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1806: Johann Philipp Palm, press martyr

Add comment August 26th, 2014 Headsman

Nuremberg bookseller Johann Philipp Palm was shot on this date in 1806 for publishing a manifesto against the French occupation.

For centuries a proud Free Imperial City, Nuremberg had over the few months preceding Palm’s martyrdom been smushed up by the conquering Grande Armee into an amalgamated French client, the Confederation of the Rhine.

This was a huge political shakeup. Even the Empire of which Nuremberg had been a Free Imperial City was no more: the 854-year-old Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1806, a casualty of the Battle of Austerlitz. At just 25,000 residents and far removed from its mercantile preeminence of yesteryear,* Nuremberg wasn’t even one of the Confederation of the Rhine’s 16 constituent polities: it had been rolled up into Bavaria, in a partial cleanup of the tiny Kleinstaaten pocking the old German map.

Nuremberg’s prostration in this arrangement mirrored Germany’s as a whole vis-a-vis the Corsican. Napoleon was the official “protector” of the Confederation of the Rhine, and its end of the protection racket entailed shipping conscripts to the French army.

The Confederation of the Rhine ultimately included four kingdoms, five grand duchies, 13 duchies, 17 principalities, and the Free Hansa towns of Hamburg, Lübeck, and Bremen, and covered much of the territory of present-day Germany (sans Prussia). For some odd reason, Germans whose dreams of national unification were beginning to stir weren’t too enthusiastic about having it marshaled by France.

In July of 1806, Palm gave voice to the sentiment by publishing a 144-page treatise, Germany in its Deep Humiliation. The identity of the seditious author(s) he resolutely kept secret, but it’s attributed now to Count Friedrich Julius Heinrich von Soden.

Palm had the fortune or sense to be safely away in Prussia by the time irate Frenchmen raided his shop, but was caught after he boldly slipped back into the city against all sensible advice. He was transferred to a fortress at Braunau am Inn, and shot there.

His death made him an early national martyr (“involuntary hero”, in the words of a 2006 Braunau bicentennial remembrance), and his name is still preserved on a variety of streets in German cities. In Palm’s native Schorndorf, the Palm Pharmacy building sports plaques honoring the martyr. And a Palm Foundation awards, every two years, a Johann Philipp Palm Prize journalism prize. It’s announced on this date, each even-numbered year. (Update: Salijon Abdurakhmanov of Uzbekistan and Nazikha Saeed of Bahrain received the 2014 Palm awards.)

A publishing house, Palm und Enke, actually founded post-Napoleon by the uncle under whom our Johann Palm completed his apprenticeship, still exists today. (It is no longer in the control of any Palm relative, however.)

* Back when being the executioner of Nuremberg was a plum assignment.

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1877: Leon Vitalis, inamorato

2 comments August 17th, 2014 Harry Brodribb Irving

(Thanks to Harry Brodribb Irving for the guest post, originally published in his Book of Remarkable Criminals. Some formatting has been adjusted for readability. -ed.)

In the May of 1874, in the town of Montpellier, M. Boyer, a retired merchant, some forty-six years of age, lay dying. For some months previous to his death he had been confined to his bed, crippled by rheumatic gout. As the hour of his death drew near, M. Boyer was filled with a great longing to see his daughter, Marie, a girl of fifteen, and embrace her for the last time. The girl was being educated in a convent at Marseilles. One of M. Boyer’s friends offered to go there to fetch her. On arriving at the convent, he was told that Marie had become greatly attracted by the prospect of a religious life. “You are happy,” the Mother Superior had written to her mother, “very happy never to have allowed the impure breath of the world to have soiled this little flower. She loves you and her father more than one can say.”

Her father’s friend found the girl dressed in the costume of a novice, and was told that she had expressed her desire to take, one day, her final vows. He informed Marie of her father’s dying state, of his earnest wish to see her for the last time, and told her that he had come to take her to his bedside. “Take me away from here?” she exclaimed. The Mother Superior, surprised at her apparent reluctance to go, impressed on her the duty of acceding to her father’s wish. To the astonishment of both, Marie refused to leave the convent. If she could save her father’s life, she said, she would go, but, as that was impossible and she dreaded going out into the world again, she would stay and pray for her father in the chapel of the convent, where her prayers would be quite as effective as by his bedside. In vain the friend and the Mother Superior tried to bend her resolution.

