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c. 415 B.C.E.: The men of Melos

Add comment February 9th, 2014 Headsman

On an uncertain date in the winter of 416-415 B.C.E., the island of Melos surrendered to an Athenian siege during the ruinous Peloponnesian War.

Athens put all of Melos’s adult men to death, selling its women and children into slavery.

This ghastly event is covered by ThucydidesHistory. Thucydides’ account of the diplomatic negotiation between the mighty Athenians and the hopelessly outmuscled Melians is the subject of the Melian dialogue — a timeless classic of philosophy and statecraft.

The Athenians’ coldly realistic position — and their ultimate disposition of their conquest — is summed up in the wonderful epigraph, “the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.” (And numerous variations of this translation.)

As the reigning naval power, Athens (at war with a league led by its rival, the land power Sparta) had decided that an independent and neutral Melos would no longer be in the offing. The Melian dialogue pits Athens’ ultimatum to Melos to submit and save itself, against the Melians’ vain attempt to assert the justice of their cause; likewise, it is the dialogue of an imperial order against a holdover independent city-state from a fading era.

It’s a riveting read. The excerpts below are from this public-domain translation; there are others here and here.

Athenians: Well, then, we Athenians will use no flue words; we will not go out of our way to prove at length that we have a right to rule, because we overthrew the Persians; or that we attack you now because we are suffering any injury at your hands. We should not convince you if we did; nor must you expect to convince us by arguing that, although a colony of the Lacedaemonians, you have taken no part in their expeditions, or that you have never done us any wrong. But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.

Melians: Well, then, since you set aside justice and invite us to speak of expediency, in our judgment it is certainly expedient that you should respect a principle which is for the common good; and that to every man when in peril a reasonable claim should be accounted a claim of right, and any plea which he is disposed to urge, even if failing of the point a little, should help his cause. Your interest in this principle is quite as great as ours, inasmuch as you, if you fall, will incur the heaviest vengeance, and will be the most terrible example to mankind.

Athenians: The fall of our empire, if it should fall, is not an event to which we look forward with dismay; for ruling states such as Lacedaemon are not cruel to their vanquished enemies. And we are fighting not so much against the Lacedaemonians, as against our own subjects who may some day rise up and overcome their former masters. But this is a danger which you may leave to us. And we will now endeavour to show that we have come in the interests of our empire, and that in what we are about to say we are only seeking the preservation of your city. For we want to make you ours with the least trouble to ourselves, and it is for the interests of us both that you should not be destroyed.

Athenians: It may be your interest to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?

Athenians: To you the gain will be that by submission you will avert the worst; and we shall be all the richer for your preservation.

Melians: But must we be your enemies? Will you not receive us as friends if we are neutral and remain at peace with you?

Athenians: No, your enmity is not half so mischievous to us as your friendship; for the one is in the eyes of our subjects an argument of our power, the other of our weakness.

Over and over the Melian envoy is dismayed by his visitors’ indifference to the moral high ground. Frustrated of any concession, he resolves his embattled city to embark upon the remote hope of resistance in preference to voluntary servitude — leading the Athenians to part with this chilly sentiment:

You told us that the safety of your city would be your first care, but we remark that, in this long discussion, not a word has been uttered by you which would give a reasonable man expectation of deliverance. Your strongest grounds are hopes deferred, and what power you have is not to be compared with that which is already arrayed against you. Unless after we have withdrawn you mean to come, as even now you may, to a wiser conclusion, you are showing a great want of sense. For surely you cannot dream of flying to that false sense of honour which has been the ruin of so many when danger and dishonour were staring them in the face. Many men with their eyes still open to the consequences have found the word honour too much for them, and have suffered a mere name to lure them on, until it has drawn down upon them real and irretrievable calamities; through their own folly they have incurred a worse dishonour than fortune would have inflicted upon them. If you are wise you will not run this risk; you ought to see that there can be no disgrace in yielding to a great city which invites you to become her ally on reasonable terms, keeping your own land, and merely paying tribute; and that you will certainly gain no honour if, having to choose between two alternatives, safety and war, you obstinately prefer the worse. To maintain our rights against equals, to be politic with superiors, and to be moderate towards inferiors is the path of safety. Reflect once more when we have withdrawn, and say to yourselves over and over again that you are deliberating about your one and only country, which may be saved or may be destroyed by a single decision,

Athens wasn’t kidding.

