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1931: Peter Kürten, the Vampire of Düsseldorf

5 comments July 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1931, the “Vampire of Düsseldorf” was beheaded for that city’s most infamous serial murder binge.

It was, perhaps, the logical end of a terrible journey.

A factory moulder and World War I deserter in his late forties, Peter Kürten commenced a series of uncommonly bestial rape-murders in early 1929 … the harvest of a lifetime’s twisted brutality.

He’d been the oldest of 11 children stuffed in a hellish one-room apartment with a violent drunk of a father who battered the children and openly raped their mother. Well, “if they hadn’t been married, it would have been rape,” in Peter’s words.

The future vampire took his refuge turning his own abuse on younger siblings and, with the help of a degenerate dogcatcher in the neighborhood, on obliging animals he could lay his hands on — which creatures he was soon learning to torture, and to rape, alongside more conventional human delinquencies like arson and burglary.

Kürten is known to have strangled at least one ten-year-old prior to World War I (he would also claim to have surreptitiously drowned a couple of school chums in his boyhood) but it was on the far side of the Great War — which he’d spent mostly in miserable prisons, nursing increasingly twisted fantasies of vengeance — that the beast truly emerged.

The spree that carried him to these pages began in Febuary 1929, when he slew an eight-year-old, attacked a middle-aged woman, stabbed a mechanic to death. Kürten’s crimes were irregular, but distinguished by a fiendish wrath: he abducted one young woman and hammered her to death in the woods outside town; he stabbed a five-year-old to death with scissors as he achieved his orgasm; he asked a teenager to run off and get him some cigarettes, so he could use her absence to slit her younger sister’s throat; he stabbed strangers randomly.

“I derived the sort of pleasure from these visions” of mayhem and cruelty, he said, “that other people would get from thinking about a naked woman.”

Düsseldorf endured a year of terror, finally aborted when Kürten’s own wife — whom he seems to have loved genuinely — turned him in, at Kürten’s own request, for the reward money.

At a packed trial, the accused’s accumulated hatred for the sadistic world poured out in words just as it had done in deeds over the months preceding.

I said to myself in my youthful way ‘You just wait, you pack of scoundrels!’ That was more or less the kind of retaliation or revenge idea. For example, I kill someone who is innocent and not responsible for the fact that I had been badly treated, but if there really is such a thing on this earth as compensating justice, then my tormentors must feel it, even if they do not know that I have done it …

Never have I felt any misgiving in my soul; never did I think to myself that what I did was bad, even though human society condemns it. My blood and the blood of my victims will be on the heads of my torturers. There must be a Higher Being who gave in the first place the first vital spark to life. That Higher Being would deem my actions good since I revenged injustice. The punishments I have suffered have destroyed all my feelings as a human being. That was why I had no pity for my victims.

-Kürten

Amateurs though we are, we incline to doubt the sufficiency of the tit-for-tat explanation. Kürten might well have believed that about himself, but the “vampire” moniker gets at an essential, organic sensuality about his crimes whose roots go quite a bit deeper than revenge.

“Tell me,” the doomed murderer is supposed to have asked a prison doctor shortly before facing the guillotine, “after my head has been chopped off will I still be able to hear; at least for a moment, the sound of my own blood gushing from the stump of my neck?”

The doctor indeed thought it possible the head might survive a few seconds.

“That,” mused the killer, “would be the pleasure to end all pleasures.”

Kürten is one of several predatory sex-slayers — also see the likes of Fritz Haarman and Carl Grossman — who prospered in interwar Germany, and helped to inspire Fritz Lang’s cinematic classic M. (Kürten is often thought the most direct model for that movie’s murderer. Lang denied that was the case, but in some countries’ releases it went out under the title not of M, but of The Vampire of Düsseldorf.)

Sources:

Murderpedia

TruTV

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2010: Michael Perry, Herzog subject

2 comments July 1st, 2012 Headsman

It was on this date in 2010 that Texas executed Michael Perry by lethal injection for his part in a triple homicide that netted a cherry-red Camaro.

Perry is the subject of the 2011 Werner Herzog documentary Into the Abyss; being a Herzog film, it comes recommended.

Abyss is “not an issue film; it’s not an activist film against capital punishment,” Herzog has said. “In this particular case, with this very senseless crime, so senseless it’s staggering, what fascinated me was that it points to a decay in family values and the cohesion of society, all these things that looked so big and beyond this case.”

