Posts filed under 'Summary Executions'

1986: The Moiwana Massacre

Add comment November 29th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1986, during the opening months of a guerrilla war that would last until 1992, a 70-man detachment of Suriname soldiers raided the village of Moiwana, home of the rebel leader Ronnie Brunswijk, and massacred dozens of people.

Drawing made c. 1990 by an eight-year-old refugee of Moiwana. Image from Richard Price’s “The Killings in Suriname”, Cultural Anthropology, November 1995.

Sealing the roads, the team went house to house for four hours, torching houses and slaughtering any of the Ndyuka civilians who couldn’t escape into the surrounding jungle.

“Everyone was shot — the unarmed women, pregnant women, a baby barely seven months old,” goes the account in Memre Moiwana, a publication of the NGO Moiwana ’86. “No distinctions were made.” Some were mowed down with automatic weapons; others slashed to death with machetes. At least 38 people died, though various sources posit estimates running to upwards of 50.

In the weeks following, nearby Ndjuka villages in eastern Suriname shared a like fate, often bombarded by helicopters and finished off with bulldozers while death squads hunted suspected guerrillas. The U.S. State Department reported 244 Ndyuka people killed that December. A United Nations investigator entering the area months later reported that “no human being or living creature was seen apart from starving dogs in [one such town] Albina. The jungle vegetation had taken over the destroyed buildings.”

A police inspector named Herman Eddy Gooding who had the temerity to investigate these massacres while the guerrilla war was still ongoing was found mysteriously shot dead in 1990. (See Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial) In 2005, however, survivors of Moiwana won a suit against the army of Suriname before the Inter American Court of Human Rights.

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1512: Five young Ottoman princes

Add comment November 27th, 2015 Headsman

For many generations from the 14th to 17th centuries, new Ottoman heirs maintained themselves by the cruel practice of preventive fratricide.

Enforced at varying levels of systematicity, the destruction of the men best positioned to assert a claim of bloodline legitimacy against the new sultan might arguably have been one of the bulwarks of the empire’s prosperity. It insulated the Sultanate from protracted succession crises, civil war, and political fragmentation. With each generation’s passing, power coalesced into one man.

Precedent for this sanguine consanguity policy runs back at least to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, where the death of the sitting sultan resulted in the soldiers’ enforcing their acclamation of Bayezid I as his heir by putting to death the sultan’s brother Yakub.

The sagacity, if not the humanity, of Bayezid’s action was underscored in 1402 when Bayezid was captured in battle by the Timurids and the ensuing 11-year “Ottoman Interregnum” saw the empire strained near to breaking as brother fought brother for succession until Mehmed I emerged victorious in 1413. Having attained power by killing off three siblings, he got the nickname “Mehmed Kirisci” — “Bowstring Mehmed”, after the implement by which the mighty were strangled out of the Turkish game of thrones.

His grandson Mehmed II, the man who conquered Constantinople, formalized what had been simply wise practice into written law, e.g.:

And whoever of my children manages to reach the throne, it is fitting that he should kill his brothers, for the sake of the order of the world. Most of the ulema permit that. Let them act on that. (Source)

In Mehmed the Conqueror’s day, the child “managing to reach the throne” was the winner among the sons, who were posted to various regional outposts to earn their spurs in governance, in a scramble back to the Porte upon word of the old man’s death. This meant that in life, the boys were in a constant struggle for the privilege of central assignments and to nurture their own palace networks who when the day came could provide speedy notification of the impending succession and smooth recognition of a claim by the state apparatus. “The first son to reach the capital and win recognition by the court and the imperial troops became the new ruler,” Donald Quataert writes. “This was not a very pretty method; nonetheless it did promote the accession of experienced, well-connected, and capable individuals to the throne, persons who had been able to win support from the power brokers of the system.” The sitting sultans naturally put their own thumbs on the scale, too.

We are arriving, ever so circuitously, to the date’s honorees, and as one might suppose they were princes of the blood.

