Posts filed under 'Wartime Executions'

1794: Robert Watt, British Conventioner

Add comment October 15th, 2019 Headsman

Our old familiar the Newgate Calendar supplies us with this narration of a Scottish Jacobin to pop the powdered wigs from Edinburgh to Westminster. A published version of the trial in question is available here, and a last-speech broadside awaits you here.

Watt is the only monument in Executed Today‘s pages to the attempted creation of a British National Convention to mirror the operations of that same body across the channel in revolutionary France. If successful, this body would have tended towards displacing the sovereignty of king and parliament, and it laid plains accordingly for an armed insurrection; in the event, it sat briefly and then was broken up with alacrity by ministers who fancied their own necks better than Mr. Paine‘s tongue.

Many members of this movement’s Scottish core were (as the text below eventually notes, just before it devolves into complaining about hostile press) sent not to the gallows but to the new penal colony at Botany Bay, Australia. You’ll find several of them — not including our executed Robert Watt — commemorated at Edinburgh’s Political Martyrs’ Monument.


(cc) image from Kim Traynor.

ROBERT WATT and DAVID DOWNIE

Convicted of High Treason, at Edinburgh, with Particulars of the Execution of a Traitor in Scotland

We are now arrived at an alarming period at the modern history of our country. Just engaged in the ruinous war with France, which continues with increasing obstinacy, to the very hour in which we write. Perplexed by treason at home, and threatened with invasion by our enemy, the nation was in a critical situation. Confederate bodies of dissatisfied men, were formed, from London to Edinburgh, pursuing a systematical course of treason, and corresponding with each other, until Government stretched out its powerful arm to crush the traitors. Many writers charge the ministry with oppression, but at such a time as this, better, surely, to support the constitution, corrupt as may be its administration, than suffer its subversion, and see ourselves thrown into that anarchy and confusion, sought for by such men as we shall soon bring before the reader.

Watt and Downie were principals in the Scottish Conspiracy, and were convicted of the crime of high treason. Their trial brought to light the particulars of the plot, to overthrow the constitution of Great Britain; and from which we shall, therefore, make a copious extract.

Their trial came on before the High Court of Justiciary, at Edinburgh, on the 3d of September, 1794, when Mr. Anstruther stated the case on the part of the Crown. He began, by observing, that such was the peculiar happiness of this country, that we had been unacquainted with the law of treason for nearly half a century. It was not his intention, if he possessed the powers, of inflaming the passions of the Jury against the prisoner: his object, was to give a plain, a dry narrative of the facts, and a succinct statement of the law.

The laws of treason were now the same in England and Scotland, and the duty of the subjects of both kingdoms should be the same. Scotland, in this instance, had reaped much benefit by the Union, as her laws of treason, previous to that period, were much more severe. The act of Edw. III. stated three distinct species of treason: 1. Compassing and imagining the death of the king; 2. Levying war against him; 3. Assisting his enemies. He would not trouble the Court or Jury with the two last: the single species of treason charged in the present case, was the compassing and imagining the death of the king; which was defined by the conceiving such a design; not the actual act, but the attempt to effect it. But the law which thus anxiously guarded the sovereign, was equally favourable to the subject: for it does not affect him until that imagination is fully proved before “men of his condition.” An overt act of treason is the means used for effectuating the purpose of the mind: it is not necessary to prove a direct attempt to assassinate the king: for the crime is the intention, and the overt act the means used to effect it. He wished not that these sentiments might be held as the opinion of counsel: they were founded on the construction of the ablest writers, Chief Justices Foster, Hale, &c, and, whatever could be proved against the prisoners, which may endanger the kings person, was an overt act of high treason, in the language of the ablest writers. After explaining more fully the distinct species of treason which applied to the present case, Mr. Anstruther said, he trusted that if he could prove any design whereby the king’s person is in danger, that was an overt act; if he was wrong, the judges would correct him. He would now state the facts on which these principles of law were to be laid.

The present conspiracy was not that of a few inconsiderable individuals: it had risen, indeed from small beginnings; from meetings for pretended reforms. It had been fostered by seditious correspondence, the distribution of libellous writings, and had, at last, risen to a height, which, but for the vigilance of administration, might have deluged the country, from one end to the other, with blood. The proceedings of these societies, calling, or rather miscalling themselves Friends of the People, were well known; their first intention was apparently to obtain reform; but this not answering their purpose, they proceeded to greater lengths. He meant to detail the general plans and designs formed among the seditious, and then to state how far the prisoners were implicated in them.

The first dawning of this daring plan was in a letter from Hardy, Secretary to the London Corresponding Society, to Skirving, the Secretary to the Friends of the People, here. He writes, that as their petitions had been unsuccessful, they must use separate and more effectual measures. Skirving answered, and admitted the necessity of more effectual measures; that he foresaw the downfall of this government, &c. Here also was the first notice of a convention; a measure which it is no wonder they were fond of, when they saw its effects in a neighbouring kingdom (France.) They meant not to petition Parliament, but to proceed in their own plan, and supersede the existing government of the country; and, in that case, the king’s life was put in danger.

Soon after, a convention, a body unknown to the laws of this country, met; and in this there would have been little harm, had their views been peaceable; but their objects were avowedly unconstitutional, and their intention to carry on their plans by force, and thus virtually to lay aside the prerogative of the king. This convention accordingly met, using all the terms, regulations, &c. adopted by the convention of another country, in which it might be said there was in reality little harm, but it was surely a marking proof of their designs. They meant not to apply to Parliament; for whenever that was mentioned, they proceeded to the order of the day. They resolved to oppose every act of Parliament, which they deemed contrary to the spirit of the Constitution, and were determined to sit, until compelled to rise by a force superior to their own. The Convention, indeed, was dispersed by the spirited conduct of a magistrate, (Provost Elder,) whose merit everyone was forward to acknowledge, and to whose active exertions the country was so much indebted; but another Convention was attempted to be called, who were to frame their own laws, and to be independent of the legislature; or, as they say, independent of their plunderers, enemies, and oppressors, meaning the King, Lords, and Commons: their resolutions will prove that they meant to create a government of their own, to do away the authority of what they called hereditary senators, and packed majorities; all which prove the intention of putting the king’s life in danger.

But what, it may be said, is all this to the prisoner at the bar? who, surprising as it may appear, about two years ago wrote letters to Mr. Secretary Dundas, offering to give information as to certain designs of the Friends of the People. These letters were answered by that right honourable gentleman with that propriety which has ever, marked his public conduct. The prisoner then corresponded with the Lord Advocate, the particulars of which would appear, as his lordship was subpoenaed. Since September 1793, this correspondence has ceased. Previous to that period, the prisoner was not a member of the Society of Friends of the People, nor of the British Convention; but his accession since to its measures, and the calling of another Convention, could be substantiated.