Trailer:

Interview with Herzog:

Full movie, if it remains available:

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1680: A Madrid auto de fe

Add comment June 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1680, the Spanish capital of Madrid celebrated an enormous auto de fe, culminating with 18 executions plus eight people posthumously burned and 22 fugitives “executed” in effigy. (Source of the numbers)

This signal event needed every drop of sunlight from the long summer’s day. Staged for the appearance of the royal family itself, it likewise pulled in every available case from around Spain: the regional cities shipped their apostates and heretics to Madrid to dignify the main event with a suitable quantity of prey.

It began with a morning ceremonial procession of prisoners, nearly a hundred — every source seems to have a slightly different figure — in the traditional Inquisitorial manner. This account comes from an English contemporary, as reprinted in Human Judgment: The Eye of the Beholder. (Note: paragraph breaks added, and ubiquitous capitalization of nouns removed, for better readability.)

A scaffold, fifty feet in length, was erected in the Square, which was raised to the same height with the balcony made for the King to sit in. At the end, and along the whole breadth of the scaffold, at the right of the King’s balcony, an amphitheatre was raised, to which they ascend by twenty-five or thirty steps; and this was appointed for the Council of the Inquisition, and the other Councils of Spain. Above these steps, and under a canopy, the Grand Inquisitor’s rostrum was placed so that he was raised much higher than the King’s balcony. At the left of the scaffold and balcony, a second amphitheatre was erected of the same extent with the former, for the criminals to stand in.

A month after proclamation had been made of the Act of Faith, the ceremony opened with a procession [on June 29], which proceeded from St. Mary’s church in the following order. The march was preceded by an hundred coal merchants, all arm’d with pikes and muskets; these people furnishing the wood with which the criminals are burnt. They were followed by Dominicans, before whom a white cross was carried. Then came the Duke of Medina-Celi, carrying the Standard of the Inquisition. Afterwards was brought forwards a green cross covered with black crepe; which was followed by several grandees and other persons of quality, who were familiars of the Inquisition. The march was clos’d by fifty guards belonging to the Inquisition, clothed with black and white garments and commanded by the Marquis of Povar, hereditary Protector of the Inquisition.

The procession having marched in this order before the palace, proceeded afterwards to the square, where the standard and the green cross were placed on the scaffold, where none but the Dominicans stayed, the rest being retired. These friars spent part of the night in singing of psalms, and several Masses were celebrated on the altar from daybreak to six in the morning. An hour after, the King and Queen of Spain, the Queen-Mother, and all the ladies of quality, appeared in the balconies.

At eight o’clock the procession began, in like manner as the day before, with the company of coal merchants, who placed themselves on the left of the King’s balcony, his guards standing on his right (the rest of the balconies and scaffolds being fill’d by the embassadors, the nobility and gentry).

Afterwards came thirty men, carrying images made in pasteboard, as big as life. Some of these represented those who were dead in prison, whose bones were also brought in trunks, with flames painted round them; and the rest of the figures represented those who having escaped the hands of the Inquisition, were outlaws. These figures were placed at one end of the amphitheatre.

After these there came twelve men and women, with ropes about their necks and torches in their hands, with pasteboard caps three feet high, on which their crimes were written, or represented, in different manners. These were followed by fifty others, having torches also in their hands and cloathed with a yellow sanbenito or great coat without sleeves, with a large St. Andrew’s cross, of a red colour, before and behind.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a Goya painting of Inquisition prisoners in the sambenito.

These were criminals who (this being the first time of their imprisonment) had repented of their crimes; these are usually condemned either to some years imprisonment or to wear the sanbenito, which is looked upon to be the greatest disgrace that can happen to a family. Each of the criminals were led by two familiars of the Inquisition.

Next came twenty more criminals, of both sexes, who had relapsed thrice into their former errors and were condemn’d to the flames. Those who had given some tokens of repentance were to be strangled before they were burnt; but for the rest, for having persisted obstinately in their errors, were to be burnt alive. These wore linen sanbenitos, having devils and flames painted on them, and caps after the same manner: five or six among them, who were more obstinate than the rest, were gagged to prevent their uttering any blasphemous tenets. Such as were condemned to die were surrounded, besides the two familiars, with four or five monks, who were preparing them for death as they went along.

