Posts filed under 'Wartime Executions'

1847: Manuel Antonio Ay, Caste War harbinger

Add comment July 26th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1847, the execution of Maya leader Manuel Antonio Ay in Valladolid kicked off the Yucatan’s decades-long Caste War.

Under Spanish administration, Mexico had a dizzying 16-tiered racial caste hierarchy.

The casta system was officially abolished when Mexico attained independence in 1821, but for Amerindians the newfound equality was more aspirational than real. It’s just that now they were looking up at Mexican-born criollo elites instead of Iberia-born peninsulares.

Either caste’s powers that be had long found found the Maya especially contumacious subjects; a Yucatan Mayan stronghold had, indeed, been the very last unconquered indigenous realm of the Americas to fall to Europeans — as late as 1697.

In 1846, a heavily Maya Yucatecan peasantry, strained by the economic extractions the Mexican state was imposing for its disastrous war with the United States, began rising against the overweening local gentry.

The progress and organization of these disturbances varied, but it’s the execution of our man, the 27-year-old chief of the village Chichimila, that traditionally marks turning-point galvanizing a full-scale rebellion. On July 18, as armed Maya regiments gathered in nearby Tihosuco, Valladolid’s authorities seized Miguel Antonio Ay for planning a rebellion. He had in his possession a letter from Bonifacio Novelo, a major Maya chief who would become one of the Caste War’s leading figures in the years to come — indeed, Terry Rugeley says in Yucatan’s Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War that Ay served for his persecutors as “a temporary substitute for Novelo, whom officials feared and hated more than any Maya.”

They’d never lay hands on Novelo, but his substitute was executed in the town square of Valladolid, and the body returned to exhibit in Chichimila in a futile attempt to cow resistance: Ay had, instead, become the first martyr of the coming war. Three days later, the gathering Maya army sacked the village of Tepich, beheading the colonel who commanded its defenses — the onset of generations of general war that persisted into the 20th century.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Martyrs,Mexico,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Treason,Wartime Executions

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756: Yang Guifei, favored concubine

Add comment July 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 756, the imperial consort Yang Guifei was expediently executed during the An Lushan Rebellion.

The Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, whose beloved concubine Yang was, undertook this cruel extremity only in great duress. Initially married to one of the emperor’s sons, Yang so enamored the emperor that he usurped the prince’s place and got the kid a different wife. In the c. 800 classic poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” the poet Bai Juyi mused on the smitten sovereign rushing headlong into waiting tragedy.

The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.
Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty,a
All his gifts were devoted to one person.

Indeed, over the 740s Yang’s relations rose at court on the strength of her hold over the emperor, causing no few resentments among courtiers now obliged to flatter them. She’s been cast as a femme fatale, a siren whose chords called the emperor to capsize his own ship of state.

The general An Lushan was the rock of his ruin. Though An Lushan’s revolt would one day claim Yang’s life, he was a great favorite of hers and eventually adopted as Yang’s son; it was whispered that the imperial gifts showered on this commander might reflect favor with the concubine quite surpassing the bounds of propriety.

The most important favor was command of all northern China’s garrisons, with 150,000-plus troops.

His influence (and the fact that he was not ethnically Han, but of Turkic and Iranic extraction) made him rivals at the imperial court, even including the concubine Yang’s cousin, chancellor Yang Guozhong.

One can speculate as to who suspected whom first, but as we’ve seen with the Roman Empire a sufficiently strong inducement to treachery inevitably becomes tantamount to the real thing: eventually one’s intemperate supporters or implacable enemies will cast the die for even the most retiring general. An Lushan was Caesar enough to cross the Tang’s Rubicon, which for him was the Yellow River, above which his armies had been confined.

In the winter of 755-756, An crossed this river and marched towards Chang’an (Xi’an, then the imperial capital and the world’s most populous city), styling himself the Emperor of Yan. This aspirant state proved far from durable, and vanished by 763 — but by the time that long term had come into view, all of our principal characters were dead.

