British-occupied Egypt on this date in 1945 hanged two young Jewish assassins for slaying the British plenipotentiary to the Middle East.
Walter Edward Guinness was heir to the barley beer fortune and a Tory politician of near 40 years’ standing. “Lord Moyne”, to call him (as history does, and as we will henceforward) by his aristocratic honorific, allied with his former rival Winston Churchill in the 1930s as a staunch foe of placating Hitler, eventually serving several roles in Churchill’s wartime government.*
The last and perforce most famous was Resident Minister of State in Cairo from January 1944, where he directed British affairs in North Africa, Persia, and the Middle East, crucially including Mandatory Palestine.
Such a figure must necessarily represent many things to different subjects, but to Zionists he represented the hostility to their project of both his own person and (more importantly) of London. While there is endless nitpicking about the man’s precise degree of disfavor for Jewish people or interests, “Lord Moyne was the highest British official in the Middle East,” in the words of Yitzhak Shamir, the emigre terrorist who orchestrated the hit and would one day become Prime Minister of Israel. “Because we fought against the British in this area, we took him for a target. This was the main reason for his assassination.” Nothing personal. (Maybe a little personal.)
On November 6, 1944, two of Shamir’s young cadres in the late Avraham Stern‘s militantly anti-British Lehi network, Eliyahu Bet-Zuri (Ben Suri) and Eliyahu Hakim, ambushed Moyne as his limousine pulled up at his villa, and shot him dead with pistols. (They also killed Moyne’s driver, a Lance Corporal named Arthur Fuller.) Once their affiliations became apparent it was Jewry’s turn to bask in the collective censorious scowl that minorities everywhere can anticipate given any perceived ethnic affinity to the latest atrocity’s author. These sortings-out from the London Times would do almost word for word for whatever horror tomorrow’s news might bring.
London Times, Nov. 10, 1944
London Times, Jan. 29, 1945
Similarly, Lord Moyne’s killers took every pain to link their martyrdom to Jewish/Zionist patriotism, no matter any moderate rabbi’s attempt to wash his hands of it.
Raised in Mandatory Palestine, both Bet-Zuri and Hakim spoke Arabic but insisted on speaking only Hebrew in the Cairo court. They went to the gallows singing the hymn “Hatikvah” — later to become Israel’s national anthem.
In the near term, their deed hardened hearts: “If our dreams for Zionism are to end in the smoke of an assassin’s pistol, and the labors for its future produce a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany, then many like myself will have to reconsider the position we have maintained so consistently and so long in the past,” Churchill snarled to Parliament.
But in fact the British reconsideration was soon seen to run counter to the dangerous meddling policing these “gangsters” would have demanded. Within only a few years London struck its colors in the Levant. Bet-Zuri’s and Hakim’s cause triumphed, and they too with it: as Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir arranged for the hanged men’s remains to be repatriated from Egypt; today, both rest in honor at Mount Herzl.
* There was a personal side to Lord Moyne’s anti-Naziism: his son, Bryan, had been abandoned by his socialite wife Diana Mitford … who became Diana Mosley in 1936 when she married British Union of Fascists chief Oswald Mosley, in a ceremony held at Joseph Goebbels‘ home no less.
On this date in 1563, Jean de Poltrot de Méré was ripped apart in the streets of Paris for assassinating the Duke of Guise.
The opening act of the civil war between Catholics and Huguenots that would devour France in the late 16th century was but a year old at this moment, and Guise was the very man who had set off the powderkeg with a notorious massacre of Huguenots the previous March that had sent agitated confessional armies into the fields.
During the ensuing months, Guise stood at the fore of Catholic forces, opposite the Huguenot commander Conde.
Come early 1563, Guise was besieging the Huguenot-held city of Orleans when Poltrot (English Wikipedia page | French) contrived to ambush him on a nearby road. Poltrot shot Guise with a pistol* and fled; he’d be arrested a day later.
