Posts filed under 'Summary Executions'

1969: The peasants of Thanh Phong (allegedly)

4 comments February 25th, 2013 Headsman

Late this night in 1969, a platoon of seven Navy SEALs slipped into the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong.*

At their head was a 25-year-old lieutenant, the future United States Senator Bob Kerrey.

Thanh Phong was reportedly an official U.S. Army free fire zone. That meant that any Vietnamese civilians within it were presumptively enemies and could be slain at will — according to the U.S. Army, if not to any recognizable law of war.

In Thanh Phong, they were slain. Nearly every single person in the town.

Gregory Vistica’s disturbing investigation brought this story to wide public attention in 2001; he subsequently expanded his investigation into a book.

Kerrey’s Raiders — the commando team’s comradely self-designation — were hunting a local National Liberation Front “general secretary” purported to be in Thanh Phong. By “hunting,” we mean they intended to murder him; given the nature and timing of the operation, it was presumably part of the brute-force assassination program Operation Speedy Express and/or its equally sinister CIA-run cousin, the Phoenix Program.

On this particular mission, Lt. Kerrey’s team first encountered an unexpected hut, not on their map. Fearing the people inhabiting it would blow their cover, they entered and killed the five inhabitants: quietly, intimately, at close quarters with their knives. It was an old man, a woman, and three young children. It’s a nasty business but it’s not what qualifies Thanh Phong as a potential execution … though it may explain the execution that followed.

After these unfortunate villagers were disposed of, the SEALs moved on towards the doomed hamlet. This same platoon had been to Thanh Phong two weeks before, and reported then that it held nothing but a few women. On February 25, they found much the same scene: no “general secretary.” Just 16 women and children.

Gerhard Klann, one of Kerrey’s men, described the SEALs’ actions that night in this interview with 60 Minutes’ Dan Rather:

Rather: What’d you do this time?

Klann: We gathered everybody up, searched the place, searched everything.

Rather: What was the make-up of this group?

Klann: Probably a majority of em were kids. And women. And some younger women.

Rather: So you got all the people out of there.

Klann: We herded them together and in a group.

Rather: Were any of these people armed?

Klann: I don’t believe so.

Rather: Fair to say you didn’t see any weapons?

Klann: I didn’t see any.

Rather: Did you decide pretty quickly or not that the target of your mission, the Viet Cong leader, was not among them?

Klann: Yeah, we got together and we were, hey the guy ain’t here. Now we got these people, what do we do now?

Rather: What did you do then?

Klann: We killed them.

Rather: What do you mean, you killed em?

Klann: We shot them all.

Rather: Was an order given for that or was it more or less spontaneous?

Klann: I don’t think we would have acted spontaneously on something like that. There was an order given.

Rather: What was the order?

Klann: To kill them.

Rather: Why?

Klann: Cause we’d already compromised ourselves by killing the other group.

Rather: Whose responsibility, whose obligation as it to say that?

Klann: The ultimate responsibility fell on Bob Kerrey.

Rather: Do you remember him saying that?

Klann: I don’t remember his exact words, but he was the officer in charge. The call was his.

Rather: And then what happened?

Klann: We lined up, and we opened fire.

Rather: Individually or raked them with automatic weapons fire?

Klann: No. We, we just slaughtered them. It was automatic weapons fire. Rifle fire.

Rather: At roughly what range?

Klann: Six feet, ten feet, very close.

Rather: Then did the shooting stop?

Klann: Yeah, for a little bit.

Rather: Was it quiet?

Klann: It was dead quiet. It was dead quiet. Then you could just hear certain people, hear their moaning. So we would just fire into that area until it was silent there. And that was it. And, and until, we were sure that everybody was dead.

Rather: You said certain people were moaning or making noises. Were all those adults?

Klann: A few. I remember one baby still crying. That baby was probably the last one alive.

Rather: What happened to that baby?

Klann: Shot like the rest of em.

Klann’s testimony of a summary execution comports with that of a Vietnamese woman who says she hid on the outskirts of the tiny village and witnessed the slaughter.

Bob Kerrey has a different version of these events. The reader is invited to peruse the evidence available and conclude as desired; for me, Kerrey’s version is not very persuasive especially given the witness testimony to the contrary and the known normalization of atrocities in Indochina.

Kerrey agrees with Klann that the entire village ended up slaughtered together in a heap; a complaint against this atrocity was officially filed with the Army by Vietnamese locals within days of the incident, so there’s not much scope to deny the outcome. But Kerrey claims this happened when the SEAL team received incoming fire as they approached the village, then started shooting back wildly in the dark. Only after the bullets stopped flying did they find the civilians 50 to 100 yards further on.

Improbably — but much more consistent with an intentional, close-range massacre — all these women and children chanced to be huddled together, and all of them were stone dead from the crossfire. Not a one of these people accidentally winged in the night was wounded but alive, says Kerrey.

