Posts filed under 'Posthumous Executions'

1559: The remains of David Joris, Anabaptist fugitive

Add comment May 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1559, the corpse of “Johann van Brugge” — recently exposed as underground Anabaptist leader David Joris, even though Brugge/Joris was three years dead — was burned in Basel.

The flame-bearded Joris (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Dutch) was a glass-painter by trade who came to the fore of the Anabaptist movement following its catastrophe at Muenster.

His home city of Delft in 1528 had flogged him and bored his tongue for his religious scruples, but Joris maintained a strong following among the re-baptized in that city. Many of those followers had occasion to try their faith against the torturers’ tongs, and dozens of arrestees impressively concealed their leader’s whereabouts from his enemies. The man’s own mother was executed in 1539.

He could only duck in and out of Delft — once he had to slip out in a basket innocuously loaded onto a boat* — or any other city. From the 1530s, his was a life on the run in Reformation Europe, where Anabaptists were no safer from Protestants than they were from Catholics.

(Sample dangerous heresy: Joris was a very early adopter of the idea that the devil was best understood as an allegorical figure, not an actual entity.)

With a literal price on his head he wandered to Strassburg, to England, back to the continent in Westphalia and Oldenburg, Strassburg again, then Antwerp, and on to Basel, Switzerland in 1544.

In Deventer in 1542 his ecstatic Wonder Boeck was printed. (We recommend the engravings.)

In Basel our hunted man was able to settle in as Brugge and live out the balance of his life, still pouring out voluminous writings in secret — a very impressive retirement considering his notoriety and his distinctive facial hair. Joris was in his fifties when he died: the years of rough living on the run had done him no favors.

Three years after his death, his son-in-law — who disagreed with Joris theologically — exposed his real identity. Basel had nothing left to do about but to visit on his bones the punishment David Joris’s living flesh escaped to the end of his days.

* From Gary Waite’s “Staying Alive: The Methods of Survival as Practiced by an Anabaptist Fugitive, David Joris” in the January 1987 Mennonite Quarterly Review.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Posthumous Executions,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Switzerland,Torture

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1922: Colin Campbell Ross, for the Gun Alley Murder

1 comment April 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Colin Campbell Ross was hanged for the rape-murder of a little girl, still on the scaffold vainly protesting his innocence.

I am now face to face with my Maker, and I swear by Almighty God that I am an innocent man. I never saw the child. I never committed the crime, and I don’t know who did. I never confessed to anyone. I ask God to forgive those who have sworn my life away, and I pray God to have mercy on my poor darling mother, and my family.

Ninety-odd years later, folks finally believe him.

Ross had a couple of brushes with the law already to his rap sheet when 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke went missing in the vicinity of Ross’s Melbourne dive bar on December 30, 1921.

In a classic instance of police tunnel vision, the proximity of a violent felon to the murdered girl — for Alma’s body was found the next morning in nearby Gun Alley, which bestowed a popular moniker upon the case — soon formed the theory of the crime, the predetermined conclusion into which incoming evidence was read.

(It certainly catalyzed the investigation that the case became a media sensation. Rupert Murdoch’s father through the Melbourne Herald shamelessly hounded the Crown for each day’s delay, and jacked up the reward purse.)

Witnesses established that Ross had been tending bar all that afternoon; to account for that, it was necessary to posit that Ross had plied his prey with wine for several hours until he could finish her off after his shift.

Once arrested, despite continuing to assert his innocence to all and sundry, Ross proved to suffer from that universal tendency accused men have to senselessly unburden themselves to a random cellmate. The Crown could scarce shirk its public duty by omitting the incriminating evidence merely because it was related by a convicted perjurer. Ross, his accuser claimed, “said he was simply burning to tell someone.”

Still more damningly, a blanket from Ross’s home proved to have some strands of auburn hair glancingly similar to Alma Tirtschke’s — or possibly Ross’s girlfriend.

A Crown analyst from ventured to compare these under a microscope, and would later put it to the court that they looked like Alma’s. This would be the first time hair forensics were deployed in an Australian courtroom.

Was it not possible, asked Ross’s counsel — who genuinely believed his client’s innocence and fought the corner until the very last — that it might be almost literally anyone else’s auburn hair?

“Yes; quite possible, but not probable,” was the reply from the witness. “Because of the general similarity of hair.” Oh.

Even decades later this gotcha was being celebrated as a triumph of forensic science, for the blanket’s locks “corresponded exactly” with those of the victim.

But they didn’t correspond.

“The day is coming when my innocence will be proved,” Ross wrote in a farewell letter to his family.

That day took 85 years in coming.

In the 1990s, author Kevin Morgan stumbled somewhat miraculously upon preserved hair samples from the case and began an odyssey that would see him to officially exonerating Colin Campbell Ross.

Tests Morgan was able to arrange with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and then with police both agreed that under modern microscopic examination the hairs in question did not bear even a surface resemblance. With the support of the Victorian Attorney General and the Australian Supreme Court, Ross was granted a posthumous pardon on May 27, 2008 — the first person ever so distinguished in Victoria’s history.

Tirtschke’s own family, too, supported this result: they had long harbored their own doubts about the verdict. “She didn’t say who was the right man but she said the wrong man was hung,”* one descendant said of her grandmother’s recollections.

* Though a lesser horror compared to being railroaded in the first place, Ross’s hanging was also badly botched. An experimental four-strand rope failed to sever his spinal cord, leaving his dangling body to convulse as Ross wheezed his last breaths through a torn windpipe.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Posthumous Executions,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Wrongful Executions

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1835: Captain Pedro Gilbert and the Spanish Pirates

Add comment June 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1835, four Spanish pirates — it was supposed to be more — were put to death at Boston.

