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1867: Not Santa Anna

Add comment October 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1867, the Mexican general and onetime president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna avoided execution at his court-martial.

Best recognized north of the Rio Grande for overrunning the Alamo, Santa Anna actually enjoyed an amazing career with a near half-century as Mexico’s definitive caudillo.

Antonio López de Santa Anna joined the military he would come to personify as a 16-year-old cadet in 1810 … except it was the Spanish colonial army, where he had hands-on training in the cold counterinsurgency tactics he would subsequently apply in his maturity.

Within barely a decade, the ambitious young officer was advanced to general — the last step by dint of his timely adherence to the incoming emperor of now-independent Mexico, Agustin de Iturbide.

Iturbide was destined for a firing squad, but Santa Anna had a better knack for tacking with his new country’s political gales — turning against his recent patron just in time to help depose the guy.

Santa Anna’s P.T. Barnum*-quality panache for shameless self-promotion — at one pont he repelled Spain’s last attempted reconquista and pronounced himself the “Napoleon of the West” — soon self-promoted himself right to the presidency. From 1833 to 1855, he held the office during 11 distinct stints.

His dictatorial exercise of power and abundant graft aroused resistance from more than just Texan Anglos, so he was often engaged in suppressing internal rebellions, and occasionally in being chased by them into exile. His last turn at president was aborted in 1855 by liberal reformers. Santa Anna fled to Cuba.

Considering the mad twists of fortune in his long career, it’s a wonder that none of his enemies ever actually executed Santa Anna; he fell into the power of a belligerent several times. Here in his sixties and seventies, he still wasn’t done plotting.

He spent 1866-1867 in Staten Island, New York,** until the fall of Mexico’s French-backed Emperor Maximilian induced him once more — at the age of 73 — to sail for home with one last summons to his banner. Instead he was captured.

The New York Times actually reported on July 5, 1867 that he had been summarily executed; in fact, the restored liberal government of Benito Juarez clapped Santa Anna in prison and subjected him to a court martial that ran Oct. 7-10. Juarez allegedly expected the old snake to be convicted of treason and finally executed, but like the Times, Juarez too was frustrated: the commission sentenced Santa Anna to exile and he was carried away to Havana once again.

It proved to be a waking death: cheated of the glory of a firing squad, the old general was pitiably forgotten.

“His schemes” — for still he schemed — “became increasingly the ravings of an old, deluded, sick man,” writes Robert Scheina in Santa Anna: A Curse Upon Mexico.

Permitted with Juarez’s death in 1874 to return to Mexico, Santa Anna now fought only for a pension. (He lost that fight.) So long his country’s first man, he “became increasingly depressed which was only relieved by his increasing senility. Santa Anna was suffering the worst possible punishment — obscurity and irrelevancy.” He died penniless of diarrhea in 1876.

* Santa Anna eventually came to hobble about on a cork leg, courtesy of a war wound. The leg was captured during the Mexican-American War, and Barnum put the artificial limb on exhibit.

That limb has never been returned to its native soil: Santa Anna’s prosthesis remains available to the Yankee gawker at the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield.

** Santa Anna’s legacy in the United States (apart from that Alamo unpleasantness) was the importation of chicle, which the general liked to chew. Santa Anna’s American secretary, Thomas Adams, used it to create the chewing gum marketed as chiclets.

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1938: Ivan Stepanovich Razukhin

1 comment October 9th, 2015 Headsman

Soviet NKVD execution form records that Ivan Stepanovich Razukhin was shot by Lt. A.R. Polikarpov on October 9, 1938. From Zek: The Soviet Slave-Labor Empire and Its Successors, 1917-2000.

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1918: Private Harry James Knight, deserter

Add comment October 6th, 2015 Headsman

“Owing to the state of my nerves, I find that I cannot carry on as I should. I’ve tried my best all through but four years has been a little too much.”

-British Private Harry James Knight of the The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment 1st Battalion — shot as a deserter on October 6, 1918, five weeks before the armistice.

