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1801: Four entrapped Jacobins

Add comment January 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1801, four Jacobins were executed in Paris after Napoleon’s secret police entrapped them into a plot against the First Consul.

After seizing power on the 18th Brumaire (November 9, 1799) the new man on horseback needed to consolidate power against the opposition of both royalist and Jacobin opposition. It would prove to be the case that the latter were the declining force and the royalists were the ones in it for the long haul.

But it had not been many years since the Jacobins were the power in Paris, and Napoleon was a proactive type; his 18th Brumaire coup had been effected on the pretext of a phony Jacobin conspiracy. So instead of just waiting around for the attentats aimed at his person, Napoleon set his police chief — Joseph Fouche, the onetime “Executioner of Lyons” — to spin them up himself by the offices of agents provocateur.

The so-called Conspiration des poignardsConspiracy of Daggers — was one of Fouche’s triumphs.

Here, a police plant named Harel goaded several radicals into kind of supporting (or at least not resisting) his plot to dagger the Corsican at the opera in October 1800. “It was agreed to exaggerate the danger to which it was appropriate to the First Consul to have been exposed,” wrote the French diplomat Bourienne in his memoirs. Harel himself had to distribute the weapons.

Though the daggers conspirators would probably have been happy to see Napoleon dead, they were so little inspired to achieve that death by their own hands that most of them quailed to appear at the scene where the trap would be sprung. They ended up being arrested in their homes.

Four of the seven Jacobins were guillotined on January 30, 1801 (all these links are to French Wikipedia pages):


The Death of Caius Gracchus, by Jacobin artist Francois Topino-Lebrun (1798). The painting’s contemporary allusion was to Gracchus Babeuf, recently executed (after an unsuccessful suicide attempt in the courtroom) for the Conspiracy of Equals.

The artists implicated were both associates of Jacques-Louis David (and the opera being staged was one inspired by David’s The Oath of the Horatii). David had already by this time proved himself a willing lackey of the new regime, but the resulting brush with police scrutiny (David had to testify at the trial) surely underscored to the opportunistic painter that his own revolutionary past could be dropped on his head like Damocles’ sword at any moment Napoleon should choose.

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1745: Eve, her smoke visible throughout the country

1 comment January 29th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1745, Orange County, Virginia was darkened by the smoke from a stake where a slave named Eve died for poisoning her master, Peter Montague.

As accused, Eve, “not having God before her eyes nor considering the obedience to the said Peter Montague, her master, but led and seduced by the instigation of the Devil … with force of arms and her malice forethought, feloniously and traitorously did mingle and poison milk … did give it to the said Peter Montague, which he did taste, eat, drink and swallow down … and did languish until the 27th day of December. Eve falsely, traitorously and feloniously of her malice forethought with the poison … did kill, poison and murder.” (Quoted here.)

Eve asserted her innocence to no avail at her trial on January 23. The court condemned her to “be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution and there to be burnt.”

Upon the execution of that sentence — “the smoke of the burning of Eve was visible over a large extent of the country” — the Montague estate was compensated £50 by the Commonwealth of Virginia for the destruction of its human property.

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1879: John Achey and William Merrick, the first hanged in Indianapolis

Add comment January 29th, 2015 Headsman

Indianapolis’s Marion County has hosted only four judicial executions in its history.

The first two of those occurred on this date in 1879.

Though founded only in 1820, the Circle City was no stranger to sensational crimes: they just had always managed to resolve themselves just short of the gallows. The Cold Spring Murders of 1868 had yielded only prison sentences; and William Clark, a drunk who shot his battered wife when she tried to escape his home, cheated an imminent hanging date with a lethal dose of morphine on New Year’s Eve, 1872.

On July 3, 1878 the governor of Indiana pardoned the Cold Spring Murderer William Abrams.

And then, in the words of this public-domain history of Greater Indianapolis, “came a carnival of blood.”