Their captain, the Catalan Pedro Gilbert, was chief among them in death as he was in life. Three years previous, he had commanded the buccaneer schooner with the deceptively cuddly name Panda out of Havana. It’s for Gilbert that “Gilbert’s Bar” is named, a historic sandbar off Stuart, Florida where the man reputedly liked to lure ships aground.*

Gilbert and his crew of forty or so souls — Spaniards, Portuguese, South Americans, half-castes, and at least one west African — waylaid the Salem, Mass. brig Mexican.

After hours ransacking the ship, relieving it of $20,000 in silver, the raiders locked the crew of their prize below decks and put the Mexican to the torch. After the Panda departed, those imprisoned unfortunates managed to break out of the death trap in time to control the blaze and return to port.

The incident thereby reported, the Panda would in due time be cornered off the African coast and sunk by a British ship. A dozen of the salty brigands fished out of the sea were eventually extradited to the U.S. for an eventful fourteen-day trial.


One of the crew of the Mexican, called upon to identify a member of the pirate crew who tried to drown him in a burning ship, strikes the accused corsair.

A defense lawyer laboring mightily in a half-lost cause managed to procure not-guilty verdicts for five of the crew on grounds of superior orders. The cabin boy (15 at the time of the raid) and the aforementioned west African were among these men spared.

The four who hanged today — Pedro Gilbert, Juan Montenegro, Manuel Castillo, and Angel Garcia — were meant to have been seven. Two of the seven received stays of execution; we’ll return to them in a moment.

The other man in the condemned party, Manuel Boyga, cheated his executioner, kind of, by exploiting a guard’s momentary inattentiveness to slash open his own carotid artery with a sharp bit of tin. He bled out too quickly for his executioners to “help” him, but because this efficient (near-?)suicide occurred immediately before the hanging, Boyga’s unconscious form was still borne in a chair to the scaffold and hung along with his four quick mates, just to make sure. Boyga might well have been dead already; if not, the hanging only hastened his demise by moments.

As to the other two: the ship’s carpenter Francisco Ruiz, it was thought, might have been crazy. But the Spanish-speaking physicians who eventually examined him would pronounce his ravings a simulation; he was accordingly hanged in a follow-up execution on September 11, 1835.

The last man was Bernardo de Soto, the first mate and the owner of the Panda.

De Soto’s pretty black-eyed wife back home caught wind of her man’s fate and made the Atlantic crossing to comfort her husband in prison … and to prostrate herself before the U.S. president Andrew Jackson who had the final say for clemency in this federal case. Duly smitten by this pleasing romantic flourish, Jackson did better than merely sparing de Soto’s life: he gave the condemned pirate a free pardon on July 6, 1835.

* Gilbert’s Bar today has the last remaining “House of Refuge”, once one of several standing 19th century encampments built to shelter any wayfarer who shipwrecked in the vicinity.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Piracy,Pirates,Posthumous Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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1600: The corpses of John and Alexander Ruthven, for the Gowrie conspiracy

2 comments November 17th, 2012 Headsman

Remember, remember, the fifth of … August?

If you didn’t get August 5 off, your jurisdiction is ignoring the Scottish parliament’s 1600 decree: “in all times and ages to come the fifth of August should be solemnly kept with prayers, preachings, and thanksgiving for the benefit, discharging all work, labour, and other occupations upon the said day.”*

They didn’t mean to keep it out of excess reverence for St. Emygdius: rather, August 5 was the date of the Gowrie conspiracy, a sketchy supposed assassination attempt on King James VI of Scotland (soon also to become King James I of England). John Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie and his brother Alexander Ruthven were both slain on the spot during that event … but not until 15 weeks later did Parliament rule that “the said bodies of the said Traitors shall be carried, upon Monday next [i.e., November 17], to the publick cross of Edinburgh: and there to be hangd, quarter’d, and drawn, in presence of the hail People: and thereafter, the heads, quarters, and carcasses, to be affix’d upon the most patent parts and places of the Burroughs of Edinburgh, Perth, Dundee and Stirling.”

Did they deserve it?

Scottish writer John Prebble considered the Gowrie conspiracy one of his realm’s best mysteries. It’s a maddeningly perplexing sequence of ambiguous (or altogether dubious) events related by interested, partisan sources.

I am murtherit!

The summary official version — and we’re skipping over such writerly red herrings as a mystery man in the turret, a still-stabled horse, and a wild fable about a pot of foreign gold — is that while staying at the Ruthven estates, James’s courtiers saw him shouting out the window, “I am murtherit! Treassoun! My Lord of Mar, help! help!”

While Lord Mar and others spent half an hour (!) trying to batter down a locked entrance to the regicidal turret, a page named John Ramsay found another staircase in, where he came upon the king and Alexander Ruthven grappling. Ramsay stabbed Ruthven about the head and neck, and Ruthven fled down Ramsay’s same staircase: there he careened headlong into more arriving royal retainers who killed him flat. Ruthven died exclaiming “Allace! I had na wyte [blame] of it!”

Meanwhile, the Lord Gowrie — quite possibly knowing nothing but that there was a commotion involving the king in his home — had rallied outside the courtyard with his own household and marched in swords drawn, passing the fresh-slain body of his little brother on the way. He must have been in an evil temper when he burst into the chamber, there to discover Ramsay and friends, and only them: the king had been locked in another room for his protection. Ramsay demanded Gowrie’s submission and the two crossed swords, with Ramsay running the elder Ruthven through, too.