Happily M. Boyer died before he could learn of his daughter’s singular refusal. But it had made an unfavourable impression on the friend’s mind. He looked on Marie as a girl without real feeling, an egoist, her religion purely superficial, hiding a cold and selfish disposition; he felt some doubt as to the future development of her character.

M. Boyer left a widow, a dark handsome woman, forty years of age.

Some twenty years before his death, Marie Salat had come to live with M. Boyer as a domestic servant. He fell in love with her, she became his mistress, and a few months before the birth of Marie, M. Boyer made her his wife. Madame Boyer was at heart a woman of ardent and voluptuous passions that only wanted opportunity to become careless in their gratification. Her husband’s long illness gave her such an opportunity. At the time of his death she was carrying on an intrigue with a bookseller’s assistant, Leon Vitalis, a young man of twenty-one. Her bed-ridden husband, ignorant of her infidelity, accepted gratefully the help of Vitalis, whom his wife described as a relative, in the regulation of his affairs. At length the unsuspecting Boyer died. The night of his death Madame Boyer spent with her lover.

The mother had never felt any great affection for her only child.

During her husband’s lifetime she was glad to have Marie out of the way at the convent. But the death of M. Boyer changed the situation. He had left almost the whole of his fortune, about 100,000 francs, to his daughter, appointing her mother her legal guardian with a right to the enjoyment of the income on the capital until Marie should come of age. Madame Boyer had not hitherto taken her daughter’s religious devotion very seriously. But now that the greater part of her husband’s fortune was left to Marie, she realised that, should her daughter persist in her intention of taking the veil, that fortune would in a very few years pass into the hands of the sisterhood. Without delay Madame Boyer exercised her authority, and withdrew Marie from the convent. The girl quitted it with every demonstration of genuine regret.

Marie Boyer when she left the convent was growing into a tall and attractive woman, her figure slight and elegant, her hair and eyes dark, dainty and charming in her manner. Removed from the influences of convent life, her religious devotion became a thing of the past. In her new surroundings she gave herself up to the enjoyments of music and the theatre. She realised that she was a pretty girl, whose beauty well repaid the hours she now spent in the adornment of her person.

The charms of Marie were not lost on Leon Vitalis.

Mean and significant in appearance, Vitalis would seem to have been one of those men who, without any great physical recommendation, have the knack of making themselves attractive to women. After her husband’s death Madame Boyer had yielded herself completely to his influence and her own undoubted passion for him. She had given him the money with which to purchase a business of his own as a second-hand bookseller. This trade the enterprising and greedy young man combined with money-lending and he clandestine sale of improper books and photographs.

To such a man the coming of Marie Boyer was a significant event. She was younger, more attractive than her mother; in a very few years the whole of her father’s fortune would be hers. Slowly Vitalis set himself to win the girl’s affections. The mother’s suspicions were aroused; her jealousy was excited. She sent Marie to complete her education at a convent school in Lyons. This was in the April of 1875. By this time Marie and Vitalis had become friendly enough to arrange to correspond clandestinely during the girl’s absence from home. Marie was so far ignorant of the relations of Vitalis with her mother.

Her daughter sent away, Madame Boyer surrendered herself with complete abandonment to her passion for her lover. At Castelnau, close to Montpellier, she bought a small country house. There she could give full rein to her desire.

To the scandal of the occasional passer-by she and her lover would bathe in a stream that passed through the property, and sport together on the grass. Indoors there were always books from Vitalis’ collection to stimulate their lascivious appetites. This life of pastoral impropriety lasted until the middle of August, when Marie Boyer came home from Lyons.

Vitalis would have concealed from the young girl as long as he could the nature of his relations with Madame Boyer, but his mistress by her own deliberate conduct made all concealment impossible. Whether from the utter recklessness of her passion for Vitalis, or a desire to kill in her daughter’s heart any attachment which she may have felt towards her lover, the mother paraded openly before her daughter the intimacy of her relations with Vitalis, and with the help of the literature with which the young bookseller supplied her, set about corrupting her child’s mind to her own depraved level.

