Posts filed under 'Language'

356 BCE: Herostratus burns the Temple of Artemis

3 comments July 21st, 2013 Headsman

By the ancient world’s tradition, it was on July 21, 356 — the night of Alexander the Great‘s birth* — that a theretofore forgettable man set fire to the wooden rafters of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

Situated on the Hellenized coast of Asia Minor, near present-day Selcuk, Turkey, Ephesus was one of the great cities of the Mediterranean. It counted Artemis (Diana) its patron deity, and gloried in a jaw-dropping marble temple, bankrolled two centuries before by the Lydian king Croesus, that would have nearly covered a modern football pitch. Ephesians took their Artemis seriously: 400-plus years later, St. Paul would barely escape lynching at the hands of enraged Artemis devotees when he proselytized there.

What a horror it must have been for 4th century BCE Ephesians to awake this day to the destruction of their city’s own sacred pride.

Even more shockingly, the temple’s destroyer made no effort to conceal himself. He openly boasted of his act, and of the horrifying reason for it: merely to exalt his obscure name with the luster of infamy.

Ephesus not only put this man to death, but passed a damnatio memoriae upon him, forbidding any mention of his name, in order to deny him his victory.

But the the historian Theopompus, who was not Ephesian, cheated the city of its sentence by recording it: Herostratus. It’s a word that has become a metonym in many languages and an allegory in many books for any villain impelled to his wickedness by the allure of celebrity.

We have no specific date for Herostratus’s execution. But we do have his last tortured victory. We do have his name.

The Ephesians in time rebuilt the magnificent temple, bigger and more awe-inspiring than before. It stood some 600 years more until the Goths sacked it in 268 AD, long enough to secure its place among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus,” wrote Antipater of Sidon of the reconstructed, post-Herostratus temple. “But when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.'”


The Temple of Artemis today: a weedy rubble. (cc) image from LWY.

* Plutarch remarked that Artemis was too distracted delivering the conqueror into the world to protect her shrine.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Greece,History,Language,Notable for their Victims,Popular Culture,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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399 BCE: Socrates

2 comments May 19th, 2013 Headsman

It might have been May 19, 399 BCE* — and if not, we’re in the neighborhood — that the original gadfly** philosopher Socrates obeyed a death sentence from his native Athens and quaffed a cup of deadly hemlock. It’s one of the most famous executions in history, and arguably one of the most consequential.

Socrates left no original writings that survive for us. Posterity sees him via the works of his students Xenophon and especially Plato, but he was a well-known figure to contemporaries in the polis.

For decades, the man with the method and the familiar daemon had been philosophizing around town. Socrates comes in for mockery in an Aristophanes play lampooning newfangled intellectual trends in the 420s BCE


“Like Ozzy Osbourne, [Socrates] was repeatedly accused of corruption of the young.”

The weird and unsatisfying corrupting-the-young and impiety charges which putatively caused the man’s trial and death sentence have been much-debated in the centuries since. It seems clear that at some level the “real” crime in the eyes of the hundreds of fellow-citizens who judged Socrates had to do with the students who weren’t reverential successor-eggheads, but toxic contemporary politicians. Socrates tutored the treacherous demagogue Alcibiades, who convinced Athenians to mount a catastrophic invasion of Sicily that cost Athens the Peloponnesian War; he rolled with Critias, one of the notorious tyrants of Athens during the 404-403 Spartan puppet dictatorship that resulted from losing that war.

All the while, Socrates had openly preached a dim view of the Athenian democratic system. Again, we don’t have the master’s direct words here, but something like the dialogue presented by the Socrates character in Plato’s allegory of the cave — in which non-philosophers are a lot of purblind morlocks — is difficult to square with anything but an elitist take of civilization. There’s a reason this could be a bit of a sore subject in a city that had just seen the glories of its late imperial apex possessed by Spartan hoplites, especially when espoused by a guy who rubbed chitons with the tyrants themselves.

Even so, Socrates was only narrowly convicted. Once convicted, the legal game had both the prosecution and the defendant propose a punishment, and the jury select one.

Were this system still practiced somewhere, game theorists would have a field day with it. But Socrates just opted out of the match by proposing that he be “punished” with a public pension for his services to the polis. There’s being a gadfly, and then there’s telling your jury to go take a long walk off a high rock: he was death-sentenced by a larger margin than had voted to convict. Plato makes this a much more martyr-like scene than Xenophon; the latter emphasizes that the septuagenarian chin-waggler didn’t much mind being excused from the frailties of advancing age.

Plato used Socrates repeatedly in various dialogues, and it goes without saying that these are cornerstones of the literary canon. The dialogues of most relevance† for his execution specifically are:

  • the Apology, Plato’s account of the defense Socrates mounted at trial: it’s in this text that Socrates is reported to utter the words, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
  • Crito, a conversation between a wealthy guy of that name and the condemned Socrates in which the philosopher expounds his theory of citizenship and social contract in refusing Crito’s blandishments to escape before execution.
  • the Phaedo, in which Socrates argues for the immortality of the soul, and then gets down to the business of swallowing his fatal draught.

