Posts filed under 'Summary Executions'

1869: William German, surprising Klan lynch victim

2 comments January 13th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1869, a man named William German was lynched by the newly formed Ku Klux Klan.

German, a white man, had been hanged for killing a black man, Bill Cullum.

Yes, you read that right.

Bill Cullum was a former slave; William German, a former soldier in the Confederate Army. German was living on a farm he’d rented from a white plantation owner, Alvin Cullum, who had been Bill’s owner.

German was ordered to clear off the land so the ex-slave could live there instead. Furious, German put on KKK robes and, with another man, tracked down Bill Cullum and shot him several times. The dying man was able to crawl to a nearby house and name his attacker before he expired.

The local KKK chapter was outraged. William German had committed his act wearing their garb, but without their authorization and against their rules.

What happened next was recounted in the Memphis Daily Appeal (now called The Commercial Appeal):

The Union and American of Saturday says: “By a private letter from a trustworthy gentleman residing at Cookville in Putnam County, we give some further information in regard to the recent execution near Livingston, in Overton County, by a body of supposed Ku-Klux, of the young man Wm. German, an account of which we published Thursday morning. “He says that a few days before the execution, German shot and badly wounded, and supposed he had killed, a Negro man living in his neighborhood. The shooting took place in a public road, and the Negro managed to crawl to the house of his employer, where he told who had shot him. The Negro had the character of being a quiet, peaceable man, and as there had been no previous trouble between him and German, it was supposed the crime was perpetrated in pure wantonness.

It is thought that the persons by whom German was killed were members of a secret organization, to which he belonged — but whether Ku-Klux or not, nobody in the neighborhood appears to know. The body of men concerned in the execution numbered about 200, and none of them were identified by citizens who witnessed their appearance and departure. Accounts reported Bill German was found hanged in a nearby barn; a sign posted there declared: Hung for shooting a Negro, Bill Cullum, and violating the laws of Ku Klux.”

These days, this story has been used by the KKK as evidence that they are a peaceable organization and not at all racist, honest, pinky-swear.

An aside: executions ran in the German family. William German’s brother, Columbus C. “Lum” German, had also served in the Confederate Army and also met his death at the end of a rope, in 1866.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Common Criminals,Crime,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lynching,Murder,No Formal Charge,Other Voices,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Tennessee,USA

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1355: Ines de Castro, posthumous queen

Add comment January 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1355, the 29-year-old lover of the Portuguese crown prince was put to summary death by the reigning king’s minions.

Ines de Castro (English Wikipedia entry | Portuguese) would be posthumously acknowledged as queen on the say-so of her ex, whom everyone obeyed because he was called Peter (Pedro) the Cruel.

But in the years before Ines’s death you could just call him loverboy.

As a young man, Peter got plugged into a typical dynastic marriage with Constance of Panafiel, a descendant of kings of Castille and Aragon.*

In Constance’s entourage came the enchanting Ines, the daughter, albeit illegitimate, of a Galician nobleman.

Peter was entirely smitten by entirely the wrong woman. Vainly did the Portuguese sovereign Afonso IV strive to conform his indiscreet son to the demands of conjugal propriety. At last, the put-upon Constance died after bearing Peter his heir in 1345 and left the field to her rival.

Afonso steadfastly refused to let his lovestruck son marry Ines, and even tried banishing her to Castile, but the two carried on their forbidden passion secretly like they were in poetry, which would soon be the case.


One of 20-plus operas and ballets about Ines de Castro. She also turns up in the Portuguese national epic The Lusíadas, the French play La Reine Morte, and Ezra Pound’s Cantos (“Ignez da Castro murdered, and a wall / Here stripped, here made to stand”) … among many other literary appearances.

But beyond any qualms of prudery, Peter’s obsession made dad sweat the politics.

Peter refused to marry anyone else, and got tight with Ines’s brothers. These guys were Castilian exiles with their own axes to grind. Was the whole fortune of his house and his realm to fall under the sway of this unpredictable faction just because Peter couldn’t keep it in his codpiece? The affair had already made a dog’s breakfast of the alliance Peter was supposed to contract with his scorned wife’s family; now that Peter was having kids** with his mistress, there was the potential for a contested succession, and the brothers were goading Peter to pretend to the throne of their native Castile.

Afonso figured that this was about where his son’s right to romantic love ended. Peter had proven many times that only the most drastic of steps could separate him from Ines.

On the 7th of January 1355, Afonso and his own advisors met in secret and declared Ines’s death. Then three of the king’s emissaries, Pêro Coelho, Álvaro Gonçalves and Diogo Lopes Pacheco, rode out to find the irksome mistress at Coimbra, and chopped off her head right in front of her children.†


Assassínio de Dona Inês de Castro (date unknown), by Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro.

