Posts filed under 'Assassins'

1918: Boris Donskoy, Left SR assassin

1 comment August 10th, 2018 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, the Germans hanged Russian revolutionary Boris Donskoy.

Donskoy was not a Bolshevik but a Left Social Revolutionary — the party faction most closely aligned with Team Lenin. And his offense was a revolutionary crime, but one that events soon swept into irrelevancy.

In March of that same year, Russia’s revolutionary government had fulfilled its promise to exit the charnel house of World War I, ceding in exchange for peace the huge territorial gains that Germany had exacted in the bloodlands in-between empires.

These prospectively gigantic territorial gains were not long held by Berlin, whose wartime government would collapse suddenly before the year was out … but in the short interim where we lay our post, the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine are under firm German control.

The last of these stood under the authority of Field Marshal Hermann von Eichhorn. Donskoy, a radical sailor who had served on the Executive Committee of Kronstadt when it demonstrated against the Revolution’s initial, too-moderate Provisional Government, on July 29 assassinated the field marshal — declaring to his captors that the old Prussian warhorse had been condemned by the Left SRs for suppressing the Ukrainian revolution.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mature Content,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Terrorists,Ukraine,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1940: Udham Singh, Jallianwala Bagh massacre avenger

Add comment July 31st, 2018 Headsman

A national revenge drama 21 years in the making culminated on the gallows of Pentonville Prison on this date in 1940.

The story of Udham Singh‘s hanging begins long before and far away in the British Raj.

There, a crowd of 20,000-25,000 protesting for independence in the restive Punjab city of Amritsar were wantonly fired upon by Raj authorities — an atrocity remembered as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. British authorities acknowledged a staggering 379 dead; Indian accounts run much higher than that.

The massacre’s principal immediate author was the army commander Reginald Dyer, who fired on the crowd without warning and with so much premeditation as to bar exits from the Jallianwala Bagh garden for maximum bloodshed — his acknowledged intent “not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.” but Punjab Lieutenant Governor Michael O’Dwyer, for many years a noted rough hand in the suppression of national militancy on the subcontinent, had his back. “Your action correct,” read an O’Dwyer-to-Dyer telegram on the morrow of the bloodbath. “Lieutenant Governor approves.”

British opinion was not quite so approving; indeed, many Britons were outraged and both Dyer and O’Dwyer ended up sacked. But as is usual for a horror perpetrated under the flag they also never faced any sort of punishment.

Until Udham Singh, avenger, entered the scene.

A survivor of that horrific day — when he’d been dispatched from the orphanage that raised him to serve drinks to the protesters — Singh had unsurprisingly thrilled to the revolutionary cause. A Sikh by birth, the name he adopted, Ram Mohammed Singh Azad, gestures to his movement’s now-remote spirit of unity across sect and nation.

Come 1934 Singh had made his way to London, where he worked as an engineer and quietly plotted revenge against O’Dwyer, pursuant to a vow he had taken many years before. (Dyer escaped justice in this world by dying in 1927.) And on March 13, 1940, he had it when the retired colonial hand addressed a joint meeting of the East India Association and the Royal Central Asian Society at Caxton Hall. As proceedings concluded, Singh produced a concealed pistol and fired six shots at the hated O’Dwyer, killing him on the spot.

Like many (not all) of his countrymen, Singh gloried in his long-awaited triumph in the few weeks remaining him.

I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him. For full 21 years, I have been trying to seek vengeance. I am happy that I have done the job. I am not scared of death. I am dying for my country. I have seen my people starving in India under the British rule. I have protested against this, it was my duty. What greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?

Many countrymen shared his exultation, even if those in respectable leadership positions had to disapprove of assassination. Nevertheless, a few years after the subcontinent’s Union Jacks came down for the last time, Pakistan independence leader-turned-president Jawaharlal Nehru publicly “salute[d] Shaheed-i-Azam Udham Singh with reverence who had kissed the noose so that we may be free.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,India,Martyrs,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Pakistan,Revolutionaries,Wartime Executions

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1726: Franz Laubler, Hermann Joachim Hahn’s murderer

Add comment July 18th, 2018 Headsman

Franz Laubler was broken on the wheel in Dresden on this date for assassinating Protestant deacon Hermann Joachim Hahn.

