Posts filed under 'Borderline “Executions”'

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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1628: John Lambe murdered

Add comment June 13th, 2014 Headsman

Here Dr Lambe, the conjurer lyes,
Against his will untimely dies
The Divell did show himselfe a Glutton
In taking this Lambe before he was mutton
The Divell in Hell will rost him there
Whome the Prentises basted here.
In Hell they wondred when he came
To see among the Goats a Lambe.

-Libel (one of many) on John Lambe’s murder

Friday the 13th of June in 1628 bore foul luck for John Lambe, an aged astrologer, magician, and folk healer so hated of Londoners that a mob fell on him as he returned from theater this evening and butchered him in the street.

While we hope to justify Lambe’s presence in these pages under our going interest in lynchings, his curious homicide transgresses the boundaries of Executed Today as surely as did Lambe transgress those of Stuart London.

North of 80 at the time of his death — although still vigorous enough at that age to defend himself with a sword — Lambe came to misfortunate public notoriety in the 1620s. These were crisis years when the crown sowed the dragon’s teeth that would in later years devour Charles I. Lambe’s slaughter was a little taste of worse to come.

Sources from the period view Lambe as both a shameless fraud and a vile wizard, with no consistency save between the propositions save for their vitriol. Lambe seems like he got the worst of both perceptions at once: he faced a 1619 complaint to the Royal College of Physicians that he was a “mountebank and impostor.” [sic] Three years after that, he was in the dock for witchcraft

What Lambe did do was beat two charges in as many years that could easily have hanged him: the aforementioned witchcraft case in 1622, and a rape charge in 1624. Evidence in either case was underwhelming, but the charges themselves were incendiary; Lambe’s knack for slithering out of the hangman’s grasp must have suggested for the man on the street a channel to sinister higher powers.

Commoners bestirred themselves about this time against the realm’s own higher powers — the politically ham-fisted new king Charles and his grapples with Parliament to secure sufficient tax revenue for his inept war with France and Spain.

In all this mess, the Duke of Buckingham — royal favorite and possible lover of Charles’s father — was the number two man in the kingdom, and the number one object of hate.

In the mid-1620s, Lambe became conjoined in the public eye with Buckingham — as Buckingham’s demon-summoning henchman, say. Was it the Duke’s pull that spared his familiar the noose? Was it Lambe’s necromancy that captured the king in the thrall of his detested aide?

Did it even matter?

From the distance of centuries the particulars of the supposed affiliation between the two seems difficult to establish,* but it sufficed for Lambe’s death (and Buckingham’s too) that they were analogues for one another, that their respective villainies could be multiplied one atop the other.

Despite all that tinder lying around, we don’t know the exact spark for Lambe’s murder on June 13, 1628. A few months before, Buckingham had fled a humiliating military defeat in France; Parliament and King were at loggerheads that June, forcing the reluctant Charles to accede to a Petition of Right on June 7 that remains to this day a bedrock document of Britons’ liberties.

On the 13th, Lambe was recognized by “the boyes of the towne, and other unruly people” attending a play at the Fortune Playhouse.

As he left it, some began to follow him. Maybe it was just one insult too tartly answered that multiplied these hooligans, or maybe there was a ready rabble that immediately took to his heels. The frightened Lamb picked his way to the city walls menaced all the way by his lynch mob, hired a few soldiers as an ad hoc bodyguard, and by the dark of night tried desperately to find some sort of shelter from the crowd growing in both number and hostility. Under the mob’s threat, a tavern put him out, and a barrister likewise; his guards fled their posts; and someone at last laid his hands on John Lambe. By the time the frenzy had passed, Lambe’s “skull was broken, one of his eyes hung out of his head, and all parties of his body bruised and wounded so much, that no part was left to receive a wound.” Many contemporaries must have understood it as the just punishment that courts could not manage to exact.


Woodcut of the assault on Lambe outside the Windmill Tavern, from the title page of A Briefe Description of the Notorious Life of Iohn Lambe (1628)

The libels now rejoiced openly in Lambe’s summary justice — nobody was ever prosecutor for his murder — and anticipated another one to follow it.

“Who rules the Kingdome? The King. Who rules the King? The Duke. Who rules the Duke? The Devill,” one menacing placard announced. “And that the libellers there professe, Lett the Duke look to it; for they intend shortly to use him worse then they did his Doctor, and if thinges be not shortly reformed, they will work a reformation themselves.”

Their thirst for “reformation” was not long delayed.

Ten weeks after Lambe’s murder, a disaffected army officer named John Felton at last enacted the swelling popular sentiment and assassinated Buckingham.

“The Shepheards struck, The sheepe are fledd,” one unsympathetic doggerel taunted, recalling the dead wizard whose supernatural exertions could no longer protect his wicked patron. “For want of Lambe the Wolfe is dead.”

* So says Alastair Bellany, whose “The Murder of John Lambe: Crowd Violence, Court Scandal and Popular Politics in Early Seventeenth-Century England” in Past and Present, vol. 200, no. 1 is a principal source for this post. (It’s here, but behind academic paywalls.)

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1857: 52 European prisoners at Delhi

Add comment May 16th, 2014 Headsman

In 1857, the centennial of the British East India Company’s mastery of the India, the subcontinent’s sepoy troops rebelled against the Company Raj.

There had been rumblings of disaffection for months before, signals that read portentous in retrospect but passed by the oblivious occupation army. That March, aggrieved at having been issued new ammunition cartridges rumored to have been prepared with pig and cow fat in offense to both Muslim and Hindu soldiery,* Mangal Pandey wrote himself into India’s nationalist lore by mutinying at Barrackpore.

Pandey’s own revolt fizzled, and saw him hanged.

