Posts filed under 'Mass Executions'

1748: William Whurrier, War of Austrian Succession veteran

Add comment March 7th, 2016 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:


WILLIAM WHURRIER
Executed at Tyburn for murder, March 7, 1748, and his body hung in chains on Finchley common. (A Hard Case.)

We cannot so clearly see by the report of this trial, as the jury might have done by the evidence adduced, the malice propense necessary to constitute the conviction of murder. But, though we are by no means disposed to question a verdict of the country, yet we cannot avoid saying, that the case added to the services which the unfortunate man had rendered the king, should have proved a strong recommendation to royal mercy.

This soldier was a native of Morpeth, in Northumberland, and brought up as a husbandman; but having inlisted in General Cope‘s regiment, he served five years and a half in Flanders; when, some horses being wanted for the use of the army, he and another man were sent to England to purchase them.

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General Cope is most famous today as the subject of a Scottish folk song commemorating a rout the Jacobites inflicted at the Battle of Prestonpans.

On the 11th of February, 1748, as Whurrier and his companion were walking over Finchley Common towards Barnet, the latter, being wearied, agreed with a post-boy, who went by with a led horse, to permit him to ride to Barnet, leaving Whurrier at an alehouse on the road. Whurrier having drank freely, met with a woman who appeared to be his country-woman, and with her he continued drinking till both of them were intoxicated, when they proceeded together towards Barnet; but they were followed by some sailors, one of whom insulted Whurrier, telling him that he had no business with the woman.

Whurrier suspecting there was a design to injure him, asked the woman if she had any connection with those men. She said she had not: but in the meantime the other Sailors coming up, said they came to rescue the woman; on which Whurrier drew his sword; but returned it into the scabbard without annoying any one.

A soldier riding by at this instant, Whurrier told him that the sailors had ill-treated him, and begged his assistance, on which the soldier getting off his horse, the sailors ran away, and Whurrier pursuing them, overtook the first that had assaulted him, and drawing his sword, cut him in such a manner that he was carried in a hopeless condition to a house in the neighbourhood, where he languished till the Sunday following, and then died.

the skull … was divided, as if a butcher had taken a chopper and divided the skull, so that the brains lay open.

… I judged the wound to be mortal; and upon his head being shaved, there appeared six other wounds upon the head, which went through the skin, but not into the skull; but the bone was bare, and I dressed them all. Then I made an inspection into the arm, and I found as many wounds there, from the wrist to the scapula, as I did upon the head. Upon the back part, what we call the scapula or shoulder bone, there were two wounds more … the bone of the arm was fractured by the incision, as if it had been done by a sword.

… I believe there were fifteen [wounds], and they were all at that distance from one another, that they must all have been made by separate strokes, and from these wounds the man must be in a very weak and languishing condition, and I found him so.

-Surgeon’s testimony at Whurrier’s trial

It appeared by the testimony of a surgeon that the deceased had received a cut across the skull, as if done with a butcher’s chopper; so that the brains lay open; besides a variety of other wounds.

Whurrier being taken into custody for the commission of this murder, was brought to trial at the next sessions at the Old Bailey and being capitally convicted on the clearest, evidence, was sentenced to die.

After conviction he said he thought there was a combination between the woman he had met with and the sailors; and a day or two before he suffered, he procured the following paper to be published, which he called, “Whurrier’s Declaration.”

This is to let the world know that I have lived in good credit, and have served his Majesty eight years and two months. In the time of my service, I have stood six campaigns, and always obeyed all lawful commands: I have been in three battles, and at Bergen-op-zoom, during the time it was besieged. The first battle was at Dettingen, June, 1743, when his Majesty headed his army: the second was in the year 1745, April 30, at Fontenoy; the third was at Luckland, by siege; besides several skirmishes, and other great dangers.


The Battle of Fontenoy, by the Flanders painter Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe.

I had rather it had been my fate to have died in the field of battle, where I have seen many thousand wallowing in their blood, than to come to such disgrace: but, alas! I have escaped all these dangers to come to this unhappy fate, to suffer at Tyburn, and afterwards to hang in chains on a gibbet, which last is the nearest concern to me; and I cannot help expressing, that it would be more beneficial to the public to employ blacksmiths to make breast-plates for the soldiers, than irons to inclose their bodies to be exposed to the fowls of the air.

I have been a true subject and faithful servant, as is well known to the officers of the regiment to which I belonged. If I had been a pick-pocket, or a thief, I should have suffered much more deservedly, in my own opinion, than I now do; for what I did was in my own defence: I was upon the king’s duty, and was assaulted by the men in sailors’ habits, who gave me so many hard blows, as well as so much bad language, that I could no longer bear it, and was obliged to draw my sword in my own defence; and being in too great a passion, as well as too much in liquor, I own I struck without mercy; as thinking my life in danger, surrounded by four men, who I thought designed to murder me; who, or what they were the Lord knows; it is plain they had a false pass, as it was proved: and that they had travelled but seven miles in nine days; but I forgive them, as I hope forgiveness: and the Lord have mercy on My soul, and the poor man’s whom I killed.

   W. WHURRIER.


Whurrier was executed at Tyburn in a group comprising six souls all told: the others were Robert Scott and Samuel Chilvers, smugglers; William Stevens and Francis Hill, housebreakers; and John Parkes, forger. Stevens was only 17 years old: “young, and entirely unacquainted with the Nature of the World,” in the words of the Newgate Ordinary who prepared the boy’s soul for its ordeal.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Public Executions,Soldiers

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845: The 42 Martyrs of Amorium

Add comment March 6th, 2016 Headsman

March 6 is the feast date of the 42 Martyrs of Amorium, the day in the year 845 when they submitted to the caliphate’s executioners in preference to conversion.

