Posts filed under 'Occupation and Colonialism'

1651: Terence Albert O’Brien, Bishop of Emly

Add comment October 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1651, three days after the Irish city Limerick surrendered to a withering five-month Parliamentarian siege, the victors hanged Bishop Terence Albert O’Brien on Gallows Green.

Limerick was the southern stronghold of the Catholic and anti-Parliamentarian Confederate Ireland.

It was this polity, which allied itself to English Royalists, that Cromwell assailed in his bloody conquest of Ireland.

Though Cromwell lives forever as an oath in Irish memory, the man himself left Ireland in 1650 to smash an awkward Royalist alliance with Scottish Presbyterians.

That left the Irish campaign in the hands of Cromwell’s capable fellow-general (and by this time, son-in-law) Henry Ireton, and it was Ireton who laid Limerick under a siege at an estimated cost of 5,000 civilians succumbed to starvation and plague.

The Catholic Bishop of Emly, Terence Albert O’Brien, had been trapped in the mixed English-Irish city and encouraged continued resistance to the siege. Ireton advanced him to the very front of the queue for punishment, and had him put to death directly after the city’s capture.

A “Last Speech and Prayer” of the martyr was published in London within a few days, together with a “humble petition” of then-imprisoned (and later executed) pro-Stuart highwayman James Hind.

Good people,

This is a very uncomfortable place, for me to deliver my self unto you; but I beseech you pardon my failings, and the rather, by reason of the sad occasion that hath brought me hither: Indeed, I have been long in my race, and how I have looked unto Jesus the Authour and finisher of my faith, is best known to him; I am now come to the end of my race, which I find to be a death of shame, but the shame must be despised, or there is no coming to the right hand of God; Jesus despised the shame for me upon the Crosse, and God forbid but I should despise the shame for him upon the Gallowes; I am going apace, as you see, towards the Red Sea, and my feet are upon the very brinks of it, an Argument I hope that God is brining me to the Land of promise, for that was the way by which of old he led his people.

But before they came to the Sea, he instituted a passe over for them, a Lamb it was, but it was to be eaten with very sowr herbs, as in the 12. of Exodus. I shall obey and labour to digest the sowr herbs, as well as the Lamb, and I shall remember, that it is the Lord’s passe-over, I shall not think of the herbs, nor be angry with the hands that gathered them, but look up only to him who instituted the one, and governeth the other: For men can have no more power over me, than that which is given them from above; and although I am denyed mercy here on earth, yet I doubt not but to receive it in heaven. I am not in love with this passage through the Red Sea, for I have the weakness and infirmity of flesh and blood in me, and I have prayed as my Saviour taught me, and exampled me; ut transiret calix ista, That this cup might passe away from me; but since it is not, that my will may, his will be done; and I shall most willingly drink of it as deep as he pleases, and enter into this Sea, I and I passe through it, in the way that he shall be pleased to leade me. And yet (good people) it would be remembrad [sic], That when the Servants of God, old Israel, were in this boystrous Sea, and Aaron with them, the Egyptians which persecuted them, and did in a manner drive them into that Sea, were drowned in the same waters while they were in pursuit of them: I know my God whom I serve, is as able to deliver me from this Sea of blood, as he was to deliver the 3 Children from the furnace. Dan. 3. And I most humbly thank my Saviour for it. My resolution is now, as theirs was then; their Resolution was, they would not change their principles, nor worship the Image which the King had set up; nor shall I the imaginations which the people are setting up; neither will I forsake the Temple and Truth of God, to follow the bleating of Jeroboams Calves in Dan and in Bethel.

And I pray God blesse all this people, and open their eyes, that they may see the right way, for if it fall out that the blind lead the blind, doubtless they will fall both into the ditch: For my self I am (and I acknowledge it in all humility), a most grievous sinner, and therefore I cannot doubt but that God hath mercy in store for me a poor penitent, as well as for other sinners; I have upon this sad occasion ransack’d every corner of my heart, & yet I thank God, I have not found any of my sins that are there, any sins now deserving death by any known Law. And I thank God, though the wait [weight] of the sentence lie very hard upon me, yet I am as quiet within, (I thank Christ for it) as I ever was in my life; I shall hasten to go out of this miserable life, for I am not willing to be tedious; and I beseech you, as many as are within hearing, observe me, I was born and baptized in the bosome of the Church of Rome (the ancient and true Church) and in that Profession I have ever since lived, and in the same I now die. As touching my engagement in arms, I did it in two respects. First, for the preservation of my principles and Tenents. And secondly, for the establishing of the King, and the rest of the Royal issue in their just Rights and Priviledges. I will not inlarge my self any further, I have done, I forgive all the world, all and every of these bitter Enemies, or others whatsoever they have been, which have any wayes prosecuted me in this kind; I humbly desire to be forgiven first of God, and then of every man, whether I have offended him or no; if he do but conceive that I have: Lord do thou forgive me, and I beg forgiveness of him, and so I heartily desire you to joyn with me in prayer.