But he’s remembered as the precursor of the much wider rebellion that ensued.

On Sunday, May 10th — the British garrison’s guard was down for religious services — sepoys at Meerut mutinied, too. Just the day before they had seen 85 of their own brothers in arms provocatively marched in chains after refusing the controversial cartridges.

Now, they fell upon their commanding officers, and on their families and British civilians in an wave of pent fury. Brits misforunate enough to be caught in it spent the dark hours that night as prey.


(Via)

“Never was dawn more welcome to us than on the 11th of May,” one Englishwoman who survived the harrowing night wrote. “The daylight showed how complete the work of destruction had been. All was turned into ruin and desolation, and our once bright happy home was now a blackened pile.”

Meerut is just 60 kilometers or so from Delhi, and the mutineers soon made for that city — where the last Mughal Emperor, 81-year-old Bahadur Shah II, known as Zafar, “reigned” as Prince of Delhi. In reality, he was a pensioned ward of the East India Company … but symbolically, he was the heir to a once-mighty empire.

The rebels fell on Delhi, slaughtering Englishmen and women who had not been quick enough to escape the city, and looting opportunistically. Zafar tsk-tsked the disorder but he and most of his princes joined the revolt. Why not? The Company had already made known that the imperial title would disappear with Zafar’s death; here was the one last chance to restore the Mughal dignity.

This ride on the tiger would prove instead to be the final destruction of Zafar’s house.

On May the 16th, the sepoys, who were far from deferential to the emperor they proposed to raise up, demanded 52 European prisoners that Zafar’s courtiers were holding — holding instead of murdering, a restraint the sepoys angrily suspected was calculated as a potential future sop to the returning British. By putting those prisoners all to sudden death, they relieved the emperor of any avenue for compromise, binding him inescapably to the insurrection.

From William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal:

The sepoys then called for the prisoners, who were being kept and fed by Zafar in a room beside the Palace kitchens, not far from the Lahore Gate. They bound them and took them to a peepul tree near the shallow tank in front of the Palace drum house, the Naqqar Khana, and began to taunt them that they were about to be slaughtered.

According to Jiwan Lal, “the King and his courtiers stood like dumb puppets” at first, horrified by what the sepoys were contemplating. “Then the King ordered the sepoys to separate into parties, Mahommedans and Hindus, and he appealed to each to consult their religious advisers to see if there was any authority for the slaughter of helpless men and women and children.” “Their murder can never be allowed,” said Zafar, adding that the Queen was also wholly opposed to any massacre. Sa’id Mubarak Shah recorded that

the king wept and besought the mutineers not to take the lives of helpless women and children, saying to them “take care — for if you commit such a deed the vengeance and angel of God will fall on us all. Why slay the innocent?” But the Mutineers refused to listen and replied “we’ll kill them, and in your palace, so that whatever the result you and we shall be considered one in this business, and you will be thought equally guilty by the English.”

… the King continued to argue with the sepoys and refused to give his consent to the murder, but was eventually silenced …

When Zahir saw that the sepoys were preparing to go ahead with the slaughter, he begged the hakim to make a last effort to stop the massacre: “I told him that I had seen the prisoners being taken out,” he recorded later,

and I was afraid that they were about to kill them, and that he must do something quickly to stop them. To this I got a reply, “What can I do?” I told him this is the time to prove our loyalty, and that if he wanted to save the King then he had to try and persuade the rebels to stop this crime and save the prisoners, otherwise the English would come and level Delhi and turn it into an empty wasteland in revenge for this spilling of innocent blood. Ahsanullah Khan replied, “You are still a child. You do not realize that in public life a man must use his reason rather than give way to his emotions. If we try to dissuade the rebels now they will kill us before they kill the English, and then they will kill the King.”

It was anyway too late. By the time Ahsanullah had finished speaking, the sepoys and the Palace mob had got to work.

They made the prisoners sit down, and one of them fired his carbine at them. After this two of the King’s personal armed retainers killed all the Europeans, men, women and children, with their swords. There were about 200 Mussalmans standing at the tank, uttering the coarsest abuse at the prisoners. The sword of one of the king’s retainers broke. After the slaughter, the bodies were taken on two carts, and thrown into the river. This occurrence caused a great excitement amongst the Hindus throughout the city, who said that these Purbeas who had committed this heinous and atrocious cruelty could never be victorious against the English.

For Zafar the massacre was a turning point. The sepoys were quite correct that the British would never forgive the mass killing of innocents, and Zafar’s failure to prevent it proved as fatal for him and his dynasty as it was for them.

Three weeks later, the British besieged Delhi. When the city succumbed that September, it lay at the mercy of a foe which had been incited to spectacularly furious revenge. Vengeful fantasies of razing Delhi to the ground and slaughtering its denizens en masse were openly mooted; if the actual reprisal never attained that scale, it was still wildly indiscriminate. Dalrymple once again:

Everywhere the British convinced themselves that the atrocities committed by the sepoys against their women and children absolved them of any need to treat the rebels as human beings: “Since they had butchered our defenceless women and children,” wrote Colonel A. R. D. Mackenzie, “we would have been more than human, we would have been less than men, if we had not exterminated them as men kill snakes wherever they meet them.” It soon became exceptional among the British to regard anyone on the opposite side of the battle lines as even belonging to the same species: “I [simply] cannot consider these sepoys human beings,” wrote Captain J. M. Wade, “and it is only common practice to destroy them as reptiles.” George Wagentrieber helped fan such flames from his new Delhi Gazette Extra printing press in Lahore: “Our army is exasperated almost to madness by what they have seen of the brutality of the insurgents,” he expostulated in one editorial.