It was only with difficulty that a sufficient reconciliation between father and son was effected to manage a stable transition once Afonso kicked off in 1357. Finally in charge, Peter set about earning that “the Cruel” sobriquet by hunting down the retainers who had slain his wife and having them all put to terrible deaths in their turn, like their hearts ripped out of their chests. Just like had happened to Peter, see.

Peter also announced that he had been secretly married to Ines, posthumously legitimizing her. Legend, probably apocryphal, has it that he even exhumed her body and set her up on the throne in regal finery like the cadaver synod, so that his courtiers could pay their respects to the putrefying flesh of “the queen who was crowned after death”. But she wasn’t coming back for real: in the still-extant Portuguese idiom, “Agora é tarde; Inês é morta” — “It’s too late, Ines is dead.”


Couronnement d’Inés de Castro en 1361 (c. 1849), by Pierre-Charles Comte.

In death at this hour, Ines de Castro reigns in a gorgeous carved tomb in the Alcobaca Monastery … right next to her lover, King Peter I.

* The Peter-Constance marriage was itself an alliance of marital castaways. Constance had been the child bride of Castilian King Alfonso XI, but was put aside by Alfonso so that he could realign his bedroom politics by instead marrying Peter’s own elder sister. But Alfonso neglected her, too — causing a love triangle that would in time end with an execution.

When Peter’s humiliated sister fled the Castilian court, the Portuguese royal family allied with Constance’s family against Alfonso, by marrying the spurned Constance to the spurned-in-law Peter.

** High noble titles were bestowed on the three children of Peter and Ines who survived into adulthood. Two of them, John and Denis, unsuccessfully attempted to claim the throne during the chaotic interregnum of Portugal’s 1383-1385 Crisis.

† Ines’s execution/murder is associated with Quinta das Lagrimas, the Estate of Tears, even though that’s not where it actually occurred. A fountain there is said to have sprung from the tears she said as she was slain, and its red stones stained by her blood.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Nobility,Popular Culture,Portugal,Scandal,Sex,Summary Executions,Women

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404: St. Telemachus, gladiator-slayer

Add comment January 1st, 2014 Headsman

January 1, 404 is the date of the last known gladiatorial combat in Rome, and therefore also the traditional martyrdom date of St. Telemachus — who gave his life to end the games.

Rome’s infamous bloodsport dated to the foggy natal days of the Republic, perhaps beginning as funerary rituals borrowed from the Etruscans or Campanians. Its efflorescence into ubiquitous public entertainment diversified for special occasions by stupefyingly wasteful grotesques like naval battles in a flooded stadium or exotic animal fights marks — moralistically if not materially — the empire’s decadence and decline. Fitting indeed that Rome’s most impressive lower-class rebellion originated with a gladiator, Spartacus.

The spectacle was as popular as it was dangerous. For trainers and recruiters, it was also enormously lucrative, yet it was simultaneously distasteful in its own time and gladiators (for their brief lives) were a stigmatized caste.

No public crime scandalized Rome’s Senatorial class historians like an emperor who showed genuine relish for the games. Cassius Dio had to personally sit in the stands and applaud the notorious tyrant Commodus who styled himself Hercules and fought personally on the blood-drunk sands of the Colosseum; he revenges himself in his history expanding sneeringly on his former sovereign’s degrading exploits — Commodus “took great pride in the fact that he was left-handed. His antagonist would be some athlete or perchance a gladiator armed with a wand; sometimes it was a man that he himself had challenged, sometimes one chosen by the people, for in this as well as in other matters he put himself on an equal footing with the other gladiators, except for the fact that they enter the lists for a very small sum, whereas Commodus received a million sesterces from the gladiatorial fund each day.” Commodus “of course won” his fights against opponents who had no choice but to yield to the emperor; the bouts were “like child’s play.”

Gladiatorial games’ long-term decline might have set in motion because they were so godawful expensive and a Rome gradually less vast and omnipotent just didn’t have the resources to burn on a new Super Bowl every time some frontier general marched into town to proclaim himself emperor for the next six months.

But Christians especially lodged early and vociferous critiques of the games and curtailing — and finally eliminating — gladiatorial combat is a signal contribution to humanity by the early faith. Tertullian composed a letter On Spectacles is dedicated to proving to Christians with a weakness for low pleasures that men slaying one another for sport are idolatry and murder.

Christianity’s growing strength in the empire would eventually position it to put a stop to the evil show. The upstart faith’s first regnant champion, Constantine, laid down the first imperial ban on gladiator fights (“Those who were condemned to become gladiators for their crimes are to work from now on in the mines. Thus they pay for their crimes without having to pour their blood.”). As was his wont, Constantine was less than constant about following his own directive, intermittent directives by emperors over the decades to come testify to the ancient sport’s deep-rooted popularity but also to the steady pressure that ascendant Christianity continued to apply against it.

