Posts filed under 'Borderline “Executions”'

1859: Oscar Jackson lynched, precipitating the Wright County War

1 comment April 25th, 2017 Meaghan

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

The story of what would become known as the Wright County War began on September 21, 1858, when Henry A. Wallace was found lying dead in a clump of willows on his own farm, his head bashed in. He had last been seen alive on August 27, twenty-five days earlier.

Wallace’s employee, Oscar F. Jackson, was the prime suspect in his murder. Jackson had agreed to help Wallace reap his hay crop in exchange for a portion of the harvest, and on August 27 the two men had been seen working together in the fields near where Wallace’s body was later found.

Jackson showed a curious lack of concern about his boss’s disappearance. He never even bothered to tell the authorities he was missing, and when neighbors noted that Wallace hadn’t been seen in weeks and decided to launch a search, Jackson declined to join in. An impoverished sharecropper, Jackson also seemed to have become suddenly flush with cash — an oddity because like most of the residents of Wright County, Jackson was poor, still struggling to recover from the Panic of 1857. Wallace was comparatively well-off.

A grand jury indicted Jackson for his employer’s murder, but the case against him was incredibly feeble. At the trial, Jackson’s attorneys pointed out that no one had seen the murder or could even determine the day it took place, and suggested any number of people could have visited Wallace and killed him at any time during that three-and-a-half-week period that he was missing.

The jury quite rightly gave Jackson the benefit of doubt and acquitted him on April 3, 1859, after eighteen hours of deliberation.

That night, a lynch party of fifteen men chased him into the woods. Fearing for his life, Jackson fled to St. Paul.

The local citizenry — among them Henry Wallace’s brother, Hiram — were not prepared to let the matter rest. And, horrifyingly, neither was the Wright County Sheriff, George M. Bertram,* or the justice of the peace, Cyrus Chase Jenks.

Five days after Jackson’s acquittal, the three men went to find the presumed murderer in Hennepin County. There, Hiram Wallace swore out a complaint against Jackson accusing him of theft, and Jenks issued a warrant for his arrest. Never mind that Jenks did not have jurisdiction outside of Wright County: Sheriff Bertram delivered the warrant to Alfred Brackett, the deputy sheriff of Hennepin County, and asked him to serve it.

Walter N. Trenery wrote in his 1962 book, Murder in Minnesota,

Brackett found Jackson in St. Paul’s Apollo Saloon the next day. Handcuffing his prisoner, the deputy set out with him for St. Anthony by buggy. Jackson pleaded for time to call his attorney, but at first Brackett would not allow it. On the ride Jackson insisted that his arrest was based on a false charge, the purpose of which was to get him back to Rockford [in Wright County] where he would be murdered… Brackett reconsidered. When the two men reached St. Anthony, he sent word to Jackson’s counsel and persuaded the Wright County sheriff to spend the night in town before starting back to Rockford.

The implacable Sheriff Bertram

Jackson’s lawyer hastily drew up a writ of habeas corpus and before the day was out he’d served it to Sheriff Bertram. The Hon. Isaac Atwater, a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, ordered Jackson’s release on April 11. He was immediately re-arrested, however, as by then Jenks and Bertram had realized their error, gone back to Wright County and drawn up a second warrant. Jackson’s attorney responded with a second writ of habeas corpus, and on April 13, the man was ordered released again.

His friends had pooled their money and come up with enough for him to leave Minnesota forever, but for some reason Jackson returned to Rockford instead of skipping town. The residents of Wright County still wanted to lynch him, and to that end a neighbor swore out yet another phony complaint against him and yet another justice of the peace issued yet another warrant for his arrest.

A mob virtually tore Jackson’s cabin and its contents to pieces and set several fires. They surrounded the home of Jackson’s father-in-law, George Holdship, where the fugitive was reported to be hiding, and set more fires.

On April 24, Sheriff Bertram arrived at Holdship’s residence, and after he swore Jackson would not be harmed, arrested Jackson and took him away.

