We have from time to time in these pages glimpsed the scaffold as the paradoxical junction of death to eros — the “little death” writ large, as when St. Catherine of Siena orgasmically clutched the falling head of a political prisoner. Modernity has half-lost the sense with our medicalized executions, but through most of human history the scaffold has been a site of sheer carnality: spurting blood, clashing flesh, involuntary priapism.
Far more obvious is the propensity of illicit desire to send a person into the clutches of the carnifex in the first place; take, for example, the dozens of crimes on this site alone attributable to love triangles.
Power has always concerned itself deeply with sexuality (and vice versa!), defining and delimiting its forms with the scaffold as an ultimate albeit infrequent guarantor against unauthorized concupiscence. For our next few posts, we’ll meet some people who transgressed the lines in their worlds to their grief.
This book portrays the 16th century through the remarkable Platter family.
Platter isn’t a diarist of executions in particular: his is a record of everyday life comprising Platter’s own personal affairs, university events (such as a student protest), and highlight events in the town (such as a storm that knocked down a steeple). Given his course of studies, Felix was ever next door to death; his forays to cemeteries for moonlight grave-robbing of corpses to anatomize make great reading.
my principal study was anatomy. Not only did I never miss the dissections of men and animals that took place in the College, but I also took part in every secret autopsy of corpses, and I came to put my own hand to the scalpel, despite the repulsion I had felt at first. I joined with French students and exposed myself to danger to procure subjects.
A bachelor of medicine named Gallotus, who had married a woman from Montpellier and was passing rich, would lend us his house. He invited me, with some others, to join him in nocturnal expeditions outside the town, to dig up bodies freshly buried in the cloister cemetery, and we carried them to his house for dissection. We had spies to tell us of burials and to lead us by night to the graves.
Our first excursion of this kind took place on the 11th of November 1554. As night fell Gallotus led us out of the town to the monastery of the Augustins, where we met a monk, called Brother Bernhard, a determined fellow, who had disguised himself in order to help us. When we came to the monastery we stayed to drink, quietly, until midnight. Then, in complete silence, and with swords in hand, we made our way to the cemetery of the monastery of Saint-Denis. There we dug up a corpse with our hands, the earth being still loose, because the burial had taken place only that day, As soon as we had uncovered it we pulled it out with ropes, wrapped it in a flassada (blanket) and carried it on two poles as far as the gates of the town. It must then have been about three o’clock in the morning.
We put the corpse to one side and knocked on the postern that is opened for coming and going at night, and the old porter came in his shirt to open it for us. We asked him to bring us something to drink, under the pretext that we were dying of thirst, and while he went in search of wine three of us brought the cadaver in and carried it directly to Gallotus’s house, which was not far away. The porter was not suspicious, and we rejoined our companions. On opening the winding sheet in which the body was sewn, we found a woman with a congenital deformity of the legs, the two feet turned inwards. We did an autopsy and found, among other curiosities, various veins vasorwn spermaticonm, which were not deformed, but followed the curve of the legs towards the buttocks. She had a lead ring, and as I detest these it added to my disgust.
Encouraged by the success of this expedition, we tried again five days later. We had been informed that a student and a child had been buried in the same cemetery of Saint-Denis.
When night came we left die town to go to the monastery of the Augustins. It was the 16th of December. [sic: he meant to say the 16th of November] In Brother Bernhard’s cell we ate a chicken cooked with cabbage. We got the cabbage ourselves, from the garden, and seasoned it with wine supplied by the monk. Leaving the table, we went out with our weapons drawn, for the monks of Saint-Denis had discovered that we had exhumed the woman, and they had threatened us direly should we return. Myconius carried his naked sword, and the Frenchmen their rapiers. The two corpses were disinterred, wrapped in our cloaks, and carried on poles as before as far as the gates of the town. We did not dare to rouse the porter this time, so one of us crawled inside through a hole that we discovered under the gate for they were very negligently maintained. We passed the cadavers through the same opening, and they were pulled through from the inside. We followed in turn, pulling ourselves through on our backs; I remember that I scratched my nose as I went through.
The two subjects were carried to Gallotus’s house and their coverings were removed. One was a student whom we had known. The autopsy revealed serious lesions. The lungs were decomposed and stank horribly, despite the vinegar that we sprinkled on them; we found some small stones in them. The child was a little boy, and we made a skeleton of him.
When I returned to my lodging early in the morning, the shop boy who slept with me did not hear me ring, and he did not wake even when I threw stones against the shutters. I was obliged to go for some sleep to the house of one of the Frenchmen who had been with us. After this the monks of Saint-Denis guarded their graveyard, and if a student came near he was received with bolts from a crossbow.
