On this date in 1944, the Gestapo publicly hanged 13 men without trial at an S-Bahn station near Cologne.
Heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II, the Rhineland industrial center had spawned two overlapping anti-Nazi movements both represented in this evil baker’s dozen. Their purchase on posterity’s laurels of anti-Nazi “resistance” has been debated ever since.
Often derogated as mere “delinquents”* — who failed to articulate “a positive view of goals”** — the heavily working-class Edelweißpiraten were expressly delinquent from the Third Reich’s project of youth indoctrination.
“Our banding together occurred primarily because the HJ was dominated by a certain compulsion to which we did not want to submit,” one “pirate” declared to Gestapo interrogators. Another said that his clique simply wanted “to spend our leisure time going on trips as free boys and to do and act as we pleased.”†
Many looked longingly back on the Bündische Jugend, romantic and far less authoritarian traditions of youth outdoorsmanship that the new regime had suppressed.‡ These pirates shirked their Hitler Youth “responsibilities” and did their rambling without odious political officers, repurposing old hiking tunes into confrontational subversive songs that they backed up with a penchant for fistfights with the HJ. A song of one band, the Navajos, ran:
Hitler’s power may lay us low,
And keep us locked in chains.
But we will smash the chains one day.
We’ll be free again.
For hard are our fists,
Yes! And knives at our wrists,
For the freedom of youth
The Navajos fight.
We march by the banks of the Ruhr and the Rhine
And smash the Hitler Youth in twain.
Our song is freedom, love, and life.
We’re Pirates of the Edelweiss.
The discourse parsing the degree of “criminality” in youth defying a criminal society strikes the author as an all too precious critique from the security of the postwar world. These pirates might make for less congenial martyr figures than the likes of Sophie Scholl but in the end, they took desperate risks to maintain a sphere of freedom in circumstances of inconceivable peril. Not much adult opposition to Hitlerism with proper manifestos did better than they.
And the Pirates had a handle on larger stakes than their own jollity. Many gangs listened to outlawed foreign broadcasts, committed acts of politically charged vandalism and sabotage, and hid army deserters or Jews. Certainly the authorities viewed them politically when they were subjected to Gestapo torture.
Some current and former Edelweiss Pirates were among the young people in increasingly war-ravaged Cologne who in 1943-44 came under the sway of an escaped concentration camp prisoner named Hans Steinbrück. His “Steinbrück Group” (or “Ehrenfeld Group”, for the suburb where they had their headquarters and, eventually, gallows), the second faction represented in the November 10 hangings, had a more distinctly criminal cast — stealing food and trading it on the black market.
Steinbrück, who claimed anti-fascist motives of his own, was also ready to ratchet up the associated violence past adolescent brawling. He stockpiled illegal weapons and had his gang shoot several actual or suspected gendarmes on a “Nazi hunt” shortly before their arrest. He would ultimately be accused of plotting with Eidelweiss Pirate Barthel Schink to blow up a Gestapo headquarters. The activities of the Ehrenfeld Group in particular have been controversial for many years: were they resisters, or merely gangsters who conveniently appropriated a patina of anti-fascist activism?
Under whatever label, their activities were far too much to fly as youthful transgression; Heinrich Himmler himself ordered the Ehrenfeld gang busted up in the autumn of 1944. Sixty-three in all were arrested of whom “only” the 13 were extrajudicially executed: Hans Steinbrück, Günther Schwarz, Gustav Bermel, Johann Müller, Franz Rheinberger, Adolf Schütz, Bartholomäus Schink, Roland Lorent, Peter Hüppeler, Josef Moll, Wilhelm Kratz, Heinrich Kratina, and Johann Krausen. (Via)
* They would survive the end of the war and prove defiant of the Allied occupation authorities too, which is one reason they had to fight until 2005 for political rehabilitation. Perry Biddiscombe explores this Pirates’ situation in occupied postwar Germany in “‘The Enemy of Our Enemy': A View of the Edelweiss Piraten from the British and American Archives,” Journal of Contemporary History, January 1995.
Minutes before dawn prayers today, Pakistan hanged Shafqat Hussain in Karachi Central Jail.*
He’s the latest casualty of Pakistan’s wild death penalty resurgence following last December’s bloody terrorist attack on a Peshawar school — leading Islamabad to break a moratorium on carrying out the death sentences that it was continuing to hand down.
And how! According to the BBC, today’s hanging brings to 193 the total of people put to death in the little more than half-year since; Pakistan could stop hanging today (it won’t) and easily rank among 2015’s execution leaders by the end of the year.
