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1896: Chiefs Kahimemua and Nicodemus, Mbanderu rebels

Add comment June 12th, 2015 Headsman

Children, how should it be otherwise? They were ranchmen and proprietors, and we were there to make them landless workingmen; and they rose up in revolt. They acted in just the same way that North Germany did in 1813.

-Gustav Frenssen, Peter Moor’s journey to Southwest Africa; a narrative of the German campaign (review)

On or about this date in 1896, Herero chiefs Kahimemua Nguvauva and Nicodemus Kavikunua were executed by the Germans.

Germany was little more than a decade into its colonization of South-West Africa (present-day Namibia) when the events of this post took place, and the growing German presence was a growing thorn in the side of native chiefs.

Colonial administrator Theodor Leutwein had the delicate task of trying to negotiate a convenient-to-Germany colonial order among rivalrous tribes of Herero hersdmen … even as Germany’s expanding presence guaranteed their continually growing irritation.

Leutwein approached this Gordian knot in a manner convenient for a European functionary but less so for his unwilling subjects: he recognized the friendly leader Samuel Maharero as the “paramount” chief with whom he could arrange policy — a stature that rival Hereroland chiefs did not so readily admit. Maharero and Leutwein scratched one another’s backs: Maharero made treaties touching lands and people that were never truly in his jurisdiction, and superior German arms then cowed lesser chiefs into compliance with those treaties — and the attendant cattle confiscations, boundary adjustments, land clearances, and population expulsions, all of it tending to the steady increase of Maharero and his German backers.

Finally in 1896, chiefs Nicodemus and Kahimemua rose in revolt in the colony’s eastern reaches, a short-lived bush scrap known as the Ovambanderu Khauas-Khoi War.*

The Germans prevailed easily, forced the discontented chiefs’ surrender, and then eliminated them.

The two were tried and convicted by court-martial on June 11 and shot either that same day, or this, the next day.**

Maharero and the German colonists both profited by their relationship with each other, and eliminated some rivals in the process. But their marriage was only an expedient one.

Years later, as the German posture towards natives moved from rough colonial domination to outright genocide, Maharero himself would rebel, eventually having to flee to Botswana for his trouble. The sentiments he voiced at that time — sentiments that have helped land him an honored place in the national-resistance mythology of the post-colonial state Namibia — would have been awfully surprising to Nicodemus and Kahimemua, had they been around to hear him utter them.

All our obedience and patience with the Germans is of little avail, for each day they shoot someone dead for no reason at all. Hence I appeal to you, my Brother, not to hold aloof from the uprising, but to make your voice heard so that all Africa may take up arms against the Germans. Let us die fighting rather than die as a result of maltreatment, imprisonment or some
other form of calamity. (pdf source)

Both Kahimemua and his enemy Maharero share honorary space at Namibia’s “Heroes’ Acre” memorial to patriotic heroes.

* Refers to two different groups of peoples who participated in the rebellion: the (Ova)Mbanderu — whose zone one can see on this map of Namibia c. 1896: look for where the colony’s eastern border with British territory does a right-angle dogleg, then carry your eyes straight to the left along the 22nd parallel; and, some allied Khauas-Khoi.

** Sources I’ve found are cleanly split on which was the execution date. It is not clear to me that there exists any dispositive primary source.

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1561: 88 Calabrian Waldensians, like the slaughter of so many sheep

Add comment June 11th, 2015 Headsman

A horrible intra-Christian auto de fe in the Calabrian town Montalto marred this date in 1561.

The pre-Reformation Waldensian sect, dating back to the 12th century, managed to survive Catholic persecution in the hills and valleys of northwest Italy’s Piedmont — but not only there. Waldensians partook of the spiritual movements that emerged throughout Europe in this period challenging Church domination.

The Waldensians are named for Peter Waldo, a Lyons merchant who translated the Bible into the vernacular so that common people could better adhere to it; one of their first appellations, alluding to their creed of voluntary poverty, was “the Poor of Lyons”. Others professed like notions, and Rome viewed them as part of a common heresy — as Pope Lucius III decreed in anathematizing the whole lot in 1184:

In order to eradicate the wickedness of various heresies that have begun to manifest themselves in many countries throughout the whole world, the power of ecclesiastical discipline must be called into requisition. Therefore … [we] set ourselves against the heretics, who from various errors have received various names, and by apostolical authority, through this our constitution, have condemned all heresies by whatever name they may be called. First, the Catharists, and the Patarini, and those who falsely and fictitiously call themselves Humiliati or Poor Men of Lyons; as well as the Passaginians, Josephists, Arnoldists; all these we lay under an everlasting curse.