Come 1512, we find Mehmed the Conqueror’s son Bayezid II forcibly deposed by his son Selim. All those incentives favoring experienced, well-connected and capable individuals could also induce such a figure to take his advantage when it presented itself rather than awaiting the mischance of racing messengers. In Selim’s case, the father openly favored a different brother, Ahmet, so Selim and Ahmet were at each other’s throats (and dad’s too) well before Bayezid departed the scene.

Long story short, Selim got the kingmaking Janissaries on his side and lodged himself in the palace but his brother fought on against him. Selim would have to secure his power in 1512-1513 by an unusually thorough purge that set him up to earn the nickname “Selim the Grim”.*

Selim had seven brothers, five of whom were fortunate enough to predecease their father, and these seven brothers had collectively fathered nine sons of their own. Selim had quite a number possible rivals to dispose of.

In the months after his conquest of power, Selim wintered in Bursa, where he had interred five of his young nephews. (The other four nephews were all Ahmet’s sons, and still at large.) Some bout of fresh resistance by Ahmet induced Selim, on November 27, 1512, to do the grim thing:

The eldest of them, Osman, son of Prince Alemshah, was twenty years old; the youngest, Mahomet, son of Prince Schehinshah, was only seven. Selim sent Janissaries to apprehend them, and they were shut up by his orders in one apartment of the palace. On the next morning, the Sultan’s mutes entered to put them to death. A fearful scene ensued, which Selim witnessed from an adjoining chamber. The youngest of the captive princes fell on their knees before the grim executioners, and with tears and childish prayers and promises begged hard for mercy. The little Prince Mahomet implored that his uncle would spare him, and offered to serve him all the days of his life for an aspre (the lowest of all coins) a day. The elder of the victims, Prince Osman, who knew that there was no hope of mercy, rushed fiercely upon the murderers, and fought hard for a time against them. One of the mutes was struck dead, and another had his arm broken. Selim ordered his personal attendants to run in and assist in the execution; and at length the unhappy princes were overpowered by numbers, and strangled. Their bodies were deposited with all display of royal pomp near the sepulchre of Amurath II. (Source)

Six months later, Ahmet — defeated and in his own turn throttled with a bowstring — joined them in the same tomb.

* All told, Selim the Grim ordered something like 30,000 executions in his eight-year reign.

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1936: Ramiro Ledesma Ramos, Falangist

Add comment October 29th, 2015 Headsman

Falangist politician Ramiro Ledesma Ramos was executed on this date in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War.

Ledesma (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) launched the first fascist publication in Spain as a perspicacious 25-year-old admirer of Mussolini and Hitler.*

La Conquista del Estado — the expressive title was cloned from Curzio Malaparte‘s Italian fascist magazine — positioned Ramos as one of the leading apostles of the right in early 1930s Spain. Despite his youth, he’s been credited by later observers as one of the clearest, earliest intellectual exponents of fascism in Spain. Ledesma affiliated from the start with the Falangist movement Jose Primo de Rivera, and personally signed off on the party’s yoke-and-arrows logo and its motto “¡Arriba España!”

Spain’s Republican government had him detained in Madrid with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. With the fascist armies closing in on Madrid in late October, Ledesma was among dozens of political prisoners taken out and shot without trial at the cemetery of Aravaca.

* His philo-Hitlerism allegedly led Ledesma to imitate the Fuhrer’s flopover coiffure.

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1939: Operation Tannenberg public mass executions begin

Add comment October 20th, 2015 Headsman

This photo (from the German Bundesarchiv) captures an SS execution of Poles in Kornik just weeks into the German occupation of Poland in 1939, fruit of a pre-planned Nazi project to secure the new territory as lebensraum.

Operation Tannenberg (English Wikipedia entry | German | Polish) could be seen as a vanguard for the mind-boggling exterminations to come in subsequent years, cementing the army’s commitment to a campaign that extended well beyond territorial conquest. Alexander Rossino examines this understudied segment of World War II in Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity and contends that “the unlimited, almost nihilistic violence of the Wehrmacht” emerges first in these initial weeks of the Polish campaign, which proved a “transitional conflict” pivoting towards the more notorious atrocities to come. “The invasion of Poland thus occupies a crucial place in the history of Nazi Germany’s descent into mass murder and genocide.”

