Posts filed under 'Occupation and Colonialism'

1724: Christian George, Peter Rombert, Peter Dutartre, and Michael Boneau

Add comment September 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1724, four members of a colonial religious cult were hanged together at the gallows of Charleston, South Carolina.

The Dutartre family, whose members comprise two of those executed four, numbered among many Huguenot refugees to settle around Charleston in the late 17th century fleeing religious persecution after France revoked the Edict of Nantes. They settled into the young town’s “Orange Quarter” where for many years French was heard in the streets and from the pulpits.*

The Dutartres would turn the orange quarter crimson in the early 1720s, when they fell under the spell of two newly-arrived Moravian prophets, Christian George and Peter Rombert, who pulled the family into a millenial free-love commune.**

These colonial Branch Davidians were also slated with civic transgressions such as refusal of taxes and militia duty.

At last, a constable named Peter Simmons was dispatched with a small posse to arrest the cult. The Dutartres fired back, killing Simmons — but the other seven members in the bunker were overwhelmed by the Charleston militia.

Mark Jones describes the aftermath in his Wicked Charleston: The Dark Side of the Holy City.

Four of the family males were tried in general sessions court in Charles Town in September 1724: Peter Dutartre, the father; Peter Rombert, the prophet; Michael Boneau, husband of a Dutartre woman; and Christian George, the milister.

During the trial, the mena ppeared to be unconcerned about the crimes they had committed or their fate. They were convinced that God was on their side and even if they were executed, they, just like Jesus, would be resurrected on the third day.

They were marched to the gallows near the public market (present-day location of City Hall). Standing with ropes around their necks the condemned men confidently told the gathered crowd they would soon see them again. They were hanged together and their bodies were allowed to dangle from the gallows for several days — so the resurrection (or lack thereof) could be witnessed by the public.

Judith Dutartre and her two brothers, David and John, aged eighteen and twenty, were the three other prisoners. Judith, due to her pregnancy, was not tried. David and John were convicted and condemned to prison. [actually reprieved -ed.] They were sullen and arrogant, confident God would protect them. However, after the third day of their kinfolk’s execution (and the fourth, and fifth), when none of the men hanging from the gallows was resurrected, David and John began to see the error of their ways. They later asked for a pardon from the court, which they received.

Less than five months later, David Dutartre attacked and murdered a stranger on the street. He was brought to trial and told the court he killed the man because God commanded him to do so. David was sentenced to death.

A total of seven people (two innocents) died as a result of what has to be one of the most unusual cases of religious fanaticism in American history.

* The French Quarter still exists today, as a cobblestoned downtown Charleston historic district with a Huguenot Church whose congregation dates to the 1680s but whose services now transpire in English.

** Given the timeless popularity of the sexual misbehavior trope for slandering religious outsiders, I do suggest the reader handle this received part of the narrative with due caution.

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1944: A Dutch Kapo named Raphaelson

1 comment September 27th, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On an unspecified Saturday afternoon in September 1944, a Dutch Jew was hanged before a crowd of thousands in Blechhammer, a Nazi forced-labor camp that was a subcamp of Monowitz, which was in turn a subcamp of Auschwitz.

Witness Israel J. Rosengarten, describing the event forty-five years later, identified the executed man as “Raphaelson” and described him as “about twenty-four years old … a very capable carpenter.”

Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names includes an entry for a Rudolf Israel Raphaelsohn that seems to fit: he was born in Berlin in 1922, spent the war in the Netherlands, and perished in Blechhammer in 1944. His individual page of testimony describes his occupation as “sawmill owner.” This is probably, but not definitely, our man.

Rosengarten wrote about Raphaelson’s execution in his book Survival: The Story of a Sixteen-Year-Old Jewish Boy, published in 1999. According to him, Raphaelson was a Kapo, meaning he had certain privileges and a position of leadership over other Jews in the camp, sort of like a prison trusty.

He met his death through sheer bad luck.

By 1944, Blechhammer was being bombed by the Americans on a regular basis. As Rosengarten records,

Book CoverThis Kapo had seen a bomb lying on the ground, which had not exploded. It was split open, but the mechanism had not detonated. The Kapo saw a yellow powder lying in the middle of the split bomb. He obviously did not realize it was dynamite. Because we had no washing powder in the camp, he got the idea of smuggling some of that yellow powder into the camp in a parcel to see if it could be used as a washing powder.