On July 16, John Achey, a gambler, killed George Leggett, a supposed partner whom he charged with robbing him, and who probably did.

On September 16, William Merrick, a livery-stable keeper, killed his wife under peculiarly atrocious circumstances — a woman whom he had seduced, robbed, and married to secure the dismissal of bastardy proceedings: and who sued for divorce before her child was born on account of bad treatment.

On September 19, Louis Guetig killed Mary McGlew, a waitress at his uncle’s hotel, who had declined to accept his attentions.

Achey might have escaped the death penalty but for the state of public mind caused by the combination. He was convicted on November 7 and sentenced to death.

Getig was convicted on November 28 and sentenced to death.

Merrick was convicted on December 13 and sentenced to death, the jury being out only eleven minutes.

They were all sentenced to be hanged on January 29, 1879, but Guetig’s case was appealed to the Supreme Court which reversed it on a sall technicality in an instruction.

Achey and Merrick were hanged at the same time, on one scaffold, in the jail yard, on January 29. Guetig was tried again, convicted, and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court affirmed this decision and he was hanged on September 29, 1879, at the same place.

Only one other Indianapolis hanging — that of Robert Phillips on April 8, 1886, for a jealous murder-suicide attempt that only achieved one of those two things — took place before the Indianapolis legislature in 1889 mandated all future hangings go off at the state prison.

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1989: Teng Xingshan, butcher

Add comment January 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1989, China executed Teng Xingshan with a bullet to the head for the murder of Shi Xiaorong — an act which became quite embrrassing when Shi surfaced in 2005, alive and well.

Teng became the focus of Hunan provincial officials’ tunnel vision when the dismembered body of a young woman turned up in the Mayang River. The reason was that the dismembering struck police as “very professional” and Teng was a butcher by trade.

The corpse was soon associated with Shi Xiaorong, who had recently gone missing, and an elaborate just-so story crafted to fit the available data: that Teng and Shi were lovers who quarreled over money with lethal results. According to the sentence, “Teng confessed his crime on his initiative and his confession conforms with scientific inspection and identification.”

In reality, the two were not acquainted at all — and Shi was not dead at all. She had disappeared because she’d been sold into a marriage; she eventually slipped back to her home in Guizhou Province. Teng’s relatives had heard through the grapevine that she was still alive, but it took them years to track her down.

Teng Xinshang was posthumously exonerated in 2006. We’ve found no indication that the dismembered body that wasn’t Shi Xiaorong’s was ever re-identified or the (by now very cold) case re-opened.

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1928: Edward Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll

Add comment January 27th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1928, Edward Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll hanged in Cardiff for murdering a man whose last words exculpated Rowlands and Driscoll.

That victim, Dai Lewis, was a former prizefighter who was pivoting his career to dabble in the bookmaking side of the sport.

Lewis was trying his hand at a bit of the old protection racket, strongarming bookies into kicking back shillings by “buying his chalk” to mark their boards in exchange for being their muscle. But in so doing he was intruding on the turf of Cardiff’s established mobsters — specifically the Rowland brothers, Edward and John.

On September evening after a day at the races, the upstart entrepreneur Lewis was accosted by a small group of men as he left a pub. The assailants battered him to the ground, and then one of them slashed his throat.

The wound was mortal but not immediately so; streetwalkers in the vicinity rushed to the felled man as his attackers fled, and were able to stanch the bleeding well, and Lewis was rushed to the Royal Infirmary.

As Lewis bled fatally into his lungs, the doctors helpless to save him, a series of suspicious hangup phone calls to the Infirmary asking after his condition led police to another pub where the Rowland boys were relaxing with three of their cronies: Daniel Driscoll, John Hughes, and William “Hong Kong” Price. But when the five were brought to Dai Lewis’s bed, the dying pugilist refused to break the underworld’s code of silence by implicating them.

