Posts filed under 'Famous Last Words'

1892: Thomas Neill Cream, “I am Jack the …”

Add comment November 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1892, globetrotting murderer Thomas Neill Cream hanged.

Act I

Glasgow-born, Cream grew up in Canada and did his parents proud by becoming a doctor with a big black moustache.

He manifested an early knack for being in the vicinity of patients who died unexpectedly: Cream’s wife Flora died of consumption in 1877 while on a medicine regimen he had prescribed her (granted, Cream himself was away in London at this time), and a patient and possible mistress turned up dead outside the good doctor’s offices overdosed on chloroform. As suspicion burgeoned, Cream legged it for the United States.

Cream set up as a red light district abortionist in Chicago, and it didn’t take long for his special gift to manifest again. He beat one murder charge when a patient’s rotting corpse was found stashed in his midwife’s apartment; but, in 1881, epilepsy pills he provided another mistress for her husband turned out to be spiked with strychnine in a botched attempt to stitch up the druggist for blackmail. Daniel Stott ended up dead; Thomas Cream, in Joliet — 31 years old with a life sentence.

So ended the homicidal career of Thomas Cream … until 1891, when Gov. Joseph Fifer yielded to the entreaties and bribes of Thomas’s brother and commuted the sentence.

Act II

Cream sailed for England that October and a fresh start … in the same line of work. He’d be back in custody by the following June, with at least four more murders under his belt, sloppy and incontinent now like the late-career Ted Bundy.

Cream took lodgings in Lambeth and dove right into London’s seedy underbelly. Barely two weeks after his arrival, a 19-year-old prostitute he’d plied with drinks was dead of strychnine and Cream was using his old ploy of blackmailing a random bourgeois for her murder. A few days later, he did the same thing with yet another streetwalker and another extortion target.

The nigh-industrial rapidity of these maneuvers speaks to Cream’s self-destructive impulsiveness; one can picture such a high-risk caper working (maybe Cream had even made it work sometimes back in Chicago) but only if the murder was executed with great care and the shakedown target very deliberately selected and framed. The “Lambeth Poisoner” (as the press came to call the writer of these anonymous blackmail letters) had done neither; his hamfisted money grabs only drew the attention of Scotland Yard.

Cream so ached for exposure that he gave a visiting New Yorker whom he met an impromptu tour of the sites associated with the Lambeth Poisoner — whose number had by then been augmented with yet two additional prostitutes, again offed with strychnine. Creeped out at the fellow’s suspicious expertise, the Yank tipped off the police; pieces fell into place quickly from that point.

His whole career, including that bit on the far side of the Atlantic, was exposed now and Cream (who here referred to himself as “Dr. Thomas Neill”, as reflected by the carton above) was convicted in a short trial in October 1892 — just a few weeks before the court’s sure sentence was imposed.

Act III?

Cream murdered a minimum of five people. Beyond those five, he’s worth a cocked eyebrow or more in the death of his wife and several women under his care in his medical (mostly abortionist) guise.

Chris Scott’s historical novel Jack imagines Cream as the Whitechapel killer.

But hangman James Billington put Cream into a whole different coffee when he claimed that the Lambeth Poisoner had gone through the trap uttering the aborted sentence “I am Jack the–” … meaning, Billington means you to understand, Jack the Ripper. As a result, Dr. Cream has a ledger in every Ripperology suspects table but there are at least a couple of major problems with the hypothesis:

  1. Nobody else present for the execution reported hearing any such suggestion from the condemned man; and
  2. The Ripper was an elusive criminal with a whole different m.o.; and
  3. Cream was still serving his Illinois prison term when the Ripper murders toook place back in 1888.

You might think that being clad in irons on a different continent makes for an ironclad alibi, but bars are no bar to a criminal as nimble as Jack. The Cream dossier makes the incredible claim that Cream chanced to have a lookalike double in the criminal underworld, and that the two routinely passed as one another — so Cream could have been serving his sentence while his double committed the Whitechapel murders, or vice versa.

If this twist strikes the reader as a little bit too Scooby Doo for reality, well, the man’s verifiable body count more than qualified the doctor for his place in the criminal annals … and his place on the gallows.

A few books about Thomas Neill Cream

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1555: Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, Oxford martyrs

1 comment October 16th, 2016 Headsman

The Anglican Church memorializes the feast of the Oxford Martyrs on October 16 — which also happens to be the date in 1555 that the first and second of those Reformation prelates went to the stake in that city.

