Posts filed under 'Summary Executions'

1646: Zhu Yujian, the Prince of Tang

Add comment October 6th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1646, Zhu Yujian was captured and summarily executed at Tingzhou.

This gentleman went under the title Prince of Tang, making him Beavis and Butthead’s favorite Ming despot. Indeed, he was a direct descendant of the founder of that illustrious dynasty. Unfortunately for the Prince of Tang, that descent was of the ninth generation, which meant that the Ming were well into their decadence and decline.

The Prince of Tang had spent essentially the whole of his adult life seeing the state eaten away by sclerotic bureaucracy, internal revolts, economic breakdown … and, as a consequence of all that erosion, by the incursions of the Manchus.

The first ruler of those people’s successor Qing dynasty was already on the Chinese throne at this point, having seized the capital Beijing in 1644. The splintering thereafter of Ming officials and loyalists led to, among other transitional formations, a “Southern Ming dynasty” — far southern, almost to Burma. The Prince of Tang would accede to this contingent remnant of a once-glorious dominion, and enjoy the conceit of the purple and its prospect of imminent violent death for the last 14 months of his life.

When his able military commander Zheng Zhilong saw the writing on the wall and defected, Qing soldiers pouring through defenseless passes and over the Qiantang River swiftly routed the demoralized southern Qing in the summer of 1646.

The Longwu Emperor — that’s what the Prince of Tang was styling himself, the name inaptly meaning “plentiful and martial” — spent his last days being driven from pillar to post ahead of the Qing before he was finally overtaken and put to summary death with his wife.

The Southern Ming would fight on another fifteen years, but the particular familial branch embodied by the Prince of Tang met an unceremonious end long before the Ming as a whole succumbed. Zhu Yujian’s younger brother succeeded him as “the Shaowu emperor” that December and squandered the scant resources of his statelet — “lacking court dress, the thousands of officials who were appointed to the Shaowu government … had to buy theatrical robes from local actors” — on a few weeks’ counterproductive civil strife with a rival Ming claimant until the Qing utterly overran them.

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782: 4,500 Saxons by order of Charlemagne

7 comments September 23rd, 2012 Headsman

On an unknown date in the latter half of 782, Charlemagne did some seriously nasty business with a captured army of Saxons.

In the late 8th century, the King of the Franks was fighting a decades-long running campaign against Saxon tribes at the edge of his sprawling European empire.

One part Christianizing the pagans and one (or more) parts territorial aggrandizement, Charlemagne’s exertions on the Rhinish frontier were opposed by Widukind, or Witikind, or Widochind, whose “forest-child” name belies its owner’s legendary ferocity.


Widukind was reclaimed in the Renaissance as a patriotic or national figure. (Source)

In the summer of 782, when Charlemagne perhaps thought he had whatever passed for peace among the querulous Saxons, Widukind raised a revolt and dealt the Franks a stinging defeat that put a couple of imperial legates into the ground and made some martyrs out of clerics he found in the wrong place at the time.

Charlemagne’s forces counterattacked and routed the Saxons at the Battle of Suntel (or Sonnethal) Mountain, and thereupon

questioned the primores of the Saxons, all of whom be had summoned to attend him, as to who was responsible for the rebellion which had taken place. And since they all declared that Widukind was the author of this wickedness but were unable to deliver him up in view of the fact that he had taken himself off to the Northmen once the deed had been done, no fewer than 4500 of the others, those who had fallen in with his promptings and committed such a gross outrage, were handed over and at the place on the river Aller called Verden, at the king’s command, all beheaded in a single day. Thus was punishment executed; and the king then retired to winter-quarters at Thionville, where he celebrated both the Lord’s birthday and Easter in the customary fashion.

This merciless slaughter of prisoners is one of the lasting blights on Charlemagne’s impressive reputation. Even so, the reputation had the last word: three years later, Witikind was finally defeated and delivered up, in person, to the Frankish ruler … who accepted the Saxon pagan’s submission and forced him to convert to Christianity.


Charlemagne receives Witikind’s submission at Paderborn in 785.

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1763: Gabriela Silang

1 comment September 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1763, the mestiza Philippines national hero Maria Josefa Gabriela Carino Silang was captured and summarily hanged — along with a number of the soldiers she had led against the Spanish.


Monument to Gabriela Silang in Makati City, Philippines. (cc) image from Jun Acullador.

Gabriela took primary leadership of a 2,000-strong rebel army after its co-leader, her husband Diego, was assassinated by his enemies in May 1763.

Said enemies were the Spanish colonial authorities, whom Diego and his helpmate Gabriela had raised revolt against and with an army wielding homemade muskets and blowguns, driven from the capital of Ilocos Sur. It was Great Britain’s occupation of the Philippines during the Seven Years War that opened the opportunity for the rebellion: the British even appointed Diego Silang governor of the province his army was in the process of conquering. They just didn’t actually help him.

Spain’s assault on the rebels, once organized, was sufficiently overwhelming to drive Gabriela Silang out of the city of Vigan, and then to repel her counterattack — the occasion for her capture and her death.

Gabriela Silang is memorialized in a number of monuments and place names in the Philippines; the women’s organization GABRIELA also engineered its acronym to pay tribute to her.