Yang Guifei was the first of them. (Plenty of secondary characters — generals, eunuchs, rivals and family of rivals — were being put to death all along and well before Yang, of course.) As the rebel army advanced on the capital, Xuanzong and his court fled in panic, Yang included. One day’s march further inland towards Chengdu, the royal guards themselves rebelled. Embittered like many others by the sway Yang and her family held — and blaming the consort for the ignominious retreat they were embarked upon — the soldiers refused to proceed without Yang’s execution. Xuanzong had little choice under the circumstances but to assent to her summary strangulation.

The Son of Heaven made good his escape, and his kingdom prevailed in the fight. (An was assassinated in 757.) Xuanzong himself, however, had to abdicate in favor of his son before the chaotic summer was out, and lived out his last five years as Taishang Huang, “Retired Emperor”.

One can only guess at the regrets he had in those days for the beloved mistress sacrificed to the safety of his person and throne. It’s a circumstance that has become a staple of Chinese literature over the centuries since, from the aforeentioned Bai Juyi right down to the present day, in every medium imaginable.

In Bai’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”, the bereft former emperor at last sends a Taoist priest to the heavens in search of his lost love, whose spirit has not even appeared to him in a dream. Yang Guifei sends the messenger back with a last pledge of sundered love:

“Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments,
Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again.”
And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him
of their midnight vow, secret between them.
“On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver,
In the silent Palace we declared our dream was
To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing,
To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.”

Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days.
But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.

Yang Guifei’s tomb remains a popular tourist destination to this date.

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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,China,Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Myths,No Formal Charge,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Power,Sex,Strangled,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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1944: Ferruccio Nazionale, Ivrea partisan

Add comment July 9th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the fascist frogman unit Decima Mas Flottiglia MAS (English Wikipedia link | Italian) executed and publicly gibbeted the partisan Ferruccio Nazionale in Ivrea.


The placard around his neck claims the hanged man “made an armed attack on the Decima.”

The square where he’s hanging in these images is today named in his honor — Piazza Ferruccio Nazionale.

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1814: Two War of 1812 deserters

Add comment July 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date two centuries ago, there was — or at least, there was supposed to be — a military execution for desertion from U.S. forces during its War of 1812 against Britain/Canada.

I depend here on only a single source, this public-domain tome about the history of New York City.

There’s a noticeable discrepancy here in that the execution order (the first document) references, and names, two people sentenced to die — but the ensuing garrison orders consistently refer to “the prisoner” in the singular. I have not been able to clarify this discrepancy, and it’s worth noting that the Espy file of historic U.S. executions — which is incomplete, but nevertheless pretty complete — does not note an execution on or around this date. It’s possible that either or both of the men were pardoned; there had been an amnesty proclaimed in June for (successful) deserters who were still on the lam, and although that wouldn’t have directly covered these cases, it might have signaled a corresponding leniency liable to extend within the courts-martial system.

Headquarters 3d Military District,

N. Y., July 7th, 1814.

Capt. Moses Swett or officer commanding troops on Governor’s Island.

Sir :–The general court martial which convened on Governor’s Island on the 23d ult., of which Col. D. Brearly,* of the 15th Inft. is president, having sentenced John Reid and Roger Wilson, privates in the corps of artillery, to be shot to death — By power in me vested you are hereby directed to have the sentence carried into execution on the day and at the hour prescribed in the general order of the 3d inst., for which this shall be your warrant. I am, sir, your obedient servant,

Morgan Lewis, Major-General Commanding 3d M. D.

They didn’t stand on ceremony in the Third Military District, which comprised southern New York and northern New Jersey. (Hence the artillery batteries in Battery Park.)

Off the tip of Manhattan, at Governors Island, this warrant was put into execution the very next day.

Garrison Orders.

Fort Columbus, July 7th, 1814.

The troops on Governor’s Island will parade tomorrow morning at 11:30 o’clock on the Grand Parade, for the purpose of witnessing the execution of the prisoner [singular -- sic?] sentenced by a general order of the 3d inst. to be shot to death.