In honor of the 90th anniversary year of the war’s end back in 2008, the National Archives produced a podcast series titled “Voices of the Armistice”. The episode “Court Martial” dramatizes Knight’s face via readings of archive records, and can be found here.

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1970: Hilmar “Henry Stutzbach” Swinka

Add comment October 1st, 2015 Headsman

East Germany executed sociopath Hilmar Swinka* on this date in 1970 for three murders in Berlin.

Swinka’s trial and execution were conducted in great secrecy — the Communist bloc being oft lothe to acknowledge such bourgeois monsters as serial sex-killers. Hans Girod describes him in his German-language study of DDR criminals, Blutspuren (Bloodstains), using the pseudonym Henry Stutzbach.

Swinka/Stutzbach wasn’t the type where you say nobody could have seen it coming.

A disaffected loner abandoned by his violent father, he dropped out of his apprenticeship and rotated unskilled jobs through his twenties while passing his time with pugilism of both the sweet science and the barroom brawl varieties.

His last job, as an assistant at a pathology institute, creepily set up his crimes — where he made a nauseating mockery of dissection by strangling and then carving open two ex-lovers on February 13, 1969. The next day, Swinka honored St. Valentine by doing the same thing to his lawfully wedded wife.

Swinka was shot at a secret execution facility in Leipzig, by Hermann Lorenz — East Germany’s last executioner.

There’s a truncated version of this documentary about the Leipzig death chambers here.

* The surname means pig in Slavic languages.

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1965: Kenneth Roraback and Rocky Versace, Vietnam War POWs

Add comment September 26th, 2015 Headsman

According to a UPI wire story from Saigon which ran in American newspapers beginning Monday, September 27,

The Viet Cong said they executed two American prisoners Sunday … Although the broadcast did not say so, the executions apparently were in retaliation for the deaths Thursday of three anti-American demonstrators. The demonstrators were convicted by a military tribunal of engaging in terrorist activities and put before a firing squad in a soccer stadium at Da Nang.

An earlier execution of a Viet Cong terrorist by the government June 24 brought an announcement from the Communists that they had executed Sgt. Harold G. Bennet[t], a captive from Arkansas.

The two men shot on September 26 — whose names are garbled in the initial news report, since “the names were received phonetically” — were Sgt. Kenneth Mills Roraback and Capt. Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace.

In 2002, Versace would be posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor — the first Vietnam War soldier so decorated on grounds of unwavering defiance as a POW.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cycle of Violence,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,U.S. Military,USA,Vietnam,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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1915: Peter Sands, home leave

Add comment September 15th, 2015 Headsman

Irish lance corporal Peter Sands was shot as a deserter one hundred years ago today at Fleurbaix, near Armentières.

Sands, a nine-year veteran age 26 or 27, left the Royal Irish Rifles with another soldier on a home leave pass in February 1915 and returned to his family in Belfast.

Sands had a pass for four days. Instead, he stayed for five months — openly living with his wife, and wearing his military uniform, until some unknown busybody turned him in as a deserter that July.

He would tell his court-martial that he had lost his travel documents to return to the horrible front, and had been blown off when he visited a Belfast barracks to see about a replacement. He did not aim to desert, he insisted; “Had I intended to desert I would have worn plain clothes, but up to that time I was arrested I always wore uniform.” It is not so hard to reach Corporal Sands, psychologically — a man perhaps indulging a lethal opiate of denial. Suppose his “desertion” began with a good-faith mishap and thereafter did not last for five months, but just for one day more … day upon day.

He had no pass, so what was he to do next? He stayed in Belfast with his wife and daughter wearing his service duds while he contemplated that question. (Who can say whether he contemplated it in bemusement or terror.) He stayed every day in March, and it became every day in April, and every day in May and June, too. Nobody came for him on any of those days.

Had his war ended, then? Had he somehow slipped the toils of the machine back to a domestic idyll?

Maybe he truly had … but for that anonymous snitch.

