Posts filed under 'Execution'

1864: Ranger A.C. Willis, parabolically

1 comment October 13th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1864, Confederate ranger A.C. Willis — whose Christian name is given as Albert or Absalom — was captured in Rappahannock County, Virginia and summarily, spectacularly hanged.

The context was the increasingly dirty war in Virginia against Confederate guerrilla John Mosby, whose rangers were severely hampering Union operations in Virginia. The northern army had resorted to less than genteel expedients with the previous month’s summary execution of a half-dozen (actual or suspected) Mosby’s Rangers.

On this date, they did it again.

According to Custer and the Front Royal Executions of 1864:

[Col. William] Powell’s men had first tied the rope they used to hang Willis with to the top of a young sapling, which was then bent nearly double. When it was released, it shot Willis skyward in an abrupt, strangled flight. Powell was jubilant about the execution he had ordered. Powell stated in his report: “I wish it distinctly understood by the Rebel authorities that if two to one is not sufficient I will increase it to 22 to one, and leave the consequences in the hands of my Government.”

We don’t have a picture of this jubilation-worthy execution, but we’ll make do with the picture in our heads.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,No Formal Charge,Soldiers,Summary Executions,U.S. Military,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions

1943: Willi Graf, anti-Nazi medic

1 comment October 12th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1943, anti-Nazi student activist Willi Graf was beheaded at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison.

Graf was a conscientious Catholic whose disaffinity for Naziism manifested in an early refusal to join the Hitler Youth: he did a short stint in prison in 1938 for having continued associating with a banned Catholic youth league.

This subversive fellow might have been destined for the chop regardless in the black years to come, but for a thoroughgoing radicalization, he was drafted into the army as a medic and got a front-row seat on the Holocaust and the horrors of the eastern front.

During a 1942 study leave back in Munich, Graf met White Rose resistance figures Hans and Sophie Scholl and began participating in that circle’s distribution of illicit anti-Nazi leaflets.

He was arrested within months and condemned on April 19, 1943 to die as a traitor — though actual execution of the sentence waited several months on the Gestapo’s vain exertions to extract from their prey actionable information on other collaborators.

A number of schools around Germany are named in Graf’s honor.

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1878: Bill Longley, gunslinger

2 comments October 11th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1878, “gunfighter” Bill Longley was hanged for murder in Giddings, Texas.

This flim-flam man was an anti-hero of the Wild West, a near-exact caricature of everything disreputable about his milieu. Remorselessly homicidal, virulently racist, and pathologically unfaithful to any bond of honor or friendship: “an idle boaster, a notorious liar and a man of low instinct and habits,” in the estimation of an officer of the army cavalry regiment from which Longley deserted.

And he was a relentless self-promoter pleased to exaggerate both the quantity and the valor of his sixguns’ conquests.

Longley’s end at the end of a rope — for murdering his childhood friend in solidarity with some uncle’s ill-founded grudge — makes a fittingly puerile end to a repulsive career, and not least because Longley’s family later circulated rumors* that Longley had connived with his executioners to escape the noose and been spirited away under a false name.

Recent DNA testing proved that story false, but most of the Longley mythos is regrettably forensic-proof.

The outlaw himself was his own Homer, perhaps consciously playing catch-up with the legendary bandits already afoot in the land.** It’s certainly the case that he was a wanted killer, and a renowned marksman. Upon these gifts, Longley spun preposterous tales of his exploits in 1860s-70s Texas: being shot out of a noose at an attempted lynching;† slaughtering men and women (particularly blacks: his favored prey) in bunches; riding with the Cullen Baker gang; killing people in fair fights and not for their money.

“His hot temper, his fondness for liquor, and unsettled conditions during reconstruction led him to become one of the most daring gunslingers of his day,” is how a Texas state grave marker reckons him, with a warmth the Lone Star State does not reserve for its present-day “daring gunslingers.” No doubt “unsettled conditions” have been involved in many of those crime sprees as well.