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1942: Ten for Meir Berliner’s murder of a Treblinka officer

5 comments September 11th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On September 11, 1942, Meir Berliner, an inmate of the Treblinka Extermination Camp, stabbed Unterscharführer Max Bialas to death with a penknife during evening roll-call. The Nizkor Project summarizes:

Max Bialas

At the evening roll-call of the prisoners, Max Bialas instructed those who had arrived that same day to line up on the side. It was not clear who was to be liquidated — the new arrivals or those who had arrived earlier. At that moment Berliner jumped out from the ranks of the prisoners, lurched toward Bialas and stabbed him with a knife. A great commotion followed. The Ukranian guards opened fire. Berliner was killed on the spot. and in the course of the shooting more than ten other prisoners were killed and others were wounded. When the tumult subsided the prisoners were lined up again for roll-call. Christian Wirth, who was in Treblinka at the time, arrived on the scene accompanied by Kurt Franz, the second in command of the camp. Ten men were removed from the ranks and shot on the spot in full view of all the others. On the following day, during the morning roll-call, another 150 men were taken out, brought to the Lazarett [the so-called “hospital” which was in fact an execution site] and shot there.

Little is known about Berliner.

According to the testimony of fellow-inmate Abraham Krzepicki, he was a middle-aged Jewish citizen of Argentina who had lived in that country for many years.

He and his wife and young daughter traveled to Poland on vacation in the summer of 1939. They could have picked a better time: when Germany invaded on September 1, 1939, the Berliners were unable to return home. Their Argentine passports should have protected them, but they ended up in the Warsaw Ghetto and were transported to Treblinka. Berliner’s wife and child were gassed immediately, but he was spared to work.

This reprieve would be expected to last days, or a few weeks at the most before he too would go to the gas chamber. Berliner became consumed with rage and the thirst for revenge, supposedly saying, “When the oppressors give me two choices, I always take the third.”

And so he took the first opportunity he could to kill one of his tormentors. As Yitzhak Arad said in his book Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps*: “His was an individual act of heroism and despair.”

As he must have known he would, Berliner died a horrible death — according to Krzepicki, he was beaten to death with a shovel.

Ironically, following Bialas’s murder, conditions for prisoners at Treblinka actually improved.

This was strictly for pragmatic reasons, as Arad noted: “The Jews selected for temporary work were a danger to the Germans, and the Berliner incident had proved it … When people knew they had nothing to lose, an act of despair like that of Meir Berliner could happen again and again.”

Rather than constantly killing and replacing their workers, the Nazis in charge of the camp decided to create a permanent staff of prisoner-workers and treat them with relative humanity. In this way, they hoped to prevent further acts of suicidal violence on the part of the Jews.

The existence of a permanent cadre of workers made it possible to plan and organize a revolt and mass escape from the camp. In August 1943, after months of conspiring and gathering the necessary weapons, the inmates killed most of the guards and made a run for it. About 300 or so actually made it outside of camp; of those, approximately 60 would survive the war.

* Operation Reinhard is presumably named for Reinhard Heydrich.

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1812: Not Pierre Bezukhov, in War and Peace

3 comments September 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date* in French-occupied Moscow of the War of 1812, many alleged arsonists — unnamed and unnumbered — were shot by Napoleon’s army in the ashes of Moscow.

Although real, flesh-and-blood Muscovites died, they are best known via their bespectacled fictional companion, Pierre Bezukhov, whose miraculous escape is one of the pivotal episodes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Merely the greatest novel in history by some reckonings — we’ll just let Tolstoy fight it out with Dostoyevsky for top of table in the competitive 19th Century Russia literary scene — the epic War and Peace tracks that country’s transformation under the revolutionary pressures of the Napoleonic age.

In Russian director Sergey Bondarchuk’s sprawling cinematic adaptation of War and Peace, the part of Pierre Bezukhov is played by Bondarchuk himself.

Pierre Bezukhov (“without ears”) is one of the book’s central figures, the illegitimate son of a count who unexpectedly inherits, forever consumed with his next impulsive, passionate quest for meaning (boozing around, freemasonry, religion …).

Pierre finds himself present in Moscow when the Grande Armee rolls in following its Pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Borodino. His fancy of the moment is to assassinate Napoleon: “he suddenly felt that what before had seemed to him merely a possibility had now become absolutely necessary and inevitable. He must remain in Moscow, concealing his name, and must meet Napoleon and kill him, and either perish or put an end to the misery of all Europe.” And to think, a younger Pierre actually used to admire Napoleon.


Historically, the city of Moscow started burning as soon as the French occupied it. The reasons for this conflagration have been widely disputed; Tolstoy detours in War and Peace to characterize it as nothing more than the natural consequence of the occupation, when the city’s civil infrastructure has broken down and the everyday fires that spark in wooden buildings are more liable to grow out of control.

The French blamed terrorists.

A bulletin of the Grande Armee dated September 20 (Gregorian date; this corresponds to the Julian date September 8) reports on the successful efforts to bring arsonists to heel through the expedient of mass executions.

Three hundred incendiaries have been arrested and shot; they were provided with fuse six inches long, which they had between two pieces of wood: they had also squibs, which they threw upon the roofs of the houses. The wretch Rastapchin had these prepared, on the pretence that he wished to send a balloon, full of combustible matter, amidst the French army …

The fires subsided on the 19th and 20th; three quarters of the city are burned; among other palaces that beautiful one of Catherine, which had been newly furnished: not above a quarter of the houses remain. …

Manufactures were beginning to flourish at Moscow: they are destroyed. The conflagration of this capital will throw Russia one hundred years back. The weather is becoming rainy: the greatest part of the army is in barracks in Moscow.


