Posts filed under 'Public Executions'

1848: Thomas Sale, game

Add comment January 10th, 2020 William Hepworth Dixon

(Thanks to Victorian historian William Hepworth Dixon for the guest post, excerpted from his John Howard, and the Prison-world of Europe The date is confirmed, as many dates hereabouts often are, by reference to the voluminous logs at CapitalPunishmentUK.org. Dixon’s distaste for the execution spectacle was received opinion among his class of bourgeois chin-strokers by this time; not for nothing, public executions became within the ensuing generation a thing of the past.)

It is, we fear, a capital mistake, under any circumstance, to lend an air of importance to the death of a criminal; and to invest or environ it with anything like beauty, dignity and romance, infinitely mischievous. There should be nothing of the heroic about public punishments — nothing which the vulgar mind could possibly deem desirable, or in which the most depraved heart could sympathize.

Only a few months ago [10 January 1848 -ed.] the writer was present at the execution of [Thomas] Sale the murderer. The crowd collected to see the exhibition was enormous. Amongst that crowd was the mother of the culprit. When the wretched man came forward on the scaffold, he looked pale and ghastly; but his bearing was insolent, and he died with the apparent insensibility of a dog. “Bravo!” cried his mother, as the drop fell, and the murderer was launched into eternity, “I knew he would die game!” A woman who had lived in adulterous intercourse with the malefactor was with her; they had made up a party to come and see the last of “poor Tom,” and when the tragedy was over, sallied off to a public house and made a day of it. Nor was this all. Among the party was another of the Sales, — brother to the murderer, son of the woman who, instead of shame, had found a glory in his death; he had been liberated from gaol only two or three days before the execution. His history is the moral of the gallows. Within a few weeks he was again arrested on a charge of robbery; the crime was clearly brought home to him, and he now lies under sentence of transportation. Another brother had been already sent off to a penal colony, these terrible warnings — hangings and transportation — were inoperative, even to the blood of the sufferers. From the altitude of its own scaffold, to hurl defiance in the face of society, in the presence of thousands of witnesses, is a point of honor and of pride with the criminal class. It is being game. Within its own sphere the family of which we speak enjoys a sort of high pre-eminence — a heroism in guilt. Dr. Moore is not far wrong when he says that our mode of punishing murderers is such as to warrant the idea that our object is not to prevent any one from following their example. Death punishments should be secret, but at the same time swift and certain; surrounded by all the terrors of an unseen but inexorable doom. When he passes from the court in which he receives condemnation the culprit should be seen of the world no more. This arrangement would be merciful to him, for no sufferer can be wholly unmindful of the vast tribunal before which he is now called upon to die, and a thousand thoughts of who may be there, what eyes may gaze upon his fall, and how he must and will deport himself in presence of these exacting judges, rush into and occupy his mind, to the exclusion of all better and more needful thoughts: at the same time, it would be far more terrible to his compeers in guilt — as much more terrible as the dark mystery of a doom which leaves no room for hope, and yet much scope for fear, always is, — than an end which we have seen, a worst which we have known.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions

1836: Pierre François Lacenaire, Manfred of the gutter

Add comment January 9th, 2020 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1959: Col. Cornelio Rojas

Add comment January 7th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1959, in the city of Santa Clara lately captured by Cuban revolutionaries, Col. Cornelio Rojas Fernández, commander of the city’s defeated government garrison, was shot without trial by the order of Che Guevara.

It was just one among hundreds of vengeful executions being visited in those weeks upon authorities of the deposed Batista regime.

Viewers of the televised public shooting saw the stocky commander — the grandson of a hero of the 19th century Cuban War of Independence — walk unafraid to his death in an armed escort, where he exhorted his onlookers until the firing detail sent his fedora flying.

Rojas’s granddaughter Barbara Rangel remains an energetic advocate of her father’s innocence, from Florida. A kinsman named Pedro Rojas Mir was among those killed in the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle when anti-Castro exiles mounted a failed invasion of Cuba.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions

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2011: Yaqub Ali, stabber

Add comment January 5th, 2020 Headsman

An Iranian criminal named Yaqub (or Yaghoob) Ali was publicly hanged on this date in 2011, at Kaj Square in Tehran’s tony Sa’adat Abad neighborhood.

Not ten weeks earlier, he had in those same environs perpetrated a grisly public stabbing of his ex’s new boyfriend. The crime outraged Iranians the nation with the wildfire online and TV promulgation of video showing the mauled victim, one Mohammad Reza, helplessly bleeding to death on the street in broad daylight, unaided by any passerby — including two policemen who had witnessed the men’s altercation without intervening.