In the Wars of Religion, each previous atrocity justified the revenge that followed it; Guise’s death — and Poltrot’s confession under torture** that it was the Huguenot Admiral Coligny who directed his hand — would help to set the scene for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre visited by Catholics on the Huguenots nine years later. (In fairness we ought also to add that this was not Guise’s first brush with Protestant assassins.) And heavily Catholic Paris was even before the Guise murder violently agitated against Huguenots. During the fighting in 1562,
Reputed Huguenots were struck down in the streets. Sometimes mock trials were held; the attackers grilled the captives on their religious beliefs and, when not satisfied with the answers, killed them on the spot. Officials who tried to intervene were themselves in danger, and edicts against violence were bitterly protested. As one anonymous memoirist described it, “The people wanted nothing less than permission to kill and exterminate the Huguenots without any form of trial; but the consequences were too dangerous.” He implied that permission might have been given, had it been possible to contain the violence.†
All this rage, when focused on the assassin of the Catholic party’s champion, was enough to tear a man limb from limb.
Poltrot’s sentence was to be publicly ripped apart by horses straining his limbs to the four points of the compass. It didn’t quite work: sinew and muscle is too dense and tough to shred by main force, even for a horse; it was only by dint of the the executioner’s helpful hacking that the beasts could dismember their prey.
Quartering by horses is a punishment so preposterously horrific that it could only belong to an age of intentional spectacle.
Indeed, Florike Egmond and Peter Mason argue‡ that until the 16th century such a theatrical execution “was a purely fictional punishment in Europe, which ever since Roman times emerged occasionally in literature, legend and folk-tales as an outrageous form of retribution for (high) treason and related offences” — such as Livy’s mythic rendering of the end given faithless ex-ally Mettius Fufetius, the treatment of St. Hippolytus, and foggy distant Frankish legends.
Although the concept might have existed in imaginations for centuries before, equine execution was at best a vanishingly rare event in reality; certainly when Poltrot was butchered, nobody present had ever before beheld such a sight. For Egmond and Mason, this was an innovation of his judges who “jumped the gap between fiction and historical records” in pursuit of ever “more expressive forms of punishment in order to emphasize the outrageousness of the offense.”
It was an outrage whose time had come, however, for quartering by horses was employed several times more for regicidal offenses in the ensuing decades — including for the Catholic militant who assassinated the Huguenot King Henri IV.
* This event would appear to dislodge the 1570 murder of Scotland’s Regent Moray from its popular acclamation as history’s earliest firearm assassination. As Guise lingered for six days and finally succumbed to effects of his doctor’s own bloodletting, perhaps the view is that Poltrot’s pistol only earned half-credit.
** Poltrot would later retract the claim, when not under torture.
† Barbara Diefendorf, “Prologue to a Massacre: Popular Unrest in Paris, 1557-1572,” The American Historical Review, Dec. 1985.
‡ “Domestic and Exotic Cruelties: Extravagance and Punishment,” The Irish Review, Autumn 1999
March 12 is the martyrdom date (in 295) and annual feast date of Saint Maximilian of Tebessa, Christianity’s protomartyr of conscientious objectors.
A Christian from Numidia (the Mediterranean coast of present-day Algeria), Maximilian presented himself to the African proconsul for mandatory conscription and refused in the name of Christ to bear arms.
The proconsul remonstrated with him, and in their interaction Maximilian espoused a vindication of pacifism so clear and timeless that a Vietnam War-era Catholic antiwar organization would take the name Order of Maximilian. “I will not be a soldier of this world, for I am a soldier of Christ.”
Maximilian That is their business. I also am a Christian, and I cannot serve.
Cassius Dion But what harm do soldiers do?
Maximilian You know well enough.
Cassius Dion If you do not do your service I shall condemn you to death for contempt of the army.
Maximilian I shall not die. If I go from this earth my soul will live in Christ my Lord.
Cassius Dion Write his name down … Your impetiy makes you refuse military service and you shall be punished accordingly as a warning to others. (Reading the sentence) “Maximilian has refused the military oath through impiety. He is to be beheaded.”
On this date in 1942, the start of Purim,* Nazi forces occupying Minsk massacred approximately 5,000 Jews from the Minsk Ghetto at a site known simply as Yama, “the Pit”.
The site, which hosts memorial events every March 2, was marked with a somber obelisk in the immediate postwar years; unusually for a Stalin-era monument, it is overt about the Jewish character of the victims — for Soviet propaganda often obfuscated this with a technically-correct formulation such as “Russian citizens”. In this case, the 1940s memorial obelisk remarkably had a Yiddish inscription to mirror its Russian one. (The sculpture of a column of faceless people tragically descending the slope into the pit was added in the post-Soviet period.)