According to John D. Bessler’s book Legacy Of Violence: Lynch Mobs And Executions In Minnesota,

Less than half a mile from the house an armed mob overtook Sheriff Bertram’s procession. The sheriff relinquished power without resistance and rode off with the deputies, failing to even report the incident. After taunting Jackson throughout the night, the mob strung him up, even as his wife arrived to plead for mercy. Her pleas ignored, she was sent away distraught and empty-handed. The bloodthirsty mob hauled Jackson up and down times, failing to get Jackson to confess but successfully mangling his neck. Only when Jackson was hoisted up for a third time, at 2:00 P.M. on April 25, did his neck break. Jackson’s body was left dangling from a beam that protruded from Wallace’s cabin.

A coroner’s jury was called on the same day Jackson died and decided he had met with his death at the hands of some person or persons unknown. “The jury was not likely,” Trenery noted dryly, “to accuse its own members.”

But the story didn’t end there.

At the time of Oscar Jackson’s lynching, Minnesota had been a state for less than a year; it was admitted to the Union on May 11, 1858. Their first state governor, Henry Hastings Sibley, was anxious to maintain the rule of law, which had been besmirched by the Jackson outrage. One newspaper said, a tad melodramatically, “Wright County will be painted black upon the map of Minnesota — a patch of loathsome leprosy upon the fair surface of the land.”

Sibley offered a $500 reward for the arrest and conviction of anyone concerned with the lynching. It went unclaimed and the lynching started to slip away into obscurity, until July, when Oscar Jackson’s wife spotted Emery W. Moore (called “Emory” or “Aymer” in some accounts) at a gathering in Minnehaha Falls. Moore had been a member of the lynch mob, and it was his warrant that lead to Jackson’s arrest at his father-in-law’s house.

Mrs. Jackson alerted St. Paul’s chief of police, who arrested Moore for murder, and he was sent to Rockford to stand trial.

What followed, as Trenery describes it, was something of a solemn farce:

To prevent further collusion among local officials, the governor directed Charles H. Berry, the state’s attorney general, to conduct the prosecution in person. Berry opened the preliminary examination in Monticello on July 31, 1859, with an angry mob swarming about the building, shouting and threatening the agents of law enforcement. Mrs. Jackson, testifying for the prosecution, clearly and unequivocally named the leaders of the lynch mob and described the circumstances under which her husband had died. When the Wright County sheriff took the stand to explain how the mob had overwhelmed him and took Jackson from his custody, the attorney general found the sheriff’s explanation so unsatisfactory that he ordered Bertram arrested and held as an accomplice in the lynching. Berry then discovered that certain prosecution witnesses had mysteriously disappeared before they could testify, and he was forced to adjourn the hearing before it had been in session a full day.

To add insult to injury, that evening the vigilantes descended on the place where Emery Moore was confined, set him free, and melted into the darkness.

Berry returned to St. Paul and reported all this to the governor.

Fed up, Sibley declared Wright County to be “in a state of insurrection” and sent in the state militia to put a stop to mob justice and force the county officials to do their damn jobs. Three units — the Pioneer Guards, the St. Paul City Guards and the Stillwater Guards — marched in, aided by 35 special policemen.

The results were mixed. At first the militia was unable to find any members of the lynch mob, the locals just shrugged their shoulders when asked where they had gone, and the sheriff and other officials refused outright to cooperate. Only when they found out Governor Sibley was on his way over to personally take charge did the county officials “find” and arrest three suspected lynchers: Emery Moore, Hiram S. Angell, and J.E. Jenks.**

Satisfied, the governor sent the state militia home. The three-day occupation was later facetiously dubbed the Wright County War. It was a bloodless war.

The arrested men were almost immediately set free on a $500 bail, and in October, a grand jury refused to indict them. In the end, no one at all was punished for Oscar Jackson’s death, and Henry Wallace’s murder was never officially solved.

Charles Bryant groused in his History of the Upper Mississippi Valley,

And so the drama ended; the curtain fell; and the so-called “Wright county war” was a thing of the past. Its effects, however, long remained in the enormous expense incurred, which, with other criminal cases of less magnitude, created an indebtedness almost resulting in bankruptcy, and depreciating county orders to less than thirty-five cents on the dollar.

