Having traveled such a very long odyssey, and survived thus far so many perils to continuity,* it seems meet to leave a few runic scratchings for the next foolhardy adventurer, on the topic (so essential to the almanac conceit) of the calendar.
Perhaps we ought to begin with that word essential. Our schtick here at Executed Today is to pin each entry to the anniversary of the execution in question. Day by day, few readers really care that this is the case and justifiably not: each post stands or falls on its own, and the coincidental date rarely appears as more than a footnote. But from the standpoint of structure, the dates constitute a sort of editorial dark matter that holds the whole together. It’s the constraint that produces the site’s mixture of household-name cases and exhumed obscurities, ancient saints and headline news, not to mention the odd discovered** thematic patterns we occasionally cobble together across the centuries. Without the need to meet the date the selections would be too arbitrary, the arrangements too pat, and the deadlines too forgiving — and for that reason I endeavor to keep the occasional executions of uncertain dates, be they ever so intriguing, only rare indulgences.
It’s also certainly the case that the requirement to research events for specific dates has led me to discover stories through, as it were, the other end of the telescope — to begin with a general resource like the roster of British hangings at CapitalPunishmentuk.org and, from nothing but an initial name and date, try to crack open a story. These can yield astonishing discoveries. My favorite instance of this was stumbling on the role a death penalty appellate case played in the legal challenge to Jim Crow in the 1890s — which came into my view only because I needed some entry to plug in on 1 May, searched the Espy file index of U.S. executions accordingly, and started following the threads.
For me, the payoff in quality easily rewards the troubles of maintaining the anniversary format. That does not mean those troubles have not on occasion been bayed out, garments rent by the fleshchunk, under a blood moon.
The first and most maddeningly ubiquitous problem one encounters in writing an almanac history site is the amazingly cavalier attention to detail that prevails in roughly any class of sources one would care to name — detail like the date.
I’m sure this is not peculiar to executions, but let me tell you from hard experience that when some source or other out there reports that the poor bastard was hanged on whatever day, you had best begin by taking the specifications with a grain of salt.
People who retell these stories, whatever the nature of their interest or axe-grinding, don’t care about this date, in the least; the thing that happened March 15 could as well be March 18 or April 15 or Christmas Day and for nigh everyone but the daily blogger that minutiae just isn’t the point. In the grand tradition of sleepy scriptorium scribes miscopying their scrolls you’ll get some nameless pen in the fogs of time who writes down the fellow’s trial date for his death date, or transposes the numbers in the date, or any other bloody thing at all. I would presume this fuzzing of the record is typically an accident born of carelessness or indifference, though occasionally it’s perfectly intentional.
Whatever the reason, when your concept is all about the calendar, it’s a jolly walk over quicksand.
I discovered this to my early grief not three weeks into the site’s run when I posted about pirate “Calico Jack” Rackham and casually dropped in the execution date that was at the time asserted in Jack’s Wikipedia entry … which turned out to be one day off.
Let it not be said that the world’s fact-checkers do not earn their daily bread, for it is from innumerable copies upon copies that these little slips perpetrate themselves upon the years, multiplying into their own self-confirming colonies of cross-referencing sources. Unfortunately, your narrator is this site’s only fact-checker; ever since the Calico Jack debacle, I’ve lost literally hundreds of hours like Diogenes searching for one honest date in the (disturbingly frequent) instances where early research shows the timing questionable or disputed. Ideally one’s torchlight at last falls upon a definitive primary source, as with Spanish anarchist Michele Angiolillo; sometimes one has to settle for what appears to be the most credible consensus, as with this criminal autopsy painted by Rembrandt; and every now and again, one must outright spike a promising post. (Murder your darlings, they say; surely a headsman ought to be able to do it.)
Despite what sometimes veers into Ahab-like pursuit of a detail that readers basically figure to ignore, I’ve still managed to punt one or two other dates in live posts over the years: contravening as they do the core architecture of the entire project, these errors scar my soul more deeply than pretty much any other. Even though she’s an Ace in our playing card deck, I’d sooner call Joan of Arc a Huguenot arsonist who was beheaded during the Boxer Rebellion for passing bad checks than say that she burned on May 29th.
(Paradoxically, this all makes ancient dates some of the “best” for my purposes even though they’re the worst as far as objective reliability goes. Cassius Dio might be talking through his toga but if he wrote a date down, we’re rolling with it because odds are that it’s the only date citation in existence at all.)
Ticking the wrong box on the calendar is one thing, but a whole new level of pandemonium arises when the calendar itself must be queried.
We’ve obviously normalized this site to the dates of the present-day western calendar. This is basically the Gregorian Calendar; it’s named for the counter-Reformation pope who promulgated it as a corrective to the slightly-too-slow Julian calendar.† Since the reform was associated with one side in Christendom’s sectarian schism, Protestant countries were slow to adopt the Gregorian calendar, and did so one by one when they finally cracked. (Catholic territories adopted the Gregorian calendar almost in one fell swoop in 1582.) Orthodox Europe held out even longer.
Consequently, for several centuries, different European countries used two different calendars. When Guy Fawkes was hanged, drawn, and quartered on 31 January 1606, it was already 10 February across the channel in France.‡ So how’s that supposed to work on my calendar?
I’m frankly surprised than in eight-plus years I’ve never been challenged on this — another indicator how little most readers care about the dates. (Again, I don’t say this to criticize. Readers have little reason to care about the dates!) This was not at all something I had thoroughly thought through when I launched this site, and as a result it has not been handled with anything approaching rigorous consistency, but the practice I’ve come to is roughly this:
For dates prior to 1582, the Julian calendar is used. (i.e., we’re not retrofitting the Gregorian calendar)
For dates from 1582 (the initial introduction of the Gregorian calendar) to 1752-53 (when the last major Protestant states finally adopted it), I let the local date prevail: Julian dates for English executions; Gregorian dates for French executions.
However, this does still leave gray area where the execution is the concern of multiple countries. For example, in 1623, the Dutch (already on the Gregorian calendar) executed in the East Indies some nationals of England (still on the Julian calendar). I rolled with the Julian date for the entirely arbitrary reason that the post focused greatly on how that event played in England.
After 1752-53, I default to Gregorian dates even in Orthodox countries — where, even though the Julian calendar remained in use until as late as 1923, even local intelligentsia often reference events by the Gregorian dates that were clearly emerging the de facto standard
However, I have definitely cheated on (or simply been inconsistent about) the Julian/Gregorian thing in post-1753 Orthodox Europe, as in this post channeling Tolstoy’s War and Peace executions. Considering the source and nature of that particular story, it just seemed more right to let its Russianness carry the day.
So that covers dates in the western milieu, with a substantial fudge factor.
When it comes to the many and interesting calendars outside the Julian-Gregorian track, it’s Katy bar the door. I do my best to cram them into the equivalent western date on a catch-as-can basis; if you’ve read this far with me you will not be surprised to hear that dates emerging from, say, an ancient Persian calendar or from variants of the Hindu calendar deserve a jaundiced eye when they’re served up in January-to-December terms by a website, popular history, or any intermediary channel that looks less than anal-retentive.
Case in point: you’ll see the crucifixion date of Japanese “Warring States Period” hero Torii Suneemon described in some sources as occurring on 16 May. It turns out that it took place on the 16th day of the fifth month … of the pre-Gregorian Japanese lunisolar calendar.§ I arrived at 24 June as the correct equivalent date by testing and nervously re-testing through calendar translators, leaving the date’s accuracy suspended between the reliability of said translators and the competence of your correspondent. (Fortunately the story is excellent enough to bear a little trepidation in the dating.)
This is the sausage-making that for three millennia has slaked your morbid fascination and mine. It’s time for the fourth thousand posts.
Previous self-congratulatory milestone posts:
2500, against miscorrection
2001, musing on the death penalty in literary dystopias
1500, about the Hand of Glory legend
1000 (and one), about the Arabian Nights stories
500, merely a Spartan marking of the date
… at this point I suppose I’m only doing the thousand-and-one thing in deference to now-meaningless precedent. Does 3,001 have any special resonance, the way 1,001 and 2,001 did?
* I am not above writing lashed naked, save that one can rarely afford this service on the pennies earned by Amazon referrals.
** Or forced.
† Introducing the Gregorian calendar entailed jumping forward 10 days (when the calendar was introduced) or 13 days (as of today). If you think this was a logistical nightmare, consider the 445-day year that Julius Caesar had to decree in order to bump Rome from its crazy lunar hodgepodge and onto the Julian calendar.