The Oxford Martyrs are three in all, a proper trilogy;* the last in chronology if not in precedence was the Anglican Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who sanctified King Henry’s putting aside his first wife, and was burned at the pleasure of that scorned Catholic’s daughter in 1556. By that time he outlived by seven months the men whose execution we mark here, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a woodcut illustration of Latimer’s and Ridley’s martyrdom in John Foxe’s 1563 Book of Martyrs.

Given a different set of breaks and perhaps a Y chromosome in the royal offspring, Latimer might easily have been martyred a generation prior under a King Henry who stuck to his papist “defender of the faith” credentials. Latimer was a rising reformer in the late 1520s whose subversive preaching had already got him slapped down by Cardinal Wolsey.

Wolsey’s fall and Henry’s departure from the Roman communion arrived just in time to ramp Latimer from prospective heresiarch to the master pulpit rhetorician of a new order. (He’s particularly remembered for some metaphorical sermons about playing cards.) In 1535, Latimer became Bishop of Worcester in which capacity he did not disdain the office of exhorting Catholic martyrs themselves on the foot of the pyre. Even in Henry’s last years, when militant Protestants could be put to death as readily as recusant Catholics, Latimer courted principled danger by refusing to sign on to Henry’s “six articles” asserting Catholic doctrines like transubstantiation and clerical celibacy. Latimer resigned his bishopric and went to the Tower of London rather than endorse them.

Nicholas Ridley at this period was a reformist priest in Cranmer’s more cautious orbit, who advanced him rank by rank — and with no dungeon interim — to the Bishop of London and Westminster.** Ridley had the honor of being a primary antagonist to the radical John Hooper in the “vestments controversy”, Ridley defending the status quo of clergy bedizened with suspiciously Romish priestly attire despite the poverty of Christ.

Ridley basically won this dispute in the short term, but had scant leisure to celebrate before the sickly young king’s death set the realm up for a contested succession. Under his gilded robes Bishop Ridley spent the brief ascendancy of Lady Jane Grey thundering against the bastard rival who intended to — and very soon did — supplant her.

Tried together in your basic case of victor’s justice, Ridley and Latimer were burned with Cranmer brought out as a witness in an attempt to intimidate him. Cranmer’s vacillating recantations before his own execution do him little credit, but considering how the Ridley died it would require a hard heart not to empathize. Protestant martyrologist John Foxe made purple prose or a very black scene:

Then they brought a faggot, kindled with fire, and laid the same down at Dr. Ridley’s feet. To whom Master Latimer spake in this manner “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

And so the fire being given unto them, when Dr. Ridley saw the fire flaming up towards him. he cried with a wonderful loud voice, In manus teas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum: Domine recipe spiritum meum. And after, repeated this latter part often in English, “Lord, Lord, receive my spirit;” Master Latimer crying as vehemently on the other side, “O Father of heaven, receive my soul!” who received the flame as it were embracing of it. After that he had stroked his face with his hands, and as it were bathed them a little in the fire, he soon died (as it appeareth) with very little pain or none. And thus much concerning the end of this old and blessed servant of God, Master Latimer, for whose laborious travails, fruitful life, and constant death, the whole realm hath cause to give great thanks to Almighty God.

But Master Ridley, by reason of the evil making of the fire unto him, because the wooden faggots were laid about the gorse, and over-high built, the fire burned first beneath, being kept down by the wood; which when he felt, he desired them for Christ’s sake to let the fire come unto him. Which when his brother-in-law heard, but not well understood, intending to rid him out of his pain, (for the which cause he gave attendance,) as one in such sorrow not well advised what he did, heaped faggots upon him, so that he clean covered him, which made the fire more vehement beneath, that it burned clean all his nether parts, before it once touched the upper; and that made him leap up and down under the faggots, and often desire them to let the fire come unto him, saying, “I cannot burn.” Which indeed appeared well; for, after his legs were consumed by reason of his struggling through the pain, (whereof he had no release, but only his contentation in God,) he showed that side toward us clean, shirt and all untouched with flame. Yet in all this torment he forgot not to call unto God still, having in his mouth, “Lord, have mercy upon me,” intermingling his cry, “Let the fire come unto me, I cannot burn.” In which pangs he laboured till one of the standers-by with his bill pulled off the faggots above, and where he saw the fire flame up, he wrested himself unto that side. And when the flame touched the gunpowder, he was seen to stir no more, but burned on the other side, falling down at Master Latimer’s feet; which, some said, happened by reason that the chain loosed; others said, that he fell over the chain by reason of the poise of his body, and the weakness of the nether limbs.