(Small wonder Ramsay went on to become a royal favorite.**)

“… if it be true”

“A very wonderful story, your Majesty, if it be true,” one lord is supposed to have replied to James upon hearing this amazing tale.

Suspicion was immediately rife that this “treason” stuff was a cover for the king to take out a rival noble. The Ruthvens had often been at odds with King Jamie’s own family; John and Alexander’s own father was beheaded in 1584 for trying to kidnap the then-teenaged king, and their grandfather had helped a gang of nobles destabilize James’s mother Mary by murdering her favorite courtier David Rizzio right before her eyes. And of course, the crown would be able to seize all the “traitors’” estates, nicely flipping around a significant cash debt owed to the Ruthven clan.

Edinburgh Presbyterian ministers openly disputed the Ruthvens’ guilt, refusing to thank God for James’s “deliverance”.† James found it necessary to forcibly quash this talk, and he would insist upon the Ruthvens’ guilt all his days. But those outside the reach of Scottish royal power had looser tongues.

French nobles who had met Gowrie on the latter’s recent return from his continental studies, and Queen Elizabeth, who had received Gowrie warmly at court, openly doubted the official account: it was thought wildly at odds with the young man’s character. The nature of the interaction between the king and Alexander Ruthven prior to the intervention of John Ramsay depends upon the account of the king himself — that account, and no other. The other witnesses were dead. And the object of the plot seems unclear: sure, maybe Alexander Ruthven could have killed the king mano a mano, but then what? There was no indication at all of confederates (even Alexander’s brother reacted in confusion), nor coherent design for some next step like massacring James’s courtiers or toppling the government or even escaping. These were scheming aristocrats, not deranged lone assassins. And both James and Gowrie had behaved for all the world before this incident as if the unpleasantness with the father was water under the bridge.

“The assassination of the Gowries was the most indefensible act that has ever appeared on the pages of Scottish history,” avers mildy a 1912 volume of the Ruthven family papers. It was “a cunning conspiracy that has disgraced the historical record for more than three hundred years.”

The jury’s still out

Still, the hypothetical account of a royal anti-Gowrie conspiracy seems if anything even less satisfying than the official story. Most of the happenings besides what passed between Alexander and James were witnessed by others, so … the king falsely yelled “treason” counting on the handful of his guys staying in the Ruthvens’ own place to kill the Ruthvens instead of the other way around? Events played out so chaotically that this convenient outcome seems mere [mis]chance. What was the plan if John Ramsay hadn’t found the unlocked second entrance?

And yet some 350 witnesses were examined without turning up any concrete design, and three Ruthven retainers hanged on August 23 insisting upon their innocence of any treasonable intent.

One can go a lot of ways from here, and it’s hard to spin any one story that satisfyingly accounts for all the evidence. A scheme to kidnap (and extract policy change from) the king, rather than murder him? Alexander an unwilling pawn, forced into it by his brother? Or, as one English envoy supposed, a destructive spiral of events proceeding from a silly misunderstanding wherein a chance reference to the Ruthvens’ executed father led Alexander to defend the family a little too hotly and the king to start shouting in panic when he realized he was unarmed in the company of an excited, and much larger, man?‡

We’ll never really know. Light a candle for epistemological uncertainty next August 5.

Much help drawn from a two-parter review of the contradictory evidence in The Scottish Historical Review, nos. 121 and 122 (April and October 1957) by W.F. Arbuckle.

* August 5 was indeed “solemnly kept” during the reign of James, according to F.C. Eeles in “The English Thanksgiving Service for King James’ Delivery from the Gowrie Conspiracy” from the July 1911 Scottish Historical Review. As the title of that piece suggests, there was even a service promulgated (though never incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer), beseeching God that James “may bee kept as the apple of thine eye, and thy kindnesse and mercy may follow him all the dayes of his life, with abundance of all thy blessings both heavenly and earthly upon his Majesty, our gracious Queene, the Prince …”

The Prince in question was the future King Charles I, which might cause one to doubt the prayer’s efficacy.

** Ramsay would be supplanted in the royal sun come the 1620s, by George Villiers.

† Religion affords another potential motivation here, although perhaps only retrospectively. James was working a long-term project to reintroduce episcopacy — crown-appointed bishops — to control the loose canons of Scotch Presbyterianism. “No bishop, no king,” in the aphorism attributed him.

With the Gowrie plot as backdrop, James was able to force radical ministers and their tin-foil hats out of Edinburgh and obtain the consent of the rest to James’s own hand-picked bishops — the camel’s nose under the tent, if you like. (See Maurice Lee, Jr., “James VI and the Revival of Episcopacy in Scotland: 1596-1600,” Church History, 43 (1974).) The Ruthven family papers volume also sets great stock by the idea that a Catholic party was out to get Lord Gowrie.