[skipping the seating arrangements … ]

About twelve o’clock they began to read the sentence of the condemned criminals. That of the criminals who died in prison, or were outlaws, was first read. Their figures in pasteboard were carried up into a little scaffold and put into small cages made for that purpose. They then went on to read the sentences to each criminal, who thereupon were put into the said cages one by one in order for all men to know them. The whole ceremony lasted till nine at night; and when they had finished the celebration of the Mass the King withdrew and the criminals who had been condemn’d to be burnt were delivered over to the secular arm, and being mounted upon asses were carried through the gate called Foncaral, and at midnight near this place were all executed.


Francisco Ricci‘s grand painting of the Madrid auto de fe represents events from throughout the day simultaneously. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

As best I can determine, two condemned people bought their lives with last-second conversions, leaving 18 to die for Judaizing … or, in one case, for converting to Islam. It will suffice to say that a very large, very ornate, and very long ceremony unfolded, and that at the end of it the flames consumed a number of people (and even more mannequins) associated with the Abrahamic faith.

“These punishments,” observed a French diplomat who witnessed the proceedings, “do not significantly diminish the number of Jews in Spain and above all in Madrid where, while some are punished with great severity, one sees several others employed in finance, esteemed and respected though known to be of Jewish origin.” Actual eliminationist Jew-hunting was so 1492.

Great as were these astounding spectacles, their day was passing. In fact, this was it — the long, sweltering, tiresomely gaudy day that it passed.

Spain in 1680 was in the grip of plague, famine, and deflation; though there’s value to the state in the distraction of a circus, there’s also the very substantial cost of putting the bloody thing on, especially on such a scale, especially when you’re going to let off most of the victims but not until you sock them away in prison and feed them for months or years until the next auto.

It seems that by the 17th century this end-zone spike of the Inquisition had become quite an encumbrance: procedures required the Inquisition to dispose of certain cases in autos de fe, which, because they had to be put on just so, were increasingly rare, and clogged up gaol cells in the meanwhile. There’s a reason besides spectacle that all the rest of Spain gratefully dumped its religious criminals on Madrid on this date.

The model just wasn’t sustainable.

Over the 1680s, practical pushback reconfigured the venerable ritual into something less burdensome to the public purse. This date’s event was very far from the last auto de fe in Spain, but it’s seen as the last of the classic, public-festival spectaculars evoked by the term. They would, in the future, become (mostly) smaller, (usually) shorter, and (somewhat) less garish affairs conducted not on public plazas but on church grounds, and with most cases of reconciliation simply handled quickly, quietly, and locally.

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1799: Admiral Francesco Caracciolo, Neapolitan

1 comment June 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Admiral Francesco Caracciolo was hanged by the British commander Horatio Nelson from the yardarm of the Sicilian frigate La Minerve in the Bay of Naples.

Poor Caracciolo (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) — and not to be confused with the Italian saint of the same name — got middled by the French Revolution.

He was a trusted admiral from a noble family, and indeed had served with the British Navy (Italian link). Caracciolo got tapped for escort duty to help King Ferdinand IV and his wife Maria Carolina* flee from a Naples threatened by French troops to the safety of a British fleet stationed at Sicily.**

But he seems to have been troubled by that flight by consciousness of a conflict between civic duty and duty to sovereign.

Carraciolo would later tell the drumhead court that condemned him that it was not he who had turned coat; rather, “the King deserted me and all his faithful subjects … The King collected everything that could be converted into specie on pretence of paying [the] army … and fled with it to Palermo, there to riot in luxurious safety. Who was then the traitor — the King or myself?”

With said King a-riot offshore, French conquest initiated in January 1799 the Parthenopean Republic, a fine obscurity for a pub bet today, but for Caracciolo a matter of life and death. He’d returned to Naples, supposedly to tend to his personal affairs; his prominence and popularity, he found, required him to choose between his allegiances.

Under whatever inducement of conscience or calculation, Caracciolo put to sea for the new Republic and engaged the Parthenopeans’ enemies, actually preventing one British landing attempting to restore his former boss.

Alas, the French — by whose arms alone was the puppet Republic supported — soon decamped for greater priorities than Naples, and the royalist elements had the city back in hand by June. While the political revolutionaries would face their own reckoning, the Jacobin admiral was caught attempting to fly and delivered to Nelson for the most summary simulacrum of justice.

