These two were sore about their father Ragnar Lodbrok, who had shipwrecked in England — maybe East Anglia, maybe elsewhere — and allegedly been thrown into a snakepit.
According to the hagiographic account, these Danish heathens attempted to force Edmund to renounce Christianity. Edmund demurred.
Then those wicked men bound Edmund, and shamefully insulted him, and beat him with clubs, and afterwards they led the faithful king to an earth-fast tree, and tied him thereto with hard bonds, and afterwards scourged him a long while with whips, and ever he called, between the blows, with true faith, on Jesus Christ; and then the heathen because of his faith were madly angry, because he called upon Christ to help him. They shot at him with javelins as if for their amusement until he was all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine’s bristles, even as Sebastian was.
The martyr-king’s body was ultimately interred at the aptly-namd Bury St. Edmunds. This locale thereafter became a major, and lucrative, pilgrimage spot in Britain.
Edmund himself became the patron saint of England until he was supplanted just before the Norman invasion by omnibus patron saint George. As George had nothing to do with England, there’s been some latter-day push to revert the honor to the native king.
On an unknown date in (perhaps) the 860s, Norse raider Ragnar Lodbrok (or Ragnar Lothbrok) was allegedly put to death in the Indiana Jones-esque manner of being cast into a pit of snakes.
Ragnar is a half-legendary character who plundered France and Britain in the mid-ninth century, the heyday of Viking marauders; he’s also the lead character of the cable TV series Vikings.
He’s known from Scandinavian sagas, like the Ragnarssona Þattr, which describes Ragnar’s final battle after shipwrecking in Northumbria.
At that time, there was a king called Ælla ruling over Northumbria in England. And when he learns that raiders have come to his kingdom, he musters a mighty force and marches against Ragnar with an overwhelming host, and hard and terrible battle ensues. King Ragnar was clad in the silken jacket Aslaug had given him at their parting. But as the defending army was so big that nothing could withstand them, so almost all his men were killed, but he himself charged four times through the ranks of King Aella, and iron just glanced off his silk shirt. Finally he was taken captive and put in a snake-pit, but the snakes wouldn’t come near him. King Aella had seen during the day, as they fought, that iron didn’t bite him, and now the snakes won’t harm him. So he had him stripped of the clothes that he’d been wearing on the day, and at once snakes were hanging off him on all sides, and he left his life there with much courage.
Here’s Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar in the 1958 film The Vikings, dying in a pit full of wild dogs, not snakes. Well, it’s the same animal kingdom.
“How the little pigs would grunt if they knew how the old boar suffers!” he’s supposed to have exclaimed, keeping to the nature theme.
One hundred fifty years ago today, Qing China’s last great ruler, the Empress Dowager Cixi, having seized the helm of the state she would drive for 47 years, had her deposed predecessor executed.
Formally, China was being “ruled” at this time by the illustrious Tongzhi Emperor, age five.
This child’s old man, depressively self-medicating at the drubbing China was taking in the Second Opium War, had died young, leaving his only son the throne, in care of a council of regents.
As one of the late monarch’s key advisors, Sushun was among that eight-strong panel, and he was popularly regarded as the worst of the lot — vicious, drunken, spendthrift, and just the guy to blame (along with co-regents Zaiyuan and Duanhua) for all the vicious, drunken, and spendthrift stuff the deceased emperor had put his seal to. Or, just the sort of stories trumped up by the rivals of the man really steering the state. Either way is good.
The Empress Dowager Cixi (1905 photograph)
More perilous for Sushun was his burgeoning rivalry with “the Concubine Yi,” the master of harem politics and mother of the new boy-emperor. She had long distrusted the courtier.
Recast in both title and name with her lover’s passing, the woman now known as “Empress Dowager Cixi” was able to obstruct the regency’s policies. And she did one better than that, intrepidly allying with disgruntled princes to engineer a coup d’etat against Sushun’s faction.
The end of Sushun’s regency arrived within months, and transpired within days: less than a week separated Sushun’s liberty from his beheading in a vegetable market. (Striking a liberal pose, Cixi declined to have him put to death by lingchi.) Cixi’s side simply took him into custody, decreed his execution on the attainder of a secret committee, and speedily carried it out. Zaiyuan and Duanhua were ordered to commit suicide the same day.
But whatever the form, the poor torn country was in the hands of the Empress Dowager Cixi from here on in.
For a half-century, she would be the consummate survivor — but it was survival during an epoch of terminal decline for the Qing. Riven by conflicts within and without, the imperial system simply couldn’t adapt.