Soon the jailer, who was the servant of the Eleven, entered and stood by him, saying:—To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me, when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison—indeed, I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are to blame. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must needs be—you know my errand. Then bursting into tears he turned away and went out.

Socrates looked at him and said: I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid. Then turning to us, he said, How charming the man is: since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at times he would talk to me, and was as good to me as could be, and now see how generously he sorrows on my account. We must do as he says, Crito; and therefore let the cup be brought, if the poison is prepared: if not, let the attendant prepare some.

Yet, said Crito, the sun is still upon the hill-tops, and I know that many a one has taken the draught late, and after the announcement has been made to him, he has eaten and drunk, and enjoyed the society of his beloved; do not hurry—there is time enough.

Socrates said: Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in so acting, for they think that they will be gainers by the delay; but I am right in not following their example, for I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should only be ridiculous in my own eyes for sparing and saving a life which is already forfeit. Please then to do as I say, and not to refuse me.

Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed. The man answered: You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act. At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of colour or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not? The man answered: We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough. I understand, he said: but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world—even so—and so be it according to my prayer. Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: What is this strange outcry? he said. I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet then, and have patience. When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and 118upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said—they were his last words—he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.

A few books about the death of Socrates

* The Phaedo places Socrates’ trial on the day after Athens consecrated a ritual boat for its annual pilgrimage. (This was supposed to be the very boat that the hero Theseus had sailed back after defeating the minotaur in time immemorial, and the Athenians maintained it for centuries in a seaworthy state to make ceremonial voyages to the island of Delos, a sanctuary for Theseus’s patron Apollo. This is also the very conveyance in question in the “Ship of Theseus” paradox, a philosophical conundrum proceeding from the question of whether the thing was still “Theseus’s ship” if every single component of it had been replaced in the intervening years.) Anyway, Theseus aside, that mention of the consecration gives us Mounichion 7 on the confusing lunisolar Attic calendar for the trial of Socrates.

During the ship’s sacred voyage, Athens was to remain ritually “cleansed.” This condition included not conducting any executions. A date for the death of Socrates is established by Xenophon and Seneca reporting that the boat returned after 30 days — which was about twice as long as ordinarily required, but the archaic craft was very vulnerable to bad weather. 30 days is an eminently doubtable nice round number, but where ancient dates are concerned, we takes what we can gets.

“Counting inclusively, as was then the custom, Socrates died on Thargelion 6, which is the very day recorded for his birth,” notes Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy. It’s possible that Socrates’s birthday became associated with Thargelion 6 because Thargelion 6 was associated with Socrates via his execution … but Thargelion 6 became known as man’s execution date. It also happened to be the Athenian festival “Thargelia” (and the day before Plato’s Thargelia 7 birthday).

There are other dates out there. In particular, a number of easily accessible pages claim that the hemlock was downed on May 7, 399. I’m not positive, but it appears to me that this might have originally been arrived at by counting 30 days exclusively from Mounichion 7 to reach Thargelion 7, then noticing that Thargelion typically began sometime in May, and smushing together “May” and “7” from alien calendars … after which it’s been repeated on the basis of previous source’s authority. If there’s better support for this date than I infer, I welcome correction.

For my part, I’ve dated this entry based on the astounding Hellenic Month Established Per Athens calendar, specifically its dates for Thargelion of the 1st year of the 95th Olympiad. Thargelion 6 corresponded to May 18/19, says HMEPA — Greek days began at sundown — and since Socrates died at the end of daylight, just before sunset, that’s a Gregorian May 19th. Again, though, all this is built upon a chain of questionable inferences based on a few questionable passing remarks from just a couple of ancient sources. In the end, one just can’t know for sure.

** Plato reports in the Apology Socrates characterizing himself as such this way — “a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life” by his stings — bequeathing to us the evocative metaphor.

† Find these essential execution-related dialogues here, here, or here, or just the highlights here.

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1897: John Gibson, under Jim Crow

Add comment May 1st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1897, John Gibson was hanged for murder.

In its particulars, the case itself was as minute and forgettable as a homicide ever could be: Gibson got into a spat with a plantation overseer over the theft of 20 or 25 cents from his wages. Later that night, still steaming and now drunk, he called the boss out through the window. The overseer went out to the confrontation armed (Gibson wasn’t), and wound up shot dead by his own gun in the struggle.

This literal two-bit crime became national news, however, and went twice to the Mississippi Supreme Court and twice to the U.S. Supreme Court as a vehicle to challenge Mississippi’s new Jim Crow constitution.

After Reconstruction but especially in the 1890s, the dreadful regime of American apartheid reversed black civil rights gains.

Mississippi’s all-white* constitutional convention of 1890 was a signal event for this nadir of race relations — the first of a wave of new southern constitutions aimed at setting up a color bar. In addition to mandating segregated schools, that constitution imposed a few, ahem, reasonable requirements for voting, which lacked any overt racial language but just so happened to disenfranchise the black electorate almost to a man. (Don’t even get started about women.**)

  • every voter must pay “a uniform poll tax of two dollars”;
  • “every elector shall … be able to read any section of the constitution of this State.” Now, lest one miss the intent here, Mississippi added a clause permitting anyone descended from a legal voter pre-1867 to cast a ballot without passing the exam: if your grandfather could vote, you could vote too … too bad if your grandfather couldn’t vote on account of being property. This one-two punch throughout the South kept poor whites on the right team, and bequeathed to English the phrase “grandfather clause”.