From Hugh Fennin’s “The Last Speech and Prayer of Blessed Terence Albert O’Brien, Bishopp of Emly, 1651,” in Collectanea Hibernica, No. 38 (1996).

Any Limerick Catholics who didn’t share the prelate’s forgiving attitude might have taken some spiteful comfort that the strain of commanding the siege caused Ireton to fall ill with fever. He died on November 26 — barely outliving the bishop whom he had hanged.* After the Stuarts regained the English throne, Ireton was exhumed and posthumously executed alongside the body of Oliver Cromwell.

* Ireton’s death indirectly spared the royalist commander of Limerick’s defeated garrison from an execution his conqueror had intended for him: Ireton’s successor instead sent him to the Tower of London, and he was eventually released to Spanish custody.

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1816: Francisco Jose de Caldas, wise person

Add comment October 28th, 2014 Headsman

Colombia polymath Francisco Jose de Caldas was shot on this date in 1816 during the Spanish commander Pablo Morillo‘s decimation of rebellious intelligentsia in separatist New Granada.

While Europe was mired in the Napoleonic Wars, those United Provinces of New Granada — roughly modern Colombia, which remembers its short-lived New Granada predecessor as la Patria Boba, the Foolish Fatherland — had asserted their independence. As we have detailed previously, it was Morillo who arrived from the mother country to disabuse them of this dream. Morillo did it with such a flair for the merciless that he earned the nickname El Pacificador.

Morillo conquered Bogota by May 1816 and for the rest of the year put large numbers of the pro-breakaway intelligentsia to political trials in an apparent attempt to cripple any future independence movements. (It didn’t work; during this very period, future liberator Simon Bolivar was making his first landings in Venezuela.)

A history by Jose Manuel Restrepo, a political figure of New Granada who was fortunate enough to escape the crackdown, lamented the fate of the men with whom he had once dreamed the dream.

for the space of six months, scarcely a week passed without the execution, in Santa Fe or the provinces, of three, four, or more individuals, shot as traitors. Thus perished the persons of the greatest wisdom, the most virtuous and wealthy, in New-Granada. The object which Morillo had in view, was to extinguish intelligence, remove men of influence, and destroy property, so that, in future, there should be none capable of originating or directing another revolution. New-Granada has deplored, and will for a long time deplore, among other illustrious victims, the loss of Doctors Camilo Torres, Joaquin Camacho, Jose Gregorio and Frutos Gutierrez, Crisanto Valenzuela, Miguel Pombo, Jorge Lozano, Francisco Antonio Ulloa, and Manuel Torices; and of military men, general Custodio Rovira, Libario Mejia, and the engineer Francisco Jose de Caldas. The murder of this celebrated mathematician and philosopher, was a piece of wanton cruelty on the part of Morillo. The exact sciences lost much by his premature death; and the geography of New-Granda especially, retrograded beyond measure, by the loss of the precious works which he had nearly perfected.

The spirit of these dark days is summarized by a reply Morillo supposedly made to petitions for him to spare the wise Caldas: “Spain does not need wise people.”

Present-day Colombia memorializes Francisco Jose de Caldas in the name of a department and numerous public monuments. (He also used to be on the 20-peso note when such a thing existed. Colombia’s smallest paper bill today is 1,000 pesos.)


Statue of Caldas on Bogota’s Plaza de Caldas. (cc) image from Mauromed.

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1781: Twelve Aymara rebels

Add comment October 26th, 2014 Headsman

[M]ore than 14,000 will have perished in this unhappy city, the great majority through starvation; others were shot, and still others were beheaded by the rebels in the fields that many attempted to cross even though they knew that the rebels would not show them any mercy if they looked Spanish in any way. And I, in the middle of all this misfortune and despite having as many bullets pass over me as passed over Carlos Federico of Prussia, I am still alive up to this date and after having satisfactorily carried out all the enterprises entrusted to me by my friend Commander Segurola, and having shown myself on all occasion to be very competent, and with a selfless love of service towards both Majesties, risking my life and everything I own to defend this hapless city. And everybody has celebrated, but especially said Commander, my activity and boldness at night as well as during the day, as I could always be found in the most dangerous areas of this wretched city, supervising and reprimanding those officers who were slack in their duties. Whatever happens from now on, God was served.

