Posts filed under 'Famous'

1940: Udham Singh, Jallianwala Bagh massacre avenger

Add comment July 31st, 2018 Headsman

A national revenge drama 21 years in the making culminated on the gallows of Pentonville Prison on this date in 1940.

The story of Udham Singh‘s hanging begins long before and far away in the British Raj.

There, a crowd of 20,000-25,000 protesting for independence in the restive Punjab city of Amritsar were wantonly fired upon by Raj authorities — an atrocity remembered as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. British authorities acknowledged a staggering 379 dead; Indian accounts run much higher than that.

The massacre’s principal immediate author was the army commander Reginald Dyer, who fired on the crowd without warning and with so much premeditation as to bar exits from the Jallianwala Bagh garden for maximum bloodshed — his acknowledged intent “not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.” but Punjab Lieutenant Governor Michael O’Dwyer, for many years a noted rough hand in the suppression of national militancy on the subcontinent, had his back. “Your action correct,” read an O’Dwyer-to-Dyer telegram on the morrow of the bloodbath. “Lieutenant Governor approves.”

British opinion was not quite so approving; indeed, many Britons were outraged and both Dyer and O’Dwyer ended up sacked. But as is usual for a horror perpetrated under the flag they also never faced any sort of punishment.

Until Udham Singh, avenger, entered the scene.

A survivor of that horrific day — when he’d been dispatched from the orphanage that raised him to serve drinks to the protesters — Singh had unsurprisingly thrilled to the revolutionary cause. A Sikh by birth, the name he adopted, Ram Mohammed Singh Azad, gestures to his movement’s now-remote spirit of unity across sect and nation.

Come 1934 Singh had made his way to London, where he worked as an engineer and quietly plotted revenge against O’Dwyer, pursuant to a vow he had taken many years before. (Dyer escaped justice in this world by dying in 1927.) And on March 13, 1940, he had it when the retired colonial hand addressed a joint meeting of the East India Association and the Royal Central Asian Society at Caxton Hall. As proceedings concluded, Singh produced a concealed pistol and fired six shots at the hated O’Dwyer, killing him on the spot.

Like many (not all) of his countrymen, Singh gloried in his long-awaited triumph in the few weeks remaining him.

I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him. For full 21 years, I have been trying to seek vengeance. I am happy that I have done the job. I am not scared of death. I am dying for my country. I have seen my people starving in India under the British rule. I have protested against this, it was my duty. What greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?

Many countrymen shared his exultation, even if those in respectable leadership positions had to disapprove of assassination. Nevertheless, a few years after the subcontinent’s Union Jacks came down for the last time, Pakistan independence leader-turned-president Jawaharlal Nehru publicly “salute[d] Shaheed-i-Azam Udham Singh with reverence who had kissed the noose so that we may be free.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,India,Martyrs,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Pakistan,Revolutionaries,Wartime Executions

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1942: Nikola Vaptsarov, Bulgarian poet

Add comment July 23rd, 2018 Headsman

Poet Nikola Vaptsarov was shot on this date in 1942 for organizing anti-fascist resistance in Axis Bulgaria.

A communist machinist — the Varna naval academy where he learned engineering is now named for him* — Vaptsarov — Vaptsarov was a proper proletarian poet who only ever versified on the side.

Nevertheless, he was well-known in his time and remains so to this day in Bulgaria, particularly given his political bona fides and martyrdom thereto, which bear ready comparison to Spanish Civil War martyr Frederico Garcia Lorca.


Spain

What were you to me?
Nothing.
A land forgotten and remote,
a land of knights and high plateaux.
What were you to me?
The hearth
where blazed a strange and cruel love,
a wild intoxicant
of blood,
of glinting blades
and serenades,
of passion,
jealousy
and psalms.

Now you are my destiny,
now I live and share your fate.
In your struggle to be free
wholly I participate.

Now I’m stirred, now I rejoice
at all your victories in the fight.
In your youth and strength I trust
and my own strength with yours unite.

Crouching in machine-gun nests,
I fight on to victory,
down among Toledo’s streets,
on the outskirts of Madrid.

