Posts filed under 'Summary Executions'

756: Yang Guifei, favored concubine

Add comment July 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 756, the imperial consort Yang Guifei was expediently executed during the An Lushan Rebellion.

The Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, whose beloved concubine Yang was, undertook this cruel extremity only in great duress. Initially married to one of the emperor’s sons, Yang so enamored the emperor that he usurped the prince’s place and got the kid a different wife. In the c. 800 classic poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” the poet Bai Juyi mused on the smitten sovereign rushing headlong into waiting tragedy.

The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.
Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty,a
All his gifts were devoted to one person.

Indeed, over the 740s Yang’s relations rose at court on the strength of her hold over the emperor, causing no few resentments among courtiers now obliged to flatter them. She’s been cast as a femme fatale, a siren whose chords called the emperor to capsize his own ship of state.

The general An Lushan was the rock of his ruin. Though An Lushan’s revolt would one day claim Yang’s life, he was a great favorite of hers and eventually adopted as Yang’s son; it was whispered that the imperial gifts showered on this commander might reflect favor with the concubine quite surpassing the bounds of propriety.

The most important favor was command of all northern China’s garrisons, with 150,000-plus troops.

His influence (and the fact that he was not ethnically Han, but of Turkic and Iranic extraction) made him rivals at the imperial court, even including the concubine Yang’s cousin, chancellor Yang Guozhong.

One can speculate as to who suspected whom first, but as we’ve seen with the Roman Empire a sufficiently strong inducement to treachery inevitably becomes tantamount to the real thing: eventually one’s intemperate supporters or implacable enemies will cast the die for even the most retiring general. An Lushan was Caesar enough to cross the Tang’s Rubicon, which for him was the Yellow River, above which his armies had been confined.

In the winter of 755-756, An crossed this river and marched towards Chang’an (Xi’an, then the imperial capital and the world’s most populous city), styling himself the Emperor of Yan. This aspirant state proved far from durable, and vanished by 763 — but by the time that long term had come into view, all of our principal characters were dead.

Yang Guifei was the first of them. (Plenty of secondary characters — generals, eunuchs, rivals and family of rivals — were being put to death all along and well before Yang, of course.) As the rebel army advanced on the capital, Xuanzong and his court fled in panic, Yang included. One day’s march further inland towards Chengdu, the royal guards themselves rebelled. Embittered like many others by the sway Yang and her family held — and blaming the consort for the ignominious retreat they were embarked upon — the soldiers refused to proceed without Yang’s execution. Xuanzong had little choice under the circumstances but to assent to her summary strangulation.

The Son of Heaven made good his escape, and his kingdom prevailed in the fight. (An was assassinated in 757.) Xuanzong himself, however, had to abdicate in favor of his son before the chaotic summer was out, and lived out his last five years as Taishang Huang, “Retired Emperor”.

One can only guess at the regrets he had in those days for the beloved mistress sacrificed to the safety of his person and throne. It’s a circumstance that has become a staple of Chinese literature over the centuries since, from the aforeentioned Bai Juyi right down to the present day, in every medium imaginable.

In Bai’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”, the bereft former emperor at last sends a Taoist priest to the heavens in search of his lost love, whose spirit has not even appeared to him in a dream. Yang Guifei sends the messenger back with a last pledge of sundered love:

“Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments,
Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again.”
And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him
of their midnight vow, secret between them.
“On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver,
In the silent Palace we declared our dream was
To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing,
To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.”

Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days.
But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.

Yang Guifei’s tomb remains a popular tourist destination to this date.

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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,China,Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Myths,No Formal Charge,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Power,Sex,Strangled,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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1944: Ferruccio Nazionale, Ivrea partisan

Add comment July 9th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the fascist frogman unit Decima Mas Flottiglia MAS (English Wikipedia link | Italian) executed and publicly gibbeted the partisan Ferruccio Nazionale in Ivrea.


The placard around his neck claims the hanged man “made an armed attack on the Decima.”

The square where he’s hanging in these images is today named in his honor — Piazza Ferruccio Nazionale.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Italy,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1914?: K., in Kafka’s The Trial

Add comment July 2nd, 2014 Headsman

This date, the second of July, would in 1914 have been the eve of the thirty-first birthday of Franz Kafka, so it seems a fit occasion — shall we call it the centennial? — to mark the death of the the character “Josef K.” in Kafka’s great novel The Trial. In this captivating work — it does not feel sufficient to call it a dystopia of the emerging bureaucratic state, although this story surely helped as much as any other to put the word Kafkaesque in the dictionary — K. has spent the whole novel since his arrest on his 30th birthday grappling with an absurd trial on charges he is never told and upon evidence he cannot know.

In the last, two insipid functionaries arrive at K.’s apartment to whisk him away to his death.

Historically, Kafka began this book in August 1914, a few weeks yet from our spurious dating. It was only published in 1925 — posthumously.


Chapter Ten: End

The evening before K.’s thirty-first birthday — it was about nine o’clock in the evening, the time when the streets were quiet — two men came to where he lived. In frock coats, pale and fat, wearing top hats that looked like they could not be taken off their heads. After some brief formalities at the door of the flat when they first arrived, the same formalities were repeated at greater length at K.’s door. He had not been notified they would be coming, but K. sat in a chair near the door, dressed in black as they were, and slowly put on new gloves which stretched tightly over his fingers and behaved as if he were expecting visitors. He immediately stood up and looked at the gentlemen inquisitively. “You’ve come for me then, have you?” he asked. The gentlemen nodded, one of them indicated the other with the top hand now in his hand. K. told them he had been expecting a different visitor. He went to the window and looked once more down at the dark street. Most of the windows on the other side of the street were also dark already, many of them had the curtains closed. In one of the windows on the same floor where there was a light on, two small children could be seen playing with each other inside a playpen, unable to move from where they were, reaching out for each other with their little hands. “Some ancient, unimportant actors — that’s what they’ve sent for me,” said K. to himself, and looked round once again to confirm this to himself. “They want to sort me out as cheaply as they can.” K. suddenly turned round to face the two men and asked, “What theatre do you play in?” “Theatre?” asked one of the gentlemen, turning to the other for assistance and pulling in the corners of his mouth. The other made a gesture like someone who was dumb, as if he were struggling with some organism causing him trouble. “You’re not properly prepared to answer questions,” said K. and went to fetch his hat.