Of the principals involved in this story:

  • Sheriff Bertram left office in 1860 and was succeeded by W. Smith Brookins.
  • Cyrus Jenks died in Meeker City, Minnesota in 1897. He was almost 90 years old.
  • Governor Sibley stayed in office until 1860, and did not seek reelection. In 1862, he was appointed colonel of the Minnesota Militia and led them against the Native Americans in the Dakota War.
  • Charles Berry was later appointed as a judge in the Idaho Territory. He died in 1900.
  • Alfred Brackett fought in the Civil War, leading what would become Brackett’s Battallion, which served longer than any other Minnesota unit. The unit fought against the Confederates between 1861 and 1864, then became part of the Northwestern Indian Expedition in the Dakota Territory.
  • Hiram Angell also fought in the Civil War, with the Third Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He died in St. Louis, Kentucky on April 5, 1862.
  • J.E. Jenks got elected to Minnesota’s House of Representatives in the 1870s and served for a year.

Nearly twenty years after Henry Wallace’s death, first his gold watch and then his rifle were found near the former site of Oscar Jackson’s cabin.

* Wright County boasts a Bertram Chain of Lakes, named for Sheriff Bertram.

** J.E. Jenks was probably Cyrus Jenks’s son; records note that Cyrus had a son named John Edwin Jenks who would have been about 22 years old in 1859, which matches J.E.’s first name and age.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Common Criminals,Crime,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lynching,Minnesota,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Theft,USA

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1943: The massacre of Janowa Dolina

1 comment April 23rd, 2017 Headsman

On or very near this date in 1943, a Ukrainian militias massacred the Poles of the village of Janowa Dolina (Yanova Dolina).


Janowa Dolina in the 1930s. The village was a model settlement for workers at the nearby basalt quarry, jobs given at that time by official preferences to Poles. It was created in the 1920s, and featured an orderly plot with running water and electricity throughout.

In World War II, each theater of the war was unhappy in its own way. For the beautiful region of Volhynia long straddling the blood-soaked marches between Poland and Ukraine, it meant a ghastly local war under the umbrella of German occupation.

Mostly Polish in the interwar years, when Ukrainian residents chafed under “Polonization” policies, Volhynia had come fully under Soviet control when Berlin and Moscow carved up Poland in 1939, and then, of course, fully under German control in 1941. In these years of ash and bone, ethnic compositions in Volhynia were redrawn with every desperate ferocity nationalism could muster: pogroms visited neighbor upon neighbor, or ethnic cleansing visited state upon subject. It would be Ukrainian ultras positioned in the end to fantasize about ethnic purity by dint of their collaboration with the conquering Reich.

Come 1943, Poles comprised a shrinking minority in Volhynia. The prospect of purging this borderlands to cinch its place in a Ukrainian homeland made those Poles an inviting target for a campaign of ethnic slaughter that’s remembered now as the Volhynia or Volyn Massacres. And with the German defeat at Stalingrad and the Red Army’s advance on eastern Ukraine, Reich administration further west had become sufficiently distracted by more urgent priorities that genocidaires* perceived their moment to strike.

“We should undertake a great action of extermination of the Polish element. As the German armies withdraw, we should take advantage of this convenient moment to exterminate the entire male population from 16 to 60 years of age,” thundered Dmytro Klyachkivsky, a commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), military organ of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B).** “As the German armies withdraw, we should take advantage of this convenient moment for liquidating the entire male population from the age of 16 up to 60 years. We cannot lose this battle, and it is necessary to diminish Polish forces at all costs. Forest villages and those near forests, should disappear from the face of the earth.”

Many specific atrocities, beginning in February 1943 and continuing well into 1944, comprise this liquidation drive.

The one of interest for this post is the invasion on the night of April 22-23 — the eve and morning of Good Friday — of Janowa Dolina, a predominantly Polish village where 600 were massacred by the UPA and the village put to the torch.†

This horror is commemorated by a monument at the site …


The 1990 monument commemorating Poles murdered by UPA. Here’s a closer view of the stone marker, and here’s the inscription on the adjacent cross.

… but there seems to be a slight difference of opinion: the event is also memorialized by a rival stone erected by Ukrainian nationalists which “gives glory to the Ukrainian heroes” of the UPA for “destroying the fortifications of the Polish-German occupiers.”‡


(Thanks to Sonechka for translation help.)

As anyone holding even passing familiarity with events in present-day Ukraine will surely know this is no mere historiographical quibble; the legacy of the OUN from World War II and of its descendants on the modern far right remain deeply contentious in and out of Ukraine.

* Poland officially (and to the dismay of Ukraine) considers this campaign a genocide. There’s also a Polish film on the horrors of Wolyn.

