Posts filed under 'Themed Sets'

Themed Set: Meaghan Good (II)

Add comment July 12th, 2015 Headsman

Three years ago, we paused a moment to highlight the already-intrepid contributions made these pages by Meaghan Good.

Meaghan contacted me out of the blue back in June 2010 — so, roughly the neolithic in Internet time — to suggest some execution stories that her voluminous reading had made her aware of.

From her debut in July of 2010 until now, Meaghan has favored this site with more than 160 posts, plus enough additional ones pending future publication to make a clear double century. There are numerous guest authors who have a post here or there and to whom I am immensely grateful … still, only Meaghan has made herself a part of the impossible ongoing enterprise that is Executed Today. Her relentless historical crime research has even made news.

Nobody visits these pages to read about bloggers’ tribulations but it’s hard to overstate just what an gigantic difference it has made to the site and to myself personally to have a perspicacious writer carrying nearly 10% of the daily posting burden over such a protracted period of time. Meaghan has seen this joint through fat years and lean ones, and no exaggeration: absent Ms. Good, Executed Today would not now be nearing an eighth anniversary of every-single-day posting.

That Meaghan has been a godsend for these pages while also continuing her own excellent and heavily researched site, the Charley Project, speaks to a fathomless humane tenacity. Even while moonlighting on our execution beat, Meaghan’s site has made an important contribution to missing-persons investigations in the U.S. — more than 9,000 are profiled there. It’s an incredible project for one human to take on and maintain, as a glance at her log of recent updates to the Charley Project at any given moment will confirm.

Thank you, Meaghan, for five excellent years.

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Themed Set: Terrorism

Add comment May 26th, 2015 Headsman

Inhabiting though we do a world which promises an unending war on it, we have a devil of a time defining the word “terrorism”. Efforts merely to make a taxonomy out of the scores of interpretations scholars have given it resolve in the end to violence … violence by someone’s official enemies. One needs a number of caveats to rule in the good violence and rule out the bad since use of deadly force to cow people towards one’s political objectives is not so very distant from a definition of government itself — obviously including the hangmen that are this very site’s stock in trade.


(Via)
In our custom execution playing cards, the Eights of all four countries’ suits are terrorists. (Pictured: Tsar Alexander II’s assassins)

Though deeds that meet the know-it-when-I-see-it standard of terrorism go back many centuries — remember, remember, the 5th of November? — the word terrorisme dates only to the French Revolution, when Jacobins self-described with it to position their implacability as a creditable necessity: Terror to the enemies of the Revolution, the armament of Virtue.

“Is force made only to protect crime?” Maximilien Robespierre demanded in his definitive vindication of Terror. “And is the thunderbolt not destined to strike the heads of the proud?”

Those guillotine years inaugurated a long revolutionary age, arguably still underway now, during which thunderbolts have smote many a head, proud and otherwise; in spite of that or perhaps because, terrorisme never caught on as a laudatory and soon fixed its place amid the peals of 19th century dynamite and infernal machines as mostly a term of abuse.

One may be assured that every reader will have many present-day examples of the phenomenon ready to mind, though it is not unlikely that one reader’s perfidious atrocity might be the next reader’s righteous resistance. Whatever its form — whatever its definition — and whatever the exertions of the flying death-droid program — terrorism by now seems destined like the poor to be with us always. But as the next few days’ posts illustrate, ours is not the only era to have believed that.

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Themed Set: Lancaster’s Golgotha

Add comment April 5th, 2015 Headsman

Lancaster’s harsh assizes earned it the nickname “Hanging Town”, and in its time what is today the verdant grounds of Williamson Park hosted innumerable executions as a result — including those of the Pendle witches in 1612, 15 Catholic martyrs, and various Jacobite rebels.

This was, if you will, Lancaster’s Tyburn: the moor on the city fringes where doomed prisoners were carted to their deaths astride their own coffins, complete with a last-drink stop at the local pub.

(Like Tyburn, the previously outlying locale has also become absorbed into the growing city.)

A copse of houses nearby the hill of executions thereby acquired the interesting moniker “Golgotha”, after the place of Christ‘s crucifixion. And who knows but that those feet in ancient times


Golgotha village in the 1960s or so. (cc) image from Graham Hibbert. Off the frame to the right of this image is the southern boundary fence of Williamson Park.

For the next few days, Executed Today will climb Golgotha to the gallows with a few of its lesser clientele.

* Starting in 1800, executions were moved to the nearby Lancaster Castle. One can tour the tower and its “Drop Room” where it all went down.

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Themed Set: Anabaptists

3 comments February 6th, 2015 Headsman

One of the recurring themes that these grim annals encounter is the Anabaptists; one might almost say that the movement’s birth pangs can be written in the blood of its martyrs.

Despised in the 16th century of both Catholics and Lutherans, so-called “re-baptizers”* were hanged, burned, drowned, beheaded, and harried from pillar to post across Europe.


Anabaptists frequently suffered execution by drowning in Switzerland, Germany, and the Low Countries: an allusion in the execution spectacle to the disputed baptism rite. Pictured: Maria of Montjoie (Maria van Montjou), martyred on the German border in 1552.

