Posts filed under 'Popular Culture'

1968: My Lai Massacre

Add comment March 16th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1968, the U.S. Army meted out the signature single atrocity of the Vietnam War, the My Lai Massacre — wanton slaughter of 400 to 500 Vietnamese civilians over the span of four evil hours that would emerge as practically metonymous for twenty evil years in Indochina.


Combat photographer Ronald Haeberle shot a number of pictures on that day, although by his own admission he also failed to intervene against the slaughter and he destroyed some of the most incriminating shots. Nevertheless, his iconic photo of bodies heaped on a path became the iconic antiwar poster “And babies”.

The hero on that day was an American helicopter pilot who, seeing the slaughter unfolding, set his warship down in front of his wilding countrymen and trained guns upon them to still their rampage, then escorted several Vietnamese people next in line for murder to his choppers and whisked them to safety. The late Hugh Thompson revisited the site of the massacre for 30th anniversary commemorations and told a U.S. reporter,

“One of the ladies that we had helped out that day came up to me and asked, ‘Why didn’t the people who committed these acts come back with you?’ And I was just devastated. And then she finished her sentence: she said, ‘So we could forgive them.’ I’m not man enough to do that. I’m sorry. I wish I was, but I won’t lie to anybody. I’m not that much of a man.” (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Children,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Shot,Summary Executions,U.S. Military,USA,Vietnam,Wartime Executions,Women

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1903: Mathias Kneissl, Bavarian bicycle bandit

Add comment February 21st, 2020 Headsman

Bavarian bandit Mathias Kneissl was beheaded by the fallbeil guillotine in an Augsburg prison on the morning of February 21, 1903.

Kneißl/Kneissl got a juvenile start on his delinquency — the family trade, one might say; his parents were part-time thieves and fences and an uncle was a famous robber of the Munich-Augsburg roads named Johann Pascolini. He caught his first serious jail time at the tender age of 18 in an affair when his brother Alois shot dead a police officer who had come to investigate them for poaching.

Alois died of tuberculosis in prison but Kneissl emerged from his cell in 1899 — 24 years old and penniless. He soon returned to his vomit, mounting a bicycle-borne crime spree around Bavaria’s Dachau district.

Quaint though it might read in retrospect, a mobile gunslinging cyclist could be a hell of a menace in a world without cars or telephones. Kneissl proved it over the span of about a year and a half before his March 1901 arrest, raiding farms and passersby trying to accumulate a stake sufficient to vanish with his sweetheart to America.

Instead that sweetheart betrayed his hideout to authorities, who require an hourslong siege to capture the wanted outlaw. Two Altomünster gendarmes whom he had killed in a shootout supplied the requisite capital charge, notwithstanding the popular “social bandit” glow he had gained from his many months on the lam. (Folk songs celebrating him are still in circulation to this day; there have also been 1970 and 2008 cinematic treatments of this criminal legend.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,Murder,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Theft

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1836: Pierre François Lacenaire, Manfred of the gutter

Add comment January 9th, 2020 Headsman

The French murderer Pierre François Lacenaire, guillotined on this date in 1836, aspired to be a man of letters … and at least ended up a man in letters.

Lacenaire (English Wikipedia entry | the more considerable French) was a respectable merchants’ son turned ne’er-do-well, dipping in and out of prison after deserting the army in 1829 to wallow in the vices of crime and poetry.

The ensuing years alternate prison stints for various thefts with scrabbling attempts to make a go of it with his quill on the outside that invariably collapse into more thefts. As criminal biographies go, his silverware-robberies and such scarcely leap off the page but his writings in prison flashed even before his homicidal infamy — notably his Villonesque “Petition d’un Voleur a un Roi Voisin” (“Petition of a Thief to his Neighbor, the King”)

Sire, de grâce, écoutez-moi!
Sire, je reviens des galères …
Je suis voleur, vous êtes roi,
Agissons ensemble en bons frères …
Les gens de bien me font horreur,
J’ai le coeur dur et l’âme vile,
Je suis sans pitié, sans honneur,
Ah! faites-moi sergent de ville.

