Posts filed under 'Heads of State'

1842: Francisco Morazan, Central American statesman

Add comment September 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1842, church bells throughout Central America tolled in celebration of the death by firing squad of the great liberal statesman Francisco Morazan.

Morazan monuments litter Central America. Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez once claimed (he later backed away from it) that this equestrian job in Tegucigalpa, Honduras was actually a remaindered statue of Napoleonic general Michel Ney.

The self-educated soldier and politician rose to helm the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America after it broke free of Spain (and a brief hitch with Mexico) but before it splintered into Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica.

After beating conservative forces in the field, Morazan forced upon them a slate of liberal reforms that had the knives out for him for a decade-plus: free speech, civil equality, separation of church and state guaranteed by the expulsion of clergy. As this patronizingly favorable biography from the late 19th century wrote,

His ambition was for the advancement and development of Central America; and while the means he used cannot be entirely approved, his purpose should be applauded. His crusade was quite as important in the civilization of this continent as the bloody work England attempted to accomplish in Egypt and the Soudan. He was better than his race, was far in advance of his generation …

Thanks, racist uncle.

Anyway, the Federal Republic fell apart in the late 1830s as its constituent statelets broke apart and the familiar conservatives-landowners-priests coalition started getting the upper hand on Morazan. After an 1842 landing that briefly established him as ruler of Costa Rica (he had also had shifts as the head of state of El Salvador and of Honduras), he overreached with an announcement for universal conscription to form an army that would reunite the Central American state.

“Posterity,” he said before the bullets felled him, “shall do us justice.”

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30 B.C.E: Caesarion, “Little Caesar”

8 comments August 27th, 2009 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

Like father like son … unfortunately, in this case.

It was around this date that Ptolemy XV Philopator Philometor Caesar, “Caesarion” to his pals, the son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, was put to death by orders of the autocratic Octavian.

Cleopatra and Caesarion walk like Egyptians at the temple of Dendera, Egypt.

Caesarion (“Little Caesar”) was the only known son of Julius Caesar. Octavian, whose claim to power proceeded from his status as Caesar’s adoptive son, became the Emperor Augustus after eliminating the dangerous rivalry of his “brother”.

While most of us at the age of three were putting Matchbox cars in our mouths and eating macaroni and cheese, little Ptolemy XV was co-ruler of Egypt with his famous mom. King in name only, he must have seen his mother still grieving because of Caesar’s assassination March 15, 44 B.C.

The little tyke, though born in Egypt, spent the first couple of years in Rome with Caesar and his mother. Then his dad was stabbed, repeatedly, and Cleopatra took the boy home to Egypt. Proclaimed “King of Kings,” little Caesarion couldn’t realize at his young age the power struggles roiling around him and his mother.

Indeed, things were a little tense outside the family home. (And inside.)

There was some wrestling going on, and not Greco-Roman. No, there were men who wanted power. Lots of power.

There was Mark Antony, Cleopatra’s lover and a Roman General. He was Julius Caesar’s second cousin.

There was the patrician Marcus Lepidus, Caesar’s, for lack of a better word, deputy dictator.

Then, the aforementioned Octavian (Julius Caesar was his great uncle).

Together, the three were the Second Triumvirate, a dream team of Roman political heavyweights. Supreme rule they had. Ambition, sometimes, makes a mess of things. Only one of the three would stand victorious at the end, and there’d be casualties, like Caesarion.

Lepidus was driven into exile to Circeii. At least he died peacefully years later, securely ensconced as the Triumvir You’re Most Likely To Forget.

Conflict between Octavian and Antony climaxed at the Battle of Actium, one of history’s signal events.* (Its anniversary is next week, September 2.)

Octavian won the battle.

Antony escaped to Egypt, but as Octavian’s legions closed in the following year, Antony committed suicide by stabbing himself with a sword. He died in Cleopatra’s arms. Cleopatra’s arms would be cold with death soon after when she committed her famous (supposed) suicide-by-asp on August 12, 30 B.C.


“Death of Cleopatra”, by Edmonia Lewis. (Commentary.)

Before the Queen died, she sent her son Caesarion away from the political tumult.

