Posts filed under 'Wrongful Executions'

1683: Lord Russell, Whig martyr

Add comment July 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1683 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London the great Whig parliamentarian William, Lord Russell was beheaded with a legendary want of dexterity by Jack Ketch.

The third son of the Earl (later Duke) of Bedford, Lord Russell emerged from a decade of comfortable obscurity in the Parliament’s back benches to become a leading exponent of the nascent Whigs* opposed to royal absolutism and to Catholicism — two heads of the same coin, for the Whigs, given that the heir presumptive James had controversially converted to Catholicism.

The national freakout from 1678 over an alleged “Popish Plot” to undo Old Blighty gave Russell his cause; his leadership of the resulting parliamentary bid to exclude James from royal succession made the gregarious Russell “the governing man in the House of Commons”.

Lord Russell was a man of great candour, and of general reputation; universally beloved and trusted; of a generous and obliging temper,” his friend Gilbert Burnet recorded of our man. “He had given such proofs of an undaunted courage and of an unshaken firmness, that I never knew any man have so entire a credit in the nation as he had.”

Russell was, Burnet allowed, “a slow man, and of little discourse, but he had a true judgment, when he considered things at his own leisure: his understanding was not defective; but his virtues were so eminent, that they would have more than balanced real defects, if any had been found in the other.”

Chief among those virtues was his wholehearted sincerity for his cause — a passion the source of both his renown, and his destruction. Russell was heard to espouse the view that James ought not merely be excluded from succession, but executed like his father.

Matters never quite approached that point, but the crisis provoked by the Exclusion Bill firebrands led King Charles II to dissolve parliament in 1681, depriving the Whigs of their legal perch. In the ensuing years politics played out not as legislation but conspiracy, and the crown’s rather more successful harassment of same: many of the chief Whig actors were driven offstage to scaffolds, dungeons, or continental exile.

The half-dozen most eminent Whigs remaining — to whom, besides Lord Russell, we number the king’s illegitimate son Monmouth, the Earl of Essex, Baron Howard of Escrick,** Algernon Sidney, and John Hampden† — formed a sort of informal Council of Six who met secretly to consider the bad options available to the fractured Whig movement. Some section of the wider Whig network in which this Council operated turned eventually to considering the most desperate of measures.

Their Rye House Plot schemed to waylay and assassinate the royal person near a fortified manor handily on the king’s route back to London from the Newmarket races. It was owned then by a radical former soldier of Cromwell‘s New Model Army.

It has been long debated to what extent any of the top Whigs knew of or actively participated in this Guy Fawkesian plot, or its complement, a projected armed rising of the sort that Monmouth would indeed mount in 1685. One school of thought is that the Tories seized it as an expedient to eviscerate the remaining Whig leadership by conflating the entire movement with a regicidal scheme; another is that the Whig insistence upon its martyrs’ innocence — and Lord Russell is the chief man in this pantheon — has amounted to a fantastic propaganda coup.‡

In June 1683, a salter who was in on the Rye House planning got a cold sweat and informed on the Whigs. This backstab earned a royal pardon for himself, and started a familiar policing sequence of incriminated conspirators turning crown’s evidence and informing in their turn on the next part of the network.

Many of the Whigs fled to the Netherlands, received there by the House of Orange which would seat itself on the English throne inside of six years.

Lord Russell, however, refused to fly. He landed in the Tower of London by the end of the month, to face trial as a traitor on the evidence of his association with other Whigs and his entertaining the plan of raising an armed revolt. The judge’s summation to the jury even underscored that “You have not Evidence in the Case as there was [in other Rye House cases] against the Conspirators to kill the King at the Rye. There was a direct Evidence of a Consult to kill the King, that is not given you in this Case: This is an Act of contriving Rebellion, and an Insurrection within the Kingdom, and to seize his Guards, which is urged an Evidence, and surely is in itself an Evidence, to seize and destroy the King.”

Lord Russell’s case shifted around the fringes of actual innocence — those plans for Insurrection within the Kingdom, he said, occurred sometimes at meetings he happened to attend but only off on the side, or without Lord Russell’s own involvement or support. (Speaking from the scaffold, he would several times insist that his acts were at worst misprision of treason, which was no longer a capital crime at this point.)

Against this the crown produced Lord Howard, a cravenly interested party to be sure, who saved his own skin by testifying that the six-headed cabal was down to planning the specifics of the places where a rebellion might best be stirred up, the procurements of arms and bankroll that would be necessary to same, and how to draw Scotland into the fray as an ally. “Every one knows my Lord Russell is a Person of great Judgment, and not very lavish in Discourse,” Howard allowed on the point of Russell’s active assent to the plans. “We did not put it to the Vote, but it went without Contradiction, and I took it that all there gave their Consent.”

David Hume would observe in his History of Great Britain that Russell’s “present but not part of it” parsing didn’t make for a very compelling story. “Russell’s crime fell plainly under the statute … his defence was very feeble.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of an 1825 painting of Lord Russell’s trial, commissioned of George Hayter by Lord Russell’s admiring kinsman John Russell, Duke of Bedford. John Russell also wrote a biography of his famous ancestor. The unbroken succession of Dukes of Bedford from William Russell’s father continues to the present day; the current Duke of Bedford, 15th of that line, is one of Britain’s richest men.

Conscious of the great pulpit his scaffold would offer, Lord Russell drafted with the aid of his wife a last statement vindicating his own person and the Whig cause that flew into print before the onlookers at Lincoln’s Inn Fields were dipping their handkerchiefs into his martyrs’ blood.