Though they were people of rank in their lifetimes, most of them are not known to posterity by name or even position. Devotionally, they govern no special sphere of intercession; iconographically, they have no special device. When depicted (itself unusual) it is simply as a gaggle of generic courtiers.*

It seems a fitting fate for mere individuals ground up between states and faiths; even so, their weedy tombs mark a fork on the path trod by Byzantium.

The 42 earned their martyrs’ crowns at the end of seven years’ imprisonment, so it is to the Byzantine war with the Abbasid Caliphate in 837-838 that we must return to unravel their story. This war was itself merely the resumption of a conflict that had been ongoing between the civilizations for two centuries since Arab conquerors emerged from the Arabian desert to found an empire.

With the connivance, encouragement, or cajoling of anti-caliphate rebel Babak Khorramdin, the young Byzantine emperor Theophilos broke four years of tense peace with destructive effect in 837, ravaging the Upper Euphrates.

“He captured and burned the fortress of Zapetra, putting to death the male population and carrying off the women and children,” John Bury wrote in A History of the Eastern Empire from the fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil I. Upon his return to the mandatory official Triumph, “[t]roops of children with garlands of flowers went out to meet the Emperor as he entered the capital. In the Hippodrome he competed himself in the first race, driving a white chariot and in the costume of a Blue charioteer;** and when he was crowned as winner, the spectators greeted him with the allusive cry, ‘Welcome, incomparable champion!'” Because the one thing 200 years of engaging the Arabs in back-and-forth raids, counterattacks, and suits for peace had taught Byzantium was that victories would surely prove durable.

In truth this war was also politics by other means — domestic politics, that is.

Theophilos really did aspire to incomparable championhood of something far more important than the position of the frontier: in matters religious, he was a stringent iconoclast and he meant to win Christendom firmly over to this philosophy.

The century-old schism within the communion — pitting iconoclasts, like Theophilos, who condemned as idolatrous the veneration of religious imagery against iconophiles or iconodules who embraced it — itself likely owed much to the stunning march of Arab arms and the wound Caliphate success had inflicted on a state and faith that had formerly presumed itself hegemonic. It was certainly the case that Roman superstition† perceived in the battlefield results of imperial adherents to the rival icon’isms a going divine referendum. God says go with whichever icon policy starts beating Islam!

Well might the triumphant Theophilos preen, then — right before the fall, like the Good Book says. Gibbon charged that Theophilos “was rash and fruitless” and “from his military toils he derived only the surname of the Unfortunate.”

The caliph al-Mu’tasim counterattacked the Unfortunate ruthlessly in 838, invading Anatolia in two huge columns that converged on a major city, Amorium.‡ There, they penetrated the city’s walls and put her to the sack — slaughtering unnumbered thousands and carrying away most survivors as slaves, outrageously unmolested by the chastisement of any Byzantine army.


12th century illustration from the Madrid Skylitzes, an edition of the chronicle written by 11th century Greek historian John Skylitzes. The volume was produced in Sicily; it’s got “Madrid” in the name because that’s where the sole surviving copy of it resides today.

Byzantium might have been fortunate on this occasion that, before he could extend his conquest, al-Mu’tasim’s domestic politics promptly recalled him to the caliphate to deal with plots against his own throne. But the raid devastated the martial credibility of Theophilos the incomparable champion, and with it the credibility of iconoclasm. Nor can there have been much fortune reckoned by the thousands of prisoners marched out of the smouldering ruins of Amorium to the new Arab capital Samarra — among whom we find this post’s titular 42 martyrs.

They were, or at least seemed, the crown jewels among the captives, meaning the ones with cash value. Constantinople and Samarra would engage in periodic negotiations over the next several years to exchange them; the Caliphate’s insistence on obtaining for their return a treasure equal to the cost it had incurred to attack Amorium in the first place put an unbridgeable gap between the sides.

The nameless and rankless commoners among them went to their nameless destinies; undoubtedly their experience was cruel and many died or were killed, but for those who endured the tribulations there was a return to hearth and home in a prisoner exchange in 841.

For the VIPs, deliverance sank into the Mesopotamian mud.

Both Theophilos and al-Mu’tasim died in 842 and sometime around there the respective empires seem to have given up trying to resolve the impasse about the Amorium ransom. A few more years on with no apparent relief forthcoming from the annoyance of maintaining these now-useless prisoners of war, someone in Samarra decided to dispose of them with the ultimatum.

Their martyrs’ glory assured their afterlife in Byzantine religious propaganda. Yes, these two Christian sects had made martyrs of one another within the empire. But iconoclasm really hinged on one crucial argument fatally undone by the 42 martyrs: victory. The pro-icon emperors from 797 to 813 had been associated with retreat and humiliation;§ one had even been killed on campaign in the Balkans leaving the Bulgar king Krum to fashion the imperial skull into a ceremonial goblet. That the iconoclast rulers of the succeeding generation had at least stabilized the situation was their ultimate scoreboard taunt. Amorium dispelled that glow of providential favor, especially when followed by the years-long abandonment of that razed city’s noble hostages to the heathen dungeon.

Little could the monk Euodios know that his iconoclasm-tweaking hagiography of these martyrs would prove a redundant step.

The late Theophilos had only an infant son, so governance after his death fell to a regency led by the empress Theodora. Despite her dead husband’s scruples, Theodora didn’t mind an icon one bit, and restored icon veneration to a favor it would never again lose for the six centuries remaining to Byzantium.

* See for example the leftmost group on the second row in this image. (Located here)

** One of the principal charioteering teams/factions that had, centuries before, nearly overthrown Justinian and Theodora.

† Among the Romans themselves for whom supernatural causation was an assumed fact on the ground, superstitio had a more attenuated meaning, contrasting with religio. That is far afield for this post; I use the term here advisedly from a post-Enlightenment cosmology.

‡ Amorium is no more today: just a ruin buried under a village. But not because of this siege.

§ Charlemagne being crowned “Holy Roman Emperor” in 800 was also a gesture of disregard for a weakened (and at that moment, female-ruled) Byzantium, which dignified itself the Roman Empire despite having long since abandoned Rome itself.

