Posts filed under 'Innocent Bystanders'

1944: The Massacre of Tulle

Add comment June 9th, 2018 Headsman

On June 9, 1944, the 2nd SS Panzer Division hanged 99 habitants of the French town Tulle as revenge upon the French Resistance.

On June 7, the Communist Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP) guerrillas launched a pre-planned attack on German and milice positions in Tulle. By the 8th, the FTP had liberated the town* … temporarily.

Come the evening of the 8th, the 2nd SS Panzer Division — which had been stationed in southern France but was rumbling north to fortify the German position in the wake of the Allied landing at Normandy — arrived at Tulle and re-occupied the city.

On the morning of the 9th, the Germans went door to door and detained nearly all the men in Tulle over the age of 16, an estimated three to five thousand potential hostages. By the afternoon these had been efficiently culled to 120 semi-random targets for exemplary revenge to cow the populace, people who looked too scruffy to the Germans and didn’t have an alert contact with sufficient pull to exclude them from the pool. The count was determined, as a poster announcing the executions explained, as the multiple of 40 German soldiers estimated lost* during the FTP action.

Throughout the afternoon, that threat was enacted with nooses dangled along lampposts and balconies on the Avenue de la Gare — although not to the full 120 but rather to the odd number of 99. It remains unclear why the hangings stopped early; certainly it was no excess of sentiment on the part of the Panzer division, which had been redeployed to France after giving and getting terrible casualties on the far bloodier eastern front.

“In Russia we got used to hanging. We hanged more than 1,000 at Kharkov and Kiev, this is nothing for us here,” a Sturmbannführer Kowatch remarked to a local official.

And so in batches ten by ten, before an audience of other prisoners and frightened townspeople peeping through shuttered windows and mirthful SS men, the hostages were marched to their makeshift gallows, forced up ladders with rifle-butt blows, and swung off to publicly strangle to death. The avenue’s unwilling gibbets were not suffered to discharge their prey until the evening, when the 99 were hurriedly buried in a mass grave. Afterwards, another 149 were deported en masse to Dachau, most of whom would never return.

The never-repentant commander who ordered the mass execution, Heinz Lammerding, was condemned to death in absentia by a French court; however, West Germany refused extradition demands,** and Lammerding died in 1971 without serving a day in prison.

This event remains a vivid civic memory in Tulle, as well as the namesake of the Rue du 9-Juin-1944; travelers might peruse a guide to the numerous memorials in the vicinity available here (pdf).

The 2nd SS Panzer Division proceeded the next day on its northerly route to Oradour-sur-Glane, and there participated in the mass murder of its inhabitants, an atrocity that is much better remembered today than that of Tulle. The journey and operations of this division are the subject of a World War II microhistory titled after the unit’s nickname, Das Reich: The March of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Through France, June 1944.

* The 40-to-50 German dead in Tulle include some summarily executed. For example, nine officers of the SD were shot in a graveyard after capture.

** Lammerding’s comfortable liberty became headline news in the 1960s, which was not long after Israeli commandos had kidnapped the fugitive Nazi Adolf Eichmann. France allegedly mulled such an operation to bring Lammerding to justice.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Execution,France,Germany,Hanged,History,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Wartime Executions

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1718: A horse thief and two travelers, “the worst rideing that ever I rid”

Add comment June 4th, 2018 Headsman

This date’s post brings us back to one of our regular wells, James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland … and the days when a life was cheaper than a horse.

The three men hanged together on this date all concurred in their stories that only one of them stole the horses in question and the other two merely thumbed rides on his extra mounts as passing travellers. Whether or not this is true or was simply their common play for a potential ⅔ pardon posterity obviously has no way of determining.

The Last Speech and Dying Words of
Daniel O Neal, Edmond Mc. Guire, and Henery Graham

who was Executed near St. Stevens Green, on Wednesday June the 4th 1718.

