Igo Sym tickles the ivories in Zona i nie zona (Wife and No Wife) … his last role.
On this date in 1941, the Germans occupying Poland took revenge for the loss of an artist.
Handsome Austrian-born silver screen luminary Igo Sym, whose silent film credits included roles opposite Marlene Dietrich and Lillian Harvey, had become a prominent fixture of the Warsaw stage when the Germans overran Poland in 1939.
This attracted the hostility of the Polish underground, which secretly condemned him to death — and executed that sentence on the morning of March 7, 1941, with a knock at Sym’s apartment door and a sudden 9 mm pistol.
In punishment for this gesture of national defiance, all of Warsaw was clapped under a harsh curfew and dozens of hostages seized as surety for the public’s promptly rendering the actor’s murderers for punishment. But the assassins were not so delivered: in revenge, the Germans executed 21 hostages at the nearby village of Palmiry.* Two University of Warsaw professors were among those hostages, biologist Stefan Kopec and historian Kazimierz Zakrzewski.
* Palmiry had the sorrow to host numerous similar mass-executions during the German occupation of Warsaw. Over 2,000 bodies have been recovered from the site.
Polish hostages (not necessarily those of March 11, 1941) being readied for execution at Palmiry. This photo (and others) via the Polish Wikipedia page on war crimes in Palmiry.
On this date in 1989, China executed Teng Xingshan with a bullet to the head for the murder of Shi Xiaorong — an act which became quite embrrassing when Shi surfaced in 2005, alive and well.
Teng became the focus of Hunan provincial officials’ tunnel vision when the dismembered body of a young woman turned up in the Mayang River. The reason was that the dismembering struck police as “very professional” and Teng was a butcher by trade.
The corpse was soon associated with Shi Xiaorong, who had recently gone missing, and an elaborate just-so story crafted to fit the available data: that Teng and Shi were lovers who quarreled over money with lethal results. According to the sentence, “Teng confessed his crime on his initiative and his confession conforms with scientific inspection and identification.”
In reality, the two were not acquainted at all — and Shi was not dead at all. She had disappeared because she’d been sold into a marriage; she eventually slipped back to her home in Guizhou Province. Teng’s relatives had heard through the grapevine that she was still alive, but it took them years to track her down.
Teng Xinshang was posthumously exonerated in 2006. We’ve found no indication that the dismembered body that wasn’t Shi Xiaorong’s was ever re-identified or the (by now very cold) case re-opened.
We owe this discomfiting executioner’s-eye view from the ranks of German soldiers as they gun down Poles in the town of Bochnia on December 18, 1939 to a partisan attack two days prior by a Polish underground organization called White Eagle. Fifty-six civilians were executed in retaliation.
In an effort to quell the activities of Confederate guerrillas-slash-outlaws, Burbridge issued a still-notorious directive called Order 59: Citing the “rapid increase in this district of lawless bands of armed men,” the order threatened to expel Southern sympathizers and seize their property. Moreover, it warned: “Whenever an unarmed Union citizen is murdered, four guerrillas will be selected from the prison and publicly shot to death at the most convenient place near the scene of the outrages.”
The outrages in question for this occasion were raids on Midway horse farms* (allegedly led by “Sue Mundy”) that, on November 1, resulted in a shootout fatal to one Adam Harper Jr.
Agreeably to Order 59, Burbridge had four of his prisoners — men with no specific connection to Harper’s death — shot on the town’s commons, forcing the local populace to attend the scene.
Shot by order of
Nov. 5 1864
Our Confederate Dead
Burbridge would be dismissed, and his Order 59 revoked, early the next year. “Thank God and President Lincoln,” was the reaction of the Louisville Journal.
On this date two centuries ago, a man on a mission of mercy found his accidental entry into history.
The mercy in question was required for a Maryland fellow named William Beanes. During the War of 1812, the British had seized this 65-year-old doctor on their march back from torching the White House, on grounds of his role jailing British soldiers who were doing some freelance plundering around his beloved Upper Marlboro.
They were making worrying (possibly empty) threats about hanging the man for infringing the laws of war as they held Dr. Beanes in the Chesapeake Bay aboard the H.M.S. Tonnant.* Beanes’s friends recruited a respected lawyer (and amateur poet) to get the venerable gentleman out of the soup.
This was accomplished easily enough. Approaching the British warship under a flag of truce, the lawyer and a buddy who was the government’s designated prisoner exchange agent managed to convince Gen. Robert Ross to parole his “war criminal” by producing a packet of testimonials from previous British POWs affirming the honorable treatment Dr. Beanes had accorded them. Problem solved.
There was one minor hitch.
Because the British were preparing to attack Baltimore, and the visiting envoys had perforce become privy to some of the forthcoming operational details whose exposure might complicate matters, the hosts detained the whole party at sea pending the encounter’s conclusion.