As added fun, England prior to the Gregorian switch had its New Year not on January 1 but on March 25, meaning that one must double-check the years of English dates in January, February and March.
‡ These also occasionally compound the simple date accuracy problems as writers conscious that the Gregorian calendar is the more accurate sometimes normalize their own commentaries to the “true” date, resulting in one’s sources citing the same events according to different date registers and nobody being explicit about which they’ve chosen. Oh, and after that, you’ll get interlocutors who completely misinterpret leftover impressions of the Julian/Gregorian changeover and talk utter nonsense as if intentionally trying to obfuscate.
§ You’ll also commonly see this “Xth day of the Yth month” stuff naively rendered “straight” into a western date when primary sources use a regnal year. (e.g., the fourth day of the eighth month of the illustrious reign of King So-And-So does not mean 4 August.)
Yesterday’s post, the 2,922th consecutive day we’ve filled in these implacable annals, completed our eighth revolution around the sun since this here site was born on Halloween way back in 2007.
When looking back on this project, whenever it should come to an end, it will be very difficult to account for how it’s managed to shamble along all this time without going all to pieces. Life has changed quite a bit in that time, but death seems to hold maddeningly consistent.
I have been lucky, no doubt, to have that margin (if sometimes barely that margin) of health and income and time to maintain, and luckier still for the collaboration and support of many others who have contributed to this site and without whom it would have died a fool’s death long ago. The surest thing I can credit to myself is the obstinance just to stack up the next post, day upon day, whether I want to or not. As Steinbeck wrote of the onerous birth of The Grapes of Wrath.
I’ll get the book done if I just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.
Books, at least, have ends to go with their beginnings and middles. We are eight years in, the figure for the infinite and a number that’s starting to get too big for the numerological sport. It’s a goddamned bloody history of tragedy and horror that we’ve slogged through and the fact of the matter is that we haven’t even scratched the surface of enterprise: if anything, the surface has scratched us.
15.25 million pageviews
24,509 Twitter updates to (at present) 4,235 followers
The Ted Bundy post has 7,666 comments
Typical daily traffic has dipped a bit and is now more in the 6,000-7,000 neighborhood than former heights of 7,000 and even 8,000.
As we’ve noted in some past incarnations of this accounting, the register of Executed Today’s most-trafficked posts all-time has become fairly ossified by dint of the enormous first-mover advantage that the oldest posts on the site enjoy. 2015’s top 40 is basically 2014’s top 40, with some minor jostling around the order; the only new additions vis-a-vis 2014 are Soviet partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, one of the earliest posts on this site and a regular top traffic earner around the lower fringes of these posts, and — a truly new addition — our September 2014 treatment of Nigerian gangster Ishola Oyenusi.
To get a view of what new content is actually hitting, we took a look last year at the top posts by lifetime pageviews that were actually written within the past four years. Even this view skews to the earliest; 10 of those posts from last year automatically roll off in an updated snapshot for being written before Halloween of 2011 — just as most of the posts in this moving window date from 2012.
A years’-long white-whale project somehow came to fruition this year thanks to the inestimable design prowess of Tom Eykemans. As a result, it’s now possible to have the dead man’s hand comprised of actual dead men. (And women.)
As usual, many of the site’s best posts are the products of guest authors. Does one even consider Meaghan Good a “guest author” at this point? She’s logged about six months’ worth of content over the years, with numerous more in the hopper pending future publication. Every year I try to find a different way to say that Meaghan rocks … but man, does she rock.
Seven straight years of nailing every-24-hours deadlines — over 2,500 posts by now — is a little feather in our headsman’s hood. But even in pausing to preen, I must admit that this labor of love has felt more like labor than ever before these past months. There’s a reason that seven years comes with its own itch.
No need to belabor the point. The site presses ahead to Year 8; as a matter of fact, there are dozens of posts already pre-scheduled. But the editor under the hood is also searching for a fresh spark from the Muse to leave this fallow period behind. Executioner’s angst: surely there must be more to this world than the chopping of heads?
There are innumerable stories worth the telling that we have not yet touched and justify perseverance in an existential desert. But one also must also acknowledge that this will still be true after seven more years or seventeen. Every executioner comes to his end, sometimes when least expected.
Seven years deep, the annual list of most popular posts ever has ossified to the point where the minor yearly rearrangements just don’t have much new to say that previous annual reports haven’t already said. Last year’s installment ran up to an unwieldy 66; I’ve pared it back to 40 this year for better digestion. Check out the Year 6 report and you’ll get a pretty good idea what the next 20 or 30 on the list would have been.
One reason this list looks the same year after year is that the lifetime-pageview metric confers such a huge early mover advantage on older posts. Meaghan Good’s guest post on the electrocution of 14-year-old George Stinney, Jr. just squeaked onto our countdown at no. 39 above: it’s the most recently-posted story in that cohort, and it ran 28 months ago. Only two of the remaining 39 were published within the past four years. The random emergence of a news story or bit of cultural ephemera may cause some heretofore obscure post to pop onto the marquee come next year, but the list just posted increasingly resembles the light of a distant star — the snapshot of what transpired when the blog was young.
The diversity for periods, topics, and especially geography in the above list pleases me. One of the intentions of this site is to capture snapshots of the death penalty experience in many times and places.
Even though the major Anglo countries — the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia — ranked one through four in traffic sources and collectively supplied over two million of the site’s three million or so pageviews this past year, we also boasted traffic hot spots from the Philippines, Pakistan and India, South Africa, and (it doesn’t really pop on the map) Singapore … with a clear assist to the fabricators of the British Empire for promulgating English in all these places.
Outstanding guest posts accounted for more than 10% of the content for the past year, led as usual by the indefatigable Meaghan Good. Meaghan’s own individual contributions to the site are nearing a half-year’s worth of content; she also recently published for Kindle a fictional story, Execution Detail in Tartu, exploring the experience of an ordinary Einsatzgruppe commando carrying out his little bit of the Holocaust on the Second World War’s eastern front.
Today’s admittedly slight entry is a milestone not only for Finland but for this site as well: it’s the 2,500th consecutive day we’ve posted since we launched on Halloween all the way back in 2007, roughly two or three Ice Ages in Internet years. Lord knows the site design looks it.
One can well doubt the utility of passing the epoch in execution-hunting. But if there is one thing that thousands of hours over 2,500 days plumbing archives for scaffold stories confers, it’s a certain facility with the subject matter. I’ve read an awful many literary products from many a time and place, on the occasion of this rare meta-post, I’d like to mine them in service of a petty peeve.
There is a certain English convention favoring the use of the word “hanged” to refer to the execution of a human at the end of a rope, in contravention to the word “hung” in every other imaginable context of a dangling past participle. Though this is certainly an intervention in an ancient argument that tends to generate more heat than light, I do wish it understood in no uncertain terms that a vast concourse of primary literature testifies that it is perfectly acceptable to use “hung” to refer to an execution.
While I have my own preference and peccadillos about language, I associate most readily with the descriptivist camp.
But I hope to convince you, gentle reader, that for us to hang together on this matter it is not even unnecessary that you share my readiness to welcome ever more shocking barbarisms into the tongue.
The verb to hang derives from two different Old English words, hon (intransitive) and hangian (intransitive). A good thousand years ago, hon and hangiancollapsed into a single word, whose dominant past tense across the board was hanged. Centuries after that, the alternate form hung migrated out of the north of England and basically crowded out the old hanged past participle, sort of like snuck is doing to sneaked today. No doubt the pubs of old rang in their day with outrage that apprentices these days no longer said hanged my codpiece but preferred this degenerate novelty quasi-word instead.
Ever thus. Anyway, when all was said and hung, hanged only hanged on to its archaic noosey usage, perpetuated by innumerable (it’s way more than 2,500) formulaic judicial sentences. It’s hanged right onto it all the way down to the present.
Let’s just see about that.
However, there’s never been any sort divinely inscribed rule to halt the advance of hung at the edge of the scaffold — nor has that been the consensus practice of actual English speakers over the generations.
It’s practically mandatory among the descriptivist set to roll out the 1994 Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage on this subject. The source has its detractors and other dictionaries argue differently, but underscore at a minimum its point as to the worth of the distinction. Sure, your teacher, like mine, probably told you that “pictures are hung and people are hanged,” and hanged is certainly a correct word for what the hangman did. But …
Our evidence shows that hung for hanged is certainly not an error. Educated speakers and writers use it commonly and have for many years … Hanged is, however, more common than hung in writing. It is especially prevalent when an official execution is being described, but it is used in referring to other types of hanging as well …
The distinction between hanged and hung is not an especially useful one (although a few commentators claim otherwise). It is, however, a simple one and easy to remember. Therein lies its popularity. If you make a point of observing the distinction in your writing you will not thereby become a better writer, but you will spare yourself the annoyance of being corrected for having done something that is not wrong.