In this paranoid occupation, the fictional Pierre, wandering Moscow armed without a good excuse, gets himself picked up by French troops.

The travail of his resulting drumhead trial offers the anti-authoritarian (and anti-death penalty) Tolstoy the opportunity to reflect on the “legal” arrangements, a passage Tolstoy dates September 8 on the Julian calendar — the same day that army bulletin above was penned.

[Pierre] learned that all these prisoners (he, probably, among them) were to be tried for incendiarism. On the third day he was taken with the others to a house where a French general with a white mustache sat with two colonels and other Frenchmen with scarves on their arms. With the precision and definiteness customary in addressing prisoners, and which is supposed to preclude human frailty, Pierre like the others was questioned as to who he was, where he had been, with what object, and so on.

These questions, like questions put at trials generally, left the essence of the matter aside, shut out the possibility of that essence’s being revealed, and were designed only to form a channel through which the judges wished the answers of the accused to flow so as to lead to the desired result, namely a conviction. As soon as Pierre began to say anything that did not fit in with that aim, the channel was removed and the water could flow to waste. Pierre felt, moreover, what the accused always feel at their trial, perplexity as to why these questions were put to him. He had a feeling that it was only out of condescension or a kind of civility that this device of placing a channel was employed. He knew he was in these men’s power, that only by force had they brought him there, that force alone gave them the right to demand answers to their questions, and that the sole object of that assembly was to inculpate him. And so, as they had the power and wish to inculpate him, this expedient of an inquiry and trial seemed unnecessary. It was evident that any answer would lead to conviction.

It’s only by Pierre’s chance ability to forge a human connection with the officer detailed to condemn him that he’s mysteriously, and arbitrarily, not sentenced to death — a fact that Pierre doesn’t even realize until he’s led out with the rest of the prisoners only to see that it’s “only” the others who are being shot. This is the narration at length from Book XII, Chapters 10-11.

On the eighth of September an officer- a very important one judging by the respect the guards showed him- entered the coach house where the prisoners were. This officer, probably someone on the staff, was holding a paper in his hand, and called over all the Russians there, naming Pierre as “the man who does not give his name.” Glancing indolently and indifferently at all the prisoners, he ordered the officer in charge to have them decently dressed and tidied up before taking them to the marshal. An hour later a squad of soldiers arrived and Pierre with thirteen others was led to the Virgin’s Field. It was a fine day, sunny after rain, and the air was unusually pure. The smoke did not hang low as on the day when Pierre had been taken from the guardhouse on the Zubovski rampart, but rose through the pure air in columns. No flames were seen, but columns of smoke rose on all sides, and all Moscow as far as Pierre could see was one vast charred ruin. On all sides there were waste spaces with only stoves and chimney stacks still standing, and here and there the blackened walls of some brick houses. Pierre gazed at the ruins and did not recognize districts he had known well. Here and there he could see churches that had not been burned. The Kremlin, which was not destroyed, gleamed white in the distance with its towers and the belfry of Ivan the Great. The domes of the New Convent of the Virgin glittered brightly and its bells were ringing particularly clearly. These bells reminded Pierre that it was Sunday and the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. But there seemed to be no one to celebrate this holiday: everywhere were blackened ruins, and the few Russians to be seen were tattered and frightened people who tried to hide when they saw the French.

Pierre had been taken by one set of soldiers and led first to one and then to another place with dozens of other men, and it seemed that they might have forgotten him, or confused him with the others. But no: the answers he had given when questioned had come back to him in his designation as “the man who does not give his name,” and under that appellation, which to Pierre seemed terrible, they were now leading him somewhere with unhesitating assurance on their faces that he and all the other prisoners were exactly the ones they wanted and that they were being taken to the proper place. Pierre felt himself to be an insignificant chip fallen among the wheels of a machine whose action he did not understand but which was working well.

He and the other prisoners were taken to the right side of the Virgin’s Field, to a large white house with an immense garden not far from the convent. This was Prince Shcherbatov‘s house, where Pierre had often been in other days, and which, as he learned from the talk of the soldiers, was now occupied by the marshal, the Duke of Eckmuhl (Davout).

They were taken to the entrance and led into the house one by one. Pierre was the sixth to enter. He was conducted through a glass gallery, an anteroom, and a hall, which were familiar to him, into a long low study at the door of which stood an adjutant.

Davout, spectacles on nose, sat bent over a table at the further end of the room. Pierre went close up to him, but Davout, evidently consulting a paper that lay before him, did not look up. Without raising his eyes, he said in a low voice:

“Who are you?”

Pierre was silent because he was incapable of uttering a word. To him Davout was not merely a French general, but a man notorious for his cruelty. Looking at his cold face, as he sat like a stern schoolmaster who was prepared to wait awhile for an answer, Pierre felt that every instant of delay might cost him his life; but he did not know what to say. He did not venture to repeat what he had said at his first examination, yet to disclose his rank and position was dangerous and embarrassing. So he was silent. But before he had decided what to do, Davout raised his head, pushed his spectacles back on his forehead, screwed up his eyes, and looked intently at him.

“I know that man,” he said in a cold, measured tone, evidently calculated to frighten Pierre.

The chill that had been running down Pierre’s back now seized his head as in a vise.

“You cannot know me, General, I have never seen you…”

“He is a Russian spy,” Davout interrupted, addressing another general who was present, but whom Pierre had not noticed.