Even if it had to be reminded of its prodigal corporal’s absence, His Majesty’s royal meatgrinder expected a little more hustle from its meat than one barracks call in five months: while Sands was at home, his mates had gone out of the trenches in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle (11,000+ British casualties), and the disastrous* Battle of Aubers Ridge (another 11,000+).

His commanding officer “consider[ed] this a bad case of desertion and I recommend that the sentence be carried out.” And it was.

Sands was buried at a nearby churchyard, but his resting-place was lost during the war. He has a marker at Cabaret-Rouge Military Cemetery at Souchez.

* The report of the Times from Aubers Ridge — headlined “Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson From France” — precipitated the “Shell Crisis of 1915″.

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1946: Leon Rupnik, Erwin Rosener, and Lovro Hacin, for the occupation of Slovenia

Add comment September 4th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1946, the postwar state of Yugoslavia executed a trio of World War II occupation figures.

Left to right: Leon Rupnik, Erwin Rosener, and Lovro Hacin.

An Austro-Hungarian subject by birth, Leon Rupnik followed his native Slovenian soil into (proto-)Yugoslavia after the empire collapsed in World War I, and climbed the military ranks in the interwar era.

General Rupnik, as he could then be called, was the man tasked with engineering fortifications along the Italian and Austrian borders to ward off a fascist invasion. Modeled on the Maginot Line and every bit as effective, the Rupnik Line was little more than a speed bump when the Germans and Italians swept in during April of 1941.

But Gen. Rupnik was an open Nazi sympathizer, so sentimentality for his failed bunkers scarcely deterred him from joining the new occupation government as an enthusiastic collaborator, and he served or a time as the president of the German puppet province and the mayor of its capital, Ljubljana.

Erwin Rosener was a onetime brownshirt who became an SS General and was tasked by Heinrich Himmler with suppressing partisan resistance in Slovenia. He did the usual dirty things such a job entails, ordering torture and executions of hostages; Gen. Rosener also helped Gen. Rupnik organize the right-wing paramilitary Home Guard (Domobranci).

Lovro Hacin, the third member of the doomed party, was the police chief of Ljubljana.

Rupnik was shot. Rosener and Hacin were executed by hanging.

Rupnik (leftmost on the platform) reviews fascist Dombranci militia with Bishop Rozman and (rightmost) Gen. Rosener, January 30 1945.

Three others escaped execution at the same trials. Vilko Vizjak and Mha Krek both drew prison terms; Bishop Gregorij Rozman did as well, but his trial occurred in absentia and Rozman lived out his in exile.

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1914: Eugene Odent, the mayor of Senlis

Add comment September 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On the second of September in 1914, the mayor of Senlis, France, was shot by the occupying Germans in the opening weeks of World War I.

Detail view (click for the full image) of a map of the British Expeditionary Force’s retreat in northern France during the first days of World War I.

The beautiful ancient town, where the Carolingian dynasty met its end (King Louis V was killed in a hunting accident there in 987, enabling Hugh Capet to take the throne), unhappily found right in the path of the German army smashing its way towards Paris as France and her allies gave way.

German troops reached Senlis by the first of September, and overwhelmed the city in a minor battle.

On guard from the experience of being picked off by franc-tireur snipers during the Franco-Prussian War many years before, the Germans entered this urban skirmish with far more concern for the safety of their troops than for that of noncombatants. A number of civilians were seized for use as human shields by the Germans as they moved through the streets, and some others reportedly executed summarily. Numerous buildings were torched.