Tastes aside — and I will admit to a deeply inculcated preference for “hanged” — what does the language profit by throwing up a Berlin Wall to preserve from hung only this one specific sense of to hang — this sense, and no other? How does the noose, a minuscule enclave of usage, command its own irregularity in 21st century English?
Languages evolve in funny ways, to be sure. Hanged is certainly good for the gallows but less so for your picture, and that alone is an acknowledged oddity.
But it is not only in the 21st century that English has resorted to “hung” to refer to execution, and done so with perfect ease and clarity.
The Merriam-Webster source aforementioned was good enough to provide some of the examples informing its conclusion, and these are repeatedly found in the various forum threads on the Internet where the sorts of readers who make war over the Oxford comma hang out. For example:
“These men were … at last brought to the scaffold and hung.”
-Percy Bysshe Shelley
“The negro murderer was to be hung on a Saturday without pomp.”
We could add a few ourselves.
“Some of those hung were known personally to Europeans in Tabriz, who are positive that they took no part in the fighting. They were hung simply because they were Constitutionalists.”
“My father saw four men hung for being with some others who had set fire to a rick.”
“Till was hung yesterday
for murder and rape with trimmings”
Educated, knowledgeable wielders of the language have been right at home with hung in our sense for centuries. These examples tend to elicit the objection that one is cherry-picking a few careless errors every writer makes here and there, and while that has the look of circularity to me — educated speakers don’t say “hung”, so every example to the contrary is by definition a mistake — maybe the problem is a dearth of data points.
Please allow your narrator to remedy this! Two and a half thousand posts in, I’ve seen “hung” used many times in primary (or secondary, but still quite vintage) sources in a wide variety of literary forms and quoted some number of them on the site.
Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, Feb. 1, 1905
Any individual example of a word’s use can always be defined away. For example, when Thomas Hardy recalled the disturbingly sensuous appeal of a murderess he saw die on the gallows in his youth — “I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back” — one can well note that here he uses “hung” to draw attention not to the execution itself but to the fact of her dangling, her suspended corpse’s impression as an object under his eyes.
Perhaps this is also why our correspondent finds that the beloved thief Skitch “hung but a few seconds, before the rope slipped from the gallows.” It is certainly in this sense that Christ “hung on the cross” because he was physically sagging off it.
And this lyric celebrating Irish “Invincible” Joe Brady would obviously lose the rhyme if it resorted to “hanged”, so artistic license may be admitted as well if it be confined to stylists of poetry and not prose:
It was in Kilmainham Prison the Invincibles were hung.
Mrs Kelly she stood there all in mourning for her son.
She threw back her shawl and said to all:
“Though he fills a lime-pit grave,
My son was no informer and he died a Fenian blade.”
Grammar very quickly becomes the proverbial blind man’s lamppost here, used not for illumination but for support of an ungenerous and predetermined conclusion. But I think the frequency of the examples of “hung” over the years, often used precisely in spots that would induce today’s fastidious language police to fire off a blog comment or tweet, builds a strong case that “hung” has been an acceptable past participle in English for our line of work for a very long time.
While “hanged” is the predominant choice, there are so many instances of “hung” to be dredged from English archival sources that the alternatives are clearly a both/and for writers across several centuries, rather than an either/or.
Crossing the pond, we find the New York Times correspondent reporting the execution of five indigenous Cayuse for perpetrating the Whitman Massacre. “The town,” he reported, “was full of men and women, the former coming to see how the election resulted, and the latter to see how the Indians were hung.” Grammarians may enjoy their chuckle here, but nobody misunderstands the meaning.
New Hampshire Patriot and Gazette, Nov. 29, 1865
Surveying the British suppression of India’s 1857 revolts, Harpers magazine similarly noted that
[s]ome of the mutineers were to be hung, and around the gallows, erected during the night previous, the soldiers were drawn up.
In none of these are the various authors lingering especially over the physical quality of suspension. The word conveys the act of execution, simply and directly.
“Hung” is certainly ubiquitous in the use of everyday speakers who are not literary craftsmen. An eyewitness report to the post-Civil War execution of Confederate guerrilla Sue Mundy:
The fall was not more than three feet, and did not break his neck; he choked to death. We have seen a great many persons hung, but never before did we witness such hard struggles and convulsions.
But this syntax is not confined to the hoi polloi. Even judges — like the one who pronounced sentence on Richard Johnson in 1829 — were known to condemn prisoners to be hung by the neck until dead.
At half past seven in the morning, all the prisoners started tapping their cell doors: bang, bang, bang. It just went on. As we got nearer to eight o’clock they started banging quicker: bang, bang, bang, bang. And at eight o’clock exactly they all banged once, hard, and then stopped dead. And I thought, ‘That’s the moment he’s been hung.’ The hairs on the back of my neck went up, they really did. I remember it to this day.
So how many more centuries must the line against common folk saying “hung” be policed to save the Queen’s English from degradation?
I can’t speak readily to the thrust of English in all the many parts of the world that it is spoken, but at least as pertains Great Britain and North America, I do wonder if a wider colonization of the word “hung” in this sphere was unnaturally aborted by the vanishing of the hangman from the Anglo public eye.
Britons have not laid eyes on a public execution in a century and a half; hardly any Americans are still alive who would remember the last one stateside. Although Britain has been fifty years without an execution of any kind, its current frequency of execution by hanging is basically statistically identical to that of the United States. Even allowing for the imprint of judicial executions abroad, or suicides by hanging, most of those who don’t choose to write a daily blog about the death penalty perhaps have altogether less reason to talk or think about hangings than did ancestors milling about the public gallows at Tyburn or the Boston Common.
It’s just a theory.
Two thousand, five hundred posts into this project, only the devil knows how long this site might continue to run or what it will all mean when we come to the end of it. I can only assure the reader that I’ll, er, hang on as long as I can. If the substance of this post can be Executed Today’s legacy, I’ll consider it an epoch well-wasted.
Previous self-congratulatory milestone posts:
2001, musing on the death penalty in literary dystopias
1500, about the Hand of Glory legend
1000 (and one), about the Arabian Nights stories
500, merely a Spartan marking of the date
They say the coward dies a thousand deaths. Executed Today has now made it six full trips around the sun, and died two thousand, one hundred and ninety-two.*
We’re getting pretty long in the tooth in blog years, and as noted in this space last year blogging daily for five, and now six, years puts us well past our original win conditions for this site.
There has been some consideration hereabouts about how and when to let this blog die its own cowards’ death, but there are still so many stories left untold for the faithful executioner. “Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau,” as Madame du Barry is said to have begged under the guillotine. Just one moment more … one more year at least.
We logged about 2.77 million pageviews over the past twelve months, bringing the site near 10 million all time. (It should reach that milestone in about a month.)
That figure was spiked by a Reddit frontpage referral to the fascinating medical-history guest post on the nameless woman “Aochababa”, whose 1771 beheading and subsequent medical dissection initiated a new era of anatomical learning in Japan. That post, originally published in 2010, had five-sixths of Executed Today’s one-day traffic record (53,646 on May 1, 2013). On that strength it became the most-trafficked post on the site for the entire year, the most common visitor entrance page other than the home site, vaulting from undeserved obscurity into the site’s top 10 all time.
Also making an enormous move: the Ottoman Grand Vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha. This post just snuck into the top 60 last year as it began receiving search traffic after the debut of a Turkish costume drama about the reign of Pasha’s friend, sovereign, and executioner Suleiman the Magnificent. In Executed Today’s sixth year, Pargali was consistently among the top two or three most-seen posts day in and day out; it’s the ninth-most-trafficked post all-time on the site as of this writing, but if the next year is like the last, it could easily stand as high as no. 2 next Halloween. (A different post about the capable heir Suleiman foolishly executed also reached the top 50.) For close-but-no-cigar cultural ephemera, the TV series Vikings drove “Ragnar Lodbrok” to the no. 21 search term for the year — surely a spoiler for viewers who learned that the show’s protagonist is destined for execution in a snakepit. Like those snakes, such search wins can be poisonous; while once we had one of the few pages on the whole Intertubes about this fellow, it has subsequently been buried by posts about the television program.**
Current events spurred other movers. Eva Dugan, the last woman executed in Arizona, shot up into the top 20 thanks to the wall-to-wall media coverage of Jodi Arias’s Arizona capital murder case. John Bennett, the last U.S. military execution to date, cracked the top-posts list for the first time because of Major Nidal Hasan‘s death penalty court-martial for the Fort Hood shootings. We’re not above drawing such connections explicitly ourselves on Twitter, where we’ve sent about 17,200 tweets (4,500 in the past year) to a follower universe now nearing 3,000.