* There’s a just-so story backed by little to no concrete evidence that the three Oxford Martyrs are metaphorically represented as the three blind mice (pursued by a female antagonist!) in the nursery rhyme.

** Barstool trivia: Ridley is the only person who has ever held this title.

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1700: Jamie Macpherson, Highlander

5 comments November 16th, 2014 Headsman

The legendary Highlands freebooter Jamie Macpherson was hanged on this date in 1700 in Banff.

Macpherson is said to be an illegitimate half-Gypsy child with every talent necessary to live larger than life — and if gigantism can be inferred from the size of his enormous alleged sword, that would be extremely large indeed.

Besides his elite SPARQ score, Macpherson was blessed with complementary gifts for making music and sweet sweet love, and plundered livestock and merchandise and maidenheads as he sprang through the vicinities of Banff and Aberdeen. Despite living by his prowess with the sword every source concurs that he never used it to harm anyone that the audience would sympathize with.

But he outraged the local grandees, and at length he was apprehended (as befits his outsized tale) by a fellow with the improbable name “Duff of Braco” — then was duly condemned to hang on market-day (“Forasmeikle as you James McPherson, pannal are found guilty by ane verdict of ane assyse, to be knoun, holden, and repute to be Egiptian and a wagabond” etc.).

In the week before his hanging, Macpherson reportedly composed an air variously described as “Macpherson’s Lament” or “Rant” or “Farewell” which he then performed on the gallows.

In the most picturuesque version, he played his own fiddle in this exit performance, then dramatically smashed the instrument. As Chambers’s Journal observes, it seems hard to accept that the sheriff would have given this veritable Goliath the free use of his hands at such a desperate moment. Indeed, local legend has it that the authorities were so afraid that a reprieve might arrive that upon catching sight of an approaching rider on the horizon, they put the town’s clocks 15 minutes forward.

At any rate, several versions of the Lament/Rant/Farewell survive and one can follow its evolution in this open-source Annals of Banff. Robert Burns’s eventually immortalized the verse with this gloss on it from the late 18th century:

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1530: Francesco Ferruccio, victim of Maramaldo

Add comment August 3rd, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Every man has the heart
and hand of Ferruccio …

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


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

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

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

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

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69: Vitellius, “yet I was once your emperor”

Add comment December 22nd, 2013 Headsman

Were 69 C.E. known as the Year of the Three Emperors, maybe the long and glorious era of the porcine Vitellius would still be celebrated today.

Unfortunately for Vitellius, 69 was the Year of the Four Emperors … and our Emperor No. 3 had his brief reign brutally aborted at the Gemonian Stairs on December 22.

Vitellius came from a political family; his father as Governor of Syria deposed Christ‘s reluctant judge Pontius Pilate.

In time, Vitellius’s own ruin would emerge from the Levant.

But first he had a run down Roman elites’ cursus honorum of Roman offices; he served as Consul in the year 48. Even so, he’s described to us as a ridiculous character, so much so that Vitellius himself supposedly mocked astrologers over the self-evidently preposterous prediction that he of all people could become emperor.

“Addicted as he was to luxury and licentiousness,” Cassius Dio reports, Vitellius “no longer cared for anything else either human or divine. He had indeed always been inclined to idle about in taverns and gaming-houses, and devote himself to dancers and charioteers.”

According to these chroniclers, the dissipated Vitellius entered history by the side door. The first emperor of our august year was Galba, who overthrew Nero late in 68. Galba appointed Vitellius to command the restive Rhine legions, who had notably put down the revolt of one of Galba’s early supporters and were now getting short shrift from the Galba administration. The plan here is a little sketchy; Suetonius says it was “rather through contempt than favour,” perhaps that this no-account fop would deprive the Germanic forces of an adequate figurehead for revolt. Vitellius’s dismayed creditors could scarcely be prevailed upon to let him leave Rome.