All images (cc) Dennis Jarvis.
Minsk’s pre-war Jewish population of more than 50,000 was almost entirely annihilated during World War II.
On this date in 1902, Joe Higginbotham was hanged for raping and slashing the throat of a Mrs. Ralph Webber.
The State (Columbia, S.C.), Jan. 24, 1902
This headline-making outrage occurred in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the town was on the verge of living up to its name before officers spirited the black janitor away to Roanoke for safekeeping; in Roanoke, military guardsmen were scrambled for security against a rumor that Higginbotham’s life would be attempted even there.
One might well wonder why the bother, as the formal proceedings against the culprit blessed by the law entailed very little deliberation beyond Judge Lynch. Mrs. Webber survived her injury and once her condition stabilized, she was brought to the jail on January 21 to make an identification. “She at once identified him as the man who assaulted her. The negro broke down and confessed to the crime with which he is charged, and further stated that he had attempted some months ago to assault a white girl who was a patient in a Lynchburg hospital.” (Charlotte Observer, Jan. 22, 1902)
Two days after that meeting, Higginbotham pleaded guilty at a short trial under heavy guard back in Lynchburg. The sentence was imposed for exactly one month out — plus one more day so as not to fall on a Sunday — and it went off as scheduled, undisturbed by any appeal or reprieve.
Judge Higginbotham grew up in New Jersey but census records confirm that his father Aloysius was in fact born in Virginia to a family with deep roots in Amherst County. Aloysius’s move to the Trenton, N.J. area in the first decade of the 20th century would have put him on the leading edge of the Great Migration of southern blacks to northern industrial cities.
Suggestive as that might be, Golde’s search through Aloysius’s family did not appear to turn up any clear link to a Joseph Higginbotham; indeed, Higginbotham the criminal assailant was reportedly himself an adopted or foster child whose lineage appears obscure. The trail from this point dissipates in history’s marshes. The Higginbotham name is quite widespread in the Lynchburg area; family ancestries for the African-American Higginbothams appear to trace back to slavery among the white family of Captain John Higginbotham, a Revolutionary War officer whose own father relocated to Amherst, Va. from Barbados. (Different English Higginbothams made good in India.)
A generalist site such as ours leaves off short of the close reading of archival records or research into family lore that would required here. (Perhaps there are some readers prepared to shed some light?) In the end, of course, any hypothetical family connection between these two very different men would count as little more than historical curiosity.
* Full disclosure: this author never had the privilege of meeting Judge Higginbotham, but counts as a mentor to his death penalty interest one of the judge’s proteges.
Comprised of foreign communists whose backgrounds amply motivated them to desperate resistance, FTP-MOI was a notably aggressive partisan unit; a few months before this date’s executions, it had stunningly assassinated SS Col. Julius Ritter on the streets of Paris. Risky tactics, including larger-scale operations like the one that claimed Ritter (these required more partisans to know each other) entailed greater risk of penetration, and the November 1943 arrest of the Armenian commander Missak Manouchian and his group devastated FTP-MOI. After the customary interlude of torture, these were subjected to a show trial with 23 condemned to execution.*
As a gaggle of foreign terrorists, heavily Semitic, this clique looked to the occupation like a marvelous tar with which to blacken the Resistance. To that end the Germans produced a scarlet poster denouncing the Resistance as an “Army of Crime,” its soldiery labeled with strange names and alien nationalities converging on the swarthy Manouchian.**
Soon known as l’Affiche Rouge, the poster instead apotheosized its subjects. In the postwar period it became an emblem of the best of the Resistance — its multinational unity, France as an idea powerful enough that men and women of distant birth would give their lives for her. (Not to mention the postwar French Communists’ claim on le parti des fusillés.)
To this day in France, the backfiring propaganda sheet is one of the best-recognized artifacts of the Resistance.
The executions were naturally conducted quietly; the Germans strictly forbade public access to or photography of Resistance heroes in their martyrdoms for obvious reasons.
That made it especially surprising when a few pictures of this execution surfaced recently, surreptitiously snapped from an overlooking vantage by German motorbike officer Clemens Rüter, who kept them hidden for decades. They are to date the only known World War II photos of French Resistance members being executed.