There is no Indian who is not a rebel; all die willingly for their Inca King, without coming to terms with God or his sacred law. On October 26th twelve rebels were beheaded and none of them were convinced to accept Jesus; and the same has happened with another 600 that have died in executions during both sieges.

The head of the infamous Tupac Catari still hangs from one of the gallows of this square, and on the 20th of last month they began to form the cases against twenty-four of the principal rebel officers who served under his perverse and iniquitous command. Equal diligence is being practiced against five women who are being held in the command post of this square. Among them is Catari’s sister and one of his women with the same inclinations as that iniquitous Indian, who must have come from the depths of hell.

More troops are needed from both Viceroyalties or from Spain, some 8,0000 to 10,000 men to make Our Sovereign’s name respected throughout the entire Sierra and to finally, once and for all, cut off some heads and be finished with all these cursed relics.

-Dec. 3, 1781 letter from Juan Bautisa Zavala “summarizing the calamities” of La Paz under Aymara siege over the foregoing months (As quoted in this anthology)

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1801: Periya and Chinna Marudhu

Add comment October 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1801, the brothers Periya Marudhu and Chinna Marudhu were hanged from the highest bastion of the fort of Tirupattur by the British — penalty for declaring the kingdom of Sviganga free from the British Empire.

The British East India Company had in the late 18th century established the foundation for the eventual Company Raj controlling India.

Sviganga was a small state only a few decades independent before the Company gobbled it up in 1790. But it proved more proud in its resistance than the Anglos might have expected. The widowed queen Velu Nachiyar put up a furious fight against the British in the 1780s, noted for its pioneering use of the suicide bomber: a Dalit woman who turned herself into a ghee torch and plunged into an enemy armory with explosive effect.

Velu Nachiyar died about 1790, leaving her patrimony to the administration of the Marudhu brothers. (The name is also rendered Marudu or Maruthu.)

The British policy was to rule India indirectly via arrangements with just such local elites. The pre-existing South India administrative class of Palaiyakkarars, better known to the British by the Anglicization “Polygars”, for instance, were simply bought off and put to tax collecting on behalf of the East India Company instead of domestic sovereigns.

These subcontinental subalterns did not prove to be quite as eager for the British yoke as the new hegemon might have hoped. They mounted a sequence of rebellions from 1799 to 1805 in a bid to claw back their autonomy. The British suppressed these risings only with considerable difficulty; an unnamed officer of the 73rd, in a letter published by the London Times on Jan. 7, 1802, paid the tribute of a colonist to his foes: “the Polygars are a race of people who inhabit the jungles and hill parts of India; they are braver than the generality of Indians, and cannot be said ever to have been conquered.”

The Marudhus joined this rebellion, allied with the Polygar Oomaithurai and leading a force pegged at upwards of 2,000. Finally besieged at Kalayar Kovil, the brothers found their fortress reduced and plundered by the British, and themselves delivered into enemy hands for exemplary justice. (Other captives, like Oomaithurai, were hauled further afield for punishment; Oomaithurai was executed on November 16 of the same year at Panchalankurichi.)

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1942: Coastwatchers on Tarawa

Add comment October 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the Japanese military occupying the atoll of Tarawa beheaded 17 New Zealand Coastwatchers, along with five civilians.

Tarawa, a fishhook-shaped atoll that belongs to the Republic of Kiribati, was one of many specks of South Pacific land to which Australia and New Zealand deployed World War II Coastwatchers.

These small teams of mixed civilian and service personnel, as well as locals, kept up 24-hour watch for Japanese naval movements.* The tips provided by coastwatchers in the Solomon Islands during the Guadalcanal campaign led Vice Admiral William Halsey to exclaim that “the coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific.”

But their lonely forward positions also potentially exposed coastwatchers to considerable danger.

Even as Guadalcanal was unfolding in August and September in 1942, Japan was fortifying the occupied Gilbert Islands** (present-day Kiribati) in the wake of the Makin Island raid. Seventeen coastwatchers in the Gilberts were swept up in the process, and transferred to Tarawa along with five civilians (three British, one Australian, and one New Zealander). There they were held at the atoll’s old lunatic asylum, on the islet of Betio.