As soon as they were on the stairs the gentlemen wanted to take K.’s arms, but K. said “Wait till we’re in the street, I’m not ill.” But they waited only until the front door before they took his arms in a way that K. had never experienced before. They kept their shoulders close behind his, did not turn their arms in but twisted them around the entire length of K.’s arms and took hold of his hands with a grasp that was formal, experienced and could not be resisted. K. was held stiff and upright between them, they formed now a single unit so that if any one of them had been knocked down all of them must have fallen. They formed a unit of the sort that normally can be formed only by matter that is lifeless.

Whenever they passed under a lamp K. tried to see his companions more clearly, as far as was possible when they were pressed so close together, as in the dim light of his room this had been hardly possible. “Maybe they’re tenors,” he thought as he saw their big double chins. The cleanliness of their faces disgusted him. He could see the hands that cleaned them, passing over the corners of their eyes, rubbing at their upper lips, scratching out the creases on those chins.

When K. noticed that, he stopped, which meant the others had to stop too; they were at the edge of an open square, devoid of people but decorated with flower beds. “Why did they send you, of all people!” he cried out, more a shout than a question. The two gentleman clearly knew no answer to give, they waited, their free arms hanging down, like nurses when the patient needs to rest. “I will go no further,” said K. as if to see what would happen. The gentlemen did not need to make any answer, it was enough that they did not loosen their grip on K. and tried to move him on, but K. resisted them. “I’ll soon have no need of much strength, I’ll use all of it now,” he thought. He thought of the flies that tear their legs off struggling to get free of the flypaper. “These gentleman will have some hard work to do”.

Just then, Miss Bürstner came up into the square in front of them from the steps leading from a small street at a lower level. It was not certain that it was her, although the similarity was, of course, great. But it did not matter to K. whether it was certainly her anyway, he just became suddenly aware that there was no point in his resistance. There would be nothing heroic about it if he resisted, if he now caused trouble for these gentlemen, if in defending himself he sought to enjoy his last glimmer of life. He started walking, which pleased the gentlemen and some of their pleasure conveyed itself to him. Now they permitted him to decide which direction they took, and he decided to take the direction that followed the young woman in front of them, not so much because he wanted to catch up with her, nor even because he wanted to keep her in sight for as long as possible, but only so that he would not forget the reproach she represented for him. “The only thing I can do now,” he said to himself, and his thought was confirmed by the equal length of his own steps with the steps of the two others, “the only thing I can do now is keep my common sense and do what’s needed right till the end. I always wanted to go at the world and try and do too much, and even to do it for something that was not too cheap. That was wrong of me. Should I now show them I learned nothing from facing trial for a year? Should I go out like someone stupid? Should I let anyone say, after I’m gone, that at the start of the proceedings I wanted to end them, and that now that they’ve ended I want to start them again? I don’t want anyone to say that. I’m grateful they sent these unspeaking, uncomprehending men to go with me on this journey, and that it’s been left up to me to say what’s necessary”.

Meanwhile, the young woman had turned off into a side street, but K. could do without her now and let his companions lead him. All three of them now, in complete agreement, went over a bridge in the light of the moon, the two gentlemen were willing to yield to each little movement made by K. as he moved slightly towards the edge and directed the group in that direction as a single unit. The moonlight glittered and quivered in the water, which divided itself around a small island covered in a densely-piled mass of foliage and trees and bushes. Beneath them, now invisible, there were gravel paths with comfortable benches where K. had stretched himself out on many summer’s days. “I didn’t actually want to stop here,” he said to his companions, shamed by their compliance with his wishes. Behind K.’s back one of them seemed to quietly criticise the other for the misunderstanding about stopping, and then they went on. The went on up through several streets where policemen were walking or standing here and there; some in the distance and then some very close. One of them with a bushy moustache, his hand on the grip of his sword, seemed to have some purpose in approaching the group, which was hardly unsuspicious. The two gentlemen stopped, the policeman seemed about to open his mouth, and then K. drove his group forcefully forward. Several times he looked back cautiously to see if the policeman was following; but when they had a corner between themselves and the policeman K. began to run, and the two gentlemen, despite being seriously short of breath, had to run with him.

In this way they quickly left the built up area and found themselves in the fields which, in this part of town, began almost without any transition zone. There was a quarry, empty and abandoned, near a building which was still like those in the city. Here the men stopped, perhaps because this had always been their destination or perhaps because they were too exhausted to run any further. Here they released their hold on K., who just waited in silence, and took their top hats off while they looked round the quarry and wiped the sweat off their brows with their handkerchiefs. The moonlight lay everywhere with the natural peace that is granted to no other light.