Bon, je me vois déjà sergent,
Mais, sire, c’est bien peu, je pense,
L’appétit me vient en mangeant,
Allons, sire, un peu d’indulgence.
Je suis hargneux comme un roquet,
D’un vieux singe j’ai la malice;
En France, je vaudrais Gisquet,
Faites-moi préfet de police.

Grands dieux! que je suis bon préfet!
Toute prison est trop petite.
Ce métier pourtant n’est pas fait
Pour un homme de mon mérite;
Je sais dévirer un budget,
Je sais embrouiller un registre,
Je signerai “Votre sujet”
Ah! Sire, faites-moi ministre.

Sire! que Votre Majesté
No se mette pas en colére!
Je compte sur votre bonté,
Car ma demande est téméraire.
Je suis hypocrite et vilain,
Ma douceur n’est qu’une grimace;
J’ai fait… se pendre mon cousin,
Sire, cédez-moi votre place.n

Sire, please, listen to me!
Sire, I return from the galleys
I am a thief, you are king,
Let’s act together like brothers …
Good people abhor me,
I have a hard heart and a vile soul,
I am without pity, without honor,
Ah! make me a city sergeant.

Well, I already see myself as a sergeant,
But, sire, it’s very little, I think,
Appetite comes to me while eating,
Come, sire, a little indulgence.
I’m snarling like a pug,
As malicious as a monkey;
In France, I would be worth Gisquet,
Make me the prefect of police.

Great gods! such a good prefect am I!
Any prison is too small.
However, this job is not done
For a man of my merit;
I know how to divert a budget,
I know how to confuse a register,
I will sign myself “Your subject”
Ah! Sire, make me minister.

Sire! that your majesty
Does not anger!
I count on your kindness,
Because my request is reckless.
I’m hypocritical and naughty,
My sweetness is only a grimace;
I made … hang my cousin,
Sire, cede me your place.

His cells, he said, were his “university of crime” although they scarcely turned him into a mastermind. He earned the valedictory hood in December 1834 when with an accomplice named Victor Avril he ax-butchered a transvestite pauper and his mother in Passage du Cheval-Rouge. Lacenaire and Avril had the mistaken belief that the victims were flush with cash.

What he lacked in criminal chops he atoned for in theatrical flair. At the men’s trial in November 1835, Lacenaire made the courtroom the anteroom of a society salon where he delighted fashionable intellectuals, taking “command of the proceedings by confessing all of his crimes in detail and stunned the courtroom with an improvised closing soliloquoy. Rumors circulated that he was to be pardoned after conviction and be made chief of a special branch of police. This sounded much like the familiar case of the bandit, Vidocq. In fact, Lacenaire claimed to have been inspired by Vidocq’s memoirs.”

“I kill a man like I drink a glass of wine,” he exaggeratedly memed to the journalist Jacques Arago — one of numerous philosophical bon mots. (“Whilst I had the capacity to write a play, I had also the capacity to kill. I chose the easiest.” “I love life and its pleasures, but if it ends, what does it matter? The punishment of death? A contradiction in terms: it is no punishment to send a being back again to insensibility and nothingness.”)

He occupied his last weeks producing poems and memoirs that were published after his death but the true success of his performance lay in its echoes through 19th century literature: Baudelaire would call him “one of the heroes of modern life,” and no wonder — in the judgment of Executed Today guest-blogger Henry Brodribb Irving, “no French criminal, except perhaps Cartouche, has left so distinct an impression on the minds of his countrymen.”

Gautier wrote a poem about his hand, which although uncomplimentary also salutes its owner the “Manfred of the gutter”; Balzac made room for this Manfred in La Muse du Departement; Stendahl modeled the brigand Valbayre in Lamiel upon him. Victor Hugo, apparently unimpressed with the guy’s literary pretensions, worked him into Les Miserables as the crowning monster of society’s underbelly, “what is called in theaters a third sub-stage. It is the grave of the depths. It is the cave of the blind.”