The troops will form three sides of a square, the artillery will form the right and left flank, the Infantry the rear; the execution parties, consisting of a sergeant and twelve privates, will parade at 11:30 o’clock and placed under the command of Lieut. Forbes, Provost Marshal; the guards of the advanced posts will have their sentries at their respective posts, and will repair to the parade at 11:30, those under charge of the Provost Marshal will join the execution party, for the purpose of escorting the prisoner to the place of execution.

The execution parties, in divisions preceded by the music with the Provost Marshal at their head, will march in front of the prisoner, the music playing the dead march; the guards formed in divisions will march in rear of the prisoner.


According to our source, the dirge “Roslyn Castle” was the go-to tune for a military execution at the time. It was a popular Scottish air alluding to a gorgeously ruined Midlothian fortress.

The procession will enter the square from the rear, face ten paces from the coffin placed in the center, upon which the prisoner kneels by a signal from the Provost Marshal. The music ceases, the warrant and sentence of death is read, the signal to fire is then given to the execution parties. By order of

M. Swett, Commander.

* Nephew of one of the founding fathers.

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1413: Pierre des Essarts

Add comment July 1st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1413, France’s treasurer Pierre des Essarts was beheaded and gibbeted on Montfaucon.

The backdrop for this disorderly drumhead execution is a popular rebellion of Parisian artisans and laborers. Known as the Cabochien Revolt after one of its leaders, the butcher Simon Caboche (“Simon the Skinner”), it dovetailed with an intra-French civil war pitting Armagnacs against Burgundians.


Armagnac vs. Burgundy. (Rimshot.)

With the mentally incapacitated Charles VI on the French throne, de facto executive power on the regency council that called the shots in his stead was violently contested by these rival factions.

The Burgundian Duke John the Fearless mounted a systematic push to nail down ultimate say-so in the French government. Were there electoral maps in Hundred Years’ War France — for this civil conflict took place even while English armies were ravaging the countryside — Paris would have been colored wine-red: mercantile Burgundy, whose territories ran up to the trade-happy Low Countries, espoused the more urban economic outlook and favored constraining the king’s own prerogatives — both going interests for Parisian burghers. John the Fearless won popularity proposing those old political chestnuts for the City of Light: tax abatement paid for by reeling in waste and corruption. By contrast, “Armagnac” branded the feudal and royalist party, led by Charles, Duke of Orleans.*

This volatile solution went bang when the Cabochiens rose in Paris a few days after Easter, trapping the king in the city. Though they had some sympatico with the Burgundians, John the Fearless’s attitude towards the Cabochiens is difficult to state with certainty — somewhere between outright conniving with them, and using his popular esteem to rein in the mob. Either way, backlash against the Cabochiens would redound to the favor of the Armagnacs — Backlash against things like hanging the provost on Montfaucon.

Pierre des Essarts had actually been elevated to his post by John the Fearless himself, after the latter took Paris in hand 1409 and executed a previous royal chamberlain, Jean de Montaigu. The Cabochiens, however, besieged him in the Bastille and finally drug him out to prison.

“Many Parisians, who in the previous year had shown great attachment to [Pierre des Essarts] … then changed their minds, which I do not understand,” one chronicler complained (Source). “One cannot explain this love of change, which always torments the capricious rabble. They became deeply resentful of him, harboured a mortal hatred of him, and demanded that another provost replace him.” (According to Karen Green’s introductory essay on the remarkable author Christine Pizan, an observer to these events, it was des Essarts’s willingness to cooperate with Armagnac factors charging peculation on the part of Burgundians that made him a target for his former allies.)

Though they amount to just a blip historically, the Cabochiens for a few months in 1413 stalked elites’ nightmares like the Jacobins would later do. That May, a mob barged into the royal palace of St. Paul and arrested the queen’s brother, adding him to several dozen crammed into prison on their say-so, and eventually having des Essarts’s head on a pike.

And just in time. By August, the wealthier part of the Cabochien movement had been bought off with some reforms, leaving the remnants ripe for smashing — and John the Fearless, popularity waning, ready to abandon Paris to the Armagnacs.

* The Armagnac name arrived via the Duke of Orleans’s marriage to the daughter of the Count of Armagnac. As Orleans was a mere strapling at this point (having inherited young because Burgundy assassinated his father), Armagnac guided the policy.

