Posts filed under 'Arts and Literature'

1908: Chester Gillette, A Place in the Sun inspiration

Add comment March 30th, 2020 Headsman

Theodore Dreiser‘s classic novel An American Tragedy was inspired by an infamous 1906 murder whose author, Chester Gillette, was electrocuted at Auburn Prison on this date in 1908.

It was a crime tailor-made for the burgeoning mass media, popular and pretty 20-year-old Grace Brown gone to work at the Cortland, N.Y. Gillette Skirt Factory where the owner’s nephew seduced and impregnated her.

That, of course, is our man Chester Gillette, who further distressed his lover by tomcatting around town, especially charging the love triangle with class rivalry with his rumored interest in a socialite while he stalled for time with Ms. Brown. Dreiser’s novel — which is freely available from the public domain — spins on this axis, although the real-life heiress in question put out an arch press release averring that “I have never been engaged to Chester E. Gillette … Our acquaintance was of … a limited duration.”

That was also true of Gillette’s acquaintance with Grace Brown. At length he induced the future mother of his child to elope to the Adirondacks upon the apparent prospect of finally regularizing their situation. Instead, after making a couple of stops in upstate New York, they paused on July 11 at Big Moose Lake for a nice canoe outing. While out on the water, Gillette bashed his lover’s head with his tennis racket and forced her into the water to drown.

Letters the two had exchanged would establish that Gillette knew Brown could not swim … and the fact that he’d brought his whole suitcase with him for this supposed day trip would establish his premeditated intent. Gillette schlepped his stuff along with his guilty conscience through the woods to another lake and checked into a hotel under his real name(!). He was as careless with his coverup, alibi, and escape as he had been with his heart; Brown’s body was recovered the very next day and the trail led directly back to Gillette, who was not difficult to find and couldn’t stick to a story — alternately claiming that the drowning was an accident, a suicide, or something that happened when he wasn’t there at all.

The snake was public enemy number one by the time he came to his trial, making the case a national sensation. Dreiser improved it to literature in 1925, and it was such a hit that he was immediately called upon to adapt it for the stage. A version hit the silver screen as soon as 1931, but its best-known rendering is the 1951 classic A Place in the Sun, which earned Academy Award nominations for both Shelley Winters and Montgomery Clift, who portrayed the young lovers.

It’s had an enduring appeal for the century since; rumors of Grace Brown’s ghost haunting Big Moose Lake brought the case to the Unsolved Mysteries television program in the 1990s, and an award-winning 2003 novel A Northern Light centers around a fictional friend of Grace Brown’s. There’s even an A Place in the Sun opera.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Sex,The Supernatural,USA

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2020: The Nirbhaya Gang Rapists

Add comment March 20th, 2020 Headsman

Akshay Thakur, 31, Pawan Gupta, 25, Vinay Sharma, 26, and Mukesh Singh, 32, were hanged at Delhi’s Tihar Jail today — four of the six* widely hated perpetrators of in infamous 2012 gang rape.

On December 16, 2012, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student and call center worker named Jyoti Singh was returning from the cinema with a male friend on a private bus in a South Delhi neighborhood when the five other passengers plus the driver sealed the doors and assaulted them. After the man was knocked out with an iron rod, the five passengers turned on Singh and horrifically gang-raped her while the driver continued to steer the bus, even using a wheel jack to sodomize the struggling woman. By the time it was finished, and both victims tossed out of the moving vehicle, she’d suffered “massive damage to her genitals, uterus and intestines.” (Per medical examiners.) She succumbed several days later after desperate surgeries, but she lived long enough to identify her attackers, who were being arrested by the very next day. (Her male friend, Avanindra Pandey, survived the attack with broken ribs.)

The victim became publicly known as “Nirbhaya”, meaning “fearless”, owing to laws against doxxing sex crime victims, but her parents revealed her identity in the media in 2015. “We want the world to know her real name,” her father told British media. “My daughter didn’t do anything wrong, she died while protecting herself. I am proud of her. Revealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks. They will find strength from my daughter.”