The savage outlines which prowl over this grave, half brute, half phantom, have no thought for universal progress, they ignore ideas and words, they have no care but for individual glut. They are almost unconscious, and there is in them a horrible defacement. They have two mothers, both step-mothers, ignorance and misery. They have one guide, want; and their only form of satisfaction is appetite. They are voracious as beasts, that is to say ferocious, not like the tyrant, but like the tiger. From suffering these goblins pass to crime; fated filiation, giddy procreation the logic of darkness. What crawls in the third sub-stage is no longer the stifled demand for the absolute, it is the protest of matter. Man there becomes a dragon. Hunger and thirst are the point of departure: Satan is the point of arrival. From this cave comes Lacenaire.

Nor in the 19th century could a touchstone of French literature remain confined within the Republic’s borders. Oscar Wilde referenced Lacenaire in The Picture of Dorian Gray; and Dostoyevsky mentioned Lacenaire in The Idiot and perhaps modeled the famous axe murder in Crime and Punishment upon the same.

Although his fame has faded somewhat this curious figure remains of interest to more contemporary eyes. Michel Foucault juxtaposed him against the Vidocq — an underworld creature who becomes an agent of law, the opposite of Lacenaire’s path from respectability to gutter — and perhaps captured the man’s appeal to his era’s novelists.

As for Lacenaire, he is the token of another phenomenon, different from but related to the first — that of the aesthetic and literary interest beginning to be felt in crime: the aesthetic cult of crime.

Up to the eighteenth century crimes were only heroised in two modes: a literary mode when, and because, they were the crimes of a king, and a popular mode found in the broadsheets which narrate the exploits of Mandrin, or of a great murderer. Two genres which absolutely do not communicate with each other.

Around 1840 there appears the figure of the criminal hero, a hero because a criminal, and neither aristocratic nor plebeian. The bourgeoisie produces its own criminal heroes. This is the same moment when the separation is effected between criminals and the popular classes: the criminal cannot be allowed to be a popular hero, he must be an enemy of the poor. The bourgeoisie constitutes for itself an aesthetic in which crime no longer belongs to the people, but is one of those fine arts of which the bourgeoisie alone is capable.

Lacenaire is the model for this new kind of criminal. His origins are bourgeois or petit-bourgeois.

His parents have done some bad things, but he has been properly brought up, he has been to school, he can read and write. This enabled him to act the leader in his milieu. The way he speaks of other criminals is typical: they are brutal animals, cowards and incompetents. He, Lacenaire, is the cold, lucid brain. Thus the new hero is created, displaying all the signs and tokens of the bourgeoisie. That brings us in turn to Gaboriau and the detective novel, in which the criminal is always of bourgeois origins. You never find a working class criminal in nineteenth-century detective novels.

Cinemaphiles should look to Lacenaire in the 1945 classic film Les Enfants du Paradis (clip below) as well as a 1990 biopic, Lacenaire.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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1861: Melchor Ocampo, liberal statesman

Add comment June 3rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1861, the Mexican statesman Melchor Ocampo was summarily executed by right-wing guerrillas.

Once a seminarian, Ocampo (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) turned his face towards public life, becoming a most eloquent exponent of the era’s movement of liberalism and anticlericalism.

He was among the faction who rebelled in 1854 against recurrent strongman Santa Anna; he served in the ensuing epochal presidency of Benito Juarez and helped to draft the liberal constitution that governed Mexico until 1917. Secular, egalitarian marriage vows promulgated in 1859 by Ocampo are still used in many marriage ceremonies to this day.

The revolutionary social reordering of these years was achieved only by civil war, a conflict remembered as the Reform War which ended only when the conservatives surrendered Mexico City on New Year’s Day of 1861.* Ocampo, who had the stature to stand for president himself, preferred to consolidate the victory by throwing his support to Benito Juarez in the ensuing elections.

Retiring thereafter to private life, he was targeted by one of the numerous remnant right-wing militias that still persisted in the countryside months after the putative conclusion of the Reform War. These abducted him from his home in Michoacan on May 30 and held him for some days, permitting him to write his last letters, before having him shot and strung up on June 3. His remains currently repose in honor at Mexico City’s Rotunda of the Illustrious … as are those of Ocampo’s longtime comrade Santos Degollado, who undertook to hunt down and revenge himself upon his friend’s killers but instead became their prey.

