Posts filed under 'Mass Executions'

1914: The six martyrs of Vingre

3 comments December 4th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1914, a France consumed by the First World War made martyrs of six at Vingre.


The men in this post were rehabilitated in 1921, and this marker dedicated to their memory in 1925. Flickr users have posted some striking photos of the memorial site.

An event horribly underscoring the heartlessness of the brass against frail flesh in their ghastly war of machines, this shooting succeeded a surprise German attack on November 27 whose short-lived push into the French line momentarily drove part of the 298th Regiment to fall back out of their forward trench, before the French rallied and retook their own position to restore the status quo ante. The whole back-and-forth consumed spanned mere minutes — just another snapshot of the trench war stalemate that would become so grindingly familiar to all belligerents in the years ahead.

French commanders in the earliest months of the war had shown a notable lack of empathy for any vexation of plans arising from the fog of war; indeed, exemplary executions became policy for enforcing military discipline to an unrealistic expectation. So, as punishment for their units’ “unauthorized* retreat,” six were selected for execution as an example to their fellows.

Some heartbreaking (or blood-boiling) last letters of the doomed survive.

Corporal Henri Floch (to his wife)

My darling Lucie,

By the time you receive this letter I shall be dead by firing squad. This is why: on 27th November, around 5pm, after 2 hours of heavy shelling in a trench on the front line, just as we were finishing our supper, Germans got into the trench. They captured me and two others. In the confusion I was able to escape from the Germans. I followed my comrades and then I was accused of dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy.

Twenty-four of us went before the War Council last night. Six were condemned to death and one of them was me. I am no more guilty than the others, but they want to make an example of us. My wallet will be sent home to you along with its contents.

In haste I say my last farewell to you, with tears in my eyes and a heavy heart. I humbly beg your forgiveness for all the grief that I will cause you and the difficulties that you will have to face because of me.

My dear Lucie, again, please forgive me. I’m going to Confession now and I hope to see you again in a better place. I die innocent of the crime of desertion of which I stand accused. If, instead of escaping from the Germans, I had remained a prisoner, my life would have been spared. It must be fate.

My last thoughts are for you, right to the end.

Henri Floch

Jean Quinault (to his wife)

I am writing to you my latest news. It’s over for me. I do not have the courage. We had a story in the company. We went to the court martial. We are 6 condemned to death. I am in the six and I am no more guilty than the comrades, but our life is sacrificed for others. Last farewell, dear little woman. It’s over for me. Last letter from me, deceased for a reason of which I do not know well the reason. The officers are all wrong and we are condemned to pay for them. I should never have thought of finishing my days at Vingre, and especially of being shot for so little and not guilty. It never happened, a case like this. I am buried in Vingré

Jean Blanchard (to his wife)

3 December 1914, 11.30 pm

My dear Beloved, it is in great distress that I begin to write to you and if God and the Blessed Virgin do not come to my aid it is for the last time …

I will try in a few words to tell you my situation but I do not know if I can, I do not feel the courage. On November 27, at night, as we occupied a trench facing the enemy, the Germans surprised us, and panicked us, in our trench, we retreated into a trench behind, and we returned to resume our places almost immediately, with this result: a dozen prisoners in the company of which one was in my squad, for this fault our squad (twenty-four men) spent today before the council of war and alas! We are six to pay for all, I can not explain it further to you, my dear friend, I suffer too much; friend Darlet will be able to explain to you better, I have a calm conscience, and submit entirely to the will of God who wants it so; It is this which gives me strength to be able to write to you these words, my dear beloved, who have made me so happy the time that I spent with you and of which I had so much hope to find. December 1 morning we were deposed on what had happened, and when I saw the charge that was brought against us and which no one could suspect, I cried a part of the day and have not had the strength to write to you …

Oh! Blessed be my parents! My poor parents, my poor mother, my poor father, what will become of them when they learn what I have become? O my beloved, my dear Michelle, take good care of my poor parents so long as they are of this world, be their consolation and support in their grief, I leave them to your good care, tell them I have not deserved this hard punishment and we will all find each other in the other world, assist them in their last moments and God will reward you for it, beg my forgiveness of your good parents for the punishment that they will experience by me, tell them well that I loved them very much and that they do not forget me in their prayers, that I was happy to have become their son and to be able to support and care for them their old days but since God has judged otherwise, that His will be done and not mine. Goodbye up there, my dear wife.

