On this date in 998, Crescentius the Younger was beheaded in Rome.
In the abject Eternal City, sacked and scattered and plucked of its glories, even the title of Roman Emperor now belonged to a line of absentee Germans — “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire,” as Voltaire would later put it. But empire enough to push around the likes of Rome.
Rivalry between imperial and anti-imperial factions will write the city’s history for centuries to come. In the late 10th century, the 28-year-old emperor Otto II died unexpectedly, elevating his three-year-old son Otto III.
Anti-imperial Romans moved to capitalize on the turmoil, and Crescentius the Younger (his dad had the same name) raised himself up as the master of the city.
He was fruit of the the Crescentii family,* who attained their first rank in Roman politics a century before thanks to the propitious concubinage of a woman named Theodora and “her equally infamous daughters Marozia and Theodora, [who] filled the See of Peter with their paramours, their sons, and grandsons, who surpassed each other in vileness and wickedness of every kind.” (Johann Heinrich Kurtz) The fulminations of scribes against these libidinous, Machiavellian women** would eventually suggest to the history discipline one of its all-time best periodizations, the pornocracy. Sticks and stones, love: their lineage cast a long shadow on the Tiber throughout the 10th century.
Our guy Crescentius took the title Patricius Romanorum and bossed the town for a number of years in the late 980s and early 990s. There wasn’t much the Holy Romans and their boy-emperor could do about the scion of pornocrats.
But by 996, Otto III was all grown up to age 16, and marched down the Italic boot to set things straight in the Caput Mundi.
Temporarily cowed, Crescentius had to accept the appointment of Otto’s guy, Pope Gregory V, who then generously begged off an intended sentence of banishment for Crescentius, in the interests of comity.
Crescentius thanked the new pope, once Otto left town, by running Gregory out of Rome and setting up his own antipope and himself once more as big man on Campo Vecchio. Rome could not hope to match blows with the Germans, so the big idea here for Crescentius was to deliver his city to Byzantine protection; to this end, his antipope was Greek. Constantinople, however, was by this time much too weak in Italy for Crescentius to entertain realistic hope of success.
This in turn led Otto to re-invade in 997-998, and re-depose Crescentius, who retreated to the Castel Sant’Angelo. While Crescentius holed up there, his antipope was blinded, mutilated, and degraded out of the clergy, driven backward on an ass (literally ass-backward!) through the streets to the derision of the mob.† Certain of his control, the emperor set about restoring his authority while the friendless Patricius Romanorum and his followers cooled their heels in their dead-end fortress for two months.
Exactly how Crescentius came to die is sunken into the Tiber’s murky waters: was he lured from his redoubt by promise of royal clemency, or did he crawl to Otto to beg it? More probable is that the nigh-impregnable edifice was simply reduced over time until the Germans nigh-impregnated it; one version of the upstart’s end has him summarily executed on the battlements, his body thrown down into the moat below only to be dredged up and hung upside down on Monte Mario.
On this date in 1945, as Adolf Hitler celebrated his 56th birthday within a Red Army cordon, one of the Second World War’s more tear-jerking little crimes against humanity happened in Hamburg.
Bullenhuser Damm — still to be found today — was a former Hamburg school which fell out of use as World War II progressed, owing to the devastation Allied bombings wrought on the surrounding area.
The school itself sustained little damage, however, which eventually facilitated its appropriation as a satellite building for the nearby Neuengamme concentration camp.
Over at Neuengamme, the SS doctor Kurt Heissmeyer had been conducting a litany of horror medical experiments on 20 Jewish children — mostly from Poland — culled from the concentration camps, seeking medical evidence for Nazi racial theories further to a cushy professorship. But as April 1945 was obviously endgame for the Third Reich, thoughts naturally turned to disposing of evidence of indictable offenses.
Photos of the eventual Bullenhuser Damm victims showing their surgical scars after Heissmeyer injected them with tuberculosis.
Bullenhuser Damm was just the place for disposal.
On April 20, the 20 kids were loaded up on trucks with their four adult caretakers — two French, two Dutch — plus six Soviet prisoners of war.
At Bullenhuser Damm, the kids were parked in a room and hung out, blissfully ignorant of their danger. “They had all their things with them — some food, some toys they had made themselves, etc,” physician Alfred Trzebinski later recalled at his own trial. “They sat on the benches and were happy that they had gotten out. They didn’t suspect a thing.”
