Posts filed under 'Businessmen'

1862: Nathaniel Gordon, slave trader

1 comment February 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1862, the American commercial shipper Nathaniel Gordon was hanged at the Tombs for slave trading.

Importing slaves to the U.S. had been nominally illegal for over half a century, but had never been strongly enforced. In 1820, slaving (regardless of destination) had even been defined as piracy, a capital crime.

Importation of kidnapped Africans into the United States did significantly abate during this period, and that was just fine with U.S. slaveowners ever paranoid of servile rebellion.

But a voracious demand for conscript labor persisted elsewhere whatever the legal situation. About 3 million slaves arrived to Brazil and Cuba, the principal slave shipment destinations, between 1790 and 1860 — even though the traffic was formally illicit for most of this time.

Great Britain was endeavoring to strangle the Atlantic slave trade, but the diplomatic weight she had to throw around Europe didn’t play in the U.S. Washington’s adamant refusal to permit the Royal Navy to board and search U.S.-flagged ships made the stars and stripes the banner of choice for human traffickers profitably plying the African coast. “As late as 1859 there were seven slavers regularly fitted out in New York, and many more in all the larger ports,” one history avers.

Hanging crime? No slave-runner had ever gone to the gallows as a “pirate” — not until Nathaniel Gordon.

The U.S. Navy did mount its own anti-slaving patrols, but the odd seizure of human cargo was more in the line of costs of doing business than a legal terror for merchants.

So Gordon, a veteran of several known slaving runs, didn’t necessarily think much of it on August 8, 1860, when the Mohican brought Gordon’s ship to bear 50 miles from the Congo with 897 naked Africans stuffed in the hold, bound for Havana. Half of his slaves were children.

“The stench from the hold was fearful, and the filth and dirt upon their persons indescribably offensive,” Harpers reported.

Gordon chilled in very loose confinement in the Tombs, even enjoying family leave furloughs as he readied for the customary slap on the wrist.

But with Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, Gordon was promoted to demonstration case.

After a hung jury in June 1861, the feds won a conviction and death sentence on those long-unused piracy laws in November 1861.

Many New Yorkers were shocked at the prospect of such draconian punishment.

Abraham Lincoln found himself besieged by appeals public and private against the unprecedented judgment. “For more than forty years the statute under which he has been convicted has been a dead letter, because the moral sense of the community revolted at the penalty of death imposed on an act when done between Africa and Cuba which the law sanctioned between Maryland and Carolina,” Gordon’s counsel Judge Gilbert Dean wrote in an open letter to the President* — an argument that could hardly be more poorly calibrated to impress in 1862.

Despite Lincoln’s famous proclivity for the humanitarian pardon, he stood absolutely firm on the precedent Gordon’s hanging would set — especially in the midst of a bloody civil war driven by the very legal sanction Dean had cited so approvingly. As Lincoln wrote on February 4, 1862,

I think I would personally prefer to let this man live in confinement and let him meditate on his deeds, yet in the name of justice and the majesty of law, there ought to be one case, at least one specific instance, of a professional slave-trader, a Northern white man, given the exact penalty of death because of the incalculable number of deaths he and his kind inflicted upon black men amid the horror of the sea-voyage from Africa.

Gordon’s hanging was the one case — the only one ever.

* New York Times, Feb. 21, 1862.

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1973: Lim Seng, under Philippines martial law

1 comment January 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1973,* under the then-new martial law regime of Philippines strongman Ferdinand Marcos, a 52-year-old Chinese businessman was shot at Fort Bonifacio.**

Lim Seng was a struggling restauranteur in the 1960s when he dove into the heroin business.

He wasn’t struggling much longer.

He quickly became the Walter White of Manila heroin production, exploiting ties to criminal syndicates in the Golden Triangle to churn out (by the early 1970s) 1.2 tons of smack. Ninety percent of it was exported to the United States. (.pdf source on Lim Seng’s criminal career)

The other 10% helped feed a burgeoning heroin addiction among Manila students, leading to a seminal 1972 anti-drug law under which Lim Seng was arrested days after martial law came down that September. He faced a military, rather than a civilian trial.