While he was busy taking the powder in, he was caught by an SS man. He was whipped until he fell down. Next, when he came into the camp he was sent to the Politische Abteilung. The SS of the political department drew up a protocol in which it was stated that Raphaelson … had “plundered” the dynamite and that he had done it with the intention of committing “sabotage.” His deed was stamped as a “terror against the Third Reich.” Raphaelson was then forced to sign the statement.

And then … the SS let him go.

He was not relieved of his position as Kapo. He was not transferred to a punishment detail. A whole four weeks passed by and the incident was never mentioned, and the inmates, who had enough to worry about in their difficult day-to-day existence, forgot all about it.

Raphaelson’s execution took everyone completely by surprise. Everyone came back to camp after a hard day’s work and noticed the SS were all in dress uniform and parading them around as if some important holiday was being celebrated.

The inmates weren’t allowed to go to their barracks as normal. Instead they were assembled in the center of camp, where a gallows had been set up.

It turned out the confession Raphaelson had been signed had been sent all the way up to the leadership of Auschwitz for them to decide what to do about it, and they had taken their time. Only now, a month later, had the SS in Blechhammer gotten their answer, and now the “saboteur” had to pay the price for his “crime.”

“The whole thing,” Rosengarten noted sardonically, “had the appearance of a lawful trial and a truly democratic tribunal.” He happened to be standing in the front row, so had an intimate view of the proceedings:

After a very long wait, the stool was pushed away from under his feet with a firm kick. A panicked chill passed through us as if time were falling away. But then it seemed the rope was not holding. Suddenly, it broke in two. Raphaelson fell unhurt to the ground. Everybody present stood amazed.

We all hoped now that Raphaelson would be given mercy because of that unusual event. But such a thing was, of course, unthinkable for the SS. The rope was repaired and once again the boy was placed on the stool. Again it was kicked away. But the unbelieveable happened again! The rope broke in two a second time!

A sort of providence seemed to have insinuated itself. Everything we saw was so unusual, so unreal! But the Nazis did not give up. For the third time, the Kapo was placed upon the stool, and the noose was put around his neck. Because of what had happened, Raphaelson came more and more to his senses. He seemed to be more clearly aware of what was going on. All of the sudden he yelled, “Friends! Do not lose courage! Those who today want to murder us will themselves soon be kaput!” The two SS who stood next to him could not believe what they were hearing. “Hold your beak, you!” they shouted. Quickly they again kicked the stool away. And then Raphaelson sank down. For a couple of long minutes we had to look him in the eyes. After that, he was no longer among the living.

After Raphaelson finally expired, the six thousand prisoners were required to stand there another fifteen minutes, then march around the scaffold so everyone could see him. “Only after this,” Rosengarten recorded, “were we allowed to crawl quietly and dejectedly to our barracks.”

Israel Rosengarten survived several concentration camps and death marches before he was liberated in Buchenwald on April 11, 1945. By then, he was near death from starvation and exhaustion.

After he recovered his health he went home to Belgium and discovered he was, at eighteen years of age, the sole survivor of his large family.

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1904: Newly caught Herero prisoners-of-war

Add comment September 26th, 2014 Headsman

“Newly caught Herero prisoners-of-war were hung by the neck. Since that day, I would often see Herero swaying from the branch of a tree.”

-Diary of German soldier Emil Malzahn, writing of prisoners captured and summarily executed 26 September 1904 at the waterhole of Owisombo-Owidimbo during the Herero genocide

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1603: Marco Tulio Catizone, the false Dom Sebastian

Add comment September 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1603, a man claiming to be the long-lost Portuguese king was publicly hanged on a square in the Andalusian city of Sanlucar.

Not Marco Tulio Catizone, but pretty close: the real Dom Sebastian

Dom Sebastian — so named because he was born on the Feast of St. Sebastian in 1554 — would be remembered longingly after his untimely death at age 24 as o Desejado, the Desired. What was truly desired was a return to Portugal’s golden age.

In its day, little Portugal had flourished as a great maritime empire of the Age of Discovery

One could say that trade was the calling-card of this realm of venturesome explorers, but there is no empire but that bears a sword, too. Sebastian, his young head probably bursting dreams of Alexander, undertook in 1577-78 to intervene under the glorious banner of Crusade in a disputed succession of the Moorish kingdom of Morocco.