** The OUN split factionally; the “-B” suffix in this case stands for Stepan Bandera, leader of the most militant faction; his surname is still today a byword and/or slur (“Banderists”) for Ukrainian fascism. Its rival faction was the more moderate OUN-M, led by Andriy Melnyk.

† The territory became Ukrainian — which at the time meant Soviet — after World War II and remains so today, so Janowa Dolina is now the Ukrainian town of Bazaltove. There’s a Flickr album tour of the muddy mining village, including photos of the Polish monument and a separate marker for Soviet POWs, but not the UPA monument, here.

‡ The UPA stone also cites April 21-22 as the date. It appears to me, a distant non-specialist, that the Ukrainian construction on what adherents prefer to more neutrally describe as the “tragedy” of Janowa Valley spreads action over two days and emphasizes alleged guerrilla actions by the UPA against German occupation targets prior to destroying the village.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Germany,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Put to the Sword,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Ukraine,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1374: Tile von Damm, Braunschweig mayor

Add comment April 19th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1374, mayor Tile von Damm was beheaded by rebel populares in his home city of Braunschweig (Brunswick).

One of northern Europe’s great Hanseatic merchant cities, Braunschweig enjoyed a rich history of civic unrest — the Braunschweiger Schichten. (Literally shift, but also carrying the sense of rebellion.)


The Great Rebellion in Braunschweig, by Alfred von Schüssler (mid-19th century).

One of its most outstanding installments — the one recalled as the Große Schicht — kicked off on April 17, 1374. (Most of the information about this incident is in German, as are most of the links in this post.) On that evening, a meeting of the ruling council of merchant magnates with its guild chiefs on how to deal with Braunschweig’s crippling debt turned tetchy and spilled into a popular protest. Within hours, as a chronicler would later put it, the devil was set loose in Braunschweig.

Guild protests carried to the “House of the Seven Towers” where Tile von Damm(e) resplended in the manner fitting the city’s mayor and its wealthiest patrician. That house still exists to this day, but the mayor’s thread was measured in mere hours: he was soon hauled out and beheaded on the Hagenmarkt.

Either eight or ten magnates (sources seem to be split on the figure) were slain during these April disturbances with others fleeing as guild rebels took full control of the city, not to be fully restored until 1386 — although in a show of transnational oligarch solidarity, Braunschweig was booted out of the Hanseatic League while the lower orders had the run of the place.


Allegory of the Great Rebellion (1514).

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions

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1792: Three cadavers, to test the first guillotine

Add comment April 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1792, the French Revolution’s iconic execution machine made its quiet experimental debut on the grounds of a suburban Paris hospital.

For all the long and terrible shadow it would cast, the first guillotine was a ridiculous rush job — courtesy of a legislature too squeamish to deal in the particulars of the humane head-chopper it had insisted upon. A ghastly farce ensued, as detailed by Paul Friedland in his Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France,* wherein during a matter of weeks in the spring of 1792 the thing was practically willed into existence by French physician Antoine Louis by virtue of being the one guy who was willing to get into the technical journals on the matter of crunching a heavy blade through a man’s spine.**

The invention would initially be known as a louisette or louison in his honor, before that moniker was supplanted by the surname of a different physician who had become known (derisively, at first) for proposing a mechanical beheading device: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

Lawmakers’ shyness stems as Friedland sees it from their ambivalence about the entire project of public executions with their unruly rabble, pornographically agape: in this courtly sketch of the proposed machine, even the executioner — and this behavior is explicit in its original caption — coyly averts his eyes as his sword-arm releases the blade.

It was on March 20, 1792 that Assembly’s Committee on Legislation authorized deploying the as-yet uninvented device and “almost immediately, there followed an urgent, almost frenzied effort to build a decapitating machine as quickly as possible.” Executions remained suspended in the interim but Louis worked with dispatch, and an efficient carpenter named Guidon,† and the device performed its first real execution a mere five weeks after the enabling legislation, on April 25.

This date was its dry run, courtesy of a few fresh cadavers at the Bicêtre Hospital, which the chief surgeon, one Cullerier, was very happy to make Dr. Louis’s arrangements.