The Convention, indeed, though dispersed, did not cease to exist. In fact, a Committee of Correspondence, of which the prisoner was a member, was instituted, the object of which was to carry into effect the views of the last British Convention, and to elect delegates to a new one. Mr. Watt attended this Committee, and coincided in its measures, which were expressly to supersede the legislature: The prisoner had moved for a Committee of Union; and another was appointed called the Committee of Ways and Means, of both which he was a member. This last was a Secret Committee, kept no minutes, was permanent, and empowered to collect money to support “the great cause.” Mr. Downie was appointed treasurer, and it was to be the medium through which all instructions and directions were to be given to all Friends of the People throughout the kingdom, and was to procure information of the number of those that would spare no exertions to support the great cause. They corresponded with Hardy, respecting the calling of a new Convention, which was to follow up the purposes of the old one; and, as the prisoner was present, he was in this way coupled with the British Convention.

Their next attempt was to debauch the minds of the soldiers, and to excite them to mutiny; for which purpose a paper was printed, and circulated among a regiment of Fencibles then at Dalkeith. This paper, which was evidently seditious, would be brought home to the prisoner, for the types from which it was printed were found in his house, and a copy traced from him into the hands of a soldier.

The next charge to be brought against the prisoner, and the Committee of which he was a member, was a distinct and deliberate plan to overturn the existing government of the country. The plan proposed was this: — A fire was to be raised near the Excise Office, (Edinburgh,) which would require the attendance of the soldiers in the castle, who were to be met there by a body of the Friends of the People, another party of whom were to issue from the West Bow, to confine the soldiers between two fires, and cut off their retreat; the Castle were next to be attempted; the judges (particularly the Lord Justice Clerk) were to be seized; and all the public banks were to be secured. A proclamation was then to be issued, ordering all the farmers to bring in their grain to market as usual; and enjoining all country gentlemen to keep within their houses, or three miles from them, under penalty of death. Then an address was to be sent to His Majesty, commanding him to put an end to the war, change the ministers, or take the consequences. Such was the plan of the Committee of Ways and Means, as proposed by the prisoner.

Previous to this, it should have been mentioned, that all the Friends of the People were to be armed; for which purpose, one Fairley was dispatched round the country to levy contributions, and disperse seditious pamphlets; for which purpose, he got particular instructions from the prisoner. Reports were spread through the same channel, that the Goldsmith’s Hall Association were arming, and that, it was necessary for the Friends of the People to arm also, for they would be butchered either by them or the French. It would be proved, that the prisoner gave orders to Robert Orrock to make 4,000 pikes; and also orders to one Brown for the same purpose. These were to be used for completing the great plan; and Fairley’s mission was to inform the country of these intended proceedings. Another representative body was also formed, called “Collectors of Sense and Money,” who were to have the distribution of the pikes, and to command the different parties. In one instance, a person had been desired to carry some pikes to the Collectors; who made answer, that he could not do it, for the Collectors were not to be trusted yet.

Mr. Anstruther then recapitulated shortly the different heads, and concluded an elaborate and most clear and distinct pleading, of more than two hours and a half, by requesting the jury to lay no farther stress on what he had said than it should be proved, as it was meant merely as a clue to the evidence which should be brought before them.

The first witness called, was Edward Lauzon, a king’s messenger. Upon being asked if he was employed last summer to search the house of one Hardy, in London, Mr. Hamilton, counsel for the prisoner, objected to the question, and insisted that, before proving any other matter whatever, some direct overt act committed by the prisoner must be proved. Mr. Anstruther answered, that, before proving the prisoner guilty of being concerned in a particular plot or conspiracy, it was surely necessary first to prove that such plot or conspiracy existed. In the trials in the year 1745, before any particular overt act was attempted to be proved against any of the accused, there was always evidence adduced to prove the existence of a rebellion. The Court over-ruled the objection. The witness then swore, that he seized several papers in Hardy’s house, particularly a letter signed by one Skirving, and several others: also a printed circular letter, signed, “T. Hardy, Secretary.” These letters the witness produced. Mr. William Scott, Procurator Fiscal for the shire of Edinburgh, gave an account of the seizure of Skirving’s papers in December, 1793, and of the after-disposal of them. He produced several of these papers, particularly one intituled, “Minutes of Debate in the General Committee;” also several papers that were found in the lodgings of Margarot, Gerald, and [John] Sinclair. Mr. Scott swore to his being present at the dispersion of the Convention. The letter by Skirving and Hardy being authenticated by Mr. Lauzun, who swore he found it in Hardy’s possession, was then read.

John Taylor, of Fleet-street, London, was then called. He swore he was a member of the London Corresponding Society, and was acquainted with Mr. Hardy, who was Secretary to that Society. Being shown several letters and papers, he believed them to be Hardy’s hand-writing. The Society consisted of several divisions, about fourteen, he thought, in number; there were several Committees, particularly a grand one, which consisted of a member from each division, a Committee of Secrecy, and a Committee of Emergency. The latter was formed in May last. He attended a general meeting of the society at the Globe Tavern, on the 20th of January last, about one thousand were present. So great was the crowd, that the floor gave way, and the meeting adjourned to the Assembly Room, where the secretaries read the resolutions, which were afterwards printed. An address, founded on these resolutions, was afterwards carried by a show of hands. One of the resolutions was, that the motions of Parliament were to be watched over; and if troops were to be brought into the country, or the Habeas Corpus Act suspended, &c. that force ought to be repelled by force. The witness produced a copy of these resolutions, which he got from a person of the name of Muir, in the presence of Hardy. He saw several other copies about the room. The witness was also present at another meeting, held at Chalk Farm (about two miles from London) on the 14th of April last. The meeting was of the same nature as the former; there were about three thousand persons present, and, among others, Mr. Hardy.

Henry Goodman, clerk to Mr. Wickham, London, was present at the meeting at Chalk Farm, and heard the resolutions read. The resolutions now shown to him were, as far as he recollected, the resolutions passed at the meeting. He understood that it was the intention of the society to arm themselves, to protect the members in the same way that the National Convention of France had been protected by the citizens of Paris; that he heard this talked of in different meetings.