After exchanging a few courtesies about who was to carry out the next tasks — the gentlemen did not seem to have been allocated specific functions — one of them went to K. and took his coat, his waistcoat, and finally his shirt off him. K. made an involuntary shiver, at which the gentleman gave him a gentle, reassuring tap on the back. Then he carefully folded the things up as if they would still be needed, even if not in the near future. He did not want to expose K. to the chilly night air without moving though, so he took him under the arm and walked up and down with him a little way while the other gentleman looked round the quarry for a suitable place. When he had found it he made a sign and the other gentleman escorted him there. It was near the rockface, there was a stone lying there that had broken loose. The gentlemen sat K. down on the ground, leant him against the stone and settled his head down on the top of it. Despite all the effort they went to, and despite all the co-operation shown by K., his demeanour seemed very forced and hard to believe. So one of the gentlemen asked the other to grant him a short time while he put K. in position by himself, but even that did nothing to make it better. In the end they left K. in a position that was far from the best of the ones they had tried so far. Then one of the gentlemen opened his frock coat and from a sheath hanging on a belt stretched across his waistcoat he withdrew a long, thin, double-edged butcher’s knife which he held up in the light to test its sharpness. The repulsive courtesies began once again, one of them passed the knife over K. to the other, who then passed it back over K. to the first. K. now knew it would be his duty to take the knife as it passed from hand to hand above him and thrust it into himself. But he did not do it, instead he twisted his neck, which was still free, and looked around. He was not able to show his full worth, was not able to take all the work from the official bodies, he lacked the rest of the strength he needed and this final shortcoming was the fault of whoever had denied it to him. As he looked round, he saw the top floor of the building next to the quarry. He saw how a light flickered on and the two halves of a window opened out, somebody, made weak and thin by the height and the distance, leant suddenly far out from it and stretched his arms out even further. Who was that? A friend? A good person? Somebody who was taking part? Somebody who wanted to help? Was he alone? Was it everyone? Would anyone help? Were there objections that had been forgotten? There must have been some. The logic cannot be refuted, but someone who wants to live will not resist it. Where was the judge he’d never seen? Where was the high court he had never reached? He raised both hands and spread out all his fingers.

But the hands of one of the gentleman were laid on K.’s throat, while the other pushed the knife deep into his heart and twisted it there, twice. As his eyesight failed, K. saw the two gentlemen cheek by cheek, close in front of his face, watching the result. “Like a dog!” he said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him.

The Trial can be enjoyed (if that’s the right word) in a public domain English translation here.

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1340: Nicholas Behuchet, Battle of Sluys naval commander

Add comment June 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1340, the English and French fought an early naval engagement of the Hundred Years’ War: the Battle of Sluys.

The English won the battle … and the French admiral wound up hanging from a mast.

At the outset of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, the French bossed the Channel and inflicted devastating sea raids on the English coast. In the long war’s first major battle at sea, a French fleet in September 1338 overwhelmed an English flotilla carrying valuable English wool to the Low Countries.

Nicholas Behuchet, one of the French commanders at this earlier battle, did not hesitate to massacre his prisoners.

Thus conquering did these said mariners of the king of France in this winter take great pillage, and especially they conquered the handsome great nef called the Christophe, all charged with the goods and wool that the English were sending to Flanders, which nef had cost the English king much to build: but its crew were lost to these Normans, and were put to death.

England’s allies were in the Low Countries, so too many battles like this stood to strangle the English cause in the crib. For near two years, French privateers had leave to ravage the English coast, while French troops overran Flanders and made the English Queen Philippa* hostage.

Seeking a breakout, King Edward III requisitioned English merchant cogs — there was no standing navy at the time — into a fleet of perhaps 160 or 200 vessels, heavy with soldiers to invade Flanders.

On June 24, two days after setting out from the Orwell estuary at Ipswich, Edward’s armada boldly fell upon a larger French fleet anchored at the Flanders port of Sluys.

The medieval chronicler Froissart’s account makes for riveting reading.** This was no stately ballet of seamanship but a gory close-quarters melee: as was characteristic for the time, the “sea” battle was mostly just about coming together for the respective fleets’ marines to board one another’s ships and murder anyone on board who wasn’t worth a ransom. The French admiral Behuchet lashed his ships together across the mouth of the harbor, a sort of floating breastwork that would enable the French soldiery to shimmy up and down the entire line no matter where the English focused their attack.

To the sound of “scores of trumpets, horns and other instruments,”

Fierce fighting broke out on every side, archers and crossbowmen shooting arrows and bolts at each other pell-mell, and men-at-arms struggling and striking in hand-to-hand combat. In order to come to closer quarters, they had great iron grappling-hooks fixed to chains, and these they hurled into each others’ ships to draw them together and hold them fast while the men engaged. Many deadly blows were struck and gallant deeds performed, ships and men were battered, captured and recaptured. The great ship Christopher [a large English cog previously captured by the French and situated in the French front row -ed.] was recovered by the English at the beginning of the battle and all those on board were killed or taken prisoner …


An illustration of the Battle of Sluys from Froissart’s chronicle. Note the mast of the ship at far left: it displays the English arms quartered with the French, Edward III’s heraldic assertion of sovereignty over both realms.

It was indeed a bloody and murderous battle. Sea-fights are always fiercer than fights on land, because retreat and flight are impossible. Every man is obliged to hazard his life and hope for success, relying on his own personal bravery and skill … [it] rage[d] furiously from early morning until afternoon, during which time there were many notable feats of arms and the English were hard put to it to hold their own, since they were opposed by hardened soldiers and seamen, who outnumbered them by four to one.

Edward III took an arrow or crossbow bolt to the leg — great-man historical legend has it that it was fired by Nicholas Behuchet himself — but captained his flotilla to an overwhelming victory, capturing most of the French ships and destroying the French, their Genoese allies, “and all who were with them … [they were] killed or drowned, not a single one escaping in the general slaughter.” Poetic license aside, it was a spectacular triumph for the English — and a crushing defeat for the French.†

In the 1596 play Edward III, which might have been co-written by Shakespeare, imagined the scene in the report of an escaped mariner:

Purple the sea, whose channel filled as fast
With streaming gore that from the maimed fell
As did the gushing moisture break into
The crannied cleftures of the through-shot planks.
Here flew a head dissevered from the trunk,
There mangled arms and legs were tossed aloft
As when a whirlwind takes the summer dust
And scatters it in middle of the air.
Then might ye see the reeling vessels split
And tottering sink into the ruthless flood,
Until their lofty tops were seen no more.