Now 17, Caesarion bolted to the Red Sea port city of Berenice. Things were looking bleak for the young man. Octavian controlled Alexandria in early August, annexing Egypt to the Roman Empire. Antony died. His mother died. His father had been dead most of his young life. And now Octavian — making an offer he couldn’t refuse — was asking for the lad, the closest living blood relation to Caesar, to come to Alexandria. He was to be spared. There was nothing to fear. Mercy would be heaped upon Caesarion.

It was not to be. “Two Caesars are too many,” Octavian declared … so Caesarion was subtracted. No documentation has been discovered about his death; because of his young age, it is thought he died of strangulation.

Octavian assumed absolute power, became known as Augustus, and died of illness August 19, AD 14. While Augustus, during his reign, was proclaimed a god by the Senate, Caesar’s only known son became a footnote in history, long dead and buried.

* More on the Battle of Actium here and here, and at this episode from the highly recommended The History of Rome podcast. -ed.

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406: Radagaisus the Barbarian

4 comments August 23rd, 2009 dogboy

Rome in the 5th Century was a difficult place for the general populace. The Roman Empire was at the front end of its long decline, and with its partitioning in 395 on the death of Theodosius I, a series of invasions was to follow that would shake confidence in the leadership of the Empire.

Possible etymological connection to the possibly proto-Slavic barbarian horde: hypothetical Slavic god Radegast lends his gnarly visage to a Czech beer — and maybe to a Tolkein character.

Much of the activity in Rome at the time was tied to the young Visigoth King Alaric. Alaric initially invaded the Eastern Roman Empire, but he was met with resistance in Greece. During negotiations, the de facto head of the Western Roman Empire,* Stilicho, who has been claimed by some sources to have been born a Visigoth, marched on the Goths and prepared to engage in what likely would have been Alaric’s downfall.

According to accounts, Stilicho was called out of the neighboring province of Illyricum, and Alaric, now unencumbered of the prospect of a Western reinforcement, marched through Greece.

But Stilicho would not sit still, and in 397, he brought his army against the Goths and forced them into a difficult spot in the mountains of Pholoe, in the southern prefecture of Illia. Alaric slipped away,** moving his forces north and setting his sights on the Western Roman Empire, starting in northeastern Italy, in 400 AD.

While Stilicho was engaged on this eastern front, the Ostrogoths, led by the commander Radagaisus, prepared for their own invasion. While history is uncertain as to how the series of events transpired, it is clear that Stilicho bested Alaric at Pollentia and Verona and, because of a budding camaraderie with the defeated commander, enjoyed a few years’ respite from the Gothic invaders. Which was useful, because the Roman army had shrunken to a point where even small defeats were extremely costly to the Empire.

So it was that, when Radagaisus invaded Italy in 405, Stilicho had nearly all his army in place. Radagaisus marched with 100,000 people (likely) to 400,000 people (highly unlikely), though a relatively small percentage of these were thought to be armed. His trail of terror displaced uncounted Romans as Radagaisus made his way through northern Italy.

Finally, at the start of the 406 campaign, Stilicho had mustered sufficient forces to assault the invaders. As Radagaisus blockaded Florence, Stilicho amassed his regulars and, fortified also with recalled frontier soldiers, massacred the opposition. The battle was decisive, with the Roman army starving out the invading hordes, and Radagasius apparently quickly losing control of his loose band of warriors.

Whether he was turned on by his own men, or whether the Romans simply overran their enemies after a period of famine, Radagasius eventually fled the battlefield and was captured at one of Stilicho’s outposts. On 23 August 406, the man who called himself King Radagasius was beheaded.† Many of his soldiers defected to the Roman army — joining a long line of conscripts from conquered people — and his supporting band was scattered or enslaved.

Like Alaric, Radagasius has sometimes been indicated as King of the Goths, but his history is a little more murky than that. Radagasius (or Rhodogast, or Radegast, depending on the source) issued from northern Germany before making his march. He had united several tribes under his banner, but he could hardly be said to rule any region. And because of the remoteness of Ostrogoth territories and the limited written history on the region, it’s difficult to assess his true nature.