Anyway, such of Longley’s record that can be substantiated better resembles a string of ambushes and uncomplicated murders, perpetrated to start with against freedmen during Reconstruction (Longley’s first known killing was of an uppity former slave in 1867, during a highway stickup), and then almost willy-nilly for plunder, race hatred, or personal pique against defenseless targets misfortunate enough to cross his path. His most “romantic” exploit was over a love rivalry … not a Capulet-and-Montague affray, but the killer bursting in on the reverend father of the girl who frustrated his designs, and wasting him with a shotgun.‡ (His actual rival got off with a pistol-whipping.)

Longley’s last arrest in 1877 removed him from these pursuits long enough to burden the local Giddings Tribune (and anybody else who would listen) with a steady supply of letters trumpeting his ferocity … and as his fate became apparent, his eventual treacly and apparently sincere contrition. “My first step was disobedience; next whisky drinking; next, carrying pistols; next, gambling, and then murder, and I suppose the next step will be the gallows.” The classic fall and redemption story.

After an escape attempt and a foiled scheme to bribe the guards, Longley gamely took his redemption in a botched hanging that dropped him so far that his feet reached the ground. The executioners had to muscle the rope back up into the air and keep it there for 11 minutes to get him where he could choke to death.

There’s an excellent HistoryNet article describing “Bloody Bill” Longley’s times and crimes in great detail here. There’s a wee genealogy, including the interesting tidbit that Longley’s father helped bury the dead of Goliad, here.

* Apparent cause of the rumor: the mom couldn’t deal with Longley’s wicked character and dishonorable death, so the family deceived her, even forging letters from “Bill Longley”.

** Most particularly, John Wesley Hardin. Longley eagerly claimed responsibility for killings that might not even have happened, in an apparent attempt to top Hardin’s body count (27 or 28) with his own (allegedly, 32). Just prior to his execution, influenced by redemption or hope for clemency or whatever, Longley downgraded his career notch count to “only” eight.

† This most famous and fantastic of all Longley’s “exploits” seems to be sourced to nobody but Longley himself; notwithstanding that prima facie credibility deficit, it’s still retailed as fact on a number of online Longley bios.

‡ This last episode was among the crimes of Longley’s last three years’ liberty that might have been prevented had not the Lone Star State refused in 1874 to honor a reward posted on the outlaw by that carpetbaggers’ Reconstruction regime. Un-paid, Longley’s captors simply turned him loose instead. That’s federalism at its finest.

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1707: Johann Patkul, schemer

Add comment October 10th, 2011 Headsman

On ths date (N.S.) in 1707, Livonian nobleman Johann Patkul was broken on the wheel at Kazimierz Biskupi, Poland for a decade’s treasonable scheming against the Swedish crown.

Livonia — essentially present-day Latvia, plus a chunk of Estonia — was at this time a part of the Swedish Empire in the latter’s twilight as a world power.

Financially pinched after the protracted and bloody but indecisive Scanian War, the Swedish king Charles XI imposed his great reduction — a heavy tax on the landed aristocracy allowing the crown to reclaim as its own any property that it had held formerly and granted out. There was a lot of such land mortgaged out generations before to raise capital for the Thirty Years War. War giveth, war taketh away. Hands up everyone who feels bad for the nobility.

Of course, all the 17th century nobles felt bad for the nobility.

Johann Patkul was the young — maybe too young — man deputized by Livonian bluebloods to go complain about it to Charles. When sharp but respectful eloquence predictably failed to obtain his ends, he dropped the “respectful” part — and for this lese majeste had to bug out of Sweden with an in absentia death sentence at his heels.

Having failed to obtain pardon from the offended monarch or from his heir Charles XII, Patkul just decided to change teams full stop. You could call this treachery (Charles XII did) but this is an age before nationalism. What was the Swedish royal house to a Latvian noble if he could get a better deal elsewhere?