This sort of personal valor makes for great press in the woodblocks when things go to script, and the allure must be correlated to the disproportionate odds engaged in gratuitously chancing one’s royal person to war. Sebastian was unmarried and had no children; his own father had succumbed to consumption at age 17 so he had no siblings, either. When this sole pillar of royal authority suicidally crashed himself headlong into a superior Moroccan force at the so-called Battle of Three Kings, his chivalrous self-immolation exacted a crippling toll on his kingdom.

An uncle in the cardinalate, Henry, was surprised to find himself suddenly elevated to the now-precarious Portuguese throne; Henry was 66 years old at the time and had taken vows of chastity that he could not maneuver to shed before he too died in 1580 with no heir at all.* In the ensuing succession crisis, the Spanish king soon swallowed up Portugal in a personal union.

It was only natural that the many Portuguese distressed by this staggering sequence of events would indulge the dream of their late king. Besides having the advantage of being frozen in time at the height of his youthful potential, Sebastian had never actually been found after that bloody Battle of Three Kings — or, at least, the identity of the body that the Spanish produced in the way of ending discussion was deeply doubted. Without convincing royal remains, such a dream began to spawn here and there pretenders who would emerge from unhappily unified Iberia to claim the name and the patrimony of the lost desired king.


The Recovering of the Desired King’s Body at Alcácer Quibir by Caetano Moreira da Costa Lima (1888)

The wild cast of longshot characters, according to Bryan Givens in Braudel Revisited, featured the likes of “the anonymous ‘King of Pernamacor’ in 1584; Mateus Alvares, the ‘King of Ericeira’ in 1585; and Gabriel Espinosa, the ‘Pastry-Maker of Madrigal’ in 1595.” These guys are claimants to a sleeping-king tradition aptly named “Sebastianism” which also fronted the prophecy of a visionary Azores blacksmith named Balthasar Goncalves who insisted to the Inquisition that the fallen King would return like a Messiah to liberate Portugal from Spain — and conquer Africa and the Holy Land — and defeat the Antichrist.** These beliefs in turn eddied out of currents of already-existing mystical eschatology, like the Trovas of Antonio Goncalves de Bandarra from earlier in the 16th century, mystically prophesying the return of a Hidden King.

Our man Marco Tulio Catizone (Italian link), a native of the south Italian town of Taverna, was one of these. In Venice he had made the chance acquaintance of an Italian mercenary who had joined Dom Sebastian’s catastrophic crusade, and this soldier was amazed by Catizone’s resemblance to the late king.

Thus handed a compelling calling in life, Catizone announced himself the very man himself, who had wandered the world in penance after the battle but now would like Portugal back if you please. The Venetians jailed and then expelled him (in the vein of the “King of Ericeira” and the “Pastry-Maker of Madrigal”, this one is the “Prisoner of Venice”); the Florentines re-arrested him and eventually deported him to Spain; and in Spain under the gentle suasions of hostile interrogators he coughed up his real name and purpose and was condemned a galley slave for life in 1602.

But no such sentence could squelch the desiring of a return to king and country, and for such a purpose the least plausible pretender could serve a sufficient rallying-point. João de Castro, the illegitimate son of a Portuguese nobleman who would become “the St. Paul of the sebastianista religion”† met the imprisoned “Sebastian” in Italy and became the convinced herald of his return as Bandarra’s Hidden King, the restorer of Portuguese glory and the scourge of Spain and Islam alike.

De Castro was nothing daunted by Catizone’s confession and confinement and from exile in Paris wrote a tome “with the license of the King” entitled Discurso da Vida do Sempre Bem Vindo et Apparecido Rey Dom Sebiao nosso Senhor o Encuberto, advancing the Prisoner of Venice’s claims. An attempt by De Castro and others like-minded to stir a Sebastianist rebellion in Lisbon in 1603 on Catizone’s behalf led to the latter’s trial for treason, with the outcome we have already noted.

Yet even this did not abate de Castro’s prophetic vigor.

“The man executed by the Spanish had, in fact, been Catizone, de Castro admitted, but Catizone had been switched with Sebastian by the Spanish so that they could quell the growing support for Sebastian without having the guilt of royal blood on their hands,” writes Givens. Our St. Paul would spend the remaining quarter-century of his life churning out treatises in exile “to prove Sebastian’s providential destiny, citing predictions from the full range of the Western prophetic corpus to prove that Sebastian was destined to rule the world.”