A few years on from the narrative in this post, Orleans would be captured at the Battle of Agincourt and spend a quarter-century as an English prisoner. Since he had plenty of time to kill, he made his name during his relaxed captivity as a poet. Whatever ravages he might have committed in service of civil strife in his youth, probably none lies heavier on his soul than launching the industry of Valentine’s Day schlock.

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1340: Nicholas Behuchet, Battle of Sluys naval commander

Add comment June 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1340, the English and French fought an early naval engagement of the Hundred Years’ War: the Battle of Sluys.

The English won the battle … and the French admiral wound up hanging from a mast.

At the outset of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, the French bossed the Channel and inflicted devastating sea raids on the English coast. In the long war’s first major battle at sea, a French fleet in September 1338 overwhelmed an English flotilla carrying valuable English wool to the Low Countries.

Nicholas Behuchet, one of the French commanders at this earlier battle, did not hesitate to massacre his prisoners.

Thus conquering did these said mariners of the king of France in this winter take great pillage, and especially they conquered the handsome great nef called the Christophe, all charged with the goods and wool that the English were sending to Flanders, which nef had cost the English king much to build: but its crew were lost to these Normans, and were put to death.

England’s allies were in the Low Countries, so too many battles like this stood to strangle the English cause in the crib. For near two years, French privateers had leave to ravage the English coast, while French troops overran Flanders and made the English Queen Philippa* hostage.

Seeking a breakout, King Edward III requisitioned English merchant cogs — there was no standing navy at the time — into a fleet of perhaps 160 or 200 vessels, heavy with soldiers to invade Flanders.

On June 24, two days after setting out from the Orwell estuary at Ipswich, Edward’s armada boldly fell upon a larger French fleet anchored at the Flanders port of Sluys.

The medieval chronicler Froissart’s account makes for riveting reading.** This was no stately ballet of seamanship but a gory close-quarters melee: as was characteristic for the time, the “sea” battle was mostly just about coming together for the respective fleets’ marines to board one another’s ships and murder anyone on board who wasn’t worth a ransom. The French admiral Behuchet lashed his ships together across the mouth of the harbor, a sort of floating breastwork that would enable the French soldiery to shimmy up and down the entire line no matter where the English focused their attack.

To the sound of “scores of trumpets, horns and other instruments,”

Fierce fighting broke out on every side, archers and crossbowmen shooting arrows and bolts at each other pell-mell, and men-at-arms struggling and striking in hand-to-hand combat. In order to come to closer quarters, they had great iron grappling-hooks fixed to chains, and these they hurled into each others’ ships to draw them together and hold them fast while the men engaged. Many deadly blows were struck and gallant deeds performed, ships and men were battered, captured and recaptured. The great ship Christopher [a large English cog previously captured by the French and situated in the French front row -ed.] was recovered by the English at the beginning of the battle and all those on board were killed or taken prisoner …


An illustration of the Battle of Sluys from Froissart’s chronicle. Note the mast of the ship at far left: it displays the English arms quartered with the French, Edward III’s heraldic assertion of sovereignty over both realms.

It was indeed a bloody and murderous battle. Sea-fights are always fiercer than fights on land, because retreat and flight are impossible. Every man is obliged to hazard his life and hope for success, relying on his own personal bravery and skill … [it] rage[d] furiously from early morning until afternoon, during which time there were many notable feats of arms and the English were hard put to it to hold their own, since they were opposed by hardened soldiers and seamen, who outnumbered them by four to one.

Edward III took an arrow or crossbow bolt to the leg — great-man historical legend has it that it was fired by Nicholas Behuchet himself — but captained his flotilla to an overwhelming victory, capturing most of the French ships and destroying the French, their Genoese allies, “and all who were with them … [they were] killed or drowned, not a single one escaping in the general slaughter.” Poetic license aside, it was a spectacular triumph for the English — and a crushing defeat for the French.†

In the 1596 play Edward III, which might have been co-written by Shakespeare, imagined the scene in the report of an escaped mariner:

Purple the sea, whose channel filled as fast
With streaming gore that from the maimed fell
As did the gushing moisture break into
The crannied cleftures of the through-shot planks.
Here flew a head dissevered from the trunk,
There mangled arms and legs were tossed aloft
As when a whirlwind takes the summer dust
And scatters it in middle of the air.
Then might ye see the reeling vessels split
And tottering sink into the ruthless flood,
Until their lofty tops were seen no more.