As heavily as these movements and their cousins, offshoots, imitators, and successors were pressed by the authorities in the subsequent years, they were never fully extirpated. The Waldensians, in the end, survived by keeping their heads down: in their defensible mountainous haven in the Piedmont, and in an offshoot community of Piedmont refugees that settled in Calabria, the rural toe of Italy’s boot where towns like Guardia Piemontese still reflect in their names the cross-regional influence.* For generations before Luther, these exiles made their way with security by obscurity, participating superficially as Catholics while privately maintaining their outlaw doctrine.

With the onset of the Protestant Reformation, these heretical enclaves could no longer be ignored and drew renewed persecution. Conversely (and this surely cemented the end of the look-the-other-way policy) reformers and Waldensians recognized common identity and common interests between the dissident communities; the Calabrian Waldenses sought and received missionaries from Calvinist Geneva.

Taking a very dim view of a hellbound heresiarch establising a toehold in its very own boot, Rome — and specifically the cardinal who would soon become the Counter-Reformation stalwart Pope Pius V — dispatched inquisitors backed by armed men to uproot these Poor of Lyons. As their targets were isolated from any store of aid or support, Rome’s agents had a wide latitude to treat them all with heedless brutality. After all, how many divisions did the Calabrian Waldensians have?

In June of 1561, after the heretics had defied an order to start attending mass daily, troops began invading the Waldensian villages. Guardia Piemontese, mentioned earlier, was assaled on June 5; one of the town’s entrances is still named Porta del Sangue, Gate of Blood, for the gore that was supposed to have flowed through it on this infamous day.

Waldensian prisoners from Guardia and elsewhere were hauled to nearby Montalto Uffugo to undergo the rough hospitality of the Inquisition. A Catholic servant to one of the lords tasked with effecting this persecution wrote with horror about watching the culmination of that Passion for 88 Waldensians on June 11.

Most illustrious sir, I have now to inform you of the dreadful justice which began to be executed on these Lutherans early this morning, being the 11th of June.

And, to tell you the truth, I can compare it to nothing but the slaughter of so many sheep. They were all shut up in one house as in a sheep-fold.

The executioner went, and bringing out one of them, covered his face with a napkin, or benda, as we call it, led him out to a field near the house, and causing him to kneel down, cut his throat with a knife. Then, taking off the bloody napkin, he went and brought out another, whom he put to death after the same manner.

In this way the whole number, amounting to eighty-eight men, were butchered. I leave you to figure to yourself the lamentable spectacle, for I can scarcely refrain from tears while I write; nor was there any person, after witnessing the execution of one, could stand to look on a second.

The meekness and patience with which they went to martyrdom and death are incredible.

Some of them at their death professed themselves of the same faith with us, but the greater part died in their cursed obstinacy. All the old met their death with cheerfulness, but the young exhibited symptoms of fear.

I still shudder while I think of the executioner with the bloody knife in his teeth, the dripping napkin in his hand, and his arms besmeared with gore, going to the house, and taking out one victim after another, just as a butcher does the sheep which he means to kill.

This was not the end of it. The Archbishop of Reggio reported deploying the hacked-up remains like Spartacus’s crucified followers, “hanged on the road from Murano to Cosenza, along 46 miles, to make a frightening spectacle to all who pass by.” (Source) Over the months to come, numerous others would go to the stake, or if “lucky” the galleys.

Whatever remnant survived was laid under heavy communal punishment: “that all should wear the yellow habitello with the red cross; that all should hear mass every day … that for twenty-five years there should be no intermarriage between [Waldensians]; that all communication with Piedmont and Geneva should cease.” One can still find in Guardia the inward-looking spioncini, peepholes, that Waldensians were forced to install on their doors for the more convenient monitoring of their behavior behind closed doors.

* The emigre Waldensians brought their tongue, Occitan, with them, and a linguistic

Here’s a Guardia Piemontese Occitan speaker describing the slaughter of the Waldensians:

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1822: Armand Valle, carbonari plotter

Add comment June 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1822, Armand Valle was guillotined in Toulon.

We meet Restoration France in the 1820s under the sway of an Ultra-Royalist ministry — headed, from December 1821, by Jean-Baptiste de Villele. This was the faction whose perspective on the preceding generation’s tectonic events was to roll it all back; their legislative programme would be to restrict the franchise, reassemble great estates, and generally rebuild as much of the ancien regime as could be salvaged from the aftermath of the Tennis Court Oath.

Villele would serve as Louis’s Prime Minister for six and a half years, and he set the tone right away in 1822 by investigating as conspirators virtually any two Jacobins, Bonapartists, or Liberals who clinked glasses.