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Entry Filed under: Beheaded,Byzantine Empire,Caliphate,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,History,Iraq,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Religious Figures,Soldiers

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1562: The Massacre of Vassy

Add comment March 1st, 2016 Headsman

March 1 was the date in 1562 of the Massacre of Vassy.


Le Massacre fait a Vassy le premier iour de Mars 1562

This horror supplies to historical periodization the opening date of the Wars of Religion that would ravage France for the balance of the century.

After the shock jousting death of Henri II, sectarian tensions spun out of control under the unsteady succession of sons still in their minority — and the power behind the oft-transferred throne, Catherine de’ Medici.

But Catherine was a foreigner and the royal authority rested uncertainly on her children’s wee heads. Tense as matters already stood between Catholics and Huguenots, the realm’s shaky sovereignty disinhibited both confessions when it came to ever more irksome provocations.

Seeking to steer past the looming civil war, Catherine promulgated a decree of limited toleration for Huguenots, who were now to be permitted to worship publicly outside of towns. This is called the Edict of Saint-German or the Edict of January — as in, January of 1562, two months before our massacre. It is not taught in politics classes as a triumph of governance.

Whether this right even had force of law at the moment of our story is unclear, inasmuch as Catholic parlements whose ratification was required dragged their feet when it came to reading the edict into the statutes. But some incident like this was looming no matter where things stood from a scriptorium proceduralist’s standpoint.

At Vassy (or Wassy) our our date arrived the retinue of Francis, Duke of Guise. The Guises were a proverbial more-Catholic-than-the-Pope house, and Francis was not the sort of man to pass with equanimity the spectacle of Vassy’s Huguenots openly holding heretical services in a barn. His retainers tried to barge in. High words were exchanged. Scuffles gave way to brickbats and when something struck the duke’s own person a vengeful slaughter of the Calvinists ensued.

Warfare followed fast upon the publication of this atrocity. The chief Protestant lord, the Prince of Conde, openly mobilized for hostilities, seizing and fortifying Protestant towns — and the Catholic faction likewise. Inside of a year, Guise himself would be slain during a siege: one of the first wave of casualties amid 36 years of civil war.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,France,God,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Notable Participants,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Summary Executions

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1975: The Gold Bar Murderers

Add comment February 28th, 2016 Headsman

On the last day of February in 1975, seven men from among a gang who authored one of Singapore’s signature murders were hanged at Changi Prison.


(cc) image from Bullion Vault.

Four days after Christmas in 1971, the phone rang for Andrew Chou, an Air Vietnam staffer who had been exploiting his security credentials to smuggle gold bars out of Singapore for several crime syndicates.

It was a fresh delivery for the Kee Guan Import-Export Co. for that evening — to be dropped at Chou’s house as usual.

Chou’s cut of these runs was lucrative, of course: hundreds of thousands in cash, out of which the able crook paid off his own muscle as well as the air crew.

But this night, he intended to take a lump sum.

As the couriers counted out the treasure at Chou’s kitchen table, Chou and associates attacked them. Later, Chou would phone his contacts to advise that the goldmen had never arrived that night: in fact, Ngo Cheng Poh, Leong Chin Woo and Ang Boon Chai had been consigned to the industrial muck of a convenient mining pool.

This incident, soon to be known as the Gold Bar Murders, went wrong very quickly but perhaps the judicial punishment visited on its perpetrators only spared them from a similar underworld revenge. An anonymous tipster had seen the bodies being dumped and police pulled them out of the ooze the next day. The smuggling-murder circle was busted immediately; a few gold bars were recovered from the office of Chou’s brother Davis, and the balance from an associate named Catherine Ang, who had received them for safekeeping from the hands of the killers.

There were 10 in this conspiracy. One, Augustine Ang,* saved his own life by giving evidence against his comrades. Two others, Ringo Lee and Stephen Lee, were minors at the time of the murder and escaped the noose on that basis.

The remaining seven — Andrew Chou, David Chou, Peter Lim, Alex Yau, Richard James, Stephen Francis, and Konesekaran Nagalingam — all hanged without their appeals availing any of them the least whiff of judicial or executive mercy.

* There was no blood relationship between the murderer Augustine Ang, the victim Ang Boon Chai, and the fence Catherine Ang.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Infamous,Mass Executions,Murder,Organized Crime,Pelf,Singapore

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1864: The pirates of the Flowery Land

Add comment February 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1864, four Philippines Spaniards and a Greek Ottoman who once numbered among the crew of the Flowery Land hanged together in London as mutineers and murderers.

The July preceding, that 400-ton merchant barque had set sail from London to Singapore with a cargo of wine. Outfitted for economy,* her crew numbered only 19 souls.**

This floating hamlet manifested in motley miniature Britain’s sun-never-sets empire. Its chief was a Scotsman with the solid name of John Smith; also on board as a passenger was a 20th man, Smith’s brother George.

The skipper’s seconds were two more British mates, names of Carswell (or Karswell) and Taffer (Taffir, Taffar).

Aboard the Flowery Land — aptly named for this metaphor — the Brits had mastery of a mixed-blood crew from many quarters of the globe. It is apparent from the testimony recorded at the Old Bailey that the men had no one lingua franca among them, but got by as can with ad hoc translation and the pidgin cant of the sea. Spanish was frequently heard among the crew: no surprise considering its composition. (The captain was also described as a capable Spanish speaker.)