Though the first victims of the new policy were people previously death-sentenced for terrorism, and thereby at least thematically linked to the Peshawar massacre, Pakistan by March had dropped the distinction and commenced hanging prisoners by the fistful for ordinary crimes, too.
Shafqat Hussain’s name has repeatedly entered the news cycle during that time, as he has faced and then avoided multiple execution dates, most recently this past June 9. Some have gone to the very brink, and seen the young man reprieved moments from donning his hanging-shroud.
Hussain denied committing the crime laid at his door — the abduction and murder of a 7-year-old boy in the area where he worked as a watchman — but a confession “allegedly” obtained by torture doomed him. Guilt aside, the matter garnered worldwide headlines (and advocacy) largely on account of his youth: Hussain and his advocates say he was a minor of age 14 or 15 when arrested; Pakistani courts have found him to have been 23. (!) It is this dispute about the age that has been at the center of Shafqat Hussain’s recent heart-stopping cycle of appeals and stays.
Shortly before his execution, Shafqat Hussain put his byline to a compelling first-person testimonial for CNN about life on Pakistan’s death row and the experience of nearing an imminent execution date.
When the jailer tells me that my execution date has been set, he separates me immediately from the other prisoners. I spend all seven days by myself in a cell in the barracks for prisoners about to be executed. They conduct a physical exam every one of those seven days. They weigh me every day, take my blood pressure and temperature as well.
On the last two days they also measure my height, my neck and my body for the clothes I am to wear when they hang me.
One day before my hanging, they tell me about my final visit with my family and that I need to execute my will. I cannot really say what I am thinking in those last seven days. My brain is thinking all sorts of things.
* According to a brother, who told AFP that “there is a cut mark on his neck and half of his neck is separated from his body,” they did not hang him very well.
Fourteen-year-old John Bell was hanged at Maidstone Prison on this date in 1831, for slashing the throat of a 13-year-old chum near Rochester in order to steal a pittance of poor relief that boy had received from a parish church. (The murder netted “three half-crowns, a shilling, and a six-pence” per the Aug. 6, 1831 Preston Chronicle, from which the facts of the case below are also drawn.)
Bell’s little(r) brother James gave the evidence that would hang John: that John spied Richard Taylor and on a lark announced that they would slay him for his pennies.
To this end John borrowed James’s knife, and before employing it to open Richard’s carotid artery, retired with Richard to a turnip-field where the blade pared a few snacks for greedy boys.
Then on the pretense of taking a shortcut home, James guided Richard into a woods where avarice guided his hand to a greater sin than turnip-theft. Showing a streak of the same ruthless acquisitiveness, 11-year-old James demanded half the proceeds lest he blab on his brother — leading James, whose situation was beginning to dawn upon him, to exclaim, “Torment will come upon me for this; I know I shall be hanged!”*
The hardihood which the culprit had displayed at his trial, and even when sentence was passed, deserted him as he entered his cell. He wept bitterly; and when his mother visited him on Sunday afternoon, [the day before the hanging -ed.] he acused her of being the cause of bringing him to his “present scrape.”
On Sunday evening, after the condemned sermon had been preached by the Rev. Chaplain, Bell made a full confession of his guilt. His statement did not materially differ from that which was given on the trial; but he added some particulars of the conduct of his victim before he murdered him, which make the blood run cold.
He said that when he sprung upon Taylor with the knife in his hand, the poor boy, aware of his murderous intention, fell upon his knees before him — offered him all the money he had, his knife, his cap, and whatever else he liked. Said he would love him during the whole of his life, and never tell what had happened to any human being. This pathetic appeal was lost on the murderer, and without making any answer to it, he struck the knife into his throat!”
At half-past 11 o’clock, the solemn peals of the prison bell announced the preparations for the execution. After the operation of pinioning, &c. had been completed, the culprit attended by the Chaplain, &c., walked steadily to the platform.
When he appeared there, he gazed steadily around him; but his eyes did not quail, nor was his cheek blanched. After the rope was adjusted round his neck, he exclaimed in a firm and loud tone of voice, “Lord have mercy upon us. Pray good Lord have mercy upon us. Lord have mercy upon us. All the people before me take warning by me!”
Having been asked if he had any thing farther to say, he repeated the same words, and added, “Lord have mercy upon my poor soul.”
At the appointed signal, the bolt was withdrawn, and in a minute or two the wretched malefactor ceased to exist.