Hahn was a well-connected pastor who had been plying his trade in the Lutheran Kreuzkirche for nigh 20 years. That trade consisted heavily in the evangelization of Catholics in a confessionally split city;* indeed, his murderer, a Catholic-reared butcher and mercenary, had himself once upon a time been converted by Deacon Hahn.

Said Franz Laubler had in time returned his soul to the Roman fold but the unsettled mind suggested by his sectarian vacillation is supported by Laubler’s strange conviction that a communion wafer taken in 1720 had lodged permanently in his gullet. “Schlaget mir den Kopt ab, und ihr werdet noch die Hostie in meinem Halse finden!” he exclaimed: “Cut off my head, and you’ll still find the Host in my throat!”


Not to be confused with the Ghost to the Post.

On May 21 of that same year of our Lord 1726, the Host-throatened Laubler presented himself at the divine’s residence under the guise of seeking spiritual counsel, but instead sent Hahn straight to his maker with a hidden blade.** He’d thrown down Dresden’s Lucifer, he explained to the gendarmes who took him into custody — and made his heavy heart light.

The murder triggered a massive Protestant pogrom against Catholics which required several days to quell.

There’s a public domain volume from 1826 about these events available free here, as well as a 2009 book Die Hostie im Hals. (The Host in the Throat | here’s a review) Both titles are in German. Hahn’s Wikipedia page itemizes a number of other German pamphlets about his murder dating to the 1720s.

Hahn’s tomb can be found in the Trinitatiskirche Cemetery, where it was transferred in the mid-19th century from the old Johanniskirchof.

* Dresden, and Saxony in general, were predominantly Protestant. However, Catholics enjoyed a broad grant of tolerance thanks in part to the Elector of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, who converted to Catholicism in 1697 in order to become King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

** Okay, it wasn’t straight to his maker: Laubler started by trying to strangle Hahn with a rope, and resorted to the knife as his victim resisted him.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Assassins,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Holy Roman Empire,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions

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1907: Xu Xulin, anti-Manchu assassin

1 comment July 7th, 2018 Headsman

Chinese revolutionary Xu Xulin was executed on this date in 1907.

As a civil servant in Anhui Province, this militant (English Wikipedia entry | German | the far more detailed Chinese) had just one day before assassinated the provincial governor, En-ming, during the ceremonial graduation of a police academy. Xu himself was the academy’s superintendent.

He’d been hoping to touch off a revolution and his hopes, though not ill-founded, were disappointed in this moment. He was beheaded hours later and his heart carved out as an offering to his victim. Xu’s cousin, the feminist Qiu Jin, was executed the following week for the same disturbance.

Surprisingly, Xu’s murder of a Manchu official — the Mongolian peoples who ruled China’s domestic Han majority under the Qing dynasty — directly spurred a national response to his frankly stated ethnic grievances, as the Qing maneuvered (too late, as it would transpire) to implement reforms that could sustain their state through a revolutionary era.

Xu Xilin, during his interrogation, readily confessed that he had killed Enming simply because he was a Manchu … Xu Xilin professed no grudge against Enming personally, nor did he claim that the governor had been particularly hostile toward Han. Rather, Xu’s enmity was directed toward the Manchus in general:

The Manchus have enslaved us Han for nearly three hundred years. On the surface they seem to be implementing constitutionalism, but that’s only to ensnare people’s minds. In reality they are upholding the centralization of authority so as to enhance their own power. The Manchus’ presumption is that once there is constitutionalism, then revolution will be impossible … If constitutionalism means centralization, then the more constitutionalism there is, the faster we Han people will die … I have harbored anti-Manchu feelings for more than ten years. Only today have I achieved my goal. My intention was to murder Enming, then to kill Duanfang, Tieliang, and Liangbi, so as to avenge the Han people … You say that the governor was a good official, that he treated me very well. Granted. But since my aim is to oppose the Manchus, I cannot be concerned with whether a particular Manchu was a good or bad official. As for his treating me well, that was the private kindness of an individual person. My killing of the governor, on the other hand, expresses the universal principal of anti-Manchuism.