The accounts identifying the Flowery Land‘s human cargo give perplexing and partial selections, with varying reports of nationalities. The flexible spelling accorded to proper names of the day, a multitude of aliases, and the infelicity most of these men had with English surely contributes to the confusion. But after the captain, the captain’s brother, and the two mates, the ship’s complement appears to have consisted of the following:

  • Six Spanish/Filipino sailors from Manila: John Leone or Lyons, Francisco Blanco, Mauricio Duranno, Basilio de Los Santos, Marcelino Santa Lacroix, and Miguel Lopez aka Joseph Chancis
  • A Levantine Turkish subject of Greek ancestry, Marcus Vartos (called “Watter” in the Old Bailey records)
  • George Carlos, a Greek from Greece
  • Two Spaniards, Jose Williams and Frank Paul or Powell
  • Michael Andersen, a Norwegian
  • Frank Candereau, a Frenchman
  • Frank Early, a 17-year-old English cabin boy
  • A Malay steward, a Chinese cook, and a Chinese lamp-trimmer boy, sometimes described together as “three Chinamen”

According to the evidence, much of it given via translators, during the dark hours before dawn on September 10, several of the Manila crew members surprised first mate Carswell while he was walking a routine nightwatch, beat him wickedly, and pitched him into the sea. The disturbance roused the captain and as he emerged he too was beaten and stabbed to death, as was his brother the passenger.


Are they coming for your daughter next? Cover illustration for the “penny dreadful” Police Crimes.

Having disposed of both the ranking mariners, the mutineers approached Taffer with a classic offer one can’t refuse: as the last capable navigator aboard, he would guide the ship to the Rio de la Plata.

After a three-week journey that was surely very frightening for Taffer, they reached the mouth of that river dividing Argentina from Uruguay and there scuttled the Flowery Land and put ashore in skiffs. Or at least, most of them did so. Ordered off the boat, the Malay steward refused until the Manila conspirators pelted him with champagne bottles from the ship’s store of cargo, finally driving him into the waves where he drowned; John Lyons remarked on some private grievance that must have been shared by his fellows. The Chinese cook and boy apparently suffered a like fate, being left to go down with the sinking ship … or at least that is what the survivors later deposed wish to have understood. Two little boats made landfall from the ill-starred hulk and each boat’s party reports not having the Chinese aboard or seeing what became of them. There is racism, sure — Taffer doesn’t even know the cook’s name — but it seems bizarre and sinister that two people among they this tiny group of seaborne intimates die completely offstage and the rest barely even think to wonder about them. (“I then missed the cook and the lamp-trimmer,” Taffer deposed pre-trial. “Lyons said they had gone down in the ship.” (Glasgow Herald, Jan. 15, 1864)) Be that as it may, the fate of these unfortunates was very far down the list of injuries done by the mutineers to the British Empire and nobody appears to have been inclined to inquire too closely.

So we take them for dead. Strangely, having slain six people, the mutineers did not make Taffer the seventh — a clemency that Taffer did not anticipate, and with which he would soon punish them. Once the remaining crew had made landfall, Taffer well understood how his dangerous position stood in this party and contrived to escape it at the first opportunity.

Once away, he made for Montevideo and presented himself and his shocking story to British authorities. His 13 former mates, many of whom were pretending to have escaped the wreck of an American guano freighter with an eye to hitching on with some other crew and vanishing into the circuits of imperial trade, were soon recognized or rounded up. By December, all 14 survivors were en route to England.

The inexact process of dividing mutineer from bystander had already begun by now, closely tracking racial proximity. The two British subjects, Taffer and Early, shipped home not as pirates but as witnesses, as did the Norwegian and the Frenchmen. The other ten returned in manacles.

Upon inquiry back in London, it was decided that the two Spaniards (the two from Spain, not Manila) could not be shown to have joined or supported the mutiny, only to have gone along with it when it was a fait accompli. They were set at their liberty.

The remaining eight men — the six from Manila plus the Greek from Turkey and the Greek from Greece — faced trial. All but John Carlos were convicted and condemned to death; Carlos, acquitted of the murder of Captain Smith, was vengefully re-indicted that same day for property destruction committed by scuttling the Flowery Land, and caught a 10-year sentence for that.

The why of the mutiny is frustratingly — or conveniently — elided in the testimony that crew members gave the court, and we are perhaps meant to understand broadly, as does this author, that “such a ‘dago’ crew” is ever prone to becoming “saucy” and imperiling all order.

As we query beyond a colonial power’s heart of darkness we quickly enter territory that the original documents did not bother to chart. With any mutiny one’s mind flies to that ancient maritime grievance, “bad usage”. The record gives us only guarded indications, but it touches on poor rations and brutal corporal punishments, albeit isolated ones† (e.g., Michael Andersen: “I have seen the captain strike some of the crew … he struck Watter with his flat hand at the side of the head — I did not see that more than once.”)

Those prosecuted, strangers in a foreign land, do not appear to have made any declaration explaining their own conduct even after sentence was secured though the London Times (Feb. 23, 1864) said that they had communicated to their gaolers that they had been driven to desperation by a mean water ration in the tropical swelter. One British newsman reporting the hanging also marked the omission in a voice that, however tinged with racial condescension, empathizes surprisingly with the hanged.

Nothing can extenuate the ferocity of the group of murders they committed, for the lowest savage is bound to observe the instincts of humanity. But God judges provocations, and weighs the frenzy of ignorant men, goaded to crime, in a finer balance than any earthly one. He knows what secrets are gone down with the Flowery Land, and the dead bodies of her captain and mate; knows whether these five men — now also dead — were treated as it is the custom to treat such poor sweepings of maritime places. The evidence hinted strongly at something of the kind — foul water to drink, and little of it under the tropics, insufficient food, and anger and blows; because, having shipped his crew from Babel, the captain and officers could not understand them or be understood … with decent management this kind of tragedy is next to impossible. Had the crowd at the execution been of the same color and vocation as themselves, sympathy would not have been wanting. It would have been believed — justly or not — from the experience of a hundred miserable voyages, that, knowing no Spanish, their officers had made kicks and cuffs interpret for them, as is the case in many a vessel. If it was so in theirs, how could they explain it? Our language, our courts, our long delays between crime and its penalty, were to them all one mystery. They are of a race that prefers to die and be done with it, rather than to fret and fuss too much against the will of Fate; and though we believe that none of the five were guiltless, we have an uncomfortable suspicion that, had they been English, some different facts would have been brought out at the trial … let us not be suspected of pitying a dusky murderer while we have no compassion for his victims of our own color if we demand that the moral of this offensive sight should be drawn in Manillese as well as English — that captains should learn to treat their lascar like a human being, if they would not have his thick Oriental blood boil into the fury of the brute which they have helped to make him.

