Posts filed under 'Borderline “Executions”'

1917: Lation Scott lynched

2 comments December 2nd, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1917, 24-year-old black farmhand Lation (or Ligon) Scott died a horrible death in Dyersburg, Tennessee.

For the two years prior to his extrajudicial “execution” by a lynch mob, Scott had worked as a farmhand for a white family, doing the farm chores while the husband worked at his job in Dyersburg.

He got on well with the family and was fond of the two children. He seemed like an ordinary enough man and a good worker, according to the NAACP journal The Crisis:

Accounts as to his intelligence vary widely. One report asserts that he was almost half-witted. Others attribute to him the intelligence of the average country Negro… He had the reputation of being a splendid hand at doing general housework, or “spring-cleaning,” and…had done this sort of work for a prominent woman of Dyersburg. She states that she was alone in the house with him for two days.

No trouble resulted.

In addition to farming and the doing of odd jobs, he was a preacher. On November 22, 1917, however, he allegedly raped the farmer’s wife while her husband was at work. He threatened to kill her if she reported what he had done. He then fled, leaving his victim bound and gagged inside the farmhouse.

The woman was able to free herself and identify her attacker, and the community took swift action, searching extensively for Scott and offering a $200 reward for his apprehension. Scott was able to elude capture for ten days, though, making his way fifty miles to Madison County. There, a railroad worker recognized him and he was arrested.

The sheriff’s deputy for Dyer County, along with some other men (including, presciently, an undertaker), picked up the accused man and started off back to Dyersburg by car in the wee hours of the morning. They didn’t bother taking an indirect route for the purpose of their journey.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people gathered along the road and waited for their quarry.

And when he appeared, they forced the car off the road and made the officers turn over their prisoner.

These people were not typical of the average lynch mob: rather than stringing him up on the spot, they drew up a list of twelve “jurors” and, at noon, after church let out, drove Scott to the county courthouse for a “trial.”

Scott was ordered to stand up and asked, “Are you guilty or not guilty?”

Scott admitted he was guilty, and the “jury” voted for conviction.

Although one “prominent citizen” asked the people not to be barbaric, because it was Sunday and because “the reputation of the county was at stake,” both the rape victim and her husband wanted Scott to be burned alive rather than merely hanged.

The Crisis‘s description of what happened is not for the faint-hearted.

The Negro was seated on the ground and a buggy-axle driven into the ground between his legs. His feet were chained together, with logging chains, and he was tied with wire. A fire was built. Pokers and flat-irons were procured and heated in the fire… Reports of the torturing, which have been generally accepted and have not been contradicted, are that the Negro’s clothes and skin were ripped from his body simultaneously with a knife. His self-appointed executioners burned his eye-balls with red-hot irons. When he opened his mouth to cry for mercy a red-hot poker was rammed down his gullet. In the same subtle way he was robbed of his sexual organs. Red-hot irons were placed on his feet, back and body, until a hideous stench of burning flesh filled the Sabbath air of Dyersburg, Tenn.

Thousands of people witnessed this scene. They had to be pushed back from the stake to which the Negro was chained. Roof-tops, second-story windows, and porch-tops were filled with spectators. Children were lifted to shoulders, that they might behold the agony of the victim.

It took three and a half hours for the man to die.

Margaret Vandiver wrote in Lethal Punishment: Lynchings and Legal Executions in the South, “The lynching of Lation Scott was the most ghastly of all those I researched.”

This spectacle of horror took place in broad daylight, and no one in the mob wore masks.

Nevertheless, no one was ever prosecuted.

According to The Crisis,

Public opinion in Dyersburg and Dyer County seems to be divided into two groups. One group considers that the Negro got what he deserved. The other group feels that he should have had a “decent lynching.”

A “decent lynching” was defined as “a quick, quiet hanging, with no display or torturing.”

One local citizen remarked that he thought the people who tortured and killed Lation Scott were no better than the rapist himself. Another simply commented, “It was the biggest thing since the Ringling Brothers’ Circus came to town.”

Lation Scott’s was the last lynching in Dyer County history.


Wire report in the Salt Lake Telegram, Dec. 3, 1917.

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1730: Patrona Halil, Ottoman rebel

Add comment November 25th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1730, Patrona Halil, the virtual ruler of the Ottoman capital at the head of a popular rabble, was lured to Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace on the pretext of receiving an imperial honorific — and there seized by the sultan’s guards and put to summary death.

An Albanian shopkeep and Janissary, Halil (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish) had been at the fore of an extraordinarily successful rebellion that bears his name in Turkish histories.

Very recently the mortal terror of Europe, the Ottoman Empire was into its midlife crisis by the early 18th century — a long transition, as it would transpire, into its terminal “sick man of Europe” stage.