Instantly iconic, the case gestated huge public protests against endemic sexual violence, and allegedly contributed to a massive decline in tourism by women costing India billions of dollars. The prosecutions were naturally fast-tracked by a judiciary under intense public pressure, and Delhi police handed down internal punishments to officers for failing to prevent the crime when it emerged that the crime-van had been used to rob another passenger earlier that same night. The seven-year span from crime to execution is relative lightning speed for a country which in recent times has only rarely enforced death sentences. But comparative timetables were of no comfort to Nirbhaya’s parents, who have been publicly implacable on the matter of punishment throughout.

“We all have waited so long for this day,” her mother said upon news of the men’s execution. “Today is a new dawn for daughters of India. The beasts have been hanged.”

This case has been the subject of considerable international commentary, most controversially a BBC documentary titled India’s Daughter (often available on YouTube despite its copyright) which includes interview footage with one of the now-hanged defendants attributing the attack to Jyoti Singh’s “indecency”. The film is still banned in India as of this writing.

* Besides the four executed, a fifth man, the driver Ram Singh, was found hanged in pretrial detention — either suicide or murder — and a sixth was underage. The latter has long been released from his juvenile sentence; he’s reportedly working as a cook, ostracized by his family.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,India,Murder,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines

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1968: My Lai Massacre

Add comment March 16th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1968, the U.S. Army meted out the signature single atrocity of the Vietnam War, the My Lai Massacre — wanton slaughter of 400 to 500 Vietnamese civilians over the span of four evil hours that would emerge as practically metonymous for twenty evil years in Indochina.


Combat photographer Ronald Haeberle shot a number of pictures on that day, although by his own admission he also failed to intervene against the slaughter and he destroyed some of the most incriminating shots. Nevertheless, his iconic photo of bodies heaped on a path became the iconic antiwar poster “And babies”.

The hero on that day was an American helicopter pilot who, seeing the slaughter unfolding, set his warship down in front of his wilding countrymen and trained guns upon them to still their rampage, then escorted several Vietnamese people next in line for murder to his choppers and whisked them to safety. The late Hugh Thompson revisited the site of the massacre for 30th anniversary commemorations and told a U.S. reporter,

“One of the ladies that we had helped out that day came up to me and asked, ‘Why didn’t the people who committed these acts come back with you?’ And I was just devastated. And then she finished her sentence: she said, ‘So we could forgive them.’ I’m not man enough to do that. I’m sorry. I wish I was, but I won’t lie to anybody. I’m not that much of a man.” (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Children,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Shot,Summary Executions,U.S. Military,USA,Vietnam,Wartime Executions,Women

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1945: Theo van Gogh, famous name

Add comment March 8th, 2020 Headsman

Theo van Gogh, a Dutch resistance fighter of portentous lineage, was executed by the German occupation on this date in 1945.

This man was the grandson of the famous Theo van Gogh, art dealer and brother to troubled, brilliant painter Vincent van Gogh.

Our Theo was a 23-year-old university student in Amsterdam pulled into anti-Nazi resistance by the imposition of a hated loyalty oath on university personnel and was arrested several times, repeatedly tolling his father for bribes to extract him.

The arrest he couldn’t buy his way out of was a home raid on March 1, 1945 — the very last weeks of the war, while these Germans were in the process of being stranded in the Low Countries. Evidently the collapse of the Reich didn’t dampen their enthusiasm for the cause, because on March 8 the Germans imposed a collective punishment of 100+ executions in revenge for the Dutch resistance’s attempt to assassinate a prominent SS officer.* Theo van Gogh was one of them.

Besides his name-brand ancestry, Theo the World War II resistance figure is also the uncle (quite posthumously — this man wasn’t born until 1957) of film director Theo van Gogh, who’s a far-right martyr in his own right thanks to the vociferous anti-Islamic work that resulted in his 2004 assassination.


Prisoners’ Round (after Gustave Doré) (1890), by Vincent van Gogh.

* That officer, Hanns Albin Rauter, was executed for war crimes in 1949.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Hostages,Martyrs,Netherlands,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1916: Benjamin Argumedo

Add comment March 1st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Mexican Revolution commander Benjamin Argumedo was shot at Durango.