Sir,

You will find at Bicetre all the facilities that you desire for the trial of a machine that humanity cannot see without shuddering, but which justice and the welfare of society make necessary. I will keep the corpses of those unfortunates who die between today and Monday. I will arrange the amphitheater … [and if] the ceiling does not accommodate the height of the machine, I can make use of a little isolated courtyard situated next to the amphitheater. The honor that you are bestowing on the House of Bicetre, Sir, is a very nice gift that you are giving me, but it would be even more so if you wished to accept a simple and frugal meal, such as a bachelor can offer.

Several more VIPs multiplied the honor. Rejoining Friedland’s narrative,

On April 17 the first trial of the guillotine took place. On hand to witness the event were: Sanson, the executioner of Paris, along with his son and an aide; the carpenter who built the machine and his aides; and several members of the medical establishment including Drs. Louis, Cullerier, and Pierre Jean George Cabanis, the prominent physician and friend of Mirabeau. Reportedly also in attendance that day were several members of the National Assembly and last, but certainly not least, an individual who was both a politician and a physician: Dr. Guillotin himself. By all accounts the trial was a wonderful success. As Dr. Louis enthused in his report to [politician and intellectual Pierre-Louis] Roederer, the machine decapitated three cadavers “so neatly that one was astonished by the force and celerity of its action.” Dr. Cabanis would later describe the blade’s descent as having “severed the heads faster than one could see, and the bones were cleanly cut.”

The reports ring with awe, and well they might. For an Enlightenment audience that theretofore had known beheadings only via the error-prone action of an executioner’s muscle, it must have been a wondrous spectacle, a triumph of ingenuity and philosophy for a humane new age.

* Executed Today long ago interviewed Dr. Friedland about this book.

** A rival proposal called for automating death via a sort of proto-gas chamber: the executioner to “attach the condemned by the neck, feet, and hands behind the back [to a post on the scaffold], all of which he would cover or enclose in a kind of booth, 5 feet square, equipped with panes of glass on all four sides and with a tight-fitting cap on top … charcoal, sulfur, and other materials that cause asphyxiation could be introduced into the booth by means of an inverted funnel in such a way that the condemned would suffocate and expire instantaneously.” Yet another proposal called for a strangling machine.

† “Who charged 5,500 francs for it,” report the memoirs of the Sansons, which also notes that by way of experimentation, two of the cadavers were beheaded with the familiar-to-us oblique knife, and the third less satisfactorily with a crescent-shaped alternative.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",France,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Milestones,Posthumous Executions

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1986: Alec Collett, Lebanon hostage

Add comment April 16th, 2017 Headsman

On (or very near) this date in 1986, Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal had British hostage Alec Collett hanged in revenge for the previous day’s U.S. bombing of Tripoli.

Collett, a journalist and U.N. aid worker, had been abducted in Beirut more than a year earlier.

Abu Nidal, his captor, was the brand-name terrorist of his era. Indeed, his own name was a brand: Sabri Khalil al-Banna was the name he was born into, in a wealthy Palestinian family driven to dispossession and refugee camps by the Nakba. It was the Abu Nidal organization‘s assassination attempt on Israeli diplomat Shlomo Argov that triggered Israel’s counterproductive 1982 invasion of Lebanon, perhaps (for its long-term consequences) the crowning achievement of Abu Nidal’s career.*

This very conflict brought Collett to Beirut, as an aid worker for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Stopped at a militia checkpoint on March 25, 1985 where he might have been taken because of an Israeli-stamped passport, Collett became one of about 100 foreigners seized as hostages by various factions over the long course of the Lebanese conflagration.

Only a few of these hostages died in their captors’ hands; they were in the main prisoners for leverage, and so efficaciously did they lever that it was these very souls that Ronald Reagan‘s U.S. administration proposed to retrieve by purchasing the (officially enemy) influence of Iran in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.

Confusingly shifting factional advantage has tangled Middle East politics for many a year, to be sure, and here the prospect of a negotiated release was aborted by the April 5, 1986 terrorist bombing of a Berlin discotheque frequented by U.S. soldiers — two of whom died in the blast.

This outrage proved to be the project of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who then stood in a very tense position vis-a-vis the West. Ten days after the disco attack, Reagan responded with an air raid on Libya clearly intended to assassinate Gaddafi — who fled his compound moments before it was crushed by a fleet of 2,000-pound bombs. (The bombing might or might not have slain the dictator’s infant daughter.)