Incensed at the splendor of the grandees during the so-called “Tulip Period” — elites’ 1720s fad for that flower, which accompanied years of decadent, and perhaps impious, openness towards Europe — struggling* Istanbul artisan guilds revolted in 1730 over taxes imposed to pay for war with Persia.

Not for the last time, the impositions of the taxman only served to catalyze wider grievances that had already been mounting. Janissaries cast a gimlet eye on the sultan’s dalliances with European military innovations — which those feudal infantrymen rightly perceived as an existential threat. Everyday Turks and the ulama alike resented the cultural inroads of the West. In the paroxysm of 1730, these factions combined with the petite bourgeois guilds to shake the Porte far more deeply than some riot ought.

There had been many rebellions in Istanbul before, but this was the first to show a syndrome that was thereafter often repeated: an effort to Westernize military and administrative organization propounded by a section of the official elite, accompanied by some aping of Western manners, and used by another interest group to mobilize the masses against Westernization.*


Jean-Baptiste van Mour, a Flemish painter residing in Istanbul at the time. He’s notable for numerous paintings of the Tulip Era Ottoman Empire, including that of the sword-brandishing Patrona Halil further up this post.

The rebellion forced the execution of the grand vizier, and the abdication of Sultan Ahmed III in favor of his nephew Mahmud. Rioters sacked the estates of the wealthy and put a definitive end to the Tulip Period by trashing the delicate gardens emblematic of their sybaritic lords.

For nearly two months, the impertinent Halil was virtually the master of the capital. He rode with the new sultan to the ceremony investing him with Osman’s sword; he dictated appointments for his rude associates, like a Greek butcher named Yanaki who was to become Hospodar of Moldavia. At Halil’s whim, Mahmud was forced to order mansions put to the torch and (of course) that hated war tax rescinded.

Halil probably ought to have been better on his guard against the maneuver the sultan executed this date — and was always likely to attempt in some form. Then again, what he had already achieved, however briefly, was outlandish, and pointed to weaknesses in the Ottoman state far more durable than Halil himself. By slaying the insurgent chief, Mahmud got himself some breathing space: popular dissatisfaction, however, was too widely rooted to be destroyed at a single stroke, and would resume again with intermittent disturbances and purges well into 1731, with a successor revolt in 1740.†

And over a still longer arc, the parties of the Halil revolt would guard their prerogatives so jealously and effectively over the generations to come as to fatally compromise the capacity of the sultanate to compel the modernization that the Empire required. Patrona Halil’s revenge was two centuries in coming … but it was worth the wait.

* According to Robert W. Olson’s “The Esnaf and the Patrona Halil Rebellion of 1730: A Realignment in Ottoman Politics?”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, September 1974, the major beefs of the esnaf (guilds) were a spiral of inflation brought by the devaluing Ottoman currency, the influx of immigrants to the capital, and taxes.

** Serif Mardin, “Center-Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?”, Daedalus, Winter 1973.

† See Olson, “Jews, Janissaries, Esnaf and the Revolt of 1740 in Istanbul: Social Upheaval and Political Realignment in the Ottoman Empire”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, May 1977.

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82 BCE: The defeated populares of the Battle of the Colline Gate

Add comment November 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On November 1 of 82 BCE, the Roman general Sulla clinched victory in his running civil war against the liberal populares by smashing them at a decisive battle at Rome’s Colline Gate. And on November 2 the victorious dictator* had his captured foes put to death en masse in the Villa Publica while Sulla himself laid out the new order in an address to the cowed Senate.

The roots of this climactic — although not literally final — battle stretch back years, decades even, to the populist Gracchi in the 130s and 120s, and even further than that. Rome’s burgeoning had strained her original social contract past the breaking point. Terms were renegotiated in bloody civil conflicts that saw Sulla emerge this date as master of the Caput Mundi.

The Gracchi all those years ago had tried (until the oligarchs’ faction assassinated them) to rebalance an increasingly stratified Roman society by introducing land reform and an early bread subsidy.

The Gracchi banner would eventually fall to Gaius Marius, a successful general noted among other things for defeating Jugurtha. His “Marian reforms” thoroughly overhauled military organization; crucially for the Roman social crisis, he opened to the propertyless masses service in the legions — formerly the preserve of the very landed citizen-farmer being squeezed out by the empire’s concentrating wealth.**

Marius’s program addressed two problems simultaneously: it gave the Roman poor a vector of upward mobility; and, it professionalized an army whose fighting capacity had slipped behind Rome’s imperial reach.

Because the capstone to a career in the newly-professionalized army would be a grant of land secured by Marius himself, it also introduced a dangerous personal alliance between vaunting commander and his troops, the seed of later centuries’ cycles of incessant rebellion.

During the decade of the 80s, a now-aged Marius was still the populares‘ standard-bearer, but was opposed now by the patrician general Sulla, Marius’s own former lieutenant during the war against Jugurtha.