Nor did I ever pretend to a great readiness in speaking: I wish those gentlemen of the law who have it, would make more conscience int he use of it, and not run men down by strains and fetches, impose on easy and willing juries, to the ruin of innocent men: For to kill by forms and subtilties of law, is the worst sort of murder …

I never had any design against the king’s life, or the life of any man whatsoever; so I never was in any contrivance of altering the government. What the heats, wickedness, passions, and vanities of other men have occasioned, I ought not to be answerable for; nor could I repress them, though I now suffer for them.

These notices drew furious confutations from Tory pamphleteers aghast at the face these traitors had to forswear their malice against King Charles; a battle of broadsides to control the historical narrative ensued, and was resolved in the Whigs’ favor by the imminent conquest of power by the aforementioned House of Orange. The Whig-aligned William and Mary reversed Lord Russell’s attainder in 1689 — but that’s never stood in the way of historians’ debates.

In a much lower historical register, Lord Russell’s execution was egregiously bumbled by the London headsman Jack Ketch, who had to bash repeatedly at the man’s neck before he could remove it from the shoulders. It is largely from this event that Ketch derives his lasting reputation as an incompetent and/or sadistic butcher, mutually reinforcing with Russell’s martyr status.

Ketch would later claim in a published “Apologie” issued against “those grievous Obloquies and Invectives that have been thrown upon me for not Severing my Lords Head from his Body at one blow” that his prey

died with more Galantry than Discresion, and did not dispose him for receiving of the fatal Stroke in such a posture as was most suitable, for whereas he should have put his hands before his Breast, or else behind him, he spread them out before him, nor would he be persuaded to give any Signal or pull his Cap over his eyes, which might possibly be the Occasion that discovering the Blow, he somewhat heav’d his Body

and besides that Ketch “receav’d some Interruption just as I was taking Aim, and going to give the Blow.” How would you like it if someone came to your workplace and did that?

The damage to Ketch’s reputation was already done. Two years later, en route to the block for a subsequent failed bid to topple the Stuarts, the Duke of Monmouth tipped Ketch with the scornful charge not to “hack me as you did my Lord Russell.” When Ketch botched that execution too, he was nearly lynched — but escaped the scaffold to live on in Punch and Judy and in the English tongue as the definitive lowlife executioner.

* Short for “Whiggamores”, who were Covenanter rebels in the 1640s. “Tories”, by contrast, took their name from Irish Catholic outlaws: each party became known by the slur its foes attached to it.

** Yes, another one of those Howards: this Howard’s great-grandfather lost his head for the Ridolfi intrigue.

† Hampden survived the suppression of Whig intrigues long enough to coin the term “Glorious Revolution” when the Stuarts were finally overthrown

‡ See for instance Lois Schwoerer, "William, Lord Russell: The Making of a Martyr, 1683-1983" in Journal of British Studies, January 1985 for a skeptical-of-Russell reading of the evidence. “The government did not concoct the plot; it was frightened by the revelations, whatever use it made of them. There is no doubt that proposals for an insurrection of some kind were discussed; Russell’s impetuosity and extremism make it more likely than not that he was an active party to these discussions. What is in doubt, since nothing came of the discussions, is how far the parties had gone in developing a concrete plan for a rising.”

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1651: Wilhelm Biener, faithful counsellor

Add comment July 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1651, Wilhelm Biener, late the chancellor of Tyrol, lost his head to the rancor of Tyrol’s landed aristocracy.

A barrister by training and eventually a judge, Biener or Bienner (English Wikipedia entry | German) transitioned into a court position under Leopold V, Archduke of Austria. Leopold’s death in 1632 left a four-year-old heir, Ferdinand Charles; the boy’s mother, Claudia de’ Medici, leaned increasingly on Biener’s counsel as she ably kept Tyrol in order (and out of the devastating Thirty Years’ War) while little Ferdinand aged towards his majority.

As a commoner, no dynastic entanglements of his own divided his attentions from the state’s own interest, a fact that Claudia de’ Medici recognized by elevating Biener to the chancellorship in 1638, and that the land’s magnates recognized in the strictly levied taxes Biener extracted from their resentful purses.


Detail view (click for full image) of Karl Anrather’s 1891 painting of Wilhelm Biener holding forth against the Tiroler Landtag, from the Ferdinandeum at Innsbruck.

We’ve seen quite often enough in these pages that the danger undertaken by such figures should their enemies ever find power over them mitigates the honors and emoluments they are like to enjoy while in office. One gets a sense of the undercurrent of biding violence from the remark of the Bishop of Brixen, directed to forward the required revenues in a letter less deferential than a senior cleric thought he was due: “The man deserves to lose the fingers that could write such an intemperate effusion!”

For Biener, the volcano opened under him with the death of his patron Claudia de’ Medici on Christmas Day 1648. Her boy Ferdinand Charles was all of 20 years old now, wet behind the ears and enamored of courtly profligacy. Despite his affection for Biener and his long service to his mother, the young prince would vacillate on sparing the consigliere until it was too late.

Biener’s enemies struck with a secret trial accusing him of wetting his own beak on the imposts he had imposed on Tirol; the account below of what followed from a travelogue probably reflects the posthumous myth of Biener more faithfully than it does the real man.

[Biener] was ultimately condemned, in 1651, to lose his head. Biener sent a statement of his case to the Archduke Ferdinand Karl; and the young prince, believing the honesty of his mother’s faithful adviser, immediately ordered a reprieve. The worst enemy and prime accuser of the fallen favourite was Schmaus, President of the Council … and he contrived by detaining the messenger to make him arrive just too late in Rattenberg, then still a strong fortress, where he lay confined, and where the sentence was to be carried out.