‡ “by occasion of a picture (as is sayde) or otherwise, speech happening of Earle Gourie his father executed, the k. angrelie sayde he was a traitour. Whereat the youth showing a greived and expostulatorie countenance and happilie Scot-like woords, the k. seeing hymself alone and wythout weapon cryed, ‘Treason, Treason’. The Mr [i.e., Alexander Ruthven], abashed much to see the k. to apprehend yt so … putt his hand with earnest deprecations to staie the k. showing his countenance to them with out in that moode, immediatlie falling on his knees to entreat the k.” Ramsay did say that when he entered the room he saw Alexander’s head under James’s arm, which might be consistent with this supplicatory pose … especially given that accounts of the men’s respective physiques suggest Alexander should have had the clear advantage in an actual scrap.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Posthumous Executions,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Torture,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1680: A Madrid auto de fe

Add comment June 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1680, the Spanish capital of Madrid celebrated an enormous auto de fe, culminating with 18 executions plus eight people posthumously burned and 22 fugitives “executed” in effigy. (Source of the numbers)

This signal event needed every drop of sunlight from the long summer’s day. Staged for the appearance of the royal family itself, it likewise pulled in every available case from around Spain: the regional cities shipped their apostates and heretics to Madrid to dignify the main event with a suitable quantity of prey.

It began with a morning ceremonial procession of prisoners, nearly a hundred — every source seems to have a slightly different figure — in the traditional Inquisitorial manner. This account comes from an English contemporary, as reprinted in Human Judgment: The Eye of the Beholder. (Note: paragraph breaks added, and ubiquitous capitalization of nouns removed, for better readability.)

A scaffold, fifty feet in length, was erected in the Square, which was raised to the same height with the balcony made for the King to sit in. At the end, and along the whole breadth of the scaffold, at the right of the King’s balcony, an amphitheatre was raised, to which they ascend by twenty-five or thirty steps; and this was appointed for the Council of the Inquisition, and the other Councils of Spain. Above these steps, and under a canopy, the Grand Inquisitor’s rostrum was placed so that he was raised much higher than the King’s balcony. At the left of the scaffold and balcony, a second amphitheatre was erected of the same extent with the former, for the criminals to stand in.

A month after proclamation had been made of the Act of Faith, the ceremony opened with a procession [on June 29], which proceeded from St. Mary’s church in the following order. The march was preceded by an hundred coal merchants, all arm’d with pikes and muskets; these people furnishing the wood with which the criminals are burnt. They were followed by Dominicans, before whom a white cross was carried. Then came the Duke of Medina-Celi, carrying the Standard of the Inquisition. Afterwards was brought forwards a green cross covered with black crepe; which was followed by several grandees and other persons of quality, who were familiars of the Inquisition. The march was clos’d by fifty guards belonging to the Inquisition, clothed with black and white garments and commanded by the Marquis of Povar, hereditary Protector of the Inquisition.

The procession having marched in this order before the palace, proceeded afterwards to the square, where the standard and the green cross were placed on the scaffold, where none but the Dominicans stayed, the rest being retired. These friars spent part of the night in singing of psalms, and several Masses were celebrated on the altar from daybreak to six in the morning. An hour after, the King and Queen of Spain, the Queen-Mother, and all the ladies of quality, appeared in the balconies.

At eight o’clock the procession began, in like manner as the day before, with the company of coal merchants, who placed themselves on the left of the King’s balcony, his guards standing on his right (the rest of the balconies and scaffolds being fill’d by the embassadors, the nobility and gentry).

Afterwards came thirty men, carrying images made in pasteboard, as big as life. Some of these represented those who were dead in prison, whose bones were also brought in trunks, with flames painted round them; and the rest of the figures represented those who having escaped the hands of the Inquisition, were outlaws. These figures were placed at one end of the amphitheatre.

After these there came twelve men and women, with ropes about their necks and torches in their hands, with pasteboard caps three feet high, on which their crimes were written, or represented, in different manners. These were followed by fifty others, having torches also in their hands and cloathed with a yellow sanbenito or great coat without sleeves, with a large St. Andrew’s cross, of a red colour, before and behind.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a Goya painting of Inquisition prisoners in the sambenito.

These were criminals who (this being the first time of their imprisonment) had repented of their crimes; these are usually condemned either to some years imprisonment or to wear the sanbenito, which is looked upon to be the greatest disgrace that can happen to a family. Each of the criminals were led by two familiars of the Inquisition.

Next came twenty more criminals, of both sexes, who had relapsed thrice into their former errors and were condemn’d to the flames. Those who had given some tokens of repentance were to be strangled before they were burnt; but for the rest, for having persisted obstinately in their errors, were to be burnt alive. These wore linen sanbenitos, having devils and flames painted on them, and caps after the same manner: five or six among them, who were more obstinate than the rest, were gagged to prevent their uttering any blasphemous tenets. Such as were condemned to die were surrounded, besides the two familiars, with four or five monks, who were preparing them for death as they went along.

[skipping the seating arrangements ... ]

About twelve o’clock they began to read the sentence of the condemned criminals. That of the criminals who died in prison, or were outlaws, was first read. Their figures in pasteboard were carried up into a little scaffold and put into small cages made for that purpose. They then went on to read the sentences to each criminal, who thereupon were put into the said cages one by one in order for all men to know them. The whole ceremony lasted till nine at night; and when they had finished the celebration of the Mass the King withdrew and the criminals who had been condemn’d to be burnt were delivered over to the secular arm, and being mounted upon asses were carried through the gate called Foncaral, and at midnight near this place were all executed.


Francisco Ricci‘s grand painting of the Madrid auto de fe represents events from throughout the day simultaneously. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

As best I can determine, two condemned people bought their lives with last-second conversions, leaving 18 to die for Judaizing … or, in one case, for converting to Islam. It will suffice to say that a very large, very ornate, and very long ceremony unfolded, and that at the end of it the flames consumed a number of people (and even more mannequins) associated with the Abrahamic faith.

