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2013: Afzal Guru, India parliament attack terrorist

3 comments February 9th, 2013 Headsman

This morning at New Delhi’s Tihar Jail, India hanged the Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist Mohammad Afzal Guru for the deadly attack on India’s parliament building eleven-plus years before.

In that December 13, 2001 strike, a team of five gunmen infiltrated the New Delhi government building and went to work. No government ministers were killed, but several police officers and a gardener died in the ensuing shootout before the militants were themselves shot dead. Some eighteen others were wounded.

The subsequent investigation led back to Kashmiri separatists, coordinating with the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Afzal Guru, a fruit seller and Jammu and Kashmir native, had found his way into that struggle years before via the Liberation Front founded by Kashmir separatist martyr Maqbool Bhat.

He was condemned for having conspired in the attacks, arranging the attackers’ weapons, and procuring the New Delhi safehouse where the gunmen organized.* (When searched, the place was found stocked with explosives.) Afzal Guru claimed that he was tortured into confessing and denied taking part in the conspiracy.

Though there’s been criticism of the trial’s fairness given the raw aftermath of the shocking attack, India’s Supreme Court confirmed the death sentence years ago:

The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, has shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender. The challenge to the unity, integrity and sovereignty of India by these acts of terrorists and conspirators can only be compensated by giving the maximum punishment to the person who is proved to be a conspirator in this treacherous act. The appellant, who is a surrendered militant and who was bent upon repeating the acts of treason against the nation, is a menace to the society should become extinct. Accordingly we uphold the death sentence. (from the judgment upholding Guru’s hanging, via this anti-execution pdf pamphlet)

However, actual execution of the death sentence stalled out during the condemned man’s post-appeals clemency petition. It was a sensitive political case, for Kashmir itself (whose towns are reported today to be fortified with added security details), and as a potential irritant to Hindu-Muslim relations and India’s own tense border with Pakistan. (In the weeks following the parliament attack, India and Pakistan had a dangerous military standoff which could easily have become a nuclear war.)

Plus, at the time, actual executions were an extreme rarity in India.

Those times might be changing. While it’s conceivable that Afzal Guru might have lived out his natural life in prison under an empty death sentence, the even more devastating “26/11″ plot in Mumbai in 2008 advanced an even more notorious Pakistan-backed terrorist incident to the front pages — and the front of the hanging queue. India broke an eight-year death penalty moratorium on November 21, 2012 when it hanged the Mumbai plot’s lone survivor, Ajmal Kasab.

To judge by nothing but the visible public clues, that execution might have pulled Afzal Guru to the gallows in its train, inasmuch as it ratcheted up the profile, and the perceived stakes, of Islamic terrorism in India. Guru’s hanging was being publicly demanded almost as a logical consequence as soon as Ajmal Kasab’s execution went public.

Kasab’s death also provided a logistical game plan for this date’s hanging: the entire operation arranged in secret, set up to go into immediate motion upon rejection of that long-neglected clemency brief, and the wider public to find out only after the fact.

Kasab and Guru were implicated in extraordinary crimes; it will be interesting to discover whether either the fact of their actual executions or the stealth with which they were conducted will pattern to the more humdrum common-criminal murderers and rapists also lying under sentences of death.

* Three others, SAR Geelani, Shaukat Hussain, and Afsan Guru (no relation), also stood trial for the conspiracy; the former two were condemned, but the sentences vacated on appeal, while Afsan Guru was acquitted outright. All three are free today, or at least are free of of legal jeopardy in this case.

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1804: Little Harpe and Peter Alston, Mississippi pirates

2 comments February 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1804, two known as John Setton/Sutton and James May were hanged at Greenville, Mississippi.

They were, in fact, Wiley “Little” Harpe and his outlaw partner Peter Alston — the survivors (well, up until then) of a notorious gang of Mississippi River pirates and frontier highwaymen.

Their villainous coterie had plagued the Mississippi (river) and the proximate byways from Kentucky down to Mississippi (state), making a couple of spots on the great river legendary pirate hideouts in the process.

With a price on the head of the notorious leader Samuel Mason, “Sutton” and “May” coldly murdered their captain to turn in his head for the reward.

They got their reward alright. They were recognized as Mason’s own fellow-bandits, and themselves put on trial for piracy.


