Posts filed under 'Executioners'

Feast Day of St. Apronian the Executioner

Add comment February 2nd, 2020 Headsman

This gentleman is far from antiquity’s most distinguished Christian martyr, but a site such as Executed Today can scarcely omit the sacrifice of one Saint Apronian the Executioner, who we learn was

Executioner for imperial Rome. He was a witness at the trial of Saint Sisinnius who was charged with Christianity in the persecutions of Diocletian. Sisinnius’ statement of his faith converted Apronian. He was martyred soon after.

Many other translations make him not executioner but notary; the Roman Martyrology from which these versions derive marks him as Commentariensis — a prison-keeper.

So there’s a good chance that “executioner” here is a bit of dramatic exaggeration. That said, while ancient Rome had plenty of executions, they wouldn’t necessarily be conducted by a single executioner as we imagine the office from subsequent European history. Depending on the rank of the accused (notably citizen vs. not), the location of the proceedings (Rome vs. provinces), and the prevailing climate, capital punishments might be handled by various civic entities or bodies of armed men.

The office of carnifex, literally “flesh-render” or “butcher”, had the brief to torture and execute slaves and foreigners; evidently, there are hints that this dishonorable position might also be held by a prison warden. Perhaps this is the basis for linking Saint Apronian to the gig.

Despite the distinctive (albeit not unique) professional attribution, Apronian is not the patron saint of executioners. In fact, there is no such sacred patronage, although searches for same turn up this jam:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,God,Italy,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

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1964: Nguyen Van Nhung, Diem executioner

Add comment January 31st, 2020 Headsman

Vietnamese General Nguyen Van Nhung was (apparently) executed on this date in 1964.

He was the victim of a South Vietnamese coup, after having been a key operative in the previous one. Back on 2 November 1963, he’d piled into the back of an armored personnel carrier with the fresh-deposed President Ngo Dinh Diem, and Diem’s brother Ngô Dình Nhu. When the APC arrived at its destination, Diem and Nhu were both dead.

According to the other putchist in the vehicle with him,

As we rode back to the Joint General Staff headquarters, Diem sat silently, but Nhu and the captain [Nhung] began to insult each other. I don’t know who started it. The name-calling grew passionate. The captain had hated Nhu before. Now he was charged with emotion … [and] lunged at Nhu with a bayonet and stabbed him again and again, maybe fifteen or twenty times. Still in a rage, he turned to Diem, took out his revolver and shot him in the head. Then he looked back at Nhu, who was lying on the floor, twitching. He put a bullet into his head too. Neither Diem nor Nhu ever defended themselves. Their hands were tied. (Source)

Nhung’s turn as executioner — no unfamiliar role; the guy was notorious for tallying his career kills in notches on his gun barrel — made his boss Duong Van Minh the new President … for all of three months. By all accounts he was a useless executive:

the ruling generals were paralyzed by ineptitude. They had formed a military revolutionary council, composed of twelve members who bickered endlessly. Their normal chairman, General Minh, boasted that the collegial arrangement would guarantee against the autocratic excesses of the old regime. In reality, Minh had contrived the committee in order to bolster his prestige without increasing his responsibility. He was a model of lethargy, lacking both the skill and the inclination to govern. As he confided to me one morning as we chatted in his headquarters, he preferred to play tennis and tend to his orchids and exotic birds than to preside over tedious meetings and unravel bureaucratic tangles … In a cable to Washington, [U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge] described Minh as a “good, well-intentioned man,” but added a prophetic note: “Will he be strong enough to get on top of things?”

On 30 January 1964, Minh was overthrown by another general, Nguyen Khánh, in a bloodless dawn coup. Well, virtually bloodless. The sole casualty was Nguyen Van Nhung, who paid for the assassination of Diem the next day via a pistol shot to the head at a Saigon villa. The official story promulgated by the new regime described him instead committing suicide in shame for the Diem murder.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,History,No Formal Charge,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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1521: The rebel Ribbings

Add comment December 23rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1521, the Swedish rebel brothers Lindorm and Peder Ribbing were beheaded in Jönköping.

This event fell during the brief reign of the Danish king Christian II over Sweden, notably distinguished by the previous year’s Stockholm Bloodbath. Christian held Sweden only by force of arms and his continual bloody exertions to put down resistance have blackened his name in Swedish annals as “Christian the Tyrant”.

While the Ribbings were merely minor rebels in a country teeming with umbrage, their executions contributed a particularly atrocious (albeit perhaps folklorish) episode to that tyrannous reputation.

