Posts filed under 'Bludgeoned'

1857: Two members of the Aiken Party

Add comment November 25th, 2018 Headsman

The first “executions” meted out by Mormon captors to the Aiken or Aikin Party men who were attempting to cross the war-footing territory eastward from California took place on November 25, 1857, and were as clumsy as they were brutal.

Under the pretext of escorting them out of the state, Thomas Aiken, John Aiken, John “Colonel” Eichard, and Andrew Jackson “Honesty” Jones reached the small settlement of Salt Creek, Utah, on November 24. They had their least peaceful sleep there that night while their guides, acting on orders from the top of the state’s hierarchy, planned their murders.

Four toughs dispatched by Bishop Jacob Bigler slipped out of Nephi before dawn the next day. They’d ride on ahead, and later that evening “accidentally” meet the southbound Aiken men and their escorts, presenting themselves as a chance encounter on the trails to share a camp that night. These toughs plus the escorts gave the Mormons an 8-to-4 advantage on their prisoners, which was still only good enough to kill 2-of-4 when the time came:

David Bigler’s 2007 Western Historical Quarterly article, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858.”

After supper, the newcomers sat around the fire singing. “Each assassin had selected his man. At a signal from [Porter] Rockwell, [the] four men drew a bar of iron each from his sleeve and struck his victim on the head. Collett did not stun his man and was getting worsted. Rockwell fired across the camp fire and wounded the man in the back. Two escaped and got back to Salt Creek.”

We don’t actually know which two died at the camp and which two made it back to Salt Creek. Bigler suspects Thomas Aiken and John Eichard were the victims to die on the 25th; the editors of Mormon assassin Bill Hickman‘s confessional autobiography make it Thomas Aiken and Honesty Jones.

The doomed men were stopping at T. B. Foote’s, and some persons in the family afterwards testified to having heard the council that condemned them. The selected murderers, at 11 p.m., started from the Tithing House and got ahead of the Aikins, who did not start till dayhght. The latter reached the Sevier River, when Rockwell informed them they could find no other camp that day; they halted, when the other party approached and asked to camp with them, for which permission was granted. The weary men removed their arms and heavy clothing, and were soon lost in sleep — that sleep which for two of them was to have no waking on earth. All seemed fit for their damnable purpose, and yet the murderers hesitated. As near as can be determined, they still feared that all could not be done with perfect secrecy, and determined to use no firearms. With this view the escort and the party from Nephi attacked the sleeping men with clubs and the kingbolts of the wagons. Two died without a struggle.

As for the two survivors … that’s a tale for another day.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Businessmen,Espionage,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Lucky to be Alive,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,USA,Utah,Wartime Executions

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1926: Anteo Zamboni, Mussolini near-assassin, lynched

Add comment October 31st, 2018 Headsman

Halloween of 1926 was a festival of triumph for the Italian fascists … and they crowned it in a festival of blood.

The occasion marked (not exactly to the day) the fourth anniversary of Benito Mussolini‘s bloodless coup via the October 1922 March on Rome. And as a gift for himself and his populace, Benito Mussolini on that date inaugurated Bologna’s Stadio Littoriale by riding a charger into the arena and delivering a harangue.


Fascist-built and still in service, it’s now known as the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara and it’s home to Bologna F.C. 1909. (cc) image by Udb.

After another address to a medical conference later that afternoon, Mussolini was motorcading down via Rizzoli in an Alfa Romeo when a gunshot whizzed through his collar.*

It had been fired by a 15-year-old anarchist named Anteo Zamboni, vainly and sacrificially hoping to turn history’s tide with a well-placed bullet.

Instead, his act would offer Il Duce a Reichstag Fire-like pretext — there was always bound to be one, sooner or later — for a raft of repressive legislation including the creation of a nasty secret police, the dissolution of political opposition, and (of interest to this here site) reintroduction of the death penalty.**

But Anteo Zamboni would see his penalty delivered summarily after the crowd seized him.†

Zamboni was done to death with blows and blades by Mussolini’s fascist admirers right on the spot. In a turn of heart, Bologna — by tradition a leftist stronghold — now has a street named for the young would-be assassin. (Here is the source for the ghastly Mature Content images below of Zamboni’s brutalized corpse.)