The Harpe Brothers

This date’s hanging was not only the end of the Mason gang — it was the end of the Harpe Brothers.

Micajah Harpe (“Big Harpe”) and Wiley Harpe were brothers or cousins who cut a bloody swathe through the early American Republic, such that some have acclaimed the Harpes that young nation’s first serial killers. They were, in one historian’s words, “the most brutal monsters of the human race.”

Heading west out of North Carolina after Revolutionary War service as Tory irregulars, the Harpes made for Knoxville, Tennessee, kidnapping wives for themselves along the way. When they were rousted out of their cabin on accusations of livestock-rustling in 1797, their notorious careers really began in earnest.

This was, then, the extreme western frontier of the United States, and the Harpes were consequently able to plunder in wilderness impunity.

And they slew with a frequency and savagery far in excess of the professional demands of a bush robber.

Big Harp confessed before dying in 1798 to 20 murders, probably not counting the babies. Estimates are as high as 40, but usually around 30. After two killings, one in Knox County and one on the Wilderness Trail, the Harps left Tennessee in December 1798 for Kentucky, where they killed two traveling men from Maryland…

The final stretch of slaughter took place soon after this, in July 1798, when the Harps returned to Eastern Tennessee. The victims included a farmer named Bradbury; a man named Hardin; a boy named Coffey; William Ballard, who was cut open, filled with stones, and dumped in the Holston River; James Brassel, with his throat ripped apart on Brassel’s Knob; John Tully, father of eight. On the Marrowbone Creek in south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son, out planting crops, had their heads axed. Moving toward Logan County, the Harps came upon a little girl, whom they killed, as they did a young slave on his way to the mill. Once in Logan County, near today’s Adairville, near the Whippoorwill River, they butchered an entire migrating family asleep in their camp, but for one son who survived. (Source)

TruTV also has an account of them sending a hijacked flatboat passenger over a cliff, and bashing a little girl’s head in against the side of a bridge.

“They murdered all classes and sexes, without distinction,” a Knoxville man* recounted years later, “not for plunder but for the love of shedding human blood.” We don’t have Little Harpe’s conscience on the record, but Big Harpe would only express remorse for one of his dozens of homicides: smashing his own infant child against a tree to make it stop crying.

That sentiment would come at the end, when Big Harpe had been cornered by a posse after murdering a frontier woman. The widower in that posse halved the Harpe menace by hewing Big Harpe’s head from his shoulders.

For generations after the subsequent roosting-spot of this deathly visage — presented to a justice of the peace to verify the man’s death (and pocket the price on his literal head), then hung up for public display by the intersection of Morgenfield, Henderson, and Maidensville Roads in Union County — was known as Harpe’s Head.

Little Harpe’s subsequent career with Sam Mason and his own violent demise capped the Harpe brothers’ nefarious legacy.

Their name was so infamous that many of their family changed it … including, according to rumor, the ancestors of legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp.

* J.W.M. Breazeale was part of the posse that hunted down Big Harpe, and a witness to Big Harpe’s death, and gives the outlaw the (possibly tall-tale) last words directed to his slaughterer in mid-beheading: “You are a God damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.”

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1902: Privates Edmond Dubose and Lewis Russell, deserters to the Philippine Resistance

5 comments February 7th, 2013 Headsman

“Hello, nig. Didn’t know you’d come. What do you think you’re going to do over here!”

“Well, I doan know, but I ruther reckon we’re sent over hah to take up de White Man’s burden.”

-Exchange between a white and a black soldier (respectively) deployed to the Philippines.*

On this date in 1902, two African-American U.S. Army privates were hanged before a crowd of 3,000 at Guinobatan, Philippines for deserting to the anti-occupation insurgency.

The 7,000 black soldiers deployed to put down Philippine national resistance against the American occupation faced an obvious conundrum: they were second-class citizens back home, fighting a savage war to keep Filipinos second-class citizens abroad.

Men in such situations have been known to square that circle by going over to join their fellow downtrodden.