Davout turned away. With an unexpected reverberation in his voice Pierre rapidly began:

“No, monseigneur,” he said, suddenly remembering that Davout was a duke. “No, monseigneur, you cannot have known me. I am a militia officer and have not quitted Moscow.”

“Your name?” asked Davout.

“Bezukhov.”

“What proof have I that you are not lying?”

“Monseigneur!” exclaimed Pierre, not in an offended but in a pleading voice.

Davout looked up and gazed intently at him. For some seconds they looked at one another, and that look saved Pierre. Apart from conditions of war and law, that look established human relations between the two men. At that moment an immense number of things passed dimly through both their minds, and they realized that they were both children of humanity and were brothers.

At the first glance, when Davout had only raised his head from the papers where human affairs and lives were indicated by numbers, Pierre was merely a circumstance, and Davout could have shot him without burdening his conscience with an evil deed, but now he saw in him a human being. He reflected for a moment.

“How can you show me that you are telling the truth?” said Davout coldly.

Pierre remembered Ramballe, and named him and his regiment and the street where the house was.

“You are not what you say,” returned Davout.

In a trembling, faltering voice Pierre began adducing proofs of the truth of his statements.

But at that moment an adjutant entered and reported something to Davout.

Davout brightened up at the news the adjutant brought, and began buttoning up his uniform. It seemed that he had quite forgotten Pierre.

When the adjutant reminded him of the prisoner, he jerked his head in Pierre’s direction with a frown and ordered him to be led away. But where they were to take him Pierre did not know: back to the coach house or to the place of execution his companions had pointed out to him as they crossed the Virgin’s Field.

He turned his head and saw that the adjutant was putting another question to Davout.

“Yes, of course!” replied Davout, but what this “yes” meant, Pierre did not know.

Pierre could not afterwards remember how he went, whether it was far, or in which direction. His faculties were quite numbed, he was stupefied, and noticing nothing around him went on moving his legs as the others did till they all stopped and he stopped too. The only thought in his mind at that time was: who was it that had really sentenced him to death? Not the men on the commission that had first examined him — not one of them wished to or, evidently, could have done it. It was not Davout, who had looked at him in so human a way. In another moment Davout would have realized that he was doing wrong, but just then the adjutant had come in and interrupted him. The adjutant, also, had evidently had no evil intent though he might have refrained from coming in. Then who was executing him, killing him, depriving him of life — him, Pierre, with all his memories, aspirations, hopes, and thoughts? Who was doing this? And Pierre felt that it was no one.

It was a system — a concurrence of circumstances.

A system of some sort was killing him — Pierre — depriving him of life, of everything, annihilating him.

From Prince Shcherbatov’s house the prisoners were led straight down the Virgin’s Field, to the left of the nunnery, as far as a kitchen garden in which a post had been set up. Beyond that post a fresh pit had been dug in the ground, and near the post and the pit a large crowd stood in a semicircle. The crowd consisted of a few Russians and many of Napoleon’s soldiers who were not on duty- Germans, Italians, and Frenchmen, in a variety of uniforms. To the right and left of the post stood rows of French troops in blue uniforms with red epaulets and high boots and shakos.

The prisoners were placed in a certain order, according to the list (Pierre was sixth), and were led to the post. Several drums suddenly began to beat on both sides of them, and at that sound Pierre felt as if part of his soul had been torn away. He lost the power of thinking or understanding. He could only hear and see. And he had only one wish- that the frightful thing that had to happen should happen quickly. Pierre looked round at his fellow prisoners and scrutinized them.

The two first were convicts with shaven heads. One was tall and thin, the other dark, shaggy, and sinewy, with a flat nose. The third was a domestic serf, about forty-five years old, with grizzled hair and a plump, well-nourished body. The fourth was a peasant, a very handsome man with a broad, light-brown beard and black eyes. The fifth was a factory hand, a thin, sallow-faced lad of eighteen in a loose coat.

Pierre heard the French consulting whether to shoot them separately or two at a time. “In couples,” replied the officer in command in a calm voice. There was a stir in the ranks of the soldiers and it was evident that they were all hurrying — not as men hurry to do something they understand, but as people hurry to finish a necessary but unpleasant and incomprehensible task.

A French official wearing a scarf came up to the right of the row of prisoners and read out the sentence in Russian and in French.

Then two pairs of Frenchmen approached the criminals and at the officer’s command took the two convicts who stood first in the row. The convicts stopped when they reached the post and, while sacks were being brought, looked dumbly around as a wounded beast looks at an approaching huntsman. One crossed himself continually, the other scratched his back and made a movement of the lips resembling a smile. With hurried hands the soldiers blindfolded them, drawing the sacks over their heads, and bound them to the post.

Twelve sharpshooters with muskets stepped out of the ranks with a firm regular tread and halted eight paces from the post. Pierre turned away to avoid seeing what was going to happen. Suddenly a crackling, rolling noise was heard which seemed to him louder than the most terrific thunder, and he looked round. There was some smoke, and the Frenchmen were doing something near the pit, with pale faces and trembling hands. Two more prisoners were led up. In the same way and with similar looks, these two glanced vainly at the onlookers with only a silent appeal for protection in their eyes, evidently unable to understand or believe what was going to happen to them. They could not believe it because they alone knew what their life meant to them, and so they neither understood nor believed that it could be taken from them.

Again Pierre did not wish to look and again turned away; but again the sound as of a frightful explosion struck his ear, and at the same moment he saw smoke, blood, and the pale, scared faces of the Frenchmen who were again doing something by the post, their trembling hands impeding one another. Pierre, breathing heavily, looked around as if asking what it meant. The same question was expressed in all the looks that met his.