Jean


(cc) image from Soissonnais 14-18.

* The “cowards” contended that a falling-back had been ordered by a lieutenant who no doubt was as war-befogged as everyone else. Since this order could have set up Lt. Paulaud himself to be the guy shot for example, he naturally denied issuing it; when the six were exonerated after the war, Paulaud was indicted for perjury, but acquitted.

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1659: William Lamport, the real Zorro?

Add comment November 19th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1659, an Irish adventurer named Don Guillen Lombardo went to the stake in Mexico City as a heretic — en route to a destiny as a romantic swordsman

William Lamport was born in Wexford, by blood the descendant of English aristocracy and by conviction kin to Ireland’s Gaelic resistance to English incursion. His grandfather Patrick fought for Irish rebels at the Battle of Kinsale.

This was years before Lamport’s own birth but the youth must have been a chip off the old block: by the 1620s, as a student, William got himself run out of London for his aggressive Catholic proselytizing. Or at least, this is what William would say of himself: for his early years, we have mostly just his own word to go by.

Lamport took exile in Spain and there found his niche as a soldier and ladies’ man under a Hispanicized name: “Guillen Lombardo de Guzman” — that last nombre taken in tribute to his patron, the Count of Olivares. Guillen Lombardo de Guzman was a considerable enough figure in the Spanish court to have his portrait painted by Rubens.

These were formative years for the young man, but the crucial formative events we can only guess at: how did his thought evolve to the seditious or heretical form that set him against the Inquisition? Why did he cross the Atlantic to New Spain with the Marques of Villena in his late twenties?

This undergraduate thesis (pdf) tries to unravel the mystery of the man. What we know is that he was denounced to the Inquisition in October 1642 after attempting to enlist a friend in a subversive plot. The records here come via the Inquisition and are colored accordingly, but they indicate that Don Guillen aspired to cleave off New Spain with himself as the king of a radically egalitarian new state that would abolish all race and caste divisions. Among the papers he prepared for this visionary future was the first known declaration of independence in the Indies.

He spent the next 17 years in dungeons — less a few days when he escaped prison on the morrow of Christmas in 1650 and quixotically proceeded to nail up revolutionary manifestos on the cathedral door and around town denouncing the Inquisition. He was quickly recaptured, having now assumed the character of a determined rebel against powers both spiritual and temporal and consigned to an auto de fe in Mexico City’s main square. He was supposed to burn alive, but is supposed to have effected a cleverly merciful self-strangulation on the iron collar that staked him to his pyre.

It has been postulated that Johnston McCulley borrowed from a 19th century historical romance starring Lamport and his underground circle in McCulley’s The Curse of Capistrano — the serialized novel that introduced the dashing Mexican nobleman with a double life as champion of the little guy, Zorro. Lamport’s native Wexford — the one in Ireland — has consequently celebrated him in a “Wexford Zorrofest”.

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1941: Francisc Panet

Add comment November 7th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1941, “the Romanian Einstein” Francisc Panet was shot with his wife Lili and three other Communists at a forest near Jilava.

A chemical engineer by training, Panet or Paneth (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was fascinated by the theoretical research then revolutionizing physics.

While studying in Czechoslovakia, his work on elementary particles brought him to Einstein’s attention, and the two met in 1932 and corresponded thereafter. Panet’s advocates claim that Einstein foresaw for him a brilliant future.

But back in a Romania dominated by fascism, his scientific gifts would be required for more urgent and less exalted purposes: cooking homemade explosives in his bathroom for Communist saboteurs.