* Stilicho was protector of the underage Honorius, who has been regarded as weak and incompetent. Honorius died in 423, long after Stilicho was murdered.

** Alaric and Stilicho may have been conspiring at this point: Stilicho again claimed to have been recalled from the battlefield, but, owing to their common heritage and their later connections in defense of the Empire, it’s thought that Stilicho was actively recruiting Alaric for military service in defense of Rome.

† “The death of the royal captive, who was ignominiously beheaded, disgraced the triumph of Rome and of Christianity,” sniffed Edward Gibbon.

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1864: Romuald Traugutt and the January Uprising leaders

Add comment August 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the leadership of Poland-Lithuania’s abortive January Uprising against the Russian tsar was hanged before 30,000 at Warsaw Citadel.


Romuald Traugutt depicted (somewhat ironically) on the 20-zloty note of Soviet bloc Poland.

Romuald Traugutt (English Wikipedia link | Polish) had been a decorated Lieutenant Colonel in the Tsarist army, and a heretofore apolitical man — but he resigned shortly after the outbreak of the doomed national uprising to take up sides against Russia.

This installment of the venerable Russians vs. Poles series was characteristically nasty.

In 1863 – Polonia by Jan Matejko, an allegory for the Polish nation is manacled by the Russians.

And it ended the way these affairs have ended these last 400 years or so: Russian victory.

The fallout was severe.

In addition to this day’s batch — Traugutt along with (all Polish Wikipedia links) Rafal Krajewski, Jozef Toczyski, Roman Zulinski and Jan Jezioranski — a further 391 were put to death after the war; tens of thousands were deported to Siberia or otherwise scattered in the vast Romanov empire; a war indemnity tax was imposed; and over three thousand estates in Poland and Lithuania were confiscated.

Traugutt has gained some latter-day support in the Catholic Church for beatification.

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1915: 167 Haitian political prisoners

7 comments July 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1915, Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam had his predecessor* Oreste Zamor, and 160 or so of his closest proximity, executed in Port-au-Prince.

Within hours, Sam himself was dead at the hands of an outraged mob — and Haiti on its way to 19 years of American military occupation.

Haiti in the 1910s was a dangerous place to aspire to political authority; Sam was the 7th different man to hold the presidency since 1911. Like many others, he gained it by force, and held it tenuously against rivals who planned to do likewise.

The hecatomb that did in Sam, who had been head of state for less than five months, was seemingly intended to shore himself up in the face of an advance upon Port-au-Prince by one Rosalvo Bobo — or else just done for the principle of the thing. Either way, it left a mess.

A few minutes after 4 a.m., Charles Oscar Etienne, the chief military officer of the Haitian government and a close friend of the President, hurried to the national prison, where ensued the bloody massacre of some 167 prisoners who were held only as political suspects without being even charged with any crime. Among the victims were members of the most prominent families of Haiti …

Stephen Alexis, one of the political prisoners who escaped death in the massacre, has testified before the claims commission that on the morning of the twenty-eighth [sic] of July he has awakened by the prisoner who shared his cell and told that there was firing in town. He heard shots being fired with increasing intensity, and at twenty minutes past four the sound of voices in the conciergerie and the order, “To arms, sound the bugle, prepare for action; fifteen men, forward march.” As the firing squad reached the first cell, Alexis heard Chocotte, the adjutant of the prison, say, “Fire close to the ground; a bullet in the head for each man,” and when the second cell was reached a loud voice cried, “Every one of the political prisoners must die. The arrondissement’s orders are that not one be left standing” …

Except for the very few who escaped by a miracle, the political prisoners were all slaughtered like cattle, their bodies slashed and horribly mutilated, limbs hacked off, the skulls of some of the corpses smashed in, and the bodies of others disembowelled …

The report of the claims commission says: “The barbarous act perpetrated in the prison in Port-au-Prince is all the more inexplicable in that it had no act of war for excuse. There had been no revolt in the interior of the prison. The prisoners were locked into their cells. The prison had not been attacked. The bureau of the arrondissement, which adjoined the prison, had not had to repulse any offensive on the part of the revolutionists. It was with appalling cold-bloodedness that Haitian officers, in whom military authority had been vested, to whom the care and security of the prisoners had been entrusted, perpetrated, with the assistance of their subordinates, the wholesale slaughter of July 27.”