Marius’s attempt to displace Sulla from command of a planned Roman expedition to the East to punish King Mighridates of Pontus for his abuse of Roman citizens in Asia Minor brought the two to open blows. Calling on his troops’ personal loyalty to him, Sulla broke an ancient taboo by marching on Rome itself.

Marius fled into Africa, a death sentence nipping at his heels. (Various artists have imagined him chilling in the ruins of Carthage.) Once Sulla sailed for Asia, however, Marius allied with the consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna and roared back from exile, seizing the capital and instituting a reign of terror against his political enemies. Plutarch:

whenever anybody else greeted Marius and got no salutation or greeting in return, this of itself was a signal for the man’s slaughter in the very street, so that even the friends of Marius, to a man, were full of anguish and horror whenever they drew near to greet him. So many were slain that at last Cinna’s appetite for murder was dulled and sated; but Marius, whose anger increased day by day and thirsted for blood, kept on killing all whom he held in any suspicion whatsoever. Every road and every city was filled with men pursuing and hunting down those who sought to escape or had hidden themselves. Moreover, the trust men placed in the ties of hospitality and friendship were found to be no security against the strokes of Fortune; for few there were, all told, who did not betray to the murderers those who had taken refuge with them.

He died about the age of 70 in 86 BCE, days into his unprecedented seventh consulship.

While all this transpired, Sulla had been several years detained in fighting Mithridates. By 83, he’d hung up the “Mission Accomplished” banner and made ready to march on Rome for the second time.

Marius was dead; his ally Cinna had also been killed in a mutiny. The populares party was now headed by Marius’s altogether less formidable son Gaius Marius the Younger and a plebeian consul named Carbo — guys nobody today has heard of, which pretty much tells you what happened next.

Attempting to stop Sulla in the south, Marius the Younger was thrashed and forced to retreat to Praeneste, where he would be bottled up harmlessly until he took his own life in desperation. Further north, Carbo was trounced and chased into exile (and eventual execution) by Sulla’s ally Pompey, the future Triumvir who got his possibly-sarcastic honorific “the Great” from his action in Sulla’s civil war.

The populares general Pontius Telesinus made the last stand of his movement hurling a force of Samnites and Roman Marian supporters at the capital where, at the Colline Gate, they momentarily pressed Sulla’s wing dangerously against the city wall before another future Triumvir, Crassus, overcame them from the opposite flank.

The ensuing slaughter on this date in 82 settled the Marius-versus-Sulla civil war: Sulla published a large proscription of former Marius supporters who were put to death by the thousands before the general resigned his dictatorship at the end of the year 81.†

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast series covers these events in Death Throes of the Republic, episode 3. In the indispensable History of Rome podcast, the relevant episodes are 31a. Marius | 31b. Marius | 32. The Social War | 33. Marius and Sulla | 34. No Greater Friend, No Worse Enemy.

* Sulla would be acclaimed dictator by the Senate a few weeks later, reviving an office that had been unused since Hannibal threatened Rome more than a century before.

** Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD:

there is a famous utterance of Manius Curius, who after celebrating triumphs and making a vast addition of territory to 290 B.C. the empire, said that a man not satisfied with seven acres must be deemed a dangerous citizen; for that was the acreage assigned for commoners after the expulsion of the kings. What therefore was the cause of such great fertility? The fields were tilled in those days by the hands of generals themselves, and we may well believe that the earth rejoiced in a laurel-decked ploughshare and a ploughman who had celebrated a triumph, whether it was that those farmers treated the seed with the same care as they managed their wars and marked out their fields with the same diligence as they arranged a camp, or whether everything prospers better under honourable hands because the work is done with greater attention. The honours bestowed on Serranus found [297 B.C.] him sowing seed, which was actually the origin of his surname. An apparitor brought to Cincinnatus his commission as dictator when he was ploughing his four-acre property on the Vatican, the land now called the Quintian Meadows, and indeed it is said that he had stripped for the work, and the messenger as he continued to linger said, ‘Put on your clothes, so that I may deliver the mandates of the Senate and People of Rome’. That was what apparitors were like even at that time, and their name itself a was given to them as summoning the senate and the leaders to put in an immediate appearance from their farms. But nowadays those agricultural operations are performed by slaves with fettered ankles and by the hands of malefactors with branded faces! although the Earth who is addressed as our mother and whose cultivation is spoken of as worship is not so dull that when we obtain even our farm-work from these persons one can believe that this is not done against her will and to her indignation. And we forsooth are surprised that we do not get the same profits from the labour of slave-gangs as used to be obtained from that of generals!

† Surviving the proscription was the son-in-law of the late consul Cinna, one Julius Caesar. He was able to pull strings with Sulla to get himself off the list.