“A slight breeze; a cloudy sky,” Lord Nelson’s laconic journal entry for June 29 reads. “Sentenced, condemned, and hung Francesco Caracciolo.”

Fairly or otherwise, this incident is one of the very few blots upon the beloved Nelson’s reputation. That’s partly for the haste with which it was conducted and partly for the jurisdictional matter of the British — to whom Caracciolo owed no loyalty, and against whom he had committed no treachery — doing the Bourbon monarchs’ dirty work by receiving the prisoner, conducting the trial aboard a British ship, and directing the sentence.

And it was all over under that single day’s cloudy sky.

Caracciolo was brought aboard the Foudroyant that morning, a five-member panel of Neapolitan royalist officers rounded up to try him, given a two-hour trial, and condemned to hang that very evening at 5. (Requests for a soldier’s death by shooting, or a day’s time to make peace with one’s maker, went begging.) At sunset, the body was cut down, loaded with weights, and cast into the sea.

They figured that was the last they’d seen of the admiral, but a few days later — with King Ferdinand now having moved onto the Foudroyant — the corpse somehow bobbed up to the surface right beside the ship, like a revenant spirit come to accuse the royal still too nervous to reside in Naples.

“What does that dead man want?” the shocked king is supposed to have exclaimed as he took sight of it.

“Sire,” answered a priest, “I think he comes to demand Christian burial.”


Ettore Cercone, L’ ammiraglio Caracciolo chiede cristiana sepoltura (Admiral Caracciolo requests a Christian burial). Horatio Nelson and Lady Hamilton are in the foreground.

He got it. An 1881 epitaph in the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Catena can still be read in his honor.

“Francesco Caracciolo, Admiral of the Republic of Naples, who fell victim of the hatred and the lack of mercy of his enemies. He was hanged at the mast on 29 June 1799. The people of Santa Lucia took it upon themselves to honour him with a Christian burial. The City Council of Naples, 1881.”

Naples’ harbor-front street, from which one would have had a fine view of Nelson’s fleet back in the day, is today known as the via Francesco Caracciolo. The Republic of Italy’s navy had a Caracciolo-class battleship type in production in the 1910s, but the line was discontinued before any of the four vessels reached completion.

* Sister of Marie Antoinette.

** Where Lord Nelson was banking the proceeds of his recent Egyptian exploits in the famously pleasing form of Emma, Lady Hamilton, the wife of the British envoy to Naples.

† Apropos of the preceding footnote, there’s been some grousing about Lady Hamilton’s role in all this. She was an intimate of the temporarily exiled queen, and the old Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Caracciolo slates her with having exploited her hold over the infatuated Nelson to work Maria Carolina’s vengeful will. We’re inclined to suppose that Nelson’s own reasons of warcraft-slash-statecraft, attempting to swiftly cow any potential Neapolitan resistance, suffice as explanation — whether right or wrong.

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1844: Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes, “Placido”

Add comment June 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1844, Cuban poet Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes was executed in Matanzas for conspiring to overthrow Spanish authority on the island.

His mother (who gave him up to an orphanage) was a Spanish dancer. His father (who adopted him back) was a “quadroon” barber. Valdes, aka Placido (Spanish link, which is true of most available online resources about him) grew up as a free mixed-race youth in a slave society.

This situated him in the privileged (relative to plantation slaves) but precarious position of the petty bourgeoisie, menaced not only by the prospect of economic reversal but by the vicissitudes of Spanish policy towards his caste — whose growth many colonial officials fretted warily.

Though Placido made his bread apprenticing as a print-maker and later making turquoise combs, he made his fame by dint of literary gift that was celebrated throughout Cuba and abroad. His “La siempreviva” won a literary competition when he was just 25, and led to an invitation to visit Spain (Placido declined it); the Cuban-born, naturalized Mexican poet Jose Maria Heredia visited Cuba in 1836 and made a point to look up Placido; and according to the out-of-print Cuba’s Romantic Poet: The Story of Placido by Frederick Stimson, the young Cuban was wildly popular with North American slavery abolitionists as well.

Placido is less well-remembered beyond his home island today, but arguably rates as Cuba’s most distinguished Romantic poet.

In the 1830s especially, when civil war in Spain put the reigning monarch on the liberal side, Placido was able to exploit the opening to write openly of Cuban political aspirations.