Alexander Atchison was a member of, and Assistant Secretary to the British Convention, and wrote part of their minutes: he deposed, that the papers now shown in Court to him, he had often seen before; that he took down the minutes as accurately as he could; that he recollected Mr. Callandar making several motions in the Convention; and particularly an amendment to a motion which was referred to a Committee. This amendment was read: it related to the agreement in the Convention to continue permanent, and watch over the motions of Parliament, &c. &c. that he knew Mr. Watt, the prisoner; and was, together with him, a member of the Committee of Union. That Committee met in January last, the Convention being previously dispersed in December — The purpose of this Committee was to keep up a spirit of union among the Friends of Reform, and that he was sent there by the Division of Cannongate. The great object of the Committee was to obtain the same kind of reform sought for by Mr. Pitt and the Duke of Richmond, about twelve years ago. That he was a member also of the Committee of the Ways and Means which was instituted for the purpose of paying past debts, and to defray the expense of future delegates to another Convention, to be held somewhere in England, which second Convention was meant for the same purpose as the British Convention, namely, obtaining the Reform first proposed by Pitt and Richmond; that he has often had conversations with different persons on the subject of Reform; that he recollected having seen a pike in the house of George Ross, in the presence of several blacksmiths, which was shaped like the head of an halbert. Being asked whether he ever gave a different account of what he had now sworn at any other place, he believed he never did; if he did it, it must be contrary to truth, and this he should say, though he should be guillotined for it.

Mr. W. Erskine, also counsel for the prisoners, here stopped the witness, who was removed. He said, that it was an established point in the law of Scotland, that a witness could not be affected by anything he had before said relative to the present subject of his examination; nor could it hurt him in any degree. Mr. Anstruther said, that this did not exist in the law of England. The Lord President observed, that it appeared to him there was really a discrepancy in the law in this respect. Mr. Anstruther here said, that to put an end to the dispute, and, as Atchison had conducted himself in such a manner, he would, so far from laying any stress on his evidence, request the jury to throw out of their minds every syllable he had used.

George Ross authenticated the minutes of Convention, and other papers; knew the prisoner at the bar, and had seen him at his own house.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk deposed as to the pikes being brought from Watt’s, and the fount of types, of which he had got an impression taken in the precise state they came from Watt’s house.

[Paper read — An Address to the Fencibles.]

James Sommeville, a printer, deposed as to the casting off the impression from the types.

William Watson, of Dalkeith, once saw Watt at his own house, but could not say whether the prisoner at the bar was the man. Remembered a Fencible regiment in Dalkeith, which was about the time he met with Mr. Downie, who carried him to Watt’s, to get a hand-bill about the Fencibles, which he had heard of, and was curious to see, but could not get it there; and went to one Kennedy on the South Bridge, from whence he received several copies.

The Lord Advocate said, that, except those (Downie and Stock,) against whom bills were already found, he meant to bring no other person to trial for treason.

Arthur M’Ewan, weaver, of Leith, a member of the British Convention, and also of the Committee of Ways and Means, of which last Watt was a member, deposed, that, at one of their meetings, Watt read a paper, proposing to seize the judges, bank, &c. to decoy the soldiers by a fire, &c. but did not know what was to be done with the persons seized, nor whether it was to be done in the day or night. Commissioners were to be appointed to take charge of the cash, but knew not what was to follow this. Deposed as to the proclamation to corn-dealers, and country gentlemen, and the address to the king to put an end to the war, &c. Watt asked him to accompany him to Orrock’s, to whom he (Watt) gave orders to make pikes as fast as he could, as he had 4000 to send to Perth, besides what he had to distribute in Edinburgh. Orrock made a draft of one: a gentleman’s servant asking what was their use, was told, that they were for mounting a gate. Knew that Fairley was sent into the country, and had visited a number of places; that he reported Paisley to be in a state of great readiness, but did not know what that meant. The witness disapproved of these proceedings, and would consent to nothing that would disturb the peace, or shed the blood of his countrymen; and he thought the plan proposed would have that tendency. Watt produced, at one of the meetings, a paper containing what was called fundamental principles, which he knew but little of. William Bonthorn was a member of the Society of the Friends of the People, but had resolved to withdraw, as things had passed he disapproved of. Watt, at one of their meetings, read a paper, of which he did not remember the particulars, as it confused him. The paper contained something about seizing the castle, raising an alarm by fire, &c. upon the supposition that numbers could be got to assist them. Remembered nothing of particular persons being intended to be seized; but thought the bank was mentioned; this paper frightened him much; it mentioned also the seizing the guard-house; recollected no numbers that were mentioned to carry this plan into effect. M’Ewan showed an opposition to it. The circular letter of the Committee was written by Mr. Stock.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk deposed as to the finding sundry papers in Watt’s house, one the drawing of a pike, and the paper sworn to by Atchison, in the Sub-Committee.

John Fairley, of Broughton, a delegate to the Convention, deposed, that his constituents met after the dissolution of that body. Heard that pikes were making, and Watt informed him of this, or rather showed him one. Watt said, that they were only intended for self-defence, and that none were to get them but those who applied and paid for them. Measures of government might drive them to despair, and cause bloodshed; but Watt said, he hoped there would be none, as the obnoxious or active against the cause of the people would be imprisoned. The soldiers would be glad of freedom, and deputations might be sent them. Watt proposed to show the arms to the collectors, which the witness objected to, as hazardous. In going to the West country, a parcel was left for him by Watt, containing paper for distribution, which he left at Stirling, St. Ninion’s, Kirkintulloch, Glasgow, Paisley, &c. On his return to Edinburgh, he went to the Committee of Ways and Means; that Watt, Downie, and M’Ewan were there, to whom he reported the result of his journey, Returned the instructions to Watt; they mentioned, he recollected, something about a plan, and Britain being free, Downie paid him the expenses of his journey.

Dr. Forrest, at Stirling, gave an account of Fairley’s calling on him, showing him his written instructions, &c. In these instructions there was a blank, which he supposed was to be filled up “arms.” Showed him the figure of a weapon like a halbert, which was preparing for defence, and that these weapons could be furnished by a person who he understood was about Edinburgh. Something passed about arming the people, and disarming the soldiers.

Robert Orrock, smith, first heard arms mentioned in G. Ross’s house in March last. In April Watt applied to him to make a pike, and he brought one to Ross’s, where Watt and other members of the committee were, and he left it at Watt’s desire. In May, Watt desired him to make more of that pattern, and some of a different kind. While making them, a person (Martin Todd) called and showed a form of a pike, which he refused to make. Brown also called, and told him he was making pikes for Watt, and that 1000 were wanted: but spoke of this as a secret, which alarmed the witness. The extent of his order was five dozen which were ordered by Watt, but paid for by Downie. He was told, if enquired about, to say they were for the top of a gate: never had an order for pikes before; but had made one for his own defence, without being employed by any person.

Martin Todd, smith, deposed as to calling on Orrock, to enquire about the pikes.

William Brown, a smith, said one Robertson called on him to bespeak several spears of a particular shape, for Watt; and at another time, he made fourteen spears for Mr. Watt, like mole spears. Recollected the conversation with Orrock, but did not say that such a number of pikes would be wanted.

John Fairley was re-examined, at his own desire. He recollected Watt saying, that the banks and public offices were to be seized. The most active against them were to be imprisoned, and couriers sent to the country to announce this. The Magistrates of Edinburgh were particularly spoken of.

Walter Miller, Perth sent money to Downie, for relief of distressed patriots in the cause of reform; never had authority for supposing that the new Convention had any object but reform by legal means.