An incensed mob invaded the French embassy (where Sam had taken refuge) and literally tore apart the president.

On July 28, marines from the American ship USS Washington landed in Port-au-Prince to do the usual restore-peace-and-freedom thing. (Greeted as liberators? Surprisingly, “Haitians Dislike[d] Landing of Marines”.)

As a happy side effect, the American occupation froze out French and German commercial interests who had made Haitian inroads, secured debt repayment from the bankrupt country, and allowed Washington to reorder its neighbor to its liking.

From 1915 to 1929 U.S. military tribunals made rulings on political cases. A treaty that provided for American control of customs and construction of roads, as well as supervision of schools and the constabulary, was approved by the Haitian legislature under threat that American troops would remain in the country. American officials dissolved the Haitian legislature when it refused to approve a new American-sponsored constitution, which was then ratified by a referendum supervised by the U.S. military.**

* Zamor was not Sam’s immediate predecessor; rather, Sam had deposed the man who had deposed Zamor.

** Filed under “everything old is new again,” here‘s the American chattering class circa 1921 making a familiar-sounding case for giving the occupation a few more Friedman units on behalf of the Haitian

people, all of whom, less the native ruling class, a small group, recognize the benefits of the American occupation and are grateful for the peace and security they now enjoy … The United States, [Admiral Knapp] says, has only made a start for the good of Haiti, and five years of healing occupation would be lost if the Americans withdrew.

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1867: Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, “Archdupe”

4 comments June 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1867, a firing squad disabused a Habsburg heir of his pretensions to the throne of Mexico.

A little bit loopy, a little bit liberal, and fatally short of common sense, Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph* decamped from the easy life at his still-under-construction dream palace outside Trieste for an exalted title that really meant playing catspaw for Napoleon III‘s Mexican land grab.

(To assuage the pangs of imperial adventurism upon our tender-headed hero, Maximilian had been “invited” to assume the Mexican throne by a convention handpicked to do just that.)

There the puppet emperor with the silver spoon in his mouth found himself pitted in civil war against the Amerindian peasant from the school of hard knocks: Benito Juarez, one of Mexico’s great liberal statesmen.

As the tide turned in favor of Juarez and the liberals, and Napoleon’s attention increasingly fixated on problems closer to home, the French threw in the towel.

But Maximilian had too much honor or too little sense to heed his patron’s advice to get out while the getting was good; sticking it out with “his people,” he was captured in May, 1867.

Juarez desiring to give any future bored European nobles second thoughts about New World filibustering, Maximilian got no quarter.**

While Louis Napoleon emceed a world’s fair on the other side of the planet, Maximilian was shot with two of his generals, Miguel Miramon and Tomas Mejia.


Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, showing an obvious compositional debt to Goya’s Executions of the Third of May. Further analysis: written English; video Spanish.

Maximilian’s widow Charlotte — “Carlota”, when trying to blend with her adoptive subjects — descended into a long-lived madness back in the Old World, but was rumored to have borne with one of Maximilian’s French officers an illegitimate child who would go on to become an infamous Vichy collaborator.

Books about Emperor Maximilian

This sensational affair attracted plenty of coverage in the ensuing years; as a result, there is a good deal of topical material from near-contemporaries now in the public domain. Maximilian in Mexico: A Woman’s Reminisces of the French Intervention 1862-1867 (Gutenberg | Google Books) is a zippy read.

* Brother to Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.

** Spanish trial records are here. European appeals for clemency poured in, but Maximilian had doomed himself with the “Black Decree” of 1865, ordering summary executions of captured Republicans.

The time for indulgence has gone by: it would only encourage the despotism of bands of incendiaries, of thieves, of highwaymen, and of murderers of old men and defenseless women.

The government, strong in its power, will henceforth be inflexible in meting out punishment when the laws of civilization, humanity, or morality demand it.