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1990: The October 13 Massacre

Add comment October 13th, 2014 Headsman

This date is the dolorous anniversary of the “October 13 massacre”, a bloodbath wrapping up the Lebanese Civil War when the Syrian army executed hundreds of captured Lebanese.

The intractable war, which dated back to 1975 and made “Beirut” a 1980s watchword for conflict, had boiled down* to two rival governments: a Maronite military government based in East Beirut under the leadership of Michel Aoun, and the Syrian-sponsored Muslim government in West Beirut putatively headed by Selim al-Hoss. Over the course of 1989-1990 Aoun’s “war of liberation” against the occupying Syrian army all but emptied the city of Beirut.

Thanks to a complex political schism, Aoun was also ensconced in the city’s presidential palace from which he issued decrees denouncing and rejecting the political settlement that was supposed to return the country to normalcy.

Unfortunately for him — and moreso for the prisoners who are the day’s topic — Aoun was also supported by Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein. In August 1990, Hussein invaded Kuwait, precipitating an American attack on Iraq in response.

As this latter operation involved the U.S. attacking a Muslim oil-producing state with military resources it deployed for that purpose the politically sensitive sands of a neighboring Muslim oil-producing, the U.S. spent the last months of 1990 working the Middle East diplomatic circuit to bring the region’s governments on board for the impending bout of ultraviolence.

Syria’s particular carrot was the green light to finish off Aoun — who, simultaneously, had of course been deprived of aid from the now-preoccupied Iraqis. This the Syrian army did with a massive attack on Beirut’s presidential palace beginning at 7 in the morning on October 13th. The palace was overcome by 10 that morning, but resistance continued elsewhere throughout the day from pro-Aoun militias who had not received word of that gentleman’s surrender and escape to the French embassy.**

Several hundred people were killed during the onslaught into pro-Aoun enclaves. An unknown number of these ballparked to around two or three hundred are thought to have been killed by summary execution after capture (or after intentional rounding-up). A Lebanese nurse claimed that at the nearby village of Dahr al-Wahsh “I counted between 75 and 80 [executed] … Most of them had a bullet in the back of their heads or in their mouth. The corpses still carried the mark of cords around their wrists.” Other captured Lebanese fighters were reportedly deported to Syria and never heard from again.

There are several other atrocity accounts collected here. This two-part documentary on the end of the Lebanese civil war available on YouTube has several participants’ perspectives (including Aoun’s) on the chaotic situation marking the war’s last days: 1, 2.

* This is quite a gross oversimplification of a fractious civil conflict in which innumerable blocs continually rearranged their alliances.

“I had a chart on my wall of the constantly proliferating militias — four dozen or so by the time I left in 1985 — and their constantly shifting alliances and enmities,” one former Beirut denizen wrote recently. “Allies one day could be trying to kill one another the next, even within sects, over issues that had digressed far from their common cause.”

** Aoun went into exile in France, returning in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution finally drove the still-occupying Syrians out of Lebanon. He has served in the Lebanese parliament since that time, leading the country’s largest Christian party.

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610: Phocas, “will you rule better?”

Add comment October 5th, 2014 Headsman

It was on this date in 610 that the Byzantine Emperor Phocas was overthrown and put to summary execution — by the very hand, legend says, of his successor Heraclius.*

Perhaps Byzantium’s most anathematized emperor — one Byzantine historian elided his whole 8-year reign because “speaking of suffering is itself suffering” — Phocas’s own rise to the purple owed itself to extrajudicial executions.

That gentleman was a mere army officer of no regal proximity during the previous emperor’s campaigns to ward off the incursions of the Slavs and Avars into the Balkans. While this campaign on the whole enjoyed its successes, Phocas enters the historical scene about 600 as the leader of a delegation sent from the legions to Constantinople to object when the cash-poor imperial court refused to pony up ransom money for comrade soldiers taken prisoner. Phocas was abused at court, and the Avars executed their hostages.

By 602 the policy of having the soldiery take it in the braccae (soldiers’ own allotments had also been pinched by the same budget strictures) blew back when the foul-tempered army was ordered to winter on the far side of the remote Danube. The government collapsed in the face of a military mutiny; Phocas was crowned emperor; and he executed the former emperor Maurice, plus Maurice’s six sons. Much as we are accustomed to think of the old Roman emperors ever on the edge of violent overthrow, this event was for its contemporaries a great novelty and a dangerous precedent. There had not been a regime change by coup d’etat in Constantinople since that city’s namesake set it up as his capital nearly three centuries before.

This fact is a small part of Phocas’s vile reputation for later historians. But — and we will come to this — that reputation is also heavily colored by the perspective of the regime that would eventually overthrow Phocas himself. For Phocas’s subjects, while he had subjects, he was very far form universally hated. He found particular favor with the church, delivering the gorgeous pagan Pantheon to the pontiffs for use as a church. When touring the Rome, you might learn that the very last imperial monument in the Forum is the Column of Phocas.**


Erected in gratitude by the Exarch of Ravenna.