Its fade was gradual, but the closest thing we have to a specific end point is January 1, 404, games sponsored by the teenage Western Roman emperor Honorius to celebrate Stilicho‘s parrying the latest Gothic thrust.

Into this carnage, it is said, strode a Greek monk, Telemachus who publicly objected to the unfolding spectacle. For his trouble he was killed by mob action or official order. The story of what exactly happened has evolved over time but its upshot was that Honorius proceeded to ban the ungodly exhibition. It never again resumed (at least in the West), leaving the field clear in future centuries for Rome’s other degenerate sport, charioteering.

In these games of Honorius, the inhuman combats of gladiators polluted for the last time the amphitheatre of Rome. The first Christian emperor may claim the honour of the first edict which condemned the art and amusement of shedding human blood; but this benevolent law expressed the wishes of the prince, without reforming an inveterate abuse which degraded a civilised nation below the condition of savage cannibals. Several hundred, perhaps several thousand, victims were annually slaughtered in the great cities of the empire; and the month of December, more peculiarly devoted to the combats of gladiators, still exhibited to the eyes of the Roman people a grateful spectacle of blood and cruelty. Amidst the general joy of the victory of Pollentia, a Christian poet exhorted the emperor to extirpate, by his authority, the horrid custom which had so long resisted the voice of humanity and religion. The pathetic representations of Prudentius were less effectual than the generous boldness of Telemachus, an Asiatic monk, whose death was more useful to mankind than his life. The Romans were provoked by the interruption of their pleasures; and the rash monk, who had descended into the arena, to separate the gladiators, was overwhelmed under a shower of stones. But the madness of the people soon subsided: they respected the memory of Telemachus, who had deserved the honours of martyrdom; and they submitted, without a murmur, to the laws of Honorius, which abolished for ever the human sacrifices of the amphitheatre. The citizens, who adhered to the manners of their ancestors, might perhaps insinuate that the last remains of a martial spirit were preserved in this school of fortitude, which accustomed the Romans to the sight of blood, and to the contempt of death: a vain and cruel prejudice, so nobly confuted by the valour of ancient Greece and of modern Europe! (Gibbon)

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",God,History,Italy,Lynching,Milestones,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Stoned,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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1502: Vitellozzo Vitelli and Oliverotto da Fermo, Borgia casualties

Add comment December 31st, 2013 Headsman

On New Year’s Eve 1502, Cesare Borgia had two treacherous condottieri put to summary death at Senigallia.


The Showtime series The Borgias got canceled before it reached this particular depredation in Cesare Borgia’s career.

The “nephew” — that is, son — of Pope Alexander VI, Cesare resigned a cardinalcy in 1498 to follow his true passion, bloodshed, and set up as one of the Italian peninsula’s warring dukes. He had many a martial adventure before getting ambushed by a party of Spanish knights in 1507. Machiavelli considered him an able leader compromised by owing his temporal power to the pope’s territorial allotment. In The Prince, Machiavelli remarks on the lesson of Borgia’s reign, that “he who has not first laid his foundations may be able with great ability to lay them afterwards, but they will be laid with trouble to the architect and danger to the building” — and yet Cesare Borgia’s own fall months after his patron paterfamilias passed “was not his fault, but the extraordinary and extreme malignity of fortune.”

Cesare went from victory to victory in the first years of the sixteenth century, enough so that he threatened to make himself hegemonic in Italy. Several of his own allies, of which our day’s principals Vitellozzo Vitelli (his family ruled Citta di Castello and Oliverotto da Fermo* (lord of Fermo) were two, began plotting against him and sent out feelers to build an anti-Borgia alliance among small powers who fretted the prospective domination of Cesare. (Though Borgia had them killed on a separate occasion, the others of note for purposes of this post are two members of the powerful Orsini family — Francesco Orsini, known as the Duke di Gravina; and, Cardinal Pagolo.)

As Florence’s own representative to Borgia’s court during the events in question, Machiavelli had a first-person view of events and recorded them in some detail. Taken on the back foot momentarily, Borgia stalled, firmed up his relations with friendly cities like Florence, and beat a momentarily tactical retreat. He came to terms with his friends-cum-rivals, who once more resumed campaigning on Borgia’s side.

Putatively back on the same team, several of the plotters soon found themselves at a stalemate besieging Senigallia, which refused to surrender to any but Borgia himself. They were therefore required to summon the dangerous prince from Lombardy. True to his name, Borgia did not miss the opportunity of an innocent invitation to destroy his foes.