Not only the brothers themselves but their children also were put to death … and the story has it that after Lindorm Ribbing’s eldest son lost his head, his five-year-old brother pitiably implored the headsman, “My good man. Please do not stain my shirt as you did my brother’s or my mother will spank me.” Moved to tears, the executioner then discarded his sword and exclaimed, “Never! Sooner shall my own shirt be stained then I would stain yours.” Both he and the little boy then got the chop from a less sentimental swordsman.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Executioners,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Separatists,Sweden,Treason

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1503: A banderaio and an executioner

Add comment May 29th, 2018 Headsman

Courtesy of Emotions in the Heart of the City (14th-16th century), we travel to Florence during its between-Medicis republican interim* for a very emotional execution:

On the morning of 29 May 1503, outside the city’s great Gate of Justice,** a young flag-maker (banderaio) was put to death for having murdered another banderaio. In a scene that struck the throng of spectators as an outrage, the executioner had failed to cut off his head even after three blows of his sword. The sight must have been grisly, for the attending mounted captain was next forced to move in and club the flag-maker to death. The compassion of the crowd now pivoted into incandescent rage. A tumult broke out, as men and boys directed a cannonade of rocks at the executioner. There was, in addition, something oddly religious about the event, because rocks were also thrown at the men hooded in black, the members of the religious confraternity who were there to offer comfort to the unfortunate banderaio. They had to flee for their lives. The executioner was killed, and children then lugged his corpse around, worked their way back into the city, and dragged the body all the way up to the Franciscan Church of Santa Croce. Were they sending a message to Savonarola‘s great local enemies, the Franciscans? There was a possible religious subtext to this episode : some contemporaries claimed that the hangman had been punished — he was the very same man — for having first insulted and then hanged Savonarola five years previously. It goes without saying that he had died without last rites, and the dragging about of his body again touched on something religious in being subject to a ‘ceremony’ of desecration.

Although I cannot locate an online version of this document, it appears to me that a primary source for this incident is the chronicle of Simone Filipepi. This historian is a bit less famous than his little brother Alessandro Filipepi … who is inscribed in the annals of art’s history by his nickname (meaning “Little Barrel”) as Sandro Botticelli.

Tangentially, readers might also enjoy this 1625 instance of a clumsy executioner being lynched: in that case, his proposed prey actually survived the scaffold. A similar fate nearly befell notorious English hangman Jack Ketch, after his maladroit butchering of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685.

* This period prior to the restoration of the Medici was also Machiavelli’s political heyday. (He wrote his classics of statecraft after Giuliano de’ Medici subsequently recaptured Florence from the pie-eyed republicans and retired Machiavelli to countryside exile.)

** This public domain English translation of Guido Carocci‘s classic Firenze Scomparsa (Bygone Florence) illuminates some of the relevant topography.

A tower which now only consists of four stone walls, plain and undecorated, but which some day must have been much higher and surmounted by battlements, rises at the end of the Lungarno apposite the viale Carlo Alberto.

It is the sole remnant, the only souvenir of a number of ancient buildings which were situated in this position, and were known as the old mint (Zecca Vecchia).

Previous to the demolition of the walls the tower reared its massive proportions on the river bank in the midst of the ramparts of a dismantled fortress, near a mill race and buildings next the walls which at this point showed traces of a walled up gate.

The buildings next to the tower seemed a mixture of old and modern construction with large arched rooms, long corridors and balconies overhanging the canal from the Arno — which gave motive power to the wheels of various cloth mills.

These houses, which grouped en masse were of singular picturesqueness, completed the view of green banks and vine covered hills lining the river and were full of interesting historical associations.

A postern gate was situated here, flanked by a tower on the river bank to defend the city from a water attack; this was called the Gate of Justice, and its name calls up painful and melancholy memories. Outside the walls at the end of a meadow beyond the moat was a small low church whose facade was frescoed with sad subjects. In this meadow was placed the gallows and executionary scaffold. The Gate of Justice was generally closed for the better security of the city and was only thrown open for the passage of religious companies accompanying condemned criminals to the place of execution.

The street through which they passed to the gate was very appropriately known as Via Malcontenti, (Street of the Discontented).


Via dei Malcontenti, Florence (c. 1880) by Telemaco Signorini.

In 1346 criminals condemned to death were brought to a chapel, still in existence, next to the church of San Giuseppe in Via Malcontenti were tied to an iron ring which may still be seen in the pavement, but afterwards the little church outside the walls was built for this last grim service. [If this artifact still exists, I would be indebted to anyone who can supply a picture of it. -ed.]