Now, Suetonius and Cassius Dio are extremely hostile witnesses who wrote (respectively) during the Flavian dynasty that Vitellius’s own usurper established, and in the wake of that period.* The facts on the ground are that Vitellius had been Consul as well as a provincial governor, was appointed by Galba to manage the vital German frontier, and leveraged the position into mastery (however brief) of the Roman world. Even these historians give Vitellius grudging credit for some of his wise civic reforms once he took power. And at the end, when all was hopeless, Vitellius’s loyalists furiously resisted their foes in the streets of Rome herself, fighting “in a solid mass opposed the victors and to a man fell giving blow for blow, dying with faces to the foe” (Tacitus, who wrote after the Flavians had passed, but whose family was elevated during that dynasty). Read without interlocutors’ gleeful character assassination, we might better incline to perceive not a buffoon but a capable political leader whom fortune (and a very large army) contrived to crush at the moment of his glory.

Be that as it may, the Caput Mundi was to find in the generations ahead that men of mediocre stature could readily be wrapped in purple by a willing army. More often than not it proved a purple shroud — as it did with Vitellius.

These Rhine legions had their grievances and whether Vitellius was a great man or small, he was emperor material enough for them. On New Year’s Day of 69, when they were supposed to take an oath to the sitting emperor, they instead cast down images of the much-resented Galba and acclaimed their new governor in his place. But even as the rebellious legions strapped on their greaves, Galba was being overthrown and executed within the walls of Rome itself.

That left Emperor No. 2, Otho, vainly endeavoring to find an arrangement with Vitellius and his marching German ranks. Even though Vitellius et al had rebelled against Galba (not Otho) they were now entirely too committed to their treasonable endeavor to just turn around and march home. In April, Vitellius won the decisive Battle of Bedriacum and Otho made his fame by nobly taking his own life rather than protracting a bloody civil war: “Let Vitellius be victor, since this has pleased the gods; and let the lives of his soldiers also be spared, since this pleases me. Surely it is far better and far more just that one should perish for all than many for one, and that I should refuse on account of one man alone to embroil the Roman people in civil war and cause so great a multitude of human beings to perish.” (Cassius Dio)

Otho’s scruples were not shared by all, including devoted supporters who could hardly fail to be moved by the sacrificial gesture. Most of these declared with the eastern provinces for the general Vespasian, lately engaged in smashing the Jewish revolt in Judea.

Vespasian was destined to be the ultimate winner in the Year of the Four Emperors — the man who could claim power, and hold it, and pass it on to his heirs. With the East came Egypt’s grain supplies, upon which Rome depended. He moved methodically but by October 69 one of his generals was penetrating Italy. By coincidence, the forces of the rival emperors again met at a second Battle of Bedriacum. Once again, it was won by the upstart.

Vitellius was offered appealing surrender terms by the approaching army but his negotiations with Vespasian’s brother were aborted by his own supporters, who besieged that enemy envoy on the Capitoline Hill and eventually put him to death over Vitellius’s objections. Yet as furiously as the Vitellian faction in Rome resisted Vespasian’s conquest that December, the balance of forces decided the outcome in advance. The Flavians at length broke through and on the 22nd of December a desperate Vitellius was captured hiding himself in the palace and making ready to flee once night fell. “Tearing off his tunic,” Cassius Dio writes,

they bound his hands behind his back and put a rope round his neck. And thus they led down from the palace the Caesar who had revelled there; along the Sacred Way they dragged the emperor who had often paraded past in his chair of state, and they conducted the Augustus to the Forum, where he had often addressed the people. Some buffeted him, some plucked at his beard; all mocked him, all insulted him, making comments especially upon his riotous living, since he had a protuberant belly. When, in shame at this treatment, he lowered his gaze, the soldiers would prick him under the chin with their daggers, in order to make him look up even against his will. A German who witnessed this could not endure it, but taking pity on him cried: “I will help you in the only way that I can.” Thereupon he wounded Vitellius and slew himself. Now, Vitellius did not die of the wound, but was dragged to the prison, as were also his statues, while many jests and many opprobrious remarks were made about them. Finally, grieved to the heart at what he had suffered and what he had been hearing, he cried: “And yet I was once your emperor.” At that the soldiers became enraged and led him to the Stairway, where they struck him down. Then they cut off his head and carried it about all over the city.

The Roman History podcast covers Vitellius in Episodes 71 and 72

* Suetonius was also directly self-interested: his father fought for Otho, and against Vitellius, at Bedriacum.