Good Christians,

I was Born in the North of Ireland, of very good honest Parents, who brought me up very Tenderly, and never speard any Cost to Instruct and bring me up in the fear of God, Alas! all was in vain, for tho’ I took all the care that I could to attain to Learning but at the end I prov’d very Careless of the fame, for I neglected both the laws of God and Man, or else I had never been brought to this shameful End, it is true I was taken up for the Stealing of three Horses, and two Mares, and these my fellow Sufferers along with me, but as I shall Answer the great God, they Die Innocently, for as I was Riding along the Road, I overtook these my fellow Sufferers who seeing me leading 4 Horses asked me if I would let them ride, I tould them they should, now as I am a dying Man this is all they knew of it, which grives me to the Heart, and indeed I am more sorry for their Death, than my own.

I freely forgive all the World, and I beg forgiveness of all those whom I ever offended, I am now about six and thirty Years of Age, I die a [sic] of the Church of England, and the Lord have mercy on my Soul, Amen.

This is my true Speech and no other

Daniel O Neal

The Speech of Edmond M’Guire.

Good Christians,

I Was born in the North of Ireland, of Poor, but honest Parents, who with their Industry, Care and Labour, brought me to these Years, during which time, I behav’d my self true and honest in the World, and endeavour’d very hard for my Bread; but I being born to hard Fortune, I was taken up by one Mr. Legg, for being concern’d in stealing of three Horses and two Mares; ‘tiw true I had one of the aforesaid Beasts under me, but the way I came by it was in the manner following: I having been in Dublin for some time, was willing to return home to my Wife and Children, and overtaking Daniel O Neale, my fellow Sufferer; he having the Cattle abovemention’d, I ask’d him if he wou’d let me Ride, he said he wou’d oblige any Traveller as much as he could, and so bid me Mount one of the Horses, which I did, and was very thankful to him for his kindness; but to my great Sorrow, it has prov’d the worst rideing that ever I rid in my life: Now as I am a dying Man, I was never guilty of Stealing the value of two Pence in all my Life: nor had I any Hand in stealing those Beasts which I am to Dye for. I forgive all the World, as I hope to be forgiven. I am about 40 Years of Age, and Dye a Roman Catholik, and the Lord have Mercy on my Poor Soul. Amen, Amen.

The Speech of Henry Graham.

Good Christians,

I was born in the North of Ireland, of very honest Parents, who was very tender over me, and brought me up in the fear of GOD as much as in them Lay; but Fortune has been very Cruel to me, or else I had never came to this Place, for I liv’d with my Parents will I came to get a Wife; and indeed it was my Fortune to get a poor honest Girl, who endeavour’d very honest for her Bread as well as I, but the World frowning upon me, I went and listed in the Army, where I behav’d myself as became a good Subject, at lenth [sic] I was broak, and so return’d home to my Wife again, but my Business calling me home to Dublin, to my great Sorrow I went there, but having finish’d my Business, I was going home again, where unfortunately I met with Daniel O. Neal, and Edmond M’Guire a Riding along the Road, to whom I said, pray let me Ride, and indeed, they freely comply’d, but I had not Rid long before we were all taken and committed to Goal, and from that brought to Dublin, so Try’d and found Guilty of the same, and now brought to [t]his Place to end my life, now as God is my Judge, before whom I hope to appear in short time, I had neither Art nor Part in stealing of the said Horses, or any of them, and I die in Charity with all Men, and do freely forgive those who Swore away my Life as I hope to be forgiven, I am about 30 years of Age. I die a Protestant and the Lord have mercy on my Soul.

Henry Graham.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Ireland,Public Executions,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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1916: Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson, by Captain Bowen-Colthurst

Add comment April 26th, 2018 Headsman

On the morning of this date in 1916, British Captain John Bowen-Colthurst ordered the summary execution of three Irish journalists in his custody: part of a still-notorious murderous rampage through Dublin amid the Easter Rising.

Bowen-Colthurst’s subsequent “insanity” skate has been a sore subject in the century since its predictable enactment.

The product of landed Anglo-Irish elites — his childhood manor, Dripsey Castle, still stands — had trotted the globe in service of the empire: the Boer Wars, India, Tibet, and the western front.