They’re forerunners of today’s Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish, among others; to find these amiable sects numbered among civilization’s existential threats over the disputed timing of a proper Christian ablution is to remember that the past is another country.

Of course, there was more to it than that.

To challenge infant baptism was to challenge the clergy’s power over the ceremony, and in turn to challenge the vertical hierarchy so essential to the period’s conception of the world.

If the polemical Catholic charge against what we might anachronistically term “mainline Protestantism” was that the Reformation opened the road for disordering everything, Anabaptists looked like that very reductio ad absurdum made flesh. (Martin Luther was certainly keen to dissociate himself, as was John Calvin, who termed Anabaptists a “nefarious herd.”) Anabaptists took to primitive, fraternal Christianity — the kind thought to have existed among the immediate heirs of the Apostles before the Church became another word for the Man. They rejected as un-Scriptural the authority ordained ministers claimed as God’s interlocutors. Many Anabaptists also worryingly disdained private property. To a greater or lesser extent, these critiques (cousins of which had long drawn official persecution) contradicted the power of established Christian elites both secular and ecclesiastical.

And though pacifism was a prominent part of Anabaptist thinking from the start, the movement’s idealism also fueled millenarian apostles bearing swords, and this too terrified Christendom.

The 1524-1525 Peasants War (idealized by a later era’s Communists) was led by Thomas Müntzer, who was influenced by proto-Anabaptist preachers and who himself rejected infant baptism. A decade later, Anabaptists seized control of Münster and briefly turned that city into a polygamous theocracy.

Surely Anabaptism, then being speedily reshaped by events, would connote a very different thing for us today absent the bloody defeats dealt to these revolutionaries — and absent the many executions that its persecuted adherents endured. We give this site over for the next several days to Anabaptist martyrs: not necessarily its most illustrious ones, but representatives of the many people stirred in those days to make a testament of faith on the scaffold.

* “Re-baptizer” is the literal Greek root of the term Anabaptist. Affixed by their enemies, the word was long rejected by the Anabaptists themselves on the theological grounds that infant baptism was an empty ritual — and therefore adults weren’t being re-baptized at all, but simply baptized for the first time.

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Themed Set: Filicide

Add comment December 3rd, 2014 Headsman

It’s said that few tragedies equal that of the parent who has to bury their own child. So much more shocking, then, the parent who takes their own progeny’s life intentionally.


Saturn Devouring His Son, maybe the most recognizable of aging painter Francisco Goya‘s disturbing “Black Paintings”. (Goya also gives this blog its banner).

Filicides are amply represented among those crimes that become media sensations, and when they happen to occur among the great and powerful they can scar the memory of a nation: think of Suleiman the Magnificent executing his own heir, or the homicidally mad Crown Prince Sado locked in a rice chest to save Korea’s dynasty.


Detail view (click for the full, gorgeous canvas) of Ilya Repin‘s emotional painting of Ivan the Terrible the moment after he has struck his son dead, dooming the Rurikid dynasty. Incited to his own act of lunacy by the tsar’s riveting madman expression, iconographer and Old Believer Abram Balashov slashed these faces with a knife (image) in the Tretyakov Gallery in 1913.

Despite the special horror reserved for filicide, it is not a rare event in the annals of crime. After all, it is axiomatic that crimes tend to be committed by people near enough to be of the same circle as the victim. What circle is closer than the family itself?

Executions stemming from intra-family incidents, and specifically the murder by parents of their chilren, have been a mainstay on this blog, and surely will be again in the future. But for the next several days, we’ll turn the spotlight specifically on a few practitioners of a crime held to be unnatural, yet as ancient as Abraham or Medea:


Singer Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father.

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Daily Double: The last executions in Finland

Add comment September 2nd, 2014 Headsman

Days before tapping out of the “Continuation War”, a bid to retake lost territory from the Soviets that put Finland in the discomfiting World War II position of Third Reich ally, its military conducted the last executions in that country’s history.

Finland had fought the bitter Winter War against the USSR in 1939-1940, a war that stalemated in the field but saw the Soviets push back the Finnish border — most particularly out of Finnish Karelia, which for Russia had always been worryingly close to Leningrad.

The cost of the USSR’s cozier security perimeter was, for Finland, 26,000 dead,* 420,000 refugees, about one-eleventh of the Finnish land mass, and one hell of a grudge. The period following the Winter War is known as the “Interim Peace,” and the interim lasted until Nazi Germany attacked the USSR on June 22, 1941. As German tanks raced across the frontier further south, the Finns — who had been armed by the Germans during the temporary peace — surged back into the Karelian isthmus. The reader will notice, as many did at the time, that despite the “continuation” branding, this installment of the conflict was an offensive war of Finland’s choosing, which put it in a different light from the foregoing heroic defense of the homeland.

In the three years that followed, while all of Europe fell into a bloodbath, Finland fought the Soviet Union almost privately, a side event in which the respective countries’ allied coalitions only barely intervened. Finland had been banking on the German attack delivering a quick knockout that would leave the Russian-controlled territories of a prospective greater Finland there for the gathering. When that proved not to be the case, the two old adversaries were back into the same brutal slog they’d had in the Winter War, heavy with irregular warfare. (Future Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov fought as a partisan in this conflict.)