“Elsewhere” for Johann Patkul meant Polish-Lithuanian king Augustus the Strong, and/or Russian tsar Peter the Great. Our refugee aristocrat spent the 1700s conducting vigorous behind-the-scenes shuttle diplomacy to engineer an alliance against his former masters and carve their respective pounds of flesh out of Sweden. Patkul himself, of course, would get a healthy bite from Livonia for his trouble.

In this campaign Patkul was merely an “unhappy instrument” (as a British correspondent quoted here put it): the antagonists in question had ample reason of their own for this statecraft; had they not, some itinerant conspirator pining for a lost manor could scarcely have conjured it.

But Patkul was a useful instrument: energetic, discreet, willful, and so he could surely claim some ownership of the product. Think of him as the convenient enabler — the Ahmed Chalabi of the Great Northern War that tore apart the Baltic environs for the first two decades of the 18th century.

It was rather fitting, then, that Patkul was devoured by his offspring when Sweden forced a peace upon Poland that resulted in Patkul’s being handed over to the Swedish authorities. The man’s extradition was specified by name in the treaty.

Patkul’s brutal execution inflamed some outside opinion against the Swedes (which presumably mattered not a whit to the progress of hostilities); a purported account of his execution-eve conversation with his confessor is given in this extremely sympathetic English pamphlet.

Though it’s safe to say that Patkul didn’t get what he wanted — let’s guess that the public shattering of his bones prior to a protracted death by exposure was towards the “worst case scenario” end of the calculus — the Great Northern War did indeed loose Livonia from the Swedish yoke … in favor, instead, of the Russian. Peter the Great accepted Livonia’s capitulation in 1710.

Mission accomplished.

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Feast Day of Saint Denis, cephalophore

Add comment October 9th, 2011 Headsman

October 9 marks the feast date of the early Christian martyr Saint Denis.

Guess how he died:


(cc) image from minifig of the saint’s statue at Notre Dame.

When this missionary bishop to Paris got the Roman chop* for his conversions sometime after 250, he scooped up his own severed noggin and carried it to his preferred burial spot.

Upon that eventual pilgrimage site would spring up a medieval basilica whose 12th century renovation turned it into a pioneer of Gothic architecture.

(Denis is also sort of the namesake for the Parisian hill Montmarte where he’s supposed to have been put to death: “mountain of Mars” in heathen times, it Christianized to mons martyrium, “Martyrs’ Mountain”.)

While many Christian martyrs carry the instruments of their martyrdom in iconography, and a few others roll with the bits of severed flesh exacted by those martyrdoms, Denis is only the most notable of an entire designated sub-class who carry their own heads: cephalophores.

This subject, seemingly tailor-made for a They Might Be Giants song, finally got one in 2011: “You Probably Get That A Lot”.


A most profane footnote was appended to our holy man’s legend during the French Revolution.

Journalist Camille Desmoulins once recklessly sneered of Robespierre‘s vain lieutenant Saint-Just, “He carries his head like a sacred host.”

Saint-Just is supposed to have retorted upon hearing the slight, “I’ll make him carry his like Saint Denis.” He did it, too.

* Two companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius, were doing the same conversions and suffered the same execution. Nobody named cathedrals after them.

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Unspecified date: British soldiers by urophagia

Add comment October 7th, 2011 Headsman

Today is the 10th anniversary of America’s post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan, two short decades after the Soviets tried the same thing with disastrous results.


Never get involved in a land war in Asia …

In honor of this impressive anniversary, we travel back in time and into the twilit frontier between fact and legend to another century’s intervention in that Graveyard of Empires — the Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1878-1880. Dr. Watson was there; maybe even his literary compatriot Sherlock Holmes, too.