Kerrey’s commentary in Vistica’s initial story and its follow-ups suggests the judicious politician he had by that time become. In 2001 he had just retired from the Senate and was an elder statesman in government; he was said to be weighing a 2004 presidential bid. (His actual next gig, not anticipated at the time the story broke, was the 9/11 Commission.)

In interviews with Vistica and subsequently, Kerrey waffled and qualified cagily — shifting from a flat denial, to a weird acknowledgment that “it’s possible a slight version of that happened.” He wouldn’t commit to asserting that there really was incoming fire. He moved the conversation wherever possible to the abiding torments of conscience and the slipperiness of memory and perspective, as if this could span the distance from “summary execution” to “accidentally killed in the crossfire.” He maintained that there were only men in the first hut — that hut, alone among the village — but that this was only an indirect recollection since he didn’t enter it or participate in the killings.

“Please understand,” Kerrey emailed to Vistica in 2000, “that my memory of this event is clouded by the fog of the evening, age and desire.” Desire is a striking word to select.

For all their plausible deniability, Kerrey’s remarks on this matter markedly lacked indignation at bearing such a monstrous charge. Kerrey’s great and unfeigned sense of personal guilt was oddly mirrored by his inability to own a specifically culpable act. The Senator expressly declined to deny Gerhard Klann’s “memory.” (Klann said Kerrey urged him not to talk about Thanh Phong.)

Kerrey won a Bronze Star for Thanh Phong. “The net result of his patrol,” according to a citation Kerrey has acknowledged is fanciful, “was 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured.”

Seventeen days after Thanh Phong, Kerrey’s service career came to an end when a grenade exploded at his feet during another assassination mission. Kerrey earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for continuing to direct fire while crippled by wounds on that day; by accounts, he spent the several years following mired deep in depression.

“I went out on a mission and after it was over I was so ashamed I wanted to die,” he said of Thanh Phong in 2001. “This is killing me. I’m tired of people describing me as a hero and holding this inside.”

It goes without saying that war crimes in Vietnam remain much too sensitive for the U.S. to grapple with formally. The story is out there now, but it’s been effectively reburied as far as the American public memory goes — another everyday horror in a horrible conflict. More information might oneday surface, but the matter will only be adjudicated between Gerhard Klann, Bob Kerrey, their comrades that night, and their Maker.

Not so in Vietnam where — with all due respect to the pangs that conscience can exact — the real victims lie.

February 25, 1969 has a dedicated exhibit in Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum.


A display of the sewer pipe where the three children killed at the first hut tried to hide, along with photographs and an explanatory placard describing the Thanh Phong massacre, at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. (cc) images by Schwede66.

* The only other member of the team who has spoken publicly, Mike Ambrose, backs Klann’s version of the hut narrative, and (mostly) Kerrey’s version of the (non-)execution. As Vistica’s initial investigation was going public, Kerrey convened a meeting of the other Raiders, their first since Vietnam; the group issued a statement denying that they had committed an execution of prisoners.

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Purim

2 comments February 24th, 2013 Headsman

February 24, 2013 is the Jewish festival of Purim. (Actually, it began at sundown last night.)

This holiday, corresponding to 14 Adar of the Hebrew calendar, falls on different dates of the Gregorian calendar (most often in March). It commemorates a bloody story from the Book of Esther. (The quotes in this post are from this translation of Esther.)

The factual historicity of Esther is pretty questionable, but that debate is a bit beside the point for purposes of the present post. As folklore or fact, the story of Esther and Mordecai, of their near-destruction and the consequent execution of their persecutor, is a staple of tradition and literature.


The thumbnail version of the Purim story has Esther (Hadassah), a Jew living in the Persian capital of Susa, plucked out of obscurity to become the (or a) queen of a “King Ahasverus”.

If Esther has a historical basis, this would be about the fourth or fifth century B.C.E., and “Ahasverus” could be Xerxes (the guy who invaded Greece and made Herodotus famous), or the much later Artaxerxes II.

Esther is an orphan being raised by her cousin Mordecai, and when Esther wins “Who Wants To Live In The Persian Harem?” Mordecai advises her to keep judiciously silent about her Hebrew lineage.

Mordecai doesn’t manage the same trick, however, and offends the king’s powerful minister Haman by refusing to bow to him. This gets the overweening Haman upset at not only Mordecai but at all Jews who share his anti-idolatry scruples, and Haman persuades King Ahasverus to authorize their indiscriminate slaughter:

“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed.”

13 Adar is the date fixed for the Jews’ destruction, by pur, a casting of lots — hence the festival’s eventual date and name. Haman, of course, does not realize that this policy makes Esther his enemy.

In order to save her cousin and her people, Esther must risk a death sentence of her own by approaching the king unbidden in his inner chambers. Mordecai charges her to her duty with a timeless moral force:

“Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

Esther pulls this dangerous maneuver off, and gains thereby a private audience with just the king and Haman. There, she springs her trap — revealing her Jewish identity.