Borgia marched into Seniallia with 10,000 infantrymen and 2,000 cavalry for a friendly little reunion. According to Machiavelli (who in this passage refers to Borgia as Duke Valentino, or simply as “the duke”),

Vitellozzo, Pagolo, and the Duke di Gravina on mules, accompanied by a few horsemen, went towards the duke; Vitellozo, unarmed and wearing a cape lined with green, appeared very dejected, as if conscious of his approaching death — a circumstance which, in view of the ability of the man and his former fortune, caused some amazement. And it is said that when he parted from his men before setting out for Sinigalia to meet the duke he acted as if it were his last parting from them. He recommended his house and its fortunes to his captains, and advised his nephews that it was not the fortune of their house, but the virtues of their fathers that should be kept in mind. These three, therefore, came before the duke and saluted him respectfully, and were received by him with goodwill; they were at once placed between those who were commissioned to look after them.

But the duke noticing that Oliverotto, who had remained with his band in Sinigalia, was missing — for Oliverotto was waiting in the square before his quarters near the river, keeping his men in order and drilling them — signalled with his eye to Don Michelle, to whom the care of Oliverotto had been committed, that he should take measures that Oliverotto should not escape. Therefore Don Michele rode off and joined Oliverotto, telling him that it was not right to keep his men out of their quarters, because these might be taken up by the men of the duke; and he advised him to send them at once to their quarters and to come himself to meet the duke. And Oliverotto, having taken this advice, came before the duke, who, when he saw him, called to him; and Oliverotto, having made his obeisance, joined the others.

So the whole party entered Sinigalia, dismounted at the duke’s quarters, and went with him into a secret chamber, where the duke made them prisoners; he then mounted on horseback, and issued orders that the men of Oliverotto and the Orsini should be stripped of their arms. Those of Oliverotto, being at hand, were quickly settled, but those of the Orsini and Vitelli, being at a distance, and having a presentiment of the destruction of their masters, had time to prepare themselves, and bearing in mind the valour and discipline of the Orsinian and Vitellian houses, they stood together against the hostile forces of the country and saved themselves.

But the duke’s soldiers, not being content with having pillaged the men of Oliverotto, began to sack Sinigalia, and if the duke had not repressed this outrage by killing some of them they would have completely sacked it. Night having come and the tumult being silenced, the duke prepared to kill Vitellozzo and Oliverotto; he led them into a room and caused them to be strangled. Neither of them used words in keeping with their past lives: Vitellozzo prayed that he might ask of the pope full pardon for his sins; Oliverotto cringed and laid the blame for all injuries against the duke on Vitellozzo. Pagolo and the Duke di Gravina Orsini were kept alive until the duke heard from Rome that the pope had taken the Cardinal Orsino, the Archbishop of Florence, and Messer Jacopo da Santa Croce. After which news, on 18th January 1502, in the castle of Pieve, they also were strangled in the same way.

* Machiavelli also wrote up Oliverotto in The Prince.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Strangled,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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69: Vitellius, “yet I was once your emperor”

Add comment December 22nd, 2013 Headsman

Were 69 C.E. known as the Year of the Three Emperors, maybe the long and glorious era of the porcine Vitellius would still be celebrated today.

Unfortunately for Vitellius, 69 was the Year of the Four Emperors … and our Emperor No. 3 had his brief reign brutally aborted at the Gemonian Stairs on December 22.

Vitellius came from a political family; his father as Governor of Syria deposed Christ‘s reluctant judge Pontius Pilate.

In time, Vitellius’s own ruin would emerge from the Levant.

But first he had a run down Roman elites’ cursus honorum of Roman offices; he served as Consul in the year 48. Even so, he’s described to us as a ridiculous character, so much so that Vitellius himself supposedly mocked astrologers over the self-evidently preposterous prediction that he of all people could become emperor.

“Addicted as he was to luxury and licentiousness,” Cassius Dio reports, Vitellius “no longer cared for anything else either human or divine. He had indeed always been inclined to idle about in taverns and gaming-houses, and devote himself to dancers and charioteers.”

According to these chroniclers, the dissipated Vitellius entered history by the side door. The first emperor of our august year was Galba, who overthrew Nero late in 68. Galba appointed Vitellius to command the restive Rhine legions, who had notably put down the revolt of one of Galba’s early supporters and were now getting short shrift from the Galba administration. The plan here is a little sketchy; Suetonius says it was “rather through contempt than favour,” perhaps that this no-account fop would deprive the Germanic forces of an adequate figurehead for revolt. Vitellius’s dismayed creditors could scarcely be prevailed upon to let him leave Rome.

Now, Suetonius and Cassius Dio are extremely hostile witnesses who wrote (respectively) during the Flavian dynasty that Vitellius’s own usurper established, and in the wake of that period.* The facts on the ground are that Vitellius had been Consul as well as a provincial governor, was appointed by Galba to manage the vital German frontier, and leveraged the position into mastery (however brief) of the Roman world. Even these historians give Vitellius grudging credit for some of his wise civic reforms once he took power. And at the end, when all was hopeless, Vitellius’s loyalists furiously resisted their foes in the streets of Rome herself, fighting “in a solid mass opposed the victors and to a man fell giving blow for blow, dying with faces to the foe” (Tacitus, who wrote after the Flavians had passed, but whose family was elevated during that dynasty). Read without interlocutors’ gleeful character assassination, we might better incline to perceive not a buffoon but a capable political leader whom fortune (and a very large army) contrived to crush at the moment of his glory.