In the Philippines,

Each black soldier resolved for himself the quandary caused by service against the insurrectos. Some, like Lieutenant David Gilmer, believed their unswerving dedication would ultimately improve the lot of all black people. Others simply reasserted their faith in America: “all the enemies of the U.S. government look alike … hence we go along with the killing, just as with other people.” But the Filipinos recognized the existence of the black soldier’s dilemma by advocating racial solidarity against white oppressors and by offering commissions to defectors.**

Here’s an example appeal the Philippine resistance made to black U.S. troopers (source):

It is without honor that you are spilling your costly blood. Your masters have thrown you into the most iniquitous fight with double purpose — to make you the instrument of their ambition and also your hard work will soon make the extinction of your race. Your friends, the Filipinos, give you this good warning. You must consider your situation and your history; and take charge that the blood of … Sam Hose [a recent lynch mob victim] proclaims vengeance.

It was very small numbers actually induced by such messages to go so far as desertion. Leave hearth and home behind forever to fight a guerrilla resistance on the far side of the world against an overwhelming empire liable to kill you on sight? That’s a difficult sell.

But there were some buyers. Some 29 known African-American deserters are known, according to E. San Juan, Jr., most famously David Fagen, an enlisted man in the U.S. Army commissioned a captain in the Filipino resistance. And others not prepared to go all the way over nonetheless understood the appeal. One African-American soldier wrote to a Filipino friend lamenting the sight of white Americans “establish[ing] their diabolical race hatred in all its home rancor in Manila … the future of the Filipino, I fear, is that of the Negro in the South.”

When the letter was found, its author, Sgt. Major John W. Galloway, was demonstratively busted to private and dishonorably discharged.

“One ever feels his twoness,” W.E.B. DuBois mused of the black American experience at about this time in The Souls of Black Folk. “An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.”


Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry on Luzon Island.

Edmond† Dubose and Lewis Russell, whose firsthand voice we do not have, must have felt those unreconciled strivings, too. These two enlisted men slipped out of the 9th Cavalry‡ in August 1901 while that regiment was conducting anti-insurgency operations in Albay, and were next seen fighting with those same insurgents.

Captured, they were among approximately 20 U.S. soldiers death-sentenced for desertion.

General Adna Chaffee, a veteran of the U.S. Indian Wars and latterly fresh from crushing China’s Boxer Rebellion, approved the hangings — as did the U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt. (Roosevelt later announced that future desertion cases would not be capitally punished, so Dubose and Russell were the only two executed for that crime during the U.S. war against Philippine independence.)

* Army and Navy Journal, XXXVII (Nov. 11, 1899)

** Michael C. Robinson and Frank N. Schubert, “David Fagen, An Afro-American Rebel in the Philippines, 1899-1901,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Feb., 1975)

† Also called “Edward” by at least one press report.

‡ The 9th Cavalry was one of the original “Buffalo Soldiers” units.

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1997: Michael Carl George

10 comments February 6th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1997, 39-year-old Michael Carl George was executed by lethal injection at Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia. He’d been condemned for the murder of fifteen-year-old Alexander Eugene Sztanko in 1990.


Michael Carl George (top) and his victim, Alexander Sztanko.

The teenager’s death had been horrific by anyone standard: he was abducted while out riding his dirt bike, handcuffed to a tree and sexually abused. Before shooting him in the head, the killer applied a stun gun to his genitals. His body, fully clothed but shoeless, was found the following afternoon.

The boy had been killed so close to home that his unsuspecting father actually heard the gunshots. A few hours after Alex Sztanko’s body was found, George was seen loitering near the murder site by a police officer and stopped for questioning. He matched the description of a camouflage-clad man seen near the Sztanko residence the day before, and the suspicious officer asked him directly if he’d been there the previous day.

George admitted that he had, claiming he’d been turkey hunting in the woods. As he was being questioned he was standing directly in front of a “No Trespassing” sign, which gave the policeman an excuse to pick him up.

At the time of his arrest he was carrying, among other things, a knife, a handcuff key and a map, which had an “X” marking the site where Alex’s body turned up in the woods and an “O” where the boy’s dirt bike and helmet were ultimately located.

Inside George’s truck was a machete, a hacksaw, bolt cutters, a tear gas canister, leather gloves and a stun gun. A search of his parents’ home, where he lived, turned up more incriminating items: a pair of handcuffs that matched the key he carried, and a loaded 9mm pistol which turned out to be the murder weapon.