The man did have reason to fear.

A round of revolutions had rocked Europe in 1820-21; the Italian carbonari in particular certainly spread into France, right down to the name (charbonnerie). And over the preceding decades, each of the royalists’ rival factions had been rudely dispossessed of power in successive violent overturnings of each new social order; each movement nursed its own grievances and spawned true believers ready to spin ahead the cycle of revolutions by intrigue, or munition.

And in 1820 — and this was the proximate reason Villele had ascended to his current place in statecraft — someone had assassinated the heir to the throne, triggering a massive reaction.

Can we pity the secret policeman? Ultra-royalist France had to chase ghosts; the conspiracy against the Orleanists must have seemed omnipresent, yet ever receding as agents provocateur entrapped this or that suspected subversive who turned out to be some embarrassingly minor dissident. At the same time, the security-mad repressive atmosphere of the times — France even went so far as to introduce the death penalty for sacrilege* — tended to channel potentially “normal” political activity into murmured intrigues.

Even as France’s crackdown neatly generated its own self-justifying threat, the cases that it did bring to trial made the martyrs whose sacrifices vindicated the regime’s foes.

We have already met in these pages the Sergeants of La Rochelle, young officers of charbonnerie sympathies. Indeed, France’s citizen army, so recently grande, ran thick with characters who conceived of much worthier polities to exercise their arms for than Bourbon absolutism.

At the end of 1821, a conspiracy for a rising by the Belfort garrison had been suppressed; the liberal deputy (and American Revolution hero) Lafayette was compromised and only narrowly avoided being implicated.**

Just days after the abortive Belfort plot fizzled and with the brass on high alert, our man Armand Valle had the indiscretion to “[entertain] a number of half-pay and retired officers at a tavern at Toulon. After inveighing against the pretensions of the nobles and the growing power of the clergy, he read out to his audience the statutes of the Carbonari.” (Source, which misdates Valle’s subsequent execution) His suspicious superiors had him seized, and soon found half-destroyed documents written in his hand implicating Valle as a carbonarist recruiter.†

Valle perhaps stood a fair chance of beating or minimizing the imputation of treasonable design since the evidence against him was partial and suggestive, and did not point conclusively to an actual plot against the state. But at the court where his barristers attempted to mount such an argument, a martyr-minded Valle overwhelmed all doubts by repeatedly interrupting to rant against the proceedings, the judiciary, the monarchy, and their collusion with France’s enemies. Here, surely, was a man to gratify those frustrating exertions of police spies.

On June 10 before great crowds of the citizens of Toulon, he marched with his escort to the scaffold. That last journey of former captain Valle has been retold in several accounts as a heroic calvary. There is Valle dressed almost foppishly, forbidding women to weep for the demise of his young beauty; asking for a glass to toastt the braves and la patrie; bidding adieu to his country once more on the scaffold as the drum rolls drown out his last words.

This romantic tale is confirmed in the complacent reports of the president of the tribunal at Toulon: Valle takes the glass, he makes the toast, and then, “thrown down on the fatal machine, he tried to address the crowd. The drum roll swallowed up his voice.” (Source)

A decade after Valle’s beheading, fellow-travelers erected a monument to him inscribed, “The Faithful Armand Valle d’Arras, a member of the Legion of Honor, captain of the cavalry of the former Imperial Guard, died June 10, 1822 a martyr of freedom. In gratitude, the patriots of Toulon.” (There’s a photograph of the still-extant obelisk here, part of this French forum post of Toulon markers.)

* It never carried out such a sentence under the Anti-Sacrilege Act prior to that law’s repeal in 1830.

** Lafayette got word of the plot’s failure while en route to the scene, and prudently returned home, destroying whatever was incriminating.

† A Commandant Caron was Valle’s carbonari paymaster, and Valle’s arrest ruined a coup that Caron was planning — helping lead to the latter’s own exposure, arrest, and (later in 1822) execution.

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90: Cornelia, Vestal Virgin

Add comment June 9th, 2015 Headsman

How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot:
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each prayer accepted, and each wish resign’d.

-Alexander Pope

June 9 in ancient Rome was the festival of the Vesta, the acme of the Vestalia festival extending until June 15.*

We hope this hearth-goddess will accept the homage Pluto‘s emissaries here propose to pay her most famous servants, the Vestal Virgins.

An ancient order of priestesses reaching back to Rome’s mythical founding period, perhaps even rooted in Rome’s matriarchal Etruscan predecessors, the Virgins by the time of the classical era numbered six — selected from among candidate girls aged 6 to 10 who would be whisked away from their families to serve for thirty years.