Moreover, as far as many of the British troops were concerned, their fury and thirst for revenge were not so much a desire as a right enshrined in the Bible. One British soldier, “Quaker” Wallace, was in the habit of bayoneting his sepoy adversaries while chanting the 116th Psalm. As General Neill put it, “The Word of God gives no authority to the modern tenderness for human life.” Padre Rotton was in full agreement. The rebels did not realise, he wrote, that the Uprising was in fact

a battle of principles, a conflict between truth and error; and that because they had elected in favour of darkness, and eschewed the light, therefore they could not possibly succeed. Moreover, they had imbrued their hands in the innocent blood of helpless women and children, and that very blood was [now] appealing to heaven for vengeance. The appeal was unquestionably heard. The Lord could not do otherwise than be avenged on such a nation as this.

1857 marks the textbook end date for the Mughal Empire.

For his support of the rebellion, and his failure to avert the May 16 massacre of prisoners, Zafar was deposed and sent to exile in Burma, where he wrote his own epitaph in Urdu verse:

I asked for a long life, I received four days
Two passed in desire, two in waiting.

The days of life are over, evening has fallen
I shall sleep, legs outstretched, in my tomb

How unfortunate is Zafar! For his burial
Not even two yards of land were to be had, in the land of his beloved.

Many of Zafar’s sons and grandsons were killed (at least 29 by execution, according to Dalrymple) as the revolt was crushed.


This photo of an unidentified hanging of India rebels comes from this page, which also features a number of images of Delhi after its capture from photographer Felice Beato — whose work in China has been highlighted elsewhere in Executed Today’s annals.

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1887: Theodore Baker, who knew how it feels to be hanged

1 comment May 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1887, Theodore Baker was hanged for murder in Springer, New Mexico.

Baker was taken on as a lodger and ranch hand in Colfax County by an acquaintance named Frank Unruh, and there struck up a liaison with Unruh’s pretty young wife Kate.

One jealous and alcohol-fueled argument later, Baker had shot Unruh dead.

Both Baker and Kate Unruh were arrested, but in December 1885 a mob decided to dispense with the legal niceties and broke into the jail, dragging Theodore Baker out to lynch him to a telegraph pole.

Just another Old West lynching.

Except this lynching had an unusual distinction: it was defeated by a sheriff’s posse, and Baker cut down after having strangled some minutes — unconscious, but alive. He had already survived execution and the trial hadn’t even happened.

But that didn’t mean he got to skip the trial.

After months of recovery, Baker finally went on trial for the murder of Frank Unruh, and with the damning if self-interested testimony of Kate Unruh was condemned on September 6, 1886 to face the noose once again.

Being that this was an age of mass communication, Baker — evidently somewhat garrulous — provided newspapers ample copy on the firsthand experience of execution. (Line breaks have been added to all the ensuing newspaper excerpts for readability.)

[A]t the gaol door I began to curse them, when one of the put the muzzle of his pistol to my ear and said — ‘Keep still, d— you, or I’ll put a bullet through you.’ I knew him by his voice, and knew he would do it, so I kept still.

A little further on we came to a telegraph pole. From the cross bar swung a new rope. One one end was a slipnoose.

They led me under the rope. I tried to stoop down and pull off my boots, as I had promised my folks I would not die with my boots on, but before I could do it the noose was thrown over my head and I was jerked off my feet.

My senses left me in a moment, and then I waked up in what seemed to be another world.

As I recollect now, the sensation was that everything about me had been multiplied a great many times.

It seemed that my five executioners had grown in number until there were thousands of them.

I saw what seemed to be a multitude of animals of all shapes and sizes.

Then things changed and I was in great pain. I became conscious that I was hanging by the neck, and that the knot of the rope had slipped around under my chin.

My hands were loosely tied, and I jerked them loose and tried to catch the rope above me. Somebody caught me by the feet just then and gave me a jerk.

It seemed like a bright flash of lightning passing in front of my eyes. It was the brightest thing I ever saw.

It was followed by a terrible pain up and down and across my back, and I could feel my legs jerk and draw up.

Then there was a blank and I knew nothing more until 11 o’clock next day …

My first recollection was being in the court room and saying, ‘Who cut me down.’

There was a terrific ringing in my ears like the beating of gongs. I recognised no one. The pain in my back continued.

Moments of unconsciousness followed during several days, and I have very little recollection of the journey here. Even after I had been locked up in this prison for safe keeping, for a long time I saw double. Dr. Symington, the prison physician, looked like two persons.

I was still troubled with spells of total forgetfulness. Sometimes it seemed I didn’t know who I was.

All that Baker gave out in the run-up to his actual trial.

As his (judicial) hanging neared, and his hopes for avoiding it vanished, our expansive man on death row got philosophical with a correspondent from the New York Sun. The Chicago Daily Tribune of May 23, 1887 reprints Baker’s remembrance — has it evolved from the previous year? — and Baker’s wider thoughts on life and death.

It is not the pain I fear at all. I have been hanged, and I know what I am talking about. What ails me is that I don’t want to die, and I don’t think I ought to.

Probably if you knew that in an instant you were to be blown to nothingness, so that you could experience no suffering whatever, you would appreciate how I feel about it.

As for the mode of death, you can say that it is as good as any other, and it don’t need to be too artistically done, either.

Why, when they hanged me first down here by the railroad track I was scared half to death. They had no modern appliances, and I made up my mind that they were going to give me a terrible struggle of it, but it was nothing of the sort. The mob swung me off from a telegraph pole like they would a log, and then one or two of them pulled my legs. That isn’t so almighty nice, but still it don’t hurt as you might think it would.

I must have been there ten or fifteen minutes before the Sheriff and his posse found me and cut me down.

Of course by that time I was unconscious, but I remembered enough of what occurred to banish any fear that I might have of death on the gallows. It’s death in whatever form it comes that I object to.