Both these gratuitous hurdles to voting are now confined to the history books, but two other important techniques of disenfranchisement remain very much in use today.

  • a needlessly onerous voter registration process;
  • and, the franchise is reserved for upstanding voters who have “never been convicted of bribery, burglary, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretenses, perjury, forgery, embezzlement or bigamy.” In a context where wholesale incarceration of African Americans was a matter of policy.

Plus of course, brute force up to and including lynch law for political terrorism. “In those days,” one black Mississippian said, “it was ‘Kill a mule, buy another. Kill a nigger, hire another.’ They had to have a license to kill anything but a nigger. We was always in season.”

From 1901 to 1973, the South never once seated a black lawmaker in the U.S. Congress.

So it’s a grim scene for racial justice in the twilight of the 19th century. But we dwell on the voting-rights aspect because jurors were drawn from the voting rosters: all the filters that excluded African Americans from the ballot box likewise excluded them from the jury box. And here’s where we get back to John Gibson.

Gibson’s case was taken up by African-American attorneys† Cornelius Jones and Emanuel Hewlett, who argued it all the way to a Supreme Court. R. Volney Riser argues in Defying Disfranchisement: Black Voting Rights Activism in the Jim Crow South, 1890-1908 that they weren’t just trying to save their client — they were mounting a cagey attack on the Mississippi constitution and the pillars of Jim Crow law. If Jones and Hewlett

could show a racial motive in refusing potential black voters (and likewise potential black jurors), they would have a reasonably strong case.

The elements of a strong, jury-based anti-disfranchisement case were in place for Jones and Hewlett and all that they really wanted was to have his case remanded to a U.S. district court. That might seem anticlimactic, but it would have meant that southern judges, sheriffs, and voting registrars would find themselves standing before federal district judges to justify their administration of jury selection and voter registration. In the immediate short term, there would almost surely be some benefit for disfranchised African Americans.

They argued the cases on December 13, 1895, and the Supreme Court announced decisions in Gibson and [a companion case] Smith on April 13, 1896, little more than one month before [Jim Crow landmark] Plessy v. Ferguson. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote both opinions and dismissed each case on jurisdictional grounds. The problem lay in the evidence, which was conspicuous by its paucity … Mississippi did not exclude blacks in terms … [and] in Gibson, Jones had not shown that Mississippi’s courts committed “any error of law of which this court may take cognizance” or that his client’s murder conviction “was due to prejudice of race.”

Washington Post, Oct. 27, 1895

In the real world, where rights need enforcement if they are to thrive, this ruling had the effect of giving a free hand to white power so long as it had the sense God gave a vegetable and didn’t directly declare that any of its universally all-white juries (or electorates) were constituted as a matter of explicit race prejudice. Just a marvelous coincidence! Nothing to see here, you federal judges.

As the Southwestern Christian Advocate editorialized after the ruling (Apr. 23, 1896)

Proof need hardly be asked that there was a deliberate purpose on the part of the persons charged with that responsibility [i.e., seating juries] to absolutely ignore the colored man as a juror. This is the cold truth, that the sheriffs and other court officers who have charge of the impanneling of juries will not select colored men. The persistency with which they deny such intent is one of the most gigantic mysteries of the age.

Of course, there is no constitutional enactment on the statute books of the State of Mississippi denying the right of jury service to Negroes, yet they do not serve, and for the simple reason that they are not chosen. It is the easiest matter in the world to keep Negroes out of the jury box in Mississippi. It is one of their sovereign rights.

There is no enactment against it, nothing for it, so there it is. And what is the Supreme Court or the Federal government going to do about it? Why, simply render its decisions upon what it does not permit. The fact is that the amendments to the Constitution, so far as the black man is concerned, are not worth the paper they are written upon without the moral sentiments of high minded and noble people behind it. And this will apply to State, Federal and Supreme Courts as well.

Meanwhile, the black man is expected to be an intelligent and a loyal citizen, notwithstanding the rights which he fought and bled for are now almost exclusively in the hands of those who at one time sought to pull the fair fabric of our Constitutional liberties to the ground.

It’s still to this day the case that defendants have very little scope to scrutinize potentially prejudicial jury composition. It’s still to this day the case that the Supreme Court has nothing but a toothless remedy. And it’s still to this day the case that some state’s attorneys can and do craft racially discriminatory juries more prone to convict by excluding blacks … so long as it’s “not in terms” and instead for literally any other pretext.

* Except for one black man.

** Representative sentiment of a Mississippian: “We are not afraid to maul a black man over the head if he dares to vote, but we can’t treat women, even black women, that way. No, we’ll allow no woman suffrage.” Mississippi only ratified female suffrage in 1984.