* The best who could be advanced as the Cardinal-King’s homegrown successor candidate was an illegitimate cousin of the late Dom Sebastian.

** Instead of burning this fellow as a heretic, the Inquisition instead mercifully judged him a lunatic and released him to some intensive personal indoctrination.

† J.L. de Azevedo in A evolucao do sebastianismo (1918), cited in Portuguese Studies Review, vol. 17, no. 1 (2009).

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1692: The Salem witch trials’ last hangings

Add comment September 22nd, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1692 saw the last executions of the Salem witch trials.

Eight souls hanged from sturdy trees at Gallows Hill on the occasion:

  • Mary Easty (or Eastey)
  • Alice Parker
  • Mary Parker
  • Ann Pudeator
  • Wilmot Redd
  • Margaret Scott
  • Samuel Wardwell

As well as:

  • Martha Corey, days after her husband Giles was horribly pressed to death for refusing to recognize the court’s legitimacy by lodging any plea

This group of mostly older women (and one man who married an older widow) had, like their predecessors over the course of 1692, been the victims of wailing children charging them (with afflicted histrionics to match) as supernatural malevolents — and of the credulity of their neighbors and judges.

The latter was, at least, eroding by this point in time.

Shortly before her execution this day, Mary Easty addressed to the court a dignified petition less for her own life than for the safety of everyone else who might come under her honorable judges’ scrutiny — indicted as it stood by Easty’s own certitude of her innocence.

To the honorable judge and bench now sitting in judicature in Salem and the reverend ministers, humbly sheweth that whereas your humble poor petitioner being condemned to die doth humbly beg of you to take it into your judicious and pious consideration that your poor and humble petitioner, knowing my own innocency (blessed by the Lord for it) and seeing plainly the wiles and subtlety of my accusers by myself, cannot but judge charitably of others that are going the same way with myself if the Lord step not mightily in.

I was confined a whole month on the same account that I am now condemned for, and then cleared by the afflicted persons, as some of your honors know. And in two days time I was cried out upon by them, and have been confined and am now condemned to die.

The Lord above knows my innocency then and likewise doth now, as at the Great Day will be known to men and angels.

I petition to your honors not for my own life, for I know I must die, and my appointed time is set.

But the Lord He knows it is, if it be possible, that no more innocent blood be shed, which undoubtedly cannot be avoided in the way and course you go in.

I question not but your honors do to the utmost of your powers in the discovery and detecting of witchcraft, and witches, and would not be guilty of innocent blood for the world. But by my own innocency I know you are in the wrong way.

The Lord in his infinite mercy direct you in this great work, if it be His blessed will, that innocent blood be not shed.

I would humbly beg of you that your honors would be pleased to examine some of those confessing witches, I being confident that there are several of them have belied themselves and others, as will appear, if not in this world, I am sure in the world to come, whither I am going.

And I question not but yourselves will see an alteration in these things. They say myself and others have made a league with the Devil; we cannot confess. I know and the Lord He knows (as will shortly appear) they belie me, and so I question not but they do others. The Lord alone, who is the searcher of all hearts, knows that I shall answer it at the Tribunal Seat that I know not the least thing of witchcraft, therefore I cannot, I durst not belie my own soul.

I beg your honors not to deny this my humble petition for a poor dying innocent person, and I question not but the Lord will give a blessing to your endeavors.

Mary Easty

As she herself foresaw, Easty’s petition availed her own self nothing — but her judges would soon feel the rebuke Easty voiced.

Exactly why the Salem witch trials started when they did, and ended when they did, has always been a speculative matter. This occasion was a mere 15 weeks after the first Salem witch hanging. It was the largest single mass-hanging of the affair, and it brought the body count to 19 or 20, depending on whether you count Giles Corey. (His death by pressing wasn’t technically an “execution,” merely the violent termination of his life by a legally constituted judicial process.)

The snowballing investigation, sweeping up dozens more accused besides just those executed, was making people uneasy. It surely hastened the end of the hysteria that the little accusers started pointing their witch — notably at the wife of Massachusetts Gov. William Phip(p)s.