If I have got to go I had just as soon go by the rope as by the bullet, and I had a good deal rather go by the rope than by the knife or by poison.

You can say this much for the information and comfort of all the poor fellows who will have to swing when I am gone. Tell them to brace up and take it easy. They are going to die easier deaths than three-fourths of the fat old Judges who sentence them, and who expect to die in their beds.

There has been altogether too much writing and talking on the subject of the barbarity of the gallows. I’m in favor of abolishing capital punishment myself, but if a man must die, what’s the use of being too particular about the mode, so long as you have got a good enough scheme now?

Baker also gave his own version of the events that led to his death sentence. It should be said that his “kill or be killed” spin quite attenuates the court’s finding that Baker only wounded Unruh in their altercation, but then chased his bleeding cuckold down as far as a quarter-mile from the house to deliver the coup de grace.

Under all the circumstances my crime was not murder, anyway. I had become involved in a quarrel between Unruh and his wife, and, foolish as that was, it would have led to nothing more if Unruh had not attacked me. I had to kill him or be killed.

The woman swore against me in order to save herself. She was scared to death because they lynched me, and she was afraid that unless somebody swung for the crime she might be called on some dark night.

But whether my crime was deliberate murder or not, I think I have been punished enough. It is more than a year since the mob lynched me, and since that time I have lived with a rope around my neck all the time.

As I have said to you, my sufferings when I was being resuscitated were greater than they were when I was hanging. It took me three months to get over the effects of the lynching. Two or three times a day my brain would be in a whirl, and I would lose all control of myself. Then when I slept I would go through it all again.

At length, when I was brought to trial and was convicted and sentenced to death, I had th erope once more before me.

The anxiety about the trial, and later about my appeals, has worn on me until my nerves are in about as bad a condition as they were when I was in the hospital at Santa Fe, and the old complaint from which I suffered when I was recovering from the lynching has returned again.

I haven’t slept for months without hanging by the neck through it all. Can you imagine what it is to be conscious all the time of dangling in that way? Asleep or awake I have a rope about my neck, and I know exactly how it feels.

I think I have had enough of it, but as they seem to think not in these parts I suppose I shall have to take some more.

I can tell you, though, that I don’t want anybody to bring me to life this time.

When I go out tomorrow I will know just what is coming, and when I tell the Sheriff to let me slide I will be the first man in America who has lived a year and a half to say that a second time to a hangman.

This same article says — though this already sounds like folklore — that Baker went fearlessly to the gallows, and his last words were addressed to the hangman as he adusted the knot around Baker’s neck: “That’s right. I have been in the habit of having it a little higher up.”

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1471: Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, after the Battle of Tewkesbury

Add comment May 4th, 2014 Headsman

May 4, 1471 was the date of one of England’s most pivotal battles, Tewkesbury.

Tewkesbury was the last great victory in the War of the Roses for the House of York, and it must have seemed to contemporaries like the last victory Yorkists would ever need. The “kingmaker” Warwick was dead from a previous battle that April; the Lancastrian claimant Henry VI was imprisoned by the Yorkists, who would murder him before the month was out; and Henri’s heir apparent, the 17-year-old Prince of Wales, was put to death immediately after Tewkesbury.

Young Edward of Westminster had been stewing these past several years — until the aforementioned Kingmaker swung to his side — in exile in France, trying to finagle a way to rally the Yorkist cause. Like many a teenager he was prone to nursing bilious fantasies of revenging himself on people, as the Milanese ambassador wrote in 1467.

This boy, though only thirteen years of age, already talks of nothing but of cutting off heads* or making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle or the peaceful occupant of that throne.

“Peace” would not be the watchword of the abortive Lancastrian restoration attempt.

Shortly after returning to England, Edward had word of Warwick’s defeat. But having taken the trouble to come all this way from France, he still plowed ahead into the desperate stand at Tewkesbury. Edward had no experience at all in battlefield command.

When the Lancastrian lines broke at Tewkesbury, a disordered route fled towards nearby Tewkesbury Abbey. The nobles who reached it would hole up there claiming the privilege of sanctuary … for just two days, at which point the victorious Yorkist King Edward IV had them arrested and put to swift execution, sanctuary be damned. (The abbey had to close to re-purify.)

Prince Edward didn’t even make it that long. There are varying accounts of his death at Tewkesbury suggesting a summary execution scenario of some kind.

In one version, the Duke of Clarence overtook him in flight. Clarence having himself briefly supported the rebellion before he returned to the Yorkist side, he’s supposed to have immediately beheaded the youth in a paroxysm of demonstrative loyalty.

Alternatively,

Prince Edward was taken as he fled towards the towne, by Sir Richard Crofts, and kept close … After the field was ended, proclamation was made, that whosoever could bring forth prince Edward alive or dead, should have an annuity of a hundred pounds during his life, and the princes life to be saved, if he were brought forth alive. Sir Richard Crofts, nothing mistrusting the kings promise, brought forth his prisoner prince Edward, being a faire and well proportioned young gentleman; whom when king Edward had well advised, he demanded of him, how he durst so presumptuously enter into his realm with banner displayed.

Whereunto the prince boldly answered, saying; “To recover my fathers kingdom and heritage, from his father and grandfather to him and from him after him to me lineally descended.” At which words king Edward said nothing, but with his hand thrust him from him, or (as some say) stroke him with his gauntlet; whom incontinently, George duke of Clarence, Richard duke of Gloucester, Thomas Grey marquess Dorset,** and William lord Hastings that stood by, suddenly murdered: for the which cruel act, the more part of the doers in their latter days drank of the like cup, by the righteous justice and due punishment of God.