The body is to be given over to the surgeons at Rochester for dissection.
The number of persons present could not be less than 8,000 or 9,000.
The jury did not even retire to come to its verdict, but it strongly endorsed commuting the consequent (mandatory) death sentence.
The Spectator editorialized for the occasion (and we draw this text from its reprint in the Standard of Aug. 8, 1831):
The boy Bell, whose conviction of the murder of little Taylor, near Chatham, we mentioned in our last number, was hanged on Monday, at Maidstone. Bell was only 14 years of age; and, from the utter neglect of his education, could hardly be regarded, even had he been much older, as an accountable being.
It does not appear, from any thing that transpired at the trial or after it, that he felt any greater qualm in killing Taylor, than he would have done in killing the rabbit to whose squeak the dying shriek of the child was, with horrid reality, compared by the brother of the slayer.
Was an untutored boy like this, with his chubby cheeks and flaxen locks, and every attribute of childhood, a proper subject for the halter and the dissecting-knife? Is it required that our code, like that of Moloch, should receive its sanction by the sacrifice of infants? Are our children and schoolboys already murderers in intention, that we should offer them such an example; or was it our grown-up men that we sought to deter from crime by so revolting a specimen of punishment?
Of all the legal tragedies that have been enacted for the last twenty years, there has been none so replete with horror.
And yet we are told therer wer multitudes assembled to behold it! And the masses that pressed forward to glut their eyes with the expiring convulsions of the miserable boy were angry because they had to wait from eight to eleven o’clock until their longing was satisfied!
* This quote is from the Liverpool Mercury of Aug. 5, 1831.
On this date in 1752,* Thomas Wilford hanged at Tyburn — the first person executed under the Murder Act of 1751.
Approved the previous year but just come into effect on the first of June of 1725, the Murder Act proposed “that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment of death” for homicides.**
Since even shoplifting could get you hanged at this period, actually killing someone required an extra twist on the punishment. Parliament killed two birds with one stone here by also addressing the country’s need for anatomical corpses, requiring that the bodies of hanged murderers be delivered “to the hall of the Surgeons Company” where it “shall be dissected and anatomized by the said Surgeons.”†
Wilford presented the surgeons a one-armed specimen with questionable impulse control. As a teenager, he met a prostitute named Sarah Williams in their shared workhouse, and married her, but the honeymoon did not last long. Four days later, his bride stayed out late and to his queries admitted having gone “to the Park” — whereupon Wilford grabbed a knife and slashed her neck so deep as to nearly decapitate her.
“He had no sooner committed the horrid deed than he threw down the knife, opened the chamber door, and was going downstairs when a woman, who lodged in an adjacent room, asked who was there; to which Wilford replied: ‘It is me. I have murdered my poor wife, whom I loved as dearly as my own life,'” quoth the Newgate calendar.
A simple and pathetic crime with an easy disposition for the judiciary. The Newgate Ordinary’s account has a few more details. As specified, his remains were indeed turned over for anatomization.
Another provision of the Murder Act: a death sentence for murder is to “be executed according to law, on the day next but one after sentence passed, unless the same shall happen to be the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday.” Wilford was condemned on a Tuesday and hanged on Thursday morning; however, the going practice moving forward would be to issue such sentences on Fridays in order to give the doomed an extra day to prepare themselves.‡
* Thursday, July 2 was the Julian calendar date of Wilford’s hanging. Our going practice has been to prefer the local date (Gregorian or Julian, depending on the country) prior to England’s changeover in 1752 — and then generally to prefer the Gregorian date thereafter. (We’ve made a few exceptions.)
England spent the first eight months of 1752 on the Julian calendar, then transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in September of that year, so in this particular instance we’re hewing it close to the bone.
I infer that the calendar switch is probably also the reason why the Newgate Calendar incorrectly attributes Wilford’s hanging to June 22: the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars at this point was 11 days, so a later interlocutor might have supposed that July 2 was a Gregorian date that wanted subtraction. It was a confusing, 355-day leap year for Old Blighty, complete with a new New Year’s Day, so if that’s the explanation I’m inclined to give the author a mulligan for making an unnecessary date adjustment and then miscounting the number of days to adjust.
** The Act’s preamble claims that the “horrid crime of murder has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly, and particularly in and near the metropolis of this kingdom, contrary to the known humanity and natural genius of the British nation.” We lack dependable crime statistics for this period to verify this sense of parliamentarians.
† The Murder Act also empowered judges, at their discretion, to order a criminal hung in chains, like theseblokes.