The town of Melchor Ocampo is, quite obviously, named for the man; his surname has been attached as an honorific to his home region of Michoacan, one of Mexico’s 32 states (officially called Michoacan de Ocampo) and to Tepeji del Rio de Ocampo, the place where he was executed.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Lawyers,Martyrs,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Wartime Executions

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Feast Day of St. Erasmus (St. Elmo)

Add comment June 2nd, 2019 Headsman

June 2 is the feast date of early Christian martyr Saint Erasmus of Formia.

If a real historical figure, Erasmus of Formia was a martyr from the persecutions of Diocletian, but the most sure thing about him is that his legend has accumulated like barnacles a variety of “spurious” myth and folklore. It’s an agglomeration that reached a critical mass sufficient to elevate him to the ranks of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, medieval Christendom’s roster of popular big-time intercessors.

He was supposedly a Syrian who landed in Italy as a prelate; there’s a St. Erasmus of Antioch who might either be the same guy in his previous guise or a completely different fellow whose conflated feats explain how Erasmus (of Formia) was both a bishop and a hermit. Oddly enough the Roman Martyrology doesn’t even say that he was put to death for the faith, for Erasmus “was first scourged with leaded whips and then severely beaten with rods; he had also rosin, brimstone, lead, pitch, wax, and oil poured over him, without receiving any injury. Afterwards, under Maximian, he was again subjected to various most horrible tortures at Mola, but was still preserved from death by the power of God for the strengthening of others in the faith. Finally, celebrated for his sufferings, and called by God, he closed his life by a peaceful and holy end.”

Later legends do much him much better for drama and Executed Today eligibility, crediting him with a gory disemboweling death. It’s possible that this association proceeds from Erasmus’s official patronage of sailors: it is he who is the namesake of St. Elmo’s Fire, the electric blue light that gathers to a ship’s mast during a storm,* and his nautical portfolio made his iconographic device the windlass, a winch-and-rope crank that devotees have found suggestive (since so many saints are depicted carrying the instruments of their own martyrdoms) of a device for spooling a man’s intestines. Over time, execution by mechanical evisceration became by popular consensus the passion of Saint Elmo.

“This is one example,” writes Rosa Giorgi in Saints in Art “where imagery influenced hagiography.”


The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, by Sebastiano Ricci (c. 1694-1697).


The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, by Nicolas Poussin (1628).


Central panel of a triptych of Saint Erasmus’s martyrdom by Dieric Bouts (before 1466).

For wincingly obvious reasons, he’s also the saint to call on for any variety of abdominal distress, from stomach and intestinal maladies to the pangs of birth.

* And also a Brat Pack film.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Disemboweled,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Italy,Not Executed,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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1831: Gesche Margarethe Gottfried, the Angel of Bremen

1 comment April 21st, 2019 Headsman

The Domshof town square still holds a spuckstein (“spit stone”) where passersby can revile Gesche Margarethe Gottfried, a serial poisoner beheaded in Bremen on this date in 1831.


Ptooey! (cc) image by Jürgen Howaldt.

Gottfried wielded the 19th century’s weapon of choice for subtle domestic homicide, arsenic, mixed into spreadable fat, a concoction known as Mäusebutter after its intended legitimate use. This delectable served for 15 murders over as many years in the 1810s and 1820s.

The “Angel of Bremen” — so earned for her kindly habit of nursing her victims through the death throes she prepared them — began as is customary with her spendthrift first husband, followed soon by the three children she had by him, her own mother, father, and brother, and her second husband.

After a six-year break apparently because her access to Mäusebutter had run out, Gottfried was able to resume her career in 1823 by offing her second husband followed by a series of less intimate acquaintances: a neighbor, a landlady, a maid, a creditor. All of her murders seemingly had some pecuniary motive, including those early ones of her own kin (think inheritance). But in many instances the apparent profit was very minor, and her motivations remain uncertain to this day. The phrenologists who examined her head after execution certainly had some ideas: “the brain exhibits an enormously large organ of Destructiveness, with a very deficient Benevolence. This combination appears to have rendered its possessor almost a hyena or tiger in her dispositions.” (Source)

At last one of her proposed victims, one Johann Rumpff who was the husband of the “landlady” Wilhelmine Rumpff already poisoned by Gottfried, became suspicious enough of her to have meals she served to him examined by a doctor, which led speedily to her arrest and to all the rest.