Be that as it may, the Caput Mundi was to find in the generations ahead that men of mediocre stature could readily be wrapped in purple by a willing army. More often than not it proved a purple shroud — as it did with Vitellius.

These Rhine legions had their grievances and whether Vitellius was a great man or small, he was emperor material enough for them. On New Year’s Day of 69, when they were supposed to take an oath to the sitting emperor, they instead cast down images of the much-resented Galba and acclaimed their new governor in his place. But even as the rebellious legions strapped on their greaves, Galba was being overthrown and executed within the walls of Rome itself.

That left Emperor No. 2, Otho, vainly endeavoring to find an arrangement with Vitellius and his marching German ranks. Even though Vitellius et al had rebelled against Galba (not Otho) they were now entirely too committed to their treasonable endeavor to just turn around and march home. In April, Vitellius won the decisive Battle of Bedriacum and Otho made his fame by nobly taking his own life rather than protracting a bloody civil war: “Let Vitellius be victor, since this has pleased the gods; and let the lives of his soldiers also be spared, since this pleases me. Surely it is far better and far more just that one should perish for all than many for one, and that I should refuse on account of one man alone to embroil the Roman people in civil war and cause so great a multitude of human beings to perish.” (Cassius Dio)

Otho’s scruples were not shared by all, including devoted supporters who could hardly fail to be moved by the sacrificial gesture. Most of these declared with the eastern provinces for the general Vespasian, lately engaged in smashing the Jewish revolt in Judea.

Vespasian was destined to be the ultimate winner in the Year of the Four Emperors — the man who could claim power, and hold it, and pass it on to his heirs. With the East came Egypt’s grain supplies, upon which Rome depended. He moved methodically but by October 69 one of his generals was penetrating Italy. By coincidence, the forces of the rival emperors again met at a second Battle of Bedriacum. Once again, it was won by the upstart.

Vitellius was offered appealing surrender terms by the approaching army but his negotiations with Vespasian’s brother were aborted by his own supporters, who besieged that enemy envoy on the Capitoline Hill and eventually put him to death over Vitellius’s objections. Yet as furiously as the Vitellian faction in Rome resisted Vespasian’s conquest that December, the balance of forces decided the outcome in advance. The Flavians at length broke through and on the 22nd of December a desperate Vitellius was captured hiding himself in the palace and making ready to flee once night fell. “Tearing off his tunic,” Cassius Dio writes,

they bound his hands behind his back and put a rope round his neck. And thus they led down from the palace the Caesar who had revelled there; along the Sacred Way they dragged the emperor who had often paraded past in his chair of state, and they conducted the Augustus to the Forum, where he had often addressed the people. Some buffeted him, some plucked at his beard; all mocked him, all insulted him, making comments especially upon his riotous living, since he had a protuberant belly. When, in shame at this treatment, he lowered his gaze, the soldiers would prick him under the chin with their daggers, in order to make him look up even against his will. A German who witnessed this could not endure it, but taking pity on him cried: “I will help you in the only way that I can.” Thereupon he wounded Vitellius and slew himself. Now, Vitellius did not die of the wound, but was dragged to the prison, as were also his statues, while many jests and many opprobrious remarks were made about them. Finally, grieved to the heart at what he had suffered and what he had been hearing, he cried: “And yet I was once your emperor.” At that the soldiers became enraged and led him to the Stairway, where they struck him down. Then they cut off his head and carried it about all over the city.

The Roman History podcast covers Vitellius in Episodes 71 and 72

* Suetonius was also directly self-interested: his father fought for Otho, and against Vitellius, at Bedriacum.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Heads of State,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1941: The massacre at Skede in Liepaja

7 comments December 15th, 2013 Headsman

The World War II occupation of the Latvian town of Liepaja (Libau, to the Germans) produced mass executions throughout 1941.

This date in 1941 commenced one of the largest such actions: over 2,700 Jews as well as 23 Communists forced over the course of two-plus days to strip on the freezing Skede dunes overlooking the Baltic and there shot by German and Latvian teams into a vast pit. It’s one of the most recognizable Holocaust atrocities because it was extensively photographed.*

As one can see from the pictures, the victims here were mostly women.


Some of the women in this photographs can be identified by name (pdf). Left to right: (1) Sorella Epstein; (2) presumably Rosa Epstein, her mother; (3) unknown; (4) Mia Epstein; (5) unknown. Alternate identification makes Mia Epstein (5) instead of (4), and (2) Pauline Goldman.

Almost all of Liepaja’s Jews perished during the war.