On the faces of all the Russians and of the French soldiers and officers without exception, he read the same dismay, horror, and conflict that were in his own heart. “But who, after all, is doing this? They are all suffering as I am. Who then is it? Who?” flashed for an instant through his mind.

“Sharpshooters of the 86th, forward!” shouted someone. The fifth prisoner, the one next to Pierre, was led away- alone. Pierre did not understand that he was saved, that he and the rest had been brought there only to witness the execution. With ever-growing horror, and no sense of joy or relief, he gazed at what was taking place. The fifth man was the factory lad in the loose cloak. The moment they laid hands on him he sprang aside in terror and clutched at Pierre. (Pierre shuddered and shook himself free.) The lad was unable to walk. They dragged him along, holding him up under the arms, and he screamed. When they got him to the post he grew quiet, as if he suddenly understood something. Whether he understood that screaming was useless or whether he thought it incredible that men should kill him, at any rate he took his stand at the post, waiting to be blindfolded like the others, and like a wounded animal looked around him with glittering eyes.

Pierre was no longer able to turn away and close his eyes. His curiosity and agitation, like that of the whole crowd, reached the highest pitch at this fifth murder. Like the others this fifth man seemed calm; he wrapped his loose cloak closer and rubbed one bare foot with the other.

When they began to blindfold him he himself adjusted the knot which hurt the back of his head; then when they propped him against the bloodstained post, he leaned back and, not being comfortable in that position, straightened himself, adjusted his feet, and leaned back again more comfortably. Pierre did not take his eyes from him and did not miss his slightest movement.

Probably a word of command was given and was followed by the reports of eight muskets; but try as he would Pierre could not afterwards remember having heard the slightest sound of the shots. He only saw how the workman suddenly sank down on the cords that held him, how blood showed itself in two places, how the ropes slackened under the weight of the hanging body, and how the workman sat down, his head hanging unnaturally and one leg bent under him. Pierre ran up to the post. No one hindered him. Pale, frightened people were doing something around the workman. The lower jaw of an old Frenchman with a thick mustache trembled as he untied the ropes. The body collapsed. The soldiers dragged it awkwardly from the post and began pushing it into the pit.

They all plainly and certainly knew that they were criminals who must hide the traces of their guilt as quickly as possible.

Pierre glanced into the pit and saw that the factory lad was lying with his knees close up to his head and one shoulder higher than the other. That shoulder rose and fell rhythmically and convulsively, but spadefuls of earth were already being thrown over the whole body. One of the soldiers, evidently suffering, shouted gruffly and angrily at Pierre to go back. But Pierre did not understand him and remained near the post, and no one drove him away.

When the pit had been filled up a command was given. Pierre was taken back to his place, and the rows of troops on both sides of the post made a half turn and went past it at a measured pace. The twenty-four sharpshooters with discharged muskets, standing in the center of the circle, ran back to their places as the companies passed by.

Pierre gazed now with dazed eyes at these sharpshooters who ran in couples out of the circle. All but one rejoined their companies. This one, a young soldier, his face deadly pale, his shako pushed back, and his musket resting on the ground, still stood near the pit at the spot from which he had fired. He swayed like a drunken man, taking some steps forward and back to save himself from falling. An old, noncommissioned officer ran out of the ranks and taking him by the elbow dragged him to his company. The crowd of Russians and Frenchmen began to disperse. They all went away silently and with drooping heads.

“That will teach them to start fires,” said one of the Frenchmen.

Pierre glanced round at the speaker and saw that it was a soldier who was trying to find some relief after what had been done, but was not able to do so. Without finishing what he had begun to say he made a hopeless movement with his arm and went away.

* It’s our practice (although we’re sure it’s been violated here and there) to utilize Gregorian dates universally after the mid-18th century, even for executions in Orthodox Christendom where the Julian calendar prevailed into the 20th century. For this post, seeing as it’s straight from the text of Tolstoy himself, in his magnum opus, channeling the soul of the Russian rodina, we’re making an exception: the 12-day-slower, local-to-Russia Julian calendar prevails … just like the Russians themselves did.

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1789: Joseph-Francois Foulon, corrupt financier, lynched

Add comment July 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date, just days after the Bastille fell, so did the head of widely-loathed ancien regime pol Joseph-Francois Foulon (or Foullon) de Doue.

“This is that same Foulon,” says Carlyle, “named ame damnee du Parlement; a man grown gray in treachery, in griping, projecting, intriguing and iniquity: who once when it was objected, to some finance-scheme of his, ‘What will the people do?’ — made answer, in the fire of discussion, ‘The people may eat grass:’ hasty words, which fly abroad irrevocable, — and will send back tidings!”

Marie Antoinette, eat your cake out.

Foulon’s grass tidings would arrive courtesy of the king‘s July 11, 1789 dismissal of Finance Minister Jacques Necker and attempt to rule through an ultra-royalist government. It was fury over this apparent reactionary coup that led to the storming of the Bastille and catalyzed the French Revolution.

Foulon, now the Controller-General of Finances — and as Carlyle puts it, “a scoundrel; but of unmeasured wealth,” who had gorged himself at the public trough while the kingdom’s finances grew thin, and who was widely suspected of having manipulated the food supply out of cruel rapacity — apprehended the danger and fled town. He even staged a lavish funeral to put about word that he had died suddenly.