Gottfried was the last person (male or female) publicly executed in Bremen. She survives well enough in the cultural memory to earn periodic tribute on stage, screen, and literature …

… and for the discerning Bremener desiring to see upon whom their sputum falls at Domshof, the Angel’s death mask can still be gawked at the Focke Museum.


(cc) image by Jürgen Howaldt.

German speakers might enjoy the Life of Poison-Murderer Gesche Margarethe Gottfried composed by her attorney Friedrich Voget: part 1, part 2. or see archive.org.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Murder,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Serial Killers,Women

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1855: Manuel da Mota Coquiero, the Beast of Macabu

Add comment March 6th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1855 a wealthy farmer named Manuel da Mota Coqueiro — “the Beast of Macabu” in the popular nomenclature — was hanged for orchestrating the slaughter of a tenant farmer and his entire family.

Mota Coqueiro — that’s a Portuguese link, as are almost all sources about this gentleman — ticked the “motive” box thanks to his running conflict with the victim, Francisco Benedito da Silva. Mota Coqueiro had had an affair with Benedito’s daughter Francisca and the two men quarreled thereafter over compensation for Francisca’s resulting pregnancy — quarrels that broadened over the course of 1852 into the more conventional vectors of landlord-tenant conflict. In a relationship there’s having hand, and then there’s being able to evict your significant other’s entire family.

On a literal dark and stormy night that September, a machete-wielding gang of Black men invaded Francisco’s home, beating and slashing to death the man, his wife, and six children ranging in age from three years to teenagers. The only survivor, fleeing into the woods as the murderers made a pyre of their house, was Mota Coquiero’s former lover Francisca. Naturally the volatile landlord with the grudge against the victim was an immediate suspect, and he compounded the suspicion by fleeing in disguise as the investigation unfolded. In a climate of mounting public outrage, Mota Coquiero quickly became fixed in the eyes of police and public alike as the man who had surely ordered his slaves to commit the crime; a slave and two free Black servants in his household would likewise be executed for the crime. However, the evidence ultimately comprised a tissue of self-confirming inference and hearsay with no direct indicia of Mota Coqueiro’s guilt.

Today, he’s commonly remembered as the victim of a miscarriage of justice,* although there’s a dissatisfying want of firm evidence to implicate anyone in particular in his place. The 1877 historical novel Mota Coqueiro, au A Pena de Morte even resorted to inventing an ahistorical character to carry the blame.

The man himself denied guilt all the way to the end. There’s a rumor that he laid a 100-year curse on the city of Macae that lagged economic development … until the discovery of oil there broke the spell in the 1950s, a century later.

* Mota Coquiero is also widely associated in the popular imagination with the end of capital punishment in Brazil. However, he was not nearly the last executed in Brazil nor even the last free man executed in Brazil. What is certain is that Emperor Pedro II who failed to spare Mota Coquiero would gradually turn against the death penalty over the years to come — although any causation by this particular case remains purely speculative.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Brazil,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1616: Vincenz Fettmilch

Add comment February 28th, 2019 Headsman

Among the ancient remains, that which, from my childhood, had been remarkable to me, was the skull of a State criminal, fastened up on the tower of the bridge, who, out of three or four, as the naked iron spikes showed, bad, since 1616, been preserved in spite of the encroachments of time and weather. Whenever one returned from Sachsenhansen to Frankfort, one had this tower before one; and the skull was directly in view. As a boy, 1 liked to hear related the history of these rebels, — Fettmilch and his confederates, — how they had become dissatisfied with the government of the city, had risen up against it, plotted a mutiny, plundered the Jews’ quarter, and excited a fearful riot, but were at last captured, and condemned to death by a deputy of the emperor. Afterwards I fc!t anxious to know the most minute circumstance, and to hear what sort of people they were. When from an old contemporary book, ornamented with wood-cuts, I learned, that, while these men had indeed been condemned to death, many councillors had at the same time been deposed, becanse various kinds of disorder and very much that was unwarrantable was then going on; when I heard the nearer particulars how all took place, — I pitied the unfortunate persons who might be regarded as sacrifices made for a future better constitution. For from that time was dated the regulation which allows the noble old house of Limpurg, the Fiauenstein-honsc. sprung from a club, besides lawyers, tradespeople, and artisans, to take part in a goverument, which, completed by a system of ballot, complicated in the Venetian fashion, and restricted by the civil colleges, was called to do right, without acquiring any special privilege to do wrong.