* Germany’s Bundesarchiv (search on Libau 1941) confirms the precise December 15 dating for these images; it also has some other photographs of atrocities in Liepaja/Libau on other occasions.

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1934: John and Betty Stam, China missionaries

Add comment December 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1934, Chinese Communists beheaded John and Betty Stam in the Anhui province town of Miaoshu.

The Stams had settled as China Inland Mission proselytizers in the town of Jingde (at their time generally rendered as “Tsingteh”). Betty Stam (nee Scott) had grown up in China, the daughter of a Presbyterian missionary. John was a New Jersey native who had graduated Moody Bible Institute in 1932. They had a three-month-old daughter named Helen Priscilla.

On December 6, 1934, Communist rebels in China’s long-running civil war entered Jingde and seized the foreign family. According to a tribute page kept by a great-nephew of the, John wrote a short note that evening.

Tsingteh, An.
Dec. 6, 1934

China Inland Mission, Shanghai

Dear Brethren,

My wife, baby and myself are today in the hands of the Communists in the city of Tsingteh. Their demand is twenty thousand dollars for our release.

All our possessions and stores are in their hands, but we praise God for peace in our hearts and a meal tonight. God grant you wisdom in what you do, and us fortitude, courage and peace of heart. He is able-and a wonderful Friend in such a time.

Things happened so quickly this a.m. They were in the city just a few hours after the ever-persistent rumors really became alarming, so that we could not prepare to leave in time. We were just too late.

The Lord bless and guide you, and as for us, may God be glorified whether by life or by death.

In Him,
John C. Stam

The author of John and Betty Stam: Missonary Martyr summarizes his subjects’ “inspiring and instructive story” in a blog post here.

A foreboding message, but Christian evangelizing in China had often proved dangerous to its practitioners.

The next day they were marched 12 miles to Miaoshu where they stopped for the night. Facing martyrdom, the couple stowed their daughter away like Moses, hidden in a sleeping bag with John’s last missive and ten dollars that might serve to care for her.

Miraculously, Helen Priscilla would be overlooked when the Stams’ captors came for them on December 8 and marched them through Miaoshu. It’s said that one Chinese vendor made bold to object, and was added to the doomed party for his trouble. At the end of the march, John was forced to his knees and beheaded before his companions’ eyes; Betty and the shopkeep followed him.

Little Helen survived her parents’ ordeal. A Chinese evangelist named Lo found the girl and carried her 100 miles to a mission hospital. She was taken in from there by Betty’s parents and eventually adopted by Betty’s sister and raised in the Philippines before returning to the United States.

Back in China, another missionary, Frank Houghton, was moved by the sacrifice of the Stams to compose a hymn, “Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendour” (set to an old French canticle, Quelle est cette odeur agréable?).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,God,History,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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1982: Dos Erres massacre

Add comment December 7th, 2013 Headsman

On December 7, 1982, a unit of army commandos entered the Guatemalan hamlet of Dos Erres.* There it authored one of the signature atrocities of the bloody Guatemalan Civil War.

This was the Guatemala of Efrain Rios Montt, once a junior officer during the CIA-backed 1954 coup that set in motion decades of civil strife.

Relative brutality in that conflict waxed and waned over the years. In 1982, the now-General Efrain Rios Montt overthrew another general and went full werewolf. “A Christian has to walk around with his Bible and his machine gun,” Rios Montt infamously remarked. And more than walk them: the general’s policy was a you’re-either-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists hard line called Frijoles y Fusiles, “beans and shooting.” Campesinos who were with Rios Montt got the beans.

Shortly before this date’s atrocity, a column of Guatemalan soldiers were ambushed by leftist guerrillas, killing 21. Those guys were going to get the fusiles — them, or any convenient peasants who might hypothetically be on friendly terms with them.

Dos Erres, a remote jungle village of 60 families, was the settlement nearest where the rebels were thought to be operating. The little town had already drawn the ire of the army by resisting recruitment to civil defense patrols.

Late on the night of December 6, 1982, 20 members of Guatemala’s Kaibiles commandos set aside their special forces uniforms and disguised themselves as guerrillas, in green t-shirts and civilian trousers and red armbands. Ostensibly their mission was to recapture the rifles the rebels had seized from the ambushed convoy, which were supposed to be stashed in Dos Erres.

Hiking two hours into the jungle to reach their target, the commandos crept into the still-sleeping settlement at 2 in the morning. With the support of a 40-man regular army detachment to seal Dos Erres’s perimeter, the commandos stormed into residences and drug bewildered townspeople out, herding the men into a school and the women and children into a church.

That commenced an all-day litany of horrors for the residents of what was about to become the former village. Dos Erres was wiped off the map by the end of it.

One of the senior lieutenants on the mission raped a woman, and other commandos immediately availed themselves of the implied license to abuse women and girls. By the end of it, the last sobbing women and children were led out to the forest and machine-gunned en masse.