Phocas’s reign, however, was defined by war with the Persians. And it was in the time of Phocas that King Khosrau, who actually owed his throne to previous Roman support, started breaking through the weakened Byzantine frontiers and tearing off huge pieces of territory.

By the last years of Phocas the Persians had taken Upper Mesopotamia and Armenia, and begun pressing into Anatolia where resistance collapsed with frightful ease. A Persian raid reached as far as Chalcedon in 608. There’s just something about having an enemy army in the suburbs of your capital that tends to overwhelm the value of any goodwill you got from cozying up to the pope.

In that same year (and this was surely a factor in the Persians’ shocking penetration into Anatolia) the Exarch of Africa began a revolt against the former centurion wearing the purple. From his position he was able to cut off grain shipments to the capital from the empire’s breadbasket, Egypt, which put Phocas in a truly desperate position. This exarch’s name was Heraclius but it was the man’s son, also named Heraclius, who would do the usurping.

Approaching the capital in 610, the Heraclii were able to quickly gather allies. Even the Excubitors, Constantinople’s Praetorian Guards under the leadership here of Phocas’s own son-in-law, saw where the winds were blowing and deserted immediately.

The rebels took Constantinople without a fight, and two patricians seized Phocas and presented him to the new sovereign.

“Is this how you have ruled, wretch?”

To which Phocas sneered,

“And will you rule better?”

Heraclius wasn’t in in the mood to be upstaged by his doomed predecessor, and got the latter’s execution, together with his own immediate coronation, enacted straighaway.

his right arm was removed from the shoulder, as well as his head, his hand was impaled on a sword, and thus it was paraded along the Mese, starting from the Forum. His head was put on a pole, and thus it too was paraded around. The rest of the body was dragged along on the belly, and was brought in the direction of the Chalce of the Hippodrome … And about the ninth hour of the same Monday, heraclius was crowned emperor in the most holy Great Church by Sergius patriarch of Constantinople. And on the following day, Tuesday … the head of Leontius the syrian [the former finance minister] was brought in and burnt in the Hippodrome, along with the image of Phocas which during his lifetime, foolish men wearing white robes had conducted into the Hippodrome with lighted candles. (Chronicon Paschale, as quoted here)

As if in retort to Phocas’s dying taunt, Heraclius held power for 30 distinguished years — “the brightness of the meridian sun,” in the estimation of Gibbon, for “the honor of Rome and Heraclius was gloriously retrieved by the exploits and trophies of six adventurous campaigns” that rescued Byzantium from the brink of destruction, drove back the Persians, enlarged the empire, and even returned the True Cross to Jerusalem. Heraclius himself commanded the army in the field, a practice long out of fashion for emperors. “Since the days of Scipio and Hannibal, no bolder enterprise has been attempted than that which Heraclius achieved for the deliverance of the empire.”

Phocas’s reputation did not profit from the comparison, and for Heraclius the last guy made a convenient foil to whom every evil of the realm could be attributed. We know Phocas almost exclusively through the accounts of later historians dating to this period, which is undoubtedly a factor in the black name our principal enjoys all the way to the present. The excellent History of Byzantium podcast attempts a balanced portrait of this era in an episode aptly named “In Fairness to Phocas”. The subsequent episode, “Heraclius to the Rescue”, deals with Phocas’s unpleasant exit from the scene.

* The new emperor personally executing his rival had a Roman precedent.

** Other Phocas achievement: he re-introduced the beard onto the imperial fashion scene. His predecessors had almost universally gone for the clean-cut look.

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1881: Charlie Pierce lynched in Bloomington, Illinois

Add comment October 1st, 2014 Headsman


Philadelphia Inquirer, October 3, 1881

On this date in 1881, a mob of 5,000 shouting imprecations against the courts spent two hours breaking open the jail in Bloomington, Illinois, then hauled out a horse thief named Charlie Pierce* and lynched him to an elm tree at the corner of Market and Center.

Pierce’s offense wasn’t so much the horse-and-buggy theft from a weeks prior — the crime for which he was arrested — as making an impulsive and extraordinarily foolish escape attempt that entailed grabbing the sidearm of a well-liked jailer named Teddy Frank and shooting him dead. Rushing to the scene, the sheriff disarmed an unresisting Pierce who perhaps was already beginning to apprehend the possible consequences his rashness would visit on him that very night.

Now, murdering a lawman was typically just about the best way to appear before the bar of Judge Lynch this side of sexual assault. And it may have been that folks in McLean County were just spoiling for a bout of vigilante justice anyway; the local paper Pantagraph had reported that June that such “excitement prevails” against two other criminals that “it is not improbable they will be lynched.”