But “some living domestic or dependant, for none loves Foulon,” betrayed him (Carlyle’s version) — or by whatever means, the Parisian mob sniffed him out. Then it quickly did to him what the Parisian mob would soon become famous for. “His old head, which seventy-four years have bleached, is bare; they have tied an emblematic bundle of grass on his back; a garland of nettles and thistles is round his neck: in this manner; led with ropes; goaded on with curses and menaces, must he, with his old limbs, sprawl forward; the pitiablest, most unpitied of all old men.”

Carlyle spares little but the most animal pity for Foulon, but the mob did not even muster that. Summoned to be judged at the Hotel de Ville — the Marquis de Lafayette and the new mayor of Paris, Bailly, unsuccessfully attempted to intercede for proper procedure — Foulon found himself instead subject to the revolutionary judgment of the masses.

For Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, this incident forms one of the mileposts of the Revolution, when the waiting sans-culottes of Saint Antoine are transfigured, and leads the fictional long-time revolutionary conspirator Defarge to sigh to his even more implacable wife, “At last it is come, my dear!”

“Does everybody here recall old Foulon, who told the famished people that they might eat grass, and who died, and went to Hell?”

“Everybody!” from all throats.

“The news is of him. He is among us!”

“Among us!” from the universal throat again. “And dead?”

“Not dead! He feared us so much—and with reason—that he caused himself to be represented as dead, and had a grand mock-funeral. But they have found him alive, hiding in the country, and have brought him in. I have seen him but now, on his way to the Hotel de Ville, a prisoner. I have said that he had reason to fear us. Say all! Had he reason?”

Wretched old sinner of more than threescore years and ten, if he had never known it yet, he would have known it in his heart of hearts if he could have heard the answering cry.

A moment of profound silence followed. Defarge and his wife looked steadfastly at one another. The Vengeance stooped, and the jar of a drum was heard as she moved it at her feet behind the counter.

“Patriots!” said Defarge, in a determined voice, “are we ready?”

Instantly Madame Defarge’s knife was in her girdle; the drum was beating in the streets, as if it and a drummer had flown together by magic; and The Vengeance, uttering terrific shrieks, and flinging her arms about her head like all the forty Furies at once, was tearing from house to house, rousing the women.

The men were terrible, in the bloody-minded anger with which they looked from windows, caught up what arms they had, and came pouring down into the streets; but, the women were a sight to chill the boldest. From such household occupations as their bare poverty yielded, from their children, from their aged and their sick crouching on the bare ground famished and naked, they ran out with streaming hair, urging one another, and themselves, to madness with the wildest cries and actions. Villain Foulon taken, my sister! Old Foulon taken, my mother! Miscreant Foulon taken, my daughter! Then, a score of others ran into the midst of these, beating their breasts, tearing their hair, and screaming, Foulon alive! Foulon who told the starving people they might eat grass! Foulon who told my old father that he might eat grass, when I had no bread to give him! Foulon who told my baby it might suck grass, when these breasts were dry with want! O mother of God, this Foulon! O Heaven our suffering! Hear me, my dead baby and my withered father: I swear on my knees, on these stones, to avenge you on Foulon! Husbands, and brothers, and young men, Give us the blood of Foulon, Give us the head of Foulon, Give us the heart of Foulon, Give us the body and soul of Foulon, Rend Foulon to pieces, and dig him into the ground, that grass may grow from him! With these cries, numbers of the women, lashed into blind frenzy, whirled about, striking and tearing at their own friends until they dropped into a passionate swoon, and were only saved by the men belonging to them from being trampled under foot.

Nevertheless, not a moment was lost; not a moment! This Foulon was at the Hotel de Ville, and might be loosed. Never, if Saint Antoine knew his own sufferings, insults, and wrongs! Armed men and women flocked out of the Quarter so fast, and drew even these last dregs after them with such a force of suction, that within a quarter of an hour there was not a human creature in Saint Antoine’s bosom but a few old crones and the wailing children.

No. They were all by that time choking the Hall of Examination where this old man, ugly and wicked, was, and overflowing into the adjacent open space and streets. The Defarges, husband and wife, The Vengeance, and Jacques Three, were in the first press, and at no great distance from him in the Hall.

“See!” cried madame, pointing with her knife. “See the old villain bound with ropes. That was well done to tie a bunch of grass upon his back. Ha, ha! That was well done. Let him eat it now!” Madame put her knife under her arm, and clapped her hands as at a play.

The people immediately behind Madame Defarge, explaining the cause of her satisfaction to those behind them, and those again explaining to others, and those to others, the neighbouring streets resounded with the clapping of hands. Similarly, during two or three hours of drawl, and the winnowing of many bushels of words, Madame Defarge’s frequent expressions of impatience were taken up, with marvellous quickness, at a distance: the more readily, because certain men who had by some wonderful exercise of agility climbed up the external architecture to look in from the windows, knew Madame Defarge well, and acted as a telegraph between her and the crowd outside the building.

At length the sun rose so high that it struck a kindly ray as of hope or protection, directly down upon the old prisoner’s head. The favour was too much to bear; in an instant the barrier of dust and chaff that had stood surprisingly long, went to the winds, and Saint Antoine had got him!

It was known directly, to the furthest confines of the crowd. Defarge had but sprung over a railing and a table, and folded the miserable wretch in a deadly embrace—Madame Defarge had but followed and turned her hand in one of the ropes with which he was tied—The Vengeance and Jacques Three were not yet up with them, and the men at the windows had not yet swooped into the Hall, like birds of prey from their high perches—when the cry seemed to go up, all over the city, “Bring him out! Bring him to the lamp!”