Naturally quite wealthy from his enterprise, he evidently believed up until the last moments that he could buy his way out of execution. Little did he understand that he had been ticketed to demonstrate the incipient dictatorship’s iron fist: thousands of civilian spectators crowded the ropeline of the rifle range to glimpse the garishly publicized ceremony, while others took in the radio broadcast or news footage.


(via)

Lim Seng was the first person executed by the Marcos regime for drug trafficking.

* Lim Seng was tried in December 1972, and some sources report this as his execution date. Contemporary newspaper accounts unambiguously confirm that the execution took place on January 15, 1973.

** Fort Andres Bonifacio, formerly a base of the U.S. occupation called Fort McKinley, was christened for an executed Filipino patriot.

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2008: Wo Weihan, spy?

Add comment November 28th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2008, Chinese biochemist and businessman Wo Weihan was shot for espionage along with his alleged co-conspirator Guo Wanjun.

Wo had been resident in Austria since 1990, and his daughters Chen Ran and Chen Di were Austrian citizens. In 2004, he returned to his native soil to launch a medical equipment firm in Beijing.

Wo was arrested in China in January 2005 and accused of passing “state secrets” to Taiwan and the U.S. He didn’t have a lawyer until 2006 — by which time he had produced a coerced confession that he tried in vain to retract — and the 2007 trial took place in secret, so the case against him was troublingly opaque at the time of his execution. The verdict publicly released in March 2008 even included such trifles as “discussing the health of senior Chinese leaders” — an actual crime in China but awfully difficult to accept as a factor in a capital case.

“The lack of transparency does nothing to reassure us that the court’s conclusion was the right one,” said a Dui Hua Foundation spokesman.

Allegedly, Wo got information about Chinese ICBMs from missile expert Guo Wanjun, and passed drawings to Taiwanese and American intelligence. Chinese state media have claimed that Wo’s wife was able to open a restaurant in Austria with the payoffs.

His daughters mounted a last-ditch clemency campaign involving European Union officials, Austrian President Heinz Fischer, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, all to no avail.

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1879: Phra Pricha

Add comment November 24th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1879, the British Consul General in Bangkok lost his son-in-law to the headsman.

Fanny Knox was the multiracial daughter of Consul Thomas Knox and a Siamese noblewoman named Prang Yen.

R.J. Minney (who also popularized Violetta Szabo in Carve Her Name With Pride) novelized her intriguing story for a popular audience in the 1960s, following up on the Victorian-ingenue-in-Indochina interest created by Anna and the King of Siam. His Fanny and the Regent of Siam didn’t quite enter the canon, but 50-year-old used copies can still be scared up for a few pennies.

Anna of Anna and the King and Fanny of Fanny and the Regent had a link besides the publishing industry: Anna Leonowens‘s son Louis actually paid court to Fanny Knox. He wound up settling for Fanny’s sister Caroline when Fanny went for the Siamese aristocrat Phra Pricha (or Preecha) Kon-la-Karn. (“Phra” is an honorific for Pricha’s rank. Fanny would later be known as the Baroness Pricha Kon-la-Karn.)

But just weeks after their marriage — and while Fanny was pregnant with their first (only!) child — the new groom was accused of peculation and treachery, leading to his shocking Nov. 24 beheading.

The New York Times marveled in a sketchy April 12, 1880 recap:

Nothing so startling has happened here in a quarter of a century. You can only understand its effect by imagining John Sherman, Secretary of the Treasury, to be suddenly arrested, carried off mysteriously to Richmond or Petersburg, Va., and as mysteriously hanged. You may say that you do not hang high officers in the United States. Neither do they behead high officers in Siam. The instance of Pra Preecah [another alternate spelling] can hardly be paralleled here, at least in this generation.