A worker in a cotton shirt
torn by bullets near me lies,
Ceaselessly the warm blood streams
from the cap pulled o’er his eyes.

It is my blood that I feel humming
through my veins, as suddenly
in him I recognize the friend
I once knew in a factory

where we shoveled coal together,
stoking the same furnace fire,
and found there was no barrier
to check our young and bold desire.

Sleep, my comrade, sleep in peace!
Though now the blood the blood-red flag be furled,
your blood into mine will pass
and stir the peoples of the world.

The blood you gave, already flows
through village, factory, town and state,
arouses, urges and inspires
all working men to demonstrate.

That workers never will lose heart,
but will advance relentlessly,
determined both to work and fight
and shed their blood that men be free.

Today your blood builds barricades,
infuses courage in our hearts,
and with a reckless joy proclaims:
‘Madrid is ours!
Madrid is ours!’

The world is ours! Friend, have no fear!
The whole expanding universe
its ours!
Beneath the southern sky
sleep
and have faith,
have faith in us!

-Vaptsarov

Vaptsarov published his lone book, Motor Songs, in 1940, which was the same year he was interned demonstrating against Bulgaria’s tenuous neutrality and in favor of alliance with the USSR. A few months after his release, the Third Reich forced Bulgaria into the Axis. A member of the Central Military Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Vaptsarov was arrested for doing just the sort of things that such a committee would be doing in 1942.

A Selected Poems volume of his was published posthumously; it can be enjoyed free here.** Perhaps the most moving entry is the very last one, a short composition dedicated to his wife just hours before his execution.

On Parting

To my wife

Sometimes I’ll come when you’re asleep,
An unexpected visitor.
Don’t leave me outside in the street,
Don’t bar the door!

I’ll enter quietly, softly sit
And gaze upon you in the dark.
Then, when my eyes have gazed their fill,
I’ll kiss you and depart.

The fight is hard and pitiless.
The fight is epic, as they say.
I fell. Another takes my place —
Why single out a name?

After the firing squad — the worms.
Thus does the simple logic go.
But in the storm we’ll be with you,
My people, for we loved you so.

2 p.m. — 23.VII.1942

* You’ll also find the man’s tribute on the frigid slopes of Vaptsarov Peak on the Antarctic Livingston Island. More accessibly, there are museums to him in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia as well as Vaptsarov’s hometown of Bansko.

** Some other sites with Vaptsarov poems: here and here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Bulgaria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1798: Father John Murphy, Wexford Rebellion leader

Add comment July 2nd, 2018 Headsman

Catholic priest John Murphy was executed on this date in 1798 for his part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.


The Black 47 jam “Vinegar Hill” celebrates Father Murphy, imagining him confronting and embracing the choice to rebel …

I return to my prayers
And reflect upon Your tortured lips
But not a word do I hear
Just a veil of silence around the crucifix
And I remember the Bishop’s words
“When faith is gone, all hope is lost”
Well, so be it
I will rise up with my people
And to hell with the eternal cost!

An exemplar of that rare type persuadable to follow his moral commitments all the way out of the safety of a status quo sinecure, Father Murphy initially eschewed the trend towards armed rebellion in 1798.

This outbreak was itself a response to a violent martial law-backed campaign of repression to crush Ireland’s growing United Irishmen movement for self-rule, republicanism, and Catholic emancipation — each of them scarlet fighting words to the Crown. The risings that finally broke out had only scanty success, weakened as they were by months of arrests.

By far the strongest rising occurred in Wexford, so much so that the Wexford Rebellion is nearly metonymous for the Irish Rebellion as a whole. And our man, John Murphy, was a priest in Wexford Town.

Giving due heed to Ecclesiastes, Murphy pivoted quickly from his previous counsel that prospective rebels surrender their arms once he saw an enemy patrol gratuitously torch some homes, a decision that would immortalize his name at the cost of greatly shortening his life.