And when the cagey Empress Dowager finally died in her 73rd year, the whole enterprise came apart.
On her deathbed in 1908, Cixi named as emperor the toddler Puyi. A few years later, revolution ensured that Puyi would be the last person ever to hold that title.
On Oct. 27, 1972, North Vietnamese communists seized the town of Ban Kengkok, near Savannakhet.
Though several other western missionaries escaped, and were evacuated by helicopter, Anderson and Kosin were captured and tied up in a hut.
A mission to extricate them was scratched — allegedly from on high because the ongoing secret negotiations between the U.S. and North Vietnam on ending the war had just reached a turning point. Someone evidently felt this a skirmish across the border concerning (and possibly killing) good Christian heartland girls might prove politically inflammatory at this delicate moment.*
So it didn’t happen, and that October 1972 diplomatic breakthrough eventually formed the basis of the Paris Peace Accords, publicly unveiled in January 1973, that set the framework for American withdrawal and gave Henry Kissinger his controversial Nobel Peace Prize.
This was all very nice — but also very far from Anderson and Kosin, who were left to swallow to the dregs their sacrificial draught.
A coded message sent early on Nov. 2, 1972 (American radio operators intercepted it) ordered their immediate execution, and the directive was accomplished without delicacy: the hut they were held in was simply torched, with them still inside.
On November 1, 1943, a fourteen-year-old boy named Anatoly Kuznetsov came within seconds of execution in his hometown of Kiev in Nazi-Occupied Ukraine. As he admitted decades later, his crimes were numerous and all were worthy of the death penalty, according to the laws of the Germans. They included such grave sins as stealing beets, breaking curfew and sticking up an anti-Nazi leaflet.
By the time I reached the age of fourteen, I had committed so many crimes on this earth that I should have been shot many times over. […] Moreover, I was not a member of the Party or the Komsomol, nor a member of the underground; I was not a Jew or a gypsy; I did not keep pigeons or have a radio set; I did not commit any crimes openly; and I did not get taken as a hostage. I was in fact a most ORDINARY, unexceptional, insignificant little chap in a peaked cap.
But if the regulations drawn up by the authorities had been observed scrupulously, according to the principle of ‘If you did it you pay the penalty,’ then I had LOST THE RIGHT TO BE ALIVE twenty times over.
I persist stubbornly in remaining alive, while the number of my crimes increases in a catastrophic manner, so that I have stopped counting them. All I know is that I am a terrible criminal who has still not been caught.
The closest young Kuznetsov actually came to being killed was on November 1, 1943.
His very existence in Kiev had become a capital offense by then: all the civilians were supposed to have followed the German Army as it retreated from the city ahead of the advancing Russians, on pain of instant death.
Yet Kutznetsov stayed, hiding in abandoned buildings and bombed-out ruins, drinking rainwater, eating whatever he could find. By November 1 he had been dodging the evacuation order for over a month. And so he was called to account:
At that moment I heard a noise. I started, raised my head and saw a German soldier carrying a rifle; then I caught sight of another one on the street outside … When I thought they were not looking in my direction I dodged round the corner of the house, again cowering down rather stupidly, not looking round and averting my eyes from them in a sort of superstitious belief that they would not see me. I heard someone shout, “Hey! … Hey!” and I straightened up and stopped.
The soldier eyed me very sternly. He was a dark-haired, stocky fellow of about thirty, rather awkward in his movements, wearing old, muddy boots. His was a very ordinary, everyday type of face … In German he said:
I took a few steps along the wall.
“You’ll be shot,” he said sternly, and started to raise his rifle.
It was, apparently, loaded, since he did not shoot the bolt. Another German came up, took him by the arm and said something in a very calm and indifferent tone, which sounded roughly like: “Don’t do it, there’s no point.” (That’s what I thought he said.)
The second soldier was rather older, quite an elderly man, with sunken cheeks. The dark-haired one answered him back and turned his head away for a moment. In that brief moment—I realized—I ought to have jumped up and dashed away… The dark one simply raised his rifle, turned his head for a moment, said something to the elder one, and that was the last moment of my life. […]
Right in front of my face — not in the cinema, or in a picture or in a dream — I saw the black hole at the end of the barrel, and had in my nose the unpleasant smell of gunpowder (meanwhile the elder German apparently went on saying something, but the dark one — alas! — wouldn’t listen); ages seemed to pass and there was no shot.
Then the end of the barrel dropped from my face to my chest and I realized at once in amazement that that, apparently, was how I was to be killed — shot in the chest!