In the next room, the 10 adults were being hanged.
According to Admitting the Holocaust, Trzebinski was impressed with his own compassionate use of this bit of down time: he generously gave the children morphine shots to sedate them before their own executions. Or rather, their murders … since the doctor could not but agree that “you cannot execute children, you can only murder them.”
I must say that in general the children’s condition was very good, except for one twelve-year-old boy who was in bad shape; he therefore fell asleep very quickly. Six or eight of the children were still awake — the others were already sleeping … Frahm [an orderly] lifted the twelve-year-old boy and said to the others that he was taking him to bed. He took him to a room that was maybe six or eight yards away, and there I saw a rope already attached to a hook. Frahm put the sleeping boy into the noose and with all his weight pulled down on the body of the boy so that the noose would tighten. (Trzebinski, again)
The other 19 children were disposed of in like manner, and then all 30 corpses cremated overnight … just in time for what must have been a much-needed 5 a.m. coffee.
Trzebinski’s take on his conduct this horrible night might have been good enough for his conscience, but it didn’t pass muster with his judges: he was hanged on a war crimes rap prominently including Bullenhuser Damm on October 8, 1946. Kurt Heissmeyer, however, avoided detection until 1959 and only received a long prison sentence in 1966, shortly before his death.
On this date in 1942, two Jewish men were hanged in the city of Sosnowiec (pronounced sos-no-vitz) in Nazi-occupied Poland, and two more were hanged in the nearby city of Bedzin (pronounced ben-jin).
These executions were witnessed by thousands of people and carefully choreographed, as historian Mary Fulbrook records in her book A Small Town Near Auschwitz:*
The hangings in Bedzin and Sosnowiec had been orchestrated in advance, in meticulous detail, by the Police President in Sosnowiec. The execution in Bedzin was to take place one hour later than the one in Sosnowiec. As much thought was given by the police authorities to questions of security and seating arrangements as might be appropriate for a modern open-air musical concert: this was not to be a simple punishment for an individual offense, as had happened innumerable times, but rather a mass spectacle, intended to have a major impact on the audience…
The identities of the executed Jews in Bedzin have been lost to history. (Correction: Per Yad Vashem, they were Jehuda Warman and “Feffer” (no first name).) They were hanged at the old Jewish cemetery on the corner of Zawale Street, before a crowd of about 5,000, at 5:00 p.m. Jewish workers in the Bedzin Ghetto had their work identity cards confiscated that day and were let out of work early, at 4:00 p.m., and ordered to watch the hangings. Only after they witnessed the executions did they get their work cards back. The bodies remained hanging on the scaffold until 7:30 p.m.
The condemned men in Sosnowiec were 30-year-old Mayer Kohn and his father, Nachun or Nahum.
Nachun (left, with wife) and Mayer.
They’d been caught trading on the black market, probably trying to feed their families, as no one could live long on the official rations. But as Fulbrook points out, the actual offense didn’t matter much to the Nazis:
These coordinated public spectacles of mass hangings do not seem … to have been in direct response to a particular crime; it seems there was a policy of ‘any Jew will do’, although infringements of German rules (including not only black market dealings but also very trivial ‘offenses’) were adduced as the ostensible ‘reason’ for these executions.
Thousands of people, both Jews and Germans, watched Mayer and Nachun Kohn die, then quietly went home.
Although virtually the entire Kohn family perished at the hands of the Nazis, Mayer and Nachun Kohn can claim a bit of immortality by virtue of being mentioned in Maus, Art Spiegelman’s famous graphic novel about the Holocaust: the author’s father, Vladek, hailed from Sosnowiec.
SHREVEPORT, La., Apr. 9 — Tom Miles, a negro, aged 29, was hanged to a tree here and his body filled with bullets early today. He had been tried in police court yesterday on a charge of writing insulting notes to a white girl, employed in a department store, but was acquitted for lack of proof.
On this date in 1944, the dashing Royal Air Force adventurer and prisoner of war Roger Bushell was shot for his key role orchestrating World War II’s most famous prison break — the Great Escape.
Richard Attenborough plays the Bushell-based character “Roger Bartlett” in The Great Escape, the film based on the story.
South African-born, Cambridge-educated, a pitch-perfect speaker of German and French, Bushell turned in his barristers’ briefs for fighter wings when World War II got underway.