The king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”

Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”

Then King Ahasverus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, that would presume to do this?”

And Esther said, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” Then Haman was in terror before the king and the queen.

Word arrives at this inopportune juncture that Haman, who has been gleefully preparing his vengeance, has just had completed a 50-cubit (~20-meter) gallows to execute Mordecai upon. The enraged king instead orders Haman hung on it.

“Hanging” Haman on the “gallows” was traditionally interpreted in the ancient and medieval world as crucifixion,* or some analogously excrutiating way to die.

By any method of execution, though, the dramatic power of the scene — sudden reversal of fortune, virtue elevated over wickedness, the oppressed turning the tables on their oppressors, divine deliverance — is obvious.

Haman and his gallows have consequently stood as a potent literary device ever since: for perfidious council; for violent anti-Semitism; for unusually spectacular punishment (to be hung “as high as Haman”); for the concept of getting one’s comeuppance or being hoisted by one’s own petard.

At least the guy was remembered. Hands up if you can name any other ancient Persian courtier.


“The Punishment of Haman” is a corner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

However, this satisfying palace politics turnabout is not the end of the story, and punishment is not reserved only for the wicked minister.

Esther persuades the king not only to revoke Haman’s order, but to issue a new one — one that Esther and Mordecai will write tabula rasa over the king’s seal.

The writing was in the name of King Ahasverus and sealed with the king’s ring, and letters were sent by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud. By these the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods, upon one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasverus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar

So the Jews smote all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the capital itself the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men, and also slew Parshandatha and Dalphon and Aspatha and Poratha and Adalia and Aridatha and Parmashta and Arisai and Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they laid no hand on the plunder. That very day the number of those slain in Susa the capital was reported to the king.

And the king said to Queen Esther, “In Susa the capital the Jews have slain five hundred men and also the ten sons of Haman. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.”

And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict. And let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.”

So the king commanded this to be done; a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they slew three hundred men in Susa; but they laid no hands on the plunder.

Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and got relief from their enemies, and slew seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder.


This bloodbath is obviously a bit more ethically problematic than Haman’s individual fate.

Now, sure, this is an event of questionable authenticity situated in Iron Age tribal mores and exaggerated by the ubiquitous ancient inflation of head counts. The subtext (“defend their lives” … “relief from their enemies”) also implies something like civil strife, blows exchanged rather than merely blows delivered. The overt text says that the victims were people who intended to do exactly the same thing to the Jews.

Still, the plain words on the page says 75,000 humans were slaughtered by a mobilized ethno-nationalist group, “children and women” among them. Just imagine the same parable about a Serb in a Bosnian king’s court, and say a little thanksgiving that the Book of Esther doesn’t identify these 75,000 as constituents of any specific demographic group that remains a going concern today.

Purim is a beloved holiday among its celebrants, but most any explication of it on the Internet comes with a comment thread agonizing over (or rationalizing) the body count. (For example.)

That part of the narrative has unsurprisingly invited highly prejudicial interpretations, especially among hostile Christian interlocutors (pdf).

American pastor Washington Gladden called the first Purim “a fiendish outbreak of fanatical cruelty.”

The fact that the story was told, and that it gained great popularity among the Jews, and by some of those in later ages came to be regarded as one of the most sacred books of their canon is, however, a revelation to us of the extent to which the most baleful and horrible passions may be cherished in the name of religion … it is not merely true that these atrocities are here recited; they are clearly indorsed.

The Nazis promoted the Jews-as-mass-murderers version, too; there’s even an instance where the Zdunska Wola ghetto was required to provide ten Jews to hang for the ten hanged sons of Haman. The frothing anti-Semitic propagandist Julius Streicher, being positioned on the trap for execution after the Nuremberg trials, reportedly bellowed “Purim Fest 1946!” to the witnesses.

Blessedly Purim Fest is not ultimately defined by the likes of Streicher, nor by the bloodthirstiness that is this site’s regrettable stock in trade. For most observants it’s simply one of the most joyous holidays of the year, a time for gifts and feasting and dress-up and carnivals and celebration sometimes thought of as the “Jewish Mardi Gras” or “Jewish Halloween”. Adherents have even been encouraged in all religious solemnity to drink in celebration until they can no longer tell “blessed be Mordecai” from “cursed be Haman.”

Deliverance indeed. L’chaim.

* The concept of Haman crucified in turn encouraged Jews under Christendom to use the figure of Haman (who once upon a time, could be subject to Guy Fawkes-like effigy-burning on Purim) as a veiled stand-in for the current oppressor Christ, and/or encouraged Judeophobic Christians to impute this intention to Purim observances.

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1136: Gwenllian, the Welsh warrior woman

1 comment February 22nd, 2013 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around February 1136, the Welsh princess Gwenllian (or Gwenlhian, or Gwenliana) lost a battle to a Norman lord, who had her summarily beheaded.

This execution occurred in the aftermath of the Norman conquest. Having taken England, those invaders had made inroads into its western neighbor, even temporarily occupying much of the country.