Biener had all along steadfastly maintained his innocence; and stepping on to the scaffold, he had again repeated the assertion, adding, “So truly as I am innocent, I summon my accuser before the Judgment-seat above before another year is out.” When the executioner stooped to lift up the head before the people, he found lying by its side three fingers of his right hand, without having had any knowledge that he had struck them off, though he might have done so by the unhappy man having raised his hand in the way of the sword in the last struggle. [more likely they were folded in prayer. -ed.] The people, however, saw in it the fulfilment of the words of the bishop, as well as a ghastly challenge accompanying his dying message to President Schmaus. Nor did they forget to note that the latter died of a terrible malady some months before the close of the year.

Biener’s wife lost her senses when she knew the terrible circumstances of his death; the consolations of her director and of her son, who lived to his ninetieth year in the Franciscan convent at Innsbruck, were alike powerless to calm her. She escaped in the night, and wandered out into the mountains no one knows whither. But the people say she lives on to be a witness of her husband’s innocence, and may be met on lonely ways proclaiming it, but never harming any. Only, when anyone is to die in Büchsenhausen, where her married life passed so pleasantly, the ‘Bienerweible’ will appear and warn them.

Living on in Tyrol folk tradition, Biener took a leap into the Romantic-era national consciousness thanks to writer Hermann Schmid, who popularized Biener’s legend with a 19th century historical novel, The Chancellor of Tyrol; public domain versions can be read online in two volumes (1, 2); a theatrical adaptation by Josef Wenter is still staged to this day.


Marker honoring Wilhelm Biener in the Austrian Tyrol town of Rattenberg, where Biener was executed on July 17, 1651.

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1948: Kiralyfalvi Miklos, Hungarian Catholic

Add comment June 11th, 2014 Headsman

London Times, June 9, 1948:

SCHOOLS DISPUTE IN HUNGARY
CARDINAL’S REPLY TO MINISTER
CATHOLICS’ CONCERN

BUDAPEST, June 8
The village priest and other persons held responsible for the murder of a policeman and the wounding of two others in a village in north-east Hungary last Sunday will be tried in Budapest on Thursday.

The letter of protest from the Minister of Education to the Primate, Cardinal Mindszenthy, says that the villagers had clearly been aroused to violence by the priest’s sermon, in which he spoke against the projected nationalization of the schools. They went straight from church to the mayor’s house and the municipal buildings, where the council had voted by a majority in favour of the nationalization, and the policeman was killed while trying to protect the mayor. The Minister asked the Cardinal to put an end “by central decree” to this pulpit agitation, adding: “If not, the responsibility will be shifted where it belongs, and the law will be evoked upon all who continue it or direct it.”

The Cardinal, in his reply, says that he knows no more of the incident than is contained in the Minister’s letter, and therefore can take no stand upon it. He adds that the idea of nationalization is still causing great excitement among Catholics all over the country, an that the only way to end the excitement is to abandon nationalization. He denies that the agitation is directed centrally (that is, by himself), and puts the responsibility on those who “insist on putting forward such provocative measures.”

Church’s Divine Right

The Primate has already refused to follow the example of the Protestant churches, which have agreed with the State that nationalization shall go through, but that their ancient seminaries shall be excluded and the teaching of religion in the schools continued, and that the State shall grant them a large annual payment, gradually decreasing, for 25 years. On the contrary, in his third pastoral letter, which was read in all Catholic churches on Sunday, the Cardinal said that nationalization violated natural law and the Church’s divine right.

People were saying, the pastoral letter continued, that it was now time for the State to take over; but certain principles, among them the ten Commandments, were timeless. It called upon the faithful “to pray for strength to resist with all their might this violation of the immortal soul.” Never had the shameful misleading of the people been so great in Hungary as now. The faithful must refuse to allow their families to read the newspapers of those who opposed their faith, and must offer a Novena to God that the “Satan prowling among us like a roving lion may be driven away.”

It is in this guise that the Cardinal sees the Communists. They see him as an inflexible survivor of the Middle Ages.

It was in the village of Pocspetri that all the trouble went down: a march to the local municipal building to protest school nationalization. For years after, Pocspetri would be shorthand (Hungarian link, as is the next) in the official press for any clerical backlash — something right out of the Middle Ages.

Kiralyfalvi, at his trial

At the end of this march, a policeman was dead. It’s alleged now — in anti-communist post-Cold War Hungary — that what really happened was that one of the policemen deployed for crowd control accidentally triggered his own gun and killed himself with it.

Whatever occurred in the march, it was a productive incident for Hungarian communists then executing their political takeover of Hungary. The resulting show trial (more Hungarian) is sometimes seen as one of the signal events in a concomitant crackdown on organized religion — a potential pole of opposition to the Soviet-backed state. The victim, of course, enjoyed the fallen cop’s prerogative, a fast-track beatification by the propaganda ministry. (No need for Hungarian to get the point of the pictures in this pdf.) Miklos Kiralyfalvi got the death sentence, but the prerogatives the church was focused on — those were the real prize.

London Times, June 12, 1948:

MURDERED HUNGARIAN POLICEMAN
PRIEST SENTENCED TO DEATH

BUDAPEST,June 11
Janos Astezlos, the priest whose trial on a charge of inciting his villagers to the murder of a policeman began here yesterday, was sentenced to death this afternoon. The villager who actually killed the policeman was also condemned to death, and of the other four who took part one received life imprisonment and the other three 12 years.