It’s too bad we don’t have the services of those excellent detectives in this matter. We can’t date this particular method, or attribute any specific victim to it, or even substantiate the actuality of the practice to our liking (though there are several books by British soldiers of that war which traffick in the report). Frankly, everything about it smells. But we think you’ll agree that execution by urophagia is a story that needs to be told.

The following is an account from a biography of English officer and novelist John Masters. We’ll label it Mature Content both for what it describes and the manner of its description, just to make you really want to savor every word.

War for the Pathans [Pashtuns] was an honourable, exciting and manly exercise, in which each succeeding generation needed to prove itself, but war was also ruthless; no mercy was shown and none was expected. Neither side aimed to take prisoners. The Pathans customarily mutilated and then beheaded any wounded or dead who fell into their hands. Women often carried out these operations. A well-known torture was called the Thousand Cuts, whereby flesh woulds were newly made and grass and thorns pushed into them so that they would hurt horribly. A prisoner might be pegged out on the ground and his jaw forcibly opened with a stick so that he could not swallow, then women would urinate in his mouth until he drowned. Frank Baines, who served on the North-West Frontier and later with Masters in Burma, put it more crudely:* ‘If you got captured, you were not only killed in a lively and imaginative manner, you were carved up and quartered and had your cock cut off and stuffed in your mouth for good measure.’

-John Clay in John Masters: A Regimented Life

* Baines penned this memorable line for his book Officer Boy

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1999: Chen Chin-hsing, Taiwan’s most notorious criminal

5 comments October 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1999, Taiwan put to death a man who, as the Reuters story about his case led it, “shook public confidence in law and government with the kidnap-murder of a TV celebrity’s daughter and a string of subsequent gun battles, killings, rapes and a hostage drama.”

Dramatic enough for you?

This operatic crime spree was the work of three men, Chen Chin-hsing, Lin Chun-sheng, and Kao Tien-min.

They punched their ticket to popular infamy when they snatched 16-year-old schoolgirl Pai Hsiao-yen in New Taipei City on April 14, 1997.

Her family received terrifying photos of the girl stripped naked and bound, a severed pinkie finger, and a demand for $5 million U.S. And they were in a position to get it, because Pai’s mother was celebrity singer and TV personality Pai Ping-ping. (Alternatively: Bai Bing-bing.)

However, despite multiple attempts to drop the ransom, the kidnappers kept not showing up, and the captive, who’d been brutalized and raped during her captivity, was eventually murdered and dumped in a drainage ditch.

Pai Hsiao-yen’s murder not only captivated media but crystallized public backlash against politicians and police who showed as ineffective in the midst of a massive crime wave. It helped cave in the government of Taiwan’s first democratically elected president.

The criminals themselves magnified the case by drawing out the initial public horror into a seven-month drama as they eluded police manhunts. At one point, they forced a plastic surgeon at gunpoint to alter their appearances, then murdered him after he was finished.

Chen Chin-hsing was finally captured (after the other two had judiciously committed suicide when about to be apprehended) after a televised standoff wherein Chen gave self-valorizing media interviews while holding a South African ambassador’s family hostage.

All this made Chen a dead man, and few in the Republic of China much pitied the serial rapist and spree killer’s fate of taking a magazine of automatic rifle ammunition in the chest. (Several others in this dreadful affair also got non-capital sentences for various forms of aiding and abetting.)

It also made Pai Ping-ping into a tough-on-crime social activist. Taiwan’s death penalty has been in the news recently with the government’s admission that it executed an innocent man in an unrelated case. Pai vehemently opposes the resulting abolition efforts that other case has helped along; in 2010, she helped to break a 52-month death penalty moratorium and force a resumption in executions when she threatened to commit suicide if Taiwan went through with abolition. That would be operatic indeed.

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1816: Camilo Torres, Manuel Rodriguez, and other leaders of independent New Granada

Add comment October 5th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1816, Spain hanged the leaders of a breakaway former New World possession in a vain effort to maintain control of what is now Colombia.