But Welsh lords pushed the Normans back, and we find those Normans at this moment in disarray over an internal succession crisis — a period known as “The Anarchy”.

Map of medieval Wales.

Seeing the opportunity, Wales’s constituent principalities rose in a “Great Revolt”.

Gwenllian, that hottie from history, was daughter of the ruler of Gwynedd, married in a political match to the ruler of Deheubarth.

While these two men in Gwenllian’s life met up with one another to plot their next moves, Norman raids on Deheubarth forced Gwenllian to lead a force into the field to fight them.

It was a sight “like the queen of the Amazons, and a second Penthesilea,” writes the chronicler. “Morgan, one of her sons, whom she had arrogantly brought with her in that expedition, was slain, and the other, Malgo, taken prisoner; and she, with many of her followers, was put to death.”

That was a bummer for Gwenllian — doomed to haunt the castle under whose walls she fought her fatal battle — but not only her, as her bereaved proceeded to mount a furious counterattackwith a vast destruction of churches, towns, growing crops, and cattle, the burning of castles and other fortified places, and the slaughter, dispersion, and sale into foreign parts, of innumerable men, both rich and poor.”

For centuries afterwards, Welsh armies took the field crying “Revenge for Gwenllian!” The field where the battle was fought is named in her honor, as is a spring there that’s reputed to have welled up at the spot where her head fell. She’s even been speculatively — maybe a bit hopefully — identified as a possible author of the Mabinogion, a Welsh literary classic, but she’s definitely the subject of a bardic lullaby

Sleep, Gwenllian, my heart’s delight
Sleep on through shivering spear and brand,
An apple rosy red within thy baby hand;
Thy pillowed cheeks a pair of roses bright,
Thy heart as happy day and night!
Mid all our woe, O vision rare!
Sweet little princess cradled there,
Thy apple in thy hand thy all of earthly care.
Thy brethren battle with the foe,
Thy sire’s red strokes around him sweep,
Whilst thou, his bonny babe, art smiling through thy sleep
All Gwalia shudders at the Norman blow!
What are the angels whispering low
Of thy father now
Bright babe, asleep upon my knee,
How many a Queen of high degree
Would cast away her crown to slumber thus like thee!

There’s obvious, as-yet-unrealized commercial potential here in this sacrificial princess (though she’s not to be confused with Gwenllian of Wales). Word is that a silver screen treatment of the Gwenllian legend is circulating in Hollywood studios looking to duplicate the success of Braveheart.

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1859: Father Paul Loc, Vietnamese martyr

Add comment February 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1859, Paul Loc, a Catholic Vietnamese Martyr, was summarily beheaded at Saigon ahead of a French landing.

The orphaned child of a Catholic family from Cochinchina (southernmost Vietnam), Paul Loc was brought up by a pastor and went to seminary.

His ministry during the reign of a sovereign very hostile to the inroads of Christian missionaries, lasted less than two years. At that point, France went to war to conquer Cochinchina.

At that point, Father Loc was clapped in prison, but even then the earnest young man’s treatment seems to have been light. But on this date, French warships had been sighted ascending the Dong-Nai River towards Saigon itself, and the city’s panicking defenders martyred the priest almost without warning.

According to this French text, Paul Loc had his head cut off at the gates of Saigon’s citadel. Just a few days later, the French did indeed successfully take Saigon … the start of a beautiful friendship.

Pope Pius X elevated Paul Loc to “Blessed’ in 1909.

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1912: Four blacks lynched in Hamilton, Georgia

Add comment January 22nd, 2013 Headsman

By dint of the grueling publishing schedule, this site is rarely equipped to follow as deeply into the wilderness as one might like the trailheads uncovered day by day.

Today is 101 years since a lynching in Hamilton, Georgia that made national news and is just pregnant with curious little details that seem like they ought to attract an enterprising researcher.

The four, whose names are conflictingly reported, were tenant farmers of Norman Hadley, described as “a well-to-do unmarried farmer.” Some days before, Hadley was killed with a few .32 and .38 caliber gunshots through a window while sitting home alone.

Why were these four promptly arrested? What was known or believed about their probable grievance against Hadley — especially given the inclusion of a woman? We know that some topics of race relations were taboo at this period, and the bare facts seem suggestive of a much richer background where the nearby Columbus Enquirer-Sun only murmurs that “it was known that he [Hadley] had had some trouble with these negroes.”

Professing himself ignorant of any stirring popular violence — even though the superior court had only just announced a hurried special sitting so that it could try the case with speed lest vigilantes do what they ultimately did — the local sheriff blithely absented himself from town on the night of the 22nd. Would he have done that were he not Norman Hadley’s uncle? Late that evening,

[The crowd] advanced on the jail and throwing [the jailer] to one side broke the doors down. The terrified negroes were hustled out at the point of guns and marched outside the town. There they were quickly strung up. Immediately their writhing bdies became silhouetted against the sky, revolvers and rifles blazed forth and fully 300 shots were fired before the mob dispersed and left its prey to the winds.