Shakespeare dramatized this (considerably more dramatic — if admittedly less execution-like) version in Henry VI, Part 3.

Lancaster’s very dim (circa 1471) fortunes would ultimately be rescued in the 1480s by the grandson of a beheaded Welsh courtier — who won the throne as Henry VII and founded the Tudor dynasty.

* Edward as a seven-year-old was alleged to have been given the authority by his mother to decide what fate should befall the knights who had not successfully protected Henry VI from capture. Edward decreed their beheading.

** Ancestor of Lady Jane Grey.

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1782: The Gnadenhutten Massacre

3 comments March 8th, 2014 Headsman

You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?

-Tecumseh, to William Henry Harrison in 1810

This date in 1782 marks one of the more appalling single atrocities in the United States’s long destruction of indigenous Native Americans — the Gnadenhutten Massacre.

This incident during the American Revolution took place in the Ohio River basin, a vast and fertile flashpoint whose part in not only the revolution but the antecedent French and Indian War perhaps entitles it to claim the midwifery of the coming American empire.

After victory in the French and Indian War, the British closed the area west of the Appalachian mountains to European settlement. This proclamation:

  • Made good a wartime pact Britain had made to secure the support of the Iroquois, Lenape (Delaware) and Shawnee tribes; and
  • Trailed facts on the ground the moment it was issued.

European settlements and land claims already existed in the supposed Indian Reserve, and land-hungry settlers did not let the supposed frontier deter them from advancing new ones. Confrontations between these arriving claimants and the native inhabitants not infrequently came to atrocious resolutions.

By 1768, a new treaty pushed the line further west, effectively ceding to the colonists everything south of the Ohio River — present-day Kentucky and West Virginia.*


Map of the disputed area: the frontier moved from the yellow line along the Applachians to the orange line along the Ohio.

Ohio Country, the remaining territory in dark green shading north of the Ohio River, lay at the time of the American Revolution between the British garrison at Fort Detroit and colonial outposts along the nascent United States’s western marches, such as Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh).

The Lenape Indians in Ohio Country had a difficult calculation to make as to which side (if any) and how to support during the British-American fighting. The question split the Lenape internally.

In this cauldron, a strange morsel: Lenape who were Moravian** Christian converts had established a little missionary village. “Gnadenhutten” literally means “huts of grace”.

As one might imagine, Gnadenhutten and its sister settlements of pacifistic, Christian Lenape stood in a terribly ambiguous position in the brutal irregular war going on around them. Their fellow Lenape distrusted them because they were Christians; their fellow Christians, because they were Lenape.

Suspected by the British of being friendly enough with the American colonists to pass intelligence to their eventual murderers, these converts were in 1781 forced out of Gnadenhutten by British-allied Lenape to a new settlement aptly named “Captive Town”.

Starving there in the ensuing winter, the Moravians dispatched nearly 100 of their number back to Gnadenhutten to retrieve food abandoned at that settlement.

The Moravians were still at their village when a raiding party of Pennsylvanians descended on the town. Under no authority but the militiamen’s own festering grievances from the ongoing dirty war, the Pennsylvanians rounded up the Delaware and heartlessly declared their deaths.

Here were Indians who would pay for the violence Indians had done. And they were the best kind: the kind who didn’t fight back.

After spending a night praying and preparing for the end, the Moravian Lenape were systematically butchered on the morning of March 8† with mallet blows and scalpings.

Depending on your source, there were either 90 or 96 scalps to take that morning – women, men, and children in nearly equal proportions. At least one young boy survived the death squad and reported the massacre. Nor were all the militia themselves at peace with their deed.

one Nathan Rollins & brother had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians, & Williamson was opposed to it; & Nathan Rollins had tomahawked nineteen of the poor Moravians, & after it was over he sat down & cried, & said it was no satisfaction for the loss of his father & uncle after all. — So related Holmes Jr. who was there — who was out on both Moravian campaigns, & Crawford’s. (Source)

Ah, Crawford’s campaign.

Later in 1782, another expedition of frontiersmen under Col. William Crawford set out “to destroy with fire and sword” a different Lenape settlement in Ohio. Instead, the Lenape met and routed the expedition, taking Crawford prisoner. He and the other captives from that misadventure would be burned to death, in part to avenge Gnadenhutten.

This, and whatever like tit for tat could be exacted in the field, was all the justice the Lenape could ever hope to have for the hecatomb of Gnadenhutten. American authorities declined to prosecute or sanction any members of the militia.


“Here triumphed in death ninety Christian Indians March 8, 1782″: inscription at the base of a memorial obelisk in Gnadenhutten. (cc) image from Mike Drabik.

* This might have been a nice solution, except that said treaty was made by the Iroquois — and only the Iroquois. For the Shawnee who actually lived and hunted in this cessation, this was two outside powers bartering their land. They didn’t mean to give it up on the say-so of the Iroquois. Another nasty frontier war followed, and even when that was won by Virginian militia, dissatisfied Shawnee continued targeting settlements in Kentucky; it’s partly for this reason that the Declaration of Independence slates King George III with having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

For more on the long and tragic Shawnee struggle in this period, see “‘We Have Always Been the Frontier’: The American Revolution in Shawnee Country” by Colin G. Calloway in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 1992).

** The Moravian Church‘s name harkens to its Czech origins. It’s a successor to the reform tradition of Jan Hus.

† There are a few cites out there for the day before or the day after March 8.

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1478: The Duke of Clarence, in a butt of malmsey

1 comment February 18th, 2014 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

First Murderer

Take him over the costard with the hilts of thy
sword, and then we will chop him in the malmsey-butt
in the next room.

Second Murderer

O excellent devise! make a sop of him.