The unparalleled and opaque tragedy transpired in the first few years of the majority of Siam’s King Chulalongkorn (or Rama V) — one of the royal princes tutored by the aforementioned Anna Leonowens.

In time, Chulalongkorn would be known as Rama the Great, the brilliant modernizer in his country’s history … but at this time those aspirations were constrained by much more conservative Siamese elites, most especially personified in the man who had been Chulalongkorn’s regent during his minority, Si Suriyawongse. The Times article just quoted ungenerously judges the king “a weak, cruel, cowardly despot” who “cannot much longer retain his power.”

Prominent among the king’s “Young Siam” party was the Amatayakun family, and the most prominent among that clan was Phra Pricha. Pricha was the governor of Prachinburi.

The substance of the formal accusation was that our man abused his control of Prachinburi’s lucrative Kabin gold mine to embezzle revenues that rightly belonged to the crown while grotesquely oppressing, even outright murdering, laborers under his jurisdiction there. The baron even confessed to the charge, though it’s difficult to know what weight to put upon that.

The probable subtext is political enmity between the Amatayakun family and the Bunnag family of the “Old Siam” ex-regent. Indeed, it’s been speculated that it was precisely because Phra Pricha detected the imminent accusations against him that he married Fanny Knox — so that he could give the money to his wife to protect it.

The British consul, meanwhile, quite overreached himself to intervene on behalf of his new son-in-law.

In a personal visit to Chulalongkorn, he urged the king that Pricha’s political enemies had concocted the charges — and that British gunships would back the sovereign if he should use the occasion to reverse the power of the old guard who intended to prosecute the former governor. (Source)

Chulalongkorn declined to upset the apple cart. Phra Pricha was handled by his enemies, and his family fell from power with his execution

Was the king’s reticence timidity or sagacity? 1879-1880 proved to be the nadir of Chulalongkorn’s power. Within months after Phra Pricha’s execution, team Young Siam was wresting its influence back. As the 1880s unfolded, Old Siam was literally dying off, and loyalists of the young king began filling their ministries.

Chulalongkorn’s reluctance to invite foreign intervention would foreshadow perhaps his essential accomplishment: although entirely surrounded by British and French colonies and certainly subject to those empires’ pressures, Rama the Great maintained the independence of Siam/Thailand.

Consul General Thomas Knox, meanwhile, was recalled over his impolitic meddling. Millions of tourists to Thailand’s unofficial northern capital might be interested in this side note: Nigel Brailey suggests that “It could be said that Siam’s role in Chiengmai,” which was then a distinct tributary kingdom of Siam’s subject to the growing influence of the neighboring British, “was saved by the … Phra Pricha affair.” The ambassador swap caused a year-long gap in British-Siamese diplomatic negotiations thereto which had been intensifying in early 1879.

* “Chiengmai and the Inception of an Administrative Centralization Policy in Siam (II),” Southeast Asian Studies, March 1974. (pdf cached here)

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1427: Johann Bantzkow, Mayor of Wismar

Add comment November 18th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1427, the merchant-mayor of Wismar was beheaded — the incidental casualty of a Baltic trade war.

The Hanseatic League, that vast trading cartel stretching from Europe’s Low Countries in the west to Novgorod in the east, was in its glory at the start of the 15th century. The Hanse dominated Baltic trade.

Its major rival was Denmark, which had brought most of Scandinavia together in the Kalmar Union..


Map of the Hanseatic League at its apex, circa 1400. (Via Wikipedia)

Come the 1420s, the Danish monarch was Eric of Pomerania, a handsome and headstrong king. He would come to blows with Hanse cities over the Duchy of Schleswig.

Schleswig is the “neck” of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. In the present day, the German-Danish border splits Schleswig horizontally: north Schleswig is Danish soil; south Schleswig, German.

To summarize a complicated history, the historical Duchy of Schleswig was long a bone of contention between the pre-modern precursors of those current states. Since Germany was very far from a unitary entity where we lay our scene in the 15th century, Denmark’s immediate rival for Schleswig was that territory’s southern neighbor, Holstein. Eric had fought intermittently in the 1410s and 1420s against the counts of Holstein over who controlled what and upon what terms in south Jutland.