His La Sombra de Padilla, dedicated to Spain’s “wise and exalted Queen”, imagines one of Spain’s martyred comuneros charging him to venture his life for liberty against absolutism.

Better to fall prey to La Parca [the Grim Reaper]
Than to a despotic Monarca

But notwithstanding the war in Iberia, the exalted Queen still put Cuba under special (read: repressive) law. Placido’s prominence, having advocated for much more freedom than Cuba was slated to enjoy, subjected him to automatic Spanish suspicion as more authoritarian governance arrived in the 1840s.

The poet was arrested in the Conspiración de La Escalera (Conspiracy of the Ladder, so named for the structure its accused were tortured upon). This purported plot to raise a slave revolt may or may not (pdf) have really existed, but the crackdown it authorized sure did. Indeed, despite the “slave revolt” bogeyman, it was overwhelmingly free blacks whom the Spanish suppressed in this affair.

Gariel de la Concepcion Valdes, known as “Placido”, was shot with ten others, “miserable instruments of the most depraved machinations of immoral men, men who deserve the curse of the living and the opprobrium of generations to come,” just a week after his conviction.

The appointed lot has come upon me, mother,
The mournful ending of my years of strife,
This changing world I leave, and to another
In blood and terror goes my spirit’s life.

But thou, grief-smitten, cease thy mortal weeping
And let thy soul her wonted peace regain;
I fall for right, and thoughts of thee are sweeping
Across my lyre to wake its dying strains.

A strain of joy and gladness, free, unfailing
All glorious and holy, pure, divine,
And innocent, unconscious as the wailing
I uttered on my birth; and I resign

Even now, my life, even now descending slowly,
Faith’s mantle folds me to my slumbers holy.
Mother, farewell! God keep thee — and forever!

-Valdes, “Farewell to My Mother”

There are volumes of Placido’s poetry (in the original Spanish) freely available via public-domain Google books offerings here and here, with a short thumbnail biography here. For the nonfiction biographical exploration of Placido’s life, and detailed critical analysis of his poetry, this Vanderbilt master’s thesis (pdf) is highly recommended.

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1740: Artemy Volynsky

1 comment June 27th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1740, the Russian politician Artemy Volynsky was beheaded in St. Petersburg.

Volynsky, as famously corrupt as he was famously able, had worked himself up from Peter the Great’s dragoons into the circles of high statecraft but lost a power struggle in the notoriously cruel court of Empress Anna. He’d made it all the way to Anna’s cabinet, but there made himself the rival of powerful Baltic grand chamberlain Ernst Johann von Biron: in political terms, Biron and the fellow Balt who ran foreign policy had a west-facing, German orientation, while Volynsky looked east to Central Asia, India, and China; in personal terms, Biron was the lover of the queen, and Volynsky … was not.

After Volynsky beat up a poet, Biron had the excuse to have him investigated and was able to construct as treasonable some private correspondence about changing the way things are done in Russia, Biron thereby ridding himself of the rival.


Just a few months after Volynsky’s execution, Anna herself died, leaving an ill-starred one-year-old heir and an uncertain political situation.

In the event, Biron and his fellow Germanophiles were driven out of court by the Russian grandees, who then constructed the late Volynsky — by all indications as cutthroat and grasping as anyone else at court — as a patriotic martyr vis-a-vis the detested late ascendancy of the Baltic types.*

As a result, in 1741, a modest monument (later aggrandized) was set up to Volynsky et al at St. Sampson’s Cathedral.**

Further to that same end, the scaffold-bound 19th century Decembrist poet Ryleyev (Ryleev) paid his own tribute to Volynsky in verse. So far, I’ve only found Ryleyev’s “Volynsky” in Russian, but here’s a little taste [courtesy of blog friend Sonechka] of the gist:

He who resists the overweening
Expects no reward and asks for none
And forgetting even himself
Sacrifices all to the motherland.
Against the cruel tyrants
He will be free even in chains
At execution justly proud
And ever after exalted.


In that same vein, Ryleyev’s contemporary Ivan Lazhechnikov featured Volynsky as the protagonist of his historical novel The Ice Palace or The Ice House,† again whitewashing the man’s ample stock of disreputable qualities.