Every revolution has its opportunists and this cavalryman swerved wildly between the infighting factions — deserting the general and president overthrown by the revolution, Porfirio Diaz, in favor of Francisco Madero (president from 1911 to 1913), then switching to rebel Pascual Orozco, and then to El Usurpador Victoriano Huerta (president from 1913 to 1914 via a coup), and last a swing to the left-wing revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

This man waged a running guerrilla battle against the government until his own death in 1919 … by which time Argumedo was long done for, having been run to ground by Constitutionalist general Francisco Murguia. (Murguia extended him the courtesy of a drumhead tribunal the day before execution.)

Argumedo was reportedly refused a plea to be shot in the public plaza for maximum spectacle, and died with a wish upon his lips that posterity forego noxious flourishes of rank because “we are all equal material for the grave.” (Executed Today endorses this sentiment.)


The corrido “Las Mananitas de Benjamin Argumedo” — “So much fighting and fighting, / so much fighting and fighting, / with my Mauser in my hands. I came to be shot, / I came to be shot / in the cemetery of Durango.” (Full lyrics and even sheet music to be found in Hispano Folk Music of the Rio Grande Del Norte.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Mexico,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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Feast Day of St. Polycarp of Smyrna

1 comment February 23rd, 2020 Headsman

Second-century Christian bishop and martyr St. Polycarp of Smyrna has his feast day on February 23. Be sure to shout supplications loudly, as he’s the patron for earaches.

Reputedly inducted into the mysteries by the Apostle John himself in the late first century, Polycarp was a consequential clergyman in the early church and a living link between the early church fathers and the literal companions of Christ.

As the bishop of the Christian community in Smyrna — these days it’s the Turkish city of Izmir; pilgrims can visit a cave where Polycarp was supposedly tortured, but the ruins of the old Roman amphitheater where he was martyred have been buried by urban development — he’s credited with an important epistle to the Philippians.* Likewise, he’s the addressee of the Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans (c. 110).**

Less pleasantly, a mid-second century century document titled Martyrdom of Polycarp is the earliest account of a Christian martyrdom outside the of actual scripture, and unsurprisingly casts its subject in a bold and eloquent mold.

On his being led to the tribunal, there was immense clamour at the news that Polycarp had been apprehended. At last, when he was brought near, the Proconsul asked him, if he were Polycarp; and, on his acknowledging it, he began to persuade him to deny the faith, saying, “Compassionate thine years;” and other similar expressions, which it is their wont to use. “Swear by the fortune of Caesar; think better of the matter; say, Away with the godless men.” But Polycarp regarded with a sad countenance the whole multitude of lawless heathen in the theatre; and waving his hand towards them, groaned, and looking up to Heaven said, “Away with the godless men.” And when the Governor urged him further, and said, “Swear, and I will dismiss thee; revile Christ;” Polycarp replied; “Eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he hath wronged me in nothing, and how can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour.” And on his pressing him again, saying, “Swear by the fortune of Caesar,” Polycarp replied; “If ye vainly suppose that I shall swear by Caesar’s fortune, as ye call it, pretending to be ignorant of my real character, let me tell you plainly, I am a Christian; and if ye wish to hear the Christian doctrine, appoint me a time, and hear me.” The Proconsul answered, “Persuade the people.” Polycarp replied, “To you I thought it right to give account, for we have been taught to give to rulers and the powers ordained of God such fitting honour as hurteth not our souls; but them I deem not worthy, that I should defend myself before them.” The Proconsul said unto him, “I have wild beasts in readiness, to them will I throw thee, if thou wilt not change thy mind.” But he said, “Bring them forth then, for the change of mind from better to worse I will never make. From cruelty to righteousness it were good to change.” Again he said unto him, “I will have thee consumed by fire, since thou despisest the wild beasts, except thou change thy mind.” Polycarp answered; “Thou threatenest me with a fire that burneth for an hour, and is speedily quenched; for thou knowest not of the fire of future judgment and eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring what thou wilt.” (an 1833 translation)

* Prevailing scholarship holds Polycarp’s epistle to the Philippians to be a concatenation of two distinct epistles.

** Polycarp probably appreciated that this letter featured sections admonishing congregants “Let nothing be done without the bishop” and “Honour the bishop”.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Torture,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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1903: Mathias Kneissl, Bavarian bicycle bandit

Add comment February 21st, 2020 Headsman

Bavarian bandit Mathias Kneissl was beheaded by the fallbeil guillotine in an Augsburg prison on the morning of February 21, 1903.