It’s the sort of background that should have made Bowen-Colthurst a calm hand in a tight spot.* Instead, the Easter Rising panicked him. Atrocities against Irish nationalists are not exactly surprising in the abstract here, but Bowen-Colthurst’s behavior in these hours was so erratic and violent that his men would remark that he had lost his head … although they strikingly never disobeyed his patently illegal orders.

At Portobello Barracks in Dublin, which in this week swarmed chaotically with off-duty leave soldiers reporting themselves for duty in the face of the armed insurrection, the Third Royal Irish Rifles’ commander was absent on sick leave and evidently took command discipline with him. “Captain Colthurst, although not the equal in rank of Major Rosborough, was the senior office in point of service and, according to all the evidence, considered himself at liberty to ignore his brother-officers,” Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’s widow explained.

Sheehy-Skeffington — a gentle pacifist affectionately known among antiwar socialists and the women’s movement as “Skeffy” — had been arrested on sight on April 25th, while out and about trying to dissuade looters. Bowen-Colthurst marched him out overnight as a human shield for a random patrol, and did not mind murdering before his eyes a passing young man caught out after curfew.

Proceeding along, Bowen-Colthurst grenades a tobacconist’s shop, mistakenly thinking that its owner, named Kelly, was Sinn Fein man Tom Kelly. In fact, the tobacconist Kelly was a loyalist, as were the two publishers that Bowen-Colthurst arrested at his place: Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson.

Ignoring their protests, our unstable captain brought all three men back to the barracks. By morning’s light, he had decided on no authority but his own to have them executed.

“I am taking these prisoners out and I am going to shoot them because I think it is the right thing to do” was all the justification that he submitted. Later, he would say that he feared the prisoners would escape; that, believing that Germans were landing and revolutionaries were gunning down Black and Tans throughout Dublin, “I took the gloomiest view of the situation and felt that only desperate measures would save the situation.” So he shot the one guy who didn’t want to fight and two guys who were on his own team. According to later testimony, he would even order Skeffy to be re-shot upon being informed that the man was still moving several minutes after execution.

Still, the tilting captain had enough self-possession to openly worry to a brother-officer that he might have committed a hanging offense … and to actively conceal the evidence of it. Had events not been exposed by a courageous whistleblower, Sir Francis Vane, everything surely would have been obfuscated into the soupy fog of war. Embarrassingly compelled by Vane’s tattling to court-martial Bowen-Colthurst only to pass him off to an asylum (and later, to Canada), the brass took it out on Vane by terminating his career a few months later: “this officer was relegated to unemployment owing to his action in the Skeffington murder case in the Sinn Fein rebellion.”

Uproar at the Bowen-Colthurst affair had some interesting knock-on effects: for one thing, the naked impunity available to an officer at a time when enlisted men in France were being shot at dawn for minor disciplinary lapses might have contributed to the British command’s decision later in 1916 to permit the execution of a shellshocked lieutenant. And, an associate of the loyalist British commander in Ireland during the Easter Rising claimed that Sheehy-Skeffington blowback subsequently led to the execution reprieve granted to Eamon de Valera: that future president of independent Ireland just so happened to have his name “first on the list” when the matter came to a head.

Today, a visitor center at the former Portobello Barracks (now called Cathal Brugha Barracks) memorializes the three men executed there on April 26, 1916.

* We don’t mean to be cavalier about the psychological strains inflicted by violence. Bowen-Colthurst seemed to exhibit signs of shell shock in the trenches, whether due to the shells themselves or to having lost his younger brother in the war.

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1941: Harry Gleeson, posthumously exonerated

Add comment April 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Harry Gleeson hanged for murder in Ireland — wrongly, the government admitted in 2015.

Gleeson was the nephew and farmhand of a man called John Caesar, whose County Tipperary property abutted a cottage inhabited by a local prostitute called Moll McCarthy. On November 21, 1940, Gleeson found Moll McCarthy dead on a farm field. Her face had been destroyed by a gunshot; her murder orphaned seven children, many of them the illegitimate progeny of local married men.