Let it not be said that in this instance the commander escaped the consequences of his folly. Behuchet, who insisted against advice on lashing the boats together and thereby sacrificed all maneuverability, didn’t have much room for maneuver himself when the victorious English hanged him at battle’s end from the mast of his own ship.

* Seen elsewhere in these pages successfully begging her husband’s pardon of the famed Six Burghers of Calais later in the war. Philippa was a homegrown native of the Low Countries, and her marriage to Edward III reflects the alliance between their respective regions.

** For a snappy modern gloss on the battle, check this excerpt of Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England.

It is said that no courtier dared give King Philip VI of France the horrifying news until a jester availing his station’s license for cheek informed him that “Our knights are much braver than the English.” Asked why, the fool replied, “The English do not dare jump into the sea in full armour.”

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Lawyers,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1979: Bill Stewart, ABC News reporter

Add comment June 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1979, the American Broadcasting Company journalist Bill Stewart was executed at a somocista checkpoint during Nicaragua’s bloody civil war.

And what is more, the deed was caught on film — pre-emptively balking the crumbling Nicaraguan dictatorship of the ability to, say, blame the killing on the Sandinista rebels.

Warning: This is the execution footage.

Stewart was stopped in a marked press vehicle in Managua, ordered to lie down, and then kicked and shot through the head while colleagues looked on. Though his summary execution by national guardsmen was taped by fellow journos in the convoy, the reasons for it are well into the fog of war: even the identity of the guardsman who pulled the trigger isn’t known. (The commander of the roadblock would claim that it was a “Private Gonzalez” who conveniently died in combat later the very same day.) The immediate “investigation” promised by dictator Anastasio Somoza didn’t really have much chance to get off the ground before Somoza himself had to take to the skies fleeing, on July 17, the collapse of his own regime. Whether the executioner also escaped the revolution, fled into exile, became a Contra guerrilla, or actually did die in the fighting, only God can say.

“The murder of American newsman Bill Stewart in Nicaragua was an act of barbarism that all civilized people condemn,” said U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who of course was backing Somoza.* “Journalists seeking to report the news and inform the public are soldiers in no nation’s army. When. they are made innocent victims of violence and war, all people who cherish the truth and believe in free debate pay a terrible price.”

Stewart’s career and murder are a principal inspiration for the 1983 film Under Fire.

* Or more precisely by this point, backing Somocismo sin Somoza — ease out the unpopular Somoza but keep the same system.

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1800: Suleiman al-Halabi, assassin of General Kleber

Add comment June 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1800 — which was the same date they buried his victim — the 23-year-old student Suleiman al-Halabi was put to death in Cairo for assassinating French General Jean Baptiste Kleber.

Casualty of the brief Napoleonic adventure in Egypt, Kleber had received supreme command of the expedition when Napoleon himself returned to France the previous year — a mission which involved running the English naval blockade that trapped the Armee d’Orient.

Kleber, a product of the French Revolution’s military meritocracy who had attained his rank capably suppressing the Vendee royalists, was certainly up to the martial tasks at hand. He routed a larger Ottoman-English-Mamluk force in March of 1800, and then smashed a revolt in Cairo.

But the Napoleonic invasion often figures as a periodization marker for this region: the germ of liberalism and nationalism that would tear apart the Ottoman Empire and set the scene for a recognizably modern Middle East. So it’s somewhat fitting that Kleber would be undone by a figure who could be lifted from the evening news,* the anti-occupation insurgent.

Suleiman al-Halabi (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a Syrian Kurd hailing from Aleppo. (“al-Halabi” means “of Aleppo”)

He had been in Cairo to study, but after a return visit home was induced by the Turks to attend himself to punishing the invader instead. He then made his way back to to Egypt where, disguising himself as a beggar, where he was able to approach the general innocuously and dagger him to death.