Vestal Virgins enjoyed great prestige and a number of social prerogatives (they had the power to pardon condemned prisoners, among other things). In exchange, they were tasked with maintaining Rome’s favor with her temperamental gods by tending diligently to the city’s most cherished religious observances.

The remains of the House of the Vestals on the Roman Forum ((cc) image from Milos Kravcik.) Here’s a reconstructed view of what the residence might have looked like in its glory.

From the moment of their selection, Vestal Virgins became a sort of personification of Rome itself — Rome’s civic virtue; Rome’s standing with the gods. Rome and the Vestals, joined by the sacred eternal hearth-flame whose perpetual kindling was the virgins’ chief ceremonial duty, drew succor from one another. Pliny wrote that they “have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City” — but Rome’s greatness, too, was attributed to the citizenry’s dutiful maintenance of the Vestals through the centuries.

For such an empyreal creature to indulge the fleeting pleasures of the flesh was quite beyond question. Vesta, said Ovid,

was always unable to tolerate men.
What wonder if a virgin delights in virgin servants,
And only allows chaste hands to touch her sacred relics?
Realize that Vesta is nothing but living flame,
And you’ll see that no bodies are born from her.
She’s truly a virgin, who neither accepts seed
Nor yields it, and she loves virgin companions.

But over the centuries, not all of Vesta’s servants kept that same hard line on unchaste hands** — and in so doing risked punishment by an unusual execution of living burial. Even defiled Vestals were inviolate in their persons: their blood could not be shed, and the hands of the common executioner could not touch them. They had to be dispatched without direct violence, by immuring them alive under the earth. (Not so their seducers: getting busy with a Vestal Virgin would cost a man as many strokes of a scourge as required to kill him.)

Back to Ovid:

Now sacred flames you shine brightly under Caesar’s rule:
The fire on the Ilian hearths is there, and will remain,
It won’t be said that under him any priestess disgraced
Her office, nor that she was buried alive in the earth.
So the unchaste die, being entombed in what they
Have violated: since divine Earth and Vesta are one.

We have no specific calendar dates to go with any of these, but the British Museum antiquarian G.H. Noehdon compiled the available information about Vestals’ executions at some length in this public domain text:

a subterraneous chamber or cell of small dimension was formed, into which you descended from above. There were placed in it a couch or bed, a burning lamp, and a few necessaries of life, such as bread, water, milk, and oil. It would have been impious, according to Plutarch, to destroy by hunger, a life that had been consecrated by the most holy rites. The wretched victim, it is to be imagined, chiefly perished by suffocation. For the cell was closely shut, and overlaid with earth, as soon as she was descended.

The whole proceedings were terrific. The delinquent was conveyed to that place of horror in a litter, so fastened up and covered from without, that not even a sound or groan could escape from it. She was thus carried through the market-place, while the people, in fearful silence, made way, and followed speechless, impressed with the awe of this frightful ceremony. No sight, says Plutarch, could be more shocking, nor was there ever a day at Rome more gloomy and sorrowful.

Detail view (click for the full image) of Execution of a Vestal Virgin, by Heinrich Friedrich Fuger.

Per Noehdon, the oldest case on record was of one Pinaria, executed for impurity under Tarquin the Elder. A Vestal named Minucia suffered the same fate in the 4th century BCE; two more, Opimia and Floronia, were condemned in the 3rd century, though one committed suicide in preference to immurement. Dionysius of Halicarnassus attributes a plague to the incontinence of the Vestal Urbenia, and its abatement to her punishment. Cassius Dio credits no fewer than three Vestals with execution for unchastity in 114 BCE — but one can hardly fail to note that this is a period of deepening class tension in Rome in the aftermath of the Gracchi. One wonders if carnal indulgences were merely a pretext to purge Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia for the wrong factional alignment.

Probably the best-attested and best-known Vestal Virgin executed was Cornelia, the Virgo Maxima (chief Vestal) entombed by order of the notorious tyrant Domitian. (Domitian had also executed three other Vestals some years prior.) Pliny the Younger recorded her going to her death effecting (as did her purported lover) a persuasive mien of indignant innocence.

Domitian generally raged most furiously where his evidence failed him most hopelessly. That emperor had determined that Cornelia, chief of the Vestal Virgins, should be buried alive, from an extravagant notion that exemplary severities of this kind conferred lustre upon his reign.