Eventually the secret police traced the munitions back to Panet, and he and his wife were arrested in a Halloween raid. Condemned to death in a two-hour court martial on November 5, they allegedly went before the fascists’ guns with the Internationale on their lips.

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1803: Ludovicus Baekelandt, Vrijbos bandit

Add comment November 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1803, Flemish outlaw Ludovicus Baekelandt was guillotined at Bruges with about 20 of his gang.

Deserting the army of the conquering French, Baekelandt set up as a bandit preying the deep spruce forests of the Vrijbos, eventually attaining leadership of a gang more than 30 strong.

Baekelandt is one of those whom popular memory and national sentiment (resentful here of the French occupation) has elevated into huggable social banditry. But the evidence remaining us testifies to little but a garden-variety brigand whose offenses were in no way confined to property crimes.

The gang was rounded up in 1802 and the Bruges court heard testimony from more than 100 witnesses, eventually dooming 21 men and three women to death for a litany of murders and robberies.

Almost all the information about Baekelandt available online is in Dutch; if that tongue is in your toolkit, gentle reader, this public-domain book is sure to level you up on Ludovicus Baekelandt and friends.

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1929: Habibullah Kalakani, Tajik bandit-king

Add comment November 1st, 2016 Headsman

Warlord Habibullah Kalakani, deposed after ten months styling himself King of Afghanistan, was publicly shot on this date in 1929.

An ethnic Tajik whose surname alludes to his native village north of Kabul, Kalakani served in the army of Emir Amanullah Khan.*

This Khan aspired to far-reaching reforms that would modernize his marchlands kingdom and not for the last time an Afghan ruler found this programme stoked a furious resistance among tribal grandees. Kalakani, though derisively nicknamed Bacha Seqao (son of a water-carrier) was just such a grandee, having pivoted profitably from regular military orders to highway robbery.

When Khan’s forces had vacated Kabul to manage a Pashtun rebellion in the south — only the latest of numerous tribal risings that plagued the Khan years — Kalakani in late 1928 sprang a surprise Tajik rebellion from the north and marched on the unprotected capital.

Amanullah evacuated Kabul with a quickness, personally behind the wheel as he blazed his Rolls Royce ahead of Kalakani’s cavalry all the way to India and eventual exile in Europe.


Kalakani

But the “bandit king” soon found his own government strained by the same tensions that had elevated him. Pashtun rebels who used to chafe under a western-oriented king now chafed under a Tajik one — in fact, the only Tajik to rule Afghanistan in its modern history — and their fresh rebellion soon toppled Kalakani in his own turn. He was shot with his brother and their aides, contentedly telling his firing squad, “I have nothing to ask God, he has given me everything I desired. God has made me King.”

Kalakani is still the third-last king of Afghanistan and is still bitterly — violently — controversial on his native soil, where whether you reckon him a hero or a thug depends upon your kinship. Just weeks ago as we write this, a reburial of Kalakani’s remains in Afghanistan provoked bloody ethnic melees on the streets.

* Although there is no specific connection here to Habibullah Kalakani, an execution blog would be remiss not to include a reference to this sadly undateable National Geographic photo tracing to Khan’s reign of one of those real-life dangling man-cages so beloved of the sword-and-sandals fantasy genre. Per NatGeo’s caption, an actual thief was “put in this iron cage, raised to the top of the pole, so that his friends could not pass food or poison to him, and here he was left to die.”

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1492: 27 Jews of Sternberg, for desecrating the Eucharist

Add comment October 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1492, 27 Mecklenburg Jews were burned together outside the gates of the city of Sternberg.


Illustration of the burning of the Sternberg Jews, from Hartmann Schedel‘s Weltchronik (1493)

These unfortunate victims of the Sternberger Hostienschänderprozess we have already met via their Catholic intercessor, Father Peter Dane. Although Father Dane got away for the moment — his punishment would arrive five months hence — the scandal consisted of Dane’s alleged provision of his parish’s consecrated Host to Mecklenburg’s impious Hebrews for their profanation in occult Semitic liturgies.