Such, five days after it happened, is the end of this affair, though not of the dispute that lies behind it. In this week’s edition of the Catholic weekly Hazank Mr. Barankovics, head of the Catholic Party in Parliament, which has at least 16 per cent of the country’s votes, writes that a true Christian is bound to defend the right of the Catholic Church to keep the schools, because once they were lost the Church would have nothing left to do but celebrate Mass, and its whole cultural influence would be gone. “Whoever is our leader,” he says, referring to rumours that he disagrees with the Cardinal, “we are bound to act in the same way.” Of the murder the newspaper writes that the Church never counselled violence and regrets deeply what happened.


BUDAPEST, June 11. — The villager accused of killing the policeman was hanged here tonight. -Reuter.

(The priest’s sentence was commuted to a prison term. Only Kiralyfalvi was executed for the Pocspetri murder.)

On St. Stephen‘s Day 1948, Cardinal Mindszenty himself was arrested for treason. This was old hat for the cardinal; he’d been arrested for opposing Bela Kun‘s interwar people’s republic, and arrested again by the Nazi collaborationist government in 1944.

This time, he copped a life sentence.

Briefly released during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Mindszenty fled to the American embassy as Soviet tanks subdued the country. He would live on the embassy grounds for the next 15 years, a potent symbol of living martyrdom against communism until he was finally released to Vienna.

If your Magyar is up to snuff, this documentary on the Pocspetri incident might be enjoyable.

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1850: Five Cayuse, for the Whitman Massacre

Add comment June 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1850, five Cayuse were publicly executed in Oregon City for the Whitman Massacre.

Beginning in earnest in the 1830s, Anglo settlement in the Oregon Country presented for the native inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest the same Hobson’s choice that had confronted tribes further east long before: resist or accommodate.

The New York-born couple Marcus and Narcissa Whitman* were two of the most notable figures among the hundreds, and then thousands, of settlers pouring into the territory every year. In 1836, they founded on the banks of the Walla Walla River a Christian mission to the nomadic Cayuse who roamed the territory. It’s in present-day Washington State, which was then part (with the current U.S. states of Oregon and Idaho) of a single frontier territory collectively known as Oregon.

The Whitmans’ early settlement, offering medicine, education, and (of course) proselytizing, proved a success at first; it would become for several years a waypoint on the developing Oregon Trail.

White diseases came with the settlers.

The Cayuse people had already dwindled (pdf) to just a thousand or two after the decimations of smallpox and other plagues swept the region in the decades preceding. Now, outbreaks of measles were ravaging those remaining.

Marcus Whitman, a doctor as well as a spiritualist, proved unable to check the new epidemic. Rumors went abroad that the missionaries were bewitching or poisoning the Cayuse, as the vanguard of a coming territorial conquest; the Whitmans themselves were very keen to the hostile feeling the situation had engendered and had even heard whispers that they were the targets of assassination plots. Bravely, they stayed.

“Perhaps God thought it for the best that your little child should be called away,” Narcissa Whitman said in strange consolation to the grieving mother of an Anglo child who also succumbed to measles in 1847. “It may calm the Indians to see a white child taken as well as so many natives, for otherwise we may all be compelled to leave within two weeks.” (pdf source, op. cit.; this document also reconstructs a detailed narrative of the unfolding tragedy)

But that remark was only days before the terrible November 29, 1847. On that cold autumn Monday, a small party of Cayuse led by a chief named Tiloukaikt fell on the mission and slaughtered both Whitmans plus another 11** inhabitants of the little compound.

Some 54 surviving women and children were taken hostage, and several of these died in custody as well. A Canadian official of the Hudson’s Bay Company hurried to ransom the captives at the price of 62 blankets, 63 cotton shirts, 12 muskets, 600 loads of ammunition, 37 pounds of tobacco, and a dozen flints.†

This quick response might have forestalled a worse tragedy for the missionaries — but as far as the Cayuse went, the die was already cast. A volunteer militia of Oregonians under Cornelius Gilliam soon mobilized to retaliate, driving many Cayuse into the Blue Mountains.

By mid-1848, spurred in part by the Whitman bloodbath, Congress officially incorporated the region as the Oregon Territory; arriving early in 1849, the new territorial governor Joseph Lane immediately opened negotiations with the Cayuse to hand over the perpetrators of the massacre. With federal troops arriving later in 1849, the Cayuse at last capitulated and gave up five warriors: Tiloukaikt, the leader; Tomahas; Kiamasumpkin; Iaiachalakis; and Klokomas. (There are numerous alternative transliterations of these names.)

They were tried in Oregon City, the territorial capital at the time — a town of 500 or so on the Willamette River Falls — in a landmark case: the first proper death penalty trial in the young territory.‡ This would fall a little short of modern standards, and not just because it was held in a tavern for want of a regular courthouse. The prosecution was not especially rigorous linking all the defendants to specific violent acts, but the defense’s recourse to Cayuse cultural practices that held shamans liable for the failure of their medicine conceded the point by implication. The judge‘s final instructions simply directed his jury to “infer” the defendants’ culpability by virtue of “the surrender of the Defendants by the Cayuse nation as the murderers, the nation knowing best who those murderers were.” So why even have the trial? Kiamasumpkin, against whom no evidence was ever individually presented, went to the gallows insisting that he didn’t even arrive to the Whitman Mission until the day after the massacre.

