war. (New York Times, Oct. 12, 1945)

But a more immediate precedent was at stake: the many imminent war crimes trials including the Nuremberg proceedings. Many of those would never get off the ground if a “superior orders” plea could work for someone as high-ranking as a general — or if the first war crimes trial out of the gate resulted in an acquittal.

A son of one of Dostler’s defense team makes a hotly-stated case for the general here; some factual errors (e.g., the “Roosevelt administration”) detract from the piece, but his recollection of the backstage machinations as related by his father are fascinating if true.

Video of Dostler’s execution is available, in its original silent cut.

* A description of the attempted operation, with helpful maps, is here (pdf). Coincidental — but perhaps informative for the Third Reich’s decision-making apparatus — was the fact that the La Spezia saboteurs were captured on March 24, 1944, the very same date as a reprisal mass execution in Rome for a partisan attack the day before that had claimed 33 Germans.

** Here (pdf) is a review of the current legal terrain around the “uniform” issue, significantly shaped by World War II. Executive summary: commanders should give awfully wide latitude to hostiles wearing less-than-standard uniform unless said hostiles are clearly using their wardrobe as a ploy to get the drop on your guys.

† Actually, the text of the Commando order directed that enemy “commandos” should without quarter “be exterminated to the last man, either in combat or in pursuit” (a “no quarter” order being illegal itself, but not relevant here); but, that those who somehow managed to be captured should be handed over to the SS. German officers seem to have understood, probably accurately, that the high command simply wanted them dead and wasn’t fussy about distinguishing the circumstances. Dostler’s guys (per the Oct. 13, 1945 London Times) contended that Hitler’s citation in the Führerbefehl of Allied atrocities made the German policy in reality a Geneva Convention-legal reprisal order.

‡ A German officer down the chain of command, Alexander zu Dohna-Schlobitten, actually refused to sign the execution order for the Americans because — yes — the order violated the Geneva Conventions. The Wehrmacht sacked him, but did not prosecute him, for his scruples.

Part of the Daily Double: Lesser War Criminals.

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