In terms of the military-political outcome, Finland managed to extricate itself from the war much more gracefully than most of the Axis-allied countries who tangled with the Red Army. It struck a September 19, 1944 armistice that restored most of Karelia to the USSR (along with some new territory) and cut ties with Berlin, while avoiding postwar Soviet occupation. As a western democracy, Finland was still quite friendly with the many western Allies with which it was formally at war, and everyone — except the Russians, of course — preferred to keep the country out of Stalin’s orbit for the years to come.

But almost up the eve of that armistice, Finnish forces conducted hundreds of executions — the true number is uncertain — both of their own deserters and draft-resisters, and of captured Soviet irregulars.** In the field, these were often summary or nearly so, just as they had been when the Russian Revolution spilled over into a Finnish civil war with Communist “Red Guards”.

As rude as these last-second executions were, they turned out to be the very last executions in Finnish history: that country’s postwar turn towards social democracy where capital punishment is practically unthinkable is well-known. Finland abolished the death penalty for all peacetime crimes in 1949, for all crimes full stop in 1972, and wrote the abolition into its constitution in 2000.

* The Soviets lost far more — something like 5 times the number dead — to the rugged Finnish defenders. Had Finland’s defenses broken, it’s possible Moscow could have overrun and annexed the whole country.

** Finland captured over 60,000 Soviet soldiers. Some 30% of them died in Finnish POW camps, and some were executed by the Soviets upon repatriation.

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Corpses Strewn: All in the Family

Add comment August 6th, 2014 Headsman

Thieving in Bloody Code England was quite often a family affair. For a few scattered posts this August we will revisit an extended clan of vagabond Northumberland robbers (and sometimes worse than robbers) who in the 1780s and 1790s broke with one another the bread they plundered from their neighbors. Terrifying in their moment, the family — and the family business — was extirpated in successive executions.

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Daily Double: Scenes from the Purge

Add comment July 28th, 2014 Headsman

Most any sequence of days on the calendar would do for capturing Soviet citizens destroyed in Stalin’s terrible purges of the late 1930s. There are, of course, the great names — Zinoviev, the Old Bolshevik senior to Stalin; the Red Army Marshal Tukhachevsky; eventually, inevitably, also the security minister who had run the bloodbath at its peak.

1937 propaganda poster: “Eradicate spies and saboteurs! Trotsky-Bukharin agents of fascism. (via)

Beneath the headline names are people by the aching thousands whose tragedies blacken date after date.

From our distance, they are little but a blur in the impossibly vast register of fatalistic mugshots — men and women high and low ripped from the forgotten banality of their lives, delivered to unspeakable tortures lost in the lines of endless dusty archives. Those we touch the next two days were loyal Communist functionaries and people of national importance in their spheres.

To be fair, only the specialist today has any cause to remember the names of their 1930s opposite numbers in France, Britain, or America, political operatives with competent careers who faded away giving university lectures instead of being beat all to hell and shot in a cellar. But to contemporaries in Stalin’s Russia these were people who wielded authority and prestige; their destructions would have been stunning were not midnight knocks emptying Muscovite apartments by the thousands in those days, and anyone — everyone — understood that he might be next.

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Daily Double: Victorian Soldiery

Add comment March 29th, 2014 Headsman

For the next two days, we draw a pair of odd cases from the ranks of Her Majesty’s men at arms.

Recently spooked by debacles in the Crimean War and a barely-suppressed Indian mutiny — both of which strained the army’s entire manpower — Britain’s Secretary of War spent the late 1860s and early 1870s putting the empire on new military footing.

These “Cardwell Reforms” ramped up recruitment, lowered enlistment barriers, eliminated inefficiencies and shifted more self-defense burdens onto Commonwealth dominions. (This is also when the Royal Navy got rid of flogging.)

The result was a British army both larger and leaner, and better-suited to its task of running the Pax Britannia.

Our next two days find two products of that force making their unfortunate intersection with another field’s titan of industrial-age rationalization: William Marwood, the dread hangman even then in the process of introducing the long drop and moving the ancient art of hanging towards a rational formula for scientifically breaking a man’s neck.


A consummate professional (this is his business card), Marwood insisted on the description of “executioner” — not “hangman”.

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Themed Set: Arsenic

Add comment March 22nd, 2014 Headsman

One of this site’s recurring themes and criminology’s iconic trappings, the poison arsenic carried off many a soul.

Poison has been around forever, of course, but “inheritance powder” was a slow-motion moral panic in the Victorian years — when a man on the make could be imperceptibly nudged into an early grave by a friend or a spouse or a maid using a product that could be had for pennies from the local apothecary.

Who can feel safe, when little old ladies could make a murder spree of afternoon tea?

For the next several days, we’ll remember a few of the arsenic era’s more notable nudges … and a few of the distinct minority of poisoners who found that stealthy powder equally fatal to the hand that stirred it.

Arsenic photo (cc) image from Curious Expeditions.

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