Posts filed under 'Escapes'

1939: The 18 corpses of the rebellion

Add comment December 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1939, 18 junior officers of the Thai military were shot in Bangkok.

Ostensibly condemned for being part of a coup plot to depose the adolescent King Ananda Mahidol in favor of his abdicated predecessor Prajadhipok, they were in reality the casualties of a purge by the Field Marshal-turned-Prime Minister Phibun Songkhram.

It’s alternatively transliterated “Phibun Songkhram” or “Pibunsonggram”, and familiarly abbreviated to “Por”, but by any name he dominated Thai politics for a generation.

One of the military leaders of the bloodless 1932 Siamese Revolution that made the country a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy, Phibun had in 1938 muscled his way to the Prime Ministership.

Beset by assassination attempts linked to royal revanchists to whose purposes the young turk’s programme was deeply inimical, Phibun determined to break the back of monarchism en route to a modernized, militaristic nationalism (pdf) that would be right at home in the imminent world war.*

As 1939 opens, we join the narrative of Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles:

Phibun swept the capital and arrested 50 royals, nobles, and soldiers in the clique of his People’s Party rival Colonel Song Suradej for plotting his overthrow …

Whatever the truth behind the cabal, its quashing came to represent the final victory of the 1932 revolutionists and the constitutionalists over the monarchists. To mark it, Phibun commissioned a huge monument to the constitution, later called Democracy Monument, in the middle of the city’s main thoroughfare, Rajadamnoen (“royal progress”) Avenue.


The Democracy Monument in Bangkok.

The eighteen officers who took it in the shorts on this date were not joined by condemned VIPs like royal blood Prince Rangsit, who copped a commutation. It’s widely thought now that the “Songsuradet Rebellion” — or aptly-named “Rebellion of 18 Corpses” — was trumped-up, if not an phantasm altogether.

The Democracy Monument was not the only bulwark of Thai nationalism thrown up by Phibun in the year between the “conspirators'” January arrest and their deaths this day.**

He dropped the old absolutist name “Siam” in favor of the more nationalistic “Thailand” in June of that year; made the date of the 1932 revolution a national holiday; stripped the language of class-distinctive structures; and pressed irredentist claims against neighboring French colonies.

And if the royal house was efficiently marginalized by Phibun, it would yet develop in the latter part of the century into one of the region’s weightiest political entities† … intertwined with the Thai military Phibun helped hoist to pride of place, a formula that has left coups and unstable governments a presistent feature of the political landscape down to the present day.

* And subsequently, too. Despite aligning with the Axis powers during World War II, Phibun was a feted anti-Communist dictator as Washington started counting dominoes in Southeast Asia in the 1950’s.

** The Wikipedia page for the rebellion claims that the executions were carried out in batches of four per day. A New York Times report of December 6, 1939 said that all 18 had been executed the previous day.

† The current King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who coincidentally turns 81 today, is the world’s longest-reigning monarch as of this writing … with no shortage of concern about the conflict his passing may unstop.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Escapes,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Thailand,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1638: Three (of four) English colonists for murdering a Native American

6 comments September 4th, 2008 dogboy

Four hundred years removed from the events surrounding the colonization of Massachusetts by English settlers through the 1620’s, it’s difficult to properly evaluate the mindsets of either colonist or colonizer in this time of violent encounters and expansive cultural shifts.

The 1638 case of Arthur Peach, Thomas Jackson, Richard Stinnings, and Daniel Cross serves as a potent reminder that the relationship between the interlopers and natives in the early years of these meetings was driven as much by tribal politics as by interpersonal attitudes.

Peach, by all accounts, was not on track to be elected Plymouth Man of the Year. A servant of Edward Winslow, one of the Mayflower originals responsible for political gaming with the native leaders, Peach was dispatched to serve in the Pequot War in 1637. The war pitted English colonists and some of their tribal neighbors against the Pequots and resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of Pequot in several attacks.

Peach went work-idle in the post-war years, enjoying his remaining youth: he frequently drank and spent evenings in merriment with his friends, accumulating a sizable debt in the process; said merriment also extended to impregnating Dorothy Temple, a servant of Stephen Hopkins (who was, in one of the less surprising twists, later charged with allowing drunken merriment of his servants in his house).

Plymouth Colony leader William Bradford: Can’t we all get along?

William Bradford speculates that it was to escape punishment for this latter social offense that Peach convinced three other indentured servants to break their bonds and follow him to the nearby Dutch plantations. No matter the motive, they were ill-advised to join him.

Along the way, the quartet came across a man of the Nipmuc tribe (allied with the English and Narragansett during the recent war) named Penowanyanquis. They convinced him to stay, smoked a pipe and talked trade, then stabbed and robbed him, leaving him for what they thought was dead; Penowanyanquis was found on the road and lived for several more days, plenty of time to describe his attackers to first his tribesmen, then the Englishman Roger Williams.