Then he lowered the gun altogether. […]
He had only to squeeze his finger. I suppose on November 1st every year I ought to remember and thank that finger, the forefinger on his right hand, which let me live.
Five days later, the Red Army arrived and Kiev was liberated.
On this date in 1449, Timurid sultan and astronomer Ulugh Beg was beheaded at the order of his son.
Ulugh Beg and his famous astronomical observatory, depicted on a Soviet stamp.
Grandson of the conquerorTimur (Tamerlane), Ulugh Beg had hitched along on some of those legendary military campaigns.
As power passed to Ulugh Beg’s father Shah Rukh, our man settled in as governor of the silk road city of Samarkand, in modern Uzbekistan — and turned it into an intellectual capital of the empire.
A great patron of the sciences, Ulugh Beg was a brilliant astronomer in his own right, nailing NASA-quality precise calculations of heavenly bodies’ positions and the revolutions of the earth a century ahead of the likes of Copernicus.
An inscription on the madrasah he erected summed up the city’s philosophy under its philosopher-prince: “Pursuit of knowledge is the duty of each follower of Islam, man and woman.”
Wedding scientific genius to political power enabled Ulugh Beg to build a great observatory in Samarkand. Though this structure unfortunately did not outlive Ulugh Beg himself, it made Samarkand the world’s astronomical capital in the 1420s and 1430s.
But the flip side of wedding scientific genius to political power was that the guy had to govern — which wasn’t his strong suit. Within two years of his father’s 1447 death, Ulugh Beg had been overthrown by his own son* and summarily beheaded.
* The son became known as “Padarkush”, meaning “parricide” … and appropriately, he was overthrown by his own cousin within months.
Fourteen early-morning executions in Chile on this date in 1973 heralded the end of one of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship’s most notorious human rights abuses: the Caravan of Death.
For this “caravan” picture not camel-borne spice traders but a helicoptering death squad. In the bloody aftermath of Pinochet’s September 11, 1973 coup against the elected socialist government, the new strongman’s buddy Gen. Sergio Arellano Stark took this evil-omened chopper on a south-to-north tour from prison to prison beginning September 30 — leaving its wares behind at each stop, in the form of spent shells and murdered men.
Arellano and Pinochet were all hugs hours before the caravan departed.
The intended consumer of this murderous spectacle, according to the human rights organization Memoria y Justicia, was as much the military itself as it was the political opposition. “One of the reasons,” said one officer at Arellano’s very first stop,
was to set a drastic precedent in order to terrorize the presumed willingness of the Chilean people to fight back. But without a doubt, it was also intended to instill fear and terror among the commanders. To prevent any military personnel, down to lowest ranking officers, from taking a false step: this could happen to you!
And indeed, several officers were also sacked along the way, a couple even imprisoned and tortured. Their lenient treatment of presumed subversives constituted “failure to fulfill military duties”: one can readily imagine the impression made upon junior officers in Pinochet’s armed forces.
Said subversives had it worst of all, of course.
These were people already in prison, many having voluntarily turned themselves in upon request after the coup; they were drug out of cells in the dark of night and machine-gunned, or worse. Close to 100 defenseless political detainees died this way over a three-week span.
The Caravan reached Antofagasta on October 18, where Gen. Arellano was received by the zone chief Gen. Joaquin Lagos.
Arellano’s unit did its dirty work overnight: the names of its 14 victims on this date’s early hours are recorded here. One was an 18-year-old student, one a 66-year-old “maritime worker”. Several were figures in local government.
Lagos was horrified the next morning when he discovered what his guests had been up to — and he immediately gave Pinochet his resignation.
I felt hurt, powerless and angry [Lagos later said] that a criminal action of this nature that had been committed in my jurisdictional zone and behind my back.
Lagos had the juice to make this sort of gesture without winding up in prison himself: indeed, he gave Pinochet his resignation (and the reason) personally.
Though Lagos has said that Pinochet seemed much more concerned about his (Lagos’s) attitude towards the atrocity than the atrocity itself, he (Lagos) also remembers Pinochet placing a call to Gen. Arellano and, not reaching him, leaving his nomadic deputy a message “not to do anything more.” The Caravan did stop on Oct. 22: maybe, Lagos’s resignation did the trick, at least to the extent one can attribute any cause to the cessation. This outcome will always rate a bullet point on the brief against the “superior orders” defense.
