Posts filed under 'Themed Sets'

Daily Double: Saddam Hussein crushes a coup

Add comment January 21st, 2016 Headsman

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.

Although as a young man Saddam had been a CIA asset against a previous ruler, Ba’athist Iraq was Soviet-aligned — and an enemy to American-backed Iran. As usual for the Cold War, everyone was interested in overthrowing one another’s proxies.

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.

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Themed Set: The creation of a Newgate Calendar legend

Add comment December 20th, 2015 Headsman

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.

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Daily Double: Georgia

Add comment November 14th, 2015 Headsman

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.

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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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