They weren’t, but according to a 2010 recap of the still-notorious Pierce hanging written by a McLean County Museum of History archivist, matters were exacerbated by the autumn by an Illinois Supreme Court ruling reversing the conviction of another Bloomington murderer.** And Pierce’s end came just two weeks after the U.S. President finally succumbed to the bullet that a madman had pumped into him months before.

A flash mob of infuriated citizenry had the jail surrounded by 8 o’clock, 90 minutes or so after Pierce shot Frank.

“Special despatches from Bloomington, Ill., give graphic details,” ran wire copy that generally expressed special shock at the participation of “the best citizens … in the front ranks of the lynchers. Leading business men cheered and encouraged the lynchers, and women waved their handkerchiefs in approbation.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 3, 1881)

These bloodthirsty local grandees ran up against — and in this instance prevailed over — the growing sentiment among respectable elites that such carnivals tarnished the majesty of the law. In some cases, that was pretty near the very point of them; hooting onlookers were reported to have shouted things like “Justice and the courts are a farce!” and “We have seen too much of court quibblings!” For any observer in his wits it was manifest that such hot blood would bend towards anarchy if given free rein.

A police officer managed to cut down Pierce as the three-quarter-inch manila hemp gouged into his neck, but the miscreant was strung up a second time and “upon [the officer’s] attempting to repeat this act of bravery he came near being killed.” The fire department was summoned to disperse the mob with hoses but was also forced to retreat. And the area’s delegate to the U.S. Senate as well as a state’s attorney pleaded with the mob to let the courts handle Mr. Pierce.

By way, maybe, of retort, a placard appeared the following day on the late Charlie Pierce’s lynch tree reading

McLean, Illinois — Ax-man, ax-man, spare this tree, and never touch a single bough; and may God spare this elm tree forever to grow to mark where the first justice to a murder ever was done in McLean County, and may the good people stand by the boys that did it. (The Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Ill.), October 3, 1881)

It’s the only lynching in McLean County’s history.

* It transpired that Pierce’s actual surname was Howlett. He hailed from Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

** Patrick “Patsey” Devine, the beneficiary of that ruling, would be convicted again and hanged in 1882. He was feared in danger of joining Pierce on the lynch tree this night, but the mob gave him a miss.

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476: Basiliscus, victim of the fine print

Add comment August 18th, 2014 Headsman

At some point around August 476 — the exact date(s) lost to history — the deposed Eastern Roman Emperor Basiliscus was executed most cruelly with his family.

But having himself played for power with ruthlessness to equal his rivals, Basiliscus was hardly in a position to complain about the treatment. Besides, his killers were just playing by the rules.

The mid-470s saw a confused succession of countercoups toppling short-lived successors to the able Leo I.

The succession went initially to a a 7-year-old grandson whose father, an Isaurian warrior, was proclaimed co-emperor to give the state adult supervision. When the kid died mysteriously (or “mysteriously”) months into his reign, the dad became Emperor Zeno.

As a “barbarian” who had married into the imperial family, Zeno couldn’t catch a break from the capital. He was run out of town in January 475 by a conspiracy of grandees, who elevated our man Basiliscus to power. (Basilicus nailed down the throne by executing his chief rival among the plotters for Big Man in Constantinople.) Basiliscus had been a general in his own right with a somewhat mixed track record; the highlight entry on his c.v. was a gigantic 468 invasion of Carthage that came to such catastrophic grief tht Basiliscus upon his return had to hide out in the basilica of Hagia Sophia claiming sanctuary to protect himself from popular fury.* Eventually the lynch mob died down and Basiliscus copped a pardon from Emperor Leo and returned to prominence in time to be a leading player in the putsch.

Demonstrating his customary aptitude for great undertakings, Basiliscus immediately busted as emperor. A huge fire ravaged Constantinople under his watch. He recalled exiled Monophysite clergy, leading the patriarch of Constantinople to drape icons in the Hagia Sophia in black.

It wasn’t long before daggers were drawn for Basiliscus in his scheming court, just as they had been for Zeno.

In fact, it was Zeno himself who would be the instrument of his successor’s destruction.

A general dispatched to Isauria to take care of the absconded Zeno got word of the gathering discontent and switched to backing the former and now future emperor. As they marched together on Constantinople, a second general sent to stop them also backstabbed Basiliscus by making an arrangement with Zeno to march his defending army down the wrong road. The barbarian warlord looked pretty good to the Senate by now, and it threw open the gates of Constantinople to welcome back its former master in August of 476. Basiliscus for the second time in his life made tracks for the sanctuary of Hagia Sophia.

It’s said that the restored Zeno got rid of Basiliscus without violating the church via a nasty little ruse: he got the former emperor to abandon sanctuary with a promise never to spill his blood, then promptly had Basiliscus together with his wife and his son thrown into a dry cistern at some Cappadocian fortress to desiccate from exposure. Zeno would have made a great lawyer.