Accordingly, by virtue of his office as supreme pontiff, or, rather, in the exercise of a tyrant’s cruelty, a despot’s lawlessness, he convened the sacred college, not in the pontifical court where they usually assemble, but at his villa near Alba; and there, with a guilt no less heinous than that which he professed to be punishing, he condemned her, when she was not present to defend herself, on the charge of incest, while he himself had been guilty, not only of debauching his own brother’s daughter, but was also accessory to her death: for that lady, being a widow, in order to conceal her shame, endeavoured to procure an abortion, and by that means lost her life.

However, the priests were directed to see the sentence immediately executed upon Cornelia. As they were leading her to the place of execution, she called upon Vesta, and the rest of the gods, to attest her innocence; and, amongst other exclamations, frequently cried out, “Is it possible that Caesar can think me polluted, under the influence of whose sacred functions he has conquered and triumphed?” Whether she said this in flattery or derision; whether it proceeded from a consciousness of her innocence, or contempt of the emperor, is uncertain; but she continued exclaiming in this manner, til she came to the place of execution, to which she was led, whether innocent or guilty I cannot say, at all events with every appearance and demonstration of innocence. As she was being lowered down into the subterranean vault, her robe happening to catch upon something in the descent, she turned round and disengaged it, when, the executioner offering his assistance, she drew herself back with horror, refusing to be so much as touched by him, as though it were a defilement to her pure and unspotted chastity: still preserving the appearance of sanctity up to the last moment; and, among all the other instances of her modesty, “She took great care to fall with decency.”

Celer likewise, a Roman knight, who was accused of an intrigue with her, while they were scourging him with rods in the Forum, persisted in exclaiming, “What have I done? — I have done nothing.”

The Vestal Virgins were finally suppressed (and their eternal flame quenched) by the Christian emperor Theodosius, in 394.†

A few years later, Rome was sacked for the first time in 800 years.

* There are mixed accounts as to whether June 9 or June 7 was the first day of the Vestalia, but the 9th was unquestionably the most important.

** Legend has it that Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus, were sons of a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia: again, this tradition could well be the refracted memory of Etruscan priestesses, or princesses, or both. The man who was to kill these unholy offspring instead took pity on them and cast them adrift on the Tiber — and that’s how they ended up being famously suckled by wolves.

† Eliminating pagan holdovers was a great sport in this period for Rome’s now-Christian emperors. Theodosius also ended the Olympic Games; his son Honorius got rid of gladiatorial combat.

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1753: Dr. Archibald Cameron, the last Jacobite executed for treason

1 comment June 7th, 2015 Headsman

Dr. Archibald Cameron of Lochiel on June 7, 1753 became the last Jacobite executed for high treason.

The son of the Cameron clan chief who had had to take refuge in France for his role in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, Archibald was in 1745 sent as an emissary by his older brother Donald to talk the Stuart claimant out of trying a do-over.

But it was Bonnie Prince Charlie who won the charisma check in this encounter, and ere ’45 was out Archibald was fighting under the Pretender’s colors. (Donald, too.)

Sadly for Donald and Archibald, they were as prescient as they were unpersuasive, for by the next spring the Jacobites had been decisively put down in a battle that cost the Clan Cameron alone hundreds of casualties. Both sons followed their father’s path to exile.

Archibald Cameron did, however, venture a couple of furtive visits back to his native soil, and on one of these missions he was betrayed and captured by the British. There were indeed a variety of refugee Jacobite intriguers in this period who were bold enough to canvass the heather for yet another possible rising, a circumstance which Lord Amulree credits for the severity of the Crown against our principal when it caught him.

Dispatched to London to be made an example of, Cameron was condemned to be drawn on a hurdle and cut down still alive for a traitor’s dismembering. He was, in fact, permitted to hang long enough to die, and his corpse was not quartered. After all, there’s making an example, and then there’s making a martyr.

“I the more cheerfully resign my life as it is taken away for doing my duty to God, my king, and my country,” Cameron wrote on the eve of his execution. “Nor is there anything in this world I could so much wish to have it prolonged for, as to have another opportunity to employ the remainder of it in the same glorious cause.”

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1940: 32 innocent Poles

1 comment June 6th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1940, in the tiny village of Celiny in Nazi-occupied Poland, German soldiers and gendarmes stood 32 Polish citizens against the wall of a house and shot them all to death.

The victims of the shooting had, by the Germans’ own admission, done nothing to deserve their fate. They were killed in reprisal for crimes committed by others: namely, the murder of a German gendarme the previous day.

Seventy years later, the inhabitants of Celiny shared their memories of the incident with British historian Mary Fulbrook:*

Two Poles had apparently become involved in a dispute with the gendarme, provoked by a disagreement over the legality of ordering a certain dish in a local hostelry: that particular cut of meat was not supposed to be available to Poles under the rationing system introduced by the German administration. The Poles initially succeeded in escaping from the fracas by bicycle, but were caught up by the gendarme, on a motorbike, in Celiny; here, a further scuffle had ensued, in the course of which the gendarme was fatally wounded.