Juarez answered the clemency appeal of Princess Salm-Salm with solemn words:

If all the Kings and Queens in Europe [pled for Maximilian] I could not spare that life. It is not I who take it; it is the people and the law, and if I should not do their will the people would take it and mine also.

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1389: Saint Tsar Lazar, after the Battle of Kosovo

2 comments June 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date (by the Julian calendar then in use) in 1389, Stefan Lazar Hrebeljanovic — that’s Tsar Lazar to you — led the armies of Moravian Serbia against the expanding Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Kosovo.

The Serbs were defeated — thereby plunging, in the national mythology, into a half-millennium of Turkish domination. Lazar was supposedly* captured and beheaded.

For a generation, Lazar had firmed up his authority as the most significant Serbian autocrat outside the Ottoman orbit. The gravity of that orbit, however, grew more powerful with each passing year; soon, it would devour Byzantium.

Here in the 14th century, the Turkish expansion took on vassals in southeastern Europe. For a prince in the marches, a reckoning had to come due.

Of course, some Serbian lords and other Christian rulers were prepared to owe fealty to the Turks.

In the national epic poem The Battle of Kosovo, our day’s hero receives divine visitation charging him to choose between the treasures of earth and those of eternity, perhaps the author’s critique of European nobles who joined the infidel.

‘Lazar! Lazar! Tsar of noble family,
Which kingdom is it that you long for most?
Will you choose a heavenly crown today?
Or will you choose an earthly crown?
If you choose the earth then saddle horses,
Tighten girths- have your knights put on
Their swords and make a dawn attack against
The Turks: your enemy will be destroyed.
But if you choose the skies then build a church-
O, not of stone but out of silk and velvet-
Gather up your forces take the bread and wine,
For all shall perish, perish utterly,
And you, O Tsar, shall perish with them.”

Lazar built the church.

This particular battle grew into one of mythic importance in the national memory of Serbia: the sacred apogee of national honor, even the bulwark of Christendom upon which the Islamic wave broke.**

Its site, “Kosovo Polje” or the “Field of Blackbirds” near Pristina, is a monument to the Serbian and Orthodox cause; that it is located, as its name suggests, in the province forcibly detached from Belgrade by NATO during the Kosovo War makes it a politically touchy bit of topography. Nationalist outfits like the Tsar Lazar Guard are violently displeased with Albanians having say-so about the place.

Not surprisingly, the record of the time suggests less a Balkan Thermopylae than that old historical standby — shifting relationships of collaboration, resistance, and negotiated boundaries amid Ottoman advances and (sometimes) reverses.

Lazar’s own son and heir Stefan Lazarevic became an Ottoman ally; when the Ottomans were themselves invaded, he shifted his alliance to a different regional power, Hungary. His successor, Durad Brankovic, became estranged from that alliance and eventually fought against the Hungarians in the Second Battle of Kosovo … as an Ottoman vassal.†

Be that as it may, St. Vitus’ DayVidovdan in Serbo-Croatian — which is now observed on its Gregorian calendar date of June 28th, remains one of the most sacred days on the Serbian calendar (it’s also the feast day of Lazar, a saint in the Orthodox tradition).

Vidovdan obtained another layer of meaning in 1914, for it was June 28 that Yugoslav nationalists then under the heel of a Christian empire assassinated Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand and ignited the First World War.

* It’s the predominant version of legend but not a settled historical fact that Lazar was actually beheaded as a prisoner. He may have simply died in battle, or of wounds taken sustained in the fight.

** Subject, like all good myths, to opposing interpretations.

† At the Second Battle of Kosovo, Serbian forces captured the fleeing Hungarian ruler, John Hunyadi, and his eldest son, Laszlo.

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1772: Johann Friedrich Struensee, the doctor who ran Denmark

1 comment April 28th, 2009 dogboy

The 1700s were a time of radical reform, and as the Enlightenment reached the shores of Denmark, it suddenly became possible to be a professed atheist and not lose your head. That is, of course, as long as you didn’t also try to usurp the crown, undermine the aristocracy, and agitate the commoners while you were at it.