Goethe

On this date* in 1616 the muffin man Vincenz Fettmilch was executed for a Frankfurt guild revolt that became a notorious anti-Jewish pogrom.

One of the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, Frankfurt am Main was at this time a predominantly Lutheran city of some 20,000 souls, governed by a council comprising the city’s wealthy patricians to the exclusion of her merchants and artisans. The city also boasted one of Germany’s largest Jewish communities, consisting of well over 1,000 people concentrated in a quarter known as the Judengasse (“Jew Lane”); living in Frankfurt under imperial protection, Jews of course were subject at any given time to varying degrees of community anti-Semitism.

The small and almost accidental spark to light the Fettmilch conflagration began in 1612 when the accession of Emperor Matthias led to citizen petitions for an enumeration of civic rights and the patricianate suspiciously refused to supply the charters. The ensuing conflict brought a growing popular movement that “commanded support from a large cross-section of the city’s inhabitants,” writes Christopher Friedrichs.** “But from the outset a dominant role was assumed by one man: Vincenz Fettmilch, a citizen who had experimented with a number of occupations before becoming a pastry-baker. There is no question that Fettmilch was a dynamic and articulate leader — and a passionate foe of patricians and Jews alike.”

For many months did Fettmilch (the cursory English Wikipedia entry | the much better German) and the patricianate maneuver but the long and short of it was that the latter’s credibility to rule deteriorated fatally with damaging revelations of financial malfeasance. By 1614 the popular movement achieved the outright conquest of municipal power, forcing Frankfurt’s much-resented oligarchs to yield their governing posts to guildsmen.

Which also positioned Vincenz Fettmilch to effect his demand for rousting that huge Jewish population.

On August 22, 1614, a popular riot invaded and ransacked the Judengasse. Fettmilch himself issued the expulsion order the very next day. This event is one of the best known and most studied anti-Jewish pogroms in German history; it’s also recalled as one of the last such incidents before the Third Reich — for Fettmilchs did not commonly get the run of a city, and our Fettmilch did not enjoy his run for very long.

As imperial soldiers gathered for an order-restoring incursion that rebellious Frankfurt would be powerless to resist, Vincenz Fettmilch was summarily arrested later in 1614 by other Frankfurters, sparing the city a good deal of destruction and speedily collapsing the new order he had created. Fettmilch had over a year as a ward of the empire’s torturers before he with three associates was beheaded and quartered on February 28, 1616 — the same day that Frankfurt’s Jewish refugees were officially re-admitted back to the Judengasse.


Broadside of the punishment of Fettmilch and associates by Johann Ludwig Schimmel.†

From the time of Fettmilch to this day inconclusive debate has raged among historians and other Germans about how to weigh, interpret, and reconcile those two thrusts of the rebellion — the resistance to Frankfurt’s optimates, and the chauvinism against her Jewry.

* You’ll also find the date of March 10 in various sources; this 10-day discrepancy is that commonplace calendar complication, the Julian-Gregorian split. Frankfurt am Main was a free imperial city within the Holy Roman Empire, and while the empire had gone Gregorian from its introduction in 1582, the mostly Protestant Frankfurt (along with many other German states) stayed away from this papist device until 1700. Our dating here defers to the local Julian sentiment.

