Posts filed under 'Famous Last Words'

1402: Fang Xiaoru, of the ten agnates

Add comment July 25th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1402, the Yongle Emperor cemented his seizure of the throne by purging Confucian scholar-bureaucrat Fang Xiaoru with a legendary extermination to ten degrees of kinship.

Our numerous executions on this occasion bring us to the close of a three-year civil war that ensued the death of the Ming dynasty founder, known as the Hongwu Emperor. In this conflict, the old man’s designated successor, a grandson who took the ironic regnal moniker of Jianwen Emperor (meaning “establishing civility”), was defeated and deposed by one of the old man’s sons, a prince whose name can be transliterated as Zhu Di or Chu Ti.

The uncle was much the abler commander while the nephew was plagued by defections. In July of 1402, Zhu Di’s forces captured the capital city of Nanjing; the Jianwen emperor vanished into history’s fogs — burned to death, Zhu Di would claim, citing an unrecognizable corpse charred in the blaze that consumed the imperial palace; rumors long persisted that he had occulted himself into the mountains in a monk’s robes.

Either way, Zhu Di had occasion now to announce himself the Yongle Emperor. “Perpetual happiness,” that one means. And to make sure that everyone would real happy with the new arrangements, Boss Yongle insisted on the immediate fealty of the capital’s intelligentsia. “Those who are guilty I do not dare to pardon,” he said of the late emperor’s ex-ministers. “Those who are innocent I do not dare to execute.”

Most of those presented with these alternatives chose judiciously, as attested by the Yongle Emperor’s subsequent 22-year reign.

But our principal Fang Xiaoru was the most famous among a number of scholars to stand athwart history yelling stop.* For malcontents like Fang, the Yongle Emperor offered a compelling dissuasion in the form of the ancient “extermination of nine agnates”: the collective execution of the traitor’s entire family, compassing nine different classes of relations.

  1. The criminal himself
  2. His parents
  3. His grandparents
  4. His children (and children’s spouses)
  5. His grandchildren
  6. The criminal’s spouse
  7. The spouse’s parents
  8. The criminal’s aunts and uncles
  9. The criminal’s cousins

We don’t know how all his cousins and in-laws felt about the matter but for his own part, Fang was undaunted: “Never mind nine agnates; give me ten!” And that’s just what they did, drafting the scholar’s own pupils into the hecatomb as the tenth degree, an extremity unequaled in the history of China or academia.

All told, the ten agnates numbered 873 people, among perhaps as many as ten thousand noncompliant officials and family members purged overall. Yet still as he died, hewed apart at the waist, Fang dipped his finger in his own gore and scrawled on the floor his own last verdict on the new emperor: the single Chinese character meaning “usurper”.


An execution by “waist severing” delivers what it promises.

* Others include Huang Zicheng and Lian Zining. See “Venerating the Martyrs of the 1402 Usurpation: History and Memory in the Mid and Late Ming Dynasty” by Peter Ditmanson, T’oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 93, Fasc. 1/3 (2007), pp. 110-158.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gruesome Methods,History,Innocent Bystanders,Intellectuals,Power,Treason

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1685: Richard Rumbold, owner of the Rye House

Add comment June 26th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1685, Roundhead militant Richard Rumbold — known affectionately to his comrades from the English Civil War as “Hannibal”, since he shared with the great Carthaginian general the distinction of an eye lost on campaign — was beheaded at Edinburgh‘s Mercat Cross.


J.M.W. Turner watercolor of the Rye House circa 1793.

Rumbold was the owner of the Rye House in Hertfordshire, the manor which in the 1680s would become famous as a regicidal adjective: the titular epicenter of the Rye House Plot. Hannibal Rumbold had intended to station a force of armed men on his grounds with the intent to kidnap/assassinate King Charles II and his Catholic brother and heir presumptive, James as they returned to London from horse races at Newmarket. When fire struck Newmarket, the royal party’s plans changed and the plot never came off … but it was discovered some weeks later and yielded an ample harvest of heads. Rumbold escaped to the continent for a time but was none repentant about it when taken, saying “he did not neither durst repent for it, but on the contrair that if all the hair of his head were men, he would venture them all for the cause.”

In this instance, it also yielded some edifying scaffold oratory, and this man’s parting sentiment that “this is a deluded generation, veiled with ignorance … for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him” was of interest to British Whigs and American revolutionaries a century later. It plays much better lo these many years later with ellipsis in place of the “popery” stuff which occurs between, but judge for thyself: here follow Rumbold’s erudite owns in context via an open source volume which has the address titled “Against Booted and Spurred Privilege”