The church was used as a resting place where the penitent might offer his short and final prayer before being handed over to the executioner.

The victims’ bodies remained suspended on the gallows for days in order to act as a wholesome warning to all evil disposed persons, but the Florentines, who must have their little joke even on the most solemn subjects, called these meadows which formerly belonged to the Nemi family, the paretaio of the Nemi (bird-catching place of the Nemi).

The gate of Justice was walled up during the great siege, and after that the lugubrious procession passed through the Porta alla Croce. In our times traces of this gate, partly buried in the raised soil, could still be seen previous to the destruction of the old walls and above it the hole through which every defensive missile might be hurled on attacking parties below.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,Florence,History,Italy,Lynching,Public Executions

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1686: Paskah Rose, Jack Ketch interregnum

2 comments May 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1686, the English executioner Paskah (or Pascha) Rose was hanged at Tyburn for burglary — by his predecessor and his successor, the famed hangman Jack Ketch.

(c) image from Peter Herring, used with permission. Also see this illustration

The “Jack Ketch” character from a Punch and Judy puppet show: traditionally, Punch gets the better of their meeting and hangs Jack Ketch.

The Irish immigrant Ketch is the first name in English executioners. Indeed, you can call any of his successors right down to Pierrepoint a “Jack Ketch” and be perfectly understood.

The immediate successor, however, was Ketch’s own assistant — who inherited top billing after Ketch went to jail for “affronting” a sheriff.

Jack Ketch had been trodding the scaffold-boards, hanging, beheading, and drawing-and-quartering for two-plus decades at that point: he’s thought to have been appointed in 1663, and he’d inserted himself into those performances rather more prominently than an executioner ought by botching some of Restoration England’s most high-profile executions.

There’s little reliable information about these early executioners, but it seems Ketch’s reputation for clumsiness had forced him to issue an “Apologie” justifying himself.

But the man unquestionably had longevity in his favor, which is more than Paskah Rose could say.

Within months of becoming the chief London executioner, Rose and another man were chased down in the act of burgling clothes from a house, “the Goods found in Rose’s Breeches.”

Rose and his co-defendant Edward Smith accordingly hanged along with three others at Tyburn this date — by Jack Ketch, now returned from his carceral retirement for one last tour.

Ketch died late that same year of 1686, but has lived on in any number of ballads, doggerels and broadsides immortalizing the name. He was surely aided in this by the less impressive caliber of many who succeeded him: it wasn’t long after Ketch dispatched Pascha Rose that another “Jack Ketch” — an ignoble profession that wouldn’t until centuries hence be drawn from the country’s respectable classes — also met Pascha Rose’s same fate.

There’s a now-public-domain Autobiography of Jack Ketch by 19th century English writer Charles Whitehead.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executioners,Hanged,History,Language,Mass Executions,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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1938: Yakov Peters, Siege of Sidney Street survivor

1 comment April 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1938, a Soviet purge claimed (among others*) Yakov (Jacob) Peters, former Cheka executioner and once the subject of a headline-grabbing trial in England.

Peters was a trusted (and ruthless) operator in the Soviet internal police from the start of the Revolution: he helped interrogate Lenin‘s would-be assassin Fanya Kaplan in 1918.

And he was the guy Trotsky had on speed-dial when Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was arrested by the Left SRs during their abortive 1918 uprising against their erstwhile revolutionary allies, the Bolsheviks.**

Dzerzhinsky was disarmed and locked in a room. his assistant, M.I. Latsis, was captured in the Cheka Lubianka headquarters. “No point in taking him anywhere, put this scum against the wall!” shouted a sailor, but one of the leaders, Alexandrovich, intervened, saying, “There is no need to kill, comrades; arrest him, but do not kill.” Dzerzhinsky’s assistant Yakov Peters was urgently summoned by Trotsky, who ordered him to crush the uprising by attacking the Left Eser headquarters. Alexandrovich was caught at a railway station, and Latsis, whom he had saved from execution, personally shot him. Mass executions in Cheka prisons followed. (Source)

Like a lot of old Bolsheviks, Peters’s early service to the cause didn’t age too well. He ran afoul of some bureaucratic intrigue or point of party discipline or other and caught a bullet in 1938. (Khrushchev rehabilitated him.)

For anyone in England watching the fate of this distant apparatchik, the proximity to bloodbaths would have had a familiar hue.