Finding no traction with the Melian delegation, the greater power immediately besieged Melos. Thucydides recounts the Melians’ subsequent fate:

So the summer ended.

In the following winter the Lacedaemonians had intended to make an expedition into the Argive territory, but finding that the sacrifices which they offered at the frontier were unfavourable they returned home … About the same time the Melians took another part of the Athenian wall; for the fortifications were insufficiently guarded. Whereupon the Athenians sent fresh troops, under the command of Philocrates the son of Demeas. The place was now closely invested, and there was treachery among the citizens themselves. So the Melians were induced to surrender at discretion. The Athenians thereupon put to death all who were of military age, and made slaves of the women and children. They then colonised the island, sending thither 500 settlers of their own.


On top of everything else, the Athenian sack put an end to the production of Melian reliefs. (The island still had the glory of the Venus de Milo to look forward to, however.)

If there was a consolation for the scattered remains of the ruined Melian polis, it was that Athens’ cruel imperial hubris led it just months later to launch a catastrophic invasion of Sicily.

That defeat helped turn the Peloponnesian War decisively against Athens. Just eleven years after overrunning Melos, haughty Athens itself surrendered to a Spartan siege.

Thucydides, an exiled former Athenian general, deploys the classical dialogue form to great effect; his own perspective on the various arguments advanced in the Melian debate is difficult to discern with confidence. Clearly, however, it’s a topic of great interest to Thucydides, as his account dwells repeatedly on the conundrums touching justice and international relations: he’s one of the first intellectuals to explore what’s now thought of as the “realist” view of foreign policy. Compare the Melian Dialogue, for instance, to the Athenian demos‘s Mytilenian Debate; or, to the Plataean speech making a Melos-like appeal to the powerful Spartans.* And in one early passage, private Athenians appeal to Sparta and Corinth not to commence on war against the hegemony of Athens with words similar to those later used at Melos: “It has always been a rule that the weak should be subject to the strong; and besides, we consider that we are worthy of our power. Up till the present moment you, too, used to think that we were; but now, after calculating your own interest, you are beginning to talk in terms of right and wrong. Considerations of this kind have never yet turned people aside from the opportunities of aggrandizement offered by superior strength.”

At any rate, Thucydides’ proud city-empire would never recover from the inglorious fall inflicted by this war. The result was a fourth-century power vacuum which the Macedonia of Philip II and Alexander the Great eventually rose to fill.

* Thucydides also reports the Athenians hoisted by their own realpolitik when, in the Sicilian invasion, they attempt to appeal to Camarina for support. That city spurns the appeal, fearing subjugation should expansionist Athens prevail, and the revenge of their overwhelmingly powerful neighbor Syracuse otherwise.

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1844: Hester Foster and William Young Graham

1 comment February 8th, 2014 Meaghan

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

At 1:30 p.m. on this date in 1844 at the Columbus Penitentiary in Ohio, William Young Graham, aka William Clark, and Hester Foster, aka Helen or Esther, were hanged together for their respective crimes.

It was an integrated execution: Graham was a white man, and Foster was black.

Foster was the first woman to be executed in Ohio. (There would be just three more … so far.) The previous spring, while incarcerated for some offense lost to history, she beat a white female prisoner to death with a fire shovel. As this history of Franklin County notes, Foster admitted to her actions, but claimed the murder wasn’t premeditated and therefore not a death penalty crime.

Graham’s crime was somewhat similar; within a few months of the murder Foster committed, he killed a prison guard with an ax. His defense had been one of insanity.