-Shakespeare’s Richard III, Act I, Scene 4

On this day, in 1478, George Plantagenet was executed for treason against his brother King Edward IV — famously supposed (as in Shakespeare’s Richard III) to have been drowned in a butt of malmsey wine.

George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, played an important role in the long-waged War of the Roses, a series of dynastic wars, battles, and skirmishes between 1455 and 1487 between supporters of rival branches of the House of Plantagenet for the English crown: the House of Lancaster versus the House of York.

Plantagenet originally supported his brother’s claim to the throne. Through a series of battles with pro-Lancastrian armies, Edward, of the House of York, advanced towards London with his Yorkish army. Once there, he deposed the Lancastrian King Henry VI to rapturous celebration (London itself leaned Yorkist).

George naturally cashed in with his brother’s accession. He was made a duke. He was invested as a Knight of the Garter.

But one other perk proved butt-ugly for George’s future.

He was married, in 1469, to noblewoman Isabel Neville, daughter of the Earl of Warwick. Warwick was the famous kingmaker of the War of the Roses, whose support was instrumental for Edward IV.

But Edward ill rewarded that support by shockingly marrying a commoner and promoting her family to positions Warwick had intended to control. That drove a wedge between Warwick and Edward … and George Plantagenet went with the father-in-law during an abortive attempt to restore Henry VI.

Warwick died in battle. Edward benevolently restored his treacherous brother George back into royal favor.

But George’s mental state was deteriorating. He also became in inveterate alcoholic.

His wife died a few days before Christmas, 1476. George was convinced that his wife was murdered by her lady-in-waiting, Ankarette Twynyho. Though there was no evidence to support his claim (historians later believed Isabel died of consumption or fever) the court was bullied into hanging Twynyho on George’s accusation.

Soon after, his mental state waning still, the Duke of Clarence allegedly involved himself in another ill-conceived plot to overthrow his brother. He was soon summoned to Edward, was accused of treason and was imprisoned in the Tower of London.*

He was put on trial. The prosector was King Edward IV himself, at whose insistence Parliament attainted the royal brother of “unnatural, loathly treasons.”

Beheaded was the usual mode of execution for treasonous individuals. Not with George, however. No, at the age of 28, George Plantagenet died in his favorite beverage, malmsey wine. “The two of them roll a barrel of malmsey wine into George’s room,” Philappa Gregory writes in The White Queen, “and George the fool makes a joke of it and laughs with his mouth opened wide as if already gasping for air, as his face bleaches white with fear.”

His body was sent, still in the barrel, to Tewkesbury Abbey. He was entombed there beside his late wife, and they still reside there today.

According to the Italian chronicler Dominic Mancini, who was present in England in the 1480s and wrote an account of the fraught English political scene at that time, Edward’s and George’s youngest brother “was so overcome with grief for his brother, that he could not dissimulate so well, but that he was overheard to say that he would one day avenge his brother’s death.”

That grief-stricken sibling was the future Richard III. In a few years’ time would displace the (now-late) Edward IV’s young heirs and send them into history as the lost little Princes in the Tower.

* Clarence’s supposed rebellion is a sketchy bit of palace intrigue. Some have alleged that the whole thing was a pretext to eliminate a claimant who would be in position to argue that Edward’s supposed youthful precontracted marriage excluded the king’s children from succession. In time, Richard III did indeed make this argument.

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1318: Dukes Erik and Valdemar Magnusson

Add comment February 16th, 2014 Headsman

This is the generally attributed death date of Duke Erik and Duke Valdemar of Sweden — intentionally starved to death at the order of their royal brother, according to the 14th century Erikskrönikan.

This is pretty borderline as an execution, to be sure, but brutal games of thrones ran in these men’s family. Their grandfather Birger Jarl was a powerful duke who got his young child elected king when the throne came open in 1250, possibly circumventing family of the preceding monarch.

And no sooner did the old silverback shuffle off then said son was rudely usurped by his little brother Magnus.

We’re still in the family lore here, but past proved to be prologues for King Magnus’s kids. Magnus had his oldest child Birger set up to succeed, but Birger’s brothers Erik and Valdemar would struggle with the official heir for power after Magnus died.

The boys had a civil war in the 1300s that even resulted in Erik and Valdemar deposing Birger and clapping him in a dungeon — an outcome reversed by pressure from the Norwegians and Danes.

Come the 1310s, things were still tense. Situated on impressive domains of their own — Erik was Duke of Sodermanland, Valdemar, Duke of Finland — the kid brothers looked a potent threat to King Birger once again. Not fancying another stay in the family prison, Birger pre-emptively arrested his brothers at the family Christmas celebration in 1317.

Birger would learn that you can’t solve all family problems by starving them. Weeks after his fratricide, the brothers’ supporters ousted him for good.

Birger fled to exile. His own son, Magnus Birgersson, remained to answer at the executioner’s block for his father’s sins … while his three-year-old cousin, Erik’s son King Magnus, succeeded the throne and held it until 1364.

Cold comfort to the dead dukes, perhaps, but they at least had the consolation of being exalted as “holy dukes” thanks to the winner-written history.

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c. 415 B.C.E.: The men of Melos

Add comment February 9th, 2014 Headsman

On an uncertain date in the winter of 416-415 B.C.E., the island of Melos surrendered to an Athenian siege during the ruinous Peloponnesian War.

Athens put all of Melos’s adult men to death, selling its women and children into slavery.

This ghastly event is covered by ThucydidesHistory. Thucydides’ account of the diplomatic negotiation between the mighty Athenians and the hopelessly outmuscled Melians is the subject of the Melian dialogue — a timeless classic of philosophy and statecraft.

The Athenians’ coldly realistic position — and their ultimate disposition of their conquest — is summed up in the wonderful epigraph, “the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.” (And numerous variations of this translation.)