Lewis’s explicit denial that the Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll had been among his attackers didn’t cut very much ice, especially when John Rowland cracked and confessed to wielding the blade that took Lewis’s life.

In a muddled trial with a good deal of contradictory and fleeting eyewitness testimony, both Rowlands and Driscoll — who unwisely floated a phony alibi — were convicted. (Price was acquitted, and Hughes was released uncharged; our story takes its leave of them here.)

The circumstances of the homicide have never in the years since become entirely clear; one common hypothesis is that the bookies were “merely” trying to give their rival a warning slash on the cheek to scare him away from their customers, and in the struggle the knife went astray. Another is that the murder gave police a pretext to target some gangland figures they were keen to get rid of.

But from the moment of their conviction the boys, and especially the plausibly-innocent Driscoll, were the subjects of intense public support. Reports say at least 200,000 Britons (some say as many as 500,000) signed petitions for Driscoll’s pardon, and Liverpool dock hands threatened a national strike. Edward Rowlands too continued to maintain his own innocence.

No fewer than eight members of the jury who convicted Driscoll were so troubled at the sentence that they petitioned the Home Secretary to extend mercy. (Two of the jurors traveled personally to London to present their petition.)

The Crown was not interested:

It is a fixed and necessary rule that the individual views of jurymen must not be allowed to inluence the exercise of the Royal prerogative of mercy. Jurymen may support an appeal for mercy like the rest of the public, but once a unanimous verdict is given the individual jurors cannot qualify it.

Ironically, only the admitted killer, John Rowland, would be spared the noose: he went mad under the pressures of incarceration and was sent to Broadmoor. John’s brother Edward and their chum Daniel Driscoll both besought the Royal prerogative of mercy in vain.

Driscoll took the bad beat with a gambler’s sang-froid, playing cards over port on the eve of his hanging — as thousands gathered outside the doors of the prison to weep and pray as the morning hanging approached.

“Well, I’m going down for something I never done,” were his last words (source). “But you don’t have to pay twice.”

At the Cathedral that day, the Catholic priest — Driscoll’s confessor — announced what his parishioners already believed: “they hanged an innocent man at Cardiff jail this morning.” Efforts to obtain a posthumous exoneration have surfaced several times in recent years but never yet achieved the trick.

Actor Chris Driscoll is Daniel Driscoll’s nephew.

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1849: Andrew Tyler, clairvoyant

2 comments January 26th, 2015 Headsman

Fortune Telling and Crime.

(Daily Ohio Statesman, August 22, 1848)

The trial in the case of Andrew Tyler, convicted and sentenced to die, at the late term of the Supreme Court held in Williams county, as accesory [sic] to one of the most wanton and singular murders of which the records of depravity and crime presents an example.

From the evidence given on the trial, as well as the confessions of Heckerthorn, the principal, (who awaits his trial in November next,) it appears that Heckerthorn was desirous of learning the art of fortune telling, and that as the initiatory step, Tyler persuaded him to kill Scamp’s child, and hide the body, designing then to leave the country together, and after some months return and get a reward for finding the body of the child, and thus establish a reputation as fortune tellers, by which they would be enabled to make a great deal of money.

A more inadequate cause for so great a crime we never learned of; and, on Tyler’s part, the instigation of the murder can only be explained by the supposition that long habits of deception and falsehood, practiced by him as a fortune teller, had darkened in his mind whatever little sense of right and humanity he ever possessed. -Kalida Venture

The Death Penalty
Horrible Account of a legalized murder in Williams county, Ohio, which took place on Friday week.

(Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 6, 1849)

If we are at times put to the blush for the crimes of our fellow-beings, we are as often shocked at the barbaraties [sic] of our race, who to retaliate for one crime commit another, no less offensive in the sight of God and man. We refer to the barbarous custom of strangling a man to death in cold blood for certain crimes which twelve men believe he has committed.