The “prey” — all four of the prey — protested innocence every step of the way.

Whatever was abroad in the town, the wire stories that carried this lynching into press runs around the country found “no motive for the killing of Hadley” that “can be advanced by people here.” But they were absolutely certain: the sheriff had said during the preceding week that the accused were all trying to put the blame on one another, but that “it is not known why the negroes, or whoever killed him did so.” (Columbus Ledger, Jan. 18, 1912) So the interrogation never got around to why?

Whatever skeletons were in Harris County closets, the story’s national import was helped along by the near-simultaneous release of a study indicating that the state of Georgia had contributed a quarter (19 out of 71) of the previous year’s lynchings. It fit the narrative, as they say.

The African-American Savannah Tribune, as one might imagine, editorialized indignantly (Jan. 27, 1912):

The lynching of the four Negroes, one woman and three men, at Hamilton, Ga., on Monday night to avenge the death of a prominent white farmer, which was supposedly committed by the victims, was one of the most brutal and wanton crimes ever perpetrated in this state. There was not even the usual confessions of the unfortunate victims given out, in fact they professed their innocence to the end, but the mob was bent on taking their lives and therefore carried out their murderous intentions. The case was as follows: On last Sunday afternoon the man, who was murdered, was sitting in his home alone, a shot was fired through he window and he fell dead. That afternoon four Negro tenants were arrested charged with the murder and the next night they were taken out and lynched. The sheriff, who was uncle of the dead man feared no lynching and took a trip to Columbus, Ga., and in the mean time the Negroes were seized and put to death. Even circumstancial evidence against the Negroes was slight but they had to die to appease the wrath of the mob. Surely such crimes cannot much longer continue without some effort being put forth on the part of the law abiding citizens to stop them. Such dastardly crimes as this are indicative of the low value which is placed upon human life, especially if the life be that of a Negro.

The tone of moral outrage contrasts rather markedly with the Columbus Ledger‘s “let the law take its course” demand for a more orderly hanging scene.

The Hamilton Lynching

Law abiding citizens of Harris county have doubtless been made to blush with shame at the result of last night’s lynching, which cannot but be condemned by all lovers of good government.

Residents of that county were justly wrought-up over the killing of one of their prominent young citizens and punishment for the guilty party or parties could not have been too severe. But the law should have been allowed to take its course.

Judge Gilbert of the Chattahoochee circuit had, upon urgent request of the citizens of Harris, called a special term of the superior court of that county to investigate the case and give the four negroes a speedy trial, that justice might be meted out witout delay, and it appears that everything possible had been done to bring about the apprehension and speedy punishment of the blacks who murdered young Hadley.

Therefore, it seems to the Ledger that there was absolutely no excuse for the acts of last night.

These men may have put to death the guilty parties, or they may have lynched several innocent blacks. They doubtless feel confident that they got the right negro, but have they assurance of this fact?

Law-abiding citizens cannot endorse the acts of this mob, and we must condemn the incident, or any other which tends to disregard law and disrupt government.

Less sentimental still — the heartless progressivism of economy — was the Ledger‘s reasoning on Jan. 26.

Lynching and Business

Lynching has a business side. Most of us have considered more or less the other aspects of it — the breaking of law, creation and increase of a spirit of lawlessness, the turning back of civilization and the taking of human life, without warrant or justification, which is plain murder.

But, lynching has a business side, which is worth consideration at this time.

In other sections the South is regarded by literally hundreds of thousands of otherwise well-informed people as a country of miasma, fever, laziness and lynching …

Day after day, wee after week and year after year, Southern newspapers and other influences that are devoted to the best interests of the South hammer away at this misinformation about our section in efforts to dissipate it. bout the time they seem to be making some headway along comes a lynching or a massacre, like that in Harris county, and the people of other sections believe that their first opinions and ideas were right and have been confirmed. And most assuredly they hae a reason for thinking so.

Just now the South has opportunities that it has never had before. For many years the tide of home-seekers and the trend of capital seeking investment has been westward … [but they are now] turning to the South — and it should be remembered that there are more homeseekers and investors in this country than ever before.

But mob rule, lawlessness, ruffianism and murder will not attract them. Even the leader of a mob would hardly want to move to a lawless section of some other part of the [coun]try. No man who has sense enough to make money to invest would buy property in a section in which the law is so disregarded, for robbery is a lesser crime than murder.

If Harris county alone should suffer for the massacre that has been permitted in the shadow of its courthouse, the balance of us would have little to say. But Harris county will not be the only one to suffer. Muscogee will suffer and so will every county in Georgia and so will the whole South.

It is about time for people in this part of the country to look the matter squarely in the face from a business view point.

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1863: Mangas Coloradas, Apache leader

1 comment January 18th, 2013 Headsman

One hundred and fifty years ago, day to day,* the Apache chief Dasoda-hae — better known as Mangas Coloradas, “red sleeves” — was extrajudicially executed by U.S. Army soldiers at Fort McLane, New Mexico.