Down, and up, and head foremost on the steps of the building; now, on his knees; now, on his feet; now, on his back; dragged, and struck at, and stifled by the bunches of grass and straw that were thrust into his face by hundreds of hands; torn, bruised, panting, bleeding, yet always entreating and beseeching for mercy; now full of vehement agony of action, with a small clear space about him as the people drew one another back that they might see; now, a log of dead wood drawn through a forest of legs; he was hauled to the nearest street corner where one of the fatal lamps swung, and there Madame Defarge let him go—as a cat might have done to a mouse—and silently and composedly looked at him while they made ready, and while he besought her: the women passionately screeching at him all the time, and the men sternly calling out to have him killed with grass in his mouth. Once, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; twice, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; then, the rope was merciful, and held him, and his head was soon upon a pike, with grass enough in the mouth for all Saint Antoine to dance at the sight of.

That grass-stuffed head on a pike was there waiting later that evening when the bloody banquet’s digestif arrived later that day in the form of Foulon’s son-in-law Louis-Jean Bertier de Sauvigny: another government official arrested that day and drug to the same place, for the same fate.


Bertier de Sauvignon, Intendant of Paris, Is Led to His Punishment (Source, specifically image 25)

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1946: Public Execution in Debica

1 comment July 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1946, market day in the southeastern Polish town of Debica, three captured fighters* from the anti-communist Freedom and Independence (WiN) movement were publicly hanged.

This salutary, and surprise, hanging was a nasty public message during the dirty post-war war to consolidate communist authority in Poland.

The message, however, was not exactly meant for a world wider than Poland itself, so the fact that it was captured in a grainy photograph snapped by WiN agent Józef Stec and subsequently smuggled out to the West was not at all to the liking of Polish authorities.

According to a WiN eyewitness report also presumed to have been filed by Stec,

First the MO [local militia], the UB, and the military occupied the execution square holding their machine guns ready to fire. Then, a car came with uniformed individuals who placed the noose on the hook. After a short time the same car brought three condemned men in white shirts. Their hands and legs were tied with barbed wire. A Jewish prosecutor read the sentence and passed the condemned into the hands of the executioner. Before the execution, one of the condemned yelled: “Long live the Home Army. Long live General Anders and General Bor-Komorowski. Down with the commies. Brothers persevere or you’ll die like us. I swear before God that I have never been a bandit [as communist authorities designated them]. I am dying for the Motherland. Lord forgive them [the executioners] because they know not what they are doing.

* The victims were Józef Grebosz, Józef Kozlowski, and Franciszek Noster, according to the 2003 monograph After the Holocaust: Polish-Jewish conflict in the wake of World War II, by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz. This monograph is also the source for Stec’s quoted report on the hanging.

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1941: Not Shaike Iwensky, “standing in line to be killed”

Add comment July 9th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1941, seventeen-year-old Shaya “Shaike” Iwensky came within seconds of being shot by the Einsatzgruppen outside the city of Daugavpils, Latvian SSR. Sheer dumb luck — and a slight miscalculation by the Germans — saved his life.

Shaike was born and raised in Jonava, Lithuania and fled to Daugavpils with his brother when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. On June 29, he was arrested along with the other Jewish male adults in town. His brother, who was fifteen years old, was arrested alongside him, but released the same day because of his age.

For the next week and a half, Shaike was held in a crowded prison cell, fed almost nothing, and forced to work during the day.

On July 8, he noted “a change for the worse in our guards, an extraordinary meanness … In my worst fears, I could not have conjured up the kind of hell in which I now found myself.”

That day he and his comrades were stuck in a truly Sisyphean ordeal: forced to roll rocks up a hill, three men to a rock. They kept losing their grip and the rocks would slide back.

That night some other prisoners told him they had been forced to dig huge ditches, which were covered in chlorine.

The next day, the eighteenth day of Operation Barbarossa, Shaike found out what the ditches were for:

A series of shots … a short interruption and again shots … and again … It wasn’t long before we got the confirmation of what we’d been suspecting all along. One of the men in a neighboring cell stuck his head in the doorway, and said, “They are killing Jews. From the washroom window someone saw people lined up in the yard. They are from the first floor.”


Though this testimony specifically concerns a different massacre, in November of 1941, it gives a sense of the environment.

A couple of hours later, Shaike and the others from his part of the prison were ordered to leave and take all their belongings. They were marched down to the basement and made to empty their pockets into the “knee-deep rows of wallets, documents, pictures, watches, trinkets worthless to anyone else.” Then they were marched into the yard and formed into groups of twenty. Hoping to at least die with people he knew, Shaike stuck together with his old friends from Jonava.

The blue sky was almost clear, with only here and there a wisp of cloud. I looked up, and the thought hit me hard: I will never see the sky again.

It is said that, when a person faces death, his whole life flashes before him. But my thoughts were disjointed, disorderly; they tumbled through my mind rather like the flimsy clouds above, forming, changing shape, disappearing and reappearing … Catching myself picking at a hangnail, I thought, How silly. In a few minutes it will make no difference at all …

It occurred to me that reality was often quite unlike what we expect it to be. People standing in line to be killed didn’t look very different from those waiting to buy bread. Their faces, their eyes betray nothing of what is going on in their minds. People stand in line under the hot sun, they move ahead, then their times comes to die, and it is over.