The murder of Enming caused tremendous unease among Manchu officials … Because it coincided with a series of revolutionary uprisings in Guangdong that Sun Yat-sen had launched in early May, the assassination was especially upsetting. According to British diplomats, “Everywhere throughout the country the Manchu officials are living closely guarded in their Yamens.” …

[The Empress] Cixi was particularly anxious about Xu Xilin’s anti-Manchuism. At an audience a month later with her foreign minister, Lu Haihuan (1840-1927), the empress dowager was reportedly still wrestling with Xu’s ghost. She insisted to Lu, “The bandit Xu Xilin claimed that there is prejudice between Manchus and Han, but really when we select provincial officials there is no prejudice whatsoever.” More to the point, she issued within five weeks of each other two edicts that were clearly prompted by Enming’s murder. The first, promulgated on 8 July, two days after the assassination, called once more upon her subjects to present proposals for reform, but this time her appeal went beyond the elite of top officials who were authorized to memorialize the throne to the much broader group of junior officials and scholar commoners, who were now permitted to have their ideas forwarded to her by either the Censorate or the provincial officials.

[The second edict, of 10 August] focused specifically on Manchu-Han relations. Cixi maintained, yet one more time, that the Qing dynasty throughout its long history had always treated Manchus and Han impartially, both as officials and as subjects. Nor had it, in recent appointments to the banner system [hereditary provincial military and administrative posts that were overwhelmingly Manchu], distinguished between Manchus and Han … she then called on all officials to offer suggestions on “how to totally eradicate the boundaries between Manchus and Han.”

-Edward J. M. Rhoads, Manchus and Han: Ethnic Relations and Political Power in Late Qing and Early Republican China, 1861-1928

Proposals from various officials ran the gamut, — encouraging intermarriage, abolishing legal privileges still enjoyed by Manchus, suppressing the Manchu language, and moving Manchu cultural practices towards the Han in everything from naming conventions to forms of address. Even Cixi’s Grand Council was shaken up to establish parity between Manchus and Han.

The chilling words of the dead assassin still echoing, the government moved on these proposals with surprising urgency. By the autumn,

the court issued two edicts, ten days apart, that resolved to drastically change, though not abolish, the Eight Banner system. The first edict, handed down on 27 September, ordered … that the provincial garrisons be disbanded over a ten-year period and their inhabitants be prepared to make their own living … The second edict, issued on 9 October, dealt with the customary and legal differences between Manchus and Han, such as the length of the mourning period and the commutation of punishments. It called on the Ministry of Rites together with the Commissioners for Revising and Codifying the Laws to draw up a set of ceremonies and penal codes that would apply uniformly to Manchus and Han, excepting only the imperial lineage.

These two edicts thus accepted many of the proposals advanced by the memorialists after Enming’s assassination …

Meanwhile, in response to the growing demands of the constitutionalist reformers … Cixi, in her own name, issued two other edicts that clarified the vague promise that she had made a year earlier to institute a constitutional regime. On 20 September 1907 she declared that her ultimate intention was to establish “a bicameral deliberative body.” As a preparatory step, she ordered the immediate creation of a Consultative Assembly, appointed the fourth-rank prince Pulun (1874-1926) and the elderly grand secretary Jia’nai as its co-presidents, and charged them, together with the Grand Council, to draw up a detailed plan for this new national assembly. A month later, on 19 October, she authorized the formation of provincial deliberative assemblies as well. Afterward, she sent Pulun to Japan to learn more about constitutional government at first hand.

Cixi died the following year. The Xinhai Revolution ended the Qing dynasty in 1911.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder

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1964: Jack Ruby condemned

Add comment March 14th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1964, Dallas nightclub owner Jacob Rubenstein — notorious to history as Jack Ruby — was condemned to the electric chair for the dramatic live-televised murder of accused John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, captured by snapping shutters in one of the 20th century’s indelible images.

Ruby would never sit on that mercy seat.

For one thing, his punishment arrived as the American death penalty lulled into hibernation. Had he lived his sentence eventually would have been vacated by the 1972 Furman v. Georgia ruling. But instead of seeing that juridical landmark, the enigmatic Ruby died in prison inside of three years, awaiting retrial after an appeal.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Infamous,Jews,Murder,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Organized Crime,Popular Culture,Texas,USA

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1885: August Reinsdorf and Emil Kuchler, Kaiser Wilhelm I bombers

Add comment February 7th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1885, anarchists August Reinsdorf and Emil Küchler were guillotined for a failed attempt on the life of Kaiser Wilhelm I.

