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.
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.
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
** 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.
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.
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
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.
One of these, Donald Sherman Staley, was a hated sex-murderer who had raped and killed boys in Calgary and Alberta that summer. But he is the undercard in this event.*
The remaining four were all German prisoners of war from the lately concluded world war. They did not, as their onetime commanders in Europe, face judgment for war crimes: no, Bruno Perzonowsky, Walter Wolf, Heinrich Busch and Willi Mueller had while marking time in the Medicine Hat POW camp contrived to execute a fellow-prisoner as a subversive.
Naturally this camp “execution” was rank murder from a legal perspective. But the day-to-day reality of the Medicine Hat camp was that the few Canadian officials banked on the 12,000 or so German detainees to run the place themselves.**
Medicine Hat’s German leadership consisted of Nazi ideologues, but the politics and life experiences of its inmates, regular grunts snatched from various battlefields, deviated widely from the Reich’s ideal. In 1943, convinced that the less fascist elements in camp were cogitating a plot to displace the Nazi silverbacks in camp, that clique convened a drumhead trial and hanged August Plaszek, a Catholic and former French Foreign Legionnaire.
After the war ended, this murder too resulted in a hanging — but as of the second killing that is the focus of this post, the Canadian investigation was being stonewalled and the true believer types still bossed Medicine Hat with near-impunity.
The second murder was triggered by a threat not to Nazi authority in Medicine Hat — but in Berlin.
After the shock of the Valkyrie plot that came within a whisker of assassinating Hitler, the Fuhrer publicly demanded a purge of traitors, anywhere and everywhere.
The POW Karl Lehmann was just such a one, to Hitlerian eyes. Another Catholic — a dubiousclass for sure — Lehmann was a husky former languages professor who had been dragooned into the military and subsequently captured in Tunisia.† He had been in Medicine Hat for two years when Col. Stauffenberg’s bomb went off in Wolfsschanze, growing ever bolder vilifying the Third Reich and anticipating its approaching defeat.
In September 1944, our quartet of future gallows-fodder lured Lehmann to a room where he sometimes gave lectures, and there began browbeating him about communists in camp. As Lehmann vainly denied any such connection, his assailants got a noose around him and hoisted him to his death.
Having now had two political assassinations on their watch, Canada finally got serious and threatened the entire population of prisoners with the prospect of being punished as murderers were they merely to fail to report a murder plot to which they had become privy. They also started reshuffling the prisoner population in an effort to break up the Nazi prison gang. Both measures worked — aided, of course, by the advance of Allied armies in the European theater — and nobody had the ill fortune to follow Karl Lehmann’s fate.
Lethbridge Gaol had to be outfitted with a whole new condemned bloc just to hold the prisoners bound for their end this date. (Its existing capacity was only two.)
* Staley’s desperate argument for clemency was that he was a “sexual insane” who could not govern his compulsions: “I must have been born this way and should not be held responsible for what I done, but should receive treatment of some kind instead of being condemned to die for something I can’t help.” “Merciful” proposals ran towards employing him as a guinea pig for mental health hospitals’ experiments with, e.g., lobotomy.
** Canada’s deference to German detainees also made it party to a scandalous execution of Wehrmacht deserters conducted by a surrendered German army in Canadian custody in 1945. (Canada helpfully supplied their prisoners the necessary guns.)
† Under Field Marshal Rommel‘s command, no less: though he was perhaps Hitler’s ablest general, the Desert Fox all but openly disdained national socialism. He was himself implicated in the July 20 plot, and made to commit suicide.
Days earlier, Jang Sung-taek (alternatively, Song-taek, Sung-thaek, and various similar transliterations) had suffered an extremely visible fall when, in a Saddam-like twist, he was arrested on live television in the midst of a politburo meeting.
Image from KCTV (North Korea) shows Jang Sung-taek being arrested during a politburo meeting in Pyongyang.
Even so, the severity of his treatment was a surprise given his family tie to the supreme leader (he was the husband of Kim Jong-il‘s sister).
Long one of the secretive state’s top officials — his prestige recovered from two previous falls from favor in the late 1980s and early 2000s — Jang was among the officials involved in the transfer of power from the late Kim Jong-il to the young dictator Kim Jong-un. Though it is uncertain exactly what brought about his destruction — speculation ran to differing philosophies of economic development and/or raw power rivalry — a denounced by North Korea as “despicable human scum … worse than a dog” for his “thrice-cursed acts of treachery” and “decadent capitalist lifestyle.”