Kneißl/Kneissl got a juvenile start on his delinquency — the family trade, one might say; his parents were part-time thieves and fences and an uncle was a famous robber of the Munich-Augsburg roads named Johann Pascolini. He caught his first serious jail time at the tender age of 18 in an affair when his brother Alois shot dead a police officer who had come to investigate them for poaching.

Alois died of tuberculosis in prison but Kneissl emerged from his cell in 1899 — 24 years old and penniless. He soon returned to his vomit, mounting a bicycle-borne crime spree around Bavaria’s Dachau district.

Quaint though it might read in retrospect, a mobile gunslinging cyclist could be a hell of a menace in a world without cars or telephones. Kneissl proved it over the span of about a year and a half before his March 1901 arrest, raiding farms and passersby trying to accumulate a stake sufficient to vanish with his sweetheart to America.

Instead that sweetheart betrayed his hideout to authorities, who require an hourslong siege to capture the wanted outlaw. Two Altomünster gendarmes whom he had killed in a shootout supplied the requisite capital charge, notwithstanding the popular “social bandit” glow he had gained from his many months on the lam. (Folk songs celebrating him are still in circulation to this day; there have also been 1970 and 2008 cinematic treatments of this criminal legend.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,Murder,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Theft

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1918: The Cattaro Mutineers

Add comment February 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1918, four sailors who were ringleaders of a failed Austrian naval mutiny were executed at the Montenegrin port of Kotor.

It’s been largely forgotten beyond its Balkan environs — indeed, reports of its very existence were hushed up at the time it occurred — but it prefigured the more famous, war-ending Kiel mutiny later that year in Austria’s Entente ally. It was a heyday for radical sailors, taking heart from the inspiration of the famed Russian cruiser Aurora, whose guns launched Russia’s October Revolution.

The mariners in question for this post were the crew of the SMS Sankt Georg,* stationed in the aforementioned Kotor — aka Cattaro, which is commonly how this mutiny is named.

On February 1, this crew, gnawed by hunger, deposed their officers and ran up the red flag, chanting for bread and peace.

Although about 40 other ships in the Austrian fleet there responded with revolutionary flags of their own, the mutiny collapsed within two days. Alas, the sailors of this flotilla were not so determined as their Russian counterparts upon any particular course of action: they waffled upon considerations like defecting in the war or firing on the naval base, and deferred action until morale and common purpose dissipated. The Austrian military kept a tight lid on news of the rebellion, frustrating any prospect of catalyzing a wider insurrection among landlubbers.

Some 800 participants in the mutiny were arrested and some of them tried months afterwards; forty leader figures, however, were prosecuted within days by a summary court-martial and four of them executed on February 11: Franz Rasch, Jerko Šižgoric, Anton Grabar and Mato Brnicevic.

There’s a 1980 Yugoslavian film about events, Kotorski mornari.

* Aptly, Montenegro is among the innumerable places answering to the patronage of Saint George. There’s a St. George Island right there in Kotor Bay, the apparent inspiration for the Arnold Böcklin painting and Sergei Rachmaninoff symphonic poem Isle of the Dead.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Military Crimes,Montenegro,Mutiny,Revolutionaries,Wartime Executions,Yugoslavia

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25: Aulus Cremutius Cordus

Add comment February 9th, 2020 Tacitus

(Thanks for the guest post to Roman Senator and historian Tacitus. It originally appeared in Book IV, Chapter 34 of his Annals, and concerns the undated death of a historian some 30 years before Tacitus’s birth, Aulus Cremutius Cordus — accused of treasonable historying during the oppressive reign of Tiberius.)