The pair’s public execution was attended by thousands. In the atmosphere of “noise, confusion, drunkenness and disorder,” one attendee, a Mr. Sullivan Sweet, was accidentally trampled to death. Many more Ohio men would face the death penalty in coming years, but Ohio’s next execution of a woman would not be until almost a century later, with the electrocution of serial poisoner Anna Marie Hahn in 1938.

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1931: The Longhua Martyrs and the Five Martyrs of the League of Left-Wing Writers

Add comment February 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1931, the Chinese nationalists executed 23 Communists at Longhua, including five members of the League of Left-Wing Writers.

Early in what would prove to be the very long Chinese Civil War, the Koumintang government in 1930 mounted a suppression* of Communist outposts. That included military campaigns attempting to encircle communist-held regions, as well as an internal crackdown. It’s the latter that concerns us here.

A Communist-founded League of Left-Wing Writers operating in Shanghai was formally banned by the Koumintang in September 1930. Threatened with arrest, the writers struggled to stay underground but at a January 17 meeting in the British concession area,** British police arrested Li Weisen, Hu Yepin, Rou Shi, Yin Fu, and Feng Keng. They were handed over to the Chinese authorities.


The Five Martyrs: From left: Hu Yepin, Rou Shi, Feng Keng, Yin Fu, Li Weisen (Li Qiushi)

They became the Five Martyrs of the League when they were shot this date in 1931 along with 18 other Communist prisoners, one of them a pregnant woman.

Among the five martyrs, Rou Shi† was particularly close to the great writer Lu Xun, who was heartbroken when he received word of his young protege’s untimely end — “one of China’s best youths,” in his estimation. In hiding himself, Lu Xun composed a “Lament for Rou Shi”:

To long and sleepless nights I’ve grown
accustomed in the spring;
Fled with a wife and babe in arms,
my temples are graying.
‘Mid dream there comes an image faint –
a loving mother’s tear;
On city walls the overlords’
e’er-changing banners rear.
I can but stand by looking on
as friends become new ghosts,
In anger face bayonet thickets
and search for verse ripostes.
The poem intoned, my gaze turns low –
one cannot write such down.
Moonlight shimmers with watery sheen
upon my jet-black gown.

(as translated by The Lyrical Lu Xun: A Study of His Classical-Style Verse)

The discerning present-day visitor to Longhua can pay respects at the Longhua Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery.

* The suppression claimed, among others, the life of Mao Zedong’s first wife.

** The extraterritorial British concession in Shanghai was a legacy of the opium wars.

† There’s an English translation of Rou Shi’s short story “A Slave Mother” here.

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1481: Diego Suson, by his daughter’s hand

Add comment February 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1481, Spain’s first auto-da-fe under the recently established Spanish Inquisition saw six burned at the stake in Seville.

These pageants of orthodox Catholic authority, with parades of heretics publicly confessing their error and being received back into the community on penitential terms, while others more contumacious were consigned to the flames, would soon become one of the signature features of Inquisition Spain. Some 700 people were executed at such events over the decade to come.

But here in the early 1480s, the terrifying powers of the Holy Office for the Propagation of Faith (the Inquisition’s business-card title) were, well … unexpected.


/Mandatory

Don Diego Suson, one of the six put to death this date, was the wealthy patriarch of a marrano family — Jews, who had converted a century prior. The Inquisition’s whole founding spirit was the sense of characters like Torquemada that as such conversions had generally been obtained under duress, the families in question were still secretly maintaining their Semitic rites. That would make them apostates (since they were baptized and supposedly Christian), and it would implicate them in God knows what other malignancy (since they were malignant Jews).

Spain, you’ll recall, is at this point about 11 years away from expelling all its Jews full stop.

This made it especially dicey for Suson that he was also a rabbi to an underground community of still-practicing “converted” Jews. (Spanish source) Torquemada was on to a real thing here.

Unfortunately his daughter — so the legend says — didn’t quite grasp what the Inquisitors had coming and lightly betrayed the fact to her Christian lover. In no time at all, the guys with the racks and thumbscrews had the terrible family secret in hand.