‡ The eleven other people — non-murderers — condemned at the same assize were not executed until July 13.
On this date in 1805, servant Mary Morgan, age 17, was hanged at Presteigne for murdering her bastard child.
An undercook in M.P. Walter Wilkins‘s Maesllwch Castle, Morgan had that achingly typical infanticide story: an unwed youth down the servants’ quarters desperately concealing the pregnancy until her coworkers sniffed her out, barged into the room where she had locked herself up to surreptitiously give birth, and discovered the newborn, “cutt open, deep sunk in the Feathers with the Child’s head nearly divided from the Body” by the efficient hand of a young under-cook who had often used that same pen-knife to slaughter chickens.
“I determined, therefore, to kill it, poor thing!” she would later confess of the (unnamed) father’s refusing her any aid. “Out of the way, being perfectly sure that I could not provide for it myself.”
That was in September of 1804. She would remain imprisoned until she could be tried at the Radnorshire assizes the following April.
Morgan expected lenient treatment — more on that in a moment — and must have been shocked to have the death sentence pronounced on April 11, with no more than two days to prepare herself for the ordeal. She was reportedly in a state of near-collapse when hanged at Gallows Lane.
Mary Morgan’s grave marker in St. Andrew’s parish church. A much longer and more sanctimonious stone, erected by a friend of the judge, also stands in the same cemetery.
We have seen elsewhere in these pages that executing women for infanticide was becoming distinctly uncomfortable for Europeans at this period, and Great Britain was no exception.
During those many decades, close to 200 infanticide cases came to its bar. Hardly any of the accused women were even convicted, never mind condemned.* All the more surprising, then, that the one and only prisoner to merit a death sentence was a 17-year-old. Why did Mary Morgan hang when other Welsh infanticides walked?
The (presumably unobtainable) answer has occasioned a good deal of modern-day speculation.
One possible reason was a cruel judgment on Mary’s unbecoming nonchalance in the court. The presiding judge, George Hardinge,** wrote in private correspondence to the Bishop of St. Asaph that young Miss Morgan “took it for granted that she would be acquitted; had ordered gay apparel to attest the event of her deliverance; and supposed the young gentleman (who I well knew) would save her by a letter to me.” Judges like to see a little cowering.
The young gentleman Hardinge alludes to is another person of interest with respect to Mary Morgan’s surprising fate: Walter Wilkins, Jr. — the heir in the household where Mary served. This man seduced Mary but was not — so said both Mary and Walter — the father of the unfortunate child. In an egregious conflict of interest, Wilkins served on the grand jury that found his lover guilty. Was he playing a double game, posing as a potential intercessor even while keen to eliminate the evidence of his misdeeds?
Kilday suspects that in the end it was nothing but the calculated caprice of Judge Hardinge — who, although he often acquitted accused infanticides, was also alarmed by the prevalence of the practice and wanted to stake out at least one deterrent instance of truly exemplary punishment. As he said in his sentencing address to Mary Morgan, “many other girls (thoughtless and light as you have been) would have been encouraged by your escape to commit your crime, with hopes of impunity; the merciful turn of your example will save them.”
Hardinge himself might not have been fully at home with this rationale. He’s reported to have visited the grave of his “thoughtless and light” defendant several times, even composing a verse “On Seeing the Tomb of Mary Morgan”:
Flow the tear that Pity loves,
Upon Mary’s hapless fate:
It’s a tear that God approves;
He can strike, but cannot hate.
Read in time, oh beauteous Maid!
Shun the Lover’s poisoning art!
Mary was by Love betray’d,
And a viper stung the heart.
Love the constant and the good!
Wed the Husband of your choice,
Blest is then your Children’s food,
Sweet the little Cherub’s voice.
Had Religion glanc’d its beam
On the Mourner’s frantic bed,
Mute had been the tablet’s theme,
Nor would Mary’s child have bled.
She for an example fell,
But is Man from censure free?
Thine Seducer, is the knell,
It’s a Messenger to thee.
* Kilday makes it 149 indictments from 1730 to 1804, with seven convictions and two executions — Jane Humphries in 1734 and Elinor Hadley in 1739; and, after Mary Morgan, another 46 indictments up until 1830 without a single conviction.
The clear “lasts” we do have are country by country, earlier or later depending on the vigor of the pushback witch-hunters could muster against the theonset of rationalism.