The incident is the subject of the 1978 film Gli Ultimi Tre Giorni.

* Zamboni’s was only one of three assassination attempts on Mussolini in 1926 alone.

** Just days afterwards during the post-Zamboni repressive pall, the great Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci was tossed into prison, never to emerge. Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks issued out of his dungeon, before his health succumbed in 1937 to the intentional neglect of his captors.

† It’s reportedly cavalry officer Carlo Alberto Pasolini who first detained the youth: the father of postwar film director Pier Paolo Pasolini.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Children,History,Italy,Lynching,Martyrs,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Revolutionaries,Summary Executions,Torture

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1564: Fabricius

Add comment October 4th, 2018 John Lothrop Motley

(Thanks to John Lothrop Motley for the guest post on the rudely truncated burning of Christopher Smith, an apostate monk turned popular preacher under the name “Fabricius”, at Antwerp on this date in 1564. It originally appeared in Motley’s The Rise of the Dutch Republic: A History. -ed.)

A remarkable tumult occurred in October of this year, at Antwerp. A Carmelite monk, Christopher Smith, commonly called Fabricius, had left a monastery in Bruges, adopted the principles of the Reformation, and taken to himself a wife. He had resided for a time in England; but, invited by his friends, he had afterwards undertaken the dangerous charge of gospel-teacher in the commercial metropolis of the Netherlands.

He was, however, soon betrayed to the authorities by a certain bonnet dealer, popularly called Long Margaret, who had pretended, for the sake of securing the informer’s fee, to be a convert to his doctrines. He was seized and immediately put to the torture. He manfully refused to betray any members of his congregation, as manfully avowed and maintained his religious creed.

He was condemned to the flames, and during the interval which preceded his execution, he comforted his friends by letters of advice, religious consolation and encouragement, which he wrote from his dungeon. He sent a message to the woman who had betrayed him, assuring her of his forgiveness, and exhorting her to repentance. His calmness, wisdom, and gentleness excited the admiration of all.

When, therefore, this humble imitator of Christ was led through the streets of Antwerp to the stake, the popular emotion was at once visible.

To the multitude who thronged about the executioners with threatening aspect, he addressed an urgent remonstrance that they would not compromise their own safety by a tumult in his cause. He invited all, however, to remain steadfast to the great truth for which he was about to lay down his life.

The crowd, as they followed the procession of hangmen, halberdsmen, and magistrates, sang the hundred and thirtieth psalm in full chorus.

As the victim arrived upon the market-place, he knelt upon the ground to pray, for the last time. He was, however, rudely forced to rise by the executioner, who immediately chained him to the stake, and fastened a leathern strap around his throat. At this moment the popular indignation became uncontrollable; stones were showered upon the magistrates and soldiers, who, after a slight resistance, fled for their lives.

The foremost of the insurgents dashed into the enclosed arena, to rescue the prisoner. It was too late. The executioner, even as he fled, had crushed the victim’s head with a sledge hammer, and pierced him through and through with a poniard.

Some of the bystanders maintained afterwards that his fingers and lips were seen to move, as if in feeble prayer, for a little time longer, until, as the fire mounted, he fell into the flames.

For the remainder of the day, after the fire had entirely smouldered to ashes, the charred and half-consumed body of the victim remained on the market-place, a ghastly spectacle to friend and foe. It was afterwards bound to a stone and cast into the Scheld. Such was the doom of Christopher Fabricius, for having preached Christianity in Antwerp.

During the night an anonymous placard, written with blood, was posted upon the wall of the town-house, stating that there were men in the city who would signally avenge his murder. Nothing was done, however, towards the accomplishment of the threat.