They were by then the last survivors, save for a little boy who managed to escape into the jungle. Throughout the course of the 7th of December, the Kaibiles brought villagers old and young to the edge of the town well. “As they were brought to the well, they were asked, ‘where are the rifles?’,” one of the participants later described. “They said nothing about rifles, and they were hit on the back of the head with a sledgehammer, and thrown in the well.” Every commando had to participate, so that all were implicated.

Commando Gilberto Jordán drew first blood. He carried a baby to the well and hurled it to its death. Jordán wept as he killed the infant. Yet he and another soldier, Manuel Pop Sun, kept throwing children down the well.

The commandos blindfolded the adults and made them kneel, one at a time. They interrogated them about the rifles, aliases, guerrilla leaders. When the villagers protested that they knew nothing, soldiers hit them on the head with a metal sledgehammer. Then they threw them into the well.

“Malditos!” the villagers screamed at their executioners. “Accursed ones.”

“Hijos de la gran puta, van a morir!” the soldiers yelled back. “Sons of the great whore, you are going to die!”

[Commando Cesar] Ibañez dumped a woman in the well. [Favio] Pinzón, the cook, dragged victims there alongside a sub-lieutenant named Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes. When the well was half-filled, a man who was still alive atop the pile of bodies managed to get his blindfold off. He shouted curses up at the commandos.

“Kill me!” the man said.

“Your mother,” Sosa retorted.

“Your mother, you son of the great whore!”

Pinzón watched as the infuriated Sosa shot the man with his rifle and, for good measure, threw a grenade into the pile. By the end of the afternoon, the well overflowed with corpses.

The commandos left town the next morning with six captives: the rebel who had been forced at gunpoint to guide the Kaibiles to Dos Erres in the first place (he would be executed in the field); three teenage girls (the soldiers that night would take turns raping them, then strangled them the next day); and two very small boys (these were returned to the Kaibiles base). A few days later, the army returned and razed the remains of the devastated town to the ground. Only recently has the site been excavated and its many victims’ remains cataloged for proper burial.

The tragedy of Dos Erres became public in the 1990s. Five soldiers who participated in the butchery have each been sentenced to 6,060 years in prison just for this one incident, but there were many more like it in Guatemala in those years — many more people who were put to Frijoles y Fusiles.

A 1990s truth commission after the war pegged the total number of civilians killed during the war above 200,000, mostly indigenous Mayans and (as was the case for most at Dos Erres) mestizos. “State forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of the violations documented.”

The truth commission also found that the “government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations.” Indeed, supporting death squads against leftists in Central American dirty wars was overt U.S. policy during the 1980s; just days before Dos Erres, U.S. President Ronald Reagan returned from a Latin American tour and told reporters that Rios Montt, whom he had just met, was “totally dedicated to democracy in Guatemala.”

“They’ve been getting a bum rap” from human rights nabobs, Reagan averred.

In the fullness of time that rap would eventually encompass Rios Montt’s own remarkable conviction for crimes against humanity and (since the Mayan population was targeted en masse) genocide in a landmark case that’s still being appealed as of this writing. (The May 2013 verdict against Rios Montt was immediately overturned; the case is obviously extremely politically sensitive.) In a separate case, he’s been charged specifically with responsibility for the Dos Erres massacre.

U.S. President Bill Clinton formally apologized for Washington’s role in Guatemala after the truth commission’s findings were issued in 1999.

The PBS radio program This American Life has an hour-long documentary about Dos Erres here; a companion ProPublica series has even richer (and more horrifying) detail.

* Named for its founders, two men named Ruano and Reyes, the name literally meant “two Rs”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Children,Execution,Guatemala,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women

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1864: Bill Sketoe, hole haunt

Add comment December 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1864, a hulking Methodist minister by the name of Bill Sketoe was hanged in Newton, Alabama … but his ghost story was only just beginning.

Sketoe’s life is nearly as spectral as his death, but he is known to have been a longtime denizen of Newton’s Dale County where he preached the gospel and fathered a biblically-appropriate brood of seven children.

The easiest version says that Sketoe deserted the Confederate army to care for his sick wife. However, there’s no documentary evidence that Sketoe actually served under arms in the Civil War, although two of his sons did. He might actually have been suspected of aiding Unionist raiders haunting the forests — men like John Ward, a local pro-Union guerrilla with whom Confederate guards had just days before fought a skirmish.*

For whatever reason, a local Confederate cavalry militia under one Captain Joseph Breare seized the preacher near the Choctawhatchee River on December 3, 1864, and hanged him to a convenient tree.

Now, Bill Sketoe was a large man, and the bough of the Post Oak that supported his noose bent to his weight until Sketoe’s toes touched the ground. For an ad hoc execution, an ad hoc solution: one of Breare’s so-called “Buttermilk Rangers” simply dug out the ground around Sketoe’s feet until they dangled free in the hole and their owner could strangle to death properly.