Here is an account of this legalized murder, committed no the 26th ult. in Bryan, Williams Co., the particulars of which contain enough of the horrible to gratify the most savage. The Spirit of the Age, published at Bryan, says:

About one o’clock, P.M. the prisoner was conducted on to the scaffold, accompanied by Rev. R.R. Walters, who, after the prisoner had taken his seat, delivered some very appropriate remarks from Acts, chap. 5th, verses 2nd, and 3d — a text selected by the prisoner.

A hymn was sung and prayer offered by Rev. Mr. Walters.

The prisoner then made a brief address to the assembly. He asserted his innocence in the strongest terms — declaring that he had nothing to do with the perpetration of the crime, for which he was to be executed. He said he had no anxiety to live — but felt prepared and desired to depart and dwell with his Saviour.

At the close of his remarks, he knelt down, and spent a few moments in audible prayer. He prayed for support in the terrible scene upon which he was immediately to enter — for the forgiveness of all who had sought his hurt, and that he and they might meet in a happier world.

At a quarter past two, the Sheriff adjusted the rope, which was already around the prisoner’s neck, drew the cap over his face, and bade him adieu.

He then descended the stairs, and as he went down, touched the spring with his foot, and the drop fell.

Here followed a scene, which was for a moment, shocking to all beholders — almost beyond description. To set the matter in its true light, it should be mentioned that Tyler had at all times insisted that he should be executed without any slack of rope.

Willing to gratify him so far as duty would permit, and in accordance with this oft-repeated and urgent request, the Sheriff gave him at first only about one foot of slack.

The instant the drop was sprung, the prisoner slightly crouched his body; by this means the hoose slipped around, bringing the knot immediately under the chin, in such a position that with his short fall it did not tighten at all, consequently he was merely suspended by the neck.

Probably his first slight fall suspended sensation and respiration temporarily for he hung quietly for a time; but this suspension was only temporary, and it is certain that nothing like strangulation was produced.

He soon recovered his breath, and commenced groaning and struggling as if suffering excruciating torture.

The spectacle at this moment was too revolting to witness; we noticed many who had thought and said, that they could look on his expiring agonies with a hearty good will, who turned away from the sight with blanched cheeks and looks of commiseration.

The Sheriff, probably somewhat overcome by the fearful duty he had attempted to discharge, did not immediately after springing the drop go around to see the true condition of affairs.

On learning the situation of the prisoner, he promptly ordered the scaffold raised, and no sooner was this done than he was upon it, and taking Tyler by the hand directed him to stand on his feet, which he was able to do without assistance.

Aided by Gen. Gilson, the Sheriff then proceeded to lengthen the rope, giving it about four feet additional slack.

Tyler still fervently begged them to shorten instead of lengthening it, but he was told that his wishes could no longer be regarded.

During this time, Ex-Sheriff Cunningham passed up the stairs, and taking Tyler’s hand, inquired if he still asserted his innocence; he replied, “I am innocent.”

Having adjusted the noose, and all others having left the scaffold, the Sheriff took his hand, and again bade him farewell. His last words to the Sheriff were — “For God’s sake shorten the rope.”

Again the drop was sprung, and Andrew F. Tyler was launched into eternity. He scarcely struggled after the second fall — after about thirty minutes, his body was taken down, placed in the coffin and carried back to an upper room of the jail.

Executed

(New York Commercial Advertiser, February 13, 1849)

Andrew F. Tyler, the “fortune teller,” convicted in Williams county, Ohio, as accessary [sic] to the murder of a small child in that county, was executed at Bryan, on the 26th ult. A large concourse of citizens assembled to see the spectacle, and in defiance of the law abolishing public executions, tore down the jail yard erected by the Sheriff. The last words of Tyler were, “I am innocent.”