Defiling the Eucharist was a recurrent substratum of the old blood libel canard: what blood more dear than the literal flesh of Christ?

Mecklenburg’s elimination of her Jewry — for those spared the stake were banished — had a tortured legacy thereafter, as one might expect. In the immediate aftermath, Sternberg became such a discomfitingly profitable pilgrims’ destination that Martin Luther denounced by name its services to Mammon. (See our previous post on Fr. Dane for the details.)

Centuries afterwards, Weimar hyperinflation put Sternberg’s pyres and the coin of the realm together again when Sternberg issued its own notes, one of them blazoned with its famous burning Jews. Picture pulling one of these out of your wallet at the corner kiosk:

Sternberg’s Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, which prospered in the pilgrimage days, has a still-extant chapel of the holy blood built in honor of (and thanks to the donatives earned by) the outraged Eucharist. Today the historic chapel holds a contemporary sculpture titled “Stigma” — a reminder of the dark day in 1492 the chapel once celebrated.

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1769: Six felons at Tyburn, keeping away thoughts of death

Add comment October 18th, 2016 Headsman

Six Britons — Joseph Stackhouse, William Litchfield, John Anning, Joseph Godwin, Joseph Simpson, and George Low, Lowe, or Law — hanged together at Tyburn on this date in 1769, notwithstanding some public anticipation of a late reprieve for the well-connected Simpson.

Their individual tragic passions are little enough notable from centuries’ distance among the forests noosed at the dread Triple Tree, but they give us an excuse to drop in on our slightly gallows-obsessed friend, the barrister and scribbler James Boswell.

Best known, of course, for chumming around with Samuel Johnson and recording the latter’s every bon mot for posterity, Boswell attended this hanging (a regular pastime of his) and used it as the hook to elicit some Johnsonian musings on the terrors of death and the great indifference of the living to same.

I mentioned to him that I had seen the execution of several convicts at Tyburn, two days before, and that none of them seemed to be under any concern. Johnson. “Most of them, Sir, have never thought at all.” Boswell. “But is not the fear of death natural to man?” Johnson. “So much so, Sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it.” He then, in a low and earnest tone, talked of his meditating upon the awful hour of his own dissolution, and in what manner he should conduct himself upon that occasion: “I know not (said he,) whether I should wish to have a friend by me, or have it all between God and myself.”

Talking of our feeling for the distresses of others; — Johnson, “Why, Sir, there is much noise made about it, but it is greatly exaggerated. No, Sir, we have a certain degree of feeling to prompt us to do good; more than that, Providence does not intend. It would be misery to no purpose.” Boswell. “But suppose now, Sir, that one of your intimate friends were apprehended for an offence for which he might be hanged.” Johnson. “I should do what I could to bail him, and give him any other assistance; but if he were once fairly hanged, I should not suffer.” Boswell. “Would you eat your dinner that day, Sir?” Johnson. “Yes, Sir; and eat it as if he were eating it with me. Why, there’s Baretti, who is to be tried for his life to-morrow, friends have risen up, for him on every side; yet if he should be hanged, none of them will eat a slice of plum-pudding the less. Sir, that sympathetick feeling goes a very little way in depressing the mind.”

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1716: Five Mug House rioters

Add comment September 21st, 2016 Headsman

Three hundred years ago today, five Jacobites were hanged in London for raising a riot on behalf of the exiled Pretender.

The 1714 childless death of Queen Anne had put the succession question on the political map in England. The Catholic Stuarts who had been run out of the realm a generation before were still hanging around in exile, claiming the throne — now in the person of “the Old Pretender”, James Francis Edward, the son of King James II who meant to become King James III.

But the Whig party instead saw to the succession of Anne’s Protestant cousin, George I, the Elector of Hanover who would therefore become the fount of the Hanoverian dynasty — a change at in the executive that was matched by a parliamentary revolution that set the Whigs up to boss Britain for the best part of the 18th century.

Not everyone was pleased.