** Friedrichs, “The Fettmilch Uprising in German and Jewish History,” Central European History, June 1986.

† Image from Karl Harter in From Mutual Observation to Propaganda War: Premodern Revolts in Their Transnational Representations; that author contextualizes the scene as follows:

In the middle of the picture we see the scaffold set up at the market place of Frankfurt cordoned by heavily armed soldiers and railings with posts showing the imperial eagle: The punishment of the rebels is taking place within the separated legal space of the empire, where only the delinquent, the executioner, the judge and several officials (representative of the imperial commission) and the soldiers appear. The city council and the representatives of the guilds on the two platforms in the centre of the background as well as the burghers of Frankfurt surround that space, watching from the outside. The executioner decapitates one of the delinquents, the recently severed finger of whom can be seen in front of him. The dismembering of the finger – the Schwurfinger – clearly points at the illegal conjuration or conspiracy in terms of penal law. Two more decapitated corpses of ringleaders are positioned on the scaffold. In the background on the left, outside the city three gallows are set up; one with a corpse hanged at the feet and another exposing part of quartered corpse. Both death penalties — reverse hanging and quartering — are typical of the aggravated and infamous punishment of treason. In the case of the Fettmilch-revolt, the four main ringleaders were dismembered, decapitated, quartered and parts of their corpses were exposed at the gallows outside of town. Furthermore, their heads were impaled and exposed on the gate tower on the Rhine side, which was the main entrance to the city, depicted with the four decapitated heads and a super-sized imperial eagle in the left background of the broadsheet. The symbolic implication, communicated and enhanced by the broadsheet, is quite obvious: The ringleaders and the revolt are to be commemorated as a serious political crime. This was emphasized by the total demolition of Fettmilch’s house shown in the foreground of the illustration on the right and the infamous shaving, flogging and banning of his family depicted in the background on the right: the total social disintegration and exclusion of the main ringleader — comprising his family, his name, his house — for eternal memory (“zum ewigen Gedächtnuß”). Apart from the ringleaders and their families, the punishment of other rebels (17 associates and followers) by flogging and banning, shown in the background on the left, seems almost lenient. In addition to the punishment of the rebels, the restitution of the legal and imperial order is represented by the re-entry of the Jewish community in form of a procession, just passing the scaffold.

All other broadsides dealing with the punishment of the rebels depict the same scene and make use of similar iconic elements: scaffold, armed soldiers, imperial posts and eagle, the dismembering of the Schwurfinger and decapitation, the tower with the heads, the gallows with the quartered corpses, whipping and expulsion, the demolition of the house, the re-entry of the Jews etc.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gibbeted,History,Holy Roman Empire,Martyrs,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Torture,Treason

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546: Croesus

Add comment January 5th, 2019 Headsman

It was perhaps around the winter outset of 546 BCE that the Lydian king Croesus was captured and executed or spared by the Persians.

Famed for his wealth — he funded the construction of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders* — Croesus was heir to a 600-year-old empire dominating western Anatolia. Herodotus credits the Lydians as the inventors of coinage, a likely basis for the “rich as Croesus” expression.

Would that he had been so rich in wisdom.

In perhaps 547 BCE, Croesus launched a war against the rising power on his eastern border — the Persian Achaemenid Empire, led by Cyrus the Great. In a classic ancient own-goal, Croesus got the thumbs-up for this adventure from the Oracle of Delphi, who told the Lydian envoys that if Croesus fought Persia, he would destroy a great empire.** That empire turned out be his own.

After fighting to a stalemate in the autumn of 547, Croesus retired to his capital of Sardis to winter, believing war would abate with the end of the campaigning season — even dismissing his allies until the spring.

Cyrus surprised him instead, marching aggressively on Sardis and putting it to siege after routing a much larger Lydian army at the Battle of Thymbra.† It wasn’t long before the Persians found an ill-defended entrance into the city’s citadel via a mountain ascent, and fulfilled the Pythian priestess’s prophecy.

We have no certain record of Croesus’s actual fate; the histories for him come from later Greeks, whose accounts are contradictory and even folklorish; J.A.S. Evans suggests in a 1978 scholarly exploration that the Greeks were equally in the dark about the matter but that “Croesus had become a figure of myth, who stood outside the conventional restraints of chronology.”

Herodotus renders his version thus, turning the action on Croesus’s remembrance of a previous encounter with the Greek wise man Solon, who had counseled him that wealth is not happiness:

The Persians gained Sardis and took Croesus prisoner. Croesus had ruled fourteen years and been besieged fourteen days. Fulfilling the oracle, he had destroyed his own great empire.