Shaike and his friends waited in line for over two hours in the heat. He had not thrown out his handkerchief and was glad to have it to wipe the sweat from his face. Finally he and his group of twenty arrived at the gate … but when the soldiers came out, they didn’t escort them to the ditches. Instead they ordered everyone to turn around and march back to the prison.

That evening, the prisoners were ordered out again and taken to the killing ground, and then they realized what had happened: the Nazis had spared them because they had run out of ditches. The Jews had to cover the mass graves with earth, stamping down on the bodies and packing them together, and also to dig new trenches, presumably for themselves, until evening when they were sent back to the prison again.

That night, Shaike and some of his friends hid in an empty cell under blankets. The Nazis didn’t find them the next morning when they ordered the survivors out to get shot. They hid in the cell for two days before they were caught. Fortunately the Latvian guards who found them didn’t realize who they were, and merely beat them and tossed them in with some prisoners who’d arrived that same day.

Eventually, Shaike was released from the prison and taken to the Daugavpils Ghetto. He would eventually escape from there and spent some time living in the woods with a Soviet partisan detachment, going back and forth between there and the ghetto. Finally he was captured and taken first to the Stutthof Concentration Camp, then to Dachau. There he was liberated by Americans on April 29, 1945. At twenty years old, he was the sole survivor of his family.

Shaike moved to the United States in 1948 and changed his name to Sidney Iwens. He wrote a book about his experiences, titled How Dark the Heavens: 1400 Days in the Grip of Nazi Terror. Sidney Iwens died in Florida in 2010, at the age of eighty-four.

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2011: Scott McLaren, Highlander

1 comment July 4th, 2012 Headsman

A year ago today, 20-year-old Scott McLaren of the 4th Battalion (The Highlanders) the Royal Regiment of Scotland was captured by Afghan insurgents and summarily shot.

The baby-faced McLaren, not yet three months in Afghanistan at that point, had left his base in in the Nahr-e-Saraj district of Helmand province during the middle of the night; reports suggest that he’d done so in order to retrieve mislaid night-vision goggles whose loss he would have been punished for. (This detail, while poignant, is not completely certain.)

Whatever the reason for his sortie, it ended with him being captured by Afghan insurgents.

As British, U.S., and Afghanistan forces mounted a 17-hour manhunt for the missing soldier, McLaren was reportedly stripped of his body armor and equipment and, at some point, shot in the head and dumped in a canal. The exact circumstances of his capture and death may never be known.

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1575: The intrepid Torii Suneemon

2 comments June 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1575* a Japanese soldier was crucified under the walls of his castle … and entered his country’s folklore.

Torii Suneemon was a footman of the Okudaira family late in Japan’s fratricidal Warring States Period.

The Okudaira, allies of the wars’ eventually-victorious Tokugawa clan, found themselves besieged by the Takeda. This would result in the important Battle of Nagashino.


Kurosawa’s masterpiece Kagemusha imagines the Takeda where the (real) late daimyo Shingen was succeeded after his (real) 1573 death (fictitiously) by an imposter thief posing as the great commander. In the film, the imposter is unmasked and deposed, but witnesses the climactic Battle of Nagashino … and then makes a futile charge under the Takeda banner after that side is slaughtered.

After an initial Takeda attempt to take the fortress by storm, the Takeda settled in for a brief siege — knowing the defenders to have only a few days’ supplies on hand. Enter Torii Suneemon.

Under cover of darkness on the night of the 22nd-23rd, Suneemon slipped out of the Yagyu gate and picked his way through Takeda tripwires to escape the investment … and summon help.


Torii Suneemon embarks on his mission: 19th century woodblock print of Yoshitoshi‘s “24 Accomplishments of Imperial Japan” series. The same artist also depicted that event in this triptych.

He made it on the 23rd to Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga, who upon hearing his report pledged to dispatch a relief force the very next day.

Alas for him, Suneemon’s attempt to sneak back into the encircled fortress to deliver the good news was detected on the 24th, and he came as a prisoner to the Takeda commander. The Takeda prevailed upon their helpless captive to exchange his life for a signal service: approach the fortress walls and shout to the garrison that no help was on the way.

This Suneemon agreed to do.

The legends differ as to whether he walked on up to deliver this bogus bad news, or whether the Takeda lifted him up on a cross to impress upon their new agent the penalty for any funny business. Either way, Torii Suneemon had the last laugh: he immediately began hollering to the defenders that help was coming if they could just hang on a few more days.


Torii Suneemon goes off-script. Another Yoshitoshi creation, from here or from this detailed French post.

The besiegers, of course, crucified him immediately … but everyone could appreciate the doomed man’s heroism.

While the grateful Okudaira elevated his family to samurai rank, even an enemy Takeda commander who witnessed the event was so moved that he adopted the image of the defiantly crucified soldier for his battle standard.

Heck, there’s apparently even a Japanese monument in San Antonio, Texas that compares Suneemon to the Alamo defenders.

Nor was the brave soldier’s sacrifice in vain. The garrison did hold on — and their allies did relieve them, and did rout the Takeda in the resulting Battle of Nagashino. (The scenario is widely reproduced in video games nowadays).

* Some sites give this as “May 16″, but I believe the primary sources here actually indicate the 16th day of the 5th month on the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar. This date corresponds to June 24, 1575 of the Julian calendar. (1570s conversion aid in this pdf, or use this converter).

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