In that contested first year, the Revolution’s liberals resisted with futility the onset of revolutionary courts, with judges-as-prosecutors who dispatched foreordained summary justice to characters high and low. Bloodthirsty crowds often packed the proceedings: not a few of the attendees wanted whatever comeuppance the courts could visit on the Shah for the deaths of loved ones disappeared, tortured, or gunned down in the streets.
There was not much mercy in the Iranian revolution: all the courts did was sentence men to death. But then there hadn’t been much mercy before the revolution, when the Shah’s imperial guard, the Javidan, or “immortals,” slaughtered the crowds. I remember another court, in Tehran, where a man shouted at a torturer from the notorious Savak security service: “You killed my daughter. She was burned all over her flesh until she was paralysed. She was roasted.” And the torturer looked back at the bereaved man and said quietly: “Your daughter hanged herself after seven months in custody.”
Photographs of the condemned, and even the executions, would hit the next day’s papers even while the next trial was underway.
The world press in that pregnant year has a steady drumbeat of execution announcements — six here, eleven there, and ballpark-only running counts mounting into the hundreds. For the most part, those that saw ink in the West were a random assortment of faceless ex-policemen or alleged spies on a day when the World roundup had a spare column-inch. But for the next two days, we have particularly noteworthy exemplars of justice in revolutionary Iran.
If to the city sped – What waits him there?
To see the profusion that he must not share;
To see ten thousand baneful arts combined
To pamper luxury, and thin mankind;
To see those joys the sons of pleasure know,
Extorted from his fellow-creature’s woe.
Here, while the courtier glitters in brocade,
There the pale artist plies his sickly trade;
Here, while the proud their long-drawn pomps display,
There the black gibbet glooms beside the way.
The “Bloody Code” — England’s profusion of sanguinary capital punishment laws and the terrifying quantities of hangings that resulted — can be variously dated.
The 1688 Glorious Revolution makes for convenient periodization, aligning as it does with the the stirrings that would make a burgeoning London the heart of the industrial revolution. As capital crimes multiplied from about 50 when the House of Stuart fled, to well over 200 by 1815, property crimes featured heavily: commercial burglary past five shillings’ value, or shoplifting at the same threshold, became “non-clergyable” hanging crimes as soon as the 1690s.
To give force to unpoliced laws, London depended upon the outsized threat of the rope (mitigated in the breach by “pious perjury”: the readiness of jurors to mercifully deflate the value of offended property just below the hanging threshold in many cases). The statutes multiplied organically upon themselves across the years, little bulwarks thrown up higgledy-piggledy to defend multiplying forms of commerce, property, and merchants in a city whose disorder grew side by side with her wealth.
“Are there not capital punishments sufficient in your statutes?” Lord Byrondemanded in the House of Lords in 1812. “Will you erect a gibbet in every field, and hang up men like scarecrows?” The occasion was a bill to make it a hanging crime to break stocking frames, a protection of the capital stock the law had long ago extended to silk looms.
However one charts the Bloody Code’s subsequent growth, its root in the last decades of the 17th century and the start of the 18th lay in the classic crimes of violence dating back to before William and Mary — murder, rape, highway robbery, crimes of state including coining — as well as significant thefts, to which the new varieties of larceny were gradually to be adjoined. Across the century, London’s Tyburn gallows bent for all these men and women.
Our next few posts visit offenders in this time, not really so different from those who followed: people sucked into the city from every quarter, bound by their offenses large and small to blaze a trail for posterity to the deadly tree.
This blog’s most prolific guest poster by far — if “guest” is still the right word for it — is the intrepid Meaghan Good, proprietor of the staggeringly vast Charley Project database of missing persons.
I’d be hard-pressed to sing enough of Meaghan’s praises; a voracious reader, she graces these pages with excavated execution stories from unexpected sources. Absent those scores of posts (including scheduled posts already written a year or more in advance) she’s contributed to Executed Today, there’s every likelihood that the grind of the daily posting schedule would have caused this executioner to hang up the hood.