Such was the course that ended the rise of Johann Friedrich Struensee on this date in 1772. His friend and sometime cohort Enevold Brandt (Danish Wikipedia entry) was put on the block on the same day.

Struensee was born in 1738 in present day Germany and educated in Prussia, a doctor by trade and a budding Enlightenment political writer by practice. He seemed an unlikely character to involve himself in the court of King Christian VII of both Denmark and Norway, but Struensee was a vain and social man who managed to befriend the right people at the right time.

The first was Brandt. The second was Count Schack Karl Rantzau. A lawyer and Supreme Court justice, Brandt was a court favorite* and planted Struensee’s name as a capable doctor: young, kind, and competent, he would make a perfect personal physician for a king known for being a bit off: Christian was likely schizophrenic. Rantzau, meanwhile, was Count of the Holy Roman Empire, exiled from Copenhagen some 15 years before he met young Struensee, and eager to get back into politics.

In June 1768, Struensee took a post as the king’s traveling physician in England, and he immediately attached to Christian’s loneliness. The regent was interested in literature, philosophy, and music, and Struensee obliged him with patient regard for his charge, for which he was duly rewarded with access to a social life much more fulfilling than in Prussia. As a traveling physician, though, Struensee’s post had a finite span, and he lobbied hard to become a member of the Danish court.

With some help from others in the king’s court, Struensee managed to retain a permanent post, and his clamber up the nearest cliff to power began.

The young doctor, it seems, had a talent for playing two sides for personal gain. It started with the king, who had immense trust in Struensee and began to confide almost everything. Struensee was tactful with this information, adhering to an early form of patient-doctor privilege that endeared him to Christian. The other side was Queen Mathilde, Princess of Wales, by all accounts a beautiful woman who was not happy in Denmark and even less happy to be married to a mad and deteriorating king.

Mathilde initially disliked Struensee — or, at the very least, was indifferent to his actions. But near the end of 1769, the queen finally admitted Struensee into her chambers, and their relationship took off. He ably gamed Mathilde by convincing her that she was the kingdom’s future; Christian, meanwhile, remained ill, and Struensee remained a steady presence in his life. Come spring, Crown Prince Frederick VI also came under Struensee’s care, and as smallpox ravaged Copenhagen, the doctor pressed for inoculation. The king and queen assented, Frederick survived the epidemic, and Struensee garnered himself an official advisorship. It’s also suspected that, while Struensee and Mathilde watched over Frederick as he recovered from the inoculation,** their love affair began.

With a taste of power, Struensee pressed King Christian VII for cabinet changes — which he got — and was named Privy Councilor before 1770 was out. Now the principal advisor to the king, Struensee was able to advance his Enlightenment agenda, notably freedom of the press, the abolition of torture, limiting the death penalty, changing the rules of appointments, numbering the houses in Copenhagen, lighting the streets, and, perhaps in anticipation, removing penalties against those who produced illegitimate children. He was a bold visionary, but he also intoxicated by his growing power … and his programme obviously gored many an ox.

Struensee ascended still further early in 1771 when the king became practically unfit to rule. He was mentally faltering, and Struensee was all but running the show, and more.

In early July, the queen gave birth to a daughter who was widely assumed to be Struensee’s child. Days later, and just three years after being introduced to King Christian VII, Johann Friedrich Struensee effectively appointed himself Privy Cabinet Minister with dictatorial authority through one of King Christian’s edicts. Struensee’s orders would now have the force of law, and, as Christian’s proclamation noted, “They shall be immediately obeyed.”


Enevold Brandt (top), not to be confused with Brandt, the Big Lebowski lackey (bottom).

Struensee spent the next six months turning the European aristocracy inside-out and foisting an aggressive set of cabinet orders on the Danish people — over 1,000, by some counts. Having ridden on the coattails of a queen and king, he now pushed them aside. He moved the court to Schleswig-Holstein, in Prussia, and pleasingly enjoyed both the prerogatives of aristocracy and a middle class contempt for them.