Relatively speaking, these unfortunates are only one puddle of blood among seas from the Pinochet years. Still, the Caravan of Death in particular was (and still is) a focus of the indictments handed down against him after the return of civilian government, thanks in no small part to Gen. Lagos’s willingness to go on the record about it — and as a result, many of the legal maneuvers around Pinochet in the last years of his life, both in Europe and Chile, concerned this horrible affair.
Pinochet finally died in December 2006 while under house arrest for two specific Caravan of Death murders. While alive, however, his legal team predictably attempted to blame local commanders for the Caravan’s atrocities; in response to this gambit, Lagos went public on television with his version (which human rights organizations also tend to credit) — along with horrifying descriptions (Spanish link) of the death squad’s activites that left him too “ashamed” to return the victims’ remains to their loved ones.
They were torn apart. They were no longer human bodies. I wanted to at least put the bodies back together again, to leave them more decent, but you couldn’t.
They cut eyes out with daggers. They broke their jaws and legs
They shot them to pieces, first the legs, then the sexual organs, then the heart, all with machine guns.
On this date in 1864, Confederate ranger A.C. Willis — whose Christian name is given as Albert or Absalom — was captured in Rappahannock County, Virginia and summarily, spectacularly hanged.
The context was the increasingly dirty war in Virginia against Confederate guerrilla John Mosby, whose rangers were severely hampering Union operations in Virginia. The northern army had resorted to less than genteel expedients with the previous month’s summary execution of a half-dozen (actual or suspected) Mosby’s Rangers.
[Col. William] Powell’s men had first tied the rope they used to hang Willis with to the top of a young sapling, which was then bent nearly double. When it was released, it shot Willis skyward in an abrupt, strangled flight. Powell was jubilant about the execution he had ordered. Powell stated in his report: “I wish it distinctly understood by the Rebel authorities that if two to one is not sufficient I will increase it to 22 to one, and leave the consequences in the hands of my Government.”
We don’t have a picture of this jubilation-worthy execution, but we’ll make do with the picture in our heads.
On this date in 1354, Cola di Rienzi (or Rienzo) was slain by a miserly Roman mob — rather a lynching than an execution, but by any name the tragic end to one of history’s most amazing political careers.*
“Almost the only man,” in the estimation of his admiring biographer Edward Bulwer-Lytton,** “who ever rose from the rank of a citizen to a power equal to that of monarchs without a single act of violence or treachery.”
So magnetic was that era’s revival of classical learning that young Rienzi’s plebeian parents found a way on an innkeeper’s wages to immerse the boy in Cicero, Seneca, and the rest. As Gibbon put it, “the gift of a liberal education, which they painfully bestowed, was the cause of his glory and untimely end.” (Surely this is an object lesson for present-day families contemplating the daunting cost of university education.)
And the oratorical gifts he thereby developed found ready exercise lamenting Rome’s medieval degradation.
This View of the Campo Vaccino actually dates to 1636, but you get the idea. “Campo Vaccino”: that’s “cow pasture,” also known (to you, me, and Julius Caesar) as the Roman Forum.
Rome had bled away the grandeur of its imperial past without recovering the liberty of its populace. A haughty and dissolute aristocracy tyrannized the brackish city: a brawl between rival factions took Rienzi’s own brother’s life, with no prospect of justice.
Added to this civic humiliation (though only fortuitous for Rienzi’s political opportunity), the papacy itself had decamped for its captivity in Avignon.
What to do?
How about — overthrow the bastards?
Astonishingly, for Rienzi, to dare was to do: on Pentecost in 1347, he rallied a Roman mob and proclaimed the Republic re-established — taking for himself the ancient honorific of Tribune and the real power of an autocrat. The nobility routed in disarray, or else submitted to the sudden new authority.
For the balance of the year, Rienzi’s word was law in Rome, and as a messianic, popular dictator he cleared woods of bandits, imposed the death penalty for (all) murderers, and beat the aristocracy’s re-invasion with a citizen militia. He audaciously began to resume the primacy of the caput mundi: as “Tribune”, Rienzi summoned delegations from the other Italian cities, and presumed to arbitrate the disputes of neighboring kingdoms. Audacity veered into delirium as he pressed demands on the likes of the Holy Roman Emperor. He acquired a taste for fine wine and good clothes.
“Never perhaps has the energy and effect of a single mind been more remarkably felt than in the sudden, though transient, reformation of Rome by the tribune Rienzi,” Gibbon marveled. “A den of robbers was converted to the discipline of a camp or convent: patient to hear, swift to redress, inexorable to punish, his tribunal was always accessible to the poor and stranger; nor could birth, or dignity, or the immunities of the church, protect the offender or his accomplices.”