The last witch execution that can be documented on in the Holy Roman Empire’s illustrious history took place on this date in 1756, in Landshut, during the age of Maria Theresa.* Its subject was a 15-year-old named Veronika Zeritschin, who was beheaded and then burned.
There is scant information readily available online as to how she came to that dreadful pass, perhaps because the distinction was long thought to be held by a woman named Anna Maria Schwegelin (English Wikipedia entry | German) — condemned for her Satanic intercourse in 1775. That sentence, it was only latterly discovered, was not actually carried out, leaving poor Anna to die in prison in 1781.
As one might infer, Veronika Zeritschin’s own distinction might not be entirely secure against subsequent documentary discoveries. But as of now, she appears to be the last person executed on German soil as a witch.
* Marie Antoinette‘s mother. Maria Theresa’s absolutism was not quite that of the Enlightenment; she was a staunch foe of the trend towards religious toleration:
What, without a dominant religion? Toleration, indifferentism, are exactly the right means to undermine everything … What other restraint exists? None. Neither the gallows nor the wheel … I speak politically now, not as a Christian. Nothing is so necessary and beneficial as religion. Would you allow everyone to act according to his fantasy? If there were no fixed cult, no subjection to the Church, where should we be? The law of might would take command. (Source)
At around 2:00 a.m., Mary Horseman of Kentish Town was woken by the sound of her ten-year-son calling out that his father, London milkman Walter Horseman, needed her… Mary found her husband sitting on his bed. By the light of the moon, which was flooding through the large bay windows, she could see that he was quite black with blood, which covered him from his face to his waist. “Lord bless me,” he said. “Something has run over my face!”
“Run over your face?” she responded. “Why, you are nothing but blood!” She ran for a candle, and when she returned, the light revealed a truly hideous sight: her husband was cut to pieces, his forehead, eyes and nose smashed. His skull, which was broken, was described in court as “cut and mangled in a desperate manner.” The two sections of the skull had broken apart, and his eye sockets had been smashed into shards.
There was nothing to be done for Walter, but amazingly, he lingered until the 19th, over a week after the assault. Due to his head injuries and the fact that he’d been attacked while he was sleeping, he wasn’t able to provide any useful information as to what happened.
The murder weapons were left behind at the crime scene: they proved to be a wooden hedge stake and an iron bar, which was “jellied” with gore.
Only a few farthings were missing from the house. The Horsemans’ four-year-old daughter, who was sleeping in the same room as her father, was not harmed. Suspicion quickly fell on Rickards, the Horsemans’ former apprentice, whom they’d recently sacked for laziness. He had no alibi for the night of the murder, a night watchman saw him near the Horsemans’ home about an hour after the attack, and Mary identified the hedge stake as one he had cut several days before the attack.
Nevertheless, he seemed confident and didn’t bother to leave the area. In fact, in an incredible display of chutzpah, he actually visited his ailing former master and shook his hand before Walter died. Perhaps his cockiness — or obliviousness — was a product of his immaturity; in an age of doubtful record-keeping, we can’t be sure of Joseph Rickards’s age but he was certainly quite young. Mary Horseman speculatively pegged the ex-apprentice as an 18-year-old; the London Times (Feb. 24, 1786) thought that he did “not appear to be more than sixteen years of age.” Although even 16 would be quite old enough to hang in Bloody Code London, the magistrate felt constrained on account of the boy’s age to caution his jurors against excess confidence in the confession he ultimately produced:
I should not for one, though he is very near the state of manhood, chuse to rest singly and merely on his confession, as he is not at full age, though he is above that age of discretion, which the law assigns to be at the age of fourteen years, and certainly it is near the time that human reason is supposed to be mature.
On the 20th, the day after Walter’s death, Rickards was arrested. Within a day he had admitted to concealing himself in a large cupboard in one of the bedrooms in order to beat his former boss to death in his bed. (The trial records are here.) He tried to shift some of the blame to Mary Horseman, claiming they had frequently kissed and he had “laid hold of” her breasts, and that she had told him she wished her husband was dead.
He was hanged in a field across the way from the Horseman family’s dairy — a pathetic spectacle, to judge by the account of the Public Advertiser (Feb. 28, 1786), during which he recanted his allegations against the milkman’s widow.
In his way to the place of execution, the convict appeared to be in a state of mind bordering upon stupefaction: He had no book, nor did he employ the short remnant of time in those preparations for eternity which his miserable situation rendered so indispensably necessary.