During the brief existence of the Wexford Republic, the padre surprisingly became one of its prominent combat commanders, and also one of the signal martyrs after the rebels were shattered at the Battle of Vinegar Hill on June 21, 1798.*

Murphy escaped that tragic battlefield only to have his remnant definitively routed a few days later.

He had only a few days remaining him at that point, days of hiding out with his bodyguard, James Gallagher. At last they were captured at a farm on July 2, and subjected that same day to a snap military tribunal and execution delayed only by the hours required to torture him.

After hanging to death, Murphy was decapitated so that the British could mount his head on a pike as a warning.

This 1798 rebellion they were able to crush, but Murphy has survived into legend. He flashes for only an instant in the sweep of history, springing almost out of the very soil into the firmament as an allegory of revolutionary redemption, brandishing together (as Black 47 puts it above) both his missal and his gun.


The ballad “Boolvague” by Patrick Joseph McCall for the 1898 centennial of the rebellion pays tribute to Father Murphy:

At Vinegar Hill o’er the River Slaney
our heroes vainly stood back to back
And the yeos of Tullow took Father Murphy
and burned his body upon the rack
God grant you glory brave Father Murphy
and open heaven to all your men
The cause that called you may call tomorrow
in another fight for the Green again.

* There was a “Second Battle of Vinegar Hill” … comprising Irishmen but not in Ireland, for it was a convict rebellion in Australia in 1804. One of its leaders, Phillip Cunningham, was a survivor of the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1661: Archibald Campbell

Add comment May 27th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1661, Presbyterian lord Archibald Campbell, the first Marquess of Argyll, lost his head at Edinburgh.

Once a privy councilor to King Charles I, “Red Argyll” had been in the 1640s a great champion of Scottish national liberty and a leader of the Presbyterians in the many-sided wars that tore apart the British Isles.

Scotland’s Presbyterians — who favored bottom-up church governance as opposed to the crown-controlled selection of bishops that’s known as episcopacy — made an initial alliance with English Parliamentarians to support one another in their mutual hostilities with King Charles I. And in Scotland’s civil war in the mid-1640s, Argyll’s Presbyterians defeated the Earl of Montrose‘s royalists.

But the failure of Oliver Cromwell‘s similarly victorious Parliament to deliver on its covenant fractured the Presbyterian party and drove Argyll to the political sideline.

Argyll’s own opposition to other Presbyterians’ attempted engagement with the imprisoned Charles I became untenable when, to the horror of his countrymen, Charles was beheaded by Parliament. As his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography notes, Charles’s execution “completely upset his calculations, which had all along been founded on a close union between the parliaments of Scotland England … the results of his safe and prudent policy were ruthlessly annihilated … [and] Argyll lost his presence of mind, and therefore his control of events in this stupendous conjuncture, and became as much a puppet in the hands of contending factions as was Charles II.” His growing ranks of foes derisively nicknamed him the “Glaed-Eyed Marquis”, attributing an obvious metaphorical import to his imperfect eyesight.

“Myself encountered so many difficulties that all remedies that were applied had the quite contrary operation,” he later wrote of those years when his influence waned. “[I was] a distracted man of a distracted subject in a distracted time wherein I lived.” It did not wane all at once: Argyll had the honor of crowning King Charles II at Scone on the first of January, 1651, and even tested the king with dynastic marriage inquiries for his daughter. (No dice.)

But as events ran away from him he fell into debt, disgrace, and irrelevancy.

When Charles II resumed the throne in 1660, Argyll presented himself at the court of his would-be father-in-law, and was surprised to find himself immediately thrown in the Tower. Like the Presbyterian cause itself, he was permanently and tragically alienated from both factions of the English Civil War: Cromwell always suspected Argyll a royalist for that whole crowning-the-king thing, and Charles always resented Argyll for his part in the destruction of his father.

The Glaed-Eyed Marquis found himself shipped off to Edinburgh to stand trial for treason. Although records of the trial are lost, it’s said that he was on the verge of total acquittal when Cromwell’s former commander in Scotland, George Monck, delivered a packet of incriminating letters. This story might be apocryphal but Argyll lost his head all the same, on Edinburgh’s distinctive Maiden.