“These punishments,” observed a French diplomat who witnessed the proceedings, “do not significantly diminish the number of Jews in Spain and above all in Madrid where, while some are punished with great severity, one sees several others employed in finance, esteemed and respected though known to be of Jewish origin.” Actual eliminationist Jew-hunting was so 1492.

Great as were these astounding spectacles, their day was passing. In fact, this was it — the long, sweltering, tiresomely gaudy day that it passed.

Spain in 1680 was in the grip of plague, famine, and deflation; though there’s value to the state in the distraction of a circus, there’s also the very substantial cost of putting the bloody thing on, especially on such a scale, especially when you’re going to let off most of the victims but not until you sock them away in prison and feed them for months or years until the next auto.

It seems that by the 17th century this end-zone spike of the Inquisition had become quite an encumbrance: procedures required the Inquisition to dispose of certain cases in autos de fe, which, because they had to be put on just so, were increasingly rare, and clogged up gaol cells in the meanwhile. There’s a reason besides spectacle that all the rest of Spain gratefully dumped its religious criminals on Madrid on this date.

The model just wasn’t sustainable.

Over the 1680s, practical pushback reconfigured the venerable ritual into something less burdensome to the public purse. This date’s event was very far from the last auto de fe in Spain, but it’s seen as the last of the classic, public-festival spectaculars evoked by the term. They would, in the future, become (mostly) smaller, (usually) shorter, and (somewhat) less garish affairs conducted not on public plazas but on church grounds, and with most cases of reconciliation simply handled quickly, quietly, and locally.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Auto de Fe,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Executed in Effigy,Execution,God,Jews,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Milestones,Not Executed,Posthumous Executions,Public Executions,Spain,Torture

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1937: Martemyan Ryutin, for his affair

1 comment January 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Martemyan Ryutin was condemned to death and immediately executed in Stalinist USSR.

Ryutin (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | another Russian bio) was a revolutionary from the Far East who by the late 1920s was in the Bolsheviks’ heretical right wing; his affiliation with Bukharin and Rykov got him temporarily booted out of the Communist party in 1930.

Not content to keep his head safely down as Stalin’s star ascended, Ryutin typed out an anti-Stalin pamphlet and the 200-page “Ryutin Platform” denouncing Josef Djugashvili as “the gravedigger of the Revolution” and urging that he be removed — even by force.*

Weeks after Ryutin began circulating this incendiary samizdat the secret police busted him.

Though open discussion of the so-called Ryutin Affair was nonexistent in the Soviet Union until the Gorbachev era, it was a matter of dire importance for the Politburo in 1932; indeed, fleeting as it was, it’s one of the few organized elite attempts to thwart Stalin discernible during the 1930s. Stalin wanted Ryutin executed, but he was outvoted; this is a small milepost on the way to the Yezhovschina indicating that Stalin’s power still had its limits … and Bolsheviks still recoiled at the prospect of killing other party members.** These constraints were not very long for the scene.

Even so, Ryutin got a 10-year prison sentence and anyone else who had read the Ryutin platform without informing on it to the Party was in seriously hot water. Twenty-four were expelled from the party in October 1932 for this reason, including once-proud and soon-doomed Old Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev.

Ryutin, for his part, had only a few years to wait before the deteriorating political climate dispensed with those taboos about internecine bloodletting. The Supreme Court signed off on his execution this day with just a few minutes’ hearing, and it was immediately carried out.

Ryutin’s two sons were also executed in 1937, and his wife died in a labor camp. Only his daughter Lyubov survived the Ryutin Affair — which convictions were posthumously reversed in 1988.

* Bukharin’s widow later wrote that Stalin’s agents later added the most inflammatory material — like that violent overthrow stuff.

** Had Stalin had his way in 1932, Ryutin would have had the distinction of being the first Central Committee member to be executed, according to Suzi Weissman.

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1872: Du Wenxiu, Panthay rebellion leader

Add comment December 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1872, China’s Panthay Rebellion came to an end with the surrender, suicide, and execution — in that order — of Du Wenxiu.

The Panthay Rebellion (also known as the Du Wenxiu Rebellion) was one of several cataclysmic revolts to shake foundering imperial China in the 19th century.

This one was centered in the city of Dali (also known as Talifoo) in the southeastern Yunnan Province, near the Burmese border.* The rebels in question were the Hui people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who had been pushed around for years by Qing officials and by the ethnic Han.

The backstory of Han-on-Hui ethnic cleansing in the 1840s makes for harrowing reading, lowlighted by the 1845 massacre of 8,000 Hui in Baoshan.

An even more ambitious operation in May 1856 went down in Kunming, where a massacre — Qing officials publicly posted a directive to “kill [the Hui] one and all”** — claimed several thousand more and razed the city’s mosques. This outburst spawned an attempt at wholesale ethnic cleansing throughout the province … but that attempt blew back on its perpetrators by triggering a rebellion that would require a generation to tame.

The unexpected tenacity of Hui resistance was multiplied by the disadvantages for the Chinese state of operating in a distant and mountainous territory, and its preoccupation with the much larger simultaneous Taiping Rebellion. Though these considerations were not sufficient to dissuade local officials from picking the fight in the first place, they would help them come to regret it.

Hui resistance quickly coalesced into an organized rebellion, and that rebellion overran Dali by the end of the year, establishing itself as the seat of an independent kingdom called Pingnan Guo. Meanwhile, the onset of the Second Opium War left China incapable of contemplating a reconquest.