Let it not be said that in this instance the commander escaped the consequences of his folly. Behuchet, who insisted against advice on lashing the boats together and thereby sacrificed all maneuverability, didn’t have much room for maneuver himself when the victorious English hanged him at battle’s end from the mast of his own ship.

* Seen elsewhere in these pages successfully begging her husband’s pardon of the famed Six Burghers of Calais later in the war. Philippa was a homegrown native of the Low Countries, and her marriage to Edward III reflects the alliance between their respective regions.

** For a snappy modern gloss on the battle, check this excerpt of Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England.

It is said that no courtier dared give King Philip VI of France the horrifying news until a jester availing his station’s license for cheek informed him that “Our knights are much braver than the English.” Asked why, the fool replied, “The English do not dare jump into the sea in full armour.”

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Lawyers,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1979: Bill Stewart, ABC News reporter

Add comment June 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1979, the American Broadcasting Company journalist Bill Stewart was executed at a somocista checkpoint during Nicaragua’s bloody civil war.

And what is more, the deed was caught on film — pre-emptively balking the crumbling Nicaraguan dictatorship of the ability to, say, blame the killing on the Sandinista rebels.

Warning: This is the execution footage.

Stewart was stopped in a marked press vehicle in Managua, ordered to lie down, and then kicked and shot through the head while colleagues looked on. Though his summary execution by national guardsmen was taped by fellow journos in the convoy, the reasons for it are well into the fog of war: even the identity of the guardsman who pulled the trigger isn’t known. (The commander of the roadblock would claim that it was a “Private Gonzalez” who conveniently died in combat later the very same day.) The immediate “investigation” promised by dictator Anastasio Somoza didn’t really have much chance to get off the ground before Somoza himself had to take to the skies fleeing, on July 17, the collapse of his own regime. Whether the executioner also escaped the revolution, fled into exile, became a Contra guerrilla, or actually did die in the fighting, only God can say.

“The murder of American newsman Bill Stewart in Nicaragua was an act of barbarism that all civilized people condemn,” said U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who of course was backing Somoza.* “Journalists seeking to report the news and inform the public are soldiers in no nation’s army. When. they are made innocent victims of violence and war, all people who cherish the truth and believe in free debate pay a terrible price.”

Stewart’s career and murder are a principal inspiration for the 1983 film Under Fire.

* Or more precisely by this point, backing Somocismo sin Somoza — ease out the unpopular Somoza but keep the same system.

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1972: Sanong Phobang, Thanoochai Montriwat, and Jumnian Jantra

Add comment June 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1972, three hardened criminals were shot at Bangkok for a savage stabbing murder.

We turn for the particulars here to The Last Executioner, the memoirs of Thailand’s last prison executioner, Chavoret Jaruboon. We’ve posted about him before.

Our setting in 1972 finds Thailand under martial law, an especially nasty interlude during the “three tyrants” era when the dictatorial government had been overthrown from within and was ruling by decree.

One of those decrees came down for Sanong Phobang, Thanoochai Montriwat, and Jumnian Jantra just days after they were arrested for a shocking crime: in the course of trying to pick a woman’s pocket at a bus stop, they’d turned on a bystander who noticed the crime and shouted at the woman to look sharp. The infuriated trio boarded the departing bus, trapped the good Samaritan, and stabbed him to death.

Upon determining that the guys were violent career criminals, the authorities just sent an order to have them summarily shot. Snap executions on executive authority were common in this year.

The criminals heard the execution order read only immediately before the sentence was carried out, although by that time they had inferred their fate from the fact that they had been driven to the death house. (And been given a few moments to write their families. We’re not dealing with monsters here!)

We join our executioner’s narrative, noting that at this early stage in his career he was not yet the man who shot the prisoners, but an “escort” on the execution team who readied the prisoners for the executioner.

Suddenly it hit the three of them that this was it. Thanoochai fell out of his chair and screamed for mercy.

“Please don’t kill me sir. Let me see my mother first, she knows people, let her help me, please let me see her!”

The prisoners hugged each other and cried like children.

… at 5.25pm the other escort and myself led Jumnian out of the tower and over to the execution room. Nobody spoke. I think I half expected him to faint but he didn’t. He had resigned himself to his fate and was like ‘a dead man walking’. We had blindfolded him at the gazebo and when we reached the room we firmly secured him to the cross … Mui [the executioner] readied himself over the Bergmann [MP 34/1] and waited for the flag to drop. He fired one shot, which sent eight bullets into Jumnian’s back. He died instantly.

I headed back with the other escort to collect Thanoochai. He blanched when he saw us but didn’t try to resist as we brought him out of the tower. However, all hell broke out at the execution room. He shocked me by suddenly tearing off the blindfold and shouting out for his mother. He kept insisting that his mother be allowed to see him as she could save him because of who she knows, and implored us not to kill him. All the time he was shouting his pleas his eyes roved around wildly searching for his mother but of course she wasn’t there. She was probably in her kitchen praying for him. The staff just stood there staring at him in horror. He really seemed to think his mother was going to appear and save him.

Then he remembered his friend who had gone before him and began to call out for Jumnian.

“Nian! Are you in there? Answer me man. Do you hear me? Answer me you asshole. Are you dead? Why don’t you answer me?”

The silence was almost cruel, as if he was being taunted in his madness on top of everything else … Thanoochai realised that Jumnian would never reply to his shouts, followed by the realisation that it was also too late for him. He crumpled to the floor in front of the execution room, surrounded by staff, and began to cry quietly. … All his fight had gone now, but he still had not lost hope. As we half dragged, half carried him into the room, he still called out for his mother;

“Please help me Mom, please help me.”