Beloved Alabama storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham immortalized “The Hole That Will Not Stay Filled”, one of the chapters of her 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. Local legend, it seems, held that whenever someone later filled in Sketoe’s dangling-pit — with dirt, rubbish, or anything else — it would be mysteriously un-filled within hours.

Unfortunately the present-day skeptic will not be able to put geist to test because “Sketoe’s Hole” was destroyed in a 1990 flood, and is today covered over with tons of rocks supporting a bridge strut — too much infill even for spooks. (Though not enough to deter visitors.)

Sketoe’s executioner Joseph Breare resumed his law practice after the war … until a falling tree killed him during a storm in 1866.

* David Williams develops the John Ward connection in Rich Man’s War: Caste, Class, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley. A few months later an incursion of different irregulars led by a Dale County Confederate officer who deserted to the Union, Joseph Sanders, precipitated the Battle of Newton.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Alabama,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Popular Culture,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,USA,Wartime Executions

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602: Emperor Maurice and all his heirs

Add comment November 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 602 (although some sources prefer November 23, but that’s close enough for ancient history) the 20-year reign of Byzantine Emperor Maurice came to a most unpleasant conclusion.

No gangster of love, Maurice made his bones (and other bones) as a military commander in a running war with the Sassanids unproductively engaged by the forgettable successors of Justinian.

So successful was the progress of his arms that Emperor Tiberius II Constantine married his daughter to Maurice and set him up as the official heir, a sage expedient considering that Roman commanders had once been known to take the succession into their own hands.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened to Maurice.

As a reward for his many victories in the field, Maurice got to take charge of a badly stumbling state: war both east and west (Maurice made peace with the Persians and brought the Slavs and Avars to heel in the Balkans), the intractable intra-Christian Monophysite controversy (Maurice extended a politic religious toleration), the bankruptcy of his state (Maurice cleaned up the reckless prodigality of his predecessors). For twenty years Maurice managed as well as anyone a very messy situation that in clumsier hands might easily have consumed the state entirely.

In the end this might be his legacy, for good and ill: a manager, not a visionary. Byzantium maybe doesn’t even survive without Maurice, but he was not fated to be familiar to posterity’s every schoolchild like Octavian Augustus — merely to lose his job to office politics.

Maurice, says Charles William Previte-Orton, “was a better judge of policy than of men.” And while the emperor “saw the dire need of economy,” he “forgot that the army did not” and so fatally disregarded “the ferment among the overtried soldiery.”

Maurice had already irritated his Dacian legions by refusing to pay an Avar ransom for their captured brethren — that fiscal rectitude thing, always a dangerous virtue to exercise in proximity to armed men. Now, he provocatively dialed back their pay and then tried to keep them beyond the frontier in Avar territory rather than retiring to home winter quarters.

The legions mutinied, thrusting a mere centurion named Phocas (or Phokas) to their fore. As Maurice commanded neither love nor fear in his home precincts, Constantinople itself yielded readily to the rebels while the enervated erstwhile emperor crossed the Bosphorus and there resigned to his fate not only himself but the several sons he had been designating to succeed him on thrones East and West. Gibbon:

Phocas made his public entry in a chariot drawn by four white horses: the revolt of the troops was rewarded by a lavish donative; and the new sovereign, after visiting the palace, beheld from his throne the games of the hippodrome. … The ministers of death were despatched to Chalcedon: they dragged the emperor from his sanctuary; and the five sons of Maurice were successively murdered before the eyes of their agonizing parent. At each stroke, which he felt in his heart, he found strength to rehearse a pious ejaculation: “Thou art just, O Lord! and thy judgments are righteous.” And such, in the last moments, was his rigid attachment to truth and justice, that he revealed to the soldiers the pious falsehood of a nurse who presented her own child in the place of a royal infant. The tragic scene was finally closed by the execution of the emperor himself, in the twentieth year of his reign, and the sixty-third of his age. The bodies of the father and his five sons were cast into the sea; their heads were exposed at Constantinople to the insults or pity of the multitude; and it was not till some signs of putrefaction had appeared, that Phocas connived at the private burial of these venerable remains. In that grave, the faults and errors of Maurice were kindly interred. His fate alone was remembered; and at the end of twenty years, in the recital of the history of Theophylact, the mournful tale was interrupted by the tears of the audience.

Maurice’s widow Constantina and his daughters were suffered to live, but only for a few years more: they too were eventually put to death for plotting. It was the perfect way to kick off a calamitous century for the Byzantines.

Phocas wore the purple from 602 to 610. Just guess how his term in office ended.

The History of Byzantium podcast covers Maurice’s rough go at the top in episode 34, 35, and 36.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Byzantine Empire,Execution,Gibbeted,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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