Phips had initially established the special Court of Oyer and Terminer that was finding his little colony honeycombed with necromancy. Now considering his creature to be run amok and targeting “several persons who were doubtless innocent,” Phips stopped proceedings in October — first, by barring so-called “spectral evidence” (which was tantamount to barring the trials altogether since kids claiming to be tormented by underworld spirits was the only evidence on hand); and on October 29, dissolving the court altogether and prohibiting further arrests.

A special court established to try the remaining 52 cases in January of 1693 acquitted 49 of the prisoners; the rest, and all those still in jail for witchcraft, were pardoned by May of 1693. Within just a few years, jurors and judges and even accusers issued public mea culpas for hanging the Salem “witches”.

The original witch-court’s Judge William Stoughton joined Cotton Mather in pridefully refusing to acknowledge the injustice they had helped to author.* Among most others, it would very quickly become shamefully understood that Salem had done the accused witches a very great wrong.

John Hale, the Puritan minister of nearby Beverly, Mass. — and like Gov. Phips a man who had had his own wife chillingly accused by one of the “possessed” brats — would later write a book ruminating on “the nature of witchcraft” (like Mary Easty, he wasn’t quite ready to give up the concept categorically). In it, he notes the forehead-slapping indicia of the witches’ innocence — and if we dock him points for obtaining his wisdom retrospectively, we might also consider as motes in our own jaundiced eyes the ridiculous non-evidence and overlooked exculpations that have served to seat men and women on the mercy chair in our own time.

It may be queried then, How doth it appear that there was a going too far in this affair?

Answer I. — By the number of persons accused. It cannot be imagined, that, in a place of so much knowledge, so many, in so small a compass of land, should so abominably leap into the Devil’s lap, — at once.

Ans. II. — The quality of several of the accused was such as did bespeak better things, and things that accompany salvation. Persons whose blameless and holy lives before did testify for them; persons that had taken great pains to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, such as we had charity for as for our own souls, — and charity is a Christian duty, commended to us in 1 Cor. xiii, Col. iii.14, and many other places.

Ans. III. — The number of the afflicted by Satan daily increased, till about fifty persons were thus vexed by the Devil. This gave just ground to suspect some mistake.

Ans. IV. — It was considerable, that nineteen were executed, and all denied the crime to the death; and some of them were knowing persons, and had before this been accounted blameless livers. And it is not to be imagined but that, if all had been guilty, some would have had so much tenderness as to seek mercy for their souls in the way of confession, and sorrow for such a sin.

Ans. V. — When this prosecution ceased, the Lord so chained up Satan, that the afflicted grew presently well: the accused are generally quiet, and for five years since we have no such molestation by them.

In 300-odd years since September 22, 1692 on Gallows Hill, nobody else has been executed for witchcraft in the United States.

* Stoughton clashed with Phips to the extent of actually ordering in January 1693 the executions of old sentences that had been stayed for pregnancies or other reasons. Phips immediately blocked them, causing Stoughton to resign the bench.

Stoughton was no ordinary magistrate: he was also the sitting Lieutenant Governor, and would succeed Phips as the head man in Massachusetts. Had he been the man with executive power at the time all this toil and trouble bubbled over, considerably more than 20 souls might have been lost to the madness.

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1246: Mikhail of Chernigov, Miracle-Worker

Add comment September 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1246, the Russian prince Mikhail of Chernigov was put to death by the Mongol commander Batu Khan for refusing to make an idolatrous gesture of submission.

In its time, prosperous Chernigov (or “Chernihiv” in a more Ukrainian transliteration) vied with neighboring Kiev for the the pride of place in Rus’.

But Chernigov’s time ended with Mikhail’s time, because the Mongols came crashing through the gates. The “Tatar Yoke” descended on Chernigov, and on Rus’, in the 1230s, and would not be lifted for a quarter of a millennium.

The nomadic Mongols weren’t there to commit genocide or displace the Russian civilization; they just wanted the tribute payments, thank you very much. But the local rulers the Mongols left to collect for them were selected for compliance like any good ploughman would do — and Mikhail found the yoke too disagreeable for his shoulders.

Mikhail knew full well that the Mongols were no joke. He was present at the 1223 Battle of the Kalka River, when the Rus’ principalities had caught word of a horde from the east advancing into present-day Ukraine, rode out to repel them, and lost 10,000 dead.* One of them was the previous prince of Chernigov, which is how Mikhail got the job.