Jang was executed by shooting: machine gun fire in the “normal” version, or the more spectacular novelty of anti-aircraft fire by some accounts. (Reports to the effect that Jang was executed by being fed to a pack of wild dogs can still be found, but this story was fabricated by a satirist and its subsequent circulation cautions against a propensity to give credence to every lurid rumor about North Korea.)
Seven people were hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1754.
For these minor malefactors — six thieves and a murderer, the latter of whom was ordered for posthumous anatomization — we simply cull from the day’s ordinary’s account, and focus on one Eleanor Connor.
A Catholic Irishwoman “about 35 years of age” and familiar by several aliases, she evidently refused to confide in the Protestant divine whose business it was to harrow the doomed prisoners’ souls. “How, or to what she was brought up, we have no authority to say,” her interlocutor puzzles. “No other account can be given of her, than what her behaviour has afforded, since she has been in England.”
She had been in London from a decade or so since, an inveterate pickpocket haunting “the theaters, and Covent Garden” and indeed “any public places … convenient for carrying on such practices.”
Arrested in Bristol in 1748, the hanging sentence was moderated to convict transportation. But an indenture to a distant master on the fringe of the New World wilderness was itself such a frightful fate that prisoners were occasionally known to prefer death outright; Eleanor Connor was just this side of such desperation, for she made bold to depart her prison ship shortly after it set sail by hurling herself off the deck under cover of poor weather to be retrieved from the waves by some boats hired by her partners in the underworld. While the Ordinary passes over this extraordinary gambit in a sentence or two, surely such a desperate and dangerous escape has as just a claim on poetic commemoration as any adventure of Turpin. A brine-drenched Eleanor Connor and her friends must have drank off the chills of the sea that night beside an exultant hearth.
Here she disappears from the annals of the courts, and hence from the Ordinary’s capacity to track her; by rumor he understands that she has changed her location often and her husbands nearly so much, navigating the margins as a picaro in both England and Ireland.
Around 1752 she appeared in Liverpool, making an honest go of it as a chandler. Into her thirties now and having passed through who knows what scrapes in the meantime, perhaps she was considering the limitations a criminal career based on manual dexterity might impose upon her once youth slipped away. But whether due to old habit or the capital requirements of a business startup, she did not yet abandon her diving profession and was caught picking the pocket of a gentlewoman at the marketplace. Once again she was imprisoned, and once again the camaraderie of the criminal caste came to her rescue, overpowering the turnkey on a pretended jail visit and liberating Eleanor. Whatever else one might say of this woman, she inspired the loyalty of her friends: one very much wishes we somehow had a record of her many adventures outside the gaze of the law.
Whatever they were, there were not many more of them. Soon after the band had relocated to London, our habitual cutpurse was recognized as a fugitive and taken up once more. It was a simple matter to reinstate her old suspended death sentence from that original Bristol conviction.
Condemned in February, she convinced a jury of matrons that she was quick with child … but after several months it became apparent that this was a ruse. The Ordinary is small enough to sneer at this intrepid character’s unavailing attempts to rescue her life yet again by making herself sympathetic to the magistrates: “she was not yet without some excuse, she pretended to be very weak after labour, and begged the court would take it into consideration, (a common expression, without any real meaning, among these unhappy wretches) and transport her for life; but she was ordered now to her former sentence.”
On this date in 1986, during the opening months of a guerrilla war that would last until 1992, a 70-man detachment of Suriname soldiers raided the village of Moiwana, home of the rebel leader Ronnie Brunswijk, and massacred dozens of people.
Drawing made c. 1990 by an eight-year-old refugee of Moiwana. Image from Richard Price’s “The Killings in Suriname”, Cultural Anthropology, November 1995.
Sealing the roads, the team went house to house for four hours, torching houses and slaughtering any of the Ndyuka civilians who couldn’t escape into the surrounding jungle.
“Everyone was shot — the unarmed women, pregnant women, a baby barely seven months old,” goes the account in Memre Moiwana, a publication of the NGO Moiwana ’86. “No distinctions were made.” Some were mowed down with automatic weapons; others slashed to death with machetes. At least 38 people died, though various sources posit estimates running to upwards of 50.
In the weeks following, nearby Ndjuka villages in eastern Suriname shared a like fate, often bombarded by helicopters and finished off with bulldozers while death squads hunted suspected guerrillas. The U.S. State Department reported 244 Ndyuka people killed that December. A United Nations investigator entering the area months later reported that “no human being or living creature was seen apart from starving dogs in [one such town] Albina. The jungle vegetation had taken over the destroyed buildings.”