The prospect of favoring the London mob with a the group hanging of seven “dusky murderers” — a quantity not seen at Newgate or anywhere else in England in decades — excited quite a lot of fretful commentary both moral and logistical. In the event, Basilio de Los Santos and Marcelino Santa Lacroix both received royal mercy on the strength of a petition, supported by the Spanish consulate and by some of the jurors, claiming diminished responsibility for the maritime coup.

That still left five to swing, which promised a remarkable novelty. There had been hangings of six, seven, and even eight on single occasions at Newgate in the 1800s up until the 1820s. The last such event was a septuple hanging on July 22, 1829. But by the 1840s and 1850s hangings had become solo affairs almost all the time; as of 1864, Londoners had not set eyes on a double execution — to say nothing of larger crops — in full 12 years.

Liberal-minded British elites and especially Fleet Street gasbags were already at this point in high dudgeon at the uncouth behavior of the rabble that flocked to public hangings. They approached this spectacle, whose victims had been hissed by the throngs who hemmed the Old Bailey when they arrived for their trial, pre-outraged, as it were — certain that their countrymen and (what is worse) women would soon set a-gnash all the teeth of the right-thinking.

Under the pious headline “Morality, as taught by Professor Calcraft” — that is, the notorious public executioner — the Newcastle Daily Journal of February 17, 1864 wrote (prior to the reduction of two of the seven sentences):

Next Monday morning, at eight o’clock, the gentle successor of Mr. John Ketch, “assisted” by some twenty thousand blood-thirsty ruffians of every grade and station, — ruffians with “handles to their names” from Belgravia, and ruffians with a score of aliases rom the Seven Dials, — will have the gratification of butchering seven of his immortal fellow-creatures, in the name of Justice and with the sanction of the Gospel — as represented by the Rev. John Davis, Ordinary of Newgate. What a thrill of delight will run through his veins as he draws the bolt and offers up this seven-fold sacrifice! How intensely pleasing must be the effect produced upon the spectators by the sight of seven dying men writhing in the agonies of the last struggle at the self-same moment! And what a grand sensation picture will the whole affair form for the pen of Monsieur Assolant, or any other French critic on English manners who may chance to be present!

[W]e are compelled to inquire whether something cannot be done to put a stop to those public exhibitions, so brutal in themselves, and so demoralising in their results, of which we are on Monday next to have so terrible a specimen. Public opinion may, for many years to come, sanction the punishment of death, but it cannot much longer permit the most awful of all spectacles to be made a show for the gratification of the vilest of either sex.

Only those whose misfortune it is to have been compelled to attend public executions, can form any conception of their unspeakable horrors, or of the injurious influence they exercise upon the mob who witness them. Let our readers thank God that it has never been their awful duty to … stand upon the scaffold whilst one of God’s creatures, made in His own image, is thrust into Eternity amid shrieks and blasphemies so appalling that the infernal world itselff could scarcely equal them. And let them on no account imagine that this is an over-drawn picture. It was such a spectacle as this that a few heart-sickened men were compelled to witness, less than twelve months since, in this very town of Newcastle, as they gathered round George Vass in his cell and on the scaffold; and those who heard the yells of positive exultation, the screams of delight with which the victim of the law was hailed on that occasion when he appeared before the herd of brutes assembled to see him die, and who afterwards heard the conversation which filled every tavern in the neighbourhood, must have had all preconceived notions with respect to the beneficial influence of capital punishments upon the public forevver dispelled … it is only gross ignorance or hardened sin that can venture to maintain that a public execution is other than a public lesson in blasphemy, murder, and infidelity.

Certainly execution day turned out the city in quantity. Following the funereal procession from within prison walls, the Times of London (Feb. 23, 1864) heard “the shouts and cries and uproar of the mob” as “a loud indistinct noise like the roar of the angry sea.” This sea swelled 20,000 strong or 25 or 30, and adjacent apartments with suitable sightlines reportedly renting for 75 guineas. As he zoomed upon the end of his life in the insane eye of such a spectacle, one of the mutineers, Duranno, swooned in vertigo and sagged against the already-attached noose until warders could retrieve a stool to prop him up while his fellows were marched out in turn.

Was it wise, just, and conducive to moral hygiene to expose such scenes to the general public? Even if the tide was turning against that classic tableau, and would before the 1860s were out be resolved to the permanent detriment of public executions, many still rose to defend their propriety. The exceptional character of the Flowery Land case made it a sure candidate for the respective partisans in that argument who wished — to appropriate a latter-day shibboleth — to control narrative. Each found on the Newgate gallows what they wished and expected to see; indeed, found with suspect familiarity.

The Feb. 23 Daily Telegraph, which supplies us the humane remarks on treating lascars like human beings extensively excerpted above, was full aghast.

The five pirates have died that horrible death by which it is still believed evil natures are terrified from crime, and society edified as to the sacredness of human life. We wish that we could think so in view of that surging, blasphemous, excited crowd that treated the occasion as a drama of the liveliest sensational kind — with nothing to pay for a place — and homicide, not fictitious, but natural and authentic, perpetrated before their eyes. In grimy, haggard thousands, the thieves and prostitutes of London and the suburbs gathered about the foot of the big gallows, jamming and crushing each other for a share of the spectacle. … The accounts of the demeanor of the crowd answer the question, whether it is good to gather for such a sight the scum and dregs of a vast city. Coarse, heartless, bestial, and brutalised by the official manslaughter which they had witnessed, the drabs and pickpockets made a “finish” of it in the public-houses, canvassing the skill of Jack Ketch and the “gameness” of each of his swarthy patients. The hideous roar that went up at the various stages of the sight was not the expression of gratified justice: it was the howl of the circus at the smell of blood — the grunt of what is hog-like in our nature at suffering we do not share. … Let us dismiss this devilish carousal of agony on one side, and eager excitement on the other, with its accompaniment of brutality and disorder ten times aggravated, and ask whether such a sight was wisely furnished, since we cannot call in question its jutice, so long as blood is purged with blood and a Mosaic law governs a Christian nation?