On Oct. 15, Allied planes bombed Tarawa. One of the captives got loose and ran onto the beach, frantically trying to signal the bombers. Instead, the Japanese — who fretted prisoners on their occupied islands becoming a fifth column in the event of an attack — summarily executed not only the signaler but all their captives.

“I saw the Europeans sitting in line,” one Tarawa local remembered later.

One Japanese started to kill the Europeans. He cut off the head of the first European, then the second, then the third, then I did not see any more because I fainted. When I came to, I saw the Japanese carrying the dead bodies to two pits.

In November 1943, a U.S. amphibious invasion took back the island at the bloody Battle of Tarawa. Twelve hundred Americans, and several times that many of the island’s Japanese defenders and Korean war slaves, were slain.

Old gun emplacements from that battle — as well as a monument to the New Zealand coastwatchers — can still be found on Tarawa.†

Catch these sights while they last. The average height above sea level for Kiribati is two meters, making global climate change liable to send the nation’s scattered islands to Atlantis. Kiribati residents have already begun turning up in Australia and New Zealand as climate change refugees.


(cc) image from Nick Hobgood.

* When the occasion arose, coastwatchers also rescued stranded Allied servicemen. After LTJG John F. Kennedy’s torpedo boat was rammed by a Japanese aircraft carrier in August 1942, it was a pair of Solomon Island natives dispatched by an Australian coastwatcher who found the future U.S. President and his surviving crew.

** Seven other coastwatchers besides those beheaded this date had been captured in the Gilberts when Japan first (but lightly) occupied it following Pearl Harbor. They survived the war as POWs in mainland Japan.

† There was a monument to the dead coastwatchers from shortly after the war. The remains of the seventeen, however, were long neglected by the New Zealand government, and have only recently been turned up … by Americans scouring Betio for casualties from the Battle of Tarawa.

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1854: Aslak Hetta and Mons Somby, Sami rebels

Add comment October 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1854, two Sami men were beheaded for Norway’s Kautokeino Rebellion.

The indigenous Sami people — often known as Lapps, although this nomenclature is not preferred by the Sami themselves — had by this point become territorially assimilated to the states of the Scandinavian peninsula across which their ancestral homeland had once spanned.

The material benefits of this association for the Sami were much less apparent.

In Norway — our focus for this post — Sami shared little of the economic growth in the 19th century save for a startling proliferation of alcoholism.

In the 1840s a charismatic Sami preacher named Lars Levi Laestadius founded a Lutheran revival movement that went over like reindeer among his people. Religious enthusiasm and social critique went hand in hand: Laestadius’s hard anti-alcohol line and criticism of the comfortable state clergy touched deeply felt grievances, and Laestadius could deliver these messages in Sami dialects. Villages devastated by drink would go dry in response to his exhortations with pleasing results for the social fabric, further stoking adherents’ piety.

The most militant expression of this movement soon detached itself from any restraint Lars Levi Laestadius might hope to exercise upon it. Eventually it would move towards disruptive actions like interrupting services of the official clergy and protesting licensed alcohol merchants.

In a rising in November 1852, firebrand Laestadians attacked the trading post of Carl Johan Ruth, the liquor merchant in the Finnmark village of Kautokeino. Both Ruth and the local sheriff, responding to the disturbance, were slain in the ensuing fray and several other buildings in town torched. A counterattack managed to quell the disturbance — killing two rebels in turn — and eventually 17 men and 11 women were condemned to sentences ranging from short prison terms to lifelong prison terms to (our concern, of course) execution.

The two leaders of the mob, Aslak Hetta (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian) and Mons Somby (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian), were both beheaded at the Arctic Circle town of Alta.

After decapitation, the men’s bodies were buried at Alta’s Kafjorddalen Church, but their severed heads went off to the Royal Fredrik’s University (today the University of Oslo) for scientists to probe. The heads eventually went missing until a search turned them up at a cranium collection in Copenhagen in 1997, which returned them at the behest of the descendants for burial back with the trunks from which they parted ways 160 years ago today.

A 2008 Nils Gaup-directed feature film, The Kautokeino Rebellion, dramatizes these events. (Synopsis | review) Armas Launis, a Finnish composer with an interest in ethnography, also wrote a libretto (Finnish link) in honor of Aslak Hetta after residing among the Sami for some time.


As of this writing, the full movie is also available on YouTube provided you can understand Norwegian, or read Spanish subtitles.