It’s said that the beautiful (of course) daughter was so riven with grief and shame for the careless destruction of her father that she shut herself up in a convent … and arranged that when she died her guilt-stricken head should be hung up at her former home.

The location of this macabre monument is still marked in Seville today; once known as the Calle de la Muerte, it is now called the Calle Susona.

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1999: Leo Echegaray, by lethal injection in the Philippines

1 comment February 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1999, the Philippines resumed executions after 23 years with its first-ever lethal injection.

Judicial executions had ceased during the Marcos dictatorship’s martial law period — extrajudicial killings were another story — and formally all but abolished after Marcos fell in 1986.

But rampant crime made an execution comeback a potent political issue that helped to carry Fidel Ramos* to the presidency in 1992. The revival would bring along the latest upgrades in killing-people technology: whereas the Philippines had previously used the electric chair, a holdover from its former colonial domination by the United States, it now followed America’s footsteps in preferring the sanitized experience of lethal injection.

Leo Echegaray, destined to become the first person to meet such a fate in the Philippines, was a house painter convicted of raping his daughter or stepdaughter. (Despite Rodessa’s surname, her mother and Leo never married. Rodessa Echegaray’s uncertain biological parentage was at issue in the case, as to the question of whether the rape could be said to be incestuous: rape committed by a father was a specific subcategory of rape under the law uniquely eligible for the maximum penalty.)

The Supreme Court had no interest in parsing DNA, finding that the parenthood “disclaimer cannot save him from the abyss where perpetrators of heinous crimes ought to be.”

“The victim’s tender age and the accused-appellant’s moral ascendancy and influence over her are factors which forced Rodessa to succumb to the accused’s selfish and bestial craving,” it ruled. “The law has made it inevitable under the circumstances of this case that the accused-appellant face the supreme penalty of death.”

That was in 1996. By the time Echegaray came to the actual end of his appeals cycle, Ramos had given way to the mercurial Joseph Estrada. A former actor, Estrada put his showmanship to use by having his telephone hotline to the prison disconnected prior to Echegaray’s execution to underscore his resolve not to entertain any 11th-hour commutation.

The 11th hour was of intense interest to everyone else. The supposedly secret time and circumstances of Echegaray’s move to the death house was leaked and resulted in a circus scene as the doomed prisoner, Bible in hand and “Execute Justice, Not People” pinned his orange prison jumpsuit, pushed through a raucous crowd of journalists to a van waiting to drive him to New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa for his milestone date. The undignified “execution fiesta” continued hours later in the official witness room, where media jostled for the best seats, and even to Echegaray’s last rest as reporters hounded the hearse and beyond. (Actual example: “I’m here at the funeral parlor and I’m holding Leo’s leg. It’s a bit warm and it looks like he is only sleeping.”)

Once the death chamber’s seal was cracked, it saw steady traffic: Six other people suffered execution in the Philippines during the ensuing 12 months. Then, as abruptly as capital punishment had returned to the Philippines, it blinked away.

Whether pricked by his conscience or by the political resistance of the Vatican, Estrada’s flamboyant resolve appeared to waver after Echegaray’s execution, even leading to one appalling occasion where he tried frantically to call in a last-second stay for another man but couldn’t get through until the execution was underway. Estrada finally suspended executions once again in March 2000 to honor the millenial Jubilee of Christ‘s birth. Estrada himself didn’t last much longer after that moratorium expired, and his successor President Gloria Arroyo also finalized no death sentences during her term — until in 2006 Arroyo signed repeal legislation and commuted all 1,230 existing death sentences.

* Ramos had formerly been a Philippines Constabulary officer, and in that capacity been personally present at the televised 1973 execution of heroin kingpin Lim Seng.

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1653: Jasper Hanebuth, robber and murderer

Add comment February 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1653, the German bandit Jasper Hanebuth was broken on the wheel in Hanover.