Drawn up by Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich and officially authorized on August 25, a week before Germany invaded Poland, Tannenberg intended to destroy Poland’s elites — from intelligentsia and nobility down to community priests and teachers, and the politically active across the spectrum from Communist to monarchist. The hope was to leave the subject nation supine, incapable of challenging Berlin’s designs on her future. Estimates I have seen vary widely but tens of thousands of Poles (with a liberal portion of Polish Jews) were shot by SS Einsatzgruppen units under Tannenberg even by the end of 1939, and kilings continued apace thereafter. Though not the literal first Operation Tannenberg Killings, the October 20-23 period marked the first public mass executions; a Polish-language list of the incidents and victims involved is available here.

The very name Tannenberg is a nationalist allusion to Germany’s time-immemorial rivalry with Poland; the original Battle of Tannenberg saw the rising Polish-Lithuanian empire defeat the Teutonic Knights, essentially breaking the latter as a European power. This defeat resonated in 20th century German national mythology not unlike the Battle of Kosovo for Serbia; in 1914, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg made himself a household name by smashing the Russians in a battle vaguely in the vicinity, and cannily christened it, too, the Battle of Tannenberg. (The Germans put up a monument to it which they felt obliged to tear down later in the war as they were being driven out of Poland.)

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1730: Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha, Tulip Era Grand Vizier

1 comment October 16th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1730, the Ottoman Grand Vizier Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha was deposed by strangulation.

Ibrahim Pasha (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish)* was the minister of Sultan Ahmed III; more than that, he was the sultan’s son-in-law.**

It was the Lâle Devri in Istanbul, whose great families thrilled to the voluptuary pleasures of tulips — a consumption conspicuous not only of wealth but of European affectation.†

Ibrahim himself was a great connoisseur of the fashionable bulb that defines his 1718-1730 administration as the “Tulip Period”. Arts and culture in the empire — there’s no other way to say it — flowered.

But neither horticulture nor family ties were safety in Istanbul when events required of the sultan a politically expedient purge.

For the mass of Turks unable to entertain French noblemen in their cultivated gardens, resentments both economical and cultural accumulated during in Tulip Period until they were discharged by a ham-handed tax imposition in 1730 into a huge mob rising. We have previously covered this revolt; suffice to say that it was briefly a mortal threat to which the ruling dynasty was obliged to sacrifice a few elites: an Albanian shopkeeper named Patrona Halil basically ruled Istanbul for a few weeks, and one of the concessions his angry supporters required of the sultan was the death of his son-in-law. Ahmed himself got off “easy” and was simply made to resign in favor of his nephew.

The end for Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha also meant the end of the Tulip Era; periodization aside, however, the flower does remain a popular Turkish symbol. (Even the word for tulip, Lale, is used as a feminine name.) They’re planted all over in present-day Istanbul, and bloom gloriously in the spring; Turkish Airlines also uses a stylized tulip as its logo.

* Not to be confused with the Damat Ibrahim Pasha who was Grand Vizier from 1596 to 1601, and still less with the Grand Vizier executed by Suleiman the Magnificent, Pargali Ibrahim Pasha.

** His wife Hatice Sultan wielded considerable power of her own; after her husband’s death and her father’s resignation, she played a leading role in statecraft for the government-averse successor sultan.

† This is, however, a century after the completely unrelated Dutch tulip mania. The flower is native to Anatolia, not to the Low Countries.

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1567: The Michelade of Nimes

Add comment September 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1567, Huguenots in revolt in Nimes put to death dozens of Catholics in a courtyard butchery to climax a massacre remembered as La Michelade (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed French)

This name of sinister memory derives from one of the church calendar’s great autumnal feast, Michaelmas — and the sword-arm of its titular archangel would have been required to keep the peace between the rival religionists in the Languedoc.

Nimes went heavily for the Protestants, with the region’s royal governors unable to restrain the conquest of Catholic neighborhoods and churches by the predominant Huguenots through the 1560s: “the very wind which blew upon Nimes breathed heresy,” in the words of Dumas.