Blood, DNA and fiber evidence also pointed to George as the culprit. The case was pretty open-and-shut.

George had a reputation as a pedophile and Alexander Sztanko wasn’t the only person he killed. The first, as far as anyone knows, was Larry Wayne Perry, a mentally disabled nine-year-old who lived with his grandparents in Dumfries, Virginia.

Larry vanished without a trace on May 22, 1979 and was never found. George admitted to burying the child’s body but said his death was an accident. As the authorities lacked the evidence to prove intentional homicide, he was allowed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and abduction.

A model prisoner, he served just two and a half years of a five-year sentence.

Four years later, he killed Alex Sztanko.

George would later claim he had murdered a third person, but he never named the alleged victim and his statements could not be verified. His appeals raced through the court system at top speed; his time on death row was less than five years, one of the shortest in the state since Virginia resumed executions in the early eighties.

Given the circumstances of the murder and his prior record, he had very few sympathizers and not much he could say for himself on appeal. His case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but they voted 7 to 2 to deny a stay of execution, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Paul Stevens dissenting.

Alex Sztanko’s parents were quoted as saying they were opposed to the death penalty generally, but as far as they saw it, George’s death was society’s gain.

George’s lethal injection took place without incident and he was pronounced dead at 9:18 p.m. He had no last statements for the press, but he did leave a letter for Mr. and Mrs. Sztanko, both of whom declined to witness his execution.

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1862: Samuel Calhoun, antebellum serial killer

Add comment February 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1862, Private Samuel H. Calhoun of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry was executed by the Union Army in Bardstown, Kentucky, for murdering a local farmer.

(Calhoun had previously killed the farmer’s pig, and the farmer had Calhoun arrested. So this was settling the score.)

“I shall pass away, the moral wreck of a degenerate age,” he signed off in his published confession, dictated to Jonathan Harrington Green. “Adieu.”

If the confession is to be believed the farmer was just the last of maybe dozens of Calhoun’s victims, slain remorselessly everywhere from North Carolina to Mexico over the preceding years. But is this unverifiable

Read on for the full story in a post at Civil War Medicine guest-authored by one of our favorite crime-history bloggers, Robert Wilhelm of Murder by Gaslight.

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1999: Sean Sellers

Add comment February 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1999, Sean Sellers became the last person put to death in the U.S. for a crime committed at the age of 16.

Sellers was just four months into his 17th year when he shot dead an Oklahoma City convenience store clerk in a haze of adolescent angst.

“When I was that person, that murderer, I felt superior,” he later wrote in a confession. “I looked down on people with the secret knowledge that I had killed and was capable of killing them too. When I was not that person I was just a confused teenager, going to school, working, learning to drive, still full of anger, and counting the days when I’d be 18 so I could move OUT of that house.”

Six months later, he moved OUT for good by killing his mother and stepfather as they slept. This killing did not stay secret.

The U.S. at the time still allowed the execution of juvenile offenders, a practice that was barred by the Supreme Court only six years after Sellers died.

But on trial for having avowedly killed as “an offering to Satan” during the height of the 1980s’ bizarre devil-worship panic, his age barely figured at all. A cash-strapped public defender tried to argue that he was possessed; later, a defense psychiatrist claimed that Sellers suffered from multiple personality disorder. It’s safe to say the young man wasn’t right in the head at some level, but this sort of thing is juridical grasping at straws.

Sellers later converted to Christianity, but this conversion wouldn’t help him any more than it had helped Karla Faye Tucker the year before. In Sellers’ case, quite a lot of people thought it was all more or less a scam — the manipulative killer’s ploy to avoid the needle.

One footnote to the much-hyped Satanism angle was the teenage Sellers’ interest in Dungeons & Dragons. (Just him and a few million other people.)

Once mainstream enough to have its own cartoon, the popular role-playing game came under hysterical fundamentalist Christian attack during the Reagan years as Lucifer’s very own sport, the gateway drug to erosion of family values and situational ethics.


(via)

A guy like Sean Sellers magic missile-ing a beholder one day and then wasting his parents the next — that was pretty much the Platonic ideal of the anti-D&D campaign. People magazine said the hobby “fueled his darkening fantasies”. (For his part, Sellers disputed the connection.)