… It took four of us to get him standing in front of the cross … I pushed my knee into his back to force him against the cross so that we could bind him to it. One guy tied his hands up around the cross; another guy tied his weight while the other escort and I tried to stop his squirming. Only when he was completely secure did he finally shut up.

At 5.40pm Mui fired 12 bullets into Thanoochai.

… [after the third, more routine, execution] the room stank of blood, sweat and gun powder. There was a lot of blood from each of the men all over the floor and the sand bags. Unfortunately the floor is never cleaned immediately after a shooting. Sand is just thrown down to blot up the puddles and left there overnight for the inmates, who are in charge of the room, to tidy up the following morning.

At this point, Chavoret Jaruboon muses on the spookiness of the execution cell and the belief among some members of the team that the spirits of the shot haunt the place.

The next morning, he tells of being visited by the mother of the panicked Thanoochai Montriwat, who related a dream:

I dreamt about my son last night. He was crying and when I asked him why he didn’t answer. He just stood there and then blood started to ooze out of every part of his body … He told me he lost his shoes and asked me to get them back. He just kept repeating that. I don’t really understand but I’m afraid he won’t be able to rest in peace, which is why I need your help.

Sure enough, one of the prisoners tasked with tidying up the bodies for delivery to the Buddhist temple had taken Thanoochai’s shoes for himself. Thailand’s future last executioner had them retrieved and delivered to the grieving mother.

She was a good woman and kept begging her son’s victims to see into their hearts if they could forgive her son. She was going to cremate the body and wanted Thanoochai to feel in the consuming flames, the goodness and forgiveness emanating from everyone he had hurt which would fill him with regret and sorrow for his criminal ways. A parent’s love can be the purest love there is; no matter what a child does he is forgiven and still fiercely loved.

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1628: John Lambe murdered

Add comment June 13th, 2014 Headsman

Here Dr Lambe, the conjurer lyes,
Against his will untimely dies
The Divell did show himselfe a Glutton
In taking this Lambe before he was mutton
The Divell in Hell will rost him there
Whome the Prentises basted here.
In Hell they wondred when he came
To see among the Goats a Lambe.

-Libel (one of many) on John Lambe’s murder

Friday the 13th of June in 1628 bore foul luck for John Lambe, an aged astrologer, magician, and folk healer so hated of Londoners that a mob fell on him as he returned from theater this evening and butchered him in the street.

While we hope to justify Lambe’s presence in these pages under our going interest in lynchings, his curious homicide transgresses the boundaries of Executed Today as surely as did Lambe transgress those of Stuart London.

North of 80 at the time of his death — although still vigorous enough at that age to defend himself with a sword — Lambe came to misfortunate public notoriety in the 1620s. These were crisis years when the crown sowed the dragon’s teeth that would in later years devour Charles I. Lambe’s slaughter was a little taste of worse to come.

Sources from the period view Lambe as both a shameless fraud and a vile wizard, with no consistency save between the propositions save for their vitriol. Lambe seems like he got the worst of both perceptions at once: he faced a 1619 complaint to the Royal College of Physicians that he was a “mountebank and impostor.” [sic] Three years after that, he was in the dock for witchcraft

What Lambe did do was beat two charges in as many years that could easily have hanged him: the aforementioned witchcraft case in 1622, and a rape charge in 1624. Evidence in either case was underwhelming, but the charges themselves were incendiary; Lambe’s knack for slithering out of the hangman’s grasp must have suggested for the man on the street a channel to sinister higher powers.

Commoners bestirred themselves about this time against the realm’s own higher powers — the politically ham-fisted new king Charles and his grapples with Parliament to secure sufficient tax revenue for his inept war with France and Spain.

In all this mess, the Duke of Buckingham — royal favorite and possible lover of Charles’s father — was the number two man in the kingdom, and the number one object of hate.

In the mid-1620s, Lambe became conjoined in the public eye with Buckingham — as Buckingham’s demon-summoning henchman, say. Was it the Duke’s pull that spared his familiar the noose? Was it Lambe’s necromancy that captured the king in the thrall of his detested aide?

Did it even matter?

From the distance of centuries the particulars of the supposed affiliation between the two seems difficult to establish,* but it sufficed for Lambe’s death (and Buckingham’s too) that they were analogues for one another, that their respective villainies could be multiplied one atop the other.

Despite all that tinder lying around, we don’t know the exact spark for Lambe’s murder on June 13, 1628. A few months before, Buckingham had fled a humiliating military defeat in France; Parliament and King were at loggerheads that June, forcing the reluctant Charles to accede to a Petition of Right on June 7 that remains to this day a bedrock document of Britons’ liberties.

On the 13th, Lambe was recognized by “the boyes of the towne, and other unruly people” attending a play at the Fortune Playhouse.

As he left it, some began to follow him. Maybe it was just one insult too tartly answered that multiplied these hooligans, or maybe there was a ready rabble that immediately took to his heels. The frightened Lamb picked his way to the city walls menaced all the way by his lynch mob, hired a few soldiers as an ad hoc bodyguard, and by the dark of night tried desperately to find some sort of shelter from the crowd growing in both number and hostility. Under the mob’s threat, a tavern put him out, and a barrister likewise; his guards fled their posts; and someone at last laid his hands on John Lambe. By the time the frenzy had passed, Lambe’s “skull was broken, one of his eyes hung out of his head, and all parties of his body bruised and wounded so much, that no part was left to receive a wound.” Many contemporaries must have understood it as the just punishment that courts could not manage to exact.


Woodcut of the assault on Lambe outside the Windmill Tavern, from the title page of A Briefe Description of the Notorious Life of Iohn Lambe (1628)

The libels now rejoiced openly in Lambe’s summary justice — nobody was ever prosecutor for his murder — and anticipated another one to follow it.