Du Wenxiu, the half-Han Islamic convert rebel leader acclaimed Sultan Sulaiman of Dali, was therefore left with some operating room to establish a Hui state. He led a pluralistic nation (for the Hui themselves were and are a pluralistic identity) in the western half of Yunnan, stretching from the Tibetan frontier almost to Kunming. (They came close but never quite managed to take this city).

Alas, in due time and with sufficient stability elsewhere in China the Pingnan state came under withering attack from the late 1860s. It sought help from the British as a potential foil against Chinese power, but the aid was not forthcoming and probably would have been too little and much too late. The Pingnan / Panthay / Hui state

ended much as it had begun — in a bloody massacre of the Hui populace. On 26 December 1872, imperial troops surrounded Dali, the Pingnan capital. Du Wenxiu, in a move that he hoped would spare the lives of the city’s residents, made the decision to hand himself over to the Qing general. Swallowing a fatal dose of opium as his palanquin carried him to the Qing encampment, Du was already dead by the time that he was delivered to the Qing commander. Not to be robbed of the gratification of killing him themselves, Qing officials hastily dragged Du before the Qing troops to be decapitated.† According to Emile Rocher, a French adviser to the provincial officials in Yunnan at the time, Du’s head was encased in honey and sent to the emperor.

Du’s sacrifice, however, was in vain. Three days later, imperial troops began a massacre that, according to the government’s own conservative estimates, took ten thousand lives by the time it was concluded — four thousand of the victims were women, children, and the elderly. Hundreds drowned trying to escape from Dali by swimming across Erhai Lake. Others attempted to flee through the narrow passes at either end of the valley. All were chased down and slain by the Qing troops. The imperial soldiers were ordered to cut an ear from each of the dead. These grisly trophies filled twenty-four massive baskets and, together with Du’s severed head, were sent to Beijing, where they served as a silent and unequivocal corroboration of the Pingnan regime’s bloody demise.**

Du Wenxiu was within living memory when the Qing themselves fell; shortly after that happened, an honorary tomb was constructed for the martyred rebel outside Dali.

* “Panthay” is a Burmese word for Chinese Muslims.

** David Atwill, “Blinkered Visions: Islamic Identity, Hui Ethnicity, and the Panthay Rebellion in Southwest China, 1856-1873,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Nov. 2003. This article and/or Atwill’s book (review) on the same subject appear to be the ultimate source of nearly every accessible English resource on the Panthay Rebellion.

† According to the London Times (Aug. 27, 1873) the aides and litter-bearers who accompanied the dying Du to the Qin camp were also beheaded for their troubles. It ballparks the ensuing butchery at 40,000 to 50,000 souls.

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1516 and 1530: Autos de fe in the Spanish Canary Islands

Add comment June 4th, 2011 Headsman

From The Inquisition in Spanish Dependencies, available free from Google books here:

That Columbus, on his first voyage, took his departure from Gomera indicates the importance assumed by the Canaries in the development of trade with the New World and this, conjoined with their productiveness, as they became settled and cultivated, rendered them a centre of commerce frequented by the ships of all maritime nations, as well as an object of buccaneering raids, in an age when trade and piracy were sometimes indistinguishable. Their proximity to Morocco and the Guinea coast moreover exposed them to attacks from the Moors and gave them an opportunity of accumulating Moorish and negro slaves, whom the piety of the age sought to convert to Christians by the water of baptism. In various ways, therefore, there came to be abundant material for inquisitorial activity, although the Judaizing New Christians, who furnished the Spanish tribunals with their principal business, appear to have been singularly few.

There was no haste in extending the Spanish Inquisition to the Canaries … It is not until the time of Diego de Muros [Spanish link], who was consecrated in 1496, that we have any evidence of such action … [and even then] every act, from the preliminary arrest to the final decision, was regulated from Seville …

Irregular and imperfect as may have been the organization of the tribunal, it yet managed to accomplish some convictions. In 1510 there was held an auto de fe in which there were three reconciliations for Judaism and one, of a Moorish slave, for reincidence in Mahometan error, while a fifth culprit was penanced for Judaism. Then in 1513 occurred the first relaxation, that of Alonso Fatima, a native Morisco, who had fled to Barbary. This was always deemed sufficient evidence of relapse to former errors, and he was duly burned in effigy. It was probably also to 1516* that may be attributed the first relaxation in person — that of Juan de Xeres of Seville, for Judaism. It shows that the tribunal was indifferently equipped that, when he was sentenced to torture, the physician whose presence was obligatory on such occasions, Doctor Juan Meneses de Gallegas, was required personally to administer it. It was exceedingly severe, extending to eleven jars of water; the accused was unable to endure it; he confessed his faith, was sentenced to relaxation as a relapsed and for fictitious confession, and was executed on Wednesday, June 4th. …

on June 4, 1530, another oblation was offered to God, in an auto celebrated with the same ostentation as the previous one [in 1526, with seven executions]. This time there were no relaxations in person, but there were six effigies burnt of as many Moorish slaves, who had escaped and were drowned in their infidelity while on their way to Africa and liberty. There were also the effigy and bones of Juan de Tarifa, the husband of the Ynes de Tarifa who had denounced herself in 1524; he was of Converso descent and had committed suicide in prison, which was equivalent to self-condemnation. There were three reconciliations, of which two were for Judaism and one for Islam and five penitents for minor offences.

This use of religious terror in service of slavery — the burning of those effigies who had been “drowned in their infidelity on their way to Africa and liberty” — was an overt policy of the tribunal.