† There are some claims out there that the first black attorney to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court did so only in 1910; I may be overlooking a nuance in the manner these issues were presented to the high court, but so far as I can discern, Gibson was argued by black attorneys. This source suggests that it was hardly the first.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Mississippi,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1813: The Yorkshire Luddites, for murdering William Horsfall

1 comment January 8th, 2013 Headsman

This is the bicentennial of the hanging of three Luddites for the murder of manufacturer William Horsfall.

“Luddite” has come to refer imprecisely to a wide range of anti-mechanization machine-wrecking in early 19th century Britain; however, it’s most properly applied to a specific 1811-1816 movement.

While often understood casually as a sort of mindless technophobia, wreckers — Luddites and otherwise — actually had material labor grievances. New more efficient power looms reduced skilled workers to the ranks of unskilled subsistence labor, or to those of the superfluous unemployed.

With trade unionism illegal (and severely repressed), their means of resistance were of a desperate character. Lord Byron, almost alone in Parliament, rose to defend them: “These men were willing to dig, but the spade was in other hands; they were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them. Their own means of subsistence were cut off; all other employments pre-occupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be the subject of surprise.”

Hence, Byron sarcastically remarked, “new capital punishments must be devised, new snares of death must be spread, for the wretched mechanic who is famished into guilt.” Parliament did indeed extend its capital statutes to the protection of these new looms.


Via

“Wrecking,” in the analysis of the late Eric Hobsbawm, “was simply a technique of trade unionism in the period before, and during the early phases of, the industrial revolution.”

Hobsbawm quotes a Nottingham town clerk describing the way textile manufacturers “acquire entire control of their workmen” by putting them to work on the owners’ power looms rather than hiring out workers who use their own looms. “Perhaps the most effectual manner in which the combination [read: proto-union] could coerce them was their former manner of carrying on war by destroying their frames.”

And the descriptor “war” was not far off.

The Luddites — so named for legendary loom-smasher Ned Ludd — proliferated in 1811-1812. Beginning in Nottingham with a protest against falling wages signed by General Ned Ludd and the Army of Redressers, they tapped a wellspring of discontent.

It was a time of war, of economic crisis, of spiking wheat prices whose rise to an 1812 record peak further immiserated those who scraped to earn a living by the sweat of their brow. A generation after the French Revolution, with Napoleon rampant on the continent, English elites had reason to fear their own legitimacy stood on unstable ground.* In 1811, the king even went mad.

And they thrive well who from the poor
Have snatched the bread of penury,
And heap the houseless wanderer’s store
On the rank pile of luxury.

-Percy Bysshe Shelly, “The Devil’s Walk” (1812)

From their birthplace in Nottingham, Luddite societies spread out through textile country, conspiring by moonlight to break into factories and smash up frames or commit other acts of industrial sabotage. (There’s a pdf timeline here) Byron, the Luddites’ defender, owned that the night before he departed a recent visit to Nottingham, “forty frames had been broken the preceding evening as usual, without resistance and without detection.”

Terrified manufacturers — some were known to have armored their establishments with what amount to siege fortifications; others, to outfit homes with early panic rooms as bolt-holes in the event of a Luddite attack — met this mob action violently. Westminster put 12,000 troops into Luddite country to fight the wreckers.

And the wreckers fought back.

William Horsfall, owner of a Marsden wool mill with 400 employees, had vowed to “ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood” … which promise gave a poetic twist to his actual fate: while riding on Huddersfield‘s Crosland Moor** in April 1812, a group of Luddites lying in wait opened fire on him and shot Horsfall through the groin.

“As soon as he fell after being wounded the inhuman populace surrounding him reproached him with having been the oppressor of the poor — they did not offer assistance,” an officer later reported. “Nor did any one attempt to pursue or secure the assassins who were seen to retire to an adjoining wood.” A fellow-manufacturer helped Horsfall to an inn, where he expired painfully 38 hours later.

It was several months before the powers that be were able to crack it.

Eventually, the energetic Huddersfield magistrate Joseph Radcliffe† was able to exploit the threat of hanging to force a Luddite cropper‡ into impeaching his confederates in the plot. This investigation is covered in marvelous detail at the Luddite Bicentenary blog, an outstanding resource on the period in general, but for our purposes we’ll sum up to say that the hunt for Horsfall’s killers wound up zeroing in on George Mellor, Thomas Smith, and William Thorpe.

They were tried over 11 hours on a single day, January 6, 1813 (summary: 1, 2, 3, 4).

That was a Wednesday.

That Friday, the three hanged in their manacles behind York Castle under heavy military guard to forestall any possible rescue, having never admitted any part in the murder. The authorities judiciously eschewed a more demonstrative (and potentially riot-inducing) execution at the scene of the crime.

“The number of people assembled was much greater than is usual in York, on those melancholy occasions; but not the slightest indication of tumult prevailed, and the greatest silence reigned during the whole of this solemn and painful scene,” the Leeds Mercury reported§ — and darkly explicated the intended lesson of the scene for other machine-wreckers.

all those who may have been so far infatuated as to become members of such societies should, from this moment, and by one common consent, desist from taking another step in furtherance of their objects. They must now see that they have stood on the brink of a frightful precipice, and that another step might have plunged them into that gulph which has overwhelmed their less fortunate associates.