Peters was one of a gang of Latvian revolutionaries who came to cinematic public attention in London when, in the course of being rounded up for a December 1910 murder, they engaged the police in a stupendous East End firefight on January 2, 1911 — the Siege of Sidney Street. (It’s also known as the Battle of Stepney.)

Armed like soldiery, the Latvians easily outgunned the bobbies who had them hemmed into a cul-de-sac, and they fired on John Law with ruthless effect. This necessitated a call to the Scots Guard — whose deployment was okayed by Home Secretary Winston Churchill, the latter captured on film that day awkwardly milling about the scene of the urban combat.


(Translated directly to the city’s cinemas as soon as that same evening, Churchill’s image came in for public catcalls owing to his support for a relatively open immigration policy for eastern Europeans.)

This incident was a landmark in crime, policing, media — recognizably modern in its trappings of nefarious immigrant terrorists, politicized state funerals for policemen, and of course, the live-on-the-scenes camera work.

Since Britain was a ready hand with the noose at this time, one might think an execution would have been just the denouement.

However, responsibility for the policememen slain in the affray had been officially assigned to a different gang member, George Gardstein — who was killed when the besieged house burned down — and there was little usable evidence against those who were finally put on trial for the gang’s various crimes. Most of the witnesses were dead, fled, or completely unreliable, so the surviving Latvians all walked.

(Since the identity of one of the first guys to start shooting when the police rang always remained murky, there are some theories — such as in this out-of-print book — that Peters himself had been one of the gunmen on-site, and/or that he could be identified with the absconded and never-captured gang leader “Peter the Painter”.)

Whatever the exact measure of blood on Yakov Peters’s hands from Sidney Street, there would be a lot more where it came from.

While Peters went off to his different fate in revolutionary Russia, the dramatic scene he left behind has naturally attracted continuing retrospective attention in England. The testimony of witnesses, who also recollect the shootout’s anti-immigrant fallout, is preserved in this BBC Witness radio program:

[audio:http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/worldservice/witness/witness_20110127-0950a.mp3]

And, on this BBC Four television special:

* e.g., Russian Civil War officer Nikolay Gikalo and Romanian Jewish revolutionary Leon Lichtblau.

** And in favor of resuming Russia’s ruinous involvement in World War I!

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Executioners,History,Lithuania,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,The Worm Turns

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1977: Girma Kebede in the Ethiopian Red Terror

Add comment April 2nd, 2011 Headsman

There’s a reason why “may you live in interesting times” is a curse.

The eras we call a “Terror” — Stalin’s Russia, Robespierre‘s France, Pol Pot’s Cambodia — are pretty interesting.

Ethiopia in the mid-1970’s was one of the most interesting places in the world.

After the Derg, a shadowy committee of leftist officers, toppled the monarchy in 1974, factional violence between Ethiopia’s two main Marxist parties soon came to the fore.

Long story short, All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement (MEISON) backed the Derg — while its rival the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) denounced it as fascistic.

And when Mengistu assumed dictatorial power in February 1977, it was Red Terror on.

It was as dirty as it sounds, “one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by the state ever witnessed in Africa” according to Human Rights Watch. This was the context of Mengistu’s most notorious public appearance, at an Addis Ababa rally later this same month of April 1977 when he theatrically smashed bottles of (apparently) blood while inciting his supporters against “enemies.”

Now that is red terror.

The Derg-MEISON alliance* built up Kebeles, small neighborhood militias — “essentially a matter of arming the lumpenproletariat against members of the urban intelligentsia,” writes Christopher Clapham.

But even these MEISON-allied goon squads were liable to run afoul of revolutionary justice if their indiscriminate mayhem failed to discriminate at the most essential moment.

On two occasions, March and again in May 1977, house-to-house searches were carried out in Addis Ababa, and suspected EPRP members rounded up for execution. Attempts by the EPRP to launch a school strike were likewise countered by the execution of students who failed to attend classes. The press regularly reported the execution of ‘anarchists’ and ‘paid assassins’. Along with the conflict between the rival political factions went the settling of personal scores, and gratuitous killings by psychotics on either side. The most notorious of these, Girma Kebede, was a Meison kebelle chairman in the Arat Kilo area of Addis Ababa, and the well-educated son of a former high official; he overreached himself by taking away for execution a group of ‘reactionaries’ from the Ministry of Education who included Mengistu’s uncle, and was then shot on the charge of seeking ‘to alienate the people from the Government and incite the broad masses against the revolution’.

On this date in 1977, Girma Kebede paid the forfeit. His, er, strategy of killing scores of humans to alienate the people from the government would take many more years and bodies to succeed.