The United Provinces of New Granada was la Patria Boba, the “foolish fatherland” of Colombia: a welter of rival provinces and municipalities which capitalized on the mother country’s fall to Napoleon to declare independence and immediately commence fratricidal civil war.

The United Provinces had leave of several years for this foolishness before the Peninsular War ended with the restoration of Ferdinand VII, who promptly dispatched a massive expedition under the notorious command of Pablo Morillo to bring these disobedient satellites to heel … and to hemp.

The gentlemen whose death-day we commemorate today were the ones at the seat of government when the music stopped playing. Those positions, and even the forms of government itself, had been regularly reshuffled in the Patria Boba as federalist and anti-federalist, republican and royalist, threw their respective weights (and armies) around.

Morillo, who is still infamous in Colombia for his cruelty, had the most weight of all.

As Morillo’s reconquista invaded the Provinces, Camilo Torres (English Wikipedia page | the much more detailed Spanish) resigned the presidency. Torres is best-remembered now as the author of the Memorial de Agravios (Spanish link; it translates as “Memorial of Grievances” or, more Office Space-ishly, “Memorandum of Grievances”).

This incendiary document prophetically insisted that

the union between America and Spain [rest on] the just and competent representation of its people, without any difference among its subjects that they do not have because of their laws, their customs, their origins, and their rights. Equality! The sacred right of equality. Justice is founded upon that principle and upon granting every one that which is his.

-Memorial de Agravios, as translated in The Independence of Spanish America, by Jaime Rodriguez

Stuff like this was liable to get you on Morillo’s enemies list political office or no; cowing — or killing — seditious intellectuals was part of his whole project.

Torres, his predecessor and vice president (same guy) Manuel Rodriguez, and several other ministers of state were nabbed together trying to make an escape to sea.

Morillo had them subjected to a snap trial, and Torres and Rodriguez were executed this date along with Pedro Felipe Valencia (Spanish link) and Jose Maria Davila; simultaneous property confiscation left the men’s survivors penniless. (Later, Simon Bolivar would personally support the widow Torres.)

Once hemp got through with the necks this day, old-fashioned blades did their redundant work: Torres’s head was hewed off and mounted in Bogota for public viewing.

It’s noteworthy that the author of this sort of nasty warning to the public would later sign his name opposite his New World antagonist Simon Bolivar in a Treaty of Armistice and Regularization of War (more Spanish) undertaking to stop murdering prisoners and non-combatants and fight only “as do civilized peoples” — one of the seminal documents in the development of human rights and the law of war.

Spanish speakers may appreciate this timeline site on the life and times of Camilo Torres.

* Torres, that Colombian Tom Paine, took some overt inspiration from the recent American Revolution, arguing that “to exclude the Americas from such representation … would forever alienate their desires for such a union.” After all,

If the English government had taken such an important step, perhaps today it would not rue the separation of its colonies. But a feeling of pride and a spirit of vanity and superiority led to the loss of those rich possessions.

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1843: Allen Mair, irate

1 comment October 4th, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1843, 84-year-old Allan Mair was hung in Stirling, Scotland.

He was condemned for the murder of his wife. Mair is notable not only for being the oldest person ever executed in Scotland, but also for his unusually long, bitter scaffold speech, as recorded in Alex Young’s book The Encyclopaedia of Scottish Executions 1750 to 1963.

The meenister o’ the paarish invented lees against me. Folks, yin an’ a, mind I’m nae murderer, and I say as a dyin’ man who is about to pass into the presence o’ his Goad. I was condemned by the lees o’ the meenister, by the injustice of the Sheriff and Fiscal, and perjury of the witnesses. I trust for their conduct that a’ thae parties shall be overta’en by the vengeance of Goad, and sent into everlasting damnation. I curse them with the curses in the Hunner an’ Ninth Psalm: “Set thou a wicked man o’er them” — an haud on thee, hangman, till I’m dune — “An’ let Satan stand at their richt haun. Let their days be few, let their children be faitherless, let their weans be continually vagabonds”; and I curse them a –

At this point, the executioner drew the bolt, but Allen wasn’t done raging against the dying of the light. The old fella got his hands free and grabbed the rope, delaying his strangulation; the slipshod executioner had to fight off his prey’s clutches to hang him.