In a slightly different version of the story, the German gendarme had not even been killed by the Poles but had died as a result of crashing when, somewhat inebriated as well as angry, he took a corner too fast in pursuit of the two Poles. Whatever the truth of the matter, the latter knew they were in for trouble and rapidly escaped; they were nowhere to be tracked down.

The Germans had previously registered prominent local citizens to serve as hostages for just this sort of situation. But everyone on the registration list was forewarned by their friends and family and went into hiding to avoid arrest.

The next morning, unable to find any of their hostages, the local German authorities got together and argued for a full three hours over what to do. In the end they settled on a plan: They went to the prison in the nearby city of Sosnowiec and grabbed 32 inmates who had been “incarcerated for all the manner of reasons, including minor infringements of the most trivial of the new rules imposed by the German occupation, political resistance, and sheer bad luck.”

The men’s bad luck got even worse: the 32 men (29 Catholics and three Jews) were trucked fifteen miles back to Celiny, taken to the scene of the fight from the night before, stood in a row against the wall and shot dead at point-blank range.

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, Fulbrook visited the site of the massacre:

The wall against which the thirty-two people were shot remains pockmarked by the bullet holes, daubed now with dashes of red paint to intimate their bloody origins; there is a memorial stone, for which money had arduously to be raised among the local community; and fresh flowers were often laid there, to keep the memory of former compatriots and relatives alive.

The memorial stone lists the names of the 29 Catholic victims, but not the names of the Jews, apparently because the townspeople didn’t know who they were.

Fulbrook notes that this incident seems insignificant when put into context of the “enormity of other crimes that were soon to engulf the area.” Indeed, she says, “This incident would scarcely bear mention in comparison with the crimes committed on an infinitely larger scale at Auschwitz.”

But to the tiny village it was devastating and not easily forgotten — a small emblem of the countless nameless Poles casually put to execution in those years.

Andrzej Wróblewski

The Polish Andrzej Wróblewski created this series of eight paintings titled Rozstrzelania (Executions) in 1949, the year he turned 22. (They have no specific connection to the Celiny executions.)

* Mary Fulbrook was interviewed about her Holocaust research in this New Books In History podcast.

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1688: Constantine Gerachi, the Siamese Falcon

1 comment June 5th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1688, the astonishing Constantine Gerachi — the Greek cabin-boy turned virtual prince of Siam — plummeted to earth.

The son of a Cephalonian innkeeper, Gerachi ran away to sea in 1660 and soon caught on with the English East India Company ships who plied the Mediterranean and all the Seven Seas. Though little-educated, Gerachi proved himself frightfully clever and picked up his crewmates’ English. In time he also mastered French, Portuguese, Malay, and of course Siamese.

The word gerachi is Greek for falcon, and no name was ever more aptly conferred. From the humblest beginnings, Constantine Phaulkon soared higher than all.

By the late 1670s, Constantine had segued from hauling East Indies cargo to trading it, and this brought him to the attention of the Siamese king Narai. For Siam, the growing influence of European traders, diplomats, and arms was the prevailing issue of the late 17th century; Narai engaged fully with those interlopers and most especially with the French, who provided architects, mathematicians,* missionaries, and military engineers to the Siamese kingdom and received lucrative commercial concessions in return.

The king appreciated our polyglot adventurer’s many talents and attracted him to the Siamese court, where the pro-French Constantine quickly rose to become Narai’s indispensable chief counselor — basically the equivalent of the Siamese Prime Minister, the power in the kingdom.

But Gerachi’s close association with Narai, and with a French relationship that Siamese grandees increasingly feared might convert insensibly into domination, finally felled the Falcon.

In 1688, the ailing king tried to arrange for the succession of his daughter. Instead, he triggered a revolt by his foster brother Phetracha, backed by a “broad coalition of anti-foreigners, including Buddhist monks, the nobility and low-ranking officers.”**

This Chief of the Royal Elephant Corps seized power, murdering a number of royal relatives (and possibly hastening along the dying Narai himself). Monsieur Constantine of such discreditable familiarity to the French naturally went in his own turn, unsuccessfully trying to rally the realm’s French garrisons to defense of the mutual benefits of the ancien regime.

Nor was this merely a palace coup: Petracha’s takeover became the Siamese Revolution of 1688, “one of the most famous events of our times, whether it is considered from the point of view of politics or religion” in the judgment of a European contemporary. Thais who had resented the growing prominence of the farang now expelled most Europeans, or worse: though not a Japan-like closure (Siam maintained active intercourse with its neighbors), the country would remain essentially dark to Europeans until the 19th century.