The King of Prussia turned Emperor of the newborn (in 1871) Deutsches Reich, Wilhelm was honored by assassins equal in enthusiasm to his distinctive whiskers.* The versions distinguished by this post had the cheek to contemplate exploding the Kartätschenprinz** just as he ceremonially inaugurated an important national monument.


The Niederwalddenkmal still stands to this day. (cc) image from Philipp35466

The day was wet, and the dynamite fizzled. Everybody departed none the wiser but police spies later caught wind of the attempt, apparently when the would-be bombers Emil Küchler and Franz Reinhold Rupsch asked reimbursement from leftist typesetter August Reinsdorf, the plot’s mastermind.

Eight were eventually rounded up, secretly at first but later publicized to the prejudice of leftist parties.

Reinsdorf, Küchler and Rupsch all received death sentences; Rupsch’s was commuted in consideration of his youth.

The workers build palaces and live in miserable huts; they produce everything and maintain the whole machinery of state, and yet nothing is done for them; they produce all industrial products, and yet they have little and bad to eat; they are always a despised, raw and superstitious mass of servile minds. Everything the state does tends toward perpetuating these conditions forever. The upper ten thousand rest on the shoulders of the great mass. Is this really going to last? Is not a change our duty? Shall we keep our hands in our laps forever?

-Reinsdorf at trial

* We have in these pages already met one such predecessor who went under the fallbeil in 1878; the zeal of such men had given the Reich pretext to ban the Social Democrats.

** “Prince of Grapeshot”, a bygone nickname that paid derisive tribute to Wilhelm’s mailed fist in the Revolutions of 1848.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Notable for their Victims,Power,Revolutionaries,Terrorists

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1880: Alexander Kvyatkovsky and Andrei Presnyakov, Narodnaya Volya terrorists

Add comment November 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1880,* Russian revolutionaries Alexander Kvyatkovsky and Andrei Presnyakov were hanged at St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress.


Kvyatkovsky (left) and Presnyakov.

Kvyatkovsky, 28, and Presnyakov, 24, had each spent the whole of their brief adulthoods agitating, police ever at their heels. As Russia’s “season of terror” opened in the late 1870s, both immediately cast their lot with the violent Narodnaya Volya movement. They were found by police at their respective arrests to have each had more than a passing interest in Narodnaya Volya’s ongoing project to assassinate Tsar Alexander II — an objective that it would indeed achieve a few months later.

Their fellow-traveler Mikhail Frolenko would remember the mass trial they featured at not for any glorious martyr-making but as a propaganda debacle for his movement.

The Trial of the Sixteen** in October 1880 was a model of judicial procedure — the government had learned, planned carefully and conducted the trial with absolute decorum. The sixteen accused included three of the most important figures in the Movement: Shiraev, who had been arrested in Moscow a year before with two suitcases of dynamite, Presnyakov and Kvyatkovsky. The last two were old friends of Andrei Zhelyabov. The evidence against the accused was provided by Grigory Goldenberg; the prosecution’s case was unanswerable. The sixteen were allowed to address the court and their speeches were reported. The prosecutors questioned them with a mix of deliberate courtesy and provocation: the sixteen were given enough rope to hang themselves. They followed no clear line and contradicted each other on endless details. They improvised counter-accusations, became mired in irrelevancies, and exploded in fits of petulance. They made a miserable impression, highlighted at every stage by the correctness of the proceedings. In its sentence the court was lenient, another propaganda victory: fourteen were sentenced to hard labor; two, Presnyakov and Kvyatkovsky, were sentenced to be hanged. We lost sixteen good people, which was bad enough. But worse was our irreparable loss of public esteem. One small sign of this was the fate of the word terror. Hitherto we had freely called ourselves terrorists; it had much the same ring as revolutionary. Terror was simply the first phase of the revolution. Overnight the word became a term of abuse and the exclusive property of the government. That alone might have told us we were following the wrong path. (Excerpted from Saturn’s Daughters: The Birth of Terrorism

Kvyatkovsky’s son, also named Alexander, was a Bolshevik close to Lenin in the early Soviet years.