“The entire country was under shock after the incident,” according to a Tehran journalist. “No-one understands how the wounded man could have been left without assistance for so long. There is a general feeling that the incident is symptomatic of the growing insecurity in the country, especially in Tehran.”

The embedded video and the photo of the execution further down this post are very much Mature Content.

The speedy public hanging accordingly attracted a throng of angry onlookers.

According to an AFP wire story, “Separately, the ISNA news agency said that a convicted drug trafficker, identified only by his initials A.A., was executed in a prison in the town of Shirvan in northeast Iran. No other details were given.”

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Iran,Mature Content,Murder,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines

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1879: Juan Oliva Moncusi, attempted regicide

Add comment January 4th, 2020 Headsman

Juan Oliva Moncusi (sometimes given as Moncasi) was publicly garroted at Madrid’s Campo de Guardias on this date in 1879 for his failed assassination attempt on King Alfonso XII the previous October 25.

“That day the young* king had returned to his capital, after a month’s absence,” quoth The Atlantic,

Everywhere he was received with hearty welcomes; the crowds cheered, and ladies showered bouquets of flowers upon him from the balconies. As the royal cortege passed along the principal street of Madrid a young man pressed through the soldiers who kept the line, and, drawing a pistol, fired point-blank at Alfonso. The bullet missed its aim. The would-be assassin was instantly seized, and he proved to be one Juan Oliva Moncasi, a cooper, twenty-three years of age. He had for several years been noted in the district of Tarragona, in the province of Catalonia, where he was born, for his exaggerated ideas in politics. He was uncommonly daring and cool in his behavior after his arrest, and he declared that he did not feel the slightest remorse. He had meditated this crime for a long time past, and came to Madrid with the firm resolve to carry out his design. He admitted that he had forfeited his life, but said he believed that he was, like Nobiling and Hoedel, furthering the objects of his school in social questions.

Source are at odds over whether to characterize this young man as a socialist or an anarchist, but his attack — succeeding the aforementioned separate assassination attempts by Nobiling and Hoedel upon the German Kaiser, and followed by the November 1879 attempt on the Italian king by Giovanni Passannante — shook Europe’s crowned heads. The anarchist Kropotkin would complain in his memoirs of the harassment he endured in Switzerland by authorities who suspected a coordinated international plot.

Although that proved not to be the case, Moncusi’s errant bullet might have actually insured the continued existence — down to the present day — of the Bourbon line in Spain, for in view of the year’s campaign of attentatsthe royal advisers deemed it urgent that the succession to the throne should be assured” and accelerated negotiations to wed Alfonso to the Habsburg princess Maria Christina.

And not a moment too soon. When Alfonso died young of dysentery in 1885, Maria Christina was pregnant with what proved to be a posthumous son and heir.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Garrote,History,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Spain,Strangled

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1963: Tankeu Noé, Cameroon guerrilla

Add comment January 3rd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1963, Cameroon guerrilla Tankeu Noé

He had been a commander of rebels in Cameroon’s Littoral Province in the 1950s — fighting what was then a nationalist war against the French, who still held the central African territory as a colony.*

Cameroon attained independence in 1960 but Noé’s outlawed Marxist Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC) stayed outlawed, its leadership in exile. Cameroon’s post-colonial state looked a lot to the UPC like the colonial state: working hand in glove with the French military, both parties intent on crushing the militants. The new ruler of Cameroon, Ahmadou Ahidjo,** used the continuing fight against the insurgency to consolidate power in his own hands, eventually establishing a one-party state.

And the fight was exceptionally brutal, with mass forced resettlement and tens of thousands killed across the last years of French rule and the first years of “independence”. In one noteworthy incident in 1962, dozens of UPC fighters were asphyxiated after being packed together into a sealed train. When the Catholic archbishop publicized the incident and announced plans to say a requiem mass, Ahidjo promptly had him expelled.

Still fighting, Tankeu Noé was captured by the new boss/old boss joint military operations in 1963. Exploiting new powers arrogated that year to suppress regime opponents, the government had him shot in public in Douala, lashed to a power pole.

His movement was strangled over the ensuing years, effectively vanishing after the 1971 execution of Ernest Ouandie. It’s resurfaced as a legitimate political party in 1991 and has contested and sometimes won seats in various elections ever since.

* France had taken it from Germany after World War I.