Although this sort of thing looks pretty laughable, there are still some authorities who fail their saving throw against dumb when it comes to the infernal pastime.


Haven’t they seen the after-school special?

As an aside, this “rant” (author’s word) from a man whose ex-wife became involved in the Sellers clemency campaign is a pretty interesting snapshot of the prisoner himself, and of the relationships in close proximity to him.

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1578: Blessed John Nelson, martyr

1 comment February 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1578, John Nelson was martyred at Tyburn.

A Catholic who had popped across to Flanders to train as a priest, Nelson was captured after about a year’s ministry in December 1577.

Matters with this minor martyr proceeded according to the usual script from that point. Interrogators put it to him whether Queen Elizabeth was the proper head of the Church of England — that old chestnut. The wrong answer would be treason.

[Nelson] was brought forth to be examined before the high commissioners. Here they tendered him the oath of the queen’s supremacy, which he refused to take; and being asked, why he would not swear, he answered, because he had never heard, or read, that any lay prince could have that pre-eminence. And being farther demanded, who then was the head of the church, he answered, sincerely and boldly, that the pope’s holiness was, to whom that supreme authority in earth was due, as being Christ’s vicar, and the lawful successor of St. Peter.

Secondly, [t]hey asked him his opinion of the religion now practised in England; to which he answered, without any hesitation, that it was both schismatical and heretical. Whereupon they bid him define what schism was; he told them, it was a voluntary departure from the unity of the catholic Roman faith. Then (seeking to ensnare him) they farther urged, what is the queen then, a schismatic or no? … he answered, conditionally, if she be the setter forth [of Anglicanism], said he, and defender of this religion, now practised in England, then she is a schismatic and a heretic.

After he was cut down alive from his hanging so that he could be disemboweled and quartered, Nelson’s last words were reportedly “I forgive the queen and all the authors of my death.”

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1708: Indian Sam and his female accomplice

Add comment February 2nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1708, the slave “Indian Sam” and an unnamed black woman were put to death for the murder of a prominent Queens landowner named William Hallet. The woman was burned; the apparent principal of the plot was hung in gibbets with a blade or spike positioned to torment him as he twisted … a terrible landmark for what Graham Russell Hodges calls the “closing vise of slavery.”

(Two additional accomplices were also hanged later, and several other slaves questioned whose ultimate fate was unknown.)

New York had greatly curtailed Africans’ liberties with its 1706 “Code Noir”, and the growing conflict would soon give birth to a bloody slave revolt.

But grievances were settled, too, at the rough and ready level of private violence. One witness recounted (pdf) the scene.

William Hallet junior who labored at a place called Hellgate his wife and five children in a quarter of an hour were all murdered by one Indian slave whom he had up for 4 years. There was a negro woman Slave in the house who was to him in counseling him in this bloody matter. Both he and his wife have gone at Justice Hattely house with some others … about seven at night [Hallet and his wife] returned home and went to bed … The slaves were watching their opportunity for they had to do it that night, and the house being something dark, [Indian Sam] came into the house and had a[n] axe laid behind the door and seeing his Master asleep took the axe and struck him first with the edge and then with the back of it. The first shook awakened his wife who was abed in the same room and she called murder, thereupon he struck her with the back of an axe on the head. There was one child lying in a box about 7 or 8 years of age. Those he murdered with the back of an axe and then drags the Young Child out from its murdered mother and Struck it on the head. The mother of the murdered child was also big with child.

From Lord Cornbury,* Governor of New York, later recounted what followed to the Board of Trade (Feb. 10, 1708):

My Lords.

… I have nothing new to acquaint you with, only that a most barbarous murder has been committed upon the Family of one Hallet by an Indian Man Slave, and a Negro Woman, who have murder’d their Master, Mistress and five Children; The Slaves were taken, and I immediately issued a special commission for the Tryal of them, which was done, and the man sentenced to be hanged, and the Woman burnt, and they have been executed; They Discovered two other Negros their accomplices who have been tryed, condemned & Executed.

Later that year, New York passed another law imposing potentially torturous executions (“pains of Death in such manner and with such Circumstances as the aggravation and Enormity of their Crime in the Judgement of the Justices … shall merit and require”) for slave conspiracies.