The French, of course, had just a few years before this point introduced its most distinctive execution device in place of the ghastly old methods, and employed it with egalite for commoner and king alike. Nor was France, as an imperial power, reluctant about exporting its invention to the every corner of earth.

But in this particular instance, the French decided to prioritize, er, cultural sensitivity.

The committee, after carrying through the trial with all due solemnity and process, thought it necessary to follow Egyptian customs in its application of punishment; it condemned the assassin to be impaled after having his right hand burned; and three of the guilty sheikhs to be beheaded and their bodies burned.

The “guilty sheikhs” in question were men to whom the killer had confided — not his plan, exactly, but the fact that he was on a jihad mission. Hey, close enough.

As for Suleiman al-Halabi himself,

The executioner Barthèlemy sat down on Suleiman’s belly, drew a knife from his pocket, and made a large incision to widen the rectum, then hammered the point of the stake into it with his mallet. Then he bound the patient’s arms and legs, raised the stake the air and mounted it in a prepared hole. Suleiman lived for four hours, and he had lived longer save that, during the absence of Barthèlemy, a soldier gave him a drink which caused his immediate death.

(Impaling victims could live for agonizing days, but the water caused Suleiman, mercifully, to quickly bleed out.)

Not content with going all Vlad the Impaler, the French then paid homage to the invasion’s scientific sub-theme** by shipping Suleiman’s remains back to France for use as an anthropological exhibit.† His skull still remains at the Musee de l’Homme to this day. What’s left in his homeland(s) is a martyr’s memory.

According to the scholar al-Jabarti, whose chronicle is one of the principal sources on this episode, the investigation indicated that Suleiman undertook his mission for no ideology save his family’s desperate need of the purse the Porte was willing to offer. But in the ensuing decades’ growth of nationalism and, eventually, anti-colonialism, the brave young Muslim dying on a spike to slay the French commander could not help but be viewed in an exalted light. (Notably, at the acme of Arab nationalism, the Egyptian writer Alfred Farag celebrated Suleiman as an avatar of resistance in a 1965 play. “I do not kill for revenge,” Farag’s Suleiman avers — and when pressed for the reason, he has a one-word reply: “Justice.”)

* Indeed, the name has been in the news: there’s a Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood in Aleppo that has seen fighting during the ongoing Syrian civil war. Since it’s even a Kurdish neighborhood one can’t but suspect that it’s named for the man featured in this post; however, I haven’t been able to establish that with certainty. If any reader knows, a comment would be most welcome.

** Napoleon brought a corps of scientists and intellectuals along on his invasion, kicking off the modern Egyptology craze. His mission also uncovered the Rosetta Stone — although that artifact now resides in the British Museum because of the aforementioned naval blockade.

† According to Dark Trophies: Hunting and the Enemy Body in Modern War, phrenologists hailed Suleiman’s skull as an outstanding exemplar of criminality and fanaticism.

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1535: Elisabeth Wandscherer, wife of Jan van Leiden

Add comment June 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1535, in the doomed Anabaptist commune of Münster, the dictator Jan van Leiden personally beheaded one of his 16 wives.

If it seems unfathomable from the standpoint of the 21st century to picture the famously pacific Anabaptists as millenarian theocratic polygamists, that’s in no small measure due to Leiden himself.

His kingdom of Münster lasted only a year, but its wreckage at the end led the successive strains of this Reformation movement towards very different forms of radicalism than Leiden’s sword-arm exercised.

The background preceding Anabaptist Münster was municipal conflict among Catholics, Lutherans, and Anabaptists. Small wonder that when the Anabaptists — the wild-eyed radicals among these groups — got control of the place,* the Catholic Prince-Bishop put Münster under siege.

That cordon of enemy troops strangling the city shaped much that followed.