After securing a legal ruling favorable to his claims from the Holy Roman Emperor, Eric in 1426 began enforcing his rights by force.

Holstein in turn sought aid from Hanseatic towns many of whom — wary of Denmark as a rival to its Baltic trading stranglehold — did indeed enter the fray on the side of Holstein. Hanseatic ships began raiding southern Denmark in the spring of 1427.

Wismar, a Hanse wool-trading port just a few kilometers outside of Holstein, was one of these cities. Johann Bantzkow (German link), its merchant ruler, supplied some 200 sail for the Hanseatic flotilla.

Unfortunately for the Hanse, and for Bantzkow, the Danes, proved to have naval superiority and dealt a crushing defeat to the Hanseatic fleet on July 11, 1427 — then once again on July 25. A number of Wismar ships were captured in the process.

Public anger in Wismar was intense. That city had seen its own social conflicts in the generations preceding between the town’s patricians and its guilds; now popular anger over the souls lost at sea caused Bantzkow’s fellow-mayor Hinrik van Haren to be slain by the mob. Bantzkow himself was condemned judicially, and his influential family could not manage any better succor than a death by the sword instead of the horrible prospect of the breaking-wheel. Claus Jesup (German link), a leader of guilds, made himself mayor of a rearranged political order.

The prospective realignment was itself reversed in 1430, and the re-established magnates put up a Bantzkowsche Sühnekapelle (German again), or Bantzkow Penance Chapel, to atone for the unjust beheading. Regrettably, the chapel was demolished in the 19th century.

Given setbacks at sea, Holstein and its remaining Hanseatic allies focused on actual conquest in Schleswig, and with much better success. Eric was eventually forced after great expense to sue for a costly stalemate,* an affair which helped to undermine Eric’s own hold on power until he was finally deposed in 1440.

However, Eric’s success on the seas — and his urgent need for funds — led to his establishing Denmark’s Sound Dues on 1429, collecting lucrative tolls from all foreign ships sailing between the Baltic Sea and the Kattegat.** This tax would remain a pillar of the Danish state well into the 19th century, at times providing up to two-thirds of the government’s operating income.

A new Hanse was re-founded in 1980 as a cultural exchange network among the historic cities of the federation.

* Control of Schleswig-Holstein never was definitively resolved, and it re-emerged as a famously devilish diplomatic problem in the 19th century — prompting Lord Palmerston to remark that “only three people … have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business — the Prince Consort, who is dead — a German professor, who has gone mad — and I, who have forgotten all about it.”

** It’s thanks to Sound Dues that Elsinore, the main tolling point, got big and rich enough for Shakespeare to set Hamlet there.

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1556: Hemu

1 comment November 5th, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1556 saw the Second Battle of Panipat in India … and the consequent beheading of the losing commander.

Hem Chandra Vikramaditya was the unfortunate object of this treatment, a remarkable Hindu who was born a commoner and died a king.

The early 16th century saw the birth of the Mughal Empire as Turkic Muslim tribes led by the conqueror Babur swept away the Pashtun sultanates in north India. The First Battle of Panipat back in 1526 cinched this conquest.

In this unsettled environment, an able man could rise. Few were abler than Hem Chandra, more familiarly known to posterity as Hemu.

Born to a family of Hindu priests in a time when Hindu kings had not ruled his homeland for centuries, Hemu first came to prominence as a merchant supplying provisions, and later armaments, for the imperial army. He proved so capable that Islam Shah took him on as an adviser.

Now, despite the Mughal conquest, Islam Shah was actually an Pashtun. A weak succession after Babur had thrown the Mughals into retreat, and most of their once and future territory was now under the temporary authority of the Sur Empire.