“Who rules the Kingdome? The King. Who rules the King? The Duke. Who rules the Duke? The Devill,” one menacing placard announced. “And that the libellers there professe, Lett the Duke look to it; for they intend shortly to use him worse then they did his Doctor, and if thinges be not shortly reformed, they will work a reformation themselves.”

Their thirst for “reformation” was not long delayed.

Ten weeks after Lambe’s murder, a disaffected army officer named John Felton at last enacted the swelling popular sentiment and assassinated Buckingham.

“The Shepheards struck, The sheepe are fledd,” one unsympathetic doggerel taunted, recalling the dead wizard whose supernatural exertions could no longer protect his wicked patron. “For want of Lambe the Wolfe is dead.”

* So says Alastair Bellany, whose “The Murder of John Lambe: Crowd Violence, Court Scandal and Popular Politics in Early Seventeenth-Century England” in Past and Present, vol. 200, no. 1 is a principal source for this post. (It’s here, but behind academic paywalls.)

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1535: Elisabeth Wandscherer, wife of Jan van Leiden

Add comment June 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1535, in the doomed Anabaptist commune of Münster, the dictator Jan van Leiden personally beheaded one of his 16 wives.

If it seems unfathomable from the standpoint of the 21st century to picture the famously pacific Anabaptists as millenarian theocratic polygamists, that’s in no small measure due to Leiden himself.

His kingdom of Münster lasted only a year, but its wreckage at the end led the successive strains of this Reformation movement towards very different forms of radicalism than Leiden’s sword-arm exercised.

The background preceding Anabaptist Münster was municipal conflict among Catholics, Lutherans, and Anabaptists. Small wonder that when the Anabaptists — the wild-eyed radicals among these groups — got control of the place,* the Catholic Prince-Bishop put Münster under siege.

That cordon of enemy troops strangling the city shaped much that followed.

Münster’s leading Anabaptist theologian, Bernhard Rothmann, defended polygamy thus:

God has restored the true practice of holy matrimony amongst us. Marriage is the union of man and wife — “one” has now been removed — for the honor of God and to fulfill his will, so that children might be brought up in the fear of God …

Freedom in marriage for the man consists in the possibility for him to have more than one wife … This was true of the biblical fathers until the time of the Apostles, nor has polygamy been forbidden by God. (Source)

In the first place, it killed the Anabaptists’ original leader Jan Matthys when Matthys trusted his theology so far as to believe an Easter Sunday (1534) sortie against the Prince-Bishop’s men would enjoy divine favor. Instead, Matthys’s head wound up on a pike.

This decapitation — literal and figurative — dropped leadership onto the head of our man Jan, which got very big indeed over the subsequent 14 months. Or at least, so say Jan’s foes and eventual killers; as observed by the Communist intellectual Karl Kautsky, who mounted a late 19th century defense of the Anabaptists, we know these Münster rebels almost exclusively through the dark glass of their mortal enemies’ lurid propaganda.

The Anabaptist city council (which Jan soon dissolved) had already expelled all citizens who refused adult re-baptism, the movement’s signature (and namesake) tenet. Citizens, however, meant men: the wives didn’t get run off with their husbands and evidently were often left behind to tend households and property that the men expected to resume soon enough.

As a result, the gender imbalance in besieged Münster reportedly ran to 3:1, and Jan goggled at his good fortune like a 25-year-old would do. (He was actually only 25 years old, a former barkeep. He was also already on a bigamous second marriage.)

Having already declared himself king and basically the divine intercessor, and gotten the city to go along with it, Jan van Leiden promulgated polygamy on July 23 — directing men to seek out second and third brides as their first and second ones got pregnant. Barefoot and pregnant, ladies! Maybe it would have been a great plan for explosive population growth, if only that Catholic army under the walls had consented to just hunker down for a generation or two.(Introduction of polygamy triggered an immediate internal revolt led by a blacksmith named Möllenbeck, which Jan’s team crushed.)

There’s always been the assumption, though, that this move so alien to any other strand of the Reformation throughout Europe was more personal than political. Jan took sixteen wives. One was Matthys’s former wife, soon elevated to Queen; most of the rest were in their teenage years.

Many — who can say just how many? — were probably content to indulge his reputedly (reputed by his enemies!) voracious libido because

  1. the besieged city soon began starving; and,
  2. the guy didn’t take to dissension

In its last months, Münster’s people, faint with hunger, were fed dozens of public executions, of the morally corrupt or the politically unreliable. Considering that the withering city sheltered a mere 9,000 souls at the outset,** it was a positively Stalinesque pace, surely exacerbated by the fast-deteriorating strategic situation.

Elisabeth Wandscherer, one of those 16 wives, is supposed to have been beheaded in the market on June 12, 1535, by the very hand of her husband for her “disobedience.” By the account of a hostile Catholic chronicler, said disobedience consisted in remonstrating with Jan van Leiden over the luxury of his own household vis-a-vis the suffering city, and seeking leave to desert Münster.

Whatever added measure of loyalty, vigilance, or zeal might have been anticipated from such a scene was by this point far too little to preserve the city. Before the month was out, the Prince-Bishop had overrun Münster and held Jan van Leiden in chains — now bound in his own turn for the executioner.

Even to this day, Münster’s town hall has a slipper said to have once belonged to Elisabeth Wandscherer.

* By means of an entirely legal municipal election.

** Population figure per this biography of Jan van Leiden.

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1871: Archbishop Georges Darboy, Paris Commune hostage

Add comment May 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the doomed Paris Commune martyred Archbishop Georges Darboy.

When Darboy (English Wikipedia entry | French) was tapped for the job in 1863, there had already been two recent occupants of the seat of Notre Dame killed violently over the generation preceding.*

A “learned, conscientious, and respected prelate,” Darboy’s own cross to shoulder was the collapse of the Second Empire with France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.

