Posts filed under 'Posthumous Exonerations'

1683: Lord Russell, Whig martyr

2 comments July 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1683 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London the great Whig parliamentarian William, Lord Russell was beheaded with a legendary want of dexterity by Jack Ketch.

The third son of the Earl (later Duke) of Bedford, Lord Russell emerged from a decade of comfortable obscurity in the Parliament’s back benches to become a leading exponent of the nascent Whigs* opposed to royal absolutism and to Catholicism — two heads of the same coin, for the Whigs, given that the heir presumptive James had controversially converted to Catholicism.

The national freakout from 1678 over an alleged “Popish Plot” to undo Old Blighty gave Russell his cause; his leadership of the resulting parliamentary bid to exclude James from royal succession made the gregarious Russell “the governing man in the House of Commons”.

Lord Russell was a man of great candour, and of general reputation; universally beloved and trusted; of a generous and obliging temper,” his friend Gilbert Burnet recorded of our man. “He had given such proofs of an undaunted courage and of an unshaken firmness, that I never knew any man have so entire a credit in the nation as he had.”

Russell was, Burnet allowed, “a slow man, and of little discourse, but he had a true judgment, when he considered things at his own leisure: his understanding was not defective; but his virtues were so eminent, that they would have more than balanced real defects, if any had been found in the other.”

Chief among those virtues was his wholehearted sincerity for his cause — a passion the source of both his renown, and his destruction. Russell was heard to espouse the view that James ought not merely be excluded from succession, but executed like his father.

Matters never quite approached that point, but the crisis provoked by the Exclusion Bill firebrands led King Charles II to dissolve parliament in 1681, depriving the Whigs of their legal perch. In the ensuing years politics played out not as legislation but conspiracy, and the crown’s rather more successful harassment of same: many of the chief Whig actors were driven offstage to scaffolds, dungeons, or continental exile.

The half-dozen most eminent Whigs remaining — to whom, besides Lord Russell, we number the king’s illegitimate son Monmouth, the Earl of Essex, Baron Howard of Escrick,** Algernon Sidney, and John Hampden† — formed a sort of informal Council of Six who met secretly to consider the bad options available to the fractured Whig movement. Some section of the wider Whig network in which this Council operated turned eventually to considering the most desperate of measures.

Their Rye House Plot schemed to waylay and assassinate the royal person near a fortified manor handily on the king’s route back to London from the Newmarket races. It was owned then by a radical former soldier of Cromwell‘s New Model Army.

It has been long debated to what extent any of the top Whigs knew of or actively participated in this Guy Fawkesian plot, or its complement, a projected armed rising of the sort that Monmouth would indeed mount in 1685. One school of thought is that the Tories seized it as an expedient to eviscerate the remaining Whig leadership by conflating the entire movement with a regicidal scheme; another is that the Whig insistence upon its martyrs’ innocence — and Lord Russell is the chief man in this pantheon — has amounted to a fantastic propaganda coup.‡

In June 1683, a salter who was in on the Rye House planning got a cold sweat and informed on the Whigs. This backstab earned a royal pardon for himself, and started a familiar policing sequence of incriminated conspirators turning crown’s evidence and informing in their turn on the next part of the network.

Many of the Whigs fled to the Netherlands, received there by the House of Orange which would seat itself on the English throne inside of six years.

Lord Russell, however, refused to fly. He landed in the Tower of London by the end of the month, to face trial as a traitor on the evidence of his association with other Whigs and his entertaining the plan of raising an armed revolt. (He would have been joined in the dock by Essex, but that worthy cut his own throat in the Tower.) The judge’s summation to the jury even underscored that “You have not Evidence in the Case as there was [in other Rye House cases] against the Conspirators to kill the King at the Rye. There was a direct Evidence of a Consult to kill the King, that is not given you in this Case: This is an Act of contriving Rebellion, and an Insurrection within the Kingdom, and to seize his Guards, which is urged an Evidence, and surely is in itself an Evidence, to seize and destroy the King.”

Lord Russell’s case shifted around the fringes of actual innocence — those plans for Insurrection within the Kingdom, he said, occurred sometimes at meetings he happened to attend but only off on the side, or without Lord Russell’s own involvement or support. (Speaking from the scaffold, he would several times insist that his acts were at worst misprision of treason, which was no longer a capital crime at this point.)

Against this the crown produced Lord Howard, a cravenly interested party to be sure, who saved his own skin by testifying that the six-headed cabal was down to planning the specifics of the places where a rebellion might best be stirred up, the procurements of arms and bankroll that would be necessary to same, and how to draw Scotland into the fray as an ally. “Every one knows my Lord Russell is a Person of great Judgment, and not very lavish in Discourse,” Howard allowed on the point of Russell’s active assent to the plans. “We did not put it to the Vote, but it went without Contradiction, and I took it that all there gave their Consent.”

David Hume would observe in his History of Great Britain that Russell’s “present but not part of it” parsing didn’t make for a very compelling story. “Russell’s crime fell plainly under the statute … his defence was very feeble.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of an 1825 painting of Lord Russell’s trial, commissioned of George Hayter by Lord Russell’s admiring kinsman John Russell, Duke of Bedford. John Russell also wrote a biography of his famous ancestor. The unbroken succession of Dukes of Bedford from William Russell’s father continues to the present day; the current Duke of Bedford, 15th of that line, is one of Britain’s richest men.