The mailed fist deployed against wreckers in 1812-1813 did indeed smash the movement. Still, sporadic Luddite attacks would continue as late as 1816, and Luddite veterans went at the fore of the 1817 Pentrich Rising … just outside the place it all began, Nottingham.

* It was in just this period — in fact, only a few days after William Horsfall’s murder — that Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated. Given the conditions abroad in the land, many an elite feared upon first notice of this event a revolutionary rising … although Perceval’s killer turned out to be a deranged merchant whose confused private grievance had nothing to do with Britain’s social tensions.

** Not far from the spot of Horsfall’s murder — and a standard stop on every present-day Luddite commemorative walk — you’ll still find William Horsfall Street.

† Radcliffe’s exertions in the war against the Luddites secured for his family a still-extant baronetcy.

‡ Benjamin Walker, the Luddite informer who sent Mellor, Smith, and Thorpe to the gallows, was denied the advertised £2000 reward and wound up a beggar in London.

§ Leeds Mercury report via a reprint in the London Times of Jan. 12, 1813. (Also see this excerpt.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Martyrs,Murder,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Terrorists

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1887: Israel Lipski

4 comments August 21st, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1887, 22-year-old Israel Lipski was hanged at Newgate Prison for the murder of Miriam Angel.

His trial and execution were well-publicized in their day, and were the subject of a 1984 book, The Trials of Israel Lipski: A True Story of a Victorian Murder in the East End of London by Martin L. Friedland.

But Lipski has been largely forgotten now … except as a footnote in a much more famous unsolved murder.

Lipski was of Polish-Jewish origin. His real name was Israel Lobulsk; he changed it when he moved to the UK.

He lived in a boardinghouse and worked as an umbrella and walking-stick salesman. Miriam, who was also Jewish, lodged at the same address, 16 Batty Street.

Miriam was found dead in her bed June 28 of that year. She’d been killed in an unusual way: she was forced to consume nitric acid, also known as aquafortis, a strong corrosive chemical now used in rocket fuel. She was six months pregnant at the time of her death.

Lipski was found hiding under her bed. He too had consumed nitric acid and the inside of his mouth was burned. Investigators later determined he’d purchased an ounce of the chemical that very morning. They theorized he had killed Miriam during a rape attempt.

Lipski, for this part, insisted he was innocent of any crime and told an extraordinary story: he stumbled across two co-workers in Miriam’s room rifling through her things. Miriam was already dead at this point. The two men attacked and robbed him, poured the nitric acid down his throat and threw him under the bed, where he fainted.

The judge’s summing-up to the jury, described by one news account as “lucid and temperate,” went with the rape theory:

… that the murderer of Miriam Angel entered her room under the influence of unlawful passion; that, balked in this design, his passion turned to homicidal fury; and that in a reaction of shame and terror he had taken a dose of the same poison that he had given to his victim. If that theory was probable, continued the judge, the murder was much more likely to have been the work of one man than two.

The climate of pervasive anti-Semitism in East London during this time sealed Lipski’s fate. London’s Jewish population, largely impoverished Polish and Russian refugees, was ever liable to blame for a wide variety of social problems. On top of everything else, Lipski’s legal defense was abysmal and the judge clearly biased. He might have been guilty, but the fairness of his trial is questionable.

Following Lipski’s conviction and death sentence there was worried speculation that he might, after all, be innocent. Several prominent people, including members of Parliament and investigative journalist William Stead, petitioned the Home Secretary for a reprieve or commutation. (Stead referred to Lipski as “the young martyr” and the “much injured young exile.”) The wind went out of their sails, however, after Lipski’s confession was published:

I, Israel Lipski, before I appear before God in judgment, desire to speak the whole truth concerning the crime of which I am accused. I will not die with a lie on my lips. I will not let others suffer even in suspicion for my sin. I alone was guilty of the murder of Miriam Angel.

I thought the woman had money in her room, so I entered, the door being unlocked and the woman asleep. I had no thought of violating her, and I swear I never approached her with that object, nor did I wrong her in this way. Miriam Angel awoke before I could search about for money, and cried out, but very softly. Thereupon I struck her on the head and seized her by the neck, and closed her mouth with my hand, so that she should not arouse the attention of those who were about the house.

I had long been tired of my life, and had bought a pennyworth of aquafortis that morning for the purpose of putting an end to myself. Suddenly I thought of the bottle I had in my pocket, and drew it out and poured some of the contents down her throat. She fainted and, recognizing my desperate condition, I took the rest. The bottle was an old one which I had formerly used … The quantity of aquafortis I took had no effect on me.

Hearing the voices of people coming upstairs, I crawled under the bed. The woman seemed already dead. There was only a very short time from the moment of my entering the room until I was taken away.

Even before his execution, “Lipski” became a part of Londoners’ vocabulary. It was used as both a slur against Jews and as a verb, the way a certain kind of suffocation murder still known as “burking” was named after William Burke of “Burke and Hare” fame.