** Ahidjo finally resigned for health reasons in 1982; within months, he would take exile refuge in France, pursued by an in absentia death sentence. He never returned to Cameroon; he was officially rehabilitated after his 1989 death in Senegal.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cameroon,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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2016: Nimr al-Nimr, Shiite cleric

Add comment January 2nd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 2016, Saudi Arabia beheaded Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr (familiarly known as Sheikh Nimr) — one of 47 executions carried out in 12 cities throughout the kingdom that included at least four political prisoners (one of them al-Nimr) as well as two foreign nationals.

A prominent dissident who became an emblem of resistance in his predominantly Shiite province of Al-Awamiyah*, al-Nimr had been arrested several times before without blunting his sharp tongue. “People must rejoice at his death,” he offered in June 2012, about the death of militant Wahhabist crown prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. “He will be eaten by worms and will suffer the torments of Hell in his grave.”

But here in the terrestrial sphere, Nayef’s death made Salman the crown prince … and queued up Salman’s son, Mohammad bin Salman to become the de facto ruler of the kingdom.

Al-Nimr was seized in July 2012, during crackdowns** on the 2011-2012 “Arab Spring” protests — shot in the leg during the course of his arrest and beaten bloody by his captors. This arrest itself brought thousands into the streets, at least two of whom were shot dead in their own turn as al-Nimr went on hunger strike. By the time al-Nimr was put up on charges in 2014, the aforementioned Mohammad bin Salman — “MbS” of dread popular parlance, infamous for his bonesaws — was well along his rise to power in Saudi Arabia as the hand and the heir who transacted the business of a dementia-addled prince.

Al-Nimr’s October 2014 death sentence for “seeking ‘foreign meddling’ in the kingdom, ‘disobeying’ its rulers and taking up arms against the security forces” drew worldwide condemnation and protests over the ensuing year, a year coinciding with MbS’s overt conquest of political power in Saudi Arabia.

The execution sparked global outrage of varying hues, most sharply from Shiite Iran, where angry protesters attacked the Saudi embassy: not the decisive event but emblematic of Saudi Arabia’s growing enmity with Iran that shapes regional conflicts from Yemen to Iraq to Syria.

* Adjacent to the similarly restive Sunni-ruled, Shiite-majority Gulf monarchy of Bahrain.

** Al-Nimr’s nephew, Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr, is still under a death sentence today that could be ratified by the sovereign at any time. He was arrested in February 2012 for anti-regime protests, when he was only 17 years old.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Activists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines,Saudi Arabia,Torture,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1829: Thomas Maynard, the last hanged for forgery

Add comment December 31st, 2019 Headsman

The last day of the 1820s marked the last hanging for forgery in Great Britain: that of Thomas Maynard, at London’s Newgate Prison.

Maynard was charged with two other men* for forging an order of His Majesty’s Customs to pay them £1,973. They got the money and for a few months had that blessed relief from the weight of penury and debt; one of the numerous witnesses in their case described how one of Maynard’s confederates “was in difficulties in the year 1828 … I saw him in June last, when he told me his wife had 700l.”

It must have been nice, but they weren’t quite quick enough about executing their plan to sail for America.

Although the sovereign himself was the victim in this instance, British juries had grown ever more reluctant in the early 19th century to impose capital punishment for faking a document to non-violently steal some money — although there were still 218 such executions over the first 30 years of the century.

The availability of the death penalty for such a deed was repealed in 1832.

* Joseph West, who was acquitted, and Richard Jones, who was convicted only as an accessory and transported to Australia.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Pelf,Public Executions

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1661: Jacques Chausson, “Great Gods, where is your justice?”

Add comment December 29th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1661, the French customs officer and writer Jacques Chausson (English Wikipedia entry | French) was burned at Paris’s Place de Greve for sodomy.

Chausson with another man, Jacques Paulmier, forced themselves upon a handsome 17-year-old aristocratic youth, “and [Chausson] while embracing him [the victim] undid the button of his pants at the same time, and then Paulmier began knowing him carnally, and committing with him the crime of sodomy. Having felt this, he began to shout and struggle, and then an old woman, working that day at the home of Mr. Petit, merchant and head of the house, came running.”

As we’ve noted before in these pages, Chausson entered French letters as the subject of verse by Claude le Petit, himself later executed, disdaining the hypocrisy of executing for a diversion widely practiced among the elites.