A police inspector named Herman Eddy Gooding who had the temerity to investigate these massacres while the guerrilla war was still ongoing was found mysteriously shot dead in 1990. (See Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial) In 2005, however, survivors of Moiwana won a suit against the army of Suriname before the Inter American Court of Human Rights.
For many generations from the 14th to 17th centuries, new Ottoman heirs maintained themselves by the cruel practice of preventive fratricide.
Enforced at varying levels of systematicity, the destruction of the men best positioned to assert a claim of bloodline legitimacy against the new sultan might arguably have been one of the bulwarks of the empire’s prosperity. It insulated the Sultanate from protracted succession crises, civil war, and political fragmentation. With each generation’s passing, power coalesced into one man.
The sagacity, if not the humanity, of Bayezid’s action was underscored in 1402 when Bayezid was captured in battle by the Timurids and the ensuing 11-year “Ottoman Interregnum” saw the empire strained near to breaking as brother fought brother for succession until Mehmed I emerged victorious in 1413. Having attained power by killing off three siblings, he got the nickname “Mehmed Kirisci” — “Bowstring Mehmed”, after the implement by which the mighty were strangled out of the Turkish game of thrones.
And whoever of my children manages to reach the throne, it is fitting that he should kill his brothers, for the sake of the order of the world. Most of the ulema permit that. Let them act on that. (Source)
In Mehmed the Conqueror’s day, the child “managing to reach the throne” was the winner among the sons, who were posted to various regional outposts to earn their spurs in governance, in a scramble back to the Porte upon word of the old man’s death. This meant that in life, the boys were in a constant struggle for the privilege of central assignments and to nurture their own palace networks who when the day came could provide speedy notification of the impending succession and smooth recognition of a claim by the state apparatus. “The first son to reach the capital and win recognition by the court and the imperial troops became the new ruler,” Donald Quataert writes. “This was not a very pretty method; nonetheless it did promote the accession of experienced, well-connected, and capable individuals to the throne, persons who had been able to win support from the power brokers of the system.” The sitting sultans naturally put their own thumbs on the scale, too.
We are arriving, ever so circuitously, to the date’s honorees, and as one might suppose they were princes of the blood.
Come 1512, we find Mehmed the Conqueror’s son Bayezid II forcibly deposed by his son Selim. All those incentives favoring experienced, well-connected and capable individuals could also induce such a figure to take his advantage when it presented itself rather than awaiting the mischance of racing messengers. In Selim’s case, the father openly favored a different brother, Ahmet, so Selim and Ahmet were at each other’s throats (and dad’s too) well before Bayezid departed the scene.
Long story short, Selim got the kingmaking Janissaries on his side and lodged himself in the palace but his brother fought on against him. Selim would have to secure his power in 1512-1513 by an unusually thorough purge that set him up to earn the nickname “Selim the Grim”.*
Selim had seven brothers, five of whom were fortunate enough to predecease their father, and these seven brothers had collectively fathered nine sons of their own. Selim had quite a number possible rivals to dispose of.
In the months after his conquest of power, Selim wintered in Bursa, where he had interred five of his young nephews. (The other four nephews were all Ahmet’s sons, and still at large.) Some bout of fresh resistance by Ahmet induced Selim, on November 27, 1512, to do the grim thing:
The eldest of them, Osman, son of Prince Alemshah, was twenty years old; the youngest, Mahomet, son of Prince Schehinshah, was only seven. Selim sent Janissaries to apprehend them, and they were shut up by his orders in one apartment of the palace. On the next morning, the Sultan’s mutes entered to put them to death. A fearful scene ensued, which Selim witnessed from an adjoining chamber. The youngest of the captive princes fell on their knees before the grim executioners, and with tears and childish prayers and promises begged hard for mercy. The little Prince Mahomet implored that his uncle would spare him, and offered to serve him all the days of his life for an aspre (the lowest of all coins) a day. The elder of the victims, Prince Osman, who knew that there was no hope of mercy, rushed fiercely upon the murderers, and fought hard for a time against them. One of the mutes was struck dead, and another had his arm broken. Selim ordered his personal attendants to run in and assist in the execution; and at length the unhappy princes were overpowered by numbers, and strangled. Their bodies were deposited with all display of royal pomp near the sepulchre of Amurath II. (Source)
Six months later, Ahmet — defeated and in his own turn throttled with a bowstring — joined them in the same tomb.
* All told, Selim the Grim ordered something like 30,000 executions in his eight-year reign.