Here the evidence of the Crown was closed.

Defence of Watt.

Mr. W. Erskine, junior counsel for the prisoner, said, that as the Court had sat so long, he would not trouble them with many words. He would rest his defence upon the correspondence carried on between the Right Hon. Henry Dundas, the Lord Advocate, and the prisoner, by which it would appear, that he had attended the meetings of the Friends of the People, with no other view than a design to give information of their proceedings. A letter from the prisoner to Mr. Secretary Dundas was read, which stated in substance, that, as he did not approve of the dangerous principles which then prevailed in Scotland, and was a friend to the Constitution of his country, he thought it his duty to communicate to him, as a good subject, what information he could procure of the proceedings of those who styled themselves Friends of the People. From an acquaintance with several of the leading men among them, he flattered himself he had this in his power; and then went on to mention some of the names of those leading men in Perth, Dundee, and Edinburgh. In the first of these places, he said, he had been educated, and had resided in the two last for a considerable number of years. It concluded with enjoining secrecy.

To this letter an answer was returned which was also read. It acknowledged the receipt of Mr. Watt’s and, after expressing a hope that things were not so bad as he represented, desired him to go on, and he might depend upon his communications being kept perfectly secret Another letter from Mr. Dundas to Mr. M’Ritche, the prisoner’s agent, was next read, in answer to one from Mr. M’Ritchie, requesting of Mr. Dundas what letters he had of the prisoner’s. The answer bore, that all the letters he had received from Mr. Watt had been delivered to the Lord Advocate.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk authenticated the letter of Mr. Dundas.

The Lord Advocate being sworn, in exculpation, he gave a distinct account of the transactions which he had had with the prisoner. He had conversed with him several times at his own lodgings; and he had at one time given him some information which he thought of importance. This was respecting the disaffection of some dragoons at Perth, which upon enquiry, turned out to be ill-founded. In March, 1793, his lordship said, an offer had been made to him to disclose some important secrets, provided he would give the prisoner 1000l. This he absolutely refused. However, sometime after, the prisoner having informed him that he was much pressed for money to retrieve a bill of 30l. his lordship, who was then in London, not wishing he should be distressed for such a small sum, sent him an order for the payment of it. All this happened previous to the meeting of the Convention; since which time, at least since October last, he did not recollect seeing or having any connection with the prisoner.

Mr. Hamilton contended, that the prosecutor had failed in bringing the most criminal part of it home to the prisoner. He dwelt long on correspondence between Mr. Dundas and Mr. Watt. He said, the prisoner had not deserted the service in which he had engaged; but had not had an opportunity of exercising it until the very time he was apprehended. He contended, that he was a spy for government; and it was well known that a spy was obliged to assume not only the appearance of those whose secrets he meant to reveal, but even to make part in their proceedings, in order to prevent a discovery. He alluded to spies in armies, and mentioned a melancholy circumstance which happened to one last war, a gentleman with whom he had the honour of being acquainted. A spy in an army, he said, was obliged not only to assume the uniform of the enemy, but even to appear in arms; and it would be exceedingly hard indeed, if taken in a conflict, that he should be punished for discharging his duty. He concluded with hoping the jury would bring in a verdict, finding the charges not proved.

The Lord President, after clearly defining the laws of treason, summed up the evidence, narrating and explaining the various parts with much candour; leaving it entirely to the jury to return such a verdict as their judgment should direct.

The jury withdrew about half-past five o’clock in the morning, and in about five minutes, returned with a verdict — Guilty.

The trial lasted nearly twenty-two hours. The jury were upwards of forty minutes considering the case of Downie: the majority agreeing among themselves that he was guilty, they reconciled themselves to this verdict a last, by unanimously consenting to recommend him to mercy, which they did in a very strong manner. Shortly after the following awful sentence of the court was passed upon these unfortunate men.

Robert Watt and David Downie, you have been found guilty of High Treason by your Peers. The sentence of the Court is, therefore, that you be taken from the place, whence you came, from thence you shall be drawn on a sledge to the place of execution, on Wednesday, the 15th of October, there to hang by your necks till you are both dead; your bowels to be taken out, and cast in your faces; and each of your bodies to be cut in four quarters, to be at the disposal of his Majesty: and the Lord have mercy on your souls!

[such gory sentences were no longer conducted in practice, as we shall see. -ed.]

The unfortunate prisoners received the dreadful sentence with much firmness and composure, and were, immediately conducted to the castle. Robert Watt was ordered for execution, but a respite came for David Downie: as soon as it was intimated to Downie, he started, as from a dream, and exclaimed, “Glory to God, and thanks to the king, for his goodness: I will pray for him as long as I live.” After which tears of gratitude flowed. He was transported for life.

About half past one o’clock on the 15th of October, the two junior magistrates, with white rods in their hands, white gloves, &c., the Rev. Principal Baird, and a number of constables, attended them the town officers, and the city guard lining the streets, walked in procession from the Council Chamber to the east end of Castle-hill, when a message was sent to the sheriffs in the Castle, that they were there waiting to receive the prisoner. The prisoner was immediately placed in a hurdle, with his back to the horse, and the executioner, with a large axe in his hand, took his seat opposite him, at the further end of the hurdle. The procession then set out from the Castle, the sheriffs walking in front, with white rods in their hands, white gloves, &c., a number of county constables surrounding the hurdle, and the military keeping off the crowd. In this manner they proceeded, until they joined the magistrates, when the military returned to the Castle, and then the procession was conducted in the following order:

The City Constables;
Town Officers, bare-headed;
Bailie Lothian and Bailie Dalrymple;
Rev. Principal Baird;
Mr. Sheriff Clerk and Mr. Sheriff Davidson;
A number of County Constables;
THE HURDLE,
Painted black, and drawn by a white Horse,
A number of County Constables.

The city-guard lined the streets, to keep off the multitude.

When they had reached the Tolbooth door, the prisoner was taken from the hurdle, and conducted into the prison, where a considerable time was spent in devotional exercise. The prisoner then came out upon the platform, attended: by the Magistrates, Sheriffs, Principal Baird, &c. Some time was then spent in prayer and singing psalms; after which the prisoner mounted the drop-board, and was soon launched into eternity.

When the body was taken down, it was stretched upon a table, and the executioner, with two blows of the axe, severed off the head, which was received into a basket, and then held up to the multitude, while the executioner called aloud, “There is the head of a traitor, and so perish all traitors.” The body and head were then placed in a coffin, and removed. Never was any execution conducted with more solemnity and order. The procession advanced with slow step, and the prisoner exhibited a most melancholy spectacle. He held a bible in his hand; his eyes remained in a fixed posture, upwards, and he was not observed to make one movement, or cast a single glance upon the multitude. He was much emaciated, and his countenance so pale, that, while on his way to the place of execution, he appeared almost lifeless; but, when he came upon the platform, he seemed to be somewhat revived, and behaved himself, during the awful solemnity, with due resignation and humble fortitude. The impression the situation had made upon himself seemed truly astonishing, as those who had ever seen him before, declared, they could not have known him to be the same person. His appearance was dirty, muffled up in a great coat; and he showed signs of peculiar agitation and remorse for the crime for which he was then going to suffer.