* November 16 by the Gregorian calendar; it was still November 4 by the archaic Julian calendar still then in use in the Russian Empire.

** Not to be confused with at least two distinct Soviet-era mass trials also respectively designated the “Trial of the Sixteen”.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Power,Russia,Terrorists,Treason

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1896: Mirza Reza Kermani, assassin of the Shah

1 comment August 12th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1896,* Persian revolutionary Mirza Reza Kermani was hanged publicly for assassinating the Qajar Shah of Persia.

Shah since his gouty father kicked off in 1848, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar enjoys the distinction of being the third-longest ruler in the long history of Persian polities.

Only 64 years old at his death, Naser al-Din was young enough to have made a good run at the longevity runner-up 16th century Shah Tahmasp I;** however, his increasingly dogged resistance to reform and proclivity for gifting economic concessions to foreign firms bearing lucrative kickbacks eventually induced a young revolutinary named Mirza Reza Kermani to shoot Nasser al-Din dead at a shrine. It’s alleged that he had foregone a previous opportunity to murder the king in a public space frequented by Jews celebrating Passover, for fear that the regicide would be attributed to them and induce pogroms.

Naser al-Din’s sybaritic son Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar struggled equally to manage his restive subjects’ hunger for better statecraft, eventually (in 1906) leading to a constitutional era setting an a parliament at loggerheads with the Qajar princes.

* I’m attributing the date based on original reportage datelines in the Western press. There are some attributions to August 10 and to August 22 to be found.

** Number one is Shapur II, who was king for all of his 70 years in the fourth century.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Iran,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Persia,Public Executions,Revolutionaries

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1934: Otto Planetta and Franz Holzweber, for the Juliputsch

Add comment July 31st, 2017 Headsman

German-Austria must return to the great German mother country, and not because of any economic considerations. No, and again no: even if such a union were unimportant from an economic point of view; yes, even if it were harmful, it must nevertheless take place. One blood demands one Reich. Never will the German nation possess the moral right to engage in colonial politics until, at least, it embraces its own sons within a single state …

The elemental cry of the German-Austrian people for union with the German mother country, that arose in the days when the Habsburg state was collapsing, was the result of a longing that slumbered in the heart of the entire people — a longing to return to the never-forgotten ancestral home. But this would be inexplicable if the historical education of the individual German-Austrian had not given rise to so general a longing. In it lies a well which never grows dry; which, especially in times of forgetfulness, transcends all momentary prosperity and by constant reminders of the past whispers softly of a new future

-Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

On this date in 1934, two Nazis were hanged for their part in a failed Austrian coup.

From his political ascent in 1933 — and well before, as the quote above indicates — the Reich’s unification with his native land of Austria had been a cherished goal for Adolf Hitler. To that end, Berlin had fostered a clandestine network of Austrian Nazis branded as “SS Standarte 89″ and allowed exiles to broadcast seditious propaganda from German soil.

Their “July Putsch” (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a year or so in the making, and commenced when four truckloads of SS Standarte 89 men in military attire suddenly stormed the federal chancellery in Vienna, murdering chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss in the process.

“Hitler received the tidings while listening to a performance of Das Rheingold at the annal Wagner Festival at Bayreuth,” Shirer noted in The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich — and Wagner’s granddaughter, also in attendance, could not help observing his “excitement” and “delight” and simultaneous anxiety to feign uninvolvement.

The last of these impulses showed the emerging tyrant’s wisdom, for the coup swiftly collapsed — exposing, to Hitler’s fury, the inept organization of the plot. Basically no other coordinated actions took place to complete the coup and the Austrian army remained loyal to the existing government, leaving to the lonely SS Standarte 89 nothing but a feeble surrender.

The first targets of the resulting courts-martial were Otto Planetta (cursory English Wikipedia entry | more detailed German), who actually pulled the trigger to kill the chancellor, and Franz Holzweber, the apparent leader of the attack on the chancellery. They would be tried and condemned in a two-day hearing July 30-31 and hanged within three hours of conviction. In time, both the Planetta and the Holzweber name would adorn many city streets in the Third Reich as patriot-martyrs.