Conscious of the great pulpit his scaffold would offer, Lord Russell drafted with the aid of his wife a last statement vindicating his own person and the Whig cause that flew into print before the onlookers at Lincoln’s Inn Fields were dipping their handkerchiefs into his martyrs’ blood.

Nor did I ever pretend to a great readiness in speaking: I wish those gentlemen of the law who have it, would make more conscience int he use of it, and not run men down by strains and fetches, impose on easy and willing juries, to the ruin of innocent men: For to kill by forms and subtilties of law, is the worst sort of murder …

I never had any design against the king’s life, or the life of any man whatsoever; so I never was in any contrivance of altering the government. What the heats, wickedness, passions, and vanities of other men have occasioned, I ought not to be answerable for; nor could I repress them, though I now suffer for them.

These notices drew furious confutations from Tory pamphleteers aghast at the face these traitors had to forswear their malice against King Charles; a battle of broadsides to control the historical narrative ensued, and was resolved in the Whigs’ favor by the imminent conquest of power by the aforementioned House of Orange. The Whig-aligned William and Mary reversed Lord Russell’s attainder in 1689 — but that’s never stood in the way of historians’ debates.

In a much lower historical register, Lord Russell’s execution was egregiously bungled by the London headsman Jack Ketch, who had to bash repeatedly at the man’s neck before he could remove it from the shoulders. It is largely from this event that Ketch derives his lasting reputation as an incompetent and/or sadistic butcher, mutually reinforcing with Russell’s martyr status.

Ketch would later claim in a published “Apologie” issued against “those grievous Obloquies and Invectives that have been thrown upon me for not Severing my Lords Head from his Body at one blow” that his prey

died with more Galantry than Discresion, and did not dispose him for receiving of the fatal Stroke in such a posture as was most suitable, for whereas he should have put his hands before his Breast, or else behind him, he spread them out before him, nor would he be persuaded to give any Signal or pull his Cap over his eyes, which might possibly be the Occasion that discovering the Blow, he somewhat heav’d his Body

and besides that Ketch “receav’d some Interruption just as I was taking Aim, and going to give the Blow.” How would you like it if someone came to your workplace and did that?

The damage to Ketch’s reputation was already done. Two years later, en route to the block for a subsequent failed bid to topple the Stuarts, the Duke of Monmouth tipped Ketch with the scornful charge not to “hack me as you did my Lord Russell.” When Ketch botched that execution too, he was nearly lynched — but escaped the scaffold to live on in Punch and Judy and in the English tongue as the definitive lowlife executioner.

* Short for “Whiggamores”, who were Covenanter rebels in the 1640s. “Tories”, by contrast, took their name from Irish Catholic outlaws: each party became known by the slur its foes attached to it.

** Yes, another one of those Howards: this Howard’s great-grandfather lost his head for the Ridolfi intrigue.

† Hampden survived the suppression of Whig intrigues long enough to coin the term “Glorious Revolution” when the Stuarts were finally overthrownJournal of British Studies, January 1985 for a skeptical-of-Russell reading of the evidence. “The government did not concoct the plot; it was frightened by the revelations, whatever use it made of them. There is no doubt that proposals for an insurrection of some kind were discussed; Russell’s impetuosity and extremism make it more likely than not that he was an active party to these discussions. What is in doubt, since nothing came of the discussions, is how far the parties had gone in developing a concrete plan for a rising.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Martyrs,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1866: Mokomoko and the Maori killers of Carl Volkner

1 comment May 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1866, five Maori men hanged for the murder of a German proselytizer.

Hesse-born Carl Sylvius Völkner* arrived in New Zealand as a Lutheran missionary in 1849; by 1861, he was directing an Anglican-run mission at Opotiki, the center of Maori Te Whakatohea territory.

Unfortunately for Volkner, his mission to win souls overlapped with the British mission to win land.

This same early 1860s period saw a sharpening of the European-Maori conflict on the North Island where Volkner kept his mission — the bloodshed in turn fostering the militant Pai Marire or Hau Hau faith in place of the settlers’. Though the Te Whakatohea weren’t directly involved in this war, they had felt its effects: refugees, food shortages, disease outbreaks.

Volkner, who was seen by Maori as a pro-government character and a British spy,** was warned that under the fraught circumstances he might be wise to extend his most recent trip to Auckland indefinitely and wait for things to simmer down.

He did not heed that warning.

On March 2, 1865, the day after Volkner’s return to Opotiki, a group of Pai Marire hanged the missionary to a willow tree outside his Church of St. Stephen, then butchered the dead body.

The Pai Marire leader Kereopa Te Rau then preached from the church’s pulpit with Volkner’s severed head at his side, in the course of which he tore the eyeballs from his grisly prop and, calling one “the Queen” and the other “Parliament”, theatrically devoured them. (Kereopa Te Rau is nicknamed “Kai whatu”, “the eyeball eater”.)

Old eyeball eater would eventually hang for this display as well, but he avoided capture until the 1870s — so this narrative takes its leave of him here.