* Later that year, the Derg-MEISON alliance also fell apart, Mengistu cemented his power, and MEISON got the same treatment it had once meted out to its EPRP enemies.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Ethiopia,Execution,Executioners,History,Political Expedience,Power,Shot,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1968: Lin Zhao, martyr poet

8 comments April 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1968, a “rightist” student whose critique of the Cultural Revolution was not blunted by the rigors of imprisonment was informed that her jail sentence had been changed to execution — which was immediately imposed at Shanghai’s Longhua Airport.

Utterly obscure at her death, Lin Zhao’s memory was tended by those closest to her, passed down like samizdat to latterly emerge out of Mao’s shadow.

An impassioned young intellectual at Peking University and a dedicated Communist with an irrepressible sense of justice, Lin Zhao once called Mao the “red star in my heart” and actually supervised the execution of a landlord during the country’s land reform push in the early 1950s.

But she also refused to temper or retract her criticisms of China’s path when the government abruptly reversed its brief flirtation with pluralism.

In 1960, after circulating a petition for fallen Communist (but not orthodox Maoist) Marshal Peng Dehuai, Lin was arrested, and eventually sentenced to a 20-year term.

It is here that the judicious person discovers the error of her ways, and accepts such terms as she can make for herself.

Not Lin Zhao.

Lin kept writing. Poetry, political manifestos, letters to the newspaper — hundreds of thousands of “reactionary” words. When they took away her ink, she opened her veins and wrote in blood.

By the end, official maltreatment and Lin’s own hunger strikes had wasted her away to less than 70 pounds. She was literally plucked from her prison hospital bed on this date by soldiers who drug her (gagged) to a show trial and execution. But like Marshal Peng, she never bent.

“Better to be destroyed,” she told her doctor, “than give up one’s principles.” (He’s quoted in Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China.)

Somehow, many of her hematic scribblings (saved by the prison, for possible use against her down the road) were smuggled out to her loved ones.* Somehow, they made their way to filmmaker Hu Jie, who put Lin Zhao back on the cultural map with the banned but well-received 2004 documentary Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (or In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul).

This movie can actually be seen in its entirety in 10-minute installments on YouTube as of this writing.

Lin Zhao was posthumously exonerated by a Shanghai court in 1981. Despite Hu Jie’s efforts, she is still little known in her country, or abroad.

Phosphorescent green light never goes out
And lighting up souls every night
Preserving the soul
Letting go the crippled body
Burning into ashes in misfortune
Someday with a red flower on the head
Recognizing the blood stains
Just as copying a bright red flower
Impossible to paint the real color

One of Lin Zhao’s poems, inscribed on her tomb

* Stanford’s Hoover Institution also holds a collection of Lin Zhao papers.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Shot,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1682: Alexander Cockburn, hangman, condemned

Add comment January 16th, 2010 Headsman

Domestic annals of Scotland: from the reformation to the revolution (reporting an item initially recorded by Lord Fountainhall):

1682. Jan. 16. Alexander Cockburn,* the hangman of Edinburgh, was tried before the magistrates as sheriffs, for the murder, in his own house, of one Adamson or Mackenzie, a blue-gown beggar. The proof was slender, and chiefly of the nature of presumption — as, that he had denied Adamson’s being in his house on the alleged day, the contrary being proved, groans having been heard, and bloody clothes found in the house; and this evidence, too, was chiefly from women. Yet he was condemned to be hanged within three suns. One Mackenzie, whom Cockburn had caused to lose his place of hangman at Stirling, performed the office.

Condemned by the evidence of women. How much worse can it get?

There is no report I have been able to locate of Cockburn’s actual hanging date; the “within three suns” sentence was standard for the time.

In days of yore, (says Aubrey) lords and gentlemen lived in the country like petty kings, had jura regalia belonging to the seignories, had castles and boroughs, had gallows within their liberties, where they would try, condemn, and execute; never went to London but in parliament time, or once a year to do homage to the king. Justice was administered with great expedition, and too often with vindictive severity. Pennant informs us that “originally the time of trial and execution was to be within three suns!” About the latter end of the seventeenth century** the period was extended to nine days after sentence; but since a rapid and unjust execution in a petty Scottish town, 1720,† the execution has been ordered to be deferred for forty days on the south, and sixty on the north side of the Tay, that time may be allowed for an application to the king for mercy.

* Not to be confused with barrister Alexander Cockburn (we’ve already met him) … nor, of course, with the late acerbic journalist.