Struensee was, to say the least, not a favorite abroad;† that he and his friends dominated the king and queen did not sit well with Danish commoners. Even Brandt was becoming disaffected, writing in a letter asking for either a larger salary or a resignation from the court:

No despot ever arrogated such power as yourself, or exercised it in such a way. The King’s pages and domestics tremble at the slightest occurrence: all are seized with terror. They talk, they eat, they drink, but they tremble as they do so. Fear has seized on all who surround the minister, even on the Queen…

But Brandt stayed on, and as 1771 drew to a close, Copenhagen became hostile territory for the royal family and their favorite doctor.

After the season’s first masquarade ball, on 16 January 1772, the Queen Dowager — Christian’s step-mother — Juliana Marie exposed Struensee’s affair and had Struensee, Brandt, the queen,‡ and many other Struensee accomplices arrested, ostensibly by order of the king.

Struensee was charged with lèse-majesté, a crime against the crown, for his affair with the queen; though he initially denied the charges — and though Mathilde did her best to shield him from harm — he was found guilty. Brandt was charged with the same crime for allegedly assaulting the king after being himself threatened with a flogging for impertinence (he even had a nip at Christian’s finger). Brandt’s punishment was the same. Each had his right hand chopped off, then was beheaded, drawn, and quatertered.

The queen, meanwhile, went into exile in France. Juliana Marie effectively ruled the kingdom through her son for over a decade, rolling back many of Struensee’s reforms and reverting power back to the aristocracy. This also turned out to be unpopular (the Danes and Norwegians are fickle people), and Mathilde’s son Frederick VI was able to regain power for his father in 1784, eventually moving to liberal reforms more in line with his erstwhile physician’s ideals.

Struensee’s epic rise and fall have spawned a variety of writings since his death. A memoir appeared just months after his execution which detailed his final months. He was also the subject of the Per Olov Enquist novel The Royal Physician’s Visit, which examines his life from multiple perspectives. Queen Mathilde has also been subjected to scrutiny, and her life was put to ballet by Peter Maxwell Davies.

* Brandt was a court favorite, but after attempting to destroy the position of another minister, he was briefly expelled from Copenhagen, shortly after Struensee accepted his post.

** These inoculations predated “safe” inoculations by non-fatal, related disease strains such as cowpox. Frederick would have been made ill through the small pox strain Variola Minor, which had a mortality rate of about 1%. By contrast, Variola Major was fatal in about 30% of cases.

† While Struensee seems to have been book smart, his feel for international politics was limited, and his standing abroad would have unraveled had it ever raveled in the first place. He repeatedly upset the Russians, and Mathilde’s relatives were not pleased with him. Had he not been downed by public sentiment, it seems likely he would have fallen victim to one of his many royal detractors abroad.

‡ In a curious twist, Rantzau was the queen’s arrestor, and one of the principal conspirators in the dowager’s plot was a cabinet minister Struensee was responsible for ejecting very early in his career.

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1355: Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice

3 comments April 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1355, Marino Faliero* was escorted to the spot where he had been crowned Doge of Venice scant months before. There, he was ceremoniously relieved of his robes of state … and then his head.


The Execution of Marino Faliero, by Eugene Delacroix (1827).

Some fog surrounds the day’s proceedings, product not only of time but of the Doge’s executioners’ damnatio memoriae upon their victim. What was written was circumspect; even Faliero‘s portrait in the great hall of the Doge’s Palace was veiled.

What is known — or at any rate, was admitted by the elderly first citizen — is that the ruler attempted a coup against the overweening power of Venice’s great families.

The putsch was supposed to occur on April 15, with the bell of St. Mark’s Cathedral tolling on a fabricated hue and cry. In the tumult, the Doge’s supporters meant to cut down the nobles who flexed the real political muscle in the maritime republic and consolidate ducal power.

Why?

The salacious version has the old goat in a tiff with a noble, who made fun of his May-December marriage —

Marino Faliero of the beautiful wife,
Others enjoy her while he maintains her

A tribunal of fellow-nobles let the rascal off with a slap on the wrist.

Power being what it is, and princes and nobilities being born for conflict with one another across the centuries in Europe, one may as well discern a straightforward political intent — heightened, perhaps, by the then-dire state of Venice’s naval contest with Genoa.