In the year of the consulship of Cornelius Cossus and Asinius Agrippa, Cremutius Cordus was arraigned on a new charge, now for the first time heard. He had published a history in which he had praised Marcus Brutus and called Caius Cassius the last of the Romans. His accusers were Satrius Secundus and Pinarius Natta, creatures of Sejanus. This was enough to ruin the accused; and then too the emperor listened with an angry frown to his defence, which Cremutius, resolved to give up his life, began thus: —

Then is there one Cremutius
Cordus, a writing fellow, they have got
To gather notes of the precedent times,
And make them into Annals; a most tart
And bitter spirit, I hear; who, under colour
Of praising those, doth tax the present state,
Censures the men, the actions, leaves no trick,
No practice unexamined, parallels
The times, the governments; a profest champion
For the old liberty.

-The Sejanus character from the 1603 Ben Jonson play Sejanus His Fall. Shakespeare himself appeared in this play when it was performed; however, it was not performed for long and its author was menaced by the Privy Council … seemingly because authorities believed that it “tax[ed] the present state” of late Elizabethan/early Jacobean politics as veiled comment on purged English elites like the Earl of Essex or Walter Raleigh.

It is my words, Senators, which are condemned, so innocent am I of any guilty act; yet these do not touch the emperor or the emperor’s mother, who are alone comprehended under the law of treason. I am said to have praised Brutus and Cassius, whose careers many have described and no one mentioned without eulogy. Titus Livius [Livy], pre-eminently famous for eloquence and truthfulness, extolled Cneius Pompeius in such a panegyric that Augustus called him Pompeianus, and yet this was no obstacle to their friendship. Scipio, Afranius, this very Cassius, this same Brutus, he nowhere describes as brigands and traitors, terms now applied to them, but repeatedly as illustrious men. Asinius Pollio‘s writings too hand down a glorious memory of them, and Messala Corvinus used to speak with pride of Cassius as his general. Yet both these men prospered to the end with wealth and preferment. Again, that book of Marcus Cicero, in which he lauded Cato to the skies, how else was it answered by Caesar the dictator, than by a written oration in reply, as if he was pleading in court? The letters of Antonius, the harangues of Brutus contain reproaches against Augustus, false indeed, but urged with powerful sarcasm; the poems which we read of Bibaculus and Catullus are crammed with invectives on the Caesars. Yet the Divine Julius, the Divine Augustus themselves bore all this and let it pass, whether in forbearance or in wisdom I cannot easily say. Assuredly what is despised is soon forgotten; when you resent a thing, you seem to recognise it.

Of the Greeks I say nothing; with them not only liberty, but even license went unpunished, or if a person aimed at chastising, he retaliated on satire by satire. It has, however, always been perfectly open to us without any one to censure, to speak freely of those whom death has withdrawn alike from the partialities of hatred or esteem. Are Cassius and Brutus now in arms on the fields of Philippi, and am I with them rousing the people by harangues to stir up civil war? Did they not fall more than seventy years ago, and as they are known to us by statues which even the conqueror did not destroy, so too is not some portion of their memory preserved for us by historians? To every man posterity gives his due honour, and, if a fatal sentence hangs over me, there will be those who will remember me as well as Cassius and Brutus.

He then left the Senate and ended his life by starvation. His books, so the Senators decreed, were to be burnt by the aediles; but some copies were left which were concealed and afterwards published. And so one is all the more inclined to laugh at the stupidity of men who suppose that the despotism of the present can actually efface the remembrances of the next generation. On the contrary, the persecution of genius fosters its influence; foreign tyrants, and all who have imitated their oppression, have merely procured infamy for themselves and glory for their victims.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Other Voices,Roman Empire,Starved,Treason,Uncertain Dates

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1953: Mat Indera, for the Bukit Kepong incident

Add comment January 30th, 2020 Headsman

Muhammad Indera — popularly known as Mat Indera — was executed on this date in 1953 in British-controlled Malaysia.

The imam turned Communist insurgent directed one of the signal bloodbaths of the Malayan Emergency — the tumultuous decade of political and guerrilla struggle against the British Empire for sovereignty.

Mat Indera’s contribution was the 1950 Bukit Kepong incident — an armed attack on a police station in that town that killed 19 policemen.


The 1981 movie Bukit Kepong dramatizes the events in question.

The British put a handsome price on the man’s head, and in 1952 someone took it.

His name and his deed are still controversial enough in Malaysia that a politician in 2011 found himself upon a sticky wicket for suggesting that Mat Indera was an anti-imperial hero.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Malaysia,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Wartime Executions

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