That conflict in turn triggered the 1871 working-class revolution in Paris which briefly drove the established government to the old Bourbon haunts at Versailles while maintaining the capital as the Paris Commune.

Darboy declined to follow the many Parisian bourgeoisie who escaped the city in those brief months, but his importance as a visible envoy of the rival order was not so easily refused. The Communards seized Darboy as perhaps the crown jewel among dozens of hostages against the anticipated Versailles counterattack.

Versailles declined to bargain for Darboy or any of the other human shields.** Instead, the city’s cobblestones drank the blood of 20,000 or more in a seven-day urban invasion in late May that has become known as the “bloody week” (semaine sangiante) — and the Commune’s hostages would mingle their blood with the those on the barricades, suffering in their few individual persons the vengeance the Parisian workers longed to visit upon an entire class.

When the Versaillese fixed his eye upon you, you must die; when he searched a house, nothing escaped him. “These are no longer soldiers accomplishing a duty,” said a conservative journal, La France. And indeed these were hyenas, thirsting for blood and pillage. In some places it sufficed to have a watch to be shot. The corpses were searched, and the correspondents of foreign newspapers called those thefts the last perquisition. And the same day M. Thiers had the effrontery to tell the Assembly: “Our valiant soldiers conduct themselves in such a manner as to inspire foreign countries with the highest esteem and admiration.”

At half-past seven a great noise was heard before the prison of La Roquette, where the day before the three hundred hostages, detained until then at Mazas, had been transported. Amidst a crowd of guards, exasperated at the massacres, stood a delegate of the Public Safety Commission, who said, ‘Since they shoot our men, six hostages shall be executed. Who will form the platoon?’ ‘I! I!’ was cried from all sides. One advanced and said, ‘I avenge my father,’ another, ‘I avenge my brother.’ ‘As for me,’ said a guard, ‘they have shot my wife.’ Each one brought forward his right to vengeance. Thirty men were chosen and entered the prison.

The delegate looked over the jail register, pointed out the Archbishop Darboy, the President Bonjean, the banker Jecker, the Jesuits Allard, Clerc, and Ducoudray; at the last moment Jecker was replaced by the Curé Deguerry.

They were taken to the exercise-ground. Darboy stammered out, ‘I am not the enemy of the Commune. I have done all I could. I have written twice to Versailles.’ He recovered a little when he saw death was inevitable. Bonjean could not keep on his legs. ‘Who condemns us?’ said he. ‘The justice of the people.’ ’0h, this is not the right one,’ replied the president. One of the priests threw himself against the sentry-box and uncovered his breast. They were led further on, and, turning a corner, — met the firing-party. Some men harangued them; the delegate at once ordered silence. The hostages placed themselves against the wall, and the officer of the platoon said to them, ‘It is not we whom you must accuse of your death, but the Versaillese, who are shooting the prisoners.’ He then gave the signal and the guns were fired. The hostages fell back in one line, at an equal distance from each other. Darboy alone remained standing, wounded in the head, one hand raised. A second volley laid him by the side of the others.

The blind justice of revolutions punishes in the first-comers the accumulated crimes of their caste.

-Lissagaray

The six who fell on this occasion would be followed in the Commune’s few remaining days by many more of their fellow hostages — and by countless communards. Theophile Ferre, who authorized the May 24 reprisal execution (and specifically called for Archbishop Darboy’s selection) was himself executed by the victorious bourgeois government that November.

* One of those violent deaths sent an assassin to the guillotine in 1857.

** Specifically, the Commune attempted to exchange Darboy and other hostages for Louis Auguste Blanqui, the great socialist leader whom Versailles had taken prisoner.

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1857: 52 European prisoners at Delhi

Add comment May 16th, 2014 Headsman

In 1857, the centennial of the British East India Company’s mastery of the India, the subcontinent’s sepoy troops rebelled against the Company Raj.

There had been rumblings of disaffection for months before, signals that read portentous in retrospect but passed by the oblivious occupation army. That March, aggrieved at having been issued new ammunition cartridges rumored to have been prepared with pig and cow fat in offense to both Muslim and Hindu soldiery,* Mangal Pandey wrote himself into India’s nationalist lore by mutinying at Barrackpore.

Pandey’s own revolt fizzled, and saw him hanged.

But he’s remembered as the precursor of the much wider rebellion that ensued.

On Sunday, May 10th — the British garrison’s guard was down for religious services — sepoys at Meerut mutinied, too. Just the day before they had seen 85 of their own brothers in arms provocatively marched in chains after refusing the controversial cartridges.

Now, they fell upon their commanding officers, and on their families and British civilians in an wave of pent fury. Brits misforunate enough to be caught in it spent the dark hours that night as prey.


(Via)

“Never was dawn more welcome to us than on the 11th of May,” one Englishwoman who survived the harrowing night wrote. “The daylight showed how complete the work of destruction had been. All was turned into ruin and desolation, and our once bright happy home was now a blackened pile.”

Meerut is just 60 kilometers or so from Delhi, and the mutineers soon made for that city — where the last Mughal Emperor, 81-year-old Bahadur Shah II, known as Zafar, “reigned” as Prince of Delhi. In reality, he was a pensioned ward of the East India Company … but symbolically, he was the heir to a once-mighty empire.

The rebels fell on Delhi, slaughtering Englishmen and women who had not been quick enough to escape the city, and looting opportunistically. Zafar tsk-tsked the disorder but he and most of his princes joined the revolt. Why not? The Company had already made known that the imperial title would disappear with Zafar’s death; here was the one last chance to restore the Mughal dignity.

This ride on the tiger would prove instead to be the final destruction of Zafar’s house.