If we burned all those
Who do like them
In a very short time alas
Several lords of France
Great prelates of importance
Would suffer death.
Do you know the storm that rises
Against all good people?
If Chausson loses his case,
The arse (“le cu“) will not serve any more.
If Chausson loses his case,
The cunt (“le con”) will prevail.
I am this poor boy
Named Chausson
If I was roasted
At the flower of my age
It’s for the sake of a page
Of the Prince of Conde. [a bisexual lord -ed.]
If the bastard D’Assouci. [a raunchy poet who was possibly the lover of Cyrano de Bergerac -ed.]
Had been taken
He would have been roasted
In the flames
Like these infamous two
Chausson and Fabri.

That was written in the weeks between Chausson’s condemnation and his execution. Le Petit returned to the subject in evident disgust once the deed was done.

Friends, we burned the unfortunate Chausson,
That rascal so famous, with a curly head;
His death immortalized his virtue:
Never will we expire in a more noble way.
He sang cheerfully the lugubrious song
And bore without blanching the starched shirt,
And the hot fagots at the fiery stake,
He looked at death without fear or shudder.
In vain his confessor exhorted him in the flame,
The crucifix in hand, to think of his soul;
Then lying under the stake, when the fire had conquered him,
The infamous one towards the sky turned his foul rump,
And, to die finally as he had lived,
He showed his naughty ass to everyone.

Nor was this the only poet incensed by events. Taking note that yet another sexually flexible nobleman Guillaume de Guitaut was to be elevated on the subsequent New Year’s Day to the Order of the Holy Spirit, the poet Charles de Saint-Gilles Lenfant mused,

Grands Dieux! Quelle est vôtre justice?
Chausson va périr par le feu;
Et Guitaut par le même vice
A mérité le Cordon bleu.

Meaning …

Great Gods! Where is your justice?
Chausson is about to die in the fire;
And Guitaut for the same vice
Has deserved the Cordon bleu.

This quatrain can be heard in vocal recital in a brief Soundcloud clip here.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,History,Homosexuals,Public Executions,Sex

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1943: Four Aussie escapees, at the Hotel Tacloban

Add comment December 25th, 2019 Headsman

Christmas Day of 1943 witnessed the demoralizing beheadings of four Australian POWs in the Japanese camp near Tacloban on the Philippines island of Leyte.

This camp held Aussie and British war captives, but its definitive account titled The Hotel Tacloban* comes from the mouth of a lone American mixed in among them — witness to the cross-cutting tensions in this little world between the two nationalities, and between enlisted men and officers. Of notable import for this episode is the campwide resentment of the ranking British officer, one Major Roland Leeds Cumyns.

By the account of our American interlocutor, Cumyns “was the most arrogant, most conceited son-of-a-bitch I’d ever come across in my life; an impossible officer who was thoroughly convinced that God was an Englishman.” Worse, he embodied the class snobbishness of the privileged caste from whom British field officers were drawn and shamelessly aligned himself with the Japanese camp commandant Captain Yoshishito. The Australians in particular, for whom British class prerogatives were not imbibed with mother’s milk, abhorred him. “Pampered, primped and preened, the Major wholeheartedly believed that it was his manifest destiny to ascend to the pinnacle of his profession,” sneered our American observer, who fraternized mostly with the Aussies. “The Major took every opportunity to attend to his own creature comforts while flaunting his disdain for the plight of the Australians.”

On Christmas Eve, our four principals — names of Travis MacNaughton, Justice “Jassy” Colby, Larry Whitelam, and Tommy Philips, Aussies all — escaped from the Hotel Tacloban. Maybe they would have acted differently had they but known that the U.S. invasion of the Philippines would begin on the beaches of Leyte itself just ten months hence — but then again, ten months in this particular camp might have been worth the risk of one’s life. U.S. Army rangers who liberated the prisoners apparently wept to behold the “monstrous degradation” of their condition.

So thrilled that night by news of the breakout that the British and Australian sections competed in belting jovial renditions of “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and “Waltzing Matilda”, the camp by Christmas morning was tense with nervous anticipation. And as feared, right around daybreak, all four escapees were driven up on a flatbed truck, “badly beaten, blindfolded and bound in chains.” The entire camp was called to assemble for what came next, not excepting those in the infirmary who were carried out and propped up by their unwilling comrades, for “no ones was to be spared the executions.”

When everyone was present, Captain Yoshishito advanced and stood impassively beside the Major, both of their backs turned indifferently on the open space separating them from the four condemned Aussies on the back of the truck. With Yoshishito was the Executioner, a scabbard hanging from his hip, its tip dragging along the ground, the handle on the ceremonial sword itself almost a foot long and tucked up under his arm. Expressionless, their hooded eyes darting left and right, Yoshishito’s lieutenants stood poised and alert in front of Travis, Jassy, Larry and Tommy.