Peruse here Argyll’s tart and downright comical last will and testament, satirizing many of the surviving figures of the day and bidding his heirs to lay his body “so shallow, that at the next trump of sedition, it may by the same raise-devil directory [i.e., Parliament] be conjured up again, and meet my exalted head, that bound-mark of Presbytery, its ne plus ultra, ‘Hitherto shall you go and no further.'”


Memorial to Archibald Campbell in Edinburgh’s St Giles’ Cathedral with the epitaph “I set the Crown on the King’s Head. He hastens me to a better Crown than his own.” (cc) image from Kim Traynor.

Argyll’s son and heir, also named Archibald Campbell, was himself executed in 1685 for organizing a Scottish “Argyll’s Rising” against King James II in alliance with the Duke of Monmouth. Their descendants still maintain the rank of Duke of Argyll to this day.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Gallows Humor,History,Maiden,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland,Treason

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1863: Zygmunt Padlewski, January Uprising rebel

Add comment May 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1863, Zygmunt Padlewski was shot for rebelling against the Russian empire.

A young St. Petersburg-trained tsarist officer with a patriotic bent — his father had taken part in the November [1830] Uprising against Russian domination — Padlewski (English Wikipedia entry | German | the surprisingly least detailed Polish) spent the early 1860s organizing revolutionary exiles in Paris.

He then put his neck where his mouth was by returning to Warsaw to agitate and, eventually, to assume the leadership of Polish rebels in that area during his own generation’s doomed revolution, the January [1863] Uprising.

Padlewski’s carriage was detained at a checkpoint when he tried to sneak back to Warsaw after a defeat, and his too-liberal bribes excited the suspicion of the Cossack sentries — who searched the traveler and discovered they had a man well worth the capturing.

He was shot at Plock, where a street and a school today bear his names (numerous other cities around Poland also honor Padlewski).

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1974: Leyla Qasim, Bride of Kurdistan

Add comment May 12th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1974, Kurdish activist Leyla Qasim was hanged by the Ba’ath regime in Baghdad.

A middle daughter among four brothers from the heavily Kurdish Khanaqin district, Qasim joined the Kurdish Student Union as a student at Baghdad University in the early 1970s.

The Iraqi government had fought a running war against Kurdish rebels throughout the 1960s, resolved only by a tenuous truce; by the spring of 1974 armed conflict began again.

Visible Kurdish activists living right in the capital became a natural target.

Qasim and four male companions were arrested in late April, accused of plotting against Iraq (various accounts have this down to a hijacking scheme or a cogitating the murder of Saddam Hussein). They were tortured, condemned in a televised trial, and executed together.

She purportedly gave her family the last words of a proper martyr: “I am going to be [the] Bride of Kurdistan and embrace it.”

She’s still regarded as a Kurdish heroine and many families confer her name on their daughters.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Iraq,Kurdistan,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions,Women

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1864: Utuwankande Sura Saradiel, Ceylon social bandit

Add comment May 7th, 2018 Headsman

Ceylon social bandit Utuwankande Sura Saradiel (or Sardiel) was hanged by the British on this date in 1864.

Saradiel fled a barracks servant’s life to take the road as a bandit. He’s alleged to have gallantly shared his proceeds with the poor; what he unquestionably did was tweak the tail of the powerful (and in this case, colonial) overlords. As is often the case with social bandits, it is difficult to know for certain whether it is for reason the latter that he enjoys the reputation of the former.

The indefatigable brigand was captured multiple times and made at least two escapes — inherently a winning public relations move — eventually maintaining himself from a picturesque mountain cavern and authoring throwback knight-of-the-road exploits to earn the nickname “Robin Hood of Ceylon”.*

Naturally, there is always a Sheriff of Nottingham.


Reward notice for the capture of our man, from the Ceylon Gazette of January 13, 1864.

Saradiel cinched his fate by shooting dead a constable in the course of his arrest. Considering that circumstance, we here at Executed Today are officially skeptical of the legend that a misplaced comma — “kill him, not let him go” when “kill him not, let him go” was intended — decided the man’s fate.