Following Islam Shah’s death in 1554, the political situation for the Sur Empire fell into confusion. A boy-emperor successor was murdered to give way to a drunk, and Hemu emerged as the de facto authority in the chaotic realm … which in practice meant racing around dealing with various military threats.

Hemu put down the many internal revolts that flowered after Islam Shah’s death, but his greater problem was the resurgent Mughals.

Babur’s heir Humayun had been driven into exile in Persia years ago. Now he returned at the head of an army to retake his patrimony. Even when Humayun himself died in the process (he fell down a flight of stairs*), he bequeathed Hemu a potent foe in the form of his teenage heir Akbar — the sovereign who would eventually be esteemed the Mughals’ greatest emperor.

Even so, Hemu was routing all who stood against him. The onetime merchant had proven himself “one of the greatest commanders of the age,” in the words of Victorian historian John Clark Marshman. “He never shrank away from the battlefield and when the fight was most fierce, he did not bother for his personal safety and always fought with his adversaries courageously along with his comrades.”

On October 7, 1556, Hemu whipped Akbar at the Battle of Delhi. Entering the ancient capital, Hemu proclaimed himself emperor under the regnal name Raja Vikramaditya. And why not, after all? The kingdom already only maintained itself by Hemu’s own brilliance; he’s reputed to have had an undefeated combat record at this point.

But sometimes a single loss is all that’s needed.

Hemu was the first Hindu emperor in 350 years, but he only held the position for a month.

The new emperor again met Akbar (and Akbar’s regent Bairam Khan) on the fifth of November at Panipat, and this time the Mughals won. Hemu’s valorous exposure to danger proved his undoing when he was struck in the face by an enemy arrow.

As his once-unconquerable army routed, the captured Hemu was taken as a prisoner to his rival ruler — unconscious, and already dying. Again, the accounts vary;** in the classical version, Akbar nobly refuses to put the captive to death. Elphinstone‘s History of India, glossing some earlier Muslim historians, writes that

Bairam was desirous that Akbar should give him the first wound, and thus, by inbruing his sword in the blood of so distinguished an infidel, should establish his right to the envied title of ‘Ghazi’ or ‘Champion of the Faith’; but the spirited boy refused to strike a wounded enemy, and Bairam, irritated by his scruples, himself cut off the captive’s head at a blow.

However, there are other versions of this story in which the 14-year-old Akbar is not so reticent.

Whoever chopped it, the severed head was sent to Kabul to cow Hemu’s Pashtun supporters, while the torso was publicly gibbeted outside Purana Quila. Hemu’s followers were massacred afterwards in numberless quantities sufficient, so it is said, to erect minarets of their skulls.

Akbar ruled the Mughal state until his death in 1605.

* Humayun’s monumental tomb is a UNESCO World Heritage Site today.

** See Vincent A. Smith, “The Death of Hemu in 1556, after the Battle of Panipat,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (July 1916). Smith’s opinion is that Akbar probably did cut off Hemu’s head personally, but might later have spun the incident in a less distasteful direction.

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1901: James Edward Brady lynched for criminal assault

Add comment October 2nd, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1901, James Edward Brady was hauled out of his jail cell and hanged from a telephone pole on the corner of Main and Lawrence Streets at Haymarket Square in Helena, Montana. He had been arrested three days before in relation to his attack on Hazel Pugsley, a five-year-old girl.

On September 30, Brady, who had arrived in Helena from the city of Boulder, Montana only the day before, waylaid little Hazel while she was on her way to kindergarten. He convinced her to get on a streetcar with him and they didn’t get off until they were three miles outside town.

Hazel’s mother reported her missing after she didn’t arrive home from school, and a search was launched. Later that day, the police found her walking home alone. She was “a nervous wreck, and when the accused man was taken in front of her she began crying hysterically, at the mere sight of him.”

Brady was charged with “criminal assault,” a euphemism for rape.

He had once been a highly respected and influential man in the Yellowstone River area and was credited with bringing the first thoroughbred cattle into Montana, but he developed a drinking problem and somewhere along the line he fell from grace.