The King, when he received the intelligence of the transaction, was furious with indignation, and wrote savage letters to his sister, commanding instant vengeance to be taken upon all concerned in so foul a riot. As one of the persons engaged had, however, been arrested and immediately hanged, and as the rest had effected their escape, the affair was suffered to drop.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Belgium,Bludgeoned,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Guest Writers,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Other Voices,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Spain,Torture

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1503: A banderaio and an executioner

Add comment May 29th, 2018 Headsman

Courtesy of Emotions in the Heart of the City (14th-16th century), we travel to Florence during its between-Medicis republican interim* for a very emotional execution:

On the morning of 29 May 1503, outside the city’s great Gate of Justice,** a young flag-maker (banderaio) was put to death for having murdered another banderaio. In a scene that struck the throng of spectators as an outrage, the executioner had failed to cut off his head even after three blows of his sword. The sight must have been grisly, for the attending mounted captain was next forced to move in and club the flag-maker to death. The compassion of the crowd now pivoted into incandescent rage. A tumult broke out, as men and boys directed a cannonade of rocks at the executioner. There was, in addition, something oddly religious about the event, because rocks were also thrown at the men hooded in black, the members of the religious confraternity who were there to offer comfort to the unfortunate banderaio. They had to flee for their lives. The executioner was killed, and children then lugged his corpse around, worked their way back into the city, and dragged the body all the way up to the Franciscan Church of Santa Croce. Were they sending a message to Savonarola‘s great local enemies, the Franciscans? There was a possible religious subtext to this episode : some contemporaries claimed that the hangman had been punished — he was the very same man — for having first insulted and then hanged Savonarola five years previously. It goes without saying that he had died without last rites, and the dragging about of his body again touched on something religious in being subject to a ‘ceremony’ of desecration.

Although I cannot locate an online version of this document, it appears to me that a primary source for this incident is the chronicle of Simone Filipepi. This historian is a bit less famous than his little brother Alessandro Filipepi … who is inscribed in the annals of art’s history by his nickname (meaning “Little Barrel”) as Sandro Botticelli.

Tangentially, readers might also enjoy this 1625 instance of a clumsy executioner being lynched: in that case, his proposed prey actually survived the scaffold. A similar fate nearly befell notorious English hangman Jack Ketch, after his maladroit butchering of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685.

* This period prior to the restoration of the Medici was also Machiavelli’s political heyday. (He wrote his classics of statecraft after Giuliano de’ Medici subsequently recaptured Florence from the pie-eyed republicans and retired Machiavelli to countryside exile.)

** This public domain English translation of Guido Carocci‘s classic Firenze Scomparsa (Bygone Florence) illuminates some of the relevant topography.

A tower which now only consists of four stone walls, plain and undecorated, but which some day must have been much higher and surmounted by battlements, rises at the end of the Lungarno apposite the viale Carlo Alberto.

It is the sole remnant, the only souvenir of a number of ancient buildings which were situated in this position, and were known as the old mint (Zecca Vecchia).

Previous to the demolition of the walls the tower reared its massive proportions on the river bank in the midst of the ramparts of a dismantled fortress, near a mill race and buildings next the walls which at this point showed traces of a walled up gate.

The buildings next to the tower seemed a mixture of old and modern construction with large arched rooms, long corridors and balconies overhanging the canal from the Arno — which gave motive power to the wheels of various cloth mills.

These houses, which grouped en masse were of singular picturesqueness, completed the view of green banks and vine covered hills lining the river and were full of interesting historical associations.

A postern gate was situated here, flanked by a tower on the river bank to defend the city from a water attack; this was called the Gate of Justice, and its name calls up painful and melancholy memories. Outside the walls at the end of a meadow beyond the moat was a small low church whose facade was frescoed with sad subjects. In this meadow was placed the gallows and executionary scaffold. The Gate of Justice was generally closed for the better security of the city and was only thrown open for the passage of religious companies accompanying condemned criminals to the place of execution.

The street through which they passed to the gate was very appropriately known as Via Malcontenti, (Street of the Discontented).


Via dei Malcontenti, Florence (c. 1880) by Telemaco Signorini.

In 1346 criminals condemned to death were brought to a chapel, still in existence, next to the church of San Giuseppe in Via Malcontenti were tied to an iron ring which may still be seen in the pavement, but afterwards the little church outside the walls was built for this last grim service. [If this artifact still exists, I would be indebted to anyone who can supply a picture of it. -ed.]

The church was used as a resting place where the penitent might offer his short and final prayer before being handed over to the executioner.