* The 23rd, and the only woman in the group, was Romanian Olga Bancic, also known by the nom de guerre Pierrette; she was not shot on this date but deported to Stuttgart and beheaded there on May 10, 1944. There was also a 24th, a man named Migatulski, who was initially part of the same trial; he was instead remanded to French custody. (See coverage in the collaborationist La Matin from Feb. 19, 1944 and Feb. 22, 1944.)
** We’ve noted before that a Polish Jew named Joseph Epstein who was part of the same cell (and a prime candidate for racist demagoguing) avoided a place on l’Affiche Rouge thanks to his preternatural talent for remaining mum under interrogation.
Thomas Pormort (or Pormant) was hanged on this date in 1592 on a gibbet erected adjacent to a Paul’s Churchyard haberdashery whose proprietor had once entrusted the condemned Catholic priest with his confession.
Pormort was a priest trained on the continent who returned to native soil about the beginning of 1591 to brave the Elizabethan persecution, but managed only a few months in the field before his arrest.
He had the misfortune to face the personal interrogation of the vindictive inquisitor Richard Topcliffe, notorious even in his own day for his gleeful sadism. Topcliffe seems not to have even feigned a politic distaste for the breaking of bones and and of men and made a point to attend the executions his offices effected, including Pormort’s.
Now, back in the day such grim ministers of state could be empowered to toy with their prey in their very own lairs. Even the sainted Thomas More had kept a personal torture chamber at his own home.
So it was with Topcliffe, who inflicted his hospitality on Pormort in the intimacy of his own place, where he apparently had the facilities necessary to put a prisoner to the rack. According to Portmort, the torturer had another intimacy besides during their pain-wracked discourse, taunting or boasting to his victim of carnal indulgences he enjoyed from the queen herself. Pormort would allege at the bar that
Topcliffe told [Pormort] that he was so familiar with her Majesty that he many times putteth [his hands] between her breasts and paps and in her neck.
That he hath not only seen her legs and knees [but feeleth them] with his hands above her knees.
That he hath felt her belly, and said unto her Majesty that she had the softest belly of any woman kind.
That she said unto him, ‘be not these the arms, legs and body of King Henry?’ To which he answered: ‘Yea.’
That she gave him for a favour a white linen hose wrought with white silk, etc.
That he is so familiar with her that, when he pleaseth to speak with her, he may take her away from any company; and that she is as pleasant with everyone that she doth love.
This Penthouse letter for the queen has no factual plausibility, and nobody thought so in 1592. Whether the priest’s report of its utterance is an actual glimpse into a seditious perversion of the torturer, or a desperate attempt by a doomed man to smear his persecutor, Topcliffe took the matter seriously enough that he made Pormort stand on the ladder under his noose in freezing cold for two hours on execution day while Topcliffe browbeat him to withdraw the allegation. (Pormort didn’t budge.)
On this day in 1906, Robert E. Newcomb and John Mueller were hanged together in Chicago, Illinois. Both were multiple murderers, with six deaths between them.
Newcomb, who was, described as “crazed” and “maddened,” hanged for the murder of Chicago police sergeant John Peter Shine.
On October 10 the previous year, Shine heard reports of a gunman terrorizing people on the streets of Englewood. Newcomb had already shot three people and one, a woman named Florence Poore who was the wife of Newcomb’s friend, was dead. Shine found out the gunman had barricaded himself in his apartment. Although he was off duty, he decided to make the arrest himself.
When he knocked on the apartment door and demanded entry, however, Newcomb simply fired through the closed door, hitting Shine in the abdomen and mortally wounding him. The officer died two hours later at Englewood Union Hospital, at the age of 42. Walter Blue, one of the others Newcomb had shot, also died of his wounds.
After Shine was shot, over 100 police officers surrounded Newcomb’s apartment and fired into it, hoping to apprehend or kill the gunman. After a long siege, Newcomb surrendered to an equally certain death in the judiciary.
Gerson’s cabaret career was the more robust through the roaring twenties but with benefit of retrospection we admit with Liza Minelli that from cradle to tomb, it isn’t that long a stay.
And the ominous next act would not belong to Weimar Jews.
After being elbowed off German stages by Reich race laws, Gerson recorded several songs in German and Yiddish; her “Vorbei” (“Beyond Recall”) hauntingly commemorates the lost world before fascism — “They’re gone beyond recall / A final glance, a last kiss / And then it’s all over.”