In doing all this, the occupying army considered itself entitled not to suffer the resistance of its new (if ever so temporary) subjects — indeed it insisted upon the point with lead. On September 2, the German firing squads shot several French civilians accused of firing at German soldiers. The French Wikipedia page on the affair gives these names:

  • Romuald-Emile Aubert, 52
  • Jean-Stanislas Barber, 66
  • Cottereau Arthur-Lucien, 17
  • Pierre Dewert, 45
  • Mégret Gabriel, 52
  • Jean-Baptiste Pommier, 67
  • Rigault Arthur, 61
  • Louis Simon, 36

Hours later, the town’s mayor Eugène Odent heroically shared their fate. He had been accused by the Germans of orchestrating “terrorist” civilian resistance — shuttering buildings for the convenience of snipers, failing to demand orderly submission from his neighbors, and generally inconveniencing the new boss. (Most of Senlis’s 7,000 residents had fled town ahead of the approaching attack, presumably shuttering up in the process.)

The stunning German attack seemed on the brink of capturing Paris at this point, but just days later the disordered French “miraculously” — it’s literally known as the Miracle of the Marne — threw the invaders back at the Battle of the Marne.

This battle crushed Berlin’s dream of a knockout victory and allowed the combatants to settle in for four bloody years of miserable trench warfare. It also enabled the French to recapture Senlis, whose horrors — Eugene Odent and all — were collected for early entry into the war’s annals of barbaric-Hun propaganda.

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1648: Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle, royalists

2 comments August 28th, 2015 Headsman

The Death of Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle, Monday, Aug. 28, 1648

By the old wall at Colchester,
With moss and grass o’ergrown,
The curious, thoughtful wanderer
Will note a small, white stone.
Tis sunken now — yet slight it not;
That stone can speak, and tell
A tale of blood; it marks the spot
Where Lisle and Lucas fell.

On earth there is no abject thing
So abject as a fallen king.
And Charles, despoiled, cashiered, discrowned,
In his own halls a captive bound,
Spurned, crushed by countless ills forlorn,
Drinks to the dregs the cup of scorn.

Yet in that hour of blank despair,
Lisle, Lucas, Capel, Compton dare
Their wrecks of shattered strength to call
To Colchester’s beleaguered wall;
Round Charles, in hope ‘gainst hope to cling
Proclaim, e’en yet, that Charles is king;
And one more mighty effort try
For honour, love, and loyalty.

Vain all the dauntless venture — vain
Their valour, piety, and pain.
Who in the field the foe repels
Grim Famine in the city quells.
The soldier, gaunt and staggering, crawls
From post to post along the walls;
With leaden eyes the townsmen meet,
Like spectres, in the howling street.
No bread within — without, the foe —
No friend, no succour nigh —
The leaguer closer drawn — they know
They needs must yield, or die.

They yield — and Fairfax, bloody heart!
Ere yet the shades of evening part,
Dooms to a sudden, felon grave
Lisle, Lucas, bravest of the brave;
And Ireton, in exultant glee,
Hastes on the murderous tragedy.

“Haste on the murderous tragedy!
Nor let them live another night,
Nor mother, sister, brother see;
Nor give them space to order right
Their souls to meet their Maker’s sight!”

One hour — brief respite! So to prayer,
Last refuge of the soul, they went —
To prayer, and blessed Sacrament;
And then rose up, refreshed, to bear
Whate’er of added scorn or sting
The circumstance of death might bring.

“Lead Lucas forth!” Forth Lucas came,
And on the files of musqueteers
Smiled as in scorn; in step and frame
No trembling, and in soul no fears.
But, as from fields of carnage wet,
He oft had marched to victory,
Though vanquished, fettered, doomed to die,
He stands the victor-hero yet;
And cried, “In battle’s stern embrace
Oft I and death met face to face;
See now in death I death defy,
And mark how Lucas dares to die.”

He bowed his knees a little space,
With clasped hands, and eyes lift up;
And craved of Jesu parting grace
To sweeten pain’s last bitter cup;
Then laid his bosom bare, and cried,
“I’m ready: rebels, do your worst;”
Fell on his face, and groaned, and died,
Pierced with four savage wounds accurst.

“Haste on the murderous tragedy!
Yea, howl aloud for victims more;
And with remorseless butchery,
Let Lisle be bathed in Lucas’ gore.”