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1814: Vicente Salias, Venezuelan national anthem author

Add comment September 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1814, the Venezuelan doctor and writer Vicente Salias was shot in San Felipe castle at Puerto Cabello by the Spanish who meant to run the place.

Salias (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was a founding member of the Sociedad Patriotica de Caracas and editor of the nationalist publication El Patriota de Venezuela.

He worked for the First Republic of Venezuela, a short-lived (1810-1812) attempt to break away from a Spanish empire preoccupied by the Napoleonic Wars. In 1810, Salias is said to have* composed the lyrics for Gloria al Bravo Pueblo (Glory to the Brave People),

Captured attempting to escape the approaching royalist forces of Jose Tomas Boves, Salias was shot with the spectacularly defiant last cry of “God Almighty, if the Heavens admit Spaniards, then I renounce the Heavens!”

* There are some revisionist hypotheses postulating other authors.

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1930: 13 Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang cadres, for the Yen Bai mutiny

1 comment June 17th, 2013 Headsman

June 17 is an honored day in Vietnam for the sacrifice under the French guillotine this date of 13 early martyrs for national independence.

These were members of the nationalist Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD, or Viet Quoc). Not averse to the propaganda of the deed, these revolutionaries labored secretly under onerous French pressure following the previous year’s assassination of a labor recruiter.*

A year later (almost to the hour), with the movement crippled by arrests, the VNQDD tried an audacious gambit to revive its fortunes and trigger a general rising against the French.

The Yen Bai mutiny — named for the Tonkin city where it transpired** — saw 40 or 50 Vietnamese riflemen of the Fourth Régiment de Tirailleurs Tonkinois† and a like number of civilian sympathizers attacked the regiment’s officers in concert.

Alas, most of the other Vietnamese tirailleurs declined to join the rising, and it was suppressed within a few hours.

Over 1,000 accused revolutionaries stood trial for the Yen Bai mutiny, and the top leadership paid the top penalty this date — but as quietly as the French could manage. They were whisked out of their cells on the preceding evening and taken by secret convoy on a four-hour ride to the Yen Bai execution grounds, where a guillotine had been covertly erected.

We are going to go to pay our debt for the country. The flag of independence must be dyed with blood. The flower of freedom must be sown with blood. The country needs more and more sacrifices of its people. The revolution would meet success finally. We want to say goodbye to all of you with our respects.

-Nguyen Thai Hoc, taking his final leave of imprisoned VNQDD comrades

From 4:55 a.m. at Yen Bai, the thirteen men one by one were each lashed to the plank. One by one, each of their necks were fixed by the lunette under the blade. One by one, each cried out “Vietnam!” as the blade fell.

  • Bui Tu Toan
  • Bui Van Chuan
  • Nguyen An
  • Ha Van Lao
  • Dao Van Nhit
  • Ngo Van Du
  • Nguyen Duc Thinh
  • Nguyen Van Tiem
  • Do Van Su
  • Bui Van Cuu
  • Nguyen Nhu Lien
  • Pho Duc Chinh, who allegedly asked (it’s unclear to me whether it was granted) to be guillotined face-up — perhaps a show of bravado
  • The founder of the VNQDD Nguyen Thai Hoc, whose name now graces a major street in the heart of Hanoi

The VNQDD at this point was organizationally shattered, and many of its un-arrested cadres fled to China — whose sponsorship would revive it and return it to Vietnam in the 1940s.

By then, the communists were in the saddle in Vietnam. In 1946, Ho Chi Minh purged the VNQDD from the national independence coalition. Its remnants would wind up in South Vietnam; today the Viet Quoc persists mostly in exile.

* The labor recruiter is only tangential to the Yen Bai story, but their function, to dragoon Vietnamese peasants into brutal plantation work on terms next door to slavery, made them particularly hated characters. More about that racket in this 1930 text (pdf) by an outraged Frenchman.

** A few other minor secondary incidents occurred elsewhere in the area, but the epicenter of the rising was always Yen Bai.

† After the mutiny, the French army tried to reduce its dependence on Vietnamese recruits.

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1942: Stjepan Filipovic, “death to fascism, freedom to the people!”

2 comments May 22nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1942, this happened:

The young man striking the dramatic pose is Stjepan Filipovic, an anti-fascist partisan hanged in the city of Valjevo by the Serbian State Guard, a collaborationist force working with the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia.