The slaughter of the European evangelist at the very steps of the protomartyr’s church in turn fired the fury of white New Zealand.

The most immediate response was the government’s landing 500 soldiers in Opotiki in September 1865. From there they raided throughout Te Whakatohea territory (confiscating some 240,000 hectares that would feed white settlers’ surging demand for real estate) and put crops to the torch until the tribe surrendered up some 20 chiefs for punishment of the Volkner affair.

Five of those eventually hanged for their participation: Heremita Kahupaea, Hakaraia Te Rahui, Horomona Propiti and Mikaere Kirimangu … and a man named Mokomoko who was then and remains now the most controversial execution of the bunch.

Mokomoko’s guilt was sharply disputed by eyewitnesses who gave conflicting accounts of whether he was even present at the church on March 2. It was Mokomoko’s rope that strangled Carl Volkner, but the man himself insisted that he was not present. (The three witnesses who placed him on the scene said he carried the rope, suggesting participation far exceeding a bystander.)

Maori tradition preserved Mokomoko as an emblem of wrongful persecution, along with his song Tangohia mai te taura i taku kaki kia waiata au i taku waiata (Take the rope from my neck that I may sing my song):

Violent shaking will not rouse me from my sleep
They treat me like a common thief
It is true that I embrace eternal sleep
For that is the lot of a man condemned to die.

Shielded from the harsh light
With narrow eyes I reflect on the retribution taken at Hamukete
Remember how I was taken on board ship (chained)
The memory of it burns me with shame.

Bring me justice from distant lands to break my shackles
Where the sun sets is a government in Europe
It is for them to say that I must hang
Then shut me in my coffin box.

Under pressure from Mokomoko’s descendants, latter-day New Zealand has made a number of gestures of apology for Mokomoko’s hanging over the past 20-odd years, culminating in a posthumous pardon.

* A copse of rocks sprouting out of New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty is named for our man — the Volkner Rocks, also known as Te Paepae o Aotea.

** He sent reports to the government about subversive activity.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Murder,New Zealand,Occupation and Colonialism,Posthumous Exonerations,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Wrongful Executions

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1954: Lucretiu Patrascanu, purged Romanian

Add comment April 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1954, Lucretiu Patrascanu was shot in Jilava Prison outside Bucharest.

The widow’s-peaked longtime pol was one of the first inductees of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) after its 1921 founding. Patrascanu (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was 21 years old then: the spirited politicking within the Communist movement would define the whole of his adult life.

By the 1930s, he held a position of national leadership. Patrascanu served in the Romanian legislature, and became a party representative to the Comintern.

It might have been at a Comintern road trip to Moscow in the 1930s that Patrascanu’s disillusionment with Stalin began. If so, it was beside the point: leftists in Romania (like everywhere else) had the more immediate threat of fascism to contend with.

After spending most of the war years under arrest, Patrascanu re-emerged as a state minister. He personally helped to author the August 23, 1944 coup that flipped Romania out of the Axis camp. But by the very next year he was under police surveillance.

He fell in the Soviet-driven late 1940s purge of Eastern European Titoists, for having such insufficiently internationalist notions as “before we are Communists, we are Romanians.” His time in prison was long enough for authorities to model his show trial on the 1952 Czechoslovakian Slansky trial, though Patrascanu himself disdained to denounce himself, or even to dignify the proceedings with a defense.

I have nothing to say, except [that I] spit on the charges brought against me.

He was posthumously rehabilitated in 1968 by Nicolae Ceausescu.

* Poignantly, Patrascanu was said to have read Koestler’s dystopian novel of the Soviet purges, Darkness at Noon, while an envoy to the 1946 Paris Peace Conference.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Romania,Shot,Torture,Treason

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1759: William Davis, St. Croix slave revolt suicide

Add comment December 14th, 2013 Headsman

On the morning of December 14, 1759, William Davis succumbed to a self-inflicted wound rather than face St. Croix’s harsh justice for an alleged slave rising plot.

They strung up his remains just the same.

St. Croix, today part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, was at the time a Danish colony.* As with other Caribbean islands, its economy catered to the lucrative new European taste for sugar — powered by human bondage.

“The establishment of the sugar industry created the demand for labor in the West Indian islands,” Eric Williams wrote. “It was a choice, from the sugar planter’s point of view, of Negro labor or no labor at all. Sugar meant slavery.”

It was, in fact, sugar which raised these insignificant tropical islands from the status of pirates’ nests to the dignity of the most precious colonies known to the Western World up to the nineteenth century …

Tremendous wealth was produced from an unstable economy based on a single crop, which combined the vices of feudalism and capitalism with the virtues of neither. Liverpool in England, Nantes in France, Rhode Island in America, prospered on the slave trade. London and Bristol, Bordeaux and Marseilles, Cadiz and Seville, Lisbon and New England, all waxed fat on the profits of the trade in the tropical produce raised by the Negro slave. … Sugar was king; without his Negro slave his kingdom would have been a desert.