Whew!

The Times for its part had no use for the fainting-couch routine, insisting that reverent “deep silence” had reigned among the rude multitude once the moment of execution arrived, broken only as “the gibbet creaked audibly.” Opposite the detailed report of its delegate to Newgate, it presented a pseudoymous letter quite at odds with the Telegraph:

Sir, — I am not ashamed to avow that I went this morning to the hanging of the five pirates at the Old Bailey, and I am concerned to state my impressions at this public spectacle, because they were so utterly different from all which I have heard or read, or which it is the current fashion or folly to express at such exhibitions.

It was to me the most solemn sight I ever witnessed — an instance of the punishment which awaits a bloody crime, where mercy is not prostituted or justice defrauded by the mitigation, without reason, of a salutary doom.

As I watched from a commanding position an enormous crowd of spectators, which I should not hesitate to compute at as many as 20,000 or 25,000, chiefly men, and surveyed the sea of faces at the fatal instant when the drop fell and their expression was generalized by a sudden and common emotion, I should say that the pervading feeling was a cordial acceptance of the act then transacted before them, and a complete recognition that it was just and inevitable.

I am convinced that there were few present who could have escaped this emotion and conviction, from the sudden silence and entranced interest of this multitude of men; and if there had been previously some levity on the part of the lowest who had waited for this catastrophe, I am satisfied that at the last moment the better nature of all responded in concert to the terrible appeal, and that the sum total was a public good.

This is so different from the effect which others ascribe to such scenes that I ask to state my own conviction, and to subscribe myself

Yours faithfully,
VIGIL

Neither the dignified decorum nor the raucous carousing of the crowd under the Newgate gallows prevented the infamous crime from doing a sharp trade in the mass entertainment ventures of the day, from disposable true-crime pulp to Allsop’s Waxwork Exhibition. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a boy still shy of his fifth birthday at the moment the traps opened, surely absorbed some of this cultural ejecta in his growing-up years; he eventually dramatized “The True Story of the Tragedy of Flowery Land” in a short story.

* Since barques could be handled by a small crew, they had carved out a large slice of the world’s shipping lanes in the Golden Age of Sail … right before steam power showed up and relegated them to the sideline.

** Compare to the likes of the HMS Bounty, with a complement of 46 — requiring a numerically wider network of plotters. This vulnerability a minimalistic crew had to a mere handful of malcontents appears again a decade later with the mutiny of the Lennie (crew: 16).

† One possible way to interpret the evidence is that the first mate Carswell was the brutal overseer. In a deposition that Taffer only passingly alludes to during his Old Bailey testimony, he described how Carswell thrashed John Carlos, citing sickness, refused to take his turn at the watch, and even lashed Carlos to the mast. The captain arrived a few minutes later and had Carlos untied and sent back to berth, with medicine. The mate is also the man to whom Taffer attributes some “corrective” beatings with ropes.

One can at a stretch imagine what occurred on September 10 as an attempt “only” to murder Carswell, perhaps then to attribute his absence come morning to some mysterious nighttime accident overboard — but that the personal settling of scores mushroomed into a full-blown mutiny when the captain presented himself and the logic of the situation required his destruction, too. Taffer said that the mutineers had to confer among themselves where to make him steer the ship they had taken possession of, perhaps corroborating a more improvised series of events. This, however, is an entirely speculative reading; there is plenty of other evidence to suggest intentional coordination.

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1945: 59 collaborationists in Bulgaria

Add comment February 13th, 2016 Headsman

New York Times, Feb. 14, 1945

59 Are Executed in Bulgaria

ISTANBUL, Turkey, Feb. 13 (U.P.) — The People’s Court at Philippopolis, Bulgaria, pronounced fifty-nine death sentences against collaborationists today, and those who were sentenced were executed.

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2015: Liu Han, former tycoon

1 comment February 9th, 2016 Headsman

One year ago today, Chinese billionaire Liu Han was executed in Hubei province, along with his younger brother Liu Wei and thee other associates.

One of the prime catches in the anti-corruption hunt of current president Xi Jinping, Liu was a mining oligarch whose personal fortune was once valued at $6.4 billion.

He was also allegedly “an organized crime boss that no one dared provoke”. He was arrested early in 2014 for embezzlement, gun-running, and orchestrating a hit on a rival crime lord.

Liu’s fall was widely perceived as a strike against his close ally, the powerful former security minister Zhou Yongkang. After months — years even — of rumors about his impending fate, Zhou was arrested for corruption in December 2014; he has since been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

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1721: William Spigget, after peine forte et dure

Add comment February 8th, 2016 Headsman

English courts during the Bloody Code were strewn with all manner of weird pre-modern juridical relics, among which one must surely number the peine forte et dure — the “hard and forceful penalty” applied by courts against a defendant who refused to submit a plea.

The jurisdiction of criminal courts that we take for granted today initially emerged opposite potentially rival legal mechanisms for dispute resolution: ecclesiastical courts, weregild, even trial by combat. In principle, a defendant entering a plea at the bar was submitting himself to the specific jurisdiction of the court … a submission that, in principle, he could decline.