The victims’ bodies remained suspended on the gallows for days in order to act as a wholesome warning to all evil disposed persons, but the Florentines, who must have their little joke even on the most solemn subjects, called these meadows which formerly belonged to the Nemi family, the paretaio of the Nemi (bird-catching place of the Nemi).

The gate of Justice was walled up during the great siege, and after that the lugubrious procession passed through the Porta alla Croce. In our times traces of this gate, partly buried in the raised soil, could still be seen previous to the destruction of the old walls and above it the hole through which every defensive missile might be hurled on attacking parties below.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,Florence,History,Italy,Lynching,Public Executions

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831: St. Euthymius of Sardis, iconophile

Add comment December 26th, 2016 Headsman

This is the martyrdom date in 831 for the iconodule saint Euthymius of Sardis.

Euthymius was just a child when Byzantium’s century-long internal conflict over the image-veneration wrote St. Stephen the Younger into the pages of this here blog way back in 764.

By the time Euthymius attained the bishopric of Sardis in the 780s, the Empress Irene was putting an end to her predecessors’ anti-icon campaigns, and Euthymius took part in the Second Council of Nicaea that made the new policy official.

Posterity has a difficulty measuring by way of scanty and partisan sources the true state of sentiments surrounding icons during this period but it’s a sure thing that for an empire besieged both west and east, religious questions connected inextricably to geopolitical ones. Irene’s shift towards embracing what iconoclasts saw as graven images spanned about a quarter-century which also coincided with humiliating reverses for Constantinople. Irene’s son was thrashed by the Bulgars to whom her treasury was then obliged to submit tribute; then Irene had that very son deposed and blinded. Irene was toppled in her turn by her finance minister but Emperor Nikephoros too was trounced in battle and his skull wound up as the Bulgar Khan’s ceremonial goblet.

Small wonder that when Leo the Armenian took power in 814 he reflected that

all the emperors, who took up images and venerated them, met their death either in revolt or in war; but those who did not venerate images all died a natural death, remained in power until they died, and were then laid to rest with all honors in the imperial mausoleum in the Church of the Holy Apostles.

For a prelate like Euthymius, this meant a return to the opposition benches. He’s reported to have been arrested and exiled twice in the ensuing years before finally being scourged to death in 824 at the behest of Leo’s successor; however, scholarship has better associated this event with the more vigorous anti-icon persecutions of Theophilus after 829. In 831, Arab forces devastated Cappadocia and also captured Panormos in Byzantine Sicily. In light of these reverses Theophilos discovered that an anti-iconoclast manifesto predicting the emperor’s imminent death had been circulated — so again the link between prestige abroad, sedition within, and those damned icons. Theophilus attributed the pamphlet to a pro-icon bishop named Methodius, who was a friend of Euthymius, and had both men arrested.

Imprisoned on the island of St. Andrew, near Constantinople in the Sea of Marmara, the two men were questioned about their associates by the postal logothete — probably Arsaber, the brother of [anti-icon future patriarch] John the Grammarian — who was accompanied by the chartulary of the inkpot Theoctistus. Euthymius seems to have mocked Theoctistus and would name only one of his visitors: Theoctista, the mother-in-law of both the logothete and the emperor!* Theophilus had both Euthymius and Methodius beaten soundly. While Methodius, who was just over 40, could endure it, the 77-year-old Euthymius died from his injuries on December 26 and became an iconophile martyr. The empress Theodora was reportedly so upset at Euthymius’s death that she told Theophilus that God would desert him for what he had done. (Source)

The History of Byzantium podcast covers this period in episode 103.

* Theoctista was an actual iconophile. Her house in Constantinople later became the Monastery of Gastria — and post-1453, a mosque.

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1922: Ali Kemal

1 comment November 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Anglophile Turkish politician Ali Kemal (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish) was lynched by a nationalist mob at Izmit during the Turkish War of Independence.

Though he is even to present-day Turkey the iconic traitor, it would be more generous to take him as the prophet of a future stillborn in the whirlwind of war.