The years running up to our events of 1567 feature one of the numerous rancorous truces pocking France’s intractable Wars of Religion: this one is known as the “Armed Peace”, which gives you an idea where everyone’s heads were at. And in Nimes, the heresy in the wind was not such as to prevent the restoration of Catholic authorities to control of the civic institutions — to the undoubted irritation of the Huguenot grandees who endured the indignity of displacement alongside the sure knowledge of the popular weight that supported them.

This ripening conflict appropriately came to fruition via a vegetable market at a city fair on Michaelmas — September 29, 1567 — where an altercation turned into a sectarian riot and soon transformed into a municipal Protestant insurrection.

Huguenots still maintaining the preponderance of force in Nimes, they perpetrated the expected outrages during the excitement: sacking the cathedral, murdering some particularly hated Catholics. But the overall organization of the Huguenots and the organized participation of the city’s Huguenot elites suggests a good deal of advance orchestration, and perhaps coordination with the Huguenot attempt to kidnap the king just days before.

In the disturbance, Nimes’s first consul Guy Rochette — Catholic, naturally — sought refuge in the palace of Bishop Bernard d’Elbene; a Huguenot captain forced the door and arrested them, confiscating from Rochette the keys to the city. Though the bishop managed to escape, other prominent Catholics were systematically detained, too. According to Allan Tulchin’s That Men Would Praise the Lord: The Triumph of Protestantism in Nimes, 1530-1570, “[i]t seems clear that the Protestant leadership intended to conduct a general roundup of Catholic lay and clerical leadership. Protestant forces targeted at least half of the sixteen men who had served as consul between 1564 and 1567 … of the nine Catholic members of the presidial, only two did not appear among the victims.”

Captive Catholics were detained in several buildings around the city, notably in the city hall. It is not known to what extent the kill lists to cull from these unfortunates were preordained and to what extent they were improvised in the moment, but on the night of September 30, summons for specific victims went out, and Protestant squads complied by dragging them out of the city hall basement or wherever else they were held to the courtyard of the bishop’s palace. This would be the makeshift abattoir.

In the narration of Dumas,

when night came the large number of prisoners so imprudently taken began to be felt as an encumbrance by the insurgent chiefs, who therefore resolved to take advantage of the darkness to get rid of them without causing too much excitement in the city. They were therefore gathered together from the various houses in which they had been confined, and were brought to a large hall in the Hotel de Ville, capable of containing from four to five hundred persons, and which was soon full. An irregular tribunal arrogating to itself powers of life and death was formed, and a clerk was appointed to register its decrees. A list of all the prisoners was given him, a cross placed before a name indicating that its bearer was condemned to death, and, list in hand, he went from group to group calling out the names distinguished by the fatal sign. Those thus sorted out were then conducted to a spot which had been chosen beforehand as the place of execution.

This was the palace courtyard in the middle of which yawned a well twenty-four feet in circumference and fifty deep. The fanatics thus found a grave ready-digged as it were to their hand, and to save time, made use of it.

The unfortunate Catholics, led thither in groups, were either stabbed with daggers or mutilated with axes, and the bodies thrown down the well. Guy-Rochette was one of the first to be dragged up. For himself he asked neither mercy nor favour, but he begged that the life of his young brother might be spared, whose only crime was the bond of blood which united them; but the assassins, paying no heed to his prayers, struck down both man and boy and flung them into the well. The corpse of the vicar-general, who had been killed the day before, was in its turn dragged thither by a rope and added to the others. All night the massacre went on, the crimsoned water rising in the well as corpse after corpse was thrown in, till, at break of day, it overflowed, one hundred and twenty bodies being then hidden in its depths.

Dumas is indulging poetic exaggeration of the scene, and later estimations of the number of victims range well below 120 — but Tulchin quotes a leather worker who saw the courtyard on the following day and described it as “all covered with blood and the water of the well all red.” Even “merely” twenty or thirty victims slashed to death would have been a gory work.

