Posts filed under 'Beheaded'

1329: Alberghettino II Manfredi, upstart condottiero

Add comment November 18th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1329, Italian condottiero Alberghettino II Manfredi was beheaded in Bologna.

Fruit of the Manfredi family, the lords of Faenza. Posterity doesn’t know a tremendous amount about Alberghettino, but one can infer a certain state of mind from his actions. While dad ran Faenza, his brother Ricciardo was on the condottiero cursus honorum as the temporary captain of nearby Imola.

In the mid-1320s, Alberghettino got his Fredo Corleone on by allying with the lord of Forli, a Faenza rival, in a treasonable (not to say Freudian) plot to supplant his father’s position.

He enjoyed a temporary run of the place from 1327-28 but was ousted by papal troops.

Forced to retire to Bologna, he returned immediately to conspiring with an attempt to make Bologna’s first man L-o-u-i-s, as in the Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig IV — at that moment barging about the Italic peninsula setting up antipopes.

That plot, too, failed. After that, on top of all his other woes, Alberghettino stood a head shorter than his more fortune-favored relations.

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1326: Edmund FitzAlan, the Earl of Arundel

Add comment November 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1326, Edmund FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel was beheaded at Hereford for his support of King Edward II, during the rebellion of Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer.

Arundel’s relationship with doomed king had not always been so fatally chummy. That he turned out to be one of the few great nobles to back Edward against his wife’s adulterous coup d’etat would probably have surprised his own younger self — for 15 years before his execution he had joined the Lords Ordainers in opposition to Edward and hated royal favorite Piers Gaveston. Indeed, Arundel was one of the men who eventually condemned Gaveston to execution. Two years after that, he passed on aiding Edward’s Scottish campaign and the upshot of that was the great defeat of Banockburn.

But these two foes were able to see their way to an arrangement as the 1310s unfolded, and Arundel married his son — the boy who would succeed as the next Earl of Arundel when our man got his head cut off* — to the daughter of the next royal favorite, Hugh Despenser.

This dynastic alliance with the man swiftly becoming the most powerful lord in England put Arundel firmly on Team Edward, with very lucrative results. When other nobles who hated the new favorite rebelled in the early 1320s, Arundel helped to put that disturbance down, and pocketed portions of the traitors’ forfeited estates for his trouble — including that of the attainted Mortimer himself.

These enemies were permanent.

Mortimer managed to escape the Tower of London and fled into exile, eventually taking up with the disaffected Queen Isabella, who was a French princess herself. When Mortimer and Isabella mounted an invasion in 1326, Arundell and his brother-in-law Surrey were the only earls to keep the king’s side. (Temporarily: Surrey made peace with the new regime when it carried the day.)

Captured by John Charleton, a Welsh landowner who’d been personally piqued by Arundel’s growing acquisitions in that region, he was hauled before Queen Isabella and put to summary execution. But not too summary: there’s a report by a chronicler that the “worthless wretch” wielding the blade required no fewer than 22 hacks to part head from shoulders.

Kathryn Warner’s excellent and venerable Edward II blog has a very thorough post on the Earl of Arundell as well as a separate one on John Daniel and Robert de Micheldever, two obscure courtiers who shared the same fate on the same occasion.

(Warner has also just recently — in October of 2014 — published her book about Edward II.)

* Technically Richard FitzAlan only became Earl of Arundel in 1331, when Edward III, having deposed the regime of his mother and Mortimer, re-granted the title.

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1674: Guru Tegh Bahadur

Add comment November 11th, 2014 Headsman

The early religion of Sikhism was led by a succession of 10 Gurus.*

The Mughals executed the ninth of those Gurus on this date in 1674.

Guru Tegh Bahadur (the name means “Hero of the Sword” and was earned in youthful battles against those same Mughals) was acclaimed above 20-odd other aspirants after the previous Guru died saying only that the next guy was in the village of Bakala.

Guru from 1664, he’s noted for founding the holy city of Anandpur Sahib in Punjab. And it was his lot to lead a minority faith during the reign of the Aurangzeb, an emperor notorious to posterity for religious dogmatism.