Although he was of their generation, just a few years older than the “Three Pashas”, Kemal was not at all of their ethno-nationalist outlok. A cosmpolitan with a Circassian mother and a British wife — Kemal happens to be the great-grandfather of British pol Boris Johnson* — Kemal clashed with the Young Turks’ political organ and consequentially found European exile more congenial for much of the run-up to World War I. His book Fetret anticipates an inclusive, liberal, and westernized Ottoman Empire. It was a dream that shellfire pounded into mud, and not only for the Ottomans: these were years for national chauvanism run amok.

Politically sidelined within Turkey as the Young Turks steered the empire into war and genocide, Kemal re-emerged post-1918 — when the former empire lay supine before its conquerors — as a minister of state not merely acceptable to the Allied occupation but actively collaborating in its objectives. (Quite impolitic was his co-founding The Association of the Friends of England in Turkey even as England was occupying Istanbul and carving up the defeated empire.)

It is from this that his reputation as a Quisling figure derives, though there is little cause to believe that Kemal undertook these actions in anything other than a spirit of sincere public-service. The fact that he did so under the aegis of foreign domination, however, underscores the futility of his position: that Anglo-friendly, polyglot Turkey of his imaginings was not in the cards.

He and the nationalists were anathema to one another now, and though he resigned from the government in 1919 his university position gave him a platform to continue writing and lecturing against the Ataturk’s growing Turkish National Movement. Curiously, he did not join the sultan in flight from Turkey when the nationalists took the capital in hand and abolished the sultanate. Instead he was arrested having a placid shave at a barber shop by minions of Gen. Nureddin Pasha. The Nov. 13, 1922 New York Times described the horrific aftermath:

Ali Kemal Bey, editor of the anti-Nationalist newspaper Sabah, who was arrested at Ismid on the charge of subversive actions, was killed by a mob after having been officially condemned to death.

He was taken before General Nureddin Pasha who pronounced the death sentence dramatically: “In the name of Islam, in the name of the Turkish nation, I condemn you to death as a traitor.”

Ali Kemal remained passive, uttering no word of protest. His hands tied, he was led to a scaffold.

Before he reached the gibbet, however, an angry mob of women pounced on him, attacking him with knives, stones, clubs, tearing at his clothing and slashing at his body and head with cutlasses.

After a few minutes of excruciating torture, the victim expired. His body was dragged through the streets by the mob and exposed to public gaze on the scaffold for several hours.

The editor’s death has caused profound resentment and emotion in Constantinople, where he was known as one of Turkey’s most enlightened and most impartial citizens.

* Johnson, the former Mayor of London and (as of this writing) Britain’s Secretary of State, embraces this part of his ancestry but things were a little touchier when the Ottoman Empire and British Empire took opposite sides in World War I: at this awkward juncture, Ali Kemal’s English in-laws Anglicized his children’s names, using the surname of his late wife’s mother — Johnson.

Kemal also had a Turkish son by a subsequent marriage; his grandsons via that line, Boris Johnson’s cousins, are a major Istanbul publisher and a Turkish diplomat.

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1012: St. Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury

1 comment April 19th, 2016 Headsman

April 19 was the death date in 1012, and the feast date in perpetuity, of Archbishop of Canterbury and Christian saint Aelfheah (also known as Alfege or Alphege).

When harrying Danish invaders under Thorkell the Tall put Canterbury cathedral to the sack in 1011, they seized this Anglo-Saxon cleric too in expectation of adding a VIP’s ransom to their sacrilegious pillage of candelabras and jeweled chalices.

Aelfheah turned out not to be the render-unto-Caesar type — or at least, not unto Ragnar — and stubbornly refused to raise his own ransom or to permit one to be paid for him. Seven months on into his captivity, some ill-disciplined Vikingers with their blood (and blood alcohol) up for an Easter pillage just decided to get rid of him — as detailed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which also helpfully provides us the date:

1012. Here in this year, there came to London town Ealdorman Eadric and all the foremost councillors of the English race, ordained and lay, before Easter — that Easter Day was on the 13 April. And they were there until after Easter, until all the tax was paid — that was 8 thousand pounds.