After a long spell in exile, he was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor and transferred to the papacy, where he remained comfortably imprisoned for a couple of years. When the pontiff’s hat changed heads to Innocent VI, the latter freed the illustrious ex-Tribune and dispatched him back to Rome under the title of Senator — intending him a catspaw to re-assert the supremacy the papacy had abandoned by moving away.
Within weeks of arrival in 1354, Rienzi again made himself master of the city.
And within months thereafter, he had fallen again — to his death.
He is charged in this last term with severity (the execution of a high-born freebooter, Fra Monreale, in particular), with avarice and abuse of power and once more with political incompetence.
Gibbon claims that Rienzi “contracted the habits of intemperance and cruelty: adversity had chilled his enthusiasm, without fortifying his reason or virtue; and that youthful hope, that lively assurance, which is the pledge of success, was now succeeded by the cold impotence of distrust and despair.” We incline to prefer Bulwer-Lytton’s more generous estimation of a man who with no resource save his own brilliance twice recovered to his low-born person the tattered remnants of the purple and dared against a thousand mighty antagonists to lift it on the standard of the Gracchi. Flaws, and they fatal, he possessed in abundance: but greatness even more.
At any rate, all the scolds upon Rienzi’s imperfections were so much froth in 1354. He certainly did not succumb to the greater virtue of the polis, but merely to its shortsighted refusal to bear a levy:
it was from a gabelle on wine and salt that he fell. To preserve Rome from the tyrants it was necessary to maintain an armed force; to pay the force a tax was necessary; the tax was imposed — and the multitude joined with the tyrants, and their cry was, “Perish the traitor who has made the gabelle!” This was their only charge — this the only crime that their passions and their fury could cite against him.
Rienzi’s eloquence, so often his decisive weapon, failed to move the shortsighted mob that besieged him, and he was hauled to a platform in the Capitol where public executions had been performed at his behest. “A whole hour, without voice or motion, he stood amidst the multitude half naked and half dead: their rage was hushed into curiosity and wonder: the last feelings of reverence and compassion yet struggled in his favour; and they might have prevailed, if a bold assassin had not plunged a dagger in his breast.” (Gibbon)
If this amazing character’s contradictions seem difficult to reconcile and his actions sometimes perplexing, Bulwer-Lytton argues in Rienzi’s defense that we must view him as a complex man ultimately fired not by political ambition but by religious zealotry. One thinks of Savonarola, the prim monk who mastered Florence and perished in flames, save for the essential detail: Rienzi’s loss “was bitterly regretted … for centuries afterwards, whenever that wretched and degenerate populace dreamed of glory or sighed for justice, they recalled the bright vision of their own victim, and deplored the fate of Cola di Rienzi.”
Statue of Rienzi in Rome. (cc) image from ZeroOne.
* And surely in keeping with the time-honored way for Roman chiefs to fall.
** We’ve encountered Bulwer-Lytton glancingly in these pages; his novel Zanoni climaxes with the beheading of its fictional title character in one of the last carts of the French Revolution’s Terror, and he wrote a novel (savaged by Thackeray) about executed intellectual Eugene Aram. The “biography” in question for this piece is actually a work of historical fiction, Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes; the quoted sections are from Bulwer-Lytton’s (non-fiction) afterword.
It’s too bad we don’t have the services of those excellent detectives in this matter. We can’t date this particular method, or attribute any specific victim to it, or even substantiate the actuality of the practice to our liking (though there are several books by British soldiers of that war which traffick in the report). Frankly, everything about it smells. But we think you’ll agree that execution by urophagia is a story that needs to be told.
The following is an account from a biography of English officer and novelist John Masters. We’ll label it Mature Content both for what it describes and the manner of its description, just to make you really want to savor every word.
War for the Pathans [Pashtuns] was an honourable, exciting and manly exercise, in which each succeeding generation needed to prove itself, but war was also ruthless; no mercy was shown and none was expected. Neither side aimed to take prisoners. The Pathans customarily mutilated and then beheaded any wounded or dead who fell into their hands. Women often carried out these operations. A well-known torture was called the Thousand Cuts, whereby flesh woulds were newly made and grass and thorns pushed into them so that they would hurt horribly. A prisoner might be pegged out on the ground and his jaw forcibly opened with a stick so that he could not swallow, then women would urinate in his mouth until he drowned.Frank Baines, who served on the North-West Frontier and later with Masters in Burma, put it more crudely:* ‘If you got captured, you were not only killed in a lively and imaginative manner, you were carved up and quartered and had your cock cut off and stuffed in your mouth for good measure.’