Basiliscus forced into the cistern.

The restored Emperor Zeno reigned for 15 more years, during which he caused a schism in the church and played a lot of backgammon. Legend has it that he too met a horrific end by deprivation when he drank himself into such a stupor** that he was buried as dead, and finally awoke to find himself entombed. By now quite unpopular himself, he was roundly ignored as he pounded on the inside of his sarcophagus shouting for aid.

Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium podcast handles this period in episodes 2 and 3.

* Procopius accuses Basiliscus of negligence verging on treason in this operation by accepting a plea (and a bribe) by the defending Vandals to defer the attack for a few days on some pretext. “If he had not purposely played the coward and hesitated, but had undertaken to go straight for Carthage, he would have captured it at the first onset.”

** Or alternatively (but less expressively, in moral terms), fell very ill — an epileptic coma, perhaps.

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1530: Francesco Ferruccio, victim of Maramaldo

Add comment August 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1530, Francesco Ferruccio (or just Ferrucci) and his executioner Fabrizio Maramaldo clinched their immortality at the Battle of Gavinana.

The battle was the tragic final scene of the War of the League of Cognac, in which an alliance of Italian city-states tried to expel the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V from the peninsula. Charles had already in effect decided matters by forcing the French out of the fight, which also brought about the capitulation of the Vatican.

Left alone in the fray, doughty Florence — ever so briefly at this moment restored as a Republic, having given the Medici the boot — continued to hold out against impossible odds. A vast imperial army swollen by landsknechts whose mercenary arms were now unnecessary elsewhere in Italy besieged Florence on October 24, 1529.


The Siege of Florence, by Tuscan Renaissance Man Giorgio Vasari.

The intrepid Florentine commander Francesco Ferruccio (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) strove to take his hopeless fight to the enemy. After a plan to coerce papal support by striking Rome was vetoed, Ferruccio mounted a march through the Apennines to threaten the Imperials’ rear.

He was intercepted at Gavinana, a battle decided by the arrival of landsknecht reinforcements under the command of the notoriously cruel condottiere Fabrizio Maramaldo.

Maramaldo would elevate himself for posterity out of the ranks of his merely brutal brethren by finding Ferruccio, badly wounded, his prisoner, and putting him to immediate death by his own hand — an execution that resulted in Florentine capitulation one week later, and the installation of Alessandro de’ Medici as Duke of the now ex-Republic.*

While admittedly borderline as an “execution” suitable for this here site, Ferruccio’s defiance in the face of his killer and his last denunciation of Maramaldo — “Coward, you kill a dead man!” — became the stuff of legend in a later Italy. (It also helped Ferruccio’s case for the nationalist pantheon that he died fighting against the Germans, not against the next city-state over.)

The romantic novelist Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi** made Ferruccio the subject of his magnum opus L’Assedio di Firenze, and before you knew it the name was on the lips of every risorgimento Tom, Dick and Francesco. Garibaldi invoked him in speech; Goffredo Mameli wrote him into the national anthem.


Every man has the heart
and hand of Ferruccio …

Under the Italian state those men helped to make, Ferruccio was appropriated as the name of a battleship; fascist Italy especially found Ferruccio congenial to the national-pride project and valorized the martyr relentlessly.


1930 Fascist Italy stamp depicting — for the 400th anniversary of the occasion — Fabrizio Maramaldo murdering his prisoner Francesco Ferruccio. Other Februccio stamps from the same period can be found on the man’s Italian Wikipedia page.

For Maramaldo, a less flattering but possibly more durable legacy: Italian gained the noun maramaldo, the adjective maramaldesco, and the verb maramaldeggiare to signify bullying or cruel domineering.

* Alessandro had a reputation for despotism, and was assassinated a few years later by his cousin Lorenzino de’ Medici in a tyrannicide that was Brutus-like in both its motivation and effect. That later affair is the subject of the 19th century play Lorenzaccio.

** Guerrazzi also did his bit for the legend of Beatrice Cenci.

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2005: Steven Vincent, Iraq War journalist

Add comment August 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 2005, U.S. journalist Stephen Vincent was abducted off the streets of Basra by a Shia militia. Before the day was out, he had been extrajudicially executed on the outskirts of town — along with his assistant and translator, who managed to survive the execution.

Vincent, originally from California, had been a New York journalist (most prominent on the arts scene) for more than twenty years when he stood on his apartment’s roof on September 11, 2001, and watched United Airlines Flight 175 smash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Deeply shaken by the specter of Islamic terrorism and wanting to, as he put it, “do my part in the conflict”, Vincent took an abrupt turn from his Gotham haunts and in 2003 bought his own ticket to Iraq to venture into the war zone with nothing but wits honed by a lifetime’s freelancing. Free of both institutional control and institutional protection, and picking up his Arabic on the fly, the dauntless Vincent reported from the ground in war-ravaged Iraq, eyed by perplexed officials who could scarcely help but suspect him a spy.