* The best one is that, having robbed from a father what he later learned to be the dowry for a bride-to-be, the robber found his victim again to return the sum, compounded by gambling winnings. Heart of gold, this guy!

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Outlaws,Public Executions,Sri Lanka,Theft

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1916: Not Constance Markievicz, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”

Add comment May 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1916, the British field court meting out death sentences to Irish Easter Rising rebels announced eighteen commutations — most notably including Countess Constance Markievicz.

Markievicz has long been one of the most remarkable and compelling personalities of the Irish independence struggle. As her biographer noted, many other women of that cause are best-known “mainly because of their connection with more famous men.” Markievicz, notably, “stood alone, self-driven and self-confident. She was more than a muse or an enabler or a facilitator, the preferred roles for women to play.”

She was the privileged daughter of a baronet turned polar explorer who came to her distinctive name by marrying a Polish nobleman.** In her girlhood, she’d been presented at court to Queen Victoria.

She trained as a painter and her material circumstances put within her reach that charmed state of comfortable avant-garde consciousness. The Countess gave that up, for Ireland. The abhorrence of the daughter of the Provost of Trinity College Dublin is perhaps her most definitive epitaph: “the one woman amongst them [Irish republicans] of high birth and therefore the most depraved … she took to politics and left our class.”

By the late 1900s and into the 1910s she was a mainstay of hydra-headed radicalism: nationalist, suffragist, socialist. (She was a close friend and comrade of James Connolly.) In those years she could have spent in a pleasant Left Bank garret, she walked picket lines, burned flags, faced arrest, and sold jewelry to fund the soup kitchen she worked in.†

Markievicz co-founded the Fianna Eireann youth organization as a response to Baden-Powell‘s imperial scouting project. It would become an essential feeder for the republican organs (like the Irish Volunteers); Fianna itself was also well-represented among the Easter Rising fighters, and contributed that conflagration’s youngest martyr.

Bust of Constance Markievicz on St. Stephen’s Green, where she served in the Easter Rising.

But for her sex Markievicz would probably have been among the martyrs herself for her role on the St. Stephen’s Green barricade, and perhaps she wished it were so; she greeted the news of her May 6 commutation with the retort, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” She’s been slated with having personally shot a constable during the Rising, although her defenders consider this a baseless smear.

While again in prison — she’d been amnestied from the Easter Rising stuff, but was arrested anew for anti-war activism — Markievicz successfully stood for election to Parliament, and in fact has the distinction of being the first woman elected a British M.P. … although she complied with Sinn Fein policy and refused to take the seat. She was also a member of the First Dail (parliament) of the revolutionary Irish Republic and was the first Irish female cabinet minister (Ministry of Labour).

Constance Markievicz died in 1927 at the age of 59, penniless in a public ward having disbursed the entirety of her wealth. A quarter-million of her fellow peoples of the Irish Free State thronged the streets of Dublin for her funeral.

* The other commutations (with their associated non-capital sentences) as published by the London Times of May 8, 1916:

Penal servitude for life. — Henry O’Hanrahan.

Ten years’ penal servitude. — Count George Plunkett, John Plunkett (his son).

Five years’ penal servitude. — Philip B. Cosgrave.

Three years’ penal servitude. — R. Kelly, W. Wilson, J. Clarke, J. Marks, J. Brennan, P. Wilson, W. Mechan, F. Brooks, R. Coleman, T. Peppard, J. Norton, J. Byrne, T. O’Kelly.

** It turned out that although Casimir Markievicz went by “Count Markievicz” there wasn’t actually any such title. But “Count” and “Countess” stuck nevertheless.

† She does perhaps forfeit some wokeness points for complaining of her post-Easter Rising imprisonment at Aylesbury that she was lodged with “the dregs of the population … no one to speak to except prostitutes who have been convicted for murder or violence. The atmosphere is the conversation of the brothel.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,History,Ireland,Nobility,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions,Women

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1825: El Pirata Cofresi

Add comment March 29th, 2018 Headsman

I have killed hundreds with my own hands, and I know how to die. Fire!