Pious zeal for the salvation of these poor savages led to their baptism after capture; they could not be intelligent converts or throw off their native superstitions, and no one seemed able to realize the grim absurdity of adding the terrors of the Inquisition to the horrors of their enslaved existence. When a negro slave-girl was bemoaning her condition, she was kindly consoled with the assurance that baptism preserved her and her children from hell, to which she innocently replied that doing evil and not lack of baptism led to hell. This was heresy, for which she was duly prosecuted.

Under the inquisitorial code the attempt to escape from slavery thus was apostasy, punishable as such if unsuccessful, and expiated if successful by concremation in effigy. This is illustrated in an auto, held by Zayas and Funez, June 24, 1576, in which among sixteen effigies of absentees were those of eight slaves, seven negroes and one Moor. They had undergone baptism, had been bougt by Dona Catalina de la Cuevas and were worked on her sugar plantation. They seized a boat at Orotava and escaped to Morocco, for which they were duly prosecuted as apostates and their effigies were delivered to the flames — a ghastly mockery which does not seem to have produced the desired impression in preventing other misguided beings from flying from their salvation.

Related: Jews in the Canary Islands: Being a calendar of Jewish Cases extracted from the records of the Canariote inquisition in the collection of the Marquess of Bute.

* A footnote in the text of our source notes that “in the record concerning Juan de Xeres, the year is omitted, but as Wednesday fell on June 4 in 1511, 1516, 1533 and 1539, the probable date is 1516.”

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277: Mani, dualist

2 comments February 26th, 2011 Headsman

It was perhaps on this date, that the prophet Mani — he of Manichaeism — underwent his Passion at the hands of the Sassanid Empire in a Gundeshapur prison.

The actual date of this event is an Aramaic (lunar) date whose year is unrecorded, so it attaches only uncertainly to the Julian calendar. (2 March 274 is another possibility, as are other dates in the mid-270s.)

Perhaps more to the point for this blog is that Mani’s “crucifixion” as celebrated by his followers was a literary exultation: the 60-year-old died in prison after 26 days in chains, maybe even sooner than his captors had intended. After Mani “rose [from his body] to the residences of his greatness [in] the heights, and he met his shape,” the Sassanids decapitated the corpse to make the whole scene more properly resemble the awful majesty of an offended sovereign.

But even as merely a metaphorical “execution,” Mani’s martyrdom merits mention.

Born into a Judaic-Christian sect, Mani (also known as Manes) experienced a conversion, went east for enlightenment, and returned with a syncretic theology of a good spirit world and an evil material one — and east-meets-west twist, in other words, on gnosticism, rooted in both Christianity and Buddhism. (And Zoroastrianism, dominant in Persia at this time — to Mani’s ultimate grief.)

This seems like the sort of thing that someone ought to have revived in California in the 1970′s.


Shrine of Mani as Buddha in Quanzhou, China.

Alas, though it once spanned the Eurasian landmass all the way to China, Manichaeism today is extinct except for its linguistic remnant … the word “manichean”.

Most of us won’t do so well as to thrust our fame into the dictionary, but Mani’s shape-in-the-heights can’t be altogether satisfied with this word’s connotation of jejune, black-and-white dualism — as in a “Manichean struggle with a single overarching enemy called terrorism”.

The man wrote his own holy book, after all, and it’s a bit more elegant than the likes of neoconservative foreign policy.

the first precept for hearers is this: …they shall not kill …, [and] they shall forgive those creatures who provide them with meat for food so that they do not kill them as if they were evil people. But dead flesh of any animals, wherever they obtain it, be it dead or slaughtered, they may eat …

And the second precept for hearers is that they shall not be false and they shall not be unjust to one another … he shall walk in truth. And a hearer shall love [another] hearer in the same way one loves one’s own brother and relatives, for they are children of the living family and the world of light.

And the third precept is that they shall not slander anybody and not be false witnesses against anybody of what they have not seen and not make an oath in falsehood in any matter …

-From the Shabuhragan (pdf)

Now is that so bad?

Manichaeism found favor (though not a conversion) with the broad-minded and long-reigning king Shapur I. (Shapur is most famous in the West as the Persian ruler who captured the Roman emperor Valerian.)

But one of Shapur’s less impressive heirs was persuaded by the sectarian Zoroastrian priesthood — for whom the Manicheans were an upstart rival — to bust Mani.

It seems they were able to make use of the prophet’s distaste for war to question his patriotism. Some things never change.

The founder’s laying down his life hardly slowed the faith’s growth; instead, it prospered as one of the more successful entrants in the confusing late-antiquity hustle and bustle of competing cults. Dualism was a hot mystical trend literally from ocean to ocean, and nobody proselytized it like Mani’s followers.

“In its Manichaean form,” observes Johannes van Oort, “Gnosticism once was a real world religion.”

Had it stayed that way, there’d be endowed chairs of Manichean gnosticism at every university and politicians conspicuously rubbing shoulders with Manichean clergy and Major League sluggers with WWMD bracelets. Instead, it’s a metonym for naivete. Them’s the breaks.

In the West, at least, the lost sect’s unflattering reputation comes by way of no less a personage than St. Augustine of Hippo.

You know what they say about the zeal of converts? Well, Augustine used to know Manichaeism from the inside.


St. Augustine Sacrificing to a Manichaean Idol, 15th century painting by an unknown Flemish master.

After spending his twenties as an enthusiastic Manichean, the future Church Father (re)converted to orthodox* Christianity and turned on his former philosophy with vehemence.

His Confessions denounces a Manichean bishop with whom he once had an unsatisfying audience — “Faustus by name, a great snare of the devil.” That association might very well be the etymological root of that great literary devil-bargainer Dr. Faust.