He treads the stage of death, his eye
Glancing defiance round —
He sees his brother’s body lie
Stretched on the bloody ground.
Tis more than e’en a Lisle can bear —
The mighty heart gives way;
He weeps amain, and kneeling there
Beside his dead, in love’s despair
Kisses the lifeless clay;
And sobs his requiem: “Oh, my friend,
My brother, thou hast reached thy goal!
Christ is thy rest — Christ me defend;
My spirit with thy spirit blend,
Thou peerless and unspotted soul!”

Then stands erect, the anguish past;
And marks in lines the levelled gun —
“Come nearer, men.” “Nay,” answered one,
“Fear not, good Sir, we’ll hit you fast.”
“Ah!” cried the warrior, “oft in fight
Nearer to me than now ye came;
In field and fort, by day and night
I met you, and ye missed your aim.
And oh, how oft as well ye know,
In hottest blood and deadliest strife,
I checked my hand, and spared the blow,
And sheathed my sword, and gave you life.
I die content; my God shall bring
Grace for my soul’s anneal;
I die for faith, for Charles my King,
And for my country’s weal.”

With invocations loud and deep
On Jesu’s blessed name.
E’en as he prayed, he fell asleep
When the death-volley came.
Where Lucas fell, there Lisle lay dead —
They slept on one same gory bed.
One in their common death; in life
One in the same dread, glorious strife;
As one to live in honour high,
So one in mighty heart to die.
One grave contains the sacred dead —
Go, ponder there awhile;
Then say with pride, “My country bred
A Lucas and a Lisle.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,England,Execution,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1901: Three Boer rebels against the Cape Colony

Add comment August 19th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1901, Petrus Jacobus Fourie, Jan van Rensburg, and Lodewyk Francois Stephanus Pfeiffer were shot by the British at Graaff-Reinet.

They were among the numerous subjects of the British Cape Colony whose sympathy with the independent Boer republics which Britain was in the process of conquering extended so far as aiding their Dutch brethren’s resistance. In this case, the young men joined the famed Boer guerrilla Gideon Scheepers — and whatever one might say about the fuzziness of ethnic and national identity in a frontier region, this rated in London’s eyes as rebellion.

On July 6, 1901, Scheepers executed a raid on the town of Murraysburg — “Scheepersburg”, he called it — and put loyalist houses to the torch.

The British Gen. John French sent columns of men into the rugged Camdeboo Mountains in an effort to trap the irksome commando. Scheepers and most of his troop of about 240 men escaped, but about 27 or 28 Cape Colony rebels were captured (along with a few free staters, who could not be charged as rebels).

A particularly revolting incident happened in the execution of the three who were shot. This was, that the firing parties were a body of ten men, five with ball, and five with blank cartridges. After the word “present,” which brings the rifle to the shoulder, one of them “‘pulled off” before the command “fire” was given, and the bullet blew off the top of one man’s head.

-British guard Wilfrid H. Harrison in his Memoirs of a Socialist in South Africa

Eight of these people were executed as rebels over the ensuing weeks, with the aid of Jan Momberg, one of their erstwhile mates who turned Crown’s evidence against them to save his own life.

After Fourie, van Rensburg and Pfeiffer were shot on Aug. 19, Ignatius Nel and Daniel Olwagen — both teenagers — died at Graaff-Reinet on August 26; and, Hendrik van Vuuren, Fredrick Toy and Hendrik Veenstra were shot at Colesberg on September 4.

Though the British made an effort to obscure the final resting-places of these potential martyr figures, their graves were located. Fourie, van Rensburg and Pfeiffer, along with Ignatius Nel and Daniel Olwagen, are among the men subsequently exhumed and placed in a collective grave. A monument in Graaff-Reinet honors these and three other guerrillas executed there … one of whom is Gideon Scheepers himself, who was captured in October of 1901 and executed the following January.

There’s a good deal more about Scheeper’s rebels, and these men in particular, in a two-part article by a descendant of van Rensburg here: part 1 | part 2.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,South Africa,Treason,Wartime Executions

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