One of the more noticeable site trends in the past year has been the continued steady growth in traffic share of mobile devices. Those accounted for only a bit over 10% of the traffic in Year V (Nov. 2011-Oct. 2012), but that soared to 25% in Year VI (Nov. 2012-Oct. 2013). The month-over-month change shows a still stronger trend than that, with site views from desktop devices bottoming out at 68.7% in August 2013 before rebounding ever so slightly the past two months. Both mobile phone views and tablet views have grown by about +50% relative to where they were last October — perhaps facilitated by plumping for WPTouch Pro, money very well spent by my lights.
The site has always managed to get by on the kindness of strangers, several of whom once again contributed a trove of guest posts.
In addition to those named below, a special thanks is due my correspondent “Mastro Titta” (here‘s the inspiration for the name) for adding countless names and dates to our expansive archives of potential source material. Similar gratitude goes to Tom E. for reasons which will become clear in the near future.
Grazie to them, and to all of these …
Co-authored with Bora Chung
Our 2001 days‘ meta-post musings on the death penalty in dystopian literature
With this year’s contributions (and there are many more already scheduled for future dates), Meaghan’s published posts on Executed today ran past 100. As noted last year, we’d have been hard-pressed to keep this operation running all these years without her prolific and thoroughly researched output.
If all goes well, we’ll manage a bit more of these in the year to come.
* Actual sum total of persons executed in the 2,192 posts — or however many it ends up being — would be an interesting figure to have but an extremely tedious (not to say depressing) job to compile.
** This same thing happened with Cameron Todd Willingham: when the New Yorker put the story in the national eye, our longstanding account of Willingham’s likely innocence was one of the few already online and became one of the most visited pages on the site in 2009. As one can see from the traffic ranker above where it now sits at #57, it’s been subsumed for everyday websearchers by the many thousands of new Willingham links in the past few years.
The ambitions harbored on that Halloween fell very far short of such a milestone as this, so it seems only fitting to mark the terra incognita of day 2001 with a reflection on the death penalty in the futuristic oeuvre.
It was Thomas More — eventually himself the headsman’s patient — who coined the term Utopia; in the novel of that name, More places in the mouth of the emissary from the island-nation of Utopia a trenchant critique of harsh Tudor-era justice, with mere thieves “hanged so fast that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet,” which “was neither just in itself nor good for the public; for as the severity was too great, so the remedy was not effectual.”
Utopia, by contrast, puts thieves to labor to compensate for the injury they have done, and it’s all very superficially dignified (except that you get flogged if you resist). But Utopia and all utopias must grapple at some point with the citizen who does not abide the ordained social contract: Thomas More, who as Chancellor did not scruple to kill heretics, confines his penal slaves not with armed guards and barbed wire but with the certain threat of annihilation.
Their friends are allowed to give them either meat, drink, or clothes so they are of their proper color, but it is death, both to the giver and taker, if they give them money; nor is it less penal for any freeman to take money from them, upon any account whatsoever: and it is also death for any of these slaves (so they are called) to handle arms. Those of every division of the country are distinguished by a peculiar mark; which it is capital for them to lay aside, to go out of their bounds, or to talk with a slave of another jurisdiction; and the very attempt of an escape is no less penal than an escape itself; it is death for any other slave to be accessory to it … the very having of money is a sufficient conviction: and as they are certainly punished if discovered, so they cannot hope to escape; for their habit being in all the parts of it different from what is commonly worn, they cannot fly away … The only danger to be feared from them is their conspiring against the government: but those of one division and neighborhood can do nothing to any purpose, unless a general conspiracy were laid among all the slaves of the several jurisdictions, which cannot be done, since they cannot meet or talk together.
Maybe he’s not weighing down an overcrowded gibbet, but the thief has suffered a waking civil death; to budge an inch from his place is enough to plummet to his doom. The dystopian genre need only widen this chasm until the whole island falls in.
In the 20th century, once advancing industry had seemingly placed comprehensive social reordering within practical grasp, the dystopian gaze likewise swallowed up the utopian.
When H.G. Wells, perpetrator of several utopian novels (including one literally titled A Modern Utopia) toured the Soviet Union in 1920, Russia was engaged in what Wells and many others expected was a utopian endeavor.
The “proletarian poet” — a distinct literary circle after the October Revolution — Vladimir Kirillov* celebrated the godlike power mere workers now exercised in “The Iron Messiah,” which begins thus:**
There he is — the savior, the lord of the earth.
The master of titanic forces —
In the roar of countless steel machines,
In the radiance of electric suns.
We thought he would appear in a sunlight stole,
With a nimbus of divine mystery,
But he came to us clad in gray smoke
From the suburbs, foundries, factories.
We thought he would appear in glory and glitter,
Meek, blessedly gentle,
But he, like the molten lava,
Came — multiface and turbulent …
There he walks o’er the abyss of seas,
All of steel, unyielding and impetuous;
He scatters sparks of rebellious thought,
And the purging flames are pouring forth.
The writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, a communist revolutionary who was also an engineer and had supervised industrial icebreaker construction in Britain, was one of the men employed in producing Russian translations of Wells’s sunny forecasts of technocratic progress.
Perhaps in response to Wells — and certainly in response to his dismay over the chilling climate for dissident art — Zamyatin penned the seminal 1921 dystopian novel We (it can be read free online in this pdf). We would be distinguished as the first book banned by Soviet censorship; it was smuggled to the west and published in 1924, but it didn’t see print in the Soviet Union until glasnost.
In We, it is the future “One State” that stands as lord of the earth and master of titanic forces. In a world without privacy or dreams, Numbers (i.e., people) build a spaceship called Integral at the command of the Benefactor. The novel explicitly counterposes freedom and (material) happiness; the perfectly ordered, clockwork One State has the latter and therefore organizes explicitly to preserve its non-freedom, “for freedom and crime are as closely related as — well, as the movement of an aero and its speed: if the speed of an aero equals zero, the aero is motionless; if human liberty is equal to zero, man does not commit any crime.”
More’s Utopia executes enslaved criminals who attempt to regain their liberty; Zamyatin’s Benefactor simply executes anyone who attempts to acquire liberty in the first place. And these are not only bodily executions: before putting to public death a seditious poet, a state-friendly writer “named” R-13 (Numbers, you see) delivers a benediction celebrating the One State/Benefactor’s Promethean achievement: “he harnessed fire / With machines and steel / And fettered chaos with Law.” It sounds a little like Kirillov.
Then the execution proceeds:
Swayed by an unknown wind, the criminal moved; one step … one more … then the last step in his life. His face was turned to the sky, his head thrown back — he was on his last … Heavy, stony like fate, the Benefactor went around the machine, put his enormous hand on the lever … Not a whisper, not a breath around; all eyes were upon that hand … What crushing, scorching power one must feel to be the tool, to be the resultant of hundreds of thousands of wills! How great his lot!
Another second. The hand moved down, switching in the current. The lightning-sharp blade of the electric ray … A faint crack like a shiver, in the tubes of the Machine … The prone body, covered with a light phosphorescent smoke; then, suddenly, under the eyes of all, it began to melt, to dissolve with terrible speed. And then nothing; just a pool of chemically pure water which only a moment ago had been so red and had pulsated in his heart.
Public execution in the film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale.
In 1921, We was a fantastic, satirical riff; by the time Zamyatin died in exile in 1937, We looked prophetic of the unfolding Stalinist nightmare — and still more, as Orwell put it in an enthusiastic review, of the entire project of industrial civilization. Looking around him, Orwell couldn’t help but notice that the executioner who was a vaguely embarrassing footnote for More’s utopia actually turned out to be central to the whole project — maybe even the purpose of the whole project. “The object of persecution is persecution,” says the torturer O’Brien in Orwell’s own dystopian classic 1984. “The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”
1984 unabashedly cribs its plot from Zamyatin; its protagonist’s day job (until he falls foul of the BenefactorBig Brother) is the artistic half of the butcher’s job, rewriting purged “unpersons” out of history like the fallen communist officials disappeared from official photographs. Kurt Vonnegut said that his first novel Player Piano (also published as Utopia-14) “cheerfully ripped off the plot of (Aldous Huxley’s) Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.”