His 2004 book In the Red Zone: A Journey into the Soul of Iraq captures his impressions.

In April 2005, Vincent returned to Iraq — this time, to Muqtada al-Sadr‘s* bastion in the Shia south where, as he put it in a post on his still-extant blog, “militant Shiites … have transformed once free-wheeling Basra into something resembling Savonarola‘s Florence.”

One of few Western journalists in British-occupied but increasingly Sadr-controlled Basra, Vincent filed numerous stories raising the alarm on fundamentalism and Iranian influence.

“Basran politics (and everyday life) is increasingly coming under the control of Shiite religious groups,” Vincent wrote in a July 31, 2005 New York Times piece that would prove to be his last. “And unfortunately, the British seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it.”

Vincent traces the early cracks that would widen into Iraq’s now-familiar sectarian fracturing, and the ruins of a secular society as institutions like the university dare not shoo away self-appointed purity monitors of students’ dress and conduct lest they invite the wrath of the Iranian-backed Shia parties (and Shia police).

An Iraqi police lieutenant, who for obvious reasons asked to remain anonymous, confirmed to me the widespread rumors that a few police officers are perpetrating many of the hundreds of assassinations — mostly of former Baath Party members — that take place in Basra each month. He told me that there is even a sort of “death car”: a white Toyota Mark II that glides through the city streets, carrying off-duty police officers in the pay of extremist religious groups to their next assignment.

This passage prefigures Vincent’s own fate, and it’s thought to be the fact of his filing reports like this one that sealed it. Returning on the afternoon of August 2 from a Basra currency exchange with his translator Nouriya Itais Wadi (or Nouri al-Khal; Steven Vincent referred to her as “Leyla” in the personal dispatches he posted on his blog),** the pair was seized in broad daylight by armed men in a white police vehicle. Hours later, their bodies were recovered just a short drive away. Or rather, Vincent’s body was recovered: his aide, left for dead by her executioners, was clinging to life despite multiple gunshot wounds.

There’s an Open Source Radio interview with Vincent’s widow Lisa Ramaci-Vincent from August 10, 2005, available as a podcast here. After yet another journalist was abducted and murdered in Basra a few weeks later, Ramaci-Vincent launched the Steven Vincent Foundation “to assist the families of indigenous journalists in regions of conflict throughout the world who are killed for doing their jobs, and to support the work of female journalists in those regions.” She also helped Nouriya, who survived her injuries, to emigrate to the U.S.

Muqtada al-Sadr, who survived a 2008 attack by the American-backed Iraqi army on Basra, remains today one of the dominant figures in Iraqi politics.

* Saddam Hussein — a Sunni — had the name “Muqtada” chanted at him by his executioners during the fiasco of his hanging.

** Vincent’s relationship with his unmarried translator has also been cited as a possible factor in their murder. He was apparently planning to marry her opportunistically to help her escape Iraq, a plan that his wife knew about and supported.

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1979: Bill Stewart, ABC News reporter

Add comment June 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1979, the American Broadcasting Company journalist Bill Stewart was executed at a somocista checkpoint during Nicaragua’s bloody civil war.

And what is more, the deed was caught on film — pre-emptively balking the crumbling Nicaraguan dictatorship of the ability to, say, blame the killing on the Sandinista rebels.

Warning: This is the execution footage.

Stewart was stopped in a marked press vehicle in Managua, ordered to lie down, and then kicked and shot through the head while colleagues looked on. Though his summary execution by national guardsmen was taped by fellow journos in the convoy, the reasons for it are well into the fog of war: even the identity of the guardsman who pulled the trigger isn’t known. (The commander of the roadblock would claim that it was a “Private Gonzalez” who conveniently died in combat later the very same day.) The immediate “investigation” promised by dictator Anastasio Somoza didn’t really have much chance to get off the ground before Somoza himself had to take to the skies fleeing, on July 17, the collapse of his own regime. Whether the executioner also escaped the revolution, fled into exile, became a Contra guerrilla, or actually did die in the fighting, only God can say.

“The murder of American newsman Bill Stewart in Nicaragua was an act of barbarism that all civilized people condemn,” said U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who of course was backing Somoza.* “Journalists seeking to report the news and inform the public are soldiers in no nation’s army. When. they are made innocent victims of violence and war, all people who cherish the truth and believe in free debate pay a terrible price.”

Stewart’s career and murder are a principal inspiration for the 1983 film Under Fire.

* Or more precisely by this point, backing Somocismo sin Somoza — ease out the unpopular Somoza but keep the same system.

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