Nine days later, Irish police arrested a surprised Gleeson for the murder. He hotly denied their theory that he had availed himself of the victim’s services, and then slain her to prevent his uncle finding out about it.

It was, the Irish Times says in a review of one of the several books about the case, “a definitively Irish murder case: the prosecution claimed that ‘Gleeson was meeting Moll at the field pump, away from prying eyes, and arranging to give her potatoes in exchange for sex.'”

As a criminal case, it involved that brew of tunnel vision preoccupation with the wrong guy and outright cheating to nail him that frequently characterizes errant convictions. But there may have been a political undercurrent besides.

Gleeson was defended by former Irish Republican Army chief of staff Sean MacBride,* and it’s been hypothesized that the barrister’s political affiliations critically unbalanced the case for at least a couple of important reasons:

  • A prejudicial court and jury perhaps gave their verdict as much against MacBride as against Gleeson. (The jury issued its conviction alongside an unsuccessful application for clemency.)
  • MacBride himself might have pulled some punches from the defense bar in view of the possibility — as charged by Kieran Fagan in The Framing of Harry Gleeson — that McCarthy was actually murdered for informing on IRA men.
A few books about Mary MacCarthy and Harry Gleeson

* MacBride’s father John “Foxy Jack” MacBride hanged in 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Innocent Bystanders,Ireland,Murder,Notable Participants,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Wrongful Executions

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2013: Kepari Leniata burned as a witch

1 comment February 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 2013, villagers at the Papua New Guinea village of Paiala tortured their neighbor Kepari Leniata into confessing the witchcraft murder of a local child, then burnt her alive in a trash dump. Sorcery is widely feared and practiced in PNG.

Kepari Leniata, 20, ‘confessed’ after she was dragged from her hut, stripped naked and tortured with white-hot iron rods.

She was then dragged to a local rubbish dump, doused in petrol and, with hands and feet bound, thrown on a fire of burning tyres. As the mother-of-two screamed in agony, more petrol-soaked tyres were thrown on top of her.

The tragedy unfolded after Miss Leniata’s young neighbour fell sick on Tuesday morning. He complained of pains in the stomach and chest and was taken to Mt Hagen hospital where he died a few hours later.

Relatives of the boy were suspicious that witchcraft was involved in the death and learned that two women had gone into hiding in the jungle.

After they were tracked down, the pair admitted they practised sorcery but had nothing to do with the boy’s death. Miss Leniata, they said, was the person responsible.

The boy’s family went to her hut at 7am on Wednesday, stripped her and dragged her away to torture and death. (Source)

Horrific pictures circulated in the international media.

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1901: Massacre of Barrio la Nog

Add comment December 27th, 2017 Headsman

Corporal Richard O’Brien gave the following account of the summary execution (or simple mass murder) of Filipino villagers during the furious American backlash after Filipino insurgents’ Balangiga Massacre of American infantrymen.

It was on the 27th day of December, the anniversary of my birth, and I shall never forget the scenes I witnessed on that day. As we approached the town the word passed along the line that there would be no prisoners taken. It meant that we were to shoot every living thing in sight — man, woman, and child. The first shot was fired by the then first sergeant of our company. His target was a mere boy, who was coming down the mountain path into the town astride of a caribou. The boy was not struck by the bullet, but that was not the sergeant’s fault. The little Filipino boy slid from the back of his caribou and fled in terror up the mountain side. Half a dozen shots were fired after him. The shooting now had attracted the villagers, who came out of their homes in alarm, wondering what it all meant. They offered no offense, did not display a weapon, made no hostile movement whatsoever, but they were ruthlessly shot down in cold blood — men, women, and children. The poor natives huddled together or fled in terror. Many were pursued and killed on the spot.

Two old men, bearing between them a white flag and clasping hands like two brothers, approached the lines. Their hair was white. They fairly tottered, they were so feeble under the weight of years. To my horror and that of the other men in the command, the order was given to fire, and the two old men were shot down in their tracks. We entered the village. A man who had been on a sick-bed appeared at the doorway of his home. He received a bullet in the abdomen and fell dead in the doorway. Dum-dum bullets were used in that massacre, but we were not told the name of the bullets. We didn’t have to be told. We knew that they were.