In the days following, Huguenots would cement their control of Nimes with the systematic pillage of churches and (after a six-week siege) the capture of the city’s royal garrison. There was no general massacre after the Michelade; in the main, Catholics were forced into submission or exile instead of the grave.

But the effusion, combined with Huguenot attacks further north, helped to trigger the (very brief) “Second War” within the Wars of Religion which gave way after a short truce to the much bloodier “Third War” of 1568-1570 … whose peace would be broken by a Catholic sectarian massacre much better remembered to history than the Michelade.

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1965: Kenneth Roraback and Rocky Versace, Vietnam War POWs

Add comment September 26th, 2015 Headsman

According to a UPI wire story from Saigon which ran in American newspapers beginning Monday, September 27,

The Viet Cong said they executed two American prisoners Sunday … Although the broadcast did not say so, the executions apparently were in retaliation for the deaths Thursday of three anti-American demonstrators. The demonstrators were convicted by a military tribunal of engaging in terrorist activities and put before a firing squad in a soccer stadium at Da Nang.

An earlier execution of a Viet Cong terrorist by the government June 24 brought an announcement from the Communists that they had executed Sgt. Harold G. Bennet[t], a captive from Arkansas.

The two men shot on September 26 — whose names are garbled in the initial news report, since “the names were received phonetically” — were Sgt. Kenneth Mills Roraback and Capt. Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace.

In 2002, Versace would be posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor — the first Vietnam War soldier so decorated on grounds of unwavering defiance as a POW.

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1914: Eugene Odent, the mayor of Senlis

Add comment September 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On the second of September in 1914, the mayor of Senlis, France, was shot by the occupying Germans in the opening weeks of World War I.

Detail view (click for the full image) of a map of the British Expeditionary Force’s retreat in northern France during the first days of World War I.

The beautiful ancient town, where the Carolingian dynasty met its end (King Louis V was killed in a hunting accident there in 987, enabling Hugh Capet to take the throne), unhappily found right in the path of the German army smashing its way towards Paris as France and her allies gave way.

German troops reached Senlis by the first of September, and overwhelmed the city in a minor battle.

On guard from the experience of being picked off by franc-tireur snipers during the Franco-Prussian War many years before, the Germans entered this urban skirmish with far more concern for the safety of their troops than for that of noncombatants. A number of civilians were seized for use as human shields by the Germans as they moved through the streets, and some others reportedly executed summarily. Numerous buildings were torched.

In doing all this, the occupying army considered itself entitled not to suffer the resistance of its new (if ever so temporary) subjects — indeed it insisted upon the point with lead. On September 2, the German firing squads shot several French civilians accused of firing at German soldiers. The French Wikipedia page on the affair gives these names:

  • Romuald-Emile Aubert, 52
  • Jean-Stanislas Barber, 66
  • Cottereau Arthur-Lucien, 17
  • Pierre Dewert, 45
  • Mégret Gabriel, 52
  • Jean-Baptiste Pommier, 67
  • Rigault Arthur, 61
  • Louis Simon, 36

Hours later, the town’s mayor Eugène Odent heroically shared their fate. He had been accused by the Germans of orchestrating “terrorist” civilian resistance — shuttering buildings for the convenience of snipers, failing to demand orderly submission from his neighbors, and generally inconveniencing the new boss. (Most of Senlis’s 7,000 residents had fled town ahead of the approaching attack, presumably shuttering up in the process.)

The stunning German attack seemed on the brink of capturing Paris at this point, but just days later the disordered French “miraculously” — it’s literally known as the Miracle of the Marne — threw the invaders back at the Battle of the Marne.

This battle crushed Berlin’s dream of a knockout victory and allowed the combatants to settle in for four bloody years of miserable trench warfare. It also enabled the French to recapture Senlis, whose horrors — Eugene Odent and all — were collected for early entry into the war’s annals of barbaric-Hun propaganda.

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1648: Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle, royalists

2 comments August 28th, 2015 Headsman

The Death of Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle, Monday, Aug. 28, 1648

By the old wall at Colchester,
With moss and grass o’ergrown,
The curious, thoughtful wanderer
Will note a small, white stone.
Tis sunken now — yet slight it not;
That stone can speak, and tell
A tale of blood; it marks the spot
Where Lisle and Lucas fell.