But he was not meant to add Knight of the Air to his c.v., for his Spitfire was downed in its first engagement in May 1940. Bushell wound up in German custody, where he proved to possess a preternatural aptitude for escape.
He slipped German custody in June 1941 and made it within steps of Switzerland before a border guard nabbed him.
Nothing daunted, Bushell escaped again in October 1941 and successfully laid low in Czechoslovakia for months … long enough to finally get swept up in the reprisal roundups following the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.
By now he’d wound up in Stalag Luft III, a POW camp adjacent the Silesian town of Sagan (today, Zagan, Poland). Here Bushell would author his breakout masterpiece.
In truth it was a collaborative effort of astonishing scale. Captured soldiers characteristically fled custody, as Bushell himself had before, in ones or twos, or in small groups.
In this camp, Bushell conceived and rigorously managed an industrial-scale operation aiming to bust out more than 200 inmates. “Only” 76 ultimately got out, more than enough for the utter consternation of the Third Reich.
Bushell was going to go big to go home; in fact, his alpha-male code-name among the escape plan’s initiates was “Big X”. Big X mobilized some 600 prisoners to work on three simultaneous escape tunnels, nicknamed “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”. Sunk 9 meters underground to stymie German anti-digging seismographs, the tunnels entailed a complex, months-long logistical operation for disposing of dirt, buttressing walls, pumping air. Nor did the escape plans end at the camp wire: teams prepared clothing, papers, maps, money. Every escaping prisoner had a plan and a cover story.
We had a mapping section which turned out 400 maps of the area. Forged passes, they worked day and night turning out some brilliant passes which passed stringent Gestapo checks later on. They were mostly artists, led by an artist called Tim Whelan who was later shot. The clothing department made very good clothes and suits. Compasses, food, you name it, intelligence of course. And train times, we knew all the train times.
One of the tunnels was found, and one was abandoned, but “Harry” was completed. 102 meters long, it stretched just beyond Stalag Luft III’s outer perimeter, and agonizingly shy of the nearby tree line. On the night of March 24-25 1944, 76 men (Bushell included) slipped out of “Harry” at intervals minutes apart, and into the freezing dark, scurrying into the woods with silent prayers that the nearby guard tower would not throw a spotlight in their direction. The 77th escapee was finally spotted emerging by camp sentries and captured, shutting down the whole operation.
Despite their prepared plans, the runners were very deep within German territory, and in the dead of a moonless night. Successfully completing their escapes would require crossing land on foot in the snow, navigating multiple Reich train platforms without catching the eye of now-hyper-vigilant inspectors, crossing hundreds of kilometers of territory, and passing off accents and forged papers with credible aplomb.
Not many could really manage this: the honor — the duty, as Bushell and many others thought — was in the attempt.
In all, 73 of the 76 escapees in this caper were recaptured within days. (Click here for the stories of the three who actually got away.)
A furious Adolf Hitler personally ordered everyone concerned executed when news broke of the escape, a flagrant violation of the laws of war. His advisors, concerned at triggering possible reprisals, managed to talk the boss down to the nice round number of 50 executions, a … 31.5% less extensive flagrant violation of the laws of war? Germans too suffered the regime’s fury; Hitler was talked off executing the camp commandant, but that guy lost his job. Some workmen from whom the escapees had stolen electrical cable for work on the tunnel were shot for having failed to report the theft.
And the 50 whom the Reich’s leadership had decided to kill* were shot out of hand at various times and places from March 29 to April 12.**
Their somewhat reduced ranks did not much lessen the ferocity of the Allies’ postwar manhunt for the parties involved in conducting it; the “Stalag Luft III murders” were announced in Parliament as soon as May 1944 and became the subject of a dedicated trial in 1947. The convictions in that case led to a mass hanging for war crimes in Hameln, Germany on February 27, 1948.
For his part, Bushell takes his final rest in Posnan, Poland. Although the men shot on this and succeeding nights for the Great Escape are interred at various spots, a monument near the old camp site at Sagan/Zagan permanently honors “the 50″.
* The specific 50 were chosen by Artur Nebe, who would later be executed by the Nazis himself. The selections were heavy on happenstance; while eastern Europeans and the escape leadership were predictably included, many others were in or out by the feeblest of reasons. For example, the Germans are thought to have passed on shooting escapees named “Nelson” and “Churchill” for no better cause than their conceivable relationship to the famous Britons of those names.