There the Americans looked on, helplessly entranced, as the Battle of Baltimore unfolded. On September 12, there was a land battle (the munificent Gen. Ross was slain by an American sharpshooter as he directed troops in this affair). Then at dawn on September 13, the British fleet commenced a withering bombardment of Baltimore’s principal harbor bulwark, Fort McHenry. Safely out of range of the fort’s guns, British cannons rained ordnance on the fort throughout the day, 1,500 bombs in all. At one point a missile ripped a white star from the fort’s gigantic American flag.
The firing continued into the night. The American bystanders, who could do nothing but watch, now could catch nothing but the fleeting illumination of exploding shells. Could the fort possibly survive the assault? As morning approached, the fleet’s firing came to a virtual stop. The Americans could only surmise that this abatement might indicate Fort McHenry’s capture by the British. The suspense over the course of the long, dark night must have been near unbearable.
Dawn’s early light on September 14, 1814 brought for the Yankees a wonderous sight: the tattered American banner somehow still fluttered over the fort, where they had watched it all the day before.
On September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key beholds the American flag still flying over Baltimore, just as it had at the previous twilight’s last gleaming. (1912 painting by Edward Moran.)
Overjoyed now, Beanes’s deliverer Francis Scott Key put his poetic gifts to patriotic use and dashed off a poem celebrating Baltimore’s fortitude. Originally known as “The Defence of Fort McHenry”, you know it today as “The Star-Spangled Banner” — the American national anthem. We owe it all to Williams Beanes’s capture and prospective hanging.
And what is more, the deed was caught on film — pre-emptively balking the crumbling Nicaraguan dictatorship of the ability to, say, blame the killing on the Sandinista rebels.
Warning: This is the execution footage.
Stewart was stopped in a marked press vehicle in Managua, ordered to lie down, and then kicked and shot through the head while colleagues looked on. Though his summary execution by national guardsmen was taped by fellow journos in the convoy, the reasons for it are well into the fog of war: even the identity of the guardsman who pulled the trigger isn’t known. (The commander of the roadblock would claim that it was a “Private Gonzalez” who conveniently died in combat later the very same day.) The immediate “investigation” promised by dictator Anastasio Somoza didn’t really have much chance to get off the ground before Somoza himself had to take to the skies fleeing, on July 17, the collapse of his own regime. Whether the executioner also escaped the revolution, fled into exile, became a Contra guerrilla, or actually did die in the fighting, only God can say.
“The murder of American newsman Bill Stewart in Nicaragua was an act of barbarism that all civilized people condemn,” said U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who of course was backing Somoza.* “Journalists seeking to report the news and inform the public are soldiers in no nation’s army. When. they are made innocent victims of violence and war, all people who cherish the truth and believe in free debate pay a terrible price.”
Stewart’s career and murder are a principal inspiration for the 1983 film Under Fire.
On this date in 1922, Colin Campbell Ross was hanged for the rape-murder of a little girl, still on the scaffold vainly protesting his innocence.
I am now face to face with my Maker, and I swear by Almighty God that I am an innocent man. I never saw the child. I never committed the crime, and I don’t know who did. I never confessed to anyone. I ask God to forgive those who have sworn my life away, and I pray God to have mercy on my poor darling mother, and my family.
Ninety-odd years later, folks finally believe him.
Ross had a couple of brushes with the law already to his rap sheet when 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke went missing in the vicinity of Ross’s Melbourne dive bar on December 30, 1921.
In a classic instance of police tunnel vision, the proximity of a violent felon to the murdered girl — for Alma’s body was found the next morning in nearby Gun Alley, which bestowed a popular moniker upon the case — soon formed the theory of the crime, the predetermined conclusion into which incoming evidence was read.
(It certainly catalyzed the investigation that the case became a media sensation. Rupert Murdoch’s father through the Melbourne Heraldshamelessly hounded the Crown for each day’s delay, and jacked up the reward purse.)
Witnesses established that Ross had been tending bar all that afternoon; to account for that, it was necessary to posit that Ross had plied his prey with wine for several hours until he could finish her off after his shift.
Once arrested, despite continuing to assert his innocence to all and sundry, Ross proved to suffer from that universal tendency accused men have to senselessly unburden themselves to a random cellmate. The Crown could scarce shirk its public duty by omitting the incriminating evidence merely because it was related by a convicted perjurer. Ross, his accuser claimed, “said he was simply burning to tell someone.”
Still more damningly, a blanket from Ross’s home proved to have some strands of auburn hair glancingly similar to Alma Tirtschke’s — or possibly Ross’s girlfriend.
A Crown analyst from ventured to compare these under a microscope, and would later put it to the court that they looked like Alma’s. This would be the first time hair forensics were deployed in an Australian courtroom.
Was it not possible, asked Ross’s counsel — who genuinely believed his client’s innocence and fought the corner until the very last — that it might be almost literally anyone else’s auburn hair?