Hallet was the descendant of one of New York’s prominent early grandees whose name long remained prominent, which would lead us to suppose that the restaurant called William Hallet in nearby present-day Astoria is not altogether coincidental.

* A character with a rather scandalous reputation.

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1816: Four sodomite sailors of the Africaine

Add comment February 1st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1816, four British sailors on the HMS Africaine were hanged for buggery. One other crewman suffered 200 lashes; a second, a 17-year-old sentenced to 300, had the flogging stopped at 170 stripes by a surgeon who feared the youth’s life was in danger.


The Africaine: it was a French ship originally, captured in 1810 by the British.

“The Africaine had a reputation as a ‘man-fucking ship’ long before evidence of sodomitic practices came to the attention of Captain [Edward] Rodney,”* Arthur Gilbert explained in his seminal study published in the very first (volume 1, issue 1 — 1976) edition of the Journal of Homosexuality. “There were several reports of “uncleanliness” on the ship early in 1815 and, on one occasion, two seamen were punished for ‘lying on a chest together one night’.”

Late in 1815, Captain Rodney determined to crack down on the man-fucking and by threatening them with “dreadful consequences” coerced two of the crew into implicating themselves and a great many others in a buggery ring. As the Africaine made its way back to Portsmouth that autumn, it was scene to an ever-widening investigation.

Out of about 220 to 230 men aboard, some 50 members of the crew would ultimately be involved in the investigation, 23 of them charged or implicated with a wide variety of riffs on “the unnatural crime”: one Raphael Seraco was seen “with his yard actually in the posterior of John Westerman”; another sailor “placed his yard between [my] thighs and in that position effected an emission”; still another had “his yard against the backside of the boy Christopher Jay and … in quick motion as if he was committing the unnatural crime”; one of the ship’s boys “being much hurt sung out ‘Oh'” during an attempted rape; and someone had been rogered “on the flag stones of the Galley.”

While seabound sodomy was hardly unheard-of, the practitioners among the Africaine‘s crew had seemingly grown unusually (and dangerously) bold about practicing it without a modicum of concealment, “copulating in plain view like dogs.”

“God must put it into men’s heads to commit the unnatural crime of buggery,” an accused boatswain’s mate had allegedly declared. “If God was to put it into his head to fuck a man, [I] would as soon do it as fuck a woman.”

The sheer number of men rolled up in accusation and counter-accusation made across-the-board death sentences inconceivable. And among those implicated, it was extremely difficult to ascertain truth when fear and favoritism and innuendo were so thick in the air — “terrified as we were,” as one accused man later recounted, “in the idea of being prosecuted for the horrible crime imputed to us, dismayed and alarmed … in the duress of our situation, our minds and feelings every moment distorted by hope and fear without a friend to counsel us.”**

Blackstone had long before noted that the witch-hunt potential of a charge of sexual deviance demanded “that the accusation should be clearly made out.” To Rodney’s credit, he didn’t start stringing people up from the yardarm while the Africaine was at sea.

In port, Captain Rodney gave the matter over to the Admiralty with what one imagines was probably no small relief. In the grand tradition of prosecutorial discretion, the court-martial board proceeded to break down the many accused into those who would be charged and those who would cut deals to implicate the charged.

Seraco and Westerman, mentioned above, were the first sentenced to death, and then Seraco again condemned along with another partner, John Charles. (Seraco had been implicated by several people during Captain Rodney’s seaside inquiry, and Seraco in turn had accused no fewer than 14 of his mates in a vain attempt at self-protection.)

One of the other (uncharged) seamen giving against Seraco offered this juridically damning and sociologically interesting testimony:

Seraco put the question to me whether I would let him fuck me. I told him I did not much mind. He connected with me forward on the Starboard side. He entered my backside — I did the same with him three times. John Charles the prisoner was the first who mentioned the thing to me or I should never have had such a thought in my head.

Testimony of this nature, Gilbert says, posed a problem of jurisprudence: this was evidence not directly bearing on the charge that the defendant committed a specific act of sodomy with the other defendant. Legally, unless the Seraco-Charles liaison had been the charge at the bar, this testimony was extraneous. The Attorney General opined that, in a like civilian trial, he would have advised against executing a death sentence that had been obtained with such evidence — and that fact may have helped procure a pardon for a sailor named Joseph Tall.