He’s known best as a persecutor of Hindus: knocking over temples to throw up mosques, forcing conversions, and implementing sharia. But Aurangzeb knew how to get after all kinds.

Considering the going sectarian tension between Hindu and Muslim in the environs, there’s a good deal of touchy historical debate over just how to characterize Aurangzeb’s policies. This site is entirely unqualified to contribute to that conversation but suffice to say it was not an ideal moment to adhere to an alternate faith.

The circumstances of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s capture, and his subsequent execution in Delhi, are similarly obscured by hagiography. Aurangzeb, who spent his reign at virtually continual war, must surely have seen in the Guru’s capital city — which also welcomed Hindu refugees fleeing the Mughals’ abrogation of their rites — a nest of rebellion. Putting its leader to death when he too refused conversion would have been right in character; no less understandable is the Guru’s remembrance as a martyr to religious liberty, and not only the liberty of Sikhs but Hindus, Buddhists, and any other comers.

Tegh Bahadur’s nine-year-old son Gobind Singh succeeded as the tenth and last Guru. It was he who laid down the “Five Ks” — five articles that a faithful Sikh should wear at all times. Thanks to the parlous state of security vis-a-vis the Mughals, one of those items is the Kirpan, a dagger or small sword that continues to vex airline security agents down to the present day.

* Ten human Gurus: the tenth passed succession to the perpetual “Guru Panth” (the entire community of Sikhs) and “Guru Granth Sahib” (a sacred text).

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1793: Madame Roland, éminence grise

Add comment November 8th, 2014 Amelia Fedo

(Thanks to Amelia Fedo, a graduate student in French literature, for the guest post.)

On this date in 1793, Manon Roland (née Phlipon)* was guillotined as part of the Girondist purges in the Paris Terror.

As Olympe de Gouges — who preceded her to the guillotine by only a few days — observed, being a woman may have prevented her from holding political power under her own name, but it didn’t stop her from losing her own head.

Born in Paris to a bourgeois engraver, she married up through her alliance with quasi-aristocrat Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière. Twenty years her senior, he was chosen by her for his class status and intellect rather than for the love he inspired.

Ambitious from the start, Madame Roland took advantage of her husband’s (and later, her Girondin not-quite-lover François Buzot‘s) engagement in civic life to catapult herself into the role of behind-the-scenes stateswoman. She had been prepared for this role since childhood, when she had voraciously read Rousseau and Plutarch. Unlike Olympe de Gouges, she internalized the idea that women did not belong in politics — yet still she yearned to have an influence on the Republic.

And she did indeed succeed in wielding political power, with enough competence that Robespierre wanted her guillotined at least as much as her husband: everyone knew that she was the real force to be reckoned with.

Her political career was inextricably tied to her husband’s. Unable to hold political office herself, she lived vicariously through him. At first he was a bureaucrat, and she his secretary and personal assistant; but then he became involved in Parisian politics and was eventually appointed Minister of the Interior.

It was his wife who encouraged him to accept the position; for a year now she had been hosting salons frequented by a wide range of political movers and shakers, and she was itching to get in the game.

Monsieur Roland did not have a brilliant career as minister. His wife was the one with the vision and energy (the historian Lucy Moore claims that every good idea he had was hers); although devoted to Republican ideals he remained something of a milquetoast, and was attacked both by the snobby old guard (the lack of buckles on his shoes caused a scandal) and by the extreme left.

Although Madame Roland identified with Robespierre and was a good deal more radical than the Girondins (especially in her feelings about the monarchy), she and her husband were still officially associated with them. As such, they were swept up in Robespierre’s purges.

There were a few pre-Terror false alarms: a warrant was issued for Monsieur Roland’s arrest after the September Massacres, which Danton put the kibosh on; and in 1792, Madame Roland was dragged into court on trumped-up charges of corresponding with émigrés, but was able to use her oratorical skills to get herself acquitted.

When the Terror began, Monsieur Roland opted to keep his head down in the hopes of keeping it on, and resigned from his post as minister.