There’s an original broadside from this execution here.

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1873: Kintpuash, aka Captain Jack

1 comment October 3rd, 2011 Headsman

It’s fitting, we think, to wrap up our long series on Americana with an entry from that realm’s first nations.

It was on this date 1873 that the Modoc leader Kintpuash, known as Captain Jack, was hanged with three comrades by United States forces after the Modoc War.

Reading from a familiar script, the encroaching whites had squeezed Modocs off their ancestral land and onto a reservation — in fact, the reservation of another, rival tribe. Jack led his people off that uncomfortable lodgings, bidding to return home in 1865 — only to be rounded up and re-confined.

A second attempt to break out would result in his execution.

When an actual fight broke out at the inevitable surrender negotiation, outright skirmishing ensued as everyone reached for their guns.

Jack’s forces broke away, now with the U.S. Army in earnest pursuit. They fell back to the rough volcanic terrain at present-day Lava Beds National Monument in northern California — and specifically to a defensible natural fortification that now bears Captain Jack’s name.


Modoc firing position within Captain Jack’s Stronghold. (cc) image courtesy of Eric Hodel.

From Captain Jack’s Stronghold, the Modoc held off a larger army assault.

Dee Brown relates the tragedy of the fruitless monthslong aftermath, of “peace” negotiations under a gathering siege, in the classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

[Indian Affairs superintendent Alfred] Meacham* replied that the Modocs could not stay in peace in the Lava Beds unless they gave up the men who committed the killings on Lost River …

“Who will try them?” Jack asked. “White men or Indians?”

“White men, of course,” Meacham admitted.

“Then will you give up the men who killed the Indian women and children on Lost River, to be tried by the Modocs?”

Meacham shook his head. “The Modoc law is dead; the white man’s law rules the country now; only one law lives at a time.”

“Will you try the men who fired on my people?” Jack continued. “By your own law?”

Meacham knew and Captain Jack knew that this could not be done. “The white man’s law rules the country,” the commissioner replied. “The Indian law is dead.”

You gotta look forward, not back.

In the Modoc camp, militants like Hooker Jim were gaining sway, and by disputing his leadership and even his manhood eventually persuaded/forced Captain Jack to ambush the U.S. general in charge during one of their interminable parleys.

Far from striking a decisive blow at the head of the enemy, this anathematized Captain Jack and triggered a massive, and this time successful, army incursion. Jack persisted on the run for a few months, but he was finally captured wih the help of Modoc turncoats — including that former radical Hooker Jim, who induced him to kill the general in the first place.

“You intend to buy your liberty and freedom by running me to earth and delivering me to the soldiers. You realize that life is sweet, but you did not think so when you forced me to promise that I would kill that man, [General] Canby … I thought we would stand side by side if we did fight, and die fighting. I see now I am the only one to forfeit … Oh, you bird-hearted men, you turned against me.”

-Jack to Hooker Jim

Captain Jack was hanged at Fort Klamath, Oregon after a perfunctory trial all in English, with no lawyer to plead their case. (And the gallows being built outside during the trial, to complete the scene.) The executed Modocs’ corpses were shipped back to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. (rumor had it that they appeared for a time as circus attractions), and only returned to the Modoc in 1984.

Update: Boyd Cothran explores the Modoc War and the skin-crawling trade in gallows trophies of the hanged Modocs in Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence. He discusses his work on a New Books in Native American Studies podcast here.


Image (c) Matthew T. Ravenhouk and used with permission.

* Meacham wrote a history of the Modoc War that’s available free online.

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