Filipovic is shouting “Death to fascism, freedom to the people!” — a pre-existing Communist slogan that Filipovic’s martyrdom would help to popularize. Smrt fašizmu, sloboda narodu! … or you can just abbreviate it SFSN!

In the city where Filipovic died, which is in present-day Serbia, there’s a monumental statue in his honor replicating that Y-shaped pose — an artistically classic look just like our favorite Goya painting, poised between death and victory.


(cc) image from Maduixa.

Filipovic was a Communist so we’re guessing that he would not have had a lot of truck with the ethnic particularism that’s latterly consumed the Balkans. Times being what they are, however, the national hero to Tito’s Yugoslavia has become a post-Communist nationalist football.

That Valjevo monument — it’s in Serbia, remember — calls him Stevan Filipovic, which is the Serbian variant of his given name. But as Serbia is the heir to Yugoslavia, he at least remains there a legitimate subject for a public memorial. Filipovic himself was Croatian, but his legacy in that present-day state is a bit more problematic: in his native town outside Dubrovnik, a statue that once commemorated Filipovic was torn down in 1991 by Croat nationalists; its vacant plinth still stands sadly in Opuzen. (Opuzen’s film festival, however, awards its honorees a statuette replicating the destroyed monument.)

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399 BCE: Socrates

2 comments May 19th, 2013 Headsman

It might have been May 19, 399 BCE* — and if not, we’re in the neighborhood — that the original gadfly** philosopher Socrates obeyed a death sentence from his native Athens and quaffed a cup of deadly hemlock. It’s one of the most famous executions in history, and arguably one of the most consequential.

Socrates left no original writings that survive for us. Posterity sees him via the works of his students Xenophon and especially Plato, but he was a well-known figure to contemporaries in the polis.

For decades, the man with the method and the familiar daemon had been philosophizing around town. Socrates comes in for mockery in an Aristophanes play lampooning newfangled intellectual trends in the 420s BCE


“Like Ozzy Osbourne, [Socrates] was repeatedly accused of corruption of the young.”

The weird and unsatisfying corrupting-the-young and impiety charges which putatively caused the man’s trial and death sentence have been much-debated in the centuries since. It seems clear that at some level the “real” crime in the eyes of the hundreds of fellow-citizens who judged Socrates had to do with the students who weren’t reverential successor-eggheads, but toxic contemporary politicians. Socrates tutored the treacherous demagogue Alcibiades, who convinced Athenians to mount a catastrophic invasion of Sicily that cost Athens the Peloponnesian War; he rolled with Critias, one of the notorious tyrants of Athens during the 404-403 Spartan puppet dictatorship that resulted from losing that war.

All the while, Socrates had openly preached a dim view of the Athenian democratic system. Again, we don’t have the master’s direct words here, but something like the dialogue presented by the Socrates character in Plato’s allegory of the cave — in which non-philosophers are a lot of purblind morlocks — is difficult to square with anything but an elitist take of civilization. There’s a reason this could be a bit of a sore subject in a city that had just seen the glories of its late imperial apex possessed by Spartan hoplites, especially when espoused by a guy who rubbed chitons with the tyrants themselves.

Even so, Socrates was only narrowly convicted. Once convicted, the legal game had both the prosecution and the defendant propose a punishment, and the jury select one.

Were this system still practiced somewhere, game theorists would have a field day with it. But Socrates just opted out of the match by proposing that he be “punished” with a public pension for his services to the polis. There’s being a gadfly, and then there’s telling your jury to go take a long walk off a high rock: he was death-sentenced by a larger margin than had voted to convict. Plato makes this a much more martyr-like scene than Xenophon; the latter emphasizes that the septuagenarian chin-waggler didn’t much mind being excused from the frailties of advancing age.

Plato used Socrates repeatedly in various dialogues, and it goes without saying that these are cornerstones of the literary canon. The dialogues of most relevance† for his execution specifically are:

  • the Apology, Plato’s account of the defense Socrates mounted at trial: it’s in this text that Socrates is reported to utter the words, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
  • Crito, a conversation between a wealthy guy of that name and the condemned Socrates in which the philosopher expounds his theory of citizenship and social contract in refusing Crito’s blandishments to escape before execution.
  • the Phaedo, in which Socrates argues for the immortality of the soul, and then gets down to the business of swallowing his fatal draught.