One could, at the minimum, follow a thread from Augustine’s establishment anti-dualism to the Middle Ages practice of calling any dualistic heresy — Bogomilism, Catharism, whatever — “Manichean”, and the intertwining of those forbidden gnostic traditions with Christendom’s devil mythology.


Medieval image of St. Augustine confounding devilish heresies.

At the same time, Augustine’s philosophy draws much of its enduring appeal from that very dualism, absorbed at such a formative age that the writer late into life was still repelling Christian colleagues’ accusations of immutable Manichaeism — “like an Ethiopian can not change his skin, nor the leopard his spots.” Augustine’s City of God proceeds from opposing that virtuous spiritual metropolis to the corruption of the City of Man.**

Moreover, Johannes van Oort concludes,

Nowhere in the early church before 400 does there appear to be such a tender and appealing piety, along with such a prominent place given to the Christ, except for Augustine and the Manichaean writings … In some essential features of Augustine’s spirituality we may perceive one of the most important channels through which the Gnostic religion of Manichaeism has exercised a lasting influence on western culture.

* Manichaeism, at least in the North African context where Augustine engaged it, is probably best thought of as one of the competing strands within the Christian community rather than a rival religious edifice. (Gnosticism’s capacity to syncretize with varying spiritual traditions has always been essential to its appeal.) Manicheans themselves insisted that they were secta, within Christianity, not schisma, like the pagans.

** Augustine had particular cause to be down on the prospects of the City of Man: at the time of writing, Rome had just been sacked by the Visigoths.

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1693: Anne Palles, the last witch executed in Denmark

Add comment April 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1693, fortified with a half-pot of wine provided at public expense, 74-year-old Anne Palles was beheaded and then burned as a sorceress — the last “witch” put to death in Danish history.

Palles got caught up in the usual way: an aged farmer’s wife misfortunate enough to be attached to a couple of incriminating coincidences. Nine-tenths of Denmark’s 1,000 or fewer executed witches were women, two-thirds of them over 50 years old. (Danish-language source.)

Palles was accused (Danish) by a “wise woman” who was herself trying to beat a rap for attempted murder with black magic.

Once that happened, it all started to make sense (more Danish): the sudden death of a woman her husband had once danced with; the poor production of cows passing a place where Palles had pissed.

Clap her in prison and twist her arm a little, and she’ll cop to having “given herself to the Devil, life and soul”, and rolled with an infernal familiar (a black cat: how trite) by the name of “Puus”.

Though you wouldn’t call a thousand executions a drop in the bucket, Denmark never really experienced the witches’ holocaust that occurred in some other European locales. A 1576 law* providing an automatic judicial appeal for sorcery condemnations is often credited for this happy-ish circumstance; in this case, Palles recanted her confession on appeal as torture-induced, and a divided high court in Copenhagen only confirmed the death sentence by an 11-6 vote. (Antonin Scalia writing for the majority.) Even her burning-alive sentence was moderated by the crown to beheading, followed by posthumous burning.

Everyone being a little uncomfortable with the case didn’t ultimately do Anne Palles much good. Another woman, Anne Kruse, had died in prison with her, and was posthumously burned at the stake; the woman who’d made the initial accusations was flogged … and Anne Palles had her head struck from her body and her remains burned to ashes as a witch.

But an era had passed with the cooling of those embers.

Just three years later, an outbreak of witch accusations — the “possessions of Thisted” — rocked northern Jutland. This case boomeranged on its accusers (we’ve seen that elsewhere in Scandinavia), and largely put a stop to witchcraft prosecutions … though the superstition that generated them would persist for quite some time longer.

After 1650 — and thus long before the official day of reckoning for witch-belief during ‘the possession of Thisted’ in 1696-98 — a marked drop in the numbers of witch-trials took place … and the Jutland High Court judges grew more and more sceptical. One of them, the Professor of Mathematics, Villum Lange [Danish bio], wrote to Peder Schumacher (the later Griffenfeldt) in 1670: ‘During the past few days we have had a crowd of women brought before us, accused of sorcery. We have condemned a number of them to the stake; but because they are so foolish and simple-minded we have recommended to the court that the case should first be brought before His Majesty for appeal … One of them confessed to us herself that she had talked with the devil; but whether it was melancholia or some other form of fantasy, or was the honest truth, God alone knows. To me she appeared to be a person in her second childhood.’ No wonder that rumours soon began to circulte that this High Court judge ‘was siding with the sorceresses and saying that no sorceresses existed.’ Towards the close of the century the common people were complaining that the Jutland High Court judges never condemned anyone to the stake any more, and tht was the reason for there being so many sorceresses in Jutland.

But it was only among the educated upper clases [sic] that attitudes were changing. Among ordinary folk the need for witch-trials continued to be felt far into the future, and when the authorities would no longer agree to her this type of case, people several times took the law into their own hands. In 1722 some pesants at Gronning on Salling lynched a witch by burning, and in 1800 the last murder of a witch occurred at Brigsted in the neighbourhood of Vejle.

Gustav Henningsen, “Witchcraft in Denmark”, Folklore, Vol. 93, No. 2 (1982), pp. 131-137

* The first of its kind in Europe. Two other legal ordinances from earlier in the 16th century restricted the use of torture to gain confessions and barred courts from crediting the accusations of other convicted witches, and they also helped constrain outbreaks of widespread persecutions. (Anne Palles’s case looks to have skated pretty close to the line on both of those counts.)

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