** Specifically, 1695 — well after our day’s hangman had turned hanged man.

† This picturesque over-hasty execution detail appears to me to be folklorish and of questionable reliability. The bottom footnote here attributes the legal change to a cracking yarn about a dancing-master and an officer (here’s the broadside). This source puts it down to a man who committed murder while drunk and was caught, tried, and hanged before he so much as sobered up.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland,Uncertain Dates

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1947: Shigematsu Sakaibara, “I obey with pleasure”

12 comments June 18th, 2009 Headsman

In the evening of June 18, 1947,* six convicted Japanese war criminals were hanged** by the U.S. Navy War Crimes Commission on Guam.


An unidentified Japanese prisoner ascends the gallows on Guam.

The most lastingly notable of the six was Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara, who was hanged for ordering (and perhaps in one instance, personally conducting) an infamous mass execution on Wake Island that has already appeared in these pages.

According to Judgment at Tokyo:

For some, the hanging of one of these six men had been a horrible tragedy and perhaps even a mistake. Rear Adm. Shigematsu Sakaibara had enjoyed the reputation of “gentleman soldier” and protector of the common man. Hailing from a wealthy family near Misawa in Tohokhu province, some 450 miles north of Tokyo, Sakaibara never forgot his roots. Forever poking fun at the fast-paced Tokyo lifestyle, the rear admiral touted the value of rural living, the integrity and honesty of those who lived in Japan’s rugged north country, and Tokyo’s need to recognize their great contributions to the war effort. Contemplating a postwar political future, he would be following in the footsteps of his politically influential family in northern Japan. That future was linked to championing the rights of returning veterans and other have-nots. Misawa had indeed had a heroic reputation as an important navy town and base for years. Sakaibara had assisted in the training exercises held there for the Pearl Harbor attack plan in late 1941. His future seemed golden no matter who won the war. But what some in his command called “The 1943 Incident” changed all that.


Shigematsu Sakaibara (right foreground) surrendering Wake Island on September 4, 1945.

These events, Sakaibara admitted in his trial, had taken place in an atmosphere of near starvation and impending doom. The defense counsel especially emphasized that point, asking the commission to understand and respect the pressures and strains on Sakaibara at the time of the incident. But the commission was not in a forgiving mood. In the chaos of retreat or not, innocent civilians had been murdered.

… Unfortunately for Sakaibara, several members of his former command expressed surprise on the witness stand when asked about the desperate situation on Wake in 1943. These men insisted that Sakaibara and his defense team’s description of a starving, chaotic Wake was an exaggerated one. There had been no unexpected miseries, confusion, or sense of peril, they said. Sakaibara’s fate was sealed.

True to form, defendant Sakaibara offered a very literate final statement to the commission. In contrast to so many of his colleagues on trial in Tokyo, on Guam, or elsewhere, Sakaibara, albeit with carefully picked words, admitted he was guilty of rash and unfortunate actions. He appeared especially convincing when he noted that he wished he had never heard of Wake Island. But his most memorable comments involved his own view of morality in war. A nation that drops atom bombs on major cities, the rear admiral explained, did not have the moral authority to try so many of his countrymen. With Hiroshima and Nagasaki in mind, Sakaibara claimed there was little difference between himself and the victors over Japan. With that statement a legend grew, particularly in his home town, of Sakaibara, the victim of American revenge.

… As late as the 1990s, some people there, not necessarily of the World War II generation, still bowed in reverence to Sakaibara family members out of respect for the “sacrificed” gentleman soldier.

His last words:

I think my trial was entirely unfair and the proceeding unfair, and the sentence too harsh, but I obey with pleasure.

* Some sources places the executions on June 19; the U.P. wire story, dated June 19th, referred to the hangings occurring “last night,” and the preponderance of evidence I have been able to locate appears to me to support the 18th rather than the 19th.

** An interesting bit of interservice-rivalry color on proceedings in Guam, courtesy of Prisoners of the Japanese:

The United States Navy had hanged fewer than a handful of men in more than a hundred years … Now on Guam they had all kinds of Japanese to try and sentence to death … They had to requisition an Army executioner to show them how to hang. He was a lieutenant with silver-rimmed glasses, a leading-man moustache, and a paunch. He used the traditional British drop formula, but he was an innovator as well: He invented a method of lowering the dead body to the stretcher without having to cut the rope.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,Famous Last Words,Guam,Hanged,History,Japan,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Soldiers,USA,War Crimes,Wrongful Executions

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!