The effect of her extraordinary conduct was, however, the opposite to what she had intended. The mind of the young girl was corrupted; she was familiarised with vice. But in her heart she did not blame Vitalis for what she saw and suffered; she pitied, she excused him. It was her mother whom she grew to hate, with a hate all the more determined for the cold passionless exterior beneath which it was concealed.

Madame Boyer’s deliberate display of her passion for Vitalis served only to aggravate and intensify in Marie Boyer an unnatural jealousy that was fast growing up between mother and daughter.

Marie did not return to the school at Lyons. In the winter of 1875, Madame Boyer gave up the country house and, with her daughter, settled in one of the suburbs of Montpellier. In the January of 1876 a theft occurred in her household which obliged Madame Boyer to communicate with the police. Spendthrift and incompetent in the management of her affairs, she was hoarding and suspicious about money itself. Cash and bonds she would hide away in unexpected places, such as books, dresses, even a soup tureen.

One of her most ingenious hiding places was a portrait of her late husband, behind which she concealed some bearer bonds in landed security, amounting to about 11,000 francs. One day in January these bonds disappeared. She suspected a theft, and informed the police. Three days later she withdrew her complaint, and no more was heard of the matter. As Marie and Vitalis were the only persons who could have known her secret, the inference is obvious.

When, later in the year, Vitalis announced his intention of going to Paris on business, his mistress expressed to him the hope that he would “have a good time” with her bonds. Vitalis left for Paris. But there was now a distinct understanding between Marie and himself. Vitalis had declared himself her lover and asked her to marry him. The following letter, written to him by Marie Boyer in the October of 1876, shows her attitude toward his proposal:

I thank you very sincerely for your letter, which has given me very great-pleasure, because it tells me that you are well. It sets my mind at rest, for my feelings towards you are the same as ever. I don’t say they are those of love, for I don’t know myself; I don’t know what such feelings are. But I feel a real affection for you which may well turn to love. How should I not hold in affectionate remembrance one who has done everything for me? But love does not come to order. So I can’t and don’t wish to give any positive answer about our marriage — all depends on circumstances. I don’t want any promise from you, I want you to be as free as I am. I am not fickle, you know me well enough for that. So don’t ask me to give you any promise. You may find my letter a little cold. But I know too much of life to pledge myself lightly. I assure you I think on it often. Sometimes I blush when I think what marriage means.

Madame Boyer, displeased at the theft, had let her lover go without any great reluctance. No sooner had he gone than she began to miss him. Life seemed dull without him. Mother and daughter were united at least in their common regret at the absence of the young bookseller.

To vary the monotony of existence, to find if possible a husband for her daughter, Madame Boyer decided to leave Montpellier for Marseilles, and there start some kind of business. The daughter, who foresaw greater amusement and pleasure in the life of a large city, assented willingly. On October 6, 1876, they arrived at Marseilles, and soon after Madame bought at a price considerably higher than their value, two shops adjoining one another in the Rue de la Republique. One was a cheese shop, the other a milliner’s.

The mother arranged that she should look after the cheese shop, while her daughter presided over the milliner’s. The two shops were next door to one another. Behind the milliner’s was a drawing-room, behind the cheese shop a kitchen; these two rooms communicated with each other by a large dark room at the back of the building. In the kitchen was a trap-door leading to a cellar. The two women shared a bedroom in an adjoining house.

Vitalis had opposed the scheme of his mistress to start shop-keeping in Marseilles. He knew how unfitted she was to undertake a business of any kind. But neither mother nor daughter would relinquish the plan. It remained therefore to make the best of it.

Vitalis saw that he must get the business into his own hands; and to do that, to obtain full control of Madame Boyer’s affairs, he must continue to play the lover to her. To the satisfaction of the two women, he announced his intention of coming to Marseilles in the New Year of 1877. It was arranged that he should pass as a nephew of Madame Boyer, the cousin of Marie. He arrived at Marseilles on January 1, and received a cordial welcome.

Of the domestic arrangements that ensued, it is sufficient to say that they were calculated to whet the jealousy and inflame the hatred that Marie felt towards her mother, who now persisted as before in parading before her daughter the intimacy of her relations with Vitalis.