For those in King Sugar’s castle this desert stuff was no mere metaphor, but life and limb itself. They trafficked fantastical wealth from the shores of tiny islets where they took their sleep surrounded by a vastly more numerous** servile population whom they controlled ever so delicately. Just let the serfs of such a manor commence a jacquerie

White planters’ vulnerability to a potential slave revolt, dramatically underscored by a 1733 revolt on neighboring St. John, bred great paranoia about imagined plots: a casual word here or there could be heard as a seditious murmuring, and then a politically motivated judicial machinery of torture, hearsay, and panicked accusations set into motion. It can be maddeningly difficult from the distance of centuries to weigh the truth value of a supposed slave plot strangled in the crib. Intrepid resistance? Or phantom from the planters’ nightmares?

Either way the slaves wound up just as dead.

We have the story of this revolt’s suppression from one of the judges, Engelbert Hasselberg, and this naturally constrains our view. Hasselberg wrote up his report, complete with an index of all the slaves punished, for eyes in Copenhagen. He’s certain that there really was an intended rising, even as he acknowledges a want of firm evidence: “many of the conspirators have refused to confess anything at all, although there has been sufficient evidence against them, insofar as it may be called evidence at all, where rogues have plotted and been the sole witnesses.” That is, a few people’s highly questionable accusations/confessions† sustained the entire affair.

But the story must have had the judges’ hearts in their throats.

Each [Negro] was if possible to slay his master or foreman; next, those whose masters’ plantations lay in the Christianstaed district, were to gather on Colleman’s plantation … and those Negroes who belonged to the West-End, were to assemble at the West-End fort, and first take possession of Fort Friderichswaern and of all the ammunition there to be found. Thereupon all those who had procured weapons were to march to Christianstaed, setting the plantation[s] on fire on the way, and killing or burning all whites who collected to put out the fires, and finally to storm [Fort] Christianstvaern.

Hasselberg’s report begins, oddly enough, by meditating that “the greater part of the slaves on colonies as recently developed as St. Croix are free-born, and have therefore just as good claim to their freedom as we have to ours. One or other fateful occurrence has brought them out of that natural equality which at birth they enjoyed with us, and made those persons our slaves who by a contrary event might have become our masters. What wonder then that such persons seek their freedom when they are provoked by the unreasonable conduct of unwise masters, and when they believe that the enterprise is not impossible.”

For Hasselberg this freely acknowledged natural inclination is not so much a systemic critique as a management challenge, and he expands on the talents required by the slaveowner to extract surplus-labor without “expos[ing] himself to resentment”, while not neglecting to request that Denmark increase its subsidy to St. Croix.

The enterprise was exposed by a few stray remarks from a quarrelsome slave.

It was in the month of December, 1759, that 2 white men, Matthias and Benjamin Bear, were molding bullets on Sr. Soren Bagge’s plantation. A Negro slave by the name of Cudjo, working at that time on Bagge’s plantation, asked Benjamin Bear to give him some of the bullets as a present, but as he was unable to give a proper account of what he was going to do with them, Bear gave him none. But Matthias, who did not think so far ahead, gave Cudjo a dozen bullets while Bear had stepped aside. Bear learned about it, and in the afternoon of the same day, he said to Cudjo, in the presence of a white man, Peter Hyde, and of a number of other Negroes, that he had heard that Matthias had given him some bullets, but he, Cudjo, had better look out, or his head might some day be found lying at his feet. To this, Cudjo replied, addressing himself to the 2 white men, Benjamin Bear and Peter Hyde, “You look out that some of your heads won’t lie at your feet pretty soon.” Peter Hyde then asked, “Whom will you then kill?” and Cudjo replied, “You shall be the first that I shall kill.”

The day before this conversation took place between Bear, Hyde and Cudjo, the Cudjo aforementioned had said concerning Mr. Bagge’s plantation house, “Maybe that house will be mine in a short time,” to which one of Bagge’s Negroes, namely Will, replied, “God damn you, you can’t keep a secret.” The same day Cudjo had asked B. Bear how long it would be until Christmas, and when Bear asked Cudjo why he wanted to know this, he answered, “I am asking about it, as I hope by that time to be a little Petit Maitre.”

Bear and Hyde reported the conversation and under questioning on December 11, Cudjo and his blood brother started revealing details of a slave rebellion in the offing — scheduled to capitalize on whites’ distracting Christmas celebrations. William Davis, a free black, was its supposed instigator.

Davis was under interrogation the very next day. The particular suspicion he was under would have instantly impressed him as placing him in the gravest peril; when induced with a plea bargain-type offer to merely suffer banishment, he “made a frank confession” and “exposed the whole dessein, and gave the names of quite a number of Negroes, some of whom have been found guilty and others acquitted.”

Hasselberg’s categorical assertion that Davis’s plea-induced statement was a “frank confession” doesn’t square comfortably either with Davis’s subsequent attempt to repudiate the “confession” or with the acknowledged denials and acquittals of most of the people he named. Perhaps this speaks well of St. Croix’s judicial restraint, but what might actually have been afoot for Christmas 1759, and how many people it might have involved, is heavily conjectural.

Not least because Davis — in remorse for naming names, perhaps, or else not trusting his captors’ assurance of humane treatment — took any subsequent remarks to an early grave.