As the reigning naval power, Athens (at war with a league led by its rival, the land power Sparta) had decided that an independent and neutral Melos would no longer be in the offing. The Melian dialogue pits Athens’ ultimatum to Melos to submit and save itself, against the Melians’ vain attempt to assert the justice of their cause; likewise, it is the dialogue of an imperial order against a holdover independent city-state from a fading era.

It’s a riveting read. The excerpts below are from this public-domain translation; there are others here and here.

Athenians: Well, then, we Athenians will use no flue words; we will not go out of our way to prove at length that we have a right to rule, because we overthrew the Persians; or that we attack you now because we are suffering any injury at your hands. We should not convince you if we did; nor must you expect to convince us by arguing that, although a colony of the Lacedaemonians, you have taken no part in their expeditions, or that you have never done us any wrong. But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.

Melians: Well, then, since you set aside justice and invite us to speak of expediency, in our judgment it is certainly expedient that you should respect a principle which is for the common good; and that to every man when in peril a reasonable claim should be accounted a claim of right, and any plea which he is disposed to urge, even if failing of the point a little, should help his cause. Your interest in this principle is quite as great as ours, inasmuch as you, if you fall, will incur the heaviest vengeance, and will be the most terrible example to mankind.

Athenians: The fall of our empire, if it should fall, is not an event to which we look forward with dismay; for ruling states such as Lacedaemon are not cruel to their vanquished enemies. And we are fighting not so much against the Lacedaemonians, as against our own subjects who may some day rise up and overcome their former masters. But this is a danger which you may leave to us. And we will now endeavour to show that we have come in the interests of our empire, and that in what we are about to say we are only seeking the preservation of your city. For we want to make you ours with the least trouble to ourselves, and it is for the interests of us both that you should not be destroyed.

Athenians: It may be your interest to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?

Athenians: To you the gain will be that by submission you will avert the worst; and we shall be all the richer for your preservation.

Melians: But must we be your enemies? Will you not receive us as friends if we are neutral and remain at peace with you?

Athenians: No, your enmity is not half so mischievous to us as your friendship; for the one is in the eyes of our subjects an argument of our power, the other of our weakness.

Over and over the Melian envoy is dismayed by his visitors’ indifference to the moral high ground. Frustrated of any concession, he resolves his embattled city to embark upon the remote hope of resistance in preference to voluntary servitude — leading the Athenians to part with this chilly sentiment:

You told us that the safety of your city would be your first care, but we remark that, in this long discussion, not a word has been uttered by you which would give a reasonable man expectation of deliverance. Your strongest grounds are hopes deferred, and what power you have is not to be compared with that which is already arrayed against you. Unless after we have withdrawn you mean to come, as even now you may, to a wiser conclusion, you are showing a great want of sense. For surely you cannot dream of flying to that false sense of honour which has been the ruin of so many when danger and dishonour were staring them in the face. Many men with their eyes still open to the consequences have found the word honour too much for them, and have suffered a mere name to lure them on, until it has drawn down upon them real and irretrievable calamities; through their own folly they have incurred a worse dishonour than fortune would have inflicted upon them. If you are wise you will not run this risk; you ought to see that there can be no disgrace in yielding to a great city which invites you to become her ally on reasonable terms, keeping your own land, and merely paying tribute; and that you will certainly gain no honour if, having to choose between two alternatives, safety and war, you obstinately prefer the worse. To maintain our rights against equals, to be politic with superiors, and to be moderate towards inferiors is the path of safety. Reflect once more when we have withdrawn, and say to yourselves over and over again that you are deliberating about your one and only country, which may be saved or may be destroyed by a single decision,

Athens wasn’t kidding.

Finding no traction with the Melian delegation, the greater power immediately besieged Melos. Thucydides recounts the Melians’ subsequent fate:

So the summer ended.

In the following winter the Lacedaemonians had intended to make an expedition into the Argive territory, but finding that the sacrifices which they offered at the frontier were unfavourable they returned home … About the same time the Melians took another part of the Athenian wall; for the fortifications were insufficiently guarded. Whereupon the Athenians sent fresh troops, under the command of Philocrates the son of Demeas. The place was now closely invested, and there was treachery among the citizens themselves. So the Melians were induced to surrender at discretion. The Athenians thereupon put to death all who were of military age, and made slaves of the women and children. They then colonised the island, sending thither 500 settlers of their own.


On top of everything else, the Athenian sack put an end to the production of Melian reliefs. (The island still had the glory of the Venus de Milo to look forward to, however.)

If there was a consolation for the scattered remains of the ruined Melian polis, it was that Athens’ cruel imperial hubris led it just months later to launch a catastrophic invasion of Sicily.

That defeat helped turn the Peloponnesian War decisively against Athens. Just eleven years after overrunning Melos, haughty Athens itself surrendered to a Spartan siege.

Thucydides, an exiled former Athenian general, deploys the classical dialogue form to great effect; his own perspective on the various arguments advanced in the Melian debate is difficult to discern with confidence. Clearly, however, it’s a topic of great interest to Thucydides, as his account dwells repeatedly on the conundrums touching justice and international relations: he’s one of the first intellectuals to explore what’s now thought of as the “realist” view of foreign policy. Compare the Melian Dialogue, for instance, to the Athenian demos‘s Mytilenian Debate; or, to the Plataean speech making a Melos-like appeal to the powerful Spartans.* And in one early passage, private Athenians appeal to Sparta and Corinth not to commence on war against the hegemony of Athens with words similar to those later used at Melos: “It has always been a rule that the weak should be subject to the strong; and besides, we consider that we are worthy of our power. Up till the present moment you, too, used to think that we were; but now, after calculating your own interest, you are beginning to talk in terms of right and wrong. Considerations of this kind have never yet turned people aside from the opportunities of aggrandizement offered by superior strength.”