A year after Israel Lipski’s execution, the name “Lipski” once again came under scrutiny after a murder suspect yelled it out in front of a witness, leaving scholars and true-crime buffs to speculate about its meaning for the next 120 years and counting.

The victim in that case was a prostitute named Elizabeth Stride. The suspect is known only by his trade name, Jack the Ripper.

But that’s another story.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Jews,Language,Murder,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Rape,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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1686: Paskah Rose, Jack Ketch interregnum

2 comments May 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1686, the English executioner Paskah (or Pascha) Rose was hanged at Tyburn for burglary — by his predecessor and his successor, the famed hangman Jack Ketch.

(c) image from Peter Herring, used with permission. Also see this illustration

The “Jack Ketch” character from a Punch and Judy puppet show: traditionally, Punch gets the better of their meeting and hangs Jack Ketch.

The Irish immigrant Ketch is the first name in English executioners. Indeed, you can call any of his successors right down to Pierrepoint a “Jack Ketch” and be perfectly understood.

The immediate successor, however, was Ketch’s own assistant — who inherited top billing after Ketch went to jail for “affronting” a sheriff.

Jack Ketch had been trodding the scaffold-boards, hanging, beheading, and drawing-and-quartering for two-plus decades at that point: he’s thought to have been appointed in 1663, and he’d inserted himself into those performances rather more prominently than an executioner ought by botching some of Restoration England’s most high-profile executions.

There’s little reliable information about these early executioners, but it seems Ketch’s reputation for clumsiness had forced him to issue an “Apologie” justifying himself.

But the man unquestionably had longevity in his favor, which is more than Paskah Rose could say.

Within months of becoming the chief London executioner, Rose and another man were chased down in the act of burgling clothes from a house, “the Goods found in Rose’s Breeches.”

Rose and his co-defendant Edward Smith accordingly hanged along with three others at Tyburn this date — by Jack Ketch, now returned from his carceral retirement for one last tour.

Ketch died late that same year of 1686, but has lived on in any number of ballads, doggerels and broadsides immortalizing the name. He was surely aided in this by the less impressive caliber of many who succeeded him: it wasn’t long after Ketch dispatched Pascha Rose that another “Jack Ketch” — an ignoble profession that wouldn’t until centuries hence be drawn from the country’s respectable classes — also met Pascha Rose’s same fate.

There’s a now-public-domain Autobiography of Jack Ketch by 19th century English writer Charles Whitehead.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executioners,Hanged,History,Language,Mass Executions,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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1934: Augusto Cesar Sandino, national hero

1 comment February 21st, 2012 Headsman

“The sovereignty of a people cannot be argued about, it is defended with a gun in the hand.”

-Sandino

On this date in 1934, the first name in Nicaraguan anti-colonial resistance was abducted and summarily executed by the Nicaraguan National Guard.

From 1927 until his death, Sandino led an armed peasant insurgency from the Nicaraguan mountains against the Yankee imperialists and the domestic dictatorship they backed.

Washington had had its nose (and its marines) in Managua’s business for decades, continuously occupying the Central American country since 1912. The Marine Corps saw this country’s people as

Densely ignorant … little interested in principles … naturally brave and inured to hardships, of phlegmatic temperament, tough, capable of being aroused to acts of extreme violence, they have fought for one party or the other without considering causes since time immemorial … a state of war is to them a normal condition.*

All this was the time of Sandino’s own coming-of-age. The son of a wealthy landowner and his domestic servant, Sandino grew up with the unprivileged and the working classes, eventually asorbing an eclectic mix of that period’s revolutionary ideologies.

From 1927 he took to the Segovia and began writing the playbook for the 20th century guerrilla: mobile infantry irregulars, striking from familiar-to-them forest cover, melting away among sympathetic campesinos.

The “Colossus of the North” — Sandino made no bones about his foe; his personal seal showed an American marine being killed — invariably described him as a “bandit” because he also raided towns to commandeer food, clothing, and medicine.

“Washington is called the father of his country; the same may be said of Bolivar and Hidalgo; but I am only a bandit, according to the yardstick by which the strong and the weak are measured.”

-Sandino

The strong, in this case, found little public appetite for the steady attrition of servicemen, and the U.S. employed a familiar strategy of its own: “Nicaraguanizing” the conflict by building up a National Guard to do the dirty work domestically.

That Guard’s head was headed by Anastasio Somoza — the very son of a bitch of whom FDR said, “but he’s our son of a bitch.”

While it’s hardly the only country to have been favored with an American son of a bitch, you could say that Nicaragua has been the American empire’s very own heart of darkness. Washington’s initial interest in the place after the Spanish-American War concerned preventing a canal project to compete with Panama. It invented dive-bombing to hunt Sandino. And it ranged around the world and outside the law to battle Sandino’s successors under the aegis of a modern imperial presidency.

Small wonder that an official anthem of the movement denounces “The Yankee / The enemy of all humankind.”

In the immediate aftermath of the American departure in January 1933, Sandino began coming to terms with the the country’s new president: the Sandinistas disarmed in exchange for amnesty and land. But Somoza, who at this point was “only” the head of the National Guard, was building up his own power … and he meant to have done with this inconvenient insurgent.