It was too late. In May 1793 Madame Roland was arrested again — unaccompanied by her husband, who had managed to escape into hiding.

She was subjected to a show trial like so many before and after her; although she had prepared a defense, she was not allowed to read it. Given that she was accused of “conspiring against the unity and the indivisibility of the Republic and attempting to introduce civil war,” neither her verdict nor her sentence are much of a surprise.

She was preoccupied with her husband (whom she declared would be driven to suicide by her execution), with Buzot (who was in grave danger of suffering her same fate), and with her own legacy. She seized the opportunity to be a martyr like the men she so admired — men who had been able to act in the open, rather than behind the scenes — and took advantage of the free time she had in prison to write her memoirs.

Most sources give similar accounts of her behavior before and during the execution. Content to die for her principles — or, perhaps, simply resolved to make a show of contentment — she maintained great calm and resignation in her final hours. The only favor she asked of anyone was that her childhood friend Sophie Grandchamp wait for her on the Pont-Neuf so that they could see each other when the tumbrel passed.

Influencing people up to the very end, Roland’s last political act was an attempt to impart some of her courage to the man who would share her tumbrel, a forger of assignats named Lamarche.

Lacking the sort of great social narrative that would give meaning to his death (such as a personal feud with Robespierre), Lamarche did not share Roland’s sanguine attitude; he thus found himself the recipient of a performance designed to alter his mood, consisting mostly of jokes, distractions, and modeled behavior. The events surrounding her execution have passed into legend, but various sources agree that she quipped to Lamarche after his hair was cut, “It suits you wonderfully. You have the head of a Roman.”

She also urged the executioner to leave her own hair long enough to serve as a suitable handle — for him to show her head to the crowd, of course.

As much as she detested Danton, it appears she had a few things in common with him after all.

Counterintuitively, it was considered a privilege to be guillotined first; it was merciful, the reasoning went, to kill someone before they could see others die. Roland chose to pass up this “privilege”; most attribute this to her desire to spare Lamarche the sight of her death, but Lucy Moore points out in Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France that she may have rejected the logic of such a “mercy” altogether and wished to live — like Madame du Barry — even a few moments longer.

After mounting the scaffold, she addressed a statue of Marianne, left over from a festival held in the Place de la Révolution; she is traditionally said to have exclaimed, “O liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!”, although a less reputable source (i.e., the apocryphal Sanson memoirs) assigns her the more prosaic last words, “Oh! Liberty, how they’ve tricked you!”

As she had predicted, her husband committed suicide two days later, falling on his sword as soon as he learned of her fate.

*This is only one of many names she has been called; Siân Reynolds explains in Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland that “Manon” is a childhood name, and her adult name remains mysterious; it was either “Marie,” “Jeanne,” or “Marie-Jeanne.”

A few books about Madame Roland

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82 BCE: The defeated populares of the Battle of the Colline Gate

Add comment November 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On November 1 of 82 BCE, the Roman general Sulla clinched victory in his running civil war against the liberal populares by smashing them at a decisive battle at Rome’s Colline Gate. And on November 2 the victorious dictator* had his captured foes put to death en masse in the Villa Publica while Sulla himself laid out the new order in an address to the cowed Senate.

The roots of this climactic — although not literally final — battle stretch back years, decades even, to the populist Gracchi in the 130s and 120s, and even further than that. Rome’s burgeoning had strained her original social contract past the breaking point. Terms were renegotiated in bloody civil conflicts that saw Sulla emerge this date as master of the Caput Mundi.

The Gracchi all those years ago had tried (until the oligarchs’ faction assassinated them) to rebalance an increasingly stratified Roman society by introducing land reform and an early bread subsidy.

The Gracchi banner would eventually fall to Gaius Marius, a successful general noted among other things for defeating Jugurtha. His “Marian reforms” thoroughly overhauled military organization; crucially for the Roman social crisis, he opened to the propertyless masses service in the legions — formerly the preserve of the very landed citizen-farmer being squeezed out by the empire’s concentrating wealth.**

Marius’s program addressed two problems simultaneously: it gave the Roman poor a vector of upward mobility; and, it professionalized an army whose fighting capacity had slipped behind Rome’s imperial reach.