“Yes; quite possible, but not probable,” was the reply from the witness. “Because of the general similarity of hair.” Oh.
Tests Morgan was able to arrange with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and then with police both agreed that under modern microscopic examination the hairs in question did not bear even a surface resemblance. With the support of the Victorian Attorney General and the Australian Supreme Court, Ross was granted a posthumous pardon on May 27, 2008 — the first person ever so distinguished in Victoria’s history.
Tirtschke’s own family, too, supported this result: they had long harbored their own doubts about the verdict. “She didn’t say who was the right man but she said the wrong man was hung,”* one descendant said of her grandmother’s recollections.
* Though a lesser horror compared to being railroaded in the first place, Ross’s hanging was also badly botched. An experimental four-strand rope failed to sever his spinal cord, leaving his dangling body to convulse as Ross wheezed his last breaths through a torn windpipe.
On this date in 1801, a luckless British messenger was hanged to a Tamarind tree during the Polygar Wars.
The Polygars — an English corruption of the Tamil word Palaiyakkarar — were feudal administrators in South India whose authorities the ascending East India Company struggled to bring to heel.
A brief first rebellion in 1799 gave way to a second more substantial one from 1800 to 1805; these are the Polygar Wars.
As one might imagine the fight was quite nasty, and not wanting for executions. Notably, the British had hanged a Polygar chief named Kattabomman in 1799 after the first Polygar War.
But one of Kattabomman’s old allies, name of Ethalappa Naicker Zamin, was among a coalition of Polygars who rose against the British in the subsequent war.
It was to this man that the British dispatched the messenger Angre Kethi — a man whom Naicker decided to make an example of.
The spot of the hanging, known as “Thookupuliamara Thottam”, was long known locally, but it recently made wider news when an archaeologist discovered a stone inscription at the messenger’s memorial attesting the name and date of the hanging.
On this date, the conservative Mexican Gen. Leonardo Marquez earned himself the nickname “Tiger of Tacubaya” for the mass execution of liberal prisoners after a battle in Mexico’s Reform War.
The “reform” warred-over is actually the label for a whole era of liberal modernization with all the usual stuff to enrage a conservative old guard: land reform, a liberal constitution, and a rollback in the prerogatives of the clergy and the military.
It was rather sucessful.
The liberals successfully deposed General Santa Anna* and set about implementing this stuff. You, clever reader, have already surmised from the existence of a “Reform War” that they did not do so without resistance.
In the late 1850s, Mexico actually sported two rival presidents — Benito Juarez, under the liberals’ 1857 constitution, and Gen. Miguel Miramon, under a rebellious military junta that rejected this constitution.
One of the conservatives’ top commanders was Leonardo Marquez, our Tiger of Tacubaya: so called because at that ancient village, today engulfed in the sprawl of Mexico City, Marquez defeated a liberal army in a bloody fight.
Beginning that very night, Marquez had all his prisoners executed,** not excepting the wounded, foreign nationals, medical personnel, and even civilians sympathetic to the losing side. U.S. President James Buchanan denounced this affair to Congress in 1859 as evidence of the “wretched state” of Mexico that, he said, demanded American intervention.†
To cap the climax, after the battle of Tacubaya, in April, 1859, General Marquez ordered three citizens of the United States, two of them physicians, to be seized in the hospital at that place, taken out and shot, without crime, and without trial. This was done, notwithstanding our unfortunate countrymen were at the moment engaged in the holy cause of affording relief to the soldiers of both parties who had been wounded in the battle, without making any distinction between them.
Congress demurred on warmongering, but this act of wanton cruelty towards the so-called Martires de Tacubaya helped to turn Mexicans against the conservatives. The liberals had won the Reform War by the first days of 1861 — just in time to brace for that year’s ill-fated French intervention.
* Of Alamo fame, for yanquis; Santa Anna’s loss of Texas to the United States did no favors for his political position back home.
Marquez said he was ordered to carry out the summary executions by Miramon, but Marquez also had a reputation for ruthlessness apart from the incident at hand. Miramon got his a few years later when he was shot by the victorious constitutionalists alongside Emperor Maximilian, a later French-backed interloper not yet on the scene in 1859.
On this date in 1642, George Spencer paid the penalty at the New Haven (Connecticut) colony for a pig-fucking that he probably never perpetrated.
Seven and a half weeks previous, a farmer named John Wakeman had reported to magistrates that his pregnant sow had delivered a litter of healthy piglets … plus one abomination from the nightmares of H.P. Lovecraft and Ron Jeremy.
Itt had no haire on the whole body, the skin was very tender, and of a reddish white collour like a childs; the head most straing, itt had butt one eye in the midle of the face, and thatt large and open, like some blemished eye of a man; over the eye, in the bottome of the foreheade which was like a childes, a thing of flesh grew forth and hung downe, itt was hollow, and like the mans instrument of generation.