After Sandino left a presidential meeting on this date, at which the erstwhile rebel negotiated for his continuing demand to disband Somoza’s Guardia, Sandino was stopped at the gates by Guardsmen. They took Sandino, his brother, and two of his generals and marched them off to be shot. Then the Guard forcibly broke up the Sandinista remnants. Somoza soon seized official power for himself; his family ruled, and plundered, Nicaragua until 1979. Washington never called them bandits.

While Sandino vanished (the whereabouts of his remains are unknown), his revolutionary vision and praxis also persist down to the present day.

Sandinismo (aging much better than Somocismo) would influence Fidel Castro and Che Guevara during the Cuban Revolution.

And in 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front finally succeeded in overthrowing the last loathsome scion of the Somoza dictatorship.

The United States, of course, went right back to war against its long-dead “bandit” foe.

* From Julian C Smith’s officially commissioned History of the Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua (1933), as quoted in Michael J. Schroeder’s “Bandits and Blanket Thieves, Communists and Terrorists: The Politics of Naming Sandinistasin Nicaragua, 1927-36 and 1979-90,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2005).

Schroeder runs the definitive English-language website on Sandino and the original Sandinistas, with a truly vast collection of documents and resources.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Language,Martyrs,Myths,Nicaragua,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USA

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1940: Nikolai Yezhov, terror namesake

5 comments February 4th, 2012 Headsman

In the terrible years of the Yezhovshchina, I spent seventeen months in lines outside the prison in Leningrad [queuing to deliver food to or get news of imprisoned loved ones: in her case, her son Lev]. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
‘And can you describe this?’
And I said: ‘I can.’
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

-Poet Anna Akhmatova

On this date in 1940, the first name in Stalin’s terror got his just deserts.

Well. The first name after Stalin’s own, a point energetically made by Nikolai Yezhov’s daughter* in her fruitless post-Soviet attempts to rehabilitate the man.

But clearing a fellow’s name is a tough task when that name is the mother tongue’s very metonym for political persecution: the Soviet Union’s mind-bending late-1930s witch hunt for internal enemies, known as the Yezhovshchina.

From late 1936, when he eliminated his predecessor Genrikh Yagoda (later executed, of course), until his own fall from power in at the end of 1938, Yezhov presided over the apex of Stalinist terror, averaging hundreds of political killings daily — perhaps north of 600,000 for the two-year period, plus a like number disappeared into the Gulag’s freezers. (Just browse this here site’s ‘1937’ tag for a taste.)

Departments and regions received quotas for executions as if they were tractor factories. Security officials well understood that their own heads would be next on the block for any perceived shortcoming; Yezhov had thousands of them arrested, too. (pdf)**

We are launching a major attack on the Enemy; let there be no resentment if we bump someone with an elbow. Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away. When you chop wood, chips fly.

-Yezhov

The “Bloody Dwarf” — surely there is some of Yezhov in the Master and Margarita character Azazello, the Satan/Stalin figure’s murderous and diminutive attendant — rode this tiger unto his own destruction.


Stalin and other Soviet VIPs with (front right) Nikolai Yezhov.

The same photo ‘updated’ after Yezhov’s fall. (For a similarly chilling photographic disappearance, see Vladimir Clementis.)

As Yezhov had once displaced and killed his mentor Yagoda, so Yezhov’s own nominal underling Beria would displace Yezhov.

Power in the NKVD shifted towards Beria over the course of 1938 until Yezhov’s own resignation that November. The former boss was quietly arrested the next April and barely troubled his skilled torturers before copping to the usual litany of official self-denunciations: corruption, economic sabotage and “wrecking”, treasonable collaboration with the Germans, plus a bisexual personal life. (That last one was true.)

Bound for historical infamy, Yezhov salvaged a shred of dignity in the last, when he was “tried” a few hours before death and renounced those confessions — albeit from the twisted standpoint of a man still unquestioningly committed to the man and the system that had destroyed him.

It is better to die, but to leave this earth as an honorable man and to tell nothing but the truth at the trial. At the preliminary investigation I said that I was not a spy, that I was not a terrorist, but they didn’t believe me and applied to me the strongest beating. During the 25 years of my party work I have fought honorably against enemies and have exterminated them. I have committed crimes for which I might well be executed … But those crimes which are imputed to me by the indictment in my case I did not commit …

My fate is obvious. My life, naturally, will not be spared since I myself have contributed to this at my preliminary investigation. I ask only one thing: shoot me quietly, without tortures …Tell Stalin that I shall die with his name on my lips.

And indeed, Yezhov knew from plenty of personal experience how this script ended. It was called the Yezhovshchina for a reason.

The judges pretended to deliberate for half an hour. Ezhov fainted at the verdict, then scrawled a petition for mecy; it was read out over the telephone to the Kremlin and rejected. Ezhov was taken in the dead of night to a slaughterhouse he himself had built near the Lubianka. Dragged screaming to a special room with a sloping cement floor and a log-lined wall, he was shot by the NKVD’s chief executioner, Vasili Blokhin. Beria gave Stalin a list of 346 of Ezhov’s associates to be shot. Sixty of them were NKVD officers, another fifty were relatives and sexual partners. (From Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

* Natalia Khayutina is actually Yezhov’s adoptive daughter. Her birth parents were killed … in the Yezhovschina.