Soon the jailer, who was the servant of the Eleven, entered and stood by him, saying:—To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me, when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison—indeed, I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are to blame. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must needs be—you know my errand. Then bursting into tears he turned away and went out.

Socrates looked at him and said: I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid. Then turning to us, he said, How charming the man is: since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at times he would talk to me, and was as good to me as could be, and now see how generously he sorrows on my account. We must do as he says, Crito; and therefore let the cup be brought, if the poison is prepared: if not, let the attendant prepare some.

Yet, said Crito, the sun is still upon the hill-tops, and I know that many a one has taken the draught late, and after the announcement has been made to him, he has eaten and drunk, and enjoyed the society of his beloved; do not hurry—there is time enough.

Socrates said: Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in so acting, for they think that they will be gainers by the delay; but I am right in not following their example, for I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should only be ridiculous in my own eyes for sparing and saving a life which is already forfeit. Please then to do as I say, and not to refuse me.

Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed. The man answered: You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act. At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of colour or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not? The man answered: We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough. I understand, he said: but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world—even so—and so be it according to my prayer. Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: What is this strange outcry? he said. I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet then, and have patience. When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and 118upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said—they were his last words—he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.

A few books about the death of Socrates

* The Phaedo places Socrates’ trial on the day after Athens consecrated a ritual boat for its annual pilgrimage. (This was supposed to be the very boat that the hero Theseus had sailed back after defeating the minotaur in time immemorial, and the Athenians maintained it for centuries in a seaworthy state to make ceremonial voyages to the island of Delos, a sanctuary for Theseus’s patron Apollo. This is also the very conveyance in question in the “Ship of Theseus” paradox, a philosophical conundrum proceeding from the question of whether the thing was still “Theseus’s ship” if every single component of it had been replaced in the intervening years.) Anyway, Theseus aside, that mention of the consecration gives us Mounichion 7 on the confusing lunisolar Attic calendar for the trial of Socrates.

During the ship’s sacred voyage, Athens was to remain ritually “cleansed.” This condition included not conducting any executions. A date for the death of Socrates is established by Xenophon and Seneca reporting that the boat returned after 30 days — which was about twice as long as ordinarily required, but the archaic craft was very vulnerable to bad weather. 30 days is an eminently doubtable nice round number, but where ancient dates are concerned, we takes what we can gets.

“Counting inclusively, as was then the custom, Socrates died on Thargelion 6, which is the very day recorded for his birth,” notes Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy. It’s possible that Socrates’s birthday became associated with Thargelion 6 because Thargelion 6 was associated with Socrates via his execution … but Thargelion 6 became known as man’s execution date. It also happened to be the Athenian festival “Thargelia” (and the day before Plato’s Thargelia 7 birthday).

There are other dates out there. In particular, a number of easily accessible pages claim that the hemlock was downed on May 7, 399. I’m not positive, but it appears to me that this might have originally been arrived at by counting 30 days exclusively from Mounichion 7 to reach Thargelion 7, then noticing that Thargelion typically began sometime in May, and smushing together “May” and “7” from alien calendars … after which it’s been repeated on the basis of previous source’s authority. If there’s better support for this date than I infer, I welcome correction.

For my part, I’ve dated this entry based on the astounding Hellenic Month Established Per Athens calendar, specifically its dates for Thargelion of the 1st year of the 95th Olympiad. Thargelion 6 corresponded to May 18/19, says HMEPA — Greek days began at sundown — and since Socrates died at the end of daylight, just before sunset, that’s a Gregorian May 19th. Again, though, all this is built upon a chain of questionable inferences based on a few questionable passing remarks from just a couple of ancient sources. In the end, one just can’t know for sure.

** Plato reports in the Apology Socrates characterizing himself as such this way — “a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life” by his stings — bequeathing to us the evocative metaphor.

† Find these essential execution-related dialogues here, here, or here, or just the highlights here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Greece,History,Intellectuals,Language,Myths,Notable Jurisprudence,Poison,Popular Culture,Scandal,Uncertain Dates,Wrongful Executions

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69: Galba, in the Year of the Four Emperors

2 comments January 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in the year 69, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him emperor of Rome Galba was slain — the first casualty in ancient Rome’s Year of the Four Emperors.