If we recollect right, Tyler was charged with aiding in the murder of a child in order that the fortune he had preetended to tell might prove true. He declared his innocence of a murder of such strange motive to the moment of the falling of the fatal drop, and would it not have been better for the cause of justice, and just as well for the community to have sent him to life imprisonment as the gallows? His dying declaration may be true, for evidence that appears conclusive of guilt is not always so. -Cleve. Herald

The Popular Taste

(Boston Daily Atlas, February 22, 1849)

A man named Andrew F. Tyler, convicted of murder, was hung recently at Bryant [sic], in Williams county, Ohio.

The Dayton Transcript states that the Sheriff had built a high wood fence around the jail yard, in order to have the execution as private as possible, but the populace were so eager to witness the spectacle, they tore down the fence the night previous.

The brutal taste which prompted this act, is of the same character as that which leads crowds to witness prize fights, and makes momentary heroes of the vilest bullies in creation. -Cincinnati Gazette

(As inchthrift old-time editors were fond of forbidding walls of unbroken text, line breaks and white space have been added to all of the excerpts above. -ed.)

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1788: John Price Posey, “superlative villain”

Add comment January 25th, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1788, John Price Posey was publicly hanged in Richmond, Virginia for arson.

He was 35 years old, with two children.

Posey, born in 1752, didn’t have the kind of background you would expect for an executed felon. His uncle was the Revolutionary War general Thomas Posey. Posey himself was a childhood playmate of John Parke “Jacky” Custis, stepson of Founding Father George Washington.

John Price Posey grew up near the Washingtons’ Mount Vernon plantation and was a frequent guest there. After he completed his education, Washington helped him find a job. When Jacky Custis reached legal age, he appointed Posey as steward of his plantation in New Kent County.

All went well for awhile. Posey even became justice of the peace and served in the house of delegates between 1780 and 1781.

The situation soured, however, after Jacky died in November 1781. George Washington learned that his deceased stepson’s erstwhile friend had been embezzling money from Jacky’s estate. He had sold off some of Jacky’s slaves and pocketed the profits, and later on he was caught stealing a cow from the plantation. For this “abuse and misapplication” of his duties, Posey was fined a total of £225 and removed from his position as justice of the peace. In his correspondence, General Washington referred to him as a “Superlative Villain.”

In June 1787, Posey was arrested for assaulting a sheriff and sentenced to a month in jail. On July 12, he escaped. Three days later, he and an accomplice, Thomas Green, returned to the jail with two slaves called Sawney and Hercules. The four men set fire to the jail, went two miles up the road and then set the county clerk’s office on fire. It burned to the ground and all the county records stored within were destroyed.*

Posey was back in custody within a day of the arson attacks, and after his arrest, Thomas Green confessed to his role in the affair. Posey was brought to Richmond in chains to stand trial for arson, which was a capital crime at the time. Convicted on October 1, he filed an appeal. On January 18, 1788 the Virginia Court of Appeals voted nine to one to reject his petition for clemency, and told him he must die.

Posey then sent a written request to the governor, Edmund Randolph:

The unfortunate and most unhappy John Price Posey begs that a further indulgence of a few days could be allowed him — Hopeful that it would be attended with giving further relief to the peace of mind that your unfortunate petitioner is now in search of.

This bought him a week’s stay. On January 25, he was hanged on Richmond’s gallows alongside James M’Connell Fox, a murderer. His body was buried in an unmarked grave, possibly in the Mount Airy area.

Virginia law allowed the state to confiscate a person’s property in cases of capital convictions, but in this case, unusually, the Virginia legislature returned everything to Posey’s widow, Anne Kidley Posey. She ultimately remarried.

As for his partners-in-crime: Thomas Green was never tried for his role in the arson attacks, and the slaves Sawney and Hercules were ultimately pardoned and given back to their owner, Posey’s brother-in-law.

* New Kent County’s archives also held colonial-era records for several other counties. Posey’s spiteful torch wiped out a trove of invaluable colonial-era records and is still lamented by historians and genealogists whose work touches that period as “the greatest loss”.