Münster’s leading Anabaptist theologian, Bernhard Rothmann, defended polygamy thus:

God has restored the true practice of holy matrimony amongst us. Marriage is the union of man and wife — “one” has now been removed — for the honor of God and to fulfill his will, so that children might be brought up in the fear of God …

Freedom in marriage for the man consists in the possibility for him to have more than one wife … This was true of the biblical fathers until the time of the Apostles, nor has polygamy been forbidden by God. (Source)

In the first place, it killed the Anabaptists’ original leader Jan Matthys when Matthys trusted his theology so far as to believe an Easter Sunday (1534) sortie against the Prince-Bishop’s men would enjoy divine favor. Instead, Matthys’s head wound up on a pike.

This decapitation — literal and figurative — dropped leadership onto the head of our man Jan, which got very big indeed over the subsequent 14 months. Or at least, so say Jan’s foes and eventual killers; as observed by the Communist intellectual Karl Kautsky, who mounted a late 19th century defense of the Anabaptists, we know these Münster rebels almost exclusively through the dark glass of their mortal enemies’ lurid propaganda.

The Anabaptist city council (which Jan soon dissolved) had already expelled all citizens who refused adult re-baptism, the movement’s signature (and namesake) tenet. Citizens, however, meant men: the wives didn’t get run off with their husbands and evidently were often left behind to tend households and property that the men expected to resume soon enough.

As a result, the gender imbalance in besieged Münster reportedly ran to 3:1, and Jan goggled at his good fortune like a 25-year-old would do. (He was actually only 25 years old, a former barkeep. He was also already on a bigamous second marriage.)

Having already declared himself king and basically the divine intercessor, and gotten the city to go along with it, Jan van Leiden promulgated polygamy on July 23 — directing men to seek out second and third brides as their first and second ones got pregnant. Barefoot and pregnant, ladies! Maybe it would have been a great plan for explosive population growth, if only that Catholic army under the walls had consented to just hunker down for a generation or two.(Introduction of polygamy triggered an immediate internal revolt led by a blacksmith named Möllenbeck, which Jan’s team crushed.)

There’s always been the assumption, though, that this move so alien to any other strand of the Reformation throughout Europe was more personal than political. Jan took sixteen wives. One was Matthys’s former wife, soon elevated to Queen; most of the rest were in their teenage years.

Many — who can say just how many? — were probably content to indulge his reputedly (reputed by his enemies!) voracious libido because

  1. the besieged city soon began starving; and,
  2. the guy didn’t take to dissension

In its last months, Münster’s people, faint with hunger, were fed dozens of public executions, of the morally corrupt or the politically unreliable. Considering that the withering city sheltered a mere 9,000 souls at the outset,** it was a positively Stalinesque pace, surely exacerbated by the fast-deteriorating strategic situation.

Elisabeth Wandscherer, one of those 16 wives, is supposed to have been beheaded in the market on June 12, 1535, by the very hand of her husband for her “disobedience.” By the account of a hostile Catholic chronicler, said disobedience consisted in remonstrating with Jan van Leiden over the luxury of his own household vis-a-vis the suffering city, and seeking leave to desert Münster.

Whatever added measure of loyalty, vigilance, or zeal might have been anticipated from such a scene was by this point far too little to preserve the city. Before the month was out, the Prince-Bishop had overrun Münster and held Jan van Leiden in chains — now bound in his own turn for the executioner.

Even to this day, Münster’s town hall has a slipper said to have once belonged to Elisabeth Wandscherer.

* By means of an entirely legal municipal election.

** Population figure per this biography of Jan van Leiden.

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1919: Eugen Levine, Bavarian Soviet leader

1 comment June 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1919, Bavarian communist Eugen Levine (or Levien) was shot by the Freikorps for his role in the Munich Soviet.

Levine (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a St. Petersburg Jewish bourgeois whose early idealism led him to a Socialist Revolutionary (SR) terror cell. He did time in Siberia after Russia’s 1905 revolution was smashed.

Having moved to Germany to study, Levine became involved in World War I’s antiwar struggle, which in turn positioned him to be a key player in the communist movement in postwar Germany.

With the end of the Great War, Germany’s destiny was settled with bare knuckles. The now-communist Russian government, whose safety was imperiled from every direction, looked hopefully to a revolutionary proletariat in the more advanced neighboring economy of Germany to consolidate its own position as well as to meet the Marxist mandate for transnational revolution.