In these circumstances Vitalis succeeded in extracting from his mistress a power of attorney, giving him authority to deal with her affairs and sell the two businesses, which were turning out unprofitable. This done, he told Marie, whose growing attachment to him, strange as it may seem, had turned to love, that now at last they could be free. He would sell the two shops, and with the money released by the sale they could go away together.

Suddenly Madame Boyer fell ill, and was confined to her bed. Left to themselves, the growing passion of Marie Boyer for Vitalis culminated in her surrender. But for the sick mother the happiness of the lovers was complete. If only her illness were more serious, more likely to be fatal in its result! “If only God would take her!” said Vitalis. “Yes,” replied her daughter, “she has caused us so much suffering!”

To Madame Boyer her illness had brought hours of torment, and at last remorse.

She realised the duplicity of her lover, she knew that he meant to desert her for her daughter, she saw what wrong she had done that daughter, she suspected even that Marie and Vitalis were poisoning her. Irreligious till now, her thoughts turned to religion. As soon as she could leave her bed she would go to Mass and make atonement for her sin; she would recover her power of attorney, get rid of Vitalis for good and all, and send her daughter back to a convent.

But it was too late. Nemesis was swift to overtake the hapless woman. Try as he might, Vitalis had found it impossible to sell the shops at anything but a worthless figure. He had no money of his own, with which to take Marie away. He knew that her mother had resolved on his instant dismissal.

As soon as Madame Boyer was recovered sufficiently to leave her bed, she turned on her former lover, denounced his treachery, accused him of robbing and swindling her, and bade him go without delay.

To Vitalis dismissal meant ruin, to Marie it meant the loss of her lover. During her illness the two young people had wished Madame Boyer dead, but she had recovered. Providence or Nature having refused to assist Vitalis, he resolved to fall back on art. He gave up a whole night’s rest to the consideration of the question.

As a result of his deliberations he suggested to the girl of seventeen the murder of her mother. “This must end,” said Vitalis. “Yes, it must,” replied Marie. Vitalis asked her if she had any objection to such a crime. Marie hesitated, the victim was her mother. Vitalis reminded her what sort of a mother she had been to her. The girl said that she was terrified at the sight of blood; Vitalis promised that her mother should be strangled. At length Marie consented. That night on some slight pretext Madame Boyer broke out into violent reproaches against her daughter. She little knew that every reproach she uttered served only to harden in her daughter’s heart her unnatural resolve.

On the morning of March 19 Madame Boyer rose early to go to Mass.

Before she went out, she reminded Vitalis that this was his last day in her service, that when she returned she would expect to find him gone.

It was after seven when she left the house. The lovers had no time to lose; the deed must be done immediately on the mother’s return. They arranged that Vitalis should get rid of the shop-boy, and that, as soon as he had gone, Marie should shut and lock the front doors of the two shops.

At one o’clock Madame Boyer came back. She expressed her astonishment and disgust that Vitalis still lingered, and threatened to send for the police to turn him out. Vitalis told the shop-boy that he could go away for a few hours; they had some family affairs to settle. The boy departed. Madame Boyer, tired after her long morning in the town, was resting on a sofa in the sitting-room, at the back of the milliner’s shop. Vitalis entered the room, and after a few heated words, struck her a violent blow in the chest. She fell back on the sofa, calling to her daughter to come to her assistance. The daughter sought to drown her mother’s cries by banging the doors, and opening and shutting drawers. Vitalis, who was now trying to throttle his victim, called to Marie to shut the front doors of the two shops.

To do so Marie had to pass through the sitting-room, and was a witness to the unsuccessful efforts of Vitalis to strangle her mother. Having closed the doors, she retired into the milliner’s shop to await the issue. After a few moments her lover called to her for the large cheese knife; he had caught up a kitchen knife, but in his struggles it had slipped from his grasp. Quickly Marie fetched the knife and returned to the sitting-room.