You’ll find Meaghan Good’s posts throughout the site and throughout the year, but these next three days are hers alone. Thank you for sharing the burden, Meaghan.
In 1865, British-controlled Jamaica faced an economically-driven revolt that altered its history.
Though slavery had been abolished in the British empire during the 1830s, emancipation had not come with land reform. Ex-slaves and their descendants remained desperately poor. Indeed, Britain’s near-simultaneous liberalization of the sugar trade had cratered prices for Jamaica’s top export — and with it, cratered most of the Caribbean economy.
To a petition early in 1865 for access to crown lands to relieve these dire conditions, Queen Victoria had extended a familiar classic of cruel and condescending economic catechism: shut up and work.
“The prosperity of the Labouring Classes, as well as of all other Classes,” quoth the piece that would be published as “The Queen’s Advice”,
depends, in Jamaica, and in other Countries, upon their working for Wages, not uncertainly, or capriciously, but steadily and continuously, at the times when their labour is wanted, and for so long as it is wanted; and if they would use his industry, and thereby render the Plantations productive, they would enable the Planters to pay them higher Wages for the same hours of work than are received by the best Field Labourers in this country; and as the cost of the necessaries of life is much less n Jamaica than it is here, they would be enabled, by adding prudence to industry, to lay by an ample provision for seasons of drought and dearth; and they may be assured, that it is from their own industry and prudence, in availing themselves of the means of prospering that are before them, and not from any such schemes as have been suggested to them, that the must look for an improvement in their condition; and that her Majesty will regard with interest and satisfaction their advancement through their own merits and efforts.
So your average Jamaican fieldhand’s “merits and efforts” became so much dry tinder accumulating, just waiting for the spark. (Note: Princeton has an album of photographs from this period here.)
In October 1865, flint struck steel with the prosecution of a poor black laborer for trespassing onto unused land.
The ensuing protest mushroomed into the Morant Bay rebellion: a scuffle with police, leading to proscriptions, leading to a more confrontational mob, an outnumbered and trigger-happy militia, and a full-fledged riot that seized the town of Morant Bay and proceeded to attack nearby plantations.
Dreadful reports, more terrifying for their scantiness and uncertainty, went abroad in those days, of “atrocities revolting to human nature.” That’s the New York Daily News, which ran a letter from Kingston, Jamaica, reporting “the whites who have fallen into the hands of these savages have been doomed to slaughter without distinction of age or sex. They tear out the tongues of their victims, cut off the breasts of women, strangle and mutilate little children.”*
Hundreds were put to death, either summarily in the field or after proceedings that would have wanted twice the deliberation to rise to the level of perfunctory. Hundreds more, including pregnant women, were flogged. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time without a demonstrable alibi ready to hand was liable to be worth a body’s life.
We note over the next five days two famous cases and three obscurities that may give a sense of how things were in those days — though Morant Bay depredations could in fact sustain several numbing weeks in these pages. For instance, a missive dated October 19 reports in passing the capture of “a number of prisoners from the rebel camp. Finding their guilt clear, and being unable either to take or leave them, I had them all shot. The constables then hung them upon trees, eleven in number.”
One officer** who showed excessive (read: any) exactitude for process was ordered in writing to emulate a comrade “doing splendid service … shooting every black man who cannot account for himself.”
Nelson at Port Antonio hanging like fun by court martial. I hope you will not send any black prisoners.
All this “fun” would put Governor Eyre in the eyre of a storm back in the home country.
These executions — but most especially that of colonial assemblyman George William Gordon — had little or no color of law, and spurred many English liberals to demand Eyre himself be prosecuted for murder. Nor was this merely an elite predilection: English working classes then in the midst of their own push for representation rallied in support of the Jamaicans, even burning Gov. Eyre in effigy. British Tories and propertied Jamaicans called Eyre a hero.