[H]e managed to cut his throat in the morning of December 13, while in the fort. The wound was not considered dangerous by the surgeon, and he was immediately bound. He made various confessions after that time, but on the following night, he tore the bandage from his neck, cursed and scolded those who approached him, and swore that if they cut him up piece by piece, and roasted on the fire, he would nevertheless confess nothing. On the following morning, December 14, he died, and he was made an example of.

Hasselberg is not completely explicit here that the posthumous punishment occurred on that same day Davis succumbed, but he does not mince words when it comes to the example itself.

His dead body was dragged through the streets by a horse, by one leg; thereafter hanged on a gallows by a leg, and finally taken down and burned at the stake.†

By Hasselberg’s accounting, Davis was just the first of 14 people hanged, burned, broken on the wheel, or “set up in a gibbet or iron cage” to die of thirst and exposure.§

* St. Croix’s most famous denizen for posterity at this hour was a very small child named Alexander Hamilton.

** Of the British territory Nevis, one late 18th century chronicler remarked, “the present number of whites is stated not to exceed six hundred, while the negroes amount to about ten thousand; a disproportion which necessarily converts all such white men as are not exempted by age and decrepitude into a well regulated militia.” According to Hasselberg, the ratio on St. Croix was 1,690 whites to 11,807 blacks.

† The first slave to provide a corroborating account, one Qvamina, received his freedom and 50 rigsdalers in a conspicuous ceremony performed in front of other slaves.

‡ All translations are via Waldemar Westergaard in “Account of the Negro Rebellion on St. Croix, Danish West Indies, 1759” in The Journal of Negro History, January 1926.

§ William Davis was the first; the full roster of additional executions in Hasselberg’s report:

2. Franch (or French), free negro, convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing himself.

He was broken on the wheel with an iron crowbar, laid alive on the wheel, where he survived 12 hours. The head was then set on a stake, and the hand fastened on the gallows.

3. Prince Qvakoe, belonging to his Majesty, convicted by witnesses, and has confessed being implicated.

Was executed in the same way as Franch and lived 2 hours.

4. Cudjo, belonging to Doran, is convicted by witnesses, and has himself confessed.

Was burned alive on a pyre, lived in the fire 4½ minutes.

5. Gomas, belonging to John Bradshou, is convicted and has confessed.

6. George, belonging to James Hughes, has confessed and is convicted.

Both these negroes (5 and 6) were first pinched with hot tongs, then hanged by the legs in a gallows, and a dog likewise, by the neck, between them. Gomas lived ½ an hour and was strangled; George lived 3 hours and was strangled.

7. London, belonging to Thomas Lacke, is convicted and has himself confessed.

He was first pinched with glowing tongs, then hanged up by the legs, lived 12 hours and was strangled.

8. Sam Hector, belonging to Pieter Heyliger, Senior, is convicted by witnesses, but has confessed nothing himself.

He was set up in a gibbet or iron cage and lived 42 hours.

9. Michel, belonging to Hugh O’Donnell, is convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing.

Got the same punishment as Sam Hector, lived 91 hours.

10. Will, belonging to Soren Bagge, is convicted by witnesses, but made no confession.

Was burned alive, lived in the fire 14 minutes.

11. George, belonging to John Cookly, confessed and was convicted by witnesses.

He was pinched with glowing tongs and hanged by the neck.

12. [Name not given], belonging to Manan Rogers, is convicted by witnesses, and made a partial confession.

Was set up in a gibbet from January 18, at 3:30 p.m. to Jan. 27, 8:30 a.m.

13. Sylvester, belonging to James Conningham, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.

He was burned alive, and lived in the fire 4½ minutes.

14. Jupiter, belonging to W. Burnet, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.

He was burned alive, and lived in the fire for 1½ minutes.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Public Executions,Slaves,Uncertain Dates,US Virgin Islands

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1941: Alexander Svanidze, Stalin’s brother-in-law

Add comment August 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1941,* Stalin’s own brother-in-law was shot in the gulags.

In 1906, a whole lifetime before, the Georgian Alexander Svanidze introduced young Joseph Dzhugashvili to his, Svanidze’s, sister, Kato. She and Dzhugashvili wed that year, and Kato soon bore her husband’s firstborn, Yakov.

Stalin was already a wanted Bolshevik revolutionary at this time, but so was Svanidze. Kato was a homebody with no known political interest, and sufficient piety to force her communist groom to say his vows in an Orthodox church. Afterwards, his priorities reasserted themselves.

While Stalin agitated, propagandized, and politicked against Menshevism in the wild oil boom city of Baku,** his pretty wife kept an empty apartment tidy and fretted the omnipresent danger of her husband’s arrest. “When he was involved, he forgot everything,” fellow-Bolshevik Mikheil Monoselidze remembered. Many revolutionaries’ wives walked similarly lonely roads.

Kato did not have to walk hers very long: she contracted a horrible stomach/bowel disease and wasted rapidly away late in 1907. Stalin’s own indifference might have been the ultimate cause, for when she was unwell the young cadre took her on a sweltering 13-hour train ride back to Tiflis that greatly worsened her condition — all so that her family could care for her, and free Stalin’s time for his plots. Kato died in Stalin’s arms, but only when he had been urgently summoned back from Baku with word that her condition had become dire.