As conspiracies and rebellions unfolded among lords, for the London commoners the parties picturesquely (but no less violently) divided at the tavern doors. In the streets, the mobs were Tory: the importation of some German noble in preference to numerous English claimants more closely related to Anne than he had obvious grievance potential.

Whigs in their turn set up politicized tavern clubs — “Mug Houses” — as vehicles to counterpoise a pro-Hanoverian presence, and these houses became an obnoxious presence to Jacobites wont to attract violent attack. Mug House Whigs and Jacobite/Tory mobs bloodied the flagstones with street brawls in 1715-1716, not neglecting to sing taunting partisan doggerel at one another good enough to swell the cockles of any modern-day football hooligan.

Since the Tories could not fight,
And their master took his flight
They labour to keep up their faction
With a bough and a stick
And a stone and a brick
They equip their roaring crew for action.

Thus in battle-array
At the close of the day
After wisely debating their plot,
Upon windows and stalls
They courageously fall
And boast a great victory they’ve got.

But, alas! silly boys!
For all the mighty noise
Of their “High Church and Ormond for ever!”
A brave Whig, with one hand,
At George’s command,
Can make their mightiest hero to quiver.

That’s from this pdf on the London Mug Houses, which also supplies this fine cartoon:

In July of 1716, a noisy Whig party at a Mug House in Salisbury Court had been attacked by a Jacobite mob. Though the siege had been repelled on the first occasion, July 20, rioters reorganized and returned for another go and there battered in the doors and ran amok on the lower floor, while their Whig belligerents remained trapped above. Gleefully the rioters sacked their enemies’ refuge, toasting the Pretender’s health with the Whig ale before a none-too-timely arrival of gendarmes finally dispersed them.

“Many notorious Papists were seen to abet and assist in this villainous Rabble, as were other, who call themselves Churchmen,” complained the Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer (July 28, 1716). “‘Tis hoped the Magistrates will take such Methods which may prevent the like Insults for the future.”

The Magistrates did so.

Finally resolved to tamp down on the riots they had so long winked at, the crown threw the book at the rioters and got five condemned to hang on charges of burglary and assault.

Newgate Ordinary Paul Lorrain, who evidently found these goons more spiritually tractable than their behavior might suggest, describes the hangings:

1. George Purchase, condemn’d for being concern’d in the Riot in Salisbury-Court, Fleetstreet, on Tuesday the 24th of July last. He said, he was 23 Years of age, born at Puddle-Dock, London: That he serv’d an Apprentiship of 7 Years with a Shoemaker in Salisbury-Court: That when his Time was expir’d he became a Journeyman to his said Master, and never did an ill thing before this Fact for which he is condemn’d, and which he rashly committed, not considering then (as I endeavour’d now to make him sensible of) the Unlawfulness and dismal Consequences of such a Rebellious Sedition as that was, which so much tended not only to the Ruin of private Persons, but to the great Disturbance of, and Dishonour to, the whole Government. I representing both to him and his Fellow-Criminals and Sufferers, what perfect Nonsense (not to say worse) it was for them to cry-out, High-Church and Ormond; and what an unheard of Impudence and Disloyalty, what an enormous Wickedness and Impiety they all discover’d to be in their Nature, by their uttering these and the like Rebellious and Malicious Expressions; Do Hannoverian, King George, Down with the Mugg-house, &c. by which they excited and stirr’d up both themselves and others, to kill and plunder, to set the Nation in a Flame, and, in a word, to do all the Mischief they could, and to which (no doubt) they were greatly encourag’d underhand by such as neither fear GOD, nor honour the KING; nor indeed have any true Love for, or Regard to the Lives of those poor silly Tools they made use of in that Riot.

Upon this my Observation and Admonition (endeavouring to convince them, that they could have no good Intent in doing what they did, but quite contrary) this George Purchase acknowledg’d it to be a heinous Crime, himself greatly Guilty, and his Sentence just; praying GOD to forgive him this and all other his Sins, and have Mercy upon his Soul.