Genetics is a funny thing. Once in a while the little variations in a new generation will produce an adaptive advantage that takes the species another step down its evolutionary path.
And then other times what you get is dickface swineclops.
The resemblance of this poor (and mercifully stillborn) pig to a man — “nose, mouth and chinne deformed, butt nott much unlike a childs, the neck and eares had allso such resemblance” — looked like palpable divine anger to New Haven worthies, and inspired a suitably inquisitorial response.
Its target was localized to George Spencer, a former servant to the pig’s former owner. Spencer had a bum eye himself plus a reputation as a “prophane, lying, scoffing and lewd speritt.” With a model of heredity we might strain to credit as primitive, it emerged as widespread suspicion that soon manifested into fact that Spencer had fathered the penis-headed chimera.
Maybe George Spencer really did go hog wild. Who really knows? But the account of the “investigation” — in which the only actual evidence was Spencer’s own confession plus his mutant “progeny” — has every hallmark of the false confessions whose prevalence is only lately becoming well-understood. European and American “witches” were also telling their persecutors just what they wanted to hear in the mid-17th century.
Spencer denied the charges at first. The magistrate Stephen Goodyear(e)* interrogated him: did Spencer not “take notice of something in [the monster pig] like him”? Goodyear implied that they already knew Spencer was guilty.
During a nervous pause, which Goodyear took to be Spencer preparing his soul to unburden itself but a less hostile viewer might have taken to be the frightened farmhand fretting about how he was going to escape with his neck, Goodyear hit him with Proverbs 28:13. It’s a nice dual-purpose verse to stamp the divine imprimatur on the good cop-bad cop approach: “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.”
Spencer wasn’t getting anywhere denying everything. He decided to try confessing and getting in on that mercy.
(Even at this, he told someone else that he had only confessed “for favor”. Upon hearing this, Goodyear stalked back to Spencer’s cell and made him commit to the confession.)
The next day, a team of town grandees showed up to get the details. Again, Spencer denied it, but now his previous day’s remarks hemmed him in. His story was shifty; he changed the location of the sin from the sty to the stable, varied between a half-hour and two hours engaged in his sin.
By the time of the trial that commenced on March 2, Spencer — perhaps now realizing that the proverb he ought to have heeded was “don’t talk to police” — was back to full denial. This time he stuck to it all the way through the proceedings, and little good it did him as witness after witness who had heard various iterations of his confession reported the admission. The judges had to decide how to adjudicate this kind of case at all, and they decided to go straight to the Pentateuch.
according to the fundamentall agreement, made and published by full and generall consent, when the plantation began and government was settled, that the judiciall law of God given by Moses and expounded in other parts of scripture, so far as itt is a hedg and a fence to the morrall law, and neither ceremoniall nor tipicall, nor had any referrence to Canaan, hath an everlasting equity in itt, and should be the rule of their proceedings. They judged the crime cappitall, and thatt the prisoner and the sow, according to Levit. 20 and 15, should be put to death.
By hanging-day on April 8, Spencer was still refusing to admit the charges, and he even continued his obstinacy to the gallows — giving only the sort of standard-issue hanging-day exhortation to straighten those laces and not skip church that everyone always gave. To this he still “joyned a denyall of his fact.”
Only at the very last, with the noose about his neck, “and being tolde it was an ill time now to provoke God when he was falling into his hands, as a righteous and seveere judge who had vengeanc at hand for all his other sins, so for his impudency and atheisme, he justified the sentence as righteous, and fully confessed the bestiality in all the scircumstances,” meanwhile blaming for the probable damnation of his soul a sawyer in the audience named Will Harding who tried to keep the flesh alive by counseling Spencer to just keep his damned mouth shut and not confess anything in the first place. This death’s-edge admission would have satisfied onlookers, but ought not satisfy us; the complex psychology of false confessions with their underlying fear of punishment and need to please a captor are potentially even sharper at the communal performance of a public execution — the offender’s last opportunity to spiritually rejoin his own community. Spencer knew he was doomed; he knew everyone thought he was lying; he would presumably have genuinely feared hell and deeply desired to give his own certain death meaning. Somewhere in this id soup is surely reason enough to say the thing his friends and neighbors all but willed him to say.
Thing said, the poor sow was butchered under Spencer’s eyes first (as Leviticus demands). Then Spencer was strangled on hemp, “God opening his mouth before his death, to give him the glory of his rightousnes, to the full satisfaction of all then present.”
* Goodyear(e)‘s daughter Hannah would eventually marry the son of John Wakeman, whose sow it was that gave birth to the pig that started all the ruckus. In the early 1650s, Stephen Goodyear would favor colonial authorities with suspicions of a witch in his very own household, but that poor servant managed to avoid execution.