English literature aside, it was central and eastern Europe that bore the brunt of the 20th century’s totalitarian experiments; small wonder that these were also a key crucible of dystopian literary experimentation.
As this gruesome site begins its third thousand days† of picking over women and men made meat under the machines of whichever benefactors, our extra morsel is an original literary review of a horrific Czech dystopian novella that deserves to be better-known in English. What follows is by Slavic literature expert Bora Chung.
Nobody knows Martin Harnícek. He was not executed; in fact he is still alive and well. Harnícek was born in 1952 in former Czechoslovakia. He used to work as a male nurse at mental institutions. And he wrote. Somewhere in the 1970s Harnícek wrote a novella titled Maso. In Czech, maso means meat.
The narrator (he doesn’t have a name) begins his story at the Meat Market. His dream is to go to the First-Class Hall one day. The problem is, he does not have the necessary number of meat cards. In fact he doesn’t have any meat card. If he gets caught at the Market with no card on him – and there are random inspections just to sort out people like him – he will be executed. Then the fresh meat from his dead body will go to the much-desired First-Class Hall. And then to the Second-Class, if nobody picks it up and it starts to go bad. And finally to the Third-Class Hall if the meat spoils completely. You see what the title means.
Inside the Market there are butchers, policemen (no women) in red uniforms, customers with (or without) meat cards, and vagrants. And this is pretty much the entire structure of the City itself. There are policemen. Everywhere. And there are the fortunate few with sufficient number of meat cards: the ones registered at a legitimate address. But if the house gets condemned, either because it was attacked by the police or by other vagrants, the place is no longer legitimate and the residents themselves become vagrants. And instead of butchers (who can slaughter people legally) there are street-gangs (who will slaughter people illegally). These are organized vagrants, helping one another to rob other unfortunate fellow citizens of their meat cards and/or their meat.
If there are other trades in this world, we’re not privy to them: no plumbers, no construction workers, no contractors. No wonder the houses are so quickly falling apart. More and more of them are getting condemned. Vagrants especially target wooden houses, to tear down the walls for firewood in their resource-poor world. That’s how the nameless narrator lost his place of residence. That’s why he had to sneak into the Meat Market without a card.
So our guy stays there at the Market and becomes a vagrant. But see, he has no meat card of his own. So has to rely on stealing. That can work out for only so long. After a whole lot of incidents and adventures he finally decides to run for his life. He sneaks back out of the Market and into the streets and he runs and runs until he crosses the City border without realizing it.
Now this is where the story gets interesting.
Crossing the City borders should have meant instant death to him by City regulations, and it very nearly does get him killed by roving vagrants who attempt to prey on him. But outside the City he finds a self-sustaining utopian community. The people there are mostly themselves defectors from the City. And their families. Real, loving families. Husbands and wives. Sons and daughters. Kindness, care, affection abound. These good people find our guy in a very bad shape. They take him in, take care of him, bring him back to health.
So our guy gets back on his feet.
The first thing he does? Attacks his benefactor’s daughter. He tries to rape her, the girl resists and dies in the process, and the guy tries to eat her because to him it’s precious fresh meat.
But it’s a community, and a utopian community at that. People hear the girl scream. They come running and catch our guy literally red-handed. Now he has to run again. He ends up back at the City and is slaughtered by a Police officer.
“I knew that in a few moments I would be in the Market, in the First-Class Hall, like I always desired. I realized it very clearly, but it didn’t make me happy at all.”
Advanced dystopian devices: cannibalism.
Well, the reader can see from the beginning that this guy is doomed. Everybody is in this City. One either eats another human being or dies a very violent death and becomes “meat” for others. Out nameless narrator was born into such a reality and has internalized it to such a degree that even when he is in very different circumstances, in fact the opposite of circumstances in a utopian community, and even when he doesn’t have to kill people or eat them anymore — our poor guy never really believes it. He can’t imagine or understand that any other way of existence is possible. So he behaves exactly the way he would have in the City. Which eventually gets himself slaughtered.
In so many other “typical” or canonical utopian/dystopian novels the main character(s) actively seek a better society or the possibility thereof. If they actually get to the perfect society, it’s a utopian novel. In a dystopian novel the main character(s) usually get caught, get beaten up, tortured and brainwashed by the evil State. Either way the main character(s) are pretty much reasonable, relatable people. They’re the reader’s guides to their strange worlds. If somebody, by some magic, pulled Winston Smith out of the novel and placed him in real, actual Britain of 1984, he’d fit in and might actually do pretty well.
In Maso, however, the main character himself is different. The reader can see that this poor nameless guy really suffers. He has feelings: meat makes him happy (really happy); hunger, thirst, cold and pain make him sad (and these are a constant, unfortunately); he feels fear, real fear, deep terror, and unnerving uncertainty all the time. The reader can understand all this. The reader can even kind of relate to him.
But out main character differs from most other characters in most other utopian/dystopian novels in that he simply can’t help himself being a part of his dystopia. The author deliberately takes him to a much, much better place but look at what our narrator ends up doing: He just wants more meat. He can’t dream of a better society, even when he’s actually in one. He has lost the ability.
In the author’s mind, that’s what it really means to be born and raised in dystopia.
Harnícek was born in 1952. Czechoslovakia became a Communist country in 1948. So there you see the difference. George Orwell, or Eric Arthur Blair, hailed from a bourgeois English family, served in India, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and sparred with fellow-leftists over supporting the USSR. Yevgeny Zamyatin, the son of a Russian Orthodox priest and an engineer for the Imperial Russian Navy, saw the Bolshevik Revolution which he first embraced turn to ash. They saw the Old World, the world as they knew it, crumble apart, saw humanity turn for the worse. So in a way they knew both utopia and dystopia.
But Harnícek had no memory like theirs, no first-hand experience of a different, better world. All he had was his reality: Communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, Soviet tanks in the capital city after Prague Spring (Harnícek was 16), and Charter 77. Harnícek signed this anti-government, pro-freedom civil movement manifesto. It meant a political and professional suicide at the time and he knew it. He was 25.
Harnícek now lives in Germany. He is retired, has had nothing to do with the literary world for a long time, and does not wish to either. So at least his life story seems to have a happy ending.
Harnícek has written a handful of other works in his life, but none of it measured up to Maso. The original edition (published in 1981) is 76 pages long. In this short fiction he has created what is probably one of the most horrifying dystopias that one can find in Western literature. A nightmare world where human beings don’t even know what hopes or dreams can mean; where people refuse to believe them and run back to hopelessness at their own volition. To end up being eaten.
And the scariest part is that the City seems to function as a society, since it continues to exist. After all, our nameless hero went back to the City, in spite of everything he went through. If only to be slaughtered. The fact that it somehow all makes sense in a terrible, twisted way says something about the darkest, most brutish, and perhaps the most inexplicable corner of human nature.
Previous self-congratulatory milestone posts:
1500, about the Hand of Glory legend
1000 (and one), about the Arabian Nights stories
500, merely a Spartan marking of the date
* With apt tragedy, Kirillov himself disappeared into the USSR’s “purging flames” and died in the gulag under unknown circumstances — possibly executed.
The transitional years from the era of liberation and revolution to the rising tide of reaction and neoliberalism, the Seventies are an embarrassment of execution riches. Too much was at stake for too many not to generate a trove of memorable deaths: the Vietnam War ended and the (Soviet) Afghan War began; Nixon went to China; the Cold War swung from detente to sharpened confrontation.
In the West, the death penalty was ending. France and Spain saw their last executions in the Seventies; Great Britain, Canada, and Australia had already left off the long Commonwealth tradition of hanging the decade before. Even the U.S. spent most of the 1970s in a de facto death penalty moratorium and carried out only two executions. (Although the present-day death penalty system in the U.S. dates to these years, as does the drug war and its terrifying expansion of the prison state.)
The first U.S. execution in nearly a decade and the first under the re-rigged capital punishment statutes that have governed the American death penalty ever since, Gilmore made headlines — and a cultural footprint — by volunteering enthusiastically for his speedy execution by firing squad.
Three days after recording this broadcast, reporter Greg Shackleton was dead.