Raphaelo Treake (Troyac), condemned with Tall, got the same favor — but Treake was immediately re-tried for a different act of buggery and re-condemned. Treake was another Italian, and Albert notes that their common crime was popularly euphemized as le vice Italien and considered a characteristically Mediterranean indulgence. “All the scandalous behavior in the Africaine has been owing to Treake and Seraco. They are the origin of the whole of it,” another crew member — a Spanish Morisco — testified.†

As January 1816 unfolded, several others went before the court martial and received prison sentences (or in the odd case, acquittal) as the great sodomy-and-uncleanliness audit proceeded.

By month’s end, it was all finished but the noosings.

On February 1, the four condemned “died truly penitent acknowledging the justice of their sentences and admonishing their shipmates to take warning from their unhappy fate not to be guilty of such detestable practices.” The ship’s clipped log entry tersely recorded that unhappy fate.

a.m. Fresh breezes and cloudy … employed getting ready for punishment. At 9 made signal [with] a gun. At 11 executed Seraco, Westerman, Charles, and Treake [for] a breach of te 29th article of war, and punished alongside [John] Parsons … with 200 lashes and [Joseph] Hubbard with 170 lashes for a breach of the 2nd article of war as sentenced by a court martial.

p.m. … sent the bodes of the executed to the hosptal. Read articles of war to the ship’s company.

On that same date as the poor buggers of the Africaine suffered their various corporal punishments, the Portsmouth commander Admiral Edward Thornborough appointed three captains to lead an inquiry into whether this floating Sodom was the fault of Captain Rodney’s soft discipline. The investigators heard good testimony all around among the ship’s junior officers to the conduct of Captain Rodney, and within days exonerated all the higher-ups, only pausing to complain that there could have been more frequent religious services and readings of the Articles of War.

And that was that … even for the ship itself. By mid-February, the HMS Africaine was being stripped down at a Thames dock. She would be officially decomissioned and broken up that year.


How exceptional were the Africaine sodomites in the British navy as the 18th century gave way to the 19th?

Dr. Richard Burg, author of Boys at Sea: Sodomy, Indecency, and Courts Martial in Nelson’s Navy as well as a 2009 Journal of Homosexuality article on the Africaine case (see †), was generous enough to offer his insights into this elusive subculture.

I’d like to start with a question about the historiography. Arthur Gilbert brought this incident to wide public view in the 1970s, and you’ve written about it much more recently. How has the scholarly sense of homoeroticism in the British navy, or in western militaries generally, evolved in the past forty years or so?

Its evolution has paralleled the gay rights movement that began with the Stonewall riots. Generally, scholars have come to realize that homoeroticism in the ranks is more than an isolated phenomenon. Most research on the matter, however, has centered on the persecution of gay service members or the rights of gays to serve openly: can it be allowed, what problems would it create, how military personnel and the public might deal with it, etc. Scholarly interest in the historical dimension of military homoeroticism has been confined to an isolated handful of researchers. Most scholars are dealing with more contemporary and more relevant aspects of the subject.

How widespread were same-sex trysts in the Royal Navy at this time?

No idea. This is, of course, what everyone wants to know, and there is simply no data that even suggests a guess let alone an answer.

What was it about the case of the Africaine that resulted in this sizable court-martial and multiple hanging, when at least some other incidents of “buggery” and “uncleanliness” over the years appear to have been dealt with quietly or discreetly ignored?

What made the Africaine different? The number and conspicuousness of the Africaine business meant it had to be dealt with. All other known incidents that produced courts martial or even summary punishment involved only pairs of mariners. Admittedly, some mariners were involved with multiple partners, but the relationships were dyadic rather than involving multiple partners simultaneously.

Do we know if men who engaged in homosexual behavior within the navy also did so on terra firma, or is that an “identity” most took on specifically to adapt to their confined all-male environment at sea? Is there any connection or analogue we can speak to between these cases and the simultaneous molly culture?

I have only run across mention of one or two navy sodomites who took their proclivities with them on land. This does not mean it didn’t happen. It is just that it is almost impossible to follow sailors once they leave their ships. They leave almost no evidence of their individual activities when not signed on board navy ships. No, I see no parallels or connections to eighteenth-century molly culture.