2. Thomas Beane, condemn’d for the same Fact. He said, he was 22 years of age; born in Salisbury-Court, where his Father formerly kept the Ship Tavern: That he was 5 Years at Sea, as Servant to the Purser of a Man of War , whom he serv’d the last of those 5 Years in the capacity of his Steward: That he was a Servant to some Gentlemen unhappily engag’d in the late Rebellion at Preston, since they were in Newgate, and not before. As to this Fact he was condemn’d for, he confest his guilt of it, acknowledging in particular that he carried part of the Mug-house Sign about the Street, and at last threw it into a Cart; but withal endeavour’d to palliate it, saying, That he inconsiderately join’d in that Riot, the dismal Consequences whereof he did not then apprehend, but now (to his great Sorrow) knew the Mischief he had thereby involv’d himself in.

3. William Price, condemn’d also for the same Riot. He said, he was 21 years of age, born in the Parish of St. Andrew Holbourn: That he was bound Apprentice to a Sword-Cutler , and had now serv’d 4 years of his Time, and never committed any Crime before this Riot hapned. He confess’d, That, hearing there was a great Concourse of People in Salisbury-Court, he presently ran thither, but said withal, That it was with no ill Intent, but out of meer Curiosity; however, when he was come he join’d with others there, and assisted them in demolishing Mr. Read’s Mug-house, destroying his Goods, and crying, high Church and Ormond, &c. Upon which Confession of his, I shewing him the heinousness and mischievous Consequences of that wicked Fact, he began to be sensible, and said, he heartily repented of it, praying GOD to forgive him this, and all other his Sins. He also was much concern’d to hear that his poor Mother had been misrepresented by some Persons, who had reported, that she us’d no Endeavours to save his Life; for he was fully satisfied she did that to her utmost.

4. Richard Price, condemn’d likewise for that Fact. He said, he was 20 Years of age, born at Llangdavery in Caermarthenshire in Wales, where having serv’d his Time with a Taylor , he came up to London, and here wrought Journey-work , and never engag’d in any ill thing before this hapned; adding, That accidentally passing by that Place where the Tumult was, he unhappily fell in among ‘em, not considering the Unlawfulness and ill Consequence of such a Fact. He was very ignorant, and could not so much as read, which was a great disadvantage to him under these his melancholy Circumstances. I endeavour’d to make him sensible of his great Offence, and to beg Pardon for it, and all other his Sins; which he accordingly did with Tears.

5. John Love, condemn’d for being concern’d with the ‘forementioned Rioters. He said, he was about 16 years of age, born in White-Fryers, London: That he had learnt to make Buttons , but his chief Employment was, the helping of Bargemen and Lightermen to unlade their Boats . He further said, That he never was (nor ever deserv’d to be) brought before Justice till this Riot happen’d, in which he unfortunately involv’d himself, without considering what he then did, or what might follow thereupon. I found him a very ignorant Person, who could not read at all, and hardly knew any thing of Religion; and he was, for some Days past, so very sick and weak, that I was forced to attend him in the Condemn’d Hold; so all I could do there was, to pray for him.

At the Place of their Execution, whither they were this Day carried in two Carts from Newgate, I gave them my last Attendance, exhorting them still more and more to repent of this and all other their Sins. I pray’d and sung some Penitential Psalms with them, and made them rehearse the Apostles Creed. They desir’d, that all young Men and others would take Warning by them, and learn Wisdom from their Folly. They also desir’d the Standers-by to pray for their departing Souls: They begg’d Pardon of GOD and of the KING, and of all they had offended; and declar’d, That they dy’d in Charity with all Men; wishing that none would be so unhappy as to follow them in this, or any other Evil Course, that might bring them to an Untimely End. After this I pray’d with ‘em again, That God would grant ‘em the Pardon of their Sins, and the Salvation of their Souls; that they might have a happy Passage out of this miserable Life, and be admitted into a State of Everlasting Bliss and Glory. Then I withdrew from them, and left ‘em to their private Devotions, for which they had some Time allotted them: When that was expir’d, the Cart drew away, and they were launch’d into Eternity, they all the while praying to GOD to have Mercy on them, and receive their Souls.