Because the capstone to a career in the newly-professionalized army would be a grant of land secured by Marius himself, it also introduced a dangerous personal alliance between vaunting commander and his troops, the seed of later centuries’ cycles of incessant rebellion.

During the decade of the 80s, a now-aged Marius was still the populares‘ standard-bearer, but was opposed now by the patrician general Sulla, Marius’s own former lieutenant during the war against Jugurtha.

Marius’s attempt to displace Sulla from command of a planned Roman expedition to the East to punish King Mighridates of Pontus for his abuse of Roman citizens in Asia Minor brought the two to open blows. Calling on his troops’ personal loyalty to him, Sulla broke an ancient taboo by marching on Rome itself.

Marius fled into Africa, a death sentence nipping at his heels. (Various artists have imagined him chilling in the ruins of Carthage.) Once Sulla sailed for Asia, however, Marius allied with the consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna and roared back from exile, seizing the capital and instituting a reign of terror against his political enemies. Plutarch:

whenever anybody else greeted Marius and got no salutation or greeting in return, this of itself was a signal for the man’s slaughter in the very street, so that even the friends of Marius, to a man, were full of anguish and horror whenever they drew near to greet him. So many were slain that at last Cinna’s appetite for murder was dulled and sated; but Marius, whose anger increased day by day and thirsted for blood, kept on killing all whom he held in any suspicion whatsoever. Every road and every city was filled with men pursuing and hunting down those who sought to escape or had hidden themselves. Moreover, the trust men placed in the ties of hospitality and friendship were found to be no security against the strokes of Fortune; for few there were, all told, who did not betray to the murderers those who had taken refuge with them.

He died about the age of 70 in 86 BCE, days into his unprecedented seventh consulship.

While all this transpired, Sulla had been several years detained in fighting Mithridates. By 83, he’d hung up the “Mission Accomplished” banner and made ready to march on Rome for the second time.

Marius was dead; his ally Cinna had also been killed in a mutiny. The populares party was now headed by Marius’s altogether less formidable son Gaius Marius the Younger and a plebeian consul named Carbo — guys nobody today has heard of, which pretty much tells you what happened next.

Attempting to stop Sulla in the south, Marius the Younger was thrashed and forced to retreat to Praeneste, where he would be bottled up harmlessly until he took his own life in desperation. Further north, Carbo was trounced and chased into exile (and eventual execution) by Sulla’s ally Pompey, the future Triumvir who got his possibly-sarcastic honorific “the Great” from his action in Sulla’s civil war.

The populares general Pontius Telesinus made the last stand of his movement hurling a force of Samnites and Roman Marian supporters at the capital where, at the Colline Gate, they momentarily pressed Sulla’s wing dangerously against the city wall before another future Triumvir, Crassus, overcame them from the opposite flank.

The ensuing slaughter on this date in 82 settled the Marius-versus-Sulla civil war: Sulla published a large proscription of former Marius supporters who were put to death by the thousands before the general resigned his dictatorship at the end of the year 81.†

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast series covers these events in Death Throes of the Republic, episode 3. In the indispensable History of Rome podcast, the relevant episodes are 31a. Marius | 31b. Marius | 32. The Social War | 33. Marius and Sulla | 34. No Greater Friend, No Worse Enemy.

* Sulla would be acclaimed dictator by the Senate a few weeks later, reviving an office that had been unused since Hannibal threatened Rome more than a century before.

** Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD:

there is a famous utterance of Manius Curius, who after celebrating triumphs and making a vast addition of territory to 290 B.C. the empire, said that a man not satisfied with seven acres must be deemed a dangerous citizen; for that was the acreage assigned for commoners after the expulsion of the kings. What therefore was the cause of such great fertility? The fields were tilled in those days by the hands of generals themselves, and we may well believe that the earth rejoiced in a laurel-decked ploughshare and a ploughman who had celebrated a triumph, whether it was that those farmers treated the seed with the same care as they managed their wars and marked out their fields with the same diligence as they arranged a camp, or whether everything prospers better under honourable hands because the work is done with greater attention. The honours bestowed on Serranus found [297 B.C.] him sowing seed, which was actually the origin of his surname. An apparitor brought to Cincinnatus his commission as dictator when he was ploughing his four-acre property on the Vatican, the land now called the Quintian Meadows, and indeed it is said that he had stripped for the work, and the messenger as he continued to linger said, ‘Put on your clothes, so that I may deliver the mandates of the Senate and People of Rome’. That was what apparitors were like even at that time, and their name itself a was given to them as summoning the senate and the leaders to put in an immediate appearance from their farms. But nowadays those agricultural operations are performed by slaves with fettered ankles and by the hands of malefactors with branded faces! although the Earth who is addressed as our mother and whose cultivation is spoken of as worship is not so dull that when we obtain even our farm-work from these persons one can believe that this is not done against her will and to her indignation. And we forsooth are surprised that we do not get the same profits from the labour of slave-gangs as used to be obtained from that of generals!

† Surviving the proscription was the son-in-law of the late consul Cinna, one Julius Caesar. He was able to pull strings with Sulla to get himself off the list.

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1781: Twelve Aymara rebels

Add comment October 26th, 2014 Headsman

[M]ore than 14,000 will have perished in this unhappy city, the great majority through starvation; others were shot, and still others were beheaded by the rebels in the fields that many attempted to cross even though they knew that the rebels would not show them any mercy if they looked Spanish in any way. And I, in the middle of all this misfortune and despite having as many bullets pass over me as passed over Carlos Federico of Prussia, I am still alive up to this date and after having satisfactorily carried out all the enterprises entrusted to me by my friend Commander Segurola, and having shown myself on all occasion to be very competent, and with a selfless love of service towards both Majesties, risking my life and everything I own to defend this hapless city. And everybody has celebrated, but especially said Commander, my activity and boldness at night as well as during the day, as I could always be found in the most dangerous areas of this wretched city, supervising and reprimanding those officers who were slack in their duties. Whatever happens from now on, God was served.

There is no Indian who is not a rebel; all die willingly for their Inca King, without coming to terms with God or his sacred law. On October 26th twelve rebels were beheaded and none of them were convinced to accept Jesus; and the same has happened with another 600 that have died in executions during both sieges.

The head of the infamous Tupac Catari still hangs from one of the gallows of this square, and on the 20th of last month they began to form the cases against twenty-four of the principal rebel officers who served under his perverse and iniquitous command. Equal diligence is being practiced against five women who are being held in the command post of this square. Among them is Catari’s sister and one of his women with the same inclinations as that iniquitous Indian, who must have come from the depths of hell.

More troops are needed from both Viceroyalties or from Spain, some 8,0000 to 10,000 men to make Our Sovereign’s name respected throughout the entire Sierra and to finally, once and for all, cut off some heads and be finished with all these cursed relics.

-Dec. 3, 1781 letter from Juan Bautisa Zavala “summarizing the calamities” of La Paz under Aymara siege over the foregoing months (As quoted in this anthology)

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1942: Coastwatchers on Tarawa

Add comment October 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the Japanese military occupying the atoll of Tarawa beheaded 17 New Zealand Coastwatchers, along with five civilians.

Tarawa, a fishhook-shaped atoll that belongs to the Republic of Kiribati, was one of many specks of South Pacific land to which Australia and New Zealand deployed World War II Coastwatchers.

These small teams of mixed civilian and service personnel, as well as locals, kept up 24-hour watch for Japanese naval movements.* The tips provided by coastwatchers in the Solomon Islands during the Guadalcanal campaign led Vice Admiral William Halsey to exclaim that “the coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific.”

But their lonely forward positions also potentially exposed coastwatchers to considerable danger.

Even as Guadalcanal was unfolding in August and September in 1942, Japan was fortifying the occupied Gilbert Islands** (present-day Kiribati) in the wake of the Makin Island raid. Seventeen coastwatchers in the Gilberts were swept up in the process, and transferred to Tarawa along with five civilians (three British, one Australian, and one New Zealander). There they were held at the atoll’s old lunatic asylum, on the islet of Betio.