With a leftist government taking shape in recently-decolonized East Timor, neighboring Indonesia bloodily invaded with the west’s blessing in December 1975. Australia has been a good enough neighbor never to kick up much of a diplomatic stink about several of its nationals believed to have been summarily executed by Indonesian forces while reporting from menaced Timor-Leste.
In a post-colonial warning from the (putatively) revolutionary “Third World”, four British and American mercenaries were shot as illegal combatants after a show trial for taking soldier-of-fortune gigs in Angola.
The young Spanish anarchist and worldwide cause celebre was — along with the much less-remembered Heinz Ches — the last person garroted in Franco’s, or anyone else’s, Spain. (Not the last executed in Spain, however.)
The 1979 Jerry Rawlings coup in Ghana saw the execution of the country’s former dictators Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, Fred Akuffo, and Akwasi Afrifa, along with various other aides and officers of the former regime(s). Putschists shooting their predecessors isn’t news, of course, but the fact that this coup and these shootings set Ghana up for transition to prosperity and a stable democracy? That’s news.
“There were some of them who probably deserved it. Pardon me for putting it that way,” explained Jerry Rawlings in his latter-day elder-statesman guise. “There were some of them who did not — very brilliant, beautiful officers. But we had no choice but to make that sacrifice.”
The great Chilean folk singer was extrajudicially executed days after Cold War vampire Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende. Jara remains a poignant emblem of those tortured, killed, and “disappeared” in the dark times that followed.
Another emblem: the fall of the hated Shah of Iran brought many executions in its train, but none so vivid as those captured in this Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph (anonymously attributed until recently) of 11 men mid-topple as they are fusilladed by a squatting firing detail almost within reach of their flailing arms.
Pakistan’s polarizing prime minister who was toppled by a military coup and controversially hanged. The dictator who ordered Bhutto’s death would be succeeded as head of state by Bhutto’s own daughter, Benazir Bhutto.
There were so many shocking, memorable, and history-making executions in the 1970s that a respectable top-10 list for the average decade could be culled from Seventies’ honorable mentions alone. At least punk will never die.
A sour note on America’s first president: he was ready to let Thomas Paine, that firebrand, go to the guillotine in revolutionary France. (Paine barely avoided that fate.)
Washington’s successor John Adams was a lawyer who had notably defended the British redcoats who fired on an American crowd at the Boston Massacre — successfully defeating a capital charge, to his great pride.
I have reason to remember that fatal Night. The Part I took in Defense of Captn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly, and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgement of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Execution of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.
Adams stood at loggerheads with his eventual successor Thomas Jefferson over federal powers and foreign diplomacy, a conflict that eventually led the controversial rendition of a sailor whom the British hanged in Jamaica. Though the victim was humble, the case remains a keystone executive powers event still cited in legal briefs to this day.
The fourth president James Madison — scion of an old Virginia plantation family, Madison’s grandfather had been poisoned by his own slaves in a landmark death penalty case — tried his luck seizing Canada from the British while they were busy with Napoleon and got the White House torched instead. (Indirectly generating the national anthem.) That didn’t mean that soldiers savvy enough to desert were spared the firing squad.
Madison was followed by James Monroe, the last president from the “Founding Fathers” generation. The young Monroe had served in the Continental Congress, and was a member of the first U.S. Senate; he had also been the U.S. envoy to Revolutionary France at the climax and conclusion of Robespierre’s Terror, and leveraged French-American goodwill to save from the guillotine the kin of the American Revolution hero (and French Revolution proscribed reactionary) Lafayette.
Like his presidential father, John Quincy Adams traced the family name to colonial slaveholders; in J.Q. Adams’s case (though not his father’s, since the lineage came via wife and mother Abigail Adams), one piece of human chattel once in the family was a famous escaped slave turned pirate who met his end on the gallows. John Quincy Adams was named for the magnate who used to own that fellow.
Less genteel by far was Andrew Jackson, who readily shot alleged deserters in the War of 1812 and raised himself to presidential contention with the legally doubtful hanging of two British subjects during his incursions into Florida. (Propaganda traducing Jackson for his executioner proclivities gave birth to the first “coffin handbills”.) Legal or not, Jackson successfully pried the state out of Spanish hands: thanks for the hanging chads, Old Hickory!
The Honey Badger of the White House, Jackson said he only had two regrets: “I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.” Calhoun was Jackson’s own Vice President.
Jackson’s other Vice-President Martin Van Buren succeeded as a one-termer. Van Buren was the former Attorney General of New York, in which capacity his office had helped prosecute a few capital cases in its day (Van Buren personally assisted in the capital prosecution of Maggie Houghtaling); he also put a bow on Jackson’s ghastly “Indian removal” policy by forcing the Cherokee into a death march to Oklahoma.
The John Tyler administration had tragedy in the cabinet itself when the son of Tyler’s Secretary of War was controversially hanged at sea for mutiny by a paranoid ship’s captain. This execution helped spur creation of the U.S. Naval Academy to professionalize the whole outfit.
Only a few years later, a like fate befell the son of Millard Fillmore‘s Attorney General: that lad was executed in Cuba after being captured on a filibustering expedition.
Filibustering, a discreditable hybrid of piracy and putsch, was (among other things) a strategy to maintain the Slave Power’s political parity by annexing neighboring territories of southerly latitudes. It was all the rage at this point in U.S. history in part due to Anglo success in the Texas Revolution and James K. Polk‘s ensuing Mexican-American War. That war gave the U.S. more than half of Mexico, and gave Mexico heroic martyrs in the noblest bunch of turncoats that Yankees have never heard of, the San Patricios — Irish immigrants who got wise to the odious land-grab and deserted the forces of future U.S. President Zachary Taylor to fight for the Mexicans.
In this “cryptic satire” of the 1848 election, outgoing Democratic president James K. Polk (depicted as the executioner) and the party’s successor nominee Lewis Cass (with victims on a chain as he flourishes his top hat) have various rival politicians of the era lined up for beheading. (Detail view; click for the full image.)
Manifest Destiny was in the air. Isaac Stevens, a Mexican-American veteran, got posted to the new Washington Territory as a plum for supporting Franklin Pierce. There, Stevens strong-armed the indigenous peoples, eventually resulting in the hanging of Chief Leschi.
Also in the air: civil war. The last antebellum president, James Buchanan, went whistling past the imminent graveyards, instead trying to stir up more trouble with Mexico over an American citizen’s hanging — a provocation that even made it into Buchanan’s State of the Union address.
But the real provocation of his time was John Brown‘s raid on Harpers Ferry and subsequent hanging in Virginia, ill omen of the bloody years to come.
With the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, the slavery question was settled on the battlefield, with scads of military executions into the bargain. Honest Abe earned his “Great Heart” reputation for liberal clemency grants with a number of pardons, including one on the very day of his assassination. (Outside of the war between the states, Lincoln also advanced the largest mass hanging in U.S. history, of 38 Sioux in Mankato, Minn.)
Northern propaganda widely anticipated treasonous Confederate President Jefferson Davis being “hanged on a sour apple tree”: a sour apple is one of the caged Davis’s heraldic props in this depiction of John Brown come to avenge slavery upon him. Davis was not executed, however.
Lincoln was the first U.S. President to be assassinated, and the conspirators in the operation were hanged inside of three months on Andrew Johnson‘s okay. Johnson also leaned on France to withdraw from a Mexican intervention, hanging out to dry their imported puppet Hapsburg emperor whom Mexican republicans promptly shot.
Late 19th century America is an age of weak and forgettable presidents, although the march of science continued apace and American ingenuity gave birth to the electric chair.
James Garfield (who counts as an ancestor the very first man hanged in the Plymouth Colony) had his term cut short by an assassin’s bullet. The vice president who succeeded him, Chester A. Arthur, could hardly in good conscience spare the assassin Charles Guiteau, even though Guiteau was as mad as a march hare.
Democratic President Grover Cleveland, who got his start in politics as the sheriff of Buffalo, N.Y., had actually personally conducted executions, leading Republicans to label him “the Buffalo Hangman”.
Republicans to this day have not captured the White House without taking Ohio, but that was no problem for the first 20th century occupant of the White House. William McKinley, himself a product of the Ohio political machine, mounted the Spanish-American War, and the U.S. took over Spain’s former job of executing Filipino rebels. But McKinley didn’t even make it through 1901 before an immigrant anarchist (subsequently electrocuted) assassinated him and put Theodore Roosevelt in the White House.