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1538: Anna Jansz, Anabaptist

2 comments January 24th, 2015 Headsman

Dutch Anabaptist Anneke Esaiasdochter (better known as Anna Jansz; this was the surname of her husband*) was executed in Rotterdam on this date in 1538.

Anna (English Wikipedia entry | German) is a key martyr of the fragmented Anabaptist movement following the destruction of Anabaptis’s “New Jerusalem” in Münster.

This catastrophe hurled Anabaptism into the desert, where rival leaders pointed the way to different horizons. Would it double down on revolutionary political aspirations, along the lines of Münster? Would it become a pacificist, spiritual movement without secular aspirations?

Anna Jansz, at least as she appears in the readings others have given her, somewhat personifies these conflicting directions — and not incidentally, the also-open question of women’s role in the Anabaptist movement.

Though she appears in the Martyrs’ Mirror as a model feminine sufferer, the “Trumpet Song” she composed has in at least some versions a distinctly apocalyptic tone. One historian called it the Marseillaise of Anabaptist hymns:

Wash your feet in the godless blood

This is shocking imagery, but it’s also far from clear that it’s actually what Anna herself wrote — or if its surface interpretation is what the author intended to convey. Anabaptism’s fast-evolving strains published different versions of the “Trumpet Song” in the 16th century, whose slight alterations dramatically shade its meaning — especially so in view of the possible scriptural allusions. Here’s a version of the same line in which the verb wash (wascht) is replaced with watch, or mind (wacht), and it now advises the true Christian to leave punishment of the persecutors to God:

You true Christians be of good cheer
Mind dipping your feet in blood
Because this is the reward which those who
robbed us will receive

As Timothy Nyhof details in this paper (pdf), her image is ultimately quite elusive to us,** and filtered through the texts of interlocutors like the great Anabaptist fugitive David Joris, rumored to have been Anna’s onetime lover. Joris published the version of the “Trumpet Song” excerpted just above — the cautious one.†

In the end, a fixed conclusion as to whether Anna was a firebrand later softened for public consumption, or the reverse, or a more nuanced character entirely, is beyond the reach of posterity. In any guise, she was an exponent of the call to spiritual purity and anticipation of the Lord that fortified a proscribed faith in its wilderness sojourn.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Anna Jansz en route to her January 24, 1538 execution from the Martyrs’ Mirror.

* Anna’s husband Arendt Jansz fled to England to escape the persecution of Anabaptists, which is why he doesn’t figure in this story.

** Nyhof ultimately situates Anna Jansz among the Melchiorites. Although that philosophy’s namesake had gone down backing the Anabaptist commune, his post-Münster followers turned Melchior Hoffman’s eschatology towards personal redemption instead of political violence. (Source)

† I’m certain it must exist out there, but I have not been able to find online a complete version of any of the “original” versions of Anna’s famous song, either in Dutch or in translation. Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers gives the last three of its 13 stanzas thus:

At Borsa and Edom, so the author has read
The Lord is preparing a feast
From the flesh of kings and princes.
Come all you birds,
Gather quickly
I will feed you the flesh of princes.
As they have done, so shall be done to them.
You servants of the Lord, be of good cheer.
Wash your feet in the blood of the godless.
This shall be the reward for those who robbed us.

Be pleased therefore, rejoice and be glad.
Play a new song on your harps;
Delight in our God
All you who foresee vengeance.
The Lord comes to pay
And to revenge all our blood.
His wrath is beginning to descend.
We are awaiting the last bowl.

Oh bride, go to meet your Lord and King.
Arise, Jerusalem, prepare yourself.
Receive all your children alike.
You shall spread out your tents.
Receive your corwn, receive your kingdom.
Your King comes to deliver.
He brings his reward before him.
You shall rejoice in it.
We shall see his glory in these times.
Rejoice, Zion, with pure Jerusalem.