What we have here is the unprincipled nobleman Eadric Streona — destined for an Executed Today entry of his own — celebrating Christ’s resurrection by squeezing hard-pressed Londoners for the Danegeld needed to buy off Thorkell’s rampaging army. And beside that in the ledger, a vicar declines to save his own life at the cost of incrementing his flock’s suffering. The ransom-refusing Aelfheah is a patron saint of kidnap victims; he ought to be taxpayer ombudsman, too.

Then on Saturday the raiding-army became much stirred up against the bishop, because he did not want to offer them any money, and forbade that anything might be granted in return for him. Also they were very drunk, because there was wine brought from the south. Then they seized the bishop, led him to their ‘hustings’ on the Saturday in the octave of Easter, and then pelted him there with bones and the heads of cattle; and one of them struck him on the head with the butt of an axe, so that with the blow he sank down and his holy blood fell on the earth, and sent forth his holy soul to God’s kingdom. And in the morning the bishops [of Dorchester and of London] Eadnoth and Aelfhun and the inhabitants of the town took up the holy body, and carried it to London with all honour and buried it in St. Paul’s minster, and there now [i.e., to this day] God reveals the holy martyr’s powers.

Aelfheah was canonized by Gregory VII in 1078 — and was one of the rare clerics of the Anglo-Saxon era still officially revered after the Norman conquest.* It is said that Thomas a Becket had just prayed to Aelfheah before he too attained his predecessor’s martyrdom.

The British History Podcast hasn’t reached this incident as of this post’s publication, but it should do anon. Its Vikings coverage begins with episode 176.

* A thousand years on, a church named our man marks the purported spot of his execution/murder.

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1946: Gen. Leopold Okulicki murdered in Soviet prison

1 comment December 24th, 2015 Headsman

The fate of the last Commander in Chief of Home Army General Leopold Okulicki “Niedzwiadka”, imprisoned in Moscow and murdered there, symbolize the postwar fate of the Home Army and of Poland.

-2012 resolution of the Polish parliament

On this date in 1946, Polish Home Army General Leopold Okulicki was murdered by the NKVD in a Moscow prison.

Okulicki (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Polish) embarked his military career at the tender age of 16, when he ditched school in favor of an Austrian legion on the eastern front of World War I — then segued directly into newly independent Poland‘s subsequent war against the Soviets.

Already a veteran soldier, Okulicki proceeded to the Warsaw military academy and made soldiering his career. He had advanced to the brass by the time Hitler and Stalin destroyed Poland in 1939. Okulicki had the tragic honor to maintain the hopeless defense of Warsaw, but went underground thereafter with the remains of the Polish state — hunted by Germans and Soviets alike.

The NKVD caught him in January 1941, but his residence in the discomfiting environs of Lubyanka prison was ended by the Soviet Union’s arrangement with Poland following Operation Barbarossa. Paroled back into the field, he played a leading part for the Polish Home Army for the balance of the war — finally becoming its supreme commander in the last weeks of the war.

Now that the Nazis were no longer knocking on the gates of Moscow, the Soviets renewed their interest in detaining Okulicki, which was again effected with relative ease. (Comparing German and Soviet secret police, Okulicki would say that the NKVD made the Gestapo look like child’s play.) Sentenced “only” to a 10-year prison term at the Russians’ postwar show trial of Polish leadership, Okulicki disappeared into Soviet detention and was never seen again.

In the Khrushchev era, the USSR revealed that Okulicki had died on Christmas eve of 1946 at Butyrka prison; subsequent revelations of the medical records there revealed that he had succumbed to organ damage suggestive of having been beaten to death — perhaps as punishment for hunger-striking.

The post-Communist Russian state has posthumously exonerated Okulicki of his show-trial conviction; he is, of course, an honored figure in post-Communist Poland where many streets and squares bear his name.


Plaque honoring Gen. Okulicki in Warsaw. (cc) image from Tadeusz Rudzki.

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764: St. Stephen the Younger, iconodule martyr

Add comment November 28th, 2015 Headsman

This is the supposed martyrdom date, in the year 764 or perhaps 765, of St. Stephen the Younger in Constantinople at the hands of an iconoclastic emperor.