On earth there is no abject thing
So abject as a fallen king.
And Charles, despoiled, cashiered, discrowned,
In his own halls a captive bound,
Spurned, crushed by countless ills forlorn,
Drinks to the dregs the cup of scorn.

Yet in that hour of blank despair,
Lisle, Lucas, Capel, Compton dare
Their wrecks of shattered strength to call
To Colchester’s beleaguered wall;
Round Charles, in hope ‘gainst hope to cling
Proclaim, e’en yet, that Charles is king;
And one more mighty effort try
For honour, love, and loyalty.

Vain all the dauntless venture — vain
Their valour, piety, and pain.
Who in the field the foe repels
Grim Famine in the city quells.
The soldier, gaunt and staggering, crawls
From post to post along the walls;
With leaden eyes the townsmen meet,
Like spectres, in the howling street.
No bread within — without, the foe —
No friend, no succour nigh —
The leaguer closer drawn — they know
They needs must yield, or die.

They yield — and Fairfax, bloody heart!
Ere yet the shades of evening part,
Dooms to a sudden, felon grave
Lisle, Lucas, bravest of the brave;
And Ireton, in exultant glee,
Hastes on the murderous tragedy.

“Haste on the murderous tragedy!
Nor let them live another night,
Nor mother, sister, brother see;
Nor give them space to order right
Their souls to meet their Maker’s sight!”

One hour — brief respite! So to prayer,
Last refuge of the soul, they went —
To prayer, and blessed Sacrament;
And then rose up, refreshed, to bear
Whate’er of added scorn or sting
The circumstance of death might bring.

“Lead Lucas forth!” Forth Lucas came,
And on the files of musqueteers
Smiled as in scorn; in step and frame
No trembling, and in soul no fears.
But, as from fields of carnage wet,
He oft had marched to victory,
Though vanquished, fettered, doomed to die,
He stands the victor-hero yet;
And cried, “In battle’s stern embrace
Oft I and death met face to face;
See now in death I death defy,
And mark how Lucas dares to die.”

He bowed his knees a little space,
With clasped hands, and eyes lift up;
And craved of Jesu parting grace
To sweeten pain’s last bitter cup;
Then laid his bosom bare, and cried,
“I’m ready: rebels, do your worst;”
Fell on his face, and groaned, and died,
Pierced with four savage wounds accurst.

“Haste on the murderous tragedy!
Yea, howl aloud for victims more;
And with remorseless butchery,
Let Lisle be bathed in Lucas’ gore.”

He treads the stage of death, his eye
Glancing defiance round —
He sees his brother’s body lie
Stretched on the bloody ground.
Tis more than e’en a Lisle can bear —
The mighty heart gives way;
He weeps amain, and kneeling there
Beside his dead, in love’s despair
Kisses the lifeless clay;
And sobs his requiem: “Oh, my friend,
My brother, thou hast reached thy goal!
Christ is thy rest — Christ me defend;
My spirit with thy spirit blend,
Thou peerless and unspotted soul!”

Then stands erect, the anguish past;
And marks in lines the levelled gun —
“Come nearer, men.” “Nay,” answered one,
“Fear not, good Sir, we’ll hit you fast.”
“Ah!” cried the warrior, “oft in fight
Nearer to me than now ye came;
In field and fort, by day and night
I met you, and ye missed your aim.
And oh, how oft as well ye know,
In hottest blood and deadliest strife,
I checked my hand, and spared the blow,
And sheathed my sword, and gave you life.
I die content; my God shall bring
Grace for my soul’s anneal;
I die for faith, for Charles my King,
And for my country’s weal.”

With invocations loud and deep
On Jesu’s blessed name.
E’en as he prayed, he fell asleep
When the death-volley came.
Where Lucas fell, there Lisle lay dead —
They slept on one same gory bed.
One in their common death; in life
One in the same dread, glorious strife;
As one to live in honour high,
So one in mighty heart to die.
One grave contains the sacred dead —
Go, ponder there awhile;
Then say with pride, “My country bred
A Lucas and a Lisle.”