In another part of the village a mother with a babe at her breast and two young children at her side pleaded for mercy. She feared to leave her home, which had just been fired — accidentally, I believe. She faced the flames with her children, and not a hand was raised to save her or the little ones. They perished miserably. It was sure death if she left the house — it was sure death if she remained. She feared the American soldiers, however, worse than the devouring flames.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Philippines,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Summary Executions,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1947: Rawagede Massacre

Add comment December 9th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Dutch troops fighting (vainly) to keep Indonesia under colonial sway perpetrated one of the most notorious massacres of the Indonesian War of Independence.

During a Dutch offensive, Royal Netherlands Army forces fell on the West Java town of Rawagede (today, Balongsari) on December 9, 1947 and demanded to know the whereabouts of an Indonesian rebel they were hunting.

The villagers didn’t know, but the Dutch were convinced that they did — and so they began marching men and boys as young as 13 years old to nearby fields. Squatting and kneeling row upon row, the men were shot one by one. The Rawagede Massacre claimed 431 victims, according to the villagers.

In 2011, the victim’s survivors — and there’s a stunning picture of a 93-year-old Javanese widow of the massacre in this NPR story — won a legal judgment against the Netherlands. In the ensuing settlement, the Dutch paid €20,000 apiece to plaintiffs and issued a formal apology.

“Today, Dec. 9,” the Dutch ambassador said in a ceremony at the village six years ago today, “we remember the members of your families and those of your fellow villagers who died 64 years ago through the actions of the Dutch military.

“On behalf of the Dutch government, I apologize for the tragedy that took place.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Indonesia,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,Netherlands,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1915: Mrs. Chippy, safe return doubtful

2 comments October 29th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1915, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, his ship fatally trapped in Antarctic pack ice, had the ship’s beloved cat shot.

The 1915 voyage of Shackleton’s aptly named barquentine Endurance* wrote for the expiring “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” one of its most stouthearted chapters.

Struggling through a gale towards Vahsel Bay, the Endurance became icebound within sight of her destination to the peril of Shackleton and 27 other intrepid souls.

That is, 27 human souls.

“We are twenty-eight men with forty-nine dogs, including Sue’s and Sallie’s five grown-up pups,” Shackleton recorded in his diary for October 29, 1915. By then, the Endurance had been pinned in the ice for the best part of a year, vainly awaiting a favorable wind that would scatter the floes — an exercise in the monotonous perseverance that polar expeditions demanded. Two days before that entry, however, the situation worsened from dire to catastrophic when the weight of the ice began cracking the captive ship’s hull, pouring the frigid Weddell Sea into her hold.

“The pressure caused by the congestion in this area of the pack is producing a scene of absolute chaos,” Shackleton wrote. “The ice moves majestically, ireesistibly. Human effort is not futile, but man fights against the giant forces of Nature in a spirit of humility. One has a sense of dependence on the higher Power.” With the ship now impaled upon the floes, human effort and higher Power alike would need to bend every sinew toward mere survival.

By the terms of its objective — to cross Antarctica overland to the Ross Sea — Shackleton’s expedition was a failure. As a feat of human spirit, it was his greatest triumph, its fame nowise hindered by expedition photographer Frank Hurley who captured the drama in photographs and film.


When a stretch of open sea came within a few hundred yards of the Endurance, Shackleton had his crew try to carve a channel to it with pickaxes.


Dogs and men under the hulk of the Endurance in the eerie polar night.


Crushed by the ice, the Endurance crumples into the sea.

After drifting some weeks more on the floes, Shackleton kept his desperate party together to reach open seas where they navigated the ship’s launches to Elephant Island, a frostbitten desolation where they wintered in a makeshift shelter and hunted seals and penguins.

Meanwhile, Shackleton took a few crew members in a small boat hundreds of miles onward to inhabited stations South Georgia Island where they were finally able to muster a rescue mission. Twenty-five men of the 28 survived the harrowing two-year expedition.