Brady had been in and out of trouble in Jefferson County before he moved to Helena, and in Boulder he had become overly familiar with several children. After the Hazel Pugsley incident, it came out that he’d lured at least four little girls to his cabin in Boulder and then molested them.

He was not criminally charged in that instance, but was warned to leave town or else. So he came to Helena.

Although Montana had a long tradition of lynchings and emotions were running high in the aftermath of Hazel’s attack, the sheriff wasn’t worried: Brady was housed in a secure stone jail with five locked doors between him and the outside. On the night of the lynching, the sheriff was asleep with his family as usual.

At 1:30 a.m. on October 2, a mob of thirty masked men pounded on the doors of the jail and demanded the prisoner. When they couldn’t get the jailer to answer the door, they stationed men around the building to keep watch while they started working on the door with a sledgehammer and a crowbar.

The mob easily broke open the outer wooden door, but the next door was barred. Jailer George Mahrt was awakened by the noise and mistakenly opened the barred inner door just as the lynch mob had broken through the outer door. Once inside the building, the men forced Mahrt to hand over his keys, unlocked the last three doors, and barged in on James Brady.

“What is it, gentlemen?” he asked.*

In spite of the early hour, a crowd of about 200 spectators gathered to watch as the vigilantes hustled the helpless Brady out of jail and force-marched him, already noosed, six blocks to Haymarket Square.

The spectators knew what it was.

The lynchers summoned a saloon-keeper who had witnessed Hazel’s abduction, to confirm for the assembling multitude that it was indeed Brady who took her. One of the masked lynchers then forced his way through the crowed and slugged Brady twice in the face; this may have been Peter Pugsley, Hazel’s father. (The same man would later go after Brady again, but the mob held him back.)

“Now, then,” the mob’s leader addressed his prey. “Brady, your time on earth is short. Have you any confession to make?”

Brady had little to say: only to reiterate his innocence, and ask that his last paycheck be sent to the Boulder School for the Blind where his niece was a student.

When asked if he wanted to say a prayer, Brady said he didn’t know how to pray and asked that someone pray for him instead. One of the mob said, “May the Lord help you, Brady; that is all I can say for you.”

Then his time was up.

Several people already positioned on top of the nearby telephone pole jerked Brady up from the ground violently, probably breaking his neck, and as Brady hung twitching and dying, the members of the lynch mob pulled off their masks and melted into the watching crowd.

In addition to the 200-some people who witnessed the lynching, another thousand or so viewed the body by moonlight before it was cut down.


Jackson (Mich.) Citizen Patriot, Oct. 2, 1901.

A coroner’s inquest was held later that day. Several people testified that they’d witnessed Brady’s death, but they all swore they were not part of the lynch mob and developed amnesia when asked if they recognized anyone who was.

The coroner’s jury ruled Brady’s death a homicide.

On October 3, Peter Pugsley — the father — was arrested and charged with murder. Investigators hoped he would provide them with other names, but Pugsley said he hadn’t been present at the lynching and produced an alibi, which friends backed up. He was released the next day on bail, his bond secured by several prominent members of the community.

Ultimately, a grand jury heard testimony from thirty-eight witnesses during an eighteen-day investigation. It then declined to indict Pugsley or any other suspect. Later, some of the jurors said it was impossible to name anybody connected with the crime because so many witnesses refused to answer questions, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

However, someone did pay for what happened to Brady.

As amateur historian Tom Donovan writes of this case in volume two of book Hanging Around the Big Sky: The Unofficial Guide to Lynching, Strangling and Legal Hangings of Montana, “The Brady incident was the only case where an official was severely disciplined for losing a prisoner to a lynch mob. The Lewis and Clark County grand jury found that Jailer George Mahrt was incompetent and he was apparently fired.”

Not only had Mahrt, an experienced jailer, opened the inside door to the armed mob, he had also failed to notify the sheriff what happened until Brady had already been marched out of the jail. All he would have had to do to arouse the sheriff was press an electric panic button, which would have sounded an alarm at the sheriff’s residence.