This sharp show of resolve evidently did do the trick, as Mug House disturbances came to an abrupt end thereafter.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions

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9: The Battle of Teutoburg Forest

Add comment September 11th, 2016 Headsman


Zum Kampf! Zum Kampf! from Max Bruch‘s 1877 oratorio about Teutoburg Forest victor Arminius. Also be sure to check out the Handel opera.

September 11 in the year 9 AD marked the bloody conclusion of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest — the engagement that permanently scared the Romans off Germany.

One of history’s true turning-point battles, Teutoberg Forest abruptly stanched decades of expansion that had seen Roman arms ascendant from Britain to the Levant. Indeed, the Roman commander who had the dishonor of falling on his sword at this legendary defeat, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was an experienced imperial patrician as well-traveled as the Roman standards who has been seen in these very pages collaborating with the Judean King Herod to execute Herod’s former heir.

But it was in the shadows and bogs of Germany’s primeval forests that Varus made his legacy to the world, which was to have his name famously bemoaned by facepalming Emperor Augustus once news of the disaster made its way back to the Eternal City.

Prior to this cataclysm, the empire had been working a years-long plan to annex fringe chunks of the vast Magna Germania beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers with its customary view towards eventually bossing the whole place. “Upper Germania” and “Lower Germania” to the west of Magna Germania already answered to Rome, testament to recent campaigns launched from neighboring Gaul;* the vast frontier beyond peopled by fractious warring barbarian tribes, with whom Rome cut strategic divide-and-conquer alliances, appeared to promise a future march of Roman glories all the way to the Baltic Sea.

This imperial hubris was shattered at a blow by the Cheruscan chief Arminius, who thereby made his name immortal to Germany.**

He had the element of surprise on his side, because his family had been such loyal Roman allies that Arminius had been trained up in the Roman army as a youth, and even held Roman citizenship. Whatever it was he experienced seems to have nurtured an implacable desire him to keep it away form his homeland. When the time came his familiarity with Roman military orders would be a high card in his hand, too.

Back in Germania, Arminius maintained his overt affiliation with Rome but started sending out feelers to assemble a confederation against the legions. He played this double game so adroitly that Varus still trusted his “ally” implicitly when Arminius reported a Germanic uprising that wanted Roman chastisement. Blind to his danger, Varus duly (and with casual discipline that would read very culpably in retrospect) marched his 17th, 18th, and 19th legions out through the unfamiliar glooms of the Teutoburg Forest.

It was a right massacre.

Their column broken up by rough terrain and pounding autumn rains, the Romans were ripe pickings for German sorties beginning on September 9. Harried by the Germans over two days’ panicked marching, the Romans were pressed into a dead end where palisades trapped the desperate legions at the edge of a slough and put them to slaughter. A bare handful escaped to tell the tale, and no future legion would bear the numerals of those annihilated on this day.


Varusschlacht, by Otto Albert Koch (1909).

The scale of the defeat, by rude tribesmen the empire always counted on being able to bully, beggared the Roman imagination.

“An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field, through the negligence of its general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune was surrounded,” Paterculus lamented. “Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans.”

To judge by Roman reports — and what gives this event a purchase on the annals of Executed Today — the battlefield rout transitioned directly to the ceremonial butchery of captives. (As well as the posthumous beheading of the suicide Varus.) While some suffered torture and execution, others were offered as ritual sacrifices to the Germanic gods who had so magnificently delivered the day.

Several years later, a Roman force out to re-capture the lost standards of the Teutoburg legions reached the site of the empire’s humiliation. Tacitus describes the scene as a horror.

In the center of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.

Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles.

And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe.

Despite the devastation, Teutoburg Forest was no extinction-level event for the Roman Empire. The Rhine and Danube frontiers remained an ongoing source of action for the many centuries to come, but despite raids and incursions here or there Rome never more seriously aspired to Magna Germania.