Map of the Shackleton expedition’s progress. The light blue line represents the party’s intended course across the continent; instead, the sea voyage (in red) became trapped in the ice and drifted (in yellow) across the Weddell Sea before taking to the launches to escape (in green) to Elephant Island. (cc) image by Finetooth, Like tears in rain.

Those who were not men did not fare as well.

In addition to the Endurance‘s many sled dogs, 40-year-old Scots carpenter Harry “Chippy” McNish (variously spelled MacNish or McNeish) had taken on board a charismatic little tabby for the ship’s cat. “Mrs. Chippy” — the name stuck even after the crew realized that “she” was really a male — quickly became beloved of the crew, and especially of Chippy McNish.

But Mrs. Chippy was not an asset for the survival epic that the Endurance crew was destined to author.

Under the duress of the ice floes, Shackleton on October 29, 1915 did what had to be done and ordered the least utile animals put to death to preserve resources for the others.

This afternoon Sallie’s three youngest pups, Sue’s Sirius, and Mrs. Chippy, the carpenter’s cat, have to be shot. We could not undertake the maintenance of weaklings under the new conditions. Macklin, Crean, and the carpenter [McNish] seemed to feel the loss of their friends rather badly.

McNish’s hard feelings against the skipper for the death of his puss speaks better of his heart than his head; the irascible carpenter would later be threatened by Shackleton with wilderness execution himself for a brief ice floe mutiny, from which McNish correctly retreated. Surely posterity can overlook the slip of discipline under this state of incredible privation and fear … but Shackleton didn’t. After the pains of the ice and sea were past and the expedition safe home, the chief withheld from his able but disgruntled carpenter an endorsement for the Polar Medal that decorated most of his mates. (Other crew, united in their regard for Shackleton, felt that McNish’s Polar Medal slight was on the mean side.)

The poor doomed cat that succumbed on this date in 1915 to the might of the Antarctic and the hard pragmatism of Ernest Shackleton has been tugging heartstrings ever since. McNish’s grave in New Zealand was decorated in 2004 with a bronze statue of Mrs. Chippy; the cat has also made appearances on postage stamps, in opera, headlining books, and in art.

A few books about the Shackleton expedition

n.b. the legendary help-wanted ad referenced by the title of this post — “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” — is most likely an actual legend. Numberless Shackleton enthusiasts have plumbed many a musty archive in pursuit of the original copy, without success.

* The ship was christened after Shackleton’s Game Of Thrones-like house motto, “By Endurance we Conquer.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Animals,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",England,History,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Polar,Shot

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1938: Chinese soldiers and civilians after the Battle of Wuhan

Add comment October 27th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1938 the Imperial Japanese Army conquered the Hankow or Hankou industrial district within the city of Wuhan, and according to the Associated Press* “shot scores of Chinese soldiers or civilians luckless enough to be taken for soldiers” including “twenty uniformed and civilian-garbed Chinese … executed within sight of foreign gunboats.”

A major trading city that had been forced open to western concessions by the Second Opium War, Wuhan had become, briefly, the capital of the Chinese Kuomintang after Japan’s initial onslaught the previous year quickly captured the former capital Nanking.

* The linked newspaper miscopied the dateline; it should read “Hankow, Oct. 27″ rather than “Oct. 2″.

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324 B.C.E.: Glaucias, negligent physician

1 comment September 30th, 2017 Headsman

On an unknown date in the autumn of 324 BCE, the sudden death at Ecbatana of Alexander the Great‘s closest companion led the grief-stricken conqueror to execute a physician for negligence.

Hephaestion was the Macedonian prince’s intimate friend and presumed lover from childhood, described by their mutual tutor Aristotle as “one soul abiding in two bodies.”* They even looked alike.

If Alexander was Achilles then Hephaestion was his inseparable Patroclus — a parallel that seems to have been on the minds of the Macedonians themselves while, as king and general, their host tore through the near and not-so-near East. As a loyal and energetic commander, Hephaestion was entrusted over and over again by Alexander with critical military positions; as confidante, Hephaestion gave Alexander counsel on the dangerous political decisions demanded by his civilization-straddling empire.