** “I purged 14,000 chekists,” Yezhov later said. “But my guilt lies in the fact that I did not purge enough of them.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Homosexuals,Infamous,Language,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Russia,Shot,The Worm Turns,Torture,USSR

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Feast Day of Santa Barbara

1 comment December 4th, 2011 Headsman


Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino arrived on Dec. 4, 1602 at the California coastal plain he named Santa Barbara.
“The Ballad of St. Barbara”
by G.K. Chesterton

They are firing, we are falling, and the red skies rend and shiver us,
Barbara, Barbara, we may not loose a breath—
Be at the bursting doors of doom, and in the dark deliver us,
Who loosen the last window on the sun of sudden death.

Although the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic church has booted her from the liturgical calendar as a probable legend, this is the feast date of still-popular early Christian martyr St. Barbara.

There are a million fishy details of the story: nobody’s clear on which anti-Christian persecution claimed her; nobody’s clear on where in the Roman Empire she died; and it’s hard to keep a straight face at the clincher that her unsympathetic pagan father gets struck by lightning after her execution.

Actually, the story is practically straight out of a fairy-tale reader: nasty rich dad Dioscurus locked her up in a tower like Rapunzel, but flew into a rage when he discovered she had secretly become a Christian, and dragged her to the Roman prefect to be tortured and, eventually, beheaded. There are any number of further variations, like that mean old dad personally gave her the chop.

As one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, medieval Christianity’s all-star team of divine intercessors, Barbara was big on both sides of the east-west schism. She’s got saintly portfolios of special relevance to this site: she’s the patron saint of prisoners and of everyone who risks violent death at work, a rare but real occupational hazard for executioners. (We also think that her gig protecting against lightning storms might qualify Barbara for safekeeping people sentenced to die in the electric chair: maybe she saved Willie Francis.)

She’s best known as the guardian of miners and artillerists — folks who work around explosions, like Guy Fawkes — and the word santabarbara denotes a powder magazine in both Spanish and Italian.


The Martyrdom of Saint Barbara by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1510, is clearly sensible in the swarthy, scimitar-wielding executioner of the contemporary-to-Cranach Turkish menace. (cc) image from Wally Gobetz.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Language,Martyrs,Myths,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Torture,Uncertain Dates,Women

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1781: Tupac Katari

Add comment November 15th, 2011 Headsman

On or about this date in 1781,* the native Aymara revolutionary Tupac Katari (or Tupac Catari, or Tupaj Katari) was torn apart in the Bolivian village of Penas — a messianic warning on his lips of his Spanish captors’ future comeuppance.

Hard on the heels of Tupac Amaru‘s public dismembering in nearby Cuzco (present-day Peru), Julian Apasa Nina took up the name and mantle of recent Bolivian insurgent Tomas Katari.

Julian Apasa’s new name Tupac Katari was as ambitious as his plans, for he took the thousands of indigenous Americans who flocked to his banner and laid siege to La Paz from the adjacent El Alto.**

The object was not mere plunder, but rolling back Spanish domination full stop.

A friar who met Katari reported that the Spanish tongue was forbidden on pain of death, and the rebel leader aimed to “totally separate himself from all Customs of the Spanish.” (Source) He did not shrink from ferocity to achieve his ends, hanging captives outside the walls of the city, enforcing military discipline ruthlessly. (Source) The Aymara fought with “a spirit and pretentiousness so horrible that … it can serve as an example as the most valiant nation.” (Source)

Though the siege† reduced Spanish defenders to eating bark and horseflesh, and starved out thousands, the city held out and the siege was at length lifted and Tupac Katari betrayed into his enemies’ hands.

Condemned to death (a fate his wife Bartolina Sisa would share months later), Katari was lashed to four horses who strained until his body ripped into quarters suitable for placarding towns of the district. But before he went, Katari bequeathed posterity a legendary final sentiment.

“I shall return, and I shall be millions.”

* It appears that the primary sources themselves are unclear on the precise date, and there are citations for the execution taking place anywhere from Nov. 13 to Nov. 18. Nov. 15 appears to be the best-preferred by scholars, or the co-number one with Nov. 14, and we’re inclined to prefer this date because of the 20th century Indian social justice movement which explicitly cited Katari’s inspiration — the Movimiento 15 de Noviembre (more in Spanish). It’s part of an entire political tendency in Bolivia called Katarismo. If the date is good enough for the Aymara, it’s good enough for this blog.

That wasn’t the only 20th century movement to situate itself as Katari’s heirs. A set of Marxist indigenous guerrillas styled themselves the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army, and a former member of this Che-inspired militia is currently Bolivia’s vice president.

** From the Aymara siege of La Paz developed the local tradition of Ekeko.

† Actually, two distinct sieges in 1781, one lasting just over three months and the next lasting just over two.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Bolivia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gruesome Methods,History,Language,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Spain,Treason

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