Gerson fled Nazi Germany to the Netherlands; once that country fell under its own harrowing wartime occupation, she tried to escape with her family to neutral Switzerland but was seized transiting Vichy France. Gerson, her second husband Max Sluizer, and their two young children Miriam (age 5) and Abel (age 2) were all deported to Auschwitz and gassed on arrival on Valentine’s Day 1943.
* Her first marriage was to film director Veit Harlan, who would later direct the notorious anti-Semitic propaganda film Jud Süß — based on an executed Jewish financier. From the German-occupied Netherlands, Gerson unsuccessfully appealed to this powerful ex for protection.
** Future horror maven Bela Lugosi also appeared in both Gerson films, Caravan of Death and On the Brink of Paradise. Gerson’s German Wikipedia page also identifies her as the voice of the evil queen in the 1938 German-language dub of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
On February 7, 1940 — Ash Wednesday, as it happened to be — Peter Barnes and James McCormack became the last Irish Republican Army men executed by the British
They were condemned by the outraged British after a then-shocking terrorist bombing that has largely vanished from the historical memory, subsumed by the simultaneous outbreak of World War II.
Although it was neither the first nor the last strike in the 1939-1940 campaign of Irish Republican attacks on English soil aimed at forcing London to relinquish control of Northern Ireland, the five-pound bicycle-mounted bomb that ripped apart Broadgate on August 25, 1939, might have been the one that most hardened British hearts against the authors.* Five people were killed in the explosion and some 70 injured; the scene resembled a war zone.**
The resulting investigation — explored in great detail here — never laid hands on the man who actually planted this bomb, eventually revealed to be Joby O’Sullivan.
Many years later and near his death, O’Sullivan claimed that the bomb was supposed to be parked at the Coventry police station; other reports have it destined for an electrical station, and the decision to abandon the ticking bicycle in a crowded street a freelance cock-up by O’Sullivan. Maybe. What is known is that on August 24, London police had busted an IRA plot to place explosives at Westminster Abbey, Scotland Yard, and the Bank of England — all timed to explode at the very same moment as the Coventry package, 2:30 the next afternoon. Had that coordinated fourfold bombing occurred, it would have rated one of the bloodiest and most spectacular terrorist events in history.
But the single blast that did take place was more than enough to bring down the crown’s fury.
Five faced trial for their lives, even though no hand among them had actually set the Coventry bomb. In Ireland and many other places, this latter stipulation made the entire affair an outrageous injustice, especially if one takes as a given that the bomb was not meant to hit civilians. We leave that interesting question of justice to the reader’s consideration, but it must be understood that our hanged men were certainly party to the IRA’s bombing project. The accused, for a trial that December, were:
Barnes, an IRA operative in London who had delivered bomb components to Coventry
McCormack, part of an IRA cell in Coventry who had rented the house where the bomb was constructed
Joseph and Mary Hewitt, and Mary’s mother Brigid O’Hara, Irish immigrants who had taken on McCormack as a lodger
Little evidence could be produced against Hewitt family, who appeared to be quite innocent of their tenant’s intentions. The latter three were cleared of all charges, and then vengefully deported.
McCormack kept stoically silent during the trial, rising only at his sentencing to announce “that the part I took in these explosions since I came to England I have done for a just cause. As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army I am not afraid to die, as I am doing it for a just cause. I say in conclusion, God bless Ireland and God bless the men who have fought and died for her.”
Barnes, whose role on the far end of the supply was even more remote from the final detonation, said as he would maintain to the end, “I am innocent and later I am sure it will all come out that I had neither hand, act or part in it.”
The pair hanged together in Birmingham’s Winson Green Prison. The return of Barnes and McCormack’s remains from that gaol’s unmourned yards to Irish soil soon became a running national demand; the remains were finally repatriated (to great fanfare) in 1969.
Amid the patriotic encomia, civil war veteran Jimmy Steele gave an address on the occasion of the republicans’ reburial critical of the Sinn Fein leadership — an address that is often considered a milepost en route to the imminent (December 1969) splitting-away of the Provisional IRA.
* And in a less justifiable expression, against the Irish generally; Coventry’s Irish immigrant populace faced an immediate racist backlash.
** A chilling preview, for the next year Coventry was devastated by German planes — one of the cities hardest hit by the Reich’s bombing campaign.