Posts filed under 'Daily Doubles'

Daily Double: The Iranian Revolution

1 comment May 8th, 2013 Headsman

The 1979 Iranian Revolution that ousted the U.S.-installed Shah struck a rich vein of official enemies from the ancien regime to prosecute.

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.

Legendary English foreign correspondent Robert Fisk covered the Iranian Revolution on the ground. He remembered later:

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.


Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dramatic firing squad execution in Sanandaj, August 1979.

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Daily Doubles

Daily Double: Century-Old English Legal Novelties

2 comments January 29th, 2013 Headsman

Hangings on consecutive dates in 1913 — neither a show-stopper on its own, but each with a curious legal twist — mark our next two dates.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Daily Doubles,Themed Sets

Daily Quintuple: The Morant Bay rebellion

Add comment October 20th, 2012 Headsman

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 on 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.”*

Fearing a Haiti-like general revolution, Jamaican Governor Edward John Eyre — once an Australian explorer, which is why you can find his name on a New South Wales wine label — bloodily crushed the uprising.

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Daily Doubles,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Jamaica,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries

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Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich

7 comments April 21st, 2012 Headsman

On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide, leaving his associates to face the music for World War II.

From the rich mine of Soviet wartime propaganda posters at Davno.ru (also see its Victory Day cards).

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Daily Doubles,Themed Sets

Daily Triple: 1880 and death

3 comments January 19th, 2012 Headsman

Around the world in 1880 crimes …

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Entry Filed under: Daily Doubles

Daily Double: The Path to Power in Pyongyang

Add comment January 3rd, 2012 Headsman

With the death a few weeks ago of North Korea dictator Kim Jong-il, his son Kim Jong-un “inherits great comrade Kim Jong-il’s ideology, leadership, character, virtues, grit and courage” and, of course, power.

While North Korea is notoriously opaque when it comes to reading the political tea leaves, it’s at least arguable that Kim Jong-un’s path to power has been set up over the preceding months by a flurry of executions.

For our next two posts, we note two whose politics were wrong enough to die this time last year.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Daily Doubles

Daily Double: Stalinism east to west

1 comment November 26th, 2011 Headsman

It’s a trivial observation that Russia is really big, but it does bear noticing that Russia is really big. Nine time zones big, after cutting back from eleven.

As a consequence, when the boss goes off the rails — as such characters have been wont to do — and given the transport and communications infrastructure of an industrial state, one man’s paranoia in Moscow can wreck lives from the Dnieper to the Pacific.

Two dates this weekend from the height of Stalin’s 1937 purges see a Mongolian and a Finn who each thought themselves good communists destroyed in Moscow by the system they supported.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Daily Doubles

Daily Double: 1945, and the legacy of Valkyrie

1 comment February 2nd, 2011 Headsman

By February of 1945, Nazi Germany was in quite a fix.

Its last big offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, had been repulsed in the west to no lasting effect other than the thousands of squandered men; in the east, the Red Army was smashing its way through Poland and into the Reich itself, advancing within 70 kilometers of Berlin.* The war’s outcome was self-evident; everyone who was anyone was trying to cut the best deal possible with the soon-to-be-conquerors.

Old Adolf, though — he was determined to check out with all of Germany for his pyre. Götterdämmerung: the Twilight of the Gods. The man loved himself some Wagner.


Albert Speer said that this scene of Brunnhilde‘s immolation from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung was the last thing the Berlin Philharmonic performed before it evacuated Berlin in 1945.

Though one can’t speak for every single German, it’s safe to say that the Teutonic consensus at that moment would have trended quite a bit less pyromaniac. After all, they were the kindling.

The reason Der Fuhrer remained at liberty to enact this weird and destructive climax was his efficiency in scotching threats to his life or leadership from the upper echelons of the Reich.

And he was still at it even as the war slipped away: here, just weeks before the fall of Berlin, adherents of the previous year’s near-miss assassination attempt were still being shuffled off this mortal coil.

These next two dates are not literally the last of the Stauffenberg affair, but they’re a sort of metaphorical last — for these tragic, bumbling dissidents, and the regime they could not topple.

These dates have a fitting, entirely coincidental postscript: on February 4, 1945, the Yalta Conference opened — and Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill set about shaping the postwar world.

* Liberating Auschwitz in the process.

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Entry Filed under: Daily Doubles

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Daily Double: The High Treason Incident

Add comment January 24th, 2011 Headsman

It’s a century since Japan extirpated its anarchist menace.

“Anarchists in Japan!” begins our (enthusiastic) source. “For many the very idea is surprising.”

Japan’s popular image is of a hierarchical and regimented society, while the Japanese are widely regarded as unswervingly loyal servants of the company and the state. Even within Japan there are many Japanese who are unaware of the anarchist movement’s existence, of the martyrs who have died for the cause, and of the sustained struggle that has been fought against the capitalist state and the inhumanity it has perpetrated over the years.

Now, sure, Japan’s modernizing Meiji government was challenged by the feudal rearguard.

But even “hierarchical,” “regimented,” “unswervingly loyal” Japan displayed the characteristically lethal conflicts of the early 20th century: Communist assassins, wartime moles, nationalist putsches.

In 1910, a bust of anarchists caught scheming an imperial assassination led to a guilt-by-association roundup known as the High Treason Incident, an in camera trial of 26 anarchists hysterically “connecting” people to friends to comrades to alleged inspirations like Glenn Beck’s blackboard. One of the accused (according to Shusui Kotoku) had been badgered into “admitting” having once talked admiringly about the Paris Commune.


Newspaper sketch of the High Treason Incident defendants. (From here.) Shusui Kotoku is on the left; Suga Kanno is in the center.

Where radicalism itself is treasonable, small surprise that a trial of 26 radicals resulted in 24 death sentences. The offended sovereign majesty generously commuted half of them.

Over January 24 and 25 in 1911, the less fortunate dozen faced death, just days after their convictions.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Daily Doubles

Themed Set: 2010

Add comment January 8th, 2011 Headsman

At 1,100-odd posts as of this writing, we’ve chronicled a fair few historical executions in different lands and places since our launch.

But whatever our volume, the world’s [real] headsmen do more efficient work than its antiquarians.

Executions in the contemporary world have averaged several per day over recent years (conservatively, 714 total in 2009; 2,390 in 2008), and those are just the documented ones: observers have long believed the true tally to be several times any given year’s official count.

North Korea, for instance, is notoriously opaque on the point, but is believed to carry out at least hundreds per year; figures for China, the perennial global leader, are derived from counting those officially announced, but many occur that are not publicized and the real number is considered a state secret. And that’s leaving aside the annual harvest of semi-official, extrajudicial stuff.

The bottom line is that with each passing day’s Executed Today post, the shelves of tales yet untold only groan with still greater weight. It’s bound to bury us, sooner or later.

Before it does, we offer this next week a nod to the death penalty in the here and now … or at least, last year: seven different trips to seven countries’ scaffolds (or modern-day simulacra thereof), an insufficient but perhaps not unrepresentative look at the the modern executioner — inexorably at work day by day, faster than you read these words.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Daily Doubles,Themed Sets

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