Tommy was reacting the worst; he’d gone completely to pieces. He was crying hysterically and had to be dragged kicking and screaming by the guards. Jassy and Larry were sobbing to themselves, struggling hard not to collapse. Travis was the only man who had not broken down. Standing ramrod straight, no sign of fear visible on his bearded face, he calmly asked that his blindfold be removed. The Major, with Captain Yoshishito’s approval, granted Travis’s request, and one of the Japanese officers untied it and pulled it off. And even though he stared directly into the rising sun, Travis didn’t blink. His eyes were glowing fiery red.

The guards separated the men four paces apart. They motioned for Travis to kneel in the dust with his head bent forward and he did so, without hesitation. The Executioner drew his sword and moved beside him. Dawn cast long shadows across the prison yard — the moment seemed arrested by the level sun.

I wanted to look away as I watched over the shoulder of the man standing in front of me, but there was some crazy compulsion to see. Try as I might, I couldn’t move my eyes from the blade on the ceremonial sword, which was long and slightly curved, but neither heavy nor thick nor ornate. Both hands on the hilt, the Executioner raised it above his shoulder, the sunlight momentarily glinting off the steel, then he brought it down.

I closed my eyes when he hit Travis — I couldn’t watch anymore after that — I just stood there with my eyes shut tight, hating myself and shivering inside, wanting desperately to cover my ears with my hands. But that wasn’t allowed, and three more times I heard that awful sound (the little bastards saved Tommy for last, for the devastating psychological effect), and then there was silence. Merciful silence. And in that absence of sound that followed the beheadings of Travis MacNaughton, Justice Colby, Larry Whitelam, and Tommy Philips, there wasn’t one man, Brit or Aussie, who didn’t know deep in his heart that the Major had to go. Speaking for every man there, Sgt. Major Goodhall, good soldier of the disgraced English Army, a man who’d been turned inside-out by his commanding officer’s treachery, a man who could no longer stand idly by while his honorable world crumbled around him, with utter contempt, turned and spit in the Major’s face.

Stunned speechless, his eyes blinking rapidly and his jaw muscle twitching uncontrolably, the Major quickly wiped the spittle away, then proceeded to strip Goodhall of his rank and ordered him placed under arrest. “Was there to be no end to the insults heaped upon him?” he seemed to be thinking. The man was insane.

Captain Yoshishito was astounded. It was inconceivable to him that ordinary soldiers of any army would demonstrate even the slightest hint of disrespect to their commanding officer. Such acts of defiance ate away at the very foundation upon which the chain of command is structured. Yoshishito stood there bewildered, regarding the situation with total disbelief — genuinely grieved that his brother officer, our lovely Major, had once again been publicly disgraced. Regaining his senses, Captain Yoshishito quickly signalled to his lieutenants, who selected eight Australians at random to dig graves and bury the dead. Then, speaking through a Filipino interpretor, he notified us that we were to be denied the right to conduct funeral services, that there would be no general issue of rice for the next two days, and that only the minimum water ration would be distributed, British officers excluded. The Australian officers were offered the same exemption, but flatly turned it down.

No one waited to be dismissed. Everyone just turned around and walked back to their huts.

The camp’s Aussie enlisted men drew straws the following morning for the responsibility of visiting their collective judgment on Major Cumyns. As night fell on Boxing Day, two of them garroted Cumyns in his tent, while their American adoptive comrade stood lookout.

* The Hotel Tacloban is by the American journalist Douglas Valentine, drawn from his conversations with (and primarily in the voice of) his father, the actual POW — also named Douglas Valentine. It’s a brief and compelling read, and it had an importance to the younger Valentine’s subsequent path quite surpassing the fact that it was his first book: Valentine’s empathetic portrayal of military men and the grim realities of war impressed CIA Director William Colby so much that Colby facilitated Valentine’s requested access to dozens of agents involved in the notorious Vietnam War-era assassination campaign, the Phoenix Program. The resulting interviews in turn led to Valentine’s still-essential tome The Phoenix Program and a subsequent career focus on the Agency which has produced (along with a great many articles) a book about intelligence coordination shaping the War on Drugs titled The Strength of the Pack, and the more recent volume, The CIA as Organized Crime. In Valentine’s own estimation, “Tacloban was key to unlocking the CIA’s door.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Japan,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Philippines,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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