The Plymouth authorities accepted the case (in Plymouth, though the event occurred far from its apparent jurisdiction) in the interests of maintaining the tenuous peace with the New England natives — in Bradford’s words, “The Gov[ernment] in the Bay were aquented with it, but refferrd it hither, because it was done in this jurissdiction; but pressed by all means that justice might be done in it; or els the countrie must rise and see justice done, otherwise it would raise a warr.”

Peach, Jackson, and Stinnings were caught at Aquidneck Island, while Cross fled to Piscataqua (New Hampshire), where it was traditional for locals to refuse to help Plymouth colonials. The three detainees were tried, with much of the trial devoted to proving that Penowanyanquis was, in fact, dead. It took two Narragansett to affirm upon pain of their own heads that Penowanyanquis had succumbed to his injuries, but their testimony sent three whites to the gallows for killing an Indian; for the second time since the Plymouth colony was established 18 years prior, a murderer was hanged.*

The oddity of the affair is not that such a conviction occurred — it was a long-standing colonial tradition to uphold treaties with natives through civil law and break them in a variety of other ways — but the reaction of persons involved before and during the trial. To wit:

Ousamequin coming from Plymouth told me that the four men were all guilty. I answered but one; he replied true, one wounded him, but all lay in wait two days and assisted. Also that the principal must not die, for he was Mr. Winslow’s man; and also that the Indian was by birth a Nipmuck man, so not worthy that any other man should die for him.

Ousamequin, here making the case that Peach should be spared, was another name for Massasoit, the old chief of the Pokanoket whose special kinship with Peach’s indenturerer Winslow was cemented after the settler brought a severely ill Massasoit European remedies when the chief was struck with an unnamed ailment in 1623.

Nor, indeed, were the colonists uniformly positive about the event: Bradford reports that “[s]ome of the rude and ignorant sorte murmured that any English should be put to death for the Indean.”

Massasoit himself seems to have been the only thing holding the colonial relationship together: Metacomet (“King Philip”) took the title of Great Sachem shortly after Massasoit’s death, and his alliances with other tribes exacerbated the harsh feeling towards English attempts to Christianize their neighboring “heathens”. With the white population expanding swiftly beyond its early boundaries, a small event was bound to spell trouble, and when the Christian convert John Sassamon (an Indian) was found murdered and three Wampanoag were executed for the deed, Indian sovereignty was impugned.

King Philip’s War was on, and it did not end well for the native Americans.

No.

To his credit, Peach still produced a son, and Temple’s pregnancy ended the public life of Hopkins. Hopkins was charged with mistreating Temple, who was his indentured servant, and ordered to pay for both her and her child through the two years remaining on her contract.

Hopkins dissented and was jailed, bailed out four days later by John Holmes, who purchased Temple’s servitude for a whopping three pounds (somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 the price of a cow). Her son remains unnamed in the record, but after giving birth, Temple was charged with producing a bastard child and whipped. Her fate thereafter is lost to the mists of history, as are the future exploits of Daniel Cross.

* The first was Mayflower original John Billington, who was executed in 1630 for shooting John Newcomen to resolve what was apparently a long-standing dispute.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Escapes,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,USA

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1569: Dirk Willems, for loving his enemy

5 comments May 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1569, Dirk Willems paid the penalty for a famous act of charity.

Willems was condemned by the still-ascendant Catholic church as an Anabaptist, but escaped prison.

Fleeing a pursuer across a frozen pond, Willems had an opportunity to make good his escape when his persecutor crashed through the ice. But he turned back to save the drowning man:

One good turn did not deserve another: the man arrested Willems, and the compassionate Protestant found himself burned to death* this day at Asperen.

Hundreds of Anabaptists suffered similar fates, many of them registered in the Martyrs Mirror (available online here). But Dirk Willems’ story has always been one of the most affecting and popular with the Mennonite communities who trace their lineage to the Anabaptists:

[W]hen he fled he was hotly pursued by a thief-catcher, and as there had been some frost, said Dirk Willems ran before over the ice, getting across with considerable peril. The thief-catcher following him broke through, when Dirk Willems, perceiving that the former was in danger of his life, quickly returned and aided him in getting out, and thus saved his life. The thiefcatcher wanted to let him go, but the burgomaster, very sternly called to him to consider his oath, and thus he was again seized by the thief-catcher, and, at said place, after severe imprisonment and great trials proceeding from the deceitful papists, put to death at a lingering fire by these bloodthirsty, ravening wolves, enduring it with great steadfastness, and confirming the genuine faith of the truth with his death and blood, as an instructive example to all pious Christians of this time, and to the everlasting disgrace of the tyrannous papists.

(Bygones, tyrannous papists: last year, a Mennonite delegation to the Vatican gave Pope Benedict XVI a framed picture of Willems saving his romish persecutor.)

Few are the faiths that lack a martyrology, but notwithstanding the incendiary language of our 17th-century source, the place of martyrs (“Dirk Willems warns Mennonites not to expect to be rewarded for good works — a sharp contradiction to the American gospel of success”) and the right way to commemorate them without stoking confessional hostility occupy unusually nuanced places in Mennonite thought.