In the aftermath of Brady’s death, officials in Butte, Montana announced he was also a suspect in the 1898 abduction and murder of nine-year-old Ethel Gill. She was missing for several days before her body was found in an outhouse.

Gill had been raped, beaten and strangled. Brady lived and worked in the same neighborhood where Ethel’s body was found. He quit his job and left Butte immediately after the murder, but wasn’t considered a suspect until after he was killed. Ethel Gill’s murder was never solved and Brady’s connection to the crime remains a matter of speculation.

* San Jose Evening News, Oct. 2, 1901.

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2013: Xia Junfeng, chengguan slayer

1 comment September 25th, 2013 Headsman

China has announced the execution this day of “homicide criminal” Xia Junfeng, a kebab vendor from Shenyang.

This case has been in the public eye for several years, and the predominant sentiment has been sympathetic towards the condemned man.

Xia and his wife Zhang Jing were part of China’s vast population of working urban poor, Xia having found his way into job insecurity by virtue of a layoff from the state electricity company. In the entrepreneurial spirit of the age, Xia started up an unlicensed business selling sausages and the like.

These denizens of the gray economy are, as a class, afflicted by the attentions of the City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, better known as the chengguan. Their benign job description entails administering municipal regulations, but this much-loathed force’s relationship to everyday citizens is perhaps best illustrated by the word chengguan‘s status as a shorthand neologism for bullying and abuse. Too many people know this goon squad firsthand, and too many stories of their worst excesses have circulated. Just this past July, the chengguan made headlines by killing a watermelon vendor.

“Chengguan abuses are an open scandal in China,” said Human Rights Watch’s China director. “The chengguan’s ability to flout China’s laws and inflict harm on members of the public is a recipe for greater public resentment and more violent confrontations.”

In the violent confrontation at issue in today’s execution, the chengguan chengguanned Xia Junfeng in May 2009. Xia fought back with his meat-carving knife, and slew two of his tormenters.

Death penalty cases redolent of the social stratification and institutional corruption that ordinary Chinese people experience have proven to be lightning rods in recent years.

Xia Junfeng’s turned, legally, on his claim that he killed protecting himself from the chengguan‘s beating.*

“Extralegal violence, thus employed to compensate for inadequate regulation and an absence of authority and legal deterrence, is no longer individual behavior. Such violence exists everywhere with the permission of the authorities. It is needed because of an overriding concern for “city image” and “urban management.” Finally, when extralegal violence is not monitored by the people and the media, and not punished by the law, it is only natural for Chengguan members to feel justified. Using violence with impunity enables the Chengguans to see violence psychologically as their “privilege,” a sign of status and pride. Since the legal and political status of Chengguan is unclear, it is only natural for its members to seek personal gain, vent their anger, and prey on the citizens they were intended to protect.”

-from the closing argument of Xia’s defense attorney

This allegation didn’t fly in court, where brother chengguan denied that they’d been abusing the shishkebaber, but it’s won in a rout when it comes to the court of public opinion. “His life and death are more than just a legal matter, but a bellwether of the era, with the tsunami-like public opinion firmly on the side of Xia Junfeng,” wrote author Yi Chen today.

Particularly galling for many is the disparity in treatment between Xia Junfeng and the likes of Gu Kailai, the latter a powerful business and political figure who was able to avoid execution despite being convicted of a scandalous contract murder. And Chengguan themselves never seem to be at risk of harsh punishment for any misbehavior; had Xia Junfeng been the one to leave that confrontation in a body bag, there certainly wouldn’t have been a death penalty case.


Anonymous cartoon circulated on Weibo criticizing Xia Junfeng’s condemnation. (Via) The drawing of the boy in the background was done by Xia’s son, whose art school fees were earned by his father’s roadside business.

Chinese speakers might want to peruse the Weibo feed of Xia’s widow.