This is a a tangential point, but I was struck by your remark relative to the Italian Rafael Seraco that “sodomy, Popery, and Italy were inseparably linked in the minds of eighteenth-century Englishmen.” Why was that?

Sodomy, Popery, and Italy were linked in the minds of Englishmen long before the eighteenth century. Sodomy arrived in England as an Italian import according to popular views prevalent at least since the early seventeenth century, and probably earlier. The pope and the Catholic Church were also considered the handmaidens of sodomy at the same time. Part of this is due to raging anti-Catholicism in England dating from the Reformation of Henry VIII. Another part of it is the human tendency to blame the “other” for real or perceived ills: Jews, Communists, Fundamentalists, Liberals, whoever is handy. Catholics and sodomites were easy targets for Englishmen from the sixteenth century onward.

* Captain Rodney was the youngest son of Admiral George Brydges Rodney, a famed commander during the American Revolution. It’s thanks to Admiral Rodney’s career that the name Rodney became popularized as a first name.

** Midshipman Christopher Beauchamp. This was his explanation for why he had (falsely, he said) confessed to the lesser offense of (non-penetrative) “uncleanliness”.

† Quoted in B. R. Burg, “The HMS African Revisited: The Royal Navy and the Homosexual Community,” Journal of Homosexuality, 56:2 (2009).

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1923: Eligiusz Niewiadomski, assassin-artist

1 comment January 31st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1923, Polish nationalist painter Eligiusz Niewiadomski was executed for assassinating Poland’s first president.

After more than a century under German, Austrian, and (most especially hated) Russian domination, Poland had established itself an independent republic in the first world war’s imperial wreckage.

Niewiadomski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish), whose father had taken part in the 19th century’s anti-Russian January Uprising, was a talented painter with a serious nationalist streak.

And that was really the done thing for his time and generation: his painting career from the 1890’s into the early 20th century maps the Young Poland movement of up-and-coming artists experimenting with new forms and celebrating romantic attachment to their prostrate homeland.


“The conscience of Polish literature,” Young Poland writer Stefan Zeromski, as depicted by Niewiadomski.

When not promoting patriotic appreciation of the Tatra Mountains, Niewiadomski enjoyed supporting Polish National Democracy, a right-wing movement raging against the Cossack yoke.

Niewiadomski was a true enough believer to serve time in a tsarist prison, but he was far from the leading light of either the artistic or political movements. By the time Poland attained independence (Niewiadomski worked for Polish intelligence during World War I, and even finagled a cameo on the front lines), he was in his fifties and seemingly settling in for a slow moulder into obsolescence in bureaucratic posts and artistic monographs.

(Of course, had he done so, the next decades would have brought him their own surprises.)

Instead, the 1922 election for President of the Polish Republic, which was decided in that country’s National Assembly, saw parliamentary horsetrading elevate an engineer on the strength of the left parties’ votes — a shock victory over Niewiadomski’s preferred right-wing candidate Count Maurycy Klemens Zamoyski, the infant republic’s Bush v. Gore.

It came to street disturbances, to assaulting members of parliament, to demonstrations “for” and “against.” There were casualties. Lumps of dirty snow were thrown at the carriage of the president-elect as it drove across the town. Newspapers dreamt of “a lump of snow that will change into an avalanche” and about removal of that man-“hindrance,” that man-“obstacle.” … The infamous ride through the streets of Warsaw was a ride down death’s lane. Someone hit the first president of the republic in the head with a stick, someone else waved brass knuckles in his face …

-Anna Bojarska in From the Polish Underground

So, five days into Gabriel Narutowicz‘s term, Niewiadomski did what any violent, disaffected patriot would do: he gunned down the new Polish president at the Zacheta art gallery. It’s always great to see artists participating in the political dialogue.

This event is the subject of the 1977 Polish film Smierc prezydenta (Death of a President).

The shots by Niewiadomski marked an end to the week of hatred. Poland suffered a shock — even the Right did. National reconciliation bloomed like a thousand flowers. The president’s funeral became an occasion for a deeply disturbed society to demonstrate. Half a million people walked in the funeral procession!

-Bojarska, again

Less than seven weeks later, Niewiadomski christened that national reconciliation with his blood … at a fortress the Russians had once used to garrison his country, Warsaw Citadel.

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