* The burning came off badly, the Martyrs Mirror records:

[A] strong east wind blowing that day, the kindled fire was much driven away from the upper part of his body, as he stood at the stake; in consequence of which this good man suffered a lingering death, insomuch that in the town of Leerdam, towards which the wind was blowing, he was heard to exclaim over seventy times, “O my Lord; my God,” etc., for which cause the judge or bailiff, who was present on horseback, filled with sorrow and regret at the man’s sufferings, wheeled about his horse, turning his back toward the place of execution, and said to the executioner, “Dispatch the man with a quick death.” But how or in what manner the executioner then dealt with this pious witness of Jesus, I have not been able to learn, except only, that his life was consumed by the fire.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Botched Executions,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Escapes,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Netherlands,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Spain

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1881: Not Billy the Kid

6 comments May 13th, 2008 Headsman

“You will be hanged by the neck, Billy, until you are dead, dead, dead!”

“You can go, Judge, to hell, hell, hell!”

We have no source for whether William Bonney’s reply to the judge who sentenced him to hang was vindicated by the Almighty. But the judge’s sentence, due to be executed this day, assuredly never came to pass: two weeks before, Billy the Kid effected the last of his famous escapes.

The exploits of this legendary gunfighter — and his legend rather exceeds his exploits — are exhaustively chronicled online. The Manhattan-born Kid, a pup of 21 at his death, was a gunfighter in the Lincoln County War, a fight between two frontier magnates. Billy counted himself among the Regulators, a deputized posse (so it claimed, by way of legality) that was the armed militia of a murdered rancher.

Billy’s winning way with the press after his capture helped endear him to popular imagination, even after he was condemned in Mesilla, New Mexico for ambushing a lawman.

Here’s how Emilio Estevez played the crime in Young Guns:

On April 28, in a building that still stands in Lincoln, New Mexico, Bonney got the drop on one of his guards and high-tailed it out of town.

Though spared the ignominy of the gallows, Billy the Kid would not long outlive his judicially appointed hour. Lincoln County sheriff Pat Garrett found and killed the fugitive a few months later.

Ironically, this transaction darkened the reputation of the successful officer of the law — the circumstances of the killing were ambiguous, and seem less than honorable to some — while helping valorize the young outlaw who by all rights should long since have been at the end of a rope. And for this, maybe Billy’s shade has stood Garrett’s a drink or two, because a shadowy and youthful disappearance from the scene helped catapult Billy into folklore that has long outlasted the forgotten Lincoln County War.

Billy the Kid — even the name evokes the American self-image with perfect pitch — has come to so fully embody the floating signifiers of the Wild West, of America in its adolescence, that around the same time Bob Dylan composed “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” for the clip above (the 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), Billy Joel took the gunslinger for an all-purpose western motif in “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”. Joel’s song’s describes a life that seems to be just what the listener thinks it ought to be while remaining factually untrue of its titular character in almost every particular, including, in his version, a picturesque death by hanging:

The ballad form of romanticized narrative poetry suits our elusive subject well. Skip music and cinema a generation ahead and we have Guns n’ Roses covering “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and power balladeer par excellence Jon Bon Jovi climbing the charts with this signature hit from the Young Guns II soundtrack:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Escapes,Famous,Gallows Humor,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,New Mexico,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,USA

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1793: Sydney Carton posing as Charles Darnay

10 comments December 9th, 2007 Headsman

On an unspecified date in December 1793 is set one of literature’s immortal execution scenes, when ne’er-do-well Sydney Carton heroically goes to the guillotine in the place of his aristocratic doppleganger Charles Darnay at the climax of A Tale of Two Cities.

In Charles Dickens‘ classic 1859 novel of the French Revolution, Darnay, the good-hearted scion of the cruel Evremonde line, falls prey to the Revolutionary Terror.

The dissolute, tormented Carton is the respectable Darnay’s literary dark twin, whose appearance he also happens to strikingly resemble. Driven by an unrequited love for Darnay’s wife, who stands in danger not only of losing her husband but of following him to the scaffold, Carton contrives to switch places with the doomed noble.

While those saved by his sacrifice flee for England, Carton goes to the guillotine in a batch of 52 condemned prisoners,* one of them a sweet and frightened girl he comforts tenderly.

His prophetic thoughts as he awaits the blade form the conclusion of the novel, and the last sentence ranks among literature’s most recognizable lines.

“I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both.

“I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place — then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement — and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

A Tale of Two Cities is one of thousands of public-domain books available for free at Project Gutenberg. Stanford’s “Discovering Dickens” community reading project guide annotates the novel here.

* Never one for understatement, Dickens crowds his mass execution tableau with far too many extras. “The Terror” is usually dated from September 1793 through July 1794, but only during its bloodiest last two months would so many as 52 have been guillotined together; at the time of Carton’s execution, half as many would have constituted a large group.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Escapes,Execution,Famous Last Words,Fictional,France,Guillotine,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,Nobility,Not Executed,Notably Survived By,Public Executions

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