An illiterate farmer’s son from Groß-Buchholz, Hanebuth came of age during the calamitous Thirty Years’ War and thereby made his bread for a time as one of the numberless strong arms enlisted to let out one another’s blood.

Hanebuth is the titular villain in the German historical fiction novel The Murderer’s Concubine.

In a time of crisscrossing armies had conflicting loyalties and uncertain pay, it was a fine line between soldiers and thieves — sometimes just the hour of the day. What matter to a rural family or a vulnerable traveler if the gang of armed men who dispossessed him did so under the banner of God or that of opportunism? And given means and opportunity, what matter to the armed gang itself? Victims in such a chaotic environment, either actual or potential, were liable in their own turn to resort to brigandage as the only viable option, paying the devastation forward.

“It defies the pen to recount all the miseries and horrors” from those years of pillage and rapine, wrote August Jugler in his history of Hanover.

True to the template, Hanebuth parlayed wartime soldiery into an alarmingly bold career of opportunistic robbery in the still-extant Eilenriede. A purported “Hanebuth’s Block” in the vicinity of the present-day zoo there long preserved the association; there’s still a street in the forest known as Hanebuthwinkel.

He was reputed an especially vicious outlaw, who would raid singly as well as jointly with other farmers and decommissioned warriors, and would as readily for sport or pleasure shoot a convenient target dead before bothering to approach and find out if the business end of the felony was even worth the murder. He ultimately confessed to 19 homicides.

But it was still the pecuniary motive that drove things. Hanebuth approached crime-lord status with secret smuggling tunnels allegedly set up to move his ill-gotten gains and regular traffic with Hanover merchants. Hanebuth also set up as a horse-trader, exploiting his predilection for violence to obtain stock by force. One trader who refused a shakedown simply had his horses outright stolen the next night, and this man at last reported Hanebuth, resulting in his arrest, torture, and execution on the wheel.

He remains one of Hanover’s most iconic historical criminals.


Jacques Collot’s 1633 cycle “The Miseries of War” might have foretold Hanebuth’s fate: here, a soldier of the Thirty Years’ War who has turned to robbery is punished, as Hanebuth would be, on the wheel. The caption explains:

The ever-watching eye of the divine Astrée [Justice]
Banishes entirely the mourning from the country
When holding the sword and scales in her hands
She judges and punishes the inhuman thief
Who awaits passersby, hurts them, and plays with them
[And] then becomes himself the plaything of a wheel.

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1814: Mariano Matamoros, Mexican revolutionary

Add comment February 3rd, 2014 Headsman

Two hundred years ago today, the Mexican revolutionary Mariano Matamoros was shot by the Spanish at Valladolid.

A Catholic priest (defrocked for the occasion of his execution) who had previously gone to prison for his nationalist sympathies, Matamoros joined the revolutionary army of fellow-clergyman Jose Maria Morelos as the Mexican War of Independence blossomed.

Matamoros proved to have the knack for martial leadership and was a lieutenant general and Morelos’s second-in-command within months.

The Spanish captured him in early January 1814 after the revolutionaries’ failed attempt to take Valladolid. His foes could not be moved to exchange him on any terms.

Though Morelos too would suffer this fate in time, their cause eventually prevailed. Post-independence, the martyred Matamoros became a Mexican national hero. He’s interred today at Mexico City’s iconic El Angel monumental column.

He’s the namesake of several locations, including the border city of Matamoros. (Longtime readers of this site might recall the 1913 Mexican Revolution execution in Matamoros that we’ve previously profiled.) One of Mexico City’s airports also bears the Matamoros name.

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1989: Vladimir Lulek, the last Czech executed

Add comment February 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1989, the then-united Czechoslovakia hanged Vladimir Lulek for slaughtering his wife and four children. (Czech link, as are the others in this post.)