By the end, Hephaestion was not only Alexander’s clear number two but his brother-in-law — both men having taken brides from the conquered Persian royal family in the summer of 324, perhaps with a romantic eye toward the future dynastic union of their own descendants.

Such was never to be for Alexander, and not for Hephaestion either. Like Patroclus, he predeceased his companion but the spear of Hector in this case seems merely to have been a disease like typhus and the young warrior’s indiscipline at following a doctor’s strictures. Perhaps there lurked behind a draught more purposeful and sinister than overgorging on wine — who can tell at this distance? — but Hephaestion shockingly went from the acme of health to his sickbed to sudden death in a matter of days. A distraught Alexander wanted honors and grief but he also wanted someone to blame.

As to the physician’s execution, we are unsure of the fact as well as the date, but it seems like the sort of larger-than-life gesture of sorrow that an Alexander ought to make. We’re thinly sourced 2400 years into the past; Plutarch, writing some 400 years later, has one version of a story that had clearly become common coinage in the ancient world:

[I]t chanced that Hephaestion had a fever; and since, young man and soldier that he was, he could not submit to a strict regimen, as soon as Glaucus, his physician, had gone off to the theatre, he sat down to breakfast, ate a boiled fowl, drank a huge cooler of wine, fell sick, and in a little while died. Alexander’s grief at this loss knew no bounds. He immediately ordered that the manes and tails of all horses and mules should be shorn in token of mourning, and took away the battlements of the cities round about; he also crucified the wretched physician, and put a stop to the sound of flutes and every kind of music in the camp for a long time, until an oracular response from Ammon came bidding him honour Hephaestion as a hero and sacrifice to him.


Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus, by Gavin Hamilton (c. 1760)

The Greek historian Arrian makes a similar (albeit more circumspect) claim to that of his Roman near-contemporary.

In Ecbatana Alexander offered sacrifice according to his custom, for his good fortune; and he celebrated a gymnastic and musical contest. He also held drinking parties with his Companions.

At this time Hephaestion fell sick; and they say that the stadium was full of people on the seventh day of his fever, for on that day there was a gymnastic contest for boys. When Alexander was informed that Hephaestion was in a critical state, he went to him without delay, but found him no longer alive.

Different authors have given different accounts of Alexander’s grief on this occasion; but they all agree in this, that his grief was great. As to what was done in honour of Hephaestion, they make diverse statements, just as each writer was actuated by good-will or envy towards him, or even towards Alexander himself. Of the authors who have made these reckless statements, some seem to me to have thought that whatever Alexander said or did to show his excessive grief for the man who was the dearest to him in the world, redounds to his honour; whereas others seem to have thought that it rather tended to his disgrace, as being conduct unbecoming to any king and especially to Alexander. Some say that he threw himself on his companion’s body and lay there for the greater part of that day, bewailing him and refusing to depart from him, until he was forcibly carried away by his Companions. Others that he lay upon the body the whole day and night. Others again say that he hanged the physician Glaucias, for having indiscreetly given the medicine; while others affirm that he, being a spectator of the games, neglected Hephaestion, who was filled with wine.

Whatever we make of the Glaucias subplot, it’s a certainty that mighty Alexander then proceeded upon a protracted performance of conspicuous languishing that was aborted only by his own death about eight months later: two men who had stood hand in hand upon the summit of the world, stricken dead in such rapid and inexplicable succession that their bereavements ran upon one another.** As Arrian notes, the Macedon Achilles determined in honor of his Patroclus “to celebrate a gymnastic and musical contest, much more magnificent than any of the preceding, both in the multitude of competitors and in the amount of money expended upon it” — and that many of its reputed 3,000 participants “a short time after also competed in the games held at Alexander’s own funeral.”

* Yet another one of Macedonia’s greatest generation under Aristotle’s tutelage was destined in time to execute Alexander’s mother.

** It’s merely speculative, but one could readily imagine that Alexander’s own downward health spiral had a little something to do with despondency at the loss of his friend.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Iran,Macedonia,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Persia,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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