On this date in 1656, an Istanbul mutiny against debasing coinage resulted in thirty-odd high officials hanged at the gates of the Blue Mosque.
In Ottoman periodization, 1656 is the end point of the Sultanate of Women — a century-plus span stretching all the way back to Roxelana when powerful harem women consistently defined Topkapi Palace intrigue, often alongside shaky male executives.
Many of the sultans in that span were minors, as was the the putative head of state for our scene, 14-year-old Mehmed IV. Their succession was invariably achieved by the skillful maneuvering of their mothers, who then figured to graduate to Valide Sultan, “Mother Sultan” and wield considerable power in their own right. In Mehmed’s case, Mother Sultan was a Ukrainian former slave named Turhan Hatice … but you can just call her the power behind the throne.
(Actually, Turhan was initially aced out of the powerful Valide Sultan gig by Mehmed’s paternal grandmother when Mehmed inherited the throne at the age of six; Turhan herself was only about 20 years old at that time. Turhan had that woman assassinated in 1651 to swipe the position.)
Come the 1650s, the Ottomans were mired in a long war with Venice over control of Crete — ultimately a Pyrrhic victory for the Ottomans in view of the enormous cost.
One of the ongoing costs of that conflict was currency depreciation; silver coins were so hard to come by that European traders made tidy money hauling debased silver-coated copper coins to sell in Istanbul — and had no shortage of buyers who knew exactly what they were getting and were happy to have it. According to Caroline Finkel, “1000 aspers of [official coinage] was valued at less than one hundred aspers in the market-place.”
Janissaries* aggrieved at being paid in rubbish “marched to the Hippodrome, vociferously demanding that those who had deceived Sultan Mehmed by implementing the debasement be killed.”
That’s an experience to drop your gonads when you’re 14 years old. The Janissaries, the capital’s elite warrior clique, had the sultanate by the short and curlies and were known to enforce their whims to the detriment of the empire’s interests. They had, indeed, revolted over currency depreciation in the 1580s; they also deposed Mehmed’s uncle, 17-year-old Sultan Osman II, when that young man tried to curb Janissaries’ dangerous power.
Undoubtedly these mutinous Janissaries would have enforced their demands with similar desperation. Jenkins says that the execution of the Mother Sultan was one of those demands, but at least the teen sultan was able to cross her name off the hit list. The various attendants, aghas, and eunuchs who irritated the Janissaries were not so fortunate.
We’ve titled our post with the most titillating of this date’s targets of Janissary wrath. Ottoman Eunuchs** came in the “Black” and “White” varieties, as in black and white races; because Islam prohibited castration, they were obtained by slavers in Africa or in the Balkans, where Christians and Jews did the dirty work.
European “White Eunuchs” from the Balkans had their testicles removed; these were sought by the hundreds as palace bureaucrats in Istanbul. African “Black Eunuchs” from Egypt or Ethiopia typically had their entire genitalia cut off, and had the more powerful position of serving the royal persons. (They had usurped that role in the late 16th century from the formerly preeminent white eunuchs.)
Each racial set had its own hierarchy and its own chief. The Chief Black Eunuch was the master of the harem and a powerful, trusted emissary of the Valide Sultan: it was her black eunuch that Turhan Hatice had sent to murder Mehmed’s original Valide Sultan.
These chief eunuchs, and especially the chief black eunuchs, were among the sacrificial executions the Janissaries required for their obedience. Mehmed did not attempt to protect them; one doubts that he could have done so.
The sultan’s acquiescence in these executions set him up for a 39-year reign, the longest since Suleiman the Magnificent. But it was also under Mehmed that the Sultanate of Women gave way to the civil administration. Later that same year of 1656, continuing crisis forced the appointment of Koprulu Mehmed Pasha as Grand Vizier.
* The Janissaries were infantry; their less-(in)famous cavalry counterpart, the Sipahis, also participated in this 1656 mutiny.
** Eunuchs persisted in the Ottoman sultanate right up until the end of World War I, and ex-eunuchs (well, still eunuchs) of the ex-Sublime Porte were still to be found in Turkey as late as the 1970s. One of them recounted the experience of being kidnapped and castrated in Ethiopia for export to the Ottoman palace.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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 counterattack “with 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.
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.