Both prisoners, when asked whether they had anything to say before hearing their sentences, addressed the Court. Planetta said: —

I do not know how many hours I have to live. But one thing I would like to say, I am no cowardly murderer. It was not my intention to kill. One thing more. As a human being I am sorry for my deed, and I beg the wife of the late Chancellor to forgive me.

Holzweber said: —

I was assured that there would be no bloodshed. I was told also that I should find Herr Rintelen at the Chancery,, that the new Government was already formed. Not meeting the leader of the operation at the Chancery, I disclosed myself at once to Major Fey. I told him, here I stand, and I do not know what I should do. More or less spontaneously I took over the responsibility for our men because no one was there to take charge of the matter.

Holzweber, who was executed first, cried out on the gallows: “We die for Germany. Heil Hitler.” Planetta said simply, “Heil Hitler.”

-London Times, Aug. 1, 1934

The time was not yet ripe — and Hitler, no matter how heiled by his would-be subjects, was required by the diplomatic blowback to forswear ambitions on unifying with Austria.

But the Fuhrer’s soft whispers of a new future would grow ever more insistent in the months to come, and not four years later the Reich accomplished the Anschluss.

That July 25, in 1938, in a Vienna now successfully absorbed to greater Germany,

the fourth anniversary [of the Juliputsch] was celebrated as an heroic act comparable with the Rathenau and Erzberger murders. The survivors of ‘SS Standarte 89′ marched to the federal Austrian Chancellery, which had been renamed the Reichstatthalterei. Here the bereaved families of thirteen men were addressed by Rudolf Hess. A tablet was unveiled which proclaimed that:

154 German men of the 89th SS Standarte stood up here for Germany on 25 July, 1934. Seven found death at the hands of the hangman.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Power,Soldiers,Terrorists,Treason

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1242: William de Marisco, pirate knight

Add comment July 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1242, the knight, outlaw, and pirate William de Marisco was drawn by a horse to Coventry and put to the pains of disemboweling and quartering — albeit only after he had already been hanged to death.


Illustration of William de Marisco’s execution by the amazing 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris.

He’d eventually be damned as a kingslayer but Marisco’s doom began with the 1235 murder of a messenger of King Henry III named Henry Clement, slain at the very gates of Westminster “to our no small dishonour and scandal of the realm.” Suspicion settled on the Mariscos, who might have been motivated by Clement’s boasting of having helped recently lay in his grave the Earl of Pembroke, a magnate and great rival to the king.*

Marisco, whose architectural legacy for us is Coonagh Castle, County Limerick in Ireland, fled the scene of the crime and took refuge on Lundy Island, a gorgeous and remote fingerbone in the westerly Bristol Channel that had once been granted to the Knights Templar.**


Lundy’s west coast.
(cc) image by P_Dean.

There, as our chronicler-illustrator Matthew Paris describes, he made his way thereafter by piracy.

Whilst these occurrences were taking place, William Marsh [“de Marisco” means “of the Marshes” -ed.], son of Geoffrey Marsh, took up his quarters on an island near Bristol, called Lundy, a place impregnable by the nature of its situation, where he lived like a pirate with a number of proscribed and wicked men, indulging in plunder and rapine, and, attended by his companions, traversed the places on the neighbouring coast, despoiling the inhabitants of their property, especially wine and other provisions. By sudden incursions lie frequently carried off vast booty from the country lying near the island, and in many ways injured the kingdom of England both by land and sea, and caused great loss to the native and foreign merchants.

William de Marisco would manage seven years on the lam, seizing victuals and booty and ransomable hostages as he could from his island fastness. He’d been dispossessed of his lands in Ireland and nursed against King Henry the personal grudge of an aggrieved nobleman.