There a desperate struggle was taking place between the man and woman. At one moment it seemed as if Madame Boyer would get the better of Vitalis, whom nature had not endowed greatly for work of this kind. Marie came to his aid. She kicked and beat her mother, until at last the wretched creature released her hold and sank back exhausted. With the cheese knife, which her daughter had fetched, Vitalis killed Madame Boyer.

They were murderers now, the young lovers. What to do with the body? The boy would be coming back soon. The cellar under the kitchen seemed the obvious place of concealment. With the help of a cord the body was lowered into the cellar, and Marie washed the floor of the sitting-room. The boy came back. He asked where Madame Boyer was. Vitalis told him that she was getting ready to return to Montpellier the same evening, and that he had arranged to go with her, but that he had no intention of doing so; he would accompany her to the station, he said, and then at the last moment, just as the train was starting, slip away and let her go on her journey alone. To the boy, who knew enough of the inner history of the household to enjoy the piquancy of the situation, such a trick seemed quite amusing. He went away picturing in his mind the scene at the railway station and its humorous possibilities.

At seven o’clock Vitalis and Marie Boyer were alone once more with the murdered woman. They had the whole night before them.

Vitalis had already considered the matter of the disposal of the body. He had bought a pick and spade. He intended to bury his former mistress in the soil under the cellar. After that had been done, he and Marie would sell the business for what it would fetch, and go to Brussels — an admirable plan, which two unforeseen circumstances defeated. The Rue de la Republique was built on a rock, blasted out for the purpose. The shop-boy had gone to the station that evening to enjoy the joke which, he believed, was to be played on his mistress.

When Vitalis tried to dig a grave into the ground beneath the cellar he realised the full horror of the disappointment. What was to be done? They must throw the body into the sea. But how to get it there?

The crime of Billoir, an old soldier, who the year before in Paris had killed his mistress in a fit of anger and cut up her body, was fresh in the recollection of Vitalis. The guilty couple decided to dismember the body of Madame Boyer and so disfigure her face as to render it unrecognisable. In the presence of Marie, Vitalis did this, and the two lovers set out at midnight to discover some place convenient for the reception of the remains. They found the harbour too busy for their purpose, and decided to wait until the morrow, when they would go farther afield. They returned home and retired for the night, occupying the bed in which Madame Boyer had slept the night before.

On the morning of the 20th the lovers rose early, and a curious neighbour, looking through the keyhole, saw them counting joyously money and valuables, as they took them from Madame Boyer’s cash-box. When the shop-boy arrived, he asked Vitalis for news of Madame Boyer. Vitalis told him that he had gone with her to the station, that she had taken the train to Montpellier, and that, in accordance with his plan, he had given her the slip just as the train was starting. This the boy knew to be false: he had been to the station himself to enjoy the fun, and had seen neither Vitalis nor Madame Boyer. He began to suspect some mystery.

In the evening, when the shops had been closed, and he had been sent about his business, he waited and watched. In a short time he saw Vitalis and Marie Boyer leave the house, the former dragging a hand-cart containing two large parcels, while Marie walked by his side. They travelled some distance with their burden, leaving the city behind them, hoping to find some deserted spot along the coast where they could conceal the evidence of their crime. Their nerves were shaken by meeting with a custom-house officer, who asked them what it was they had in the cart. Vitalis answered that it was a traveller’s luggage, and the officer let them pass on. But soon after, afraid to risk another such experience, the guilty couple turned out the parcels into a ditch, covered them with stones and sand, and hurried home.

The next day, the shop-boy and the inquisitive neighbour having consulted together, went to the Commissary of Police and told him of the mysterious disappearance of Madame Boyer. The Commissary promised to investigate the matter, and had just dismissed his informants when word was brought to him of the discovery, in a ditch outside Marseilles, of two parcels containing human remains. He called back the boy and took him to view the body at the Morgue. The boy was able, by the clothes, to identify the body as that of his late mistress.

The Commissary went straight to the shops in the Rue de la Republique, where he found the young lovers preparing for flight. At first they denied all knowledge of the crime, and said that Madame Boyer had gone to Montpellier. They were arrested, and it was not long before they both confessed their guilt to the examining magistrate.