Gentlemen and Brethren: —

It is for all men that come into the world once to die; and after death the judgment! And since death is a debt that all of us must pay, it is but a matter of small moment what way it be done. Seeing the Lord is pleased in this manner to take me to himself, I confess, something hard to flesh and blood, yet blessed be his name, who hath made me not only willing, but thankful for his honoring me to lay down the life he gave, for his name; in which, were every hair in this head and beard of mine a life, I should joyfully sacrifice them for it, as I do this. Providence having brought me hither, I think it most necessary to clear myself of some aspersions laid on my name; and, first, that I should have had so horrid an intention of destroying the King and his brother … It was also laid to my charge that I was antimonarchical. It was ever my thoughts that kingly government was the best of all where justly executed; I mean, such as it was by our ancient laws; — that is, a King, and a legal, free-chosen Parliament, — the King having, as I conceive, power enough to make him great; the people also as much property as to make them happy; they being, as it were, contracted to one another! And who will deny me that this was not the justly-constituted government of our nation? How absurd is it, then, for men of sense to maintain that though the one party of his contract breaketh all conditions, the other should be obliged to perform their part? No; this error is contrary to the law of God, the law of nations, and the law of reason. But as pride hath been the bait the devil hath caught most by ever since the creation, so it continues to this day with us. Pride caused our first parents to fall from the blessed state wherein they were created, — they aiming to be higher and wiser than God allowed, which brought an everlasting curse on them and their posterity. It was pride caused God to drown the old world. And it was Nimrod‘s pride in building Babel that caused that heavy curse of division of tongues to be spread among us, as it is at this day, one of the greatest afflictions the Church of God groaneth under, that there should be so many divisions during their pilgrimage here; but this is their comfort that the day draweth near where, as there is but one shepherd, there shall be but one sheepfold. It was, therefore, in the defense of this party, in their just rights and liberties, against popery and slavery —

[Being here interrupted by drum beating, he said that they need not trouble themselves, for he should say no more of his mind on that subject, since they were so disingenuous as to interrupt a dying man. He then continued: –]

I die this day in the defense of the ancient laws and liberties of these nations; and though God, for reasons best known to himself, hath not seen it fit to honor us, as to make us the instruments for the deliverance of his people, yet as I have lived, so I die in the faith that he will speedily arise for the deliverance of his Church and people. And I desire of all you to prepare for this with speed. I may say this is a deluded generation, veiled with ignorance, that though popery and slavery be riding in upon them, do not perceive it; though I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him; not but that I am well satisfied that God hath wisely ordered different stations for men in the world, as I have already said; kings having as much power as to make them great and the people as much property as to make them happy. And to conclude, I shall only add my wishes for the salvation of all men who were created for that end.

After hanging, they quartered his parts and pinned them up as a warning.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Terrorists,Treason

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2004: Fabrizio Quattrocchi, “I’ll show you how an Italian dies!”

Add comment April 14th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 2004, Italian mercenary Fabrizio Quattrocchi was executed by Iraqi insurgents.

A former Italian army corporal turned baker, Quattrocchi (English Wikipedia entry | the vastly more detailed Italian) hired on with an American contractor in the Iraq fiasco as a private security guard at €8,000 per month, intending to save enough to start a family.

Instead, Quattrocchi was seized as a hostage outside Baghdad with three comrades on April 13, 2004, by the “Green Brigades,” one of that era’s many ephemeral bodies of militants. The other three* were held (and eventually freed unharmed via a June 2004 special forces raid) further to an unsuccessful ultimatum demanding Italian withdrawal. Quattrocchi, by contrast, was executed the very next day after capture — seemingly to prove that the kidnappers meant business after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi greeted news of the men’s capture with a vow that he would never give in to “blackmail.”

A video of the murder was delivered to Al Jazeera TV, which has never aired it in its entirety. However, it became known via second-hand reports of those who had viewed it, and eventually from a partial airing of the video, that just prior to being shot Quattrocchi spat defiant last words to his executioners:

'I'll show you how an Italian dies'
From the London Times, April 16, 2004.

Then he was shot dead,** and dumped in the grave he’d been forced to dig for himself.

Thanks to these last words, which Berlusconi and his foreign minister Franco Frattini immediately pinned to a bloody banner, Quattrocchi’s memory has been the subject of partisan rancor in Italy. The left has disdained to celebrate a gun for hire in a disastrous imperial foray; the right has honored his patriotism and conferred a medal of valor upon him in 2006 — arousing some protest since this recognition has not been extended to regular Italian soldiers who fell to terrorist attacks in Iraq, nor to less bellicose murdered hostages like Enzo Baldoni.

* The other captives were Salvatore Stefio, Maurizio Agliana, and Umberto Cupertino, all like Quattrocchi Italians in their mid-thirties. Stefio would later be prosecuted and acquitted for unauthorized recruitment of security contractors.

** About a month after Quattrocchi was slain by gunfire, the grisly beheading of hostage Nick Berg inaugurated a different epoch in Iraq’s stagey hostage murders.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Hostages,Iraq,Italy,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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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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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Illinois,Murder,Pelf,Serial Killers,USA

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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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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Botched Executions,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Heresy,History,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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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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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Outlaws,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Scotland,Theft

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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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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Florence,Habsburg Realm,History,Holy Roman Empire,Italy,Language,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Put to the Sword,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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

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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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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Spain,Treason,Venezuela

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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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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,France,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Vietnam

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