All five were condemned in the end, and executed by prominent early pioneer and lawman Joe Meek.§ “On the 3d of June an election and a hanging match took place at Oregon City,” ran the Aug. 22, 1850 story in the New York Tribune — for the Whitman massacre had been a matter of national interest. “The town was full of men and women, the former coming to see how the election resulted, and the latter to see how the Indians were hung.”

“Their tribe, the Cayuses, gave them up to keep peace with the whites. Much doubt was felt as to the policy of hanging them, but the popularity of doing so was undeniable.”

Fears that the quintuple hanging would stoke a running conflict with the Cayuse were not altogether misplaced, but over the subsequent years the dwindling tribe was simply dwarfed by over 30,000 newly arriving settlers lured by a congressional grant of free land. By 1855, the defeated Cayuse were forced onto the small Umatilla Reservation, ceding (along with the Umatillas and the Walla Wallas) 6.4 million acres to whites. The Cayuse tongue was extinct by the end of the century.


Present-day memorial obelisk at the site of the Whitman Massacre, now a national historic site. (cc) image from Jasperdo.

* Present-day Whitman College (Walla Walla, Wash.) is named for them.

** Figures of both 13 and 14 (inclusive of the Whitmans) are cited in various places for the Whitman Massacre’s body count; the discrepancy turns on whether one’s tally includes as a casualty Peter Hall, who escaped from the mission, fled to Fort Walla Walla, and then made a panicky attempt to reach The Dalles. Hall disappeared into the wilderness, and was never heard from again.

† Ransom covered gratis by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The Espy file‘s index of U.S. executions lists only a couple of undated executions many years before under informal frontier justice.

§ Cousin to the recent First Lady Sarah Childress Polk.

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1666: Andreas Koch, witch hunt skeptic

1 comment June 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1666, the pastor Andreas Koch suffered the pains of standing up against witch hunts in his town of Lemgo: Koch himself was beheaded as a wizard.

Lemgo recorded a busy witch-hunt record with an estimated 250 cases in the 16th and 17th centuries. But the bulk of those cases came surprisingly late — from 1653 to 1681, the period after the Thirty Years’ War witch-smelling acme.

As we’ve seen before in these grim annals, elites were not safe from the Hexenverfolgung; this, perhaps, is the reason that even we latter-day seculars still have such a visceral reaction to the term “witch hunt”.

Great is the honor for the one bold enough to stand athwart the inquisitor’s path, for great is the danger.

Andreas Koch, a Protestant pastor of the church of St. Nicolai, was a confessor to several condemned witches of Lemgo. As his position would indicate, Koch was no firebrand: he did not deny the presence of sorcerers and diabolical power in the world. But in 1665, he made bold to express skepticism about goings-on and even preached from the pulpit caution against reckless witchcraft accusations. He had found himself unsettled by the contradictory and illogical stories in supposed witches’ confessions, and finally convinced by the vow of innocence a condemned woman named Elisabeth Tillen gave him on the way to the stake. Lemgo was putting innocent people to death on spurious charges.

This epiphany, so obvious in retrospect, was a little too far ahead of his audience.

Rev. Koch was suspended from his ministry by that October, and amid new rumors circulating that he had himself been seen at the witches’ sabbaths, was arrested and put to torture the following spring. Koch was no better able to resist the interrogators’ torments than Elisabeth Tillen and her ilk had been, and obligingly confessed to diablerie. His only mercy was to die by the sword, rather than the flame; that he died before 5 in the morning might have been a mercy for his persecutors to minimize the public attendance at a potentially embarrassing scene.

Needless to say, it is Koch who has the judgment of posterity here. A present-day walking tour of Lemgo’s historic witch-hunt sites will not fail to stop at the monument that now stands in St. Nicolai’s to its devilishly skeptical former clergyman.


Detail view (click for full image) of the memorial to Andreas Koch at his former church in Lemgo. (cc) image from M. Ehret.

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1866: Mokomoko and the Maori killers of Carl Volkner

Add comment May 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1866, five Maori men hanged for the murder of a German proselytizer.

Hesse-born Carl Sylvius Völkner* arrived in New Zealand as a Lutheran missionary in 1849; by 1861, he was directing an Anglican-run mission at OpotikiOpotiki, the center of Maori Te Whakatohea territory.

Unfortunately for Volkner, his mission to win souls overlapped with the British mission to win land.

This same early 1860s period saw a sharpening of the European-Maori conflict on the North Island where Volkner kept his mission — the bloodshed in turn fostering the militant Pai Marire or Hau Hau faith in place of the settlers’. Though the Te Whakatohea weren’t directly involved in this war, they had felt its effects: refugees, food shortages, disease outbreaks.

Volkner, who was seen by Maori as a pro-government character and a British spy,** and warned that under the fraught circumstances he might be wise to extend his most recent trip to Auckland indefinitely and wait for things to simmer down.

He did not heed that warning.

On March 2, 1865, the day after Volkner’s return to Opotiki, a group of Pai Marire hanged the missionary to a willow tree outside his Church of St. Stephen, then butchered the dead body.

The Pai Marire leader Kereopa Te Rau then preached from the church’s pulpit with Volkner’s severed head at his side, in the course of which he tore the eyeballs from his grisly prop and, calling one “the Queen” and the other “Parliament”, theatrically devoured them. (Kereopa Te Rau is nicknamed “Kai whatu”, “the eyeball eater”.)

Old eyeball eater would eventually hang for this display as well, but he avoided capture until the 1870s — so this narrative takes its leave of him here.