Whatever his actions said about him as a family man, the future dictator really loved his neglected wife. He “was in such despair that his friends were worried about leaving him with his Mauser,” writes Simon Montefiore in Young Stalin.

“This creature,” [Stalin] gestured at the open coffin [at her funeral], “softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.” He placed his hand over his heart: “It’s all so desolate here, so indescribably desolate.”

At the burial, Soso’s habitual control cracked. He threw himself into the grave with the coffin. The men had to haul him out. Kato was buried — but, just then, revolutionary konspiratsia disrupted family grief. Soso noticed some Okhrana agents sidling towards the funeral. He scarpered towards the back of the graveyard and vaulted over the fence, disappearing from his own wife’s funeral — an ironic comment on his marital negligence.

For two months, Stalin vanishes from the record. “Soso sank into deep grief,” says Monoselidze. “He barely spoke and nobody dared speak to him” … “He cried like a brat, hard as he was.”

Stalin’s deep grief did not change his life’s work. If anything, he would seem in later years almost too aghast by the whole experience (and his uncharacteristic bout of sentiment) to grapple with it. He abandoned little Yakov to the Svanidzes, and would curiously dislike his son so much that he eventually permitted Yakov to die as a German POW during World War II rather than exchange prisoners for his release.

By the time of the great purges, then, being Stalin’s brother-in-law was of little help to Alexander Svanidze. It might have been an outright detriment; certainly Svanidze’s own prominence — he had served as People’s Commissar for Finances of the Georgian SSR, and founded a scholarly journal in his capacity as a historian — were of a kind with Old Bolsheviks who had also attracted denunciations.

In 1937, most of the beloved Kato’s family was arrested: Alexander Svanidze, but also Alexander’s wife Maria, and opera singer, and his sister Mariko. Svanidze defiantly refused NKVD blandishments to confess to spying for Berlin to save himself, perhaps realizing that such a deal would merely sell his pride for a mess of pottage. “Such aristocratic pride!” Stalin is supposed to have tutted upon hearing the way Svanidze went to his execution still insisting he had done nothing wrong. (Svanidze’s ancestors were petty nobility.)

Svanidze’s son, Johnreed† — named for the American radical who chronicled the Bolshevik Revolution in Ten Days That Shook The Worlddenounced his doomed father to save his own skin, but was sent to the gulag just the same. Johnreed was released, and Alexander posthumously rehabilitated, after Stalin’s death in 1953.

* There are some other dates out there for Svanidze’s execution. I’ve had difficulty identifying a primary source for any of them, but am prepared to be corrected if an alternative possibility can be strongly documented.

** They moved to Baku from Tiflis, where Stalin had helped to orchestrate a huge bank robbery.

† Revolutionary Russia produced a number of similarly curious neologisms on birth certificates, such as “Vladlen” (blending “Vladimir Lenin”), and even the outlandish “Electralampochka” (“light bulb”, inspired by the Soviet electrification campaign).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1997: Chiang Kuo-ching, Taiwan wrongful conviction

2 comments August 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1997, Taiwanese airman Chiang Kuo-ching was shot for the rape-murder of a five-year-old girl the previous September.

Chiang was nominated as a suspect by a fellow enlistee just a day after the little girl’s body was found in a privy gutter.

So, he and three other early suspects were given “lie detector” tests. Because Chiang was the only one of these who “failed” to acquit himself by this ludicrous mummery, he became the subject of implacable official tunnel vision.

The case was referred — illegally and arbitrarily — to the country’s intelligence services, who subjected Chiang to 37 hours of torture in order to extract a confession: beatings, threats, sleep deprivation, and private screenings of “his victim’s” autopsy.

Chiang broke, and admitted to the crime.

That admission was the star witness against him in his ensuing military trial. Chiang had retracted it by then — but that was much too late to help himself, especially since potentially exculpatory forensic evidence was intentionally withheld from his defense.

As it turned out, the bloody handprint and the DNA trace recovered from the scene didn’t match Chiang at all. No evidence connected him to the crime, except the evidence of truncheons.

Another airman, Hsu Rong-chou, eventually admitted to the killing. (He’d already been convicted in two other child molestation cases, in 1997 and 2003.) In 2011, Hsu received an 18-year prison sentence for the crime that took Chiang Kuo-ching’s life. Chiang was posthumously acquitted that same year.

The latter-day reversal of the sentence was so sensational that Taiwan’s legislature enacted a special law to increase the compensation Chiang’s family received. The family also got an extraordinary televised apology from President Ma Ying-jeou, who bowed three times before an image of the wrongfully executed man.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Murder,Posthumous Exonerations,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Soldiers,Taiwan,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1960: Manfred Smolka, East German border guard

12 comments July 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1960, Manfred Smolka was guillotined in Leipzig.

Smolka was among three million East Germans or more who escaped over the border to West Germany in the 16 years after the defeat of the Nazis divided the country.

In the earliest years, people sluiced over the long border just anywhere. By Smolka’s time, that perimeter was buffered by an “internal border” that made it difficult for ordinary people to approach near enough to West Germany to escape. Consequently, most emigration by the the late 1950s occurred in the divided city of Berlin — a flow that East Germany would finally stanch in 1961 with the ultimate in immigration reform, the Berlin Wall.