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1751: Lobsang Trashi and the Lhasa Rebellion leaders

Add comment January 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On January 23, 1751 Lhasa … witnessed another horrible example of Chinese justice. Lobsang Trashi and six other leaders of the rebellion were executed by cutting them into pieces. Other people were beheaded or strangled. The heads of the executed were mounted on spikes. The other leaders were exiled and stripped of their property.

-Luciano Petech, China and Tibet in the Early XVIIIth Century

China’s domination of Tibet, dating to 1720, has generated resistance, intermittently violent, down to the present day.

The incident at hand here was a November 1750 Lhasa riot sparked by the assassination of Tibet’s prince by China’s plenipotentiary, who had caught wind of the local ruler’s intention to detach his kingdom from Qing dominance.

The royal chamberlain, Lobsang Trashi (German Wikipedia entry | Dutch) managed to escape the scene and found himself at the head of a furious rabble that sacked the Qing embassy, looted a treasury, and killed dozens of Chinese soldiers — and dozens more Chinese civilians.

But the popular furor burned itself out within days, most Tibetan elites sagely declining to get involved in the pogrom pending the likely — and soon, actual — overwhelming Qing response. These guys got the fire-eaters arrested (they’d be handed over to the arriving Chinese army) and installed the Dalai Lama as the new secular as well as religious authority.

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205: Plautianus, purple proximity

Add comment January 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 205, the Roman patrician Gaius Fulvius Plautianus was put to summary execution for aspiring to the purple.

Maternal cousin and longtime ally to Septimius Severus, Plautianus had helped himself to a generous slice of power and wealth when his friend became emperor. He got his bristly mug onto imperial coinage and even dynastically married his daughter to Severus’s nasty son and heir* Caracalla.

And so liberally did Plautianus wet his beak on the perquisites of this power that, Cassius Dio reports, “the populace in the Circus once exclaimed: ‘Why do you tremble? Why are you pale? You possess more than do the three.'” The three meant Severus himself and his two sons.

Severus for a time blithely ignored his friend’s aggrandizement, and Plautianus made the political personal by appropriating for himself the estates of numerous senators whose proscription he helped Severus implement.

But the enormous influence of his prefect soon began to present a threat that the emperor could not afford to ignore. In the coming years of the Third Century Crisis, this pattern would repeat itself with numbing regularity: the prestige of some figure would raise the prospect of his seizing the throne; the mere possibility would then thrust sovereign and potential usurper into a destructive mutual dash towards pre-emptive violence.

It’s anyone’s guess whether Plautianus was already contemplating a putsch as the natural progression of his authority, but the decision was made for him by the contempt with which Caracalla treated that daughter he’d been made to marry. The heir “was exceedingly hostile to the the girl, and to her father too,” and even “daily promised to kill her and her father as soon as he became sole ruler of the empire.” (Herodian of Antioch)

Resolving to strike before the young hothead was in a position to effect his threats, Plautianus allegedly engaged one of his loyal servants to assassinate the imperial family.**

The plot was instead betrayed, and Plautianus was produced before his former colleague to be handled as they had once handled those proscribed senators. After his immediate execution, his body was cast into the streets and Caracalla’s unwanted wife sent to a miserable exile.†

The History of Rome podcast covers the reign of Severus and the fate of Plautianus in episode 101, “And All Was of Little Value”.

* Co-heir, with his brother Geta — whom Caracalla murdered at the first opportunity after dear old dad died.

** The would-be assassin presented Severus with a written order for his death in the hand of his master. Cassius Dio quite justly suspects this a stitch-up: “These circumstances in particular betrayed the fraud; for Plautianus would never have dared to give such instructions either to ten centurions at once, or in Rome, or in the palace, or on that day, or at that hour, and especially not in writing.”

† Caracalla had his former wife murdered in 212.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Execution,History,Italy,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Politicians,Power,Roman Empire,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Treason

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