On Oct. 15, Allied planes bombed Tarawa. One of the captives got loose and ran onto the beach, frantically trying to signal the bombers. Instead, the Japanese — who fretted prisoners on their occupied islands becoming a fifth column in the event of an attack — summarily executed not only the signaler but all their captives.

“I saw the Europeans sitting in line,” one Tarawa local remembered later.

One Japanese started to kill the Europeans. He cut off the head of the first European, then the second, then the third, then I did not see any more because I fainted. When I came to, I saw the Japanese carrying the dead bodies to two pits.

In November 1943, a U.S. amphibious invasion took back the island at the bloody Battle of Tarawa. Twelve hundred Americans, and several times that many of the island’s Japanese defenders and Korean war slaves, were slain.

Old gun emplacements from that battle — as well as a monument to the New Zealand coastwatchers — can still be found on Tarawa.†

Catch these sights while they last. The average height above sea level for Kiribati is two meters, making global climate change liable to send the nation’s scattered islands to Atlantis. Kiribati residents have already begun turning up in Australia and New Zealand as climate change refugees.


(cc) image from Nick Hobgood.

* When the occasion arose, coastwatchers also rescued stranded Allied servicemen. After LTJG John F. Kennedy’s torpedo boat was rammed by a Japanese aircraft carrier in August 1942, it was a pair of Solomon Island natives dispatched by an Australian coastwatcher who found the future U.S. President and his surviving crew.

** Seven other coastwatchers besides those beheaded this date had been captured in the Gilberts when Japan first (but lightly) occupied it following Pearl Harbor. They survived the war as POWs in mainland Japan.

† There was a monument to the dead coastwatchers from shortly after the war. The remains of the seventeen, however, were long neglected by the New Zealand government, and have only recently been turned up … by Americans scouring Betio for casualties from the Battle of Tarawa.

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1854: Aslak Hetta and Mons Somby, Sami rebels

Add comment October 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1854, two Sami men were beheaded for Norway’s Kautokeino Rebellion.

The indigenous Sami people — often known as Lapps, although this nomenclature is not preferred by the Sami themselves — had by this point become territorially assimilated to the states of the Scandinavian peninsula across which their ancestral homeland had once spanned.

The material benefits of this association for the Sami were much less apparent.

In Norway — our focus for this post — Sami shared little of the economic growth in the 19th century save for a startling proliferation of alcoholism.

In the 1840s a charismatic Sami preacher named Lars Levi Laestadius founded a Lutheran revival movement that went over like reindeer among his people. Religious enthusiasm and social critique went hand in hand: Laestadius’s hard anti-alcohol line and criticism of the comfortable state clergy touched deeply felt grievances, and Laestadius could deliver these messages in Sami dialects. Villages devastated by drink would go dry in response to his exhortations with pleasing results for the social fabric, further stoking adherents’ piety.

The most militant expression of this movement soon detached itself from any restraint Lars Levi Laestadius might hope to exercise upon it. Eventually it would move towards disruptive actions like interrupting services of the official clergy and protesting licensed alcohol merchants.

In a rising in November 1852, firebrand Laestadians attacked the trading post of Carl Johan Ruth, the liquor merchant in the Finnmark village of Kautokeino. Both Ruth and the local sheriff, responding to the disturbance, were slain in the ensuing fray and several other buildings in town torched. A counterattack managed to quell the disturbance — killing two rebels in turn — and eventually 17 men and 11 women were condemned to sentences ranging from short prison terms to lifelong prison terms to (our concern, of course) execution.

The two leaders of the mob, Aslak Hetta (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian) and Mons Somby (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian), were both beheaded at the Arctic Circle town of Alta.

After decapitation, the men’s bodies were buried at Alta’s Kafjorddalen Church, but their severed heads went off to the Royal Fredrik’s University (today the University of Oslo) for scientists to probe. The heads eventually went missing until a search turned them up at a cranium collection in Copenhagen in 1997, which returned them at the behest of the descendants for burial back with the trunks from which they parted ways 160 years ago today.