Lulek, who died at Prague’s Pankrac Prison, has the distinction of being the last person executed in what now constitutes the present-day Czech Republic. (A Slovak man named Stefan Svitek was put to death later that same year in Bratislava; Svitek holds that same distinction for both present-day Slovakia and for the former Czechoslovakia as a whole.)

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1947: Henry Rinnan, Norwegian collaborator

Add comment February 1st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1947, a firing squad shot Henry Rinnan for treason at Trondheim’s Kristiansten Fortress.

Standing just 5′ 3″ on tippytoe, Rinnan (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian) stands tall as Norway’s most notorious World War II collaborator this side of Vidkun Quisling.

That physique got him turned away when he tried to volunteer to fight the Soviets in the Winter War, but it didn’t put the Gestapo off him after Germany occupied Norway in 1940. He formed an informants’ network known as the Rinnanbanden which infiltrated the resistance movement and entrapped anti-occupation Norwegians — a “game in the negative sector,” as Rinnan described it.

The “game” got more than a thousand people arrested and something like 100 killed, including one of the more notorious episodes of the occupation, the Majavatn affair. (Norwegian link) It also eventually got Rinnan a German rank and the opportunity to kill some people personally.

Twelve people in all from the Rinnanbanden were sentenced to death after the war, counting Rinnan. Ten of those did indeed pay the penalty.

There’s a Norwegian page about the Rinnanbanden here.

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1902: A day in the death penalty around the Pacific Northwest

Add comment January 31st, 2014 Headsman

The U.S. states of Washington and Oregon both hanged murderers on this date in 1902.

Oregon

The death knell for local public(ish) hangings in Oregon took place this morning in the courthouse of Portland’s courthouse under the eyes of 400 invited witnesses and numerous additional gawkers who scaled telegraph poles or stationed themselves on nearby rooftops.

Jack Wade and William Dalton hanged together for murdering one James Morrow just three months for two bits. It was an uncomplicated crime: the villains stuck Morrow up as the latter returned one night from paying court to a young lady, then shot him when Morrow made a sudden move.

On hanging day, the pair addressed an ample breakfast of ham, chicken and eggs, knocked out some hymns and an impromptu rendition of “Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?”

… and then took a cavalier stroll to the gallows where Wade displeased right-thinking folk with his devil-may-care attitude towards his own execution. He tossed a cigar to the crowd, and played his fingers over the hemp as the rope was fastened, remarking with a wink, “it is tough.”

While the hanging itself went off without a hitch, the curious onlookers pushed through the rail meant to restrain them once the bodies were cut down and began scrabbling for bits of hemp. The sheriff finally had to clear the courtyard.

Even worse, “ten or 12 women witnessed the execution” from atop a building at Fifth and Main street, according to the Oregonian‘s report the next day. “It is doubtful if such a thing ever occurred before at a legal hanging in this country.”

The legislature some years previous had tried to get a handle on execution decorum by moving hangings off public squares and into jails, so this public(ish) execution wasn’t technically public at all. But as seen, these facilities with their barrier-toppling invited mobs and conspicuously feminized illicit peepers surrounding still affronted the alleged solemnity of the moment and led the legislature at its next sitting in 1903 to enact a statute requiring that “all executions should take place within the walls of the [state] penitentiary, out of the hearing and out of sight of all except officials.”

Wade and Dalton weren’t actually the last to hang publicly(ish) in Oregon, however. Since the law wasn’t retroactive, several additional executions occurred after the penitentiary-hanging law was enacted — the last as late as 1905. (See Necktie Parties: A History of Legal Executions in Oregon, 1851-1905).

Washington

Chinese immigrant Lum You was hanged at South Bend, Washington on January 31, 1902. He shot a man named Oscar Bloom during a drinking bout that turned into a drunken bout.

Lum You actually escaped his condemned cell on January 14 when his dinner was being fetched by the jailer and on the loose for a couple of days, but was recaptured on January 17 by a posse. He allegedly begged them to shoot him dead right there, then changed his mind when some business-minded character actually produced a weapon. (Credit to the great Northwest for its highly accommodating vigilantes.)

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