This attack on Gaddafi was also an attack on that arch-terrorist Abu Nidal, whom Gaddafi had recently taken in after a former patron Saddam Hussein made a bid for respectability by expelling him from Iraq.** And it so happened that Collett’s unoffending person offered Abu Nidal the most immediate vehicle for retaliation.

It’s not completely certain that April 16 was the date of Collett’s murder, though there is no real reason to doubt his executioners’ claim on this point. The matter was confused at the time because three other dead westerners discovered on April 17 were initially reported to include Collett among their number — a claim subsequently debunked. On April 23, Collett’s captors released a grainy video of their masked prisoner being hanged;† however, the identification of the noosed man was still questioned for many years. Collett’s remains — confirmed by DNA testing — were only discovered in 2009.

The anniversary of Collet’s initial abduction, March 25, is kept annually by the United Nations as International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members.

* Israel withdrew from the bloody morass three years later, having displaced the Palestinian Liberation Organization for a much more effective new resistance movement in Hezbollah. Decades later, Osama bin Laden would cite Lebanon as the event that “gave birth to a strong resolve to punish the oppressors,” including the sight of “demolished towers in Lebanon” to inspire a bit of tower-toppling of his own.

** Abu Nidal had only recently on Gaddafi’s behalf hijacked an EgyptAir flight, killing dozens.

† I have thus far not been able to locate this video online.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Hanged,History,Hostages,Lebanon,Libya,No Formal Charge,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1975: Pierre Galopin, hostage of Hissene Habre

Add comment April 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1975, French Major Pierre Galopin was executed by Chad rebel Hissène Habré.

Galopin (English Wikipedia entry | French) had been dispatched to the former French colony to negotiate the release of two French nationals* seized as hostages by Habre’s Command Council of the Armed Forces of the North (CCFAN).

You’ll never guess it: CCFAN also took Galopin hostage.**

CCFAN tried to leverage its new captive into an arms trade. When France dragged its feet, the Chadians terminated the negotiation by having Galopin condemned by a “revolutionary tribunal” and hanged to a roadside tree.

Habre would eventually take power as President of Chad in 1982, and was subsequently welcomed on state visits to the former mother country — much to the disgust of those who remembered the Frenchman sacrificed to his ambitions. Galopin was hardly the last man to be so distinguished: as of this writing, Habre is serving an eternal prison sentence in neighboring Senegal for crimes against humanity committed during his eight years ruling Chad.

* Archaeologist Françoise Claustre and development worker Marc Combe. (A third hostage, West German doctor Christoph Staewen, had also been taken, but had quickly been ransomed by his government.) Combe escaped in 1975. Claustre was not released until 1977.

** CCFAN was also riven by a major internal division that by 1976 would split the movement into two rival organs. It has long been murky (French-language pdf here) just whose interest within CCFAN was best served by the hostile course of events.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Chad,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Hostages,Soldiers,Torture

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1464: Johann Breyde, via Schandbild

Add comment April 1st, 2017 Headsman

On April 1, 1464 mayor of Cologne Johann Breyde was chopped into quarters … with ink.

This startling image does not depict an actual flesh-and-blood execution. It is, instead, an outstanding (and conveniently for our purposes, dated) instance of an artifact from medieval Germany, the Schandbild. Such “defamatory pictures” often supplemented a Schmahbrief or “defamatory letter” — intended, as the names suggest, to impugn publicly the target over a debt, a broken promise, or some other private breach of faith.

Something like 100 of these defamations survive from late medieval and early modern Germany (approximately 1400 to 1600), many of them fantasizing about their debtors’ executions in bloodthirsty scenes that also gesture to the place that ritual, spectacle, and dishonor held on the real-life gallows. Here are a few of the more piquant examples; many more await at a wonderful Pinterest gallery here.

The purpose of defamatory letters and pictures was to bring low the reputation of their target in the eyes of a wider community — leveraging social pressure either for revenge, or to force the defamed to repair the breach.

Matthias Lentz, one of the (regrettably few) historians working on these underappreciated objects, notes* that there are even surviving contracts from Germany, Bohemia and Poland enumerating an “explicit understand about injuring a person’s reputation and bringing dishonour upon a defaulting individual … a clause called Scheltklausel that laid down the practice of publicly scolding a defaulter.” For every Schandbild or Schmähbrief there must have been a dozen other potential swindlers quietly forced by the threat of public infamy to make good their contracts.