The surrounding multitude, during the execution of the awful proceeding, did not discover any other emotion than is usual upon occasions of any other executions. The town-guard, attended by the constables, lined the streets.

Robert Watt was born in the shire of Kincardine, and was, at the time of his execution, about thirty-six years old. He was the natural son of a Mr. Barclay, a gentleman of fortune and respectability; but like most other children of illegitimate parentage, he was brought up and educated under the name of his mother. He was, at about ten years of age, sent to Perth; where he received a very good education. Being sixteen he engaged himself with a lawyer at Perth; but being of a religious disposition, he was disgusted at this profession, and soon withdrew from the desk of his master. Soon after he went to Edinburgh, and engaged as a clerk in a paper-warehouse, where he lived happily and respectably for some years. His only complaint was a deficiency of salary. Having a desire to share in the profits, as well as the toils, of the business, he wrote to his father, and prevailed upon him to assist him with some money, to enable him to procure a partnership with his master. He then made proposals to the above purpose; these were, however, rejected by his employer. Being provided with money, he entered into the wine and spirit trade. His success in business continued very promising, until he was almost ruined by the commencement of the war. At this period, his acquaintance with the Friends of the People commenced.

Several other leaders of this conspiracy in Scotland were seized. Of those where convicted, the Reverend T. Fishe Palmer, William Skirving, Thomas Muir, Maurice Margoret, and Joseph Gerald, who were transported to Botany-bay. Numbers, to avoid the avenging arm of justice, fled to the United States of America, where, with impunity, they disseminated their treason, and poured out volleys of abuse against their native land. These renegades were no sooner landed in a new world, than they rallied round the footstool of faction there, by commencing editors of, and scribblers in, newspapers, which swarm in that boasted land of liberty. In their filthy columns, they extolled the murderous revolutionists of France, and laboured to incense Americans against their own injured country. It is fit these apostates should be pointed at. John Thompson, of Scotland, printed one of these inflammatory sheets, at Richmond, in Virginia: Matthew Duane, of Ireland, another in Philadelphia. John Dinmore, late an apothecary, at Walton, in Norfolk, planted his literary annoyance in Columbia, the seat of the American government, and, for his extraordinary scurrility against England, the Gallic-American President, Jefferson, made him State Printer, and, heaven forefend, a Justice of the American Peace. This inflammatory sheet he called “The Expositor.” In order to give the reader an idea of the infamy of the abandoned scribblers, we shall quote a note from Mr. Janson’s History of America. Speaking of Denmore, says Mr. Janson, “Among the vile scurrility of his Expositor, last summer, was the following: After noticing the introduction of the American minister, Mr. Monroe, to the king, he adds, ‘For once an honest man had appeared at the Court of St. James’s.'” Another paper, printed by Mr. S. Snowden, at the same place, and preferring England to France, makes this observation upon the paragraph, “It is, no doubt, difficult for an honest man in the Doctor’s (apothecary Dinmore’s) estimation of the word, to get admission there; yet, he cannot have forgotten, that he himself was within a cable’s length of having his name announced to his Britannic Majesty — not by Sir Stephen Cotterell, but by the Recorder of London, and Ordinary of Newgate, as joint Masters of the Ceremonies.”

Cooper, the bosom-friend of the hoary apostate, Priestley, the bitterest foe we had in the new world, so greatly misused the press, that the country of his adoption threw him into a prison.

Inferior scribblers against Britain, are almost without number.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1942: Mark Retiunin’s rebels of the gulag

Add comment October 12th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the survivors of a remarkable rebellion in a Soviet gulag camp were shot.

The Ust-Usinsky rebellion in Russia’s northern Komi Republic unfolded in the first months of that same year, under the leadership of an Archangel-area peasant named Mark Andreevich Retiunin.

Retiunin wound up in the area in the usual way, sentenced to the work camps for a bank robbery. But he’d been released in 1938 as a model, industrious prisoner, and now as a non-inmate civilian he managed forestry at the “Vorkutlag” camps near the city of Vorkuta.*

“He was one of those peasant guys who were tried as bandits during collectivization,” another prisoner remembered of him.

He walked like a bear, his red-haired shaggy head was slightly tilted forward, and his eyes looked bearish, too. He was a romantic. In his hut, standing on high stilts, lay a volume of Shakespeare. When I took it and opened it, Retiunin exclaimed “Now there was a man!” and began to recite by heart:

Yet better thus, and known to be contemn’d,
Than still contemn’d and flatter’d. To be worst,
The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,
Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear!**

“Do you understand? We live in hope, the rise is open! This is not given to every worm.”

From late 1941, pressure on the camp had increased frighteningly with the onset of open warfare against Germany: production quotas increased, and political purges pursued the supposed counter-revolutionary saboteurs that had been conjured by the preceding years’ purge trials. In hushed and furtive conversations, Retiunin marshaled fretful associates upon the incredible path of rebellion. “What do we lose if they kill us?” he reasoned. “We will die at labor tomorrow or in battle today. They will all kill one another in the camps, but first they will shoot all those convicted as counterrevolutionaries, including we civilian employees.” For a period of weeks, aided by a fortuitous vacancy in the local NKVD post, Retiunin and company organized their desperate bid to climb the open rise.

“Special Forces 41” named for either or both of the expiring calendar year, or the roster of their conspiracy, mounted their bid on January 24, speedily disarming flat-footed guards. About 50 camp prisoners joined them; many others fled for their lives. For a few impossible days they had the run of the area before word reached the capitals and a force dispatched by Beria arrived to suppress the revolt.

Retiunin himself was chased to ground with the surrounded remnants of Special Forces 41, and shot himself on February 2 after a furious all-day gunfight. Numerous other rebels were killed in combat over the course of those days; an official count has it 48 killed, 6 suicides, and 8 taken prisoner. But the captives were augmented in the months to come by escapees lurking in the wilderness or settlement fringes by ones and twos, rounded up gradually by a now all-too-attentive NKVD. On October 12, approximately 50 people convicted of involvement or complicity in the rebellion were shot en masse. To the extent anyone heard about the rebellion, they were officially slated with aspiring to “establish ties with either fascist Germany or Finland” although interrogations suggested that mere flight from the camps was the true objective of most, and some rebels actually dreamed of making their way to the Soviet front to earn their lives by establishing their patriotic bona fides.