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1851: Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie lynched in San Francisco

1 comment August 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1851 — mere hours after a similar exercise of summary justice took place in Sacramento — the San Francisco Vigilance Committee strung up two accused crooks.

This was the throes of the California Gold Rush — and San Francisco was its epicenter.

San Francisco entered the gold rush an unassuming port of perhaps a thousand souls … but she exited it as one of the American West’s leading cities.

It made an unruly adolescence for the boom town as penniless treasure-hunters poured in from every quarter of the globe. “Turbulent, gold-hungry men,” wrote Herbert Asbury in his The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld “transformed the once peaceful hamlet of San Francisco into a bawdy, bustling bedlam of mud-holes and shanties.” Suddenly, San Francisco had a huge crime problem — not to mention the conflagrations* that repeatedly devastated the fast-growing tangle of tinderworks shacks.

San Francisco in 1850

In an effort to sustain some measure of order, a number of the city’s respectable citizens banded together to create a famous or infamous Vigilance Committee.

Sworn in their published constitution of June 9, 1851 “to do and perform every lawful act for the maintenance of law and order,” the Committee declared itself “determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption o the Police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice.”

Two days later, they proved their chops by hanging on no authority but their own emigre from Australia named John Jenkins for stealing a safe. A month later, James Stuart, also late of Sydney, was lynched at the Vigilance Committee’s hands, too.

Detail view (click for full image) of Whittaker and McKenzie’s lynching.

Though not the first Vigilance Committee hangings, Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie might be the best-known.

Like their predecessors, Whittaker and McKenzie had arrived from Australia** — which had aptly bequeathed to gold rush San Francisco a criminal colony of its own in the form of a network known as the Sydney Ducks. Scrambling to save his own neck, Stuart had informed on a number of these confederates.

Whittaker and McKenzie were arrested based on Stuart’s information, as the Vigilance Committee tried to smash up the Ducks. Though extrajudicial, the Committee’s investigations were at least as meticulous as one might expect from the law at this moment in time, and the minutes of its witness interviews can be read here.

In the end, the two were basically convicted not so much for any individual crime as for their lengthy careers of robbery, often violent — for “divers offences, whereby the safety of Lives and property have been endangered” (as read the executive report on Whittaker) that rendered each “a hardened offender, and dangerous to this community … it would be unsafe to hand him over to the Authorities or mete out to him a less Penalty than Death” (as read the report on McKenzie).

Such an arrangement of juridical powers, exercised in lieu of “unsafe” Authorities, can scarcely persist long-term. Here, the governor of California, John McDougall determined to intervene in order that the fracturing of the Australians’ vertebrae would also vindicate the majesty of the law.

McDougal arrived to San Francisco and secured a writ to seize the suspects from the Vigilance Committee’s hands, tucking them away in the county jail.

Although in principle this orderly and lawful prosecution of malefactors was exactly what the Committee wanted to see happen, Gov. McDougal’s intervention when they were on the brink of consummating their own process left everyone with a frustrating sensation of justice interruptus.

And so that next Sunday — August 24, 1851 — when prisoners were removed from their cells to a chapel for the salvation of their souls and the jail’s guard detail was reduced by the proportion of gendarmes attending services of their own, a party of 36 Vigilance Committee men barged into the jail, overpowered all concerned, and seized their prey.

“Never before was San Francisco so excited,” editorialized the Steamer Alta California (Sept. 1, 1851).