This legendary Apache statesman’s nickname was Spanish, because he’d spent the 1830s and 1840s fighting Mexicans seeking bounties on Apache scalps. Indeed, when the U.S. in 1846 attacked Mexico, Mangas Coloradas gave U.S. soldiers safe passage through Apache territory, and subsequently signed a treaty with the victorious Americans. (There’s a handy map of the scene in this pdf.)

He did his utmost to keep relations with the gigantic industrial society on his borders safely diplomatic, but over the 1850s Apaches spiraled into conflict with aggressive Anglo settlers drawn by the call of gold. In 1861 Mangas Coloradas married his daughter to another Apache chief, Cochise. These two were able to keep whites at bay with raids for a short time (and given a big assist from the resource diversion of the Civil War). But there was only one way this was going to end.

In January 1863, Mangas Coloradas — about 70 years old and still alive to the impossibility of long-term success by force of arms — arrived under a flag of truce to negotiate a ceasefire with Brigadier General Joseph Rodman West. West had him clapped in irons instead, and let his soldiers know exactly how to handle their prisoner.

Men, that old murderer has got away from every soldier command and has left a trail of blood for 500 miles on the old stage line. I want him dead or alive tomorrow morning, do you understand? I want him dead.

That night, Mangas Coloradas was tortured with red-hot bayonets and shot “trying to escape.” The Apache Wars would expand calamitously in the years to come.

The army medical officer David Sturgeon took the Apache’s scalped head (they scalped him, too), eventually bringing it to Ohio after he left the service. Sturgeon finally presented his prize to Prof. Orson Squire Fowler; Fowler examined it and published a description in his 1873 work Human Science: Or, Phrenology: Its Principles, Proofs, Faculties, Organs, Temperaments, Combinations, Conditions, Teachings, Philosophies, Etc., Etc..**

The fate of this horrid trophy after it passed through Fowler’s hands is a mystery. It’s rumored that the Smithsonian received it, and perhaps surreptitiously got rid of it; while the institution has always denied ever having the skull of Mangas Coloradas, it is a fact that the Smithsonian collected and still possesses an alarmingly enormous trove of Native American remains.

* It appears to me that Mangas Coloradas entered into army custody on January 17, and was shot just about midnight that night: the exact moment of the incident could be either the 17th or the 18th. An eyewitness account from one of the soldiers on night watch describes giving over the watch to George Lount until midnight. When the first watchman returned at that time, he noticed that “Mangas arose upon his left elbow, angrily protesting that he was no child to be played with. Thereupon the two soldiers [who had been torturing Mangas], without removing their bayonets from their Minie muskets, each quickly fired upon the chief, following with two shots each from their navy six-shooters.”

** What did the skull-measurer make of his prize? “It bulges out at its side in the region of Secretion, Caution, and Destruction, beyond anything I ever saw. Cunning is his largest organ, and far exceeds any other development of it I have ever seen, even in any and all Indian heads. It is simply monstrous. Yet Destruction also far exceeds any other development of it I ever saw …

“Conscience and Worship are unusually large, both absolutely and relatively, which coincides with the scrupulous fidelity with which he kept his promises. He doubtless thought he was but doing his duty in avenging the injuries white men had done to his tribe, by torturing and killing them. He must also have been a devout worshipper of the Great Spirit and extremely superstitious. Benevolence is very poorly developed indeed.”

(Mangas Coloradas actually was a very tall man with a very large head: a number of accounts attest to this.)

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1907: Three “terrorists” in an Odessa public garden

Add comment January 17th, 2013 Headsman

Chicago Daily Tribune Jan 18, 1907

Hang Terrorists in Public Gardens.

ODESSA, Jan. 17. — The public gardens was the scene of a triple execution today. Three terrorists were hanged in a row after having been condemned to death for the armed robbery of a shop. Their trial took place before a drumhead court martial.


New York Times Jan 18, 1907

ODESSA, Jan. 17. — The public gardens here to-day were the scene of a triple execution. Three Terrorists condemned to death for the armed robbery of a shop were hanged in a row. They obtained only $3.50 from the store they robbed.


This atrocity (derogated as “Field Courts Martial which endeavor to confuse ordinary civil offenses with revolutionary acts leading to the almost daily execution of offenders, who in civilized lands would receive only the most trivial sentences.”) appeared in a petition for the U.S. Congress to condemn the Russian crackdown against agitators in the waning 1905 revolution.

Mark Twain was among the worthies* who lent their name to the appeal:

We, the undersigned, believe that it is time for civilized nations to protest against the atrocities practiced by the Russian Government in its prolonged warfare against its own people.