* This city also gives its name to a completely distinct gulag revolt in 1953 — the Vorkuta uprising. Once a mining hub, latter-day Vorkuta has grown grimly depopulated as the coal veins have played out.

** The opening words of Act IV, Scene 1 in King Lear, spoken by Edgar — who will endure his outcast status to become king by the end of the play.

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2004: Ken Bigley, Iraq War hostage

Add comment October 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 2004, the British civil engineer turned hostage Kenneth Bigley was executed by his captors in one of the Iraq War‘s ghastly beheading videos.

Bigley was kidnapped on September 16 along with two American roommates from their shared house in the Mansour district; the whole trio was employed by a Kuwaiti contractor on construction projects in U.S.-occupied Baghdad.

The Zarqawi-led terrorist group Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad issued immediate demands on these three men’s lives for the release of women prisoners held by Iraq’s occupiers, and released videos of the beheadings of the Americans, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, when those demands went unanswered.

Bigley’s situation dragged on much longer, and embroiled Tony Blair’s British government in a damaging political spectacle. The terrified Bigley was made to plead for his life in multiple videos released by his captors. In one, dressed in an orange jumpsuit echoing the notorious American prison at Guantanamo Bay, the 62-year-old prisoner denounced the P.M. with the words, “Tony Blair is lying. He doesn’t care about me. I’m just one person.”

Despite this charge, there were indeed several attempts to free Bigley, short of the red line of actually meeting the ransom demand. The Irish government, which importantly had not dirtied its hands by participating in the war, discovered that Bigley had a claim on Irish citizenship; thinking it might thereby have greater credibility to intercede, Dublin issued Bigley a passport and sent Gerry Adams on the diplomatic offensive, to no avail. It’s also been reported that Bigley was nearly extricated by an MI6 operation that got so far as to load him, armed, into an escape vehicle before the ride was intercepted at a militants’ checkpoint.

Instead, on October 7, the militants read a statement denouncing the occupation of Iraq and then cut off Bigley’s head for the cameras, to great grief in Bigley’s home city of Liverpool. The footage has circulated online.

The Spectator provocateur and (already) M.P. for Henley Boris Johnson — who today occupies Blair’s old digs at 10 Downing Street thanks in no small part to New Labour’s eagerness for the Iraq blunder — filed an editorial notable for its incendiary meanness on the topic of (so the title says) “Bigley’s Fate”, somehow absurdly tied to a shot at Bigley’s hometown for a 1989 crowd crush disaster at a football pitch.

A request by the authorities for a minute’s silence [at a football match] in memory of Mr Ken Bigley, the news of whose murder by terrorists in Iraq had broken the previous day, was largely and ostentatiously ignored. Yet the fact that such a tribute was demanded in the first place emphasised the mawkish sentimentality of a society that has become hooked on grief and likes to wallow in a sense of vicarious victimhood …

we have lost our sense of proportion about such things. There have, as a correspondent to the Daily Telegraph pointed out this week, been no such outbreaks of national mourning whenever one of our brave soldiers is killed serving his country in Iraq.

The extreme reaction to Mr Bigley’s murder is fed by the fact that he was a Liverpudlian. Liverpool is a handsome city with a tribal sense of community. A combination of economic misfortune — its docks were, fundamentally, on the wrong side of England when Britain entered what is now the European Union — and an excessive predilection for welfarism have created a peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche among many Liverpudlians. They see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it. Part of this flawed psychological state is that they cannot accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes, but seek rather to blame someone else for it, thereby deepening their sense of shared tribal grievance against the rest of society. The deaths of more than 50 Liverpool football supporters at Hillsborough in 1989 was undeniably a greater tragedy than the single death, however horrible, of Mr Bigley; but that is no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon. The police became a convenient scapegoat, and the Sun newspaper a whipping-boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",England,Execution,History,Hostages,Iraq,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Wartime Executions

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1578: Jacob Hessels, “to the gallows, to the gallows!”

Add comment October 4th, 2019 Headsman

Flanders magistrate Jacob Hessels (Dutch link, as are most that follow) was hanged on this date in 1578.

He was a feared hanging judge — the story about him is that he would drift to sleep at the bench and awake with a start exclaiming, “to the gallows, to the gallows!” — who by profession and disposition was ideally suited for the so-called “Council of Blood” that would be seated in 1567 to help the Spanish Duke of Alba suppress the emerging revolt of the Low Countries against Habsburg sovereignty.


In this 1616 engraving by Simon Frisius, the cadaverous Duke of Alba presides over his Council of Troubles or Council of Blood.

He’s credited in particular with drafting the infamous sentence against Counts Egmont and Hoorn, but these were only highlights among a prolific career that earned him the hatred of the parties that chafed under imperial domination.

This was bad news for Hessels when one of those parties, Calvinists, mounted a coup d’etat that took control of Ghent in late 1577. We have in these pages previously encountered this period, in the form of the Calvinists’ persecution of Catholic monks; they also in the course of things imprisoned a number of secular officials associated with Habsburg/Catholic rule. Most of these would in time be ransomed unharmed; however, one of the principal leaders of the short-lived Calvinist Republic was Francois van Ryhove, who considered Hessels and another captive state’s attorney named Visch to be personal enemies and resolved upon their destruction.

Without color of any law or juridical proceeding, according to this Dutch-language history,

On October 4, 1578, he took the two prisoners out of their dungeon and had them carried outside of the gate in an armed carriage. Not far from town, the carriage stopped at Ryhove’s order, the prisoners were made to climb down, and Ryhove announced that they would be hung on a nearby tree immediately. He then mocked the old Hessels in a shameful way, and he went so far as to mistreat him viciously by grabbing his beard and pulling out a fistful of gray hair, which he put on his hat like a feather as an insignia of his revenge! His companions followed the mocking example of their unworthy leader; then the two unfortunates were hung to the tree.

Hessels and Visch, but especially the former, undoubtedly deserved death, and if that punishment had been imposed on them as a result of a legal judgment, few would have complained. But now they fell as the victims of a shameful, personal vengeance. Ryhove, the head of the Ghent party of revolution, the friend of Orange, had killed them without trial and his crime remained unpunished, for the prince had not power enough to make him feel his displeasure. Was it a miracle that the malcontents were crying out for revenge, that they were using the horrific crime committed by that one man as a pretext to also justify on their part to such atrocities against the Protestants, and that the angry Gentenaars in their turn again took revenge by assaulting the Catholic priests and looting the monasteries?

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1915: Cerkez Ahmed, disposable fanatic

Add comment September 30th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1915, Ottoman major Cerkez Ahmed (often Ahmet) hanged in Damascus.

The officer had been an important figure months earlier in the opening campaigns of Armenian genocide in the eastern province of Van where he operated as a paramilitary chief that verged so close to a brigand that he was eventually treated as one. Most egregiously, when two reformist Armenian parliamentarians named Vartkes Seringulian and Krikor Zohrab were arrested and deported to Syria, it was Ahmed who ambushed and murdered them.* (He was also the assassin in the prewar years of opposition journalist Ahmed Samim, but he’d long since been amnestied for that horror.)