Through every street, in all directions, the hurrying crowd of humanity rushed with the utmost precipitation — no one knew whither, no one knew for what. The bell of the Vigilance Committee had sounded its alarum note — and instantly the streets were living, swaying masses of human beings — uncertainty and conflicting fears and hopes ruled the hour … with a sweep like the rushing of a torrent of lava they bend their course towards the Rooms of the Vigilance Committee. Almost instantly California street, Battery street, and all their approaches, are filled with one dense mass of human beings. From lip to lip the news flies that the two criminals, Mackenzie and Whittaker, have been taken by force from the jail, by an armed posse of the Vigilance Committee. On the eager and excited multitude press toward the Rooms. On, on, on — the crowd becomes denser and broader. Wonder is stamped on every face — a solemn, almost awful silence pervades the thousands who are anxiously gazing up at the building, when quickly the doors are opened — a moment of preparation — and the numberless multitude holds its breath as the two malefactors are seen suspended by the neck — a struggle or two, a spasmodic heaving of the chest — and each spectator feels a thrill of terror coursing his veins as he involuntarily utters — dead, dead, dead!

Yes, they were dead! The two men — Whittaker and Mackenzie — who were taken from the hands of the Vigilance Committee a few nights since, by virtue of a write of habeas corpus, had been torn from the ail by force, in the middle of the day, and at the risk of life, hurried to the Committee rooms, and executed without scarcely a moment’s preparation. It is a most terrible tragedy! Well, indeed, might one exclaim, “I have supped full with horrors!”

Such are the terrible effects of misrule — these are the fruits of maladministered laws — these the results of official corruption, neglect and malfeasance. Well may the patriotic and the good turn in sadness and grief from the contemplation of such horrors. The timid may shrink from beholding them — the quiet desire an end to them; but neither fear, regret, nor desire will accomplish our security. It must go abroad over the land that this community possesses the power and the will to protect itself against every species of wrong, and that it is resolved to do it at all hazards.

Whilst we regret that the Vigilance Committee have by this act, been brought into direct collision with the constituted authorities, we cannot but approve their course in executing the two criminals. This condition of affairs was not sought by the committee; it was rather forced upon them by the action of the authorities. True, the authorities acted rightly in rescuing the men; but the course they took has proved to be unnecessary and injudicious. No one doubts the guilt of the men executed, and no one believes but that they deserved the punishment they received. The Vigilance Committee felt this, and believing that the public welfare would be promoted by the act, they had resolved to execute Whittaker and Mackenzie. But the officers of the law, with unusual adroitness, prevented the decision from being carried into effect. The Vigilance Committee have now redeemed their honor, and carried out their original determination, by recapturing the prisoners and executing them. The line of division between the legitimate civil power and the Vigilance Committee is therefore plain, broad and unmistakable.

And what is to result? We see nothing disheartening or dispiriting in the prospect. On the contrary, we think we perceive that settled determination on the part of the body politic to have justice done, which is to be the great lever of our salvation. When crime is convinced, as it must now be, that nothing is capable of preserving it from speedy and avenging punishment — when the abandoned feel, as they will now feel, that there is no safety for them here — when all bad men shall understand, as they may now understand, that their unworthy acts will surely be visited with condign reward — then will the country rise above its tribulations and its sorrows.

But this is a dreadful storm! If we did not know the ship, the crew and the passengers, we might despair of our reaching port. As it is, we speak confidently. We feel that there is gloom around us, but there is nothing to alarm the honest and patriotic. The guilty may, and ought to, flee before the gale of popular indignation; but it is through such trials that our voyage is ultimately to become a prosperous and fortunate one. Through the watches of the night of darkness which now surrounds us, there is a gentle voice whispering “Be firm, be calm, be just, and the welcome daylight will soon come!”

The Vigilance Committee disbanded itself a few weeks later. Its last act in 1851† was to prevent the lynching of a sea captain by sailors angered at his brutality, an expression of class solidarity in the definition and punishment of crime as timeless as America herself. (Source)

* These fires were widely feared to be the product of arson motivated by the opportunity to loot. This is likely a reversal of cause and effect. One inclines here to reckon with Tolstoy that cities have a natural tendency to kindling fire, and those fires are liable to blaze out of control in inverse proportion to the city’s administrative faculties.

The late San Francisco police officer and amateur historian Kevin Mullen puts together an argument here that merchants opportunistically torching excess stock to sustain gold rush price gouging was also a contributing factor.

** Both men were born in England; many of the Sydney Ducks hailed originally from the British Isles.

† Like Batman, the Vigilance Committee later emerged from retirement to fight crime again, in 1856.

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