The subject is one which interests all nations, as a matter of common humanity. On more than one occasion governments have taken action for the amelioration of termination of abhorrent conditions existing in foreign countries. Many instances might be cited, but we content ourselves, as sufficient for our present purposes in citing the case of the Bulgarian atrocities in 1877, when Russia, in taking advantage of the general horror excited by the inhumanities of the Turkish forces within the dominions of the Sultan, intervened in the name of humanity, to rescue the inhabitants of Bulgaria from their deplorable condition. Fifty years before, various European powers, of whom Russia was one, intervened to redeem the Greek inhabitants of the Sultan’s dominions from barbarities and oppression. In seeking now some entirely pacific means of inducing the Russian Government to ameliorate the condition of its subjects, we are asking for nothing which the Russian Government has not itself in times past afforded a good precedent.

This petition and protest rest solely and entirely upon the instances wherein the Russian Government is disregardful of the usual customs of civilized nations; and wherein it is guilty within its borders of flagrant violation of the terms of agreement of the Geneva Treaty of 1864 and 1868 between the Nations, and also the Second Convention of the Peace Conference at the Hague in 1902.

One notices that among the behaviors viewed by this petition’s congressional sponsors as “disregardful of the usual customs of civilized nations” when conducted by tsarist Russia were acts that in other times members of that august body would rise to defend: “Tortures are applied to prisoners within fortresses and prisons to elicit information.”

* Signers also included: New York judge Samuel Greenbaum; “Battle Hymn of the Republic” author Julia Ward Howe; explorer George Kennan (cousin of the famous American diplomat of that name); future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis; and others.

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69: Galba, in the Year of the Four Emperors

2 comments January 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in the year 69, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him emperor of Rome Galba was slain — the first casualty in ancient Rome’s Year of the Four Emperors.

From the standpoint of this blog’s portfolio, Galba’s death admittedly makes for an edge case; in their time, the Romans experimented with every shade and interval for the span from extrajudicial execution to assassination to simple murder. Certainly the sudden homicide which forms our subject today proceeded under no purported legal color.

But dead is dead, and in Rome at that moment, dead was the essential fact. You had to get the incumbent into the ground to don the blood-drenched purple.

That’s exactly how Galba managed it himself: his predecessor was the infamous Nero, dead the previous June in a revolt that had set Galba up as the rival emperor.

Galba was a classic Peter Principle guy, a respected wealthy patrician who had been a prominent public figure for decades. At the end of Nero’s run, Galba was governor of a Spanish province and everyone thought would make a swell emperor … until he actually got the job.

As Suetonius observed, Galba’s “popularity and prestige were greater when he won, than while he ruled the empire.” Tightfisted (or fiscally responsible) and inflexible (or upright), the new emperor proved to have a gift for alienating his subjects.

The skinflint sovereign bullied enemies real and perceived, took an obnoxiously lordly attitude towards inferiors, and even decimated a legion (a practice long since out of date at this point). He set about restoring the ruined state finances by seizing even from parties at second and third hand goods which allegedly traced to Nero’s graft, then re-auctioning them … many of those auctions suspiciously won at a discount by Galba’s hated advisors-slash-controllers, the “Three Pedagogues.” And he “condemned to death divers distinguished men of both orders on trivial suspicions without a trial.” (Suetonius, again)

Very dangerously, Galba also refused to pay the customary donative to those arbiters of imperial succession, the Praetorian Guard.

All this mess brought the distant German legions into rebellion.

However, Galba triggered his downfall directly when he passed over for official heir an early Galba supporter, Otho — who had been dispensing liberal largesse on the understanding that he had the inside track to the throne — in favor of a youth named Piso.

Personally affronted and also in danger of having his now-unpayable debts called in, Otho brought the disaffected Praetorians over to his side and revolted.

The capital was thrown into a tumult. On January 15, Galba’s litter was being borne in the Roman Forum when Otho’s militia appeared,

loudly ordering all private citizens out of their way. The multitude, accordingly, took to their heels, not scattering in flight, but seeking the porticoes and eminences of the forum, as if to get a view of the spectacle. Hostilities began with the overthrow of a statue of Galba by Attilius Vergilio, and then the soldiers hurled javelins at the litter; and since they failed to strike it, they advanced upon it with their swords drawn. No one opposed them or tried to defend the emperor, except one man, and he was the only one, among all the thousands there on whom the sun looked down, who was worthy of the Roman empire. This was Sempronius Densus, a centurion, and though he had received no special favours from Galba, yet in defence of honour and the law he took his stand in front of the litter. And first, lifting up the switch with which centurions punish soldiers deserving of stripes, he cried out to the assailants and ordered them to spare the emperor. Then, as they came to close quarters with him, he drew his sword, and fought them off a long time, until he fell with a wound in the groin.

The litter was upset at the place called Lacus Curtius, and there Galba tumbled out and lay in his corselet, while the soldiers ran up and struck at him. But he merely presented his neck to their swords, saying: “Do your work, if this is better for the Roman people.” (Plutarch)

Piso tried to take refuge with the sacred Vestal Virgins, but was hauled out most impiously and abruptly put to death on the temple’s steps. Otho was said to greet this severed head of his rival heir with particular satisfaction. (Galba’s head was paraded through town on a spear, then given over to the servants of a guy Galba had executed so that they could dishonor it on the execution grounds.)