At any rate, Thucydides’ proud city-empire would never recover from the inglorious fall inflicted by this war. The result was a fourth-century power vacuum which the Macedonia of Philip II and Alexander the Great eventually rose to fill.

* Thucydides also reports the Athenians hoisted by their own realpolitik when, in the Sicilian invasion, they attempt to appeal to Camarina for support. That city spurns the appeal, fearing subjugation should expansionist Athens prevail, and the revenge of their overwhelmingly powerful neighbor Syracuse otherwise.

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1348: The Duke of Durazzo, all in the family

Add comment January 23rd, 2014 Headsman

The Neapolitan King Robert “the Wise”* dominated Italian politics for his 34-year reign, but his death in 1343 left a disastrously disputed succession.

Robert, who hailed from the French House of Anjou, had had only two sons, and they both predeceased him. So Robert’s will designated his granddaughter Joanna as his successor, and her sister Maria as no. 2 in line should Joanna die without an heir.

But Joanna was 16 years old, and Robert had had three brothers whose lines each coveted a taste of Neapolitan for themselves. In particular, the family of Roberts’ oldest brother, whose descendants had managed to establish an Angevin ruling dynasty in Hungary, arguably had a better claim that Robert himself. So in an effort to cement the Joanna-plus-Maria succession plan, Robert married Joanna off to a child of that branch, Andrew, Duke of Calabria, Joanna.

Maria, for her part, had been intended for another dynastic marriage, but after Robert’s death she got abducted by the heirs to the youngest of Robert’s brothers and married off to Charles (or Carlo), Count of Gravina and Duke of Durazzo (English Wikipedia entry | Italian). This set their branch up to be a player for Robert’s patrimony, too; as one may infer from this character’s presence on this here execution blog, the play didn’t go to plan.

Dumas reckoned Charles an inveterate, and a sinister, schemer, “one of those men who to gain their end recoil at nothing; devoured by raging ambition and accustomed from his earliest years to conceal his most ardent desires beneath a mask of careless indifference, he marched ever onward, plot succeeding plot … His cheek grew pale with joy; when he hated most, he smiled; in all the emotions of his life, however strong, he was inscrutable.”

Now that we have the dramatis personae … to the action!

Nice knowin’ ya, Andrew. 1835 watercolor of his murder by Karl Briullov.

Robert was scarcely cold in his coffin when Joanna’s husband Andrew (supported by a faction within the Neapolitan court) began maneuvering for more power. Days before he was to capture a strategic hilltop in that campaign by becoming crowned in his own right in September 1345, a conspiracy of his rivals surprised Andrew on a hunting trip and murdered him — violently subduing the resisting teenager until they could strangle him to death and pitch him out a window. Joanna cowered in her bed as her shrieking husband was murdered; the suspicion of her involvement in the plot would follow her all the 37 years she had left on this earth, although she defeated the charge when she was formally investigated.

With this stunning act, peninsular politics got almost as messy as the Angevin family tree.

Andrew’s murder, which was succeeded by no pretext of punishing any guilty parties, opened a power vacuum and simultaneously supplied all Andrew’s power-hungry kinsmen the ideal pretext for elbowing their respective ways into it. The Hungarian Angevins, led by the murdered Andrew’s big brother King Louis I swept into Naples, routing Joanna** who was forced in 1348 to flee to the pope at Avignon, maybe on the very ships that were at this very moment introducing the Black Death from Sicily to ports all over Europe.

Cousin Charles made an expedient alliance with cousin Louis and joined the fun, angling to add Naples to his own domains once the dust settled and Hungarian affairs pulled Louis away. But almost immediately after expelling Joanna, the Hungarian king turned on Charles, too. In Dumas’s dramatic rendering, he accuses Charles of complicity in Andrew’s murder and treachery against his own royal person.

Traitor! At length you are in my hands, and you shall die as you deserve; but before you are handed over to the executioner, confess with your own lips your deeds of treachery towards our royal majesty: so shall we need no other witness to condemn you to a punishment proportioned to your crimes. Between our two selves, Duke of Durazzo, tell me first why, by your infamous manoeuvring, you aided your uncle, the Cardinal of Perigord, to hinder the coronation of my brother, and so led him on, since he had no royal prerogative of his own, to his miserable end? Oh, make no attempt to deny it. Here is the letter sealed with your seal; in secret you wrote it, but it accuses you in public. Then why, after bringing us hither to avenge our brother’s death, of which you beyond all doubt were the cause,–why did you suddenly turn to the queen’s party and march against our town of Aquila, daring to raise an army against our faithful subjects? You hoped, traitor, to make use of us as a footstool to mount the throne withal, as soon as you were free from every other rival. Then you would but have awaited our departure to kill the viceroy we should have left in our place, and so seize the kingdom. But this time your foresight has been at fault. There is yet another crime worse than all the rest, a crime of high treason, which I shall remorselessly punish. You carried off the bride that our ancestor King Robert designed for me, as you knew, by his will. Answer, wretch what excuse can you make for the rape of the Princess Marie?

Charles was put to summary death upon this accusation on January 23, 1348.

As for the Princess Marie, who at this point was 18 years old and had already borne Charles five children in almost continuous succession, she wasn’t done being abducted: another nobleman, the Lord of Baux, snatched her from the Castel dell’Ovo later that same year and had four more children with her before Maria had him murdered in 1353. Then she married yet another cousin and had five more kids by him.

* Fruit of the Angevin dynasty that had dispossessed the Hohenstaufens the previous century.

** Joanna tried to shore herself up ahead of the invasion by remarrying another cousin, Louis of Taranto.

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