From the standpoint of this blog’s portfolio, Galba’s death admittedly makes for an edge case; in their time, the Romans experimented with every shade and interval for the span from extrajudicial execution to assassination to simple murder. Certainly the sudden homicide which forms our subject today proceeded under no purported legal color.

But dead is dead, and in Rome at that moment, dead was the essential fact. You had to get the incumbent into the ground to don the blood-drenched purple.

That’s exactly how Galba managed it himself: his predecessor was the infamous Nero, dead the previous June in a revolt that had set Galba up as the rival emperor.

Galba was a classic Peter Principle guy, a respected wealthy patrician who had been a prominent public figure for decades. At the end of Nero’s run, Galba was governor of a Spanish province and everyone thought would make a swell emperor … until he actually got the job.

As Suetonius observed, Galba’s “popularity and prestige were greater when he won, than while he ruled the empire.” Tightfisted (or fiscally responsible) and inflexible (or upright), the new emperor proved to have a gift for alienating his subjects.

The skinflint sovereign bullied enemies real and perceived, took an obnoxiously lordly attitude towards inferiors, and even decimated a legion (a practice long since out of date at this point). He set about restoring the ruined state finances by seizing even from parties at second and third hand goods which allegedly traced to Nero’s graft, then re-auctioning them … many of those auctions suspiciously won at a discount by Galba’s hated advisors-slash-controllers, the “Three Pedagogues.” And he “condemned to death divers distinguished men of both orders on trivial suspicions without a trial.” (Suetonius, again)

Very dangerously, Galba also refused to pay the customary donative to those arbiters of imperial succession, the Praetorian Guard.

All this mess brought the distant German legions into rebellion.

However, Galba triggered his downfall directly when he passed over for official heir an early Galba supporter, Otho — who had been dispensing liberal largesse on the understanding that he had the inside track to the throne — in favor of a youth named Piso.

Personally affronted and also in danger of having his now-unpayable debts called in, Otho brought the disaffected Praetorians over to his side and revolted.

The capital was thrown into a tumult. On January 15, Galba’s litter was being borne in the Roman Forum when Otho’s militia appeared,

loudly ordering all private citizens out of their way. The multitude, accordingly, took to their heels, not scattering in flight, but seeking the porticoes and eminences of the forum, as if to get a view of the spectacle. Hostilities began with the overthrow of a statue of Galba by Attilius Vergilio, and then the soldiers hurled javelins at the litter; and since they failed to strike it, they advanced upon it with their swords drawn. No one opposed them or tried to defend the emperor, except one man, and he was the only one, among all the thousands there on whom the sun looked down, who was worthy of the Roman empire. This was Sempronius Densus, a centurion, and though he had received no special favours from Galba, yet in defence of honour and the law he took his stand in front of the litter. And first, lifting up the switch with which centurions punish soldiers deserving of stripes, he cried out to the assailants and ordered them to spare the emperor. Then, as they came to close quarters with him, he drew his sword, and fought them off a long time, until he fell with a wound in the groin.

The litter was upset at the place called Lacus Curtius, and there Galba tumbled out and lay in his corselet, while the soldiers ran up and struck at him. But he merely presented his neck to their swords, saying: “Do your work, if this is better for the Roman people.” (Plutarch)

Piso tried to take refuge with the sacred Vestal Virgins, but was hauled out most impiously and abruptly put to death on the temple’s steps. Otho was said to greet this severed head of his rival heir with particular satisfaction. (Galba’s head was paraded through town on a spear, then given over to the servants of a guy Galba had executed so that they could dishonor it on the execution grounds.)

As for the victorious Otho, you’ll recall those restive German legions … and the fact that this is the Year of the Four Emperors. Galba was the first of those four; Otho, the second. As Cassius Dio tells it, “as he [Otho] was offering his first sacrifice, the omens were seen to be unfavourable, so that he repented of what had been done and exclaimed: ‘What need was there of my playing on the long flutes?’ (This is a colloquial and proverbial expression applying to those who do something for which they are not fitted.)”

Three months later, it was time to pay the flautist. Those German legions arrived, bumped off Otho, and made their own commander into emperor number three. (Otho, not theretofore viewed as particularly noble soul, redeemed himself for posterity by committing suicide for the good of Rome rather than press a ruinous civil war — uttering the Spock-like sentiment, “It is far more just to perish one for all, than many for one.”)

The History of Rome podcast series covers Galba’s abortive reign here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Famous Last Words,Heads of State,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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