One of the Cold War’s iconic photographs: East Berlin border guard Conrad Schumann leaps over the barbed-wire barrier into West Berlin on Aug. 15, 1961, just days after construction of the Berlin Wall began.

Like that more famous later escapee, Manfred Smolka (German link, as are most that follow) was a border guard; indeed, he was an officer. That gave him the ability, in 1958, to be far enough within the “internal border” to defect into West Germany

The very next year, he arranged to meet his abandoned wife and daughter on the Bavaria-Thuringia frontier to smuggle them over, too. Alas, it was a trap (pdf) laid by the feared East German secret police, the Stasi.


Happier times: Manfred Smolka with his wife and child.

According to press reports, Smolka was actually on West German soil when the Stasi men captured him.* (The Stasi were often up for a bit of kidnapping.)

West Germans were outraged by Smolka’s capture and subsequent death sentence for “military espionage,” but the case was deemed an apt one for the education of East Germany’s border security agents.

Only with post-Cold War German reunification could his family examine his file. “I am innocent, I can prove it a hundred times,” they read in the last letter the onetime defector wrote to his family — a letter which had never been delivered. “You need not be ashamed of me.” In 1993, a reunified, post-Cold War Germany officially agreed and posthumously rehabilitated Manfred Smolka.

There’s a few minutes of documentary video about him, in German, here.

* By a July 5, 1960 account in the London Times, Smolka was shot at and wounded as he crossed into East Germany but still managed to “crawl” back to West Germany — where his pursuers did not fear to follow him.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Posthumous Exonerations,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1668: A Dutch suicide, posthumously gibbeted

2 comments June 26th, 2013 Headsman

A man … who was in the habit of asking his wife for money to buy brandy, would on her refusal say that he would go hang himself. When on 23 June 1668 he again asked for two pennies to buy brandy, his wife said she had no money, whereupon he replied, “I will hang myself or may the devil take me.” His wife replied, “Do whatever you like, you always say that,” and went back to her cleaning. Shortly thereafter, she found that her husband had hanged himself in their home. She then called for the neighbors, who have all made declarations and given evidence. On a charge by the bailiff, his corpse has been taken to the Volewijk on 26 June 1668 and hanged on a gibbet.

This excerpt, via Machiel Bosman’s chapter “The Judicial Treatment of Suicide in Amsterdam” in From Sin to Insanity: Suicide in Early Modern Europe, represents the last documented case of the Dutch posthumously punishing a suicide.

Well … a certain class of suicide.

It seems that Dutch law from about the 16th century, and certainly in the 17th century, began drawing a categorical distinction between suicides driven by madness or despair, and those ob conscientiam criminis — criminals who took their life to cheat the law.

Posthumous execution was inflicted upon the latter all the way up until the French Revolution reached the Low Countries in 1795. Bosman, for example, notes the case of a thief gibbeted in Amsterdam in 1792 after he hanged himself in jail. For non-criminal suicides, “punishment” was more typically a silent night-time burial, perhaps in unconsecrated ground: a meaningful deterrent for at least some of the living, but very distinct from judicial infamy. The widower of a 1532 suicide had even successfully appealed Amsterdam’s attempt to levy a punitive fine on the estate.

Hans Bontemantel, one of Amsterdam’s sheriffs, was incensed by the archaic sentence executed in 1668: “I am not responsible for this,” he noted in the margin of his summary. “And it is against the law.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Netherlands,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions

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1868: Priscilla Biggadike, exonerated Stickney murderess

8 comments December 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1868, Priscilla Biggadike withstood one last gallows-foot plea from her minister to admit to poisoning her husband.

‘I implore you not to pass away without confessing all your sins; not only generally, but especially this particular case, for which you are about to suffer. I had hoped that you would have made that confession, and thus have enabled me, as a minister of Christ, to have pronounced the forgiveness of your sins … It has grieved me much to find that [you] still persist in the declaration, that you are not accountable for your husband’s death; that you still say that you did not administer the poison yourself; that you did not see any other person administer it, and that you are entirely free from the crime. Do you say so, now?

The Prisoner, still in a firm voice, said, yes.

The Chaplain. — There is only one [hope] left, that you have endeavoured to confess your sins to God, though you will not to your fellow creatures. All I can now say is that I leave you in the hands of God; and may he have mercy on your soul. What a satisfaction it would be to your children, to your friends, to your relations, to know that you had passed from death into life, in the full persuasion that your sins were forgiven you … I am sorry I cannot exercise that authority [to pronounce sins forgiven] at the present moment.

Then, at the stroke of 9 a.m., she was hanged by ten-thumbed executioner Thomas Askern. True to form, Askern made a mess of it, and Biggadike painfully strangled to death with the rope’s knot infelicitously positioned under her chin* … although, since this execution was behind the walls of Lincoln Castle (in fact, it was the first female hanging after an 1868 Act of Parliament had made all hangings private), at least it didn’t incense a vast concourse of onlookers.

Posterity, though, has taken plenty of umbrage at Priscilla Biggadike’s fate.

She and her late husband Richard kept two lodgers in a two-room house in the village of Stickney.