Per Lentz, the earliest known instance of an explicit contract dates to 1379, “wherein a ducal councillor accorded a nobleman, in eventuality of the former violating the terms of the contract, the right to denounce him as a fraud by ‘posting his name on the pillory [of the councillor’s home town], or wherever he likes'” — again, linking the “mere” text to the instruments of official corporal punishment.

Nor was it uncommon for the Schmähbrief, if things got to that point, to fantasize about the debtor’s bodily suffering in brutal terms that would like invite an investigation for terroristic threats were the modern debt collection call center to deploy them in its harangue. One quoted by Lentz captioned his illustration thus:

It is customary to judge thieves and traitors according to their offences, the first is sent to the gallows, the second broken on the wheel. As I have not got power to carry out the above-mentioned acts, it is my intention to use the painter to have them painted hanging from the gallows and being tortured on the wheel.

Still, Schandbilder und Schmähbriefe meant to intimidate not physically, but socially.** It was in this capacity that the iconography of the pillory and the scaffold entered the frame: ’twas an infamy to be exposed upon them for a public crime — serving as “an indictment of those who knew the criminal … [and] a punitive stigma over his or her relatives and friends.”† Posting a slur on the repute of a prominent person — for the targets were most always people of rank, who would feel an injury to their status — taxed this same, essential, civic currency.

This is why we should let his shameful picture hang here with his coat of arms, until he has given me compensation recognized by respectable people for those unwarranted things that he and his people did … and ask all those who seek charity, who see him painted hanging, that they let him hang. (Source)

By consequence the execution imagery was strictly optional, one iconographic choice among many. From the too-few examples that survive to us it is plain that creditors delighted in their symbolic chastisement, issuing all the obloquies a grievance could devise, untethered from the confines of possible or the … sanitary.


The Schandbild frequently evinced a scatological fixation.

* Quotes form Lentz’s “Defamatory Pictures and Letters in Late Medieval Germany: The Visualisation of Disorder and Infamy” in The Medieval History Journal, vol. 3, no. 1 (2000). Lentz also has several German-language journal titles on the same topic.

** Not necessarily true of their Italian cousins, pitture infamanti. These were a similar sort of thing, but were issued not privately but by the city-states themselves against absconded offenders — a sort of quasi-execution by effigy. Many of these were painted for public spaces and removed with the passage of time so we have lost exemplars, including the products of masters — the Medici, for example, commissioned Botticelli to grace Florence with pitture infamanti of the Pazzi conspirators, which were whitewashed in 1494.

A characteristic pose for these pictures, also used in Germany, had the “victim” hanging upside-down by one foot, conjoining “metaphors of inversion” (as Robert Mills puts it) to the disgrace of the gallows. This posture is commonly thought to have inspired the “Hanged Man” tarot card.


Left: a pittura infamante study by Florentine Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto; right: the “hanged man” card from a tarot pack.

*† Maria Boes, “Public Appearance and Criminal Judicial Practices in Early Modern Germany,” Social Science History, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer, 1996)

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1942: The massacre at the Pit

Add comment March 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the start of Purim,* Nazi forces occupying Minsk massacred approximately 5,000 Jews from the Minsk Ghetto at a site known simply as Yama, “the Pit”.

The site, which hosts memorial events every March 2, was marked with a somber obelisk in the immediate postwar years; unusually for a Stalin-era monument, it is overt about the Jewish character of the victims — for Soviet propaganda often obfuscated this with a technically-correct formulation such as “Russian citizens”. In this case, the 1940s memorial obelisk remarkably had a Yiddish inscription to mirror its Russian one. (The sculpture of a column of faceless people tragically descending the slope into the pit was added in the post-Soviet period.)


All images (cc) Dennis Jarvis.

Minsk’s pre-war Jewish population of more than 50,000 was almost entirely annihilated during World War II.

* It was not the only place in the Reich’s occupation to mark Purim with blood.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Belarus,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,History,Jews,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Russia,Shot,Summary Executions,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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1329: The effigy of Pope John XXII, by Antipope Nicholas V

1 comment February 19th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1329, as Wikipedia puts it, Antipope Nicholas V “presided at a bizarre ceremony in the Duomo of Pisa, at which a straw puppet representing Pope John XXII and dressed in pontifical robes was formally condemned, degraded, and handed over to the secular arm (to be ‘executed’).”