But often enough too we find him observing the near side of death’s door. The casual frequency with which Platter notes public executions — with sufficient detail to imply the author’s personal attendance — underscores their ubiquity; there would not have been a person alive for whom the phenomenon was unfamiliar, for maximal exposure was its modus operandi. In the first pages of Platter’s diary, he remarks on seeing “several men hanging from gibbets and others exposed on wheels” as his travel party nears Lyons.
Paradoxically, their frequency makes these events forgettable: just the latest in an unending chain of small crooks broken apart by the state for the possible predation of aspiring doctors. The executions Platter remarks for the next two days fit this category; they have little historical weight as such, but through Platter we have them, frozen in amber as it were, a preserved moment from a half-alien past.
Italy today might be the capital of the anti-capital punishment movement; it’s turned the Roman Colosseum — whose thirsty sands once drank so much state-spilled blood — into a sort of permanent monument to abolition that’s lit up beautifully in celebration of repeals and moratoria all around the world.
Italy as a whole only officially got rid of the death penalty on January 1, 1948, but it does have a deeper heritage to claim. The then-independent Grand Duchy of Tuscany enjoys pride of place for its 1786 abolition — on November 30, to be exact, a date which is now a public holiday in Tuscany and observed internationally as Cities for Life Day.
So, fine, everyone has a few skeletons in the closet even if they’re not on the execution playing cards. For the next few days we’ll pull on our boots and wade through Italy’s.
While Executed Today does not aspire to walk the daily news beat, our eight-plus years on the scene have tracked an ample quantity of hangings, shootings, injections, and beheadings around the world, truly enough that this site really could subsist on those literally executed today.
In fact recent years have only brought us growing quantities of material.
Amnesty International‘s annual count of executions — which notably excludes the unobtainium of secretive China — records a distinct upward trajectory for executions* in the present decade notwithstanding the organization’s repeated assertions of a “global trend towards abolition”:
Though China is number one with an annual butcher’s bill thought to number in the thousands, the vast majority of these countable executions come from just three countries: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, the latter of whom went wild in 2015 with over 300 hangings after a terrorist outrage led it to break a years-long death penalty moratorium. Even so, Amnesty allows of 2015 that “at least six countries who had not put anyone to death in 2014 did so in 2015, including Chad where executions were carried out for the first time in more than a decade.”
One could easily overstate the point. There are certainly moves away from the death penalty in many places, and the footprint of the few largest users is so great that the “worldwide trend” as measured by the aggregate essentially reflects the chance local prerogatives of only a handful of polities. Still, it’s clear that the executioner won’t be exiting the human comedy any time soon. As this piece goes to publication in May 2016, Egypt’s military dictatorship is considering hanging three journalists (and, still, the former president it deposed); there’s a new president-elect in the Philippines who has vowed to reinstate capital punishment after a 16-year abeyance; Indonesia has just now widened its death penalty to include child rape; and Israel’s incoming governing coalition is openly mooting the pleasures of executing Palestinians. (Up to this point, Israel has only judicially executed one guy in its whole history: Adolf Eichmann.)
For the next few days, we’ll be unabashedly ripping from the headlines — trying to salvage for the record just a few of the many thousands who have trod our path right under our very noses.
Beginning on this May 11th, and scattered depressingly over the coming weeks, we revisit New York City’s great terrorist panic … of 1741.
This was scarcely the first security scare of New York — indeed, the city had been rocked by a major slave revolt back in 1712, a revolt that included arson.
By 1741, New York “boasted” the second-largest slave population of Britain’s North American colonies, behind only Charleston: enough souls to outnumber the city’s propertied elite should they manage to act in concert. As the cruel winter of 1741 abated, a series of fires in the city raised suspicion … and then fear … and soon, certainty … that just such a slave conspiracy was underway.
Nobody could be sure what happened, but the cold-dried tinders of a wooden city were easy prey to accidental sparks. Though devastating, the calamity was not necessarily suspicious.
The event took on a different hue when another fire broke out near the ruins of the fort the very next week, March 25. Another occurred on April 1, and yet another on April 4.
1762 illustration of New Yorkers fighting a blaze by passing water buckets to a pumping wagon.
There were 10 fires in all, plus alarming near-misses like fizzled coals left under a heap of straw, and although each was contained without devastating the city it must have seemed that the flames licked Manhattan from the very mouth of hell, convening an ever more rattled bucket brigade again and again until — as the city’s Common Council recorded in convening on April 11 — “every one that reflected on the Circumstances attending them, the Frequency of them, and the Causes yet undiscovered, must necessarily conclude, that they were occasioned and set on Foot by some villainous Confederacy of latent Enemies amongst us.”