Teddy did not hesitate to let the law take its course; he denied clemency, for instance, in the first fairly legal hanging in Alaska and the case of two Philippines War deserters. But closer to home, all Roosevelt’s bluster — “whoever in any part of our country has ever taken part in lawlessly putting to death a criminal by the dreadful torture of fire,” Roosevelt said, “must forever after have the awful spectacle of his own handiwork seared into his brain and soul. He can never again be the same man” — was useless against the burgeoning of lynch law. Lynchings increased every year of Roosevelt’s tenure and white southern congressmen blocked any federal response. The NAACP was founded days before T.R. left office.
William Howard Taft used the Nicaraguan government’s execution of two American terrorists as an excuse to invade. After losing the 1912 election, Taft was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court where he pushed the judicial reorganization that still structures the high court’s handling (and usual rejection) of death penalty appeals. (His great-grandson Bob Taft served as governor of Ohio during that state’s recent ramp-up of executions.) Before his own 1930 hanging, mass murderer Carl Panzram fantastically claimed to have burgled Justice Taft’s home in 1920 and committed 10 murders with Taft’s stolen gun.
Roaring past the Twenties, we come to the Great Depression. That economic calamity ousted President Herbert Hoover, who could nevertheless count himself fortunate to have escaped a Buenos Aires bombing attempt plotted by Severino di Giovanni — an anarchist eventually executed in Argentina for other more successful terrorist attacks in retaliation for Sacco and Vanzetti‘s electrocution.
Hoover gave way to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR, who narrowly escaped assassination himself, was surprisingly among the 20th century’s more prolific U.S. executioners owing to his pre-presidency tenure as Governor of New York. As the wartime president for most of World War II, Roosevelt also convened a secret military tribunal that ordered the electrocution of a group of German saboteurs who’d been dropped by submarine on the U.S. mainland.
Dwight David Eisenhower took office well-known to Americans for his wartime generalship. It was he who approved the controversial shooting of Eddie Slovik during that war; Slovik remains the last American executed for desertion. As commander-in-chief, Ike had more life-and-death decisions to make … like refusing clemency to Soviet agents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
The death penalty was disappearing from the U.S. at this period, although this was hardly true throughout America’s global sphere of influence. Thus, Henry Kissinger under Richard Nixon toppled Allende and made countless martyrs, then complained in the Gerald Ford administration when Angola shot an American mercenary.
(In an embarrassing sidelight, Carter’s wife Rosalynn took a handshake photo with Illinois Democratic operative John Wayne Gacy, later exposed as a serial killer.)
Carter’s successor Ronald Reagan was a tough-on-crime guy, but owing to the death penalty lull which spanned Reagan’s political career, he only signed off on one single death warrant in his entire life. Reagan’s secret arms deals with Iran, however, did result in the hanging of the Iranian official who exposed the Iran-Contra scandal.
Death penalty politics were so toxic that a CNN journalist without any apparent trace of shame posed this question as a “gotcha” in a 1988 presidential debate.
Reagan’s Veep George Bush knew a good thing when he saw it and kept clobbering Democrats as soft on crime; although Bush never had to make that agonizing life-or-death decision in any individual case, it’s quite possible that the unfinished business Bush left with Saddam Hussein encouraged Bush’s famously execution-happy son George W. Bush to blunder his way into Iraq. Bush the younger also authorized the first modern federal execution, that of Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh.
The post-Bush successor, Barack Obama, showed little taste for capital punishment, drone assassinations aside — but the father for whom he titled his autobiography came to the U.S. to sire the future president on a scholarship program created by Kenyan politician Tom Mboya. Mboya was later murdered, and his assassin swung in 1969.
Against every standard of reason and probability, he is succeeded by authoritarian twitter troll Donald Trump, whose want of statecraft has not excluded him from making a notorious intervention in the country’s racialized death penalty politics back when he was merely a loudmouthed real estate developer in 1989.
Full-page advertisement Donald Trump published in the New York Daily News on May 1, 1989 demanding the execution of five Black and Latino youths accused in a high-profile gang rape attack on a jogger in the city’s Central Park. The ‘Central Park Five’ were later cleared of any involvement in the crime but only after spending between 6 and 13 years in prison apiece. Despite DNA exonerations, Trump has continued to claim that the men are really guilty.
This site has a strange rhythm for authorship, like the spiritual transports of the monastic rule: perpetual sleep deprivation, numbing repetition, immersion in arcane texts. Some days it’s endless drudgery, and the prior has to nudge you awake mid-chant; other days, the ingredients mysteriously add up to some bizarre ecstatic state and the posts pour effortlessly out of the fingers.
The most sobering thought is that this site is the magnum opus of my life so far. If I get jumped by a vampire this Hallow’s Eve, this blog is the first thing in my obit. And like the undead, it would survive its owner’s corporeal death: as of this writing, there are more than 90 posts already pre-scheduled for the months ahead.
Which means that, yes, we’re planning to go after those Year VI dragons.
Site pageview numbers show a steady growth, from 1.9 million in November 2010-October 2011 to more than 2.3 million in November 2011-October 2012. The site will enjoy its seven millionth all-time pageview tomorrow. While there’s nothing wrong with 20% growth, the “natural” growth path of the site is even higher. It’s just been suppressed of late by …
Care to celebrate with a fifth of vodka?
The great malware scare of 2012
Probably the less said about this the better. If you’re a regular visitor, you already know you’ve enjoyed intermittent spells of Google’s maddeningly non-transparent site malware scarlet letter over the past few months. I’m sorry. I’m trying.
I wish there were any indication that said efforts were to any purpose at all. Google (whose blacklist is the source of all the red flags) randomly interdicts the site every couple of weeks for no apparent reason. All site scans show everything clean, and Google must agree since it un-blacklists the same site without any changes a few hours later.
It’s certainly possible that there lies below a real and cunningly intermittent bug, but given that Google has blithely false-positived the site before, it’s also possible that Google just blithely false-positives the site.
I do any due diligence I can find to do, but with so much time seemingly run to waste one grows numb to the specific events: they blow in like the weather, remote from any causation or control or actionable information or evidence of actual harm. At the end of the day there’s an indifferent, unaccountable algorithm that’s either screwing up (but can’t be appealed), or else capturing an elusive piece of information (but not divulging it). And a site administrator who’s barely keeping up.
Other, less irksome traffic facts
Just a few small snapshots from Executed Today’s statistical profile these days.
After standing for 3 1/2 years, the one-day traffic record set August 13, 2008 when Andrew Sullivan linked the site was finally overwhelmed on March 5, 2012 thanks to a link from Cracked.com.
That same link makes Cracked the top non-search engine traffic source for the entire year.
In a virtual tie behind Cracked: Wikipedia* links (led by Eva Dugan and Andrei Chikatilo), and Twitter links.
As we make the turn into Year VI, about 200 folks subscribe to Executed Today updates by email; these are part of the 1100-1200 who read the site via RSS feed.
Over 5,000 tweets emanated from the @executedtoday Twitter feed, bringing it to an alarming lifetime total of around 12,400 micro-updates; this has not deterred followers from hitching on at a net pace north of two per day, now numbering over 1900 in all.
The U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the U.K. (of which, overwhelmingly England) together constitute about 68.6% of the 1.1 million distinct site visitors over the past year. Half of the remainder hail from elsewhere in western Europe, apart from the British Isles.
The most prominent traffic sources outside of western Europe and North America? In descending order: Philippines, India, Poland, Brazil, Russia, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa, Turkey, the Czech Republic, and Japan. All of these countries’ browsers called on Executed Today more than 5,000 times over the past year.
China just edged Serbia for 46th place on the traffic ranks, trailing Pakistan, Slovakia, and Thailand. Hong Kong, as a separate region, ranked 40th, but even China plus Hong Kong fell just short of 5,000 visitors for the year.
I had no recorded visits at all from North Korea, Western Sahara, or South Sudan. (But I did get six from East Timor.)
Slightly over 10% of the site’s visitors read it on a mobile device. The iPad barely topped the iPhone as the most popular such platform; each had about 4% of the site’s total traffic share. Android devices collectively notched about 3%.
The most popular posts on Executed Today to date are mostly 3+ years old, and owe their numbers in part to the statistical accumulation intrinsic to longevity. (The most popular posts that were actually written in the previous twelve months concern George Stinney, the 14-year-old whom South Carolina electrocuted for rape in 1944, and the Sikhs who assassinated Indira Gandhi … both 20th century executions, like almost all the all-time most-trafficked posts.)