-Last words of Roberto Cofresi

A monument to Roberto Cofresi rises from the water in his native Cabo Rojo.

On this date in 1825, the Puerto Rican pirate Roberto Cofresi was publicly shot in San Juan with his crew.

The family of “El Pirata” — his father was an emigre who fled Trieste after killing a man in a duel — bequeathed him the upbringing and honorific (“Don”) due to a gentleman without any of the money. Dunned by multiplying creditors, he took to the sea to keep his finances afloat and for a time made a legitimate living in the late 1810s as a piscator and a ferryman. Soon, the crises in Puerto Rico’s economy and governance prodded him into more adventurous pursuits, beginning with highway robbery around his hometown of Cabo Rojo. Wanted posters testify to his landside notoriety; soon, he would combine his vocations as a buccanneer.

In his brief moment, about 1823-1825, he became one of the Caribbean’s most feared marauders, and one of the last consequential pirates to haunt those waters. His career plundering prizes and evading manhunts is recounted in surprising detail on the man’s Wikipedia page, which is in turn an extended summary of an out-of-print Spanish-language book. Given the development of maritime policing by this point it was an achievement to extend his career so long … but everyone has to retire, one way or another.


Norwich Courier, April 27, 1825

A proclamation issued justifying the execution testifies both to the example authorities wished to be understood by his fate, and their awareness that they contended with a strain of sympathy for the outlaw. This is as quoted in Southern Chronicle (Camden, South Carolina, USA), July 2, 1825:

The name of Roberto Cofresi has become famous for robberies and acts of atrocity, and neither the countryman, the merchant nor the laborer could consider himself secure from the grasp of that wretch and his gang. If you ought to pity the lot of these unhappy men, you are bound also to give thanks to the Almighty, that the island has been delivered from a herd of wild beasts, which have attempted our ruin by all the means in their power. You are also bound to live on the alert, and be prepared, in conjunction with the authorities to attack those who may hereafter be so daring as to follow their example.

His throwback profession, his acclaimed charisma, his talent for eluding pursuit, and a purported streak of Robin Hood-esque social banditry all helped to make him a legend that has long outlived the forgotten Spanish agents who hunted him. With his threat to the sea lanes long gone, he’s become a beloved staple of literature, folklore, and popular history in Puerto Rico and especially his native Cabo Rojo. Again, a lovingly curated Wikipedia page on this posthumous career awaits the curious reader.


Label for a Ron Kofresi-brand rum, which one might use to toast his memory with a piña colada: it’s a drink he’s alleged to have invented.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Mass Executions,Myths,Occupation and Colonialism,Outlaws,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,Puerto Rico,Shot,Spain

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Feast Day of St. Dismas, the penitent thief

1 comment March 25th, 2018 Headsman

March 25* is the feast date (per the Roman tradition) of the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus Christ.

“The Good Thief”, by Michelangelo Cerquozzi.

The Crucifixion — Christ flanked by the “bad thief” who taunts Him and the “good thief” who capes for the Messiah — is deeply planted in the western canon. All four of the Gospels refer to two thieves although it is not until Luke — chronologically the latest, and hence the most embroidered and least reliable, of the synoptic gospels — that these nameless extras are surfaced as contrasting archetypes of the damned and the saved.

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43)

This is as much as the New Testament has to offer on these characters, but the theme of the Savior’s redemption poured out to flesh-and-blood sinners at the hour of death had a powerful resonance for Christendom and would furnish a good thief cult down the centuries; topical for this site, said thief would headline countless execution sermons to the condemned. (Example) As Mitchell Merback puts it in The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

For suffering patiently and obediently, for his literal realization of the ideal of imitatio Christi, he is rewarded with the crown of martyrdom. The spectacle of his death, his ‘immediate beatitude’, was therefore consummately edifying: a beautiful death, redeemed and redeeming, not despite but because of the abjection that accompanied it. To the philopassianic late Middle Ages he served as a powerful inspiration for penitents. One could only wish to die so thoroughly cleansed of sin as the man in the image.