Rus’ had a reprieve because this force was merely the vanguard; the Mongols had business elsewhere. Mikhail would return to the trade negotiations and regional political jockeying that made up the workaday life of a knyaz, thinking who knows what about the mysterious barbarians.

Then the Mongols returned in force.

From December 1237, they overwhelmed and sacked city after city: Ryazan, Kolomna, Moscow, and Vladimir just by March of 1238, and then dozens of cities to follow.** Some held out fiercely; some gave way quickly — but each in its turn succumbed. The “Grand Principality of Chernigov” was no more by 1239.

As the Mongols swept onwards towards Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary,† the Mongol ruler Batu Khan (grandson of Genghis) set up a capital where the Russian princes would be made to give their ceremonial submissions. Mikhail was one of the last to do so but in 1246 to forestall the prospect of another Mongol attack, he too made the trip.

Although Mikhail consented to kowtow to the Mongol prince, he incensed his host by refusing to prostrate himself before heathen idols. For this he was slaughtered along with an equally faithful boyar named Fedor, their bodies cast into the wilds for animals and elements to devour.


Michael of Chernigov at the camp of Batu Khan, by Vasiliy Smirnov (1883)

For this sacrifice, they became honored as Christian saints and martyrs, with September 20 fixed as the “Feast of the Miracle-Workers of Chernigov” — a liturgical expression of Russian resistance to that Tatar Yoke. When Ivan the Terrible put the Tatars of Kazan and Astrakhan to rout in the 16th century, he also translated the Miracle-Workers’ relics from Chernigov to Moscow — a political expression of their national import.

* Or possibly several times that. Body counts from chroniclers are notoriously unreliable.

** It was to save itself from the Mongols that the mythical city of Kitezh is supposed to have sunk itself like Atlantis into Lake Svetloyar near Nizhny Novgorod.

† As well as points south.

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1946: Ernst Lohmeyer, theologian

Add comment September 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1946, the Soviets occupying East Germany executed Bible scholar Ernst Lohmeyer.

A fifty-five-year-old professor when the NKGB whisked him out of his apartment without explanation to his dumbfounded wife, Lohmeyer (English Wikipedia entry | German) was an important Protestant theologian of the interwar period with a knack for eschewing the opportunistic choice.

By refusing to disavow Jewish associates, his academic career got derailed in the 1930s, despite his producing influential critical commentary on the Gospel of Mark;* by patriotically serving in the Wehrmacht despite his reservations about the Third Reich, he set himself up to profile as an undesirable after World War II.

For a long time, Lohmeyer’s fate was, if not difficult to guess, obscure in its particulars. Not until 1957 was his execution in a forest near Hanshagen officially confirmed; he had been condemned by a military tribunal for participating in the German occupation of Sloviansk even though he wasn’t personally associated with any known atrocities.

The post-Soviet Russian state officially exonerated Lohmeyer in 1996. The University of Greifswald, where Lohmeyer was teaching when arrested, has a theology faculty building named for him.

* Lohmeyer postulated that the Gospel of Mark reflected a contemporary-to-the-evangelist (that is, post-Jesus) conflict between Christian communities in different locales, and that Mark himself was associated with Galilee’s Christians and therefore structured his narrative to exalt this location.

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1306: Nigel de Brus, brother of the King

Add comment September 18th, 2014 Headsman

On an uncertain date in September of 1306 — sometime after the mid-September English capture of Kildrummy CastleNigel de Brus was drawn and quartered at the border town of Berwick.


The present-day ruins of Kildrummy Castle. (cc) image from Stu Smith.

As his name indicates, Nigel, Niall, or Neil — as your taste may run — was kin to Robert the Bruce, his brother in fact, and a key supporter of Robert in the latter’s fight for the Scottish crown.

Someone must have put the Bruces under that old Chinese curse about living in interesting times. Though the extremely interesting First War of Scottish Independence would indeed put Robert the Bruce on the Scottish throne, it was achieved in a period of devastation. Not only Nigel, but every single one of Robert’s brothers, died violently: three in all were executed, and a fourth slain in battle.

None of the five had reached his teens when times started getting really interesting with the shock 1286 death of Scotland’s King Alexander III, who got lost in the dark riding to Fife in bad weather and had a fatal fall down an embankment.