The slaughter of the European evangelist at the very steps of the protomartyr’s church in turn fired the fury of white New Zealand.

The most immediate response was the government’s landing 500 soldiers in Opotiki in September 1865. From there they raided throughout Te Whakatohea territory (confiscating some 240,000 hectares that would feed white settlers’ surging demand for real estate) and put crops to the torch until the tribe surrendered up some 20 chiefs for punishment of the Volkner affair.

Five of those eventually hanged for their participation: Heremita Kahupaea, Hakaraia Te Rahui, Horomona Propiti and Mikaere Kirimangu … and a man named Mokomoko who was then and remains now the most controversial execution of the bunch.

Mokomoko’s guilt was sharply disputed by eyewitnesses who gave conflicting accounts of whether he was even present at the church on March 2. It was Mokomoko’s rope that strangled Carl Volkner, but the man himself insisted that he was not present. (The three witnesses who placed him on the scene said he carried the rope, suggesting participation far exceeding a bystander.)

Maori tradition preserved Mokomoko as an emblem of wrongful persecution, along with his song Tangohia mai te taura i taku kaki kia waiata au i taku waiata (Take the rope from my neck that I may sing my song):

Violent shaking will not rouse me from my sleep
They treat me like a common thief
It is true that I embrace eternal sleep
For that is the lot of a man condemned to die.

Shielded from the harsh light
With narrow eyes I reflect on the retribution taken at Hamukete
Remember how I was taken on board ship (chained)
The memory of it burns me with shame.

Bring me justice from distant lands to break my shackles
Where the sun sets is a government in Europe
It is for them to say that I must hang
Then shut me in my coffin box.

Under pressure from Mokomoko’s descendants, latter-day New Zealand has made a number of gestures of apology for Mokomoko’s hanging over the past 20-odd years, culminating in a posthumous pardon.

* A copse of rocks sprouting out of New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty is named for our man — the Volkner Rocks, also known as Te Paepae o Aotea.

** He sent reports to the government about subversive activity.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Murder,New Zealand,Occupation and Colonialism,Posthumous Exonerations,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Wrongful Executions

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1922: Colin Campbell Ross, for the Gun Alley Murder

1 comment April 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Colin Campbell Ross was hanged for the rape-murder of a little girl, still on the scaffold vainly protesting his innocence.

I am now face to face with my Maker, and I swear by Almighty God that I am an innocent man. I never saw the child. I never committed the crime, and I don’t know who did. I never confessed to anyone. I ask God to forgive those who have sworn my life away, and I pray God to have mercy on my poor darling mother, and my family.

Ninety-odd years later, folks finally believe him.

Ross had a couple of brushes with the law already to his rap sheet when 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke went missing in the vicinity of Ross’s Melbourne dive bar on December 30, 1921.

In a classic instance of police tunnel vision, the proximity of a violent felon to the murdered girl — for Alma’s body was found the next morning in nearby Gun Alley, which bestowed a popular moniker upon the case — soon formed the theory of the crime, the predetermined conclusion into which incoming evidence was read.

(It certainly catalyzed the investigation that the case became a media sensation. Rupert Murdoch’s father through the Melbourne Herald shamelessly hounded the Crown for each day’s delay, and jacked up the reward purse.)

Witnesses established that Ross had been tending bar all that afternoon; to account for that, it was necessary to posit that Ross had plied his prey with wine for several hours until he could finish her off after his shift.

Once arrested, despite continuing to assert his innocence to all and sundry, Ross proved to suffer from that universal tendency accused men have to senselessly unburden themselves to a random cellmate. The Crown could scarce shirk its public duty by omitting the incriminating evidence merely because it was related by a convicted perjurer. Ross, his accuser claimed, “said he was simply burning to tell someone.”

Still more damningly, a blanket from Ross’s home proved to have some strands of auburn hair glancingly similar to Alma Tirtschke’s — or possibly Ross’s girlfriend.

A Crown analyst from ventured to compare these under a microscope, and would later put it to the court that they looked like Alma’s. This would be the first time hair forensics were deployed in an Australian courtroom.

Was it not possible, asked Ross’s counsel — who genuinely believed his client’s innocence and fought the corner until the very last — that it might be almost literally anyone else’s auburn hair?

“Yes; quite possible, but not probable,” was the reply from the witness. “Because of the general similarity of hair.” Oh.

Even decades later this gotcha was being celebrated as a triumph of forensic science, for the blanket’s locks “corresponded exactly” with those of the victim.

But they didn’t correspond.

“The day is coming when my innocence will be proved,” Ross wrote in a farewell letter to his family.

That day took 85 years in coming.

In the 1990s, author Kevin Morgan stumbled somewhat miraculously upon preserved hair samples from the case and began an odyssey that would see him to officially exonerating Colin Campbell Ross.

Tests Morgan was able to arrange with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and then with police both agreed that under modern microscopic examination the hairs in question did not bear even a surface resemblance. With the support of the Victorian Attorney General and the Australian Supreme Court, Ross was granted a posthumous pardon on May 27, 2008 — the first person ever so distinguished in Victoria’s history.

Tirtschke’s own family, too, supported this result: they had long harbored their own doubts about the verdict. “She didn’t say who was the right man but she said the wrong man was hung,”* one descendant said of her grandmother’s recollections.

* Though a lesser horror compared to being railroaded in the first place, Ross’s hanging was also badly botched. An experimental four-strand rope failed to sever his spinal cord, leaving his dangling body to convulse as Ross wheezed his last breaths through a torn windpipe.