We have already seen how a similar wish obtained, individually and collectively, in the theatre of public punishments. Confessed and penitent convicts became, in the eyes of the people, the living counterparts of the historical martyrs and, consequently, the objects of a quasi-cultic veneration … Like his condemned counterparts in the Middle Ages, then, the Good Thief’s worthiness for redemption resided in part in the purity of his self-examination, confession and repentance … [and] also sprang directly from his fleshly pains. As both spectacle and image, the demolished body of the Penitent Thief constituted a sign of this soul’s lightning progress through purgation and towards redemption. Within the purview of a Christian ‘piety of pain’, his torments were both abject and redemptive, fearful and enviable, unbearable and fascinating.

For the Bad Thief, who in stubborn blindness turns away from Christ and dies in despair, unregenerate and damned, this surplus of earthly pain is something else: a foretaste of eternal torments. The same violent death transforms one Thief into a likeness of the Crucified, and hence a figure worthy of compassion, admiration and veneration; the other is marked as an everyday scapegoat, worthy of mockery and scorn. Together, then, the two figures, though marginal in the Passion narrative, become central in the medieval economy of response: they become antithetical models for a culture tuned to pain’s instrumentality in the pursuit of redemption.

In the language of the canvas, Christ gestures at that redemption by inclining his head to the right, towards the Good Thief, and didactic works will sometimes add a cherub retrieving this dying penitent’s soul whilst some infernal monster snatches the nasty one.


“Crucifixion” by Vitale da Bologna, circa 1335.

Both thieves attained their legendary names later in antiquity from the Gospel of Nicodemus, Dismas, Dysmas or Demas (the good one) and Gestas or Gesmas (the other one).** Other apocraphal texts build these two out like spinoffs in a blockbuster franchise; The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea gives us one bloodthirsty murderer and one proto-social bandit with a heavy dollop of anti-Semitism:†

The first, Gestas, used to strip and murder wayfarers, hang up women by teh feet and cut off their breasts, drink the blood of babes: he knew not God nor obeyed any law, but was violent form the beginning.

The other, Demas, was a Galilean who kept an inn; he despoiled the rich but did good to the poor, even burying them, like Tobit. He had committed robberies on the Jews, for he stole (plundered) the law itself at Jerusalem, and stripped the daughter of Caiaphas, who was a priestess of the sanctuary, and he took away even the mystic deposit of Solomon which had been deposited in the (holy) place.

And in a credulity-straining prequel, the Gospel of the Infancy stages a scene where these same two guys (as Titus and Dumachus) mug the Holy Family on the latter’s flight to Egypt only for the Good Thief in a spasm of conscience to call off the attack. Baby Jesus rewards his clemency with the depressing prophesy that they’ll all be crucified together.

Present-day namesakes of the penitent thief include the Christian rock band Dizmas, and Bill and Ted’s hometown of San Dimas, California.

* It shares a calendar date with the Feast of the Annunciation, which is the date that an angel informed the Virgin Mary of her miraculous pregnancy. (March 25 = Christmas Day minus nine months.) Medieval belief cottoned to the symmetry of the divine conception and the passion of the cross falling on the same day.

** The understood arrangement is that Dismas was crucified on Christ’s privileged right side. However, Merback notes that like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern these two halves of a whole are easily confused with one another, for “one of the surviving manuscripts containing the legend places Gestas on the right and Dysmas on the left; and several works discussed in these pages show the name ‘Gestas’ inscribed near the Thief on Christ’s right. Whether these are the outgrowths of a primitive literary tradition or the result of iconographic confusions or misappropriations is unclear.” As an example, in Conrad von Soest‘s Altarpiece from Bad Wildungen it appears that Dismas is the one bound for perdition:

† In The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea, damnation is explicitly framed as the fate of the Jews, with Christ assuring Dismas/Demas that “the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses shall be cast out into the outer darkness.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Israel,Myths,Palestine,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Theft,Uncertain Dates

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