Historical Fiction Series by Axel Aylwen

* The relationship gave to European mathematics the “Siamese method”.

** Thanet Aphornsuvan, “The West and Siam’s quest for modernity: Siamese responses to nineteenth century American missionaries”, East Asia Research, vol. 17, no. 3. (Nov. 2009)

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1691: William Fielding, scammer

1 comment June 3rd, 2015 Headsman

Four men and four women stretched their necks at Tyburn on this date in 1691. Among them we find one William Fielding, condemned for robbing three houses by using a 17th century variant of the Nigerian prince email scam:

The Prisoners came to all the Prosecutors and pretended that there was a Lady Dead who had left them Legacys, and Wheedled them to go to look after it, and the whilest Robbed their Houses; which was lookt upon as a very wicked Invention.

Proving that even confidence men are vulnerable to their own trick, however, the Ordinary of Newgate‘s dispatch from the foot of the gallows reports that Fielding

said, That he was afraid that if he might be spared that he should be tempted to Rob again, because of his extream poverty: Therefore he now submitted to dye willingly, that he might not add sin to sin, and so encrease his future punishment.

Well might he fear hellfire if he took the judiciary for his example. In a time when property was far dearer than life, Fielding himself and all but one of the other seven to hang with him (the one was an infanticidal mother) died for felony thefts of various types — ranging from the pathetic (“stealing from Charles Thurston, on the 4th of this Instant May, one Linnen Bag, value 1 d. and 20 l. in Mony”) to the ludicrous (“Robbing Daniel Leery, on the 12th Instant, in the Street, as he was going along, in St. James’s Parish, snatching his Hat and Perrywig off his Head, in the Night”).

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1581: James Douglas, Earl of Morton

Add comment June 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1581, James Douglas, the Earl of Morton was beheaded on the Maiden.

The fourth and last of little King James‘s regents, Morton was arguably the most able of the bunch and distinguished his span of authority by winning the raging civil war against James’s mother Mary.

Regent Morton had a reputation for avarice during his run in the 1570s. However, deriving as it does from his executive impingement on the treasures of courtiers and clans no less grasping than himself, that reputation probably ought to be taken with a grain of salt.


If nothing else, Regent Morton had the excuse of king and country. Sir Walter Scott, for one, favored this Red Douglas with a much more charitably statesmanlike gloss in The Monastery and The Abbott.

As one example, Morton irked divines by enforcing with a minimum of pious exceptions a pre-existing statute requiring a one-third cut of ecclesiastical revenues.

Likewise, he made an enemy of Lady Agnes Keith — the widow of the assassinated first regent — and her (subsequent) husband, the Earl of Argyll by forcing them to turn over crown jewels that were being held in their quote-unquote safekeeping.

In 1578, this Argyll kidnapped King James VI and induced the 12-year-old to declare his majority and dismiss the Earl of Morton. Argyll landed a Chancellorship out of the deal: Morton — well, you know. He would eventually be accused, 14 years’ belatedly but not inaccurately, of complicity in the 1567 murder of Lord Darnley.

Argyll in the end lost his head to that distinctive Scottish proto-guillotine known as the Maiden. Though the apparatus actually dates back to 1564,* a legend as moralistic as it is specious holds that the Regent Morton was himself the man who ordered construction of the device that would eventually end his own life. Sir Walter could hardly be asked to resist that kind of material:

“Look you, Adam, I were loth to terrify you, and you just come from a journey; but I promise you, Earl Morton hath brought you down a Maiden from Halifax, you never saw the like of her — and she’ll clasp you round the neck, and your head will remain in her arms.”

“Pshaw!” answered Adam, “I am too old to have my head turned by any maiden of them all. I know my Lord of Morton will go as far for a buxom lass as anyone; but what the devil took him to Halifax all the way? and if he has got a gamester there, what hath she to do with my head?”

“Much, much!” answered Michael. “Herod’s daughter, who did such execution with her foot and ankle, danced not men’s heads off more cleanly than this maiden of Morton. ‘Tis an axe, man, — an axe which falls of itself like a sash window, and never gives the headsmen the trouble to wield it.”

“By my faith, a shrewd device,” said Woodcock; “heaven keep us free on’t!”

-Sir Walter Scott, The Abbott

When next in Edinburgh, quaff Scots engineering acumen with the friendly backpackers crashing at the High Street Hostel — the glorious stone town house that was once Regent Morton’s very own crib.