New-York Weekly Journal, April 20, 1741
A frightened populace confronting a shadowy menace in a world at war made an environment ripe for a witch hunt. That was not quite true in the literal sense:* a half-century’s distance from the Salem trials put 1741 New Yorkers in a different philosophical universe.
But for at least 30 of New York’s slaves, and for four white people known to keep intimacy with them, the effect was much the same. Harrowed between the masters’ self-confirming fears and their fellows’ desperate accusations under duress, the plot or the “plot” staked them to flaming pyres, high gallows, and public infamy.
We will pause for the particulars of various individuals’ situations as we meet them. As to the general outline, the provincial supreme court that condemned these 30-plus souls (and inflicted various sub-lethal punishments on others) had via testimony delivered to a grand jury beginning on April 22 evolved a working theory that the black slaves who frequented a tavern kept by a white couple named John and Peggy Hughson had formed a sinister society bent on outright revolution. The allegations of the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton, drawn from her with fear and favor, were key to the entire affair; in her words, three slaves named Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee were the architects of the plan along with Mr. Hughson and they aimed to “burn the whole town … [and] when all this was done, Caesar should be governor, and Hughson, her master, should be king.” More than that: these dark serviles should when they ruled New York have the city’s white women for their own. There is something of the Witches’ Sabbath about these specifications after all.
Whether there ever was a slave conspiracy — and if so, whether it ever compassed more than a handful of people, or rose past the level of loose words or isolated and opportunistic deeds — has never really been known. Cities have now and very much had then a susceptibility to fire, and their inhabitants a susceptibility to finding spurious patterns in noisy data.
As soon as July of that same year 1741 it was charged publicly (albeit anonymously) that those tongues of Hell had been the “merciless Flames of an Imaginary Plot,” and New Yorkers admonished that “making Bonfires of the Negros … [is] perhaps thereby loading yourselves with greater Guilt than theirs.” On the other hand — and one is reminded here of the Rorschach quality these distant and ill-documented episodes carry — the idea of an actual wide-ranging slave plot has also been valorized as working class resistance to the cruel Atlantic economy. To think, the ghost of Spartacus abroad in Manhattan! If it were, then they died like Spartacuses, too.
Suffice to say that, wherever one lays the reasons, London’s gravitational force drags the eyeballs.
For this week’s series, it’s time to do justice to the everyday criminals who plied their trades outside the Great Wen. Specifically, we’ll be off to the Welsh frontier to meet some Shropshire malefactors whose long-ago crimes waft the moldy bouquet of that West Midlands county’s distinctive cheese.
The sequence of March execution dates upon which this post series hangs (ahem) is more than coincidence, for the pattern of executions in Shropshire — as is generally true outside of London — tracks sittings of the intermittent assizes.
This juridical innovation predated the Magna Carta and somehow persisted until disco: traveling judges commissioned by the state to hold courts of oyer and terminer in six different regional circuits. Shropshire was part of the Oxford circuit with Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Herfordshire, Monmouthshire, and Gloucestershire; typically, Shropshire’s assizes were held in its centrally located county town, Shrewsbury, twice per year — once during Lent, and again in the summer. At these assizes the mobile barristers would plop down, straighten their wigs, and in the course of a few weeks try all the pending felony cases that had stacked up since their last visit. Then they would pick up and move to the next county in the circuit.
When there were many capital cases in the queue, assizes could turn downright bloody — but in more normal times, their product was predictability. Thanks to the assize schedule, 18th and 19th century Shropshire hangings almost all take place in either March-April, or July-August. Head over to capitalpunishmentuk.org and browse their logs of historical executions: see what I mean?
With due appreciation to the court’s metronomic regularity, the next few days will be dedicated to a selection of Salopean March noosings … common crimes, to be sure, and maybe a bit out of the way — but for those who touched them every bit as rich with malice and majesty and madness as ever a London footpad could design.
** This fate befalls the titular tortured scientist in Frankenstein: he wastes three months in prison on suspicion of murdering his friend awaiting “the season of the assizes”, at which point “I was obliged to travel nearly a hundred miles to the county-town, where the court was held.”
For this month’s brief but quite graphic Corpses Strewn series (pair, really) concerning Irish outlaws who were hanged and cut apart in 1719, we are indebted to the curated collection of gallows broadsheets in James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland.