The book’s title alludes to a famous structure put up in the winter of 1739-1740 for the royal court’s amusement, a vast frozen edifice 20 meters tall and 50 meters wide, designed by the architect Pyotr Yeropkin … a Volynsky ally who ultimately shared Volynsky’s fate on June 27, 1740.

This sounds great, but the decadent amusement park soon became the scene for one of imperial Russia’s more infamous and bizarre horrors: Anna forced an ex-prince who had been demoted to court jester for marrying a Catholic to wed a homely Kalmyk serving-girl, with whom he would have to pass a “wedding night” naked in that icebox. (Somehow, they managed to survive.)


The yellow-clad Anna dances merrily while her terrified servants/prey brace to survive a winter night on the ice bed. Detail view; click for the full painting.

Volynsky’s machiavellian contribution to the ghastly scene had been to associate this spectacle with a celebration of Anna’s name day.

This bit of sucking up didn’t buy him quite enough time when it was all said and done, but it reminds of Volynsky’s highly mitigated claim on eternal exaltation.

* Remembered as the Bironovshchina. Compare to the Yezhovshchina, at the height of Stalin’s purges: why don’t these things ever get named for the actual chief executive?

** Saint Sampson the Hospitable has a June 27 feast date; the cathedral was dedicated in his honor because that was also the date, in 1709, of Russia’s watershed victory over Sweden at the Battle of Poltava.

† There’s more about this novel in the context of both 19th century literature and Volynsky’s own era in this pdf dissertation extract, pp. 7-22.

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1943: Marianne Elise Kurchner condemned for a joke

Add comment June 26th, 2012 Meaghan

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

Sometime in the summer of 1943 in Nazi Germany, a young woman from Berlin named Marianne Elise Kürchner was guillotined for telling a joke.

Kürchner, who worked at an armaments factory, told the following joke to a coworker who denounced her:

Hitler and Göring are standing atop the Berlin radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on Berliners’ faces. So Göring says: “Why don’t you jump?”

Not exactly a side-splitter. More like a neck-splitter: making jokes at Hitler’s expense was, in theory at least, a capital crime.

Mind you, most people who made nasty wisecracks about the Nazis faced no consequences at all. They were rarely denounced, and if they did come before a court they were usually given a warning, or at most a few months of “re-education” in Dachau.

The Nazis did occasionally use sedition as an excuse to arrest and execute people who’d gotten on their bad side for one reason or another, but ordinary Germans initially had little to fear.

However, as the tide of war began to turn against Germany, the punishments for sedition became ever more severe.

Marianne was called up before the People’s Court, whose president, Roland Freisler, was famous for both his long raving speeches berating defendants, and his death sentences. She admitted to making the joke but said she hadn’t been herself at the time, feeling bitter about the recent loss of her husband at the front.

Freisler would have none of it. In fact, he considered Marianne’s status as a war widow to be an aggravating factor. “The People’s Court,” Rudolf Herzog said of this case in his book Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany, “made it a point of pride to take no account of individual suffering.” In his ruling, Friesler wrote:

As the widow of a fallen German soldier, Marianne Kürchner tried to undermine our will to manly defense and dedicated labor in the armaments sector toward victory by making malicious remarks about the Führer and the German people and by uttering the wish that we should lose the war … She has excluded herself from the racial community. Her honor has been permanently destroyed and therefore she shall be punished with death.

The People’s Court’s judgment was rendered on June 26, 1943. Marianne lost her head shortly thereafter.

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1804: Georges Cadoudal, Chouan

1 comment June 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1804, royalist counterrevolutionary Georges Cadoudal was guillotined in Paris with eleven of his chouan brothers-in-arms.

Cadoudal (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed French) was the French Revolution’s ultimate antagonist, a Breton notary (and commoner, obviously) who obstinately resisted the bloody progress of those years to the last of his strength.

His decade of royalist adventures (French) reads* like an adventure novel, a mind-bogglingly perilous series of revolts, captures, escapes, rappelling, martial exploits, diplomatic intrigue, terrorist plotting, high principles, low politics … a desperately heroic (or anti-heroic) struggle using every resource of a changing world to claw back the lost age of Bourbons.

After that dynasty’s last (up until then) king was guillotined in 1793, the intrepid Cadoudal staked his life to the 1793 Vendee rising, mounted an insurrection at Brest, and became one of the principal leaders of the anti-revolutionary Chouannerie fighting les bleus around northwest France through the 1790s.