By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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1946: Ion Antonescu

Add comment June 1st, 2015 Headsman

Romania’s wartime fascist dictator Ion Antonescu was shot on this date in 1946.

Antonescu (hand raised) and Adolf at Nazi headquarters in June 1941. Behind them are Ribbentrop and Keitel.

An army officer who worked his way up to the brass via his exploits in the Second Balkan War and then in World War I, Antonescu emerged as a major nationalist politician in the interwar period. He was the elite political figure who allied with Corneliu Codreanu‘s Iron Guard movement.

Antonescu became the Defence Minister in a a far-right government, was temporarily shouldered out of the state by King Carol II‘s coup, and then re-emerged as the leading alternative when Carol’s government was undone by the tectonic political crises in the run-up to World War II. After territorial concessions wrung by Romania’s neighbors triggered protests against the king in Bucharest, Antonescu on September 5, 1940, forced Carol to transfer dictatorial power to him — and shortly thereafter, he forced Carol to abdicate altogether.*

That left Carol’s son Michael the figurehead of state, and Ion Antonescu the actual strongman — at least, once he tamed the Iron Guard.

Antonescu oriented Romania towards Hitler’s Germany, including a fairly enthusiastic involvement in the Holocaust.**

For Germany, it was an important alliance: Romania’s oil fields were essential to powering the Reich’s mechanized army. And Romania ultimately fielded the largest Axis army other than Germany and Italy themselves with well over one million men under arms by the summer of 1944. For Romania, well, opportunism is as opportunism does: as Antonescu put it, echoing an ancient argument, “in today’s circumstances a small country which is under threat, such as ours, does not do what it wishes, but what it can.”

The Romanian “General Antonescu Army Group” joined the fateful invasion of the Soviet Union. Romanian divisions were prominent at Stalingrad where some 150,000 were lost as casualties or prisoners.

The turn of the war’s tide put Romania in a grievous dilemma whose parameters ran something like this:

  • Maintain Antonescu’s personal grip on power
  • Maintain the territorial expansion Romania had achieved early in the war
  • Exit the war without going down in Germany’s Gotterdammerung

… pick one of three. Provided it’s the last one.

As the Red Army approached from the northeast and American bombers struck from Italy and North Africa, Antonescu scrambled to sound out what kind of a deal he could cut with the Allies.

Antonescu might perhaps have negotiated without the desperation due his position,† and dilated with his decreasingly patient enemies while the Germans flattered him with the dream that he could still retain conquered Bessarabia (present-day Moldova). Only with the Soviet army on his doorstep was Antonescu finally disabused of the statesman’s dream and office both — when King Michael ousted Antonescu and immediately switched Romania to the Allied side.‡ This move accepted the Soviet occupation that was about to become a fait accompli, and put Romanian soldiers into the field for the last months of the war fighting against their former German allies.

It also put Antonescu into Soviet custody. He rode out the war under guard in Moscow, then was shipped back to postwar Romania where he would serve as the feature attraction of the People’s Tribunals.

One hundred eighty-seven people answered war crimes charges to these bodies; there were 13 death sentences, but only four were actually executed.§ All four — Transnistria governor Gheorghe Alexianu, Interior Minister Constantin Vasiliu, and Foreign Minister Mihai Antonescu (no relation — were shot on this date at Jilava. The executions were filmed.

* Carol went into exile, never to see his native soil again. He died in Portugal in 1953.

** “Of all the allies of Nazi Germany, Romania bears responsibility for the deaths of more Jews than any country other than Germany itself,” according to a 2003-2004 commission. “Efforts to rehabilitate the perpetrators of these crimes are particularly abhorrent and worrisome. Nowhere else in Europe has a mass murderer like Ion Antonescu, Hitler’s faithful ally until the very end, been publicly honored as a national hero.” (The full report is available here; the quoted lines come from its executive summary.)

† Berlin was keeping an eye on Romania’s separate-peace feelers, too, and had prepared a plan to occupy Romania should it attempt to desert the Axis. This is precisely the fate that befell Nazi-allied Hungary … but in Romania’s case, Germany never had the moment to implement the plan.

‡ Michael was, like his father, forced into exile in 1947; he did not return to Romania until after the collapse of Communism. Now in his nineties, King Michael is still alive as of this posting and remains the claimant should Romania ever re-establish its monarchy.

§ Six of the 13 death sentences were delivered in absentia. Notable among those fled souls was the Hungarian writer Albert Wass: Wass had escaped to the United States, which refused repeated appeals by Communist Romania to deport him. There is a running struggle in both Hungary and Romania over whether to rehabilitate Wass or posthumously rescind his death sentences. (Postwar Hungary condemned him, too.)

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