Gallows Speeches delivers what it promises to the tune of 61 broadsheets and one pamphlet transcribed from surviving originals; we’ll certainly have occasion to revisit some choicest morsels in future posts.
But Kelly really makes the book with a 58-page introductory analysis of this genre’s evolution through the 18th century, and the difficult job we have in posterity to situate such artifacts confidently in their own world: how accurate were they? how much did the genre’s formula and the demands of commercial publishers swallow up the convict’s “true” voice? how wide a readership did these broadsheets enjoy, and how did the general populace engage with them?
We don’t have answers in these specific instances or hardly any others, either. If nothing else, their discomfiting content — a performance of spectacular public butchery, preceded by the criminals’ own self-conscious performance of contrition — give us a window into the period of the death penalty as exemplary deterrence.
On January 20, 1970, the government of Iraq crushed a coup attempt … and in the days immediately ensuing it executed a reported 44 people.
From the vantage of the decades since passed, this must appear but a minor bloodbath — and an early harbinger of the lethal political orbit of Saddam Hussein.
Iraq at this point was a mere 18 months into the rule of the Ba’ath party, commanded for the moment by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, elder cousin to his number two, Saddam Hussein. Over the course of the 1970s, Saddam became ever more the essential man in Baghdad until by decade’s end he was able to usurp his kinsman in another bloody purge.
According to Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography, the coup that forms our concern this date was led by two retired senior officers, Abd al-Ghani al-Rawi, a loyalist of the Ba’athists’ Nasserite predecessors, and Salih Mahdi al-Samarra’i — and, Baghdad charged, backed by “Iran, the CIA, and the Zionists.”
According to the official account, the plotters formed “hit squads” that were supposed to kill Party and governmental officials. The zero hour was set for 10:00 pm. on January 20, but most of the plotters had been arrested beforehand. The hard core of the plot, some 50 armed men headed by al-Samarra’i, managed to set out for the Presidential Palace. Once they reached their destination, the gates were thrown open, and after entering without resistance, the grou pwas led into a large hall. As they weighed their options, the door was thrown open and Saddam entered the hall, accompanied by several officers. The plotters surrendered peacefully, after recognizing that they had been lured into a trap.
A snap tribunal chaired by Taha Yassin Ramadan — himself destined for hanging during the American occupation — instantly convened and began meting out death sentences by the fistful: for civilians, hangings; for military men, shootings conducted with the rebels’ own weaponry.
This site owes a fair few posts to the Newgate Calendar, a heap of crime stories collected higgledy-piggledy in the 18th and 19th century. For a time, it was one of the books most commonly found in English homes.
Though we have even seen fit to feature it in a series, the Calendar as a source is typically much more interested in moralizing than in journalistic accuracy. Botched years and dates are the least of it; there are stories created from whole cloth, or wantonly transposed from one malefactor to another, and filtered by way of some third-hand source that has completely twisted the details.
Inasmuch as our interest hereabouts runs to the social life of the hanging-tree, we often have reason to welcome the Newgate Calendar’s inventions. But it should be certainly understood that it’s a source requiring care … as the next three posts will underscore.
Though not exactly the capital of capital punishment, the Peach State has a foundational place in the modern death penalty regime.
It was through a case originating in that state, Furman v. Georgia, that the Supreme Court in 1972 scrapped the country’s existing death penalty statutes. Many states then scrambled to rewrite capital statutes to pass constitutional muster, and in 1976 it was the Georgia version that the justices blessed, clearing the way for executions to resume.
Since that time, Georgia has put to death 57 men and (most recently) one woman, and it feels for all the world like it’s manifested a disproportionate affinity for questionable and unusual cases: the recent execution of Troy Davis despite serious doubts about his guilt is only the most current example. Hey, this is the state that once executed Homer Simpson.
To take one example, the discomfiting 1986 execution of a grievously mentally disabled man led Georgia to implement one of the first laws to protect such prisoners from execution … a law which by its very novelty in the 1980s has lately made headlines because it’s subsequently aged into one of the flimsiest and most obsolescent protections in the country.
It was also through the case of Georgia inmate Warren McCleskey that the 1989 Supreme Court rejected racial proportionality review in capital sentencing — and by this rejection signaled the end of an era of judicial reticence for the death penalty. Executions accelerated through the 1990s all across the United States; Georgia’s special twist, it would later emerge, was keeping secret audio recordings of theirs.
As we dial the clock back to 1996, Georgia’s Supreme Court has not yet found the electric chair unconstitutional but aside from that artifact the period, the cases are not so different from those today. These are a far cry from the strangest executions in Georgia’s history, unless the strangeness lies in their very typicality.