Ultimately, this furious “Eyre Controversy” proved insufficient to generate an actual criminal procedure against an agent of the empire, which would have entailed clearing a very high bar indeed. Recourse to the civil courts produced a landmark 1870 decision, Phillips v. Eyre whose upshot was to validate a law Eyre had the Jamaican assembly hastily enact retroactively legalizing his behavior and thereby rule out the prospect of a tort claim.
That Jamaican assembly was spooked enough that in 1866 it renounced its own power and made Jamaica into a Crown Colony directly governed by its British executive.
But if the need of the moment was to suppress the uprising, the need of history was to celebrate it — and the hero for posterity would not be Governor Eyre. The Morant Bay insurgents, a bare few of whom we will meet over the next days, have been valorized as slave rebels even if they weren’t quite literally slaves, and generally occupy an honored place in Jamaica.
* Cited in London Times, Nov. 13, 1865 — by which time the actual revolt was well over.
** That reluctant officer complied with his orders, but threw himself into the sea when recalled to England for subsequent the parliamentary inquiry.
Whatever one’s view of what constitutes just desserts for the particular individual at stake, this is also the condemned at his or her most nakedly human — most susceptible to empathy. The little tributes in these moments that the mechanisms of death must pay to the corporeality of the doomed tend to strike us: the aching animal needs to eat, sleep, fuck, and excrete, every one of them paradoxical before the gaping grave.
In “A Hanging”, George Orwell remembers the way a man being escorted to the gallows in India walks around a puddle in his path, a triviality eloquent of the man’s soon-snuffed life. “When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.”
So much more the fascinating those few who return to us from that walk to the gallows — those whose own flesh endured le toilette du condamne only to be recalled to a life of worrying about puddles. These are essential scaffold-dramas: the last-second reprieve, or the intended reprieve delivered a fraction too late; the execution survived; the cinematic escape. One foot over the threshold of death, and then …
The next three days’ posts feature proposed executions whose victims had every expectation of dying until being spared at the very last minute by some inexplicable deus ex machina — the most terrifying and most edifying escapes imaginable.
In the 21st century, the Buckeye State’s suddenly-crowded execution docket has garnered it a reputation as “the Texas of the North”.
After conducting only a single execution in the first quarter-century after death penalty reinstatement, Ohio has been one of the country’s most aggressive executioners in recent years — noticeably bucking a national trend of falling executions elsewhere.
Ohio is so hard core that it’s still trying to re-execute a guy who stunningly survived execution in 2009. And while some states have found their death chambers shuttered recently by an interruption of the lethal chemical supplies, Ohio pioneered new one-drug protocols to keep its gurney occupied.
Executions per year
Annual number of executions for Ohio, compared to those for all other states not in the historic U.S. Confederacy or the “border states” of Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kentucky. Chart also excludes three executions conducted by the federal government. Incidentally, neighboring Indiana has 13 of the 42 other ‘Northern’ executions from 2001 to 2011. (Figures via the Death Penalty Information Center’s useful Executions Database.)
But then, Ohio has plenty of historical precedent to fall back on.
It was in the frontier Ohio Country (technically in present-day Pennsylvania, but who are we to split cartographers?) that the summary killing of a French prisoner taken by the young British officer George Washington touched off a world war. The Espy file log of known executions credits Ohio with approximately* 438 hangings, shootings, and electrocutions (and one lethal injection … and one execution by tomahawk) from the time of its 1803 statehood through the end of the 20th century.
For these next four days, we’ll peruse executions in the Texas of the North from the colonial era all the way down to (just about) the present day.
The days preceding Hitler’s demise had seen a fascist state that once stretched from the Atlantic to Moscow (almost to Moscow) hemmed into vanishing pockets, spiraling towards certain capitulation.
Resistance really was futile.
Nevertheless, resistance was as ferocious as Nazi Germany’s remaining resources could permit, and as cruel in its way as anything in those cruel years. Each dwindling day brought among its privations fresh executions, deaths without meaning or grandeur, vindictive and cynically apportioned deaths mopping up old enemies and settling old scores, most every one without the slightest effect upon the the war’s resolution.