Ancient and “dark ages” history characteristically comes with all kinds of problems arising from the paucity and prejudice of primary sources. Byzantium’s century of Iconoclastic controversy is a fine example.

In this period from approximately 726 to 842, the empire was rent by a conflict between iconophiles or iconodules — proponents of the use and adoration of religious imagery in Christian worship — and iconoclasts — who abhorred same as a form of sacrilegious idolatry.

This was deadly serious stuff in the way that only Byzantine sectarian conflict could be, but the controversy was not strictly about defining the Biblical injunction on graven images. As the excellent History of Byzantium podcast explains in its iconoclasm episode,* it likely manifests “an empire-wide reaction to the trauma of defeat” — battlefield defeat by the rising armies of Islam, and with it a shaken confidence in the favor of God. (Islam’s hard line against idolatry surely can’t be coincidental.)

But in posterity we are reduced to these muddy qualifiers because as the winning party in the dispute, iconodules wrote the history. That’s no moralistic stab: iconoclasts, too, burned the enemy’s tracts when they had the opportunity; had they prevailed in the end, they would have blurred out the background, motivations, and achievements of their rivals as readily as the iconodules did and leave those who followed to read between the lines of a partisan history. Indeed, Bissera Pentcheva’s recent Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium even contends that the legendary centrality of icons to Byzantine religiosity was an invention of the post-iconoclastic era, with events like the Marian icon’s saving Constantinople during the Avar siege of 626 backfilled to replace the original story about Marian relics working the divine intervention.


Iconoclasts plastering over an icon.

The iconoclastic era opens in the late 720s; according to the (iconodule, naturally) saint and historian Nicephorous, its immediate trigger was the devastating 726 eruption of the Greek island Thera (Santorini) — and affrighted by the apparent divine wrath, “the impious emperor Leo [III] started making pronouncements about the removal of the holy and venerable icons.” He’s alleged to have taken down a particularly revered icon of Christ on Constantinople’s Chalke Gate.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to get a firm fix on what specific anti-icon policies Leo promulgated, if indeed there were any at all. (The Greek term for “pronouncements” could be understood simply as “comments” instead of “edicts”.) It is Leo’s son Constantine V, succeeding the purple in 741, who clearly brings an overt imperial turn against icons, for “He cannot be depicted. For what is depicted in one person, and he who circumscribes that person has plainly circumscribed the divine nature which is incapable of being circumscribed.” Constantine convened an ecumenical council that ruled for his anti-icon position and set about removing images from churches.

Against this campaign was ranged the bulk of the clergy — church vs. state is another possible and difficult-to-measure dimension of the whole dispute, although Constantine’s ability to win the acquiescence of hundreds of bishops must complicate this interpretation.

The great champion of and martyr for the iconodule position in this time was St. Stephen the Younger. That’s “younger” vis-a-vis the original St. Stephen, Christianity’s protomartyr.

As befits that exalted company, this monk and hermit was credited by his adherents with a supernatural power in the iconoclasm debate.

A man blind from his birth visits the saint with suppliant outcry for relief. “If you hast faith in God,” he replies, “if thou art a worshipper of His image, thou shalt behold the light and the beauty of hidden things.” Scarcely had the words gone forth, when the blind man rejoiced in beholding light. A woman brings to him her son “grievously vexed with a devil,” and a distressing scene is described. Stephen bids a disciple to apply the sign of the Cross to the whole afflicted body. The saint calls upon God with many tears. Finally he delivers the boy safe to his mother, when the image of Christ has been adored. An infirm soldier comes with entreaty for relief. The saint bids him adore the images of Christ and His Mother, and immediately he is restored. The soldier afterwards repudiates image-worship before the Emperor, who at once promotes him to the rank of centurion. Leaving the imperial presence he would mount his horse; the horse rears, throws him to the ground, and tramples him to death. Such is the life of the younger Stephen as related with awe-struck delight in Greek and Roman martyrologies. (Source)

And so forth.