Vitalis and Marie Boyer were tried before the Assize Court at Aix on July 2, 1877. Vitalis is described as mean and insignificant in appearance, thin, round-backed, of a bilious complexion; Marie Boyer as a pretty, dark girl, her features cold in expression, dainty and elegant. At her trial she seemed to be still so greatly under the influence of Vitalis that during her interrogatory the President sent him out of court. To the examining magistrate Marie Boyer, in describing her mother’s murder, had written, “I cannot think how I came to take part in it. I, who wouldn’t have stayed in the presence of a corpse for all the money in the world.”

Vitalis was condemned to death, and was executed on August 17. He died fearful and penitent, acknowledging his miserable career to be a warning to misguided youth. Extenuating circumstances were accorded to Marie Boyer, and she was sentenced to penal servitude for life. Her conduct in prison was so repentant and exemplary that she was released in 1892.

M. [Louis] Proal, a distinguished French judge, and the author of some important works on crime, acted as the examining magistrate in the case of Vitalis and Marie Boyer. He thus sums up his impression of the two criminals:

Here is an instance of how greed and baseness on the one side, lust and jealousy on the other, bring about by degrees a change in the characters of criminals, and, after some hesitation, the suggestion and accomplishment of parricide, Is it necessary to seek an explanation of the crime in any psychic abnormality which is negatived to all appearances by the antecedents of the guilty pair? Is it necessary to ask it of anatomy or physiology? Is not the crime the result of moral degradation gradually asserting itself in two individuals, whose moral and intellectual faculties are the same as those of other men, but who fall, step by step, into vice and crime? It is by a succession of wrongful acts that a man first reaches the frontier of crime and then at length crosses it.

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2009: Li Peiying, corrupt aviation kingpin

Add comment August 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 2009, China executed Li Peiying, the former chairman of a vast airport conglomerate that managed, among many others, Beijing Capital International Airport.

Li was convicted on corruption charges that netted £11 million in bribes and embezzled public funds from 1995 to 2003. Li’s case for leniency was that he gave it all back; the court’s case for aggravation was that Li had solicited (and not merely accepted) the bribes, an “extremely serious crime” resulting in “large economic losses.” For instance, nightclub mogul Qin Hui* was able to secure through Li $90 million in loans and guarantees

The state-owned Capital Airports Holding Co. that Li managed was reported at the time of his execution to employ 38,000 people and handle 30% of China’s air traffic.

In 2011, the successor to the corporate titancy Li was deposed from, Zhang Zhizhong, was himself convicted of wholesale corruption.** Perhaps in deference to China’s ongoing gradual de-escalation of penalties imposed for white-collar economic crimes, Zhang received only a 12-year prison sentence.

* Qin Hui shares a name with a villain in the classical story of Yue Fei. Our Qin Hui just owned the Paradise club in the Great Wall Sheraton.

** China’s aviation industry as a whole is notorious for corruption.

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2013: Zeng Chengjie, China’s Bernie Madoff

1 comment July 12th, 2014 Headsman

A year ago today, China executed self-made millionaire Zeng Chengjie for corruption.

Once the subject of glowing media profiles (Chinese link) for his entrepreneurship, Zeng was convicted of bilking 57,000-plus investors out of RMB 2.8 billion (US $460 million) which he in turn used to lock up lucrative urban development projects in Jishou.

The case stirred an uproar in China and overseas because Zeng’s daughter vigorously protested the execution on her Weibo page.

Zeng Shen said she was notified of her father’s execution only two days after it took place. The official story would be that Zeng never requested the family meeting; that story was met with incredulity. (And widespread speculation that Zeng’s organs were harvested for medical transplantation.)

“If one day, I’m sentenced to death and told that I have the right to meet my family, I guarantee that I will absolutely ask to see my family,” wrote IT venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee on one of the country’s most-followed microblogging accounts. “If the court claims that I didn’t make such request after the execution, it must be a lie.”

Moreover, Zeng Shen charged that the whole affair was a political fix-up orchestrated by the successors of Hunan province officials that Zeng pere worked with — and that as a result the executed man’s assets had been snapped up for yuan on the renminbi.

China has made a point in recent years of dialing back capital punishment for white-collar “economic” crimes; most similar cases of fraud or theft result at worst in suspended death sentences, which are de facto prison terms.

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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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