As for the victorious Otho, you’ll recall those restive German legions … and the fact that this is the Year of the Four Emperors. Galba was the first of those four; Otho, the second. As Cassius Dio tells it, “as he [Otho] was offering his first sacrifice, the omens were seen to be unfavourable, so that he repented of what had been done and exclaimed: ‘What need was there of my playing on the long flutes?’ (This is a colloquial and proverbial expression applying to those who do something for which they are not fitted.)”

Three months later, it was time to pay the flautist. Those German legions arrived, bumped off Otho, and made their own commander into emperor number three. (Otho, not theretofore viewed as particularly noble soul, redeemed himself for posterity by committing suicide for the good of Rome rather than press a ruinous civil war — uttering the Spock-like sentiment, “It is far more just to perish one for all, than many for one.”)

The History of Rome podcast series covers Galba’s abortive reign here.

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1864: Five Virginia City road agents

Add comment January 14th, 2013 Headsman

The frontier town of Virginia City, Montana, saw a quintuple hanging on this date in 1864, authored by the local vigilance committee.


(cc) image from Rich Luhr of the hanged men’s gravestones at Virginia City’s Boot Hill. (It’s one of several American West cemeteries known as “Boot Hill”)

A miners’ boom town since prospectors struck gold nearby the previous year, Virginia City was even, briefly, the capital of the Montana Territory.

For order, it depended upon a Vigilance Committee of local grandees … and that committee had just days before carried out the hanging of Henry Plummer, the sheriff of the nearby mining town of Bannack and a reputed outlaw gang boss.

Plummer’s supposed “road agents” did the wilderness-trail robbery act familiar of the western milieu, but on a nearly industrial scale: it was suspected that “horses, men and coaches” traveling around Bannack and Virginia City were systematically “marked in some understood manner, to designate them as fit objects for plunder.”

The next act in the Vigilance Committee’s confrontation with these highwaymen and bywaymen was to bust up the Plummer network by seizing and hanging five supposed road agents on this date.

The evidentiary basis for these conclusions was varied, and in most cases less than what you’d call ironclad; the club-footed cobbler George Lane was thought to be marking stages for outlaws to hit, but the crippled rancher Frank Parish? Or Jack Gallagher, who wasn’t even on the list of wanted road agents the vigilantes were working from?

(The Vigilance Committee’s Parish Pfouts would record in his diary “that every man executed by the Vigilance Committee at that time was proved to be a murderer or highway robber.” The unsavory whiff of lynch law notwithstanding, those vigilantes have not wanted for latter-day defenders.)

This text summarizes all the accused men’s backgrounds, including the colorful Boone Helm.

Upon the Vigilance men’s summary and predetermined judgment, the quintet was marched down the street to a then-unfinished log structure and strung up on an inside beam.

That log store can still be seen in Virginia City, where it’s kitschily advertised as the Hangman’s Building.

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1889: Alfred Schaeffer, diabolical dynamiter, lynched near Seattle

Add comment January 7th, 2013 Headsman

From the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, January 8, 1889 (paragraph breaks added for readability: the original had none at all):

A DIABOLICAL DYNAMITER.


After Killing Three Persons and Wounding Others He Is Barbarously Lynched

SEATTLE, Wash. T., Jan. 7. — Alfred Shaffer [sic], a Bohemian, fired a heavy charge of giant powder under the house of George Bodala, at Gilman,* thirty miles east of Seattle, at 4:30 o’clock this morning, instantly killing John and Michael Scherrick, and Anna, the 9-year-old child of Bodala, and badly wounding Bodala, his wife, and little son and daughter.

Last spring Bodala caused the arrest of Schaeffer on the charge of criminal assault upon his wife. Schaeffer was sentenced to a short term of imprisonment, and when he was released he made such serious threats against the life of Bodala that he was again arrested, and incarcerated in jail nine days.

When he was released he returned to Gilman, and since then he lost no opportunity attempting to injury Bodala, and this morning put his threats into execution. The two Scherricks and the little girl were instantly killed.

Bodala was brought to the Providence Hospital to-day, and is in a very bad condition. The other three will probably recover. Schaeffer was found by the people of Gilman at his own house. He was placed under arrest, and later in the afternoon, upon the arrival of the sheriff, turned over to that officer.

This afternoon while the Sheriff was at dinner a crowd of 100 broke open the door of the house where Schaeffer was confined, took him to a tree opposite the railroad depot, and strung him up, first trying to make him confess.

He refused, and was hanged.

After thirty seconds he was cut down again and given another chance to confess, still declining he was again elevated and cut down for a second time after forty-five seconds.

He was then very weak, and, efforts to make him confess failing, he was again pulled up, and left hanging until death ensued.

* Present-day Issaquah.

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