The march from that point to the present — when refusing to plead means the court simply enters an automatic “not guilty” plea on your behalf — consisted of gradually making the principle impossible in practice by dint of physical violence to force open the prisoner’s lips. It doesn’t matter if you lift a finger to defend yourself at trial, Mack, but we need you to say “guilty” or “not guilty” first.

The French term itself dates to a statute of Edward I in 1275, under the heading “The Punishment of Felons refusing lawful Trial” — one of those situations where the existence of the legislation proves the existence of the phenomenon. “Notorious Felons, and which openly be of evil Name,” the text complains, “will not put themselves in Enquests of Felonies, that Men shall charge them with before the Justices at the King’s Suit, shall have strong and hard Imprisonment (la prisone forte et dure), as they which refuse to stand to the Common Law of the Land.”

The text’s language suggests close confinement, fetters and guards, crummy rat-gnawed rations in the dumpiest hole of the dungeon: probably the king who introduced hanging, drawing, and quartering could make “hard imprisonment” quite persuasively uncomfortable.

But by the time of Queen Elizabeth, the state saw the need to narrow this potential refuge from the law down to the size of a pinprick. From the 16th century, we find that a special form of torturing to death is designed for prisoners refusing to plead:

the Prisoner is laid in a low dark Room in the Prison, all naked but his Privy Members, his Back upon the bare Ground his Arms and Legs stretched with Cords, and fastned to the several Quarters of the Room. This done, he has a great Weight of Iron and Stone laid upon him. His Diet, till he dies, is of three Morsels of Barley bread without Drink the next Day.*

“Which grievous death some resolute Offenders have chosen,” we understand, “to save their Estates to their Children.” Even this potential pecuniary loophole — the one once sought by Salem witch trials victim Giles Corey when he preferred pressing to death to the certainty of condemnation as a warlock — had vanished, for “in case of High Treason, the Criminal’s Estate is forfeited to the Sovereign, as in all capital Crimes, notwithstanding his being pressed to Death.”

The crown was trying to open an impassable gap between theory and practice, and it was accomplishing that end: this stuff happened once in a blue moon.

People threatened to withhold their plea, sure. What would follow is that a judge would read out in chilling detail everything that was about to befall the fellow (it was usually a fellow, though not always), then a bailiff would seize him and painfully tie his thumbs together right there in court, then march him off to the staking-out room to get things ready. Just showing the instruments of torture was the first rung on the torture-ladder, and usually somewhere in this whole process the defendant — be he ever so hardened — would chicken out and agree to make a plea before the first weight was ever loaded onto his torso.

Usually.

A Tyburn hanging is the focus of this post: it’s a mass execution of seven souls on the 8th of February in 1721. So the peine forte et dure did indeed do its job, force its plea, and noose its man.

But even though William Spigget/Spiggot died at the end of a rope, he was the rare soul who did go so far as to force the awful pressing torture, and to endure it for a little while.

Spigget led a robber gang of eight or so men preying on the roads out of London; one of those men, Thomas Phillips aka Thomas Cross, hanged alongside his boss. They had been caught only days before their eventual trial on January 13, and Spigget bravely, stubbornly, or foolishly refused to submit his plea. (Cross at first refused too, but he was in the chicken-out camp.)

The Ordinary of Newgate, plainly struck by the experience (and not a little aware of its potential to move copy), dwelt at greater length on Spigget’s 30 minutes under the stones than he did on the whole lives of some of the other February 8 hang-day compatriots.

Before he was Put into the Press, I went to Him, and endeavour’d to dissuade him, from being the Author and Occasion of his own Death; and from cutting Himself off from that Space and Time which the Law allowed Him, to repent in, for his vicious Course of Life: He then told me, that if I came to take Care of his Soul, he would regard Me, but if I came about his Body, he desired to be excused, he could not hear one Word. After a while, I left him, and when I saw him again, it was in the Vault, upon the bare Ground, with the Weights (viz. 350 pounds) upon his Breast. I there pray’d by him; and at Times ask’d him, why he would destroy his Soul as well as Body, by such an obstinate Kind of Self-Murder:** All his Answer was, Pray for Me; Pray for Me! In the Midst of his Groans, he sometimes lay silent, as if Insensible of Pain; then would fetch his Breath very quick and fast. Two or three Times, he complained that they had laid a cruel Weight on his Face; tho’ nothing was upon his Face, but a thin Cloth; That was however remov’d and laid more light and hollow; but he still complain’d of the prodigious Weight they had laid upon his Face; which might be occasion’d by the Blood being flush’d and forc’d up into his Face, and pressing as violently against the Veins and small Tendrills there, as if the Pressure upon them had been externally on his Face. When he had continu’d about half an Hour in the Torture, and 50 pound more of Weight had been laid on his Breast, he told the Justice of Peace who committed him, and myself, That he would Plead.

Having thus been awed by 400 pounds of the law’s majesty — and restored to something like sensibility with a splash of brandy, and several days’ rest during which Spigget’s post-ordeal health at times turned so precarious that he besought the last sacrament — both the apex robber and his henchman were easily convicted of several specific robberies upon the roads. One victim was able to identify the two as his assailants; in other cases, specific victims’ stolen goods were recovered from Spigget’s own lodgings, like Neal Sheldon’s valuable wig. Any one of these crimes would have been good enough to hang them.

Showing honor among thieves, the two men concentrated their few remarks on clearing a third confederate tried with them: the evidence against William Heater being circumstantial, and Spigget and Cross insisting that he was more incidental flunky than accomplice, his neck went un-stretched.

So why endure the hard and forceful penalty at all? By all appearances Spigget’s reason in the end resolved to pride: a violently exaggerated performance of the same criminal bravado that led so many of his peers to make a show of dying game at the gallows. “The Reasons, as far as I could learn from Him,” the Ordinary reported,

were, That he might preserve his Effects, for the use of his Family; That it might not be urged to his Children, that their Father was hanged; and that — Linsey should not tryumph over him, by saying he had sent him to Tyburn.