On May the 16th, the sepoys, who were far from deferential to the emperor they proposed to raise up, demanded 52 European prisoners that Zafar’s courtiers were holding — holding instead of murdering, a restraint the sepoys angrily suspected was calculated as a potential future sop to the returning British. By putting those prisoners all to sudden death, they relieved the emperor of any avenue for compromise, binding him inescapably to the insurrection.

From William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal:

The sepoys then called for the prisoners, who were being kept and fed by Zafar in a room beside the Palace kitchens, not far from the Lahore Gate. They bound them and took them to a peepul tree near the shallow tank in front of the Palace drum house, the Naqqar Khana, and began to taunt them that they were about to be slaughtered.

According to Jiwan Lal, “the King and his courtiers stood like dumb puppets” at first, horrified by what the sepoys were contemplating. “Then the King ordered the sepoys to separate into parties, Mahommedans and Hindus, and he appealed to each to consult their religious advisers to see if there was any authority for the slaughter of helpless men and women and children.” “Their murder can never be allowed,” said Zafar, adding that the Queen was also wholly opposed to any massacre. Sa’id Mubarak Shah recorded that

the king wept and besought the mutineers not to take the lives of helpless women and children, saying to them “take care — for if you commit such a deed the vengeance and angel of God will fall on us all. Why slay the innocent?” But the Mutineers refused to listen and replied “we’ll kill them, and in your palace, so that whatever the result you and we shall be considered one in this business, and you will be thought equally guilty by the English.”

… the King continued to argue with the sepoys and refused to give his consent to the murder, but was eventually silenced …

When Zahir saw that the sepoys were preparing to go ahead with the slaughter, he begged the hakim to make a last effort to stop the massacre: “I told him that I had seen the prisoners being taken out,” he recorded later,

and I was afraid that they were about to kill them, and that he must do something quickly to stop them. To this I got a reply, “What can I do?” I told him this is the time to prove our loyalty, and that if he wanted to save the King then he had to try and persuade the rebels to stop this crime and save the prisoners, otherwise the English would come and level Delhi and turn it into an empty wasteland in revenge for this spilling of innocent blood. Ahsanullah Khan replied, “You are still a child. You do not realize that in public life a man must use his reason rather than give way to his emotions. If we try to dissuade the rebels now they will kill us before they kill the English, and then they will kill the King.”

It was anyway too late. By the time Ahsanullah had finished speaking, the sepoys and the Palace mob had got to work.

They made the prisoners sit down, and one of them fired his carbine at them. After this two of the King’s personal armed retainers killed all the Europeans, men, women and children, with their swords. There were about 200 Mussalmans standing at the tank, uttering the coarsest abuse at the prisoners. The sword of one of the king’s retainers broke. After the slaughter, the bodies were taken on two carts, and thrown into the river. This occurrence caused a great excitement amongst the Hindus throughout the city, who said that these Purbeas who had committed this heinous and atrocious cruelty could never be victorious against the English.

For Zafar the massacre was a turning point. The sepoys were quite correct that the British would never forgive the mass killing of innocents, and Zafar’s failure to prevent it proved as fatal for him and his dynasty as it was for them.

Three weeks later, the British besieged Delhi. When the city succumbed that September, it lay at the mercy of a foe which had been incited to spectacularly furious revenge. Vengeful fantasies of razing Delhi to the ground and slaughtering its denizens en masse were openly mooted; if the actual reprisal never attained that scale, it was still wildly indiscriminate. Dalrymple once again:

Everywhere the British convinced themselves that the atrocities committed by the sepoys against their women and children absolved them of any need to treat the rebels as human beings: “Since they had butchered our defenceless women and children,” wrote Colonel A. R. D. Mackenzie, “we would have been more than human, we would have been less than men, if we had not exterminated them as men kill snakes wherever they meet them.” It soon became exceptional among the British to regard anyone on the opposite side of the battle lines as even belonging to the same species: “I [simply] cannot consider these sepoys human beings,” wrote Captain J. M. Wade, “and it is only common practice to destroy them as reptiles.” George Wagentrieber helped fan such flames from his new Delhi Gazette Extra printing press in Lahore: “Our army is exasperated almost to madness by what they have seen of the brutality of the insurgents,” he expostulated in one editorial.

Moreover, as far as many of the British troops were concerned, their fury and thirst for revenge were not so much a desire as a right enshrined in the Bible. One British soldier, “Quaker” Wallace, was in the habit of bayoneting his sepoy adversaries while chanting the 116th Psalm. As General Neill put it, “The Word of God gives no authority to the modern tenderness for human life.” Padre Rotton was in full agreement. The rebels did not realise, he wrote, that the Uprising was in fact

a battle of principles, a conflict between truth and error; and that because they had elected in favour of darkness, and eschewed the light, therefore they could not possibly succeed. Moreover, they had imbrued their hands in the innocent blood of helpless women and children, and that very blood was [now] appealing to heaven for vengeance. The appeal was unquestionably heard. The Lord could not do otherwise than be avenged on such a nation as this.

1857 marks the textbook end date for the Mughal Empire.

For his support of the rebellion, and his failure to avert the May 16 massacre of prisoners, Zafar was deposed and sent to exile in Burma, where he wrote his own epitaph in Urdu verse:

I asked for a long life, I received four days
Two passed in desire, two in waiting.

The days of life are over, evening has fallen
I shall sleep, legs outstretched, in my tomb

How unfortunate is Zafar! For his burial
Not even two yards of land were to be had, in the land of his beloved.

Many of Zafar’s sons and grandsons were killed (at least 29 by execution, according to Dalrymple) as the revolt was crushed.


This photo of an unidentified hanging of India rebels comes from this page, which also features a number of images of Delhi after its capture from photographer Felice Beato — whose work in China has been highlighted elsewhere in Executed Today’s annals.

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