Beaten but not bowed, Cadoudal took refuge in England when those campaigns came to grief following the royalist debacle at Quiberon, but he was never one to retire to the exile social circuit. Cadoudal remained an active schemer against the France of a rising Napoleon Bonaparte, and he was backed now by Britain’s statecraft … and her gold.

Spurning a proffered arrangement with the Corsican — who, say what one will, could recognize ability when he saw it — Cadoudal instead oversaw a dramatic 1800 assassination attempt on Napoleon that didn’t get the dictator but blew a bunch of Parisian bystanders to smithereens.

This effort having failed, our persistent intriguer slipped back into France to attempt an even bolder venture to kidnap Napoleon and elevate the Duke of Enghien — the going Bourbon candidate, who lurked on the French frontier to rush into the power vacuum.

This didn’t work either. As outlandish as the idea seems with benefit of hindsight, it was hardly a crackpot plan — as attested by the credentials of its participants.

“All Europe laughs at the conspiracy in Paris; it was, however, a well-built machine. Men, money, everything was ready. Bonaparte was to be taken alive and carried out like lightning from one post to the sea and the English fleet … I am inconsolable that it missed its mark. Those who criticize the French princes that they do not risk themselves while others fight for them, they will be the first to cry: What madness! How childish! [that d’Enghien risked himself] That is how men are made.”

-Joseph de Maistre (Source)

Which is a long way of saying that it still comes down to wins and losses.

Having lost, the Bourbon pretender (he’s a pretender because he lost, of course) d’Enghien was arrested and immediately shot for his trouble; Cadoudal, taken on the streets of Paris,** was around long enough to see the hated Bonaparte take sufficient warning from the conspiracies against him to vest his governance in the imperial dignity. That was proclaimed on May 18. (The famous coronation wasn’t until December.)


Happy now, Georges? Napoleon on his Imperial throne, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

“We have done better than we hoped,” the doomed Cadoudal remarked caustically from his dungeon. “We intended to give France a king, and we have given her an emperor.”

He was rock-ribbed in his royalism to the very last.

He’d met Napoleon face to face years before in an abortive parley — when Cadoudal was offered, and rejected, the bribe of a lucrative Republican military commission — and now Cadoudal’s proposed victim let it be known to him that mercy was his for the asking. The indignant Breton scorned as dishonorable the very idea of supplicating Napoleon, even when the invitation was refreshed as he underwent the fatal toilette on his final day. His dozen-strong party went to their deaths this date taking heart from following the very footsteps of their martyred king.


The Execution of Georges Cadoudal, by Armand de Polignac … who portrayed several scenes of the conspirators.

A very lovely mausoleum in his native village of Kerleano preserves Cadoudal’s remains (reburied honorably there after his Bourbon Restoration finally came to pass), and his memory.

* A descendant wrote this now-public-domain book about our man.

** Reproached for orphaning a policeman’s family as he resisted capture, Cadoudal sneered, “then you should have sent a bachelor.”

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1575: The intrepid Torii Suneemon

2 comments June 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1575* a Japanese soldier was crucified under the walls of his castle … and entered his country’s folklore.

Torii Suneemon was a footman of the Okudaira family late in Japan’s fratricidal Warring States Period.

The Okudaira, allies of the wars’ eventually-victorious Tokugawa clan, found themselves besieged by the Takeda. This would result in the important Battle of Nagashino.


Kurosawa’s masterpiece Kagemusha imagines the Takeda where the (real) late daimyo Shingen was succeeded after his (real) 1573 death (fictitiously) by an imposter thief posing as the great commander. In the film, the imposter is unmasked and deposed, but witnesses the climactic Battle of Nagashino … and then makes a futile charge under the Takeda banner after that side is slaughtered.

After an initial Takeda attempt to take the fortress by storm, the Takeda settled in for a brief siege — knowing the defenders to have only a few days’ supplies on hand. Enter Torii Suneemon.

Under cover of darkness on the night of the 22nd-23rd, Suneemon slipped out of the Yagyu gate and picked his way through Takeda tripwires to escape the investment … and summon help.


Torii Suneemon embarks on his mission: 19th century woodblock print of Yoshitoshi‘s “24 Accomplishments of Imperial Japan” series. The same artist also depicted that event in this triptych.

He made it on the 23rd to Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga, who upon hearing his report pledged to dispatch a relief force the very next day.