A 2008 Nils Gaup-directed feature film, The Kautokeino Rebellion, dramatizes these events. (Synopsis | review) Armas Launis, a Finnish composer with an interest in ethnography, also wrote a libretto (Finnish link) in honor of Aslak Hetta after residing among the Sami for some time.


As of this writing, the full movie is also available on YouTube provided you can understand Norwegian, or read Spanish subtitles.

* Laestadianism still exists today. According to Wikipedia, “Because of doctrinal opinion differences and personality conflicts, the movement split into 19 branches, of which about 15 are active today.” Said Wikipedia entry enumerates all 19 groups, ranging from the Conservative Laestadians (approximately 115,000 adherents) all the way down to the Sten group (15 adherents) and the Kontio group (5 adherents).

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1593: Gabriel Wolff, Nuremberg adventurer

1 comment October 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1593, Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt beheaded one of that city’s finest con artists.

Gabriel Wolff, a burgher’s son, had gone on a picaresque swindling bender through central Europe and all the way to Constantinople, posing as a V.I.P. in various courts for fun and profit.

As Schmidt recounted it, Wolff first “called himself George Windholz, Secretary to the Elector at Berlin, also took the name of Ernst Haller and Joachim Furnberger, borrowed 1,500 ducats from a councillor here in Nuremberg by means of a forged letter in the Elector’s name and under the seal of the Margrave John George in Berlin; was arrested at Regensburg and delivered over to Nuremberg.”

And this was far from all.

The inveterate trickster had made off with 1,400 crowns from the Duke of Parma in the Netherlands and fled to Ottoman Turkey. He had had a misadventure with an Italian abbess, netting a silver clock for his trouble; conned a Knight of St. John out of his mount; and ensconced himself as the Habsburg emperor’s personal attendant in Prague, where he perpetrated “many other frauds, causing false seals of gentlemen to be cut, wrote many forged documents and was conversant with seven languages; carrying on this for twenty-four years.” In his time he got the best of “a councilor at Danzig, the count of Ottingen, his lord at Constance, two merchants at Danzig, a Dutch master,” and similar worthies crisscrossing Europe from Lisbon to Crete to Krakow to London and seemingly every point worth mentioning in between.

As Schmidt’s biographer observes, it’s more than likely that the crowd under the scaffold beheld Wolff with admiration as much as opprobrium, for this native son’s silver tongue and brass balls had enabled him to spend a lifetime in material luxury, hobnobbing with the masters of Europe — and certainly ensured him an afterlife in pleasurable folklore he could scarcely have conjured had he spent his days respectably haggling for a better price on the ell. Frankly, we in drab modernity could ourselves do with a Gabriel Wolff book.

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610: Phocas, “will you rule better?”

Add comment October 5th, 2014 Headsman

It was on this date in 610 that the Byzantine Emperor Phocas was overthrown and put to summary execution — by the very hand, legend says, of his successor Heraclius.*

Perhaps Byzantium’s most anathematized emperor — one Byzantine historian elided his whole 8-year reign because “speaking of suffering is itself suffering” — Phocas’s own rise to the purple owed itself to extrajudicial executions.

That gentleman was a mere army officer of no regal proximity during the previous emperor’s campaigns to ward off the incursions of the Slavs and Avars into the Balkans. While this campaign on the whole enjoyed its successes, Phocas enters the historical scene about 600 as the leader of a delegation sent from the legions to Constantinople to object when the cash-poor imperial court refused to pony up ransom money for comrade soldiers taken prisoner. Phocas was abused at court, and the Avars executed their hostages.

By 602 the policy of having the soldiery take it in the braccae (soldiers’ own allotments had also been pinched by the same budget strictures) blew back when the foul-tempered army was ordered to winter on the far side of the remote Danube. The government collapsed in the face of a military mutiny; Phocas was crowned emperor; and he executed the former emperor Maurice, plus Maurice’s six sons. Much as we are accustomed to think of the old Roman emperors ever on the edge of violent overthrow, this event was for its contemporaries a great novelty and a dangerous precedent. There had not been a regime change by coup d’etat in Constantinople since that city’s namesake set it up as his capital nearly three centuries before.