Before being turned off, the prisoner desired to see the widow of the deceased; she was sent for to her house, but was gone to London: he declared he had no accomplice in the fact, and that he was induced to the perpetration thereof by the supposition, that after the decease of his master he should succeed to his business as a milkman. Just before coming to the village, he burst into tears, and when he came to the place of execution wept bitterly; his expressions of sorrow and contrition being only interrupted by fervent appeals to Heaven for mercy till the last moment of his existence. He desired his hat might be given to one, and his buckles to another man; and he also made some other trifling dispositions.
One of the Sheriffs, and a great number of their officers on horseback and on foot, attended on the above occasion. Considering the nature of the criminal’s offence, and the disposition of the English to behold spectacles of horror, the crowd was not near so great as might have been expected, owing, no doubt, to the fall of snow, and going so early. The body of the malefactor was conveyed from Kentish Town to Surgeons Hall for dissection, without a shell, and covered only with a coarse cloth, which by the motion of the cart was frequently so removed, that the head and different parts of the body were frequently seen by the passengers on the road and in the streets.
The anatomization, and accompanying public lecture on the late Rickards’s thorax, was performed by a “Dr. Cooper” (General Evening Post, Feb. 28-Mar. 2, 1786); this would appear to be the budding anatomist Astley Cooper who was only 17 years old himself at this time — just at the outset of a scintillating medical career.
Joseph Richards was arraigned for the wilful murder of Walter Horseman, milkman, in Kentish Town. The deceased’s widow deposed, that the prisoner was formerly a servant to her husband; that he was discharged for negligence; that he had frequently threatened vengeance on the deceased; that on the morning the murder was committed, she was awakened by a noise, and on entering the room her husband slept in, she found him sitting up in the bed, and as far as his waist in blood; that a stick which the prisoner had cut some time before, lay in the room, and an iron bar, covered with blood; that her husband was mangled in a shocking manner: — he lingered a few days, and died a shocking spectacle.
Four other witnesses were examined, whose testimony proved certain corroborating circumstances; such as, being from his lodging the night the murder was committed, being seen to melt lead, and to pour it into the stick that was found in the deceased’s room, &c.
The prisoner confessed the murder to one of the magistrates who committed him for trial; but pleaded Not Guilty at the bar.
The jury, after a few minutes’ consideration, brought in their verdict Guilty.
Mr. Recorder pronounced judgment. He said the voice of innocent blood cried to heaven for vengeance. He dwelt upon the atrociousness of the crime of murder, observing, that the Divine Law had ordained, that whoever sheddeth man’s blood, &c., and then expatiated on the peculiar circumstances of the murder, the murder of an innocent master, to whom he owed duty and reverence.
The sentence was then passed as usual, that he be hanged till dead, and anatomized; and an order of Court was made out, to execute him on Monday, at Kentish Town, as near as possible to the house of the deceased.
Joseph Richards, a youth about eighteen, who was convicted on Friday last, for the wilful murder of Walter Horseman, with whom he lived servant, was executed at Kentish Town, opposite the house where the horrid fact was perpetrated. The malefactor came out of Newgate about twenty minutes before eight o’clock, and with some alertness stepped into the cart, which conveyed him through Smithfield, Cow Cross, and by the two small-pox hospitals to the spot, where he was removed from that society of which he had proved himself a most unworthy member, at a time of life when such atrocity of guilt as he possessed has been seldom known to degrade humanity. In his way to the place of execution, the convict appeared to be in a state of mind bordering upon stupefaction; he had no book, nor did he employ that short remnant of time in those preparations for eternity which his miserable situation rendered so indispensably necessary.
Before being turned off, the prisoner desired to see the widow of the decreased; she was sent for to her house, but was gone to London; he declared he had no accomplice in the fact, and that he was induced to the perpetration thereof by the supposition, that after the decease of his master he should succeed to his business as a milkman. Just before coming to the village, he burst into tears and when he came to the place of execution, wept bitterly; his expressions of sorrow and contrition being only interrupted by fervent appeals to Heaven for mercy till the last moment of his existence.
In response, some 100 local teens banded together into an anti-fascist underground — the Molodaya Gvardiya, or Young Guard. (English Wikipedia entry) | Russian) Most of their number would give their lives in resistance.
During the few months of occupation, the Young Guards managed an impressive record of sabotage operations and propaganda coups. It busted 90 people out of the Germans’ concentration camp, and got the hammer and sickle hung up on government buildings to mark the silver anniversary of Red October. In December, the Young Guards managed to destroy the labor bureau (and its list of intended conscripts) on the eve of a planned deportation, sparing 2,000 people that dreadful fate.