Downright Byronic under either scenario … and Byron wrote a play about Faliero. The doomed ruler gives throat to quite a magnificent curse upon his city, with all the foresight of Byron’s half-millennium of hindsight:

I perish, but not unavenged; far ages
Float up from the abyss of time to be,
And show these eyes, before they close, the doom
Of this proud city, and I leave my curse
On her and hers for ever! —

          — She shall be bought
And sold, and be an appanage to those
Who shall despise her! — She shall stoop to be
A province for an empire, petty town
In lieu of capital, with slaves for senates,
Beggars for nobles, panders for a people!

Amidst thy many murders, think of mine!
Thou den of drunkards with the blood of princes!
Gehenna of the waters! thou sea Sodom!
Thus I devote thee to the infernal gods!
Thee and thy serpent seed!
[Here the Doge turns, and addresses the executioner.]
          Slave, do thine office!
Strike as I struck the foe! Strike as I would
Have struck those tyrants! Strike deep as my curse!
Strike — and but once!

This sort of thing knocking about among litterateurs in the 19th century practically guarantees an opera.

* Or simply “Marin Falier”, in the Venetian dialect.

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1858: Chief Leschi

2 comments February 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1858, Chief Leschi of the Nisqually tribe was controversially hanged at Fort Steilacoom (present-day Lakewood) in the Washington Territory.

Yankee officer Isaac Stevens only spent four years in the Washington Territory as Franklin Pierce’s appointed governor, but he left his stamp on the state.

And no project defined the tenure of this authoritarian but effective executive like putting the screws to the native peoples. Growing white settlement in the Pacific Northwest was creating conflict with the Indians who already inhabited it. In time, that conflict would claim Leschi.

Late in 1854, Stevens summoned the chiefs of several tribes in the newly-minted Washington Territory for an offer they couldn’t refuse: pack up and move to reservations of a few square miles’ undesirable territory, ceding 2.5 million acres to white settlers.

Chief Leschi — and it was Stevens’ men who had designated him a “chief”, the operation upon an alien culture of a bureaucracy that required official spokesmen — allegedly refused to sign the Treaty of Medicine Creek, although the evidence is unclear. Whatever the truth of that matter, sufficient signatures were cajoled for the government to ratify an agreement for massive dispossession, and Leschi became a prominent voice in the growing Indian dissatisfaction once the extent of the hustle became clear.

An attempt to arrest Leschi, who increasingly feared white assassination, touched off the Puget Sound War in 1855, and with an analogous conflict brewing on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, all Washington was soon a conflict zone.

That story’s end is predictable enough, but Leschi’s fate was protested by both native and white contemporaries. Leschi was condemned for “murdering” a militiaman during hostilities, a charge whose logic flowed from the rights asserted by American authorities but whose fundamental injustice (even leaving aside the very doubtful factual evidence) seems manifest, as it did to the defendant.

I have supposed that the killing of armed men in wartime was not murder; if it was, the soldiers who killed Indians are guilty of murder too.

George W. Bush would’ve called him an illegal combatant. That was hardly common sentiment.

So much good will did Leschi enjoy among whites — with whom he had years of amicable relations prior to Gov. Stevens’ arrival — that a scheduled January 22 hanging was deviously put off by the sheriff charged with the task: he arranged to have himself arrested on a liquor charge while in possession of the death warrant shortly before Leschi was to have been hung, and the two-hour window allotted for the execution of the sentence elapsed before matters could be put right.

They carried the sentence out four weeks later — “I felt then I was hanging an innocent man,” executioner Charles Grainger would say, “and I believe it yet” — but that hardly put an end to Chief Leschi’s story. The Nisqually have pushed hard for Leschi’s official exoneration, and won a Washington Senate resolution to that effect and an “acquittal” (of no legal force) from a panel of state jurists. But even though it attached to a convicted murderer, Leschi’s was never a black name in the state; it adorns a Seattle neighborhood and a number of schools and other public places. (“Stevens” is similarly prominent.)

There’s an excellent summary of the Leschi case from Oregon Historical Quarterly, a Washington State Historical Society website, and a 1905 public domain book published to make the case for Leschi.

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