This fact is a small part of Phocas’s vile reputation for later historians. But — and we will come to this — that reputation is also heavily colored by the perspective of the regime that would eventually overthrow Phocas himself. For Phocas’s subjects, while he had subjects, he was very far form universally hated. He found particular favor with the church, delivering the gorgeous pagan Pantheon to the pontiffs for use as a church. When touring the Rome, you might learn that the very last imperial monument in the Forum is the Column of Phocas.**


Erected in gratitude by the Exarch of Ravenna.

Phocas’s reign, however, was defined by war with the Persians. And it was in the time of Phocas that King Khosrau, who actually owed his throne to previous Roman support, started breaking through the weakened Byzantine frontiers and tearing off huge pieces of territory.

By the last years of Phocas the Persians had taken Upper Mesopotamia and Armenia, and begun pressing into Anatolia where resistance collapsed with frightful ease. A Persian raid reached as far as Chalcedon in 608. There’s just something about having an enemy army in the suburbs of your capital that tends to overwhelm the value of any goodwill you got from cozying up to the pope.

In that same year (and this was surely a factor in the Persians’ shocking penetration into Anatolia) the Exarch of Africa began a revolt against the former centurion wearing the purple. From his position he was able to cut off grain shipments to the capital from the empire’s breadbasket, Egypt, which put Phocas in a truly desperate position. This exarch’s name was Heraclius but it was the man’s son, also named Heraclius, who would do the usurping.

Approaching the capital in 610, the Heraclii were able to quickly gather allies. Even the Excubitors, Constantinople’s Praetorian Guards under the leadership here of Phocas’s own son-in-law, saw where the winds were blowing and deserted immediately.

The rebels took Constantinople without a fight, and two patricians seized Phocas and presented him to the new sovereign.

“Is this how you have ruled, wretch?”

To which Phocas sneered,

“And will you rule better?”

Heraclius wasn’t in in the mood to be upstaged by his doomed predecessor, and got the latter’s execution, together with his own immediate coronation, enacted straighaway.

his right arm was removed from the shoulder, as well as his head, his hand was impaled on a sword, and thus it was paraded along the Mese, starting from the Forum. His head was put on a pole, and thus it too was paraded around. The rest of the body was dragged along on the belly, and was brought in the direction of the Chalce of the Hippodrome … And about the ninth hour of the same Monday, heraclius was crowned emperor in the most holy Great Church by Sergius patriarch of Constantinople. And on the following day, Tuesday … the head of Leontius the syrian [the former finance minister] was brought in and burnt in the Hippodrome, along with the image of Phocas which during his lifetime, foolish men wearing white robes had conducted into the Hippodrome with lighted candles. (Chronicon Paschale, as quoted here)

As if in retort to Phocas’s dying taunt, Heraclius held power for 30 distinguished years — “the brightness of the meridian sun,” in the estimation of Gibbon, for “the honor of Rome and Heraclius was gloriously retrieved by the exploits and trophies of six adventurous campaigns” that rescued Byzantium from the brink of destruction, drove back the Persians, enlarged the empire, and even returned the True Cross to Jerusalem. Heraclius himself commanded the army in the field, a practice long out of fashion for emperors. “Since the days of Scipio and Hannibal, no bolder enterprise has been attempted than that which Heraclius achieved for the deliverance of the empire.”

Phocas’s reputation did not profit from the comparison, and for Heraclius the last guy made a convenient foil to whom every evil of the realm could be attributed. We know Phocas almost exclusively through the accounts of later historians dating to this period, which is undoubtedly a factor in the black name our principal enjoys all the way to the present. The excellent History of Byzantium podcast attempts a balanced portrait of this era in an episode aptly named “In Fairness to Phocas”. The subsequent episode, “Heraclius to the Rescue”, deals with Phocas’s unpleasant exit from the scene.

* The new emperor personally executing his rival had a Roman precedent.

** Other Phocas achievement: he re-introduced the beard onto the imperial fashion scene. His predecessors had almost universally gone for the clean-cut look.

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