The emperor is alleged by the hagiographies to have sought Stephen’s destruction for many years, being continually frustrated even to the point where Stephen’s torturers in prison seemed unable to finish him off. “Will no one rid me of this monk?” Constantine cries, anticipating Thomas a Becket by a good four centuries. His soldiers finally clubbed to death the obdurate cleric on November 28, 764. (For a critique of Stephen’s hagiography, including a death date that proves questionable (no surprise), see this pdf.)

But not for the first time, an imperial innovation in theology failed to outlast the patronage of its sovereign. After Constantine’s death, Empress Irene** restored the iconodules to favor† — and set the stage (after some hiccups) for a great flowering of Orthodox icons in the centuries to come.

* Also see Episode 75, delving into Constantine’s iconoclasm.

** The fact that the extant remnant of the Roman Empire had no emperor — merely a woman ruler — formed part of the rationale for the western church crowning Charlemagne “Holy Roman Emperor”. This slap in the face to Constantinople could occur because a papacy long deferential to Byzantium had at last broken with the East in the mid-8th century … in part, over iconoclasm.

Emperor Leo V restored official iconoclasm in 813 for another 29-year run as imperial policy before the movement’s final defeat.

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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Bludgeoned,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Torture,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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1246: Mikhail of Chernigov, Miracle-Worker

Add comment September 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1246, the Russian prince Mikhail of Chernigov was put to death by the Mongol commander Batu Khan for refusing to make an idolatrous gesture of submission.

In its time, prosperous Chernigov (or “Chernihiv” in a more Ukrainian transliteration) vied with neighboring Kiev for the the pride of place in Rus’.

But Chernigov’s time ended with Mikhail’s time, because the Mongols came crashing through the gates. The “Tatar Yoke” descended on Chernigov, and on Rus’, in the 1230s, and would not be lifted for a quarter of a millennium.

The nomadic Mongols weren’t there to commit genocide or displace the Russian civilization; they just wanted the tribute payments, thank you very much. But the local rulers the Mongols left to collect for them were selected for compliance like any good ploughman would do — and Mikhail found the yoke too disagreeable for his shoulders.

Mikhail knew full well that the Mongols were no joke. He was present at the 1223 Battle of the Kalka River, when the Rus’ principalities had caught word of a horde from the east advancing into present-day Ukraine, rode out to repel them, and lost 10,000 dead.* One of them was the previous prince of Chernigov, which is how Mikhail got the job.

Rus’ had a reprieve because this force was merely the vanguard; the Mongols had business elsewhere. Mikhail would return to the trade negotiations and regional political jockeying that made up the workaday life of a knyaz, thinking who knows what about the mysterious barbarians.

Then the Mongols returned in force.

From December 1237, they overwhelmed and sacked city after city: Ryazan, Kolomna, Moscow, and Vladimir just by March of 1238, and then dozens of cities to follow.** Some held out fiercely; some gave way quickly — but each in its turn succumbed. The “Grand Principality of Chernigov” was no more by 1239.

As the Mongols swept onwards towards Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary,† the Mongol ruler Batu Khan (grandson of Genghis) set up a capital where the Russian princes would be made to give their ceremonial submissions. Mikhail was one of the last to do so but in 1246 to forestall the prospect of another Mongol attack, he too made the trip.

Although Mikhail consented to kowtow to the Mongol prince, he incensed his host by refusing to prostrate himself before heathen idols. For this he was slaughtered along with an equally faithful boyar named Fedor, their bodies cast into the wilds for animals and elements to devour.


Michael of Chernigov at the camp of Batu Khan, by Vasiliy Smirnov (1883)

For this sacrifice, they became honored as Christian saints and martyrs, with September 20 fixed as the “Feast of the Miracle-Workers of Chernigov” — a liturgical expression of Russian resistance to that Tatar Yoke. When Ivan the Terrible put the Tatars of Kazan and Astrakhan to rout in the 16th century, he also translated the Miracle-Workers’ relics from Chernigov to Moscow — a political expression of their national import.

* Or possibly several times that. Body counts from chroniclers are notoriously unreliable.

** It was to save itself from the Mongols that the mythical city of Kitezh is supposed to have sunk itself like Atlantis into Lake Svetloyar near Nizhny Novgorod.

† As well as points south.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Bludgeoned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mongol Empire,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Rus',Russia

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