All three of Alexander’s children had predeceased him, so the hope of succession settled on a three-year-old* granddaughter, the Norwegian princess remembered as Margaret, Maid of Norway. Margaret now became for several years a chesspiece of diplomacy between the Scottish, Norwegian, and English courts, and was slated for marriage to the crown prince, the future King Edward II.** But we can slide right past the delicacies in all that because Margaret, too, dropped dead — in her case, at sea while en route to Scotland in 1290.† Little Margaret had never once set foot in the country she putatively ruled.

With no clear successor to Margaret, a free-for-all scramble for power ensued with no fewer than 14 noblemen claiming the throne for themselves. This “Great Cause” soon coalesced into John of Balliol (the claimant by primogeniture) vs. Robert the Bruce (the claimant by proximity of blood) — and the Guardians solicited the arbitration of the English King Edward I.

Having been balked of his goal of bringing Scotland into his dynastic thrall by means of the marital arrangements, Edward did not mean to miss the diplomatic opportunity and twisted the candidates’ arms to accept the suzerainty that Edward claimed over them. The disunited Scots had little choice but to do so.

(The Great Cause is covered in this episode of the History of England podcast.)

Edward ruled for Balliol, but his impositions and concomitant Scottish resistance soon brought the situation to open warfare. Incensed at a Scots-French alliance to oppose them, the English invaded in 1296‡ — forcing Balliol’s deposition (he’s known as “Toom Tabard”, or “empty coat”, for the regal insignia torn from his raiments) and provoking the celebrated resistance of William Wallace.

We know what happened to that guy, but Edward’s bloody pacification of the north came undone in 1306.

In February of that year, Robert the Bruce summoned the successor Balliol claimant, his rival John Comyn, to Greyfriars Church in Dumfries and sacrilegiously stuck a knife in him.


19th century illustration of John Comyn’s murder. Since we’re citing the handy History of England podcast, here’s the relevant episode.

In this affray the relative measures of perfidy by Bruce and by Comyn, both of whom were scheming nobles angling for the throne, are down to your choice of parties and sources. The consequences, however, can hardly be mistaken.

Bruce had himself defiantly crowned King of Scotland just weeks after soaking his hands with Comyn’s blood, but a furious Edward I was smashing up the outclassed Scottish by springtime. The Bruce himself had to flee to hiding, and eventually to Ireland, while many of his supporters wound up hemmed in in Kildrummy Castle, commanded by our man Nigel. The English soon overwhelmed it (legend has it, as legend usually does, that the fortress was treacherously betrayed). Nigel was hauled off to Berwick for more or less immediate punishment; his fellow-commander at Kildrummy, the Earl of Athol, suffered the same in London on November 7.

One could forgive Nigel if, in the midst of having his entrails ripped out of his trunk by the executioner of Berwick, he indulged a moment’s despair for the family’s Great Cause. Robert himself was reduced to feeling out whether any English terms could be had.

But from this nadir of his fortunes, Robert the Bruce gloriously (nigh miraculously) returned to lead a successful guerrilla campaign against the English beginning in 1307, crucially aided by the death that same year of Edward I. He would sting the English repeatedly over the ensuing years before his gathering strength finally forced the English to recognize Scottish sovereignty in 1328.

* Margaret was actually just two years old at the time Alexander died. Alexander’s second wife was thought to be pregnant at the time — that turned out to be a nonstarter — so official succession didn’t settle on Margaret until she was three.

** Though this proposed union, never realized, raised the prospect of uniting English and Scottish realms, the Guardians of Scotland who called the shots while waiting for their sovereign to grow up insisted that the relevant document’s language assure that even if ruled by the same monarch Scotland would “remain separate, apart and free in itself without subjection to the English Kingdom.”

† A “False Margaret” posting as the lost Scottish queen would later turn up in Norway, and be executed for her charade.

‡ Among other things, this invasion seized the previously Scottish city of Berwick — Nigel’s eventual execution-place — for the English. Berwick changed hands repeatedly between the Scottish and the English for several hundred years before settling permanently into English possession in 1482.

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1814: Not William Beanes, anthem enabler

Add comment September 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date two centuries ago, a man on a mission of mercy found his accidental entry into history.

The mercy in question was required for a Maryland fellow named William Beanes. During the War of 1812, the British had seized this 65-year-old doctor on their march back from torching the White House, on grounds of his role jailing British soldiers who were doing some freelance plundering around his beloved Upper Marlboro.