* Several years ago, self-defense helped a Beijing migrat worker avoid execution for killing a chengguan who attempted to confiscate his bicycle cart.

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1537: Jurgen Wullenwever, Burgermeister of Lubeck

Add comment September 24th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1537, Jürgen Wullenwever was decapitated and quartered at Wolfenbüttel.

Photo by Agnete (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wullenwever (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a merchant from Hamburg who came to the fore of a popular Lutheran movement in the Hanseatic port of Lübeck that claimed the power of its old aristocratic council for the city’s burghers.

In this capacity, Wullenwever maneuvered — vainly as it turned out — to arrest the century-long wane of the city’s influence. Lubeck in its day had been “the Queen of the Hanseatic League”. Come 16th century, it was struggling to maintain its trading preeminence against the inroads of Dutch merchants and the fragmentation of the once-mighty Hanse.

This project was doomed in its conception — there was nothing Lubeck could really have done to hold back the historical developments happening around it — and bungled in its execution. The merchant magnates of Wullenwever’s democratic coalition grew suspicious of (too-)popular religiosity.

And Wullenwever’s political high-wire act involved arrangements of convenience with the Anabaptist commune of Münster — spurring rumors of his own radical baptist conversion* — and fomenting Catholic peasant uprisings to meddle in the succession of the Danish-Swedish crown. Whatever else one could say of him, one can’t fault him for a want of daring, a quality that stood him in good stead with romantic era writers.

But Wullenwever’s allies lost their fights, and the political coalition that supported his municipal leadership soon broke up under the pressure of events.

The aristocratic party re-took power in 1535 and didn’t immediately persecute Wullenwever. But the hostile Archbishop of Bremen eventually seized the man on his territory and turned him over to a Catholic Saxon duke for punishment.

* I’m certainly not a specialist, but I’m skeptical of the claim in some sources that Wullenwever was an Anabaptist Manchurian candidate type. Wullenwever confessed to a great Anabaptist scheme … but that was under torture of enemies determined to do him to death, and it was retracted before his execution. The claim implies that all of northern Germany might have gone over to a radically democratic Anabaptism had not the ancien regime overthrown the Burgermeister, and for that reason it’s gained Wullenwever the surprising latter-day embrace of nationalists and revolutionaries.

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1681: Leticia Wigington, apprentice-flogger

Add comment September 9th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1681, Leticia, Letitia, or Laetitia Wigington was hanged at Tyburn for beating her apprentice to death.

A case that would presage the next century’s better-remembered Brownrigg outrage, the Ratcliff Catholic coat-maker Wigington and her lodger John Sadler took five quid from one of Sadler’s fellow-sailors to apprentice their daughter.

On Christmas Eve 1680, Ms. Wigington took exception to the 13-year-old Elizabeth Houlton’s performance or caught her stealing from them or something, and set about thrashing her. After taking an hour to fashion a cruel cat o’ nine tails so they could really give it to her, these two

stript the poor Child barbarously and immodestly stark naked, and [Wigington] held her and ram’d an Apron down her Throat, to prevent her crying out, and the foresaid [Sadler] most inhumanely whipt her for 4 hours or more, with some short intervals of their Cruelty, and, having made her body raw, and all over bloody, sent for Salt, and salted her wounds, to render their Tortures more grievous. Of which Savage usage she dyed next morning [i.e., Christmas].

Salted her wounds?

Sadler fled, and was on the run for nearly a month; he was sentenced to die on February 25 and specifically prohibited from pleading for royal pardon before his March 4 execution.

Wigington got off a little “easier”, pleading her belly after a January conviction and delaying execution all the way to September 9. That’s quite a wait — a suggestive wait, one might think, though no actual record remains to confirm that Wigington left a little bundle of joy behind her to the world’s cat o’ nine tails.

For her part, Wigington went to her death asserting her innocence — “as the Child unborn” — and denouncing her enemies for inducing her “Apprentice Rebecca Clifford by name, who was not full 12 years of age, to swear against me” falsely.

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