Richard already suspected an affair between Priscilla and one of those lodgers, Thomas Procter (or Proctor), when he returned home from work on September 30, 1868, enjoyed tea and cakethat his wife had made for him, and then fell violently, fatally ill. The post-mortem examination showed Richard Biggadike had been poisoned with arsenic.

Priscilla Biggadike and Thomas Procter were both arrested on suspicion of murder but charges against Procter were soon dropped.

Priscilla was known to have quarreled with her husband over that whole infidelity thing, and she had alluded at least once to having arsenic around for killing mice. She was accordingly found guilty of poisoning him, though “only,” in the words of the jurors when the judge pressed the question, “upon the ground of circumstantial evidence.”

Indictment, trial, conviction, and execution for the “Stickney Murderess” wrapped up in two months’ time. But the discharged co-accused, Thomas Procter, years later made a deathbed confession that it was really he who poisoned Richard Biggadike.

(During the investigation, Priscilla had even attempted to blame Thomas Procter, reporting that on one occasion prior to the murder he’d even made what looked like an attempt to poison Richard by mixing white powder into his tea, after which Richard became sick. Police didn’t regard the accused as a particularly credible source for obvious reasons, but it’s hard to believe anyone would have failed to follow up on that sort of lead.)

On account of that whole wrongful-hanging mix-up, Priscilla Biggadike received a posthumous pardon. She’s even had a short musical made about her conviction, which was recently performed in Lincoln Castle. If you visit, you can still see the cell where she passed her final days.

* The bad botch of this job led Lincolnshire officials to audition for their next execution a local cobbler and amateur noose enthusiast destined to revolutionize the British hanging with his scientific approach: William Marwood.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Posthumous Exonerations,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1784: Anton Joseph Suter, Appenzell politician

Add comment March 9th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1784, 64-year-old former Landammann of Appenzell,** was beheaded in a nasty bout of local politics.

The amiable and fair-minded Suter (wee German bio), a tavernkeeper, won election to his position at the head of a popular party — in the process defeating a local aristocrat who expected the gig as his birthright and nursed a terrible grudge against Suter for the defeat.


The cantonal form of direct democracy by which Suter was elected, the Landsgemeinde, is still practiced in Appenzell. This (cc) image from Götz A. Primke shows the 2009 assembly in Appenzell, at which crotchety, longsword-bearing residents voted a ban on nude hiking.

This aggrieved aristocrat, Geiger by name, had to bide his time all through the 1760s and into the 1770s, until the political stars aligned against Suter.

It seems a neighboring town had been able to take possession of a lush alpine slope in Appenzell’s environs by dint of an unpaid mortgage, a terrible wound to Appenzell’s pride and no small inconvenience to its residents.

Suter pushed an attempt to force repurchase of this land in a suit at the Swiss Diet, a sort of United Nations of otherwise-autonomous Swiss cantons. But he lost the suit, and the Diet demanded that Appenzell cough up the court costs as well.

Accustomed as we are today to the suits and countersuits that constitute the very cogs of late capitalism, it’s a little hard to understand how the trifling matter of a court fee could suffice to topple a government — but it did. Geiger’s people prevailed upon the canton’s executive council to drop the suit (Suter pursued it on his own), and now persuaded it to drop Suter.

Well, persuaded. It’s more like, it did several days frantic retail politicking from the pulpits and in the streets, then showed up when the council met to shout down Suter and drag him out by force, not neglecting to disenfranchise Suter’s many supporters who fought them on the point. As Suter fled into exile, Appenzell pronounced him a rebel on the strength of some super-secret documents.

That really could have been that, but Suter’s foes were so intent on his head that they contrived a ruse to lure him back into the canton’s territory on the pretext of a secret meeting with his daughter — then arrested him, tortured him with thumbscrews and the rack, and finally sentenced him to death.

On the day appointed the scaffold was closely surrounded by troops. Suter, maimed and pale, was assisted to his place. Standing there a moment he addressed the people, declaring himself robbed and murdered by his country. He then knelt down and in clear tones thrice pronounced the Ave Maria. With the last word of the last repetition of the prayer the sword descended and his head fell …

The sight of the blood of the ex-Landamman filled the people with rage. They had looked for a reprieve to the very last; and now that all hope was gone, they fell upon such of the victim’s enemies as were to be found lingering in the streets and fought and struggled with them in their desperation … The enemies of Suter were found to form no exception to the rule that retribution pursues the murderer. No sooner was the ex-Landamman in his grave than the Furies took up their task … Geiger, who formerly had gone about demanding Suter’s life, now — a pitiable victim to remorse — went about acknowledging that for seven long years he had pursued him without a cause. It is related concerning the member of the Blood Court that they all ever afterwards were harassed by terrors of conscience, one to such an extent that he even became insane. The guilt of Suter’s murder settled upon Inner-Rhoden irretrievably … like the very brand of Cain. Time went by and changes occurred, but that remained. Finally in 1829, forty-five years after the execution, the Great Council met and, with a solemnity befitting he occasion, unanimously revrsed the findings of the court by which Suer had been banished, as also of that by which he had been sent to the block.

Another summary of Suter’s career and sad end can be found here.

* Thanks to the same public-domain source, we’ve visited Appenzell before.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Public Executions,Switzerland,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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