* Laestadianism still exists today. According to Wikipedia, “Because of doctrinal opinion differences and personality conflicts, the movement split into 19 branches, of which about 15 are active today.” Said Wikipedia entry enumerates all 19 groups, ranging from the Conservative Laestadians (approximately 115,000 adherents) all the way down to the Sten group (15 adherents) and the Kontio group (5 adherents).

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1990: The October 13 Massacre

Add comment October 13th, 2014 Headsman

This date is the dolorous anniversary of the “October 13 massacre”, a bloodbath wrapping up the Lebanese Civil War when the Syrian army executed hundreds of captured Lebanese.

The intractable war, which dated back to 1975 and made “Beirut” a 1980s watchword for conflict, had boiled down* to two rival governments: a Maronite military government based in East Beirut under the leadership of Michel Aoun, and the Syrian-sponsored Muslim government in West Beirut putatively headed by Selim al-Hoss. Over the course of 1989-1990 Aoun’s “war of liberation” against the occupying Syrian army all but emptied the city of Beirut.

Thanks to a complex political schism, Aoun was also ensconced in the city’s presidential palace from which he issued decrees denouncing and rejecting the political settlement that was supposed to return the country to normalcy.

Unfortunately for him — and moreso for the prisoners who are the day’s topic — Aoun was also supported by Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein. In August 1990, Hussein invaded Kuwait, precipitating an American attack on Iraq in response.

As this latter operation involved the U.S. attacking a Muslim oil-producing state with military resources it deployed for that purpose the politically sensitive sands of a neighboring Muslim oil-producing, the U.S. spent the last months of 1990 working the Middle East diplomatic circuit to bring the region’s governments on board for the impending bout of ultraviolence.

Syria’s particular carrot was the green light to finish off Aoun — who, simultaneously, had of course been deprived of aid from the now-preoccupied Iraqis. This the Syrian army did with a massive attack on Beirut’s presidential palace beginning at 7 in the morning on October 13th. The palace was overcome by 10 that morning, but resistance continued elsewhere throughout the day from pro-Aoun militias who had not received word of that gentleman’s surrender and escape to the French embassy.**

Several hundred people were killed during the onslaught into pro-Aoun enclaves. An unknown number of these ballparked to around two or three hundred are thought to have been killed by summary execution after capture (or after intentional rounding-up). A Lebanese nurse claimed that at the nearby village of Dahr al-Wahsh “I counted between 75 and 80 [executed] … Most of them had a bullet in the back of their heads or in their mouth. The corpses still carried the mark of cords around their wrists.” Other captured Lebanese fighters were reportedly deported to Syria and never heard from again.

There are several other atrocity accounts collected here. This two-part documentary on the end of the Lebanese civil war available on YouTube has several participants’ perspectives (including Aoun’s) on the chaotic situation marking the war’s last days: 1, 2.

* This is quite a gross oversimplification of a fractious civil conflict in which innumerable blocs continually rearranged their alliances.

“I had a chart on my wall of the constantly proliferating militias — four dozen or so by the time I left in 1985 — and their constantly shifting alliances and enmities,” one former Beirut denizen wrote recently. “Allies one day could be trying to kill one another the next, even within sects, over issues that had digressed far from their common cause.”

** Aoun went into exile in France, returning in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution finally drove the still-occupying Syrians out of Lebanon. He has served in the Lebanese parliament since that time, leading the country’s largest Christian party.

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1932: Lee Bong-chang, would-be Hirohito assassin

Add comment October 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1932, Korean nationalist Lee Bong-chang was hanged at Ichigaya Prison for attempting to assassinate Japanese Emperor Hirohito.


The would-be assassin under arrest.

Remembered now as a patriotic hero, Lee on January 9, 1932 chucked a grenade at an imperial procession in Japan as it passed the imperial palace’s Sakuradamon Gate — the aptly-named Sakuradamon Incident. Korea at that point had been directly ruled by Japan since 1910.*

Lee’s hand grenade targeted the wrong carriage, and didn’t even kill the occupants of that conveyance — it just injured a guard. A second grenade failed to explode altogether.

Three months after Lee’s attempt, another Korean, Yoon Bong-gil, also tried to murder Hirohito with a bomb. Both men are interred with garlands at Seoul’s Hyochang Park. A statue of our man Lee, poised with a grenade in hand, stands in the park.

* Newspapers in China — also under Japanese occupation — expressed regret that Lee’s attempt had missed its mark; this impolite language helped to catalyze a Japanese show of force later that month known as the January 28 Incident or the Shanghai Incident.

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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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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Jews,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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