The Persians took him and brought him to Cyrus, who erected a pyre and mounted Croesus atop it, bound in chains, with twice seven sons of the Lydians beside him. Cyrus may have intended to sacrifice him as a victory-offering to some god, or he may have wished to fulfill a vow, or perhaps he had heard that Croesus was pious and put him atop the pyre to find out if some divinity would deliver him from being burned alive. So Cyrus did this.

As Croesus stood on the pyre, even though he was in such a wretched position it occurred to him that Solon had spoken with god’s help when he had said that no one among the living is fortunate. When this occurred to him, he heaved a deep sigh and groaned aloud after long silence, calling out three times the name “Solon.” Cyrus heard and ordered the interpreters to ask Croesus who he was invoking … He explained that first Solon the Athenian had come and seen all his fortune and spoken as if he despised it. Now everything had turned out for him as Solon had said, speaking no more of him than of every human being, especially those who think themselves fortunate.

While Croesus was relating all this, the pyre had been lit and the edges were on fire. When Cyrus heard from the interpreters what Croesus said, he relented and considered that he, a human being, was burning alive another human being, one his equal in good fortune.

In addition, he feared retribution, reflecting how there is nothing stable in human affairs. He ordered that the blazing fire be extinguished as quickly as possible, and that Croesus and those with him be taken down, but despite their efforts they could not master the fire.

Then the Lydians say that Croesus understood Cyrus’ change of heart, and when he saw everyone trying to extinguish the fire but unable to check it, he invoked Apollo, crying out that if Apollo had ever been given any pleasing gift by him, let him offer help and deliver him from the present evil.

Thus he in tears invoked the god, and suddenly out of a clear and windless sky clouds gathered, a storm broke, and it rained violently, extinguishing the pyre.

Even in this one text, Cyrus both does and does not execute Croesus, a figure whose proportions of historicity and legend are impossible to measure. In different variants of this tragic fall, Croesus puts up his own pyre for desperate self-immolation like the Steward of Gondor

… or it is or is not successfully extinguished. A post-pyre Croesus then goes on to become a dutiful slave of Cyrus, the relationship of conquered and conquering kings full of aphorism and fable-ready vignettes with no dependable historical warrant.

* For the pedants in the room, the “Seven Wonders” roster was composed later in antiquity, and the Temple of Artemis made the list based on its rebuild version after the one put up by Croesus had been torched by the fame-seeking Herostratus.

** Croesus rated the Delphic oracle’s advice highly. Aesop, the fable guy got himself executed by the Delphians by misbehaving while in the course of delivering a tribute from Croesus.

† Allegedly, the unnerving sight of Cyrus’s camels arrayed for battle panicked the Lydian cavalry into flight.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Burned,Execution,Executions Survived,Famous,Heads of State,History,Language,Last Minute Reprieve,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Persia,Popular Culture,Power,Reprieved Too Late,Royalty,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Turkey,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1938: Kasym Tynystanov, Kyrgyz intellectual

Add comment November 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Kyrgyz intellectual and statesman Kasym Tynystanov was executed during Stalin’s Great Purge.


Kasym Tynystanov, on modern Kyrgyzstan’s 10-som bill.

Born in tsarist Russia’s mountainous frontier with Qing China, Tynystanov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | Kyrgyz) was blessed by the exertions of his father and a local mullah with literacy — a gift shared by only about one in 40 of his countrymen.

He graduated from the Kazakh-Kyrgyz Institute of Education in Tashkent in 1924 and went on to a career in letters — literal letters, as he’s credited with being the first to regularize the Kyrgyz tongue in Latin characters. He would publish several works on the Kyrgyz language; he also compiled the oral folklore of his people, and wrote verse of his own.

Tynystanov served as People’s Commissariat of Education and chaired the language and literature organ of the Kyrgyz Research Institute of Culture.

In 1938 he received Stalinism’s customary reward for the conscientious public servant and was accused as a counterrevolutionary nationalist and shot. The Soviet Union officially rehabilitated him in the post-Stalin era.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Kyrgyzstan,Popular Culture,Russia,Shot,USSR

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