A few books about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

* The future emperor Tiberius campaigned heavily in Germania, the last of which was post-Varus operations from 10 to 12 AD sufficient to permit the Romans to declare an honorably victorious conclusion to the project. (Tiberius celebrated a Triumph afterwards.)

** Arminius — whose name has been held equivalent with “Hermann” — has been the subject of many literary celebratins in a nationalist vein, great business especially in the 19th century.


The Hermannsdenkmal nomument in the Teutoburg Forest, the life’s labor of sculptor Ernst von Bandel who was able to finish it thanks to a mood of national exultation after the triumph of the Franco-Prussian War. For some reason it has a sister in Minnesota. ((cc) image by Hubert Berberich.)

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Germany,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1743: James Hunt and Thomas Collins, Pepper-Alley sodomists

Add comment August 25th, 2016 Headsman

This date’s post arrives via Rictor Norton‘s rich Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England sourcebook. We have cited this page before, notably in connection with London’s “molly houses”, a subject upon which Norton literally wrote the book.

His online “Sourcebook” compiles a vast trove of primary records capturing the prevailing views of early modern England’s sexual dissidents. Many of these records are legal proceedings, though most of those do not end at the gallows. Whatever their various fates, the misfortune to come under the court’s scrutiny preserves for us a snapshot of their circumstances.

Hunt and Collins were caught in a liaison at a house on Pepper-Alley, which once gave access to one of London’s innumerable little stairways into the Thames from which watermen would ferry passengers across and along the river.

To the frustration of the Ordinary they persistently denied it. Indeed, Hunt, a 37-year-old barge builder and “one of the most unaccountable Men that was ever under the like Misfortune” insisted quite violently that he had been stitched up by perjuring witnesses. As an Anabaptist, the threats to his soul that the C-of-E prelate delivered did not much bother him.

“He was one of the most morose, il-natur’d, surly Creatures that could breathe, and was never at Peace one hour, but continually railing against his Prosecutors,” we find. And even when an Anabaptist pastor was brought in to persuade him, “he answered, ‘Say no more to me about it; I’ll forgive no Body, for I’ll die harden’d.’ — This was a most shocking Speech for a Man who had but a few Hours to live; but he continued to the last Moment in the same Manner.”

A bit more polite about it was Thomas Collins, who had returned to England after spending a career as a soldier in the army of Emperor Charles VI. Still, Collins would not own any actual rendezvous with Hunt, saying only that the two had met by accident on Pepper-Alley and gone to the “Necessary House” (an outdoor toilet) where they “had not been there much above a Minute before two Men came and said they were Sodomites, and pull’d him off the Seat, and turned his Pockets inside out” but finding no money stomped off, complaining “here is no Feathers to pluck.”

The Ordinary was highly dissatisfied with their behavior.

Where two Men who were convicted of such an attrocious [sic] Crime, upon the fullest Evidence that was ever given in any Court of Justice, should prevaricate so much, and behave in so indecent a Manner as they (especially Hunt) have done ever since their Condemnation; the World must be left to judge, whether they were Innocent or Guilty.

Held in Southwark Gaol, they were executed at Kennington Common alongside three other men and a woman (crimes: housebreaking, returning from transportation, murder, murder) where both “continued quite obstinate” with Hunt even refusing to kneel for prayers. While Hunt had friends or money enough to have a coach ready to carry his corpse away from the surgeons who haunted hang-days in search of prey for their anatomy theaters, one final posthumous indignity still awaited Mr. Collins — described by the Ipswich Journal in its September 3 edition:

LONDON, August 27.
The Body of Thomas Collins, executed on Kennington-Common for Sodomy, that was carried off by the Surgeons, being, on Examination, found to be infected with the Venereal Disease, was carried back to the Gallows and there left naked.

Read the full account at Rictor Norton’s site here, or peruse the rest of the Sourcebook including his Grub Street resources on all manner of commoner life and literature (LGBT-related and not) for the 18th century British.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Sex

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