Alas for him, Suneemon’s attempt to sneak back into the encircled fortress to deliver the good news was detected on the 24th, and he came as a prisoner to the Takeda commander. The Takeda prevailed upon their helpless captive to exchange his life for a signal service: approach the fortress walls and shout to the garrison that no help was on the way.

This Suneemon agreed to do.

The legends differ as to whether he walked on up to deliver this bogus bad news, or whether the Takeda lifted him up on a cross to impress upon their new agent the penalty for any funny business. Either way, Torii Suneemon had the last laugh: he immediately began hollering to the defenders that help was coming if they could just hang on a few more days.


Torii Suneemon goes off-script. Another Yoshitoshi creation, from here or from this detailed French post.

The besiegers, of course, crucified him immediately … but everyone could appreciate the doomed man’s heroism.

While the grateful Okudaira elevated his family to samurai rank, even an enemy Takeda commander who witnessed the event was so moved that he adopted the image of the defiantly crucified soldier for his battle standard.

Heck, there’s apparently even a Japanese monument in San Antonio, Texas that compares Suneemon to the Alamo defenders.

Nor was the brave soldier’s sacrifice in vain. The garrison did hold on — and their allies did relieve them, and did rout the Takeda in the resulting Battle of Nagashino. (The scenario is widely reproduced in video games nowadays).

* Some sites give this as “May 16″, but I believe the primary sources here actually indicate the 16th day of the 5th month on the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar. This date corresponds to June 24, 1575 of the Julian calendar. (1570s conversion aid in this pdf, or use this converter).

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1954: George Robertson, the last hanged in Edinburgh

Add comment June 23rd, 2012 Headsman

This date in 1954 marked the last execution in the city of Edinburgh.

By the jaw-droppingly horrific murder he committed, George Robertson certainly earned the distinction.

Not actually topical save to George Robertson’s milestone as Edinburgh’s literal last drop; this Last Drop Pub is at the city’s Grassmarket where historic public hangings (long gone by Robertson’s day) were conducted. Image (c) Sh0rty and used with permission.

His ex-wife, Elizabeth McGarry, had recently kicked him out of the house after an attempted reunion led right back to the prolific domestic abuse that had ended their marriage in the first place. She was an unwed, unemployed mother of two teenage children, but anything beats being tied up and threatened with a hatchet.

Mother and children — 18-year-old son George Jr., and 16-year-old daughter Jean — lived in waking terror of the vengeful ex-patriarch; in the days before restraining orders, they kept doors constantly bolted and jammed with chairs under the doorknobs, and a poker within reach whenever possible.

According to this retrospective — and read the whole thing for a slasher film in prose — the estranged George managed to get into the house on the night of February 28, 1954, while everyone was asleep.

He summoned his former spouse to the kitchen and knifed her to death, then attacked young George Jr. when he arrived, too. Then he mounted the stairs — where Jean was desperately trying to escape out a window — carrying

the blood-drenched body of his ex-wife, a gaping hole in her stomach and a white handkerchief stuffed in her mouth, hands bound together.

George Alexander Robertson was just in the midst of trussing up Jean and stabbing her to death when the mangled George Jr. distracted the killer by reviving well enough to burst out onto the balcony and into the public quadrangle below. There, he

threw himself through a neighbour’s kitchen window, where he begged for help.

Following him, just yards behind, enraged and still clutching his knife, came his father.

The Hay family, whose quiet home was now about to become a murder scene, cowered in terror as blow after blow rained down on the terrified teen as he screamed for help.

Defenceless against his father’s brutality, young George finally slumped to the floor, dying.

Job done, his father threw his body over his shoulder and strolled home leaving a bloody trail across Tron Square.


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The savage “brainstorm” to which he would later attribute this wild spree must have been abating. As he returned to his former domicile, he didn’t bother finishing off Jean, but stuck his head in the kitchen gas oven, where responding police found him.

The obviously unbalanced paterfamilias attempted to plead guilty to avoid the spectacle of the trial (no dice: two days of horror from the witness box riveted the city) and did not attempt to fight the inevitable sentence once imposed. He was dead within 15 weeks of the bloodbath, at the skillful hands of Albert Pierrepoint.

Only three other Scottish executions anywhere — two in Glasgow, and one final hanging in Aberdeen — followed it before death penalty abolition.

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