The Germans finally got their hooks into the Young Guards and started mass arrests at the start of January. They brought in most of the Young Guards for torture and execution — smashing up the organization in their very last weeks in town.
The five put to death this date were the last of those martyrs, and the more tragic in that the occupiers were even then gearing up to evacuate as the Red Army closed in. (The Soviets took the city on February 15.) They were:
Oleg Koshevoy’s interrogation. Image from MolodGuard.ru’s stupendous images collection.
In September 1943, three Soviet citizens were publicly executed in the liberated city on charges of having aided the Germans in suppressing the Young Guards.
The Young Guards’ youth and intrepidity made them extremely congenial to the Soviets’ wartime demand for martyrs. At the urging of his Ukrainian deputy Nikita Khrushchev — who himself hailed from the Donbass — Stalin approved a number of the Young Guards (including this date’s Koshevoy and Shevtsova) as Heroes of the Soviet Union.
The Guards valorized in a 1945 novel, and then a 1948 film based on that novel. (Russian links, both.)
They’ve featured in postage stamps, public artwork, and every manner of patriotic commemoration ever since. They’ve even come in for a bit of post-Soviet “ownership” conflict (over the Guards’ degree of Communist Party affiliation) between Ukraine’s Russian- and Soviet-leaning east and the nationalist-sympathizing west.
Today the “Molodaya Gvardiya” brand might be most immediately recognizable as a youth organ of Vladimir Putin’s party — no connection to the young partisans, of course.
* Not to be confused with the Russian city of Krasnodar.
On this date in 1944, Soviet partisan Zinaida Portnova was executed by the Germans occupying Belarus.
The youngest-ever female Hero of the Soviet Union (she was posthumously decorated in 1958), the Leningrad-born Portnova had a rude start in insurgency when the German blitz swept past her summer camp in Belarus and trapped her behind lines.
Said to have been radicalized when occupying soldiers struck her grandmother, the girl joined the youth arm of the local resistance, dubbed the “Young Avengers”.
From surveilling enemy troop deployments and assembling weapons caches, Zinaida Portnova graduated to sabotage and ambushes … and capture. Even then she pulled off an action hero escape by snatching a gun and shooting her way out of custody, only to be re-arrested shortly thereafter.
There are so many excellent resources already for enthusiasts of this adventure that a generalist site such as this one can scarcely hope to contribute. Much of the commentary through the years has gravitated towards asserting (by implication at least) the ought between the allegedly oversensitive first mate Fletcher Christian and his allegedly tyrannous captain William Bligh.
Their confrontation is too well mythologized to require commentary here. We only wish to note that this workplace spat occurred in furtherance of a mission whose purpose was the application of the lash to other laborers than the Bounty‘s Able Seamen.
Lord Byron fictionalized Bligh’s and other mariners’ accounts to render “The Island”, a poem surprisingly sympathetic (given Byron’s radical proclivities) to the officers mutinied upon. In it, he depicts the Eden-like plenty of Otaheiti
The gentle island, and the genial soil,
The friendly hearts, the feasts without a toil,
The courteous manners but from nature caught,
The wealth unhoarded, and the love unbought;
Could these have charms for rudest sea-boys, driven
Before the mast by every wind of heaven?
The Bread-tree, which, without the ploughshare, yields
The unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields,
And bakes its unadulterated loaves
Without a furnace in unpurchased groves,
And flings off famine from its fertile breast,
A priceless market for the gathering guest …
Those fertile-breasted breadtrees were the object of Bligh’s voyage: they were to be acquired, potted, and sailed onward to the Caribbean where they’d be transplanted in hopes of providing a cornucopia … of profits to sugar plantations whose slaves’ hands an “unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields” would free for an added margin in the export economy.*
The Bounty bartered for and potted up over 1,000 specimens during a protracted five-week layover Tahiti, a literal Bounty that the crew would prove to prefer to the floating despotism under Capt. Bligh.
Those mutineers turned the breadfruit-ship ’round and settled themselves back on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island,* burning the Bounty in hopes of simply disappearing from imperial Britain’s circuits of maritime accumulation.
Cast adrift in the Pacific, Bligh somehow guided the 7-meter open launch 6,700 kilometers to Timor, losing only one of his 18 loyal passengers along the way — a feat of seamanship Bligh himself told all about in a first-person account. From the East Indies, Bligh caught a ride back to England and reported the insurrection to the Admiralty in March 1790, more than two years after his ill-starred voyage had set sail from Spithead.