The Bolshevik Karl Radek urged an audience of Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s KPD that “without the socialist revolution in Germany the Russian workers’ revolution, dependent on itself, would not have sufficient strength to build a new house on the ruins left behind by capitalism.” (Source)

Others saw these revolutionaries in a less flattering light.

Nonetheless, Munich mounted a revolt breaking away an independent Bavarian state that would eventually usher in a Bavarian Soviet Republic. This state Eugen Levine seized control of on April 12, 1919, with a communist putsch against the expressionist playwright who had served as its first head of state.* Levine would be the second, and last, in that office.

In the end, the KPD in Munich — and not only there, but throughout Germany — simply lacked the organizational strength or the mass mobilization to sustain the attempted revolution(s) against its inevitable foes. By May of 1919, its threadbare forces had been overwhelmed by right-wing soldiers and paramilitaries.** Defenders of the city and actual or perceived revolutionaries were shot out of hand by the hundreds.


This obviously staged photo purports to depict a Freikorps execution of a (theatrically unfazed) Bolshevik in Munich in 1919. (Source)

Levine’s treatment was, if equally certain, at least marginally more ceremonial.

Captured in hiding a few days after the incursion, Levine was saved for a show trial† at the start of June.

He met it in impressively good cheer, despite a good idea what was coming.

We Communists are all dead men on leave. Of this I am fully aware. I do not know if you will extend my leave or whether I shall have to join [the late] Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. In any case I await your verdict with composure and inner serenity. For I know that, whatever your verdict, events cannot be stopped … Pronounce your verdict if you deem it proper. I have only striven to foil your attempt to stain my political activity, the name of the Soviet Republic with which I feel myself so closely bound up, and the good name of the workers of Munich. They — and I together with them — we have all of us tried to the best of our knowledge and conscience to do our duty towards the International, the Communist World Revolution.

Left and center parties raised a pan-Germanic outcry to stay the executioner’s hand, but Levine was shot two days after condemnation.‡

Munich transmuted, with this conquest, from an outpost of the revolutionary vanguard into a veritable far-right hothouse: just weeks after Levine’s execution, Adolf Hitler would make his fateful acquaintance with the NSDAP in Munich. Within a few years he and his germinated their own Bavarian revolution. Munich and its beer hall (which the Freikorps had used for summary executions in May 1919) were long hallowed of the Third Reich.§

* The deposed president, Ernst Toller, “hanged himself” in 1939. Auden paid him tribute in moving verse.

Dear Ernst, lie shadowless at last among
The other war-horses who existed till they’d done
Something that was an example to the young.

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends; but existing is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.

** The aide-de-camp of the Freikorps Epp that marched into Munich that first week of May was the future SA chief Ernst Röhm. Also participating in this sortie: early Nazi leaders (and eventual Hitler rivals) Gregor and Otto Strasser, and future Wannsee Conference participant Wilhelm Stuckart.

† The young lawyer Max Hirschberg drew first dibs on defending the doomed Levine before his drumhead court, but faint-heartedly passed the assignment off. Hirschberg would remember the moment with shame: “I was too insecure and too cowardly to confront the scornful sneer of the reactionaries,” he wrote.

Maybe Hirschberg’s harsh self-judgment steeled his soul, for soon the “orgy of brutality, bloodthirstiness, and injustice aroused in me a decisive transformation.” He began to aggressively seek out hated revolutionaries to represent in the teeth of the political winds. Hirschberg had a notable mano-a-mano courtroom confrontation with Adolf Hitler in 1930; he had to flee Nazi Germany in 1934, but built a career in New York where he blazed trails with his work on wrongful convictions. There’s a summation of his career in this pdf; or, see the 2005 biography Justice Imperiled.

‡ Primary newspaper coverage (e.g., London Times, June 9, 1919) confirms the date; the “July 5″ widely cited in online articles is mistaken.

§ The Nazis erected a memorial to the Freikorps who crushed the Bavarian Soviet; its remains can still be seen today.

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