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1963: Julian Grimau, the last casualty of the Spanish Civil War

Add comment April 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1963, Francisco Franco’s government shot Communist agitator Julian Grimau.

Grimau (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), a member of the Communist Party of Spain‘s Central Committee since 1959, had fled to exile after escaping the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939.

But he in 1959 he took over the Communists’ activities within Spain itself, and began living underground in his old homeland. The Franco regime dearly wanted to take him.

In November 1962, secret police arrested Grimau on a bus and hustled him to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, where within hours Grimau met with that classic 20th century dissident’s fate, the “unexplained” fall from a police headquarters window. No fuss, no –

Wait. Er … it seems he survived the fall.

That awkward circumstance — officially, Grimau hurled himself out the window for no discernible reason — tracked him into what passed for a regular judicial process. In practice, that meant a military tribunal which gave him, two days before his execution, a five-hour trial for his part in the Spanish Civil War. Specifically, Grimau was charged as a “Chekist” for torturing and executing prisoners while part of the civil administration of Republican Barcelona; the evidence submitted on this point was mere hearsay.

This charge put the fascists in the rather insincere position of avenging the Communist Party’s repression of its own civil war allies, the anarchists and the anti-Stalinist POUM party — an episode memorably recounted in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

“I have never tortured anyone,” Grimau insisted to the court of the military dictatorship. “It is not my nature to do such things. I carried out the duties assigned to me by a legal government. I have been a communist for 25 years and I will die a communist.” (London Times, April 19, 1963)

Grimau’s prosecutor was a man who had made his legal bones in the immediate aftermath of the civil war as Franco’s Fouquier-Tinville, shuttling defeated Republicans into the hands of their executioners so lightly that he would joke, “bring in the accused’s widow!” with a laughing court.* This 1963 trip down nostalgia lane would prove to be the last ever occasion a Spaniard was prosecuted for the civil war; indeed, the Grimau backlash would help provide the impetus for Spain to finally scrap the military tribunals which dated to the aftermath of the civil war.

Those laws, and that war, had passed a quarter-century before. Their nakedly political requisition here triggered international outrage. Eight hundred thousand people and a litany of world leaders implored Gen. Franco to exercise his prerogative to block the execution; when Franco refused, protests livened the Spanish embassies of many a city across the globe. In Buenos Aires, someone chucked a bomb at the the embassy.

None of it availed Julian Grimau. Grimau’s lawyer, who witnessed the dawn execution illuminated by the headlights of military trucks, reported that the soldiers detailed to form the firing squad were very nervous and badly botched the shooting.

There’s more about Julian Grimau in Spanish than in English; see in particular JulianGrimau.org, a site commemorating the 50th anniversary of his execution.

* The prosecutor, Manuel Martin Fernandez, didn’t even have a law degree: he had entered the profession by falsely claiming that his credentials were destroyed during the civil war. In 1964 this became publicly exposed and Fernandez himself went to prison for his decades-long imposture.

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1922: George Hornsby

1 comment April 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1922, George Hornsby was hanged in Belton, Texas.

We pick up the George Hornsby’s trail 18 months before his execution, when the bludgeoned body of car dealer J.N. Weatherby was discovered outside Brownwood, Texas, on October 19, 1920.

The mysterious crime was unlocked by 16-year-old Willie Carter, who told authorities that he was the accomplice of the murderer George F. Hornsby* — Carter’s sister’s lover. The motive, Carter said, was theft.

Hornsby was arrested some weeks later in Birmingham, Alabama. He would insist from that time until the trap dropped under his feet that he had already been en route to Birmingham when the crime was committed.

The warring eyewitness testimony** attempting to situate Hornsby’s whereabouts on the days surrounding Weatherby’s murder defined the case both within the courtroom and without. A jury in Belton — where the trial had been moved owing to prejudice against Hornsby in Brownwood — bought Willie Carter’s version.

This did not cinch the case in the court of public opinion, especially since Hornsby vociferously adhered to his original story.

In the weeks leading up to the execution, after Hornsby’s legal team had fought its corner and the matter was in the hands of Gov. (and pioneer tough-on-crime pol) Pat Neff, Carter recanted his testimony.†

Then, a few days later, Carter recanted his recantation.

With the evidence in such a muddle, 7,000 sympathetic Texans — heavily residents of the trial venue Bell county as against those of Brown county, where the murder occurred — petitioned Gov. Neff for Hornsby’s life. Neff ended up personally interviewing Carter to try to figure out what was what. In the end, Neff wasn’t buying what the clemency campaigners were selling, and took a lonely stand against mobs of vigilantes roaming the Lone Star state imposing summary mercy.

No finer example can be had of criminal hero-worship than when a few months ago seven thousand one hundred and twenty-eight persons in Bell County signed a petition that I either pardon or commute the death sentence adjuded by court and jury against one George Hornsby. Hornsby was a man 29 years of age, a deserter from the American army, went under an assumed name to avoid identity, a transient fellow without vocation, lived with a woman not his wife on a negro street in Brownwood, and for the purpose of robbery, murdered, if human testimony is to be believed, one of the substantial citizens of Brown County. That he might have an impartial trial, removed from local influence, the case was sent to Bell County. The jury assessed the death penalty, and from the evidence as I found it to be, any other verdict would have been a travesty on justice. No sooner was the verdict of guilty rendered than there was begun by men and women, among them the very best citizens of Bell County and the equal of those of any other county, a campaign closely resembling hero-worship of the convicted murderer. Eighty per cent of the voting strength of Bell County protested to me against the punishment assessed against him. Reports stated that admiring hands brought to his cell the delicacies of life, flowers were strewn for him to walk on to the scaffold and fair women coveted the privilege of holding his hands while the black cap was being adjusted.‡ By public contributions a costly casket was purchased and flowers were piled high above his grave, even as the grave of one who had fallen in defense of his country. The murderer was praised as a hero and the Governor who refused to set aside the verdict of the Court of Appeals, all declaring him guilty, was held up to scorn and ridicule.