Such injuries were known to heal over time, and amid the tangle of authority and kinship among medieval Europe’s bluebloods, today’s rebel might become tomorrow’s hand of the king. But in 1238, William cut the roads behind him and made himself permanently anathema by allegedly sending an assassin after Henry III. Matthew Paris, again, with a story that will easily bear the interpretation that Marisco’s name was put into a deranged regicide’s mouth by his torturers:

on the day after the Nativity of St. Mary, a certain learned esquire, as it is said, came to the king’s court at Woodstock, pretending that he was insane, and said to the king, “Resign to me the kingdom, which you have unjustly usurped, and so long detained from me;” he also added, that he bore the sign of royalty on his shoulder. The king’s attendants wanted to beat him and drive him away from the royal presence, but the king prevented those who were rushing on him from violence, saying, “Let the insane man rave as becomes him, for such people’s words have not the influence of truth.” In the middle of the night, however, this same man entered the king’s bedchamber window, carrying an open knife, and approached the king’s couch, but was confused at not finding him there, and immediately began to look for him in the several chambers of his residence. The king was, by God’s providence, then sleeping with the queen. But one of the queen’s maids, named Margaret Biseth, was by chance awake, and was singing psalms by the light of a candle (for she was a holy maid, and one devoted to God), and when she saw this madman searching all the private places, to kill the king, and frequently asking in a terrible voice where the king was, she was greatly alarmed, and began to utter repeated cries. At her dreadful cry the king’s attendants awoke, and leaped from their beds with all speed, and running to the spot, broke open the door, which this robber had firmly secured with a bolt, and seized the robber, and, notwithstanding his resistance, bound him fast and secured him. He, after some time, confessed that he had been sent there to kill the king, after the manner of the assassins, by William Marsh, son of Greoffrey Marsh, and he stated that others had conspired to commit the same crime.

Paris has evident contempt for William, but he does note that “William boldly denied all these charges, yet he did not obtain any credit, nor was he listened to; he therefore, however unadvisedly, betook himself to out-of-the-way places, and became a fugitive and an outlaw.” It is not clear to this author that outlawry is “unadvisable” vis-a-vis standing to the judgment of a king who is certain you have attempted his life; nevertheless, it is usually little better than the temporary expedient for the doomed.

On the feast of St. James, by the king’s order, the said William, with sixteen of his accomplices taken with him, was tried and condemned, and, by the king’s order, was sentenced to an ignominious death. He was, therefore, first dragged from Westminster to the Tower of London, and from thence to that instrument of punishment called a gibbet† suspended on which he breathed forth his miserable life. After he had grown stiff in death, his body was let down and disembowelled; his entrails were immediately burnt on the spot, and his wretched body divided into four parts, which were sent to the four principal cities of the kingdom, that the sight of them might strike terror into all beholders.

His sixteen accomplices were all dragged through London at the horse’s tail, and hung on gibbets. The said William, after his condemnation, when about to imdergo the sentence pronounced upon him, invoking the divine judgment to witness, boldly declared that he was entirely free and guiltless of the crime of treason imputed to him, and likewise of the murder of the aforesaid clerk Clement; he also asserted that he had betaken himself to the aforesaid island for no other reason than to avoid the king’s anger, which he had always above all things wished to pacify by submitting to any kind of trial, or by any other humiliation; but that, after he had taken refuge as a fugitive in the said island, he was obliged to prolong his miserable life by seizing on provisions wherever he could find them. He then poured out his soul in confession before God, to J. de St. Giles, one of the brethren of the Preacher order, and confessed his sins with contrition, not excusing himself and giving vent to evil words, but rather accusing himself. This discreet preacher and confessor then administered gentle comfort to him, and dismissed him in peace, persuading him that he underwent the death to which he was doomed by way of repentance. And thus, as before mentioned, horrible to relate, he endured not one, but several dreadful deaths.

Readers of Latin can peruse the transcript of the trial, which has surprisingly survived the ravages of century, in this 1895 English Historical Review article.

* Pembroke’s brother and heir was also suspected initially, but was able to clear himself; however, he was later made to take a vow no longer to protect William de Marisco, suggesting that Pembroke was at least in simpatico with the hit. Both William and Geoffrey de Marisco had been fined previously for adhering to the Pembroke side in a fight with the king.

** The Templars at best barely possessed Lundy and the Mariscos who claimed it opposed those banker-knights’ stake, successfully.

† Paris’s unfamiliar marking of the term “gibbet” is interesting here; according to dictionary.com it was during the 13th century that this word for gallows entered Middle English from French.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Murder,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Pirates,Public Executions,Treason

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