They were making worrying (possibly empty) threats about hanging the man for infringing the laws of war as they held Dr. Beanes in the Chesapeake Bay aboard the H.M.S. Tonnant.* Beanes’s friends recruited a respected lawyer (and amateur poet) to get the venerable gentleman out of the soup.

This was accomplished easily enough. Approaching the British warship under a flag of truce, the lawyer and a buddy who was the government’s designated prisoner exchange agent managed to convince Gen. Robert Ross to parole his “war criminal” by producing a packet of testimonials from previous British POWs affirming the honorable treatment Dr. Beanes had accorded them. Problem solved.

There was one minor hitch.

Because the British were preparing to attack Baltimore, and the visiting envoys had perforce become privy to some of the forthcoming operational details whose exposure might complicate matters, the hosts detained the whole party at sea pending the encounter’s conclusion.

There the Americans looked on, helplessly entranced, as the Battle of Baltimore unfolded. On September 12, there was a land battle (the munificent Gen. Ross was slain by an American sharpshooter as he directed troops in this affair). Then at dawn on September 13, the British fleet commenced a withering bombardment of Baltimore’s principal harbor bulwark, Fort McHenry. Safely out of range of the fort’s guns, British cannons rained ordnance on the fort throughout the day, 1,500 bombs in all. At one point a missile ripped a white star from the fort’s gigantic American flag.

The firing continued into the night. The American bystanders, who could do nothing but watch, now could catch nothing but the fleeting illumination of exploding shells. Could the fort possibly survive the assault? As morning approached, the fleet’s firing came to a virtual stop. The Americans could only surmise that this abatement might indicate Fort McHenry’s capture by the British. The suspense over the course of the long, dark night must have been near unbearable.

Dawn’s early light on September 14, 1814 brought for the Yankees a wonderous sight: the tattered American banner somehow still fluttered over the fort, where they had watched it all the day before.


On September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key beholds the American flag still flying over Baltimore, just as it had at the previous twilight’s last gleaming. (1912 painting by Edward Moran.)

Overjoyed now, Beanes’s deliverer Francis Scott Key put his poetic gifts to patriotic use and dashed off a poem celebrating Baltimore’s fortitude. Originally known as “The Defence of Fort McHenry”, you know it today as “The Star-Spangled Banner” — the American national anthem. We owe it all to Williams Beanes’s capture and prospective hanging.

* A French-built ship captured in Egypt by Horatio Nelson. (Cool painting.) She would go on to fight in the naval prelude to the Battle of New Orleans.

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1782: Bartolina Sisa, indigenous rebel

Add comment September 5th, 2014 Headsman

September 5 is International Indigenous Women’s Day, in honor of the torturous execution in Bolivia on this date in 1782 of the Aymara peasant rebel Bartolina Sisa.

Sisa (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) shared with her husband Tupac Katari leadership of a huge indigenous uprising against the Spanish.

Eighteen months before Bartolina’s execution, she and Tupac Katari — Julian Apasa, to use his given name before he staked out a nom de guerre claiming the inheritance of Tupac Amaru and Tomas Katari — laid La Paz* under siege with an army 40,000 strong. Over the course of that spring summer, the Bolivian capital lost 10,000 souls and teetered on the brink of collapse — actually in two separate three-month sieges with a brief interim between.

Bartolina Sisa was recognized by the rebels as the coequal of her husband; the two took command decisions together in consultation.

As such, when the siege was finally relieved and the natives defeated that October, Sisa was in line to share her husband’s fate. This was easy to effect because she had been betrayed into Spanish hands between the first and second sieges. Her enemies refused Tupac Katari’s every blandishment to exchange her, and in time had the cruel pleasure of forcing her to watch her defeated husband’s butchery. Nearly a year later Sisa tasted a like fate, and her body was thereafter chopped up to display as a warning in various towns to cow potential future native insurgents.

A present-day peasant women’s union bears Sisa’s name, the Bartolina Sisa Confederation; the president of Brazil’s 2006 Constituent Assembly that drafted the country’s current constitution was an indigenous Quechua woman named Silvia Lazarte, who was the Bartolina Sisa Confederation’s former executive secretary.

* The city‘s full original name was Nuestra Señora de La Paz, “Our Lady of Peace”. It was founded in 1548 at the site of a former indigenous village and the “peace” referred to is the restoration of calm after Gonzalo Pizarro‘s rising.

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