Although in this he was enacting the state’s own policy, his proclivity for gorging himself on the valuables of his victims provided an impetus — a pretext, really — to eliminate him. The official communiques between officials determining his fate (and that of an associate) paint a grim and cynical picture. The following quotes can be found piecemeal in a number of sources, but they’re marshaled comprehensively in the open source volume Documentation of the Armenian Genocide in Turkish Sources under the heading “The Case of a Special Organization Major”.

The brigands Halil and Ahmed visited me today. They stated that having completed the massacres in the Diyarbekir area, they came to Syria to do the same for which purpose they said they are ready to receive the orders. I have them arrested. Awaiting your excellency’s orders.

-Telegram from the governor of Aleppo to Cemal Pasha, one of the “Three Pashas” who ran Turkey as a triumvirate


I feel dishonored. I served my country. I desolated Van and environs. Today, you car’t find a single Armenian there … I killed off the Armenian Deputies Zohrab and Vartkes. I grabbed Zohrab, threw him down, took him under my feet and with a big rock crushed his head — crushed and crushed until I killed him off.

-Ahmed, complaining to the intelligence officer Ahmed Refik (according to the latter’s postwar account)


In as much as I am convinced that Cerkez Ahmed committed these crimes by the order of Diyarbekir governor Reshid,** do you still find the liquidation of Ahmed absolutely necessary? Or, should I be merely content with Halil? Kindly respond by tomorrow evening.

-Cemal to fellow triumvir Talaat Pasha


His liquidation in any case is necessary. Otherwise he will prove very harmful at a later date. Talat.

-Talat’s reply to Cemal (on September 15/28, 1915)


The verdict against Cerkez Ahmed is execution. The requisite step will be taken in Damascus tomorrow morning.

-Cemal’s order (on September 16/29)

And he was.

“Undoubtedly Cerkez Ahmed was a scoundrel who deserved to be hanged not once but nine times,” mused the historian Ziya Sakir — who published these ciphered messages in 1943. “With three words uttered by administrative chief Talaat, the life of this creature, who was exploited for the sake of fanatic partisanship, was snuffed out.”

Many years later, Cemal Pasha’s chief of staff Gen. Ali Fuad Erden would reflect on this affair in his memoirs,

Indebtedness to given executioners and murderers is bound to be heavy … those who are used for dirty jobs are needed in times of necessity [in order to shift] responsibility. It is likewise necessary, however, not to exalt but to dispose of them like toilet paper, once they have done their job.

* Reshid Akif Reshid, an Ottoman senator and briefly a state councilor during World War I, provided noteworthy testimony to the postwar Ottoman parliament about the Armenian genocide, detailing the systematic use of extralegal “brigand” paramilitaries in conducting the slaughter: official orders from Istanbul to a provincial official ordered various Armenian communities “deported”; simultaneously, the ruling Committee of Union and Progress “undertook to send an ominous circular order to all points [in the provinces], urging the expediting of the execution of the accursed mission of the brigands. Thereupon, the brigands proceeded to act and the atrocious massacres were the result.”

** The governor referred to here is Mehmed Reshid, one of the genocide’s most enthusiastic agents and “the butcher of Diyarbakir” in Armenian memory. He was arrested after the war and might have been a candidate for this very blog but escaped the prospect of hanging by breaking out of prison and committing suicide when on the verge of recapture.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Murder,Ottoman Empire,Outlaws,Soldiers,Syria,Theft,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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1943: Amos Pampaloni, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin inspiration

Add comment September 21st, 2019 Headsman

Italian artillerist Amos Pampaloni, the real-life model for the title character of the novel and film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, miraculously survived execution on this date in 1943.

It occurred at the outset of the Cephalonia Massacre on September 21, 1943, which began a dayslong slaughter on that Greek island by German soldiers of their former Italian comrades. With some 5,000 victims, it’s one of the largest POW massacres of the Second World War.

Captain Pampaloni was among 500-odd officers deployed with the 12,000-strong Acqui Infantry Division. This formation had been part of fascist Italy’s invasion of Greece in 1940-41; after victory in that campaign, the Acqui Division occupied several Greek islands over the succeeding years, where German troops were also stationed.

The Pact of Steel uniting these powers melted abruptly in early September of 1943, when the Allies forced Italy into an armistice. For Italian forces standing in the field cheek-by-fascist epaulette, this forced a sudden and dangerous reckoning. Some units had barely even heard of the new situation before they were under German guns; in a best-case scenario, they had to decide within a few hours or days between radically different attitudes towards their up-to-now comrades-in-arms.

The Acqui on the Ionian island of Cephalonia (Kefalonia) was a case in point. In the days following the Italian armistice, the much larger German force presented its commanders an ultimatum to decide among three alternatives:

  1. Continue fighting alongside the Germans
  2. Fight against the Germans
  3. Surrender, disarm, and repatriate

While the last of these might seem the obvious course, disarming was contrary to the Italian high command’s ambiguous order neither to initiate hostilities with Germans, nor to cooperate with them. Moreover, the Cephalonia division got some reports in those confused days that the Germans weren’t always repatriating units that surrendered. The soldiery was polled on the options, and went for resistance.

Unfortunately the Italians were thoroughly outgunned in this fight, and the Allies refused to permit dispatching reinforcements from Italy that might easily be captured by the Germans. Within days the Acqui had been roughly brought to heel.

Outnumbered and suffering under accurate mortar fire, Pampaloni decided to surrender. The captain protested that it was against the rules of war when his men were systematically robbed of their wallets and watches, only to be told by the German commanding officer that those rules applied to prisoners, not to traitors.

The officer then shot the captain through the back of the neck, and the rest of his men, including the wounded, were mown down with machine gun fire. Miraculously still alive, Pampaloni remained conscious as a German soldier removed his own watch from his apparently lifeless body.

Captain Pampaloni was not, in fact, the only soldier from his company to survive. “The mule handlers were spared, because every mule responds best to his own master,” he said. “Ten minutes after the massacre the German soldiers left, singing.”

Captain Pampaloni went on to fight for a year with the Greek resistance on the mainland. Having witnessed the brutality of the conflict on Cephalonia, he was still shocked by the sight of partisans slitting the throats of German prisoners with their daggers — ammunition was too precious to be wasted on executions.

Cefalonia – crimine di guerra 1 from Va.Le. Cinematografica 78 on Vimeo.

Cefalonia – crimine di guerra 2 from Va.Le. Cinematografica 78 on Vimeo.