These top 60 posts (and this list excludes the popular top-ten lists; all the “executions that defined decades” posts would be among the top 60) are truly an elite group on the site, comprising about one in 30 of all the daily posts in the blog’s first 1,827 days. In hard number terms, Ted Bundy (whose post is home to a long discussion thread closing in on 6,000 comments) has been viewed over 133,000 times, while the second- and third-place posts are around 50,000. Those posts at the bottom of this list have been viewed over 9,000 times apiece.
Guest-written content has been a mainstay on the site from day one and instrumental to its continued existence. Year V was no exception: some six weeks’ worth of posts were, er, executed by folk other than I.
Particular thanks go to Meaghan Good not only for her amazingly prolific contributions but for her flexibility around the site’s editorial needs. (Read: she’s been willing to let me bump posts out a year when something else comes up or there are competing schedule priorities. I do this to my own posts all the time, but I hate to ask it of others.) Meaghan wrote almost 10% of this past year’s posts, and she found almost all those executions through her own research as well.
I don’t know how or why she does it, but I’m so thankful that she does.
Just some of the everyday posts I particularly enjoyed researching, writing, or generally learning about this year.
Shahla Jahed, the footballer’s mistress who hanged after an Iranian O.J. trial
Jewish anti-slavery insurrectionist Isaac Yeshurun
Brokeback outback? The touching story of gay bushrangers
The Anabaptist Munster rebellionAllen Foster‘s dying allusion to youthful sparring dates with black pugilist Joe Louis got his gassing mentioned by Martin Luther King
Aris Kindt, the hanged thief who ended up on a Dutch dissection table … and in a Dutch master’s painting
Wyatt Outlaw’s lynching in 1870 North Carolina emblemized the tragic defeat of Reconstruction
Lady Hamilton, the Scottish lady-in-waiting in Peter the Great’s court, who may or may not have snuck into Scottish ballads
Take an example from Paul Warner Powell: please confirm your understanding of your Fifth Amendment rights before bragging about committing capital murder to a prosecuting attorney
Formerly a perfectly accepted local wise woman, Matteuccia di Francesco got burned at the stake after San Bernardino of Siena came around firing up witchcraft hysteria
Pierre Vigier‘s contested hanging in a Gascony whose putative ducal lord was the English king highlighted the confusing lines of feudal authority … and presaged the coming age of the nation-state
William Frederick Horry, which is really a post about the career of the cool and professional new guy who hanged him — William Marwood
Antioch’s Muslim defenders were perplexed by Crusader knight Rainald Porchet, who instead of arranging his own ransom incited his captors to martyr him
There was once a worldwide campaign to establish the innocence of James Hanratty, hanged on questionable circumstantial evidence in Great Britain. But latter-day DNA tests confirmed his guilt after all
Leo Tolstoy was pretty shaken up after seeing Francis Richeux guillotined. Consider that beside his depiction of an execution scene in War and Peace
Everyday heroes: Joan Peterson refused to help some unscrupulous local pols disinherit a local woman by accusing her of witchcraft. So those pols accused Joan of witchcraft instead
Public sympathy for Andrew Wilson, hanged for robbing an excise collector, caused his hanging to set off a chain of events triggering one of Edinburgh’s most destructive riots
A missionary preserved an account of Chief Zacharias Kukuri‘s hanging during the German genocide of the Herero in present-day Namibia
Extraordinary rendition during the Stuart Restoration, when three fugitive regicides were kidnapped from the Netherlands
A little misunderstanding about just how much “emancipation” the Russian serfs were getting led to Anton Petrov‘s revolt and subsequent execution
The dangers of theology: Danes like Michael Blodorn really got into “suicide-by-executioner”
Public defender Johnny Mostiler made out pretty well mailing in defenses for indigent people in Spalding County, Ga. His clientele, like Curtis Osborne, did not
Lee Akers survived one of the most horrific prison fires in history (author Chester Himes, then a fellow-prisoner with Akers, wrote about it) only to die in the Ohio electric chair
Francois de Montmorency was executed for his dedication to the weird and intractable subculture of dueling
A showy 1680 Madrid auto de fe was the last of its kind
Merchant mariner who tries to ram a submarine: hero or war criminal?
The great-grandfather of the current Dallas County District Attorney
French triple murderer Henri Pranzini‘s public guillotining was of interest both to the artist Gauguin and to a young St. Therese of Lisieux
Thackeray (maybe it was Thackeray) mocked sympathy for an 18th century philologist-murderer by penning a satirically sympathetic homage to an 18th century foundling-flogging murderer
This hilariously lowbrow patriotic travestying of art following Alexander II’s near-assassination at the hands of Dmitry Karakozov is one of my favorite anecdotes on the site
Beware the rampaging vegetariansBosavern Penlez‘s hanging under the riot act for grabbing some linens from a whorehouse being destroyed by a mob almost set off a riot of its own
The best post series of the year was all about Jamaica’s Morant Bay Rebellion
Visitors to Executed Today have for the past fortnight generally faced a gantlet of virus warnings labeling this an attack site. Depending on how you interact with your Internets, that warning may have shown in your browser, as an interstitial via a click from a search, as a pop-up from a firewall or virus scanner locally installed on your machine, or other ways.
I want to apologize sincerely to all visitors (actual or prospective) who were affected by this obnoxious interposition.
For much of those two weeks, I’ve been attempting to persuade the (gratifyingly many) inquirers that the warning was a fiction being perpetrated by Google. Unsurprisingly, between “random blogger” and “Palo Alto borg”, most readers preferred safe to sorry. Site traffic tanked by around 70%.
Nevertheless, my implausible story was accurate. The site has been perfectly safe. Google has been gratuitously befouling it.
For anyone interested in the incredibly tedious details, this is the rough sequence of events:
For about 3-4 hours running up to 12 noon GMT on Sunday, July 15, the site was indeed compromised by a Rootkit exploit. Google’s malware-sniffer — and it’s one of the maddening contradictions in this affair that Google automates your scarlet letter but requires an impenetrable manual process to remove it — noticed this within about half an hour.
This exploit was repaired in very short order by a combination of shuffling plugins and security updates, and immediately reported for removal from Google’s blacklist.
Google took its sweet time, but 11 hours later, it did remove executedtoday.com from its blacklist.
In the usual course of things, this would be the end of it.
However, in this case, Google’s algorithms and/or employees blacklisted not only the master site executedtoday.com but a host of individual archive paths such as executedtoday.com/2007/ and www.executedtoday.com/category/milestones/. These archives have never had any special properties apart from the main site: in reality, if one is safe, they’re all safe; if one is buggy, they’re all buggy.
Now, Google helpfully publishes its blacklist, and damn near every antivirus service uses it without further scrutiny as an automatic no-fly list. So even if you, gentle user, never use its services yourself, Google likely acts as a discreet behind-the-scenes butler, screening your guests: for the webmaster, satisfying Sergei and Larry is an offer you can’t refuse.
In a vain quest to accomplish this, the ensuing two weeks after the initial infection was a Kafkaesque cycle in which a dozen-plus requests posted to Google via its execrable webmaster tools led a dozen-plus faceless Google employees to (redundantly) certify ExecutedToday.com malware-free and remove ExecutedToday.com (the main site) from Google’s blacklist … not a one of them also removing any of the many archive links. The review process has no transparency, no visible timetables, and no apparent method of appeal. All you can do is keep re-submitting, cajoling, explaining (if you know the explanation: I didn’t know for more than a week, but is it really for me to know the ins and outs of Google’s own listing process?), begging, threatening, whatever, over and over, and hope the next review defies the experiences of the countless ones preceding.
The net effect during this period was that visitors could get to the home page (not blacklisted!) just fine. Clicking on any (or nearly any) link within the site navigation, however, produced a false malware error.
So once again: I am very sorry that visitors to the site experienced this horrible situation for such a protracted period of time, and I assure all that we do take seriously your safety as a visitor to the site.
To speak a little more plainly, however, Google’s dogshit service in placing me in the position to have to extend this apology is pretty horrendous. Yes, this was originally my own fault for getting caught out by the (original, short-lived) malware issue; and yes, this is #firstworldproblems by any definition. It’s easy enough for some small-time blogger to slate a Silicon Valley behemoth for having an irresponsible indifference to false positives, but it’s a sobering reminder of the ubiquitous control that Google and just a few other companies exercise over most users’ experience of the Internet.
Thanks, by the by, to Sucuri.net for ultimately unraveling the mystery. Their service in this whole affair was very well worth their modest fee for malware monitoring and cleanup.