To these more than seven thousand petitioners I made no apology then and I make none now. In the administration of the law, I am for the courthouse, its judgments and its decrees. It is the one tribunal whose sole function is to make life sacred and property secure. It is the outgrowth of the centuries, the ripened product of civilization. When people ignore the courthouse and defy the law, they are blasting with the dynamite of destruction at the very foundation of their government. Without the courthouse the weak would be made to surrender to the strong. I am for the courthouse and against the mob. If civilization is worth preserving on the battlefield when war shakes her bristling bayonets, it is worth maintaining in the courthouse, where justice, when properly supported, holds forth her delicately balanced scales. In this deluge of lawlessness and disrespect for governmental authority which has submerged the State, the courthouse will prove to be the Mount Ararat upon which the ark of the law must finally rest, to send forth the dove of peace and civilization.

Hornsby’s Ararat was the gallows. He went calmly, with a short address reiterating his innocence.

People, I don’t know many of you, but lots of you know me. People, I stand before you a saved man. I accepted Christ as my personal Savior. I am going to leave you people, but I am going to a better land. I am going to where we will all be treated alike. We will all be charged alike, and I want to tell you people I am going as an innocent man.

I have lived a sinful life, but I have not committed any murder, so help me God. (New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 15, 1922)

A crowd estimated at three to four thousand turned up for Hornsby’s funeral.

The next year, state Senator J.W. Thomas from the little Bell County town of Rogers sponsored the legislation that would centralize all Texas executions (formerly conducted, as was Hornsby’s, by local authorities) in Huntsville.

* Here are two interesting facts about George Hornsby: first, he went by “George Scott” in Brownwood before all the trouble, since he was trying to distance himself from a dishonorable army discharge; second, his search results are complicated by his case unfolding during the simultaneous emergence of baseball great Rogers Hornsby.

** Some of it is discussed in Hornsby’s (unfavorable) appellate ruling, here.

† Sign of the times: after Carter’s first recantation — before he recanted the recantation — Hornsby was moved from the Bell county jail as “a precautionary measure owing to reports that efforts to bring about a commutation of sentence were distasteful to friends of Weatherby.” (Wire report in the Portland (Ore.) Oregonian, Aprkl 2, 1922.)

The Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a major revival in Texas during the 1920s.

‡ Actually, a high wooden palisade shielded Hornsby from public view of the flower-strewing masses. A Mrs. Bennett Smith of Temple, Texas, who helped lead the clemency campaign did offer to stand on the scaffold with Hornsby, but Hornsby seems to have declined the favor.

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1859: The martyrs of Tacubaya

Add comment April 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date, the conservative Mexican Gen. Leonardo Marquez earned himself the nickname “Tiger of Tacubaya” for the mass execution of liberal prisoners after a battle in Mexico’s Reform War.

The “reform” warred-over is actually the label for a whole era of liberal modernization with all the usual stuff to enrage a conservative old guard: land reform, a liberal constitution, and a rollback in the prerogatives of the clergy and the military.

It was rather sucessful.

The liberals successfully deposed General Santa Anna* and set about implementing this stuff. You, clever reader, have already surmised from the existence of a “Reform War” that they did not do so without resistance.

In the late 1850s, Mexico actually sported two rival presidents — Benito Juarez, under the liberals’ 1857 constitution, and Gen. Miguel Miramon, under a rebellious military junta that rejected this constitution.

One of the conservatives’ top commanders was Leonardo Marquez, our Tiger of Tacubaya: so called because at that ancient village, today engulfed in the sprawl of Mexico City, Marquez defeated a liberal army in a bloody fight.

Beginning that very night, Marquez had all his prisoners executed,** not excepting the wounded, foreign nationals, medical personnel, and even civilians sympathetic to the losing side. U.S. President James Buchanan denounced this affair to Congress in 1859 as evidence of the “wretched state” of Mexico that, he said, demanded American intervention.†

To cap the climax, after the battle of Tacubaya, in April, 1859, General Marquez ordered three citizens of the United States, two of them physicians, to be seized in the hospital at that place, taken out and shot, without crime, and without trial. This was done, notwithstanding our unfortunate countrymen were at the moment engaged in the holy cause of affording relief to the soldiers of both parties who had been wounded in the battle, without making any distinction between them.

Congress demurred on warmongering, but this act of wanton cruelty towards the so-called Martires de Tacubaya helped to turn Mexicans against the conservatives. The liberals had won the Reform War by the first days of 1861 — just in time to brace for that year’s ill-fated French intervention.

* Of Alamo fame, for yanquis; Santa Anna’s loss of Texas to the United States did no favors for his political position back home.

** One notable victim: writer Juan Díaz Covarrubias.

Marquez said he was ordered to carry out the summary executions by Miramon, but Marquez also had a reputation for ruthlessness apart from the incident at hand. Miramon got his a few years later when he was shot by the victorious constitutionalists alongside Emperor Maximilian, a later French-backed interloper not yet on the scene in 1859.

† Buchanan also cited the hanging of Ormond Chase in this same speech.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Doctors,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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