So in 1791, a 24-gun ship called Pandora set out carrying a box of evils for the mutineers. The latter had, in this time, found the comforts of the South Pacific at least somewhat less congenial now that they proposed to make themselves permanent residents and moreover anticipated native deference to their race despite having opted themselves out of the authority that underwrote said privilege. Fletcher Christian himself is thought to be among the mutineers who died in conflicts with the natives.†
Still, the Pandora found 14 of the Bounty‘s former crew to round up and return for British judgment. (The Pitcairn settlement escaped notice altogether; it was only chanced upon by an American ship in 1808 by which time nobody had any interest in persecuting the last remaining mutineer.)
The three featured today were, perhaps surprisingly, the only ones to pass through all the filters from detention to execution, filters that one might have thought would winnow only fleetingly in the case of such an impudent rebellion.
To begin with, the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef on its return voyage. Only at the last moment did a boatswain unlock the cell where the prisoners were being held — and only 10 of the 14 managed to escape being swallowed up by the seas.
The ensuing court-martial acquitted outright four of those remaining ten — men whom Bligh himself described as innocent loyalists who had been forced to remain with the mutineers.
The Admiralty court-martial had a job to fix the six other sailors in their right spots along the spectrum from “enthusiastic mutineer” to “passive participant” to “had to go along with events outside of their control.” It took a good deal of testimony from Bligh’s loyalists about who was armed, who gave a sharp word, and so forth, during the critical moments of Fletcher Christian’s coup. (Legal proceedings in the Bounty case are collected in their entirety here, part of a rich trove of primary sources related to the incident.)
In the end, all six whom Bligh did not vouch for got the same sentence — death — but the court endorsed several for royal mercy. The three who eventually hanged on October 29, 1792 were:
Able Seaman Thomas Burkitt or Burkett. Multiple witnesses made him an armed and active member of the mutiny from its very first stroke, assisting Fletcher Christian’s nighttime seizure of the sleeping captain.
Able Seaman John Millward. He too was placed among the armed mutineers by witnesses; in fact, prior to the mutiny, he had attempted with two other crewmates to abscond from the Bounty and spent three weeks hiding out in Tahiti before recaptured.
Able Seaman Thomas Ellison. Just 16 or 17 years old at the time of the mutiny, Ellison was made to hand over his watch at the helm to a mutineer. His efforts at court to portray himself as loyal to Bligh and only unwillingly swept up in events were contradicted by one of the men set adrift with the ex-captain, but have been favorably received by many later interlocutors. The Charles Nordhoff-James Hall novelization Mutiny on the Bounty presents Ellison as an innocent.
Three others condemned with this trio at the same court-martial who might have shared their execution date were spared that fate.
Able Seaman William Muspratt copped a stay and eventually a commutation of sentence based on having been prevented from calling his desired witnesses. He returned to active duty at sea.
James Morrison, notable for having built a schooner on Tahiti with which he attempted unsuccessfully to sail for the East Indies, was recommended for mercy by the court which condemned him. While incarcerated, Morrison wrote a journal giving his account of the mutiny; he too returned to active service as a gunner.
Midshipman Peter Heywood, the only officer charged, was like Morrison pardoned at the court’s recommendation. He put in many years of respectable service at sea, eventually retiring with the rank of post-captain. Anticipating his being tongue-tied when the pardon was announced to him, he had a note ready-written to hand the angel of his deliverance: “when the sentence of the law was passed upon me, I received it, I trust, as became a man; and if it had been carried into execution, I should have met my fate, I hope, in a manner becoming a Christian … I receive with gratitude my Sovereign’s mercy; for which my future life shall be faithfully devoted to his service.” (London Times, Oct. 30, 1792)
* This breadfruit scheme was the brainchild of Joseph Banks, an empire-minded botanist who was also a leading advocate of diverting the convict labor formerly exported to America to Australia instead.
After all the mutiny business had been sorted out, Bligh commanded a second, do-over voyage to dump breadtrees on Jamaica. Slaves’ distaste for the delicacy caused the voyage’s immediate objectives to fail; however, the imported fruit would eventually become a Jamaican culinary staple.
** Descendants of the Bounty mutineers and native women still inhabit Pitcairn to this day. It’s the smallest self-governing national jurisdiction in the world.
† The last mutineer on Pitcairn gave vague and contradictory accounts of Christian’s death. It was long rumored that he might actually have escaped Pitcairn and secretly returned to England: if so, he was never exposed.