Despite the show of force, Nicholas V was on his last legs at this moment as antipope.

He’d been elevated to the putative papacy by Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV. In this, Nicholas was a throwback to an old rivalry between popes and emperors compassing both authority within the church, and authority on the Italian peninsula, a conflict which had generated several German-backed antipopes in centuries previous. Though not the last antipope in history, Nicholas has the distinction of being the last imperial antipope.

Louis (or Ludwig) had a pique of long standing with Pope John XXII dating back to John’s unwelcome intervention in his, Louis’s, disputed accession as emperor: back in 1314, a divided imperial electorate had wrought a “double election” of the Wittelsbach Louis and the Habsburg Frederick the Fair, a circumstance that resulted in civil war within the empire.

While officially neutral in the fight, the pontiff exploited the opportunity to claw back ecclesiastical authority by asserting that the imperial throne was vacant and its edicts null until the papacy had blessed the claimant. Louis told John to pound sand.

Certain persons, blinded by avarice and ambition, and totally ignorant of the Scriptures, have distorted the meanings of certain passages by false and wicked interpretations, and on this basis have attacked the imperial authority and the rights of the emperors, electors, and other princes and subjects of the empire. For they wrongfully assert that the emperor derives his position and authority from the Pope, and that the emperor elect is not the real emperor until his election is confirmed and approved, and he is crowned by the pope … We now declare … that the emperor holds his authority and position from God alone … he has full power … without the approval, confirmation, authorisation or consent of the pope or any other person.

-Sachsenhausen Appellation, 1324 (as translated here)

John excommunicated Louis, and Louis, well, he did the same to John — seizing on the pope’s hostility towards the movements for clerical poverty as excuse to declare put a Spiritual Franciscan into St. Peter’s Throne on his own say-so as imperial armies smashed through Italy.* If a pope was going to crown Louis, it was going to be his pope.


Antipope Nicholas V crowns Louis IV in May 1328.

Peter of Corbara (Pietro Rainalducci) had barely two years to deny himself the emoluments of antioffice before Louis’s withdrawal required his own submission to the man he had executed in effigy. John XXII didn’t go nearly that hard on the former “Nicholas V”: merely absolved him after confession and kept him comfortably imprisoned at the papal palace in Avignon until the would-be usurper’s peaceful death in 1333.

* This conflict forms the backdrop for Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, set in late 1327. The narrator-monk Adso refers in his epilogue to having heard of the antipope’s elevation soon after leaving the monastery where the bulk of the novel’s action occurs.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Borderline "Executions",Burned,Executed in Effigy,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Italy,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pisa,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1943: Dora Gerson, cabaret singer

1 comment February 14th, 2017 Headsman

Jewish cabaret singer and silent film actress Dora Gerson was gassed with her family at Auschwitz on this date in 1943.

IMDB credits the Berlin entertainer (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed German) with two silver screen roles,* both in 1920 and both now believed lost.**

Gerson’s cabaret career was the more robust through the roaring twenties but with benefit of retrospection we admit with Liza Minelli that from cradle to tomb, it isn’t that long a stay.

And the ominous next act would not belong to Weimar Jews.

After being elbowed off German stages by Reich race laws, Gerson recorded several songs in German and Yiddish; her “Vorbei” (“Beyond Recall”) hauntingly commemorates the lost world before fascism — “They’re gone beyond recall / A final glance, a last kiss / And then it’s all over.”

Gerson fled Nazi Germany to the Netherlands; once that country fell under its own harrowing wartime occupation, she tried to escape with her family to neutral Switzerland but was seized transiting Vichy France. Gerson, her second husband Max Sluizer, and their two young children Miriam (age 5) and Abel (age 2) were all deported to Auschwitz and gassed on arrival on Valentine’s Day 1943.

* Her first marriage was to film director Veit Harlan, who would later direct the notorious anti-Semitic propaganda film Jud Süß — based on an executed Jewish financier. From the German-occupied Netherlands, Gerson unsuccessfully appealed to this powerful ex for protection.

** Future horror maven Bela Lugosi also appeared in both Gerson films, Caravan of Death and On the Brink of Paradise. Gerson’s German Wikipedia page also identifies her as the voice of the evil queen in the 1938 German-language dub of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Children,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,Germany,History,Jews,Mass Executions,Netherlands,No Formal Charge,Poland,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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