Numerous summary executions disgraced the German victory. (There’s a monument to the victims in Verona.) Our man Amos Pampaloni faced his on the first day of the general massacre; according to a 2001 profile in the Guardian,

Outnumbered and suffering under accurate mortar fire, Pampaloni decided to surrender. The captain protested that it was against the rules of war when his men were systematically robbed of their wallets and watches, only to be told by the German commanding officer that those rules applied to prisoners, not to traitors.*

The officer then shot the captain through the back of the neck, and the rest of his men, including the wounded, were mown down with machine gun fire. Miraculously still alive, Pampaloni remained conscious as a German soldier removed his own watch from his apparently lifeless body.

Captain Pampaloni was not, in fact, the only soldier from his company to survive. “The mule handlers were spared, because every mule responds best to his own master,” he said. “Ten minutes after the massacre the German soldiers left, singing.”

Captain Pampaloni went on to fight for a year with the Greek resistance on the mainland. Having witnessed the brutality of the conflict on Cephalonia, he was still shocked by the sight of partisans slitting the throats of German prisoners with their daggers — ammunition was too precious to be wasted on executions.

In the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Pampaloni’s fictional imitator survives thanks to a noble comrade who hurls his body in front of the fusillade.

Pampaloni didn’t appreciate Mandolin all that much, owing to its hostile depiction of the Communist partisan movement that he joined after surviving his execution. For those seeking alternative literatures, there’s also a 1960s novelization of the Greek resistance on Cephalonia by Marcello Venturi; written in Italian (as Bandiera bianca a Cefalonia), it’s long out of print in English as The White Flag.

* Prior to the Italian armistice, the Italian forces on the island were working on an arrangement to obey German command structures; hence, the brutal treatment of Italian prisoners who could be conceived as not merely prisoners of war, but traitors or rebels unprotected by any law of war. A German directive had explicitly demanded as much: “because of the perfidious and treacherous behaviour on Kefalonia, no prisoners are to be taken.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Germany,Greece,History,Italy,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1915: Augusto Alfredo Roggen, World War I spy

Add comment September 17th, 2019 Headsman

Uruguay-born World War I spy Augusto Alfredo Roggen was shot in the Tower of London on this date in 1915.

Like most German-on-British agents during the Great War — at least, the ones we know about! — he didn’t have much of a run. Although this son of a German national did it by the book by arriving legally and properly registering as a foreigner, he whistled on the security services’ frequency by sending a couple of postcards to a known-to-be-suspect address in the wartime espionage hub of Rotterdam.* The cards were copied and their sender was flagged.

After a few weeks of quietly monitoring his movements, British cops raided his hotel room while Roggen was on “holiday” at Loch Lomond. He had in his possession a revolver and equipment for writing in invisible ink; apparently he’d been intending to photograph facilities at Arrochar Torpedo Range.

Instead, he was tried at Middlesex Guildhall where he gave no evidence and made no defense. The intervention of the Uruguayan embassy on behalf of its national was to no avail.

* The Netherlands’ wartime neutrality made Dutch citizens — who could travel throughout Europe — natural spy recruits. The best-known monument of that era is the executed exotic dancer Mata Hari, who was actually a Dutchwoman named Margaretha Zelle.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Shot,Spies,Uruguay,Wartime Executions

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1917: Private John Abigail

Add comment September 12th, 2019 Headsman

Private John Abigail of the Royal Norfolk Regiment was shot on this date in 1917 for World War I desertion, at the village of Esquelbecq on the French-Belgian border.

He was a four-time offender, the last occasion judiciously ditching his post just before he was ordered over the top into the Passchendaele bloodbath.

Abigail’s name surprisingly appears carved on a war memorial plaque at St. Augustine’s Church in Norwich that long predates the humane 21st century rehabilitation of those shot at dawn. (See it here, at the very top of the right panel.)

The BBC has a short program about him available here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,France,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1916: Yakub Cemil, Ottoman putschist

Add comment September 11th, 2019 Headsman

Ottoman officer Yakub Cemil was executed on this date in 1916 as an aspiring putschist.

A Circassian infantryman who served under Enver Pasha in the 1900s, Cemil was an early and ardent supporter of the Committee of Union and Progress. This onetime underground party ascended to national preeminence in 1908, after which Cemil became a sturdy “weapon of the organization”.

He did not shrink to imbrue his hands with blood; allegedly, he assassinated journalist Ahmet Samin Bey in 1910, and on campaign in Libya against the Italian invasion he privately murdered a black lieutenant out of some combination of suspected espionage and racial animus. His implacability was his great asset and his great liability; the eventual father of post-Ottoman Turkeuy, Ataturk is perhaps apocryphally supposed to have mused, “If I one day mount a revolution, Cemil is the first man I want by my side, and Cemil is the first man I will hang afterwards.”

Such provincial homicides were but studies for the main deed of his days when in the 1913 Ottoman coup d’etat when he gunned down War Minister Nazim Pasha on the steps of the Sublime Porte as his CUP comrades barged in to force the resignation of the aging Grand Vizier and take the state firmly in hand.

It was an act that shook capitals around the world.


9 February 1913 edition of Le Petit Journal with a cover depiction of “un coup d’etat a Constantinople: muertre de Nazim Pacha”.

Ironically it was a desire for peace that brought his end. A couple of years deep into the catastrophe of World War I, Cemil rightly perceived the need to extricate his state from the conflict, and began making plans to topple the “Three Pashas” of the CUP whom he had helped to bring to power. His old friend Enver Pasha had no intention of approving the resulting death sentence — indeed, he had caught wind of it and tried persuasion to bring Cemil back onside — but when Enver Pasha was summoned to Berlin for a war council the fellow triumvir Talaat Pasha signed off on the execution with dispatch.

Rumors and legends abound concerning his death, such as shouting “Long live the Committee for Union and Progress!” before the firing squad opened up on him, and an agonizing half-hour bleed-out during which the expiring Cemil scrawled a patriotic slogan in the dirt with his own blood.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Ottoman Empire,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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1619: Melchior Grodziecki, Istvan Pongracz and Marko Krizin, Jesuits

Add comment September 7th, 2019 Headsman

Jesuits Melchior Grodziecki, Istvan Pongracz, and Marko Krizin earned martyrdom at the hands of the Calvinists 400 years ago today.

A Pole, a Hungarian, and a Croat, respectively, they were emissaries of their vast polyglot empire’s official religion who were unlucky to be in the wrong place when theological differences went kinetic and helped launch the Thirty Years War.

That wrong place was the Hungarian city of Kassa (today the Slovakian city of Košice) which was captured by Protestant Transylvanian prince Gabriel Bethlen on September 5, 1619. Confined to the Jesuit residence, these three were assailed by a mob of soldiers who broke in on the morning of September 7 and demanded their immediate apostasy, putting them to summary torture and eventual beheading when they refused.

All three were canonized in the 20th century.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Czechoslovakia,Execution,God,Habsburg Realm,History,Hungary,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!