(Joseph Lin(d)sey was a former fellow-robber who saved his own life by turning crown’s evidence against his former mates. Spigget, we are told, was particularly galled by this betrayal “because Spigget had once rescued him [Lindsey] when he was nigh being taken, and in the defending him was wounded, and in danger of his Life.”)

As we have noted, Blighty’s seizure laws had already made the first objective a nonstarter, which leaves our man aspiring to a desperate exertion of masculine defiance. The Spigget of his own mind’s eye was a knight of the road so scornful of death that he would even let them slowly crush him to death. He fell short on that score, but dared much more than anyone had done in years, and no wonder: even the moments he endured as if hours might have been enough to shorten his years had he received an unlikely reprieve.

Sometimes he would say, that he wish’d he had dy’d in the Pressing, For that all sence of Pain was by the Pain taken from him, and he was fallen into a kind of Slumber. At other Times he express’d himself, that he was glad he did not cut himself off, by his Obstinacy, from that space the Law had allow’d him, for his Repentance, for the Sins of his whole Life.

On Monday, February 6, before the Execution, he receiv’d the Sacrament; and said that he desir’d not to Live, for he could be only a weak and unhealthy Man; and added that he could raise his Breath only in the lower Part of his Stomach

* This is not statutory language but that of a contemporary observer.

** The Ordinary really fixated on the suicide angle, just as if entering the trial were not an equally suicidal choice; the whole lot of the condemned got to hear as part of his sermon

That it was a False-Courage, for Malefactors assured that they shall dye, to lay violent Hands upon Themselves, to prevent the effects of the Law; and that if it was an Action fit for Socrates and Cato, and the greatest Heathens; it was yet too mean and indecent for the lowest Christian; as there is something Cowardly and Base, in cutting off our Lives, for fear of Pain and Shame. Nor would Sampson perhaps have obtain’d Licence from God, to Murder Himself, but that in his Person the Name of his God was mocked and ridiculed, and made a Jest for Dagon.

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1970: Nineteen in Baghdad

Add comment January 22nd, 2016 Headsman

From the Jan. 23, 1970 Times of India:

Damascus, January 22.

Iraq’s execution mill worked without let-up today with 36 people put to death in 24 hours — all but seven of them accused of plotting to overthrow the Government.

Seven of the men, not connected with the plot, were convicted in November of spying for the U.S., Radio Baghdad said.

It identified one of them, Albert Nounou, as a Jew.

The 29 people who were accused of trying to overthrow the leftist regime of President Ahmed Hassan al Bakr on Tuesday night and early yesterday faced firing squads or hangmen.

Mr. Bakr addressed crowds outside the Presidential palace, saying that any plot against his Government would “only lead to the cutting of the plotters’ throats,” Radio Baghdad said.

DETAILS GIVEN

The executioners worked past midnight yesterday, carrying out death sentences given to 22 persons convicted of the coup attempt.

Then at dawn, the seven people convicted in November were put to death. A few hours later, Radio Baghdad said six Army officers and a civilian were doomed by a special court for taking part in the attempted coup. Shortly thereafter, the military men were shot by firing squad and the civilian was hanged.

The Government newspaper, “Al Thawra,” said firing squads were using the plotters’ own weapons for the executions.

The Baghdad broadcast said that in addition to the six military men and civilians executed this morning, the court had sentenced three other people to life imprisonment. –U.N.I.

From the Jan. 23, 1970 London Times, under the headline “Toll of executions in Iraq reaches 41″:

Baghdad, Jan. 22. — The abortive coup d’etat in Iraq on Tuesday was engineered with the assistance of the Israel, American, and Iranian secret services, the Iraq news agency said tonight. It made the accusation after the executions of two more soldiers and three civilians, bringing to 41 the total number of alleged plotters executed in Baghdad either by firing squads or hanging since yesterday morning.

Two more men were waiting execution after sentence.

Some 3,000 sub-machineguns, 650,000 rounds of ammunition, and a mobile radio transmitted had been seized, the agency stated.

Earlier today Iraq accused the Iranian Ambassador and four members of his Embassy staff of being implicated in the coup attempt, and ordered them to leave the country within 24 hours.

In Teheran, Iran retaliated by giving the Iraq Ambassador, the military attache, and his three assistants 24 hours to leave Iranian soil. It also ordered the closure of all Iraq consulates in Iran. — Agence France Presse and Reuter

Part of the Daily Double: Saddam Hussein crushes a coup.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Iraq,Mass Executions,Notable Participants,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,Treason

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1970: Twenty-two in Baghdad

Add comment January 21st, 2016 Headsman

From the Jan. 22, 1970 London Times:

Baghdad, Jan 21. — Twenty-two people were executed in Baghdad today for plotting to overthrow the Iraq Government.

First of all three retired Army men and two serving officers were executed by firing squad. Seventeen more executions were carried out tonight and Baghdad radio said a special three-man tribunal set up to try the plotters was still meeting.

The radio had interrupted its programmes to announce the discovery of a plot, crushed by tanks last night, against the ruling Baath Party. All the plotters were arrested, it said.

Two Government soldiers had died in putting down the conspiracy, the radio said. An official funeral for them will be held in Baghdad tomorrow, and the radio called on the people to attend in thousands.

Although there were no details of how many plotters were arrested, the fact that clashes occurred suggested to observers that an actual attempt had been made against the Government when the Army moved in. Tanks from Rashid Army camp, on the fringes of the capital’s suburbs, foiled the plot, according to the official Iraq news agency.

The radio claimed that the United States, Britain and West Germany were behind the attempted coup.

The Middle East News Agency said some Army officers pretended to join the conspirators and then reported them to the authorities.

The executed men were accused of plotting against the socialist regime of President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr in the interests of “imperialism and Zionism”. –Reuter, A.P. and U.P.I.

Part of the Daily Double: Saddam Hussein crushes a coup.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Iraq,Mass Executions,Notable Participants,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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